About the Author
Neil Shah is an Audie Award-nominated narrator and AudioFile Earphones Award winner who has recorded over one hundred audiobooks. A classically trained actor with an MFA from the Old Globe/University of San Diego program, Neil has appeared off-Broadway and on regional stages, as well as in film and television.
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The Price of Spring
Book Four of the Long Price Quartet
By Daniel Abraham
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Daniel Abraham
All rights reserved.
It was the fifth month of the Emperor's self-imposed exile. The day had been filled, as always, with meetings and conversations and appreciations of artistic tableaux. Otah had retired early, claiming a headache rather than face another banquet of heavy, overspiced Galtic food.
The night birds in the garden below his window sang unfamiliar songs. The perfume of the wide, pale flowers was equal parts sweetness and pepper. The rooms of his suite were hung with heavy Galtic tapestries, knotwork soldiers slaughtering one another in memory of some battle of which Otah had never heard.
It was, coincidentally, the sixty-third anniversary of his birth. He hadn't chosen to make it known; the High Council might have staged some further celebration, and he had had a bellyful of celebrations. In that day, he had been called upon to admire a gold- and jewel-encrusted clockwork whose religious significance was obscure to him; he had moved in slow procession down the narrow streets and through the grand halls with their awkward, blocky architecture and their strange, smoky incense; he had spoken to two members of the High Council to no observable effect. At this moment, he could be sitting with them again, making the same points, suffering the same deflections. Instead, he watched the thin clouds pass across the crescent moon.
He had become accustomed to feeling alone. It was true that with a word or a gesture he could summon his counselors or singing slaves, scholars or priests. Another night, he might have, if only in hope that this time it would be different; that the company would do something more than remind him how little comfort it provided. Instead, he went to the ornate writing desk and took what solace he could.
I have done what I said I would do. I have come to our old enemies, I have pled my case and pled and pled and pled, and now I suppose I'll plead some more. The full council is set to make their vote in a week's time. I know I should go out and do more, but I swear that I've spoken to everyone in this city twice over, and tonight, I'd rather be here with you. I miss you.
They tell me that all widowers suffer this sense of being halved, and they tell me it fades. It hasn't faded. I suspect age changes the nature of time. Four years may be an epoch for young men, to me it's hardly the space between one breath and the next. I want you to be here to tell me your thoughts on the matter. I want you here. I want you back.
I've had word from Danat and Sinja. They seem to be running the cities effectively enough in my absence, but apart from our essential problem, there are a thousand other threats. Pirates have raided Chaburi-Tan, and there are stories of armed companies from Eddensea and the Westlands exacting tolls on the roads outside the winter cities. The trading houses are bleeding money badly; no one indentures themselves as an apprentice anymore. Artisans are having to pay for workers. Even seafront laborers are commanding wages higher than anything I made as a courier. The high families of the utkhaiem are watching their coffers drain like a holed bladder. It makes them restless. I have had two separate petitions to allow forced indenture for what they call "critical labor." I haven't given an answer. When I go home, I suppose I'll have to.
Otah paused, the tip of his pen touching the brick of ink. Something with wide, pale wings the size of his hands and eyes as black and wet as river stones hovered at the window and then vanished. A soft breeze rattled the open shutters. He pulled back the sleeve of his robe, but before the bronze tip touched the paper, a soft knock came at his door.
"Most High," the servant boy said, his hands in a pose of obeisance. "Balasar-cha requests an audience."
Otah smiled and took a pose that granted the request and implied that the guest should be brought to him here, the nuance only slightly hampered by the pen still in his hand. As the servant scampered out, Otah straightened his sleeves and stuck the pen nib-first into the ink brick.
Once, Balasar Gice had led armies against the Khaiem, and only raw chance had kept him from success. Instead of leading Galt to its greatest hour, he had precipitated its slow ruin. That the Khaiem shared that fate took away little of the sting. The general had spent years rebuilding his broken reputation, and even now was less a force within Galt than once he had been.
And still, he was a man to be reckoned with.
He came into the room, bowing to Otah as he always did, but with a wry smile which was reserved for occasions out of the public eye.
"I came to inquire after your health, Most High," Balasar Gice said in the language of the Khaiem. His accent hadn't lessened in the years since they had met. "Councilman Trathorn was somewhat relieved by your absence, but he had to pretend distress."
"Well, you can tell him his distress in every way mirrors my own," Otah said. "I couldn't face it. I've been too much in the world. There is only so much praise I can stand from people who'd be happy to see my head on a plate. Please, sit. I can have a fire lit if you're cold. ..."
Balasar sat on a low couch beside the window. He was a small man, more than half a head shorter than Otah, with the force of personality that made it easy to forget. The years had weathered his face, grooves at the corners of his eyes and mouth that spoke as much of laughter as sorrow. They had met a decade and a half ago in the snow-covered square that had been the site of the last battle in the war between Galt and the Khaiem. A war that they had both lost.
The years since had seen his status in his homeland collapse and then slowly be rebuilt. He wasn't a member of the convocation, much less the High Council, but he was still a man of power within Galt. When he sat forward, elbows resting on his knees, Otah could imagine him beside a campfire, working through the final details of the next morning's attack.
"Otah," the former general said, falling into his native tongue, "what is your plan if the vote fails?"
Otah leaned back in his chair.
"I don't see why it should," Otah said. "All respect, but what Sterile did, she did to both of us. Galt is in just as much trouble as the cities of the Khaiem. Your men can't father children. Our women can't bear them. We've gone almost fifteen years without children. The farms are starting to feel the loss. The armies. The trades."
"I know all that," Balasar said, but Otah pressed on.
"Both of our nations are going to fall. They've been falling, but we're coming close to the last chance to repair it. We might be able to weather a single lost generation, but if there isn't another after that, Galt will become Eymond's back gardens, and the Khaiem will be eaten by whoever can get to us first. You know that Eymond is only waiting for your army to age into weakness."
"And I know there are other peoples who weren't cursed," Balasar said. "Eymond, certainly. And the Westlands. Bakta. Obar State."
"And there are a handful of half-bred children from matches like those in the coastal cities," Otah said. "They're born to high families that can afford them and hoarded away like treasure. And there are others whose blood was mixed. Some have borne. Might that be enough, do you think?"
Balasar's smile was thin.
"It isn't," he said. "They won't suffice. Children can't be rarer than silk and lapis. So few might as well be none. And why should Eymond or Eddensea or the Westlands send their sons here to make families, when they can wait a few more years and take what they want from a nation of geriatrics? If the Khaiem and the Galts don't become one, we'll both be forgotten. Our land will be taken, our cities will be occupied, and you and I will spend our last years picking wild berries and stealing eggs out of nests, because there won't be farm hands enough to keep us in bread."
"That was my thought as well," Otah said.
"So, no fallback position, eh?"
"None," Otah said. "It was raw hell getting the utkhaiem to agree to the proposal I've brought. I take it the vote is going to fail?"
"The vote is going to fail," Balasar said.
Otah sat forward, his face cradled in his palms. The slight, acrid smell of old ink on his fingers only made the darkness behind his closed lids deeper.
Five months before, he had wrestled the last of the language in his proposed treaty with Galt into shape. A hundred translators from the high families and great trading houses had offered comment and correction, and small wars had been fought in the halls and meeting rooms of his palace at Utani, sometimes resulting in actual blows. Once, memorably, a chair had been thrown and the chief overseer of House Siyanti had suffered a broken finger.
Otah had set forth with an entourage of hundreds — court servants, guards, representatives of every interest from Machi in the far, frozen north to the island city of Chaburi-Tan, where ice was a novelty. The ships had poured into the harbor flying brightly dyed sails and more banners and good-luck pennants than the world had ever seen. For weeks and months, Otah had made his arguments to any man of any power in the bizarre, fluid government of his old enemy. And now, this.
"Can I ask why?" he said, his eyes still closed.
"Pride," Balasar said. Otah heard the sympathy in the softness of his voice. "No matter how prettily you put it, you're talking about putting our daughters in bed under your sons."
"And rather than that, they'll let everything die?" Otah said, looking up at last. Balasar's gaze didn't waver. When the old Galt spoke, it was with a sense of reason and consideration that might almost have made a listener forget that he was one of the men he spoke of.
"You don't understand the depth to which these people have been damaged. Every man on that council was hurt by you in a profound, personal way. Most of them have been steeping in the shame of it since the day it happened. They are less than men, and in their minds, it's because of the Khaiem. If someone had humiliated and crippled you, how would you feel about marrying your Eiah to him?"
"And none of them will see sense?"
"Some will," Balasar said, his gaze steady as stone. "Some of them think what you've suggested is the best hope we have. Only not enough to win the vote."
"So I have a week. How do I convince them?" Otah asked.
Balasar's silence was eloquent.
"Well," Otah said. And then, "Can I offer you some particularly strong distilled wine?"
"I think it's called for," Balasar said. "And you'd mentioned something about a fire against the cold."
Otah hadn't known, when the great panoply of Khaiate ships had come with himself at the front, what his relationship with Balasar Gice would be. Perhaps Balasar had also been uneasy, but if so it had never shown. The former general was an easy man to like, and the pair of them had experienced things — the profound sorrow of commanders seeing their miscalculations lead loyal men to the slaughter, the eggshell diplomacy of a long winter in close quarters with men who had been enemies in autumn, the weight that falls on the shoulders of someone who has changed the face of the world. There were conversations, they discovered, that only the two of them could have. And so they had become at first diplomats, then friends, and now something deeper and more melancholy. Fellow mourners, perhaps, at the sickbeds of their empires.
The night wore on, the moon rising through the clouds, the fire in its grate flickering, dying down to embers before being fed fresh coal and coming to life again. They talked and they laughed, traded jokes and memories. Otah was aware, as he always was, of a distant twinge of guilt at enjoying the company of a man who had killed so many innocents in his war against the Khaiem and the andat. And as always, he tried to set the guilt aside. It was better to forget the ruins of Nantani and the bodies of the Dai-kvo and his poets, the corpses of Otah's own men scattered like scythed wheat and the smell of book paste catching fire. It was better, but it was difficult. He knew he would never wholly succeed.
He was more than half drunk when the conversation turned to his unfinished letter, still on his desk.
"It's pathetic, I suppose," Otah said, "but it's the habit I've made."
"I don't think it's pathetic," Balasar said. "You're keeping faith with her. With what she was to you, and what she still is. That's admirable."
"Tends toward the maudlin, actually," Otah said. "But I think she'd forgive me that. I only wish she could write back. There were things she'd understand in an instant that I doubt I'd ever have come to. If she were here, she'd have found a way to win the vote."
"I can't see that," Balasar said ruefully.
Otah took a pose of correction that spilled a bit of the wine from his bowl.
"She had a different perspective," Otah said. "She was ...she ..."
Otah's mind shifted under him, struggling against the fog. There was something. He'd just thought it, and now it was almost gone again. Kiyan-kya, his beloved wife, with her fox-sharp face and her way of smiling. Something about the ways that the world she'd seen were different from his own experience. The way talking with her had been like living twice ...
"Otah?" Balasar said, and Otah realized it wasn't the first time.
"Forgive me," Otah said, suddenly short of breath. "Balasar-cha, I think ...will you excuse me? There's something I need to ..."
Otah put his wine bowl on the desk and walked to the door of his rooms. The corridors of the suite were dark, only the lowest of servants still awake, cleaning the carpets and polishing the latches. Eyes widened and hands fluttered as Otah passed, but he ignored them. The scribes and translators were housed in a separate building across a flagstone square. Otah passed the dry fountain in its center before the thought that had possessed him truly took form. He had to restrain himself from laughing.
The chief scribe was so dead asleep that Otah had to shake the woman twice. When consciousness did come into her eyes, her face went pale. She took a pose of apology that Otah waved away.
"How many of your best calligraphers can work in Galtic?"
"All of them, Most High," the chief scribe said. "It's why I brought them."
"How many? How many can we put to work now, tonight?"
"Ten?" she said as if it were a question.
"Wake them. Get them to their desks. Then I'll need a translator in my apartments. Or two. Best get two. An etiquette master and a trade specialist. Now. Go, now! This won't wait for morning."
On the way back to his rooms, his heart was tripping over, but his mind was clearing, the alcohol burning off in the heat of his plan. Balasar was seated where Otah had left him, an expression of bleary concern on his face.
"Is all well?"
"All's excellent," Otah said. "No, don't go. Stay here, Balasar-cha. I have a letter to write, and I need you."
"I can't convince the men on the council. You've said as much. And if I can't talk to the men who wield the power, I'll talk to the women who wield the men. Tell me there's a councilman's wife out there who doesn't want grandchildren. I defy you to."
"I don't understand," Balasar said.
"I need a list of the names of all the councilmen's wives. And the men of the convocation. Theirs too. Perhaps their daughters if ... Well, those can wait. I'm going to draft an appeal to the women of Galt. If anyone can sway the vote, it's them."
"And you think that would work?" Balasar asked, incredulity in his expression.
In the event, Otah's letter seemed for two full days to have no effect. The letters went out, each sewn with silk thread and stamped with Otah's imperial seal, and no word came back. He attended the ceremonies and meals, the entertainments and committee meetings, his eyes straining for some hint of change like a snow fox waiting for the thaw. It was only on the morning of the third day, just as he was preparing to send a fresh wave of appeals to the daughters of the families of power, that his visitor was announced.
Excerpted from The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham. Copyright © 2009 Daniel Abraham. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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