Protector (Excerpt)

Check out the 14th installment in C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, Protector, out on April 2 from DAW Books:

It’s coming up on Cajeiri’s birthday. The boy has been promised he can have the young human children he knew from his voyage sent down from the space station for a two week stay.

But there’s far a darker business going on in the background—a major split compromising the Assassins’ Guild, which furnishes security and law enforcement to the whole continent.  Tabini’s consort’s own father has been barred from court, and may be involved in a new conspiracy against him.

For safety reasons, Tabini wants Bren and Ilisidi to take charge of Cajeiri, and protect him and his young guests. They themselves are very likely targets of whatever’s going on, no question of it. So is Cajeiri. But having the targets separated and contained is an advantage.

It’s Bren’s responsibility to entertain the guests, keep the security problem secret…and let a lonely eight-year-old prince reestablish his controversial relationship with the only other children he’s ever met…inside the best security they can manage.




Lace was back in fashion this spring—starched and delicate at once, layers of it flowing from cuffs and neck. It was a damned bother at a formal dinner, but there it was: the Lord of the Heavens had to be in fashion, and a state dinner in the court of Tabini-aiji meant a new coat, no question about that. So Bren Cameron arrived at Tabini-aiji’s door, accompanied by his four black-clad bodyguards, in a mode quietly equal to any of the lords present.

This new coat was a subdued beige-and-gold brocade, able, in this sparkling crowd, to fade into the background, and Bren Cameron—paidhi-aiji to that same Tabini-aiji, the ruler of the aishidi’tat, the Western Association of the atevi—liked it that way.

Paidhi-aiji. Official human-language translator—at least as he’d signed up for the job years ago. Back then he’d been the interface between the human enclave, restricted by treaty to the island of Mospheira, across the straits—and the atevi, na­tive to the planet, who ruled the rest of the world.

Things had changed since then. Humans were in space, now. So were atevi.

And the paidhi’s office? The paidhi-aiji had become both dip­lomat and courier—become, in fact, paidhi in the sense in which atevi had always interpreted the office, long before the word human entered their vocabulary. Translator had ceased to be much of his job at all, since humans and atevi interfaced daily on the space station, with free access to the once-forbidden dictionary. Mospheira now worried far more about the space station orbiting overhead than they did the vast continent im­mediately across the water from them.

There had been a profound psychological shift in the atti­tudes on both sides of the strait. The earthly power that had threatened Mospheira in the past had ceased, at least in Mos­pheiran minds, to threaten them in any direct sense. The cur­rent worry of the human population on earth was the power of the human population in space versus their own insular ways and aims, most of which involved their comforts, their econ­omy, and their sense of self-government.

Atevi were a presence onworld and off, had always been there, would always be there . . . and would always be different from them. Politically ambitious Mospheirans had little to gain these days by pointing out that obvious fact. Much more to the point, the meager trade that had gone back and forth between Mospheira and the continent for two hundred years had sud­denly become a large and important commerce, linked to space in a triangular relationship. Business was now interested in what happened on the continent—deeply interested.

But Mospheiran businessmen knew they had no control over it. They could only watch the ebb and flow of the market and adjust accordingly. Production once based on the direct advice of the paidhi must now flux according to a true supply and de­mand market.

The island government was also on its own these days. They no longer controlled the paidhi-aiji—who remained conspicuously human, in any gathering here on the continent, but who had all but ceased to represent Mospheiran interests. Translate at need, yes. Advise, yes. But circumstances . . . and ultimately his own inclinations . . . had made him an intrinsic part of the atevi world.

He’d gained property on the atevi side of the straits. A title. A seat in the legislature, too, if he wanted to press the point. He didn’t. He had more power, in terms of influence with the most powerful people in the atevi world, than that seat could ever wield . . . something he found it wisest not to advertise: those to whom it mattered—knew.

His official niche in the court, a unique position, with Tabini’s—and Tabini’s grandmother’s—backing, was still that of paidhi-aiji, but in gatherings such as this, he preferred to style himself lord, not of the ill-defined Heavens, but of Najida peninsula, a quaint little rural section of Sarini Province, out on the western coast, not all that far from the island on which he’d been born. Lord of Najida gave him social cachet in terms ordi­nary atevi more easily understood, not too high nor ancient a title, but a respectable title over a little peninsula whose ruling family had died out, a title granted for services rendered the aiji, and to all of the aishidi’tat.

Accordingly, he chose to wear beige, a no-color, amid the colorful rivalry of atevi clan heraldry, and he persistently tied his queue not with the starry black ribbon of the Province of the Heavens or even the more approachable blue of Najida, but with the paidhi’s neutral white . . . I am not part of regional matters. My standing is through the aiji.

It was a language every atevi understood without a moment’s conscious thought.

“Nandi,” his senior bodyguard said, by way of parting as they reached the door. The four tall atevi who were as close to him as family—closer, in point of fact—were not given a place in the gathering of lords and ladies milling about beyond the foyer, not this evening. The only bodyguards allowed in the gathering to­night (and indeed a veritable wall of black Assassins’ Guild uni­forms guarded that door) were the aiji’s security. There was, for one thing, limited space—and for another—

For another, all security anywhere belonged to the Assassins’ Guild, and the fact that the only armed guards present were the aiji’s own bodyguard freed the rest of the members of that secre­tive Guild to disappear the same way Bren’s did, down that inner corridor toward the deeper recesses of the aiji’s apartment—and into a meeting far more important and more critical than the state dinner going on in the front rooms.

It was a state dinner being held in honor of one Lord Geigi, Bren’s sometime neighbor on the coast and current house guest, here in the Bujavid. Bren entered the packed room alone: Geigi had been invited here early, and was doubtless still with the aiji, back in the private part of the apartment.

Lord Geigi, provincial lord of Sarini, having helped straighten out a significant mess in that province, was headed back to his preferred post in the heavens, that of stationmaster on the atevi side of operations. Sarini was quiet, even improved in security, and the prospect of peace and trade and profits sparkled in Gei­gi’s wake. It was a happy occasion, this departure, a triumph, and the lords and their consorts—and the paidhi-aiji—had as­sembled to wish Lord Geigi a good flight and a safe trip back to the station.

Unfortunately, where power and profit bloomed, power bro­kers had a way of getting into the game. That was precisely why the not-so-clandestine Guild meeting in the back rooms was so critical, and why, while the lords and ladies were smiling and sipping drinks and offering politenesses to each other, most were likely wondering how much their own bodyguards were going to be told about the recent events and current situation in the south and the west coast, and how far they themselves, consequently, would be drawn into the loop . . . or deliberately excluded from it.

His own bodyguard would definitely be in the loop. The aiji’s bodyguard, most of whom were on duty out here, ironically would not be. And that uncomfortable situation—

Was politics. Pure and simple. Or rather neither pure nor simple. And that exclusion was one additional matter that might well be a topic in that meeting, at least among the most senior bodyguards.

“Nand’ paidhi.” As he passed into the crowd, a servant of­fered a selection of drinks on a silver tray. Bren took the white wine, a safe choice for a human, and walked among the tall black-skinned lords and ladies, with a nod here, a word there. He was comparatively comfortable tonight, despite the stiff new coat and stiffer lace, since—in present company, and with his own residence just next door in the ornate halls of the Bujavid—he could go without the damned bulletproof vest that had been mandatory since the Marid affair . . . but he had to navigate, as did everyone, on his own.

Of course for him it was slightly more challenging a feat than for most of the others assembled here. He was a tall human, but that was still a head and shoulders shorter than the average atevi. It meant looking up to talk to anyone he met, and it meant looking between shoulders to spot someone he was looking for. It meant being able to turn up at someone’s elbow relatively unnoticed, but it also meant watching out for people taking a step backward in crowded conditions. Dark-skinned and golden-eyed, wearing generally bright colors, they all tow­ered above a fair-haired, light-skinned, quietly dressed human, who walked in a canyon of taller bodies.

His aishid would normally weave him comfortably through such a crowd. But he managed. He smiled, he talked, he kept his eyes open, and noted who was talking to whom . . . so far as he could see, until, finally, he did spot two others who did not tower. One was the aiji’s son Cajeiri—who at eight was already as tall as the paidhi-aiji—and who was holding a stemware glass of, one trusted, plain fruit juice. The other, the ancient lady with him and only a little taller, was the aiji-dowager herself, Ilisidi.

Notably absent was Ilisidi’s chief bodyguard, Cenedi. If there had been any exception to the rule of no-attendance tonight, it would have been Ilisidi, because of her size and her age. But then Cenedi was likely the main source of information backstairs. Along with Banichi and Algini—of Bren’s own bodyguard.

“Nand’ Bren!” Cajeiri waved at him, and several lords looked and spotted him, while the aiji-dowager gave her great-grandson a sharp word and resettled that cane of hers with a thump Cajeiri would feel even if he couldn’t hear it in the general festivity.

And indeed, Cajeiri immediately resumed official propriety. He’d grown so mature in so many ways, had Cajeiri, though his enthusiasm still overwhelmed him from time to time.

And there, the tall old man in green and white, was Lord Tatiseigi—right beside the dowager, depend on it. He was Ca­jeiri’s great-grand uncle, or however many greats one had to work into it: atevi were extremely loose about such niceties, even in the same sentence, so he was uncle as often as he was great-uncle. Lord Tatiseigi was Atageini clan—a member of the family on Cajeiri’s mother’s side—and a sometime lover of the aiji-dowager, grandmother to Cajeiri’s father.

Cajeiri’s little exclamation had turned Tatiseigi’s attention in Bren’s direction—no problem there—but it had also let a lord he had not particularly wanted to have corner him on a particular issue—notably his vote on the cell phone issue—draw dead aim on him.

A light bell rang. The dining hall doorway opened on salva­tion in the form of Lord Geigi. The attention of the lord in ques­tion turned immediately away from Bren in favor of Lord Geigi, who embodied a far rarer opportunity.

Geigi, rotund sun around which half a dozen such lesser lords immediately orbited, reached past them all to snag the new proxy lord of Maschi clan—and so of all Sarini Province—a proxy Geigi himself had appointed during this visit. He headed for Bren with the new man in tow—and his little planetary cluster following in his wake.

The new lord of the Maschi, a lean, elderly fellow, was a little countrified and old-fashioned in dress—which by veriest chance was halfway in fashion, in the latest trend. The man seemed very overawed by the attention, and engagingly de­lighted to see Bren, whom at least he recognized in the crowd—how could he not, even had they not met before.

Haidiri was this new lord’s name.

“Felicitations, nandi,” Bren said.

“I have told nand’ Haidiri,” Geigi said, “that if he has any difficulties, any worries, he should contact your office directly, nand’ Bren.”

“Indeed, without hesitation, do so,” Bren said. “I am your neighbor, after all, at least when you visit Kajiminda. Since this will be your first sitting in the legislature, the marshal of the leg­islature should be in contact with you, and if he is not, let me know, nandi. Do not hesitate in the least.” He discovered two lords in sight: Haijdin and Maidin, strong supporters of the aiji, on the liberal side of the legislature. “Let me introduce you, nandi, to two gentlemen you very much need to meet. Lord Geigi, your in­dulgence.”

“Go, go,” Geigi said. “I shall pay my respects to the dowager before we are called to dinner.”

In point of fact, Lord Haidiri was definitely going to need the paidhi’s help—and the aiji-dowager’s, and the help of the two gen­tlemen ahead, and likely the aiji’s help, too, if Tabini could be persuaded. Important issues directly affecting Haidiri’s clan, Sarini Province, and the peace of the region were centermost in the cur­rent session of the legislature, and this country gentleman had many of the keys to the situation in his district. One was certain Haidiri was well aware of those keys—Geigi would not have ap­pointed him otherwise. But having the keys and having the asso­ciations to best utilize that knowledge were two different matters.

Bren made the introductions. There was a round of bows. And there was, by opportunity, as a third man strolled into range, another name to add to the new lord’s resources, Paturandi—a scholarly, middle-aged man, unhappily as long-winded as his notorious predecessor, Brominandi, but a good­hearted fellow who had suffered socially from his predecessor’s reputation. Paturandi was happy to make any new acquaintance who would engage him socially—and as lord of a small south­ern district he definitely had a regional interest in this new lord in Targai estate.

“Such a great pleasure, nandiin,” Paturandi said, and went on to join Haijdin and Maidin in asking about trade negotia­tions with the newly-opening Marid, right at Targai’s doorstep.

Those introductions were a thorough success.

Bren wended his way back to Geigi, to effect a rescue of the situation should Geigi and Tatiseigi have crossed glances . . . those two gentlemen being long-time rivals for the dowager’s attentions. Tatiseigi was a jealous sort, and a conservative, which Geigi, a Rational Determinist who denied the validity of numerology, certainly was not.

But at that very opportune moment the servants reopened the dining room doors and the major domo invited them all in for the seating.

There followed the usual sorting out by place markers at the long table. The highest lords were relatively sure of their seats—alert, of course, for any untoward significance in the positioning they might discover in those markers. The lowest at the table, conversely, had to do a little searching.

Bren found his own place with no more than a glance at the card and white ribbon. His seat was very close to the head of the table, with the honoree, Lord Geigi on his left, closer to Tabini-aiji’s seat. Lord Geigi and Lord Tatiseigi were very diplomati­cally seated across from each other, at exactly the same level . . . particularly well done on the part of the major domo. Young Cajeiri was sandwiched between Lord Tatiseigi, his mother’s uncle on his left and his as-yet-to-arrive mother on the right. That seated the boy across the table from his great-grandmother, Ilisidi being seated on Lord Geigi’s left . . .

More significantly, Ilisidi’s seat would be directly opposite her granddaughter-in-law, Lady Damiri. That was a scary bal­ancing act. The two were famously not getting along at the moment . . . not that they ever had, but it had become bitter.

Tabini was the only chess piece capable of blocking those two—and that was exactly where his seat was—between them. Bren was relieved to find Lord Haijdin on his own right, a pleasant positioning, with Maidin almost opposite, next to Tatiseigi. Haidiri’s important but new status kept him midway down the table, next to, one was glad to see, a set of affable and reasonable people. The lord who had had Bren in his sights was safely down among the lower seats.

Bren slipped into his chair, white-lacquered ironwood, massive, ancient, and so heavy that a human, momentarily unattended by servants and bodyguard, had rather slip sideways into it than wres­tle it further in any direction. The linen-covered table sparkled end to end with crystal and silver. Candles contributed a warmer glow as servants dimmed the room lights. Flowers of fortunate number, color, and type were arranged in banks not quite high enough to pose a wall to a human guest, or to Ilisidi or Cajeiri.

And with guests in their places, the whole gracious machin­ery of the aiji’s personal dining hall clicked into operation, drinks being renewed, the servants ascertaining special needs of the diners—and assuring the paidhi-aiji quietly that there were certain dishes to avoid, but that those were few. By ironclad tradition, there could only be light, pleasant talk in this room, no business done, no serious matters discussed, except the rou­tine warning to the paidhi about alkaloids in the sauce.

Chatter resumed briefly. Then Tabini-aiji arrived with Damiri at his side, and everyone had to rise—excepting the aiji-dowager, who simply nodded. The aiji was conservatively re­splendent in the black and red of the Ragi atevi. Damiri arrived in, yes, white and green this evening. She was pregnant—imminently due, in fact—and she had been through personal hell in recent days: her father, head of Ajuri clan, had recently quitted the capital in scandal, which might well have justified a less cheerful expression. But instead she appeared smiling, relaxed and gracious beside her somber husband, and—for the first time in years—wearing her uncle Tatiseigi’s colors.

That was a statement. One wondered if she had chosen to do it—or if she had been ordered to do it, a question undoubtedly on the minds of every guest present.

Everyone settled again. Polite chatter resumed at the lower seats. The upper ones, where lords were in the know about the intimate politics, remained in stunned silence, at a public shift of the consort’s allegiance that no one had quite expected.

Damiri’s color choice had definitely surprised and pleased Lord Tatiseigi. The old conservative had already been in a good mood this evening, rejoicing in his rising importance in court—and in the imminent departure of his chief rival, Lord Geigi.

And now Damiri, mother of the eight-year-old heir, and of a baby soon to be born, was wearing her uncle’s white and green. Granted she had not been likely to appear in her Ajuri father’s colors this evening, but she had not taken the neutral option, either. She was sending a clear signal, taking sides, and Ajuri clan, when they heard of it, would not be happy, no.

Bren had a sip of wine and smiled politely at Lord Tatiseigi—and at Lord Haijdin, who remarked, in a moderate degree of innocence, “Well. One is very pleased to see that.”

The servants meanwhile moved about like an attacking squadron, pouring liquids, arranging napkins. Geigi carried on a conversation directly with Tabini-aiji, while Ilisidi sipped her wine and watched a major shift in allegiances play out.

A move to her advantage? Ilisidi could work with the situa­tion.

And meanwhile Tabini—who had spent his own youth in the aiji-dowager’s household—was not letting his wife’s shockwave take its own course down the table.

“We wish to honor our old ally Geigi of Kajiminda tonight,” Tabini said, and his rising brought a quick hush to the dining room. “We shall regret his departure for his post of duty in the heavens, but despite the efforts of our enemies, he is leaving his affairs here in good order. Sarini Province is again at peace. He has amply provided for administration of his clan, in the ap­pointment of Lord Haidiri, whom we welcome to our table for the first time tonight.”

“Aiji-ma,” Haidiri murmured, half-rising, with a deep bow of his head to Tabini, and to Lord Geigi as he settled awkwardly back into his chair.

“Should Sarini Province or Maschi clan ever need our inter­vention,” Tabini said, “we shall of course respond to such a request; but we have great confidence in you, Lord Haidiri, to manage the district.”

That covered the recent shooting match in as diplomatic a fashion as one could bring to bear. Assassins’ Guild enforce­ment teams were all over the region Haidiri would govern, mopping up pockets of their own splinter group, pockets estab­lished in the failed administration of Haidiri’s predecessor, Gei­gi’s young scoundrel of a nephew, Baiji.

Baiji had been forcibly wedded, bedded, and was bound for well-deserved obscurity in the relatively rural districts of the East, deep in Ilisidi’s domain. Baiji would quickly produce an heir, if he wanted to continue a reasonably comfortable life­style; and that heir would be brought up by the mother alone, a girl with familial ties to Ilisidi. Only if Geigi approved would the offspring become the new Maschi lord, succeeding Haidiri.

Baiji, fool that he was, had been targeted by the Marid, the five southern states, who wanted—badly—to take control of the west coast, and who had hoped to bring the sprawling, sparsely popu­lated Sarini Province under Marid control. Baiji had dealt with fire and gotten burned—badly—when the Marid plans had failed—badly. The Marid had lost leadership of their own plot a year ago, when Tabini, out for two years as the result of a coup, retook his capital. The usurper, Murini, had fled to the Marid, unwelcomely so. Murini had died—which removed him from the scene.

Seeking a power base in the destabilized south, the group that had supported Murini had made their own try at the Marid, creating the mess which the Assassins’ Guild was currently mopping up. The Marid had gotten a new overlord in the pro­cess, Machigi, one of the five lords of the Marid, who had man­aged to keep three of the five districts under his control, and who had not let Murini’s people displace him.

Machigi was now back in his capital of Tanaja, presumably keeping the agreement of alliance that he had just signed with the aiji-dowager. Geigi’s west coast estate at Kajiminda, freed of threat from the Marid, thanks to that alliance, was given to the servants to keep in good order until there should be a young Maschi heir resident . . . and Geigi’s essential belongings were standing in crates in Bren’s front hallway, ready to be freighted out to the spaceport tomorrow morning.

So, as Tabini said, all Geigi’s onworld affairs were wrapped up, nailed down, and triumphantly settled. The world was in better shape than it had been, with an actual prospect of peace and development in the southern states for the first time in centuries.

“We have notified the rail office,” Tabini added as a post­script, “so the red car will be at your disposal tomorrow morn­ing, nandi.”

“One is very honored,” Geigi murmured with a bow of his head.

That arrangement made things easier. The red car was the aiji’s own transport, not only the personal rail car, but the bag­gage car that went with it, and the engine that pulled it—occasionally complicated with freight attachments on long treks, for economy’s sake, but rarely allowing passenger cars, for secu­rity reasons. The aiji’s train ran rigidly on time, since it had uni­versal priority on the tracks, and Bren had schemed to escort Geigi out to the spaceport personally, hoping to use that car, knowing he was pushing matters of personal privilege just a bit.

“Well, well-deserved, nandi,” Tabini said. And with that, Tabini gave a little signal to the serving staff lined up in the corridor to the kitchen, and appetizers began to flow out, along with spectacular soup tureens and meticulous arrangements of small sausages.

“We shall indeed miss you, nandi,” Lady Damiri said gra­ciously, over the soft clatter of service. “We regret we have had so little personal chance to enjoy your company this visit.”

“A mutual regret, nandi,” Geigi said.

Ilisidi ladled out spicy black soup, an amazing quantity for a diminutive lady. “We hope for a very safe flight for you, Geigi-ji, and do note that we are sending up some preserves of that sort you like. Do not let some rascal make off with that box or mis­place it.”

There was not a flicker of a glance between the two ladies.

“One is very grateful,” Geigi murmured.

“How is your office aloft holding out?” Bren asked, into that half-breath of silence, forcing a complete change of topics. “Have they coped with your absence, nandi?”

“One has heard of no crises up there,” Geigi said, “but one always suspects one’s staff of reserving all the worrisome news.”

“Well, they will surely be arranging a party for your arrival there,” Ilisidi said. “I tell you, there has been a significant dearth of parties in Shejidan lately. We are sorely disappointed this season.”

Never mind the last festivity she had attended had erupted in inter-clan warfare and cost Damiri her relationship with her father.

Tatiseigi said, immediately, “One would very gladly oblige with a dinner invitation, if the dowager would find pleasure in so modest a table as mine.”

Cajeiri shot a questioning look at his father and mother—not first at his great-grandmother. The boy was learning: the boy indeed had a party of his to offer—a desperately longed-for party. Bren knew it. And the boy clearly wanted to say something gra­cious to his great-grandmother. Then wisely didn’t.

“We shall indeed be pleased,” Ilisidi said in the meanwhile. “Gallantly offered, nandi.”

Cajeiri’s lips had gone to a thin line, clamped shut, hard, on the matter of his own impending birthday, that postponed and still very fragile arrangement. Bren well knew the politics of that situation: Damiri did not look with favor on the guest list—which involved human youngsters, and the space station, and the ship where her son had spent two very formative years of his life, in his great-grandmother’s hands.

Bren said, flinging himself into the breach, a conversation pitched only to the upper table: “Even I shall oblige you, aiji- ma. I have never dared offer a social event. But I have my staff back now. And one has been extremely honored with a small dining room—” A modest nod toward Tabini and Damiri, refer­encing the recent remodeling of this end of the floor, “—and one is consequently willing to risk one’s reputation with an invitation.”

“Well you should be willing, nandi!” Tatiseigi exclaimed, “since you have stolen my cook! And a very fine cook he is! You should be amply prepared!”

It might be a slightly barbed joke. One could absolutely take it for one—if lordly Tatiseigi had ever in his life joked with the paidhi-aiji.

“One is about to be extremely bold,” Bren said, “and offer the lord of the Atageini an invitation to the same dinner, in honor of your generosity, which one can never forget.”

“Ha!” Tatiseigi said. And one still had no idea whether he was joking.

“Please do consider it, nandi.”

“We shall look at our calendar.”

That was no answer. But he had not expected ready agree­ment.

“Lord Geigi,” Tabini said, covering the moment. “Lord Haidiri of the Pasithi Maschi. —Lord Geigi, would you care to make a more formal introduction of this gentleman to all the company?”

“Delightedly,” Geigi said, and rescued them into far safer topics: the formal presentation of his proxy to the lower end of the table.

On that topic, and in meeting a completely innocent by­stander with no history and an uncertain party affiliation, the company could safely enjoy their soup. Ilisidi said, slyly, under the whisper of compliments to Haidiri, “One believes Lord Tatiseigi would be delighted to accept your invitation, nand’ paidhi, given a more certain date. And we shall be quite flexible.”

Cajeiri, who ordinarily would be beside himself with desire for an invitation, was still being extraordinarily quiet this eve­ning. The boy read what was going on, with the back halls of his residence swarming with Guild in a not-quite-secret meet­ing, and his mother and father and great-grandmother and Uncle Tatiseigi all sitting within earshot of each other.

The newcomer lords lower down the guest list had no guide­book to the goings-on at the upper end of the table. It was not public knowledge that Damiri was only just speaking to Ilisidi. It was not officially admitted that Tabini was currently asking himself what his grandmother was up to, making a peace be­tween her own clan and his former enemy, Machigi of the Taisigin Marid.

And it was not yet public knowledge that Cajeiri was trying to arrange a birthday party with young human guests coming down from the space station, who were very inconvenient as­sociates of his, and not approved by his mother.

What everyone at table did know was that not only had Damiri’s father just been banned from court, her servants and her bodyguard had been sent packing that same stormy eve­ning. Everyone could see the shift to Atageini colors and the sudden importance of Lord Tatiseigi in the family, and they would be looking for clues about new alignments. Bet on it: Damiri’s choice of colors would be national headlines the mo­ment any attendee got within range of the news services.

Meanwhile the paidhi-aiji, who’d negotiated the Marid agree­ment and hosted Geigi as a guest in his apartment, and gotten Tatiseigi’s support for Ilisidi’s Marid venture—just wanted to have his soup in peace and not have Ilisidi launch another issue with Damiri.

Truth was, he felt very uncomfortable in this gathering, without the company of his bodyguard. They more than pro­tected his life, more than steered him through crowded rooms—they signaled him. They read connections and body language of people around him far more accurately than any human could, even one with years of experience . . . and where he was now needed deep reading.

Damned mess. Yes. It was. And an ongoing mess. The Guild in the back halls would be doing their own assessments of the security situation in the Bujavid, talking about the dismissal of the Ajuri lord and the disaffection of the Northern Association; and about the security crisis in the aiji’s household, the fact that the aiji had ignored recommendations from the Guild and chosen his own bodyguard—all young men without adequate Guild rank—to replace those lost in the coup.

It had been a highly controversial decision on Tabini’s part, but since those bodyguards appointed through normal Guild channels following his return to power had immediately tried to assassinate him . . . it was not exactly an unreasonable one.

As for those backroom discussions, some would hear all of it, and others would hear part. The seniormost would, within their Guild, pass information where they chose, selecting some households to brief, and excluding others. Hence a certain amount of the tension in the gathering of lords. Something was going on, regarding power, and who held it; and who was in favor; and who was not. Who came out of those meetings know­ing what might well change the political landscape.

Geigi’s aishid would be at the top of the need to know list. When Geigi went back to space tomorrow, his bodyguards would leave the earth completely up to speed on matters they needed to discuss with the station security structure. While the shuttle was en route, likely the bodyguard would be putting Geigi current with whatever went on tonight—and providing a high-level assessment of Tabini’s situation. Geigi, once back on the space station, had his finger on weaponry that most of the current gathering didn’t even imagine existed. When Tabini had nearly gone down to defeat in Murini’s takeover, Geigi had made moves to reconstitute the government on the mainland, and had scared hell out of the rebels, dropping robotic commu­nication relay stations on their land—preparatory to sending those mobile stations into action. Those stations were still out there. Still armed. Still dangerous.

That was how powerful Geigi had become. And Geigi was still the counterbalance to the administration. Geigi didn’t want power, but he had it. His own house was down to the questionable genes of a single fool of an embezzling nephew, and Geigi was hap­pier in space than he was on his estate, even with his orchards.

Everyone who knew the situation—was very grateful for Gei­gi’s presence in the heavens. Nobody could easily stage another coup, with Tabini on high alert for treachery and Geigi’s finger on the button up on the station. If they a second time contem­plated dislodging Tabini from power—they knew now that Geigi was a threat, and capable of unifying the aiji’s supporters no mat­ter what happened to other communications networks.

What else Geigi and the station might be capable of, no ateva knew, and Bren hoped they’d never have reason to find out.

The last of the dissidents who’d staked their lives on Muri­ni’s coup were fighting with their backs to the wall, trying to carve out a territory where they could do things their way. They’d enjoyed a temporary safe haven in the Marid—until they’d gotten greedy and taken on Machigi and Lord Geigi.

Now they had lost that security. They had lost a pitched battle. They had lost a clandestine operation.

Unfortunately they still had their underground . . . and they still had a sting.

Even after the business in the Marid, a few fools who’d thought they’d scented weakness in Tabini had pushed to get influence. The most outstanding fool had been Damiri’s father, Komaji, lord of Ajuri.

The man had gotten into power on the death of his brother, and lost all common sense—as witness his public tantrum in the halls of the Bujavid. Komaji had let his rivalry with Tatiseigi blind him, perhaps because Tatiseigi had been included in an honor and he had not, but even that wasn’t clear. He had thrown a tantrum, tried to force his way into Tabini’s home, had terri­fied the staff and sent Cajeiri into hiding. It had been extremely embarrassing for Damiri, who at that point had a clear choice: leave her marriage—or leave her father’s clan.

The world had suspected, when she had not departed with her staff, and tonight, with that shocking arrival in the dining room, she had laid any lingering doubts firmly to rest.

The second course arrived, and then the third, with the tra­ditional pause for applause for the aiji’s truly excellent personal cook. The old man, reasonably new to the aiji’s service, bowed happily, accepted the praise, and then had his staff bring out the next, the fourth course, a set of imaginatively arranged dishes which filled the ample table to overflowing.

Bren took the vegetables he knew, and did not trust the sea­sonal tubers, last of the winter root crop, traditional to use up before the first breaking of the vine-buds.

The traditional recipe, alas, rich in alkaloids atevi thought wonderful, would have a human dead in short order.

“You are missing the traditional dish, paidhi,” Tatiseigi chided him.

“Alas, one must leave it to your enjoyment, nandi. One is very strongly advised against it.”

“Oh, surely, just a sample . . .” Tatiseigi said, not because Tatiseigi wanted him dead, Bren hoped—such an ungracious way to get out of a dinner invitation. The old man’s relaxed, somewhat wine-assisted complacency indicated he was in an unprecedentedly happy mood this evening. It was, Bren decided, actually rather touching, that solicitude about the dish, as if Tatiseigi was certain the paidhi-aiji had become atevi enough now to survive the diet.


Protector © C. J. Cherryh 2013


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