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Cast in Chaos (Chronicles of Elantra)by Michelle Sagara
The Halls of Law occupied real estate that the merchants' guild salivated over every time discussion about tax laws came up, and for that reason, if no other, Private Kaylin Neya was proud to work in them. The building sat in the center of the city, its bulk overshadowed by three towers, atop which—in the brisk and heavy winds of the otherwise clear day—flags could be seen at the heights. It was the only building, by Imperial decree, which was allowed this much height; the Emperor considered it a personal statement. She would probably have been slightly prouder if she'd managed to make Corporal, but she took what she could get.
What she could get, on the other hand, could be a bit disconcerting on some days. She approached the guards at the door—today Tanner and Gillas were at their posts—and stopped before she'd passed between them. They were giving her funny looks, and she was on time. She'd been on time for four days running, although one emergency with the midwives' guild had pulled her off active duty in the middle of the day, but the looks on their faces didn't indicate a lost betting pool.
"What's up?" she asked Tanner. She had to look up to ask it; he was easily over six feet in height, and he didn't slouch when on duty.
"You'll find out," he replied. He was almost smirking.
The problem with coming to the Hawks as an angry thirteen-year-old with a lot of attitude was that the entire force felt as if they'd watched you grow up. This meant the entire damn force took an interest in your personal business. She cursed Tanner under her breath, and left his chuckle at her back.
It was only about ten feet from her back when she ran into Corporal Severn Handred. Who just happened to be loitering in the Aerie, under the shadows of the flying Aerians, who were practicing maneuvers that no other race on the force could achieve without a hell of a lot of magic, most of which would require postmaneuver paperwork that would keep them grounded for weeks. The Emperor was not a big fan of magic that wasn't under his personal control.
Kaylin, her wrist weighted by a few pounds of what was ostensibly gold, knew this firsthand. The bracer—studded with what were also ostensibly gemstones, and in and of itself more valuable than most of the force on a good day, which would be a day when their Sergeant wasn't actively cursing the amount of money being wasted employing their sorry butts—was also magical. It was older than the Empire.
No one knew how it worked—or at least that's what was claimed—but it kept random magic neutralized. Kaylin had been ordered to wear it, and on most days, she did.
Severn looked up as she approached him. "You're on time," he said, falling into an easy step beside her.
"And the world hasn't ended," she replied. "Betting? It's four days running." It was a betting pool she'd been excluded from joining.
He grinned, but didn't answer, which meant yes, he was betting, and no, he hadn't lost yet.
"If you win, you can buy me lunch."
He raised a brow. "You're scrounging for lunch this early in the month?"
"Instead," she continued, "tell me why you're here."
"I work here."
"Ha, ha. You don't usually loiter in the Aerie, waiting for me to walk by." In fact, if it was something that was a matter of life or death, or at least keeping her job, he was more proactive: he'd show up at her apartment and throw her out of bed.
"Loitering and waiting are not considered—"
"Tanner was smirking."
Severn winced. "An official courier came by the office this morning."
"An Imperial Courier."
"Please tell me it had nothing to do with me," she said, without much hope.
"You want me to lie?"
She snorted. "Is Marcus in a mood?"
"Let's just say he didn't seem overly surprised." Which wasn't much of an answer if the one you wanted was No.
Teela was in the office and at her desk, which was generally a bad sign. She was also on break, which meant she was lounging on a chair that was balanced on its back two legs, and watching the door. Tain was somewhere else, which meant Kaylin only had to deal with one of the Barrani Hawks she sometimes counted as friends. On this particular morning, she couldn't remember why, exactly.
The fact that Teela rose—gracefully, because it was impossible for a Barrani not to be graceful—the minute she laid emerald eyes on Kaylin made it clear who she'd been watching for. The fact that she was smiling as she sauntered across the usual chaos of the office meant she was amused. This didn't mean that the news for Kaylin was good, on the other hand.
"Good morning, Private Neya," the window said. "It is a bright and sunny day, but rain is expected in the late afternoon. Please dress accordingly while you are on duty."
Teela took one look at Kaylin's raised brows and laughed out loud.
Kaylin said a few choice words in Leontine.
"Please be aware that this is a multiracial office, and the terms that you are using might give offense to some of your cowork-ers," the same window chided.
Kaylin's jaw nearly hit the floor.
"Apparently," Teela said, as her laugh trailed off into a chuckle, "the mage that designed the window to be a cheerful, talking timepiece, was not entirely precise in his use of magic."
"Off the record? Someone tampered with Official Office equipment."
"This is worse. The old window didn't greet us by name. What the hells were they trying to do?"
"Get it to shut up without actually breaking it."
"Which seems to be almost impossible. The breaking-it part."
"So does the shutting-it-up part, if it comes to that." Teela grinned. "We've started a new betting pool."
"Hell with the pool—we should just make the Hawklord stay in this damn office. The window would be gone in less than a week." She started to head toward her very small desk.
"Private Neya," the window said, "you have not checked today's duty roster. Please check the roster to ascertain your current rounds."
Teela burst out laughing because Kaylin's facial expression could have soured new milk. She did, however, head toward the roster because she couldn't actually break the window, and she was pretty damn certain it would nag her until she checked.
Elani street had been penciled, in more or less legible writing, beside Kaylin's name. Severn was her partner. There were no investigations in progress that required her presence, although there were two ongoing. The shift started in half an hour. She took note of it as obviously as possible, and then returned to her desk, by way of Caitlin.
"Good morning, dear," Caitlin said, looking up from a small and tidy pile of papers.
Kaylin nodded, and then bent slightly over the desk. "What happened to the window?"
The older woman frowned slightly. "We're not officially certain, dear." Which meant she wouldn't say. "Sergeant Kassan is aware that the enchantment on the window is causing some difficulty. I believe he is scheduled to speak with the Hawklord."
"Thank the gods," Kaylin replied. The window, during this discussion, was in the process of greeting yet another coworker. "Does it do this all day?"
Caitlin nodded. "You weren't here yesterday," she added. Her frown deepened. "It not only greeted the employees by name, it also felt the need to greet every person who walked into—or through—the office in the same way."
Caitlin shrugged. "It's magic," she finally said, as if that explained everything. Given how Kaylin generally felt about magic, it probably did.
She tried to decide whether or not to ask about the Imperial Courier. Caitlin was the best source of information in the office, but if she felt it wasn't important or relevant to the questioner, she gave away exactly nothing. Since she was bound to find out sooner or later—and probably sooner—she held her tongue.
"Private Neya!" The low, deep rumble of Leontine growl momentarily stilled most of the voices in the office. Marcus, as she'd guessed, was not in the best of moods. "Caitlin has work to do, even if you don't."
"Sir!" Kaylin replied.
"He's in the office more than anyone else who works here," Caitlin whispered, by way of explanation. "And I believe the window likes to have a chat when things are quiet."
Kaylin grimaced in very real sympathy for Old Ironjaw.
"In particular, I think it's been trying to give him advice."
Which meant it wasn't going to last the week. Thank the gods.
"Oh, and, dear?" Caitlin added, as Kaylin began to move away from her desk, under the watchful glare of her Sergeant.
"This is for you." She held out a small sheaf of paper.
Kaylin, who had learned to be allergic to paperwork from a master—that being Marcus himself—cringed reflexively as she held out a hand. "Am I going to like this?"
"Probably not," Caitlin said with very real sympathy. "I'm afraid it isn't optional."
Kaylin looked through the papers in her hands. "This is a class schedule."
"It's not about his request that you take—and pass—all of the courses you previously failed, if that's helpful. The Hawklord vetoed that, although I'm sorry to say Mallory's suggestion did meet with some departmental approval."
It was marginally helpful. "What's it about, then?"
Caitlin winced. "Etiquette lessons. And I believe that Lord Sanabalis has, of course, requested that your magical education resume."
"Is there any good news?"
"As far as we know, nothing is threatening to destroy either the City or the World, dear."
Kaylin stared glumly at the missive in her hands. "This is your subtle way of telling me not to start doing either, isn't it?"
Caitlin smiled. "They're just lessons. It's not the end of the World."
"So," Severn said, when she joined him and they began to head down the hall, "did you speak with Caitlin?"
"Yes. Let me guess. The entire office already knows the contents of these papers."
He laughed. "Most of the office. How bad is it?"
"Two days a week with Sanabalis."
He raised a brow.
"With Lord Sanabalis."
"Better. Isn't that the same schedule you were on before the situation in the fiefs? You both survived that."
"Mostly. I think he broke a few chairs."
"He'd have to." Severn grinned. "Gods couldn't break that table."
It was true. The table in the West Room—which had been given a much more respectful name before Marcus's time, which meant Kaylin had no idea what it was—was harder than most sword steel. "Three nights of off-duty time with the etiquette teacher."
She nodded grimly.
"Is the teacher someone the Hawks can afford to piss off?"
"I hope so."
"I don't know. It doesn't actually say."
She grimaced. "The Imperial Palace."
He winced in genuine sympathy. "I'm surprised Lord Gram-mayre approved this."
Kaylin was not known for her love of high society. The Hawklord was not known for his desire to have Kaylin and high society anywhere in the same room. Or city block. Which meant the dictate had come from someone superior to the Hawklord.
"It's not optional," Kaylin said glumly. "And the worst part is, if I pass, I probably get to do something big. Like meet the Emperor."
"I'd like to be able to say that won't kill you."
"You couldn't, with a straight face."
He shrugged. "When do you start?"
"Two days. I meet Sanabalis—Lord Sanabalis—for Magical Studies—"
"Magical Studies? Does it actually say that?"
"Those are the exact words. Don't look at me, I didn't write it—in the afternoon tomorrow." She dropped the schedule into her locker with as much care as she generally dropped dirty towels.
Elani street was not a hub of activity in the morning. It wasn't exactly deserted, but it was quiet, and the usual consumers of love potions and extracts to combat baldness, impotence, and unwanted weight were lingering on the other side of storefronts. Remembering her mood the last time she'd walked this beat, Kaylin took care not to knock over offending sandwich boards. On the other hand, she also took the same care not to read them.
"Hmm?" She was looking at the cross section of charms in a small case in one window—Mortimer's Magnificent Magic—and glanced at her partner's reflection in the glass.
"You're rubbing your arms."
She looked down and realized he was right. "They're sort of itchy," she said.
He raised one brow. "Sort of itchy?"
The marks that adorned most of the insides of her arms were, like the ones that covered her inner thighs and half of her back, weather vanes for magic. Kaylin hesitated. "It doesn't feel the way it normally does when there's strong magic. It's—they're just sort of itchy."
"And they've never been like that before."
She frowned. She'd had fleas once, while cat-sitting for an elderly neighbor. The itch wasn't quite the same, but it was similar.
She started to tell him as much, and was interrupted midsen-tence by someone screaming.
It was, as screams went, a joyful, ecstatic sound, which meant their hands fell to their clubs without drawing them. But they—like every other busybody suddenly crowding the streets—turned at the sound of the voice. It was distinctly male, and probably a lot higher than it normally was. Bouncing a glance between each other, they shrugged and headed toward the noise.
The scream slowly gathered enough coherence to form words, and the words, to Kaylin's surprise, had something to do with hair. And having hair. When they reached the small wagon set up on the street—and Kaylin made a small note to check for permits, as that was one of the Dragon Emperor's innovations on tax collection—the crowds had formed a thin wall.
The people who lived above the various shops in Elani street had learned, with time and experience, to be enormously cynical. Exposure to every promise of love, hair, or sexual prowess known to man—or woman, for that matter—tended to have that effect, as did the more esoteric promise to tease out the truth about the future and your destined greatness in it. They had pretty much heard—and seen—it all.
And given the charlatans who masqueraded as merchants on much of the street, both the permanent residents and the officers of the Law who patrolled it knew that it wasn't beyond them to hire an actor to suddenly be miraculously cured of baldness, impotence, or blindness.
Kaylin assumed that the man who was almost crying in joy was one of these actors. But if he was, he was damn good. She started to ask him his name, stopped as he almost hugged her, and then turned to glance at the merchant whose wagon this technically was.
He looked… slack-jawed and surprised. He didn't even bother to school his expression, which clearly meant he was new to this. Not new to fleecing people, she thought sourly, just new to success. When he took a look at the Hawk that sat dead center on her tabard, he straightened up, and the slack lines of his face tightened into something that might have looked like a grin—on a corpse.
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