As the stone towers of Machi dominated the cold cities of the north, so the seafront of Saraykeht dominated the summer cities in the south. The wharves stood out into the clear waters of the bay, ships from the other port cities of the Khaiem—Nantani, Yalakeht, Chaburi-Tan—docked there. Among them were also the low, shallow ships of the Westlands and the tall, deep sailing ships of the Galts so strung with canvas they seemed like a launderer’s yard escaped to the sea. And along the seafront streets, vendors of all different cities and lands sold wares from tall, thin tables decked with brightly colored cloths and banners, each calling out to the passers-by over the cries of seagulls and the grumble of waves. A dozen languages, a hundred dialects, creoles, and pidgins danced in the hot, still air, and she knew them all.
Amat Kyaan, senior overseer for the Galtic House Wilsin, picked her way through the crowd with a cane despite the sureness of her steps. She savored the play of grammar and vocabulary crashing together like children playing sand tag. Knowing how to speak and what to say was her strength. It was the skill that had taken her from a desperate freelance scribe to here, wearing the colors of an honorable, if foreign, house and threading her way through the press of bodies and baled cotton to a meeting with her employer. There were ways from her rooms at the edge of the soft quarter to Marchat Wilsin’s favorite bathhouse that wouldn’t have braved the seafront. Still, whenever her mornings took her to the bathhouse, this was the way she picked. The seafront was, after all, the pride and symbol of her city.
She paused in the square at the mouth of the Nantan—the wide, gray-bricked street that marked the western edge of the warehouse quarter. The ancient bronze statue of Shian Sho, the last great emperor, stood looking out across the sea, as if in memory of his lost empire—rags and wastelands for eight generations now, except for the cities of the Khaiem where the unrest had never reached. Below him, young men labored, shirtless in the heat, hauling carts piled high with white, oily bales. Some laughed, some shouted, some worked with a dreadful seriousness. Some were free men taking advantage of the seasonal work. Others were indentured to houses or individual merchants. A few were slaves. And all of them were beautiful—even the fat and the awkward. Youth made them beautiful. The working of muscles under skin was more subtle and enticing than the finest robes of the Khaiem, maybe because it wasn’t considered. How many of them, she wondered, would guess that their sex was on display to an old woman who only seemed to be resting for a moment on the way to a business meeting?
All of them, probably. Vain, lovely creatures. She sighed, lifted her cane, and moved on.
The sun had risen perhaps half the width of one hand when she reached her destination. The bathhouses were inland, clustered near the banks of the Qiit and the aqueducts. Marchat Wilsin preferred one of the smaller. Amat had been there often enough that the guards knew her by sight and took awkward poses of welcome as she entered. She often suspected Wilsin-cha of choosing this particular place because it let him forget his own inadequacies of language. She sketched a pose of welcome and passed inside.
Working for a foreign house had never been simple, and translating contracts and agreements was the least of it. The Galts were a clever people, aggressive and successful in war. They held lands as wide and fertile as the Empire had at its height; they could command the respect and fear of other nations. But the assumptions they made—that agreements could be enforced by blades, that threat of invasion or blockade might underscore a negotiation—failed in the cities of the Khaiem. They might send their troops to Eddensea or their ships to Bakta, but when called upon for subtlety, they floundered. Galt might conquer the rest of the world if it chose; it would still bow before the andat. Marchat Wilsin had lived long enough in Saraykeht to have accepted the bruise on his people’s arrogance. Indulging his eccentricities, such as doing business in a bathhouse, was a small price.
The air inside was cooler, and ornate woodworked screens blocked the windows while still letting the occasional cedar-scented breeze through. Voices echoed off the hard floors and walls. Somewhere in the public rooms, a man was singing, the tones of his voice ringing like a bell. Amat went to the women’s chamber, shrugged out of her robe and pulled off her sandals. The cool air felt good against her bare skin. She took a drink of chilled water from the large granite basin, and—naked as anyone else—walked through the public baths, filled with men and women shouting and splashing one another, to the private rooms at the back. To Marchat Wilsin’s corner room, farthest from the sounds of voices and laughter.
“It’s too hot in this pisshole of a city,” Wilsin-cha growled as she entered the room. He lay half-submerged in the pool, the water lapping at his white, wooly chest. He had been a thinner man when she had first met him. His hair and beard had been dark. “It’s like someone holding a hot towel over your face.”
“Only in the summer,” Amat said and she laid her cane beside the water and carefully slipped in. The ripples rocked the floating lacquer tray with its bowls of tea, but didn’t spill it. “If it was any further north, you’d spend all winter complaining about how cold it was.”
“It’d be a change of pace, at least.”
He lifted a pink and wrinkled hand from the water and pushed the tray over toward her. The tea was fresh and seasoned with mint. The water was cool. Amat lay back against the tiled lip of the pool.
“So what’s the news?” Marchat asked, bringing their morning ritual to a close.
Amat made her report. Things were going fairly well. The shipment of raw cotton from Eddensea was in and being unloaded. The contracts with the weavers were nearly complete, though there were some ambiguities of translation from Galtic into the Khaiate that still troubled her. And worse, the harvest of the northern fields was late.
“Will they be here in time to go in front of the andat?”
Amat took another sip of tea before answering.
Marchat cursed under his breath. “Eddensea can ship us a season’s bales, but we can’t get our own plants picked?”
“How short does it leave us?”
“Our space will be nine-tenths full.”
Marchat scowled and stared at the air, seeing imagined numbers, reading the emptiness like a book. After a moment, he sighed.
“Is there any chance of speaking with the Khai on it? Renegotiating our terms?”
“None,” Amat said.
Marchat made an impatient noise in the back of his throat.
“This is why I hate dealing with you people. In Eymond or Bakta, there’d be room to talk at least.”
“Because you’d have soldiers sitting outside the wall,” Amat said, dryly.
“Exactly. And then they’d find room to talk. See if one of the other houses is overstocked,” he said.
“Chadhami is. But Tiyan and Yaanani are in competition for a contract with a Western lord. If one could move more swiftly than the other, it might seal the issue. We could charge them for the earlier session with the andat, and then take part of their space later when our crop comes in.”
Marchat considered this. They negotiated the house’s strategy for some time. Which little alliance to make, and how it could most profitably be broken later, should the need arise.
Amat knew more than she said, of course. That was her job—to hold everything about the company clear in her mind, present her employer with what he needed to know, and deal herself with the things beneath his notice. The center of it all, of course, was the cotton trade. The complex web of relationships—weavers and dyers and sailmakers; shipping companies, farming houses, alum miners—that made Saraykeht one of the richest cities in the world. And, as with all the cities of the Khaiem, free from threat of war, unlike Galt and Eddensea and Bakta; the Westlands and the Eastern Islands. They were protected by their poets and the powers they wielded, and that protection allowed conferences like this one, allowed them to play the deadly serious game of trade and barter.
Once their decisions had been made and the details agreed upon, Amat arranged a time to bring the proposals by the compound. Doing business from a bathhouse was an affectation Wilsin-cha could only take so far, and dripping water on freshly-inked contracts was where she drew the line. She knew he understood that. As she rose, prepared to face the remainder of her day, he held up a hand to stop her.
“There’s one other thing,” he said. She lowered herself back into the water. “I need a bodyguard this evening just before the half candle. Nothing serious, just someone to help keep the dogs off.”
Amat tilted her head. His voice was calm, its tone normal, but he wasn’t meeting her eyes. She held up her hands in a pose of query.
“I have a meeting,” he said, “in one of the low towns.”
“Company business?” Amat asked, keeping her voice neutral.
“I see,” she said. Then, after a moment, “I’ll be at the compound at the half candle, then.”
“No. Amat, I need some house thug to swat off animals and make bandits think twice. What’s a woman with a cane going to do for me?”
“I’ll bring a bodyguard with me.”
“Just send him to me,” Wilsin said with a final air. “I’ll take care of it from there.”
“As you see fit. And when did the company begin conducting trade without me?”
Marchat Wilsin grimaced and shook his head, muttering something to himself too low for her to catch. When he sighed, it sent a ripple that spilled some of the tea.
“It’s a sensitive issue, Amat. That’s all. It’s something I’m taking care of myself. I’ll give you all the details when I can, but . . .”
“It’s difficult. There are some details of the trade that . . . I’m going to have to keep quiet about.”
“It’s the sad trade,” he said. “The girl’s well enough along in the pregnancy that she’s showing. And there are some facets to getting rid of the baby that I need to address discreetly.”
Amat felt herself bristle, but kept her tone calm as she spoke.
“Ah. I see. Well, then. If you feel you can’t trust my discretion, I suppose you’d best not talk to me of it at all. Perhaps I might recommend someone else to take my position.”
He slapped the water impatiently. Amat crossed her arms. It was a bluff in the sense that they both knew the house would struggle badly without her, and that she would be worse off without her position in it—it wasn’t a threat meant seriously. But she was the overseer of the house, and Amat didn’t like being kept outside her own business. Marchat’s pale face flushed red, but whether with annoyance or shame, she wasn’t sure.
“Don’t break my stones over this one, Amat. I don’t like it any better than you do, but I can’t play this one any differently than I am. There is a trade. I’ll see to it. I’ll petition the Khai Saraykeht for use of his andat. I’ll see the girl’s taken care of before and after, and I’ll see that everyone who needs paying gets paid. I was in business before you signed on, you know. And I am your employer. You could assume I know what I’m doing.”
“I was just going to say the same thing, pointed the other way. You’ve consulted me on your affairs for twenty years. If I haven’t done something to earn your mistrust—”
“Then why shut me out of this when you never have before?”
“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to shut you out of it,” Marchat said. “Just take it that it’s not my choice.”
“Your uncle asked that I be left out? Or is it the client?”
“I need a bodyguard. At the half-candle.”
Amat took a complex pose of agreement that also held a nuance of annoyance. He wouldn’t catch the second meaning. Talking over his level was something she did when he’d upset her. She rose, and he scooped the lacquer tray closer and poured himself more tea.
“The client. Can you tell me who she is?” Amat asked.
“No. Thank you, Amat,” Wilsin said.
In the women’s chamber again, she dried herself and dressed. The street, when she stepped into it, seemed louder, more annoying, than when she went in. She turned toward the House Wilsin compound, to the north and uphill. She had to pause at a waterseller’s stall, buy herself a drink, and rest in the shade to collect her thoughts. The sad trade—using the andat to end a pregnancy—wasn’t the sort of business House Wilsin had undertaken before now, though other houses had acted as brokers in some instances. She wondered why the change in policy, and why the secrecy, and why Marchat Wilsin would have told her to arrange for the bodyguard if he hadn’t wanted her, on some level, to find answers.
Maati held a pose of greeting, his heart in his throat. The pale-skinned man walked slowly around him, black eyes taking in every nuance of his stance. Maati’s hands didn’t tremble; he had trained for years, first at the school and then with the Dai-kvo. His body knew how to hide anxiety.
The man in poet’s robes stopped, an expression half approval, half amusement on his face. Elegant fingers took a pose of greeting that was neither the warmest nor the least formal. With the reply made, Maati let his hands fall to his sides and stood. His first real thought, now that the shock of his teacher’s sudden appearance was fading, was that he hadn’t expected Heshai-kvo to be so young, or so beautiful.
“What is your name, boy?” the man asked. His voice was cool and hard.
“Maati Vaupathi,” Maati said, crisply. “Once the tenth son of Nicha Vaupathi, and now the youngest of the poets.”
“Ah. A westerner. It’s still in your accent.”
The teacher sat in the window seat, his arms folded, still openly considering Maati. The rooms, which had seemed sumptuous during the long worrisome days of Maati’s waiting, seemed suddenly squalid with the black-haired man in them. A tin setting for a perfect gem. The soft cotton draperies that flowed from the ceiling, shifting in the hot breeze of late afternoon, seemed dirty beside the poet’s skin. The man smiled, his expression not entirely kind. Maati took a pose of obeisance appropriate to a student before his teacher.
“I have come, Heshai-kvo, by the order of the Dai-kvo to learn from you, if you will have me as your pupil.”
“Oh, stop that. Bowing and posing like we were dancers. Sit there. On the bed. I have some questions for you.”
Maati did as he was told, tucking his legs beneath him in the formal way a student did in a lecture before the Dai-kvo. The man seemed to be amused by this, but said nothing about it.
“So. Maati. You came here . . . what? Six days ago?”
“Seven. And yet no one came to meet you. No one came to collect you or show you the poet’s house. It’s a long time for a master to ignore his student, don’t you think?”
It was exactly what Maati had thought, several times, but he didn’t admit that now. Instead he took a pose accepting a lesson.
“I thought so at first. But as time passed, I saw that it was a kind of test, Heshai-kvo.”
A tiny smile ghosted across the perfect lips, and Maati felt a rush of pleasure that he had guessed right. His new teacher motioned him to continue, and Maati sat up a degree straighter.
“I thought at first that it might be a test of my patience. To see whether I could be trusted not to hurry things when it wasn’t my place. But later I decided that the real test was how I spent my time. Being patient and idle wouldn’t teach me anything, and the Khai has the largest library in the summer cities.”
“You spent your time in the library?”
Maati took a pose of confirmation, unsure what to make of the teacher’s tone.
“These are the palaces of the Khai Saraykeht, Maati-kya,” he said with sudden familiarity as he gestured out the window at the grounds, the palaces, the long flow of streets and red tile roofs that sprawled to the sea. “There are scores of utkhaiem and courtiers. I don’t think a night passes here without a play being performed, or singers, or dancing. And you spent all your time with the scrolls?”
“I did spent one evening with a group of the utkhaiem. They were from the west . . . from Pathai. I lived there before I went to the school.”
“And you thought they might have news of your family.”
It wasn’t an accusation, though it could have been. Maati pressed his lips thinner, embarrassed, and repeated the pose of confirmation. The smile it brought seemed sympathetic.
“And what did you learn in your productive, studious days with Saraykeht’s books.”
“I studied the history of the city, and its andat.”
The elegant fingers made a motion that both approved and invited him to continue. The dark eyes held an interest that told Maati he had done well.
“I learned, for example, that the Dai-kvo—the last one—sent you here when Iana-kvo failed to hold Petals-Falling-Away after the old poet, Miat-kvo, died.”
“And tell me, why do you think he did that?”
“Because Petals-Falling-Away had been used to speed cotton harvests for the previous fifty years,” Maati said, pleased to know the answer. “It could make the plant . . . open, I guess. It made it easier to get the fibers. With the loss, the city needed another way to make the process—bringing in the raw cotton and turning it to cloth—better and faster than they could in Galt or the Westlands, or else the traders might go elsewhere, and the whole city would have to change. You had captured Removing-The-Part-That-Continues. Called Sterile in the North, or Seedless in the summer cities. With it, the merchant houses can contract with the Khai, and they won’t have to comb the seeds out of the cotton. Even if it took twice as long to harvest, the cotton can still get to the spinners more quickly here than anywhere else. Now the other nations and cities actually send their raw cotton here. Then the weavers come here, because the raw cotton is here. And the dyers and the tailors because of the weavers. All the needle trades.”
“Yes. And so Saraykeht holds its place, with only a few more pricked fingers and some blood on the cotton,” the man said, taking a pose of confirmation with a softness to the wrists that confused Maati. “But then, blood’s only blood, ne?”
The silence went on until Maati, uncomfortable, grasped for something to break it.
“You also rid the summer cities of rats and snakes.”
The man came out of his reverie with something like a smile. When he spoke, his voice was amused and self-deprecating.
“Yes. At the price of drawing Galts and Westermen.”
Maati took a pose of agreement less formal than before, and his teacher seemed not to mind. In fact, he seemed almost pleased.
“I also learned a lot about the particular needle trades,” Maati said. “I wasn’t sure how much you needed to know about what happens with the cotton once you’re done with it. And sailing. I read a book about sailing.”
“But you didn’t actually go to the seafront, did you?”
The teacher took a pose of acceptance that wasn’t approval or disapproval, but something of both.
“All this from one little test,” he said. “But then, you came through the school very young, so you must have a talent for seeing tests. Tell me. How did you see through the Dai-kvo’s little guessing games?”
“You . . . I’m sorry, Heshai-kvo. It’s . . . you really want to know that?”
“It can be telling. Especially since you don’t want to say. Do you?”
Maati took a pose of apology. He kept his eyes down while he spoke, but he didn’t lie.
“When I got to the school—I was still among the younger cohorts—there was an older boy who said something to me. We’d been set to turn the soil in the gardens, and my hands were too soft. I couldn’t do the work. And the black robe who was tending us—Otah-kvo, his name was—was very upset with me. But then, when I told him why I hadn’t been able to do as he asked, he tried to comfort me. And he told me that if I had worked harder, it wouldn’t have helped. That was just before he left the school.”
“So? You mean someone told you? That hardly seems fair.”
“He didn’t though. He didn’t tell me, exactly. He only said some things about the school. That it wasn’t what it looked like. And the things he said made me start thinking. And then . . .”
“And once you knew to look, it wasn’t hard to see. I understand.”
“It wasn’t quite like that.”
“Do you ever wonder if you would have made it on your own? I mean if your Otah-kvo hadn’t given the game away?”
Maati blushed. The secret he’d held for years with the Dai-kvo pried open in a single conversation. Heshai-kvo was a subtle man. He took a pose of acknowledgement. The teacher, however, was looking elsewhere, an expression passing over him that might have been annoyance or pain.
“I’ve just remembered something I’m to do. Walk with me.”
Maati rose and followed. The palaces spread out, larger than the village that surrounded the Dai-kvo, each individual structure larger than the whole of the school. Together, they walked down the wide marble staircase, into a vaulted hall. The wide, bright air was touched by the scents of sandalwood and vanilla.
“Tell me, Maati. What do you think of slaves?”
The question was an odd one, and his first response—I don’t—seemed too glib for the occasion. Instead, he took a pose requesting clarification as best he could while still walking more quickly than his usual pace.
“Permanent indenture. What’s your opinion of it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then think for a moment.”
They passed through the hall and onto a wide, flower-strewn path that lead down and to the south. Gardens rich with exotic flowers and fountains spread out before them. Singing slaves, hidden from view by hedges or cloth screens, filled the air with wordless melodies. The sun blared heat like a trumpet, and the thick air made Maati feel almost as if he was swimming. It seemed they’d hardly started walking before Maati’s inner robe was sticky with sweat. He found himself struggling to keep up.
As Maati considered the question, servants and utkhaiem passed, pausing to take poses of respect. His teacher took little notice of them or of the heat; where Maati’s robes stuck, his flowed like water over stone and no sweat dampened his temples. Maati cleared his throat.
“People who have entered into permanent indenture have either chosen to do so, in return for the protection of the holders of their contracts, or lost their freedoms as punishment for some crime,” Maati said, carefully keeping any judgement out of the statement.
“Is that what the Dai-kvo taught you?”
“No. It’s just . . . it’s just the way it is. I’ve always known that.”
“And the third case? The andat?”
“I don’t understand.”
The teacher’s dark eyebrows rose on the perfect skin of his forehead. His lips took the slightest of all possible smiles.
“The andat aren’t criminals. Before they’re bound, they have no thought, no will, no form. They’re only ideas. How can an idea enter into a contract?”
“How can one refuse?” Maati countered.
“There are names, my boy, for men who take silence as consent.”
They passed into the middle gardens. The low halls spread before them, and wider paths almost like streets. The temple rose off to their right, wide and high; its sloping lines reminded Maati of a seagull in flight. At one of the low halls, carts had gathered. Laborers milled around, speaking with one another. Maati caught a glimpse of a bale of cotton being carried in. With a thrill of excitement he realized what was happening. For the first time, he was going to see Heshai-kvo wield the power of the andat.
“Ah, well. Never mind,” his teacher said, as if he had been waiting for some answer. “Only Maati? Later on, I’d like you to think about this conversation.”
Maati took a pose appropriate to a student accepting an assignment. As they drew nearer, the laborers and merchants moved aside to make room for them. Members of the utkhaiem were also there in fine robes and expensive jewelry. Maati caught sight of an older woman in a robe the color of the sky at dawn—the personal attendant of the Khai Saraykeht.
“The Khai is here?” Maati asked, his voice smaller than he would have liked.
“He attends sometimes. It makes the merchants feel he’s paying attention to them. Silly trick, but it seems to work.”
Maati swallowed, half at the prospect of seeing the Khai, half at the indifference in his teacher’s voice. They passed through the arches and into the shade of the low hall. Warehouse-large, the hall was filled with bale upon bale of raw cotton stacked to the high ceiling. The only space was a narrow gap at the very top, thinner than a bale, and another of perhaps a hand’s width at the bottom where metal frames held the cotton off the floor. What little space remained was peopled by the representatives of the merchant houses whose laborers waited outside and, on a dais, the Khai Saraykeht—a man in his middle years, his hair shot with gray, his eyes heavy-lidded. His attendants stood around him, following commands so subtle they approached invisibility. Maati felt the weight of the silence as they entered. Then a murmur moved through the hall, voices too low to make out words or even sentiments. The Khai raised an eyebrow and took a pose of query with an almost inhuman grace.
At his side stood a thick-bodied man, his wide frog-like mouth gaping open in what might have been horror or astonishment. He also wore the robe of a poet. Maati felt his teacher’s hand on his shoulder, solid, firm, and cold.
“Maati,” the lovely, careful voice said so quietly that only the two of them could hear, “there’s something you should know. I’m not Heshai-kvo.”
Maati looked up. The dark eyes were on his, something like amusement in their depths.
“Wh-who are you, then?”
“A slave, my dear. The slave you hope to own.”
Then the man who was not his teacher turned to the Khai Saraykeht and the spluttering, enraged poet. He took a pose of greeting more appropriate to acquaintances chanced upon at a teahouse than the two most powerful men of the city. Maati, his hands trembling, took a much more formal stance.
“What is this?” the poet—the frog-mouthed Heshai-kvo, he had to be—demanded.
“This?” the man said, turning and considering Maati as if he were a sculpture pointed out at a fair. “It seems to be a boy. Or perhaps a young man. Fifteen summers? Maybe sixteen? It’s so hard to know what to call it at that age. I found it abandoned in the upper halls. Apparently it’s been wandering around there for days. No one else seems to have any use for it. May I keep it?”
“Heshai,” the Khai said. His voice was powerful. He seemed to speak in a conversational tone, but his voice carried like an actor’s. The displeasure in the syllables stung.
“Oh,” the man at Maati’s side said. “Have I displeased? Well, master, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.”
“Silence!” the poet snapped. Maati sensed as much as saw the man beside him go stiff. He chanced a glimpse at the perfect face. The features were fixed in pain, and slowly, as if fighting each movement, the elegant hands took forms of apology and self-surrender, the spine twisted into a pose of abject obeisance.
“I come to do your bidding, Khai Saraykeht,” the man—no, the andat, Seedless—said, his voice honey and ashes. “Command me as you will.”
The Khai took a pose of acknowledgement, its nuances barely civil. The frog-mouthed poet looked at Maati and gestured pointedly to his own side. Maati scurried to the dais. The andat moved more slowly, but followed.
“You should have waited,” Heshai-kvo hissed. “This is a very busy time of year. I would have thought the Dai-kvo would teach you more patience.”
Maati fell into a pose of abject apology.
“Heshai-kvo, I was misled. I thought that he . . . that it . . . I am shamed by my error.”
“As you should be,” the poet snapped. “Just arriving like this, unintroduced and—”
“Good and glorious Heshai,” the Khai Saraykeht said, voice envenomed by sarcasm, “I understand that adding another pet to your collection must be trying. And indeed, I regret to interrupt, but . . .”
The Khai gestured grandly at the bales of cotton. His hands were perfect, and his motion the most elegant Maati had ever seen, smooth and controlled and eloquent.
Heshai-kvo briefly adopted a pose of regret, then turned to the beautiful man—Seedless, Sterile, andat. For a moment the two considered each other, some private, silent conversation passing between them. The andat curled his lip in something half sneer, half sorrow. Sweat dampened the teacher’s back, and he began trembling as if with a great effort. Then the andat turned and raised his arms theatrically to the cotton.
A moment later, Maati heard a faint tick, like a single raindrop. And then more and more, until an invisible downpour filled the hall. From his position behind the Khai and the poet, he lowered himself looking under the raised platform on which the bales lay. The parquet floor was covered with small black dots skittering and jumping as they struck one another. Cotton seed.
“It is done,” Heshai-kvo said, and Maati stood hurriedly.
The Khai clapped his hands and rose, his movement like a dancer’s. His robes flowed through the air like something alive. For a moment Maati forgot himself and merely stood in awe.
A pair of servants pulled wide the great doors, and began a low wail, calling the merchants and their laborers to come and take what was theirs. The utkhaiem took stations by the doors, prepared to collect the fees and taxes for each bale that left. The Khai stood on his dais, grave and beautiful, seeming more a ghost or god than Seedless, who more nearly was.
“You should have waited,” Heshai-kvo said again over the voices of the laborers and the din of the merchants at their business. “This is a very bad start for your training. A very bad start.”
Once again, Maati took a pose of regret, but the poet—his teacher, his new master—turned away, leaving the pose unanswered. Maati stood slowly, his face hot with a blush equally embarrassment and anger, his hands at his sides. At the edge of the dais, the andat sat, his bone-pale hands in his lap. He met Maati’s gaze, shrugged, and took a pose of profound apology that might have been genuine or deeply insincere; Maati had no way to tell.
Before he could choose how to respond, Seedless smiled, lowered his hands and looked away.
Amat Kyaan sat at the second-floor window of her apartments, looking out over the city. The setting sun behind her reddened the walls of the soft quarter. Some comfort houses were already hanging out streamers and lamps, the glitter of the lights and the shimmering cloth competing with the glow of fireflies. A fruit seller rang her bell and sang her wares in a gentle melody. Amat Kyaan rubbed stinging salve into her knee and ankle, as she did every evening, to keep the pain at bay. It had been a long day, made longer by the nagging disquiet of her meeting with Marchat Wilsin. And even now, it wasn’t finished. There was one more unpleasant task still to be done.
This would be her fifty-eighth summer in the world, and every one had been spent in Saraykeht. Her earliest memories were of her father spinning cured cotton into fine, tough thread, humming to himself as he worked. He was many years dead now, as was her mother. Her sister, Sikhet, had vanished into the comfort houses of the soft quarter when she was only sixteen. Amat Kyaan liked to think she caught glimpses of her still—older, wiser, safe. More likely it was her own desire that her sister be well. Her better mind knew it was only wishes. There had been too many years for the two of them not to have come upon each other.
She felt some nights that she had lived her life as an apology for letting her sister vanish into the soft world. And perhaps it had started that way: her decision to work for a trading house, her rise through the invisible levels of power and wealth, had been meant to balance her sister’s assumed fall. But she was an older woman now, and everyone she might have apologized to was gone or dead. She had the status and the respect she needed to do as she pleased. She was no one’s sister, no one’s daughter, no one’s wife or mother. By standing still, she had come almost loose from the world, and she found the solitude suited her.
A grass tic shuffled across her arm, preparing to tap her skin. She caught it, cracked it between her thumbnails, and flicked the corpse out into the street. There were more lanterns lit now, and the callers of different establishments were setting out singers and flute players to tempt men—and occasionally even women—to their doors. A patrol of eight frowning thugs swaggered down the streets, their robes the colors of the great comfort houses. It was too early for there to be many people drunk on the streets—the patrol walked and grimaced only to let the patrons coming in see that they were there.
There was no place safer than the Saraykeht soft quarter at night, and no place more dangerous. Here alone, she suspected, of all the cities of the Khaiem, no one would be attacked, no one raped, no one killed except perhaps the whores and showfighters who worked there. For their clients, every opportunity to twist a mind with strange herbs, to empty a pocket with dice and khit tiles, or to cheapen sex as barter would be made available in perfect safety. It was a beautiful, toxic dream, and she feared it as she loved it. It was a part of her city.
The soft, tentative knock at her door didn’t startle her. She had been dreading it as much as expecting it. She turned, taking up her cane, and walked down the long, curved stair to the street level. The door was barred, not from fear, but to keep drunken laborers from mistaking hers for a comfort house. She lifted the bar and swung the door aside.
Liat Chokavi stood in the street, jaw tight, eyes cast down. She was a lovely little thing—brown eyes the color of milky tea and golden skin, smooth as an eggshell. If the girl’s face was a little too round to be classically beautiful, her youth forgave her.
Amat Kyaan raised her left hand in a gesture that greeted her student. Liat adopted an answering pose of gratitude at being received, but the stance was undercut by the defensiveness of her body. Amat Kyaan suppressed a sigh and stood back, motioning the girl inside.
“I expected you earlier,” she said as she closed the door.
Liat walked to the foot of the stair, but there paused and turned in a formal pose of apology.
“Honored teacher,” she began, but Amat cut her off.
“Light the candles. I will be up in a moment.”
Liat hesitated, but then turned and went up. Amat Kyaan could trace the girl’s footsteps by the creaking of the timbers. She poured herself a cup of limed water, then went slowly up the stairs. The salve helped. Most days she woke able to convince herself that today there would be no trouble, and by nightfall her joints ached. Age was a coward and a thief, and she wasn’t about to let it get the better of her. Still, as she took the steps to her workroom, she trusted as much of her weight to the cane as she could.
Liat sat on the raised cushion beside Amat Kyaan’s oaken writing desk. Her legs were tucked up under her, her gaze on the floor. The lemon candles danced in a barely-felt breeze, the smoke driving away the worst of the flies. Amat sat at the window and arranged her robe as if she were preparing herself for work.
“Old Sanya must have had more objections than usual. He’s normally quite prompt. Give the changes here, let’s survey the damage, shall we?”
She held one hand out to the apprentice. A moment later, she lowered it.
“I misplaced the contracts,” Liat said, her voice a tight whisper. “I apologize. It is entirely my fault.”
Amat sipped her water. The lime made it taste cooler than it was.
“You misplaced the contracts?”
Amat let the silence hang. The girl didn’t look up. A tear tracked down the round cheek.
“That isn’t good,” Amat said.
“Please don’t send me back to Chaburi-Tan,” the girl said. “My mother was so proud when I was accepted here and my father would—”
Amat raised a hand and the pleading stopped, Liat’s gaze fixed on the floor. With a sigh, Amat pulled a bundle of papers from her sleeve and tossed them at Liat’s knees.
At least the girl hadn’t lied about it.
“One of the laborers found this between the bales from the Innis harvest,” Amat said. “I gave him your week’s wages as a reward.”
Liat had the pages in her hands, and Amat watched the tension flow out of her, Liat’s body collapsing on itself.
“Thank you,” the girl said. Amat assumed she meant some god and not herself.
“I don’t suppose I need to tell you what would have happened if these had come out? It would have destroyed every concession House Wilsin has had from Sanya’s weavers in the last year.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I really am.”
“And do you have any idea how the contract might have fallen out of your sleeve? The warehouse seems an odd place to have lost them.”
Liat blushed furiously and looked away. Amat knew that she had guessed correctly. It should have made her angry, but all she really felt was a kind of nostalgic sympathy. Liat was in the middle of her seventeenth summer, and some mistakes were easier to make at that age.
“Did you at least do something to make sure you aren’t giving him a child?”
Liat’s gaze flickered up at Amat and then away, fast as a mouse. The girl swallowed. Even the tips of her ears were crimson. She pretended to brush a fly off her leg.
“I got some teas from Chisen Wat,” she said at last, and softly.
“Gods! Her? She’s as likely to poison you by mistake. Go to Urrat on the Street of Beads. She’s the one I always saw. You can tell her I sent you.”
When Liat looked at her this time, the girl neither spoke nor looked away. She’d shocked her. And, as Amat felt the first rush of blood in her own cheeks, maybe she’d shocked herself a little, too. Amat took a pose of query.
“What? You think I was born before they invented sex? Go see Urrat. Maybe we can keep you from the worst parts of being young and stupid. Leaving contracts in your love nest. Which one was it, anyway? Still Itani Noyga?”
“Itani’s my heartmate,” Liat protested.
“Yes, yes. Of course.”
He was a good-looking boy, Itani. Amat had seen him several times, mostly on occasions that involved prying her apprentice away from him and his cohort. He had a long face and broad shoulders, and was maybe a little too clever to be working as a laborer. He knew his letters and numbers. If he’d had more ambition, there might have been other work for a boy like that . . .
Amat frowned, her body taking a subtle tension even before the thought was fully in her mind. Itani Noyga, with his broad shoulders and strong legs. Certainly there was other work he could be put to. Driving away feral dogs, for example, and convincing roadside thugs to hunt for easier prey than Marchat Wilsin. Marchat wouldn’t be keeping track of who each of his laborers were sharing pillows with.
And pillows were sometimes the best places to talk.
“Amat-cha? Are you all right?”
“Itani. Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. Likely back at his quarters. Or maybe a teahouse.”
“Do you think you could find him?”
Liat nodded. Amat gestured for a block of ink, and Liat rose, took one from the shelf and brought it to her desk. Amat took a length of paper and took a moment to calm herself before she began writing. The pen sounded as dry as a bird claw on pavement.
“There’s an errand I want Itani for. Marchat Wilsin needs a bodyguard tonight. He’s going to a meeting in one of the low towns at the half-candle, and he wants someone to walk with him. I don’t know how long the meeting will last, but I can’t assume it will be brief. I’ll tell his overseer to release him from duty tomorrow.”
She took another sheet of paper, scraped the pen across the ink and began a second letter. Liat, at her shoulder, read the words as she wrote them.
“This one, I want you to deliver to Rinat Lyanita after you find Itani,” Amat said as she wrote. “If Itani doesn’t know that he’s to go, Rinat will do. I don’t want Marchat waiting for someone who never arrives.”
“Yes, Amat-cha, but . . .”
Amat blew on the ink to cure it. Liat’s words failed, and she took no pose, but a single vertical line appeared between her brows. Amat tested the ink. It smudged only a little. Good enough for the task at hand. She folded both orders and sealed them with hard wax. There wasn’t time to sew the seams.
“Ask it,” Amat said. “And stop scowling. You’ll give yourself a headache.”
“The mistake was mine, Amat-cha. It isn’t Itani’s fault that I lost the contracts. Punishing him for my error is . . .”
“It isn’t a punishment, Liat-kya,” Amat said, using the familiar -kya to reassure her. “I just need him to do me this favor. And, when he comes back tomorrow, I want him to tell you all about the journey. What town he went to, who was there, how long the meeting went. Everything he can remember. Not to anyone else; just to you. And then you to me.”
Liat took the papers and tucked them into her sleeve. The line was still between her brows. Amat wanted to reach over and smooth it out with her thumb, like it was a stray mark on paper. The girl was thinking too much. Perhaps this was a poor idea after all. Perhaps she should take the orders back.
But then she wouldn’t discover what business Marchat Wilsin was doing without her.
“Can you do this for me, Liat-kya?”
“Of course, but . . . is something going on, Amat-cha?”
“Yes, but don’t concern yourself with it. Just do as I ask, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Liat took a pose of acceptance and leave-taking. Amat responded with thanks and dismissal appropriate for a supervisor to an apprentice. Liat went down the stairs, and Amat heard her close the door behind her as she went. Outside, the fireflies shone and vanished, brighter now as twilight dimmed the city. She watched the streets: the firekeeper at the corner with his banked kiln, the young men in groups heading west into the soft quarter, ready to trade lengths of silver and copper for pleasures that would be gone by morning. And there, among them, Liat Chokavi walking briskly to the east, toward the warehouses and laborers’ quarters, the dyeworks and the weavers.
Amat watched until the girl vanished around a corner, passing beyond recall, then she went down and barred her door.
Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Abraham