'Maybe next winter,' Cehmai said.
'Maybe,' Maati agreed. The last icy island of snow melted and vanished. Maati dropped another handful in.
'What part of the day is it, do you think?' Maati asked.
'After morning, I'd think. Maybe a hand or two either side of midday.'
'You think so? I'd have thought later.'
'Could be later,' Cehmai said. 'I lose track down here.'
'I'm going to the bolt-hole again. Get more supplies.'
They didn't need them, but Cehmai only raised his hands in a pose of agreement, then curled into himself and shut his eyes. Maati pulled the thick leather straps of the sled harness over his shoulders, lit a lantern, and began the long walk through the starless dark. The wood and metal flat-bottomed sled sc.r.a.ped and ground along the stone and dust of the mine floor. It was light now. It would be heavier coming back. But at least Maati was alone for a time, and the effort of pulling kept his mind clear.
An instrument of slaughter, made in fear. Sterile had called herself that. Maati could still hear her voice, could still feel the bite of her words. He had destroyed Galt, but he had destroyed his own people as well. He'd failed, and every doubt he had ever had of his own ability, or his worthiness to be among the poets, stood justified. He would be the most hated man in generations. And he'd earned it. The sled dragging behind him, the straps pulling back at his shoulders - they were the simplest burden he carried. They were nothing.
Cehmai had marked the turnings to take with piles of stone. Hunters searching the mines would be unlikely to notice the marks, but they were easy enough for Maati to follow. He turned left at a crossing, and then bore right where the tunnel forked, one pa.s.sage leading up into darkness, the other down into air just as black.
The only comfort that the andat had offered - the only faint sliver of grace - was that Maati was not wholly at fault. Otah-kvo bore some measure of this guilt as well. He was the one who had come to Maati, all those years ago. He was the one who had hinted to Maati that the school to which they had both been sent had a hidden structure. If he hadn't, Maati might never have been a poet. Never have known Seedless or Heshai, Liat or Cehmai. Nayiit might never have been born. Even if the Galts had come, even if the world had fallen, it wouldn't have fallen on Maati's shoulders. Cehmai was right; the binding of Sterile had been a decision they had all made - Otah-kvo more than any of the rest. But it was Maati who was cast out to live in the dark and the cold. The sense of betrayal was as comforting as a candle in the darkness, and as he walked, Maati found himself indulging it.
The fault wasn't his alone, and the punishment was. There was nothing fair in that. Nothing right. The terrible thing that had happened seemed nearly inevitable now that he looked back on it. He'd been given hardly any books, not half the
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