Otah's belly sank. He dried his hand on his sleeve, only thinking afterward that it was the motion of a commoner - a dockfront laborer or a midwife's a.s.sistant or a courier. The Khai Machi should have raised an arm, summoned a servant to dry his fingers for him on a cloth woven for the purpose and burned after one use. His face felt mask-like and hard as plaster. He took a pose that asked clarification.
'Is that the conversation we're having, then?' he asked. 'We're talking about fathers?'
'We're talking about sons,' Maati said. 'We're talking about you sc.r.a.ping up all the disposable men that the utkhaiem can drag out of comfort houses and slap sober enough to ride just so they can appease the irrational whims of the Khai. Taking those men out into the field because you think the armies of Galt are going to slaughter the Daikvo is what we're talking about, and about taking Nayiit with you.'
'You think I'm wrong?'
'I know you're right!' Maati was breathing hard now. His face was flushed. 'I know they're out there, with an army of veterans who are perfectly accustomed to hollowing out their enemies' skulls for wine bowls. And I know you sent Sinja-cha away with all the men we had who were even half trained. If you come across the Galts, you will lose. And if you take Nayiit, he'll die too. He's still a child. He's still figuring out who he is and what he intends and what he means to do in the world. And-'
'Maati. I know it would be safer for me to stay here. For Nayiit to stay here. But it would only be safe for the moment. If we lose the Dai-kvo and all he knows and the libraries he keeps, having one more safe winter in Machi won't mean anything. And we might not even manage the winter.'
Maati looked away. Otah bowed his head and pretended not to have seen the tears on his old friend's cheeks.
'I've only just found him again,' Maati said, barely audible over the splas.h.i.+ng water. 'I've only just found him again, and I don't want him taken away.'
'I'll keep him safe,' Otah said.
Maati reached out his hand, and Otah let him lace his fingers with his own. It wasn't an intimacy that they had often shared, and against his will, Otah found something near to sorrow tightening his chest. He put his free hand to Maati's shoulder. When Maati spoke, his voice was thick and Otah no longer ignored his tears.
'We're his fathers, you and I,' Maati said. 'So we'll take care of him. Won't we?'
'Of course we will,' Otah said.
'You'll see him home safe.'
Maati nodded. It was an empty promise, and they both knew it. Otah smoothed a palm over Maati's thinning hair, squeezed his palm one last time, and stood. He was moved to speak, but he couldn't find any words that would say what he meant. Instead he turned and softly walked away. H
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