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Cast in ruin, p.2
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       Cast in Ruin, p.2

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “I haven’t taken it off since we got back from Evanton’s,” she told him. But she didn’t resent his checking, much. Diarmat wasn’t known for his flexibility. “I’ll see you in the morning. If I’m still alive.” Severn was also penciled in for crazy duty; he minded it less ferociously.

  The very forbidding and starched man whose title she couldn’t recall met her at the doors; he stood well inside them, and somewhat behind the Imperial Guards who gave her a quick once-over. It was cursory, however; the man stepped forward and said in his clipped High Barrani, “Lord Diarmat is expecting you, Private Neya. If you will follow me.”

  She did. She could now reliably make her way to the chambers in which Sanabalis frequently conducted his meetings, and she could—if she were feeling foolishly brave—find the Library unescorted. She had no idea what Diarmat called home—or office—in the Palace, and had she not been certain of finding him in it, she would have been genuinely curious.

  But during the handful of times she’d met him, he’d failed to be anything remotely resembling friendly, and tolerant was a word that she suspected he’d failed to learn, although his High Barrani was otherwise flawless. Severn had said that his Elantran was also flawless—and completely free from colloquialisms. Kaylin had already decided it was best to stick with High Barrani; it was a lot harder to make verbal gaffes in that language.

  The starched man paused in front of a set of double doors that looked suspiciously unlike any classroom doors she’d ever entered. There were no guards at the doors, which was good. The doors were warded, which was bad. Not only were they warded, but there appeared to be two damn wards, one on each door. She glanced at her guide and said without much hope, “I don’t suppose those are just decorative?”

  “No, they are not. You are required to touch both wards; you are not, however, required to touch them at the same time, should you find yourself, for reasons of injury, unable to do so.”

  Kaylin’s natural aversion to magic was not quite as strong as her aversion to having her head bitten off by an angry Dragon Lord, but it was close. She stepped up to the doors, stood in arm’s reach, and grimaced; the wards were higher than shoulder height. She guessed they’d been designed for the regular variety of Imperial Palace Guard; they had, among other things, fairly strict height requirements.

  Grimacing, she placed her left palm on the left-door ward, and felt the strong bite of magic travel up her arm so forcefully her arm went numb. The ward, however, began to glow; it wasn’t a comforting sight, given that the light was a sickly, pulsing green. Any hope that her guide had been wrong vanished; the door didn’t budge. Aware of his presence, she kept her teeth shut firmly over the Leontine words that were trying to leap out, and lifted her hand again.

  It was her left hand. She was right-handed, and with her luck, the first thing Diarmat would do was ask her to write some long Barranian test; she couldn’t afford to have a numb, useless writing hand. It was awkward, but she lifted her left arm again—without cursing—and placed her palm more or less in the center of its damn ward.

  The door ward began to glow a livid, pale purple. It hurt to touch, and given her arm was half-numb, this said something. Unfortunately, the door wards also said something—and from the sounds of the echo, it was in Dragon. She did curse, but then Leontine spoken with a human throat couldn’t possibly be audible over the racket the ward had caused.

  To make matters worse—as if the universe needed to remind her that they could be—the hall, which was long and high ceilinged, began to fill with Imperial Palace Guards. Her starched guide didn’t blink or move as she turned to face them. Give them this: they were impressive. They wore heavier armor than patrolling Hawks, they carried large swords, and they moved in frightening unison, as if this were some arcane drill and they’d be demoted if one foot was out of place.

  She doubted she’d appreciate it more if their weapons had not, in fact, been pointing toward her. She didn’t bother drawing her own; all she had at the moment were daggers, and one numb hand. Instead, she lifted her hands—slowly—and stood very still. The doors at her back rolled open.

  “Thank you, gentlemen,” a familiar voice said. “That will be all.”

  He received one very noisy salute—gauntlets did that in an otherwise silent hall—as she turned to face him. She could hear the guards form up and retreat, but didn’t bother to watch them leave. Instead, she faced Lord Diarmat of the Dragon Court.

  He was slightly taller than Tiamaris, and he had the broad—and, sadly, muscular—build of Dragons in human form; he also had Dragon eyes. His lower membranes muted their color, but in this light, they were gold, although the gold seemed tinted with orange. Then again, gold was a happy color, and she doubted that someone with an expression that consistently severe could be happy. He was not, however, dressed in natural Dragon armor; he wore robes with a distinct Imperial Crest blazoned across the chest.

  “Lord Diarmat,” she said, tendering as formal a bow as she could.

  “I see that reports of your tardiness are exaggerated.” He glanced at the doors. “And reports of your effect on some of the more formal wards are not.”

  She managed to say nothing.

  “Nor, it appears, are reports about the need for some formal structure in your interactions with the Imperial Court.” He looked past her to the man who had led her here. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “Please send someone in two hours to escort Private Neya out; she is not, I believe, familiar with the Palace.”

  The man nodded briskly. “Lord Diarmat,” he said, and then turned and walked off.

  Diarmat now gestured toward the room behind the offending doors. “Please,” he said. “Enter.”

  The room was, as the doors suggested, large. The ceilings were at least as high as the ones that characterized the public halls, and the walls were thirty feet away from the open doors on all sides. The whole of the office Kaylin generally called home would have comfortably fit in the space, although some of the furniture would have to be moved to accommodate it. There were two desks in the far corner, and an arrangement of chairs around one central table of medium height; there was a long table that seemed like a dining table, although no similar chairs were tucked beneath it.

  Windows opened into a courtyard that had no view of the Halls of Law—and no view of the streets of the City, either; instead, there were stones that were arranged at various heights and distances, as if it were meant to be a garden. She saw doors leading out of the room to either side. This was as far from a typical classroom as a room could get. She glanced at Diarmat, waiting for his instructions.

  He didn’t bother with them. Instead, he crossed the room and headed toward his desk. It was unblemished, and no mounds of paperwork teetered precariously anywhere in sight; there was an inkstand, and three small bars of wax. Even paper was absent. He took the chair behind the desk, and then frowned at the doors behind Kaylin.

  “Should I close them?”

  He spoke a single curt word and the doors began to roll shut on their own, which was all of his reply. He then stared at her, unblinking, until she made her way to the front of the desk.

  He took parchment out of a desk drawer, placed it—dead center—on its surface, and uncapped his ink. “You have been a student of Lord Sanabalis for some months now.”

  “Yes.”

  “You have, however, shown little progress in the classes he teaches.”

  It was a bit of a sore point, because little progress, to Kaylin’s mind, meant waste of time. On the other hand, at least she was paid to attend Sanabalis’s mandatory classes.

  “Lord Sanabalis, under the auspices of the Imperial Order of Mages, has developed a level of tolerance for the lazy and the inexact that is almost unheard of among our kind. Mages are not generally considered either stable or biddable; were it not for the necessity of some of their services, and the existence of the Arcanum as a distinctly less welcome alternative, they would not be tolerated at all.” His tone made
clear that were it up to him, neither the Imperial Order nor the Arcanum would be long for this world.

  Which was a pity, because Kaylin agreed with him, and this might be the only point on which there would be any common ground. Defending either organization was not, however, her job.

  “I am not Lord Sanabalis. What he tolerates, I will not tolerate. I have perused some of your previous academic records, but not in any depth; I no longer consider them relevant. You were not raised in an environment with strong Barrani influences, and you will therefore have little understanding of the way in which those influences govern some parts of the Palace.

  “They are not, however, your chief concern. I am told that you have a strong grasp of High Barrani. When the Court is in session, the language of choice defaults to High Barrani in the presence of races that are not Dragon. Were you not required to interact with the Emperor, neither you, nor I, would be required to waste time in this endeavor.” His tone made clear whose time he thought more valuable. “You will, however, be required to speak.

  “Speech, were it the only requirement, you might be able to manage. Because you are considered worthy of such a privilege, however, correct form and behavior will be assumed. Any deviation from those forms will be seen as a breach, not of etiquette, but of respect. Disrespect of the Emperor is ill advised.”

  She nodded. This didn’t make his expression any friendlier, and it didn’t make her any happier; she bit back any words to that effect, and instead said, “What did I do wrong when you appeared at the doors?” She spoke as smoothly and neutrally as possible, but she couldn’t quite stop her cheeks from reddening.

  He raised a Dragon brow. “That,” he told her, “is an almost perceptive question.”

  Not perceptive enough to answer? She waited. The problem with immortals was that, short of immediate emergencies, they had forever; what seemed a long time to a normal person was insignificant to them. Their arrogance seemed to stem from the fact that they’d seen and experienced so much more than a mortal could achieve in an entire lifetime, it negated mortal experience.

  Kaylin didn’t like being treated like a child in the best of circumstances—no one did—but Immortals always felt they were dealing with children when mortals were involved. Some were just way better at hiding it. Diarmat clearly couldn’t be bothered. She waited, and he returned to the paper beneath his hands and began to write. She could actually read upside-down writing; it was one of the things she’d figured out when boredom had taken hold in her early classes and she was trying to be less obvious about it. But in this case, she had a suspicion he’d notice, and it seemed career limiting.

  She was also no longer a bored student; she was here as a Hawk, not a mascot. She left her hands loosely by her sides, and stared at a point just past his left shoulder while she waited for some instruction—to sit, to stand, to go away, to answer questions. Anything.

  What felt like half an hour later she was still standing in front of his damn desk, and he was still writing. He had told her nothing at all about the rules that governed the Imperial Court or its meetings. He hadn’t spoken of any particular style of dress, hadn’t given her any information about forms of address, hadn’t demonstrated any of the salutes or bows with which one might open speech. Since she’d managed to eat something on the hurried walk over, her stomach didn’t embarrass her by speaking when she wouldn’t.

  At the end of the page, he looked up. Folding the paper in three he reached for wax, and this, he melted by the simple expedient of breathing on it slightly. He then pressed a small seal into what had fallen on the seam. He reached across the desk and handed her the letter. “This,” he said, “is for the perusal of Lord Grammayre on the morrow.” He rose, and made his way out from behind his bastion of a desk; there, he exhaled. It was loud.

  “Very well,” he said, as if he was vaguely disappointed. “You have some ability to display patience. Your posture is not deplorable. Your ability to comport yourself does not directly affect the respect in which the Halls of Law are now held.” He spoke in crisp, perfectly enunciated High Barrani. He now opened a drawer, and a thick sheaf of papers appeared on the desk.

  These, Kaylin thought, would be the various educational reports he had barely, in his own words, perused.

  He handed them to her; she slid the letter to the Hawklord into her tunic, and took the offending pile, glancing briefly at what lay on top of it. Transcripts, yes. To her surprise, the first one was not a classroom diatribe from a frustrated or angry teacher.

  “This is a case report,” she said before she could stop herself.

  “It is.” He walked around to her side. “Do you recognize it?”

  She nodded.

  “You were working in concert with two Barrani Hawks.”

  “Teela and Tain,” she said. She didn’t flip through the report; she knew which case this was. All boredom or irritation fled, then.

  “It was, I believe, the breaking of a child-prostitution ring.”

  “It was.”

  “Do you recall the chain of events that led to the deaths of some of the men involved?”

  She nodded again, although it was almost untrue: she didn’t remember the end clearly at all. She remembered her utter, unstoppable rage. And she remembered the deaths that rage—and her unbridled magic—had caused.

  His silence could have meant many things, but since his face was as expressive as cold stone, she didn’t bother to look at him.

  “I would like you to peruse the rest of the documents,” he finally said.

  She did. It wasn’t a small pile—although it wasn’t Leontine in proportion—but there really weren’t that many cases in which she’d lost control of her inexplicable magic to such devastating effect; she had literally skinned a man alive. She didn’t regret it. Not in any real way. He would have died anyway, after his trial. But…the trial had been moot, and Marcus had not been happy.

  The next report made her right hand tighten into a white-knuckled fist before she got halfway down the first page. It wasn’t a case report. It wasn’t a report that the Halls of Law would ever generate.

  It was, instead, a report on the Guild of Midwives. She almost dropped the report on the desk. Instead, she forced her hand to relax—as much as it could—while she read. It detailed all the emergency call-ins she’d done—and it detailed, in some cases, the results. She lifted the top page. Her memory wasn’t the best, but she thought, looking briefly at dates and commentary, none in a hand she recognized, that it was more complete than anything she could have written for him, had he asked.

  Grim, she flipped through the pile, and was unsurprised to see that he also had a similar report for each visit she’d made to Evanton’s shop on Elani street. This angered her less; she knew the Dragon Court spied on Evanton.

  There was a brief report of her visits to the High Halls, again not much to fuss about; there was a report on every visit she had made in recent months to the fiefs—any fief crossing. There was a report that followed her movements to, and from, both the Leontine Quarter and the Tha’alani Quarter. Diarmat was silent as she read, as if waiting for a reaction she didn’t want to give him the pleasure of seeing.

  But the final report was of the Foundling Hall.

  CHAPTER 2

  It took all the self-control Kaylin had ever mastered not to crumple the document into a ball and throw it. She couldn’t even read it, although her eyes grazed the words, recognizing dates and familiar names.

  “So,” Diarmat said in his cool, clipped voice. She forced herself to meet his gaze—or she tried. He wasn’t looking at her face; he was staring, inner membranes fully extended, at her wrist. She glanced at it. The gems on the bracer she wore were flashing brightly enough that they could be clearly seen through layers of clothing.

  The lights cut through her anger as if they were a cold, cold dagger.

  Get a grip, she told herself. It’s a piece of paper. It’s just another damn piece of paper. It’s not like all th
e rest of the reports didn’t make clear that the Court had followed every damn move she’d made for years; why would she expect they’d somehow miss her visits to the Foundling Hall? She took a slow, deep breath—the type of breath she’d learned to take when she’d been injured and she was in pain.

  The lights on the bracer began to dim, but they dimmed slowly.

  Only when they were no longer visible did she turn to face Diarmat, the reports shaking in her tightened hands. Without a single word, she handed them back to him. He waited for a minute before nodding and retrieving them. “That will be all.”

  She turned and made her way toward the doors, but stopped before she touched them and turned back. “They’re my hoard,” she told him quietly. She didn’t have to shout; Dragons, like Leontines, had a very acute sense of hearing.

  His eyes were a pale shade of copper. “You are mortal,” he replied with no hesitation whatsoever. “Mortals neither have, nor understand, the concept. The word hoarding,” he added with genuine distaste, “is possibly as close as your inferior race can come.”

  She turned instantly on her heel and pushed the doors open; words were burning the insides of her mouth, and she couldn’t let them out in his earshot. But when the doors were halfway open, he said, “Private.” Human hearing was inferior, and he hadn’t raised his voice; he wasn’t speaking his native tongue. She pretended not to hear him, and escaped into the hall.

  She was halfway down that hall—her guide having failed to materialize—when she ran into Sanabalis. Sadly, head down, body tilted in that particular forward angle that was a fast walk threatening to break into an all-out run, it was literal. She bounced; he didn’t budge. A half-formed apology slid out of her mouth as she righted herself and looked up.

 
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