Here's the blurb:
For years the Leviathan Bridge was a boon for prosperity and culture. But when the Rondian Emperor turned his avaricious eyes toward it, peace became war. In successive crusades the Imperial legions and their mighty battle-mages plundered the East unopposed.
Now the Moontide has come again, the Bridge is rising from beneath the waves, and the Third Crusade is poised for release. The board is set and the pieces are moving. But three lowly pawns, barely regarded, threaten the game: A failed mage, a jaded mercenary and a lowly market-girl are about to be catapulted into the maelstrom. Their choices and their courage are about to change the world.
Come to Urte, where the moon covers half the sky and the tides render the seas impassable. Where windships ply the skies and magi with god-gifted powers rule the earth. Where East and West are divided by colour, creed, language and the sea, but drawn to each other irrevocably in a dance of life and death. The Moontide is coming, to sweep away all in its path.
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“Mercer! Pay attention!” Fyrell barked.
Alaron blinked. Damn. “Sorry sir, just trying to remember the formula for calculating vectors.” He and Ramon had talked away most of the night, dreaming of their futures after graduation, but now they were back in the grim, moss-walled college. Turm Zau- berin was an old castle, four hundred years old at least. Magister Fyrell, his least favorite teacher, had his feet up on his desk and was tossing random questions at the whole class as revision. Alaron hadn’t been listening for some time.
“Nice try, Master Mercer,” sneered Fyrell, “but we reviewed calculus last period. This is Magical Theory.”
“Must I repeat the question?” The five Pure sniggered. Ramon leaned back, shaking his head.
Alaron hung his head, flushing. “Yes sir. Sorry sir.”
Fyrell rolled his eyes and stroked his black goatee. “Very well. We are revising for the exams—remember them? I asked you to name the four classes of the gnosis and what defines them—a very basic ques- tion. Do you think you could manage that for us, Master Mercer?”
Alaron sighed. Phew, easy. He stood up. “There are Four Classes of the Gnosis. First is Thaumaturgy, which is concerned with the tangible and inanimate: the elements. The Four Studies of Thaumaturgy are Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Then there is Hermetic magic: the tangible and animate, which deals with living things, ourselves, and others. The Four Hermetic Studies are Healing, Morphism— shapeshifting—Animism, and Sylvanism—nature magic. Theurgy is the intangible and animate, using the gnosis to augment unseen forces—like strengthening one’s own gnosis, or healing the spirits of the living, curing insanity, calming people, or manipulating them emotionally. The Four Studies of Theurgy are Spiritualism, Mysticism, Mesmerism, and Illusion. The last is Sorcery, which deals with the intangible and inanimate, where we use the gnosis to deal with the spirit world—the dead, in other words—to do things like strengthen ourselves, or find out about the past or the future or the now. The Four Studies of Sorcery are Wizardry, Clairvoyance, Divination, and Necromancy.”
Fyrell grunted with displeasure and looked at Boron Funt. “Mercer sounds like he’s reciting a textbook. Boron, tell me the omission Mercer made with Sorcery.” He called only the Pure by their first names.
Funt puffed himself up. “He said that the only spirits are dead spirits, Magister. He omitted the angels of God and the demons of Hel.”
That’s because I don’t believe in them, Alaron muttered to himself. “Well done, Boron.” Fyrell smiled. “Malevorn, tell me of Affinities, using your own as an example.”
Malevorn drew himself to his feet, half-closing his eyes as he spoke. “Every mage is different: our personalities define the Studies we excel at. Most of us have greater aptitude at one or more of the four Classes of the gnosis. We also usually have one elemental aptitude greater than the others. My element is fire and I am strongest in Thaumaturgy and hermetic-gnosis.”
Fyrell looked approving, as he always did when Malevorn spoke. “Well done, Malevorn.” He turned to his other favored pupil. “Gron, what is Blood-Rank?”
Gron Koll smoothed back his lank greasy hair. “The Ranks of Blood are numbered First to Sixth. The First Rank are the pure- blooded, those descended directly from an Ascendant or two pure- bloods. The Second Rank are the three-quarter-blooded; the Third are half-blooded, the Fourth are the quarter-blooded, the Fifth Rank the eighth-bloods and the Sixth Rank those with a sixteenth. There are no lower ranks, as anyone with less than a sixteenth of mage’s blood does not have the capability to utilize the gnosis.” He paused, then added, “Above all are the Ascendants, the Three Hundred progenitors of all magi.”
“Excellent,” said Fyrell. “And what are the degrees of relativity between the Blood-Ranks?”
“Each is roughly the square of the previous, sir. If we use the quarter-blood as a base, a half-blood is twice as powerful, a pure- blood is four times more powerful, and an Ascendant sixteen times more.”
“Meaning that we pure-bloods are worth at least four of Mercer,” remarked Malevorn lightly, waving his hand at Alaron, “and sixteen of Sensini.”
Alaron steamed, but Ramon just shrugged.
“Seth,” invited Fyrell with a lazy gesture, “what can be done to improve one’s powers?”
Seth Korion had a placid face, short blond hair, and a solid build. Everyone had expected much of him, the only legitimate son of the famous General Kaltus Korion, but he’d been a plodder: a timid mage and fighter. He had shown none of the strategic and tactical thinking his teachers had expected would come naturally. The only thing he excelled at was healing, which was regarded by the boys as “girls’ magic.” Seth had always been the easiest of the Pure to get at.
“There are varying levels of skill, talent and equipment, sir. An ill-equipped, inept, or poorly trained mage is less effective than a well-equipped, skilled, and well-trained one.”
“Fortunately we have the best in everything, sir,” put in Francis Dorobon, sticking his chest out. His dark hair was slicked back, and he affected a little mustache on his upper lip, making his pale skin even whiter. He wore rings and diamond studs, and he liked to throw little Rimoni phrases into his conversation to remind people that he was rightful King of Javon, nominally a Rimoni country even though it lay in Antiopia. He raised his hand, displaying a large diamond ring on his middle finger. “This is a primo periapt.”
Students could own periapts, but they were not permitted to use them except in class until after they had successfully graduated. Alaron’s was a modest crystal, Ramon’s even poorer. Alaron knew his father was trying to purchase a better one for him, but quality periapts were rare and expensive.
Fyrell clapped his hands. “Excellent. Next week, your exams will begin. You will be tested on all aspects of the gnosis, as well as your ordinary academic lessons to decide whether you are to be granted the right to act as a mage and serve the community.” His eyes swept over the Pure. “It has been a pleasure to teach most of you.” His gaze flickered disdainfully over Alaron and Ramon and then back to the Pure. “I wish you well for the coming weeks.”
Malevorn stood up. “Sir, it has been a privilege to learn from you.” He made a lordly bow. “For myself, your name and memory will always be on my mind as we strike down the heathen.”
Fyrell puffed up as the other Pure followed his lead, taking turns to praise and thank him.
Alaron and Ramon slipped away, unnoticed.
“Malevorn alwayth doeth tha’. How do you ge’ an ego tha’ large into the room? An’ Fyrell panderth to him all the time. I am tho thick of thith plathe!” Alaron was nursing a split lip from the fight he’d got into with Malevorn between classes. It stung, but neither he nor Ramon were very good at healing. Three days out from the end of classes and he felt totally miserable—of course he’d totally failed to lay a finger on Malevorn, as always. He was probably the most unsuccessful brawler in the school’s history. The younger students, most of them of the same ilk as Malevorn, openly laughed at him.
He sat on the tiny balcony of the room they shared, Ramon beside him, looking glumly over the city as dusk fell. The air was cold, killing the smell of the refuse pits below this side of the building—of course the Pures were on the other side, the sunset side, overlooking the gardens. Each had a room four times the size of Alaron and Ramon’s.
Alaron saw the mighty shapes in the sky first, the dark silhouettes in the northeastern quarter, three black dots that grew and grew. He pointed, and Ramon followed his finger.
“Windships,” Ramon breathed. “Merchant-traders, up from Verelon, maybe, or Pontus.” His eyes shone. All boys dreamed of wind- ships. They watched them grow in the sky, sails billowing as the trade wind swept them up from the Brekaellen Valley, following the river toward Norostein. The enchanted hulls were winged, painted and gilded in fantastical designs, the prows like eagles and serpents, the tall masts hung about with canvas sails. A scarlet flag billowed above. “From Pontus, I think.”
They watched in silent awe as the ships swung into the Mooring Yards beneath Bekontor Hill. Windships had curved hulls to lessen wind resistance, and retractable braces for landing. The enchanted hulls and keels kept them airborne, but though Air-gnosis gave the ships life, it was wind that provided propulsion. Air-thaumaturgy could shape the winds, and a ship that was well guided by a strong Air-thaumaturge could even sail against the wind, but that took real skill and endurance.
All of the trainee magi had learned to fly in small skiffs. Alaron was barely competent, but Ramon had some genuine ability despite his weak mage-blood. Vann Mercer had always hoped that Alaron would be able to build and pilot a trading vessel for him, but Alaron’s prime elemental affinity had turned out to be fire, and he had proven to be a very poor Air-mage. He was, he’d been told, better suited to a military career. The teachers also told him he had ability in sorcery, but sorcery scared him shitless. Ghosts and spirits . . . ugh!
Ramon looked across at him. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to see Cym tonight? It’s your turn.”
Alaron thought about that. His lip was still swollen, his jaw and ribs hurt, and he felt totally depressed. But he knew a smile from Cym would lift his mood, though his chances of coaxing one from her would be nigh on impossible. It was his turn, though . . .
When Ramon had shown up at the college all those years ago he had brought with him a tiny, self-possessed gypsy girl with big flashing eyes, cherry-red lips, and cinnamon skin. Alaron had taken one look and fallen hopelessly in love. Her name was Cymbellea di Regia, Ramon said; she too was mage-born, but Saint Yvette’s, the girl’s Arcanum College of Norostein, would not take her in, so she was living in the Rimoni camp outside of town. Without their help she would never learn how to use her powers. Ramon said she’d run away from her mother, who was her mage-parent, which sounded terribly romantic to Alaron, and her plight offended his sense of justice, so it had taken little persuasion to enlist his help in educat- ing her. For the last seven years they had been taking it in turns to slip out after dinner and meet her beside the sally port in the old ruined city wall.
Alaron loved his evenings with her. Even though she gave him nothing more than grief and frustration, he wouldn’t have missed their meetings for the world. “Of courth I’ll go. It’th my latht turn.” He thought for a moment. “You know, after gra’uation you’ll return to Thilacia and who knowth where Thym will go? We migh’ never meet again. Da wantth me to be a part of his buthineth and get mar- ried. I migh’ no’ even ge’ to joi’ the Cruthade.”
“And a good thing too,” remarked Ramon. “You don’t want to be a part of that—it’s just a bunch of pure-bloods slaughtering loads of Keshi and Dhassans. You’re better off out of it.”
“But, everyone ith going . . .” He exhaled heavily. “Everyone elth.” Ramon just shrugged disinterestedly. “War is overrated, amici.” “Huh.” Alaron got up and stretched. “I gueth I better go,” he said.
“Thym will be wondering where I am.”
Alaron found Cym in their usual place, a wrecked hovel against the old walls that stank of piss and rot. She was wrapped in a brown blanket, her head cowled in a large shawl. She had lit a fire, small enough to escape the notice of any passing watchman but barely large enough to raise the temperature. She was amusing herself by firing tiny energy-bolts into the city wall, leaving scorch-marks and a strange metallic tang in the air. Such bolts were the mage’s most basic weapon, deadly enough against an ordinary human, but easily countered by any other gnosis-wielder.
“You lose another fight?” she asked, eyeing his bloodied lip. “Here, let me have a look.” It was a sad fact that once she got the hang of it, Cym was actually better than both of them at most of the things they taught her. Alaron suspected that her mysterious mother—Cym never discussed her—had been of considerable power, and Cym herself was a natural. Alaron’s frequent scraps with Malevorn meant she got plenty of opportunity to practice her healing.
He closed his eyes, wincing as she poked and prodded, then sent a painful tingle of gnosis-power into his cut that reduced the swell- ing and sealed the wound.
“There, that should be gone in a few days. Idiot. Hasn’t he beaten you up enough for a lifetime already?” It was a rare week that he and Malevorn didn’t come to blows, either on the weapons-practice field or in some hall or back room. He just couldn’t hold his temper around the Pure.
“Thanks,” he said, running his tongue over the healed cut. He tried to squeeze her hand, but she avoided him deftly, pretending not to notice.
“So,” she said, “this is it: my last lesson with you. After tomorrow you’ll be off doing your exams and I’ll have to find other ways to learn.”
“We could continue after the exams,” he offered. “We’ll be gradu- ated then; we could do it openly.”
She shook her head. “Our caravan leaves on Freyadai—we’ve got to be in Lantris before the snows.”
“Will you be back in spring?” He found he wasn’t able to feign nonchalance.
“Maybe. Who knows?” She leaned forward, her face hungry. “What new things can you show me?”
For the next two hours he taught her the drills he’d learned since last time and reviewed her progress on earlier lessons, where, as usual, she’d already overtaken him, and ended up helping him as much as he did her. He hoped he might be more than just a rote- mage one day, but he wasn’t there yet. He tried to demonstrate shap- ing fire, but the flames sizzled and went out with a dispiriting pop.
“Let it flow, Alaron,” she scolded. “You’re so tense—you need to relax, let it run through you, like water.”
“I can’t!” he groaned. “I just can’t.” “You’re a mage—let it come naturally!”
“It’s not natural, it’s as unnatural as you can get,” he complained dispiritedly. He felt tired and clumsy. Outside, the new moon was up, its great arc covering half the sky. It looked almost touchable— more touchable than Cym, anyway. The Rimoni girl followed his glance, shuddered, and pulled up her cowl. She was always leery of the massive weight of the moon hanging in the sky above. “Off you go. You’re too tired for any more. Go home.”
He knew she was right, but to say goodnight . . . that would be to shut the door on so many dreams. He hesitated, but she’d already stood and ducked under the rotting leather sheet that formed a makeshift door. He had to follow, feeling even more wretched.
Cym turned to him. “So: after seven years, this is the end, for you and me. I do not know how to thank you for your kindness in teaching me.”
He tried to think of something charming and witty and roman- tic, but instead he was mute. She put a bony finger to his lips. “Shh.” She pressed something into his hand and he looked down at it: a copper amulet of a rose. The Rimoni Rose. He gripped it tight, and suddenly realized he was crying.
“Oh, Alaron, you idiot!” Cym stepped into him, pecked his cheek, and then she was two feet away, four, ten, and then the shadows of the old wall had swallowed her and she was gone. Maybe forever.