Work Header


Work Text:

She was dressed in layered silks, all in deep, rich blues and muted greens and touches of the red-browns and golds of the Edi in between. A long strand of pearls and beads was wound around her waist in several passes, and draped over her belly, where a certain roundness was just beginning to take shape. Bren had seen it before and knew it for an Edi practice, for the fortune of the growing child within, and she rested a light hand there protectively.

“In my admittedly few visits to the Marid, I have never seen a pregnant woman, daja-ma,” Bren noted. “And not many in Shedijan either, with the exception of the aiji-consort. Is it a duty of aiji-consorts, to be seen? It is perhaps an overly-bold question,” he added. “But this is something outside of my education as paidhi and I am curious. Though I beg you tell me if it is improper, and if so I will withdraw it and beg your forgiveness.”

“I do not find you overly bold, nandi,” she replied. “I understand Ragi are more retiring when it comes to pregnancy and here in the Marid, the sentiment is similar. But I know you know the Edi, nandi. We celebrate the impending future, we do not hide it.”

You may be celebrating it, daja-ma, Bren thought. But the word I would choose for your husband runs closer to ‘flaunt’. “Perhaps, among the rest, the sentiment is not so much to hide as it is to protect,” Bren, ever the conciliator, suggested.

“Just so,” Rao dipped her head in acknowledgement. “That is an apt observation, paidhi. If recent history is to be any guide, I can well understand why a family might be concerned for its future.”

Bren knew what she meant: the outright illegal actions of the Shadow Guild, in its effort to remove Machigi from the scene — what remnants lingered, to continue the assaults? That such things lacked finesse and brought an outraged reaction, well, outrage did not in any ways help a person who had been killed through such an action. Or bring back a dead child. “It is my earnest hope that the aijiin have finally put paid to that, Rao-daja.” Though I doubt it.

“I as well, paidhi,” she said. And I think you doubt it too, daja-ma. “And so I continue to work in the public sphere. It is important to show the people what we do, in all the ways we are capable of doing it, and how committed we are to success.”

He thought, then, that the word ‘flaunt’ might work for her, too. “You are brave,” he said admiringly.

“No,” she said. “Simply confident.”

It struck him that she was, that. An Edi woman, cast out by her clan for her choice of a spouse — what a choice! — and finding her own way among a people that had, until recently, been her people’s sworn enemies. Surely she must be lonely? He did not see it, though. He had been invited to attend this conference and exhibition, the first opened to representatives of the wider world, and he had observed that the Maridi here — the nobility, the mercantile, and the artistic — genuinely seemed to hold her in high regard. Some of them, he suspected, had even given her their man’chi. How did that work? He wondered. All his years among the atevi, and he still did not completely understand how it was even remotely possible that there could be an exchange like this. It happened all the time in the machimi, but was never explained, and he — lacking the wiring to understand at the fundamental level the authors relied on the audience to know — did not comprehend it. Man’chi was the key, he decided, as it always was: it would bridge any and all gaps, when it settled.

But what about hers? She was an aiji also, he reminded himself. What did she feel? Was it, as he suspected, a separate emotional bond, one unique to ajiin? Can an aiji feel that not just for a person, but for a place, or for a people? Is that what binds them as tightly to those who follow them, as man’chi binds their followers to them?

And yet he thought she must feel something for the loss of her own Edi people. Can whatever she feels possibly make up for that? “I hope this impending felicity will offer you an opportunity to reconnect with the land of your birth,” Bren offered. “One feels that you could provide valuable wisdom the Edi, even to the Grandmother. They are so new to lordship in the Western style and I cannot help but observe that you have taken to it superbly.”

Rao chuckled. “My husband is correct: you are a flatterer, paidhi.”

“But am I wrong, Rao-daja? One is always willing to be wrong.”

“It is not for me to say,” she replied. “Perhaps you are correct, but only time will show whether I have been effective. As for the Edi, I think not. I sent my Grandmother a cup, nand’ paidhi, of the Ujae Blue with Edi patterning. Not the cup,” she smiled a little. “But one ter’ Haorai and I made for her bespoke.”

Bren blinked. He knew what a breathtaking gesture that was.

“She sent it back, broken into two pieces,” Rao said.

He could not help but suck dismayed air through his teeth — what a breathtaking gesture that was, also. “I regret it so extremely, nandi,” was all he could manage.

“I ask that you do not mention it to my husband, nand’ paidhi,” Rao said. “If he knew, he would take…grave offense.”

The word “grave” did not have the same multiple meanings in Ragi as it did in Mosphei’, but Bren thought of it anyway. “I will keep it in confidence, nandi,” he told her.

Rao gave a soft sigh. “Too much unfortunate history has become one with the bones of my Grandmother,” she said. “They are hard, old bones. And although they have in their hardness served the Edi well in the past, I do not think they will give for me now. Perhaps when the Mother becomes Grandmother. Until then, and maybe until the end of my days, this will be my place.”

“But perhaps the Grandmother’s bones may soften because of the child,” Bren suggested. “Surely a great-grandchild is someone to bridge the gap.”

“My Grandmother has many grandchildren, paidhi, and many more great-grandchildren. She has no need to be eager to know this child, or any child of ours.”

“Because the father is a beast,” Bren dared to say it, vakhe’in.

“Yes, “ Rao said. “He is that. Beast. Liar. Tyrant. But he is also the strongest person I know. He carries the weight of the whole Marid on his shoulders, paidhi. He is the lodestone towards which the whole Marid turns. He has forged together all the different pieces of it, blown apart by the foolish pride and self-glory of preceding generations, into a collective,” she said, using that ancient word for the fortuitous, harmonic whole. For a moment, she and Bren watched Machigi, who was speaking softly and earnestly with Beskano, the Hagrani sept lord and Prithani, the new Master of Steel. Beskano was as well into her elder years as Prithani and both of them listened to their aiji with half-bowed heads, expressions respectful, leaning ever so slightly towards the much younger man. Even though, being human, he could not feel it, Bren knew that the atevi could. For him, it was those postures that showed, more eloquently than words could say, whither their man’chi pointed, so that a human could literally see it.

Then she said, “When he is ready to lay down that burden, we must ensure that others are able to take it up in that same unity. The whole Marid must be preserved.”

He thought back to his conversation with his brother, about his worries for the future. “Through the heir?” I will have no heir — of my body, at least.

She smiled, giving her belly a gentle pat. “Perhaps. Through this child, or through another, or through someone else entirely. It does not matter, so long as whoever it is, they have the soul of the Marid.”

He regarded her, surprised. “Rao-daja, forgive me. But I am surprised to hear such a sentiment from you. Regardless of your status with your people now, the previous enmity between the Edi and the Marid must have been a part of your upbringing, is it not?”

“To be sure, nand’ paidhi,” Rao replied. “But however my upbringing may be my foundation, it is no ways my ceiling.”

He caught his breath, astonished. I believe it. But what do you feel? What drives you so inexorably? He knew he would never truly understand it — he wasn’t wired to. But he still felt compelled to ask. “How could this place have won such regard in you, daja-ma?”

She smiled again. “How could I not hold the Marid in special regard, paidhi? It fashioned my husband. And it is where the kelikiin flock.”

Extraordinary. How is this not love? He could not help be touched, or to feel those all-too human feelings, that yearning for connection between their species. He liked her, loved her even, in the way that he loved Ilisidi: he loved them both for the fierce regard they had for all the living things in the world and their determination to make there own way whatever the cost. The idea that there were those who wanted to cut short people like this hurt his heart. “I worry that they are still out there, Rao-daja,” Bren said.

“They, paidhi?”

“The ones who actually built the boat that started all of this,” he said. “We have not yet tracked down how that technology made it to the Marid. I worry that they will come after you and your children.”

“They will have more than our family to deal with if they do, nand’ paidhi. Chance and fortune,” she said in Ragi. And then, in Edi: “It will be well.”

- fin -