003 - What would you do to live?
37 Bright Street is in the middle section of the fessas quarter. I went cloaked and hooded and with invisible back-up, though at the entrance to the street I signed them to let me go on alone. It was a rowhouse with the usual glass windows and front porch, though roofed with cedar shakes new enough to still be brown, instead of the more common tile; rebuilt well after the Sack, clearly. Probably he lived upstairs. His sign was as modest as his card, hand-sized and ungilded, saying simply Surya Chaelaecha, healer in Arkan, Yeoli and Enchian.
I did not notice the square flagstones of his walk, though I have a very vivid memory of them from later; as I followed them I was trying to settle in my mind what exactly I should say. As it was, I didn’t get a chance even to knock; the door was flung open, and a stocky man in his mid-thirties or so, with red-brown hair tight-curling enough that it was a soft cloud around his head, seized my wrist.
“Come in, come in, you are Megidan’s patient, come in right away!” He laid one hand on my chest and one on my back at the same level, firmly as if to stop bleeding from a wound. A shock went through me, painless, indescribable, making me gasp just as I was about to ask him if he was Surya Chaelaecha. It was as if his touch did not stop at my skin, but reached inside me; as if he had gently seized my innards, if that were possible.
“Through here. I am Surya Chaelaecha.” Without even letting me hang my weapons by the door, he pulled me into his healing room, which smelled faintly of incense, and had walls and ceiling lined entirely and unevenly with what I realized were sea-sponges. “Take off everything and lie on the table.”
“What? Just like that? What are you doing?” He seemed not to want to take his hands off me even to let me strip.
“You have a season. A season, three moons maybe, with what you’re carrying and you’ll be dead, unless you stop carrying it. You have no time, hurry, lie down.”
Finish thy work before summer... It was the day after the spring equinox. Stunned, I obeyed him. At least a Yeoli healer is not troubled if you happen to have a shortsword and two daggers under your cloak in addition to your longsword. I took off my wristlets but not the Imperial Seals, wondering if he’d ask me to, but he didn’t seem to notice them. His table was actually as low to the ground as a bed, lightly cotton-padded and covered with blue and purple pattern-dyed flannel sheets so it felt solid and soft under me at once. Once I was naked and on it he laid his hands on the centre of my body, on my chest and on my abdomen, with that penetrating touch, and I prickled and tingled all over.
“Breathe. Don’t hold it. Deep, long, slow.” No shock or horror at seeing all my scars, like most people; he seemed not to be looking at me at all, but around and into and through me. The ceiling, with which I would become familiar in time, was white-plastered with rosettes in the classic Arkan style; a cotton cloth painted with a many-coloured Brahvnikian-style mandala was hung by its four corners beneath the sun-slit that every Arkan house has in its sacred room, softening and warming the brilliant light.
“Shininao,” he said. “Death-spirit. You’ve lived with him all your life, except the first day of it… the sword in you has been growing since… seven. Your father was stabbed to death, one blow, there.” He slid a finger under my back and pressed it into the precise spot, drawing another gasp out of me. “Don’t stop breathing, keep it flowing strong, like in training. What I am going to tell you is going to shock you to the core, so you need your air. You saw yourself the same as him. Same age, the age you are now. The death you’ve always expected and always kept secret, is closing in on you.”
My breath froze in me. “How...”
“Breathe. How do I know this? It is all in your aura, the life-energy, the immaterial bodies that surround and permeate the physical one. I can see it; that’s my gift. Your aura is full of death. Full of life, very strong—but cut through everywhere with death. We must figure out how to give you more time than a season, that’s the immediate thing. So many fights, so many wounds... you’ve been tortured. No, don’t close your eyes, that puts you in the past, stay here in the present. It’s all right.”
“I...” I clawed for calm. “I can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“No, but if you need healing, why would you want to? Don’t worry, I swore the same secrecy oath as a Haian, nothing goes beyond these walls. Second Fire come if I am forsworn.” He gently opened my legs, touched the spot between my testicles and my anus, and at the same time touched the very apex of my head. It was as if a line joined his two fingers, running up through the very centre of my body.
“Imagine that course made of light,” he said. “Keep that in your mind, your will. You have a very strong will. The part of it that’s turned against you is set to kill you, and it is so strong it will succeed. That’s why Megidan sent you. Your family stream-tests, harshly, the old-fashioned way. There is the first lesson, in I-don’t-deserve-to-live, I must earn the right.”
“First lesson in what?”
“They laid you in an ice-cold stream as a baby, because if you were not strong enough, you should not live. Here is the thing you have to understand: you think it is plain clairvoyance, this death you go towards, but it’s not. It is obligation. It does not await you; you are drawing it to you, and you have ever since you were a child, because you felt you ought to, because you felt that was right. And within a season you will succeed, unless you change course.”
I could not speak, my mind stunned to blankness, like the eyes’ blindness after a close lightning-flash.
“Most people with such a thing have just one or two reasons for it; with you there are so many, it is in everything about you. It will be very difficult for you; you’ve thought this way for twenty-some years, most of your growing up, all your adulthood, you’ve worked so hard all that time to accustom yourself to it, you’ve built the nature of your life around it, and that is not easy to change. You’ve got quite the opinion of yourself, as well, you feel you know everything, control everything—I’m not saying it’s not justified—but still, it’s one more obstacle.
“You have so little time... I will have to do some drastic things, and if they are too much for you, or not enough, we will both know we did all we could, and you will return to All-Spirit and another life. You’ve locked yourself so much into this you can’t even imagine living past thirty, your heart doesn’t even ache for it any more. You do want to, don’t you?”
I managed to gasp out, “If it were possible, I’d want to... of course I would. Who wouldn’t?” I had not held the thought in my mind for fifteen years at least. In the back of my head a voice whispered, this is all madness.
“It is possible. Didn’t Megidan say it was to save your life? In the part of your mind you know, you don’t believe me; deeper inside you know I am telling the truth. Tell me, what would you do to live past thirty?”
“If it were possible? I... what would I...” I told the truth, as it came to my lips. “Mamaiyana, I would do anything.”
“I… I would not commit a crime.”
“No crime-committing is necessary. Otherwise, anything?”
“Good. Because what you are going to have to do is so hard. It’s going to take everything you’ve got. You’ll have doubts later; I think I should make you swear. Swear you’ll do anything I ask.”
“Anything you ask?”
“Anything I ask would fall within the definition of anything, would it not?”
Why the wariness in me, as if I were worried about being rooked? Would I not do anything? I asked myself, more deeply and seriously, ignoring the voice whispering “madness,” and thought of my grandchildren.
I took my crystal and my father’s wisdom tooth in my sword-hand, laid my shield-hand over the semanakraseyeni signet, and said “To live past thirty I would do anything you ask, Surya Chaelaecha—Second Fire come if I am forsworn.”
I swear, the thought did come to me: I wonder if this is another one of those things, more than one of which I’ve gone through before, where if I had known how hard it would be at the start, I’d likely have chickened out.
“Excellent.” He slapped his hands together, and rubbed them long, as if in relishing preparation.