Corinne had sent Yeijiro a note letting him know she was in the city, and was happy to wake up to a dinner invitation. His voice in the message sounded excited to be hearing from her.
She spent her day exploring the Golden City, wandering aimlessly through the downtown, appreciating the color and life and energy that were so different from Tapti. All the while, she thought about Lady Snow, replaying moments in her mind, trying not to obsess over those few fleeting touches, or those final moments of Snow whispering commands into her ear.
When it was time, Corinne made her way to the palace. Yeijiro met her at the gate, greeting her with a bow, which she returned because it seemed polite. Then she pulled him into a hug, because she really had missed him.
They chatted lightly, catching up, as Yeijiro led her through the grounds to his apartment.
Once there, Corinne made herself at home while Yeijiro started water boiling and set vegetables out to chop. The little kitchen was sized for one, but it was separated from the rest of the apartment only by the raised bar which served as both counter space and dining table. So Corinne poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle he’d opened and wandered the compact, but comfortable space.
Yeijiro didn’t have any art on the walls yet, but there were a number of bookshelves already overflowing with books. Both in the living room and in the small office it connected to. She didn’t mean to pry—well, no, she meant exactly to pry. She wanted to see exactly what Yeijiro played with in his spare time. Especially when she noticed familiar names at the top of a stack of papers. Dragon families. “What are you working on?”
Yeijiro answered from the kitchen. “Tax records.”
“Well that sounds horrifically boring.”
Yeijiro’s voice held a smile. “It isn’t.”
One of the first things Corinne had noticed about Yeijiro, when they’d met at some early social gathering during Shadow Court, was how he seemed interested in absolutely everything. That was how they’d started talking, in fact. He’d recognized her as a native and asked her a question about the architecture of the room they’d been in. A question Corinne hadn’t know the answer to, but she’d been instantly engaged by his enthusiastic curiosity.
In a lot of ways, he reminded her of Madeline. Back when Maddie had been younger, before she’d changed. Back when Corinne and Maddie had still been friends.
Corinne shoved that thought aside. It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough else to worry about. In the meanwhile, if Yeijiro wanted to find tax records exciting, then more power to him.
Of greater interest to Corinne was the map folded on the edge of the desk. The little bit she could see was instantly familiar, and it was covered in scribbled notes.
Strange notes. As were all the posts scattered across the board on the wall. “What the hell language is this?”
The chopping paused and Yeijiro appeared in the doorway. “Is there a reason you’re going through all my things?”
“Because I’m curious. Why else?” She flashed him a smile. “Surely you, of all people, can appreciate that.”
It was apparent he was trying for a stern expression, but failing. “I shouldn’t tell you. That would be the proper punishment for you being intrusive.”
“But you’re going to. Because this is just weird.”
There were a number of what looked like official marshal files—most of those the afore mentioned tax information that made Corinne’s eyes glaze just being in proximity—but almost everything in the room that was handwritten was utterly unrecognizable as language of any sort. Glyphs and symbols that clustered sometimes in lines that almost looked like writing, and other times in in circles and blobs and occasional weblike intersections of up, down, and diagonal.
Yeijiro tidied some of the folders, discreetly—but not discreetly enough—sliding the map under a pile of other papers. “You really have been isolated, haven’t you? All your life, surrounded by no one but other Dragons.”
“What can I say? We don’t get out much.”
Yeijiro returned to the kitchen and Corinne followed, ready for a refill on her wine. “It’s something we all learn—we Serpents, I mean. As soon as we’ve mastered reading and writing. It starts out as a game. The first real secret every child gets to claim as their own.”
He picked up the knife again, his hands working as he talked, chopping a sweet potato into perfectly even slices. “Not a language, but a code. That’s how it starts. Letters you create. Symbols only you understand. Private just for you. You never explain it to your parents, your teachers, your friends.”
“What, so you can’t even use it to pass secret notes in class?”
“There are other ways to pass notes. This is so each of us has something we grow up with, something we know as well as Imperial letters. A way to record things so no one else can read them.”
“Isn’t that overselling it a bit? A code is still just that. They can be broken.”
“As I said, that’s how it begins. As you get older, you learn ways to complicate it. You add more symbols—symbols that don’t mean anything, but are only there so it’s not so obviously a direct substitution. You start to develop your own language, your own style. Combinations of letters become one cypher. Different spellings. Even new words. And you practice, always, so it’s second nature.”
“That all sounds needlessly complicated.”
“Maybe,” he said, again trying to fight a smile. “But it does keep your friends from reading your secret notes when they go poking through your things.”
It had definitely hidden some things, but not everything. “Secret notes. Like your map of the Dragon Fortress?”
Yeijiro’s lips pressed together and he looked down, suddenly focused on the vegetables. Like he felt guilty. Like he’d done something wrong.
Because it hadn’t been a map of the Dragon Fortress, had it? The fortress had been at the center, but really the map was of the mountains. Corinne hadn’t had a long look, but hadn’t some of those strange markings been right in that same area she’d been investigating? The area with the strange nima, with the void, with the hidden cave.
How did Yeijiro know about that? What else did he know? Were they both investigating the same thing?
If she asked, he wouldn’t tell her. One didn’t have to spend much time with Yeijiro to figure out how important it was to him, keeping the secrets he’d been told to. But this threat—if he had information she didn’t—if neither of them found an answer and another rift opened, another demon came through, all because everyone was so serious about keeping secrets?
Yeijiro had somehow known the attack was coming. That much was clear. He’d warned the Lord Marshal, the Emperor. They were all on the same side here.
He wasn’t going to tell her. But she could tell him. Maybe that was what Corinne had really been hoping for when she’d gotten in contact with him in the first place.
“You know about the demon my squad and I fought.”
For a long moment, Yeijiro didn’t respond, didn’t even make a sign that he’d heard. Corinne had no idea what mental argument he might be having with himself. She held her breath, waiting. Just as she was about to have to let it out, he gave a slow, shallow nod.
Relief ran through Corinne. “I’ve been trying to figure out what happened, how something like that could happen. I’ve found…things I don’t understand. Pieces I can’t put together.
“I need help. Hardly anyone is paying attention to this. No one seems to care. But if it happens again…”
“The Lord Marshal believes the matter closed. That the people responsible have been dealt with.”
Corinne didn’t miss that Yeijiro hadn’t said what he believed.
“Lord Miyōshi is still investigating,” he continued.
Yeijiro’s hands resumed the chopping that had stopped at Corinne’s mention of the demon. “I don’t have enough evidence to come to a conclusion.”
Which meant he was still investigating. Reading between the lines, that he was possibly investigating without the permission of the Lord Marshal.
“Look, I’m not supposed to be poking around at this either. But this happened and the Dragon Parliament won’t talk about it, and the Academy is dragging their feet, and if there’s still danger, it’s real danger, and nobody else seems to care.”