Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from some of my short stories, novellas, and novels in progress. In this one, we’re going prequel. This is a short story that’s threatening to turn itself into a novella, exploring how one of my most important main characters met the teacher who had the greatest influence on him. That teacher also happened to have written a little book that has shaped a civilization for 16,000 years. What I discovered when I started writing about it was that the book very nearly never got written at all.
They pestered him, Jiiren Naaltoba’s current and former students, so relentless about it that after months of coordinated remarks, he decided there must be a conspiracy. He never determined who began it. Others over the decades had, occasionally, mentioned to him the desirability or wisdom of putting his teachings into a manuscript, but never more than a few in a given year.
Then, in the course of a single week, he heard from his past student Yriit Samoven, now responsible for the training of kaataani at the Academy at Haalaat, saying how nice it would be to have a manual students could refer to; and Iisren Aalanvo, who manufactured a chance meeting in the dining hall to thank him for the training that had produced his exquisitely-skilled kaataan, and incidentally, would Jiiren please glance over the text he had just finished on certain tactical aspects for kaataan-soraan pairs, and add whatever might be missing? He would. He did, and came to the conclusion that parts had been deliberately designed to provoke him.
Over the following months, former students accosted him at odd moments to reminisce about their years training with him and lament the fact they had failed to note some things down. Current students took to haranguing him. “Write it down, old man!” they shouted, and variations thereof, when he said something they considered particularly pithy. When he declined, they made a great show of doing so themselves, until he changed their training to such an extent that their hands were never empty of swords when he spoke to them. They laughed at him for it.
All through winter and into spring, he endured subtle and less-so suggestions that he should write. Sometimes, he tried to explain that the warrior’s art was not one that could be taught in pages. And no, he never would write his memoirs. That would just leave ground for curious laymen and historians to plough.
On his last day with that cohort, with the lasaa trees dropping their petals in pale purple blizzards all over the senonsai, his students interrupted their own advancement ceremony to present him, with mock seriousness, a sheaf of mismatched papers tied together with a string. As he did not want to write his own book, they had spared him the trouble. They must have collected those scraps all year. He saw his own words stare back at him, on bits of all colors and inks, written in a dozen hands, in an order so out of order that they must have shuffled the pages thoroughly before stabbing a blade through one corner and tying it all up with an ancient length of frayed string.
“I thought I had taught you better tactics than this,” he said. “I may have to request another year with you.”
They laughed at him again. So, this time, did the friends, family and instructors watching from the balconies and the colonnade. He would later swear that the gale of laughter shook the last of the petals from the trees, where they were later crushed into the training ground’s matting during an impromptu sparring session and left it smelling as if several bottles of scent had been spilled.
Later, after food, drink and celebration, they scattered to their new lives with their war-trained soraani. Some of those pairs would find themselves on battlefields almost immediately. Some would not return. Some would, and that justified everything he had put them through. Perhaps it would forgive what they had just put him through.
He took the sheaf to Ishaarda Telsuun’s office, and dropped it on her desk. It made a sloppy sound. “See what they have done.”
She put aside her own work and turned random pages. “They listened. How appalling.”
A tiny bird landed on the ledge of her open window and began laughing at him. On the other side of him, one of the atrocious Outland relics she salted her shelves with as a means to test her students’ distractibility seemed to do the same. And while her face remained expressionless, her ice-blue eyes joined their chorus. Naaltoba took the sheaf back from her. “They failed to listen when I told them I would never write a book.”
“Students develop excellent selective listening skills.” Ishaarda crossed her hands on the bare expanse of polished black wood that had just held his students’ goad. She looked up at him, and now her eyes stopped laughing. They bored into him like paired blades. She always had used her eyes like weapons. Sometimes, she stabbed with them, sometimes merely threatened; this time, she leaned into them and drove them slowly home. “Will you listen?”
“What is there to listen to?” He shook the sheaf. The bird stopped chuckling and fled. “These are skills that can be shown, they can be practiced, they can be learned by repetition. They can be lived. But they can hardly be pinned to a page. What use would a book be?”
“Judging from what your students did, you used words as you taught them.” She inserted a pause, calibrated for emphasis, just long enough for him to open his mouth and not long enough for him to protest. “Why did you speak if words are so useless?”
He closed his mouth. She waited. Finally, he said, “Words and actions together are different than words alone.”
“So draw diagrams.” She rose as he snorted, planted her hands on her desk with her palms flat, and leaned toward him. “What is that winter white in your hair, Jiiren? What are those lines in your face? What do those mean?”
He could have said something cruel: that I am older than you can ever hope to be. He did not say it. It would not have hurt her, but she could have used it to hurt him.
“You are in your sunset years,” she said. “What do you have left? A decade, two? Perhaps three, if everything goes just right. Then you will be dead. Your students will eventually die, and then there will be nothing left of Naaltoba. They will not even have your words.”
He would have liked to deny most of that, but she left him no time for seeking flaws. She pointed to the swords he wore. “Others can teach skill with the blade, and some will think up clever tricks you never considered. Such techniques can only be transmitted by demonstration, not in a book. But there will always be those who can teach the techniques of war. I asked you to teach them its mind.”
She gave the sheaf in his hands the briefest of significant looks. He wished he had a defense against the truth. “Mind and technique are one,” he considered saying, but she would mention diagrams again. “Mind is more than words,” he said instead.
“That is why words stand for things other than themselves.” She very nearly smiled at him then, but she never had been arrogant in victory. She sat down instead and pulled her work back in front of her, as if nothing much of consequence had happened. “What are your plans for the summer?”
“Someone recently pointed out that I am in my sunset years,” he said. “There are many places I have never seen and things I have never done. The time has come for me to enjoy them before I have no time left.”
He turned and stalked out. He would have liked for his heels to pound on her stone floors, but her long, narrow reed rug meant they merely rattled. Everything laughed at him today.
Copyright 2015 by Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.