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The Spinning Leaf

 

T HE NEXT MORNING VASHET came to collect me just as I was finishing my breakfast. “Come,” she said. “Carceret has been praying for a storm all night, but it’s only gusting.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but I didn’t feel like asking either. I returned my wooden plate and turned around to find Penthe standing there, a slight yellowing bruise along her jawline.

Penthe didn’t say anything, merely gripped my arms in an open show of support. Then she hugged me tightly. I was surprised when her head only came up to my chest. I’d forgotten how small she was. The dining room was even more quiet than normal, and while no one was staring, everyone was watching.

Vashet walked me to the tiny park where we had first met and began our usual limbering stretch. The routine of it relaxed me, lulling my anxiety to a dull rumble. When we were finished,Vashet led me down into the hidden valley of the sword tree. I wasn’t surprised. Where else would the test take place?

There were a dozen people scattered in the open field around the tree. Most of them were dressed in mercenary reds, but I saw three wearing lighter clothes. I guessed they were important members of the community, or perhaps retired mercenaries still involved with the school.

Vashet pointed toward the tree. At first I thought she was drawing my attention to the motion of it. It was, as she had said, a rather blustery day, and the branches lashed wildly at the empty air. Then I saw a glint of metal against its trunk. Looking more closely, I could see a sword there, tied to the trunk of the tree.

I thought of Celean dancing among the sharp leaves to slap the trunk of the tree. Of course.

“There are several items around the base of the tree,”Vashet said. “Your test is to go in, choose one, and bring it out again.”

“This is the test?” I demanded. It came out a little sharper than I’d planned. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why didn’t you ask?” she countered dryly, then laid her hand gently on my arm. “I would have,” she said. “Eventually. But I knew if I told you too soon, you would try your hand at it and hurt yourself.”

“Well thank God we saved that for today,” I said, then sighed. Resigned apology . “What happens if I go in there and get cut to ribbons?”

“Getting cut is usually a given,” she said and pulled aside the neck of her shirt, revealing a pair of familiar pale, thin scars on her shoulder. “The question is how much, and where, and how you behave.” She shrugged her shirt back into place. “The leaves will not cut deep, but be careful of your face and neck. The places where vessels and tendons are close to the surface. A cut on your chest or arm can be mended easily. Less so a severed ear.”

I watched the tree as it caught a gust of wind, branches flailing madly. “What keeps a person from crawling there on hands and knees?”

“Pride,” she said, her eyes searching my face. “Will you be known as the one who crawled during his test?”

I nodded. This was an issue for me especially. As a barbarian, I had twice as much to prove.



I looked at the tree again. It was thirty feet from the edge of the lashing branches to the trunk. I thought back to the scars I’d seen on Tempi’s body, on Carceret’s face. “So this is a test of nerve,” I said. “A test of pride.”

“It is a test of many things,” Vashet said. “Your behavior signifies a great deal. You could throw your arms over your face and rush ahead. The straightest line is quickest, after all. But what does that reveal of you? Are you a bull that charges blindly? Are you an animal without subtlety or grace?” She shook her head, frowning. “I expect better from a student of mine.”

I squinted my eyes, trying to see what other items were gathered around the tree. “I suppose I’m not allowed to ask what the proper choice is.”

“There are many proper choices, and many more improper ones. It is different for everyone. The item you bring back reveals much. What you do with the item afterward reveals much. How you comport yourself reveals much.” She shrugged. “All these things Shehyn will consider before deciding if you are to be admitted into the school.”

“If Shehyn is the one to decide, why are all these others here?”

Vashet forced a smile, and I saw anxiety lurking deep in her eyes. “Shehyn does not embody the entire school herself.” She gestured to the distant Adem standing around the sword tree. “Less does she represent the entirety of the path of the Latantha.”

I looked around and realized the handful of non-red shirts were not light, but white. These were the heads of other schools. They had traveled here to see the barbarian take his test.

“Is this usual?” I asked.

Vashet shook her head. “I could feign ignorance. But I suspect Carceret spread word.”

“Can they overrule Shehyn’s decision?” I asked.

Vashet shook her head. “No. It is her school, her decision. No one would dispute her right to make it.” At her side, her hand flicked. However .

“Very well,” I said.

Vashet reached out and gripped my hand in both of hers, squeezed it, then let it fall.

I walked to the sword tree. For a moment the wind eased, and the thick canopy of hanging branches reminded me of the tree where I had met the Cthaeh. It was not a comforting thought.

I watched the spinning leaves, trying not to think of how sharp they were. How they would slice into the meat of me. How they could glide through the thin skin of my hands and slice through the delicate tendons underneath.

From the edge of the canopy to the safety of the trunk couldn’t be more than thirty feet. In some ways, not very far at all....

I thought of Celean darting wildly through the leaves. I thought of her, jumping and swatting branches away. If she could do it, then certainly so could I.

But even as I thought it, I knew it simply wasn’t true. Celean had played here all her life. She was skinny as a twig, quick as a cricket, and half my size. Compared to her, I was a lumbering bear.

I saw a handful of Adem mercenaries on the far side of the tree. Two of the more intimidating white shirts were there as well. I could feel their eyes on me, and in a strange way, I was glad.

When you’re alone, it’s easy to be afraid. It’s easy to focus on what might be lurking in the dark at the bottom of the cellar steps. It’s easy to obsess on unproductive things, like the madness of stepping into a storm of spinning knives. When you’re alone it’s easy to sweat, panic, fall apart . . .

But I wasn’t alone. And it wasn’t just Vashet and Shehyn watching me. There were a dozen mercenaries and the heads of other schools besides. I had an audience. I was onstage. And there is nowhere in the world I am more comfortable than on a stage.

I waited just outside the reach of the longest branches, watching for a break in their motion. I hoped their random spinning would, just for a moment, open into a path I could dart through, striking away any leaves that came too close. I could use Fan Water to keep them away from my face.

I stood at the edge of the canopy and watched, waiting for an opening, trying to anticipate the pattern. The motion of the tree lulled me like it had so many times before. It was beautiful, all circles and arcs.

As I watched, gently dazed by the motion of the tree, I felt my mind slip lightly into the clear, empty float of Spinning Leaf. I realized the motion of the tree wasn’t random at all, really. It was actually a pattern made of endless changing patterns.

And then, my mind open and empty, I saw the wind spread out before me. It was like frost forming on a blank sheet of window glass. One moment, nothing. The next, I could see the name of the wind as clearly as the back of my own hand.

I looked around for a moment, marveling in it. I tasted the shape of it on my tongue and knew if desired I could stir it to a storm. I could hush it to a whisper, leaving the sword tree hanging empty and still.

But that seemed wrong. Instead I simply opened my eyes wide to the wind, watching where it would choose to push the branches. Watching where it would flick the leaves.

Then I stepped under the canopy, calmly as you would walk through your own front door. I took two steps, then stopped as a pair of leaves sliced through the air in front of me. I stepped sideways and forward as the wind spun another branch through the space behind me.

I moved through the dancing branches of the sword tree. Not running, not frantically batting them away with my hands. I stepped carefully, deliberately. It was, I realized, the way Shehyn moved when she fought. Not quickly, though sometimes she was quick. She moved perfectly, always where she needed to be.

Almost before I realized it, I was standing on the dark earth that circled the wide trunk of the sword tree. The spinning leaves could not reach here. Safe for the moment, I relaxed and focused on what was waiting there for me.

The sword I had seen from the edge of the clearing was bound to the tree with a white silk cord that ran around the trunk. The sword was half-drawn from its sheath, and I could see the blade was similar to Vashet’s sword. The metal was an odd, burnished grey without mark or blemish.

Next to the tree on a small table sat a familiar red shirt, folded neatly in half. There was an arrow with stark white fletching and a polished wooden cylinder of the sort that would hold a scroll.

A bright glitter caught my eye, and I turned to see a thick gold bar nestled in the dark earth among the roots of the tree. Was it truly gold? I bent and touched it. It was chill under my fingers, and was too heavy for my single hand to pry up from the ground. How much did it weigh? Forty pounds? Fifty? Enough gold for me to stay at the University forever, no matter how viciously they raised my tuition.

I slowly made my way around the trunk of the sword tree and saw a fluttering piece of silk hanging from a low branch. There was another sword of a more ordinary sort, hanging from the same white cord. There were three blue flowers tied with a blue ribbon. There was a tarnished Vintish halfpenny. There was a long, flat whetstone, dark with oil.

Then I came to the other side of the tree and saw my lute case leaning casually against the trunk.

Seeing it there, knowing someone had gone into my room and taken it from under my bed, filled me with a sudden, terrible rage. It was all the worse knowing what the Adem thought of musicians. It meant they knew I wasn’t merely a barbarian, but a cheap and tawdry whore as well. It had been left there to taunt me.

I had called the name of the wind in the grip of a terrible anger before, in Imre after Ambrose had broken my lute. And I had called it in terror and fury to defend myself against Felurian. But this time the knowledge of it hadn’t come to me borne on the back of some strong emotion. I had slipped into it gently, the way you must reach out to catch a gently floating thistle seed.

So when I saw my lute, the welter of hot emotion brought me crashing out of Spinning Leaf like a sparrow struck with a stone. The name of the wind tattered to shreds, leaving me empty and blind. Looking around at the madly dancing leaves, I could see no pattern at all, only a thousand windblown razors slicing at the air.

I finished my slow circuit of the tree with a knot of worry tightening my stomach. The presence of my lute made one thing clear. Any of these objects could be a trap someone had left for me.

Vashet had said the test was more than what I brought back from the tree. It was also how I brought it, and what I did with it afterward. If I brought out the heavy bar of gold and gave it to Shehyn, would that show I was willing to bring money back to the school? Or it would signify that I would cling greedily to something heavy and unwieldy despite the fact that it put me in danger?

The same was true of any of these things. If I took the red shirt, I could be seen as either nobly striving for the right to wear it, or arrogantly presuming I was good enough to join their ranks. This was doubly true of the ancient sword that hung there. I didn’t doubt that it was as precious to the Adem as a child.

I made another slow circuit of the tree, pretending to consider my choices, but really just stalling for time. I nervously looked over the items a second time. There was a small book with a brass lock. There was a spindle of grey woolen thread. There was a smooth round stone sitting on a clean white cloth.

As I looked at them all, I realized any choice I made could be interpreted so many ways. I didn’t know nearly enough about Adem culture to guess what my item might signify.

Even if I did, without the name of the wind to guide me back through the canopy, I would be cut to ribbons leaving the tree. Probably not enough to maim me, but enough to make it clear I was a clumsy barbarian who obviously didn’t belong.

I looked at the gold bar again. If I chose that, at least the weight of it would give me an excuse for being awkward on my way out. Perhaps I could still make a good showing of it . . .

Nervously I made a third circuit of the tree. I felt the wind pick up, gusting and making the branches flail about more wildly than before. It pulled the sweat from my body, chilling me and making me shiver.

In the middle of that anxious moment, I was suddenly aware of nothing as much as the sudden, urgent pressure of my bladder. My biology cared nothing for the gravity of my situation, and I was seized with a powerful need to relieve myself.

Thus it was that in the center of a storm of knives, in the midst of my test that was also my trial, that I thought of urinating up against the side of the sacred sword tree while two dozen proud and deadly mercenaries watched me do it.

It was such a horrifying and inappropriate thought that I burst out laughing. And when the laugh rolled out of me, the tension knotting my stomach and clawing at the muscles of my back melted away. Whatever choice I made, it would have to be better than pissing on the Latantha.

At that moment, no longer boiling with anger, no longer gripped with fear, I looked at the moving leaves around me. Always before when the name of the wind had left me, it had faded like a dream on waking: irretrievable as an echo or a fading sigh.

But this time it was different, I had spent hours watching the patterns of these moving leaves. I looked out through the branches of the tree and thought of Celean jumping and spinning, laughing and running.

And there it was. Like the name of an old friend that had simply slipped my mind for a moment. I looked out among the branches and I saw the wind. I spoke the long name of it gently, and the wind grew gentle. I breathed it out as a whisper, and for the first time since I had come to Haert the wind went quiet and utterly still.

In this place of endless wind, it seemed as if the world were suddenly holding its breath. The unceasing dance of the sword tree slowed, then stopped. As if it were resting. As if it had decided to let me go.

I stepped away from the tree and began to walk slowly toward Shehyn, bringing nothing with me. As I walked, I raised my left hand and drew my open palm across the razor edge of a hanging leaf.

I came to stand before Shehyn, stopping the polite distance from her. I stood, my face an impassive mask. I stood, utterly silent, perfectly still.

I extended my left hand, bloody palm up, and closed it into a fist. The gesture meant willing .There was more blood than I’d expected, and it pressed between my fingers to run down the back of my hand.

After a long moment, Shehyn nodded. I relaxed, and only then did the wind return.

 


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 323


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