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'I suppose I'll be getting prepared, then,' Balasar said. 'If this isn't a full-dress occasion, I don't know what is.'

'I've sent men to wait for the signal. We should know by nightfall. '

Balasar nodded. All along the highest hills from Nantani to Aren, bonfires were set. If all worked as they hoped, there would be a signal from the agents he had placed in the city, and they would be lit, each in turn. A thin line of fire would reach from the Khaiem to his own door.

'Have a mug of kafe and some bread sent to my rooms,' Balasar said. 'I'll meet you before the ceremony.'

'Not more than that, sir? The bacon's good here . . .'

'After,' Balasar said. 'I'll eat a decent meal after.'

The room given them by the Warden had been in its time a warehouse, a meeting hall, and a temple, the last being the most recent. Tapestries of the Four G.o.ds the Warden wors.h.i.+pped had been taken down, rolled up, and stacked in the corner like carpet. The smooth stone walls were marked with symbols, some familiar to Balasar, others obscure. The eastern wall was covered with the flowing script of the fallen Empire, like a page from a book of poetry. A single pillow rested in the center of the room, and beside it a stack of books, two with covers of ruined leather, one whose cover had been ripped from it, and one last closed in bright metal. It had been years since Balasar had carried those books out of the desert wastes. He nodded to them when he saw them, as if they were old friends or perhaps enemies.

Riaan himself was walking around the room with long, slow strides. He breathed in audibly with one step, blew the air out on the next. His face was deeply relaxed; his arms were swinging free at his sides. To look at the two of them, Balasar guessed he would look more like the man about to face death. He took a pose of respect and greeting. The poet came slowly to a halt, and returned the gesture.

'I trust all is well with you,' Balasar said in the tongue of the Khaiem.

'I am ready,' Riaan said, with a smile that made him seem almost gentle. 'I wanted to thank you, Balasar-cha, for this opportunity. These are strange times that men such as you and I should find common cause. The structures of the Dai-kvo have caused good men to suffer for too many generations. I honor you for the role you have played in bringing me here.'

Balasar bowed his head. Over the years he had known many men whose minds had been touched by wounds - blows from swords or stones, or fevers like the one that had prompted Riaan's fall from favor. Balasar knew how impulsive and unreliable a man could become after such an injury. But he also knew that with many there was also a candor and honesty, if only because they lacked the ability they had once had to dissemble. Against his own will, he found himself touched by the man's words.

'We all do what fate calls us to,' he said. 'It's no particular virtue of mine.'

The poet smiled because he didn't underst

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