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26.

The years had changed Otah Machi. The last time Maati had seen him, his hair had been black or near enough to pa.s.s. His shoulders had been broader, his eyebrows smooth. The man who stood before the smoking fire grate now was thinner, his skin loose against his face. His robes, though travel-stained, were of the finest cloth. They draped him like an altar; they made him more than a man. Or perhaps Otah Machi had always been something more than the usual and his robes only reminded them.

Danat, at his father's side, was unrecognizable. The ill, coughing boy confined to his bed had grown into a hale young man with intelligent eyes and his father's distant, considering demeanor. The others Maati had either seen recently enough that they held no disturbing sense of change or were strangers to him.

They had all come. Large Kae and Small Kae and Eiah, but to his discomfort also Idaan Machi, sitting on a bench with a bowl of wine in her hand and her face as expressionless as the dead. A Galtic girl sat apart, her head held high, sightless and proud to cover the disgust and horror she must feel at all Maati had done. Ashti Beg sat at her side, another victim of Vanjit's malice. After all that had happened, after all his many failures of judgment, seeing her among his arrayed enemies was still wrenching.

Otah's armsmen cleared the wayhouse. The conversation that should have taken place in the finest of meeting rooms in the high palaces instead found its place in a third-rate wayhouse, free of ceremony or ritual or even well-brewed tea. Maati felt himself trembling. He had the powerful physical memory of being a boy at the school, holding himself still and waiting for Tahi-kvo's lacquer rod to split his skin.

'Maati Vaupathai,' the Emperor said.

'Most High,' Maati replied, crossing his arms.

'I suppose I should start by asking why I shouldn't have you killed where you stand.'

Eiah, beside him, twitched as if wasp-stung. Maati stared at his old friend, his old enemy, and all the conciliatory words that he had imagined in the last day vanished like a snuffed candle. There was rage in Otah's stance, and Maati found himself more than matching it.

'How dare you?' Maati said, his voice little more than a hiss. 'How dare you? I thought, coming here, I would at least be treated with respect. I thought at the very least, that. And instead you stand me up like a common thief in a low-town courtroom and have me defend my life? Justify my right to breathe to the man who killed my son?'

'Nayiit has nothing to do with this,' Otah said. 'Sinja Ajutani, to contrast, died because of you. Every Galt who has starved since you exacted this sick, petty revenge is dead because of you. Every-'

'Nayiit has everything to do with this. Your sick love of all things Galtic has everything to do with it. Your disloyalty to the women you claim to rule. Your perfect calm in making me an outcast living in gutters for something you were ju

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