Otah took the blow on the ear, the flesh opening under the rod. Tahi-kvo, Tahi the teacher, pulled the thin lacquered wood through the air with a fluttering sound like bird wings. Otah’s discipline held. He did not shift or cry out. Tears welled in his eyes, but his hands remained in a pose of greeting.
‘Again,’ Tahi-kvo barked. ‘And correctly!’
‘We are honored by your presence, most high Dai-kvo,’ Otah said sweetly, as if it were the first time he had attempted the ritual phrase. The old man sitting before the fire considered him closely, then adopted a pose of acceptance. Tahi-kvo made a sound of satisfaction in the depths of his throat.
Otah bowed, holding still for three breaths and hoping that Tahikvo wouldn’t strike him for trembling. The moment stretched, and Otah nearly let his eyes stray to his teacher. It was the old man with his ruined whisper who at last spoke the words that ended the ritual and released him.
‘Go, disowned child, and attend to your studies.’
Otah turned and walked humbly out of the room. Once he had pulled the thick wooden door closed behind him and walked down the chill hallway toward the common rooms, he gave himself permission to touch his new wound.
The other boys were quiet as he passed through the stone halls of the school, but several times their gazes held him and his new shame. Only the older boys in the black robes of Milah-kvo’s disciples laughed at him. Otah took himself to the quarters where all the boys in his cohort slept. He removed the ceremonial gown, careful not to touch it with blood, and washed the wound in cold water. The stinging cream for cuts and scrapes was in an earthenware jar beside the water basin. He took two fingers and slathered the vinegar-smelling ointment onto the open flesh of his ear. Then, not for the first time since he had come to the school, he sat on his spare, hard bunk and wept.
‘This boy,’ the Dai-kvo said as he took up the porcelain bowl of tea. Its heat was almost uncomfortable. ‘He holds some promise?’
‘Some,’ Tahi allowed as he leaned the lacquered rod against the wall and took the seat beside his master.
‘He seems familiar.’
‘Otah Machi. Sixth son of the Khai Machi.’
‘I recall his brothers. Also boys of some promise. What became of them?’
‘They spent their years, took the brand, and were turned out. Most are. We have three hundred in the school now and forty in the black under Milah-kvo’s care. Sons of the Khaiem or the ambitious families of the utkhaiem.’
‘So many? I see so few.’
Tahi took a pose of agreement, the cant of his wrists giving it a nuance that might have been sorrow or apology.
‘Not many are both strong enough and wise. And the stakes are high.’
The Dai-kvo sipped his tea and considered the fire.
‘I wonder,’ the old man said, ‘how many realize we are teaching them nothing.’
‘We teach them all. Letters, numbers. Any of them could take a trade after they leave the school.’
‘But nothing of use. Nothing of poetry. Nothing of the andat.’
‘If they realize that, most high, they’re halfway to your door. And for the ones we turn away . . . It’s better, most high.’
Tahi shrugged and looked into the fire. He looked older, the Daikvo thought, especially about the eyes. But he had met Tahi as a rude youth many years before. The age he saw there now, and the cruelty, were seeds he himself had cultivated.
‘When they have failed, they take the brand and make their own fates,’ Tahi said.
‘We take away their only hope of rejoining their families, of taking a place at the courts of the Khaiem. They have no family. They cannot control the andat,’ the Dai-kvo said. ‘We throw these boys away much as their fathers have. What becomes of them, I wonder?’
‘Much the same as becomes of anyone, I imagine. The ones from low families of the utkhaiem are hardly worse off than when they came. The sons of the Khaiem . . . once they take the brand, they cannot inherit, and it saves them from being killed for their blood rights. That alone is a gift in its way.’
It was true. Every generation saw the blood of the Khaiem spilled. It was the way of the Empire. And in times when all three of a Khai’s acknowledged sons slaughtered one another, the high families of the utkhaiem unsheathed their knives, and cities were caught for a time in fits of violence from which the poets held themselves apart like priests at a dog fight. These boys in the school’s care were exempt from those wars at only the price of everything they had known in their short lives. And yet . . .
‘Disgrace is a thin gift,’ the Dai-kvo said.
Tahi, his old student who had once been a boy like these, sighed.
‘It’s what we can offer.’
The Dai-kvo left in the morning just after dawn, stepping through the great bronze doors that opened only for him. Otah stood in the ranks of his cohort, still holding a pose of farewell. Behind him, someone took the chance of scratching – Otah could hear the shifting sound of fingers against cloth. He didn’t look back. Two of the oldest of Milahkvo’s black robes pulled the great doors closed.
In the dim winter light that filtered through high-set, narrow windows, Otah could see the bustle of the black robes taking charge of the cohorts. The day’s tasks varied. The morning might be spent working in the school – repairing walls or washing laundry or scraping ice from the garden walkways that no one seemed to travel besides the boys set to tend them. The evening would be spent in study. Numbers, letters, religion, history of the Old Empire, the Second Empire, the War, the cities of the Khaiem. And more often these last weeks, one of the two teachers would stand at the back of the room while one of the black robes lectured and questioned. Milah-kvo would sometimes interrupt and tell jokes or take the lecture himself, discussing things the black robes never spoke of. Tahi-kvo would only observe and punish. All of Otah’s cohort bore the marks of the lacquered stick.
Riit-kvo, one of the oldest of the black robes, led Otah and his cohort to the cellars. For hours as the sun rose unseen, Otah swept dust from stones that seemed still cold from the last winter and then washed them with water and rags until his knuckles were raw. Then Riit-kvo called them to order, considered them, slapped one boy whose stance was not to his standards, and marched them to the dining hall. Otah looked neither forward nor back, but focused on the shoulders of the boy ahead of him.
The midday meal was cold meat, yesterday’s bread, and a thin barley soup that Otah treasured because it was warm. Too soon, Riit called them to wash their bowls and knives and follow him. Otah found himself at the front of the line – an unenviable place – and so was the first to step into the cold listening room with its stone benches and narrow windows that had never known glass. Tahi-kvo was waiting there for them.
None of them knew why the round-faced, scowling teacher had taken an interest in the cohort, though speculations were whispered in the dark of their barracks. The Dai-kvo had chosen one of them to go and study the secrets of the andat, to become one of the poets, gain power even higher than the Khaiem, and skip over the black robes of Milah-kvo entirely. Or one of their families had repented sending their child, however minor in the line of succession, to the school and was in negotiation to forgo the branding and take their disowned son back into the fold.
Otah had listened, but believed none of the stories. They were the fantasies of the frightened and the weak, and he knew that if he clung to one, it would shatter him. Dwelling in the misery of the school and hoping for nothing beyond survival was the only way to keep his soul from flying apart. He would endure his term and be turned out into the world. This was his third year at the school. He was twelve now, and near the halfway point of his time. And today was another evil to be borne as the day before and the day ahead. To think too far in the past or the future was dangerous. Only when he let his dreams loose did he think of learning the secrets of the andat, and that happened so rarely as to call itself never.
Riit-kvo, his eyes on the teacher at the back as much as on the students, began to declaim the parable of the Twin Dragons of Chaos. It was a story Otah knew, and he found his mind wandering. Through the stone arch of the window, Otah could see a crow hunched on a high branch. It reminded him of something he could not quite recall.
‘Which of the gods tames the spirits of water?’ Riit-kvo snapped. Otah pulled himself back to awareness and straightened his spine.
Riit-kvo pointed to a thick-set boy across the room.
‘Oladac the Wanderer!’ the boy said, taking a pose of gratitude to one’s teacher.
‘And why were the spirits who stood by and neither fought with the gods nor against them consigned to a lower hell than the servants of chaos?’
Again Riit-kvo pointed.
‘Because they should have fought alongside the gods!’ the boy shouted.
It was a wrong answer. Because they were cowards, Otah thought, and knew he was correct. Tahi’s lacquered rod whirred and struck the boy hard on the shoulder. Riit-kvo smirked and returned to his story.
After the class, there was another brief work detail for which Tahi-kvo did not join them. Then the evening meal, and then the end of another day. Otah was grateful to crawl into his bunk and pull the thin blanket up to his neck. In the winter, many of the boys slept in their robes against the cold, and Otah was among that number. Despite all this, he preferred the winter. During the warmer times, he would still wake some mornings having forgotten where he was, expecting to see the walls of his father’s home, hear the voices of his older brothers – Biitrah, Danat, and Kaiin. Perhaps see his mother’s smile. The rush of memory was worse than any blow of Tahi-kvo’s rod, and he bent his will toward erasing the memories he had of his family. He was not loved or wanted in his home, and he understood that thinking too much about this truth would kill him.
As he drifted toward sleep, Riit-kvo’s harsh voice murmuring the lesson of the spirits who refused to fight spun through his mind. They were cowards, consigned to the deepest and coldest hell.
When the question came, his eyes flew open. He sat up. The other boys were all in their cots. One, not far from him, was crying in his sleep. It was not an unusual sound. The words still burned in Otah’s mind. The coward spirits, consigned to hell.
And what keeps them there? his quiet inner voice asked him. Why do they remain in hell?
He lay awake for hours, his mind racing.
The teachers’ quarters opened on a common room. Shelves lined the walls, filled with books and scrolls. A fire pit glowed with coals prepared for them by the most honored of Milah-kvo’s black-robed boys. The wide gap of a window – glazed double to hold out the cold of winter, the heat of the summer – looked out over the roadway leading south to the high road. Tahi sat now, warming his feet at the fire and staring out into the cold plain beyond. Milah opened the door behind him and strode in.
‘I expected you earlier,’ Tahi said.
Milah briefly took a pose of apology.
‘Annat Ryota was complaining about the kitchen flue smoking again,’ he said.
‘Sit. The fire’s warm.’
‘Fires often are,’ Milah agreed, his tone dry and mocking. Tahi managed a thin smile as his companion took a seat.
‘What did he make of your boys?’ Tahi asked.
‘Much the same as last year. They have seen through the veil and now lead their brothers toward knowledge,’ Milah said, but his hands were in a pose of gentle mockery. ‘They are petty tyrants to a man. Any andat strong enough to be worth holding would eat them before their hearts beat twice.’
‘Hardly a surprise. And yours?’
Tahi chewed for a moment at his lower lip and leaned forward. He could feel Milah’s gaze on him.
‘Otah Machi disgraced himself,’ Tahi said. ‘But he accepted the punishment well. The Dai-kvo thinks he may have promise.’
Milah shifted. When Tahi looked over, the teacher had taken a pose of query. Tahi considered the implicit question, then nodded.
‘There have been some other signs,’ Tahi said. ‘I think you should put a watch over him. I hate to lose him to you, in a way.’
‘You like him.’
Tahi took a pose of acknowledgment that held the nuance of a confession of failure.
‘I may be cruel, old friend,’ Tahi said, dropping into the familiar, ‘but you’re heartless.’
The fair-haired teacher laughed, and Tahi couldn’t help but join him. They sat silent then for a while, each in his own thoughts. Milah rose, shrugged off his thick woolen top robe. Beneath it he still wore the formal silks from his audience yesterday with the Dai-kvo. Tahi poured them both bowls of rice wine.
‘It was good to see him again,’ Milah said sometime later. There was a melancholy note in his voice. Tahi took a pose of agreement, then sipped his wine.
‘He looked so old,’ Tahi said.
Otah’s plan, such as it was, took little preparation, and yet nearly three weeks passed between the moment he understood the parable of the spirits who stood aside and the night when he took action. That night, he waited until the others were asleep before he pushed off the thin blankets, put on every robe and legging he had, gathered his few things, and left his cohort for the last time.
The stone hallways were unlit, but he knew his way well enough that he had no need for light. He made his way to the kitchen. The pantry was unlocked – no one would steal food for fear of being found out and beaten. Otah scooped double handfuls of hard rolls and dried fruit into his satchel. There was no need for water. Snow still covered the ground, and Tahi-kvo had shown them how to melt snow with the heat of their own bodies walking without the cold penetrating to their hearts.
Once he was provisioned, his path led him to the great hall – moonlight from the high windows showing ghost-dim the great aisle where he had held a pose of obeisance every morning for the last three years. The doors, of course, were barred, and while he was strong enough to open them, the sounds might have woken someone. He took a pair of wide, netted snowshoes from the closet beside the great doors and went up the stairs to the listening room. There, the narrow windows looked out on a world locked in winter. Otah’s breath plumed already in the chill.
He threw the snowshoes and satchel out the window to the snow-cushioned ground below, then squeezed through and lowered himself from the outer stone sill until he hung by his fingertips. The fall was not so far.
He dusted the snow from his leggings, tied the snowshoes to his feet by their thick leather thongs, took up the bulging satchel and started off, walking south toward the high road.
The moon, near the top of its nightly arc, had moved the width of two thick-gloved hands toward the western horizon before Otah knew he was not alone. The footsteps that had kept perfect time with his own fell out of their pattern – as intentional a provocation as clearing a throat. Otah froze, then turned.
‘Good evening, Otah Machi,’ Milah-kvo said, his tone casual. ‘A good night for a walk, eh? Cold though.’
Otah did not speak, and Milah-kvo strode forward, his hand on his own satchel, his footsteps nearly silent. His breath was thick and white as a goose feather.
‘Yes,’ the teacher said. ‘Cold, and far from your bed.’
Otah took a pose of acknowledgment appropriate for a student to a teacher. It had no nuance of apology, and Otah hoped that Milahkvo would not see his trembling, or if he did would ascribe it to the cold.
‘Leaving before your term is complete, boy. You disgrace yourself.’
Otah switched to a pose of thanks appropriate to the end of a lesson, but Milah-kvo waved the formality aside and sat in the snow, considering him with an interest that Otah found unnerving.
‘Why do it?’ Milah-kvo asked. ‘There’s still hope of redeeming yourself. You might still be found worthy. So why run away? Are you so much a coward?’
Otah found his voice.
‘It would be cowardice that kept me, Milah-kvo.’
‘How so?’ The teacher’s voice held nothing of judgment or testing. It was like a friend asking a question because he truly did not know the answer.
‘There are no locks on hell,’ Otah said. It was the first time he had tried to express this to someone else, and it proved harder than he had expected. ‘If there aren’t locks, then what can hold anyone there besides fear that leaving might be worse?’
‘And you think the school is a kind of hell.’
It was not a question, so Otah did not answer.
‘If you keep to this path, you’ll be the lowest of the low,’ Milah said. ‘A disgraced child without friend or ally. And without the brand to protect you, your older brothers may well track you down and kill you.’
‘Do you have someplace to go?’
‘The high road leads to Pathai and Nantani.’
‘Where you know no one.’
Otah took a pose of agreement.
‘This doesn’t frighten you?’ the teacher asked.
‘It is the decision I’ve made.’ He could see the amusement in Milahkvo’s face at his answer.
‘Fair enough, but I think there’s an alternative you haven’t considered.’
The teacher reached into his satchel and pulled out a small cloth bundle. He hefted it for a moment, considering, and dropped it on the snow between them. It was a black robe.
Otah took a pose of intellectual inquiry. It was a failure of vocabulary, but Milah-kvo took his meaning.
‘Andat are powerful, Otah. Like small gods. And they don’t love being held to a single form. They fight it, and since the forms they have are a reflection of the poets who bind them . . . The world is full of willing victims – people who embrace the cruelty meted out against them. An andat formed from a mind like that would destroy the poet who bound it and escape. That you have chosen action is what the black robes mean.’
‘Then . . . the others . . . they all left the school too?’
Milah laughed. Even in the cold, it was a warm sound.
‘No. No, you’ve all taken different paths. Ansha tried to wrestle Tahi-kvo’s stick away from him. Ranit Kiru asked forbidden questions, took the punishment for them, and asked again until Tahi beat him asleep. He was too sore to wear any robe at all for weeks, but his bruises were black enough. But you’ve each done something. If you choose to take up the robe, that is. Leave it, and really, this is just a conversation. Interesting maybe, but trivial.’
‘And if I take it?’
‘You will never be turned out of the school so long as you wear the black. You will help to teach the normal boys the lesson you’ve learned – to stand by your own strength.’
Otah blinked, and something – some emotion he couldn’t put a name to – bloomed in his breast. His flight from the school took on a new meaning. It was a badge of his strength, the proof of his courage.
‘And the andat?’
‘And the andat,’ Milah-kvo said. ‘You’ll begin to learn of them in earnest. The Dai-kvo has never taken a student who wasn’t first a black robe at the school.’
Otah stooped, his fingers numb with cold, and picked up the robe. He met Milah-kvo’s amused eyes and couldn’t keep from grinning. Milah-kvo laughed, stood and put an arm around Otah’s shoulder. It was the first kind act Otah could remember since he had come to the school.
‘Come on, then. If we start now, we may get back to the school by breakfast.’
Otah took a pose of enthusiastic agreement.
‘And, while this once I think we can forgive it, don’t make a habit of stealing from the kitchen. It upsets the cooks.’
The letter came some weeks later, and Milah was the first to read it. Sitting in an upper room, his students abandoned for the moment, he read the careful script again and felt his face grow tight. When he had gone over it enough to know he could not have misunderstood, he tucked the folded paper into the sleeve of his robe and looked out the window. Winter was ending, and somehow the eternal renewal that was spring felt like an irony.
He heard Tahi enter, recognizing his old friend’s footsteps.
‘There was a courier,’ Tahi said. ‘Ansha said there was a courier from the Dai-kvo . . .’
Milah looked over his shoulder. His own feelings were echoed in Tahi’s round face.
‘From his attendant, actually.’
‘The Dai-kvo. Is he . . .’
‘No,’ Milah said, fishing out the letter. ‘Not dead. Only dying.’
Tahi took the proffered pages, but didn’t look at them.
Tahi read the written words silently, then leaned against the wall with a sharp sigh.
‘It . . . it isn’t so bad as it could be,’ Tahi said.
‘No. Not yet. He will see the school again. Twice, perhaps.’
‘He shouldn’t come,’ Tahi snapped. ‘The visits are a formality. We know well enough which boys are ready. We can send them. He doesn’t have to—’
Milah turned, interrupting him with a subtle pose that was a request for clarification and a mourning both. Tahi laughed bitterly and looked down.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘Still. I’d like the world better if we could carry a little of his weight for him. Even if it was only a short way.’
Milah started to take a pose, but hesitated, stopped, only nodded.
‘Otah Machi?’ Tahi asked.
‘Maybe. We might have to call him for Otah. Not yet, though. The robes have hardly been on him. The others are still learning to accept him as an equal. Once he’s used to the power, then we’ll see. I won’t call the Dai-kvo until we’re certain.’
‘He’ll come next winter whether there’s a boy ready or not.’
‘Perhaps. Or perhaps he’ll die tonight. Or we will. No god made the world certain.’
Tahi raised his hands in a pose of resignation.
It was a warm night in late spring; the scent of green seemed to permeate the world. Otah and his friends sprawled on the hillside east of the school. Milah-kvo sat with them, still talking, still telling stories though their lectures for the day were done. Stories of the andat.
‘They are like . . . thoughts made real,’ Milah said, his hands moving in gestures which were not formal poses, but evoked a sense of wonder all the same. ‘Ideas tamed and given human shape. Take Water-Moving-Down. In the Old Empire, she was called Rain, then when Diit Amra recaptured her at the beginning of the War, they called her Seaward. But the thought, you see, was the same. And if you can hold that, you can stop rivers in their tracks. Or see that your crops get enough water, or flood your enemies. She was powerful.’
‘Could someone catch her again?’ Ansha – no longer Ansha-kvo to Otah – asked.
Milah shook his head.
‘I doubt it. She’s been held and escaped too many times. I suppose someone might find a new way to describe her, but . . . it’s been tried.’
There was a chill that even Otah felt at the words. Stories of the andat were like ghost tales, and the price a failed poet paid was always the gruesome ending of it.
‘What was her price?’ Nian Tomari asked, his voice hushed and eager.
‘The last poet who made the attempt was a generation before me. They say that when he failed, his belly swelled like a pregnant woman’s. When they cut him open, he was filled with ice and black seaweed.’
The boys were quiet, imagining the scene – the poet’s blood, the dark leaves, the pale ice. Dari slapped a gnat.
‘Milah-kvo?’ Otah said. ‘Why do the andat become more difficult to hold each time they escape?’
The teacher laughed.
‘An excellent question, Otah. But one you’d have to ask of the Dai-kvo. It’s more than you’re ready to know.’
Otah dropped into a pose of correction accepted, but in the back of his mind, the curiosity remained. The sun dipped below the horizon and a chill came into the air. Milah-kvo rose, and they followed him, wraith-children in their dark robes and twilight. Halfway back to the high stone buildings, Ansha started to run, and then Riit, and then Otah and then all of them, pounding up the slope to the great door, racing to be first or at least to not be last. When Milah arrived, they were red-faced and laughing.
‘Otah,’ Enrath, an older, dark-faced boy from Tan-Sadar said. ‘You’re taking the third cohort out tomorrow to turn the west gardens?’
‘Yes,’ Otah said.
‘Tahi-kvo wanted them finished and washed early. He’s taking them for lessons after the meal.’
‘You could join the afternoon session with us,’ Milah suggested, overhearing.
Otah took a pose of gratitude as they entered the torch-lit great hall. One of Milah-kvo’s lessons was infinitely better than a day spent leading one of the youngest cohorts through its chores.
‘Do you know why worms travel in the ground?’ Milah-kvo asked. ‘Because they can’t fly?’ Ansha said, and laughed. A few other boys laughed with him.
‘True enough,’ Milah-kvo said. ‘But they are good for the soil. They break it up so that the roots can dig deeper. So in a sense, Otah and the third cohort are doing worm work tomorrow.’
‘But worms do it by eating dirt and shitting it out,’ Enrath said. ‘Tahi-kvo said so.’
‘There is some difference in technique,’ Milah-kvo agreed dryly to the delight of them all, including Otah.
The black robes slept in smaller rooms, four to each, with a brazier in the center to keep it warm. The thaw had come, but the nights were still bitterly cold. Otah, as the youngest in his room, had the duty of tending the fire. In the dark of the mornings, Milah-kvo would come and wake them, knocking on their doors until all four voices within acknowledged him. They washed at communal tubs and ate at a long wooden table with Tahi-kvo at one end and Milah-kvo at the other. Otah still found himself uncomfortable about the round-faced teacher, however friendly his eyes had become.
After they had cleared their plates, the black robes divided; the larger half went to lead the cohorts through the day’s duties, the smaller – rarely more than five or six – would go with Milah-kvo for a day’s study. As Otah walked to the great hall, he was already planning the day ahead, anticipating handing the third cohort over to Tahi-kvo and joining the handful most favored by Milah-kvo.
In the great hall, the boys stood in their shivering ranks. The third cohort was one of the youngest – a dozen boys of perhaps eight years dressed in thin gray robes. Otah paced before them, searching for any improper stance or scratching.
‘Today, we are turning the soil in the west gardens,’ Otah barked. Some of the smaller boys flinched. ‘Tahi-kvo demands the work be finished and that you be cleaned by midday. Follow!’
He marched them out to the gardens. Twice, he stopped to be sure they were in the proper order. When one – Navi Toyut, son of a high family of the utkhaiem in Yalakeht – was out of step, Otah slapped him smartly across the face. The boy corrected his gait.
The west gardens were brown and bare. Dry sticks – the winter corpses of last year’s crop – lay strewn on the ground, the pale seedlings of weeds pushing up through them. Otah led them to the toolshed where the youngest boys brushed spider webs off the shovels and spades.
‘Begin at the north end!’ Otah shouted, and the cohort fell into place. The line was ragged, some boys taller than others and all unevenly spaced, leaving gaps in the line like missing milk teeth. Otah walked along, showing each boy where to stand and how to hold his shovel. When they were all in their places, Otah gave the sign to begin.
They set to, their thin arms working, but they were small and not strong. The smell of fresh earth rose, but only slowly. When Otah walked the turned soil behind them, his boots barely sank into it.
‘Deeper!’ he snapped. ‘Turn the soil, don’t just scrape it. Worms could do better than this.’
The cohort didn’t speak, didn’t look up, only leaned harder onto the dry, rough shafts of their spades. Otah shook his head and spat.
The sun had risen a hand and a half, and they had only completed two plots. As the day warmed, the boys shed their top robes, leaving them folded on the ground. There were still six plots to go. Otah paced behind the line, scowling. Time was running short.
‘Tahi-kvo wants this done by midday!’ Otah shouted. ‘If you disappoint him, I’ll see all of you beaten.’
They struggled to complete the task, but by the time they reached the end of the fourth plot, it was clear that it wouldn’t happen. Otah gave stern orders that they should continue, then stalked off to find Tahi-kvo.
The teacher was overseeing a cohort that had been set to clean the kitchens. The lacquered rod whirred impatiently. Otah took a pose of apology before him.
‘Tahi-kvo, the third cohort will not be able to turn the soil in the west gardens by midday. They are weak and stupid.’
Tahi-kvo considered him, his expression unreadable. Otah felt his face growing warm with embarrassment. At last, Tahi-kvo took a formal pose of acceptance.
‘It will wait for another day, then,’ he said. ‘When they have had their meal, take them back out and let them finish the task.’
Otah took a pose of gratitude until Tahi-kvo turned his attention back to the cohort he was leading, then Otah turned and walked back out to the gardens. The third cohort had slacked in his absence, but began to work furiously as Otah came near. He stepped into the halfturned plot and stared at them.
‘You have cost me an afternoon with Milah-kvo,’ Otah said, his voice low, but angry enough to carry. None of the boys would meet his gaze, guilty as dogs. He turned to the nearest boy – a thin boy with a spade in his hand. ‘You. Give me that.’
The boy looked panicked, but held out the spade. Otah took it and thrust it down into the fresh soil. The blade sank only half way. Otah’s shoulders curled in rage. The boy took a pose of apology, but Otah didn’t acknowledge it.
‘You’re meant to turn the soil! Turn it! Are you too stupid to understand that?’
‘Otah-kvo, I’m sorry. It’s only—’
‘If you can’t do it like a man, you can do it as a worm. Get on your knees.’
The boy’s expression was uncomprehending.
‘Get on your knees!’ Otah shouted, leaning into the boy’s face. Tears welled up in the boy’s eyes, but he did as he was told. Otah picked up a clod of dirt and handed it to him. ‘Eat it.’
The boy looked at the clod in his hand, then up at Otah. Then, weeping until his shoulders shook, he raised the dirt to his mouth and ate. The others in the cohort were standing in a circle, watching silently. The boy’s mouth worked, mud on his lips.
‘All of it!’ Otah said.
The boy took another mouthful, then collapsed, sobbing, to the ground. Otah spat in disgust and turned to the others.
‘Get to work!’
They scampered back to their places, small arms and legs working furiously with the vigor of fear. The mud-lipped boy sat weeping into his hands. Otah took the spade to him and pushed the blade into the ground at his side.
‘Well?’ Otah demanded quietly. ‘Is there something to wait for?’
The boy mumbled something Otah couldn’t make out.
‘What? If you’re going to talk, make it so people can hear you.’
‘My hand,’ the boy forced through the sobs. ‘My hands hurt. I tried. I tried to dig deeper, but it hurt so much . . .’
He turned his palms up, and looking at the bleeding blisters was like leaning over a precipice; Otah felt suddenly dizzy. The boy looked up into his face, weeping, and the low keening was a sound Otah recognized though he had never heard it before; it was a sound he had longed to make for seasons of sleeping in the cold, hoping not to dream of his mother. It was the same tune he had heard in his old cohort, a child crying in his sleep.
The black robes suddenly felt awkward, and the memory of a thousand humiliations sang in Otah’s mind the way a crystal glass might ring with the sound of a singer’s note.
He knelt beside the weeping boy, words rushing to his lips and then failing him. The others in the cohort stood silent.
‘You sent for me?’ Tahi asked. Milah didn’t answer, but gestured out the window. Tahi came to stand by him and consider the spectacle below. In a half-turned plot of dirt, a black robe was cradling a crying child in his arms while the others in the cohort stood by, agape.
‘How long has this been going on?’ Tahi asked through a tight throat.
‘They were like that when I noticed them. Before that, I don’t know.’
Milah only nodded.
‘It has to stop.’
‘Yes. But I wanted you to see it.’
In grim silence, the pair walked down the stairs, through the library, and out to the west gardens. The third cohort, seeing them come, pretended to work. All except Otah and the boy he held. They remained as they were.
‘Otah!’ Tahi barked. The black-robed boy looked up, eyes red and tear-filled.
‘You’re not well, Otah,’ Milah said gently. He drew Otah up. ‘You should come inside and rest.’
Otah looked from one to the other, then hesitantly took a pose of submission and let Milah take his shoulder and guide him away. Tahi remained behind; Milah could hear his voice snapping at the third cohort like a whip.
Back in the quarters of the elite, Milah prepared a cup of strong tea for Otah and considered the situation. The others would hear of what had happened soon enough if they hadn’t already. He wasn’t sure whether that would make things better for the boy or worse. He wasn’t even certain what he hoped. If it was what it appeared, it was the success he had dreaded. Before he acted, he had to be sure. He wouldn’t call for the Dai-kvo if Otah wasn’t ready.
Otah, sitting slump-shouldered on his bunk, took the hot tea and sipped it dutifully. His eyes were dry now, and staring into the middle distance. Milah pulled a stool up beside him, and they sat for a long moment in silence before he spoke.
‘You did that boy out there no favors today.’
Otah lifted a hand in a pose of correction accepted.
‘Comforting a boy like that . . . it doesn’t make him stronger. I know it isn’t easy being a teacher. It requires a hard sort of compassion to treat a child harshly, even when it is only for their own good in the end.’
Otah nodded, but didn’t look up. When he spoke, his voice was low.
‘Has anyone ever been turned out from the black robes?’
‘Expelled? No, no one. Why do you ask?’
‘I’ve failed,’ Otah said, then paused. ‘I’m not strong enough to teach these lessons, Milah-kvo.’
Milah looked down at his hands, thinking of his old master. Thinking of the cost that another journey to the school would exact from that old flesh. He couldn’t keep the weight of the decision entirely out of his voice when he spoke.
‘I am removing you from duty for a month’s time,’ he said, ‘while we call for the Dai-kvo.’
‘Otah,’ the familiar voice whispered. ‘What did you do?’
Otah turned on his bunk. The brazier glowed, the coals giving off too little light to see by. Otah fixed his gaze on the embers.
‘I made a mistake, Ansha,’ he said. It was the reply he’d given on the few occasions in the last days that someone had had the courage to ask.
‘They say the Dai-kvo’s coming. And out of season.’
‘It may have been a serious mistake.’
It may be the first time that anyone has risen so far and failed so badly, Otah thought. The first time anyone so unsuited to the black robes had been given them. He remembered the cold, empty plain of snow he’d walked across the night Milah-kvo had promoted him. He could see now that his flight hadn’t been a sign of strength after all – only a presentiment of failure.
‘What did you do?’ Ansha asked in the darkness.
Otah saw the boy’s face again, saw the bloodied hand and the tears of humiliation running down the dirty cheeks. He had caused that pain, and he could not draw the line between the shame of having done it and the shame of being too weak to do it again. There was no way for him to explain that he couldn’t lead the boys to strength because in his heart, he was still one of them.
‘I wasn’t worthy of my robe,’ he said.
Ansha didn’t speak again, and soon Otah heard the low, deep breath of sleep. The others were all tired from their day’s work. Otah had no reason to be tired after a day spent haunting the halls and rooms of the school with no duties and no purpose, wearing the black robe only because he had no other robes of his own.
He waited in the darkness until even the embers deserted him and he was sure the others were deeply asleep. Then he rose, pulled on his robe, and walked quietly out into the corridor. It wasn’t far to the chilly rooms where the younger cohorts slept. Otah walked among the sleeping forms. Their bodies were so small, and the blankets so thin. Otah had been in the black for so little time, and had forgotten so much.
The boy he was looking for was curled on a cot beside the great stone wall, his back to the room. Otah leaned over carefully and put a hand over the boy’s mouth to stifle a cry if he made one. He woke silently, though, his eyes blinking open. Otah watched until he saw recognition bloom.
‘Your hands are healing well?’ Otah whispered.
The boy nodded.
‘Good. Now stay quiet. We don’t want to wake the others.’
Otah drew his hand away, and the boy fell immediately into a pose of profound apology.
‘Otah-kvo, I have dishonored you and the school. I . . .’
Otah gently folded the boy’s fingers closed.
‘You have nothing to blame yourself for,’ Otah said. ‘The mistake was mine. The price is mine.’
‘If I’d worked harder—’
‘It would have gained you nothing,’ Otah said. ‘Nothing.’
The bronze doors boomed and swung open. The boys stood in their ranks holding poses of welcome as if they were so many statues. Otah, standing among the black robes, held his pose as well. He wondered what stories the cohorts of disowned children had been telling themselves about the visit: hopes of being returned to a lost family, or of being elevated to a poet. Dreams.
The old man walked in. He seemed less steady than Otah remembered him. After the ceremonial greetings, he blessed them all in his thick, ruined whisper. Then he and the teachers retired, and the black robes – all but Otah – took charge of the cohorts that they would lead for the day. Otah returned to his room and sat, sick at heart, waiting for the summons he knew was coming. It wasn’t long.
‘Otah,’ Tahi-kvo said from the doorway. ‘Get some tea for the Dai-kvo.’
‘But the ceremonial robe . . .’
‘Not required. Just tea.’
Otah rose into a pose of submission. The time had come.
The Dai-kvo sat silently, considering the fire in the grate. His hands, steepled before him, seemed smaller than Milah remembered them, the skin thinner and loose. His face showed the fatigue of his journey around the eyes and mouth, but when he caught Milah’s gaze and took a pose part query, part challenge, Milah thought there was something else as well. A hunger, or hope.
‘How are things back in the world?’ Milah asked. ‘We don’t hear much of the high cities here.’
‘Things are well enough,’ the Dai-kvo said. ‘And here? How are your boys?’
‘Well enough, most high.’
‘Really? Some nights I find I wonder.’
Milah took a pose inviting the Dai-kvo to elaborate, but to no effect. The ancient eyes had turned once more to the flames. Milah let his hands drop to his lap.
Tahi returned and took a pose of obedience and reverence before bending into his chair.
‘The boy is coming,’ Tahi said.
The Dai-kvo took a pose of acknowledgment, but nothing more. Milah saw his own concern mirrored in Tahi. It seemed too long before the soft knock came at the door and Otah Machi entered, carrying a tray with three small bowls of tea. Stone-faced, the boy put the tray on the low table and took the ritual pose of greeting.
‘I am honored by your presence, most high Dai-kvo,’ Otah said perfectly.
The old man’s eyes were alive now, his gaze on Otah with a powerful interest. He nodded, but didn’t commend the boy to his studies. Instead, he gestured to the empty seat that Milah usually took. The boy looked over, and Milah nodded. Otah sat, visibly sick with anxiety.
‘Tell me,’ the Dai-kvo said, picking up a bowl of tea, ‘what do you know of the andat?’
The boy took a moment finding his voice, but when he did, there was no quavering in it.
‘They are thoughts, most high. Translated by the poet into a form that includes volition.’
The Dai-kvo sipped his tea, watching the boy. Waiting for him to say more. The silence pressed Otah to speak, but he appeared to have no more words. At last the Dai-kvo put down his cup.
‘You know nothing more of them? How they are bound? What a poet must do to keep his work unlike that which has gone before? How one may pass a captured spirit from one generation to the next?’
‘No, most high.’
‘And why not?’ The Dai-kvo’s voice was soft.
‘Milah-kvo told us that more knowledge would be dangerous to us. We weren’t ready for the deeper teachings.’
‘True,’ the Dai-kvo said. ‘True enough. You were only tested. Never taught.’
Otah looked down. His face gray, he adopted a pose of contrition.
‘I am sorry to have failed the school, most high. I know that I was to show them how to be strong, and I wanted to, but—’
‘You have not failed, Otah. You have won through.’
Otah’s stance faltered, and his eyes filled with confusion. Milah coughed and, taking a pose that begged the Dai-kvo’s permission, spoke.
‘You recall our conversation in the snow the night I offered you the black? I said then that a weak-minded poet would be destroyed by the andat?’
‘A cruel-hearted one would destroy the world,’ Milah said. ‘Strong and kind, Otah. It’s a rare combination.’
‘We see it now less often than we once did,’ the Dai-kvo said. ‘Just as no boy has taken the black robes without a show of his strength of will, no one has put the black robe away without renouncing the cruelty that power brings. You have done both, Otah Machi. You’ve proven yourself worthy, and I would take you as my apprentice. Come back with me, boy, and I will teach you the secrets of the poets.’
The boy looked as if he’d been clubbed. His face was bloodless, his hands still, but a slow comprehension shone in his eyes. The moment stretched until Tahi snapped.
‘Well? You can say something, boy.’
‘What I did . . . the boy . . . I didn’t fail?’
‘That wasn’t a failure. That was the moment of your highest honor.’
A slow smile came to Otah’s lips, but it was deathly cold. When he spoke, there was fury in his voice.
‘Humiliating that boy was my moment of highest honor?’
Milah saw Tahi frown. He shook his head. This was between the boy and the Dai-kvo now.
‘Comforting him was,’ the old man said.
‘Comforting him for what I did.’
‘Yes. And yet how many of the other black-robed boys would have done the same? The school is built to embody these tests. It has been this way since the war that destroyed the Empire, and it has held the cities of the Khaiem together. There is a wisdom in it that runs very deep.’
Slowly, Otah took a pose of gratitude to a teacher, but there was something odd about it – something in the cant of the wrists that spoke of an emotion Milah couldn’t fathom.
‘If that was honor, most high, then I truly understand.’
‘Do you?’ the old man asked, and his voice sounded hopeful.
‘Yes. I was your tool. It wasn’t only me in that garden. You were there, too.’
‘What are you saying, boy?’ Tahi snapped, but Otah went on as if he had not spoken.
‘You say Tahi-kvo taught me strength and Milah-kvo compassion, but there are other lessons to be taken from them. As the school is of your design, I think it only right that you should know what I’ve learned at your hand.’
The Dai-kvo looked confused, and his hands took some half-pose, but the boy didn’t stop. His gaze was fastened on the old man, and he seemed fearless.
‘Tahi-kvo showed me that my own judgment is my only guide and Milah-kvo that there is no value in a lesson half-learned. My judgment was to leave this place, and I was right. I should never have let myself be tempted back.
‘And that, most high, is all I’ve ever learned here.’
Otah rose and took a pose of departure.
‘Otah!’ Tahi barked. ‘Take your seat!’
The boy ignored him, turned, and walked out, closing the door behind him. Milah crossed his arms, staring at the door, unsure what to say or even think. In the grate, the ashes settled under their own weight.
‘Milah,’ Tahi whispered.
Milah looked over, and Tahi gestured to the Dai-kvo. The old man sat, barely breathing. His hands were held in an attitude of profound regret.
Loved this? Want more? Don’t miss Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War – books one and two in the stunning new fantasy epic The Long Price by Orbit debut Daniel Abraham. Availible in the UK Janaury 21.