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Cast in ruin, p.19
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       Cast in Ruin, p.19

           Michelle Sagara
 

  None of which mattered to Diarmat.

  “The Eternal Emperor is a Dragon, the Lord of Dragons. He was born during the wars between the Barrani and the Dragon flights, and much of the territory now known as the Empire was taken during these wars. The Barrani and the Dragons weren’t the only people living on those lands, although many of the mortals served one or the other in some capacity.” She hesitated, and then said more quietly, “They were often slaves.”

  Lord Diarmat inclined his head, that was all. His eyes didn’t shift color in either direction, and his expression was as cold and disdainful as it always was.

  “They died in greater numbers than either of the Immortal races.”

  “That would be a given. They exist in greater numbers, and they breed quickly. Continue.”

  Here, she hesitated. What she knew of Hoard Law hadn’t been taught in any class. Diarmat was probably the Mallory of the Imperial Palace; accuracy wasn’t as essential as following the rules. Which meant the classroom lectures. Damn it. History of this kind had never seemed important; it wasn’t relevant to her ability to do her job.

  “The Eternal Emperor must have valued the mortal races. He summoned the leaders of the Caste Courts, where they existed—the Leontine leadership is spread out, and diffuse; the human leadership is similar—and they came. He built the Imperial Palace here, and he built it as a dwelling which could house any race. He asked the Caste Courts to do the same thing, and they agreed.”

  “Why did they agree?”

  “They wanted to survive.”

  “Indeed. You ascribe no nobility of purpose to their decision, then?”

  She stopped herself from shrugging with difficulty, but she did stop. “I think some nobility of purpose may have been present, but even absent anything but desperation, they did as he requested. He then told them what he would, and would not, tolerate within the City. It was not so different from what he would tolerate in the rest of the Empire.”

  “Meaning?”

  “If it didn’t bother him, he didn’t care what happened.”

  Diarmat’s eyes did change color then, and not in a good way. High Barrani, damn it. Do not let it slide again.

  “There were difficulties integrating the races within the Imperial City. The Emperor told the Caste Courts that they were to deal with any infractions of his rules. They failed. He then had the choice of dealing with the difficulties himself.”

  “And?”

  “He did this initially. It was a slaughter, and it didn’t diminish the behavior that annoyed him; he hadn’t killed all the people responsible for crimes against his rule, but he had killed hundreds who upheld it. The random deaths of those innocent of any crime had a negative effect. During this period, Barrani Arcanists made use of the chaos to attempt to dethrone the Emperor, relying on the mortals—mostly human—who felt they had been wronged. They failed.” Had she been speaking to anyone but Diarmat—anyone at all—she would have added a few colloquialisms at this juncture.

  “At this point, he had the choice of torching the entire City, or of establishing some sort of martial law. He chose to establish martial law.”

  “For what reason?”

  She towed the party line. “He valued the citizens of his Empire enough to make the attempt to preserve them. He understood that mortals are more flexible and less experienced than Immortals; the Barrani kept out of his way.” Reading between the lines, they’d done this by more or less manipulating stupid mortals into the front lines, but Kaylin was pretty certain Diarmat didn’t read between the lines and wouldn’t appreciate the observation. “The imposition of martial law—and the influx of a large number of armed soldiers—restored some order to the City.

  “The soldiers, however, created the difficulty that any standing army will create. There was a sharp division between soldier and civilian, and the soldiers became a distinct and separate entity. They weren’t trusted; they were feared. They weren’t feared as much as the Dragons would have been feared because they weren’t capable of doing as much damage; they did damage, on the other hand.”

  “And this was not to the Emperor’s liking?”

  “No. He therefore dispersed the small army.”

  “How?”

  “We weren’t taught that.” She could guess; she didn’t offer. “The partial success of the largely mortal army suggested an alternate course to the Emperor. He understood that the army itself stood above the civilians, but they did it by force of arms. In some cases, this was an advantage, but the advantage was temporary. He desired a body of men and women who could supervise said civilians by force of law. He therefore retired for some months with members of the various Caste Courts, and when he once again returned to the Palace, he had the first draft for Imperial Law as it now stands.

  “Having the Law didn’t instantly mean he had a way of enforcing it; he’d had a much less comprehensive set of rules prior to these, and enforcing those had proved problematic, if the goal was preservation of life. He therefore decreed that one building—and one alone—would be built in such a way that it could occupy the same space and height that the Palace did. This building, with its three towers, is now the Halls of Law.

  “The Emperor needed a force of arms that he could command when such force proved necessary. He therefore created the Swords, and tasked them with preserving the peace when peace was not upmost in the minds of his citizens. Mindful of the resentment of the populace at the death of people who were innocent, he then created the Hawks. The Hawks were to investigate known breaches of the Law, and apprehend the criminals. The Hawks were therefore tasked with finding both criminals and proof that the accused had committed crimes against the Empire.

  “The Imperial Courts—peopled by mortals, although, in theory, Barrani and Dragons could serve, as well—were to evaluate the charges, and if the accused were found guilty, to sentence them or censure them, depending on the severity of the crime.

  “In those cases where the criminals were deemed exceptionally dangerous, or in those cases where the criminals escaped the Courts, they were to be hunted and retrieved. He therefore created the third—and the smallest—body of the Halls: the Wolves. The Wolves also served the Halls as investigators of a particular type.”

  Diarmat didn’t appear to be pleased. On the other hand, he wasn’t breathing fire. “Why do you suppose the Eternal Emperor went to these extremes? Surely any breach of his orders constituted justification for the annihilation of those who showed such disrespect?”

  Kaylin exhaled. Heavily. “That wasn’t covered in class,” she finally replied. “The fact that the Emperor saw fit to do so was enough. Our teachers aren’t paid to second-guess the Emperor.”

  For the first time ever, Lord Diarmat cracked a smile. It was remarkably chilly, and just as remarkably brief. “Very good, Private. I will now ask you to answer that question, regardless. Your teachers, past and present, will not be held accountable for your response.”

  “We’re part of his hoard.”

  Diarmat raised a brow. Remembering just how contemptuous he’d been when she’d dared to use the word hoard on their first lesson, Kaylin stiffened. “Continue.”

  Bastard. “I don’t understand hoard law well.”

  “An understatement, but an acceptable demonstration of your awareness of your limitations.”

  “Because I don’t understand hoard law well, I may be misinterpreting. I don’t understand how a hoard is defined, or how it’s chosen. I know that there’s something special about the choosing or gaining of a hoard, and I know it’s pretty much permanent. Dragons don’t have more than one, and they don’t walk away from it; they’re carried away in pieces, if at all.” She grimaced and slid back into High Barrani, momentarily loathing it. “Because I don’t understand how it’s chosen, I cannot speculate more on that. But the Emperor’s hoard is complicated and it is vast.

  “The mortals in the Empire are part of it. He preserves them, as he can, because of that. In my opinion.


  “Very well.” Diarmat rose. “Your answer is crude and short, but I will accept it for the moment. Tell me, if mortals are part of his hoard, how can he destroy you so easily if you displease him?”

  Beats me. Kaylin stopped herself from shrugging. Again. “Just because we’re part of his hoard doesn’t mean we decide how we’re valued and how we’re either kept or tossed away.”

  “Elucidate.”

  She almost surrendered. Almost. Still speaking in less formal language, and trying to choose her words with care, she continued. “It’s like—say we’re apples.”

  “Apples.”

  She nodded. “You can generally tell when an apple is bruised just by looking at it. But that takes time. Even if you have that time, you can’t tell which apples are rotten at the core until you cut them. The apples that are rotten aren’t useful in any way. Those can be discarded. But if you want apples, you can’t discard all of them because some of them might be rotten. Or have worms. We don’t live for all that long. Our time, from birth to death, might pass without ever crossing the Emperor’s path.

  “But in our view, the life from birth to death is long. We’ll see things the Emperor won’t have the opportunity to see. We don’t make all the decisions, but we’re part of the process. Maybe he guards mortals the same way he’d pick apples.”

  Diarmat said nothing, but his eyes were once again bronze. Kaylin took this as a good sign, and continued. “Some of the mortals in the Empire find favor in the Emperor’s eyes. The Imperial Playwright, for instance. There are also positions for poets and various artists—sculptors, painters. There’s a position for a Mage Emeritus, as well.” She knew that the list was longer, and that Severn would probably be able to name each and every such position. “Even if the mortal’s life is brief, things can be created which last—and they come out of the mortal condition. There’s no way to know, at birth, which mortals will have those talents. There’s no indication, or no clear indication, by which to judge babies. We’re therefore all theoretically valuable because that potential exists.”

  “Indeed. It is possible your reputation as a student is not entirely deserved. Very well. I have heard that your duties in the fief of Tiamaris are both onerous and necessary. I am therefore satisfied for this evening. I expect you to be on time two nights hence. I will have a few more questions, but at that time I will also begin to explain suitable methods of Imperial Address for those in your social position.”

  Shock kept Kaylin suitably silent until she reached the main hall. She had no escort to direct her through those halls. The Palace Guard didn’t stop or question her, and she made it to the entrance without incident. The man who habitually greeted guests stopped her before she could escape.

  “Private Neya,” he said in his clipped and well-enunciated speech, “Lord Sanabalis has requested a moment of your time.”

  “Should I follow you?” she asked in Elantran. “I know the way.”

  “He will be waiting in his function rooms, if you wish to proceed there directly.”

  Sanabalis was waiting, as promised. Food, however, was also waiting, and it was infinitely more welcome than a dour Dragon Lord. She handed over the letter, which he received without comment, and took the chair he indicated—the one closest to said food—and began to eat. She was aware, as only an evening with Diarmat could make clear, just how lucky she was to spend time with a Dragon who didn’t demand formality.

  “You appear to have survived your second etiquette lesson.”

  “There wasn’t much etiquette involved,” she replied around a mouthful of soft bread. “But Lord Diarmat’s eyes stayed pretty much in the bronze range for most of it.”

  “What was discussed?”

  “The founding of Imperial Law and the Halls of Law.”

  “I see. Did he ask about the subject of your investigation at all?”

  “No. He said he’d heard it was necessary.”

  “Good. You are never to bring it up. If he asks, you are to answer both truthfully and minimally. Is that understood?” She nodded.

  “You are not, however, to withhold information from me.”

  “Yes, Sanabalis.”

  “I had no chance to speak with Corporal Handred. The difficulty along the border was notably less…intense. It was not, however, absent, and it has slowed the accumulation of language significantly. Did you discover any information of note in the fiefs?”

  “Yes, but I’m not sure what it means, yet.”

  “I am far too weary for games of caution; given your evening with Lord Diarmat, I am deeply surprised that you are not equally weary.” In case his meaning wasn’t clear, he added, “Tell me. If I am required to wait until you are certain, I might, in the parlance of the mortals, lose my temper.”

  She cleared her throat, looked for water, and drank some of it. It didn’t really help. Wine might have, but that hadn’t been supplied with the snack. “Red says the corpses only look human. I think he’s blunted his scalpels. He’s going to request any information on nonmortal autopsies to bring back to the fief when he returns.” Seeing the color of Sanabalis’s eyes, she added, “I’m answering as fast as I can, Sanabalis.

  “In our first foray into the streets for information, we heard something we haven’t been able to confirm.”

  “And that?”

  “She was alive. At least one of the seven women was alive when she arrived in the streets of the fief.”

  “If you were unable to confirm this rumor, how did you come by this information?”

  “There was an eyewitness. Two.”

  “And they are credible?”

  “No. It’s the fiefs. But they’ve got no reason to lie about this. Given it’s the fiefs, their best bet is to shut up, and stay quiet.”

  “Did you bribe them?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you don’t consider the bribe sufficient reason to lie?”

  She did, but there were factors that made the lie very risky. “It wasn’t enough money to take that kind of risk. Tara can’t—and couldn’t—find this woman in the streets; she can find almost anyone else if she puts her mind to it. People are nervous about the Norannir; people are nervous about the Dragon. But…they seem to really like the Lady. We’ve put out word that this is being done on her behalf, and we’re waiting to see if any other word is delivered to the Tower.”

  “Very well. Speak to the Arkon before you leave.”

  It was too damn bad the windows here were invulnerable, because Kaylin considered falling to her death from them would be marginally less painful. The door wards to the Library were fully active, and Sanabalis didn’t bother to touch them; he left that to Kaylin. Her left arm was numb when the doors rolled open, but at least this time she didn’t have to push them.

  The Arkon, however, wasn’t snorting fire in one of the distant rooms of his huge collection; nor was he consulting the hidden, liquid mirror at the very heart of the Imperial Palace. He was sitting behind the front desk—itself longer than the largest of the offices in the Halls of Law. He looked up as they entered, and waved. It wasn’t a greeting; the doors rolled close behind their backs. They didn’t close quietly.

  Kaylin wondered if Dragon eyes in the Palace were ever going to be gold again. The Arkon’s were bronze, and it seemed, at a safe distant, that they were also bloodshot, something she would have bet against being possible. “Private,” the Arkon said, lifting his wizened face. She’d heard the word cockroach said in a friendlier tone, but as his hostility couldn’t hold a candle to Diarmat’s, she didn’t mind.

  “Private Neya has a brief report to tend before she leaves the Palace,” Sanabalis said in quiet High Barrani.

  The Arkon nodded. He set aside the small stack of cards he’d been writing on and rose.

  “The corpses of the seven identical women don’t appear to be human. Or at least two of them; the coroner hasn’t finished his examinations of the rest.”

  “I am aware of that,” was the frost
y reply. “I received an unusual request from the Records in the Halls of Law, and I have yet to decide how to answer it.” Given his tone, one of the answers might be total destruction of said Records. Kaylin, no fool, didn’t ask what the request was; she could guess.

  “Two witnesses in the fiefs claimed to have seen the woman whose image we captured in the crystal,” Kaylin said, moving right along. “They saw her before she died.”

  The Arkon said nothing. It was a loud, brittle nothing and Kaylin wanted to be home and under her bed before it shattered.

  “Did they hear her speak?”

  “Yes, but she wasn’t speaking a language they understood. They thought she was drunk,” she added. “Because she seemed to be unsteady. She fell into the well, and by the time she was retrieved, she was dead. We’re attempting to find out if any of the other six were sighted, moving—or speaking—before their deaths. But…”

  “Yes, Private?”

  “The Tower thinks there is some small possibility that the arrival of the women occurred during the Shadowstorms that appeared in the fief before Tiamaris took the Tower. Tara’s memory of what occurred before Tiamaris became the Tower’s Lord isn’t clear or precise, so we’ve been collating what she does know.”

  “You think it’s likely that seven storms appeared beyond the borders during Barren’s reign?”

  Kaylin nodded.

  “They are unlikely to occur again. Very well, Private. Thank you for your information; you may leave now. If any other corpses appear, you are to notify me immediately. I do not care about the hour; I do not even care if the Court itself is in session. Do I make myself clear?”

  “Yes, Arkon.” Still in one piece—and not notably deafened—Kaylin retreated.

  Marcus hadn’t given explicit orders to report for debriefing. Kaylin was grateful. She went straight home. She even considered flagging down a carriage to get there faster, but she was short on funds, and the streets, at this time, were short on carriages. They were also short on open stalls and most pedestrian traffic. It was quiet and peaceful, and she’d been lacking both in the last few days. Days? Weeks. Maybe months.

 
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