In the wake of civil war, Bren Cameron, the brilliant human diplomat of the alien atevi civilization, has left the capital and sought refuge at his country estate, Najida. But now he is trapped inside Najida-which has been surrounded by enemies- with the powerful grandmother of his ally, Tabiniaiji, atevi leader of the Western Association. Ilisidi, the aiji-dowager, is not inclined to be passive and sends Bren into enemy territory, to the palace of the leader of the rebels.
Bren's mission is to negotiate with Machigi-a young atevi lord who has never actually seen a human-and somehow persuade him to cease his hostile actions against the west. Is Bren a shrewd enough negotiator to stay alive, and not alienate Ilisidi or Tabini, while also representing the interests of their enemy?
Spring in the southwest, and the heavens had opened— not the gentle rains of the summer, but a sheeting deluge that warped the spring landscape beyond the tinted windows of the bus.
Inside, warm and dry, working on a tray table almost sufficient for his paper notes, Bren Cameron enjoyed a sip of tea from a scandalous plastic cup. He had the four-seat executive arrangement to himself at the moment, and his briefcase lay open on the adjacent seat. His four-person bodyguard had all gone to the rear of the bus to converse with the young contingent of Guildsmen they’d been handed for protection, and that left him room to work.
Lightning flashed just uphill from the bus. Thunder cracked—worrisome for electronics, but he wasn’t working on his computer this trip. That machine had far, far too much in its storage to be bringing it into Taisigi territory, and he’d sent it on to the capital with his valets and significant items of furniture, the computer itself to be hand carried and guarded every step of the way. The spiral-bound notebook was enough for him, along with a stack of loose- leaf work and printouts and, within the briefcase, a folder of very official papers, vellum with red and black wax seals and carefully preserved ribbons.
A dark presence moved down the aisle, loomed over him and switched out the vacuum-thermos teapot on his little work surface. Jago was not a servant—the sidearm attested to that. So did the black leather of the Assassins’ Guild. She stood a head taller than any tall human, black-skinned, golden- eyed—atevi, in short, native to the world, as humans were not. She was half of the senior pair of his atevi bodyguard—a bodyguard, and his lover, moderately discreetly, of some years now.
He was the sole human on the bus, a single individual of fair hair and pale skin and pale civilian dress in a company of black-uniformed atevi. He was the sole human on the mainland, by now, and his personal world had gotten back to the atevi norm, where he looked up at everyone he talked to and struggled with steps and furniture. He was not a small man—as humans went. But here, even a small teacup meant a generous pouring, and the seat he occupied, scaled for atevi, accommodated human stature with a footrest.
It was his bus. And it had such amenities. He was dressed for court, lace at the cuffs and collar, a pale blue vest. His coat, beige brocade, hung behind the driver. He had his fair hair braided, and the ribbon that tied that braid was white, the badge of the paidhi-aiji—translator for the aiji, the ruler of the aishidi’tat, the Western Association. The white ribbon meant peace and nonviolence, the paidhi’s job being that of an intercessor in the affairs of lords.
The white ribbon was supposed to mean peace and nonviolence, at least, and the gun he usually carried in his pocket was in the luggage this trip. The bulletproof vest was only a precaution.
Jago made a second trip forward to advise him, leaning on the seat back across the aisle. “We have just crossed the border, Bren- ji.”
The border out of Sarini Province, that was.
So they were now in Taisigi district, in what had been hostile territory for centuries—a place he never would have contemplated entering. Not on his life.
But he’d already been there. He’d negotiated with the lord of the Taisigi. He’d gotten out in fairly good shape, despite the efforts of some.
And he was coming back, to finish what he’d started, now that the Assassins’ Guild had taken “supportive control” of Tanaja, the capital of Taisigi clan.
“Will you want lunch, Bren-ji?” Jago asked him. The galley on their well- appointed bus was in operation. A pleasant aroma had informed him of that some while ago.
“A light one, Jago-ji, half a sandwich, perhaps.” There was no knowing whether they were going to attend a formal dinner tonight—or a firefight. Although the odds were considerably against the latter, one still never quite bet on anything, not where it regarded the lord of the Taisigi . . . who had just a little reason to be upset about recent events. “Have we made contact yet?”
“With the Guild, yes,” Jago said. “Not yet with Lord Machigi’s staff.”
“Let me know when you have, Jago-ji.”
“Yes,” she said, and went back down the aisle.
He poured another small dose of tea, sipped it, reflexively saved his papers from a spill as the bus hit a hole, and took a fleeting note: Road improvement, Targai-Najida to border—for a time when relations might be easier. They were still on the Sarini plateau, but the road—which on the atevi mainland meant a strip of mud, gravel, or mowed grass leading somewhere the railways didn’t go—would start descending hereafter, headed for the heart of the Marid, an arm of the wider sea that was its own small world.
The Taisigi whose lord he proposed to visit were one of the five clans of the Marid.
Lord Machigi of the Taisigin Marid had become the last man standing of the three most powerful Marid lords. The three lords had plotted, each in his own way, to take over the west coast of the aishidi’tat; unfortunately, one Bren Cameron, whose country estate lay on the West Coast, on Najida Peninsula, had decided to take a vacation right in the middle of the territory in question.
The Marid, immediately seeing something ominous in his presence, had attempted to assassinate him and his young guest, Cajeiri—who happened to be the eight-year-old son of Tabini-aiji, the ruler of the aishidi’tat.
That had brought in the lad’s great- grandmother, not the quiet sort of great-grandmother, but the lord of the East and not the power to cross if one wanted a long life.
Hence the paidhi’s current trip to Tanaja, in a shiny red and black bus, with his own bodyguard and ten junior Guildsmen. His bodyguard hadn’t been sure the juniors were an asset—more apt to need protection than to provide it, in Jago’s words; but they were the guard the Guild had come up with on short notice, the Guild having deployed almost all its senior assets in the recent Marid action, and when all was said, ten additional Guildsmen with equipment certainly looked formidable.
So the younger contingent came along—in case absolutely everything he’d worked out with the young lord of the Taisigi had gone to blazes overnight. Which, in the volatile politics of the aishidi’tat, was not impossible.
Go talk to Machigi, the aiji-dowager had said—Ilisidi, the aiji’s grandmother and young Cajeiri’s great-grandmother. Get Machigi to give up his claim on the West Coast and ally with us. In turn, we shall stop the Guild from assassinating him. That was the order that had sent him to Tanaja the first time.
So . . . in the upshot of it all, two Marid lords who hadn’t won Ilisidi’s favorable attention were now dead, their houses occupied by the Assassins’ Guild, who were busy going through their records and finding out a host of things the deceased lords would not have wanted published to the world . . . or to their own clans.
And here he was back in Lord Machigi’s territory for the second time in two weeks. Machigi’s premises were also being occupied by Guild forces, but in a theoretically benevolent way.
Tabini-aiji, back in the capital of the aishidi’tat, in Shejidan, was still watching the operation in some curiosity—rather in the manner of one watching two trains run at one another, as Bren saw it. Tabini could have vetoed the notion. He hadn’t. He’d let his grandmother run the operation, backing her up as needed . . . and possibly intending to let any adverse events bounce back on Ilisidi, not on him.
But Ilisidi’s plan was apparently still going smoothly.
The potential in the situation had been damned scary for about three very unsettled days, in which the Assassins’ Guild in the capital had met to consider a massive operation against a sizable portion of its own membership—a faction of the Assassins’ Guild which, three years ago, had overthrown Tabini’s rule for two significant years and then fled the capital when Tabini had come back on a wave of popular support. The Assassins that had supported the usurper, Murini, had run south . . . and reorganized.
Worse, Guild internal secrecy had covered the problem. It had covered it so damned well that not even Tabini-aiji had known—because Tabini, who had replaced his Guild-approved bodyguard with men of his own clan, who were not high up enough in the Guild to suit the Guild leadership . . . had somehow fallen off the list of persons to be informed of certain maneuvers.
Politics, politics, politics. The Guild had started running its own operation, trying to mop up their recent split, not advising Tabini of everything it knew—
Like the fact that the splinter group had moved beyond organizing in the Marid—that they had turned the two northernmost lord of the Marid into puppet lords, putting the two clans at their direction.
Tabini still hadn’t been told, because his bodyguard, who should have informed him, had ties and relatives not approved by the Guild leadership.
The aiji-dowager’s bodyguard hadn’t been told, either—first because she was in close company with the aiji, and second because she had been a guest of a lord with notoriously lax security, who might innocently have blown the Guild operation.
So secret were the inner workings of the Guild that the paidhi’s high-ranking bodyguard hadn’t been told, either, and his bodyguard contained at least one person who was tapped into the Guild at highest levels. Algini, partnered with Tano, had reasonably expected information he hadn’t received.
Why not? Because his lord, the paidhi-aiji, was working closely with Tabini and the aiji-dowager, and somebody high up in the Guild was in the final stages of planning a strike against the renegades in the south and was absolutely not confiding in the messy households of people who actually lived lives outside the rules of the Guild, and who were running around near the sphere of action at the time.
And what then happened?
The Guild’s enemies tried to assassinate the paidhi-aiji, because he’d walked into their operations, unadvised.
Then they’d gone on attacking, because the aiji-dowager and Tabini’s young son had added themselves to the target zone.
Just run over to Tanaja and get Machigi to join us . . . that had been Ilisidi’s approach to the situation that had landed on them at Najida.
And that had tripped up the Guild’s maneuvering for good and all, since Machigi had been the first target the Guild had been putting the pressure on.
An ignorant intervention?
One didn’t quite think so. The hell Ilisidi’s bodyguard hadn’t started to get information that the Guild hadn’t been willing to give to Tabini, once bullets had started flying, and the hell the aiji-dowager hadn’t made threats and promises to get it out of them—the aiji-dowager’s chief bodyguard, Cenedi, probably allying with Algini to get accesses. The paidhi-aiji knew the smell of politics when it wafted past him. Cenedi had started finding things out, and then Algini had started finding things out, as the machinery started to move.
Now the Guild in Shejidan had the shadow-Guild on the run. The average citizen in the northern Marid might know that his own lord had died, yes. That they were also missing a minister or two might take longer to notice. The sudden appearance of uniformed Guild in the halls of government would be the only sign—and that would get to the flower market and the fishmonger by the city rumor mill . . . that and certain government offices opening under the direction of lower-level officials, senior officials having had the sense to resign and go tend their personal business . . .
That was the pattern in Senji clan territory, north of here, the other side of the Maschi district. It was the same across the Marid Sea, in Dojisigi clan, where most of the shadow-Guild had clustered— and where some of the nastiest fighting had gone on.
The Guild had told Tabini, finally; the Guild had been in communication with Ilisidi, and right now the paidhi’s bodyguard was in radio contact with the Guild authority, and everybody was talking to everybody else.
Going into Taisigi territory was still a scary proposition. But it certainly beat the last trip. He had packed hiking boots this trip. He’d sworn to himself he would never go anywhere again without hiking boots.
And—theoretically—this time the Guild would courteously warn them if they were heading into a trap.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: