Chapter 1

The Mages of the world of Dematr sometimes see visions: glimpses of the future or of a possible future. But understanding those visions can be very difficult. The future rarely happens as people expect, and even those people with the firmest belief in what their future will hold can be very mistaken.

Especially when that person is the daughter of the two greatest heroes of her world.

Kira of Pacta Servanda was six years old the day she stood on a battlement in Dorcastle, staring up at a statue of her mother while surrounded by bodyguards who fenced Kira off from the nearby crowds. As the morning sun cast the shadow of her mother's statue over Kira, she had felt both invisible and an object of curiosity, and had realized that she would spend the rest of her life in that shade.

Kira was still six years old when the world of Dematr learned that a new kind of ship had left the far-distant world of Urth. The ship would take only ten years to cover the immense distances between stars. Of all the colony worlds, the ship was coming to Dematr. Because of Kira's mother.

When she was ten, Kira's father, the wisest of Mages, discovered that she had inherited some of his abilities as well as her mother's skill with machines, something thought impossible. But that one thing that might have made her special had to be kept secret from others, a source of worry rather than pride.

Kira was sixteen when the ship from Urth arrived, and she discovered that her world still needed heroes.

* * *

Outside, birds sang to greet the early morning. Inside, the irresistible force and the immovable object confronted each other.

"I don't want to go," Kira said to her mother.

Master Mechanic Mari, also known simply as Lady Mari but most often as "the daughter," stared at her own daughter in disbelief. "Why wouldn't you want to be there? This is the most important thing our world has experienced since…"

"Since you saved the world?" Kira asked. "Go ahead and say it! Everybody else does!"

Her mother sighed. "I had a job to do. I did it."

"And my job is to follow you around so people can see the freak."

Mari stared at her, shocked. "Freak? Who calls you that?"

"Everybody!" Kira said. "Oh, they don't say it out loud. Usually. There she is! The daughter of the daughter! The girl whose mother died years before she was born!"

"I didn't die."

Kira shook her head, feeling frustrated at the same answer Mari always gave when someone brought that up. "Mother, I've talked to some of the healers who were there. They were all eager to tell me how you died and then Father came running in and brought you back."

"Your father will tell you that as far as he could tell I was still there," Mari insisted. "He just helped heal the bullet wound in ways my body couldn't manage on its own. Haven't we talked about this?"

"No, we haven't. Father and I have. We never talk about anything."

Mari looked at her, her sadness so obvious that Kira felt angry at herself. "Dearest…it's hard to speak about some of the things your father and I went through during the war. Even so long after the war the things we had to do, the things we saw, want to stay locked inside. I know it's difficult for you to understand."

Kira shook her head, trying to sort out her feelings. "I don't— It's just—" She clenched her fists. "I can't talk to you."

"I have the same problem." Her mother raised her voice. "Alain, come try to talk to our daughter!"

As Kira's mother left the room her father came in, calm and composed as he almost always was, his Mage robes contrasting with the shirt and pants Kira wore. "What is it, Kira? Why are you angry?"

He could read anyone's emotions, and seemed particularly good at seeing what lay inside Kira. She blurted out the truth. "I don't know. Except that it's so hard. It's bad enough being somewhere alone, and I'm almost always alone, except for the guards."

Her father looked at her, openly saddened. "I know a girl your age should have friends. Many friends. I do not…"

"I know, Father, I'm sorry," Kira said. Her father hadn't had friends growing up. Literally none, since the Mage Guild that had taken him from his family did its best to erase the very concept of friends from the minds of acolytes. "It's not your fault. It's just too hard. Anyone who wants to visit here has a hard time because of the security, and if I want to go somewhere I have a hard time because of the security, and then we found out that anyone I made real friends with might get targeted by Mother's enemies, and how could I do that to anyone? So I've got guys like Gari way off in Danalee and girls like Devi way off in Tiaesun, but…that's not it, Father. Not today. Everybody is going to be there today, and when I'm with Mother everyone looks at me and thinks—" Kira clamped her mouth shut, staring toward the nearest window at the open country around their home.

"You look very much like your mother did when she was younger." Her father said that in a way that made it sound like the greatest thing ever. Kira felt combined affection for him and irritation at the comparison.

"Do you know what they say?" Kira asked in a low voice. "Some people say that because Mother died once she couldn't have a child the normal way, so you cast some spell that made a baby copy of her. Me."

"You should not listen to such nonsense," Alain said.

"Why do I have to go?"

"We think it could be important to have you there," Alain said.

"We're going to look primitive, aren't we?" Kira waved around to encompass the room and the world. "They have all those amazing things, and we have…steam locomotives."

"I thought you liked steam locomotive creatures."

After all this time her father still thought of locomotives as being like Mage creatures rather than Mechanic devices. That managed to get a smile out of her. "I do. They're cool."

"Kira," her father said, "if these people from Urth believe they are better than we are because they have Mechanic devices better than ours, they are fools. We intend to show them the sort of people we are. We do not know what sort of people they are."

"You're…concerned about them?" She had started to say scared , but that was ridiculous. Nothing scared her father. "Why would you want me there, then?"

Alain studied Kira for a moment before replying. "It is important that you be there. You have a role to play in what will happen."

She felt a chill. "Father, is that foresight? Did you see something about the future involving me?"

He paused again, this time considering his words. "Yes. It is time you were told. The vision came before you were born. Its meaning remains unclear. But you were there."

"Before I was born ?" Kira stared at her father in shock. "And nobody mentioned this until now ? What was I doing? What am I supposed to do? What—?"

Her father held up one hand, halting her burst of questions. "I do not know the answers to those questions. I do know that you will be equal to whatever challenge arises."

Kira inhaled deeply, trying to calm herself. "I'm not you. I am not her . Just because I look like Mother—"

Her father came closer, his gaze intent. "You are very like her in more ways than you realize."

"Father, I can never be anything like—"

"Have I ever lied to you?"

"No." The word of a Mage was still common slang for something worthless, but when she was younger Kira had gotten into more than one epic fight with peers who thought that saying applied to her father. "All right. I'll go."

"Quickly. Please," her father added. The word please still sounded slightly stilted, a legacy of his early Mage training, when he had been forced to think of all others as merely shadows deserving of no notice. He had only learned to see other people as real again thanks to her mother.

There was absolutely nothing in the world that was not about her mother, Kira thought despairingly.

Kira ran up the stairs to her room, her thoughts tumbling over each other. Foresight about her? And this ship from Urth? I know who the heroes in this family are. My mother and father. Not me. Am I fated to mess things up somehow?

She knew that a lot of people believed she lived in some grand estate. It had been so long since Kira had been comfortable trying to have friends visit, especially after that disastrous surprise twelfth birthday party where Kira had barely known any of the boys and girls who had been invited, that she wondered if anyone she had known remembered the truth. Lady Mari could have had a great house for the asking, but had refused to accept anything other than a decent place with a house, the barn, and the small workshop, as well as enough open land around it to make it easier to protect her family. They wouldn't even have had any of the still-rare electric lighting if her mother hadn't needed the power for the long-distance far-talker her responsibilities required.

Kira ran a finger over the broken portable far-talker she had been fiddling with. Her mother, her aggravating and impossible and difficult mother, had given the valuable device to her immediately when Kira asked if she could try to fix it.

Her uniform as an honorary officer in the Queen's Own Lancers caught Kira's eye. If there might be trouble, that gleaming chest armor and helm could be useful. But Lady Mari had to be totally impartial in disputes between countries. If Lady Mari's daughter showed up in a uniform of Tiae's military at a very public appearance with her mother, the world would notice and not in a good way.

She kicked off her boots, pulled off trousers and work shirt, yanked on her nicest slacks, slid into her calf-high leather cavalry boots, buttoned up her nicest white shirt with the frills along the front, and topped it off with her fitted dress coat that came down just below her hips.

Her eyes came to rest on the pistol hanging in its holster. Looking like Lady Mari was not just aggravating. It could be very dangerous. Not everyone had been pleased when the Great Guilds were overthrown. Many of the Senior Mechanics who once controlled the Mechanics Guild that had controlled the world hated her mother for destroying their power. The Dark Mechanics who had exploited their knowledge for crime also hated her. There were Mages who, while never admitting to an emotion like hate, had never accepted being forced to follow the same laws that other people did. The list didn't stop there, Kira knew. Some of those people still wanted revenge, as she was frequently reminded. And her father, of all people, was worried about today.

Yanking off the dress coat, she pulled on the shoulder holster, checked the pistol to be sure the safeties were set, then put the coat back on and made sure it concealed the holster straps.

She eyed her small collection of jewelry, then plucked out the Roc earring—a jeweled depiction of one of the giant Mage birds dangling as if in flight—and fastened it on her right ear. Mage Alera might be there today, and Kira had always liked the shy older woman and her Roc Swift.

As she hurriedly brushed her short hair, raven-black like her mother's, Kira paused to look at herself in the mirror, seeing a younger version of her mother. So did everyone else. She could have put on Mage robes or an Imperial legionary uniform and people still would have looked at her and seen Master Mechanic Mari of Caer Lyn, the woman who had held the last wall of Dorcastle against impossible odds, who had fulfilled the long-ago prophecy of the daughter of Jules to free the world from the grip of the Great Guilds, and since then had used her moral authority and vast popularity to help resolve disputes and prevent more wars.

Kira's hand went to the hair above her temple, where on her mother a bright streak of white had remained since the day her father saved Mari's life, nearly dying himself in the process. "Why couldn't I have looked like somebody else?" Kira asked her reflection. "Isn't it hard enough to have a mother who's so famous and did so many amazing things? Who is ever going to look at me and see me ?"

As usual, her mirror offered no answers.

Downstairs again, Kira saw to her dismay that her mother, who rarely wore any ornamentation besides her promise ring, was wearing a Roc earring similar to hers. At least her mother was wearing her dark Mechanics jacket rather than something matching Kira's outfit.

The country of Tiae was far enough south that it rarely got cold, but the weather this morning had enough bite to it that Kira was glad for the covered coach waiting for them. Twenty cavalry from the army of Tiae waited to ride escort in front of the carriage and twenty more waited behind, the breath of the horses forming small clouds in the chilly air. The cavalry were all from the Queen's Own Lancers, their commander saluting. Feeling self-conscious, Kira returned the salute along with her mother.

Her parents sat in the back, facing forward, and Kira sat in the front, facing them. She kept her eyes out the window as the driver flicked her reins and the coach's horses started forward, straining to get into motion a coach rendered heavier than usual by the armor plate in the sides.

The coach, accompanied by the alert cavalry, rolled past the small plot of land with a low fence around it and a single stone marker. Kira gazed at the place where her little brother Danel had rested since dying soon after his birth, feeling the same old sense of loss. She looked at her mother, who was also gazing that way. "I'm sorry."

Mari nodded. "It happened."

"I wish you could have had more children."

"What, are you lonely?" her mother asked, trying to make a joke of it and failing. "Yes. That would have been nice. But I can't complain. I have you."

Kira looked away again, emotions swirling inside. "They still can't do anything about it? Even for you?"

"No," Mari said. "The things that went wrong inside me can't be fixed. Not by healers. Not by your father." She rubbed her face. "Let's talk about something else."

"We always do," Kira said.

Her father leaned forward. "Do not judge."

Kira nodded wordlessly, wishing that whenever difficult topics arose they didn't get shunted aside, but not wanting to get into that old argument again.

"There's something important we need to ask of you," her mother said to Kira.

"About the foresight thing?" Kira said, letting her voice grow sharp and a little accusing.

Mari glanced at Alain. "Yes."

"Because it sure would have been nice to have a little time to prepare ."

"Kira," her mother said, her voice taking on an edge, "we've been preparing you for things like this your entire life. Here is what we need from you. While we're dealing with the people from Urth, keep your eyes and your ears open. Since you're still young, they might underestimate you and say something they wouldn't in front of Alain or me."

"Like when we meet with the Imperials?" Kira asked.

"Yes," Mari said. "Just like that. We really don't know what's going to happen. The Urth peoples' messages to us have been friendly and peaceful, but also frustratingly vague, and your father and other Mages have had visions that imply some sort of threat."

"How dangerous is this?" Kira asked, suddenly more aware of the pistol resting under her arm, its weight both reassuring and disquieting.

"We don't know. You have a role to play in what's going to happen. We don't know what that is," her mother added, "but your father and I will be with you."

That was reassuring despite the worries churning inside her. Lady Mari and her Mage had defeated the most powerful forces on Dematr when freeing the world, and surmounted every challenge since then as well.

"Your father has been teaching you how to spot when people aren't being truthful," Mari continued. "Are you confident you can do that?"

Kira nodded. "Yes. Maybe not with a Mage, but with most people I can tell."

"That's my girl." Her mother smiled at Kira. "Don't worry. I'm sure we can handle whatever happens."

Kira managed to smile back instead of pointing out to her mother that she had just said she could tell when someone wasn't being truthful. She glanced at her father, who gazed back with a clear message not to call her mother on it.

Kira leaned back in her seat, pretending to sleep as the coach and their cavalry escort headed down the road toward Pacta Servanda.

Pacta Servanda, once only an old town, nowadays popularly known as the city the daughter had built.

The field where the ship from Urth would land lay outside the city and was already surrounded by an immense crowd, kept back by large numbers of soldiers. As the coach swept through a lane kept open in the crowd, Kira huddled back into her seat, embarrassed by sharing the privilege of Lady Mari. It wasn't like she had earned such treatment. "What exactly is landing here?" she asked her mother to distract her thoughts. "Not the whole ship?"

"No," Mari said. "There is some big part that detaches and can land here while the rest, including their main engines, stays above the world. Your Uncle Calu explained about the relative thing, right?"

"Yes," Kira said. "Relativity. Even though it took the ship ten years to get here, time passed at a different rate inside the ship because of the way it was traveling, so to them it only felt like a couple of months."

The coach came to a halt, the cavalry riding onward to join the nearby honor guard. Kira followed her mother and father out, to find Sien waiting for them.

Queen Sien of Tiae wore a uniform similar to that of her cavalry, sword by her side, but with a single bright emerald in a gold band on her brow instead of an armored helm. Kira stood by, feeling worried and unnecessary, while Sien greeted her old friends and allies.

"And you, Kira," Sien said, coming over to surprise Kira with a hug. "You look so much like your mother the first time I saw her."

Kira tried to smile politely and hide her frustration at the comparison. "Good morning, your majesty."

"So formal!" Sien said, then looked closely at Kira. "They told you?"

"Yes," Kira said, not surprised that Sien had been informed of her father's foresight, but also annoyed that yet one more person beside herself had been told.

"Good. If you need something and can't get to your parents, Tiae is at your side," Sien said.

Kira blinked in amazement. The Queen of Tiae had just promised her full backing. To her? "I…I promise I will not ask for that without the best reasons," Kira faltered. She looked around, trying to think of anything else to say. There were other groups of dignitaries nearby, leading figures from the various countries and independent cities, including a cluster in the unmistakable fine suits and uniforms of the Empire that ruled the eastern portion of the world. "Is that Camber?" Kira asked, startled.

"Yes," Sien said. "The Emperor's closest advisor. Only something like this could have brought him to Tiae. The Imperials are not happy that the Urth ship is landing here rather than in Imperial territory."

"The Imperials don't have the daughterness living there," Master Mechanic Alli remarked as she came up, grinning.

Kira caught the annoyed look from her mother and had to suppress a smile. "Hi, Aunt Alli. You know Mother doesn't like you calling her that."

"That's why I do it, to keep her head on straight when so many other people are telling her how great she is." Alli studied Kira. "How are you doing?"

"All right. Are you going to come by the place? There's a tree stump that needs blowing up. I could set the charge and do it myself, but it's more fun with you."

"Mari raised you right," Alli said. "Of course, I'm the one who taught you how to blow up stuff."

"And how to shoot," Kira said, grateful for the distraction from her thoughts about what might happen with the ship from Earth. "Will I ever get to fire a dragon killer?"

"Maybe the next time you're up in Danalee. Hey, Calu," Alli called to her husband. "Come say hi to Kira and these other important people."

All too soon, Mari and Alain beckoned to Kira. "We have to make some more courtesy calls," her mother said.

Kira balked when she saw where they were heading. "Do I have to meet the Imperials? You know they're going to want to talk about that again."

"Surely today they wouldn't—" Her mother made a face. "Who am I kidding? Since your first birthday they've been trying to get us to betroth you to a prince in the Imperial household. Of course they'll bring it up. Your Aunt Bev is over there. Why don't you go talk to her?"

"Thanks." Kira left her parents and walked quickly over to where Mechanic Bev was standing alone, as she often was, watching everyone else.

Bev smiled when Kira came up. "Hi, my favorite crazy honorary daughter. Not eager to talk to the Imperials today?"

"Was it that obvious?" Kira asked. "I've heard all about how advantageous it would be for me to become engaged to a prince of the Imperial court so that East and West could be bound together by ties of family and blood and blah, blah, blah. I know Mother and Father have never encouraged them to think I'd agree to be traded like some prize horse, but it's still so creepy."

"You'd probably work your way up to Empress," Bev observed with a wink.

"Yeah. Sure. Don't want."

"What's got you so tense?"

Kira bit her lip, looking around. "Something is supposed to happen."

"Foresight?" Bev's posture shifted, ready to protect Kira. "Some danger to you?"

"We don't know. But some Mages have been getting worrisome visions about the ship from Urth. Bev, a long time ago you told me there are no secrets between us. You didn't know about Father's vision before I was born? That something would happen involving me and Urth?"

"No. And right now I'm a little upset about that!"

Kira smiled with relief. "Ever since I was little you've been a bodyguard, and my self-defense teacher, and the sort of friend I couldn't find elsewhere because of being my mother's daughter. I would have hated it if you'd known and not told me."

"If I'd known," Bev said, a stormy look appearing on her face, "you wouldn't be within a million lances of this place."

That was why her parents hadn't told Bev, Kira realized. Bev had devoted her life to protecting kids from the sort of things that had been done to Bev when she was young, and she wouldn't have agreed with Kira running unknown risks. "Mother and Father will be keeping an eye on me."

"Just don't forget everything you've learned," Bev said, her gaze on Kira growing sharp. "Mages have had visions? What about you?"

"Me?" Kira asked, pretending that she didn't understand the question.

"Don't play dumb with me, girl. I'm one of the few who know you have minor Mage talents, remember?"

"I haven't—" Kira hesitated, uncomfortable. "I've never experienced foresight," she mumbled. "Why did this happen to me?"

"Everyone who knows would like the answer to that," Bev said, her eyes concerned. "Mage talents require seeing the world in a totally different way than Mechanics do. Not even traces of Mage talent should be possible alongside Mechanic skills. You having both is inexplicable and…"

"Scary," Kira finished. "One more example of me being a freak."

"You're not a freak."

"Then why are Mother and Father being so different the last few years? I can't explain it, but I can feel it. The way they look at me sometimes these days. It's like they think I'm a bomb that could explode at any time."

"I imagine most parents of teenage girls feel that way," Bev commented.

"Bev, I'm not her . I'm never going to change the world."

Bev sighed. "Everybody knows you're not Mari."

"No, I'm not!" Kira looked down at the grass, misery rising in her. "I'm sixteen. When my mother was sixteen she qualified as a full Mechanic. Youngest person ever. And when she was eighteen she qualified as a Master Mechanic. Youngest person ever. You know what everyone is already thinking. Every time they look at me and see her they think it. Soon they're going to start saying it. Asking me when I'm going to slay some dragons and raise an army and free the world like she did! Asking me what I'm going to do with my life that could match that!"

Bev looked down as well, grimacing. "You know that your mother and father never thought of themselves as heroes. Still don't. Your mother doesn't spend time remembering doing great things. She remembers her mistakes and the people who got hurt. The last thing she wants is for you to experience anything like that."

"I wouldn't know," Kira said, hearing the resentment in her voice. "She never talks about that stuff with me."

Bev's sigh carried a lot of weight. "Kira, it's hard to explain. There are some things that are very hard to talk about, even a long time later. Your mother still has nightmares."

"Yeah," Kira said, upset with herself. "I hear her sometimes at night. That's one of my earliest memories, waking up, hearing my mother crying out and wanting to help."

"I'm sorry. Being in battles, having lots of people trying to kill you, seeing people die, that stuff doesn't just go away." Bev tapped her head. "It stays there, and sometimes it feels like it all just happened. Trust me on this. Your mother wants to tell you how it was. She can't. And she knows how being her daughter has made your life hard. She was really upset when we had to put you into private teaching when you were ten, but after we stopped that plot to blow up the school to get at you in order to hurt Mari, it was just too dangerous for the other kids to keep you there."

Kira nodded, catching a glimpse of new arrivals. "There's Mage Asha and Mechanic Dav."

Bev looked that way and waved. Asha, still dazzlingly beautiful, gave them a smile while Dav, leaning on his cane as he walked stiffly, waved back with his free hand.

"Aunt Bev?" Kira asked. "Why does my mother blame herself for Uncle Dav's limp? I've asked and all Mother will say is it was her fault."

Bev sighed again. "She thinks she's responsible. His pelvis couldn't heal right after he took an Imperial crossbow bolt in the hip. She and Dav were fighting legionaries on the deck of the Terror . They got the deck cleared, but he got hit, and your mother got him down below even though she had been hit, too."

"Mother?" Kira switched her gaze back to the figures of her parents where they were talking with the Imperial delegation. "Wounded? You're not talking about when she got shot at Dorcastle?"

"No, this was months before that. She got hit in the arm."

Kira covered her face with one hand. "That big scar. I saw it when I was little and I asked what it was and Mother said she'd gotten hurt once, like it was no big deal. Ever since then I've thought some piece of Mechanic equipment clipped her in an accident."

"What would you have wanted her to tell her little girl? That most of an Imperial legion had been trying to kill her and didn't quite succeed?"

"I'm not a little girl anymore."

"No," Bev agreed. "You're not. I'll talk to Mari. She needs to try to tell you a few things. I think that will help her as well as you. Look, whatever this thing with Urth turns out to be, you've got a lot of good women and men at your back." She looked around. "It's almost time. You'd better get with Mari and Alain. And tell them we're going to have words about that foresight I wasn't told about."

Kira hastened to rejoin her parents, once more feeling out of place as she stood by them. The small groups of dignitaries were forming into a row, each beside the others, Lady Mari and Master of Mages Alain making up their own separate group between Queen Sien on one side and the Imperials on the other.

People everywhere were gazing at the sky. Shouts erupted as a bright spot appeared, becoming a silvery object that seemed to be plummeting toward them and growing rapidly in size as it came nearer. Kira felt a surge of anxiety that it would hit them and turned to look at her mother.

Mari had a disdainful look as she gazed upward. "They're trying to throw us off balance, like one of those riders who charges up to you and swerves their horse aside at the last moment to make you flinch."

The ship, or the part of the ship that was landing, was shaped like a flattened sphere, the height of a three-story building and perhaps twice as wide, an eerily beautiful iridescent sheen playing over the silvery exterior. There was no external sign of whatever propelled it and allowed it to fly. It came to rest on the grass not more than twenty lances away from where Kira stood with her parents. She saw the ground beneath the ship compressing from its weight, forming a shallow bowl that held the craft steady.

Kira felt as if the entire world was holding its breath, waiting for something extraordinary, torn between hope and fear.

After a long pause, an opening the size of a large door suddenly appeared in the side of the ship near the ground. A ramp extended downward, and a figure came down the ramp.

Kira hadn't really known what to expect. But she had definitely not anticipated seeing a tall, thin woman in a black pantsuit. Something about her felt strangely uncomfortable to Kira, a sense that the legs were too long, the feet too small, the breasts too large, the face too finely chiseled. The woman stopped at the foot of the ramp, looking over the waiting people, then began walking straight toward Kira's parents. Kira felt her inner tension rise with every step the woman took toward them. The background noise from the crowd had vanished, everyone silent as they watched, the only sounds the faint sighing of the wind and a snort from one of the cavalry horses.

The woman stopped less than a lance length away. "You are Master Mechanic Mari? Good. The low-res faxes through your Feynman Unit didn't offer enough detail. But you're exotic. That's very good."

Kira saw her mother blink in surprise at the odd greeting. "I am Master Mechanic Mari. This is my promised husband, Master of Mages Alain, and our daughter Kira. You are…?"

"Oh. Talese Groveen, Senior Executive Vice President for Research and Development at Universal Life Systems."

"Universal Life Systems? That is part of the government on Earth?"

"No, no! ULS is the largest corporation in the Solar System. Now, since you run things here—"

"I am not in control of this world," Mari interrupted. "I only help resolve conflicts. These are the leaders of the governments on Dematr," she added, gesturing to either side of her. "Queen Sien of Tiae, whose land is where we are now. Camber, representing the Emperor who rules the Empire in the east. President Julan of the Bakre Confederation—"

"Yes," Talese Groveen said with a quick flash of a smile that Kira thought remarkably bright and insincere looking. "There will be plenty of time for introductions. I have people who will conduct interviews and collect information. Now, this Alain, your husband. He can perform actual magic? And your offspring? Does she have that gift as well?"

Kira stared at the woman, her tension momentarily forgotten in astonishment at the Urth woman's rudeness. She remembered what her mother had told her about the Senior Mechanics who had ruled their Guild and the world with iron fists. This woman from Urth seemed to share that level of self-assured arrogance.

Now the woman wasn't even looking at anyone, just gazing intently at a spot in space just before her face, her fingers held at waist height and moving slightly as if manipulating something unseen. "Do you mind if I do some scans?"

Kira's mother frowned. "I'd rather not agree to anything until I know what it involves."

"Oh, it's nothing. It would save time if we can get this done right away."

"Not now," Mari said, her voice taking on that steely quality that Kira knew from experience meant trouble.

Apparently that penetrated the woman's self-absorption. Looking annoyed, she said something inaudible to the air in front of her face, and a moment later other men and women came out of the ship.

Kira watched them approach, getting the same uneasy sense that they weren't put together quite right. Certain qualities of their bodies seemed to have been emphasized oddly while other features were lessened. Even worse, there was a disquieting sameness about many of them. Kira realized that those who looked to be about the same age all bore very similar physical characteristics.

Except for one—a teenage boy who looked haphazardly natural, right down to the sullen scowl with which he regarded the world of Dematr and every person in sight.

Like the first woman, most of those from the ship appeared to have their attention focused on something invisible just in front of their noses, their hands and fingers moving slightly at waist height. Kira tried not to stare as she wondered why someone visiting a new world for the first time would not look around at it.

"These are my people," Talese Groveen announced. "They'll begin their interviews while I continue to speak with you, um, Lady Mari, and your husband. Oh, your daughter. Jason! " The name came out like the crack of a whip.

The teenage boy shambled up to them, looking as if he was being dragged into a room full of torture devices. "Yeah?"

"This is my child, Jason," the woman said, flashing that meaningless smile again. "Perhaps your child could entertain him for a few moments while we adults discuss important matters?"

Kira, already wondering at the restraint of the dignitaries around her, felt herself go into a slow burn at being dismissed as a child. At the moment she would have much preferred discussing marriage prospects with the Imperials to "entertaining" that boy. She looked at her mother, who returned a meaningful glance. Kira sent back a look of reluctant agreement paired with an implied expectation of reward for her sacrifice. "Certainly," Kira said in a bright, cheerful voice. "My name is Kira of Pacta Servanda."

Jason turned his sullenness her way, shifting to surprise and nervousness as he looked at Kira. "Uh, hi."

"Hi." Kira smiled politely at him and began walking off at an angle, moving slowly enough for Jason to catch up. Surely this wasn't what her father's vision had been about? That she would need to be here to keep a sullen boy occupied?

The boy from Urth stared around and at the ground as if he couldn't quite take in everything. Kira warmed to him slightly because his reactions seemed so natural. "Can we go that way?" Jason asked, pointing to an open area away from the ship.

"Sure." They walked off through the grass, staying away from where the crowds some distance off were held back by a double row of soldiers. Kira felt self-conscious again, knowing how many of those people must be staring at her as she and the boy walked their way. Grateful to be away from the odd woman from Urth, she also felt isolated from her parents and their friends. The bulk of the pistol under her coat did little for her peace of mind. Aunt Alli always insisted that weapons should be used only when absolutely necessary. This boy didn't walk with the assured movements of someone with much martial-arts training, so Kira had no doubt that she could take out Jason with her bare hands if need be. But what good would her pistol do against that ship from Urth?

Jason, like the others from Urth, had something he apparently could see before his face as his fingers made small movements in front of him. But he kept looking away from that, staring at the world with a wondering expression at odds with his earlier sullenness. "Is it all like this?" he asked Kira.

"Do you mean our world?" Kira asked. "Different places are different, but it's all Dematr. I think Tiae is beautiful, but other places are nice as well."

"It's hard to find something like this on Earth," Jason said. "You guys are so lucky."

She didn't know what to say to that. "Was the trip hard?"

"Huh?" Jason stared at her as if puzzled that she would ask.

"Was the trip to this world hard?"

"For me?"

"Yes," Kira said. "For you."

"Oh, uh," Jason fumbled. He seemed unused to having people express interest in him. "It wasn't too bad. Boring, I guess."

"Are you the only person your age on the ship?" Kira asked, trying to find something to talk about. "I know how hard it can be, surrounded by older people with no one close to your age to talk to."

"Yeah," Jason said, his gaze on her astonished. "Why are being nice to me? Why do you care?"

"You're a guest," Kira said, trying to understand his attitude. "And you're a person. I care because everyone matters."

"Who told you that?"

"My mother and my father," Kira said, getting a little annoyed at the tone of the last question. "Sometimes they don't understand things, but they do know stuff. And you are a guest of our world, so I am trying my best to be polite and welcoming even though I'm really having a hard time figuring you out."

"Huh. Um…your name's Kara?"

" Kira ," she replied. Did he have to emphasize her irrelevance by not even getting her name right?

"Okay. How old are you?"


"Sixteen? Your years must be close to Earth Standard. What do you guys do for fun here?"

She gave him a skeptical look, trying to judge whether the question was sincere. "Read, ride, walk, talk, sail, work on hobbies, fight wars, blow up things, and slay dragons."

"Yeah, games are fun, right?" he replied.


"Yeah. Virtual games." Jason laughed. "You can't blow up stuff for real!"

"I do," Kira said. "Aunt Alli taught me how. What's a virtual game?"

He stared at her. "You don't— You've never— How do you—"

"I'm doing my best to keep this conversation going," Kira said, getting irritated. "But you're not helping."

"Is everybody here like you?" Jason blurted out.

"No. Everybody is different."

"But you're here." Jason seemed to come to some decision, his fingers dancing on the air before him. "That's enough. Okay. They can't hear us."

Kira frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"

He jerked a thumb back to indicate behind them. "Keep looking forward. Don't let your face be visible to the ship when you talk to me. If they can see your lips move, they can analyze the video to tell what you're saying." He indicated his belt buckle and the insignia on his chest. "These things have monitors in them."

"Monitors?" Kira asked, keeping her head pointed away from the ship.

"They're supposed to be primarily for monitoring our health status, but they can provide audio feeds to the ship's central data core, as well as visual of whatever they face."

"Audio feeds?" She had seen those terms. In the once-banned tech manuals. "That's like a far-talker, right? You mean they can listen to anything you say wherever you are?"

"Yeah. But I have an app that can fool the feeds. It blocks them from actually hearing us and substitutes a few words of conversation every now and then. That's why I had to get you to talk a little bit." He grinned triumphantly. "I'm not supposed to have the app. But it comes in handy."

Kira gave the boy a measuring look out of the corners of her eyes, wondering if she should reappraise her first assessment of Jason. "Why?"

He looked ahead for a moment as if steeling himself. "My name's Jason."

"I know. We were introduced. I'm Kira, just in case you still don't remember that."

"Uh, sorry." He swallowed nervously. "There's something I have to tell you. I didn't know if I would tell anyone. But if there's even one person in this world like you who can talk to me like I'm worth talking to, I have to let you know."

Kira thought she recognized the behavior and braced herself. This didn't look like a prelude to danger. It looked more like Jason was about to…what? Ask her out? "Look, I don't know you, and—"

"You have to tell your parents and everybody else here not to agree to anything my mom or the others on the ship ask you to do or say yes to."