Cast in Ruin, p.17Michelle Sagara
“Lord Tiamaris.” Red didn’t skip a beat. “Lord Sanabalis?”
“He is in the morgue. Follow.”
“Is there a mirror I can use there?”
Marcus couldn’t actually be seen when the mirror activated, but he could be clearly heard; he was growling around syllables.
“Seven bodies, Sergeant. This may be awhile. But there were no incidents on the way.”
“Good. Mirror before you leave. If you need any assistance—”
Lord Sanabalis lifted a hand, and then let it drop, since Marcus couldn’t see it anyway. “Sergeant Kassan,” he said in a deep rumble that was probably the Dragon equivalent of growling, “I will personally escort your coroner back across the Ablayne when he has finished his duties here to my satisfaction. The Emperor expresses his gratitude at your understanding during this difficult time.”
After which, Marcus had very little to say. The mirror went flat, shivered for a second, and then became reflective. Sanabalis then turned to the coroner. “The Emperor also wishes to convey his approval of funds to hire—and train—appropriately skilled apprentices to work in the morgue in the Halls of Law. While he understands the pressures facing the Halls at this time, he requests that such training be expedited.”
Red bowed. He didn’t, however, respond.
Instead, he began to set up in Tiamaris’s morgue, opening his bag and spreading his tools across the only flat surface that wasn’t a slab. He almost never left the Halls, but it wasn’t the first time Kaylin had seen him do off-site inspections. In general, though, Red went off-site when there wasn’t enough of a body to bring back to the Halls. This was clearly not one of those times. He donned a large, white apron, tying it loosely behind his back.
He frowned as he began to walk down the small aisle made by two large slabs and seven bodies. He paused in front of one body, and took a mirror out of one of his generous pockets. “Records.” The mirror was a very small one. It wasn’t generally useful for communication, except in extreme emergencies, but it could record conversation and small images, which would later be archived in the Halls.
“Magical scans have already been done,” Tiamaris told him.
“Who was the investigating mage?”
“I was,” Tiamaris replied.
Red nodded. “The results?”
“The only enchantment indicated involved the eyes.”
“The color of the eyes.”
Tiamaris shook his head. “Illusion.”
“On a corpse? Why?”
The Dragon Lord didn’t answer; Red was an old hand. He took the hint. He did open eyelids, and he did the same cursory examination on all the corpses. This took no time. While he worked, with the occasional aside to the mirror, he asked Tiamaris questions; Tiamaris answered. He then walked over to the table on which his various tools lay. “This,” he said, “is not going to be a short day.”
“Will it require more than one?” Tiamaris asked.
“If it doesn’t require another three, it’ll be a miracle. Not a small one, either.”
“And that,” Tiamaris said, turning toward the door, “is our invitation to leave.”
“Where’s Maggaron?” Kaylin asked Tara after the impromptu morgue’s doors were firmly shut behind them.
The Avatar blinked, and then said, “He is in his room.”
“Awake or asleep?”
“It is hard to tell. I believe he is awake; he is neither moving nor speaking, but his eyes appear to be open.”
“What color are they?”
She glanced at Severn. “Are you certain it’s safe to leave him here?”
“Yes.” Tara frowned, and then added, “Perhaps I should ask for clarification before I answer. Safe for him or safe for us?”
“It is safe for us. The Shadows cannot breach this Tower.”
“Even if they find purchase here through use of his name, you’ll sense the struggle. If you’re too far away to intercede—and Lord Tiamaris feels that no point in the City is too far away, regardless of fief boundaries—it will not be safe for him, because I will have to kill him. Neither I nor my Lord will be in any significant danger.”
“Then I’m going to leave him here.”
“I believe Mejrah wishes to speak with you about him.”
“Can it wait until tomorrow?”
“Because we’re in theory here to investigate the deaths of those seven women, and I’m much more confident of being useful there than I am of talking to strangers near a border that’s teeming with Shadow.”
“You were of critical use yesterday.”
Tiamaris, however, said, “It can wait one day. You, however, will be on your own. I will take Lord Sanabalis and Morse. If you require a map of the fiefs—”
“We don’t, if there’s mirror access within the fief.”
“There are…very few mirrors in much of the fief.”
Tara said, “If you will come this way?”
Not even Sanabalis stayed behind. Sanabalis, however, chose to wait outside in the Tower grounds, and headed there immediately, asking only Tiamaris’s permission to do so. Kaylin found the interactions of the two Dragon Lords interesting; Sanabalis was obviously still fond of Tiamaris, but he was not quite at home in the Tower; he was willing to enter it—after receiving an almost formal invitation each time—but he was never going to be a visitor who outstayed his welcome.
If it wasn’t Kaylin’s second home, it had joined her list of possible candidates.
“This way” sadly, returned them to a very familiar mirror—a flat, clear pool of water that lay in the ground. Tara smiled in what Kaylin presumed was supposed to be an encouraging away. “We’re not accessing anything that the normal mirrors through the Tower can’t access, so it should be safe.”
Famous last words. Kaylin nodded anyway as Tiamaris, with no warning at all, roared. Clearly he’d woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, although rumor had it that Dragons didn’t actually need sleep. She wondered if that was accurate, or if it had been spread by the Barrani. The roar, which left ringing in the ears, also left a shimmering, large image across the whole of the water’s surface.
“You will be familiar with these streets?” Tiamaris asked Kaylin.
Morse coughed. “Geography’s never been her strong point.”
“She has Corporal Handred, a man known for his competence in both navigation and memorization.” Tiamaris hadn’t looked up, but when he opened his mouth, Kaylin covered her ears.
The bastard grinned and spoke in High Barrani.
The lines on the map began to shift. Or at least it looked that way at first. What shifted, however, was the color in which they were drawn; they went from a bright gold to a rust red. Gold lines then ran across the map, spreading from the central point of the Tower toward the outer edges of the fief. In most cases, the gold overlay the red precisely; in a few cases, it didn’t.
“These would be the street changes?”
“Yes.” Small white circles materialized in what appeared to be entirely random places. “These would be the areas in which the bodies currently in our keeping were found, along with the dates. Red might be able to give us an idea of how much time passed between death and discovery.”
Kaylin shook her head. “I don’t think it’s going to matter.”
“What we really need is an idea of how much time passed between the placement of the corpses and their discovery; they could have been killed earlier. I mean, the body found in the well didn’t die by drowning; the corpse found in the half-burned ruins didn’t die by burning or inhaling smoke.” She grimaced. “You see anything like a pattern in the placement of those bodies?”
“There’s no real pattern. But the corpses that were found earliest seem to be slightly closer to the interior border.” She frowned again.
“It’s nothing. Tiamaris, may I?”
“During the breach of the borders, and while you were reestablishing border control, how many storms occurred in the fief?”
Tara lifted her head. Her eyes drained of all color that wasn’t obsidian, something Kaylin always found unsettling. “That information is not complete in records.” She spoke as if she were the voice of the mirror—which, all things considered, she probably was.
“Shadowstorm is difficult to capture visually,” Tiamaris replied. “It defies objective comprehension. The large storms you’ve seen resemble regular storms in some fashion.”
Small fashion, in Kaylin’s opinion.
“But not all storms are immediately visible; nor do they all have immediate effect. What I see and what you see will differ. The effects of the storm can be clearly documented; the areas are defined in records by the effects.”
“So, in theory, if there were no effects there was no storm?”
“In theory, yes—as far as the fief records are concerned.” His tone made clear what he thought of the theory.
“I don’t understand why. You can track every single occurrence of Shadow in the fief, and you can track all areas which have been contaminated. Why not the storms?”
“If it wasn’t clear to you yesterday, even the Shadows themselves seem to fear the storms; the storms are not of the Shadows.”
“And our keeping strong borders just gives them another reason to hate us, not that they appear to need them?”
He chuckled. “Something like that, yes. The storms are confined to the interior, where only the Shadows and those that serve them need fear their effects.”
Tara took a step, knelt, and placed her palm against the surface of the water; this caused Kaylin to flinch, although she didn’t look away. Water, unlike the enchanted, silvered glass of most mirrors in the modern world, was more mutable. “You think that these bodies might have appeared because of the storms?”
“I…think it’s a possibility,” Kaylin replied cautiously.
“Because a storm, Tara, is how I first met you. There’s no other way I could have done it.”
Tara nodded slowly. “Do you think she was always a corpse?”
“That’s what we’re hoping to find out. We have an image crystal here; it shows the woman as we think she looked while she was alive. We’re going to hit the streets in the areas where the bodies were found to see if we can bribe anyone into telling us if they saw her.”
“Do you think you will find that information?”
“I don’t know. If you can mark the points where the storms occurred—”
“I cannot mark all of them,” was the quiet reply. “Some of my defenses—demonstrably—were compromised in the absence of a Lord. I could not see clearly all that was occurring within the boundaries of the fief at that time.” She hesitated and then said, “Lord Illien might know.”
Kaylin was silent for a full thirty seconds. “…Severn and I are going to head out to see if we can find any leads. If you can mark areas where the storms were known entities, we’ll see how much overlap there was. A lot depends on whether or not we can find a single eyewitness anywhere.”
Kaylin and Severn weren’t wearing the Hawk. This didn’t stop doors from being closed—usually on their feet—or, better, failing to be opened at all. The gem, activated, with its stunning but admittedly unusual representation of a well-dressed stranger, had seemed like such a good idea at the time. The Arkon’s reaction should have been a big clue.
But in the streets of the fiefs, magic of any kind was more terrifying than weapons. It was probably on par with Ferals, at least in the sunlight hours.
In two hours, they managed to talk to three people in total, the last two because Severn deactivated the gem and described the “missing person” with words.
“We clearly need more obvious magic in these streets,” Kaylin muttered as they began to walk toward the well at the end of the road.
“They’re probably confusing it with Shadow; they’ve seen enough of that to last a few lifetimes.”
“They’ve probably seen a Dragon, as well—which most of the rest of the city hasn’t.”
“Okay, fine, this is going to be harder than it looked.” She glanced at the sun’s height.
The well was never completely abandoned at this time of day. The streets around the well were about as crowded as fief streets ever got, and children were playing in the streets. Well, technically, four of them were playing and two of them were having a tug-of-war over a stick while practicing street language that would only grow more useful with time.
“This is the well,” Severn said quietly.
Kaylin nodded. “I’m surprised there are any people here at all, given the scare about the water.”
“The corpse didn’t decay—at all. I’m sure it’s not worse than drinking any other well water in the fief.”
Kaylin wasn’t, but was willing to take his word for it. Wells in the fiefs could be claimed by the fieflord or his thugs, and often were. People bartered for water because it was better than broken bones, lost teeth, or severe bruises. Since she wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with, she’d been sort of looking forward to knocking a few teeth out of someone’s mouth, but there were no “guards” near the well. There weren’t, from a brief scan of the streets, any lookouts of any sort, either.
“Tiamaris has really done a good job with this place,” she murmured, taking a seat in the shadows cast by the well itself and placing her back against the stone there. She stretched out both legs and took a deep breath. “Gem?”
Severn tried to hand her the crystal.
“Not falling for that.”
He chuckled and activated it. The woman appeared above his palms, as if he were carrying her. This had the advantage of clearing the streets of anyone who wasn’t terribly nearsighted. Or old enough to know better.
“Let’s see how it goes,” Severn told her. “An hour?”
She glanced at the sun. “Two, tops.”
It took less than an hour for someone to approach them. The someone was young, which wasn’t surprising, and he was sprinting ahead of an older woman who wouldn’t make it half a street from Ferals if she were stupid enough to be caught out at night. Young or no, the child hesitated slightly as she approached, but sped up again when she realized that she was about to be snatched off the ground by an increasingly angry caretaker.
Kaylin raised a brow. “You’re going to be in deep trouble,” she told the girl.
This seemed to mean “Please, jump on my thigh in an attempt to reach Severn” as far as the child was concerned. The girl tried to grab the image. Her hands passed through nothing, and she almost fell over.
Kaylin caught the back of her oversize, thinning shirt. There weren’t a lot of polite children in the fiefs, but the girl mumbled a thank-you. This didn’t stop her from trying to grab the skirts of the image again.
The old woman who’d been keeping an eye on her stopped at a much safer distance—four yards, give or take—and bowed nervously. “She means no harm,” she said, rising. “Give her back to me. I’ll make sure she never bothers you again.”
“She’s not bothering us,” Kaylin replied. She didn’t bother to speak softly; no point, and in the fiefs at the moment, it would just seem suspicious. The girl had fallen through the image the crystal projected another three times, and only Severn’s arm had stopped the last one from ending in a face-plant at the base of the well.
The old woman finally called the child by name. In this case it was Susa, and it was said in the low growl that only
“What,” the woman said, because a quarter hour of this had made it less strange or less terrifying, “is that?”
“We’re members of the Imperial Hawks,” Kaylin replied, which wasn’t really an answer. “This is one of the tools we use—across the bridge—to find missing people.”
“You think someone was stupid enough to run to the fiefs?” The last word had squeaked up a register, and was followed by a snort. On the surface, it was the only reasonable fief response to Kaylin’s reply.
Kaylin glanced at Severn. For a guy who was better with words, he was way too content to let her fumble through most of the talking. “She’s not from Elantra.”
“Dressed like that, she’s not from Tiamaris, either.”
Strike two. “We’re here because Lord Tiamaris used to work with the Imperial Hawks before he took the Tower.”
This got the old woman’s attention. It did not, however, cause her face to go either white or green with fear, and it didn’t cause her to instantly collapse to her knees, the nearest door being a little too far to conveniently leap for.
“Lord Tiamaris is currently busy doing two things: securing the border, and overseeing the reconstruction of the fief. So he asked us to look into this, as a favor. I’m Private Neya,” she added, “and this is Corporal Handred. We’re both Hawks when we cross the bridge.”
“Look into? That girl, the one Susa keeps falling through, she’s important to the Lord?”
“Yes. We’re not sure why,” Kaylin added.
This was technically trickier, since according to Severn, one of the seven bodies had been discovered in the well they were currently leaning against.
“You should ask the Lady. She’ll be able to find her if she’s here.”
“She’d be able to find her,” Kaylin said, still cautious, “if she were a citizen of Tiamaris; she’s not. She’s a visitor.”
“From where?” This was sharper.
“To be frank, we’re not sure. The Lord did ask the Lady, but it’s not something the Lady could find out. We’re his backup. We’re not certain we can find out, either—but this is part of what we do across the bridge.”
Cast in Ruin by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes