Worst of all, I am afraid. Even with the bracers on, their red garnets and yellow topaz blazing with stolen emotion, I am afraid. Perhaps the gemstones do not help because this is a special fear: fear of disappointing. Fear of known failure. I could go to an Emotioteur and have them extract the fear permanently. But I can’t shake my suspicion of the needles—that the prick can take more than the enchanters claim.
The night pressed against the conservatory’s windows like a wall of water, humid and thick. Looking out into the blackness, De-Krona felt squeezed. Pressured. As though one careless tap on the pretty green glass would cause it to crack and shatter, allowing the night to rush in, smothering partygoers and servants alike.
But the quartet played a joyful tune, and smiles flashed all around. She let herself sway in time to the music while scanning the room’s rear left quadrant for suspicious behavior.
Tonight’s celebration was in honor of the Chief Magistrate’s Silver Jubilee. He was the head of all security divisions in the city-state of Lutador, from the food inspectors all the way up through the ranks of the Watch, to the Regulators, the Martinets, and, of course, the Marchonian Guard.
Twelve articles of enchantment, each taken into custody during the Chief Magistrate’s tenure, and typically hidden away in the city-state’s vaults, were on display. De-Krona carefully wove her way through the tall cases. The sampling of contraband included one syringe, five masks, three necklaces, one brooch, one poorly blown glass globe, and one bronze penknife.
All seemingly normal items.
All incredibly dangerous.
Six Regulators had been assigned to the collection’s security, and Krona had been excited for the opportunity. Though she was accustomed to field work—three years and counting—she was the newest member of this team, under the direction of Captain De-Lia Hirvath—her older sister (and the reason why she often dropped the familial De in her name).
De-Lia’s team was well respected. Often given the most high-profile concerns.
The glass shell sculpted to fit over De-Krona’s ear vibrated. “I don’t like the look of that man in red” came Tray’s voice in her helm. Sucking on an enchanted reverb bead allowed the Regulators to communicate with each other at a distance, and without being overheard. Tray stood nearest the door, observing as each guest showed the doorman their invitation. “This is a party,” he continued. “Red. It’s … unseemly.”
Tan and gray and white and brown swirled around the room in vivacious synchronicity. The crowd was spotted through with figures in black, such as De-Krona, but a lone man in crimson strolled through the throngs of nobility. His mourning suit screamed out for attention like a swath of blood on a white child’s knee. The path he cut indicated his goal was the exhibit.
Too conspicuous for trouble, Krona thought. Licking out, she caught the reverb bead where it dangled on a thread near her lips, and drew it under her tongue. “I’ll keep a watch on him,” she said before spitting the bead out again.
“Call if you need assistance,” Royu said from the other side of the massive room. Zhe and Sasha passed each other, patrolling the perimeter.
As he drew nearer to Krona, the man’s features resolved. The light brown of his face was made darker by the circles around his eyes and the sunkeness of his cheeks. He was perhaps thirty, thirty-five, and would have been handsome if not for the deep gloom about him. Though his steps found firm footing, his gaze jumped and swirled. His attire and posture were well-kempt. Small feathers lined the plunging neckline of his tunic—they looked like little red teeth at her distance.
De-Krona was sure his mourning attire was not chosen out of jest or disrespect. And he wore no jewelry that she could see—no opals. The grief appeared genuine.
He approached the display case farthest from her, then wove in and out of the tall podiums that held the items at eye level, studying each artifact in detail without really seeing them at all.
“How may I aid you?” Krona asked when he came near, aware that her oversized helm and androgynous uniform often made her a daunting figure to the public (noble or otherwise).
His gaze trailed away from the misshapen globe, falling on the rounded, dark-berry-colored glass of the visor that hid her face from view. The rims of his eyes were as red as his formal coat. “There is no aid a Regulator can give, unless you can turn back time.” Far from sounding distant or removed, he instead sounded … hot. Intense, like a furnace. Like a coiled fever ran through him, and with one touch he could set the drapes on fire.
“That is not aid anyone can give. The goddess Time insists on a steady course,” she said softly, maintaining her authoritative posture.
“Just as turning up the gas does not make it morning, so turning back the clock’s hands does not make it yesterday,” he said. Each word flaunted a biting edge.
A servant carrying a tray of champagne flutes twirled by, pausing to offer the man a drink before whisking off again. With the many platters of exotic, high-end foods waving about, Krona wished her sense of smell wasn’t so muted by her freshly scrubbed helmet. The aroma of alcohol-washed metal rode above all else.
She appreciated fine food and libations when she could get them, which on her salary wasn’t often. The lavishness of the dresses and the decorations at the party, she could leave.
The man refused the drink, and looked as though he wished he’d been offered a soft bed and a long lie-down instead. “If I may be so bold,” she said. “Perhaps you would be better off in the lounge where it’s quiet, instead of in here with all the—the noise.” A duet of violinists had just taken up in the arboretum nook. Their merry tune was not unpleasant, but it wasn’t as soothing as a dark room.
He smiled humorlessly to himself. “The Chief Magistrate’s speech is soon. I’d never hear the end of it if I took leave.”
Ah, a relative of tonight’s honoree, then. He did look a touch like the Magistrate. Same nose, similar hair and eyes. “A Monsieur Iyendar, are you?”
He made no indication either way. “Tell me about the brooch. I’ve never seen an enchanted ruby so big.”
Docent was not her favorite role, even though she didn’t play it often, but at least he genuinely appeared interested. Easing herself between the pedestals, she waved a black-gloved hand at the case harboring the gold-and-ivory brooch. Nestled at its center was a gem of exceptional clarity, gazing out from behind the protective glass like a judgmental eye. “Ten-point-eight-carat weight, containing point nine five grams of despair.”
“Nearly twenty times the legal limit.” His eyes darted to her copper bracers, inlaid with state-issued enchanted garnets and topaz.
Yes, they’re enchanted as well, she thought. One filled with courage and one with resolve. Nearly every gemstone could be enchanted to hold a specific emotion. “The legal limit for your average emotion, yes. Despair can be removed from a person as a therapy, but it is illegal for enchanters to sell despairstones, as despair is an insidious emotion that can tell a person a multitude of lies. All despairstones are to be turned over to the government for safekeeping as soon as they are made. But this one was inlaid in a brooch. It was created by an Emotioteur specifically as a tool for executing her revenge against the terrorists responsible for the Council Bombings fifteen years ago. The ones who wanted all of the work camps closed. Her mother died in the evacuation—trampled.” Krona paused. This didn’t seem like a good party story for a grieving man.
“I was still young at the time, but I remember. My father was in the north wing when it happened.” He glanced toward the front of the conservatory, where the Magistrate would make his speech. “Please, continue.”
“Three men committed suicide while wearing the brooch. The Emotioteur was apprehended before she could transfer it to a fourth victim.”
As though suddenly disinterested in jewelry, the man turned away, spinning, like he was drunk. “And this?”
He pointed at one of the more grotesque masks. Asymmetrical, painted in mismatched colors, it was the countenance of a demon, maw wide, fangs long and thick. The jaw was crooked, as though broken, and five horns jutted out at odd angles from one another—two in its forehead, with the other three alternating down the sides of its face. The Teleoteur had been a skilled artisan, no question about that. No matter how many times Krona looked at it, the thing still sent shivers through her core.
“Louis Charbon’s Mayhem Mask,” she said.
“Oh? Oh? The killer?”
“Lutador’s most disturbed mass murderer, yes. The mask’s magnitude is unknown—as it is illegal for anyone to ever put it on, even to score it—and its knowledge capacity is of the most sensitive rating: Tenth Tier. No one is quite sure how the death mask was even enchanted, given that the Teleoteur who is credited with its creation never had access to Charbon’s body after he was hanged. Indeed, the enchanter was in an asylum at the time.”
“And what knowledge does the mask preserve? How to kill?”
Krona had been called to a fair few scenes of violence in her three years as a Regulator. Crimes of passion often took place around enchanted items—usually arguments over ownership rather than any sort of magically aided conflict—and in her opinion it took little skill to kill. “No, not exactly. You see, it was Charbon’s knowledge of anatomy that allowed him to dissect and rearrange the bodies as he did. His will to kill might very well be engrained in his echo, but it was his intricate knowledge of the internal workings of a human, and his capacity to dismember a body just so, that Eric Matisse preserved.”
The man nodded, as though considering this. He hemmed and hawed for a few more moments, then blurted, “And which of these baubles would you say Magistrate Iyendar is the most proud of?”
Perhaps an innocent question. Perhaps not. “I don’t know him personally,” she said carefully.
The man took a small, sliding step back toward the brooch. New tears brimmed at the edges of his eyes, and he used his sleeve to dab at his nose. “Surly it’s not the ruby,” he said, jaw clenched. “The feelings of others never did interest him.” Trembling fingers clenched and unclenched. “Tell me, Regulator, where would you be the evening after your granddaughter’s passing? At a gala?” He reached for the glass.
“Monsieur, please move back.” She put a warning hand on the hilt of her saber, simultaneously sucking in the reverb bead. “I may have a problem,” she murmured.
“Understood,” chimed three replies in her ear.
Monsieur Iyendar the younger—for now she was sure—did not touch the case, but turned on her. “Where would you be?” he demanded. “Would you make your son leave his child’s side? Would you make him endure pleasantries for the sake of face?”
Krona’s chest tightened, but it was not her place to inquire after—or, save the Five, make judgments about—the Chief Magistrate’s family. “Monsieur—”
With a strangled sob, he skipped backward, toward another pillar. “He likes the masks best. I know he does. This one with the fish, what’s so dangerous about it?”
She caught sight of Tray moving in from the front, and Sasha walking stiffly from the other side of the collection, both dodging potted palms and guests alike.
“The mask belonged to Lord Birron. He was very skilled in opiate refinery,” she said placatingly, taking Iyendar by the elbow. “Please, monsieur. Come away with me. To that seat just over there.”
He threw her off. “No. If these trinkets mean more to him than my daughter, I shall examine them until I am content.” His palms smacked against the case, leaving sweaty smears.
Wishing the others would move faster, she unsheathed her saber. “You know I am fully within the order of the law to remove you.”
“So remove me!” he shouted.
Faces snapped in their direction, carrying various expressions from irritation to interest.
“Do you want to cause a scene?”
“A scene?” he scoffed, feigning scandalization. “I resent the idea that I would in any way desire to disrupt the Magistrate’s perfect evening.”
“How may we be of aid?” Tray asked as he and Sasha drew up on the opposite side of the pillar.
In contrast to the frills, alternating high-low collars, and soft lines of the attendees’ clothing, Regulator uniforms were simple, yet imposing. The three of them looked like black pieces from an artisan chess board. Tall, wide helms—roomy enough to accommodate an enchanted mask beneath, though one wasn’t always worn—spanned shoulder to shoulder, making the Regulators look like neckless, faceless, multihorned beasts. Long leather coats gave them strong, box-like proportions, and many Regulators, like Krona, chose to bind their chests beneath. The coat topped a pair of umanori, which made for easy movement and encompassed knee-high boots with thick-heeled soles.
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