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Cast in ruin, p.4
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       Cast in Ruin, p.4

           Michelle Sagara
 

  Kaylin, who also just worked here, nonetheless tried to wrap her thoughts around the title, and gave up. “I have two letters I was told to deliver to him in person.”

  “Do either of the sendees have any reason to want you dead or fired?”

  “Not yet.”

  Hanson held out a hand. It was large, square, and belied the rather bookish clothing he generally wore for office work. Too many calluses, for one. “Let me have them.”

  She would normally have been more than happy to pass them off as his problem, but this time she was torn. She had hopes for the contents of Sanabalis’s letter, and pure dread about the contents of Diarmat’s. It didn’t matter, though. Hanson lifted one gray brow and said, “I’m not opening either,” in a flat tone of voice. “I recognize both seals. Were you told, in either case, to wait for a report?”

  “No.”

  “And you are absolutely certain you did nothing to offend Diarmat?”

  “Nothing besides breathing.”

  “Take a chair,” Hanson said, rising as he made his decision. “Take any chair in my office except the one behind my desk.”

  Kaylin had been a bit of an explorer when she’d first been brought to the office. Hanson’s chair wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to her, even though she’d only sat in it a couple of times. Unfortunately, the last of those times had involved a rather irate citizen of great import to his Caste Court, an absent Hanson, and an absent Hawklord. It had not gone well.

  She wasn’t thirteen anymore in any case; she took a chair by the wall nearest the desk and waited. Hanson came in maybe a quarter of an hour later; the windows here weren’t enchanted, so asking them for the time indicated a lower level of sanity or observation than the Hawks ideally liked in their employees.

  “The Hawklord will see you. Now.”

  “Is he pissed off?”

  “He was not entirely pleased by the interruption, no. I don’t believe he holds it against you, on the other hand.”

  “How badly is the investigation going?”

  “It is not going well, and the Emperor is not pleased.”

  Kaylin winced. “Thanks for the heads-up.”

  The Hawklord’s Tower was empty when she arrived; she could see this because the doors were—thank the gods—already open. The landing in front of his Tower, on the other hand, was occupied. Teela was lounging against the height of the rails as Kaylin trudged up the stairs. She raised one dark brow in acknowledgment. “I saw Hanson. Two official letters, from actual Dragons, no less. Why were you at the Palace?”

  “Etiquette lessons, if you must know.”

  Teela frowned for a second, and then nodded. The fact that she’d asked at all meant the investigation was going very badly; normally, she would have known exactly where Kaylin had been the previous day. Teela had taken to office betting pools like fish take to water.

  “You didn’t offend Diarmat, did you?”

  “I believe my inferior existence is offense enough,” Kaylin replied, sliding into very clipped and precise High Barrani.

  Tain chuckled. “He’s old school, Kaylin.”

  “Meaning?”

  “You’ll find out. Hawklord’s waiting,” he added. “And we’re not allowed back in until you’ve finished.”

  Lord Grammayre’s eyes were an unfortunate shade of blue; his wings were at full height, but at least they were only partially extended. He held what appeared to be two letters in one of his stiff hands, and he looked up when Kaylin entered. He didn’t even tell her to close the doors; he gestured and they pretty much slammed shut at her back. Had she been Barrani, they would have closed on her hair. Or maybe not. Barrani hair never got in the way of anything.

  “I have two completely conflicting requests, and I have very, very little time in which to reply. Are you aware of what either of these letters contain?”

  “No, sir,” she said truthfully. She did snap a salute, and she did stand pretty much at rigid attention.

  Lord Grammayre looked peaked. Had she been Caitlin, she might have asked him if he’d been sleeping at all; as she wasn’t, she didn’t dare. “Since neither request has anything at all to do with the Human Caste Court or the Exchequer, I almost consider the interruption a favor. Sadly, it is not a favor I can indulge in for much longer.

  “Lord Diarmat, after an hour of extracurricular lessons, has decided that things would work more smoothly with a cocurricular schedule.”

  Kaylin tried to make sense of this, and failed. “Cocurricular?”

  “Yes. He would like your etiquette lessons—and his involvement in the same—to be more—” he glanced at the paper “—comprehensive. He feels that there is some danger you will take the lessons far too casually otherwise.”

  “I’m still stuck on cocurricular.”

  “Ah. The lesson schedule would become far more intensive, and the classes would be integrated into your duties to the Halls of Law. Your paycheck—and possible promotion, and yes, that’s also on my desk—would depend on your success. He feels that separation of his lessons and your duties are not—” again he glanced at the paper “—a strict advantage.”

  Kaylin had drifted off the topic of cocurricular and Lord Diarmat, and latched onto the fact that a request for promotion—for her!—was on the Hawklord’s desk.

  He lifted a pale brow, and then his eyes narrowed; they were still blue. He’d seen Kaylin almost daily since she was thirteen years old, and if she wasn’t that child anymore, he’d also become familiar with all the incremental changes time had made. He knew what she was thinking. “If,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose, “I might actually have your attention for the next five minutes?”

  “Yes, sir!”

  “Good. Lord Diarmat’s vision of cocurricular would see you at the Imperial Palace for three days of each week, duty cycles notwithstanding. He specifically states some concern with your overall martial training and your deplorable self-indulgence; he wishes all trace of these deficiencies to be dealt with immediately.”

  Three days of each week? “What about my beat?”

  “You would obviously not be patrolling for the duration.”

  “And the duration?”

  “That was not specified, although I believe the implication is that his lessons will last until he is satisfied.”

  “Or I’m dead?”

  “If you feel that’s more likely.”

  Almost ashen, Kaylin grasped at straws. “And the—the other letter?”

  “There is apparently some miscommunication among the members of the Dragon Court; given the relocation of the refugees and the absence of Lord Sanabalis from the Palace for much of each day, that is understandable.” He glanced at the second letter. “Breathe,” he said without looking up.

  She tried.

  “Lord Sanabalis apologizes for any inconvenience his request might cause the Hawks, but his request is, for Lord Sanabalis, quite urgently stated.”

  The Hawklord wasn’t known for either his kindness or his cruelty. Kaylin was privately wondering about the latter. While it was true she’d interrupted a critical meeting at a very bad time, it was also true that the interruption wasn’t her doing.

  “He would like to see you seconded to the Imperial Court as an attaché.”

  “A what?”

  “I believe he means a general aide of unspecified expertise. His request, however, would clash badly with Lord Diarmat’s.”

  “Why?”

  “He wants you as a full-time aide for an unspecified length of time. You would not report to Sergeant Kassan; you would report directly to Lord Sanabalis.” The Hawklord lowered the hand that held the letters, and his irritation receded; the color of his eyes, however, was almost cobalt. “Your duties to the Court at this time would take you directly into the fiefs.”

  “The fiefs? But—”

  “There have been some issues with the resettlement.”

  CHAPTER 3

  “Issues?” Kaylin said, her voice sharpening. “W
hat do you mean, issues?”

  “I? I mean nothing. Lord Sanabalis has failed—entirely—to make explicit what those issues or concerns are. He has, however, stated unequivocally that the strangers, or at least one or two of them, would be comfortable, or perhaps comforted, by your presence. He acknowledges, of course, that the needs of the Halls of Law take precedence in this case, and that the jurisdiction is…hazy. He also feels, should we grant his request, Corporal Handred should accompany you.” The Hawklord looked at Kaylin.

  “While I feel it inadvisable to annoy Lord Diarmat, three thousand homeless strangers—none of whom speak Elantran or Barrani—seem, to me, to be the greater concern. While the fief of Tiamaris is not within the purview of the Halls of Law, if accommodations cannot be safely made, the strangers will no doubt become our problem, one way or the other.

  “I will therefore accede to Lord Sanabalis’s request, and I will write my regrets to Lord Diarmat. I will not, however, attempt to get you out of his extracurricular lessons. Is that understood?”

  Kaylin nodded.

  “Therefore, if you must be late—or worse, miss one—have a reason with which even the most punctilious of people can find no fault.”

  “Such as being dead?”

  “That would,” was the wry reply, “be acceptable, but I think it goes a tad far.” He exhaled. “Report to Lord Sanabalis directly upon leaving the Tower; he will have further instructions. Where it is possible, make your reports to Sergeant Kassan at the end of the day. He will no doubt have some issues with your placement, and this will mollify him somewhat. It is the only concession I can afford to make at this time.”

  Kaylin nodded and offered as perfect a salute as she could.

  “I will mirror Sergeant Kassan to let him know of your reassignment.” He placed one palm on the surface of his slender, tall mirror; the office—the one she usually called home when she wasn’t dealing with nervous, angry, or insane people—swam into view. At the center of that office, in image, as in life, was the bristling golden fur of a Leontine. “Sergeant Kassan,” the Hawklord said in brisk, clipped Elantran.

  “What,” Marcus said, catching the same glimpse of Kaylin that she’d caught of him, “has she done this time?”

  “At the moment? She has apparently made herself all but necessary to the Dragon Court. Lord Sanabalis has seconded her for ancillary work in the fief of Tiamaris; I have granted the requested redeployment. Please have Corporal Handred report in; I believe he’s in the outer office.”

  “I’m losing two Hawks for how long?”

  “I’m certain that, after deliberations with Lord Sanabalis, Private Neya will be able to answer that question.”

  Marcus growled. His eyes shaded toward copper, and his fur began to stand up, increasing the size of his face. Kaylin, used to this, lifted her chin, exposing her throat. The Hawklord, however, was unmoved by this display of annoyance, and really, given Marcus, it was second-rate. He gestured briefly at the mirror, and Marcus’s image dissolved in a sea of silvered waves.

  The Hawklord then turned to Kaylin. “I have an interrupted meeting to resume. Please tell the Barrani Hawks to get back to work on your way out.”

  Severn wasn’t waiting for her by the time she reached Marcus’s desk; Marcus, however, was. He was also aware that the appearance of Kaylin’s partner would end most conversation—although Marcus’s idea of conversation suited most definitions of interrogation Kaylin had ever run across. “Caitlin said you had two letters.”

  Kaylin winced and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

  “The second letter was also from a Dragon Lord.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Marcus growled.

  “Lord Diarmat,” she offered, aware that while this was what he wanted, it would in no way mollify him. She was right; he’d created three new runnels in the surface of a desk that already looked as if insane carpenters had gone on a drinking binge and then tried to have a carving contest.

  “The letter’s content?”

  “I didn’t read it; it was sent to Lord Grammayre.”

  “Is Lord Diarmat going to be annoyed at your new assignment?”

  “Yes, sir. But with any luck he won’t be annoyed at the Hawks.”

  “I’ll speak with the Hawklord when he’s done. Corporal Handred is waiting.” He growled before Kaylin turned. “Try not to antagonize Lord Diarmat, Private. He’s not known for his abundance of goodwill. He is also famous for his utter lack of anything that could remotely resemble a sense of humor.”

  With good damn reason. She managed not to say this out loud, but did turn to jog her way to where Severn was standing in order to leave an impression of good behavior intact.

  Sanabalis was, of course, waiting for them in his usual rooms. Food was also—as it often was—waiting with him, albeit on small tables near the very heavy chairs that occupied the room. Sanabalis was, for a change, seated in one when they arrived.

  “Corporal, Private,” he said, gesturing toward the food. “There may not be a reasonable opportunity to eat later on in the day; I suggest you avail yourself of what’s here.”

  Kaylin took a chair closest to the food. She often wondered how—or what—Dragons ate, because she’d never actually seen them do it. Today was not to be the exception, but as she was hungry, food at home being sparse because of the insanity of her schedule and the fact that the market was either closed when she managed to crawl out of the office, or sold out of anything that looked remotely edible, she ate.

  Severn joined her, but ate less. “What,” he said, while eating, “is the difficulty in Tiamaris? The borders of the fief have stabilized, haven’t they?”

  “Tiamaris is still hunting down Shadow remnants and infestations within the fief boundaries; the few that he has failed to destroy are subtle.”

  Very little destroyed the appetite of people who’d scrounged through fief garbage in their childhood, which is why Kaylin could continue to eat. Around a mouthful of something, she said, “Shadows aren’t known for their subtlety.”

  He frowned. “You are well aware that that is not the case. Your experiences in the High Halls and in the Leontine Quarter are solid evidence that subtlety is not beyond their scope, nor planning.”

  She gave him the point. “Are the problems caused by the Shadows?”

  “Not in their entirety. I know you’re aware of the various building projects Tiamaris and his Tower have undertaken. What you are perhaps not entirely cognizant of is where the funds for that reconstruction have come from.”

  “Funds?”

  “Funds. Money.”

  It was true. Until Sanabalis had, in fact, mentioned funding, she hadn’t given it a thought. Her experience with fieflords had made clear that the lords of the fief were never strapped for cash; it was just anyone else who lived under them who had difficulty. Tiamaris had dismantled Barren’s old tried-and-true method of bringing gold into the fiefs by strongly discouraging anyone who stepped foot across the Ablayne without a clear purpose. In only one of those cases had the discouragement caused friction with the Halls of Law, and in truth, not much.

  Kaylin would have happily watched Tiamaris burn to ash anyone who’d made use of Barren’s previous, very illegal services. She’d have brought marshmallows. “You’re right. I have no idea at all where the money’s coming from. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s using Barren’s money, or what was left of it.”

  “It would be a reasonable guess. It would not, however, be entirely accurate. He is using Barren’s money, as you call it. He is utilizing the people of the fief, as well, and some of that money has gone to their pay. But the damage done to the fief during the breach of the barriers was extensive, and most of the border-side buildings were destroyed, either during the incursion, or afterward, depending on the contamination.”

  “Meaning Barren didn’t have enough money.”

  “Meaning exactly that.”

  “But Tiamaris is still building.”

  “Yes. There hav
e, however, been a few significant difficulties.”

  Kaylin started to eat again, but she did lift a hand before the Dragon could continue. “Please tell me that this has nothing to do with the Exchequer and his alleged embezzlement.”

  Sanabalis was notably silent. He was also, however, grimly pleased with the comment, in the way that teachers often are when a student says something unexpectedly clever. “You see the issue.”

  She did, and she bit down on the bread a little too hard. “The treasury doesn’t have the money.”

  “The treasury is, by no means, approaching insolvency. But the funds are greatly reduced for projects of an unspecified nature. In emergencies, tax levies could be raised—”

  “I know this one,” was the grim reply. “I’ve done tax collector lookout before.” This was the polite phrase for guarding the tax collectors, who had the dubious distinction of being the most despised men in the City, bar none. “The Emperor can’t raise an unspecified levy without the Caste Courts bickering like starving dogs. He can’t, in this case, raise a specific levy without causing idiots to cross the bridge in resentful fury with torches.”

  Severn, often quiet, said, “It would, on the other hand, rid us of dozens of idiots; the Swords would probably be grateful in the long term.”

  “I concede that the Emperor would not be distressed to see them go, either. Be that as it may, there has been a slowdown in the purchase of the materials required for the reconstruction. Tiamaris has, of course, his own funds, but these have been appropriated. The issue of food was initially problematic—but I forget myself. The food is entirely an internal matter.”

  “In theory, so is the reconstruction.”

  “Indeed. The investigation into the Exchequer is not going as well as the Emperor had hoped.” He steepled his hands beneath his chin, teasing wisps of beard before he continued. “The funding is not the only problem, and frankly, were it, your presence would not be required.”

  “Got it. Shadows, then?” She watched his expression. “It’s not just the Shadows.”

 
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