194 - The *maesa asa kraiya*
I knew I was not at home. I smelled wood-smoke and a beeswax candle, but underneath that was the smell that you only smell in a place that is hundreds of years old, and has been lived in all that time. I am not sure what it is, whether it is something in the wood or the stone or ancient things that have been kept, but the Hearthstone Independent, being new, doesn’t have it yet.
I heard the metallic ticking of the iron door of a stone-stove, and a faint muffled pop from within. Otherwise, this place was very quiet, like land after snow has fallen on it and there is no wind. I sensed it was built of stone. I thought perhaps I heard quiet voices, distant, but wasn’t sure.
I was lying on a bed that was deeply soft under me, wrapped in thick down quilts. Everything was vivid to my ears and nose and body, most of all the feeling of ultimate peace.
I just lay for a while, not yet ready to open my eyes, the first step towards leaving this comfort. When I felt inclined, I opened them. The room was mostly dark, lit only by one candle, and threads of daylight that came through cracks around window-shutters. No Arkan glass here. The age-darkened posts and beams were carved with the kind of running-patterns that had been in style about six centuries ago, the time of Second Naingini.
Remembering what I could last remember, I took stock of my body. I could feel nothing at the core; did that mean there was nothing? My reason knew I must still have a spine; my heart feared that if moved an arm or leg it might tumble off, albeit painlessly. zhring… the sound of a blade being drawn was so close that if I thought about it I would hear it again, as if with my ears. I closed my eyes again, for a while. Outside, it began to rain, pounding distantly on the roof, dripping from eaves onto snow outside.
The door was slightly ajar; the light of a lamp flickered through the opening. Moving slowly, as if not wanting to startle anyone, someone peeked through the gap for a bit, then was gone, though I might have met her eyes; I wasn’t certain, but sensed it was a woman. I closed mine again, and took a deep breath to find out how it would feel. It felt the same as usual, clear but for a slight and distant pang from the wound from Idiesas’s sword.
A while later, she peeked in again. I understood; she would not call me awake, or come in and so possibly force me to wake, but was keeping watch over me. This time I purposely met her eyes. “Virani-e,” she said, speaking quietly the way people do when they’re in places you should speak quietly, like a library.
If I no longer had a voice, I’d find out now. “Yes.” It was a whisper. My throat felt strained, as if I’d been screaming.
“Good morning,” she said. “I’m Iyinisa Shae-Lira. Every new asakraiyaseye who comes here has a mentor, as you might know. I’m yours.”
“Iyinisa… Shae-Lira… Iyinisa Windsword?” She’d been Yeola-e’s greatest champion in the Enchian wars of the 1530s. My father had looked up to her, in awe. I remembered how Riji Kli-fas’s fighting style had reminded me of her name.
“That was my usename. May I come in?” I said yes and risked whatever would happen to lift a hand to straighten my hair, forgetting that there was hardly enough to straighten. Nothing happened but streaks of ache down the life-force-lines, that had really already been there.
She was in her late fifties or so now, still slender, with salt-and-pepper ringlets tied back with a white ribbon but hanging to her waist nonetheless. She wore the asakraiyaseye’s black robe with the double white stripes on the collar. That reminded me that I knew her face; she had been the ceremonial sentry by the carving of the faces with their eyes closed in the School, who had asked me if I was choosing it in acceptance that many would not understand. It must have been very many for her too, I thought.
She still moved well. She sat down on a stool beside my bed. I knew she had retired when I’d been very young; her name had faded from people’s lips and my mind. I’d had no idea she was in the maesa asa kraiya. That was where I assumed we were; I had the vaguest notion of being carried downhill through cold darkness, and the rocking of a boat.
“My mentor… thank you, for agreeing to that. Iyinisa… if I may call you that… I am more than honoured.”
“Of course you may call me that. I called you Virani-e assuming you wouldn’t mind… we don’t go much for titles or honorifics here. It’s good to meet you again.”
“Oh yes, I carried you on my arm a few times, before I came here. You were so little you’d never remember.” That’s why she had seemed anciently familiar in the School. Had she been here ever since? I didn’t feel it was quite time to ask that yet. “How are you feeling?”
I thought before I answered that. “Glad to be here,” I said finally. “Though I don’t remember arriving.”
“I’m not surprised you don’t; from when your litter was handed off the boat to when we tucked you in, you were sleeping like the dead.”
“I should at least try to get up.” I pushed the covers back, started gingerly to get one elbow under me.
“As a test of…” My strength, I’d been about to say. A warrior thing.
“Get up if you want to,” she said. “Not if you don’t, because you should. While you are here, you belong to yourself and have obligations towards yourself, alone. Except for chores, if you’re up to them. Didn’t Azaila explain that?” I lay back down. I didn’t want to get up. “How else do you feel?”
“I feel…” I wasn’t sure what I felt, other than peace, and that seemed more of the place than of me. Mostly I felt a kind of internal blankness, that was good. “I… I don’t know if you know… I had something… pulled out of me.”
“Steel within, yes.”
“I… guess I went down as if I’d been clubbed, and then Surya did tenar menhu on me… you know what that is?”
“Yes.” Then I remembered: as one of the ceremonial sentries, she’d been there.
“Where it turned into sleep, I’m not sure.”
“Doesn’t matter. Here’s water.” She touched a jug and a cup on the night-table. “Are you hungry?”
My guts were firm in their disinterest. “No, thank you. I have to pee, though.” She reached down and pulled a chamber-pot, glazed with one of those flame-and-flower emblems that had been popular six hundred years ago, out from under the bed. In front of Iyinisa Windsword, I was going to do this; I didn’t have the nerve to send her out. She was matter-of-fact about it, putting the lid on like a servant, then smoothing the covers in around me like a mother, but with old-warrior smoothness and unthinking dignity in every motion.
“Did you… have steel pulled out of you?” I asked her.
“I sweated it out. Last few battles, I was pouring out much more sweat than I should, from exertion alone. I thought I was ill. I even wondered if I was turning into a coward, since it was only while I was fighting.”
“But, let me guess, it didn’t feel like fear.”
“It didn’t. You know, there were people who thought I never felt fear, ever; it must be the same for you.”
“Oh, yes. But Surya—Chaelaecha, my healer—had something like that, except not just while he was fighting, and he had more different symptoms. It was his auric gift struggling to come out, as well as… asa kraiya, I guess. I just came off a healing sickness myself, actually.”
“It’s different for everyone. You were telling me how it felt to have it pulled out; tell me more. It’s good for you to talk about it. I’ll comfort you if you need.”
The tears came, of course, when I got to Esora-e’s part. She held my shoulder, firmly and gently at once. “That must have been astounding to see,” she said, when I described the sword, so apparently she hadn’t seen hers.
“I haven’t had a chance to thank him… I guess I won’t for a month, unless by writing, but that’s not good enough… I hope he’ll understand.”
“Of course he will. What he did shows he now sees past his training; maybe it will open the way for him to go asa kraiya himself.”
I felt my brows arch up. “Him, go asa kraiya? I find that hard to imagine… of course, everyone found it hard to imagine me doing it. Never say never.”
“One person opens the way for others.” I remembered Surya saying the same. There was a thorough attentiveness in her caring, that made me understand the sort of warrior she had been, giving that same attentiveness to fighting.
I lost myself for a moment, in imagining Esora-e’s ceremony; though of course I didn’t have the gift, I wanted, so badly I could taste it, to pull whatever was in him out myself. “You’ve opened the way for many,” Iyinisa said. “I heard you speak in the square.”
“Was it smooth? Skorsas, Kallijas and Niku said so, but they might just be humouring me, and none of them can judge it like another Yeoli.”
“Smooth enough to flow but not too smooth to not be from the heart. It was coming to you as it came, wasn’t it, not practiced?”
“You’ve caught me out. I had no idea what I was going to say.”
“It works that way often, with healers; they open their mouths trusting in truth to come out, and it does.”
“Healers?” Champion of old or not, I looked at her under my brows. “I’m not a healer. You and Surya were talking, weren’t you?”
She laughed. “Yes, but not about that. You are. The hardest one to heal is oneself, but by letting go the steel you do that, and you’ve done it.”
“Every asakraiyaseye is a healer, then.”
Her smile widened. “You might say. One reason why the nation needs us. You caught the beginning of that in your speech. Think you could take tea, now?” It was worth a try. When she came back with the pot and two delicate little cups on a tray with shell-like fluting carved onto its edges, another Second Nainginini motif, it suddenly occurred to me that everything was old here for the same reason it was on Haiu Menshir. This place had never been sacked. The tea tasted unearthly good.
Iyinisa opened the stone-stove door, threw in two pieces of wood from a small stack beside it and closed it tight again. I had to get my feet under me soon; someone twice my age who once carried all Yeola-e’s fate on her sword-edge should not be serving me, whatever I wanted. “I know how it is, or will be, for you, Virani-e,” she said. “The whole world feels as though a child threw it all in the air and it’s come down all entirely in different places on the floor, so you have to learn the new pattern.”
“That started back in spring,” I said. “That child was flinging it all skyward the moment I swore the oath to obey Surya. It had to be quick with me, he said, or else… you know. I almost killed myself twice anyway. Well…” I could trust her entirely; I was certain. “Four times, in truth, just between you, me and the gatepost. I’m hoping that now I’ll have quit being such a fool as to keep—”
The feeling seized me instantly, like nausea at the sight of an atrocity. I didn’t even understand what it was, at first, even as I curled in on myself, clenching my fists in my hair, then turned away from her and pulled the covers over my face. It was the feeling I was always slowest to spot in myself. “Kyash… kyash… aigh… Kaha—I am not worthy to say it kyash, why, what was I doing, what was I kyashin doing?”