The Least of Men, Part 6

Read previous parts here:
1
2
3
4
5

“It does not matter if you are the least of men or the greatest of men; what matters is that you are a man.” Arai sat on the crest of a sand dune, legs crossed, arms resting on his knees. His silk clothes waved in the breeze.

Badani rocked from foot to foot searching for some shadow to stand in.

Arai smiled. “I’m sorry. When we train in the sand pits to become sword dancers, one of the first things we learn is to ignore the pain of the sun.”

“I thought you were going to teach me to use swords,” Badani grumbled.

“Before you learn the dance, you must learn discipline. And before you learn discipline, you must learn…” Arai frowned. “Well, I guess I never learned the wording of that lesson well.” He smiled. “But I never thought I’d be teaching it! It’s hard to pay attention to a master when the only thing you can think of is the pain on your feet!” He barked a laugh.

Badani continued moving from foot to foot.

Arai sighed. “Stop wrinkling your nose. Listen, this is what it comes down to: A sword dancer has to learn how to channel pain into something more useful. While you’re in battle, if pain distracts you, you die. And rather than put you in a situation where you could actually die while learning that lesson, like fighting a goblin, you learn it here.”

The prince panted, “And what am I supposed to be channeling this pain to?” At least talking distracted him a little.

“You’re already doing it.” Arai pointed. “See how you keep moving your feet? That’s good. You’re dancing. You’re not dancing well, of course. But you’re just starting.”

“Can I stop?”

“Hm.” The sword dancer glanced up at the sun. “The rule back at the sand pits was that every time a student asked that question, it would add an hour to their task.” He considered. “But we’re not at the sand pits. And I’m hardly a good teacher. And I don’t like sitting in the sun.” He stood. “All right. Back to the canopy. Get moving.”

Badani limp-sprinted to a stretch of shade cast by an open-air tent. He collapsed onto the fabric thrown over the ground. He closed his eyes, hands attempting to comfort his burning feet.

Arai strode under the shadow and smiled down at him. “Anyway, what I was saying. A sword dancer doesn’t care about how honorable a man is. Whether he’s a patriarch or a slave. What matters is that he is a man.” He lifted a clay jug. “Here, put your feet over the sand there.” As Badani complied, he poured some water over the boy’s feet.

The prince groaned in pleasure at the cooling moisture. After a moment, he asked, “Bendaevi keeps telling me I must be a great man. But it doesn’t matter?”

“Oh, it matters. There must be patriarchs and slaves, and they must obey the rules of the castes. Without that, the Patriarch of Lies would certainly sweep over Parvia and beyond to the green lands. I trust Bendaevi teaches you well. But to a sword dancer, none of that matters.”

“Why not?”

Arai set down the jug and considered. “If I were a teacher, I’d have something wise to tell you. I can’t remember the saying. Those things never mattered. I just wanted to fight.” He smiled. “Like someone else I met recently. What it comes down to is this: a sword dancer, if he is to search out not-men and slay them, must be able to look beyond things like the castes. We must remain outside, so that we can do our duty.”

Badani frowned.

“Stop wrinkling your forehead. Here. Let’s imagine that your father has become a not-man.”

“No!” Badani’s shout startled a nearby servant of earth as she carried a large jar of water on her shoulder.

Arai held out a hand. “No, no. I am not making an accusation. I am asking for an exercise of your head. Let’s imagine, and only imagine, that the Patriarch of Lies has bewitched your father. He has handed over his soul and is ready to have his form twisted by Garethen himself, perhaps to become a paranai. To that end, he has moved your encampment closer and closer to Sin Durai. No one knows his plans, and in fact no one notices how close you are to danger. And who would accuse a patriarch of such a thing as becoming a not-man?”

Badani scowled. “I would stand up to him, but he’d never do that! My father is honorable!”

“I have no doubt, young prince. But that is just the problem. Who would ever accuse a patriarch? There must be someone who can. And that is one of the tasks of the sword dancers. It is a task I take very seriously.” Arai seated himself near Badani. “And for that reason, we can’t pay attention to things like who is patriarch and who is a servant of earth. We must only pay attention to who is a man… and who is a not-man.”

The boy considered the words.

The silence stretched between the two of them. The breeze gave up its breath, and the still heat pressed in on them. The servant of earth passed by once, twice more, carrying water to the patriarch’s tent.

Arai asked, “So, what’s next?”

Badani blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you need to learn to ignore pain. That means a lot more time out on the burning sand. Tomorrow we’ll arrive at your oasis, though. You will have duties to pursue. If you want, you’ll have the opportunity to ignore my tutelage. I’m sure Advisor Bendaevi will have things for you to do. And your father will require you more when we arrive. So, what’s next? Will you ignore discipline and chase after what a patriarch should do, or do you want my training?”

The prince furrowed his brow. “My father has said that you will tutor me. You will continue to tutor me.”

“And if I should choose to continue on my way? If I decide my dance takes me elsewhere?” He chuckled to himself. He lowered his voice and recited, “If the music calls from another piper, the dancer must answer!” He barked another laugh.

“Why do you do that?”

“Do what?” Arai awaited the answer with a bemused look.

“Laugh.”

“We live in a place where honor is all that matters. Garethen always threatens our lives. One wrong move this way and he’ll gobble us up. One wrong step that way and the other patriarchs will swoop in and take us away. When stresses like that press in on every side, the only way to find room to breathe is to laugh.” Arai laughed again. “And that’s not wisdom from the sand pits. That’s just me!”

“Do you ever get into trouble for laughing?”

“I did. Once.” The grin faded from the sword dancer’s face. “But that is why I am a dancer now.”

Badani ventured, “Will you stay?”

“Do you want me to stay, me with my fumbling teaching and the pain it brings?” Arai gestured to the prince’s sore feet.

“I lost my tutor. I wish to kill the man who teaches me in the mornings. You can teach me to do that. And… and I trust you. No one laughs like you. I like the sound of it.”

“I will stay if you promise me this, young prince.”

“What?”

“If you will dance, you must dance only to slay not-men. It does not matter what Advisor Bendaevi has done, as long as he has not handed his soul over to the Patriarch of Lies. Men do many evils to one another, it is true. But until they hand over their soul, they are still men. And that is what matters.” Arai searched Badani’s face. “Do you swear to slay only not-men?”

Badani did not answer for a long time.

“Prince Badani, these are my terms. Otherwise, I fear the music shall take my dance elsewhere.”

The servant of earth bore her load past again.

“I will never dance to slay any but a not-man. I swear it, on the water of every oasis.”

“I feel the music urges me to stay here, young Badani. I think, perhaps, I shall teach you to dance after all.” Arai offered a lopsided grin. “And perhaps, despite my poor teaching, you shall learn.”

Read part 7 here.

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