They left Ruby alone in her room until mid-afternoon. After her fruitless mission to the dungeon, she almost wished she'd gone with Tachma to see the Pyramid tournament. But considering how nervous she was about her upcoming dinner with King Basha, she wouldn't have enjoyed it.
She tried calling Eddie twice. She sent a text message:
In Cavaheim. Not dead yet. Having dinner with a king. Wish you were here.
(Eddie wouldn't see her message until that night after he escaped Graden in a flying car.)
Her phone battery was almost drained. She asked Skylar to make a charge cable, but there were no outlets in the room. Instead, Skylar dismantled all the scorpion bots, removed their power cells and constructed a small phone charger out of the metallic carapaces. Ruby's phone battery showed full power within ten minutes after Skylar hooked it up.
No one from Elric's underground delivered a weapon to Ruby. She decided it didn't matter if they had. She couldn't kill the man. The idea repelled her. Once she realized this, she felt a wave of relief. The thought of killing the king had brought her no end of anxiety, and now that she dismissed it, she realized she might actually enjoy dinner with the king. She might even talk him out of his plans.
The servant girls arrived around four-thirty in the afternoon. They drew Ruby into the changing room and began her preparations for the king.
"I don't suppose you have my glasses," she said as one girl worked on her hair and the other gave her a manicure. They only blinked at her, uncomprehending.
As daylight faded two hours later, they applied their finishing touches. She tottered on high heels, her black dress revealing more of her than she'd ever dared. She felt exposed and off balance and nearsighted. Maybe that's the way the king wanted her.
They escorted her through the halls. At the end of a long passage, Dar'ja waited, his hands folded before him. He wore no sunglasses, and as she approached, she saw his tiny mole-like eyes for the first time. Dar'ja dismissed the servants with a nod.
"Miss Tanner, you are looking lovely," he said in his crisp accent.
"Thank you, sir."
"I will escort you to the king now. Walk beside me."
He walked, his arms folded behind him. Ruby kept at his side.
"The king admires you," Dar'ja said.
"He doesn't extend dinner invitations to anyone. He's asked after you. Clearly, he's interested. And that's good. The king has much on his mind with his ascension only four days away now. He could use a little distraction."
Ruby stopped. "Distraction? What do you mean?"
Dar'ja turned to her, at first confused. Then he understood, and he chuckled. "No, Miss Tanner. I wasn't referring to that kind of distraction. I'm only saying he could use a friend. He's been... anxious. A friendly face might ease his fears in these days before the transformation."
Ruby stared at him. Dar'ja motioned for her to follow, and after a moment, she did, walking more guardedly now.
"Is that why you brought me into this city? To be a friendly face?"
"We did not anticipate the king's interest in you. No, we brought you here because the people see you as an omen of change."
"And that's what you want?"
"If you stand with us, yes."
She turned and stared at him.
He chuckled again. "I think you have surmised your position already. We are using your dubious fame to mollify the people. Since the first world transformation, there has been tension in the city. That tension has increased as we near the second transformation. The people need to see that something has changed. You will be the face of that change. In the coming days, the people will see you in public with Basha. The rumors about your alliance are already spreading."
"So I'm part of your PR campaign."
"And what if I don't cooperate with this stunt?"
"That should be obvious to you. With a spark store like yours, we've already tried to abduct you for our prisons once. We would have snatched you off that mountain peak if the daughter of Argolese hadn't made it clear we could use you for a much better purpose. If she trusted you, the people will adore you."
Ruby felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach.
"But make no mistake, Miss Tanner, if you can't serve us as a distraction for our people, then you will serve us in our final solution."
Dar'ja stopped in front of a pair of tall white doors. a row of guards lined the hallway outside. Two of the guards bowed and opened the doors.
"Here we are," Dar'ja said, and he gave her a cold smile. "I will remain outside. The king awaits you."
She hesitated at the doorway.
"He will not bite, Miss Tanner."
She shuffled inside, her ankle bowing out as she stumbled on her heels. She was nervous, but she had one secret weapon, should she need it. As the doors closed behind her, Skylar zipped through the top of the door and touched down behind a gaslight.
Ruby had expected a long dining table and servants rushing back and forth with trays of hors d'oeuvres. Instead, the room featured a small table, just big enough for two, already laid out with plates and serving bowls. King Basha stood beside it, smiling. He was no longer wearing the decorative armor and cape. Instead, he had on a simple pair of black pants with tall boots and a billowy white shirt. Ruby felt overdressed.
Basha looked over Ruby with an admiring smile. "Welcome, Miss Tanner. Or can I call you Ruby?"
"Uh, Ruby's fine. Your... majesty."
"Please, call me Basha."
She approached carefully on her heels. He pulled her seat out for her, then sat across from her and smiled. No one spoke for several seconds.
"Um," Ruby said. She looked over the food. Fish, vegetables, wine. Would he understood if she explained she was underage? "The food looks fantastic."
"I'm glad you approve." He shook his napkin open, laid it on his lap and smiled again.
What was wrong with him, Ruby wondered. Was he shy?
"So, how was your tour of the city?"
"Short," Ruby said. "There was a riot."
"Ah, yes. I heard about that."
She served herself some fish, then stopped and looked at him. "This is a lot more awkward than I had expected."
The king blushed. "I'm sorry. I don't do this... well, ever."
"It's been a very busy couple of years, and the only people I'm ever alone with are stuffy Ord Priests. Well, and Ord Priestesses."
"So, at least there are some ladies in the mix."
Basha had been taking a drink of wine. At her comment, he nearly spit-taked what was in his mouth. He laughed. "I'd hardly say that."
Ruby relaxed. Whatever she'd expected from this meal, it wasn't this shy man. Now that she thought about it, he was only in his early twenties. "You're a lot different in person."
Basha loaded his own plate. "I'm not sure I know how I am in person anymore. Ever since the prophecies and the Ord making me king, I've put on this public persona. It's taken over much of my life."
"Wait. So you didn't always know you'd be the Holy Usurper?"
He groaned. "Just for one night, I'd like to talk about anything but that."
"Well, what do you want to talk about?"
"How about music. I understand you're a fan of Lucifer's Landing."
Ruby stared. "What?"
"It was on your T-shirt. I looked them up on the internet. They're pretty good. A bit of a downer for my taste, but their guitar player is on fire."
"You have the internet?"
He nodded. "It's very different from what it was before the..." he waved a hand. "You know, the world transformation."
"The world transformation that you caused."
He'd been cutting his fish. He stopped and frowned. "Yes, that."
"The world transformation that you want to do again."
He set down his knife and fork. "Please. Let's not talk about that right now."
He leaned back in his chair and sighed turning away.
The silence stretched for a minute. Finally, Ruby said, "I'm sorry."
He nodded, still facing the wall. "I wish I could tell you everything," he said. "You might understand what the Ord would only misinterpret. And since we're being watched at the moment..."
Ruby drew her arms defensively to her sides. "Now? Really?"
He sighed again. "Yes, really. They fear you might be a threat. And they're not wrong, are they?"
Ruby's eyes widened.
"This close to the end, they're concerned for my welfare. They fear someone might take advantage when I'm vulnerable. I'm watched constantly."
Ruby watched him. How much did he know? He had the scorpion bots. They watched everything. Did they somehow witness her conversation with Farook? Did he know she'd snuck into the palace dungeon?
Basha studied her in her silent distress and smiled. "Relax. I won't give away any of your secrets."
Basha ate. For a while, she watched him.
"I don't understand," she said. "Are you in charge of the city, or are the Ord?"
He nodded, finishing a mouthful of potato. "That's a good question. The easy answer is that I am in charge. I have total control."
"But you worry about what the Ord think."
"I need them. I need their support. They provide stability in this city."
A moment ago, he'd sounded vulnerable, but now he spoke as if he were playing a part, like he was back in the throne room.
"Can't you force the Ord to do what you say?" Ruby asked. "Why worry about what they want?"
"It's not as easy as it sounds."
"But you're supposed to be some kind of god."
"We're getting back to subjects I'd rather just forget this evening. Tonight, I just want to be a man."
"Why? Because you want to get in my pants?"
Basha's eyes went wide. His mouth hung open. "I—uh..."
"That's what this is about, isn't it? You invited me into your palace, put me in this slinky dress, give me a lavish meal dressed like a guy from a romance novel cover and wait for me to bat my eyes and beg you to take me."
"I..." he stammered. "I didn't pick that dress."
"I'm not that easy, you know. I'm only here because I want to help people. I don't know what I'm supposed to do in this city, but I'm certain I'm not here to give you a distraction so you can take your mind off of what you're doing to the world."
He slammed a hand on the table. "God, would you shut up," he shouted in his own language.
They both stared at each other, Ruby wide eyed, Basha looking deranged.
"You don't know me," Basha said. "You don't understand anything."
"I'm sorry," Ruby said. Had she pushed him too far? Was she going to prison now?
" I just wanted a friend, " he said in Starrik. The device in Ruby's ear provided translation. "I'm not a monster."
He stood up and walked out of the room, leaving Ruby alone at the table.