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Cast in ruin, p.14
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       Cast in Ruin, p.14

           Michelle Sagara
 

  The door slammed shut the minute Sanabalis entered the room behind Kaylin.

  “Well?” the Arkon said, folding his arms across the trailing edge of his unkempt beard.

  “There is a problem in the fief of Tiamaris.”

  This didn’t seem to mollify the Arkon. “Given the known problems that occur in lands that border the fiefs, I fail to see how a projection crystal is justified. It is not a useful teaching tool.” He referred, Kaylin realized belatedly, to Sanabalis’s work with the Norannir. “Nor is it a shield against the incursions of Shadow. It is a fine research tool,” he added, “and any grant from my library will of course decrease the effective ability to do research here.”

  Kaylin cleared her throat.

  “Yes?”

  “It’s also an effective tool for investigations.”

  “It is, and the usual method for requisitioning such equipment results—on occasion—in a grant of a crystal for those purposes. Has the Hawklord acceded to your request?”

  Silence.

  “Ah, no, of course not. The fief of Tiamaris is not considered Imperial territory, and any investigations would not fall under the jurisdiction of the Halls of Law. Sanabalis,” he added, losing the honorific that he usually used, at least when in the presence of mere mortals. “Explain yourself. Now.”

  “There have been a series of highly unusual murders in the fief of Tiamaris. While we are all aware that the general conditions of rule in the fiefs are somewhat lacking—” He glanced at Kaylin, who had clamped her jaw shut. She’d become used to the roundabout understatements of people who’d never actually had to live in the fiefs, but she was never going to like them. “There are indications that a subtle magic is involved.”

  Mindful of Sanabalis’s orders to let him do the talking, Kaylin said nothing. She was, however, Kaylin; she said nothing loudly.

  It was not to Kaylin that the Arkon turned, however; it was to the almost invisible Severn. “Corporal Handred,” he said in his succinct and biting High Barrani, “I have been impressed with your calm and your sense of order in trying and difficult times. You accompanied Private Neya on this excursion into Tiamaris?”

  “I did.”

  “Good. I would like to hear your version of the difficulty, and your opinion about the use of the crystal.” When Severn did not immediately launch into speech, he added “Now.”

  In very sparse words, and in an entirely even and matter-of-fact tone, Severn offered the Arkon an account of events. He made clear, in the same tone, that the only hands-on investigation either he or Kaylin had done so far was a brief and cursory examination of the bodies.

  “On the morrow,” he added in his flawless High Barrani, “we will visit the discovery sites and attempt to discern what the victims may—or may not—have in common.”

  But the Arkon had fallen utterly silent; he didn’t even seem to be breathing. “You are certain,” he finally said, “that all the bodies were identical? Mortals often look very similar.”

  Kaylin winced; Severn didn’t. He nodded smoothly. “There are known cases of multiple births that result in children who appear—to strangers—to be identical. There are always distinguishing marks or differences that yield to a closer inspection.”

  “You have reason to suspect that the seven discovered will not be the last?”

  “No. Given the discovery of seven in such a short span of time, however, I feel it unlikely.”

  “You do not possess the magical sensitivity that Private Neya has demonstrated.”

  “No, Arkon.”

  “Private Neya.” He glanced once at Sanabalis, and added, “You were not present, Lord Sanabalis. Your word will not carry the weight of hers here, no matter how carefully you speak. Or how carelessly she does.” He turned back to Kaylin. “You will wait here. I will return with the object you have requested.”

  “Thank you.”

  The Arkon raised a brow. “I am certain that when we are done you will be markedly less thankful. There is a second reason that the crystals are not deemed suitable for frequent use.”

  When the Arkon had exited the room, Sanabalis ran his fingers through his beard. “That did not go well,” he finally said.

  “I tried, Sanabalis. What did he mean, I won’t be happy?”

  “Imbuing the crystal with an image that can be seen directly by those with no magical training or inclination requires magic.”

  “Yes. That’s why it’s a magic crystal.”

  “Very amusing. What it also requires,” he continued, “is a process that is somewhat similar to the one used to imbue memory crystals. You are familiar with memory crystals?”

  “Intimately,” she said, her shoulders sloping toward the ground. “I don’t suppose Corporal Handred can be the imaging source?”

  “He can be one of the sources, yes. I highly doubt he will be the only one.” The Dragon Lord was frowning.

  “Sanabalis, what do you think is happening in the fiefs?”

  “I am not entirely certain,” was his reply. “Let us leave the question of the subtle difficulty for the Arkon’s return. I have a different one. What possessed you to cross the border into the Shadows on the edge of Tiamaris?”

  “Maggaron. He wouldn’t come to us.”

  “I have a few questions about the nature of Maggaron,” Sanabalis replied.

  “So do I. I don’t think we’re going to get all the relevant answers until we can speak to Mejrah.”

  Sanabalis frowned. “I have not asked Ybelline to enter the fief. For obvious reasons, I consider the danger to the castelord to be too high to justify the request; she is, however, the single most adept speaker of the Norannir tongue. Very well.” He looked as if he would say more, but the door opened and the Arkon walked in. He was holding a crystal the size of a coin in his hand; it was smaller than the memory crystals Kaylin had, on several occasions, been required to carry. Its base color seemed to be a transparent blue, or possibly a faded purple; it was hard to tell.

  He set it on the tabletop and spoke a single word. An image rose, like solid mist, from the heart of the crystal, spreading both up and out until it occupied a much larger space. The image was, oddly enough, a Dragon in draconic form. It was obviously scaled down, but even so, was about the size of a normal person, stretched lengthwise. It was also taller.

  The Dragon was a cobalt blue. Its miniature scales caught and reflected the room’s diffuse light as if they were solid. The Arkon spoke another—much louder—word and the Dragon lifted its neck and spread its wings to their full span.

  “With your permission?” Severn said to the Arkon, who raised a brow and then nodded brusquely. He then approached the miniature Dragon and extended a hand. The Dragon attempted to remove it; Kaylin heard the snap of jaws that suddenly didn’t seem so small and harmless as the Corporal quickly withdrew.

  Sanabalis snorted. “It cannot actually harm you. The sounds and the visual representation of movement are present. The tactile components—unless one is in direct contact with the crystal—are not.”

  Severn nodded, but didn’t offer the image his hand again. “If I were holding the crystal?”

  “You would experience the physical sensation, but unless you were a mage with a great natural talent and no control whatsoever, you wouldn’t be bleeding. Contact with the crystal also gives you more direct control over the image and its presentation.” The Arkon spoke again, and this time, the miniature Dragon answered. Kaylin did not clap hands over her ears because she’d been expecting it.

  “Will training the crystal require the loss of this image?” Severn asked quietly.

  The Arkon lifted a brow. “No. In a lesser crystal, the answer would be different and in that case, I would cede you one over my ashes. This, and a handful of others like it, were created before the Empire. This image,” he added, his voice inexplicably softening, “is the oldest it contains, and the strongest. If you do nothing, or if your focus is not strong, this is the image that you will present whe
n you hold and invoke it.”

  Sanabalis was staring at the miniature Dragon in a very odd way. His eyes were, momentarily, gold—and most of the gold Kaylin had seen today had been in the eyes of a corpse. “Who is it?” she asked Sanabalis.

  He didn’t seem to hear her. “Arkon, I feel it germane to remind you of the unpredictable nature of the Private’s magic.”

  “If the crystal is damaged, the unpredictable nature of her power—and the unfortunate squabbles about her training—will no longer be an issue,” was the unpromising reply. “But I would prefer that Corporal Handred be both its keeper and its invoker for the time being.” He gestured and the image of the Dragon was sucked back into the heart of the blue gem. “Please,” he added, indicating the crystal. “Corporal.”

  Severn nodded, and without hesitation, picked up the crystal and held it cupped in his right palm.

  “You will feel the crystal’s power,” the Arkon said. “It is not unlike brief contact with the Tha’alani. It is intrusive.”

  Severn nodded again.

  “Concentrate on the central image—or related images—you wish the crystal to store. When you wish to begin recording, inform me.”

  Severn closed his eyes. His grip on the crystal didn’t change. Kaylin, hands behind her back, watched as the hair on the back of her neck began to rise. It was her usual physical reaction to the sudden influx of magic, which was odd: the image of the Dragon itself had caused no discomfort.

  Nothing discernible happened to either Severn or the crystal, but her skin began to tingle. The Arkon nodded to himself, but said nothing and did nothing. Minutes passed and extended. There was no easy way to mark the passage of time in the featureless, windowless room. Kaylin began to pace, her hands still locked behind her back.

  The crystal in Severn’s hand finally began to glow. Severn’s eyes were still closed, but his grip on the crystal tightened involuntarily, and the line of his jaw tensed. His knuckles also whitened. Kaylin took a step toward him that was just as involuntary, and Sanabalis caught—and held—her arm. She quieted instantly, but the Dragon Lord didn’t let go.

  “How long is this going to go on?” she demanded.

  “For as long as it takes. It will not cause the Corporal any permanent harm.”

  As long as it takes, in Dragon parlance, was almost three hours. Kaylin, who had experienced the sting of melding with a memory crystal, decided then and there that she was never, ever going to requisition one of these things again, unless her career depended on it. Memory crystals, while sharp and painful, took no time. Added to that was the fact that Severn’s face was the color of white cheese by the end of those hours.

  The crystal, on the other hand, looked unchanged.

  “Good, Corporal. Concentrate on the image now, and let me see whether or not the impression you’ve made is a solid one.”

  “It had better be,” Kaylin muttered. The piercing and entirely unfriendly look she immediately received from the Arkon was a reminder that Dragon hearing was superior to human hearing.

  Severn closed his eyes. The heart of the crystal began to glow, and light spread out through its hard sides in narrow filaments that looked disturbingly like tendrils. They slithered—that really was the word for it—toward each other, intertwining as they moved, and merging, at last, into a central standing figure in a familiar blue dress.

  The dress itself was a perfect replica of the seven similar dresses that Kaylin had seen; the woman, however, took longer to come into focus; the edges of her jaw and nose were blurred, as were the contours of her cheekbones, the hollows of her eyes. They radiated light, bleaching her skin of color. Sanabalis let go of Kaylin’s arm and she moved away from him, toward both Severn and the image that was solidifying above his hand.

  Her own visual memory of the dead woman—all seven of them—was not so clear that she could have painted a picture; it was clear enough that she could tell Severn what she thought was missing. But even as she opened her mouth to do just that, the image suddenly sharpened.

  “That’s it,” she said softly. “That’s her. Or one of her. I don’t think she’d be that pale if she were alive.”

  Severn nodded. He was sweating, and his jaw was locked in place; she couldn’t have wedged words out of him had she tried. She didn’t. She meant to ask Severn about the woman’s eye color, because the crystal was meant to imply that this was a living, missing person. Her eyes were closed.

  When they opened, they were a liquid, perfect gold, and Kaylin was momentarily deafened by the Arkon’s sudden roar.

  The roar was wordless, but it went on for at least a minute, shorn of syllables, of anything that would elevate it above the dangerously bestial. His familiar eyes had shaded to a red that was almost deeper than Tiamaris’s eyes had gone. Familiarity with the booming voices of Dragons speaking in their native tongue meant she didn’t immediately dive for cover under the room’s only table, but it was close.

  Severn, on the other hand, seemed unfazed. He was closer to the Arkon and he waited with what seemed to be his usual calm. He was faking.

  “If this is some attempt at humor,” the Arkon finally said, literal fire around the edges of his words, “you have survived it. You will not, however, continue to do so if you do not cease.”

  Kaylin glanced back at Sanabalis, whose eyes were a very dark shade of orange. He, however, was as outwardly calm as Severn; if it weren’t for his eyes, she wouldn’t have known he was worried at all. “Arkon,” he said in quiet High Barrani.

  The Arkon swiveled. This time, he didn’t bother to contain his fire; he roared, and it hit Sanabalis full on. Apparently, this is what enraged Dragons did—to each other—because Sanabalis flinched as his robes blackened, but he didn’t otherwise move or spew fire in return.

  This would be a very, very good time to leave, Kaylin thought. On the other hand, it would only catch his attention. The underside of the table was looking better and better all the time. Sanabalis opened his mouth and drew a longer-than-usual breath, which gave Kaylin just enough time to cover her ears. Not that it helped.

  Severn took a step back, toward the wall farthest from where the two Dragons were now shouting at each other and not incidentally blocking the room’s only known door. The two Hawks exchanged a glance—words wouldn’t carry—and Severn’s lips turned up in a brief grimace. He mouthed the words This was your idea, remember, as they settled in to wait.

  Dragon wings did not magically unfurl and native forms did not magically appear, which, given the size and the thick stone walls of a room that would have trouble accommodating one Dragon, never mind two, was a damn good thing. But it was clear that the Arkon was actually upset. Or enraged. He focused the full force of his ire on Sanabalis for the duration of a turbulent hour before he heaved one more fiery breath and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

  Sanabalis, in robes that were mostly ash, now readjusted his clothing into a more Dragon military style: scales grew out of the folds of his flesh and more or less armored him. It was disturbing to watch, but it was probably a touch less disturbing than watching him walk through the Library butt naked would have been.

  “You couldn’t have warned us?” Kaylin asked, although she kept her voice as low as she could.

  “Demonstrably not. He will have to consider what he has seen, and we will have to wait until he has.” He turned to Severn as if this sort of thing happened every day, and said, “Bring the crystal to the table. I would like to examine it more closely now that we have leisure to do so.”

  “Leisure?”

  “We can’t do anything else,” he pointed out. “The door has been magically sealed.”

  “Why?”

  “I believe the Arkon does wish to discuss this with you both—eventually. At the moment, if we are very lucky, he will not march straight to the Emperor.”

  “The…Emperor.”

  “Indeed. I will say that the last time he was in this much of a fury he staved in a wall so
mewhere beyond the actual Library proper.” He glanced at them both and added, “It was well before either of you were born, and before you ask, no—no one was stupid enough to be standing between the Arkon and the wall. Any wall.

  “If this newest crop of librarians has any wisdom at all—and for the most part, he chooses them, so it would be highly likely that this is the case—there will be no nonstructural casualties.”

  Severn set the crystal down; the image didn’t dissipate. Sanabalis approached it with caution, although he knew it was entirely a projection. Sanabalis’s eyes were orange, but his inner membranes were up. Kaylin watched him. The Arkon was the oldest of the Imperial Dragons, and clearly this woman—or her eyes—meant something to him. Tiamaris was the youngest, and it had also clearly meant something to him.

  But Tiamaris, if you believed the Dragons, was the racial equivalent of Kaylin in terms of temperament. Sanabalis was not.

  “You said you saw three of the corpses?” she said, forcing the last syllable up to make it a question.

  “I did.”

  “And you noted nothing strange?”

  “Beyond the fact that they were identical, down to the lack of visible distinguishing marks and any obvious cause of death?”

  “Beyond that, yes. That wasn’t what sent the Arkon off to rearrange architecture.”

  He snorted. “No. Nor did Tiamaris, and he had in his possession all seven.” Sanabalis was silent. There was clearly no point in asking him what he’d suspected, and Kaylin was restrained enough not to try.

  “If the Arkon had seen the seven?”

  “I think it possible that the Arkon’s reaction would have been very different than either of our initial reactions. He had already begun to descend before the image’s eyes opened.”

  “Who does he think she is, or was?”

  “That would be the question,” was the quiet reply. “Tiamaris will not, now, cede any of the corpses to the Halls or the Emperor. But you have some influence with the Lady. Use it, Kaylin. If the corpse cannot be brought to the Halls, you have the dubious privilege of convincing the Hawklord to second Red to the fiefs for an autopsy.”

 
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