Chapter Five: Powers

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After the look of horror on Anali's face when Azara had said she would wear the same clothes, Azara found herself dressed in teal silk embroidered with flowers that made up the borrowed jacket and pants. It was delightfully cool and the material like liquid against her skin. She thought she might buy an outfit for herself before they left. It could prove to be useful, especially if she continued with her trader façade.

She followed behind her siblings as they led the way towards what they'd called Star Hall. She'd half expected Jin to show up to keep an eye on her, especially given the reluctance she'd felt from his polite expression when presenting the emperor's invitation. It was hard to tell behind his polished face, but she got the feeling he didn't like her much. Which was fine. The feeling was mutual.

The red hall they walked down was much the same as the others she'd been through. At the end was one large doorway, double doors thrown open, though four guards stood at attention there. Their gazes slid past her siblings dressed in their official dark blue robes to her. One of them squeezed his bayonet harder but otherwise, they didn't impede her. Azara supposed word had been sent.

"What's happening tonight?" She should have asked before accepting the invitation, but she hadn't been about to pass up the opportunity to see what the conditions her brother and sister worked under, let alone been willing to insult the emperor.

Her siblings did that look-swapping thing before Anali spoke. "His celestial majesty is celebrating the completion of the book of poetry he sponsored. It includes many old oral poems from across the Empire, as well as some new ones."

"I hadn't pictured the emperor as a patron of the arts."

"His celestial majesty is a patron to many." Aviur's voice was even though he flickered his gaze at her in a warning.

Azara frowned, but didn't pry further. She followed her siblings towards the area in front of a small dais, the gold throne at its heart smaller though no less ornate than the one in the formal receiving hall. It stood empty, though enough guards were present that Azara expected the emperor to show up any moment.

A few people were here already, mostly officials from their robes. Some dressed in colourful silks that made Azara assume they were nobles. Her siblings set themselves up on either side of the dais, gazes locked on sweeping the room. As much as she wanted to stand between the two of them, Azara knew better than to block the dais. She settled herself beside her sister.

"You act as bodyguards against magic?"

Anali nodded though her gaze didn't waver. "Sometimes. Sometimes we perform, and occasionally we're called upon to light the skyfire for the displays. Today will be primarily guarding."

She imagined part of it was a display of strength. Fire mage slaves were the most expensive slaves one could buy, and having them out was as much a show of wealth as weighing yourself down with gold.

More people trickled in, gathering in small clumps to talk, the hum of conversation edging ever louder as the air warmed from the bodies present. Azara was glad for the carved windows on three sides of the room, the breeze running through them the only thing keeping the room from being stifling. A sudden hush had her turning to look behind her.

With none other than Jin trailing behind with several guards and officials, Emperor Bao entered the room at the same time a gong rang out. Azara didn't need the rustle of cloth and movement of the others to tell her it was time to bow again. She held her pose while keeping everyone else in the corners of her eyes. Only when they straightened did she do the same.

The emperor stood in front of his throne, arms raised. "I bid you welcome. We celebrate the preservation and continuation of the art of poetry, so that future generations may experience this culture unfaded."

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