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The emperor's ancestors had rejected the idea of a "palace" and chosen the ancient fortress atop the hill for the imperial seat.

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There was no trolley stop near the gate—apparently casual visits to gawk were not encouraged—so Amaranthe jumped off as it rumbled by the outer walls. She had performed similar moves dozens of times before, but the combination of slick pavement and watching sentries probably made the slip inevitable. Her feet skidded on ice and she flailed before recovering her balance, if not her dignity. Snickers came from above. Atop the high stone walls, two musketeers lounged against a cannon, their silhouettes black against the starry sky.

Amaranthe limited herself to a brief upward glower as she walked toward the entrance.

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In a formidable display of redundancy, two towering soldiers blocked the barred gate. Amaranthe could not help but feel that as an enforcer she only played at being a warrior. Imperial soldiers were intimidating enough; the elite men privileged to protect the emperor's home represented the best.

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    Both guards offered flat unfriendly stares. Their humorless expressions were so similar Amaranthe wondered if it was part of the training.

    Disapproving Stares, the Advanced Course. Finally, one reached his arm through the bars and withdrew a clipboard from some inner hook. He stepped beneath one of the two gas lamps spreading wan globes of light on either side of the gate. Amaranthe fidgeted while he read. Anticipation wrestled with unease in her gut. What was this meeting about? Would it bode well for her, or ill? Either way, why would someone as important as the Commander of the Armies bother with her? The emperor must have said something after seeing her that afternoon.

    Did he have some reward in mind? It seemed unlikely—she had done nothing beyond what the job called for. Still, the fledgling hope thrived, and she thought of Wholt's words. Maybe she should ask Hollowcrest for a promotion.

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    No, she decided. The possibility of a reward thrilled her, but she would not ask for a favor. Amaranthe fluctuated between anger at their assumption and anxiety at the insinuation. She settled for a curt, "Can I go in, now? One of the soldiers shouted to someone in the courtyard. Another man appeared and assumed his post, and the first relieved Amaranthe of her weapons and led her through the gate.

    Walkways lined with lampposts sliced through snow-blanketed lawns. Numerous outbuildings adorned the installation, but the guard led her to the main structure. When they reached the polished marble stairs, she had to take exaggerated steps to climb them. On either side of the landing, gold-laced statues of bare-chested men grappled with each other. The gold-gilded double doors groaned open of their own accord, powered by some hidden machinery. A single hallway stretched away to a distant exit point with dozens of doors lining either side. The decorating style continued on the inside—gaudy but consistent in its reverence toward the warrior.

    Periodic alcoves featured more statues of ancient heroes, some naked and locked in wrestling matches, others wearing the weapons and armor of their times. They all had clunky, unrealistic features. Her people might be peerless engineers, but great artists they were not. Weapons from different epochs perched between gas lamps on the walls.

    Amaranthe's fingers twitched toward her handkerchief when she noticed one still exhibiting bloodstains. Yes, let's erase eight hundred years of history with a swipe of a rag. She stuffed her hands into her pockets and resolutely stared straight ahead as she walked. Her escort led her a long way before stairs branched off, one set leading up, another down. They climbed to the third floor and stopped before a guarded door. Amaranthe's guide left her to deal with the soldier alone. Fortunately, he must have had orders to admit her, for he pushed the door open wordlessly and gestured for her to enter.

    A bead of sweat snaked down her ribcage. Shoulders back, she strode into the office. Her boots thudded on a cold hardwood floor. The room's utilitarian furniture was neatly arranged, but the crooked and curling maps papering the walls made Amaranthe want to start rearranging tacks. A coal-burning stove glowed cherry in one corner. It was the only warm thing in the room. The white-haired man behind the desk had easily seen seventy years, but he still possessed the fit frame of a soldier. His sharp features were humorless.

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    His black eyes glittered behind glasses that did nothing to distort their iciness. So, this is the one who teaches the Disapproving Stare class. Amaranthe dropped her gaze to the folders and papers stacked haphazardly on his desk. She clasped her hands behind her back to keep from tidying the clutter. He probably did not approve of people touching his belongings.

    He probably doesn't approve of people breathing. No wonder such gloom had draped the emperor; with this man as an adviser, there were probably not many laughs at meetings. He shuffled papers, then opened a folder. You have a halfway decent education, though you didn't finish the last term at the Mildawn Business School for Women. All that money he must have scrimped to send you to that school, and you didn't finish. Instead you lied about your age, took the enforcer entrance exam, and signed up for the academy. Have I got it right, so far? I worked, and took care of him, and went to school until he passed away, but I couldn't afford to pay the tuition and rent on a flat after that.

    Amaranthe felt as if she were balancing on the frozen lake. Might a hole open up beneath her and suck her in? It wasn't surprising that Hollowcrest had access to all her background information, but it alarmed her that he had bothered to look into it. What had she done to warrant such scrutiny? Surely she was not here because she had lied about her age seven years ago. Why not work for someone in business or start your own? It seems to be the trend for educated women these days. She supposed a man of Hollowcrest's age remembered the time when women had been free of ambition beyond birthing future soldiers.

    She knew their growing financial clout alarmed the conservatives, but her ambitions were not business-related. Why would he bring it up now? Just the ultimate goal seemed I want to serve the throne, not my own pockets. I want to be the first female enforcer chief in the empire, sir, to be somebody that history remembers.

    Hollowcrest frowned. Wrong answer, but why? Amaranthe shifted her weight again, still struggling to gain her balance in this conversation. The old man flipped a few more pages on his desk, tendons jumping on the backs of his creased bronze hands. Coals shifted in the stove. Surreptitiously, Amaranthe wiped moist hands on the sides of her trousers. The breath caught in Amaranthe's throat.