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Black circles under the eyes were not, Kaylin decided, a very attractive statement. Neither was hair matted with old sweat, or eyes red with lack of sleep. She accepted the fact that on this particular morning, mirrors were not going to be her friend. Luckily, she didn't have many of them in the small quarters she called home. She got out of bed slowly, studiously avoided the short hall that led from her bolted doors to the kitchen, the closets and the large space she lived in otherwise, and lifted clothing from beneath a rumpled pile, examining it carefully.
It sort of looked clean.
She pulled the linen tunic over her head, cursed as her hair caught in the strings that secured it and yanked, hard. Shadows fell over the ledge of her single window, stretching across the floor at an ominous angle. She was going to be late. Again.
Pants were less tricky; she only had a few, and chose the black leather ones. They were, at the moment, the only ones she owned that weren't cut, torn or bloody.
She'd have to ask Iron Jaw for a better clothing allowance. Or more time to spend the pittance she did have.
The mirror in the hall began to glow, and she cursed under her breath. She'd clearly have to ask him on a different morning.
"Coming," she muttered.
The mirror flashed, light hanging in the room like an extended, time-slowed bolt of lightning. Iron Jaw was in a lousy mood, and it wasn't even lunch. He hated to use the mirrors.
She buttoned up her pants, pulled on her boots and sidled her way toward the mirror, hoping that the light was the effect of lack of sleep. Not much hope there, really.
"Kaylin, where the hell have you been?"
No, the mirror this morning was definitely not her friend. She pulled her hair up, curled it in a tight bun and shoved the nearest stick she could find through its center. Then she picked up the belt on the table just to the left of that mirror and donned it, adjusting dagger hilts so they didn't butt against her lower ribs.
"Kaylin Neya, you'd better answer soon. I know you're there."
Putting on her best we-both-know-it's-fake smile, she walked over to the mirror and said, sweetly, "Good morning, Marcus."
Not a particularly encouraging sign, given that Marcus was Leontine, and had a bad habit of ripping the throats out of people who were stupid enough to annoy him. His lower fangs were in evidence as he snarled. But his eyes, cat eyes, were wide and unblinking in the golden fur that adorned his face, and his fur was not — yet — standing on end. His hands, however, were behind his back, and his broad chest was adorned with the full flowing robes of the Hawks.
Official dress. In the morning. Gods, she was going to be in trouble.
"Morning was two hours ago," he snapped.
"You're in fancy dress," she said, changing the subject about as clumsily as she ever did.
"And you look like shit. What the hell were you doing last night?"
"None of your business."
"Good answer," he growled. "Why don't you try it on the Hawklord?"
She groaned. "What day is it?"
"The fourth," he replied.
Fourth? She counted back, and realized that she'd lost a day. Again. "I'm missing something, aren't I?"
"Brains," he snapped. "And survival instinct. The Hawk-lord's been waiting for you for three hours."
"Tell him I'm dead."
"You will be if you don't get your ass in here." He muttered something else, a series of growls that she knew, from experience, meant something disparaging about humans. She let it pass. "I'll be there in half an hour."
"Dressed like that? You'll be out in thirty-five. On your ass."
She put her palm on the mirror's surface, cutting him off and scattering his image. Then she went to her closet and began to really move.
Bathed, cleaned, groomed and in the full dress uniform of the Hawks — which still involved the only intact pants she owned — Kaylin approached the front of the forbidding stone halls ruled by the three Lords of Law: The Lord of Wolves, the Lord of Swords and the Lord of Hawks. At least that's what they were called on official documents and in polite company, of which Kaylin knew surprisingly little.
The Swords were the city's peacekeepers, something ill-suited to Kaylin; the Wolves were its hunters, and often, its killers. And the Hawks? The city's eyes. Ears. The people who actually solved crimes.
Then again, she would think that; Kaylin had been a Hawk for the entire time she'd been involved on the right side of the law, and didn't speak about the years that preceded it much.
By writ of the Emperor of Karaazon, the Halls of Law were the only standing structures allowed to approach the height of the Imperial palace, and the three towers, set against a wide stretch of expensive ground in the shape of a triangle, flew the flags of the Lords of Law: the Hawk, the Wolf and the Sword. From her vantage, they could hardly be seen; she was too close. But from the rest of the city? They never rested.
Neither, she thought, did the people who served them. She was damn tired.
The front doors were always manned, and she recognized Tanner and Clint as they lowered their pole-arms, barring her way. It was the Hawk's month for guard duty; they shared rotation of that honor with the Swords. The Wolves, lazy bastards, weren't considered fit for dress duty. Or ritual entries.
She hated ritual.
Clint and Tanner didn't love it much better than she did.
"Kaylin, where the hell have you been?" Tanner asked. It was the refrain that punctuated too much of her daily existence.
"Getting cleaned up, if you must know."
Tanner was, at six and a half feet, tall even for a human. His helm was strictly a dress helm, and it gleamed bronze in the afternoon sunlight, running from the capped height of his head down the line of his nose, as if it were a bird's mask. To either side of the metal, his eyes were a dark, deep brown.
Clint shook his head, and the glinting helm's light left an after-image in her vision. But he smiled. He was about two inches shorter than Tanner, and his skin was the dark ebony of the Southern stretch. She loved the sound of his voice, and he knew it.
It wasn't the only thing she loved about him. "You've got to give up the moonlighting," he told her.
"When the pay here doesn't suck."
He laughed out loud, his halberd shaking as he began to lift it. "You really didn't get much sleep, did you? Iron Jaw has ears like a Barrani — he'll have your hide on his wall as a dartboard."
She rolled her eyes. "Can I go now?"
"Your doom," he said, his voice still sweet with the sound of amused laughter. But his expression gained a moment's gravity as he leaned forward and lowered that voice into a fold of deep velvet. "Sesti told me."
"Sesti told you what?"
"What you were doing the past two days."
"Tell her to piss off next time you see her."
He laughed again. She could spend all day making him laugh, just for the thrill of the deep rich tones of that voice. But if she did it today? It would be her last day. She smiled.
"That won't be until his naming day." Aerian men were forbidden the birthing caves — unless those caves held the dead or the dying. Even then, they could come to claim their wives, no more. Kaylin had never understood this.
"When are you off duty?" she asked him.
"About two hours."
"You haven't been home yet?"
"Sesti had a boy. Healthy, but his feathers were a mess. Took us three hours to clean 'em down."
"Always does," he said with an affectionate shrug. "Go on. Iron Jaw's been biting anyone who gets in reach."
She nodded, walked past and then turning, reached out to touch the soft, ash gray of Clint's wings. They snapped up and out beneath her fingers.
"You haven't changed in seven years," he told her, turning. "Don't touch the flight feathers."
If the exterior of the Halls of Law was forbidding, the interior was hardly less so. The front doors opened into a hall that not even cathedrals could boast. It rose three storeys, and across its vaulted ceilings, frescoes had been painted — Hawk, Wolf and Sword, trailing light and shadow in a grim depiction of various hunts. Sunlight streamed in from a window that was at least as tall, and certainly more impressive; the colors of the paint were protected from sunlight, and always on display, a reminder to newcomers of what the Halls meant to those who displeased their rulers.
But this hall was not meant to intimidate; it was built with a practical purpose in mind — which wasn't true of many of the Imperial buildings. The Aerians that served the Lords of Law did not walk easily in the confined, cramped space of regular human halls. Clint, armed and armored, could easily take to the air in the confines of the rising stone walls, and high, high above her, the perch of the Aerie loomed; she had seen him reach it many, many times. Aerians circled above her, against the backdrop of colored fresco, and as always, she envied them their ability to truly fly.
The closest she'd ever gotten involved a long drop that had almost ended her life. She wasn't eager to repeat it.
And if the Hawklord had really been waiting for three — close to four — hours now, she didn't give much for her chances. She began to run.