Private Kaylin Neya was on time for work and the world hadn't ended.
A few people's lives, on the other hand, were in question. The amount of sarcasm Clint could put into shocked silence wasn't illegal. Yet. But Kaylin had to grudgingly admit, as she glared her way past his lowered halberd and into the Halls of Law, the wings he extended were a nice touch.
The Aerie was almost empty, but it usually was at this time of day; the halls themselves were suspiciously quiet. Then again, maybe the Swords were actually earning their pay instead of milling around the halls looking smug. Even on her bleariest mornings, Kaylin couldn't have missed the tension and worry that seemed to permeate the city streets recently, and keeping the peace, such as it was in a crowded city, was their job. For a change. The day was already looking brighter. She glanced up as a shadow passed her, and saw a lone Aerian traversing the space high above; he wasn't practicing maneuvers, and his wings were extended for a steady glide. She still envied the Aerians their wings, a little.
She felt a smidgen of sympathy for the Swords but didn't let it show. Much. It wasn't often that the entire city had almost created a new sea coast by the simple expedient of being under most of the surrounding water. She was certain that stories and rumors about the larger-than-Imperial-edict tidal wave that had almost destroyed the harborfor a starthad already been making the rounds, and growing bigger, if that was even possible, with each telling.
She was waved throughwithout sarcasmwhen she approached the guards that separated the Hawks' quarters from those of the Wolves or the Swords. The halls were vacant, and even the duty roster seemed to have gathered no darts.
"Oh, come on, guys," she said, when the entire office stopped as she entered and approached Marcus's desk. "I'm not always late. Don't you have anything better to do?"
"Have you checked the duty roster, dear?" Caitlin asked, from the safety of her desk. Not that she was ever in any danger; if the office had a collective mother, it was Caitlin.
"Oh. No." She turned and, at Marcus's bark of a command, turned back. Marcus's growl was low, and it was short. He must be tired. And a tired Leontine was generally best kept happy by little displays of obedience. Or big ones.
The paperwork on his desk hadn't really diminished but also, to Kaylin's admittedly inexpert eye, hadn't grown; the emergency that had pulled a number of his Hawks out of their normal routine had been resolved; there was no Festival for almost another year. She couldn't quite see what would put him in a mood, but the fact that he was in one was obvioushaving facial fur that bristled when you were ticked off was a dead giveaway. Having fangs that were almost as long as her fingersthe exposed parts of the fangs, at any ratewas another.
She came to stand a safe distance from the side of his desk, and waited. She even waited quietly.
Her reward? He lifted a stack of paper off his desk and dumped it in her hands. "This," he said curtly, "is your problem."
She looked down at what she had assumed were reports or worse. The paperwork required of the office was, by all accounts, more arcane than any of the magic it also required. To punctuate this, the window very sweetly told the entire office what the hour was.
Kaylin really hated the window. There was money riding on how long it would take someone to accidentally break it, and money riding on who would have the accident. There weren't many rules that governed office bets, but one of them was that you couldn't place money on yourself. Which was fair but, in Kaylin's case, prevented her from winning much.
"Well? Are you going to stand there all day?"
Kaylin looked down at the first sheet in the stackand it was a large stack. "No, sir."
"Good. Take note of the rosteryour rounds have been changed."
"Since when? I checked it last night."
"Since then, obviously."
She caught Caitlin's frantic gestures out of the corner of her eye, and nodded. She considered going to the roster by way of Caitlin's desk, but since they were in opposite directions and Marcus could watch you while his back was turned, she decided to actually go to the roster instead.
Her shoulders did a severe downturn when she saw what had been written beside her name. Even Severn's name, at the same location, didn't bring much cheer. The Imperial Palace?
"Don't make that face," Teela said, in her left ear.
Barrani could walk in perfect silence, but it took work, and Teela was usually too damn lazy. Kaylin's little start did not, however, cause her to drop the bundle of paper. Given Marcus's mood, that was good.
"What's eating Marcus?"
Teela shrugged, long black hair rising and falling like a perfect curtain. Kaylin tried not to resent the fact that the Barrani weren't governed by any Hawk regulations when it came to anything they wore. Regulations were, after all, supposed to be practical and as far as Kaylin could tell, Barrani hair never tangled, never got caught in anything, and never got in the way.
And they were gorgeous and lived forever. If it weren't for the fact that they adored politicspreferably with blood and deaththey'd be insufferable.
"He's Ironjaw," Teela said. "But he's been in that mood since late last night." Her tone of voice made it clear that it was serious enough that Kaylin should change the subject now, and Kaylin had known Teela for so many years it wasn't possible to misinterpret.
"Figures. Save a city, get sent to the Imperial Palace."
"It's more impressive than being sent to the docks or the Commons."
"More people to offend."
"True, and some of them are significant." Teela smiled. In all, it wasn't a happy expression. "Have you even taken a look at what you're holding?"
"I just got it, Teela."
"You might want to read it over," the Hawk replied. "Severn's waiting in the West room. And so is the Dragon."
The Dragon was generally known by the rank and file as Lord Sanabalis. One of Four Dragon Lords that comprised the Dragon contingent of the Imperial Court, he was also a member of the Imperial Order of Mages. He had graciously come out of teaching retirement to take on one pupil, that pupil being Kaylin herself. She tried to remember to be grateful, and usually succeeded when she wasn't actively staring at a candle wick in a vain attempt to get it to catch fire.
Which, come to think, was most of the time.
But she knew her lesson schedule more or less by heart now, and none of those lessons started at the beginning of her day. Given her nocturnal activities, and the desire of the Hawks not to annoy the mages, Marcus had forbidden any lesson that started before lunch. It gave her a decent chance of not missing any.
So Sanabalis wasn't here to teach her anything new about candles. She pushed the door openit was open, so she didn't have to go through her daily ritual of teeth-grinding
while waiting for the doorward to magically identify her and saw that Severn and Sanabalis were seated across the room's only table, talking quietly.
They stopped when they saw her, and she slid between the door and its frame, dropping the stack of paper on the tabletop.
"Marcus is in a mood," she told Severn.
"It's better than yours."
"I'm not in a" She stopped. "You mean better than mine will be?"
"Pretty much. Take a seat. Lord Sanabalis is here to inform us of our duties, and to escort us to the man we'll be aiding."
When Severn spoke Barrani, it was generally a bad sign. Lord Sanabalis, on the other hand, almost always spoke in Barrani.
"We don't have to talk to the Emperor, do we?" she said, sinking into the chair slowly. It was rock hard and weighed more than she did.
"No," Lord Sanabalis replied. "Unless something goes gravely, gravely wrong, the Emperor has more important duties to attend."
"Does this mean there's no lesson today?"
"There will be, as you say, no lesson for the course of your duties at the Palace."
"Well, that's something. Who are we investigating?"
"Investigating?" Sanabalis replied, raising a brow. "I rather think, if you were sent to investigate someone, the last place the Hawks would agree to second you would be the Imperial Palace. As you should know, the Imperial Guards deal with any difficulties that arise in the Palace. And they do not arise."
"Yes, Sanabalis." She hesitated. "What are we doing there, then? We're not exactly guard material"
One of his silver brows rose into his thinning hairline.
Fair enough; if the Imperial Guard would be offended at outside investigators, they would probably completely lose it at outside guards. "So we're not there as investigators, we're not there as guards. Are we there as Hawks?"
"In a manner of speaking."
She grimaced. "That usually means no."
"You are Hawks or you could not be seconded in this fashion. You are not, however, there as representatives of the Law."
The old bastard looked like he was enjoying himself. Exactly how he conveyed this, Kaylin wasn't quite certainhis expression was neutral enough, and his voice was smooth as glass.
"So what are we there as?"
"As Cultural Resources," he replied smoothly.
"I heard you. What exactly does that mean?"
"Ah. Have you taken a moment to peruse the documents you placed upon the table?"
"I'd advise you to do so. We are not expected at the Palace until after lunch. I felt, given the unpredictability of your schedule, that this was wisest."
"Many of the questions you are no doubt impatient to ask will be answered by even the briefest of perusals."
She wondered if he were a betting man, or Dragon. But given Dragons in general, she doubted it.
"If it eases your mind, Private Neya, Sergeant Kassan is required to pay you for the time you spend seconded to the Palace. He also," he continued, lifting a hand to stop her from speaking, "expects you to report in each morning.
"For some reason, he is concerned about the assignment. I can't imagine why."
"Act One, Scene One." Kaylin looked at Severn. "Act One, Scene One?"
"It's a play," Severn said, shrugging slightly. The left corner of his mouth was turned up in something that hinted at amusement. "You're familiar with plays?"
Kaylin snorted. She read the description of stage materialsmostly the painted facades of buildings and bushes, in different sizes. And, she thought, in odd colors. "Poynter's road?"
Severn nodded. "It's"
"I know where it isbut the buildings don't look anything like that on Poynter's."
"No, Corporal Handred, allow her to speak freely. It will, in theory, get it out of her system."
"You want me to read a play?"
"Not exactly. The play itself is not complete, or not complete to our satisfaction. The author's name might be familiar to you." He raised one brow.
"Richard Rennick." She looked at Severn. "Should we know him?"
"He's the Imperial Playwright," Severn told her quietly. "The position is held by one Playwright every five years. There's usually a competition of some sorta series of different plays staged for the Emperor. He apparently won, three years ago."
Lord Sanabalis said, "The Emperor feels that human arts should be encouraged. Don't look at me like that, Kaylin. Dragons seldom have an interest in drama."
"Who's the judge of this contest?"
"So the winner is the person who appeals most to someone who doesn't even like plays?"
"Something very like that," he replied.
"And you want us to
work with this Rennick?"
"Perhaps you should read more than three pages."
She grimaced. "Sanabalis"
"Lord Sanabalis," Severn corrected her.
"Lord Sanabalis, then. What on earth do I know about plays?"
"Clearly nothing." He frowned. "However it is not for your expertise in the dramatic arts that you have been seconded."
"It is for your expertisesuch as it ison the Tha'alani."
It was Kaylin's turn to frown, but some of the exasperation left her, then. "I'm not an expert," she told him quietly.
"No. But the Tha'alani seconded to the Court would possibly be even less comfortable in an advisory role."
"If they can't" She stopped. "Why has the Emperor commissioned a play about the Tha'alani?"
Lord Sanabalis didn't answer. But she met his eyes; they were their usual placid gold. His lower membranes, however, were up.
"It's because ofof the water, isn't it?"
"The tidal wave."
"Yes. I am not aware of how much you saw, or how much you read about after the factbut the Tha'alani, led by their castelord, left their Quarter in larger numbers than the city has ever seen. They walked to the docks, and they spread out along the port and the seawall. When the waters began to shiftand it was dramatic, Kaylin, even to one who has seen as much as I have"
"You weren't there," she told him, but the words were soft. "You were with us."
"I accessed records when I returned to the Palace." He was now using his teacher tone of voice.
And I didn't, Kaylin supplied. She glanced at Severn, who nodded very slightly. She cleared her throat. It was still hard for her to think about the Tha'alaan, and the Tha'alani were the Tha'alaan in some ways. "They hoped to save the city, if the waters rose."
"Yes. But I invite you to think about appearances, Kaylin."
"The wave didn't hit the city."
"No. It did not. The Oracles, however, were not widely bandied about. For many peoplefor almost all of them the first warning of danger was the sight of the water itself, rising. The storm before it signified nothing, to themit was merely weather."