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                                    Chapter One
Mahri poled her boat around the base of the sea
tree, the bone staff she used as much an extension of her
body as her own arms. She ducked beneath a branch, a
wide one, the limb as straight as the Power of a Seer could
make it. The gloom of the evening blackened to inky
darkness, the slap of the waves echoed eerily inside the
cavern-like arch, and here Mahri chose to anchor her craft.
She flipped her wrist in the pattern peculiar to her
bone pole, and it retracted with a sliding hiss; her fingers
shook as she slid it into a sheath of octopus skin. She
patted the bone grapnel with its length of coiled rope and
then dug into the small fish-scale pouch that hung against
her hip. Mahri withdrew a small piece of zabbaroot,
unsure if it would be enough for her task—she’d never
kidnapped a man before, how could she possibly know?
With a shrug, she popped it in her mouth and squeezed
it with her molars, releasing the bitter drug of Power that
shivered through her veins and allowed her to See. The
world turned into bits and dots and she closed her eyes
for control. The root burned her tongue and she fought
the need to gag, then opened eyes that flickered with
sparkled light before fading to their normal green hue.
With control returned, she’d now only See when, and
how, she wished.
A scurry of sound beneath her collapsed sleeping tent
reminded Mahri that she wasn’t alone. The tiny face of
her pet peered up at her from beneath the rugged narwhal
skin. The dark prevented her from making out the
features, but she knew them so well her mind filled in
the details. Monkey-like, with scales for fur and webbed
hands and feet, Jaja had the agility of the native tree
dwellers with the slippery fluidity of a sea creature. And
the curiosity of a treecat.
“Stay,” whispered Mahri, her mind reinforcing that
command with such mental force that Jaja moaned.
Mahri breathed deeply, quieting her thoughts so that
they didn’t project with the equivalent of a piercing
I won’t risk you in this, Jaja. I have lost so much
She only caught the most basic thoughts from her
pet, but he seemed to understand hers with amazing accuracy,
especially when she was filled with root Power.
He scurried back beneath the tent.
Mahri leaped from her boat, hesitated a second to adjust
to a firm surface beneath her feet, then crept along
the narrow ledge formed by the base of the sea tree,
emerging from beneath the branch with caution. Mahri
looked up at the balconies that spiraled around the tree,
watching for guards, but not really expecting any. Not
around the Healer’s Tree. The Palace, yes, and perhaps
even the Seer’s Tree… but how could she know for sure,
being only an ignorant water-rat?
What did they do, she wondered, with water-rats that
skulked around the city at night?
She pulled the grapnel from her belt.
Throw them in prison for later torture?
With an easy swing of arms strengthened by a life of
poling, she threw the hook up to the first balcony.
Or maybe force them into slavery as they did the native
tree dwellers?
She tugged, and the rope held her weight. Fear fluttered
her stomach and was swiftly followed by the inevitable
fury at that cowardly reaction, propelling her up
the rope with the speed of a silver-fish.
Mahri crouched, listened to the breeze swishing
through the leaves, the soft patter of rain that had just
begun to fall, the constant rushing, flowing of the water
surrounding the interlaced network of sea trees. She
studied the row of carved doors that circled the tree,
Seeing beyond each door to the occupant within.
She knew if she went up to the top balconies that
she’d find the powerful Master Healers. Here on the
lower level slept the apprentices and newly learned. But
all she needed was the knowledge, she would provide
more Power than all of the Masters combined. Besides,
if she stole away with someone of importance they might
come after her, and she hoped that if a lowly apprentice
disappeared no one would take any notice.
So she chose the first person she Saw snug in their bed.
To See into the lock of the door, move the latch from here
to there, took a flick of her Power. To See into the center
of the Healer gently snoring, and to make those unwilling
limbs move to her boat, was a different matter.
For a moment Mahri considered waking the sleeper.
Perhaps the Healer would be willing to come with her?
She crept closer to the bed. She could only make out
longish, light hair, a smooth yet masculine jawline.
With a flash the memories of a past she’d tried desperately
to forget overwhelmed her, of another Healer
with long, pale hair. But hers had been arranged in artful
layers of braids and pearls upon her head, and she’d
stared at Mahri as if she were some swamp creature that
had oozed out of the slime.
“You truly expect me,” she said, one eyebrow raised
in delicate disbelief, “to get in that piece of scrap you
call a boat, travel into the swamps to heal a fever-ridden
village of water-rats? And blindfolded, no less?”
Mahri narrowed blazing green eyes. If this woman
only knew that those “water-rats” provided the city with
more zabbaroot than a year of production from the root
farms, she’d be begging to go with her. And that Mahri
herself was a smuggler; who defied the Royal’s decree
that they possess and distribute all the zabba, on the
pretense it presented too much danger for the common
citizen. But to Mahri’s thinking, the only danger lay in
lack of knowledge, and the Royals hoarded that more
surely than the root.
“Without a blindfold,” growled Mahri, “I would have
to kill you.” Then she almost slapped her hand over her
mouth. She spoke the truth, for the safety of the village
lay within the secrecy of their location, but it needn’t
have been said. She never could control her temper.
The Healer’s face flickered with sudden fear, then
feigned annoyance. “Use one of your own Seers then.”
“They don’t have the knowledge you possess, as you
well know.”
The woman rose, presented her back to Mahri, and
flung over her shoulder, “I can’t help you.”
Mahri clasped her hands together, her lifemate’s agonized
face in her mind, and the cries of their child, the
once-perfect little hands twisted in agonized deformity.
She swallowed her anger, and her pride.
“Please,” she whispered. “Is there no one that would
be willing to help?”
The woman hesitated, her posture slumped briefly in
response to the desperate appeal in that voice, and then
too quickly stiffened.
“No one,” she replied, then slammed the door
behind her.
The Healer on the bed snorted and rolled over,
bringing Mahri back to the present, knowing she was
mad to even consider asking for help ever again. Brez
and her little boy, Tal’li, had died—even the thought
made anger and guilt burn anew—and she’d become a
Wilding herself. But the fever had only hidden, to return
with a vengeance to strike again that same village and
the only family she now had left.
And although this time Mahri had the root tolerance
she still needed the healing knowledge. She could See
the effects of the illness, could treat the symptoms, but
couldn’t be sure of the Pattern to cure the disease itself.
Only one trained to know the normal body cells could
detect the shape of a virus in time to destroy it before it
could mutate again.
Her eyes sparkled and she Saw into the Healer’s
mind, traveling the path that controlled muscular movement,
manipulation at least possible with the person unconscious.
Mahri lowered her face to his, could almost
feel his breath on her cheeks, when a soft knock on the
door made her concentration slip and her heart stop.
“My lord?” whispered a man’s voice as the door
opened a crack.
Light fell across the Healer’s face. His eyes flew
open and met Mahri’s for just a moment, a second of
time that felt like an eternity, and there was a flash of
recognition, as if she’d known him long ago, perhaps
before this lifetime.
Mahri cursed, her Vision shattered and just sufficed
to keep the Healer immobile while she spun to face the
intruder. She pulled her pole from her belt, flipped it
once, twice, and spun a long staff at the light globe.
It connected with a sharp thwack, the wooden holder
cracked in two, and the globe spun along the floor.
The man, no guard—for on his head lay the bone
helm of a warrior—reacted with astonishing speed. She
heard the hiss of bone being drawn from a scabbard
and danced away just in time to avoid his blow. His
advantage lay in strength, but Mahri’s in speed, the
small confines of the room aiding her even more. And
of course, she’d just chewed root, and her opponent
looked like it had been days since he’d last felt a fresh
flow of Power.
He couldn’t swing wide enough for a forceful blow
and resorted to thrust and parry. Mahri grinned, drew on
the Power, and Saw muscles tense before her opponent
could attack. Her weapon flew; the force of the blow
cracked his helm and laid him out on the floor.
So, Mahri thought, the Royals don’t provide
Leviathan bone for their warrior’s gear. Her opinion of
their rulers sank to a new low.
Then she had no time for thought, for she could hear
a cry being raised, and spun to where the Healer lay
muscle-frozen on the bed, watching her with a combination
of admiration and fury. Mahri tried to Push
his muscles, but knew that she’d used too much of the
Power in that brief struggle, and didn’t have the strength
left to fight his own conscious control. And she didn’t
have the time to chew more zabba.
She flicked her wrist again, in the subtle yet complicated
pattern that retracted her bone pole into a short
staff. With her foot, she rolled the Healer onto his stomach,
and with a muttered apology slammed the bone into
the back of his head. Used the Power again to See into
her own muscles and adrenal glands, taking that vigor
to haul him out of the room, hoist him over the balcony
and fling him as far out as she could.
There followed a splash, instead of the thud if he
would’ve hit the base of the sea tree, and she sighed
with relief before scrambling over the balcony, rope burning
her hands in her attempt to get below before
he drowned. Shouts from above and she looked up, two
light globes bobbed on the balcony, the light reflecting
off of helmed faces. One of those faces smirked, sawed
a bone knife along the top of her rope, then waved at her.
Mahri had just enough time to wonder why so many
guards patrolled a Healer apprentice’s balcony before
the rope went slack and she fell.
And hit the ground rolling. Her left shoulder slammed
across an upthrust wrinkle of tree bark and she grunted
with the pain of it. She spun over into the water, swallowed
a good portion of it, and inhaled enough to make
her strain for breath when her head broke the surface.
Something bumped her and she turned and flung out her
arm to haul the body of the Healer closer.
The rain of arrows that had peppered the water suddenly
stopped. They drifted with the current under the
branch road and bumped up against the boat. Mahri
looped an arm over the side while her other hung onto
the Healer and fought the pull of the current, exhaustion
making her tremble. Somehow she managed to climb
into the boat, but the most she could do was to get the
Healer halfway in. With a sob she collapsed, her shoulder
throbbed with pain and she knew she fought against
Through her haze she felt the gentle caress of Jaja’s
webbed fingers against her cheek, the cool slide of his
scales. Something pressed past her lips and she tongued
the root between her teeth, bit hard and welcomed the
flow of strength from the Power. And tried not to think
of the price she knew she’d have to pay for it.
Mahri hauled the man into her boat, Saw into his
lungs and convulsed the tissue until water spewed from
his mouth, reduced the movement to gentle contractions
until he breathed on his own. She covered him with the
narwhal skin and positioned herself towards the bow, feet
splayed, confidence spreading through her with the comfortable
feel of the current beneath her boat. She sensed
Jaja weigh anchor, slid free her staff, the bone almost
warm in her hands, and twisted her wrist to expand it.
Mahri poled, offering a brief silent thanks to the
Leviathan of the deep for the gift of his bone, and the
Power that made the forging of it possible, for the structure
of it wouldn’t yield to any other means. It took
great skill to wield a bone staff, and many long years of
training to learn the intricate movements that released
the hidden locks to expand and contract the pole. But it
had been worth it, for the price given had already been
repaid with the saving of her life many times over.
Mahri used the current, as only a skilled water-rat
could, by sensing its flow and nudging it with the Power.
With long practice she kept her contact shallow, knowing
that the sea lay just below, flowing around the roots
of the sea trees, unobstructed by the enormous growth
that hampered its movements above the surface.
The sounds of alarm grew faint behind her, and she
allowed herself to relax. In the maze of water channels
lay a measure of safety; the real danger of pursuit would
be when she reached the cove, a large stretch of open
water that led to the open sea. From there thousands of
channels led into the “swamps”—what the city-dwellers
called the younger part of their forest—but any direct
routes to them were heavily patrolled by the guards.
They occasionally passed other boats. The light
globes that hung on their bows, and her Sight, made
them easy to avoid, as long as the passage stayed wide.
No lights lit her small craft; they crept along the inky
water, the rain now a light misting that clung to her eyelashes
like dew drops.
Mahri bottom-poled through the city channels, for the
roots of this old forest lay thickly woven together, and
the sea flowed over them at a shallow depth. She imagined
the city as a safe haven perched atop its tangle of
roots, protected from the monsters that swam beneath it.
In the swamps lurked places of deep water where she’d
have to tap her pole against the edges of the trees for
steerage, and be twice as vigilant against the dangers
that lurked in those bottomless channels.
Mahri sighed. She still preferred the swamps. For
although the sea spewed forth some nasty beasts, it also
produced beautiful, astonishing creations that never
ceased to amaze her. Every journey through those snaking
passages resulted in a discovery, made her marvel
anew at this wondrous world. She watched the peacefully
sleeping city they traveled through and knew that
it would bore her to death.
Jaja hopped on her shoulder, his favorite perch when
they traveled, and patted it reassuringly. Mahri winced,
for her injury still pained her, and used her thoughts to
distract her from it.
Somewhere below she knew the sea must stop, and
wondered what lay beneath it. Only the trees were solid
in her world, they sustained life; animals, insects, and
plants all parasites on their bodies. She couldn’t imagine
what something could sustain the all-powerful trees.
Perhaps her ancestors had known but that knowledge
had either been lost or lay buried within the Royals’
hoard of records.
They cruised through a warren of city homes; caverns
hollowed from thick bark, or branches twisted into
curved structures by the Power of a Seer. Front doors
opened onto the water, balconies a few paces wide created
small landings which tethered boats in all shapes
and sizes. The white gleam of seashells used for decoration
reflected the glow of the myriad moons overhead.
The Healer moaned and her attention centered on
her unwilling passenger. Now would not be a good
time for him to wake. Mahri centered the boat, went
aft, and trussed him like a pig-fish. She frowned, remembering
that feeling she’d had when their eyes had
met, and with a feather touch she brushed the long,
pale hair away from his face. Curled from the damp,
the silky strands of it wrapped around her fingers,
tumbled across his smooth brow. High cheekbones, a
strong chin. A straight nose that tipped up at the end
saved him from being classically handsome, to just
boyishly so.
Mahri sighed, ran a callused finger along the fullness
of his bottom lip, and Jaja hopped from her shoulder
in apparent disgust. She snatched back her hand as if
it’d been burned, tried to think of the nastiest curse she
knew, gave up and just spit. She’d never reacted like
this toward another man, not even her lifemate. Why
couldn’t she have stumbled across an ugly, old Healer?
A light globe that hung outside a treehome flared behind
them, the phosphorescent creature trapped within
giving one last surge before dying. Mahri glanced up,
saw the spray from the bow of a craft that pursued them
with deadly stealth and this time swore aloud.
She retracted her pole, used only the Power, Seeing
the tiny particles that composed the water, shaking and
stirring them until foam erupted around the sides of
her boat. Unfamiliar with the city, Mahri still sensed
the pathways of the sea and her smaller vessel surged
between channels that formed the back alleys of the
homes. The odor of raw sewage made her gasp from the
stench; the waves she’d created butted against garbage
that she deliberately refused to See.
When she felt the cove just ahead she gratefully eased
the agitation from the foam. Her shoulder pounded in
agony when she started to pole again, the root’s Power
that had drained with their flight had let the full pain
of that hurt through. She wished she’d Seen to it when
she’d had a chance. Hopefully when they reached the
cove they’d be lost in the blackness and she wouldn’t
have to paddle but just drift with the current.
Her passenger grunted.
Mahri armed sweat from her face. First guards, then
determined pursuit. Surely, a bit too much attention for
a novice.
“Who in the-thirteen-moons are you anyway?” she
snapped over her shoulder.
No answer. What had that guard said when he’d
come into the room? Had he called the Healer “lord”?
Only Royals were addressed by that title—her luck
couldn’t be that rotten! Besides, what would a Royal
be doing learning the art of a Healer? Usually a selfless
task, certainly knowledge not required for the ruling of
the Forest. Perhaps he was the youngest son of a low ranked
Mahri breathed a sigh of relief. That’s it! A few loyal
guards, easily shaken. A token show of interest for a
barely worthy relation.
Thunder growled and the rain that fell every night
thickened to a deluge when they reached the cove. She
traded pole for oar—with regret for the alien feel of
wood instead of bone in her hands—and paddled into
the middle of the black water.
She had to squint against the downfall which obscured
the lights of the wharf and the myriad moons.
Between rolls of thunder she could hear in which
direction the wharf lay, for even at night the taverns
and trading houses spewed forth laughter, chanties,
and the occasional scream. The temptation to hide out
at Vissa’s for a breather came and went. Although it
might help shake any pursuers, the complications it
could cause…
The image of daring black eyes and clever hands
made her grin.
She hadn’t the time for anything but a direct route to
the village, and if she tempted death by abusing the root
in order to get there, so be it. If she arrived too late, she
might as well not return at all.
The seashells entwined in her long, braided hair tinkled
gently when Jaja climbed up to hop on her shoulder.
He chattered in her ear, his tail half-spread into a fin from
his excitement and she reached back to smooth it down.
“What is it?” she whispered.
Her hand froze, muscles paralyzed in a grip she
struggled to break. She could feel the Touch through
the rest of her body, the tingle spreading through her
legs, snapping her spine rigid. Again Jaja pressed root
between her lips and with a surge of Power she broke
that other’s grip.
Master, she thought. Not as powerful as she, thank-the-
moons, but strong enough that it couldn’t have been
a casual encounter. Her pursuers had found them, and
now enlisted the aid of a Master Seer!
Lightning flashed and she saw a large, black shape
bearing down on them. Only a warrior ship would be
that big—had she the entire fleet after her? Mahri went
aft, stood over her unwilling passenger, and nudged him
with her foot.
“You’re not a low-ranked anything, are you?”
As she suspected, he’d been awake. Large, round eyes
looked up at her, caught the reflection of the lightning
when it flared again. And exposed their position to their
pursuers, for a slew of arrows tipped with the poisonous
spikes of an anemone suddenly fell around them.
Mahri crouched, winced when an arrow thudded
home next to the Healer’s ear. “Whoever you are,” she
said, “It seems like your rescuers don’t care if they get
you back alive.”
His words floated through the black night. “Your
actions have made me vulnerable to my enemies.”
Mahri felt a shiver run through her at the sound of his
voice. Something about it, the deep timbre, the cultured
words, sparked something inside of her that she hadn’t
known existed. A longing that… ach! What was the
matter with her? She’d never responded so idiotically
to anyone before.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she questioned him just to
hear his voice again. “Who are you?”
Lightning flashed, another volley of arrows, and this
time the black shape loomed closer. Her captive’s eyes
widened. “Korl—” he managed, then began to spasm
on the deck.
Mahri rocked back on her heels. Couldn’t be, she
thought. After all, a lot of people went by the name of
Korl; her luck just couldn’t be…
“Not Prince Korl!” she groaned.