Still avoiding her magic lessons—yet using her powers when need be—Private Kaylin Neya is relishing investigating a regular theft once again. That is, until she finds out the mysterious box was taken from Elani Street, where the mages and charlatans mingle and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two. Still, she hopes this might be a mundane case…
Then in a back room, Kaylin sees a lost-looking girl in a reflective pool…who calls out for Kaylin’s help.
Shaken, Kaylin tries to stay focused on the case at hand. But since the stolen item is ancient, has no keyhole and holds tremendous darkness inside, Kaylin knows unknown forces are again playing with her destiny—and her life…
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Private Kaylin Neya studied the duty roster, and given how little she studied anything that wasn't somehow involved with a corpse, this said something.
The official roster was like a dartboard, except that people threw pencils at it instead. Sometimes they hit a bull's-eye anyway. Lined up in columns by day, and color-coded for the more moronicor hungoverby district, it told the various members of the branch of law enforcement known as the Hawks where, exactly, they were meant to either find trouble or stay out of it. Kaylin could easily make out her name, although some clod with lousy aim had managed to make a giant hole in it.
If it was true that the roster could never make everyone happy, it was somehow also true that it could make everyone unhappy. Sergeant Marcus Kassan, in charge of assigning duties on a monthly basis, had a strong sense of fairness; if someone was going to suffer, everyone might as well keep them company.
As the Hawks' only Leontine officerin fact, the only Leontine to be an officer of the Halls of Lawhe presided over the men and women under his command with a hooded set of fangs in a face that was fur, large eyes and peaked earsin that order. He also boasted a set of claws that made daggers superfluous and did a good job against swords, as well.
Kaylin had no pencil with which to puncture the paper, or she'd have thrown more at it than liberal curses.
Swearing at one's assignment wasn't unusual in the office; as far as office pastimes went, it was one that most of the Hawks indulged in. Kaylin's partner, Corporal Severn Handred, looked easily over her shoulder, but waited until she turned to raise a dark brow in her general direction. That brow was bisected by a slender, white line, a scar that didn't so much mar his face as hint at secret histories.
Secret, at least, to Kaylin; she hadn't seen him take that one.
"What will you be missing?" he asked, when her impressive spate of cursingin four official languageshad died down enough that he could be heard without shouting. Severn rarely raised his voice.
"Game," she said curtly. "Ball," she added.
She grimaced. "Betting." Which, for Kaylin, was synonymous with watching.
"Figures. Who were you betting on?"
She shrugged. "Sharks."
"So you'll save some money."
This caused an entirely different spate of swearing, and she punctuated this by punching his shoulder, which he thoughtfully turned in her direction. "You'd be betting on the Tigers, I suppose?"
"Already have," he replied. "Our shift?" He glanced at the window. It told the time. Literally. Mages had been allowed to go mad when they'd been asked to encourage punctuality, and it showed. The urge to tell the window to shut the hell up came and went several times a day.
The fact that mages had been allowed to perform the spell or series of spells seemed almost a direct criticism of Kaylin, who wasn't exactly punctual on the best of days.
"Private Neya and Corporal Handred, report to the Quartermaster before active duty." Some sweet young voice had been used to capture the words. Kaylin seriously wanted to meet the person behind it. And was pretty sure the person behind it seriously didn't want to meet her.
"Quartermaster?" Severn said, with the barest hint of a sympathetic grimace.
Kaylin said, "Can I break the window first?"
"Won't help. He's probably responsible for having the glass replaced, and you're in enough trouble with him as is."
It was true. She had barely managed to crawl up the ladder from thing-scraped-off-the-bottom-of-a-shoe-after-adog-fight in the unspoken ranks the Quartermaster gave the Hawks; she was now merely in the person-I-can't-see category, which was a distinct improvement, although it usually meant she was the last to get kitted out. The Quartermaster was officious enough, however, to make last and late two entirely different domainsif only, in Kaylin's case, by seconds.
"It was just a stupid dress," she muttered. "One dress, and I'm in the doghouse."
"I doubt it. You know how much he loves those dogs."
"Yeah. A lot more than he likes the rest of us."
"It was an expensive dress, Kaylin."
"I didn't choose it!"
"No. But you did give it back with a few bloodstains, a dozen knife tears, and about a pound less fabric."
"It's not like it could have been used by anyone else"
"Not in that condition, no. And," he added, lifting a hand,
"I'm not the Quartermaster, I didn't have to haggle with the Seamstresses Guild, and I don't really care."
"Yeah, but his life doesn't depend on me, so he doesn't have to listen to me whine."
Severn chuckled. "No. Your career depends on him, however. Good job, Kaylin."
They walked down the long hall that led to Marcus's desk, which just happened to be situated so that it crossed almost any indoor path a Hawk could take in the line of duty. He liked to keep an eye on things. Or a claw across the throat, as the Leontine saying went.
As the Hawks' sergeant, assignments came from him, and reportswhich involved the paperwork he so hatedwent to him. Caitlin, his assistant, and for all purposes, his second in command, was the one who would actually read the submissions, and she wisely chose to pass on only those that she felt were important. The rest, she fudged.
And since the Festival season was, as of two days past, officially over, most of those reports involved a lot of cleanup, a lot of official fineswhich helped the coffers of the Halls of Law immenselyand a lot of petty bickering, which would be referred to the unofficial courts in the various racial enclaves for mediation.
Ceding that bickering to the racial courts, rather than the Imperial Courts, took more paperwork. But the Emperor was short on time and very, very short on patience, so only cases of real importor those that involved the Elantran nobilityever went to him directly. Given that he was Immortal, being a dragon and all, this struck Kaylin as unfair. After all, he had forever.
"Lord Kaylin," Marcus said, as they approached his desk. The title, granted her by the Lord of the Barrani High Court, caused a round of snickers and an unfortunate echo in the office that set Kaylin's teeth on edge. The deep sarcasm that only a Leontine throat could produce didn't help much.
"So good of you to join us."
She snapped him a salutewhich, given his rank didn't demand it, was only meant to annoyand stood at attention in front of his desk. Severn's short sigh, she ignored; he offered Marcus neither of these gestures.
"There's been a slight change in your beat today."
The official roster changed at the blink of an eye. A Leontine eye, with its golden iris. "You're to go to Elani Street," he told them. "What, mage central?"
"Or Charlatan central, if you prefer," Marcus snapped back. Elani Street was both. There was the real stuff, if you weren't naive and you knew what to look for, and then there was love potion number nine, and tell your fortune, and meet the right mate, all of which boothsusually with much finer namessaw a steady stream of traffic, day in and day out.
Kaylin was always torn between contempt for the people who had such blind dreams and contempt for the people who could exploit them so callously. Elani Street was not her favorite street, mostly because she couldn't decide which of the two she wanted to strangle more.
She flipped an invisible coin. It landed, after a moment in the mental ether, on the side of people who made money, rather than people who lost it.
"Who's fleecing people this time?" Kaylin muttered. "It's only two days past Festivalyou'd think people would be tired enough to give it a rest. Or," she added darkly, "in jail."
"Many are both," Marcus replied, and something in his tone made her give up her sullen and almost perfect stance to lean slightly into the desk. Slightly was safe; he still hadn't cleared half the paperwork the Festival produced annually, and knocking any of the less than meticulous piles over waswell, the furrows in the desk didn't get there by magic.
"There's been a disturbance," he replied. "I believe you know the shop. Evanton's. You may have given him some business over the years."
She knew the shop; she had had her knives enchanted there so that they left their sheaths without a sound. Teela had been the Hawk who had both introduced her to Evanton and also made clear to Evanton that anything he offered for money had better damn well work. Given that Teela was one of a dozen or so Barranialso all Hawkswho had made their pledge of allegiance to the Imperial Halls of Law, her word tended to carry weight. After all, she was, like the dragon Emperor and the rest of her kind, immortaland the Barrani loved nothing better than a grudge, at least judging by the way they held on to the damn things so tightly. Startlingly beautiful to the eye, they were cold as crackling ice to the ear, and their tall, slender bodies radiated that I-can-killyou-before-you-can-blink confidence that was, in fact, no act.
Evanton, to his credit, had been neither offended nor frightened. In fact, his first words had been, "Yes, yes, I know the drill, Officer." And his second: "You're on the young side for a Hawk. So take my advice, for what it's worth. You should pay more attention to the company you keep. People will judge you by it, mark my words."
He generally had a lot of words he wanted marked. Which had caused Teela to grimace. And Tain, her beat partner, to laugh.
As for the enchantment, he'd approved of it. "Most people who come here want something to make them look prettier," he'd said, with obvious contempt. "Or younger. Or smarter. This, this is practical."
She had never asked Evanton if he had ever belonged to the Imperial Order of Mages; there wasn't much point. If he had, he'd managed to get out the unusual wayhe wasn't in a coffin. Although to Kaylin's youthful eye, he looked as if he should have been. His hair was the color of blinding light off still water, and his skin was like wrinkled leather; he was almost skeletal, and his workor so he said demanded so much attention he was continuously bent over in a stoop. She had been certain, the first time she saw him, that he would break if she forced him to straighten up.
But still she liked him. So she frowned. "What kind of a disturbance?"
"That, I think, is what you're there to ascertain." He paused. "Are you waiting for something?"
"Good. Get lost."
"Make sure that she understands that "get lost' in this case isn't literal."