Bren Cameron, diplomat in residence, usually represents the ruler of the atevi state. But Ilisidi, the dowager, has been known to borrow his services from time to time—and she has her own notions how to solve the simmering hostilities in the south of the atevi continent, playing one problem against another.
This time, she is betting the hard-won northern peace—and the lives of the people—on being right. She has commandeered the Red Train, taken aboard what passengers she chooses, and headed for the snowy roof of the world, where a hard-scrabble town and its minor lord are the first pieces she intends to use.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The wind was fair for the passage as Brighter Days knifed through the light chop of Najidama Bay, with the afternoon sun astern and the distinct edge of land ahead and to starboard. Najida village lay along that coast, and they passed fishing boats with due respect and proper clearance. The fishermen knew Brighter Days, knew who was aboard, and waved as they passed.
Bren Cameron waved back when he saw them, happy to be home again. He was looking forward to a quiet evening at his estate with his brother Toby, who owned Brighter Days, and Barb Letterman, Toby's love and companion.
Here, in the isolated peace of the ocean, Bren's bodyguard, his aishid, Banichi and Jago, Tano and Algini, were able to stand down too, however briefly. Atevi, they were, as the fishermen were, as all the inhabitants of the approaching mainland were-tall and black and golden-eyed. Bren himself was the one exception to the exclusion of humans from the continent: resident on the mainland, and not only human, but Lord of Najida, Lord of the Heavens, paidhi to the aiji of all the aishidi'tat.
He was on his way home from a ground-breaking trip to the human-held island of Mospheira, across the straits.
He'd been back to the island of his birth many times in his official capacity as paidhi-aiji, but he had never put himself in the public eye on those trips. He had certainly never gone in full atevi court splendor and he certainly had never arrived with his atevi bodyguard surrounding him.
Now Mospheira had seen him differently, and the reaction of the Mospheirans had been, well-varied.
Since the War of the Landing had set aside Mospheira for a human enclave, atevi had not officially set foot on the island of Mospheira. By the treaty that ended that bloody conflict, all the vast mainland remained atevi territory, with only one human, the paidhi, allowed to cross the strait to communicate with atevi authority, and to do that only in writing, with great caution and with university approval and review. The belief was that a fundamental incompatibility of language, culture, and biology had created a miscommunication that had brought down war on humans, and the island had lived in fear it could happen again, from some future flashpoint.
One might also note that humans had dropped down from the heavens uninvited, with nothing but data for resources, and their survival at all had been dependent on atevi charity and forbearance. They had been welcomed at first. But when war had broken out and gone against them, humans, vastly outnumbered, had offered information-technology . . . in exchange for a place to live apart.
The original paidhi, a human crossing the strait, had been the appointed mediator in that exchange-and carefully monitored exchanges had been the duty of the paidhiin for two hundred years.
The rules had changed, dramatically, in the years since Bren had taken office. The current aiji had spoken aloud to the paidhi. And against all precedent, Bren had answered him, conversed with him, gone on a trip with him-without consulting Mospheiran experts.
The University had not been pleased.
Tabini, the aiji in Shejidan, was very pleased.
Theirs had become an unprecedented cooperation. And fortunately so. In Bren's first year in office, the long-lost human colony ship, two hundred years absent, arrived at the moth-balled orbiting station in desperate need of help, and found that atevi were the only ones with the manufacturing capacity to build a space program from scratch, while Mospheiran humans held the only key to communicating with them.
The ship needed the station operating again-it needed people, it needed resources, and Tabini-aiji had seen an opportunity. Consequently, space age tech flooded down onto a world barely beginning to fly, and the flood was predominantly on the atevi side of the water. For better or worse, the ship's return had intersected the partnership of an aiji hungry for human tech and a paidhi who had broken all the rules. The once-mothballed space station had come alive, shifted to low earth orbit, and became a home to a carefully-equal number of humans and atevi, a situation settled by a new treaty, with two stationmasters and a set of bulkheads to restrict social contact.
Everything had been headed in an astonishingly good direction, until the ship admitted its own dire secret and organized a rescue mission for its other stranded colony.
Two years later, the ship had returned with refugees of a human settlement far less fortunate than the one on Mospheira. Five thousand refugees, the only survivors, completely overburdened the station, and brought the world into brief and frightening contact with an alien species.
They managed to survive that. But the station was in internal meltdown. The refugees had to be sent down to Mospheira in the small loads the space program could manage, while supplies had to go up. And Mospheira was far from ready to cope with outsiders.
Atevi were not willing to lose the station's integrity while Mospheira debated. They wanted the matter settled. They also had interest in three of those refugee children who, through circumstances, had become irrevocably attached to the aiji's son and heir.
By atevi law, they could not live on the mainland. They had to live on Mospheira. They were also, by virtue of being children, less alarming to the Mospheirans, who had had historic reasons to distrust the new arrivals.
That-had been Bren Cameron's job. Reassure Mospheira about the aliens, who had left the scene peacefully; and reassure them about the refugees from Reunion.
That was the reason he had just been on Mospheira-and why, for the first time, by the aiji's direct order, Mospheirans had had to receive the paidhi-aiji not as an employee of their own State Department, with no real authority on Mospheira-but as spokesman for the atevi government, in all the cuff-lace and brocade of the atevi court, with his atevi bodyguards, in their black leather and silver, and with their weapons plainly in evidence on all occasions.
It was done. The children were down safely and installed in a secure residence on University premises.
And the island now began to understand: the paidhi-aiji was no longer under Mospheiran authority. The office was now being used by atevi in its historic way, what Mospheirans might call an ambassador or a diplomat, but one instructed to represent both sides of the situation with equal energy.
He had done that. He would do it when he reached Tabini's office. And Mospheirans as a whole, while dazzled by the lace and brocade, might not realize how profound a shift that was, but he knew. It was irrevocable. He was human, but he was no longer Mospheiran. He spoke as Tabini to the human Presidenta. He spoke as the Presidenta-to Tabini-aiji.
Was everybody now ready to take a step beyond a two-hundred-year standoff? Were humans and atevi ready to start interacting, one on one?
It was working in the heavens, in the orbiting station. Technicians understood each other better than governments did.
And could it be done on the island-with a human government?
In a period of peace-it had begun to happen. He had found, to his uneasy surprise, a quiet group of human students dedicated to the most esoteric of atevi artforms, the machimi plays-young Mospheirans striving, as he had on his own and to the frustration of his professors, to understand the atevi, not simply maintain a truce.
It would scare hell out of some people. The University was not amused. But now they had official status-tutors to the three children and their parents.
The next immediate challenge to Mospheiran attitudes was to accept five thousand long-lost cousins, biological humans who were, in some ways, more alien to them now than the atevi. Mospheirans had to find a way to welcome them, and the refugees had to accept that, flat horizon and inner ear objections not withstanding; they had no choice.
God, what a handful of days had done.
And for the first time since the space station, he could relax-homeward bound for good and all, homeward bound, to the mainland, on Toby Cameron's boat-a rare chance to see his brother, and a leisurely transition to the mainland after days of stress and worry and an armed assault.
With the atevi navy riding at the mouth of Najidama Bay, providing surveillance, Banichi and his team were down to black tees and easy manner, isolate from every threat but weather. Elderly Narani and young Jeladi, household staff, were entirely off-duty and enjoying the sun.
And Bren could go ship-board casual, in a turtleneck and Mospheiran-style trousers and deck slippers-Toby's. He could do nothing more challenging than lean on the rail and watch the water, with Banichi a looming dark assurance beside him. An Assassin. His bodyguard were all Assassins' Guild, the four people nearer and dearer these days even than Toby.
One could not say friends. That was a human thing, and they were not. Their feelings were passionate, but they were not love. He was their principal, their center, their loyalty. The atevi word for their emotional connection to him was man'chi, and there was no exact equivalent in human terms, but man'chi went upward through their own hierarchy to him, and entailed his deep responsibility downward to them. Four was an infelicitous number in atevi reckoning. Five was a unity. And he was their fifth, their fortunate fifth, center of their world.
He was the first paidhi to have an aishid, the first human in two hundred years to deal with man'chi first hand, and he'd rapidly discovered that human and atevi emotions ran comfortingly parallel until they didn't. But learning to sense stress and accommodate each other-they'd arrived at a very real, very warm state of affairs in which he felt more than protected-he felt-well, attached. Deeply so. It was the best he could do. But they seemed happy.
And now his aishid had seen humanity en masse, both on the station, and on Mospheira. They had seen an assassination attempt. His aishid would have suggested hunting down the key problems, going straight for the individuals in nice suits who gave the orders.
As it was, human security had handled it, and though they had deep reservations about the limited response to an attack, they took his word that their job was done.
And once they'd boarded Toby's boat and put open water between them and Mospheira, he could feel all the tension ebb, and the outrage-well, not lessen, but go inactive, as no longer theirs to deal with. And it was time to take his foreign presence off the island and let Shawn-President Shawn Tyers, his old friend and one-time defender in the State Department-take it from there.
It had been a long, dangerous, and exhausting trip. Full kit. Court dress. And backup equipment for his bodyguard, should things have gone seriously sideways. The massive crates that sat lashed to the deck of Brighter Days contained mostly clothes, and some things the Assassins' Guild did not talk about.
Coming in, now, the declining sun astern casting Brighter Days' sail in gold and making the spray sparkle-they could spend the night at his Najida estate, all of them, Barb and Toby as guests. They could afford one evening celebrating.
But he was due in the capital. The next morning he had been assured the aiji's personal train-which would easily take on the packing crates and their equipment-would be waiting for him. He'd have another decently-paced trip back to the capital, which would give him time to finish his written report to Tabini. He would sit in the Red Car with his closest associates, readjust his mind wholly to atevi speech and atevi thinking, and sip atevi tea while doing it.
Job well done.
The shoreline grew, and Bren used the binoculars affixed at the bow to watch Najida come into view. Before he could get them focused, Toby came up from below, a single sheet of folded paper in his hand.
"From Shawn," Toby said and handed Bren the paper. "Just came in."
That was a moment of anxiety. He shoved the binoculars into their rail-fixed case and took the note.
Hope the crossing was smooth. Released last night. Doing fine. Had dinner with the kids and their parents. Seemed happy with everything, especially their tutors.
Shawn was out of the hospital, and the kids meant the kids newly landed.
That was good news, all of it. For security reasons, and with the general upset about the shooting, he had headed for the dock straight from the airport, the crates and all having been boarded when he left the Presidential residency. He'd had little chance to talk to the three youngsters privately, although a small packet of letters had managed to change hands.
Don't worry about the kids, Shawn's letter said. Cards and flowers are inundating my office and their residence, along with toys, in their case, cookies and candy which security won't let through, and offers of beach vacations, which are a little premature. You can relax in a job well done . . . at least on this side. Give the aiji my respects and my thanks for sending you. We'll be in touch, I'm sure.
No need to tell Toby. Toby had received the communication. Toby had taken up the binoculars himself, scanning the shoreline, while Barb managed the helm.
The high cliff at the end of the bay was in view, lit by sunlight.
"It looks as if Jaishan isn't in," Toby remarked.
"Out on a run," Bren said. Jaishan was Bren's own yacht. He had put Jaishan at the village's disposal for hauling construction materials and such to the dock over in Kajiminda Bay, where the Edi people were building a new and modern tribal center-the Edi were not much for roads, being fisherfolk, and having little to do with outsiders. Jaishan was essential for their moving supplies.
"Makes it easy to come in," Toby said, regarding their approach to dock. It was not an extensive dock, more a floating platform with stairs up to the larger platform ashore.
"Are the cranes up?" Bren asked.
"Looks as if. Yes."
The dock had a removable crane at the dock and another atop the cliff that the household could use to set cargo on and off. So Najida was ready for them, and they would have the cumbersome crates off the deck and shifted up to the road in short order. They would call the house, and the house staff would make sure the truck was up there.
"One sees no reason to take the crates inside," Bren said in Ragi, as Banichi joined them. "They can sit on the truck all night. At least the large one. We shall have an early start in the morning."