Final Words

Sun­light en­riched air already al­ive with cu­ri­os­ity, as dawn rose on Bren­nan and his fel­low stu­dents in the place to which Jeffreys­sai had sum­moned them.

They sat there and waited, the five, at the top of the great glassy crag that was some­times called Mount Mir­ror, and more of­ten sim­ply left un­named. The high top and peak of the moun­tain, from which you could see all the lands be­low and seas be­yond.

(Well, not all the lands be­low, nor seas be­yond. So far as any­one knew, there was no place in the world from which all the world was visi­ble; nor, equiv­a­lently, any kind of vi­sion that would see through all ob­sta­cle-hori­zons. In the end it was the top only of one par­tic­u­lar moun­tain: there were other peaks, and from their tops you would see other lands be­low; even though, in the end, it was all a sin­gle world.)

“What do you think comes next?” said Hiriwa. Her eyes were bright, and she gazed to the far hori­zons like a lord.

Taji shrugged, though his own eyes were al­ive with an­ti­ci­pa­tion. “Jeffreys­sai’s last les­son doesn’t have any ob­vi­ous se­quel that I can think of. In fact, I think we’ve learned just about ev­ery­thing that I knew the beisut­sukai mas­ters know. What’s left, then—”

“Are the real se­crets,” Yin com­pleted the thought.

Hiriwa and Taji and Yin shared a grin, among them­selves.

Styr­lyn wasn’t smil­ing. Bren­nan sus­pected rather strongly that Styr­lyn was older than he had ad­mit­ted.

Bren­nan wasn’t smil­ing ei­ther. He might be young, but he kept high com­pany, and had wit­nesssed some of what went on be­hind the cur­tains of the world. Se­crets had their price, always, that was the bar­rier that made them se­crets; and Bren­nan thought he had a good idea of what this price might be.

There was a cough from be­hind them, at a mo­ment when they had all hap­pened to be look­ing in any other di­rec­tion but that one.

As one, their heads turned.

Jeffreys­sai stood there, in a ca­sual robe that looked more like glass than any proper sort of mir­ror­weave.

Jeffreys­sai stood there and looked at them, a strange abid­ing sor­row in those in­scrutable eyes.

“Sen...sei,” Taji started, fal­ter­ing as that bright an­ti­ci­pa­tion stum­bled over Jeffreys­sai’s re­turn look. “What’s next?”

“Noth­ing,” Jeffreys­sai said abruptly. “You’re finished. It’s done.”

Hiriwa, Taji, and Yin all blinked, a perfect syn­chro­nized ges­ture of shock. Then, be­fore their ex­pres­sions could turn to out­rage and ob­jec­tions -

“Don’t,” Jeffreys­sai said. There was real pain in it. “Believe me, it hurts me more than it hurts you.” He might have been look­ing at them; or at some­thing far away, or long ago. “I don’t know ex­actly what roads may lie be­fore you—but yes, I know that you’re not ready. That I’m send­ing you out un­pre­pared. That ev­ery­thing I taught you is in­com­plete. I know that what I said is not what you heard. That I left out the one most im­por­tant thing. That the rhythm at the cen­ter of ev­ery­thing is miss­ing and astray. I know that you will harm your­self in the course of try­ing to use what I taught. So that I, per­son­ally, will have shaped, in some fash­ion un­known to me, the very knife that will cut you...”

″...that’s the hell of be­ing a teacher, you see,” Jeffreys­sai said. Some­thing grim flick­ered in his ex­pres­sion. “Nonethe­less, you’re done. Finished, for now. What lies be­tween you and mas­tery is not an­other class­room. We are for­tu­nate, or per­haps not for­tu­nate, that the road to power does not wend only through lec­ture halls. Else the quest would be bor­ing to the bit­ter end. Still, I can­not teach you; and so it is a moot point whether I would if I could. There is no mas­ter here whose art is en­tirely in­her­ited. Even the beisut­sukai have never dis­cov­ered how to teach cer­tain things; it is pos­si­ble that such an event has been pro­hibited. And so you can only ar­rive at mas­tery by us­ing to the ful­lest the tech­niques you have already learned, fac­ing challenges and ap­pre­hend­ing them, mas­ter­ing the tools you have been taught un­til they shat­ter in your hands—

Jeffreys­sai’s eyes were hard, as though steeled in ac­cep­tance of un­wel­come news.

“—and you are left in the midst of wreck­age ab­solute. That is where I, your teacher, am send­ing you. You are not beisut­sukai mas­ters. I can­not cre­ate mas­ters. I have never known how to cre­ate mas­ters. Go forth, then, and fail.”

“But—” said Yin, and stopped her­self.

“Speak,” said Jeffreys­sai.

“But then why,” she said, “why teach us any­thing in the first place?”

Bren­nan’s eye­lids flick­ered some tiny amount.

It was enough for Jeffreys­sai. “An­swer her, Bren­nan, if you think you know.”

“Be­cause,” Bren­nan said, “if we were not taught, there would be no chance at all of our be­com­ing mas­ters.”

“Even so,” said Jeffreys­sai. “If you were not taught—then when you failed, you might sim­ply think you had reached the limits of Rea­son it­self. You would be dis­cour­aged and bit­ter within your dis­aster. You might not even re­al­ize when you had failed. No; you have been shaped into some­thing that may emerge from the wreck­age, de­ter­mined to re­make your Art. And then you may re­mem­ber much that will help you. I can­not cre­ate mas­ters, but if you had not been taught, your chances would be—less.” His gaze passed over the group. “It should be ob­vi­ous, but un­der­stand that you can­not pro­voke the mo­ment of your crisis ar­tifi­cially. To teach you some­thing, the catas­tro­phe must come to you as a sur­prise. You must go as far as you can, as best you can, and fail hon­estly. The higher road be­gins af­ter the Art seems to fail you; though the re­al­ity will be that it was you who failed your Art.”

Bren­nan made the ges­ture with his hand that in­di­cated a ques­tion; and Jeffreys­sai nod­ded in re­ply.

“Is this the only way in which Bayesian mas­ters come to be, sen­sei?”

“I do not know,” said Jeffreys­sai, from which the over­all state of the ev­i­dence was ob­vi­ous enough. “But I doubt there would ever be a road to mas­tery that goes only through the monastery. We are the heirs in this world of mys­tics as well as sci­en­tists, just as the Com­pet­i­tive Con­spir­acy in­her­its from chess­play­ers alongside cagefighters. We have turned our im­pulses to more con­struc­tive uses—but we must still stay on our guard against old failure modes.”

Jeffreys­sai took a breath. “Three flaws above all are com­mon among the beisut­sukai. The first flaw is to look just the slight­est bit harder for flaws in ar­gu­ments whose con­clu­sions you would rather not ac­cept. If you can­not con­tain this as­pect of your­self then ev­ery flaw you know how to de­tect will make you that much stupi­der. This is the challenge which de­ter­mines whether you pos­sess the art or its op­po­site: In­tel­li­gence, to be use­ful, must be used for some­thing other than defeat­ing it­self.”

“The sec­ond flaw is clev­er­ness. To in­vent great com­pli­cated plans and great com­pli­cated the­o­ries and great com­pli­cated ar­gu­ments—or even, per­haps, plans and the­o­ries and ar­gu­ments which are com­mended too much by their el­e­gance and too lit­tle by their re­al­ism. There is a wide­spread say­ing which runs: ‘The vuln­er­a­bil­ity of the beisut­sukai is well-known; they are prone to be too clever.’ Your en­e­mies will know this say­ing, if they know you for a beisut­sukai, so you had best re­mem­ber it also. And you may think to your­self: ‘But if I could never try any­thing clever or el­e­gant, would my life even be worth liv­ing?’ This is why clev­er­ness is still our chief vuln­er­a­bil­ity even af­ter its be­ing well-known, like offer­ing a Com­peti­tor a challenge that seems fair, or tempt­ing a Bard with drama.”

“The third flaw is un­der­con­fi­dence, though it will seem to you like mod­esty or hu­mil­ity. You have learned so many flaws in your own na­ture, some of them im­pos­si­ble to fix, that you may think that the rule of wis­dom is to con­fess your own in­abil­ity. You may ques­tion your­self, with­out re­s­olu­tion or test­ing to de­ter­mine the self-an­swers. You may re­fuse to de­cide, pend­ing fur­ther ev­i­dence, when a quick de­ci­sion is nec­es­sary. You may take ad­vice you should not take. Jaded cyn­i­cism and sage de­spair are less fash­ion­able than once they were, but you may still be tempted by them. Or you may sim­ply—lose mo­men­tum.”

Jeffreys­sai fell silent then.

He looked from each of them, one to the other, with quiet in­ten­sity.

And said at last, “Those are my fi­nal words to you. If and when we meet next, you and I—if and when you re­turn to this place, Bren­nan, or Hiriwa, or Taji, or Yin, or Styr­lyn—I will no longer be your teacher.”

And Jeffreys­sai turned and walked swiftly away, head­ing back to­ward the glassy tun­nel that had emit­ted him.

Even Bren­nan was shocked. For a mo­ment they were all speech­less.

Then -

“Wait!” cried Hiriwa. “What about our fi­nal words to you? I never said—”

“I will tell you what my sen­sei told me,” Jeffreys­sai’s voice came back as he dis­ap­peared. “You can thank me af­ter you re­turn, if you re­turn. One of you at least seems likely to come back.”

“No, wait, I—” Hiriwa fell silent. In the mir­rored tun­nel, the frac­tured re­flec­tions of Jeffreys­sai were already fad­ing. She shook her head. “Never… mind, then.”

There was a brief, un­com­fortable silence, as the five of them looked at each other.

“Good heav­ens,” Taji said fi­nally. “Even the Bardic Con­spir­acy wouldn’t try for that much drama.”

Yin sud­denly laughed. “Oh, this was noth­ing. You should have seen my send-off when I left Di­a­mond Sea Univer­sity.” She smiled. “I’ll tell you about it some­time—if you’re in­ter­ested.”

Taji coughed. “I sup­pose I should go back and… pack my things...”

“I’m already packed,” Bren­nan said. He smiled, ever so slightly, when the other three turned to look at him.

“Really?” Taji asked. “What was the clue?”

Bren­nan shrugged with art­ful care­less­ness. “Beyond a cer­tain point, it is fu­tile to in­quire how a beisut­sukai mas­ter knows a thing—”

“Come off it!” Yin said. “You’re not a beisut­sukai mas­ter yet.

“Nei­ther is Styr­lyn,” Bren­nan said. “But he has already packed as well.” He made it a state­ment rather than a ques­tion, bet­ting dou­ble or noth­ing on his image of in­scrutable fore­knowl­edge.

Styr­lyn cleared his throat. “As you say. Other com­mit­ments call me, and I have already tar­ried longer than I planned. Though, Bren­nan, I do feel that you and I have cer­tain mu­tual in­ter­ests, which I would be happy to dis­cuss with you—”

“Styr­lyn, my most ex­cel­lent friend, I shall be happy to speak with you on any topic you de­sire,” Bren­nan said po­litely and non­com­mi­tally, “if we should meet again.” As in, not now. He cer­tainly wasn’t sel­l­ing out his Mistress this early in their re­la­tion­ship.

There was an ex­change of good­byes, and of hints and offers.

And then Bren­nan was walk­ing down the road that led to­ward or away from Mount Mir­ror (for ev­ery road is a two-edged sword), the glassy peb­bles click­ing un­der his feet.

He strode out along the path with pur­pose, vi­gor, and de­ter­mi­na­tion, just in case some­one was watch­ing.

Some time later he stopped, stepped off the path, and moved just far enough away to pre­vent any­one from find­ing him un­less they were de­liber­ately fol­low­ing.

Then Bren­nan sagged back against a tree-trunk. It was a sparse clear­ing, with only a few trees pok­ing out of the ground; not much pre­sent in the way of dis­tract­ing scenery, un­less you counted the red-tinted stream flow­ing out of a dark cave-mouth. And Bren­nan de­liber­ately faced away from that, leav­ing only the far grey of the hori­zons, and the blue sky and bright sun.

Now what?

He had thought that the Bayesian Con­spir­acy, of all the pos­si­ble train­ings that ex­isted in this world, would have cleared up his un­cer­tainty about what to do with the rest of his life.

Power, he’d sought at first. Strength to pre­vent a rep­e­ti­tion of the past. “If you don’t know what you need, take power”—so went the proverb. He had gone first to the Com­pet­i­tive Con­spir­acy, then to the beisut­sukai.

And now...

Now he felt more lost than ever.

He could think of things that made him happy, but noth­ing that he re­ally wanted.

The pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity that he’d come to as­so­ci­ate with his Mistress, or with Jeffreys­sai, or the other figures of power that he’d met… a life of pur­su­ing small plea­sures seemed to pale in com­par­i­son, next to that.

In a city not far from the cen­ter of the world, his Mistress waited for him (in all prob­a­bil­ity, as­sum­ing she hadn’t got­ten bored with her life and run away). But to merely re­turn, and then drift aim­lessly, wait­ing to fall into some­one else’s web of in­trigue… no. That didn’t seem like enough.

Bren­nan plucked a blade of grass from the ground and stared at it, half-un­con­sciously look­ing for any­thing in­ter­est­ing about it; an old, old game that his very first teacher had taught him, what now seemed like ages ago.

Why did I be­lieve that go­ing to Mount Mir­ror would tell me what I wanted?

Well, de­ci­sion the­ory did re­quire that your util­ity func­tion be con­sis­tent, but...

If the beisut­sukai knew what I wanted, would they even tell me?

At Mount Mir­ror they taught doubt. So now he was fal­ling prey to the third be­set­ting sin of which Jeffreys­sai had spo­ken, lost mo­men­tum, for he had learned to ques­tion the image that he held of him­self in his mind.

Are you seek­ing power be­cause that is your true de­sire, Bren­nan?

Or be­cause you have a pic­ture in your mind, of the role that you play as an am­bi­tious young man, and you think it is what some­one play­ing your role would do?

Al­most ev­ery­thing he’d done up un­til now, even go­ing to Mount Mir­ror, had prob­a­bly been the lat­ter.

And when he blanked out the old thoughts and tried to see the prob­lem as though for the first time...

...noth­ing much came to mind.

What do I want?

Maybe it wasn’t rea­son­able to ex­pect the beisut­sukai to tell him out­right. But was there any­thing they had taught him by which he might an­swer?

Bren­nan closed his eyes and thought.

First, sup­pose there is some­thing I would pas­sion­ately de­sire. Why would I not know what it is?

Be­cause I have not yet en­coun­tered it, or ever imag­ined it?

Or be­cause there is some rea­son I would not ad­mit it to my­self?

Bren­nan laughed out loud, then, and opened his eyes.

So sim­ple, once you thought of it that way. So ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect. That was what they called a silver-shoes mo­ment, and yet, if he hadn’t gone to Mount Mir­ror, it wouldn’t ever have oc­curred to him.

Of course there was some­thing he wanted. He knew ex­actly what he wanted. Wanted so des­per­ately he could taste it like an sharp tinge on his tongue.

It just hadn’t come to mind ear­lier, be­cause… if he ac­knowl­edged his de­sire ex­plic­itly… then he also had to see that it was difficult. High, high, above him. Far out of his reach. “Im­pos­si­ble” was the word that came to mind, though it was not, of course, phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble.

But once he asked him­self if he preferred to wan­der aim­lessly through his life—once it was put that way, the an­swer be­came ob­vi­ous. Pur­su­ing the unattain­able would make for a hard life, but not a sad one. He could think of things that made him happy, ei­ther way. And in the end—it was what he wanted.

Bren­nan stood up, and took his first steps, in the ex­act di­rec­tion of Shir L’or, the city that lies in the cen­ter of the world. He had a plot to hatch, and he did not know who would be part of it.

And then Bren­nan al­most stum­bled, when he re­al­ized that Jeffreys­sai had already known.

One of you at least seems likely to come back...

Bren­nan had thought he was talk­ing about Taji. Taji had prob­a­bly thought he was talk­ing about Taji. It was what Taji said he wanted. But how re­li­able of an in­di­ca­tor was that, re­ally?

There was a proverb about that very road he had just left: Who­ever sets out from Mount Mir­ror seek­ing the im­pos­si­ble, will surely re­turn.

When you con­sid­ered Jeffreys­sai’s last warn­ing—and that the proverb said noth­ing of suc­ceed­ing at the im­pos­si­ble task it­self—it was a less op­ti­mistic say­ing than it sounded.

Bren­nan shook his head won­der­ingly. How could Jeffreys­sai pos­si­bly have known be­fore Bren­nan knew him­self?

Well, be­yond a cer­tain point, it is fu­tile to in­quire how a beisut­sukai mas­ter knows a thing -

Bren­nan halted in mid-thought.

No.

No, if he was go­ing to be­come a beisut­sukai mas­ter him­self some­day, then he ought to figure it out.

It was, Bren­nan re­al­ized, a stupid proverb.

So he walked, and this time, he thought about it care­fully.

As the sun was set­ting, red-golden, shad­ing his foot­steps in light.