Chapter One

Her pursuers had not shown their faces today. Instead, shadows stalked Master Mechanic Mari of Caer Lyn through the streets of Edinton. “I didn’t see any Mages on the walk here,” Mari said.

Her companion furrowed his brow in thought. Mechanic Abad of Highgate was a stolid, unimaginative sort. He had doubtless never questioned his own loyalty to the Mechanics Guild, and he had been assigned repeatedly to go out on contracts with her. Some might call him Mari’s coworker, some might call him Mari’s safeguard, but she knew that Abad was also a spy for the Senior Mechanics here at Edinton. Every Mechanic submitted a routine report after completing a job, but Mari knew that Abad was also providing her superiors in the Mechanics Guild with updates on everything she said and did.

Fortunately for Mari, loyalty to the Mechanics Guild also meant that Abad was even more suspicious of Mages than he might be of her. “There’s always a Mage,” he muttered, looking around carefully. “There’s always one watching when we go out, following us.” His eyes went to Mari. “Watching you. They don’t hang around when I go out with other Mechanics.”

Mari nodded. She couldn’t very well explain all of the reasons for that. Not to Abad, and not to any other Mechanic. “Then you know I’m not exaggerating,” Mari said. “Ever since I had a run-in with the Mage Guild back at Dorcastle they’ve been watching me.”

“The Senior Mechanics don’t believe you,” Mechanic Abad said. “Even though I told them in my, uh, contract reports that the Mages were always hanging around when you were out. But I don't see any today. Do you think they’ve given up?”

“Mages? Who knows how they think?” She kept her words properly disdainful. Even though she was only eighteen years old, the youngest Master Mechanic in the history of the Guild, Mari probably knew more about how Mages thought than any other Mechanic did. She knew enough not to be truly scornful of Mages. The Senior Mechanics suspected that, which was one reason why Abad was watching her, and one reason why she had been sent to the place nicknamed “End-of-the-World Edinton.”

Mari knew enough to be worried about Mages she couldn’t see.

Abad snorted in derision. “Mages? Think? Let’s get this done and get back to the Guild Hall.”

Together they walked up the broad steps leading into the city hall, the dark Mechanics jackets they wore standing out amid the brighter clothes of the common folk entering and leaving the building, common folk who hastily made way for the two Mechanics. The commons bowed respectfully to the Mechanics’ faces, but Mari knew that if she turned fast enough to look behind her she would see expressions that held hostility rather than respect. The Mechanics Guild and the Mage Guild hated each other, but they were masters of the world of Dematr, and therefore the commons hated both of the Great Guilds equally.

The stone steps, grooved from centuries of foot traffic, had been here for a very long time. Mari kept her eyes on those worn steps as she climbed them, thinking about her Guild, which worked so hard to keep anything from changing in the world it controlled. And about the chaos to the south of here, in the land once known as Tiae, where all order had collapsed over a decade ago despite the efforts of the Mechanics Guild. Here, in the southernmost city of the Bakre Confederation, fear of similar anarchy helped keep the commons of Edinton in line.

At the entrance to the city hall two guards stood, wearing armor and weaponry that were, at least for common folk, state-of-the-art. Their freshly polished chain-mail armor gleamed in the sun, short-swords hung by their sides ready for use, and crossbows nestled in the guards’ arms.

Mari kept her gaze impassive as she met their eyes, but one of her hands strayed under her jacket, closing about the semi-automatic pistol holstered under her arm. She hadn’t met any commons in the Confederation who posed the kind of threat those in Ringhmon had, but the memories of her kidnapping and imprisonment there still jumped to the fore whenever she encountered armed commons. Few could afford the expensive and rare Mechanic weapons like Mari’s pistol, but either a sword or a crossbow bolt could be just as deadly as a bullet if it struck home.

“Contract,” Abad said to the guards, his tone arrogant in the normal way of Mechanic to common. “Calculating and Analysis Device.”

The guards saluted, their faces almost as expressionless as those of Mages, then the female guard gestured to her companion. “Escort the honored Mechanics to the city leaders,” she said.

Mari could almost hear the resentment buried beneath her outwardly deferential tone of voice. Alain would have heard it clearly, she thought, then winced inwardly. Don’t think about him. Never think about him. That’s the only way to protect him.

The city leaders presented smiling greetings, the polished skills of politicians enabling them to seem perfectly sincere in their welcome as they led Mari and Abad to the room holding the Calculating and Analysis Device. Most of the city hall was lit by oil lamps whose wavering light provided adequate illumination, but in the room holding the CAD two electric light fixtures provided a steady glow. Mari gave the lights a glance, thinking of the other electric light fixtures they had passed in this building, all old and non-operative. The electrical current provided by the Mechanics Guild was as expensive as everything else the Mechanics sold, as were the individually handcrafted light bulbs. At some point in the past, Edinton had been forced to cut expenses.

But even a city strapped for cash had need of the number-crunching and data storage a CAD could provide. Nothing smaller than a city could afford one, though. There were only two CADs in the city of Edinton, this one leased by the city and the other within the Mechanics Guild Hall itself. “What’s the exact problem?” Mari asked.

“It will not function,” one of the city leaders said.

Abad smirked as Mari fought to avoid rolling her eyes at the vague description. Even the smartest common was banned by the Mechanics Guild from learning anything about Guild technology, so she really shouldn’t blame the man for his ignorance. Going to the control panel, she typed in the commands to run a simple functionality test. Instead of lights blinking in response and a punched tape emitting with the results, nothing happened. “Yeah. It’s not functioning,” Mari agreed.

Abad watched her, frowning again, this time in concentration. “Can you fix a dead CAD?”

“If I can’t fix this, no one else in the Confederation can,” Mari replied.

It wasn’t a boast, just a statement of fact. Abad, who had been watching her work long enough to know that, nodded and waited for instructions. He was a good general-purpose Mechanic, but not one of the few trained in CAD work. With so few of those devices made by the Guild, not many Mechanics needed those skills, valuable though they were.

She paused, thinking through possible causes for the CAD to be totally nonfunctioning. Most of the possibilities involved major problems and a lot of work. Where to begin? Just finding the problem might take most of the day.

Then she recalled a test that Professor S’san had put them through at the Academy, one that had baffled every student before S’san pointed out the simple cause of the problem. It can’t hurt to check that first.

Mari knelt by the back of the machine, where the power wire ran into a metal fitting over the wall junction with the single electrical power line within the city hall. That power line originated at the Mechanics Guild Hall, fed by the hydroelectric generators there. As far as commons were concerned, it might as well all be magic.

She unscrewed the cover and peered at the connection. Her brief sense of satisfaction faded rapidly as Mari studied what had been hidden. “Abad, take a look at this.”

He went to one knee beside her, eyes intent. “One of the wires is completely loose. How did that happen?”

Mari pointed to the screw which should have held the wire securely. “It’s been unscrewed.”

Abad’s breath caught. “Unscrewed? Who could have done that?”

She didn’t answer, even though Mari had a suspicion. Commons weren’t supposed to have such tools, weren’t supposed to know how to use Mechanic tools, weren’t supposed to know how to do anything with Mechanic devices, but she had encountered some who did, the ones she called Dark Mechanics. The ones she had been ordered by her Guild superiors never to mention. “We’ll have to report this,” Mari said as she quickly reconnected the power and set the screw firmly in place. Maybe now the Guild would finally listen to her instead of trying to muzzle her.

On the heels of that thought came another realization. Someone had sabotaged the CAD in a very simple way that might have tied her up for hours. That someone must have known that Mari would be the one sent to investigate a problem with a CAD.

Someone had wanted her here. Which meant she had better leave here as fast as possible.

But as she straightened to see the lights on the CAD blinking through its startup routine, Abad turned to the city leaders. “We need to ask some questions. Close the door,” he ordered.

Exchanging worried looks, the city leaders gestured to one of their assistants, who turned to the door and began swinging it closed. Even though nothing could be seen in the doorway, the door abruptly stuck on something when only halfway closed, then as the baffled assistant tried again it swung closed without a problem.

Mari’s hand went to her pistol again, closing tightly about the grip this time, her heart pounding in her ears. The group of commons was between her and the door. Mari rammed forward into a couple of them, shoving the two city leaders toward the door, but both staggered against something unseen, going down in a heap that abruptly included not only the two commons but also a Mage.

Everyone froze for an instant. Then the female Mage on the floor raised her eyes and met Mari’s gaze. She was short, strands of stringy dark hair escaping from the cowl of her hood. Her face held no expression at all as she looked at Mari, even her eyes betraying no emotion, but in one hand she held a long knife ready for use.

Mari didn’t remember having drawn her weapon, but she suddenly realized that she had the pistol out and pointed directly at the Mage’s face.

Abad glared down at the Mage as the wide-eyed commons in the room cautiously moved away from both Mage and Mechanics. “Kill her,” Abad suggested.

“No,” Mari said. “Guild policy,” she added, to avoid admitting that she didn’t want to harm anyone unless absolutely necessary to save herself or someone else. “Unless they’re actually attacking us, we’re supposed to ignore Mages. This one might have been after one of the commons.” She didn’t believe that. This Mage was looking right at her, not at any of the city leaders. “There might be more around. Let’s go.”

Mechanic Abad hesitated a moment, but obedience was drilled into Mechanics from the time they first became apprentices, and Mari did have Master Mechanic rank. Abad nodded and followed as Mari walked sideways to the door, keeping her eyes on the Mage and her weapon aimed straight between the Mage’s eyes. Abad yanked the door open, followed Mari out, then slammed the door shut behind them as he and Mari quickly headed out of the building.

She didn’t slow down until they were again on the steps leading out of the city hall, her eyes scanning the plaza in front of the building for any sign of other Mages.

“How did you know?” Abad asked. “I didn’t see her until—until those commons tripped over her.”

“There’s a Mage trick, a trap,” Mari explained, choosing her words with care. The unwritten but firm rule of the Guild was that no Mechanic ever saw a Mage do anything that the Mechanics Guild couldn’t explain. “You can tell they’re setting it if the door to a room sticks when there’s nothing visible blocking it. I found out about it in Dorcastle.” It wasn’t a lie, just a partial truth. The trick had been Mage work all right, but the door had actually hung up on that Mage bending light around herself to be effectively invisible. Alain had told Mari that a Mage needed to maintain concentration to keep something like that working, so Mari had shoved the commons at the Mage in hopes of not just knocking the Mage off-balance but also breaking her focus.

“A trap?” Abad nodded slowly, his expression uncertain. Just like Mari, he had seen that Mage appear from out of nowhere. But to admit that would mean admitting that Mages could do things Mechanics thought impossible, and no Mechanic was allowed to do that. “Yeah. Someone deliberately unfastened that power connection to get us in there, and she must have hiding, waiting for us. Maybe she didn’t actually unscrew that wire, but just pulled on it and somehow pulled the screw out that way.”

“It would be awfully hard to do it that way,” Mari said. Abad must know he was trying to rationalize what had happened, but he couldn’t admit the truth without admitting that the Mechanics Guild was lying about Mages and maybe other things as well. Somebody used a screwdriver to loosen that screw. Only Dark Mechanics could have done it…or could my own Guild have set me up? But how could Mages have also been involved? Alain told me, and I saw in Dorcastle, that Dark Mechanics get along with Mages no better than regular Mechanics do. How could they be working together here? Or was the apparently joint move mere coincidence?

She hated lying to Abad, and wished she could have discussed her thoughts with him, but the truth about Dark Mechanics, as with Mages, would have imperiled Abad with their own Guild even if he had believed it. As far as the Mechanics Guild was concerned, people who could do the work of Mechanics but were not Mechanics did not exist. She had been told that, ordered to believe it, and warned never to tell anyone else that any other truth might exist. Even though Mari had no intention of abiding by those commands forever, she had no evidence with which to convince any other Mechanics. The hard evidence she had given her Guild superiors in the past had simply disappeared once in their custody. But perhaps this incident would help break the logjam of denial. “We need to get back to the Guild Hall and report this as soon as possible,” Mari said.

Abad nodded quickly and firmly this time. When he had first been paired with her for contract work, Abad had eyed Mari will ill-concealed suspicion and subtly questioned her every move, but that had been fading as they worked together. Now, after this latest incident, Abad no longer hesitated to follow her lead.

They had kept moving across the plaza, turning onto the street leading back to the Mechanics Guild Hall. The crowds of commons were separating before them, leaving a clear path and an open area around the two Mechanics, not out of real respect but because the Guild insisted on such preferential treatment in all things. Abad looked back, momentarily falling a step behind Mari. She paused in mid-step to allow Abad to catch up.

She heard the sound of the gunshot at almost the same moment as she felt the wind of the bullet’s passage as it nearly grazed her forehead, followed by the harsh crack of the bullet striking the stone building beside her. Tiny chips of stone blasted from the wall by the impact struck Mari’s neck, but she had already begun diving forward before the sound of a second shot was followed by another bullet slamming into the building exactly where she had been standing an instant earlier. Pulling out her pistol, she rolled down and came back up crouched with her back against the building. Mari held her weapon in both hands, her heart hammering, as she stared past the suddenly panicked commons running along the street in all directions.

Mechanic Abad dashed up beside her, urging Mari to her feet. “Whoever it was can’t get a good shot with the commons getting in the way,” he said as he grabbed her arm. “Run!”

They ran toward the Mechanics Guild Hall, Mari next to the buildings they passed and Abad keeping himself between her and the street as a living shield. No more shots sounded behind them, but Mari could hear the sound of city watch members calling out alarms as they converged on the site of the attack.

“Could that have been another Mage?” Abad asked as they finally slowed to a brisk pace.

“No. Mages don’t use Mechanic equipment,” Mari said, trying to calm her still-racing heart. “They can’t use it. Not even a Mechanic weapon.”

“They can’t?” Abad watched her. “Neither of those shots was aimed at me. If you’d frozen in place instead of diving right away the second one would have blown your brains out.”

“I…react fast,” Mari explained, unable to stop a shudder. “In emergencies.”

“That’s a good talent to have. Were you hurt? Your neck is bleeding.”

“It’s not serious. I’ll see the healer at the Guild Hall,” Mari said, hoping that she hadn’t betrayed knowing too much about Mages.

“The Senior Mechanics say you’re not really in danger. They told me that. They’re wrong.”

Frustration and lingering fear made her answer honestly. “Do you think they’ll believe you now when they’ve refused to believe me?”

“Why won’t they believe you?”

“I don’t know.” And she truly didn’t. She had some ideas, some ideas very dangerous to the see-nothing-wrong philosophy that ruled the Guild. But why the Senior Mechanics—why the Mechanics Guild they ran, which controlled all technology—would ignore such things made no sense to Mari. “I’ve been doing everything the Senior Mechanics ask. I’ve been doing my job. And they treat me like someone they can’t trust.”

Abad finally asked the question she knew he had been holding inside since first meeting her. “Are you loyal to the Guild?”

“I have been. I swear that I have been.” Was she still loyal, though? I don’t know. What a scary thought. I’ve been taught to depend on the Guild, to be part of the Guild, since I was a little girl. Now…what can I depend on?

An answer came: the face of a man slightly younger than she, toughened by hardship, strangely emotionless except for eyes that lit when they rested on Mari. Alain. But you’re far away. And I don’t know when we will meet again.

Barely an hour later, the Guild Hall still buzzing with the news that someone had fired shots at a Mechanic on the streets of the city, Mari found herself standing before the desk of the Guild Hall Supervisor. Senior Mechanic Vilma offered a small, meaningless smile as she greeted Mari. Most of the Mechanics in Edinton detested Vilma because her insistence on perfection never yielded to reality in any form. “Mechanic Mari, how fortunate that your accident did not result in injury.”

“Master Mechanic Mari,” she corrected. Ever since Mari had earned the status of Master Mechanic at such a young age, Senior Mechanics had shown a habit of forgetting to use her proper title. Mari raised one hand to the bandage on her neck. “There was some injury, and it wasn’t an accident.”

Vilma’s insincere smile came and went again. “An official investigation will determine what actually occurred,” she said.

“I’ve already reported what happened at the job site and what happened afterwards. Mechanic Abad can confirm—”

“You won’t be working with Mechanic Abad anymore,” Vilma interrupted.

That brought Mari up short. “Why not?”

“Because I and the other Senior Mechanics here underestimated how quickly you could negatively influence even a Mechanic of Abad’s reliability.”

“What?” Mari felt her face warming with anger. “Since arriving in Edinton I have done nothing—”

“I’m not interested in debating the issue with you,” Vilma broke in again. “Not when there’s an important assignment that only you can carry out properly.” She gave Mari a packet of papers.

Mari stared at Vilma, then down at the papers. “A mission? Who else—?”

“Just you. You’re a Master Mechanic. There’s a CAD that needs to be recovered, and you are by far the most qualified to undertake the task of evaluating its current status and, if appropriate, its transportation back here to Edinton.”

Back here to Edinton? Leaving town might not be a bad idea at all if people were actively trying to harm her. Maybe, despite Vilma’s hostile attitude, the Senior Mechanics were taking the threat to her seriously at last, even if they wouldn’t admit it. Mari read quickly through her orders, dawning hope vanishing as a single word jumped out at her. “Minut?” The word made no sense. She knew what it meant, what it was, but how could it be there in her orders?

“Yes. Minut.” Senior Mechanic Vilma made it sound like no big deal. “When the Guild pulled out of Tiae, the CAD was left at Minut. You are to go there, see if it is worth recovery, and then bring it back.”

“Minut?” Mari repeated, disbelieving. “There’s no government there. No police, no authority, nothing. It’s anarchy. All of Tiae beyond the border with the Confederation is total anarchy.”

“You’ll have a strong escort,” Vilma promised. “You’ll meet them at that town.”

Mari checked the orders again. “Yinville? That’s also in Tiae.”

“Not very far inside Tiae. The escort should be there when you arrive.”

Mari looked at the Senior Mechanic, trying to understand these orders. “This is suicide.”

“Nonsense. Capable Mechanics have done similar tasks in the past for their Guild,” Vilma said, her tones hardening. “Are you refusing the orders? These are of the highest priority and steps are being taken to ensure you can carry them out safely and successfully. If you refuse the orders despite that, I will have to order a competency hearing and a loyalty evaluation.”

“You’re serious? A single Mechanic inside Tiae?”

“There is a strong escort awaiting you at Yinville,” Senior Mechanic Vilma repeated. “This is a necessary task which poses no unreasonable risk. You are to leave today, as soon as possible.”

“Alone?” She could take care of herself. Mari had prided herself on that. But young, female, and alone in such a place?

“Are you incapable of traveling by yourself? Even apprentices don’t need someone holding their hands on the road!”

Mari looked down at her orders again, not really seeing the words, trying to think. Ever since Dorcastle, I’ve done everything they wanted. I’ve kept quiet. I’ve obeyed orders. I wanted to make sure that Alain wasn’t endangered, and I wanted to establish my loyalty and my skills beyond any doubt before I asked any more questions about things that aren’t supposed to exist. And still they’re sending me to Tiae.

A strong escort awaiting me at Yinville. Once, six months ago, I would have believed that. Words in the orders swam into focus. “If the escort is not at Yinville when you arrive, they will be very close and you are to wait the short time until they join you.” Perfectly reasonable orders, if that hadn’t meant waiting alone in an area overrun with petty warlords, bandit gangs and desperate men and women of all kinds.

Why send me to Tiae? Why send anyone to Tiae? To get rid of them. Death is one of the nicer things that could happen to me there. I am to be condemned for what I might know, for what I might do. Mari knew what was really happening. So did Vilma. But for the first time since arriving at Edinton, Mari refused to just play the game, refused to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. “Senior Mechanic Vilma, can I ask why? Why is this being done?” she said bluntly.

Vilma gave her a bland look in return that provided no clue that anything other than a routine meeting was taking place. “For the good of the Guild. That is why we do everything. Now, for obvious reasons, for your own safety, we want this kept low profile. You are to mention your mission and where it is to take place to no one.”

Low profile. If Mari didn’t return, she would eventually be declared lost, far too late for anyone else to do anything about it or object to her assignment. Mari would be a Mechanic who had died trying to carry out her orders, a good example for all other Mechanics. An arrest, on the other hand, couldn’t be kept low profile now. Too many people knew Mari, too many rumors were going around about Ringhmon and Dorcastle. An arrest might feed dissent, might cause others to ask questions.

But she didn’t doubt what the outcome would be if she refused these orders. The competency hearing to strip Mari of her Master Mechanic rank and a loyalty evaluation to decide whether she should be sent to a cell at Longfalls, the results of both predetermined before either “assessment” even began.

It left her only one option.

Mari gazed at Senior Mechanic Vilma. “I’ll be gone before nightfall.”

Less than two hours later, Mari strode toward the main entry of the Guild Hall, a pack on her back holding her tools and her small collection of personal possessions, as well as a far-talker that had been signed out to her for the trip. The far-talker, as big as her lower arm, was heavy and had only a short range, a symbol of the deterioration of Mechanic technology over the decades and centuries. Still, it provided a capability that no means of communication available to commons could match.

Despite Vilma’s instructions to tell no one that she was leaving, Mari knew that word had spread that she had been seen packing, that she had picked up some journey food from the Guild Hall kitchen, and now she was heading for the exit bearing a large travel pack on her back. Her “low profile” departure was probably already known to everyone in the Guild Hall.

Mechanics and apprentices watched her go, some of them openly upset, others pretending not to see her. Three of the Mechanics hastened to intercept her. “Mari, what the blazes—” one of them began.

“I can’t talk about it,” Mari broke in.

“Are you going to be all right?” another asked.

“I don’t know.”

The three Mechanics exchanged looks. “Listen, Mari,” Mechanic Ayame insisted. Middle-aged, shrewd, and frustrated by Senior Mechanic rules, she should have been the leader of discontent here. But burdened by long years of bitter experience with the cost of dissent, Ayame had been sullenly submissive to the Senior Mechanics when Mari had arrived at Edinton. Since then, Ayame had increasingly sought out Mari and grown more bold. Was that the sort of thing Senior Mechanic Vilma had meant when she complained about Mari’s “negative influence” on others? “We’re willing to take a stand on this,” Ayame declared. “Just say the word.” The two other Mechanics nodded in agreement.

Mari stopped walking, speaking low and fast, aware that Senior Mechanics were watching. “No. It wouldn’t do me any good and you’d all end up in serious trouble. This isn’t the end of this. I’m going to get some answers. I don’t want anyone else getting burned until I have those answers and decide what to do. Please let it go, look after yourselves, and I’ll deal with this.”

The three exchanged looks, then Ayame nodded. “All right, Mari. Most people here are either unwilling to buck the Senior Mechanics or else afraid to go against Guild policy. But not everyone. Not any more. We’ll wait to hear from you. When you need us, call us. Got it?” Without waiting for an answer from her, the three stepped away to let Mari continue on her way.

One more confrontation awaited her, though. Mechanic Abad waited by the main entry, his expression stubborn. “They said I shouldn’t talk to you, but I wanted you to know. I never told them you’d done anything wrong, Master Mechanic. I told them you did good work, I told them you never said anything against the Guild, and I told them the truth about what happened when you got shot at. I don’t understand why you’re being sent off like this.”

“Me, neither. Thanks for being a good Mechanic and a good working partner,” Mari said, not having to feign sincerity.

“They kept asking me what you promised me, or what you told me, like the Senior Mechanics thought you’d messed with my head or something. I’m sorry, Master Mechanic. I must have done something wrong.”

“No, you didn’t,” Mari said. “You did your job and you did it right. But as I’ve been finding out, you don’t have to do anything wrong to get in trouble, or to get sent to Minut.”

“They’re sending you…to Minut? Minut?

“Yeah. That’s what my orders say.” Let the Senior Mechanics answer the questions that would generate after Mari had gone. “Goodbye, Mechanic.”

Mari left the Guild Hall, crossed the wide plaza surrounding it, then walked steadily toward a nearby stable, wondering if Dark Mechanics seeking revenge for what she had done at Dorcastle would take another shot at her. Little wonder the Senior Mechanics still showed no concern on those grounds. A Dark Mechanic bullet would solve the Guild’s problem with Mari and leave the hands of the Senior Mechanics clean. She noticed a Mage following her at a distance, but making no attempt to get closer. Perhaps her sudden reappearance on the streets so soon after the two failed plots to get her had thrown off her stalkers.

Mari’s orders called for her to rent a horse and take it south across the border, as no regular transport still operated between the Confederation and what used to be Tiae. “Have you heard of any strong force going south recently?” she asked the owner of the stable.

“South?” he questioned. “To the border, Lady Mechanic?”

“South of there. Into Tiae.”

Clearly startled, the common shook his head. “No one goes across the border, Lady.”

Mari looked at the stable owner, remembering the commons she had met in Dorcastle and how differently they had acted when she had hidden her identity as a Mechanic, how much more they had told her. “It’s very important that I know,” Mari said, speaking in the same tones she would have used with another Mechanic. “Can you tell me anything?”

The owner looked back at Mari, uncertain, then relaxed a bit and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Lady, but no. A single rider might be missed, but…you say a strong force? Many riders? Everyone would be talking about that. My cousin is in the border troops, with the cavalry. I saw him just yesterday when he brought a few of their mounts in for new shoes from our blacksmith. He would have said something.”

Mari nodded, trying her best to look calm as her worst suspicions were confirmed. “What about a lot of riders, or foot soldiers, getting ready to head south? Have you heard anything about that? It might have been kept secret.”

“Hah! Secret they can say, but it would be well known, Lady.” The stable owner spoke more freely as Mari listened attentively to his words. “There’s been nothing like that.”

“Ships? Do any of those go south?”

The stable owner pursed his lips in thought. “Not many. Not anymore. I remember when Tiae was whole, and commerce with them made a lot of people wealthy. Now only a very few ships poke around the southern coasts in search of some quick trade while they try to avoid pirates. There would be a great deal of gossip about any ship or ships heading south with a lot of soldiers. Everyone would have heard. No, Lady, no one in their right mind goes into Tiae, not unless they have an army with them.”

Mari nodded slowly. “Thank you.”

“Lady?” The stable owner stared at her, startled by the small and simple courtesy from a Mechanic. He hesitated as a restive mount was led out toward them by a stable-hand who was trying to hide a smile. “Hold on, there, Gazi. This Lady might prefer a steadier horse.”

Gazi the stablehand looked puzzled. “But we always give Mechanics—”

“Not this one. If you can wait but a little longer, Lady, I can get you a steadier mount.”

A short time later Mari settled into the saddle, grateful that the stable owner had provided a more sedate mount for her. Some people were natural riders. Mari wasn’t one of those people. She loved horses, but she had never been that good at riding them.

She headed out through the city streets toward the southern parts of Edinton, but as the crowds thickened Mari dismounted to lead her horse and make herself harder to spot amid the multitude, weaving on a crooked path that bore more west than south, bending gradually north. If there were Mages watching, then even invisible Mages would have trouble getting through the crowded streets Mari chose. Dark Mechanics should be equally hindered, as well as anyone sent by the Senior Mechanics of her own Guild to ensure that Mari went toward Minut. Glancing back quickly at irregular intervals, she didn’t spot anyone nearby trying to keep up with her.

Finally reaching the city wall, Mari paused at the entrance to an alley to remove her Mechanics jacket and stuff it into her pack, replacing it with a coat like those the commons wore. Then she remounted and rode out the nearest gate, heading northwest.

In the last several months, since her adventures in Dorcastle, she had learned a lot of things about surviving that weren’t taught at the Mechanics Guild Academy in Palandur. Mari had thought for a while that the way to survival followed a path of doing exactly as she was told, but that route hadn’t satisfied the Senior Mechanics, who seemed to view her every move as an act of possible rebellion. Now, continuing on that path of obedience would lead her to Tiae and near-certain death. I no longer have any choice. I’m not taking the Guild’s way any more, not until I find out what the blazes is going on. No. This is my way, and it doesn’t lead to Tiae.

She didn’t spot anyone obviously trailing her along the road, though the number of other travelers still provided plenty of cover for someone like that. Stopping before sunset at a tavern alongside the road, Mari led her horse to the watering troughs set out to attract travelers. As her horse drank, Mari listened to the commons talking around her. Anonymous without her Mechanics jacket, she heard the commons saying things they never would have spoken around a Mechanic.

“You’ve come lately from Julesport? Have they relaxed the curfew there yet?” one trader asked another.

The stout woman shrugged in response. “No. Officially, the curfew is still in effect. Ask me if the city is enforcing it, though.”

“But do you need to bribe the city watch to move around?” the questioner pressed.

“No,” the woman repeated. “It’s not being enforced, except around the Mechanics Guild Hall in Julesport. The city leaders have kept the curfew on the books, but only because the demon-spawn Mechanics have insisted on it.”

The traders and several other commons spat to one side at the mention of Mari’s Guild. Mari stayed silent and kept her face turned toward her horse to hide her reactions.

“Dematr would be a better place if every Mechanic died tomorrow,” someone growled.

But that caused the woman to shake her head. “We need what they have, blast them all. Imagine a world where every Mechanic device broke and could never be used again. And if the Mechanics were gone, who would be able to counteract the Mages? Who wants the Mages as undisputed rulers of Dematr?”

“Better both vanished then.”

“And how will that happen?” another traveler taunted.

“The daughter.” Tense silence fell as the one who had said that looked around cautiously. “Have you heard about Dorcastle?”

“I’ve heard rumors,” the woman trader admitted.

“Rumors? She was there. The Mechanics and Mages were fighting among themselves, grinding Dorcastle and the city’s people between them, and the daughter showed up and stopped them both.” He paused to bask in the attention his words gathered. “I heard from one who was at Dorcastle. He saw it. An entire warehouse reduced to ruin, a dead Mage dragon and a bunch of broken Mechanic devices inside, and a young woman seen leaving just as people came to see what had happened. The Mechanics showed up quickly enough to get rid of the evidence, but everyone in Dorcastle knows of it.”

“I’ve heard something the same,” another traveler admitted. “But that doesn’t prove the daughter did it, that she’s finally come.”

“Who else could have done such a thing? Defeated Mechanics and Mages? That’s the prophecy, isn’t it? The daughter of Jules will appear someday, and she will overthrow both of the Great Guilds and free us all. That young woman seen in Dorcastle slew a dragon. You ever seen a dragon?”

“Only at a great distance, and that still too close,” someone else said. “But I’ve heard of what happened at Dorcastle, and it’s the same as you said. A dead dragon and a whole mess of Mechanic devices shattered, and the Mechanics sealing off the place as soon as more of them got there. There was for certain something they didn’t want us knowing.”

Quiet fell for a moment, broken only by the wet noise of horses drinking at the troughs and the sounds of travelers passing on the nearby road.

“I won’t believe it,” the woman trader finally said in a low voice. “It would hurt too much to believe and then learn it was a false hope. But if she truly came at last to free us all, if my children could grow up without Mechanics and Mages lording it over them, that would be the greatest day ever seen.”

“Bless her wherever she is, and may she come soon,” another said, and the other commons murmured in agreement.

“It has to be soon,” one of the travelers muttered, her voice despairing. “The madness in Tiae is spreading.”

“Not into the Confederation—”

“No? There have been riots in Julesport and Debran.”

“And there was some kind of civil disturbance in Emdin that a legion had to be called in to suppress,” a man said. “Citizens of the Empire acting up! They haven’t done anything like that since the great revolt that destroyed Marandur over a century ago.”

“Some people went crazy in Larharbor last month,” a man said.

“I heard that, too. I heard that they killed a Mage before they died,” one of the other men said. “What would make people just snap like that?”

The woman traveler snorted. “Keep an animal in a small cage long enough, beat it every time it complains, and it will snap, sure enough. Isn’t that us? If the daughter doesn’t get here soon, she’s likely to find nothing to free but the ruins of the world.”

The commons fell silent. Some of them urged their horses away from the troughs and back to the road.

Mari stood, eyes on the neck of her horse, waiting a few moments before moving on and thinking that the commons had some good sources of information. The incident in Larharbor had scared her Guild’s Senior Mechanics, because anyone crazy enough to attack a Mage would have been crazy enough to attack a Mechanic. She had hoped it would finally move the Senior Mechanics to admit to growing problems, but instead the event had been blamed on the Mage who had been killed.

Of course, the commons who had killed the Mage had themselves all been killed, too, so no one could ask them why they had done it.

But for the moment, Mari was more concerned that the commons had heard something about Dorcastle despite the Guild’s efforts to hide everything. And, unlike the Mechanics Guild, the commons were willing to talk about the dragon found amid the wreckage. They think the daughter of Jules did that? Alain and I barely survived it. I thought we hadn’t been seen getting away, but someone must have spotted us. Spotted me, anyway.

The Senior Mechanics must know that the commons are talking this freely about the incident in Dorcastle. Is that why they chose to send me on a one-way mission? Because they still suspect I didn’t tell the full truth about what happened at Dorcastle? I would have told them, if they would have listened, if they hadn’t threatened me and told me to say nothing.

Instead, the commons are thinking the mythical daughter of Jules did it. What if they had known it was me? What would they have said when they learned I was a Mechanic?

She thought of the woman trader, wistfully and sorrowfully dreaming of freedom for her children. Freedom from Mari’s Guild, as well as from the Mage Guild. In her many years confined within Mechanics Guild Halls, isolated from the commons, Mari had come to accept the beliefs the Guild had drilled into her: that Mechanics were inherently superior, that commons couldn’t rule themselves. But like so many other things she had been taught, those beliefs had been badly battered by what Mari had seen and experienced in the last few months.

She led her horse back to the road, looking intently in both directions in search of anyone lingering to keep watch on her, but seeing no one like that Mari mounted her horse and headed on toward the north.

Mari kept moving slowly along the road until night fell, the number of other travelers dwindling rapidly as darkness came on. Finally she halted, sitting silently in the gloom. Almost everyone else using the road had stopped for the night, either finding shelter at an inn, tavern or hostel, or simply camping on the road’s edge in groups for safety. From here, Mari could see and hear no one else.

Sighing, she finally dismounted and settled her pack on her back. “Thanks for the ride,” she whispered to the horse, then started to turn the animal loose. At the last moment she noticed the dangling reins and remembered that she had to do something about them. Mari tied the reins back across the saddle so they wouldn’t catch on anything. The horse would surely find her own way back to Edinton. The saddle and other tack had the name of the stable on it, and if those were lost the horse had the brand of the stable burned into one haunch. Nonetheless, Mari felt guilty as she watched the tired horse wander slowly back down the road, worried about abandoning the animal even though she had no alternative.

Already weary, her legs and thighs stiff from riding, Mari turned off the road, walking to the east through rough country. Even if she hadn’t been forced to abandon her horse in order to avoid revealing where she might have gone from there, the lack of visibility and the poor terrain would have made it too dangerous to ride through here at night. Mari picked her away along through the dark until she literally stumbled onto the impossible-to-miss tracks of the single train line connecting Edinton with cities farther north. Hoping she was heading in the right direction, Mari walked north alongside the tracks until with relief she reached a place the Mechanics in Edinton often complained about, a spot where the track curved while it also climbed a short, steep grade, forcing trains to slow to a crawl.

It would have been easy enough to fix that section, to excavate a portion of the rising terrain and straighten the track, but that was how the original line had been built centuries ago. Fixing it would mean changing it, and the Senior Mechanics didn’t approve changes except on those rare occasions when no other alternative existed. Since this section of track was still passable, it would be repaired when necessary, but otherwise remain as it had always been.

Thoroughly worn out, Mari sat down to wait. Only two trains ran north from Edinton each week, using a schedule which hadn’t varied for decades. One of those trains should come by here tonight.

Despite her efforts to stay alert, she was drowsing when the sound of the approaching train brought Mari to full wakefulness. Lying on her stomach in the darkness to be as inconspicuous as possible, she waited tensely as the ancient steam locomotive chugged past, straining at the burden of hauling its train of freight and passenger cars up the slope. She could see the engineer in the cab of the locomotive—probably some Mechanic she knew—along with a couple of apprentices, visible in the dim orange glow from the grate on the locomotive firebox.

Mari watched freight cars rolling past, then jumped up and ran toward the train as the first passenger car loomed into view. Leaping up, she caught at the platform at the end of the car, shaking with effort and anxiety as the gravel roadbed swept by below.

Her hands gripped the railing on the platform so tightly they hurt as Mari swung over the railing and found secure footing on the platform itself. Sighing with relief, she turned and peered into the darkened interior of the passenger car. She knew that only the last car, the one reserved for Mechanics, would have any electric lights. The candles or oil lamps commons would have used were banned for fear of fire in the wooden cars.

Unable to see much of the inside of the car, Mari eased the door open and slid through as quickly as she could. Inside, vague shapes were all that could be seen of passengers trying to sleep through the night journey. Fortunately, the Mechanics Guild kept the price of train tickets high enough that some seats were empty, so by moving cautiously Mari was able to find one and sit down.

The train began speeding up again as it crested the slope and the track straightened. Mari sat among the sleeping commons, staring ahead through the darkness. The port of Edinton and a ship north had been a tempting alternative, but she had thought the passenger piers too open and too easily watched. Hopefully by this roundabout overland route she had thrown off her path any Mages and Dark Mechanics as well as the Mechanics Guild itself. There was a small terminal just south of Debran where she could leave the train with little chance of being spotted and take back roads the rest of the way to Danalee.

But all that did was buy time. She needed to talk to someone else, someone she knew would listen and judge whether Mari had totally lost it or if she really was marked for death. If there was anyone else in the Guild like that, someone she could still trust to tell almost everything that Mari had learned, that person was now at the Guild’s weapons workshops in Danalee. Alli, I hope you are still the best friend I knew back in Caer Lyn.

And beyond that, Mari’s thoughts went to someone else much farther north. The Mages have decided to stop watching me and instead are trying to kill me. What if they are also after Alain?

What if his Guild suspects or learns the truth about him, and like my Guild decides to send him on a mission of no return?

I’ve been so afraid that my Guild would learn my biggest secret. If it had, the Senior Mechanics wouldn’t have played around with schemes to get rid of me. They were afraid I knew more than I was supposed to about Mages and Dark Mechanics, they thought I was a negative influence on other Mechanics, and they completely rejected what I once said about where the Mechanics Guild’s own policies are leading. But all they would have had to do to destroy me was to find out that Mari of Caer Lyn was in love with a Mage.