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Cast in ruin, p.35
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       Cast in Ruin, p.35

           Michelle Sagara
 
But this?

  This now looked like a body might look if it had been skinned alive, and then had most of its trailing bits scattered as far as they could go and still be somehow minimally attached. And alive. Still alive. She dropped instinctively to one knee and she forced herself to keep watching; her eyes were tearing; she was afraid to blink.

  Everything she’d seen—everything—about words and runes and marks had been light or shadow; nebulous things. This was visceral. This was—

  Oh.

  She did look down, then. Not to her own marks, which were now as flat and dark as they always were, but to her hands. She turned them over, examining her palms. She’d helped to deliver dozens of babies, and during those births—always the messy ones, always the difficult ones—there had been blood and water and slimy bits. There’d been fear, too—because sometimes it was just so damn close, the line between life and death so damn thin. There wasn’t anything pretty about it at all. But there was something beautiful about it, about the struggle for life, the promise that while death was—for most of the City—inevitable, life continued to offer the fear and hope of its promise.

  She began to speak. This time, there was no magic in her words.

  “What are you doing?” the Arkon snapped.

  She shook her head. “It’s just a verse. Like a child’s verse. One of the midwives always says it when the birth is difficult.”

  “It’s not Elantran.”

  “No. It’s religious.”

  “Which would make it pointless.”

  “Not pointless, no,” Kaylin replied. She felt some of the fear drain out of her. No, not drain, but shift. She looked up again, and this time she was steadier. “Please, let go of me.”

  “Are you going to try to interfere?”

  “No. Not as such.”

  Severn’s hand slid from her shoulder immediately; the Arkon’s took a little longer. But she was calmer now; she could wait. When nothing held her back, she walked slowly to where the word in all its visceral glory, hovered. She could touch it now. She could find spaces through which her arms or hands might fit. Why, she wasn’t sure—but it didn’t matter. It had dwindled in size; Maggaron’s protections had not.

  She reached out and put her hands on Bellusdeo’s forehead, the way she might have had the Dragon been a new mother in her first labor. She brushed matted hair out of the Dragon’s widened eyes. She couldn’t do more—there wasn’t enough space. But she didn’t need to. Bellusdeo’s eyes met hers; they were a honey-brown—the same color as the eyes of all the corpses in the Tower’s morgue.

  But they weren’t dull or cloudy, and they moved; that was enough.

  “You can do this,” Kaylin said. She wasn’t even certain Bellusdeo would understand what she was saying, but that didn’t matter, either; the only thing that did was tone. Hers. She kept her voice as even and soft as she had ever kept it, and she repeated the words over and over again. She didn’t have to break for screaming or swearing the way she often did when tending to a woman in labor, and the cadence of her words, if not the meaning, made itself felt.

  This close to the Dragon, Kaylin could see the wounds she bore. She wanted to heal them, but as she examined them—at a frustrating distance—she realized that it was the last thing she could try: the wounds themselves were bleeding, but they weren’t simple wounds; the parts of the word that were now blood red were tenuously attached to the entry points.

  Kaylin couldn’t tell if the blood was flowing from the Dragon or to her; at this point, it didn’t matter. Bellusdeo, cradled in Maggaron’s arms, was struggling; there was no outward sign of that struggle. “You can do this,” Kaylin said again, picking up the words and the thought, stroking her forehead as she did.

  Bellusdeo’s body stiffened suddenly. To Kaylin—not Maggaron—she said distinctly, “I’m scared.”

  This, too, Kaylin understood. “I know. I know. It’s all right to be afraid.”

  For just a moment longer, the Dragon held herself stiff and taut—and then, of a sudden, she collapsed. It should have frightened Kaylin; it didn’t. Before she could so much as check for a pulse, the body began to fade. Maggaron didn’t say a word; he held the diminishing weight as carefully and completely as he had held the sword. Kaylin touched his shoulder—or his arm, which is what she could reach—and squeezed. It was a universal gesture of encouragement. She hoped. She felt her arms begin to tingle.

  “Watch,” she told him.

  He was.

  The whole of the word was dark and red and wet; it was also warm. The lines peeled away from where they held the Ascendant caged, as if creating a door or a tunnel through which he might escape. When he didn’t move, the word did. It extended, at its closest, to an inch from Maggaron’s chest. Kaylin could feel its warmth; it was body heat. “Just…watch.”

  Arms empty, he did.

  The word was, as she had said, too complex to memorize, too difficult to speak. But Tiamaris had once told her to look at ancient words for harmony of form, and she knew, looking at this one, that it had achieved that. Everything was now where it should be: everything except Bellusdeo, who had vanished so entirely she might never have been here at all.

  Maggaron’s eyes were wet and wide; he was silent. His arms were crossed over his chest, as if he was still attempting to hold what was no longer there. But it wasn’t over yet. Above their heads, the Dragons were attempting to shred each other’s wings, and some of the fallout felt an awful lot like blood. No one, on the other hand, attempted to move. Or speak. It was as if the entire world—or at least the parts of it that were on the ground—was holding its collective breath and had none left with which to make noise.

  The flattened golden remnants of the word she had identified as Maggaron’s began to bend. They stretched horizontally, expanding above and beneath the massive word until they were so thin they were almost transparent. Kaylin smiled up at the Ascendant as those fine, fine sheets of gold suddenly shifted, wrapping themselves around the word that had finally, fully emerged.

  “I don’t—I don’t understand,” he whispered, allowing his arms to drop to his sides, where they trembled visibly.

  But Kaylin did.

  The gold thickened, tightened, squeezing what had been almost globular into something taller and slimmer; it compressed whatever remained beneath it as it did, refining its shape, its length, adding texture and elongating parts of its form, as if it was a potter working with wet clay. Golden clay.

  “Do you recognize the color?” Kaylin asked in the same hushed voice Maggaron had used.

  He didn’t answer, not even to nod, but his mouth opened on an interrupted word, and stayed there.

  It was true: hope could be unkind. You opened yourself up to the worst of wounds because you wanted to believe that something good could finally happen. But if you didn’t? You missed this. This intense and perfect moment in which, while the world was almost literally going to hells all around you, hope and reality blended in a single, perfect note.

  The form that emerged now was the large—significantly large—form of a great, golden Dragon, its new wings gleaming, its tail almost disappearing down the street. Its neck was longer and finer than any Dragon neck Kaylin had ever seen—but admittedly, she hadn’t been doing a lot of objective observation on those occasions. Its head was higher off the ground than Maggaron’s, and its jaws were, at best guess, longer than Kaylin was. Its neck was ridged, its scales were large and perfect, its ears were higher and finer than an angry Leontine’s. For a moment it hung, suspended two feet above the mundane ground, and then its wings snapped open, shutting out sky.

  It rose on its hind legs and it roared, and even though Kaylin’s ears were ringing before the roar died, she was grateful; if it were the last sound she ever heard, she’d still consider herself almost blessed. The noise faded, and the roars that followed were vastly less welcome, if more familiar: three Dragons. Tiamaris, Sanabalis, and the Arkon.

  The Outcaste’s roar joined theirs, its te
nor distinctly different.

  But the golden Dragon now swiveled its long neck, turning its head toward Maggaron. Because Kaylin knew a lot of Leontines, she didn’t automatically assume a display of fangs was an act of aggression; sometimes, it was a smile. This time, it was almost a purr.

  “Maggaron.”

  He was openmouthed and silent.

  “Don’t you recognize me?”

  When he failed to answer, she pushed him. He fell over.

  She snickered. It was a much more resonant version of a similar snicker Kaylin had once heard. “Come, Maggaron. You have carried me in safety for years beyond your count; let me carry you. Come.”

  He levered himself off the ground looking like a much smaller man than eight feet should have allowed.

  “Come; we must meet the enemy.”

  He looked very, very dubious as he attempted to find someplace to sit on her broad and unfortunately spiky back. Kaylin sympathized. She’d ridden on the back of a Dragon before. Maggaron looked as if he’d rather face Shadowstorms. He hesitated.

  “Maggaron!”

  “Bellusdeo?” he asked in a voice that was so full of fear and hope Kaylin wanted to plug her ears just to give him some privacy.

  “Yes. Finally, yes.”

  “It’d probably help him,” Kaylin told the Dragon, “if you let your feet touch the ground before you made him climb up.”

  She snorted, and flames the color of sunlight raced down streets that had already seen too much fire.

  “You remember—you remember everything?” Maggaron finally managed to stutter.

  She snorted again. “I do. I remember what you remember. I remember all nine of my lives. I remember the enemy. Come, let us do what we could not do before the cities of the Norannir fell.”

  He mounted then, finding either his courage or his strength. She bore him up, effortlessly, into the sky’s height, her wings so wide they cast a shadow across the entire street in which Kaylin, Severn, and the Arkon were standing.

  Kaylin hugged Severn tightly, and then turned to ask the Arkon a question. It would have been a relevant question, too—but the minute she saw his face, it evaporated. His eyes were wide, and they were a gold very similar to the color of Bellusdeo’s Dragon form. Kaylin had seen that before—admittedly not very recently—but she had never seen what she saw now: tears. Wide-eyed, lips turned up at the corner in something too tremulous to be called a smile, he let those tears roll unheeded down his cheeks.

  Bellusdeo seemed to gain speed as she gained height, at least from the vantage of the ground. Kaylin shaded her eyes just to watch; the golden Dragon was aiming directly for the black one. The fact that Tiamaris also happened to be in the way didn’t slow her down at all.

  This time, when the Outcaste wheeled in the air, something clipped one wing, and he wobbled in flight, righting himself as he approached ground.

  “Severn—”

  “Already on it,” was the grim reply. The chain began to spin, tracing an arc in the air directly above their heads.

  The Arkon roared. Even in his human form, he was loud. The Outcaste saw him; Kaylin was certain of that. But he saw her, as well, and he roared, syllables cresting the sound. She didn’t understand the words; it didn’t matter. She saw the breadth of his chest expand as he inhaled, and she threw her arms up automatically as he exhaled.

  He didn’t exhale the fire that seemed to be more common to Dragon breath than air; he exhaled Shadow. The Arkon, however, went the traditional route in response, and his flames were so hot they were hardly red at all. They hit the Shadow-breath that rushed toward ground like smoke with weight, and the Shadow screamed. Huge gusts of black, roiling mist became black ash and smoke in an eye-blink.

  Some of it escaped the Arkon’s fire and continued its downward rush. None of it touched Kaylin; it skittered off the moving, linked wall that rotated above her head. But it landed in the streets, and where it landed, it took root.

  Kaylin drew daggers, watching as the Shadows began to coalesce.

  But they were coalescing beside a Dragon. If Shadows had any brains, they’d clearly left them in the Dragon’s maw. The Arkon didn’t have a sword; he didn’t need one. Nor, apparently, did he need to be in his Dragon form to use his claws; he certainly didn’t need the form to breathe fire. Just incentive. She had no idea what form might have emerged from the Shadows that had managed to survive, because he didn’t give them that chance.

  Shadow, however, didn’t need a cohesive form to speak.

  He will kill you for this.

  They were talking to Kaylin.

  She looked up to where the Outcaste was now fighting on two fronts: a red dragon he had injured and would clearly love to kill, and a golden one. The latter, he evaded, but not easily, and if he had some compunction about harming Bellusdeo, she clearly didn’t reciprocate. She did speak—Dragon words—and he responded; his was the louder, clearer voice.

  Kaylin had never, ever wanted to learn a language so badly in her life. She turned to the Arkon. “What did she say?”

  “She made her displeasure with his existence clear.”

  “That’s it?”

  “She made some claims about how she was going to alleviate her displeasure.”

  “What did he say?”

  The Arkon was silent, in part because the Outcaste hadn’t finished speaking. Bellusdeo didn’t seem intent on giving him the chance, on the other hand; she could move so damn fast she was almost more snake than great-winged creature. Kaylin noted that Tiamaris made no attempt to speak at all; whatever he had to say, he’d already said it.

  “Arkon?”

  The Arkon’s expression slowly lost the radiance of joy and awe that had briefly transformed it; what was left in its wake was an expression meant for graveyards.

  He said in very quiet Barrani, “Old friend,” and she knew she would never get a translation of what had been said from him.

  “Wait, where’s Sanabalis?”

  “I believe he has landed on the Imperial side of the Ablayne, and is repairing in haste to the Palace.”

  The Outcaste retreated—and it was a retreat, not a rout. He was strong, that much Kaylin had always understood. Strong enough to withstand two Dragons, and Kaylin privately thought he would have had less difficulty if he’d been intent on injuring both of them.

  She was afraid that Bellusdeo would follow him beyond the fief’s borders, and it was clearly a fear the Arkon shared—but in the end, she wheeled back to where Tiamaris hovered. Tiamaris himself knew the borders of the fief—even in the air—better than anyone but Tara, and he didn’t attempt to leave his own territory.

  But he waited until Bellusdeo returned, and followed where she led. She led, of course, straight back to the scorched and scored streets in which she’d left Kaylin. She didn’t even have trouble landing, although her expression—all yards of it—implied that the air was most where she wanted to be. Her eyes were red, but the red faded to a dull orange by the time she folded her wings across her back, dislodging her passenger.

  She eyed him as he wobbled himself to his feet. “You almost strangled me,” she told him, snorting smoke.

  “I’m—I’m sorry, Lady—but I—”

  She snickered. In a Dragon her size, it sounded all wrong. Maggaron actually reddened, which caused her snicker to deepen. Then she looked down at her very large paws—claws?—and shook her head. Kaylin, who had watched a Dragon transform in close quarters, had enough time to look away before Bellusdeo once again occupied a human-size portion of the street. Without any of the normal, human-size clothing.

  This caused the poor Ascendant to redden further and stammer enough that whatever it was he was trying to say couldn’t be deciphered. Bellusdeo laughed. Turning to Kaylin, she said, “You see? This is what he’s like. He’s been like this for centuries now—and it never gets old.”

  “Lady,” he said, looking pained.

  “Oh, hush,” she replied just before she threw her arms around hi
m. Her eyes were a brilliant, liquid gold. “You did it,” she told him as he obligingly bent and lifted her, settling the bulk of her weight on his left shoulder. “You brought me—brought us—home.” She glanced up at a sky still occupied by a large, red Dragon. “It seems a bit on the primitive side; it’ll take some work.”

  The Arkon winced, but—to Kaylin’s amazement—failed to correct her. This seemed a tad unfair. “Bellusdeo.”

  She glanced at him from the vantage of the Ascendant’s height, and her flawless skin grew momentarily wrinkled around the bridge of her nose. Then her eyes widened, although they remained gold. “Blood of the Ancients— Lannagaros, is that you?” She spoke in slightly accented High Barrani.

  Kaylin looked at the Arkon.

  The Arkon looked, momentarily, at the ground.

  “Lannagaros?” Kaylin asked him.

  The Arkon winced. “That is not what I am now called,” he told Bellusdeo.

  “Oh? What are you now called?”

  “The Arkon.”

  She nearly fell off her seat; her seat caught her. “You’re the Arkon?”

  “That is my title, yes.”

  “But what happened to—”

  “Bellusdeo, I feel this discussion is inappropriate for the venue.”

  “Oh. How surprising.” There was more sarcasm in that voice than Kaylin had ever heard directed at the Arkon. She glanced up at the sky again. “Who is that young man, anyway?”

  “He is Tiamaris of the Arandel Flight.”

  Bellusdeo shook her head. “Clearly things have changed since we ran into the Shadowfold. But we’re back now. I’m sure it can all be explained.” She hesitated and then twisted around on Maggaron’s shoulders. “But…all these buildings. Do you keep a lot of humans now?”

  Kaylin didn’t even bristle.

  The Arkon, however, had had enough of this particular conversation, and retreated by bellowing Tiamaris down from his own stretch of sky. It was, of course, in Dragon, and whatever he said was enough to get Tiamaris to land; Tiamaris wasn’t notably more flexible than Bellusdeo had been. On the other hand, when he transformed, he made himself some armor.

 
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