For millennia the colonists of the planet Brezlun have lived in peace, in four utterly different cultures. The last of the starship’s androids, missing for centuries, returns to demand that a young woman join him on a quest, to travel the world and reestablish communication with the ship before he breaks down. But a fanatical sect of assassins threatens to kill anyone who attempts this blasphemy.
Four thousand years ago a starship deposited four very different cultures, grown strange in the confines of the ship on a six thousand-year voyage, onto the terraformed world called Brezlun. The colonists no longer remembered where they came from or why. Each culture was given two androids, called Mediators, that could communicate with the ship and help them get started on the new world.
One by one the Mediators vanished, lost at sea or in accidents, some destroyed intentionally by the people they were sent to help, until there was only one left. Then that one too vanished, for four hundred years, until he suddenly reappeared in the home of a young woman named Miako, who as a child had wanted to travel the world but instead ended up as a census clerk with a hidden musical gift.
The Mediator is dying, and he wants Miako to help him reestablish contact with the ship before he does. To do that she must leave her small, comfortable life and actually live out her childhood dream: travel to each of the four nations and search through their relics for the parts the Mediator needs to rebuild his broken communicator.
So a timid woman finds herself on a terrifying quest, forced into becoming the most celebrated and important person on the planet. They seek out first the buried relics in her home country, the ritual-bound farmers that make up two-thirds of the planet’s people. They travel to a city built into the slope of a dead volcano, where the technology wizards that guard the stability of the world hoard their treasures and plan ahead for a thousand years.
On the continent where only women dwell, Miako is a living legend to the common people but finds herself ruthlessly interrogated by successive layers of the communal hierarchy, right up to the all-powerful queen. And their last stop is the continent of horsemen, polygamous warriors whose swords are forged by their wives, where the tribes follow a schedule of bloody battles to weed out the weak and to hone their skills.
As Miako collects friends and allies, she grows into the role the Mediator has forced her to assume. She will need all of her new-found strength and determination, and all of her friends’ help, when the future of the world is threatened by a band of fanatical assassins who believe that the Mediator’s quest is a blasphemy against their god’s wishes—and they’re willing to kill everyone involved to stop them from succeeding.
Miako paused outside Suzata’s house, tucked her flute case under her arm, and slowly performed the rite of leave-taking. She was in no hurry to get home, but she’d had enough of the party, and her friends—understanding without either condoning or condemning her antisocial tendencies—had let her go. The drinking would go on in her honor into the small hours of the morning. It was the evening of the first day of the first week of the year, her birthday and her choiceday; more than enough reason to celebrate.
When she’d completed the right hand flourish that ended the ritual, she took the flute case by its handle and paused. The case had been carved from a solid block of mahogany, embellished all over with shallow, abstract designs that somehow evoked melody. It had been made by her father’s frenik, Tapadak Wheatgrinder, who had been like a second father to her. He had presented it to her exactly ten years ago today, and instructed her solemnly to take it to the farthest edges of the world; to make music for the strange women who lived without men, and for the men who stopped fighting each other only long enough to get all their wives pregnant, and for the magicians who lived up on the ice.
She had never taken it farther than Littapo. Her mother had called last week to say that Tapadak was dead, burned and scattered in the fields he loved at the age of one hundred and one.
Feeling as if she’d disappointed the old man—a man who’d been old her entire life, old when she’d been born—she denied herself the release of running home. Running was her normal reaction to sadness, or any unpleasant feeling, but she felt she didn’t deserve it today, and anyway she was a decade past choiceday and still living in Felittaka. Past time to grow up.
The moon was up and nearly full, dragging fog off the high tide in Arrow Bay. She couldn’t see the sea but she could hear it and smell it, though it lay a mile away. The section of Littapo where she and Suzata lived was not fashionable or wealthy. The houses were modest, uniform ceramic spheres, one-third buried in the rocky soil. As she walked down the lane, passing into and out of the cones of light thrown by electric lamps, the fog thickened and wafted around her, hiding her neighbors’ houses and threatening to obscure the moon.
She couldn’t resist the melancholy any longer. She stopped midway between two lights, standing in the middle of the deserted lane, opened the case and took out her flute. It gleamed in the inconstant moonlight. She put it to her lips and played the opening bars of the Shadow Waltz, closing her eyes and letting the feeling flow from her heart to her lungs and fingers and out of the instrument.
“Miako!” someone yelled from far behind her. “Stop playing that sad s*** and go home!”
Miako laughed, blew one final, rude note, and returned the instrument to its case.