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Cast in ruin, p.18
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       Cast in Ruin, p.18

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “You always find your missing people? Susa, do not jump up and down on his legs like that. You’ll hurt him.”

  “Not always, no. Lord Tiamaris is aware of what we can, and can’t, promise. If we fail, he’s not going to eat us or turn us to ash.”

  “Well, she doesn’t look like one of those foreigners.” One wrinkled, bony hand was now rubbing her chin.

  “The Norannir?”

  “The giants.”

  “Ah. No, she’s not.”

  “I haven’t seen her, not around here.” She frowned in an entirely different way, because the inevitable had started to occur. All the children who hadn’t been pulled off the street or dragged around a corner began to approach them; Susa had tested the waters, and as she was unbruised and obviously still alive, it meant curiosity was more or less safe.

  With the children came their caretakers, many of whom were older, and some of whom were young enough to be older siblings—or at least she hoped they were. They were on that edge of young enough to still need mothers.

  Severn said quietly, “You didn’t have one at that age.”

  “Did I say that out loud?”

  “Not in so many words.”

  “Good. Answer it the same way.”

  An hour and a half later, the crystal had been handed—carefully and with stern warning and near death threats—around the growing group of children. Susa had long since disappeared to scrounge for food, and many of the other children had followed buckets down one street or the other, but they’d all been replaced by equally curious children who were willing to approach strangers in a crowd. Kaylin’s legs were cramping because she was sitting on them, and her stomach was beginning to make threats of its own.

  But one of the children—a six-or seven-year-old, given fief food—said, “Hey, we saw her!”

  Kaylin raised a brow. “You’re certain you saw her? Not someone who looked like her?” It was all she could do to stay seated, but leaping to her feet would have scattered the crowd as easily as if they were small birds.

  The child frowned. “It was her.”

  “Did anyone else see her? Any of your friends?”

  “My grandfather.”

  “He’s here?”

  “Nah. He’s back at home.”

  “And he’s the only other person?”

  “Don’t know. He’s the only person who was with me.”

  “Where did you see her?”

  The boy had the grace to pale, although he was dark enough it wasn’t immediately obvious. His voice dropped, and the line of his shoulders fell, as if they were drooping. The other children were all watching him with the type of curiosity that small carrion creatures might display if they were actually friendly.

  “Here,” he finally said, almost inaudibly.

  “What do you mean, here?”

  He pointed at the well.

  “You saw her body in the well?”

  “No—she was—no. We didn’t put her there!”

  Kaylin lifted both hands; Severn lifted one. At the moment, the other was occupied by the crystal. “We don’t think you—any of you—put her there. Where did you see her?”

  Hesitation again. Kaylin fished a silver coin out of her pocket. She then fished another out, and a third. “Where did you see her?” she asked again.

  The boy, no fool, hesitated. Kaylin thought about adding another coin. She didn’t because she’d’ve had to fish it out of Severn’s pockets. Instead, she held her palm flat and steady. There was a small chance that one of the other kids would try to grab it and pull a runner, but that might have happened in any street of the city, not just these ones. It was worth the risk.

  It was worth the risk because the boy reached out with an unsteady hand, and he did take the silver that had been warmed by its contact with her. “She was walking toward the well,” he told Kaylin, having made his decision. “She was drunk.”

  “You’re certain?”

  “She was walking like a drunk.”

  “Did she climb into the well?”

  “Hells, no. She fell into the well, though. She stopped just here,” he added, pulling himself slightly out of the crowd to approach the well itself. “She looked down. Grandpa tried to stop her, but we were too far away.”

  “She fell in?”

  The boy nodded. “Fell in. Grandpa was worried—it’s our well,” he added, as if to make clear his grandfather wasn’t an idiot humanitarian. “But—she was talking. When she was leaning over the water, she was talking.”

  “What did she say?”

  “We didn’t understand it. Some foreign words.”

  “Did you see where she came from?”

  He hesitated again. Then he slid the coins into his pocket and pushed them as far down as they would go. He lifted a hand and pointed. “She came from there.”

  Kaylin rose for the first time; Severn, however, remained seated. The boy was pointing at a building that looked, from this distance, to be one of the older buildings in the fief. It was stone, although the stone had cracked, and some of its corners had crumbled. There was a roof, although it looked much more recent than the walls. Windows—and it had windows—wore shutters that were warped and faded.

  “Can I go now?” the boy asked.

  Kaylin nodded. “Thank you. You’ve helped your Lord and Lady. Severn?”

  There weren’t a lot of buildings in the fiefs that were unoccupied. In Tiamaris, this was probably more true at the moment than in any other fief. If Kaylin had entertained the vague and hopeful notion that this building would be an exception, it was dashed pretty quickly. Like many of the oldest of buildings, it was set farther back from the street, although in this case, street was a charitable word for a mixture of stone and dirt with a lot of weeds thrown in.

  There had once been fencing, and the perimeter of the property had been defined by a wall or a demiwall. What remained was crumbled stone that stood at various heights, and rusty spots where fence posts had once resided. Beyond what had probably been the property line, the weeds were higher. There was a door, but it wasn’t much of a door, given that only two of three hinges seemed to actually be working; it had had a lock, but that had been removed or destroyed some time ago, as well. It creaked.

  “She was alive,” Kaylin said as she pushed the door inward.

  Severn nodded. He spoke a single word, and the crystal’s image immediately winked out. He slid the crystal into the pouch at his hip.

  “Do you think it was an illusion of some kind?”

  “I don’t see why anyone would bother.”

  Neither did Kaylin. On the other hand, Kaylin didn’t understand how there could be seven of her, either. Transformational magic did, in theory, exist, but in practice, she couldn’t immediately recall a case in which it had been relevant. Magic that transformed living creatures, on the other hand, was a magic best ascribed to gods. She was fairly certain that any less-than-divine mages who tried it would end up with corpses, regardless of their starting material.

  There were, as expected, families in the building. Walls of very dubious construction had been put in place some time ago; they weren’t original to the building. Kaylin sighed. “Shall we do this the old-fashioned way?”

  Severn nodded.

  No one who lived in the building—which is to say, no one who was actually brave enough to answer their door—had seen the woman in question. Kaylin was reasonably certain they were telling the truth, and any investigation of a more magical nature would have to wait for either Sanabalis or Tiamaris; she could sense no magic anywhere in the building. This wasn’t unusual for the fiefs.

  There was a basement as well as two stories. The basement was the last place they looked because even in the fiefs, people didn’t like to live in the dark. But there were people, or at least evidence of people, living in the dark here. They weren’t home or weren’t answering their door. The door was actually locked, and the lock was half-decent.

  Kaylin was torn. It wasn’t a
hard lock to pick, but she didn’t have many tools for that kind of work at the moment. On the other hand, she wasn’t the Law, here—a little bit of break and enter, if it wasn’t accompanied by theft or violence, wouldn’t cause paperwork or complaints.

  Severn didn’t think it was worthwhile. “Now that we know where it is, we can ask Tara to examine it at her leisure—and at a distance. I don’t think we’ll find anything.”

  Neither did Kaylin, which is why she didn’t insist.

  They made it back to the Tower ahead of the Dragons and the Avatar. Given the nature of the Tower, the doors weren’t locked. If they didn’t roll open on their own as she approached them, they did open with a little help.

  Kaylin and Severn made their way to the morgue, where Red was still working.

  One look at his expression made clear that he wasn’t finished. That, and he wasn’t entirely happy with the work in progress, not that happiness per se was ever something you expected to find while cutting into corpses.

  “What’s wrong?” Kaylin asked.

  “I’m going to need another set of scalpels,” he replied curtly. “Are you two done for the day?”

  “I am,” Kaylin said. “I’ve got another appointment I can’t afford to miss. Red, what is wrong? Do you know what killed her? Or them?”

  “No. I’m not sure anything I do will give us that information, either.”

  “Why?”

  Red hesitated. “I’ve done enough autopsy work on humans and Tha’alani to understand them; I can work my way around Aerians and Leontines. I’ve never touched a Barrani, but she’s not that—not externally. She looks more or less human to my eye.”

  “But?”

  “She’s not.”

  CHAPTER 12

  Kaylin and Severn exchanged a glance. “What is she, then?”

  “I’m not entirely certain. You said she passed a magical scan?”

  Kaylin nodded.

  Red heaved a louder than usual sigh, and stretched both arms. “I want record access,” he finally said.

  “I’m not sure Marcus’ll be happy about that. Ask Sanabalis when and if he gets back here.”

  “If?”

  “He doesn’t really like to spend much time in the Tower. I don’t know why. I can’t wait, though,” she added.

  “You’ve got a date?”

  “Yes. With a really arrogant Dragon Lord. I’ll trade,” she added.

  “No, thank you. You’ll just destroy the corpses.”

  Kaylin had spent enough time in the streets that she’d have to move quickly to make it to the Palace on time for her second encounter with Lord Diarmat. She tried to leave Severn in the Tower, but that was a lost cause.

  “I’m not going to pick a fight or lose my temper on the way to the Palace,” she grumbled as they walked quickly toward the bridge.

  “No. But you probably won’t eat before you hit the Palace, either.”

  “I don’t have time—”

  “Eat while you’re walking. Talk less.” He paused in front of a small stall and quickly purchased the food he meant for her to eat. She was hungry; it had been a long day, and there hadn’t been much of a lunch to break it. Sanabalis and Tiamaris hadn’t returned by the time she’d all but run out the front doors, which was bad; she had a couple of questions she wanted to ask them.

  They’d wait until tomorrow, assuming Diarmat didn’t turn her to ash, eat her, or throw her in the local dungeon for insubordination. Or breathing.

  Get a grip, Kaylin. He’s a teacher. You spent most of yesterday on the borders of the fief, while Shadows the size of a building tried to squash you flat. At the remove of a day, those Shadows were infinitely more appealing, and only in part because manners, etiquette, or their opinion of her made no difference at all. She had the option of dodging or dying; nothing she said when she opened her mouth was likely to change that.

  Whereas, with Diarmat, there was a small chance that something she said could change her whole future, for better or worse—except for the better part.

  Ugh. She’d spent so much of her life telling herself—and, more embarrassing, anyone else who would listen—that she didn’t care what other people thought of her. Her life—much of her life—had revolved around that belief, because she had believed it. She was good at her job.

  …At all the parts of her job that didn’t require her to be anything other than a half-educated kid from the fiefs.

  All right, you bastard. I’ll learn.

  “Kaylin?”

  She reddened slightly. “What?”

  “You’re cracking the cobbles.”

  “Very funny.” She could see the Palace a few blocks away. “Severn, how did you manage it?”

  “Manage what?”

  “How did you learn the manners and etiquette of the Imperial Court?”

  He shrugged. “To start with? I didn’t talk much.” He still didn’t. “I observed. I watched what other people were doing. I watched people react to each other. It’s not much different; the nobility use different words and gestures, but the intent’s the same.”

  “Intent?”

  “They’re politer when they threaten you. They don’t call in their thugs when they’re pissed off. They don’t throw a punch themselves, and they don’t pull weapons. But power matters. Once you get used to the way they talk, you can figure out what they would have said if they’d lived in the fiefs.” He shrugged, a fief shrug. “They’re not better or worse than fieflings. You’ve learned to speak Barrani; you can speak passable Leontine and Aerian. Consider the difference between Barrani and High Barrani.

  “The difference between Court Elantran and street Elantran is similar, but larger.”

  She thought about it for two seconds. “The big difference is that there isn’t anyone to observe but Diarmat. His guards don’t breathe when he’s there. No one speaks to him unless he speaks first.”

  “That’s still something. Until you have some feel for what he’s saying, say as little as possible, as politely as possible. Speak High Barrani exclusively. You don’t need to smile. You don’t need to be friendly. He doesn’t have to like you.”

  “He’s never going to like me.”

  “No, he isn’t. Give up on that. It’s easier. You don’t have to charm him. You don’t have to impress him. You just have to survive him.”

  “Can I ask for a small favor?”

  “How small?”

  “Take this home for me?” She handed him the sword.

  When Kaylin entered the very large room that she’d been escorted to the last time, she realized how much easier said than done that was. She also became acutely aware of just how much dirt and dust had accumulated on her clothing during the long day in the fief the minute she crossed the threshold.

  Diarmat was seated behind his desk at the far wall. He didn’t look up as she entered; he appeared to be engrossed in his writing. But this part of the drill, she knew. She walked briskly to his desk and stood in front of it, fighting the urge to lift her chin and expose her throat, since that didn’t seem to mean to Dragons what it meant to Leontines.

  There, as much at attention as she could force herself to be, she waited. And waited. And waited. She looked at a point just above his left shoulder and listened to the rhythmic sound of quill against paper. Even, deep breaths kept her calm. She understood this particular test; she’d learned how to pass it before she’d actually been inducted and taken the Imperial Oath. There was no way that Diarmat could make her fail this, and she took some comfort in that.

  If he kept her standing here for three hours, she could go home without disgracing herself. It would be a long three hours, but the consolation prize would be the tiny sense of victory she’d take with her.

  Clearly, Diarmat was aware of this.

  “Private Neya.”

  She looked down. “Lord Diarmat.”

  He rose and handed her an envelope. “Please deliver this to Lord Sanabalis.”

  She nodded sharply and tu
rned to head toward the door. He cleared his throat. It was a remarkably deep and unfriendly sound. “Lord Sanabalis is not currently within the Palace; deliver it to him on your own time.”

  “Lord Diarmat.” She slid the envelope into her shirt’s interior pocket, where it was just long enough it would bother her for the rest of the evening.

  He rose and came out from behind the desk. She stood her ground.

  “What,” he asked, in a cool voice, “is your business with the Emperor?”

  “Whatever he wants it to be.”

  The Dragon Lord raised a brow. His eyes were a shade of bronze, but Kaylin doubted she’d ever see gold in this particular face. “Elaborate.”

  “I have no personal reason to see the Emperor, Lord Diarmat. I have no personal desire to see the Emperor.”

  “You dislike him?”

  Oh, please. Kaylin almost resented the transparency of the question. Actually, she did resent it. She therefore kept her face as stiff as possible. If her words were a bit chilly, he probably wouldn’t notice. Or care. “The Emperor is the Commander of the Lords of Law. His laws are the only laws I enforce and follow.” Grinding her teeth, she took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled. “I don’t know the Emperor well enough to either like or dislike him, because it’s not relevant. I respect and admire his laws. The Lord of Hawks meets regularly with the Emperor, and any commands he receives, we receive. We don’t need to know more than that.”

  “Do you know why he created the Law you uphold?”

  “Yes, sir.” Damn. “Yes, Lord Diarmat.”

  “Where did you learn this?”

  “In the Halls of Law.”

  “You were not a noteworthy student in any positive sense of the word. Please elaborate what you feel you were taught.”

  This was the type of test Kaylin abhorred. Abhorrence warred with her desire to have a job that was also a duty, a responsibility, and a vocation. Desire won, but it was close; it had been a long day. She was certain Diarmat knew, word for damn word, what she’d been taught; the problem was, she didn’t. What she knew was now a blend of every other conversation, every other argument, and every other experience she’d had as a Hawk.

 
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