Authors: Michelle Sagara
Tags: #General, #Epic, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
“It felt like…Ravellon.”
Sometimes, he pretended to be old. It was only very, very rarely that he actually
it. He did, now.
“The Keeper was aware of this?”
“No. And he looked about as happy at the mention of the word as you do now.”
The Dragon Lord rose. “I believe,” he told her quietly, “that we have now concluded the lessons for the day. I believe that I understand why you were so distracted.”
He didn’t. She had no intention of enlightening him.
“I will have to speak with your Sergeant, and with the Hawklord, before I leave. You will not speak to anyone else about this without Imperial permission.”
“I have just said that
will speak with the Hawklord.” He walked to the door, opened it, and then turned back, his robes swirling like liquid at his feet. “But I believe you should check your duty roster carefully in the next few days.”
“And it is just possible that I may be able to barter for a delay in your etiquette lessons, although the time is coming when they will be sorely needed.”
The lesson had ended early.
It was too much to hope that this meant an hour and a half of downtime, but Kaylin sat, slightly slumped in one of the heavy but uncomfortable chairs by the table, staring at an unlit candle anyway. One of the advantages of this particular set of classes was that she got paid for attending them. Well, that and she got to live. She folded her elbows across the table and stared at her blurry reflection.
She had never really thought much about what lay at the heart of the fiefs. Growing up in Nightshade, there had been Nightshade and the rest of the world, and only one part of the world had captured her thought and attention: the city across the bridge. Of course, in her daydreams, she’d been somehow rich and pretty and free from fear or insecurity because she knew she
on the right side of the river boundary.
That kind of transformation had, no surprise, failed to happen. But the transformation that had happened, over seven long years, had the advantage of being—until yesterday—
What, in the heart of the fiefs, could upset the elements? She knew what upset the Dragons, of course: the only living Outcaste Dragon Lord. Kaylin had faced him twice; the first time, he had retreated; the second time? He had broken her arm. She hadn’t seen what had happened after she’d fallen.
But if he were dead, she thought the word
would have no power to disturb Sanabalis. Given how often Kaylin had tried—admittedly when she’d reached the edge of screaming frustration, and was trying very hard not to pick up one of the heavy-duty chairs and crush the damn candle that
would not light
—the fact that he was disturbed was contagious. It unsettled her.
She stared at the candle.
When the door opened at her back, she straightened her shoulders slightly, but didn’t lift her head off her hands to see who was standing in it. If they wanted her, they’d let her know.
Marcus growled, and she vacated her chair so quickly it was a wonder her feet didn’t leave the ground. “Sanabalis left—” she began. He growled again, and she shut up, quickly.
have you been doing
“Not lighting a candle?” And pushing her luck. His eyes were almost the same orange Sanabalis’s had been, although Kaylin was certain it wasn’t because of anything she’d done. Yet.
She grimaced. “Evanton told me something when we dropped by his place yesterday.”
“And you told Sanabalis.” No honorific for him from Marcus today. Apparently bad moods spread like plagues.
“You know the Emperor has Evanton’s shop under constant surveillance,” she continued, in her own defense. “Someone probably reported it to the Emperor, or the Imperial Service, and the Emperor told Sanabalis to ask me.” Seeing his expression she added, “I’m not an idiot. I am
standing between Evanton and the Emperor. What the Emperor wants, he gets.” Besides which, technically, the Emperor paid her.
Marcus covered his eyes, briefly, with his hands. His claws, Kaylin noted, were extended; she wondered how much damage he’d done to his desk. “Sanabalis said something to you?”
She winced; that would be a lot of damage. A tone that cold could freeze blood. She wanted it to be someone else’s. “W-what did he say?”
“I am not at liberty to discuss it.”
This was code for “Ask Caitlin.” Kaylin nodded. “Is he still here?”
“Speaking with the Hawklord.”
“Oh.” She waited, and after a moment, he growled again.
“They’re waiting for you in the Hawklord’s tower. I was sent to find you.” She nodded and headed for the door. Which he was still standing in. “Kitling,
to stay out of trouble.”
“I always try.”
The office was not dead silent, which meant that Marcus hadn’t gone fur ball while speaking with Sanabalis. But it wasn’t exactly a bustle of conversation and gossip, either, and Kaylin felt every eye—with the exception of Joey and Timar’s, because they were engaged in a heated debate about something that was probably more interesting when you couldn’t actually hear the words—follow her as she made her way to the stairs.
She was a little bit tired of winning money for other people, and that wasn’t about to change anytime soon; she could practically hear bets being placed behind her back. Ignoring this was hard; it was almost like ignoring decent food. But not even Kaylin kept the Hawklord waiting because of office betting, which he generally overlooked or ignored if it wasn’t shoved under his nose by a weasel like Mallory.
She mounted the stairs slowly, remembering the first time she’d come to the Tower.
She had watched it for days. She’d timed the opening and closing of the dome, and the infrequent aerial activities of the Aerian officers. It was easy to see the Hawklord leaving the Halls of Law; he didn’t use the halls or the front stairs. The dome opened. He flew. But he didn’t seem to fly on schedule.
That was why she watched. She told herself that. She even believed it. The part of her that saw the Aerians and thought them—yes—beautiful? It stayed silent. But it had been there. It was still there now—but not even the Aerians tried to fly up these stairs. They couldn’t fully extend their wings here. When they came to the Tower by ground, they climbed like the rest of the wingless, gravity-bound Hawks.
She remembered, as she climbed, the way she’d watched the Aerians in flight. The way they seemed to rise above life and its ugly concerns, and soar on thermals, weapons gleaming sharply and sporadically as they caught sunlight. There were, as far as she knew, no Aerians in Nightshade or Barren. If there had been, their wings would have been clipped adornments, no more; nothing but small birds flew in that sky.
Small birds, she thought, remembering the Outcaste Dragon Lord, and Dragons. Of the two, she had a strong preference for the birds. But her preference in Nightshade mattered about as much as it always had. And in Barren?
She hadn’t cared. Not about birds. Not about Dragons. Not about anything, really. Strange that it was Barren, in the end, that had brought her here. Here, where the stairs were familiar, and the routine, familiar, as well. Where she had enough to eat—on most days—and a roof over her head. She had a family in the Hawks, and in their fanged Sergeant. She had a job that she could actually take pride in.
She’d had no stairs, the first time. And no invitation, either, if you could consider Marcus’s curt and growly command an invitation. But then again, if you timed things right, the
had no hand-wards to pass through, and no hand-wards to set off an alarm.
Today, however, she was out of luck. The doors were closed. Gritting her teeth, she lifted her palm and placed it firmly against the magical ward. She felt the usual brief explosion beneath her hand; it left no mark, but it was very, very unpleasant. The Hawks had told her, in her early days here, that most people didn’t even notice the magical effect of the doorwards. It had taken her two weeks to believe that they weren’t having a good laugh at her expense.
The doors rolled open.
The Hawklord and Lord Sanabalis stood in the center of the chamber; they were both watching the doors. Sanabalis’s eyes were an unfortunate shade of bronze. She couldn’t quite see the color of the Hawklord’s.
“Private Neya,” the Hawklord said, inclining his head. His wings, she noted, were
folded at his back. Which probably meant they were an ounce of irritation from spreading. This was an indication that good behavior was required.
She saluted sharply, and then stood at attention. For some reason, this seemed to irk Sanabalis; the Hawklord, however, accepted it as his due.
“Lord Sanabalis has voiced some concerns over an incident that occurred during your patrol yesterday.”
“Sir,” she replied.
“I would like to know if you feel his concern is unfounded.”
She always hated the trick questions. Which would be any question which clearly had a right answer—one that wasn’t immediately obvious to her. On the other hand, not answering was not an option. She glanced at Sanabalis, which was helpful only in the sense that it was clear that her answer was bound to annoy one of them.
He held her gaze for a few seconds too long. “Unfortunate,” he finally said. This was said in the tone of voice that was generally followed with a dismissal. He did not, however, dismiss her. Instead, as if she weren’t in the room, he turned back to Sanabalis.
“Your point is taken,” the Hawklord said. “However, at present, Private Neya is not the ideal candidate for your investigation. I would suggest,” he added, in a tone of voice that made clear to Kaylin that this was not the first time in their discussion he had done so, “that you approach the Wolf lord.”
“If you feel that it is wise to partner Private Neya with a Wolf,” Sanabalis replied.
Kaylin, standing at attention, wanted to turn and crawl out of the doors.
“Out of the question.”
Or the windows. It would probably be less painful, in the end.
Forty minutes—and a lot of verbal fencing—later, Sanabalis left. Dragons were heavy, and as Sanabalis was not perhaps entirely satisfied with the conclusion of the discussion, he didn’t bother to pick up his feet; she could feel his passage across the floor. She was not, however, dismissed; the Hawklord stood in perfect silence until the Tower doors closed—loudly—on the retreating Dragon Lord.
Only then did Lord Grammayre relax. If that was the right word for it.
“He wants me to go to the fiefs, doesn’t he?” Since that much was obvious, the Hawklord failed to reply. The question would be filed under “wasting his time,” which was never the smartest thing to do.
In spite of herself, Kaylin continued. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been sent to the fiefs.” But she remembered the first time, because it was also the first time she’d laid eyes on Severn in seven years. In this Tower, in the presence of this man.
His wings now did unfold, until they were at half height, but full extension.
“For the moment, I would prefer that you do not enter the fiefs.” His gaze grazed her cheek and Nightshade’s mark.
She frowned. “Why?”
And he raised a pale, graying brow. “I spoke, briefly, with Corporal Handred this morning. He seemed to suspect that a request of this nature would be forthcoming, and he seemed to feel it exceptionally unwise.”
She didn’t ask him why. But she understood now why the conversation with Sanabalis had gone the way it had. She was torn between anger at Severn and a bitter gratitude and, as usual, couldn’t decide on the spot which to choose. But she had nothing, in the end, to hide from the Hawklord.
He seemed to expect her to say something.
“Marcus looked pissed off,” was what she managed.
“I imagine that
is not greatly pleased.” He walked over to the long, oval mirror that stood a few feet from the wall. As mirrors went, it was definitely more cramped than the mirrors in the rooms the Hawks used for real work, but it was taller and wider than any reflective surface in the office downstairs. He lifted a hand and touched its surface.
Records could generally be called up by voice; hand activation was rare, and only partly because it left fingerprints which some poor sod then had to clean up.
But Kaylin had some idea of why he used touch, here. Some of the records were keyed not to voice, which was relatively easy to mimic, but to physical artifacts and aura, which were not. The reflective surface stirred and rippled, distorting the view it held of the domed Tower and the man who ruled the Hawks in the Emperor’s name.
When the image reformed, it was still the same view of the Tower, but it contained, instead of the reflection of the Hawklord, a reflection of Kaylin Neya.
Kaylin at thirteen.
She wore dark clothing, a wide strip of cloth across her forehead and another across her lower jaw; her arms carried yards of thin, strong chain links, looped as if they were rope. Metal pitons dangled from the ends; she could hear them hit one another so clearly she might still have been wearing them.
“What do you see?” he asked her softly. “When you look at this girl?”
She stopped herself from cringing, which was hard, and from squinting, which was easy; the latter could be accomplished by simply stepping toward the mirror itself. “Someone stupid enough to climb the Tower walls,” she finally said, making the effort to keep her voice even. This close to the mirror, she examined the girl as if she were a stranger. “You’ve never showed me this before.”
She wasn’t much taller now than she’d been then. She wasn’t as scrawny. But what struck her, looking at herself, were the eyes. “She—she doesn’t look like she has a lot to live for.”