War of the Networks Sneak Peek
To the Assistant Ambassador, my friend Bianca Monroe,
Please forgive me for writing you unexpectedly, but I must request the pleasure of your company in a meeting. Please do not tell your father or Marten of my request, as I ask something of a personal nature. Let me assure you that my intent is pure; since becoming High Priest after my grandfather’s death, I’ve found I have few true friends, and you are among them.
If you find this request acceptable, please come to Magnolia Castle in the Eastern Network as soon as you are able. My Assistant will direct you to wherever I am. No matter what I’m doing, speaking with you will take ultimate precedence.
Your friend in the East,
High Priest Niko Aldana
White-capped waves rippled around my bare ankles, retreating back to the green ocean with angry, unwilling hisses. I’d never been a big fan of large bodies of water. Not knowing what moved beneath me made me shudder. I preferred the warm, mossy arms of the forest. But even I felt intoxicated by the power of the ocean.
A chubby, short witch named Hector, Niko’s Assistant, pointed to a ship with white sails bobbing in the ocean. “His Greatness is out there,” he said, drawing out his i’s in the soft tones of the Eastern Network accent. “He told me to expect you.”
Hector had a barrel chest with a mat of thick black curls that grew up onto the exposed flesh of his lower neck. The ends of his shirt flapped in the wind. For an Assistant to the High Priest of the Eastern Network, he had no semblance of a manicured, professional air. I liked him immensely.
“Sure,” I said, digging my toes into the warm sand. “Why not be on the water? There’s only a storm moving in. Massive waves don’t seem dangerous at all.” Frothy gray clouds darkened the horizon, moving in with a cool wind and flashes of lightning. I marveled that a storm could take up so much sky.
Hector shot me a sidelong glance. The corners of his lips twitched. “I will take you out there if you don’t want to try transporting to the ship,” he said, his face scrunching. He clearly didn’t want to, but I had no doubt Niko would take grave offense if Hector didn’t treat a visiting Assistant to the Ambassador with utmost dignity. Never mind that I didn’t even bother to wear shoes.
My simple linen dress with capped sleeves and a high neckline whipped in the wind. An oblong case hung on my back, held by a single strap that crossed over my chest. Inside it hid my precious Volare, a magic carpet that could fly. Despite its strict allegiance to me, I wore it everywhere to be sure of its safety. Underneath my dress lay my sword, Viveet, tucked in the folds of my skirt and tied to my thigh with a special sheath that allowed the sword to shrink to fit. No one would notice it. I’d taken a calculated risk coming back to the East alone, but that didn’t mean I’d come unprepared.
“It’s not really safe to transport onto a ship you’ve never been on before,” Hector continued, “but Niko wanted to speak to you the moment you arrived. Because of the danger, I don’t want to bring him to the land. The West is attacking, you see. The East Guards on the water need his guidance.”
The idea of traveling onto a ship appealed to me—I’d never actually been on one. Except for standing in the licks of water around my ankles now and nearly drowning after sharing Mabel’s mind six weeks before, I hadn’t spent much time in the ocean. The Central Network was the only landlocked Network in Antebellum.
“The West is attacking?” I asked.
Hector gestured with a jerk of his head. “You might not be able to see it, but there’s another ship in the distance. There may be many more sailing behind it.”
“A fleet from the West?”
He nodded. “They attack in numbers,” he said in a droll voice, with just a hint of a smile.
“Why are you amused?”
“Because you don’t know anything about the ocean or our skill in working it,” he said, puffing out his chest. “There’s no Network that can best us on the water. The Western Network tried six weeks ago when—” He dropped the sentence, reddening through his cheeks, and finished with a gruff, “Anyway, we won, and they haven’t been back. Until now.”
Six weeks ago. That’s when the Eastern Network High Priestess Isobel had revealed herself as the nefarious Angelina, Mabel’s mother. Who in the Eastern Network knew Isobel’s secret? Did Niko? Based on Hector’s hesitation, someone knew something. The Eastern Network had maintained that West Guards had murdered Diego and Isobel on the same night, leaving Niko to reign at twenty-six. I didn’t blame their cover-up. Niko wouldn’t want to introduce mistrust and panic in a time of war and new leadership.
“I’ll just transport out there and save you the trouble of rowing out,” I said. “The waves are quite high, and I don’t have much time anyway.”
While my transportation skills had been nothing to brag about in the past, with Merrick’s careful guidance earlier this year, I’d honed them sufficiently. The more I concentrated on where I wanted to go, the more I proved able to get there. Merrick, on the other hand, could transport onto a pentacle coin he couldn’t even see in the grass. He’d demonstrated it often enough, the show-off.
“It’s no trouble to row you out,” Hector said, but he sounded relieved. “Though transporting would be faster.”
He let that thought linger, as if I needed one last argument to convince me.
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful.”
I transported away with the salty tang of the wind on my face. Seconds later, I landed on a wet deck amidst the raucous calls of sailors hurrying around in an organized sense of chaos. The Eastern Network jewel, Magnolia Castle, loomed in the distance, blooming like a fresh white flower on the sandy shore. As Hector had predicted, a whole fleet of Western Network ships bobbed on the ocean, moving in as if they brought the storm with them. The black scorpion of the Western Network flag waved in ominous greeting above their masts. The Eastern Network only had one ship in the fight. Prowess in the water was one thing. But taunting the enemy?
“Ay!” a voice shouted. “Woman on deck!”
My hair billowed behind me in unruly black strands. The ship rocked, sending me flying into a railing, but I caught myself before I flipped off the side. Waves crashed off the sides of the boat, sending sprays of saltwater at me. Beneath us lay a dark, troublesome ocean, and its unsteadiness weakened my stomach. A firm hand grabbed my arm. I jerked free and whirled around to meet Niko’s charming smile.
“Miss Bianca Monroe,” he said with a deep sigh. “I am very grateful to see you, but I did not expect you to come all the way out here.” He frowned. “Hector should have come for me. It’s not safe on the water right now.”
“I asked to come out,” I said, lest hairy little Hector get in trouble. “The water seemed difficult to row in, and I’ve never been on a ship. Not to mention the approach of the Western Network’s fleet.”
His easy grin returned. “Ah, yes. I forget. You are … what do you call it? Brave or … a free spirit?”
I smiled. “Something like that.”
“Your eyes,” he said, rearing back a little. “They are the color of the storm. I did not notice when we first met.”
“Gray,” I said. “Like my Mama’s.”
He smiled. “They are beautiful. Come,” he said, steering me toward the middle of the ship and away from the front mast, where distrusting East Guards leered at me. “Let us talk in the safety of my cabin. This is no place for a refined lady.”
I nearly snorted. Sweet Niko. He still pictured me as refined even though I’d shown up with wild, black hair around my shoulders and visible ankles.
Above us, sailors scurried up posts that led into a complicated weave of ropes. The ship groaned with each battering wave, but it sounded less like a protest and more like an invitation to war. Niko ushered me up a set of wet stairs stained with sea salt and into a beautiful cabin. Once he shut the door, the harried noises of battle preparations calmed, and I breathed a bit easier. Glass covered the entire wall to my right, but it appeared to sparkle, no doubt enchanted to remain free of stains or cracks. The spacious cabin had likely once belonged to his grandfather, Diego, who, despite all his quirks, possessed a keen eye for refinement. The white wicker furniture—all nailed to the floor—was no exception. A painted portrait of the former High Priest hung on one wall. Diego and I hadn’t seen eye to eye, but I did mourn his death on Niko’s behalf.
“Please.” Niko gestured to a padded wicker chair. “Have a seat. I have already instructed a cabin boy to bring in some cold tea and something to eat.”
If the round windows on either side of the cabin had been open, they would have allowed a current to move the thick summer air. The ship continued to rock back and forth on the tempestuous waves. I pressed a hand to my stomach.
“Don’t worry,” Niko said with a smile, sitting in a chair next to mine. “The tea will calm you. Witches are always sick the first time they board a ship.”
“How are you doing?” I asked. “I keep up with news of your Network through our Border Guards. You haven’t had it easy since Diego died.”
His eyes dropped, looking like deep wells of melted chocolate against his beautiful olive skin. He grimaced, brushing a thick black curl off his forehead.
“It has been a struggle,” he said, forcing a diplomatic tone. “The deaths of my grandparents are part of the reason I have asked you here today, Miss Monroe.”
He hesitated. “Bianca,” he said, but it came out a bit choked, as if the informality caused him physical pain. “Believe me when I say that the Eastern Network is in grave trouble.”
“I can see that. You have an entire fleet of West Guards moving into your port.”
Niko brushed that aside with a scoff. “They are irrelevant. The problem comes from within.”