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On the second day after her return to Elantra, the city she policed as a groundhawk, Private Kaylin Neya fell out of bed, daggers in hands, knees bent. After one confused moment, she sheathed her daggers, took a brief look around the otherwise empty royal guest chambers that served as her temporary home, and let loose a volley of Leontine curses.
The small, translucent winged lizard that habitually slept above her head squawked in protest; she'd swept him out of the way without a second thought. He hovered in front of her face as she cursed; she didn't, at the moment, have anything left over for groveling apologies.
Leontine wasn't the usual language heard in the halls of the Imperial Palace. Nor was it generally heard in the function rooms, and when it was, it wasn't the particular phrasing she now indulged in. On the other hand, the thunderous sounds that had driven her from sleep pretty much guaranteed that no one who'd care could possibly hear her words. Kaylin could scream until she was blue in the face, with the same results. Anyone in the palace halls could, at the moment.
Dragons were having a discussion.
When she'd first heard Dragons converse in their native tongue, she'd thought of earthquakes or tidal waves. Distinguishing individual voices had been less important than covering both her ears in the vague hope she'd preserve some of her hearing. A couple of weeks in the palace with Bellusdeo for a companion had changed that. She could pick out three loudpainfully loudvoices in the crash of distant thunder: Diarmat's, Bellusdeo's and
the Emperor's. While she generally enjoyed the arguments between Bellusdeo and Diarmat, she had zero desire to ever interruptor witnessany argument which also contained the Emperor. Even mention of the Emperor was probably career-limiting.
It was dark, but the storm of sound in progress didn't seem like it would die down any time soon, and sleep was pretty much impossibleat least for Kaylin. The rest of the Dragon Court was probably in hiding, but Immortals didn't need anything as petty as sleep.
The minutethe secondshe had the time to find a new place, she was so out of here.
The small dragon landed on her shoulders. She'd named him Hope, but felt self-conscious actually calling him that, and she hadn't had time to come up with a name that suited him better. He yawned, folded himself across her shoulders like a badly formed shawl, and closed his eyes. Clearly, Dragon shouting didn't bother him in the slightest.
Then again, he probably understood what they were saying.
The palace was never dark. Individual rooms had lighting that responded to the needs of the guests who occupied them, but the hallsthe grand, wide, towering hallswere always fully lit. The Imperial Palace Guard also adorned those halls, standing like statues in a stiff, grim silence that suited their pretension.
They didn't stop Kaylin as she walked past them, heading to one of the only places that she was certain was somewhat soundproof. They knew her on sight, and if they'd had no issues treating her as one step up from a convicted felon in the past, she was now roommate to the Empire's only female Dragon. The Emperor didn't want anyone to piss Bel-lusdeo off.
Anyone, Kaylin thought glumly, but the Emperor himself. Dragons had never been famously good at sharing.
When she reached the tall and forbidding doors of the Imperial Library, she had second thoughts. It wasn't that the Imperial Library was home in all but name to the Arkon, the oldest member of the Dragon Court. It wasn't that the doors were closed; they were almost always closed. It wasn't even his extreme dislike of being interrupted.
It was the door ward that straddled them.
She'd woken to the sounds of angry Dragon, which pretty much defined Bad Day. Having to place her palm against this particular ward took Bad Day and made it worse. At the best of times, Kaylin's allergy to magic made door wards uncomfortablebut this ward could raise so much noise it might just interrupt the Dragons. One of whom was the Emperor.
There was no other way to open them. Kaylin briefly considered knocking. With her head. Before she couldand it was late enough, or early enough, that she might havethe doors surprised her by gliding open. No one stood between them.
At this hour, the library deskthe publicly accessible library deskwas unmanned. The display cases and the rows upon rows of standing files were shadowed. The robed clerks who kept the library spotless were conspicuous by their absencebut that was no surprise. No one sane visited the library at this hour.
As the doors rolled closed at her back, the sound of Dragon anger diminished.
The Arkon made his way toward her from the back of the large room, which surprised Kaylin; she'd expected to find him holed up in one of the many, many rooms that comprised his personal collectionnone of which the public was invited to peruse.
"Thank you for opening the doors," she told him.
"I felt it best to avoid interrupting the ongoing discussion. No one involved in it is likely to be amused by the sudden need to attend to intruders."
"I live here, at the moment."
"Indeed. I imagine the only person present who might find a disaster of your making remotely convenient is Lord Diarmat."
"Who doesn't deserve it."
"You give him too little credit."
The Arkon's smile was lined. It was also sharp. "Perhaps I will beg the Emperor's indulgence."
In theory, this sounded good. Given the way the day had started, it couldn't be. "How?"
"I might ask permission to teach you the rudiments of our language." His smile deepened as her eyes rounded and her brows rose.
"I'll go deaf!"
"Yes. Follow me, please. You interrupted me," he added. "I don't know how you can work with that ruckus going on in the background."
"It is difficult. I do not have the concentration I once possessed in my youth."
"So, what are they arguing about exactly?"
"Bellusdeo's status at court, at the moment; the argument has touched on many subjects." The Arkon's eyes were a steady shade of orange, which wasn't a good sign, in a Dragon.
"What about her status? She's a Dragon, so she's technically a Lord of the Court."
"That is true only in mortal terms. She is notas Diarmat has been at pains to point outa Lord of this Court. She has not offered the Emperor an oath of fealty; nor has she agreedin a binding fashionto abide by the laws he hands down."
"She spends most of her free time with me," Kaylin replied. "I'm a groundhawk. She probably knows the law better than anyone who isn't."
"You misunderstand. Humans are not, of course, required to take such a binding oathI believe they would not survive it. Bellusdeo has not been required to do so. Lord Diar-mat correctly points out that she therefore poses a risk to the Court." He stopped at a smooth, flat wall. It was unadorned; Kaylin suspected it was actually a door.
The Arkon barked a sharp, harsh word and proved her suspicion correct; a part of the wall simply faded from sight. What lay on the other side of it was a disaster. It made Kay-lin's desk at its worst look pristine and tidy. Hells, it made Marcus's desk look wellorganized, which Kaylin would have bet was impossible.
The Arkon noted her hesitation. "Is there a difficulty?"
"Just how important is all the paperthat is paper, isn't it?"
"Parchment. Some paper. There is also stone and a few shards of smooth glass. I trust that you will disturb nothing while you are here."
He raised a brow; his eyes didn't get any more orange, which was a small mercy.
"There's stuff all over the floor. There's stuff all over the chairs. I probably can't put a foot down without stepping on something."
"Then do not, as you put it, put a foot down." He gestured.
The hair on Kaylin's arms and the back of her neck rose in instant protest.
"Do not," he said, in a more severe tone of voice, "make me regret my foolish and sentimental decision to take pity on you and provide you some form of refuge."
Folding her arms across her chest, she walked into the room; her feet touched nothing. Neither did the Arkon's.
"Not to be suspicious or anything," she began.
"You do not think me capable of either sentiment or pity?"
"Not much, no. Not for me."
His smile deepened. "As you point out, Private, Bellusdeo did spend most of her free time in your presence. You have not, however, been in the city for the past month and a half. She has therefore had no anchor. No friends, if you prefer. In the last two weeks of your absence, she has spent a greater portion of her time in the fief of Tiamaris, speaking with the refugees there. When she chooses to enter the fief, she is met by one of the Norannir"
"That would be Maggaron."
"The Emperor does not consider Maggaron to be a suitable guard in the fiefs; Lord Tiamaris, however, is. She has acceptedwith poor gracethe Emperor's wishes in this regard."
"She has taken to flying in the restricted air-space above the fief of Tiamaris."
"It's not Imperial land."
"No. She has pointed this outat length. You might have recognized one or two of the words she used, if you were paying attention. She has, however, come close to the borders of the fief once too often for the Emperor's comfort."
"The Norannir live on the borders."
"Indeed. She has taken pains to point this out, as well."
"He's going to isolate her! The Norannir are the only other friends she has in this city!"
The Arkon's smile was softer, and infinitely more pained. "They are not her friends, Kaylin. They were once her subjects. She is not merely a Dragon to them; she is akin to a living god. Bellusdeo has her vanity. She has her pride. But she, like any Dragon, understands her role in their lives. She does not go to them for their sake, but her own. They remind her of who she once was.
"There is altogether too much in the Palace that reminds her of what she now is."
Kaylin's arms tightened. "And what, exactly, is that?"
"A displaced person. She is very much the equivalent of the Norannir. You think of her as a Lord of the Court, and you have some rudimentary understanding of the political power that title might give her. She lives in the Palace, and not in the mean streets of the fiefs that border Ravellon. She has food, should she desire it, and clothing; she has money. But the Norannir have more freedom than Bellusdeo now does."
"Why are you telling me this? Why not say this to the Emperor?"
"Do you think I have not?" His eyes shaded to a color that was more copper than orange. Kaylin couldn't remember what it meant, she'd seen it so rarely. In fact, she'd seen it only once: in Bellusdeo's eyes. "I have told the Emperor that Bellusdeo cannot live in a cage. He does not intend to cage herbut regardless, he does. She is too valuable to risk. We have already seen how close to disaster we came."
"Arkon" Kaylin froze, and only in part because the muted draconic voices had risen in volume. "Please tell me this argument has nothing to do with my moving out."
"You are not, that I recall, fond of unnecessary dishonesty." He took a seat. It was the only seat in the room that seemed to have enough exposed surface to sit on. "If Bellusdeo can be said to have one friend in the Empire, it is you. She found your absence far more difficult than either sheor youhad imagined she would."
"She said this?"
"Of course not." He winced; it took Kaylin a couple of seconds to realize it wasn't because of anything she'd said. Unlike her, he could understand every word that was being said. Or shouted. "You have made it clear to Bellusdeo that life in the Imperial Palace does not suit you."
"Not in those exact words, no."
"Refrain from repeating the exact phrasing."
Because Kaylin loved her job on most days, she did.
"You intend to find another domicile?"
"Yes. As soon as I can." When he lifted a brow, she thought of the job she lovednone of which included pandering to annoyed Dragons. On the other hand, survival often did. "Look, there are people who would kill to live in the Palace. I'm certain of it. But they're the people the Hawklord goes out of his way to prevent me from meeting. Everything in my Palace roomseverythingcosts more than the clothing on my back. I feel like I should bathe before I step foot through the door.
"I can't leave or enter without an inquisition. I have to deal with Imperial Guards on a daily basis for no other reason than that I live here."
"They are there for the protection and security of our guests."
"Fine. But I don't want to be a guest in my own home. I want to be able to live there. Bellusdeo is a Dragon. When she dons Court dresses, they fit her and look good. She understands the powerful. She has power. I'm a groundhawk. I can barely make ends meet on my cruddy pay. I'm not in her classand I know it.
"I came from the fiefs. I work on the streets. I don't belong here, and I can't be happy where I don't belong."
"You are a Lord of the High Court."
"The Barrani High Court, and you know damn well I don't have to live in the High Halls."
"You have visited them before."
"I visited them with Teela."
"And the difference?"
She grimaced. There was a difference. She wasn't certain what it was. "Teela's a Hawk."
"And Bellusdeo is not."
"Bellusdeo would never swear the oath the Halls of Law require."
"No. Lord Teela did?"
"Lord Teela doesn't give a damn about nonbinding oaths. They're just words, as far as the Barrani are concerned. There is no way Marcus would ever allow Bellusdeo to join the Hawks."
"Ah, yes. Your Sergeant's famous mistrust of my kind." His eyes, however, shaded toward gold. He clearly found Marcus amusing. "Your Teela understands the High Court, and she avoids it where possible. But if you enter that world, she enters it beside youand she warns others, by presence alone, that there are consequences to any actions they might take against you. Bellusdeo cannot do that, here. And she is aware that she lacks that ability; the Palace is not her home. It is not an environment with which she is familiar, or over which she has ultimate control.
"Still, she tries. She targets Diarmat with the full brunt of her outraged disdain. Her outrage," he added, "is genuine. She feels your marks are not accorded the respect they are due. She does not fully consider the advantage in being underestimatedand I will say, now, that there is a distinct advantage to you, in my opinion. She feels a debt of gratitude to you."
"I didn't do anything for her gratitude. I did it because
"Oh, do continue. I'm certain it will be fascinating. You did it because that's what anyone would do?"
Kaylin shrugged. It was a fief shrug. Fief shrugs, on the other hand, were not a language with which the Arkon chose to be familiar.
"You grew up in the fiefs. You are aware that you are lying. Even if you aren't, there are very fewI can think of almost no onewho could do for Bellusdeo what you did. She would have died there." His gaze slid off hers. "I am not certain, at this moment, that fate would not be preferable in her mind. Yes, the discussion in progressand to my mind it will be some hours before it is doneinvolves both your residence and hers." He closed his eyes. "She is in pain, Kaylin. She is grieving. For us, the grief is long past; it exists only in echoes, when we turn our thoughts to the past.