A child of a woman may have a four of siblings, or an eight. A child of the Hetawa has a thousand.
There were many things that one could feel when surrounded by a four of the Hetawa’s finest guardians, Nijiri considered. Fear, first and foremost — and oh, he felt that in plenty, souring his mouth and slicking his palms. But along with the fear, and dread for the beating these men would almost certainly administer to him before they were done, he felt something new and surprising: anticipation.
Lack of emotion is not the ideal. Nijiri licked his lips, practically hearing Gatherer Ehiru’s night-soft voice in his mind. Ehiru always knew just the right thing to say when Nijiri came to him with a boy’s frets. Control of emotion is. Even we Gatherers feel — and we savor those feelings, when they come, as the rare blessings they are.
Could the urge to grind his opponents’ faces into the sand truly be a blessing? Nijiri grinned. He would meditate upon it later.
Sentinel Mekhi glanced at Sentinel Andat, his kohled eyes narrowing in amusement. “I think perhaps Acolyte Nijiri wants peace, pathbrother.”
“Hmm,” said Andat. He was grinning as well, turning his fighting stick in the fingers of one hand with careless expertise. “I think perhaps Acolyte Nijiri wants pain. There’s a kind of peace in that.”
“Share it with me, Brothers,” Nijiri breathed, crouching low and ready. With that, they came at him.
He did not wait for their sticks. No one could deflect, or endure, blows from four armed Sentinels. Instead he dropped low, presenting a smaller target and slipping beneath the zone of their fastest response. They were fast enough with their feet, though, and he only just dodged Sentinel Harakha’s sweeping kick by rolling over it. This, thankfully, put him outside the Sentinels’ circle and forced them to turn. That gave him a precious half-breath in which to formulate a strategy.
Harakha. As the youngest of the four, he had yet to develop a Sentinel’s proper serenity. He was dangerous; any Sentinel who survived his apprenticeship was dangerous. But Nijiri had observed Harakha in sparring matches several times, and noted that whenever his blows were deflected, he tended to flail for an instant before recovering, as if shocked by his failure.
So Nijiri swept at Harakha’s ankles with first one leg and then the other, rolling on his forearms to execute the sweeps again and again, forcing Harakha to dance back. The other Sentinels quickly altered their formation to avoid Nijiri’s whirling legs and to keep from tripping over each other — just as Nijiri had hoped. Then, when Harakha grew justifiably annoyed and angled a stabbing strike at Nijiri’s head, Nijiri closed his legs and rolled — toward Harakha. This brought him under Harakha’s stick; the tip struck the ground beyond Nijiri and lodged, just for an instant, in the sand. At this Nijiri kicked up, aiming for Harakha’s hand. He did not score, for Harakha realized what he was doing at the last instant and jerked back, retaliating with a furious kick that Nijiri bore with a grunt as he rolled away. A small pain-price to pay, for he had achieved his goal: Harakha stumbled back a step more, overcompensating in typical fashion for the fact that he’d almost lost his weapon. This forced the other three Sentinels to move more, gracelessly, to avoid their clumsy younger brother.
Distraction was a Gatherer’s beloved friend. Rolling to his hands and toes, Nijiri darted forward and slapped his hand against Mekhi’s calf. It was hard to find the soul from a limb, and harder for Nijiri to cool his thoughts enough for narcomancy, but perhaps —
Mekhi stumbled and fell to the ground, groaning. He was only groggy, but from an awake, aware man whose blood was fired for battle, Nijiri could expect nothing better. When Mekhi went down, however, Harakha hissed and nearly tripped over Mekhi’s stick. Nijiri rose behind him like a shadow, and too late Harakha realized the danger. By that point Nijiri had touched two fingers to the nape of his neck, sending dreambile coursing along his spine like cold water to numb everything it touched. Harakha was unconscious even as his body whipped around. He kept spinning until he hit the ground, hard enough that he would no doubt curse Nijiri for his bruises when he woke.
Delighted, Nijiri rounded on Mekhi, who was trying to stumble away until his sleep-mazed mind could clear. Forking his fingers and humming the song of his jungissa, Nijiri lunged after him —
— Only to halt, statue-still, as the tip of a stick came to hover before his face. Another stick, light as the touch of a lover, came to rest on the small of his back.
It was only a sparring match, he reminded himself in an effort to summon calm. (It did not come.) Only a test… but he had seen Sentinels impale men using sheer strength and angles to make their blunt sticks sharp as glass-tipped spears. And Andat liked to leave flesh wounds whenever he felt Nijiri had not fought to his fullest effort, as an encouragement to greater diligence —
“Good,” said Andat, who held the stick to his face. That meant the one behind him was Sentinel Inefer. He had bested two, but been caught by the two most experienced. Had that been enough to pass the test? I should have left Mekhi; he was no threat. Should have gotten one of the others first, should have –
“Very good,” Andat amended, and with relief Nijiri realized the man was truly pleased. “Two of us, with you unarmed and all of us ready? I would have been satisfied if you’d gotten one.”
“It would’ve been Harakha, regardless,” said Inefer behind Nijiri, sounding disgusted. “Blundering, peaceless fool.”
“We’ll drill him until he learns better,” Andat said easily, and in spite of himself Nijiri grimaced in sympathy.
Nijiri felt Inefer’s stick leave his back. “Other matters take precedence for now,” Andat said, looking up at the balcony that overhung the sparring circle. Nijiri followed Andat’s gaze and tensed in fresh dread, for there, gazing down at them with a wry expression, stood the Superior of the Hetawa. Beside the Superior stood two men in sleeveless, hooded robes of loose off-white linen. He could see nothing of their faces, and the angle was wrong to glimpse their shoulder tattoos, but he knew their builds well enough to guess which was which — and which, since a third man should have been among them, was missing. Suppressing a frown, Nijiri got to his feet so that he could raise his hands in proper salute toward his brethren.
“That should do, I think,” said the Superior. “Sentinel Andat, are you satisfied?”
“I am,” said Andat, “and I speak for my pathbrethren in this. Anyone who can beat two Sentinels out of four has more than sufficient skill to carry out the Goddess’s will beyond the Hetawa’s walls.” He glanced at Nijiri and smiled. “Even if he chooses to follow the wrong path in the process. Alas.”
“I see. Thank you, Andat.” The Superior’s eyes settled on Nijiri then, and privately Nijiri fought the urge to cover himself or apologize for his unpeaceful appearance. He was still out of breath, drenched in sweat and dressed only in a loincloth, and it felt as though his heart had made a dancing-drum of his sternum. But he had done well; he had no reason for shame.
“Come then, Acolyte Nijiri,” the Superior said — and paused, amusement narrowing his dark eyes. “Acolyte for now, at least.”
Nijiri tried not to grin, and failed utterly.
“Go and wash,” the Superior continued, emphasizing the latter word enough that some of Nijiri’s joy turned to embarrassment. “At the sunset hour, come to the Hall of Blessings.” To take your Gatherers’ Oath, he did not say, but Nijiri heard it anyhow and rejoiced anew. Then the Superior turned away, heading through the balcony hanging into his offices. Silently, the two hooded men flanking him followed.
“That was quick,” muttered Mekhi, who grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck as he joined them. He still moved stiffly, shaking his free arm as if the hand had gone to sleep. Nijiri lifted his hand, flat with palm down, and bowed over it in contrition; Mekhi waved this off.
“A love match on both sides, I think,” said Andat, though he also made an apologetic gesture when his brothers looked at him, so no one would think him resentful. “Go on, then, boy. Congratulations.”
The word made it real. With a delighted grin, Nijiri bobbed a barely courteous nod to all three men, then turned and walked — with a speed just shy of running — into the Hetawa’s dim silence.
The bath restored his spirits, and the cool water was a balm after the sparring match in sweltering afternoon heat. No one else was in the bathing chamber when Nijiri used it, though once he returned to the small cell that he shared with three other acolytes he found that word had somehow spread: a four of pathing gifts had been left on his pallet. The first was a small, prettily enameled mirror, which had probably come from his roommates — yes, that was Talipa’s work on the flowers, he would recognize it anywhere. Talipa had been claimed from a potter family. The second gift was a small set of finger-cuffs, engraved with formal prayer pictorals. Beautiful work, and probably that of Moramal, the acolyte-master. Nijiri set this aside. As a Gatherer he would need some jewelry, for a Gatherer went disguised among the faithful — but it was still not a gift that would see much use. Alas.
The third was a small jar of scented oil, which he sniffed and nearly dropped in amazement. Myrrh; could it be? But there was no mistaking the fragrance. Such an expensive gift could only have come from his soon-to-be pathbrothers. And that, no doubt, had been how the other acolytes guessed the news; one of them would’ve been dispatched to bring the gift to Nijiri’s cell, and that one had apparently gossiped the whole way. Nijiri grinned to himself.
The fourth gift was a tiny statue of the Sun in his human form, carved in darkwood and polished to a fine gloss, right down to the prominent erect penis that any Sun statue bore. A popular gift between lovers.
Furious, Nijiri threw the thing across the room so hard that it broke in four pieces.
All his pleasure at passing the final test had soured, thanks to one tasteless, ill-considered gift. What did the other acolytes think of that? he wondered bitterly. But with the sunset hour coming, it was either go now or be late to his own oathtaking. So, fury banked if not fully extinguished, Nijiri hastily dressed in a plain loincloth and sandals, though he also took the time to dab himself with the myrrh-oil and apply a bit of kohl to his eyes. It would not do to look ungroomed, or ungrateful for his new brothers’ gift.
The Hall of Blessings — the massive, graceful pylon of sandstone and silver-veined granite that served as entry to the Hetawa’s complex of buildings — normally stood open to the public. As the main temple of Hananja in Gujaareh, and the only one within the walls of the capital city, the Hetawa was unique in housing only priests, acolytes, and those children who had been dedicated to the Goddess’s care. Layfolk in Hananja’s service were permitted to visit, but did not dwell within its walls. The lesser business of the Hetawa was conducted elsewhere in the city: schools for teaching children dreaming, law and wisdom, writing, and figuring; storehouses where tithes of money or goods were tallied; more. So during an allotted period by day, and again in the small hours of the morning for those who worked at night, the Hall was busy as the faithful came to do Hananja’s greater work. They offered their prayers and dreams to Hananja, submitted commissions for healing or the Gathering of relatives, or obtained healing themselves for illnesses or physical complaints. Thus did all Gujaareh find peace. But at sunset, the Hall closed for all public purposes save dire need, so that each path of Hananja’s servants could take its own communion with the Goddess of Dreams.
As Nijiri arrived, he found the Superior waiting on the tiered dais at the Hall’s heart. Flanking him were the same two Gatherers — and behind them, above them, loomed the great nightstone statue of Hananja Herself. Nijiri fixed his gaze on the statue as he approached, trying to fill his heart with the sight: Her outstretched hands, Her white-flecked blackness, Her eyes perpetually shut as She dreamed the endless realm that was Ina-Karekh.
His realm, soon.
Such thoughts settled Nijiri’s spirit at last, and by the time he reached the dais and bowed over his downturned palms, he felt sure of himself again, and calm.
(But where, he wondered again, was Gatherer Ehiru? Away on Hetawa business, perhaps. He fought disappointment.)
Silence fell, measured and still. When a proper span of time had passed, the Superior finally spoke. “Raise your head, Acolyte. We have something to discuss.” Surprised, Nijiri did so. Was this part of the oathtaking? As he looked up, the two men beside the Superior lifted their heads as well, each pulling back his hood.
“Your relationship with Teacher Omin,” said the taller man. Sonta-i, he of the dead eyes and ashen-dark skin, eldest of the Gatherer path. “Explain it.”
Everything in Nijiri went still. He stared at Sonta-i, too stunned even for alarm.
“Explain it please,” said the other man, smiling as if that would soften the blow. He was stockier and younger and redder than Sonta-i. Curling copper ringlets trailed from his topknot, his eyes were a shade of brown that glinted red in the evening light, and even the tattoo on his upper arm — a four-lobed poppy — was the color of blood, where Sonta-i’s nightshade had been done in deep indigo. Gatherer Rabbaneh, whom Nijiri had always considered kinder than Sonta-i. Until now.
Omin, you useless, greedy fool. Nijiri closed his eyes, thinking most unpeaceful thoughts. Anger had always been his weakness, the thing he strove most to control in himself. But now he could not help it, for if Omin’s folly cost him the goal he had spent ten years striving toward…
“There is no relationship,” he snapped, looking each man in the eye. Sonta-i’s face remained impassive; Rabbaneh raised his eyebrows at Nijiri’s tone. The Superior looked sorrowful — and by that, Nijiri guessed that he thought Nijiri was lying. This made Nijiri angrier still. “Though not for lack of trying on the Teacher’s part.”
“Oh?” asked the Superior, very quietly.
Nijiri made himself shrug, though he did not feel nonchalant at all. “The Teacher offered me favors in return for favors. I refused.”
The Superior said, “Explain in fullness, Acolyte. When did this begin? What favors were offered, and what did he expect in return?”
“After I chose to leave the House of Children. The day I reported to him as an acolyte; he was to test me in numeratics. He found my knowledge acceptable, but he commented much on my face, my eyes, my walk. He said I was very pretty despite looking so lowcaste.” He fought the urge to curl his lip, remembering that day and the way it had made him feel: low and weak and sick and afraid. The fear had changed, though, the longer Omin pressed him. He had grown angry, and that had always made him strong. So he took a deep breath. “Superior, now I must speak of that we do not discuss.”
The Superior flinched. Rabbaneh’s smile did not falter, but it grew harder, sharp-edged. Sonta-i did not react, but there was a palpable additional coldness in his voice as he spoke. “You imply that Omin made promises with respect to the pranje ceremony.”
“I imply nothing, Gatherer.” He watched that news settle in among them, and saw Omin’s death harden on brows and tightened lips. At that, Nijiri did feel a moment’s guilt. But Omin had brought this on himself, and Nijiri had his own future to consider.
“Continue,” Sonta-i said.
“The Teacher offered me safety, Gatherer, from the annual selection of pranje attendants. In exchange, he made clear his desire that I attend him, in the small hours of the morning, at some location in a disused corridor of the Teachers’ Hall. I do not know the place since I refused him, but he said that he had used it with other acolytes, and there we would have privacy.”
The Superior muttered something to himself in Sua; Nijiri, whose Sua was only passable, did not catch it. Rabbaneh let out a long sigh. For him, that was tantamount to a desert skyrer’s shriek of fury. “And why did you not accept this offer?”
“I don’t fear the pr — that we do not discuss.” Silently Nijiri cursed the lapse. He had hoped to seem cool and controlled like a Servant of Hananja, and not a nervous child. “Why would I need protection from something I don’t fear?”
The Gatherers looked at each other. There were no words exchanged between them — not that Nijiri could tell in any case. Rumor had it Gatherers could speak through waking dreams in some manner. But by that unvoiced agreement, Sonta-i abruptly moved away from his pathbrother and the Superior, coming down off the dais. Moving, his pace slow and steady and full of warning, to encircle Nijiri.
Now it took everything Nijiri had to stay angry, and not show his unease.
“You aren’t afraid?” Sonta-i asked.
I wasn’t before now. “No, Gatherer.”
“An acolyte died last year. He served a Gatherer in the pranje and died. Did you know this?” Sonta-i did not look at Nijiri as he spoke; that was the worst of it. His eyes glanced over the moontear-vined pillars, the rugs, Hananja’s starry knees. Nijiri did not rate even that much attention.
Nijiri did not turn to follow Sonta-i’s movement, though the hairs on the back of his neck prickled whenever the Gatherer passed out of his sight. “I heard the rumors. I don’t claim to be fearless, Gatherer; I fear many things. But death is not one of those things.”
“Injury. Violation. Damnation. Despair. All these things can result when an acolyte attends a Gatherer sitting pranje.” Abruptly Sonta-i paused, leaning in to examine a moontear flower with great intensity. Nijiri could not see what had so attracted the Gatherer’s interest. Perhaps it was nothing at all.
“I am aware, Gatherer. I did sit pranje twice — ” But those had been nothing, hours of boredom, while he sat with Sharers who’d been nearly as bored as he. Sharers faced the pranje’s test only once every four of floodseasons, as a precaution, and no one could remember the last time a Sharer had failed. He had not trained to serve Sharers.
All at once Nijiri froze, as Sonta-i swung about and peered at him with the same taut scrutiny he’d given the flower. “You did not refuse the Teacher out of propriety. You refused him out of pride.”
It was not a question, but Nijiri felt no need to deny it. They knew he had never been humble. “Yes. I wished to be a Gatherer.”
“Acolyte,” the Superior said, somewhere beyond Sonta-i. He sounded weary; Nijiri did not dare look away from Sonta-i’s gray eyes to check. He didn’t fear death, but somehow Sonta-i seemed worse than death in that moment. “You just said propriety was not your concern.”
“Just so, Superior.” He licked his lips — only so that he could speak clearly, of course, nothing more. “I felt that an acolyte who wished to become a Gatherer should do better, as illicit lovers go, than some greedy, undisciplined Teacher.”
He was deeply relieved to hear a startled laugh from Rabbaneh, and the Superior’s groan. Sonta-i, however, leaned closer to him, until Nijiri was breathing the man’s exhalations. The tiny fibers of Sonta-i’s iris, like spokes of a chariot wheel, contracted slowly as Sonta-i searched his face. “You’re hiding something,” he said.
“Nothing I’m ashamed of, Gatherer.”
It was a mistake; he knew it the instant he spoke. A lie. Sonta-i’s eyes narrowed sharply. He knew.
“Your overly high estimation of yourself aside, Acolyte,” drawled Rabbaneh, again somewhere behind Sonta-i, “why did you not report the Teacher to us? A man who would abuse his power over others should at the least be assessed for corruption. A Gatherer,” and he said this with gentle emphasis, his voice growing serious, “would think this way.”
Sonta-i was going to kill him. Nijiri knew that now. There was a stillness in the Gatherer that he had never seen before, though he found it somehow entirely unsurprising. Sonta-i was peculiar even by Gatherer standards — distracted by odd things, uninterested in emotional matters. Yet he was a Gatherer, and that honed all his peculiarity to an arrow-focus when he chose to do the Goddess’s business.
So Nijiri spoke to Sonta-i. Not to excuse himself, because there was no excuse that any Gatherer would accept if he had already made his judgment. He spoke only to assuage his own pride. If he was to die, he would die like a Servant of Hananja.
“Because Omin did no harm,” Nijiri said. “Not after that. He tried to harm me, but failed. And in his failure, he was tamed — for, after I informed him that I had only to speak a word to the Gatherers, he made no attempt to coerce other acolytes.” Since then, in fact, Omin had been a model Teacher, save for his constant gifts and longing looks whenever Nijiri turned his back. And save for losing Nijiri his chance at the future he’d worked ten years to achieve.
Sonta-i shook his head slightly. By this, Nijiri knew his explanation had been insufficient to alter the Gatherer’s assessment of him. Aloud, Sonta-i said, “And now that you’re no longer an acolyte, this corrupt Teacher is free to press his attentions on other boys.”
“I’ve dedicated myself to the Hetawa, Gatherer. I have friends among the acolytes, who would tell me — ” But here he faltered for an instant, seized by sudden doubt. What would happen to him if the Gatherers did not accept him, and if Sonta-i did not kill him? He could go to the Sentinels, if they would still allow it, but he did not want to be a Sentinel, or a Teacher, or a layman, or anything but what he’d always, since the day he’d met Ehiru, always yearned to be —
“You’ve seen sixteen floods this year,” said the Superior. “A man by law, and soon by duty as well. You cannot protect your fellows if you no longer dwell among them, never see their daily struggles. And you can’t expect boys to bring their fears to you, either, for they’ll have no cause to trust one grown man if another has abused them.” He sighed; from the corner of his eye, Nijiri saw him shake his head. “Still too much the servant-caste.”
At this, Nijiri flinched, stung enough at last to look away from Sonta-i. “I am a child of the Hetawa, Superior!”
But it was Rabbaneh who nodded, to Nijiri’s consternation. “None of us are born to the Goddess’s path, Acolyte. We come from somewhere, and the past leaves its mark. Consider yours.”
“I…” Nijiri frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“A good servant never complains, they say. A child of the servant caste expects to be in others’ power, and expects that some of his masters will be corrupt. He seeks only to mitigate the worst effects of that corruption so that he can survive. But a Gatherer destroys corruption — and the power that causes it, if he must. If that way lies peace. That is what I mean, Acolyte Nijiri. You accommodated, where you should have rebelled.”
And belatedly, guiltily, Nijiri realized Rabbaneh and the Superior were right. A Gatherer does not seek help, he had told himself at the time — and so he had not, thinking himself stronger for handling the matter on his own. Thinking of himself, when he should have held his fellow acolytes’ peace foremost in his mind. Of course Omin would do evil again; Omin was corrupt. There was no taming something like that.
Better to have brought the matter to the Superior and Gatherers, and damn his pride. Better even to kill Omin, with his hands if not narcomancy, and then submit himself for the Gatherers’ judgment. Any action was better than complacency while corruption festered and grew.
He knelt then, putting his hands and forehead on the floor to show the depth of his contrition. “Your pardon, Gatherer,” he murmured against the stone, glad now that Ehiru was not present. Sonta-i still loomed over him, but that was right. How had he ever imagined himself ready to be a Gatherer? “I was wrong. I should never have… I should’ve done more. May Her peace ease my soul — I should have thought.”
A moment of appropriate silence passed.
“Well,” said Rabbaneh, with a sigh. “I suppose that will do. Sonta-i?”
Sonta-i took hold of Nijiri’s arm, pulling him back to his feet. As Nijiri blinked in surprise, Sonta-i narrowed his eyes again. “He’s still hiding something.”
“Boys his age will have their secrets, pathbrother. Even we are permitted a few of those.”
With a soft sigh that was not — quite, Nijiri thought — disappointed, Sonta-i released him. “Very well; I agree.”
“And we know Ehiru’s feeling on the matter.” Rabbaneh clasped his hands behind his back and glanced at the Superior with a questioning lift of his eyebrows.
“He meant well, I suppose,” the Superior said, nodding, though Nijiri heard a hint of reluctance in his voice. “And peace was achieved among the acolytes, if by unorthodox means, and if only temporarily.”
“He’s still young.” Rabbaneh shrugged, his smile returning at last. “If we had nothing to teach him, what need would he have of us?”
“What, Gatherer?” Nijiri had begun to feel very stupid.
At this, even the Superior looked amused. “A necessary final test, Nijiri. There is peace in submission, but sometimes greater peace — lasting peace — in resistance. We needed to know that you understood this.” He shrugged. “There are many paths to peace.”
“We shall simply have to teach you to think farther ahead on that path, Apprentice,” Rabbaneh added, smiling again.
Apprentice. Apprentice. Nijiri stood there, trembling; he barely noticed when Sonta-i shrugged as if losing interest and stalked away, returning to the Superior’s side. Apprentice!
He wanted very much to leap into the air and shout, which would have been not only a mistake, but an offense to Hananja, here in Her hall. So instead he stammered, trembling for a moment with the effort to control his joy, “You honor me, Gatherers, to bring — to consider — ” He couldn’t think enough to form words.
“Yes, yes.” The Superior glanced at the Hall’s narrow, prism-glass windows, beyond which the sun’s light still marked the western sky. The Dreamer had not yet risen. When it did, the Hall would fill with its silvered light, refracted further still by the windows into shifting, layered colors. That would help the moontear vines, which would not otherwise bloom indoors. “Please rise; we still have your oathtaking ceremony to complete, and then the Gatherers’ dedication. And there’s an additional matter we need to discuss.”
Nijiri swallowed and nodded, feeling quite as though he could deal with anything now. He struggled not to grin like a fool. “Y-yes. What matter, Superior?”
“Ehiru,” said the Superior. “You may have noticed his absence.” The Superior’s grim air — and its sudden, sober echo on Rabbaneh’s face — abruptly made Nijiri realize that Ehiru was not just away on Gatherer business.
“He is indisposed,” Sonta-i said, “because two nights previous to this, he mishandled a Gathering. The umblikeh was severed before the tithebearer could be pulled from the shadowlands; the soul was lost in the realms between waking and dreaming. What dreamblood could be Gathered was too tainted with fear and pain to be given to the Sharers for distribution.”
Nijiri inhaled, stricken. No Gatherer had mishandled a soul in his lifetime. It happened, and everyone knew it; Gatherers were fallible mortal men, not gods. But for Ehiru, who had never failed to carry a soul to peace, to falter now — Nijiri licked his lips. “And the Gatherer?” He cannot have chosen to end his service, not yet. The whole city would be in mourning if he had. They would not be talking to me of him if he had.
Sonta-i shook his head, and Nijiri’s belly tightened. But then he added, “Ehiru has chosen to seclude himself so that he may pray and seek peace. We believe he will choose to remain among us, for now, but…” He sighed, looking abruptly weary. “Well. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
Nijiri started. “My thoughts?”
“He was to have been your mentor,” said Rabbaneh. “He is, after all, the most experienced of us now that Una-une has gone into dreaming. An apprentice should learn from the best. But given Ehiru’s lapse…” He grimaced delicately, as if to apologize for his indelicate words. “So. Who is your choice to replace him? Sonta-i, or me?”
Relief spread through Nijiri — and with it came a curious sort of eagerness, not dissimilar from what he had felt in the sparring circle facing four Sentinels. Of this, if nothing else, he was certain. “If I was to be Ehiru’s, Gatherer, then I will stay Ehiru’s.”
Rabbaneh raised his eyebrows. “A Gatherer can take months, or years, to recover from such a lapse, Apprentice. If he recovers. For Ehiru in particular this incident has been a blow. He’s convinced that he is no longer worthy to be a Gatherer.” Rabbaneh sighed faintly. “We’re all prone to pride. But perhaps you should reconsider.”
Rabbaneh and Sonta-i were trying to do right by him, Nijiri reminded himself; they meant well. They did not understand that Nijiri had made his choice ten years before, on a humid afternoon thick with the stench of suffering. Ehiru had shown him the way to true peace that day. He had taught Nijiri the beauty of pain, and that love meant doing what was best for others. Whether they wanted it or not.
How could he not repay Ehiru for that revelation, now that the chance had finally come?
“I will be Ehiru’s,” he repeated, softly this time. “I’ll be whatever he needs, until the day he needs me no longer.”
And he would fight Hananja Herself, if he had to, to keep that day at bay.