Authors: Michelle Sagara
Tags: #General, #Epic, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
She jumped back from the locker door, wondering whether or not she’d fallen asleep standing up. Having done it on one or two occasions, she didn’t wonder if it were possible, but it was never anything like good sleep, and it usually ended abruptly with the unpleasant sensation of falling, and the even less pleasant sensation of landing.
Teela grinned. Barrani didn’t smile or laugh much as a general rule, and when they did, it was usually at someone else’s expense. “You look like crap,” she told Kaylin. “Come on, get changed. We’re not going out if you’re dressed like that. Iron Jaw would have our hides pinned to the dartboard by morning. If he waited that long.”
Kaylin’s body started to obey; she stripped off her tabard and her armor, taking care to set Morse’s letter on the inside of her locker. But her brain caught up, and she stopped, tunic halfway over her upper body. “What do you mean, we’re going out?”
“Severn seems to think you need a drink.”
“I’m not going to get a drink if I go out with you!”
Teela’s shrug was lazy. “Tain’s been bored all day.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. I am
going out drinking with Tain. Not when he’s bored.”
Teela, stripping off her own gear, laughed. “We’re not going to cause too much trouble. Your Corporal is going with us.”
“You’ve gone drinking with officers and you’ve managed to wreck half a tavern!”
She shrugged, her lazy smile spreading across her full lips. “They weren’t conscious for most of it.”
“And I’m guessing your Corporal can hold his drinks a tad better. Which, all things considered, would be a pity.”
“Teela, don’t even think it.”
“Last I heard, thinking wasn’t illegal. Come on, Kaylin. I’ve never gone drinking with Severn.”
“Obviously not, if this was his idea. I’m going to kill him.”
“Can you kill him after I’m finished?”
Teela laughed as someone started hammering on the door. That would be Tain, Kaylin thought. “You get it,” she told Teela, as she belted her tunic. “I’ve had a bad enough day already.”
It had been several months since Kaylin had gone drinking with Teela and Tain. Several months, in fact, since she had appeared at work, slightly gray-faced, with dark circles under her eyes and a headache that she was certain at the time not even beheading would cure.
Teela had shrugged her way out of her regulation gear. Since Teela was tall and almost preternaturally beautiful—a characteristic she shared with all of her race—she would look stunning in sack-cloth; the change of clothing did not actually make that much of a difference. The same could be said of Tain, although Tain had a chipped tooth. That single flaw had made him the first of the Barrani that Kaylin could easily distinguish; they all looked very similar when she had first joined the Hawks.
Severn, however, wore black and gray, and he looked very different. He had set aside his obvious weapons, although he still wore his chains; they were wrapped around his waist like a fashion statement. It was not exactly cold in Elantra at this time of year, but Kaylin wore the usual long-sleeved shirt. The marks on her arms made her self-conscious, and she could live more easily with sweat.
They approached the front doors. Clint was on guard duty. When he saw Kaylin beside Teela, he grimaced. “Teela—”
“We’re off-duty,” she told him cheerfully.
He rolled his eyes. Kaylin privately thought he’d lost his mind if he expected responsibility from that quarter.
Severn, however, smiled at Clint. “I’ll stop them from trashing the tavern.”
Clint grimaced. “You’ve clearly never gone drinking with Teela and Tain.”
Severn’s idea of drinking was not Teela’s idea of drinking; he led them to the Spotted Pig. Kaylin glanced at Teela; she was betting they had about fifteen minutes before Teela decided to go somewhere else. Only on a very lucky day would her “go someplace else” not involve dragging Kaylin with her when she stormed out.
Barrani clientele was always a mixed blessing, because about a quarter of the time, something ugly happened. The definition of
was a real-life lesson in cultural paradigms, because nothing had ever happened that Teela did not find amusing.
The fact that neither Teela nor Tain said a word when they entered the quiet and rather unpretentious environs of the Spotted Pig was a bit suspicious. Given they were Barrani, suspicion was only natural; Kaylin took a seat—at a table—beside Severn. Teela and Tain occupied the bench across from them. They seldom ate much when they went anywhere; human food was not generally to their taste, although Kaylin, having eaten with the Barrani in no less a place than the High Court, didn’t really see why.
They ordered food and wine; the wine arrived before the food, and it arrived in mugs that were better suited to ale.
Kaylin looked at Severn.
“What exactly is going on here?”
“We’re having a bite to eat, and something to drink. Maybe,” Tain added, glancing around the quiet room. “I can’t imagine—”
Teela stepped on his foot. Kaylin couldn’t actually see this, of course, but she could hear it, and frankly, very little else would cut Tain off.
“Oh, leave him alone, kitling.”
Kaylin’s eyes narrowed. It had been years—with a few exceptions—since anyone but Marcus had called her by that name. And most of those years had gone into living down the rank of Office Mascot. She stared at Teela, who smiled her slow, lazy, catlike grin. “What’s this about, Teela?”
“You tell me. Severn said you met an old acquaintance on your rounds in Elani.”
“No one you’d know.”
Tain, who had been mostly silent, started to drink. “This isn’t terrible,” he told Teela, mock surprise in every word.
She cuffed the side of his head, although her fingers trailed sensuously through the length of his hair afterward, which ruined the gesture, in Kaylin’s opinion. “Kitling,” she said, resting her elbows on the scarred, old wood, “we were told not to ask you many questions.”
“And you listened about as well as you normally do.”
Teela shrugged. “It’s habit. When you first wandered into the office, Marcus made clear to everyone there—particularly the Barrani—that you were not to be too heavily discouraged. Or damaged,” she added.
“Too bad he didn’t make that clearer to the drillmaster.”
“If you’d blocked the way you said you could, he wouldn’t have broken your arm. And you didn’t, that I recall, lie about your abilities again after that. Don’t make that face. It healed quickly enough,” Teela pointed out. “You came to the Hawks as a fledgling. You’ve made this job your life.”
Kaylin tensed slightly, waiting for the rest. But she was surprised at where the conversation now went. She shouldn’t have been; she’d seen Teela drive, after all, and she knew what Teela’s steering was like. Unpredictable was probably the kindest thing she could call it.
“I came to the Hawks from the High Halls. It wasn’t considered upward mobility,” she added with a grimace, “and it wasn’t exactly peaceful.”
“You didn’t break any laws before you joined.”
“How would you know? You spent a couple of days in the High Halls, under the watchful eye of the Lord of the West March. I spent my life there. I underwent the test of Name. I lived in the Court.” She lifted her mug and drank wine as if it were water—and she was parched. “The Caste Laws apply in the High Court.”
“Hush. Hear me out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Teela glanced at Severn. Kaylin, who had always been curious about Teela’s life—about all of the Barrani Hawks, if it came to that—didn’t. But it took effort.
“Caste Law applies in the High Court,” Tain said. He waved at the barkeep, his mug empty. “Fief Law applies in the fiefs. The two are not entirely dissimilar.”
“They’re completely different.”
“No, they’re not.”
“You’ve never lived in the fiefs.”
“And you,” he said pointedly, “have never lived in the High Halls without the title Lord.”
She considered this quietly. Teela nudged her drink, and Kaylin said, “I’m not going to finish it, if you want it.” This earned her a brief grimace and a kick under the table.
“You’ve met my cousin,” Teela said, picking up the reins of the conversation again.
“As far as I can tell, half the High Court is related to you.”
“Which cousin?” Kaylin asked. She wasn’t being disingenuous; she honestly had no idea.
“Ugh.” Evarrim was an Arcanist. Arcanists, as far as Kaylin was concerned, were slightly lower on the decency scale than drug dealers. She didn’t understand why the Emperor tolerated them; he had his own mages, after all, and at least half of the Wolves’ hunts had been former Arcanists.
Tain waved the bartender over again.
“His mother was blessed with five children over the course of her marriage. Evarrim is the last one left standing. It was noted, of course.”
“What—he killed the others?” Kaylin grimaced. She’d meant it as a joke, but it had fallen flat even before Teela nodded.
“If Evarrim hadn’t been the sole survivor, one of the others would have. He was canny enough, and powerful enough, to beat them at their own game. I played Court games,” she said quietly. “I also survived. Do you understand?”
After a moment of silence, Kaylin nodded.
“But even survival can become boring after a while.”
“You joined the Hawks because you were
Tain said, “No.”
“Because she did not trust me,” he replied, “not to dare the Tower and take the test of Name.”
Kaylin stared at them both, and then turned to Severn. “If this is your idea of cheering me up, you need better ideas.”
He shrugged, but did grimace. “With the Barrani, you take whatever they offer.”
“No, with the Barrani, you
.” But she took a swig of the wine, and glanced at Tain.
“What she was trying to say,” he told Kaylin, “is that it doesn’t matter. What she did in pursuit of survival would probably give you ulcers, and she isn’t about to recount it all—it would take two months.”
“Three,” Teela drawled.
Tain rolled his very attractive eyes. Although he was serious—which seldom happened—those eyes were a shade of deep green; what he said was fact, not dirty secret. “What we did in the High Courts, we don’t do in the Imperial City. We uphold the Emperor’s law. We generally find it amusing,” he added, with a nod in Teela’s direction. “It’s certainly less formal; it’s usually less dangerous.” He said the last with a tinge of regret. “The laws that defined our lives there, and that define Teela’s life when she is called to Court, aren’t the same.
“Although we have better drink,” he added.
It was true. Kaylin looked up as food joined drink on the pocked table. It was some sort of cubed chicken with rice, potatoes and—ugh—little peas.
“I do not understand your people’s obsession with potatoes,” Teela said, her nose wrinkling in mild—for Teela—distaste. It wasn’t the first time she’d said it, and no doubt it wouldn’t be the last, but it was oddly comforting.
“The High Court is no longer my home. And the fiefs,” she added pointedly, “are no longer yours. Understood?”
“You think I’d go back there? Do I look stupid?”
“Generally,” Tain said helpfully. “Look, if they try to blackmail you, ignore it.” At Kaylin’s sudden tightening of expression, he rolled his eyes. “It’s completely obvious that’s what you’re afraid of. You can read it in your face a mile off. And you’re probably right,” he added with a shrug. “They’ll try, if they know where you are.”
They did, and that fact had bothered Kaylin almost as much as seeing Morse again. They
where she would be, and with enough notice that they could find Billington, pay him to stir up a bit of trouble, break a window and time both things so that they’d catch her attention. If someone in the office was feeding information to the fief lord of Barren, it was more than simple trouble. If someone
feeding information to Barren, it was worse: it meant Barren had some way of looking into the Halls of Law that no one had yet noticed. Neither of these things were good.
But she hadn’t gone back to the office to talk with Marcus; she hadn’t even tried to point it out. It was what she damn well
have done. But had she, she’d have to answer questions. She wasn’t quite up to that, tonight.
“You can laugh in their face if it helps. I generally find breaking things attached to them more helpful, but you’ve been known to be squeamish, on occasion. On the other hand—”
“Shut up, Tain.”
“—you’ve also been known to—”
Teela elbowed him, hard. He did stop talking, but he turned a blue-eyed and murderous glare on his partner; her own eyes had shaded dark, but she was smiling.
“All right,” Severn whispered. “You win. This was ill-advised.”
did make Kaylin feel a bit better.
They did not, as it turned out, end up dead drunk. An attempt to insult the barkeeper fell so totally flat Kaylin wondered if he was deaf. On the other hand, neither Teela nor Tain had worked themselves into that dangerous state the Barrani called boredom. They were, Kaylin realized, genuinely worried about her.
And given that they were Barrani, they might continue to do so when they knew what she’d done. If they ever knew.
“I was in Barren for six months,” she told them. She hadn’t intended to say it; it had just fallen out of her mouth. She set her cup aside.
“You were in Nightshade,” Teela pointed out, “for thirteen years.”
“Barren was different,” she said quietly.
“It was—it was just different.”
“Find out what they want, Kaylin,” Tain told her quietly. “Or we will.” He nodded in Teela’s direction.
“You can’t just walk into Barren and demand answers.”