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Authors: Beth Cato

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BOOK: Breath of Earth
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“God willing, fewer than that,” said Captain Sutcliff.

“Chinatown here has the largest portion in the States,” Ingrid murmured. Its eradication would come soon enough. Everyone said as much, even Lee, though he never lingered on the topic.

“There are more chankoro—pardon my language,” Captain Sutcliff added with an apologetic dip of his head as Ingrid openly scowled at the foul epithet. “There are said to be more Chinese residing on the West Coast of America and Canada now than in their old land.”

Mr. Sakaguchi inclined his head. “They have a presence, yes, but they have neither industry nor geomancers. To utilize kermanite like that would require more manpower, more factories, than can be hidden away like some opium den deep in Chinatown. You would need all the factories of Atlanta working in concert to create something to use such a crystal. That minimizes the threat of this theft.”

“Yet we are prevented from using it as well,” said Captain Sutcliff.


“You say you're loyal to America now, Warden Sakaguchi. Prove it. This kermanite may well be the key to ending the war and saving countless American lives. Help me toward this goal.”

Mr. Sakaguchi looked sidelong at Ingrid. “I'm not sure what you're trying to imply or ask of me, Captain Sutcliff.”

“Then I'll be blunt. I grant you this one opportunity to tell me what you know, and I will speak well of your cooperation. Otherwise . . .”

“I had not heard of this piece of kermanite before our conversation. That is the truth.”

Ingrid looked between the men, brow furrowed.

Captain Sutcliff sighed. “So you say. Maybe in twenty years you'll tell a different tale, hmm?” He shook his head, and Ingrid wondered what on earth the man was talking about. “I had hoped, as a Japanese man, you'd be more reasonable. Not like the Chinese. They're incapable of reason.”

“Are they really?” A rare flush of anger colored Mr. Sakaguchi's cheeks. “The Thuggees fight the British. The Chinese
fight us. If the denizens of the crowded isles of Japan decided to settle America by force, would
behave reasonably? Should any people simply consent to their own demise?”

Ingrid sucked in a breath. Mr. Sakaguchi's sentiments were nothing new to her, but dear God, why was he saying such things to an officer of the Unified Pacific? Did he
to be arrested for sedition?

Captain Sutcliff stared, his face unreadable.

Mr. Sakaguchi stood. “I believe we're done for now, Captain. My secretary and I have already dealt with a terrible trauma today. I must attend my colleagues at the hospital.”

“Attending your colleagues will be rather difficult, Mr. Sakaguchi, as you're the only people from the auxiliary we have recovered alive.”

Ingrid had never seen Mr. Sakaguchi turn so pale. In two strides she was at his side, supporting him by an arm. His lips quivered and parted as if to speak, but no sound emerged.

“No one else?” she asked.

Some of Sutcliff's haughtiness faded. “If anyone had been found alive, news would have been brought here straightaway.”

All of them dead? Surely not. Someone else had to survive. The wardens—and the children, the adepts.

“What about the staff?” she managed to croak out. She had seen some of their faces most every day of her life.

“The building was torn asunder, Miss Carmichael. The damage—the bodies will be difficult to identify, and there were casualties within the flanking buildings and in the street as well.”

“We had a hundred people in the building.” Mr. Sakaguchi's voice was scarcely audible.

She and Ojisan rocked together, mute in their grief for a long moment. No wonder so many small earthquakes had been occurring.

Ingrid sucked in a sharp breath. “But there's still—” Mr. Sakaguchi's sudden grip on her arm silenced her, but she was buoyed by the thought that Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Thornton were alive. Their illnesses had spared them.

“The mayor's office wishes to speak to you when you're well,” said Captain Sutcliff. “A report must be issued on the welfare of the city.”

Mr. Sakaguchi's lips thinned at the allusion to Mayor Butterfield, but he nodded.

“It's been a strangely active year for tremblers, hasn't it?” asked Captain Sutcliff. “The terrible waves that struck South America, the tremor in St. Lucia, and of course, there's Vesuvius.”

“And Peking twice over,” Ingrid murmured.

Captain Sutcliff dismissed the mention with a flick of his hand. “Proof of God's favor. Even the Chinese believe they have lost their ‘Mandate of Heaven.' Those quakes saved a million American bullets and bombs. When was the last major earthquake in San Francisco? Eighteen-seventy? The city should get along just fine, then.”

“Eighteen sixty-eight, but—” began Ingrid. Mr. Sakaguchi shot her a look that stopped her before she could tell Captain Sutcliff that there hadn't been a major event in the city
of the presence of the auxiliary.

“I must attend to my duties at home,” said Mr. Sakaguchi. “I must . . . I must reach out to other auxiliaries for assistance. This cannot wait.”

How long would it take for more geomancers to arrive? Ingrid gnawed on her lower lip. Was Sutcliff even going to let them go, after what Mr. Sakaguchi said?

Captain Sutcliff squinted at them. “You are the only warden accounted for at this time, so yes. Attend your business, but don't leave the city—of course, you're already aware of that.” He gave Mr. Sakaguchi a pointed look. “I'll speak to you again soon.” Speak, meaning an arrest would likely come once bureaucratic obstacles were surmounted and other geomancers arrived.

“Here's my calling card.” With a deft flick of his wrist, Captain Sutcliff pulled out the card and extended it toward Mr. Sakaguchi. Ingrid plucked it from his fingertips, and the captain's eyes widened in surprise.

his secretary,” she said. Mr. Sakaguchi proceeded through the foyer to the entrance.

“Is that all you are, ma'am?”

Ingrid took in a deep breath to quell her annoyance. Captain Sutcliff wasn't the first to insinuate such—no, according to gossip, she had to be either a lover or a charity case, or both.

“Captain Sutcliff, you're here to investigate, so let me make your job a little easier. I've lived in Mr. Sakaguchi's household since I was barely school age. My mother was his cook and head housekeeper, and cooked at the auxiliary as well. Mr. Sakaguchi's the closest thing I've known to a father.”

When Ingrid had scraped her knee as a child, Mama ordered her to stop crying and move along; Mr. Sakaguchi was
the one who kissed his fingers then pressed them to her knee, and made the pain go away faster than any Reiki. In the evenings, when Mama headed to bed early, he used to prop Ingrid up on his lap and read to her his favorite tales of the geomantic Hidden Ones. He was the one who, on her birthday mornings, always left a small tin of her very favorite Ghirardelli chocolates on her nightstand.

“I see.” Captain Sutcliff didn't believe her. Pompous twit.

She stepped toward the door, then hesitated. She didn't like this man, but something still needed to be said. “And thank you, Captain. You and your men. Thank you for pulling us out.”

“It was quite lucky you both survived.” He said it as if there was more than luck involved. “We fetched shoes for both of you. One of my men can summon a cab—”

“No, thank you,” she said. She would accept nothing more from this man. “We usually walk. We can manage on our own.” Ingrid shot him a glare and turned, her indecently loosened hair lashing against her cheeks.

She shoved her feet into the supplied footwear—men's boots, surprisingly correct in size. She bounced down the steps, but the stiffness in her back slowed her down as she rejoined Mr. Sakaguchi. He looked so odd standing there, his fine suit shredded and filthy, borrowed shoes on his feet, no hat on his head.

Emotion burned in her throat. The auxiliary was gone. The wardens, gone. Everything changed today. Everything.

“I told him we were walking,” she said.

“Are you well enough for the trek?” He stared at the ground as he spoke.


He nodded and started along Battery toward home. She followed.

The din on the street was more pronounced than usual. Stalled traffic around the block had created a tangle of trucks and wagons; walking had been the faster choice by far. Horns blared and harnesses jingled, sounds echoing against the tall buildings that lined the avenue. Overhead, a dirigible purred like a happy cat.

Ingrid and Mr. Sakaguchi limped along the crowded sidewalk. People stared at them, wide-eyed. Ingrid self-consciously shook more dust from her skirt.

“Captain Sutcliff wonders at the timing of all of this.” When Mr. Sakaguchi spoke, it was in a monotone. “I wonder as well. For such an unusual crystal to be stolen, then the explosion . . . it couldn't have been an accident. I hope that the captain will have success in his investigation, though I fear his fixation on me will distract him. He's an even worse guest than I feared.”

His wording sent a jolt through her. “Guest. He—you knew he was coming?” The events just before the explosion suddenly flared in her memory. “A messenger came. You were sent—” She stopped herself and glanced around.

Mr. Roosevelt—or someone—had sent Mr. Sakaguchi a warning that investigators were on the way. Good grief! She had cheered up Mr. Sakaguchi with kitsune-ken, even as he knew soldiers were on the way to confront him. A different man would have fled. Instead, he playacted the part of a fantastic fox spirit and laughed himself to tears.

“Why did they suspect you from the start? Why make yourself
sound more guilty and talk of China that way? That's all the man needed. He'll make the evidence fit. It might be harder to arrest you because you're Japanese, but—”

“I didn't tell him anything he did not already know.”

“It's different to think it than to say it. It's almost like you want to be arrested.”

“Maybe that would be safer,” he said softly.

Perhaps debris had struck his head. He wasn't making sense. “What about Mr. Thornton and Mr. Calhoun? He's going to find out they're alive.”

“Consider how he treated us, newly recovered from the wreckage. How would he interrogate them, addled by fever?” Mr. Sakaguchi shook his head in disgust. “No. I will call them. We need to meet, regardless of their illness. I . . . I should break the news.” A tremor shook through Mr. Sakaguchi.

“What about the risk to the city?” she asked in a low voice. “You know very well that the protocol says that San Francisco requires at least three wardens and thirty students present at all times to ensure that the city doesn't feel any tremors, and we've always had far more than that. There've been several seisms in the past hour alone.”

“A crisis can be averted,” he whispered. Mr. Sakaguchi, always hopeful, even against terrible odds.

Ingrid shook her head in frustration. “If Mr. Thornton and Mr. Calhoun are ill and not in contact with the earth, it's just us. How long can we hold back a major earthquake? How . . . how are we supposed to survive it?”

Mr. Sakaguchi bowed his head and said nothing the rest of the walk home.


After a quick bath and a change of clothes, Ingrid could almost pretend the events of the morning hadn't happened. Never mind that she and Mr. Sakaguchi were home far too early in the day, or that she had somehow kept both of them alive while everyone else died.

No, not simply died. Were murdered. The cooks, the cleaners, the homesick little boys, the senior students all abuzz with talk of world travel in the coming years. The maid who hummed old hymns as she scrubbed the stairs to combat the constant filth of so many growing boys and careless men. Senior Warden Antonelli, as aggravating as he was, would bring in cut flowers when his garden was in bloom, and took care to personally arrange vases in the hallway. Then there was the elderly librarian who so often fell asleep tipped back in his chair, a book splayed open over his chest. What of the cats who lived in the alley next door, by the empty photographer's
studio? The calico was bound to have kittens any day now.

Mr. Sakaguchi was right. That large piece of kermanite stolen, the explosion, Captain Sutcliff's arrival . . . The timing of everything was too peculiar to be mere coincidence.

She sat curled in the front hallway, her head pressed against her knees. The knotted tassels of the rug were stones beneath her socked feet.

Something scuffed against the floor nearby. A wooden floor board creaked. Lee was not being particularly stealthy about his approach. She could hear his breath as he sneaked closer. She feigned ignorance up until the cotton scarf whispered over her nose.

“Lee!” she snapped, swatting it away. Her hand caught one side of the scarf and stole it from his grip. The corner, weighed by coins sewn into the fabric, struck the wood with a muted thud.

Lee Fong dropped beside her and sat so close their knees glanced. “I was trying to surprise you, Ingrid.” His voice was still boyishly soft, though it had recently begun to squawk at random moments.

“Surprise me by mock-assassinating me like a Thuggee? Really? Mr. Sakaguchi would be livid if he knew you still had that thing.”

Earlier, in the nineteenth century, the cult of Thuggees in India had gained infamy as assassins; their technique involved strangulation with their weighted scarves. Murder for the sake of money and the glory of Kali, the stories said. The Brits had exterminated the cult.

Rebels against Britannia now called themselves Thuggees, and tales about how true they were to their roots varied wildly. Even so, the romantic morbidity of the Thuggees and their scarves had become quite the sensation with American boys. Some youngsters at the auxiliary had learned to sew just to weigh down their own scarves for mock battles.

The Thuggees, nefarious as they were, were also distracting the Brits from turning their attention to the Unified Pacific. In a roundabout way, Thuggees were heroes.

But Lee was not some boy from the auxiliary. He was Chinese. Carrying a Thuggee scarf evoked different connotations altogether.

She gave him her best scowl. Lee's cropped black hair, shiny with oil, stuck out every which way. Ingrid was Mr. Sakaguchi's secretary, but Lee was a bit of everything—messenger boy, house servant, assistant cook, hostler. Mr. Sakaguchi had taken in Lee about five years before, and now it was impossible to imagine the household without him.

He toyed with the blue scarf. Once upon a time, it had been Mama's. “I was tickling your face, that's all,” he said. The logic of teenage boys would forever confound Ingrid. “Mr. Sakaguchi asked me to fetch you.”

“How . . . how is he?” Her throat still felt raw from screaming and breathing in powdered debris. It seemed as if she had downed a gallon of water when they first returned home, but nothing washed away the grit.

Lee cocked his head to one side. The gesture reminded her of a bird considering something just before it fluttered away. “About the same as you.”

As always, Lee wore his patch pinned to his upper arm. The scrap of cloth was vivid yellow, the threadwork in tidy black depicting the two kanji for Shina—the Japanese term for China, one often spat as if clearing phlegm from a throat. His registration booklet bulged from his breast pocket. He couldn't leave Chinatown without his patch or papers, not that either guaranteed safe passage.

A pink smudge marred the starched whiteness of his button-up shirtsleeve. “What happened?” she asked, pointing to his arm.

“I was running errands and found a wall. Dangerous things, walls. They sneak up on you sometimes.”

Meaning someone attacked him, or tried to. “You're not hurt?”

Lee shrugged.

She frowned. A few months prior, a tussle had left him with two bruised ribs, and he'd had the audacity to try to hide the injury. Succeeded for a few hours, too, until Ingrid overenthusiastically recommended a book by flinging it straight into his chest. He had hit the floor like a deflated gasbag.

Lee's face lit up in a grin. “That's better.”

“What's better?”

“You, angry. Though that means I should probably . . .” He scooted back, his beige pants gliding on the waxed wood.

He meant well, but she flinched. Lee had been around her on a daily basis for years. He couldn't help but notice what she could do. Not that they had ever talked about it. It was something to shrug away, like his hidden injuries.

Now her power carried such strange potential. What had she done in the explosion—how had she done it?

“Ingrid?” His voice cracked halfway through her name.

“I'm sorry, Lee. It's just . . . today. Everyone . . .”

His face softened. “Yeah. Speaking of which, Mr. Sakaguchi is waiting.”

“Of course.” She touched her cheeks to make sure they were dry and then stood.

Mr. Sakaguchi's study radiated warmth in mahogany and plush blue velvet. Shelves banded in rainbows of leather stretched ten feet high to crown molding at the ceiling. A leather armchair, squat and dense, angled toward the unlit fireplace. While opulent, it was austere compared to the home offices of most of the other wardens, who regarded their masculine spaces as lavish trophy rooms for their world travels.

Mr. Sakaguchi was more practical than that. His artifacts related to earth sciences and magic. The Chinese-made earthquake weathercock consisted of a large vase with marbles set at the points of the compass; the marbles were supposed to drop to indicate the direction of a seism, though large trucks set off the device more often than actual quakes.

Ingrid's personal favorites in the room, though, were the colorful namazu-e prints on the walls. The propaganda posters from the 1850s presented a peculiar mix of Hidden One mythology and public safety message.

Shuttered double doors led to a catfish pond just outside, but even that was an instrument of geomancy. Many nonmagical animals were known to be restless before an earthquake. In Japan, normal catfish—namazu—had served as warning systems for centuries. Somehow they were bound to the very
magical and monstrous namazu that was said to carry the large island of Honshu on its back.

Mythology had attempted to explain the relationship between magic, creatures, and mankind, but modern science had done little to elaborate on the subject. Hidden Ones often had been declared gods in old stories. Fantastics, common or rare, embodied pure magic.

As to what magic
that question was one perennially posed to new students at the auxiliary—one they were expected to get wrong. The textbook answer was that magic was raw energy, and that some beings—animal or human—were more adept at drawing it in and utilizing it. Some were born into it, the way a fish is born into water. That answer never satisfied Ingrid. It never defined what
was. What had she inherited from Papa?

Sometimes, it seemed like a gigantic, mystic catfish supporting a landmass bearing billions of people made more sense to Ingrid than her own body and mind.

She faced Mr. Sakaguchi at his desk. “Ojisan. What's the news?”

He sat with his back stooped. The collar of his smoking jacket dipped low, revealing a tidy row of mother-of-pearl buttons in the shirt beneath. He leaned on one fist while in another he held a pen.

“I just called Charleston. They'll dispatch two men tomorrow night, but they did send a group to Vesuvius, so they're already shorthanded.”

“What about everywhere else?” she asked.

“St. Louis is suffering a bout of influenza. New York, as
Italian-dominated as it is, sent half their available men to Vesuvius. Honolulu can spare five adepts and perhaps one warden, but it will take them over a week to arrive. No one in Seattle answered.”

“But San Francisco . . . the risk. Has the mayor—”

“Mayor Butterfield.” Mr. Sakaguchi's face twisted in distaste. “The man barely let me speak. He assured me that no earthquake will happen while he's mayor.”

She snorted. “Maybe he's found a way to bribe the dirt.” Since their walk home, the tremors had stopped. No blue shimmered over the ground, but that could change in an instant.

“He has higher priorities right now. That corruption case against him is set to start on Monday. I told him that if tremors continued, the most at-risk sections of the city should be evacuated.” For Mr. Sakaguchi to admit to such a possibility said a great deal about the peril. “He argued that the natives here managed to survive for centuries without problems. As if the collapse of a native Ohlone hut made of tules is equal to the public harm caused by a falling brick skyscraper.”

He glanced at the Bakelite telephone on the desk, as if he could will it to ring. “Mr. Thornton and Mr. Calhoun are not answering their phones. They are likely sleeping, but . . .”

“If they both recover quickly, they'll be able to channel energy.” The words felt fake on her tongue, but she had to say something hopeful. More than that, she needed to do something. “Lee!”

He poked his head through the cracked door. “Yeah?”

“Jiao started some soup for us. Please ask her to fill two kettles. I'll take them to Mr. Thornton and Mr. Calhoun.” Like
many of the first wave of Chinese to come to San Francisco, Jiao was Cantonese. She was a fine cook, and her soups were akin to magic.

“Sure, Ing,” Lee said, and ducked away.

“Ingrid, you should rest—”

“Ojisan. Leave it to me. You have too much to do here, and you know Lee can't go to Mr. Calhoun's.” Mr. Calhoun despised “Chinamen and other primitives,” and only tolerated Ingrid because he never looked at her face. “They're stubborn men on their own. They'd have to be at death's door before they sacrificed pride to summon a doctor. I'll call you from each of their homes.”

Mr. Sakaguchi frowned. “I suppose that will suffice, but I do want you to utilize caution. Even more . . .” He opened a desk drawer and set a dark object on the mat. Mama's pistol.

Mama used to take Ingrid on day-trips out to Mount Diablo so they could practice shooting. She had taught Ingrid to do most everything a man could do. Ingrid could saddle and ride a horse, rig a harness, check oil and basic functions on a standard steam-kermanite autocar engine, and read and do her own figures. She never quite mastered the art of pissing while standing up, though.

Mr. Sakaguchi had never come along on their target-shooting trips. Kitsune-ken's hunter gesture was as violent as he got. “If you must defend yourself against the Army & Airship Corps or anyone else, I'd rather you shoot them than use earth energy. People understand bullets.”

“Whereas my power is about as well understood as Jefferson Davis's ghost.”

His smile was tender yet weary. “You're you, Ing-chan. Your mother brought you to the auxiliary when you were barely five, all red and swollen with fever. Near death, by the accounts of Pasteurians and Reiki physicians alike. Boys will manifest their geomancy at that age, certainly, but no one had considered such a possibility for you. No one but your mother. The instant I pressed kermanite to your skin, the fever was siphoned away. Right then, I knew.”

“I only wish we knew what. Or how. Or why.”

“‘Some mysteries must stay with God.'”

She nodded. It was one of his favorite sayings, one that he used most often when speaking of the Hidden Ones. His favorite tale involved the massive namazu, but similar stories were told everywhere. The Chumash and other aboriginal tribes up north to Cascadia spoke of two-headed serpents within the earth, whereas the Iroquois and Algonquin told of a giant turtle. On other continents, Hidden Ones bound through earth magic included buffalo, horses, crabs, hogs, and several types of frog—fantastics so massive, so incredible, that most people doubted their existence in the modern world.

Ingrid slipped the gun into her dress pocket where the pleats would hide it from view. It felt heavy against her thigh. She was the hunter; now she only hoped she had to deal with kitsune, not village chiefs.

“Speaking of mysteries, Mr. Sakaguchi,” she said slowly. “Who would want to destroy the auxiliary? The Chinese?” She glanced at the doorway in case Lee was there. She couldn't help but feel a little guilty for thinking of them first.

“The Chinese have legitimate reasons to target us, though
the Unified Pacific has a stockpile of charged kermanite. Creating a bottleneck here wouldn't affect the military right away. Regular business on the West Coast, yes.”

“Someone mad at the auxiliary, then? In novels, the villain always takes out insurance on the building or person they wish to destroy.”

“A personal vendetta does seem more likely. Someone angry at us, or angry at the city itself.”

Ingrid thought of Lee and his scarf. “We do have two British-born wardens, which is unusual. Maybe it was Thuggees.”

“That does seem extreme. If they wanted to hurt the British, there are far better targets within the city or elsewhere. Besides, anyone with an education would realize an act against geomancers here, on such strategic fault lines, could have consequences for the whole city. San Francisco's population is diverse. The auxiliary reflects—reflected—that.” His voice broke.

BOOK: Breath of Earth
11.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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