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Autumn came early on the high plains. Even though the leaves were as green, the gra.s.ses as thick, Maati felt the change. It wasn't a chill, but the presentiment of one: a sharpness to air that had been soft and torpid with summer heat. Another few weeks and the trees would turn to red and gold, the mornings would come late, the sunsets early. The endless change would change again. For the first time in years, Maati found himself pleased by the thought.
The days following his return had fallen into a rhythm. In the mornings, he and his students worked on the simple tasks of maintenance that the school demanded: mending the coops for the chickens they'd brought from Utani, weeding the paths, was.h.i.+ng the webs and dust from the corners of the rooms. At midday, they stopped, made food, and rested in the shade of the gardens or on the long, sloping hills where he had taken lessons as a boy. Afterward, he would retire for the afternoon, preparing his lectures and writing in his book until his eyes ached and then taking a short nap to revive before the evening lecture. And always, whatever the day brought, the subject drew itself back to Vanjit and Clarity-ofSight.
"What about when you see things that aren't there?" Small Kae said.
"Dreams, you mean?" Eiah asked.
Maati leaned forward on the podium. The cla.s.sroom was larger than they required, all six of his students sitting in the first row. The high, narrow windows that had never known gla.s.s let the evening breeze disturb their lanterns. He had ended his remarks early. He found there was less need to fill the time with his knowledge than there had once been. Now a few remarks and comments would spur conversation and a.n.a.lysis that often led far from where he had intended. But it was rarely unproductive and never dull.
"Dreams," Small Kae said. "Or when you mistake things for other things."
"My brother had a fever once," Ashti Beg said. "Saw rats coming through the walls for three days."
"I don't think that applies," Eiah said. "The definitions we've based the draft on are all physicians' texts. They have to do with the actual function of the eye."
"But if you see a thing without your eyes," Small Kae began.
"Then you're imagining them," Vanjit said, her voice calm and certain. "And the pa.s.sages on clarity would prevent the contradiction."
"What contradiction?" Large Kae asked.
"Who can answer that?" Maati said, leaping into the fray. "It's a good question, but any of you should be able to think it through. Ashti-cha? Would you care to?"
The older woman sucked her teeth for a moment. A sparrow flew in through one window, its wings fluttering like a pennant in the wind, and then out again.
"Clarity," Ashti Beg said slowly. "The sense of clarity implies that it's reflecting the world as it is, ne? And if you see something that's not there to be seen, it's not the world as it is. Even if imagining something is like sight, it isn't like clarity."
"Very good," Maati said, and the woman smiled. Maati smiled back.
The binding had progressed more quickly than Maati had thought possible. For the greatest part, the advances had been made in moments like these. Seven minds prodding at the same thought, debating the nuances and structures, challenging one another to understand the issues at hand more deeply. Someone-anyone-would find a phrase or a thought that struck sparks, and Vanjit would pull pages from her sleeve and mark down whatever had pushed her one step nearer the edge.
It was happening less and less often. The binding, Maati knew, was coming near its final form. The certainty in Vanjit's voice and the angle of her shoulders told him as much about her chances of success as looking over the details of her binding.
As they ended the evening's session, reluctant despite yawns and heavy-lidded eyes, Maati realized that the work they were doing was less like his own training before the Dai-kvo and more like the long, arduous hours he had spent with Cehmai. Somehow, during his absence, they had all become equals. Not in knowledge-he was still far and away the best informed-but in status. Where he had once had a body of students, he was working now with a group of novice poets. A lizard scampered along before him and then up the rough wall and into the darkness. A nightingale sang.
He was exhausted, his body heavy, his mind beginning to spark and slip. And he was also elated. The wide night sky above him seemed rich with promise, the ground he walked upon eager to bear him up.
His bed, however, didn't invite sleep. Small pains in his knees and spine prodded him, and his mind failed to calm. The light of the halfmoon cast shadows on the walls that seemed to move of their own accord. The restlessness of age, as opposed, he thought with weary amus.e.m.e.nt, to the restlessness of youth. As he lay there, small doubts began to arise, gnawing at him. Perhaps Vanjit wasn't ready yet to take on the role of poet. Perhaps he and Eiah in their need and optimism were sending the girl to her death.
There was no way to know another person's heart. No way to judge. It might be that Vanjit herself was as afraid of this as he was, but held by her despair and anger and sense of obligation to the others to move forward as if she weren't.
Every poet that bound an andat came face-to-face with their own flaws, their own failures. Maati's first master, Heshai-kvo, had made Seedless the embodiment of his own self-hatred, but that was only one extreme example. Kiai Jut three generations earlier had bound Flatness only to find the andat bent on destroying the family the poet secretly hated. Magar Inarit had famously bound Unwoven only to discover his own shameful desires made manifest in his creation. The work of binding the andat was of such depth and complexity, the poet's true self was difficult if not impossible to hide within it. And what, he wondered, would Vanjit discover about herself if she succeeded? With all the hours they had spent on the mechanics of the binding, was it not also his responsibility to prepare the girl to face her imperfections?
His mind worried at the questions like a dog at a bone. As the moon vanished from his window and left him with only the night candle, Maati rose. A walk might work the kinks from his muscles.
The school was a different place at night. The ravages of war and time were less obvious, the shapes of the looming walls and hallways familiar and p.r.o.ne to stir the ancient memories of the boy Maati had been. Here, for instance, was the rough stone floor of the main hall. He had cleaned these very stones when his hands had been smooth and strong and free from the dark, liver-colored spots. He stood at the place where Milah-kvo had first offered him the black robes. He remembered both the pride of the moment and the sense, hardly noticed at the time, that it was an honor he didn't wholly deserve.
"Would you have done it differently, Milah-kvo?" he asked the dead man and the empty air. "If you had known what I was going to do, would you still have made the offer?"
The air said nothing. Maati felt himself smile without knowing precisely why.
He turned. In the dim light of his candle, Eiah seemed like a ghost. Something conjured from his memory. He took a pose of greeting.
"You're awake," she said, falling into step beside him.
"Sometimes sleep abandons old men," he said with a chuckle. "It's the way of things. And you? I can't think you make a practice of wandering the halls in the middle of the night."
"I've just left Vanjit. She sits up after the lecture is done and goes over everything we said. Everything anyone said. I agreed to sit with her and compare my memory to hers."
"She's a good girl," Maati said.
"Her dreams are getting worse," Eiah said. "If the situation were different, I'd be giving her a sleeping powder. I'm afraid it will dull her, though."
"They're bad then?" Maati said.
Eiah shrugged. In the dim light, her face seemed older.
"They're no worse than anyone who watched her family die before her eyes. She has told you, hasn't she?"
"She was a child," Maati said. "The only one to live."
"She said no more than that?"
"No," Maati said. They pa.s.sed through a stone archway and into the courtyard. Eiah looked up at the stars.
"It's as much as I know too," Eiah said. "I try to coax her. To get her to speak about it. But she won't."
"Why try?" Maati said. "Talking won't undo it. Let her be who and where she is now. It's better that way."
Eiah took a pose that accepted his advice, but her face didn't entirely match it. He put a hand on her shoulder.
"It will be fine," he said.
"Will it?" Eiah said. "I tell myself the same thing, but I don't always believe it."
Maati stopped at a stone bench, flicked a snail from the seat, and rested. Eiah sat at his side, hunched over, her elbows on her knees.
"You think we should stop this?" he asked. "Call off the binding?"
"What reason could we give?"
"That Vanjit isn't ready."
"It isn't true, though. Her mind is as good as any of ours will ever be. If I called this to a halt, I'd be saying I didn't trust her to be a poet. Because of what she's been through. That the Galts had taken that from her too. And if I say that of her, who won't it be true of? Ashti Beg lost her husband. Irit's father burned with his farm. Large Kae only had her womb turned sick and saw the Khai Utani slaughtered with his family. If we're looking for a woman who's never known pain, we may as well pack up our things now, because there isn't one."
Maati let the silence stretch, in part to leave Eiah room to think. In part because he didn't know what wisdom he could offer.
"No, Uncle Maati, I don't want to stop. I only ... I only hope this brings her some peace," Eiah said.
"It won't," Maati said, gently. "It may heal some part of her. It may bring good to the world, but the andat have never brought peace to poets."
"No. I suppose not," Eiah said. Then, a moment later, "I'm going into Pathai. I'll just need a cart and one of the horses."
"Is there need?"
"We aren't starving, if that's what you mean. But buying at the markets there attracts less notice than going straight to the low towns. It would be better if no one knows there are people living out here. And there might be news."
"And if there's news, there will be some idea of how soon Vanjit-cha will need to make her attempt."
"I was thinking more of how much time I have," Eiah said. She turned to look at him. The warm light of the candle and the cool glow of the moon made her seem like two different women at once. "This doesn't rest on Vanjit. It doesn't rest on any of them. Binding an andat isn't enough to ... fix things. It has to be the right one."
"And Clarity-of-Sight isn't the right one?" he asked.
"It won't give any of these women babies. It won't put them back in the arms of the men who used to be their husbands or stop men like my father from trading in women's flesh like we were sheep. None of it. All the binding will do is prove that it can be done. That a solution exists. It doesn't even mean I'll be strong enough when my turn comes."
Maati took her hand. He had known her for so many years. Her hand had been so small that first time he had seen her. He remembered her deep brown eyes, and the way she had gurgled and burrowed into her mother's cradling arms. He could still see the shape of that young face in the shape of her cheeks and the set of her jaw. He leaned over and kissed her hair. She looked up at him, amused to see him so easily moved.
"I was only thinking," he said, "how many of us there are carrying this whole burden alone."
"I know I'm not alone, Maati-kya. It only feels like it some nights."
"It does. It certainly does," he said. Then, "Do you think she'll manage it?"
Eiah rose silently, took a pose that marked parting with nuances as intimate as family, and walked back into the buildings of the school. Maati sighed and lay back on the stone, looking up into the night sky. A shooting star blazed from the eastern sky toward the north and vanished like an ember gone cold.
He wondered if Otah-kvo still looked at the sky, or if he had grown too busy being the Emperor. The days and nights of power and feasting and admiration might rob him of simple beauties like a night sky or a fear grown less by being shared. Might, in fact, cut Otah-kvo off from all the things that gave meaning to people lower than himself. He was, after all, planning his new empire by denying all the women injured by the last war any hope of those simple, human pleasures. A babe. A family. Tens of thousands of women, cut free from the lives they were ent.i.tled to, now to be forgotten.
He wondered if a man who could do that still had enough humanity left to enjoy a falling star or the song of a nightingale.
He hoped not.
Eiah left the next morning. The high road was still in good repair, and travel along it was an order of magnitude faster than the tracking Maati had done between the low towns. When Maati and the others saw her off, she was wearing simple robes and the leather satchel hung at her side. She could have been mistaken for any traveling physician. Maati might have imagined it, but he thought that Vanjit held her parting stance longer than the others, that her eyes followed Eiah more hungrily.
When the horse and cart had gone far enough that even the dust from the hooves and wheels was invisible, they turned back to the business at hand. Until midday, they sc.r.a.ped soot and a decade's fallen leaves out from the sh.e.l.l of one of the gutted buildings. Irit found the bones of some forgotten boy who had been caught in that long-cooled fire, and they held a brief ceremony in remembrance of the slaughtered poets and student boys in whose path they all traveled. Vanjit especially was sober and pale as Maati finished his words and committed the bones to a fresh-made, hotter blaze that would, he hoped, return the old bones to their proper ash.
As they made their way back from the pyre, he made a point to walk at her side. Her olive skin and well-deep eyes reminded him of his first lover, Liat. The mother of the child who should have been his own. Even before she spoke, his breast ached like a once-broken arm presaging a s.h.i.+ft of weather.
"I was thinking of my brother," Vanjit said. "He was near that boy's age. Not highborn, of course. They didn't take normal people here then, did they?"
"No," Maati said. "Nor women, for that."
"It's a strange thought. It already seems like home to me. Like I've always been here," the girl said, then s.h.i.+fted her weight, her shoulders turning a degree toward Maati even as they walked side by side. "You've always known Eiah-cha, haven't you?"
"As long as she's known anything," Maati said with a chuckle. "Possibly a bit longer. I was living in Machi for years and years before the war."
"She must be very important to you."
"She's been my salvation, in her way. Without her, none of us would be here."
"You would have found a way," Vanjit said. Her voice was odd, a degree harder than Maati had expected. Or perhaps he had imagined it, because when she went on, there was no particular bite to the words. "You're clever and wise enough, and I'm sure there are more people in places of influence that would have given you aid, if you'd asked."
"Perhaps," Maati said. "But I knew from the first I could trust Eiah. That carries quite a bit of weight. Without trust, I don't know if I would have hit on the idea of coming here. Before, I always kept to places I could leave easily."
"She said that you wouldn't let her bind the first andat," Vanjit said. "One of us has to succeed before you'll let her make the attempt."
"That's so," Maati agreed, a moment's discomfort pa.s.sing through him. He didn't want to explain the thinking behind that decision. When Vanjit went on, it was happily not in that direction.
"She's shown me some of the work she's done. She's working from the same books that I am, you know."
"Yes," Maati said. "That was a good thought, using sources from the Westlands. The more things we can use that weren't part of how the old poets thought, the better off we are."
Maati described Cehmai's suggestion of making an andat and withdrawing its influence as a strategy of Eiah, pleased to have steered the conversation to safe waters. Vanjit listened, her full attention upon him. Ashti Beg and Irit, walking before them, paused. If Vanjit hadn't hesitated, Maati thought he might not have noticed until he b.u.mped into them.
"Small Kae is making soup for dinner," Irit said. "If you have time to help her ..."
"Maati-kvo's much too busy for that," Vanjit said.
When Ashti Beg spoke, her voice was dry as sand.
"Irit-cha might not have been speaking to him."
Vanjit's spine stiffened, and then, with a laugh, relaxed. She smiled at all of them as she took a contrite pose, accepting the correction. Irit reached out and placed her hand on Vanjit's shoulder as a sister might.
"I'm so proud of you," Irit said, grinning. "I'm just so happy and proud."
"So are we all," Ashti Beg said. Maati smiled, but the sense that something had happened sat at the back of his mind. As the four of them walked to the kitchens-the air growing rich with the salt-and-fat scent of pork and the dark, earthy scent of boiled lentils-Maati reviewed what each of them had said, the tones of voice, the angles at which they had held themselves. Small Kae a.s.signed tasks to all of them except Maati, and he waited for a time, listening to the simple banter and the crack of knives against wood. When he took his leave, he was troubled.
He was not so far removed from his boyhood that he had forgotten what jealousy felt like. He'd suffered it himself in these same halls and rooms. One boy or another was always in favor, and the others wis.h.i.+ng that they were. Walking through the bare gardens, Maati wondered whether he had allowed the same thing to happen. Vanjit was certainly the center of all their work and activity. Had Ashti Beg and Irit interrupted their conversation from an urge to take his attention, or at least deny it to her?
And then there was some question of Vanjit's heart.
The truth was that Eiah had been right. For all the hope and attention placed upon her, the project of the school was not truly Vanjit and Clarity-of-Sight. It would be Eiah and Wounded. Vanjit had seen it. It couldn't be pleasant, knowing she was taking the lead not for her own sake but to blaze the trail for another. He would speak to her. He would have to speak with her. Rea.s.sure her.
After the last of the lentil soup had been sopped up by the final crust of bread, Maati took Vanjit aside. It didn't go as he had expected.
"It isn't that Eiah-cha's work is more important," Maati said, his hands in a pose meant to convey a gentle authority. "You are taking the greater risk, and the role of the first of the poets of a new age. It's only that there are certain benefits that Eiah-cha brings because of her position at court. Once those aren't needed any longer, you see-"
Vanjit kissed him. Maati sat back. The girl's smile was broad, genuine, and oddly pitying. Her hands took a pose that offered correction.
"Ah, Maati-kvo. You think it matters that Eiah is more important than I am?"
"I didn't ... I wouldn't put it that way."
"Let me. Eiah is more important than I am. I'm first because I'm the scout. That's all. But if I do well, if I can make this binding work, then she will have your permission. And then we can do anything. That's all I want."
Maati ran a hand through his hair. He found that none of the words he had practiced fit the moment. Vanjit seemed to understand his silence. When she went on, her voice was low and gentle.
"There's a difference between why you came to this place and why we have," she said. "Your father sent you here in hopes of glory. He hoped that you would rise through the ranks of all the boys and be sent to the Daikvo and become a poet. It isn't like that for me. I don't want to be a poet. Did you understand that?"
Maati took a pose that expressed both an acceptance of correction and a query. Vanjit responded with one appropriate to thanking someone of higher status.
"I had the dream again," Vanjit said. "I've been having it every night, almost. He's in me. And he's s.h.i.+fting and moving and I can hear his heart beating."
"I'm sorry," Maati said.
"No, Maati-kvo, that's just it. I wake up, and I'm not sad any longer. It was only hard when I thought it would never come. Now, I wake up, and I'm happy all day long. I can feel him getting close. He'll be here. What is being a poet beside that?"
Nayiit, he thought.
Maati didn't expect the tears, they simply welled up in his eyes. The pain in his breast was so sudden and sharp, he almost mistook the sorrow for illness. She put her hand on his, her expression anxious. He forced himself to smile.
"You're quite right," he said. "Quite right. Come along now. The bowls are all washed, and it's time we got to work."
He made his way to the hall they had set aside for cla.s.ses. His heart was both heavy and light: heavy with the renewed sorrow of his boy's death, light at Vanjit's reaction to him. She had known Eiah's work to be of greater importance, and had already made her peace with her own lesser role. He wondered whether, in her place and at her age, he would have been able to do the same. He doubted it.
That evening, his lecture was particularly short, and the conversation after it was lively and pointed and thoughtful. In the days that followed, Maati abandoned his formal teaching entirely, instead leading discussion after discussion, a.n.a.lysis after a.n.a.lysis. Together, they tore Vanjit's binding of Clarity-of-Sight apart, and together they rebuilt it. Each time, Maati thought it was stronger, the images and resonances of it more appropriate to one another, the grammar that formed it more precise.
It was difficult to call the process to a halt, but in the end, it was Vanjit and Vanjit alone who would make the attempt. They might help her and advise her, but he allocated two full weeks in which the binding was hers and hers alone.
Low clouds came in the morning Eiah returned. They scudded in from the north on a wind cold as winter. Maati knew it wouldn't take. There were weeks of heat and sun to come before the seasons changed. And yet, there was a part of Maati's mind that couldn't help seeing the s.h.i.+ft as an omen. And a positive one, he told himself. Change, the movement of the seasons, the proper order of the world: those were what he tried to see in the low, gray roof of the sky. Not the presentiment of barren winter.
"The news is strange," Eiah said as they unloaded her cart. Boxes of salt pork and raw flour, canisters of spice and hard cheese. "The Galts have fallen on Saraykeht like they owned it, but something didn't go well. I can't tell if my brother thought the girl was too ugly or she fell into a fit when she was presented, but something went badly. What I heard was early and muddled. I'll know better next time I go."
"Anything that hurts him helps us," Maati said. "So whatever it was, it's good."
"That was my thought," Eiah said, but her voice was somber. When he took a pose of query, she didn't answer it.
"How have things progressed here?" she asked instead.
"Well. Very well. I think Vanjit is ready."
Eiah stopped, wiping her sleeve across her forehead. She looked old. How many summers had she seen? Thirty? Thirty-one? Her eyes were deeper than thirty summers.
"When?" she asked.
"We were only waiting for you to come back," he said. Then, trying for levity, "You've brought the wine and food for a celebration. So tomorrow, we'll do something worth celebrating."
Or else something to mourn, he thought but did not say.