Penrys was crouched on one knee, slamming the rysefeol’s recalcitrant wooden joint with the back of her hand by way of a delicate adjustment, when the sudden transition hit.
“Oh, thennur holi,” she said, under her breath, but the oath that started in her well-lit workroom finished in swaying light and strong shadow. Already off balance, she tumbled on her backside. The soft surface took the sting out of it, and her hands, spread wide to break the fall, told her of carpet and, below that, uneven ground. A gust of wind blew smoke in from outside and the walls fluttered.
A tent, she realized, and a very large one.
She saw the people, then, and froze, stifling a sneeze, but they didn’t seem to have noticed her. No, that’s not it. They aren’t moving at all.
Perhaps no one’s moving but someone’s talking. She tilted her head and pinpointed the voice—it came from something like a mirror suspended from a metal stand in front of the nearest tent wall. She was too close alongside the same wall herself to see anything but the edge of the frame.
The flickering light from the glass-enclosed lanterns on the tables and chests in the tent cast moving shadows on the faces of the people. It gave the illusion of life, distracting her for a moment, and then the words from the voice in the mirror penetrated.
“…a field test like this is always useful for a new weapon. I look forward to greeting you in person, when you arrive for a permanent visit.”
She wrinkled her nose at the lazy baritone drawl. That can’t be good. What’s happened to them?
Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted a red lacquered chest along the tent wall and scooted back a couple of feet to set her back against it, taking care to stay out of the line of sight of the mirror. She crossed her legs and made herself comfortable on the rug, licking her dry lips as she tried to focus.
She steadied her breathing, then, and reached out with her mind to the people in the tent with her. She could only see a few of them from her position on the ground, but her mind told her there were seven. All the minds projected fury and fear, but one shone more clearly, aware of her, and able to respond silently when she focused on him.
*Who are you? No, never mind. Can you help us?*
That gave her pause.
What have we got here? Something from the mirror, smothering them all like a thick fog. But not me—probably doesn’t know I’m here. At least, not yet.
She braced herself, and then raised a mind-shield around the one who’d asked for help. Immediately she felt the force shift and bear down upon her, but she diverted it around them both and let it flow away.
*Much better. What about the others?*
She judged the force that beat at her. *Maybe one or two more.*
*The Commander, then.*
Penrys couldn’t drop her concentration long enough to look for him. *Show me.*
He gave her the flavor of the other man’s personality and indicated a direction. That matched up with one particular mind, and she extended her shield to him.
The lights dimmed for her as she took on the load. She closed her eyes to remove the distraction and listened to the muttered conversation in the tent.
“Not now, Commander-chi. Temporary defense. Pick one more man.”
Silence for a moment.
“Make it Kep, then.”
*This one, please.* Her first contact pictured another personality and direction for her, and she extended the shield one more time, hoping it would hold.
She gritted her teeth and focused on the task. At least the load was steady—she could bear the pressure for a little while, if it didn’t change. Why so few? I should be able to support more of them. But it doesn’t feel like that would work just now.
“I’m not sure what you hoped to accomplish, Menbyede, but I think you may have misjudged our strength. Kep-chi, see to the men and prepare for attack.” She recognized the voice of the second man.
“At once, sir.”
The air shifted as someone left the tent.
The voice in the mirror was quiet, but the force increased against her shield, probing and shifting. She strengthened the shield further, clenching it solid, until the sounds outside dropped away.
A finger tapped Penrys’s shoulder and the familiar mental voice that marked a wizard followed. *You can stop now.*
Cautiously, she loosened the shield enough to look, and found the pressure gone. Her whole body ached as she released the shield completely, and she slumped to loosen her muscles, her dark shoulder-length hair falling into her face as she rotated her head and felt the neck joints crack.
“You didn’t hear me speak to you,” the man said, his deep, resonant voice low and private against the bustle behind him in the tent. He crouched next to her on the balls of his feet.
Sandalwood? She sniffed again and lifted her head. The honeyed voice belonged to a smooth-shaven Zan traveler, his hair concealed under a small maroon turban. His dusky robes of an overall small-figured fabric had been shortened for ease of movement, and his loose breeches were bloused over decorated but well-worn leather boots. He regarded her soberly, and then his dark eyes widened. He reached out and pushed back her hair on one side to confirm his glimpse, exposing her ear—her shaggy, mobile, fox-like ear.
She jerked her head back and staggered upright. Glaring down at him, she shook her hair loose again to cover her ears.
He rose more gracefully and made her a sketchy half-bow. “Your pardon, bikrajti. I was just… surprised.”
Penrys looked beyond him and realized the tent was large and multi-part, four square bays surrounding a central square, the ties at the corner seams marking its origin as five separate structures. It was dark in the corners but full of activity. Uniforms. So, I was right—this is a military camp. But where? Her companion seemed to be the only Zan—none of the rest, bare-headed or not, showed the loose curly hair she would have expected. To a man they had short, straight, black hair, and several cultivated wispy beards. A glance out of one doorway confirmed that it was still nighttime.
A courier had arrived and was reporting to Commander Chang, easily identified by both his voice and his location—anchoring a wide camp chair, fronted by a large, portable table, little of which was bare of papers, and commanding a view of the tent entrance, where an armed man stood ready on either side. A quick glance confirmed that the mirror was gone from the stand by the tent wall.
The dark Zannib wizard followed her gaze. “Locked away it is, where it can do no more harm.” He paused. “We think it can do no more harm.”
“I’m called Zandaril,” he said. “We must talk, soon as he’s free.” He c****d his head over at Chang.
He drew her over to the Commander’s table and they waited for the courier to complete his report. The smoky cressets outside the tent flap still held the night at bay, but the clamor of a roused camp belied the darkness. Voices called back and forth, and hoofbeats pounded by. As Chang leaned forward in his chair for emphasis, it creaked and his black leather jerkin reflected the candle light dully.
Once Chang had dismissed the courier, he turned his full attention to Penrys. His lined face was impassive, the eyes narrow.
“Who are you? What just happened? And how, exactly, did you happen to turn up, in such a… timely way?”
It was clear from his face and the tone of his voice that he didn’t believe in coincidence.
“It’s complicated, sir.” She cleared her throat. “There was an accident…”
At the sound of her northern Ellech accent, Chang’s eyes met Zandaril’s. The Commander and the rest of the men in the tent, with the exception of Zandaril, had the look of the eastern Kigali folk, their eyes tightened against the ancestral wind and their beards sparse.
She forged ahead. “M’name’s Penrys, and I was in Tavnastok a little while ago. But not now, I think.”
“No.” Zandaril blinked. “Indeed not. It’s far from the Collegium you are, way up in the valley of the Mother of Rivers.” At her blank look, he added, “Near the western border of Kigali.”
Penrys closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. Thousands of miles if it’s a step, as much south as west. What have I done? How will I get back, with nothing but the clothes I stand in? How can I tell them at the Collegium where I am?
She studied the two faces before her, one stern, one curious. Well, that may not be my most urgent problem. They think I had something to do with this attack.
She straightened up. First order of business—stay alive and out of prison.