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Cast in ruin, p.36
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       Cast in Ruin, p.36

           Michelle Sagara
 

  Bellusdeo, having had enough of mocking her poor Ascendant, now did likewise, and Maggaron put her down.

  “You are in the lands of Tiamaris,” Tiamaris told her, “and you are both a welcome and honored guest.” There might have been a little too much emphasis on the last word; it was hard to tell. “If you would be amenable, we might repair to the Tower.”

  “The Tower?”

  “Yes. It is where your other eight bodies are currently being stored.”

  She raised a brow, and the teasing smile fell away from her face. “Yes,” she told him quietly. “I would be amenable. Perhaps you can tell me what’s happened since I last saw this world. Dragons didn’t spend all that much time in human cities, here, that I recall.”

  “This is not entirely a human city,” the fieflord replied.

  “Oh?”

  “It houses many races. The Aerians. The Leontines. The Tha’alani.”

  “I don’t think I know the last one.”

  “Ah. You will.” He offered her an arm and she stared at it. Kaylin had done pretty much the same thing on her visit to the High Halls, and had to stop herself from smiling.

  The Arkon, however, did not. He lifted a hand to his brow and massaged it. “Bellusdeo,” he said quietly, “much has changed in your absence. There has been war, peace, and war, but those are perhaps not the most significant. While this city is largely populated by mortals, it also houses a number of Barrani Lords.”

  Her golden brows rose into her hairline.

  “The mortals and the Court intermingle from time to time, and certain…forms…are observed. One of them would be the one which is causing you such consternation. For the moment, however, it is not significant.”

  “Ah. And what is?”

  “Your presence here. It will be of significance for all of Dragonkind, whether they wake or sleep.” His eyes narrowed. “And I believe, from your current behavior, that you already suspect this.”

  Her smile was impish, young, and very, very un-Dragon-like. “Maybe,” she said. “Maggaron, come.”

  He was standing a ways back from Bellusdeo and the two Dragons, his head hanging a little low.

  “Honestly, what is it this time?”

  “I don’t—”

  She walked over to him, caught his arm, and almost dragged him off his feet, demonstrating that size and strength in this case didn’t match. “I don’t have time for your sense of propriety. You’re the only person who remembers, and without your intervention, I would never have escaped the enemy. If anyone has a right to be by my side, it’s you.” She smacked the side of his head, but gently.

  He made no further argument, but he did eye both of the Dragons with an expression of pained humility.

  Tiamaris led her away, Maggaron in tow, trying at eight feet, or as close as made no difference, to somehow be smaller than the two Dragons behind whom he walked. Kaylin turned to Severn, who was quietly tending the burns on one arm. In almost the same tone as Bellusdeo had used, she said, “What are you doing?”

  Severn, however, was not Maggaron. He held out his arm, and she took it between both of her palms. In silence, she whispered the marks on her own arms to life, and they glowed gently—and visibly—while she healed the injuries he’d taken. She then looked up to where the Arkon was surprisingly still waiting.

  “Arkon?”

  “Touch me and I will have your hands removed,” he replied.

  “It’s not that I have anything against your suffering,” she replied, although she stayed clear of his injuries. “But these days, when you’re suffering, I’m generally suffering, as well. Can I ask a question?”

  “Can I prevent it?”

  He was in a remarkably good mood, considering the presence of the Outcaste. Good enough that Kaylin took a chance.

  “There aren’t many other Dragon females around, are there?”

  He lifted one brow. “It is not much discussed,” he said after a long enough pause she’d almost given up on an answer. “But as it no doubt will be, I will tell you. There weren’t any, as you have already deduced. There is now one.”

  Kaylin stared down the street; the lone female Dragon in question was just disappearing around a corner. “And the Outcaste wanted her?”

  “She figured prominently in his plans, yes. But as you will also no doubt discover, and in very short time, one doesn’t make plans that involve someone like Bellusdeo without consulting her first. She was always headstrong.”

  “What’s going to happen to her?” Kaylin asked as she began to walk down the street.

  “She will learn about the Empire. I have a few ideas in that general direction,” he added with a smile that verged on malicious.

  “I mean, in general. In the future.”

  “Did you not hear me? I said one doesn’t make plans for Bellusdeo. If we have hopes, they are unspoken, and they will remain that way. With luck, she will come to understand the whole of our hopes when she understands the situation.”

  “And if she doesn’t?”

  “As long as she is alive, Private, we have forever.”

  CHAPTER 23

  It should have been over, Kaylin thought as she trudged across the Ablayne—by footbridge—toward her home. She’d taken the time to eat at the Tower, and dearly wished she hadn’t, since every single time she’d picked up a utensil of any description—fork, knife, spoon, or glass, which admittedly wasn’t a utensil—she’d been offered helpful advice. Tara’s. The two Dragon Lords had been notably silent during these helpful rounds of commentary. The food, however, had cooled.

  The third Dragon present hadn’t bothered with the silence. Because she was a guest, and because she was a Dragon, her constant interruptions—mostly to point out how unnecessary all this so-called etiquette seemed, to her eye—had been both bane and boon. Boon because she could freely say every single word that Kaylin had been thinking; bane because she did, absent the cursing, and no one even blinked.

  Apparently, Immortal Dragons weren’t expected to have the manners that Kaylin was. Even the Ascendant—if that word really applied now—was given a pass; he ate large portions of everything with his bloody fingers. And wiped them on the tablecloth. And got to burp.

  Sanabalis joined them midway through dinner. He was well-dressed, unlike the Arkon, who had resorted to Dragon armor in the absence of his usual librarian robes; while he had, in theory, removed the old ones to preserve them, they hadn’t proved immune to fire. On the other hand, about fifteen minutes after Sanabalis’s arrival, this was remedied. Kaylin, food practically congealing, was grateful for Sanabalis’s presence because it momentarily distracted Tara. Her attention, however, came back.

  When it did, Kaylin gritted her teeth and attempted to memorize each and every agonizing detail about the use of a damn fork. Even if she hated it—and she did—she understood that she’d be required to know it. And having Tara’s gentle, if pedantic, correction had to be better than dealing with Diarmat. Losing teeth was better than dealing with Diarmat.

  She surfaced from her lessons—and her cold food, and Tara’s concern that the food wasn’t to her taste because she’d eaten so little of it, gods having a sense of humor that was black—when she heard the raised voices at the Dragons’ end of the table. They were, however, speaking Barrani.

  Severn caught her eye before she dumped her knife, fork, and napkin to rise. He shook his head. “Just stick with the dinner,” he told her quietly, although his expression had made it perfectly clear.

  “I just want to know—”

  “They’re arguing with Bellusdeo. I’ll hazard a guess that you really don’t want to know.”

  Tara, however, said, “They’re arguing about where she’s staying.”

  Kaylin blinked.

  “She has some idea of where she’d like to stay for the next little while, and they don’t like it.”

  A sinking feeling that had very little to do with the excruciating, off-the-cuff dining lessons destroyed what little re
mained of her appetite. “What do you mean?”

  Tara frowned. “I mean—”

  “Isn’t she staying here?” Kaylin added quickly, hoping to divert a discussion on the literal use of words. For once, she succeeded.

  “My Lord offered, but he didn’t expect the offer to be accepted,” was the Tower’s very serious reply.

  “Why not?”

  “It is his fief. Bellusdeo can be a guest here, but…she will be very important to the Empire, or the Emperor.”

  “You probably can’t divide the two,” Kaylin pointed out.

  “No. Lord Sanabalis has been most clear; the Emperor is grateful for my Lord’s offer, but the Emperor considers it unnecessary.”

  “And that means—”

  “It will anger him greatly, yes.”

  “Fine. I don’t see what the problem is. The Palace is a bloody big place; she can probably have whole floors to herself.”

  Tara nodded again.

  “…She doesn’t want to stay at the Palace.”

  “No. I’m not sure why, but she doesn’t.”

  “Didn’t she say why?”

  “No.”

  Kaylin gave up on food entirely. “Please don’t tell me there’s somewhere specific she’s decided she’d like to stay.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I have a bad feeling I know where she thinks she’s going to stay if she does.”

  Tara frowned. “She wants to stay with you.”

  Kaylin dropped her forehead to the dining table. It made a loud thunk, and hurt. Not, on the other hand, as much as the idea of having a guest in her tiny apartment did at the moment. Before Tara could panic—or, worse, ask questions—she lifted her head again. “I live in a one-room apartment. Not a one-bedroom apartment, a one-room apartment. Bellusdeo was called the Queen of the bloody Dragons; she’s got to be used to better than that.”

  “She was called—”

  “It’s emphatic. I know what she was actually called. Or some of it. Look—one room. One small room. No closets. No staff. The place is enough of a mess that I find it dangerous to walk across the floor. There’s no security, and I can bet the Emperor is just going to love that. It’s out of the question, Tara.”

  Tara nodded. “He won’t like it.”

  “I also get mirrored at odd hours of the night and morning. She won’t get much in the way of sleep—”

  “Dragons don’t require sleep.”

  “I require sleep. And I won’t get much sleep if I know the Emperor is sitting on his throne pissed off at me because she’s staying at my place.”

  “I doubt he’ll be angry at you, as it won’t be your choice.”

  “You don’t know how people in power work. She’s not a safe person to be angry at, apparently. He’s going to be angry. I’m, in theory, paid by him, so guess who that leaves as the target?”

  “I doubt the Emperor will show any displeasure at my choice of friends,” Bellusdeo said quietly.

  Kaylin blinked. The Dragon had joined their conversation from behind, with no warning.

  “And before you continue, I do understand people in power.”

  “M-my place is small, Bellusdeo. It’s cramped. It’s messy.”

  “Then why do you live there?”

  “I can’t afford anything bigger.”

  This apparently astonished the Dragon; her eyes rounded. She turned instantly, her slender hands bunched into fists, and stalked back to Tiamaris, Sanabalis, and the Arkon. This was definitively not the result that Kaylin had hoped for. “What is she doing?” Kaylin asked of Tara between clenched teeth.

  “She does not feel that you’re being accorded enough respect.”

  Kaylin closed her eyes. Tightly. “Why exactly is she saying that?”

  “You’re the Chosen. And you’re living in…squalor, I think.”

  “You think?”

  “It’s not a Barrani word, exactly. The word in Barrani would translate roughly into—”

  “Mortal?”

  “Yes. But I don’t think that’s what she meant to say.” At any other time, Kaylin would have been proud of the Avatar for making this leap of conversational logic. “I’m not living in squalor.” Kaylin stood up and pushed her chair back from the table. It scraped. It scraped loudly. This wasn’t enough to cause a pause in the heated conversation at the other end of the table.

  “I believe Lord Sanabalis is attempting to convey that to Bellusdeo at the moment.”

  “He’s not succeeding.”

  “Not in my opinion, no. I believe he is attempting to point out why your dwelling is unsuitable.”

  Because she was contrary, Kaylin found this annoying. It was one thing for her to dump on her own space; it was entirely another for some Court noble to do the same. Dragons grew up in large, unfurnished caves, for gods’ sake. She walked down to the end of the table that held the annoying conversation. Because she was now there, she could understand every word that was being said.

  “No, he’s not wrong,” she said when Bellusdeo paused for breath. Dragons might not need sleep, but air was helpful. “I live in a small room because that’s what I can afford.” She longed to slide into Elantran because at the moment, Elantran suited her current mood, and it made information a lot easier to convey. Kaylin couldn’t even remember the High Barrani word for “job.” “Sanabalis, does she understand Elantran?”

  “You might ask her that yourself.”

  “Fine. Bellusdeo, can you understand what I’m saying?”

  Bellusdeo listened, thought about it for a few seconds, and then shook her head.

  “Well, she’s going to have to learn.”

  “I find it a tedious language; it is even less exact than Barrani,” the Arkon helpfully interjected.

  “Yes. I’m not saying she has to speak it; neither of you usually do. But you both know how. And, more important, you understand it when we lesser mortals are speaking it.” She turned back to Bellusdeo. “I’m not unhappy with my living arrangements.”

  “I see.” Bellusdeo folded her arms across her chest in a way that very much implied she was. “I will, of course, have to see them for myself.”

  If Kaylin had been less than happy about the company on her return home, Maggaron was equally unhappy about his lack of the same company, because Bellusdeo—bending slightly to accommodate Kaylin’s purported lack of room—had all but ordered him to remain in Tiamaris. She promised to come back and get him should Kaylin’s description of her own home be an exaggeration.

  Severn had ducked out on them as soon as he crossed the bridge, which Bellusdeo encouraged; this left Kaylin in the company of a Dragon for the long walk home. A walk that didn’t normally feel all that long.

  “You understand that I don’t really require opulence or finery? After all, I was practically born in a cave.”

  Kaylin laughed. This didn’t seem to offend Bellusdeo.

  “The cave was preferable to the Shadows,” the Dragon added, her voice softening. “I talk a lot, don’t I?”

  She did. Kaylin decided a curt nod was the safest reply.

  “I used to have sisters.”

  “But they were—”

  “We were one, yes. But we weren’t. We didn’t see the same things, unless we deliberately shared; we didn’t experience the same things. Some of us hated foods that the others loved. The dress was Callie’s idea.”

  Callie didn’t really sound like much of a Dragon name. Then again, Bellusdeo seemed very much like a person who used diminutives.

  “They’re gone. Or they’re part of me. I don’t know which is true. But I don’t hear their voices. I can’t see the parts of a day I didn’t personally experience.”

  “Not even through Maggaron?”

  “Oh, you are observant!” Bellusdeo laughed. In spite of herself and her very real desire for a bit of peace and privacy, Kaylin found herself liking the sound of that laugh. It died when they reached the front doors of the apartment building. “This is really where y
ou live?”

  “Every day.” She fished a key out of a pocket, which took time. The door creaked open, and Kaylin held it while Bellusdeo entered. “Up the stairs.”

  “You really weren’t exaggerating.”

  Kaylin, bent over in a mostly dark room in an attempt to pick up the bits and pieces of stuff on the floor, said nothing. The mirror was flashing, but a quick perusal told her it wasn’t an emergency—it was just Marcus and she didn’t need to be chewed out in front of a total stranger.

  “It’s very small. Is it really one room?”

  Suppressing the urge to ask her how high she could count, Kaylin grunted a yes.

  “Chosen, understand where I spent the better part of centuries living, and you’ll understand why I say I don’t need much. Here, at least, I can move around. I can lift my arms. I can open the window.” She walked across the room, knelt on the bed, and did just that. “There? I couldn’t do anything but listen to Maggaron’s voice. I couldn’t speak to him at all. He had a very, very rough time, but…he survived it. There’s something simple about him,” she added, but her tone was not unkind. “I think even the Shadow can’t corrupt it.” Grinning, she added, “I certainly couldn’t.”

  Kaylin didn’t know what to make of Bellusdeo. Because she was tired and practical, she said, “The Dragons I know don’t eat much normal food. Do you?”

  “Define normal.”

  “It’s not moving, it’s not breathing, and it probably never was. Bread and cheese. The cheese may be a little bit dry.”

  “I did eat at the Tower.”

  “So did I. More or less. I’m going to eat a bit.”

  “You didn’t eat enough?”

  “I’d like to eat without the lectures.”

  Bellusdeo snorted and sat on the bed; she was, no surprise, heavier than Teela, even if she was shorter. “Why do they lecture you?”

  “I’m mortal.”

  “Are you really?”

  Kaylin was silent. Partly because she was chewing, and partly because the question made her uneasy.

  “You have a name,” the Dragon continued, staring at her in the darkness.

 
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