The Least of Men, Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

“The greatest of men is worth less than your honor.” Bendaevi took up an unused wooden tent peg that lay near the edge of the canopy’s shadow. “It does not matter the man. Or the woman! It does not matter his caste. Nor his household. Nor his wealth. Your honor is worth more than all of it. And that is how you deal with other households. Every lesson you learn here will sharpen that saying in your heart, until you are a blade ready to strike any who would dishonor you.”

Badani frowned. “But you have told my father to lie to those who come from other patriarchs.”

The dark-bearded man tilted his head. “If you insist on calling it a lie, yes, I have advised your father so.” He began pacing out the border of shadow, tossing the tent peg back and forth in his hand. “Did your tutor ever teach you about paranai?

Badani nodded. “Tutor Isboset taught me how to recognize them.”

“What did he say?”

The boy reveled in his recitation, “Every stranger to us must be weighed. If he is too light, he is paranai and must be killed.”

“And why would we kill a man, simply because he does not weigh enough?”

“When Garethen twists a not-man into a paranai, he does it by hollowing him out. A paranai is empty inside and always hungers. That is why they are Garethen’s assassins. They devour those whom they wish to kill.” Badani paused a moment before asking, “Advisor Bendaevi, why are we talking about paranai?”

Bendaevi held up a single finger while his other hand continued fidgeting with the tent peg. “But what if a paranai has recently feasted? Would we then know that the visitor was Gareth-spawn?”

Badani considered. “He would become known by the morning meal, because he would eat far more than is proper.”

“So what do we do until the first morning meal of the stay of any honored guest?”

“We keep all visitors separate and under guard, though we continue to show them all respect.”

“And that is how you are to treat every member of another household, even if they have sojourned with you a month. Always keep them as far from you as the sun is from the sea. Treat them as if you suspect they are paranai, for just as the assassin, they intend to chop you up and eat you. They will simply be kinder to you as you die. You must be wiser than your enemy, and at times that means turning aside a full truth.” Bendaevi tossed the tent peg onto the sandy ground and turned to face Badani straight on. “Do you trust me?”

Badani did not think about his response. “No.”

Bendaevi slapped him. “Your words say one thing, but your actions another. Never let them conflict. When your words and actions do not agree, you lie. Now, tell me again, do you trust me?”

Badani reached up to touch his stinging cheek. His voice trembled as he answered, “No.”

Bendaevi’s open palm struck him again, harder. “Let me try one more time. Do you trust me?”

Badani glared at the advisor before finally spoke a tenacious, “No.”

The advisor used a fist this time. “If you did not trust me, you would never give me that knowledge. You would know you would not be safe to even admit that you did not trust me. If you ever tell someone you do not trust them, your words and actions conflict, and you lie. And it is never honorable to lie. Now, tell me, do you trust me?” He curled his fingers into a fist, awaiting Badani’s answer.

The boy locked his eyes on the dangerous hand and considered his answers. He decided to accept the lesson. “Yes, I trust you.”

Bendaevi’s other hand struck him. “Once you have said something, never contradict it unless you have a reason you can share with all others. Contradiction is a lie, and lies are dishonorable. Never change your mind in the presence of someone from another house. Or of a lower caste, such as myself.”

Badani growled through tears, “What should I say?”

“You answer with honor. I am not worth your dishonor. Nothing is worth dishonor. Tell me that the question is not important, for it is not for a patriarch to trust a servant of water, but for the servant to trust his master.” Bendaevi resumed his pacing, once again snatching up the tent peg. “The sun does not trust the sand to give heat, but the sand trusts that the sun will warm it.”

The boy resettled himself, his mind grinding at the lesson. “Tutor Isboset teaches that half the sun is worth less than the moon. Half a truth is less than a lie.”

Bendaevi nodded. “When you are dealing with your own household, yes. When you are dealing with another, you speak the truth with honor, but with a different wisdom.”

“Why?”

Bendaevi stopped his circuit, lowering his head. “Other households…” He sighed. “Other households do not know honor as we do. Your father has an honor that I have never seen in another household. Prince, I intend to teach you how to deal with others and still go to sleep in your hammock knowing that you pursued the light, no matter how difficult. Sometimes that means you must be wise and speak portions of truth. Sometimes that means you must be wise and speak all the truth.” The advisor searched his charge’s face. “I want you to succeed in a cruel world, Prince Badani. And for that your view of honor must not be that of the stories, but that of the sands. The tales Tutor Isboset has taught you will serve you well as you work within your own household.” Bendaevi glanced around at the horizon. “Come.” He dropped the tent peg and marched into the sand, away from the encampment.

Badani tripped over himself in his rush to stand and follow. The two trudged over the fine sands near the encampment until they topped a rise and looked beyond into a valley of cracked clay. Below, a servant of dirt struggled feebly against rough rope binding his wrists. The ropes were fastened to a tent peg pounded into the hard clay floor of the valley.

Bendaevi gestured. “What did this man do?”

“He ran away.”

“You saw the weight your father strained under as he pronounced your judgment. What do you think now, as you see him suffering?”

Overhead, carrion birds circled.

“I would rather repay his returning than punishing his leaving.”

Bendaevi nodded. “I wish, like you, we could. Yet, your father has spoken. We must allow this man to stay here until his family is grieved.”

Someone behind the pair cleared his throat. They turned to see Tutor Isboset standing in the sand, sweat pouring from his white-haired head. “My prince, it is time for us to rest.”

Below, the servant of earth fell to the ground. He sat up on the hot clay and panted.

Bendaevi answered, “Tutor Isboset, a wise man never interrupts a teacher, or so a wise man himself once told me.”

Isboset scowled at the younger man.

Badani looked to the advisor. He searched for words. “It is honorable to follow what our fathers have said, though it is painful.”

Bendaevi nodded. “Understand this, then, prince. If we treated those outside our households as we treat those within, we would ever be at war. Honor commands us to punish those who insult us. However, if a servant of earth from another household insulted us, we could not exert honor on them. Not in the same way, or that patriarch might take offense, and the two households would battle. Instead, the insulted patriarch faces a choice: He can either return the servant and explain what had happened, hoping the other household would punish him appropriately. Or he can simply keep the servant as a guest, so he could not return to face what honor demands.”

“Why would anyone keep another from what honor demanded?”

Badani awaited an answer to his question, but Bendaevi did not answer it. The boy turned to his tutor, but Isboset remained silent.

Finally Bendaevi answered, “If your father returned me to the household I grew in, I would surely be dead. Your father condemned me to keep me from what honor demands and allowed me to live. It is a strange thing, honor. It causes a stranger to live against his will, and those closest to you…” He gestured to the servant of earth below, as the carrion birds descended ever closer, ever closer.

Part 3 will be posted next Tuesday.

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