The Promised Lie (Bookworm Successor Series)–Snippet

8 Nov

Prologue

The valley was as dark and cold and as silent as the grave.

Lord Havant of Hereford glanced from side to side, warily, as his as his guide led him further down the rocky path. He’d been warned, time and time again, that the forbidden lands were forbidden for a reason … that they were dangerous, rather than places the Grand Sorcerers preferred to keep to themselves. Walking into the valley bothered him on a very primal level, even though his rudimentary magic sensed no threat. There was something about the cold seeping into his bones that urged him to flee.

He banished the feeling with an effort, drawing his cloak tighter around his body. He’d expended far too much effort on crossing the Wild Mountains – far too close to the Goldenrod Lands for comfort – to back out now, despite the sensation of danger that pervaded the dark air. Hark had told him, time and time again, that the ancient temple was the only place they could perform the rite and Havant believed him. The monk knew better than to lie to the heir to an earldom.

The shadows seemed to shimmer as they reached the bottom, revealing a strange building hidden within the shadows. He couldn’t quite see it, as if there was a spell concealing its precise dimensions. All he could make out were impressions: strange towers, dark runes on the walls, stone statues positioned by the entrance … and a faint light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. His guide didn’t hesitate. He walked past the statues, and through the entrance as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Havant knew himself to be a brave man – he’d led his brother’s forces in war – but it took all of his courage to follow the guide into the building. The urge to flee was growing stronger and stronger all the time.

Inside, the building was empty, save for a single stone alter. The light grew stronger, radiating out of the stone walls. Hark was standing on the other side of the chamber, his hood pulled back to reveal his long beard and stern features. His dark eyes flashed with a fanatical determination that made him seem a different man. Havant had to force himself to look back, evenly. He was the master outside the building. He could be the master inside too.

“You have come,” Hark said. His voice boomed in the shadows. “Did you bring the blood?”

“I did,” Havant said.

He reached into his pocket and produced the tiny vial. It had been his sister, Queen Emetine, who’d obtained the blood. Her husband’s guard had slipped, just once. Perhaps Emetine felt guilty for what she’d done, or for what she’d set in motion. But it didn’t matter. Emetine had failed in the first duty of a queen and it was only a matter of time before her husband put her aside for someone younger, prettier and more fertile. A childless royal marriage simply couldn’t be allowed to last.

And then it will be a matter of time until the civil war resumes, Havant thought. His family couldn’t afford another round of strife. They’d worked hard to secure their position and he had no intention of losing it. We have to strike first.

Hark walked forward and took the vial, then snapped his fingers. The monks started to walk into the chamber, the shadows moving around them like living things … as if, the monks were shadows themselves. Their faces were hidden completely behind their cowls, lost in the darkness. They made no noise as they moved. Havant couldn’t even hear them breathing. It was easy to believe, just for a moment, that they weren’t truly human. Suddenly, all of the strange tales about the forbidden zone seemed terrifyingly believable.

“Ours is the gift of death,” Hark said. His voice echoed in the chamber. “We offer it freely to those who wish it.”

Another hooded figure stepped out of the shadows and walked towards the altar, then stopped and removed her cowl. Havant stared, despite himself, as the cowl pooled around her bare ankles. She was naked, old enough to wed yet untouched by life; her face both enchantingly sweet and strangely alien. There were no blisters on her body, no sign of a hard life on the farms. She showed no sign of feeling ashamed or vulnerable, even though most girls on the Summer Isle were raised to keep their clothes on at all times. The sense of wrongness grew stronger as the girl climbed onto the stone altar and lay on her back. Havant could feel … something … drifting in the air, a presence waiting to be born. The entire world seemed to be holding its breath.

“Death is our gift,” Hark said.

He unstopped the vial and poured the blood onto the girl’s chest. She didn’t move, even when he dipped his crooked finger in the blood and used it to draw lines and runes on her body. Havant wondered, suddenly, if she’d been drugged or enchanted. There were plenty of spells and potions that would account for the girl’s calm. And yet …

“Mighty Dusk,” Hark said. “We ask for Your blessing. We ask for Your gift. We ask for Your guidance as we work for Your day.”

“Death is our gift,” the monks said.

The sense of presence grew stronger. Havant watched, feeling almost as if he was floating outside his own body, as Hark withdraw a silver knife from his robes. Something told Havant that he should be alarmed, but … he felt calm, utterly unmoved. And then Hark raised the knife up and held it above the girl’s chest.

“Death is our gift,” he said, once again.

He stabbed down, hard. The girl cried out, once. Blood splashed in all directions. The presence grew even stronger, pressing against the boundaries of reality …

… And, four hundred miles away, King Edwin of the Summer Isle screamed and died.

Chapter One

“Well?”

Isabella ignored Big Richard’s rather snappy demand as she concentrated on the village in the distance, reaching out with her senses. It was a small village, forty miles from the nearest town; fifteen hovels, a blacksmith’s forge, a hedge-witch’s home and very little else, all surrounded by patchwork fields. It should have been teeming with life – men working in the fields, women and children tending the animals – but it was deserted. She couldn’t pick up a hint of life.

Big Richard snorted, rudely. “Performance issues?”

“No,” Isabella said, tartly. She concentrated. There was something, right at the edge of her awareness. A sense of … something. She couldn’t put it into words. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the village.”

“Magicians,” Big Richard sneered. “Always coming up with excuses for failure.”

“There’s no one within eyeshot, either,” Little Jim pointed out. “Or can you see something the rest of us can’t?”

Big Richard made a rude sound. Isabella looked at him, then his brother. It was hard to believe they were related, even though they had the same eyes. Big Richard was a short, but beefy man, so muscular that Isabella rather suspected he had some orc blood in him somewhere, carrying a massive axe slung over one shoulder. His brother, by contrast, was tall and slim. The only thing they had in common was red hair … and a prejudice against magic-users. Big Richard hadn’t made any bones about distrusting anyone who used magic, Isabella included. If Lord Robin hadn’t insisted on Isabella joining the company, Big Richard would have tried to drive her away.

Which wouldn’t have been easy, Isabella thought. The protective amulets Big Richard wore were effective, against hedge-witches. She’d been taught ways to get spells through basic protections, ways to curse someone who thought he was safe. And yet, that would have probably cost me my job too.

She rolled her eyes as the two men turned back towards the deserted village. She’d been with the company for six months and she knew, despite everything, that she’d been lucky. Female mercenaries were rare, even in troubled times. And while she had proven herself to Lord Robin, she knew that too many of the other mercenaries distrusted her. They knew very little about her past.

And if they did know about my past, she reminded herself, they’d distrust me even more.

Very few people would have recognised her, even if they’d heard her name. Isabella was hardly a common name, but it wasn’t that uncommon. Her close-cropped black hair, scarred face and form-fitting brown leathers – complete with a sword, a knife and a wand – were very different to the clothes she’d worn years ago, in another life. No one would draw a connection between her and the Isabella who’d left the Golden City, seven years ago. And that was how she wanted it to be.

Lord Robin cantered up and smiled at them. He was a handsome man, Isabella admitted privately, with short blond hair and shining armour. And he was a good leader, one strong enough to rule a band of mercenaries and yet smart enough to listen to their concerns. She had no idea if he truly was an aristocratic bastard or not – he was the only person who called himself a lord – but it hardly mattered. There were countless noblemen seeking real power now the Empire was gone.

“I can’t sense anything,” Isabella said. There was no point in telling him about the feeling at the back of her mind. If she couldn’t pinpoint it, no one would take it seriously. “I think the village is deserted.”

“Probably hiding from the taxman,” Robin said. “King Romulus has been squeezing his peasants pretty hard over the last few months, hasn’t he?”

He raised his voice. “Mount up!”

Isabella nodded as she scrambled up into her horse’s saddle and followed the others down the dusty road towards the village. The heat grew stronger, a grim reminder that everything – even the weather – was in flux these days, as if the final days had come. Her eyes narrowed as she glanced from side to side. Too many streams intended to water the fields had run dry, leaving the crops spoiled. Even the millpond looked painfully shallow. She wondered, sourly, if Robin was right. The villagers had plenty of reason to know that drought was not an acceptable excuse for not paying their taxes. Perhaps they’d decided to hide somewhere in the countryside rather than pay.

And a tax collector vanished out here, she reminded herself. That’s why Lord August hired us to investigate.

She looked up as they approached the gate. The palisade wasn’t anything more than a boundary marker – it wouldn’t have stood up to a battering ram, let alone a spell – but there should have been someone on guard. Villagers tended to be suspicious of strangers, particularly ones who might be taxmen or recruiting sergeants. And yet … they cantered though the open gate and into the village, heading straight for the headman’s hut. The village was deserted, utterly deserted. Isabella felt her sense of unease growing stronger. Something was very definitely wrong.

“He should have come out to grovel by now,” Mandan said. The archer was looking from side to side, his eyes worried. He had good instincts, for someone who didn’t have any spark of magic. “Where is he?”

“Probably hiding all the comely lasses,” Big Richard said. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if one of them took a liking to us?”

Isabella silently contemplated the virtue of stealthily hexing his horse as she swung her legs over and dropped to the ground. Dust rose around her boots as she landed. Mandan was right, damn him. Someone should have come running by now, if only to plead for mercy or swear blind they didn’t know what had happened to the taxman. Maybe the villagers had gone into hiding. Lord August wasn’t known for his mercy. The village would be destroyed if they dared to lift a hand against him and his servants.

“Isabella, with me,” Lord Robin ordered. “The rest of you, guard the horses and wait.”

“Aye, sir,” Little Jim said.

Isabella felt Big Richard’s eyes on her as she followed Lord Robin up to the headman’s hovel. It was a large hut, compared to the others, but tiny by her standards. She pushed her senses forward as Lord Robin opened the door and peered inside, yet she sensed nothing … save for the strange something. It was there, right at the back of her mind …

“Deserted,” Lord Robin said.

Isabella entered the hovel and looked around, feeling old training and instincts coming to the fore. The headman’s chair – a rickety construction that allowed him to look down on his fellows – sat in the centre of the otherwise barren room. She felt her eyes narrow as she pushed aside the curtain to peer into the kitchen, where the headman’s wife would have cooked for her husband. It was large enough to suggest that the woman had probably also held court, inviting the other women to chat with her in the evenings. Shaking her head, she scrambled up the ladder into the loft. There was enough bedding to suggest that the headman and his wife had had at least two children.

Perhaps more, she thought. They would have shared bedding as soon as they were old enough to sleep away from their parents.

She shuddered, despite herself. She’d slept in all sorts of places, since she’d left home, but she hated the thought of having no privacy, day in and day out. A slave pen would be kinder, she thought. And yet, none of the villagers would have known any better. The children would grow up, marry the girl or boy next door, then have children of their own. The headman’s kids wouldn’t be any considered any better than anyone else’s children. Her lips twitched in cold amusement. The village simply wasn’t big enough to support an aristocracy.

And they’d probably hate the thought of marrying someone from the next village, she considered. Villages could be remarkably insular. Even somewhere five miles away might be too far for them.

Pushing the thought aside, she searched the upper floor. It was uncomfortably warm and stuffy, worse than anything in the Golden City. She hoped it got cooler at night. A handful of clothes – shirts and trousers, long dresses that had been patched so extensively that she doubted there was anything left of the original garment – were piled in one corner. No underwear, of course; underwear was a luxury. A set of smaller clothes – she guessed the children were somewhere between five and seven, judging by the sizes – and a handful of padded cloths. There wouldn’t be anything saved for later, she knew. The villagers would pass clothes around when the original owner didn’t need them.

But there was nothing to suggest what might have happened to the villagers. She took one last look around, feeling a flicker of sympathy for the headman’s family, then walked back to the ladder and clambered down.

Lord Robin met her at the bottom. “Anything?”

“Deserted,” Isabella said, curtly. “And nothing useful at all.”

“It looks as though they left some time ago,” Lord Robin said. “The food on the table wasn’t deserted today.”

Isabella nodded as they walked back outside into the bright sunlight. It was hard to be sure, but Lord Robin was right. It didn’t look as though the villagers had seen the mercenaries coming and fled in all directions. Come to think of it, it didn’t look as though the villagers had planned their exodus either. They hadn’t taken their clothes or tools, particularly the tools that would be hard to replace. It wasn’t the Golden City. A decent axe might cost a villager more money than he earned in a decade.

“Richard, Jim, check out the north side of the village,” Lord Robin ordered. “Isabella, go with them. If you find anything, call me at once.”

Big Richard opened his mouth. “Sir …”

“That’s an order,” Lord Robin said, sharply. “Do as you’re told.”

Isabella shrugged as the two men headed towards the north side of the village. She’d worked with people she hadn’t liked – or hadn’t like her – before, although there was something deeply personal about Big Richard’s dislike that bothered her. She was fairly sure she’d never seen him before. And she was certain he didn’t know anything about her past. He would have told the entire company if he’d known the truth. Unless he thought he could blackmail her …

Nah, she thought. He’s too dumb for blackmail.

The hovels were deserted, utterly deserted. They made their way from hut to hut, finding nothing but faint signs suggesting that the occupants had left in a hurry. Isabella kept a silent tally of everything they’d left behind, puzzling over just how much had been abandoned to the elements. Even if the villagers were hiding somewhere within the countryside, they should have come back to recover their tools. If worse came to worst, they could sell them to raise funds.

Big Richard spun around, drawing his axe. “I saw something move,” he said. “I saw it!”

Isabella frowned. There was nothing … nothing, save for the odd background sensation. And yet, Big Richard looked spooked. He was holding his axe at the ready, his eyes moving from side to side as if he expected an attack at any moment. Little Jim looked concerned too, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. Isabella wasn’t sure if he was worried about a mystery attacker or his brother waving the axe around in a confined space.

“I can’t sense anything,” she said, slowly. And yet, she knew that might be completely meaningless. There were ways to hide from a magician’s senses. “What did you see?”

“I saw … I don’t know what I saw,” Big Richard said. “It was … just there.”

His piggy eyes narrowed. “And you can’t sense anything?”

“Not really,” Isabella said. And yet, something was nagging at the back of her mind. “Shall we go outside?”

The sunlight seemed brighter, somehow, as they stepped out of the hut. She looked around, noting the abandoned pigpen and chicken run. The villagers wouldn’t have abandoned their animals, not when they needed the beasts to survive. And … her eyes narrowed as something clicked in her mind. There was no life at all within the village. No birds sang in the trees, no insects buzzed through the air … the village was dead.

“There’s one more building to check,” she said, nodding to the hedge-witch’s hut. “And then we’ll go back to the others.”

The two men didn’t make any rude remarks as they followed her to the hut. They were spooked. Isabella paused as she reached the wooden door, reaching out – once again – with her senses. There should have been a locking spell or two on the door, perhaps a sneaky transfiguration spell on the knob. Hedge-witches lacked the formal training of sorcerers who went to the Peerless School, but that didn’t stop them studying magic. Or sharing knowledge, despite the law. And yet … there was no magic protecting the hut. If the door hadn’t been covered in carved runes, she would have wondered if it really belonged to a hedge-witch or merely someone trying to compete with the headman.

“No protections,” she mused. “I wonder …”

She pushed the door open, gingerly. The interior was dark, too dark. She cast a light-spell, revealing a wooden table, a caldron perched over a burnt-out fire and a shelf of potion ingredients. There didn’t seem to be anything too exotic, let alone forbidden within eyeshot, but that meant nothing. She knew from grim experience that anything forbidden, anything that would bring the Inquisitors down on the hedge-witch like Richard’s axe, would be carefully hidden. And yet …

Richard poked her, roughly. “What is that?”

Isabella bit down a sharp remark – she knew he expected her to show some reaction – and followed his pointing finger. A tree – a small tree – was growing in a wooden pot, its branches reaching up towards the ceiling. Her eyes narrowed as the background sensation grew stronger. The tree, whatever it was, wasn’t just out of place. It was … wrong.

“I don’t know,” she said. The back of her neck started to prickle. Every instinct she had told her to back away from the tree as quickly as possible. “I think …”

“There’s another one,” Little John said, sharply. He jabbed a finger towards the rear of the building. “I …

Isabella forced herself to keep looking at the tree. It seemed to loom larger and larger, as if it was somehow more real than any of them. And then … she thought, just for a second, that it had moved. Something was very wrong …

She yelped as something snapped onto her right wrist. For a moment, she thought Richard had grabbed her … and then she looked down. A tree branch had wrapped itself around her wrist, a tree branch that had grown out of the wooden walls. She reached for her magic, trying to cast a spell, only to have the magic flicker and snap out of existence. The branch tugged a second later, pulling her towards the wall. Both trees were growing now, turning into a nightmarish vision of tentacles reaching for the human intruders. A defensive spell? She’d never seen – or heard – of anything like it.

Another branch grabbed her left wrist, an instant before she could draw her sword. She tried to cast another spell, but the magic simply refused to form … no, it faded almost as soon as she drew on it. The branches yanked her forward …

Little Jim lashed out with his sword, cutting through both of the branches. The wood around Isabella’s wrists went limp, falling to the ground. Isabella drew her sword as she looked desperately from side to side, trying to find a way out of the chamber. The door was gone, replaced by a writhing mass of tree branches that were growing at terrifying speed. She looked up, just in time to see more branches reaching down towards them.

Richard grabbed her shoulder. “Use magic,” he shouted, as he swung his awe at the nearest branches. Pieces of wood flew in all directions, but the mass came on. “Get us out of here!”

“I can’t,” Isabella snapped back. Her magic seemed to have completely deserted her. She couldn’t muster the power to cast even a simple spell. The light was already failing. “It isn’t working.”

“Fucking useless,” Richard snarled at her. “I …”

Little Jim pulled a bottle out of his back and splashed the contents on the nearest piece of wood. Isabella barely had a second to realise what he intended to do before he snapped at firelighter at it, setting the liquid on fire. Flames spread rapidly, burning through the wood at a terrifying speed. She heard something scream in her head, an instant before a pathway started to open to the outside world. Richard ran forward, swinging his axe with terrifying power. The branches parted, allowing him to flee.

“Go,” Little Jim shouted. “I …”

A branch stabbed him from behind. Isabella watched in horror as the branches melded with him, turning him into … into a monster. And then they reached for her. She turned and ran, waving her sword frantically as she evaded the swinging branches and threw herself into the open air. Behind her, something was roaring in anger …

“Jim,” Richard shouted. “Where is he?”

“Gone,” Isabella shouted back. “Run!”

The entire village was coming to life, the wooden burnings turning into … things. She ran towards the horses, hoping they could get out in time. Lord Robin and the others joined them a second later, swinging themselves into the saddles and running for the gate. The palisade was coming to life, creepers slowly reaching out towards the fleeing mercenaries. Isabella heard something laughing, in the back of her mind, as she dug in her spurs. They made it out with only seconds to spare.

“Well,” Lord Robin said, once they had put some distance between themselves and the village. “We now know what happened to the villagers, don’t we?”

Isabella nodded, slowly. Something … something had moved into the village. And it had killed the villagers and their animals and the taxman … she cursed under her breath. Seven years at the Peerless School and three more in the hardest training course known to mankind – and seven years of experience as a mercenary – and she still didn’t have the faintest idea what that creature was. She’d never heard of anything like it …

… And yet, there were stories. Whispers of things … she hadn’t believed what little she’d hard, but …

“I’m not going back,” Alexis said. The swordsman was trying to hide it, but it was clear that he was terrified. “Whatever that was, sir, I don’t want to face it again.”

“That’s for Lord August to decide,” Lord Robin said. “We carried out our mission. We’ll go back to the inn and collect our wages.”

And mourn our dead, Isabella thought, grimly. She’d have to write a report, although the gods alone knew who might be alive to read it. What was that thing?

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OUT NOW–The Cruel Stars (Ark Royal XI)

7 Nov

A stand-alone set during the Ark Royal Era. Reviews, comments and shares welcome <grin>

Chris_final1 crual stars

The Royal Navy never expected to fight a full-scale interstellar war. Everyone knew the Great Powers would never risk everything on armed conflict, when there was plenty of room for everyone in outer space. But when a hostile alien force stumbles across humanity’s handful of colony worlds, the Great Powers must set aside their differences and fight to preserve humanity from utter destruction.

Desperate for starships and manpower, the Royal Navy embarks upon an ambitious plan of converting freighters into makeshift carriers and recruiting reservists and criminals to fill the ranks. Classed as expendable, the small carriers will be given the most dangerous missions to slow a remorseless alien foe …

… And the pardons their crews have been offered will be meaningless if they die.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links here: US, UK, CAN, AUS

I’m Going To Be A Dad (Again)

7 Nov

Hi, everyone

Some of you know (or guessed) this already, but for those of you who don’t …

My wife and I are currently expecting our second child. The predicted due date is 12th December (which puts him within eleven days of Eric’s birthday) but obviously the baby could make his appearance at any time. This is, obviously, going to throw a crimp into my schedule – I’ll be taking around 5-6 weeks off work while we get used to having a new baby in our lives.

My current plan is as follows:

November: Cat’s Paw/The Promised Lie. (Which title sounds better?)

December: Alassa’s Tale (Novella – SIM 14.5)

February: The Zero Equation

I’m not sure what’s going to follow afterwards. I do intend to write Invincible (Ark Royal 12) and The Princess in the Tower (SIM15) reasonably quickly, but there’s a decent prospect of a contract to write Kat Falcone 6-8 sometime in the next few months. I also intend to write book 5 of A Learning Experience, as well as a stand-alone fantasy novel and a couple of other new concepts. But we shall see.

Please remember us in your prayers <grin>.

Chris

Some Thoughts On Future Zero Universe Books

7 Nov

I spent part of yesterday putting together the plotline for The Zero Equation, which will be the third and final book in The Zero Enigma. However, I’ve been considering a number of other stories and characters set within the same universe. Let me know which ones you’d like to see. Obviously, all of these titles are provisional.

The Alchemist’s Apprentice follows a young apprentice who gets drawn into a deadly plot to reshape society. Unlike Cat, the apprentice would be poor – more used to the darker side of Shallot than high society.

The Last Stand follows a young man who becomes a soldier in the army – and fights a desperate battle to protect the kingdom when war breaks out (because Cat’s mere existence upsets the balance of power.)

The Hangchow Connection would follow an exhibition to Hangchow, on the other side of the world, where the adventurers would find themselves dragged into a very deadly (and ancient) threat.

And I have a vague idea for a second set of books following an older Cat as she – and her friends – start unlocking the secrets of the Thousand Year Empire. However, there are far too many people who want those secrets to stay buried.

Please let me know which ones you want.

Chris

Alassa’s Tale–Snippet II

3 Nov

Just a treat for the readers …

Prologue

King Randor had, as far as anyone outside a very small group of trusted counsellors knew, three reception chambers in his castle. There was the Great Hall, where the monarch might address the court or hold formal events; there was the Privy Chamber, where the Privy Council met and talked; there was the King’s Bedchamber, where the king’s most intimate associates – or those the king wanted to favour – were invited for private discussions. A watching courtier could tell who was in favour and who was being frozen out, or who had influence over the king, simply by determining where the king chose to meet them. A man who was invited to the Privy Chamber was a man to watch.

There were two other reception chambers, protected by a combination of subtle magic, powerful wards and simple misdirection. The Royal Chamber was reserved for the Royal Family and the king’s most trusted counsellors, it’s mere existence known to a select few. The other – the Black Chamber – belonged to the spies. Only a handful of the king’s agents knew of the chamber – or how to use the secret passages to enter without being detected – and none of them could step into the castle itself without Randor’s permission.

The chamber itself was surprisingly bare, for all that it belonged to the king. Randor sat in a large chair, rather than a throne, and sipped from a glass of wine he’d poured himself. Dust hung in the air, a mocking reminder that the chamber hadn’t been cleaned for nearly a year. It would soon be time to bring a maid in to do the work, then execute the poor girl and dispose of her body somewhere in the catacombs. Randor had balked when his father had shown him the chamber, back when he’d been on the verge of ascending to the throne, but he’d long since lost any doubts about the practice. Secrets had to be maintained, whatever the cost in blood and treasure. And it was never safe to know the secrets of a king.

He took a sip of his wine as he brooded. He’d been king for nearly thirty years, yet he was on the verge of losing his grip on the kingdom. The barons were rebellious, the common folk were revolting … and he couldn’t trust even his own family! His brother was an enchanted fool, locked up for his own safety; his daughter was an ambitious bitch, moving steadily to secure more and more power for herself. It didn’t really surprise him – Alassa was his daughter, after all, and it hadn’t been that long since Randor had fought for scraps of power from his father – but it worried him. A conflict between the royals could easily lead to outright civil war as the barons sought to take advantage of the chaos.

And the more I restrict her, he thought grimly, the more likely it is that she will rebel.

He stroked his beard, cursing his own mistakes under his breath. He’d banked everything on getting a son, a legitimate heir. Even if the baby boy had been four or five years younger than Alassa, there would have been plenty of time to raise him to be a king and teach Alassa that her duty lay in supporting her brother. Alassa was a competent sorceress, after all. And if you couldn’t trust your own flesh and blood, who could you trust? They would have made a great partnership … but it had never come to pass. Alassa had been his only child – she was still his only legitimate child – until well after he’d been forced to confirm her as his primary heir. And then …

The irony was enough to make him wonder if he’d offended one of the gods. He’d seduced Alicia – the sole surviving heir to the Barony of Gold – as an act of revenge against her dead father more than anything else. The pleasure he’d got from making her crawl had been amusing, all the more so because he knew her father would be screaming curses from the traitor’s grave. But Alicia had become pregnant and given birth to a handsome baby boy, fifteen years too late. Randor ground his teeth every time he thought about it. There was no way he could put Alassa aside, not now, without sparking outright revolution. And Alassa would be a formidable foe.

He took another sip of his wine. His father had had no trouble controlling Randor, but Randor had never been in any doubt that he would succeed his father. He’d undergone an apprenticeship under a harsh taskmaster, a father who had never hesitated to box his ears for mistakes or failure. But King Alexis the Great had understood Prince Randor because he’d been a young man, once upon a time. Randor hadn’t had that advantage with his daughter. In hindsight, he knew he should have treated Alassa as his heir from birth. But he’d squandered the opportunity in his desperate bid for a son.

And Alassa has some of the most powerful people in the world on her side, Randor thought, grimly. And she has time on her side.

The room felt colder, suddenly. He still shivered when he remembered Emily breaking out of his wards, even though a dozen wardcrafters had sworn blind they were unbreakable. Randor had had the men executed afterwards, more to assuage his fear than anything else. Emily could have killed him in that moment and he knew it. And he was sure she knew it too.

If I’d known how many changes she would bring, I would have had her killed, he told himself, again. A girl from an alternate world … if it hadn’t been Alassa who’d told him, he wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s too late now.

He looked at the simple wooden table, wondering if he had the time to watch his son grow to manhood. It would be good to have another heir, given that Alassa and Jade had yet to produce a child of their own. And then … who knew?

But he doubted the barons would give him that time. He’d banned private armies, after the coup attempt six years ago, but he knew the barons were secretly building up their forces in preparation for a war. They knew, as well as he did, that it was only a matter of time before hostilities broke out, once again. And the commoners were arming too. He knew that revolutionary groups were spreading, despite his best efforts. Recruiting sergeants had been attacked, tax collectors had been brutally murdered, priests who proclaimed the divine right of kings and noblemen had been driven from their temples … chaos was spreading, no matter what he did.

And Alassa … who knew what Alassa would do?

She had options, Randor acknowledged. And a very good reason to want to seize power before Alexis – Alicia’s child – grew up. And if she chose to side with the barons or one of the revolutionary movements … why not? That was precisely what Randor’s own father had done, when he’d assumed the throne. He’d played the barons off against the commoners and, in doing so, had taken control of the kingdom. Why would Alassa not do the same? She was a girl, just as Prince Alexis had been a fop who loved to play with soldiers. It would be easy for Alassa’s allies to underestimate her until they felt the knife at their throats …

The wards shifted, slightly. Randor tensed as he sensed his visitor walking up the hidden passageway, their presence muffled by the wards. The doorway opened a second later, allowing a cloaked figure to step into the chamber. She threw back her hood, revealing a pale face topped with inky black hair. Her dark eyes were wide with surprise.

“Your Majesty!”

She went down on one knee, hastily. Randor concealed his amusement behind his beard. Sir Xavier hadn’t told her she would be meeting the king, then. But the report from the Black Daggers had been clear. This was a report Randor had to hear.

“You may rise,” he said. He reached out with his senses, using the wards to get a better impression of his visitor. A magician … a powerful magician. She was masking well, hiding her power behind her wards, but that in itself was revealing. She might well be strong enough to face a combat sorcerer. “I understand that you have a report for me.”

“I do,” the girl said. She looked around twenty-five, although appearances could be deceiving. “I am Lynnette … Your Majesty … I discovered …”

“There’s no one here to hear us,” Randor said, dryly. There was no reason to take official notice of her stumbles. “You may speak freely.”

“I discovered treason, Your Majesty,” Lynnette said. “Treason most foul.”

Randor tensed. One hand reached for the sword at his belt. “Explain.”

“I must distress you,” Lynnette said. “I …”

“Then distress me,” Randor snapped, impatiently.

“I was tracing the remnants of the plotters who attacked the wedding, last year,” Lynnette said. “Sir Xavier tasked me with finding out who backed them.”

Randor nodded, slowly. The plotters – who’d come within millimetres of killing both Randor and Alassa – had been slaughtered. But someone had backed them, someone powerful. And that person had remained unidentified.

“It was Paren who supplied the funds,” Lynnette told him. “And the Lady Emily knew.”

It took Randor a moment to understand what she’d said. Paren? Paren the merchant? Paren the man Randor had lifted into the aristocracy? Paren the man whose daughter was one of Alassa’s closest friends and advisers? Paren …

A hot flash of anger roared through him. He believed it. Paren had means, motive and opportunity. And his daughter … his daughter was far too close to Alassa. Imaiqah had to know, which meant …

And Emily knew, he thought, angrily. His thoughts spun from side to side. He needed time to think. And she said nothing.

He looked up into two dark eyes. “Do you have proof?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lynnette said. She recovered a set of papers from her bag. “Emily knew. And I believe that Lady Imaiqah knew too.”

Randor nodded, impatiently. Paren would not have left his daughter out of the planning, not when she’d been organising the wedding. Smuggling weapons into the ceremony would have been easy – had been easy – with Imaiqah’s connivance. And that meant … either Imaiqah had cold-bloodedly plotted the murder of her friend or she’d intended Alassa to take the throne after Randor’s death. And then … did Alassa know? Had she plotted to turn her wedding into a patricide?

And I let Imaiqah go to Cockatrice, he thought. What is she doing there?

He cursed. He’d have to act fast, but that wouldn’t be easy. Alassa had been sent off on a diplomatic trip, but she’d be back soon. Too many things would have to be set in motion before Alassa returned to the castle. And then …

If Alassa was ignorant, this will teach her a lesson, he thought. Trust was not something to be used in great quantities. And if she’s guilty … I still have a son.

His thoughts hardened. And I will hand the kingdom over to him if Alassa plotted to kill me.

Updates–The Cruel Stars, Graduation Day, The Hyperspace Trap

3 Nov

In all honesty, I was starting to think that The Cruel Stars was cursed.

Well, not really. But I have a chest infection that gave me a few nasty days – I thought I must have caught a cold on top of the chest infection last Sunday, as I certainly felt worse than day – and we had a number of other issues to sort out. Some better than others, I suppose – I took Eric to a Halloween party last Monday, which was a better use of my time than sitting around coughing. <grin>.

Anyway, I’ve finished the first draft of The Cruel Stars. I’m hoping to get it edited next week, then uploaded to Amazon for distribution. I’ve also done what are – I hope – the final set of edits for The Hyperspace Trap (nee Becalmed) and the first set of edits for Graduation Day. The planned due date for the latter is December 15th, but it depends on how the second set of edits go. Oh … and here’s the cover.

GraduationDay_med

And I’ve started plotting out the Alassa’s Tale novella and The Princess in the Tower.

Next week, I start Cat’s Paw (The Unwritten Words I). I really need to think of a better title.

Thanks for reading!

Chris

Discrimination By Any Other Name Is Still Discrimination

3 Nov

“If you want to know how Trump was elected, ask yourself how a laid-off, cisgender, straight, white, male coal miner who went back to community college to learn computers might react to [Madeleine Leader’s email].”

National Review

So this pops up in my Facebook feed.

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Now, before certain people start catcalling, I will acknowledge from the start that questions have been raised about the email’s validity. There is at least a possibility that the whole thing is a fake. It is painful to believe that someone in charge of one of the most important political parties in the West was stupid enough to commit to writing something that is blatantly illegal, but given how much else they committed to writing – and then lost in a hack – it is not completely beyond the bounds of probability.

Let us assume, purely for the sake of argument, that the email is legitimate. In that case, what does it mean?

If you don’t mind, I’m going to approach the issue from a somewhat roundabout direction.

People have … call them attributes. Some of these attributes are set at birth (skin colour, gender, etc), some change as you grow older (age) and others are the result of education or other choices. An IT geek has a computer science degree as one of his attributes, a military sniper has a sharpshooter qualification. A criminal’s criminal record is one of his attributes; a child’s age is his or hers. Now, the important thing about attributes is that some of them are important and some aren’t.

For example, when I hire an editor, I want someone with experience in editing (specifically in the same genre). That’s the attributes I need to take into consideration. I wouldn’t hire an editor who specialised in romance novels for one of my fantasy books, even though romance and fantasy have a great deal in common. I’d look for someone with a solid background in the genres I write, with a good reputation for working with authors towards a shared goal.

What I won’t take into account are little details like age, gender, sexual orientation, skin colour … all attributes that have no bearing on the job at hand.

Why should I? What possible purpose would it serve? What do those details matter to me?

I think – and I’m pretty sure that most people would agree with me – that the person who is best qualified for the job should get the job. And it is fairly easy to come up with a list of reasonable – and defendable – qualifications for the job. You can even put in a physical description if you can prove those qualities are not arbitrary, that they actually matter – a Pakistani actress to play Kamala Khan, for example, or a female janitor to service the girls toilets in a co-ed school. But all of those qualifications – and their defences – should also be able to stand up to the common sense test. Why insist on a Pakistani actress when an Indian actress would be able to do the job?

If the best person for a particular job is a forty-year-old lesbian from Croydon, she should get the job. And if the best person happens to be a twenty-year-old straight white man from Glasgow, he should get the job. And very few people will complain. And, if they do, it is fairly easy to prove them wrong.

The problem with Affirmative Action (or whatever you want to call it) is that it adds an arbitrary and pointless qualification(s) to the job requirements. These qualifications can and do exclude people who would otherwise be qualified for the job. And, as I have written before, the effects are poisonous for everyone, up to and including the people Affirmative Action is intended to help. It merely breeds division into our society.

But there is a more fundamental point that must be noted.

Nelson Mandela’s particular genius did not come in leading a revolutionary moment. It came in understanding the importance of ensuring a victory that all sides – including most of the apartheid regime’s former supporters – could live with. If the choice facing white South Africans was nothing more than fight to the death, with the possibility of winning, or being brutally slaughtered … what sort of idiot would expect them not to fight? There were plenty of whites who wanted to end Apartheid – it was economically unsustainable, regardless of any moral issues – but why would they be willing to cut their own throats? Or surrender the reins of power, knowing that the state might be turned against them? If the choice faced is one between being the victim or the victimiser, it is obviously safer to be the victimiser.

On one hand, you’re storing up hatred for yourself and your descendents. On the other, you’re not being slaughtered now. And that is a plus by anyone’s definition.

The most war-torn parts of the world, as Dale Cozort put it, are the “ones where old injustices or perceived injustices are most remembered and most important to people. Look at the Middle East with its oil revenue poured into re-fighting its many age-old feuds. Look at the Balkans and the way the countries there periodically tear themselves and each other apart. Even within countries that are predominantly prosperous, groups that dwell on old injustices tend to end up in pockets of poverty.”

No one would deny that there has been discrimination in the past. But does this excuse perpetrating discrimination? Is this really the future we want for ourselves?

There comes a time when you have to draw a line between the past and the future. There comes a time when you have to agree to let bygones be bygones, when you have to agree to put the past where it belongs and walk forward together into a brighter future. But that will not come if you perpetrate discrimination against people who were not alive when the original discrimination began and have no moral responsibility for the crime. If [insert identity group here] thinks it cannot get a fair chance, why should it support political parties that seem hell-bent on punishing them for the crimes of their ancestors?

The problem with most groups based on identity politics – everything from Black Lives Matter to Men’s Rights Activists – is that they’re too interested in emoting to think about how they look to outsiders and, more importantly, what sort of world they might create. A group that sidelines others will not enjoy their support, a group that is outright intolerant will be hated and detested even if it had a valid point when it started! One has to have an endgame in mind, one that outsiders can tolerate. Or face the prospect of accomplishing precisely nothing.

I’m not scared of free competition. If a publisher comes to me and says “we’d like to publish you, but [author] sold ten times as many books as you and so we’re going with them instead” I’d understand. I wouldn’t be very happy, but I’d understand. And if the publisher said “we’re looking for stories by military vets only” I’d understand – I could have joined the military but I didn’t.

But if the publisher said “we’re going with [author] because [author] ticks a box in the diversity checklist” … I’d be pissed. Of course I’d be pissed. How the hell am I supposed to compete against that? It isn’t my fault that I was born with a number of unchangeable attributes. And this would poison my attitude towards that author.

On the micro scale, the attitude expressed Madeleine Leader might go some way towards explaining the problems facing the DNC. If they’re choosing everyone from gofers to presidential candidates to tick a diversity checkbox, rather than competence, they should count themselves lucky they hadn’t had more problems. But on the macro scale, as Rod Dreher points out, it explains why the Democrats lost. And why people who would otherwise be repulsed by Trump will not vote for the Democrats.

People are not, as a general rule, selfish. But they are self-interested. They look for the advantage for themselves, for their families, for their communities. And what sort of idiot would expect someone to sacrifice the best interests of their family for strangers?