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Cast in ruin, p.31
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       Cast in Ruin, p.31

           Michelle Sagara
 

  He could see her.

  Of course he could see her. She could see him and she had always been aware of his name. Of the size and complexity of it; of the shape and the tone and the architecture. She had seen it once and she had known at that time that to even attempt to speak it was death. It would almost be like attempting to speak the name of a god. Worse, really, because the gods didn’t live here.

  She pulled back, retreating from Maggaron and his name, remembering only as she returned to the world and her eyes snapped open that retreating from him was a very bad idea at this time.

  But Maggaron had stopped his teetering shake and his eyes, although blue, had returned to something close to normal for a Norannir. “Chosen,” he whispered.

  She spoke Maggaron’s name like thunder, like a challenge, aware that making him a battlefield with the one Dragon she truly had cause to hate and fear was the act of a coward. The Ascendant was not an object, not a possession; he thought, felt, breathed.

  “It is inevitable,” he told her softly. “If you cannot control me, if you cannot exert that level of power, people will die.”

  “Give me your sword,” Kaylin told him, holding out both hands. She might have slapped him or beaten him instead; it would have caused less pain. She didn’t attempt to force his body to comply with her demand; she simply waited for him.

  He understood why she’d made her demand, and he acquiesced without struggle. “I’m sorry,” she said when her hands were around the giant hilt. The sword obligingly began to shrink until it was once again the size and shape of a blade meant for someone like Kaylin. “I surprised him; I think that bought us some time. But probably not much.”

  “You surprised him?”

  “Yes.”

  “You know him?”

  “Let’s just say we’ve met once or twice. I didn’t care for the experience either time.” Turning to the Arkon, she said, “I know who holds his name.”

  The Arkon, who had been listening intently to at least one-half of the conversation, said, “The Outcaste.”

  Kaylin nodded.

  After some discussion between Sanabalis and the Arkon—in Dragon, which Kaylin thought a tad unfair because she only had one free hand and could therefore only attempt to protect the hearing in one ear—the Arkon turned to Tara. Tara, in her gardening clothes, had been listening intently to everything that was said, because Tara understood Dragon. The Arkon must have known this, but chose to address her in High Barrani anyway.

  “What we require is a clear idea of when the Ascendant lost his name.”

  “What we need,” Kaylin snapped, “is a clear idea of how the Outcaste was able to pick his name out of the air. He’s a Dragon, not a god. Last I heard, Dragons weren’t particularly adept at reading the True Names of others.”

  “If we can determine when, Private, it will give the Dragon Court more information with which to work.” He placed emphasis on the syllables that involved Dragons and implied Emperor, and Kaylin swallowed the rest of her ill-advised words.

  “Does time even work the same way across different worlds?” she asked.

  He glowered. Sometimes his ill humor was its own answer; sadly, that answer lacked anything Kaylin could hang a fact on.

  But Maggaron rose—unsteadily—to his feet. He looked at the sword in Kaylin’s hand. “If you carry the blade,” he finally said, “I can…hear less.”

  “Hear or see?”

  “I do not hear my name, Chosen.”

  “Good.” Turning to the Dragons, she said, “Shall we continue?”

  The Arkon looked like the definition of the word no. Kaylin, who usually let the Arkon make the decisions because she liked her job, began to walk anyway. This was because the sword was now pulling at the hand that held it, as if it were an excited orphan at Festival. “It’s not me,” the Hawk said in a rush. “It’s the sword. It’s pulling my hand.”

  “It is almost criminal that you’re allowed to touch that sword,” the Arkon replied. “Anyone with any sense knows that magical swords cannot be allowed to rule their bearers.”

  “I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them.”

  “Then remind me to introduce a new set of laws, since the ones we have clearly assume a level of common sense that’s lacking.”

  Knowing the Arkon, who wasn’t famous for his sense of humor, he meant it. Kaylin wondered if his proposed new law would be constructed for the general case, or if it would have her name in it somewhere.

  Severn joined her; Severn, in silence, surveyed the street at all levels. Most of the windows above ground were shuttered, although many of the shutters had been warped by rain and years of constant temperature shifts. None of them were open at the moment. Kaylin felt herself relaxing as she began to acclimatize herself to the rhythm of the beat. It was a fief beat, to be sure—but there were rules about surviving fief streets; Severn had adopted them as easily as he had adopted the Hawk.

  He didn’t chide, didn’t nag, didn’t remind her to do the same. Instead, he did what she should have been doing because she couldn’t. The sword was making her arm tingle. It had also made her marks glow; she couldn’t turn the light off. But she watched in horrified fascination as that light began to spread to her other arm.

  “Severn?”

  He nodded without looking at her.

  “Please tell me the back of my neck isn’t glowing.”

  He was silent for a beat too long, and then said, “You can’t see most of it because of your hair.”

  “The hair that’s pinned up?”

  “The hair that needs to be pinned up again, yes.”

  She said something under her breath in Leontine. The Dragons, who could almost certainly hear—and understand—pretended they couldn’t. The Arkon, however, pretended badly. It occurred to Kaylin that in some ways, he lived the emotional life she wanted: he said what he was thinking, he worked on whatever caught his interest, and he mostly scared people who’d interfere out of his territory simply by breathing. It wasn’t an entirely comforting thought.

  On the other hand, it was better than thinking about the sword, and about the Outcaste Dragon. It was better than thinking about the sudden thunder that started in entirely the wrong direction in an otherwise cloudless, clear sky.

  Severn slowed, but this time so did Kaylin. They both turned toward Tara.

  “Yes,” Tara said quietly.

  “Drums?”

  “Yes. But not just drums.”

  If she’d thought the Dragon Lords had looked grim in the room that now housed the eighth corpse of Bellusdeo, she’d been wrong. They looked grim now. The streets, which had been fairly busy by fief standards, suddenly began to empty as people standing close enough to see the Dragons clearly—especially their eyes—now streamed toward doors, and through them. There was a lot of slamming.

  This sudden surge of self-preservation clearly met with the Arkon’s approval. Tara looked as if she felt vaguely guilty.

  “It’s not you,” Kaylin told her in what she hoped was a reassuring tone of voice.

  “No. But…my Lord wants his people to be comfortable in the presence of Dragons.”

  Kaylin raised a brow at Severn, who as usual said nothing.

  “I think your Lord is being overly ambitious.” The last syllable was lost to the sound of thunder. “Do you want to head to the border?”

  Tara looked torn, and Kaylin pointed at the sword’s blade. “We’re heading that way anyway, if I had to bet.”

  “What would you be willing to bet?” the Tower’s Avatar asked. She was serious. Betting, as a fief pastime, had caught her interest, but that interest had failed to blossom into actual understanding.

  “Not more than a week’s pay—but my own money.”

  “I understand that that phrase means you’re very serious.” Tara tilted her head to one side. “What I don’t understand is what you would bet with otherwise.”

  “Severn’s money.”

  “Hey!”

 
“You’re teasing me, Kaylin.”

  “A little. All you really need to understand is that it means I’m fairly certain I won’t lose.” She began to walk more quickly, which wasn’t always the smartest thing to do in the fiefs.

  “Private.” Sanabalis’s voice was on the edge of a growl, or would have been had he been Leontine. She tried to slow down and almost overbalanced.

  “Lord Sanabalis?”

  “Do you think it unlikely that the Outcaste will seek the border?”

  Thunder.

  “No.”

  “Do you think it wise that you carry this sword—and the Ascendant by default—to where he is headed?”

  “No.”

  “Then?”

  “I think wisdom in this case won’t cut it. If the Arkon is right, and if Maggaron is right, we’re headed to the ninth appearance of Bellusdeo. If, for some reason, the Outcaste gets there first, we’ve lost her.” She added because he looked as if he would say more, “We both know that the Outcaste isn’t a Shadow. The border won’t keep him out; he can come—and leave—at will.”

  “That is entirely our concern,” Sanabalis replied. Kaylin tried not to meet his gaze because she really didn’t like the color of his eyes.

  “We know the streets. He doesn’t.”

  “There is a chance that he knows what he is looking for.”

  “He’s probably looking for Maggaron. He has to have a good idea of where Maggaron actually is.” The other possibility, that he was now looking for Kaylin, she didn’t mention.

  Sanabalis, however, wasn’t a fool.

  “Sanabalis,” she said, ditching his title. “Can we afford to let him find her first?”

  The Arkon roared. There were syllables in it.

  Sanabalis closed his eyes briefly. “Very well. Lead, Private. Lead quickly.”

  Kaylin nodded. The sword, however, snickered. Easy for the sword; as far as Kaylin could tell, the sword itself was never the one at risk. But in all the stories about magical weapons—magical intelligent weapons—that Kaylin had ever heard, none of the weapons had been reported to display an ounce of humor. She’d never really noticed before. Now probably wasn’t the time to start, either, but as she’d pretty much given up on anything but not falling flat on her face, she had the time.

  Maggaron kept pace with her, flanking her on the right. Severn remained on her left, his gaze continuing to dart from street to windows and back. The streets widened as they approached the border. They approached it at an angle; the Norannir encampment, such as it was, was farther to the right. But the watchtowers that were the first thing Tiamaris had insisted on reconstructing, given the fall of the previous ones, were mostly manned by the Norannir. The Norannir didn’t like them—they clearly didn’t like being that far off solid ground—but they knew how to sound alarms when necessary, and even if they hadn’t, they could make themselves heard for miles. They all had voices like seasoned Swords.

  Chosen, the sword said. Kaylin nearly jumped out of her own skin.

  Have you been listening to everything?

  I have. We are close. Will you risk giving me to Maggaron once again?

  Kaylin hesitated. We’re going to have to play that by ear, she finally said.

  What does that mean?

  I’ll decide when we get there.

  We are almost there. Can you see or feel it? the sword asked, sounding almost hopeful.

  It? Do you mean her? Kaylin looked up as the sword’s pull on her hand—hells, her whole arm—eased.

  No.

  Kaylin swore. The Dragons, who had been following at a safe distance, did what she assumed was the Dragon equivalent of the same thing; it was certainly louder.

  Yes, Kaylin told the sword. I can see it.

  In the street of the fief—Collande, if she remembered the name correctly—a miniature cloud had formed. Sadly, that description was literal.

  CHAPTER 20

  “Tara!” Kaylin pivoted, sword in hand, in the direction of the Avatar. Like something emerging from a cocoon, familiar wings erupted from the Avatar’s back, moving at a speed that implied danger for even the air around them. They were wide and high, but Tara remained on the ground for the moment.

  “It is not,” she said, her voice resonating as if it were a Dragon’s, “a Shadowstorm.”

  Given that she was now wearing armor that was every bit as dark as her wings and her eyes, Kaylin inferred that Shadowstorm or no, Tara didn’t assume it was safe.

  “It is not safe,” Tara said, as if she could—this far from the base of her power—still read Kaylin’s thoughts. “Storms—ancient storms—bring change, transformation, and often, death.”

  But Kaylin, sword in hand, stepped toward the cloud. “They also,” she said quietly as she passed the Avatar, “brought me to you when you first woke. And brought me back.”

  “You are not afraid?”

  Kaylin lifted her arms; the runes on them were glowing brightly. But the blue had taken on shades of the roiling grays and silvers that comprised the cloud itself. The buildings beyond the barrier of ground-level clouds were dim and hazy.

  “Where do you think it will take you?” Tara asked. Both the Arkon and Sanabalis had fallen completely silent. Kaylin was grateful for the silence, although she thought it was probably a bad sign.

  “Not me,” Kaylin replied softly. “I don’t think this storm is for me.” She called Maggaron forward, and silent, he came. He was shaking. On the other hand, so was the ground.

  “Private,” the Arkon said, his voice as deep and rumbling as the movement of stones. “Does the sword speak to you now?”

  “Not in so many words.”

  “What are you being instructed to do?”

  “Stand my ground.”

  “And wait?”

  Kaylin glanced at Severn. “And wait,” she said in exactly the wrong tone of voice. Severn immediately began to unwind the weapon chain from around his waist.

  “Where is the danger coming from?” he asked.

  She glanced up, past Maggaron’s shoulders, toward a sky that was becoming shades of gray. Severn, to his credit, didn’t wince; instead, he became grim and remote. He understood what she feared.

  “It is good to know,” the Arkon said in a loud and brittle voice, “that the mortals who serve the Emperor’s Law with such dedication are so optimistic. That that level of optimism implies insanity is less of a boon. Lord Sanabalis?”

  Sanabalis turned not to the Arkon but to the Avatar. “Lady,” he said gravely. “I request that you inform your Lord of our situation.”

  “He is now aware,” was the remote reply. “And he has left the evening defense of the fief in the hands of Morse. He will join us shortly.”

  “Will he grant us his permission to assume our native forms?”

  “Given the gravity of the circumstances, yes. He asks me to remind you both,” she added, her voice sliding into the quieter, normal range, “that the Emperor himself has granted dispensation for the breaking of the prohibition where the Outcaste is involved.”

  Sanabalis stood back from the group. He grimaced, raised a brow in Kaylin’s direction, and then turned his back on her. She understood why when he began to disrobe.

  “The clothing doesn’t survive the transformation,” the Arkon told her. “And we have some time. That is generally not the case when we are required, by circumstance, to assume the stronger form.”

  “Doesn’t the Imperial Court cover the costs of lost robes?”

  “Of course it does—but the money has to come from somewhere. And at the moment,” he added, his eyes narrowing, “the exact amount of money left for such trivial affairs is in question. I assume the Hawks have made no forward progress?”

  Kaylin tried not to bristle. “I don’t know, Arkon. I’m not part of that investigation, and the information concerning it is given out strictly on a need-to-know basis.”

  “How surprising.”

  Before he could say any more, Kaylin took th
e career risk of cutting him off. “Can I point out—with all due respect—that this is perhaps not the time for this discussion?”

  “The day you are even capable of all respect that is due is the day that Lord Diarmat decides you are ready to graduate. I do not,” he added, in case it was necessary, “think that will happen any time soon.” His eyes were a pale shade of orange-red, which was odd, given the color of Sanabalis’s. “It is my attempt at gallows humor, Private. I hear that mortals are fascinated with humor in difficult situations.

  “Sanabalis, are you finished?”

  The answer was a roar. Sanabalis stood dead center in the street, his wings folded across his long, long back. He was gray, perhaps a shade darker than he had been the last time she’d seen him take this form—but something in the ambient light made that gray glitter like silver.

  The Arkon lifted a brow; his entire expression reminded Kaylin of the midwives’ guildmaster’s impatience with the young—all of whom were generally older than Kaylin. She avoided saying as much because the cloud in the middle of the street began to condense, which wasn’t what she’d been expecting.

  The Arkon roared. Kaylin wanted wax to plug her ears; given the amount of time she’d been spending around Dragons, she felt it should be part of her standard kit. Sanabalis roared back—and honestly, they were yards apart, was that level of sound really necessary?—before he took to the skies.

  The Arkon remained on the ground. When Kaylin glanced at him, she was surprised to see his color: he was golden. Apparently Maggaron was surprised by it, as well. In his Dragon form, all pretense of age vanished. Looking at both Sanabalis and the Arkon, it was impossible to tell who was older; the Arkon, in her opinion, was slightly larger, but it could go either way.

  “Sanabalis,” the Arkon said, choosing to speak his traditional Barrani, but with more growl and depth, “will watch the skies. I believe I hear young Tiamaris, as well.”

  “You are correct,” Tara told him. “My Lord is almost here.”

  Almost was three seconds away. Tiamaris buzzed ground, his wings nearly clipping rooftops on the flyby. He was a blur of gleaming red as he rose to meet Sanabalis. A loud blur.

 
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