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Cast in ruin, p.21
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       Cast in Ruin, p.21

           Michelle Sagara
 

  Red then motioned the two Dragon Lords toward the slab. He ordered the mirror to change its orientation, which was just lazy, because he could have rotated it himself; the Dragons, however, studied the image in the mirror.

  They then studied the cut—the two cuts—that Red had made, watching as he pulled the skin back.

  Kaylin understood, then. She couldn’t figure out why it had taken her so long.

  “Yes,” Sanabalis said. “Your guess was correct. She is—or was—a Dragon.”

  Kaylin was the first person to speak, as she so often was, and the words that fell unplanned out of her mouth weren’t particularly bright. “But—that’s impossible. There’s no way—”

  “Oh?” Sanabalis said, proving that fiery breath and icy chill were not, in fact, incompatible.

  Tara turned to Kaylin. “Why?”

  “Dragons have scales. You’ve seen Tiamaris when he’s wearing them in his human form—it’s armor, and it’d blunt most swords produced in the Empire.”

  “Only by mortals,” she replied.

  “The scalpels Red’s using were created by mortals, Tara. And if it wasn’t easy, they did cut skin.”

  Tara tilted her head to one side. It was mimicry of a human gesture, and it was off. Before Tara could speak, Kaylin said, “Because it looks deliberate, Tara, and I’ll explain more later. Sanabalis will turn me to ash otherwise.”

  She frowned and then nodded. “It is true, though. There should be scales.” Her frown deepened, and she said what Kaylin was thinking. “Unless female Dragons have substantially different forms or physical rules?”

  “They don’t,” was Sanabalis’s curt reply. “I am sorry, Lord Tiamaris. We must either move the bodies, or bring the Arkon here; I do not think the portable mirror and its recall will prove satisfactory to him.”

  “Move them,” Kaylin said, thinking of Marcus and the general relief he’d feel to have this particular set of autopsies off-loaded to someone—anyone—else.

  “Bring him here,” Tiamaris said, at about the same time.

  They exchanged a glance. Sanabalis intervened. “Lord Tiamaris is correct, Private. The Arkon has had some small suspicion about the results of this autopsy, but matters within the Palace at the moment are such that he has not—that we have not—chosen to disturb the Emperor. Nor will we, unless the Arkon feels there is sufficient cause.”

  “Dead Dragons wouldn’t be sufficient cause?”

  “Ah, you mistake me. Yes, they would. But the objections you voiced are entirely reasonable, and without the Arkon’s aid, it is likely that they will not be addressed. The fiefs are not, as you are aware, part of the Empire. The Emperor does not control them and he does not claim them.

  “The bodies were discovered in the fief of Tiamaris. We have no idea whether similar bodies have appeared elsewhere, although some attempt to confirm or deny is being made. You,” he added, “are part of that attempt. We wish you to speak with Lord Nightshade at your earliest convenience.

  “In the meantime, we will send word—by mirror—to the Palace. The Arkon’s part in the other investigations is minimal.”

  “If the fiefs are outside of Imperial Law and control…”

  “You can’t even finish the thought. Yes, even if they are outside of his control, should our suspicion prove correct, the Emperor may feel a need to act upon this discovery.” He turned to Severn. “Corporal. Private. Please proceed from here to Nightshade. Gather what information you can, but be brief and to the point. I will return to the Imperial Palace and fetch the Arkon.”

  “I don’t understand why in the hells we can’t just have proper mirror access in the gods-cursed fiefs!”

  “At the rate you’re stamping along the streets, we won’t have much left of the roads in the fiefs, never mind mirrors.”

  “If we had mirror access I wouldn’t be in the streets.”

  “No. You’d be in the morgue with one disturbed Dragon, one extremely worried Red, and a completely silent and immobile Avatar. Oh, and seven identical corpses.”

  “That’s better than Nightshade.”

  “There’s no reason mirror access couldn’t be negotiated, but it would be a negotiation. I believe Tiamaris is considering it now—but it means allowing full access to Imperial mages, and not for an insignificant period of time.”

  Every so often, conversations like this were necessary to remind Kaylin that mages did, indeed, serve useful and necessary functions.

  “We’re only going to ask one question,” he reminded her.

  “It’s never just one question with Nightshade.”

  “Kaylin.” Severn stopped walking. “What are you so afraid of?”

  She lifted one hand to her cheek, and touched the mark there. It was easy to forget it existed on most days—but not on the ones that saw her heading into the fief of the Barrani who had placed it there. “I’m not afraid.” It was more or less true. But she was nervous. Nervous enough that thoughts of Nightshade displaced hunger or thirst and caused her hands to drop to her dagger hilts for simple comfort’s sake. Severn started to walk and she fell in beside him; they traveled a few blocks before she spoke again. “I don’t understand what he wants from me.”

  “Don’t you?”

  She shook her head. “I understand part of what I think he wants.”

  “Is it greatly different from part of what I want?”

  “Severn—”

  He lifted a hand. “Sorry, that was unfair and uncalled for.”

  “But it’s not—it’s not wrong. I understand that part. Sort of. Barrani aren’t generally interested in mortals. There are stories and legends, yes—but in reality? We’re brief, boring, timid lives that go by too quickly. We’re old before we’re fully interesting, and we’re never going to be beautiful or strong the way Barrani are. The only interest, historically speaking, that the Barrani have showed in mortals usually involves slavery or benign servitude; it frequently involves bizarre ritual murders. It seldom involves just…sex.

  “It’s not the Barrani who were crossing the bridges into Barren’s fief, after all.”

  “Nightshade’s interest is not that simple.”

  “No.”

  “And yours?”

  This was the question she had wanted to avoid. No, in truth, it was the question she had avoided. She didn’t lie to Severn; she ran away from him. But she could only run so far from herself. “I…I don’t know, Severn. I don’t know that I want to know. If I could, I’d avoid him. I avoid him as much as possible. But my life seems to lead to his castle, over and over again.

  “I’ve been a fieflord’s lapdog. And worse. I never want to be in that position again.”

  “It’s not the same.”

  “No,” she said, feeling hunted. “It’s not. I don’t know why—but it’s not.”

  “You’re not thirteen. You’re not helpless. You’re not alone. There are many, many reasons why it’s different.” He spoke calmly and softly, the way he usually did when she was upset—but she could feel the thread of his own unease twisting beneath the spoken words; it was the first bad thing giving him her name had exposed. She didn’t want it. She thought he might be either jealous or hurt, and—she didn’t want that.

  Which was strange, because she’d wanted to kill Severn for years, and that hadn’t bothered her at all.

  “Sometimes, when he’s close, I can’t breathe. I’m afraid, but it’s not just fear. But sometimes, Severn, sometimes—he’s just so far above me. There’s nothing I can do that’ll hurt him. Nothing I can do that can kill him or indirectly cause his death. He’s just impervious.”

  “You’ll never be responsible for him?”

  “How could I be? I don’t know what he’ll do, and even if I did, I couldn’t stop him. I can’t control him. I can’t even ask—” She shook her head. “Sometimes I think the reason he’s almost attractive is that. He’s untouchable.”

  “And I’m not.”

  She closed her eyes. Stubbed her toes.
Opened them again, biting back a curse. “No. You’re not. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want to be unable to save you.”

  “I can take care of myself, Kaylin.”

  “I know that. But I don’t know it. Not the same way.” She hesitated, and then added, “Is it stupid?”

  “To be attracted to someone because he can’t be harmed?”

  She nodded.

  “I don’t know. And given the number of bets you lose, stupidity probably doesn’t matter.”

  “The thing is, he’s not Barren. What he wants—it’s complicated, but it’s not what Barren wanted. Barren wanted power over me. He wanted me to know how little power I had. Nightshade wants power. He even wants my power, I think. But not like that.”

  “Do you think he loves you?”

  “What does that mean to a Barrani? I’m not even sure they have a native word for it.” Aware that more was wanted, she added, “No. I’m certain he doesn’t.”

  The border between Tiamaris and Nightshade was invisible; all the fief borders, as far as Kaylin knew—and that was only two fiefs’ worth at the moment—were. But crossing borders was strictly forbidden on either side of the boundary that only residents clearly knew or understood. For that reason, they took the long way—crossing the Ablayne into the City proper and walking the length of the road that followed it until they reached another bridge.

  That bridge led to Nightshade, and unlike the crossing to Tiamaris it was deserted, as it had almost always been. Kaylin stopped at its height and gazed into the river running beneath it. The sound of water against either bank was like a muted, continuous whisper; as a child, she had thought it a language of its own. Once conquered, she could understand the secrets of living a happy life, because a happy life was guaranteed to anyone who made it to the other side.

  So much for the dreams of childhood.

  “I’m sorry,” she said to Severn without looking away from the water.

  “For what?”

  “I can talk to Nightshade from a distance, but I…I hate it. I don’t do it unless it’s an emergency. It just feels…wrong.”

  “Kaylin.” He caught her face in his hands and turned it toward him. “Believe that you never need to apologize for that.” His smile was gentle, its edges softened by something that almost felt like relief. His hands were warm and callused, his face scarred in ways Nightshade’s would never be. He gave her five more minutes before he let her go.

  CHAPTER 14

  The streets of Nightshade really hadn’t changed much, but the lack of change drove home just how much the streets of Tiamaris had. There were no carpenters here, and no wagons; the roaming groups of would-be thugs were both common and undirected. It had never occurred to Kaylin, while begging and stealing scraps of food in these streets, to wonder how it was that anyone survived in them. In Tiamaris, the thugs were either dead or now served Tiamaris, and the terms of his service usually meant they were the unofficial guards of construction sites.

  Some construction was done in Nightshade, often by people who lived in the buildings that lined the streets, but it was repair work, and generally shoddy. Peeling paint, cracked boarding, warped shutters—these were streetside adornments. Through some of those warped shutters, people watched as Severn and Kaylin walked toward the castle that most of the residents avoided. Kaylin had once been one of those people; she wondered if they were children.

  But children did play, both in Nightshade and in Tiamaris. In Tiamaris, however, they didn’t avoid the Tower. They never avoided Tara. They did avoid the Norannir, but hopefully time would change that. Time, Kaylin thought, or a better grasp on the part of the newcomers of appropriate weaponry. Still, Tara took pains to make clear that the Norannir were dying on the borders in order to defend the fief, and Kaylin thought Tara’s words would carry weight.

  She hoped they would.

  Nightshade knew she was coming; she felt his presence as she approached the Castle, and was certain that he’d been aware of hers for longer—probably the moment she crossed the Ablayne and stepped across his border.

  “Heads up,” Severn said quietly as they approached.

  She smiled; she could see Lord Andellen waiting for them a few yards from the fake portcullis. Her smile froze when he bowed. It wasn’t a bow that she could execute in that much armor if she didn’t want to topple into the person before whom she was bowing. He rose before she could say as much.

  “Lord Kaylin,” he said, voice grave. His visor rose over emerald eyes that had a little too much blue in them to indicate happiness. “Lord Nightshade will join you shortly.”

  “I can enter the portcullis,” she replied. “The danger’s been contained.”

  “I merely follow my Lord’s orders.”

  She grimaced. It wasn’t that she was eager to cross the Castle threshold; she wasn’t. The portcullis always landed her on her knees, and she always had to fight the horrible nausea that accompanied its passage. But there were some conversations she didn’t want to have in the open street, and the back door into the Castle involved a long drop into an unused well.

  “We’ve heard of the difficulties facing Lord Tiamaris,” Andellen said as Kaylin more or less shuffled her feet. She stopped.

  “From who?”

  It wasn’t a question that Andellen would answer. Fair enough; she was the one who had come, like a beggar, for information. “Tiamaris has a few difficulties. Some of them—the introduction of a few thousand foreigners—are mostly under control.”

  “The border?”

  “It’s solid. What’s attempting to break the barrier is pretty damn solid, too—but so far, the Tower is winning.” She hesitated for a moment and then added, “The storms are bad, though.”

  “Have they been markedly worse since the introduction of your foreigners?”

  “They’re not my foreigners.”

  “Ah.”

  “It is a figure of speech that can surely be forgiven,” a new voice said. A new, familiar voice. Lord Nightshade, in perfect silence, had arrived through the portcullis. Unlike Andellen, he wore no armor; he wore dark robes and a long cape that was the same night black of his hair. His eyes were a mix of green and blue, and even at this distance, Kaylin had the distinctly uncomfortable impression that she could see her reflection in them.

  But he nodded to Severn. “Corporal Handred.”

  Severn nodded—a bit stiffly—back. “Lord Nightshade.”

  “You have a personal interest in the fief of Tiamaris, do you not?” the Lord of Nightshade asked, as if his greeting, once offered, could be entirely discarded.

  Kaylin stopped herself from shrugging. “I do.”

  “It is interesting. I have watched the borders with care since Lord Tiamaris took the Tower. He appears to be building.”

  “He’s been building.”

  “To what end?”

  “He wants a different fief than the one occupied by either Illien or Barren. Not more, not less.”

  “He has, if rumor is true, cut off the source of most of Barren’s previous wealth.”

  “It’s true.”

  “What, then, does he do to fund his…reconstruction?”

  “You can ask him. I’m not an accountant.”

  Nightshade’s eyes shaded to a more definite blue. It distanced him. She wanted that. “I had not expected Lord Tiamaris to show such an unnatural concern for mortals.”

  Kaylin bridled, but managed to say nothing. Not that it mattered; Nightshade generally knew what she was thinking. Then again, so did Diarmat, and he gave her points for strict adherence to the forms of protocol. It was, she told herself grimly, good practice.

  “The borders of Tiamaris are not the only borders to see an increase of activity. Yet they are the only borders to face such a proliferation of Shadowstorm. Do you—or does Lord Tiamaris—have any opinion as to why?”

  “No.”

  “And that is not why you have come.”

  “No. It pr
obably should be,” she added.

  He raised a brow, no more. “Come,” he finally said. “I will escort you through the portal. I have wine and sweet water, if you will take either, and some refreshments have been prepared.”

  By “escort,” Nightshade meant carry. It should have been more uncomfortable; Severn wasn’t happy with it. But while Kaylin was in his arms, the portal became a dark passage, no more, no less; Nightshade made himself a barrier through which the worst of the portal’s magical effects appeared to be too terrified to pass.

  It is not the portal, he told her, but the Castle; I am its Lord. I control it when I so choose.

  They exited the portal in the foyer, as they always did. It was almost obscenely brilliant, and if she felt no nausea and none of the usual disorientation, she still had to close her eyes. Nightshade, taking little notice of her weight—and even less of her dignity—continued to move. She opened her eyes as quickly as possible, and asked him to put her down.

  He did, and he did it gracefully. He then led them to the room in which he often entertained Kaylin; she assumed it was where he entertained any other guests he didn’t intend to torture to death as an example for the rest of the fief. She held on to that thought as if her life depended on it.

  “Welcome,” Nightshade said, “to my Castle. Corporal, Private, please take a seat and make yourselves comfortable.”

  Food had been arranged in the usual artful, sparse way on several small dishes that ran the length of the low table. Kaylin sunk into the long couch. Severn hesitated for a minute and then joined her. Nightshade waited until they were as settled as they were going to be before he also sat.

  “Kaylin, when you faced the Devourer, or perhaps directly afterward, you were in the streets. Did you understand the singular nature of what you witnessed?”

  Thinking of streets packed with near-giants, all bristling with completely practical weaponry—if one happened to be that large—she nodded.

  He raised a brow. “The foreigners were, I admit, unusual, but it was not of their arrival that I spoke. It was of the flight of the Dragon Court, absent only the Emperor and the Arkon.”

 
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