by Amanda Cast
He cleared his throat and tapped the metal surface gingerly. He then tapped it and stood back. Pandora watched with mild interest for a moment and then slumped a little in the chair. She felt the great urge to go to sleep. This disgusted her.
The shimmering from the mirror caught her eye and she looked at it. She threw her shoulders back and rested her head against the back. Her bottom attempted to slide off of the end but she couldn’t bring herself to care. It stopped before the critical point.
A man appeared in the mirror. He took up most of the height and a fair portion of the width. He had peppered hair and piercing eyes. Pandora couldn’t tell the color in the dim light, but imagined them to be green, blue, or some mixture. He looked through the mirror at them, or rather, at the mage. “Where are they?” he asked.
The mage bowed. “Your majesty,” he said respectfully, “They are behind me. You will have to excuse Miss Pandora. She is recovering from an illness that sapped her remaining strength and cannot stand.”
“That is fine. I’m not entirely heartless.” He smiled as if making some sort of joke that only he understood.
“Could you move a little to the side, Pandora? He cannot see you.”
Serene and Pandora noisily scraped the chair across the floor. The effort left Pandora even more tired, and she wondered how she was supposed to get to her room after all of this.
Serene curtseyed to the emperor and Pandora inclined her head. His face was flat as he stared into them. After a long moment that dragged on longer than the girls liked he pursed his lips.
“You’re not what I expected.”
Serene touched Pandora’s shoulder and stepped behind her. Pandora reached up and squeezed her hand comfortingly.
“What were you expecting?” Serene asked.
“Well, someone older, I suppose,” he said. “Or perhaps younger. It is hard to say. It simply is not what I expected.” He shrugged. “It matters not. I may simply have to wait a while.”
“What is it that you need?” Serene asked, cutting to the chase. She was twelve and had no patience for these things.
He did not frown at her, exactly, but it felt as though he had. “You do not mince words, Serene,” he said in a low, intense voice.
Pandora schooled her expression so that she would not frown. Serene should never do the talking when they talked to people of importance, but Pandora did not have the strength to take over.
“If you haven’t heard already the world is turning upside down. Over the last month there have been tremors from the earth, violent eruptions, and people vanishing without a trace. Not even the divination of our best Seers can find any hint to where they have gone. Then, worse, we have outsiders and strange creatures appearing to replace those we lost. It could be worse, but we can’t keep track of every creature here.” He frowned now. “I want it investigated, but the Mages are utterly useless and not nearly as durable.”
Pandora squeezed Serene’s hand meaningfully.
“You are not invulnerable, but to kill you is to bring down the wrath of every dragon in the world. The last thing we can afford is for the dragons to stop fighting one another and start paying attention to others and the elves will be absolutely fascinated by you.” He gave a small smile. “They will cooperate with you in some sense. Not only are you Speakers, but you have decided to dedicate your life to the raising of four of their own. You do know where your loyalties lie, correct?”
Pandora had no loyalties to lie except for where Serene, her uncle, and the dragons were concerned. She nodded faintly and felt Serene’s tight-lipped nod.
“Good,” he said. “How long do you think you will need before you are ready to embark on such a journey?”
“A few years,” Pandora said quietly.
“I was thinking more along the lines of a few months,” he said.
“The hatchlings are too young,” Serene said stubbornly. “They need time to grow before we can go gallivanting around the world looking for the cause of magical disruptions.”
“Who said that the hatchlings would go with you?” he asked. “They could stay with me. I would take good care of them.”
“I’m sure you would.”
“We are not going anywhere without the hatchlings, your Majesty,” Pandora said quietly. “They will not permit it and we will not allow it.” She gave a weary shrug. Her shoulders felt as though they were lifting up lead.
“You are my subjects,” he said.
“We might be that, but we have a responsibility. They trust us, not you. They want to be with us,” Serene said.
“You have a responsibility to your people,” he said. “You have a responsibility to the world.”
“We are children,” Serene reminded him. “We aren’t even considered maidens yet. You want us to go out and research why the world is as it is and leave it at that? You want to send us into peril?”
“You…” He frowned deeply. “I don’t care if you’re children. You are tough, by all reports. Pandora has the making of a great warrior and you a mage. Why can you not act when your people need you? How many more people have to die before you act?”
“Pandora is weak from illness and saving the life of another. She is in no way prepared to take care of any situation. She can barely keep on her feet for five minutes much less fight for one. That and as I said before, we’re children. We not ready for saving the world. What will you do if we die right off? You’ll be pretty embarrassed, won’t you? At a loss maybe.”
The emperor looked…trapped. He was a dark figure, commanding and foreboding, but now he looked frustrated. He was puffing up and holding his breath—maybe even counting.
“You are a bold little girl,” he said. “You might want to watch your tongue, or you might lose it.”
“Serene is pointing out the obvious,” Pandora said.
“The obvious is that she is insolent and does not respect my authority. I could have you both killed.”
“I thought it was unwise to kill us,” Pandora said blandly. “If you want to lie to us, at least keep your temper.”
“You accuse me—“
“It isn’t as though you are doing a good job of protecting us,” Serene chided. “You don’t care. You probably want us dead.” She glared at him.
“You should mind your manners, little girl.”
Pandora sighed and rolled her eyes. She was tired, so very tired. All she wanted to do was go back to their room and sleep for days.
“You should remember that we’re not pawns,” Serene told him. “You might have forced us here, but you can’t force us to walk into death. I might as well have let you execute me.”
“It is a thought,” the Emperor said.
He is a spoiled child, Pandora thought suddenly. Serene and Emperor Vandon were both spoiled children. Only Serene was actually a child. Vandon was simply full of himself. He wanted his way. He wanted it now. It mattered not who got in his way.
“If you want us to help you and your people, then you will give us at least four years. No less. We may require more. I need to study more and Pandora needs to learn how to gauge her strengths. Plus, the children have to choose their secondary form.”
“It cannot wait.”
“But it will,” Serene said. “It will because that is all it can do. The tremors aren’t going to stop because we look into it.”
“You should keep records on what occurs so that we can have something to go on,” Pandora offered. “We will study and work hard, but we need time.”
“What if there isn’t time?”
“Then there is nothing two twelve year old girls can do. You will have to trust that.”
“Be warned,” he said, “That if I have no need of you, you would be dead for your insolence. Keep that in mind for future conversations.”
Serene clenched her jaw. She never did like threats no matter how serious or idle. She held her tongue though and for that Pandora was proud of her. Serene really did need to learn how to hold her tongue.
“I’m weary, Your Majesty,” Pandora said quietly. “We have heard your words and will do what we can for the people of the world and the Empire.”
He looked as though he would argue with her, but he was struck dumb when she stood and walked out of the room. Serene followed behind her to offer support. Any conversation that the two powerful men would have was lost to her. It mattered not though. She simply wanted to sleep.
“What are we going to do?” Serene whispered desperately.
“We will bide our time. It is all we can do.”
“We have to flee,” she said in the same desperate tone. She squeezed Pandora’s arm.
Pandora frowned but made no attempt to shake her off. “We will bide our time. We will stall. We must. If worse comes to worse we will flee when we have a vacation. We have to be out of the school.”
“I…” She frowned and looked around after they stepped out of the mirror. She whispered even lower, “I don’t think we should leave Greg when we do.” She said a little louder. “He’s an ass, but he doesn’t deserve to be stuck here.”
“You’re right,” Pandora agreed. “We must tread lightly. You’re sneaky. Act like it.”
“I’ve almost forgotten how,” Serene admitted. She was bemused.