Aravel stood at the bow of the Harmonious Song, studying the twin cities of Yuzuki and Masumi in Chinwendu. Halfway around the world from home, Aravel didn't expect to find an old enemy stirring up the same stupid strife from home.
But Delbhana Cahan had married into the Ito and turned them against Aravel's cousins in the Damura so it fell to him to fix the problem.
No matter what the cost.
1. Coming Ashore
Aravel stood at the bow of the Harmonious Song, clinging to the railing. Two tug boats, six women in each, rowed hard as they pulled the Song into its berth. They ignored him. So did the Song's sailors. Even Captain Bryna paid him no mind. She was too busy shouting orders to reef the sails and get the Song ready to tie up.
Which was fine by Aravel. The twin cities of Yuzuki and Masumi on either side of the Strait of Rio were far more interesting than the work the women around him did to secure the Harmonious Song. Yuzuki City in Amadi was on the flat side of the Strait. Its buildings were low and broad, built on stilts that put the houses ten to twenty feet above the muddy ground with heavy roofs that reminded him of Idoya. Not surprising, really. They got much the same weather as Idoya, rain, more rain and still more rain with a brief dry season in the depths of winter where they got biting cold.
Masumi City on the right was on the steep hills of Chinwendu. The flat land of Yuzuki's flood plain gave way to hills and then cliffs and then mountains behind that. The rain that put Yuzuki's streets under water half the time came from Masumi City's hills wringing the clouds dry before they wended their way into dry central Chinwendu where spider silk was harvested and woven into beautiful cloth.
Where Yuzuki City was built on stilts, Masumi City's building foundations were dug deep into the hillsides with deep gullies for gutters and more stairs than streets. Aravel closed his eyes and breathed deep. The smell of salt and sewage had faded the further up the Strait they went. Now the air smelled of rain and fragrant wood fires.
Aunt Colleen's shout startled Aravel. He turned and then sighed at Aunt Colleen's glower. Really, you'd think he was a baby the way she fussed over him. Every single port so far Aunt Collen had all but held his hand to keep him from exploring or talking to people. Aravel was fifteen and more than mature enough to handle handsy sailors, rude foreigners and the occasional fist-fight when someone didn't respect his no's. Either the laughing or the arch ones. The women who didn't take a no got a fist to the face and that always ended the problem.
"Yes, Aunt Colleen?" Ravi called back only to finch as her glare went five times as intense.
He sighed and trotted over, causally avoiding sailors, lines and the billowing sails as they were pulled up and reefed. Really, from the way she frowned you would have thought that it was his first time at sea. She caught his elbow and gave him a little shake.
"I thought I told you to stay in your cabin," Aunt Colleen snapped at him.
"And I thought you understood which of us has higher rank in the family and on this ship," Aravel snapped right back at her. "Aunt Colleen, no matter how good you are at the paperwork, and yes, you're amazing, I still outrank you. Mother said so. So did Uncle Jarmon. There's a reason I'm on this mission and you are not going to keep me from fulfilling it."
Her jaw clenched as her eyes went far too angry that he dared to reprimand her publicly. But really, she brought that on herself. She could have insisted on a private conversation. Oh no, let's scold the boy for daring to know his place.
"Mission," Aunt Colleen said so flatly that she called him a liar by implication. "You."
"Of course," Aravel said, smiling the 'you're Delbhana and I loathe you' smile that had gotten him in trouble a few dozen times before back home. And which might still get him slapped if he wasn't careful. "I'm to visit our relatives here and make sure that we still have allies here. Great-Uncle Jarmon has… worries… about things back home. And given the way Chinwendu politics work, it has to be me, not you. Rank, you know. You're not line direct. I'm the only one who is on the Harmonious Song."
The anger transmuted into surprise and then worry. Aunt Colleen bit her lip and glanced over at Captain Bryna who had gone pale. Aravel watched them and then sighed. Lovely. Mother or Father or maybe Gavin had been meddlers and decided that he needed to be 'protected'. If it was Father then they'd been ordered to 'shelter' him from anything dangerous on the trip. Gavin would have just outright told them to keep Aravel from fathering any children along the way.
"Who?" Aravel asked. They both looked away and then blushed when he put his hands on his hips. "Who? Come now. You've gotten orders. Who from and what are the orders? I can't do my job if you're working against me."
"Laoise told me to keep you safe," Aunt Colleen said so grudgingly that Aravel wondered if she'd started the journey with bruises from a fist fight between the two of them.
"Your brother Gavin instructed me to ensure that the crew treated you with all respect," Captain Bryna said a moment later, her ears bright red from the force of her blush. Given that he'd spent most of the trip 'entertaining' her instead of the crew Aravel supposed that she'd fulfilled that instruction quite well despite not following the intent of it.
"Well, you're fine," Aravel said to Captain Bryna with an airy little wave of his hand that made her snort a laugh. "I approve of your methodology there. You," he wagged a finger at Aunt Colleen, "are leaving things out. There are ways to keep a man safe that don't involve treating him like a toddler. Besides, you know I can hit as hard as you can."
That got him a grin from Captain Bryna while Aunt Colleen glowered at him. Ah. So she had left things out. Not that it really mattered, not with the gangplank going down and a group of Chinwenduese officials waiting at the end of the dock for them. Aravel bounced on his toes, kilts swishing around his ankles.
"We'll talk about this later," Aravel told Aunt Colleen. "Let's go say hello and do remember, this is primarily a family visit, not a business trip."
"We always do business in port," Aunt Colleen said, glaring at him.
"Of course we do," Aravel said and if he used his breeziest, most air-headed tone of voice, well, she'd brought that on himself with her attitude this trip. Months of this nonsense were long enough. "But that's not the point. That's just what Dana do along with breathing and getting into fights."
Finally, he got a bellowed laugh out of Aunt Collen. Plus a huge grin from Captain Bryna that promptly relaxed the sailors quite a bit. Good. The two of them really did need to calm down. This wasn't that big of a deal. Aravel had been here a half dozen times before. He knew how to talk to his relatives and to the officials in Chinwendu.
He made sure that Aunt Colleen took the lead down the gangplank. She was older and female so that was appropriate. Captain Bryna stayed on board as was proper here. As soon as they were within three yards of the officials, Aunt Colleen stopped and let Aravel go first.
Dock Mistress with two attendants, one male and one non-gendered, both with clipboards and pens at the ready. They all wore the red and black of Great-Grandfather's clan so that made things easier. Aravel could address them as relatives rather than as strangers. The only fillip in the whole thing was the relative age differences between Aravel and the Dock Mistress.
She frowned at Aravel, trying to read his rank in his Dana blue plaid kilt, lack of petticoats and light shirt under a simple Dana blue vest. Every single thing he wore shouted a lack of respect for his family's power but he was on the other side of the world so he didn't have to hobble himself with petticoats and yards of lace if he didn't want to.
Aravel grinned and carefully pulled out the little insignia Great-Uncle Jarmon had given him, attaching it to his vest pocket. It was shaped like a pentagram divided in half. One half, the top, held the Dana triple-swirl done in lapis lazuli and gold. The bottom half held the Tamura family seal, a trio of hand scythes arranged in a bouquet effect, tied with rice straw where the handles crossed. That was done in onyx and silver, making the little insignia a beautiful but very pricy object.
The Dock Mistress let out a tiny sigh of relief, nodding once nearly imperceptibly to Aravel. He nodded back, trying not to smile too broadly. Knowing what rank you held relative to another person was so desperately important in Chinwendu. They bowed at once, Aravel going slightly higher than the Dock Mistress who held the bow half a second longer than he did. Her attendants bowed far more deeply and held it until the Dock Mistress signaled them to stand up with a flick of her fingertips. Hopefully Aunt Colleen could manage herself. Aravel had to trust that she could. She'd taken up a post too far behind him for him to see if she was bowing properly.
"I wish you greetings, cousin of the Dana Family line of Aingeal of Aingeal City," the Dock Mistress said. "I am Damura Kamiko, Dock Mistress of the Trade Docks of Masumi City of Chinwendu, fourth daughter of the third son of the lady of the Damura."
"I thank you for your greetings, elder cousin Tamura Kamiko," Aravel replied. "I am Dana Aravel of the line direct of the Dana Family of Aingeal of Aingeal City, second son of the first daughter of the first daughter of the Dana Clan. This is Dana Colleen, my Grandmother's fourth daughter's second daughter who will be handling the trade and paperwork for Minoo while we are here. I would visit with our relatives at the bequest of my Great-Uncle Jarmon who was first son of Tamura Tau, who married my Great-Grandmother Anwyn and founded our Clan with her in Aingeal."
Kamiko's eyes went wide. She licked her lips and bowed very slightly, conveying her worry quite well without saying a word. Aravel pressed his lips together and let his eyes smile just as much as they wanted to while bowing back just a bit deeper to say that yes, of course she could ask.
"One would hope that the visit is not formal," Kamiko said.
"One would be quite right to worry about that," Aravel replied so brightly that Aunt Colleen snorted behind him and the two attendants shut their eyes and pressed their lips together so that they wouldn't visibly show amusement beyond what was appropriate to their rank. "If the visitor were of greater age. A visit of one below the age of maturity is, of course, never a matter of great formality. And this one," he gestured towards himself with a bright grin that made Kamiko swallow a laugh, "is not yet of age in either Chinwendu or Aingeal. Thus all formalness is avoided and pleasantness can abound for all."
That did get a laugh, not just from Kamiko but from a passing sailor who'd naturally eavesdropped on the conversation while carefully not meeting anyone's eyes. And from the Harbor Mistress, a stern eighty-some year old woman who was broad of shoulder, narrow of hip and flat of bust as most Chinwenduese chosen-women were. She shook her head, coming over to stare at first Aravel's insignia and then at his face for a long moment.
"It has been long since the Dana have sent a formal representative to the port," the Harbor Mistress said to Kamiko but she was really talking to Aravel.
Introductions would be required if they were to speak directly and since she was wearing green and brown, that would mean going through the whole rigmarole of determining exactly where the Dana ranked in Chinwenduese politics today. Versus yesterday or tomorrow or last year. Not worth the bother for anyone, honestly.
Kamiko hummed and nodded, staring thoughtfully into the distance while rocking on her heels. "One forgets how old the eldest son of Damura Tao is now."
"One could be very well excused for that," Aravel said as if talking to the air while Aunt Colleen smothered a laugh in her fist. "Because Dana Jarmon, eldest son, has never admitted to being older than fifty-five even though he has seen seventy-nine summers."
That made both Kamiko and the Harbor Mistress splutter laughs as they pretended not to hear him. Kamiko nodded sagely, eyes sparkling with laughter before she managed to regain a properly formal expression.
"Age does tend to make long travel uncomfortable," Kamiko said as if offering a bit of wisdom from the ages.
"Quite so, quite so," the Harbor Mistress agreed.
She rubbed her back and then chuckled before bowing slightly towards Kamiko and then strolling on up the dock as if she'd merely stopped on her way to her destination. Nicely done, that. It allowed her to both find out what was going on and to leave quickly and efficiently instead of dealing with all the introductions, greetings and goodbyes required between non-family members.
Kamiko snorted, eyes a little hard as she stared at the Harbor Mistress' back. Hmm, perhaps more than just nosiness, then. "Will an escort be needed, eudi-Dana Aravel-duai?"
"Yes, I believe that would be appropriate, aeji-Tamura Kimiko-chu," Aravel replied. He shrugged at her frown. "Orders were given that I was to be kept 'safe'. As euji-Dana Colleen-chu has work here and the Captain and sailors have no link to any Chinwendu families, well, an escort would be necessary. Perhaps one of your attendants can run back and send a message? There is little need to rush. We should be in port for, oh, a time, I believe."
Kamiko looked over Aravel's shoulder to Aunt Colleen who gave him a hard look.
"We should be here for at least two weeks, twenty days, euji-Tamura Kimiko-chai," Aunt Collen said, giving Kimiko the higher rank, unlike Aravel. He could get away with that because of his place in the bloodline. Her lower place in their genealogy meant she had to be properly polite and designate Kimiko as a younger woman with higher rank.
"Ah, my thanks, aeji-Dana Colleen-chu," Kimiko replied. "Our report will state as much. Eudi-Dana Aravel-duai, do please inform me or my staff if your visit will extend longer than that. It will influence the visas for your ship and crew."
"I will, aeji-Tamura Kimiko-chu, I promise," Aravel said with a flirty little bow that made her snort and her attendants grin. The neuter one raised a hand to keep from laughing out loud.
After that, it was a simple thing to get their visas for Captain Bryna and the crew. They were, after all, just slips of paper with the name of the individual, their rank on the ship and the duration of the ship's stay in port, meant to be kept in a pocket until needed for reference. So much easier than visiting Minoo with all their oppressive paperwork.
Of course, Aunt Colleen had to get the numbers of each visa, the names of Kimiko and her staff, and the exact date for the Minoo paperwork she would have to turn in on their way home but that was why she was there.
While she was at all of that, head together with Kimiko, the neuter attendant ran back up the dock and spoke to a young child who'd not yet chosen their gender. That child ran off into the city so his escort could come and collect him. Probably not what Aunt Colleen would want but she really did have a great many responsibilities with the ship and this was Aravel's task, not hers.
Only someone in the line direct from Tamura Tao could do this.
He rather hoped that Kimiko never found out that he'd lied to her. There was so much more that he needed to accomplish than a simple informal visit. Great-Uncle Jarmon had been very firm about what Aravel had to do while they were in Masumi City. He even had a list of questions, long since memorized, that he needed to answer.
First and foremost, could the Dana relocate out of Aingeal to Chinwendu without losing their fortune and their ships to the regulations of the Chinwenduese government?
Because with the way things were going in Aingeal, there was every likelihood that they would be driven out in the next ten years.