Breath of Earth (Breath of Earth #1) - Beth Cato

CHAPTER 1

APRIL 15, 1906

Ingrid hated her shoes with the same unholy passion she hated corsets, chewing tobacco, and men who clipped their fingernails in public. It wasn’t that her shoes were ugly or didn’t fit; no, it was the fact she had to wear them at all.

In the meeting chambers of the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, she was the only woman, and the only one in shoes.

The men seated at the table wore fine black suits, most tailored to precision, and a few downright natty. If she glanced beneath the table, though, she would see two rows of white-socked feet.

Cloth fibers conducted the earth’s currents best; thick leather or rubberized soles dampened the effect. The wood floor was also an excellent conductor, though plain ground was the best of all. Nearby double doors opened to the back garden. In the event of an earthquake, it would take a mere fifteen seconds for the mob of middle-aged and elderly men to bound outside for direct contact with the soil. Ingrid knew. She had timed the exercise more than once. As personal secretary to Warden Sakaguchi, she performed many vital functions for all five wardens—four in attendance today. A dozen senior adepts occupied the rest of the table.

“Would you like more coffee, Mr. Kealoha?” she whispered as she bent over his shoulder.

The silver-haired Hawaiian warden nodded, his thick fingers already twitching on the mug. In private at Mr. Sakaguchi’s house, he would smile at her and call her hanai niece, which meant foster niece in Hawaiian. He liked to joke that she could pass as a family member, but it was a dangerous jest. The Japanese overlords of the Hawaiian Islands had forbidden any use of his native language. Even on American soil, as a warden, he could lose his tongue for the offense—especially with a Japanese man as witness.

Mr. Sakaguchi, however, was not like most Japanese.

In any case, a Hawaiian would still be afforded more leniency than anyone from China. To speak any Chinese dialect was sedition and a quick path to a noose.

Around the table, the members’ argument on Vesuvius continued as it had for the previous three hours. The ancient volcano’s eruptions began on April 6, deluging Naples with hot boulders and toxic plumes of smoke. Mr. Sakaguchi had argued that they should send delegates to assist their European colleagues in quelling the eruption. “They report it’s worse than the eruption in year 79 that took Pompeii and Herculaneum,” he had said in his quiet way.

Others agreed that the Cordilleran auxiliary should dispatch wardens to Italy. “We have bountiful reserves of kermanite. This is a fine opportunity to harvest energy and fill our crystals. California has been extremely quiet of late,” said an adept.

It had gone back and forth from there, how geomancers from all over the world would converge on Naples for the same reason, how those numbers would likely stop the eruption before representatives from San Francisco could even arrive, and on and on. Their words growled and tumbled together like fighting tomcats, and nothing would likely come of it. If Ingrid hazarded a guess at an outcome, a majority would resolve that California should remain their priority, and they’d send along a signed sympathy note to the suffering in Italy.

An ornate shield on the far wall was emblazoned with the Latin motto to guide all geomancers: PRO POPULO, “for the people,” a reminder that auxiliaries acted as businesses but that their ultimate goal was to use their magic for the welfare of the public.

Magic itself was common throughout San Francisco. Advertisements for Reiki doctors spanned the exposed bricks of skyscrapers, while the wealthy of Nob Hill journeyed to Sunday picnics in wagons teamed by iron-shackled pookas.

Geomancy, however, was a rare skill among people and relied upon kermanite, an even rarer crystal that acted as a supreme electrical capacitor. Wardens absorbed the earth’s energy from earthquakes and then channeled their power into kermanite, which was then installed in all varieties of machine. No other battery could keep airships aloft.

Kermanite had stimulated the Roman Empire two millennia past; now it was the manifest destiny of the Unified Pacific to govern the world, thanks in no small part to geomancers.

Ingrid poured coffee into Warden Kealoha’s cup. He grunted his gratitude.

A few seats down, Warden Thornton twirled his teacup in his hands, his lips frowning along with his imperial mustache. She caught his eye, but he jerked his head in a negative. He had been brooding for the past few days,