Authors: Ken Scholes
TOR BOOKS BY KEN SCHOLES
A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2010 by Kenneth G. Scholes
All rights reserved.
Edited by Beth Meacham
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
First Edition: September 2010
Printed in the United States of America
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For Ray Bradbury,
who showed me what I wanted to be when I grew up
A rising full moon washed the calm sea in brighter tones of blue and green, bathing the shoreline as well as the robed figures who stood upon it in dim aquamarine light. Overhead, stars danced and guttered in a warm night sky.
Rafe Merrique leaned on the gunwale of the longboat and scanned the shore. Behind him, the
lay at anchor in the shallow bay, unmagicked for now in these abandoned waters. Ahead, he saw a small gathering of men amid their wagons and horses.
“They have the look of Francines,” he whispered to his first mate.
The man grunted a reply as he worked the oars. Rafe kept his attention on the beach. There were four figures in view, their backs turned and their hoods up so that he could not see their faces.
But why are they so far from home?
Merrique was a veteran of the horn, seasoned at bringing his ship and crew through the Ghosting Crests and into the Churning Wastes. He’d spent half his life running the Order back and forth on one secret venture or another. At first, he’d done it for the bits of magick and technology they’d offered him. Later, the money had been enough of an incentive.
And now, with the Order decimated and the Ninefold Forest assuming guardianship of Windwir’s holdings, the Gypsies were his customers.
Until the moon sparrow found him, that is.
He’d just landed a fresh company of Gypsy Scouts to assist with the
work at Sanctorum Lux and was turning his vessel west when the bird fell from the sky to perch on the railing of his forecastle. It was small and made of a silver metal so bright that the sunlight reflecting from it burned Rafe’s eyes. It hopped twice, regarding him with emerald-jeweled eyes, before cocking its head and opening its tiny beak.
A reedy voice whispered out. “Rafe Merrique,” it said, “the light requires service of your ship.”
And if it weren’t a bird he’d seen so many times before, bearing a message he’d also heard many times, he might not have yelled for a pencil to scratch down the course heading and coordinates it suddenly chirruped before closing its beak and lifting into the summer sky to speed northeast.
Now, three weeks later, he approached by sea and studied the beach where the robed figures waited. The wagons were loaded down with supplies, but there was no sign of a camp. No welcoming fire, no tents, and no sound but the gentle lapping of the water and the whisper of oars.
“Ahoy,” Rafe called out as they ran the longboat into the shallows. He stood and hopped over the side with a splash. The acrid scent of ozone and salt struck him. “You are a long ways from anywhere,” he said.
The robed figures shuffled by their wagons, and an odd sound reached his ears. A wheezing—like a bellows—and the slightest metallic clacking. It was oddly familiar, though he could not place it at first.
“You are Captain Rafe Merrique of the
,” a flat, inhuman voice said. One of the robed figures separated from the others.
Rafe’s men were out of the longboats now, hands reaching for knives and cutlasses. He frowned. “Yes,” he said. “I am—”
But when he saw the eyes, he could not finish his sentence. A sense of wrongness flooded him, and his mouth suddenly tasted like iron. He felt the hairs rise on his arms and the back of his neck. The eyes were amber jewels, dimly glowing in the recesses of the hood. Steam whistled out from the back of the robe, and as the figure approached, Rafe saw the metal hands and the metal feet. “The light,” the metal man said, “requires service of your ship.”
He stepped back slowly and whistled for his men to do the same. “What is this about?”
The metal man cocked its head. “You are not authorized to know. Archived data indicates that your vessel has been hired on seventy-three
occasions to assist in various matters of transport and recovery for the Androfrancine Order.”
Rafe glanced to the other robed figures. He saw the faint glow of their eyes and the gleam of moonlight on their metal hands. There were four of them. He’d seen the mechoservitor Isaak—he’d even conversed with the mechanical over breakfast during the voyage back to the Delta. Truly one of the Order’s greatest wonders. And he’d heard bits of rumor and gossip among the men he’d transported—Charles, Aedric and the others—about the hidden library, Sanctorum Lux, reduced to ashes by mechoservitors now fled to unknown quarters.
“You’re one of the mechanicals from Sanctorum Lux,” he said.
But the mechoservitor ignored the statement. “Your arrival is the salvation of the light,” the metal man said, stepping forward. “We have urgent need of your vessel in the formulation of our response.”
Rafe Merrique prided himself on knowing which jobs to take and which to turn down. This one, he realized, was the latter.
I should not have come here. I should not have heeded the bird.
His mouth went dry as he found the words. “My vessel,” he said, “is not for hire after all.”
is a Tam-manufactured galleon sailing with a complement of forty-seven men,” the metal man continued, again ignoring Rafe’s words. “Stealth oils are applied routinely for concealment, and scout powders are administered to the crew in three shifts to maximize effectiveness and minimize adverse health impacts. The vessel boasts comfortable passenger accommodations and various holds—concealed and plain—for the transport of sensitive goods. Minimum seagoing complement is four men.”
The other three robed figures were converging on them now, walking slowly, metal frames clicking and gears whirring beneath their plain gray robes.
“We’re leaving now,” Rafe told his men as he turned back to the longboat.
But as he moved toward the boat, a metal hand came down firmly upon his shoulder. Rafe spun, reaching for his cutlass, but another hand gripped his wrist and he cried out at the strength of it. Around him, his men surged to life, but the mechoservitors were faster and stronger. Struggling, he twisted against his captor and saw his first mate collapse beneath a hand on his windpipe. “You will be adequately compensated,” the mechanical said, “upon our return.”
Firm hands pulled him quickly toward the wagons. “Analysis
indicates that with proper rationing the provided supplies will allow forty-seven men to survive fourteen days in this environment. The nearest intact Androfrancine supply cache is twelve days’ march at a pace of thirty leagues per day. A map and lock ciphers have been provided for you. We will summon you by the bird when our return is imminent.”
Rafe opened his mouth to speak, but the hand had now moved to his throat, and spiderwebs of thin, white light filled his vision as the pressure increased.
“My deepest apologies,” the mechoservitor said, “for this violence and deception.”
Then his world went gray.
When it came back into focus again, Rafe was bound to the wagon with his landing party. His crew of forty-six cursed and sputtered in the surf, so recently extricated from their vessel by the unexpected speed and force of its metal boarders. Underneath the clamor of their cursing came another sound: a hot night wind catching the
sails as she left for points unknown.
Eyes fastened upon his departing vessel, Rafe Merrique added his own curses to those of his men and shouted for someone to untie him.
Rudolfo urged his stallion forward and laughed with his son as the wind caught his turban. Overhead, the afternoon sun blazed in a sky so blue it burned the eye. Around them, a warm wind stirred the Prairie Sea, golden waves rippling across the vast, rolling expanse. Ahead and around them, on the horizon, the Ninefold Forest rose up to meet the sky.
“He takes well to the ride, General,” a voice shouted to his left above the pounding of the hooves.