Today, Kati and I encountered Karatau Meiyenesi on the way out of the apartment building. The sun had just risen, and we wanted to be at the satellite home while Gyetsuk was still there. Kati slammed the glass door shut in front of lim and scowled.
The jomela stood on the other side and did not move to open the door or even to knock. I kept my eyes on lim while I had a sharp discussion with Kati. If Karatau can read lips, le must have caught the entire conversation. Ler smile showed nothing.
When I opened the door, I said, “Mesahelepui, Akah Mainė,” and greeted lim in the traditional way. “This is Kati, a cousin, and you startled lim.”
The smile widened. Today, Karatau wore ler hair double-bound with a headdress that covered ler two braided buns in ornamental flowers. A fringe of gold and garnet dangled down ler forehead and the sides of ler face. Ler hepteri vest had patterns of feathers in red thread, the color of fading life, of death on tile floors, and of broken carapaces in the grass. The black background reminded me of the night sky. I felt underdressed. It was the kind of thing an upper-class jomela wears to a wedding or a friendship union or in court before delivering a speech, so ornamental.
Karatau looked directly at Kati and said, “I need to speak with Akah Nitañi. I have Matriarch Mohata’s blessing for this conversation.”
Both of us looked at Kati, who tried to hide the scowl. It prevented Karatau from seeing my confusion as to why le needed my matriarch’s blessing. Kati could have challenged lim or said that le lied. Le has remained silent about Deisurås at the family breakfasts, but in Kati’s heart, I know that le doesn’t want the Kohjenya-who-look-like-nuamua anywhere around lim.
Kati said, “Today is Gyetsuk’s birthday, Salus.”
“You could call Akah Nitañi’s matriarch to confirm. This conversation needs to happen now,” Karatau said, voice firm. Le said something in Shiji — I will not reproduce it here — that made Kati grit ler teeth.
I said, “Give my regards to Gyetsuk.”
“My family would never tell me to meet with one of them over celebrating a birthday,” Kati said.
“Tell them that I am not feeling well,” I said.
Karatau lifted ler right hand and started looking at ler fingernails, corners of ler lips still turned up. Le kept ler facial expression so tightly-controlled that I knew le must be raging inside at the disrespect. I wonder what kind of control le must have if le can stand this. Karatau is an upper-class jomela. Le comes from a family that once ruled an entire country, the Meiyenesi. What must it be like to live with constant disrespect from social inferiors?
Kati whispered, “Will you allow this one to make offerings in our apartment? Will you do that even if ler presence offends ancestors and sacred decency? My gods, how does your i pho meet such people?” I pho is the colloquial way people say ku bvyadö on the fora when they want to be disrespectful, and even people who don’t know Narahji know it.
Ku pho is also colloquial, but it respects one’s ancestors. The language spelling reformers who want to standardize Narahji slang and reform our dictionaries use that word as part of their slogan. They have made lists of words to change, grammar to modernize, and conventions to overturn. I like some of the changes, and I use them inconsistently on my own, but ku pho is too much. It’s just so … colloquial. One should never use a slang term to describe one’s family. That’s a hard line for me. Furthermore, one should never diminish it to i. It’s ku pho, not i pho. The people on the fora who do that have committed a sin.
This could have started a fight. Karatau’s presence made me back down. I glared at Kati. Le bit ler lower lip, stomped ler feet on the ground, and bumped Karatau’s shoulder when le walked past lim. Karatau remained stoic and hardly turned ler head.
Only I saw Kati turn around behind Karatau and raise ler fist. Even with my misgivings about the nuamua and Kohjenya, I would never make a gesture like that to one of their faces. Le was an ass. I have been an ass, but at least I know my place. This is such unbecoming behavior for an adult woman who has mothered two children and who works in a profession.
Karatau touched my arm, and our gazes met. The anger embedded deep within those eyes was not something that le could hide with that smile.
“It is good to see you,” I offered.
Le responded in Narahji. “I have heard reports about you from three people: Liga, Akah Deohårañi, and Deisurås. Liga and Deisurås have given me a thorough understanding of the situation, but Akah Deo was vague — le said, ‘I think that you need to talk to your associate Akah Nitañi, who is deeply disturbed by something related to you.’ I called Matriarch Mohata. We need to have a conversation alone.”
“We could go up to my apartment.”
Karatau gritted ler teeth and glanced at the stairs. “That works. There is no other convenient place, is there?”
I nodded. With a bow, I said, “Akah Mainė, let me lead you there.” Le offered ler hand, I took it, and we started the walk up the great staircase. “Why did you call Matriarch Mohata?”
“Akah Deo told me to speak to you. Liga and Deisurås assumed that I wouldn’t have time. I always have time for your family. Going through your matriarch was the proper way to start this conversation,” Karatau said.
People only go through one’s matriarch when they want something. Karatau did not need permission to talk to me after the show. I weighed possibilities during the walk upstairs, and le didn’t engage me in any more conversation. When I opened the door, though, I looked at lim and said, “Akah Deo says that le has five anti-eavesdropping technologies. Could I have one?”
Karatau laughed and shut the door behind lim. “I don’t know. Liga is monitoring the building network right now. Where is your shrine?”
“Over there.” I pointed and stepped aside.
Karatau reached into a hidden pocket beneath ler hepteri vest and handed me a hot package. It smelled like meat and spices. I took it from lim.
“I brought this because Liga says you leave for breakfast. I will not impose. We can eat while we talk. This conversation will take some time.”
Le greeted my ancestors in the Narahji way and gave a stranger-tribute to Kati’s — something very appropriate considering what happened downstairs. Out of everyone who has come to my apartment, only the Kohjenya have consistently offered at the shrine before engaging in business with me. That etiquette matters.
While le oblated, I sliced alahara, warmed flatbread, and put together a tray with condiments. I chopped the meat into small pieces and took two plates out of the cupboard. It took me longer than ler prayers. By the time I finished, le sat motionless, eyes closed, at the table.
I set everything on the table between us and sat down.
Ler eyes opened, le smiled, and we started eating. Le said, “Liga wants to know if you have stopped journaling.”
“I’m using traditional paper because I don’t want Liga to see it.”
“That is very fair. Annoying to lim, admittedly.” Karatau smiled. “I spoke to your grandmother, not about the assassination plot, but about you. Le and I use informal address. You can call me Karatau without my family name. May I address you informally?”
“Liga addressed me informally and probably shouldn’t have.” I dipped my flatbread in one of the condiments and ate it. “As long as you don’t become arrogant, you may call me Salus.”
Karatau skewered a piece of meat and popped it into ler mouth. The amusement shone in ler eyes. “When I was your age, most of the families around me called me arrogant, shrewd, impertinent, and presumptuous. If I could show you the political cartoons. I don’t think that changes with age, although people have mentioned it less and less over time.”
I nearly choked with laughter. “Really. What did you do?”
“At the time, I was the first non-woman Iturji senator. I delivered all of my speeches in Iturji before Tveshi, and I was in my late teens. All at the same time? Ha. Very overwhelming for people. Even as a jomela. I can’t imagine how a son-into-man would have fared. We didn’t have kaju back then.” Karatau pointed at my plate. “The meat is seasoned with Iturji spices. Tell me if it is too bitter for you.”
“I’ve been using jam.”
“That works. Salus, you are politically ambitious.” Le spooned some spicy sauce out of a condiment bowl and slathered it on ler flatbread. “Matriarch Mohata and Liga both mentioned it. You want to make your family great even though loss has followed you to Galasu. I respect that resilience.”
“The Kuresa sisters have been ambitious. Keptar made one mistake, and Sehutañi has made two. I will be the fatal one for lim if we succeed, won’t I?”
“I have something to offer you based on my conversation with your grandmother.”
“Don’t ask me to use smart paper again. I never stopped wearing the bug. Le knows what I have said, but not what I am thinking. Some things, I never should have said — they were too private.” I set down my spoon and leaned back.
Karatau clicked ler tongue. “No one in the Kohjenya has that luxury. I am the only one with boundaries, and I choose to keep them as low as possible. Liga could be listening to your bug or through my ears. Le cares about you. Could you pass me the green sauce?”
I handed lim the entire set of condiments. Le set the tray down beside ler plate and twirled it around. It came to rest before le dipped a spoon in the green sauce.
“What is the proposition?”
“Someone told me that you found a photograph of a woman who looks like you. I can give you ler name. Further, I can authorize and support your decision regarding Sehutañi. You are nineteen. That is old enough to make your own decisions about how this happens.” Karatau dropped the sauce from the spoon onto the center of the flatbread. Le dipped a sliver of meat in it. “Liga misstepped. Le thinks of you as ler daughter’s friend, not as an adult, Salus. Le will see things differently if le reaches two hundred.”
Despite using my informal name, Karatau remained very polite. Le is much more confident than most Sabaji jomela I have met, although I haven’t met many from Iturja. If le has the ear of Likhera, le has had thousands of years to make offerings of nectar and incense. All of the tesekhaira have had so much time to prepare.
I waited some seconds before responding so I didn’t appear overeager to compromise. “I will consider that. Beyond deciding what I will do, I need support. I am nineteen, and my matriarch has given me an allowance that reflects my experience and professional role in Galasu. That professional role does not involve funding this.”
“Ah, I remember that. If you can estimate how much you have spent already, I can give you money. You can make other purchases through us.” Le ate more flatbread. I studied ler face and didn’t see malice in it. “I made a deal with your grandmother because you are competent, and I am desperate. This assassination attempt now is not like the others. There have always been leaks among the tesekhaira. This one has nothing. It frightens me.”
“I would like ler name. I would like protection. I would like whatever happens when I log into computers and use them too much to stop happening. I would like all of this to be over, and I want the Kar—”
“Tell me exactly what you need us to do.” Le smiled, coughed, and put some flatbread into ler mouth.
Le chewed. And — and le looked towards one of the wall screens — and the knot in my stomach — that’s not a look I’d ever want directed at me. Karatau snapped ler fingers. I looked back at lim.
I handed Karatau a list. Le read it quietly.
When ler gaze lost its focus and the expressions played across ler face, I watched for anything that could tell me the outcome. Resignation, fear, disgust — and at last a sigh when le said, “Yes. But I need to talk to someone about this. Vials, fine. Rope, fine. Sleeping medication, fine. A document scanner, certainly. However, I’m not a chemist or a medical doctor. 4-hydroxybutanoic acid is used for what, Salus?”
“Kidnappings. I think it was used in a rape case — a prosecuted one, not very often for that.. It addles the senses. I saw someone use it in a drama for a criminal investigation. It’s slipped into a drink.”
“Ah, so black market?”
“I think so, but I don’t trust the black market. It’s something we’d want to make on our own. I have a list of what goes into it. Would your someone be better?”
Karatau frowned and raised ler hand. More than a minute passed before le spoke. “According to people who know more than me, 4-hydroxybutanoic acid is something that you must administer carefully. If Liga hacks Akah Sehutañi’s medical files, we can know the appropriate dosage. Liga might refuse.”
I closed my eyes and pictured Liga on the bridge. I said, “Tell lim that this is exactly like the blood on the tile floor. Tell lim that I am at the edge again, and le needs to help me. Besides, if I overdose Sehutañi, it will look even worse to have a corpse on our hands.”
Karatau’s eyes widened. I put the final piece of alahara in my mouth. Le said, “I told lim. Le will do it.”
“How long has Liga been in the Kohjenya?”
“Le must have contracted the muakanua when Suka was born, roughly?”
Karatau shook ler head. “Yes, and they reestablished contact when Suka was fifteen. Suka’s family believes in the old superstitions about exposing children to people in a collective. Suka is fine, and keeping them apart was unnecessary. And, well, you know Liga now.”
I sighed. “Suka should have mentioned that to me. Is this why Liga cares so much?”
“Liga will outlive both you and Suka,” Karatau said. “It is extremely difficult to kill someone in a collective, and le is frozen as le was when le contracted the initial sickness. It’s a complicated thing that I cannot explain to those who haven’t experienced it. Salus, I need to know your plan.”
I cleared my throat. “Tomorrow, I will take Akah Sehutañi to a Dream Garden and spike ler drink with just enough to make lim not remember what happens next. Under its effects, I will take lim home and put lim to bed, saying that le had too much alcohol. Then, I will give lim sleeping medication — I could use assistance with the dosage — and scan documents from ler personal collection.”
“I can hire someone to keep you safe,” Karatau said. “This is the least I can do. This plan sounds permeable.”
“I would prefer to take care of Aneti on my own.”
“You will have distant protection.” Karatau smiled and steepled ler hands. “Nothing will leave the Kohjenya’s possession without your permission — from our copies of the audio files, the comm files, or your private journal. When this goes to trial, we will protect you as much as we can. Your matriarch asked. It will take three or four days to compile what we need for the authorities. Your own copies might be confiscated. It’s — delicate, more delicate than I can say.”
“You have collaborated with people before in this situation? Have they been released promptly? Have they ended up in custody?”
Le nodded. “In most circumstances, yes. I would be lying to you if I said all of them. We had a situation in the 1840s in which our collaborator stabbed one of the conspirators in the neck with a kitchen knife. Le received a prison sentence for the assault. Do not assault Sehutañi. No cuts, no marks, no kisses.”
“I would never kiss Sehutañi while le’s unconscious. I have another question. What happens if we don’t have several days for you to compile a dossier? What happens if the assassination is scheduled, I don’t know, for the day after tomorrow?”
“We need to hope that that is not the case. I do not have the power to sway the authorities like that, and we will never make the requisite arrests in time. In that case, we may need to use extralegal means.” Le shook ler head. “You will need to exercise your judgment and keep us updated. The police have authority over everyone in the city except the royal family. You could go directly to them. You could call us. There are limits, but still possibilities.”
“What about you? You’re the nexus of the Kohjenya. Can you do anything else?”
Karatau frowned. “I can stop an assassin as long as we’re in hand-to-hand combat. Pulling someone into the space between space isn’t something I can do by distance. Tenes has a much better feel for the lattice than I do.” (I still do not know what le meant by lattice. I only wanted a sharp yes or no from lim.)
Reluctantly, I will describe what happened next. Even on traditional paper, I wonder if putting this down in a place where others can see it could condemn me.
The conversation above has gaps. Much more happened in that conversation, descendant, than I can say. Karatau told me to write nothing down about those parts, even on old paper that sucks down ink. Liga will destroy parts of the audio recording, and I only wanted the pieces I needed to make this journal sensible for my descendants. Matriarch Mohata sent Karatau a letter, and I read it. We burned this letter. I cannot describe its contents anywhere, either, because that would violate the oaths that I have now spoken in front of gods and family. It’s only semi-related, if at all, to the assassination.
The letter from Matriarch Mohata could have been a forgery, but I caught lim on video chat for under a minute to confirm it. Karatau leaned against the doorframe. I blushed when I realized that I hadn’t even cleaned up my laundry from the past few days. The hepteri vests, makeup, and underclothes aren’t anywhere near the dry-cleaning and laundering baskets. Le only said one thing: I think I had something with a pattern like that in the 1560s.
I changed from my simple work clothes into the one elaborate aniku I own, working hastily. A ritual like this needed preparation. We only had so much time before I needed to leave for work. I rushed so much that I hardly had time to bind my hair appropriately.
Karatau cauterized one of our kitchen knives with a lighter. Le spoke plainly and succinctly, outlining the ritual we would do. It was not anything Ịgzarhjenya or Sabaji. This is something that could only have come from the time before Kāmak fell.
We cut into our palms in front of my family’s gods and ancestor-proxies and put our hands together. I repeated an oath that I cannot write down, but I promised to be an ally to the Kohjenya. My grandmother never did anything like this for lim.
In that letter — I do not know the exact words — le wrote, My little eye of the hurricane is an offering to you, and in exchange, you will always favor the Niksubvya family as if it were your own.
I mean, from my perspective, we are all arrows who travel in the direction our matriarchs want, regardless of our own longings. I have no idea what this means for my political career. This is not a friendship ritual, so it cannot have the weight of the law behind it. It only has the weight of the gods and the ephemeral dead. I am trapped in this liminal space between Niksubvya and Meiyenesi. Karatau must treat me like family.
Further, Karatau’s blood burned when it touched my hand. It must be like how an unlucky person feels when liquid nitrogen touches ler bare skin. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. My hand was on fire for about a minute after the physical contact stopped, and it worsened when le touched me to bind the wound.
I started laughing. I am laughing now. Kati has no idea — the force of this undertow! And now the patient immortals are jumping past our parents’ generation to take us as allies. How will le use me? What has my matriarch sacrificed me to do? Karatau asked if I was fine. I am fine. Just fine!
My hand shows no sign of the burn, only a cut. Karatau had no mark on lers at all. Le wiped my tears away with a napkin and hugged me. Le whispered, “I will advertise this to the tesekhaira. One of my informants thinks someone will put out a hit on you, and they will all need to rethink that now. For full legal effect, you and Liga should swear a traditional friendship oath. It is up to you to decide if that is appropriate. I can find someone else for it.”
I pulled away. “A hit on me?”
“You have been triggering dormant surveillance programs.”
“Are you sure that this will deter lim? Or them?”
Karatau clicked ler tongue. “In addition to being cute, warm, and good at oratory, I am actually very dangerous. Le knows what happens when le crosses my boundaries.”
“Don’t worry. I have been arguing that you’re only nineteen.” Karatau laughed and clapped ler hands together. “Don’t look at me like that. It is a contradiction. The others don’t view nineteen the way I do.”
What was I supposed to say to that? I went silent. This was too much.
Deisurås will visit after sunrise with the items I have requested.
My doppelgänger’s name is Thani Karoumo-Nitasė Kaleso. The Kohjenya will protect me with an obscure, long-dead blood oath, and I will have the agency I desperately need. I have already decompressed so many anxieties today that I feel like I am vomiting on the page. I need to stop before I write things that I shouldn’t.
My bodyguard’s name is Kelta. Le is not in the Kohjenya. Le is a Narahji devotee of Narresan. Liga has given lim access to my audio feed.
Kelta is tall, with long-falling locked hair that le wears in a ponytail. Le dresses in masculine dark gray, sleeveless for the summer, and has strong, developed muscles on ler upper body. Ler cheeks dimple when le smiles. I don’t think that le smiles frequently. I made lim laugh.
Le brought along layout plans for the Dream Garden, and I now know the best way to take Akah Sehutañi out once I give lim the drugs. Just in case the feedback from the hologram I wear inhibits my judgment, I will pass two backup doses of 4-hydroxybutanoic acid to Kelta. Le will know based on the audio if intervention is necessary. I have no idea how le intends to gain access to the Dream Garden without a costume, but at my suggestion that le impersonate a staff member, Kelta laughed. Le must have money for bribes.
I am writing this now just in case something happens. I want any reader to know that I did try to stop whatever Sehutañi and the Daybreak Movement had planned. I am so nervous that I awoke in the middle of the night and vomited. Here is to good luck. When I leave the house today, I will make offerings to Tsemanok.