Maati took a pose that requested clarification. In another context, it would have risked annoying the messenger, but this time the servant of the Dai-kvo seemed to be expecting a certain level of disbelief. Without hesitation, he repeated his words.
“The Dai-kvo requests Maati Vaupathai come immediately to his private chambers.”
It was widely understood in the shining village of the Dai-kvo that Maati Vaupathai was, if not a failure, certainly an embarrassment. Over the years he had spent in the writing rooms and lecture halls, walking the broad, clean streets, and huddled with others around the kilns of the firekeepers, Maati had grown used to the fact that he would never be entirely accepted by those who surrounded him; it had been eight years since the Dai-kvo had deigned to speak to him directly. Maati closed the brown leather book he had been studying and slipped it into his sleeve. He took a pose that accepted the message and announced his readiness. The white-robed messenger turned smartly and led the way.
The village that was home to the Dai-kvo and the poets was always beautiful. Now in the middle spring, flowers and ivies scented the air and threatened to overflow the well-tended gardens and planters, but no stray grass rose between the paving stones. The gentle choir of wind chimes filled the air. The high, thin waterfall that fell beside the palaces shone silver, and the towers and garrets—carved from the mountain face itself—were unstained even by the birds that roosted in the eaves. Men spent lifetimes, Maati knew, keeping the village immaculate and as impressive as a Khai on his seat. The village and palaces seemed as grand as the great bowl of sky above them. His years living among the men of the village—only men, no women were permitted—had never entirely robbed Maati of his awe at the place. He struggled now to hold himself tall, to appear as calm and self-possessed as a man summoned to the Dai-kvo regularly. As he passed through the archways that led to the palace, he saw several messengers and more than a few of the brown-robed poets pause to look at him.
He was not the only one who found his presence there strange.
The servant led him through the private gardens to the modest apartments of the most powerful man in the world. Maati recalled the last time he had been there—the insults and recriminations, the Dai-kvo’s scorching sarcasm, and his own certainty and pride crumbling around him like sugar castles left out in the rain. Maati shook himself. There was no reason for the Dai-kvo to have called him back to repeat the indignities of the past.
There are always the indignities of the future, the soft voice that had become Maati’s muse said from a corner of his mind. Never assume you can survive the future because you’ve survived the past. Everyone thinks that, and they’ve all been wrong eventually.
The servant stopped before the elm-and-oak-inlaid door that led, Maati remembered, to a meeting chamber. He scratched it twice to announce them, then opened the door and motioned Maati in. Maati breathed deeply as a man preparing to dive from a cliff into shallow water and entered.
The Dai-kvo was sitting at his table. He had not had hair since Maati had met him twenty-three summers before when the Dai-kvo had only been Tahi-kvo, the crueler of the two teachers set to sift through the discarded sons of the Khaiem and utkhaiem for likely candidates to send on to the village. His brows had gone pure white since he’d become the Dai-kvo, and the lines around his mouth had deepened. His black eyes were just as alive.
The other two men in the room were strangers to Maati. The thinner one sat at the table across from the Dai-kvo, his robes deep blue and gold, his hair pulled back to show graying temples and a thin white-flecked beard. The thicker—with both fat and muscle, Maati thought—stood at window, one foot up on the thick ledge, looking into the gardens, and Maati could see where his clean-shaven jaw sagged at the jowl. His robes were the light brown color of sand, his boots hard leather and travel worn. He turned to look at Maati as the door closed, and there was something familiar about him—about both these new men—that he could not describe. He fell into the old pose, the first one he had learned at the school.
“I am honored by your presence, most high Dai-kvo.”
The Dai-kvo grunted and gestured to him for the benefit of the two strangers.
“This is the one,” the Dai-kvo said. The men shifted to look at him, graceful and sure of themselves as merchants considering a pig. Maati imagined what they saw him for—a man of thirty summers, his forehead already pushing back his hairline, the smallest of pot bellies. A soft man in a poet’s robes, ill-considered and little spoken of. He felt himself start to blush, clenched his teeth, and forced himself to show neither his anger nor his shame as he took a pose of greeting to the two men.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t believe we have met before, or if we have, I apologize that I don’t recall it.”
“We haven’t met,” the thicker one said.
“He isn’t much to look at,” the thin one said, pointedly speaking to the Dai-kvo. The thicker scowled and sketched the briefest of apologetic poses. It was a thread thrown to a drowning man, but Maati found himself appreciating even the empty form of courtesy.
“Sit down, Maati-cha,” the Dai-kvo said, gesturing to a chair. “Have a bowl of tea. There’s something we have to discuss. Tell me what you’ve heard of events in the winter cities.”
Maati sat and spoke while the Dai-kvo poured the tea.
“I only know what I hear at the teahouses and around the kilns, most high. There’s trouble with the glassblowers in Cetani; something about the Khai Cetani raising taxes on exporting fishing bulbs. But I haven’t heard anyone taking it very seriously. Amnat-Tan is holding a summer fair, hoping, they say, to take trade from Yalakeht. And the Khai Machi . . .”
Maati stopped. He realized now why the two strangers seemed familiar; who they reminded him of. The Dai-kvo pushed a fine ceramic bowl across the smooth-sanded grain of the table. Maati fell into a pose of thanks without being aware of it, but did not take the bowl.
“The Khai Machi is dying,” the Dai-kvo said. “His belly’s gone rotten. It’s a sad thing. Not a good end. And his eldest son is murdered. Poisoned. What do the teahouses and kilns say of that?”
“That it was poor form,” Maati said. “That no one has seen the Khaiem resort to poison since Udun, thirteen summers ago. But neither of the brothers has appeared to accuse the other, so no one . . . Gods! You two are . . .”
“You see?” the Dai-kvo said to the thin man, smiling as he spoke. “No, not much to look at, but a decent stew between his ears. Yes, Maati-cha. The man scraping my windowsill with his boots there is Danat Machi. This is his eldest surviving brother, Kaiin. And they have come here to speak with me instead of waging war against each other because neither of them killed their elder brother Biitrah.”
“So they . . . you think it was Otah-kvo?”
“The Dai-kvo says you know my younger brother,” the thickset man—Danat—said, taking his own seat at the only unoccupied side of the table. “Tell me what you know of Otah.”
“I haven’t seen him in years, Danat-cha,” Maati said. “He was in Saraykeht when . . . when the old poet there died. He was working as a laborer. But I haven’t seen him since.”
“Do you think he was satisfied by that life?” the thin one—Kaiin—asked. “A laborer at the docks of Saraykeht hardly seems like the fate a son of the Khaiem would embrace. Especially one who refused the brand.”
Maati picked up the bowl of tea, sipping it too quickly as he tried to gain himself a moment to think. The tea scalded his tongue.
“I never heard Otah speak of any ambitions for his father’s chair,” Maati said.
“And is there any reason to think he would have spoken of it to you?” Kaiin said, the faintest sneer in his voice. Maati felt the blush creeping into his cheeks again, but it was the Dai-kvo who answered.
“There is. Otah Machi and Maati here were close for a time. They fell out eventually over a woman, I believe. Still, I hold that if Otah had been bent on taking part in the struggle for Machi at that time, he would have taken Maati into his confidence. But that is hardly our concern. As Maati here points out, it was years ago. Otah may have become ambitious. Or resentful. There’s no way for us to know that—”
“But he refused the brand—” Danat began, and the Dai-kvo cut him off with a gesture.
“There were other reasons for that,” the Dai-kvo said sharply. “They aren’t your concern.”
Danat Machi took a pose of apology and the Dai-kvo waved it away. Maati sipped his tea again. This time it didn’t burn. To his right, Kaiin Machi took a pose of query, looking directly at Maati for what seemed the first time.
“Would you know him again if you saw him?”
“Yes,” Maati said. “I would.”
“You sound certain of it.”
“I am, Kaiin-cha.”
The thin man smiled. All around the table a sense of satisfaction seemed to come from his answer. Maati found it unnerving. The Dai-kvo poured himself more tea, the liquid clicking into his bowl like a stream over stones.
“There is a very good library in Machi,” the Dai-kvo said. “One of the finest in the fourteen cities. I understand there are records there from the time of the Empire. One of the high lords was thinking to go there, perhaps, to ride out the war, and sent his books ahead. I’m sure there are treasures hidden among those shelves that would be of use in binding the andat.”
“Really?” Maati asked.
“No, not really,” the Dai-kvo said. “I expect it’s a mess of poorly documented scraps overseen by a librarian who spends his copper on wine and whores, but I don’t care. For our purposes, there are secrets hidden in those records important enough to send a low-ranking poet like yourself to sift though. I have a letter to the Khai Machi that will explain why you are truly there. He will explain your presence to the utkhaiem and Cehmai Tyan, the poet who holds Stone-Made-Soft. Let them think you’ve come on my errand. What you will be doing instead is discovering whether Otah killed Biitrah Machi. If so, who is backing him. If not, who did, and why.”
“Most high—” Maati began.
“Wait for me in the gardens,” the Dai-kvo said. “I have a few more things to discuss with the sons of Machi.”
The gardens, like the apartments, were small, well kept, beautiful, and simple. A fountain murmured among carefully shaped, deeply fragrant pine trees. Maati sat, looking out. From the side of mountain, the world spread out before him like a map. He waited, his head buzzing, his heart in turmoil. Before long he heard the steady grinding sound of footsteps on gravel, and he turned to see the Dai-kvo making his way down the path toward him. Maati stood. He had not known the Dai-kvo had started walking with a cane. A servant followed at a distance, carrying a chair, and did not approach until the Dai-kvo signaled. Once the chair was in place, looking out over the same span that Maati had been considering, the servant retreated.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” the Dai-kvo said.
Maati, unsure whether he meant the view or the business with the sons of Machi, didn’t reply. The Dai-kvo looked at him, something part smile, part something less congenial on his lips. He drew forth two packets—letters sealed in wax and sewn shut. Maati took them and tucked them in his sleeve.
“Gods. I’m getting old. You see that tree?” the Dai-kvo asked, pointing at one of the shaped pines with his cane.
“Yes, most high.”
“There’s a family of robins that lives in it. They wake me up every morning. I always mean to have someone break the nest, but I’ve never quite given the order.”
“You are merciful, most high.”
The old man looked up at him, squinting. His lips were pressed thin, and the lines in his face were black as charcoal. Maati stood waiting. At length, the Dai-kvo turned away again with a sigh.
“Will you be able to do it?” he asked.
“I will do as the Dai-kvo commands,” Maati said.
“Yes, I know you’ll go there. But will you be able to tell me that he’s there? You know if he is behind this, they’ll kill him before they go on to each other. Are you able to bear that responsibility? Tell me now if you aren’t, and I’ll find some other way. You don’t have to fail again.”
“I won’t fail again, most high.”
“Good. That’s good,” the Dai-kvo said and went silent. Maati waited so long for the pose that would dismiss him that he wondered whether the Dai-kvo had forgotten he was there, or had chosen to ignore him as an insult. But the old man spoke, his voice low.
“How old is your son, Maati-cha?”
“Twelve, most high. But I haven’t seen him in some years.”
“You’re angry with me for that.” Maati began to take a pose of denial, but checked himself and lowered his arms. This wasn’t the time for court politics. The Dai-kvo saw this and smiled. “You’re getting wiser, my boy. You were a fool when you were young. In itself, that’s not such a bad thing. Many men are. But you embraced your mistakes. You defended them against all correction. That was the wrong path, and don’t think I’m unaware of how you’ve paid for it.”
“As you say, most high.”
“I told you there was no place in a poet’s life for a family. A lover here or there, certainly. Most men are too weak to deny themselves that much. But a wife? A child? No. There isn’t room for both what they require and what we do. And I told you that. You remember? I told you that, and you . . .”
The Dai-kvo shook his head, frowning in remembered frustration. It was a moment, Maati knew, when he could apologize. He could repent his pride and say that the Dai-kvo had indeed known better all along. He remained silent.
“I was right,” the Dai-kvo said for him. “And now you’ve done half a job as a poet and half a job as a man. Your studies are weak, and the woman took your whelp and left. You’ve failed both, just as I knew you would. I’m not condemning you for that, Maati. No man could have taken on what you did and succeeded. But this opportunity in Machi is what will wipe clean the slate. Do this well and it will be what you’re remembered for.”
“Certainly I will do my best.”
“Fail at it, and there won’t be a third chance. Few enough men have two.”
Maati took a pose appropriate to a student receiving a lecture. Considering him, the Dai-kvo responded with one that closed the lesson, then raised his hand.
“Don’t destroy this chance in order to spite me, Maati. Failing in this will do me no harm, and it will destroy you. You’re angry because I told you the truth, and because what I said would happen, did. Consider while you go north, whether that’s really such a good reason to hate me.”
Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Abraham. All rights reserved.