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Cast in ruin, p.23
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       Cast in Ruin, p.23

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “Then she has not accepted you, Chosen.” Although the words were neutral, a tiny thread of happiness ran through them. Kaylin wasn’t certain how to answer that, and decided not to bother.

  “I need to ask you who made this sword. And how they made it.”

  “It is one of the swords that define the Ascendants,” Maggaron replied. It wasn’t an answer. She felt his indecision, and she lowered herself to the ground—not to kneel, but to sit. Her knees she gathered beneath her chin as she moved to face him.

  “I’m never going to be an Ascendant,” Kaylin told him. “I only want to be an Imperial Hawk. That’s it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I don’t consider myself the wielder of the sword; I consider myself its—its guardian. Its keeper.”

  “For what, or for whom, will you keep it?”

  There wasn’t a good answer to that question. “I don’t know. I don’t know enough about the sword. Tell me what you know. Or tell me what you were told.”

  “I cannot, unless you compel. There are mysteries that I cannot reveal.”

  This was the answer she expected. She knew she could force him to answer. She also knew that short of that, he wouldn’t. “Tell me what any of your people would know, then.”

  “Chosen, I cannot separate what I know from what an outsider knows—not anymore. If you cannot bear to command me, speak with Mejrah, the elder. She will tell you what any exceptionally promising child is told before he leaves on the pilgrimage of a candidate for ascendancy.”

  Kaylin looked to Severn. Severn nodded. “We should have the time.”

  “If I could release you, I would,” Kaylin told him.

  “If you could release me,” he replied, “I would test the very bounds of my nature; I would try to die, here, where the Shadows cannot call me.”

  She rose and headed toward Severn, Morse, and the door. But in the door frame, she turned for one last glance out the window; his reflection, pale and ghostly, looked back.

  “You should just put him out of his misery,” Morse said, but only after the door was firmly shut. Morse had never had a lot of patience with despair. “He sits around the room all day—when he isn’t sleeping. Makes me want to kick his ass.”

  “Sitting around in the room all day means he’s one less thing I have to worry about—or did you forget what he looked like when the Shadows had a grip on him?” Kaylin said.

  Morse shrugged. “Morgue?”

  “Sadly, yes.”

  The door of the morgue opened before Morse could touch it. While Kaylin appreciated this far more than traditional door wards, she still found it slightly creepy, and given the contents of the room, a little time spent opening the door meant a few seconds less time in the company of angry Dragons, which was never a bad thing.

  No sound escaped into the hall. “Are they still there?” Kaylin whispered.

  “Yeah.” Morse entered the room. Kaylin and Severn had little choice but to follow her lead; cowardice was one thing, but obvious cowardice was quite another. The first thing Kaylin noticed was Red. He was sitting in an armchair that looked entirely at odds with the rest of the morgue’s decor; it had a high, tall back that gleamed. His arms lay against the arm-rests, and he’d gotten rid of the smock in which he normally worked.

  She started toward him, caught his expression, and stopped.

  Turning, she noted the rest of the room. The seven corpses were now covered, head to toe; nothing could be seen, not even the women’s hair. Standing between the two large tables that served as almost communal slabs were the Dragons: Tiamaris, Sanabalis, and the Arkon. Tara was nowhere in sight. The color of the Dragons’ eyes was, as Morse had reported, Not Good.

  Six orange eyes now turned toward her. “Private,” the Arkon said. If he’d said it in Leontine, it would have sounded like a curse.

  She folded in the middle immediately. “Arkon.” She didn’t even bother to look up from the very uninteresting floor, boring being preferable to painful. He didn’t tell her to rise.

  “Did you speak with Lord Nightshade?”

  “Yes, Arkon.”

  “And?”

  “No similar corpses were found in the fief of Nightshade.”

  “He is certain?”

  “We showed him the contents of the memory crystal you prepared, Arkon.”

  “Good. Stand up,” he added, growling. “And do not test my patience in this fashion again. You may play these games with Lord Diarmat. He has had centuries of training humans, and obviously has the tolerance for it.”

  If she’d opened her mouth, she would have choked on her tongue. She did, however, rise. The Arkon was no longer looking at her, and she was now looking at the back of his robes. She could see Tiamaris and Sanabalis because they were more or less facing her. They weren’t stupid; they were looking at the Arkon.

  “You have no contacts in the other fiefs?”

  “No, Arkon.”

  “I dislike making assumptions on so little information.”

  “Yes, Arkon.”

  “Sanabalis?”

  Sanabalis cleared his throat. The sound was pure Dragon. Kaylin had the very sick feeling that Dragon conversation was about to erupt, but she kept her hands dutifully by her sides. “Inasmuch as it is safe to make any assumptions in the fiefs, I feel it is safe to make this one. The corpses appeared in Tiamaris, and only in Tiamaris.”

  “An artifact of the crumbling barriers?”

  Tiamaris nodded. “That is Tara’s suspicion. She has marked, in as much detail as possible, the locations of the storms that escaped the boundaries during the end of Barren’s reign. There is no immediate correlation between those locations and the locations at which the corpses were found, but if the…women…emerged alive and died after the fact, that would make some sense.”

  The Arkon broke a bit of stone off one of the slabs, and proceeded to crumble it into fine powder. Kaylin couldn’t see his expression, and was grateful. “There is no doubt,” he finally said. “The internal organs are exactly what we would expect if the victim was a genuine Dragon.

  “The skin was thicker than mortal skin, with the possible exception of Leontines in their prime, but there are no internal scales, nothing to indicate that scales could have once existed. I dislike it intensely. Yes, Private?”

  “It’s—it’s nothing, Arkon.”

  He turned. Kaylin was surprised the floor beneath his feet didn’t crack; she was also surprised it wasn’t blackened, charred, or molten. “Perhaps I did not indicate how severe my lack of patience is. If you have a comment or a question, I am willing to hear it. Barely.”

  “All of the members of the Dragon Court I’ve met look distinctly individual when in their mortal forms. Can that be altered?”

  “Our mortal appearances? Yes. Not with ease, and not without cause, but, yes. We gravitate toward specific experiences naturally, however; color of hair, shape of face, height.”

  “So…it’s possible that these could, in fact, be seven different corpses?”

  “They are clearly seven distinct corpses.” His voice was Winter, a reminder that people froze to death just by being outside.

  “I mean they could, when alive, have been seven distinct Dragons.”

  The Arkon’s silence was chillier than his words.

  Sanabalis, however, answered. “It is possible.” Kaylin seldom heard such a lukewarm acknowledgment of possibility, and filed this as a No.

  “Is there any evidence that she ever had scales?”

  The Arkon exhaled smoke with a bit of fire in it. “Not,” he finally said, “according to your coroner. The coroner, of course, has no actual experience dissecting Dragons; it is possible that he is incorrect.”

  “Possible,” Tiamaris said quietly, “but doubtful.”

  “Then…what does this mean? Do you think she came from the heart of the fiefs?”

  “We do not have any metric for predicting what Shadowstorms will do,” Tiamaris said before the Arkon could exhale again. “You know, or sho
uld know, this. We have no method of determining how she arrived or from where she traveled.”

  Kaylin’s frown deepened. She opened her mouth to ask another question, and then snapped it shut as she felt Severn tug at her. It wasn’t a physical tug; it was far more personal. But he was worried for her, and he wanted her to stop Right Now.

  Kaylin edged her way across the floor to where Red sat. Lowering her voice as much as possible, she said, “You’re done here?”

  He nodded; his hands on the armrest tightened. She’d seen Red examine corpses that would have made anyone with a shred of sanity run screaming from the room, and he did it without working up a sweat; this was the first time she’d seen him this disturbed. Turning to where the Dragons stood, she said, “Arkon, may we escort the coroner back to the Halls of Law? We’ve an entirely unrelated message to pass on to the Lord of Hawks from Nightshade.”

  “You may. The bodies will remain in Tiamaris. No formal report of the work done here is to be entered into Records at the Halls of Law; to that end, we will retain the coroner’s personal mirror. No verbal report is to be tendered to either the Lord of Hawks or the Sergeant.”

  Red nodded. Kaylin winced, but nodded, as well. She could just imagine how happy that was going to make Marcus. The Hawklord was always more resigned when it came to random Imperial Fiat. Then again, the Hawklord actually spoke with the Emperor, something Marcus had never done, to Kaylin’s knowledge. On the other hand, she’d never seriously asked.

  “And you, Private, are to return to the fief when you have finished your errand.”

  “Yes, Arkon.”

  CHAPTER 15

  When they were well away from the Tower, Kaylin turned to Red. “How bad was it?”

  “I think my hearing is slowly returning.”

  She winced. “I didn’t even feel the shouting.”

  “Pardon?”

  “When the Dragon Court is having an argument, it shakes the whole damn Palace.”

  “I guess the Tower is better constructed.” Red fell silent. He carried his bag as if it had gained ten pounds over the course of the day.

  “Red, can I ask a question?”

  “I don’t know. Lord Tiamaris said the Tower can listen in on any conversation that occurs in the fief—are you going to ask a question that’s not safe for me to answer?”

  “Given the Arkon’s current mood, ‘Would you like something to drink’ would probably be punishable by death.”

  “Then, no. No questions.”

  “Red?”

  He sighed. “Kitling,” he began, never a good sign, “you’ve had more exposure to Dragons than anyone in the Halls except the Lords, and possibly, the Barrani. Maybe you’re used to them; I’m not. I don’t think I could do an autopsy today without making a mess of the corpse. I’m still shaking. I want to go back to the office and deal with normal crimes, normal bodies, and even a very pissed-off Sergeant.” He grimaced as a little color returned to his face. “Scratch the last one.”

  “That’s probably the only thing you can count on.”

  He even dredged up a chuckle. “What was the question?”

  “Did you get any sense from the angry Dragons that it was possible to separate a Dragon’s mortal form from its Draconic one?”

  “Kitling.” Again with the diminutive. “Stay away from this one. Trust me. You don’t want to get any more involved than you currently are.” Because she was waiting, he added, “Half their conversation was conducted in Dragon, and I didn’t understand a word. After a few sentences, it didn’t matter; I don’t think I could hear anything else.”

  Red accompanied Kaylin into the office, something he didn’t normally do. This caused a bit of a stir, but only in the parts of the office nearest Marcus’s desk; the other parts were busy—or chatty—enough not to have noticed. Caitlin, however, looked up. “Red.”

  He stopped by her desk. Kaylin and Severn paused, as well, although Marcus was clearly aware of their return.

  “Is your work in the fiefs done?” Caitlin asked when Red failed to find even pleasant nothings to say.

  “Unless the Dragons say otherwise, it is. Unfortunately, the Dragons have decided that the work I’ve done is to remain entirely off the record, and out of any reports.”

  “Meaning you won’t be filing one.”

  “Correct,” Red replied, dropping his bag and folding his arms across his chest. “But I still expect to get paid.”

  Kaylin’s brows rose a fraction. “Does that work?” she asked him.

  “It had better.” To Caitlin, he said, “Do you want me to deliver that happy bit of news to Sergeant Kassan, or can I pull a runner and leave it in your hands?”

  “Leave it in my hands, dear. You look like you’re in definite need of lunch.”

  “Lunch won’t be necessary,” said the coroner, who was famed throughout all three branches of the Halls of Law for his iron stomach. “I think I’ll have an appetite somewhere around dinner. Were there any emergencies?”

  “Not more than the usual.”

  “Good. I’ll be in my office if Marcus wants to frustrate himself in person.”

  Marcus was not in a good mood. The Sergeant—and any casually working Barrani—had of course heard every word that Red had spoken to Caitlin. His eyes had shaded from gold to bronze by the time Kaylin and Severn had pushed off from Caitlin’s desk and approached his.

  “Why,” he growled, “are you here?”

  “We escorted Red out of the fiefs, sir.”

  “And now he’s back. Is Sanabalis finished with you?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Then get lost; some of us are busy.”

  Kaylin cleared her throat and lifted her chin. Marcus gouged a deeper runnel into the surface of his desk. Red was right—he was in bad need of a new one; it was a wonder the claws hadn’t gone through the desktop by now. Kaylin mentally added buying another inexpensive desk to the list of things she had to do Right Now.

  “Private.”

  “Sir.”

  “Why are you still here?”

  She thought about retreating without mentioning Nightshade at all. It seemed the least career-limiting option. But if what Nightshade had implied was true, he had information about the Exchequer—or at least involving the Exchequer—and the Halls were in desperate want of solid, useful information. If there was a decent chance Nightshade was right, they needed it.

  “Don’t move your lips when you’re adding things up in your head,” the Sergeant growled. “It’s a terrible habit. What do you need to speak with me about so urgently?”

  “Lord Nightshade.”

  “Is he in his own fief?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Has he stayed there?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Do you have any reason to suspect that he intends to engage in illegal activities in Elantra?”

  “Nothing illegal short of breathing, sir.”

  “Then I don’t need to hear it right now.”

  “He says he has information that you might be interested in, and he’s willing to discuss it with you in person.”

  “I see. And you think this is information we need?”

  “He mentioned the Imperial Exchequer, sir.”

  Marcus’s eyes went copper; Kaylin’s chin went higher. Wood shavings appeared beneath his extended claws. “He’s willing to discuss it out of the goodness of his heart?”

  “…No, sir.”

  “How much does he want?”

  For the first time, she glanced at Severn.

  Marcus turned to Severn. “Corporal?”

  “He’s requested a leave of absence—for Private Neya.”

  “I’m not interested.” Marcus made a show of turning back to his paperwork, which didn’t involve much actual movement, given there was so much of it.

  Not for the first time, Kaylin hated her lack of involvement in what had become the department’s most important investigation to date. Had she been, she could have agreed and ne
gotiated in Nightshade. As it was, she knew about as much as Nightshade did—or demonstrably less—and it galled her.

  “Sergeant.”

  Marcus’s facial fur was now standing on end, as were the tufts of his ears.

  “Nightshade didn’t tell me either the information or its source. But I think you should at least listen to what he has to say. If you don’t want to negotiate with him directly, let the Hawklord do it.”

  “I’m not interested, Private.”

  That might have been the end of it, given the color of Marcus’s eyes, but Teela—and a slightly more cautious Tain—sauntered over to his desk. Like Marcus, they’d probably heard everything. Unlike Marcus, they were pragmatic. Braving a face full of angry Leontine, Teela spoke first.

  “Sergeant.”

  Marcus didn’t bother with orders; he growled. It wasn’t a quiet growl, and the background noise in the office took a nosedive in its wake.

  Teela was unfazed. Her eyes, however, were distinctly blue. “At this point, we can’t afford to turn away any possible leads.”

  “What leads can a fieflord give us?”

  “We won’t know until we hear him out. He’s not asking for money.”

  “If it were money, I’d listen.”

  “He’s not asking you to fire her.”

  “What the hells is he asking then?”

  They both turned to look at Kaylin. Blue and orange weren’t colors that went well together, especially not given the expressions that surrounded the eyes. “He wants me to go to the West March with him.”

  Teela’s thin brows rose. When they fell again, her eyes had narrowed. “Why?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Teela slid into High Barrani. Mostly. “Kitling, Lord Nightshade has oft played dangerous games. The reservations of the Sergeant—”

  “Those aren’t reservations; they’re an outright refusal.”

  “The reservations of the Sergeant are not unfounded. When did Lord Nightshade ask for your company?”

  “He hasn’t given a date.”

  “I have some suspicion of the dates. It is not, however, a short leave of absence, and if I’m not mistaken, you have very little experience traveling.” She frowned. “Very well, Sergeant. I offer this. If, as I suspect, Lord Nightshade intends to travel for the gathering, I will also be in attendance.”

 
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