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Cast in ruin, p.5
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       Cast in Ruin, p.5

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “No. The strangers—who call themselves the People in their own tongue, which we may adopt as their formal racial designation in the archives—have their own customs and their own experiences in dealing with Shadow, and those customs are not in accordance with fief customs.”

  “Meaning?”

  “They walk around more heavily armed than any previous fieflord’s thugs, they are between seven and eight feet tall, they are silent and while they are not immediately violent, they are not friendly. They do not keep curfew, which, given their size and ability with their weapons, is not actually an issue—for them. It has led to some speculation on the part of the humans living in the fief that they are Shadows themselves, or in league with the Shadows.”

  Kaylin winced. “And since there are Shadows, of an unspecified and subtle nature, running around the fief—”

  “Very good. You now understand most of the difficulties.”

  “I do.”

  “But?” He used the Elantran word for this.

  “I don’t understand why it requires your presence in the fief. The fief of Tiamaris demonstrably already has a Dragon Lord of its own, and from all accounts he’s a damn sight more effective at scouring the streets for Ferals and other nightmares than any of the previous fieflords before him.”

  Sanabalis nodded. “Your point is taken,” he said, rising. “I have one meeting before I am free to leave the Palace. I will leave you both here, and return when I am able to depart.”

  “He didn’t answer the damn question,” she said—but only after the door had been closed for a good five minutes. Even Dragon hearing had its limits.

  “You noticed.” Severn was frowning, but it was a slight frown.

  “What?”

  “I don’t think he thinks your presence in the fief of Tiamaris is necessary.” Before she could speak, he held up one hand. “I think he wants you there. Why?”

  She grimaced. “I’d like to think I was necessary or useful.”

  “But?”

  “Diarmat also asked that I be seconded to the Palace. To him, directly, for more intensive lessons.”

  “This occurred at the same time?”

  “If I had to guess, Sanabalis actually wrote out his request first. But…he probably had some idea of what Diarmat would demand. You don’t know what he’s like, Severn.”

  “I have a very good idea of what Lord Diarmat is like.”

  “Is he still alive only because he’s a Dragon and they’re so bloody hard to kill?”

  “Probably. We’re going to need to change,” he added.

  “Why?”

  “Fiefs.”

  “They’ve got a Dragon for a fieflord. He’s trying to institute reasonable laws—and install the people who’ll enforce them. I don’t think the Hawk is going to matter one way or the other.”

  He folded his arms across his chest, and Kaylin grimaced. “All right, I’ll ditch the tabard, but I’m not ditching the armor until I have a better idea of what we’re likely to be up against.”

  Severn rose and headed toward the window view that Kaylin liked so much. From the slight angle of the back of his head, Kaylin guessed that he was looking at the Halls of Law, or at the flags that stood atop each of its three towers. But after a minute, he turned.

  “We haven’t talked,” he said after a long pause.

  “About what?”

  He didn’t dignify the question with an answer, which was fair. Kaylin shifted in her chair in a way that was suspiciously like squirming. She hesitated, glad that there wasn’t much in the way of food; the only time she had trouble eating was when she was nervous, and a life of near starvation hadn’t managed to kill that response.

  Severn said nothing, not with words. But he watched, gaze almost unblinking. It was hard to meet that gaze, and the floor suddenly became a whole lot more interesting.

  “I don’t—” She wasn’t one of nature’s natural liars, and Severn deserved better than that. Plus, he’d know. He always did. “I almost can’t remember most of what happened when I was trapped in the…Other. No, that’s not what I mean— I remember it, it just doesn’t make sense. Here,” she said, thumping the ground heavily with her foot, “things are solid. The wood is hard. The carpet is soft. There’s wind and the noise of the street. Well, the halls, but you know what I mean. There’s food. There are people.

  “There are no elements wandering around. There are no true names floating in the air like signposts. It’s normal—it’s normal, but it’s less—”

  “Clean?”

  “Maybe. Less simple. Everything there was absolute. To speak to any of it—elements, emptiness—I had to be as absolute as I could. I didn’t have time to be afraid.”

  “You were afraid.”

  She grimaced. “Yes, but on most days I have a half-dozen different fears pulling me in different directions; I balance them.”

  “So, you’re afraid?”

  “No!” She paused and looked up at his face again. “…Maybe.”

  “Can you tell me what you’re afraid of?”

  “On the wrong day? My own shadow.” It was a dodge, and he knew it. “…I’m not good at this. I suck at talking about anything really important.”

  “You asked me why I love you.”

  She nodded; she could hardly forget that.

  “Can I ask you the same question?”

  “Severn—”

  “Why do you love me?”

  She wanted to lie then. It was such a visceral reaction, her mouth was open and words were almost falling out. But she held them, offering different words in their stead. “Because you’ve always been there for me. Even, apparently, when I didn’t know it. There’s nothing you’ve got that you wouldn’t give me if I asked for it. You know me. You understand me. You’ve seen me at my worst, and you’re still here.” She sucked in air. “You’ll never ask me to do anything I can’t do. You’d never ask me to do anything that would hurt me. You’re stronger than I am, Severn. You always have been.

  “I admire it. I…rely on it, even when I shouldn’t.”

  “Kaylin, you think relying on anyone is proof that you’re worthless.”

  “No—I don’t. I don’t anymore. I did. It’s true. But…if we can’t rely on each other some of the time, there’d be no point.”

  “No point?”

  “No point in people existing at all. There’d be just one thing. If what I heard was true, that’s all there was for a long time.”

  “Then I don’t see the problem.”

  “No, you don’t.” She rose and began to pace. “And I—I’m not good at talking.”

  He waited, because he was good at waiting. “Are you afraid of losing me?”

  “Yes. But not because you leave. Because you’ll die.” Gods, she hated this. She was squirming, he knew it. “I’m afraid,” she finally said in as neutral a voice as she could manage, “that you want me.”

  “Want?”

  “Want. Desire.”

  He stared at her. This was different from watchfulness. “You’re not afraid of wanting me.”

  “…No.”

  “But you don’t.”

  She walked to the window. Touched it with both her palms, framing the three Towers of Law that formed the triangular structure she called home. “It’s not that I don’t,” she finally said. “But I’m not afraid of what I want. No—sometimes I am, but not in that way. I’m not afraid of what it will do to me.”

  “And to me?”

  She shook her head. “I don’t have a lot of experience,” she finally said. “But the experience I do have—it’s all bad, Severn.” Swallowing, throat becoming drier by the syllable, she made herself continue, because it was important. “If I had been prettier, if I had been more helpless, I would have been forced into one of Barren’s brothels. If Morse hadn’t found me, if someone else had found me first—

  “I know that life. I understand what it means. I understand what sex is between the girls who weren’t as lucky
and the men who see them as something to buy. It’s about power, it’s about money, it’s about—sex.”

  “Kaylin—”

  “No, let me finish, because I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say this again. For those girls, that’s all it is. If they love anyone, if they can, they mostly love each other because men are just business, or far worse. There’s no room in that for anything else.

  “I didn’t have to suffer that.” She closed her eyes, blocking out the Halls of Law—and the temerity of her own transparent reflection. “I had Barren,” she said in a much lower voice. “I don’t—I can’t—talk about that. Not directly. Not yet. But you understand what I mean, right?”

  He was silent.

  “I didn’t want him. I never did. He was everything ugly to me, everything I feared. Everything I would have run from if I could. I can’t think why I didn’t. I would never be so afraid of him now. But—I wasn’t me, then.

  “I remember him so well. I have nightmares about him. But I did what he wanted me to do because he wanted me to do it. I killed people because he wanted it. I—” She wanted to choke. “I can still see his face. When I think of—when I—it’s his face. It’s his expression. I don’t know if it was desire. I think it was. It was certainly about power. His, my lack. It was always about power.” She opened her eyes again. She could see echoes of her face, of her distant, thirteen-year-old face, in the glass.

  “…I’m afraid. Of seeing that. Of seeing that desire on anyone else’s face. It’s me I don’t trust.”

  “Kaylin—”

  “I tried,” she continued, not looking at him. “When I was seventeen. I tried. We’d gone out together, we’d done a little drinking. I was attracted to him. I did want to be with him. He knew it; I knew it. We went back to his place—it was about the same size as mine.

  “And he kissed me, and that was fine—it was awkward, but it was fine. But…there was more. I—I froze, and then I…I couldn’t stop myself. I broke his jaw. Teela thought it was funny. I panicked, I—he didn’t speak to me again for two months, and I don’t blame him. It’s just I—it’s what I saw. It’s what I saw in his expression. And he was a nice guy, Severn. He was a nice, decent guy. I knew he wasn’t Barren. I wasn’t thirteen. I wasn’t helpless, and I had a choice.

  “But knowing all that didn’t matter. I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t see that look on his face, that expression. I just—” She hit the glass hard. Nothing happened. “I don’t want to see that in you.” She turned then.

  He was still standing, still watching her. “And Nightshade?”

  It was so not the question she wanted to hear. She recoiled from it, as if it were a cockroach colony and she were food. But what she said was, “Ask me again later. I don’t have an answer, and I don’t want to find one right now.”

  Because he was Severn, he nodded. He didn’t ask about their future; didn’t ask if they even had one. He didn’t ask her for empty words or for promises that she couldn’t make or wouldn’t keep.

  Sanabalis took forty-five minutes to return, and if there had been any doubt about why he’d left, the distant, booming roar of Dragon “discussion” shook the floors. It was far enough away that Kaylin didn’t try to cover her ears. She wondered if it was possible to learn the language without being deafened.

  Sanabalis, however, returned in different clothing. It wasn’t armor exactly—Dragons didn’t wear any armor that wasn’t natural. The wearing of their own armor in human form, however, made actual clothing difficult. He nodded his brief approval when he saw no obvious sign of the Hawk on their clothing. “A carriage will be waiting for us in the yard.”

  The carriage took them to the Ablayne, no farther. Given that it was an Imperial Carriage, Kaylin understood why. Dragons were touchy about their personal land. Even Tiamaris. She glanced at Sanabalis.

  “I’m surprised,” she finally said, when they stood at the foot of the bridge that led into the fief of Tiamaris.

  “What surprises you?”

  “You’re coming with us.” She glanced at Severn; Severn was content to leave the conversation in her hands for the moment.

  “Oh?”

  “You’re a Dragon. He’s a Dragon. It’s his territory and you serve the Emperor, which would be, for his purposes, the wrong Dragon.”

  Sanabalis lifted a brow, and then a faint smile moved the corners of his lips. Not by much, though. “It is, as you surmise, tricky. I have been Lord Tiamaris’s teacher, and I am definitely his senior; I am his superior in most areas of knowledge. He, however, has always possessed better information about the fiefs as they are now than any of the rest of the Dragon Court. I do not serve Lord Tiamaris.

  “But Lord Tiamaris serves the Emperor as a member of the Dragon Court. Therefore accommodations can be requested.”

  “I’m surprised Diarmat allowed it.”

  “Lord Diarmat is not the Emperor. He is, as you’ve no doubt surmised, the most conservative member of the Court, and not without reason. Lord Tiamaris accepted the Emperor’s request that I oversee some of the resettlement. The Emperor is concerned.”

  Kaylin nodded and led the way toward the Tower automatically. Sanabalis, however, shook his head. “Lord Tiamaris is not currently at the Tower; he is waiting near the interior border.”

  “Why?”

  “There have been some difficulties. And no, before you ask, I will not elaborate. This is his domain, Kaylin; he will tell you what he wishes you to know. The etiquette that governs my presence here is of necessity more strict than any etiquette that governs yours.”

  The walk to the border took longer than the walk to the Tower. The streets weren’t empty—but they were empty compared to the stretch of beat that Kaylin and Severn normally covered. Here and there, some obvious reconstruction was already under way, and in those locations, there were more people; they were busy enough that three strangers passing by didn’t elicit panic, although it did elicit the usual suspicious looks that were at home on the face of fief citizens anywhere.

  Sanabalis paused when Kaylin did, and resumed walking when Kaylin did; he didn’t make any comment or otherwise attempt to interact with people. He did, however, pause in front of the small gardens that seemed to front most of the buildings along the streets.

  “It’s Tara’s experiment,” Kaylin told him. These gardens, unlike the usual streetside fare, were entirely practical, and given to the growing of food. “I think some of the more damaged areas now have no buildings; they have larger gardens—small farms, really.”

  “And the former occupants?”

  “They lost a lot of people before Tiamaris took the Tower. And even if they hadn’t, no one would be stupid enough to complain to the fieflord about something as inconsequential as having a place to live.” She didn’t even attempt to keep the bitterness out of her voice, although she knew that particular fear was no longer warranted in this fief.

  “You are wrong,” Sanabalis said. It surprised her.

  “People complain to Tiamaris about having no roof over their head?”

  “Ah, no. They do, however, speak to the Lady.”

  “They have to get through Tiamaris first.”

  “No. Apparently, they don’t. She hears them regardless.”

  Kaylin smiled. “She’s nowhere near as terrifying as Tiamaris.”

  “No, and that is strange to me; Lord Tiamaris has the hearing that all our race are born with. He cannot hear the words the people speak if they are judicious about their location; the Avatar can. She can also see what she chooses to see, if she bends her will toward it, no matter where within the fief’s boundaries it occurs. But she invokes a very strange awe in her people, and very little dread.”

  “Have you met Tara?”

  “I have.”

  “And you don’t understand why she doesn’t terrify them?”

  “No, I do not.”

  “Was she wearing her gardening clothing?”

  “I fail to see what her clothing
has to do with the subject at hand.” Dragons.

  It was fairly easy to find Tiamaris, when all was said and done. From about two blocks away—where blocks in this case were mostly defined by the charred remnants of what had previously been some of the sturdier buildings in the fief—Kaylin could see the strangers. They didn’t walk the way the rest of the mortals in the fief did; they walked as if they owned, or intended to own, the streets. They bristled with weapons, and although their armor wasn’t in the best of repair, it was a damn sight better than what the rest of the citizens were wearing.

  Not that there were any “rest of” anywhere in sight.

  If, however, the strangers had suddenly decided to become meek and terrified, it would still have been easy to find Tiamaris at this distance because he was, at the moment, a very large Dragon. She glanced at Sanabalis, who didn’t appear to have noticed.

  “Is he always like this?”

  “Frequently. The Dragon form is more robust.”

  They made their way down the street, which attracted attention. It was easy to see why; they were the only more or less human-looking people who were actually approaching. “Please don’t tell me that they’re serving as his personal guard.”

  “It is…an informal guard.”

  “Great.” The very large sword that was being lowered in their general direction sure as hells didn’t look informal. It did, however, make Kaylin and Severn stop much farther away than guards or thugs usually did; whatever Barren had managed to scrape off the streets had seldom been an actual threat. She lifted both hands, and turned them, palms out, toward the two men who had lowered their weapons; Severn did the same, although his hands were closer to his weapons. The two eight-foot-tall giants exchanged a few words and started to head toward the taller outline of Tiamaris.

  Sanabalis, however, had decided that waiting wasn’t in the cards. He roared. The two men stiffened, which gave Kaylin a moment of petty satisfaction. Tiamaris turned.

  “You’ll have to teach me how to do that,” Kaylin muttered.

  “If it were even possible, I would still refuse,” Sanabalis replied. “Lord Diarmat would find it…impertinent.”

 
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