Len padded softly into the kitchen as the first shades of morning light glittered through the windows. She was unsurprised to find Aleguarda already awake, tending to the oven.
“Len-kinue,” said Aleguarda without turning, before Len could announce herself. “You wake early.”
“As do you, Aleguarda-alani,” returned Len.
“Old habits,” said Aleguarda. She flicked a trace of burn-powder onto the stove. The counterbindings caught and a small flame lit up beneath the teakettle. “Care for tea? You enjoyed the Red last night.”
“You spoil me.” Len inclined her head graciously. “It’s a delicacy in the South. I couldn't afford it very often.”
“Riverrose is plentiful enough here,” said Aleguarda, filling the kettle. “Wines, though - you can’t get grapes to grow in this climate.”
“You drink Southern wines?”
“I don’t drink alcohol,” said Aleguarda, with a touch of asperity in her voice. “And we haven’t been able to afford wine in years. The rest of the family makes do with ale.”
“I can’t say I’m sorry to hear that,” said Len. “The less coin to the wineries back home, the better.”
Aleguarda raised an eyebrow. “You’ve no fondness for your own wines?”
“Too watered down with the blood of slaves.” Len seated herself on a stool by the window, letting the morning light warm her arms. “Is it normal for a freewoman to cook here? Back home we leave it to the slaves and the menfolk.”
“Not terribly,” said Aleguarda. “But we have no house-slaves to speak of.”
“No? Then the elf, Hayochi...?”
“She’s Tara’s. Housework is not her reponsibility.” Aleguarda adjusted the teakettle. “You’re a strange one, Len Win. You speak our tongue flawlessly, but you seem to know little of our culture.”
“My education was political.” Len gazed out the window. “My mistress was... not a woman of peace.”
“And you are one?”
Len smiled thinly. “When I can be. What about you, Aleguarda fal Chistar? You have that air about you.”
“I was a Radiant,” said Aleguarda, her expression darkening. "For a time."
“Oh!” Len raised an eyebrow. “You served?”
“Aye.” Aleguarda glanced at her. “That surprises you, southerner?”
“Military service is considered men’s work in Vau Shan. I’d taken you for… Tir Machan, maybe.”
Aleguarda laughed out loud. “Men? You let men fight?”
“Women are writers, artists, poets, leaders. Not warriors.”
“So you’ve never spilled blood with that staff of yours? I’ve seen how you move with it.”
Len smiled. “Sages blur the boundaries between genders a bit.”
“I see.” Aleguarda perched on the countertop, her piercing blue eyes darting over Len’s body. “Never met a man I’d trust with a blade. Wonder how your soldiers would stack up.”
“Honestly? All else equal, the Radiants would crush them like bugs,” said Len. “We have mercenaries, not soldiers. Raiders and slavers and thugs. They’re good at bullying elves and gorging on mead, and not much else. Put them up against trained warriors and full-inked paladins, and they’d be a bloodstain on the dirt before teatime.”
“You don’t seem to have much love for your homeland.”
Len looked back out the window, staring up into the clouds. “Vau Shan is a beautiful place, Aleguarda. It is full of kind and charitable people, and half the world’s merchandise passes through its ports. You can walk down Market Street in Song Shan and hear a dozen different tongues, Talli haggling with Northerlings over the price of coffee beans, Beladans entertaining drunk elves with tales of their homeland they probably just made up, Shan street preachers selling incense and begging for charity for the poor. I would spend whole evenings watching the ships coming and going from the port when I was a child. Our playwrights are as fat and wealthy as they are ambitious, our artists driven, our priests devoted.
“But none of those things demanded the blood we’ve spilled. The best people I’ve known were Shan, and so were the worst. For every sovereign in a street priest’s collection tin, there’s a slave beaten or raped until they can barely breathe. For every poet, there’s a slaver. For every playwright, there’s a power-hungry politician. For every artist, a loan shark. Vau Shan eats the desperate and the helpless and shits gold. And I can’t stand it. I can’t stand drinking a wine and wondering how many slaves died for it. I can’t stand going into a brothel and wondering how many whores are selling their bodies out of desperation to appease a moneylender and stay out of slavery.”
“So it’s not just Church propaganda that you abuse your slaves,” said Aleguarda, a touch of surprise in her voice.
“Fuck, no.” Len shook her head. “The First Law is meaningless back home. But it seems to have some teeth here.”
Aleguarda inclined her head. “We’re not all sanguine about how much pull the Church has here, but there is good that comes of it.”
Len nodded. “Something tells me you didn't part company with the Radiant Order on the best of terms.”
Aleguarda stiffened. “You’re an awfully nosy woman, Len-kinue.”
Len held up her hands. “I apologize. I did not realize it was a sensitive topic.”
Aleguarda nodded, tight-lipped.
Len cleared her throat. “What exactly are your obligations to your slaves here? Clearly-” She paused and turned as she heard footsteps on the stairs.
Aleguarda glanced up, a look of irritation of her face. “What is she-”
“Good morning, dears.” Marichescua rounded the corner from the stairwell. “Sleep well?”
“Mother!” Aleguarda said reprovingly. “It’s barely dawn. You should be in bed.”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead, dearest.” Marichescua seated herself on a stool. “You know I’ve never been one for late mornings.”
“It’s not good for your health, at your age.”
“Ale, dear, Tara’s health is worse than mine and you hardly nag her so. Pour me a black tea, would you?”
Aleguarda sighed. “Yes, mother.”
“Milady Marichescua.” Len curtseyed. “Good morning.”
“And to you. I’m glad you’re awake. I have something for you.” Marichescua fished a silver necklace out of her robes and passed it to Len. “It’s a family cuancame. Should stop the guards giving you any trouble when you’re out and about.”
“Silver? Doesn’t that mean ‘slave’?”
Marichescua laughed. “Picked up on that, did you? We don’t really have much of a tradition of free retainers here. Silver should be good enough to get you around the city, and if you don’t display it too openly guards will take one look at your skin and decide you’re a free foreigner.”
Len nodded, and took the necklace. “How do you fasten this? The mechanism-”
“Complicated, I know. Ale, show her how, will you? It’s meant to keep the thing from being yanked off you too easily. Anyone out in public without one of those is going to spend a few nights in jail until the guards can sort out your status, make sure nobody has a claim on you. Unless you’re a pale-skinned, golden-eyed giant who obviously isn’t a local.” Marichescua winked.
“Giant?” Len snorted. “I’m not that tall.”
“Tell me something, have you seen a single native here you didn’t have to look down on from above?”
“I suppose not.”
Marichescua finished her tea, and pushed the cup to the side. “Now that’s out of the way, I think I have the perfect use for your talents this morning. We’re going to go have a word with the supplier who may have been secretly poisoning my granddaughter.”
Len smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
“Mother, you musn’t strain yourself!” Aleguarda interjected. “Let me or Chani handle it.”
“And miss the chance to see our new employee put the fear of Anur into an upper-class prick? I don’t think so.” Marichescua stood. “Besides, they’re only a few streets over.”
“You’re confronting the clan? Is that wise?”
“If we talk to a slave and the clan was responsible, they’ll hear of it and destroy all the evidence. But if we talk to the clan and a slave was responsible, they’ll help us hunt down the rot in their business. And if the clan’s guilty, I’m hoping our new retainer will be able to sniff it out.”
Len nodded. “It’s a good plan. I’m no Inquisitor, but they’d have to be well-trained to fool me. What family are we visiting?”
“Clan Techencue,” said Marichescua. “Name mean anything to you?”
“Nalichenda mentioned them the other night. Said that they trade slaves with the South?”
Marichescua nodded. “Find a market people will kill each other over, and you can bet Techencue’s got their greasy fingers in the pot. Pricy drugs, stolen sap, posions - they might not always sell it openly, but they’ll sell it.”
“They sound dangerous.” They sound useful, thought Len.
“Don’t get me wrong, they’re no Clan Tobara,” said Marichescua. “They’re venal, sure, but they’re too prissy to really get their hands dirty themselves. Getting involved in assassinations isn’t like them - let alone trying to poison a teenage girl.”
Len smiled. “Then this should be interesting.”