The markets of Twaa-Fei fascinated Michiko like nothing else. Not even the largest of the Mertikan ports boasted of such excess in experiences. Not these sounds, these audacious flavors. Who knew that you could have spicy ciders, accented by wasp honey and blackberries? And to enjoy the sensation of málà in desserts? No cook in Kakute would dream of such blasphemy.
Every stall, no matter how shabby its exterior might seem, revealed another pinhole into something unfamiliar. And there was no one to tell the shopkeepers that this was inappropriate or that was inefficient. No bureaucrat with threadbare smiles, full of persuasive reasons to edit an inventory. Under different circumstances, Michiko might have devoted a life here, become a priestess of its streets and read joy in every new shipment of goods from afar.
Michiko tugged at her collar, self-conscious, and smoothed a palm along her scalp. At some point in the future, she would need to ask Kensuke about his hairdresser. If she were to one day take over his position, she would need to look the part, and the byzantine customs surrounding warder aesthetics demanded an entourage to navigate.
But that was a problem for another day.
She searched the alley for signs of Adechike, frowning. The crowd thickened as lunch hour poured a hundred fresh bodies into the narrow lanes, and the air sizzled with voices demanding congee, adobo, grilled pork knuckle, dumplings of every variety, accoutrements of fried pork skin, sides of pickled onions, roasted yam, broccoli served six ways. Michiko could see nothing through the throng of diners, crammed together on wooden stools outside carts the size of her closet in the embassy.
Michiko wove past two Vanian women, both casually garbed. Traditional black togas worn over hakama trousers, the latter a nod, perhaps, to Mertikan influence, or some memetic souvenir from the colonies. Gladiator sandals. Armored epaulets on their left shoulders, support for the broadswords they bore. Neither paid Michiko any attention, although the Quloi traders Michiko passed did.
“Are you looking for Warder Kante?” asked a lean young man, his features blunt, hair a voluminous halo. He propped an elbow atop the massive crate he stood beside; the container was sternum-high and four times his width. Michiko studied him. In complexion, he was much paler than both Adechike and Ojo, freckled along the cheekbones, but Michiko could see a commonality in facial structure. Not that it mattered or had mattered since the ignorant past, when ethnicity was still a barometer of authenticity.
“No. Not exactly.” She searched the traders’ faces, committing each countenance to memory, their individual tics and demeanors cataloged for future reference. Despite the embassy colors that they wore, the traders—from the languidly smiling girl with cornrows to a stout man with the manners of a mercenary, his muscle knotted with fat—were strangers to Michiko. Guilt prickled at her then. She should know them. She understood this. But perhaps she’d been spending too much time looking inward. “I was looking for his understudy. Adechike.”
A rumble of conversation in a dialect that Michiko couldn’t decipher, more vowels, more rhythm than even the norm. She steadied a hand against the hilt of her sword, a warning in the motion. This was business. Michiko would not tolerate any obstructions and neither would Kakute.
The movement had its intended effect. It brought the traders’ eyes down to Michiko’s blade, their smiles closing into polite expressions. “You’ll find him in the warehouse, ma’am.”
That subtle inflection curled Michiko’s lips. Whatever welcome she’d once possessed, it was gone now. She jerked her chin down, performed a Quloi salute that earned no reciprocation, only cool looks and silence. Flushing at the blatant discourtesy, Michiko turned and fled down the road to the warehouses.
The myriad islands kept their storage facilities in close proximity, the traffic policed by Twaa-Fei authorities. Ostensibly, it was to promote a sense of a community, the idea that regardless of where one might come from, everyone required the same things: food, water, basic comforts, things that reminded you of home. But as Lavinia once pointed out to Michiko, it was really to minimize the risk of sabotage.
The Quloi youth looked up at Michiko’s exclamation, his face immediately coming alive with his easy, familiar smile. He stood in the tide of workers and traders, the fulcrum of nearby activity, his arms heavy with clipboards. Quloo was moving something into their warehouse. A lot of potentially valuable somethings. Enormous blackwood crates, triple-locked against whatever catastrophe they feared.
What could they possibly be doing? Michiko filed the thought away, suddenly disconcerted, as she jogged to...