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Cast in ruin, p.37
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       Cast in Ruin, p.37

           Michelle Sagara
 
Kaylin glanced at the moon. “Yes,” she finally said. “You can see it?”

  “No, of course not. But I can sense that it’s there. Do you have it because you’re Chosen?”

  “Indirectly, maybe.” She gave up on eating and closed the basket that more or less preserved food. Dusting the crumbs off, she said, “Do you want the bed?”

  Since Bellusdeo was more or less on the bed, Kaylin assumed that was her answer, and stumbled across the floor to retrieve blankets. She also pulled the pillow off the bed, because if she was going to take the floor, she deserved some comfort. But as she made space for herself, she remembered the egg under the bed, and set about retrieving it. She hit the slats of the bed’s underside at least twice, and cursed liberally.

  “What does that mean?” Bellusdeo asked, her voice slightly muffled by mattress.

  Kaylin dragged the box out from under the bed and sat up. “You really don’t want to know.”

  “Does that mean you don’t know?”

  It was Kaylin’s turn to snort; she did it with less smoke. “If you use language like that, they’re going to know where you learned it. I can’t afford that.”

  “Can’t afford?” Bellusdeo’s voice was distinctly cooler.

  “I serve the Emperor. I get paid to serve the Emperor. I don’t serve him directly. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of policing, but that’s what I do.” Kaylin began to unwind the wrappings that cushioned the egg, and hopefully kept it warm while she was away. “Because of the marks on my arms and legs, I’m expected to actually meet the Emperor. I’ve been instructed to take lessons—etiquette lessons—in order to meet him without offending him.”

  “And he’s considered so easily offended that you will face death without these lessons? Does he honestly care how you hold a fork?”

  “I haven’t had the opportunity to ask. If and when I do meet him, it won’t be the first question on the list.” She pulled the egg into her lap and curled her arms around it.

  “What are you doing?”

  There were reasons why Kaylin occasionally valued her privacy. Gritting her teeth, she said, “I’m holding an egg.”

  “Yes, I can see that. Why?”

  “Because I have some hope that one day, if I’m very careful with it, it will hatch.”

  “May I examine it?”

  Kaylin’s arms tightened. It was brief, and it was also stupid, but Kaylin had reached the point of stupid-tired.

  “Ah. It is yours, then?”

  “Humans don’t give birth to eggs—” Kaylin stopped speaking, since that’s more or less how this egg had come into being. “No.”

  “I do not believe you understand or interpret the word yours correctly in this context.”

  “I’m mortal. I don’t have a hoard.”

  “No, of course not. But even mortals are possessive.”

  “I prefer the term protective.”

  “Why?”

  “Never mind.” She lay down on the slightly warped and creaky floor, and curled around the egg on her side. “I’m not going to be great company tonight. I’m too exhausted. Why don’t you get some—”

  “Sleep?” Kaylin could hear the Dragon’s smile; she couldn’t see it.

  “Or whatever it is you do when your pet mortals are sleeping.”

  “Generally, I like to fly. I’ve been told that flight is off limits, as far as the Emperor is concerned. If you’d like,” she added, “you can take the bed.”

  Kaylin wanted to say yes, but she also didn’t want to move. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I forgot about the sleeping part when I offered it.” Unfortunately, she also forgot about the Elantran part, as well, sliding out of Barrani without thought.

  “I am grateful to you, Chosen. I am in your debt. I do not know how much you understand about our kind, but debt is not something we wish to accrue.”

  It was the last thing Kaylin heard before she slept.

  The first thing she heard when morning hit was Bellusdeo’s voice. Unfortunately, the second thing she heard was Marcus’s. She peeled herself off the floor so quickly she almost knocked the egg flying. She didn’t; instead, she picked it up and carried it the few feet to the mirror.

  Bellusdeo was standing in front of it, her head tilted to one side; she was staring at a face full of orange-eyed, bristling Leontine. One glance out the window made clear that the morning—or the part in which if she woke quickly she’d make it to the office on time—had passed her by. Part of the reason she hated to have guests at this time of day was the urge to scream, Why didn’t you wake me up?

  It wasn’t their responsibility, after all—but it rankled anyway.

  In this particular case, it was worse; not only had she not been woken, but Bellusdeo was now chatting with Marcus, and from his expression, he really wasn’t appreciating the substitution.

  “Bellusdeo,” Kaylin hissed from the outer edge of the mirror’s view. It was pointless to hope that Marcus couldn’t hear her. The Dragon turned her head. Her eyes were a shade of orange that was paler than Marcus’s, but not by much.

  “Private Neya!”

  She cringed her way to where Bellusdeo was standing, in large part because the Dragon occupied most of the mirror’s field of view. It was a cheap mirror, relatively speaking, but it was also a popular one because it had a limited viewing angle.

  “Sergeant Kassan,” she said, trying for dignity. Given what she was holding and what she was wearing, it was hard. “This is Bellusdeo.”

  He growled. “We’ve established that.”

  “She’s a—a guest of the Dragon Court.”

  “And the Dragon Court has now moved into your apartment?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Has the Dragon Court changed your schedule?”

  “No, sir.”

  He opened his mouth to bark out another question and then snapped it shut for a few merciful seconds. “What are you holding?”

  She glanced down. “An…egg, sir.”

  “Yes, I can see that. What kind of egg?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  “Did it come with your guest?”

  “No, sir. I—I picked it up just before the Norannir arrived.”

  “It’s probably rotten, then. Get rid of it, get dressed, and get your butt into the office.”

  Getting dressed took all of two minutes. Packing the egg very carefully back into its nesting crate took ten. Getting Bellusdeo out the door took longer than either. Kaylin had wedged her into some of Kaylin’s clothing, and Bellusdeo clearly had ideas about fashion that didn’t encompass Kaylin’s rather meager wardrobe.

  “You didn’t eat breakfast.”

  “Leontines like to remove people’s throats when they’re pissed off. The Leontine,” she added. “Not the people without throats.” When Bellusdeo failed to move, Kaylin said, “I need a throat in order to eat. You can stay here if you want; I need to run.”

  But the Dragon was now staring at the egg that Kaylin had very carefully—if hurriedly—deposited back in its box; she was also frowning. “I didn’t care for your Sergeant,” she said, not taking her eyes off the egg’s shell. “But he didn’t seem to care for your egg. Where did you get it?”

  “You really need to learn to speak Elantran,” Kaylin replied—in Barrani. “It’s a long story. Well, if you’re mortal. Can we talk about it while we’re walking?”

  Bellusdeo, even in Kaylin’s clothing, turned a lot of heads as they walked the few blocks between home and work. She didn’t seem to notice. The merchants along the Ablayne nodded to Kaylin as she passed them; she’d’ve stopped to introduce the Dragon, but her eye was on the sun’s position.

  Bellusdeo, however, didn’t seem to mind a clipped, fast walk. She didn’t seem to notice it, either.

  Kaylin climbed the stairs to the Halls’ front door. There, she met Clint and Tanner. Clint was grinning. “You’re late,” he pointed out.

  “This,” Kaylin said to Bellusdeo, “is Clint. The wingless guy to hi
s left is Tanner. They guard the doors when they’re not making fun of me.”

  “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Bellusdeo told them.

  “This is Bellusdeo. She’s a guest of the Dragon Court.”

  Two Hawks instantly shifted posture. Kaylin snickered.

  “Sergeant Kassan is expecting you,” Clint told her. “So is Lord Sanabalis.”

  Getting Bellusdeo from the front doors to the inner office was not a speedy affair. The doors opened into the Aerie, and Bellusdeo’s reaction to the Aerie was very similar to Kaylin’s. The Dragon’s gaze slowly rose to touch the heights, and remained fixed there. The Aerians were drilling, and from the sounds of it, there were new recruits. She watched as they flew, and as they faltered under the weight of unfamiliar armor.

  “They’re Aerian,” Kaylin told her, wishing she’d move, but unable to force the issue. “You didn’t see the Aerians before you—”

  “No. Where I lived, there weren’t any.” She was smiling softly. “They’re not forbidden flight?”

  “No. Only the Dragons.”

  This caused Bellusdeo to frown. “Why?” The single word was cool. It did, however, take her attention off the heights of the elaborate hall, and Kaylin began to walk, with hope, toward the office.

  “I don’t know. I’m not the Emperor, and the only way to get an answer to that question would be to ask a Dragon.”

  “You are clearly acquainted with several.”

  It was true. “I only know it’s illegal for Dragons to transform into their Dragon form within the Empire without the Emperor’s express permission. Tiamaris did it once in the fiefs—which aren’t theoretically under Imperial jurisdiction—and he still had to make a complete explanation to the Emperor after the fact.”

  “He is still alive.”

  “Yes. The Emperor considered the circumstances extreme enough to justify the transformation. It was not a given,” she added, remembering.

  “I’m not entirely certain I approve.”

  Which was, thank the gods, not Kaylin’s problem. Kaylin felt, unfairly, that it would be nice to have someone else be the problem child for a change. She took a deep breath. “We’re coming into the office where I actually have a desk. Sometimes they make me sit at it. The Sergeant is pretty much in command of the office. I like most of my coworkers, and I’d appreciate it if you’d avoid annoying them.”

  “Why?”

  “Because they’ll probably make it clear that they are annoyed, and at this point, I think the Emperor might disapprove. They don’t really deserve to be reduced to ash with no warning.”

  “You could tell them I’m a Dragon.”

  “They’d probably think I was making an attempt to be humorous.”

  “I…will do my best.” She hesitated and then said, “Does no one in this City understand the significance of the Chosen?”

  “No.”

  “And you have not—”

  “Bellusdeo, I’m the Chosen, in theory, and I don’t understand the significance, either.” She slowed her pace and added, “Maybe I’m being cowardly. Maybe I don’t want to understand it. I’m trying.”

  “You have already used the power invested in you.”

  “Yes. More than once. And I’m fine—with that. But I didn’t do it in order to be treated differently. I didn’t do it to jump a promotion queue. Not that I’d mind that,” she said, because she felt she should be honest. “I did it because at the time it seemed like I either should or could.

  “I don’t understand what the marks mean. I don’t understand why I have them. I know that some of them have disappeared, and some have faded.”

  “Disappeared?”

  Kaylin nodded. “Once, when I told a story to a dead Dragon in the middle of the Arkon’s Library. That’s not the only time. It was the first.”

  “And the others?”

  “Nothing as clear. The Devourer ate a few of them, though.”

  Her eyes rounded. “The Devourer.”

  “Yes.”

  “I wish you’d mentioned this last night.”

  “Would you have let me sleep if I had?”

  “Of course! After you’d finished explaining it.” She was still frowning. “And yesterday?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t have the marks and their placement memorized; since some of them are on my back, I can’t. But if I had to guess? I’d say that a comparison of the marks today and the marks before we found you yesterday would show at least one missing.”

  “Only one?”

  “Maggaron’s.”

  “Not the other nine?”

  “Maybe. I’ll never get to make the comparison if we don’t arrive soon.”

  Because Caitlin’s desk was the one closest to the doors—for obvious reasons—Kaylin led Bellusdeo there first. Caitlin had looked up when the two had entered her office. She rose as they approached her desk, and smiled. “You must be Bellusdeo,” she said, extending a hand.

  “She only speaks Barrani,” Kaylin told Caitlin. Caitlin immediately and effortlessly switched languages.

  Bellusdeo took her hand. “I am.”

  “Kaylin doesn’t usually bring guests into the office,” Caitlin continued. “But I believe you’re both expected. Lord Sanabalis has been waiting.”

  “For how long?” Kaylin asked, trying not to wilt.

  “Not more than three hours,” was the pleasant reply. No wonder Marcus was in a mood.

  “I don’t see him.”

  “He is waiting in the West Room.”

  “I do not care for your door wards,” Bellusdeo said.

  Kaylin, who famously disliked them herself, gritted her teeth as door-ward magic shot through her palm, down her arm, and across her spine in one painful, tingling flash. “What don’t you like about them?”

  “They’re not well designed. There’s no reason at all why I should have to touch them; my approach—or yours—should be more than enough.” Although she wasn’t that much taller than Kaylin, she could really look down her nose effectively. Kaylin wanted to disagree, but found that she couldn’t. She lowered a numb hand as the door slid open.

  Sanabalis was seated, as he habitually was, at the head of the table that occupied most of the West Room. There was no candle sitting, unlit, in front of him, which was a distinct improvement.

  “Private Neya,” he said, inclining his head. His eyes were only a pale orange. “Bellusdeo.”

  “Lord Sanabalis.” She frowned. “Is it possible for us to converse in the language of the Norannir?”

  “Not effectively, no.”

  “Very well.” She took a seat.

  “You were waiting for me?” Kaylin asked, likewise taking a seat. One farther away from Sanabalis. She suspected that the correct answer was that he’d been waiting for Bellusdeo.

  “For three hours, give or take a few minutes.” So much for the correct answer. He raised a pale brow. “You are, in theory, still seconded to my service in the fiefs. Given Bellusdeo’s presence, and the presence of the Norannir, you may be allowed to return to your normal duties if she is willing to intercede on our behalf with the Norannir.”

  “Intercede in what way?” Bellusdeo asked. It was a perfectly reasonable question.

  Sanabalis, however, winced. “It cannot have escaped your attention that you are held in high regard by the Norannir.”

  “They have not seen me for some time.”

  “Even so, there must have been paintings, statues, or other artifacts that captured your likeness; they recognized you when an image of you was shown.”

  Her smile was soft and sweet, and it added years to her face. Not age, but years. “And this presents a problem for your Dragon Court how?”

  “The image that was shown to the Norannir was contained in a crystal possessed of other magical properties.”

  “And?”

  “It came, originally, from the Arkon’s personal collection. He wants it back.”

  “And the Norannir are not interest
ed in returning it?”

  “They venerate the image; they’re not concerned with how that image is conveyed. I understand that they have only myths and legends with which to confront Dragons, as they didn’t recognize the Dragon form when they were first exposed to it.”

  She nodded, her expression grave. “It was the form of our ancient enemy; we did not choose, in the end, to appear as Dragons before the Norannir in order to encourage…caution.”

  “But they knew what you were.”

  She nodded.

  “And…the ancient enemy?”

  “He is not wholly what you—or I—are. He has lived in the heart of the Shadows, and he has been tainted by them. If he is also your enemy, Lord Sanabalis, and you are familiar with his history—”

  “The only person who is intimately familiar with his history is the Arkon. He does not speak of it,” he added. “Nor will he appreciate the inquiry. He has, at least once, been seen in mortal form—but not by any member of the Dragon Court.”

  “By whom?”

  “The Chosen.”

  They both fell silent as they considered the ramifications of this statement.

  “You may inform the Arkon that I will get his trinket back,” Bellusdeo told Sanabalis. “I hardly see that they will need it if I am here in the flesh.”

  “Thank you.” Sanabalis now rose. His chair made a lot more noise. “Private Neya? The Hawklord has requested your presence in the infirmary.”

  “What—now?”

  “Or as soon as possible. He wishes to fully capture the marks on your body as of yesterday’s…event, for Records. A copy of the capture will be sent on to the Imperial Palace. I have agreed to this interruption in your schedule. You have enough time remaining to be fully examined before you are required to return to the Palace.”

  Kaylin tried not to grimace. She knew exactly why a return to the Palace was necessary: she had an etiquette class.

  “There is a common mortal phrase,” Sanabalis told her as he reached the door.

  “Which one?”

  “Misery loves company.”

  She frowned.

  The Dragon Lord looked pointedly at Bellusdeo and said, “Private Neya is not the only student Lord Diarmat will have at this evening’s lesson.”

 
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