Retro Review: Sixth Column

20 Mar

Heinlein’s Old Shame isn’t as shameful as it could have been.

It is a curious fact that, when the groundless charge that ‘Robert A. Heinlein was a racist’ is brought up, Sixth Column is barely mentioned, even though it is – on the surface – far more incriminating than the later Farnham’s Freehold. It certainly appears to provide more evidence for the charge. And yet, it is hard to be sure how much of the core idea behind the book is Heinlein’s. He wrote from an outline sketched out by John Campbell – who apparently was a racist, or at the very least a believer that white civilisation was the best in the world – and it isn’t clear how much of the plot belongs to Heinlein himself. Indeed, in his later years, Heinlein himself apparently regarded the book as an old shame – and it is far less well known than Farnham’s Freehold.

Sixth Column, in many ways, fits into two literary traditions. One, which was on the decline in the 1930s, was the ‘invasion literature’ genre. These stories tended to show a country being invaded by its foes and crushed underfoot – The Battle of Dorking is a good and short example – and often served as a clarion call for bigger and better military expenditure. And the other, which Campbell himself practically founded, was the development of super-technology and the boundless promise of science. Sixth Column was not the first to match the two together – Danger provides an example of a book speculating on how advanced technology would change the face of war; The Unparalleled Invasion touches on biological warfare – but it is certainly, at least in my experience, the most imaginative of them.

The plot starts immediately after Washington is nuked (or at least destroyed) and the United States is invaded and occupied by the Pan-Asians. However, all is not lost. A tiny team of scientists and military men have survived, hidden away in an underground research lab. And they have just stumbled upon a technology that might just allow the United States to regain its freedom, if they can survive long enough to develop and deploy it. It can do everything from influence and kill people based on their racial heritage to transmute dross into gold or turn a wall to dust. Naturally, the leader of the band decides to remain underground until they can take back their country.

But they cannot remain completely isolated, because there’s only six of them. They need to establish bases across the occupied country and that isn’t easy, because the occupiers are cracking down on everything … apart from religion. The Sixth Column – the term is a reference to the largely non-existent Fifth Column of the Spanish Civil War – therefore develops a fake religion, backed by their superior technology, and uses its temples as recruiting grounds for the insurgency. And, when the time comes, they rise up against the occupiers and take back their country. It is a testament to Heinlein’s skill, even as a relatively young writer, that he manages to keep the tension rising even after the new technology is finally deployed.

Heinlein was not, when he wrote Sixth Column, the writer he would one day become. It has many of the flaws displayed by a new writer, one who has managed to break into the publishing world but has not yet managed to smooth out his work. And yet, it also shows very clear signs of the greatness Heinlein would achieve. The premise may be ludicrous and the technology so fantastical that it might as well be magic, but Sixth Column works better than it should. Heinlein makes it work, at least in part, by never taking his eyes off the people in the story. He does not rely on super-technology to carry the tale.

Indeed, he was very aware of its limits. The proposals for an immediate offensive, once the first generation of projectors have been developed, get shot down for very sound reasons. A mere superiority in weapons, as a number of colonial armies discovered over the years, is no guarantee of victory. The Pan-Asians could easily afford to trade millions of men for each of the Sixth Columnists and call it a bargain. No, the technology has to be carefully developed, then exploited.

He also gives a nod to the sort of tensions that can develop in such a confined space, with a looming threat constantly hanging over their shoulders. The leader worries about his ability to do the job, while his men want to take the offensive or flee … and a scientist has delusions of grandeur combined with hints of madness that eventually crack his mind. He also worries about introducing women to the hidden research lab, concerned about what impact it might have on the men. (It may sound sexist, but it is a reasonable concern; Heinlein was anticipating the issues caused by the presence of women on naval ships in the modern day.)

Outside the lab, Heinlein paints a grim picture of a population under enemy occupation. I don’t know how much Heinlein knew about the Nazi occupation of Europe – Sixth Column was written in 1940, although it includes references to the Holocaust – but the occupied country feels very much like Nazi Europe, with a side order of the Japanese occupation of China. American culture is steadily being destroyed; everyone is registered, written English is banned, schools are closed, men who can’t find employment in an approved occupation are shunted off to work camps, saying the wrong thing to an occupier can get you killed … it isn’t a pretty sight. Heinlein doesn’t mention rape outright, but it clear that it happens too; Imperial Japan’s soldiers were notorious for raping Chinese women. And yet – oddly – the atrocities committed by the Pan-Asians are not as bad as the ones Imperial Japan would commit in the Second World War. Heinlein underestimated just how far Imperial Japan was prepared to go as the noose steadily tightened around its neck.

Indeed, for all the talk of Pan-Asians, it’s fairly obvious that the invaders are pretty much Japanese. Heinlein would have been aware of Japanese atrocities in China and transferring them to America wouldn’t have been a stretch. The Pan-Asians are a curious mix of accurate observations on Japan’s (at the time) highly-militaristic and honourable (by their lights) culture and stereotypes. The urge to save face at all costs, for example, is mingled with an observation – by one of the good guys – that beardless Japanese find bearded men a little overwhelming. I’m fairly sure that isn’t actually true. Heinlein seems to have been aware that many of the invaders were human too, but also products of a very different society and therefore could not be expected to think like Americans. But then, as he also notes, humans the world over are unnerved by the unknown.

What saves the book from a cluster of tissue-thin racial stereotypes is the presence of an Asian-American as a hero, one whose entire family has been wiped out for daring to leave Japan. I don’t know how the Imperial Japanese responded to Japanese who fled Japan and immigrated to America, but they might well have considered them traitors. Heinlein makes it clear, in many ways, that this American is a hero, an attitude that not many Americans of that time would have liked.

The book is also quite quiet on other races, although it is possible to construct a case proving that both Jeff Thomas and Sergeant Scheer are black, or at least ambiguously brown. But this may make a great deal of sense. A man as observant as Heinlein would have known that the black population of 1940s America wouldn’t feel free, whatever their legal status. As Tom Kratman points out, in the afterword to the Baen edition, the black population might side with the invaders. And why not? The chance to get a little of one’s own back is one that has seduced many people in far better circumstances. This would probably not have worked out very well for them, no matter who won, but it wouldn’t be the first time that someone let the urge for revenge overpower reason. Hell, it might even be the rational choice.

Heinlein also touches on an issue that would have been politically important in 1940, the need to keep in touch with the world. Historically, both China and Japan sought to shut the door to the outside world, burning their ships and killing foreigners who landed on their shores. It brought them nothing, but disaster: internally, they stagnated; externally, more powerful nations eventually came to their lands and crushed them with vastly superior military power. America also tried to stay away from the outside world, after 1918, and paid a steep price for it. In the book, the isolation was far stronger and the sudden outbreak of war – with a vastly superior enemy – proved disastrous.

In the end, Sixth Column is a very mixed bag. It has its moments of greatness – and its defence of non-white Americans who happen to be American – but it also has problems left behind – or inserted – by Campbell. It draws a veil over some aspects of the occupation – it is not as mindlessly awful as some of the more recent books, when the rules about what you can and can’t put into a story were relaxed – and makes other aspects all too clear. One can see the great writer Heinlein would become shining through its pages, but one can also see the limitations that held him back for much of his professional career. It also doesn’t have the sense of scale, of events taking place on a vast field, that might be more than justified by the plot.

And yet, for all it can be used as evidence against him, much of Sixth Column is based on reality. Imperial Japan did indeed commit vast atrocities against conquered populations, while treating their own population as little more than insects. Indeed, the Pan-Asians who commit suicide for their failures in Sixth Column have their genesis in the Japanese civil servants who had to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide – after failing to keep Commodore Perry from landing in Japan. And the imperial governments of both Japan and China did everything in their power to save face, right up to and including lying to their superiors in a manner that would not be bettered until Saddam’s Iraq. If one goes by the number of American carriers the Japanese reported sunk, even as the USAF began pounding Japan from the air, the entire USN would have been wiped out several times over. Perhaps one of the reasons this book is not dragged up and used to smear Heinlein’s name is that anyone who did so would have to deny or minimise real-life atrocities.

At base, Sixth Column is an interesting read, but – compared to Heinlein’s later works – very limited, even unsatisfying. And yet, as I have said, in it you can see the man Heinlein would become.


On Bullying

18 Mar

I don’t usually bother with trigger warnings, or anything along those lines, but this post is more intensely personal and less dispassionate than other things I’ve posted. (I also had my opinion changed at one point when someone pointed out the flaw in my logic.) Writing it was not easy. The next one – some observations on anger and venting – will be less passionate.

When I was in Primary Four, when I would have been around eight-nine years old, I stopped being invited to birthday parties.

Too many of my memories of those days are hazy, wrapped in the pain of being excluded by pretty much everyone in my class and being at the mercy of an uncaring school system that took four more years to decide I was dyslexic. I don’t think I did anything to deserve to be excluded, but I don’t know. There’s a bit of me that thinks … maybe I was to blame. Or maybe it was them. I was the weird kid. I was the Calvin, they were the Moe. It was so bad that I told myself that going to boarding school wouldn’t be so bad. It would be a fresh start.

In my entire life, I do not believe that I have ever made such a catastrophic misjudgement.

The boarding school was utter hell. I don’t think I went two days without being hit or mocked or generally treated like s***. I had no friends, no one I dared trust; I didn’t dare relax, even for a moment. I was at the bottom of the entire hierarchy, picked on by my peers and ignored by the teachers. I withdrew into myself as best as I could, to the point that I have difficulty empathising with others, but it was never enough. My life was either one of complete social isolation or simply not isolated enough. When my parents – who meant well – asked if I wanted to invite someone home during the holidays, I panicked. It was the last thing I wanted. There were times, too many times, when I considered suicide as the only reasonable option. It would have put an end to the pain.

I hated them. I hated the bullies, I hated the teachers, I hated everyone. In short, I curdled.

Things got a little better, when I went to a different school. And yet, the habits I picked up in boarding school cast a long shadow over my life. I had a couple of friends, but I always kept them at arm’s length; I simply didn’t dare open myself to anyone. University was better still, while work was a mixed bag. There were times when I let myself get pushed around too often because my life had taught me that resistance only made things worse. Even now, I still carry too many of those habits. I flinch when I hear a football bouncing on the ground, I withdraw into myself when surrounded by other people, my first response to anyone talking to me like I’m an idiot is blind fury …

If I could go back in time and speak to my past self, I’d tell him that it would eventually get better. Because, you know, it did.

And yet, I’m still the prisoner of my past.


There have been a number of memes passed around Facebook over the past few weeks and you can see one of them below. (And a link here.)


And I have mixed feelings. Very mixed feelings. It’s easy to allow yourself to curdle, to allow your helplessness and resentment and frustration to turn to anger. It’s easy to feel that everything is unfair (and never unfair in your favour), that everyone is against you, or that everyone else has it better than you. And it’s easy to believe that people make exceptions for the popular (or strong) kids that they won’t make for you. I know popular kids who got away with crap that would get the unpopular kids expelled. If I had had one friend, just one, someone who I could be myself with … I like to think that I would have had a better life. But by the time I met genuine friends, it was too late to cure myself of bad habits, habits I needed to survive. So yes, I say; walk up to the unpopular kids and try to include them, just once. We all need social contact to survive.

But, others say, doesn’t this smack of blaming the victim?


Perhaps it does, just a little. People are responsible for their own actions. I was told, time and time again, that some of the worst bullies in the school came from broken homes or foster families or were dealing with abuse at home. And yet, I never considered such claims to be an excuse. I would feel sorry for someone who was abused at home, but my sympathy would vanish like a snowflake in hell if that person turned around and abused someone else. And yet …

And yet, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

I’ve read stories where someone was treated badly – once – and brooded on it so much that he turned evil. The real world isn’t like that. It isn’t the single incident that curdles the mind, but the steady grinding pressure; the beatings, the insults, the isolation … the sheer certainty of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone considers you worthless, that authority would sooner punish you than the people who make your life hell. And if that was counterbalanced by other people being nice to you, perhaps things would be better. But this requires people to accept that they might have a certain responsibility towards their classmates.

Every school I’ve been in has had a problem with bullying. And every school had an anti-bullying program that was worse than useless. I don’t think any of the people who designed them knew anything about bullying, let alone how to stop it. Their programs were, at best, useless; at worst, well … here’s another meme.


If you’re only taking note of a problem because it has exploded in your face, you’re already too late. And if the message you’re sending – intentionally or otherwise – is that this is the only way to get attention, what do you expect to happen?


I’ve always tried to ask myself why something happened as well as what. What drives people to do evil things? Or even things that seem (to me) counterproductive?

There’s a lot of talk about how violent video games are connected to school shooters. Do violent video games play a role in turning young men into monsters? If I can argue that bullying does, why can’t someone else blame video games? Gaming has a sexism problem, we are told. It’s a filthy misogynistic cesspit of sexism and rape culture. You can find quite a few articles along those lines if you look.

Why would it look like this to an outsider?

Imagine … imagine a fifteen-year-old boy. We’ll call him George. He’s spotty, somewhat overweight and generally unlikable. He wouldn’t be fashionable even if he wore the latest in designer gear, which he doesn’t. He gets picked on a lot. He can’t win and if it looked like he was going to win, someone would change the rules to prevent it.

And every day, after school, he goes online and plays video games.

At school, he’s the human chew toy; online, he’s a big man. No one judges you for being a nerd online as long as you don’t tell anyone you’re a nerd. George can pretend to be someone else, for a while; he can play on a level playing field and actually win. And he allows himself to vent, to say all the things he wouldn’t dare say at school because he’d get in trouble for saying them. Online gaming – and I am not the first person to make this point – is his safe space. He might lose a video game, fairly. No one is beating him up for daring to exist.

And this is something people need. Everyone needs to be able to vent their feelings, either through swearing or kicking a ball around the field or even loading a game and slaughtering a few thousand enemy pixels. If these feelings are not released, if someone is denied a chance to express themselves, the feelings start to curdle and turn sour. But the people at the bottom are often not allowed to vent their feelings.

So … along come reformers who see the surface froth and demand that the gamers clean up their act. They might even have a point, from an objective point of view, but George and his friends see it very differently. To them, they’re getting persecuted – again – while the reformers are ignoring the real problems. They’re nothing more than bullies, picking on the ones who can’t fight back. And this is how GamerGate got started.

The thing is … if you’re at the bottom, if you feel you’re at the bottom, if you think you have to keep fighting constantly because a moment’s pause will bring disaster … you keep fighting, because you must.

And … well, some people grow up and out of it. Others … snap.


The good news is that, sometimes, the bullies get their just deserts. (I don’t know if this story (and update) is true, but I want it to be.) And that the average nerd will grow up and out of it. But … they rarely believe that at the time. Why should they?

I don’t have a real solution to the problem. Things have mushroomed, thanks to social media; it’s now possible to bully someone from halfway around the world. No one is ever allowed to forget their mistakes, let alone put them in the past. Perhaps the only thing I can suggest is immediate consequences for bullying behaviour, up to and including permanent expulsion, but even that has its limits. Teachers, the people on the ground, are rarely capable of getting a child expelled. And that assumes they want to try.

And social exclusion and bullying aren’t the only problems. Nor are they easy to fix.

But we have to try.

OUT NOW: Invincible (Ark Royal XII)

15 Mar


All is not well in the Human Sphere. The alliance between the Great Powers is starting to fall apart, the human economy cannot keep up with the urgent need for newer and better starships and politicians are demanding an end to military spending. For the Royal Navy, desperately trying to do too many tasks with too few ships, it is the worst possible time for a new threat to appear.

When a generation starship is detected approaching a British colony world, HMS Invincible is dispatched to intercept the aliens before they can make landfall. But the newcomers bring with them tidings of a new and deadly threat, an expansionist alien race far too close to the Human Sphere for comfort …

… And a sinister horror beyond human understanding.


The Backlash of Bullying

13 Mar

He found himself thinking in the same vindictive spirit of his father, although he would have been at a loss to explain the connection. The connection was not superficially evident, for his father would never have stooped to name-calling. Instead, he would have offered the sweetest of smiles, and quoted something nauseating in the way of sweetness-and light. Dave’s father was one of the nastiest little tyrants that ever dominated a household under the guise of loving-kindness. He was of the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, this-hurts-me-more-than-it-does-you school, and all his life had invariably been able to find an altruistic rationalization for always having his own way. Convinced of his own infallible righteousness, he had never valued his son’s point of view on anything, but had dominated him in everything-always from the highest moralistic motives.

He had had two main bad effects on his son: the boy’s natural independence, crushed at home, rebelled blindly at every sort of discipline, authority, or criticism which he encountered elsewhere and subconsciously identified with the not-to-be-criticized paternal authority. Secondly, through years of association Dave imitated his father’s most dangerous social vice-that of passing un-self-critical moral judgments on the actions of others.

Coventry, Robert A. Heinlein.

I hate bullies.

Seriously, I do. There are few lower forms of life than the bully, regardless of the form the bullying takes. Bullying is a form of abuse, be it physical or mental, and it leaves scars that last for the rest of the victim’s life. I hate bullying to the point that I am instantly alienated from a story where the main character, the supposed hero, is a bully. Indeed, as satisfying as someone going to school with Superman’s powers and utterly crushing the local bully can be, there is something about them that bother me. The lines between justice, revenge and naked bullying can be very thin at times.

Indeed, the bully often has – or claims to have – a justification for his behaviour. Any bully will instinctively home in on his target’s weakness, then use it to convince others to let him get away with it. If you’ve been on a schoolyard, you’ll probably have seen this in action; the nerds and geeks get pushed around by the bullies, while the other school kids think (or choose to believe) that the nerds and geeks deserve it for being nerds and geeks. It’s a rare child or teenager who chooses to stand up to the bully, not least because the bully often claims to have a ‘cause.’ “You’re defending the gay kid? Maybe you’re gay too!”

Bullies cast a baleful shadow everywhere they go. Their victims grow angry and, because they cannot release that anger in a healthy way, become curdled. It’s hard to think rationally, let alone tell when you’re sliding down the slippery slope, when your perceptions are being addled by bullying. You may bully younger or weaker kids because that was what happened to you, because you don’t know that it’s wrong or you simply need to displace the anger somehow. Or you may adapt to survive and then discover that your survival tactics get you in trouble in the outside world. And that will feel very unfair.

Point is, no one wants to be bullied. It’s easier to go along with the bullies – and point and laugh at their victims – then stand up to them. And yet, no one likes the bullies.

Bullies are not nice people to have around, even if they are nominally on your side. There’s always the risk that they might turn on you, just because they’re bored or because they’ve driven everyone else away. Their mere existence warps your social group so badly that many of your friends will walk away, if they can. (Schools are fertile breeding grounds for bullies and victims because walking away isn’t possible.) And the tactics people have to adopt to stay safe in such an environment haunt them for the rest of their days.

The reason I write this is because, wither we care to admit it or not, there is an epidemic of bullying sweeping through our society. It’s been growing for quite some time, made easier by the internet and the striking reluctance of the authorities to cut it down until it grew too large to handle safely. The tactics of bullies have been adapted to serve the purpose of social justice bullies. (Yes, I know they like to be called Social Justice Warriors, but they don’t deserve to be called warriors.) Call-outs, online shame mobs, boycotts, deplatforming … they are all bullying tactics. What’s the difference between a schoolyard mob laughing at the funny kid who doesn’t have fashionable clothes and a screeching mob screaming about racism, bigotry, sexism and whatever other cause is in vogue at the moment?

None, as far as I can see.

In the wake of the latest school shooting, people have been trying to demonise the NRA even though the NRA played no role in the tragedy. A vast number of people – the school authorities, the local police, the FBI – were asleep at the switch, choosing to ignore the warning sighs until it was far too late. And yet, the NRA is the target? There’s no more logic in attacking the NRA than there is in picking on the kid with glasses, but virtue-signallers have been jumping on the bandwagon with enthusiasm. This may make more sense if you realise that virtue-signalling is really a way to keep the bullies away from you, not a honest conversion.

The NRA isn’t the only people who have been attacked over the past few months. A school play was cancelled after a handful of students whined about the lead role going to a white girl. A handful of speakers at colleges and universities were cancelled – or heckled mercilessly – by student activists. A book was threatened with a boycott because a handful of people found it offensive. Facebook has purged a number of conservative accounts. And, of course, the mainstream media has continued its quest to delegitimize Donald Trump, turning every little bump in the road into a world-shattering disaster.

Here’s a question for anyone who thinks that this sort of behaviour is acceptable. What do you think it’s actually going to get you?

People don’t like being bullied. People don’t like being told what to do by self-righteous prigs who are blind to the irony of their actions. People resent and hate it when they are told that they are privileged – particularly when they’re not – and that they have to shut up, because they’re privileged. People get mad when they are accused of everything from racism to sexism and told they have no right to an opinion (which is, in itself, an opinion). And when people are denied even the chance to vent their feelings, this anger starts to curdle and turn very nasty.

Over the last year, I’ve heard from a number of Americans who voted for Donald Trump. They had quite a few reasons, ranging from approval of his policies and generally robust attitude to terrorism and foreign affairs to sheer horror at the thought of Hillary Clinton becoming President. They didn’t vote for Trump so much as they voted against Hillary. And there were people who voted for Trump because they saw his opponents as bullies, bullies who were trying to bully the entire American population. The tactics they used turned people against them.

The effects ran a little deeper than that. When people feel they cannot express their opinions freely, they hide them. (This may be why Weinstein got away with it for so long.) They don’t tell the pollsters that they intend to vote for Trump out of fear of being called racists or whatever, but they vote for Trump anyway. (Any organisation that is supposed to run on democratic principles, but lacks a secret ballot is doomed, because everyone will hide their true feelings until it’s too late.)

Worse, if you are silencing someone instead of debating with them, you give their views credence. Think about it. Why would anyone want to silence someone who’s obviously wrong? Why not let him make a fool of himself in public? You may feel that you are doing a good thing by deplatforming racists, sexists or whatever, but there will be people who will think that you are unable to debate with them openly and others who will see you as abusing your power. Being right, if indeed you are right, doesn’t always save you from a charge of bullying.

Worst of all, you make people so angry that their anger starts to curdle. Is it any surprise that the Alt-Right has started to adopt bullying tactics itself?


You might be right when you call someone out for something. You might be right when you raise a hue and cry against a convention official with wandering hands, screaming for his immediate dismissal and threatening a boycott if you don’t get what you want. You might be right … but it doesn’t matter. People who feel that you have stampeded them into making a decision without careful reflection resent it, even if they acknowledge (eventually) that you have a point.

And while you may win the battle, you will find that you lose the war.

I think it’s only a matter of time before conservatives start calling for new restrictions on social media, colleges and universities, perhaps even the media. And why not? If someone feels they’re being bullied, why not bully the bullies right back? But that’s an easy way to turn into a bully yourself …

… But at that point, people who feel they have been pushed too far no longer care.


Snippet – The Princess in the Tower (Schooled In Magic 15)

11 Mar

Prologue I

Alassa cursed out loud as she jabbed the needle into her finger. Again.

It wasn’t particularly ladylike to swear, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t the kind of person who liked being confined to a single suite, no matter how luxurious. She wanted to take her horse out for a ride or practice her magic or share a bed with her husband, not waste her time sewing … she’d never had the talent for needlework, no matter how many governesses had tried to train her in the ladylike arts.

She eyed her work for a long moment, then tossed it aside and began to pace the suite. It had everything she could reasonably want, except windows and freedom. The lights brightened and dimmed randomly, leaving her unsure just how long she’d spent in the suite. Her body didn’t appear to have changed that much, as far as she could tell, but without magic it was hard to be sure how well the pregnancy was progressing, if it was progressing at all. She was all too aware that her family found it hard to have children. The mere fact that it had taken her so long to conceive, even with a husband who wasn’t remotely related to her, was proof that the pregnancy wouldn’t be easy.

It has to be done, she thought, resting her hand on her abdomen. The child will be the next monarch of Zangaria.

A wave of despair crashed over her as she lay back in her bed. She’d gambled – she’d risked everything for her friend – and she’d lost. Her father had given her an opportunity to prove that she would defy him, that she would turn against him, and – like a silly little girl – she’d taken it. And yet, no matter how many times she second-guessed herself, she knew she’d had no choice. Imaiqah – one of her two closest friends – was condemned by the mere fact of being related to a traitor, a man who’d betrayed the king. Alassa knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the death warrant was nothing more than a mere formality. She’d had to move to save Imaiqah before it was too late. And she’d failed …

Jade was out there, somewhere. She clung to the thought, even though she had no way to know if he’d received her message. Mouse might have been caught, when she slipped out of the castle and into the town … or she might have betrayed her mistress and taken her message straight to the king. And if Jade hadn’t received the message …? He’d be suspicious, wouldn’t he? She’d made a point of chatting to him via parchment every day they’d spent apart. He might sneak back into the kingdom rather than ride up the High Street, sure of a hero’s welcome. She hoped he would have the sense to be careful – his father-in-law wouldn’t hesitate to have him executed, if he fell into the king’s hands – and bring help. He’d need a great deal of assistance if he wanted to save his wife from certain execution.

And his child from being raised by the king, Alassa thought. She didn’t think her father would have her executed, but he’d certainly send her into comfortable confinement shortly after she’d given birth. Boy or girl, her child would be the next legitimate ruler. He’ll take the child and raise him in his own image.

She stared up at the ceiling, battling despair. Imaiqah might have already been executed, now she’d served her role. Sir William should have been safe – he’d been following her orders – but he might have been sent into exiles. Not knowing was worse than anything. She’d tried asking her keeper about her friends and servants, but the wretched woman had refused to be drawn on the matter. Alassa, it seemed, was to be kept in a perpetual state of ignorance. Her letters to her mother and father had never been returned. She didn’t even know precisely how long she’d been a prisoner.

The door opened. Alassa tensed automatically, then told herself to relax as a maid walked into the suite. There was no point in trying to fight. She knew from bitter experience that the suite’s wards would immobilise her – in the most humiliating manner – if she tried to attack the maids. She thought she could break through the wards, if she had her magic, but her keeper had been very careful. She’d been forced to drink potion to keep her magic suppressed every day.

She glared at the maid as the young woman placed the tray on the bedside table, then curtseyed. She wanted the girl to flinch, even though it was unmannerly of her. But the maid showed no reaction, save for pointing a finger at a glass. Alassa grimaced as she reached for it, knowing that – again – there was no choice. If she didn’t drink the potion willingly, she’d be forced to drink anyway. She’d had that lesson hammered into her too.

“Very good, Your Highness,” the maid said, as Alassa swallowed the potion in one gulp. “I will be back for the tray when you’ve finished your meal.”

Alassa scowled at her retreating back, taking a drink of mead to waste away the taste of the potion. It tasted fundamentally wrong. She’d tried a few tricks, when she’d started, to make it look as though she’d drunk the potion, but nothing had worked. It was clear proof, as if she’d needed any, that she was under constant observation. The wards would allow their mistress to spy on her captive at any moment, if she wished. They might even be clever enough to alert her if Alassa did something dangerous.

Damn it, Alassa thought.

The food was good, but she could only pick at it – listlessly – as she sat back on her bed. She was trapped, her body and brain already turning to mush. The servants were practically treating her like a baby, someone who couldn’t even get dressed on her own. Whitehall had taught her that she didn’t need servants to dress herself, but now … it was hard to muster the energy to do anything. She couldn’t help wondering if there was more to the potion she’d been fed than she thought. She’d always been an energetic girl.

But not for long, if I don’t get out of here soon, she thought. She could practically feel herself wearing away as her world shrank to the suite’s four walls. Jade … where are you?

Prologue II

There was a small army of guards on the streets.

Sir Roger of the Greenwood kept his face under tight control as his horse cantered up the High Street, his guardsmen following at a distance. He hadn’t expected cheering crowds – it wasn’t as if he’d won a great victory in the last six months – but the sullen atmosphere pervading the city was worrying. There was hardly anyone on the city’s streets, save for the guards. The shops were open, but deserted; the temples were open, yet few people seemed to be going to pray. Alexis seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting for something to happen.

Perhaps something has already happened, he thought, grimly. He’d heard hundreds of rumours, but each one had been crazier than the last. It feels as if we’re about to go to war.

A twinge of unease ran down his spine as he cantered over the drawbridge and into the courtyard, the amulet around his neck growing warm as it sensed the wards surrounding the castle. He had no magic himself – and he didn’t entirely trust those who did – but he took it for granted. King Randor appeared to have strengthened his defences, physical and magical, more than ever before. There were hundreds of guards within eyeshot, some of them eying him as if they thought him a potential threat. Roger’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t fool enough to think the guards would respect his rank if the king had ordered them to be suspicious of everyone who entered the castle.

He jumped off his horse as he saw a familiar – and unwelcome – face making its way towards him. Viscount Nightingale, Master of the King’s Bedchamber … somehow, slimier than ever before. The only thing that kept him alive, Roger knew, was the king’s favour, a favour that would inevitably be lost one day. The bastard had so many enemies that the only real question was which one of them would get to him first.

“Sir Roger,” Nightingale said. “The king commands your immediate presence.”

Roger looked down at his sweaty clothes, then shrugged. There was no hurry, as far as he knew, but the king’s orders were not to be disobeyed. If he wanted Roger’s urgent presence – even a Roger smelling of sweat, mud and horse – he’d get it. It was possible, he supposed, that Nightingale had set out to embarrass him, but it wasn’t likely. Abusing the king’s authority would be a good way to get his head on the chopping block. Nightingale knew better than to risk alienating his protector for nothing more than snide amusement.

He passed the horse’s reins to a young man from the stables, then followed Nightingale into the castle and through a dizzying series of security checks. The guards frisked him thoroughly, removing his sword and both of his daggers before letting him into the king’s antechamber. Roger felt a flicker of humiliation at the search, knowing that only his relatively low birth allowed the king to risk treating him so poorly. He wouldn’t have risked searching a baron so thoroughly. But then, it would be a rare baron who was allowed a private audience with the king.

Nightingale indicated the door, his posture indicating that Roger should walk through alone. Roger bit down several cutting remarks – there was nothing to be gained by making an enemy of a man who had the king’s ear – then walked through into the king’s audience chamber. It felt cold, despite a roaring fire in the grate. The king himself sat on his throne, his face so impassive that it could have been carved from stone. There was no sign of the Crown Princess or her husband.

“Your Majesty,” Roger said, taking off his hat as he went down on one knee. “It is a great honour to be …”

“You may stand and face Us,” King Randor said, cutting off the flattery. “We have questions for you.”

Roger stood, carefully. “I am at your service, Your Majesty.”

He studied the king for a long moment. Randor had always been a powerful man – the tales of his martial exploits hadn’t been exaggerated – but now he looked … old. There were streaks of grey in his bushy brown beard. And yet, he wore a sword – it looked to be a charmed blade – at his belt, as well as a suit of golden armour. The runes carved into the gold would make it almost invulnerable to brute force. Randor was clearly expecting attack.

“You opened correspondence with Lady Imaiqah,” Randor said. “Did you come to any … agreement with her?”

Roger blinked. The king had urged him to open communications with Lady Imaiqah, with a view to getting married at some point in the future … clearly, the king was shifting away from that version of events. No doubt the politically-correct version wouldn’t mention the king at all. He’d been unsure how best to proceed when it came to courting a common-born noblewoman who was also a sorceress and close friends with two of the most powerful and dangerous people in the kingdom. No sorceress would accept the role of a traditional noble-born wife.

“No, Your Majesty,” he said, carefully. “We have yet to formally meet.”

The king studied him for a long moment. “The Lady Imaiqah is currently in the Tower,” he said. He didn’t have to say which tower. “Her father was responsible for the attack on Our daughter, on her wedding day.”

“Your Majesty,” Roger said. He was torn between defending Imaiqah’s honour and backing away from her as quickly as possible. There was no way they could get married now. A traitor’s kin were automatically sentenced to death, just for existing. Traitors had to know that their families would pay the price if they gambled and lost. “I had no idea.”

“Nor did We,” the king said. “Lady Emily, it seems, was the only one who knew until recently.”

Roger swallowed, hard. “Lady Emily?”

“Yes,” the king said. “She knew and she said nothing.”

He changed the subject with dizzying speed. “How stand the regiments?”

“The first four regiments of musketmen are ready to deploy, Your Majesty.” Roger was finding it hard to think clearly. “I believe the remaining six regiments require more seasoning.”

“We are surrounded by enemies, Sir Roger,” King Randor said. It was hard to tell if he was speaking of the entire kingdom or using the Royal We. “Your regiments may all that stands between Us and civil war.”

Roger bowed his head. He was a very junior nobleman – and he came from common-born stock – but he’d heard the rumours. The remaining barons were readying themselves for one final joust with the king, while the merchants and peasants were intent on claiming a share of power for themselves. There were stories of taxmen disappearing in the night, of entire communities that slaughtered the king’s inspectors and then fled into the wilderness … the entire kingdom was on a knife edge. And other stories, stories that were completely unbelievable. The war could not be long delayed.

He looked up, meeting the king’s eyes. King Randor was his patron, he’d been his patron since the day he joined the army. He would no more betray his monarch than he’d cut off his manhood. And the king knew it too. He would not have entrusted the musketmen to Roger if he’d had the slightest doubt of Roger’s loyalty. An unscrupulous man could do a great deal of damage with ten regiments that were loyal to him.

“It is my pleasure to serve, Your Majesty,” he said. “What do you wish of me?”

“Bring your regiments to Alexis,” King Randor said. “And make preparations to move against the barons.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Roger said.

“We will consider the matter of your marriage more fully at a later date,” King Randor added, coolly. “There will be many available heiresses after the campaign is concluded.”

Roger nodded. The king would distribute the heiresses – and their lands – as spoils of war, sharing them with his supporters. No one, least of all the monarch, would care what the women thought about it. He allowed himself a moment of hope – a good match would render his position effectively impregnable – and then dismissed it. He’d have to wait and see what the king was prepared to offer him.

“I thank you, Your Majesty,” he said.

“You may go,” King Randor said.

Roger bowed. “I am at your service, Your Majesty,” he said. He glanced around the empty room. Where was the Crown Princess? And her husband? “I live to serve.”

“Exactly,” King Randor said. “And do not forget it.”

Chapter One


Emily jerked awake, her eyes snapping wide open as she brought one hand up in a casting pose. Someone was close to her, far too close to her … she lowered her hand as she remembered, with a flicker of irritation, just where she was. Cat knelt in front of her, his face grim. Behind him, at the front of the covered wagon, she could see Jade pulling the horses to a stop. Her body ached as she forced herself to sit up. The stories of settlers driving into the Wild West had somehow managed to miss just how uncomfortable it was to ride in the back of a cart.

“Cat,” she managed. She’d slept for … how long? It didn’t look any dimmer outside, so it probably hadn’t been more than an hour or two. “What’s happening?”

Cat stood and held out a hand. “I think you’d better come look at this,” he said. “It’s not good news.”

Emily took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. He’d shaven his hair, save for a single blonde forelock, and dressed in leathers. A sword, a knife and a small wand hung at his belt. It marked him as a mercenary, a sellsword of no fixed abode, but it still felt odd to look at him. She didn’t think the mercenary look suited him – or Jade, for that matter. Both boys – men, really – looked unsettlingly violent.

But at least they don’t look like a Prince Consort and a Combat Sorcerer, she thought, stumbling towards the front of the wagon. Or a kept woman, for that matter.

She peered into the bright sunlight, one hand covering her eyes. Jade had stopped beside a corpse of trees, planted to mark the boundaries between one set of common-held lands and the next. A set of bodies hung from the trees; their throats were slashed, dried blood staining their clothes and pooling on the ground. Flies buzzed around them, their hum somehow ominous in the warm air. The wind shifted, blowing the stench towards them. Emily had to fight not to cover her nose as the smell of decaying bodies washed over the wagon. The bodies had clearly been dead for several days.

“Tax farmers, at a guess,” Cat said, from behind her. His voice was very calm. “Or perhaps the local noble’s functionaries, plotting to enclose the fields and turn the peasants into serfs.”

He nudged Jade. “I thought you were meant to be doing something about this.”

“Very few complaints ever reach the king,” Jade said, tartly. “And when they do, you can rest assured that he always rules in favour of the nobleman.”

“And so the commoners take matters into their own hands,” Cat said. He waved a hand towards the bodies. “Who do you think they work for?”

Emily shrugged. The bodies wore a lord’s colours and badge, but she didn’t recognise the livery. Yellow and black, with gold trim … it was probably a middle-ranking nobleman. She didn’t want to go any closer to the bodies, even though it was possible that one of them was carrying something that might give her useful intelligence. The smell alone was off-putting, but the prospect of the murderers having booby-trapped the bodies was worse. Sergeant Miles had told her, more than once, that peasant uprisings were always savage. The peasants knew little of the laws of war and cared less. Besides, it wasn’t as if they could expect any mercy either.

She looked away, her eyes sweeping over the checkerboard fields. They would be held in common, if she recognised the signs correctly; an entire village of peasants would work them collectively, giving half of their crop to their local nobility and keeping the rest of themselves. Tiny canals ran between the fields, so dry that only a trickle of water remained. The fields themselves looked abandoned, save for a handful of scarecrows. She was no expect, but it didn’t look as though they were being regularly tended. The peasants seemed to have walked away, leaving the fields behind.

They might not have had a choice, she thought, looking back at the hanging bodies. If the lord was planning to enclose the fields …

Her heart clenched. The nobility wanted to enclose the fields, claiming that larger fields would produce more crops. And they were right, she supposed. She’d seen the figures when it had been proposed at Cockatrice. It would be more efficient. But it would also turn the peasants into serfs, destroying what little freedoms they had left. She’d banned the practice in Cockatrice. Other aristocrats were far less concerned about the rights and freedoms of their tenants, let alone their traditional way of life.

“We’d better be going,” Jade said. He cracked the whip and the horses started to move. “I don’t want to be around when someone comes to take down the bodies.”

Emily nodded in agreement as she settled back on the hard wooden seat. The air outside was foul, but it was better than trying to sleep in the back of the wagon. She checked her headscarf, just to be sure her hair was still concealed, then looked down at the loose shirt and trousers she was wearing. She looked like a camp follower, a woman who served two mercenaries in exchange for protection … part of her found it humiliating, if only because Jade and Cat would have to treat her as a servant when they met other travellers, but she had to admit it was a good disguise. Between the headscarf, the clothes, and the dust on her skin, it was unlikely that anyone would draw a connection between her and the Necromancer’s Bane.

“We’re not moving fast enough,” Jade muttered. “We’re not going to be in Alexis for another week.”

“It can’t be helped,” Cat said, from where he was sitting in the back. “Unless you want to change your mind and teleport …”

Jade made a rude sound, but Emily didn’t miss the worry and desperation in his voice. “You know better than that,” he said. “We can’t risk being detected.”

Emily nodded, remembering the day they’d sat down in Dragon’s Den and hashed out the possibilities. King Randor, whatever else could be said about him, was far from stupid … and he had magicians in his service. Teleporting into Alexis – or even into the countryside near the city – risked detection, bringing the king’s army down on their heads. And while they could teleport into Beneficence, Emily had checked with Markus and he’d told her that anyone who crossed the bridge into Cockatrice was subjected to a careful examination. King Randor lacked the tools to carry out a real check – computers and databases were far in the Nameless World’s future – but his guards would know to watch for any inconsistencies. Or maybe they just used truth spells. It was a risk they couldn’t afford to take.

“We’ll be there in time,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder. It was a gesture of affection she would never have normally allowed herself. But she trusted Jade. “The king won’t hurt Alassa until she gives birth.”

“Hah,” Jade muttered. “He has a bastard son, you know.”

Emily looked away. Jade was right. Randor’s son might be a bastard – and the mother married to someone else – but the king wouldn’t have any difficulty proving that he’d fathered the child. And, in the absence of any fully-legitimate heir, he could probably convince the nobility to accept the child as his successor. Enough noblemen had been concerned about the prospect of a Ruling Queen – and about Alassa taking the throne – to make it hard for anyone to dissent.

“He won’t risk hurting a woman,” Cat said. “The nobility wouldn’t stand for it.”

Emily glanced into the darkened rear. “They have no qualms about beating and raping and even killing their maidservants,” she pointed out, sharply. “I’ve seen fathers complaining about the treatment of their daughters while beating their wives bloody. Why would they question the king?”

“Because Alassa is a noblewoman, even if she isn’t in the line of succession,” Cat pointed out. He ignored Jade’s snort. “They’ll be reluctant to condone the king abusing a noblewoman, whoever she is. They like to think of themselves as chivalrous.”

Emily rolled her eyes at him. On the face of it, Cat was right; knights and noblemen did like to think of themselves as the protectors of the gentler sex. And yet, she couldn’t help noticing that their chivalrous conduct had the unintentional effect of making noblewomen practically helpless. They couldn’t protect themselves, they couldn’t speak for themselves, they couldn’t even dress themselves. Everything was done for them by their small army of servants. As children, they were little more than dress-up dolls; as adults, they were expected to have babies – after their marriage was arranged for them – and nothing else. Legally, they were effectively children – and property.

It does have some advantages, she conceded. It was vanishingly rare for a noblewoman to be executed, whatever the crime. Hell, she’d heard of noblewomen deliberately running up vast debts which their husbands were legally liable to pay. But I would find it maddening.

“They may make an exception in Alassa’s case,” she said, finally. Alassa had been the Crown Princess … she still was, as far as everyone knew. She was hardly some decorative bauble of a noblewoman. Her magic alone made her dangerous to men who thought that women simply couldn’t make the hard decisions. “And they certainly will in Imaiqah’s.”

Her heart clenched again. King Randor hadn’t just arrested Alassa, if Jade’s source was correct. He’d arrested Imaiqah as well. Emily didn’t know why he’d arrested both of her best friends, but she had a very nasty idea. Imaiqah’s father had betrayed his monarch, which meant a certain death sentence for his entire family. None of the nobility would have any qualms about arresting a common-born sorceress.

And we don’t even know if they’re still alive or not, she thought. Jade was sure that Alassa was still alive, but there was no way to be confident. Their marriage bond wasn’t as intense as Melissa and Markus’s. And there is definitely no way to be sure about Imaiqah.

“She is a noblewoman,” Cat said. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

Emily sighed, inwardly. She knew that wasn’t necessarily true. She’d have to have a talk with Jade and Cat, sooner rather than later, about what Paren had done. Jade wouldn’t be happy when he heard the truth, even though he liked Imaiqah. He’d accuse Emily of ignoring a time bomb that had blown up in Alassa’s face. And he wouldn’t be wrong, either.

She leaned her head against the wooden railing and watched the countryside go by. A handful of scattered farmhouses and peasant hovels came briefly into view, half-hidden in the fields, but they looked deserted. Two were little more than burned-out shells, their occupants either dead or long-gone. There was no sign of the sheep, pigs or chickens that most farmhouses would keep as a matter of course. She shuddered as she realised that Zangaria was on the brink of war. The tensions had been rising for years, but now … now they were on the verge of exploding into violence.

No, she told herself. The violence has already started.

Emily heard snoring from behind her and smiled, despite herself. Cat had the gift of being able to sleep whenever and wherever he wanted, a gift that Emily rather wished she’d managed to develop herself. Sergeant Miles had urged her to try, but she simply hadn’t had the time. Too much had happened in the last few months for her to concentrate on expanding her magic. She should be back at Whitehall …

She felt a bitter pang, mingled with the grim understanding that she’d finally outgrown the school. Whitehall would always feel like home, she thought, and maybe one day she’d be back, but she’d never be a pupil again. She had a life outside the school now. And it hadn’t been the same since Grandmaster Hasdrubal had died. Grandmaster Gordian simply wasn’t his equal. She hoped he’d keep his side of the bargain and look after Frieda. There was no way she could visit her younger friend while she was trying to rescue Alassa and Imaiqah.

At least I got a chance to say goodbye, she thought. To her and to Lady Barb.

The sun was slowly starting to set as a small town came into view. Jade guided the cart down the road, eyes flickering from side to side as he watched for signs of trouble. It wasn’t uncommon for footpads to jump carts and wagons when the drivers thought they were safe, although Emily doubted that they’d mess with a pair of sellswords. Too much chance of getting killed for too little reward. And if the footpads realised they were attacking three magicians instead …

We need to keep our magic concealed, she reminded herself. The word was out. King Randor was hiring – and sometimes conscripting – every magic-user in his kingdom. Or we’ll find ourselves enlisted in his magic corps.

Her eyes narrowed as the town came closer. It was surrounded by a wooden palisade, a sign that it was a free town, but someone had been piling up earth to make it stronger. Emily didn’t think it would keep out a determined attack, let alone a magician, yet it might just deter bandits. Law and order had to be breaking down quite badly. Free or not, a town wasn’t supposed to build defences that might actually keep the local lord from asserting his authority. The mere fact that the townspeople had managed to get away with it was quite worrying.

“Watch my back,” Jade muttered, as he pulled the wagon to a halt. A set of guards were walking towards them, looking nervous. Emily had seen enough fighting men to know that the guards didn’t have any real training at all. Their weapons were probably more dangerous to their wielders than the enemy. “Cat, get up!”

Emily heard Cat standing behind her, but she didn’t look back. Jade jumped down from the wagon, careful to keep his empty hands in view, and walked towards the guards. Emily kept a wary eye on him, feeling a flicker of annoyance at how the guards barely glanced at her before dismissing her as unimportant. She knew she should be grateful to be ignored, particularly if Randor had any idea that she was accompanying Jade, but still …

“They’re taking their time,” Cat whispered. “What are they doing?”

“No idea,” Emily whispered back. It wasn’t uncommon for gates to be firmly closed after dark and not opened again until morning, no matter who demanded entry, but it was barely twilight. “Talking, it seems.”

Jade turned and hurried back to the wagon. “We’re not allowed into the town,” he said flatly, as he scrambled back onto the seat. “But there’s an inn on the far side, outside the walls. They’re playing host to a great many sellswords.”

“You’d think they’d want to hire us,” Cat said. “Did you see the way that idiot was holding his sword?”

“He came pretty close to unmanning himself.” Jade cracked the whip and the horses started to move, circling the palisade. “But we don’t want employment here, do we?”

“They wouldn’t want sellswords in their town at all, if it could be avoided,” Emily pointed out. “We’re about as welcome as wolves amidst the flock.”

She shook her head. Their cover story made sense. King Randor had put out a call for sellswords, as had most of the nobility. But it carried its own risks. Mercenaries were not loved, even during wartime. They were regarded as locusts; no, worse than locusts. She’d heard stories of sellswords being caught away from their bands and being brutally murdered by peasants who wanted to strike back at their unwanted guests. Jade had been insistent that they find a place to stay every night, even though it meant slowing their journey. The risk of being attacked if they camped in the open air was too great.

“I took a look through the gate while they were talking,” Jade said. “I didn’t see any young men, save for a cripple. They were all old.”

“Conscripted,” Cat said.

“Or they’ve taken to the hills,” Jade said. He pointed towards the rolling tree-covered hills in the distance. They were part of the Royal Forest, if the map was to be believed, and technically forbidden to peasants, but the locals had never paid much attention to unenforceable laws when their livelihoods were at stake. “You could hide and feed an entire army in there if you wanted.”

Emily shrugged. It didn’t matter. What did matter was that Zangaria was going to explode into war. All the grievances that had been neglected for decades, perhaps centuries, were about to tear the entire country apart. It wouldn’t be long before the urge to start settling grudges turned into a demand for wholesale reform …

“There’s the inn,” Jade said. He pointed to a long wooden building, positioned temptingly beside the Royal Road. A small statue stood in front, inviting passing travellers to rest their weary heads in a proper bed; behind, she could see – and smell – the stables. “Shall we go see if they have a room for us?”

“Hopefully, one without too many tiny visitors,” Emily said. She’d never stayed in an inn that hadn’t had everything from rodents to insects running around. The food would need to be tested carefully or they’d be laid up for days with stomach cramps. “Or will that cost extra?”

“Probably,” Jade said. “But we’re only going to be staying there for one night.”

“We should be able to get some news too,” Cat pointed out. “Right now, we don’t know enough to make a plan.”

“True,” Emily agreed. The inn didn’t look very inviting, but they were short of choices. It was probably too much to hope for a bath, or anything remotely resembling a shower. There would be buckets of cold water for washing and chamberpots under the bed. “Let’s go, shall we?”

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