Chapter 1, Part A

(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014

In the popular imagination, the Great War lives on as a spectacle. Each year, as autumn is threatening to give way to winter, hundreds converge on the Maxalo Pass in Wassia, in the southwest of the Continent, to re-enact the battle that was fought there in 1693 (all dates refer to the Imperial calendar). The mood is festive: vendors hawk sugary drinks, horns and trumpets blow, and women and men march proudly in the brightly coloured uniforms of a bygone era. The day belongs not to the long-suffering veterans, but to a celebration of homespun southern hospitality.

Indeed, the conflict is remembered by many as a distinctively southern war. Certainly, the greater part of the fighting took place in Wassia, where massive graveyards now stand testament to the many who lost their lives in its meadows and valleys. Is it surprising, then, that it is the southern front which has persisted in the cultural memory of the Continent? That schoolchildren, filmmakers and even military historians have been drawn to its cascading offensives and desperate stands?

When, however, the war is considered from a broader historical perspective — not merely as a series of battles, but as a phenomenon that influenced the future course of a Continent — then it is the northern front, the confrontation between the Realm of Brealand and the Republic of Deugan, where our focus is inexorably drawn. It is hardly an exaggeration to claim that the Continent entered the modern era through the Gateway, that region which links the two combatants; and a study of wartime Deugan and Brealand reveals not only a clearer portrait of the war, but also a glimpse at its more delicate and elusive cousin: Peace.

—Rothwell, Hering et al., Perspectives on the Great War: The Northern Front (1745)

 

It was an old memory, the kind that lies concealed in the corners of the mind until it emerges in times of tension. A dirt floor, a boy, and a night sky filled with so many stars that it almost seemed white.

The stars were a surprise she’d prepared for Brenner. The boy had been moody ever since she met him, but his malaise was darker now. He had set himself apart from Jayla and the professor, brooding, barely speaking. But as she led him out from the room where he slept and as the stars came into view overhead, his harsh expression melted and he hugged her with more warmth than she’d thought possible.

Now they were lying side by side on the ground, staring up at the stars and talking about dogs. “How can you not like dogs?” Jayla demanded. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Hey, I have nothing against them,” Brenner said. “They’re cute and all. But you never really know what they’re going to do.”

“Well, yeah, they’re alive,” Jayla said. “They’ve got brains. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. But dogs are awfully predictable. He sees a smaller animal, he’ll chase it. He smells food, he’ll come running.” She grinned. “My little brother was like that.”

“But you could reason with your little brother,” Brenner said.

“Not when it came to food. Or chasing smaller animals. Besides, you can train a dog.”

“Sure,” Brenner said, “and that’s why I’m okay with them. At least you can figure them out and use that. Seems a bit manipulative, that’s all.”

Jayla grinned again. “Brenner Halloway! Is the strong, silent specimen who has sulked sullenly the past six span so seduced by this splendid starry sky that he’s sorry about manipulating a canine?”

He laughed, a deep belly laugh that echoed off the stone walls. Then his voice turned serious. “How do you do that? I haven’t laughed since we got in here. And you just say a bunch of words that start with the same letter and it’s like none of it ever happened.”

Jayla glanced over at him. He was lying on his side, looking back at her. His brow was furrowed. He was a handsome boy, moody as he was. He was thin without being skinny, tall without being overpowering. His brown hair was still combed over neatly, a curious attention to fashion considering the circumstances. Lacking any shaving supplies, he had grown a fierce brown beard that nearly hid the faint discolouration on the right side of his chin and neck. And while he hardly looked an athlete, there was some definition in his arms as he propped himself up from the ground.

“How I do it?” Jayla repeated. She shrugged. “I really don’t know what to say.”

“Not a problem I ever thought you’d have,” Brenner teased.

“Look, I’m scared and angry too,” Jayla said. “I’m just trying to make the best of it. We might still get out of here. The Guard might still come.”

“Oh, open your eyes,” Brenner snapped. “The Guard isn’t coming. Nobody’s coming, they’re the ones who —”

“Oh, open your eyes,” Jayla interrupted him, “and look at those stars.”

The night sky was gorgeous. Jayla had grown up in Villasud, the city known throughout Wassia as the Light of the South. Its nickname had never been more fitting. Since wide-scale electric lighting was introduced to Villasud a few years before Jayla’s birth, its commercial and industrial centres were constantly lit, hiding most of the night’s stars. Jayla’s father, who had made his fortune purchasing and managing many of Villasud’s factories, called it “progress.”

“I wish I could take you to the manor,” Brenner said. “Show you some real stars.”

“Hey!” Jayla shouted, pointing at the sky. “These ones are real.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think I created an entire sky?” Jayla said. “If I was that good, we’d be out of here by now.” She looked around the cavern. At one end of the room, she could still see the green rocks and the dust that had collapsed there, trapping them inside when the avalanche had hit. There were several small holes in the barricade, allowing in the air that kept them alive, but they lacked any tools with which to expand the holes and escape. Throughout the rest of the cave, the walls were not green but orange, strange, rough and glowing. They jutted up from the hard dirt floor, but instead of curving around to form a ceiling, their tops appeared suspended in the air, like the ancient walls of the Raolin Temple ruins in Villasud or the famous arches of the Old Empire, waiting to collapse.

“What did you do, then?” Brenner asked.

“I spoke to the rocks,” Jayla said. “The ceiling, I mean. It wouldn’t move aside to let us out. But I got it to hide itself. To turn invisible. So we could see the sky through it.” She glared at him. “The real sky.”

Brenner sat up and looked at her. He frowned and rubbed his new beard. “You spoke to the ceiling?”

“Not with words.” It was so hard to explain. As a child, Jayla had always been good with people. She’d had to be, to survive at home. Her father was a gruff man whose pride and joy was his business. He was rarely away from his desk, and when he was, its stresses still consumed him. Jayla’s mother came from an old but heavily indebted family that had sacrificed much in the way of pride to arrange her marriage to an industrialist. She often felt torn between her new family and her old one, and felt lonely and isolated in the city. Two tired, ragged people who belonged apart had been thrown together, and their arguments were fierce. Jayla had learned from an early age to mediate, to make peace — and that meant she had learned to understand them.

Jayla was concentrating on the orange rocks and on the power that coursed through her, trying to reach out to both at the same time, when suddenly she felt the air shimmer and a wave of warmth rushed through her body, starting at her feet and shooting past her ankles and up through her legs, her centre, her chest. She saw a vision then, a jagged grey boulder jolted with a flash of lightning. She raised a hand to steady herself, but faster than a blink, the warmth was gone and the image faded.

“Have you ever thought about what it would feel like to be a rock in a place like this?” she asked Brenner.

“Rocks don’t feel anything.”

“I know. It’s just a thought.” She had thought for several minutes about the vision. Something cold and lifeless suddenly seeing a surge of power rush through it. Unpleasant. Jarring. Then she imagined the feeling continuing, non-stop, like spending hours at that carnival game that tested how long you could stand an electric shock pulsing in your hands.

And the power responded. Flash — a huge mass, breaking apart, its pieces melting — and flash, the vision gone. Jayla focused on physical changes, on no longer being the shape you once were. This was one Jayla really could understand. After a month and a half in this Well, her own body was no longer the sixteen-year-old one she remembered.

“I’ve used the magic,” Brenner said. He said it grudgingly, as though the very word were shameful. “Or the power or the energy or whatever we’re supposed to call it to make it sound less childish. There’s no rhyme or reason to when it works. Sometimes you just think about something, and boom. Other times it happens when you don’t think about it. Once I was desperate for water, and I bent my whole mind to finding some, and I felt it stir in me and I heard raindrops. My entire room was raining and I stuck my tongue out and drank it straight out of the air. But I tried the exact same thing two days later and nothing happened.”

“Well, this one worked because I somehow understood the rocks,” Jayla said. “Don’t ask me how. Just like your rainstorm, it probably won’t work again two days from now. All I know is that I tried to understand them, and the power kept giving me clues, and after awhile it felt like I was talking to the rocks themselves — and I knew I could turn them off, fade them out. Without knowing how I knew it.”

Brenner grimaced. “I don’t like this.”

“Neither do I,” Jayla admitted.

“I do like your sky, though,” Brenner added. He smiled. “Thanks.”

She remembered watching him as he left that day. She’d pulled the moody, brooding Brenner out of his shell, briefly. She’d felt the incredible warmth of his hug and the strange tingling that swept through her stomach. She’d felt something else, a sense of partnership or friendship, as they watched the stars together from the dirt floor of the cavern. But then she’d felt a very different Brenner, a cold one, aloof and untrusting as he withdrew from the room.

Jayla reached out to the Well’s power, but not with much hope that she would ever truly understand him.

 *

 It was an old memory, but it was not the time for old memories.

Caryn Hallom gripped the railing of the carriage as it rumbled along the cobblestones. The streets of the capital were deserted. Its people, those who weren’t dragging themselves through gruelling work in the munitions factories, were huddled in their homes, grieving lost relatives or waiting anxiously for news from the fronts. Tension had settled on the city like a blanket.

Strange, Caryn thought, that a memory would surface now of another life in another time. She had stopped using the name Jayla more than fourteen years ago, when she had escaped the Well and fled Wassia for its northern neighbour, the Republic of Deugan. Her life had changed so profoundly that her past as Jayla Sullivan was difficult to believe. It was difficult even to remember.

The driver eyed her curiously as she pointed to the spot where she wanted him to stop. “Here, my lady?”

“Yes. Right here.”

“Will you be in need of transportation when your duties here are complete, my lady?”

“No, my friend. Thank you.” She produced four coins from her purse and allowed Hans to help her from the carriage, hating the way her knee twinged as she set her weight down.

The sun was beginning to set, a furious orange against the darkening sky. Hans adjusted the rifle he had slung over his shoulder and knocked on the door of the grey stone building ahead of them. After a few seconds, the door opened a crack and a rifle peeked through. Then the door opened wide. “Minister Hallom.” A stiff bow. “We’ve been expecting you.”

They were led through the prison, past the intake area and the visitors’ waiting room to the entrance to the cells. The warden met them there, a tall, thin man with greying hair. “Minister,” he greeted her with a bow. “I must apologize for intruding upon your time today. I am certain you have more urgent matters to attend to.”

“Where is he?” Caryn asked. She still half felt she was wasting her time here, and she had long since learned that bluntness was the only way to accomplish things in the Deugan bureaucracy.

“This way,” the warden replied, and led them down a corridor. “He insisted on speaking to you personally and said he would give us a full confession if he did. We know he’s planning something in Tomasburg, but unless you can get it out of him, we don’t have enough to keep him.”

“You say that with some chagrin,” Caryn observed.

“Not about the laws,” the warden said quickly. “Twenty-four hours till you have to charge, well, it makes us civilized. But if there is going to be an attack in the capital — I just hate feeling powerless.”

Caryn gave him a rueful smile. “I know that feeling well. Why would he confess, then?”

“Because he doesn’t know how little we have,” the warden replied. “And there’s nothing in the laws says we have to tell him.”

The warden led them into a small square room. A wooden desk sat in its centre, with two chairs on either side. The Steffian was sitting on the far side of the desk, rocking back and forth.

He stood when he saw Caryn enter. “The Sorceress herself!” he exclaimed.

“Sit down,” the warden said, unamused. “You’ll treat the foreign minister with respect.”

“I would never dream of disrespecting a sorceress,” the man said.

Caryn caught Hans’ eye. The sorceress label had been coined years ago by a journalist reporting on Caryn’s quick rise through Deugan’s National Treasury Department. It was brilliant because it was so rife with implication, and her enemies had latched onto it for just that reason. It wasn’t only the sense of mystery and danger, though that was part of it. Sorcery suggested the Wells, and the Wells suggested an association with the Steifar religion, or with the Steffians who followed it. It suggested the witch hunts of eras past, the categories developed by society to define the enemy lurking within.

“Can I be alone with the foreign minister?” the Steffian asked.

The warden opened his mouth to argue, but Caryn intervened. “The warden and the prison guards will wait outside. My personal bodyguard will stay.” She gestured to Hans.

“Fair enough.” The Steffian was smiling, his attitude cocky. He didn’t look about to confess anything.

Caryn’s mind ran through everything she knew about the Steffian organization. In broad strokes, she had learned much in the last two years. She knew their philosophies, their history, some patterns behind their attacks and operations, which Steifar populations embraced them and which rejected them. In details, though, the entire government knew depressingly little. The Steffians were skilled at nothing if not secrecy, and their governance and internal hierarchy were mysteries. Due to Deugan’s policy of refusing to negotiate with the organization, Caryn had never met its leadership. The names Pellor Amad, Brenth Nono and Bashar Gamoy were well known to her, but as far as she knew, only a photograph of Amad had ever been seen.

“Why have you asked for me?” Caryn demanded.

“I’m a Deugan,” the Steffian replied. “Tomasburg, born and raised. Are you surprised?” The man leaned into the light cast by the room’s lone electric bulb. His look was Deugan, lithe and dark. Hans stared back at him, impassive. “You people always think a Steffian’s going to be whitewashed, some foreigner from Wassia or the Fringes. You think we’ll look like Caryn Hallom.”

Caryn remained carefully silent. That was something else the sorceress label suggested: Caryn’s own months in the Wassian Well, and her childhood in Wassia, where their own boys were now dying. No Deugan would take that kindly if they knew. But they didn’t. Her pale skin was not uncommon along the Deugan coast, where she claimed to have been born. Neither was her blonde hair, now well on its way to grey, which she kept cropped short, just above her neck. They were Wassian features, but the Wassians had once occupied that region of Deugan, and the two peoples had been intermingling ever since.

“That’s the first message I wanted to give you,” the Steffian continued. “We’re here. We’re Deugans. We’re citizens like everybody else.”

“Of course you are,” Caryn said, wondering what game the man was playing. “Which means that you have to follow the law. I’m told that when they searched your house, they found everything a Steffian would need to build a bomb.”

“The Steifar are second class citizens in Deugan,” the man said. “Third class, even, behind the atheists. Now that we have the Hallom Doctrine…” He trailed off, allowing the words to linger, the policy initiative that bore Caryn’s name. The symbol of her failure. “We all know that if Deugan wins this war, it’s the Hallom Doctrine that will be imposed on the Fringes,” he continued. “Trading the New Empire’s occupation for a made-in-Deugan model.”

“I did not come here to argue about politics,” Caryn said. She kept her voice calm, but she felt her nerves start to rise. A vision of Jayla flashed before her eyes, rocks surrounding her, trapped. “My doctrine was not meant to undermine the Steifar. Only the Steffians.” Caryn glanced at Hans from the corner of her eye and saw that he was at his ready. She took a deep breath. There was no need to be afraid. “Your friends are terrorists and fundamentalists,” she told the Steffian. “My doctrine was meant to lift the New Empire’s occupation. And to do it without a war. Without bombs. Even homemade ones. So I ask you again: why did you want to see me?”

“Because I know now that I will not be able to send you a message any other way,” the Steffian told her. “I meant to send a message through a bomb that would explode at Grunvell Block. The home of your foreign affairs department. There is my confession. I can no longer do so, so I am sending you a message in another way.” The man leaned forward, his eyes slits, his expression dark. “I love my country. I refuse to allow it to be ruined. I refuse to allow the Steifar to have anything less than all of the rights Deugan promises. That is my message, Caryn Hallom. The Steffians are coming.”

***

Next chapter: Chapter 1, Part B

If you enjoyed this sample, please consider purchasing the full novel. Thank you!

You may also wish to read this sample together with the Map of the Continent.

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