Prologue

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The warship carried twenty good men and two cannons.

"Bit of an overkill, isn't it?" Captain Pasker said. The sun was to his back, casting a long, imposing shadow over the deck.

Captain Pasker was from the mainland; his ship had accompanied the Emperor on the short voyage across the Azure Sea to the small province of Lunar Island. Pasker had been in three wars already, "skirmishes," he called them, bloody little inconveniences that were necessary to remind the people of the might of the Emperor.

The sailor beside him was a local boy, a new conscript. He'd been raised with the old legends. He wasn't sure that one warship was enough.

The sleek, red-lacquered vessel cut through the bay toward a small island that bore only one building. A hospital, its brick facade illuminated by the rising sun, the clockface built into the tower so bright the captain could not look at it directly.

"Get the horn," Captain Pasker told the boy. The sailor went running.

By the time he returned with the large vocal horn, the warship was just a few meters away from the stone steps that disappeared into the blue-green waters of the bay. He tried to count them—fifty or so, leading up to a stone plaza and the massive doors of the hospital.

The captain raised the horn to his lips. "By order of Emperor Auguste, you must surrender your person for trial." His voice boomed up the steps, and he was certain that those who lurked inside the large brick building had heard.

The doors, however, did not open.

"This is your last chance," Captain Pasker shouted through the horn. "You are hereby ordered by the Emperor's Guard to present yourself for arrest on the grounds of treason."

"And trespassing," the first mate added.

Captain Pasker set the vocal horn down. "Treason's quite enough. Can't hang the girl twice."

They waited.

"All right, boys, get ready."

The sailors used oars to bring the warship closer to the steps, then lashed it portside to the posts.

"I'll take five," the captain said, one foot on the gangway. The first mate selected five additional sailors to accompany him, and they followed his long strides onto the small island, swords at their hips and muzzle-loaded smoothbore muskets in their hands.

"Blasted sun gets in the way," Captain Pasker grumbled as he looked back at the ship. "Try the horn once more," he called.

The first mate repeated the captain's message, the words amplified and echoing over the calm waters of the bay. The captain and his five were already halfway up the stairs when the heavy door of the hospital creaked open.

A girl stepped into the light.

She was average in height and build, her hair black and neatly braided, shining in the sun as if it were still damp after being washed.

Her deep olive skin was typical of people from Lunar Island. She wore alchemist robes that seemed a touch too big for her; likely she'd stolen the clothing from the hospital closets. The only remarkable thing about her was that she was missing her left arm from a point just above where her elbow should have been, but even that detail wasn't too strange. Many on Lunar Island had lost a limb or two from

the plague.

Still, she was young enough to be Captain Pasker's daughter.

Seventeen, eighteen maybe. He could feel the doubt welling in his men, the hesitation. The captain gazed up the long stone stairs toward her.

"We're here to arrest you," Captain Pasker called. "Best come quiet now."

The girl smiled.

"Girl," Captain Pasker said in a warning tone, as if even her gender was cause for offense.

The doors behind her opened wider.

The people who poured out behind the girl seemed unarmed. Most wore hospital dressing gowns; a few wore peasants' clothing. All of them showed some deformity of the plague—withered and blackened hands or feet, an inky stain rising up their necks, under their skin.

And they were quiet.

They did not speak or even look to the girl as they descended the stairs as if by pre-agreed formation.

They showed no fear.

They showed no emotion at all.

Captain Pasker's stomach churned.

The rifles in his men's hands shook.

"Steady," Captain Pasker warned, but it did no good. One of the sailors popped off a shot, the bullet aimed true despite the man's nerves. A woman in the front, about twenty steps away, staggered, her shoulder snapping back, the force of the blow causing her to stumble and fall on the steps. Her head smashed against the stone, an audible crack of her skull followed by the crunching sound of broken teeth.

The others around her kept moving, completely ignoring her body broken on the steps.

And then she stood back up.

The woman showed no pain. She opened her mouth and let the splintered teeth clatter to the ground. She ignored the skin that dangled over her broken skull. No blood poured from her wounds.

She just kept walking.

She was ten steps away now. Five.

"Fire!" Captain Pasker screamed. "Fire! Fire!"

The guns blossomed in flame and smoke around him as his men fired shot after shot. Many in the crowd staggered, but none cried out.

None fell.

The dead could not die.    

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