Queenmaker 4

11 Aug


Chapter Four

I was well used, by this time, to odd looks as I walked from the palace to my mansion.

It baffled me.  The distance between the two wasn’t that great.  It wasn’t as if I was trying to walk from New York to San Francisco.  But they still seemed to expect me to ride on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, rather than sully my feet with walking.  It was just absurd.

Fallon walked beside me, her dark eyes grim.  I suspected she wanted to say something, but wouldn’t – couldn’t – until we reached the mansion.  I felt a twinge of disquiet I didn’t want to look at too closely, after Helen’s words.  Fallon and I were lovers and … did I want to marry her?  I wasn’t sure.  My last marriage had ended badly and I dreaded to think what’ll have happened if I’d stayed in my own world.  Would Cleo have kept the kids from me, while demanding two-thirds of my paycheck?  Or would she have calmed down and come to more reasonable terms?  I didn’t know – and I knew I never would.  My kids were on the wrong side of the dimensional divide and I would never see them again.

I kept my eyes open as we passed through the crowd.  Hundreds of people – merchants and traders, soldiers and craftsmen, aristos and commoners – thronged the streets, some trying to make deals with the queen and her representatives, others trying to make plans for a future that might or might not include a powerful monarchy.  I knew hundreds more had fled – or been ordered to head to the enemy camps by their families – in hopes of making sure their world survived, no matter who won the war.  I kept a wary eye on the latter.  I understood their thinking better than they knew and yet neither I nor Helen could trust them.  They would switch sides the moment a clear winner emerged.

Fallon nudged my arm.  “There’s more of them,” she said, nodding towards a black-clad trio standing by the side of the road.  “How many of them are there?”

I frowned as I saw the Black Roses.  Queen Helen’s men were on the streets … and doing surprisingly little.  They weren’t directing traffic or stopping and searching passers-by or even harassing anyone who looked wealthy enough to draw their eye without being powerful enough to take revenge.  It was odd, in my experience.  The trick to taking control of a city was to make it clear that you were in charge, by making sure everyone was aware of your presence, while not tolerating any rivals.  Helen’s men simply were.

My lips thinned.  Helen’s decision to trust Lord Jacob was either genius or madness and I didn’t know which.  Not yet.  Could he be trusted, on the grounds blood was thicker than water?  Or would his resentment lead him into dangerous waters?  I wished I knew more about their relationship.  Lord Jacob could have been legitimised at any moment, if his father had been willing to take the risk of putting his daughter aside.  Why hadn’t he?  It was, to the locals, the obvious question.  Lord Jacob had the advantage of being male in a society that didn’t think women could rule.

The thought nagged at me as I reached the mansion and stepped through the gates.  The guards nodded to us, keeping their eyes on the crowd.  I hid my amusement with the ease of long practice.  It had taken weeks to convince them they didn’t need to bow and scrape in front of me, certainly not when it would distract them from their duties.  I was no newly-promoted junior officer who needed validation, nor was I am aristrocrat who got my jollies from everyone grovelling in front of me.  And besides, I was uneasily aware the warlords wanted me dead.  There had already been attempts to assassinate me.  One had come so close to success I knew I’d escaped through sheer dumb luck.

Chance and careful planning, I thought, as we entered the mansion.  More of one than the other.

My lips quirked.  Sigmund, my old Castellan, would be utterly horrified if he could see the mansion now.  The great chambers and ballrooms had been converted into offices and workshops, the gardens outside had been repurposed as training fields … hundreds and thousands of people, mainly commoners and soldiers, came and went every day, none of them even bothering to take off their shoes and show proper respect to the master of the house.  The noise wasn’t that loud, but it was impossible to ignore.  Sigmund … my heart twisted, recalling how the old man had betrayed me.  I’d sent him into exile, rather than killing him with my own hands or sending him to the block.  I still didn’t know if I’d done the right thing or not …

“We’ll go to the office,” I said.  “Coming?”

The din slowly died away as we climbed to the uppermost floor.  I’d thrown some of the bedrooms open to my officers and staff, although a certain degree of paranoia had led me to rotate sleeping arrangements for my men.  If something happened to the mansion … the walls were strong, and there were powerful wards worked into the stone, but I was uneasily aware the defences were far from invulnerable.  I dared not give the enemy a chance to kill our entire command staff in a single blow.  It would be utterly disastrous.

“Violet wants to talk to you,” Fallon said.  I followed her gaze to where the former street urchin was lurking, looking out of place despite trading her rages for middle-class garb.  “Can we talk first?”

“Yeah.”  I motioned to Violet to wait, trusting her to speak up if it was truly urgent, then led the way into my office.  “It’s been a long day.”

Fallon said nothing as I poured us both glasses of water and passed one to her.  I frowned inwardly – clearly, something was bothering her – and sat on a comfortable armchair, rather than the sofa.  She would tell me, in her own good time.  I sipped my water and waited, feeling a strange twinge of unreality as my eyes traversed the office.  I’d done what I could to make it a more comfortable place to work – it had been so richly decorated, months ago, that it could have passed for a high-class hotel – but it still felt unreal.  I intended to make sure the new military headquarters, when we had a moment to build it, would look a great deal more functional, rather than being designed to cater to the warlord’s ego.  I’d felt my ego get worse when I’d taken the old chair – it had looked like a throne – and I’d known better than to let the feeling convince me of anything.  Even now, I could lose everything in the blink of an eye.

And besides, we sold the artworks and made enough money to raise more regiments, I thought, sourly.  Comic opera militaries never lasted long when they faced an enemy that put military efficiency ahead of appearance.  If we lose the war, we’ll be lucky if we are merely tortured to death …

Fallon took a breath.  “I … the magicians are coming along,” she said.  I was as blind as the average man to a girl’s true feelings and yet even I knew she was dancing around the real problem.  “We should be ready to coordinate the regiments as they take the offensive.”

I nodded, almost relieved she was focusing on business even though it was a delaying tactic.  It would be years, at best, before we developed working radios, let alone force trackers and everything else we’d used to coordinate modern armies in the field – micromanage, part of my mind added darkly – but magic could fill the gap.  Sort of.  It was crude compared to the old radio net, and I didn’t pretend to understand the limitations, but it was so much better than anything the locals had had before I’d arrived everyone was delighted.  And yet, it was a grim reminder there were parts of my new world that would forever be a closed book.  Magic was dangerously unpredictable.  If a powerful magician joined the war …

Fallon is one of the weakest magicians in the world and yet she can turn you into a frog with a snap of her fingers, my thoughts reminded me.  What can a full-fledged sorcerer do?

“That’s good,” I said.  I met her eyes, trying to be reassuring.  “What do you really want to discuss?”

She swallowed, visibly.  My heart sank.  It was going to be bad.

“I …”  Fallon stopped and swallowed again.  “Elliot, I’m pregnant.”

I stared.  For a moment, my brain refused to accept what it heard.  “What?”

“I’m pregnant,” Fallon repeated.  Her lips twisted into a bitter smile.  “It’s your fault.”

I … I had no words.  She could have punched me in the face and I would have been less surprised.  I’d assumed I couldn’t have more children … stupid, in hindsight.  I was only in my forties and I knew aristos who were still having children well into their sixties.  Sure, Helen might have a deadline, a point beyond which she couldn’t have children of her body, but I didn’t.  I was as fit and healthy as any man in the new world and … and I knew I could have kids.  I already had two …

My mouth seemed to speak without my brain’s input.  “I thought you were taking care of it.”

Fallon looked down.  “I thought I was too.”

“Oh,” I said.  “And …”

I forced myself to think.  It was vanishingly rare for a properly brought up young woman in Johor to have sex outside marriage, unless she was a magician.  The unspoken rules were clear – and as misogynistic as they came.  A woman’s virginity was one of her most prized assets – to herself and to her family – and if she lost it, even through rape, she would be disgraced.  Bastards.  No one chooses to be raped.  And yet, the rules didn’t apply to magicians.  I had no idea if it was because magicians could cast contraceptive spells or simple fear of what a witch might do, if she was subjected to a torrent of misogynistic invective, but it didn’t matter.  I’d assumed Fallon could keep herself from falling pregnant.  And I was wrong.

Oh, the nasty part of my mind whispered.  And are you sure she didn’t set out to get pregnant to lure you into marriage?

I told that part of me to shut up.  Fallon wasn’t Cleo.  She wasn’t … she wasn’t so dependent on me she’d do something incredibly risky, not when we couldn’t be sure we’d get married and live together.  I was a powerful nobleman and my marriage was a matter of state … something else, I reflected ruefully, I had trouble accepting.  Fallon could end up cast aside if she miscalculated, for all she was a magician.  And our child might end up like Jon Snow.  I still wondered why he hadn’t simply walked away from his bitch of a stepmother.  Being pissed at your husband for cheating on you was understandable, but taking it out on the bastard child was unforgivable.

And yet … my mind spun.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about her.  I wasn’t sure how she felt about me.  Did she have feelings for me?  Or had she come with me because she saw a chance to ride my coattails to glory?  Or … I told that part of me to shut up too.  I was going to become a father, again.  I’d sworn to myself I wouldn’t become my father – the bastard had abandoned his children – and I meant it.  I hadn’t left my older children – not willingly – and I wasn’t going to leave this one too.

I took a breath.  “Are you sure?”

Fallon nodded, without looking up.  “I was late,” she said, without going into detail.  “I … I cast a spell to check, then went to the healer.  She confirmed I was pregnant.”

“Oh.”  I needed time to come to terms with the sudden change.  I knew I wasn’t going to get it.  My thoughts were a mess.  I’d put down roots and yet, part of me was afraid to put down more.  If I was trapped in the city … I told myself, angrily, I wasn’t trapped.  There was no reason I couldn’t leave, taking my wife and child with me.  I’d been careful to put some money aside for emergencies, just in case.  “I … how long?”

“The healer said I was about six weeks pregnant,” Fallon said.  “It must have been …”

Her skin darkened.  I flushed, grateful – again – that my complexion hid it.  If she’d conceived the very first time … it felt unbelievable and yet I knew better.  My mother had made it clear to me, when we’d had the talk, that unprotected sex could – and perhaps would – lead to pregnancy, even if it was the very first time.  Fallon was in the prime of life.  There was no reason she couldn’t get pregnant.  And she had …

I wondered, suddenly, what her family would think of it.  They hadn’t been able to pay for her magical education.  The best thing they could have done for her, back in Damansara, was arrange a good match to another merchant, someone who wanted an intelligent and educated wife to help grow his business.  It was sickening to me and yet, it was just a reality of life in my new world.  A woman on her own was dangerously vulnerable. 

That will change, I told myself.  The influx of new ideas and technology would reshape the entire world, no matter what the warlords tried to stop it.  And the next generation will know freedom.

I put that thought aside, then reached for her.  She had to be wondering what I intended to do.  Would I accept the child – accept her – or pretend she was just my mistress and the child had been fathered by someone else or … or what?  I knew officers in my ranks who’d arranged for their mistresses to marry their junior officers, to put a veneer of legitimacy on their bastard children.  I didn’t pretend to understand why anyone would go along with such a scheme, particularly when everyone already knew what was happening even if they claimed otherwise.  There had to be limits, surely?  I’d bitched and moaned about my former commanding officers – some of whom had been time-servers, others dangerously unaware of the realities of modern war – and none of them had ever done anything like that!  And if they’d tried, their court martial would be the shortest formality on record …

“Fallon,” I managed.  “Will you marry me?”

I wondered, suddenly, what I’d do if she said no.  She had to be thinking it.  She wasn’t completely without options, far from it.  She had magic … she didn’t need to marry a man technically old enough to be her father.  If she said no … I tried not to think about the possibilities.  The child was mine.  I would be a part of his – or her – life and that was all there was to it. 

She look up at me, her eyes bright with tears.  “Do you … do you want to marry me?”

My heart twisted.  She knew the realities of the world at a very primal level.  They were part of her life … I told myself, savagely, that they were part of mine too.  I wasn’t the American solider deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else now, not the person who did a tour of duty in a poor and wartorn country before shaking the sand out of my boots and going back home to the real world.  I wasn’t even an immigrant who could concede defeat and go back home.  Back on Earth, I’d been detached from the locals while I was on deployment.  Here … I wasn’t.  And it was high time I accepted it.

“Yes,” I said, simply.  It wasn’t even a lie.  Fallon was beautiful and intelligent and she had magic, all of which made her an asset to an up and coming nobleman.  She might not have the birth for one of my exulted rank … but neither did I! The very thought was absurd.  I doubted the aristocracy, or what remained of it, would be throwing their daughters at me.  “I do.”

I took a breath.  “I’ll make the arrangements at once,” I added.  I wasn’t sure how the locals would react, when someone counted backwards and worked out I’d impregnated Fallon before marrying her, but there was no point in taking chances.  “If you stay here as my Castellan …”

“No.”  Fallon met my eyes, evenly.  “I’m coming with you.”

“The child …”

“Will be perfectly safe,” Fallon said.  Her tone brooked no argument.  “Besides, you have to meet my parents.  Properly.”

“You have to take care,” I insisted.  I wasn’t sure what to say.  “Going into battle could …”

“I will be perfectly safe,” Fallon said.  “I have faith in you.  And the army.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  The army might be the most powerful and capable force on the planet, at least as far as the locals were concerned, but to me it was dangerously ramshackle.  We’d expanded, and then expanded again, and expanded again after that … there were too many soldiers with too little training, very few of whom had seen any kind of fighting.  If my army had been armed with modern weapons and sent to battle a USMC company, the jarheads would have scattered us in short order.  I dreaded to think what would happen if the warlords, who had no qualms about hiring mercenaries, managed to catch us by surprise.  There were limits to how far we could train the men before the shit hit the fan.

“I hope you’re right,” I said, reluctantly.  Legally, once we were married, I could command her to stay behind.  Practically, even trying would destroy our marriage before we even tied the knot.  “Be careful.”

“I will.”  Fallon managed a smile.  “And now you’d better go see what Violet wants.”

I stood and bowed.  “Yes, My Lady.”

Book Review: Stalin’s War

10 Aug

Stalin’s War

-Sean McMeekin

Adolf Hitler dominates discussion of the villains of WW2 for obvious reasons, ranging from the simple fact that it was Hitler who unleashed the war and empowered most of the other villains to a lack of competition.  Mussolini is often taken as a figure of fun, a comic opera bad guy rather than an outright monster (which is far kinder than the original fascist deserves), while Japan never had a dictator who ruled in a similar manner.  Indeed, discussion is so often focused on Hitler that it tends to undermine aspects of the war that had very little to do with him.  The tensions that led to the Pacific War, for example, existed prior to Hitler’s rise to power and would have continued to exist even if some kindly soul had assassinated Hitler before he could start the war.  Worse, it tends to obscure the role of others in starting, fighting and eventually winning the war. 

Sean McMeekin attempts to address this issue by focusing his revisionist history of the war on Stalin and the USSR, rather than Hitler, Mussolini and the westerners who tried in vain to stop him.  It presents a picture of the communists manipulating their way into repudiating the debts owed by Tsarist Russia, then Stalin doing his level best to encourage the Germans, French and British to go to war in 1939, first by diplomatically hinting at Russian involvement on the West’s side and then by acting as Hitler’s de facto military ally during the invasion of Poland, ensuring the Nazis would have no choice but to continue the war against the British and French.  Stalin spent the Phony War, in this telling, securing Russia’s borders and discovering, just in time, the limits of Russian military power by invading Finland.  It was a period of distrust on all sides, with the Allies planning war against the USSR (which would likely have been ineffective, at best) and the Germans intending their own invasion once the Western Allies had been crushed.

Stalin expected Hitler’s invasion of France would bog down.  It was a surprise, to him, when France fell quickly and Britain was effectively chased off the continent.  Stalin seems to have been preparing for war – the book does dismiss the prospects of Russia striking first – but the sheer power of the German military shocked him.  The Russians found themselves tied to Germany while, at the same time, aware Hitler might invade at any moment.  Stalin adopted a policy of both appeasing the Germans while trying to solidify Russia’s position and build up his defences, although there was a lack of serious planning. The Russian forces defending the western borders were primed neither to stand on the defensive nor take the offensive.

The war changed again when Hitler invaded Germany in 1941.  Stalin was quick to ally with the British and Americans, and took them for everything he could get.  Both powers appear to have been wilfully blind to the sheer scale of Russian demands, from short-term supplies to information and technology that would allow the Russians to compete with the Americans after the war.  They also made no attempt to use their colossal leverage over the Russians to push them to concede Polish independence (the author notes, sourly, that the Allies went to war to save Poland from a monster and ended the war with Poland belonging to a different monster) or even to demand the Russians treat British and American POWs decently and send them home.  Stalin’s double-dealing seems to have even extended to Japan, maintaining friendly relationships that might have benefitted the USSR, but the US could and should have regarded as treachery. 

Indeed, as the book goes on, it becomes more and more of a tirade against the fools in Britain and America who allowed it to happen.  The US State Department appears to have been riddled through with Russian spies and sympathisers, while FDR appears to have thought he could do business with Stalin and that their personal connection would override any short-term differences between the two.  The genteel FDR was no match for the gangster Stalin and it showed, even when there was clear proof of Stalin’s perfidy.  Churchill appears to have been somewhat more aware of the risks of dealing with the devil, but Britain’s power was on the wane and there was little he could do.

It is hard to know how seriously to take this.  A more charitable interpretation of the matter would note that Russia was desperately needed to wear down German power before the Western Allies landed in Europe and this was true.  From a cold-blooded point of view, fighting the war to the last Russian wouldn’t have been a bad idea.  There was also a risk that Stalin would come to terms with Hitler at some point, although – given the sheer horror of the Nazi regime – it is unlikely that any peace would last.  Stalin had certainly learnt his lesson about trusting Hitler!

The book does note that leverage existed, perhaps more than was appreciated at the time.  The Russians might have worked hard to downplay or outright deny the importance of lend-lease, but it was vitally important to keep the Russians in the field.  Indeed, the scale of ‘borrowing’ from the US was so great a cut-off would likely have had long-term effects on the Russians … although a cut-off that actually helped the Germans to win would have been disastrous.

Matters came to a head as the tide of war turned against Hitler once and for all, and Stalin showed his true colours.  Nationalist governments (in exile) and partisans were slandered and suppressed.  Communist puppet governments and militaries were installed, starting a brutal struggle that was little-known until after the end of the Cold War.  (Ironically, the Polish Communists proved to be more patriotic than Communist, at least at first, and a surprising number deserted to join various independent Polish forces.)  The West discovered, too late, that it had defeated one foe only to empower another, who’d trapped Eastern Europe in an iron curtain.  Worse, it had promoted the new foe so well it was hard to convince their populations that Communism was evil and Stalin a monster fully comparable to Adolf Hitler.  This touching and misplaced faith in the USSR would go on to blight efforts to contain Stalin and his successors until the USSR collapsed under its own weight. 

On the surface, Stalin’s War does provide a new and worthwhile insight into how Russia’s brooding presence shaped the course of the war even before Operation Barbarossa.  It is undeniable that Stalin worked hard to benefit from Germany’s early victories – before realising he’d empowered a monster himself – and that the geopolitics of Eastern Europe and the Balkans made it hard for the Russians to stand against Germany even if they’d wished to join Britain and France.  Poland and the other Eastern Europeans had excellent historical reasons to fear Russian troops on their soil – and, as 1945 makes clear, they were right to fear.

Stalin’s War also discusses Stalin’s limits as a war leader.  His was the sole will driving the USSR in 1941, yet he didn’t make reasonable defensive preparations (for example, using light forces to hold Eastern Europe and force the Germans to cross hundreds of miles before reaching the real defences) or take seriously reports of German movements in the hours before Barbarossa.  He purged commanders who’d had no time to learn their trade, then penalised common soldiers for daring to be taken captive.  He made many good decisions – staying in Moscow – and he learnt from his mistakes, but he also got very lucky.  If Hitler had been less ruthless, and his treatment of the USSR’s population a little kinder, the war might have gone the other way.

It also indicts the British and American politicians and diplomats who thought they could make nice with Stalin, even regard him as a trustworthy ally rather than the opportunist gangster he was.  Stalin didn’t have grand dreams of conquering the world – unlike Hitler – but he had few qualms about taking whatever he could get, either through force or seduction.  There was more than enough proof of his true character for people to notice, as well as enough leverage to make it possible to demand real concessions in exchange for goods and weapons.  The book also reminds us that distant staffers rarely understand the facts on the ground, which undermines faith in Western advice when the advice is literally suicidal.  (For example, pushing the Chinese Nationalists to accept Communists into their government, something that proved beyond dispute to the Nationalists that America was at best ignorant and at worst openly malicious.) 

That said, at times the book turns into a screed against the wilfully blind that reminds me of the belief in right-wing circles that the US State Department is a greater menace to the United States than Al Qaeda/Islamic State.  There is a lot of truth in this – there were communist sympathisers and even outright spies and agents at the time, as well as careerists who pride themselves on knowing foreign countries when they never stepped outside the embassy and government buildings (if they ever visited at all) – but it does tend to exclude the simple fact the Western Allies needed the USSR and that meant a certain degree of, metaphorically speaking, holding their nose when they dealt with Stalin. 

It also credits Stalin with being a little too manipulative to be true, although it does make clear that Stalin’s plans fell off the rails in 1940, after France was crushed swiftly and brutally by the Germans.  He was far from alone in believing the war would last much longer, or in suspecting Britain would concede defeat and make peace with Germany in 1940 (a belief also shared by Mussolini).  Later, the book credits him with pushing the ‘unconditional surrender’ policy to ensure Germany couldn’t come to terms with the Western Allies and even ensuring – somehow – that Germany made one last throw of the dice in launching the Battle of the Bulge.

It is difficult to know how seriously to take this section, although it is clear that Stalin did manage to keep Britain and America as his allies despite an ever-growing number of red flags.  Stalin wasn’t the only one pushing for unconditional surrender after 1919 and it is absurd to suggest otherwise, although – as the book notes – it made it harder to deal with anti-Hitler factions within Nazi Germany.  This may have suited Stalin, but it also suited his allies.  The logic behind the Battle of the Bulge had little to do with Stalin – Hitler could no longer hope for a strategic victory in the East, yet if he could pull one off in the West …  The operation failed, of course, and failure is always an orphan, but the plan wasn’t as senseless as it seems. 

But this is, in a sense, the true danger of a man like Stalin.  They don’t have grandiose plans that fall apart when they meet reality.  Instead, they take advantage of situations as they develop and work to ensure matters work out to their satisfaction.  Given opportunities to take land or money or power for themselves, they do so.  And they disguise their gangster-like acquisitive natures behind a facade of gentle bonhomie, a friendly attitude that seems to render all their horrors moot, but is really nothing more than the smile on the face of the tiger.  It is also too easy to forget the danger when someone is flattering you, until it is too late.

Overall, Stalin’s War is a very interesting read.  How convincing you’ll find it, though, is a different matter.  The writing slowly becomes a screed against Stalin and those who empowered him and does it, at least in part, by attributing near-supernatural powers to him or crediting him with brilliant insights which may well have been just coincidence.  In doing so, it undermines its own case.  It also relies too much on a deluge of facts and figures – often repeated, like the T-34 being built partly with American technology – that hamper understanding and obscure the main point.

But in a world where gangster politics are on the rise, it is probably a very important book.  Just read with care.

Prospective Themes for future FS Books

9 Aug

This is a set of planned themes for future Fantastic Schools anthologies – as of writing, we don’t know when each of these will be announced, let alone published, but it should give you some idea of what’s coming (and what you can write towards, if you want to.)  Generalist submissions are welcome at any time <grin>.

Fantastic School Sports – sports-themed stories.

Fantastic School Bullies – stories about bullies getting their comeuppances

Fantastic School Isekai – stories in which a person hops into a school in another world.

Fantastic School Outsiders – stories featuring people who interact with the school in some way, but not students.

Fantastic School Staff – staff-based stories.

Fantastic School Wars – military training/war/battles centred stories.

Fantastic Schools Parents – parental involvement

Fantastic Schools Familiars – stories focused on animal companions and suchlike.

OUT NOW – The Prince’s Alliance (The Empire’s Corps XXI)

7 Aug


Prince Roland was on the verge of winning the war.

Assigned to New Doncaster to train the planet’s armies and lead them into battle, Roland brokered a political compromise that allowed the government to win hearts and minds once the rebels were defeated in the field, then built a formidable military machine that could – and did – push the rebels to the brink of defeat.  But Roland’s success bred hatred and his enemies, seeing him and his loyal troops out on a limb, launched a coup and left Roland stranded deep in enemy territory.

Roland isn’t one to give up.  But, with a government preparing to use desperate measures to obliterate the rebels on one side and a crude alliance of suspicious rebel factions on the other, he must act fact to save the planet …

… Or watch helplessly as the civil war rages on.

Read a FREE SAMPLE (I’ll put an RTF on the blog when I get home next week), then download from the links below!


Amazon UK

Amazon Universal Link

Books2Read (More Bookshops on the Way)

Queenmaker 3

1 Aug


Chapter Three

It was a source of some relief to me, and more so to Helen, that the old councillors had blotted their copybooks so thoroughly during the coup.  If her father had died naturally, she would have been obliged to keep them on as her advisors even though she knew their advice was almost always worse than useless.  Instead, they’d either taken part in the plot or done nothing to oppose it when the plotters seized the city, earning themselves an instant death sentence for being on the losing side.  Helen had taken advantage of the sudden vacancies – and the aristocracy’s general loss of influence – to nominate people she could trust, at least partly because they owed everything to her, to the council.  I’d done my best to convince her to listen to them, even if they disagreed with her.  The leaders who didn’t listen to their subordinates were the ones who led their countries to ruin.

I took my seat – Helen had simplified the old protocol, which served to do nothing more than waste time – and looked around the table.  Fallon – now Councillor of Magic – sat facing me;  Lord Harris, an accountant who had been raised to the nobility as Councillor of the Exchequer; Sir Horace, Lord Mayor of Roxanna and Councillor of City; Lord Smith, a merchant prince who’d become Councillor of Merchants and, somewhat to my concern, Lord Jacob, Councillor of State.  He was, according to a magical test, Helen’s illegitimate half-brother.  I hoped he wouldn’t cause problems down the line, even though bastards were technically barred from the throne.  I’d be astonished if he didn’t resent his position.

And she put him in charge of her secret service, I reflected.  Lord Jacob ruled the Black Roses.  That’s either a stroke of genius or a lethal mistake.

I studied Lord Jacob thoughtfully as we waited for Helen.  He was a tall dark-skinned man, his hair cropped close to his skull.  He reminded me a little of myself as a younger man, although I’d never been that good at keeping my emotions under tight control.  His face was a blank mask, completely unreadable.  It bothered me on a primal level that I couldn’t get a good read on him.  His father hadn’t exactly disowned him, or kept him under house arrest, but … he hadn’t been a good father either.  And what sort of relationship did he have with his older half-sister?  I wasn’t even sure the warlords knew he’d existed before he’d been appointed to the council.

Helen entered.  We stood.

“Please, sit,” Helen said. Servants flitted around, bringing food and drink.  I eyed the goblet of mead in front of me wearily, then signalled for water.  The mead had a strong kick and the last thing I needed was to get drunk in front of the council.  “There is much to discuss.”

I nodded as the servants retreated, leaving us alone.  The old council would have thrown a fit if their servants had been banished, as if they couldn’t pour wine without aid.  The newer councillors were a little more self-reliant.  I wondered, not for the first time, how many of the servants had actually been spies, so lowly they were beneath suspicion and yet in perfect places to gather intelligence and forward it to their real masters.  There’d been a purge, after the plotters had been defeated, but I feared we hadn’t eliminated all the spies.  The remainder would still be dangerous, if we hadn’t scared them into keeping their heads down. 

“Warlord Cuthbert has effectively declared war,” Helen said, opening the meeting.  “His verbal message was effectively a demand for our complete submission, his written message was a little more detailed – and contained a handful of suggestions it might be in our interests to cooperate with him against the other warlords – but it effectively boiled down to the same thing.  We have a choice between fighting or bending the knee.  I choose to fight.”

There was no disagreement, open or covert.  I allowed myself another moment of relief.  The old council would have talked and talked and talked, debating meaningless issues as they sought to run out the clock so they didn’t have to make a real decision, but the newer councillors were definitely more practical.  None of us, save for Helen herself, would be allowed to live if we lost the war and Helen would suffer a face worse than death.  The prospect of hanging concentrated the mind wonderfully, as the saying went, particularly when there were still moves one could make to escape the gallows.

“We have been preparing for this moment since we first heard about Aldred’s defeat,” Helen continued.  “Yes, we could have done with a few more months to train more soldiers and produce more muskets, cannon and gunpowder, but we are ready.  We can win.  We will win.”

She looked at me.  “Lord Elliot, you may begin.”

I nodded, unfurling the map I’d brought with me.  It was about as accurate as a child’s sketch of his neighbourhood – if I relied on it completely, I would get very badly lost – but it showed everything in roughly the right position.  Roughly.  The warlord’s lands looked pitifully small and a handful of cities look large enough to be countries in their own right, but it would suffice.  It would have to.  I’d had surveyors drawing up more accurate maps of the country ever since I’d entered Helen’s service, but their work wasn’t even half done. 

“Warlord Cuthbert is a powerful man,” I said, as if everyone around the table didn’t already know that and more besides.  “Prior to the Aldred War, he deployed a force of roughly five thousand men, mainly cavalry with a hard core of heavy infantry.  Since then, we know he has been bulking up his infantry and arming them with gunpowder weapons, although we suspect he’s been reluctant to trust his vassals and serfs with firearms.  We don’t have a solid estimate for how many men he currently has under arms, but I believe fifteen thousand is the upper limit.  This time, the vast majority will be infantry.”

Lord Smith leaned forward.  “Will they fight for him?”

I said nothing for a long moment.  The warlords had, in theory, the lands and populations they needed to raise really large armies.  In practice, given how unpopular they were with the smallholders, serfs and outright slaves that made up the majority of their subjects, they were reluctant to risk mobilising their manpower in large numbers.  Their subjects, armed with weapons that could slay mounted knights and tear down castle walls, could easily decide to turn on their former masters instead.  I’d been sending agents north to encourage underground resistance, even open revolt, for months.  But, in truth, I had no idea if it would have any effect.  I wouldn’t know until the shooting started.

It isn’t easy to break out of a slave mindset, I thought, bitterly.  My ancestors had certainly had trouble standing up for themselves, let alone getting away from the plantations and making their way north to freedom.  The door might be open, beckoning them to a better life, but as long as they can’t muster up the courage to step through …

“We have to assume they’ll fight,” I said, curtly.  I wanted to believe they’d turn on their master, or simply turn and run, but I dared not assume they’d do as I wished.  It would end badly if I relied on something outside my control.  “If if that happens, we’ll have to beat them in the field.”

I drew a line on the map, leading from Cuthbert’s lands to Damansara.  “We know Cuthbert has been backing raiders and mercenaries in Aldred’s lands.  He’s also been sheltering a handful of survivors from the previous war, promising to assist them in regaining their lands and powers in exchange for their fealty.  I suspect Cuthbert will have to advance south fairly quickly, both to isolate Damansara and to keep us from sending aid.  If he isn’t on the march now, he’ll be on his way shortly.”

“If he gets caught up in a lone siege, his army will be pinned down,” Sir Horace said.  “Right?”

“No.”  I shook my head.  A year ago, that had been common sense.  Now, it was outdated and actively dangerous.  “He has gunpowder weapons now.  He can surround the city, bring the walls down with his cannon and then storm the streets beyond.”

I shuddered.  I’d seen horrors in my military service, horrors that haunted my nightmares, but none of them came close to the sheer savage barbarity of a medieval sack.  If Damansara fell, the warlord’s troops would sweep into the city and unleash hell.  They’d loot everything that wasn’t nailed down, rape every woman unlucky enough to fall into their clutches, kill every man of military age … I felt sick, remembering the good people I’d met when I’d lived in the city.  Their council might have been composed of assholes who couldn’t look beyond their own wealth and power, but the common folk didn’t deserve to be thrown straight into hell.

“There is another danger,” I added, reluctantly.  “The city may choose to submit rather than risk a sack.  If that happens, the craftsmen and gunsmiths in the city will be forced to serve Cuthbert.  That’ll give him a chance to even the odds against us.”

Lord Smith made a choking noise.  “They wouldn’t betray their own people!”

“It’s easy to be brave when you’re sitting in an armchair, hundreds of miles from the battle, and talking with the advantage of hindsight,” I said.  God knew I’d met more than a few chickenhawks in my time.  “It’s harder to hold the line when an enemy army is at the gates, armed with weapons that can tear the gates down and deliver the city into their hands.  If the city councillors feel the situation is hopeless, they’ll sell out for the best terms they can get.”

“Which will be harsh,” Lord Jacob said, coldly.

“Yes,” I agreed.  “Damansara’s independence will come to an end.  At the very least.”

I took a breath.  “It will take several days for the warlord’s envoy to return home.  We have a window of opportunity to act, to get the drop on him, if we act now.  If we can protect Damansara, and best Cuthbert’s army in the field, we can intimidate the other warlords into submission and win the war.  But we can only do that if we win.”

“A gamble,” Lord Smith said.

“Life is a gamble,” Helen said, curtly.  “We cannot afford to lose.”

I nodded.  “The warlord’s army is cumbersome,” I said.  “Ours is not.  We have an edge.”

My lips twisted.  I hadn’t understood some of Aldred’s moves during the war until I’d realised his army wasn’t an integrated force, but – in a manner of speaking – a multinational coalition.  It seemed absurd, yet it was true.  The warlord had his personal levies, but much of the rest of his men came from lesser noblemen – all of whom had to be treated with kid gloves – or mercenaries, who refused to throw their lives away for a losing cause.  Getting anything larger than a regiment or two moving in the same direction required tact, diplomacy and a certain willingness to put birth ahead of merit.  Their chain of command had to look more like a spider’s web.  That, at least, wasn’t a problem for me.  My chain of command was so simple even a child could work out who was in command at any given point.

And my men can march for hours without grumbling, which is more than can be said for any of theirs, I thought.  The warlords could set off with a mighty army and discover, when they reached their destination, that half their men had deserted.  Their cavalry spent half their time patrolling the edges of their formations, like the NKVD standing at the rear of Soviet formations during the Great Patriotic War, ready to shoot anyone in the back if they didn’t advance on command. Very few of their infantry actually want to be there.

I smiled.  A year ago, soldiers had been regarded as parasites and mercenaries as something akin to child molesters.  Mercenaries were still hated and loathed – I’d had to promise a reward for anyone who captured a mercenary, just to keep my men from murdering the bastards on the spot if they tried to surrender – but soldiering was starting to look like an attractive career.  My army, the one I’d taken apart and put back together again, had plenty of manpower, without emptying the jails and press-ganging unwary drunkards.  Really, I had more manpower than I needed.  If I’d had a couple of years to build up my forces, it would have been a rout.  The warlords wouldn’t have stood a chance.

“The army will leave in two days,” I said.  It would be a rush, and it wouldn’t look very professional, but it could be done.  “I’ll lead the advance force personally on a force-march to Damansara, using the railway to supplement our troops and resupply our forces.  We should get the regiments in position well before the warlord can get his own troops underway and prepare ourselves to take the offensive.  Either he comes out to fight, in which case we’ll best him in the field, or we’ll strike deep into his lands and take his coalition apart from the inside.”

Lord Jacob shot me a challenging look.  “Can you really convince his vassals to switch sides, when they’ll lose their ancient rights?”

I hid my irritation.  It was a valid point.  Normally, vassals – lesser aristocracy, wealthy freemen – would switch sides the moment they thought their old master could no longer either protect them from their enemies or punish them for desertion.  The monarchy had lost most of its power, in the reign of Helen’s grandfather, because it hadn’t been able to do either any longer.  On paper, an advancing army was just the sort of thing that would have aristocrats frantically re-evaluating their loyalties.  But in practice …

“We will be freeing the slaves, ending serfdom and handing out land rights to the people who actually work the lands,” I said, calmly.  “But if they submit, they’ll be able to keep at least some of their property.  If they refuse, they’ll lose it completely.”

Lord Jacob didn’t look convinced.  Or, perhaps, he’d noted the sting in the tail.  The aristos might want to continue the fight, even though it was suicidal, but the commoners would have other ideas.  Why would they fight for their tormentors?  One might as well expect plantation slaves to don Confederate Grey!  The moment our army approached, the commoners would switch sides fast enough to leave their former masters in the lurch.  It had happened before and it would happen again.

If they surrender, they’ll salvage something, I told myself.  And if they don’t it simply won’t matter.

Sir Horace cleared his throat.  “Are you sure you can beat Cuthbert before the other warlords intervene?”

“Yes,” I said, with a great deal more confidence than I felt.  Nothing was ever certain in war.  “If our reports are accurate, they have yet to mobilise their troops and prepare for the offensive.  We can, and we will, deploy our own forces to hold them back if they do take the offensive before we’re ready for them.  We also have the city’s new defences and the militia to back them up.”

And agents sent into their territory to get them fighting each other, I added, silently.  The warlords were in an odd position.  They had to crush us before we built up the forces to do it to them, but if they won they’d have to figure out how to share the kingdom between them.  Who would be the anointed king?  It seemed absurd, to a man raised in a democratic state, yet they took it very seriously.  The moment one of the warlords becomes king, the rest will start plotting to clip his wings.

I kept that thought to myself.  Instead, I ran through a brief outline of my plans and preparations for war.  They didn’t need to know the precise details – I didn’t think they’d betray us willingly, but what they didn’t know they couldn’t tell – yet it was important they sensed my confidence.  They didn’t need to know all my contingency plans either.  A handful of the wilder plans would only upset them.

“We stand to risk everything, if you offensive fails,” Lord Jacob commented, when I’d finished.  “What happens if we lose?”

“We cannot afford to stand on the defensive,” I told him.  “They could, and they would, pin us down and then crush us.  We have to take the offensive as quickly as possible or we’d be effectively conceding eventual defeat.”

I scowled.  Warlord Aldred’s men hadn’t known about muskets.  They’d charged straight into the teeth of our fire and very few, if any, had lived long enough to understand what had happened to them.  Warlord Cuthbert wouldn’t make the same mistakes.  Given time, he’d dance around us while using his cavalry to harass our farmers and burn down our fields, along with all the improvements I’d made over the last few months.  And then we’d starve …

Helen tapped the table.  “The plan is sound,” she said, as if it had been the first time she’d heard it.  We’d actually discussed a dozen variants over the last few weeks.  “If any of you feel otherwise, say so now.”

No one spoke.  I hoped that was a good sign.  Helen wasn’t one of the idiots who regarded dissent as treason, and blamed the messenger for the message, but everyone at the table – except me – had grown up in a society where saying what one really thought could lead straight to their execution.  Helen didn’t have a reputation for lashing out at the bearer of bad news, but still …

“Good.  We will proceed.”  Helen stood.  “Lord Jacob, attend upon me.”

On that note, the meeting ended.


31 Jul

Hi, everyone

This is just a short update – sorry.  <grin>,

Basically, my family and I have been in Malaysia for the last month and I’ve been doing my best to take it easy (helped by the fact I got a lot done shortly before we left and I’m just waiting on the edits for The Prince’s Alliance, All for All and Chrishangers.  I’ve really just done a handful of chapters of Queenmaker for the blog and a short novella for Fantastic Schools, entitled The Muckraker’s Tale.

The Muckraker’s Tale is set in the SIM universe, but it presents a very different character – someone Emily might not like, if they met.  It’s also set between The Artful Apprentice and Oathkeeper, and features an aspect of the universe Emily had no interest in and was never forced to pretend otherwise.  I’m hoping people will like it.  I’m also considering ways to expand the story into a full novel, but it depends on reception. 

I’ve also been plotting more stories, including The Demon’s Design, which will be the first of a new story arc for Emily, and The Revolutionary War, which will be a return to the universe of The Royal Sorceress and tie up some plot threads while laying others.  I also intend to plot Lone World at some point, which is the direct sequel to Endeavour, but I haven’t got too far on that yet. 

My current plans are to keep taking it easy until I get home, whereupon:

Aug – The Conjuring Man (The Cunning Man Finale)

Sept – The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress 5)

Oct – The Alchemist’s Secret (The Zero Enigma)

Nov – Pandora’s Box (Special Project – more later).

And, of course, I intend to continue with Queenmaker.

What do you think?


Queenmaker CH2

31 Jul

Chapter Two

The envoy goggled.  The court laughed.

I didn’t blame them.  I hadn’t seen a man gape like that outside a bad cartoon.  The envoy looked as if he’d been punched in the face and yet, couldn’t quite wrap his head around what had happened.  I supposed he had a point.  If you were prancing around, being all Mouth of Sauron, you’d be surprised if someone flipped the script on you too.

“You jest,” he managed finally.  “My master …”

“Has sent you here with a message, we presume,” Helen said.  Her tone was calculated to get on the envoy’s nerve.  The reminder he was just an envoy probably didn’t help.  “Let us hear you out, before we throw you out.”

The envoy spluttered.  I hid my amusement with an effort.  It was very far from diplomatic, and I’d tried to argue in favour of more diplomacy when Helen and I had discussed our plans for the envoy’s arrival, but she’d insisted.  I understood her thinking.  There was nothing we could reasonably offer the warlords, certainly nothing they’d accept.  They were little better than gangsters, taking everything they could and then demanding more.  And if the monarchy had stood up to them, decades ago, the kingdom would be in a far better state.

It is always easy to try to appease the unappeasable, I thought.  How many times had that lesson been learned and forgotten, only to be learned again?  But once you pay the Danegeld you never get rid of the Dane.

“My master is greatly concerned with your preparations for war,” the envoy said.  His voice dripped honey and battery acid.  I felt my fist clench with a burning desire to punch the envoy in the face.  “He and his peers see them as a direct threat, and a stark renunciation of agreements signed by your father and grandfather.  They demand you meet their terms at once or face war.”

Helen affected a bored look.  “And what are their terms?”

The envoy steadied himself.  “First, you are to immediately disband your forces and dismiss your troops,” he said.  “Second, you are to banish all foreign mercenaries” – he gave me a nasty look – “from the kingdom.  Third, you are to permit the exiles, unjustly banished from their homes, to reclaim their lands and titles.  Fourth, and most importantly, you are to submit the question of your marriage to a commission who will consider the interests of the kingdom and determine who you will marry.”

I sensed, more than saw, Helen’s flash of anger.  But her voice was studiously calm.  “Is that all?”

“My master and his allies will dispatch troops to enforce the agreement, once you accept it,” the envoy said.  “They will be accompanied by the exiled noblemen and distinguished judges who will consider each case on its merits and determine what level of recompense should be paid to the dispossessed.  You yourself will be taken into protective custody and …”

“And raped.”  Helen’s voice was suddenly icy cold.  “That’s what your master has in mind, isn’t it?”

The envoy looked shocked.  “My master has nothing, but the greatest respect for you …”

Helen cut him off.  “Your master attempted to kidnap me, then backed treacherous nobles in a bid to murder my father and unseat me,” she snarled.  “If that is respect …”

She calmed herself with an effort.  “What does he do to people he doesn’t respect?”

My lips twisted.  Warlord Cuthbert was right at the top of Helen’s shit list – and who could blame her?  He really had tried to kidnap her, and then force her into marriage.  I felt a flicker of sympathy for his wife and children, who would be put aside in favour of a woman who could legitimise his bid for the throne.  It made me wonder what sort of agreements the warlords had made, between themselves.  The only reason they hadn’t forced Helen into marriage long ago, long before my arrival, was that they hadn’t been able to agree on how to share power amongst themselves.  If they’d come to an agreement …

We can probably play on their fears, even if they have, I reflected.  They’re not the most trusting of people.  They’ll be watching their allies for betrayal even as they pretend to cooperate with them.

“Your Majesty …”  The envoy took a breath and started again.  “Your Majesty, I am charged with carrying your reply back to my master.”


Helen rose to her feet, looking every inch the warrior queen.  She’d had more training, in magic as well as mundane fighting skills, than the average princess, although it was all too likely her enemies would think her defenceless.  My spies told me too many of her lower-ranking noblemen had received messages from the warlords – some offering wealth and power, some so bizarrely focused on male bonding it was hard to believe anyone could take them seriously – and while I thought none of those offers had been accepted it was impossible to be sure.   Too many high-ranking men had doubts about serving under a woman.  Idiots.  Helen was already shaping up to be a more effective monarch than her father.

“Your master’s terms are rejected,” Helen said.  “There will be no more discussion.  You will go back to your master and inform him he has one week to disband his troops and come to this city – alone and unarmed – to pay homage to me, or he will be crushed and his family driven from the kingdom. Do you understand me?”

I winced, inwardly.  One week … it was barely enough time for the envoy to get to his master and make his report, let alone for the warlord to mount a horse and ride back to the city.  And demanding the warlord came alone, without even a handful of escorts …?  It was the kind of demand one made after beating the enemy army, not before; the kind of demand that would only be accepted, by prideful and stubborn men, when resistance was no longer anything but kicking and biting on the way to the gallows.  Warlord Cuthbert was more likely to order his troops to march south immediately, than disband his soldiers and bend the knee to the queen.

If he comes alone, he knows he’ll be imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure, I thought.  And if his son leads troops to free him, the queen might order him executed out of petty spite.

I sighed inwardly.  Johor was a snake pit, a snake pit that made Game of Thrones look positively civilised.  There was no real law and order, certainly no government capable and willing to enforce the law without fear or favour … it was quite possible, I reflected, that the warlord’s sons would go on the offensive in hopes their father would be executed, allowing them to lay claim to their inheritance.  They’d never say it out loud – sons were supposed to be loyal to their fathers, even though everyone knew their loyalty could be very self-serving indeed – but it was true.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the envoy said.  His face was pale.  I’d heard Warlord Cuthbert had a nasty habit of blaming the messenger.  I didn’t think he could make the message any more palatable either.  No amount of delicate wording could disguise the fact Helen had demanded the warlord’s unconditional surrender.  I wondered, idly, if the messenger would try to lie to his master.  It would cost him his head.  Helen would make sure he took a written copy of the message back too.  “I understand.”

Helen snapped her fingers.  Two black-clad men emerged from the curtains behind the throne, grabbed hold of the envoy and half-carried, half-dragged him out of the chamber.  A rustle ran through the room, the crowd struggling to come to terms with the latest development.  It was vanishingly rare for anyone to mistreat a messenger, no matter what he’d come to say.  It was a declaration of total war. 

I frowned inwardly.  Helen’s private guardsmen – the Black Roses – had expanded rapidly, after she took the throne, but … I wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with them.  They reported directly to her, through their commander … I understood, I really did, that Helen didn’t want to become dependent on anyone but it still bothered me.  The Black Roses were more than just her guard.  They were expanding into intelligence and counterintelligence and making their presence felt on the streets.  I feared they’d wind up causing a disaster at the worst possible time.

And they look too much like a secret police force, I reflected.  They’re already very unpopular outside the palace.

Helen addressed the crowd.  “For generations, the warlords – my father and grandfather’s overmighty subjects – have terrorised the kingdom, threatening to send us all to rack and ruin.  No more.  There will be no more concessions.  There will be no more submissions.  They will be stopped.  They will be destroyed.”

Her words hung in the air.  “If any of you are afraid to fight, go back to your homes and abandon all hope of a place in the new world.  Or run to the warlords and be destroyed with them.  But if you are ready to fight for the throne, for a kingdom free of overmighty subjects, remain with us now.  Make your choices quickly and well.  There will be no second chances.”

I smiled, inwardly.  Too many of the old aristocracy had a nasty habit of playing both sides of the field.  They sent one of the sons to fight for the king and the other, as the saying went, to fight for the rebels, in hopes of ensuring they’d have someone who could speak for them no matter who won the war.  Helen had done everything she could to make it impossible for someone to sit on the fence, from executing or exiling most of the old nobility to ennobling merchants and craftsmen who could be relied upon to support her.  I scanned the crowd, carefully noting reactions.  The new noblemen were excited and afraid.  They wouldn’t keep their titles, if the warlords won the war.  They’d be lucky to keep their lives.

I shuddered, inwardly.  I’d started a wave of land reform, first in my estates and then in estates belonging to executed or exiled aristocracy, that was reshaping the kingdom.  If the peasants were allowed to own their own land … the warlords would crush the poor bastards, if they won the war.  Land reform was a direct threat to their wealth and power and they knew it.  So too were guns and everything else that levelled the playing field, allowing the commoners a chance to stand up to their betters.  Helen’s supporters knew they were playing for keeps.  If the warlords won, they’d do everything in their power to turn back the clock.

It won’t work, I told myself.  It’ll just lead to newer and bloodier rebellions against the status quo.

My lips twisted.  No one, not even my closest supporters, knew precisely how far I was prepared to go.  I’d practically surrendered my estates to the tillers.  I’d allowed some of our most sensitive technological secrets to be leaked.  I’d ensured the spread of reading and writing and everything else … whatever happened, the kingdom would never be the same again.  The warlords were just a remnant of a dim a distant past, soon to be forgotten completely.  I wouldn’t be another Andrew Johnston.  I wouldn’t betray the people who trusted me and fought for me and expected me to honour my promises …

“I cannot promise an easy victory,” Helen said.  “There will be much bloodshed before the warlords are done.  But we will win.  Never doubt we will win.  Dismissed.”

The courtiers bowed or curtseyed, then hurried out of the chamber.  I wondered how many of the old hands were convinced, given that the meeting with the envoy had been little better than a masterful – and pre-planned – performance.  Helen had to do a surprising amount of her business in public, if only to keep rumour-mongering to a dull roar, but there’d still be suspicions she’d made time to have a private chat with the envoy earlier.  There’d be people watching to make sure he really was thrown out of the city, rather than kept in the guardhouse until Helen could meet with him again,

At least Helen keeps a tight grip on these sessions, I thought.  Her father had held audiences where everyone, or at least everyone who thought they were anyone, had insisted on having their say.   It was astonishing how many people could say the exact same thing time and time again, rarely even bothering to vary the words, just so they could tell the world they’d had their say.  And she listens when people bring their concerns to her in private.

“Elliot,” Helen said.  She stood, brushing down her robes.  She’d insisted on wearing her father’s outfits, rather than the dresses that looked as if they’d come out of a Disney princess movie, but I rather thought they suited her.  “Walk with me.”

I nodded, following her as she led the way through the curtains and into a long – and private – corridor.  There were people in the kingdom, even in the palace, who would have killed to have a private meeting with the queen … I felt a twinge of amusement at their probable reactions, if they’d known I didn’t share their awe.  There was nothing special, to me, in spending time with an aristocrat.  Besides, I knew Helen as a person.  She was more than just a monarch to me.

“It should be safe to talk here,” Helen said.  “My maids and guards are loyal.”

I nodded, feeling a twinge of pity.  Helen had next to no privacy.  She’d rarely been alone, from the moment she’d been born till the day she took the throne and became queen … even now, her ladies were never far away.  We’d searched the aristocratic townhouses, after the coup, and discovered missives from her ladies-in-waiting and maids, reporting on everything from her reading patterns to her menstrual cycles.  It was creepy.  I’d had very little privacy in the army, but …

And a bunch of maids were executed, to remind the others to keep their mouths thoroughly closed, I thought.  It should keep them quiet and loyal for a few months, although I doubted it would last forever.  The maids might be scared into submission, but her ladies came from prominent families.  They’d face immense pressure to give their impressions of their mistress to their masters.  The poor girls will be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

“There will be no peace now,” Helen added, after a moment.  “Good.”

I nodded, curtly.  I’d seen enough war – here and back home – to know war wasn’t particularly glorious.  I knew men who’d gone to war and come home crippled, despite everything modern medical technology could do.  Here, it was far worse.  A man who lacked the money to pay for a healer would be lucky if he came home with amputated limbs.  I’d done what I could to improve what passed for medical science, but … I shuddered.  It would be kinder to send a man to be tortured.

“We couldn’t have come to terms with them anyway,” I said.  The warlords were clearly spoiling for a fight.  Helen could give them everything they wanted and they’d have found an excuse to go to war anyway.  Not that she could, even if she wanted to.  The changes had spread too far to be reversed.  “Not after …”

I sighed.  The kingdom had existed in an uneasy balance of power for decades, the king too weak to put down his overmighty subjects and the warlords reluctant to rock the boat by trying to unseat the king permanently.  I’d changed that, partly by accident, when I’d defeated Warlord Aldred.  The warlords had thought they could just play a waiting game to bring the kingdom to heel.  I’d proven the kingdom could and would take the offensive and slay the warlord beasts in their lairs. 

And now they’re ganging up on us, I thought.  Cuthbert wasn’t the only warlord modernising and mobilising his forces.  The remainder were preparing for war too.  They had no illusions about how deeply Helen hated them, about what she’d do if she had them in her power.  She’d sign their execution warrants with a smile.  They have to hang together or be hanged separately.

Helen touched my arm.  I tensed, despite myself.  We might be alone, but … we weren’t really.  The rules had changed since she took the throne – she’d effectively had herself declared a man, just to ensure she could attend council meetings – yet there were limits.  If rumours got out …

“Elliot,” she said.  “Can we win?”

I took a breath.  “Yes,” I said.  It wasn’t an idle boast.  I’d spent the last few weeks planning the war.  It was going to be tight – we had better weapons, the warlords had more experienced men and mercenaries – but we could do it.  “It can be done.”

Helen smiled, humourlessly.  “I believe you once told me nothing is certain in war.”

“It isn’t,” I said.  “But we can stack the deck in our favour if we move fast.”

“Good.”  Helen changed the subject with surprising rapidity.  “And Fallon?  Have you agreed on a date yet?”

I hesitated.  The idea that my marriage was an issue of national security still felt absurd.  Sure, I was one of the most powerful noblemen in the kingdom, but I still felt like a poor boy who’d joined the army to better himself and climbed all the way to the top.  And yet, it was no longer true.  My every word was law for hundreds of thousands of people who’d never even heard of me a year ago.

“We are making progress,” I said.  Someone – I forgot who – had cautioned me against falling in love with local girls, while on deployment.   It could lead to complications … not, I supposed, that it mattered here.  I’d never be going home again.  “Why do you ask?”

“The longer before you take her to wed, the harder it will be for her,” Helen said.  Her face was blank.  I couldn’t tell if she was advising me to marry now or forget the whole thing and just keep Fallon as a mistress.  It was not a pleasant thought.  “Make your mind up quickly.”

Her lips twitched.  “And I’ll expect to see you both at the council meeting this afternoon.”

I nodded.  “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Book Review – The Armchair General: Can You Defeat The Nazis?

29 Jul

The Armchair General: Can You Defeat The Nazis?

-John Buckley

If you were the decision-maker at the turning points of WW2, knowing what they knew at the time, could you do better?  Or worse?

One of the fundamental problems with writing alternate histories is that writers have the benefit of hindsight.  The mistakes of the past are laid bare, with all their disastrous consequences exposed, to the point it becomes very easy to condemn the people of the time for making them.  This is misleading, because the people who made the decisions didn’t have the advantage of hindsight.  They had to make decisions based on what they knew at the time, not on truths that seem self-evident to their descendents.  It is easy to say, for example, that Churchill should have made a major commitment to North Africa earlier than OTL, but Churchill could not be sure Operation Sealion was a non-starter until much later than any of his critics.  Indeed, most of the great mistakes of the past – studied without hindsight – start looking more like the best course of action at the time.

John Buckley has attempted to outline this by taking a new approach to alternate history.  Instead of picking a single POD and detailing the possible consequences – the approach taken by military alternate history writers such as Kenneth Macksey and Peter Tsouras – Buckley presents eight moments of WW2 history where the right or wrong choices would determine the course of history, outlines what the major players knew at the time (as best as can be determined) and invites you to consider what decisions you might make.  This may seem like a simplistic Choose Your Own Adventure game book, and indeed it does come across as something akin to it, but it is soundly grounded in real history and – to a very large extent – keeps the alternate outcomes very realistic (and discusses why the ‘right’ answer was not always evident at the time.)

For example, with the advantage of hindsight, Winston Churchill was the obvious man to lead Britain to victory in WW2.  This was not evident at the time, as Buckley makes clear; Churchill’s war record was something of a mixed bag (he successfully evaded much of the blame for the Norwegian disaster), he had enemies in high places and, worst of all, there was no obvious way for Britain to actually win.  The French had been crushed, the Italians were on the verge of entering the war … was it not time, people asked, for Britain to fold its cards and seek peace with Adolf Hitler when Britain still had something to use as a bargaining tool?  Buckley makes a very good case that the decision to continue the war was nowhere near as inevitable as it might seem.  Halifax, as PM, might have decided to bring the war to an end before it was too late.

Even if Churchill becomes PM, there are still problems facing the reader.  Should Britain make a secret approach to Hitler through Mussolini’s good offices?  If Churchill agrees, he may find himself presented with terms he’d find it hard to refuse (although the idea of Hitler keeping any agreements he made was laughable after Munich) or face a revolt in the Cabinet as the doves force a leadership contest; if he refuses, he may face the leadership contest anyway. 

The book is at pains to note that while private discussions with Hitler were a bad idea, they weren’t outrageously bad.  Halifax – as either PM or Foreign Secretary – had a duty to explore all options, although one doesn’t need hindsight to know Hitler couldn’t be trusted.  (The book does reserve some scorn for Samuel Hoare, who clearly learnt nothing from the run-up to war.)

The book then shifts to North Africa and, in doing so, casts light on the very limited options available to Churchill and the Vichy French.  Was it a mistake to divert British troops to Greece in 1941?  The outcome of the troops remaining in North Africa, according to Buckley, suggests both yes and no.  On one hand, Italian Libya would have been crushed well before the Germans could move troops into position to support their allies; on the other, it would have set off a political firestorm in French North Africa and Vichy France.  The book points out that French options were, in some ways, the most limited of all.  If they supported the British, Germany would take revenge on mainland France; if they fought, they’d be drawn ever-further into collaboration and submission. 

The book moves from Britain to Russia and asks, grimly, what the Russians should have done after the Germans invaded?  Should they keep Stalin or take advantage of his momentary discomfort to overthrow him?  Regardless, should they fight to hold Moscow or seek peace with Germany, even one on unfavourable terms?  This is, in many ways, the hardest part of the book to follow.  Stalin was a monster, Hitler’s equal in mass genocide, yet without his iron will would Russia survive long enough for the tide to turn?  It is hard to say.  On one hand, Stalin was strong because he allowed no strong followers (ensuring his successor wouldn’t share his powers); on the other, Stalin’s mistakes in the run up to the war were disastrous.  What should you do?  Buckley presents a nuanced answer.

Even as the tide turns in Russia’s favour, there was still no guarantee of a Russian victory, raising the prospect of a somewhat more balanced peace.  What if the Russians signed a treaty with Germany in 1943 and bowed out of the war?  Unlikely?  Perhaps, perhaps not – Russia had suffered badly in the war and the prospect of a Second Front had been put back to 1944.  The book outlines the problems facing the Russians, then details what might have happened if the two sides agreed on a treaty.

This leads into another possibility – a Second Front in 1943.  The overall outlook for an invasion isn’t as bad as is often suggested, at least on paper, but Buckley is careful to make clear that there were good reasons to put the invasion off until 1944.  The defences were weak – true – but American troops weren’t ready to fight Germans and the British could not afford a major disaster.  The book suggests that an invasion in 1943 wouldn’t have been a complete disaster, but it wouldn’t have won the war as quickly as its proponents hoped and ended with the allies effectively trapped in a pocket, needing to break out before they could resume the advance.  But a solid lodgement in France would make it a great deal easier for the US to reinforce the troops, then take the offensive in 1944.  It would certainly improve logistics!

Having looked at overall strategy, the book also looks at two major battles – Operation Market Garden/Arnhem – and Midway – that might have gone differently, if the people involved had made different decisions.  This is, unfortunately, a less convincing pair of scenarios.  An American defeat at Midway would be embarrassing and painful, but the Japanese would find it incredibly costly to take Midway and they’d still be ground under by the sheer weight of American production in the next two years.  Market Garden, by contrast, might provide better results if the operation was more limited, but Buckley believes it would not have made a major difference.  He might well be right.  The planning for Market Garden was flawed right from the start.

The book also studies two technical POD, the decision to concentrate on aerial bombing and to fund atomic research.  The former, I think although I may be wrong, is a little over-optimistic.  Bomber Command never had the technology for precision bombing and, while there was something to be said for developing a dive-bomber capability to match Germany, I doubt improving the bombing fleet to the point it could do real damage was feasible.  Putting more resources to the naval war might work better, perhaps defeating the U-Boats earlier than OTL, but it hard to be sure because the Germans would still be deploying U-Boats.  I think this is probably the weakest part of the book.

The idea of not funding atomic research is a little vaguer than the rest of the possible outlines, but does suggest it might well have happened.  Atomic science was in its infancy and no one could be sure it was worth it.  If it wasn’t funded … what then?  Buckley suggests Japan would have been invaded instead, followed by a possible war against Russia.  He also suggests the German program would never have produced a viable weapon, although – again – it is hard to be sure.  A Germany that didn’t drive most of its best minds into exile would, at least in theory, have a solid ground for atomic research.

Overall, the book does a decent job at presenting the background, including what the key players knew at the time, and outlining possible alternatives.  It is easy to say, of course, that the reader should always follow the ‘right’ path, but the book is good at making clear there was no obviously right path.  Buckley picks PODs where there is a surprising amount of ambiguity and it shows.  I think he was careful to avoid PODs where the right thing to do was obvious.

When presenting characters – historical figures – he also places them in context and makes it clear that they will benefit personally from their decisions (or perhaps not – a known backstabber, even with a good cause, will never be trusted again.)  This is fascinating, in that it sometimes shines light on minor figures who stood – for a brief moment – at a turning point in history.  He makes them come alive as men who could, if they made the wrong choice, doom both themselves and their countries.

It is possible, of course, to argue that his decision to limit the scope of his alternate outcomes was a bad one.  But, looking at history from decades in the future, it is clear the idea of a world-bestriding Reich was the stuff of fantasy rather than sober reality.  Few choices would have been completely disastrous (possibly the only real disaster would be Russia making peace in 1941) and Buckley, I think, made it clear. 

He also, for better or worse, shies away from assessing the enemy’s decisions.  It would be interesting to assess Hitler’s decisions (as well as his Italian and Japanese counterparts) and see how well they hold up based on what he actually knew, but it would be incredibly controversial.  He also makes a handful of notes about Churchill not being politically correct by today’s standards, a point that not only detracts from the text but also raises the issue of looking at the world through Stalin’s eyes.  (Although, to be fair, he does call Stalin a psychopath and suggests a Molotov-headed government would be better for Russia.)  While this may be true, and Churchill has been attacked recently by people who think modern values can be projected back into the past, they would not have any bearing on his contemporaries.  Being an imperialist, and believing the British Empire was a force for good in the world, was not regarded as a bad thing in 1940 and the idea it would have entered anyone’s calculations is absurd.

If you’re in to alternate history, or even history in general, I think you’ll like this book. 

Book Review – Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-1943

13 Jul

Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-1943

-John Gooch

What was Mussolini thinking?

Italy’s performance in the Second World War is often taken as the stuff of light comedy.  The Italians were, we are told, comic opera actors who ran away when the first shots were fired and needed to be bailed out, repeatedly, by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.  Their participation in the war was a net drain on German resources, to the point they played a role in Germany’s ultimate defeat by fighting alongside them.  In the (possible) words of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, being allied with Italy meant being shackled to a corpse.  The best thing the Italians could have done for their allies was staying out of the war.

The misconception the Italians were always nothing more than cowards and incompetents has made it hard for anyone to assess their participation with a clear eye.  Mussolini was – is – a figure of fun, a harmless blimp who could be mocked relentlessly while there was and remains very little funny about Adolf Hitler.  And yet, John Gooch has attempted to peer through the myths and legends of Italy’s war and ask precisely how and why the Italians did so badly.  It is a dense tome, but none the less important if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of the war.

On a operational level, the Italians were never as bad as their detractors claimed.  When they had a workable plan, and the support they needed, they tended to do a great deal better than the stereotype.  Their invasion of Ethiopia was reasonably well planned and conducted with a certain degree of competence.  Their participation in the Spanish Civil War was, again, reasonably competent.  They made an attempt at an early blitzkrieg-style offensive that worked better than anyone had a right to expect, although not enough to prove Italy’s military might by winning the war.  Their early contribution to Operation Barbarossa involved a number of reasonably well-equipped divisions that did fairly well, up to Stalingrad.  They did not, of course, face the Red Army alone, but they did better than one might think,

When they lacked support and planning, the Italians tended to do very badly.  The plan to invade Egypt was poor and the planning for Greece almost non-existent, to the point the offensive barely got off the ground and – in both cases – the Italians came very close to a decisive defeat.  Morale crumbled when senior leadership was not up to the task – and it rarely was – leading to countless Italians simply throwing down their guns and walking into POW camps.

Italy’s strategic thinking was almost non-existent too.  There was no clear-eyed assessment of Italy’s power relative to Britain, France (even in 1940, after the French were effectively beaten by the Germans), Russia and America.  The result was strategic chaos.  Italy might have made a far more worthwhile contribution to the war by invading Malta in 1940, which would probably have been a walkover, but instead Mussolini tried to invade France and Egypt, in hopes of securing claims to territory when Britain sought terms with Nazi Germany.  Britain did not, of course, seek terms and so the Italians found themselves out on a limb.

Many of these problems can be blamed on Mussolini.  He was shrewd enough to make a bid for leadership, when Italy found itself in economic trouble, but he lacked the intellect and realism to understand the reality of his position.  His country was incredibly dependent on outside trade, ensuring the war would swiftly lead to Italy’s industries grinding to a halt.  He lacked the forward planning to compensate, insofar as it was possible, and even if he had the Italian economy probably couldn’t have adapted.  The Germans offered Italy plans for advanced tanks and aircraft, which were rejected as Italy couldn’t afford to churn them out even with the plans. 

These problems pervaded Italy’s power structure.  There was very little formal cooperation between the army, the navy and the air force.  Mussolini lacked a general staff capable of forcing his officers to work together, let alone point them at a single goal.  Italy had too many incompetents in high places, not all of whom could be removed when their incompetence was too clear to be missed. 

In a sense, Mussolini shot his bolt too soon.  Italy helped Franco win his war at a very high cost, very little of which was ever repaid.  (The author points out that the ultimate effects of Italy not trying to help Franco are unknowable.)  Italy burnt up too much of its deployable forces and military stockpiles, ensuring the armies that tried to seize Egypt and Greece were dangerously weak.  Italy lacked the resources to experiment with better weapons and tactics and rapidly found itself outmatched by both Britain and Russia.  The fact the Germans had more and better of everything was a constant source of resentment amongst the Italian military.

The combination of operational, tactical, strategic and geopolitical weaknesses ensured Italy would eventually become more and more dependent on Germany.  Mussolini’s dreams of fighting a separate war were rapidly proved to be nothing more nothing more than delusions and the Germans, despite Hitler’s personal affection for Mussolini, were quick to understand it and gave the Italians very little freedom of movement.  Even without that, the Germans simply lacked the resources Italy needed.  The Italians cut themselves off from the sources of supply they needed to survive. 

The book also sheds new light on Italian anti-partisan efforts, which were – like the rest of the country’s war effort – a very mixed bag.  The Italians did better than the Germans on anti-partisan efforts in Russia – they had the advantage of being neither Nazis nor Communists – but their anti-partisan efforts in the Balkans were marked with the same savage brutality as the Nazis, Russians and Japanese efforts elsewhere.  The problem was made worse by deeply corrupt military leadership, who preferred to loot and enjoy themselves rather than trying to solve a problem that was probably beyond solving.  These efforts came to an end when Italy left the war, with a surprising number of Italians joining the partisans and fighting the Nazis. 

Italy’s departure from the war was marred with the same incompetence that marked its entry.  It was hard for anyone to plot Mussolini’s ouster, both because he was still surprisingly popular and because Hitler would be sure to react badly.  Ironically, it was the Fascist Party that moved against him first.  The timing was badly handled and what hope there was of allied troops entering Italy in time to deter a German invasion was rapidly lost.  Italy became a battleground for the rest of the war, a problem that could have been avoided if their leader had shown a certain amount of common sense.

Could Italy have done better?

The short answer is yes.  Staying out of the war would have been better for Italy and Nazi Germany.  If Italy had been determined to take part in the fighting, in hopes of snatching booty before the peace treaty, it would have been better to concentrate on Malta and North Africa rather than France or Greece.  Malta was barely defended in those days, while a reinforced and mobile Italian army might have been able to push to the Suez Canal and occupy Egypt before the British redeployed their forces to keep the Italians out.  If Italy had done so well, it would have offered the best chance for Italy to keep its gains and avoid being overshadowed by the Germans.

This would, however, have required Mussolini to be the thing he wasn’t – a practical man who understood his limits, and that of his military, and stayed within them.  Instead, he set his country on a path that led to its inevitable destruction, the downfall of his regime and his own execution.

This is not a biography of Mussolini.  But if you want to know why Italy did so badly, this is the book for you.  It does jump around a little, and it can be a bit wordy at times, but overall it is well worth a read.

Snippet – The Muckraker’s Tale

13 Jul

This is the start of a Fantastic Schools novella. As always, comments are warmly welcomed.


This is the greatest story ever told.

Hyperbole, of course.  But Dad always said a little hyperbole never hurt anyone and believe me, he should know.  He was a broadsheet reporter before broadsheets were even invented and his job meant he had to keep himself employed by keeping his clients invested in his work.  If that meant exaggerating a few details, he did it.  And he had very few qualms about it too.

My father was a bastard, in birth if not in behaviour.  He was born on the wrong side of the blankets and while his father had made provisions for his support and education, the rest of his family were nowhere near so welcoming.  His stepmother hated him – he was a grim reminder that her conduct had to be above reproach while her husband could go whoring and no one would say a word – and his half-brothers and sisters loathed him.  He had a reasonably decent education, but what could he do with it?  I don’t blame him for going into quasi-exile and heading to Dragon’s Den, where talent sometimes rose above birth and breeding.  He had enough magic as well as education to make a living for himself.  And he had something to offer.

His family wanted to know what was going on in Dragon’s Den.  Who was in, who was out, who was on the rise and who was going down … my father, armed with talent and determination and a certain willingness to let the pureblood aristocrats make fools of themselves, slotted neatly into his new role as correspondent.  He collected gossip, verified it as best as he could, and then wrote it in letters for his clients.  He called himself a correspondent and wrote to anyone willing to pay his fees.  They called him a muckraker and regarded him with the same kind of loathing and contempt they reserved for whores, scullery maids and mercenaries, even as they made use of their services.  Dad found it amusing to watch how none of them would be seen in public with him, but begged him – when they were firmly out of the public eye – to keep them informed of what was going on.  The first person to hear the news, in the distant mansions of the rich and aristocratic, would have an edge over his competitors.  And Dad was the best in the business.

He had few principles, but the ones he did have he held tightly.  He dug up the truth as best as he could and did everything in his power to make sure it was the truth.  He guarded his reputation for honesty like aristocratic women guarded their reputations for chastity.  Truth was a defence against his clients, when they questioned his word.  They considered him a deniable and ultimately expendable asset, but they knew better than to break their word with him.  He’d ensure the entire world knew what they’d done and no one would ever trust them again.

I don’t know how he survived long enough to get married and have a daughter, let alone raise her to follow in his footsteps.  His profession was a hazardous one.  By his retelling – and for once I don’t think there was any hyperbole – he’d come close to death a thousand times in his first decade as a correspondent.  He’d been beaten up by private guards, turned into animals and objects by magicians, even attacked in the streets by faceless assassins who could have been sent by anyone, anyone at all.  Mum always feared that one day he’d go out in pursuit of a story and never come back, but he survived.  Personally, I suspected it was because he was useful to everyone, even the ones who hated him.  They didn’t kill him because they wanted to make use of him.  His best tips often came from people who wanted to make trouble for their rivals.

And then the New Learning changed everything.

Dad was the best in the business, but even he couldn’t write to everyone.  There weren’t many scribes willing to work for him – the Scribes Guild frowned on correspondents – and there were limits to how much news he could send to his contacts.  The printing press and cheap paper changed all that.  Dad bought one of the first presses and expanded his services, then – when he heard about broadsheets – started his own.  Everyone – everyone who thought they were anyone, at least – bought copies, just to make sure their names weren’t amongst the gossip.  The vast majority of new broadsheets lasted only a few editions before folding and vanishing, their writers and editors unable to bring in enough money to keep themselves going, but Dad survived and prospered and grew wealthy.  He was rich enough to send me to Whitehall to study magic.  And that was when I started the school newsletter.

Whitehall Times was my baby.  I liked to think it would keep the students informed of what was going on, from minor matters to major; I liked to think its stories would rock the establishment and keep the tutors honest, as well as giving the students a chance to get involved in running the school.  But, in truth, my lofty dreams crashed straight into reality.  It wasn’t easy to keep the paper interesting and some of my colleagues had weird ideas of what would actually sell copies.  I mean, who cared about the kitchen staff’s plans for the dinner welcoming the new students?  They served the same thing every year!

I told myself we needed a scoop.  And fast.

And that, my readers, was why I was sneaking into the sport captain’s office on a very early morning.

Chapter One

If you ask an old student of Whitehall, they will tell you there is a tradition of trying to sneak into the offices and escape without being caught.  What they won’t tell you, I reflected sourly as I made my way through the air vents, is that it is very hard to avoid being caught.  The youngest and least experienced of the tutors still has at least five or six years of experience on even the oldest students, meaning that it is rare for anyone to get through the wards and escape without being detected.  They may tell you that you’ll get a pass, if you steal the exam questions ahead of time, but it hardly ever happens.  It’s much more likely you’ll be trapped in the wards and held prisoner, until the tutor arrives to free you.  And then you’ll be in deep trouble.

I concentrated on breathing through my mouth as I crawled onwards.  The sports captain had been careful, very careful, to protect the doors to her office and I doubted I could crack them, certainly not without setting off the alarms.  But, like most students who weren’t particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of her profession, she might have missed the air vents when she layered wards over her office to keep out intruders.  It was claustrophobic as hell – and I was sure there were mutated rats scurrying around in the darkness – but no magic blocked my way as I reached the end of the passage and peered through the darkness.  I’d checked the outline of the office carefully, the last time I’d been forced to enter, and if I was right …

Got it, I thought.

I smirked.  Someone – years ago – had put a cupboard right in front of the air vent.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Juliet of House Remora, Captain-General Sports, wasn’t an idiot – idiotic students rarely made it to the uppermost years – but she was very single minded and I doubted she’d bothered to take the furniture out to make sure there were no concealed passageways or air vents.  Hell, for all I knew, she might have thought the walls were rock solid.  It seemed an unpardonable oversight to me, but Dad had told me it was astonishing what people took for granted.  He’d spent his fair share of the time spying on his targets from a safe distance.  Sometimes, he’d discovered – too late – that it wasn’t anything like safe enough.

Perhaps I should have felt guilty, as I drew the charmed ear trumpet from my pouch and pressed it to my ear.  Dad had never had any qualms about spying on people, but he’d grown up in a mansion where there was no real privacy.  The staff had orders to keep an eye on all the children, even the ones who’d reached their majority.  They’d certainly kept a very strict eye on him.  I drew the line at spying on someone in their bedroom, but otherwise?  The sporting section was open to all.  And besides, it was a matter of public interest.

Of course it is, I told myself.  Everyone wants to know how the sporting captains lay their plans for the year.

It was, I had to admit, a frustrating problem.  In theory, anyone could start a sports team and declare themselves a captain.  In practice, the well-connected students had a much better chance of making their team last long enough to play their first game, let alone enough to become a permanent part of the school.  The old teams had been around for years, the captaincies carefully passed down from student to student in a bid to ensure power remained in the right set of hands.  Sports was serious business – or so I’d been told; personally I’d never been inclined to care – and organising the teams was of vital importance.  And the process was anything, but transparent.  How did they do it?

Bribes, probably, I thought.  Give the captain money – or a promise of future favours – and you’ll be on the team.

I rolled my eyes.  School sports were more than just a chance to blow off steam on the playing fields.  The sportsmen could – and did – make contacts that would help them climb to the top, after they left school.  I’d heard rumours of sports captains making all sorts of trades to ensure they got the right players – the well-connected or otherwise useful, rather than brilliant players – and there was a lot of resentment amongst those who couldn’t make the grade.  I didn’t pretend to understand why the staff hadn’t cracked down on it to ensure everyone got a fair chance of playing in the championship league, but perhaps it served a vital purpose.  Or perhaps they simply didn’t care.

Grandmaster Gordian started a Duelling Club, I recalled.  Surely, he’ll care if I prove the captains are taking bribes.

My ear trumpet twitched.  I smirked.  I’d have been caught in an instant if I’d sneaked a probe into the chamber, unless Juliet had bribed someone to take her exams for her, but it was astonishing just how far sound could travel even within a deadening privacy ward.  I twisted the trumpet, trying to pick out the words without making a sound myself.  It wasn’t easy to get anything.  It sounded as if they were sharing a drink, perhaps even a dinner.  I guessed one of the richer students had laid out a buffet, in hopes of impressing his fellow captains.  It was the sort of thing they’d do.

“I’d like to take Cameron,” a male voice said.  I couldn’t be sure, but the sheer dripping entitlement in the tone suggested it was a very snooty student indeed.  There were only a handful of suspects.  “Can I trade him for Gabby?”

“Gabby isn’t good enough for my team,” Juliet said.  Her voice had rubbed me the wrong way from the very first day we’d met, when she’d been charged with mentoring me and a bunch of other girls.  She’d done as little as she could get away with and, unsurprisingly, she’d gotten away with it.  “She’s certainly not a fitting replacement for Cameron.”

“She does have the looks,” the male student said.  I could hear the leer in his voice.  “I thought you chose your team based on looks?”

I didn’t need to see Juliet’s face to sense her anger.  “A team must be more than just presentable,” she said.  I’d been told she paid for uniforms for her entire team, binding them to her.  “And you, Blair, should know better than to make such an offer.”

Curse him, I thought.  Or something.

I kept the thought to myself.  Blair was a swaggering, boastful, outrageous pain in the ass who somehow – even I had to admit – managed to lead his team to victory time and time again.  I felt a twinge of sympathy for Juliet.  Blair was two years younger than her and normally she could have shut him down with a few well-chosen words – or hexes – but he was also a captain and she had to treat him as an equal.  And he took full advantage …

“Perhaps I could make an offer for him instead,” a third voice said.  “If I trade you Miller and Parkinson …”

I forced myself to relax and listen as the conversation went on and on.  I’d been sure the process was corrupt, right from the start, but it was still astonishing to discover how little sportsmanship played in the negotiations.  They talked about their players as though they were nothing more than pieces on a gameboard, to be shuffled around at will.  The idea they might have thoughts and feelings of their own was alien to them … I shook my head as one captain offered a bribe and another accepted, arranging a player’s transfer without bothering to ask what he thought of it.  The hell of it was that they’d probably get away with it.  A player who refused to transfer would be kicked out of the team and never allowed to play again.

And I can do something with this, I told myself.  I had an amazing story ready to go.  As long as I was careful, I could get the broadsheet printed and distributed before Juliet and her peers realised what I was doing.  And then … I’d have to watch my back for a few days, but it would be worth it.  Their players would revolt against them if they knew how casually they were being traded.  It will make the paper …

Something landed on my butt, something sharp.  I yelped, stifling myself an instant too late.  Dad had taught me how to be stealthy, but … I heard someone shout and swore under my breath, crawling back as fast as I could.  The sound had carried into the room and they were looking for me … how long would it take for them to realise where I was?  Not long … I heard breaking wood behind me and crawled faster, knowing they’d torn the cupboard from the wall.  I felt a pair of questing spells coming after me and deflected them as best as I could, even as I found the next air vent and pushed it open, darting through it as the last of thje spells faded away.  If I was lucky, I should be able to get out the door and down the corridor at breakneck speed before they cut me off.  If … magic snapped at me, invisible hands pulling me back to the vent.  Shrewd thinking on their part, I conceded.  If they trapped me, they’d have all the time in the world to compel me to forget what I’d heard.  Dad had told me he was sure he’d had a slice gapped out of his memory once or twice. 

Creepy, I thought.  There were mental disciplines to recall memories magicians wanted you to forget, but they were unreliable.  I was no expert.  If they catch me …

I pushed the spell aside with an effort and ran through the door, heading down the corridor.  They hadn’t gotten a good look at me.  They’d have to conclude it could have been anyone, if I made it to the upper levels.  Students running around as if a tiger was on their tail was hardly an uncommon sight and not everyone liked the captains.  They’d keep their mouth shut, probably.  I hoped so.

Magic spiked, behind me.  The spell slammed into my back.  My body froze, then tumbled to the ground.  The impact would have hurt if the spell hadn’t been binding me in place.  I cursed as I tried desperately to cast a counterspell.  Juliet was strong, stronger than I’d dared admit to myself.  I could have escaped one of my peers, if they’d frozen me, but not an older student.  A strong hand gripped mine and rolled me over.  I found myself looking up into Juliet’s blue eyes.

She was beautiful.  Beautiful and cold.  Long blonde hair framed a delicate face and hung over muscular shoulders.  Juliet was no academic, but everyone knew she was one of the best sportswomen in school.  She was proud, tough, and not given to allowing anyone to get away with the slightest hint of disrespect.  And she’d caught me spying on her.

I wanted to wince, but I couldn’t move a muscle.  I was in deep shit.  Older students were not allowed to pick on younger students, a rule I suspected was honoured in the breach rather more than the observance, but if the younger student started something the older student was allowed to finish it.  Juliet could curse me and swear blind it was a terrible accident or … I heard running footsteps coming up behind her and groaned mentally.  The other captains would demand harsh punishment.  I was really in deep shit.

“And what,” a mild voice asked, “is going on here?”

Juliet’s face tightened.  I felt a flash of hope, mingled with a strange and bitter resignation.  I’d been saved by the grandmaster and … oh, no one was ever going to let me forget it.  It would be better if I’d taken my lumps and then put the matter behind me.  Instead …

“We caught Janet spying on us,” Juliet said, and explained.  I was surprise she tattled so quickly – and in so much detail.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  If the grandmaster thought they were picking on me for no reason, they might be expelled.  “And we were going to bring her to you.”

My name is Jane, I thought, angrily.  Did Juliet really not remember me?  Or was she being insulting?  It was unlikely the grandmaster would call her on it and if he did, she had plausible deniability.  Damn it!

“I see.”  Grandmaster Gordian made a dismissive gesture with one hand.  I found myself suddenly free.  My body collapsed in a heap.  “Jane, accompany me.”

I staggered to my feet, all too aware of Juliet’s eyes burning into my back, and followed the grandmaster as he led the way to his office.  Passing students stared at me, wondering what I’d done to draw the attention of the grandmaster himself.  Was it pity in their eyes, or amusement?  It was always hard to tell.  The grandmaster was supposed to keep himself aloof from the younger students, or so I’d been told.  He’d certainly never spoken to me in private before, even when I’d put together the proposal for Whitehall Times.  I wondered, sometimes, if there’d been a debate amongst the staff, or if they’d just rubber-stamped the paper without bothering to read it.  My broadsheet wasn’t the strangest proposal that had been approved …

I’d never been in the grandmaster’s office before.  I couldn’t help looking around with interest, my eyes drinking in the bookshelves, the portraits and the heavy wooden desk positioned in the centre of the room.  The grandmaster’s chair was suspiciously close to a throne.  He motioned for me to stay on the near side of the desk as he took his seat and scowled.  I clasped my hands behind my back to keep them from shaking.  It was almost a relief there was no chair for me.

“Perhaps you could tell me,” the grandmaster said, “precisely why you were spying on the captains?”

His tone was mild, but I didn’t need to hear the ice to know I’d better come up with a very good explanation indeed.  And I didn’t think I could.  Spying on one’s fellow students might be a hallowed tradition, but so were harsh punishments for anyone who got caught.

“I’m waiting,” the grandmaster said.  “Why?”

I met his eyes.  “The student body has long wanted to know precisely how the sports captains make their selections, sir,” I said, carefully.  “The captains themselves don’t tell the candidates how and why they make their choices, they just issue the final results and force everyone to accept them.”

“There is nothing stopping the disappointed from founding their own teams,” the grandmaster pointed out, in the same mild tones. “There is room for everyone.”

“There isn’t,” I insisted.  I remembered myself a second later.  “Sir.”

The grandmaster studied me for a long cold minute.  “I was not best pleased when you put forward your proposal for a school newsletter.  It was a good idea, in theory, but your father’s reputation precedes you.  I did not expect you’d be able to content yourself with matters of interest to the school …”

“This is a matter of interest,” I insisted.

“… And now you have been caught spying on older students,” the grandmaster continued, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.  “That is not acceptable conduct.”

Spying on them was perfectly acceptable, I thought, darkly.  It was spying on them and getting caught you found so offensive.

“I am not pleased, young lady,” the grandmaster told me.  “You have betrayed the trust vested in you.  Frankly, your newsletter should be shut down.  I understand your arguments – and those of your supporters – but you have undermined the school.  The championship is coming up and we do not have time to deal with the problems you have raised.”

I felt my heart clench.  “You mean, the unfairness of the process?”

“Life is not fair,” the grandmaster snapped.  “And it is vitally important the championships go off without a hitch.”

Because the old grandmaster had little interest in sporting events and kept us largely out of them, I thought, nastily.  And you want to change things.

The grandmaster kept talking, unaware of my inner thoughts.  “After this meeting, you will report to the Warden and then you will wait in your bedroom.  I will not shut down your newsletter – not yet – but I will appoint an editor who will ride herd on you and tape down any wild ideas before they lead the newsletter to ruin.  That person will have authority over the newsletter, with the final say on what does and does not get published.  If you defy them, they will have the power to sack you.”

I blanched.  “It’s my newsletter!”

“No,” the grandmaster said.  “It’s the school’s newsletter.  You may have made the proposal and done the legwork, but the school funded the printing press and provided the office and how much else?  We own it.  If you want to abandon your project, you may.  If not, you need someone riding herd on you to make sure you don’t do something stupid.  Again.”

I ground my teeth.  “Sir …”

The grandmaster cut me off.  “It isn’t up for debate,” he said.  “If you want the newsletter to continue, with your involvement, you can do it with supervision.  If not … you may go.”

“Yes, sir,” I grated.  There was no point in arguing further.  Some people would dig their heels in and refuse to concede an inch, or worse, if you kept up the pressure.  I had a nasty feeling Grandmaster Gordian was one of them.  Lady Emily might have been able to talk sense into him.  I couldn’t.  “I look forward to meeting my new boss.”

“Glad to hear it,” the grandmaster said.  He didn’t react to my sardonic tone.  “Now, go.”