191 - Only a piece of steel
He led me into the gathering room. Those closest to me, my loves, my old-enough children, my parents, my other family, my healers, my friends, all sat tense, falling into silence. The walls were decorated with wide white ribbons, with the rya/kya circle in black. I smelled the fragrance of a censing just finished. There were a few things on the dais, including an armour stand, but I didn’t look closely.
“Take off the sword,” Azaila whispered to me. Is this… is this it? I’ll never wear it again? As I unslung it, I felt as if I were taking myself apart. He slung it on his own shoulder, though, and stayed close, as if he meant to give it back. “Take off each thing you’re wearing as I touch it,” he whispered, then cleared his throat and faced the people.
“First Virani-e Fourth Chevenga Shae-Arano-e comes today, to go asa kraiya, to cease being a warrior,” he said, in the voice he has that is quiet and yet somehow carries clearly to the back of the room. “By his free will, to undergo the ceremony by which one lays down the sword, by which one relinquishes the obligations, and the privileges, of a warrior. To this we are joined together to bear witness.”
He touched my helmet. I took it off and handed it to him, and he set it on the armour-stand. “By his own word, Virani-e comes to this in certainty that it is his choice.” He touched my sword-side greave, and I understood; by my answers to the nine questions I would be stripped.
“He chooses this in full knowledge of its meaning to himself… He chooses this in reasonable knowledge of its meaning to others…” With each piece it got harder. “He chooses this without intention to regret it… He chooses this in acceptance that many will not understand…” My loin-guard trembled in my hands as I gave it to him, enough that I knew everyone saw.
“He chooses this knowing that he will become one of those who will not fight and so must be protected by those who do.” A gasp came out of me and my eyes clenched shut before I could stop it. No no no how can this go so fast... I was dripping sweat as if I’d been fighting. He touched the shoulder of my breastplate, and helped me unbuckle it as a comrade-in-arms does with his expert hands.
“Virani-e, you need not hold in what you feel,” he whispered to me. “Let it out. It is part. Cry the tears, speak the words. You can throw up or even shit, if you want to. All will be cleansed.”
I wasn’t going to throw up or shit—I hoped—but I couldn’t hold back the sobs. Speak the words? I am destroying myself. I am destroying Yeola-e, too, perhaps. Am I going to say that?
“He chooses it knowing that it means he will have to refuse if he is called upon to help defend Yeola-e,” Azaila said, over my noise, and touched the toes of both my boots with a warrior-graceful motion of his bare foot. Wait, stop, hold, slow down… The ceremony would go on, as relentless as a glacier. I chose this… I chose this…
“He chooses it by the urgings of the God-in-Him.” My under-tunic; it was dripping. Why can I not hear the singing wind? Maybe it was the opposite urge; maybe it’s the death in me…
“He chooses it for the reason that it is his wish.” He touched the last things left: my wristlets.
The world began fading in and out as I began to pull off the shield-hand one. You didn’t say anything about passing out… will you catch me? I split apart then, everything becoming surreal. That made it easier—made it possible—to take off my sword-hand one.
I was already shaking with terror; now cold seized me as well. He handed me back Chirel. “Make your farewell. Speak freely, Virani-e.”
I’d gone down to my knees and half-doubled over as if I’d been stabbed before I knew it. I pressed the scabbard to my face, while the part of me that was distant had the absurdly-rational thought, ‘If I get tears on the blade I must wipe them off so they don’t rust it.’ Speak the words… “Azaila… I don’t know… if I can do this… I feel… as if I am destroying myself.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said gently. “Everyone feels that way. I did.” Astonishment froze my fear silent, for long enough to draw. That reminded me; I had already said farewell to it, in the sincerest way I could. One does not speak to a piece of steel. But there were words that I needed witnessed.
“There is no sword in the world like this one,” I said. “I can’t tell you how much I love it. It has been my life, and it has been my power. The idea of never touching it again…” I couldn’t speak for sobbing. When I’d dashed away the tears enough to see, I saw Kall and Skorsas both fighting the urge of Arkan civility, to look away, but both wet-cheeked themselves. They feel they are watching something beautiful die, I thought. Kall was in the duel, and Skorsas in the Mezem. I suspected Minis, whose eyes shone more than usual, was there too.
My shadow-father was sobbing unrestrained, both hands clutching his forelock. He’s blaming himself, I thought. There were many other shaking shoulders and shining cheeks as well. Fifth stared at the sword in a kind of wide-open wonder; he would next see it in his room on the day of his wristletting.
“But I have been blessed far more than most, to have been given it to carry at all,” I whispered. “So… no reason for sadness…” I kissed the blade, and sheathed it, and held it out to Azaila.
Loosening my fingers from the grip was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
I’ve done it, I thought, standing naked. Why am I suddenly twice as afraid? Azaila was behind me now; he wrapped a dark cloth around my eyes. “Remember what you told me, when I gave you your wristlets, about what they meant?” he whispered. “Tell me, to remind yourself.”
“That I would do terrible things,” I whispered. “The price of carrying Chirel was using it.” That it brought all home, dispelling the sense that I was destroying myself. I was leaving that behind. It’s all just feeling, a wiser voice in me said. It didn’t lessen the fear in the slightest.
“Be cleansed, Virani-e,” Azaila said. I was washed by gentle hands, I don’t know whose, but they were very thorough and cherishing at once, as if I were a priceless sculpture being rescued from an eon’s dust. They did it three times, first with icy water, then with tepid, then with hot. Somehow it made me feel more naked, as if I had no skin at all. “Now kneel, here.”
I did. When he took the blindfold off I was facing away from the people, and three of the asakraiyaseyel elders were before me in a part-circle, each holding a great mirror, so I saw myself kneeling, naked and wet, scarred all over and pale with terror, three times over, with Azaila standing at my back, and the faces of those I loved gazing at me beyond. Those mirrors would not be here, I could not help but think, if I had never been a warrior.
“Look,” he said. I did. Who am I? When it comes down to it… Then his hand was across my eyes, startling me, touching a childhood memory. I felt the hair stand on the back of my head, and my heart was suddenly hammer-banging in my throat. “Look,” he said again.
The reflection straight ahead was me as I knew I looked, but the one to my shield-side was a child: myself at thirteen, newly-wristletted, his unflawed face still young enough to be a touch cute, haunted with what he had just learned. The one to my sword-side, I could not turn my eyes away from once I saw him: an old man of proud and centred bearing, his snow-white hair thin on top but falling in curls over his shoulders, and in his face, my eyes; then I saw on his sinewy wrinkled body the scars I already had, whitened by decades. My selves of past and present I forgot, for staring at myself of the future.
What had he lived, what expressions had he worn the most, to grave them on his features for me to read? There was a furrow between the thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows, but not much deeper than the one I already had, and crow’s feet that extended almost to his hairline. From laughter? His expression now was grave and calm, one I knew how to do already, for ceremonies, but in his eyes, which met mine steadily, I saw a touch of a smile, and affection, and sympathy. My younger self; how hard it was for you, when you hadn’t yet learned to stop bashing your head against rocks. Was this going to be when I would?
Then Azaila lifted his hand, and the mirrors with their reflections were gone.
That’s it, done, and now I can just get drunk, phew... Is that allowed in the maesa asa kraiya? “Stand up,” Azaila said. Not yet, kyash. “There is another sword to take your leave of.” He stretched his arm towards the room with the sword of Saint Mother.
Inside, it was pitch dark; someone had put out the candles. I walked carefully, having this sudden odd sensation that I was on the edge of a cliff, and might fall forever into the dark if I lost my balance. I found the sword by weapon-sense, feeling its straightness, its dull edges, never used, its ancientness. I wrapped my hand around the grip, worn so smooth by the hands of a thousand years of war-students.
As I had twenty-three years before, I lifted it. The weight was so much less to my muscles, so much more to my spirit. I held it for a moment, then gently committed its weight back to the chains.
“That.” I jumped. Who spoke? The room was no longer entirely dark, half-lit by a light that was not, the way a reflection on water does not show what you are truly seeing. My hair stood on end again, the way it does in the presence of a ghost.
An old woman sat on the far side of the sword, the hair escaped from her braid forming a frizzed halo around her face. “What’s that, without a hand wielding it?” She snorted. “Ehh. Only a piece of steel.” She raised a hand to brush her hair away from her face then gazed at me with a smile. “Not so much to lose, lad, by putting it down.” Then she was gone.
Yeola. What did I do, to earn such a blessing… or does that happen with everyone? In the dark I stood with her words ringing silently through me.
I took a quivering breath. I should go back to the gathering room, since my loves were there; we’d head back together to the house—the water-room, the hot tub, oh perfect joy—to celebrate. I’ve survived it. But tingles went through me, as if there was still something to fear. Azaila beckoned me.
Now Surya, Skorsas and Kaninjer were on the dais, as was the elder with the centre mirror. Kaninjer wore his full double white stripes, fitting in perfectly. I was suddenly trembling again, and my heart pounding in my temples and throat and chest. “Kneel here,” Azaila said, meaning before the mirror. The world wanted to turn end over end; I was half-blinded with it. I knelt. Kaninjer stood against me on the sword-side, and took my sword-arm firmly in both of his; Skorsas did the same on the shield-side.
In the mirror I saw who came up behind me: Surya, not Azaila. “Deep breaths, Virani-e,” he said to me. “Make the white line. Strong as you can.”
He laid his hand feathery-tender on the back of my neck.