A shadow in summer long price quartet 1

Chapter 21


Morning seemed like any other for nearly an hour, and then the news came. When Liat heard it humming through the comfort house – Maj gone, the poet killed – she ran to the palaces. She forgot her own safety, if there was safety to be had anywhere. When she finally crossed the wooden bridge over water tea-brown with dead leaves, her sides ached, her wounded shoulder throbbed with her heartbeat.

She didn’t know what she would say. She didn’t know how she would tell him.

When she opened the door, she knew there was no need.

The comfortable, finely appointed furniture was cast to the walls, the carpets pulled back. A wide stretch of pale wooden flooring lay bare and empty as a clearing. The air smelled of rain and smoke. Maati, dressed in formal robes poorly tied, knelt in the center of the space. His skin was ashen, his hair half-wild. A book lay open before him, bound in leather, its pages covered in beautiful script. He was chanting, a soft sibilant flow that seemed to echo against the walls and move back into itself, as complex as music. Liat watched, fascinated, as Maati shifted back and forth his lips moving, his hands restless. Something like a wind pressed against her without disturbing the folds of her robes. A sense of profound presence, like standing before the Khai only a thousand times as intense and a thousand times less humane.

“Stop this!” she screamed even, it seemed, as she understood. “Stop!”

She rushed forward, pushing through the thick presence, the air as oppressive as a furnace, but with something besides heat. Maati seemed to hear her voice distantly. His head turned, his eyes opened, and he lost the thread of the chant. Echoes fell out of phase with each other, their rhythms collapsing like a crowd that had been clapping time falling into mere applause. And then the room was silent and empty again except for the two of them.

— —

“You can’t,” she said. “You said that it was too near what Heshai had done before. You said that it couldn’t work. You said so, Maati.”

“I have to try,” he said. The words were so simple they left her empty. She simply folded beside him, her legs tucked beneath her. Maati blinked like he was only half-awake. “I have to try. I think, perhaps, if I don’t wait … if I do it now, maybe Seedless isn’t all the way gone … I can pull him back before Heshai’s work has entirely …”

It was what she needed, hearing the poet’s name. It gave her something to speak to. Liat took his hand in hers. He winced a little, and she relaxed her grip, but not enough to let him go.

“Heshai’s dead, Maati. He’s gone. And whether he’s dead for an hour or a year, he’s just as dead. Seedless … Seedless is gone. They’re both gone.”

Maati shook his head.

“I can’t believe that,” he said. “I understand Heshai better than anyone else. I know Seedless. It’s early, and there isn’t much time, but if I can only …”

“It’s too late. It’s too late, and if you do this, it’s no better than sinking yourself in the river. You’ll die, Maati. You told me that. You did. If a poet fails to capture the andat, he dies. And this …” she nodded to the open book written in a dead man’s hand. “It won’t work. You’re the one who said so.”

“It’s different,” he said.

“How?”

“Because I have to try. I’m a poet, love. It’s what I am. And you know as well as I do that if Seedless escapes, there’s nothing. There’s nothing to take his place.”

“So there’s nothing,” she said.

“Saraykeht …”

“Saraykeht is a city, Maati. It’s roads and walls and people and warehouses and statues. It doesn’t know you. It doesn’t love you. It’s me who does that. I love you. Please, Maati, do not do this.”

Slowly, carefully, Maati took his hand from hers. When he smiled, it was as much sorrow as fondness.

“You should go,” he said. “I have something I need to do. If it works out as I hope, I’ll find you.”

Liat rose. The room was hazy with tears, but sorrow wasn’t what warmed her chest and burned her skin. It was rage, rage fueled by pain.

“You can kill yourself if you like,” she said. “You can do this thing now and die, and they may even talk about you like a hero. But I’ll know better.”

She turned and walked out, her heart straining. On the steps, she stopped. The sun shone cool over the bare trees. She closed her eyes, waiting to hear the grim, unnatural chant begin again behind her. Crows hopped from branch to branch, and then as if at a signal, rose together and streamed off to the south. She stood for almost half a hand, the chill air pressing into her flesh.

She wondered how long she could wait there. She wondered where Itani was now, and if he knew what had happened. If he would ever forgive her for loving more than one man. She chewed at the inside of her cheek until it hurt.

Behind her, the door scraped open. Maati looked defeated. He was tucking the leather bound book into his sleeve as he stepped out to her.

“Well,” he said. “I’ll have to go back to the Dai-kvo and tell him I’ve failed.”

She stepped close to him, resting her head against his shoulder. He was warm, or the day had cooled her even more than she’d thought. For a moment, she remembered the feeling of Itani’s broad arms and the scent of his skin.

“Thank you,” she said.

IT WAS three weeks now since the poet had died. Three weeks was too long, Amat knew, for a city to hold its breath. The tension was still there – the uncertainty, the fear. It showed in the faces of the men and women in the street and in the way they held their bodies. Amat heard it in the too-loud laughter, and angry words of drunkards in the soft quarter streets. But the initial shock was fading. Time, suspended by the sudden change of losing the andat, was moving forward again. And that, as much as anything, drew her out, away from the protection of the comfort house and into the city. Her city.

In the gray of winter fog, the streets were like memories – here a familiar fountain emerged, took shape, and form and weight. The dark green of the stone glistened in the carvings of ship and fish, eagle and archer. And then as she passed, they faded, becoming at last a darkness behind her, and nothing more. She stopped at a stand by the seafront to buy a paper sack of roasted almonds, fresh from the cookfire and covered with raw sugar. The woman to whom Amat handed her length of copper took a pose of gratitude, and Amat moved to the water’s edge, considering the half-hidden waves, the thousand smells of the seafront – salt and spiced foods, sewage and incense. She blew sharply through pursed lips to cool the sweets before she bit into them, as she had when she was a girl, and she prepared herself for the last meeting. When the sack was empty, she crumpled it and let it drop into the sea.

House Wilsin was among the first to make its position on the future known by its actions. Even as she walked up the streets to the north, moving steadily toward the compound, carts passed her, heading the other way. The warehouses were being cleared, the offices packed into crates bound for Galt and the Westlands. When she reached the familiar courtyard, the lines of men made her think of ants on sugarcane. She paused at the bronze Galtic Tree, considering it with distaste and, to her surprise, amusement. Three weeks was too long, apparently, for her to hold her breath either.

“Amat-cha?”

She shifted. Epani, her thin-faced, weak-spirited replacement, stood in a pose of welcome belied by the discomfort on his face. She answered it with a pose of her own, more graceful and appropriate.

“Tell him I’d like to speak with him, will you?”

“He isn’t … that is …”

“Epani-cha. Go, tell him I’m here and I want to speak with him. I won’t burn the place down while you do it.”

Perhaps it was the dig that set him moving. Whatever did it, Epani retreated into the dark recesses of the compound. Amat walked to the fountain, listening to the play of the water as though it was the voice of an old friend. Someone had dredged it, she saw, for the copper lengths thrown in for luck. House Wilsin wasn’t leaving anything behind.

Epani returned and without a word led her back through the corridors she knew to the private meeting rooms. The room was as dark as she remembered it. Marchat Wilsin himself sat at the table, lit by the diffuse cool light from the small window, the warm, orange flame of a lantern. With one color on either cheek, he might almost have been two different men. Amat took a pose of greeting and gratitude. Moving as if unsure of himself, Marchat responded with one of welcome.

“I didn’t expect to see you again,” he said, and his voice was careful.

“And yet, here I am. I see House Wilsin is fleeing, just as everyone said it was. Bad for business, Marchat-cha. It looks like a failure of nerve.”

“It is,” he said. There was no apology in his voice. They might have been discussing dye prices. “Being in Saraykeht’s too risky now. My uncle’s calling me back home. I think he must have been possessed by some passing moment of sanity, and what he saw scared him. What we can’t ship out by spring, we’re selling at a loss. It’ll take years for the house to recover. And, of course, I’m scheduled on the last boat out. So. Have you come to tell me you’re ready to bring your suit to the Khai?”

Amat took a pose, more casual than she’d intended, that requested clarification. It was an irony, and Marchat’s sheepish grin showed that he knew it.

“My position isn’t as strong as it was before the victim best placed to stir the heart of the utkhaiem killed the poet and destroyed the city. I lost a certain credibility.”

“Was it really her, then?”

“I don’t know for certain. It appears it was.”

“I’d say I was sorry, but …”

Amat didn’t count the years she’d spent talking to this man across tables like this, or in the cool waters of the bathhouse, or walking together in the streets. She felt them, habits worn into her joints. She sat with a heavy sigh and shook her head.

“I did what I could,” she said. “Now … now who would believe me, and what would it matter?”

“Someone might still. One of the other Khaiem.”

“If you thought that was true, you’d have me killed.”

Wilsin’s face clouded, something like pain in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Something like sorrow.

“I wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said at last.

Despite the truth of it, Amat laughed. Or perhaps because of it.

“Is Liat Chokavi still with you?” Marchat asked, then took a pose that offered reassurance. “It’s just that I have a box of her things. Mostly her things. Some others may have found their way into it. I won’t call it apology, but …”

“Unfortunately, no,” Amat said. “I offered her a place. The gods all know I could use competent help keeping my books. But she’s left with the poet boy. It seems they’re heartmates.”

Marchat chuckled.

“Oh, that’ll end well,” he said with surprisingly gentle sarcasm.

“Tell Epani to bring us a pot of tea,” Amat said. “He can at least do something useful. Then there’s business we need to talk through.”

Marchat did as she asked, and minutes later, she cupped a small, lovely tea bowl in her hands, blowing across the steaming surface. Marchat poured a bowl for himself, but didn’t drink it. Instead, he folded his hands together and rested his great, whiskered chin in them. The silence wasn’t a ploy on his part; she could see that. He didn’t know what to say. It made the game hers to start.

“There’s something I want of you,” she said.

“I’ll do what I can,” he said.

“The warehouses on the Nantan. I want to rent them from House Wilsin.”

He leaned back now, his head tilted like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound. He took an interrogatory pose. Amat sipped her tea, but it was still too hot. She put the bowl on the table.

“With the andat lost, I’m gathering investment in a combers hall. I’ve found ten men who worked as combers when Petals-Falling-Open was still the andat in Saraykeht. They’re willing to act as foremen. The initial outlay and the first contracts are difficult. I have people who might be willing to invest if I can find space. They’re worried that my relationship with my last employer ended poorly. Rent me the space, and I can address both issues at once.”

“But, Amat …”

“I lost,” she said. “I know it. You know it. I did what I could do, and it got past me. Now I can either press the suit forward despite it all, raise what suspicions against Galt I can in the quarters who will listen to me at the cost of what credibility I have left, or else I can do this. Recreate myself as a legitimate business, organize the city, bind the wounds that can be bound. Forge connections between people who think they’re rivals. But I can’t do both. I can’t have people saying I’m an old woman frightened of shadows while I’m trying to make weavers and rope-makers who’ve been undercutting each other for the last three generations shake hands.”

Marchat Wilsin’s eyebrows rose. She watched him consider her. The guilt and horror, the betrayals and threats fell away for a moment, and they were the players in the game of get and give that they had been at their best. It made Amat’s heart feel bruised, but she kept it out of her face as he kept his feelings from his. The lantern flame spat, shuddered, and stood back to true.

“It won’t work,” he said at last. “They’ll hold to all their traditional prejudices and alliances. They’ll find ways to bite each other while they’re shaking hands. Making them all feel loyal to each other and to the city? In the Westlands or Galt or the islands, you might have a chance. But among the Khaiem? It’s doomed.”

“I’ll accept failure when I’ve failed,” Amat said.

“Just remember I warned you. What’s your offer for the warehouses?”

“Sixty lengths of silver a year and five hundredths of the profit.”

“That’s insultingly low, and you know it.”

“You haven’t figured in that it will keep me from telling the world what the Galtic Council attempted in allying with Seedless against his poet. That by itself is a fair price, but we should keep up appearances, don’t you think?”

He thought about it. The tiny upturn of his lips, the barest of smiles, told her what she wanted to know.

“And you really think you can make a going project of this? Combing raw cotton for its seeds isn’t a pleasant job.”

“I have a steady stream of women looking to retire from one less pleasant than that,” she said. “I think the two concerns will work quite nicely together.”

“And if I agree to this,” Marchat said, his voice suddenly softer, the game suddenly sliding out from its deep-worn track, “does that mean you’ll forgive me?”

“I think we’re past things like forgiveness,” she said. “We’re the servants of what we have to do. That’s all.”

“I can live with that answer. All right, then. I’ll have Epani draw up contracts. Should we take them to that whorehouse of yours?”

“Yes,” Amat said. “That will do nicely. Thank you, Marchat-cha.”

“It’s the least I could do,” he said and drank at last from the bowl of cooling tea at his elbow. “And also likely the most I can. I don’t imagine my uncle will understand it right off. Galtic business doesn’t have quite the same subtlety you find with the Khaiem.”

“It’s because your culture hasn’t finished licking off its caul,” Amat said. “Once you’ve had a thousand years of Empire, things may be different.”

Marchat’s expression soured and he poured himself more tea. Amat pushed her own bowl toward him, and he leaned forward to fill it. The steaming teapot clinked against the porcelain.

“There will be a war,” Amat said at last. “Between your people and mine. Eventually, there will be a war.”

“Galt’s a strange place. It’s so long since I’ve been there, I don’t know how well I’ll fit once I’m back. We’ve done well by war. In the last generation, we’ve almost doubled our farmlands. There are places that rival the cities of the Khaiem, if you’ll believe that. Only we do it with ruthlessness and bloody-minded determination. You’d have to be there, really, to understand it. It isn’t what you people have here.”

Amat took an insistent pose, demanding an answer to her question. Marchat sighed; a long, slow sound.

“Yes, someday. Someday there will be a war, but not in our lifetimes.”

She shifted to a pose that was both acknowledgment and thanks. Marchat toyed with his teabowl.

“Amat, before … before you go, there’s a letter I wrote you. When it looked like the suit was going to go to the Khai and sweet hell was going to rain down on Galt in general and me in particular. I want you to have it.”

His face was as legible as a boy’s. Amat wondered at how he could be so closed and careful with business and so clumsy with his own heart and hers. If she let it continue, he’d be offering her work in Galt next. And a part of her, despite it all, would be sorry to refuse.

“Keep it for now,” she said. “I’ll take it from you later.”

“When?” he asked as she rose.

She answered gently, making the words not an insult, but a moment of shared sorrow. There were, after all, ten thousand things that had been lost in this. And each one of them real, even this.

“After the war, perhaps. Give it to me then.”

DREAMING, OTAH found himself in a public place, part street corner, part bathhouse, part warehouse. People milled about, at ease, their conversations a pleasant murmur. With a shock, Otah glimpsed Heshai-kvo in the crowd, moving as if alive, speaking as if alive, but still dead. In the logic of sleep, that fleeting glimpse carried a weight of panic.

Gasping for breath, Otah sat up, his eyes open and confused by the darkness. Only as his heart slowed and his breath grew steady, did the creaking of the ship and rocking of waves remind him where he was. He pressed his palms into his closed eyes until pale lights appeared. Below him, Maj murmured in her sleep.

The cabin was tiny – too short to stand fully upright and hardly long enough to hang two hammocks one above the other. If he put his arms out, he could press his palms against the oiled wood of each wall. There was no room for a brazier, so they slept in their robes. Carefully, he lifted himself down and without touching or disturbing the sleeper, left the close, nightmare-haunted coffin for the deck and the moon and a fresh breeze.

The three men of the watch greeted him as he emerged. Otah smiled and ambled over despite wanting more than anything a moment of solitude. The moment’s conversation, the shared drink, the coarse joke – they were a small price to pay for the good will of the men to whom he had entrusted his fate. It was over quickly, and he could retreat to a quiet place by the rail and look out toward an invisible horizon where haze blurred the distinction between sea and sky. Otah sat, resting his arms on the worn wood, and waited for the wisps of dream to fade. As he had every night. As he expected he would for some time still to come. The changing of watch at the half candle brought another handful of men, another moment of sociability. The curious glances and concern that Otah had seen during his first nights on deck were gone. The men had become accustomed to him.

Otah would have guessed the night candle had nearly reached its three quarters mark when she came out to join him, though the night sea sometimes did strange things to time. He might also have been staring at the dark ripples and broken moonlight for sunless weeks.

Maj seemed almost to glow in the moonlight, her skin picking up the blue and the cold. She looked at the landless expanse of water with an almost proprietary air, unimpressed by vastness. Otah watched her find him, watched her walk to where he sat. Though Otah knew that at least one of the sailors on watch spoke Nippu, no one tried to speak with her. Maj lowered herself to the deck beside him, her legs crossed, her pale eyes almost colorless.

“The dreams,” she said.

Otah took a pose of acknowledgment.

“If we had hand loom, you should weave,” she said. “Put your mind to something real. Is unreal things that eat you.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

“You are homesick. I know. I see it.”

“I suppose,” Otah said. “And I wonder now if we did the right thing.”

“You think no?”

Otah turned his gaze back to the water. Something burst up from the surface and vanished again into the darkness, too quickly for Otah to see what shape it was.

“Not really,” he said. “That’s to say I think we did the best that we could. But that doing that thing was right …”

“Killing him,” Maj said. “Call it what it is. Not that thing. Killing him. Hiding names give them power.”

“That killing him was right … bothers me. At night, it bothers me.”

“And if you can go back – make other choice – do you?”

“No. No, I’d do the same. And that disturbs me, too.”

“You live too long in cities,” Maj said. “Is better for you to leave.”

Otah disagreed but said nothing. The night moved on. It was another week at least before they would reach Quian, southernmost of the eastern islands. The hold, filled now with the fine cloths and ropes of Saraykeht, the spices and metalworks of the cities of the Khaiem, would trade first for pearls and shells, the pelts of strange island animals, and the plumes of their birds. Only as the weeks moved on would they begin taking on fish and dried fruits, trees and salt timber and slaves. And only in the first days of spring – weeks away still and ten island ports at least – would they reach as far north as Nippu.

Years of work on the seafront, all the gifts and assistance Maati had given him for the journey to the Dai-kvo, everything he had, he had poured into two seasons of travel. He wondered what he would do, once he reached Nippu, once Maj was home and safe and with the people she knew. Back from her long nightmare with only the space where a child should have been at her side.

He could work on ships, he thought. He knew enough already to take on the simple, odious tasks like coiling rope and scrubbing decks. He might at least make his way back to the cities of the Khaiem … or perhaps not. The world was full of possibility, because he had nothing and no one. The unreal crowded in on him, as Maj had said, because he had abandoned the real.

“You think of her,” Maj said.

“What? Ah, Liat? No, not really. Not just now.”

“You leave her behind, the girl you love. You are angry because of her and the boy.”

A prick of annoyance troubled him but he answered calmly enough.

“It hurt me that they did what they did, and I miss him. I miss them. But …”

“But it also frees you,” Maj said. “It is for me, too. The baby. I am scared, when I first go to the cities. I think I am never fit in, never belong. I am never be a good mother without my own itiru to tell me how she is caring for me when I am young. All this worry I make. And is nothing. To lose everything is not the worst can happen.”

“It’s starting again, from nothing, with nothing,” Otah said.

“Is exactly this,” Maj agreed, then a moment later. “Starting again, and doing better.”

The still-hidden sun lightened water and sky as they watched it in silence. The milky, lacework haze burned off as the fire rose from the sea and the full crew hauled up sails, singing, shouting, tramping their bare feet. Otah rose, his back aching from sitting so long without moving, and Maj brushed her robes and stood also. As the work of the day entered its full activity, he descended behind her into the darkness of their cabin where he hoped he might cheat his conscience of a few hours’ sleep. His thoughts still turned on the empty, open future before him and on Saraykeht behind him, a city still waking to the fact that it had fallen.


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