Seven corpses are discovered in the streets of a Dragon's fief. All identical, down to their clothing.
Kaylin Neya is assigned to discover who they were, who killed them—and why. Is the evil lurking at the borders of Elantra preparing to cross over?
At least the investigation delays her meeting with the Dragon Emperor. And as the shadows grow longer over the fiefs, Kaylin must use every skill she's ever learned to save the people she's sworn to protect. Sword in hand, dragons in the sky, this time there's no retreat and no surrender...
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New York Times bestselling author Michelle Sagara writes as both Michelle Sagara and Michelle West; she is also published as Michelle Sagara West. She lives in Toronto with her long-suffering husband and her two children, and to her regret has no dogs.
She can be found @msagara on Twitter or http://msagarawest.wordpress.com
The worst thing about near-world-ending disasters according to Sergeant Marcus Kassan—at least the ones that had miraculously done very little damage—was the paperwork they generated. Two departments over, the Hawks required to man desks visible—and accessible—to the public would probably have disagreed. Vehemently. In Leontine.
In the day and a half since four very large Dragons, a small army, and every Sword on the roster had converged on Elani street, there'd been a steady stream of people coming to the office that bordered Missing Persons to make complaints, demand redress, or simply ask for some assurance that the world had not, in fact, ended. The numbers of civilian complaints had, in theory, peaked.
Theory, as usual, was invented by some bureaucrat in a high tower who didn't have to actually deal with said complaints. Private Neya, however, wasn't even Corporal, let alone lofty bureaucrat. She was part of the emergency shift of Hawks who'd been crammed into a workspace—already tight to begin with—in order to deal with the civilians. The Hawks who regularly manned these desks were generally older and certainly better suited to the task.
They appeared to appreciate the help about as much as the help appreciated being there.
"You're beat Hawks," her Sergeant had growled. For some of the officers who worked in the Halls of Law, growl would be figurative. In the case of Kaylin Neya, it was literal: her Sergeant was a Leontine. "You deal with the public every day."
"Right. We deal with the public accused of stealing, mugging, and murder." All in all, it didn't give the brightest window into the human condition. When Sergeant Kassan failed to even blink, she added, "You know them—they're the people I don't have to worry about offending?"
Marcus, however, had failed to be moved. Kaylin had not, which is why she currently occupied half a stranger's desk.
"You were assigned to Elani," he pointed out. "At the moment, Elani is still—"
"Under quarantine. Yes. I realize that."
"Since you can't do your job there for the next few days, you can make yourself useful in the front rooms, since we are still paying you."
Not surprisingly, many of the reports delivered by timid, angry, or deranged civilians involved descriptions of a giant Dragon roaming the streets. His color varied from report to report, as did his activities; he reportedly breathed fire, ate people—or at least large, stray dogs—and leveled buildings. He was alternately the usual Dragon size—which, to be fair, was not small—or giant; he was also deafening.
This last part was accurate. The rest, not so much. Kaylin, of course, knew the Dragon being described. Dragons were forbidden, by law, from assuming their native forms within the City of Elantra without express permission from the Eternal Emperor. Lord Tiamaris, however, had received that dispensation. He was, the last time she'd seen him, a shade that approached copper. He did have an impressive wingspan, but none of the eyewitnesses had claimed to see him fly.
Most of the witnesses, however, claimed that Tiamaris led a small army. The descriptions of this army varied almost as widely as descriptions of Tiamaris himself. The word Barbarian came up almost as often as Savage, but both ran a distant second and third to Giant. She particularly liked the two people—who had come in together and were shoving each other in between sentences—who claimed that they were an army of the shambling undead. Their size was, according to these civilian reports, all over the map; their numbers ranged from "lots" to "fifty thousand." Most accounts agreed, however, that the strangers were armed.
This last had the benefit of being accurate. The strangers—or refugees—themselves were, as far as anyone knew, newcomers to the world—the idea that this was a world, rather than the only world being almost as new to most of the authorities as the refugees themselves. According to the Palace, and more important, to Lord Sanabalis, the refugees numbered roughly three thousand strong. As their destination was the fief of Tiamaris, no formal census had been taken or even considered. They wouldn't technically be citizens of Elantra.
They weren't giants, a race that Kaylin privately thought entirely in the realm of children's stories, but they were about eight feet in height at the upper end; the children were taller than Kaylin. They didn't speak Elantran, which was Kay-lin's mother tongue; they didn't speak Barrani, either, Bar-rani being the language in which the laws were written. But the Imperial linguists, with the aid of Ybelline Rabon'alani, had gone with Tiamaris. They'd been the only people who'd looked truly excited at the prospect of three thousand armed, hungry, and exhausted eight-foot-tall strangers. They were also, however, absent from the civilian reports, and therefore not her problem.
Kaylin had received some training in speaking with civilians, because some of her job did involve talking to possible witnesses in a way that didn't terrify them so much they denied seeing anything; putting it to use in the crowded office full of strangers was almost more than she could stomach. She did not, however, point out that they were blind or out of their minds; she transcribed most of what they said with unfailing attention.
This was, in part, because in the end Marcus would have to read most of these, or at least sign them. He loathed paperwork.
On the bright side? The unusual births, the rains of blood—and, in one area, frogs—and the unfortunate and inexplicable change in the City's geography, had ceased. Elani, however, now had a stream running along one side of the street, and the blood-red flowers that had popped up in the wake of the refugees were proving more hardy than tangleknot grass.
It would probably only be a matter of time before some enterprising fraud picked them, bottled them, and sold them as an elixir of youth; it was Elani street, after all.
Kaylin glanced at the small mirror at the end of the overwhelmed desk she was half behind. The Records of the Halls of Law, forbidden to the rank and file during the state of emergency, were now once again deemed safe to use, which meant the mirror added more external chatter to a loud and bustling office.
Kaylin tried to avoid listening to it; it only annoyed her. The Barrani Hawks were, of course, excused external desk duty. Something about tall, slender immortals put normal civilians off their stride; for some reason they felt the Bar-rani were arrogant and condescending. This was probably, in Kaylin's opinion, because they had working eyes and ears. The Aerian Hawks were excused the "emergency" shift work because the small size—and low ceilings—of the cramped room made having large wings a disadvantage. In theory.
Luckily, the force contained enough humans that the extra shifts decreed as necessary by some higher-up could be filled. If Kaylin knew who he—or she—was, there'd be a new picture on the dartboard in the office by the end of the week. Who knew a hand could cramp so damn badly when the only activity of the day was writing and trying to hide the fists that incredible stupidity normally caused?
Severn Handred, her Corporal partner, had fared better, in large part because he didn't mind the stupidity. He met her when she managed to edge her way out of the single door that led—from the inside of the Halls of Law—to the office itself. There was a door on the opposite wall, as well, but as it led into the people who were waiting to make their incredibly frustrating reports, Kaylin avoided that one.
"Well?" he asked. He was leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest.
"I didn't kill anyone," she replied.
"I think it was the conspiracy of evil chickens that did me in."
"You heard me. I honestly have no idea how more of the Hawks in that damn office aren't arraigned on assault charges."
"Bridget keeps them in line."
Kaylin cringed. "I could see that." Sergeant Keele was one of the staff regulars; this was her domain. She'd been entirely undelighted at the additional staff thrust upon her, in part because she felt it impugned her ability to handle the situation. She had, however, been brisk, if chilly, and she didn't mince words—or orders. If hazing was part of the unofficial schedule of the regular office workers, it wasn't something she had time for, so it had to be damn subtle.
"Can you top evil chickens?" she asked hopefully.
He thought about it for a minute. "Probably not."
He nodded slowly. "You didn't happen to check the mirror before you left?"
"I shut it off. Why?"
"Sergeant Kassan is expecting us."
"The important question is actually, 'When?'." She swore.
Caitlin was still at her desk, but many of the regulars had already vacated theirs and headed home, something Kaylin had every hope of doing soon. The office den mother looked up as Kaylin entered. "Bad day, dear?" she asked.
Kaylin shrugged. "It could have been worse."
"I could have been the one who had to listen to Mrs. Er-ickson."
Caitlin, used to seeing some of the paperwork that crossed between offices, grimaced. Mrs. Erickson was famous—or infamous—for the messages she carried; they were invariably from the dead. The nosy, busybody dead. They ranged in importance from left shoes—Kaylin had refused to believe this until the report was pulled and shoved under her nose—to Empire-spanning conspiracies against the Dragon Emperor.
Since Mrs. Erickson liked to bake, all her messages were conveyed alongside cookies or small cakes, none of which had ever caused even the slightest bit of indigestion. "What was today's message?"
"I missed it—I was too busy dealing with the reports about the invading army and its Dragon. Whatever her dead messenger was concerned about, though, it was long. How were things here?"
"Well, Margot is threatening to join the Merchants' Guild and file a formal guild complaint if we don't lift the quarantine on Elani street soon. She's also seeking financial redress for economic losses taken because of the involuntary closure of her store."
Kaylin snorted. "Let her. I can't quite decide who'd be the loser in that transaction—Margot or the guild." Kaylin despised both with a frequently expressed and very colorful passion.
"I don't believe Lord Grammayre is looking for more official difficulty at the moment."
At that, Kaylin's expression flattened. "You've had word?"
"Not official word, no. But the investigation into the Exchequer is not going well. The Human Caste Court has closed ranks around him. The Emperor has not closed the investigation, but by all reports he is...not pleased." She paused, and then added, "Word was, however, sent from the Palace. For you."
Kaylin winced. "It's only been two days," she murmured.
"Two days, for Lord Diarmat, is long enough." Marcus's voice growled from behind her.
Marcus was at his desk, surrounded by the usual teetering piles of paper; Kaylin counted three. The gouges in the surface of said desk didn't appear to be deeper or more numerous, which probably meant his mood hadn't descended to foul, yet.
"You're late," he growled. Since his irises were a distinct gold, Kaylin said, "Not according to Sergeant Keele, sir." She walked over to his desk and took up position in front of it; Severn lingered behind.
Without preamble, he handed her a set of curved papers. She took them as if they were live cockroaches and began to read. The top letter—and it was a letter—was from Lord Sanabalis of the Dragon Court.
Sanabalis had extended the period of grace in which she was allowed to skip the magic class he was responsible for making certain she attended; the transitioning of three thousand refugees who required housing and food were of primary import for the next week. Or two. He wished her luck during the extra work that this type of emergency generated, by which she inferred he knew of her day's work in the outer office.
The second letter was from Diarmat, and it was not, by any reasonable definition, a letter; it was a set of orders. She read it once, and then glanced up over the top edge of the page to see Leontine eyes watching her carefully.
"He is," Marcus said drily, "the Commander of the Imperial Guard, a force that is almost entirely composed of humans."
"Have you had to interact with them?"
"On several occasions. I've survived."
He raised a brow; his eyes, however, stayed the same mellow gold. She had a sneaking suspicion he was enjoying this.
Lord Diarmat—whose classes were to be conducted after-bloody-hours on her own time—considered three thousand refugees and a significant area of the city under quarantine unworthy of mention. She swore.
"He reminds me that the first of our lessons starts tonight." "Then you'd best have something to eat, dear," Caitlin told her. "I highly doubt that Lord Diarmat will be casual enough to offer to feed you."
Feed her? If she was lucky, he'd be civil enough not to eat her himself.
She looked at the window. "Time?" she asked it.
"Five hours and a half," the window replied. "Please check the duty roster on your way out."
Because she was feeling masochistic, she did. She was penciled in for yet another day on outsiders' desk duty.
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