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Cast in shadow, p.1
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       Cast in Shadow, p.1

           Michelle Sagara
Cast in Shadow



























  Terry Pearson, Tanya Huff and

  Rhiannon Rasmussen all read the initial

  proposal and outline while I fretted, because

  I’m good at that. The fretting. They even

  wanted to read more, and did. Also, my editor,

  Mary-Theresa Hussey, for giving the book a

  home, and for asking the right questions to

  keep it on track. Consider them the away

  team for this book.

  The home team: My husband, Thomas West

  (whose last name I also write under),

  my children, my parents and my son’s

  godfather, John Chew, and his wife, Kristen; my brother Gary and his wife, Ayami.

  The Tuesday night and Thursday night crew.


  This is for Chris Szego, who read it first,

  and gave me exactly the encouragement

  I needed at exactly the right time.


  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.”

  He growled.

  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 Hawklord’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 illsuited 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 le
ft 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?”

  “Not 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.

  To the east of the Aerian hall, as it was colloquially called—and never in the hearing of one of the three Lords—stood another tall set of doors, adorned by another set of guards.

  She recognized them both: Teela and Tain. They were sometimes called the twins by anyone who had no experience with the subtle temper and cruelty of the Barrani; they were seldom called that twice by the same person. Delicately built, they stood slightly taller than Clint, slightly shorter than Tanner.

  Some people found the Barrani beautiful; Kaylin wasn’t so certain, herself. They looked ethereal, delicate and just ever-so-slightly too perfect. Which made her feel solid, plain and grubby. Not exactly a way to win friends and influence people.

  They wore the gray and gold of the Hawks in a band across their foreheads; their hair—gorgeous, long, black as the proverbial raven’s wing—had been pulled back and shoved neatly beneath it. Human hair—at least in the ranks of the Hawks—was not allowed that length; it got in the way of pretty much anything. But the Barrani? No such restrictions were placed on them.

  Of course, having seen them in a fight, Kaylin was painfully aware that those restrictions would have been pointless.

  Teela whistled. At six foot nothing, she wore armor that suited her fighting style—which is to say, none at all. But she carried a large stick. “You’re late,” she said.

  Kaylin had to look up to meet her emerald eyes. And emerald? They really were. Hard, sharp and a little brittle around the too perfect edges. That and a stunning, endless shade of deep, blue green. “That’s news?”

  “No. That’s the sound of me winning the betting pool.”

  “Good. I was rooting for you—and now I want my cut.”

  “You’ll get it,” she said with a grin, “if you survive old Iron Jaw.”

  “I’m not worried about Iron Jaw. Tain, tell Teela to shut up and get the hell out of the way.”

  “What, do I look stupid?”


  “Not that stupid.” He grinned; the row of his perfect teeth had been chipped in one fight or another. When Kaylin had first been inducted into the Hawks, Tain was the only Barrani she could always recognize when he stood among a group of his own people because he had a visible flaw. His only flaw. “Oh, I should warn you—”

  “Save it for later.”

  He shrugged, lazy and slow. “Remember, Kaylin, I did try.”

  She was already past them, and she spent what little breath she had left cursing the fact that the damn halls were so long.

  Old Iron Jaw’s desk was huddled in the center of about a dozen similar desks, and distinguishable only by the presence of the Leontine who occupied it. Well, by that and the long furrows he’d dug there over the years when his claws did their automatic extension and raked through the surface of dense, heavy wood. This happened when he was annoyed, and the person who had annoyed him had the good fortune not to be close enough to bear the brunt of those claws instead.

  For good reason, no one with brains got close to an angry Leontine. Iron Jaw—called Sergeant Marcus Kassan to his considerable face—was one of the very few who had managed to make it into the Hawks—Leontines were a tad on the possessive side, they didn’t share space well, and they responded to an order as if it were a suicide wish and they were magic wands.

  Iron Jaw, among his own people, would be called the Leontine word for kitten—and its only equivalent in human speech was, as far as Kaylin could translate, Eunuch. No one used it in the Hawks.

  He growled when he saw her. It was a low, extended growl and he didn’t bother to open his mouth to make it.

  She lifted her chin, exposing her neck in the universal gesture of submission. It was only half-fake. In spite of his legendary temper, his surliness and his habit of making the word martinet a hideous understatement, she liked him. Unlike most of the Barrani, whose lives were built on so many secrets and lies they were confounded by something as inelegant and boring as truth, Iron Jaw was exactly what he appeared to be.

  And at the moment, that was pissed off.

  He leaped over his desk, his shoulders hunching with a grace that belied his size, and landed in front of it, four inches from where Kaylin stood her ground. His eyes were wide and his breath—well, it was cat’s breath. Never a pleasant thing.

  But she knew better than to run from a Leontine, even this one. He let his claws touch her throat and close around the very thin membrane of her skin.

  “Kaylin,” he growled. “You are making me look incompetent.”

  “Sorry,” she said, breathing very, very carefully.

  “Where were you?”
  “Getting dressed.”

  The claws closed slightly.

  There was no way around it; she told him the truth. “I was with Clint’s wife, Sesti. Sesti of the Camaraan clan,” she added, feeling an edged claw bite skin. Knowing that she bled, but only slightly. “She had a difficult birthing, and I promised the midwives’ guild—”

  He snarled. But he let his hands drop. “You are not a midwife—”

  “I am—”

  “You’re a Hawk.” But his fangs had receded behind the generous black curl of what might loosely be called lips were they on someone else’s face. “You used your power.”

  She said nothing for a minute. “I couldn’t do that. It’s forbidden by the Hawklord.” Which was more or less true. Well, more true. Kaylin was, as she was loath to admit, a tad special for an untrained human. She could do things that other human Hawks couldn’t. Hell, that other humans couldn’t. The Hawks knew about her, of course.

  And the Hawklord? Better than any of them, he had his reasons for mistrusting the use of that power. But what the Hawklord didn’t see, didn’t hurt. As long as he didn’t hear about it.

  “Well. Sesti will owe you. Which means Clint will pay.” Marcus wouldn’t tell the Hawklord. Not for something like this. Leontines had a strong understanding of debt, obligation and family. After a moment, his perpetual lack of blinking made her eyes water. “How was the birth?”

  “The baby’s fine. The mother’s exhausted.”

  “Was it a close thing?”

  She shuddered. She’d been late once or twice when the midwives had called her—but that was in the early years, and when she’d clearly seen the cost, she had never been late again. They would have called it a miracle, in the Hawks, if she could make them believe it. “Close enough. But they’ll both pull through.”

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