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Cast in ruin, p.26
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       Cast in Ruin, p.26

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “Kaylin,” Tara said, her voice cooler, the edges of the word pronounced. It was meant as warning.

  The woman tried to push herself off the packed dirt and onto very unsteady legs. Without thinking—something that she was too good at—Kaylin rushed forward. She didn’t mark the moment the runes on her skin began to ache; she didn’t have time. She managed to catch the woman before she collapsed. As Kaylin’s arms stiffened to support the unexpectedly heavy weight, the woman grabbed her wrists.

  She had a grip like a drillmaster’s, even though her hands were a lot prettier. “Chosen,” she said. “Chosen, hear me. I have little time.”

  “Don’t speak,” Kaylin told her firmly. “We’ll get help. We can—”

  But the woman shook her head. “You bear the sword,” she said. “I can hear it. You must kill me, Chosen.”

  Kaylin stiffened as the woman’s grip tightened.

  “Chosen.”

  “What is she saying?” Tara asked.

  “You can’t understand her?”

  “No. She is not speaking native Dragon.”

  “She can’t be. I can still hear her.”

  “Yes. What is she asking of you?”

  “She wants me to—to kill her.”

  Tara said, after a pause, “I don’t think that will be necessary.”

  “Help me lift her, Tara. If we get her back to the Tower, the Arkon might be able to help her.”

  Tara nodded; she was grim now. She caught the woman under the arms; the woman struggled. “Chosen,” she said, her voice thinner and weaker. “Please, please. You must listen. You must do as I ask. Strike while I still have time.”

  “Tara,” Kaylin said through clenched teeth.

  The Avatar nodded again, and this time, the cloth she wore transformed in a literal eye blink. Kaylin’s arms and legs already ached so badly the Tower’s use of magic couldn’t make it worse. Wings rose from Tara’s back; wings as long and fine as an Aerian’s. “I will take her,” she said. “I will take her in haste.” She closed her eyes briefly. “My Lord will meet me as I approach. Follow.” She lifted the woman as if she were a very small child.

  At moments like this, Kaylin understood exactly why Sanabalis thought she was worthy of fear. The stranger’s grip on her wrists eased and she began to shudder as Tara leaped straight into the open air.

  Kaylin massaged her wrists to get enough feeling in her hands that she could use them to climb. Severn had the rope in hand, and in this case it was actually helpful; the tips of her fingers were distinctly bluish in tinge, not a color that looked good on Kaylin. “What happened?”

  “She was alive,” Kaylin said curtly. “We’re to meet Tara back at the Tower. I think we can safely say we discharged our investigative duties, at least for today.”

  “We can. That doesn’t usually bother you.” He fell in beside her, adjusting his stride as she began to speed up. “She spoke?”

  Kaylin nodded grimly. “Tara couldn’t understand what she was saying.”

  “You could.”

  “I showed her my arms.”

  After a very brief pause, Severn asked why. It was a reasonable question, all things considered. “I was still thinking about what Tara said about the Norannir.”

  “She’s not Norannir, judging by her size.”

  “No—but Severn, Mejrah recognized her. I thought maybe, just maybe, the marks on my arms would have a similar meaning to her as it did to the Elders. If we were closer to the border, I’d have taken her to Mejrah.” She shook her head.

  “She recognized them, didn’t she?”

  Kaylin nodded. She wasn’t running—running Hawks tended to cause either panic or congestion in the streets, depending on which streets they were—but she was walking at a very fast clip. “When she grabbed my hands, I could understand her. It worked the same way as it seems to work with Effaron.”

  “The traveler?”

  “Yes. I understood her—but I understood her to be speaking my native tongue. Tara didn’t recognize the language.” Tara had a Tower’s memory; it was probably longer and deeper than the Arkon’s. And a lot less temperamental. If Tara didn’t recognize it, there was a good chance it had never been spoken in this world. If it hadn’t, Kaylin wondered what the Arkon would make of it. “Severn, she wanted me to kill her.”

  He was silent; she thought her speed had managed to out-pace his questions.

  “Did it have to be you?”

  “What?”

  “Did it have to be you who killed her?”

  “I don’t know—believe it or not, that wasn’t the first question that popped into my mind. Mostly, I was wondering why she wanted to die.”

  “If she does, you’re probably the last person in the fief she should ask.”

  “Severn, no one would have done what she asked. Tara wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. The Arkon certainly wouldn’t.”

  “True. And?”

  “It bothers me. She seemed so desperate. I don’t know if she’s being hunted; seven corpses certainly implies as much. But something about it felt wrong.” Kaylin hesitated again. “I think she recognized Maggaron’s sword.”

  “If Mejrah’s not wrong and if the woman’s appearance is not a coincidence, that’s not as strange as it could be. She’d recognize the sword because she was the one responsible for bestowing it on Maggaron.”

  “I understand the theory,” Kaylin replied as they took the last corner and turned onto Garden Row. “But it’s clear that in Maggaron’s time—and experience—this sword was never sheathed. How did she recognize it, Severn?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe she’ll be able to explain.”

  Kaylin nodded. “I don’t think it mattered to her who killed her—but I think it mattered how. She wanted to be killed by this sword. I just happened to be carrying it.”

  In the end, the question was to remain unanswered. Kaylin and Severn arrived at the doors of the Tower; they rolled open slowly. Tara stood in the doorway. She was still winged, and her eyes were ebony. She bowed to Kaylin, which was awkward, and not just because of the wings. Kaylin waited until she rose before speaking.

  “How is she?”

  “She did not survive.”

  Kaylin uttered a brief word in Leontine. “Was she alive when you arrived?”

  “Yes.” Tara hesitated. “The Arkon, Tiamaris, and Sanabalis are with her now. They do not wish to be disturbed.”

  Kaylin was all for not disturbing upset Dragons.

  “They did not wish you to leave, however.”

  This, on the other hand, was less welcome. “What exactly did they want us to do?”

  “Wait.”

  “On the doorstep?”

  Tara’s expression rippled. “Oh. No, I don’t think that’s what they meant.”

  “Do you think we could wait with Maggaron?”

  Tara frowned. “You wish to ask him about Bellusdeo?”

  “I do. I know this is going to be bad, but do you think you could pry Sanabalis out of that room? We need him to get our memory crystal back.”

  “I think it will have to wait. You wish to show the crystal’s image to Maggaron?”

  “Yes.” Before Tara could speak, Kaylin hastily added, “But I don’t want to show him her corpse.”

  “Oh? Why not?”

  “He’s already completely wrecked, Tara. If she’s indeed Bellusdeo—or one of a dozen spitting images of her—I think it could push him over the edge.” The words left her mouth before her second thoughts could kick in.

  “What edge?”

  Glum, Kaylin resigned herself to explaining yet another metaphor as Tara stepped out of the door. But Tara was on her own ground now, and she caught the thought before Kaylin could pick out better words to express it. Tara seldom found Kaylin’s frustration annoying.

  “So you are afraid that you will upset him so much he will not be able to be helpful?”

  “Yes.”

  The Avatar, her eyes like the void, smiled brightly. It was
jarring. “I can help.”

  Maggaron was still sitting by the window. He’d probably only been seated there for a few hours, but they were long damn hours by this point. Kaylin’s stomach rumbled; it was like a clock, but embarrassing.

  “Are you hungry?” Tara asked.

  Since she knew the Tower already knew the answer, she nodded.

  “I’m asking,” Tara said gravely, “even though I already know the answer because my Lord says this will be important. There are other questions to which I know the answer that I must nonetheless learn to ask.”

  “Really? Like what?”

  Tara frowned. “How is the weather?”

  Kaylin snorted. “Tiamaris is teaching you this?”

  Tara nodded.

  “Do you think he’d teach me at the same time?”

  “Tiamaris says this is what Lord Diarmat is teaching you.”

  “Yes, but there’s a difference. Tiamaris doesn’t hate the sight of you.”

  “I’m certain Lord Diarmat doesn’t hate the sight of you, either.”

  Severn cleared his throat, and Kaylin reddened. Maggaron was so silent and still it was almost easy to forget he was sitting right there. Kaylin let the rest of that conversation drop as if it were molten.

  “Maggaron,” she said softly.

  He looked up at the sound of her voice, but his eyes were still empty.

  “We need your help.”

  “I cannot leave this place,” was his bitter reply. “You understand why.”

  “I do. We don’t need you to leave. We need you to accompany us.”

  Maggaron looked at the walls, the floors, and the ceiling without really seeing them. The only thing that drew his attention—and not in a good way—was the scabbard that hung at Kaylin’s side. He didn’t ask, and she didn’t offer the information; there wasn’t any point in upsetting him any further.

  The halls were familiar; they were wide enough—and tall enough—to allow a Dragon in flight form easy access. The doors at the hall’s end were just as wide. They began to open well before anyone had reached them, and they opened into a familiar room.

  Maggaron stopped on the threshold, staring at the walls, his eyes wide. They were a shade of emerald green that in Barrani would have been a good sign; Kaylin wasn’t completely certain what that color meant in the Norannir. She thought it was surprise. He turned to her. “Those words—”

  Kaylin nodded. She lifted an exposed arm.

  “Do you understand them, Chosen?”

  “No. I’m sorry, I don’t.”

  He deflated, losing about three inches of his height, which was still considerable. Before she could find anything comforting to say—and comfort was, sadly, not her strong suit—he walked to the edge of the shallow pool that served as Tara’s mirror. There, he knelt, his knees on the lip of the stone circle. He bowed his head until his chin touched his collarbone, and rested the palms of his hands flat against the tops of his upper thighs.

  Tara looked down—barely—at the top of his head. The black drained out of her eyes, leaving them oddly human in the warm light of the room. Lifting a hand, she pressed her palm gently against his head, as if offering a benediction. Or absolution. The line of Maggaron’s shoulders relaxed slowly, as did his breathing.

  Kaylin wanted to ask Tara what she was doing; she didn’t because there wasn’t any space in which to wedge the question—not without breaking the very strange communion. She walked to where Severn stood and joined him in silence, waiting for either Tara or Maggaron to speak.

  Tara moved first, breaking contact by slowly lifting her hand. She didn’t move away from Maggaron, but she didn’t have to move—she was at the edge of the still pool. Kaylin cleared her throat, but Tara lifted a hand, demanding silence by gesture alone.

  The water began to glow. It rose as Tara nodded, building a familiar image, inch by inch, starting at the feet—or rather, at the edge of blue skirt—and continuing upward until the woman they’d found in the fief stood facing Maggaron.

  He whispered a single word. “Bellusdeo.”

  Kaylin glanced at Severn; Severn was watching Maggaron’s expression with something that looked suspiciously like pity.

  Tara left the former Ascendant’s side and came to stand beside Kaylin. “He recognizes her,” she said, although it wasn’t necessary. “But, Kaylin, I don’t think now is the time to question him.”

  “No, it probably isn’t,” was the soft reply.

  “He’s seen a room very similar to this one before, Kaylin. I believe part of his training occurred in one. She taught there. She chose him.”

  “How do you know?”

  Tara lifted a brow. It was very similar to the expression Kaylin used when someone asked her a question to which the answer was obvious.

  “Never mind. Does he have any idea why she wants to die?”

  “No; that’s not part of his memory.”

  “What is?”

  “She chose him,” Tara replied. “And she left him. It is not clear how; it is not clear—to me—why. I believe he understood it.”

  “You can’t touch that?”

  “No. I can touch the pain, but the cause is protected. I am reluctant to press him.”

  Kaylin, remembering her first walk through the Tower at its awakening, flinched but nodded. “It hurt,” she said, as if speaking about the weather. “But it helped in a way. It helped me.”

  “I didn’t intend to hurt you.”

  “I know. You wanted to tell me that you understood what had hurt me in the past. That you understood the pain I was in.”

  “Yes. I no longer think that’s an effective way to communicate understanding,” she added. “But it would be that, or nothing; it’s buried too deep.”

  “You could let me ask him a few questions.”

  Tara shook her head. “Not yet. Look at his expression.”

  While they’d been conversing, Maggaron had started to cry. He didn’t sob; the tears fell in utter silence. He lifted only his face; his hands remained in his lap. The image of Bellusdeo shifted as he gazed at her. Shifted, walking from the center of the pool to the edge. His edge. She knelt on the other side of the pool’s lip; only an inch or two of rounded stone separated them. She was taller than Tara; taller than Kaylin.

  Kaylin glanced sharply at Tara; Tara nodded, her attention absorbed by what the pool revealed. Or by what Maggaron revealed. Kaylin felt distinctly uncomfortable watching him now, as if she was intruding on something intensely, personally private. The image of Bellusdeo began to speak.

  Kaylin recognized the voice. She knew Tara was concentrating, but spoke—quietly—anyway. “Tara—what are you doing? How do you know what she might have said?”

  “I don’t. He does. This is not my image, Kaylin; it is taken from him; I am merely giving it a shape and form that we can also witness.”

  Maggaron spoke. Even the acoustics of the room failed to magnify his words enough to make them audible to Kaylin. But Bellusdeo was standing inches from where he knelt; she didn’t have that problem. She laughed. The sound was a shock of warmth that traveled up Kaylin’s spine to her ears, poking her insides on the way there.

  “She’s beautiful,” Kaylin whispered, seeing it clearly for the first time. She would have said more, but the Bellusdeo of Maggaron’s memory threw her arms wide and spun in a circle, as if she were a child. No, Kaylin thought, seeing her expression, not a child. The movement was ebullient, but it was deliberate, as well.

  Her eyes were perfect gold.

  Bellusdeo stepped away from Maggaron, who continued to kneel; when she stood once again above the pool’s center, she bowed. To him. Then she laughed again and said something that Kaylin would have paid a week’s salary to understand. Two weeks’.

  Maggaron’s tears had stopped; his face was wet with their tracks, and his eyes were shadowed by both wonder and apprehension.

  Bellusdeo began to transform. Kaylin had seen such a transformation only a few times, because it was
, strictly speaking, illegal in the Empire without the Emperor’s express permission. If she’d had any questions about the Arkon’s visceral reaction, she forgot them: Bellusdeo stretched and elongated, taking at last the shape and form of a Dragon Queen.

  CHAPTER 17

  She was golden. Her scales were the color of Dragon happiness or Dragon peace; they shone in the room like contained lights, as if she were translucent and had swallowed the sun in her flight. Her wings were folded across her back, and her tail swept past the pool’s edge, brushing through the three witnesses like a visible breeze.

  “Tara,” Kaylin whispered, unable to take her eyes off the Dragon. “Did she speak before she died?”

  “Yes.”

  “What did she say?”

  “I didn’t understand it,” Tara replied. “Did they?”

  “I…I’m not sure. I find Lord Sanabalis and the Arkon very, very difficult to read or understand. The Arkon was upset, if that helps.”

  “Not really. These days, he’s always upset.” Kaylin squared her shoulders and left Severn and Tara. She approached Maggaron alone, her hand touching the hilt of the sword she carried. It was cool against her palm; it caused her no pain, no tingling, no itch.

  “Maggaron.”

  He nodded, still staring at the Dragon that Bellusdeo had become. A starving man would have looked at food on a distant table with less longing.

  “Is that the Dragon known as Bellusdeo?”

  She felt his shock—and his disapproval; he mastered both quickly, remembering that foreigners were allowed to be ignorant. “Yes.”

  “Is there a reason that she would want to die?”

  She expected shock, horror, anger; what she saw instead was sorrow. Sorrow was harder to deal with. She retreated into quiet professionalism instead. “I assume the answer is yes.”

  Maggaron said nothing.

  Kaylin took a deep breath and made a decision. “Maggaron, I think she’s trying to reach our world.”

  He continued to stare at the Dragon. Thankfully, the Dragon’s image was silent. “I think she’s tried eight times now.”

 
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