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'You could bring me the slack-c.u.n.t's heart,' the poet spat. 'I should have cut her down where she stood. She should be drowned in her own s.h.i.+t for this!'

The poet gestured toward his own crotch, demonstrating the depth of his hurt. Balasar didn't smile. With all the gravity he could manage, he nodded.

'It will cause problems if I have her killed,' Balasar said. 'The local men are uneasy already. I could have her whipped-'

'No! She must die!'

'If there was some other way that honor could be served . . .'

Riaan leaned back, his gaze cold. This, Balasar thought, was the man on whom the hopes of the world rested. A man who had leapt at the chance to turn against his own people, who had eaten the interest and novelty of the people of Acton like it was honey bread, who vented his rage on wh.o.r.es and servants. Balasar had never seen a tool less likely. And yet, the poet was what he needed, and the stakes could not have been higher. He sighed.

'I will see to it,' Balasar said. 'And permit me to send you my own personal physician. I would not have a man of your importance suffer, Most High.'

'This should never have happened,' Riaan said. 'You will do better in the future.'

'Indeed,' Balasar agreed, then rose, taking what he hoped was an appropriate pose for an honored if somewhat junior man taking leave of someone above his station. He must have come near the mark, because the poet took a pose of dismissal. Balasar bowed and left. He walked back down the steps more slowly, weighing his options. He found Eustin in a common room with three of his other captains. He knew that the poet's injury had been the topic of their conversation. The sudden quiet when he entered and the merriment in their eyes were evidence enough. He greeted each man by name and gestured for Eustin to follow him back out to the street.

'Any luck, sir?'

'No,' Balasar said. 'He's still talking himself into a tantrum. But I had to try. I'll need Carlsin sent to him with some ointment for the burn. And he'll need to wear good robes. If he shows up in his usual rags, the man will never believe he's my physician.'

'I'll see he's told, sir.'

They reached the gray-cobbled street, and Balasar turned back toward the Warden's palaces and the little library with all his maps and plans. Eustin kept pace at his side. In the far distance, there was a rumble of thunder. Balasar cursed, and Eustin agreed.

'And the girl, sir?' Eustin asked.

Balasar nodded and blew out his breath.

'Tell all the comfort houses to give Riaan whatever he asks, and send the bills to me. I'll see them fairly paid. Warn them that I'll be keeping account, though. I'm not opening the coffers to every tiles player and alley worker in the Westlands.'

'We have enough silver then, sir?'

'We'll have more when we've reached Nantani,' Balasar said. 'If the men are a little hungry before then, that might even serve us.'

A gust of wind brought the harsh bl

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