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Authors: C. J. Cherryh

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So, no, they had never been in that much danger.

And right after that, while everything was still in confusion, his father had turned his birthday into a public Festivity and he had had to make a public speech and be named, officially, his father's heir.

His associates had been there when he had become “young aiji,” not just “young gentleman,” so they knew what had happened, and how everything had changed. And so far the title had not been a great inconvenience, but that was, Cajeiri feared, only because he still had his foreign guests. When they left, tomorrow—when they left—

He feared there were going to be duties, and more appearances in court dress, and that his life for the next whole year and forever after was going to be just gruesome.

But he would do it.

He would do it because behaving badly could mean his guests could not come back. Priorities, his great-grandmother called it.

He would definitely have to go back to living in his suite, inside his father's apartment, with his mother—and his very new sister, who was a baby, and who was going to cry a lot.

He would have his bodyguard for company. And he would have his valets, who were grown men, but they understood him and they were patient. His little household was his, and no one would take that away.

He was sure he was going to have to go back to regular lessons. His latest tutor was not a bad one—even interesting sometimes, so it was not too awful. And he was coming back with a lot of things to ask about.

But he had still rather be out at Najida or Tirnamardi.

He would not get to ride his mecheita until the next holiday, and that only
if
he could get an invitation from Great-uncle Tatiseigi and
if
he could get permission from his father to go out to Tirnamardi. And all that depended on whether there were troubles anywhere near. It might be next year before he could go, because there
were
currently troubles in the north. During the whole year, there was still going to be the question of the succession to the lordship of the Ajuri
and
the lordship of the Kadagidi, either one of which could break into gunfire or worse and just mess everything up in Tirnamardi, where his mecheita was.

Worse, Ajuri was his mother's clan, and the upset in Ajuri was going to keep her upset all year.

But maybe being “young aiji” meant even his father would be more inclined to listen to what he wanted.

And what he wanted was to go riding for days and days; and what he wanted even more than that was his guests back again—
before
next year if he could somehow manage it.

But third, and what he wanted most of all, and had no power at all to arrange—he wanted his guests to live safe from politics up on the station. The situation up there, the Mospheirans feuding with the Reunioners—that quarrel really, really worried him.

There were over twice as many humans on the station as there were supposed to be, and the half of them, who had come up from the island of Mospheira, hated the other half, who had arrived last year from Reunion, out in deep space. There was not enough room. So things had become crowded and difficult.

More, a treaty said that there would always be as many atevi up there as there were humans—and
that
agreement was thrown out of balance, with the Reunioners arriving. Now there were twice as many humans as there ought to be, but only the same number of atevi. Maybe it would have been kind for atevi to give up some of their room to make things better, but for some reason they were not doing that. He had to ask his father why. It was possibly because they did not want the Reunioners staying there and fussing with the Mospheirans. Or possibly just that they did not want to interfere in a human feud.

And then there was the accident with one of the big tanks that grew fish and such that fed the station—when the station had already had trouble feeding everybody before the Reunioners had come. Atevi were not willing for humans to be short of food, however. So they had helped with that, with workers and metal to repair the damaged tank. And Lord Geigi had sent workers and materials that modified a number of public areas into living spaces. But it was all still a mess.

And there was no easy way to fix it. The ancestors of the Mospheirans had had a disagreement with the ancestors of the Reunioners, and now, just when the Mospheirans had gotten themselves through a very scary and dangerous time, and built everything to make themselves comfortable and well-fed again—the Reunioners showed up to overcrowd them.

Mospheiran humans on the station wanted to pack up all the Reunioners and send them out to go build a completely new station at the barren ball of rock that was Maudit, far across the solar system. Mospheirans wanted never to see them again.

He did not agree. His three guests were Reunioners, and he did not want them sent out to Maudit.

So if the Mospheiran stationers won and the Reunioners were set to leave, he intended to get his guests and their parents over into the atevi section of the station, under Lord Geigi's authority, where no human order could reach them. He had not gotten his father's agreement that that was what they would do—but that was his intention, and he intended to do what he could to arrange that, quietly, so as not to upset adults.

He intended to write to Lord Geigi, for one thing, and get Lord Geigi to agree to protect his guests. And their parents. He would ask it in principle, first. That was one of his great-grandmother's words. In principle. Nand' Bren would say, getting one's foot in the door.

And once he knew
that
was set up, and given that they
could
reach Lord Geigi by the secret passages Gene had mapped, then he could at least feel easier about his guests. They might have to go back tomorrow. But tomorrow he would set about getting them back down to Earth for his next birthday.

Nobody was going to take them away. Nobody was going to threaten them because of some stupid quarrel their ancestors had had.

Nobody was going to stop him.

If being heir of the aishidi'tat meant anything—he was going to get his guests back and keep them safe from stupid people.

2

T
hree people waited on the dock as
Jaishan
came in: Saidaro, who cared for
Jaishan
most of the year, and Saidaro's two assistants, elderly fishermen from Najida village, the Edi community just down the hill from the estate.

On an ordinary day, Bren would have stayed to shut down the boat and talk and do whatever maintenance might have come up, but not this evening.
Jaishan
was going to be rejoining Lord Geigi's yacht, going back to her ongoing task of ferrying passengers and supplies to a new construction going on, a new Edi center on Lord Geigi's peninsula, keeping a promise to the Edi people. The sea offered the best and most direct access to the site, for heavy loads, of which there were several waiting.

So Saidaro would be at work late into the night preparing her for that run, putting up buffers to shield her paint and brightwork from the loads of lumber and stone, coils of wire and pieces of pipe that would be her routine cargo through the rest of the good weather.

And by fall—the new Edi administration would have a focal point, a place where the Edi people were the law.

The sail came in as they passed the point, and Jase surrendered the helm. Tano
could
bring her in on sail alone, but the current was tricky here, and it was far easier to turn on the motor for the approach to dock, and not rely on a slightly fickle wind.
Jaishan
motored in sedately under Tano's hand, and as they neared the buffers, Jago tossed the mooring loop.

Saidaro, on shore, caught it and dropped it neatly over the post. The two old fishermen waited aft to catch a second line from Algini. Banichi usually did that cast, but Banichi, under strict orders to protect the arm, simply cradled it and stood frowning but compliant.

And with
Jaishan
snugged in, Saidaro and his helpers ran out the rustic gangway to its buffered catching-point.

From there, Jase and Bren could walk down to the steady, weathered boards of the dockside, with Jago and the rest to gather gear and follow . . . they would not let Banichi carry a thing.

“My feet always expect the dock to move,” Jase said with a laugh.

“We'll probably both feel the sea moving all night,” Bren said. “I know I will.” He gave a nod to Saidaro and his crew. “Daro-ji, thank you! She is in your hands!”

“Nandi.” Saidaro bowed, the fishermen bowed, and Bren collected his bodyguard and his guest and headed down the few steps from the wooden dock to the flagstone path.

Three of the staff from the house were coming down the zigzag path among the low evergreens, hurrying to assist them with such baggage as there was. Banichi and the rest became all business ashore, even here at Najida, even on this easy walk up the winding path to the driveway. Banichi and Jago went in front and Tano and Algini walked behind, leaving the local lads to gather up the catch from the onboard storage and bring along the smaller baggage. Tano carried only one sizeable case personally—the black leather bag that non-Guild were never supposed to touch. But the mood was easy, all the same.

They walked up a turn, and the beautiful, restored window—recent gift of the aiji-dowager—shone in the twilight above a dark row of evergreen shrubs, red and blue and gold glass lit from within the hall.

The aiji-dowager, who had weathered a serious attack at Najida, did nothing by halves. She had ordered, additionally, two stained-glass windows for the new dining room, a frame for the central window that would look out on the setting sun. It would be a defiant expanse of bright-colored glass, surrounding a window that would give that room the most glorious view on the coast. The windows were a security hazard, but they had their defenses.

And the world they would overlook, one hoped, was more peaceful now than it had been in living memory.

Three and four bends of the path brought them up beyond sight of the window, up to the drive and the portico—an area likewise restored from recent disaster. Construction there was finished. The new west wing's roof, a skeletal shadow beyond the portico, out where the old garage and the old garden gate had used to be, was actively under construction. The crew wanted to have the complex roof sound and the interior protected before the good season ended, so even with guests in residence, there had been constant hammering during the day, with workmen from Najida village coming and going on the graveled road.

The Reunioner youngsters, who had never seen wood and stone in their lives before their visit, had been fascinated by the process. So had Jase been. They had gone out more than once to watch the work . . . even climbed up to see how the structure was made.

But the crew had gone home to their suppers, down in the village. Hammering had ceased for the night, and would not resume before they left, early, early in the morning.

“You'll remember to send me pictures when it's all done,” Jase said as they headed toward the door.

“Deal,” Bren said.

The house door opened for them unasked. Najida's major domo, Ramaso, welcomed them in, staff waited to take their outdoor coats, and to provide their indoor ones. Other servants deftly took away the day's catch from those following, and whisked it off to the kitchen—it would likely reappear as the staff breakfast in the morning, once the lord and his offworld guests were safely out the door and away.

“A pleasant trip, nandiin?” Ramaso asked.

“Entirely, Rama-ji,” Bren said. “The young gentleman and his guests have retired?”

“They are still awake in their suite, nandi,” Ramaso said, “well-fed and happy, by all report. Do you still wish only the cakes?”

“Jase-ji?”

“Certainly that will be enough for me,” Jase said. The sandwiches they had had for supper had been more than they could eat. “A glass of wine, the cakes, and I shall be very content.”

“The sitting room, then,” Bren said, and led the way, Banichi and Jago attending. Tano and Algini went on toward their own quarters, there being a little packing yet to do.

 • • • 

He and Jase had their dessert, wine chilled so that moisture frosted the glasses, and a plate of spice cakes still so warm from the oven that the icing melted.

Banichi and Jago took cakes, too, but not the wine, and after sending an order to the kitchen, uncharacteristically informal in this very safe house, they took a second plate of little cakes with them and retired to quarters to help Tano and Algini pack up. Jase's bodyguard, Kaplan and Polano, were likewise off in Jase's suite, packing for a much longer trip.

So he and Jase had this one last evening to themselves, no duties to think of . . . locally speaking.

“My hindbrain's already starting to add up what's waiting for me,” Jase said ruefully, feet propped on a footstool, and a second glass of wine in hand. “And top of the stack is my report to the captains.
And
to Lord Geigi.” A lengthy pause. Then: “And Tillington. Bren, we two need to
talk
about Tillington.”

“In what regard?”

Tillington was the Mospheiran-side stationmaster, human counterpart to Lord Geigi.

Tillington had been all right, in Bren's estimation: Tillington had kept his half of the station running fairly well—cooperating, generally, with Lord Geigi, getting along well with Ogun, who ran the ship's affairs on station.

Tillington had had a hard situation.
Phoenix
, under Captain Sabin and Jase, with Ilisidi, Cajeiri, and Bren aboard, had gone off on its voyage to deal with a remote station in deep space, a lone human outpost that had been supposed to be dead—but which had been left with records they didn't want lying there for any other entity to find: those, the human Archive, needed to be destroyed. That was the mission. Ogun, senior captain, had stayed behind, with half the crew, to maintain the ship's authority on the station.

Then, no fault of anyone aloft, so far as he knew, the disasters had multiplied.

A conspiracy on the mainland had unseated Tabini-aiji, seized the spaceport, grounded all but the one shuttle which had happened to be at the space station. The paidhi-aiji
and
the ship-paidhi being absent on the mission had meant translation between humans and atevi was down to Yolanda Mercheson, who suffered a breakdown. The shuttles no longer flew and pilots and crews went missing. Supply to the space station stopped.

Geigi had refused to move the one shuttle he had left from its station berth. Geigi had kept it ready against the return of the ship—with the paidhiin, the aiji-dowager, and Tabini's heir.

Tillington had argued long and hard about that shuttle. He had wanted to use it to build up Mospheiran technology and launch a human force to unseat the conspirators on the mainland—not a happy prospect on the atevi side of the station, and Geigi, who had the shuttle
and
the only crew able to fly it, said a firm no.

Geigi, meanwhile, had launched his own program to deal with the mainland's new rulers. He had shut down construction on the atevi starship, diverted all its labor and resources to the construction of a satellite communications network, hitherto lacking, and to the production of sufficient food in orbit, which would render the station independent of Earth.

Tillington had cooperated with that—not happy, no, but cooperating, while the Mospheiran government had pushed its own shuttle program into production. They pushed training pilots of their own—and struggled with supply delays. The mainland, in hostile hands, no longer supplied certain materials, and the Mospheiran space program made progress only slowly.

In the midst of it all,
Phoenix
made it back—bringing in five thousand Reunioner refugees—when the station had thought at most there might be a hundred or so.

The aiji-dowager lost not an hour. Geigi, discovering
Phoenix
was coming in, had the shuttle and crew up and ready, and Bren, and the aiji-dowager, and Tabini's son—had headed straight for the shuttle dock. They'd landed on Mospheira, and crossed the strait to deal with the conspirators in a way a human invasion never could.

The ship, in the exigencies of prolonged dock, and with supplies at rock bottom, refused to house the refugees any longer. It began disembarking the refugees—five thousand souls, all turned out onto the station, skilled workers, without jobs, without housing, and with no prospects, in a station with no jobs, not enough housing, and no plan for their numbers to double. The ultimate issue was—what voice should these new people have in anything? What were they going to demand, if they were given any vote at all?

And if they had to increase atevi presence to balance the numbers of humans—the newcomers would still be a majority of humans aloft, and
they
included people with children.
They
were going to increase in numbers, and
they
didn't have to pass screening to get into orbit—they were born there.

On Earth, things were much better. Murini's regime, the conspiracy, had held power on the continent only by force and assassination. Now Tabini was back in power, Murini was dead, and there was peace on the continent.

Mospheira likewise prospered. Trade resumed, and their shuttle program now regularly sent a vehicle into orbit. Atevi shuttles were in regular service. Vital supplies reached the station, so one had assumed there was progress on the situation aloft.
Geigi
had said nothing negative about Tillington, except the complaint that the man always sided with the senior captain, and that humans had dithered along with a decision about the refugees. But then—well-bred atevi were not inclined to complain until they were ready to call on the Assassins' Guild. So to speak.

Evidently—it was
not
all under control up there.

“So what's going on up there?” he asked Jase. “What's Tillington doing—or not doing? I understand his workers aren't happy. I know
somebody's
got to make his mind up and find a solution for the refugees, and
they've
been divided as to what. But is it worse than we know?”

Jase took a deep breath. “As of five days ago, it turned decidedly worse. I talked to Sabin last night, and I have clearance to say this. From her. Not from Ogun.”

Secrets and division between the two senior captains. That didn't sound good.

“Here's the problem,” Jase said. “Tillington's been agitating to get the Reunioners to go to a new construction at Maudit. You know that. But when the news got out three Reunioner kids were coming down here, the rhetoric got significantly nastier. And apparently when we called asking the kids' time down here be extended, Tillington stepped over the edge. He's now claiming that Sabin and Braddock made a deal so Braddock would agree to evacuate Reunion Station.”

“We had to haul him out by force. That's ridiculous.”

“The alleged deal puts five thousand refugees, some of them with knowledge of critical systems, behind Sabin taking over the human side of the station, putting station operation entirely in Reunioner hands, and Sabin taking over as senior captain.”

An ugly scenario unfolded instantly. If one wanted to view Sabin in Mospheiran terms, with the knee-jerk Mospheiran assumption of self-interest and territorial interests over all, Sabin had been, for the last two years, in a position to dictate life and death for the Reunioners, and five thousand refugees constituted a large potential subversive force, on that scale.

The fact was—if Sabin had wanted, last year, to take
Phoenix
and all five thousand Reunioners and go establish another station somewhere, she could have done it with no hardship to herself and no permission from anyone. If she were aboard
Phoenix,
as she had been, nobody could have stopped her, and the world might never have seen the ship again.

But Sabin had done as she had proposed to do. She'd lifted off all survivors from the station, even Braddock—she'd destroyed the problematic human Archive and brought the refugees—numbering vastly more than anyone thought—safely to Alpha Station.

BOOK: Tracker
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