Conspirator by C. J. Cherryh
Cover art by Todd Lockwood
Published by DAW Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Although Tabini, the aiji (leader) of the Western Association, the greatest and most powerful of the not-exactly-nations of the atevi, has been restored to his leadership, that doesn't mean that trouble is over. The Bujavid, the vast palace and statehouse that has been the center of government for untold millennia, was badly damaged in the fighting that ousted the usurper Murini from power. Because many of the historic apartments have been rendered uninhabitable, living arrangements have been disarrayed, leaving Tabini and his family occupying the apartments of his grandmother Ilisidi, the formidable aiji-dowager. Worse, Bren's apartment is being occupied by a southern clan which claims to have opened the doors to permit Tabini's forces to enter the Bujavid without causing even further destruction, so it would be impolitic for Tabini to dislodge them in order to restore its rightful occupant.
Thus Bren has been lodging in the apartment traditionally belonging to the Ategeini, headed by the exceedingly traditional Lord Tataseigi, whose assistance was critical to the restoration. Bren has been able to do it because Tataseigi prefers to stay away from the capital and its modernism, but as the Council season approaches, his presence will be required. Which means that Bren will have to vacate the premises and find himself accommodations elsewhere -- but where can he find a residence that will satisfy his bodyguards' stringent standards for adequate security?
Bren decides to resolve the problem by taking a vacation to the coast, where Tabini settled him as the lord of a small estate, Najida. Not only will it resolve an awkward social problem and give Tabini time to deal with the problematic Farai, but it will also give Bren an opportunity to discharge his long-neglected duties to the people of Najida. It looks like a win-win proposition all around.
However, he failed to take into account the desires of the impulsive young heir Cajeiri. Although only eight years old, he is exceedingly precocious (as are a number of Cherryh's child characters), and he has become fascinated by all things human ever since he accompanied the aiji-dowager Ilisidi on the trip to remove a stationful of human settlers from the territory of the kyo. Furthermore, since his brief boat trip after being rescued from being kidnapped by his father's rivals in Defender, young Cajeiri is particularly interested in the fulfillment of Bren's promise to take him to sea again.
When Cajeiri is frustrated in his efforts to gain that promised boat trip by normal means, he decides to turn to extraordinary ones. He and his two young bodyguards have had plenty of experience in evading security to get what they want, and they put that resourcefulness to use in stowing away on a freight train heading in the correct direction. However, they underestimate the degree of surveillance they are under, and Bren has no more than arrived at Najida than he gets a very indignant message from Tabini, and must reassure the aiji that he in no way encouraged this unauthorized expedition. Thankfully, the heir's impetuosity is well known, so no permanent rupture results.
Of more concern is the news that the dowager Ilisidi has ordered her flight back home to the East to instead turn west and come to Najida. She may be a tiny, frail old woman, but she is exceedingly resourceful and exceedingly devious. Even at her age she regularly rides to the hunt, and her mount is invariably the dominant beast of the herd, the one all the other mecheiti follow.
At the same time, Bren's dealing with an awkward reunion of his own. HIs brother Toby has put in to port there at Najida, and worse, he is accompanied by his new girlfriend Barb, who used to be Bren's girlfriend. At least Toby has some sense of the nature and importance of atevi culture, but the self-centered Barb, who took up with Toby primarily as a way of getting at Bren, is interested only in creating a scene. She'll gladly trample all over atevi sensibilities in order to score a few points against Bren.
Not exactly a situation into which it would be good to bring the fiercely traditionalist aiji-dowager, who would be guaranteed to be offended. Thankfully she agrees to turn back around and resume her flight east as soon as Cajeiri and his two young associates are safely located. Furthermore, Tabini agrees that Cajeiri will be permitted to remain at Najida for a brief time, and will be able to take that promised boat ride.
Except nothing ever goes quite as planned when Cajeiri's involved. While Bren is dealing with the problems of Najida's unrepaid credits to a neighboring estate and with yet another crisis created by Barb and Toby, Cajeiri takes a wild hair to take a small sailboat out to Bren's boat, just for a moment. He thinks he knows how to handle it, but as soon as he actually gets in, he quickly realizes that knowing about a process from books isn't the same as actually having the skills to do it. Things go wrong in rapid succession, and soon he and his young bodyguards are being blown out to sea, straight into the teeth of a storm.
So now we've got a desperate search for a youngster upon whom the future of the Western Association may soon hinge -- and given atevi political patterns, the very act of asking for assistance in the search could put him at risk of kidnapping or worse. So Bren decides to act as if it's nothing more than a few mischievous village youngsters who went out on a lark and got in over their heads, in hopes that some of the local fisherfolk will pitch in out of neighborliness and not realize just who the lad is.
But who should radio the lost sailboat's location but Lord Baiji, the problematic young lord of the neighboring estate that owes Najida so much. Fortunately Bren's boat is closer and better equipped to effect the actual rescue, but a debt of gratitude is still owed. Suddenly Bren's planned visit to nudge Lord Baiji into repaying his debts takes on a completely different character, even more awkward both personally and politically. Bren had planned to leave Cajeiri and his young associates at Najida during the visit, but now Cajeiri needs to render his gratitude in person.
As they make the trip, Bren's unease grows by orders of magnitude. The roads are ill-kept and there is evidence of other neglect -- which would explain the arrearage of the debts. When they actually arrive at the manor, Lord Baiji behaves in a most peculiar way which Bren is simply not neuropsychologically equipped to interpret -- and there is no politic way for him to ask any of the atevi he trusts for an explanation until they can gain some measure of privacy. There's no single cause of disaster, but rather a whole series of missed cues that accumulate to put them in an untenable state.
For yes, there is treachery afoot, and just as they are about to leave, it all erupts in horrific violence. Bren's bodyguard get him away safely, and manage to grab the troublesome Baiji to be squeezed for all he knows of the situation. However, in the confusion young Caijeri and his half-trained bodyguards got separated from the main group and are nowhere to be found. Perhaps they've been killed, perhaps kidnapped.
Or maybe, just maybe, they've had the sense to lie low and are now working on their own escape from hostile territory. Which actually makes things worse in some ways, because the slightest misunderstanding could easily result in disaster instead of victory.
It's a good beginning to yet another set of episodes in the adventures of Bren Cameron among the alien atevi, who think as well as humans but most decidedly not like humans. There are many things about their culture that are reminiscent of Japan, particularly the names, so I frequently imagined their manor houses as looking like the sort of traditional Japanese mansions one sees in anime and manga, complete with the rock gardens and the deer-scarers. But every time I'd start slipping into a Japanese interpretation of their society, the author would slip in something that would give me a sharp reminder that no, atevi are not Japanese, or any other type of human, but an alien species with very different imperatives hard-coded into their nervous systems as the result of untold millions of years of evolution on another world. Things as small as Cajeiri's two young associates having to fight the instinctual urge to cluster close to him as their leader when they need to stay spread out to keep the load balanced in a sailboat in serious danger of capsizing in a ferocious storm, or Bren's inability to read the young Lord Baiji.
Review posted March 31, 2011.
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