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Cast in ruin, p.16
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       Cast in Ruin, p.16

           Michelle Sagara
 

  Tain coughed, and this time, Teela did look at him. It wasn’t particularly friendly. “You can’t,” was her flat, cool reply. “If you are ever in a position where you need to break the binding of a name, there is only one option available to both you and the named. You kill him. Or her.

  “There’s more—much more—that needs to be said, and I don’t have the time if I want to keep my job and if the Hawklord wants to mollify the Emperor. But, kitling, do not do anything stupid in the fiefs. You are playing with something you don’t understand.”

  “It’s not the only name—”

  “That you’ve seen?” She raised a hand. “What I suspect, I suspect, and it is best left—if you value my life—as mere suspicion. But let me remind you of the most basic truth about True Names: if you seek to use the name against the person who gives it life and force, you will have to have, and sustain, the greater will, and all of your focus must be upon the destruction of any spirit or free will standing between you and domination.

  “Any. The stories in which the knowledge itself is enough are just that—stories. Only mortals believe them. You do not have the force of will to take and use any of the names you might possibly have seen in the past.

  “I have to go. But—inasmuch as I understand the Towers, and really, I don’t, the Tower is possibly the safest place in the Empire to leave him for the moment. Until you have a better grasp of what you’ve started, leave him there.” Her eyes were almost midnight blue as she suddenly looked at the sword. “This blade—did it come from your servitor?”

  “…Yes.”

  “And you’re carrying it unsheathed?”

  Since the answer was obvious, Teela didn’t wait for it. In stead, she stormed off into an office that had, apparently, fallen as silent as the office ever fell.

  “Well, that could have gone better,” Kaylin said as she rose.

  “It could have gone worse. You’re still standing, and there’s no blood.” Severn nodded in Marcus’s direction. “Come on.”

  “She was pissed off.”

  “Yes. She’s worried.”

  Kaylin exhaled. “The Exchequer—”

  “Not about the Exchequer, Kaylin,” Severn replied, raising a brow. “About you.”

  Before Kaylin could reply, he walked toward Marcus’s desk, where the mirror could be heard conveying someone’s raised voice. Or voices.

  Sergeant Kassan looked as if he’d gained a lot of weight, but Leontines looked like that when their fur was almost standing on end. His eyes, the best indicator of mood, were a wary, but pale, orange. “If it’s not life-threatening, I don’t have time,” he said, before he looked up.

  The person on the other end of the mirror looked surprisingly official by dress and age. Kaylin didn’t recognize him.

  Marcus, however, considered Kaylin’s presence life-threatening enough. “Please excuse me, Councilor. A matter of some import has come up.”

  “More important than this?” was the loud and angry reply.

  Marcus exhaled on a low growl. “It had better be.” The mirror’s image froze, and he turned to his Private and his Corporal who, to their credit, were not trying to become instantly invisible. “Did I tell you to report in?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Shoot me. Lord Diarmat wasn’t pleased with your current assignment.”

  “No, sir. I have some good news on that front, though.”

  “Good. Good news is in rare supply at the moment. What is it?”

  “The Arkon’s convinced that the current assignment is necessary.”

  “This is obviously a definition of good you didn’t learn in the Halls,” was the sour reply. “What else are you going to drag away from my department into a realm ‘outside of my jurisdiction’?”

  “We’d like to borrow Red for a few hours tomorrow morning.”

  His brows rose. His ears stiffened. “Red specializes in things that can’t move. In particular, corpses.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Then I suggest you bring whatever you want him to examine to the Halls.”

  Kaylin was prepared for this. “We would, but the bodies in question are possibly magical in nature. To a cursory external examination, they look human.”

  “And the bodies already in the morgue also look human. The bodies that will no doubt pile up the minute he steps out of those doors will undoubtedly look human, as well. Get to the point, Private. While I appreciate a break from the conversation I was having, I have limited time and zero patience.”

  “We have seven corpses, collected over the course of two days.”

  “Not my problem.”

  “They’re identical. Not the cause of death—frankly, we can’t find one—but the bodies themselves. They are all, as near as we can determine, the same woman.”

  The Sergeant didn’t even blink. “And nothing in your fancy Dragon-run fief is capable of pointing out the reasons that’s impossible?”

  “No, sir. Without the magic inherent in the Tower, we wouldn’t have a morgue capable of stopping the bodies from rotting.” Kaylin didn’t add that she suspected magic wasn’t the only reason they hadn’t started to decay; Marcus was in a bad enough mood she was willing to leave that to Red, poor sod. “Tiamaris has no formal missing-persons reports because there’s no one to report to, and even if an agency that could take reports existed, no one would talk to them anyway, so there’s no fast way of checking the dead against reports.

  “On the other hand, if Tiamaris had an Exchequer and he thought the Exchequer was causing him trouble? There wouldn’t be a lot of hassle about due legal process. He’d just eat him.”

  “If it weren’t for the fact that due legal process pays the bills,” came the growl of a reply, “I’d consider agitating for the lack, myself.” He exhaled, ran his hands over his eyes, and said, “How serious is this?” in an entirely different tone of voice.

  “My guess?”

  Marcus nodded.

  “It’s serious. It’s not possible that the same woman could have died—without cause—seven times that we know of, so there’s got to be magic involved. What we don’t—or won’t—know is how extensive that magic is.”

  “What do you think?”

  “I think you can’t make bodies out of nothing. It’s not an illusion; magical scans would detect that instantly, and Tiamaris is more than capable of that level of magic. The change—and I’m assuming that some bodies somewhere were magically altered—is physical, real, and finished.”

  “You think these bodies started out looking entirely different?”

  “I can’t think of any other explanation. Tiamaris can’t, either…” She hesitated again.

  “Spit it out,” the Sergeant growled.

  “The Arkon was very upset. I’ve never seen him so—”

  “Unhappy?”

  “Enraged. I think he melted some of the floor—the stone floor.”

  The Sergeant whistled.

  “It’s possible that there is some underlying explanation for the seven identical bodies that we’re not privy to at the moment.”

  “Unlikely.”

  “That’s what we think. So we’re looking for missing people of approximately the same gender, shape, and age in a fief that has no method of making those disappearances easily accessible. Best case, we find a mage who’s transforming other people. Worst case, they’re not actually corpses at all, but something different.”

  “So far, there’s no reason the corpses can’t come here.”

  “Since we have no idea how they died or how they were created, for want of a better word, we’ve got no guarantees that we don’t cart the corpses out of the fief and have them come to life on Red’s slab. If they do, they’re not likely to be our friends.”

  Marcus nodded then. “You’ve got him. Tell him when and where you want him to be—I’ll raise him on mirror and give him some warning. But, Private?” he added as she and Severn turned to head toward the morgue. “Lose him, and you’ll be pay
ing for the rest of your short career.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Red was working in the morgue. Kaylin, at an early age, had been both fascinated and horrified by vivisection, and Red—like many of the Hawks—had been patient enough to tolerate her presence at his elbow. How, she didn’t know. Red’s job had never, as far as Kaylin knew, involved patrolling the streets of any part of the City, although she thought he’d be good at it; he was patient with idiots.

  He was untying the apron he wore, and glancing balefully at the mirror that adorned the full length of the wall opposite the door, when they entered.

  “Ironjaw said you had an on-site assignment for me,” he said as he sponged his hands clean.

  Kaylin nodded.

  “How much metal am I going to need?”

  “All of it.”

  “What kind of records access will I have?”

  “Portable.”

  Red grimaced. “Where?”

  “That’s the trickier part. It’s in the fiefs.”

  “The fiefs. Now I’ve seen everything.” He shook his head. “How old is the body?”

  “Bodies. Two or three days, on the surface of things.”

  “Preserved?”

  “More or less. Tiamaris has done some time with the Hawks, and he’s the one running the morgue. He doesn’t have a staff of consulting mages, though.”

  “That’s probably an advantage,” was the curt reply. Red began to pack his things, and Kaylin obligingly carried the bag into which he was dropping them. “I won’t have much time,” he said as he slid scalpels of varying widths into their leather cases.

  “You’re expecting a corpse here?”

  “If they can find him, yes. Some people are holding out hope that if we do, he won’t be a corpse.”

  “Who?”

  “I don’t know his name,” was the serious and quiet reply. “But he is—or was—a key witness in the Exchequer investigation.”

  “Any reason you’re betting on a corpse?”

  “Yeah. What was left of his home wasn’t pretty. It was magically demolished, but the trace was contaminated.”

  “How?”

  “He was a mage, of sorts. Most of the strong signatures are his.”

  “He didn’t destroy his own home.”

  “He could have. Doesn’t seem sane or likely. But, well. Mage.”

  “And if I ask how a mage was involved in the investigation as a witness—”

  “Don’t. Let’s just say he was a junior Arcanist and leave it at that. You can bother Ironjaw if you’re feeling suicidal, but it’s not going to get you any answers. Until he calls you in—and I think we could have used you for the on-site investigation of the wreckage—it’s locked down.” He finished his cursory inspection of his traveling gear, and nodded. “You’ll be here in the morning?”

  “On time, even. Promise.”

  “Good. I’d bet on it, but at the moment, the office betting pools are being neglected. Anything else?”

  “No.”

  “Yes,” Severn said. “Not a corpse.”

  “Good. A little variety never hurt anyone. What is it?”

  Reaching into his pouch, Severn pulled out the swatches of cloth he’d cut from six of the dresses; the seventh piece was in the Imperial Library under the Arkon’s ferocious glare. Red frowned and held out a hand. “These are from what?”

  “Dresses. Seven identical dresses, or as near to identical as they could be, given external factors.”

  “This is silk,” Red said. “But the color—”

  Severn nodded as Red fished out a jeweler’s glass. He barked a single word and the lights in the room brightened. “You want me to figure out how it’s dyed?”

  “Yes. That might tell us where it was dyed; I don’t think the color is all that common.”

  “I’ll see what I can do—I’m not sure I’ll have what you need for tomorrow; it depends on what happens for the rest of the day. Or night.”

  “Night?” Kaylin’s voice rose slightly.

  “I’m on call.”

  “Since when?”

  Red looked down at her. “Since the investigation into the Exchequer was blown by your theoretical fraud on Elani. It’s gotten uglier by the minute, and I’m not sure the Halls are going to drag themselves out of this mess smelling like roses. But at the moment, I’m free. You want to watch?”

  Kaylin did. But she also wanted to sleep. “I did say I would get here first thing in the morning, and on time.”

  He chuckled. It was a weary chuckle but it would do.

  Severn volunteered to walk Kaylin home. In and of itself, that wasn’t unusual. She expected him to bring up Nightshade, but he was kind. He didn’t. He didn’t speak much at all, but it wasn’t a cold or hostile silence. When they reached her room, she crawled under the bed and retrieved the egg crate.

  He watched, leaning against the wall nearest the door, a comfortable shadow in the moonlight.

  “Can you check my mirror?”

  “It’s gray.”

  “Good.” She was busy unwinding the scraps of fabric that she hoped kept the egg warm in her absence. Having done that, she carefully pulled the egg out of its temporary home. “Do you—do you want to stay?”

  “I don’t think there’s enough room in the bed for you, me, and a fragile egg,” he replied. He was smiling; she could hear it in the words, even if she couldn’t see it. “How is the egg?”

  “It’s—I think it’s harder. Or rougher. I’m not sure.”

  “You should take it to Evanton.”

  “In my copious free time, I’ll be sure to do that.” She began to peel off clothing; the night was cool. Tonight, because Severn was standing there, she actually folded it as neatly as she could in the dark and left it in a small standing pile near the foot of the bed. Then she curled up on her side around the egg, wrapping her arms across it just before she pulled the blankets up beneath her chin.

  “I’ll come by in the morning,” he said. “With food.”

  “Bracer?”

  “If it’s come home by now, I’ll leave it. I’m tired of water stains on my furniture.”

  “I promise I’ll stop throwing the damn thing into the Ablayne.”

  “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

  She drifted off even before she heard the click of the door’s lock.

  CHAPTER 11

  Red was punctual. Since Severn was absolutely true to his word and had shown up with food at the crack of dawn—if you could call something as dark as that dawn—so was Kaylin. Her sleep had been the usual broken affair. It was why she valued exhaustion so highly; if she fell over face-first the minute she hit the bed, she was likely to sleep like the dead for at least four hours. It was seldom that she slept for longer without waking from dream or nightmare.

  On the other hand, the last week had pretty much been one waking nightmare after another; if this kept up, her dreams wouldn’t have the power to terrify her.

  “Here,” Red said, handing Kaylin one very heavy leather bag. Its handles were worn and shiny. “Be useful.”

  Some minor changes in Red’s uniform were hastily made before they picked up the carriage in the yards and headed toward the bridge that led to Tiamaris.

  “Sergeant Kassan requested that we mirror the Halls when we arrive. I take it we can mirror the Halls from wherever it is we’re going?”

  “We can.”

  “Good. I think his sleep has been poor enough that he regretted yesterday’s decision; I thought I wouldn’t make it out the doors. We’re to mirror when I arrive, when I leave, and if I find anything significant. If there’s trouble crossing, he’ll send Swords to meet us on the way out.”

  Kaylin groaned. “Just what we need.”

  “He also asked me to remind you that you have an etiquette lesson tonight. He doesn’t care if we discover the probable end of the world—Corporal Handred and I can stay. You can’t.”

  Tara was gar
dening. Morse was standing a couple of yards away from where Tara was moving clods of dirt around, trying to look useful. She even looked grateful at the arrival of the carriage, because it gave her something to do.

  “Lord Tiamaris is waiting for you. Lord Sanabalis arrived half an hour ago.”

  “Was he supposed to be here? He told me he doesn’t enter the Tower—”

  “He doesn’t. I didn’t ask.” Morse gave Red the once-over, but didn’t give him trouble; instead, she sauntered toward the Tower’s door. Red, to his credit, didn’t spend much time gawking. He walked up to the door, lifted his hand, and looked confused. Kaylin wanted to laugh.

  “This door doesn’t have wards,” she told him.

  “I…can see that.”

  “Tiamaris’s a Dragon; no one’s going to waltz in and steal stuff. Even if they did, they wouldn’t get far; the Tower would probably eat them before Tiamaris could.”

  Tara suddenly poked her head up from whatever patch of dirt held her attention. “Oh, I would never do that,” she said as she unfolded and began to wipe her hands on an apron that was already mostly dirt. “Not without my Lord’s permission.”

  “Red,” Kaylin said. “This is Tara. She’s the Avatar of the Tower. Tara, this is Red.”

  “He’s the coroner?”

  “Yes.” To Red, she said, “She can sort of read stray thoughts, so you’ll probably want to keep yours relatively clean.”

  “Relative to what?”

  “Oh, Morse’s.”

  Morse told them all what they could do as Tara laughed. She made her way to the doors—which were still closed—and offered Red a not very clean hand. Red enveloped it, anyway. “I don’t meet many friends of Kaylin’s,” she told him. “Besides Severn, I think you’re the first family member she’s brought to visit.”

  “Uh, we’re not exactly related—”

  “You’re a Hawk, no?”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Tara’s just confused about family,” Kaylin said in a rush. The doors began to roll open, which would hopefully save her any other embarrassment.

  Tiamaris stood ten feet from the doors. He wore armor— Dragon scale—and a tabard; he was prepared to fight. But he raised a brow. “Red.”

 
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