The Price Of Spring (Page 7)

Maati relived his conversation with Cehmai a thousand times in the weeks that followed. He rose in the morning from whatever rough camp or wayhouse bed he'd fallen into the night before, and he muttered his arguments to Cehmai. He rode his weary mule along overgrown tracks thick with heat and heavy with humidity, and he spoke aloud, gesturing. He ate his evening meals with the late sunset of summer, and in his mind, Cehmai sat across from him, dumbfounded and ashamed, persuaded at last by the force of Maati's argument. And when Maati's imagination returned him to the world as it was, his failure and shame poured in on him afresh.

Every low town he passed through, the mud streets empty of the sound of children, was a rebuke. Every woman he met, an accusation. He had failed. He had gone to the one man in the world who might have lightened his burden, and he had been refused. The better part of the season was lost to him now. It was time he should have spent with the girls, preparing the grammar and writing his book. They were days he would never win back. If he had stayed, perhaps they would have had a breakthrough. Perhaps there would already be an andat in the world, and Otah's plans ruined.

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And what if by going after Cehmai, Maati had somehow lost that chance? With every day, it seemed more likely. As the trees and deer of the river valleys gave way to the high, dry plains between Pathai and ruined Nantani, Maati became more and more sure that his error had been catastrophic. Irretrievable. And so it was also another mark against Otah Machi. Otah, the Emperor, to whom no rules applied.

Maati found the high road, and then the turning that would lead, given half a day's ride, to the school. To his students. To Eiah. He camped at the crossroads.

He was too old to be living on muleback. Lying in the thin folds of his bedroll, he ached as if he'd been beaten. His back had been suffering spasms for days; they had grown painful enough that he hadn't slept deeply. And his exhaustion seemed to make his muscles worse. The high plains grew cool at night, almost cold, and the air smelled of dust. He heard the skittering of lizards or mice and the low call of owls. The stars shone down on him, each point of light smeared by his aging eyes until the whole sky seemed possessed by a single luminous cloud.

There had been a time he'd lain under stars and picked out constellations. There was a time his body could have taken rest on cobblestone, had the need arisen. There was a time Cehmai, poet of Machi and master of Stone-Made-Soft, had looked up to him.

It was going to be hard to tell Eiah that he'd failed. The others as well, but Eiah knew Cehmai. She had seen them work together. The others might be disappointed, but Eiah alone would understand what he had lost.

His dread slowed him. At this, his last camp, he ate his breakfast and watched the slow sunrise. He packed his mule slowly, then walked westward, his shadow stretching out ahead and growing slowly smaller. The shapes of the hills grew familiar, and the pauses he took grew longer. Here was the dry streambed where he and the other black-robed boys had sat in the evenings and told one another stories of the families they had already half-forgotten. There, a grouping of stumps showed where the stand of trees they had climbed had been felled by Galtic axes and burned. A cave under an outcropping of rock where they'd made the younger boys slither into the darkness to hunt snakes. The air was as rich with memory as the scent of dust and wildflowers. His life had been simpler then, or if not simpler, at least a thing that held promise.

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He managed to postpone his arrival at the school itself until the sun was lowering before him. The grand stone buildings looked smaller than he remembered them, but the great bronze door that had once been reserved for the Dai-kvo was just as grand. The high, narrow windows were marked black at the tops, the remnants of some long-dead fire. The wall of one of the sleeping chambers had fallen, stones strewn on the ground. The gardens were gone, marked only by low mounds where stones had once formed their borders. Time and violence had changed the place, but not yet beyond recognition. Another decade of rain washing mortar from between the stones, another fire, and perhaps the roofs would collapse. The ground would reclaim its own.

Maati tied his mule to a low, half-rotten post and made his way in. The grand room where he and the other boys had stood in rows each morning before marching off to their duties and classes. The wide corri dors beyond it, lit only by the reddish rays of the evening sun. Where were the bodies of the boys who had been here on the day the armies of Galt arrived? Where had those bones been buried? And where, now, were Maati's own students? Had something gone awry?

When he reached the inner courtyard, his concerns eased. The flagstone paths were clear of dirt and dust, the weeds and grass had been pulled from between the stones. And there, in the third window that had once been the teachers' quarters, a lantern glowed already against the falling night.

The door that opened to the wide central hall had been fitted with a new leather hinge. The walls and floors, freshly washed, shone in the light of a hundred candles. The scent of curry and the sound of women's voices raised in conversation came through the air as if the one were part of the other. Maati found himself disoriented for a moment, as if he'd walked down a familiar street only to find it opening upon some unknown city. He walked forward slowly, drawn in by the voices as if they were music. There was Ashti Beg's dry voice, Large Kae's laughter. As he drew nearer, the pauses between the louder voices were filled with the softer voices of Vanjit and Irit. The first words he made out were Eiah's.

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“Yes,” she said, “but how would you fit that into a grammatic structure that doesn't already include it? Or am I talking in a circle?”

“I think you may be,” Small Kae replied. “Maati-kvo said that binding an andat involves all kinds of inclusions. I don't see why this one would be any different.”

There was a pause, a sound that might have been the ghost of a sigh.

“Add it to the list,” Eiah said as Maati turned through a well-lit doorway and into the room.

“What list?” he asked.

There was a moment's silence, and then uproar. The circle of chairs was abandoned, and Maati found himself the subject of a half-dozen embraces. The dread and anger and despair that had dogged his steps lightened if it didn't vanish. He let Vanjit lead him to an empty chair, and the others gathered around him, their eyes bright, their smiles genuine. It was like coming home. When Eiah returned to his question, he had forgotten it. It took a moment to understand what she was saying.

“It's a list of questions for you,” she said. “After we came and put the place more or less to rights, we started … well, we started holding class without you.”

“It wasn't really the same,” Small Kae said with an apologetic pose. “We only didn't want to forget what we'd learned. We were only talking about it.”

“After a few nights it became clear we were going to need some way to keep track of the parts that needed clarifying. It's become rather a long list. And some of the questions …”

Maati took a pose that dismissed her concerns, somewhat hampered by the bowl of curried rice in his hand.

“It's a good thought,” he said. “I would have recommended it myself, if I'd been thinking clearly. Bring me the list tonight, and perhaps we can start going over it in the morning. If you are all prepared to begin working in earnest?”

The roar of agreement drowned out his laughter. Only Eiah didn't join in. Her smile was soft, almost sad, and she took no pose to explain it. Instead, she poured a bowl of water for him.

“Is Cehmai-kvo here?” Large Kae asked.

Maati took a bite of the rice, chewing slowly, letting the spices burn his tongue a little before answering.

“I didn't find him,” Maati said. “There was a message, but it was outof-date. I searched as long as there seemed some chance of finding him, but there was no sign. I left word where I could, and it may very well reach him. He might join us at any time. My job is to have you all prepared in case he does.”

It was kinder than the truth. If Maati's failure had been only that he hadn't found help, it left them the hope that help might still arrive. It was no great lie to give them an image of the future in which something good might come. And it was easier for him if he didn't have to say he'd been refused. Only Eiah knew; he could hear it in her silence. She would follow his lead.

Maati's mule was seen to, his things hauled into the room they had prepared for him, and a bath drawn in a wide copper tub set before a fire grate. It reminded him of nothing so much as his days living in court, servants available at any moment to cater to his needs. It was strange to recall that he had lived that way once. It seemed both very recent and very long ago. And also, the slaves and servants that had driven the life in the palaces of Machi hadn't been women he knew and cared for. Slipping into the warm water, feeling his travel-abused joints ache just a degree less, letting his eyes rest, Maati wondered what it would have been like to receive so much female attention when he'd been younger. There would have been a time when the simple sensual pleasures of food and a warm bath might have suggested something more sexual. It might still, if bone-deep weariness hadn't held him.

But no, that wasn't true. He wasn't dead to lust, but it had been years since it had carried the urgency that he remembered from his youth. He wondered if that wasn't part of why women had been barred from the school and the village of the Dai-kvo. Would any poet have been able to focus on a binding if half his mind was on a woman his body was aching for? Or perhaps there was something in that mind-set itself that would affect the binding. So much of the andat was a reflection of the poet who bound it, it would be easy to imagine andat fashioned by younger poets in the forms of wantons and w****s. Apart from the profoundly undignified nature of such a binding, it might actually make holding the andat more difficult as decades passed and a man's fires burned less brightly. He wondered if there was an analogy with women.

The scratch at the door brought him back. He'd half fallen asleep there in the water. He rose awkwardly, reaching for his robe and trying not to spill so much water that it flowed into the fire grate and killed the flames.

“Yes, yes,” he called as he fastened the robe's ties. “I'm not drowned yet. Come in.”

Eiah stepped through the doorway. There was something in her arms, held close to her. Between the unsteady light of the fire and his own age-blunted sight, he couldn't tell more than it looked like a book. Maati took a pose of welcome, his sleeves water-stuck to his arms.

“Should I come back later?” she asked.

“No, of course not,” Maati said, pulling a chair toward the fire for her. “I was only washing the road off of me. Is this the famed list?”

“Part of it is,” she said as she sat. She was wearing a physician's robe of deep green and gold. “Part of it's something else.”

Maati settled himself on the tub's wide lip and took a pose that expressed curiosity and surprise. Eiah handed him a scroll, and he unfurled it. The questions were all written in a large hand, clearly, and each with a small passage to give some context. He read three of them. Two were simple enough, but the third was more interesting. It touched on the difficulties of generating new directionals, and the possibility of encasing absolute structures within relative ones. It gave the grammar an odd feeling, as if it were suggesting that fire was hot rather than asserting it.

It was interesting.

“Are they all like this?” he asked.

“The questions? Some of them, yes,” Eiah said. “Vanjit's especially were beyond anything we could find a plausible answer for.”

Maati pursed his lips and nodded. An absolute made relative. What would that do? He found himself smiling without knowing at first what he was smiling about.

“I think,” he said, “leaving you to your own company may have been the best thing I've done.”

The firelight caught Eiah's answering smile.

“I wasn't going to say so,” she said. “It's been fascinating. At first, it was as if we were sneaking pies from the kitchens. Everyone wanted to do the thing, but it seemed … wrong? I don't know if that's the word. It seemed like something we shouldn't do, and more tempting because of it. And then once we started talking with each other, it was like being on a loose cart. We couldn't stop or even slow down. Half the time I didn't know if we were going down the wrong road, but …”

She shrugged, nodding at the scroll in his hands.

“Well, even if you were, some of this may be quite useful.”

“I'd hoped so,” Eiah said. “And that brings me to something else. I found some books at court. I brought them.”

Maati blinked, the scroll forgotten in his hands.

“Books? They weren't all burned?” he said.

“Not that sort. These aren't ours,” she said. “They're Westlands'. Books from physicians. Here.”

She took back the scroll and put a small, cloth-bound book in his hand. One of the sticks in the fire grate broke, sending out embers like fireflies. Maati leaned forward.

The script was small and cramped, the ink pale. It would have been difficult in sunlight; by fire and candle, it might as well not have been written. Frustrated, Maati turned the pages and an eye stared back at him from the paper. He turned back and went more slowly. All the diagrams were of eyes, some ripped from their sockets, some pierced by careful blades. Comments accompanied each orb, laying, he assumed, its secrets open.

“Sight,” Eiah said. “The author is called Arran, but it was more likely written by dozens of people who all used the same name. The wardens in the north had a period four or five generations ago when there was some brilliant work done. We ignored it, of course, because it wasn't by us. But these are very, very good. Arran was brilliant.”

“Whether he existed or not,” Maati said. He meant it as a joke.

“Whether he existed or not,” Eiah agreed with perfect seriousness. “I've been working with these. And with Vanjit. We have a draft. You should look at it.”

Maati handed her back the book and she pulled a sheaf of papers from her sleeve. Maati found himself almost hesitant to accept them. Vanjit, and her dreamed baby. Vanjit, who had lost so much in the war. He didn't want to see any of his students pay the price of a failed binding, but especially not her.

He took the papers. Eiah waited. He opened them.

The binding was an outline, but it was well-considered. The sections and relationships sketched in with commentary detailing what would go in each, often with two or three notes of possible approaches. The andat would be Clarity-of-Sight, and it would be based in the medical knowledge of Westlands physicians and the women's grammar that Maati and Eiah had been creating. Even if some Second Empire poet had managed to hold the andat before, this approach, these descriptions and sensibilities, was likely to be wholly different. Wholly new.

“Why Vanjit?” he asked. “Why not Ashti Beg or Small Kae?”

“You think she isn't ready?”

“I … I wouldn't go so far as that,” Maati said. “It's only that she's young, and she's had a harder life than some. I wonder whether …”

“None of us are perfect, Maati-kya,” Eiah said. “We have to work with the people we have. Vanjit is clever and determined.”

“You think she can manage it? Bind this andat?”

“I think she has the best hope of any of us. Except possibly me.”

Maati sighed, nodding as much to himself as to her. Dread thickened his throat.

“Let me look at this,” he said. “Let me think about it.”

Eiah took a pose that accepted his command. Maati looked down again.

“Why didn't he come?” Eiah asked.

“Because,” Maati began, and then found he wasn't able to answer as easily as he'd thought. He folded the papers and began to tuck them into his sleeve, remembered how wet the cloth was, and tossed them instead onto his low, wood-framed bed. “Because he didn't want to,” he said at last.

“And my aunt?”

“I don't know,” Maati said. “I thought for a time that she might take my side. She didn't seem pleased with how they were living. Or, no. That's not right. She seemed to care more than he did about how they would live in the future. But he wouldn't have any of it.”

“He's given up,” Eiah said.

Maati recalled the man's face, the lines and weariness. The authenticity of his smile. When they'd first met, Cehmai had been little more than a boy, younger than Eiah was now. This was what the world had done to that boy. What it had done to them all.

“He has,” Maati said.

“Then we'll do without him,” Eiah said.

“Yes,” Maati said, hoisting himself up. “Yes we will, but if you'll forgive me, Eiah-kya, I think the day's worn me thin. A little rest, and we'll begin fresh tomorrow. And where's that list of questions? Ah, thank you. I'll look over all of this, and we'll decide where best to go from here, eh?”

She took his hand, squeezing his knuckles gently.

“It's good to have you back,” she said.

“I'm pleased to be here,” he said.

“Did you have any news of my father?”

“No,” he said. “I didn't ask. It's the first rule of running a race, isn't it? Not to look back at who's behind you?”

Eiah chuckled, but didn't respond otherwise. Once she'd left and Maati had banked the fire, he sat on the bed. The night candle stood straight in its glass case, the burning wick marking the hours before dawn. It wasn't to its first-quarter mark and he felt exhausted. He moved the papers and the scroll safely off the bed, pulled the blanket up over himself, and slept better than he had in weeks, waking to the sound of morning birds and pale light before dawn.

He read over the list of questions on the scroll, only surveying them and not bothering to think of answers just yet, and then turned to the proposed binding. When he went out, following the smells of wood smoke and warmed honey, his mind was turning at twice its usual speed.

They had made a small common room from what had once been the teachers' cells, and Irit and Large Kae were sitting at the window that Maati remembered looking out when he had been a child called before Tahi-kvo. Bald, mean-spirited Tahi-kvo, who would not have recognized the world as it had become; women studying the andat in his own rooms, the poets almost vanished from the world, Galts on the way to becoming the nobles of this new, rattling, sad, stumble-footed Empire. Nothing was the same as it had been. Everything was different.

Vanjit, sitting with her legs crossed by the fire grate, smiled up at him. Maati took a pose of greeting and lowered himself carefully to her side. Irit and Large Kae both glanced at him, their eyes rich with curiosity and perhaps even envy, but they kept to their window and their conversation. Vanjit held out her bowl of cooked wheat and raisins, but Maati took a pose that both thanked and refused, then changed his mind and scooped two fingers into his mouth. The grain was rich and salted, sweetened with fruit and honey both. Vanjit smiled at him; the expression failed to reach her eyes.

“I looked over your work. Yours and Eiah-cha's,” he said. “It's interesting.”

Vanjit looked down, setting the bowl on the stone floor at her side. After a moment's hesitation, her hands took a pose that invited his judgment.

“I . . .” Maati began, then coughed, looked out past Large Kae and Irit to the bright and featureless blue of the western sky. “I don't want to hurry this. And I would rather not see any more of you pay the price of falling short.”

Her mouth tightened, and her eyebrows rose as if she were asking a question. She said nothing.

“You're sure you want this?” he asked. “You have seen all the women we've lost. You know the dangers.”

“I want this, Maati-kvo. I want to try this. And … and I don't know how much longer I can wait,” she said. Her gaze rose to meet his. “It's time for me. I have to try soon, or I think I never will.”

“If you have doubts about-“

“Not doubts. Only a little despair now and then. You can take that from me. If you let me try.” Maati started to speak, but the girl went on, raising her voice and speaking faster, as if she feared what he would say next. “I've seen death. I won't say I'm not afraid of it, but I'm not so taken by the fear that I can't risk anything. If it's called for.”

“I didn't think you were,” he said.

“And I helped bury Umnit. I know what the price can look like. But I buried my mother and my brother and his daughter too, and they didn't die for a reason. They were only on the streets when Udun fell,” she said, and shrugged. “We all die sometime, Maati-kvo. Risking it sooner and for a reason is better than being safe and meaningless. Isn't it?”

Brave girl. She was such a brave girl. To have lost so much, so young, and still be strong enough to risk the binding. Maati felt tears in his eyes and forced himself to smile.

“We chose it for you. Clarity-of-Sight,” she said. “I saw how hard it is for you to read some days, and Eiah and I thought … if we could help …”

Maati laid his hand on hers, his heart aching with something equally joy and fear. Vanjit was weeping a bit as well now. He heard voices coming down the hallway-Eiah and Ashti Beg-but Irit and Large Kae were silent. He was certain they were watching them. He didn't care.

“We'll be careful,” he said. “We'll make it work.”

Her smile outshone the sun. Maati nodded; yes, they would attempt the binding. Yes, Vanjit would be the first woman in history to hold an andat or else the next of his students to die.

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