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Cast in ruin, p.40
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       Cast in Ruin, p.40

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “No, I know. But what I fear is what I fear. I do not want—not yet—what the Dragons want of me. I can’t.”

  “Ever?”

  “I will not say I will never want it; never is a very long time.” She glanced at the moons in silence. “I do not want to meet your Emperor.”

  “Neither do I.”

  Bellusdeo raised a brow, and then smiled and shook her head. “I will meet him, of course. I will meet him, and regardless of what I see when I do, I will accept that he is your Emperor. I will not endanger myself and I will not embarrass you.”

  “You don’t have to, trust me. There’s nothing you could do to embarrass me that I couldn’t do faster—or better.”

  Bellusdeo laughed. It was, for a moment, the only sound in the quiet of the fief’s night, and it was warmer and deeper than the lingering night chill. When her laughter faded, she glanced at Kaylin. “I was not like this before. I thought that the Shadows had not touched me.” She lowered her head a moment.

  Kaylin understood this, as well. “It seems so unfair,” she finally said.

  “Life is unfair. Which part of it pains you?”

  “We suffer, and it breaks something. When we win free—by gaining our name, by crossing a bloody bridge—we still live in a cage of scars. If life were fair, we would never have suffered what we suffered at all; having suffered it and survived, we’re still reacting to things that don’t exist anymore.”

  “But they did.”

  “Yes. I hate that they still define me.” Voice lower, she said to Bellusdeo, “I want that to change. I don’t know how to change it. But I’m willing to spend the rest of my life trying.” Shaking her head, she forced herself to smile; it was surprisingly easy. There was something about Bellusdeo that she liked. “Home is a strange thing.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “We lose it, and we think it’s gone forever. That’s how I felt the first time I lost mine. It took me years to understand that I could find—and make—another. I couldn’t do it on my own, though; I don’t think—for me—home exists in isolation.” Her smile deepened as she shook her head. “Come on.”

  The Dragon frowned. “Where are we going? The Tower is just over there.”

  “Not to the Tower,” Kaylin replied. “We’re just passing by it so you can pick up Maggaron if you want to see him.”

  Bellusdeo confirmed at least one suspicion that Kaylin held: Maggaron came bounding out of the Tower almost before the doors had fully opened. Kaylin sincerely hoped his very heavy feet weren’t actually trodding on the carrots that had been planted in places where most rich people planted grass; Morse would spit him, even given the difference in their height and weight, because Maggaron would fight cleanly. Morse fought to win, always.

  Bellusdeo laughed at the expression on his face as he approached, and even given what the moons’ light did to the color of his face, Kaylin could tell that he was blushing. “What Kaylin said was deplorably, absolutely true: she lives in a single room. I don’t think you could walk through the door without bending.”

  “Have you come to stay in the fief, Lady?”

  “I think, for the moment, you must call me by name. And no, not yet.”

  “The Dragons—”

  “I have only met one more,” she replied.

  Maggaron stilled.

  “…And I have no desire to lose you in a pointless fight, so, please, do not even think it. How was your day?”

  “It was long,” he replied, extending his hands. Bellusdeo could see much better in the dark than Kaylin could.

  “They had you digging?”

  “Yes, Lady.”

  “Maggaron—”

  “I will call you by your name in the presence of strangers. The Avatar felt that I was restless, and she asked me to aid her in her garden.”

  “I…see.”

  “I did not mind. There is much work to do in the lands Lord Tiamaris rules.” He hesitated and then said, “Could you not dwell here until you have made your decision?”

  Kaylin frowned. “Maggaron—you learned to speak Barrani?”

  “Pardon?”

  “He is speaking the tongue of the People,” Bellusdeo told her.

  “But—but I understand what he’s saying.”

  “Do you hear it as Barrani?” Kaylin nodded.

  “You held his name, Chosen. You touched what he was.”

  “He doesn’t have a name anymore.”

  “Perhaps not. Perhaps,” Bellusdeo said softly, “he is part of mine. I cannot tell; I feel him as part of me now. But it is not surprising that you understand him.”

  “Where are you going, Lady?”

  “I am not certain. At the moment, I am following the Chosen.”

  Maggaron hesitated, and then said, “She is walking behind you.”

  “Time-honored tradition,” Kaylin told him. “Following from in front.” She paused; in the distance she could hear the howl of Ferals. “This way,” she told her companions.

  She led them down streets she knew well by daylight; night changed them, but not enough to make them foreign. She hadn’t often walked in Barren at night; she hadn’t walked in Nightshade at night much, either. Maggaron was unarmed, but Bellusdeo, by her very nature, was not; Kaylin wasn’t worried. The streets, however, were empty. If Tiamaris—with Morse—was on patrol, he patrolled at a distance; she could neither see nor hear him. She did watch, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Dragon on the wing.

  She had to settle for a Dragon bound by gravity, instead.

  Maggaron didn’t talk much; Bellusdeo, in his presence, talked more, but not a lot. She spoke Norannir for the most part; Kaylin knew this because Bellusdeo’s Norannir was beyond her. It sounded familiar, but its syllables didn’t coalesce into something that had any recognizable meaning. Kaylin almost felt that they should. But she didn’t begrudge Bellusdeo the use of a familiar language—it’s what she would have wanted had she been in the Dragon’s position. It also gave Bellusdeo some small amount of privacy. The open, empty streets gave her the rest; in the fiefs, only the drunk or the suicidal wandered at night. Kaylin felt neither drunk nor suicidal.

  But the streets of Tiamaris—Tiamaris, not Barren—had changed. The farther away from the Ablayne they traveled, the less empty the streets became. In twos and fours, like large looming shadows, the Norannir began to appear. They didn’t exactly move silently; they spoke and they sort of clanged as they walked. She even recognized the walk; they were patrolling.

  Looking at her sleeves, Kaylin sighed and undid the cuffs; she rolled them both up to her elbows, exposing the marks. She wasn’t even surprised to see that they were glowing faintly. She approached a group of four patrolling Norannir; they turned toward her, falling silent as they shifted their grips on their weapons. She didn’t exactly hold her hands up, but she exposed her arms as she walked.

  They didn’t relax; they did straighten up, and they did lower their weapons. They also spoke. She couldn’t understand much of what they were saying, so they repeated themselves slowly. Which, of course, didn’t help.

  Kaylin turned to see that Bellusdeo and Maggaron were exactly where she’d left them. Maggaron began to walk down the street, but Bellusdeo hung back. As if, Kaylin thought, she was afraid. No, not afraid—nervous. Maggaron was not; he approached the Norannir, who frowned. They didn’t immediately recognize him, and at this point, they probably recognized most of the other refugees.

  But he introduced himself by name—not title—and asked if they might be taken to speak with the Elders. The men on patrol asked a few curt questions, none of which Kaylin understood, but most of which she could guess, before they conferred among themselves.

  “Are we here too late?” Kaylin asked him. “Do you think they’re sleeping?” She could think of about a hundred things that were wiser—and more fun to do—than waking Mejrah.

  Maggaron frowned. “At night? No. The Elders will not sleep at night, not here. Not so close to the border. The Shadows
are strongest in the darkness, and if the power of the Elders or the drums is needed, it is now.”

  “Bellusdeo?”

  The Dragon was standing alone, to one side of the street, as if she hoped to melt into the very narrow space between buildings. She stiffened as Kaylin called her name a second time.

  So did the Norannir. Their eyes widened, and they looked once again at Kaylin’s glowing marks. They began to speak in hushed and hurried words, and then they turned to Maggaron, their words colliding as they all asked him questions at once. She recognized one word clearly: Bellusdeo.

  Maggaron said, “Yes.” Just that. But he turned and he held out a hand.

  Bellusdeo might as well have grown roots. “Chosen,” she said in Barrani, “I—I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this.”

  Kaylin walked toward her. “Yes, you are.”

  “I’m not. I’m no longer their Queen. I’m no longer what I was. I have no lands, and I have little power. What can I possibly offer them?” She held out her empty palms.

  It was the right question to ask Kaylin Neya. Kaylin smiled and shook her head. “Sometimes,” she told the Dragon, taking her by the hand, “you also get to ask what they can offer you.”

  “They are doing everything that I would ask of them if I were among them. They patrol the streets and they guard the border.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Tara told me. Before dinner. They have a Lord; they don’t need a Queen.”

  Kaylin tugged gently at her hand, and an obviously reluctant Bellusdeo came with her. “They’re just as lost as you are,” Kaylin told her as they walked—slowly—down the street. “They’ve had a few more days—a week at most—to adjust, but they’ve lost their home, their world, and everything they knew except each other and the Shadow.”

  “Yes, but they’re pledged to Tiamaris. I can’t—not with his hoard—”

  “You’re not taking anything away from him. You’re still going to come back to my place after you talk to Mejrah.”

  One of the four almost frozen men turned and ran down the street. Kaylin stifled the urge to tell him not to run off alone, mostly because he wouldn’t have understood a word she shouted even if she tried. Bellusdeo didn’t appear to notice. As she approached the men who were now staring at her, she let go of Kaylin’s hand and drew herself to her full height. It wasn’t impressive, when compared to the height of the standing Norannir—but at the same time, it was.

  She spoke three words, and the men—whose eyes were almost as golden as hers—slowly dropped to their knees, holding their weapons vertical against the cracked cobblestones. Maggaron came to stand to Bellusdeo’s left in silence.

  She spoke; they listened.

  When she finished, one of the men lifted his head; his cheeks were wet. “Bellusdeo,” he said, and repeated it as if it were a prayer.

  She nodded, her expression grave. When she spoke again, they rose almost as one man. One of the men fell in behind Maggaron to her left; the other two stood to her right.

  “Chosen, join me.”

  Kaylin hesitated, and Bellusdeo smiled; there was both warmth and edge to it. “If I have to go at your insistence, this is your penance.”

  They walked down the streets of the fief. The moons were high, and the occasional howl of a Feral sounded in the distance as if it were music. The Norannir, Maggaron included, didn’t speak a word; they walked, for the moment, as if they were Palace Guards.

  Kaylin watched as the tents of the Norannir came into view. A fire burned at the crossroads around which the tents had been erected; the street that they were walking down continued past fire and tents into the darkness at the heart of the fiefs. Norannir stood guard just beyond the burning wood, and those on watch didn’t turn as Bellusdeo approached. They were, however, the only ones who didn’t.

  Mejrah stood in dark robes, the fire at her back casting a flickering shadow; to her right and left, the older men she often called. They were both armed; Mejrah, for once, wasn’t. She couldn’t be; both of her hands were cupped beneath a very familiar crystal. It was the Arkon’s memory crystal, and it was active: standing just above it, pale and translucent, was the image of Bellusdeo taken from Severn’s memories of seven corpses.

  The image was ghostly—ethereal but exact. The three Norannir guards who had escorted them down the length of the street stopped walking; Bellusdeo and Maggaron did not. Kaylin hesitated, feeling very much like a fifth wheel—a curious fifth wheel.

  “Chosen,” Bellusdeo said in a voice that didn’t tremble at all.

  Kaylin joined her, and this time Bellusdeo caught, and held, her hand. Maggaron began to kneel, but she caught his hand, as well, denying him the shelter of obeisance.

  Mejrah’s eyes were a brilliant gold; they matched Bellusdeo’s as the old woman gazed down at her. She knelt and placed the crystal at Bellusdeo’s feet, and this, Bellusdeo allowed—she had only two hands, after all.

  Kaylin’s marks began to glow; they were warm, not uncomfortable, and the light they shed was golden. As the Norannir began to speak, she knew why: she could understand them.

  “Bellusdeo,” Mejrah said in a rough voice. She frowned and glanced up; the Elders to either side shifted from formal bows to knees at her unspoken command. “You return to us.”

  “Yes, Elder.”

  “And you bring the Ascendant.”

  “Yes. I come at the side of the Chosen to the lands of my birth.”

  A whisper went up in a circle around Bellusdeo. Standing almost between the tenting, lingering like children who are afraid to get too close in case they catch too much attention, stood a dozen armed and armored Norannir; a third of them were women.

  Mejrah’s eyes closed a moment; her wrinkled face was wet. She opened her eyes and she smiled at Bellusdeo. “Your lands, Lady?”

  Bellusdeo shook her head. “I was not Queen here, in my youth, nor am I Queen now. There is a King, and he is a great King. For centuries now he has kept the Shadows—and the enemy—at bay. Your Lord—”

  “Lady, no—”

  “Your Lord, Mejrah. You gave him your word, and my people have never sworn false oaths.”

  Mejrah looked stricken, but bowed her head; when she lifted it again, all that remained was the grim determination that characterized most of the Norannir Kaylin had seen in the fief.

  “Your Lord, Tiamaris, is liege to this King. Serve him well, and you will build a home that no Shadows will taint or destroy.”

  “And you, Lady? Have you returned to us?”

  Bellusdeo was silent. She clutched Kaylin’s hand tightly for just a moment; if it had been any longer, Kaylin’s bones would have snapped. She managed to say nothing. “Do you remember my history?”

  Mejrah nodded slowly.

  “When I first met the Elders, it was much like this. I came before them accompanied by only my sisters and my guards. I had the clothing on my back, no more.

  “They fed me, Mejrah. They offered me shelter. They understood that I had wandered very, very far from my home. I was…a child. I was a child, and the People gave me a place in which I might grow into adulthood. You were never in my debt.” She slowly released the hands of both Maggaron and Kaylin. “You are not in my debt now. The People survive because of your choices, your decisions; they survive because you knew that to cling to home and the artifacts of history would be death, in the end.

  “I did not guide you here. I did not counsel you. I did not walk the long and empty road. You need not kneel to me.”

  “You are—”

  “I am Bellusdeo, yes.” She glanced at the image of herself. “And in these lands, that is all that I am. I have no throne, I have no lands. The home I built in the lands of the People is lost, and the world into which I was born is so much changed, I do not recognize it.”

  Mejrah rose. Without looking down, she touched the shoulders of the men on her right and left, and they rose, as well. They were so much taller than either Kaylin or Bellusdeo.


  “Lady,” Mejrah said. “You gave us the Ascendants. You taught our Elders. You created our drums and you schooled us in the use of the words that might drive back the Shadows for a little while.”

  “Yes. But I taught, Elder. I taught the People. It was the People who became those Ascendants; the People who used those drums; the People who sang those words. Were it not for the strength of the People, no lesson, no gift, would have sufficed.

  “Do you understand?” she asked softly.

  Kaylin didn’t, but waited. So did Mejrah.

  “You are here,” Bellusdeo finally said.

  “These are not our—”

  “Are they not? You have proven your worth to Dragons, Elder. Do you doubt it? Your men patrol the streets and your men face the Shadows who manage to slip beyond the borders. You retreated from the war; you did not flee it. And I? I am come to your home, as I did to the home of your ancient ancestors, with nothing but the clothes I wear. I have no sisters but the Chosen and no guards but the Ascendant.”

  Before Mejrah could stop her, Bellusdeo knelt. She looked inordinately tiny surrounded by the Norannir. Tiny, Kaylin thought, the way diamonds were tiny.

  Mejrah reached out and caught the Dragon’s slender hands, lifting her to her feet. “Come, then,” she said, voice breaking. “We offer food, Bellusdeo, and fire, to you, your sister, and your guard. We do not have what the Ancients had, but if—” Her voice broke again, and she struggled to master it. “But what we have, we offer.” Bending, reaching down, she wrapped Bellusdeo in her arms and lifted her; nor did Bellusdeo attempt to evade her.

  “And maybe, when I am dead, and my children, and my children’s children, and theirs, as well, you will hold all our stories and our memories and you will build your home from them—as you once did.”

  Acknowledgments

  Thanks, as always, go to my household: my parents, my husband, my sons; John and Kristen; my Australian alpha reader. They’ve perfected the art of ignoring my ability to disappear while standing in place.

  Thanks, as well, to Chris Szego, for being a very encouraging sounding board.

 
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