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'Yes,' Otah said.

'Does she have a claim as heir?'

The image appeared in his mind unbidden: Eiah draped in golden robes and gems woven into her hair as she dressed a patient's wounds. Otah chuckled, then saw the beginnings of offense in his guest's expression. He thought it might not be wise to appear amused at the idea of a woman in power.

'She wouldn't take the job if you begged her,' Otah said. 'She's a smart, strong-willed woman, but court politics give her a rash.'

'But if she changed her mind. Twenty years from now, who can say that her opinions won't have s.h.i.+fted?'

'It wouldn't matter,' Otah said. 'There is no tradition of empresses. Nor, I think, of women on your own High Council.'

She snorted derisively, but Otah saw he had scored his point. She considered for a moment, then with a deep breath allowed herself to relax.

'Well then. It seems we have an agreement.'

'Yes,' Otah said.

She stood and adopted a pose that she had clearly practiced with a specialist in etiquette. It was in essence a greeting, with nuances of a contract being formed and the informality that came with close relations.

'Welcome to my family, Most High,' she said in his language. Otah replied with a pose that accepted the welcome, and if its precise meaning was lost on her, the gist was clear enough.

After she had left, Otah strolled through the gardens, insulated by his rank from everyone he met. The trees seemed straighter than he remembered, the birdsong more delicate. A weariness he only half-knew had been upon him had lifted, and he felt warm and energetic in a way he hadn't in months. He made his way at length to his suite, his rooms, his desk.

Kiyan-kya, it seems something may have gone right after all . . .


Ten years almost to the day before word of Otah's pact with the Galts reached him, Maati Vaupathai had learned of his son's death at the hands of Galtic soldiers. A fugitive only just abandoned by his only companion, he had made his way to the south like a wounded horse finding its way home. It had not been the city itself he had been looking for, but a woman.

Liat Chokavi, owner and overseer of House Kyaan, had received him. Twice, they had been lovers, once as children, and then again just before the war. She had told him of Nayiit's stand, of how he had been cut down protecting the Emperor's son, Danat, as the final a.s.sault on Machi began. She spoke with the chalky tones of a woman still in pain. If Maati had held hopes that his once-lover might take him in, they did not survive that conversation. He left her house in agony. He had not spoken to her since.

Two years after that, he took his first student, a woman named Halit. Since then, his life had become a narrow, focused thing. He had remade himself as a teacher, as an agent of hope, as the Dai-kvo of a new age.

It was less glamorous than it sounded.

All that morning he had lain in the small room that was presently his

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