Chapter One

“I will go to Dorcastle.”

She said it, knowing that the mightiest military force in history would soon attack that city.

She said it, knowing that the foremost target of the attackers would be her.

She said it, because she had to. Because the daughter of Jules had been prophesized to someday unite Mages, Mechanics, and the common people to save the world of Dematr. And, according to the Mages and the common people, Master Mechanic Mari of Caer Lyn was that daughter. They believed in her. They needed her. If she didn’t do the job, no one else could.

But if she failed, if she died at Dorcastle at the hands of the Great Guilds and the Imperial legions aiding them, then the common people would remain in bondage and the world would soon sink into chaos.

No pressure.

* * * *

Alain walked with Mari out into the earliest morning twilight, the sky to the east barely brighter than the night above and to the west. Behind them, the walls of Tiaesun loomed. Far to the north, the walls of Dorcastle awaited.

Mari’s black hair and dark jacket had blended with the fading night, but now began to stand out against the growing light of dawn. Alain remembered the first time he had seen her, emerging from the dust raised by the destruction of the caravan with which they had been traveling. The only outward difference between now and that day about two years ago was that Mari carried one of the new rifles.

“What are you thinking?” Mari asked him in a hushed voice.

“I am thinking that this day we are wearing the same clothing as we did the day we met,” Alain said. “You in your Mechanics jacket and I in my Mage robes. But though our appearance is nearly the same as it was then, both of us have changed, me much more than you. I have rejected much of what the Mage Guild once forced me to believe. I once again accept feelings, I once again believe that other people are real.”

“Do you think I haven’t changed much?” Mari scoffed, an edge of tension riding her voice. “Aside from me falling in love with a Mage, do you really think the eighteen-year-old woman you met the day the caravan was destroyed would have seriously considered riding to confront the Great Guilds and the Empire?”

“Yes,” Alain said. “Because she would not leave behind anyone who needed her, not even a seventeen-year-old Mage such as I was.”

“Maybe. But she was running for her life, trying to get away from people trying to kill her. This time I’m running toward people who want to kill me. And in the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot more about how it feels when people are trying to kill you.” She stopped walking for a moment, breathing slowly, looking up at the sky. “I’m scared,” she whispered.

Alain grasped her hand in his. “I will not let harm befall you.”

“You’re an amazing man with amazing abilities, my Mage, but even you can’t promise that.” Mari inhaled deeply, squeezed his hand, and began walking again over the rough grass outside the city. “I can’t let anyone see how scared I am. I’ll get the job done. No matter what. Help me do what I have to do, Alain.”

“Always.” Distressed by her fear, but not knowing what other comfort to offer, Alain followed Mari.

They had expected to find Major Sten from the Confederation, who had carried the word of the danger to Dorcastle, waiting to accompany them back north. Instead, a large group of people and an even larger herd of saddled horses stood by the road. In the growing light, Alain saw that most of the men and women waiting for them were cavalry, swords at their hips, metal cuirasses armoring their chests, and helms topped with short plumes that nodded in the faint breeze. The lances held by the cavalry troopers formed a small, bare forest pointing skyward.

“What’s this?” Mari asked.

“An escort,” answered Queen Sien of Tiae. Dressed similarly to the cavalry but wearing a gold band set with a large emerald on her forehead rather than an armored helm, Sien had blended in with the others in the pre-dawn murk.

“It’s too many,” Mari objected.

Sien came up to Mari and embraced her. “Not for my friend. Not for the daughter of Jules who we hope will free this world.”

“Sien—"

“I owe you so much. Tiae owes you so much. My kingdom lives again because of what you helped make happen. Consider this a small return on that.”

Alain looked over the cavalry. More than one hundred soldiers, their green uniforms new, their armor and helms old but shining, their sabers and lances sharp. The horses were a mix of breeds, but all strong and well seasoned. There were two mounts for every rider, and several wagons loaded with feed for their horses and provisions for the soldiers. From most places, the commitment would have been welcome but small. From Tiae, still recovering from decades of anarchy, it was an impressive and meaningful gift. “The company of these soldiers will be welcome to us,” he said. “If even a hint that we ride north reaches the wrong ears, there will be dangers awaiting us before we reach Dorcastle.”

“Some of them will protect you all the way to Dorcastle,” Sien said. “And then remain to aid in the defense of the city.”

Mari stared at her friend, and then at the cavalry again. “Do they know what’s coming to attack Dorcastle? The Imperial legions and the full force of the Great Guilds?”

“They know,” Sien said. “They are all volunteers. When the Kingdom of Tiae broke and fell into anarchy, it had no friends to come to its aid because it had never concerned itself with the needs of others. But now the kingdom is reborn, and perhaps wiser. We have little to offer, but we will send what we can to aid our neighbors to the north.”

“The Queen of Tiae is wise,” Alain said.

“The Queen of Tiae wishes she could send an army with you. But she will accompany you part of the way,” Sien added. “I and the remaining cavalry will ride to Pacta Servanda.”

“But the Syndari allies of the Great Guilds might hit other parts of Tiae—" Mari began.

Sien silenced Mari with a gesture, leaning close to her and Alain. “Breathe not a word to others outside us three. The oldest obligation of the royal family is tied to Pacta Servanda. It is known only to the family and their closest advisors. I know of it only because one of the kingdom’s surviving advisors was able to tell me before he died. Pacta Servanda must not fall. I do not know why, but that is my duty as queen, and that is why I made what could have been the last stand of Tiae at that place.”

“Why is this?” Alain asked. “Why is such an obligation placed on the rulers of Tiae? Pacta is only a modest-sized town.”

“I don’t know,” Sien said. “But I know that with the crown comes the responsibility to defend Pacta. Let us waste no more time on this.” She stepped back. “The daughter must ride to Dorcastle, and the Queen of Tiae must ride to Pacta Servanda.”

“Neither the Syndaris nor the legions will know what hit them,” Mari said, smiling, as Sien and Alain swung into their saddles.

Mari slid her new rifle into the leather scabbard hanging next to her saddle, then mounted the mare, sighing. “This is going to be a long, painful ride.”

“With the Syndaris threatening shipping, we could not risk a journey north by sea,” Alain said.

“I know. And there hasn’t been time to get the steam locomotive tracks repaired and replaced in Tiae, and the trains in the Confederation will be under the control of the Mechanics Guild. None of that’s going to make this ride any easier on my backside. Did all the couriers get off at midnight?” Mari looked at Sien, whose stallion was looking about excitedly, head held high.

“They did,” Sien confirmed, patting her horse’s neck to calm him. “To all cities along the coast of Tiae, and to the stronghold at Pacta Servanda, as well as to the Confederation and to your army south and east of us.”

Mari looked to the southeast, where nothing could be seen but darkness building on darkness beneath the slowly paling sky. “The moment General Flyn hears of the danger to Dorcastle and Pacta he’ll start countermarching back to Tiaesun and then north.”

“I will see that Pacta holds. With your help, Dorcastle will too, until your army arrives,” Sien said.

“Yes,” Mari said. “Dorcastle will hold.”

Alain, trained like all Mages to tell when others spoke lies, easily heard the worry under Mari’s self-assured words. But the others listening heard and saw only her confidence as Mari waved a farewell and then flicked her reins, Alain and Sien keeping their horses close to hers, the cavalry escort following.

One of the cavalry rode up beside Alain, saluting him, Mari, and his queen. “Major Danel, commander of your escort by order of the Queen,” he introduced himself. Danel was old for his rank, tough and wiry with scars on his face, a survivor of the decades of anarchy in Tiae.

“I could have chosen no better commander for the task,” Sien said. “That he volunteered immediately speaks of his quality.”

Mari nodded at Danel. “Major, why did you do so?”

“As well might I ask why you volunteered to go to Dorcastle, Lady,” the major replied.

“There’s only one me,” Mari said. “But why did you and these others volunteer?”

“You may speak plainly,” Sien told him. “Lady Mari and her Mage value straight words as much as I do.”

Danel looked backwards for a moment, where his soldiers rode silently, only the sound of shod hooves on the road and the rattle of harness marking their presence. “I can’t be certain of all of them. I know that for me and many others, there is not much left behind. My family was wiped out long ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Mari said.

“You would have been barely a child yourself when it happened, Lady,” Danel said. “Even younger than Queen Sien was then. There was nothing you could have done to stop it. Many of the others also lost everything that mattered to them. Until the New Day began to dawn in Tiae. You, Lady—you and your Mage—have given us some things to fight for again. Freedom for everyone from the chains of the Great Guilds. A reborn kingdom, under a queen who is worthy of her rule. So, we will fight. We will fight in a foreign land so that those who have much more left to lose can stay close to their homes and defend Tiae.”

“You do not worry about death?” Alain asked, surprised that a common person would feel that way. He kept his voice and expression free of emotion without even thinking about it. Even after two years with Mari he usually behaved in the manner in which Mage acolytes were brutally taught.

Major Danel rode quietly for a long moment before answering. “I have seen enough of death for it to be a familiar companion. I stopped fearing it long ago. And if, as some say, those who have died await us on the other side of the unseen door, then perhaps I would find welcome there. But even if that is not so, I want my death to matter, Sir Mage. I have fought to save my kingdom, and now I will fight to free the world.”

“Those are good reasons,” Mari said. “Thank you.”

“What will that world be like, Lady? Will it be a world free from war?”

“I wish I could promise that. I can’t. All I can promise is that when wars happen, they will be because the people and their leaders choose those fights, not because the Great Guilds are playing games with human pieces.”

“Let us hope those people and leaders have wisdom,” Danel said. He half-bowed in the saddle toward his queen. “As much wisdom as our own.”

Sien nodded in reply. “Like yours, Major, my wisdom was born of pain. Perhaps we can build a world where there is more wisdom and less suffering.”

Major Danel smiled, saluted once more, then fell back behind Mari, Alain, and Sien.

They rode through the growing light and heat of the day, stopping for only short breaks, changing to their spare mounts when the pace of the ride began to wear too heavily on their horses. They halted long after the sun had set. Alain, toughened as he was by his training as a Mage, nevertheless welcomed the too-brief rest. Mari, exhausted but already stiff and sore from the long ride as well as haunted by her worries, kept him awake for a while as she shifted restlessly in her sleep. Sien slept slightly apart from them. She had spent most of the day in silence, as if devoting all of her thoughts to the task ahead.

Before dawn, they rode onward.

* * * *

Two days after leaving Tiaesun, following the path of the long-neglected Royal Road, they reached the spot where the new road from Pacta Servanda intersected it from the west. Two wagons and a string of fresh horses awaited them, as well as men and women who sprang to attention.

Captain Patila from Mari’s army, standing by one of the wagons, saluted. “Your Majesty, Lady Mari, Sir Alain, it’s good to see you.”

“How goes the work at Pacta Servanda?” Sien asked.

“Well, Your Majesty. Colonel Sima and Lady Mechanic Alli are preparing a very warm welcome for the Syndaris. All were happy to hear that you will lead the defense of Pacta.”

Sien nodded. “With commanders such as Colonel Sima and Lady Mechanic Alli, as well as fighters such as you, I have no fear of the outcome.” She turned to Mari. “I should not linger here, with the Syndaris possibly to strike at any time. I wish I could ride to Dorcastle with you.”

“If I’m going to make friends with queens,” Mari said, “I have to accept that they have their own responsibilities. Alain and I will see you again once this is over.”

“Of course,” Queen Sien said, sounding as if she truly believed that would happen. “Remember, Mage Alain, you have promised to bring Mari back to me.”

“I will,” Alain said.

Sien gripped his arm. “The common people have long used the saying a Mage’s promise to describe something worthless. But I know that from you a promise is more valuable than any jewel. Bring yourself back safe as well, my friend.”

The cavalry had already sorted itself out, the sixty-one who would ride to Dorcastle separated from the forty who would ride with their queen to Pacta. Sien mounted again, looking down at Mari. “Fate chose a worthy champion in you. If the task can be done, I know you will do it.”

“Thank you,” Mari said. She and Alain watched Queen Sien lead her cavalry west along the new road. “I should be going to help hold Pacta,” Mari commented to Alain.

“If it can be done,” Alain said, deliberately evoking Sien’s words, “then she will do it. You are needed elsewhere.”

We are needed elsewhere,” Mari corrected him. “Can you tell me anything else about Pacta, Captain? I'm glad they could spare you long enough to bring us these fresh horses.”

Patila smiled confidently. “Lady Mechanic Alli asked me to send you her regrets. She is busy fortifying and preparing her artillery to greet the Syndaris in the manner they deserve.”

“How does Alli feel about the situation?” Mari asked wearily. She handed her tired horse over to the wranglers from Pacta, who were helping transfer saddles and other tack to the fresh mounts.

“She told me that if the Syndaris had hit us by surprise, it might have been ugly,” Patila confessed. “But since the courier arrived with your warning and orders, Colonel Sima and Lady Alli have been reinforcing all of the seaward defenses and emplacing new ones. If the Syndaris come in great strength, we may be hard pressed. But I think we will hold them. Especially with Queen Sien at Pacta to lend heart to us. It surprised many of us to hear she was coming, but we were all happy at the news.”

“I’m glad that Queen Sien is respected by everyone,” Mari said.

“Second only to you and your Mage, Lady. You know that we of the Western Alliance, and those of the Confederation, regard nobility with great suspicion, but Queen Sien has the respect of us all.”

“Good. Um…” Mari began awkwardly, “my parents and sister…and the other families at Pacta…”

“They are all being moved to safe locations well away from where we expect any fighting,” Patila said. “Except for those who have volunteered to help defend Pacta, that is. Since they lack training, we’re using them to guard places behind the front and to protect the other citizens.”

“Are there many such volunteers?” Alain asked, curious.

“More than we can arm,” Patila said, smiling. “By order of Lady Mari, Pacta is a place where all have a voice and a belief in what they work for. They want to fight to protect that.”

“It’s just common sense,” Mari objected. “Help people realize that what they do matters, that their efforts count and that everyone needs to work together, and they’ll work and fight better.”

Patila shook her head. “Such sense is far from common.”

“It shouldn’t be.” Mari, clearly seeking something else to talk about besides praise for her decisions, frowned at the wagons Patila had brought. “What is all this?”

Patila waved her hand toward the farther wagon. “Feed and rations for beasts and humans going on north. We thought you might need them. This one,” she said, patting the side of the near wagon, “contains fifteen new A-1 rifles, ammunition for them, and three DKs.”

“You can’t afford to divert rifles from the defense of—" Mari began. “Wait. DKs? What’s a DK?”

“Dragon killer,” Patila explained with a grin. She indicated three long tubes in the wagon. Alain recognized the type of weapon that had saved him in the Northern Ramparts. “Only five have been finished. Lady Alli insisted that you get three of them.”

Mari smiled, then grimaced. “Lady Alli is the best. But why did she send fifteen rifles? I told her to hold onto everything she needed to defend Pacta.”

“She and Colonel Sima felt that we had sufficient firepower to send you the fifteen,” Patila said. “We have enough rifles for everyone trained in their use, and Lady Alli is concerned about giving rifles to those who lack experience. She said she feared they would do more harm to our own side than to the enemy.”

“Having seen Apprentices on their first day on the firing range, I know what Alli is thinking, but still…”

“I’m just following orders, Lady,” Patila said.

“They could be important at Dorcastle,” Alain said, having seen how much Mari wanted to accept the rifles but also that she feared weakening the defenses of Pacta Servanda. “From what I know of Alli, she would not have sent the rifles unless she was confident it was the right decision.”

“Yeah,” Mari agreed. “If Alli says she can spare them… You should have mentioned these when the queen was here, Captain.”

“Lady Mechanic Alli said she would personally inform the queen when she arrived at Pacta,” Patila said.

“All right. Major Danel?” Mari called to the commander of the Tiae cavalry. “How many of your people have ever fired a Mechanic rifle?”

Major Danel came to the wagon, gazing at the weapons in astonishment. Under the long rule of the world by the Mechanics Guild, the less-capable repeating rifles hand-built by the Guild had been so rare and expensive that an entire army might have only ten, with little ammunition for those. “These are intended for us? All of them?”

“All of them.”

“Lady, few of my soldiers have ever used Mechanic weapons in battle, but your General Flyn arranged that we all receive some training while your army was at Tiaesun.”

“You’ve got saddle scabbards for the rifles, too?” Mari asked Patila. “Of course. Alli wouldn’t forget those. Get the rifles handed out to your best shots, Major. There’s ammunition here, too.”

Alain’s attention was diverted as he saw a lanky young man making his way toward them from the horses. There was no sense of menace in the man, just nervousness, but Alain placed one hand on the knife under his robes and drew Captain Patila’s attention to him.

“Hold on,” Patila said, blocking the young man’s path. “Why did you leave the horses?”

“I have a letter,” the man said, stubbornness vying with anxiety at being confronted by the captain. “I have a letter I am supposed to deliver to Sir Mage Alain if I ever see him.”

Patila held out her hand, and with a slight hesitation the man brought forth a folded piece of paper. She unfolded it, shook it out and looked it over, then passed the letter to Alain.

Alain, aware that Mari was watching curiously, looked at the letter and despite his Mage training had trouble controlling his reaction. “This is from Bara. Aunt Bara.”

“You…you remember her?” the young man asked.

“I could not forget her, any more than I could forget my mother and father,” Alain said.

“You have an aunt?” Mari demanded. “You never mentioned having an aunt.”

“I did not think she would wish to acknowledge me since I became a Mage.” He began reading.

Sir Mage Alain, you very likely do not remember me, but I am the older sister of your mother. Over two years ago I saw a Mage visit the remembrance grounds in our village and stand before your parents’ graves for a long time. I thought the Mage must be you, but I was afraid to go to him. Since then I have heard many things about the daughter, and about the Mage with her. They say his name is Alain. I can only hope that Mage is my long-lost nephew.

My eldest son Petr wants to join the daughter. I fear for his safety, but he is set on it. He is a good man, but so young yet in his mother’s eyes. If you are Alain, please welcome your cousin Petr, and please look out for him for my sake.

If you are Lori’s son, I know she would be very proud of you for helping the daughter and doing so many brave things. I never forgot you. I hope you have not forgotten us.

Alain had to pause when he finished, trying to deal with emotions he had long kept buried deeply. “Petr. You are the son of Aunt Bara.”

Petr nodded, his face working with emotion. “Is it really you, Alain? We played sometimes, when we were little.”

“I have memories of you,” Alain said. “We were very young. You liked horses. I was frightened of them.”

“You were a few years younger,” Petr said. “The last time we saw each other was on your fifth birthday. Just a little guy.” He held out a flat hand near his hip to mime Alain’s height at the time.

“I remember. The Mages came for me soon after that. I held to the memories of that day even when the Mage elders demanded that we acolytes forget our former lives,” Alain said.

Mari had taken the letter, read it, and now smiled at Petr. “Welcome, cousin.”

Petr turned an awestricken look on her. “Lady…I…I…I’m not—"

“I’m married to Mage Alain. That makes us cousins,” Mari said. “Thanks for helping to free the world. Please write your mother and tell her that Mage Alain was very happy to see you.”

“Is…he?” Petr asked, eyeing Alain’s unrevealing expression.

“I am,” Alain said, trying his best to relax and show feeling. He knew his smiles often looked strained, but attempted one anyway.

“That’s good. But…daughter…” Petr fumbled. “I wanted to be a soldier for you. When I got to Pacta they told me that people who were good with horses were needed more than people who were good with swords.” He shrugged apologetically. “Not that I’m good with a sword.”

“They told you the truth,” Mari said. “Without good herders our cavalry and our wagons don’t move. You and your skills are playing a very important part in defeating the Great Guilds. I’m sorry we can’t stay to visit, but we have an important appointment in Dorcastle.”

Alain, grateful that Mari was so smoothly welcoming and reassuring to Petr, fought his Mage training successfully enough to be able to reach out and grasp Petr’s shoulder. “I am…happy to see you once more after so many years.”

Mari had pulled out a sheet of paper and was quickly writing. “Captain Patila? I know you’ll be very busy once you get back to Pacta, but I need to have this delivered to my parents.”

“Of course, Lady. They’ll be all right,” Patila added.

“I’m sure they will be with defenders like you,” Mari said. “Thank you.” Mounting her new horse with a pained expression as her bottom met the saddle, Mari flashed another smile at Petr, though Alain could see the strain she hid behind it. “Look us up when we get back to Pacta.”

Petr nodded to her, then to Alain with a wide smile, before turning and jogging back to the other wranglers.

Major Sten rode up, looking more haggard than the rest of the column but just as determined. “You said Colonel Sima is in command at Pacta Servanda?” he asked Patila.

“Yes, sir,” Patila agreed. “He’s the senior officer in the Army of the New Day at Pacta.”

“Is there…” Sten paused, grimacing. “I don’t know how to ask this. Sima is from the Confederation. I worked with him some years ago. From your accent, you must be from the Western Alliance. Do you work well with him?”

“Yes,” Patila said. “Sima is a good commander. We’ve got officers from the Confederation, the Alliance, the Free Cities, and even a former Imperial. The soldiers and sailors are just as mixed a lot.”

“And you work well together?” Sten extended his hand. “That is good to hear. We’ve grown too separate, haven’t we? But the Army of the New Day shows that we can work side-by-side."

“The Great Guilds have tried to keep the commons separate,” Mari said as Patila shook Sten’s offered hand. “But we are all one people.”

Patila looked a question at her. “Legend says the Mechanics came from the stars.”

“We all came from the stars,” Mari said.

Alain, seeing their astonished expressions, added a warning. “Do not yet speak of this to others. When the war is won, all shall know. Until then, there are those who must be protected.”

“Yes, Sir Mage,” Patila said, breaking her stare at Mari to salute Alain.

“Hold Pacta,” Mari said to Patila as the column prepared to ride north again. “Queen Sien and I talked on the way up here. If you can’t hold, I told her to blow up everything and fall back toward Tiaesun.”

Alain cast a glance at Mari. Sien had firmly rejected the idea of abandoning Pacta Servanda no matter how bad the pressure got, even though Mari had insisted on it if retreat proved necessary. Having learned some wisdom about people, he had stayed out of the argument. The two women were equally determined to do as they thought best and unwilling to yield to the logic of the other. In this case, both were right in their positions. But he did not expect Sien to fall back.

“Sir Mechanic Lukas was supervising the placing of explosives when I left,” Patila said, her face somber once more. “Some of those explosives will greet the Syndaris on the piers and the beaches when they arrive. Fear not, Lady. We will hold Pacta for you and for the queen of Tiae.”

“Hold it for you !” Mari called as the column started north again, smaller now.

The forty cavalry were notable for their absence, but the loss of Queen Sien felt harder to deal with, Alain thought. “What was in the note to your parents?” Alain asked Mari as they once more rode side by side.

She shrugged, as if pretending it was no big thing. “I wanted them to know I love them. Just in case I don’t get another chance to tell them that.” Mari looked at him. “And I told them that if you survive and I don’t, I hope my parents will always consider you their son and that Kath will always think of you as a brother.”

“My thanks.” Alain shook his head. “But I will not survive without you.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

Their mounts were fresh and frisky, posing some problems for men and women whose bodies were tired and sore. Major Danel led the column at a brisk enough pace to wear out the horses a little so they would be easier to handle, after which the familiar routine settled in once more. Ride for a while, dismount and walk for a while, mount up again, switch mounts, walk for a while, and so on until the sun was long past setting and the column finally halted for the darkest portion of the night.

They left the city of Minut far to the west as they rode, heading north toward the heart of the Bakre Confederation.

It was late in the afternoon of the next day when the weary column reached the border with the Confederation, where a narrow bridge spanned the broad river known here as the Glenca. The column was once again walking their horses, trudging along with footsore resolve, when the bridge came into sight.

Alain followed Mari and Major Sten as they walked their horses along the bridge to the Bakre Confederation side. There a stout barrier, a fortified guardhouse, and a small detachment of soldiers waited.

Sten, himself a Confederation officer, reached the barrier first. “Open up, Lieutenant,” he told the commander of the border guards. “The daughter and her Mage are on their way to Dorcastle.”

The lieutenant stared at Mari, then at Alain, then switched her gaze to the soldiers with Mari. “A courier passed this way earlier with the news. The daughter is welcome, and…” Her eyes avoided looking directly at Alain. “This is her Mage?”

“Yes,” Mari said, her voice growing a little sharp at the lieutenant’s reaction.

Alain understood it, though. To the world, Mages were objects of fear and loathing, a reputation earned by centuries of Mages taught to think of other people as mere shadows on the illusion of the world, shadows who could be mistreated or exploited without a second thought. “No ally of Lady Mari need have any fear of me,” he told the lieutenant, doing his best to put feeling into the words.

“Yes, Sir Mage. Lady, it goes without saying that you and your Mage may enter the Confederation. But…these are foreign soldiers with you.”

“From the army of Tiae,” Major Sten said. “Sent by Queen Sien to escort the daughter safely to Dorcastle.”

“And then to assist in the defense of the city,” Mari added.

“They come to our aid?” the lieutenant asked, astounded. “I mean no offense, but I did not think it possible that Tiae could spare any soldiers to aid us.”

“They cannot spare any,” Sten said. “But still they send help.”

“By order of their queen,” Mari added. “Even though the Confederation did not presume to ask, Queen Sien sent what she could.”

The lieutenant’s eyes widened as they took in the rifles at the saddles of Mari and many of the soldiers. “This is an incredible gift. Open the barrier,” she ordered her troops. “Konstan, ride to Denkerk and tell them the daughter, her Mage, and valiant soldiers of Tiae will be there this evening. Let our commander know that they will need fresh horses and spares for sixty-three riders.”

As they walked past the lieutenant and onto the soil of the Confederation, Mari paused to smile at the lieutenant and her soldiers. “Thank you.”

“Thank you , Lady,” the lieutenant replied. “Soldiers! Salute!” She and her small force held their salutes as the soldiers of Tiae walked their horses past.

Alain saw the weary cavalry perk up at the gesture of respect. For nearly twenty years the Kingdom of Tiae had been broken, fallen into anarchy, its lands given over to the depredations of bandits and warlords fighting over the scraps of the once proud land. To be from Tiae was to be a refugee from a failed state. But now they received honors from those who would once have disdained them or viewed them with suspicion. Taught as a Mage that emotions meant nothing, Alain saw the impact of the salutes on the Tiae cavalry and realized once again that the teachings of the Mage Guild were false.

“You should uncase your colors,” Major Sten advised Mari. “Let it be clear who rides north.”

“Good advice,” Major Danel of Tiae agreed. He passed the order back, and the two soldiers carrying the banners removed their protective sleeves so that the green and gold flag of Tiae waved over the column of riders beside Mari’s blue and gold banner of the New Day.

They passed through a small village, the citizens gathering alongside the road to cheer and offer food and drink to the passing soldiers. But they had far to go yet to Dorcastle, so despite the lateness of the day and the sun sinking toward the horizon the column kept moving.

It was after sunset when they spotted Denkerk ahead, impossible to miss since the town had apparently lit every lantern, torch, and beacon the people could get their hands on. The town garrison—local militia forces rather than Confederation regulars—stood in ranks outside the town to greet the arriving cavalry and escort them into Denkerk.

Tables had been set up in the central square, loaded with food and drink. The horses were led off to be cared for by locals after the soldiers of Tiae removed personal items and their new rifles from the saddles.

“The mayor and the council await, Lady,” the local commander told Mari, indicating the doorway to the grandest building on the square.

“Aren’t we all eating out here?” Mari asked, looking around.

“Uh…yes, but…the daughter…special…”

Mari shook her head. “I need to eat with the others. Please ask the mayor and council to join us.”

“Certainly, Lady!”

“What do you think is funny?” Mari asked Alain, standing next to him with a worn-out expression. He knew without asking that after all the riding she hurt too much to sit down again right away.

“Is funny the right word?” Alain asked, not surprised that Mari had seen feelings in him where others would have seen nothing. “I knew you would eat with the soldiers before you spoke.”

“Yeah.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “So?”

“It is who you are. I like who you are.”

Mari smiled at him. “Good. Because you’re stuck with who I am.”

The next moment her attention was diverted to the town officials coming out to greet her. Alain watched, silent. No one sought to speak to him. Even though Alain wore the armband of the New Day, none of the commons here knew how to approach him. Certainly none of them showed any desire to speak to a Mage.

He rarely noticed these days the intangible thread that had connected him to Mari since he first developed feelings for her. There and not-there, the thread would stretch and fade with enough distance, but this close it offered Alain a connection, invisible to all others, with another person. He welcomed that more than usual.

Alain realized that he had become used to having around him people who welcomed his company. Friends. Once more among commons who saw Mages only as something to fear and avoid, he keenly felt the absence of friendly faces. If not for Mari being here he would be as one completely alone amidst the crowds.

Perhaps it was the melancholy brought on by that realization that triggered his erratic and unreliable foresight once more.

It had been nearly a year since he had seen the terrible vision of Mari at some future time, lying on a surface of fitted stone blocks, apparently near death. But now he saw the same vision, saw the blood upon her jacket, and had barely time to take in the horrible scene before the foresight faded and left him looking at Mari as she stood before him, doing her best to greet and reassure the local officials.

Alain kept his expression rigid despite the jolt of fear the vision brought. They were on their way to Dorcastle, to the great battle he had foreseen long before, and surely that was why he had once again seen Mari badly injured. Everything they had tried to avoid that battle had failed. If that awful fight at Dorcastle was where she was destined to be so badly hurt, could he change that? Or would his attempts to change it bring it about instead?

It did not matter. Nor did Mari’s past, futile attempts to make him promise not to risk his own life to save hers. Alain looked at Mari, doing her exhausted best to present herself as the hero the commons needed, and knew that he could not endure this illusion of a world if the one thing, the one person, who made it real for him were to leave it. He would save Mari.

No matter the cost.