'He's my burden,' Cehmai said. 'I gave my word to carry Stone-Made-Soft as long as I could, and I'll do that. I wouldn't want to disappoint the Khai.' Then he chuckled. 'You know, there have been whole years when I would have meant that as a sarcasm. Disappointing the Khaiem seems to be about half of what we do as poets - no, I can't somehow use the andat to help you win at tiles, or restore your prowess with your wives, or any of the thousand stupid, petty things they ask of us. But these last weeks, I really would do whatever I could, not to disappoint that man. I don't know what's changed.'
'Everything,' Maati said. 'Times like these remake men. They change what we are. Otah's trying to become the man we need him to be.'
'I suppose that's true,' Cehmai said. 'I just don't want this all to be happening, so I forget, somehow, that it is. I keep thinking it's all a sour dream and I'll wake out of it and stumble down to play a game of stones against Stone-Made-Soft. That that will be the worst thing I have to face. And not . . .'
Cehmai gestured, his hands wide, including the house and the palaces and the city and the world.
'And not the end of civilization?' Maati suggested.
'Something like that.'
'You know,' he said, 'when we were young, the man who was Daikvo then chose Otah to come train as a poet. He refused, but I think he would have been good. He has it in him to do whatever needs doing.'
Killing a man, taking a throne, marching an army to its death, Maati thought but did not say. Whatever needs doing.
'I hope the price he pays is smaller than ours,' Cehmai said.
'I doubt it will be.'
Balasar had not been raised to put faith in augury. His father had always said that any G.o.d that could create the world and the stars should be able to put together a few well-formed sentences if there was something that needed saying; Balasar had accepted this wisdom in the uncritical way of a boy emulating the man he most admires. And still, the dream came to him on the night before he had word of the hunting party.
It was far from the first time he had dreamt of the desert. He felt again the merciless heat, the pain of the satchel cutting into his shoulder. The books he had borne then had become ashes in the dream as they had in life, but the weight was no less. And behind him were not only Coal and Eustin. All of them followed him - Bes, Mayarsin, Little Ott, and the others. The dead followed him, and he knew they were no longer his allies or his enemies. They came to keep watch over him, to see what work he wrought with their blood. They were his judges. As always before, he could not speak. His throat was knotted. He could not turn to see the dead; he only felt them.
But there seemed more now - not only the men he had left in the desert, but oth
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