Story Background – The Story of Jewell

25 Nov

This is a bit of background – i was trying to mimic a dramatic recitation – for a later SIM story.

Thoughts?

The Story of Jewell

A long time ago, in a kingdom now lost to time, there were three princes – their names have been forgotten – and a princess.  Her name was Jewell.

The king, their father, called his sons to him and said “I will give each of you money, men and a Royal Charter to do with as you please, so I may divine which of you is suited to inherit the throne.”

The princess, upon hearing of this, demanded to be allowed to take part too.  Her brothers laughed at the thought of a princess making a bid for the throne, but her father agreed to let her try to prove herself.  And so the four royal children set out into the land.

The first brother took possession of a vast estate and ruled with an iron fist, draining every last drop from the land.  And so he became known as the Prince of Might.

The second brother built an army and invaded the neighbouring country.  And so he became known as the Prince of War.

The third brother moved to a town and spent his money on wine, women and song.  And so he became known as the Prince of Pleasure.

The princess moved to a small town on the other side of the great swamp, showed the population her charter and went to work, digging out harbours and damming rivers and draining parts of the swamp and, most importantly of all, calling sailors and craftsmen and everyone else who wanted a new life to her banner.  Her new city grew and thrived.  And so she became known as the Princess of Coin.

And then, before he could proclaim the winner, the king died.

The Prince of Might insisted he should rule.  He’d run an estate and made it pay.  But he was deeply hated.

The Prince of War insisted he should rule.  He’d crushed army after army.  But he was deeply feared.

The Prince of Pleasure insisted he should rule.  He was loved.  But he was neither feared nor hated. 

And the Princess merely smiled, and watched as her brothers went to war.

The civil war lasted years.  The land was devastated.  But in the end, one prince took possession of the ruined kingdom, and his eyes alighted on his sister’s domains.

And he led his army across the swamp and stopped under her gates.  “I am the King of this Kingdom,” he roared.  “Give me your homage, as your rightful monarch, or I will take it by force.”

And the Princess replied “these lands were granted to me by our father, to have and hold as I see fit.  They will never be yours.”

The Prince roared a command.  His army advanced on the walls.

And the Princess spoke a single word.  “Drown them.”

The dams broke, one by one, unleashing a torrent of water that cascaded down and swept away the enemy army.  The Prince died, howling his defiance to the last, as his horse was picked up and carried down to the sea.  They say his ghost still haunts the swamp to this day.  Certainly, no one dares go out after dark.

But the Princess?  She became our first ruler.  And we named our city in her honour. 

That was then.  This is now.

Snippet – The Sports Captain’s Tale

21 Nov

A novella for Fantastic Schools. Comments welcome.

Prologue

I’d like to tell you about the time I scored the winning goal in a crucial game that made me the single most famous sportsman in the history of sportsmen.

Actually, I’d love to tell you about it, but I’m not allowed.  Lady Lamplighter, the editor of this tome, made it clear I wasn’t allowed to tell you about my goal, even though it would make me the greatest of the greatest of the greats.  She seems to think it would be bragging – imagine, me bragging – and said that if I tried to tell everyone about it she’d turn me into a pig.  So I’m not allowed to tell you about my goal …

… Or about the time I won a honour duel with a silly bugger who was too busy posturing for the audience I had all the time in the world to cast a fall-down charm on his pants and then hit him with a force punch …

… Or about the time I took a penalty kick that accidentally on purpose hit the goalie in the face …

… And I’m certainly not allowed to tell you I really am the greatest sportsman in the history of the world, with an ego to match …

Oink.  Oink.  Oink.

Yuk.  Don’t ever let anyone turn you into a pig.  Really.  Do you know what pigs eat?

She made it clear.  I’m not allowed to lie.  (I didn’t.)  I’m not allowed to exaggerate.  (As if!)  I just have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  (I’m not going to get far.)  And if I don’t listen to her I’ll be going straight back to the pigsty.

But you know what?  I am a great sportsman.  And that is the naked truth.

My father was a storekeeper in Dragon’s Den.  We have very little in common, beyond stubbornness and a complete and absolute loathing of those who don’t get what they have on merit.  We fought like cats and dogs as I got older, because he expected me to knuckle down and work in his store and I wanted to play games.  I was good at it, too.  I played football in the streets, with all the other children and apprentices, and despite my youth I was pretty damn good.  Was it so wrong I wanted to make a career of it?

It wasn’t impossible.  Sure, only the commonest louts played street games – that was what our betters said, at least – but there were games one could make a killing, if one was actually good.  Jousting?  I knew the stories of men who made their fortunes, charging around on horseback and mock-fighting their opponents; it wasn’t impossible, I told myself, that I’d have a chance to enter a jouster’s retinue and work my way up from there.  Or I could move to a city and enter the arena, fighting my way to the top.  It was possible …

Dad didn’t think so.  Jousting teams recruited from the nobility, first and foremost, and we weren’t noble.  Anyone could enter the arena, by contest, but the odds of winning one’s first fight were actually pretty low.  I might die, he pointed out, in my very first fight.  We fought a lot over that, too.  I could have a pretty good life, he insisted, if I worked in the store and inherited it after him.  But I wanted to reach the top.

And then my magic came in.

I was lucky.  I won a scholarship to Whitehall.  (Dad was so proud.)  I started lessons … and got distracted, almost at once, when I realised there were magic games to play.  I joined them all and worked hard, once again, to be the best.  Ken, BattleBorne, Kingmaker, Transfiguration Transfigures … I won’t say it was easy, because it wasn’t, but I did well.  My marks suffered accordingly, but I didn’t care.  For the first time, my dream of fame and fortune looked within my grasp.

The old Grandmaster hadn’t given two forged coins for international sporting events.  There were some teachers who thought differently, but they had to do it on their own time.  The only sporting contest he supported was BattleBorne and even then, it had more to do with military training than our international standing.  The new Grandmaster – Gordian – was different.  He decided we were going to return to the big leagues.  And then …

… There was one hell of a scandal.

The funny thing is, no one would have batted an eyelid if they’d been cheating to win.  Not really.  Everyone would have understood that, even if they had to pretend otherwise.  But she was cheating to lose and THAT WAS UNFORGIVABLE.  I mean … really?  It’s one thing to be a cheat if you’re trying to win, but fucking over your own team?  And there was a naked girl involved … by some curious alchemy, that became more important than the cheating scandal itself.  Go figure.

I’m sure Gordian would have tried to cover it up, if he could, but … like I said, naked girl.  It wasn’t possible.  The cheat landed in deep shit and everything else was thoroughly shaken up.  All the old teams were commanded to hold new try-outs, and quickly, before we returned to the league.  I wasn’t too worried, at least at first.  I was top of the lists, a jack-of-all-games who happened to be master-of-all.  No one in their right mind would kick me off the team unless I really stepped over the line.  I swaggered down to the plotting room with nary a care in the world.  The team captain – Blair, of some obscure and probably fictional house – wasn’t going to give me the boot.  Of course not.  It was absurd.

And the very first thing he said to me was …

“You’re off the team.”

What?

Chapter One

“What?”

I had never liked Blair.  He was an aristo with magic who also had the nerve to be pretty good at sports.  And he was dashingly handsome into the bargain.  But I’d never considered him an idiot.  No one who’d led two teams – Ken and BattleBorne – to the top of the sporting tables could possibly be an idiot.  But …

“Kai, you’re off the team,” Blair repeated.  He waved a hand, dismissively.  “You may go.”

I was too stunned to be angry.  “But … why?”

“I need a team I can take to the big tournament,” Blair said.  “You’re not on the list.”

“But …”  I saw the paper on his desk and snatched it up.  Seven active players, seven reserve players, a planning coach … I knew them all well enough to pick out the one thing they had in common.  Half of them were magical aristocracy, the other half were related to mundane aristocrats.  There were no commoners.  “You picked them because of their blood?”

Blair reddened.  “I picked them because of their skills,” he snapped.  “Or are you daring to suggest they’re lacking?”

I glowered, then ran my eye down the list.  Alyx – his planning coach – had no real sporting skills worth a damn, but she was a very good strategist and as long as she didn’t take the field herself she’d be fine.  Blair wasn’t fool enough to insist she tried, when he needed her operating behind the scenes.  It was a gamble, but unless he got very unlucky the odds were firmly in his favour.  Probably.  The rest … they weren’t bad players, I conceded ruefully, but they weren’t the best of the best.  The only thing they had in their favour was …

“You’re picking players because their parents can sponsor the team?”  It was hard to keep the shock out of my voice.  I’d always known there were more politics in sports than anyone wanted, and there were a bunch of teams funded by the great and the good, but this was insane.  “The team will be the best-looking bunch of losers on the field!”

“If we don’t look good, no one will take us seriously,” Blair snapped back.  “Do you think we can take the field in second-hand crap?”

I glared.  I’d worked my ass off, each and every summer, to earn money to buy sporting supplies, but half my gear was still second hand.  At best.  It was still in good condition – I wouldn’t have taken it onto the field if it wasn’t – but it made me look shabby and poor.  I’d been taunted by a particularly obnoxious aristocrat until I’d planted my fist in his mouth.  It had been so worth it.

“The team must have the best,” Blair said.  “The best players, the best outfits, the best chance …”

“Shame about the captain,” I jeered.  It was probably a bad idea, but Blair wasn’t likely to change his mind.  No team captain could afford to look indecisive.  The player rosters were probably already being posted, even as we spoke.  He hadn’t even considered I might try to change his mind.  “Shouldn’t you resign in favour of someone who actually knows what he’s doing?”

Blair stiffened.  I saw magic crackling around his fingers and braced myself.  He was a good fighter, but so was I.  Let him throw the first hex.  I’d throw the last one.  The days when I’d been a firstie innocently trying to join a team composed of older and stronger players were long gone.  And if Blair got his face smashed by me …

His position would become untenable, I thought.  Probably.  What’ll he do then?

“I’m not going to take advice from someone who thinks the team can’t romp to victory without him,” Blair snarled, finally.  I was impressed he didn’t start hurling hexes.  Or curses.  I would have been more impressed if he’d picked his team for their skills rather than their family connections.  “Now, get out.  I have work to do.”

My anger flared.  “You have to get the team through the local tournaments first,” I said, sharply.  “You haven’t won yet!”

Blair snorted.  “What are you going to do about it?  Put your own team together and kick our asses?”

“Yes,” I said.  It was hardly the first time my temper had gotten me into trouble.  I’d been lucky not to be expelled for striking an upper-class student who’d talked down to me.  “I’ll put together my own team!”

“With booze and hookers?”  Blair laughed.  “Good luck.  All the decent players are already taken.”

I clenched my fists, then calmed myself and swept out the door, slamming it behind me.  The bastard was still laughing.  I forced myself to think as I strode down the corridor to the common room, where all the announcements were posted.  Blair wasn’t the only team captain with dreams of winning the big international tournament, which meant he’d have to lead his team to victory against local challengers first.  He was half-right, I supposed.  The players who loved BattleBorne to the exclusion of all others had already been snapped up, but there were others.  I could still put together a team.  And then I could wipe that smug look off his face.

The lists were longer than I’d expected, seven teams in all.  Some names surprised me … although, after a moment, I realised they shouldn’t.  BattleBorne was the one sport in which we were competitive, at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned.  The odds of victory – or at least fame – were consequently higher.  I scanned them quickly, working out how the tournament would have to be organised.  They’d be at least five or six rounds to sort the men from the boys, then select the final winner.  I silently checked the listed names against my mental roster, then used a quick spell to locate my first potential players.  They’d been on the team before Blair had kicked them off, damn him.  It didn’t look as if they’d been snapped up by anyone else yet.

“Kai,” Mark said, when I tapped on their bedroom door and stepped inside.  “Did you get the boot too?”

“Yes,” I said, curtly.  Mark and James had been friends for years.  They’d practically grown up together.  If they hadn’t been so different – Mark was tall and thin, with dark skin and darker eyes; James was short, bulky, and so pale he looked like someone from the pole – I’d have wondered if they were brothers.  “Blair kicked me out.”

“Typical,” James said.  They might have been born magical – their parents had magic, as had their grandparents – but they were still commoners to Blair.  “You think we should join another team?”

“I think we should make our own team,” I said, quickly.  We might be able to join other teams, but it was unlikely.  The captains would wonder if Blair had sent us to spoil their chances of victory.  It had happened before.  “If you two sign up, we only need four more.”

“What, no reservists?”  Mark looked as if he was thinking about it.  “If one of us gets taken off the team, we’re fucked.”

I shrugged.  “If we win, we can recruit reservists before we go to the international tournament.  If we lose, we’re fucked anyway.”

“Always knew you were into the weird stuff,” James teased.  “The odds are shitty …”

“Never tell me the odds,” I said, firmly.  James was right – they were shitty – but it didn’t matter.  I knew the other teams.  I knew their strengths and weaknesses.  “They’ll think we’re losers.  They won’t take us seriously until it’s too late.”

The thought made me angry once again.  I didn’t mind losing a fair match – if you’ve played sports as long as I have, losing a few … dozen … matches is inevitable – but being denied the chance to play because of an accident of birth was intolerable.  Blair could have been forgiven for promoting better players above me, yet … I forced myself to calm down.  I needed four more players or my plan wouldn’t so much as get off the ground.

Mark and James exchanged glances.  “If you can get four more, we’re in,” Mark said, finally.  “If.”

“Yeah,” I said.  In theory, you could field a team of one.  In practice, not a chance.  I considered it anyway, just to be perverse, then shook my head.  The slightest misstep would result in public humiliation and – worse – defeat.  “I’ll let you know what happens.”

The thought nagged at my mind as I made my way through the dorms.  There were no shortage of younger students who’d be glad of the chance to get on the team, but they’d be worse than useless.  The stories of little firsties joining a team and completely dominating players six years older than them were nonsensical.  It didn’t happen.  They were so outmatched … no firstie, not even the young Lady Emily, could hope to take on an older student on equal terms.  I needed third years, at the very least.  They were in short supply. 

I spotted Bill and Karen arguing tactics and hurried over to join them.  They’d both tried out for the teams, back before the scandal.  They hadn’t done badly either.  They’d just been outmatched by older students.  I couldn’t be a chooser …

“Hey,” I said.  “Do you want to join my team?”

Karen blinked.  “What?”

I snorted and started to explain.  Karen and Bill listened carefully.  I saw the doubts in their eyes as I outlined what had happened, and what I planned to do.  The team could compensate for one third-year student, but two …?  It was going to be a challenge to get everyone working together, let alone everything else.  But giving up now would mean that Blair won …

Jerry joined us.  “I hear you’re looking for players?”

I glanced at him.  “You got kicked off your team too?”

“I was too close to Juliet,” Jerry said.  “She was the one who nominated me.  And then …”

“Ouch.”  I nodded in understanding.  “I have to ask … did you know about …?”

“No,” Jerry said.  “I still can’t believe it.”

I hesitated.  I hadn’t been able to believe it either.  And yet … it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the lad.  He hadn’t known what Juliet was doing, but it had still destroyed his chances of being on the winning team.  His captain had given him the boot through suspicion alone …

And if I give him a second chance, it might work out for me, I thought.  Jerry wasn’t the only student sportsman who’d been too close to Juliet.  He probably wasn’t the only one who’d been kicked off his team too.  He shouldn’t have his life destroyed because of someone else’s shitty behaviour.

“You can join us,” I said.  “Bill?  Karen?”

Karen looked doubtful.  “Can we win?”

“Of course.”  I puffed out my chest.  “There are no guarantees of anything, of course, but we will have a chance.  You have the best captain in the school and some of the best players right by your side.”

I winked.  “You’ll even have the chance to become captain when I graduate.”

Karen smiled.  I knew I had her.  If the team became established by the time I left, it would continue without me.  Karen would have an excellent chance of not only becoming captain, but taking the team to newer and greater heights.  The earlier she joined, the better her chances.  She’d have at least two years as captain before she had to graduate herself.

“I know that smile,” Bill teased.  “You want in, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Karen said.  “You?”

Bill said nothing for a long moment.  I could practically read his thoughts.  The game might be fun – and it was – but we could also lose, humiliatingly, if we took the field against a more experienced team.  I suspected he was having second or even third thoughts about joining up.  An established team might be able to compensate for his weaknesses and lack of experience.  We couldn’t do so well.

He took a breath.  “What happens if we lose?”

We become losers, I thought, crossly.  I liked to win.  There is nothing like the thrill of having people cheer your victory … nothing.  But the crowd is fickle and the admirers cheering you one day could easily become the assholes booing you the next.  And Blair will be laughing in my face for the rest of time.

“We gain experience,” I said, instead.  Bill wouldn’t be impressed by my sports obsession – or my conviction victory came before everything else.  “We may lose this year” – not if I could help it – “but we’ll learn the skills we need to win next year.”

Bill glanced at Karen, who nodded.  “Fine,” Bill said.  “Count me in.”

“And me,” Jerry said.

“Great.”  I let out a breath.  “I need one more.  If I find him, I’ll let you know.”

My mind raced, calculating the options, as I wandered the school.  The best players had already been snapped up.  Taking a younger player was asking for trouble – really, I was pushing the limits by recruiting both Bill and Karen.  There wasn’t anyone else who might be a capable player, not someone who hadn’t already been claimed … I cursed under my breath as I wandered past the defensive magic classrooms, frowning as I spotted Mildred sitting by herself.  She wasn’t someone I’d considered a potential player – she’d come very close to flunking defensive magic, which was practically a prerequisite for BattleBorne – but … I had to admit she was ingenious.  And cute.

She looked up at me as I entered the classroom.  “Go away.”

I held up my hands.  “Can I talk to you?  Please?”

Mildred scowled.  I glanced at her papers.  She was swotting hard, trying to get top marks in defensive charms … it clicked, suddenly.  Mildred was top of the class in theoretical magic, but right at the bottom when it came to practical spellcasting.  It wasn’t that she was bad at magic.  It was she had a nasty tendency to freeze when confronted with the unexpected and rarely recovered in time to save herself.

“I’m looking for players,” I said, and explained.  “Interested?”

“Get out of town,” Mildred said.  If anyone had ever wanted to say anything stronger, it was her right then.  “This isn’t funny.”

“It isn’t a joke,” I said. “I’m serious.”

Mildred glared.  I tried to see the world through her eyes.  She was unpopular and isolated and didn’t have any friends, at least as far as I knew.  She lacked the skills to make her peers like her, which meant she was the butt of far too many jokes and pranks, ranging from the nasty to the extremely nasty.  It might be better for her if she tried to emulate her peers, but … which one?  She didn’t have the ability to pull it off.

“I’m useless to you,” she said.  “I can’t cast spells fast enough …”

“You’re not useless,” I said.  An idea was starting to blossom.  “You just need practice.  A lot of practice.”

Mildred’s glare managed to grow worse.  Somehow.  “You think I don’t know it?”

“You also need people to practice with,” I said.  I tried to ignore the flicker of bitter yearning that crossed her face.  I’d had friends my entire life.  Mildred … she’d had none.  It was sheer luck she hadn’t found herself doing someone’s homework, just for a hint of the social contact she wanted and needed.  We all needed it.  “You could practice with us.”

Mildred opened her mouth, then stopped.  I waited, unsure what she was thinking.  She couldn’t have any illusions, not about why I was doing this.  I wanted something from her as much as she wanted something from me.  But … it would work out in her favour, if we helped her develop her spellcasting.  She wouldn’t have to come with us to the international  tournament.  Even if the team lost, she would still come out ahead …

… But would she see it like that?

“The last time I was invited to something, it was a joke,” Mildred said, finally.  The bitterness in her voice made me wince.  I’d heard rumours … not that I’d ever paid much attention to them.  Or Mildred herself, for that matter.  She just hadn’t been important to me.  “If this is a joke, I swear I’ll … I’ll do something horrible to you.”

“It isn’t a joke,” I said, crossing my heart.  The threat was laughable … but I wasn’t going to laugh.  If Mildred ever mastered spellcasting under pressure, she would be a dangerous opponent.  “I think we could both help each other.”

Mildred gave me a sharp look.  “I hope you’re not expecting me to turn into Juliet?”

I blinked.  Mildred hadn’t heard?  Or … did she even care?  It wasn’t as if Juliet had ever impinged on her life.  If I hadn’t been mad about sports, would I have cared?

“No,” I said.  “I’m expecting you to turn into a fine spellcaster.”

She snorted, but there was less conviction in it than I’d expected.  She had hope.

“Meet us in the training hall after dinner,” I told her, as I stepped back.  “We’ll run through a few basic exercises and then start training properly.”

Mildred swallowed.  “I’m really not very good at defensive magic.”

“We all have to start somewhere,” I told her.  “And practicing anything, anything at all, will make you better.”

“We have two weeks,” Mildred said.  “Is that enough?”

“Yeah,” I told her.  I pushed as much conviction as I could into my voice.  “Half of us are really very good.  The other half can be brought up to speed quickly and efficiently.  And then we’ll be ready to put on a show.”

And I hoped, as I made my way back downstairs, that I was right.

Updates (Again)

17 Nov

Hi, everyone

It’s been a funny few weeks – the good news is that they finally tracked down the cause of my sinus problems, the bad is that I’ll need to have an operation (hopefully soon) to deal with it.  There’s also been a handful of other issues – the scan they did to find out why I was having pains in my lower abdomen drew a blank … sigh.  On the other hand, it isn’t a lethal problem as far as they can tell.  I guess I’m just getting old.

On the plus side, I finished the first draft of Pandora’s Box and I’m currently letting it sit for a few days before I do a basic edit, then forward the draft to the publisher.

My current plan is to do another fantastic schools novella – The Sport’s Captain’s Tale – which will be more-or-less both a semi-sequel to The Muckraker’s Tale (out in Fantastic Schools 6 – hopefully in time for Xmas) and then move on to The Lone World

Nov-Dec – The Lone World (Ark Royal)

Dec-Jan – Conquistadors (the start of a new and experimental trilogy)

Jan-Feb – The Demon’s Design (Schooled in Magic 25)

In-between all of these, I have two more FS stories to write and possibly a pair of short stories.  The Land of Always SummerThe Stranded 2 – is still being plotted – I haven’t managed to resolve a major plot point, so I can’t go ahead with part 2 until I know how it goes.

As always, if there’s anything you want to see in particular, please let me know.

Chris

Snippet – Pandora’s Box

31 Oct

Pandora’s Box is the direct sequel to The Chimera Coup, available on Kindle Unlimited (see link below).  All you really need to know is that our hero is part of a band of adventures who do work in the wastelands on the edge of civilised society, and they’re about to bite off more than they can chew. 

Prologue, Five Years Ago

“Are you paying attention?”

John, Son of John, tried not to flinch as Master Yemen bore down on him.  Magical Engineering was an interesting class, under other circumstances, but the lecture had been boring and he’d spent most of it staring at Katrina Amador.  She was so different from the girls he’d known in the village, in so many ways, that she’d caught his attention without ever trying.  He wanted to speak to her and yet he found himself tongue-tied every time he tried.

“Yes, Master,” John lied. 

He braced himself, expecting everything from a stern lecture to a punishment that would leave him scarred for life.  Master Yemen wasn’t known for being kind to students who didn’t pay attention in his class.  The lectures might be long and boring, but they imparted information the students desperately needed when they moved to practical work.  John had devised a small charm to help him recall the tutor’s words and yet, for reasons he’d yet to figure out, it wasn’t perfect.  The recorded words lacked a certain immediacy.

“I see,” Master Yemen said.  “Perhaps you could explain, to the class, the importance of attaching one’s Motivator to one’s Locomotive?”

John silently thanked all the gods he’d read ahead.  “The Motivator provides the power for the Locomotive, but the power can spill out in all directions if the connections are not hardwired into the device,” he said.  “If that happens, the very best you can expect is the device simply melting or warping under the influx of tainted magic.”

Master Yemen cocked his head, sharply.  “And at worst?”

“The device will explode,” John said.  He was still hazy on precisely where the magic power came from, before it was channelled into the device, but there were enough horror stories for him to guess the answer.  “Or anyone standing nearby will wish it had exploded.”

“A fanciful answer, but technically correct.”  Master Yemen turned and walked back to the front of the class.  “As you can see, the Motivator is a vitally important piece of modern magic.  It provides the clean magic we rely on to run our devices and” – his voice lightened slightly – “it was invented by our very own headmaster.”

John kept his face under tight control.  Headmaster Greyshade was a hero.  Everyone said as much and, to be fair, he really had done most of the things they said he’d done.  He was the sole surviving magician from the old days, before the Cataclysm had shattered the world-spanning civilisation beyond repair and reduced the known world to thirteen kingdoms on the edge of a warped and twisted landscape, and the one who’d first codified the new principles of magic that brought sorcery back into the world, but … John didn’t trust him.  He wasn’t sure why, yet his instincts insisted there was something wrong with the headmaster.  He smiled too much.

And the way everyone kisses his arse doesn’t help, he reflected.  He’d grown up in a village where everyone had to pretend they liked the local landlord, even though they wouldn’t shed a tear if he was brutally murdered by wild wizards or outlaws, but the old bastard hadn’t received even a hundredth of the flattery poured on Greyshade.  There were times when it seemed everyone was competing to come up with newer and better ways to crawl in front of him, begging for his favour.  Does anyone really know the real him?

Master Yemen continued.  “You will be provided with Motivators for your practical work,” he said, his tone returning to normal.  “You will be expected, at the end of the year, to produce a working device, one that channels the power into something useful.  Something magical.  Remember, plain and simple is better than flashy and complex.”

John nodded.  The old man was right about that.  The more complex the designs, the harder it was to put them into practice and the greater the chance of something going spectacularly wrong.  The wreckage of the days of yore, where sorcerers had built castles in the clouds or great flying cities or even compressed giant mansions into simple apartment blocks, stood in mute testament to the folly of relying too much on magic.  John had no idea how many of the stories were true, and how many had grown in the telling, but he didn’t have to walk far to see the ruins of bygone days.  The older students had dared him to spend a night in the ruins a few months ago.  The prefects had put a stop to it before he’d left the school.

Katrina Amador stuck up her hand.  Master Yemen barely looked at her.  “Yes, Miss Amador?”

“You tell us you’ll be providing us with Motivators,” Katrina said.  If she was insulted by his lack of regard, she didn’t show it.  “Why don’t you teach us how to make them for ourselves?”

Master Yemen stared at her for a long moment.  “If you had read your textbooks, you would have noted that Motivators are extremely complex pieces of magical engineering, requiring a level of skill far beyond fourteen-year-old students.  They are generally produced by magicians who have spent years honing their craft, magicians who have been practicing magic longer than you have been alive.  I would not expect this class to produce a working Motivator.  It would be like expecting a child to take up adult responsibilities before even leaving the crib.”

John saw Katrina flush and felt a hot flash of anger.  “Master,” he said before he could think better of it, “why are there no instructions for producing Motivators in the library.”

“Because their design is a state secret,” Master Yemen said, tartly.  “The craftsmen who produce them, young man, take oaths of secrecy so intense they literally cannot share the details in any way, shape or form.  The secret must not be allowed to get out.”

“Yes, Master,” John said.  “But …”

Master Yemen eyed him nastily.  “But what?”

John hesitated, trying to put his arguments into words.  The hell of it was that he had a pretty good argument, if he was willing to discuss his past.  He’d grown up in a village where half the work was done by hand and the rest by animals.  Access to even a handful of the wonders he’d seen as a student magician would change the villagers lives for the better, but there was no hope of that as long as the supply of magical devices was so limited.  And while the textbooks hadn’t made it explicit, John knew enough to deduce the reason the supply was so limited.  There just weren’t enough Motivators to go around.

But he couldn’t say it.  He’d learnt to keep his mouth shut about his origins.

“The shortage of Motivators limits the expansion of our society,” he said, finally.  “If we had more, we’d be able to expand faster and develop newer and better ways to make use of magic, instead of relying on cables and …”

Master Yemen cut him off.  “You are aware, of course, that the widespread use of magic played a major role in the collapse of the old world?  They used magic for everything!  They built their homes out of magic, raised great towers out of magic, lifted cities to the skies through magic … and when the laws of magic changed, that society crumbled to dust and died.  We dare not risk the loss of our society.  If we put the secret out, if we let everyone produce their own Motivators, what will happen to our world?”

Greyshade would no longer be in control, John thought.  The headmaster didn’t rule the world, not precisely, but he had enough influence to ensure his suggestions were almost always taken for orders.  His control over the new magic was almost absolute.  And who knows who’d take his place?

“We might have more healing spells,” he said, instead.  It was funny how Motivators made it easier to devise spells and potions, even though they could be cast or brewed without one.  “Or newer and better sliders and landships and …”

“We must not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Master Yemen said.  “And you can write me an essay on the dangers of allowing uncontrolled magic to fall into unworthy hands, for … I think the end of the week.”

John groaned.  A punishment essay.  He’d sooner take the manual labour.  The aristos might bitch and moan about having to go chores – oh, the horror – but he’d grown up in a village.  Chopping firewood was hardly a new thing for him.  He’d even earned some money by working for the janitor, doing tasks that were unpleasant but hardly difficult.  And yet the aristos made them sound worse than being flogged to death.

He sighed, inwardly, as Master Yemen started assigning partnerships.  He had little love for his village’s landlord, nor the greater master above him who served a greater lord in turn.  The man wasn’t a complete fool, but … who knew what he’d do if he found himself with unrestricted magic?  Or the kings … they might swear blind they could trace their ancestry back thousands of years, yet in truth they were little more than lucky warlords.  What would they do, if Greyshade gave them unrestricted access to magic …?

“Hi,” a female voice said.  John looked up to see Katrina.  “It seems we’ll be working together.”

John blinked, feeling his heart start to race.  “We are?”

“Yeah.”  Katrina sat beside him and shoved a sheaf of papers under his nose.  “And I already have great plans for our project.  We’ll get the highest grade in the class.”

And they did.

Chapter One

“I feel like an idiot,” John moaned, as he walked down the street.  “And I look like one too.”

“I couldn’t possibly comment,” Scout said, archly.  “But no one will be looking at your face.”

John sighed.  The outfit was almost a grotesque parody of the clothes he’d worn when Katrina had dragged him to a masked ball, right down to the sheer whirlwind of colours that made him look like a blancmange on legs.  He might not be a sight for sore eyes, the nasty part of his mind reflected, but anyone who looked at him would get sore eyes … the mask, covering his upper face, was almost pointless.  He’d given himself a handful of fake warts and scars on his jaw, to mislead anyone who happened to look at his face, but he doubted anyone would.  They’d be too busy sniggering at the walking jelly.

“Perhaps not,” he agreed.  “But at least you look stunning.”

Scout elbowed him.  Her dress was as elaborate as the ballroom outfits Katrina had worn, once upon a time, complete with a frame under the silk that ensured no one could do anything more intimate than hold hands, unless they were prepared to break the frame.  Scout had covered herself from head to toe, then used cloth to make her breasts and hips look several times larger than they were.  It looked almost as if she were wearing a tent.  It was difficult to believe the girl he knew was the fancy woman in front of him, but … he shook his head.  No one else would recognise her, the moment she took off the dress and ran.  Scout’s weirdling gifts made her hard to see even at the very best of times.

John held out a hand, bracing himself as they started to walk towards the lodge.  It was easily the largest building he’d seen in the badlands, five floors and a surprisingly pretty garden surrounded by walls.  He had to admit it stood in odd contrast to the grim mining town around it, where men worked their lives away in hopes of striking it rich … he shuddered, reminding himself, not for the first time, that he could have had a worse childhood.  The children he’d seen in the town were lucky if they weren’t fetching and carrying for the miners almost as soon as they could walk, then working in the mines themselves when they reached puberty.  John had heard the tales.  The town’s owners had their entire population trapped in debts they could never hope to repay, debts passed down from parents to children …

He schooled his face into a blank mask as they passed the guards, who looked them up and down before waving them into the lodge.  In theory, the lodge belonged to everyone, the one place the entire population could meet as equals.  In practice, it was owned and effectively dominated by Boss Edwards, the undisputed master of the town … a man, if the reports were accurate, had somehow merged his roles as a ruthless businessman and an underground kingpin into a single entity.  It was not that different, John reflected, from the aristos to the east.  If you enjoyed the boss’s patronage, you went far; if you didn’t, you were screwed … and not in a good way.

The music seemed to burst out at them as they pushed through the doors and stepped into the lodge itself.  It was a ballroom and a pub and a dining hall and a multitude of other things, all compressed into one.  John’s eyes swept the room, spotting dozens of men and women in fancy outfits and masks, the bright colours blurring together into a nightmarish mockery of the aristos he’d known.  There were no visible weapons – Boss Edwards had ordered his guests come unarmed – but he’d be astonished if some of the people weren’t carrying concealed weapons or objects that could be turned into weapons at a moment’s notice.  A handful of maids scurried about, dressed in outfits that belonged in brothels rather than aristo ballrooms.  John doubted anyone knew or cared about the maids not being particularly authentic.  They were only here because their master had summoned them.

Boss Edwards himself sat on a raised chair, his eyes sweeping the room.  He was a tall powerfully-built man, his slight paunch and long beard failing to detract from the air of menace and imminent violence that surrounded him like a shroud.  His suit was poorly tailored, yet John doubted anyone would dare point it out to him.  The gold chains clearly visible were proof he was a very powerful man indeed.

A maid stopped in front of them and bowed so deeply she left nothing to the imagination.  “Would you like a drink, My Lord?”

John felt a stab of pity.  The maid looked utterly terrified.  “No, thank you,” he said.  “We want to dance.”

The maid bowed again and hurried off.  John scowled in disgust, then forced himself to relax as Scout pulled him onto the dance floor, leading the way around the room.  The dancers didn’t seem to know what they were doing, but half were too drunk to care and the other half were merely having fun.  John kept his eyes open, mentally tagging the guards, the guests who were probably carrying weapons and the locations of the exits.  The lodge had quite a few secrets, they’d learnt from their sources.  The entire structure had been designed to allow the master and his trusted associates to move around without being seen …

He kept his face blank as he spotted Joyce and Bard on the other side of the room, whirling around as if they were a middle-aged couple trying to reclaim their youth.  John felt a twinge of admiration at how well they played their role, from Bard constantly ogling the maids to Joyce dragging him away every time his staring became too obvious.  If he hadn’t known him, he would have fallen for the act.  He allowed himself another twinge of pity as he saw the maids backing away.  They had no way to know it was all pretence.

Scout’s dark fingers twitched into a message.  Magic?

John closed his eyes, trusting her to steer him around the floor as he reached out with his senses.  Magic was rare in the mining town, but if there was anyone in the district who had a semi-legal or flatly illegal magician in their service it was Boss Edwards.  He frowned, briefly, as he mentally touched a handful of wards, low-power but put together with enough skill to worry him.  He couldn’t tell if the caster had been trained at school, like himself … he scowled.  Boss Edwards could pay in more than just money.  The bastard would happily indulge the worst of perversions if it meant keeping a magician under his thumb. 

Wards, he signalled back.  Low-level, but there.

He tensed as the clock chimed the hour.  It was time.

Joyce bumped into a gaudily-dressed man, then swung around and shouted.  “How dare you  grope me?”

Bard howled something incoherent and punched the man with immense force.  John knew he’d held back – Bard was a blademaster, and a great deal stronger than he looked – but it was still something his victim couldn’t ignore.  He staggered forward, his companions closing ranks behind him; Joyce shouted again, acting for all the world like a woman demanding her man protect her honour, as Ted and Hans made things worse by punching the nearest targets or throwing beer in their faces.  The fight was on before anyone, even Boss Edwards, could stop it.

John had no time to watch as Scout led him to the exit.  A guard stood beside it, his arms crossed over his chest as his eyes flickered between Scout’s fake chest and the growing fistfight.  John muttered a quick charm and the guard’s eyes unfocused, slipping into a waking dream as John and Scout pushed past him and into the corridor beyond.  John muttered a brief command – entranced people tended to be highly suggestible, and having a guard go wild would add to the chaos – and then closed the door behind him, drawing his focus as they hurried to the hidden staircase and headed up.  The sound behind them faded with astonishing speed.  John glanced at the walls, puzzled.  They were so thin he thought he could put a fist through them without even trying.

Scout collapsed the frame under her dress as they reached the top of the stairs and stepped out into a meeting room.  John tried not to roll his eyes at the décor – the chamber was as crude as any other, but the lodge had hung a flag from the wall – as Scout found the inner door, then nodded to him.  John stepped forward, tapping his focus against the lock and reaching out with his magic.  It was a fiendishly complex design, with several spells woven into the metal to make it impossible to pick without magic.  John allowed himself a brief moment of admiration, then channelled his own magic into the lock.  The designer was clever, but not clever enough.  John didn’t have to pick the lock.  He just had to convince it he’d put the right key in the keyhole.

The door clicked open.  John raised his focus, bracing himself.  Boss Edwards was no magician, as far as anyone knew, but he had at least one magician in his service, someone who might sense the lock opening and come to investigate.  They’d found out everything they could about the lodge, yet … none of their sources had ever been into the boss’s private chambers.  There could be anything in there, from his private drinks cabinet to a small army of guards or whores.  The air smelled unpleasant as they inched into the darkened chamber.  John muttered a night-vision spell and peered around.  The office was as dark and silent as the grave.  The walls were bare, save for a single painting that dominated the wall behind the heavy wooden desk.  John was no prude, but even he flushed when he looked at the painting.  It was so explicit he found it hard to look at it …

“Check behind the painting,” Scout ordered.  “And hurry!”

John nodded.  The fight wouldn’t last forever, no matter what the team downstairs did to prolong the struggle.  And then Boss Edwards would start wondering if the whole affair had been a diversion … he put the thought out of his head as he tested the painting for magic, then started to pull it away from the walls.  A weird spell flickered underneath the canvas, barely detectable even to his senses … he cancelled it with an effort, then pulled the painting away and rested it on the floor.  The wall behind looked unbroken to the naked eye, but his senses picked out the concealment charm hiding the safe.  He had to admire the workmanship as he dismantled the spell, then started to work on the safe.  Whoever had put the safe together was a remarkable magician.

And probably someone kicked out of school like me, John thought.  He’d never dreamed he’d be expelled until it had happened and then … he’d been lucky to find employment with Joyce and her adventures.  If Greyshade hadn’t given him a hand … he wondered, sourly, if he’d have allowed hunger and thirst to drive him into criminal hands.  It was easier to have a sense of morality when one had a full belly and enough money to ensure one wouldn’t starve in a hurry.  What happened to this magician?

His lips twitched, silently thanking the gods he was a natural magician.  The safe was designed to resist anyone who came at it with a focus, rather than inherent magic.  Odd … it was crafty, and brilliant in its own way, but … were they wrong?  Did Boss Edwards have magic of his own?  It wasn’t impossible.  The Grey Men rarely came this far from civilisation and they certainly weren’t testing for magic.  And no one knew for sure where Boss Edwards really came from …

But that’s hardly unknown out here, John reflected.  The safe clicked, the sound loud enough to make him start.  Half the population wants to forget their pasts.

The hatch opened.  John peered into the safe.  It was larger than he’d realised, the interior made up of multiple compartments that each housed a different set of documents.  John’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the titles, looking desperately for the papers they’d been sent to find.  If they weren’t here … Scout was already checking the rest of the office, relying on her instincts and weirdling talents to find any other hiding places, but time was running out.  How long would it be, he asked himself, before …

He grinned as a sheaf of papers came into view.  “Got them!”

“Check them,” Scout advised.  She was picking through a desk drawer that seemed to be crammed with alcohol and tobacco.  “Make sure they’re the right ones.”

John nodded, scanning the documents one by one.  The land ownership titles were printed on charmed paper, making them difficult – if not impossible – to duplicate or destroy.  Boss Edwards had stolen the papers, intending to use them to lay claim to lands further to the west … or so John had been told.  He didn’t really know or care if the story was true.  Boss Edwards was a monster and putting a finger in his eye would be a good deed in itself, even if the other side was just as bad.  It wasn’t uncommon, not in their line of work.  And yet … he liked to think he’d clung to his ideals …

“Got them,” he said.  The charms were intact, proving their validity to all who knew how to look.  He folded up the papers, then shoved them into his undershirt.  “We need to get out of here and …”

“Ahem,” a new voice said.  “Who are you?”

John blinked, nearly jumping out of his skin.  A young girl, no older than himself, stood by the doorway, her hands clasped behind her back.  There was something about her face that was subtly wrong … another weirdling?  Scout was hardly the only person whose ancestors had been exposed to wild magic … hell, she was one of the lucky ones.  John had met weirdlings who looked like shambling parodies of humanity, others who appeared to be impossible crossbreeds … and, worst of all, things so warped and twisted that the only thing anyone could do was put them out of their misery.  And yet … the girl wasn’t like that.  She was just … wrong.

He cast a minor spell, a simple entrancement charm.  The girl looked as if she’d just gotten out of bed.  She could go back to sleep and wake up the following morning with no memory of them.  John had no idea who she was and he didn’t much care.  Their time was running short.  Boss Edwards might have asserted his authority downstairs by now and …

The girl brought her hands out from behind her back.  John barely had a second to recognise the focus  – two focuses – before she cast a spell of her own.  His focus was yanked from his hand and thrown across the room, his body slammed back into the wall … the girl’s hand barely twitched as she tossed a simple freeze spell at Scout.  John gritted his teeth as he gathered himself, mustering his magic … she was the magician!  He kicked himself for his oversight.  Katrina had been a powerful magician and she’d been far from the only sorceress in the world.  Just because it was rare to encounter a female magician so far from civilisation didn’t mean they didn’t exist.

And she’s had some training, he thought, numbly.  The girl stepped forward, keeping one of her focuses aimed directly at his head while holding the other at the ready.  John was mildly impressed.  Wielding two focuses at the same time was tricky, to say the least, and it was an art he’d never mastered.  He’d never needed to master it.  But she doesn’t know what I can do.

He gathered himself as the girl closed on him.  She wasn’t been dumb.  Magicians who could cast spells without a focus, even a makeshift one, were rare.  Under normal circumstances, she could be sure of putting a bolt of raw magic through his skull before he could so much as twitch.  And yet … he concentrated, shaping the magic in his mind.  The downside of being able to cast spells without a focus was that they lacked proper form … the tattoo on his palm twitched, a grim reminder of Katrina’s near-death.  Perhaps if he channelled power through the tattoo instead …

“I will ask this only once,” the girl said.   Her accent was odd, a strange mix that reminded him of middle-class girls from school.  There was a gleam in her eye that chilled him to the bone, a faint sheen of sweat that bothered him in a way he couldn’t put into words.  “Swear yourself to me or die.”

John cast his spell.  The girl’s eyes went wide with shock, but she reacted with admirable speed.  John had hoped to blow her right across the chamber, stunning her before she hit the wall, yet she deflected much of the spell before it could strike her.  John would have been impressed if the encounter hadn’t been so dangerous.  The girl brought up her second focus – she hadn’t even lost her grip on the first – and started to cast.  Scout smacked her on the head before she could finish the spell.  The girl started to say something, then collapsed.

You froze her dress, John thought, answering the unspoken question.  All she had to do was stand still until you looked away, then melt and escape the frozen tent.

“We need to go,” Scout said.  She hesitated, seemingly unsure if they should kill the girl while she was stunned, then turned away.  “Now.”

John nodded.  In the distance, he could hear the sound of running footsteps.

Their time had just run out.

Updates

28 Oct

It’s been an odd couple of weeks.

I just finished the first draft of The Revolutionary War(The Royal Sorceress V), although it will probably need major editing – it had been too long since I wrote anything in that universe and there were a lot of mistakes and contradictions with the earlier books.  I don’t have any idea of when it will be published, of course, but I’ll keep you informed.

I also finalised the plot for The Lone World (Ark Royal 19) and outlined plans for novellas set in Fantastic School Sports and Fantastic School Staff, with provisional titles of The Sport Captain’s Tale and The Grandmaster’s Tale – I also intend to do a novella for Fantastic Schools 6 with a provisional title of The Chaperone’s Tale, in which someone thinks they’ve found a loophole in the rules and discovers it isn’t as clever as they think <grin>.  And I did more chapters of Queenmaker, which you can find on this blog.

I’m planning to start Pandora’s Box on Monday, so wish me luck.

Chris

Queenmaker 8-9

27 Oct

Chapter Eight

We marched at first light.

Despite the hour, there were surprisingly large crowds gathered to bid us farewell.  Helen sat on a horse and watched as we marched past the makeshift review stand and headed north, while hundreds of wives, children and ladies of pleasure waved goodbye.  The latter had been paid to be there – I wanted my troops to feel the population supported them – but the former were something of a surprise.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have been.  My army might be small, compared to the armies back home, but it still drew from a surprisingly wide range of social classes.  They were not the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.  They were the children of merchants and tailors as well as labourers and noblemen.  And their relatives were more than happy to support the troops.

I marched too.  The trick to keeping men loyal, to convincing them to put everything on the line for you, is to make it clear you share their experiences.  You eat the same food, you drink the same drink, you march when they march and ride when they ride … it is important, true, to keep a line between officers and men, but when that line becomes an impassable gulf it is only a matter of time before the army breaks.  Nothing spurs hatred and resentment more than a marching infantryman watching an officer cantering past, or dining on the choicest meats while pawing at a courtesan who obviously didn’t want to be there.  The Russians hadn’t known, in 1917, what would happen when the gulf became a yawning void.  I did – and I had no intention of letting it happen to me.

The marching wasn’t that bad, not compared to some of the forced marches of old.  Our kit was actually lighter, and most of our supplies were carried in the baggage train.  The railroad engine puffed past us, dangerously slow to my eyes and yet capable of mustering a constant pace that would – eventually – leave both the infantry and cavalry in the dust.  I couldn’t help thinking of the old stories about railroads pushing further and further into the Wild West and bringing civilisation with them, binding the states together for better or worse.  It was just a matter of time before someone decided to try to rob a train …

I smiled at the thought.  Our rail tracks were decidedly fragile, compared to the tracks back home, but they had the great advantage of being easy to repair.  I’d made sure the locomotive crews could and would fix any problems they encountered, without having to remain in one place long enough to invite attack.  The trains themselves were armoured, with railway troops assigned to cover the crews as they drove their engines north.  Anyone planning a repeat of the Great Train Robbery was in for an unfortunate surprise.  I hoped they choked on it.

The men marched onwards, some grumbling under their breaths.  I pretended to ignore it.  I’d have been more worried if they weren’t grumbling, although – as we marched onwards – I was sure they would grow too tired to grumble.  I kept a wary eye on the rough formations as we kept going, leaving the city far behind.  The air grew hot and dry, sweat prickling down my back as the sun beat down on us.  The troops swigged from their canteens, without breaking step.  I hoped they had the sense to follow orders and not drink their canteens dry in a hurry.  We did have more water in the baggage train, but there were limits.  My plans to bring the wonders of modern irrigation techniques to the farmers had never got off the ground, while I doubted we could trust the local water sources forever.  If I was in Cuthbert’s shoes, I’d have planned to poison the local oasis.  It would make me about as popular as a mercenary, one or two steps down from a child molester, but if it worked …

I put the thought aside as I moved from regiment to regiment, making sure to be seen.  The men were more spread out now, the formation growing ragged as some men fell to the rear, but they kept going.  I wasn’t surprised.  Tight formation were the stuff of movies, not real life … certainly not when we might be heading straight into combat.  The cavalry hadn’t spotted any threats, but I was morbidly sure something would happen before too long.  The land was vast and modern communications almost non-existent.  A smart enemy could get into position for an ambush, then strike before we saw him coming. 

The day wore on.  We paused for a short break, then resumed the march.  I frowned inwardly as we passed through a small town, seemingly as abandoned as the ghost towns I’d seen out in the Midwest.  I was fairly sure the population had taken one look at the advancing army and scattered, hiding their women and children while driving their animals into the countryside and out of our path.  I didn’t blame them.  I’d hammered the point home, time and time again, that anyone who committed crimes against the civilian population would be hanged, but no civilian in this world would believe me.  Why should they?  They had so much experience of local armies that they had no reason to think my army might be different.

We’ll convince them in time, I told myself, as we left the deserted town behind.  And then things will be different.

We camped – for a given value of camped – on the edge of the desert.  I kept walking, even as the men settled down on bedrolls for the night, making sure I was seen eating field rations and drinking boiled water.  The men looked tired, but happy.  Most of them had passed their personal humps long ago, learning how to tap into reserves of energy they hadn’t known they possessed.  I exchanged nods with the march leaders, the ones who’d taken the lead and stayed in front, making mental notes to ensure they were on the short lists for promotion.  I wanted to draw my officers from the enlisted men, so they knew what it was like to be in the ranks.  It would cut down on the number of stupid greenie lieutenants who had to learn their lessons in someone else’s blood.

I wanted to go to Fallon as I finished my survey and posted pickets along the edge of the campsite, but I knew I couldn’t.  Instead, I turned and surveyed the scene.  It was remarkable – campfires, hundreds of campfires, lit up the darkness, threatening to turn light into day.  There was no hope of keeping our location a secret … not, I thought, that that had ever been possible.  If the warlords didn’t have spies keeping an eye on the city from a safe distance, I’d be very disappointed in them.  There might even be cavalry watching us march north … I peered into the darkness, wondering who or what was looking back at me.  If nothing else, the sheer speed of our march should have shocked any watching eyes.  The men had marched faster than anyone could reasonably have expected …

Don’t get cocky, I reminded myself.  Warlord Aldred’s men had been nothing more than glorified thugs.  Dangerous to unarmed civilians, particularly ones who had been beaten into submission, but no threat at all to disciplined men with weapons and the knowledge to use them.  Did the warlords understand their own weaknesses?  Were they trying to correct them?  Could they?  You don’t know what they might be doing, under the fog of war.

The thought haunted me as I slept lightly, ate the same breakfast as everyone else and led the army onwards.  We marched through more and more deserted towns, then crossed swathes of semi-habitable land that needed more water to be turned into proper farmland, then … I felt my eyes start to tire as we kept moving, exhaustion threatening to overwhelm me.  I cursed under my breath as I forced myself to keep going, eyes swinging from side to side to watch for possible threats.  The air tasted of sand, smoke and human despair.  I wondered, as we passed through the remains of a small community, if there was anything we could do to save the land.  The hamlet hadn’t been attacked, as far as I could tell.  It didn’t look as though a horde of human locusts had ravaged it from one end to the other.  I thought the farmers had just … given up.  I didn’t blame them.  It was hard enough growing crops even when rampaging armies and taxmen weren’t stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down.

I looked up as a cavalry trooper galloped towards me.  “Sir,” Sir Ransom said.  “We have a problem.”

“What?”  I should have been calmer, but I could taste dust in my throat.  “What’s happened?”

“The Marquis of Winter is blocking the railway track,” Sir Ransom told me.  “He’s demanding a toll to cross the bridge.”

I scowled, then scrambled up onto the horse.  “Take me there,” I ordered, as I sat behind him.  It would make me a laughing stock, if anyone had the energy to notice, but I found it hard to care.  The only other option was pitching him off his own horse and forcing him to walk behind me and that was even worse.  “Now.”

Sir Ransom didn’t bother to argue.  He merely pushed the horse into a gallop.  I took advantage of the chance to take a drink and rub my eyes, then peered into the distance as the Marquis’s lands came into view.  The  Marquis of Winter – and that was an ironic name, given how few locals experienced winter – was supposed to be loyal to the queen, and we’d built a railroad bridge on his property, but I doubted he cared one jot for his monarch.  He was the sort of person who’d take all he could get, then come up with a legalistic excuse for not keeping his side of the bargain.  If we hadn’t needed to build a bridge on his lands … it would have been easy to march the army around his lands, or over them, but the railroad was a different story.  We needed that bridge if we wanted the track to run as straight as possible …

My mood darkened when I saw his lands.  The serfs in the fields looked beaten down; the fields themselves looked dry, as if the only thing keeping them alive was near-constant tendering … I suspected, looking at them, that it wouldn’t be long before the crops simply died, condemning the serfs to die too.  I ground my teeth in frustration as the serfs huddled into themselves.  Helen had freed the serfs and slaves, but clearly the Marquis of Winter hadn’t gotten the message.  No doubt he’d come up with some legalistic debt bondage shit to justify himself to all and sundry.

“The train has been stopped by the near side of the bridge,” Sir Ransom said.  “The guards have been ordered to remain by the train.”

I nodded, stiffly, as I took in the scene.  The railway bridge sat next to a far older footbridge and a castle that reminded me of an elaborate sandcastle, complete with the sense it wouldn’t last long once the waves started lapping around the foundations.  It looked dusty and old and worn down by the elements … my lips twitched as I saw the private guardsmen standing on the battlements or clustered around an older man I took to be the marquis.  They didn’t have muskets, as far as I could tell, and there were no cannons on their walls.  I tried not to snicker as Sir Ransom brought the horse to a halt.  A year ago, the private guards would have been a credible threat.  Now, they were just laughable.  The railway guards would have no trouble dealing with them.

I muttered orders to Sir Ransom, then allowed myself to slide off the horse and step towards the Marquis of Winter.  Up close, he looked as if he was prepared to be stubborn to the point of insanity, something I’d seen before in people whose authority depended on them showing not a hint of weakness.  The moment he refused to defend his ancient rights, they’d be gone … and what would he be without them?  Sir Ransom galloped away as I glanced at the railway troops, then met the Marquis of Winter’s eyes.  He was surprisingly short, but somehow managed to look down his nose at me.  It would have been impressive if I hadn’t been cut down by experts.

“I am the custodian of the ford,” the Marquis of Winter said, without preamble.  It was an insult, and not a particularly subtle one, but I couldn’t be bothered to be annoyed.  I’d been insulted by experts too.  “You cannot move your … trains through my territory without paying …”

I looked at the dry gorge, then the bridges.  The troops didn’t really need them.  The gorge wouldn’t be that hard to negotiate, not for infantry or cavalry.  It was the wagons and trains that really needed them and …

“I see no ford,” I said.  If there was any water at the bottom of the gorge, I couldn’t see it.  The title had been granted years ago, back in the semi-legendary days when the kingdom had been overflowing with milk, honey, and noblemen who were truly noble.  “We’re not crossing any water.”

The Marquis’s face darkened.  He knew he was being mocked.  I supposed I should have been a little more diplomatic, but really … he was a slavemaster and a fool and he was in my way and I knew that conceding even the slightest bit of ground would come back to bite me.  Hard.  I heard the sound of approaching hooves and smiled.  Sir Ransom had brought the mounted infantry, as I’d ordered.  The Marquis was running out of time.

“You want to use my bridge, you need to pay,” he said, stubbornly.  “You …”

I nodded to my infantry as they dismounted.  “Seize him.”

The Marquis opened his mouth to protest, too late.  His guards didn’t stand a chance as my men overwhelmed them with practiced efficiency, then grabbed the Marquis himself.  He reached for a dagger, only to have it knocked from his hand before he could even get it out of the sheath.  I allowed myself a tight smile as he started to swear at me, calling me everything from a bastard mercenary and a runaway serf to an oathbreaker.

“When we built the bridge, it was on the understanding that you would make no attempt to interfere with troop trains,” I said.  Maybe I could be legalistic too.  “And you have kept your serfs in bondage, despite the Royal Edict freeing the serfs and granting them the right to leave their estates …”

The Marquis glared at me.  “The serfs were not hers to free!”

I felt a hot flash of anger.  People were not property.  My ancestors hadn’t asked to be slaves and I was damn sure the serfs in the fields hadn’t signed up for serfdom either.  If they’d signed papers they couldn’t read … it was possible, I supposed, but I didn’t care.  Taking advantage of someone’s ignorance was a shitty thing to do, particularly if you were pressurising them into signing under threat of banishment or death.

“Your estate is hereby confiscated,” I said, savouring every word.  “I will detach a garrison to remain here and ensure the bridges remain open, while sending you and your family back to the city to face the queen.  Your serfs will be freed and your private guards will be dismissed.  You can make any further complaints to the queen.  I’m sure she’ll be very pleased to hear them.”

The Marquis gaped at me, as if I’d just started speaking in tongues.  I supposed he was right to be surprised.  The idea of having his estates confiscated, just like that … it didn’t happen, not to the aristocracy, unless the line was well and truly crossed.  There were people in the city who thought Helen had made a mistake by cracking down hard on the coup plotters and their families, even though they’d murdered her father – regicide – and then tried to marry her off to someone who’d legally rape her.  I understood their concerns for property rights, but still …

I directed my men to search the castle, then sent the trains onwards as the first rows of soldiers crossed the gorge.  I’d wasted quite enough time on the affair.  The Marquis’s wife made a horrible fuss as she was escorted out of the castle and loaded into a wagon for the trip to the city, his son eyed me unpleasantly until his captor threatened to smack him over the head with an iron gauntlet.  I refused to feel guilty.  The young man had probably lorded it over everyone, secure in the knowledge no one would dare raise a finger to him.  I knew the type.  I’d shot one of them in the back.

Sir Ransom joined me as I started to walk back to the infantry.  “Sir … what will Her Majesty make of this?”

I kept my face impassive.  “The Marquis was trying to block our lines of communication and extort money from us,” I said, curtly.  I could understand his thinking – the idea I’d simply brush him aside would have been alien to him – but it was still stupid.  “Either he was fool enough to assume I’d pay him on the spot, or at least let him get away with it, yet …”

My voice hardened.  “The Queen will understand,” I told him.  The Marquis wasn’t the only person in a position to slow us down.  If we paid Danegeld, as the saying went, we’d never get rid of the Dane.  “We had to make an example of him, or it would happen again and again.”

And it didn’t.  Not then.

Chapter Nine

I couldn’t help feeling a little unsure of myself as Damansara came into view.  I’d entered the city as a penniless refugee and left it as one of her greatest soldiers, a man who – I’d discovered too late – had both won the war for them and convinced the City Fathers he was too dangerous to keep around after the fighting was over.  They’d called me a mercenary and feared what I might do, with an army more loyal to me than to the city’s rulers.  If Helen hadn’t talked them into letting me go into her service instead … my lips twisted in disgust.  I hadn’t wanted to rule the city.  I hadn’t wanted to make myself the king of all I surveyed.  And yet, if they’d tried to kill me …

I felt the excitement behind me as I led the troops towards the main gates.  Damansara hadn’t changed that much in the year since I’d left, save for a railroad station and a handful of buildings outside the walls.  The freight trains were already unloading, a small army of porters carrying supplies to the barracks or into the city itself; I frowned, despite myself, at the very visible guards on the walls.  The City Fathers had been reluctant to allow any of my troops into the city, during the negotiations.  I didn’t really blame them.  They had to wonder if I wanted a little revenge for how they’d treated me.

And even though I don’t, my troops might misbehave, I thought.  I couldn’t blame them for that either.  Or even start fights with the city’s soldiers.

I put the thought out of my head as I directed the troops to start setting up camp outside the city, then headed to the main gates.  The reception committee was already waiting.  I smiled in genuine pleasure as I spied Rupert Drache and his father – Rupert had brought me into his service – then frowned as I saw Lord Gallery right beside him.  The man didn’t bother to hide his displeasure at seeing me again.  I was surprised he’d even joined the welcoming committee.  But then, if he’d realised I’d shot his rapist son in the back, he’d have spared no expense to have me killed.

“Sir Elliot,” Lord Drache said.  “Welcome to Damansara.”

I nodded, shaking his hand firmly.  We’d never been equals, but right now there was a very good chance I was his social superior.  Perhaps.  The rules were complex, contradictory and I found it hard to care if one of us was superior to the other by one micron.  Good breeding and an inherited title didn’t make someone automatically good at maintaining whatever he’d inherited, let alone anything else.  Harbin Gallery had been born to the very highest in the city and he’d been a fool .. I sighed, inwardly, as I exchanged curt nods with his father.  Perhaps it had been a mistake to insist the wretched boy had died a hero.  He might have gotten himself killed even if I hadn’t shot him myself.

“You got here sooner than we expected,” Lord Gallery said.  He made no attempt to shake my hand.  “Or were you already on the way?”

“We marched hard,” I said, curtly.  It would be all too easy for him to start raising doubts in hostile minds.  “We wanted to get here before Cuthbert.”

Rupert smiled, although there was a hard edge to the expression.  “The warlord’s troops are probing the edges of Aldred’s former territories,” he said.  “We’ve skirmished with them, but …”

I nodded, looking him up and down.  Rupert hadn’t been a fool, when we’d first met, but he’d been ignorant and set up as the scapegoat for the inevitable thrashing the city was going to take, a thrashing I’d proven to be anything but inevitable.  He’d leant fast and well, yet I would have preferred him to have a longer apprenticeship before taking the reins for himself … not, I supposed, that he’d done a bad job.  He looked as if he’d kept up with the exercises –  I hoped he’d had the wit to get down in the trenches – and carried a pistol rather than a sword.  It cost me a pang.  The pistol I’d had with me, when I’d been swept into my new world, was lost somewhere in the countryside.  I feared it would never be seen again.

“We’ll be ready for them,” I assured him.  If Cuthbert attacked the city, we’d beat his army in the field; if he held back, we’d march straight into his lands and give him a flat choice between standing and fighting or letting us smash his castles and fortresses one by one.  I knew he’d fight.  The moment it became apparent he couldn’t protect his clients, they’d switch sides so rapidly they’d leave sonic booms behind them.  “How is the army?”

“Guarding the walls,” Lord Gallery said.  “The city must be protected at all costs.”

From us as well as the warlords, I thought, hearing what he didn’t say.  What do you intend to do if Cuthbert starts ravaging the fields and destroying the crops?

I considered the point thoughtfully, letting my mouth run on autopilot as I introduced my senior officers and made small talk.  The warlord might be able to storm the city by battering down the walls, but would he?  I would have attacked the city, if I’d been in his place, yet … I sighed inwardly.  It might be better from his point of view to destroy the farms, particularly the ones run by freemen.  Their crop yields were already higher than serf-run farms.  It wouldn’t take long before the warlord’s population started asking some pointed questions …

And I’ll make sure of it, I thought, as we were led into the city.  If we can convince them to revolt in his rear, his entire position will come apart.

The streets looked cleaner, I noted, although the city’s stench still hung in the air like a shroud.  I’d done what I could to convince the City Fathers to improve basic hygiene and ban crimes like crapping out the windows, but there’d clearly been limits.  The handful of people on the streets eyed us warily, a far cry from the reception they’d given my troops after we’d met Warlord Aldred’s thugs and crushed them like bugs beneath our heels.  I understood what they were thinking.  A strong monarch could keep the warlords in line, but could easily become a threat herself.  In the old days, the city could hide behind its walls and wait an army out.  Now …

But iron, cold iron, is the master of them all, I quoted to myself.  The city will have to come to terms with the queen or face destruction.

“His father paid for that,” Rupert said, as we neared City Hall.  “What do you think?”

I hid my amusement with an effort as the statue came into view.  It was … it was hard, so hard, not to snicker.  The statue was so heroic, so exaggerated, I wouldn’t have known it showed Harbin Gallery if there hadn’t been a nameplate underneath the statue.  Harbin looked bold and noble and true and … and like someone who’d stepped right out of a comic book, rather than real life.  The proportions were all wrong too … not, I supposed, that it mattered.  It was selling a fantasy.  The real Harbin would probably have been delighted.

Or perhaps not, I reflected.  It was like telling the world you were a great poet, when in reality you couldn’t string together more than a line or two of doggerel.  The reality would disappoint.

“I hear you are to wed,” Rupert said.  “My own wedding has been arranged and will be taking place this summer.”

I nodded, hearing the edge in his voice.  My detractors had insisted Rupert and I had been sleeping together, something that had surprised me.  They didn’t care about the homosexual aspect, and there was no stigma attached to it, but the suggestion Rupert had been the bottom was … I tried not to snort in disgust.  There was an awful lot of stigma attached to that and yet … I shrugged.  It was hardly the worst difference between my old world and the new.

“I’m pleased to hear it,” I said.  “Are you?”

Rupert smiled.  “We can talk, at least,” he said.  “It’s better than nothing.”

I nodded, again.  The upper classes had their marriages arranged by their parents and they were lucky if they knew each other, let alone fell in love.  No one would say anything if Rupert kept a discreet mistress on the side – his wife wasn’t allowed anything like so much latitude – as long as there were children and their inheritances were carefully arranged to benefit the families.  It wouldn’t squash the rumours, though.  Rupert could have four wives and a harem of beautiful women and people would still believe – or pretend to believe – the rumours.

“Make sure you give her some space,” I advised.  I preferred the idea of marrying for love, but … that hadn’t worked out too well last time.  “And don’t make life too easy or hard for your children.”

Rupert snorted, then met my eyes.  “Gayle is also engaged,” he said.  “Don’t try to speak with her alone.”

I nodded.  Gayle and I had been … friends, of a sort.  More like co-conspirators.  There had never been any hint our relationship might turn sexual – she was from the rarefied heights of the city’s aristocracy, I wasn’t even the stable boy – but we’d shared a few confidences and … I put the thought aside.  Gayle had every reason to be wary of that becoming public, now she was engaged.  If her prospective in-laws had even the slightest hint she wasn’t a virgin …

Which makes Harbin’s attempt to rape her all the worse, I thought.  He wasn’t just hurting her.  He was hurting her entire family.

The thought haunted me as we walked into the banqueting hall, the table already groaning under the weight of the food.  I sighed inwardly – I’d have preferred to go straight to the War Room – and then directed my officers to mingle.  The City Fathers wanted to welcome us properly … I tried not to feel a twinge of guilt at the spread laid out in front of us.  It looked like a roman buffet and probably cost enough money to feed the poor for weeks, but … I tried not to grimace at the stuffed mice and other delicacies.  It still felt weird to be eating rodents …

And if you were starving to death, my thoughts pointed out, you’d happily catch, cook and eat rats as well as mice.

I forced myself to mingle, taking the time to speak to people I knew and others who’d joined the council after my departure.  Rupert stayed close to me, despite the risk … I made a mental note to suggest he took his prospective bride to the arena or somewhere else they could be seen in public together, then put the thought aside.  The conversation was surprisingly muted, save for a factory owner boasting about how he’d convinced his workers to work harder for less money.  I doubted it would last.  The factories weren’t anything like as specialised as the factories back home.  Given a few months, half his workers would be setting up factories of their own or simply leaving for happier pastures elsewhere.

And Helen will make sure of it, I thought.  The aristocracy had been slow to realise the importance of factories, ensuring the commoners had time to start their own before their social superiors locked them out.  She’s offering start-up funds to anyone with a halfway convincing proposal for something profitable.

I smirked.  They’d missed the importance of worker’s rights legislation too.  I’d convinced Helen to pass a bunch of laws that seemed mildly pointless now, but would take on more and more importance as the years went on.  There would be no non-compete clauses here, no cartels locking out the uneducated, no demand for pointless credentials or regulations or anything that would provoke bitter resentment, class hatred and eventual civil war.  I doubted I could keep unscrupulous capitalists from taking shape and form, but as long as I could keep them from twisting the law to crush their competitors before they had a chance to become a real threat to their dominance … I hoped, prayed, it would be enough.  It was all too easy for someone to come up with reasons to undermine the law that, on the face of it, would be quite legitimate.   It was only when they started having unexpected – or all too expected – consequences that people realised the downsides and then it was often too late.

The discussions went on and on, touching on absolutely nothing of significance.  Helen would have been in her element, I was sure, but me … I was bored stiff within the hour.  I didn’t want to hear about an elderly man’s latest conquest, or be told about a middle-aged woman’s eligible daughter, or hear bragging from aristo youths about their glorious feats when I could tell, just by looking at them, that they’d never been in the military.  I knew it was important to keep everyone on side, but … I shook my head.  It felt as if they were fiddling while their city burned.

“We are grateful for your support,” Lord Gallery said.  “But there are limits to how far we will allow Her Majesty to dictate to us.”

I bit down a sharp reply.  He wasn’t the wretched Marquis of Winter – I wondered how he was faring, back in the city – and I couldn’t push him around, certainly not so effectively.  And yet … I considered, briefly, trying to arrange an accident for him.  It wouldn’t be easy – his son had been in the middle of a battle, while the father rarely left his mansion and never the city – but perhaps it would be possible.  There was no way he’d be anything, apart from a monumental pain in the butt.  And if he ever worked out what had happened to his son ..

“Her Majesty has already ratified and reissued your Charter of Autonomy,” I said, as diplomatically as I could.  Ass-kissing just wasn’t my thing.  If I’d done a tour of duty in the Pentagon, perhaps I would have been better at it.  “Your independence will be respected, as long as you honour your obligations.”

“There are limits to how far we can go, when we have Cuthbert breathing down our necks,” an older man said.  He wore fine robes, but I hadn’t caught his name.  “If we go too far, he will cry foul and destroy us.”

“Lord Grayling has a point,” Lord Drache said.  I hid my surprise with an effort.  He’d been one of the loudest war hawks on the council, back in the old days.  “If we anger Cuthbert, he will destroy us.”

I bit down the urge to point out that if I had a name like Cuthbert, I’d be angry all the time too.  I’d known a girl whose parents had named her Daenerys before Season Eight of Game of Thrones had rolled around and she’d been teased so badly I wouldn’t have blamed her for taking a dragon and laying waste to everyone who made fun of her.  There were even stories on this side of the dimensional divide of dragon-riders who’d done just that …

“Cuthbert will not be satisfied, not now, with anything less than total submission,” I told him, bluntly.  “You can no longer hide behind your walls and wait for his army to get sick or simply give up and go away.  He can batter down your walls and storm your city within a day or two, if you refuse to bend the knee.  You have the choice between fighting or spending the rest of your lives grovelling to him, and if you fight now you’ll be fighting alongside a trained and experienced army.”

“And if we don’t fight beside the queen, she may turn on us afterwards,” Lord Harbin pointed out.  “That’s what you didn’t want to tell us, isn’t it?”

I didn’t bother to deny it.  The trick of switching sides – or even just getting off the fence – is to time it just right, so you make the move when you still have something to offer your new friends while minimising what your new enemies can do to you.  Helen – I was sure – wouldn’t pick a fight with her loyal allies, but she’d take a dim view of Damansara sitting on the fence and trying to remain neutral while her forces fought the warlords for supremacy.  She didn’t have to invade the city to make her displeasure felt.  She could simply refuse to update their charter or side against them when they came into conflict with the countryfolk or even deny them access to the trade routes.  If she carefully redirected the railroads so they excluded the city …

“I can’t promise you victory,” I said.  I certainly wouldn’t be around to apologise for the broken promise if we lost the war.  “But I can tell you this – if you side with Queen Helen, she will reward you and honour her obligations to you.  Can the warlords say the same?”

“No,” Lord Drache said.

“And they can be beaten,” I added.  “I believe I showed you that, did I not?”

“Yes,” Lord Harbin said.  “But it came at a cost.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  I tried not to feel a twinge of sympathy for a man who’d lost his son.  I knew how that felt, even though my sons had never tried to rape anyone and I’d have thrashed them to within an inch of their lives if they had.  “But the cost of bending the knee will be so much higher.”

“And we cannot afford to pay,” Lord Drache said.  “We must fight.”

Queenmaker 7

26 Oct

Chapter Seven

“I want you and your troop to scout ahead of us,” I told Sir Ransom.  “If there are any problems, from enemy pickets to dropped bridges, I want to know about them.”

Sir Ransom nodded.  I studied him thoughtfully.  He was supposed to be a good and capable cavalry officer, with enough common sense to break off and run if he encountered something he couldn’t handle, but I feared what he’d do once he was out of my sight.  He wanted glory and I was sure he’d do whatever it took to win it, even if it meant going against my direct orders.  And there was little I could do about it.  I couldn’t ride with him, I couldn’t send a trusted subordinate to accompany him, I couldn’t even hammer the message home without turning him against me.  The young man was a prideful ass.

“We cannot afford surprises,” I told him, firmly.  “You must inform me the moment you run into trouble.”

He bowed, then left the office as I dismissed him.  I scowled at his back, then turned my attention to the map.  It was better than the last set of maps, but I knew not to take it too seriously.  Some places were depicted as being right next to each other, even though they were dozens of miles apart, and others were so far out of proportion it was easy to believe they were larger than the biggest city in America.  I’d done everything I could to hire teams of proper surveyors and mapmakers, but there were limits.  The warlords – of course – hadn’t allowed us to map their territory.

But at least we were able to talk to refugees, I thought.  The maps still weren’t very good, but we weren’t advancing completely into the unknown.  We know more about their territory than they might wish.

I sighed inwardly.  I’d spent the last few hours mustering the troops, issuing orders and working frantically to patch up the holes in my organisational structure.  My plans had looked good on paper – plans always did – but real life had cruelly exposed all the problems that my planning hadn’t taken into account.  I had officers who were supposed to be in two places at once, infantrymen who were confused about when and where they should report to their officers and a logistics system that – if I’d been back home – would have earned me an instant court martial and dishonourable discharge, if my CO didn’t simply shoot me in the face and blame it on the enemy.  It was astonishing how much supplies an army needed, particularly one that wasn’t allowed to live off the land.  And if I didn’t keep my army fed, I wouldn’t be able to keep them from looting.

And that will turn hearts and minds against us, I reflected sourly.  The locals regarded soldiers as little better than hordes of locusts, regardless of which side they were on.  I was doing what I could to change that perception, but it would be a long time before the peasants and tradesmen started to regard soldier as a honourable occupation.  And until then they will happily betray us to the warlords in hopes we’ll kill each other off.

I finished scanning the paperwork – I hoped and prayed the logistics train would hold up long enough to get the army to Damansara – and then headed outside.  The makeshift army camp – it looked terrifyingly fragile, by local standards – was heaving with life, thousands of men and hundreds of horses moving around as they formed up into units and marched out to join the units readying themselves for the march.  I pretended to ignore the long line of soldiers outside the brothel, trying to get laid one last time before they started the march upcountry.  I’d put the brothels under military control, ensuring they had far better hygiene than the average whorehouse back home, but I was still in two minds about the whole affair.  I knew my men would be trying to get laid, with or without my approval, and yet I wasn’t sure how many of the whores had really entered the whorehouses willingly.  They were well paid and yet … I shook my head.  I’d banished their pimps and given them the chance to leave.  They still could, when they’d saved enough money to open their own shops.  I’d heard some of them had been quite successful.

And yet … I put the thought out of my head as I made my way across the training ground to the artillery range.  The cannoneers were already hooking their guns to horses, readying themselves for the march.  Behind them, the supply wagons were being checked and checked again.  I swept my eyes over the cannons, makeshift machine guns and mortars, scowling inwardly as the officers saluted.  I’d have to have a word with them about that later.  The enemy rifles were probably no more accurate than our own – a lone rifleman would have trouble hitting the broadside of a barn – but their archers were surprisingly good.  The last thing I needed was an arrow through the head and if my officers kept saluting me, they’d mark me out as a target.

Particularly as I don’t look like a typical officer, I reflected.  The average aristocratic officer looked like a dandy out of a regency romance, decked out in bright colours to ensure everyone knew who he was.  That was going to change in a hurry, I was sure.  I’d already given orders to my gunners to shoot at anyone who looked like a human peacock.  If the enemy scouts have any sense at all, they’ll work out who I am from the salutes.

“Sir,” Colonel Hammersmith said.  He was a burly man, born on the wrong side of the blanket.  He’d had trouble finding any sort of employment until I’d come along and offended social propriety by offering him a job.  “We are ready to march on your command.”

I nodded, taking a moment to sweep my eyes up and down the crude formation.  I’d taken pains to ensure the artillery had an escort, just to be sure they had time to deploy if they ran into trouble.  Unhitching cannons and bringing them to bear on their targets was a cumbersome task at the best of times, harder still if the enemy was charging the guns in a bid to overrun them before they could open fire.  I had no idea how my gunners would react, when someone tried to re-enact the Charge of the Light Brigade.  Would they remain calm, unlimber their guns and open fire, or would they panic and run?  There were limits to how realistic we could make the training and very few of my men were blooded in real combat …

“Very good,” I said.  I trusted him to know his job, but I had to check.  “Did you practice deploying while on the move?”


“Yes, sir,” Hammersmith said.  If he had any doubts, he didn’t show them.  “We can bring the guns to bear very quickly.”

I nodded, and headed onwards.  There was no way to be sure how his troops would react when they got their first taste of combat.  I knew someone who’d done very well in basic training and wet himself the first time real enemies started shooting at him.  No matter how hard you pushed the training, it was still training and you weren’t really trying to kill the trainees.  Drill Instructors weren’t real monsters … the thought made me smile as I rounded the corner and inspected the riflemen, drilling frantically in preparation for the march.  It looked as if they were mastering their trade and yet … I sighed inwardly, unwilling to think about it.  I’d worked hard to train my subordinates, to raise a whole corps of training officers and instructors who knew how to prepare men for combat, but far too many of them hadn’t seen the elephant.  And others had been quite unsuitable for the role.  I’d dismissed four and hanged two and yet, their malign influence lingered on.  It would be years, at best, before new recruits learnt to trust in the system.

The air seemed to tingle around me as I neared the spellcasters and knocked politely on the door.  The majority of my magicians were young women, too weak in the magical arts to be given proper training … or so I’d been told.  I had my doubts.  Fallon was advancing in leaps and bounds, now I’d hired a private tutor.  I wished I had a few more powerful magicians attached to the army, even though … I didn’t want to think about the warlock who’d kidnapped me only a few short months ago.  It felt … I wouldn’t have minded if I’d been bested in unarmed combat, but magic … it felt as if I’d been fighting with Superman.  No matter how hard I trained, there was no way I’d ever match him.  And if Superman had been real, our society would have developed one hell of an inferiority complex.

“Sir,” Lady Jayne said.  She was older than the average magician, more of a den mother and chaperone than a military officer.  I’d given her a provisional rank, hoping her department could be more formalised later on.  “We’re ready to march too.”

My lips quirked.  The magicians – male and female alike – would be riding in coaches, rather than horseback or marching on their own two feet.  It would provoke envy and resentment, I was sure, yet better that than the alternatives.  If the infantry decided to harass the women … it would be terminally unwise, but men on deployment tended to lose common sense when they were feeling deprived.  It would end badly, if I let it.  I didn’t intend to let anything get out of control …

“Good,” I said, dismissing the thought.  “Do you have everything you need?”

“I think so,” Lady Jayne said.  “I’ve consulted with magicians in Damansara and they insist they can supply us with everything we need, if we run short.”

I nodded.  There’d been a long argument, during the planning sessions, about drawing supplies from the city.  Damansara was becoming a factory town, after all, and its weapons were some of the best in the known world.  In theory, the city could give us everything we needed.  In practice, I wasn’t so sure.  It was unwise to become completely dependent on one’s friends and the city wasn’t exactly our friend.  The City Fathers, given time, would come to regard Queen Helen as a threat to their independence, just like the warlords.  And they would be reluctant to supply us with anything they might be used against them.

“As long as you have what you need for the march, and the first engagements,” I said.  “We can bring up more if we need them.”

I glance from magician to magician, feeling a twinge of … not unease, not really, but absurdity.  Many of them were teenage girls, not real soldiers.  It felt absurd to even consider sending them into battle.  And yet, I had no choice.  I needed them to handle communications so I could coordinate my forces and remain in touch with the queen.  I’d just have to hope they could handle the job.

“They’ll be ready,” Lady Jayne assured me.  “And we can defend ourselves if need be.”

I hoped she was right.  I feared she wasn’t.  The girls in front of me, eying me with a mix of interest, calculation and dismissal, were almost completely untrained.  I’d felt the power of a far greater sorcerer and even he had been minor, compared to some of the greats.  Or so I’d been told.  The stories seemed wild, so wild I could barely believe … and yet, some of them were true.  There had been a network of portals linking the major cities together, only a few months ago.  No one was quite sure why the network had collapsed, or what was happening further west.  What few stories we’d heard had been difficult to believe.

“Remember your orders,” I said.  “If you run into trouble, retreat at once.”

The girls looked unimpressed.  I hoped they’d have the sense to listen.  They weren’t that powerful.  I doubted anyone would try to take them alive either, once they realised what the girls actually were.  Perhaps it would have been wiser to spread claims they were my private harem, that I’d dragged them along so I didn’t have to go a day without sex.  It would have been believable – I’d had to dismiss an officer who turned up with enough baggage for a small army – but they’d never have forgiven me.  Besides, it would have made them targets.

I nodded to them, then turned and left the building.  They’d be ready to ride with the army and that was all that mattered.  It was a shame they couldn’t do much more – their fireballs were devastating, but hardly game-changing – but I had to make do with what I had.  I put the thought out of my mind as I made my way down to the infantry training grounds, where the men were marching up and down.  My staff appeared to be doing a very good job.

But too many men haven’t seen the elephant, I reminded myself, once again.  How many are going to break and run when the bullets start flying?

The thought haunted me as I walked back to the garrison and peered at my small army of clerks.  The staff – mostly young women – barely noticed as I stepped past them.  It felt wrong to construct a bureaucratic edifice – I’d always felt the army bureaucracy was a greater enemy than terrorists, insurgents and enemy soldiers – but I had no choice.  The bigger the army, the more bureaucracy you needed to maintain it.  It was going to be a struggle, in the months and years to come, to keep the bureaucrats from strangling the life out of the army. 

And these young women won’t be going to war, I thought, coldly.  They won’t ever know what’s important.

I sighed inwardly as I stepped into my office and stopped, dead.  Fallon was sitting on my desk, waiting for me.  I tried not to wince.  We might be lovers, and we were going to get married, but that didn’t mean she was allowed to walk into my office without permission.  People would talk.  It wouldn’t be long before they started asking if the only reason she got the job was because she was sleeping with me.  I’d seen it happen back home, even though my society was – on paper – far more equal.  I knew one female officer who’d been damn good at her job and still had people wondering if she’d slept her way to her post.  Bastards.

“We need to talk,” she said.  A shiver ran down my spine.  It always boded ill when someone started a conversation with that.  “You’re marching out tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.  There was no point in denying it.  “You need to stay here …”

“No.”  Fallon stood and met my eyes.  “I’m coming with you.”

I hesitated, suddenly unsure what to say.  There was no way I could guarantee her safety if she marched out with me.  I wanted her to stay home, where she’d be safe.  And yet …

“You’re pregnant,” I said, finally.  “If you march to war, the baby …”

“The baby will be fine,” Fallon said, cutting me off.  “I should be coming with you.”

I hesitated, again.  Technically, I had the power to tell her she was staying behind and make it stick.  Our relationship was complex, to say the least, but … I doubted it would survive if I ordered her to do as I said.  She was hardly the sort of woman to accept her future husband’s orders without question.  And yet …

“There will be a very real risk to you specifically,” I said, finally.  Warlord Cuthbert might ransom the rest of the girls, if they fell into his clutches, but Fallon was probably on his kill list.  The warlords hated me personally and, unlike Helen, there was nothing to be gained by keeping Fallon alive.  They’d kill her just to make me suffer.  “If they capture you …”

Fallon glared.  I felt the air tingle around me.  “I knew the risks when I joined up,” she said, tartly.  “They haven’t changed …”

“Back then, you were just another young woman with a talent for magic,” I reminded her.  “Now, you’re going to be my wife.”

“And what sort of wife would I be if I let you go into danger without me?”  Fallon looked me up and down.  “Do I actually have a role here, in the mansion?”

I hesitated, once again.  The hell of it was that she had a point.  A regular aristocratic wife was the mistress of the household, her husband’s regent when he went off to the war.  The idea of one of them sitting around looking pretty was absurd, particularly after she’d had a child or two.  She had the training to handle everything, the training Fallon lacked.  I wanted to point out she could continue her studies, or serving the queen, but … the words refused to form.  I didn’t really want to let her out of my sight either.

“It will be dangerous,” I said, finally.  I really wasn’t keen on the idea of risking the baby and yet, I knew her well enough to know she wouldn’t listen if I told her to stay.  “And we’ll have to avoid being too affectionate, on the march.”

Fallon grinned.  “You mean I won’t have to kiss you?  How … terrible.”

I had to smile, despite my fears.  “I’m sure you’ll survive,” I said, dryly.  I would have to tell Helen I was taking Fallon, then make arrangements for her to ride with the magicians.  “We leave at first light.”

“I’ll be ready,” Fallon said.  “I’ve already packed.”

Queenmaker 5-6

25 Oct

Sorry for the delay – real life intervened.

Chapter Five

“She told you, then?”  Violet shot me a mischievous look.  “I knew it!”

I stared at her.  “You knew?”

Violet smirked  “You didn’t?”

Her face fell a second later.  I felt a twinge of pity.  I’d thought I’d had a hard childhood, but compared to Violet I’d grown up in the lap of luxury.  Her mother had been a whore, from what little she’d told me, and she’d fled onto the streets when her mother’s pimp – a man I intended to kill if I ever met him – had started implying she could take her mother’s place.  And even though she’d dressed as a young man, she’d been in constant danger.  If I’d been a regular nobleman when she tried to rob me, I’d have cut her down in a moment and left her to bleed out in the gutter.

“No,” I said.  I’d assumed it wasn’t going to happen.  Careless of me.  I’d had two kids already.  I knew I wasn’t infertile.  I knew men who’d had kids in their eighties and I was nowhere near that old.  “It never crossed my mind.”

Violet looked pained.  I could guess what she was thinking.  A man who fathered a child out of wedlock could pretend the child didn’t exist, if he wished.  She probably knew hundreds of women who’d been knocked up and then abandoned, left to raise their children in poverty or sell them into slavery or something even worse.  I wouldn’t do that – I wouldn’t – but who knew?  I could name a dozen politicians who’d railed against abortion on grounds of moral principles, only to secretly pay for abortions when unexpected pregnancies threatened to torpedo their lives and campaigns.  Bastards.  It wasn’t as if most political leaders couldn’t afford to raise an additional child.

“I’m going to marry her,” I said, unsure why I was justifying myself to her.  “Anyway … what is the mood on the streets?”

Violet straightened.  I smiled inwardly.  Violet hadn’t had any education at all, at least until I’d taken her into my service, but she was smart.  Street-smart.  If there was anyone who could put their finger on the pulse of public mood, it was her.  She and her ring of spies could go anywhere, unseen and unremarked, and listen to the people as they spoke over beers or in the workplaces or everywhere else.  I paid them well too, giving them half the money to use as they saw fit and spending the other half on shelters and schools.  Given time, I told myself, life would become better for all the street children.  Besides, it was more than anyone else had ever done for them.

“There is a sense of cautious optimism,” Violet said, clasping her hands behind her back.  “The average man on the streets has a great deal of faith in you, after you returned from exile and kicked out the aristos who wanted to sell us out to the warlords.  They think you’ll win again, even though the warlords are powerful.  And there’s very little support for seeking any sort of peace.”

I nodded, stiffly.  The warlords had had a stranglehold on the kingdom for decades.  They’d been hated and feared … now, they were merely hated.  I’d taken a small army deep into Warlord Aldred’s lands and destroyed him; I’d crushed his armies, shattered his castles and freed his serfs.  The warlord had been unprepared for me – and I knew his peers had been working desperately to build up their armies ever since I turned their world upside down – but it had still been a decisive victory.  The balance of power had shifted.  The warlords knew they could no longer rely on raw numbers and brutality to maintain their supremacy.

And the numbers might well be on our side, I thought, wryly.  It’s astonishing how few of their serfs actually want to fight for them.

I leaned forward.  “How is this affecting recruiting?”

Violet smiled.  “A vast number of men say they’d join up in a heartbeat,” she told me.  “I’d say around a third of them actually will.”

I snorted.  It was easy to say one would go to war, but harder to do it.  The traditions that had shamed young Americans who’d refused to fight for their country didn’t exist here.  There was no sense the people had any real stake in their world, or that there would be any significant reward for serving their monarch.  Most of the population preferred to hide, or to stand on the sidelines and be a reward for the victor, rather than risk their own skins.  That was changing – it had already changed in some places – but it would be a long time before military service became a respectable occupation for commoners.  No matter how hard I worked to improve things, I feared it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime.

“We should have the numbers soon,” I said, shortly.  “It’s harder for the warlords now.”

The thought made me smile.  There were limits to how many serfs the warlords could pull from the fields and arm without risking revolt.  No one really liked the idea of bullying their own friends and families, let alone being forced to work their asses off for a warlord who barely left them enough to keep them alive.  One might as well expect black slaves to willingly fight for the CSA!  Giving serfs weapons was always risky and the warlords would have to be desperate to do it in large numbers … and if they did, there was a very strong prospect of revolts in their rear.  I’d certainly done all I could to encourage them.  The warlords had tried to block communications between our lines and theirs, but no one could keep peasants and serfs from talking.  They knew Warlord Aldred had been crushed so completely his bloodline would never recover.

And we promised that anyone who rose against their master could keep their lands afterwards, I reminded myself.  They have to be aware of the danger from their own people,

My smile grew wider.  They were doing everything they could to build up their stockpiles of modern weaponry, or whatever passed for modern in this strange world, but their mindsets were still trapped in the 14th century.  They were used to small forces, armies that would vanish without trace in the vast hosts that had fought the American Civil War, the First World War and even the Iraq War.  The bigger their armies, the harder it would be to exercise any kind of real control.  They’d have to trust their commanders – and their mercenaries – and they wouldn’t find it very easy.  Hell, if they gave me a couple of years, I’d steamroll them so efficiently half my armies wouldn’t even know they’d been in a fight.

Violet took a breath.  “There’s also a great deal of respect for your other improvements,” she said, slowly.  “The fresh water alone has done wonders for them.”

I nodded, curtly.  I still didn’t understand how a world could be aware of germs and yet not tell their population to boil water before they drank it.  Everyone drank beer – even the children – because the water simply wasn’t safe to drink, unless you were a magician or extremely wealthy magician.  I’d insisted on boiling water, washing hands and a hundred other simple precautions that saved lives, if they were carried out religiously.  It would be several years, at best, before the plumbing reached 1900 standards, but we were improving that too.  There’d be one hell of a population boom in the next fifty years or so. 

“I guess they love me,” I said, dryly.  “What’s the bad news?”

Violet tensed.  I felt a pang of pity, then guilt.  She’d grown up in a world where shooting – or beheading – the messenger was regarded as a perfectly reasonable reaction to bad news.  It wasn’t safe to be the one bringing bad news to a man who could kill you in a heartbeat – and would, if he wanted to take his anger out on the nearest target.  I’d read the reports from the team assigned to work out what had happened, in the final days of Saddam’s regime, and they’d all agreed that no one had dared bring bad news to their dictator.  They’d been lying about everything, even as American tanks probed into Baghdad.  Idiots.  If the dictator had actually had a realistic idea of what his forces could do, he might have been able to make the invasion a great deal harder.

“I don’t punish people for telling me bad news, as long as it’s the truth,” I said, as reassuringly as possible.  I owed it to myself to try.  Violet would probably never trust me completely – she’d been kicked so many times she’d spend the rest of her life bracing herself for more kicks – but the more I showed myself a reasonable person, the more she’d be willing to tell me things I didn’t want to hear.  “What’s the bad news?”

I leaned back, trying to look unthreatening as she frowned.  “They don’t like the Black Roses,” she said, finally.  “They’re poking their noses into everything.”

I grimaced.  “In what way?”

“They come into shops, sometimes, and demand to know who is buying what,” Violet said, slowly.  “Or they ask about taxes and insist on seeing the accounts.  Other times … they break into bars and ask pointed questions, or simply march the streets in force.  The people don’t like it.”

I made a face.  I understood Helen’s determination to coup-proof her regime after the aristos had come very close to taking control, then marrying her off to some poor sucker, but if it was starting to cause resentment … I cursed under my breath.  The city’s tax system was a mess – it desperately needed reform – and fixing it would take years.  If the middle classes started to resent paying their taxes …

No taxation without representation, I thought, crossly.  And there’s very little representation here.

“It could be worse,” I said, finally.  “Have they found anything important?  Or dangerous?”

“Not as far as I know,” Violet said.  “But they did lock up a couple of men for saying they wouldn’t fight for the queen.”

I groaned, inwardly.  Nothing gave such ideas more credence than punishing people for saying them.  Nothing.  The more punishment was meted out, the more people believed in them even if they were unwilling to say it out loud.  And then … even if they didn’t believe, they still resented such treatment and it coloured their later attitudes to the world …

“I’ll have to do something about it,” I said, tiredly.  “Is it likely to cause problems?”

“I don’t know,” Violet said.  “It might.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “It might.”

I rubbed my forehead as I stared down at my desk – and the piles of paperwork that required my personal attention.  Someone – I forgot who – had said the French Revolution had been both the most predictable and unpredictable event in history.  On one hand, the French had been so badly mistreated by their government revolt was inevitable; on the other, government repression had been so effective it was impossible to predict when the revolt would take place, let alone when it would buy the rebels enough time to put together a government of their own.  And the hatreds had grown so intense – in France and Russia and many others – that there’d been no hope of a peaceful solution.

But the half-hearted attempts at reform only made things worse, I reminded myself.  Do our reforms go far enough?

I sighed, inwardly.  People without hope didn’t revolt.  People who had no sense things could get better saw no reason to risk their lives battering their heads against a brick wall.  But if they started to feel that things really were changing … I groaned.  Helen had signed an entire bunch of reforms into law, in the first days after she’d been restored to power, and the city’s aristocracy were no longer in any state to oppose them.  It was quite possible she’d whetted the people’s appetite for reform, to the point nothing she could reasonably give them would match the expectations she’d raised …

“We’ll just have to hope we can stay ahead of matters until we win the war,” I said, finally.  There was no longer any large pro-warlord faction in the city … and anyone who did support them would be keeping it very quiet, not when it was unlikely they’d survive long enough to face trial and execution.  Helen might or might not be that popular, but compared to the warlords she was as popular as the average overpaid celebrity.  “Afterwards, we can deal with the Black Roses.”

Violet raised her eyebrows.  “Will the Queen let you deal with them?”

I sighed, again.  The problem with wartime security measures was that they had a habit of lingering, like a bad stench, when the war was over.  Governments could be relied upon to take advantage of any emergency to increase their powers and make lives harder for anyone who opposed them, branding any dissent as treachery.  I didn’t blame Helen for wanting to secure her throne, yet it was only a matter of time before her security measures started turning people against her.  The TSA had been popular once, after 9/11, but that hadn’t lasted very long.  The only reason it wasn’t the most hatred and loathed agency in the states was because it was up against some very stiff competition.

“I can try to talk her into disbanding them,” I said, finally.  “Or, at least, cutting back on their excesses.”

Violet didn’t look convinced.  I wasn’t convinced either.  Government agencies tended to grow and grow, no matter how many people demanded cuts.  It wasn’t easy to trim the fat when the agency’s leadership was fighting desperately to maintain their empires … hell, it was damn near impossible to reform an agency that was losing its way.  And then …

“We’ll see,” I said.  “But first we have to win the war.”

“The people are betting on you,” Violet said.  “They don’t want the old days to come back.”

“No one does,” I said.  “And we can’t afford to let ourselves get bogged down now.”

Violet nodded, then curtsied.  “Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes,” I said.  “Keep an eye out for enemy agents.  They’ll be sneaking into the city if they’re not already here.”

Violet curtsied again and left the room.  I sighed, once again, as I looked down at the small mountain of paperwork.  One wouldn’t expect a primitive army – and city – to produce quite so much, but … I shook my head in quiet amusement as I started to flip through the sheets of parchment and papers.  I’d been training new clerks and yet, it would take time to train up enough to satisfy demand.  There just hadn’t been anything like enough educated people to handle the work when I’d arrived.  I’d had to start training the trainers before I could start training clerks.

It’ll be fixed in time, I told myself.  I’d been planning to rotate army officers between the front lines and the rear, to make sure they never lost track of what was important, but I didn’t have time to do that either.  Given time, we can fix everything.

I turned my attention to the map and frowned.  I’d hundreds of projects in mind – sewers, aqueducts and canals, factories – that would improve lives, if I ever managed to get them off the ground.  It wasn’t going to be easy to get any of them done, at least until I trained up more craftsmen and workers.  And yet … given time, the reforms would attain a momentum that would make them impossible to stop.  If the warlords gave me the time …

They won’t, I reminded myself.  They wouldn’t have sent that ultimatum if they hadn’t been sure they could best us in the field.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  They had problems understanding me, but I had problems understanding them.  Their mindsets were … practically alien.  Keeping one’s property for the next generation was one thing,  but keeping humans as property was quite another.  It was unthinkable and yet, I knew generations of humans had considered it very thinkable indeed.  There was no way I could talk them into letting their serfs go …

It might be worth mounting long-range raids into their territory, I thought.  The warlords patrolled the borderlines, making sure serfs couldn’t sneak out of their lands and hide in the cities.  If we can take out a few of their patrols, their population might desert completely.

My mind started to wander.  I was going to be a father.  Again.  How would I cope?  There was no way in hell I was going to turn my child over to the staff, not when I was determined to be a good father.  And yet … raising Martin and Jack had been difficult, not least because I’d been on deployment on a regular basis.  I’d left Cleo alone … the pain of coming home to discover she was cheating still stung, but now it was dulled by the grim awareness she really had been alone.  Would Fallon feel I’d left her behind too?

There was a knock at the door.  I looked up.  “Come.”

A messenger entered, looking as conceited as only a fool of a young man could look.  “My Lord, Her Majesty demands your presence.”

My earlier thoughts mocked me.  The messenger was annoying.  Sure, he was doing his duty, but … I shook my head.  It didn’t matter.  He was nothing more than a messenger, carrying messages for his mistress.  The locals thought of them as the organ-grinder’s tame monkey, with all the unpleasantness that implied.

“Thank you for informing me,” I said, calmly.  There was nothing to be gained by snapping at him.  He was only following orders.  “Please let Her Majesty know I’ll be along as soon as possible.”

Chapter Six

“You’re looking remarkably happy,” Helen said, once I was shown into her private reception room.  We weren’t entirely alone, I was sure, but her guards and servants knew to keep their mouths closed these days.  “Should I be concerned?”

I hesitated, unsure what to say.  Helen was remarkably perceptive when it came to reading people.  She’d had no choice, but to learn.  The Royal Court had been a snake pit even before her father’s death and the purge of the untrustworthy aristos who had committed the dread sin of launching a coup and then losing.  She knew how to tell what a person was really thinking and … I honestly wasn’t sure what to say.  I wasn’t even sure of my own feelings.  But there was no point in trying to deny it.

“Fallon and I are expecting a child,” I said, finally.  “And she has agreed to marry me.”

Helen’s face became a blank mask.  I suspected that was a bad sign.  She was very good at presenting the image she wanted to present, to the point she was also the most capable liar I’d ever met.  I’d seen her embrace men I knew she wanted dead and offer no support to people she wanted on her side.  That she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say – or think – now … I didn’t know what it meant.  I doubted she wanted to marry me.  Even if she did, she had a duty to marry someone who would strengthen her throne.

And someone who won’t try to take it from her, my thoughts mocked.  Such a paragon will not be easy to find.

“You should have told me,” Helen said, finally.  “Your private life is not your own.”

I frowned.  “It’s my private life,” I said.  “Does it matter …?”

“You are one of the most powerful noblemen in the kingdom,” Helen pointed out, sharply.  I could have kicked myself.  “Your marriage is a matter of public concern.  Your wedding day is – will be – the social event of the year.  And whoever you marry will enter society at a very high level indeed.”

“I’m not that important,” I said.  Helen was deluding herself if she thought the aristos would ever see me as anything other than a jumped-up mercenary.  They’d hatred me from the moment she made me her warlord, looking down on me as someone who’d lucked into a post that should have been theirs by right.  I doubted any of them would willingly attend my wedding.  And they’d had few qualms about spreading the worst sort of lies about our relationship.  “And our wedding will be simple …”

Helen shook her head.  “You cannot afford not to invite everyone with a title,” she said, curtly.  “If you don’t, they’ll see it as an insult.”

I felt a hot flash of anger, mingled with the grim awareness Helen was as much a creature of her society as her aristocracy, or what remained of them.  It was like high school all over again, only worse.  If you were invited to all the best parties, you were a winner; if you were never invited at all, you were so much a loser the other losers would look down on you.  And here … I wondered, idly, how many aristos would willingly attend my wedding if I invited them.  I certainly didn’t want them.  They’d be waiting for the chance to lodge an objection to the match.

“Fallon is a magician, which makes her better than a commoner,” Helen continued.  “But she comes from commoner stock and they’ll look down on her.”

I placed firm controls on my anger.  “Are you saying I shouldn’t marry her?”

Helen met my eyes.  “I’m saying you might be better off, politically speaking, to marry someone with better connections.”

I shook my head.  There was no way in hell I wanted to marry an aristo’s daughter, particularly one whose father had told her she was going to marry me and bear my children or else.  I doubted any candidate would be allowed to say no and that meant, if I married her, I’d be a de facto rapist.  I’d hung rapists!  And besides … there was no way in hell, either, that I was going to allow my child to grow up without a proper father.  I was going to make a honest woman of Fallon and that was all there was to it.

“She’s pregnant,” I said.  I didn’t know if Helen knew Fallon was pregnant.  She was very perceptive, but … she hadn’t said anything to me about it.  “And I won’t let my child grow up without a father.”

Helen looked irked, just for a second.  I sighed inwardly.  What was she expecting me to do?  Marry Fallon off to someone who’d accept the child as his own?  Give her a payment and tell her to keep the child out of my life?  Or … pretend the child was a distant relative and never acknowledge him as my own?  No.  I couldn’t do anything of the sort.  The child would have a proper father even if that meant taking Fallon and lighting out for somewhere else, leaving my post and property behind.  I wondered if Helen truly thought I’d do it.  Most aristocrats would sooner die than give up their property and titles.

But then, they were raised to believe the property and titles were theirs by right, I thought, tiredly.  I’d realised, the day I arrived in the city, just how easily I could lose everything if the balance of power shifted in the wrong direction.  I had contingency plans for leaving without looking back if the alternative was being executed.  I never had anything of the sort when I grew up.

“You need to plan for a proper wedding,” Helen said, finally.  I wondered, suddenly, if she’d been planning my marriage.  No one would have batted an eyelid if I’d married well and kept Fallon as a mistress.  Bastards.  “But now, we have other matters to concern ourselves.”

She leaned back and held out a scroll, the wax seal dangling uselessly.  I felt a tingle as I took the parchment, something that never failed to disturb me at a very primal level.  Magic was an integral part of my new world and yet … I shook my head as I scanned the document, parsing out the words one by one.  It was written in an archaic manner that was difficult to follow, the tiny handwriting only making it harder to understand.  And whoever had written it had spent several paragraphs flattering Helen before coming to the point.  I felt a twinge of disgust.  The writer was practically leaving a trail of saliva on her boots.

“We received the message only an hour ago,” Helen said, as I parsed out the final words one by one.  “Warlord Cuthbert’s forces are on the march, probing south into what remains of Warlord Aldred’s territory and heading towards Damansara.  The City Fathers have requested our help as a matter of urgency.”

I nodded, sourly.  I knew the City Fathers.  They’d used me and discarded me without bothering to praise me.  If they were asking for help now … I wondered, sourly, what had happened to the army I’d built for them.  It hadn’t been that long since I’d left the city … not long enough, surely, for the army to fall to ruin?  The city had experienced military leaders and infantry, to say nothing of factories and workshops churning out newer and better weaponry.  I found it hard to believe they were that desperate for help.

But if Cuthbert has better weapons of his own, the city might be vulnerable, I thought.  And they’ll have to sell out for the best terms they can get.

“They might have a point,” I conceded, ruefully.  “If Cuthbert has cannons, the city’s walls will provide very little protection.”

It was a thoroughly disturbing thought.  Damansara had been impregnable when I’d arrived in the new world, although – given time – the city could have been starved into submission.  The walls were just too strong to allow enemy troops to storm the city, not without losing so many lives that the serfs might have risen successfully and freed themselves.  But if the walls could be battered down … I shuddered, all too aware the fall would be followed by an orgy of looting, raping and burning that would leave the population slaughtered and the city in ruins.  It would be a nightmare that would make the worst atrocities of Islamic State look like nothing.

I turned my eyes to the map.  We needed Damansara as a base if we wanted to strike north and take out Cuthbert before his allies could mobilise and threaten us from the south.  He knew it too – I assumed he could read a map – and that meant he had to take the city, or at least neutralise it, before we could get there in force.  The city wasn’t exactly an easy target – I’d made sure of that – but the City Fathers wouldn’t sell their lives for their queen.  If they thought there was no hope of relief, they’d sell out.  And then …

They’ll have to disarm, at the very least, I thought.  And then they’ll be defenceless when the warlord starts making more and more demands.

“They need help,” Helen said.  “And we have to prove we can help them.”

I nodded.  Damansara wasn’t the only semi-independent city-state.  There were others, arming themselves to stand against their tormentors and yet unsure they could rely on us to come to their aid.  If Helen proved she could and would send her troops to protect her allies, they’d be reassured and switch sides … I looked at the map, silently contemplating what would happen if half the cities joined us.  The warlords would rapidly find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.  And they’d lose.

Helen tapped the map.  “Can we help them?”

I nodded.  “We were already making preparations to thrust north,” I said.  I’d hoped for more time, but it was the one thing the warlords knew not to give me.  “I should be able to push out a sizable force …”

My eyes narrowed.  The railroad network wasn’t anything like as extensive as I’d wished.  We had a single track running north and that was it.  I’d hoped to be able to rush troops to the border, as Prussia had done in 1871, but it wasn’t going to happen.  Not yet.  I’d need to march most of the force north, which would put some very solid limits on just how many men I could send …

I glanced at her.  “It should be doable,” I told her.  “We could be off in a day or two.”

Helen looked surprised.  “So quickly?”

“The faster we move, the less time they’ll have to prepare for us,” I said.  I understood her surprise.  Most local armies moved like tortoises.  The cavalry were faster, of course, but men on horseback couldn’t do that much against an army with modern weapons.  I’d shredded Aldred’s first offensive when his cavalry had charged straight into my guns.  It had been like shooting fish in a barrel.  I would have felt guilty if I hadn’t known exactly what they wanted to do to the people behind me.  “And if we can best them in the field, immediately, we might bring his whole edifice tumbling down.”

I smiled.  Helen wouldn’t want to know all the details.  I didn’t intend to tell her how I’d be sending more and more agents north, making contact with rebels and dissidents and turning them into assets.  The warlord wouldn’t be able to cling to power if we destroyed his army in a single terrible blow.  His serfs would rise against him, while the lesser nobility would start reassessing their positions … it was unlikely, I thought, we could get them to turn on their master, but it was worth a try.  We stood to lose nothing and gain much. 

“We have an opportunity we can’t miss,” I said.  “At the very least, crushing his army will render him powerless before his allies can intervene.”

Helen nodded.  She didn’t lack for nerve.  “Do it,” she said.  “And don’t let him tie you down.”

I shrugged.  That wasn’t going to happy.  My men knew how to march at speeds the locals had thought impossible.  If I ran into defence lines I couldn’t handle, I could simply march around them and take the enemy in the rear, or pin them down if there was no way to break the lines without heavy losses.  My logistics system was a joke, compared to the system back home, but it was so much better than anything local that everyone was delighted.  The usual risks of settling down to lay siege to a castle – or a city – simply didn’t apply to us.

“I won’t let you down,” I promised.  “Once Cuthbert is gone, we can deal with the others.”

Helen nodded.  “I want him dead,” she said.  “You understand me?  No promises.  No deals.  No chance for him to come back and regain his powers.  I want him dead.”

“I understand,” I said.  Helen hated all the warlords, but her hatred for Cuthbert was deeply personal.  He’d undermined her father, turned her aristocrats against her, plotted to marry her – rape her – and God alone knew what else.  There was no way in hell she’d leave him alive, once she had him at her mercy.  I just hoped she wouldn’t slaughter his entire family.  The warlords would fight harder if they thought their entire existence was at stake.  “What about his clients?”

Helen scowled.  “If they bend the knee to me, and prove with their words and deeds they are willing to serve me, they can live,” she said.  “But they will never be trusted and they will never be allowed enough independence to become a threat.”

I met her eyes.  “If you keep the boot on their necks, they will resent it and they will turn against you,” I said.  There were limits to how much you could punish someone, even for the worst crimes, even if they understood their guilt, before they started resenting their treatment and plotting revenge.  It was the old problem.  If you failed to offer the chance of redemption and forgiveness, what was the point of trying for it?  “We need to either drive them out for good or offer them a way back into your good graces.”

“They were never in my good graces,” Helen muttered.  Her eyes darkened as she studied the map.  “But if we drive them out …”

I knew what she was thinking.  She did have some aristo supporters, either through genuine faith in her or the awareness she’d take their lands and redistribute them if they didn’t support her.  If she set a precedent for destroying entire families … I winced.  It would be so much better if the aristocracy was unceremoniously terminated, their lands handed out to their workers and the aristocrats themselves sent into permanent exile, but it wasn’t going to happen.  And yet, I knew what would happen if we missed the chance for permanent reform.  Jim Crow might never have raised its ugly head if the plantations had been destroyed, the land handed over to the former slaves … how long would it be, I asked myself, before the aristrocracy regained its power?

Not as long as I’m alive, I thought, darkly.

“If they bend the knee to me, they will have a chance,” she said.  “But there will be no second chances.”

I carefully didn’t show my relief.  I suspected she saw it anyway.

“I can issue the orders now, with the lead elements leaving tonight or tomorrow morning,” I said.  I wanted to send the cavalry to sweep the countryside, just to make sure the enemy wasn’t planning to be cute.  “Is there anything else we need to address?”

“Just one,” Helen said.  “You issued standing orders that mercenaries were to be executed on the spot.”

I nodded.  The irony hadn’t escaped me – everything thought I was a mercenary – but I saw no choice.  The warlords were hiring every mercenary they could convince to take their money and I wanted to try to convince the mercenaries they would be better off seeking employment elsewhere.  It wasn’t that much of a risk.  Normal monarchs were reluctant to crack down on mercenaries because they might wind up needing mercenaries themselves, but Helen had plenty of volunteers.  She didn’t need to hire outsiders.  And besides, a policy of hanging mercenaries wherever we found them would be astonishingly popular.  The people would forgive us much, if we killed every last mercenary.

“Cancel the order,” Helen said.  “It will cause too many problems.”

I shook my head, without thinking.  “We don’t need them,” I said.  “And we’ll be undermining the warlords by forcing their mercenaries to go elsewhere.”

“And we don’t need the mercenary guilds joining up against us,” Helen said, sharply.  “If they all join the warlords, it could cost us everything.”

I doubted it.  There were hundreds of thousands of mercenaries scattered across the Allied Lands, perhaps more, but they weren’t going to unite against us.  Mercenaries didn’t want to die for a point of principle, not when they wouldn’t get to live and enjoy their reward.  Why go to war against a monarch who would execute you if you were captured, when there were other monarchs who’d treat you with kid gloves?  They might need mercenaries themselves one day.

“They won’t march to their deaths,” I told her.  “And if they think death is all that awaits them, they won’t march at all.”

“I hope you’re right,” Helen said.  “Because if you’re wrong …”

“I will stake my life on it,” I said, unable to escape the awareness that was exactly what I was doing.  “We will move fast and break things and then we will return in time for the wedding.”

Helen smiled, rather dryly.  “Go issue your orders,” she said.  “And tell my secretary to send in Lord Jacob as you pass.”

I nodded.  “Yes, Your Majesty.”

OUT NOW – Fantastic School Hols

22 Oct

Featuring a whole new Schooled in Magic Novella!

Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Come join a young girl who goes home to face the shadows of the past, three young misfits at a school that may be all misfits, a young woman who must use her wits to win back her best friend from the giants of Dartmoor, a young man who must resist being permanently drawn into the magical world of winter, and students trying to find the best possible prank to disrupt a school holiday ceremony.

Follow us into worlds different, magical ……

And very human.

Includes stories by Christopher G. Nuttall, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Steven G. Johnson, Emily Martha Sorensen, Misha Burnett, Denton Salle, Aaron Van Treeck, Morgon Newquist, Patrick Lauser, Barb Caffrey, George Phillies, Becky R. Jones, Frank B. Luke, Fiona Grey

Find on Kindle Unlimited HERE!  Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CANAmazon AUSAmazon Universal.  And check out the rules if you want to write an FS story yourself.

OUT NOW – All for All (Cast Adrift III)

18 Oct

The conclusion to the hit trilogy!

Humanity has won a great victory, liberating their homeworld from the alien Pashtali and convincing many of the alien Great Powers that Earth is much more than a vassal state of a decaying empire, easy meat for the first invader who comes along.  But the war is far from over.  The Pashtali are gathering their forces, closing down their border wars with smaller powers while the greater ones sit on the sidelines, readying their navy for a final confrontation with Earth.  The end cannot be long delayed.

There is one hope left.  Allying themselves with the other smaller powers, the Solar Navy sets off on a final desperate campaign to break the aliens once and for all, or lose everything on the final throw of the dice.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase: Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CanadaAmazon AustraliaAmazon Universal LinkDraft2Digital (Other bookshops on page)

And if you liked this, you might like The Stranded (Urban isekai) or The Chimera Coup (fantasy).