A humanitarian mission into unfriendly stars
A training cruise under the watch of a fortified fleet base
The closing jaws of a trap years in the making

It has been over a year since the UnArcana Worlds of the Protectorate of the Mage-King of Mars seceded, shattering the unity of the human race. The new Republic of Faith and Reason has raised new banners in defiance of the power of the Protectorate’s Mage aristocracy.

Now, Hand Damien Montgomery commands a relief mission to a Republic world ravaged by famine. His humanitarian mission collides with a newborn military beginning to flex its muscles—and a newborn nation prepared to accept no violations of its sovereignty, regardless of their needs.

Elsewhere, disaster strikes the Nia Kriti Fleet Base as an earthquake shatters their only communication with the rest of the Protectorate. Officer-in-training Roslyn Chambers is in the middle of the recovery effort when she realizes Nia Kriti is under attack.

The Republic is done with peace. They are coming for the Protectorate—and they will see the fleets of Mars break!

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Chapter One

There was a recurring debate among constitutional scholars as to where the First Hand of the Mage-King of Mars fell among the five most powerful individuals in the Protectorate of said Mage-King. The bearer of that title, after all, wielded the full power and support of the Mage-King everywhere outside the Sol System, and the current bearer had been declared above even the Council of the Protectorate.

On the other hand, Damien Montgomery realized, constitutional scholars and kittens didn’t speak to each other much.

“No, Persephone, you are not allowed on the desk,” he told the ten-month-old black kitten measuring the jump. “We’ve had this conversation.”

Persephone listened as well as she ever did. She landed on the touchscreen covering the desk, scattering the overlarge icons across the screen. Several flickered up onto the “glass” screen of the external window of the observation deck Damien had claimed as his office.

The First Hand of the Mage-King was a small man, barely a hundred and fifty centimeters tall and slight with it. The cat purring on his desk matched the color of both his hair and the suit blazer he wore.

He eyed Persephone for several seconds then reached out a hand. The black leather gloves he wore didn’t conceal the unmoving state of his fingers. The gap between the gloves and his shirt showed the truth as well, the strange ridges of burn scars once again holding the shirt sleeve up.

Damien twitched his hand and conjured power. One moment, the kitten was purring at him from his desk. The next, there was a slight pop of air and she was on the floor.

Still purring.

He sighed and reached down to scratch her head. It was a careful, somewhat painful process, but it was why he even had Persephone. Petting an animal was good therapy for his burnt hands and fingers, so Kiera Alexander, the sixteen-year-old Princess of Mars, had found him a kitten.

“System, reset screens to forty-five seconds ago,” he ordered aloud. The computer wasn’t smart enough to recognize feline intervention, but it would follow orders.

Unlike the kitten.

From his observation-deck office aboard the Royal Martian Navy battlecruiser Duke of Magnificence, Damien could see the ships scattered through the void outside. His convoy was resting in deep space, waiting for the Mages aboard the various vessels to be ready to jump.

A second cruiser, Glory in Honest Purpose, was far enough away to be little more than a star. The computer screens in the observation window, however, happily added a subtle iconography to help Damien track his ships.
Between Duke of Magnificence and Glory in Honest Purpose hung fourteen freighters, a hastily gathered convoy carrying over a hundred and fifty million tons of grain, rice and other non-perishable food supplies.

The relief convoy was one jump outside of the Korma System, but Damien had ordered that they wait until they had two Mages ready to jump. He didn’t want to bring the convoy into the Korma System until he was certain he could bring the convoy out.

Korma was one of the UnArcana World systems that had seceded from the Protectorate eighteen months before. Technically, Damien was violating the borders of the newly founded Republic of Faith and Reason.
The colony on Kormar, however, had made the rather common decision to concentrate the majority of the planet’s food production into the regions most accommodating to Earth-standard crops. A newly mutated bacteria had decided said crops were an amazing delicacy and, from the reports the Protectorate had received, eaten basically the entire food crop.

Famine wasn’t normally a problem in the twenty-fifth century, but few Mages would jump a ship into a Republic where they were automatic second-class citizens at best. No one had ever found a way to travel between the stars that didn’t require a Mage to teleport a starship, which meant the Republic was highly reliant on the few Mages who would take their money.

That wasn’t enough ships to feed a world. One of those ships’ captains, however, had reported what he’d learned about Kormar to the Protectorate…and now Damien was here.

He studied the readouts on his ships and teleported Persephone back to the floor in mid-jump, before she could mess with his icons. The kitten landed on the ground with a thump and a confused mewp.

He was bringing enough food to feed Kormar’s populace for most of a year, more than enough time to get their crops back in order. His only real concern was how the Republic world would react to the help being offered by the Protectorate.

As far as Desmond Michael Alexander the Third, the Mage-King of Mars, was concerned, his protectorate was all humanity. The nation of the Protectorate might have shrunk when the Republic seceded, but the Mage-King’s responsibility to guard humanity hadn’t.

A grumpy meow distracted Damien from his thoughts, and he glanced aside to watch Persephone jump onto his desk from a completely different angle, where he didn’t see her until she landed on the smooth surface. She skidded to a halt and met his gaze with sparkling blue eyes.

He sighed and raised one of his broken hands. There was a pop of displaced air, and Persephone dropped onto his lap. He carefully lowered a hand to scratch her ears, and she leaned into him with a purr.

“Don’t worry, Persephone,” he told her softly. “This is a relief mission. Even the Republic isn’t going to cause too much trouble when we’re here to feed a planet.”

If only he truly believed that.

#

“Lord Montgomery.”

Mage-Captain Kole Jakab was a tall man with the pale skin of a lifelong spacer. Contrary to his appearance, Damien knew Jakab had been born in London, on Earth. He also knew Jakab rarely traveled to Earth and never to England.

“Mage-Captain. Are we ready?” Damien asked.

“All of the convoy ships report ready to jump,” the Mage-Captain replied. “Glory and Duke are at battle stations; all hands are prepared for the worst.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” the Hand murmured.

“So do we all, my Lord,” Jakab agreed. “But this is also the first time RMN ships have entered a Republic system since the Secession. This has every chance of turning into a diplomatic nightmare.”

“And that, Mage-Captain, is why I’m here,” Damien reminded him.

Before Jakab could reply, their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Persephone on Damien’s desk again. His controls were set to be used without having mobile fingers, so the cat was far too able to mess with his settings.

Fortunately, Damien managed to catch her before she managed to turn off the call. He winced as her purring weight settled onto his hand, and carefully brought his second hand to bear to carry the cat to his lap.
“How’s the cat therapy going?” his Captain asked, manfully restraining his laughter.

“If nothing else, she’s good for keeping my ego in check,” Damien said. “It’s nice to have one person around who doesn’t follow my orders. No matter how much I beg.”

“And your hands, my Lord?” Jakab said, his voice suddenly gentler. “Are you…are you up for this, Lord Montgomery?”

Damien snorted.

“It’s a little late to raise that concern, isn’t it, Captain?” he replied. “I’m in better shape than I’ve been in for eighteen months.”

Jakab arched an eyebrow at him.

“And how long before you’re expected to have full function again, Damien?”

“At least another eighteen months,” Damien admitted. “I cannot sit idly by and do nothing, Captain. I will not. Injured or not, I remain the First Hand of the Mage-King. I will do my job.”

“If I’d lost the use of my hands, I don’t think my doctors would have let me go back to work yet,” his subordinate pointed out.

“Yes, but, well…I am the First Hand,” Damien said with a chuckle. “Rank has its privileges, I suppose, and today those privileges include helping to save a world from famine. Shall we get this show on the road?”

“‘Helping,’ the man who organized the whole thing says,” Jakab replied dryly. “We await only your order, Lord Montgomery.”

“Then you have it,” Damien said firmly. “Let’s go save a planet, Captain. I’ll be on the flag deck in five minutes.”

#

The convoy Damien had put together would normally have had a flag officer attached to it. While he’d basically grabbed every ship to hand, including his normal ride in Duke of Magnificence, he’d missed acquiring a flag officer.

That put him in command himself. In theory, at least. Most of Damien’s space battle experience consisted of sitting on his hands while Kole Jakab carried the day. The Mage-Captain was just about due to get kicked to flag rank himself, which was all but guaranteed by the glowing recommendation of the First Hand.

But Duke was Kole Jakab’s ship, which meant the Mage-Captain was on the bridge. At the center of the warship, the bridge also acted as the simulacrum chamber, the nerve center of the magic that propelled the vessel between the stars.

Jakab’s location meant the battlecruiser’s flag deck went unused, so Damien had taken it over long before. The Hand had lived aboard the cruiser, off and on, for several years now. Jakab was used to having a Hand in his back pocket, and Damien was used to having a ship and crew he could rely on utterly.

“All right, Captain,” Damien said as he slid into the Admiral’s seat on the flag deck. The chamber around the big hologram was sparsely occupied. Damien didn’t use a full flag officer’s staff, and most of the Navy staff officers he did have knew perfectly well that he expected them to support Jakab, not him.

“What have we got?”

The Korma System rotated in his hologram, icons marking twelve worlds. Damien categorized them almost absently: four gas giants, eight rocks, no significant asteroid belt. One habitable and inhabited planet, Kormar.

“About what we were expecting,” Jakab told him. “We had to jump in at the freighters’ safe distance, so we’re a good day from orbit of Kormar. About a two-minute round trip for comms whenever you want to say hello.”

“Warships?” Damien asked.

“Twelve Legatan-built Crucifix-class gunships,” his captain replied instantly. “Duke or Glory could take them out in a single salvo if they decide to be troublesome.”

“If that’s needed, things have gone very wrong,” Damien told him. “You are authorized to take whatever actions you see necessary to defend the freighters, though. Am I clear?”

From the way Jakab swallowed, he recognized that Damien had just handed him a blank check to start a war. Of course, Damien wouldn’t have given him that authorization if he didn’t trust the man.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“So, a dozen gunships, no fortifications?” Damien asked.

“Kormar didn’t have anything significant before the Secession, and it doesn’t look like they’ve upgraded. If there’s anything here we weren’t expecting, it’s at Baghdad with the cloudscoop.”

The closest gas giant to Kormar flashed on the hologram on the flag deck. There wasn’t a lot of industry there, but with the UnArcana Worlds’ refusal to use magic, a cloudscoop was a necessity. If you didn’t have Mages producing antimatter, then you needed hydrogen and helium for fusion generators.

And if you were running a fleet, you’d need the same to keep your ships fueled. If there was a Republic force in the system, it would be at Baghdad.

Damien’s intelligence suggested that the Republic had maybe sixty Mages who’d been tempted into working for them by vast piles of cash. Any Republic force would inevitably be small in numbers—though he suspected the Republic had surprises for them.

The core of the Republic was Legatus, after all, and Legatus was the single most industrialized Core World, second only to Sol itself in human space. They might only have sixty Mages, but if they put each of them on something equivalent to the RMN’s battleships, well…

“Keep an eye on Baghdad, then,” Damien ordered. “For now, though, I need to make a call. We need to let the locals know their groceries are here.”

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