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Cast in ruin, p.39
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       Cast in Ruin, p.39

           Michelle Sagara

  Kaylin, who had a Hawk’s intuition in a pinch, suddenly didn’t like where this was going.

  “She appears to be, in some ways, very similar to you, Private Neya. She is both irreverent, short-tempered, and quick to speak her mind. She is clearly accustomed to privation, but just as clearly accustomed to the accoutrements of power; she expects her opinions to be respected.”

  Kaylin raised a hand; Sanabalis raised a brow. “I’m not accustomed to power,” she pointed out.

  He glanced pointedly at her arms. “You can save a life that is beyond any other aid at the touch of a hand and your whim.”


  “Power takes and wears many guises; not all of them are obvious or public.” He rose and headed toward the window; the streets were silver-gray under night-lights, as were the Halls of Law beyond the glass. “Records,” he said in quiet Barrani.

  The windows stopped showing the outside world as they gradually lost their transparency. “Bellusdeo.”

  She appeared across the central panes of the threefold window, larger than life. To her left, she also appeared—but in Dragon form, an almost brilliant, glowing gold. To her right, in shadow, the obsidian form of the Outcaste emerged. Kaylin sucked in one sharp breath and held it.

  “You played a part in her survival. The Arkon witnessed. What he witnessed, he did not choose to convey to our Records, and that is unusual.”

  “The Emperor didn’t demand it?”

  “No. Were it necessary—and in the future it might be—he would have. Understand, Kaylin, that power necessitates the choosing of one’s battles, no matter what rank one has attained.” The images at his back, he turned. “Will she join the Court?”

  “She’s a Dragon; does she have any choice?”

  “According to the Arkon, she must be given that choice. He feels confident that in the end, she will make it.”

  “Then why are you asking me?”

  “Because she is young, Private.”

  “She’s older than Tiamaris, at the very least. If what she said is true, she was born when the Arkon was young—”

  “She was. But she has lived a half-life; if events of yesterday are as we understand them, she can only now be considered adult. She had a name, according to the Arkon; it was not a name meant for Dragons, but in some fashion it sustained her. Do you understand how, or why?”


  “No more does the Arkon or the Court. It is…troubling.”

  “You’re afraid of what it’s done to her.”

  He raised a brow. “And yet you were considered a poor student. Yes, Private. We are.”

  “Sanabalis—what do you expect me to do about it?”

  “I? I expect nothing. But what you did do allowed her to return to us—as an adult, as a Dragon. She is attached to you, possibly because of your intervention. She is—in the end—not unlike you. You can be ordered to certain action; so, in spite of her reservations, can she. But you cannot be ordered to any action; you cannot be controlled by any whim. You privilege your own opinions over the opinions of those who are older and, in theory, more experienced, sometimes to your benefit and sometimes to your detriment.

  “But you surprise us, Private. If we are not always in agreement about your methods or your presentation, we at least find your goals acceptable. We are not entirely certain what Bellusdeo’s goals are, and in Bellusdeo’s case—”

  “She’s significant enough that it’s important?”

  His eyes narrowed, but his inner membranes lowered. He turned back to the windows that had become, for a moment, mirrors. “She is a Dragon,” he finally said.

  Kaylin, used to this, was not offended. She stopped to think about this, because had Diarmat said it, she would have been. “I think,” she told him, pushing the momentary discomfort away, “you can trust her.”

  “And in spite of our many reservations about you, Private, your opinion in this case is of some value.” His hands slid together behind his back. “I do not believe she intends to leave your abode in the near future.”

  Grimacing, Kaylin said, “And if you can’t stop her from screaming at Diarmat, you probably can’t make her move.”

  “The Emperor is willing to grant you a living allowance that would give you both more room and possibly more privacy. I am not entirely certain that the privacy is necessary.”

  “That’s because you’re not living with someone under your armpit!”

  The images vanished; the night sky and the Halls of Law returned.

  “He expects, however, that you will monitor the situation. Should things become dangerous, you are expected to make a report.”



  She nodded. Her impulse—to tell the Emperor to shove his living allowance—clashed with her desire for at least a room of her own as a retreat. “Can I get back to you about the living allowance?”

  “Of course. It is now on the table; it will not be withdrawn.”

  “What happens when she decides to move out? If I move someplace bigger I won’t be able to afford it without—”

  Sanabalis lifted a hand. “The Emperor would be pleased to buy a suitable location. He would be pleased to cede one of the main freeholds within Elantra to you, personally. Before you refuse, think about it.”

  “I’ll try. I don’t want to live in the Emperor’s space. I want it to be—”

  “Yours? You are renting space now that could easily vanish because in the end, you don’t own it; how is it different?”

  “I don’t care if I piss off a landlord. I’ll have to care if the landlord is the Emperor.”

  “Fair enough. I believe,” he added, “that the hostilities have ceased for the moment.”

  As far as actual lessons went, it was painless—for Kaylin. The discussion to which she was thankfully not a party had taken most of the time allotted for the class itself; Lord Diarmat therefore summoned Kaylin into the room for a quarter of an hour, to listen to a lecture about the Dragon Court.

  In his fifteen minutes, he reiterated the known laws governing Dragon form within the Empire. He made it clear in six different ways that flight, requiring as it did the Draconic form, was also illegal; that the speaking of native Dragon was “highly discouraged” in areas that were not the Imperial Palace; that mortals were neither the equivalent of cattle—which Kaylin assumed meant food—nor pets. Nor were they to be enslaved or otherwise compelled by magical power or greater force to act against their will.

  Kaylin was, of course, familiar with most of this, but was also aware that it was highly theoretical. Laws of this nature had to be enforceable, and as far as she could tell, the only people who could enforce it with any chance of survival were the other Dragons. The Halls of Law certainly couldn’t do more than ask—politely.

  This would have been true of Barrani crimes, as well, albeit to a slightly lesser extent—but the Hawks had a dozen Barrani, and if Barrani were suspected of crimes, it was those Hawks that were sent to deal with them.

  Tiamaris had served—briefly—as a Hawk, but Kaylin doubted he could have been deployed against a rogue Bellusdeo even when he hadn’t been the lord of a fief.

  “How, then,” Bellusdeo asked, her voice chilly, her eyes burning, “does one become a member of the Dragon Court?”

  “Before your arrival? By being a Dragon. We swear allegiance to the Emperor.”

  “And if we do not choose to do so?”

  “Sleep,” he replied. “Or death.”

  She was silent for a beat, and then said, “Does he hold your names?”

  Kaylin almost forgot to breathe. It was a question she would never have dared to ask—if it had even occurred to her to ask it.

  Lord Diarmat was annoyed—but it was hard to tell if it was because of the question; he always looked annoyed. Granted, his eyes were a dark shade of orange, but they’d been that way since he’d allowed her to return to the classroom. “No,” he told her curtly. “We are not his slaves and we
are not his possessions.”

  “But the Empire is his hoard.”


  “And everything in the Empire is therefore part of his hoard.”

  “In a broad sense, yes. He is not a fool, Bellusdeo; his use of law in this case is subtle.”

  She nodded. “And if I choose not to take this oath of allegiance?”

  “You will not be accorded either the rights or the privileges due a member of the Imperial Court.”

  “Nor will I have the responsibilities.”


  “Will I be considered a citizen of the Empire if I elect not to join the Court?”


  “And if I choose not to remain in the Empire?”

  “You will be a visitor or a guest, Bellusdeo, but you will still be required to follow all of the Emperor’s Laws while you live within the boundaries of the Empire.”

  “Very well.” Bellusdeo rose.

  “The next class will be two days hence.”

  “I look forward to it.”


  Sanabalis was waiting for them in the hall; he escorted Bellusdeo back to the rooms she had used for changing, and returned her clothing—which was mostly Kaylin’s old clothing—to her. He did, however, also tell her to keep the dress.

  Bellusdeo was silent throughout most of this, which was awkward; she took the dress—which was now a serviceable and very pretty emerald hue—and bundled it up as if it were an old blanket. Sanabalis, however, took this silence in stride. He escorted both Hawk and Dragon toward the front doors, and since this took time, he once again offered Bellusdeo what he knew she wouldn’t accept: rooms within the Palace itself.

  “You will remain with the Private?” he asked when she demurred.

  “If that is acceptable to the Private, yes.” The answer was subdued and quiet. Her eyes were no longer an incendiary orange, but they weren’t gold, either; they looked like flattened, scarred brass.

  “Of course it is,” Kaylin said, meaning it. Meaning it and knowing she’d probably regret it bitterly in the morning.

  Sanabalis offered them the use of a carriage. Bellusdeo preferred, she said, to walk. Since walking was half of what Kaylin did during a normal day, she had no complaints, and since she didn’t really like the insides of a carriage—although admittedly, if she had to be in one, Imperial Carriages were always the best—she was happy to lead Bellusdeo back to the one-room apartment she called home.

  The moons weren’t full, but they were still bright; the Ablayne was loud.


  “I’m sorry,” the Dragon said softly, staring at the Ablayne as it moved slowly across either bank.

  “For what?”

  “Everything, Chosen.” She began to walk along the banks of the Ablayne itself, and Kaylin joined her. The banks of the river could occasionally house criminals—usually petty drug dealers with delusions of future survival—but she had no doubt at all that Bellusdeo was perfectly capable of dispatching them. “I am grateful not to be dead,” she finally said.

  Kaylin saw where she was walking: toward a bridge. It was the bridge that led to Tiamaris. “But?”

  “It is so crowded here. It is crowded, it smells strange, the people speak a language I don’t understand. I haven’t lived in my home for so long, I thought—” She broke off, crouched, and slid the hand that wasn’t holding a rumpled bundle of silk into the water.

  “Nothing is ever home right away,” Kaylin told her quietly, meaning it. “Come on. Let’s go to Tiamaris.”

  Bellusdeo hesitated, although it was she who had led them, meandering, toward the bridge. “The Outcaste,” she said when she finally rose.

  Kaylin stiffened but waited.

  “He gave me both form and name. He made me almost adult.”

  “He murdered twelve children when I was twelve in order to enslave me.” Kaylin was surprised at the bitter anger that slipped out with the words. “And he broke my arm the second time we met. I don’t like him,” she added.

  “I don’t believe he cares for you, either,” the Dragon replied with a smile. “But I—” She fell silent again.

  Kaylin couldn’t guess at what she wanted to say, and didn’t try. For once, she was content to walk and wait. And they did walk, although they didn’t walk quickly. “There are Ferals here,” she told Bellusdeo when they’d cleared the bridge.


  “They come from the Shadows, but only at night. I don’t think they’re going to cause you much trouble.”

  “No, not much.” She fell silent again as they walked the streets. In the glow of moonlight, without the lamps that defined most of the rest of the nighttime city, the struts and beams of buildings that were slowly being reconstructed looked skeletal, and to Kaylin, beautiful. “I don’t think I was ever meant to leave the Shadows.”

  “But you did.”

  “Yes. Because of my Ascendant. I escaped. Do you understand what the Outcaste wanted of me?”

  “No. I can guess.”

  “Can you?”


  “Yes. That. Children. Hatchlings. Nameless hatchlings,” she added softly. “When I…was lost…there were others. Females, among my kin, are always rare. But I was not the only one.”

  “What did he want them for?”

  “It was never discussed. But what he made of me, he might have made of hatchlings: half-named, shadowed, never quite independent.” She glanced at Kaylin. “We do not feel, about our young, the way you do, the way I saw you care for that egg. It is not in us.”

  “Then you—”

  “It was not for the sake of the hatchlings—all theoretical—that I loathed and despised what he desired. He wanted to own me. He wanted to name me because he could then own me. I have escaped that fate,” she said again. “And yet, I am now here. In an Empire, not an Aerie. In a world without Mothers. I have no sisters. I have no city and no lands of my own; I have no Ascendants, and no way to create them.

  “I have no crown, and I have no throne; I have no windows into other worlds and no way of touching the knowledge I once touched while the world crumbled around me.”

  “You have Maggaron,” Kaylin said quietly, remembering, with clarity, the night she had run into the fief of Barren. She had lost her home. She had lost her family. She had lost everything she had ever known about her life.

  “Yes,” was the soft reply. “I do. But can he stand against an Emperor?”

  Kaylin’s brows rose into her hairline. “I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.”

  “No? What do you think the Emperor wants of me?”


  “Yes. Children. How far do you think I will fly—if I fly at all—as the only Dragon alive who can bear eggs?”

  “I—Bellusdeo, I’ve never met the Emperor. I honestly can’t say.”

  “You’re being deliberately evasive.”

  She was. She turned down Avatar Road, familiar even in the nightscape, pausing only to listen for the baying of Ferals. If they were there at all, they were too distant. “How did you meet the Norannir?”


  Kaylin nodded.

  “An odd question. I met the Norannir when I first emerged from the Shadowfold, Chosen. They were…a strange people to me at the time. Not Barrani, not human, not Leontine. They were tall, and loud, but they were not then as you see them now. They lived in cities much like yours; they were learned and patient. They taught me to speak their tongue. I could not teach them to speak mine, and although Barrani is a language I understood, I did not speak it often. Not then.

  “There were no Dragons in the Norannir lands, save those that traveled through the storm.”

  “How did you come to rule them, then?”

  “There were no Immortals in Norannir lands, either. If you mean did I conquer, did I subjugate? The answer is both yes and no. If they were not then what they are now, they were always capable of
war. They merely fought among themselves with no clear victor to unite them.”

  “You became that victor.”

  Bellusdeo inclined her head.


  “Because the people who rescued me—if indeed that is the correct word—and taught me gave me both a home and hope that someday I might return to my Aerie. They opened the doors of the greatest library I have ever seen for my use. They did not deny me what they might have, had they been less generous. When they were attacked, I joined in the defense of their lands—because their lands had become my home.”

  “And they became your people.”

  Bellusdeo was silent for half a block. “Yes,” she finally said. “My people.” She glanced at Kaylin and then asked, “How did the Emperor become your Emperor?”

  “He’s a Dragon?”

  “That is hardly an answer.”

  “I’m not exactly sure. I mean, I know how he became my Emperor, personally; I crossed the bridge over the Ablayne. But I don’t know how he became our Emperor. In part, it was because of the war with the Barrani—the three wars? Four? But I’m not sure how mortals fit in with that. Probably by dying a lot.”

  “It is the only thing that gives me hope.”


  “The Outcaste would have been Emperor, could he; he could not rule as your Emperor does. You, Chosen—you serve your Emperor’s whim and his will, but you serve it as if it were your own. You make choices and decisions in the spur of the moment without his knowledge or his permission. You have your laws, and you serve a force created to enforce and uphold those laws—laws created, in the end, by a Dragon. You are Chosen, but you remain in obscurity in the life of your choice; you do not use the power you’ve been granted at his whim.

  “I am sure that if the Outcaste ruled, there would be no such freedom. I am certain that if he ruled the Empire, there would be far fewer mortals living in it in the end; he would feed them to the Shadows.”

  “They’re not the same—”

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