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'It can wait,' Otah said. 'Or if it can't, send for Sinja-cha.'

'The courier's come from Chaburi-Tan,' the servant said. 'The letter is sealed and signed for you alone. He says the issue is urgent.'

Otah cursed under his breath, but he rose. As he stepped out to the antechamber, he heard Danat and Issandra resume the conversation without him. The antechamber felt as close as a grave, heavy tapestries killing any sound from within the greater meeting room. The courier was a young man, hardly more than Danat's age. Otah saw the calm, professional eyes sum him up. If the boy had been longer in the gentleman's trade, Otah would never have noticed it. He accepted the letter and ripped it open there, not waiting for a blade to cut the silk-sewn edging.

The cipher was familiar to him, but it made for slower reading than plain text. It was from the Kajiit Miyan, servant to the Emperor Otah Machi who had founded the Third Empire. Otah skipped down past the honorifics and empty form, decoding words and phrases in his mind until he reached something of actual importance. Then he read more slowly. And then he went back and read it again.

The mercenaries hired to protect Chaburi-Tan were ending their contract and leaving. Within a month, the city would be reduced to its citizen militia. The pirates who had been harrying the city would find them only token resistance. Their options, his agent said, were to surrender and pray for mercy or else flee the city. There would be no defense.

Otah took the servant girl by the elbow.

'Find Balasar. And Sinja. Bring them . . .' Otah looked over his shoulder. 'Bring them to the winter garden of the second palace. Do it now. You. Courier. You'll wait until I have word to take back.'

The twilight world lost its color like a face going pale. Otah paced the lush green and blossomless garden, wrenching his mind from one crisis to the next. A different servant led Balasar into the s.p.a.ce between the willows.

'Find us some light,' Otah said. 'And Sinja-cha. Get Sinja-cha.'

The servant, caught between two needs, hesitated, then hurried off. Otah led Balasar to a low stone bench. The general wore a lighter jacket, silk over cotton. His breath smelled of wine, but he gave no sign of being drunk. Otah looked out at the gray sky, the dark, looming palaces with windows glimmering like stars and cursed Sinja for his absence.

'Balasar-cha, I need you. The Galtic fleet has to travel to Chaburi-Tan, ' Otah said.

He outlined the letter he'd had, the history of increasing raids and attacks, and his half-imagined scheme to show the unity of Galt and the Khaiem. With every word, Balasar seemed to become stiller, until at the end, it was like speaking to stone.

'We can only show unity where it exists,' Balasar said. His voice was low, and in the rising darkness it seemed to come from no direction at all. 'After what happened yesterday, the fleet's as likely to turn on the city as the raiders.

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