Cast in Ruin, p.12Michelle Sagara
Tiamaris said, “We have no coroner. And no, before you ask, my expertise at dismemberment rarely involved careful examination of the dead.”
Tiamaris glanced at Tara. Tara said, “I’m not certain.”
It wasn’t a no. “We’ll head that way first. Is the building structurally sound?”
“On the west side, yes. Which is where the body was found. There is, before you leave, more.”
“Who found the body?”
“A young boy; he was chasing a ball or a stone, against the wishes of the old woman who was serving as his guardian.”
“And word reached you?”
“Not directly,” Tiamaris replied, nodding at Tara.
“Where was the dress made?” Severn asked quietly, reminding everyone that he was still in the room.
“An interesting question,” Tiamaris replied. “Why do you ask?”
“The shade of blue is unusual; I’m not conversant with all our dyes, but it can’t be common.”
Morse was looking at the side of Severn’s head. Turning to Kaylin, she said, “Did he really come out of the fiefs?”
Kaylin nodded. “Same one that produced me.”
“Mirror: mark first victim,” Tiamaris said.
“Victim’s name?” Kaylin asked.
“She doesn’t appear to have had one,” was the reply.
“No one was willing to identify her?”
Tiamaris and Tara exchanged a glance. It was Tara who answered. “No one recognized her.”
In the fiefs, that was pretty common; no one knew anything that could get them in trouble. They forgot their own names, their homes, and their families if anyone they didn’t trust asked. “No one you asked?”
“No one who spoke of the incident at all,” was the calm reply. After a pause, she added, “I listened.”
Kaylin could see clearly why Sanabalis found her alarming. She grimaced. While it wouldn’t be the first time she’d marked a corpse as Victim Number something, it always irritated her. “How many victims in total?”
Tiamaris didn’t reply. Not directly. “Mirror,” he said. “Capstone and Enclave.”
The silent, standing corpse disintegrated into almost instant particles of light that shed color and shifted position. When they reintegrated, Kaylin was looking at a topographical map of Capstone and Enclave. It wasn’t one of the streets she’d frequented at Barren’s behest in her six months in Barren, but she was familiar with the intersection; among other things, it housed a well.
The map now centered on the well, and Kaylin looked away. “In the water?” she asked quietly.
“Very good, Private. There was a difficulty with the water itself, and it was brought—quickly—to my attention. The corpse was in the water.”
“That would be the reasonable assumption. It is not, for reasons which will be obvious, the correct one in my opinion. Mirror, second victim.”
Once again the three-dimensional image disintegrated, and light rippled out in concentric spheres, changing shape and color. When it finally stilled, Kaylin frowned. “Mirror,” she said, “second victim.”
The image didn’t change. She turned to Tara. “The mirror—”
“The mirror is relaying the correct information,” the Tower replied.
“But—but it’s the same woman.”
Severn began to walk around the standing-dead-simulacra. “It seems to be the same woman,” he told Kaylin, “but the dress has clearly been in the water for some small time.”
“It’s the same dress, too.”
“Did you see this corpse?”
He nodded again.
“Did you see the first one?”
“Yes. The Lady was present and examined both of the bodies.”
“I don’t know how refined the Lady’s sense of smell is. I know Dragons are close to Leontines. Was there any way to distinguish them?”
Tiamaris lifted a hand. “Both were dead.”
“I’ll take that as an inconclusive. When the bodies were unclothed were there any identifying marks—birthmarks, old scars, missing teeth—that you could use to tell them apart?”
“Mirror. Victim one and victim two.”
Both women now appeared as standing—and naked—corpses. They were oriented in the same position, but their eyelids had been pulled up, and their mouths opened to reveal even rows of teeth. Kaylin had watched Red in the morgue; she’d seen her share of unclothed, and often partially disassembled, bodies. They often bothered new recruits; they’d never bothered Kaylin as much. The people were dead; they felt no shame, no pain, and no fear.
Neither did these women.
Both she and Severn walked around their fronts and backs, but they spent most of their time looking at the women’s teeth. Not only did both women have all of them, but the teeth themselves seemed, admittedly to their inexpert eye, to be the same set in each mouth.
“Notice any identifying marks on either?” Kaylin asked Severn, because she could find none. Severn shook his head. Almost everyone had some sort of blemish, freckle, birthmark, mole, or scar by these women’s ages. Neither woman appeared to have read that memo.
Morse watched, but said nothing.
“Tara, did anyone recognize this woman? The second victim?”
“No. But they were a great deal more upset because of where her body was found. There was some anger.”
“I bet.” Killing someone was frowned on. Killing someone and dumping their corpse into the well, however, was making your personal vendetta everyone else’s grief, and only the fieflord could get away with that for long. “I think we need to head down to Capstone.”
Tiamaris lifted a hand. “I have not yet made the extent of the difficulty clear.”
“There is, as you so elegantly put it, more.”
“There are five more victims.”
“Are they all the same woman?”
Two hours later, all the mirror images had been examined; notes had been taken as Tiamaris talked. The first two deaths—if indeed the victims had died where they’d been found—had been on Capstone, but almost at opposite ends of the street. The other five had been spread across the fief.
“I understand why Sanabalis called this subtle,” Kaylin finally said. “There doesn’t seem to be any obvious cause of death. There weren’t, as far as we can tell, any encroachments of Shadow anywhere near the vicinity?”
“None,” Tara said. The single word was definitive because it could be; if she was certain, it was true.
“The first of the bodies was discovered after the Norannir arrived?”
“But they haven’t been connected with the Norannir at all.”
“No. If there were obvious violence, obvious physical damage, it would be…difficult. But no.”
“And there’s no chance at all that this is somehow the same corpse and it’s just been moved around?”
“None. The Lady houses our de facto morgue at the moment. I did not feel it wise to contain the bodies within the heart of the Tower; she feels it is safe to house them in the spaces in which we entertain. There are, at present, seven bodies laid out. Magic has been used to both safeguard and preserve them, and if you wish to examine the actual—”
“I do.” She didn’t, but that was true of half the things her job required.
“Tiamaris, has anyone else gone missing?” Kaylin asked as they walked at a brisk clip down the wide halls.
“How, precisely, would we determine this?”
She cursed. In Leontine. There was no missing persons department in the fief. There was no official way of making reports, and even if there had been, no one would actually make them.
As if he could read her mind, he said, “Within the next two years, a full and
Tiamaris raised a brow. “While I understand that human hearing is not as acute as one could desire, I believe you heard me.”
Kaylin turned to Morse. Morse offered a very fieflike shrug. He was the boss; she wasn’t arguing.
“We will also,” he added, “build a more martial hall which will house my police force. Neither project is viable at the moment, given the manpower being diverted to the interior border—but we are still left with this particular problem.”
“The first death occurred—or rather, was discovered—how long after the Norannir arrived?”
“Tiamaris, they’ve only been here for what, two days? Three?”
“So the rest of the bodies—”
“Yes. All of the seven have been discovered in the past two days.”
“Do you think you’ve missed any?”
“Possibly. The Lady judged it unwise to stir unrest in this regard, and a more thorough investigation would almost certainly cause unrest at this point.”
Kaylin snorted. “Morse?”
“I’ve asked a few questions in the right—or what used to be the right—places.” She shrugged. “So far, nothing—but it’s only been a day, and I’ve mostly been at the borders, same as the rest.”
Kaylin nodded. Tiamaris and Tara now stopped in front of a door that was as wide as any of the others in the Tower; it was less ornate. It, like the other doors, was completely free of door wards; it was also free of handle or knob. This wasn’t a problem for Tara, who merely nodded at it. It opened.
Going from a dining hall that the Imperial Palace might boast to a room with corpses lying across two of three large stone slabs—in a lower than normal temperature—was a little like arriving as a guest and being thrown into the dungeon. Straightening her shoulders, Kaylin took one short breath, expelled it, and headed toward the bodies.
Severn joined her. They were fully clothed, and at that, in the same dress; the dresses themselves had taken some damage, although most of it was cosmetic. “Nothing changed when you removed the dresses?”
Tara frowned. “No. Not noticeably.”
Severn cut a piece of cloth from the hem of one dress, marked it, and slid it into his pouch. He did this with the hem of each of the dresses. Kaylin clipped hair samples. “So, at the moment we have no clear idea if anyone else has disappeared.”
“Many people are missing; many died in the incursions. There is no system in place at the moment to account for them all.”
“Have you consulted the Norannir?”
Tiamaris raised a brow. “No. Why?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to tie these deaths—if they are that—to the Norannir, but the timing seems suspicious.”
“The dead woman is—or was—human, a race that they’d not encountered before their arrival here.”
Kaylin nodded. Severn marked the hesitance. “You’re going to need some sort of uniform for your policing forces,” she told the Dragon Lord.
“The thought had occurred to me. It is not a practical concern at the moment.”
“It will be,” was Kaylin’s resigned reply. “Because we’re going to need to wear something when we hit the street.” She glanced at Severn and added, “We’ll need a few things, and I want to consult with some people in the office before we start asking questions. Will that work for you?”
Tiamaris nodded. “I will expect a report of your findings.”
The seven identical women had been arranged in a standard corpse pose, arms to the side, legs straight, neck straight—and in their two rows, they looked like macabre dolls. They also looked entirely real. If they had been examined without clothing, the clothing had been returned to them. Humor drained from her voice; she turned to Tiamaris, one-time Hawk and now Dragon fieflord. “Have you done a cursory exam?”
“It revealed nothing—to me. I am not as subtle as Lord Sanabalis, and Lord Sanabalis, for political reasons, chooses to absent himself from the Tower.”
“Will you do a cursory scan now?”
“This is something,” Tiamaris said as he now approached the row of four bodies to Kaylin’s left, “you should be able to do in the very near future. How is the candle going?”
Her answer was a very short Leontine word; it made him chuckle.
“You are inordinately gifted, in ways none of us fully understand. But the candle—”
“Bodies?” she said pointedly.
He nodded, losing the brief grin. Lifting his hands, he held them palm down over the two middle bodies laid out on the center slab. This wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, but every mage had their own small tics or focus-aids, and at least he wasn’t using a physical object like a wand. Then again, he had once had Sanabalis as a teacher, and anyone who tried that with Sanabalis would probably be missing limbs.
She watched him carefully. He murmured mantric, repetitive syllables, softly enough she had to strain to catch them. “He discovered nothing the first time,” Tara told her.
Kaylin nodded and kept on watching.
“What do you think you’ll see that he doesn’t?”
“Every mage sees magic in a different way. Even me. Don’t ask me why. Sanabalis says we interpret what we see because if we didn’t, we’d probably go mad. But—if someone is really bookish or word based, he most often sees letters or words or symbols. If someone has really acute visual sensitivity, he’ll see colors. Someone who has a strong sense of touch or smell will feel or scent things. It’s more complicated than that. But according to Sanabalis, they’re all seeing the same thing—they just…comprehend it differently.” It had sounded lame to her the first time she heard it; it sounded less lame now, but she sympathized with the expression on Tara’s face.
“So. You believe that your…interpretation…and my Lord’s differ in significant ways?”
Tiamaris, who should have been so focused he wasn’t listening, gave a suspiciously well-timed snort.
“It’s why you’ll often see more than one mage at important Imperial investigations. We’re not entirely certain how much our interpretations differ, but they will, and something in our paradigm might give us insight or information that the others lack. The reverse is also true.” She grimaced and added, “That’s the theory. Let’s see how well it works in practice.”
In practice, as it turned out, it didn’t work at all. Although Tiamaris was in fact drawing enough magical power that Kaylin’s skin began to goose bump, nothing rose from the corpses: no nimbus of light, no runic sigils. Because she wasn’t the one casting the detection spell, she was free to move, and did.
“What is it?” Severn asked.
She glanced at him. “You’re frowning.”
“Yes. In the way that produces pronounced furrows across the bridge of your nose.”
“Oh.” Kaylin didn’t pay all that much attention to her facial expressions because she couldn’t see them herself.
“There’s no obvious—”
“No sigil, no. No obvious artifacting. No shadow. But…” She shook her head.
“You notice something,” Tiamaris said.
“Yes—but if you ask me what, I’m not sure I can answer.” This had never been popular with any of her fellow Hawks.
“Try,” was his terse and familiar response.
Everything looked the same to Kaylin. There wasn’t anything she could put her finger on. “Are you doing the whole sweep or is it local to the actual corpse?”
“Both the corpse and the dress.”
She nodded again. For fifteen minutes she poked—literally—and prodded, and she was no closer to an answer. “Turn it off,
“Tiamaris, can you do the scan again?”
He rumbled. She took that as a yes, and kept her eyes locked on the face of corpse number four. “What do you see?”
“They’re—they’re brighter when you’re casting.”
“It’s subtle. But the color of the skin and hair—it’s more vivid.”
He came to stand beside her. “Is it the same across all the bodies?”
“I think so.” She glanced at Severn. He shook his head. “Tara, did you notice anything?”
Tara was frowning. She was concentrating hard enough that her eyes once again resembled onyx, rather than the usual mortal variety.
Tiamaris began to cast, and this time, Tara, like Kaylin, watched. Kaylin had no idea at all if a Tower could actually see and understand the whole of what was there without somehow translating it into an unknown frame of reference.
Kaylin was frustrated; the actual casting of the spell made no obvious difference, but when the spell was allowed to fade, something did drain away. Tiamaris noticed it this time.
“It is subtle,” he said. They were the wrong words for the sudden shift of his tone. Kaylin glanced over her shoulder and froze; his eyes had gone at once from a pale, comfortable gold, to the burning edge of orange. The wrong edge. Pushing Kaylin aside, he bent over the corpse and lifted the closed lids of her eyes.
To Tara—in a very quiet voice—Kaylin said, “You said you’d examined the bodies?”
Tara nodded, but her gaze was now affixed to Tiamaris’s face.
“Was there anything unnatural about the eyes?”
“You saw them.”
“I mean, to you.”
Tiamaris held the lids open between two fingers and began his spell of detection and identification for the third time that day. It was impossible not to look at the eyes of the corpse. They were, like the eyes of any corpse Kaylin had seen, cloudy; the original hazel color of the iris was still evident, but very murky.
Cast in Ruin by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes