By E.C. Blake
Chapter 1: The Stranger from the Sea
THE MASK GLEAMED WHITE against the dark surface of Mara’s workbench, like a pearl in an ebony box. It looked perfect, priceless, a masterwork of the Maskmaker’s craft . . .
. . . and it was completely, totally, fatally wrong.
“It looks good,” Prella said from behind her. The other girl, the same age as Mara— fifteen—but smaller, had taken to spending all her free time hanging around Mara, ever since Mara had saved her life by healing her with magic after she’d suffered a terrible injury. Mara understood that, and ordinarily was rather touched by it, but she would have been just as happy not to have a witness to her repeated failures.
Like this one. “It isn’t,” she growled. “Watch.” She reached out and poked the Mask’s gleaming cheek. As though her touch had infected the shining face with some terrible disease, the Mask cracked at that point . . . and kept on cracking, a spiderweb of black lines spreading out across all of the shining surface, until the entire Mask abruptly fell apart into dust and flinders.
Prella gasped. “Oh!”
Mara gazed glumly at the ruined Mask. She didn’t even swear . . . this time. She’d used up her entire vocabulary of obscenities (of which a childhood spent playing in the streets of Tamita had given her a surprising number) the first . . . what? twelve times? . . . something similar had happened. Although at least this one had looked like a Mask. The first half-dozen had looked more like something intended to frighten small children.
She lifted her gaze from the crumbled clay and stared out through the narrow slit of the window cut through the rock wall above the bench. Her work chamber was on the topmost level of the Secret City, a long climb from the Broad Way that ran from the main entrance down to the underground lake that was the City’s source of water. From up here, she looked straight across the big horseshoe of the cove into whose walls the City was carved, all the way to the cliff on the far side. Snow glistened on the trees that capped it, white as the failed Mask had been before it crumbled.
Six weeks had passed since she had returned to the Secret City from the disastrous attempt to rescue her friend Katia from the terrible mining camp to which the unMasked were exiled. Six weeks since she had discovered her ability to harness enormous amounts of magic, and to draw that magic, not from the stores of it painstakingly collected from the black lodestone to which it was drawn when living things died, but directly from other human beings. Six weeks since she had ripped magic from scores of people—men, women, boys, girls, Masked and unMasked alike—and contained the force of an explosion that should have leveled the mining camp and killed everyone aboveground within it.
Six weeks since she had discovered that she had the rare form of the Gift that had produced the greatest monsters in the history of Aygrima. . . .the same Gift, but to a far greater degree, than the Autarch himself, the tyrant to whose overthrow the unMasked Army dwelling in this Secret City was devoted.
She rubbed her tired eyes. “And a fat lot of good all that power is doing me right now,” she muttered.
“You’ll figure it out,” Prella said, and Mara started. She’d momentarily forgotten the other girl was there.
“I hope you’re right,” she said. She tried to give Prella a smile. It wasn’t very successful.
She looked down at the crumbled Mask once more. Growing up, she had watched her father, Charlton Holdfast, Master Maskmaker of Aygrima, make many, many Masks. She knew how to shape the clay, how to fire it, how to do everything except for one little thing . . . how to infuse the Mask with magic.
Catilla, the elderly woman who had founded and still commanded the unMasked Army, had seen no difficulty with that little fact when she had kidnapped—rescued, Mara reminded herself—Mara and four others who had just turned fifteen from the wagons taking them to the mining camp in the wake of their failed Maskings. Catilla didn’t want real Masks, Masks that would reveal any traitorous leanings on the part of their wearers to the Autarch’s ever-present Watchers, Masks that would shatter completely if the magic within them judged that the wearer posed a threat to the Autarch’s rule.
She wanted even less the new Masks, those made within the last year or two, which not only revealed incipient sedition but allowed the Autarch to draw magic out of the Masks’ wearers for his own use, a process which also weakened the wearer’s will to the point where he or she literally could not conceive of any rebellion against the Autarch. As a side effect, the new Masks altered the personalities of those wearing them, making them almost unrecognizable to their friends and loved ones. But what was that to the Autarch, desperate for more and more magic to stave off the ravages of old age and keep himself firmly in control?
All Catilla wanted were believable semblances of real Masks, Masks that her followers could wear as disguises, enabling them to safely enter the towns and villages of Aygrima, and even Tamita itself, to . . .
To what? Mara asked herself, not for the first time, and, also not for the first time, had no answer. Catilla had not confided in her what she
intended her followers to do once they could enter those towns and villages.
But then, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Mara thought, still looking down at the failed Mask. I can’t make the counterfeits she wants.
The Mask in front of her should have been nothing but inert clay. She had put no magic into it—he had none, without reaching into the bodies of those around her. And since she had almost killed those whom she had treated as her personal storehouses of magic before, including her friend Keltan, she wasn’t about to do it again.
No matter how tempting it was . . . which it was; despite the agony she had felt when she’d stripped magic from living people, despite the warnings of Ethelda, the Palace Healer who now dwelt in the Secret City and had been tutoring Mara in the knowledge of magic (though not in its use, since the Secret City had no store of it with which to practice), despite the soul-sapping, nightmarish images of those she had killed with magic that had driven her to the edge of ending her own life before she had Healed Prella.
That act of Healing had somehow eased the nightmares, as if it had salved some internal injury she had done herself through her use of others’ magic. Ethelda had warned her, though, that those horrors were not gone from her mind: her power meant that every person she killed with magic, or even those who simply died in her presence, imprinted themselves on her, their final agonies mingling with her own imagination to produce hallucinatory horrors that could threaten her sanity if fully unleashed.
She knew all that. She knew it. And yet . . .
. . . and yet, despite it all, she longed to touch that raw power again, to see what else she could do with it.
She could feel the magic inside Prella’s skinny little body. It would be so easy to reach out and tug it to herself, use it to try to make the next Mask succeed where all the previous attempts had failed. Prella might not even notice what she had done, if she was—
No! She clenched her fists. No. Keltan had been unconscious for hours
after she had sucked him dry of magic that night in the camp. It had taken him days . . . weeks . . . to recover fully.
I will not do it, she told herself. I will not.
It wasn’t the first time she had made herself that promise, and so far, she had kept it.
She shoved the thought aside, hard, like an annoying branch on a forest path. In any event, she had put no magic into this Mask, or any of her previous attempts: and that, apparently, was the problem.
She had very carefully left out the “recipe,” as her father had called it, the black lodestone dust, infused with magic, which the law required each Maskmaker to include in every Mask he or she made. That “recipe” infused the Masks with their traitor-detecting, and more recently Autarch-feeding, capabilities. Without it, she had thought the Mask clay was perfectly ordinary.
But clearly it wasn’t. The clay the Maskmakers shaped into Masks also came from the Palace . . . and though she could shape it and fire it in the Secret City’s own kilns, used by their own potters to make ordinary pots and plates, and though it always looked, when she drew it out, as though it had fired successfully, one touch, and . . .
. . . that. She stared down at the remnants of her latest failure for another long moment. Of course she’d known that making real Masks required magic from the Maskmaker. What she hadn’t realized was that that magic was required simply to keep the Mask from falling apart. And she had no idea how to use her magic to accomplish that, nor any magic she dared draw on to attempt it.
She sighed and swept the ruined Mask into a dustbin, where the dust and shards of her previous three attempts still rested. “Are you going to try again?” Prella asked.
“I don’t think I can,” Mara said dully. “I’m almost out of clay.” She crossed the small chamber to a chest in the corner, Prella trailing her. She lifted the chest’s lid, revealing a smallish lump wrapped in wet sackcloth,
all that remained of the clay she had been provided by the unMasked Army, which had raided (and then burned to cover their tracks) the Maskmaker’s shop in the nearest village, Stony Beach. “I can’t make more than three Masks out of that.”
“But surely you’ll figure out—”
“I already have figured it out,” Mara snapped, suddenly annoyed beyond reason. “Don’t you get it? I can’t do what Catilla wants me to do. And you and your stupid questions and your stupid chatter and your whole stupid always being there, joggling my elbow, isn’t helping. Go away!”
Prella’s eyes widened, her lip trembled, and Mara had an instant to feel terrible before the smaller girl turned and ran from the workroom, slamming the door behind her.
Great, Mara thought. Just great. She felt like she’d kicked a puppy. I’m a failure as a Maskmaker and a friend.
She sighed. I’d better go apologize. And then I’m going to have to face Catilla. I’m going to have to tell her I can’t do what she wants me to do. What she rescued me to do. What people have died for so I can do.
She felt sick.
She slammed the chest shut, then raised her eyes to the wooden shelf above it. Three clay faces stared back at her, blank eyeholes and mouth openings filled only by the shadows behind them. As sculptures, they were rather good, she thought. But as Masks, they failed utterly. Made of ordinary clay, they were monstrously heavy, whereas a true Mask felt light as a feather on the face. And a true Mask also simply clung, clearly another function of the magic within that accursed special clay, or the magic provided by the Maskmaker. The fake Masks could not be held onto a face without an elaborate system of leather straps. It seemed to Mara that she had somehow managed to carve disappointment and reproach into the expressions of each one.
Prella, she thought again. Catilla.
But at that moment, she didn’t think she could face either. Or anyone else: not Alita, or Simona or Kirika, the other girls rescued from the wagons along with her; not Keltan, whom she had met in Tamita, who had fled the city rather than be Masked, and who had almost died when she pulled magic from him; and definitely not Hyram, great- randson of Catilla, whose father, Edrik, was second-in-command. Alita would be contemptuous, Simona uninterested, Kirika sullen, Keltan and Hyram would fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other in compassion, and none of it would change anything.
She had failed. All she really wanted was to be alone, and she knew just where to go to achieve that.
Her fur-lined leather coat hung on a peg by the door; she grabbed it and left her workroom. Beyond the door a corridor ran left and right, parallel to the cliff face. Other doors led to other workshops—those of the blacksmith and the regular potters, a few others—all located on the topmost level of the Secret City for the simple reason that they all needed fires and the smoke from those fires could be most easily vented through cracks in the ground at the top of the cliff. Mara had worried that that smoke, and all the other smoke from the heating and cooking fires down below, might lead Watchers to the City, but Hyram had explained that the many hot springs in the area (like the one that heated the women’s bathing area in the underground lake) vented steam through similar cracks scattered over a wide area. From a distance, there was nothing to distinguish the smoke of the Secret City from the natural vapors of the landscape. “Provided they don’t get close enough to smell the smoke,” he’d added. “And nobody will get that close without one of the patrols seeing them.”
Mara knew that down the corridor to her left stairs led up to the “back door,” a concealed entrance through which foot patrols came and went, but she turned right and instead took the stairs down. The next two levels of the Secret City were mostly living quarters, including, on the lower of the two, the room where she slept with Kirika, Prella, Alita, and Simona. From there, the stairs led straight down to the Broad Way.
Everyone was busy with their various chores and tasks, or on patrol, and so she met no one during her descent. A young man coming up the Broad Way with a bag of grain slung over his shoulder nodded to her as he passed; a moment later an identical copy of him passed her in the other direction and did the same. “Hi,” she said to each of them in turn. She’d known them for weeks, and they’d been part of the disastrous rescue attempt at the mining camp, and she still couldn’t tell Skrit apart from Skrat.
Skrit/Skrat turned into the Great Chamber, taking his grain to the kitchens, but she pulled on her coat, tugged on the hat and gloves she took from its pockets, and hurried out into the bright cold afternoon.
The days had grown shorter and shorter over the past few weeks, until now, though it was only about four hours past noon, the sun was already dipping toward the horizon, casting long blue shadows on the snowdrifts, crisscrossed by trampled paths, that filled the cove. In ten days it would be Midwinter. Just a year ago she had celebrated it with her parents, their home alight with candles and hung with evergreen boughs. She could still remember how their fragrance had mingled with the delicious smells of cooking ham and baking cakes, how everything had felt beautiful and warm and safe. This year . . .
This year, there seemed little to celebrate, even if the unMasked Army marked the day. So far she’d seen no sign of it.
The ocean thundered, tall breakers racing in to batter themselves into white spray against the stony shore, the sea still unsettled from a violent storm that had blown through the night before. Mara, seeing the height of the waves, hesitated; in storms the water sometimes reached the path along the beach she meant to travel. But she decided to walk down to the water’s edge at least, and once there, looking north, she saw that the path was open. Must be low tide, she thought, for though the water roared against the shore, only the occasional blast of spray made it as far as the cliff face.
The path looked grim, gray, cold, and lonely.
Perfect, Mara thought, and set out along it.
Her feet crunched over the salt-rotted ice covering the sand-and-pebbles beach. Just before the curve of cliff face hid it from her, she glanced back at the Secret City. Two dark figures trudged across the open space, presumably heading to the Broad Way from the stables carved into the base of the cove’s northern cliff. She recognized them instantly as Keltan and Hyram, but they had their backs to her and didn’t see her . . . which suited her fine.
Ten more steps and they, and the cove, were lost to sight. Alone with her thoughts, she wended her way north along the narrow strip of land between the pounding waves to her left and the gray stone cliff to her right, past the entrance to the mine from which the Secret City drew the gold it occasionally used to purchase goods in the villages via children too young to be Masked.
I can’t make the Masks Catilla wants, she thought again as she walked. Spray touched her face. She licked salt from her lips, but lowered her head and trudged on, her breath forming white clouds, the crunch of her footsteps echoing from the cliff to her right. I don’t know how. I need to talk to someone who knows more. I need to talk to . . .
Her thoughts and her feet stumbled. She caught herself with a hand on an ice- oated outcropping of gray stone.
I need to talk to my father.
Her father had deliberately sent her into exile. At great risk to himself—uncertain if his own Mask, modified though it was, might reveal his betrayal to the Watchers—he had crafted her Mask to fail at her Masking on her fifteenth birthday . . . and then had sent word to the unMasked Army that someone with the ability to make Masks would be in the next wagonload of unMasked children sent north from Tamita to the mining camp.
Father must have known I couldn’t really make counterfeit Masks, Mara thought. Which means he lied to the unMasked Army, tricking Catilla into saving me.
But now that lie was unraveling. With the stolen Maskmaker’s clay all but gone, she could hide the truth no longer. She would have to tell Catilla that she could not provide her with the counterfeit Masks she needed.
Unless Mara could talk to her father.
She wanted that; wanted it so much that she wondered for a moment if she had subconsciously made her Masks fail. Of course not, she told herself: but having wondered it herself, even for a moment, she knew there was little doubt Catilla would ask her about it point—blank.
No, she thought. I did everything I could. I did. I just don’t have the knowledge . . . or the magic. Catilla will have to see that. She’ll have to. And then she’ll have to figure out some way for me to go back to Tamita . . . some way for me to see my father again. She’ll have to.
Mara stopped her northward wandering and wiped water from her cheeks. She told herself it was spray from the sea . . . but it was warm.
She looked around. She’d gone past the narrow defile in the cliff that, providing the only access up from the beach for horses, led to the Secret City’s grain fields and pastures. She’d never walked any farther. The cliff curved out to sea in front of her, and the beach narrowed, so that at the tip of the headland the waves appeared to be crashing across it. Time to head back, she thought. Time to face Catilla.
She tugged her rabbit-skin hat tighter onto her head, shrugged her coat more firmly into place, started to turn . . .
. . . and then froze as a stranger came around the shoulder of the cliff.
Chapter 2: Chell
MARA’S FIRST INSTINCT was to flee. But then an extra-large wave rolled in from the sea, doused the stranger in spray as it smashed into the rocks, and washed around his feet as it receded. He stumbled and fell, splashing into the water . . . and didn’t get up. She hesitated, torn between fear and compassion.
She hurried forward, not quite daring to run on the ice-slicked beach. As she got closer, she saw the stranger try to get to his hands and knees, but he collapsed forward, head turned, his cheek pressed against the stones.
His unMasked cheek, she realized with a thrill. Another wave splashed over him, and receded.
Just because he wasn’t wearing a Mask didn’t necessarily mean he was really unMasked, of course. Like the Watcher who had found her in the magic-collection hut the morning after she had slain her kidnapper and would-be rapist, Grute, with magic—blowing off his head in a gruesome fashion that continued to haunt her dreams—this young man might merely have removed his Mask while he wandered the Wild, intending to don it again whenever he got back to civilization.
But she didn’t really think so. The young man wasn’t carrying any- thing with him, and anyone Masked would keep his Mask close at hand at all times: the Masks would crack and crumble if they were abandoned and that would be a death sentence should the wearer encounter a Watcher.
The stranger wore dark blue trousers, a heavy leather coat, and black boots, all soaked through. His pale hair—Mara had never before seen anyone young with such pale hair, so blond as to almost be white—was plastered to his head in lank, dripping strands. At his side he wore a sword with a strange, basket-shaped hilt.
She took all that in as she ran up to him. As she reached his side, she was able to see around the shoulder of the cliff for the first time. Debris lay scattered along the shore, bits and pieces of planking and rigging, clearly the remains of a wrecked boat. Debris . . .
. . . and corpses. Her breath caught. She counted five, all dressed in nondescript clothing like the young man at her feet. She didn’t have to go close to them to know they were dead: her Gift told her. When living people were near, she could always—always—feel the magic within them, the magic she sometimes had to fight not to draw on. She could feel no magic from those sprawled, wave-tossed bodies.
But she could feel it in the young man. She could do nothing for the others, but him, she might still be able to save.
She knelt, the icy pebbles digging painfully into her knees. The stranger’s face was white as the ice all around, his lips the color of a bruise. His eyes fluttered open, startlingly blue in his white face, framed by that astonishing pale-gold hair. “Help . . .” he whispered.
“I will,” Mara assured him. But how? her mind whispered, as panic fluttered in her chest. If she ran for help, he might freeze to death before she returned. She had nothing with which to make a fire.
Magic, she thought. If only I had magic . . .
But she had none, except for what she sensed in the shivering frame of the frozen youth, and if she drew on that, she’d likely kill him.
Not to mention what it might do to her.
“I’ll help you,” she said again, “but you have to help me do it. You have to walk.”
“Don’t know . . . if I can,” he said. His words were oddly shaped, vowels elongated, consonants clipped.
“You have to,” Mara repeated firmly. “You can lean on me.”
A brief smile flickered across his white face. “I’ll t-t-t-try,” he said through chattering teeth.
She helped him to a sitting position, then slipped his arm over her shoulder. “We’ll stand together,” she said. “On three. One . . . two . . . three!”
She struggled to rise and he struggled to rise with her. Mara’s foot slipped on an icy rock and they both collapsed back into a heap, Mara on top of the youth, who grunted at the impact. “Sorry!” she said, and they tried again. This time they managed it. Another tall wave doused them both with spray and sluiced freezing water around their ankles, almost tugging them down again, but Mara held on, though she was now so thor- oughly soaked that her teeth, too, were chattering. “Hold on t-t-to me,” she gasped out.
“Right . . .” he mumbled.
Together, they began struggling back toward the Secret City. The young man . . . he can’t be more than twenty, Mara thought, glancing sideways at his smooth-shaven, unlined face, maybe younger . . . was a head taller than her, but thin enough that she was able to support him without trouble.
Even as she thought it, his feet slipped on the ice and he fell, dragging her down with him so that she sprawled across him once again, this time over his back. Her knees had both cracked hard against the ground as she fell, and she sat up and rubbed them. “Ow,” she said.
The youth rolled over. “S-s-s-sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right,” Mara said. “We’re alm-m-m-ost th-there.”
“Where?” the youth said as she helped him stand again.
“The Se-secret Ci-city,” Mara said, then clamped shut her chattering teeth, wondering if she’d said more than she should.
Well, he’s going to see it for himself soon enough, isn’t he?
“What’s your n-name?” she said as they struggled along, the going a little easier now they were past the defile leading up to the pastures. “I’m Ma-ma-mara Holdfast.”
“Chell,” he said. “Royal Korellian Navy.” The chatter of his teeth had stopped, but his speech was slurred. “At your service. May I have this dance?” He blinked sleepily at her. “Actually, rather tired. Think I need a nap. Dance later.”
The name was outlandish, the rest gibberish; clearly the cold was making him delirious. Catilla will have to figure this one out, Mara thought.
The youth leaned harder and harder against her, his weight dragging at her, and then, with the cove still a hundred yards away, slipped away from her entirely. She clutched at him and managed to slow his fall, but when he hit the ground he lay motionless, eyes closed, cheek pressed against the icy stone.
Mara straightened and ran for the Secret City, slipping and sliding and shouting for help.
As bad luck would have it, there was no one in the drifted space between the cliffs, but when she dashed into the Broad Way she saw Hyram and Keltan coming toward her, hair wet, faces shining, carrying towels; they’d obviously just come from bathing in the underground lake. “Hi, Mara!” Keltan said cheerfully, and then his eyes widened as he took in her soaked clothing and red face. “What’s wrong?”
“Stranger,” Mara gasped out with what little breath she had. At least the exertion had stopped her teeth from chattering. “On the beach . . . freezing . . . hurry!”
The two boys exchanged startled glances, then dropped their towels on the floor and ran after her into the cold. The Broad Way was cold enough that they wore proper boots and light jackets, despite having just come from the baths, and they followed her across the snow-covered space between the cove, then outdistanced her and ran ahead, leaving her to pant along in their wake, when they spotted the strange golden-haired youth’s dark form on the beach.
Within minutes they had carried him inside and up the stairs to the chambers of healing, where Mara had spent far too much time herself. Asteria, granddaughter of Grelda, the Secret City’s nonmagical Healer, looked up from chopping herbs as Hyram and Keltan carried the uncon- scious stranger into the whitewashed chamber. Lanterns and firelight provided the only illumination, since the shutters over the narrow window slits had been closed to keep out the chill. “Go get your grandmother, and Ethelda,” Hyram shouted at her. “And my father and great- grandmother!”
Asteria said nothing—a rare occurrence—and dashed out. Hyram and Keltan carried the stranger through a red curtain into a chamber beyond with four beds, all empty, and placed the youth on the same bed in which Prella had been laid when she had been brought in with the terrible wound, inflicted by Kirika, that Mara had healed with magic.
I healed Prella, I could heal the stranger, Mara thought. I know I could. There was magic in Keltan, magic in Hyram. She could draw on it, use it to warm the cold body of the unconscious youth. I wouldn’t need much. They’d hardly . . .
She clenched her fists against that insidious desire. No!
Hyram was kneeling by the boy, pulling off his boots; Keltan was tugging at his coat. “Mara, blankets,” Hyram snapped without looking at her, and Mara, startled, shook herself and went out into the main room. There were stacks of thick blankets in a tall wooden cabinet; she grabbed two and went back into the other room.
Hyram and Keltan had finished stripping the stranger, and were just covering his pale, naked body with the blanket already on the bed. Mara held out the extra blankets to them, painfully aware her ears were flaming with embarrassment. “Here,” she said.
“Thanks,” Hyram said. He spread the additional blankets on the youth, while Keltan went to the fire and put on a new log.
The red curtain swirled aside and Grelda came in, followed by Ethelda. The former had been one of the handful of people who had originally fled to the Secret City, then a smaller warren of caves left by some long-gone tribe of ancients, sixty years ago when the rebellion against the Autarchy had failed. The latter had been Chief Healer of Aygrima—and a secret ally of Mara’s father—until she had been kidnapped by the un-Masked Army to heal Mara . . . and, hopefully, tutor her in the use of her powerful Gift.
The two Healers had come to an uneasy truce. Grelda did not have the Gift, and so her Healing was based on her knowledge of the body and its ills, and the uses of herbs and potions. Ethelda had the Gift, but in the Secret City she had no magic to work with. She was not without knowledge of the other kind of Healing, however. “I’ve learned a lot from her, but she’s learned a lot from me, too,” Ethelda had told Mara. “And we’re both better Healers for it.” She’d grimaced. “If you can call it Healing when no magic is involved. The body does whatever healing takes place. All you can do without magic is try to keep the body alive long enough for it to heal itself.”
“Let me see him,” Grelda said now as she entered. Mara stepped back into the corner as Grelda pulled back the blankets and examined the youth. She could feel herself blushing again, but she didn’t look away.
The youth was thin, but not emaciated: his muscles stood out like thick cords beneath his skin. Wiry, she guessed was the word that would apply to him best. He showed no signs of having been wounded. The only mark on his skin was a curious tattoo on his left breast, just above his heart: a circle, a crescent, and a star all in a line, in red, green, and blue, respectively. His limbs trembled visibly as shivers racked his body.
Grelda pulled the blanket back over him, felt the pulse in his neck.
“Nothing wrong with him that warming up won’t fix,” she said. “He’s shivering; that’s a good sign.”
“It is?” Mara said, startled into speaking.
Grelda ignored her, but Ethelda gave her a quick smile. “Shivering is the body’s way of trying to stay warm,” she said. “When the shivering stops, death is very near.”
Grelda had turned to Asteria. “Bladders of hot water,” she said. “Three of them. One to his groin, one under each armpit.”
Asteria nodded and hurried out, almost colliding with the tall man just hurrying in: Edrik, Hyram’s father, second-in-command of the unMasked Army behind his grandmother Catilla. He stopped in the door- way. “It’s true?” he said. “A stranger from the sea?”
“Yes,” Mara said. “I found him. Just past the horse path. There’s a wrecked boat. And . . . bodies.”
Mara shook her head. “No.”
Edrik stared at her, eyes narrowed. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” She didn’t want to say it was because of her Gift, but he took her meaning.
He grunted. “I’ll send a retrieval party. Give them a proper burial. And see if that wreckage can tell us anything more about where they came from . . . and who this is.” He stared down at the shivering youth.
“Look at this, Father,” Hyram said. He had been examining the stranger’s trousers; now he held them out. “Look at the button.”
Edrik took the pants and examined the fly, frowning. “It’s embossed with letters . . . R . . . K . . . N?”
“Royal Korellian Navy,” Mara said. Everyone turned to look at her.
“He introduced himself,” she explained. “Just before he passed out. He said his name is Chell, and then he said ‘Royal Korellian Navy.’” They all stared, and for some reason she added, “And then he asked me to dance.”
“He’s a lunatic,” Keltan said, then stopped, flustered. “Um, not for asking you to dance. Fine thing to do. I’d do it myself. But not when I was half-frozen on a strange shore.”
“Mental confusion is one of the effects of loss of body heat,” Ethelda said.
“Royal Korellian Navy,” Edrik said slowly. “That’s . . . unexpected.”
“You’ve heard of it?” Hyram asked.
Edrik put the coat down on the back of the chair. “I must go talk to the Commander,” he said. “And organize that retrieval party.”
“Isn’t Catilla coming herself?” Grelda said sharply.
“She’s not feeling well today,” Edrik said. “One reason I was close at hand when your granddaughter came looking for me. My grandmother had asked me to fetch you.”
“Is it . . . ?” Grelda said, her eyes on his face. He nodded once, without expression.
“I’ll go at once,” Grelda said. She glanced at the sleeping stranger. “Once we get the hot water bottles on him, he’ll recover quickly. But he’ll probably sleep for hours.”
“Hyram, Keltan, stay here,” Edrik ordered. “One of you come get me the minute he’s awake. The other keep an eye on him. I’ll be in the Com- mander’s quarters.” He followed Grelda out.
Asteria came back in with three bloated pig bladders in a basin. “Armpits and groin, Grandma said,” she said cheerfully. She gave Mara a sideways look and a wink. “Want to help?”
“No, thank you,” Mara said hurriedly, blushing again.
Asteria laughed. Ethelda pulled back the blankets, Asteria placed the bladders between the youth’s legs and under his arms, and the blankets went back into place. “There,” Asteria said. “Nothing to do but wait. And I’d better get back to chopping those herbs.” She swept out through the red curtain.
Ethelda glanced at Mara. “Will you still be coming to talk to me tonight?”
Mara nodded. She had been meeting with Ethelda every two days since she’d returned from the mining camp. Catilla had commanded Ethelda to teach her how to use her magic more safely, but since they had no magic to practice with, the sessions had become more a mixture of history lessons and counseling. “Yes,” she said. “I have . . . something important to talk to you about.”
Ethelda’s left eyebrow lifted, but she simply nodded once, and then went out.
That left Hyram, Keltan, and Mara alone in the room with the un- conscious Chell. “My father knows something about this ‘Royal Korellian Navy,’ ” Hyram said. “I could see it in his eyes.”
“Still don’t believe in other lands beyond the seas?” Keltan teased. Hyram had been known to call tales of other lands nothing but children’s stories.
“We don’t know he’s from beyond the sea,” Hyram said stoutly. “He might just be from farther up the coast. Maybe there are people north of the mountains.”
“Nothing up there but frozen wasteland,” Keltan said.
“And maybe the Lady of Pain and Fire,” Mara said.
Keltan snorted. “That’s about as likely as a mysterious hidden kingdom we’ve never noticed before. She’s a myth!”
No, she’s not, Mara thought. She’s what I could become. But she didn’t want to tell them that. Instead she moved closer to the sleeping stranger and looked down at his white-gold hair. “I’ve never seen hair that color before. Have you?”
“Only on an ear of corn,” Hyram said. He sounded grumpy. “You’re not going to make a habit of this, are you?”
Mara glanced at him, puzzled. “Of what?”
“Fishing handsome young men out of the sea. You’ve got me. You don’t need to go looking.”
“What do you mean, she has you?” Keltan said. “Don’t you mean she has us?”
Mara rolled her eyes. The two boys were the best of friends . . . except when it came to her. They’d already had at least one fistfight over her. If she even looked at one of them too long, the other got jealous. And if she went so far as to hold one’s hand, or give the other a hug . . .
One of these days I’ll kiss one of them just to see what the other one does, she thought. Her mouth quirked at the thought. But which one?
That was the problem, wasn’t it? She liked both of them. But she wasn’t sure she was ready to kiss them. Or . . . other things.
Well, not yet.
“Stop it,” she said out loud. “I don’t have either of you.”
Hyram leered. “Don’t you mean you haven’t ‘had’ either of us?”
“She better not have,” Keltan growled.
Mara sighed. Boys, she thought. She looked down at the golden-haired youth. He looks nice, she thought. Awfully pale. But kind of handsome. And that hair . . .
She reached down and brushed a wet strand out of the stranger’s face, then suddenly realized silence had fallen in the room. She glanced up to see Hyram and Keltan looking at her with identical expressions of narrow-eyed suspicion. “What?” she said.
And then the stranger moaned, coughed . . . and opened his eyes.
Mara, caught with her hand on his forehead, froze for a moment, then snatched her fingers back as though his cold wet flesh had burned her. The youth blinked up at her sleepily. “Pim?” he said. “Is that you?”
Who is Pim? Mara thought. It wasn’t a girl’s name . . . at least, not in Aygrima. “No,” she said. “I’m Mara. I found you on the beach. Do you remember?”
“Mara?” The boy frowned. “Mara . . . the beach?” His eyes almost fluttered closed again, then snapped open. “Beach. The boat. Boat capsized. All of us, in the water. Trech . . . Bariss . . . helped me . . . but so cold . . .”
“He talks funny,” Hyram said. “ ‘Boot cahpsized . . . soo kahld,’ ” he mimicked.
“I’m surprised we can understand him at all,” Keltan said. “If he’s really from beyond the sea . . .”
“Hush, both of you!” Mara said. She knelt beside the bed to bring her mouth closer to the youth’s ear. “Do you know where you are?” she said.
His eyes fluttered again. “Aygrima,” he said. “Kingdom of magic . . .” And then his eyes closed and he fell back into unconsciousness.
“ ‘Kingdom of magic?’ ” Hyram said. “Who calls Aygrima that?”
“He does, apparently,” Keltan said. He gave Hyram a look. “And aren’t you supposed to be running off about now to tell your father he’s waking up?”
“He’s not awake, he’s asleep,” Hyram said, but he was already getting to his feet. “All right, all right, I’m going.” He gave the prostrate youth a sour look, gave Keltan an even sourer one, and went out.
“I thought he’d never leave,” Keltan said.
Mara got up from her knees and sat beside him on the bed next to the stranger’s. She shivered.
“You’re wet through yourself,” Keltan said. “You should take off your clothes.”
Mara gave him a look, and he threw up his hands with a laugh. “I didn’t mean that!” Then, as though compelled by honesty, he added, “Well, not entirely. But seriously, you need to put on something dry.”
“I will,” Mara said. “But I want to be here when he wakes up for real.”
“At least wrap this around you,” Keltan said, grabbing one of the blankets she’d brought in earlier, one they hadn’t put on Chell. He put it around her shoulders and tugged it tight around her. “Better?”
“Better,” she said, and gave him a smile. “Thank you.”
“I live to serve.” They sat in silence for a moment, staring at the youth. “What did you say his name was?” Keltan asked after a minute or so.
“Chell,” Mara said.
Keltan snorted. “Chell? What kind of a silly name is that?”
Mara gave him a withering look. “Says the boy who’s named after the Autarch’s horse?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s, you know . . .” his voice trailed away.
“Different?” Mara finished sweetly.
“Well, so is he,” she said. “Different, I mean.”
Keltan said nothing, although somehow he managed to be grumpy about it.
For ten minutes they silently watched the stranger sleep. Then the red curtain swept aside, and Edrik came in, followed by Hyram. Hyram’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Keltan and Mara sitting on the bed, but then swung to his father as Edrik said, “Has he said anything else?”
“No,” Mara said. “He fell asleep again.”
Edrik frowned. “If he woke up once, he’s ready to wake up again. And I want some answers.” He leaned down, gripped the youth’s shoulders through the blankets covering it, and shook him. “Wake up, Chell of the Royal Korellian Navy,” he said. “Wake up, and give an account of yourself.”
The youth groaned. His eyes flicked open and this time focused. He blinked. “Who are you?” he asked. “Where am I?”
Edrik grunted. “The classic questions,” he said. “But I think I get to ask mine first. Who are you? And where did you come from?”
The boy hesitated. Edrik’s hands tightened on his shoulders. “The truth.”
“I . . . I already told her,” his eyes flicked to Mara. “My name is Chell.”
“And you’re in the Royal Korellian Navy. Yes, I heard.” Edrik released him and straightened. “But you’ll forgive me if I find that hard to believe . . . since the Sea Kingdom of Korellia sank beneath the waves four centuries ago.”
Mara, Keltan, and Hyram exchanged startled looks.
“I assure you, it did not,” said Chell. His voice sounded stronger now. “Not literally, at least. Though I suppose, figuratively, that’s not a bad description of what happened . . . to Korellia, and all the other kingdoms.”
“Explain,” Edrik snapped.
Chell shook his head. “Look, I’ll gladly answer all your questions and explain who I am and why I’m here . . . but do we have to do it this way? It’s a bit awkward discussing ancient history when one is naked in a bed—” His eyes flicked to Mara, who looked away, “—with bladders of hot water under your arms and on your . . .” he let his voice trail away.
Edrik gave a quick nod. “Very well. If Grelda gives you leave, you may get up and get dressed.” He looked at Keltan. “Fetch the Healer.”
Keltan scrambled to his feet and hurried out. To Hyram, Edrik said, “He looks to be about your size. His clothes won’t be dry for hours. Fetch him some of yours.” Hyram scowled, but followed Keltan.
Edrik glanced at Mara. “You should go get some dry clothes of your own.”
“I’m fine,” Mara said.
“I insist,” said Edrik, and his tone made it clear that she had no choice but to obey. She let the blanket slide from her shoulders onto the bed, got up, and went to the red curtain.
Glancing back just before she went out, she saw the strange young man’s eyes following her.