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Authors: Beth Cato

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BOOK: Breath of Earth
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“Here,” murmured Cy, pressing a red kerchief into her hand. Her fingers, wet with tears, squeezed his. He squeezed back. She dabbed the cloth at her eyes, and discreetly noticed
Cy's quiet little sniffles. Was he thinking of Atlanta or his childhood plantation in Alabama? Maybe some other place had captured his heart during his years of wandering.

Home. Ingrid thought of fog-shrouded hills and the low moan of foghorns and the cries of seagulls. No blue tint to the ground. Just dampness and drifting gray.

God, please don't let the city come to harm, not because of me,
she thought.

As the audience dispersed, she and Cy hooked arms so they wouldn't lose each other in the crush. His body felt so warm and solid alongside hers. People jabbered and jostled around them, some still wiping tears from their cheeks.

The thickness of the crowd couldn't mask the tension of the earth, though. Ingrid felt it building with every step she took as they crossed the lobby, as they neared more solid ground. They exited onto Market Street. The night sky was clear for the first time in ages, vivid as if she could reach out and pluck diamonds from the heavens.

Ambient heat coiled around her foot. She stopped walking. Someone bumped into her from behind, cursing. Cy angled his body to partially shelter her from the mob.

“Another one?” he murmured.

“No, it's . . .” She hesitated. “Not a wave. You know when children blow up a pig's bladder to toss around, and if you fill it with too much air it gets that particular sheen to it?” He nodded. “That's how the ground
feels
. That's the only way I can think to describe it.”

She walked on, but with every step tendrils of heat stroked and pulled at her as if she walked through a field of grass.
It wasn't as if the earth wanted to pull her in—more like it sought an outlet, like it would climb up her body. She shuddered. For ages she had craved thin-soled shoes so she could readily pull in energy. Now she had been granted her wish, eerie as it was.

The sign for Quist's gleamed with white and blue bulbs. Ingrid and Cy joined a queue. People pressed too close to allow any semblance of private conversation. Cy's lips were a tight line, his body taut as a bowstring. At last they reached the door.

The doorman appraised her at a glance and frowned. She recognized the man—he always looked at her this way, like she was a dark stain on a white marble floor. Ingrid ducked her head in a deferential manner. “I'm Ingrid Carmichael, secretary for the Cordilleran Auxiliary. I'm here on behalf of Mr. Sakaguchi,” she murmured, as if she wore her usual, more muted attire.

“Ah, yes. I remember you. This man is . . . ?”

“Mr. Dennis,” Cy replied smoothly. He'd given the same name to some of the customers who had approached during the opera. “Here after the unfortunate events on Sunday.”

“Oh yes, of course. Our sympathies.” His attention focused solely on Cy. “Mr. Sakaguchi's usual table is set.”

“Thank you,” Ingrid and Cy said in unison, and entered. “Follow me,” Ingrid added.

The scent of pungent cloves mingled with the mouthwatering fragrance of seared steak and fried fish. The first room was decorated with the heavy, dark woods of a public house. People clustered around booths or stood at high tables.

The next room recalled the austerity of a different continent.

The people here were quieter, too, barring the occasional boisterous laugh. Guests sat on plush pillows around low tables, their shoes stashed in cubbies at their booths. Serving girls replicated geisha. Their kimonos weren't stylized like Ingrid's; they were true to Japan, with narrow skirts that caused the women to walk with small, precise steps. Rice-paper sliding doors blocked off private rooms along a balcony above.

“This is my usual table.” Ingrid stopped in a back corner. No other servants lingered there; they had arrived too quickly after the show. “Mr. Sakaguchi sits over there.”

“It's impossible to know if Fa—Mr. Augustus is even here yet,” Cy said, glancing at the private rooms above. “I reckon there's only one way to find out. Pardon me.” He stopped one of the waitresses, his smile warm enough to thaw an iceberg. “Could you inquire if . . .”

Ingrid slipped off her shoes and knelt on her usual cushion to survey the rest of the room. A moment later, Cy claimed the zabuton across from her.

“You really shouldn't sit here,” she said.

“Neither should you.”

“Cy, it's okay. I don't—we don't need to cause a fuss.”

“I have no intention of causing a fuss, nor do I intend to let my companion for the evening sit alone. I sit here, or we're at that other table together.”

The view from the other table was excellent. Ingrid felt out of place, rather naughty—and giddy at the act of rebellion. The waitress came around. They deferred ordering, to wait for Mr. Augustus, and she went on.

“The waitress may not say anything about my presence, but we are getting attention,” she murmured.
She
was getting attention. “Is that wise?”

“No. But word is already out. People would have talked no matter what. Now I just pray to God that we're not kept waiting long.” A grim current deepened his voice.

The strain of the earth resonated through the room, as it abounded in straw, bamboo, and other natural fibers. The conductivity of the place—and the excellent fare—were why wardens favored the restaurant when they were entertaining guests.

The blueness of the fog had deepened, too. Ingrid could feel that difference. Power trickled into her. Not the tidal wave of a tremor, but energy just the same. She breathed it in, eyes half shut, and basked in the buzz. The gun in her purse might be more reliable if she had to defend herself, more easily explained, but this power was hers. She needed whatever she could muster.

Cy was right. People might murmur about Ingrid's presence,
exotic
—oh, how she hated that empty term—as she was. But the attention would have arrived even if Cy had come alone and used Mr. Sakaguchi's seats. And Mr. Sakaguchi always visited Quist's after the opera.

Captain Sutcliff was no fool. If he got word of Ingrid's presence, he'd know where to search for her, for Cy. She casually looked around the room and noted doors to the front, to the kitchens, and to the lavatories. No uniformed soldiers in sight.

George Augustus could betray them, too. Cy's anxiety, though, stemmed from meeting his father at all. He drummed his fingers, his gaze scouring the room. A waitress asked
again if he wanted something to drink. He shook his head.

A man in a white suit approached them and bowed. “Mr. Augustus will receive you now, sir, madam.”

He carried their shoes and guided them up stairs that emitted cricket chirps with every step. No blue clouded the floor this high up. The man slid open a door to a small chamber.

A silver-headed man with a bold forehead sat at the end of the low table. Ingrid vaguely recognized him. Mr. Sakaguchi had definitely met him at Quist's before.

With his parchment-frail skin, he looked old enough to be Cy's grandfather, not his father, but the resemblance was certainly there. They shared long, angular faces and the same noble bump to the nose. The older man's blue eyes were surrounded by deep wrinkles, giving him the perpetually sad gaze of a basset hound.

“I know you, ma'am. You're from the Cordilleran Auxiliary?” Mr. Augustus asked. His voice was softer than Cy's, wispier. He stared at Cy a few seconds, frowning as though confused, and then looked at Ingrid.

Ingrid glanced at Cy. His Adam's apple bobbed and he seemed to have utterly lost the ability to speak.

“I am,” she said.

“I don't believe we've been formally introduced, but Mr. Sakaguchi spoke highly of you, pointed you out to me.” Mr. Augustus's forehead creased in thought. “Ah, yes. Miss Carmichael, is it?”

She was surprised but pleased. “Yes, sir.” She motioned to the open door behind them. “Can the three of us speak in private, Mr. Augustus?”

At that, his eyes narrowed. “No, but four of us can, my dear.” He tapped his pocket. Footsteps whispered down the hallway behind them. Dread brought a small flare of power to her skin.

Reddy entered the room. His close-cropped white hair was a stark contrast to his ebony skin. His gaze immediately snapped to Cy. With a deft move, he shut the door and shuffled to stand to Mr. Augustus's left, but his gaze didn't leave Cy. A rosy glow rounded out his cheeks as he smiled. “Sir?”

Mr. Augustus frowned, clearly puzzled. “The lady asked for privacy for us to speak. What are you smiling about, Reddy? Do you have a joke to share with the class?”

“I think the lady's right to ask for privacy, sir.” Reddy granted Ingrid an abrupt nod. She smiled back and wondered if he remembered her. Regardless, she couldn't help but like a man who had such evident fondness for Cy.

Reddy pulled a small box from his pocket. The object was lacquered in black, the small lip of a hinge barely visible. He set it on the table and compressed the lid. A buzzing sound escalated in volume like record static.

“The walls are terribly thin here,” said George Augustus. “This device prevents our conversation from being recorded. I'd also appreciate it if you set your weapons on the table. The purse and the rod, if you will.” He said this sweetly as if he asked them inside for afternoon tea.

An observant man; like father, like son. Ingrid set her clutch on the table. With a slow movement, Cy flared open his jacket and removed the Tesla rod from its loop. He set it alongside her purse.

“Much obliged,” said Mr. Augustus. “I'm not fool enough to expect anyone to walk around unarmed in this day and age, but it makes meetings go a mite smoother if the weapons are all out and open like a July window. That done, what can I do for y'all today?”

She glanced between Cy and his father. Well, tommyrot. He looked as tongue-tied as ever. “It seems as though introductions are in order. Mr. Augustus, here's your son.”

“Father.” The word emerged as a squeak from the tall man beside her.

Mr. Augustus's eyes went impossibly large. “No. It can't be. Here? All grown up? But you . . . you're . . .” He stood, shoving back the table as he did so. Reddy caught him and steadied him upright. “Barty? You're alive?”

CHAPTER 14

Father and son studied each other for a long moment and then rushed into an embrace. Reddy stepped out of the way, a brilliant smile lighting his face.

“I knew I shouldn't believe them. I knew it. Your mother said as much.”

“You were told I was dead.” The words were ragged.

“Yes. Porterman crash in Virginia. I had men look into it. We had all the proof but your body. Last autumn when you didn't come to Maggie's funeral, it seemed more certain that . . . that you were truly gone, my boy.”

“Maggie.” A wave of grief passed over Cy. “I didn't know she was dead until weeks later. But if you expected me to show up, they did, too.”

“Yes, yes.
They
. The UP. My best customers.” Anger replaced his grief even as tears streamed down the man's cheeks. Reddy flicked a handkerchief from his pocket and passed it over.

“How'd Maggie . . . how'd it happen?” Cy asked. “She was always either in the office or her laboratory—”

“It was the laboratory. An accident, fire. Her and five other engineers. Spontaneous combustion. Fast. Thank God for small mercies.”

Cy didn't look comforted by that, but how was a person supposed to take the loss of their twin? “Figures it'd be in her lab. That's where she was most at home. I'd always tell her to be sure and remember to make something to save the world, not destroy it.” His smile didn't reach his eyes.

“Losing her—losing both of you—scorched us like hellfire. Look at you, my boy! A dozen years have passed. Last I saw, you were all of fifteen, that caterpillar mustache on your lip. Oh, your mother! If only she were here!”

Cy touched his upper lip as if to reach for the past. “How is she, since . . . ?”

Emotion flickered over the older man's face and vanished in a blink. “She'd be so proud of you. Good God. Look at how tall you are. No wonder I didn't recognize you.” He stared in awe at his son. “You went to school that last Christmas and you were a sapling with some baby fat to your cheeks. Your head only this high.” He held a hand at midchest and glanced at Ingrid. “Your pardon, ma'am! Listening to this old fool going on.”

“There's no need to apologize, sir.” Her voice was thick with emotion. She couldn't help but think of Mr. Sakaguchi, and the kind of reunion she hoped to have with him.

Mr. Augustus clapped a hand on Cy's shoulder. “Sit! Please! Reddy, our security . . . ?”

“In place as always, sir.”

Cy looked at Ingrid as he knelt on a cushion. “Augustinian invented all of the spy technology used by the Unified Pacific, which also means they know how to defend against it. That buzzer on the table is all most people will see, but knowing my father, there's a lot more in play.”

Mr. Augustus nodded. “Reinforced walls in here, which Reddy checks for whirly-flies and whatnot. The rice paper looks thin, but there's orichalcum in there to slow a bullet or two. Of course, we can only do so much about spies in the dining rooms. That's the weakness.”

Ingrid lowered herself to the zabuton across from Mr. Augustus and tucked in her skirt. Reddy was the only one to remain standing.

“So many defenses against your best customer,” she said.

“I took on the family business, thinking I could save the world,” said Mr. Augustus. “Older I get, the more I'm worried about saving my soul. I—I don't control much of the company now. The board's nearly booted me. I don't mind that much. War's never pleasant, but things have changed these past few years. Conquering a people is one matter, extermination is another.” He studied Cy. “Then I have two brilliant children who inherited our family knack, to my grief. Bart—I knew Bart wanted out.”

“Maggie never changed her mind?” asked Cy.

“No. But I knew she wasn't happy either, at the end. I . . . I was asking too much of her, wanting her to take on more of the business side. She wanted to invent, to meddle.”

“Always,” Cy whispered.

Ingrid looked to the clock on the wall. “I hate to hurry
things, I truly do, but we can't stay long. We need your help.”

“I need your help, too, ma'am. What truly happened at the Cordilleran? No one at the UP is talking about it, and there're mumblings about an Ambassador being involved. Where's Mr. Sakaguchi?”

Ingrid and Cy shared a look. Where to begin? She rested her hands on her lap. “I . . . I don't know right now, Mr. Augustus. I wish I did.” She took a deep breath. “What do you know about the Gaia Project?”

That clearly caught him off guard. “How did you ever hear about that? It's about as top secret as a project can be.”

“We know it involves kermanite,” said Cy.

“Well, yes, in a way. It was a project to create a kermanite-powered weapon to resolve the war in China, but it was scrapped in the early stages. Nothing ever came of it.”

“The project is going on right now. My . . .” My father, she almost said, but couldn't manage the words. They felt too strange. “My understanding is that it caused those earthquakes in China earlier this year.”

“The earthquakes? There aren't any Chinese geomancers left. Of course there'd be bad earthquakes.”

“How long ago was the project scrapped?” asked Cy.

“Late last year. I was told I'd be consulting and to expect blueprints, but they never arrived. I reckoned the whole thing had been some general's fancy.”

“Pardon me, sirs, ma'am, but can I get drinks or food for anyone?” asked Reddy.

“Tell Don we want the '39 La Fayette,” said Mr. Augustus. “I've been wanting—”

“No.” Cy's voice was so loud he seemed to surprise himself. “There's no time for that—that kind of celebrating.”

The two men shared an unreadable look. Ingrid recalled what Cy had said about his father and the drink.

Reddy was quiet for a moment. “I'll see about some water, then.” He exited the chamber. Ingrid heard the click of a lock. Despite Mr. Augustus's assurance, the walls still looked terribly thin. She wondered if the sliver of energy she held could tear apart a structure reinforced by orichalcum.

Orichalcum was likely to be used in this Gaia Project weapon, too. This whole thing was in the works before the Unified Pacific even had Papa in custody. Maybe he wasn't part of their original plan.

Tension lingered between the two men. Ingrid coughed politely. “Mr. Augustus, how big a piece of kermanite did this war-ender weapon need?”

“Well, that I do know, and that was why it seemed so fanciful. It required a massive piece. Solid. Nigh impossible, of course, with how it fragments.”

Ingrid looked across the table to Cy. “I didn't tell you everything about Captain Sutcliff's arrival. Down in Boron, they retrieved a piece of kermanite as big as a horse. A standing horse, to the withers. And it vanished.”

“Vanished?” Cy arched an eyebrow. “How does something like that vanish?”

“In Boron? We own a major stake in that mine. I have people there. How did we not know?” Father and son shared a perplexed expression.

“Captain Sutcliff said the kermanite was stolen and the
trail led him to San Francisco. He thought the auxiliary was somehow involved.”

“That makes no sense at all,” murmured Mr. Augustus. “Kermanite as big as a horse! How would you even move such a thing? It'd be so fragile! Why would he think the auxiliary was involved?”

She dismissed the question with a flick of her wrist. No need to bring up the drama with Captain Sutcliff, Papa, and Mr. Sakaguchi.

“My people aren't my people anymore. I'm too old for these games.” Mr. Augustus rubbed his jaw. “Ten years ago, I had absolute control. I knew my agents. They knew me.”

“You had Maggie with you then,” said Cy.

“I also had you way back when, Barty. Don't sell yourself short. These days, victory in China looks inevitable. Britain's about ready to crush India, though the Thuggees will make them bleed. But using earthquakes as the weapon. How? Is this some perversion of geomancy?”

Ingrid masked a cringe at his choice of words. “Yes. We're not sure exactly how, though. We hoped you'd know.”

“If only I'd seen the blueprints! If I knew more, I'd gladly tell you.” Mr. Augustus's broad forehead furrowed into deep lines. “Lordy, Lordy. What about Vesuvius? Could a weapon have caused that?”

“I really don't know,” Ingrid said, a pang striking her chest. The council had spent hours debating that matter of Vesuvius, and at the time it had felt like such a distant event, physically and emotionally.

If her pain could cause an earthquake, could rile Hidden
Ones in such a way, she might be capable of causing a volcanic eruption as well.

Reddy slipped inside the room again, locking the door behind him. “Mr. Augustus, sir, there are soldiers at the front door of Quist's. The attendants are delaying them.”

Cy rushed straight to his father. The men stood together in an embrace so painful that Ingrid looked away. She edged toward the door and slipped on her shoes.

“Reddy,” she asked, “what's the best exit from here?”

“The kitchen is fastest, ma'am. Goes straight to the back alley.”

“Barty, I don't want us to part like this.” Mr. Augustus wavered on his feet. “This is too fast. I need—I need to do more. Know more. In my room upstairs, there are things I can give you. Money. Jewels. I want to help you somehow.”

“There's no time, Father.” Cy took a step back but still didn't let go of him.

“Reddy, you can take him up the back way to my room, can't you? Quickly?” Mr. Augustus's voice quavered, and he paused for a deep, hacking cough. “I'm old, but I'm not entirely useless. I can distract these soldiers.”

“Certainly, sir,” said Reddy.

“Father—”

“Don't argue with me. Don't you dare. I wish I could go with you. I wish I had your spine. Whatever you're doing, whatever this fight is, let me help. Please. For you, for Maggie, for your mother.”

“Cy, we should split up,” said Ingrid. Maybe the soldiers had descriptions of both of them from the opera, but she knew for certain they'd look for her.

He nodded. “Right. Meet in front of the barbershop with the cigar-store Indian just a few blocks away.”

“I know it.” She wanted to kiss him right then, crush their lips together, absorb his heat and scent and everything else about him. Instead, she cast him a desperate look, grabbed her purse from the table, and she fled.

She flew down the stairs and made a sharp left toward the kitchen. The luscious scent of sizzling meat and peppers flavored the air, as if she could breathe and chew at the same time. She spun to dodge a laden waiter. Steaming trays lined an open counter, and she caught a glimpse of chefs in white hats, yellow bandannas tied to their sleeves. Voices muttered in heavily accented English.

The hallway turned. Ahead of her was a flash of brilliant red skirts. Ingrid stopped, recognition instantaneous.

Victoria Rossi.

Several signs marked the hallway ahead. Going straight led to the alley and escape, but Miss Rossi had gone right, toward an access to the flats above. Ingrid gnawed her lip and followed. Up ahead she saw a sinuous curl of black iron railing: a staircase.

“Damn it all, but you had me worried.” A man's voice was faint. “Soldiers are trying to get in here.”

“Oh, as if they'll know you, looking like that. A beard does suit you.” That was Miss Rossi. “Business like this, with such hoity-toity people, they will keep the soldiers out. Besides, you're the one who wanted to come here a last time. The steak was tasty, yes?”

Whoever Miss Rossi was meeting, they'd probably try to
escape through the alley, too. Ingrid looked in the next open doorway—a broom closet. The harsh scent of ammonia stung her nostrils as she ducked inside. She pulled the cord for the light and shut the door behind her. In the back wall, water roared through pipes, a waterfall in an echo chamber.

“We can't afford to dally.” The voice was so muffled that Ingrid had to focus to decipher what he said.

“I like it when you take risks.” Miss Rossi's soft voice was even harder to understand. Ingrid scooted a stool closer to the shared wall and stepped up so that she could press her ear against a vent.

“Did you take enough of your pretty pictures?” the man asked, scarcely louder than before. He had an accent. British, perhaps.

“My pretty pictures. You say it like they're so . . . so minor. My photographs, they are important! I have spent these three days walking the entire damned city. I thought I was supposed to have months to do this!” Ingrid frowned as water continued to flush through the pipes, making it difficult for her to hear.

“I told you from the beginning that we may have to be flexible.”

“Flexible. Feh.”

“You'll make your money. You can buy new shoes to ease your sore feet.”

“Money. It's never been just about money.”

“No, hatred is a much better motivation.”

It took Ingrid a moment to realize Miss Rossi was laughing. Only the highest pitch carried through the vent. “Oh yes. I will love to see this city fall into dust. I would love to see Butterfield's
face when he wakes up in his soft feather bed and silk sheets and realizes what is happening. If he wakes up at all.”

“Ah, familiar with Butterfield's bed, are you?”

“I should slap you for that.”

“Hardly worth slapping someone over the truth, is it?”

“I just wanted my studio. To take my pretty pictures, as you say.”

“Sometimes we don't get what we want.”

“You have what you want now, don't you? That auxiliary is rubble. I like that my old studio collapsed in the explosion. Very nice touch. Oh, look at you. Sad-faced. Do you feel guilty? You shouldn't. This is war, yes?”

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