Chapter One

Master Mechanic Mari of Caer Lyn awoke from a nightmare of being pursued by remorseless killers through a maze of city streets, some of them crumbling ruins and others in flames. Those hunting her and her friends wore the black jackets of Mechanics and carried rifles, or were armored Imperial legionaries bearing swords and crossbows, or had the robes and emotionless faces of Mages who held long knives. One by one Mari’s friends died until she was trapped, the killers closing in, and behind them a raging mob destroying all in their path, a mob which would soon sweep over her and the killers alike, leaving nothing but death in its wake.

And inside that nightmare, everything was her fault. She had caused all of the deaths, including those of her friends.

She stared at the wooden beams and planks above her bunk, her breath coming in short gasps and her heart pounding. She was alone in the small cabin, but she could hear the clump of boots and the soft thud of sailors’ bare feet on the deck overhead.

She controlled her breathing and focused her thoughts. She wasn’t in a prison cell, or trapped in the dead city of Marandur, or being chased through the streets of Altis by assassins. She was aboard the small schooner Gray Lady , surrounded by her friends, and as safe for the moment as someone being hunted by at least half the world could hope to be.

The safety was only an illusion, though, because if the Mages were right, the mobs which haunted Mari’s nightmares would soon arise to smash everything on this world. And the Mages claimed that only she could stop that from happening.

Her gaze fell on the promise ring on her left hand. The sight of that brought Mari back to full wakefulness. Where was Alain? And why did the Gray Lady feel as if the ship were motionless, instead of sailing for whatever brief sanctuary the city of Julesport might offer?

Mari rolled out of the bunk, shrugged into her shoulder holster and ensured that the pistol nestled there was ready for use, pulled on the dark jacket of a Mechanic that she stubbornly continued to wear, and headed out on deck.

* * * *

Mage Alain of Iris stood at the rail of the Gray Lady , peering into the formless world beyond. The harsh and brutal training of a Mage acolyte ensured that his face revealed none of his feelings: not the annoyance at this setback or the fear he felt for Mari, who had changed his world just as she was fated to change this entire world. If she lived.

The morning sun had risen, but the only visible sign of it was a brightening in the white cocoon formed of sea mist, where the Gray Lady sat becalmed, her sails hanging limp from their spars and booms. Not even the faintest breeze stirred sky, fog, or the waters on which the Gray Lady rode. The air felt heavy and moist, so that each breath required extra labor and conjured up uncomfortable sensations of drowning. Water pooled on every flat surface and formed droplets on every mast, spar and piece of rigging, the drops sliding down the slack canvas of the sails and the rough cordage of the stays, shrouds, halyards, and ratlines, the drops growing as they absorbed other drops until they fell in a fitful rain to add to the wetness on the deck. Sound carried with startling ease, somehow magnified by the moist air, but colors were dimmed, as if the mist were stealing their vibrancy and leaving only pale, washed-out remnants. Those on the Gray Lady looked like ghosts to their comrades, looming vaguely out of the mist until they came close enough to be seen clearly.

A world’s fate hung on the balance, but they could not move. They had left the burning city of Altis behind less than two weeks ago, riding the breezes south and west out of the Sea of Bakre, dodging warships of the Mechanics Guild and those ships forced to serve the Mage Guild and even more than one Imperial galley forging far afield in pursuit of them. But now not a breath of wind stirred the unusually placid waters of the Jules Sea. Somewhere not far to the east-northeast lay Julesport, a city founded long ago by a pirate and still famously disreputable, but that possible refuge might as well have been a million lances distant.

And their dilemma had just become far more urgent. Alain heard noises of something coming closer under the cloak of the fog. Slow, rhythmic splashing of water and creaking of wood, the soft chant of someone calling cadence to rowers, the occasional rattle of metal on metal which warned of soldiers in armor with swords and shields.

The captain of the Gray Lady , a man who had proven to be suspiciously familiar with avoiding those searching for or pursuing his ship, came quickly along the deck, stopping only to whisper brief instructions to sailors who hastened to pass the word to others.

Reaching Alain, the captain bowed. “Sir Mage,” he said in a low voice. “I most humbly request that everyone remain as quiet as possible. There is at least one galley out there, and from its movements and attempts to muffle noise I believe it is searching for someone.”

Alain nodded once in reply. Despite his outward poise, the captain was not comfortable addressing a Mage, but then no common people were. None of them spoke to Mages if they could help it. Mages were unnerving not only in their ability to show no emotion, and apparently to feel none, but because they possessed mysterious powers that no common wanted employed against him or her on the whim of the Mage. Mages, for their part, rarely bothered to speak to commons unless to issue brief orders. Most Mages, rather, because those who had chosen to follow Mari were slowly learning to regard other people as something other than mere shadows, and Alain had already come far down that path. “Where is the galley from?” Alain asked quietly. “Has the Empire pursued us to the doorstep of Julesport?”

“It’s not the Empire, I am certain, Sir Mage. The Imperials don’t come out this far. Cities of the Confederation operate few galleys, and the galleys once employed by the broken Kingdom of Tiae are all sunk or foundered now. My guess is, this galley hails from Syndar. I’ve caught a few words carried through the fog and I believe I recognized the accent.” The captain waved briefly toward the west, where the islands of Syndar lay.

“Does the Syndari galley hunt us?” Alain said.

“I cannot be certain, Sir Mage,” the captain said. “But I believe that it does. Your Guild, and that of the Lady Mari, have doubtless offered immense rewards for either of you, and from what I have heard of your earlier travels the Imperials as well will pay dearly to have both of you dead.”

Alain turned his gaze upon the captain. “You are not tempted by such rewards?”

The captain didn’t flinch at the question. He smiled slightly, shaking his head. “No, Sir Mage.”

“Why not?”

Taking a deep breath, the captain spoke carefully. “I value freedom, Sir Mage, which is very hard to find in a world where the Great Guilds control everything. The sea has offered the best and sometimes the only refuge in all of Dematr for those seeking liberty. The rewards offered for you and the Lady are no doubt immense, but they dwindle to nothing compared to the chance that she might succeed, that she is the daughter of the prophecy who will overthrow the Great Guilds and grant everyone in this world freedom.”

He paused, then added in a rush “I know such as the Imperials will not be free just because the Great Guilds are overthrown. The citizens of the Empire will still have their Emperor or Empress, will still have to deal with Imperial police and Imperial law. And other places will have lesser rulers. Syndar is a nest of petty tyrants and a few colonies of freebooters. But people everywhere will have a chance at freedom, Sir Mage. A chance they now lack. And there is this. The world ashore feels oddly strained, like a line pulled too taut and apt to snap, smashing everything in its path. I’ve felt that tension growing worse and worse in recent years, and it feels to me far too much like Tiae was before that kingdom came apart and fell into anarchy.”

The captain paused again. “My apologies if I have overstepped or misspoken, Sir Mage. But you did ask for my reasons.”

“And you did not lie,” Alain said. Mages, trained to suppress their own feelings, could easily spot lies told by commons. “You will get us to Julesport?”

“If I can, Sir Mage.” The captain gestured again, this time toward the sound of the galley hidden in the fog. “But they can move when we cannot. We need wind. If the fog goes before the wind rises, the galley will see us and close in. Can you…?”

“Raise a wind? No.” Alain left it at that. In theory a Mage could create the illusion of the air moving and superimpose that over the illusion of still air that surrounded them, but the amount of power needed far exceeded anything available here. However, commons knew nothing of how Mage arts worked, and so assumed they could do anything.

“I’ll prepare my crew to defend the ship if necessary,” the captain said, not daring to further question a Mage. He saluted and hurried off.

Right behind the captain came Mari, her eyes searching the fog before coming to rest on Alain.

Alain had been taught to believe that everything he saw was an illusion, that every other person was just a shadow on that illusion, that nothing was real. But every time he saw Mari, he knew how false those teachings were. The world might be an illusion, but she was real.

“What’s going on?” she asked Alain, keeping her own voice low. “We’re becalmed? Why wasn’t I told?”

“You have not slept well since leaving Altis,” Alain said. “Your dreams are often troubled, so I decided to let you rest. But I was preparing to wake you now.”

“Why?” Mari brushed back an errant strand of her raven-black hair, peering into the fog. “What’s that I hear?”

“The captain believes it is a Syndari galley, seeking us for the rewards offered.”

“And we can’t move.” She made it a statement rather than a question, gazing upward into the web of rigging and stays on their ship. “If only this was a steam-powered ship. I can fix a balky boiler. I can’t do anything about a lack of wind.”

“The captain is preparing his crew to defend this ship if the galley finds us before we can move,” Alain said.

“What would our chances be? Did your training in the military arts cover that sort of thing?”

“Some of it,” Alain replied. Told that arrogant Mechanics believed they knew everything, he had been surprised upon first meeting Mari to discover that she had no problem with admitting when someone else knew more about any subject. “Our chances would be poor, because a galley has so many rowers who can join in an attack on us. The crew of this ship would be heavily outnumbered.”

“But we’ve got three Mages,” Mari said. “You, Mage Asha, and Mage Dav.”

“There is not much power here to use,” Alain said. “Without that power to draw on, there is little we can do. We also have four Mechanics,” he added.

“With rifles,” she said, then grimaced. “Four Mechanics firing rifles might not be enough, and our ammunition is limited. I’m worried about the lever action on Alli’s rifle. It keeps sticking, and she keeps fixing it, but it might jam again during a fight. And you still have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“No. I understand only that the matter concerns you.”

Mari sighed and leaned on the railing, staring outward. “If we ever have time, and if we survive, I need to see if you can learn anything about tools and devices, or if your Mage training makes them total mysteries to you forever. Is your foresight telling you anything?”

“I had a vision last night.”

Her gaze switched to him. “What did you see?” she asked anxiously.

“It was another vision of the coming Storm. Armies and mobs raging against each other, cities burning, a terrible sense of urgency, and a second sun appearing in the sky to stand against the Storm.”

“Nothing new, then,” she grumped, staring back out to sea. “It sounds like my latest nightmare, though that dream didn’t have any hopeful sun in it.”

“You are that sun. You know this.”

She made a face, looking out into the fog. “I know that people believe I can make a difference, and I know that I’m going to do my best.”

“My vision confirmed once more that you are the one who can bring the new day, that you alone can stand against the Storm.”

“Alain, I am nineteen years old. I am a very good Mechanic trained to fix lots of things. But for some reason my training never included how to fix a world!” She looked over at him, her expression softening, then touched Alain’s arm, the sort of gesture that could still startle him after so many years of being taught in the most painful ways not to allow casual human contact. “I’d be lost without you.”

“All the world will be lost without you,” Alain said.

She gave a brief snort of derisive laughter. “There’s my poetic Mage, who doesn’t even realize when he’s being poetic. You’re in love, and while I know that makes you delusional when it comes to me, I don’t know why other people so readily believe things like that, why they just accept that I’m…”

“The daughter.”

“You promised that you would never call me that!” Mari said, her voice suddenly low and angry.

“I…am…sorry,” Alain said, still sometimes having to stumble over the words that had once been literally beaten out of him. “Others have called you that, and you have accepted the title from them.”

“You are not others! I need at least one person in this world who sees me as me , as Mari. And that person has to be you.”

He nodded in agreement, if not entirely in understanding. “Your old friends, the other Mechanics, always appear to see you as Mari.”

“That’s because if Alli called me the daughter I’d punch her out and she knows it! And Dav and Bev aren’t old friends, but they still look at my jacket and see another Mechanic. Besides, Mechanics aren’t big on believing Mage prophecies.” She laughed, low and full of self-mockery this time. “It’s the Mages who look at me like the common folk do. The Mages, who aren’t supposed to care about other people at all.”

“We are taught that other people are not real,” Alain reminded her. “But our foresight, unreliable and imperfect as it is, shows that your shadow is cast wide across this illusion of a world. To Mages, this makes you worthy of notice.”

“Thank you so much. Can you sense any other Mages nearby who might consider me worthy of killing?”

“You are using what you call sarcasm again?” Alain asked.

“Yes. And no. Do you sense any Mages on the Syndari galley?”

“Not yet.” Alain strained his senses, hearing the creak of oars from somewhere in the fog, followed by the beat of those oars against the water. Then the sound of oars and the splash of water again, along with indistinctly heard orders spoken to someone out there in the formless mist. In between the louder sounds he could hear the soft rushing of a hull cleaving the quiet waters. But he could feel nothing in that extra sense which would warn of other Mages nearby. “If there are Mages with the galley, they are hiding their presence well.”

The captain returned, walking with care to prevent the sound of his boots from carrying through the fog. “We are prepared to fight if necessary, Lady,” he told Mari, his tone carrying respect and a happiness at odds with their predicament. Alain had noticed it among all of the common people who made up the Gray Lady ’s crew. Generations of men and women like them had waited for the daughter, and they believed that Mari was she. But, perhaps sensing how little Mari liked being called by that name, they usually addressed her as Lady or Lady Mari.

“That’s not a Confederation warship out there?” Mari whispered. “You’re certain?”

“No Confederation ship has that sound to it,” the captain assured her. “If you’ve ever heard a Syndari galley bearing down on you under full oars and the drummer beating the chase cadence, you never forget it.”

“How close is the galley? From the sound it is as if it were just beyond our sight.”

The captain frowned, wiping mist-born moisture from his face. “I cannot tell you, Lady Mari. This fog makes it hard to tell just where the galley lies, how far off and on what bearing. Too close for my comfort, though.”

“How much wind do we need to move?” Mari asked, looking up at the slack sails hanging limp.

“Not much,” the captain said. “Ships like this are called Balmer Clippers. I never heard tell of anyone named Balmer, but he or she must have been uncommonly gifted at designing ships. These clippers can move like ghosts under a light breeze. That’s why they’re useful for, uh…smugglers, or, uh…pirates. Or so I have heard. But I wouldn’t want to move unless the fog lifts. We’re not far from the coast, not far from Julesport. It’s too easy to run aground when you can’t see any lights, and the bells on the buoys near Julesport are silent with the water this calm. Even the waves hitting the harbor breakwater that would normally give us warning are as silent as mimes today.”

Alain looked down at the perfectly smooth patch of water visible below them. “Is a sea this calm unusual?”

“Yes, Sir Mage.” The captain gestured out toward the water. “It is rare.”

“Then you cannot say how long it might last?”

“Sir Mage, it might last a moment longer or for days. A sailor learns that just when you think you know it the sea will surprise you. Have you heard that the sea is like a woman? There’s truth to that. One moment tranquil, the next moment furious, and all men can do is try to read the weather, ride the storm, and hope for the best.”

Mari gave the captain a sharp look. “I would guess that women sailors disagree with that comparison?”

“Uh, no, Lady. They tend to agree. A good sailor knows the character of the sea, no matter the character of the sailor.” The captain glanced at her, looking apologetic. “Not that I speak of you so, you understand.”

“The storms of Lady Mari have, I think, impressed the elders of the Mechanics Guild, the city fathers of Ringhmon, and the Emperor himself,” Alain replied, his eyes on the fog again. As he watched it, only half-aware of the captain trying to keep his expression “blank as a Mage,” as the saying went, Alain saw a blot on the featureless mist. He stiffened as a black cloud drifted across his vision. His foresight, often undependable, this time was providing a warning. “There.” He pointed. “A galley lies there.”

The captain stared into the mist where Alain had pointed. “Can you tell me anything else, Sir Mage?”

“Only that you are correct. It is a threat to us.”

The captain nodded. “I witnessed what you did to that Mechanics Guild ship at Altis, Sir Mage, and watched the smoke from the burning city for nigh on a day after we left. Can you do the same here?”

“I will do my best,” Alain said.

“Then despite the odds against us I feel much comforted. Do you know much of the Syndaris? I’ve crossed swords with them before. The fighters of Syndar are easily bought, but that does not mean real loyalty has been purchased.”

“How hard will they fight?” Alain asked.

“That depends upon the pay, or the reward, Sir Mage.” The captain smiled ruefully. “Unfortunately, the reward in your case must be very large. The Syndari galley we hear is risking movement in this fog, so those commanding it must be highly motivated.”

“You should know,” Alain said to the captain, “that the Empire and the Great Guilds likely do not seek the capture of Lady Mari, but her death.”

The captain nodded with obvious determination. “We will not allow that. Lest you doubt me, Sir Mage, death awaits me and more than one of my crew if the Empire gets its hands on us. Imperial bureaucrats have not been impressed by some of our means of making a living. They would no doubt grant us the promised reward to meet the letter of their law, but then would fine us the same amount for our crimes—alleged crimes, that is—and hang us. I admit that my crew and I are not the type to risk our deaths needlessly. Perhaps we’ve been more like the Syndaris than we like to admit. But…”

He hesitated, then knelt before Mari, speaking almost bashfully, far from his usual boisterous and confident self. “I long ago stopped believing in anything but what I can hold in these two hands, Lady, and counted those who risk death for no profit as fools. But I have seen you and heard you, and if Lady Mari were to ask life itself of me I would give it. The sea changes in unexpected ways, and so it seems I still can as well.”

Mari, looking extremely uncomfortable, beckoned the captain to stand. “I’m sorry. I know you mean well, but I really don’t like it when people kneel to me. Please don’t do that again. And I very much hope that neither you nor anyone else will have to die because of me. Too many people already have died.”

The captain stood up, smiling. “There, you see? We’ve spent our lives knowing that no Mechanic and no Mage cared the slightest about whether we lived or died, not as long as we were doing what they ordered us to do. We didn’t matter, that’s all. But we do matter to you. Thank you, Lady. If we can get into Julesport without a fight, I promise it will be done. But if we must fight, we will. I will let my crew know.” He saluted with careful formality before departing.

“Great. More people who want to die because of me,” Mari grumbled. “If we didn’t have to worry about saving those banned Mechanic texts, I’d dive overboard right now and try to swim to shore. But those texts are more important than I am. More important than everyone else on this ship.”

“I thought you said—” Alain began.

“I am not more important than anyone else,” Mari insisted. “That’s what I said. You heard what the hidden librarians we found on Altis told us. Those texts were designed to enable people to rebuild civilization if the worst happened. With them people can recreate the technology that the Mechanics Guild has suppressed for all of these years. I, or somebody else, can use those texts to defeat whatever the Guild throws at us. If we have enough time.”

“The Storm approaches,” Alain said.

“Well, I wish the Storm would send a breeze ahead of it to help this ship get its butt into Julesport! How much can you and the other Mages do, Alain? Didn’t you tell me that while the amount of power Mages can draw on is almost always weak over water, it also varies by location?”

“That is so,” Alain said, not surprised that Mari had remembered that. She was always trying to understand Mage skills by using the rules of her Mechanic arts, which usually led to frustration. “There is little power here, as is usual on the sea. Even the elders of the Mage Guild do not claim to know why this is so.”

“You managed some spells when we were on the Queen of the Sea ,” Mari pointed out. “That was the Mechanics Guild ship that captured us near the Sharr Isles.”

He felt unease at the memory. The large metal ship filled with Mechanic devices had felt strange in a very disquieting way. “That ship was moving fairly quickly, bringing more power available with each distance covered,” Alain explained. “Here we sit in the same spot.”

“Oh. You were…sort of getting more current by moving along a wire,” Mari said. “Yeah. So we have to assume that this time the Mages cannot help?”

That stung in some unaccountable way. “There is a chance,” Alain said, “if this ship begins to move even slowly, because I would only need to plant one ball of fire on a galley to eliminate it. But I would have to see that galley coming long enough to create the fire and to aim, and the effort would surely exhaust me.”

She was staring at him. “I said that wrong, didn’t I? I said it wrong enough to make you show some upset that I could see. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that I was…disappointed. I’m just trying to figure out what weapons we have. And you’ve done miracles, Alain. I would long since be dead without you. We have four Mechanics and three Mages. What do you think we should do?”

Alain looked about, considering the problem. “We do not know from which direction an enemy might come. I suggest that I take position near the ship’s wheel, where I can best view all angles. The Mechanics and the other two Mages can be placed in the middle of the ship, where you can direct the others easily.”

“Half facing each way?” Mari asked.

“Half?”

Mari gave that sigh she used when he did not grasp something she had never imagined someone not knowing. “Two Mechanics and one Mage facing port, and two Mechanics and one Mage facing starboard. Alain, you have to learn some math.”

“If you know it, why do I need it? I do not ask you to learn how to do Mage tasks.”

“Because…” Mari sighed again. “Without realizing it, I keep wanting to remake you into a Mechanic, which would not only be dumb of me but also really conceited. Who you are is what has saved us many times. Um…I need to alert the other Mechanics. You tell the other Mages that we might have a fight on our hands soon. We’ll all meet here on deck.” Mari brushed back her hair again with her left hand, the still-new promise ring on one finger glinting in the misty light. She noticed it, then looked at Alain, who wore the ring’s companion on his own left hand. “I almost forgot to say I love you.”

Despite the inhibitions created by years of extremely harsh instruction in avoiding even the appearance of emotion, Alain managed to force out the right answer. “I…love…you.”

She smiled despite the worry visible on her. “A lot of other men find it too easy to say those words. Because of your Mage training, you find it very hard, so I know you mean them. I’m going to be counting on you again in this fight, which I know is totally unfair, but I also know I can always count on you. Let’s survive another one, my Mage.” She turned to go, then paused and looked back at him, framed by the coils of mist drifting across the deck. “Don’t die. You understand? Don’t die.”

Alain tried to smile reassuringly, knowing that he was probably not doing a very good job of it. “I understand, my Mechanic. You are also not to die.”

She forced a grin in reply, then hurried away.

Despite the urgency of his task, Alain stood for a moment watching as Mari walked into the fog, her dark Mechanics jacket standing out. The hatred between the Mage Guild and the Mechanics Guild was long and enduring, constantly reinforced by every contact between Mages and Mechanics—who were mutually certain that the others were conceited frauds. He had been taught to view the dark Mechanics jacket as a sign of the enemy. But despite all that had happened between her and her former Guild, Mari still took great pride in being one of those trained in the Mechanic arts and found comfort in still wearing the familiar garment. And Alain, who had only recently turned eighteen years old, knew that he would never have lived past seventeen if not for the times the young woman wearing that dark jacket had placed it and herself between him and danger.

Even if he had not grown to love her, he would still look fondly upon the dark jacket he had once been trained to hate. Perhaps someday the common folk and other Mages would also look upon the dark jackets of Mechanics without anger and revulsion. Just as Mari had taught some of her fellow Mechanics to see that not all Mages were monsters.

Mari had saved him, and she could save this world.

If he could help get them both past the Syndari galley.

Alain hurried off as well, seeking both Mage Dav and Mage Asha. As he walked softly along the deck, he could hear the sounds of galley oars coming through the fog.