9:55 a.m., Faithday, 10th of Hay Days,

Year 2659 of Epoch of Pious Virtues


“HAVE YOU gone completely mad? Do you want another ripper chasing you right after the first one?” Obadai Bashim demanded swift answers from his friend, companion, and lover, Jules Sterling, who was incredibly busy and extremely unwilling to reply right away.

“Of course not!” Jules snapped, busy with his latest invention, whatever it would turn out to be. Even he sometimes didn’t know. As an engineering sage, Jules was like a sculptor who peeled away layers of stone and metal to reveal a piece of art already there. Only he worked on mechanical contraptions, not blocks of stone. He still saw what he created as art, of the practical and progressive variety.

Angrily, he yanked the low-hanging gaslight closer, the sound of metal screeching accompanying the move. The workbench was large enough to house several of his small and midsize projects. The smells of wood, smoke, and metal oils surrounded him in the dusky gloom of the new—and thus far unofficial—Sage’s Guild Chapterhouse in Dunbruth.

The airship that had crashed against the outer curtain wall of Dunbruth’s New Town nine years ago had now been converted by Jules into a new inventor’s workshop. The shipwreck of Bad Gambit was cozily lit by dim lanterns hanging from the soot-blackened boards of the rafters and swaying slightly in the breeze coming from the tiny cracks in the planks of the wooden hull. The lanterns illuminated the vaulted space that had once been the cargo room of the airship galleon. Every available space had been commandeered by workbenches, artifact shelves, writing desks with quills and inkwells, stacks of books, and rows of parchments. Sunlight filtered through the round, colorful stained glass portholes, the beams fracturing into prisms. The air was warm and smoky and filled with the clinking and clattering of the various steam contraptions scattered around, with the occasional hiss and puff adding to the mechanical cacophony.

“It’s been two measly weeks since the attack by the smokeforged up at Lofty Lodge,” Obadai reminded Jules in his most infuriating know-it-all voice. “Exactly two weeks today.”

Jules bit his tongue to avoid snapping at Obadai. “So?”

“And it’s Faithday, last day of the week, rest day. You shouldn’t be working at all, least of all with one of your harebrained—” Obadai stopped abruptly, but it was already too late.

Jules’s fierce gaze shot up to meet Obadai’s lilac Earth mage’s eyes. “My—what? I thought you believed in my work.” He couldn’t mask the hurt in his voice, and he couldn’t believe his lover had said that to him, thrown it in his face like an invisible gauntlet.

Obadai seemed to be seething, if the manner in which he ground his teeth was any indication. “That’s not what I meant.”

Jules was getting mad too. He worked his butt off to better the world through scientific effort and practical mechanical applications, even now in an age when steam technology was being ruthlessly pushed out to make way for the rise of religion and the Theocracy. “Oh?”

Obadai raked a hand through his black spiky hair in obvious frustration. “Why can’t you create something pragmatic and useful? Something that might actually convince the Theocracy that progress isn’t such a bad thing? Something that won’t send the whole world up in flames of revolution? Something the world can’t live without?”

“Like what exactly?” Jules countered, his pitch rising. “Brighter gaslights? Horseless carriages? Improved teleflickers? Steam-powered sex toys?” With great difficulty Jules controlled his temper. “I’m an inventor. I’m a sage, one of the few left in town. And I’m a journeyman now, responsible for this new chapterhouse. I create what fires my brain, what lights up my imagination, what awakens my heart. If you can’t see that….” Angry at his lover, Jules shook his head and looked away, feeling betrayed and abandoned. He’d thought Obadai understood the dream and even shared it with Jules.

A gentle hand landed on his shoulder, squeezing softly. “Forgive me, Jules. I didn’t mean it like that.” Obadai let out a sad sigh, the puff of air hot against the back of Jules’s head. “I just worry, you know. I always worry about you. I lov—um, care for you greatly. I can’t help it.”

It warmed Jules’s heart and melted some of his icy demeanor to hear the slip of the tongue Obadai had made. But he wasn’t willing to concede idealistic defeat. “The whole world is going mad with blind faith, with theocrats stalking every street corner. I can’t give up on the dream. What if all sages in hiding did that? What would we have left to strive for? What would the future hold if we abandoned all thoughts of progress?” He let out a stifled, cold chuckle. “A stagnant, stilted world, with only the sounds of forced prayers and ceaseless church bells to guide us on our way back toward social, legal, and spiritual regression.”

Obadai hugged Jules’s waist from behind. “I know, my fey.” He kissed Jules’s nape a few times before retreating a few steps. “You’ve got a way with words. I guess I’m just a dumb old mage because I honestly can’t see the use for horses—with wings.”

Jules turned to watch Obadai stare at the table where the wooden, metal-tipped wings lay, half-finished and firmly attached to their struts and harness. As usual, Obadai’s lilac gaze was a mix of apprehension, curiosity, and admiration. That look, above anything he might have said, assured Jules that Obadai still did believe in Jules’s work, even if he worried.

“Everyone wants to fly,” he argued with the devout faith of a believer in imagination being the herald of brighter things to come. He realized how odd that was for him to say when his recent experiences up at the Lofty Lodge had reminded him how much he feared heights. Would flying be any different, with still nothing but air between him and the hard ground below?

“Even horses?” Obadai sounded skeptical. “I find that concept, um, a bit hard to wrap my brain around.”

“The steam technology we’ve built and relied on for two centuries is becoming scarce and obsolete with the advance of the Theocracy among the common populace. We need something to replace our steam airships and cableways now that they’re not getting the regular maintenance they require. Reliable, swift transports.” Jules’s nonstop mind fired up with images of new possible creations, and to keep them fresh in his mind, he quickly began to scribble them down on a parchment by the workbench. “Just think of it. If we could attach floating carriages, like tiny airships, to winged horses… well, there’s no place on Nebulosia we couldn’t reach.” He wrote down initial schematics and rough plans while he spoke, his hand practically flying over the parchment. “Everyone, and every thing, wants to fly.”

“I don’t.”

Jules looked up and saw Obadai smirk and give him a meaningful, daring glare. Jules rolled his eyes. “You’re a mage, a druid with the seed of Earth magicks. You’re an exception. You and your fellow Earth mages.” And probably theocrats too, he thought. While the Theocracy viewed flying as a method toward their ultimate spiritual objective, which was ascension to a higher plane of existence, the Virtuist Church condemned flight by artificial means. They revered all beings capable of flight by natural means—the fey, butterflies, birds—but saw mechanical flight as heresy.

“So, if those like me don’t wish to fly, we don’t count, is that it?” Obadai’s narrow, handsomely sculpted face retained an expression of amusement.

“With your idolatry of the pastoral past with no mechanical transportation? No, you don’t.”

Jules saw Obadai grimace at the sound of the new male voice, joining in their private conversation. He used a placating tone in his greeting. “Good morrow, Captain Lovelace.”

Carrying two huge barrels, one balanced over each shoulder, their visitor gave a deep belly laugh. He was well over six feet six inches, with the heavily muscled, well-built figure of a renowned pugilist. He was clad in a brown-and-yellow plaid kilt, revealing his strong, hairy shins. A waist-hugging leather belt wrapped several times around his narrow hips, and an amber-colored, buckled aeronaut’s leather coat hung open to expose his barreled furry chest. His long, thick mane of dirty-blond hair, some of it braided, framed his rough masculine face and stubbled jaw. Laugh lines bordered his green eyes, and adorable dimples graced his cheeks. His boyish charm together with his imposing physical stature made him a veritable feast for the eyes—for both men and women.

“And a fine morrow to you too, young Jules,” the captain stated, his mischievous gaze twinkling with seductive charisma. Not even Jules was immune, despite his feelings for Obadai.

Obadai crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Charles Lovelace, who cheerfully ignored the visible hostility born of jealousy and even winked at Obadai, who snarled louder. “Excuse us, but this is a private conversation.”

The captain chuckled amicably. “Oh really? Personally, I would’ve classified it as an argument.” His gaze flicked between peeved Obadai and Jules, who couldn’t control his fidgeting in the wake of interaction. “What’s the row about this time? The current wave of religious insanity rampaging through this fair world of ours? This new chapterhouse? The latest of dear Jules’s ingenious devices? Or me, perhaps?”

“None of your concern,” Obadai grunted.

“Obadai, please,” Jules said, pitching his tone to appeal to Obadai’s better nature.

But the plea just made matters worse, as Obadai whirled and turned his back on Jules and Lovelace, muttering something unseemly under his breath.

Jules couldn’t understand Obadai’s jealousy. In his eyes, Obadai was beautiful, like a deep, dark forest that beckoned to adventure in the raw beauty of nature. That spiky, unruly black hair, tattooed and pierced body, and the revealing black clothes that defied convention and clung to his skinny, sinewy figure. Those long limbs, slight hunch of shoulders, and the angular bone structure. They all called out to Jules. Those lilac eyes caught Jules in a vise of desire, twisting his gut with insatiable lust and his heart with burgeoning love.

Next to Obadai, Jules felt awfully plain and ordinary, with his slender, short form clad in simple dark brown tweed pants and natural white linen shirt. With his hazel eyes, curly brown hair, and tanned, boyish looks, he felt he was seen as a child and therefore hard to take seriously. Not even the racial tattoo-like black patterns on the left side of his face and body that confirmed his age as a man of at least twenty-one diminished that embarrassingly youthful impression.

Now, Captain Lovelace had helped Jules convert the salvaged airship into a functional inventor’s workshop and a new guildhouse, even though the Sage’s Guild had been banned by the Theocracy as a heretical organization. Thankfully, the authority of the theocrats didn’t overrule the feudal power of the Five Kingdoms—so far. Their power base rose high up in the clouds, at the moment not touching the ground beneath in anything but matters of faith.

Nonetheless, Lovelace was an outcast and a rebel against oppression as much as Jules and Obadai themselves. Obadai should have been able to put himself in the captain’s shoes. But his needless jealousy, it seemed, silenced the better fey of his nature.

“What are you working on, Jules?” Lovelace asked curiously, putting the barrels down with heavy thuds and leaning over Jules’s shoulder to view the workbench more closely.

When he heard Obadai sneer, Jules suppressed a sigh. “The wings.”

Lovelace chuckled as he backed off. “On horses? Seems a little bit odd.” But then he shrugged as if he didn’t care. “Creative, though, I’ve got to give you that.”

“Thanks.” Jules was grateful his new friend and colleague was on his side. Sure, the captain wasn’t a sage like him, but he was a former aeronaut—and according to some, an air pirate too, with a dubious, unsubstantiated history of smuggling. Jules didn’t dare look at Obadai to see his reactions to their ally and friend.

Lovelace went back to work, offloading crates from the cart he’d been pulling. “Oh, almost forgot.” He spoke over his shoulder. “Looks like you’ve got an admirer, dear Jules. There’s a theocrat outside, casing the place.”

“What?” Obadai’s face turned ruddy, and he stormed off toward the arched doorway, punctured into the side of the ship, before Jules could stop him.

This wasn’t going to end well, Jules knew, as he dashed after his impulsive lover.

Outside, exactly as Lovelace had warned, a theocrat paced, his sharp gaze inspecting his surroundings. In his tweed pants and jacket, both the typical burnt orange color worn by first-tier theocrats, and a cream-colored vest and shoes, he epitomized an immaculate official to a tee. His dark hair was cut short, and he sported a clean-shaven, almost boyish, face.

Like most theocrats—who were mainly lay folk, friars, monks, or first-level priests—this man was unlikely to be a full-fledged Puritan Priest of ordained status, with unshakeable faith. The Theocracy wasn’t one to readily admit the true state of affairs, but in actuality, the Virtuist Church was composed of several different orders, denominations, and sects.

At the moment, D’monican Puritans reigned over the other orders. St. D’monicus had done more than any saint before him when it came to bending convention and changing the rules. Where previous saints had only expanded on the basic virtues each of the Spirit Gods embodied, St. D’monicus had gone further and actually added new virtues to the existing pantheon.

The theocrat stopped his pacing at the sight of Obadai and Jules exiting the capsized former airship, and he observed Obadai’s furious look warily.

But his expression soon turned into one of fury and disdain.

That could have had something to do with his feet sinking into the cobblestone street, which had turned to quicksand courtesy of Obadai’s Earth magicks.

“Druid heretic,” the theocrat accused Obadai with a tight voice, ripe with firm belief in his own words. “Release me right now or face the wrath of the Spirit Gods!”

Obadai snarled, baring his teeth in a grimace, while green stars danced around his body, evidence of his magickal powers. “You and your fellow theocrats are nothing but hypocrites, preaching your one true faith of ethics and virtues—yet only the vices of hate, ignorance, and scorn fill your hearts, revealed in every word and deed.”

The theocrat snarled back just as viciously. “Yet it is you who have attacked me with your blasphemous magicks, trapping me. Well, druid, now what? I’m your prisoner, helpless and at your mercy. Will you kill me and prove me right in my judgment of you?” He finished with a loud, derisive scoff.

Obadai’s eyes flashed intently, and his hands rose to cast a spell.

Jules had to intervene. He stepped up to his lover and gripped his arm. “Obadai, no! Don’t do it. You’re better than this. Better than him. Please, let him go.”

The look Obadai gave Jules right then froze his blood in his veins. Obadai looked defeated, betrayed, and defiant all at once. He looked as though he was about to speak his mind, but instead he growled low, wrenched out of Jules’s hold, and left the scene behind with a venomous shout, “Dig him out yourself, sage. I’m sure you can rustle up a shovel somewhere.”

As Obadai disappeared around the street corner, heading up a low incline toward the Old Town Gate, Jules felt wretched. Maybe the accusation in Obadai’s eyes had been correct, and he had indeed judged the situation for what it was. Perhaps Jules had let his lover down by siding with the theocrat—when in truth he had only sought to find a peaceful end to a situation spiraling out of control with mutual animosities.

But even the best of intentions….

His gaze landed on the theocrat, who stood up to his knees in a patch of now solidified dirt, unable to climb out, and cursed under his breath. His upper body wobbled out of balance, and he used his fingers to try to burrow out of the ground, with no success because of the cobblestones.

With a resigned sigh, Jules closed the distance to help the man out of the hole his own proud, judgmental words had buried him in.

Jules would have to make peace with Obadai later. He truly prayed Obadai would look into his heart and see fit to forgive Jules for his unintended slight and transgression. After all, now more than ever the world needed peacemakers, not troublemakers.