him. His clothes smelled rank and unwashed; his flesh was soft, his skin papery. When he returned her embrace, she would not have traded the moment for anything.


It was the fifth month of the Emperor's self-imposed exile. The day had been filled, as always, with meetings and conversations and appreciations of artistic tableaux. Otah had retired early, claiming a headache rather than face another banquet of heavy, overspiced Galtic food.

The night birds in the garden below his window sang unfamiliar songs. The perfume of the wide, pale flowers was equal parts sweetness and pepper. The rooms of his suite were hung with heavy Galtic tapestries, knotwork soldiers slaughtering one another in memory of some battle of which Otah had never heard.

It was, coincidentally, the sixty-third anniversary of his birth. He hadn't chosen to make it known; the High Council might have staged some further celebration, and he had had a bellyful of celebrations. In that day, he had been called upon to admire a gold- and jewel-encrusted clockwork whose religious significance was obscure to him; he had moved in slow procession down the narrow streets and through the grand halls with their awkward, blocky architecture and their strange, smoky incense; he had spoken to two members of the High Council to no observable effect. At this moment, he could be sitting with them again, making the same points, suffering the same deflections. Instead, he watched the thin clouds pass across the crescent moon.

He had become accustomed to feeling alone. It was true that with a word or a gesture he could summon his counselors or singing slaves, scholars or priests. Another night, he might have, if only in hope that this time it would be different; that the company would do something more than remind him how little comfort it provided. Instead, he went to the ornate writing desk and took what solace he could. Kiyan-kya- I have done what I said I would do. I have come to our old enemies, I have pled my case and pled and pled and pled, and now I suppose I'll plead some more. The full council is set to make their vote in a week's time. I know I shouldgo out anddo more, but I swear that I've spoken to everyone in this city twice over, and tonight, I'd rather be herewith you. I miss you. They tell we that all widowers suffer this sense q f being halved, and they tell me it fades. It hasn't faded. I suspect age changes the nature of time. Four years may be an epoch for young men, to me it's hardly the space between one breath and the next. I want you to be here to tell me your thoughts on the matter. I want you here. I want you back. I've had word from Danat and Sinja. They seem to be running the cities effectively enough in my absence, but apart from our essentialproblem, there are a thousand other threats. Pirates have raided Chaburi-Tan, and there are stories of armed companies from Eddensea and the Westlands exacting tolls on the roads outside the winter cities. The trading houses are bleeding money badly; no one indentures themselves as an apprentice anymore. Artisans are having to pay for workers. Even seafront laborers are commanding wages higher than anything I made as a courier. The high families of the utkhaiem are watching their coffers drain like a holed bladder. It makes them restless. I have had two separate petitions to allow forced indenture for what they call 'critical labor. ' I haven't given an answer. When Igo home, I suppose I'll have to.

Otah paused, the tip of his pen touching the brick of ink. Something with wide, pale wings the size of his hands and eyes as black and wet as river stones hovered at the window and then vanished. A soft breeze rattled the open shutters. He pulled back the sleeve of his robe, but before the bronze tip touched the paper, a soft knock came at his door.

'Most High,' the servant boy said, his hands in a pose of obeisance. 'Balasar-cha requests an audience.'

Otah smiled and took a pose that granted the request and implied that the guest should be brought to him here, the nuance only slightly hampered by the pen still in his hand. As the servant scampered out, Otah straightened his sleeves and stuck the pen nib-first into the ink brick.

Once, Balasar Gice had led armies against the Khaiem, and only raw chance had kept him from success. Instead of leading Galt to its greatest hour, he had precipitated its slow ruin. That the Khaiem shared that fate took away little of the sting. The general had spent years rebuilding his broken reputation, and even now was less a force within Galt than once he had been.

And still, he was a man to be reckoned with.

He came into the room, bowing to Otah as he always did, but with a wry smile which was reserved for occasions out of the public eye.

'I came to inquire after your health, Most High,' Balasar Gice said in the language of the Khaiem. His accent hadn't lessened in the years since they had met. 'Councilman Trathorn was somewhat relieved by your absence, but he had to pretend distress.'

'Well, you can tell him his distress in every way mirrors my own,' Otah said. 'I couldn't face it. I've been too much in the world. There is only so much praise I can stand from people who'd be happy to see my head on a plate. Please, sit. I can have a fire lit if you're cold…'

Balasar sat on a low couch beside the window. He was a small man, more than half a head shorter than Otah, with the force of personality that made it easy to forget. The years had weathered his face, grooves at the corners of his eyes and mouth that spoke as much of laughter as sorrow. They had met a decade and a half ago in the snow-covered square that had been the site of the last battle in the war between Galt and the Khaiem. A war that they had both lost.

The years since had seen his status in his homeland collapse and then slowly be rebuilt. He wasn't a member of the convocation, much less the High Council, but he was still a man of power within Galt. When he sat forward, elbows resting on his knees, Otah could imagine him beside a campfire, working through the final details of the next morning's attack.

'Otah,' the former general said, falling into his native tongue, 'what is your plan if the vote fails?'

Otah leaned back in his chair.

'I don't see why it should,' Otah said. 'All respect, but what Sterile did, she did to both of us. Galt is in just as much trouble as the cities of the Khaiem. Your men can't father children. Our women can't bear them. We've gone almost fifteen years without children. The farms are starting to feel the loss. The armies. The trades.'

'I know all that,' Balasar said, but Otah pressed on.

'Both of our nations are going to fall. They've been falling, but we're coming close to the last chance to repair it. We might be able to weather a single lost generation, but if there isn't another after that, Galt will become Eymond's back gardens, and the Khaiem will be eaten by whoever can get to us first. You know that Eymond is only waiting for your army to age into weakness.'

'And I know there are other peoples who weren't cursed,' Balasar said. 'Eymond, certainly. And the Westlands. Bakta. Obar State.'

'And there are a handful of half-bred children from matches like those in the coastal cities,' Otah said. 'They're born to high families that can afford them and hoarded away like treasure. And there are others whose blood was mixed. Some have borne. Might that be enough, do you think?'

Balasar's smile was thin.

'It isn't,' he said. 'They won't suffice. Children can't be rarer than silk and lapis. So few might as well be none. And why should Eymond or Eddensea or the Westlands send their sons here to make families, when they can wait a few more years and take what they want from a nation of geriatrics? If the Khaiem and the Galts don't become one, we'll both be forgotten. Our land will be taken, our cities will be occupied, and you and I will spend our last years picking wild berries and stealing eggs out of nests, because there won't be farm hands enough to keep us in bread.'

'That was my thought as well,' Otah said.

'So, no fallback position, eh?'

'None,' Otah said. 'It was raw hell getting the utkhaiem to agree to the proposal I've brought. I take it the vote is going to fail?'

'The vote is going to fail,' Balasar said.

Otah sat forward, his face cradled in his palms. The slight, acrid smell of old ink on his fingers only made the darkness behind his closed lids deeper.

Five months before, he had wrestled the last of the language in his proposed treaty with Galt into shape. A hundred translators from the high families and great trading houses had offered comment and correction, and small

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