Whorls of mist eddied below the aerstone-plated hulls of the cargo ships in Omber, Rumika’s main harbor. It was not a good sign. Old superstition claimed that uneasy mists below the harbor were linked to storms farther out, and some believed the turbulence presaged mist-fiend attacks.
But the cargo on these vessels could not wait. Onshore, yellow-robed priests traced Firespurter signals for good fortune, the sparks shooting high into the sky in lucky helices. In case prayer wasn’t enough, each ship boasted two master navigators and an additional complement of four bladecrafters for protection.
Trade minister Pyr stepped off the gangplank after a final inspection of the cargo, and gave the launch signal with a flourish. Mooring ropes were loosed and coiled. On seven decks, seven navigators carved the sigil to rise, and the convoy elevated with majestic precision.
Hundreds of leagues away, in the large, still undecorated suite that had been designated the Rumikan embassy in Twaa-Fei, Kris looked up from their first official use of the reflecting pool that would serve as their primary communication with their home island. “What do you think?” they asked Ojo, unable to keep the pleased smile from their face. “Does the shipment look like what you need?”
Ojo did not match Kris’s smile, but offered a warm handclasp instead. “My friend. The shipment is perfect. The quality looks very impressive.” Ojo shifted his stance, hoping to encourage Kris toward the exit. He needed to call his own country to confirm the embarkation. Most warders would understand the need for privacy without it being said, but Kris apparently had not caught on. It felt churlish to ask Kris to leave after sharing the Rumikan’s own communiqué.
“Hopefully this will be the beginning of a fruitful relationship between our islands!” Kris had planned a brief speech, practicing with Alyx in their chambers to smooth the unaccustomed diplomatic language, but in the moment they were inspired to expand on it. “We will forge bonds as light and strong as the aerstone we trade, and our joined strength will allow us to construct, um, cooperation like fleets of ships lacing the sky together.”
They paused for breath, and Ojo jumped in. “Well said, well said! Now, if you will excuse me for a moment, I need to speak briefly with the Bright Chamber.”
“Oh. Of course.” Kris took a step toward the door, wondering what Ojo might need to say about the deal that they could not be a party to.
“Kris.” Ojo strode after them to the door of the chamber and clasped Kris’s hand again. “Thank you. Truly. You have done us a great service.”
Kris was surprised to see the tears standing in Ojo’s eyes. “Hardly a service,” they said, attempting to lighten the mood. “You’re paying us well for it!”
Taking the cue, Ojo finally smiled. “So you’ll be standing for the tea tonight, then?”
Kris smiled back, relief lighting their face. “At least the first round! I’ll see you there!”
The early morning couriers from the Mertikan embassy were getting very annoying.
Michiko was still sore from the duel, and not just physically. She had been replaying the critical moment over and over in her mind for most of the night, and she still wasn’t sure whether she had done the right thing. She had only just dropped off to sleep when the messenger rang.
Last month, even last week, Michiko would have been caught in a rush of adrenaline by the note, breath racing as she tried to sculpt a flawless appearance without delaying her requested attendance at the embassy. After that night, she didn’t even have the energy to be anxious about it. Michiko pulled her hair into something resembling the low formal knot that compromised between Kakutan tradition and shorter Mertikan styles, smoothed the trailing sleeves on her third-best robe, and made her way to the Mertikan embassy.
Lavinia was waiting for her in the private reception room. During her hurried bow—her nerves had caught up with her as she entered the room—Michiko could see Bellona standing in the background, just in front of the aerstone-inlaid carved screen, with an expression somewhere between scandalized and smug.
“Well?” Lavinia asked, before Michiko had even straightened up. “What were you thinking?”
Michiko froze, wondering if Lavinia knew she could have fought better at the Gauntlet duel. “I . . .” She had to try again to get a sentence out. “I’m sorry. Kris is very skillful, and I suddenly felt ill.”
“She does look tired,” Bellona put in, and Michiko’s eyes darted to her, wondering if Bellona was actually on her side.
Lavinia pounced, ignoring Bellona so thoroughly, she...