The courier ship rode up the Smelt River on the dusk's high tide, its approach hidden between the sheets of wind-blown rain. Winter seas were the most dangerous for ships of the Empire traveling to the Eya-Lu-Ramat colony. The trade fleets commonly waited for the safer seas of late spring through autumn. Only courier ships emboldened by the senatorial business they carried braved a winter passage.
Distance and the steady drum of rain against the windows and the slate roof had masked the ringing of the dockmaster's bell, but news within the winter-dreary colony flew as fast as two feet could carry it, and Coriander and Thunderchild were roused from their dinner table by neighbors at their door. "A winter ship! It's come!" cried Fennec the tailor, while his brother Oakwood asked the more critically important questions, "Do you think it'll bring blood oranges? They'll have harvested the orchards in Doata, the markets will have filled with them — so will the ship have brought us any, do you think?"
No one mentioned the ship's official capacity — to do that to those most likely to be impacted was terribly impolite. Coriander managed a serene smile, while feeling what little she had eaten of their dinner clamoring to come back up.
"There's only one way to find out," said Thunderchild, shrugging on his winter coat and his conical woven rain-hat. "Let's go down and welcome the captain and her crew."
Coriander wrapped herself in her rain gear and followed, trying to keep her fixed smile serene. But her heart felt as though it were skipping anxious beats. "Run to the sailor's barracks," she told Fennec and Oakwood, and their wives Hazel and Seashell. "Light the fires and make sure the cauldrons are put on to heat. After their long journey, the captain and his men will need strong tea and hot baths."
Those four set off toward the empty barracks cabins, while Coriander and her husband headed for the distant docks. With the wind and the rain, they were at the colony's gates before they heard the dockmaster's brass bell themselves. Thunderchild looked at her then, and some of his anticipatory smile faded.
"If it comes," he counseled her, "the Senate's decision is past due. And it is rare for a Mata to be reappointed to a second term."
"I know," Coriander said. "It was an honor to have had our two terms." She turned her face up to the stormy grey sky, so that if any others saw wetness on her cheeks, they would know it was from the rain.
The crew of the courier ship were securing the ship at dock and stowing her brightly painted silk sails. The captain — a stout, thick-middled man of many years, was standing under the eaves of the dockmaster's cabin, talking with Dockmaster Hawthorn. A crowd of colonists had braved the weather to gather respectfully around the dockmaster's cabin, and with them were many more of the Bukno Baha, to whom it was was nothing to stand out in the weather, and who still marveled at the coming and goings of ships and at the fresh wonders of trade items from a mainland and an Empire which remained foreign to them. Seeing them, the crowd parted respectfully for the Mata of the Colony and her mate.
"Ah!" Dockmaster Hawthorn said, waving them close. "Mata Coriander and her husband, Thunderchild. Pleased to introduce Captain Saltbush of the Merry Gull."
"Peace, fortune, and prosperity," Coriander wished the man, pressing both palms to his in formal greeting. "We are so pleased you have arrived safely. The barracks are being prepared for your men, and you are welcome to the guest chamber in our home."
"That is a pleasure, my lady," Saltbush replied. He had a deep scar across his face, from what Coriander had no notion, and his clipped Kariata accent sounded exotic to her ears. He took a silk-wrapped packet from an inside pocket of his oil-cloth coat and handed it to her with a flourish. "We have fresh blood oranges from the orchards of Doata for you, m'lady, and a variety of fresh spices from Voadene as well. But our real cargo is this. Entrusted to my hand by High Secretary of the Senate."
Spatters of rain stained the silk as Coriander held the slight bundle. For a moment, it felt as heavy as lead in her hand. With a desperate reach after her composure, Coriander managed a smile and slid the message bundle into her sash. “We are all most appreciative of your efforts, Captain Saltbush,” she said, saved by the rote and routine of propriety. “Please, let us escape this weather. Dismiss your men to their barracks as soon as they have your ship secure, and accompany me and my husband back to our home. We have dinner on the hearth, and after you’ve shared our meal and the news from the empire, a most comfortable guest chamber awaits in which to take your rest.”
“It will be my pleasure,” the merchant captain said, as he bowed with a flourish. As he turned back to shout orders at his men, one of the sailors scrambled over the side of the ship with a crate of straw-cushioned blood oranges. He handed it to Thunderchild, earning cheers of delight from the waiting crowd behind them.
"Home!' cried someone from that happy crowd. "A taste of home!"
Coriander fixed her eyes on that face — it was the young cartographer Silvercoil who'd said those words — and tried not to show the bitterness that welled up. She knew that her deepest problem was that for her, home had ceased to be a sea voyage away. This remote, rain-battered settlement — the focus of all of Coriander's efforts these past ten years — this had become home for her. This is what the old women of the Empire call "going native," Coriander told herself sternly. This is why members of the diplomatic corps rarely receive terms of more than five years. I've gone native.
“Our guests have had a long, fraught voyage across the winter seas!” Coriander called to her own people. “We will let them sleep tonight, and unload their cargo in the morning.”
“Take one to tide yourselves over,” Thunderchild added, holding out the crate. An orderly scrum followed, as everyone in the crowd jostled into a queue to secure their allotted treat. The crate was quickly emptied, although Thunderchild set aside the last four for Fennec’s kukota. By then, the Merry Gull was securely docked, and Coriander and her husband walked with Captain Saltbush past the barracks, where the last of the blood oranges went to the four working inside, then on home through the rain. All the way, Captain Saltbush talked, sharing the latest news from the Empire. Coriander made the right attentive noises, but the merchant’s words evaporated as they passed through her ears, her mind unable to focus on anything but the weight of the message she carried tucked into her sash.
They made it home, and Coriander made her way through the small rituals of generosity and seating a stranger at their table. Dinner was humble — soup of minced onion, apple and lentils, flatbread with garlic ghee, and winter greens stewed in honey — but Saltbush ate like it was a rare feast, and he and Thunderchild laughed their way through a bottle of ginger-infused dandelion wine. Coriander ate and smiled and nodded, and above all fought to hide that she was simply waiting until propriety had been fulfilled and their guest retired to rest, before she could finally open and read the Senate’s message.
It has taken the message three months and more to reach us on this shore, she told herself sternly. I can wait. I will wait. The Senate made its decision months ago; a few more minutes here won't change their directive one way or the other.
At length, when the bottle of homebrew was dry, Saltbush rose and excused himself. Thunderchild went to see their guest settled. After they had left the table, Coriander pulled the message from her sash with shaking hands. She laid it down on the sanded plank before her and looked at the rain-stained silk for a moment, then methodically unwrapped it, forcing herself to do so slowly.
The silk folded back to expose a leather wallet of buttery-smooth calfskin, embossed by the sigil of the ki-i-mata — the High Mata herself. Coriander opened the wallet and found a single sheaf of thick, pure-white paper, on which was written in fine calligraphy:
On of the 26th day of the 10th month of the (x) year of (x), by the hand of the Ki-i-Mata Saffron. It is the will of the High Senate that ..."
The shaking in her hands vanished as she read, and a cold steadiness finally settled in her heart and mind and gut. Coriander reached the end of the missive and began to read it over a second time, even as she heard her husband's familiar tread behind her.
Thunderchild visited the hearth and ladled hot water into a tea pot. He added two spoonsfuls of tea leaves, then brought the pot back to the table to steep. He sat down across from her at the table, and waited for her to speak.
Coriander finished reading it, and pushed the calfskin wallet across the table to him. She rose to her feet and began to clear away the empty plates and bowls from their meal as he read it. She heard her husband's startled gasp for breath but did not look his way until he spoke.
"We knew our time here was nearly over," he said. "It would have been unprecedented to have received a third term here. But Voadene! Blue skies — can you believe it? We are being reassigned to Voadene!"
"It is a plum assignment," Coriander said. Her voice sounded dead even to her own ears.
Thunderchild looked up from the Senate's missive. His dark eyes were warm with concern. "The ambassadorship to the Itsyamik is far and away more than I dared dream for," he said. "I know you love it here in Ramat, but can you not see this gift for what it is? You have shepherded the colony here with such care and diligence. The Senate has seen that. They have given you the greatest of compliments — and the greatest of rewards!"
Coriander had returned to the table for another load of dishes. "I did not do it alone," she said. "Take credit for your share in this promotion."
"Voadene!" Thunderchild laughed a little and shook his head in wonder at the news. "We are being sent to Voadene!"
"Ironfast is being retired as well," Coriander said, trying to focus herself on the business at hand. "He will be grateful for that — the damp and cold of the winters plague his joints."
"What of this Seaflower? What do you know of her?" Thunderchild asked.
That I hate her, Coriander found herself thinking at once, with a venom that shocked her to good sense. She shook herself and took a calming breath before crafting a more business-like answer. "Mata Seaflower is a daughter of Berylgold," she said, racking her memories for what recall she could, ten years distant from the mainland. "Married to Longlance and Quicksilver, grandsons of the Ki-i-Mata Coralpetal."
"Oh..." Thunderchild said, nodding in recognition. He rose to clear away the very last of the dishes. "Then they're sons of Sandcape the Greedy. Didn't old Coralpetal die from the shame of the scandal he provoked?"
"That was the way the gossips in the marketplace all put it," Coriander allowed. "Longlance made ground redeeming his family's honor during those troubles at Azati. Word was he led the defense on the walls there, after the death of the city's First Sword; Mata Seaflower was praised for how she rallied her people through the siege there."
Thunderchild put down the last of the plates he carried, and gathered his wife in his arms. "Then we will leave our home here in wise and worthy hands," he said, whispering the words into her hair.
Coriander returned his embrace, and returned his kiss with a heat she struggled to truly feel. She let him lead her away to their room and to their marriage bed, knowing the private celebration he offered was meant to restore her spirits. But throughout their lovemaking, she could not shake the strange, disembodied grief which had taken root in her.
This is the place I love, she mourned. Even though I know Thunderchild does not feel the same, I would trade away the rich markets and great honors of the ambassadorship at Voadene with pleasure, if it meant we could only stay here for the rest of our days. And maybe my replacement here will prove wise and worthy... but she will never love the Ramat colony as I do. Never.