'Thank you?' she said.
Otah chuckled ruefully.
'I'm not doing a particularly good job of this, am I?' he said.
'I don't know,' Ana Dasin said after a pause. Her tone carried the s.h.i.+elded contempt of an adolescent for her elders. 'I don't know what you're doing.'
Making his way back through the crowded belly of the s.h.i.+p, Otah wondered what he had thought he would say to a Galtic girl who had seen forty-five fewer summers than himself. He had expected to offer some kind of wisdom, some variety of comfort, and instead it had been like trying to hold a conversation with a cat. Who would have thought a man could be as old as he was, wield the power of empire, and still be so naive as to think his heart would be explicable to an eighteen-year-old girl?
And, of course, as he reached the plank stairway that led up, he found what he wished he had said. He should have said that he knew what courage it took to face sacrifice. He should have said that he knew her suffering was real, and that it was in a n.o.ble cause. It made them alike, the Emperor and the Empress-to-be, that they compromised in order to make the lives of uncountable strangers better.
More than that, he should have encouraged her to speak, and he should have listened.
An approving roar came from the deck above him. A reed organ hummed and sang, flute and drum following a heartbeat later. Otah hesitated and turned back. He would try again. At worst, the girl would think he was ridiculous, and she likely already did that.
As he drew near the hold, he heard her weeping again, her voice straining at words he couldn't make out. A man's voice answered, not her father's. Otah hesitated, then quietly stepped forward.
In the gloom, Ana Dasin knelt, her arms around a young man. The boy, whoever he was, wore the work clothes of a sailor, but his arms were thin and his skin was as pale as the girl's. He returned her embrace, his arms finding their way around her as if through long acquaintance; his tear-streaked face nuzzled her hair. Ana Dasin stroked the boy's head, murmuring rea.s.surances.
Ah, Otah thought as he stepped back, unnoticed. That's how it is.
Above deck, he smiled and nodded at Issandra and pretended to turn his attention back to the music. He wondered how many other sacrifices he had demanded in order to remake the world according to his vision, how many other lovers would be parted to further his little scheme to save two empires. He would likely never know the full price of it. As if in answer, the candles guttered in the breeze, the reed organ took a mournful turn, and the sea through which they sailed grew darker.
The midday sun beat down on the lush green; gnats and flies filled the air. The river - not the Qiit proper but one of its tributaries - threaded its way south like a snake. Maati tied his mule under the wide leaves of a catalpa and
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