The overthrow of the atevi head of state, Tabini-aiji, and the several moves of enemies even since his restoration, have prompted major changes in the Assassins' Guild, which has since worked to root out its seditious elements—a clandestine group they call the Shadow Guild. With the Assassins now rid of internal corruption, with the birth of Tabini's second child, and with the appointment of an heir, stability seems to have returned to the atevi world. Humans and atevi share the space station in peaceful cooperation, humans and atevi share the planet as they have for centuries, and the humans' island enclave is preparing to welcome 5000 human refugees from a remote station now dismantled, and to do that in unprecedented cooperation with the atevi mainland.
In general Bren Cameron, Tabini-aiji's personal representative, returning home to the atevi capital after securing that critical agreement, was ready to take a well-earned rest—until Tabini's grandmother claimed his services on a train trip to the smallest, most remote and least significant of the provinces, snowy Hasjuran—a move concerning which Tabini-aiji gave Bren a private instruction: protect her. Advise her.
Advise her—perhaps. As for protection, she has a trainload of high-level Guild. But since the aiji-dowager has also invited a dangerously independent young warlord, Machigi, and a young man who may be the heir to Ajuri, a key northern province—the natural question is why the dowager is taking this ill-assorted pair to Hasjuran and what on this earth she may be up to.
With a Shadow Guild attack on the train station, it has become clear that others have questions, too. Hasjuran, on its mountain height, overlooks the Marid, a district that is part of the atevi nation only in name—a district in which Machigi is one major player, and where the Shadow Guild retains a major stronghold.
Protect her? Ilisidi is hellbent on settling scores with the Shadow Guild, and her reasons for this trip and this company now become clear. One human diplomat and his own bodyguard suddenly seem a very small force to defend her from what she is setting in motion.
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A deep-voiced wail came from up the track: the warning howl of a train's imminent arrival.
Bren waked in utter dark, aware of a violent tremor in the rails-aware that Jago, who had slept next to him, was not in the bed.
A train coming straight for Hasjuran station and their own-stationary-train. Another wail. The train was coming fast and showing no sign of slowing down.
Something was insanely wrong. Will it hit us? was the immediate thought, but no, surely not. Their train was sitting on a siding, safe-one hoped-with the switch-lever locked and chained in place. Bren rolled out and onto his feet on ice-cold decking, fumbling in the dark for his nightrobe. His slippers eluded a brief, heart-pounding search. He saw a tiny red flash in the darkness of the windowless sleeping car: Jago's bracelet flashing an urgent signal. She was by the door, and dimmer flashes, partially obscured and reflected, resolved as other staff gathered mid-car, seeking and exchanging what information they could get through the coded Guild system.
The train was on them. The rumbling of the track and the scream of its warning drowned everything. Air-shock rocked them as it passed, roaring by at full throttle on the neighboring track. Its warning dopplered off and died in its passage into the night.
The usual warning signals for track conditions were all dead, taken out with the station transformer. A replacement was on its way, but had some train failed to realize that lack-and was it possibly hellbent past the town with absolutely no awareness that it was headed for the steepest grade on the planet?
Impossible. Every train with any reason to be on this remote route had to know that there was only one station and one town, Hasjuran, and that beyond it lay a nasty set of switchbacks. Impossible that the engineer wouldn't know . . . unless . . . unless that train had no legitimate reason to be here.
That racket would have waked the whole town to alarm, but even if some train had been hijacked and was headed full tilt for that descent in an act of sabotage-there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it from here but advise the authorities in the distant capital and report a train wreck imminent on the Hasjuran grade.
Bren shivered, standing barefoot on the numbing cold of the decking, with the shock of that passage still reverberating in the air. He waited. If there was news from the rail system-or anyone else-his bodyguard, with him in the dark, would get it and pass it to him.
In the meanwhile, they had electrical power aboard the train, as the station and much of the town did not. That neither his bodyguard nor his staff had turned on the lights said either that they were too busy right now to bother with it or that they were purposely keeping things dark inside the compartment and the passage corridor outside-not because of the windows, because there were none to speak of in this whole train-but because they might have trouble aboard.
Which begged the question-could any outsider have forced a door and gotten aboard in the confusion and the racket? Doors on the Guild cars were all secure far beyond ordinary and currently set to open only from the inside. But they had one man aboard this train under firm arrest, with three partners they were not sure of.
They had no assurance, either, that those were the only problems they had, even granted that all the other personnel on the train were Assassins' Guild, units either absolutely and lifelong attached to specific persons, or teams certified reliable by the central Guild in Shejidan. They had posted sentries outside the train tonight despite the cold. Security around the stationary train was beyond tight, but their sentries might be vulnerable, and there was a whole town out there, with mountain trails leading in and out to the villages of the district, a complexity they could not secure.
This tiny province, Halrun, the town of Hasjuran, was the highest point and the southernmost that could be counted on as loyal to the aishidi'tat, the Western Association, which in fact had grown to span the continent. The hostile territory of the Dojisigin, the northeastern province of the Marid, lay at the foot of the pass, where that other train was headed at such ungodly speed. So did the northwestern Marid, Senjin district, with which they had just yesterday arranged an alliance.
"No information as yet," Jago said. The aiji-dowager, Ilisidi, with her high-level bodyguard, was rearward of their car, and Ilisidi's several units of bodyguards occupied the car between them. Bren's bodyguard and the dowager's young men, as she called them, were constantly in close contact, and communicated with others further up the train, units on loan from Assassins' Guild Headquarters in the capital.
If they collectively had no idea what was going on, Ilisidi's Guild-senior Cenedi would be asking coded questions of that distant headquarters, and if they had no idea, Cenedi would very possibly be rousing Tabini-aiji himself out of bed with news of a burgeoning situation involving the Marid, the Shadow Guild, an attempted assassination, sabotage, and possibly a destabilization of the whole district.
With the aiji-dowager, Tabini-aiji's grandmother, sitting on a train in the middle of it all.
Keep her safe. Tabini's final order to him, hours before he boarded the train.
Whatever had passed them-quiet returned. The other train was gone, whether to slow down for the grade-or not.
One dim light now came on at the end of the compartment, two dark figures, Narani and Jeladi, domestic staff beginning to dress for duty, as Jago also began to do in haste, snatching clothes from wall hooks near the bed: Guild uniform, in her case-trousers, black tee, boots, holstered pistol and a heavy leather jacket. Her hair was still loose. So was Bren's. And his two staffers being also plainclothes Guild and taking their immediate orders from his four-person bodyguard, Bren decided that their minds were best occupied with security this morning, not his wardrobe or his comfort. He hugged his nightrobe about him, endured bare feet on the icy floor, and kept out of Jago's way as she moved further back to confer with Banichi, Guild-senior in this unit, and with Tano and Algini, the unit's second team. There was no information yet, and one just had to wait and let one's protectors all do what they needed to do.
He was, in fact, the sole human on the whole mega-continent, an official protected by his staff and his guard, who were atevi-native to the world, as humans were not. Atevi were head and shoulders taller than he was, dark-skinned, golden-eyed, seeing far better in the dark, and far less bothered by the cold. He was blond, pale-skinned, and at the moment, his feet were going quite numb. But it was not a moment or a situation in which the whereabouts of his slippers seemed a pertinent question.
His bodyguard, his aishid, ranked higher than any but Ilisidi's own on this train, so the discussion going on in low tones and coded flashes of light was not only information-seeking, he suspected, but decision-making, the issuance of orders in consultation with Cenedi's team. Sentries, wherever they were posted in this bitter cold night, were likely the only ones in position to have had a wide view of what had passed them-likely no more than a black shape and a headlamp arriving out of the dark and then disappearing into the night. With the station lights out, there might not have been a chance to read a number. If it had communicated with anyone in its passage, the Guild units aboard should have gotten a message by now. The conclusion was, it had not hailed them or passed a message, and up and down their own chain of command, they had no idea what its business was.
Town officials and local Transportation Guild were likely out of their own beds in the adjacent town and asking questions, none of them answerable, either. Lord Topari and his household would be in the dark-literally, since the loss of the transformer had taken out that part of the town-and Lord Topari tended to brim over with anxieties and doubts. There was no prospect of information for him tonight. Ilisidi's bodyguard might opt to communicate with the local officials, or vice versa, but that only as a formality. No, they would have to say. We have no idea. No one aboard knows where it came from or what it intends. Yes, one sincerely hopes it will brake before it reaches the descent, but no one can currently swear to that. . . .
It was not the sort of observation the Assassins' Guild ever liked to give to local officials. But that was the state of affairs.
As far as he knew.
Meanwhile his feet were no longer freezing; not, he feared, a good thing. He could hear the pinging of the small forced-air heater that served the car, now turned on, and trying to take the chill off, but it would take time.
Clearly information was not yet forthcoming, nor appearing to be likely any time soon. Bren sat down on the edge of his bed, and worked the blanket over his lap. In the slight light afforded by his staff's activity at the far end of the car, he thought he spied his slippers. Once he could feel his feet again, he would fetch them. His clothes, court dress and fussy, were not the sort of clothing one could hang on a hook. They were in the closet, and trying to dress himself in the narrow aisle was probably not helpful to anyone.
He caught no sense of further alarm in his bodyguard, more a determination to get at information which no one seemed to have, not even, evidently, the dowager's staff.
And the dowager did not like to be surprised. She liked even less to have significant events unfold which she did not control.
Which is how they came to be waking in the dark, in the Red Train, at the top of a mountain pass, surrounded by snow.
Not too many days before, comfortably sitting in her Eastern estate of Malguri, she had been mightily annoyed by the news of her grandson's apparent settlement of northern issues in her absence, issues involving a candidate for a contested lordship-a candidate she had neither approved nor endorsed-and precarious events involving her precious great-grandson-whose endorsement the candidate had won.
Not that Ilisidi was emotionally fraught, oh, no. That was not the way Ilisidi expressed her deeper grievances. So what had Ilisidi done in that mood of displeasure? She had gone to Bren's estate on the west coast, ostensibly to welcome the paidhi-aiji back from his mission to the human island of Mospheira.
Curiously, she had not been the only one waiting to surprise him, a coincidence he still suspected her of engineering. That night, as she sat in his estate, sipping his brandy in his sitting room, and while he was still getting his land legs back from the sea crossing-Lord Machigi had turned up, a putative ally of hers, the strongest lord on the western shore of the Marid, with neither an invitation nor a forewarning. They had shared brandy. She had listened, in apparent ignorance, to Machigi's sudden desire for a railroad to link his capital to the rail system in the middle of Lord Bregani's province, just to his north. Machigi had claimed that Bregani's alliance with his eastern neighbor, Tiajo, was in trouble. That there was an opportunity. That time was of the essence.
Ilisidi had promised to think about it.
Think about it? Ilisidi had come to that meeting in Najida with a towering lot of completely unrelated things on her mind, and at the top of that tower was the midlands, where her old ally Tatiseigi sat with vacant lordships on his east and his west, both gone down in a bloody sorting-out that had rattled the aishidi'tat to its core. The lordship of Kadagidi would remain vacant; but a young man had lately shown up claiming to be the heir of Ajuri. And Tatiseigi had believed him. Backed him. And had not consulted Ilisidi. That was the crux of matters.
Central to that bloody sorting-out years back, the outlawed splinter of the Assassins' Guild that was known as the Shadow Guild had found refuge in service to Lord Tiajo in the Dojisigin Marid-the same province that was now, according to Machigi, causing Bregani so much trouble.
Was it coincidence that Machigi arrived with an open invitation to Ilisidi to deal a major blow to that festering wound in the south, just when she had been summarily dealt out of the Northern solution? Possibly.
But that Ilisidi, whose endorsement of a candidate for the lordship of Ajuri had not even been requested-given an opening to deal a major blow to a target the Guild had long wanted to take down-would merely think about it . . .
No. In retrospect and considering how rapidly it had all come to pass, Bren would wager she had left his estate with the current mission fully planned and ready to implement.
Now . . . a train passed them in the middle of the night. A train not a part of that plan. And very likely coming from the capital, where the choice of agency was her grandson, the Assassins' Guild, or both.
No, Ilisidi would not be pleased.
Keep her safe, had been the sum of Tabini-aiji's instruction to him, when he had informed Bren of this trip into the mountain province of Hasjuran, to discuss Machigi's rail link with Hasjuran's minor lord, Topari. Keep her safe, Tabini had said, when she'd demanded Bren's presence as well as that of Nomari, the disputed candidate for Ajuri, and ordered the Red Train to be made ready.
Keep her safe . . . said to him, since the aiji-dowager was not currently speaking to her grandson-the hot issue being Nomari's pending appointment.
In point of fact, Tabini had not opposed the move she was making in the Marid, and he had not prevented her taking Nomari with her. Not even Tabini would ratify that lordship without Ilisidi's acceptance, if not wholehearted endorsement of the candidate. Ilisidi was fully capable of making such a young lord's life intolerable-and possibly short-and the aishidi'tat needed unity, not division, where it came to this appointment. A breach between Ilisidi and her old ally Lord Tatiseigi was likewise unthinkable. It needed to be resolved-particularly as Tabini's wife, the aiji-consort, was herself Ajuri, and Lord Tatiseigi's niece: Nomari was, among other things, family.