Chapter 26. Complications Under the Silent Sky
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Amir Esca Shirvan-ja

 

“Are you sure this is not a trap?” Amir glanced at her cousin.

Samat was cold, wet, and crowded. A far cry from the pleasantly dry sands of their cities. Even the decks of their ships were cleaner than some streets of this cesspit. And they had to travel by tail.

The other lamura shook her head. “Shahin would not have suggested this place if she felt threatened or followed. It is safe.”

“Or she thinks it is safe.” Amir pressed her lips thin.

Her head snakes hissed in agreement, vigilantly watching the surroundings. The revelation that Shahin was safer than Amir imagined her to be didn’t raise her spirits.

Amir Shirvan-ja came here on the personal behest of their mother. To save one of their own. It was not common when one of their own had found themselves in a situation where their personal power wasn’t sufficient, but it did occasionally happen.

If Shahin thought herself safe, this situation was even more complex than Amir had prepared herself for.

“What of House Kiymetl?”

“Their Speaker is wary of losing us, but she is asking for time. Their Matriarch is on the way.”

“And what of her sister?”

“Amanzhan Irada does not think it is time yet to inform her of our arrival.”

Amir stopped, “She does not? So the Speaker of Kiymetl plans to use us for her own plots.”

“She would not be a Speaker otherwise.”

“This is welcome news if it is true.” She slid into a pavilion and glanced around. “If we position ourselves as the crucial bargaining token, they will fall over themselves trying to win us over.”

The place was rather ordinary. It was an empty estate on the outskirts of Samat: a winter residence of some Manor, rich enough to afford it but poor enough to let it sit idle when not in use.

A perfect meeting place for an affordable price.

“May the warmth never leave your house, Amir Shirvan-ja.” Shahin suddenly slid into the room. “I have not seen you for more than ten years, ever since my last trip to Shirvan. While it is unfortunate that we have to meet under current circumstances, I am pleased to see you nevertheless.”

“And may the warmth never leave your breath, Shahin Yusuf-ja.” Amir frowned and slid closer. “You have come here alone?”

Shahin’s hands were free of shackles. Her skin was also clean and her scales had a natural shine. Kiymetl Manor had the decency and wisdom to treat her properly, it seemed. Many families were wiped out and many Manors had ceased to exist because of a single Domina who couldn’t handle newfound power and made too many enemies too quickly.

“Yes. I know that this meeting might look risky and detrimental to my cause, yet it is necessary. There are many things you ought to know as soon as possible. Things that I could not rely on the messengers or missives to deliver.”

Amir took out her pipe and tapped it against her palm, thinking. Shahin was right — coming here this early and alone reeked of desperation. Something that her captors could easily exploit.

Whether she had snuck out unseen and was currently risking capture, or came here with their approval and made Esca’s bargaining position that much weaker in the process: it was hard to argue for tyranny if she was unhurt and enjoying many freedoms.

“Very well.” Amir glanced back at her retinue. “Set up a circle around this place and let no one pass.”

Amir took her time filling the pipe, waiting for everyone to disperse. A small snake of living fire spawned in the air and was immediately sucked into the pipe as she took the first drag. Feeling the calmness spread through her body from that smoky warmth in her lungs.

“If you were one of our youngest, I would have caned your back raw by now.” She calmly observed, watching the smoke dance around her like a school of fish. “But you are old enough not to make such mistakes and young enough not to suffer from senility. And your past deeds are well-known among Esca. So, tell me: what did go wrong and how can we solve this together. Especially with the eldest daughter of Kiymetl trying to keep us in good grace.”

“The situation here is more complex than you can dare to imagine.” Shahin crossed her arms. “Do not place your bets on Amanzhan Irada this soon: she has lost already, most likely, and does not even realise it.”

“From what I could tell, she has the ear of most of her House.”

“If you look at it as an internal House conflict. It is not. You are sliding into the dance of four Pillar Houses of Emanai and you do not even know it yet. I guarantee that the other three are equally curious by now but do not wish to intrude.”

Amir couldn’t help but scoff. “All that because a single Manor learnt about glass? I did not know Emanai was that dependent on it.”

“Do not look at me that way, or you will repeat the same mistake as I did. This is not about Esca, nor our glass. This is about the person who gave them this knowledge.”

“The murk they stole from one of our workshops, you mean?”

“The murk…” Shahin chuckled. “That was the mistake I made. A boy without the Spark, yet with their Gestr on his neck. Hard at work making new glass kilns for Kiymetl. Sounds simple and straightforward, right?”

“No one can hide their Spark,” Amir retorted.

“I do not know the reasons for his lack of Spark. But he is not a mere murk. And his knowledge does not end at glass either.”

“Without the Spark, but not a murk… What nonsense do you speak of?”

“The rare kind. Rare enough that when the last one was born in our lands, our grandmother was contemplating whether to hatch or not.”

“A Daimon? Without the Spark!?” Amir’s head snakes choked on the smoke, hissing in outrage. “Do you take me for a fool with such nonsense!?”

“I wish I could tell you in detail but I am under the Oath of Silence. But if you want proof, I can give you that. I assume your delegation will also be present during the Divine Ritual?”

“Yes. We were lucky to hear the news before our departure.”

“Is it not surprising that such an important event was called so quickly and so early? It is not even the harvest season yet — most of Emanai Manors were caught unawares themselves. At the same time, it will happen exactly when the first daughter of Aikerim Adal will have her own Entrance Feast.”

“Are you trying to imply this is proof of Divine benevolence?”

Shahin pulled out a closed tablet and twirled it in her hands. “No, I am stating that this was decreed by the Censor of Emanai, Sophia Shebet Chasya. As the price of that murk. Aikerim Adal refused.”

Amir stared in silence, the pipe forgotten in her hand.

“Having spent some time around him, I do not consider that price to be outrageous in any way. I have learnt more insights about glass in the last ten days compared to ten years back at home.”

“Can we claim him?”

“Right now? Impossible. Aikerim Adal put her claws deep and will not let go: she set him up with her first daughter. And there is nothing that Esca can offer her to change her mind. If you take the path of force — Esca will not only have Aikerim Adal after us but Sophia Chasya as well. One has all our secret knowledge while the other can match us in power. I do not wish for such adversaries to our clan.

“And do not think that keeping him would be easy,” Shahin continued just as Amir opened her mouth. “Aikerim Adal is smart but she is also stupidly lucky. Erf had chosen her as his Domina and gave her knowledge himself. Do not think that you can force him to do the same for you. Spark or not, Daimonas’ wilfulness is the thing of legends and he has plenty of it himself.”

“But can he stand against an entire House?” Amir frowned as she pressed forward. “Or have they broken your spirit in just a few tendays, oh cousin of mine? To speak so low about your own.”

“He probably can not. But I am not eager to find out the full extent of his abilities. I’ve seen his strength — Erf came out victorious and unscathed against a wer sent to apprehend him and a Collector sent to kill him. In both cases, he had managed to keep them alive so that they could be interrogated.

“Do not look at him and see a murk slave, Amir. That is his well-crafted ruse. Erf sees nothing wrong in tarnishing his pride as long as it gets him what he wants. Or dropping it entirely once it has done the job, and you will find yourself facing someone who can withstand the strength of a lamura’s tail.”

Shahin passed over the tablet. “And Esca would be busy defending against at least two of the Pillar Manors.”

Amir opened it only to see her face instead of the letters written on wax. “Is this a mirror?”

“A glass mirror, Amir. One that does not require daily polish and stays clear for years. It is one of the new products of Kiymetl. More importantly — it is one of their smallest. I’ve seen ones as big as a table. I’ve made these myself. I know they can be made even bigger than that. Kiymetl does not just know of glass: from my experience, they now know more than we do. What Esca is still ahead of is the number of workshops and skilled artisans that we have.”

“They gave you the knowledge?” Amir looked back at her confused. “This is getting ridiculous. Are they holding you hostage or are they teaching you secrets?”

Shahin laughed. “First, they held me hostage so that I could learn of their secrets. Now, they are holding me hostage by teaching me these secrets. This is why I am here alone, Amir. They know that I will not run or share their secret knowledge. What I have said here today is already known, at least by some, beyond their Manor.”

Amir sucked on her pipe. “I can see your willingness to stay, but mother will not like this. Esca can not appear weak. We can not just ignore your forced servitude.”

“Demand his gifts, instead. My position is not just forgivable but, at this moment, necessary. Aikerim Adal will be forced to present him to her Matriarch, and he is likely to come bearing gifts. You want these. Trust me on this. I can not speak about it but do everything in your power to be present when he comes. And lay the foundation so you can claim them alongside the rest of Kiymetl.”

A satchel was pressed into her hands. “You will not have the opportunity to do so after.”

 

Aikerim Kiymetl Adal

 

She bent her knee, bowing to the Matriarch in front of her. “I have arrived, mother.”

The elder fox lay on her couch while multiple servants combed her silver-white tail. She watched the rather rowdy gathering of foxes with a look of patient resignation. “I was coming here to witness the Divine Ritual and the Entrance Feast of your daughter. Yet I had to hurry due to the incessant accusations laid against you. I find it unfortunate that the display of Divine benevolence would be marred by something like this.”

“I have done everything for the future of our House,” Aikerim reasoned and glanced at her elder sister. “Some might feel threatened by my growth but, with me, the House grows as well.”

“Your growth comes with the price to other Kiymetl Manors,” Amanzhan was quick to interfere, as expected. “Your tyrannical treatment of Esca had likely cost us a valuable partner. While the beauty of your trinkets is still a mere shadow of Yusuf.”

An expected murmur across the room.

“Tyrannical?” Aikerim raised her eyebrow, looking surprised. “Have you spoken to Shahin Yusuf-ja yourself? Not only is she well-cared for but she is happy in her current place.”

Her demeanour changed instantly, replacing surprise with outrage, “Don’t forget that she had brought two Collectors into my Manor! Not just after my Alchemist but my own daughter and, possibly, me! Do you expect me to stay meek and quiet about that, lest I offend your trading partner?”

That had increased the noise of the gathering. It also made her mother frown. Aikerim was honest with her accusation: the two Collectors were tasked to remove Erf and anyone else who knew about the glass. Shahin did not anticipate how eagerly Erf was parting with his knowledge.

“Are you willing to say this again in front of Esca?” Amanzhan narrowed her eyes, “With the Orb of Truth nearby?”

“Yes and yes.” Aikerim was quick to seize the offered opportunity. “Where are they anyway? I can bring my Orb or use one of yours. My conscience is clear. Theirs — not so much.”

“Just because you are right does not mean you are powerful,” Nanaya Ayda sighed from her central couch. “You can’t force them to resume their trade with us if they feel slighted.”

“Let them come. Esca can have their lamura back anytime.” Aikerim shrugged. “I have no need for her.”

Her mother blinked.

“I can assure you, mother. Not only am I not worried that Esca would cease the trade, but Shahin Esca Yusuf-ja would do her best to remain by my side.” She felt herself grin. “Their delegation will try to appear powerful but, once they meet with their own, they will know that Esca has no other choice.”

“Bold words for you to say, sister. Do you think your Erf has managed to seduce the lamura already? Or were you seduced by him instead?”

Now came the tricky part of the conversation. By the looks of the room, Aikerim had won the first exchange which forced Amanzhan’s hand further. This was something that she intended to do all along, especially now when her sister was on the defence, but that didn’t mean she could be careless about it.

“Compared to some, I am not in Heat to constantly think about it. Nor is Shahin. I am not that stupid to think that an Envoy of Esca herself with decades of experience would think with her cunt and not her head. She is seduced by the knowledge. Secrets of glass that Esca does not have, yet. Secrets that would be denied to her if she were to betray me.”

“Secrets that you are sharing with the lamura and not your sisters.”

“She gets the secrets of glass, nothing more. If anyone in our House can make glass — they can learn from our artisans how to make flat panes as well. Or do you actually want me to lose Esca forever by making their glass-making knowledge public?”

Aikerim looked around and spread her arms. “I am not obligated to share the secrets of my Manor, even with my own House. But I am going to. For I am a grateful daughter of Kiymetl.”

Glancing back, she bowed to her mother. “You can ask your brother why he decided to gift the Gestr to Erf of his own volition. And how many secrets he has learnt from him since then.”

“Where is he, by the way?” The Matriarch glanced around.

Aikerim shrugged innocently. “Most likely busy playing with a new invention. An invention that would have been his alone if the Speaker of Kiymetl didn’t invite the Censor of Emanai over. Just for the opportunity to milk her brother.”

“You think that trinket is worth more than the seed of Albin Chasya?” Amanzhan growled in outrage. “You spent years to claim Tarhunna as yours and you dare to frown on others for thinking the best for their children?”

“Amanzhan is right, Aikerim.” Her mother sighed, “you can’t compare the usefulness of a tool to Albin’s Spark. Even if he sires only boys.”

“Unfortunately, the tool was not what Sophia Chasya is after. She made it perfectly clear that she wants Erf himself. The question is, did you promise her my property? Or are you trying to stir enough controversy to claim him as yours, first?”

“Your murk has caused enough controversy by himself,” one of her aunts spoke up from the side. “First we heard about the glass and issues with Esca. Now there are rumours of him working with steel. Enoch Manor is already abuzz about it. And what about outside of Emanai? Do we have to fear armies from the north because your slave decided it is time to play with fulad?”

Aikerim sighed among the murmurs. that was yet another rumour she could not contain. A rumour she had no easy defence against. “There are no plans to make fulad, I can assure you about this in front of the Orb if I need to.”

“Nevertheless, the rumours are there.” Amanzhan proclaimed and Aikerim couldn’t stop herself from glaring at her elder sister. It was obvious where the rumours had started from.

“An arm of warriors would not move because of the gossip of an elder sister. If they send an official envoy, I will greet them and assure them of our non-involvement and I would not lie about it. If they dare to attack us anyway, it would be done because they simply wanted to invade.”

“You wish to risk…”

“I wish to risk nothing!” Aikerim thundered. “It would not matter to the North clans if he belongs to me, you, or you have already given him to Sophia Chasya. If they even dare to. Since when did the Speaker of Kiymetl, one of the Pillar Houses, start to think so low about the power of Emanai? Are you going to bow to everyone around us lest they decide to invade too?”

“At least I don’t bow to a mere murk! Or give him my eldest daughters as playthings!”

Amanzhan’s hiss made the entire room deathly silent.

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