01 - CHAPTER I ShipwreckedNews had arrived by telepath. The Empress Inarzia had taken more prisoners, both commoners and mages alike, tipped off to their supposed heresy by spies of the Geisian preistesshood. The general populace approved and the persecution of the Ring had intensified from coast to coast, virtually overnight. How was she doing it? How was Inarzia bending the winds of free thought to her bidding so quickly and so deeply? The elders had argued amongst themselves late into the night. Even Master Camaria, the highest Mage in the Ring, the mortal who was to address the elder demigoddess directly, was visibly troubled. Betcee had been puzzling over this in her bunk when the storm hit. She leapt from her bed, threw on a sailor’s breeches and shirt, and scrambled up to the deck where she found the Master and a crewman, fighting with a rope to secure one of the sails.
“It’s her! It’s her, child! We’re all doomed!”
“What’s her?” Betcee cried out, shouting over the howling winds. Lighting flashed, illuminating terror in the old woman’s eyes.
Terror in the Master’s eyes? Betcee was suddenly in a panic of own.
“The storm. It’s her. She’s found us.”
“How can a mortal conjure a storm!? The demigoddesses themselves cannot-”
The Master and the crewman were yanked off their feet and into the air as a violent gust of wind caught the sail, pulling hard on the rope they were holding and them with it. They tumbled to the deck, rolling and sprawling, and knocked over a food barrel. Grain spilled across the deck but was washed away by a crashing wave. Betcee grabbed the whipping rope, held it fast and helped the Master to her feet once more.
“It’s her child! She knows we have her secret. We’ll all be destroyed!”
Another lighting flash lit the sky, and flaming splinters of mast rained down on them.
“There’s no time, child. You must survive. You must carry on. The Ring of Free Mages will survive with the knowledge you will carry. Kneel, sister.”
“Kneel? This is hardly the time for meditations, Master-”
She dropped to her knees and the woman placed her hands on Betcee’s head, muttering words she could not hear beneath the screaming storm. Her forehead began to tingle where the hand touched her. Bright flashes popped and sparkled in her mind. She was being told… something, but she hadn’t the slightest notion what it might be. The knowledge was too high for her. Then it was over, and all she remembered was the white flashes and the tingles. Nothing more.
“You must continue the journey! You must reach the Blue City and alert the demigoddesses of the treachery in our lands. We’re all doomed. But you must survive!”
“But I know not where this Blue City is. I, a mere Twîg cannot-”
The Master was tying a rope around her waist. The other end was tied to an empty, sealed barrel.
“You must! Your mind holds the secrets we have discovered, and the wisdom of our order. You will not understand them, but they are there. The demigoddesses will extract them. Now go, child. And hold fast, Betcee of May. Your journey will not be an easy one. Go!”
It was the first time the Master had ever spoken her name. Since she’d known her, Camaria had always referred to her as This One, or Child, or lissom young Twîg. But there, in the growling storm, the Master had spoken her name, and Betcee was deeply honored. She had only a moment to consider it though.
Master Camaria shoved the barrel over the side. The rope yanked at Betcee’s body and she went over with it, screaming all the way down. She gulped in a mouthful of seawater, sinking, kicking, panicking. And then she broke the surface, gasping in a lungful of air before a wave hit her in the face. She screamed beneath the water again, turning over and over in the dark, and then she kicked for the surface, following the flashes of lighting, the only light she could see.
The ship had drifted away, tilting sharply, turning in the fierce winds. She heard the crewmen’s screams, even from out here. She could not get back to the ship now. The sea was too strong. But lightning struck the mast once more and this time the entire ship rent in half, cracking like a child’s toy down the middle and sinking quickly in two parts. There was a great boom. There were more screams. And then there was only the howling wind. Except for the flashes of lightning, all was black. Panic swelled inside her like a kicking mule.
“No!” she said, and the panic calmed for the merest moment, allowing her to think. Another wave tossed her end over end beneath its surface. Her arms were growing tired.
“The barrel! Thank you, Master!”
Betcee followed the rope to the floating barrel and hugged it, bobbing alone upon a bottomless black sea.
“Hold, Betcee. Hold to the solid, unswaying Trunk of Higher Understanding. You are master of-”
Another crashing wave washed over her, cutting off her words without offering her time to snatch a breath.
They’re all dead, the elders, the high sisters, and now the Master. The Ring of Free Mages is broken. Inarzia has won.
Betcee clung to the barrel weeping, crying out for aid, but only the merciless sea heard her and it ignored. In every direction she turned, there was only darkness and surging black waves. She opened her mouth, sucked in air, and-
There was a scream. Betcee leapt from the soft sands at the edge of the pool. Apparently she’d fallen asleep. The sudden cry had awoken her and she was on her feet lashing out at the wall where the scream had come from. Her hands flung outward, her fingers pointing, and she barked out a command in a tongue she did not even realize she knew. Suddenly flashes of blue shot from her fingertips—lighting? No. Cold. The bolts of chill struck the wall and shattered into a thousand tiny crystals of ice.
Betcee pulled her fingers back toward herself, slowly and cautiously. She looked at them and then at the wall. Ice? Where had she learned the magic of ice?
Another cry rang out, but this time she recognized it. It was the word she herself had called out to invoke the bolt of ice, and it wasn’t coming from the wall this time. It was inside her mind.
Betcee wrapped the cloak more tightly around herself and hugged her knees to her chest, resting her back against the wall. She was afraid at first, staring down at the melting crystals of misting frost, but then a smile slowly spread across her face.
“I know the magic of ice.”
She lashed her fingers at the wall again and cried out the words as best as she could remember them. Nothing happened. Her brow furrowed. Her eyes closed to slits of concentration. And she grinned with an inner ecstasy she could not suppress.
At last her mind had a challenge. She let the robe fall from her shoulders and began the Ritual of Mîm’ra once again.
This time she was more fully aware of something watching her, and she knew the watchers were pleased.