'Yes,' Idaan said without hesitation. 'I do.'
They lapsed into silence again. Danat and Ashti Beg were in the middle of a lively debate over the ethics of showfighting, Ana listening to them both with a frown. Her hand pressed her belly as if the fish was troubling her.
'If Maati were here tonight,' Otah said, 'and demanded that he be named emperor, I think I'd give it to him.'
'He'd hand it back in a week,' Idaan said with a smile.
'Who's to say I'd take it?'
They left in the morning, the horses rested or changed for fresh, the carts restocked with wood and coal and water. Ana looked worse, but kept a brave face. Idaan stayed with her like a personal guard, to Danat's visible annoyance. A cold wind haunted them, striking leaves from the trees.
News of the Emperor's party came close to overwhelming stories of the mysterious baby at the wayhouse. No couriers came to trouble Otah with word of fire or death. Twice, Otah dreamed that Sinja was riding at his side, robes soaked with seawater and black as a bat's wing, and he woke each time with an obscure feeling of peace. And with every stop, they found the poets had pa.s.sed before them more and more recently.
Three days ago. Then two.
When they reached the river Qiit, tea-dark with newly fallen leaves, just the day before.
The cold caught up with them in the middle of the day, a wind from the west that rattled the trees and sent tiny whitecaps across the river's back. They had covered a great stretch of river in their day's travel, but night meant landing. The boatman was adamant. The river, he said, was a living thing; it changed from one journey to the next. Sandbars s.h.i.+fted, rocks lurked where none had been before. The boat was shallow enough to pa.s.s over many dangers, but a log invisible in the darkness could break a hole in the deck. Better to run in the daylight than swim in the dark. The way the boatman said it left no room for disagreement.
They camped at the riverside, and awakened with tents and robes soaked heavy by dew. Morning light saw them on the water again, the boiler at the stern muttering angrily to itself, the paddle wheel punis.h.i.+ng the water.
Maati sat away from the noise, huddled in two wool robes, and watched the trees march from the north to the south like an army bent on sacking Saraykeht. Large Kae and Small Kae sat in the stern, making conversation with the boatman and his second when the men would deign to speak. Vanjit and Eiah turned around each other, one in the bow, the other in the center of the craft, both maintaining a s.p.a.ce between them, the andat watching with rage and hunger in its black eyes. It was like watching an alley-mouth knife fight drawn out over hours and days.
It was hard now to remember the days before they had been splintered. The years he had spent in hiding had seemed like a punishment at the time. Living in warehouses, giving the lectures he half-recall
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