Snippet – The Family Secret (The Zero Enigma XI)

13 Sep

Prologue

Alonzo FitzRubén awoke, in pain.

The world around him was dark, dark and gloomy.  His memories were a confused mess, flashes of words and images that didn’t seem to be in any coherent order.  He’d been in the city, he’d been speaking to Charlotte … to Charlotte Rubén, who hated him and resented, bitterly, the family’s order that she should marry him.  Alonzo knew how she felt.  He hadn’t been too pleased when he’d been plucked out of the training program, his contract sold to House Rubén shortly before he reached his majority.  Sure, they’d made noises about honouring him as one of their own, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that they’d termed him ‘FitzRubén.’  One of them, yet not quite one of them.  They were more considerate to literal family bastards.

He gritted his teeth as he tried to sit up.  His body was aching, as if he’d been brutally beaten to within an inch of his life, but nothing seemed to be broken.  The air was old and dank, pressing against his lungs as he tried to breathe.  His eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dim light, a faint glow filtering down from high overhead.  He’d been in the flightstone chamber, if he recalled correctly … his memories suddenly snapped back into place as he stumbled to his feet.  Something had gone wrong with the flightstone.  The city had wobbled in midair, the magic field holding it aloft threatening to fail, threatening to let gravity reassert itself and pull the immense structure to the ground.  Alonzo had run to the chamber, in hopes of making repairs or – at worst – putting the city down before the field failed completely – but … he wasn’t sure what had happened when he’d touched the flightstone.  There’d been a flash of light and …

I must have been stunned, he thought, numbly.  The city hadn’t been completely abandoned – there’d been a small army of servants onboard – but most of the family had travelled to the city for the big ceremony.  Someone got onboard, stunned me and … and what?

Alonzo muttered a word, half-hoping the wards would hear it and respond.  He had no magic, but the wards could still hear him … there was no response.  The chamber should have been lit instantly, yet … he looked around, shaking his head in disbelief.  There was no sign of the flightstone.  It took him longer than it should have done to realise the crystalline structure was on the floor, in pieces.  He didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin repairing the damage.  He wasn’t even sure it was possible.  It was hard to make out anything in the dim light, but some of the pieces were charred, as if they’d been passed through a fire.  He hadn’t seen anything like it, not even during his training.  What had happened?

He forced himself to stumble to the door and peer down the corridor.  It was dim, lit only by starlight.  He looked up and saw cracks in the roof … cracks that shouldn’t have been there, even if the city had fallen from the sky.  How badly had they landed?  House Rubén prided itself on the finest flying city in the empire.  It had been immense, easily the biggest thing ever to take to the skies.  They’d said it was invulnerable.  And now … he stumbled down the corridor, feeling the ground shifting oddly under his feet.  There should have been a small army of servants, humans and mechanical alike, clearing up the wreckage and laying the groundwork for refloating the city.  Instead, there was nothing.  The city was as dark and silent as the grave. 

We were attacked, he thought.  But how?

The mystery nagged at his mind as he kept walking.  The city was solidly warded.  He’d helped lay the spellforms himself.  No one should have been able to enter without permission, no one should have been able to bring anything destructive inside the wards without setting off all kinds of alarms.  The servants had certain rights – everyone did, apart from Alonzo – but they couldn’t invite friends and family into the city without permission from their masters.  How had it been done?  The attacker would have needed to get into the network of spellstones, linked to the flightstone … Alonzo couldn’t see how it could have been done.  And why had everything failed?

His heart almost stopped as the realisation crashed down on him.  The city had glowed with magic.  It had been crammed with magical artefacts crafted by the family, with artworks and animated paintings and everything else the family refused to throw out.  And … not everything was linked to the spellform holding the city aloft.  Why had everything failed?  It made no sense.  Alonzo could imagine a spellbreaker capable of blasting the entire city, but actually building one would be impossible.  The spellform would be too large to handle.  It would effectively collapse under its own weight.  What had happened?

He tripped over a dark shape and nearly fell to the ground, barely catching himself in time.  A body.  It was a body … he forced himself to turn the body over and check for a pulse.  There was nothing.  The dim light made it hard to see anything, but … it was a serving girl, a young woman who’d been taken on as a domestic, someone who might rise to the top of the servant tree given time and devotion.  Her neck was broken, snapped effortlessly.  Alonzo felt the side of her head and winced.  She’d hit the bulkhead hard enough for the force to break her neck.

I’m sorry, he thought, numbly.  The young woman had always been kind to him, unlike his supposed family.  You deserved better.

Another quiver ran through the ruined city.  Alonzo forced himself to stand up and keep walking.  The city had clearly landed badly, but whatever had happened to bring it down wasn’t finished.  Not yet.  Was the enemy looting the rubble?  Or … was it searching for hostages?  For Alonzo himself?  It was possible – he might be powerless, but his value lay in his lack of magic – yet it didn’t seem right.  He just didn’t understand what he was seeing.  The spellform pervading the flightstone – and the spellstones beyond – had been perfect.  If it hadn’t been, the city would never have taken flight.  He couldn’t believe it had failed … and, even if it had, how had it managed to take down everything?

He scrambled up a servant passageway and pushed open a hatch, clambering out into the open air.  The night sky overhead mocked him.  They weren’t that far from civilisation.  There should have been a small army of flyers overhead, dispatched from military bases as their commanders realised the city had crashed … but nothing moved in the cold night air.  He looked towards the distant hills and sucked in his breath.  There were no lights, no hints of civilisation.  What had happened?  He’d once read a story where a flying city had been sent back in time, a fantastical idea he knew to be completely impractical, but … there should have been lights.  It wasn’t as if they were gliding into unexplored parts of the world …

Alonzo felt a sudden, overpowering sense of loss as he looked around.  The great towers, structures held together by magic as much as everything else, had crumbled.  Their ruins lay in front of him, mocking him.  They should have been glowing with light and life … even now, when their occupants had gone to the Eternal City for Empire Day.  Now, he was alone.  No one moved in the darkness, not even looters.

But he’d always been alone.

Bitterness consumed him as he made his way towards the edge of the city.  There was no point in staying where he was.  The ground was still shifting, suggesting … what?  His stomach growled, reminding him it had been hours since his last meal.  Longer than that, perhaps.  He wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious.  Cold logic told him it couldn’t have been longer than a couple of hours at most, but it felt as if he’d slept for years.  There were stories about that too.

He clambered over the ruins, cursing under his breath.  He hadn’t wanted to join the family, let alone to have his name changed and be told he was going to marry a girl who didn’t want him.  But they’d insisted, pointing out he had to be one of them.  He touched his brown hair, clear proof he wasn’t part of the family and never would be.  He’d been forced to sign the marriage contracts, the declaration he would marry Charlotte.  The ancient magics woven into the family bloodline should have turned his hair blond, in preparation for his unwanted marriage.  It was tradition, but ancient tradition had passed him by.  Charlotte had said it meant he’d never be one of the family.  He feared she was right.

And she didn’t even take me to the Eternal City, he thought, as he scrambled over the remains of a tower.  He should have known which one, but the city was so devastated he honestly wasn’t sure.  She was ashamed to be seen with me.

Hatred washed through him.  His talent made him important, but it also made him vulnerable.  He wanted to escape, but there was nowhere to run.  His master had made that clear, when he’d purchased the contract.  Alonzo could stay with the family, and enjoy the perks while working for then, or … or else.  The master hadn’t specified, leaving the matter to Alonzo’s imagination.  It hadn’t really been necessary.  Alonzo had seen enough cruelty in his young life to be all too aware of what House Rubén could do to him, if he tried to leave.  He was their prisoner.  Allowing him to marry into the family was a sick joke.

The city quivered again.  Alonzo glanced back, looking for something – anything – that would tell him what was going on.  The city was dead, yet it was shifting slightly.  Could the flightstone have come back to life?  Alonzo dismissed the thought almost as soon as he’d had it.  The flightstone had been shattered.  There was no way the smaller spellstones could even begin to shift the city, not without the flightstone.  And yet … he snickered as he realised the family didn’t have the slightest idea what had happened.  The gates were probably dead too.  It would take days for them to get back and … he smiled, bitterly, at the thought of their faces when they saw the ruins.  They wouldn’t have the slightest idea what had happened to their city.

He slowed as he reached the edge of the disc and peered into the darkness.  The city was in ruins and yet … he couldn’t see any way down.  Jumping would be suicidal, certainly when he couldn’t tell what was below him.  It was far too far to fall unless he was diving into water and even then, he would have hesitated.  He looked up, trying to gauge how long he had until sunrise.  Perhaps he could stay in the open and wait.  Someone would be along soon, wouldn’t they?  It was impossible to believe the city would be abandoned …

The city shook, once again.  Alonzo lost his footing and fell, right off the edge.  He screamed as the darkness enveloped him, all too aware he was dead.  The disc was huge.  He was going to fall at least sixty metres, then hit the ground hard enough to kill him … of course it was going to kill him.  He was no magician, with the power to slow his fall or cushion his landing … he was going to die.  The analytical side of his mind noted that great power hadn’t saved the others on the city – even the serving girls knew a handful of spells – and that that detail was probably important, but …

He hit … something.  For a crazy moment, he thought he’d fallen into a lake.  Perhaps they’d crashed on the edge of a large body of water.  And then he took a breath and tasted … something … in the water.  No, it wasn’t water.  It felt as if he was breathing sludge.  He gagged, trying to swim to the surface, but he’d completely lost his bearings.  His eyes were open and yet he could see nothing, beyond an eerie green light that pulsed around him.  Was he in hell?  He might be dying.  He was drowning in a sea of light.  Or … his awareness expanded, becoming something else.  And there were voices, echoing through his mind as they spoke.  They promised him everything.

Alonzo listened.

Chapter One

The stairwell felt as if it stretched down into the darkness below the city.

I stood at the top and braced myself, feeling utterly alone.  No one but family were allowed to visit the crypt.  Akin, my brother, was too busy to accompany me and I didn’t want any of my other relatives to come.  Callam … Callam and I were not yet married, not in the eyes of the Ancients.  I couldn’t invite him, even if he hadn’t been busy himself.  I felt an odd little twinge as I reached for the candle and lit it with a single spell.  The last time I’d visited, I’d been a little girl.  Now, I was a grown woman on the verge of getting married.  And …

The candle felt warm in my hand as I started to walk down the stairs.  The family had spent centuries laying spell after spell on the crypt, to keep out our enemies and – according to some stories – to make sure the dead didn’t rise again.  I could feel them pressing at my mind as I walked, spells so old and powerful they saw through my wards as if they weren’t there.  I didn’t know precisely what would happen if I hadn’t been one of the family, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.  The crypt was the last resting place of our nearest and dearest.  We had an obligation to defend it.

My heart pounded in my chest.  I kept walking, even as I felt history pressing around me.  It wasn’t the first crypt.  That was in the Eternal City, the heart of the Thousand-Year Empire, lost in the wake of the disaster that had shattered the empire beyond repair.  There might have been others, over the years, but this one belonged to my branch of the family.  The names carved into the stone walls were reminders of the great and the good, of men and women who’d served the family well before their deaths, before they’d gone to join the Ancients.  I wondered, numbly, what they thought of me.  I’d betrayed, then saved, the family.  Would they welcome me, when my ashes were placed within the crypt?  Or would they cast me out forever?

It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  The Ancients were always with us.  I’d been taught their names from a very early age, as well as the correct way to honour their memories in preparation for the day I’d join them.  They were always watching … I swallowed hard, wondering how they’d judge me.  I’d been played for a fool, because I’d been young and foolish and Stregheria Aguirre had told me precisely what I wanted to hear.  I’d learnt from it, hadn’t I?  When Uncle Stephen had made the same offer, I’d turned him down.  And then I’d killed him. 

He’s watching too, I thought, numbly.  He’ll be watching me until the day I die.

I shook my head.  Times changed.  Attitudes changed.  People changed.  My ancestors had grown up in very different worlds, as much as the family might wish to deny it.  They might not understand what I’d done; they might judge me by their standards, not mine.  Or … they were dead, untethered from mortal concerns.  They might understand both me and Uncle Stephen, or Uncle Ira; they might understand our feelings and motives even as they judged us poorly.  Maybe they’d even been merciful.  Maybe, once they’d been judged, they’d been allowed to join the ranks of the dead.  Maybe …

Uncle Stephen thought he was saving the family, I thought, coldly.  I could see his reasoning, even though I didn’t agree with it.  What was Uncle Ira’s excuse?

The memories tormented me.  Uncle Ira had seemed a genial old man at first, sent into exile for reasons no one cared to remember.  He hadn’t seemed particularly interested in me, even though he was technically meant to be my gaoler … a gaoler who was in gaol himself.  And he’d turned out to be a warlock, conducted forbidden experiments hundreds of miles from Shallot and House Rubén.  He’d tested some of his spells and potions on me.  I still had nightmares about the brew he’d forced me to drink …

And if I hadn’t stopped him, I thought numbly,  he would have dissected Callam just to figure out how his talent actually works.

I took a long breath as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  The family had never been quite sure what to make of me.  I’d been the daughter of the then-Patriarch, then a traitor at twelve years old, then the person who’d kept them from having to deal with a rogue warlock, then the Heir Primus, then the person who’d turned it down, then the person who’d killed Uncle Stephen and brought his coup to an end and, finally, the sister of the serving Patriarch.  I was sure there were people who were counting down the days until I returned to Kirkhaven Hall, where I would remain … rather than stay in Shallot.  It wasn’t easy to admit I’d made a fool of myself, when Akin had brought me and Callam back to the city, but it was true.  I’d been more in love with the ideal of Shallot and High Society rather than the reality.

The air was cold, cold and clear.  I raised my gaze.  The Cryptkeeper stood in front of the archway, wearing a long dark robe that covered her from head to toe.  Her face was hidden in shadow.  I shivered, despite myself.  The legends insisted the Cryptkeeper was truly ancient, that she dated all the way back to the original family mansion, now lost somewhere in the ruins of the Eternal City.  Or that she was a golem, a creature tied to the blood of the family and charged with defending our best.  I knew the stories couldn’t be true, that the Cryptkeeper was merely an old sorceress who’d committed herself to her role, but it was suddenly easy to believe them.  It was impossible to tell if the Cryptkeeper in front of me was the same person who’d showed us around the Crypt, when Akin and I were young.

“Isabella.”  The Cryptkeeper’s voice was emotionless, but I could feel the raw power behind her.  Some claimed she was empowered by the Ancients themselves to defend their crypt.  I almost believed it.  “Why have you come?”

“I came to speak to my father,” I said.  “And then to say farewell.”

The Cryptkeeper nodded, very slightly.  “And are you prepared?”

I looked down at myself.  I’d donned a formal black dress and tied my blonde hair back in a loose ponytail, tight enough to keep it out of my face while loose enough to avoid giving the impression I was still a child.  I’d scrubbed my face clean of makeup and muttered spells to hide my scent … the former a waste of time, given that I had never really liked makeup and found it a little silly.  Callam hadn’t grown up in the city.  He wouldn’t be impressed if I wasted time making myself look pretty.  His people had never really had the time to bother.

“Yes,” I said, shortly.

The Cryptkeeper raised her staff and knocked, once, on the door.  It opened.  I took a breath and stepped through, all too aware it would close behind me.  The chamber beyond was dark and cold, lit only by a faint blue light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  I stood still, waiting for my eyes to grow accustomed to the light.  Powerful spells hung in the air, crawling over the door – and me – like wasps on honey.  I shuddered as they pressed against my defences, threatening to break them down.  It felt as if I was standing somewhere I didn’t belong.

I took a moment to gather myself, then looked up.  The chamber was immense.  The floor was a pattern of bare stone, broken by earthen graves.  The headstones were a strange mixture, ranging from detailed carvings of the dead person’s face to bare stones, marked only by the corpses name.  I shivered as I stared into the distance.  The far wall was lost in shadow.  It was suddenly easy to believe the chamber went on forever.

“I come to pay my respects,” I said.  My words hung in the cold air.  “Please regard me kindly.”

It was all I could do to step forward, onto the stone path.  The air seemed to grow colder.  I gritted my teeth and kept walking, trying not to think about the dead rising to lash out at the traitor.  They might hate me for betraying the family; they might hate me for killing Uncle Stephen, if they thought he’d done the right thing.  Maybe, by their standards, he had.  Akin was going to marry Caitlyn Aguirre.  And our feud with House Aguirre was legendary.

My legs ached as I walked, passing carved faces with marble eyes that seemed to watch me and statues that moved when I wasn’t looking.  The sense of threat hung in the air, a silent challenge that threatened to drive me out of the chamber … the only thing that kept me going, I admitted to myself, was the simple fact I might never have another chance to say goodbye to my father.  The funeral had been very formal but public.  I hadn’t dared speak to him as the flames consumed his body.  Who knew who might be listening?

Everyone who thinks they’re important, my thoughts answered.  And everyone else too.

I put the thought out of my head as I reached the final gravestone.  My father was flanked by his murderers … I felt a wave of naked hatred, my magic spiking as I fought the urge to rip their ashes from the graves and hurl them into the ocean, rather than leave them next to the man they’d murdered.  It was tradition to bury the dead in rough order and yet … I clenched my teeth, calming myself.  It wasn’t easy.  My father had been a good man, even if he had been a little rigid in his thinking.  He’d done what he could for me, after I fell under Stregheria Aguirre’s influence.  And …

Calm, I told myself.  His murderers are answering to higher judges than you.

I took a breath and studied the gravestone.  My father hadn’t chosen to arrange for anything more complex than a simple stone, with his name carved into the rock.  It felt … impersonal, as if it wasn’t really him.  I knew it was his ashes under the earth and yet … I shook my head.  I’d tried to think of what to say, and come up with all sorts of speeches, but now – looking at his grave – my mind was blank.  I didn’t know what to say.

Think, I thought.  What do you want to say?

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I wish …”

Tears prickled at the corner of my eyes as I sank to my knees.  I wished I’d been a better daughter.  I wished I’d never allowed anger and bitterness at the sheer unfairness of life to overwhelm me, to render me vulnerable when Stregheria Aguirre came calling.  I wished I’d had the strength and determination to make something of myself, rather than let myself be used by someone older and far colder than I could ever be.  And yet, if I hadn’t listened to the old witch, would I have ever met Callam?  Would I have ever fallen in love with him?

Perhaps not, I thought.  It had been a shock, to spend six years away from the city and then return.  My former friends had become snooty monsters who’d mocked and jeered me, then changed their tune the instant they realised I might become the de facto Matriarch of House Rubén.  Perhaps I would have wound up as spoiled and useless as any of them.

I blinked away tears.  “I’m sorry for what I did,” I told the grave.  “And I’m sorry for what I put you through, but … I’m not sorry too.”

There was no reply.  I mentally kicked myself, wondering why I’d even expected one.  My father and I hadn’t spoken as much as we should, and … I knew it had been my fault.  I’d been a traitor.  He’d gone to bat for me, burning up dozens of favours to ensure I’d be sent into exile rather than … rather than anything more final.  If I’d been older, old enough to know better, he couldn’t have saved me.  I hated the thought of being branded a weak and foolish child, of being treated as a pretty young girl rather than a person in my own right, but it had saved my life.   And perhaps, just perhaps, it had laid the groundwork for my return to the city.

“If you hadn’t sent me away, I would never have met Callam,” I said.  “And I’m glad I did, because I love him.”

It wasn’t easy to say.  I’d been raised to understand that my marriage would be arranged by my family and I’d have very little say in it.  I would be lucky if I even knew the groom before the match was arranged.  The handful of chaperoned meetings we’d have, where we’d be watched by elderly relatives who’d forgotten what it was like to be young, wouldn’t be enough to determine what sort of person he was.  And … I shook my head.  My treason made me unmarriageable, as far as High Society was concerned.  It didn’t matter.  Callam didn’t care about the family or anything, beyond me.  I’d allowed us to get close for selfish reasons – I’d admitted as much, to both Callam and my father – but I’d fallen in love with him too. 

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “And I wish …”

I felt more tears in my eyes.  I wished I could see my father in person, one last time.  I wished he’d never died at all, that he could see his grandchildren and dandle them on his knee and give them his blessing when they grew into adulthood.  I wished … I brushed the tears away, angrily.  There was no point in fretting over it now.  My father was dead.  My mother had taken to her rooms, as soon as the funeral was over, and stayed there.  And Akin and I were alone.

“Goodbye, father,” I said.  “I love you.”

I stood, slowly.  The crypt felt oppressive.  I looked up, into the inky blackness.  There was a ceiling – there had to be – but I couldn’t see it.  I took one last look at my father’s grave, then turned away.  The path back to the door seemed endless.  I shook my head and forced myself to walk.  The air was changing, strange sensations pressing around me.  I thought I felt someone breathing on the back of my neck and spun around, to see nothing.  And yet …

The sensation grew stronger as I kept walking, trying not to panic.  It was suddenly easy to believe the dead were coming back to life.  Unseen eyes watched me, judged me; I nearly stepped on an earthen grave, something that would have earned me harsh punishment if anyone had seen.  I tried to calm myself, even as I thought I saw things moving at the corner of my eye.  I’d seen ghosts at Kirkhaven, but here …? I’d never seen them here.

The mansion wasn’t designed to show off our wealth, I thought.  It didn’t feel like one of my thoughts.  It was built so big to keep something else pressed down.

A shiver ran down my spine.  It was all I could do to keep from throwing caution to the wind and start running.  The shadows shifted whenever I looked away, as if they were cast by something that existed outside my perception.  I thought I saw shapes moving above the graves, wisps of something I knew I shouldn’t be seeing.  Lights flickered high above me, voices whispering loudly enough for me to hear, but too quietly for me to make out the words.   I nearly screamed as I felt something touch my leg.  When I looked down, there was nothing.

I heard something behind me and glanced back.  There was nothing … no, there was something, a strange thing hovering over the graves.  My eyes slipped past it, as if it wasn’t there … I thought I felt the ground shift beneath my feet.  The city wasn’t prone to earthquakes and yet … what was it?  I picked up speed, trying desperately not to run.  The dead didn’t want me there, amongst them.  I knew it on a level that could not be denied.  They didn’t want me and they were driving me out and …

The door loomed up in front of me.  I pressed my hand against the stone.  It opened, just slowly enough to make me panic.  I darted through, half expecting to see the Cryptkeeper waiting for me.  She should have been there.  The magic that empowered her was closely linked to the crypt, and the dead ashes within.  I’d been told it was customary to bury the dead below the house because their presence made the mansion ours.  It was an old theory, never really proven …

They didn’t want me, I thought, numbly.  And they made it clear.

A hand touched my shoulder.  I spun around, a nasty hex crackling around my fingers and a dark charm on my lips.  Penny Rubén stood there, raising her hands in surrender.  I nearly blasted her.  She’d given me a terrible fright and …

“Cousin,” Penny said.  She bobbed a curtsey.  “I apologise for disturbing you.”

I scowled.  Penny hadn’t been sure what to make of me, when I’d returned to the mansion, but she’d done her best to suck up to me – and Akin – once she’d realised one of us was going to be the Heir Primus.  She was still trying to suck up to me.  She’d worked out, well ahead of everyone else, that – whatever else could be said about me – I was Akin’s favourite relative.  I tried not to roll my eyes at the thought.  The bar wasn’t set very high. 

“It’s fine,” I lied.  “What is it?”

Penny curtsied again.  “His Excellency would like a moment of your time,” she said.  “I am to take you to him.”

“Oh,” I said, swallowing several other responses that came to mind.  “Lead on.”

Ark Royal Audio Editions

10 Sep

Good news?

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FIGHTING FOR THE CROWN 05-Oct-2021

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Her Majesty’s Warlord 4-5

10 Sep

Probably the last for a while, but comments welcome.

Chapter Four

The island at the heart of the city, I discovered as we were escorted out of the palace and through a maze of mansions and smaller homes, was larger than I’d thought.  It managed to be both cramped and roomy at the same time, to the point I wondered if someone had used magic to make it bigger on the inside.  It was possible, I’d been told, although there were practical problems that made it impossible outside a magical household.  A shiver ran down my spine as we passed a pair of houses with runes carved into the door, clear warning they belonged to magicians.  A year or so in a world with magic had done nothing to accustom me to its existence.  And to think the locals considered it a fact of life.

I put the thought out of my mind as we were driven towards a large mansion on the edge of the river.  The stench of dead and decaying fish hung in the air … I grimaced as I saw the discoloured water, unwilling to think about the sheer tonnage of sewage that had to have been dumped into the water to turn it a muddy brown.  I’d been in worse places back home, I recalled, but they’d been in the Middle East or Central Asia.  This was the capital city of a king.  Saying it stunk like limburger would be an insult to limburger.

“My Lord,” the driver said.  He was a minor nobleman, judging by his clothes.  I was surprised he was actually doing something useful, rather than sitting on his ass at court.  “Your staff are waiting for you.”

I scrambled out of the carriage, Fallon at my heels, and stared up at the mansion.  It was about the same size as the White House, although there was something decidedly blocky and rough about it.  I had the feeling the designer had thought he was making a fortress, then changed his mind – or had it changed for him.  The stone walls were covered in wooden patterns that suggested they were fragile, but … my eyes narrowed as I studied the windows.  They were glass, hideously expensive in a world where glass was tricky to produce without magic, yet – with a little work – they could be devilishly effective murder holes.  I might be able to withstand a siege, as long as I had some good men on my side and the attackers didn’t bring up cannons.  The walls were strong, but I doubted they were that strong.  I’d watched cannons batter castles into submission.

A sense of unreality overcame me as we walked through the gates and up to the doors.  The mansion couldn’t be mine.  I’d worked my ass off to purchase a relatively small house in a decent suburb and that had nearly killed me.  The mansion in front of me was far beyond my dreams, the sort of place that could only be owned by a billionaire … it wasn’t mine permanently, I reminded myself sharply, any more than the White House belonged to the President.  It came with the title and could be taken away just as easily.  And if I failed the king and his daughter, I’d be lucky to get out with my skin intact.

The doors opened.  An elderly man stepped out, his face unreadable.  I recognised the bearing and understood.  This man was the custodian, the building manager who’d seen warlords come and go while remaining firmly in place.  I knew how he felt.  A new warlord might feel the urge to tear up all the previous agreements, fire the staff and bring his own cronies in to run the place.  I’d be surprised if he didn’t feel he owned the mansion, at least in some way.  I was just passing through. 

Which could be good or bad, I thought, as he bowed.  I’d met uniformed bureaucrats who put the interests of their departments, and their petty power games, ahead of the interests of the army as a while.  And he might be a friend or a deadly enemy.

The man bowed.  “My Lord.  I am Sigmund, Castellan of Sword House.”

I nodded.  A Castellan was a butler and a building manager and, at worst, a defender, all rolled into one.  I’d met a couple, back in Damansara.  They’d been good men, but – like the bureaucrats I remembered – could easily turn into nitpicking managers of the worst possible sort.  I hoped Sigmund would be better than that, although I feared the worst.  There was nothing like a steady stream of commanding officers, some only staying a few weeks, to convince the NCOs that they were the ones who really ran the unit.

“Thank you,” I said.  I’d have to build some kind of relationship with him, but I wasn’t sure how.  “Please show me around the house.”

Sigmund bowed, again, and led me into the lobby.  It was grand, yet oddly faded.  The paintings on the wall showed scenes from heroic epics and ancient battles, ranging from swordsmen confronting dragons to valiant knights rescuing damsels in distress.  A row of staffers waited for me, wearing outfits that marked them out as servants.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to say.  I’d had men under my command before, but they hadn’t been servants and I hadn’t had the power of life or death over them.  Here … a word from me could see the staffers thrown into the streets to die.

I kept that thought to myself as Sigmund introduced me briefly to a handful of cooks and kitchen staff, then manservants and maids, the former wearing clothes that allowed them to move easily and the latter dressed to show off their assets.  I tried to keep my face under control, although I nearly lost it when Sigmund explained the staffing levels were actually quite low.  I supposed he had a point.  There were fifty people in total, with positions ranging from the sensible to the inexplicable, but the building was huge.  If the entire staff was charged with cleaning and dusting, to the exclusion of everything else, they’d still be unable to keep the building clean in a world without vacuum cleaners.  I suspected his first request would be for funding to hire more staff.

“A dinner will be prepared for you and you … companion,” Sigmund said, when he’d finished introducing me to the staff and dismissed them.  “Do you want to take it in your rooms?”

“Lady Fallon is my ward, as well as my assistant,” I told him, curtly.  I had no time for faux concern.  I didn’t care what the local chattering classes said about us.  “And I want to have the tour first.”

Sigmund bowed, again.  “As your lordship pleases,” he said.  “I’ll have your trunks unloaded and transported to your rooms.”

I bite down the urge to make a sarcastic remark as he turned and led us through a door and into a maze of corridors.  The air was slightly musty, suggesting that parts of the mansion had effectively been sealed off in a futile attempt to keep them clean.  A string of offices dominated the ground floor, each one cold and grey and completely impersonal.  I puzzled over it for a moment, then remembered the mansion was as much a centre of operations as well as a residence.  The Royal Warlord’s staff were expected to live and work there too.

“I’m going to have to build up my staff as quickly as possible,” I told him.  “How long until the offices are ready for use?”

“We can have them cleaned and ready within a week, if you give the order,” Sigmund said, shortly.  “The bedrooms and barracks will take a little longer.”

My eyes narrowed.  “They were closed down?”

Sigmund hesitated.  “I …”

“You can speak freely,” I assured him.  “Always.”

“Yes, My Lord.”  Sigmund’s voice was so flat I knew he didn’t believe me.  I knew how he felt.  Telling your superiors the truth could be hazardous to your career.  “Your predecessor, while a great and nobleman, preferred to do his business elsewhere.”

Which means he probably wasted his time with wine, women and song, I thought.  Why did his enemies even bother to kill him?

The thought nagged at my mind.  Royal Warlord was clearly about as desirable a post as Warden of the Royal Privies.  Perhaps even less so, as there was little chance of being assassinated if you were the latter.  Your murderer’s punishment might be being given your former job and told to get on with it.  And yet, a strong man in the warlord’s post could have accomplished much.  I’d proven it was possible, back in Damansara.  Maybe my predecessor had gotten a few ideas about following in my footsteps.  Or maybe he’d just been an ass who’d died in a tragic accident.

“I intend to ensure my staff have a place to work,” I said.  I also intended to have a staff.  “Start cleaning out the offices at once.”

“My Lord!”  Sigmund sounded shocked.  “The guestrooms!  The dining hall!  The ballrooms and the …”

I shook my head.  “I won’t be giving many parties here,” I said.  “Not yet, anyway.”

Sigmund looked as if I’d started speaking in tongues as we resumed our tour.  I didn’t understand what he was thinking.  The staff would have less work to do, surely, if I didn’t hold any parties.  If a teenage party back home could practically destroy a house, to the point the police were called to control the crowds, how much worse would it be here?  And yet … is shook my head.  I had too much work to do to even think about hosting a party.  It was just beyond the pale.

We kept walking, passing through bedrooms and workrooms and chambers that seemed to have no discernible purpose, beyond taking up space.  I made a mental note to turn them into something useful as we passed through a set of doors and stepped out of the building, into a small dockyard.  The air was cool, despite the sun overhead; the waters flowed past with surprising speed.  I saw boats gliding up and down the water; some so tiny they couldn’t have carried more than a handful of people, some big enough to sail the open seas.  There were even some people swimming in the waters.  I grimaced.  I liked swimming, but there were limits.  I didn’t want to look at the stuff drifting down the waters too closely.

“The lower levels are all for the staff,” Sigmund said, as he led the way back indoors.  “The upper levels are for you, your family, and your close friends.”

I frowned, feeling a little overwhelmed as we made our way up the stairs.  The mansion was just too big, the kind of place that would feature in a gothic horror novel.  I half-expected to turn the corner and come face to face with a ghost, or some other supernatural creature.  My legs started to ache as we walked down the corridor, the walls faded in places to show where pictures had hung until they’d been removed and placed into storage.  It felt like a fancy hotel, but there was something eerie about it.  I remembered sneaking into my school overnight as a young man, something I’d never told anyone, and just how strange it had been to be alone in such a place.  The thought made me smile.  Some of them had told me I’d never make anything of myself.  I wondered what they’d make of me now. 

Sigmund opened a door and motioned for me to step inside.  “Your rooms, My Lord,” he said.  “They were cleaned specifically, when we heard a new warlord had been appointed.”

The air smelt cleaner, somehow, as I stepped inside and looked around.  This was my suite?  It was huge, richly decorated with everything from gold furnishings to fancy carpets … my head spun as I looked around the living room, then into a bedroom with a bed easily big enough for five or six people my size.  A pair of smaller rooms, a washroom … the only downside was that there was neither a shower nor a proper toilet.  The bathtub had only one tap, something that bothered me.  Was I really going to ask the maids to bring me buckets of hot water, every morning and night?  And the chamberpot …

It feels more like an apartment in a big block, I thought, numbly.  But there’s no kitchen.

Sigmund spoke quickly, as if he was running out of steam.  “If you require anything, please pull the white bellrope for the maids,” he said, pointing to a pair of ropes hanging from the ceiling.  “They’ll come at once.  If you need me, pull the black rope.  I may not be in my office, but the staff will send for me if you call.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I’d thought I’d only need an hour to explore the mansion.  It was starting to look as if I’d need a week or two.  “Do you have anything else I need to see sooner rather than later?”

Sigmund looked as if he’d bitten into a lemon.  I had the feeling he’d prefer not to volunteer anything, even information I desperately needed to know.  I knew the type.  They’d keep something back, if I didn’t ask, then use it as an excuse when I demanded to know why they hadn’t told me.  He probably thought there were a great many details his lord and master didn’t need to know, particularly when I might not be staying around.  The odds weren’t good.  I’d bet half my fortune, such as it was, that my immediate predecessor wasn’t the only one who’d suffered an accident.

“The Royal Warlord holds considerable estates of land,” Sigmund said, finally.  “As Castellan, I have held the deeds and managed them.  You should probably review and approve my work when you have a moment.”

I nodded, politely.  “Is there anything else?”

“Not at the moment,” Sigmund said.  “You will have to read and approve the household budget and overall accounts, as well as my proposals for hiring more staff, but that doesn’t have to be done immediately.”

And that will give you time to engage in a little creative editing, I thought.  I didn’t think Sigmund was corrupt, or that he was skimming money out of the accounts, but I’d met officers who’d edited the files to conceal their failures or make it seem as if lost equipment had gone missing on someone else’s watch.  I understood their thinking – there were uniformed bureaucrats who seemed to think a missing laptop was more important than a soldier’s life – but I didn’t care for it.  I’ll have to go through the accounts with a fine-toothed comb.

I sighed, inwardly.  “Show Lady Fallon to her chambers,” I ordered.  “And then send a message to my men.  They are to be billeted here until further notice.  Arrange for them to be fed and watered, as well as everything else.”

Sigmund blinked.  “My Lord?”

“You heard me,” I said.  “Go.”

Sigmund bowed, then led Fallon out of the room.  I watched them go, then collapsed into an armchair.  I hadn’t felt so far out of place since … since ever.  I’d been in all sorts of environments, from the inner cities to army training and foreign lands and terrorist hide-outs and yet … this was the most alien environment I’d ever seen, all the more disconcerting for being seemingly familiar.  The apartment – the suite – was so far over the top I thought I was losing my grip on reality.  The idea I owned the mansion was absurd.  I felt like a fraud … no, a caretaker.  Sigmund had been here before I’d been born, judging from his appearance, and there was a very good chance he’d be here after I was gone.

My lips quirked.  I’m not going to die that easily.

I stood and paced over to the windows, looking at the city.  It was strange and yet … I shook my head.  I was going to have to study maps, then get out on the streets and start figuring out what the maps didn’t show.  I needed to understand how the people really felt, and what they were thinking about the king and the warlords and everything else.  Would they sign up with the army?  Or …

Don’t get ahead of yourself, I thought.  You have yet to even decide how best to improve the army.  You don’t even know what needs to be informed.

The door opened.  I spun around, one hand dropping to my pistol before I caught myself.  A young maid stood there, staring at me.  I kicked myself, mentally.  The aristocracy had very little privacy.  Their servants came and went at all hours of the day, really – in truth – treated as part of the furniture.  The poor girl, who looked as if she wanted to be somewhere – anywhere – else, had no way of knowing I came from a very different world.  She was too young and inexperienced to realise I wasn’t a born aristocrat.

Don’t be an asshole to her, I told myself.  She didn’t know she was intruding.

I cleared my throat.  “Yes?”

The maid dropped a curtsey.  “My Lord, your men have arrived,” she said.  “They’re waiting for you outside.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’ll be down in a moment.”

It struck me, as the maid withdrew, that I should probably ask her to show me the way downstairs.  Sigmund hadn’t shown me everything.  I’d memorised what he had, but my mental map of the mansion had a lot of blank spots.  There would be parts of the building that wouldn’t be shown to me – servant passages, in particular – unless I asked.  The romantic in me wondered if there were any truly secret passageways in the wall.  I’d seen passageways in the warlord’s castle that had clearly been designed to let him spy on his guests and servants.

I shrugged and stood.  Right now, it wasn’t important.

And it isn’t as if you have anything to hide, I told myself.  Not now, at least.

Chapter Five

I almost regretted, as I found my way downstairs, that I hadn’t thought to ask the maid to guide me, although it would probably have scared her to death.  The building’s interior was odd, as if whoever had designed it had taken two smaller buildings, blended them together into one and done their best to smooth out the irregularities.  It wasn’t as easy as it should have been to find the stairwell, let alone make my way down to the lobby.  Horst and Fallows stood there, eyed by a wary Sigmund.  I kicked myself, mentally.  Soldiers were regarded as one step below mercenaries here, something that irritated me even though it made a great deal of sense.  The local population regarded them as parasites, as well as vermin.

Horst waved to me, cheerfully.  He’d been overweight when we’d first met, when I’d joined the Damansara City Guard, but army life and heavy exercise had slimmed him down quite considerably.  Fallows, his partner and my other mentor, had always been something of a beanpole, yet he’d bulked out quite a bit in the army.  I wondered, as we shook hands, if they felt they’d been slighted, when they’d been asked to leave the city.  It couldn’t be easy to leave their home behind, even though they had only minimal ties.  They’d been guardsmen and then soldiers.  Their former peers would always look down on them.

Don’t tell my mother I’m a guardsman, I thought, wryly.  She thinks I work in a brothel.

“This place is really something,” Horst said.  “Is it all yours?”

I heard Sigmund suck in his breath behind me.  He disapproved.  I was an aristocrat in the service of the monarchy and they were … so far beneath me that they were somewhere around the planet’s core.  They were being overfamiliar and it could not be tolerated and … I shook my head.  They’d been my mentors, when I’d become a guardsman, and even though I’d moved ahead of them we were still friends.  I couldn’t afford to alienate them.  It was basic common sense.  Resentment and discontent bred disloyalty and betrayal.  It didn’t have to be dramatic, not like Benedict Arnold.  A soldier who thought his commanding officer didn’t give a shit about him wouldn’t give the bastard his all.

I’m better than just about every other commanding officer in the kingdom, I thought, but the bar really isn’t set very high.

“For the moment,” I said, leading them into the reception room.  It was cold and informal, but it will have to do.  “Where are the others?”

“In the stables,” Horst said.  “He” – he waved a hand at Sigmund – “said they’d have to sleep there.”

I looked up.  “Have the barracks prepared for the soldiers, then move them there,” I ordered, curtly.  “Now.”

Sigmund bowed and departed.  I scowled after him.  Soldiers might not be popular – it wasn’t as if anyone had any illusions about that – but I was damned if I was mistreating my men so openly.  It wouldn’t be long before someone noted I was sleeping on a feather bed and they were sleeping on a bale of straw … and, once the seed of discontent was planted, the army was heading downhill to destruction.  My men were strangers to the city, but that would change quickly.  The wiser aristocrats might even start trying to bribe them away.

“I’m sorry about that,” I said.  I was going to have to keep a close eye on Sigmund, at least until he got the message.  “Please tell the others it wasn’t my intention.”

“Of course,” Horst said.  The acceptance in his voice hurt.  Guardsmen and soldiers were used to being regarded as unwelcome guests.  Sigmund might as well have put up a sign reading NO DOGS OR TROOPS ALLOWED.  “I’m sure they’ll understand.”

I sighed, inwardly.  “Did you learn anything while I was at the palace?”

“Nothing of particular consequence,” Horst said.  “The men rested, mainly.”

“The palace guards are useless pretty-boys,” Fallows grated.  “They were no better than the household troops back home.”

“I thought as much,” I said.  “Not much we can do about it now.”

“It’ll have to change,” Fallows said.  “Those muskets they were carrying?  They don’t know how to use them.”

I feared he was right.  The palace’s guards – and the household troops – looked good, with fancy uniforms and shiny weapons, but unless their plan was to blind the enemy I doubted they’d last long in a fight.  Ceremonial units rarely did.  Perhaps I was wrong – I’d seen signs the inner layers of security were tougher – but I feared the worst.  The warlords wouldn’t have objected quite so strongly to troops that couldn’t be risked in battle, for fear of tearing their clothes and soiling their pants.  I made a mental note to insist on issuing brown uniforms to the officers.  It might help morale.

“We’ll fix that,” I said.  I’d done my best to select troops with both experience and growth potential.  It hadn’t been easy, and I feared some of my choices hadn’t been as good as I hoped, but I had a training cadre.  If, of course, I was allowed to use it.  “I don’t know how long we’ll have to prepare, so we need to start planning now.”

Horst leaned forward, trustingly.  “What do you have in mind?”

I considered for a long moment.  Host and Fallows had been pissed, when I’d accidentally gotten them sent to the army.  I’d told them they’d go far, if they stuck with me, and I’d been right.  And yet … I put the thought aside.  They were still too used to doing as they were told, even if the orders came from their former mentee.  I’d have to work on that later and … I’d have to make damn sure I didn’t mislead them.  Their confidence in me was far from absolute.

Nor should it be, I thought.

“Issue the men some coins, then give them two days of leave,” I said.  “Tell the lads I want them to keep their eyes and ears open, so we can find out what’s really happening here.  Let them see what connections they can make, too, but remind them about the knockouts.  I don’t want any incidents, not now.  You two do it too.  I want you to pick up whatever gossip you can, see who’s saying what about whom.  We can look for more organised sources of information later.”

I smiled.  I’d never been a spook, but I understood the importance of getting a feel for what was actually going on.  It wasn’t easy, particularly when you were a stranger in a strange land, yet it was doable.  I’d known intelligence officers who’d developed near-perfect understandings of towns and cities in Iraq, although – to be fair – I’d also known spooks who were so impressed with their own intelligence that they missed the obvious until it was too late.  People would talk.  There’d be men talking in bars and women talking in salons and plenty of information dealers just sitting and taking it all in.  I’d bet good money that most of the brothels in the city reported to information brokers.  It was astonishing what someone would say in the afterglow.

“We can do that,” Horst said.  “And yourself?  Are you going to marry the princess?”

It was hard to keep a straight face.  I doubted that would happen.  Princess Helen might be better off remaining unmarried, although I doubted she could.  She needed a child to serve as her heir.  And that child’s father needed to be selected carefully.  She didn’t even have a free choice.  Whoever she picked had to be approved by her father and the aristocracy, as well as herself.  I doubted there was anyone who could satisfy all of them.

So chose someone who can sire a suitable heir, then throw him out a window once he’s done his duty, the darker side of my mind pointed out.  Once she has a child, she doesn’t need a husband.

“I don’t think so,” I said, dryly.  “How many times has the lady of the household married a serving boy?”

“Well, there was that scandal with Lady Kempt,” Fallows said.  “But no one knows for sure what really happened.”

I snorted, trying to hide my disgust.  Rumours of sexual misconduct were the easiest way to ruin a woman’s prospects, perhaps even force her to accept an unsuitable marriage.  Fallon would be in some trouble if people here worked out she wasn’t my ward … I shook my head sourly.  Princess Helen would be expected to have one partner for her entire life, while turning a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities.  I suspected it wouldn’t work out as well for her future husband as he might think.  Helen was no shrinking violet.  And she had magic.

“Don’t talk about it,” I said, firmly.  “Not even in jest.  Our employer will not be amused.”

“Yes, sir,” Horst said.

Sigmund returned, looking tired.  “Sir, the barracks are ready for your … men.”

“Good,” I said.  I glanced at Horst and Fallows.  “Have the men shown there … and caution them to behave themselves here.  The maids are not whores and they are not to be treated as whores.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Horst said.

I stood, dismissing them as I hoped for the best.  I’d worked hard to drum some semblance of civilised conduct into my men, but it hadn’t been easy.  The rules of war, and the honourable treatment of prisoners and civilians, generally only applied to the aristocracy.  Peasants had no rights, as far as the aristocratic officers were concerned.  I’d hanged rapists and flogged thieves, in a bid to make it clear misconduct would not be tolerated, but it was an uphill struggle.  One major incident would destroy everything I’d built.

“Sigmund,” I said, when we were alone.  “Make sure the men are fed proper food.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Sigmund said, stiffly.  “The cook is already preparing a proper stew.”

I held his eyes, silently daring him to lie to me.  Local officers didn’t give a shit about their men.  They were so deeply corrupt that they’d few qualms about selling off the food intended for the troops, even though it meant their men would starve.  It said a great deal about them that the better officers at least tried to obtain replacements for the stolen rations, although the replacements were rarely anything like enough.  I dared not treat my men as if they didn’t matter.  They’d either desert or put a knife in my back. 

We’ll make the enemy desert by showing them pictures of our military dinners, I thought, remembering the old joke.  I’d laughed, the first time I’d heard it, but the joke wasn’t so funny when you were trying to deal with the same problem.  After all, half our men deserted when they saw them.

“Good,” I said, finally.  “If there are any problems with the men, any real problems, inform me at once.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Sigmund said.  “If I may ask … where would you and Lady Fallon like to eat?”

I checked my watch.  “In my rooms,” I said.  “And while we’re eating, you can gather the files.”

“Yes, My Lord.”  Sigmund bowed so deeply I thought he was going to split in too.  “I’ll have the food served in ten minutes.”

I nodded and turned away, making my way back up the stairs to the uppermost floor.  A door was hanging open and so I glanced inside.  Fallon was unpacking, whistling merrily as she transferred clothes from her trunk to the drawers.  Her room was bright pink, although the colour was a little faded; a line of dolls and stuffed animals sat on the shelf, staring at me with beady eyes.  My predecessor – or one of his predecessors – had clearly had a teenage daughter.  I wondered if Fallon wanted the room repainted and resupplied.  She was far too old for stuffed animals and the dolls were creepy, as if they’d stepped out of a horror movie.

Just like the rest of the house, I thought, wryly.

“I’ve just finished,” Fallon said, standing.  “Do you think I can get a tutor here?”

“Yes.”  I was sure of it.  “We’ll ask Princess Helen to recommend one.”

I looked around.  Fallon’s rooms were smaller than mine, but not that much smaller.  A sitting room, a bedroom, a washroom, a guest room with a bed barely large enough for a grown woman … I puzzled over it for a moment, then realised it was probably for the original owner’s maid.  An aristocratic daughter wouldn’t be allowed to have guests in her rooms, certainly not men.  Fallon didn’t have a maid.  I doubted she’d want one.

“My father wouldn’t believe this,” Fallon said, as we made our way back to my rooms.  “It’s just too big,”

I nodded.  I’d had the same thought.  “It’s really an office, as well as a residence,” I told her, thoughtfully.  “Give me a few days and the building will come to life.”

Fallon looked downcast, just for a second.  “Can we also hire a few more magicians?”

“We’ll try,” I said.  Fallon had to be feeling lonely.  She didn’t know many people in the city and the few she did couldn’t spent much time with her.  I was an older man, Princess Helen was a princess … in hindsight, perhaps I should have tried to convince a second magician to come with us.  But most of them wouldn’t have wanted to leave.  “It should be possible.”

The maids arrived on our heels, carrying two massive silver trays of food.  I tried not to wince as they placed them on the table, removed the lids and withdrew as silently as they’d come.  The meal looked like a strange cross between bouillabaisse and paella, a clear sign the cook had spent a lot of money – as well as time – making the dinner.  I sighed, watching as Fallon muttered a charm over the meal to be sure it was safe to eat.  Fish were expensive, so far from the sea, and I figured it went double for shellfish.  Probably.  I made a mental note to tell the cook she didn’t have to try to impress me.  I’d eaten my own cooking.  It was hard to believe she’d do worse than me.

And she’ll have to start feeding me what I need, I thought.  I needed red meat as well as everything else.  My mystery predecessor had introduced burgers and pizza to the locals – I still smiled, whenever I saw a fancy restaurant offering them – but the fashion clearly hadn’t reached the cook.  My cook.  I’ll have to talk to her later.

I took some bread, then dipped into the stew and started to eat.  It tasted fine, although after years in the army I prided myself on being able to eat almost anything.  The cook had done a good job.  Fallon ate too, saying almost nothing.  I understood.  It had been a long day, which was bad enough, and being here was disconcerting.  She wasn’t bound to Damansara, but she wasn’t used to finding herself the mistress of a mansion either.  The poor staff probably didn’t know what to make of her.

“I think I’ll get some rest,” Fallon said, when we’d finished eating.  “If that’s fine with you …?”

“Go nap,” I told her.  “I’ll see you in the morning for breakfast.”

Sigmund entered, followed by two maids.  I wondered, sourly, if they’d been watching as they appeared immediately after Fallon left.  I stood, eying the parchments under Sigmund’s arm with a degree of concern.  Paper was a relatively new invention, probably from the earlier cross-dimensional traveller.  The parchments looked older than both Sigmund and me put together.

“My Lord,” Sigmund said.  “The land documents you requested.”

I took the parchments, sat at my new desk and unfurled the first document.  I’d done my best to learn the written language, as well as the bastardised version my predecessor had created by introducing better letters and numbers, but it was still hard to follow the exact details.  I – or, rather, the Royal Warlord – owned vast tracts of land, which I was supposed to use to support myself.  And yet … I shuddered as I figured out several sections and realised I also owned chattels.  Peasants.  They were my property … I felt sick as the implications crashed down on me.  I’d have to do something about that too. 

“As you can see, My Lord, profits have remained stable for the last two decades,” Sigmund informed me.  I eyed the accounting parchments, cursing whoever had refused to adopt the new system.  “It should continue indefinitely.”

“We’ll see,” I said.   I cursed under my breath.  The documents were confusing and, in places, contradictory.  “I’m going to have to visit the lands, aren’t I?”

“The headmen do a good job, My Lord,” Sigmund said.  “Do you want to trouble yourself with the details?”

“The devil is always in the details,” I countered.  It was easy to come up with an idea, harder to put it into practice.  “And yes, I really do need to know what it’s like on the grounds.”

I stood.  “I’ll study these later,” I added, in a manner designed to convince him I had no intention of doing anything of the sort.  “But, for now, I’m going to bed.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Sigmund said.  “What time would you like to be woken?”

“If a messenger arrives from the palace, wake me at once,” I ordered.  “If not, let me sleep.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

I dismissed him with a nod, then headed for the bedroom.  I was tired, but I should have time to search the room for peepholes before going to bed.  One advantage of being in a very low-tech world was that there were limits to how someone could watch you, at least without magic.  And Fallon would have told me if someone was trying to peek at me with magic.

Right now, they don’t need to bother, I reminded myself, as I started my search.  But that is going to change.

His Majesty’s Warlord (2-3)

9 Sep

Chapter Two

It was surprisingly easy to leave Damansara

I’d expected it to be difficult.  The City Fathers had planned to kill me.  They’d feared me, they’d thought I was a bad influence, they’d thought I was popular enough to lead the people in a revolt against them.  And yet … perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me.  I was popular.  Sure, I’d gone to some trouble to ensure Rupert – and Harbin, now he was safely dead – had gotten most of the public credit for our victory, but everyone who mattered knew the truth.  I understood their reasoning.  Better to let me enter Princess Helen’s service and leave the city, taking many of my loyalists with me, rather than risk triggering a coup or civil war.

I sat in the carriage, facing Fallon and Princess Helen, and watched as the city fell away behind us.  My feelings were decidedly mixed.  I’d never really bonded with the city – it had never felt like home – and yet, I couldn’t help feeling a little wistful.  I’d worked so hard to build a place for myself, to start a series of projects intended to make the city better, that leaving felt almost like admitting defeat.  But I couldn’t stay.  Rupert was on my side, I thought, but he was alone.  The City Fathers knew I had his ear.  They whispered I had another part of his anatomy too.

Princess Helen had been surprisingly confident about making it back to the capital – and relative safety – before Warlord Cuthbert could do something stupid, much to my surprise.  I’d drawn fifty men from the army as my personal retinue – the City Fathers had been glad to rid themselves of my loyalists – yet I feared they wouldn’t be enough to protect us against a real attack.  The warlord had gambled everything on snatching the princess and forcing her into marriage before it was too late and now … I scowled, all too aware he was probably going to get away with it.  The king wasn’t powerful enough to bring him to heel like the dog he was.  It was why Princess Helen had recruited me in the first place.

I studied her, doing my best not to make it obvious.  She was in her early thirties, with brown skin, dark hair, and a face that was striking rather than beautiful.  The dress she wore had been carefully designed to allow her to move freely, even to run without picking up her skirts; I suspected, from the way she wore her left sleeve, that there was a virgin blade concealed within her dress.  Perhaps more than one.  The princess was her father’s sole heir.  Her husband, whoever he turned out to be, would have an excellent claim to the throne.  I feared she might never be able to marry, let alone have children.  Even if her husband was content to let her rule, something rare in a very male-dominated world, everyone would assume he was the power behind the throne.

And having a child out of wedlock would damn her in her people’s eyes, I thought.  How the hell is she meant to square the circle?

The princess’s eyes seemed to rest on me.  It was a coolly assessing gaze, betraying none of her innermost feelings.  I wondered, idly, what she saw.  A big black man, scarred by war and life itself … she carried none of the racial hang-ups from home, but she had hang-ups of her own.  I was a mercenary, as far as most people knew, and that was damning.  The princess knew the truth, she knew I’d come from another world, but she’d still find it hard to treat me as anything other than a hired gun.  She couldn’t afford to be seen as anything other than my mistress.  Mercenaries were about as popular as child molesters in this strange new world.

If Fallon was aware of our silent gaze, she gave no sign of it.  Her skin was slightly lighter than the princess, her hair an ashy blonde that looked somewhat out of place to my eyes.  Her parents had been serfs who’d fled the plantations when she’d been a child and, for reasons I didn’t understand, had to remain out of sight even after they’d spent a year and a day in the city.  Fallon was smart, but … she’d never had the schooling in magic she needed to really make something of herself.  I intended to do something about that as quickly as possible.  I didn’t have magic myself, a dangerous weakness in a world where most of the powerful had at least a touch of magic.  I was going to need someone to protect me if I couldn’t protect myself.

We drove past a burnt-out village, the princess’s eyes narrowing as she saw the ruins.  I thought I knew what she was thinking.  The kingdom had been devastated by endless wars as the warlords – and their clients – struggled for supremacy, while everyone else was caught in the middle.  There was no way to know who’d destroyed the town or why.  The remnants of Warlord Aldred’s forces, enjoying the war because they knew the peace would be terrible?  Or rebels, destroying their own town before taking to the uncultivated lands and trying to hide?  Or mercenaries on their way to seek employment somewhere else?  I studied the ruins, hoping they’d tell me something, but there was nothing.  There weren’t even any dead bodies.  I couldn’t help thinking that was a bad sign.

Perhaps not, I told myself.  You were telling them to bury the dead as quickly as possible, weren’t you?

I grimaced.  It hadn’t been easy, despite my mystery predecessor, to convince the locals to deal with all the dead.  They might bury or cremate their own people, but not enemy dead.  They didn’t even care about dead bodies on the streets, if they were poor or homeless or simply … unknown.  I’d done what I could, when I’d started work, but I knew it hadn’t been good enough.  I just hadn’t the power to convince the locals to prevent epidemics by burying the dead as soon as possible.  Sooner or later, something really nasty was going to burn through the population like fire through dry wood.

The carriage rattled.  Princess Helen seemed unconcerned.  I admired her poise.  The carriage was fit for a queen – and spells had been worked into the wood to smooth the ride – but it was still uncomfortable.  I was going to be tired and sore when we reached the first waypoint, even though I wasn’t walking or riding.  I felt a twinge of envy for the men outside.  They were doing something to keep their minds from wandering, even if it was marching from place to place.  I was trapped with the princess and my client.

And there was a time, my thoughts mocked me, when you would have been delighted to be with two girls in relative privacy.

The thought hurt.  I’d done my best to forget my wife and kids, after discovering there was no way home, but it hadn’t worked.  Cleo and I had had our ups and downs – being an army wife was never easy, even when one’s friends didn’t think they shared their husband’s rank – and yet, I’d thought we had something.  My kids were going to think I was just another husband who’d abandoned his family, they were going to think I’d driven to Vegas or slipped into the underground or something – anything – other than the truth.  My disappearance was going to be just another unsolved mystery, even when the army got involved.  I’d be listed as AWOL, presumed deserted, and that would be that.  Somehow, I doubted they’d spend as long looking for me as they had for DB Cooper.

Princess Helen leaned forward.  “Tell me about your world,” she said.  “How does it work?”

She would have made a good office, I noted absently.  Her voice had just the right combination of respect and firmness.  She might never have had any real military training – reading between the lines, I was sure her father had been trying desperately for a boy – but she knew a great deal about manipulating people, about pushing them in the right direction without driving them to resist.  I’d met a great many officers who hadn’t been anything like as good at it.  But then, they’d never been at serious risk of being killed by their own men.  The princess was riding a tiger.  One slip and she’d fall.

I considered my answer carefully.  The question was well chosen.  She’d listen to what I didn’t say as well as what I did.  What aspect of my world I talked about would tell her a great deal about me and my thinking.  And yet … what could I tell her?  She wouldn’t understand Earth.  She wouldn’t understand that the poorest person in America was richer beyond the dreams of Rupert or Harbin or her.  She certainly wouldn’t understand democracy, or the impact of modern technology.  It might as well be magic to her.

“It’s complex,” I said, finally.  “Things are a great deal simpler here.”

We chatted back and forth, Fallon listening silently, as the small convoy continued its journey to the capital.  I was used to long trips – the army practically ran on the hurry up and wait principle – but it was still a relief when we finally stopped at a manor for the night.  Our host, a genial nobleman who could afford to be friendly – reading between the lines, I figured he had very little power of his own – organised bedrooms, served a fine meal and then spent the night chatting about his issues.  Princess Helen seemed completely unconcerned and, although I was sure she was bored, she hid it well.

“The warlord is dead,” the nobleman said.  “What does that mean for us?”

I shrugged inwardly as the princess bombarded him with platitudes.  Warlord Aldred had been a tyrant to anyone unlucky enough to live within his sphere, as well as a parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the country, but his death meant a power vacuum.  Damansara would try to fill it, as would rebel villagers and former serfs, yet it might not be enough to keep the other warlords out.  We hadn’t killed all of the warlord’s former clients.  A handful had been smart enough to delay their march to his aid, then fallen back when they realised the battle was over and their patron had lost.  They had to be building up their own forces as quickly as possible, embracing gunpowder weapons and everything else they’d tried to pretend didn’t exist.  They’d be stupid not to.

The thought bothered me as we resumed our journey, the following morning.  The landscape was changing, slowly becoming greener; the locals, from what little I could see from the carriage, didn’t look any better treated.  They kept their heads down, but I’d seen enough poor people in the wars to tell they were bitter and resentful.  By now, they would have heard about the rebellions that had unseated the warlord; I wondered, grimly, how many of them were thinking along the same lines.  I made a mental note to try to work with the rebels as quickly as possible.  They’d make strong allies, if they could be convinced to work with the crown.  But that wouldn’t be easy.  As far as they were concerned, the crown was either their enemy or too weak to be useful.  The princess would have an uphill fight to convince them otherwise.

And there’s more insurgent-friendly terrain here, I noted, coldly.  A rebellion would be impossible to squash quickly, if it took root.

“My father will be pleased to see you,” Princess Helen assured me.  She sounded untroubled by two days in the carriage, even though she had to be as sore as myself.  “But you have to remember the protocol when you meet him in public.”

I listened, rather tiredly, as she talked me through the courtly ceremonials.  The whole affair struck me as faintly ridiculous.  The President got a great deal of ceremony, for better or worse, but no one had ever suggested kneeling at his feet.  And when the king barely had any real power … I shook my head inwardly, dismissing any thought of being stubborn.  I didn’t have the power, not yet, to demand equal treatment.  The warlords were the only people who were allowed to overshadow the king.

It’s a display of weakness, not strength, I reminded myself.  The king wouldn’t need to insist everyone bent the knee if he was strong enough to make them.

I kept that thought to myself as the princess went on and on, listening the major figures at court … a list that sounded like someone had taken the characters from Game of Thrones and mixed them with characters from a dozen bad regency novels.  There were hundreds of courtiers; some with real power, some so powerless that all they could do was sit in court and plead with the king for a pension.  I thought I understood, now, why the monarchy was terminally short of cash.  Keeping aristocrats in the manner to which they were accustomed was expensive.  And the king couldn’t afford to simply cut them loose because they’d turn on him in a heartbeat.

There needs to be a cull, I thought.  My head started to ache as I tried to keep all the names straight.  If I got home, I promised myself, I’d never make fun of REMFs ever again.  Maybe we can convince them to serve in the army, then send them to the front lines …

The carriage slowed to a halt.  “You might want to see this,” Princess Helen said.  “Your new home.”

I peered out the window.  We were on a slope, heading down to the city.  A mighty river glowed in the bright sunlight, boats clearly visible making their way across the waters; it passed into the city and split in two.  The city itself was built around the split, as if someone had constructed the bridges first and the city had come later.  A large building – it looked like a cross between a mansion and a castle – sat on an island, just short of the fork in the river.  I guessed it was the king’s home.  My eyes wandered over the rest of the city, narrowing as I realised what was missing.  Roxanna looked spectacular, a great deal more so than Damansara, but the city had no visible defences.  There were no walls.  The urban sprawl just … petered out.

“Your Highness,” I said.  “What happened to the defences?”

The princess’s lips thinned as she rapped the wood, signalling the driver to resume our journey.  “The warlords made us tear them down,” she said, tartly.  “I’m hoping you can do something about it.”

I winced.  Fixed defences had their weaknesses, but they conferred the great advantage of making life difficult for anyone who wanted to get into the city.  I wouldn’t have cared to try to force my way into Damansara, certainly not without modern weapons.  The walls had been carefully designed to force the enemy to leave themselves exposed, if they dared storm the walls.  Here … we’d have to build a mobile army as quickly as possible.  Even if we started building walls at once, the enemy would have plenty of time to attack before it was too late. 

The carriage rattled back into life.  I watched from the window as we headed down to the city.  The wind shifted, blowing the stench into my face.  I was used to it by now, but … this time, the stench was somehow worse.  The river was huge, easily as big as the Mississippi.  I guessed the locals had a great deal of fish in their diet, as well as everything else.  It would explain the stench.  Up close, the city reminded me of New York.  The skyline looked spectacular, from a distance, but the city itself was dark, grimly and claustrophobic.   I hadn’t felt very comfortable there.

I kept my mouth shut as the princess pointed out a handful of landmarks and places of interest, making a mental note to slip my escorts and explore the city myself as soon as possible.  I didn’t have any feel for how the city worked, or how the population felt about the king and his government; I knew too little to get anything done.  Who would support the king and princess if they tried to reform the city?  Who would oppose him?  And who would sit on the fence until they were forced to choose a side?

We crossed a stone bridge that looked disturbingly unsafe, then drove past a string of walled mansions, mid-sized houses and apartment blocks.  The former apparently belonged to the nobility, the latter built on the site of mansions that had been torn down and converted into apartments to allow wealthy – but common-born – merchants to live close to the king.  I snorted at the thought, although I understood.  It wasn’t enough to be rich and powerful in a status-driven society.  One must be acknowledged to be both if one wanted to be considered important.

“Welcome to Roxanna Palace,” Princess Helen said.  “My father is looking forward to meeting you.”

I nodded as the palace came into view.  It was impressive – it made Buckingham Palace or the White House look small – and yet, it was almost defenceless.  I wasn’t impressed.  The wall around the palace was tiny, little more than a formality.  There were probably spells woven into the stone – I couldn’t sense them – but the building still looked easy to storm.  My troops could have done it with ease.

“My staff will take care of you,” Princess Helen said, as we passed through the gatehouse and stopped by one of the entrances.  “Be ready when I call.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” I said.

Chapter Three

It was an odd custom, I’d been told, that a visitor had to be formally presented to the monarch as soon as he arrived in the castle.  This had the obvious downside that the visitor would be dirty and smelly and wearing unsuitable clothes when he faced the monarch and, hopefully, his future patron.  The aristocracy had circumvented the requirement by insisting the washroom reserved for guests from distant places was not, actually, part of the palace, a legal fiction that made me roll my eyes.  What was the downside of letting guests go to the rooms and wash – and everything else they needed to do – before they met the king?

Nothing, apart from the fact they would have put their physical needs ahead of their monarch, I thought.  It was hard to wrap my head around that kind of thinking, but it was part and parcel of my new world.  And that would make the king look weak in front of his subjects.

I felt uncomfortable as maids, young enough to be my daughters, tried to help me undress and wash.  They looked as if I’d slapped them, when I waved them off so I could do it myself.  It wasn’t as if I was crippled … I understood, suddenly, why so many young aristocrats turned into entitled brats.  They had servants to do everything for them, up to and including wiping themselves after they went to the toilet.  The wonder, I supposed, was that Rupert hadn’t turned into the same kind of nightmare as Harbin.

The maids kept their distance as I changed into my new outfit and studied myself in the mirror.  Princess Helen had given me a white tunic with a purple belt that showcased my status as one of her clients, along with a handful of campaign medals that had been hastily struck after the warlord’s sudden defeat.  I turned them over and over in my hand, wondering if they’d mean anything to the aristocracy.  Damansara wasn’t that far away – it had only taken two days to travel to the capital – but, as far as they were concerned, the city might as well be on the other side of the moon.  Perhaps they thought the stories of our great victory were exaggerated.  It wouldn’t really surprise me.

“You look good,” Fallon said.

I turned.  Fallon had changed into a simple green dress that contrasted with her hair, revealing the shape of her body without showing anything below the neckline.  A handful of golden necklaces hung around her neck, a single glowing pendent resting between her breasts.  Clear warning, for those with eyes to see, that she was a magician.  I felt a twinge of discomfort as she looked me up and down, reminding myself – sharply – that she was young enough to be my daughter.  She wasn’t sure of her exact age, from what she’d said, but certainly couldn’t be that much older than my son.  He’d been eighteen …

My heart twisted.  My oldest son would be forever eighteen, in my memories.  He’d never go join the army or go to university, he’d never get married or have children or grandchildren or … I’d never meet his wife, or dangle my grandchildren on my knee, or anything I might have expected to do.  My sons were alive – it wasn’t as if they’d been taken from me – but I would never see them again.  And what could I do about it?  Nothing.

“Thanks,” I managed.  “You look good too.”

Fallon looked down at herself.  “They work wonders,” she said, indicating the maids.  “You should get them to work on you.”

I snorted, unsure if I was being teased or if she was hinting the maids would be held accountable for not helping me.  It wasn’t as if they could do much for my looks.  I’d kept my hair short and my face was … well, a year in an alien world hadn’t improved it.  I shook my head as I brushed down my tunic, feeling uncomfortably overdressed.  The whole affair struck me as absurd.  It was like being on the Truman Show, except I was the only one who knew it was staged.  Everyone else took it deadly seriously.

And they have nothing else, I reminded myself.  They pretend because not pretending would force them to face up to the truth.

A man wearing a gilt uniform that wouldn’t have been out of place on a third world dictator stepped into the washroom.  “Mr Elliot,” he said.  “The king will see you now.”

I tried to hide my amusement as he spun around and walked away, as if he had a rod stuck up his backside.  He didn’t turn to check if we were following him.   I was tempted to stay where I was, but … I shook my head and forced myself into high gear.  The court was a battleground, where the weapons were sweet words and barbed insults rather than guns and swords; I couldn’t afford to take it lightly.  We passed a pair of guards who looked us up and down, then stepped to one side.  The tunic was tight enough to display my lack of weapons without actually forcing them to search me.  I had to admire whoever had come up with the concept.  Searching an aristocrat would be offensive, naturally, but letting someone carry a weapon into the king’s presence would be worse.  A single strike could plunge the kingdom into chaos.

We stepped through a pair of doors, then another and another.  The antechambers started out fancy and, somehow, got fancier and fancier.  Stewards stood everywhere, carrying trays of glasses and bottles; they wore striking outfits, wigs and powdered makeup that concealed their features surprisingly well, to the point they all looked identical.  I noted that, despite their outfits, their eyes were hard and cold.   They moved like men who were ready for violence.   I suspected the king, or his daughter, intended to make sure anyone the stewards had to throw out wouldn’t be able to take revenge later.  Good thinking, if that were true.

Our escort stopped in front of a final set of doors, then made a show of checking his pocket watch before throwing them open.  I took Fallon’s arm as we stepped into the throne room.  It was massive, easily larger than a football field, yet somehow full to bursting.  I could feel hundreds of eyes on me as we walked down the carpet leading to the throne.  I hadn’t felt so naked in public since the day I’d graduated from Boot Camp.  And then I’d been a face in the crowd.  Here … it was hard to shake the urge to look down to check I wasn’t actually naked.

The court was quiet, yet not silent.  I could hear people talking, their voices so low I couldn’t make out the words.  I tried to look around, gauging the crowd without moving my head.  The men wore flamboyant outfits that showed off their muscles or paunches – I spotted a couple of men who seemed to be showing off their weight, rather than trying to minimise it – while the women wore dresses that cost more than I made in a year.  There was an astonishing amount of flesh on display.  The nasty part of my mind pointed out the last time I’d seen so much bare flesh had been when Horst and Fallows had taken me to a brothel.

I kept my eyes lowered as we approached the throne.  King Jacob sat on a raised stand, wearing a simple white and purple outfit.  It was hard to believe he and Helen were actually father and daughter.  He was shorter than her, with a flabby face that bore no resemblance to the paintings I’d seen.  I had the feeling he was older than everyone said, although it was hard to be sure.  His daughter, standing behind him with her eyes demurely lowered, was only ten years or so younger than me.  The king had to be in his fifties, if not sixties. 

It felt wrong to kneel, to show respect.  I didn’t feel it.  The king might have many fine qualities – his daughter was hardly a spoilt brat – but he wasn’t up to the task of keeping his nobles under control.  The warlords defied his will, while the lesser aristocracy mocked his commands while demanding he kept them fed and clothed.  And yet, the world had changed, ever since my predecessor had introduced guns and the printing press.  The king could have built a modern army well before I’d fallen through a crack in the fabric of the universe and wound up in his kingdom.

The king seemed to study me for a long moment.  “You are welcome here,” he said.  His voice was calm and friendly, but there was something to it I didn’t like.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, although I was sure I’d heard it before.  “I name you Royal Warlord and Keeper of the Keys.”

A rustle ran around the chamber.  I kept my eyes down as the king stood and drew his sword.  I remembered it now … the king sounded like Cleo’s father, when she’d brought me home for the first time.  My father-in-law hadn’t been very happy at the thought of me marrying his little girl … not, from what I heard later, that he was particularly discriminating.  He’d hated each and every one of his daughter’s boyfriends, without exception.  I wondered, suddenly, just how much Helen had said to her father, before she’d taken me into her service and escorted me to the capital.  Chat parchments weren’t any better than online chat programs.  It was possible she hadn’t said that much to her father until it was too late for him to object.

At least she didn’t surprise him with an unexpected husband, I thought.  From what I’d heard, marrying into royalty without the monarch’s permission was treason.  That would have been going a little too far.

The king rested his sword on my shoulder.  I tensed.  I had bad memories of bladed weapons being held so close to my neck and the king’s blade was very sharp indeed.  He didn’t look that strong, not compared to me, but the blade was probably charmed to cut through flesh like a knife through butter.  If he’d wanted to behead me, he could have done it in an instant and there’d be no hope of escape.  I held myself still by sheer force of will.  There was nothing else I could do.

“Rise, Sir Elliot,” the king said.  “Rise, and join your kin.”

He stepped back.  I stood, Fallon standing beside me.  The king’s eyes flickered over her without ever quite seeing her.  I wasn’t sure if he was deliberately ignoring her or … or what?  I didn’t know.  Helen had landed me in the crapper, if only by not telling me what she’d agreed with her father.  Had she created a situation in which he’d be forced to go along with her?  Or a situation she could be blamed for, if it went south?  Legally, thanks to the wonders of absurd legal fictions, Helen was still a minor child.  She might be scolded and sent to her room, if things went badly, but she wouldn’t get her head lopped off.  It was quite possible Helen and her father had planned the whole affair from the start.

“We welcome you to our court,” the king said.  “And we look forward to seeing much more of you.”

He motioned us back.  I bowed – beside me, Fallon dropped a perfect curtsy – and stepped back, careful not to turn my back on the king until I reached the crowd.  The king seemed oddly tired by the whole affair, stepping back himself and sitting on his throne.  The herald stepped forward and announced someone else, as if we were no longer important.  I was uncomfortably aware we were alone in a crowd.  The assembled nobility didn’t seem to know what to make of us.

I wished for something alcoholic, as the stewards carried drinks from group to group, but I didn’t dare drink anything more than water.  The military had taught me the value of the two-pint rule, but I had no idea how much alcohol was in the unmarked bottles.  It was too dangerous to get drunk in unfriendly territory.  I moved around the room, speaking briefly to a handful of people and silently putting names to faces.  They really didn’t seem to know what to make of me.  I had the impression they were waiting to see if I lasted long enough to be worth knowing.

Fallon nudged me.  “What do we do now?”

I shrugged.  The king was passing judgement on a handful of cases, brought before him by commoners, but no one was paying particular attention.  I suspected the commoners were going to be disappointed.  The king might have sworn an oath to uphold justice – and so on, and so on – but if justice conflicted with an aristocrat’s interests justice was going to be tossed out a window.  I’d seen it before, on Earth.  A powerful man, sitting at the top of a network of clients designed to support his primacy, would be dangerously unwise to undermine his own power by ruling against one of his clients.  It would gain him nothing, beyond praise from the powerless, while putting his own interests at risk.  He would, at best, say a few comforting words and dismiss the case.

The afternoon slowly wore on.  I did my best not to look bored as I made a few acquaintances and stared down a man who looked more interested in Fallon than me.  Helen, standing next to her father, seemed unworried by the slow day.  I was honestly starting to wonder if someone had cast a spell to slow time, if – when we finally left the palace – we’d discover a hundred years had passed on the outside.  I didn’t know if it was possible.  The books I’d read, most of which had been largely incomprehensible, had suggested there were no upper limits to what magic could do.  I hoped that wasn’t true.  If magicians were minor gods, it boded ill for the future.

A steward caught my eye as the king called the next set of petitioners.  “Sir Elliot, Lady Fallon, please come with me.”

I resisted the urge to rub my eyes as we followed him through a small door and into a smaller chamber.  Helen was sitting at the table, waiting for us … I blinked.  Hadn’t she been beside her father?  I was sure I’d seen her … magic, of course.  A wizard – a sorceress – had done it.  She wasn’t expected to do anything more than stand with her father and look pretty, something that could be easily handled by an illusion.  No one would risk trying to touch her in front of the entire court.  Or speak to her, for that matter.  She occupied an odd place in the hierarchy, slightly below her father and yet above everyone else.  I felt a twinge of sympathy as it dawned on me she must be very lonely.

And yet, it was all I could do not to snap at her.  “How much did you tell your father about me?”

Helen showed no pretence of surprise at the question.  “We discussed it,” she said, curtly.  If she took offense at my tone, she didn’t show it.  “It was important he appear … reluctant.”

I nodded, remembering my earlier thoughts.  Helen really did occupy an odd position.   She was her father’s hostess, seeing the king had evidently never married again, and yet she was also the heir.  He couldn’t rebuke her in public without weakening her position when she took the throne … a position that would be dangerously weak, as long as she lived.  She needed a husband, yet accepting one would make things worse as well as better … I shook my head silently.  It spoke well of them, I supposed, that they’d planned together.  At least the king wasn’t really mad at her.

“The Royal Warlord position will give you command of the Royal Armies,” Helen said, before I had a chance to reply.  “The position of Keeper of the Keys is a little more ceremonial, I’m afraid, and you may find yourself contesting with the Lord Mayor, but you’ll have a considerable amount of leeway to raise troops and various other things.  And, as Royal Warlord, you have control of a considerable estate.  They’ll be hereditary if you survive long enough to have children.”

My eyes narrowed.  “What happened to the last person to take the post?”

“Dead.”  Helen’s face was artfully blank, but her eyes were grim.  “He was shot with an arrow on a hunting trip.  The official report stated it was an accident.  You can believe as much or little of that as you like.”

I scowled.  The warlords would want the Royal Warlord dead, before he could build an effective army.  I’d heard stories of hunting trips.  Wild boar were dangerous.  They could be lethal to a trained man.  “At least he didn’t accidentally brutally cut off his own head while shaving.”

Helen didn’t smile at the weak jest.  “The mansion that goes with the title, along with the staff, is yours as long as you remain in your post,” she said.  “I suggest you spend the next day or so exploring your property, then you can join the council meeting.  We’ll meet before and after the meeting itself, to compare notes.  I trust that will be suitable?”

“It will, Your Highness,” I said.  A thought struck me.  “Tell me something.  How many of the men out there” – I waved a hand at the walls – “are actually any use?”

“None of them.”  Helen’s lips twitched.  “And that is being generous.”

Her Majesty’s Warlord (Stuck in Magic 2 (Serial))

8 Sep

Prologue

I was a stranger in a very strange land.

Is that dramatic enough?  Good.

My name is Elliot Richardson, US Army.  I came home from base one night to discover my wife, Cleo, in bed with the neighbour.  The ensuring shouting match ended poorly, with me driving away into the unknown.  I didn’t know where I was going, nor did I really care.  I just wanted to get as far away from her, and the ruins of my former life, as possible.

I got my wish, in the strangest way possible.  The world lit up so brightly I thought the country had been nuked.  Instead, my car crashed through a gap in the fabric of reality and crashed in a ditch in broad daylight.  The interstate was gone.  Instead, I was on a road in the middle of nowhere.  It wasn’t until I encountered the Diddakoi Travellers that I realised I hadn’t fallen through space and time, but right outside existence as I knew it.  You see, they had magic.  Magic was real.  You will, perhaps, understand my shock.

The Diddakoi let me stay with them long enough to get my bearings and, with the aid of magic, start learning the local language.  It was an interesting time, although so different from my past life that I found it hard to adapt.  My new world was very strange.  I wanted to go home, to my kids, but there was no way to get back.  You see, I was in a world of magic, but I had no magic myself.  What was I going to do?

It got stranger as I started to learn more about the new world.  It was clear that someone, perhaps from Earth – my Earth – had been introducing new concepts and technologies that had seemingly come out of nowhere.  Primitive muskets, steam engines and printing presses co-existed with magic, farmers who worked the fields by hands and an aristocracy so determined to maintain its own position that it was unable to save itself from internal or outside threats.  I found it frustrating.  I could have introduced those concepts myself, but how?  I was alone.  I had no money, no status, no nothing.  Why would any of them listen to me long enough to let me prove what I could do?

One thing led to another and, after a wrongheaded attempt to defend the Diddakoi from a warlord’s men, I found myself in Damansara, a city that was – in theory – politically neutral.  In reality, the warlords could tighten the screws any time they chose and the city would have no choice but to bend the knee.  I made a mistake – I tripped a street rat who’d stolen a loaf of bread – and found myself inducted into the City Guard.  It was a good way to learn more about the city, I felt, but the guard was a deeply corrupt organisation.  I made a powerful enemy in Harbin Galley, an aristocratic teenage brat, when I stopped him from raping Gayle Drache.  It wasn’t until much later I realised I’d also made a handful of allies.

It didn’t take long for me to run into trouble.  I was American, with a sense of morals to match; I couldn’t tolerate the blatant corruption and unfairness of the city indefinitely.  I nearly got myself sold into slavery after attempting to free captured serfs, only to be intercepted by Rupert Drache, Gayle’s brother.  Rupert had just been appointed Commander of the Garrison, the city’s makeshift defence force, and he needed an advisor.  Or, more accurately, he needed someone to do the job for him.  His political enemies had set him up to fail, to be the scapegoat when the warlords started applying pressure once again.  And I saw opportunity to finally make a mark on the world.

I grasped the chance with both hands and started to build a proper army, complete with the latest – as far as the locals knew – in military technology.  My troops weren’t pretty-boy cavalry or household troops who looked good, but ran at the first hint of actual violence.  I taught them to the infantry, to fight as an organised force rather than a mob.  It worked.  The warlord tried applying pressure, once again, and we gave him a bloody nose.  Rupert’s enemies were shocked.  The world shifted on its axis.

The warlord didn’t seem inclined to accept his defeat with good grace.  I worked frantically to expand the army, all too aware the warlord was doing the same.  I learnt how to use small magics in combat, how to take advantage of magicians with very slight gifts; I worked with refugee serfs to build spy and rebel networks deep within enemy territory.  I started, with Rupert’s help, to build a patronage network of my own.  Our time ran out, however, when the warlord finally started to pressure us again.

I drew up a plan and convinced Rupert to go along with it.  Instead of waiting to be hit, as we were expected to do, we went on the offensive instead.  The warlord and his men never saw us coming, not until it was far too late.  We smashed his troops in open combat, shattering once and for all the myth of his invincibility.  His own people, downtrodden serfs who hated him and now no longer feared him, rose up in his rear.  We kept moving, punching through his defences and eventually smashing his castle, breaking his power beyond repair.  It was a stunning victory, capped by the rescue of Princess Helen – daughter of the powerless King Jacob – from the forces of Warlord Cuthbert.  We had changed the world.

But my victory led to a more personal defeat.  My sudden rise had discomforted the city fathers, including some of Rupert’s family.  The rebellions I’d seeded, and the tactics I’d introduced, could easily be turned against them and they knew it.  They planned to quietly kill me, before my power base grew to the point I could crush them effortlessly.  Princess Helen warned me of the plot, then offered to take her into my service.  It would mean leaving everything I’d built behind, but … it was the best of a bad set of options.  I didn’t want to launch a coup and I didn’t want to leave everything and run.

And so, nearly a year after I arrived in the Kingdom of Johor, I finally found myself in the capital of a powerless king.  And that king’s daughter wanted me to make him powerful once again.

Chapter One

Roxanna stank.

It shouldn’t really have surprised me, as I made my way down the street.  The locals had yet to understand the importance of indoor plumbing, let alone an efficient garbage disposal service.  The aristocracy had cold running water – you had to be a magician to have hot water on tap – but everyone else did their business in chamberpots or threw their wastes into the streets.  The gutters were better than I’d expected, I conceded grudgingly, yet pouring waste into the river wasn’t that great an idea.  It was no surprise to me that the city had regular epidemics that threatened to spread out of control.  I intended to change it as soon as possible.

The street was crowded, but the people gave me a wide berth.  They knew me by reputation.  Elliot, Son of Richard; His Majesty’s Warlord.  The title felt oddly cumbersome, and reminded me of the enemies gathering in the distance, but it came with some advantages.  Princess Helen had granted me property and lands, as well as authority over the army and the guardsmen.  Everyone wanted to be my friend, or stay well away from me until they knew if I’d last the year.  It hadn’t taken me long to work out that royal appointees either became hideously corrupt very quickly or suffered accidents that were nothing of the sort.  I kept my eyes open, one hand resting on the pommel of my sword.  I preferred the pistol, really, but the sword was more intimidating.  Despite everything, the locals had yet to realise how much firearms had changed the world.  They might have had a point.  The muskets my troops had carried into battle were so inaccurate that the safest person on the battlefield was probably the target.  They had to fire massed volleys to be sure of hitting something.

Fallon walked two steps behind me, something I found a little irritating even though I knew it was local custom.  She wasn’t my wife or my daughter or a noblewoman in her own right.  She was my assistant … as far as the locals were concerned, she was my servant.  We’d drawn some odd glances, from men who wondered if she was my lover or found it odd that I had a female assistant.  Most aides and secretaries were male, in Damansara and Roxanna alike.  Women were supposed to remain in their homes and remain out of politics.  I knew they were more involved than their menfolk wanted to believe.  Princess Helen was likely to inherit the throne when her father, King Jacob, passed away.

The crowds seemed more … flamboyant than the crowds from Damansara or New York.  Noblemen wore fancy outfits, each one worth more than a year’s salary for a skilled labourer; their retinues, orbiting their patrons like planets around the sun, wore his colours to show their allegiance.  I couldn’t help thinking they looked like peacocks.  Noblewomen wore gowns that looked like something out of a medieval court, resting on wires – or something – that fanned the dress out to make it hard for someone to get too close.  I understood, better than I cared to admit.  Roxanna wasn’t a safe place for young women.  If you weren’t escorted by guards, or lacked magic, someone would try to grope you.  Fallon had already zapped five men this morning alone.  I hoped they were still in pain.  The shock felt like touching an electric fence.

They were, I noted as we approached the market, a very diverse crowd.  Roxanna sat on a river as well as a dozen trade routes, inviting people from all over the known world to pass through the city on their way to their final destination.  There were white and black and brown and yellow faces, as well as people who were clearly demihumans.  There were men and women and children, ranging from aristocrats and magicians to merchants and unskilled labourers from the edge of the city.  I saw young children running wild, including a pair of girls in male clothes.  It was something else I wanted to tackle, when I had a chance.  Some of the street kids would find gainful employment, but the majority would drift into criminal gangs or prostitution, if they lived long enough.  I doubted many of them would make it into their teenage years.  The winters were nowhere near as cold as my hometown, somewhere on the far side of the dimensional divide, but they were quite bad enough.

A hand touched my money pouch.  I snapped my hand down, swatting away a hand.  A young boy – he couldn’t have been older than ten, although it was never easy to be sure – looked up at me, his eyes oddly resigned.  Another child pickpocket, I thought, probably working for an older man who made Fagin look like a saint.  I knew the type.  The boy didn’t move, clearly expecting a kicking – or worse.  I’d seen noblemen crush street kids under their horse’s hooves.  No one would fault me if I reached down, snapped the boy’s neck and dumped his body in the gutter.  No one would hold me to account.

I felt sick.  I raised my hand for a slap, telegraphing the movement so openly my old instructor would despair.  Showing your opponent what you intended to do was never a good idea.  The kid got the hint.  He turned and fled, just as I brought my hand down; he vanished into the crowd as if the devil himself was in hot pursuit.  It was impossible to blame him.  His master should understand, I hoped.  The boy had had no choice.

Fallon pitched her voice so low only I could hear.  “You let him go?”

“Yes,” I said.  “What else could I do?”

I gritted my teeth as we resumed our walk.  What else could I do?  I could have dragged the boy to the guardhouse, where his hands would be cut off … if he was lucky.  There were no juvenile courthouses in Roxanna, no schools to give young crooks a second chance at life.  I doubted there was any point in trying to explain my feelings, not to Fallon.  She’d grown up in Damansara, where one slip could cost you everything.  It was easy to insist that criminals should be treated with respect when you weren’t one of their victims.  The victims would sooner have the crooks beaten to death than given a stern lecture and then set free. 

The streets grew more crowded as we turned into the marketplace and made our way past the stalls.  People were selling goods and books – and broadsheets – from all over the known world.  Heralds were shouting loudly, trying to deafen the crowd with stories that were suspiciously impossible to verify.  I heard one insisting Warlord Aldred was still alive, a moment before he was swarmed by angry citizens and chased out of the marketplace.  I tried not to laugh.  Warlord Aldred was dead.  I’d killed him myself. 

I shook my head as I glanced at the broadsheets.  Their stories contradicted each other, to the point I simply didn’t know what to believe.  The war was about to start, the war was underway, the war had ended … it was hard to say which side had won.  I glanced at a detailed story that insisted an army had marched thousands of miles in a single day and snorted in disbelief.  Portals – magic gateways that linked two places together – could get an army from place to place instantly, but it would take at least ten days to march a thousand miles.  Personally, I suspected that was insanely optimistic.  The local militaries thought logistics was a dirty word.  I knew where they were coming from – it was fun to come up with plans that looked good on paper, but were simply impossible in the real world – but logistics could not be ignored.  I doubted they could keep an army in food and water long enough for it to march a thousand miles.  It had taken a modern army nearly three weeks to get from Kuwait to Baghdad – just over four hundred miles – and that had been with tanks, trucks, and superiors who thought starving the troops under their command was a war crime.  Here … the troops were lucky if they got scraps.

You’ll fix it, I told myself.  And then things will be different …

A man ran up to me and bowed deeply.  “My Lord!  My Lord!  Have we got something for you!”

I nearly drew my pistol.  It took me a moment to relax and realise I wasn’t about to be attacked.  Local merchants could be quite aggressive, rather like people trying to sell you timeshares or multilevel marketing back home.  It could be quite difficult to get away from them without being blatantly rude or threatening.  The man in front of me looked surprisingly prosperous for a merchant, wearing an outfit made of the finest silk without ever quite breaking the sumptuary laws.  The gold chain around his neck was a clear sign he enjoyed aristocratic patronage.  I looked him up and down, feeling a twinge of dislike.  A wealthy merchant was unlikely to threaten me, or lead me into an ambush, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to sell me overpriced crap.  The aristocrats would sooner spend themselves into debt than haggle.  It was beneath them.

He made a grasping motion, as if he’d been about to grab my arm before thinking better of it.  I glanced at Fallon, who shrugged, then indicated for him to lead on.  I’d made it clear I was in the market for modern weapons – by local standards – as well as steam engines, books and other trade goods from half-mythical places like Beneficence, Cockatrice and Heart’s Eye.  It didn’t mean I’d buy whatever I was offered – someone had tried to sell me a pile of scrap, claiming it was a collection of weapons – but I knew I had to look at it.  If it was a waste of time … well, I had time.

The stalls slowly became more upmarket as we walked up the marketplace.  The shops behind them, the kind of places where asking the price was a clear sign you couldn’t afford it, thronged with aristocrats and wealthy merchants.  I frowned as we kept moving, passing advertisements offering steam engines capable of impossible speeds, unsure where we were going.  We turned the corner at the top of the street and passed through a gate into a courtyard and …

I stopped, dead.  It was all I could do not to recoil in horror.

“The men are skilled craftsmen,” the merchant assured me.  “Their wives are cooks and seamstresses and …”

I barely heard him.  I was too busy trying not to be sick.  I’d seen slave markets before – on Earth, as well as Damansara – but this was … this was worse.  The men and women on the stage were naked, their hands trapped in cangues that exposed everything they had; I clenched my fists as I saw the slave brands, burnt into their bare necks.  They were charmed to keep the slaves obedient, at least until the magic wore out.  By then … I shuddered.  I’d heard horror stories, first told as jokes by the guardsmen and then deadly serious, after I’d nearly been slaved myself.  My ancestors had been slaves.  Why would I want to tolerate slavery now?

A wash of bitterness ran through me.  Back home, we’d been ordered not to interfere in local customs, even when said customs were terrible and put us firmly on the wrong side.  Here, I hadn’t had the clout to free the slaves … was that still true?

The merchant – no, the slavedealer – was still babbling.  “And they have children, who can be sold or …”

I clenched my fists.  The slavedealer’s voice trailed off as he saw the murder in my eyes.  If he’d put children on the stage, I would have killed him on the spot and to hell with the consequences.  Perhaps he had an aristocratic patron, perhaps one of the princess’s enemies … the ones who couldn’t decide if they wanted to marry her or set her up as a puppet or simply sell her to the highest bidder.  I doubted they’d care that much, if I killed the man.  He wasn’t the only one.  There’d been dozens of the bastards in Damansara alone.

“My Lord,” the slavedealer said.  His voice was shaky, as if he didn’t quite understand what had gone wrong.  I supposed he didn’t.  Slavery was hardly taboo amongst the locals.  They honestly didn’t see anything wrong with it.  “I …”

I cut him off.  “Where did they come from?”

“Ah …”  He swallowed and started again.  “The men were craftsmen who defaulted on their debts.  I purchased them and …”

“Right.”  I resisted the urge to break his nose.  Barely.  I knew how the system worked – if you got into debt, you paid it off one way or the other – and it revolted me.  The loan sharks were merciless.  I guessed the craftsmen had been cunningly manipulated, their debts toyed with until they crossed the line and found themselves unable to pay … at which point they’d been rounded up, branded, and sold into slavery.  “And you took their families.”

The slavedealer puffed up slightly.  “They all owe the debt, My Lord,” he said.  If I hadn’t wanted to punch him before, I felt it now.  “Their children go with their families.  I am a merciful man.”

My stomach churned.  There were no child labour laws here.  Kids could go into service from a very early age – or worse.  I pushed the thought out of my head and did a quick count.  There were fifteen adults on the stage.  The hopelessness in their eyes nearly broke me. 

“I would like to buy one,” I said.  “How much is the most expensive?”

“Well, My Lord,” the slavedealer said.  “I …”

I cut him off, then repeated my question.  “How much is the most expensive?”

The slavedealer opened his mouth, closed it, then started again.  “Fifteen silvers, My Lord.”

I nodded, curtly.  The value of the local currency seemed to fluctuate at random – the Royal Mint had clipped the bronze, silver and gold coins so often they were rarely worth their face value – but fifteen silvers was more or less reasonable.  I would have preferred to simply take the slaves, and throw the slavedealer into his own cangues, yet … it couldn’t be done.  Not yet.  Perhaps not ever.

“I’ll take them all,” I said. “Fifteen silvers for each adult, the children free.”

The slavedealer opened his fat gob.  “My Lord, I …”

I rested my hand on my sword.  “Are you disputing with me?”

His mouth opened and closed like a fish.  I caught and held his eyes.  I was an aristocrat, as far as the locals were concerned, and turning down my offer could have life-shortening consequences.  I’d seen aristocratic brats kick down doors and tear up shops when the shops were closed or the staff couldn’t get them whatever they wanted.  He had to be aware I could kill him and probably get away with it … my hand itched to draw my sword and cut him down on the spot.  I didn’t give him time to come up with any objections, just leaned forward and issued orders in my best snooty manner.  Harbin Gallery would be proud.

“Have them moved to my mansion at once,” I said.  “You will receive your payment upon delivery.”

The slavedealer hesitated, then bowed in submission.  I cursed my luck.  If he’d come up with an objection, I could have killed him.  Or something.  It would have made life complicated – his slaves would have still been his property – but I might have been able to handle it.  Might.  I turned and strode away, Fallon trailing behind me.  I could feel his eyes boring into my back. 

It was nearly an hour before the slaves arrived at my mansion, looking terrified.  I didn’t blame them.  They might be skilled slaves, but they were still slaves.  They’d become property.  My property.  As debt-slaves, they weren’t even allowed to try to earn money to buy their freedom.  The cangues might have been removed, but the slave brands were still there.  They’d be unable to disobey direct orders as long as the magic lingered … I paid the man, then ordered one of my guards to throw him out with extreme force.  It wasn’t much, compared to what he deserved, but it would have to do.

I surveyed my new property.  “You’re all free,” I said.  They stared at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues.  I’d paid a small fortune for them.  “You can stay here until the brands wear off, then go wherever you like.”

“But …”  A brown-skinned man stared at me.  He was probably about the same age as myself, but looked older.  “My Lord, what …?”

“If you want to work for me, you will be welcome,” I said.  “I need trained and skilled craftsmen to help with my projects.  You will be paid very well, for your time.  Or you can leave, once the brands are gone.”

His confusion would have been funny, if it wasn’t so serious.  I was going to be a laughingstock when word got out, even though – by my standards – I’d done the right thing.  Slavery was just plain wrong.  I made a mental note to start devising a story, for the moment Helen asked what I’d been thinking.  She wouldn’t understand why I’d freed them, let alone everything else.  Perhaps I could remind her that slave brands weren’t always trustworthy.  A cunning mind could find a loophole in his orders.  Or … simply let me use his body, while keeping his thoughts to himself.  It was hard to innovate when you weren’t rewarded for your efforts.  Why bother?

I shook my head as the craftsmen, and their families, were shown to their temporary living spaces.  The story sounded good.  And it would make sense to the locals, if they bothered to ask me why I’d done it.  But it wasn’t the truth.  The truth was that freeing the slaves was simply the right thing to do.

And when I have the chance, I told myself, I’ll free the rest of them too.

OUT NOW – Child of Destiny (Schooled in Magic 24)

4 Sep

Eight years ago, the Sorcerer Void saved Emily’s life. To Emily, Void became, in so many ways, the father she’d never had. And yet Void kept a secret from her. To save the Allied Lands from themselves, to keep them from being destroyed by the necromancers or torn apart by their short-sighted rulers, he embarked on a plan to launch a coup and reunite the long-dead empire, a plan that can only end in total war or a permanent living death. He must be stopped.

And now, all that stands between him and his goal is his adopted daughter, Emily herself.

Gathering her allies, Emily prepares herself to return to Whitehall, to face the most dangerous opponent she has ever faced. But as she pits the new world against the old in a desperate bid to undo Void’s work before it is too late, she is forced to confront a deadly truth…

Is it possible that Void might be right?

Download a free sample, then purchase from the links on this page!

In Memoriam, Jill Murphy

29 Aug

Before JK Rowling, there was Jill Murphy.

Before Harry Potter, there was Mildred Hubble.

If there is any children’s author who disproves the canard that boys won’t read stories about girls written by women, it is Jill Murphy.  I first encountered The Worst Witch when I was in primary school and found myself enthralled by the stories of Mildred Hubble, a young witch in training with a habit of making mistakes, a certain amount of clumsiness and an enemy in the school bully, Ethel Hallow.  The Worst Witch is simplistic, by the standards of more modern books, but it maintains a certain charm that Harry Potter and many others lost over the years.  Indeed, the simplicity helps to keep the charm.  There are no gender-related issues or shipping wars that can turn readers off the books.  (My review is here.)

I was saddened to hear of the death of Jill Murphy last week.  She was a great inspiration to many other authors, including myself. She was, first and foremost, an entertainer who wrote to please her readers, yet one who grounded the fantastical world of Cackles Academy in the reality of boarding school life, of strict teachers and bullies, of friendships placed under stress, of characters pushed into making mistakes to stay with the crowd and much more.  Her characters are very human and very relatable.  Her work touched the child I was as well as the adult I became.  I wish I had had a chance to meet her before she passed away. 

Rest in peace.

Snippet – Standing Alone (Cast Adrift II)

17 Aug

Prologue I

From: A Short History of Galactic Civilisation V.XXVI.  Alphan History University (Terran Campus).  505PI.

Precisely how isolated Earth was from galactic society, prior to the Alphan Invasion and Conquest of 1PI, has been hotly debated over the years.  The invasion and attendant devastation did a great deal of damage to humanity’s records, as might be expected, but rumours of pre-invasion contact with non-human life forms persisted for several decades following the invasion.  The Alphan Viceroyalty was concerned enough about a number of oddly specific rumours to invest considerable effort in trying to determine what, if any, truth lay behind the stories; the investigation produced little, beyond rumours of crashed alien spacecraft and bodies held in top secret facilities, none of which could be confirmed to exist (or ever existed).  If there was pre-invasion contact, it almost certainly passed unnoticed.

Earth’s isolation from the galactic mainstream came to an end when the Alphan Conquest Fleet decloaked in orbit and opened fire.  The human defences, such as existed at the time, were unable to do more than irritate the invasion force, which swiftly wiped out all mobile forces on the planet’s surface before landing troops to take possession of important strategic points and impose their will on the human race.  Human resistance was formidable, in places, but with possession of the high orbitals firmly in enemy hands the outcome was inevitable.  The vast majority of the human nations surrendered within two weeks of the invasion itself and die-hard resisters found it impossible to prevent the invaders from going wherever they wanted, whenever they pleased.  The Alphans had good reason to believe that humanity would become just another subject race, one to exploit for everything from raw materials to military manpower.

At first, it seemed they were right.  Humans rapidly entered service at all levels of industry.  Many humans had no qualms about taking on the dirtiest and riskiest of jobs, from mining asteroids in interstellar wastelands to skimming gas giant atmospheres for rare gases and minerals.  Others joined the Alphan military and served in various units, fighting to maintain and even expand the alien empire.  It seemed likely, as humans inched their way further and further into the interstellar civilisation, that they would eventually carve out a place for themselves in society.  Indeed, to some extent they did.  Humanity was encouraged to settle and develop seven star systems within a handful of light years of Earth, while Earth’s steadily-growing orbital industry and merchant fleet – primitive compared to their masters, but larger with every passing year – took humans right across explored space and far beyond.  It should have gone on forever.

It did not.  First, as humanity became more and more important to the empire’s economy, they started to demand a say in how the empire was governed.  The Alphans were unsure how to handle the matter and, eventually, ended up angering both sides.  The growth of a representative human government, with very limited powers, bolstered the demand for more rights within the empire, even as it ensured it would be harder to convince the empire to grant anything of the sort.  Second, the Alphan Empire fought two wars in quick succession with the Lupines, an alien race technologically inferior to the Alphans but possessed of vast numbers and determination that more than evened the odds.  It was conceded, in the wake of the Second Lupine War, that only human involvement had saved the Alphans from an expensive and potentially catastrophic defeat.   And it was felt, on Earth, that humanity deserved – now – to be considered true partners in empire.

The Alphans hesitated.  It was impossible for them to concede equality to a race that hadn’t so much as settled its own moon, let alone started to explore multispace, before encountering alien life.  They had a tendency to regard humanity as not only primitive, but foolish.  Unlike many other races trapped in gravity wells, the human race could have climbed out before the invasion took place.  And yet, they were uneasily aware of how greatly they depended upon human labour.  The Alphan Empire had invited millions of humans to immigrate.  If those humans turned into a threat, the results would be disastrous. 

After much debate, they chose to cut their losses.  Earth and its neighbouring worlds were granted independence.  The Earth Defence Force – composed of humans who had once fought beside their Alphan masters – was released into Earth’s control.  The Alphans waited long enough to ensure a reasonably stable passing of the torch, then pulled out of the Human Sector completely.  Humanity was on its own.

It did not take long for predators to come calling.  The Vulteks, a primitive race that had been uplifted by the Pashtali, challenged the human navy and, after convincing themselves the human race was a paper tiger, launched an invasion.  The enemy thrust their way to a crossroad star system, where their fleet trapped and destroyed in a desperate battle.  Unwilling to give the Pashtali any time to support their clients, the EDF took the offensive and fought its way to the Vultek homeworld.  The Pashtali arrived barely in time to save the Vulteks from a brutal defeat, ensuring that humanity’s victory would be incomplete.  It was, however, more than enough to ensure the human race would take its place amongst the galaxy’s major players.  As peace descended, the human race looked to the future …

… And, as five years passed, came to realise the peace was unlikely to last.

Prologue II

From: Captain Thomas Anderson, CO James Bond

To: First Admiral Adam Glass, Commander Solar Navy (Earth Defence Force)

Subject: Galactic Geopolitics

Admiral.

As per your request, I have submitted my formal report to the EIS prior to writing this message for you.  I must warn you that a considerable amount consists of nothing more than speculation, of whispers and rumours that may have no more substance than the claim the Elder Gods are about to return and judge us all for our sins.  My tour of the neighbouring star systems has been informative, as the report says, but not everything can be substantiated.  I have had to leave certain details out of the official report because they cannot be backed up.

We had hoped, despite everything, that the Alphans would rally their people to the cause and stabilise their empire.  It is not to be.  Since granting Earth independence, the Alphans have done the same to three more races, two of which are primitive and unlikely to offer any real challenge to their masters if they decided they wanted to rebel.  From what I’ve heard, the Alphan Empire is in full retreat.  A number of important crossroads, economically as well as militarily, have simply been abandoned.  It is only a matter of time before one of the other Galactics moves in and takes them.  I doubt we could secure them ourselves, even if we had the deployable forces, if a more powerful race wanted them.

It is impossible, as of writing, to get a solid idea on how much military hardware remains in Alphan possession, but I’ve heard rumours that suggest warcruiser losses in the war were far higher than we supposed.  I have been unable to confirm these rumours – and some of them are nothing more than whispers and wishful thinking – yet it is clear the Alphans no longer have the will to patrol the space outside their core worlds.  They have stepped down everything from crossroad custom stations to deep space outposts and, if some of the wilder rumours are to be believed, even evacuating their personnel from multispecies worlds.  It is clear they’re withdrawing as much as possible to their core worlds.

This raises a worrying issue, sir.  Who is going to be the next galactic hyperpower?

It is not an easy question to answer.  The Alphans were the power, as far as they and everyone else were concerned.  They possessed enough firepower to make life difficult for the remaining Galactics, even if they had to fight them all at once.  It was they who enforced Galactic Law, such as it is.  As of writing, going by official reports, there is no power capable of taking their place.   Unofficial reports suggest the major powers are rapidly building up their forces as quickly as possible.  The Alphans have created a power vacuum and their rivals are moving to take advantage of it.

I think, off the record, that the Pashtali will be the major threat.  They took no part in either the Lupine Wars or the Vultek War, save at the very end.  They have long wanted to replace the Alphans as the predominant power in explored space, seeing the Alphans as a bunch of lucky bandits, if I may make so bold, rather than the destined masters of the known universe.  Quite aside from that, they also regard us as threats; they have good reason to fear what we, and our neighbours, will do if given time.  I’m surprised they haven’t put pressure on us already.  Given the Alphan retreat, that may be about to change.

Political suggestions are a little outside my bailiwick, but I do have some observations …

Chapter One

ESS Magellan, Deep Space

There were people, Captain Ashleigh Harlem had discovered the first day she’d reported for survey training, who couldn’t endure multispace.  They looked through portholes at the eerie shimmering lights of multispace and recoiled in horror, or threw up, or started screaming as their minds tried to process something beyond their grasp.  Indeed, the Alphans based their claim to superiority on the simple fact that they found multispace almost homely, to the point they knew far more than any other race about manipulating the fabric of multispace and the threadlines running through it.  It was the Alphans, alone amongst the Galactics, who could drop out of multispace wherever they liked.  It gave them a priceless tactical advantage.

She sat in her command chair and studied the displays as Magellan picked her way through the endless energy surges and gravitational eddies.  They weren’t that far from the shipping lanes, but they might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy.  Her sensors weren’t picking up any other ships, not even patrolling cruisers and destroyers prowling the edge of the core worlds.  Alphan space, she reminded herself.  The days when the core worlds had been her core worlds were long gone.  It was strange, almost eerie, that they’d seen so few ships during the deployment.  There’d been a time when the threadlines were practically crowded with starships, from freighters carrying raw materials back to the core to warships patrolling the edge of explored space.  Now …

Interstellar trade will recover, she told herself.  And when it does, we will need accurate charts once again.

It wasn’t easy, but she forced herself to relax.  She’d been in the interstellar survey service from the day she’d graduated, hoping – against all logic and reason – that she’d be granted a chance to take a ship beyond the furthest reaches of explored space.  Updating charts and keeping a wary eye on energy storms in multispace was important – she wouldn’t have been in the survey service if she hadn’t understood just how important it was – but it wasn’t a chance to plunge into the unknown.  She’d grown up on tales of brave explorers – Alphans – who had steered their ships along previously unexplored threadlines, locating and logging star systems that could be claimed and exploited by their empire.  She’d heard stories of strange sights and encounters within multispace, from incomprehensible artefacts from long-gone races to godlike entities guarding the gates to heaven or hell.  Most of the stories were absurd, the sort of tall tales spacers told when they wanted to make their profession sound glamorous; she’d discovered, over the years, there was more truth in them than any groundpounder believed.  Who knew what might be lurking beyond the next threadline or on the far side of an unexplored crossroads?  She wanted to be the first one to see the unknown …

Her lips curved into a grim smile.  Soon.  The human race was free again, free to explore without the guiding hand of their former masters.  She’d been told, in confidence, that as the Solar Government asserted itself, humanity would start sending survey ships into the unknown, in hopes of finding inhabitable colony worlds or making first contact with new alien powers.  She had every intention of being one of, if not the, commander on a deep space exploration mission.  She’d spent her entire life preparing for the plunge into the unknown.  She was ready.

She put the thought out of her mind as she studied the console.  The multispace topography – one of her instructors had once compared it to crawling across the ocean bed – seemed unchanged.  The random energy fluctuations of multispace barely registered on the sensors.  She was almost disappointed – and yet, something nagged at her mind.  The economic slowdown had affected everyone, with fewer and fewer ships setting out on speculative trading missions, but there should have been more ships in the threadline.  She frowned as she studied the edges of the clear route, her ship slowing along the edge of the threadline as her sensors probed the energy storms beyond.  Multispace was merciless – any solid matter within the threadline fell down to the crossroads and beyond – but surely there should have been more.  It was worrying.

Her fingers danced across the console, bringing up the long-range sensor readings and comparing them to the records on file.  It had been too long since the last survey mission.  The Alphans – who’d once conducted the missions as a matter of routine – seemed to have lost interest in carrying them out, although they’d reacted badly when some of the other Galactics had offered to do them.  Or so Ashleigh had been told.  It couldn’t be easy to have an up and coming younger race offering to do something for you, even if one was grimly aware of one’s advancing age.  Ashleigh’s grandmother had never liked her children and grandchildren treating her as an invalid, right up to the end of her life.  The Alphans must feel the same way.  They’d been masters of the known universe for so long they had to find it hard to adjust to a universe that no longer automatically deferred to them.

And I wouldn’t be pleased if Ensign Simmons claimed he knew better than me, she reflected, with a hint of amusement.  Even if he did, it wouldn’t make me happy.

She kept her eyes on the display as the starship sped on, down the threadline.  It was a routine mission.  She did not, technically, have to be on the bridge at all.  There was no reason to think they’d come under attack – they were deep within explored space – or encounter something her XO couldn’t handle.  She knew she could go back to her cabin and do her paperwork – that was one thing that hadn’t changed, in the years following Independence – or even write proposals for deep space exploration.  Who knew?  The President and his government needed a success, now the lustre of independence had been replaced by the urgent need to carve a place for humanity in a hostile universe.  Perhaps they’d support a deep-space exploration mission …

A low shudder ran through the ship.  Ashleigh looked up, sharply, as red lights flared on the display.  Multispace was rarely quiet – energy surges and twisted gravity waves were far from uncommon, seemingly flickering and flaring out of nowhere and vanishing as quickly as they’d come – but they were still some distance from the edge of the threadline.  They were certainly closer to it than a freighter would dare, yet … her eyes narrowed as another wave of gravitational force crashed into the hull.  It shouldn’t have been there at all.

“Lieutenant Ellis,” she said, calmly.  It was unexpected, but hardly anything her crew couldn’t handle.  They’d trained on the assumption they’d be flying into unexplored and uncharted territory.  “Report.”

Lieutenant Ellis didn’t look up from his console.  “We just crossed a gravity wave, Captain,” he said, in a tone that suggested he didn’t believe his own words.  “The wave is actually twisted, to the point we hit it twice …”

Ashleigh leaned forward as the display updated rapidly.  Multispace was weird.  For every threadline that cut years off one’s journey, there was one that added centuries.  It was quite possible to follow a threadline that linked two neighbouring stars together, only to discover the journey would have been quicker if the ships had remained in normal space.  She’d heard stories of spacers who’d spent a week in multispace, only to discover – when they reached their destination – that years had passed.  It was rare, but it happened.  She’d even heard rumours of threadlines that led into the past.

Although those rumours are probably untrue, she reflected.  It would break causality into rubble.

She keyed her console, sounding the alert.  The mission was no longer routine.  The gravity wave – the folded gravity wave – should not have been there.  The threadline had been located and charted thousands of years ago, back when her distant ancestors were only starting to grasp the concept of fire.  And that meant … she frowned as the rest of her crew scrambled to their stations, readying themselves for anything.  If the last survey mission had missed a gravity fold, what else had they missed?  She had the sickening feeling she was about to find out?

“Deploy two recon drones,” she ordered.  “One to the edge of the threadline, one beyond.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ensign Hinkson looked up.  “Captain, I just compared our sensor logs to the files from the shipping consortiums,” he said.  “There’s no mention of a shift in the gravitational topography, and none of the freighters reported encountering the wave.”

“Noted.”  Ashleigh hid her amusement with an effort.  If any of the freighters had reported the wave, it would have been reflected in her orders.  But the ensign was right to check, even if the last set of updates were dangerously outdated.  The big consortiums were scrupulous about reporting any navigational issues to the interstellar governments, but not all of them regarded humanity as an interstellar power in its own right.  “Draw up the last records and compare them to our current sensor readings.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ashleigh smiled, then frowned as the drones started to report back.  The edge of the threadline was shifting … no, closing.  It was still huge – she could fly much of the Solar Navy through the threadline and have room for a few hundred alien ships – and the movement was so slight it was barely noticeable, but it was very definitely there.  She keyed her console, checking on the threadline’s internal topography.  It looked as if the walls were steadily closing in.  There was no danger – not yet, perhaps not ever – but she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of claustrophobia.  She’d taken her ship down threadlines that had been alarmingly thin, to the point only one ship could pass at a time, and yet … this threadline was meant to be stable.  Why was it shifting?

“Captain, Drone One is passing beyond the edge now,” Lieutenant Ellis reported.  “The signal link is becoming increasingly distorted.”

“Stay with it, as best as you can,” Ashleigh ordered.  Multispace played merry hell with communications too.  It wasn’t uncommon for ships to pick up transmissions that had been sent hundreds of years ago, while completely missing signals from a ship that was right next to them.  “And …”

Another shudder ran through the ship.  “Report!”

“The gravity wave twisted again,” Lieutenant Ellis said.  “I think …”

He broke off.  “Captain, we just lost the drone.”

Ashleigh frowned at his back.  “Was the drone destroyed?  Or did we just lose contact?”

“Uncertain,” Lieutenant Ellis admitted.  “There was no terminal signal, but the drone might have been destroyed too quickly to send one.”

Ashleigh forced herself to think.  The drones weren’t designed for rough conditions.  A lone gravity fluctuation might have destroyed the drone or simply tossed it light-years beyond human ken.  Her ship was designed to handle conditions that would tear a drone to pieces without even noticing … and yet, she was reluctant to cross the edge and press into the tangled reaches beyond.  She needed to know what was on the far side and yet … there were limits to how much she dared risk.

And if I don’t find out now, she thought, they’ll just have to send another ship back to do the job we should have done.

“Communications, burst transmission to the nearest relay posts,” she ordered.  The Galactics should relay the messages back to Earth … if interstellar law and treaties still meant anything in this day and age.  Everyone had an interest in maintaining navigational charts, even races and powers that were historically enemies.  “Helm, prepare to take us across the edge.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ashleigh braced herself as the starship altered course.  She was designed for probing the unexplored and uncharted sections of multispace and yet … it was hard not to feel as though she was making a mistake.  But what choice did she have?  If the threadline was shifting, or closing, they needed to know why.  They needed to know if the other threadlines in the sector were threatened.  They needed to know … her lips thinned as the edge came closer, the starship girding her loins for a plunge into the unknown.  If they knew … what could they do about it?  The Alphans were the most advanced race in the known universe and even they couldn’t manipulate multispace, not beyond a very basic point.  There was nothing they could do, if the threadline closed, beyond rerouting traffic and hoping for the best.

“Captain, we will cross the edge in ten seconds,” Lieutenant Adams said.  “Nine … eight …”

The ship shuddered, again and again.  That wasn’t normal, certainly not in a well-charted threadline.  Ashleigh made a mental note to file a complaint about whoever had conducted the last survey as the shuddering grew worse, the ship’s drive fields struggling to compensate.  No wonder the first drone had been destroyed.  It was a minor miricle the second was still alive and broadcasting.  But then, it hadn’t tried to go beyond the edge.

She gritted her teeth as a low crash echoed through the hull.  It was her imagination, at least in part, and yet … she promised herself that, if she ever got back home, she’d never make fun of anyone who dreaded multispace again.  They’d just crashed into the unknown and … she snapped orders, directing the crew to reboot the sensors as the display fuzzed and blanked completely.  She hadn’t see anything like it since the war, since the enemy had tried to defeat a human flotilla by blanketing it with distortion and jamming pulses.  It hadn’t worked as well as the Lupines had hoped – Alphan sensors were still a cut above everyone else’s – but it had given them a chance to get into firing range.  She couldn’t help tensing.  If that happened again …

The display updated.  Ashleigh sucked in her breath as she saw the multispace beyond the walls.  It was a storm, a raging typhoon of energy sweeping towards her with all the inevitability of an asteroid falling into a gravity well.  She felt silence fall like a physical blow, her crew staring in horror.  They knew how dangerous space could be and yet … they’d never seen anything so powerful and dangerous outside training simulations.  The storm was so vast that … she swallowed hard, remembering stories from deep space explorers who had gone beyond the rim.  She’d thought they’d been pulling her leg, as if she was a credulous primitive who’d thought her world was flat before a more advanced race arrived to show them they were wrong.  She knew, now, they’d been telling the truth.

“Reverse course,” she snapped.  The sensors struggled to cope with the torrent of energy pouring towards them, but … she cursed under her breath.  They couldn’t enter such a storm and hope to live.  “Get us back into the threadline!”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ashleigh cursed under her breath as the shaking intensified, the drives whining loudly as they struggled to get them back to safely.  The gravity topography was growing steeper, as if they’d tried to fly through a planet’s atmosphere only to discover, too late, that they’d gone too far into the gravity well and doomed themselves to certain death.  She’d made a serious mistake.  She knew she’d had no choice, but … the ship shook one final time, then fell quiet.  They’d made it back into the threadline.  Barely.

Her nostrils twitched.  Someone had wet themselves.  She pretended not to notice.  They’d trained extensively for everything from transient threadlines to hostile aliens, but there were limits to how far they could go in training simulators.  They were never real.  How could they be?

“Captain.”  Lieutenant Ellis sounded shaken.  “If my readings are correct, the entire sector is caught in the storm.”

Ashleigh stared at the sensor logs, shaking her head in disbelief.  The storm was immense, beyond her ability to comprehend.  No wonder the threadlines were shrinking.  The more she looked at the records, the more she thought it was just a matter of time before the threadlines snapped completely.  Perhaps they’d reform, eventually … no, newer ones would take their place.  She keyed the console, bringing up the starchart.  It would take months, if not years, for the storm to disperse, then decades for the new threadlines to be charted and cleared for use.  Until then … starships would have to take the long way around if they didn’t want to risk the storm.  They’d have no choice.  Magellan was designed for harsh environments, to go boldly into regions of multispace that would daunt a warcruiser, but even she couldn’t fly through a storm.  There were probably better ways to commit suicide. 

Lieutenant Ellis was still talking, babbling speculation on what might have caused the storm.  The sensor records would fuel genuinely original science – the human race, like everyone else, wanted to know how to travel multispace without the crossroads – and yet, right now, it didn’t matter.  Ashleigh understood his enthusiasm, and she appreciated the story was going to have everyone buying her crew drinks, but she understood what it meant.  If they had to take an extra few weeks, if not months, to reach Alphan Prime … what would it do to interstellar trade? 

Hell, she reflected.  If the storm gets worse, we may not even be able to punch a message through to the other side.

She leaned back in her chair.  “Helm, set course for Ballade,” she ordered.  She’d sent a message earlier, but it was hard to be sure it had reached its destination.  They had to go in person.  “Best possible speed.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Out Now – The Prince’s War (The Empire’s Corps 19)

16 Aug

Prince Roland – the Childe Roland, Heir to the Imperial Throne – grew up in a gilded cage, surrounded by men who wanted to use his powers while keeping him under tight control.  He was growing into a petty sadistic brat until a Marine Pathfinder took him in hand, helping him to overcome his caretakers – jailers – and make something of himself.  But it was too late for Earth and, as the planet collapsed into chaos, Roland and his mentor barely escaped before it was too late.  He was taken into the care of the Marine Corps and given a chance to go to Boot Camp and forge a new life.

But now, unsure what to do with him, his superiors set him a task.  Roland has to take command of a training mission and travel to New Doncaster, a planet on the verge of exploding into civil war.  His mission is to build an army and stabilise the situation as quickly as possible …

… But, for an untried prince in a snake pit, facing enemies on both sides of the war, it will be far from easy …

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Updates …

8 Aug

Well … here we are, more updates.

Good news first – I’ve finished the first draft of The Cunning Man.  It now awaits a lot of editing, as – as always – there are a bunch of issues that need fixed before the book goes live.  I’m going to take a short break, now Edinburgh is coming to life again, before starting work on Standing Alone, the more or less direct sequel to Cast Adrift.  I’m sure you’ll agree the cover is a work of art.  Shame about the book <self-decrepitating grin>. 

Also, Stuck in Magic has done very well and I intend to write a second serial – Her Majesty’s Warlord.  I hope you’re looking forward to this <grin>. 

Child of Destiny is still being edited, as is The Prince’s War.  I have hopes of getting the latter up within the week, but we will see.

On a wider scale …

I tried getting into Masters of the Universe Relivation, but I couldn’t.  I’m not talking about the controversial stuff – I just didn’t get that far!  I think a lot of it stems from the 2002 serial being far superior, as far as I can tell from what I saw; there’s also points in which the canon was simply never very well established until 2002.  And the whole first few sections just annoyed me.  Maybe I’m just too old.  She-Ra and the Princesses of Power did a far better job.

That said, I have managed to get partly into Amphibia, mainly the myth arc episodes.  I didn’t really like the early Anne and the Planters episodes, although I think they did a good job of introducing the setting and characters.  Sasha and Marcy are more interesting than Anne though – maybe that’ll change as I get closer to the end of Season 2.  The Owl House hasn’t dropped Season 2 on Disney+ yet, so I haven’t been able to catch up with season 2 of that yet (although I hear it’s a good one). 

Anyway, back to the kids.

Chris