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"The fascination," my father says, "lies in the fact that they are at war in the first place."

"Too right," says Mr. Shaw. "We take for granted that the Spire is a place without such hostilities—that we have transcended the ways of war in favor of peace and negotiation. To see the Xoe and the Aven'ei in conflict is to look into our past—and to appreciate how far we have come."

"Did you know," my mother says, addressing the Shaws, "that Vaela and I are of Aven'ei descent?"

Aaden looks back and forth between the two of us. "Are you quite sure?" he says. "Many claim as much, but it's rarely true."

She smiles. "We can trace it all the way back to one of my ancestors, a Miss Delia Waters. She was a cultural attaché for the East—an illustrious position, all told—and spent a great deal of time on the Continent, back in that all-too-short bit of time when we had contact with those living overseas. Anyhow, we haven't all the details, but we know she married an Aven'ei by the name of Qia who died soon after their wedding. She returned to the Spire, kept her given name, and gave birth to a baby boy—Roderick—a man of considerable accomplishment, so the story goes."

"Qia," Aaden says, tapping his fingers upon the table. "A curious name for an Aven'ei. Typically—"

"I'm sure we don't need a lecture in linguistics, son," says Mr. Shaw, glancing sidelong at Aaden. He turns back to my mother. "What a fascinating history, Mrs. Sun. An exceedingly rare lineage among Spirians, to be sure, and one you must count with great pride."

"Absolutely," she agrees, smiling. "I have always felt part of the world at large, rather than just bound to a small space on the atlas. Does that make any sense at all?"

"I do hope you haven't inherited any violent tendencies," says Mrs. Shaw, before sticking a forkful of duck confit into her mouth, chewing it carefully, and swallowing. "I suspect that sort of thing gets passed right down through the generations. Bit of a questionable lineage, isn't it?"

A hush falls over the table at this remark; my mother and father shift in their chairs, and I sit quietly, poking at my entree, my face flaming even though I am certainly not the one who should be embarrassed. Eventually, Mrs. Shaw looks round at us, her eyes wide. "What? Have I said something off?"

Mr. Shaw clears his throat. "Now, dearest," he says, "that's a rather singular way of thinking, isn't it? An outmoded way of thinking? Violence itself is not a thing exclusive to the Xoe and the Aven'ei. After all, before the Four Nations united to become the Spire, the people of our own lands were ever locked in some conflict or another."

My father nods. "The tour will be, as you say, like a look into our own past. But at least we can see it all from the safety of the heli-plane, yes? Not the sort of place you'd like to go tramping about on foot."

"Oh, I don't know," Aaden says, "it might be quite a thrill to see all that blood and gore up close."

"Aaden, please," says Mrs. Shaw, making a face. "We are at supper."

My mother pushes her plate away. "I think it's a dreadful shame that in all these years, the Xoe and the Aven'ei haven't been able to sort out their differences."

Mrs. Shaw rolls her eyes skyward. "I say let them kill each other. One day they'll figure out that war suits no one, or else they'll drive themselves to extinction. Either way, it makes no difference to me."

My mother, dark-haired, lovely, and generally made of warm smiles, becomes the picture of frost. "We are talking about people, Mrs. Shaw. Flesh and blood. Fathers, brothers, mothers, daughters."

Mrs. Shaw bristles. "People without the good sense to realize that there are ways to solve disagreements not involving blood or dismemberment."

"Well," says Mr. Shaw, "I believe the Xoe and the Aven'ei will work out their differences in their own time. Peace always prevails. They will find a way forward— I'd bet my hat on it." He raises a glass. "Now. Let those of us here be thankful that the forefathers of our great United Nation had the will and the courage to envision a world of peace for all who would choose it."

Glasses are raised all around the table.

"Hear, hear," my father says, and the whole party drinks: to peace, to hope, to the Spire. I take a small sip of champagne; from the corner of my eye, I see Aaden watching me.

I am surprised to find that I am flattered. Uneasy. But flattered.

* * *


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
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