Shirasiau Sai’Li stood before the mirror in her dressing room, water dripping from her naked body as two attendants came to dry her with soft felted towels and powder her skin with talc. She allowed her eyes to drift over the curves of her body and smiled in satisfaction. She was perfect. The balance of beauty, grace and strength that had been achieved through countless hours of practice and training.
“Sha. The dark blue eye makeup, ivory face paint and black lip covering today.” She gestured with a hand that had inch long lacquered fingernails. “Ling. I desire the Kimono with the scenes of ocean. The gray, seafoam green, surf blue and white.”
The two women retreated silently and returned with the requested accoutrements within a few moments. They likely had anticipated her mood; good servants always did. Oh how she would miss her servants. After a half candlemark, she was dressed to her satisfaction and holding her parasol demurely in one hand as she descended the stairs to have tea with her father.
“My little Sai’Li.” Shirasiau Kanimari, the Lord of the Silk Fortress and Master of the Saffron Trading Company greeted her with a smile that did not touch his eyes. “How does my Third Daughter fare this morning?”
“I am well Father.” She said with a formal bow. “Please allow me to make the tea.”
Without waiting, she tucked her parasol into her Obi, moved to the sideboard and poured boiling water into a small cup, spooned the tea powder into it and whipped it into a froth. She brought two warm cups of tea with a tall cone of froth, demurely sliding one of the cups across the table to him before kneeling on the tatami on her side of the table.
For a time, all was normal. the beautiful birds in the garden outside sang, a soft breeze blew the scent of flowering trees into the room and Sai’Li savored the complex flavor of her tea. Then her father interrupted the silence.
“I have a mission for you Third Daughter. Our holdings are in danger now that this new land has appeared.” Kanimari took up his cup and sipped, sighing in pure satisfaction, “As much as it pains me, this means one of my children must go forth and forge new pathways, set up new contacts and represent our Family.”
Sai’Li’s tea sat getting cold on the tabletop and she stared at him for a few heartbeats. “Father you cannot mean-“
His hand slammed down on the tabletop, not hard enough to make the cups jump but with the open flat striking like a thunderclap. “I will have obedience from my children.” He remarked calmly, taking another sip of tea.
Her lower lip trembled even though she tried to stop it, “Father, how have I upset you? What have I done to disappoint you?”
“Sai’Li, my darling, you have done nothing to upset or disappoint me.” He said, taking another drink of his tea. “I have chosen you because of your exceptional skill.”
The door opened and a servant walked carefully through it, holding a tray with bowls of Miso soup and sticky rice. He set it on the table and began to bow and retreat. Something caught Sai’Li’s attention and she moved a hand faster than the blink of an eye, taking her fan from the front of her Obi and striking him on the wrist.
A dagger clattered to the floor at his feet as he shrieked in pain as the razor edges the fan was tipped with sliced effortlessly through his flesh. Green bubbling foam rose from the wound and the servant fell twitching to the floor. Within a few moments, he was dead.
“Father. This is most uncouth.” Sai’Li said, standing, opening her fan in front of her mouth and giving him a look of mild reproach. “I must insist that this kind of behavior be reserved for after morning tea.”
Kanimari laughed, a genuine and pleased sound. “Now you see Third Daughter why I wish you to be our emissary on this mission. Not only are you clever, you also have the reflexes and mercy of a hunting cobra. You struck without hesitation and killed without question.”
“But father. The rugged outdoors? How will I survive?” Her voice grew slightly desperate, “You do not really expect me to walk among savages and sleep on the ground?”
“I have of course taken care of that.” He said with a wry smile. “Ignis has agreed to be your escort, and I am sure we can find you a pavilion to sleep in.”
Sai’Li folded onto a couch with the delicate grace of a shower of Sakura petals. “Honored father, you surely cannot mean it. The scarred Dwarf? The arsonist? The crude one?”
“Kanimari, you didn’t mention she was such a prissy whelp.” Ignis strode into the room accompanied by the smell of old smoke. “Don’t expect we’ll be traveling much roads, not sure a pavilion or such a delicate flower will be able to manage. Gah, I’ll be making my favor owed a good one for this task.”
Kanimari’s eyes narrowed for a moment at the use of his given name, but… the Dwarf hadn’t given offense intentionally. Or if he had, it was a calculated risk to show the depth of the favor he was expecting.
“I believe our conversation regarding the safety and security of wild areas was included in the risk and compensation analysis?” He said, making a minute gesture with his hand. “Please, won’t you sit?”
Sai’Li saw it and rose silently and gracefully from where she had reclined. With a whisper of silk, she fixed another cup of tea. Intuitively, she chose the Dragonfire tea, the sharpest flavor that had been roasted until it was heavy with smoke and bitter as an adder’s sting.
Ignis stumped around the table, nearly tripped over the dead body and paused, raising an eyebrow at Kanimari. The man’s lips rose in a very slight smile that did not touch his eyes.
“An unfortunate accident. This fool thought perhaps he might try and sink a knife into my Third Daughter’s back when she was not looking. As you can see, though she may be a delicate flower, her thorns are long and sharp.
“These new and uncharted lands have great potential for development.” Kanimari continued, “Of course you will wish to mitigate that development and secure some unspoiled land, perhaps to set up a new Circle since I have heard rumors that you were cast out of yours?”
Ignis grunted, snatching the porcelain cup of tea from the table as soon as Sai’Li put it down and tossing it back without tasting it. She stared at him, horrified, but said nothing.
“Someday you’re gonna have to tell me who keeps feeding you these juicy tidbits.” He said holding his cup out to Sai’Li as though he expected her to simply pour more tea into it. At a gesture from Kanimari, she took it and prepared a second cup. Despite the way he was treating her tea, the ceremony was sacred and she made a second perfect cup.
“If you pause to appreciate the complexity of this blend friend Dwarf, you may discover it has characters you admire.” Sai’Li said as she set the tea on the table next to Ignis.
He took a mouthful and swished it around before swallowing. “All I taste is smoke. But of course, I was just out in a big fire in … well I don’t need to get into that do I?”
“Honored father, if I may I must retire to prepare for my exile.” Sai’Li said mournfully, “With your permission I will withdraw that I may ready my things and put my affairs in order.
“Third Daughter, I have something for you before you depart.” Kanimari said, his smile touched the corner of his eyes this time as he extended an envelope on a silver tray.
She took it, broke the seal with a lacquered nail and read it carefully. Her eyes widened slightly; something that was as good as a startled shout in her family and she snapped her fan open in front of her face to hide the brief flash of emotion.
“You honor me father. I shall, as always, endeavor to do my best to ensure the best interests of the Family and Saffron Trading are well represented.” She bowed and backed up three paces before withdrawing.
Kanimari chuckled, a mirthless sound. “Her sisters will be furious of course.” He remarked to Ignis.
“I don’t give a wet rat for your family politics.” The Dwarf said, drinking the rest of his tea in a gulp. “You got that contract?”
Kanimari laughed again and produced a roll of parchment with a long and carefully worded contract on it. With an effort of will, Ignis gestured, and the parchment vanished in a flash of flame and smoke.
“You got my word. If that ain’t enough for ya then flame burn your thrice cursed mission to ash.”
The man snapped his fingers twice, his eyes not leaving the Dwarf’s face. Servants came in to clean the table top with lavender scented water and another brought a small ramekin of steaming water with a slender ceramic jar inside. Two tiny cups accompanied it.
“I had planned for this contingency of course.” He said calmly, “We will seal the contract in a more traditional and Dwarven way. With our word and with a drink. I trust that hot sake will be acceptable?”