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Cast in ruin, p.30
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       Cast in Ruin, p.30

           Michelle Sagara
 

  No, the sword said. But I can.

  Kaylin remembered—clearly—the pain she had felt when she attempted to force Maggaron to do something he didn’t want to do. But seeing the pain and the bleak hope in his expression was vastly more difficult. “Tara, can you—”

  “No. I cannot guard him against the use of his name if we leave the Tower. I can destroy him, I believe—although it will be costly to the fief.”

  “Will you let me make this decision?”

  Tiamaris cleared his throat. Loudly. Grimacing, Kaylin turned to her one-time fellow Hawk, and the current fieflord of the fief. Just as Maggaron had done, she dropped to one knee in full view of the Dragon Lord. “Tiamaris. Lord Tiamaris,” she amended.

  His eyes were a shade of copper; they were not the livid orange of the Arkon’s. “Private Neya?”

  “Please allow Maggaron to accompany me.”

  “Do you understand the risk?”

  She nodded.

  “Do you understand that you are not the only person at risk? That the citizens of the fief—those who can’t defend themselves against either Maggaron or the Shadows—will bear the brunt of your failure if you cannot do what must be done?”

  “Yes.”

  “Do you honestly feel that you are capable of controlling him?”

  “…Yes.”

  He rolled his eyes. Distancing himself from Sanabalis—who was now examining his beard—and the Arkon, he approached Kaylin. “Kaylin, why?”

  In reply, she lifted her arms and turned them toward the fieflord. The runes on her skin were glowing a faint, clear blue. His eyes widened. “This is part of his story, of his history,” she told him.

  “It is part of ours, and of any whom he might injure or kill should he once again fall under Shadow’s sway. The boundary will not protect him, as you should well know.”

  She shook her head. “This is a part of his story that must be written or told. I’m sorry,” she added, feeling more than slightly embarrassed. “I realize it sounds…”

  “Foolish.”

  “I wouldn’t go that far. But—the marks.”

  He nodded slowly. “Tara?”

  The Avatar came to where Kaylin knelt, passing by Maggaron, who had also remained in a supplicant posture. “None of us have ever understood the role of the Chosen,” she finally said. “If there can be said to be only one role. My Lord, I am willing to allow Kaylin to take this risk.”

  “I don’t like it,” Tiamaris replied. Kaylin almost sagged in relief. “But where you are willing to take such a risk, I will follow. Remember, however,” he added as Kaylin began to rise, “that there are no laws governing what I do to criminals in my own domain.”

  CHAPTER 19

  The Arkon snorted smoke. “Very well,” he said. “Sanabalis, will you remain here, or join us?”

  “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Sanabalis replied. “Unless the Private has any objections?”

  None that she was stupid enough to voice. “Lord Tiamaris?” she said without much hope.

  “I will remain in the Tower. Tara, however, wishes to accompany you.”

  “Can I point out that we don’t have a destination as of yet?”

  “Given the Arkon’s impatience in this matter, I suggest you resolve that difficulty as quickly as humanly possible.” He turned to the Arkon. “I would appreciate it if you kept fire to a minimum in my fief.”

  “Of course, Lord Tiamaris.” He fixed Kaylin with a very orange glare. “Private?”

  She resisted the urge to pass it on, and instead helped Maggaron halfway to his feet. He bowed to her. “Chosen,” he whispered.

  “Can you just call me Kaylin? Everyone else does.” Strictly speaking, this wasn’t true, but the Ascendant nodded anyway. To the sword, she said, “Can you find Bellusdeo if she’s alive anywhere in this fief?”

  I am not entirely certain. I can find her if we are at all close to her.

  “Could you sense her earlier?”

  No. The…sheath…all but sundered me from the world.

  “I’ve already said I won’t use it again,” Kaylin replied in a hurry. “Do you think she’ll try to return here a ninth time?”

  Yes.

  “And is that our last chance to achieve whatever it is she’s trying to achieve?”

  Yes.

  It was hard to believe there was still sunlight when they finally hit the streets. Morse was absent, but that was probably for the best; Kaylin had difficulty with Dragon formality, and Kaylin was an etiquette master when standing beside Morse. Severn, on the other hand, walked between Kaylin and the Arkon; Sanabalis pulled up the other side. Tara walked ahead beside Maggaron, which was fair, as it meant the Dragons had his back in plain sight. If Maggaron found the arrangement uncomfortable, it didn’t show.

  He looked taller, to Kaylin’s eyes; taller and prouder. No, not exactly proud—that was the wrong word for it—but determined or focused. They walked down Avatar Road for several blocks before Tara called a halt. The streets were surprisingly busy, although only in fief terms; there were still people on them. If the people gave them nervous glances, that was to be expected—but Tara’s presence seemed to calm them.

  Given the size of the sword Maggaron now wielded, that said a lot about Tara, or their faith in her. It had only been a few weeks since Tiamaris had taken the Tower—and through it, the fief—but those weeks had eroded decades of raw fear.

  Subtle fear would take a lot longer to loose its hold. She glanced at the sun; it was heading toward the horizon.

  “Ferals?” Kaylin asked Tara.

  “My Lord and Morse will be on patrol within the half hour; so will the Norannir. We’ve been trying something unusual for the fief.”

  “Oh?”

  “We’ve been taking the young men and women who want to come with us. We arm them if they aren’t armed.”

  “They hunt Ferals with you?”

  “Yes.”

  Kaylin shook her head. The world had changed.

  “They’ve slowly grown accustomed to the sight of my Lord as a Dragon,” Tara added. “It used to upset them more—but word has spread from those young men and women and filtered into the streets; his Dragon form has become synonymous with protection from the things that hunt in the night.”

  “Was this Tiamaris’s idea?”

  “Yes.”

  “Thought so.”

  Tara smiled. “I approved of it. I still do. No other Lord of the Tower hunted Ferals.”

  “No other Lord of the Tower considered the fief his hoard.”

  “Then this hoarding must be a good thing.”

  Kaylin nodded. “Possibly because it’s Tiamaris.” A thought struck her. “Sanabalis—” The Arkon cleared his throat, and she quickly appended his title. “Dragon personalities differ hugely; in that, they’re not so dissimilar from the rest of us.”

  A beat of silence followed. “The point of this observation?”

  “If a different Dragon had taken the Tower, would he have tried to effect this much change? Would he have cared the same way? The whole fief would still be his hoard, no matter who he was.”

  The Arkon snorted. “Sanabalis,” he said sharply, forgetting the title that he demanded Kaylin use, “what have you been teaching the hatchlings?”

  Sanabalis fingered his beard. It was his most familiar gesture. “I’ve been attempting to teach them to make reasoned deductions with the information they have at hand.”

  “Clearly, you have more work to do.”

  “Clearly, Arkon.” To Kaylin, he said, “Yes, of course it would be different. The whole of Tiamaris’s attitude has been informed by his service to the Emperor. He has learned, because of his youth and his ability to accept the Emperor’s rule at all, that mortals—such as yourself—have intrinsic value. They are not livestock, they are not cattle, and they are not vermin.”

  “Arcanists.”

  “Many of the Arcanists are not mortal.”

  “Good point.”
/>
  “It is not an attitude that was…common…in the days of the Arkon’s youth.”

  “Neither was it common in Sanabalis’s youth, which is lamentably more recent,” the older Dragon interjected.

  “Of the Dragons, Lord Tiamaris has had the least difficulty adapting to the Emperor’s particular vision. In some ways, the fief is a mirror of the Empire, writ small. It is Tiamaris’s hoard. It is governed by his desire and his possessiveness. But so, too, are mortal infants, even when their parents’ affection is not in doubt.

  “It is my suspicion that no other Immortal would have given the Tower the freedom it—she, my pardon, Lady—now has.”

  “Oh, it’s not that,” Tara said brightly, smiling at Kaylin. “When Kaylin attempted to help me, to protect me from the Shadows that had breached my defenses, she gave me some different words.”

  “So did Tiamaris,” Kaylin said softly, remembering the first time they had walked into the Tower together, marked mortal and immortal Dragon. But she returned Tara’s smile—it was hard not to. She was like a foundling who’d been adopted by a loving family. Remembering the Foundling Hall, there were more who hadn’t, but thanks to Marrin’s intervention, those situations didn’t last long. At all.

  Marrin was family to children who, through no fault of their own, had none. She herself had lost her child. She could have hated children, could have hated people who had what her child didn’t: life. But she built.

  So did Tiamaris. Maybe it wasn’t family in the traditional sense—Kaylin had no idea what a Dragon family was actually like. But if he could protect the people that Kaylin herself had failed so badly, it was enough. More than enough, really. She inhaled and nodded.

  Maggaron lifted his sword and they all turned.

  “Kaylin,” Tara all but shouted.

  The Ascendant was stiffening as the syllables faded. Kaylin looked immediately for the color of his eyes; they were almost indigo. “Tara, can you—”

  “There is no Shadow here,” the Avatar replied as her eyes lost their patina of mortality and became obsidian to his indigo.

  But that was irrelevant. Kaylin knew that the Shadows didn’t have to be here to call a name that could be heard across whatever it was that divided worlds. She reached for his name, as well, as if drawing a dagger. For the first time since she’d taken—or, to be fair, been all but given—his name, she felt resistance; her attempt to say the name faltered on syllables, as if her voice was sliding across whole scales in an attempt to hit the right key.

  No, she thought, as she stopped moving entirely, hers wasn’t the only discordance there. Another voice had dropped into the mix. It was a soft, low voice—but in the way that a dog’s voice is when said dog has descended from furious, yapping bark to quiet growl. She was bitterly aware that this was exactly what had made Tara so reluctant to let Maggaron out of the Tower. She was even more bitterly aware of her implied promise to protect Maggaron—and indirectly the rest of the fief—from the consequences of a distant Shadow attempting to use his name against him.

  She wasn’t about to let that happen. But she felt this other voice as if Maggaron’s name was a bridge that it had crossed to reach her. She glanced at the sword’s blade. It was now a greatsword that seemed to repel sunlight. Etched across the center flat of its blade were Maggaron’s runes. They pulsed faintly, as if they were signaling to her, and without thought—the sudden compulsion was so strong—she reached out and placed her palm against them.

  Fire shot up her arm. Blue fire. In its wake, the exposed marks of the Chosen began to glow the same brilliant azure. They didn’t change shape or form; they didn’t rearrange themselves. But she felt them all as distinct and separate entities from the rest of her. Sharp, stabbing, distinctive entities.

  She tried, once again, to speak Maggaron’s name. It didn’t matter where it came from or why it was his; here and now, it was, and she had to own it, or the Dragons would be forced to kill him. Given the sword and his size, it would be a slightly more equal battle than Kaylin would be facing—but not, in her opinion, by enough.

  Every syllable she spoke—and she realized that was the wrong verb because her lips didn’t move at all—made her arm ache. But it was only one arm; the rest of her marks remained untouched by whatever had fired up these ones. Painful or no, the sharp jolts made each syllable a physical sensation. They grounded her.

  Maggaron began to shudder; his arms shook and his hands spasmed. Even the hand that held the hilt of the sword—perhaps especially that hand. He fell to one knee and the sword’s edge tottered precariously against the cobbles, scraping them in an edge-killing way—if a magical sword had to worry about keeping a sharp edge.

  “Maggaron,” she said, hand still on the blade, which meant she was now crouched in a much more awkward position, “can you tell me who holds your name?”

  The Arkon said, “It is a master-slave connection, Private.”

  “Yes—but you can’t have a totally absent, totally faceless master. I’m not asking Maggaron for his—or her—True Name; I’m asking if he knows where or what the other entity is.”

  Maggaron’s eyes rolled up toward his skull, exposing whites.

  Maggaron.

  Maggaron. What came out wasn’t the word Kaylin said; she knew it. It was what she felt. The syllables were longer, and there were more of them—but they coalesced, in the same way his foreign tongue did, into a language she knew.

  He began to shake. She swore the ground beneath his knees shook with him, as if he were part of the earth, and rooted deeply there. His head swiveled toward the fief’s heart. Toward the shadows and the storms and the hidden ancient ruins that had only been barely glimpsed by anyone who now stood in these streets. Look, Chosen. You’ve allowed me to hear as you hear. Now, see as I see.

  She did as he asked. She saw the red she usually saw when her eyes were closed; that wasn’t helpful. Maggaron, are your eyes closed?

  Yes, Chosen.

  What am I supposed to see if your eyes are closed?

  He was silent for a minute; she felt his shock and his frustration…. Know what I know, then. Feel what I feel. If I try, I can see you; it doesn’t matter where I am. You would know that I’m looking if you were paying attention; you could force me not to look. If I try, I can see him. See what I see, Chosen.

  Hand on the flat of his blade—which would have gotten her ears boxed by one of the drillmasters in the Hawks’ training ground—she closed her own eyes, as if what she could see on these streets was too small and too confining. Given that it encompassed two Dragons and the Avatar of a fief, this said something.

  She was aware of Maggaron’s name. In the red darkness behind her lids, she could glimpse it as if it were burned into her vision. She looked at that first because there wasn’t much else to look at. It shook, as Maggaron had shaken, as if his movement was an echo of what now rocked the symbol. She reached for it, touched it, and realized that she had no clear sense of where her hands were in the darkness.

  As she touched it, as she felt it shrinking away from her figurative palms, she said it clearly. Maggaron.

  It twisted, as if attempting to avoid her. It couldn’t, of course; she knew it. She approached it, rotating it in her mind’s eye. It grew larger and larger, until it looked like something produced by a drunk architect’s nightmares. It had windows, or at least great translucent patches; it had crevices and sudden openings that seemed to be almost door-shaped. They weren’t, however, very welcoming doors; she’d been in condemned buildings on the other side of the river that seemed safer and more welcoming.

  Safer and more welcoming, however, wouldn’t get the job done, and she knew that she had to enter here. She wondered what other people made of true names and their connections to them, because she realized this was very much like magic, or like the way she saw its effects. It was a metaphor that she could understand.

  She entered one of the doors, and was not surprised—although very dismayed—when she discovered i
t had no floor. She started to fall, and caught herself, remembering that she was firmly ensconced in her own body.

  See what I see.

  Shadow.

  Darkness that was illuminated by patches of chaotic, opalescent colors which all managed to look repulsive. Kaylin was about to take issue with her metaphors when she realized that this was almost a literal vision of formless Shadow; she’d seen things that were very close before. It made her feel cold, but not enlightened; it wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know.

  She couldn’t walk among the Shadows; it wasn’t the way this particular vision worked. It was as if she was looking through an arrow slit in a tall building; she could see out, but she wasn’t close enough to be able to change the angle of view. So she watched, waiting for illumination.

  When it came, it flew in—almost literally. The Shadows darkened, and they darkened exactly the way any landscape does when something gets between it and sunlight. It was the only thing about the landscape that implied that sun shone here. She watched as the darkness spread, and realized that it was taking shape, and at that, a familiar one.

  Not very familiar; it couldn’t be.

  Dragon form was illegal within the bounds of the Empire—not that she’d seen all that much of it—and an act of treason within the borders of the City. But it was unmistakable. A dragon was landing.

  She couldn’t see where. She couldn’t see streets or ruins or even buildings—and she was pretty certain those still existed in the heart of the fiefs. It would have helped, because what she could see caused her to freeze in place, like a particularly stupid rabbit. She recognized this Dragon. She’d seen him twice before.

  Makkuron.

  The only Outcaste Dragon who still lived. He was dark, his scales obsidian in almost exactly the same way Tara’s eyes sometimes were. Flecks of color glinted off those scales, implying that light could change the way they appeared, but not by much. He turned toward her as she stared, and his eyes flared instantly red; she could almost see flame.

  “What is this?”

 
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