Gunpowder Magnolia preliminary cover

Gunpowder Magnolia is a serialized story that I publish once every odd month to my $3 patrons on Patreon (with my other serial, Sazuma, falling on the even months). It takes place in my new flintlock fantasy universe, Altima, along with Sazuma, Seven Forsaken, and a soon-to-be-announced novella.

The following is a sample chapter for those curious about what I’ve been up to behind the paywall. I hope you enjoy!

UPDATE: Gunpowder Magnolia is now being released free to newsletter subscribers (10/5/21)

GUNPOWDER MAGNOLIA

Chapter 1: Thunder at the Gates

At first, Dalin thought he was imagining the ship. Dust from the plains and mist from the river had a way of coalescing around Fort Yansey into a shifting gray-brown haze that made everything seem one step removed from reality. Dalin had barely slept between a late night transcribing a letter for the captain and the pre-dawn call to training. Dread had conjured those red sails, he thought, making nightmares from dust clouds. So, he blinked hard and dug his fingernails into his palm to be absolutely sure he was awake before leaning into the tower rail to look again.

The ship was still there, advancing with quiet menace over the river’s surface. As its sails bled through the mist, a symbol took shape, deathly white on red cloth. The dancing crane of Yao.

“Ship!” he exclaimed in horror. “Enemy ship!”

It was only a moment later that he remembered what he was supposed to do and scrambled for the hammer to sound the alarm. Yansey’s bell was old and flakes of green jolted free, raining like ash on Dalin’s boots as he drove the hammer hard and fast against the tarnished bronze. Like the rest of the fortress, this bell likely hadn’t seen action in a hundred years.

“Enemy ship!” he called again as the bell reverberated around the fort. “It’s the Yao!”

Unlike the fort they guarded, the men within Yansey’s walls were fresh and strong. Below the watchtower, they surged into motion with mechanical efficiency, a hundred and fifty blue-uniformed figures moving as one. As pikemen grabbed their shields and gunmen raced to man the walls, footsteps pounded up the tower steps. The first officer to the platform was Lieutenant Luyang Lanthe.

“I’ll be damned,” he swore, peering through the mist. “It is the Yao.”

The lieutenant was a stout, lowborn soldier from outlying Ro, with the features of a farmer and the eyes of a tactician. As far as Dalin knew, he was as unflappable as any Ro general and twice as clever. The look of shock on his face was more unsettling than the ship itself.

“Wh-why is this happening, sir?” Dalin couldn’t help stammering, knowing that the fear in his voice didn’t befit a soldier of Ro. “I thought we weren’t expecting any attacks.”

“We weren’t.”

“We’re not prepared for a siege,” he blurted out.

“We’re Ro.” Luyang turned to Dalin, his black-eyed gaze returned to its usual steadiness. “Give it five minutes.”

Had anyone else been speaking, the words would have done nothing to quell Dalin’s nerves. But something about Lieutenant Luyang had always comforted him. Dalin supposed it was probably the far western almost-Yao accent, so close to his mother’s.

“Yes, sir.”

Captain Arza wasn’t far behind his second lieutenant; apparently, he had also needed to see for himself.

“Any idea why they’re here, sir?” Luyang asked when the captain had sized up the ship.

Captain Arza, while he was not born high enough to ascend to the rank of general, was a veteran of many battles. This wasn’t the first fort he had held against the Yao. Yet even he could only shake his head in confusion. “I don’t know.”

Fort Yansey was on poor land, far from Ro’s rich soil, mines, and major ports of trade. Bandits barely even bothered coming this way. For the weeks Captain Arza’s force had been at Fort Yansey, the only ‘intruders’ Dalin had spotted during his watch had been a pod of speckled river dolphins.

“They’re coming ashore,” Luyang noted. “They must have rowed upriver for days to get here… Here,” he repeated, seemingly more to himself than anyone else. “Why?”

“There is no tactical reason for the Yao to take this fort,” Captain Arza said, bemused.

That had been Dalin’s thought. Yansey was a relic from when Ro had faced invasion from the now-long-gone kingdoms to the south. Its only real use these days was to monitor the few trade ships that used the Seizang River to pass between Medyan and the kingdoms farther east.

“Well… there must be a tactical reason, sir,” Lieutenant Luyang said. “We just haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Yes,” the captain grunted. “Not like they came here for the view.”

“How many men can a boat like that hold, Captain?” Luyang’s brow was furrowed as he surveyed the approaching ship. “A hundred soldiers plus cannons? Two hundred soldiers with no cannons?”

“Two hundred or two thousand, it doesn’t matter,” Captain Arza said gruffly. “They’ve come to Ro flaunting enemy colors, so they’re dead men. To your positions, both of you.”

Like all soldiers of Ro, Dalin carried his gun and sword every waking moment. It took him only a minute to descend the tower to his position on the front wall, facing the river—which was embarrassingly almost twice the time it took Second Lieutenant Luyang, who was a head shorter than he was, and Captain Arza, who was twice his age. No matter how hard he tried, Dalin never did seem to meet the lowest standard for his country’s military.

The Yao ship had dropped anchor in Yansey’s natural harbor, its red sails a promise of blood as its soldiers disembarked. Red-clad archers and spearmen splashed through the knee-keep water, falling into lines as they hit the shore, and Dalin was ashamed to find his hands shaking.

Yansey was an old fort, built long before the advent of firearms and lacking the mounted cannons of newer forts. The Ro had only the thick fieldstone wall and their gunmen for defense—and that was if the shooters could stay alive. These ramparts were built for archers, not gunmen, and provided little cover.

“Two-hundred even,” Lieutenant Chang Tairo counted as the last of the Yao fell into formation, and Dalin straightened up to look for himself.

During the defensive drills, Dalin hadn’t thought much about how close his position was to Captain Arza and his ranked officers, but in the uneasy quiet of anticipation, he found himself mulling whether this was an especially good or especially bad place to be. On the one hand, he would hear orders better than the soldiers further down the wall when the cacophony of battle set in. On the other, Yao arrows intended for the ranked officers were likely to hit him on their way there.

At one-hundred-fifty strong, the Ro of Yansey were outnumbered, but that didn’t necessarily put them at a disadvantage. Holding a fort required far fewer men than storming one. The Yao were hardly going to overwhelm twenty-foot-high walls with two hundred foot soldiers and what looked like no ladders, no battering ram, and no cannons. What were they thinking?

“Do you think they have another ship coming?” Lieutenant Chang voiced Dalin’s next thought in low tones that would not have been audible but for the disciplined silence on the wall.

“Doesn’t look like it,” Captain Arza said.

It looked like the Yao were preparing to attack immediately. The troops below had assumed an attack formation, spearmen at the front, with their red-tasseled spears pointed skyward and their rectangular tower shields ready to guard against enemy fire. That seemed foolish too. The Yao should know by now that the Ro never just fired arrows. Those beautiful lacquer and bronze plated shields that had served the Yao so well in older wars provided little protection from bullets.

“Maybe it’s a distraction, sir,” Lieutenant Chang piped up again.

“A distraction from what?”

“I don’t know. Forces from the back? Horsemen?”

“Ro is at our back,” Captain Arza pointed out, audibly exasperated. “We’d have heard from a scout if there was a force of Yao anywhere in the province.”

“Oh.”

First Lieutenant Chang Tairo was not the sharpest arrow in the quiver. It was something no one said aloud; that was simply not how you talked about the son of an esteemed general. But everyone knew that Chang Tairo’s rank was no more than a pretty, empty title to go with the young man’s pretty, empty head.

Captain Arza’s true right hand was Second Lieutenant Luyang Lanthe. During sparring and target practice, it was Luyang who walked through the training yard, correcting each man’s form. When supplies ran low, it was Luyang who surveyed the fort to make sure everyone had the boots, sleeping mats, and rations they needed. Now, it was Luyang who went down the line to speak to the soldiers. There were no melodramatic calls for courage. That was not Luyang’s style—nor, Dalin thought, something the man could pull off with his humble air and provincial accent. Instead, he spoke to the men in ones and twos, giving them precisely the words they needed to hear.

“Deep breaths, Yuto.”

“Patience, Sukyao.”

Fifty men were crammed onto the wall, shoulder to shoulder. The second lieutenant knew them all by name and spoke to them like they were his own younger brothers—though he himself was scarcely into his twenties.

“Erling, even marksmen as good as you have a margin for error. Remember to breathe and aim carefully.”

“Hailu, your father is watching. Make him proud.”

Dalin did his best to stand straight when Luyang reached him—as if that would do anything to improve the lieutenant’s opinion of him after his performance at every stage of training. Men might swallow their insults about Chang Tairo out of respect for his father, but Dalin’s parents had been minor government officials, high enough in society that Dalin had never developed the farmers’ muscles and callouses to keep up with his fellow trainees, but not so high that those same farmers’ sons hesitated to laugh at him.

Luyang rested a hand on his shoulder.

“None of us were born to this, Dalin. I want to see those steady calligrapher’s hands make every shot.”

“Luyang,” Captain Arza said sharply, “to me. Stop wasting time.”

“Sir.” Luyang said and the pressure of his hand disappeared from Dalin’s shoulder.

“It’s not a waste of time,” Lieutenant Chang protested and when the captain favored him with a cold look, added, “It’s what my father does.”

A hundred Ro eyes fixed forward in anticipation as the Yao advanced, marching boots churning up dust to drift over the river.

“Guns ready!” Captain Arza called as the Yao drew close enough for Dalin to make out the crane and lily crests on their shields. “Hold your fire until I give the command!”

Unlike the Ro, Yao didn’t trade with Medyan, meaning that their artillery was limited to arrows. It was what would usually give a small force of Ro the edge over their western neighbors, but Yansey had limited ammunition. Certainly not enough to fend off a siege for any length of time. A bow and full quiver of arrows rested at Dalin’s feet, in case the Yao were still coming after the bullets were spent.

The front line of Yao was almost in firing range when something strange happened. Their formation shifted, parting down the middle to make way for a solitary figure. Dalin’s eyesight was poor and he had to strain to bring the newcomer into focus. The man wore no armor and carried no weapons. Just white robes… like a scholar of Old Yao.

“Fuck,” Captain Arza said.

“What?” Lieutenant Chang said in shock. To Dalin’s knowledge, no one had ever heard the straight-laced captain swear. “What is it, sir?”

“They have a mage.”

A mage?

Dalin’s mother had brought him up on stories about the graphemancers of Yao’s golden age, servants of Heaven, who wielded unfathomable power. She had told him that graphemancy was a noble art, lost to the world centuries ago when the rule of Yao passed to lesser men. But if Captain Arza was right—if the man in robes was a stroke mage like the ones from the stories—then the Yao didn’t need two hundred men to take Yansey. They just needed him.

“But mages don’t exist anymore,” Lieutenant Chang protested.

“They’re not supposed to,” Captain Arza said, “but…”

Lieutenant Luyang finished the thought. “Why else would they show up without cannons?”

The man below certainly looked the part, with his long beard and blood-red sash flowing in the wind amid curls of dust. He was a painting from the flaking monastery walls brought to life. Had he not been quaking to his core, Dalin would have marveled at the romance of such a picture: here at the edge of the world, an antique fortress and a warrior from a bygone age lived again—and would bleed living blood.

“Aim for the man in white!” Captain Arza bellowed as the scholar lifted his writing hand. “Ready…” The mage was sweeping his hand through the air before him, an unearthly glow lighting his godmarks, blazing to the tips of his fingers. “Fire!”

Dalin squeezed the trigger, a thunder of bullets split the air—

And Dalin struggled to process what happened next. Sparks crackled orange in the air as all fifty bullets crashed into… something between Ro’s wall and the Yao. Nothing was there. No stone, metal, or any barrier that Dalin’s weak eyes could discern. Yet the Yao lines stood untouched. No bursts of dust or blood disturbed their formation. Somehow, not one bullet had reached them.

“Reload!” Captain Arza shouted into the stunned silence. “Quickly!”

No one reloaded faster than Ro gunmen. Even a shaky half-step behind the soldiers to his left and right, Dalin, had his pistol reloaded and cocked in fifteen seconds.

“Aim!”

Fifty guns trained on the man in white as his fingers carved a new character from nothing.

“Fire!”

The character before the mage blazed with heavenly wrath and again, the bullets sparked and rang off an invisible shield, leaving the Yao untouched.

“Captain,” Luyang said with a suppressed anxiety that Dalin had never heard in his voice. “We don’t have that much ammunition. Shouldn’t we conserve it until the mage gets closer or—?”

“He’s not getting any closer,” Captain Arza ground out. “Fire at will!”

Firing at will was dangerous with muzzle loaders in these close ranks. Sparks from one soldier’s frizzen could ignite his neighbor’s pan, causing a deadly accident. But Dalin understood the captain’s calculated risk as he rammed a new patch and ball into the barrel. The mage had to sketch a character in order to block the bullets. If those bullets weren’t coming all at once, on the same obvious signal, maybe one would hit him.

By this time, however, the Yao troops had drawn close enough to make use of their archers.

“Halt!” the commander called out in Yao—a language Dalin hadn’t heard since he was young enough for his mother to sing him to sleep. “Draw!”

A hundred white silk bowstrings pulled taut.

“Fire!”

The coward in Dalin twitched with urge to duck, but the volley of arrows arced high over Yansey’s wall to rain on the fifty Ro pikemen who were arrayed inside, ready to brace and defend the gate.

“Shields!” Captain Arza boomed over the gunfire.

Dalin didn’t look back, but he heard the almost musical clang of arrows glancing off shields below. A second volley of arrows met Ro’s impenetrable shield wall as more bullets met the mage’s invisible barrier. It was a stalemate. Ro’s bullets couldn’t reach the Yao, but the Yao couldn’t storm Yansey without siege equipment. A cry of pain and one of the Yao pikemen crumpled. He had taken a bullet to the knee. The mage’s spell had dropped!

“Shoot him!” Captain Arza bellowed, recognizing the precious window. “Shoot him now!”

The graphemancer’s right hand was writing with frantic speed, extended toward the fortress doors. A bullet tore through one of his sleeves as he finished the spell, a new character ignited the air before him—

And the world blew apart.

The sound alone blasted the soul from Dalin’s body. His head keened like a tree of cicadas, all sound lost in the whining ring as earth and sky reeled in a spinning moment of total disorientation. He couldn’t breathe. When his head lolled to the side, coarse hay crackled on his cheek and he saw another gunman sprawled in the dust beside him. Erling, the cobbler’s son. He was dead, his neck bent at the wrong angle, eyes unseeing.

Not far beyond Erling’s body, Lieutenant Chang and Second Lieutenant Luyang were dragging themselves to their hands and knees. As sound and clarity ebbed back to Dalin, he realized that they were all of them on the ground inside of Fort Yansey. Whatever the mage had done, it had thrown them backwards off the wall.

Rolling onto his side, Dalin blinked through a stinging haze of rock dust and didn’t understand what he saw. Yansey’s front gates were gone, along with most of the surrounding wall. With one word, the graphemancer had summoned the power of a hundred cannons to blow a hole in the front of Fort Yansey, throwing a dozen gunmen to the dirt like straw dolls and sending fragments of rock and metal high into the air. A hunk of stone thudded into the straw beside Dalin and, through the ringing in his ears, he heard hundreds more clattering off the pikemen’s shields and crashing through the wooden structures of Yansey’s interior.

Like Dalin, the first and second lieutenants had landed among the hay bales intended to feed the fort’s few horses, saving them from mortal injury. Pikemen from the back row had broken formation to check on the fallen officers. But of those the shockwave had blown from the wall, Dalin and the two lieutenants seemed to be the only ones moving.

“Captain!” one of the pikemen was saying as Dalin struggled to his hands and knees. “Captain Arza!”

The captain’s blue cape stood out in the muted gray of the surrounding fort—as did the deep red spreading from his head to drip, drip off the edge of the stairs where he had fallen. He wasn’t moving. The pikeman, who had been trying to rouse the captain, turned to the lieutenants with a look of pain.

“He’s dead.”

“What do we do?” asked another pikeman.

“Fight.” Lieutenant Luyang was on his feet, yanking his uniform straight as if he hadn’t just spun thirty feet into a hay bale. “No one told you to leave your positions.”

The men jumped at the rebuke, running to rejoin the other pikemen facing the cloud of dust that moments earlier had been Yansey’s front gate. For the moment, there didn’t seem to be any movement on the other side of the cloud. Perhaps the Yao were waiting for the dust to clear before the inevitable charge, so they could gauge the number of Ro inside before rushing in. With the wall out of play, the advantage of numbers was against the Ro. If they were going to hold a half-destroyed fort against the Yao, they needed to organize fast.

“You’re the captain now, Lord Tairo.” Luyang turned to Chang Tairo, who was still on his knees in the hay, nursing a broken arm. “What are your orders?”

Red-fletched arrows had started whistling through the breach, pinging off shields. One struck an unprepared pikeman in the shoulder.

“Captain Chang!” Luyang shouted more urgently. “Your orders!”

“I…” The general’s son had gone pale, his eyes unfocused. “I… don’t…”

“Captain!” Luyang shook him. When Chang Tairo still didn’t respond, a decision solidified in Luyang’s eyes. He turned from Chang to face the troops.

“Man the gap!” he ordered over the confusion. “Shields up, spears forward! Gunners, fire at will!”

Only thirty-some gunmen remained atop the wall but they hurriedly opened fire on the Yao below although, in the swirling gray, it was impossible to see whether the bullets hit their targets or met with more magical shielding. When a Yao war cry rose in response, it became impossible to hear as well.

“Dalin!”

“Yes?” Dalin jumped at the sound of his name. “Sir?”

Lieutenant Luyang stalked over and Dalin felt the color drain from his face, certain he was going to be admonished for quaking like a leaf—and for losing his gun. God, where had it gone? It must have landed somewhere—

“Your mother was Yao.”

“What?” Dalin was stricken. Harsh words were to be expected, but he hadn’t taken the lieutenant for one to resort to the schoolyard insults Dalin had last suffered at eight years old.

“Your mother,” Luyang repeated. “She was from Yao. You grew up with the language.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you read their script?”

“Some, sir.”

“Some’ll have to do. Come on.”

Before Dalin could ask what was going on, Luyang addressed the next highest ranked soldier—second lieutenant now that the captain was dead—“Githya!”

“Sir?”

“You’re in command here. Forward into the breach. They opened the gates. Make them regret it.”

Dalin watched his own doubt flicker across Githya’s grizzled face even as he nodded, “Yes, sir. But the mage—?”

“Can’t blow our men away if they’re in with his own.” Lieutenant Luyang said with confidence that visibly eased some of Githya’s doubt. “I have a plan, but it relies on you keeping those Yao busy.”

“Done, Lieutenant,” Githya said and turned to take command of the pikemen. As he called them into an attack formation, Lieutenant Luyang turned to scan the wall with thinking eyes.

“Suya!” he called after a half second’s thought. Yansey’s best marksman turned at the sound of his name.

“To me!”

Lieutenant Luyang didn’t wait for Suya to descend and catch up before running to where Captain Arza lay dead. Muttering an apology, Luyang turned his body over, unfastened the strap of his musket, and pulled it free. It was a heavier, more powerful weapon than any other gun in the fortress, closer to a small cannon than a rifle. Luyang, who was on the small side, strained under its weight.

As Suya reached them, Luyang hefted the dragon musket in his direction and said, “You trained with one of these at your previous camp, yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. This is yours now.” Luyang thrust the cannon-like weapon into Suya’s hands, visibly grateful to be rid of its weight. “Follow me.”

Dalin and Suya shared a look of confusion but followed the lieutenant to the center of the fort behind the pikemen.

“Where are we going, sir?” Dalin asked.

“Yao magic is all about fancy writing, right?” Luyang said without slowing. “That’s what the mage is using to summon shields, and fire, and all that reality-defying nonsense?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perfect. You’re going to read.”

“Read?” Dalin said as Luyang led him onto the raised wooden platform the captain used to address the troops each morning.

“Yes.” Turning Dalin around by the shoulders, Luyang pointed toward the mage, who they could now see clearly over the heads of the Yao soldiers and their own Ro pikemen. “Obviously, there’s a rhythm, a pattern to his attacks and defenses. Just like swordplay. Read it.”

“I’m a terrible swordsman, sir,” Dalin pointed out—as if the lieutenant didn’t know. It was why Luyang had stationed him on the wall. With a gun, he did occasionally land a hit.

“That’s not the point. Everyone has habits. Everyone has defensive gaps. Watch, Dalin. Tell me his.”

“I don’t have the best eyes, sir.” Too much reading by candlelight, his father had always said. “I-it’s too far to see,” Dalin stammered and cringed, expecting the lieutenant to say something disparaging. He said something worse.

“Then we’ll have to get closer.”

“What—?”

“Keisai, Entha, Juryo, Velwei!” the lieutenant called the names of four pikemen from the back of Githya’s formation, “to me!”

And they were moving again, down the platform steps toward the back of the fort, the four pikemen falling in behind them.

“Where are we going, sir?” Suya voiced Dalin’s thought, impressively managing to match the lieutenant’s pace with the dragon musket slung over his shoulder.

“Out the royal passage.” Luyang snatched a crescent glaive from the spare weapons rack without breaking stride. “We’re going to go kill that mage.”

The royal passage was a slit in Yansey’s back wall barely big enough to fit a man’s shoulders. The idea was that a small party could sneak out of the fort—a ruling family on the run, maybe a solitary messenger—but it could never accommodate an attacking force. To get through, the seven soldiers had to fall into single file and slide through sideways, scabbards and gun belts scraping stone as they went.

The door at the far end was a bronze-reinforced stone obelisk hinged over the slit. It could be unbolted and pushed open from inside but was impossible to open from the outside.

The rusted bolt screeched in the dark and there was a grunt as Lieutenant Luyang pushed against the door.

“Lieutenant?” one of the pikemen said.

A sigh. “Juryo, push on my shoulder.”

“Sir?”

“I’m not strong enough,” Luyang said. “Put your shoulder to mine and push.”

There was a clunk of muscle and weaponry as Juryo rammed against Luyang. Boots scraped on the ground as both of them strained to move the ancient door. With a another rusty screech, the door budged a fraction of an inch. It was only after Suya threw his shoulder into Juryo that the door grudgingly grated open, revealing a sliver of morning wide enough for Luyang to squeeze through.

“Alright,” the lieutenant said once he was out. “All clear.”

While slight Luyang had slipped through, it took a few more inches of nudging to accommodate the broader chests of Suya and the pikemen. The plains at Yansey’s back were as empty as Captain Arza had predicted, a featureless expanse that didn’t get green for many miles.

“Come.” Lieutenant Luyang motioned the party along Yansey’s eastern wall in discrete single file until they reached the corner and the sounds of battle. “Pikemen, flank Dalin and Suya. We’re going to get them close to the mage.”

“How close, exactly?” Juryo said nervously.

“As close as Dalin needs to be. He’s going to call it.”

“And then?” Suya said.

“Then we’re going to hold our ground until I tell you to shoot.”

“Wait.” Dalin’s voice came out shaking. “Wh-what?”

“Just do as I say.” Luyang planted a hand on his back. It was that hand that gave him the strength to take one step, then another, then another toward the line of Yao.

For the moment, the Yao troops and their graphemancer were preoccupied with the Ro ferociously defending the gap before them. In the whir of dust and smoke, one could scarcely discern the difference between Yao red and Ro blue. With the blinding sun at their backs, covering their approach, Luyang’s tiny party went unnoticed.

“Forward,” Lieutenant Luyang ordered as the four pikemen fell into practiced defensive positions around Dalin. “Forward until Dalin can read.”

And, taunting death, they inched closer to the Yao.

“Eyes on the mage, Dalin,” Luyang said, noticing his gaze straying to the Yao and their spears. “Nothing else exists.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dalin’s mother had said that a mage’s abilities were limited only by the graphemes he had mastered, and this one had more than just a shield and a shockwave in his arsenal. Whenever he found a clear shot at one or more Ro soldier, there was some new horror. Two were incinerated. One man seemed to turn inside out, fat and blood spurting from his eye sockets.

“Now,” Dalin said the moment the mage’s right hand sharpened to more than just a bright blur. His voice was shaking. “S-stop here.”

Luyang lifted his fist and their miniature formation came to a halt dangerously close to enemy lines, no more than thirty feet from the nearest Yao soldiers. Thank God in Heaven that their fellows were fighting hard enough to keep the enemy’s attention.

“You can see from here?” the lieutenant asked.

“Yes, sir.” Whether or not Dalin could read what he saw was another matter entirely. At least the mage’s hand moved deliberately, drawing glowing lines through the air that lingered like floating fire until the spell was complete.

In his periphery, Dalin sensed a change in the Yao troops’ movement and turned to find an archer looking straight at him, nocking an arrow. He took aim between Dalin’s eyes—and jolted back, as a Ro bullet punched through his breastplate. A second Yao soldier tried to rush them and got the crescent end of Luyang’s glaive.

“Focus, Dalin!” the lieutenant ordered, kicking the wounded Yao back to the ground, where Velwei drove a pike through his chest. “You’re covered! Focus or we’re all lost!”

“Yes, sir,” Dalin said and, against all his instincts, wrenched his eyes from the carnage back to the mage’s fingertips.

He hadn’t read Yao characters in years, not since his mother’s passing. But he focused now. For Yansey. For Ro.

“It’s backwards,” he muttered in frustration, noting the man’s fingers moving right to left. Of course, the mage would draw the character facing himself, meaning that anyone else had to read it the wrong way around.

Brows drawn tight in concentration, Dalin moved his index finger over his own open palm, trying to mirror the mage’s strokes, trying to remember… Blood splattered across the bridge of his nose as Juryo cut down a man to his left, but he kept his eyes trained on the mage’s hand as his own fingers scratched back through his memory.

Dalin’s mother had explained that graphemancy was so difficult because each character had to be drawn perfectly, with the skill of a master calligrapher. Rushing could ruin a spell the same way it created unsightly ink blotches and malformed characters on a page. True to the legends, this mage’s every stroke was precise and impassioned, pulling Dalin back to his mother’s skillful calligraphy.

And there! The strokes on Dalin’s palm coalesced into a memory of ink-stained paper, his mother’s hand on his, guiding it through the strokes, her voice prompting softly, and this radical means…

“Protect!”

“What?” the lieutenant said, breathless from combat.

“And steel… and… wall! Enclosing wall!” Dalin exclaimed as more memory fragments slid into place alongside the first, like the pieces of a woodcut puzzle. “That’s the shielding spell!”

“Looks like,” Suya grimaced as another rain of bullets bounced off an invisible barrier around the mage and the Yao soldiers who had stayed near him.

“Good work, soldier,” Lieutenant Luyang said. “All you have to do now is let us know when he does it again. The moment he does it again. Suya, line up your shot.”

The mage wielded his terrifying arsenal of spells one after another, summoning fire there, a shockwave there, but he obviously had to return to the shielding spell periodically or he was vulnerable to gunfire.

Now that Dalin’s eyes were adjusting to the backwards characters, he recognized more radicals from his childhood. Fire. And alongside it… eat? No—eat without the tooth radical… Consume? The character glowed bright at the mage’s fingertips and then exploded forward, turning to a column of fire that swallowed a Ro pikeman whole. He was ash before he had time to scream. The heatwave broke on Dalin’s skin a moment later, crackling with heavenly power.

“There!” Dalin exclaimed when the mage started in on the protect radical again, followed quickly by steel and enclosing wall. “That’s the one.”

As the graphemancer moved on to a new spell, the lieutenant started counting under his breath at a steady clip, like marching boots… “three, four, five, six…”

Dalin recognized the fire radical againand wished his voice was loud enough to shout a warning to the charging Ro pikemen before they burst into flame.

“… eleven, twelve, thirteen…”

But the mage’s next strokes didn’t form the radical for consumption. Instead, there was the radical for Heaven and… hammer? Before Dalin’s mind could put them together, lightning forked from the mage’s hand into a man’s chest, throwing him backwards into two other Ro soldiers, frying all three.

Dalin flinched but beside him, Luyang’s voice didn’t falter—even as he rammed his glaive so hard through a Yao soldier’s stomach that it came out through the man’s spine and stuck there as he fell.

“…nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two…”

Bullets struck the dust near the mage’s feet and his fingers were moving again.

“There!” Dalin said. “The shield ran out. He’s renewing it!”

The lieutenant made no response. He just drew his sword and counted, starting again at one, “two, three, four…”

By Dalin’s side, Suya was stock still, dragon musket poised on his shoulder. The marksman didn’t even flinch when Juryo took an arrow to the gut and Luyang cut down a Yao spearman scarcely a foot from him.

“… seventeen,” the lieutenant breathed, “eighteen, nineteen, twenty, ready Suya… Fire!”

The sound of the dragon musket so close to Dalin’s ear was deafening.

And, for the second time that morning, the world changed on a bang.

Suya’s bullet caught the mage in the left breast, just above the heart.

The stately Yao staggered in shock, a hand to his wound as red bloomed like magnolia petals on the white of his robes. Motion on the battlefield slowed in disbelief.

Genius. Yet so simple, Dalin marveled, wondering at how he hadn’t understood the plan earlier. Lieutenant Luyang had counted to the exact moment the mage’s shield would open and placed Suya’s impeccable shot right where it needed to be. Everyone has defensive gaps.

A roar of triumph went up on the Ro side of the wall as the Yao stood in shock. But it wasn’t over yet. The mage had lifted fingers dripping with blood and started to write again. With a hole so near his heart, he would bleed out, but not before finishing one last spell.

“Shit!” Suya hissed, already racing to reload the dragon musket, but Dalin knew exactly how long it took to reload a gun relative to how long it took to write a ten-stroke grapheme. Suya would never line up the shot in time, and the remaining Yao soldiers had fallen back to close in front of the mage, presenting a wall of shields, armor, and flesh against the next bullet.

Dalin’s heart dropped as he saw the mage complete the radical for Heaven, hammer then another series of radicals: sky, field, compass… What did that mean?

You know what it means, Dalin’s mother murmured sweetly in his ear. All encompassing.

The mage was going to bring lightning down on the entire field.

We’re dead, Dalin thought. Ro, Yao, all of us are dead.

Before the thought turned to an undignified cry of terror, hope appeared in a bolt of blue—Lieutenant Luyang, sword drawn, closing the last ten feet between himself and the mage. To have gotten there so fast, he must have laid into a sprint the moment Suya squeezed the trigger.

The nearby Yao soldiers were so preoccupied scrambling to shield the mage against fire from the fort and the lieutenant was so small, no one noticed the lone Ro racing in from the side. One spearman saw Luyang at the last second and cried a warning—too late.

Luyang’s sword sheared upward through the mage’s right wrist, severing his hand along with that otherworldly line of light that ran from his core to his fingertips. The connection broke in a shower of sparks and blood.

The graphemancer’s lips parted to scream, but before he got the chance, Luyang’s sword swept back around—through the neck. The mage had crumpled to a heap of robes by the time the Yao pikemen reoriented themselves to face the lieutenant. The man closest to Luyang had raised his spear when the dragon musket cracked the air, deafening Dalin all over again.

The pikeman’s head split open in a wet burst of red and he went down.

“To the lieutenant!” Suya’s voice was distant to Dalin’s ringing ears, but it commanded the attention of every Ro in the wake of the dragon musket’s thunder.

“To the lieutenant!” the cry repeated across the Ro troops, a single reverberant purpose sending them all into motion.

Gunfire dropped off as Ro’s remaining gunmen plunged into the fray below and Yansey’s pikemen surged forward. In moments, blue-clad men poured out of the breach, breaking through the lines of surprised Yao with Ro’s trademark ferocity. On the bang of a gun and the sweep of a sword, the tide had turned. Dizzy with the shift, Dalin fumbled to draw his sword—only to find his fingers closing on air.

God, no.

He had realized that he had lost his gun in the fall from the wall but he hadn’t checked for his sword. For shame, soldier. Always check.

As the field broke into the bloody chaos of close combat, Dalin ran to retrieve the lieutenant’s glaive from the Yao soldier’s body where it had stuck. Seizing the shaft, he tried to pull it free, but the crescent’s curve caught on a rib. Dalin placed a foot on the corpse’s chest to try again when something hit him.

It could have been a sword, a spear, or a stray bullet. All Dalin knew was that, after the jolt, the world went slow, went fuzzy… then cold.

Time slipped.

He was lying on his side when the sounds of battle turned to Ro cries of victory. He knew the voices were close, but they seemed a million miles away, in a world fading from view like a vision in dust and mist.

“Dalin?” Mother’s voice said above him. Then, “Oh, no.”

Knees thudded to the earth by Dalin’s head and calloused hands were on his face, damp with cooling sweat. That wasn’t his mother’s touch. These were the rough hands of a peasant and a soldier.

“No, no, no…” Lieutenant Luyang was repeating miserably, and his voice had gone strangely high. Maybe it was just the shock, but God… he sounded so much like Mother.

As the world came apart, so did the lieutenant, tears dropping from his eyes onto Dalin’s forehead. It wasn’t uncommon for a soldier to cry for a fallen comrade. Dalin knew that. Even so, there was something strange about the way Luyang was crying, the way his small, sturdy fingers so tenderly smoothed Dalin’s hair back from his face, the way his sobs went breathy as he lost composure.

“I’m sorry.” The wetness of tears had made Luyang’s eyelashes darker and more pronounced. Through the grime, his lips and cheeks were pink. “You did so well, Dalin. This is my fault… I should have made sure you had a weapon.”

And, in Dalin’s final moment of clarity, he realized why the lieutenant had always reminded him of his mother.

God in Heaven, was his last fully formed thought, Lieutenant Luyang is a woman.

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