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Cast in ruin, p.11
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       Cast in Ruin, p.11

           Michelle Sagara
 

  Kaylin, however, shook her head and glanced pointedly at the roiling water. “It hasn’t hurt me, yet,” she told the Tower’s Avatar. “And it hasn’t had any effect on me that I can see. But it’s certainly having an effect on the Tower. I’ll keep it.” She grimaced. “And try to find a damn sheath for it.” Turning to Maggaron, she said, “What did you use for a sheath?”

  “A…sheath?” He stared at her for a moment, and then said in a clear and distinct voice, “What have I done? What did you ask me to do?”

  She realized that he was speaking not to her but to the sword that currently rested in Tara’s hands. What was disturbing was the attenuated sound of a disembodied snicker.

  Tara returned the sword to Kaylin. “Perhaps you are correct,” she said quietly. “But…be careful if you decide to use the blade.” She stepped away from the pool and then said, “Have you eaten?”

  Maggaron accompanied them into a hall that branched off the main one. He was silent in the way that badly shaken people are. Kaylin, who’d been perfectly serious about a sheath for the weapon, couldn’t bring herself to ask again. But there were other questions she wanted to ask.

  “Maggaron, how long have you been trapped in the—the heartlands?”

  “I do not know, Chosen. Time does not pass in the Shadows the way it does in my homeland. The sun rises and sets in a manner that makes no sense, and night is oft long.” He hesitated, and then added, “She would know.”

  He meant the sword. “She’s not speaking to me, yet; I don’t think she’d answer the question. How much can you clearly remember?”

  “Enough. I was not always aware of where I was or what I did when under compulsion. I can be controlled; I can contain the Shadows, but only when controlled; they will not otherwise come at my call.”

  “Do you understand how they’re called?”

  He frowned. “No. I understand that they are both individual and connected somehow; they speak, but they speak through or past me. They are aware of what I am, and some handful have attempted to attack me directly; they fail.

  “But beneath the ground in some areas of the heartland, the Shadows lay fallow. They are seeded there, dormant, and they rise when called. They do not always don the same forms, but when they are finished, they always dissipate; the ground once again absorbs them.”

  “Are they aware of you when they’re in the ground?”

  “I do not know.”

  “If they’re not called, they don’t attack?”

  “They do not attack me, Chosen; there is no point. At best, they could destroy me, but I would then be of little use.”

  “What do they want from you?”

  “What do they want from any? They will corrupt any land that borders their own; what they cannot corrupt, they destroy. But when the land is transformed, those that cannot be transformed wither and die; it will no longer sustain them. That is history,” he added with just a faint hint of reproach.

  “They didn’t destroy you,” she pointed out.

  He stopped walking. His expression when he turned to her was both gaunt and hollow. “Did they not?” he whispered.

  She decided to take her own advice to Tara, and fell silent.

  Tara led Maggaron to a set of doors that were, as all doors in the Tower, quite wide. “Maggaron,” she said quietly. She gestured and the doors rolled open. “There is a window; it doesn’t look out into the streets or the gardens.”

  He glanced at it.

  “The doors are not warded, but they are…sensitive. If you are willing to remain here as my guest, remain here.”

  “I—”

  “Tomorrow, when my Lord and I return to the borders, we will bespeak Mejrah and discuss your fate. For the remainder of the day, however, the Chosen and my Lord have much to discuss; she was not summoned to these lands in order to contain you, but rather, in order to serve my Lord.”

  “I—are you certain it is safe, Lady?”

  “I am certain. While you are in this Tower, you are safe. Not even Kaylin could use your name against you here if I did not desire its use.”

  He lowered his head. “I will rest here,” he said. “The room is large enough, and the bed—”

  “It was designed for the use of the Norannir.”

  He was silent.

  “Maggaron, how long has it been since you slept?” Kaylin asked softly.

  “Slept?” he asked, as if it were a foreign concept.

  “Sleep now, if you can.”

  He nodded. It looked as though a bad puppeteer had pulled strings to achieve the effect. “She is no longer mine,” was his quiet reply as he headed awkwardly toward the bed. “Maybe, now, I will sleep.”

  Tara had clearly learned about dining from an Imperial Dragon who attended large, formal state dinners and regularly fed hundreds of people in one sitting. Since this was not the first time that Tara had offered Kaylin food, the room that appeared when the doors rolled open was a bit of a shock. It was, for one, huge; the ceilings were high, the walls were adorned with tapestries that could have been used for an entire mansion’s worth of walls.

  There was one very, very long table. Broken in two, it would have served in the mess hall if it weren’t so very fine; it gleamed, and if the usual boredom-induced engravings were anywhere on its surface, they didn’t show at this distance. There were plates, glasses—three for each setting—and an enormous number of knives, forks, and spoons. There were even plates on top of the plates. What there wasn’t, at the moment, was food.

  Severn cleared his throat, and Tara turned immediately toward him. Gone was the dispassionate and ancient defender; in her place was a slightly apprehensive woman of middling height. “Yes?”

  “We’re underdressed for a meal of this formality.” It wasn’t even dinner. It was lunch. Probably late lunch, but still. Lunch.

  “Oh. I could fix that,” she said, brightening up.

  Over my dead body, Kaylin thought.

  “Why?”

  Morse suppressed a laugh, mostly by coughing. “I’m on duty,” Kaylin replied.

  “Why don’t you like formal clothing?”

  Kaylin gave up. “It’s not me.”

  “No, of course not—it’s clothing. You wear armor, yes? And the tabard where it’s appropriate? You wear things to sleep in and different shoes or boots depending on weather and terrain. None of these things are you.”

  Morse was having an all-out coughing fit.

  “Morse can explain it,” Kaylin said sweetly.

  “Morse can’t,” was the flat reply. “I’ve asked her several times.”

  Kaylin looked at Severn, who gave her the empty hands-up, indicating she was on her own. She grimaced. “Powerful people tend to dress in really fancy clothing. It’s supposed to make a statement.”

  “About what?”

  “Fancy clothing costs a lot of money. Most of us can’t afford to wear anything fancy and pay rent.”

  “But you don’t have to pay to be clothed appropriately in this Tower,” Tara reasonably replied.

  A very different snort came from the open doors; for one, it had smoke in it.

  “Tiamaris, help!”

  He chuckled. “It is my intention, in a future which might be far enough away that it won’t be a concern of yours, to entertain in the fief. Some of the people I hope to entertain will be of high standing in the Merchants’ Guild, among others; they expect to be treated as men of power, if not rank. This is therefore a necessary endeavor.”

  “I won’t be here when you’re entertaining them,” Kaylin told Tara.

  Tara nodded, but it was too much to hope it would be left there. “Why?”

  “I don’t know enough about how to eat with powerful people.” Or speak with them, if it came to that, “and I’ve got so much to learn—”

  “Lord Diarmat is teaching you, though,” was the response. “So you’ll have to learn anyway.”

  Kaylin wilted and surrendered with as much grace as she ever did. “No fancy
clothing,” she told the Tower’s Avatar, “but you can tell me which of the four dozen utensils I’m supposed to be using.”

  Tiamaris joined them for dinner, and, to Kaylin’s surprise, he at least went through the motions of eating. She couldn’t recall ever seeing a Dragon eat before, and had often wondered what they ate when they did. He didn’t apparently enjoy the experience, but he made no complaints. He was not, however, focused on the food.

  “Lord Sanabalis informed us that you’ve been seconded to his service for the near future.”

  She nodded. Tara informed her politely that the large fork was not yet appropriate as she turned toward Tiamaris. “Is the border always that heavily contested?”

  “Always?”

  “Morse implied that it’s gotten worse since the Norannir moved in.” Kaylin snuck a glance at Morse, who had taken up a position by the far wall.

  “Implied? That’s more subtle than Morse generally is.”

  “Is it true?” Kaylin asked, leaving his accurate observation alone.

  “It is.”

  “Do you know why?”

  “I have some suspicion, yes. Lord Sanabalis, however, is the better person to ask.”

  “Meaning you won’t tell me.”

  “Meaning his idle speculation in this case matches my own. We have, on the other hand, more serious difficulties.”

  Kaylin, having seen the border skirmish, stilled.

  “Tara,” Tiamaris added, “although it is not generally done in a more formal gathering, I believe at the moment our discussion requires a mirror.” He lifted a brow in Kaylin’s direction and added, “What are you doing with that fork?”

  She lifted one right back. “Eating.”

  “You are conveying food to your mouth, yes,” was the severe reply. “That is, however, not the way a fork is held.”

  “Does it matter?”

  If anyone had ever told Kaylin in her early days with the Hawks that a meeting of this seriousness could be delayed over instructions on how to hold a fork, she would have bet every coin in her possession against it. Tiamaris, however, would have lost her that bet, and then some.

  “It must be nice to be rich enough that you worry about how you hold a fork to eat,” she muttered, “rather than how you get enough food to not starve.”

  Tara, however, said, “Lord Sanabalis suggested that you eat with us while you’re working here. He said it would make your lessons with Lord Diarmat less difficult. For you.”

  The thought of the head of the Imperial Guard instructing her on the use of utensils made all arguments wither. She practiced while Tara brought a mirror into the hall. Interestingly enough, she literally carried it; she didn’t just wave a hand or bend a thought and cause one to materialize in a useful position.

  “I can’t,” Tara told her, although Kaylin hadn’t made the observation out loud. “Not with mirrors. I can with chairs or walls or some of the tables. Not all of them, though.”

  “Why?”

  Tara frowned. “Why?”

  “Why can’t you? And why not the tables?”

  “Well, this table,” she said, “is very large. I don’t believe it would survive the transition. But the mirrors are connected magically to external mirrors, and the connections are tenuous.”

  “Connected how?”

  “Magically,” the Avatar repeated. “The magic does not originate with the Tower.”

  “It was tricky,” Tiamaris added, “to allow the mirror connection to breach the Tower defenses. Lord Sanabalis found it quite challenging.”

  “Nightshade does it.”

  “Indeed. I imagine he also found it challenging. I would be curious to know his point of connection to the external city.”

  “You can probably ask him. I think it’s likely he’d answer.”

  “Not without some cost on my part, and at the moment, we cannot afford that; there are, as I mentioned, difficulties in the fief.” He turned to the mirror, which Tara had placed in front of him. It was a standing oval, in shape and size very similar to the one in the Hawklord’s Tower, except that the stable, flat length of its base had been replaced by a platform with wheels.

  Tara came to stand to the left of where he sat. He didn’t immediately invoke the mirror or its images, however. “You are aware that I am in the process of building a small force which would police the fief.”

  She nodded.

  “We are faced with a few difficulties. We have no citizens with any experience in that regard; some very few had parents whose experience with the Law was perhaps not one we wish to repeat. We also now have a large number of citizens who are not yet familiar with the style of law I wish to put into practice, and who further cannot speak either Elantran or Barrani.”

  “You’re not going to write laws in High Barrani.”

  “I fail to see why not; it has worked admirably for a force composed almost entirely of mortals for some hundreds of years.”

  “Most of the people you’d be employing can’t read it.”

  “Neither, if I recall correctly, could you.”

  Morse snorted.

  “The point I am attempting to make,” Tiamaris continued, “is that there is no such force in place at the moment. The investigations, such as they are, will have no support structures outside of the information Tara—or myself—can provide. Lord Sanabalis has offered his services should you require them; he will, however, be found along the border watch with the linguists. He was willing to see me hand the investigation to you in its entirety, however.”

  “And you?”

  “I concur. Your methods and your general lack of tact will not harm you; nor, at this moment in time, will it harm my own reputation.”

  “What,” Kaylin asked, “are we investigating, exactly?”

  “On the surface of things, a series of murders.”

  “Murders.”

  “You are familiar with the term?”

  She heard Morse snicker and ignored it; if she didn’t it was going to be a long day. Or week. Or month. “It’s not generally in use in the fiefs,” was her clipped reply. “And frankly, when bodies are discovered, unless they’re of import to the fieflord’s authority, it’s not generally considered a problem.”

  His eyes shaded instantly to an orange bronze. “That would be because your previous experience of the fiefs involved Lords who were notoriously underfocused. The people who have died are my citizens and my subjects. Mine. If I’m not of a mind to kill them myself, no one else will do so without repercussions.”

  Now, that sounded like a Dragon. Kaylin frowned. “You’re versed in the practices of the Investigative branches of the Halls of Law—you’ve worked with the Hawks before.”

  He nodded and rose. Glancing at the mirror he said—thankfully, in High Barrani—“Records.”

  CHAPTER 8

  The mirror, which had reflected the Dragon Lord’s image until he spoke the word, seemed to shatter; shards flew out from its surface. But Tiamaris didn’t move, and after the initial harsh crack, neither did the shards. He stepped back, gestured, and they began to coalesce—beyond the mirror’s surface. Kaylin, who’d seen her share of mirrors, had never seen one that did this; the only one that had come close in her experience had also then been put strictly off limits as dangerous.

  Tiamaris was as expressive as Dragons usually were; he never looked snide, he never looked smug. Mostly he looked dispassionate or annoyed. There was, however, just the hint of a smile as he spoke to the mirror again.

  “Map, Capstone.”

  Kaylin frowned. Capstone was one of the longer roads in the fief. “Morse, isn’t that where—”

  “Yeah. Great big one-off Shadow on your first day back in the fief.”

  “Burned down the building? There, near Holdstock?”

  Morse nodded.

  “Is it part of the reconstruction?”

  “It is part of the planned reconstruction,” Tiamaris replied. “But at the moment, rebuilding border towers and defe
nses are a priority. Capstone and Holdstock,” he continued, and the rather large and almost featureless lines of road coalesced into images that resembled the fief as it actually was. “The first body was discovered here.”

  “That’s the burned-out building.”

  “Actually, it’s the one to the side; Barren wasn’t concerned with containing fire.”

  “Badly scorched?”

  “That was one of the unusual things about the victim. No.”

  She frowned. “So the person died there after the fire?”

  He was silent.

  “Records,” Kaylin said sharply. Tiamaris nodded to Tara, and the mirror rotated to face Kaylin. “Image of body discovered at 84 Capstone.”

  “I should warn you,” Tiamaris said, “that Barren did not see fit to operate a morgue.”

  “So you don’t have the bodies anywhere.”

  “We do now, but if others died in a similar fashion during the encroachment under Barren’s reign, we have no records or information about their deaths beyond what Tara herself remembers—”

  “My memories of that time are incomplete,” was the quiet reply. “My memories of the later period of Illien are likewise incomplete. My memories of Tiamaris, however, are not.”

  “None of your memories contain anything relevant?”

  Tara hesitated. “I am not certain,” she said at last.

  The mirror had divulged the standing image of a young woman. She was clothed in a style that Kaylin didn’t recognize—and it was a style; it wasn’t the desperate hand-me-downs of most of Kaylin’s early life in Nightshade or Barren. For one, it wasn’t torn, and it seemed to fit the girl perfectly; it was a deep shade of blue, although the sleeves were edged in something that looked like dirt-covered gold thread. She’d apparently only had luck in dresses; her feet were bare; her hands were also bare of rings or any discoloration that might have indicated they’d once existed.

  “Cause of death?” Kaylin asked softly. She approached the image that floated beyond the mirror’s surface and examined it. She could walk around the body; she didn’t try to touch it. But there was no blood on the dress, nothing that indicated fatal wounding; her neck was not mottled or bruised; her face was not marked. The back of her head did not look crushed, and she had none of the bloat that Kaylin associated with a drowning death; her fingernails were clean, and what Kaylin could see of her wrists appeared to be unbruised.

 
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