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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'

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