Chapter One

Lieutenant Imogene Carvelle held on to the leather strap that was all that was keeping her from being bounced off the unyielding seat of the charguerre and wished devoutly to be anywhere else.

Three weeks of one uncomfortable, too hot or too cold, bone-shaking conveyance after another to return to Lumia from Reyshaka. She did not begrudge her emperor, His Imperial Majesty Aristides Delmar de Lucien, her services—in fact, she was most grateful for the opportunities and adventures it had afforded her thus far—but she remained baffled that his Imperial Army could not come up with some more comfortable modes of long-distance transportation. At least now that they were back in Illvya, the weather was far more pleasant than the icy conditions in the empire’s far north.

The charguerre shuddered to a halt, and the door opened. “Last break before Lumia. Do what you will,” one of the sergeants bellowed, and her squad companions began to climb out, muttering various degrees of complaint and relief. She was last to leave the charguerre and she headed straight for the queue that would be forming for tea and whatever the last of their food supplies was to fuel the remaining three hours to the city. Her other squad mates would be gossiping or finding a handy spot to relieve themselves or taking time to stretch their legs, but she wanted nothing more than tea and a few minutes in the relative quiet of the countryside before having to climb back into the noisy iron box that was the charguerre. She joined the end of the queue and, while she waited, sent her magic seeking down for a ley line. It took a minute or so to find the closest one. It was weak, but she pulled a little power, using the magic to chase away some of the fatigue making her bones ache.

“Are you looking forward to being home, Lieutenant?”

She blinked up at the speaker. Captain Honore Brodier was regular army, not part of the Imperial Mages as Imogene was, and one of the leaders of the company who had escorted the mages on their diplomatic mission. She was tall and blonde, showing her Elenian ancestral roots in the glacial blue of her eyes. Some of the squad called her, unoriginally, the Ice Queen, but she had always been kind to Imogene.

But the question, well-intentioned as Honore may be, was difficult to answer. “It will be nice to see my family,” Imogene said as they stepped closer to the wooden trestle table that held hastily heated kettles of water.

“Keen to get back out, are you?” Honore said with a smile. She had a few years on Imogene’s twenty-four, and the experience to go with them.

“Yes,” Imogene said. There was no point denying it. She’d spent her first year in the Imperial mages doing mainly desk work and standard magic at one of the army’s administrative centers just outside Lumia. She’d put her head down, worked hard, and won the respect of her captain, who’d recommended her for the Diplomatic Corps she’d been so eager to join. Her first mission had been a diplomatic assignment like this one—to Andalyssia, a part of the empire no more warm, though supposedly less wild than Reyshaka.

She wasn’t sure she agreed with that assessment. The Andalyssians had been aloof, the magic they practiced bound up in a worship of nature that was somehow ponderous and secretive. Even thinking of it now, she could smell the moss and peat and salted ash that perfumed the court, an aroma from the ritual fires they burned continuously that seemed to permeate the entire frigid country. The magic she’d caught glimpses of seemed smoke-wreathed and heavy. The Andalyssians recognized earth and water and air and blood in their magic, as Illvya did, but they did not use them in the same way. Their ley lines were deep and old and resistant to Imogene’s attempts to tap that power in a way that had made her glad there were soldiers as well as diplomats on that mission. A mission plagued by disasters and headed by a fool who no longer served His Imperial Majesty. Not that any of it had been Imogene’s fault, but the army had shunted her into six months of boring, short-term courier assignments before deciding she’d done her time and could try again. It had seemed an eternity while she waited for the stink of disaster—which might always be linked to those Andalyssian memories—to clear from her.

Reyshaka had been a second chance. One she’d seized. She liked to think she’d succeeded in her duties. And, despite the discomforts of the climate, she’d found it fascinating.

She was very much hoping not to get stuck in Lumia again for more than a few weeks, if only because being stationed so close to home would give her mother more opportunities to tout the wonders of marriage and plot Imogene’s betrothal. Imogene’s two older sisters were both married, as was her brother, and her youngest sister had just become engaged. Which left Imogene as the sole target of her mother’s matchmaking tendencies.

As much as she missed her family and her friends—her best friend, Chloe Matin, in particular—she was not yet keen to settle down. Not when she’d just begun seeing some of the corners of the empire she’d grown up reading about.

She accepted tea as Honore said, “I’ll be glad of a rest. This is my ninth extended mission in a row. Sometimes I think my backside will never regain feeling.”

They both turned and looked at the line of solid square charguerres and the chunky fer-taureaus that pulled them, grimacing in unison. The fer-taureaus were modeled after iron bulls, but they looked about as much like actual bulls as the charguerre did like carriages. And their gait was less graceful than any real animal.

“Your father is an ingenier, is he not?” Honore asked. “Maybe when you get home, you should ask him how to make those damned things more comfortable.”

“An ingenier, but not a mage ingenier. I asked him once. He said he would have to inspect one to know what might be possible. But he thought it would be difficult to improve the ride much without altering the structure in ways that might weaken them.”

“We’re doomed, then,” Honore said, pushing her free hand into the small of her back. “Maybe I should try for a sea voyage next. Ships don’t bounce.”

Imogene shrugged, smiling. “They roll, though. And sink. And there’s always more travel when you disembark.” And ships were still slow. Even the fastest courier craft were at the mercy of the ocean and the winds.

The part of her that was her father’s daughter stowed the problem away to chew on at another time. She was a diplomat, not a mage ingenier, and in another three hours, she would be home in Lumia. Where she would be putting in the work to make sure she stayed a diplomat.

She stared back at the charguerres. Cesarus, the familiaris sanctii bonded to Major Fontaine, the senior mage for this mission, was standing near the last one in the line. He was very still, as was his nature, but Imogene thought she’d caught his eye and waved as she would to any other member of the squad.

The sanctii nodded back.

“You do well with them,” Honore observed. “Have you thought of bonding one yourself?”

Imogene blinked, startled. Sanctii fascinated her as much as diplomacy. They always had, since she’d first lived with them at the Academe di Sages. But while she was a water mage, and technically any water mage was free to bond a sanctii, it was an unwritten rule that an Imperial mage would not do so without permission. Such permission usually only came with seniority. “I’m a little young, I think.”

Honore shrugged, sipped her tea. “Old enough, perhaps. You have a talent for this work. You did well in Reyshaka.”

And sanctii were useful to diplomats. They could be used to spy, to intimidate, or to fascinate. Or to protect.

“It’s something I had considered might be possible in the future,” Imogene said carefully, hiding her pleasure at the praise and her excitement at even a hint that she might be able to bond a sanctii.

Cool blue eyes studied her. “The major and I would be happy to make a recommendation. Should you want to move that future somewhat nearer.” Honore swigged the last of her tea. “But you don’t need to decide now. No doubt you are tired and longing for a bath, as I am. Come see me in a day or so and let me know.” She handed the mug back to the waiting orderly and tugged her uniform jacket straighter, clearly preparing to move on to whatever was next on her mental list of tasks to complete in this break.

“I will. Thank you, Captain.” She hoped the excitement and apprehension suddenly fizzing through her veins wasn’t too apparent. “I appreciate your confidence in me.”

Honore smiled, but then her expression turned serious. “Just keep your nose clean. I know that mess with Alexei had nothing to do with you, and you’ve proven yourself here, but the army has a long memory.”

Like it? Courting The Witch is out 13 April 2021

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