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Cast in ruin, p.38
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       Cast in Ruin, p.38

           Michelle Sagara
 

  CHAPTER 24

  “The Emperor is only barely willing to allow this,” Lord Sanabalis said as he examined Bellusdeo’s dress. It was a shade of blue that Kaylin found familiar and slightly unsettling because she’d seen it on eight corpses. Bellusdeo, however, had insisted. At the moment, it made Kaylin’s arms itch because the color wasn’t due to something solid and dependable like an exotic dye; they hadn’t the time for it. No, the color was entirely an artifact of magic.

  The style of the dress, however, was very much Imperial standard; it was fussy, and it required some help to put on. Kaylin had been relegated to the role of helper, and was clearly not considered competent at the job.

  “Barely willing to allow what?” Bellusdeo asked, her voice cool. Her eyes were a shade of amber that was just a trace off its usual gold.

  “Your lessons,” Sanabalis replied.

  “I would be pleased to avoid them entirely,” was the Dragon’s response.

  “You’ve got that right,” Kaylin muttered.

  “It is not the lesson itself which is contentious,” Sanabalis told Kaylin, his voice sharper; it smoothed out again when he turned to Bellusdeo. “It is the fact that you will have met every member of the Dragon Court before you’ve been formally introduced to the Emperor.”

  “Oh?” If possible, Bellusdeo’s voice was even chillier.

  “That’s not true. She hasn’t met Emmerian.” Seeing the darkening of Sanabalis’s eyes, Kaylin hastily added, “Lord Emmerian.”

  “I fail to see the relevance one way or the other,” Bellusdeo told Sanabalis.

  Sanabalis said nothing. It took a long time. He finally relented. “The request that you attend these lessons came not from the Emperor, but the Arkon. He seemed to feel you would find them edifying in one manner or another.”

  “He made the suggestion to the Emperor directly?”

  “He made it in the Emperor’s presence,” was the evasive reply.

  “And the Emperor agreed.”

  “The Emperor made clear that he had some concerns. Nonetheless, the Emperor accepted the Arkon’s request. Will you?”

  “Have I not already allowed myself to be dressed for the occasion?” was the cool reply. Kaylin wasn’t certain if this was a face-saving measure because she wasn’t sure what face-saving protocols were required among Dragons with regards to other Dragons; when it came to mortals, Dragons didn’t really care all that much.

  Kaylin, however, had other concerns. “Sanabalis,” she said, voice rising. “The time. The time.”

  Bellusdeo raised a golden brow.

  “Lord Diarmat dislikes people who can’t be punctual,” Kaylin said curtly, by way of explanation.

  “Oh?”

  “I said people. I’m sure Dragons don’t count.” She headed toward the door. “If you two want to finish your discussion, I’m sure he won’t mind. If I stay to listen, he’ll bite my head off.”

  “A moment, Chosen,” Bellusdeo said.

  Kaylin winced. “Could you call me Private Neya or just Kaylin, instead?” Seeing Bellusdeo’s expression, she added, “I mean, in front of Lord Diarmat.”

  “We shall see,” was the noncommittal reply. “Please, lead on. We will follow.”

  Sanabalis escorted them to the doors with their livid and annoying wards. Framing those doors were the perfect and also annoying Palace Guards. Bellusdeo glanced at both of their chiseled profiles and then said to Kaylin, “Why does everyone equate professionalism with total lack of manners?”

  “Lack of manners?”

  “Guards like these are all over the Palace halls; not a single one of them has made any attempt to either greet me or respond to my greetings.”

  “Ah. The men in metal never do; it’s not part of their job.”

  “Their job is to be silent and unapproachable?”

  “More or less. You didn’t have guards?”

  “I frequently had several. They were, however, competent enough that they could both speak and work at the same time.”

  The Imperial Palace Guard was good; neither of the two so much as blinked. Kaylin knew that the Hawks would have. She glanced at Bellusdeo, who seemed genuinely irritated by their presence, and felt a stab of sympathy and very grudging respect for these guards.

  Bellusdeo stared at the closed doors. Kaylin, grimacing, lifted her left hand, but Bellusdeo caught it and forced it back down. She glanced at Sanabalis, who lifted a brow in silence.

  “Visual identification of the type you’ve requested,” he told her, lifting his hand at her silent command, “is not as secure as touch.”

  “And your mortals are now so fractious that such security is required?”

  “It is not, of course, the mortals that are feared.” He frowned as he placed his palm firmly against the two door wards in quick succession. “Or rather, not most of the mortals. Some—as you are no doubt well aware—are quite capable of complex and powerful magics.”

  “My point still stands.”

  “It does. Consider, however, the existence—the peaceful existence—of the Barrani within the City, several of whom are Arcanists, and none of whom are Imperial mages.”

  Bellusdeo looked to Kaylin. “What is the difference?”

  “An Arcanist is part of the Arcanum. The Arcanum predates the founding of the Empire. For reasons that make no sense at all, it’s still allowed to exist; in theory, its members follow the Emperor’s Laws, but they owe nothing else to the Emperor. The Imperial Order of Mages are what the name implies: they’re beholden to the Emperor, and they pretty much work under his command.”

  “I…see.” She glanced down the perfectly decorated and lit halls, and added, “I suppose the City is still standing, so I can’t condemn it as entirely unwise.”

  The doors rolled open.

  If Bellusdeo had ever spent time in a normal classroom it didn’t show; she didn’t even blink at the layout of Diarmat’s grand function room. She did not, however, enter the room, leaving Kaylin to cross the threshold on her own. She did, and saw that Lord Diarmat was seated behind his very uncluttered desk, his hands folded on its gleaming surface in a steeple.

  He looked up at Kaylin as she entered. Even at this distance, she could see that his eyes were well into orange territory. “You are late, Private.”

  Kaylin was certain she’d woken screaming from nightmares that had been more fun than this. She opened her mouth to speak and snapped it shut; Diarmat was famous for considering any attempt at making an excuse an additional crime.

  He raised a brow at her silence, and then, to her surprise, nodded and rose. “You are not on duty at the moment.”

  “Sir?”

  “You are not to wear your uniform to these classes while they occur outside your duty schedule.”

  What am I supposed to wear, then? she thought. The answer, which was no answer at all, slowly sunk claws into those thoughts. She had no idea what Diarmat would consider appropriate clothing for civilian classes with a Dragon Lord in off-duty hours. Showing more wisdom than utter panic usually allowed, she said, “Yes, sir.”

  “Given the hour, I will refrain from sending you home to change. I expect, however, that you will be here—appropriately attired—two days hence.”

  “What,” Bellusdeo asked, “would be considered appropriate attire for these lessons?”

  Lord Diarmat looked toward the door, which now contained Bellusdeo in full Imperial Court dress. Her eyes were half closed, but the half that Kaylin could see—obscured by inner membrane—was not that far off Diarmat’s orange. The hair on the back of Kaylin’s neck began to rise—and not because there was magic in the air.

  Sanabalis was standing behind Bellusdeo—in part because she was blocking the doors—in silence. Kaylin couldn’t see enough of him from her vantage to see the color of his eyes, but at this point, it didn’t matter; of the Dragon Court, Sanabalis was the least temperamental, and any trouble here wasn’t going to come from him.

  Kaylin cleared her throat, w
hich got her the immediate attention of two annoyed Dragons. “Lord Diarmat,” she said, “may I introduce Bellusdeo?” Before he could answer, she turned to Bellusdeo. “Bellusdeo, this is Lord Diarmat of the Imperial Dragon Court.”

  “So I gathered,” Bellusdeo replied. It had never occurred to Kaylin to wonder how the Norannir introduced each other. Regardless, she felt that Bellusdeo’s cool reply would still not have qualified as polite.

  Lord Diarmat had gathered enough of his temper to say, “My apologies, Bellusdeo. I am currently occupied with a prior responsibility. If I may request that you return at a later time or a later date?”

  “You may,” was her quiet reply. “Kaylin, come.”

  Kaylin very much did not want to be the rope with which two Dragons played tug-of-war.

  Diarmat’s eyes narrowed. “My responsibility,” he told Bellusdeo in a much cooler voice, “is the schooling of the Private. She is therefore also occupied.”

  Sanabalis now cleared his throat. “Lord Diarmat.”

  “Lord Sanabalis.”

  “The Emperor has requested that you make room in your teaching schedule for a second student.” He waited while the import of the words sunk in; give Diarmat credit, it didn’t take long.

  “I beg your pardon?” he said in very crisp, very pointed High Barrani.

  “I am to be the second student in these lessons of yours,” Bellusdeo told him. “The customs of the Emperor’s Dragon Court differ greatly—or so I am told—from the customs of the Aerie in which I last lived while in these lands.”

  There was a much longer pause from Diarmat. Bellusdeo smiled into it, looking very much like Teela in one of those moods, but shorter, and with golden hair. He finally said, “I do not believe that will be possible.”

  “Oh?”

  “What you are required to learn of the etiquette and customs of the Imperial Dragon Court is very much racially dependent. As is what Private Neya is required to learn. Since she is mortal and you are not—”

  Bellusdeo lifted a hand and swatted the rest of the sentence away. “I would be very interested in the customs of the Court in either case.”

  “In your…lands…were mortals accorded the same rights and status as your own people?”

  “No.”

  “Then—”

  “But I was familiar with both sets of rules.” She smiled briefly and added, “I had some hand in forming them. Your Private would have skirted the boundaries between them,” she added.

  “I see. Personal favoritism—”

  “Not for that reason, although I will state clearly and unequivocally that I am both fond of the Private and in her debt.” Bellusdeo finally said, “May I enter?”

  Lord Diarmat nodded curtly, and Bellusdeo stepped across the doorjamb and into the room, where her skirts trailed across the surface of the dark carpet. She came to stand beside Kaylin. “She is Chosen,” she told Lord Diarmat curtly. “And in my lands, the Chosen were accorded a great deal of respect.”

  “She is mortal,” he countered. “And the respect she is accorded is a respect she will earn, to her benefit or detriment. How you choose to treat her is of little relevance to either the Imperial Court or these classes, as your respect does not determine or define either. I will attempt not to belabor the obvious,” he added. “But these lands are currently habitable. Your lands, if I am not mistaken, are not.”

  “Through no fault of her own,” Kaylin said.

  Lord Diarmat chose, for the first time, to utterly ignore her impertinence. He had fixed Bellusdeo with a look more appropriate to a late Private than a Dragon Queen, and he clearly did not intend to break it for something trivial.

  “You are not mistaken,” Bellusdeo finally replied. Her eyes were a darker shade of orange, but they hadn’t shaded to red. “However, if your Emperor had kept his Flight in check, the Outcaste from your Court would never have been free to wage his war against the outlands. If I have failed my people, your part in that failure is large.”

  Kaylin looked to Sanabalis for support; Sanabalis, however, was watching Diarmat.

  Diarmat roared.

  Kaylin—who was not, and would never be, Imperial Palace Guard material—flinched and took a step back. Sanabalis had entered the room, and he placed one hand on her shoulder.

  “Cover your ears,” he told her curtly—and loudly. She took it as permission and did exactly that as Bellusdeo replied. Her roar was as loud as Diarmat’s, and it lasted longer, broken by syllables in the same way storms are broken by thunder and lightning.

  Sanabalis dragged Kaylin to the door and pulled her out of the room. He then spoke one very loud word at the doors, and they slammed shut.

  When the ringing in her ears had subsided enough that she could hear relatively normal speech, Sanabalis said, “They will converse for some small time yet.”

  She could hear them “conversing,” as he called it. But it was far more muffled than it should have been, given their proximity. “The doors are—”

  “Yes. They are magicked. They are not heavily enough magicked, apparently, for the intensity of the conversation now occurring. If it helps, I did tell the Arkon that I thought this singularly unwise.”

  “What are they saying?”

  “They are exchanging insults; they have not yet descended to the level of challenge.”

  “Will they?”

  “We will have to hope not. Lord Diarmat, of the Court, is the least likely to bend to Bellusdeo’s whim. Her importance to the race will not sway him one way or the other, and he will be far less amused by her general behavior than the Arkon.”

  The Arkon hadn’t seemed entirely amused by it, but Kaylin didn’t point this out.

  “They are both, at base, correct in their accusations, which will help her. It will help you in future if you can convince her—by whatever means necessary—that your status in her lands is entirely irrelevant here.”

  “Tried that.”

  “Try harder.”

  “Easy for you to say. In case it escaped your notice, she’s a Dragon.”

  “Believe that at this point,” he said, wincing at whatever it was Diarmat had just roared, “I am unlikely to forget that fact.”

  Kaylin nodded as the roaring continued. After a few frustrating minutes in which she cursed her lack of linguistic knowledge, she said, “There’s a bright side to this.”

  “Please enlighten me, as I am having minor difficulty seeing it for myself.”

  “Whatever she’s shouting at Diarmat now is something she’s far less likely to shout at the Emperor when they finally meet.”

  He started to speak, stopped, and then laughed. The laughter was loud enough to hint at a roar. When it subsided, his eyes were a lambent gold. “You still have the capacity to surprise me, Kaylin. Yes, you are correct. She will rage at Diarmat; Diarmat will rage back. There will be relatively little bloodshed because she can afford to offend Diarmat.”

  “And the Emperor?”

  He was silent for a moment, considering the question. When he answered, he was more sober. “I cannot predict what the outcome would be. She is important, and I believe she is fully aware of her import. But the Emperor is the Emperor; no Dragon who was unwilling to accept his rule or his Law is now awake—or alive. We have lived that way for centuries, and it is clear that we can continue to do so for centuries yet, regardless of whether or not there are hatchlings.”

  “She isn’t an idiot,” Kaylin told him, trying to speak quietly. The guards were still outside the door, and could no doubt hear every word—without reacting to any of them. “She preserved her people for as long as she could—and she gave up almost everything she was to continue to do so. They’re here because she fought so long.”

  He nodded, his fingers straightening the tapering edges of his beard. “It is easy to forget that fact,” he finally said, “when confronted with her general behavior; she is not possessed of an obvious gravitas.” He cringed.

  “What did she just say?”
>
  “Lord Diarmat made clear that her value—in his view—is high, but it is not paramount.”

  “That wasn’t Diarmat just now.”

  “No. Bellusdeo replied that it is due to the abject failure of the Flights to protect the Matriarchs that she is so incredibly valuable to the Emperor.”

  “Those Flights would be yours?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re sure they’re not going to descend to challenges?”

  “I am certain Diarmat will not. Dragons very, very seldom fight each other in their mortal guises.” And the Emperor wasn’t likely to grant permission—or absolution—for this particular fight. “Have you eaten?”

  Kaylin stared at him.

  “Given the tenor of the conversation, it is unlikely to end within the next half hour. I would dismiss you, but if it does end and you are absent, Lord Diarmat is unlikely to be forgiving.”

  She glanced at the guards. “No,” she told him. “I haven’t eaten much.”

  “I will arrange for food; join me in my rooms.”

  “Bellusdeo,” Sanabalis said, “does present a bit of a difficult situation for the Dragon Court. In particular for Lord Diarmat, the staunchest traditionalist.”

  “He trains humans as guards; he doesn’t eat them. How traditional can he be?”

  Sanabalis coughed politely. “He holds the Emperor in the highest respect or he would not now be a member of the Court. It is his fear—and it is not entirely unjustified—that Bellusdeo will not likewise hold the Emperor in the same esteem.”

  Kaylin begrudged conceding any points to Diarmat, and was silent.

  Sanabalis watched her eat for a few moments, his fingers still tracing the lines of his beard.

  “Was it the Arkon’s idea to delay her introduction to the Emperor?”

  “Yes. The Emperor is anxious to meet with her, but understands the Arkon’s concerns.”

  “Are they a lot different from your concerns about his meeting me?”

  “As you surmise, they are not—although the results of a disastrous introduction are unlikely to result in her death.” He steepled fingers under his chin. “She has spoken very little about her past, and her past may be of consequence to her present and her future.”

 
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