'Did you have any news of my father?'
'No,' he said. 'I didn't ask. It's the first rule of running a race, isn't it? Not to look back at who's behind you?'
Eiah chuckled, but didn't respond otherwise. Once she'd left and Maati had banked the fire, he sat on the bed. The night candle stood straight in its gla.s.s case, the burning wick marking the hours before dawn. It wasn't to its first-quarter mark and he felt exhausted. He moved the papers and the scroll safely off the bed, pulled the blanket up over himself, and slept better than he had in weeks, waking to the sound of morning birds and pale light before dawn.
He read over the list of questions on the scroll, only surveying them and not bothering to think of answers just yet, and then turned to the proposed binding. When he went out, following the smells of wood smoke and warmed honey, his mind was turning at twice its usual speed.
They had made a small common room from what had once been the teachers' cells, and Irit and Large Kae were sitting at the window that Maati remembered looking out when he had been a child called before Tahi-kvo. Bald, mean-spirited Tahi-kvo, who would not have recognized the world as it had become; women studying the andat in his own rooms, the poets almost vanished from the world, Galts on the way to becoming the n.o.bles of this new, rattling, sad, stumble-footed Empire. Nothing was the same as it had been. Everything was different.
Vanjit, sitting with her legs crossed by the fire grate, smiled up at him. Maati took a pose of greeting and lowered himself carefully to her side. Irit and Large Kae both glanced at him, their eyes rich with curiosity and perhaps even envy, but they kept to their window and their conversation. Vanjit held out her bowl of cooked wheat and raisins, but Maati took a pose that both thanked and refused, then changed his mind and scooped two fingers into his mouth. The grain was rich and salted, sweetened with fruit and honey both. Vanjit smiled at him; the expression failed to reach her eyes.
'I looked over your work. Yours and Eiah-cha's,' he said. 'It's interesting.'
Vanjit looked down, setting the bowl on the stone floor at her side. After a moment's hesitation, her hands took a pose that invited his judgment.
'I . . .' Maati began, then coughed, looked out past Large Kae and Irit to the bright and featureless blue of the western sky. 'I don't want to hurry this. And I would rather not see any more of you pay the price of falling short.'
Her mouth tightened, and her eyebrows rose as if she were asking a question. She said nothing.
'You're sure you want this?' he asked. 'You have seen all the women we've lost. You know the dangers.'
'I want this, Maati-kvo. I want to try this. And . . . and I don't know how much longer I can wait,' she said. Her gaze rose to meet his. 'It's time for me. I have to try soon, or I think I never will.'
'If you have doub
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