In the wake of civil war, Bren Cameron, the brilliant human diplomat allied with Tabini-aiji, dynamic atevi leader of the Western Association, has left the capital and sought temporary refuge at his country estate, Najida. But Najida has proven to be the opposite of a safe haven. For though the rebel usurper has been killed by Tabini's forces, and the capital has been purged of his factions, insurgents still persist in other districts, and their center of power, the Marid, lies perilously close to Bren's western coastal estate.
Now, Bren, along with Ilisidi, Tabini's powerful grandmother, and Cajeiri, Tabini's young son and heir, is trapped inside Najida, which has been transformed into an armed fortress and is surrounded by enemies.
But ancient, wily Ilisidi is not inclined to be passive, and in a brazen and shockingly dangerous maneuver, she sends Bren and his bodyguards into enemy territory. He is to travel to the palace of the leader of the Marid, a young lord named Machigi, in a district virtually at war with the Western Association. Bren's mission is to attempt to negotiate with Machigi - an atevi lord who has never actually seen a human - and somehow persuade him to cease his hostile actions against the West.
Though Bren does gain admittance to Machigi's home, and even an audience with the young lord, Ilisidi has not given him any explicit directions about this negotiation, and Bren is unsure what he is sanctioned to offer. He knows that Machigi is a young autocrat who rules a fractious, faction-ridden clan, and that his continued hospitality is not guaranteed.
Bren's genius for negotiation and his extensive knowledge of atevi politics, history, and economics enable him to make a daring trade offer to Machigi - one that seems to interest the young warlord. But Machigi is understandably suspicious of Ilisidi's motives, and to Bren's utter shock, evokes an ancient law.
Bren wears the white ribbon that for the last two centuries has identified the single official human-atevi negotiator. But before humans landed, this white ribbon represented a specialized negotiator between atevi adversaries - a mediator who agreed to represent both sides with equal loyalty. These ancient mediators frequently ended up dead.
Can Bren stay alive, and not alienate Ilisidi or Tabini, while also representing the interests of their enemy?
C. J. Cherryh (born 1942) is the pen name of Carolyn Janice Cherry, a multiple-award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer. She currently resides in Spokane County, Washington.
Cherryh is pronounced ”Cherry”. The author appended a silent ”h” to her real name because her first editor felt that ”Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer.
The asteroid 77185 Cherryh has been named in her honour.