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Cast in ruin, p.22
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       Cast in Ruin, p.22

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “Oh. That. Yes, I saw it.” She could still see it if she closed her eyes and concentrated, although the image was growing fuzzy. What remained in memory in a way that time couldn’t dislodge was the sound of their voices, the trumpeting roar of defiance or anger or—something.

  “Were you aware of the reason for their flight?”

  Frowning, she nodded. “Something rose from the fiefs.”

  “From the heart of the fiefs, Kaylin.”

  “I saw it. It looked like smoke or shadow.”

  “You heard it. What did it sound like to you?”

  She closed her eyes. “Roaring.”

  “Yes.”

  “…Dragon’s roar.”

  “Yes, I believe so. I heard it,” he added quietly. “And Meliannos, my sword, heard it, as well. It was the voice of the Outcaste Dragon.”

  “It wasn’t.” Kaylin had heard the Outcaste. She’d almost been flattened into bone paste by him. She knew his voice. “It was.”

  “I’m telling you it couldn’t have been. You’ve seen him. You’ve fought him. He was a Dragon.”

  “And I am telling you that Meliannos recognized his voice. It was the Outcaste.” He reached for the crystal decanter in which a dark, burgundy wine was airing. From it, he poured a few ounces into each of three crystal glasses. He offered them to Kaylin and Severn. Kaylin took one almost absently; Severn accepted one, but set it on the table untouched.

  “How could he be Shadow? He’s alive. I’d bet everything I own, he’s alive. He’s not like the undying immortals, if the Dragons have ever had those.”

  “He exists in the heart of the fief. He does not own it; he does not rule it.”

  “How can you be so certain?”

  “The same way I was certain that Barren was not the Lord of his Tower. There is only one name that comes across the border, and it is Ravellon. If the Outcaste finds some method of holding the fief’s heart as his own, it is not that name I will hear.”

  “But he—”

  “Yes. He has already beguiled Shadow in some fashion; it is clear now that Shadow has also beguiled him. They are joined; I cannot clearly see how. But perhaps that is not why you chose to pay this visit?”

  She crushed the irritation the question produced as quickly as she could. “No, it’s not.” She hated people who insisted on asking questions when they already knew the answer.

  “And the question?”

  “In the past week, several corpses have appeared in Tiamaris.”

  “Given the activity along your borders, that is not surprising.”

  “The corpses didn’t appear along the border—if they had, they’d be less alarming. Not less suspicious, on the other hand. These bodies appeared throughout the fief, and I’m here to ask if you’ve made similar discoveries.”

  “People have died in the fief within the last week,” was the noncommittal reply.

  Kaylin turned to Severn; Severn nodded and pulled the memory crystal out of his pouch. He set it in the curve of his palm and spoke the activating words. The image flowered instantly within the confines of the room, and as it did, it leeched light from everything else. Kaylin, who’d watched the image for hours the previous day, didn’t remember that particular effect.

  Nightshade’s eyes were now an almost royal blue, although Kaylin thought that was an artifact of shadow, not mood. “Who,” the fieflord said after long moments in which he looked at nothing else, “is this?”

  “We don’t know.”

  “And it is her corpse that you found?”

  “It’s her corpse that was found, yes. Seven times.”

  Severn set the crystal in the center of the table, carefully rearranging the dishes that had been laid out first. “Do you recognize her?” he asked.

  “I? No. Not precisely.”

  “Have you found a similar corpse?”

  Nightshade was silent for a long moment, at the end of which he answered. “No. Is she mortal?”

  “An odd question.” Severn glanced at Kaylin, and handed the rest of the conversation off to her.

  “We assumed she was, initially.”

  “How did she die?”

  “We’re uncertain. The bodies are being examined now.” After a pause, Kaylin added, “I don’t think we’re going to get any answers from that examination, though.”

  Nightshade leaned forward. Lifting his hand, he reached out; his palm stopped an inch from the image’s face. “Her style of dress is unusual.”

  “Not as unusual as the fact there are—or were—seven of her.”

  “Agreed.” He lifted his glass and looked through the dark wine. “What do you suspect, Kaylin?”

  “I don’t know. But there’s a possibility that she is—and is not—a Dragon.”

  She’d surprised him. Nightshade didn’t particularly like to be surprised. “This is why Tiamaris sent you?”

  “This is why I chose to come here, yes.”

  “Kaylin, I cannot play games with words for the whole of the day. Tell me what you know and what you suspect.”

  “If there are none of her corpses in this fief, it’s not relevant.”

  His eyes flashed blue. “And you will absent yourself entirely from the fief of Tiamaris until any present danger is past?”

  “No.”

  “Then it is not irrelevant.” He walked around the table, examining the image. “Seven corpses appeared.”

  “Yes. There’s some reason to suspect that they didn’t arrive in the fief as corpses, but they didn’t survive for long.”

  His eyes widened; that much surprise he couldn’t conceal. Turning, he said, “Where and when? You told me the borders of Tiamaris are secure.”

  “They are now. But during the end of Barren’s crumbling reign, they weren’t. I think there’s some chance that there were small, localized Shadowstorms in the actual streets of the fief, not beyond its border. There are certainly storms beyond its border now.”

  “And you think the storms are responsible for the corpses?”

  “I can’t think of anything else that would be. The corpses don’t radiate magic, and they would if they’d been transformed after death. If they’d somehow been transformed before death, I don’t think they’d radiate magic—but I do think they’d be tainted with very detectable Shadow.”

  “Shadow?”

  “There’s no magic I know of offhand that can entirely transform a living body. None except Shadow. Tara would know if that had happened. A dead body’s been transformed in small ways before, but that leaves visible traces, regardless.”

  “Are you so certain that this is as true of Dragon bodies as it is of mortal ones?”

  She hadn’t mentioned Dragon corpses. “No. Would it be true of Barrani corpses?”

  “…No. Do not pursue that avenue of questioning any further. It is irrelevant if, as you claim, the victim arrived alive and died shortly thereafter; it was not her corpse that was transformed.”

  “Do you think the Shadowstorms behind the barriers and the storms that escaped into the fief are related?”

  “Kaylin, it may come as a surprise to you, but my familiarity with the effects of storms is of necessity scant. I cannot answer the question, even to surmise. I will, however, say this: if she is recognized in some fashion as a Dragon by the Dragons, there will be difficulties.” He frowned. “That sword.”

  She glanced at the scabbard. “Yes?”

  “It is not your usual weaponry.”

  “No. It’s—it’s new.”

  “May I examine it?”

  “No.” She really, really did not want to have to force the sword into the scabbard a second time.

  “The scabbard?”

  Damn it. “The scabbard came from Evanton. The Keeper. The sword came from the heart of the fiefs. It was the weapon wielded by the man whose name I now hold.”

  “Not even you could be foolish enough to take a weapon from the heart of the fiefs.” The words were flat and cold. They also contained a thre
ad of very strong doubt.

  “The sword didn’t come from the heart of the fiefs originally; it was carried there by a man who was possessed by the Shadows. In his world.”

  “Corporal, I believe the crystal can be deactivated,” the fieflord said as he took a seat and poured himself another glass of wine. This he drank as if it were water. “Private, please explain what exactly you mean by the phrase ‘his world.’”

  “I think—and there’s some minor translational difficulty—that the man who carried this sword, the man whose name I now hold, originally came from the same world as the rest of the Norannir—which is what we’re now calling the refugees. They either recognized him or recognized what he’s supposed to be.”

  “He traveled with them?”

  “No. He was lost to Shadows during their war in their own lands.”

  “Yet he is here now and this did not alarm you?”

  “It didn’t overly alarm anyone else.”

  “By anyone, I assume you refer to the Dragons.”

  She thought about this; it hadn’t alarmed Severn or Morse, either, but she knew Nightshade wouldn’t consider this significant. “Yes, I mean the Dragons. And the Tower.”

  “The Dragons may well be viscerally preoccupied with your investigation.”

  “We know there are other worlds.”

  “Yes.”

  “We suspect that Ravellon is the place where those worlds overlap.”

  “Yes, you suspect that.”

  “…That seemed to explain his presence.”

  “At this time? After the traveler found this particular world for his people? After the challenge issued by the Outcaste and answered in full fury by the Dragon Court?” All traces of the usual possessiveness that underlaid his communications with Kaylin had momentarily vanished. He turned to Severn and said, “Corporal, if you would, I would hear your thoughts on this matter.”

  Severn was silent. He intended to let Kaylin speak. Either that or he was disinclined to aid Nightshade; it was hard to tell. Kaylin, however, didn’t speak. She was—and was surprised to be—angry. At herself, certainly, because Nightshade was right. At Nightshade because, well, he was right. She wondered if his eyes would ever be emerald again. It was a stray thought.

  Wine was once again poured; Nightshade didn’t bother to offer any of it to either of the Hawks because neither of them had touched theirs. “Let me ask you an entirely different question, then. Where—and by whom—was the sword you now carry made?”

  “I—I don’t know.”

  “I suggest, if possible, you attempt to find an answer to that question. It may be relevant to many of your investigations.” He lifted a hand to his eyes. “While I have never been as…ambitious as Lord Tiamaris, there is work that my fief requires. I will ask you now to pay careful attention to two things. The Dragons and the sword.”

  “The man who carried the sword?”

  “Because he is a source of information, he, too, is to be watched.”

  Kaylin rose. “Lord Nightshade,” she said, matching his use of “Private.” “I wish to ask one question.”

  “I am not inclined to either stop you or answer.”

  She asked anyway. “How do I release a name?”

  “How do you forget speech? How do you forget how to breathe?” His brows had once again lifted, but only slightly. “There is only one certain way that I am aware of, Private. It involves your death. Or his.”

  So not the answer she wanted.

  “We do not, however, always get what we desire—if indeed such a trivial impulse can truly be classified as desire.” He set his empty glass down on the table. “And yes, I am not being entirely truthful; I have no idea how you contain the name, but you do; there is therefore a possibility that you could release it. I could not. No more could the Dragons.

  “In return for the information I have provided, I will ask one favor. I have information for your Sergeant Kassan, which I will trouble myself to deliver in person. It is consequential in one of the investigations which you find so troubling—and in which you are not currently involved.”

  “Which investigation, exactly?” Kaylin asked, although she had a sinking feeling that implied her subconscious, at least, already knew the answer.

  “There is, if my information is correct, some difficulty with the Imperial Exchequer?”

  Damn it.

  “The information I provide, however, comes at a cost.”

  “And that cost?”

  “I wish you to travel to the West March.”

  “P-pardon?”

  “With me.”

  “But you can’t travel to the West March—you’re Outcaste, or have you forgotten?”

  “It will require a leave of absence on your part. The Sergeant, or perhaps the Lord of Hawks, will grant it, or I have nothing to offer them.”

  Nightshade was annoyed enough that Kaylin was left to find her own way out of his Castle, which meant about twenty minutes of wobbling legs and intermittent nausea. Severn accommodated her by walking slowly until she’d fully recovered.

  “I don’t like it,” he said. Since that was pretty much a given, Kaylin nodded. “Why the West March?”

  “I have no idea. Well, not a good one.”

  “And the bad one?”

  “He once said something about the stories told in the West March. They’re not stories like ours—they’re like the stories told to the Leontines at the dawn of their creation.”

  “And he wants you to hear them.”

  “Looks like.” She was particularly grateful that she’d been too tense to eat. “We’re heading back to Tiamaris.”

  Severn nodded.

  “What do you think Marcus’ll do?”

  “Need a new desk.”

  She chuckled, even if she’d be the one who was responsible for the desk’s purchase. “Beyond that?”

  “He’ll take it to the Hawklord. The Hawklord will agree; if the information isn’t useful at all, he’ll ignore his agreement.”

  “So I’m to pray for useless information?”

  It was Severn’s turn to shrug. “The investigation is going badly enough a solid lead would be worth the absence of one Hawk. If the lead comes from Nightshade, it’s a sure bet there are Arcanists involved.”

  “Not necessarily. Nightshade gets a lot of the same traffic Barren used to get; all we can say for certain is members of the Human Caste Court are involved.”

  “Betting?”

  “…No.”

  He laughed. It was not one of his happier laughs. “Don’t ask me what to pray for. Don’t,” he added, “ask me what I’m praying for, either.”

  “I’m personally looking at the very near future,” she offered. “And I’m praying that the Arkon was too damn busy to haul his ass to the fiefs.”

  Gods sucked.

  Morse—and only Morse—met them at the Tower’s open doors. “We’ve got another Dragon here,” she said the minute Kaylin entered the foyer.

  “What color were his eyes?”

  “Before or after?”

  “Now.”

  “Now? Pretty close to red.”

  “Did Tara tell him we’ve arrived?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  “Good. Can you take us to where Maggaron is staying?”

  “Instead of the morgue?”

  Kaylin nodded. “We’ll hit the morgue right after we’ve finished speaking with him.”

  “Good. I’ll stay with you two.”

  Maggaron’s door was closed; it was not, however, locked. It opened into rooms that looked larger than Kaylin remembered them being the first time she’d seen them. That, on the other hand, wasn’t unexpected for a Tower.

  He wasn’t sleeping. Instead, he was sitting in a chair that faced the room’s tall, long window, looking out. If he heard the door open—and since he’d failed to hear the loud knocking that preceded it, Kaylin wasn’t certain he had—it wasn’t obvious.

  “Maggaron.” He didn’t mov
e. He might have been carved of stone; she couldn’t clearly see any indication that he was breathing. She approached the chair he sat in and then glanced out the window. There, she froze. She heard Severn call her name, but it was a faint, attenuated sound; it belonged in a different world.

  It certainly didn’t belong in the world the window now exposed. For one, the sky was the wrong shade. It was blue, but the blue seemed too purple. Even if the blue had been the right color, the ground beneath it lacked streets. It lacked all but a single building, and that building was in the far distance, surrounded by trees and the distant glint of sunlight on water. Flags were flying at the building’s odd height, but they were far enough away that they were anonymous.

  “Is this your world?” she asked him. They were the first words she’d spoken that evoked any response.

  “It was. But this window—it’s a window into the past. It is not a window into anything that can be reached now.” He lifted his head. His hair was no longer braided; it fell down his shoulders, thinning at the ends, in a rich, tangled brown. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten for days; his eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow.

  “Maggaron, I don’t intend for you to die here.”

  “Does it matter where I die?” His voice was soft and almost uninflected; it was shorn of hope, and it made acceptance something reached only at the end of all endurance. Because she recognized it, she flinched.

  “It matters to me.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know. Does there have to be a reason?”

  “If there were a reason, I would hold on to it with what little life I have left.” His glance went back to the window. “This is not what your world looks like.”

  “Not mine, no. Mine is made of buildings and cobbled streets and people of different races. And crime. A lot of crime.” She placed one hand on his left shoulder. “Maggaron, I need to ask a question.”

  “Ask. If you command it, I will answer.”

  “Can we just skip the command?”

  “It depends on the question.”

  “It’s about the sword.”

  “Has she spoken to you at all?”

  “No.”

 
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