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Cast in ruin, p.24
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       Cast in Ruin, p.24

           Michelle Sagara

  “He said only me,” Kaylin began.

  “Indeed. And only you would be required to take a leave of absence. The Barrani Hawks, however—”

  Tain cleared his throat; Teela glared at him. “The Barrani Lords, however, are given a leave of absence for important cultural events. I am a Barrani Lord. I had not intended to attend the gathering, although I have, of course, been invited. I will change my plans,” she told Marcus. “If Nightshade’s information warrants it. Technically, you would not be in violation of his request, if you agree to fulfill it.”

  “I’m not sure she’s any safer with you around,” the Sergeant growled. But his eyes were less lividly orange. “No drinking.”

  “Can we compromise and say no brawls?”

  “I’ll leave that to the Hawklord.”

  Teela lifted one delicate brow and dropped back into Elantran. “I’d prefer that his information be entirely laughable.”


  “I dislike travel. The West March is interesting if you’re inclined to revere plant and insect life.”

  Marcus rose. “Caitlin,” he shouted. “Mirror Grammayre and tell him we’re on our way up.”

  “Yes, Marcus.”

  “And you two,” he added, glaring at Kaylin and Severn. “Get back to work if you don’t want your pay docked. Did Nightshade happen to say when he’d be dropping by?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Fine. Get lost. I mean it this time.”

  He’d meant it the first time, as well. Kaylin hesitated.

  Severn bent and whispered, “It’s not our case, Private. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today. Let’s go.”

  Kaylin took one deep breath, expelled it, and shook herself. She headed toward the door and Severn fell in to her side. “It’s not that I don’t want to leave,” she said, lying, “but we’re supposed to head back to the Arkon before we do anything else.”

  “Given his mood, obedience is probably the only option. Cheer up; he’s unlikely to eat us.”

  Tara answered the door when they arrived.

  “Where’s Morse?” Kaylin asked.

  “Morse is delivering a message,” was the noncommittal reply.

  “Do you still have a room full of Dragons?”

  Tara frowned.

  “Sorry,” Kaylin said, because she really didn’t want to explain the nature of metaphors for the hundredth time. “What I meant was, are the Arkon and Sanabalis still here, and still in the morgue?”

  Tara nodded thoughtfully. “Your question was shorter the first time, but inaccurate. Is it really true that Morse or Tiamaris would have understood what you meant?”

  “Yes,” Kaylin replied. She continued the explanation that Tara wanted as they made their way down the hall, promising herself to be literal when speaking to Tara, at least for the rest of the day. Sadly, she’d probably forget, because it was too easy to forget. If Tara didn’t exactly look normal, she didn’t radiate that aura of power that would have otherwise forced Kaylin to be careful with her words. This unspoken observation branched into an entirely different explanation.

  Severn was silently laughing by the time they reached the morgue—which was good, as nothing in the morgue was liable to be cause for mirth.

  Case in point: the Arkon met them as the doors rolled open. Kaylin didn’t remember the morgue having double doors, but this was an ancient magical building, and things like that changed without warning or notice. The Arkon didn’t appear to care one way or the other.

  Lord Sanabalis and Lord Tiamaris were standing as far away from the Arkon as the room allowed, attempting to look busy. Kaylin thought this both cowardly and unfair—although it was probably, given the color of the older Dragon’s eyes, also wise. She bowed; so did Severn. The Arkon’s smoke wafted over their heads.

  “I see you’ve deigned to return,” he said. His voice had dipped into Dragon scale; it was low and very loud. He was not, however, roaring.

  “Yes, Arkon,” Kaylin said in the tone of voice she generally reserved for Marcus in a foul mood.

  “Good. You are to continue your investigation, but you will be accompanied by the Tower’s Avatar for the duration.”

  Kaylin rose and glanced at Tara, who seemed entirely undisturbed.

  “There is a reasonable chance that we are missing two bodies,” he continued, ignoring the question in the glance. “If possible—if at all possible—you are to find witnesses who heard anything that the woman said before she collapsed.”

  “She wasn’t speaking a language they recognized—”

  “That,” was the autocratic reply, “is what we have the Tha’alani for.”

  Kaylin thought about her career, and the application in particular for her promotion, and winced. Opening her mouth was not a good idea.

  “Yes, Private?”

  Then again, having facial expressions also apparently sucked. “If it’s true that the deceased arrived because of small, localized Shadowstorm, it’s unlikely that we’re going to find many more of her. The borders have been effectively closed. Tara—the Avatar,” she said, quickly correcting herself, given the ripple of lines in the Arkon’s brow, “says the Shadow is once again entirely contained.”

  “Yes. There’s been some discussion about that.”

  Kaylin looked past the Arkon to Tiamaris. Whatever the discussion had been, the youngest of the Dragons didn’t like it.

  “You will go now. I have taken a very small leave of absence from my library while I oversee this investigation; you will report to me at the end of the day.”

  “Yes, Arkon.”

  Tara took very little time to prepare, which in this case meant changing into her gardening clothing. Kaylin and Severn took less. They exited the morgue as quickly as they could; neither Tiamaris nor Sanabalis had uttered as much as a squeak.

  “That’s not true,” Tara said as she closed the Tower doors behind them and stepped onto the garden path. “They spoke quite a lot before you arrived.”

  “In Elantran?”

  “In Dragon.”

  “What were they discussing?”

  “The possibility of lowering the barrier for a few days.” Tara’s eyes were ebony as she said this.

  “Did you join in the discussion at all?”

  “My Lord felt it unwise. But he did speak on my behalf.”

  “Can you join the discussion?” Kaylin didn’t ask what Tiamaris had said on Tara’s behalf; she knew what the answer would be. She was surprised that Tara seemed so calm about the request.

  “Oh, yes. Dragon is not difficult to speak; it requires a shift of vocal cords, but that’s relatively minor.” She began to follow as Kaylin took the lead. “Where are we going first?”

  “We’re going to the border.”

  “But the bodies weren’t discovered there.”

  “No. But I need to speak with Mejrah as soon as possible.”

  “But the Arkon—”

  “I know what he said. But anything that keeps us out of his way right now is a good thing. Trust me on this.”

  “Do you find him frightening?”

  “You don’t?”

  “No. He is very agitated. And I find it difficult to read his thoughts.”

  “Well,” Kaylin said as she turned a corner and headed down the widest street that led to the borders of the fief, “he probably can’t turn you to ash just by breathing.”

  “No,” was the grave reply. “But I don’t think he’d try. Or is that a figure of speech?”

  “I wish.”

  The fief of Tiamaris had almost become two distinctly separate fiefs. There were streets the normal humans traveled, and given it was only afternoon, those streets were nowhere near empty. But the streets where the Norannir patrolled might have existed in an entirely different world; the only visible humans in easy or direct sight were Kaylin and Severn. Even the buildings that girded the street had begun to look different as the Norannir decorated them.

  “Oh, those aren’t decorati
ons,” Tara said when Kaylin pointed them out.


  “No. They’re warding charms. And alarms. They change color in the presence of Shadow. The Norannir want to put them up on every door or wall in the fief; you’ll note that some of the streets have also been painted.”

  Kaylin could imagine how well that would go over.

  “My Lord doesn’t think it’s necessary.”

  “What do you think?”

  Tara shrugged. It was such a fief gesture, Kaylin’s brows rose. But then again, the Avatar’s most constant companion was Morse, a woman who’d perfected the art of the shrug be fore Kaylin had been born. “I don’t think it would be harmful, but I don’t think the panic it might cause would be helpful.”

  “I think the rest of the citizens of Tiamaris would accept the wards if the Norannir would agree to disarm a bit.”

  Tara looked surprised. “Why would they want to do that?”

  “They clearly don’t. But weapons like that ax, for in stance—half the people in the fief probably couldn’t even lift it.” She pointed at one of the larger—and older—men in a patrolling group of four. The gesture attracted his attention.

  “Yes. But they aren’t required to lift it. Without weapons, the Norannir patrols can’t deal with the Shadows they might find. They certainly can’t kill the Ferals as easily.”

  “Yes, well. The problem with weapons is they’re neutral. Yes, they can be used to kill Ferals, but in the wrong hands, they can do a bang-up job on people, as well.”

  “But they’re not trying to kill people.”

  “I know that. But even I find them intimidating.” The patrol approached as Kaylin finished the words. Tara took a step forward. In her gardening clothing, she really didn’t cut much of an imposing figure, but the Norannir clearly recognized her; they stopped their advance, and they knelt on one knee, resting the weapons under discussion against the flat ground.

  Tara spoke to them. She spoke in their tongue. Kaylin recognized the word Mejrah; she didn’t recognize much else.

  “They’ll take us to the Elders,” Tara said cheerfully. “Although they did say Mejrah is very busy.”

  Mejrah was, as advertised, very busy. And as an older woman, being busy and having a wealth of patience were at odds. One of the men—the one who’d drawn the short straw by his expression—approached the three tents that had been erected at the end of the street; he came back with Mejrah and two of the bearded older men that Kaylin vaguely recognized in tow.

  Mejrah had wrinkles in the corners of both mouth and eyes that looked chiseled there as she turned toward the rest of the patrol; the poor unfortunate who’d been sent to retrieve her joined them. These men were uniformly taller than she was, but tall men were capable of cowering on command, even when they were also much better armed.

  “She’s not happy to be interrupted,” Tara said.

  Even though Kaylin couldn’t catch a word of the rapid-fire exchange, she could tell. “You can understand her?”

  “I understand much of what she—or any of the Norannir—now say. My memory is augmented by my ability to sense people and events that occur within the boundaries of my fief. It is not perfect, and if the conversation is specialized, I will not understand the exact words. Mejrah is often annoyed, so these words are very familiar to me now.” After a brief pause that was mostly filled with Mejrah’s voice, Tara added, “She’s angry that they didn’t recognize you.”


  “You’re the Chosen,” Tara said serenely. “You should be recognized.”

  “I’m not wearing a sign,” Kaylin began. She then looked down at her arms—her sleeve-covered arms—and winced. She was, in fact, wearing a sign; it just happened to be hidden.

  Tara nodded, as if Kaylin had spoken. Her ability to read thoughts didn’t extend past the Tower itself, but she was acutely observant. Her interpretations of what she observed were often unusual, on the other hand. “It would be good if you could leave at least your arms exposed.”

  This was a definition of good that had always been extremely bad in Kaylin’s experience.

  “Mejrah—and the Norannir—feel that the Chosen is worthy of respect. Lack of respect is dishonorable. Dishonor is death, or should be. There are mitigating circumstances; I don’t think she’ll demand that these people kill themselves.”

  “So…I’m exposing my arms to prevent them from having to commit suicide?”

  “Something like that,” Tara replied. “Would you like help with the sleeves?”


  “The reason I wear these clothes,” Tara continued, indicating the smock, the kerchief, and the somewhat dirt-covered gardening gloves, “is because it makes me easy to spot.”

  There were so many better ways to be spotted Kaylin didn’t even know where to begin. But before she could start, she considered Tara with more care. Yes, there were better ways to make herself known—she could sprout wings, for gods’ sake—but were there really any better ways to make herself accessible? As the Avatar, she could have been a truly terrifying figure with very little effort.

  But she didn’t want that. Maybe this was the best she could do, after all. Kaylin grimaced and unbuttoned the cuffs of her sleeves. Severn stepped in to help her roll them up. “I’ll try,” she told Tara.

  “I know. You always do.”

  “I’d like to succeed more often.”

  “According to my Lord, that only comes with time. He’s explained the advantages of being feared. But…he’s feared already. Even the people of the fief, who know that he fights for their safety, hide if they see him coming. I don’t need to be feared because he’s feared. But maybe it’s different across the river.”

  Kaylin, her sleeves now rolled up and resting around her elbows, turned to Mejrah, who had fallen to one knee. She reached out and took Mejrah’s hand in hers and lifted her off that knee; she couldn’t exactly lift her to her feet, given the differences in their size. Mejrah then led Kaylin toward the tents that stood on the very edge of the border. There, she shouted Effaron out of a tent. He was never going to be terribly intimidating, even given his height, but he smiled broadly—and with a bit of relief—when he saw the reason Mejrah had demanded his immediate presence.

  This relief didn’t stop him from falling to one knee, but his watchful eye was on the Elder, not Kaylin. Mejrah finally said something curt and he rose. He then tendered a deep and respectful bow to Tara, who returned a nod—and a very encouraging and sympathetic smile. No, Kaylin thought, Tara was not terrifying—not like this. Even though the Norannir had seen her in her full defensive glory, the image of her winged, implacable form faded from memory in the presence of much more common gardening clothes.

  Effaron offered Kaylin a hand; she took it gratefully. Direct contact between Kaylin and this one Norannir allowed them to speak to each other; Kaylin had no idea why. But understand it or no, she heard his words in Elantran, except for the odd word that had no Elantran analog; Effaron heard Kaylin in his own tongue, with the same exception.

  “Your Lord Sanabalis has made progress,” Effaron said. “And the children do learn your words more easily than the Elders. It’s not always wise to learn things more easily than the Elders,” he added with a grimace. “But we’ve not seen Lord Sanabalis teaching for the past two days. Is he well?”

  Thinking about the last expression she’d seen on Sanabalis’s face, Kaylin shrugged. “He’s in good health.”

  “And you?”

  “I’m in good health for the moment. There’s a task or two that Lord Sanabalis wants done pretty much yesterday; I’m indirectly here because of that.”

  “We are to help the Dragon Lord?”

  “Well, no. Not directly. I need Mejrah to tell me about the origins of the Ascendants. I need to know how they became Ascendants. And, um, how they got these swords.” She touched the one that hung in the scabbard it so detested on her belt. Effaron’s brows disappeared into his shaggy hairline. Clearly, M
aggaron was not the only person who considered a sheath for this particular sword sacrilegious.

  “Perhaps it would be better to ask the Ascendant himself?”

  “I tried that first. Apparently, since I’m not Ascendant, there are things he can’t tell me. He suggested Mejrah would be the best source for the things that can be told.”

  “I think she will find it annoying to tell children’s stories so close to the stronghold of the enemy.”

  “We can move.”

  Effaron winced. “Never mind, Chosen. I’ll ask her.”

  Mejrah was, as Effaron expected, ill pleased, but Kaylin didn’t think it was simple anger. It wasn’t.

  “She expects you to understand these things,” he explained, “and she finds the lack of understanding unsettling. She’s willing to accept that the Chosen in this world merely has mystical understanding of events in this world.” He raised a brow.

  “Try not to disillusion her too badly if you think it’ll get me killed.”

  He laughed. “The attempt would likely cause me more harm than it would cause you.” Holding her hand, he bowed to Mejrah; Mejrah then stalked into her tent and came out holding a small rug. She unrolled this and sat, cross-legged, on one of its edges, inviting Kaylin, Tara, Effaron, and Severn to do the same. Tara chose to sit on the edge of the rug Kaylin also occupied; her gaze wandered past the tents and the Norannir to the border that was, in the end, the reason for her existence.

  The Elder spoke to Effaron, and Effaron translated, which in this case merely meant he repeated what she said. Kaylin, in turn, repeated what she’d heard so that Severn could understand it.

  “Mejrah wants you to understand that this is a story that is told to children; it’s not special, it has no innate power, and it requires no guarantee or oath to receive. Although a variant of the story is used in more formal circumstances, it’s not that different.” He cleared his throat. One of the Elders, who was lingering at the edge of the carpet, disappeared and returned with a jug of water and some heavy, clay mugs. He handed these to Effaron, who was clearly expected to serve himself.

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