It was almost noon under a bright sky when I saw him climb onto the bridge over the Roi. If you have never come to Salinkari, you might not know that we are an island city—the river is never out of sight, and the bridges rarely. We have four, joining the heart of the town with the fisheries and farmsteads on its banks. I did not recognize him from behind, so I stopped at the foot of the bridge to look, although I was on my way to a tutoring session and ought not to have waited.
He had put on his best clothes for the occasion. The sight jarred me—should a man at peace with himself not be able to go quietly, without fanfare? And he climbed like a very young man, especially to have achieved so much. I watched him balance, arms outstretched, at the highest point of the bridge, in the center of the east branch of the river. Only when he glanced back toward the city, as though he wanted to see who might be looking, did I know him. And then he jumped. His body washed up on shore a few days later, and his parents buried him.
Later a neighbor told me that he had just won the Idrytic Phrase. His poem would be graven into the Noble Wall beneath the Perpetual Flame, and it would remain there forever. It was a great triumph, greater than most people will ever see. And if poetry was his only goal, then his choice made more sense—how can you exceed becoming a victor in the Idrytic Phrase? But it is strange for a son to reach his pinnacle while both parents still live. They probably thought that his children would be their greatest moment. He was their only child, and now the grandchildren will never come.
It is a hard thing, timing. Maybe he was wrong about his pinnacle, as his parents were wrong about theirs. A happy life is a difficult thing to achieve.
When I teach my students about the happy life, I always tell them a story. Of all the men born here in the mountains of the moons of Adrastos, one was the greatest—Soter, who is remembered in gold at the very heart of Machairia, the great city on Idrytis. Soter was a warrior in the Clouded Days, when civil war engulfed Idrytis and the other moons struggled with each other to take its place. His general, Tylo Thysias, was slain battling the enemy on the plains of Idrytis, and Soter had to take command. He led the army to victory and was given a general’s rank afterward.
Commanding an army is a great thing, a high achievement, and some would have thought themselves at their peak to serve as the leader of thousands. If they were virtuous but prone to haste, then they might have considered it their pinnacle and chosen to act before they achieved anything significant in that position. If they were not virtuous, they might have been driven by their passions and clung to life out of weakness or a desire for pleasure.
But Soter was a wise man, and he understood the demands of happiness. He led Idrytis into peace. The lords saw how he conducted himself and so chose to honor him with a seat in the Gerousian League, ruling over the moons. He served five years and became the most revered of all the legates. At last the elders of the League asked him to serve as its head. The League never had a head before, but they knew that he would use the position to the good of Idrytis and all the moons of Adrastos.
That night Soter set his affairs in order and drank a cup of hemlock. He had reached his pinnacle, and for him to live longer would be to put the League at risk, for who might take the position of head after him? It could be the ruin of the League, whose elders had only meant to do him a great honor. And so he determined that his proper time had come. He was a virtuous man who died a virtuous death, and was therefore happy. See, I tell my students, the happy life requires wisdom. A man may choose to linger past his pinnacle, and then must die in shame; or he may try to claim it too early, and all will know him for a fool.
His mother came to me at the end of an ethics lecture. I had just sent my students away and was gathering the last of my things when she stepped into the door frame and blocked it, deliberately.
“I mean to talk to you, Ekeithan,” she said. “I want to know what malpractice in you led my son to lack all discernment.”
Families were supposed to drape themselves in purple after a death to acclaim the achievement of the deceased, but her mantle that day was green. “So you have chosen,” I said, “not to honor him.”
“I have no grandchild!” she shouted. Streaks of black paint marred her cheekbones, as though we had lost a military victory. “He could not have reached his pinnacle when his name will be forgotten, and ours in him! A name on the Noble Wall has no meaning if there is no one to remember it.”
I set my books down on the desk. “I teach guidelines, Arnisa. Principles. That is all. These things take judgment, and people do not always judge correctly.”
“I can see that.” Her eyes cut bitterly at me.
I sighed. “How do you know that your son was not right? He may have died happy.”
“Judge no man happy before his death,” she said. “I seem to remember Skotos being required to memorize the poem by that title. I seem to recall you disciplining Skotos for forgetting it. You know what you said when I came looking for him? That at least he would never forget his memory work again?”
I coughed. That had been my first year of teaching.
“Well, he forgot again. Did it never occur to you that your teaching methods might not be appropriate for a child of ten?”
“That’s not why you’re here,” I said. “What do you want? A full account of how I go about teaching the knottier points of ethics?”
“It is not possible for someone to reach his pinnacle before thirty.”
“Actually most of the authorities on the death of Dasos agree that—”
“I said it is not possible!”
“I’m sorry that you do not agree with your son’s assessment of his life.” I reached for my books. “There’s nothing that I can do. I was his ethics teacher for twelve years. I cannot account for what he may have learned outside my class. Inside it, we discussed the problem of timing in detail. We talked about hastiness. Everyone performed a composition on the moral complexities of identifying his pinnacle before leaving the academy. If Skotos fell to haste, it was because he ignored the material. But it’s almost as hasty to condemn Skotos so soon for differing with you.”
She spat at me. No one ever spits at a teacher in Salinkari, and certainly not at a teacher of ethics. “I’ll bring you before the city fathers, and they’ll see you cut off before your pinnacle—not that an ignorant teacher of ignorants would have ever reached it!” She whirled away from me and marched down the hall.
“Arnisa!” I shouted after her, but she did not return. Nor did I expect her to. Salinkari was not a large city; I had seen enough of her temperament over the years to predict her now.
I was not worried for myself, but I wished that she had been calmer. There is no use questioning the virtue of the dead. But I could still see a ten-year-old Skotos lifting his hand in class, and the grown Skotos leaping into the Roi, and for a moment, I knew regret.
They rifled through all my notes, my books, my students’ written work. They questioned the students individually. Then they called me in.
I had forgotten that, even laying aside the family wealth and her son’s victory in the Idrytic Phrase, Arnisa’s second cousin held a seat in the Gerousian League. And her husband Mataios maintained close friendships with three of the city fathers, and distant friendships with a few more. Only one, my old rhetoric instructor Teichos, had ever eaten at my home. All of them had eaten with Mataios.
Teachers might be generally respected by the public, but the city fathers selected them and could remove them for cause—criminality, indecency, or malpractice, none with very specific definitions. The knowledge was not a great concern to any of the instructors at the academy. Investigation of a teacher, let alone removal, was rare. It was why I had not taken Arnisa’s threat seriously.
The fathers had appointed two men to oversee the investigation—Simeio, the captain of the guard, and Nikri, former head of the academy.
“All a formality, really,” said Nikri. “You know how Arnisa is. And Teichos is touchy about the diplomatic side of it all, but that’s Teichos. No need to worry. We just need your testimony, and then you can be on your way.”
“Depending on the testimony,” Simeio cut in. “How much have you spoken with Skotos since he received his title and left the academy?”
“Not often. He was a poet. I wasn’t fond of his poetry. We never went beyond pleasantries.”
“So you would not have given him any opinion on what you considered the greatest moment of his life.”
“His mother says that you made no effort to correct his tendency toward haste in ethics.”
I grunted. “Did you read the section of my notes about the importance of moderation?”
“It was vague,” said Nikri.
“Fine then. About half my students are virtuous enough but so cautious I doubt they will be happy. A quarter don’t want to be virtuous because they are slaves of the passions. About an eighth approach virtue too hastily, and the rest pay me almost no attention and are promoted to the next year because their parents pay off the headmaster. Skotos usually spent his time in my class scrawling down poetry when he thought I wasn’t looking. My guess is he got more ideas about his pinnacle from the fish merchants along the Roi than he did from me.”
“What if he had asked you directly?” said Nikri.
“I would tell him that I could not identify his pinnacle for him. No one could. Asking advice on the subject can be counterproductive, which is why I think this inquiry is ridiculous. Arnisa is no more capable of knowing whether Skotos was correct than I am.”
Nikri glanced at the captain, who shrugged and shoved his chair back. “It’s enough. I don’t expect the case to go any further. And frankly, after having to listen to sixty-odd children trying to talk ethics, I’m tired. You can say I’m in thrall to the passions if you want. I’ve had my time selected for years and I don’t need to think about pinnacles any more.”
For years I kept a little book under my mattress in the interest of having some perspective on when I should make my own departure. “Requirements: Lack of dread or panic. Peacefulness. Indifference to others’ judgment. No strong desperation to leave, and none to stay. Evidence of having lived a virtuous life. Possible indicators: Becomes successful headmaster of academy. Son and daughter graduate, accepted into teaching or diplomacy.”
It was only a list. I was nowhere near becoming headmaster, and my children were young—only five and three at Skotos’s pinnacle. But I did try to think ahead and live reasonably. Most people do not put so much work into identifying the proper time, but I was a teacher, and I hoped to be an example. And I am a father. I wanted to show my children how to live a happy life.
They clambered over me when I came back home after the questioning. After a while I peeled them off and sent them outside. Kouverta had a pot of tea brewing; I poured a cup for each of us.
“Well,” I said, “nothing much. The case should be closed before long.”
“I wish Arnisa would be reasonable.”
“At this rate she’ll have to live a long time. She’s busier harassing the city than she ever was trying to support it; she’s not happy, that much is obvious.”
“Teichos has dropped the concerns about Skotos’s death causing an international scandal?”
“I couldn’t say. But even if the other members of the League have opinions, they won’t make them public. This is an internal matter. Teichos knows that as well as I do.”
We finished our tea and called the children inside. The most intense starlight was fading behind the horizon, and the fainter stars began to wake. My daughter could find half the constellations already, but I only let her point to three before scooping her up and depositing her on her bed. Then I told a perfectly useless story—I did not feel like recounting the feats of Soter that night. The children did not seem to mind.
I had just begun a lesson on martial theory when the thirteen city fathers appeared at the door and proceeded to the back of the room. They sat down in the last row of seats, pushing one of my students out of the way, and stared at me. Teichos was the fourth in the line. He had dressed neatly and trimmed his beard, like an executioner. I could read nothing in his eyes.
Whatever the fathers meant by coming in, it would not do to let my suspicions distract me from the lesson. I continued teaching—we were examining Tylo Thysias's writings on courage, which were straightforward enough. The man of valor sacrifices himself for virtue, and that sacrifice carries him on to something greater than a pinnacle. Death in battle, if one dies as Tylo himself did, should be nothing to fear. When the students had gone and Teichos started paging through the stack of essays they left behind, I felt little concern for what he might see but a great deal more about why they had come.
“You usually teach martial theory in the spring?” Teichos tapped a pen on the table in front of him.
“For the advanced students, usually.”
“For the past few years?”
Teichos scanned the pages. “I would have expected a more difficult assignment for an advanced class. How long has it been since you planned this?”
“I have not altered my usual lesson plans since the Skotos case was opened, if that is what you mean. I’m an ethics instructor, sir. To change my way of teaching out of fear would be to forfeit any credibility I have.”
If only Teichos would stop comparing my lessons with his, I thought. Ethics is an entirely different discipline.
“Thank you for allowing us to observe your lesson, instructor. It has been illuminating.”
They nodded to me and filed out. I sat down and marked the papers as accurately as I could, but I cannot stand by the marks. My mind was elsewhere. As soon as I finished, I set out for Simeio’s house.
He knew nothing, or at least told me so. I went to Nikri.
“They didn’t speak to me,” he said, leaning against his door frame. “We turned in our notes from the interviews; that was it. I thought the case would be closed. But Teichos apparently knows the judges of the Idrytic Phrase, and they’ve been asking questions.”
“When was the last time a teacher was charged with malpractice?” I said.
“Not in my time. I think there was an incident about eighty-five years ago, during the rebellion on Siopilos. The history instructor said some things that the students interpreted as supporting the rebels, and—passions were high.”
"That time.” I knew the story. “Nothing since then?”
“No.” He smiled briefly. “The history instructors are careful now.”
“I don’t understand why they came to the academy. What did they expect, that I hid my real notes and they would catch me at it?”
Nikri shook his head. “The case is in their hands. If they want to pursue it, there’s nothing that you can do. But if there was nothing in the lesson that they could charge you with, you should have little to worry about.”
I was home very late that night, after the children were asleep. My wife sat at the table, working in her account books by a single cylinder of light. We spoke quietly and climbed into bed. Neither of us fell asleep very soon. Neither of us wanted to discuss the reason.
What I remembered about the story of the history instructor was this. He summarized the high points of an ancient rebellion on Idrytis and said he thought it had been just. He was hanged in the portico of the Hall of Counsel and left swinging from the rafters there until the flesh had fallen from his bones. Then the bones were burned, and the ashes thrown into the Roi. For years afterward, when veterans of the war crossed the bridge into Salinkari, they leaned over the edge and spat into the water.
But we were not at war now, and no ethics instructor had ever been tried because a former student misjudged his time. One reason we teach ethics is that pinnacles are hard to identify. Lots of people probably make errors, maybe even most people—but the living have no way to know. I drill my students with this. Arnisa and I had been drilled in our turn. Even if she refused to remember, surely the fathers would, whatever her friendship with them. Surely Mataios would try to calm her if the case went too far.
I spent the night circling through those thoughts, but no new answers came to me. Sometime before daybreak, I fell asleep.
My mother reached her pinnacle early. About three months after my younger sister Peristia was born, she shut herself into her room while my father was out and cut her wrists. She left a note saying that my sister was the culmination of her life, and so it was virtuous for her to leave. My father had trouble finding a wet nurse, although he tried not to mention his struggle in public. People might have thought he was questioning my mother’s decision. Father was more standard; he waited until Peristia married. She appreciated it.
When a pinnacle arrives unexpectedly, it can be hard for the family to adjust. Telling them ahead of time, though, comes off as bragging. And bragging was something I had warned my students against repeatedly.
Regardless of the care I had taken over the years, the fathers’ investigation turned up more than I had expected. One of my students’ essays argued that claiming a pinnacle late, rather than early, is haste. My comments on the essay were mostly positive. The student had made his case unusually well, and I thought a less direct critique would be more likely to change his mind. The essay lay in the stack of written work that the guard had taken; evidently the city fathers saw it as more of a threat than the captain did. They called me in for questioning before them in the Hall of Counsel, and nothing I could say about the right of students to disagree with their instructor made any difference.
I realized, as Teichos interrogated me, that they considered Skotos’s pinnacle to be a national embarrassment. He was supposed to represent us—our moon, our city—to the Gerousian League. He would not take ship to Idrytis to receive the medal he won. He would not be present when they engraved his name in the Noble Wall. Whatever the stigma against questioning another person’s pinnacle, people do wonder, if only in private. To the fathers, what ought to have been a moment of glory had become a time of shame.
They finally put me into a cell and announced that I would be tried for malpractice in a month. Until then, I was entitled to three meals a day, a bath twice a week, and visitors between dawn and dusk. It was all very polite. What no one says is that, from the time you enter the cell until the time you are released—if you are released—you are denied the right to a pinnacle. You cannot have lived a happy or virtuous life if you end it in prison.
Of course, it is possible to be executed unjustly. Even Tylo Thysias admitted that much: the virtuous general, he said, must face slander with courage, regardless of the consequence if people ignore the truth. I am no general. But I always tell my students that if someone finds himself wrongly charged, he is happiest if he submits to the judgment of the court. To attempt to claim a pinnacle without being declared innocent is to confess to the crime. Nonetheless, for someone raised on the belief that no one—not his family, not friends, not even the city—can deny him his pinnacle at any time, it is a rare form of suffering to be denied that most fundamental right.
Kouverta came to visit me almost as soon as she heard. They opened the outer cell door for her; she wrapped a hand around the bars that separated us. “Will you be allowed counsel?”
I nodded. “I don’t know if I want it.”
“Don’t be a fool—” she began, but I swept my fingers to the right.
“This is a malpractice trial. No counselor will have studied ethics more than I have—how would they defend me better than I can?”
“It’s difficult not to engage the passions when you are the subject of the controversy,” she said.
“You should have apprenticed to an ethicist after you finished school.”
She frowned. “You need a counselor.”
“I’m serious, Kouverta.”
“I’m a little past the apprenticeship stage,” she said. “And you’re not in any position to convince me of the grandeur of a career in ethics.”
“I can be clearheaded enough.”
“What penalties are they considering? Do you know that?”
I shook my head. My suspicions were not worth voicing.
“If this amounts to a capital offense, how over Adrastos do you expect to remain calm?”
“Do you want them to hang you in the portico for three months and burn what’s left over? Is that what you want? Do you want your children to lose their father?”
“What if I had reached my pinnacle before now? They wouldn’t have had me but I would have done my duty by them. They need a father who can choose well and show them how to be happy.”
“Men who choose well always refuse counsel when they are on trial for their lives.”
She released the bars and stalked away.
They had allowed me a bath and clean clothes the previous night, but the guards also snapped cuffs onto my ankles and wrists before bringing me from the cells into the court. Normally the wrists would have been enough, unless I was mad or drunk. The fathers remained angry.
“To Justice!” barked Simeio. He stood in the court officer’s podium, gripping a pen. The crescent-shaped central table, with its thirteen seats for each of the fathers, waited empty on his right.
“To Justice,” everyone else echoed. That is, I spoke the words, Arnisa fairly shouted them, and the rest looked less eager for justice than for the show. It wasn’t every day that an ethicist went to trial.
We stood, and the fathers proceeded in. None looked at me. I wished, ridiculously, that Kouverta could have come. It would have turned the fathers against me even more, if that were possible—her presence would have been considered an attempt to bias the court. In any case, she had visited me last night. But I missed her: she would have retained control over her passions throughout the trial, even if I lost power over mine. I clenched my teeth. Maybe that’s what this is, I thought, a way of showing me that I am not wise or virtuous at all. And to think that I tried to force my wife to imagine me having an early pinnacle!
Spectators crowded the courtroom. Some of them were Arnisa’s friends, and some were interested in poetry, but I think most were just curious. Teichos, as the longest-serving father, presided over the court. He pounded his staff on the floor for silence. “Read off the charges,” he said to Simeio.
Simeio pulled a roll from the podium. “An instructor of the academy being responsible to clearly communicate the facets of a happy life, and the accused having failed to do so, most egregiously in the case of Skotos the poet, the charges against Ekeithan are malpractice and also criminality, for his presence at the time of Skotos’s death and his knowledgeable failure to intervene.”
I had not known that they meant to bring a criminality charge. No one is ever charged for allowing someone to proceed with his pinnacle. I have only heard of two instances where someone tried to interfere, and in both cases the would-be helper was sued. Who had told them I was near the bridge at Skotos’s pinnacle? I would not have lied if they had asked me, but they never did.
As it turned out, no fewer than three people recalled seeing me that day. Nikri had to give evidence from the essays they had taken—evidently the student interviews had been useless—but he made no effort to be convincing, even when the fathers tried to draw him toward certain points. Mataios testified that Skotos had not spoken of winning the Idrytic Phrase as his pinnacle; Arnisa stood up and ranted, mostly. The fathers’ attempts to ask guiding questions had little effect on the general torrent.
They let me speak eventually. “Even if I had no concerns about interfering with someone else’s decision,” I told the fathers, “by the time I recognized Skotos, I was too far from where he stood on the bridge to have reached him before he jumped. Everyone agrees that I was near the bridge, not on it.”
“You could have called out to him. Did you know he had won the Idrytic Phrase?” said Teichos, rolling a pen between his fingers.
“No. I had no way of knowing that anything could be wrong—if it was.”
Arnisa leaped to her feet, fuming, but Teichos ignored her. “Didn’t it strike you as highly irregular that a young man with no accomplishments to his name would declare a pinnacle?”
“I had no way of knowing what Skotos would consider an accomplishment. Neither does anyone else.”
“Even his parents?”
I gritted my teeth. “You know as well as I do what the standard ethical teaching on—”
“Yes, give us an account of your teaching.”
I stared at my old teacher in a red fury, but I could hear Kouverta scolding me about giving way to the passions, so I forced myself to pause long enough to eliminate the anger from my voice. I could not afford to come out of this looking as though I had less self-control than Arnisa. “I teach as I was taught. You’ve seen my class notes. When we discuss happiness, I warn the students against haste and indecisiveness. Both errors are a danger to anyone who wants to live a virtuous life. You can ask any ethicist on the moons, and they will tell you the same thing. I try to instruct my students well. But I cannot make their life decisions or control for the influences they receive outside my class.”
Teichos interjected. “What is your view on Skotos’s death? Was it his pinnacle, or haste?”
“I have no way of knowing.”
“But you must have some opinion.”
“Even if I did, it would be unfair to question him now.”
“So you consider this inquiry to be an insult to his memory.”
My stomach tightened. “I said no such thing.”
“You consider it inappropriate, at least,” Teichos said.
“I accept the fathers’ right to keep order in the city.”
Teichos scowled. “If you do not answer the question, we will be forced to assume that you think Skotos’s death was haste. If you thought it was his pinnacle, you would say so.”
“I already answered. I don’t know if it was Skotos’s pinnacle. His parents claim that it was not. Maybe they are right. But since the only person who could really answer your question is dead, I don’t see the use in this line of inquiry.”
“And what,” said Teichos, “if Skotos’s parents are more capable than he is of identifying his pinnacle?”
I stared at him. Teichos was no ethicist, but he had been an instructor. He ought to know the obvious consequence of what he was suggesting.
“If someone other than Skotos can know his pinnacle, then we haven’t been teaching ethics properly since the Clouded Days, and you had better call a congress of the League.”
Teichos jerked upright. “The bulk of your defense is to imply that we are guilty of insulting Skotos’s memory and of upending the discipline of ethics. I taught you, Ekeithan, and I admired your teaching. But your actions have led to the death of an innocent young man and humiliated us before all the moons. There is nothing ethical about that.”
The courtroom doors were open, and through the entrance on my right, I could see through the hall to the portico. My throat tightened. I could not disagree with his assertion. Points that once should have assured my acquittal were now being interpreted as aggression toward the fathers. There was nothing else I could say.
“We will retire to the chamber of court to determine the verdict.” Teichos’s chair scraped sharply against the floor as he stood. The other fathers followed him into the narrow hall behind the main table. They shut the door behind them.
I sat down. My legs were shaking, but I tried to keep my chin high and my shoulders steady. Teichos had told me once that allowing your body to mimic the passions was a sure way to lose power over them. He would probably like to see me engaging them now, though. The fathers had to make the case about my failures, not about their resentment that Skotos had not considered the honor of his city before declaring a pinnacle.
What would I do if they threw me out of the academy? I should have declared a pinnacle last year and had done with it. At least the academy would have paid Kouverta a pension then. I always thought that an ethicist, out of everyone on the moons, ought to be able to live a happy life. And it was clear enough that I had failed. When they are older, I thought, the children will be ashamed. And Kouverta—
The fathers returned quickly. If anything, I thought as I watched them file in, they have proved Skotos right. Pinnacles come sooner than most people want to believe.
In my mind, I could see him leaping from the bridge again. I tried not to look at Arnisa but failed. She was watching the fathers, but her eyes were aflame with sentiments that she would, without a doubt, spread throughout Salinkari as soon as she walked out of the courtroom.
“All rise,” said Simeio.
The room was utterly silent, but Teichos thumped his staff on the floor regardless. “On behalf of the city,” he said, “and having examined the written evidence and the testimony that was brought before us today, we conclude that the charges are justified in that Ekeithan stands guilty of criminality and malpractice. Bring the condemned before the court.”
Simeio strode across the room, pulled me up, and then led me to stand in front of the fathers’ long table. The passions had hold of me so that it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other.
“Do you understand the offenses for which you stand condemned?”
If I were Soter, or a virtuous character in one of the stories I used to tell in class, I would have said something about having gained the knowledge that the fathers of the city could not tell the difference between honor and pride. But just then I was afraid to anger them further. “Yes,” I said.
Teichos eyed me for a moment. “You were my best student once; I never thought you would come to this.”
“You implied that we were overturning the entire discipline of ethics, yes?”
“I did not mean—”
“You did,” he said. “We could simply sentence you to be hanged. But it makes more sense to let you solve the problem you claim to be concerned about. You have forfeited your right to a pinnacle, but the court has decided that you must select your death, after a manner of speaking—hanging in the portico at sunrise, or a natural death when it comes, on the condition that you publicly admit your guilt and swear you will never attempt to claim a pinnacle. Violate the oath, and your remains will be burned and given to Mataios and Arnisa along with all your family’s possessions. Then your family will be banished from the city.” He smiled. “Well? What is the ethical thing to do?”
I stood there, frozen. “I—” But I couldn’t answer him. I couldn’t even speak. Somewhere behind me, Arnisa laughed.
Teichos thumped his staff for silence. “The hanging will proceed in the morning, as scheduled, unless by that hour the condemned has decided he would prefer the alternate form of death.” He gestured to Simeio. “Return him to the cells.”
I cannot remember anything from that moment until I landed on the cell floor and a door clanged behind me. If only the fathers would have hanged me in the portico when they pronounced sentence. Having a night to think had initially seemed kind. But as I huddled on the floor with my head pressed to my knees, trying to stop the shaking in my hands, it appeared the worst kind of cruelty.
I had thought they would take my teaching position. But Teichos had always liked posing impossible dialectical problems. Ethicists would be talking about the choice of two deaths for centuries, debating whether I had made a virtuous decision. There were no precedents here for me. Everything seemed to rest on one point—whether anyone else could condemn Skotos’s pinnacle. I had not. All the ethics I had ever learned said that I should not. But whatever my choice or their intentions, the fathers were laying a precedent to do this very thing.
Her voice was muffled, but I could make it out. “Kouverta?”
“Below the window.”
“You heard?” I could not see her; she was standing directly below me, and only my fingers fit through the bars.
“It’s impossible not to.”
“Teichos might be destroying ethics, and he thinks it’s amusing. And I can’t—I have to cause the least damage somehow, and I don’t know—” My jaw began shaking too hard for me to continue.
“What is your first instinct?”
“That if I die tomorrow, I’ll do less damage. The choice will be on the fathers, and I won’t be responsible for what comes after. And you?”
For a moment, she was quiet. “That if there’s risk in living, there’s risk in dying. But don’t make your decision for me,” she said. “I’ve got no cause to be ashamed of you. The fathers have probably taken my pinnacle in doing this, and you can’t change that, Ekeithan. We’ve lost everything.”
“Remarry. You’ll find happiness again.”
“Like Skotos did?” She scoffed. “I’ll become so supremely happy, I’ll leap into the Roi in my best clothes, drive my parents mad, and ruin the life of a bystander? That’s the height of virtue if I’ve ever heard it.”
“Those are your passions talking.”
“Maybe,” she said.
She reached up, toward the bars, and brushed my fingers with hers. “I regret nothing,” she said. Then she was gone.
I watched the sky as it lightened, watched the stars slipping away as surely as Kouverta had. Usually she resolved my problems, but this time she had only made my decision impossible. How could I pull free enough from the passions to reason things through? I fell back against the wall, shivering. If nothing else, the fathers had proved that I had not found virtue. A virtuous man would know the answer. I—I did not.
The night hours passed into dawn as I stared through the bars and tried to puzzle it out. By the time Simeio came for me, I had gotten no further than when I started. “Better take the hanging,” he muttered as he unlocked the door. “Arnisa’s decided that she wants you to live.”
“So she can harangue you until you die of a stroke. She’s after revenge. Choose fast and die fast, and you’ll be away from her.”
Arnisa was smiling as Simeio led me into the portico. Mataios stood back, gaze fixed on the sunrise, but the fathers looked interested. A noose hung down from the ceiling, and Teichos held a page of script in his hand. “The oath is here. Well? Have you answered the greatest ethical problem of our age?” He laughed.
I watched Arnisa watching me. Eager as she seemed, she must have cared far less about the outcome of my choice than that I fell apart along the way. Most of the fathers were no better, but Teichos’s eyes kept drifting to the noose. If I died now, I would reject all responsibility for any problems that might result from what the fathers had done. Teichos understood. He expected me to do it. And any responsibility he might have borne for my hanging would be blunted by the fact that it was my choice. Execution would be the easiest path for both of us.
The virtuous man knows when he has reached the height of his happiness. Soter did, and Soter died. But, I thought, perhaps it takes a different sort of virtue to push beyond the height of its happiness, to pour itself out as though all its life was a battlefield, and its death the final victory. Tylo Thysias, spilling his blood onto the grass, had finished without regret. “Teichos,” I said.
His hand moved impatiently.
“You may not have been an ethicist,” I said. “But you worked with them long enough to know something about the discipline. I’ll accept responsibility for Skotos—with everything that means. You can take my income, but not my vocation. Ethicists will have to answer the questions you’ve raised, and I will always be one of them. Knowing that, if you think it’s wiser to kill me, then so be it.”
I left the portico under the light of the rising sun. Students were straggling toward the academy, into halls I would not walk again. They whispered together as I passed. Perhaps they would never stop. I was guilty; I was denied a pinnacle; I had failed to live the happy life.
Streaks of gold shot through the sky, and far away I could see the Roi glittering. There was a black shape, too—the bridge. Someone perched on the railing, waiting to jump.