War was a god, arrogant and proud. War was a human, earnest and ambitious. War was a child, petulant and demanding.
Gerard Rousseau, emperor of Gallia, knew its rhythm well. Knew the beat of soldiers’ footsteps, the whinny of battle-tested horses, the look in the eye of a man who understood victory—or defeat—was already guaranteed. He didn’t love war, but he loved to command. To place his mark upon a battlefield, upon those who served him. To be victorious, and to pull that victory from the bloody grasp of defeat. To win.
War was a means to an end. War was the tool that brought him control, power, people, territory. And with territory, magic. Magic buried inside stone and water and grassy plain, currents of power that feathered through the world like veins of gold through marble that could be felt by those who were Aligned to it. Some gave the lines a name: ley, aetheric, telluric. Some gave it an origin, said it was the fingerprint of the gods, the remnants of their physical touch upon the world.
Gerard didn’t care how it came into being, or what name was given to it. He cared only for its potential . . . and for its possession. Whoever held the most land held the most magic. And whoever held the most magic held the most power. Literally and figuratively. He now ruled a large piece of the Continent, and intended to have the rest of it soon enough.
War was a game, and he was its master. Chess spread across oceans and continents. And hadn’t he placed the pieces so very carefully across the board? A knight. A queen. A pawn. One at his side, one at his control, one unaware of the limitations of its position.
He looked down at the spread of maps across his campaign desk.
“At dawn,” Gerard said to the man who stood silently beside the desk, awaiting the emperor’s orders, “we move.”
# # #
War was dirt and dust and exertion beyond exhaustion. War was time borrowed from death itself. War was escape from the strictures of obligation, a life narrowed to its thin, hard edge.
A mile away from Rousseau, a man lay in the slope of a dusty hill, his linen nearly the same color as the orange-red dirt. The land was scrubby, rocky, and not useful for much that he could see—except observing the enemy.
Rian Grant was one of Sutherland’s observing officers, tasked with learning the land, finding Gerard’s troops, uncovering their plans.
He wasn’t Aligned, didn’t care for phenomena he couldn’t see or touch. But half the men in the twenty-member unit were. They could feel the terrain miles ahead, guide troops where to make camp, where to find water. One of the Aligned, a man named Bourne, had found the unit of Gallic soldiers, could feel the disruption in the currents of the earthworks they’d built to secure their position. Bourne had led them here, where Grant and his fellow officer, Dunwood, would listen and learn.
For two days, they’d watched Gerard’s men eat, sleep, smoke, and drill, waiting for some sign of the army’s direction and destination. The first night, they’d nearly been captured by sentries scouring the hillside for nosy locals or enemy spies. But the sentries tramped off toward the camp again, none the wiser.
Dunwood lay beside Grant in the dirt, spyglass to his eye, the metal scoured so there’d be no glint of sunlight to give away their position. “They’ll be going west.”
Grant snorted. “Copper says you’re wrong. Again. They won’t march directly toward the lines. They’ll move around, try to outflank.”
Marcus Dunwood considered the bet, nodded. “I’ll take that.”
Four hours later, when the lines shifted and began to move west, Dunwood cursed.
“Why are you complaining?” Grant muttered. “You won.”
“Only bet a copper, didn’t I?” Dunwood shook his head with disgust. “I should have known better.”
“Next time you will. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
# # #
War was full canvas, the drumbeat to quarters, the strike of blade against blade. War was honor and bravery beyond fear.
Two hundred miles away from Gerard’s troops and Sutherland’s officers, Lieutenant Kit Brightling was at the helm of the Isles ship Ardent, dark hair whipping in the wind as the Ardent streamed through high seas near San Miguel. She looked back, found the line of Frisian brigs—wide of beam and tall of mast—flying toward them with all sails. The Ardent had managed to stay ahead, but the brigs had more canvas, and they were gaining ground.
“Lieutenant, I believe it’s time.”
“Sir,” Kit said to the woman beside her, whose eyes were concerned beneath a furrowed brow. Kit respected no one in the Crown Command more than Captain Perez. And she understood well the uncertainty in the captain’s eyes.
Kit was Aligned to the sea, could feel the currents of magic that spun beneath the waves. Magic was energy, power; and humans were still only beginning understand its scope, its potential—and the horrific costs of its misuse. Reading the stories told by the currents was harmless, as far as anyone could tell. Manipulating them—trying to shift them, to absorb them, to weaponize them—had been calamitous. Three months ago, Aligned Gallic officers had warped the current to the surface at Contra Costa, hoping to ignite it and send a current of fire through Isles troops. Ten thousand had died in the resulting inferno.
But Kit had found a path, a slender space between seeing and manipulating. A gentle grasping of the current, holding it just long enough to pull a ship into its arms—and speed the ship along its path. Too much, and the current would snap back—and break the ship in two.
Perez had been confident enough to let Kit try, her crew trusting Perez enough to follow her orders despite the risk. And when they’d felt the ship fly, more than willing to try it again.
“Get ready,” the captain said. “Hard to port when we’re there. We’ll come hard around,” she added with a thin smile. “And drive right toward them.”
Kit closed her eyes—easier to focus—and reached down through wood and tar and hemp to the water, deep and dark and swirling below, feeling for the shimmering current that crossed somewhere beneath them. Not directly—they hadn’t been that lucky—and nearly a mile to port. But that was close enough . . .
“Starboard brig is gaining ground, Captain!”
Kit heard the shout from the waist, ignored it as her fingers began to tingle from the brush against the power, and reached farther, sweat on her brow as she drew closer to the power. And then the heat of the ley line itself, the center core, bright and glimmering. The ship—an arrow; the current—a bowstring. The heat building, her skin damp with it, and she reached farther—just a bit more—until the current wrapped around her.
“Ready when you are,” Perez said quietly, and Kit released fingers she’d clenched into hard fists, and then released the connection.
Like a loosed arrow, the Ardent shuddered and jerked forward, and Kit opened her eyes as lieutenants shouted orders and the ship made hard for port. She looked down at her hands, found a new constellation of spots, dark and minute, across her palms. Burns, the physick had said. Painless, but invariable, the scars of flying too closely to the current.
“Let the canvas fly,” Perez called out, and the Ardent roared forward against the breaking sea.
Need more Kit? Read Chapter One here!
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