Sergeant Yara straightened her jacket for perhaps the twelfth time while waiting outside the drawing room at the Imperial Palace. Her enforcer's dress uniform didn't quite fit her frame as well as she'd like. The jacket was a touch too short, but tugging on it seemed to help. Tramping down her nerves was proving to be more difficult. That made her angry; being a woman in a man's job meant showing fear was never an option, unless one wanted to be called weak on a repeated basis. And she wasn't weak.

But she hadn't bargained on meeting the emperor. She definitely hadn't guessed that meeting him would entail defending a rogue enforcer and her band of misfits.

Yara wished she'd never met Amaranthe Lokdon. Having Sicarius put a knife to her throat hadn't been pleasant, either. The fact that he didn't kill her, though...now, that was interesting. Lokdon must have more influence with him than anyone in the government would dare admit. Since when did Sicarius allow anyone-except the highest bidder-influence his actions? Was there something to Lokdon's assertion that they were trying to clear their names? Yara doubted it, but whether it was true or not, she'd have to relate what she'd witnessed to the emperor and his council.

"End of my career," Yara muttered. "How did I get myself into this?"

It would be easier to lie, but her father hadn't raised a liar; he'd beaten that out of her and her brothers early on. She didn't have to like telling the truth, though. Especially if it meant imploding everything she'd worked so hard to accomplish.

The sound of boots clicking on hardwood floors announced the arrival of the other participant in this meeting. Captain Branchok, the military commander who botched much of the mission at the hidden dam, strode down the hall in full dress uniform. Yara ground her teeth. Speaking of liars...

Hisuniform fit him to perfection, down to the pressed trousers and regulation haircut. Then again, Turgonian tailors, especially those working for army officers, were far more adept at fitting garments to a man's frame. Those same tailors never seemed to take breasts or hips into account. At least not in their uniform patterns.

Which was why Yara found it patently unfair that Lokdon's own fatigues fit her like a well-worn glove. A traitor, and she looked more like a model enforcer than Yara ever would.

"Good afternoon, Sergeant," the captain said, attempting to look down his nose at her. He was tall, but Yara stood six feet in her socks. It gave her a little satisfaction to watch Branchok stand up straighter and still not loom over her as he might like. "I see you're early for the inquest. How...punctual."

Yara clenched her fists behind her back, wishing she could drag the man behind her woodshed back home like she did her brothers when they gave her grief. "Captain."

"We fished the last of the Makarovi from the river a few days ago," he said, lowering his voice before glancing at the drawing room's closed door. "This will have to be played very carefully. Magic, inside our own borders, is a dangerous subject."

"Magic does not exist," Yara said by rote, knowing full well it did; to think otherwise was foolish. While Emperor Sespian, being young and quite progressive, might agree. His advisors, on the other hand, probably would not.

Branchok rolled his eyes. "Precisely." He leaned in close and took her elbow. "Follow my lead in there, understand?"

"I'll answer questions as asked." Yara yanked her arm free. "And don't touch me again."

Before he could retort, a stern, gray-haired man wearing the imperial seal on the lapel of his coat opened the door. "Captain, Sergeant, the emperor will see you now."

Yara tugged on her jacket one last time and followed Branchok inside. To her surprise, the room wasn't an opulent, cold, imposing place. Six men were seated on cushioned chairs around a long wooden table, and a fire crackled in a well-used fireplace. Some inquisition, Yara thought; it's more like lunchtime at a Warrior Caste tea room. Not that she'd ever been invited to dine in one.

A young man wearing an openly curious expression popped to his feet as they entered. "Is it true? Were there Makarovi at the lake?"

"Sire," one of the seated men-another gray-haired persimmon-chided. "Perhaps you might take your ease and let them give their report."

The words were gentle, but Yara heard the warning. An old man telling a youngster to behave with decorum. She suppressed a smile. Emperor Sespian didn't appear to be the type who'd appreciate that kind of advice. His lively brown eyes took in everything at once and he gave Yara a supportive nod when she stood before him.

Branchok frowned at her, then bowed, his fist over his heart. Yara did the same, which drew some consternated looks from the grey-hairs. What, did they expect her to curtsey? She'd spent too many years trying to prove she was as good as the men around her; she wouldn't allow old-fashioned customs to mark her as different now.

"Please, sit," the emperor said, somewhat more reserved. "I'm very interested in your reports."

Yara opened her mouth, but Branchok spoke over her, explaining how they'd found the device in the lake, the source of the tainted water plaguing the capital. Despite the length of his report, he failed to mention the crazy animals with the glowing eyes. Or the shaman. Or the fact that Sicarius and Lokdon and their gang had shown up. By the end of his tale, Yara's ears were burning.

"Sire, it was a dangerous situation," the captain said, puffing out his chest. "We lost several men, but in the end we destroyed the device. The capital's water supply is safe and the Turgonian family involved with the plot has been apprehended, to await your judgment."

"What about the Makarovi? I've heard they're very hard to kill," the emperor said. "They aren't still roaming the countryside are they?"

"No, Sire, we killed them all," Branchok said, giving Yara a warning glance. "The enforcers helped as well. The sergeant here deserves a commendation for her part in all this."

Yara glared at him. Did he think she'd suffer lies just for a commendation? "Sire, if I may, I'd like to share myreport."

Branchok's expression clearly warned her not to refute him when the emperor said, "Certainly."

"Sire, while the captain's account of the device in the lake was true, he failed to mention some very important facts."

Captain Branchok cracked his knuckles under the table, and the emperor narrowed his eyes. "Go on."

"We had...help, of a sort." Yara took a deep breath, watching the faces of Emperor Sespian's advisors. Most of them appeared to be suffering from indigestion; no, her news would not go over well. If this was to be the end of her career, she'd better make it good. "A group of-well, mercenaries is what I'd call them-showed up, professing a desire to assist us." She paused. "Two of them were Amaranthe Lokdon and the assassin, Sicarius."

Voices exploded from all around the table. Some were derisive, saying she was delusional. Others were calling for her immediate dismissal. The man who'd led them into the room said, over all the others, "If that's true, and you failed to apprehend him, you should be shot for sedition!"

"I warned you to take care," Branchok growled through gritted teeth. "Just couldn't listen, could you? This is why women shouldn't be allowed in men's jobs. You make a mess of it every time."

"Silence!" Sespian's voice cut through the noise like a hot knife. He nodded to Yara. "Explain. And don't worry about being shot." He glared at his advisors. "I'm not planning to execute anyone today."

Yara's mouth had gone dry, but she managed to say, "Lokdon spoke to me on two occasions. She was planning some schemes to find the foreigner responsible for the device. She also mentioned that her team killed several of the Makarovi by dumping them into the river. Given where we found the bodies, the details of her story match the evidence very accurately."

"Interesting," the emperor said.

The advisors didn't appear to find it so; all of them were glaring daggers at her. But that was nothing compared to the murderous look Branchok fired her way. Yara squared her shoulders. "The last time I spoke to Lokdon, she was asking where the sha-...where the foreigner was hiding because they planned to rescue one of their men from him. While I can't confirm it, I believe her team is responsible for capturing and killing him."

There was an awkward pause, and Yara couldn't help but think maybe she'd made a rather large mistake.

Brachok cleared his throat. "Sire, begging your pardon, but I will not have the brave service of my men maligned by this...pack of lies. I don't know if the sergeant is trying to make her part in the affair bigger to gain some sort of recognition, or if there's another reason, but many of my men died fighting to keep the capital safe, and I can't stand for it."

Despite the chilly stares from everyone else, the emperor eyed Yara thoughtfully. "I've heard tale once or twice before of Amaranthe Lokdon being associated with good deeds done for the sake of the empire. It makes me wonder if she's really the outlaw she's been made out to be."

"She's running with Sicarius," one of the grey-hairs burst out. "How could she be anything other than an outlaw when she consorts with an assassin?"

"There is that." Sespian's lip curled in disgust. "Destruction follows that man everywhere."

"And what of all the men we lost, Sire?" Captain Branchok asked. "Do we tarnish the memory of their service?"

"Of course not, Captain," the emperor said. Yara thought he sounded vaguely annoyed by the suggestion that he couldforget about the fallen soldiers. Sespian sighed. "Sergeant Yara, I appreciate your report. We'll take it under advisement. Captain Branchok, I shall personally write letters of commendation for your men, and send letters of thanks to the families of the men who died."

Sespian nodded to everyone, then stood and disappeared through a door at the back of the room. With that, their audience was over, and Yara was quickly ushered out into the hallway, Captain Branchok right on her heels.

As soon as the door shut behind them, he grabbed her arm. "You'll regret this. I'm not someone you want to cross. I'll have you stripped of rank within a fortnight."

"That may be, but I'm not someone who distorts the truth for my own gain." Yara stood up straighter and tugged her arm free. "And I told you not to touch me."

Head held high, she marched from the Imperial Palace, wondering how long it would be before she lost her job. Weeks, perhaps days, if Branchok had anything to say about it. Yara snorted. Well, if she was released from the enforcers, perhaps Lokdon would let her join her gang.

With a grim smile, Yara tugged her jacket straight and headed for the train station.