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Cast in ruin, p.13
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       Cast in Ruin, p.13

           Michelle Sagara
 

  Tiamaris spoke the syllables of his focus in the deep and rumbling bass of true Dragon; she could feel it in the soles of her feet. As Kaylin watched the eyes he held open between two large and careful fingers, she stopped breathing. The cloudiness receded; they looked, for a moment, like living, sightless eyes. The pupils didn’t shift shape or position; the eyes themselves didn’t move.

  But the irises were now a completely clear and brilliant gold.

  They stayed that way for another fifteen minutes before Tiamaris let the spell drop; she knew the moment he did be cause clouds overtook the corpse’s eyes and the color dimmed, once again, into a very human hazel. Kaylin had seen a handful of Dragons in her life, and by law, they were required to be in their more or less human forms; no Dragons she had ever met had hazel-colored eyes.

  No human she had ever met had eyes that shade of gold.

  She waited until he once again drew the lids down over the dead woman’s eyes. His own were now a heated orange; he was agitated. He didn’t, however, show it in any other way; his voice was brisk, his expression smooth and neutral.

  There was a lot of awkward silence packed into the longest five minutes ever. Kaylin finally broke it. “You can’t think she was a Dragon?”

  “That would not have been my first thought. It would not, given our initial examination of the bodies, have been my hundredth.”

  “And now?”

  “I…do not know, Kaylin.” He stepped away from the bodies. “Magically unaugmented, she is human, perhaps five years older than you are now. I do not know what the eyes signify.” He shook his head, as if to clear it.

  Kaylin looked at the dead woman. Or at one of them. “I would never have guessed,” she finally said. “But I’ve never seen a female Dragon before.”

  “There is a reason for that. However, it is quite probable you have not seen one now.”

  The Other Dragon, as she’d called him, was waiting outside the Tower grounds when Kaylin and Severn emerged. Tiamaris and Tara had chosen to escort them out.

  Sanabalis offered Tiamaris and Tara a deep bow. “On the morrow,” he told his former student. Tiamaris grimaced, but nodded and turned back toward the interior of the Tower.

  Sanabalis rose. “Well?” he asked Kaylin.

  “Tara’s determined to teach me proper table manners.”

  He raised a white brow. “While that was not entirely what I meant, I approve. Did the subject of the investigation come up?”

  “Yes.”

  “And?”

  She hesitated; the sudden change in the color of Tiamaris’s eyes urged her to be cautious. “Why did you call this a subtle Shadow incursion?”

  “I am not convinced that it is not.”

  “I’m not convinced that it is.”

  “Then you will approach the investigation with an open mind.”

  “There’s something you’re not telling me.”

  “There is always something I am not, as you put it, telling you. Suffice it to say, the investigation is, to my mind, enough of a priority that even Lord Diarmat will accept the necessity, should the matter arise.”

  “Sanabalis—”

  “And before you make pointless accusations,” he said, lifting a hand, “let me assure you that none of the information I am currently refusing to part with has any direct bearing on the investigation itself. I admit that I find it disturbing.”

  “Good. Disturbing enough to help me leverage a small item or two out of the Imperial mages?”

  He raised one brow. “That, I feel, is a matter for the Sergeant to decide.”

  “The Sergeant will say no—the fiefs aren’t in his jurisdiction.”

  “Possibly. What, exactly, do you hope to leverage—as you put it—out of the Imperial mages?”

  “Just a crystal. A small one.”

  Both his brows rose. “You want a projection crystal.”

  “Just one.”

  “Private Neya, Sergeant Kassan would in all likelihood deny the request if you were working on the investigation into the Exchequer himself. Do you have any idea of the expense you would be incurring?”

  “No,” she replied, entirely truthfully. “But I know they’re both rare and useful.”

  “The reason they are rare in spite of the fact that they’re demonstrably useful is the expense and difficulty of their creation. What, exactly, do you hope to demonstrate?”

  “Not demonstrate, exactly. I want to take it into the streets and I want to show people what she—what they—looked like when they were alive. I have two things in mind to start. One, we cast it entirely as an important missing person and two, we also attempt to find out if anyone has gone missing within the last three days.”

  “Why?”

  She shrugged. “Even if the corpses are corpses—and I want Red to come and inspect them, or I want them exported to the Halls—that can’t be what they originally looked like. Sanabalis, there are seven identical bodies. Even if they were somehow sisters, there would be distinguishing birthmarks, moles, differences in teeth—something. There isn’t.” She hesitated again, and Sanabalis’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve done a magical analysis?”

  “I? No. I have not entered the Tower where the bodies are kept.”

  “But you’ve seen the bodies?”

  “I’ve seen three of them.”

  “And?”

  Sanabalis, however, had run out of patience. He now adopted his teacher voice. “You were in the Tower. You were no doubt allowed to inspect the bodies. You have already, in the course of your duties, displayed an uncanny sensitivity to magic. Did you, or did you not, notice anything of significance that would indicate the bodies themselves were enspelled?”

  His eyes had gone from gold to bronze, and his expression was very pinched.

  She had no ready answer. His eyes narrowed, but his gaze remained a steady and comforting bronze. This wasn’t the usual definition of comfort when dealing with Dragons, but in comparison to the livid near-red of Tiamaris, it would do.

  “What, exactly, were you looking for?”

  She grimaced. “Sigils. Signatures.”

  “You did not, of course, find them.”

  “No.”

  “What does this tell you?”

  “It doesn’t tell us that magic isn’t involved,” she said firmly.

  “No?”

  “No.”

  “Private Neya, while it is entirely true that I fail to tell you everything that might satisfy your apparently boundless curiosity, this is not a situation in which turnabout is, to coin a human phrase, fair play. What occurred in the Tower?”

  “Tiamaris had already examined the bodies for vestiges of magic.”

  One pale brow rose. “Of course he had.”

  “He said he found nothing. But I asked him to cast the spell again, in my presence.”

  “Good. The results?”

  “I…don’t understand the results,” she admitted. “But he wasn’t very happy with them.”

  “You said he had cast the spell once and received no useful information.”

  “Yes. But—”

  “You will be the death of either yourself or me. My preference at this point is obviously yourself.” Sanabalis began to walk, and Kaylin joined him. Severn walked to her left.

  “Usually I notice sigils, physical signatures. That wasn’t the case here. I almost noticed nothing.”

  “Almost?”

  “There was no difference. When the spell was invoked, I noticed no change. It was when the spell faded that I did. But when I mentioned this to Tiamaris, he cast the spell again—and this time, he looked. But he—he looked at the woman’s eyes.”

  He lifted one hand. “Thank you, Private.”

  CHAPTER 9

  “You already know what he saw.” Kaylin kept accusation out of her voice with effort. She stopped walking, however.

  Sanabalis didn’t. She had to jog to catch up. “No. I did not know until you spoke.”

  “You suspe
cted?”

  “No, Kaylin.”

  “Do you think she’s supposed to be a dead Dragon?”

  “An interesting choice of words.”

  Glancing at his profile she saw that his inner eye membranes were up. Even with their opacity, his eyes were now a bright orange. “We will go directly to the Palace,” he told her. “Corporal?”

  Severn nodded.

  “Private Neya’s visual memory is not always as…crisp…as it could be. Yours, on record, is excellent.”

  Severn raised a brow, but it was Kaylin who said, “You’re going to give us the crystal.”

  “Not precisely,” was the clipped response. “The availability of necessary materials within the Imperial Order is not guar anteed, and the process of requisition requires some entanglement with the Order’s very fine bureaucracy.”

  “But?”

  “The necessary materials—without the paperwork—can be found in only one place in the Palace. I leave it to your very fine mind to deduce where.”

  The Palace, at the moment, was not where Kaylin wanted to be, although her next session with Diarmat wasn’t scheduled until tomorrow night. The Dragon to her right, on the other hand, was not someone she wanted to argue with, and since he was much closer, she headed—in silence—to the Palace.

  The guards did not seem thrilled at the prospect of the naked-short-blade in Kaylin’s hand, and they seemed both underimpressed and derisive when they noted that she wore no sheath for it. It set her teeth on edge, but she failed to comment. Sanabalis, however, had no difficulty excusing its presence, and clearly he outranked them; they let her pass.

  Word of this exception must have traveled, because no one else gave her trouble. Everyone else, on the other hand, did notice the sword.

  “We will have to do something about that,” Sanabalis said under his breath. “Find a makeshift sheath for now if you will not leave the blade somewhere safe.”

  “By now, you mean after we’ve finished speaking with the Arkon?”

  “Don’t be clever, Kaylin. It’s been a very trying week.”

  “Yes, Sanabalis.”

  “Let me speak,” he cautioned her once they’d passed the officious man at the doors and the usual gauntlet of Imperial Guards, and had entered the wide, tall halls of the Palace proper.

  “Unless he demands an answer, he’s all yours.”

  “If he demands an answer, I will answer.”

  She snorted, and wished, briefly, that the noise was also accompanied by smoke and a little fire. For someone with perfect memory—and all Immortals pretty much laid claim to that—his was certainly convenient; he’d clearly forgotten what the Arkon was like.

  But at least when he approached the closed Library doors, Sanabalis was considerate enough to press his palms into the door wards; he didn’t demand that Kaylin do it herself. The doors rolled open.

  Although the Library was the Arkon’s in any way that mattered, it was nonetheless staffed by mostly human attendants; set a few yards from the door was a long and impressive desk behind which one such employee sat. He looked up as the doors opened, his somewhat forbidding expression shifting when he saw who’d entered. He rose immediately and bowed.

  “Lord Sanabalis,” he said as he rose. “I don’t believe the Arkon is expecting you.”

  “No.”

  This wasn’t the hoped-for answer, but the man nodded. Reaching for something beneath the lip of the desk’s surface, he said, “I will send word that you’ve arrived. Is it urgent?”

  “It is not—at the moment—an emergency. If it is more convenient,” he added as a much younger man appeared from behind a long row of shelving, “I will approach him myself. Has he given orders he is not to be interrupted?”

  “They’re standing orders,” was the slightly grim reply. “The Royal Librarian lost much valuable archival time during the last crisis.”

  The younger man made his way to the front of the desk and stood in front of the older one, who was clearly—in the absence of the Arkon—in charge. But the older man grimaced. “Never mind, Wills. Lord Sanabalis has a message he wishes to convey in person. Lord Sanabalis, you will find the Arkon in the third hall of artifacts. The Hawks?”

  “They are with me. They understand the rules of the Library. I will personally deal with any infractions.”

  “Thank you, Lord Sanabalis.” He cleared his throat before they’d taken two steps, and the Dragon Lord turned back.

  “Yes?”

  “The Private,” he said, indicating Kaylin.

  “What about her?”

  “She is carrying a sword.”

  Sanabalis glanced at the blade that Maggaron had given her. “My apologies,” he told the Librarian. “We wish the Arkon to examine it, and I believe he will find it of interest, but for the moment, we will leave it at the desk in your care.”

  Turning to Kaylin, he added, “If that is acceptable to you?”

  “It is.” She hesitated, and then said, “But I don’t think it’s safe for anyone else to actually attempt to wield it.”

  “No one will wield it,” was the Librarian’s response. But he looked at the blade with distinctly less comfort. “No one will touch it. If you will bring it to the back of the desk?”

  Behind the desk was what looked like a long counter. Its gleaming wooden surface caught light, which it then scattered because the Librarian lifted it. It was hinged, and beneath its surface was something that looked very much like glass casing. It made Kaylin queasy as she approached, which made it clear that it was magical.

  “When artifacts are brought to the Arkon,” the man explained, motioning toward the empty case without once attempting to touch the sword in her hands, “this is where they are kept if they are deemed either fragile or magical and of unknown origin. I will remain here until you leave the Library. No one else, besides the Arkon, can open the case. If you will?”

  Half relieved, she set the sword down and took a step back. He dropped the countertop, and it once again looked like normal, necessary desk space.

  “Let me guess. The Arkon is not in the best of moods,” Kaylin ventured when they were out of the normal human earshot of the supervisor.

  “He has certainly been in worse in your direct experience,” Sanabalis replied. “But he has been attempting to ascertain that no damage was done during the recent magical surge, and this takes both time and very focused attention to detail. He does not like,” he added, “to be disturbed.”

  He had never liked to be disturbed. In the time she’d known him, he’d left the Palace exactly once, and that had involved the possible end of the world.

  The Arkon was working in the third hall of artifacts, as the man at the desk had called it. Kaylin didn’t consider what was essentially a closed, dark room to be a hall. There were no windows, or at least if there were, none of them let any light in. She’d been in a similar room in the bowels of the Library before; the walls were mostly lined with shelves, and there were standing items that only spiders appeared to have touched in the intervening centuries since they’d been collected. Sanabalis was considerate enough to retrieve lamps for their use; the usual magical lights were forbidden.

  The Arkon had already left off work when the light from the open door alerted him to their presence. He looked like a moving antique; the dust and the cobwebs that time and spiders had deposited clung to his robes and the edge of his beard. His eyes were a shade of unfortunate orange, but given both Tiamaris and Sanabalis today, he seemed relatively calm.

  “This,” he told Sanabalis in a rumble of a voice that implied he was speaking Barrani out of a minimal courtesy that could vanish at any second, “had better be important.”

  “In my opinion, it is,” Sanabalis replied.

  “Obviously.” The Arkon now condescended to notice the two silent Hawks who had accompanied Sanabalis. He sighed, which sounded suspiciously like a snort, with about the same smoke content. “I have not failed to notice, Private Neya,” he said as he
all but shoved them out of the doors and back into the light, “that Lord Sanabalis’s disdain for my orders that I remain undisturbed frequently intersect with his interactions with you.”

  The Arkon’s annoyance at the interruption was not, sadly, improved by the nature of Sanabalis’s request. It did, however, leave him speechless and slightly openmouthed for at least thirty seconds. Sanabalis’s expression could have been carved out of stone; he didn’t even blink.

  “I assume you have a more than adequate reason for this request?”

  “I do. And it is, I believe, a situation in which time—in the mortal sense—is of the essence. The usual process for requisitions of note from the Imperial Order—which I will, of course, begin immediately—will require more time than we have.”

  The Arkon was not impressed. Dusting his hands on the folds of his robes, he snorted more smoke. “This had better at least be interesting, Sanabalis. I have discovered some possible damage to some of the more unusual items in the collection, and I am not pleased.”

  There wasn’t a colloquial phrase or curse that went something like “may your day be full of angry dragons” or “may every dragon you meet today be pissed off,” but there should have been. Had the floors not been so solid, the Arkon would have left footprints in the stone.

  “Where is he going?” Kaylin asked as Sanabalis began to follow.

  “Probably one of the conference rooms. The artifacts in the third hall are delicate, and shouting—in our native tongue—might cause them harm.”

  The Arkon did indeed lead them to one of the almost featureless rooms several halls and a few doors away. It contained a table that was flat, long and practical; chairs were tucked beneath its surface. The walls were bare. The door was warded, or appeared to be warded, but the Arkon didn’t bother to touch it; he barked at it and it flew open. Even the inanimate objects in the Library apparently knew enough to try to stay on his good side.

 
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