Cast in Courtlight, p.1Michelle Sagara
First trade printing: August 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Michelle Sagara
Author Photo by: John Chew
This is for Tanya and Fe, with gratitude for long years of friendship that involved phone calls about all of life's little anxieties and triumphs, none begrudged.
The home team, again, came through: First and foremost Thomas, Daniel and Ross, who put up with my imaginative flights and figurative absences; John, Kristen, Jamie (affectionately referred to as His Majesty), Gary and Ayami, who do the same; and my mother and father.
The away team: For this book, my editor, Matrice, patient with my unusual inability to deal with outlines; my agent, Russ Galen; and of course, as always, Terry Pearson, who read it all a chapter at a time.
In the old days, before the Dragon Emperor—sometimes called the Eternal Emperor by those responsible for toadying—had invested the Halls of Law with the laws which governed the Empire, angry Dragons simply ate the idiots who were stupid enough to irritate them. Or, if they were unappetizing, burned them into a very slight pile of ash.
Ash had the advantage of requiring little to no paperwork.
Marcus Kassan, Sergeant for the Hawks—one branch of officers who served in the Halls of Law—stared gloomily at a pile of paperwork that, were it placed end to end, would loom above him. At over six foot, that was difficult. The desire to shred it caused his claws to flick in and out of the fur of his forepaws.
The desire to avoid annoying Caitlin, the woman who was—inasmuch as the Hawks allowed it—den mother to the interior office, which set schedules, logged reports, and prepared duty rosters and pay chits, was just slightly stronger. In their personal life, Leontines disavowed all paperwork, usually by the expedient of chewing it, shredding it, or burning it, when it wasn't useful for the kits' litter.
Then again, he'd been at his desk for the better part of an hour. He expected there'd be a shift in the balance before the day—which looked to be long and grueling—was over.
Caitlin smiled at him from the nest she made of the paperwork she endured, day in, day out. It was a slightly sharp smile that looked, on the surface, quiet and sweet. That was Caitlin. Human all over. She'd been with him for years. He was aware of her value; the three people before her had lasted two weeks, three weeks, and four days, respectively. They had all babbled like morons.
Fear does that, Caitlin had said when she'd applied for the job. She was bird-thin and fragile to the eye, and her voice was soft and feminine—no growl or fang there. But definitely some spine. She was one of two people who manned the desks who could stand six inches from his face when he was on the edge of fury. She barely blinked, and attributed that, regretfully, to his breath.
At any other time of the year, paperwork was optional. Pay chits and duty rosters weren't, but he was enough of a Sergeant to at least sign off on them when he wasn't actively composing the lists themselves. No, this hideous mess was courtesy of the Festival. Permits, copied laboriously by clerks in some merchant branch of the Imperial palace, had been sent by dim-witted couriers in bags that were half again as large as Caitlin. Bags. Plural.
But not just permits. Festival regulations, which seemed to change year after year. The names of important dignitaries from the farthest damn fringe of the Empire of Ala'an, manifests of cargo transports, and diplomatic grants were also shoved in the same bags. The latter were, however, sealed in a way that screamed "special privilege." Diplomatic immunity.
Marcus hated the Festival season. The city was enough of a problem; throwing foreigners into the streets by the thousands was just asking for trouble.
Not only that, but every get-rich-quick scheme that had occurred to any half-wit moron in the street could be expected to rear its imbecilic head during the next two weeks. Unfortunately, every get-rich-quick scheme that occurred to any cunning, intelligent person would also rear its head during the next two weeks. The money that flowed into the Empire's capital during the Festival was staggering, and everyone wanted a piece of it.
The Swordlord, and the men who followed his orders, were probably in worse shape, and this provided a moment's comfort to Marcus. He was Hawk, through and through; the Swords were his natural rivals. Not, of course, his enemies; they all served the Lords of Law, and they all worked in the labyrinthine buildings referred to as the Halls of Law by people who saw them from the outside. But the Hawks and the Swords had their own way of doing things, and when the Festival season was at its height, there were always disagreements.
On the other hand, at least the Swords were in the streets; the damn Wolves were at bay. It was hard to hunt in the city during the Festival, even at the behest of the Wolflord. The Wolves were kept in reserve in case of riot, when all servants of the Law could be called into action. This was, however, downtime for the Wolves, and Marcus sullenly resented them their freedom. Paperwork was best left for bureaucrats.
Unfortunately, bureaucrats were damn good at shoveling the work onto the shoulders of men and women who were already too busy, where being too busy meant they didn't have time to kick up enough of a fuss to give it back.
He heard a door slam. It was followed by a raised, angry voice—only one—and the sound of a very heavy tread. Deliberately heavy.
Paperwork looked almost good in comparison.
"Oh dear," Caitlin said. "That's three this week."
"Two. One of them left last week." He rearranged the paperwork in the vague hope that this would provide some sort of fortification against the red and dour expression of a very annoyed mage.
Sure enough, down the long hall that led from the West Room, which had been ceded to the Hawklord for educational purposes, the swirling robes of a man who had probably been ancient ten years ago came into view. His fists were bunched just below the drape of long sleeves, and his forehead was engraved with permanent wrinkles. The kind that said foul mood.
The office had grown somewhat quieter as people stopped to listen in. You could count on curiosity to get the better of work at Festival time. Well, to be fair, at any time, but during the Festival it was more costly.
The man stormed over to the Sergeant's desk. "You will tell the Lord of Hawks that I am finished with this—this ridiculous task!"
Marcus raised a brow. Given that his face was entirely composed of golden fur, this should have been discomfiting at the very least.
"The girl is untrainable. She doesn't listen. She barely reads. She thinks like a—like a common soldier. She is rude beyond bearing, she is stupid, and she is an insult to the Imperial Order of Mages!"
The other brow lifted slightly as the Leontine attempted to look surprised. This was, however, lost on the mage, who was as human as Caitlin—as human, in fact, as most of the other paper pushers who called the office their second home.
"Tell your superior that I will have words with the Imperial Order about this!"
As he'd now heard a variant of this speech three times, he had it memorized. It generated some paperwork, on the other hand, which soured a mood that was worse than sour to begin with.
Holding his tongue was difficult. Holding his claws was a shade more difficult. He managed to breathe shallowly enough that the growl couldn't be heard over the mage's shouts.
Which went on for another five minutes before he stormed off. It was a wonder he wasn't followed by black clouds and lightning bolts.
"Oh dear," Caitlin said again, rising. "He didn't last two days."
Marcus shrugged, letting the growl into his words. "I told the Hawklord," he said.
"I know. I think we all tried. There must be a suitable mage somewhere in the Order—"
"I doubt it. You know how the Dragon Emperor feels about mages and sanity." Marcus pushed himself out of his chair. His claws clicked against the floorboards.
"I'll tell the Hawklord," he said with a shrug.
"I'll talk to Kaylin," Caitlin added.
Kaylin Neya was sitting in the West Room, her arms folded across her chest. There was a candle on the desk; it had been cut in half.
"Dear," Caitlin said quietly, "I think you're supposed to light it."
Kaylin muttered something about light and places in which it didn't shine. She was the youngest of Marcus's Hawks, and it showed.
"He really is a nice old man," Caitlin began.
"They're all supposed to be 'nice old men.'" Kaylin shoved herself out of her chair as if she were a miniature Marcus. On the other hand, she had boots instead of bare pads, and her very human nature didn't lend itself to extended claws and long fangs. "They're arrogant, they're long-winded, and they think they know everything."
"They do know a lot—"
"They know a lot about useless things! Light a candle?" She rolled her eyes. "I can light a candle in five seconds, the normal way. I can kill a man just as easily as a mage—and probably more efficiently." Her hands fell to her daggers and rested there. "I can run faster, I can see farther, I can—"
"Kaylin," Caitlin said, raising both her hands. "No one is doubting your competence as a Hawk. You're an officer of the Halls of Law."
"And how is this supposed to help me?"
"You cut the candle in half, dear?"
"It didn't get that way by itself."
"No, I imagine it didn't." Caitlin shrugged. "You've already annoyed a number of the Imperial mages. I do think it would be best for the Hawks if you tried not to annoy any more." She paused. Added, "You've got to expect a little arrogance, Kaylin. These men are old, they've survived the Emperor's service, and they are considered experts in their field. Given your general reaction to any power that isn't owned by the Hawks, I'll forgo mention of the fact that these men are powerful. And you're insulting their life's work."
Kaylin's lips were set in a line that could be called thin. Or invisible. "I don't want to be part of their life's work," she said at last. "I want to be part of my life's work. I want—all I've wanted since the first day I was introduced to all of you—is to be a Hawk."
"You are a Hawk, Kaylin."
"The Hawks don't employ mages."
Caitlin's smile froze in place. "You do realize that annoying them probably won't stop them from coming?"
"I can try."
The older woman's expression gave trying a different meaning. "I believe the Hawklord will want to speak with you. Again."
Kaylin's shoulders sagged. She walked past Caitlin and out of the room.
The Hawklord's tower boasted a fine set of stairs, one that curved upward against the inner wall in a continuous stacked spiral. There was good stonework here, girded by brass rails, and the echoes went up forever, bouncing against the walls.
Or against the breastplates of the guards on the various landings Kaylin walked past.
She nodded at them; they nodded back. If they were inclined to smirk, they managed to hide it, which was just as well. A brawl on these steps could cause injury. And, following it, more injury of an entirely Leontine nature. Marcus didn't approve of Hawks fighting each other in the Halls; he'd long since given up on Hawks squabbling after too many drinks in their private time.
The door to the Hawklord's inner sanctum, with its much-hated magical ward, was as usual closed. Kaylin, grimacing, placed her palm squarely against that ward and waited while the familiar prickle of magic ran up her arm and caused her hair to almost stand on end. The first time she'd touched it, she'd sworn her head off. Unfortunately for Kaylin, the most severe of the words occurred as the doors were opening; the domed cavern that the Hawklord ruled had reminded her of the unpleasant existence of acoustics. The Hawklord himself reminded her about the correct use of language in his presence.
It mostly consisted of "don't talk" in exactly the wrong tones. Kaylin wasn't a firm believer in soft-spoken threats, but if anyone could make her one, it was Lord Grammayre, the Aerian who held the title of Lord of Hawks.
She walked across the threshold.
The Hawklord, pale white wings turned toward her, was waiting in the silence. When he turned, she could see a piece of paper in his hands. It seemed to command most of his attention.
And given what it probably said, that wouldn't last long.
She paid him the obeisance the difference in their ranks demanded: She knelt. This was only partly because she was his junior in every possible way. The other part—the one that wanted to remain a member of his Hawks—was not above a little groveling, especially when there were no other witnesses. It wasn't the worst thing she'd done in his presence by a long shot.
His eyes, narrow gray, traveled along the top of her head as if they could scalp her and keep the scalp as an object lesson for other Hawks. Marcus, all bristling fur and exposed fangs, was no match for the Hawklord when it came to intimidation. Kaylin had annoyed them both in her time, and had more than ample experience as proof.
He handed her the piece of paper. She had to rise to take it. "That," he said, "was the third member of the Imperial Order of Mages you've managed to offend in less than ten days."
She recognized Leontine scrawl; it was bold, dark, and put holes in the paper.
"He started it" was not an option, and she bit the words back, swallowing them. "I've never been a good classroom student," she said at last.
"We're well aware of that," he replied, his words dry enough to catch fire. "We've attempted to keep your academic transcripts from the mages who have condescended to tutor you. Unfortunately, they seem to think it necessary to review them."
She said nothing, as it seemed safest. It usually was, and she frequently failed to remember this until after her mouth had engaged. "I don't understand why you even think it's necessary," she said at last, when his silence grew a little too weighty.
He raised a pale brow. His eyes, Aerian to the core, were shading to blue, which was never a good sign.
"The Hawks don't employ mages," she said woodenly.
"You are not a mage."
He lifted a hand. "I have always considered patience a virtue when dealing with the Hawks," he told her, "but I find that, as usual, you tax precious resources.
"Therefore, I will be blunt. You are a Hawk, but you are also—as you well know—blessed or cursed with magical ability. You can't control it well enough—you don't understand what it is, or what it can do. It is the opinion of experts that the power itself can be wielded in a manner similar to the way that mages channel their power."
"Do not even think of asking, Kaylin." He knew her far too well.
"It's Festival," she snapped. "We're up to our armpits in work—if we're lucky. We've just gotten the tally of so-called diplomats and Important Visitors—" she managed to wedge a powerful sneer
"I don't have time for this right now."
"I will agree that the timing is not the most opportune," the Hawklord said in a tone that implied the exact opposite. "But as the timing is not of our choosing, we have little choice.
"I understand what you're attempting to do, Kaylin," he added, his voice smoothing to velvet. "And I will now insist that you cease this. It is unworthy of you. You can insult and infuriate every mage who crosses the threshold on my behalf, if it pleases you. But they will not stop coming. Do you understand?"
He raised a hand to his brow. As gestures went, it was human, and even if it hadn't been, it was transparent. "The Emperor himself has taken an interest in your education."
They were not the words she expected to hear. They were also the last words she wanted to hear. Unfortunately, lifting her hands to stop her ears wasn't an option.
"How much does he—"
"He is the Emperor. It is to the Emperor that the Lords of Law are beholden. How much do you think he knows?"
The words too damn much flitted about, but she tried to ignore them.
"You fought a Dragon," he added quietly. "You fought the only Dragon who has ever survived being outcaste among his kin. The battle was felt all the way to the palace. Some diplomacy was necessary—you can thank Tiamaris for his intercession—and there was, perhaps, a surfeit of actual facts offered. But enough was said. The Emperor knows that you bear the marks."
Her eyes fell to her sleeves automatically; they always did when anyone spoke of the strange writing that ran the length of her arms and her thighs. They had been symbols to be hidden when she had been a child on the edge of adulthood; she knew them now as words. Or names. But whose words and whose names were still mostly mystery—and in Kaylin's universe, it was vital that they stay that way. She was used to them, in any case; the new ones bothered her more.
"He is," the Hawklord continued, "also aware that you bear a Barrani mark."
"Everyone is," she said.
"Were it not for Tiamaris, he would not be inclined to…give you the benefit of the doubt. He has shown some forbearance in this. But he has made clear that you present a danger if you cannot be trained. And it seems that you intend to demonstrate your intractability in the worst possible way. For you," he added, as if it were necessary. "I will send for another member of the Imperial Order of Mages."
Cast in Courtlight by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes