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Cast in ruin, p.27
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       Cast in Ruin, p.27

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “Chosen—”

  “I know this is hard for you. I don’t know how hard, no. I’m not Norannir, I’ve never been trained to be an Ascendant. I don’t really understand what an Ascendant is. But I know it’s hard. I don’t want to make it harder—but I don’t have much of a choice.”

  He nodded, but this time he looked away; she could almost see him straining to do it. “Chosen, there are matters that Ascendants do not know. Why do you think that Bellusdeo has attempted to reach this world? And why eight times?”

  “Because she’s been seen. There were witnesses.”

  “Were they of the People?” he asked a little too quickly.

  “No. One of them,” she added as he opened his mouth to speak, “was me.”

  Clearly the Chosen were considered impeccable witnesses, at least in comparison to unknown outsiders. He glanced once at the mirror’s image of his beloved Dragon, but he was torn between agitation and a strange excitement. “Where, Chosen? Where did you see her?”

  “In the streets of this fief.” Technically, this wasn’t entirely accurate, but as Kaylin wasn’t writing a report or being debriefed by a cranky Leontine, it was good enough.

  “Where is she?”

  This was the tricky part. “She wasn’t well when we found her. Tara brought her directly to the Tower—and the three Dragons who are currently in it—but she didn’t survive. I’m sorry.” Watching hope die was difficult; being the one who killed it was worse. Kaylin had been trained to deliver bad news to nervous parents and distraught spouses, but it had always, always been gut-wrenching.

  “Was she injured?”

  “No. I think she was ill.”

  “Impossible.” He turned away. Turned back. “But it’s impossible that she be here at all. You said this was her eighth attempt to reach your world?”

  “…Yes.”

  “She told you this?”

  “No, not exactly. The Arkon, a visiting Dragon—and the oldest Dragon in the Empire, as far as we know—implied that there would be nine attempts.”

  “Nine?”

  She nodded. “Is that number significant to you?”

  “No.”

  Damn. “Me, either. Maggaron, we assume there were eight attempts because she died today.”

  He looked confused, and Kaylin honestly didn’t blame him. “This would be the eighth time she’s died in the fief of Tiamaris.”

  Not surprisingly, this didn’t decrease the Ascendant’s confusion at all. “What do you mean?”

  “Exactly what I said. The reason we know about her at all is because we discovered her body. And then we discovered her body again. And again. There are seven identical corpses in a magical preservation room in this Tower. I’m not sure where the eighth body is, yet—but it’s somewhere in the Tower, as well.”

  “Chosen, my apologies, but are you certain?” he asked in the tone of voice generally reserved for accusations of insanity.

  “Yes. If you want to look at them, we can take you there now.” Turning to Tara, she added, “We can take him there now, can’t we?”

  “To the morgue, yes.” She lifted her hands; Maggaron shouted. It was wordless, but the meaning was clear. “Ascendant,” Tara said quietly, “I will need to use this mirror at some point. But I will leave the image as it stands until that time comes. Will that suffice?”

  He lowered both his head and the line of his shoulders. “Yes, Lady. Thank you, Lady.”

  “Do you fully understand that these images are taken from your memories?”

  “Yes, Lady. But it has been so long. So long since I have seen her. I cannot now recall her so clearly and so perfectly as your mirror has done; she is buried beneath the weight of other memories.” He bowed deeply. When he rose, he smiled at Kaylin; it was a shadowed, fragile smile. “Please, take me to your morgue.”

  It wasn’t her morgue, and she wanted to point this out, but couldn’t think of a way of doing so that didn’t sound childish or argumentative. She was certain Tiamaris could have done it, and was mostly certain that Maggaron would escape unscathed. It was never a good idea to misattribute ownership of something that belonged to a Dragon.

  But the point was moot. Maggaron was led to the morgue and when he entered it, he froze in the door. When he started to move again, he moved slowly and deliberately toward the seven corpses. As Tara had guessed, the eighth hadn’t made its way here, yet. He walked from corpse to corpse, uncovering each in turn, but touching nothing except their eyelids.

  At last he said, “My apologies for doubting you, Chosen.” He was quiet, and he was visibly jarred, but he wasn’t upset. “Seven. And you’ve said there was an eighth?”

  She nodded. “When we found the eighth she was alive, but not by much.”

  “You said your Elder thought there should be nine?”

  Kaylin nodded again. “He’s not my Elder, by the way; he’s a Dragon.”

  “What do you call him, then? What is his title?”

  “We call him any damn thing he wants to be called. At the moment, that’s Arkon. The Arkon.”

  Maggaron nodded gravely. “My apologies. The Arkon, then. He said there should be nine bodies?”

  “He was slightly upset at the time, and he didn’t really offer much in the way of explanation. You have to understand something: she doesn’t look like a Dragon to us in this form; even her eyes—”

  “Her eyes are wrong, yes. And no.”

  “I want to hear more about the no; I’ve heard enough about the yes.”

  “The last time I saw her, her eyes were this color.”

  “I don’t understand. It’s magical—when we examined the corpses magically, the eyes were gold. But only then. We can’t dispel the magic.” She shook her head and continued. “We thought she was human. We thought there was a good chance that these bodies were originally seven very different corpses, and that they’d been transformed before death somehow.”

  He shook his head.

  “But the Arkon now believes that she is, in fact, the mortal form of a Dragon in some respects.”

  “What are his concerns?”

  “She has no subcutaneous evidence of scales. Her skin is much thicker than normal human skin, but that’s not the defining feature of a Dragon.”

  “Chosen, you said she was alive when you found her this time.”

  “Yes.”

  “Did she speak to you?”

  “Yes.”

  “What did she say?”

  Kaylin hesitated, but it was brief. “She asked me to kill her.”

  This, at least, Maggaron hadn’t been expecting.

  “I didn’t,” she added quickly.

  “You are Chosen.”

  He might as well have said “You have blue spots” for all the sense it made. “I don’t think she asked me to kill her because I’m Chosen,” she told him with a bit more heat than she’d intended. “I think she asked me to kill her because she recognized the sword I’m carrying. She wanted me to kill her with this sword.”

  “And you refused her?”

  “Yes, I refused her. Killing helpless strangers isn’t in my job description. Would you have done what she asked?”

  He looked at the scabbard that held what had once been a giant’s two-handed greatsword. “Did the sword not speak to you?” he finally asked. It wasn’t an answer.

  Kaylin could guess what his answer would have been, and she didn’t like it much. “No. I’ve never heard the sword speak.”

  “You aren’t trained to listen.”

  “No.”

  “Unsheathe the sword, Chosen.”

  Kaylin looked dubiously at the sheath, remembering just how much of a hassle it had been to get the sword into it the first time. “She’s not here now,” she replied, evading the request.

  “She is not, no. But you will understand more if you hold the sword.” He looked at the sheath again, his eyes narrowing. “The sheath stills her voice. Where did you acquire it?”

  “It was a gif
t.”

  “It would have been considered a curse—and a great evil—among my kin.”

  “I got that. Tell me why.”

  “I…cannot.” He turned away.

  “You can’t? Or you won’t?”

  “I was trained as an Ascendant candidate. I was chosen to become one of the Ascendants. I was the last. Bellusdeo found me, and Bellusdeo chose me. I’ve never understood why. I was not the strongest, not the wisest, not the quickest. But she chose.”

  “And when you were chosen, you were given this sword?”

  “Chosen—”

  “Look, Maggaron—if the Arkon is right, she’s going to arrive here one more time. Only one. I have no idea why he thinks there should be nine of her, but I’m willing to trust him—we have that much history.”

  “And you and I do not.”

  “I’m also willing to trust him because I don’t have any choice.” She hesitated and then added, “We don’t have a lot of female Dragons in the Empire. By not a lot, I mean none that I’ve personally encountered. My instincts are saying that none is pretty close to what the rest of the Dragon Court expected to encounter, and finding one as a corpse—seven times—is not making any of them any happier.

  “But the Arkon is old, he’s a Dragon, and even the Emperor respects his advice and his opinion. I’m going to trust him; there’s a ninth Bellusdeo coming. She might already be here; we might already be too late. You can hide behind secrets all you want, but when you were controlled by the Shadows, don’t you think they learned what you know? They had your name.”

  Maggaron bowed his head.

  “If I don’t know what I need to know, if I don’t understand what’s going on, there’s a chance I’ll screw up. There’s a good chance I’ve already screwed up,” she added. “But I only get one more chance.”

  “You have my name,” he said.

  She flinched. “…Yes.”

  “Could you not do as others have done, and use that name against me?”

  “…Yes.”

  “It would preserve what little self-respect I have, Chosen.”

  Kaylin folded her arms across her chest; Severn came to stand beside her. “Can we just skip the part where we torture each other horribly and pretend we’ve already done it?”

  His eyes widened slightly. They were green. This confirmed her suspicion that green was the Norannir version of surprise.

  “I don’t have a lot of self-respect myself. What I’ve got, I cling to,” she continued. “And forcing the information out of you that way would destroy some of it.”

  “Why, then, did you take my name?”

  “You already know the answer.”

  Green faded slowly into brown, a color that she seldom saw in the Norannir. “Yes, Chosen. I do. Bellusdeo spoke to you today. But in some fashion that you will not understand, Bellusdeo also chose you.”

  “I had these marks—”

  “Ah, no. You are Chosen for reasons that not even the Dragons can understand. I meant the sword, of course.”

  She looked at its hilt dubiously.

  “If the sword did not desire it, Chosen, you could not have lifted it. Believe that it was tried during my…captivity.”

  “It was a gigantic greatsword made of Shadow, Maggaron!”

  “Yes. It was. Because I was its wielder. It is part of me.” He looked down; Kaylin had never been so aware of the differences in their height. Somehow, the news she had feared would break him completely had given him strength instead. “Did Mejrah explain what purpose the Ascendants served?”

  “More or less.”

  “She also explained that only a handful were chosen?”

  “And the rest were returned to their homes and their families and eventually became Elders, yes.”

  “Did she tell you that the Ascendants became immortal?”

  “Not in so many words, no. But she implied that Bellusdeo had promised to transform or change the children of the Norannir so that they might know a life as long as a Dragon’s—which is effectively forever.”

  He nodded. His eyes had shaded from their unusual brown to a more familiar Norannir blue. “What she did not—what she could not—tell you was how that was achieved. Tell me, do you think the Norannir have true names?”

  Kaylin shook her head. “They’re mortal.”

  “Yet you now hold mine. Have you not wondered how it is that I have a name?”

  “Well, yes, if you put it that way.”

  “I was given a part of Bellusdeo’s name.”

  Kaylin stared at him for a long moment. “I want to say that’s impossible.”

  Tara, who hadn’t interrupted until this moment said, “It is impossible.”

  “Lady,” Maggaron said, inclining his head to Tara. After a pause, he actually got down on one knee. Kaylin suspected this was less a gesture of supplication than a gesture of respect; it was hard to look down from that differential in height while still maintaining awe. “It is not impossible. I am proof of that.”

  But Tara shook her head. Turning to Kaylin, she said, “I would like to examine the sword more carefully.”

  Kaylin visibly wilted, but nodded. “You’re going to have to help me resheathe it, though.” She caught the hilt and pulled it clear of the sheath; it came out so easily she stumbled backward slightly. Severn caught her. Kaylin handed the sword to Tara, or tried; Tara took a step back as the runes on the flat of the blade began to glow. They were a shade between purple and blue.

  Tara’s eyes lost their whites as she concentrated. Eyes now obsidian, she said, “Maggaron, after Bellusdeo gave you this sword, did you see her again?”

  He was silent.

  Kaylin, however, asked a slightly different question. “Did Bellusdeo give you this sword?”

  “It was left for me,” he replied.

  “Tara? What do you see?”

  “It’s not what I see, Kaylin. What do you see? Look carefully.”

  “I see a sword with engravings on it.”

  “You don’t recognize the runes?”

  Kaylin shook her head. “Do you see them?”

  “No.”

  “…What?”

  “No. They’re fluid to my eye; they have a shape and a line that I should recognize, but I cannot comprehend them visually. I suspect that under the right circumstances, you might.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Give the Ascendant the sword,” was the soft reply.

  Maggaron was still on one knee, but his respectful posture gave way to something that reminded Kaylin of subtle cowering. Given he didn’t change position at all, this was mildly impressive. “I must decline,” he told Tara.

  “I don’t think she was asking your permission.”

  “Chosen—” he swallowed “—I cannot—I am not worthy.”

  “You don’t have to keep it—”

  He laughed. It was brief, and it was very, very bitter. “You can wield the sword but you cannot understand it; you will always be outside it, if you can say that so easily. If she had not been trapped because of me, I would never, ever have surrendered her. Do you not understand? I gave her into your keeping and she allowed it—so that she might be free of my entrapment.”

  She started to speak; stopped herself because the words would have been unkind. He was afraid to take the sword because he wanted it so badly, and Kaylin could understand that. “If you don’t want to, I won’t force it,” she told him quietly. “But Tara thinks it’ll tell us—me—something I need to know. Will you try?”

  He swallowed. She saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down. He didn’t trust himself to speak, but he did nod, and he held out both of his hands. They were shaking. Kaylin handed him the sword.

  The minute he touched it, it began to change shape, widening and elongating until it looked like a long sword. But way bigger. The runes were clear, bright—and a very steely blue. Kaylin’s eyes widened.

  “Kaylin?”

  Maggaron rose, the sword’s blade cradled
in his open palms. He was shaking slightly, and Kaylin knew he wouldn’t touch the hilt. “Chosen, you must hold the sword, and you must listen.”

  “Or you could tell me what it’s saying.”

  He shook his head, his lips curved in a smile that held both pain and a joy so intense it might as well have been pain, it seemed almost unbearable. “I cannot tell you all that it is saying. But…it is safe, in this Tower. If we leave, I—I cannot guarantee safety.” He closed his eyes and whispered a single word. Kaylin heard it as Bellusdeo.

  She would have given him privacy if she’d thought they had the time. She gave him a few minutes of silence instead. When she spoke, she put on her Hawk’s voice and tried to distance herself from what she saw. “The sword—it’s part of her, isn’t it?”

  He nodded.

  “That’s why the Dragons disappeared.” It wasn’t a question. “They weren’t killed, as the Elders think—they sacrificed themselves.”

  “It was the only way. She said it was the only way. We’re mortal,” he added. “We can be killed. We can be transformed—but not easily. But we cannot be unmade and we cannot be rewritten.”

  Death, in Kaylin’s mind, was pretty damn unmade; she didn’t point this out. Instead, she stared at the runes on the sword’s flat. “They changed,” she finally said, speaking to both Tara and Maggaron. “They changed when you took the sword.” Her eyes widened.

  “How did they change?” Tara asked sharply.

  “They became his name.”

  Tara fell silent. At length she said, “I must speak with the Arkon.”

  Kaylin nodded.

  “I would like you to accompany me.”

  Kaylin cringed. “I’m not finished here, yet.”

  Tara said to Maggaron, “The sword agreed to allow Kaylin to wield it—or at least lift it—because Kaylin had your name. But it is still part of you, Ascendant, and in a way I don’t understand. I believe it is safe to leave the sword with you for the moment, but I will ask you to accompany us, as well. I do not wish you to be far from me while you wield it.”

  Maggaron nodded. He looked both pained and happy, and it was a striking combination. “Chosen—”

  “Hold her,” Kaylin told him. “While you can. Tell me if she says anything you think I need to hear.”

 
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