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To say that Private Kaylin Neya was out of her element was to master the art of understatement. Fish out of water had nothing on the groundhawk whose entire life had been lived within the boundaries of Elantraeither on the city streets or in the fiefs at its heart.
This had become obvious the moment she entered the forest, walking between Severn and Teela and surroundedliterallyby Barrani. Or as she walked through forest, at any rate, because this far across the known map, it was all forest. Never an aficionado of fine art, she'd nonetheless seen paintings, and the occasional diorama of ancient forests, and she had known what to expect: tall, majestic trees, shade-dappled forest floors and shafts of brilliant, solid sunlight illuminating strategic patches of charming undergrowth, with the occasional frail animal thrown in for good measure. In the paintings, there were no Barrani, no dragons, and no angry Leontines; there were no drug dealers, no muggers, no frauds, and no rapists. The artists evoked a sense of peaceful idyll. Hah.
Painters should have been Court diplomatsmen and women who'd mastered the art of telling pretentious lies with more or less straight faces. For one, they left out the bugs. On some level, Kaylin didn't blame themif she'd had the choice, she'd've left them out, too. Unfortunately, she didn't. The insects didn't appear to bother the Barrani. She was gladin an entirely petty waythat they occasionally bit Severn, because it made their choice of dinner snacks racial, rather than purely personal. He didn't appear to take offense as much.
Then again, he had other things on his mind, chief among them, not tripping over inconveniently placed tree roots and landing on his face. His left eye had, over the course of two days, developed a purple-black tinge. He'd taken one wound to his upper left thigh, and two broad gashes across his left rib cage, one of which had exposed bone. He'd allowed her to heal the wounds by a few days' worth, no more.
This was a greater liberty than any of the injured Barrani allowed her, and she was tired enough not to push the point. The Barrani version of gratitude for the gift of healing involved knivesor worsein dark alleys.
Avoiding Barrani, however, was not an option.
The Lord of the West March and what remained of his soldiers formed up at the frontand the rearof the delegation. To either side, what was left of the party that had set out from the High Halls walked in single file. Kaylin wasn't given the option of choosing her position in that delegation: she was wearing a very fine, obviously magical, green dress, and the dress demanded respect, even if the wearer didn't.
Travel, some idiot in her office had said, is fun.
Kaylin, surrounded by somber, tenseand deeply blueeyed Barranihad a few words to say about that. Teela made clear she could say them with her mouth shut. So Kaylin, navigating forest, footpaths, and a plague of blood-drinking, buzzing insects, began to make a list. It was, in her mind, titled Things Not to Do if You Want to Have Fun During Your Involuntary Leave of (Probably Unpaid) Absence.
First on the list: avoid making deals for crucial information with a fieflord. Even if the Halls of Law were desperate for that information. The particular fieflord in question, Lord Nightshade, didn't seem to have any trouble navigating the forest, and the insects avoided him. He wore a tiara with an emerald at its peak, and robes that looked ridiculously fine in comparison to the practical Barrani armor that almost everyone else was wearing. She added a corollary to the first point: do not agree to attend a religious rite in the West March without first ascertaining that the fieflord in question did not also plan to attend.
Second on the list: do not travel with the Barrani High Court. It had seemed both convenient and smart to accept their offer of transportation; after all, the Barrani knew where they were going. Kaylin didn't. Her knowledge of Elantran streets was second to noneor closebut the West March wasn't in Elantra. At the time, because she'd had no idea how to reach the West March, getting there on her own had seemed impossible.
Impossible couldn't be worse than this. She slapped her arm and squashed an insect. The chill in the air, as she smeared insect body across the sleeve of her incredibly important ceremonial dress, could have frozen moving water.
If the imaginary person for whom the list was being created had had no choice in either of the first two, she emphatically underlined point three: if you see a strange dress in a closet that only appeared after you'd entered the room of your inn, ignore it. Under no circumstances was such a dress to be worn. Unless you were Barrani, and maybe not even then. Yes, the dress was a lovely shade of green. Yes, it was comfortable. Yes, it was suitable for the Barrani High Courtand it didn't require the help of two strong people to put on. It was even practical; the skirts were wide enough that Kaylin could runat full stridewhile wearing it.
Unfortunately, the Barrani didn't respect or revere it because it was practical. They revered it because it was the manifestation of the will of the heart of the green. Some poor sucker, shoehorned into the dress, was meant to serve in a primary role in the recitation of the regaliathe very rite that a smart person would have gone out of their way to avoid attending if they were paying attention to point one.
Fourth on the listalthough technically, it might be better placed between points two and three: avoid Barrani inns. The Barrani version of an inn was known as a Hallionne. Or the Hallionne, in plural. As inns went they were creepy, in part because they were alive and sentientand mind-reading. Best not to forget the mind-reading part. They reminded Kaylin of nothing so much as the Towers or Castles in the fiefs, and no one with two brain cells to rub together voluntarily lived in either. She felt a twinge of guilt at this because she counted Tara, the Tower of Tiamaris, as a friend. But it had been a long two daysit was a very minor twinge.
Because the Hallionne were sentient, they were able to do things that normal inns couldn'tlike, say, choose the rooms in which their guests stayed. Want a different room? Too damn bad. You could stay in the room the Hallionne chose for youor you could sleep under the trees, where the forest version of Ferals would eat your liver for a midnight snack. The Hallionne also had a pretty broad idea of physical shape and changed it apparently at whim.
The small dragon perched on her shoulder tilted his head, and after a pause, squawked in her ear.
Point five, which might also be point zero: do not take large, strange eggs home with you. They hatched into delicate, small dragons. Not that the actual dragons of Kaylin's acquaintance thought sobut honestly, the little guy had miniature dragon breath. Except he didn't spew flame; he spewed
clouds. That could melt steel without heating it first. That could kill Ferals. That could bypass the usual magical wards placed on doors.
Or maybe point five should be: do not have a dragon for a roommate. Because dragons for roommates attracted assassins the way Kaylin was currently attracting insectsand if you were planning on killing a dragon, you'd need enough magical conflagration to destroy a city block.
And that much magic had certainly been enough to destroy the only home Kaylin had ever truly owned. Or rented. On the other hand, if your life goal was to live in the Palace, dragon roommates who just happened to be the only living female of the species were definitely the way to go.
The small dragon squawked again.
"All right, all right. Scratch that. Unhatched eggs are good." Especially since the act of hatching seemed responsible for the fact that Kaylinand Bellusdeo, the maligned dragon roommate in questionwere still alive. That was not the usual outcome when an Arcane bomb exploded in your face.
"Lord Kaylin," Severn said. She glanced at him. "Is there some difficulty?" His words were both High Barrani and stiff as boards. They reminded her, immediately, that she was surrounded by Barrani Lords who were just as stiff, but probably less friendly. You could get some warmth out of most boards by burning them; at this point, Kaylin wasn't so certain the same could be said of the High Court, or at least its present members. Only Nightshade looked amused.
Amusing Nightshade was not high on her list of things to do, although it didn't quite make the list of things not to do she was composing.
Let's see. Six? Six: if a Hallionne offered to let you stay in his special, safe space, and the space looked like a haunted graveyard, don't do it.
She was aware, as she stubbed her toe for the thousandth time, that she was being more than a little unfair. But the imitation graveyard had been a bedroom, of sorts. In the heart of the Hallionne, his brothers slept.
Small and squawky dragon sidekick had breathed on their tombstones, which had caused them to wake. The waking had been disturbing. The brothers themselves, disturbing as well but in a different waythey'd adopted the forms of Barrani Lords, but the minute they'd opened their collective mouths it was clear they had very, very little in common with the Hal-lionne's most frequent guests.
Seven: if the Hallionne offers to let you take the portal paths through the outlands to the West March, say no. Loudly. Le-ontine optional. In theory, the portal paths were risky. Theory and practice aligned, but not in the ways she'd been told to expect.
In theory, the outlands existed as a kind of potential space. They were gray and formless in their natural state. An entire groupsuch as, say, the group that set out from the High Halls what felt like months agocould pass through the arch of the portal intent on reaching the same destination, but only two people were guaranteed to do so.
One of them was Kaylin Neya, wearer of the dress that deserved respect.
The other was Lord Nightshade, wearer of the emerald tiara. Like Kaylin's dress, the tiara was given to someone chosen to participate directly in the recitation of the regalia. Unlike Kaylin, Nightshade seemed to approve.
She'd been surprised to enter the outlands to find the bowers of normal, if tall, trees. So had the Consort. The Consort. Kaylin wanted to add an eighth item to her growing list: don't piss off the Consort. But in this case, she couldn't. Kaylin understood why the Consort was angry. She also understood that given the same possible outcomes, Kaylin would stand by the choice she'd made.
She glanced at the Consort as she thought it; the Consort was dressed in white armor, a gift from the Lord of the West March. She carried a naked blade, and her hair was swept off the back of her neck. She was, on the other hand, the only Barrani to confine her hair. As if aware of Kaylin's attention, the Consort glanced at her. Her eyes were blue. They were not as dark a blue as almost everyone else's.
Teela's were certainly darker.
"Honestly, kitling," the Barrani Hawk said, frowning. "I can hear you thinking."
On most days, the Barrani who worked in the Halls of Law looked both arrogant and bored. At thirteen years of age, Kaylin had found the arrogance irritating. The boredom, she understood. Today, she missed it.
"If I hear one more word about the insects, I swear I will bite you myself." She spoke in quiet Elantran for the first time in two days.
The rush of gratitude Kaylin felt at the sound of her mother tongue should have embarrassed her. Clearly, from Teela's expression, it embarrassed one of them. "Do not," Teela continued in the same Elantran, her brows furrowing, "start to worry about me."
"I mean it."
"Can I talk about something else instead?"
"I'm certain to regret it," was Teela's brusque reply. As it wasn't a no, Kaylin said, "Why do so many Barrani try to divest themselves of their names?"
"Illien in Barren. The walking dead in Nightshade."
"Two small examples do not constitute a multitude."
"Well, no. But I think that's what Iberrienne was trying to do."
Teela shook her head. "I think you're wrong."
Kaylin wasn't so certain. Eighth on her list, then: do not speak the True Name of a Barrani Lord who you don't intend to kill immediately afterward. She hadn't planned it. But she had seen Ynpharion's True Name, and she had seen the substantial shadows it both cast and fed. The shadow had taken the form of his name, and the shape. It was as if he had two names, identical in form, but entirely different in substance.
She didn't understand how. But she was certain that the shadow namefor want of anything else to call ithad given the Barrani Lord the ability to transform himself into the Ferals that hunted in the less safe parts of the West March and its environs. It was as a Feral that he had first approached Kaylin.
It was as a Feral that he would have killed her, too. But her dragon sidekick had conferred a type of invisibility on her. Or on himself. That invisibility had given her the time to observe, and the time to planeven if the plan was half-assed and desperate.
She knew the True Names of both Lord Nightshade and the Lord of the West March. She understood that in theory, this gave her power over them. But she now understood that theory was its usual pathetic mess. Neither Nightshade nor the Lord of the West March had ever fought against her knowledge. They accepted the threat she might one day pose. They did not feel threatened by her now.
They had, she understood, gifted her with the knowledge of their names.
But Lord Ynpharion had not. She'd spoken his name, strengthening its existence, in an attempt to burn away the shadows that clung to it. She'd succeeded. But there had been no way to ask his permission because before she had invoked his name, he wouldn't have given it. He fought her.
He fought, and he lost. This was a new and painful experience for Kaylin, and it was not one she was anxious to repeat.
Ynpharion walked to one side of the Lord of the West March, in what should have been a position of honor. To the naked eye, he was as proud, as focused, as unflappable as any other Barrani present.
But Kaylin saw beneath that surface. She saw his self-loathing, his disgust, and his furymost of it aimed squarely at her. The only reason he kept it to himself was his fear of exposure. Kaylin held his name.