Here’s Chapter 1 of Shadows, “The Stranger from the Sea.” When we’re a month out, I’ll add Chapter 2. And also watch for a great giveaway!
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.