Otah took the blow on the ear, the flesh opening under the rod. Tahi-kvo, Tahi the teacher, pulled the thin lacquered wood through the air with a fluttering sound like bird wings. Otah's discipline held. He did not shift or cry out. Tears welled in his eyes, but his hands remained in a pose of greeting.
"Again," Tahi-kvo barked. "And correctly!"
"We are honored by your presence, most high Dai-kvo," Otah said sweetly, as if it were the first time he had attempted the ritual phrase. The old man sitting before the fire considered him closely, then adopted a pose of acceptance. Tahi-kvo made a sound of satisfaction in the depths of his throat.
Otah bowed, holding still for three breaths and hoping that Tahi-kvo wouldn't strike him for trembling. The moment stretched, and Otah nearly let his eyes stray to his teacher. It was the old man with his ruined whisper who at last spoke the words that ended the ritual and released him.
"Go, disowned child, and attend to your studies."
Otah turned and walked humbly out of the room. Once he had pulled the thick wooden door closed behind him and walked down the chill hallway toward the common rooms, he gave himself permission to touch his new wound.
The other boys were quiet as he passed through the stone halls of the school, but several times their gazes held him and his new shame. Only the older boys in the black robes of Milahkvo's disciples laughed at him. Otah took himself to the quarters where all the boys in his cohort slept. He removed the ceremonial gown, careful not to touch it with blood, and washed the wound in cold water. The stinging cream for cuts and scrapes was in an earthenware jar beside the water basin. He took two fingers and slathered the vinegar-smelling ointment onto the open flesh of his ear. Then, not for the first time since he had come to the school, he sat on his spare, hard bunk and wept.
"THIS BOY," the Dai-kvo said as he took up the porcelain bowl of tea. Its heat was almost uncomfortable. "He holds some promise?"
"Some," Tahi allowed as he leaned the lacquered rod against the wall and took the seat beside his master.
"He seems familiar."
"Otah Machi. Sixth son of the Khai Machi."
"I recall his brothers. Also boys of some promise. What became of them?"
"They spent their years, took the brand, and were turned out. Most are. We have three hundred in the school now and forty in the black under Milahkvo's care. Sons of the Khaiem or the ambitious families of the utkhaiem."
"So many? I see so few."
Tahi took a pose of agreement, the cant of his wrists giving it a nuance that might have been sorrow or apology.
"Not many are both strong enough and wise. And the stakes are high."
The Dai-kvo sipped his tea and considered the fire.
"I wonder," the old man said, "how many realize we are teaching them nothing."
"We teach them all. Letters, numbers. Any of them could take a trade after they leave the school."
"But nothing of use. Nothing of poetry. Nothing of the andat."
"If they realize that, most high, they're halfway to your door. And for the ones we turn away . . . It's better, most high."
Tahi shrugged and looked into the fire. He looked older, the Dai-kvo thought, especially about the eyes. But he had met Tahi as a rude youth many years before. The age he saw there now, and the cruelty, were seeds he himself had cultivated.
"When they have failed, they take the brand and make their own fates," Tahi said.
"We take away their only hope of rejoining their families, of taking a place at the courts of the Khaiem. They have no family. They cannot control the andat," the Dai-kvo said. "We throw these boys away much as their fathers have. What becomes of them, I wonder?"
"Much the same as becomes of anyone, I imagine. The ones from low families of the utkhaiem are hardly worse off than when they came. The sons of the Khaiem . . . once they take the brand, they cannot inherit, and it saves them from being killed for their blood rights. That alone is a gift in its way."
It was true. Every generation saw the blood of the Khaiem spilled. It was the way of the Empire. And in times when all three of a Khai's acknowledged sons slaughtered one another, the high families of the utkhaiem unsheathed their knives, and cities were caught for a time in fits of violence from which the poets held themselves apart like priests at a dog fight. These boys in the school's care were exempt from those wars at only the price of everything they had known in their short lives. And yet . . .
"Disgrace is a thin gift," the Dai-kvo said.