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Authors: C. J. Cherryh

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BOOK: Tracker
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And washing gave him a chance to give private orders to his aishid.

He escaped down the hall with them in attendance. He was so tired, so very tired he was shaking. But he had told himself all the way home that his best way to get his guests back next year was to make his parents happy, and the best way to do that was to go back into the household and follow all the rules.

And he was doing that, so far.

But before he even could reach the bath, there was a rattle and rumble down the outside hall that would be his valets bringing the baggage to the door, and bringing Boji back. One of Boji's earsplitting shrieks echoed in the huge hall outside. He looked back toward the door.

His mother had come back into the foyer, looking upset.

“Nadiin-ji.” He appealed to his bodyguard, who were right behind him. “Help them. Please keep Boji quiet.
Hurry!”

Antaro and Jegari were best with Boji. They headed back to the foyer and Veijico headed down the side hall—to the kitchen, he could guess, urgently looking for an egg, boiled or otherwise, in case his valets should have run out.

That left just Lucasi to attend him, and they went down the hall to wash, both of them. He reached the washroom, heard the outer door open as Boji's cage came rattling in.

Lucasi properly should not leave him alone right now, but he said, “Go be sure,” and Lucasi went to have a look and be sure Boji got to his suite.

Cajeiri washed his hands, splashed water into his face, wiped back the stray wisps of hair about his face, and headed for the dining room as Veijico passed him, headed out to the foyer, carrying an egg. Boji was setting up a loud fuss out there despite all his staff's efforts, and they were still bringing in baggage, which involved noisy crate trolleys.

He let all that happen as it had to, trusting his bodyguard and his valets, who knew as well as he did how to handle Boji. He slipped into the dining room alone, sat down, as his father was seated, and listened, worried.

A closed door did not entirely muffle the sound of Boji's cage rolling across the mosaic floor of the foyer.

And it did not at all muffle the sound of Boji shrieking out— or of a baby crying far back in the apartment, where his mother had her rooms.

The racket of Boji's arrival reached a high pitch, then quieted.

“One is very sorry,” he said. His stomach was upset. He heard his mother chiding staff in the hall outside.

“Are you well?” his father asked, a clear diversion of topic.

“Yes,” he said, doggedly determined not to look around. “Everyone was well. Nand' Bren is well.”

The baby's crying came clear for a moment. A door had opened and closed. Likely his mother was going back to see to his sister. It was hard to think of anything but that.

“One very much regrets the racket, honored Father.”

“One trusts Boji will settle soon,” his father said. “And were your guests glad to go home?”

He thought about politely lying, and decided on the actual truth. “No, honored Father. We were all sad.”

“Indeed,” his father said, but offered not a clue what he thought about it. His father picked up his spoon. “We may as well have the soup.”

The polite thing was to ask all the courteous questions. And he should want to ask. But he was afraid of the answers. Two more sips of a tasteless soup and he gathered up his courage and did ask: “And are you and Mother well? And the baby?”

“We have all been very well,” his father said, as if they were at some official function with hundreds of witnesses, and they were obliged to give only felicitous answers.

But unlike his human guests' habit of saying absolutely everything and anything at dinner—manners insisted there be no unpleasant talk and no business discussed at his parents' proper table. He pretended to eat. He wished he just could go to his suite and go to bed.

His father laid his spoon down with his soup half-finished, and servants hastened to remove that dish, and hovered over Cajeiri's. Cajeiri carefully laid his spoon down on the spoon-rest, and his soup likewise went away, replaced by a dish of pickle.

His father made no move. He made none.

The servants left the room.

“Did your guests enjoy their visit?” his father asked.

“Very much,” he managed to say.
“Truly
very much, honored Father. Thank you.”

“You will want them to visit again, I suppose.”

“Yes,” he said. There was a knot in his throat so extreme he could hardly keep his voice steady.
“Yes,
honored Father. I do.”

His father nodded.

“One promises,” he said desperately, and then thought that tying one thing to another immediately might not be the best idea, and maybe the subject was too close to discussing business at the table. “One wishes.”

His father said, wryly, “We shall make a judgment closer to the time, and for reasons
of
the time, son of mine. Please make your mother happy, and do
not
let Boji escape near the baby.”

“He—”—would not hurt her, was instant to his lips, but Great-grandmother would say, Never stand surety for a scoundrel, and Boji was, admittedly, a scoundrel when it came to escapes. “I shall be very careful.”

“Excellently done, on your part, these last days,” his father said. “And your mother also says so. Eat your pickle. Or had you rather have the meat course?”

His stomach was beyond uneasy. The knot would not go away. “I think I had rather the meat course, honored Father. We were up all night. No one could sleep.”

“In such distress?”

“It was the last time we would be sure to have, honored Father. We wanted to talk.”

“One understands,” his father said, and tapped his bowl with his knife, summoning the servants. “We shall have the meat course,” he said, “and a little carbonated juice with it.”

Fruit juice was all that sounded good. He was glad to see the strong-smelling pickle go away. He never wanted to smell it again. The seasonal meat arrived: fish, and bland. The fruit juice was the best thing.

“Very good,” his father said, and just then Mother came back in. It was, one was glad to note, quiet in the hall, from the direction of his own suite, and quiet from the farther hall, where his sister was.

Mother settled quietly into place, saying nothing about the two courses missed. A servant provided the meat course, and the fruit juice, and she took both.

“Our son was just saying,” Father said, “that he had a very good time. His guests were sad to leave, and that, being as young and impractical as youngsters may be, they stayed up all last night talking. I believe our son will wish to go to bed soon.”

“Will you wish to see your sister first?” his mother asked, and oh, he was not his great-grandmother's great-grandson for nothing.

“Oh, yes,” he managed to say, though by now everything sounded distant to his ears, and he only wanted to lie down. “Thank you, honored Mother. Father.” He drank all the juice, and ate two bites of the meat dish; and managed a spill of gravy onto his collar lace.

“One regrets,” he said, mortified.

“No matter,” his father said. “I think our son may better do with rest than food, daja-ma. Shall we not all have our dessert and then go visit Seimiro?”

“We shall,” his mother said.

There was a light dessert, frothy and tart. That tasted good. Cajeiri had that, all of it, and as his father signaled an end to the service, and thanked the cook, he pushed himself up from the table, and went with his father and his mother to see his baby sister.

Seimiro's crib was in the room with the windows he so envied, with the windows all shut and curtained. She was darker than he remembered, a much healthier color, and tightly wrapped in blankets. She looked content, asleep with her thumb in her mouth.

“She is very pretty.” It was not a lie, but it was certainly an exaggeration. She was a baby. Nobody knew what she would look like. But there she was, all new and the object of Mother's attention. There he was, with a spot of gravy on his collar lace.

But he was indisputably his father's heir. His father had seen to that, just an hour before Seimiro was born. And Seimiro had years and years to go before she would be any threat to him at all.

He
felt
no strong man'chi to her. He noted that in himself. When he had parted from his guests, he had felt as if some piece of him were torn away. For Seimiro, he had only the dimmest of feelings—simply an awareness that she was his mother's baby; and relief that, because Seimiro existed, he was not
obliged
to belong that closely to his mother and not obliged to feel strongly attached. He had honestly hoped to feel something a little more for his sister than he did, one way or the other. He had thought he felt something the night Seimiro was born, but all that had faded now, strange to say. He was exhausted, fresh from company he deeply cared about, that he could not have—and she was just this sleepy little lump that, in possession of a room he would like to have, kept her eyes shut and her thumb in her mouth, and ignored him.

Disappointing. Great-grandmother said he would waken to certain feelings, and that right feelings would be automatic because he was atevi.

So—why did he feel robbed of his human associates? And why did he have no proper feeling right now where it regarded his sister-of-the-same-parents?

Was he angry that she existed?

He thought not.

Was he disappointed that she turned out to be just a baby, who would be a baby for years, and probably live in this room with the windows he coveted, getting favors his mother would not give him, until she was older than he was.

That was stupid. There was no way she could be anything other than a baby—though before she was born he had imagined teaching her and running about with her, and showing her all the fun things to do. He had felt very warm and good about
that
Seimiro, who in his head had been something like eight.

Well, there she was, and there she would be for months and months, just a blanket-wrapped lump, who would grow very slowly into Somebody who probably would take his mother's side whenever there was an argument.

Eight was years away. And by the time Seimiro was old enough to do stupid things with anybody—he himself would be too old and responsible to do them.

Time worked far too slowly at Seimiro's end of things and far too fast at his.

“Very pretty,” he said sadly, and put out his hand to touch his sister's tiny hand. “When she can play games I shall be too old for them.”

There was a little silence around that. He had been very stupid to say it.

“Your life will not end with your fifteenth birthday,” his father said, seeming amused.
“Believe
me.”

Seimiro wriggled about and clenched her other fist, eyes still tightly shut.

He finally felt something toward her, then. He felt
sorry
for her, because she was going to be far more lonely than he had ever been, certainly having no chance of flying on a starship and meeting other children. Nobody unauthorized would ever approach Seimiro—unless she somehow got the chance to escape and travel with Great-grandmother. Or with him.

Mother was telling him how strong Seimiro was, and how she had to be watched, because she could wriggle right off her blanket, and how even now she was trying to turn over.

It was a very small beginning on misbehavior. Maybe she was doing her best.

But it was going to be forever until she
could
break free.

She was going to need encouragement.

And that would not make his mother happy. But it might rescue his sister, and make her much happier in her life.

“To bed, young gentleman,” his father said, which was, given the way he was thinking, a very welcome escape.

 • • • 

Bren had barely had the chance to change his coat for an old favorite, and his traveling boots for comfortable house wear.

Staff, absent any order to restrain themselves on his return, had prepared a meal from which nobody had to refrain, not even his bodyguard, on this rare occasion of universal peace and celebration. Supani and Koharu arrived with the luggage cart and, on orders, the cart and its crates simply stood blocking the foyer, while the hard-working pair mingled and exchanged gossip they'd brought from Najida and Kajiminda. Bren was glad to see it.

Staff asked no questions of him personally. But one felt obliged to render some sort of account about recent events, the young gentleman's guests, and about nand' Jase—since they had all been guests on the premises at one time and another.

“The children,” Bren said, “are very grateful for their visit. They are back in space, headed for the station. They learned how to ride, they sailed out into the straits, they visited Najida village. They did everything we could think of for them to do.” He realized the staff had not heard about the new window at Najida, they had not seen the new wing about to be roofed—so he made a far longer report than he had intended, finding his voice a little thready by the time he finished. But staff provided him another glass of wine to keep him going, and it was very pleasant to sum up a thoroughly happy several weeks.

“And there are letters,” he remembered to say: he had brought a whole bundle of them, from the families and neighbors of most of his staff—letters that would make the rounds to everybody, because those who were not from Najida village or estate still had ties there. Letters from home began to go the rounds: a wedding, the birth of a new cousin, a trip to the Township—

And once the letters came out, then there was the gift crate to open. Staff at Najida had sent various items to staff here in the Bujavid. There were gifts, sweets of all sorts, shared all around.

“Rani-ji,” Bren said quietly to Narani, in a breathing space, “is there any word from the aiji? Should I go there this evening?”

BOOK: Tracker
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