Chapter 36: The Protector's Friendship

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The Protector wasn't the old woman of Ysmay's age that I had imagined, though there were gray strands in her hair. Her handshake was firm and her voice warm when she greeted me.

"Morane Laerhart. I am glad to finally meet you."

"Likewise, my lady." Cyrus had quizzed me several times on how to address and speak to her before we entered her meeting chamber. It seemed strange to me that the woman who held the highest office within the Protectorate didn't have a more dignified address, or too much haughtiness to shake hands with a commoner, especially now that I could see her.

She was a tall and stately woman with regal features, who wore most of her hair crossed and clasped back in some elegant style I couldn't appreciate; locks left loose on one side of her face were adorned with silver beads. It was a foreign take on a popular hairstyle at the Solangian court, which involved beaded tresses on both sides of the face with the rest of the hair drawn back. The coat she wore even indoors — its fine fabric was clearly not made to withstand the sleet outside — was a shorter, slightly more casual version of the long, fitted coat I'd seen worn by so many of the rich or politically-important in Emorial.

Taken all together, she seemed to balance between Emorial and Solangia as much as her country balanced on the mountains between them. Though of course, it was not really hercountry. The Protector did not have a higher address specifically because she ruled the Protectorate only in the name of Emorial's high council. Her independence was limited, and I wondered how much it chaffed at her.

"Please sit," she said, with a commanding wave of her hand.

We all sat — me and the rebels, and the Protector's people to her left and right, while she stayed standing, pouring herself something into a glass. "It would be overly forward of me to say I hope we can sign this alliance between us by the end of today, but I'll say it anyway. I hope your presence, Miss Laerhart, will speed things along. I have heard interesting things of your behavior in Emorial, not to mention the way your circle clearly relies on you as a leader."

I didn't know how to respond. I guess I had been a leader, in that I had a habit of grabbing control whenever I thought it necessary, but I was far from the oldest or most official person in our group. And Ysmay would probably quit the rebellion on the spot if she heard me being called a leader in her movement. Luckily, Dell didn't feel the need to leave answering to me.

"Morane has been invaluable to our organization, being a Guardian. Her effect since she joined has been rather dramatic."

The forcefulness of Dell's voice made it clear she was aware of the lie she had told implicitly, even if the Protector wasn't. Several people glanced at me, which I pretended not to notice. The Protector's people looked intrigued; Cyrus looked nervous. I wondered if it would endanger the agreement, if the Protector found out I was no longer a Guardian — either because she would see it as a blow to our chances, or because we had kept the information from her.

"It is always fortifying to see young people taking their country's destiny into their hands," the Protector said with that vague kind of encouragement politicians excel at. "Miss Laerhart, I know you are only recently returned, but may I ask how favorably you feel about this endeavor?"

I probably should have attempted a more political response, but I had never been great at those. "Very favorable, if Iso hates you as much as he says."

She laughed immediately and boldly. "If you refer to the Englian bastard, snake, and ambassador, I'm sure he hates me even more than he let on. You met him at the Solangian court, I presume? Did he blacken my name to everyone?"

"I'm not sure," I admitted. "I don't end up at many court functions, and we didn't meet often in other situations. He's terrible company."

"All Englians are terrible company, my dear. It's the sad truth that their country makes wonderful fortresses and miserable conversation. I have told the University's headmistress many times to make sure his daughter is being taught the art of conversing without making a lifelong enemy of her partner."

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