Once again, I would like to extend my thanks to Walter Jon Williams, Melinda Snodgra.s.s, Emily Mah, S. M. Stirling, Terry England, Ian Tregillis, Ty Franck, George R. R. Martin and the other members of the New Mexico Critical Ma.s.s Workshop.
I also owe debts of grat.i.tude to Shawna McCarthy and Danny Baror for their enthusiasm and faith in the project, Jim Frenkel for excellent advice, and to my family for supporting me through this very long project.
The Cities of the Khaiem.
BOOK THREE: AN AUTUMN WAR.
Three men came out of the desert. Twenty had gone in.
The setting sun pushed their shadows out behind them, lit their faces a ruddy gold, blinded them. The weariness and pain in their bodies robbed them of speech. On the horizon, something glimmered that was no star, and they moved silently toward it. The farthest tower of Far Galt, the edge of the Empire, beckoned them home from the wastes, and without speaking, each man knew that they would not stop until they stood behind its gates.
The smallest of them s.h.i.+fted the satchel on his back. His gray commander's tunic hung from his flesh as if the cloth itself were exhausted. His mind turned inward, half-dreaming, and the leather straps of the satchel rubbed against his raw shoulder. The burden had killed seventeen of his men, and now it was his to carry as far as the tower that rose up slowly in the violet air of evening. He could not bring himself to think past that.
One of the others stumbled and fell to his knees on wind-paved stones. The commander paused. He would not lose another, not so near the end. And yet he feared bending down, lifting the man up. If he paused, he might never move again. Grunting, the other man recovered his feet. The commander nodded once and turned again to the west. A breeze stirred the low, brownish gra.s.ses, hissing and hus.h.i.+ng. The punis.h.i.+ng sun made its exit and left behind twilight and the wide swath of stars hanging overhead, cold candles beyond numbering. The night would bring chill as deadly as the midday heat.
It seemed to the commander that the tower did not so much come closer as grow, plantlike. He endured his weariness and pain, and the structure that had been no larger than his thumb was now the size of his hand. The beacon that had seemed steady flickered now, and tongues of flame leapt and vanished. Slowly, the details of the stonework came clear; the huge carved relief of the Great Tree of Galt. He smiled, the skin of his lip splitting, wetting his mouth with blood.
'We're not going to die,' one of the others said. He sounded amazed. The commander didn't respond, and some measureless time later, another voice called for them to stop, to offer their names and the reason that they'd come to this twice-forsaken a.s.s end of the world.
When the commander spoke, his voice was rough, rusting with
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