OUT NOW – The Right Side of History (Schooled in Magic 22)

20 Feb

The Necromantic War is over, but there is no peace …

A brutal uprising in the Kingdom of Alluvia has shaken the Allied Lands – and Emily finds herself accused of starting it. Desperate, all too aware the kingdom is on the verge of becoming a vortex of chaos, Emily travels to Alluvia in the hopes of calming both sides long enough to secure peace…

…Unaware that the uprising is merely the first step in a plan to shatter the Allied Lands beyond repair.

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Stuck in Magic 10

1 Feb

Chapter Ten

The first impression I had of the City Guard, which only grew stronger over my first week of service, was that they were simply not a very professional outfit.  The rules and regulations were astonishingly loose, to the point there was practically unlimited scope for abuse and corruption … as long as the guardsman in question didn’t pick on a landlord or a magician or someone with enough money to land the guard in hot water.  I’d wondered, at first, why they’d been so quick to snap me up and put me to work, my mind suggesting all sorts of possibilities before it had dawned on me just how desperate the guards were for manpower.  We were not popular.  We slept in our barracks, in the guardhouse, because sleeping outside was asking for trouble.  I had the feeling the vast majority of the population hated our guts.  We were, at best, tolerated.

It was hard not to blame them, I decided, as I worked through my probationary period.  Horst and Fallows weren’t bad people, not in the sense they were terrorists or insurgents or rapists, but they were corrupt and often bullies.  It was hard to watch them angling for bribes and not say something, to not call them out for being assholes to the people they were supposed to protect.  I knew there’d be no point – collecting bribes was one of the perks of the job, the very few perks of the job – but it was still galling.  It was all I could do, at times, to bite my tongue as I learned how the city actually worked.  I had the feeling the formal rules, such as they were, bore little resemblance to reality.

Slowly, a picture began to emerge.  The city did have a formal government, but it was dominated by the landlords.  They’d stacked everything in their favour.  The highest-ranking posts in the government belonged to them and their families by right, with no one else so much as having a hope of being promoted.  The landlords were a de facto aristocracy, practically a state within a state.  They paid for everything, which gave them vast power over the entire city.  There were no limits on their power, at least within the walls.  Outside, where the warlords held sway, was a different matter.  The city’s walls were strong, but an army wouldn’t need to break into the city to take power.  They’d just have to lay siege to the city and wait for the population to starve.

I kept asking questions, ignoring the snide remarks from my fellow guardsmen as I showed my ignorance time and time again.  There was a certain safety in being underestimated, but still … I guessed some of them suspected I’d come from a very long way away, although they couldn’t possibly have realised just how far I’d come.  I was weird to them, a man with completely alien values.  I tried to keep a lid on it – the more different one was, the harder it was to be accepted – but it wasn’t easy.  The more I learnt, the less I liked the city.

“You’ve done well,” Fallows said, when we came to the end of our shift.  “I think you’ll be a full guardsman soon.”

“Thanks,” I said, rather sourly.  It wouldn’t be long, I’d been assured, before I’d get more important work to do.  Patrol was easy, as long as you didn’t run into trouble.  Manning the gatehouses along the walls was apparently a great deal harder.  I suspected that meant more lucrative.  “Can we go to bed now?”

“Hell, no,” Horst said.  “We’re going out drinking.”

I blinked.  It hadn’t taken me long to realise that Fallows and Horst went out after dark, although they’d never invited me.  I wasn’t one of them.  Not yet.  But now … I followed them out of the guardhouse, through a maze of side-streets and into a tavern, torn between excitement and fear.  It was hardly the first time I’d gone drinking – I’d engaged in many a drinking competition in the army – but here … I might say something I shouldn’t.  God alone knew how they’d react to the truth.  They might think I was lying … it might be better, all things considered, if they thought I was lying.  The truth might not set me free.

I’d been in some dives in my time, but the tavern was easily the seediest place I’d ever drunk.  The floor was filthy, the table and chairs crusted in the remnants of marathon drinking sessions, the music strange and atonal and the bartenders looking surly as they took our order and pointed to booths in the corner.  I forced myself to breathe through my mouth as we sat down, wishing – not for the first time – that the guardhouse had a proper shower.  My skin felt grimy, no matter how many times I wiped myself down.  I didn’t want to visit the public baths – I’d heard some horror stories about them – but I was starting to feel I didn’t have a choice.  I’d probably leave a trail of muck when I clambered into the water.

“Here.”  Fallows shoved a tankard of something under my nose.  “You’ll like this.”

I gritted my teeth, then took a sip.  It was beer – or something closely akin to beer.  It tasted weak, yet … I had a feeling there was a lot of alcohol in it.  The patrons were quaffing the stiff like nectar, throwing back their necks as they poured it down their throats and over their shirts.  There was something nasty in the air, I noted, as liquid pooled around their feet.  It felt as if a fight was going to break out at any moment.  I warily checked my weapons as I took another sip.  The beer didn’t taste any better.  I supposed the more I drank, the less I would care.

Horst put his tankard to his lips and drank … and drank … and drank.  I stared in frank disbelief as he held up the empty tankard, let out an immense belch and waved at the bartender for a refill.  A waitress appeared with a new tankard, her eyes a million years old.  I felt a stab of sympathy as she turned and hurried away.  Bartending wasn’t an easy job, even back home.  Here … I doubted the drunkards would leave her alone for a second.

“So,” Fallows said.  “How do you like being a guard?”

“It’s pretty interesting,” I lied.  It was a job and not a very good job, but it gave me something to do and somewhere to sleep while I got my bearings.  I’d learnt an awful lot about the city by keeping my mouth firmly closed and letting my partners do the talking.  They didn’t seem to know much about the lands outside the walls – they had a striking lack of curiosity about the wider world – but they knew everything about the city.  “I’m enjoying myself.”

“Really?”  Horst brayed like a mule.  “We must be doing something wrong.”

Fallows snorted.  “You’ll get bored of it soon enough,” he cautioned.  “By then, perhaps you’ll be on the walls.”

I shrugged.  “How did you become a guard?”

“It’s a respectable profession,” Fallows said.  His partner snickered.  “And it suits me.”

I kept my thoughts to myself.  I was pretty sure that was a lie.  The police hadn’t been popular back home – certainly not where I’d grown up – but the Damansara Guardsmen were about as popular as a kick in the groin and somewhat less welcome.  I wasn’t blind to how many people tried to escape our gaze, when we patrolled the streets, or told their daughters to hurry away from us.  Horst and Fallows might seem like good chaps, but the locals regarded them as predators.  No, scavengers.  A pack of hungry hyenas might be more welcome.

“It’s fun,” Horst said.  He waved for another tankard.  “And profitable.”

He elbowed me.  “You should make the most of it.  You won’t be a guard forever.”

Hopefully not, I agreed silently.  I’d been doing my best to think of concepts I could introduce, although it wasn’t easy.  My mystery predecessor had scooped up all the low-hanging fruit.  What few ideas I’d had – irrigation, for example – required connections and money I didn’t have.  What am I going to do with myself?

I stared into my beer.  I’d done some research.  Renting a room within an apartment was expensive.  Renting a whole apartment for myself was so far outside my price range that I would have get promoted several times before I could even consider it.  One had to spend money to make money and I didn’t have any money.  How the hell had Martin Padway done it?  He’d made brandy … somehow, I doubted that would work for me.  And no one was going to listen to my ideas on irrigation either.  Why should they?

Fallows smiled, coldly.  “So … tell us about yourself.”

It was an order.  I hesitated.  It was a good sign, I supposed, that they were showing interest in me.  They hadn’t asked many questions over the last few weeks, even when I was questioning them.  I understood – I was the FNG, as far as they were concerned, who might be gone in a flash – but it was still irritating.  And yet, I would have preferred them to show no interest at all.  I didn’t want to lie, but I knew I couldn’t tell the truth either.

“My family were taken from their homes, a very long time ago,” I said.  It was true – and they’d believe it.  The vanished empire had apparently scattered ethnic groups around its territory to make it harder for them to become a coherent threat.  Or something.  I guessed it was why there was so much diversity in places like Damansara.  “I was raised a very long way away and eventually became a soldier.”

“A mercenary,” Fallows said.  “And there I was thinking you were a decent guy.”

His words were so deadpan it took me a moment to realise it was a joke.  Soldiers weren’t held in high regard, while mercenaries were feared and hated by just about everyone.  I’d never been fond of them myself – I’d met too many during my time in Iraq – but here it was worse.  They’d fight for whoever paid them, as long as the money held out; they’d loot, rape and burn their way through towns and villages, regardless of which side they were actually on.  I’d heard the horror stories.  Mercenaries were about as welcome in the city as child molesters.

Horst grinned as he polished off yet another tankard of beer.  “You fought in the wars?”

“Small wars,” I said.  There were rumours of wars against evil sorcerers, strange monsters and campaigns on a scale that would have daunted Eisenhower and Zhukov.  I was fairly sure the stories were exaggerated, but there was probably some truth within the lies.  “It was a job.”

“Your mother must have disowned you,” Fallows said.  There was something waspish in his voice, as if I’d somehow touched a nerve.  “A mercenary, for a son.”

I shrugged.  “My mother is dead.”

A sense of aloneness washed over me.  Cleo and my sons were in another world.  There was no one, as far as I knew, who’d understand my life.  Horst and Fallows knew I’d come from a long way away, but they didn’t know – they couldn’t know – just how far I’d come.  I took a sip of my beer, suddenly understanding precisely why people drank themselves to death.  It would be so easy to crawl into a bottle and refuse to come out.  I was doomed to be alone for the rest of my life.

There might be others, I thought, as I finished the tankard.  Jasmine hinted there might be others.

I grimaced.  I’d been lucky.  Someone else might have been raped or enslaved or killed by now.  If there were others … I wished for my old company, with all of its vehicles and equipment.  A company of modern soldiers could have taken the city, imposed a genuinely responsible government, thrashed the warlords and started hammering out a semi-modern tech base.  The Lost Regiment would have had an easy time of it, without giant aliens roaming the lands and eating everyone in their path.  They would certainly have survived long enough to get their bearings, then realise their technology was not only superior but very easy to duplicate.  A American from the Civil War era would have been a hell of a lot more useful – here – than me.

Horst shoved another tankard under my nose.  “Drink,” he ordered.  He’d had at least four tankards himself and he was still surprisingly sober.  Either he was used to it or I was wrong about the alcohol content.  “It’ll do you good.”

I sipped the drink, while doing my best to answer questions without giving too much away.  I had hundreds of stories of military service, but most of them would have sounded like blatant lies.  They didn’t know about tanks or aircraft or any of the toys I’d taken for granted.  I told them a little about my service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they didn’t seem too impressed.  I wasn’t sure why.  I had a feeling I was missing something.

The music changed.  I looked up.  A trio of travelling bards – for a moment, I thought they were Diddakoi – stood on the stage, striking dramatic poses.  They didn’t seem fazed by the volley of abuse from the patrons.  Instead, they started to sing.  They were badly out of tune -and there was something archaic about their style – but I had to admit they had a certain charm.  The patrons hooted and hollered, waving their tankards around as if they were going to throw beer at the singers.  I guessed it was a tough crowd.  The patrons certainly didn’t seem impressed by songs of the Necromancer’s Bane, Crown Prince Dater and a bunch of other people I hadn’t even known existed.

Horst waved at me as the bards took a break.  “Did you fight in that war?”

I shook my head.  There was no point in lying, not when I knew too little to tell a convincing lie.  Besides, I wasn’t sure how much of the songs were made up of whole cloth.  Half of them praised various people I’d never heard of and the other half condemned them.  I wondered, vaguely, if the bards saw any contradiction in kissing a prince’s ass one moment and putting a knife in his back the next.  Maybe they just didn’t care.  The songs were probably written by the prince’s PR department and the bards were paid to sing them.

“That’s a shame,” Horst said.  “It was supposed to be glorious.”

“War is never glorious,” I said, a little more severely than I’d meant.  The beer was getting to me.  “War is homes destroyed, men mutilated and killed, women and children raped …”

I shook my head, forcing myself to sit back as the night wore on.  The beer was making it harder to think straight.  I was going to have a hangover tomorrow, my first in years.  And yet … I looked at Horst and Fallows, feeling a surge of comradely good feeling towards them.  It was hard not to feel something, despite their flaws.  They wouldn’t have taken me out drinking if they hadn’t been warming up to me.

Fallows stood.  “This way.”

I felt wobbly as I followed them across the room and up a flight of dark stairs to a heavy wooden door.  The air smelt hot, humid and scented.  Someone had sprayed perfume everywhere … I hesitated as we reached the top, suddenly all too aware of what was on the far side.  Fallows didn’t slow down.  He pushed the door open and stepped inside.  A row of young women waited for us, wearing almost nothing.  I felt my heart kick into overdrive as I struggled to sober up.  Fallows had taken me to a brothel!

Horst elbowed me.  “Our treat,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”

My heart clenched.  I’d been cautioned, when I’d started my military career, that many of the prostitutes in brothels weren’t there of their own free will.  Some of them had been sold into sex slavery, others had had no choice but to sell their bodies to survive.  And I’d been told – we’d all been told – not to visit brothels.  I tried not to be sick as I remembered the dire warnings.  STDs were the least of the dangers.

I caught a girl’s eye.  She looked around nineteen, but her eyes were ninety.

“No,” I said.  I didn’t want to catch something nasty.  Magic could cure anything that wasn’t immediately lethal, I’d been told, but potions were expensive.  I doubted the brothel forced its clients to use condoms.  “I don’t want a girl.”

“A boy?”  Fallows seemed pleased, rather than disgusted.  “There are boys in the next room …”

“No, thank you.”  I allowed myself a moment of relief that I hadn’t drunk too much.  “I’m still married.”

Horst leered at me.  “Your wife will never know.”

That was truer than he could possibly have known.  I scowled.  “I’d know.”

Fallows shrugged.  “Then you can wait out here,” he said, sardonically.  “And if you get bored, feel free to take one of the girls.”

“Will do,” I said.  I considered heading back to the guardhouse, then dismissed the thought before it had fully-formed.  I would be alone and not entirely sober.  It would be asking for trouble.  “I’ll wait for you downstairs.”

They shrugged, then made their choices and took the girls into the next room.  I forced myself to sit back and wait, ignoring the titters from the girls.  They didn’t know what to make of me.  I supposed I didn’t know either.  Part of my body was reminding me that it had been a very long time since …

And you’d probably catch something nasty if you slept with one of them, I told myself.  I didn’t know if AIDS existed here, but it wasn’t the only danger.  And how would you cope with an STD?

Hearts Eye Commencement Speech

28 Jan

Probably the prologue of the Heart’s Eye story/trilogy – but I had it in mind for a while. Does it make sense?

Hearts Eye Commencement Speech

Background: The following is a transcript of a speech given by Lady Emily, Founder of Heart’s Eye University, when the university accepted its first influx of students.  It was warmly received by the newcomers, then transcribed and distributed shortly afterwards by the Heart’s Eye Press.  Copies of the speech were, naturally, banned in many kingdoms.  This did not, of course, stop bootleg copies being found everywhere.

***

They came to me and said I had to give a commencement speech.

I wasn’t so sure.  I’ve had to sit through a lot of speeches and most of them were nothing more than hot air, given by people who were in love with the sound of their own voice.  There was little to be gained by listening to them and forcing people to listen only ensured they paid as little attention as possible.  But they insisted.  It is my duty, they said, to outline the point of the university. 

And, if you don’t mind, I’m going to start right at the beginning.

Eight years ago, I designed the very first abacus, the very first steam engine and the very first printing press.  They were produced to wild applause.  They changed the world.  Now, they’re in the museum.  People point and laugh at my designs and wonder what I was thinking, when I drew them out and hired craftsmen to turn them into reality.  Of course they do.

You see, craftsmen – other craftsmen – looked at my designs and said ‘I can do better.’  And they did.  And now their work is in the museum too, because the next generation of craftsmen looked at their work said ‘I can do better too.’  And so on and so on, each successive generation improving upon the work of the previous generation, each generation inspiring the next to do better.  And that is how it has worked since time out of mind.  The man who first learnt to work metal was rapidly superseded by the men who took his original idea and improved upon it.  The man who first carved a wheel, who built a sailing ship, who came up with one of a million bright ideas, launched generations of better and better ideas that can be traces all the way back to the first spark, to the man who showed it could be done.

The university motto is in two parts.  First, we stand on the shoulders of giants.  Those men, the original innovators, are the giants.  Without them, we would not exist.  Second, and in doing so, we become giants ourselves.  Our improvements upon the original innovations lay the groundwork for the improvers and innovators who will follow in our footsteps and carry our work to levels we cannot even begin to imagine.  And the university exists to facilitate innovation, improvement and practical development.  You and your fellows will share your ideas and innovations and bounce off each other to blaze a path into the future, a future that is bright and full of promise … a future that can be ours, if we reach out and take it.

There will be missteps, of course.  There will be bad ideas.  There will be ideas that look good, but aren’t.  There will be impractical ideas; there will be ideas that will be impractical now, but may become practical later.  These ideas will all be tested, without fear, to see which are right and which are wrong.  We will never seek to destroy the spirit of free thought and innovation through stamping on ideas.  Instead, we will question and test every idea and prove it valid – or not.  We will have the right to speak freely – and we will also have the right to be wrong.  To err is human.  We will never make it impossible for someone to recover from their mistakes. 

It will not be easy.  Technology promises to solve all our problems.  And it will.  But, in doing so, it will create new problems.  There will be those who will say that the new problems are worse than the old, that we should turn back before it is too late … but it is already too late.  The new problems will be solved in their turn, as will the problems that will come in the wake of those solutions.  We can, and we must, embrace the future.  And, to do this, we must learn from our mistakes.

There will be two groups of people who will … make things harder for us.  Some of them will try to stop us.  Others will try to pervert us.  And they will think, even as they try to stem the tide or direct it in a certain direction, that they’re doing the right thing.  And, from their point of view, they will not be wrong.  Call them – for want of a better word – conservatives and progressives.

Conservatives do not want the world to change.  They are, in many cases, the powerful who fear anything that might challenge, or weaken, their power.  They are kings and princes and magicians and even wealthy merchants, who do not want the world to change.  But they are also people on the edge, people who cannot afford to risk embracing the future for fear it will destroy them.  A farmer who struggles to grow enough to feed his family will hesitate to embrace new farming techniques, for fear they will fail and his family will starve.  And he is not wrong.  What works in one place may not work in another.  It would be a mistake to force him to embrace a future that could easily destroy him.

At one extreme, a conservative will refuse to admit that something has to change until it is too late.  And then there will be chaos.

Progressives embrace change, to the point it destroys them.  They are, again, often the ones who have nothing to lose.  Why not look to the future, to an idealised world, when the present is so bad?  But they are also the powerful who have forgotten, if they ever knew in the first place, how they became powerful, even as they use their power to impose their ideas on everyone else.  They hack and slash at society without ever realising the damage they do, they destroy the roots of their power even as they make mistakes that blight the lives of everyone below them.  They are so much in love with the idea of progress that it never crosses their mind that they may be progressing right off a cliff.

At the other extreme, a progressive will refuse to admit there is a need for stability, for constants in life, until it is too late.  And then someone will impose order with an iron fist.

Imagine a gate, standing alone in the middle of a field.  A conservative will unthinkingly leave it alone.  It has been there since time out of mind and will remain there long after he is dead.  A progressive will unthinkingly tear it down, on the grounds it serves no useful function.  Neither of them are capable of looking at the gate, determining why it is actually there and then deciding what to do about it.  We must do better. We must actually think about what we’re doing and why.  And why it hasn’t been done already.

And we must acknowledge and learn from our mistakes.

It will not be easy.  There will always be the temptation to slide into a conservative or a progressive mindset.  It is never easy to admit that one might be wrong.  Nor is it easy to see all of the little details, all of the tiny aspects of a problem that will defeat any attempt to solve it from a distance.  There will be those who will focus on the whole and miss the tiny details and those who will allow the tiny details to dominate their minds, so they lose track of the whole.  The only way to avoid disaster is to allow questioning, to allow people to put forward challenges, yet the urge to silence them will be very strong.  It must be quenched.  Those who choose to silence, no matter the provocation, are stepping onto a slippery slope that leads all the way to hell itself.

The university exists under the rule of law.  The rules will not change, no matter who you are.  The administrators don’t care if you’re the heir to a throne or if you were born in a pigsty, if you have magic or not.  You will have the right to have your say, to engage in debate and carry out experiments to tease out the truth.  You will not have the right to have your words accepted without question.  You can talk freely, but no one will be forced to listen and agree.  There will be no formal punishment for speaking your mind.  You will never be forbidden to speak or, in any way, express your ideas.  No one else, however, has to listen to you.  You will have to put your ideas together, and present them, and – if nessicesery – defend them. 

A good idea will stand the test of time.  A bad idea will not.

You will not find it easy.  Many of you come from societies that do not embrace the concept of reasoned debate, let alone freedom of speech.  Others will allow the concept to overwhelm them, to engage in speech without thinking, to push the limits without any purpose beyond shocking and scandalising society.  But you would not be here, listening to me, if you were not at least prepared to try.

The future is within our grasp.  All we have to do is reach out and take it.

Stuck In Magic 9

28 Jan

Comments, suggestions, etc …?

Chapter Nine

“This is where we sleep,” Constable Horst said, indicating the barracks.  “That’s your bunk over there.  Don’t sleep anywhere else or there’ll be trouble.”

I kept my face expressionless.  The barracks looked uncomfortable, and the bedding looked as if it had been used for decades before it had been passed down to me, but I’d slept in worse places.  Probably.  The air was cold, but heavy with the stench from the washroom at the rear of the chamber.  I grimaced in disgust as I peeked inside.  My old Drill Instructor would have had a heart attack.  The less said about the toilets – and washing basins – the better.

“Just hang with us,” Constable Fallows assured me.  “You’ll get the hang of it in no time.”

Or I’ll get hung, I thought.

I studied the pair of them thoughtfully.  Horst was tall and thin, with brown skin and dark hair; Fallows was short and fat, although he moved with a grace that suggested he was stronger than he looked.  His skin was surprisingly pale, but his eyes were – somehow- darker than mine.  I couldn’t have guessed at his origin, not on Earth.  Here … I reminded myself it probably didn’t matter.  I was the only person who’d so much as ever heard of Earth.

“We’ll get you changed, then take you on patrol,” Horst said, opening a cupboard and thumbing through the racks of clothes.  “And then we’ll take you on patrol.”

“Unless you want something to eat first,” Fallows said.  “Or take a nap.”

Horst snorted.  “He’ll have plenty of time to nap when night falls,” he said, darkly.  “He won’t be going on night shift for a while.”

I kept my thoughts to myself as they found me an ill-fitting uniform with a hat that was suspiciously heavy.  A quick check revealed the seamstress had concealed a metal helmet under the cloth.  My tunic was heavier than I’d expected, designed to provide at least some protection if someone tried to club or stab me.  I doubted it would turn a bullet.  Or a sword.  I dressed quickly, concealing my pistol under the cloak before making sure I could draw it in a hurry.  I was trained in unarmed combat, but only a fool or a movie star would use his fists when a weapon would do.  I’d seen trained men brought down by unarmed mobs in my previous life.

“This is your club,” Horst said, holding out a gleaming weapon.  It looked more like a wooden truncheon than a club.   I took it and hefted it thoughtfully.  “And this is your whistle.”

Fallows produced his and put it to his lips, but didn’t blow.  “You hear this on the streets, you come running,” he said.  “One of your fellows is in trouble.”

“You blow it, every guard on the streets will start running towards you,” Horst added, curtly.  “Do not blow it unless you’re in real trouble.”

I nodded, wordlessly.  I understood the principle.  False alarms would eventually – inevitably – convince people that it wasn’t worth heeding the distress call.  The boy who cried wolf had been a bloody idiot, but so too had his parents and the rest of the townspeople.  Their willingness to tolerate his stupidity had cost them dear.  I guessed I’d regret it if I blew the whistle without good cause.  The guardsmen wouldn’t come running if they believed it wasn’t desperate.

“I get the idea,” I said.  I was going to have to learn the rules before I did anything.  Back home, it took years of training to become a policeman.  Here … they were threatening to put me on the streets within a day.  “What sort of authority do we have?”

They looked at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues.  “… What?”

“I don’t know the rules,” I said.  There would be rules, unwritten if not written.  “What are we meant to do on the streets?”

“Follow us,” Fallows said.  “You’ll pick it up as we go along.”

I winced, inwardly, as I changed into my new uniform and stowed my old clothes under my bunk.  I had no idea if they’d be safe, but there was nowhere else to put them.  Horst and Fallows looked me up and down, then nodded curtly.  My heart sank.  Standards were clearly lower than I’d feared.  The white uniform was so baggy I suspected I was going to have to do some needlework myself, just to make it fit a little better.  I certainly didn’t look very intimidating.  It was easy to wonder if I’d just made myself a target.

My two companions led me down the corridor, pointing out chambers and compartments along the way.  I looked from side to side, mentally noting the kitchens, the dining hall, the armoury and washrooms.  I’d lived in worse places, although even in the sandbox there’d been a certain understanding of basic hygiene.  The toilets were something out of a medieval nightmare.  The stench was appalling.  I thought I’d caught something just by looking through the door.

We stopped in an office, Horst standing beside me while Fallows went to speak to the officer on the desk.  A handful of other guardsmen came and went, glancing at me as they passed.  I suspected it would be a while before they warmed up to me.  I didn’t take it personally.  No one was ever fully trusted, not in the military, until they proved themselves.  The guardsmen probably felt the same way.  They wouldn’t befriend the FNG until he proved himself a good man, someone who could be relied upon in a pinch.  I didn’t blame them.

Horst, perhaps a little more understanding than Fallows, pointed out detail after detail as we waited.  There were only three real ranks in the guard – Constable, Captain and Adjunct – and seniority was determined solely by time in grade.  It wasn’t easy to tell who’d served the longest, but I didn’t need to worry about it.  I was right at the bottom.  Horst seemed to find that amusing.  I had the feeling the guardsmen were permanently short of new recruits.  No wonder they’d been so quick to snatch me up.

Fallows rejoined us.  “We’re going on patrol,” he said.  “Are you ready?”

“Yes, sir,” I lied.  I wasn’t remotely ready.  “I’m ready.”

“You don’t have to do anything, but watch and follow our lead,” Horst said.  “It isn’t as if we’re putting you on the gates!”

He laughed, as if he’d just cracked a joke.  Fallows scowled at him and led the way outside.  The warm air slapped against my face, the scent of the city tickling my nostrils.  It looked like mid-afternoon, although it was hard to be sure.  Horst and Fallows motioned for me to stay between them as they started to walk, heading down the streets in a manner that suggested everyone else would get the hell out of their way.  It rapidly dawned on me that they were right.

I kept my eyes open, watching the crowd.  It was hard not to see – or feel – the sharp glances aimed at us, the hints of resentment and fear hanging on the air.  I hadn’t felt anything like it since I’d been on patrol in Baghdad, where even the locals who liked us had feared what we might bring in our wake.  I tensed, one hand dropping to my club before I forced myself to relax.  Horst and Fallows weren’t stupid.  We wouldn’t be walking down the streets, in the open, if there was any real danger.  The crowd didn’t like us, but that didn’t mean they were going to attack us.

“Keep your eyes open,” Horst muttered, as we turned the corner and headed down the market street.  “There’s a reward for each and every thief you catch.”

“The merchants are always grateful,” Fallows agreed.  “And the captain will be pleased too.”

I nodded, eyes scanning the row upon row of stalls.  There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, selling everything from basic clothes to food, drink and weapons.  The stallkeepers didn’t seem too pleased to see us, even if we were deterring crime.  Behind them, I could see nooks and crannies and alleyways that could have concealed anything and everything.  It reminded me of the marketplaces I’d seen in the Middle East, although there were more women in plain view.  They were careful not to meet my eyes.  I didn’t really blame them.

My eyes narrowed as I spotted the street children.  They scattered the moment they saw us, scrambling under stalls and fleeing into the alleyways.  Horst and Fallows snickered as the children vanished, making no move to chase them.  I felt my stomach heave.  I didn’t want to think what life must be like for a child, on the streets of a very rough city.  I doubted anyone cared enough to set up shelters for them, let alone try to offer a better life.  I suspected the only people offering to help them would want something in exchange.  Children made excellent pickpockets …

Horst kept up a quiet running commentary as we reached the end of the marketplace, crossed the street and walked straight into another marketplace.  I forced myself to listen as he pointed out street markers, showing me how to find my way around the city.  It was a confusing mess.  Whoever had designed the city, if indeed anyone had designed it, had tried to lay out an orderly pattern, but had rapidly been overwhelmed by the original inhabitants and their heirs.  Some parts of the city were easy to navigate – and if one walked down a main road one would reach either the walls or the city centre – but others were a nightmare of narrow streets, dark alleyways and homeless encampments that had taken on an air of permanence.

“Don’t go in there, not alone,” Fallows warned, darkly.  “You won’t come out again.”

I eyed the encampment and nodded.  It looked small, from the outside, but it had enveloped a sizable chunk of the city.  The stench was unbelievable.  I saw a handful of children playing in a puddle of filth and shuddered, feeling my stomach churn again.  Behind them, there were a couple of men watching us with unblinking eyes.  The naked hostility in their gaze was terrifying.  They were men who had nothing to lose.

“If you have nowhere else to go, you’ll wind up there,” Horst said, as we walked around the edge of the camp.  “And you won’t come out again.”

I tried not to shiver as we kept walking.  Horst and Fallows didn’t seem to have any regular patrol route, as far as I could tell.  Or maybe they were just showing me the city and using it as an excuse to goof off.  I walked through a red light district – prostitutes were everywhere, some holding out cards covered in illegible scribbles – and then through a more upmarket section that was so great a contrast I wondered if we’d walked into a whole new city.  It wasn’t precisely the suburbs I’d come to know and love, but … it was clear the locals actually took care of their district.  The streets were clean, the people looked happy and well-fed and … I frowned as they stared at us as if we were something a gentleman’s gentleman might scrape off his master’s shoe.  I’d known blatant racists and insurgents who’d stared at me with less hostility.  I didn’t understand their attitude.  Surely, they should be glad of our presence.

“They despise us,” Horst commented.

Fallows snorted, but said nothing.  I frowned, puzzled, as we kept walking towards a giant mansion.  It looked thoroughly weird, as if someone had taken the White House, squashed it down until it was a little smaller and then painted it in sandy colours.  The guards on the gates, wearing fancy uniforms covered with gold braid, sneered at us.  Horst and Fallows waved their fingers back at the guards, then turned away.  I guessed it was their way of giving the finger.

“That’s Lord Seed’s residence,” Horst explained, once we were out of earshot.  “The men on the gates work for him personally, not for the rest of us.  Don’t expect them to come to your aid if you get into trouble.  It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

“Private guards,” I said.  “Fuck.”

Fallows snorted.  “Everyone who can hire private guards does,” he said.  “And if they’re wealthy enough, the guards can do whatever they like.”

I blinked.  “Whatever they like?”

“Sure.”  Horst made a dismissive motion with his hands.  “Anyone who can hire a small army of guards, like him” – he pointed behind us – “can afford to bribe a judge, if his men get into trouble.”

“If he isn’t already the judge,” Fallows said.  “The landlord might find himself judging his own men.  He won’t judge very harshly.”

I frowned.  “How does the government actually work?”

They stared at me.  “What …?”

“I’m new here,” I said.  If nothing else, it was a good excuse for asking dumb questions.  “I don’t understand how the government works.  Who makes the decisions?”

Horst and Fallows exchanged glances.  “It’s complicated,” Horst muttered, finally.  “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“It’s really very simple,” Fallows snapped.  “If you own property, you’re a landlord.  If you’re a landlord, you get a vote.  You can run for office, if you can convince your fellow landlords to vote for you, or get appointed to a government office.  If you’re not a landlord, you don’t get a vote.  It’s as simple as that.”

I frowned.  “And what percentage of the population are landlords?”

Fallows gave me a sharp look.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean, how many landlords are there, relative to the rest of the city?”  I had the feeling I’d gone too far, but it was too late to stop now.  “How many landlords are there?”

“It’s hard to be sure,” Horst said.  “It gets complicated.”

“There are landlords who own tiny plots of land, barely enough room to bury themselves,” Fallows said, coldly.  “And landlords who own vast chunks of the city.  And their families.”

I listened to the explanation as we resumed our patrol.  The landlords owned the city.  They paid taxes, which paid for the guardsmen, the army detachment outside the walls – apparently, the soldiers weren’t allowed inside the city itself – and the local government, such as it was.  The idea of everyone having a vote was unthinkable.  It was easy to deduce, reading between the lines, that the system was massively weighed against the common citizen.  As long as they were landless, they were powerless.  I supposed that explained why the wealthy citizens were wary of us.  They might be wealthy, but as long as they were landless they had no real power.  We were the club that kept them in line.

We, I thought, sourly.  Are you already thinking of yourself as a guardsman?

“The magicians live down that way,” Horst said, pointing to a wide – and completely deserted – street.  “Don’t walk there unless you want to be turned into something –  or worse.  The magicians have nasty senses of humour and they don’t like intruders.  Most people just avoid the street completely unless they have an invitation.  They have a bunch of shops on the far side, if you want to buy some magic for yourself, but don’t waste their time.  They’ll get mad.”

I frowned.  “What do you do if a magician is also a criminal?”

“We find something to do on the other side of the city,” Fallows said, bluntly.  “There’s a bunch of sorcerers who work for the guard.  Let them handle it.”

“They normally keep their own rules,” Horst said.  “And there’s no point in trying to do anything about it.”

“I see,” I said.  I wanted to condemn them for cowards, but I’d seen enough magic to know it could be very dangerous.  “I think.”

I peered down the street as we walked past, feeling my hair trying to stand on end.  Something hung in the air, a weird sensation that reminded me of the hours before a thunderstorm … I looked up, half-expecting to see clouds forming overhead.  But the skies were clear.

My head spun.  The city was so … different.  I’d seen the endless struggle between rich and poor, between privileged and unprivileged, but this was … weird.  The rules were different, beyond even my imagination.  I wished, suddenly, that I’d spent more time reading fantasy books.  Travelling to a foreign country wasn’t easy, when one didn’t know the rules, but … how could I understand magic?  How did magic affect the rules?

The magicians are effectively above the law, I thought, numbly.  And so are the landlords.

“We’re home,” Horst said, as the guardhouse came into sight.  I spotted a handful of guardsmen heading out on patrol, nodding to us as they passed.  “What do you make of it?”

I hesitated, unsure what to say.  Part of me regretted ever accepting the offer.  Part of me suspected I wouldn’t have gotten a better one.  I knew too little to know if I was being cheated – or worse.  I certainly didn’t know where to find a place to sleep.  I’d considered sleeping in the alleyways, but it would probably have gotten me killed.  Or worse.  I needed native guides …

You are a native now, my thoughts mocked me.  It was easy, far too easy, to fall into the trap of considering myself a tourist.  And you can’t afford to pretend otherwise.

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting time.”  I yawned before I could stop myself.  “Can we get some rest now?”

“Of course,” Fallows said, dryly.  He led the way past the gatehouse and into the guardhouse itself.  The officers on the desks glanced at us, then returned to their work.  “We’ll get something to eat, then hit the bunks.  We’ll be going back on patrol in the morning.”

I nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Snippet – Louise’s Story

27 Jan

I just had this going through my head.

Prologue

We were poor, but we were honest.  And free.

That was what my father said, at least, when I asked him.  It had taken him years to get a reputation as a honest man, he’d insisted, and he had no intention of throwing it away.  He had never cheated his supplies, he had never knowingly overpriced his wares; he had never, perhaps most importantly of all, accepted an offer of patronage from the aristos.  It would have been easy to take his track record and use it to convince the toffs to give him a loan, but it would have meant the end of his freedom.  He would have forever been serving a master who knew little about him and cared less.  The root of patronise is patron.  It was a lesson he drilled into me time and time again.

He did well.  We all did.  I worked in the shop, along with my parents and siblings, from the moment I was old enough to work the till.  Father gave me a very practical education in everything a young person might need, if she wished to set up a business of her own.  He taught me how to read and write, to perform sums in my head … most importantly of all, he taught me the value of hard work.  I was never given an allowance.  I was certainly never given money for nothing.  I earned my salary in the shop, every last coronet of it.  I did so well that I had no trouble at all earning my primary education certificates, even though I’d never set foot in a school.  Father was a far more attentive teacher than someone who cared not a whit for me.  And I came to believe he was right.  I could become anything I wanted, as long as I put in the work.

It wasn’t until I turned thirteen that disillusionment started to set in.

Father had invested in me, and my education, by sending me to Jude’s.  I wasn’t blind to just how much of his savings he’d gambled on me, knowing that it would be hard for me to repay him.  I took his warnings to heart about studying and studying hard, reading all of the coursework texts before I ever entered the building.  I thought I could earn plaudits through hard work, by passing all the exams and showing everyone just how smart I was.  It took me longer than it should have done, I admit, to realise I was wrong.

I was in an odd position, at Jude’s.  I was no aristo.  They looked down on me for my commoner birth.  And yet, I was no scholarship student either.  They didn’t know quite what to make of me, at least at first.  The aristos poked and prodded at me a little, trying to determine if they could make me do their homework, then largely left me socially isolated and alone.  It was hard, very hard, for me to relate to my peers.  I spent my days in the library, studying everything I could in a bid to become the youngest student in decades to win the Academic Cup.  It should have been possible to win.  But Alana won instead.

I’d worked hard.  On paper, my scores were better.  Far better.  And yet she’d won.  I stormed into the office to demand answers, only to receive detentions and lines for my trouble.  They didn’t want to listen to my questions, then my complaints.  It wasn’t until Magister Niven pointed out the truth that I realised the game was rigged.  It wasn’t about scholarship, it wasn’t about academic honesty, it wasn’t about anything … but who you were and who you knew.  Alana wasn’t my equal in scholarship – she was bright, yet no genius – but she was an Aguirre.  Her name had been inscribed on the cup since she’d started her schooling, two years ago.   My hard work has been wasted!

Bitterness raged through me as I looked upon the school with new eyes.  The system was completely rigged.  The aristos offered their patronage to the commoners, but it came with a price.  They lost their independence completely and submitted themselves to their patrons, to the point they were virtual slaves.  And they would remain part of the patronage networks even after they left school.  I understood, now, why my father had worked so hard to remain independent.  To take their patronage was the kiss of death.

Something had to be done, I told myself.  Something had to be done.  But what?  The more I studied the system, the more I realised just how thoroughly it had been rigged.  It was easy – probably – to strike out at a lone aristo, perhaps one of the idiots who bragged of rougish dealings in Water Shallot, but bringing down the system – or even reforming it – was incredibly difficult.  Too many would-be reformers had been defeated by the system, directly or indirectly.  Perhaps I would have let it go too, if Francis Rubén hadn’t enchanted me.  He died, shortly afterwards, but it left me burning with anger.  I would never even have considered doing anything like that.

And so, when I left Jude’s that summer, I told myself I was going to change the world.

Updates

27 Jan

Hi, everyone

I’ve been very busy over the last few weeks, as you can probably imagine.  I’ve completed the first draft of The Family Name, which features Akin and Isabella and wraps up a handful of plotlines before the big trilogy starts.  I’m currently unsure if the book will be third-person, with multiple points of view, or if it will remain focused on Cat (and perhaps Akin).  It really does need interludes from other characters, including both Isabella and Rebecca).  I’ve also been considering a story featuring Louise, in which she becomes the target of a very deadly plot.   Let me know if you want it.

The Family Name should be edited and up for purchase in a couple of weeks.  Wish me luck.

I’m currently tying up loose ends – and writing a couple of chapters of Stuck in Magic – before going back to Schooled in Magic.  I intend to write The Face of the Enemy in February – hopefully, The Right Side of History will be out before long.  We’re currently working on the final edit and waiting for the cover.  Keep watching this space. 

I’m also hoping to have Fantastic Schools III out before too long.  There will be a short story that will lead into the planned post-Emily trilogy within the book.

I’m still trying to decide if I want to write Drake’s Drum (Ark Royal) or The Prince’s War (The Empire’s Corps) in March.  Let me know what you want. 

Chris

Snippet – The Right Side of History (SIM22)

9 Jan

THERE ARE MEGA-LEVEL SPOILERS FOR ‘LITTLE WITCHES‘ HERE. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Prologue I

The room stank of fear.

Constance, Lady in Waiting to Queen Francoise of Alluvia, pulled her dress around her as the noise from beyond the walls grew louder.  Night was falling, but the city outside was cast into sharp relief by towering infernos.  The riots had become a revolution, crowds of rebels and thugs throwing lighted torches into the homes of the great and the good.  She huddled closer to the rest of the royal companions as the queen stared at her husband.  He’d once been a great man and a greater king.  He’d chucked Constance’s chin and whispered promises of royal favours if she wished to become his.  Now, he seemed almost diminished.  The kingdom was fading alongside its king.

It had all happened so quickly!  Constance could barely keep track of each piece of news – bad news – before the next arrived.  There had been fights over bread in the marketplace, of all things, fights that had turned into riots.  The Royal Guard had arrived to break up the fighting, the City Guardsmen had turned on them and … Constance wasn’t sure what had happened next, but the king had lost control of his city.  The castle gates had been slammed closed, wards snapped into place by royal magicians, but it hadn’t been enough to save everyone outside the walls.  She’d heard a messenger screaming a warning about mansions going up in flames.  The mob was running rampant, tearing through the aristocratic walls and hunting down the money-lenders and speculators.  Constance had heard a tale of horror from the guards on the battlements, before the queen had cut them off.  The money-lenders had been marched to the embankments and thrown to the rocks below.  Their wives and daughters hadn’t been treated anything like so kindly.

She shivered, helplessly, as the shouting grew louder.  The mob was calling for blood … royal blood.  Constance herself was a very distant relative of the king – her family lands were on the other side of the country, near the border with Rose Red – but she was sure it wasn’t enough to protect her.  The bodyguards and chaperones her father had sent with her, when he’d allowed her to enter the queen’s service, were nowhere to be seen.  She hoped they were safe, wherever they were.  But she feared the worst.

“Get out there.”  Queen Francoise’s voice cut through the stifling tension.  “Order them to disperse.”

Constance winced and tried to hide it.  The queen was a sharp-tongued woman, more of a man – even though Constance would never dare say that aloud – than her husband.  Her position was unassailable.  She didn’t have to produce a male heir – her predecessor had produced two boys who’d survived to adulthood – and she’d given the king two daughters.  The king could hardly refuse to treat her with the respect she’d earned, even though he had no compunctions about taking mistresses and then discarding them.  And yet … Constance could tell that the queen was making a mistake.  Her husband was trapped between fire and water, unable to confront the crowd or lead his men into battle against the mob.  All he could do was wait.

“If only Dater was here,” Queen Francoise snapped.  Her favourite stepson, according to rumour, had been disbanding his army when the rioting had turned into full-scale rebellion.  “He would teach them all a lesson.”

“Dater is a long way away,” the king said, mildly.  “And I sent Hedrick out as soon as the trouble began.”

“You should have sent him to deal with the crowds,” Queen Francoise accused.  “And now they’re at our door!”

The king turned away from his wife, his fists clenching with anger.  Constance understood.  A king could not be a king if he couldn’t exert authority over his wife and children as much as his kingdom.  Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the Crown Prince, perhaps pushed by his stepmother, started to demand more power and authority than his father could reasonably give.  Dater was old enough to rule and young enough to make his mark, if he inherited the throne.  He was certainly prominent enough to seem a viable replacement, if the king lost too much face to rule.  It wouldn’t be the first time a king had ‘voluntarily’ surrendered his power and gone into exile.

Constance looked at the stone floor, trying not to attract attention.  The king’s temper was starting to boil.  She didn’t want to face his fury, not when no one would lift a hand in her defence.  The assembled nobles feared the king too, feared what he might do if his back was against the wall.  Constance felt cold, wondering – deep inside – if it might be better if the king was … convinced to abdicate in favour of his son.  Dater was a dashing young man, so handsome and bursting with energy that no one would dare stand against him.  Had he not been the hero of the wars?  Had he not taken on a necromantic army and smashed it in an hour of furious combat?  Had he not turned down the hand of Lady Emily herself, for the good of the kingdom?  Constance’s heart fluttered at the thought.  She was too low-born, for all the blue blood in her, to attract the prince … but she could dream.

She glanced up as Councillor Triune ran into the room.  He was normally jovial and warm to everyone, even the lowliest maidservants, but now his jowled face was streaked with sweat and his hands were shaking.  Constance knew she shouldn’t listen, as he hastily knelt before the king, but she couldn’t help herself.  Knowledge was power in the court, particularly if one got it before anyone else.  She had long since mastered the art of eavesdropping without making it obvious.  She didn’t know why she bothered sometimes.  As a young woman from the borderlands, she was rarely considered important enough to matter.  The only thing that kept her from being sent home was the favour of the queen.

“Your Majesty!”  Councillor Triune sounded as if he wanted to panic.  “The sorcerers are dead!”

A rustle ran round the chamber.  Constance swallowed, hard.  The walls were strong, but the royal court didn’t have enough men to hold them after the Royal Guard had been slaughtered.  Or deserted.  Or joined the rebels.  The stories just kept getting worse and worse.  If the rebels turned their attention to the castle, they could get over the walls.  The sorcerers were dead.  It was only a matter of time before the wards fell. 

The king glanced at his queen, then at the barred window looking over the courtyard and the city beyond.  The bars weren’t that strong.  If the rebels captured a catapult, or one of the new-fangled cannons, they could put a shot right through the window.  Constance took no interest in military affairs, but even she knew that walls couldn’t be held forever.  And then … she tried not to think about it.  The rebels wanted blood.  Her blood.

No, she corrected herself.  It was unlikely any of the mob knew who she was.  They want the king’s blood.

An idea flashed through her mind.  She could leave the chamber, perhaps on the pretence of going to the toilet, and swap clothes with a maid.  She could pretend to be a maid.  No one would know, if she was dressed as a maid … the rebels would ignore her, allowing her to walk out and then … and then what?  She didn’t know the city, beyond the inner walls.  She couldn’t hope to walk home.  She had only the faintest idea of the way!

“We have a plan,” Councillor Triune babbled.  “The troops will create a diversion.  The rest of us will get into carriages and flee to the army camp.  And then …”

“Excellent,” the queen said.  “Dater will purge the city with fire and blood.”

The plan didn’t seem a very good idea to Constance, but no one bothered to ask her opinion.  It was just taken for granted she’d accompany the queen, along with the remainder of her ladies.  Councillor Triune’s men urged them down the stairs, into the rear courtyard, as troops ran forward to rally at the forward gates.  They’d always struck Constance as fops, when they hadn’t been trying to court her in their clumsy manner, but … they were going to die in defence of their king.  She wished she’d been kinder to the last knight who’d tried to court her.  He’d been so dreadfully earnest she’d laughed in his face.

She winced at the noise as they scrambled into the royal carriages.  It was hardly her first time in a coach, but … she wished she was on horseback.  An eager horse and a clear road … it was all she asked.  The littlest princess asked for a horse for herself as she was bundled into another carriage with her nanny, her mother ignoring her cries as the door slammed firmly closed.  Constance was tempted to suggest the princess was given a horse, that she was given a horse, but she didn’t dare.  Councillor Triune fussed around, snapping orders to the guards as the sound of fighting grew louder.  His face was too grim for her to risk speaking her mind.  If he got the royal family out, his future would be assured.  He was hardly going to alter the plan on her say-so.

“Get in,” the queen snapped.  “Now!”

Constance heard someone – Councillor Triune, perhaps – give the command to open the rear gates as she scrambled into the carriage.  The regal vehicle lurched as the door was banged closed, then started to move.  Constance found a seat and sat down, trying not to look at the queen.  The expression on her face promised death and destruction – and social exclusion, perhaps, for the one who disturbed her.  Constance tried not to shiver openly.  Law and order had broken down everywhere.  She didn’t want to think about what might happen if the Crown Prince couldn’t regain control of the city.  How many of the dressmakers and jewellers and others she’d patronised were about to die?

“They’ll pay for this,” the queen said, more to herself than the rest of the passengers.  It had the air of a blood oath, a promise that could not be broken.  “They’ll pay in …”

The shouting grew louder.  The carriage lurched again, then crashed to a halt.  Constance reached for the window to pull back the blinds, but the queen slapped her hand hard enough to hurt before she could touch the fabric.  The carriage was quivering, as if someone was beating their fists against it … Constance started back as the door shook, then came free.  A grim-faced man stared at her, his gaze swiftly turning into a leer.  Behind him, the city burned.

“Look,” he shouted.  “We’ve captured the royal whores!”

His hand snapped hold of Constance’s wrist before she could pull back and yanked her forward.  She tumbled out of the carriage, hitting the paving stone before she could catch herself.  Pain shot through her as strong arms yanked her to her feet, holding her so firmly she couldn’t pull free.  The queen was dragged out too, to hoots and hollers from the rabble.  Her eyes were wide with fear.  Constance struggled against her captor, but she couldn’t break free.  He was just too strong.

She felt horror, numb horror, sinking into her as she looked past the carriage.  The king’s carriage was ahead of her, the king himself being manhandled away by a group of men in red shirts.  They were on the embankment, too close to the river to escape … she wondered, suddenly, if that had been deliberate.  She couldn’t see Councillor Triune anywhere.  The king’s man had vanished …

A commanding voice cut through the crowd.  “Take the whores to the Final Prison!”

Constance shuddered as her captor started to push her forward.  She’d heard all the stories about the Final Prison, about how it was the last port of call for men sentenced to death.  If someone went in a prisoner, they didn’t come out again.  Panic gave her strength: she stamped on her captor’s foot as hard as she could, then ran to the embankment.  The river had dwindled over the last few months, as summer had started to bite, but if she could get into the water she could swim down to the distant lands beyond the walls.  They wouldn’t expect her to be able to swim.  Countrywomen learnt as a matter of course, but cityfolk regarded the idea of women swimming as perverse.  It was …

“Stop,” someone shouted.  “Now!”

Constance jumped … and realised, too late, that she’d misjudged.  The river had shrunk too far.  She was plummeting towards jagged rocks and the remains of sunken ships, not waters that might hide her long enough to let her escape.  She thought, suddenly, of her parents.  Would they ever know what had happened to her?

In truth, she feared they would never know.

Prologue II

When she’d become Queen, Alassa had instituted a very simple rule.

She was not to be disturbed, she’d told her courtiers, between dinner and supper.  Not unless the matter was urgent.  Truly urgent.  She’d made it clear, and backed it up, that anyone who disturbed her without very good reason would be spending the next week as a frog in the royal frog pond.   It wasn’t something she was proud of, and she was uncomfortably aware she might miss something important because the messenger was reluctant to interrupt her, but it was vitally important for her sanity.  A reigning monarch had so little time to herself that she had to do whatever it took to make sure she got it. 

It irked her, more than she would willingly admit to anyone, that she hadn’t realised just how much her father had to do until she’d inherited his throne.  The king had risen early and worked from dawn till dusk, the men of his bedchamber – his inner councillors – feeling free to interrupt him whenever they pleased.  The one advantage of being a Ruling Queen, Alassa had discovered, was that she didn’t have to keep her inner council so close, but it hadn’t taken long for her courtiers to reason out that they could send their wives, sisters and daughters instead.  Alassa would have preferred to banish them permanently, but there was no way to send them away without causing massive offense.  The last thing she needed was their husbands, brothers, and sons plotting revenge.  She had enough troubles already.

She kept her face under tight control until she stepped into her inner bedchamber, then allowed herself to relax as the wards shimmered around her.  It was hard, very hard, not to sag as she leaned against the door.  Winning the war had been easy.  Winning the peace, it seemed, was a great deal harder.  She had to find a balancing point between factions that hated and detested each other, factions that would hate and detest her if she showed the slightest hint of favouritism to their enemies.  It felt as if she was stirring an unstable cauldron, the brew within permanently on the verge of exploding.  There were times when she was tempted to grab her husband and daughter, empty the royal treasury and go into exile.  In hindsight, she wondered how different her life would have been if she’d stayed at Whitehall instead of returning to Zangaria.

Gathering herself, she walked past her daughter’s bedchamber – Princess Emily was sleeping, her nursemaid sitting beside the cot – and into her bedroom.  Jade was seated at the desk, reading the reports from the royal spies.  They’d made sure to pick up the remnants of King Randor’s spy network and build their own, in hopes of preventing another coup or another aristocratic uprising.  Alassa thought she understood, now, why her father had gone mad.  There was never any shortage of disturbing reports, but how many of them were anything more serious than a slighted aristocrat venting to his friends?  She didn’t know.

Jade stood and gave her a hug.  “Bad day?”

“I had Lord Hardin, again,” Alassa said.  It was hard to hide her disgust.  “He wants to marry his ward.”

“Bastard,” Jade agreed.  “Want me to kill him?”

Alassa was tempted.  Lord Hardin had played his cards very well, somehow managing to remain on King Randor’s good side without alienating either the Noblest or Alassa herself.  He’d certainly not taken any part in the civil war, ensuring that he evaded the sanctions Alassa had handed down to her father’s more open supporters.  It helped, she supposed, that Hardin’s territory was right on the edge of the kingdom.  It gave him a ready-made excuse for not sending anything more than thoughts and prayers.  But it also made it hard for her to squash him like he deserved.

She sat on the bed and rubbed her forehead.  Lord Hardin’s ward was too young for a betrothal, let alone a marriage.  And yet, Hardin thought he could bind her to him – and ensure permanent control over her lands – before she grew too old to object.  Alassa allowed herself a flash of cold anger.  She knew how she would have felt, if her father had announced her betrothal before she reached her majority.  It might have been years before the marriage was solemnised, but everyone would have treated it as a done deal from day one.  If she’d had a brother …

“I might need you to go look at her lands, to see how he’s ruling them,” she said.  She hated the idea of sending Jade away for a few days, but there were few people she trusted completely.  And besides, Hardin wouldn’t be fool enough to give Jade a hard time.  If he did … Jade would smash him flat well before word reached Alexis.  “Perhaps even to provoke a fight.”

Jade nodded as he sat next to her.  “How much do you want me to provoke a fight?”

“Only a little,” Alassa said.  She wanted an excuse to take a swing at Hardin – or, at the very least, to park a garrison in his lands – but it had to look legitimate.  “I don’t want to push him so blatantly everyone takes his side.”

She leaned into Jade’s arms, allowing him to hold her tightly.  It was a display of weakness she could never allow herself in front of the court, not when half of them already believed Jade gave her orders in private and the other half thought he should.  Bastards.  It hadn’t been that long since they’d been slated for execution, if they fell into Randor’s hands.  A little gratitude was not too much to expect, was it?  It probably was.  Courtiers had short memories.  And now there was an infant princess, she’d bet her crown that some of them were considering the advantages of having a monarch who couldn’t talk.

And if I die early, she thought, Jade will take Baby Emily and run.

Jade kissed her, lightly.  Alassa lifted her lips to his, enjoying the sensation.  His hands started to roam her body, fiddling with the clasp.  The dress was designed to be difficult to take off in a hurry, something that Alassa had once found a little amusing.  It wasn’t so funny now.  The unmarried ladies of the court might have reason to wear a chastity belt, or something that served the same purpose, but she was a married woman.  And she was the queen …

The wards jangled.  Alassa jumped, swallowing a curse.  Whoever had disturbed her was going to regret it.  Whoever … she reminded herself, sharply, that she needed to hear the messenger out before she did something unspeakable.  No one would dare enter her chambers unless it was urgent.  She stood, straightened her dress and gave Jade a meaningful look.  He headed for the secret passage that ran beside the reception room.  King Randor had used it to conceal guards, when holding meetings with untrustworthy aristocrats.  Alassa preferred to use it to allow her husband to listen to the meetings, without making his presence obvious.  It was yet another compromise she’d had to make between what the court expected of her and what she had to do to maintain her sanity.

She raised an eyebrow as she stepped through the door and saw Mouse waiting for her.  The young woman – she was practically a commoner, although her father had been knighted long ago – was loyal.  She had to be.  Alassa had rewarded her for her services by elevating her over the countless noblewomen – and men – who thought they should be Mistress of the Queen’s Bedchamber.  It had made her enemies, but … Alassa tried not to grimace.  Mouse was loyal to her personally and that was all that mattered.  And besides, she wasn’t anything like as hidebound as the rest of the court.  She didn’t waste time trying to turn her queen into something she wasn’t.

“Your Majesty.”  Mouse curtsied.  Her face was pale, fearful.  “Prince Hedrick has arrived.”

Alassa blinked.  “Prince Hedrick of Alluvia?”

Mouse nodded.  Alassa’s mind raced.  Prince Hedrick had wanted to marry her, years ago.  He’d attended her wedding, but then … she didn’t recall hearing much of anything about him.  Hedrick was a second son.  He wouldn’t be promoted over his brother … hell, there was a very real chance he would be sent into de facto exile.  If he had … why had he come to Zangaria?  Alassa couldn’t think of a good reason.  It wasn’t as if she was obliged to give him more than the time of day.

“He just galloped into the courtyard,” Mouse added.  “He requests an immediate meeting.”

“I see.”  Alassa was tempted to tell Hedrick to wait.  And yet, he wouldn’t have broken protocol so blatantly unless the situation was dire.  What was it?  “Please have him shown to the blue room.  I’ll speak with him there.”

She glanced at the walls as Mouse turned and hurried out of the room.  Jade would make his way down to the next cubbyhole, while Alassa moved through the monarch’s private corridors.  She thought fast, trying to determine why Hedrick had galloped all the way to Zangaria … even using the portals, it was a hell of a long way.  If he’d come to pledge his love … she snorted at the thought.  It would be preferable, she supposed, to a bid for his kingdom’s throne.  That would be a major diplomatic headache.

I suppose I could tell him to get lost and swear blind I didn’t see him, she thought, as she stepped into the blue room.  But too many people will have noticed his arrival.

She took a seat and waited, folding her hands on her lap as the door opened.  Prince Hedrick stepped into the room – he’d lost the swagger, part of her mind noted – and bowed deeply to her.  There was no hint of reluctance, no suggestion he thought he should be bowing to a king instead.  And yet, as he straightened, he looked nervous.  His eyes flickered from side to side, as if he expected assassins to teleport into the chamber and jump him.  Alassa hadn’t intended to offer refreshments, let alone alcohol, but she was tempted to do just that.  Hedrick looked like someone who needed a drink.

He was handsome enough, she supposed.  The unfinished cast to his features she recalled from his unsuccessful courtship was gone.  His face suggested a strong character, his short blonde hair suggesting a martial mindset.  Or, perhaps, martial ambitions.  Hedrick was old enough to have fought in the last battles of the war, but Emily hadn’t mentioned him in her letters.  His father might not have let him go.  Losing one prince would be bad.  Losing both would be a disaster.

“Your Majesty.”  Hedrick didn’t stumble over the words.  “On behalf of my father and brother, I must plead for your help.”

Alassa’s eyes narrowed.  She would have understood the younger generation rebelling against the elder.  She would have understood Hedrick waging war on his father and older brother.  But … asking for help on behalf of both of them?  What had happened?  And why was he so fearful?

“Your Majesty, I …”  Hedrick swallowed and started again.  “There has been an uprising in the streets.  We have lost control of Jorlem City and many smaller cities.  The rebels have my father and stepmother prisoner, along with my half-sisters and many others.  I … I barely escaped with my life.  The Crown Prince is assembling his troops to retake the cities, but … we need help.”

Alassa kept her face carefully blank.  Zangaria was quite some distance from Alluvia.  It would be tricky to assemble troops and dispatch them to the other kingdom, even if it wasn’t politically impossible.  She knew there were factions within her government that would flatly refuse to send help, and others that would use it as an excuse to demand crackdowns at home … hell, just sending troops would cause problems with other kingdoms.  The Necromantic War was over.  Alassa was uncomfortably aware that the Allied Lands were starting to fracture, as old grudges came back to life.  She didn’t regret the end of the war, but … she had to cope with the problems of victory. 

“Zangaria is a long way from Alluvia,” she said, carefully.  “Why do you require my help?”

Hedrick looked down.  “The rebels claim to have been inspired by one of your noblewomen,” he said.  “The rebellion is in her name.”

Alassa raised her eyebrows.  “Emily.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Hedrick said.  “They claim to have risen in her name.”

“Emily would not have set out to trigger a rebellion,” Alassa said, flatly.  “She’s been … busy.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Hedrick repeated.  “And yet the rebels claim to have risen in her name.”

Alassa wasn’t sure how seriously to take that.  Hedrick was describing literally world-shaking events.  Alassa should have heard something, beyond vague rumours, well before the younger prince arrived at her door.  Alluvia was a long way away, but still … she sighed, inwardly.  The tale had probably grown in the telling.  Emily wouldn’t have set out to overthrow a kingdom, but …

“I will discuss the matter with my trusted advisors and then get back to you,” Alassa said, slowly.  “I do not believe, however, that she is behind your rebellion.”

“They claim she inspired them,” Hedrick said.  “Our councillors advised us to request that you bring her to heel.”

Alassa hid her amusement.  Emily was, technically, a liegewoman.  She was supposed to support her queen in all things.  But Emily didn’t really accept the responsibilities – or half of the rights – of a liegewoman.  She didn’t even understand them.  Alassa knew Emily couldn’t be pressured into doing anything.  King Randor had tried and the result had been an utter disaster.  She could see how Hedrick, and his advisors, might think Alassa could control her …

Which means I might get the blame, if Emily is credited with starting the uprising, Alassa thought.  Shit.

She stood, signalling that the interview was over.  She’d have to discuss the matter with Jade – and then Emily herself.  Emily’s last letter had said she was going to Laughter Academy … quite some distance from Alluvia.  That was meaningless, of course.  Emily could teleport.  And she’d figured out how to craft an enchanted device that allowed anyone to teleport, too …

“Your Majesty!”  Hedrick looked stunned.  “I appeal to you …”

Alassa bit off a sharp response.  Hedrick didn’t appeal to her, not really.  Instead, she summoned Mouse and directed her to show Hedrick to the guestroom.  The servants would take care of him – and, also, keep an eye on him.  It would be useful to know just what sort of person he was, although … Alassa shook her head as he followed Mouse out the door.  He’d just dropped a massive hot potato in her lap …

… And, for the first time in far too long, she was unsure how to handle it.

Chapter One

“Lady Emily,” Master Lucknow said.  His voice was very cold.  He never took his eyes off Emily.  “In the name of the White Council, and the Allied Lands, I am placing you under arrest.”

Emily stared at him, caught completely off-guard.  She could sense powerful wards shimmering into existence, surrounding the inn.  Wards designed to stop her from teleporting, wards designed to confuse her senses and conceal the enemy positions … her mind raced as she looked at Master Lucknow.  There were four combat sorcerers facing her … four potential enemies and Jan.  Her boyfriend hadn’t moved.  He was caught between her and his master, unable to take sides without alienating one or both of them.

She held herself at the ready, unsure what to do.  There had to be more sorcerers outside, casting the wards.  She hoped they’d had the sense to evacuate the surrounding area, although she feared they hadn’t bothered.  And yet, they’d managed to taint the food.  Had they hoped she’d sedate herself?  Or poison herself?  It was a common trick, when faced with newborn necromancers and dark wizards.  If she’d eaten the food, would she have woken up in a cell?  Would she have woken up at all?

“Master?”  Jan’s voice broke through the silence.  “What are you doing?”

Master Lucknow directed a sharp look at him.  “Shut up.”

Jan audibly swallowed.  “Master …”

“I said, shut up,” Master Lucknow snapped.  “Lady Emily, you are under arrest.”

Emily found her voice.  “On what charge?”

“The charges will be discussed at your hearing,” Master Lucknow informed her.  He removed a vial from his belt and held it out.  “Drink this, then prepare for teleport.”

“I need to send a message to my master,” Emily said.  She tried to remember what little she’d been taught about prisoner rights.  There weren’t many.  The Mediators had powers of arrest, if a warrant was issued by the White Council … her mind raced.  They couldn’t demand a warrant without word reaching Alassa, or Melissa, or Void himself.  Emily couldn’t believe her friends wouldn’t warn her.  And that boded ill.  “I also want to see the warrant.”

“You can do both, once you drink the potion,” Master Lucknow said, flatly.  “Once you are in custody, you can send messages to whoever you like.”

Emily gritted her teeth.  The Mediators were obliged to carry the warrant and show it upon demand.  She didn’t recall that much from Master Tor’s classes on law, but she recalled that.  There were just too many kingdoms, estates and city-states that disliked the idea of international police forces throwing their weight around.  In fact … she wondered, suddenly, if Duchene had been so quick to get rid of her because she knew the Mediators were on their way.  The Headmistress of Laughter was Pendle’s ruler, to all intents and purposes.  The Mediators would have informed her before the arrest began.

Her heart sank.  If the Mediators were unwilling to produce the warrant, it suggested they didn’t have one.  They couldn’t have one, not without summoning the whole council.  And that meant … she looked at the vial, wondering what it really contained.  Did they intend to arrest her first and invent the charges later?  Or did they intend to kill her before the rest of the council, and her friends, could object?

She took a step back.  “I need to send a message first,” she said.  She disliked the thought of running to Void, or anyone, to beg for help, but she doubted she had a choice.  “And then I will …”

“Drink the potion,” Master Lucknow ordered.  He produced a pair of shackles from his belt and held them at the ready.  “Now.”

… Emily is kneeling on a stone floor, her hands and feet chained with cold iron.  The spectators are booing loudly as her judges close in, joining hands in a fearsome ritual that will destroy her magic …

The flash of memory, of the demonic vision, was so strong Emily almost fainted.  The world around her seemed to fade, just for a moment.  She shivered, suddenly very aware she was on the cusp of disaster.  If they took her … would they seek to destroy her power, to strip the magic from her, or simply kill her?  She looked from face to face, reading grim determination in their eyes.  They were ready to fight, ready to take her by force.  And if they didn’t have a warrant … she swallowed, hard.  She couldn’t let herself go with them.

“No.”  Emily faced them, readying herself.  “I want to see the warrant.”

One of the combat sorcerers made a gesture.  Emily sensed a shimmer of magic, a webbing that – if it took shape and form – would trap her until she drained herself dry.  Master Lucknow took a step forward, raising his hand.  The netting centred on him, growing stronger and stronger with every passing second.  She couldn’t let herself be trapped.  It would be the end of everything.  She was grossly outnumbered, but she didn’t have to beat them all to win.  She just had to get clear of the wards and teleport out.

She summoned a wave of raw magic and directed it into the netting.  The spellwork shattered, bits of magic splintering in all directions.  She didn’t hesitate, generating a blinding flash of light that should have been enough to disorient them.  Master Lucknow had enough presence of mind to counter the spell, but it bought her a few seconds.  She cast a bigger spell of her own, yanking up every chair and table in the inn and hurling them at the sorcerers.  It wouldn’t kill them, if they reacted quickly, but it would buy her a little more time.  She saw Jan throwing himself towards the rear door as she darted backwards, without looking back.  She didn’t blame him.  He’d wind up in real trouble if he turned against his master.

One of the sorcerers grunted, tumbling to the ground as a chair struck him in the chest.  He’d be fine, Emily was sure, but the impact should put him out of the fight.  The others had raised their wards, smashing the tables and spraying sawdust in all directions.  Emily summoned a wind, blowing the sawdust towards them.  It might just get in their eyes.  She turned and blasted the wall behind her, feeling a twinge of guilt.  The innkeeper and his family were long gone, but they were going to come home to a pile of rubble.  She made a promise to herself that she’d pay for repairs, if she survived.  The surge of magic behind her suggested the combat sorcerers were mad.

She ran through the gash in the walls, into an alleyway.  It was disturbingly empty.  The wards buzzed against her mind as she glanced up and down, then drew on her magic and flew down the alleyway.  Going too high would be a good way to get killed, but as long as she stayed low she should be able to put enough distance between herself and the wardcrafters to teleport out.  She glanced up at Laughter as she flew past a taller building, wondering if she should try to get to the school.  It might provide refuge … she shook her head.  Duchene had plenty of reason to want Emily out of the way for a while.  Going there might just get her arrested.

A force snapped around her legs, cancelling the spell.  Emily fell, drawing on more of her magic to cushion the landing.  The ground seemed to explode around her, turning rapidly to animated mud … she rolled over and over, catching sight of a magician roaring and chanting as he directed his spell.  Ingenious, part of her mind noted.  He’d turned the ground into a bog, charming the water to wear down her magic.  It would have worked, too, if Void hadn’t taught her how to drain the magic from liquid.  The sensation was thoroughly unpleasant, but … she sucked the magic out and directed it back at the caster, channelled into an overpowered stunning spell.  His eyes went wide, an instant before he tumbled to the ground.  He was still twitching, still trying to throw off the spell, as she ran past him.

That might have been a mistake, she thought, numbly.  She didn’t have time to kick him in the head.  Hopefully, he’d be distracted long enough to keep him out of the fight even if the spell didn’t put him to sleep.  Overpowering spells is a necromancer trick.

She reached out with her senses as she picked up speed, trying to determine the nearest edge of the wards.  It wasn’t easy.  The wards were constantly shifting, as if they were centred on her.  She looked around, then – kicking herself for the oversight – up.  A pair of magicians were clearly visible, staring down at her.  She could see the threads of their magic, blurring together into the wards.  As long as they could see her, they could trap her.  And direct their fellows to her.  She reached for her magic, then stopped herself.  If she cancelled the spells holding them in the air, they’d plunge to their deaths.  She didn’t want to kill them.

A force picked her up and hurled her right across the street.  She had a brief impression of eyes watching from behind the curtains, which vanished as she hit the ground.  The townspeople had to be panicking as they watched living gods tear their town apart, caught in the middle of a violent upset … she shuddered, wondering what would happen to anyone who was injured in the crossfire.  Nothing good, probably.  Pendle had been overshadowed by fear for the last month and even though the source of the fear was gone, it would be a long time before everything returned to normal.  None of the townspeople were going to help her.  They’d turn and run to avoid being caught in the storm.

Just like Jan, she thought.  Where did he go?

She pulled herself to her feet and ran into an alleyway.  A robed magician stood in her path and she rammed her fist into his gut without thinking.  He bent over, coughing and spluttering.  He’d thought to wear leathers, but not charmed armour.  Another stepped out, holding a wand in one hand and a battery in the other.  Emily cursed under her breath as she sensed the magic in the wand.  A simple cancellation spell, linked to the battery … every spell for hundreds of metres around would be cancelled.  She had to admire the trick.  They would cancel her magic, then overpower her by main force and pour the potion down her throat.  It would work.  She was tough, but Master Lucknow was probably tougher.  He didn’t need all of his comrades to beat her into submission.

Her hand dropped to the pistol at her belt.  She drew it, pointing the barrel at the magician.  His eyes went wide … he was probably a veteran of the war, someone who knew what a pistol actually was.  There were sorcerers who didn’t know what a gun did and wouldn’t recognise the threat if one was shoved into their mouths.  He hesitated, visibly.  If he activated the battery and triggered the spell, he’d render himself defenceless as well.  The bullet might not be fatal, but he’d be seriously injured.  Pistols weren’t very accurate, yet … they were at point-blank range.  She doubted he would want to gamble his life on her missing …

She heard shouts behind her and altered her pose, pointing the gun at the battery and pulling the trigger.  The blast was deafeningly loud in the confined space, the bullet striking the battery and sending it crashing to the ground.  Weird sparks of light darted out of the containment ring, magic surging like water spewing from a balloon.  Emily wasn’t sure what was going to happen, when a battery lost containment completely, but she didn’t want to stick around and find out.  She shoved a force punch at the stunned magician, denting his wards enough to drive him back, then threw herself past him and started to run.  Behind her, there was another surge of magic.  She hoped – prayed – it hadn’t killed anyone.

Her legs started to ache as she burst onto the street and raced down to the edge of town.  There was no one in view, but she could hear the men behind her.  She glanced at a hastily-abandoned fruit stall, then cast a levitation spell and hurled tons of fruit at the hovering magicians.  The impacts wouldn’t cause them to fall – probably – but they would make it harder for them to keep the wards in place.  They were still centred on her, damn it.  She wondered, suddenly, if she should try to knock them out of the sky anyway.  Their comrades might catch them before they hit the ground.

A sorcerer crashed into her, his magic tearing and blurring into hers.  Emily winced at the onslaught, so crude and yet so effective, then turned into the attack.  Magic crackled around her as she pushed forward, shoving her way through the storm.  She could feel the sorcerer’s confusion as she yanked the magic aside, then punched him in the face.  Whatever he’d been expecting, he hadn’t been expecting that.  Emily felt her head start to pound as the magic started to fade, her vision going blurry for a second.  Void was going to scold her for trying that in a real fight.  It could easily have gone the other way.

The wards started to shimmer and weaken.  Emily pushed herself forward, leaving the dazed magician behind as she hurried to the edge of the wards.  She felt drained, but … she thought she could teleport back to the tower.  Void could sort out the mess … at the very least, she could recuperate while the Mediators insisted on her surrender.  The pain grew stronger, to the point she honestly wasn’t sure she could teleport.  Perhaps if she got into the woods she could hide long enough …

“Emily!”  Master Lucknow appeared, right at the edge of her wards.  For a moment, Emily honestly thought he’d managed to teleport despite the interference.  He’d used a concealment spell to hide from her, hidden in the corner of her eye.  She’d been too distracted to notice.  “You …”

Emily had no time to react before he caught hold of her hair and yanked, hard.  She stumbled back, nearly losing her footing.  Void had argued she should cut her hair short, perhaps even wear a wig if having long hair was so important to her.  In hindsight, she suspected he’d been right.  Master Lucknow had his hands wrapped around her hair, hurting her so badly she could barely think … she allowed him to drag her as she gathered herself, then cracked the back of her head into his nose.  She heard it break with a very satisfying crack – she felt warm liquid drip down her hair – but he didn’t let go.  A moment later, a force punch sent her spinning through the air.  Her scalp hurt so badly she was sure he’d scalped her. 

She hit the ground, the impact knocking the wind out of her.  Master Lucknow landed on top of her, his weight holding her down.  She sensed his magic brewing, readying itself for another blast.  This close to her, he’d have no difficulty tearing apart what remained of her defences or simply knocking her out.  She ruthlessly bit down on her panic as his blood pressed against her bare skin.  Channelling power through the blood was difficult and dangerous, yet …

GET OFF, she thought.

Master Lucknow rolled off, his arms and legs flailing madly.  The compulsion had been almost irresistible.  He’d certainly not realised she could use his blood to control him … now when it wasn’t touching her fingers.  Emily smirked – there was nothing in the books on blood magic that suggested she had to use her fingers – then forced herself to stand on bruised and battered legs.  Master Lucknow glared at her, his gaze suggesting he was setting up barriers in his mind.  Her control was already weakening … she knew it would only be a few seconds before he broke free and came for her.  She didn’t know why he’d wanted to arrest her – she’d thought they were allies, during the war – but he wanted her dead now.  She’d pushed the limits as far as they would go.

She heard the sound of running footsteps and forced herself to stagger down the street.  Her legs were sore … too sore.  Too much had happened … her vision was so blurred she could barely see.  Anything could be in front of her.  She sensed a flicker of magic, too late.  The tangle spell struck her legs and she tripped over herself, landing back on the ground.  The sorcerers advanced, their power building as they wove a net of magic.  Emily would have laughed, if she hadn’t been so badly hurt.  She was too drained to continue the fight.  They could grab her by the neck, force the potion down her throat and then march her off to …

A surge of magic pulsed through the air.  It wasn’t directed at Emily, but it was strong enough to batter against what remained of her defences.  The sorcerers were knocked backwards, like trees caught in a gale; Emily took advantage of their sudden confusion to draw on what little remained of her power, trying to clear her eyes.  Her eyes felt dry as dust, but – slowly – they started to get better.  A nexus of power stood in front of her.  Void stood in front of her.  And Jan was right behind him. 

Void’s voice was quiet, but it echoed on the air.  “I do trust that you have an explanation for this?”

Book Boost: Bloodsworn by Tej Turner

7 Jan

Bloodsworn by Tej Turner

“Classic Epic Fantasy. I enjoyed it enormously.”

Anna Smith Spark

Everyone from Jalard knew what a bloodoath was. Legendary characters in the tales people told to their children often made such pacts with the gods. By drawing one’s own blood whilst speaking a vow, people became ‘Bloodsworn’.

And in every tale where the oath was broken, the ending was always the same. The Bloodsworn died.

It has been twelve years since The War of Ashes, but animosity still lingers between the nations of Sharma and Gavendara, and only a few souls have dared to cross the border between them.

The villagers of Jalard live a bucolic existence, nestled within the hills of western Sharma and far away from the boundary which was once a warzone. To them, tales of bloodshed seem no more than distant fables. They have little contact with the outside world, apart from once a year when they are visited by representatives from the Academy who choose two of them to be taken away to their institute in the capital. To be Chosen is considered a great honour… of which most of Jalard’s children dream.

But this year the Academy representatives make an announcement which is so shocking it causes friction between the villagers, and some of them begin to suspect that all is not what it seems. Just where are they taking the Chosen, and why? Some of them intend to find out, but what they discover will change their lives forever and set them on a long and bloody path to seek vengeance…

*          *          *

Endorsed by writers such as Anna Smith Spark (critically-acclaimed author of the Empires of Dust trilogy), Bloodsworn is the first instalment of a new and exciting fantasy series by Tej Turner.

Its tale begins as many epic fantasy stories do; a handful of characters from a medieval world – some of them coming of age – who find themselves swept into a series of world-changing events, but it takes a grim turn and becomes something darker. It is a novel which will simultaneously feel familiar to readers but yet keep surprising them.

Drawing his inspiration not only from the fantasy genre but also a wealth of manga and anime he absorbed during his youth, the world Tej Turner has created is divided between two rival nations; Sharma and Gavendara.

Sharma is a green country, blanketed in meadows, forests, and woodlands, whilst Gavendara is a land of grassy plains and much more barren. This stark difference between the resources at their disposal is but one out of many reasons that the two nations have a complex (and sometimes bloody) history with each other.

In the times preceding the beginning of Bloodsworn’s story, feudal and warlike Gavendara has seen some of its imperial ambitions become realised. It has annexed the lands Babua and Vallesh – to its north and south – but, its foremost desire has always lain to the east, beyond the Valantian Mountains, and within the green and fertile lands of Sharma.

A group of mysterious and secretive men, working within the shadows of Gavendara’s aristocracy, have discovered a new secret which they believe to be the answer to fulfilling their ambitions: a method of enhancing people, making them stronger, by carving runes into their flesh during arcane rituals. Initially, it seems like they have created the perfect warriors – for these people do not only become possessed by immense fortitude and dexterity, but they are also much more docile, and thus perfect, obedient soldiers.

But some of those involved in the creation of these soldiers are beginning to have second thoughts. They notice other, unforeseen changes, and start to wonder just how high the cost is for messing with nature… and how much of their humanity will both themselves and the subjects of their experiments lose along the way.

Tej Turner’s intention when he forged the concept of this series was that he wanted to create something which not only contained the usual tenets of epic fantasy – political intrigue, gods, swords, and sorcery – but also novums usually restricted to the genres of horror and science fiction, such as mutant creatures and metamorphosis. He has also – like in his two previous urban fantasy novels, The Janus Cycle and Dinnusos Rises – featured a diverse cast of characters, even channelling some of his own experiences undergoing prejudice growing up as a gay man into the threads of one of his central characters, making Bloodsworn an #OwnVoices novel.

One thing which might strike people as a little odd about the map of the world he has created is that there are very few human settlements on its coasts (and the ones which do exist lay a little inland from the shore), and there is a reason for this. Tej Turner has set this series in a world cosmologically different to our own, with longer years and, most notably, three moons. This means that the seas are more tumultuous, and thus coastal areas are not as safe for habitation. Other consequences for living in such a strange cosmic alignment include that the civilisations of the story have not yet discovered any other continents beyond their own, because seafaring is a much more dangerous (and thus seldom risked) venture. Nights are most usually brighter than in our own world, and thus, people are at liberty to be more active during such times, and rare occasions where the sky turns black and the sky fills with stars are events which can evoke a wide range of emotional responses from the members of its populace.

Bloodsworn is being published by Elsewhen Press on the 8th of January 2021. All digital editions are available to pre-order from Amazon (UK, US, Canada, and others), as well as Kobo and Google.

Paperback version will be available from the 8th of March.

About the Author

Tej Turner has spent much of his life on the move and he does not have any particular place he calls ‘home’. For a large period of his childhood, he dwelt within the Westcountry of England, and he then moved to rural Wales to study Creative Writing and Film at Trinity College in Carmarthen, followed by a master’s degree at The University of Wales Lampeter.

After completing his studies, he moved to Cardiff, where he works as a chef by day and writes by moonlight. He is also an intermittent traveller who every now and then straps on a backpack and flies off to another part of the world to go on an adventure. So far, he has clocked two years in Asia and a year in South America. He hopes to go on more and has his sights set on Central America next. When he travels, he takes a particular interest in historic sites, jungles, wildlife, native cultures, and mountains. He also spent some time volunteering at the Merazonia Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Ecuador, a place he hopes to return to someday.

Bloodsworn is his third published novel. His debut novel The Janus Cycle was published by Elsewhen Press in 2015, followed by his sequel Dinnusos Rises in 2017. Both of them were described as ‘gritty and surreal urban fantasy’. He has also had short stories published in various anthologies.

He keeps a travelblog on his website, where he also posts author-related news.

Snippet – The Family Name (Zero 9)

5 Jan

Prologue

The Chiltern Lodge, Stephen Rubén had decided long ago, had been built by someone who wanted to convince his guests that he was still a man of power and influence.  It had taken Stephen a few days of digging in the family achieve, a punishment set by his father decades ago, to determine he’d been correct.  The lodge had been constructed for a loser in the endless struggles for power over the family, a particularly sore loser who’d taken his failings out on the local wildlife.  Everything about the lodge was on a grand scale, from the dining hall – roomy enough for a hundred guests – to the animal heads decorating the walls.  It screamed rustic in a manner that mocked the owner’s pretensions.  It was no great surprise to Stephen that no one had been particularly interested in taking the lodge for themselves, when the original owner died.  The lodge might be visually stunning, surrounded by beautiful countryside and yet crammed with all the comforts of home, but it was too far from Shallot to serve as a permanent base.  To take possession of the lodge was to concede, to one’s shame, that one no longer had a part to play in the games of power.

And yet, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, it had its uses.

The lodge’s staff had been surprised when he’d arrived, but they hadn’t hesitated to prepare rooms for Stephen and his guests.  Stephen had been tempted to send them away, perhaps permanently, yet he’d known his guests wouldn’t appreciate having to fend for themselves during their little safari.  They hadn’t come to slaughter the local wildlife, let alone skin and cook the remnants of poor woodland creatures blasted by enhanced spellcasters.  The mere idea of making their beds for themselves … his lips quirked in amusement.  They’d done enough of that at Jude’s.

He lit the fire in the grate with a spell, then sat back in his comfortable armchair and waited for the remainder of the cabal to arrive.  They’d taken a risk gathering so far from the city, even with a cover story firmly in place, but there was no time for half-measures.  The very future of the family itself was at stake.  And there was no hope of saving their lives and their futures through more … legitimate channels.   Lord Carioca Rubén, Patriarch of House Rubén, had committed himself and his family to a course that would lead to either apotheosis or nemesis.  Stephen was all too aware that apotheosis was not on the cards.

“I trust this chamber is secure.”  Andrew Rubén was a tall man, his handsome face marred by a duelling scar.  “The staff can hardly be trusted not to report back to Carioca.”

“There are privacy wards already in place,” Stephen assured him.  It was unlikely the patriarch was paying close attention to them, with so many other problems concerning him, but he hadn’t survived so long by neglecting the basics.  “The staff are barred from these rooms.”

“You’ll excuse me if I check for myself,” Jeanne Rubén said.  It wasn’t a question.  She looked soft and warm, everyone’s favourite auntie.  It was easy to underestimate her, yet her smile and greying hair concealed a mind as sharp as an enchanted blade.  “I cannot live without the family, not at my age.”

“And I have matters to attend to in Shallot,” Davys Rubén said.  He wore mourning black, for his son who’d died only a few short months ago.  “Why are we here?”

Stephen waited for Jeanne to finish her examination of the charms, then studied his little cabal as they took their seats.  Andrew had been denied the power and positions he thought were his by right – a fairly common delusion – and, with the next generation readying itself to take the reins, faced a choice between gambling everything or retiring to the hinterlands of power.  Jeanne had old resentments driving her forward, demanding revenge for years of being told she couldn’t reach for supreme power herself.  And Davys had a son to avenge.

“Malachi is dead,” Stephen said, flatly.

“Good.”  Davys stared into the fire.  “The bastard got my son killed.”

“We had hoped Malachi could undermine our lord and master,” Stephen reminded him.  The disgraced outsider, the blackmailer, had been a tool.  Stephen had hoped he could rely on the man’s bottomless malice to damage Carioca without doing too much harm to the family as a whole.  He wouldn’t shed any tears for the man’s fiery death, but it had deprived him of a prospective weapon at the worst possible time.  “His death is quite awkward.”

He raised his voice, drawing their attention to him.  “The High Summer Ball will be held one month from now, in Aguirre Hall.  The ball will serve as both the coming-out party for the Aguirre Triplets and the formal announcement that Akin and Caitlyn are to be married.  The wedding date itself is still being negotiated, according to my source, but the general feeling is that it will take place on Winter’s Eve.  Carioca” – his voice darkened – “will not want to delay the nuptials too much.”

“Of course not,” Andrew said.  “The happy couple might decide they didn’t want to get married after all.”

“Which is possible,” Davys pointed out.  “They are betrothed, not engaged.”

“They appear to be very fond of each other,” Jeanne said, blandly.  “Their parents have worked hard to foster the match.  They are more compatible, in many ways, than most aristocratic couples.  I do not believe they will refuse to marry, when the time comes.”

Stephen grimaced.  Aristocratic matches were not about love.  Of course not.  The families came first.  Always.  The happy couple would have – should have – been raised to be realistic about such things.  As long as there were a handful of children, with no doubt about the bloodlines, the parents could do whatever they liked.  Stephen himself spent as little time with his wife as possible.  The feeling was mutual.

A flash of rage shot through him.  A Rubén, marrying an Aguirre?  Unthinkable.  Caitlyn could trace her ancestry back a thousand years, but Akin – and Stephen himself – could list his ancestors all the way back to the days before the Thousand Year Empire.  They’d been founders, senators, even emperors.  House Rubén had had its ups and downs – there’d been times when they’d been on top and times when they’d been clawing their way back up to the top – but the family had never declined for long.  House Aguirre … they were nothing more than parvenus.  They should have married into the older families, not set up bloodlines of their own.

He calmed himself with an effort.  “If we don’t act now, Akin will be the next Patriarch and Caitlyn will be his wife.  The two families will slowly merge, leaving us – ­us – on the sidelines.  Our bloodlines will be diluted, our family magics shared or lost forever.  We will lose everything, even our name!”

“And if we do act, we lose access to Caitlyn’s … talents,” Jeanne pointed out, evenly.  “House Aguirre will have an unbeatable advantage.”

“Caitlyn cannot be unique,” Stephen said.  “There have to be others.”

“We have found none,” Jeanne said.

Stephen said nothing for a long moment.  He had a trump card, a piece of information that had fallen into his hand, but he didn’t dare play it openly.  Not until they were ready to follow him.  There were too many players in the game for his peace of mind.  The cabal was hardly bound together by oaths of blood and promises of ancestral retribution.  Carioca would probably be very forgiving to whoever came to him, to betray the cabal before it was too late.  Stephen would have rewarded a willing traitor and he was fairly sure Carioca would do the same. 

“She isn’t invulnerable,” Davys pointed out.  “She can be killed.”

“That would trigger a House War,” Jeanne countered.  “And even if it didn’t, Akin would hunt the murderers down and kill them.”

Andrew leered.  “What about her children?  Would they have her talents … and their weaknesses?”

Stephen made a face.  The family – both families – had carefully avoided the question of precisely what would happen if Akin and Caitlyn’s children lacked magic.  Caitlyn was far from useless – she alone could make Objects of Power – but she was horrendously vulnerable too.  Stephen had been told that compulsion spells prevented her from actually doing anything useful, yet there were other ways to make someone compliant.  And if her children lacked magic too …

If they can’t defend themselves, they cannot lead the family, he thought.  And her family will feel the same way too.

Jeanne cleared her throat.  “What do you propose we do?”

She leaned forward, speaking with cold certainty.  “Francis is dead.  There are no other possible candidates for the patriarchy, certainly none who can hold a candle to Akin and would be interested in the role.  The majority of the new generation has made their peace with the concept of him suceeding his father.  The ones who might want to reach for the brass ring themselves have no hope of success.”

Stephen nodded.  He’d hoped Carioca and Davys would have more children, more prospective candidates for the patriarchy, but they’d been careful.  Very careful.  Carioca hadn’t wanted too many children competing for his favour, while Davys had clearly assumed Francis would either compete with his cousin or use his position as a bargaining chip when Akin succeeded his father.  None of them had realised that Malachi would push Francis too far, or that the Challenge would end in the young man’s death.  The disaster had left them scrambling to find another candidate before it was too late.

Andrew coughed.  “Penny?”

Jeanne snorted.  Penny Rubén had been doubly disgraced, first by being the daughter of Malachi and then by being demoted back to lowerclassman at school.  Akin himself had done it, supposedly for the best of motives.  Stephen suspected the younger man had planned it carefully, ensuring he could knock Penny down a peg or two in a manner no one could really challenge.  It was what Stephen would have done.  Akin might appear to be a genial good-natured child – young adult, now – but he was Carioca’s son.  He’d learnt his father’s lessons well. 

Davys looked up.  “House Aguirre’s Heir Primus is Alana, not Caitlyn,” he said.  “I don’t think Alana will give up her power so readily, even if merging the two families is good in the long run.”

“She may not have a choice,” Andrew said.  “What better dowry could Caitlyn bring than a prospective merger?”

Stephen cleared his throat.  “There’s one other possible candidate,” he said.  “Someone who might – who might – accept our guidance.”

“Really?”  Davys didn’t look impressed.  “Do you think Carioca has a natural-born son?”

“No,” Stephen said.  “I mean Isabella.”

Jeanne choked.  “Isabella?  But she’s a …”

A girl, Stephen finished, inwardly.  Tradition insisted that only men could head aristocratic families and House Rubén, traditional in all things, refused to bend to the modern world.  Jeanne had seen her ambitions curtailed for the same reason as Isabella herself.  Her femininity meant she couldn’t rise to the very top, even though she would have been good in the role.  And are you going to support me now, because it may force the family to discard that tradition for the good of all?

Andrew had the same thought.  “Isabella is a girl,” he said.  “Carioca will laugh at us.”

“And she’s in exile,” Jeanne added.  Her face was so expressionless Stephen knew she was thinking furiously.  “She betrayed the family.”

“She was young,” Stephen countered.

“Isabella is a girl,” Andrew repeated.  “I think you’re overlooking the simple fact that she isn’t eligible to lead … by the ancestors!  She’s in exile!”

“Carioca wants to bring her home,” Davys said, slowly.  “The council voted to send her into exile and leave her there.”

“Yes,” Stephen said.  “And we represent a good chunk of the council.  We could bring her exile to an end.  We can also nominate her as a prospective leader.”

Jeanne made a rude sound.  “And how do you intend to convince the council to break with tradition?”

“Yeah.”  Andrew leaned back in his chair.  “The council rejected Jeanne, even though Jeanne was infinitively superior to Carioca.  She had age and knowledge and practical experience, all of which Isabella lacks.  Why should they accept someone who is even younger than Carioca himself, when he assumed the role?”

“There are two factors in our favour,” Stephen said.  “First, we would be putting her forward as a regent, rather than a patriarch – a matriarch – in her own right.  There is precedent for both regencies, when the new generation is immature, and for women to serve in such roles.  There is also precedent” – he allowed himself a smile – “for a regency to evolve into a de facto patriarchy.  I might refer you to …”

“Yes, but not for a woman,” Jeanne snapped.  The bitterness in her voice was clear.  “Your precedents will not hold up if Akin challenges them, let alone someone else from the next generation.”

“We comprise a sizable fraction of the council,” Stephen reminded them.  “As long as she has our support, no challenge can hope to succeed.”

And that will keep her in line, his thoughts added, coldly.  She’ll do everything in her power to make sure she doesn’t lose our support.

“You cunning bastard.”  Andrew clapped his hands.  “You’ve found a loophole!”

Davys looked uncomfortable.  “You mentioned two factors,” he said.  “What’s the other one?”

Stephen braced himself.  They were ready, he thought.  But what if he was wrong?

“I had a visit recently, from another disgraced member of the family,” he said.  “She told me something that changes everything.”

“Really?”  Davys didn’t look impressed.  “And what was that, pray tell?”

Stephen told them.

Chapter One: Akin

To attend Magus Court, to shadow my father from chamber to chamber, is a great honour.

I told myself that, again and again, as we strode down the long corridor to the innermost chambers.  The centre of the corridor was clear, no one would dare get in our way, but the walls were lined with clients, soldiers, lobbyists, politicians, newspaper reporters and sycophants who wanted to pay us for the privilege of kissing our boots, all talking so loudly the words blurred into a deafening howl.  My father appeared to be ignoring them, but – every so often – he would nod to someone and his secretary, bringing up the rear, would make arrangements for a private interview later in the day.  He’d told me it was a good way to make sure he knew what was really going on, that no one further down the food chain was trying to limit what information reached his ears.  It struck me as uncomfortably paranoid, but I’d learnt a hard lesson from Uncle Malachi.  It was hard not to grimace at the thought.  He might be dead, under mysterious circumstances, but his influence lingered on.

A young reporter, barely out of her teens, caught my eye.  “When’s the wedding?”

I gritted my teeth, schooling my face into a blank mask as I fixed my eyes to my father’s robes.  The golden outfit he wore, topped with an fancy wig, marked him as a man of power and influence, a man who drew supplicants to him like flies to honey.  I’d learnt to detest the hordes of vultures as I started my apprenticeship with my father, the men and women offering anything – anything at all – in exchange for a word in my ear.  A tiny minority had something useful to offer, my father had said.  The trick was telling which ones were worthy of an offer of patronage.

The reporter kept pace with us, somehow.  “Have you agreed on a date …?”

I kept my face blank, somehow.  It had taken months to agree that Cat – and her sisters – would have their coming-out ball on High Summer, at the end of the Season.  Cat had been a little ambient about it, but her sisters had been furious at being kept as children while their peers made the leap to adulthood.  The families were still arguing over when – precisely – Cat and I would be married.  Personally, I just wanted to get it done and dusted.  I wanted to be with her, not forced to meet under chaperonage or snatch a few private minutes from our families.  But no one could hide from the implications of our match.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

A pair of armsmen appeared from nowhere, seemingly literally, and frogmarched her out of the corridor.  I hoped they’d be gentle.  The poor girl probably just wanted a scoop, something that would make her name in a competitive world.  I didn’t really blame her, even though she’d poked a running sore.  Cat and I would be married.  There was too much riding on the wedding for either of us to back out, if either of us wanted to back out.  We just didn’t know when we’d be married.

We reached the end of the corridor and passed through a pair of security wards tuned to our magic.  Boswell – the secretary – remained behind, speaking to a handful of potential clients, while we walked into the elevator and allowed it to carry us upwards.  I relaxed, slightly, as more and more privacy wards fell into place.  Father held himself steady.  He’d told me, more than once, that the wards didn’t guarantee our privacy, even here.  Magus Court was layered with hundreds upon thousands of protective spells, but every sorcerer who fancied himself a player was trying to break them.  Knowledge was power, particularly if one was the only person who knew it.

The door hissed open, revealing a secure chamber.  Alana and Uncle Joaquin – Lord Joaquin Aguirre, her father – were already waiting for us, her father sitting on a comfortable armchair and Alana standing behind him as if she were nothing more than a servant.  She was learning from her father, just like me.  She met my eyes and winked, then lowered her gaze again.  It was hard to believe, sometimes, that she and Cat were siblings.  They were very different.

I studied her, thoughtfully, as I took my place behind my father.  Alana wore a long white robe, very much like mine, although her personal tailor had tightened it around the chest … I was surprised her father hadn’t ordered her to change before they left the manor.  The dress contrasted oddly with her dark face and darker hair, the latter still in braids despite her age.  I was sure she found that more than a little humiliating.  Her friends and many of her cousins had already been through their coming-out, when they were formally acknowledged as adults.  Alana might be her father’s heir, but she couldn’t even speak for herself …

Maybe that’s the point, I thought.  If she messes up now, it can just be blamed on her immaturity and everyone will pretend to believe it.

I shoved the feeling aside as our respective fathers exchanged greetings and got down to work.  They’d been rivals before becoming allies and there were times when I thought they would be more comfortable returning to rivalry, even though it would tear the alliance between our families apart.  I wondered, deep inside, if either of them had their doubts about the future.  They’d gambled everything on a plan to keep the two families allied permanently, but … things were going to change.  The families might never be united, yet …

Alana looked calm and composed as our fathers talked, hashing out issues in private so they could present a united front in public.  It was an impressive act, I had to admit.  She stood at attention, hands clasped behind her back.  If I hadn’t known her so well, I wouldn’t have known she was bored stiff.  Not, of course, that she wasn’t paying attention.  Her eyes were demurely lowered, but I was sure she was listening to every word and filing it away for later consideration.  I told myself I should be doing the same thing.  Father had made it clear he wouldn’t live forever.  There would come a time when I’d have to step into his shoes.  It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  I wasn’t one of the spoilt brats counting the days until my parents died.  I wanted them to live!

“The question is, do we accept her as a representative?”  Father’s voice was very quiet, a sure sign he was talking about something important.  I hastily replayed the conversation in my mind.  “And do we accept she won the vote legitimately?”

Uncle Joaquin frowned.  “It would be very hard to prove she didn’t.  The dockworkers are a very numerous group.  It makes it harder for anyone to rig the elections.”

Including us, I thought, coldly.  In theory, the guilds elected their representatives to Magus Court.  In practice, the guilds were so riddled with aristocratic patronage networks that we had a great deal of say in who got elected to what.  The bigger the group, the harder it is to control.

“And that means she outdid our own picked nominees,” Father said.  “Do we go along with it or do we seek to reject her?”

I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he’d smiled.  “Akin?  What do you think?”

“I think we have to accept the result, unless we have clear proof she cheated,” I said.  I found it hard to believe that Louise Herdsman had cheated, even after the Infernal Devices that had shook the city last month.  She wasn’t the type to cheat, particularly when she knew she had powerful enemies who would do everything in their power to prove she cheated.  “We have to uphold the system or it’ll collapse, taking us down with her.”

“And she’s just one person, with few real connections,” Alana added.  “Let her waste her time playing politics.  It’ll dampen the reformist fire.”

I kept my face impassive.  Louise Herdsman was a merchant’s daughter, hardly the sort of person to impress Alana.  Or Isabella, for that matter.  It was easy to class her as a know-nothing know-it-all, someone who couldn’t even be bothered to dress the part.  And yet, she was a very capable and determined magician in her own right.  Her zeal for social reform had only sharpened, in her last few months at Jude’s.  I wasn’t remotely surprised she’d walked into the trepid reform movement and made it her own.  The real surprise was that she’d managed to win enough dockworkers to her banner to win an election.  And yet …

Clever, I conceded.  She comes out ahead whatever we do.

“She might have some useful ideas,” I said, carefully.  “She really shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Father glanced up at me.  “Do you think she’d work with us?”

I hesitated.  I’d worked with Louise myself, back when we’d taken the Challenge.  She was a hard person to like, with so many rough edges it was easy to see why she had few real friends, but … she wasn’t a hard person to admire.  She had a passion that burned deep within her, a passion I found appealing and terrifying at the same time.  I honestly wasn’t sure how to put that into words.  They’d probably come back to haunt me.  Alana would see to it personally.

“I think she’d be open to discussions,” I said, carefully.  “But she wouldn’t be open to bribery or corruption.”

“Every man has his price.”  Alana didn’t seem impressed.  “And we can bid very high indeed.”

“I doubt it,” I said.  “There are some things money can’t buy.”

Our respective parents tabled the matter, for the moment, and moved on to a different topic.  I forced myself to listen, doing my best to keep my boredom off my face.  Alana seemed as impassive as ever, but I could tell she was bored too.  And she wanted to be her father’s successor.  I wasn’t anything like so keen on the idea.  I didn’t really want to spend my days in Magus Court, holding meetings in smoke-filled backchambers, or dealing with an endless succession of clients and supplicants.  If Isabella hadn’t been disgraced, if women had been allowed to lead the family, I would have stepped aside without hesitation.  Isabella would have been good at it.  Me?  I wasn’t sure I’d be anything more than a placeholder until the true successor arrived.

The thought bothered me more than I dared say, not to my father.  I was looking at nearly two centuries of life, barring accidents or acts of war.  I was going to be spending those years building my position, then securing my position so I could pass it to my son without a major struggle.  I’d seen enough of father’s manoeuvrings to know just how far he’d gone to make sure I could take his place.  His enemies wouldn’t be able to regroup in time to make a challenge when he stepped down …

My father cleared his throat.  “We could do with some coffee,” he said.  “Perhaps you two could go fetch it.”

Alana looked displeased, just for a second.  We might be the juniors, the lowest-ranking people in the room, but … we were aristocrats.  We weren’t servants.  And yet I wasn’t anything like so unhappy.  It was a chance to step out of the chamber and relax, before returning to the political debate.  I wasn’t remotely fooled by the genteel talk.  Our fathers were skirmishing as aggressively as a pair of duellists, testing each other before they moved in for the kill.

I bowed and headed for the door.  Alana followed me.  I could feel her gaze boring into my back.  I was pretty sure she was irked at having to leave, that she thought our fathers would be discussing matters they thought unsuitable for our ears.  There was only one issue my father wouldn’t discuss with me, one issue that he thought better handled by my elders and betters.  And that was the date Cat and I were to be married.

“You defended Louise,” Alana said, as soon as we were alone.  “Do you like her that much?”

“She’s an impressive person,” I said.  I wasn’t blind to the unasked question.  Alana might have feared I had feelings for Louise, just because I’d worked with her and tutored her.  “And she has the courage of her convictions.”

Alana snorted.  “And yet she didn’t spend any time forming alliances with her classmates.”

I stopped and turned to look at her.  “She’s just gotten herself elected to Magus Court,” I said, bluntly.  “And she did it alone, without becoming someone’s client.  She didn’t need an alliance, any more than she needed to submit herself permanently to one of us.  She’s become one of the most important people in the city and she’s no older than you or I.”

“Hah.”  Alana snorted, again.  “She’s nowhere near as powerful as us.”

“You and I inherited our positions,” I reminded her.  I doubted she’d understand.  “Your sisters aren’t interested in power.  I don’t have any brothers.  Neither of us had to compete for our family titles, let alone at a severe and seemingly permanent disadvantage.  Louise, on the other hand, had to fight for everything.  She’s not someone to underestimate.”

Alana walked past me, into the tiny kitchenette.  I knew she didn’t believe me, yet … I had been paying attention to Father’s lessons.  Louise was in a strong position, perhaps stronger than she knew.  There was no way the Great Houses could unite against the Dockworkers Guild, not without cutting their own throats.  It would be very hard, if not impossible, to convince them to recall her, let alone elect one of our clients in her place.  I had a feeling we’d hexed ourselves in the foot.  There’d been so many possible candidates, clients of one family or another, that Louise hadn’t needed an absolute majority to win.  She’d just needed more votes than anyone else.

And she doesn’t even have to do much to keep them happy, I thought.  I was suddenly convinced she knew precisely what she was doing.  As long as she doesn’t make any serious mistakes, they’ll keep voting for her.

I dismissed the thought as I stepped into the kitchenette myself.  It was small, surprisingly compact for Magus Court.  Alana poured water into a jug, muttered a heating spell and settled back to wait.  I found a pair of plates, piled them high with biscuits and placed them both on a tray.  Cat would probably laugh, if she saw me waiting on my father.  I wondered, idly, what Louise would think of it.

Alana cleared her throat.  “You know what they’re discussing?”

I nodded.  “Have you heard anything?”

“Dad’s been hinting we’ll be coming out at the end of the summer,” Alana said.  There was a hint of bitterness in her voice.  She was eighteen and yet she was still legally a child.  I was sure her friends and cronies were carefully not mentioning it in a manner that drew attention to the elephant in the room.  “Have you heard anything?”

“Nothing too specific,” I confessed.  Father had acknowledged me as an adult after I’d completed the Challenge.  I had a feeling he might have waited longer, if I hadn’t proved myself.  “I’ve been told to keep my nose out of the discussions.”

Alana smirked, her dark eyes sparkling with sudden mischief.  “And have you actually obeyed?”

I felt my cheeks heat.  “Father wouldn’t be very pleased if he knew I was spying on him.”

“So, you have.”  Alana’s smirk grew wider.  “What did you hear?”

“Nothing.”  I shook my head in some frustration.  The discussions had taken place on neutral ground.  House Lamplighter perhaps, if they hadn’t been held at Magus Court itself.  “I haven’t heard the matter being discussed, not formally.  Just a lot of stupid chatter from stupid relatives.”

It wasn’t easy to keep the bitterness out of my voice.  House Rubén had been invaded by hundreds of relatives, ranging from my father’s cousins to people who had a very weak tie to the family … all of whom insisted on speaking to me, congratulating me on suceeding my father – even though I hadn’t even done it yet – and trying to convince me to remember them when I came into my own.  The fact the last two points contradicted themselves didn’t seem to bother them.  The only upside, as far as I could tell, was that I was building a list of people I really didn’t want on the family council. 

But I might not be able to keep them out, I thought, curtly.  I hadn’t realised, until he’d explained to me, why Father allowed some of his enemies to keep their seats.  Their positions are just too strong.

Alana tapped the pot, then poured water into the cups.  “I almost forgot,” she said, as she put the milk jug on the tray.  “I have a message for you.”

Somehow, I doubted she’d forgotten anything.  And there was only one person who’d use Alana as a go-between.  “From Cat?”

“She wants to see you.”  Alana’s voice was suddenly serious.  “In the Workshop, as soon as possible.  She burned up a favour to get me to pass the message on.”

I blinked.  Alana and Cat might have been getting on a little better, since their disastrous first decade, but Cat wouldn’t ask her sister for anything unless it was important.  And … it wasn’t the sort of message she’d normally trust to anyone.  Asking me to visit her – alone – could land us both in hot water.   Betrothed or not, we weren’t supposed to be unchaperoned until the wedding. 

“I’ll sneak off after lunch,” I said.  “Cover for me?”

“You’ll owe me,” Alana said.  “And believe me, you’ll pay.”

I nodded as I picked up the tray and carried it back into the meeting chamber.  It was hard not to keep the concern off my face.  Cat had a dozen ways to send me a perfectly legitimate message, including a couple that – probably – wouldn’t go through one or both families first.  If it was that important … I wondered, suddenly, if I should fake an illness and leave early.  Father wouldn’t be pleased, but …

“Thank you,” Father said.  He took the coffee and sipped it.  “Joaquin?”

“We have come to a decision,” Uncle Joaquin said.  He looked at his daughter, his dark face unreadable.  “The High Summer Ball will be held at Aguirre Hall.  It will serve as your formal coming-out party …”

Alana gasped, losing – for once – control of her face.  I swallowed hard, a multitude of feelings racing through me.  I didn’t know what to think.  The wedding date itself might not have been set, but it was only a matter of time.  And then … I stared down at my hands, suddenly apprehensive.  Cat wanted to see me.  Why?

“Thank you, Dad,” Alana said.  She dropped a curtsey that looked completely heartfelt.  “I won’t let you down.”

“I have every faith in you,” Uncle Joaquin said.  “And your siblings.”

Father glanced at me.  “The formal announcement will be made at lunchtime,” he said, quietly.  “Until then, try not to cheer too loudly.”

I grinned.  Cat and I were going to be married!  And … I promised myself, as our fathers discussed the arrangements for the ball, that I was going to see her as soon as possible.  If she wanted me to visit, if she’d gone to some trouble to ensure I got the message quickly, it had to be urgent.  And …

Go see her, before everyone else hears the news, I thought, numbly.  I was pretty sure the word had already gotten out.  Father and Uncle Joaquin wouldn’t have made up their minds on the spur of the moment.  I’d be surprised if the gossip papers weren’t already putting out special editions.  And find out what she wants before it’s too late.

Stuck in Magic 8

4 Jan

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Chapter Eight

The question mocked me as I purchased some food from a roadside stall and forced myself to eat it.  Why should anyone listen to me?  I was no one.  I wasn’t a warlord or a magician or even a wealthy merchant.  Hell, for all I knew, I was missing something.  There were no shortage of horror stories about ignorant do-gooders who’d made things worse because they didn’t really know what was going on.  Sure, buying food staples in bulk can save money in the long run, but only if you have the space to store the food.  What sort of idiot wouldn’t realise that poor people often didn’t have the space to store anything?

A ignorant idiot ignorant of her own ignorance and idiocy, I thought.  My stomach shifted as I chewed a piece of meat … I thought it was meat.  I didn’t want to know what it had been, before it had been killed and tossed in the cooking pot.  But what am I going to do here?

I was terrifyingly aware of my own ignorance.  I’d come to a world where no one gave a damn about the colour of my skin or college degree and yet … I didn’t have the slightest idea how to apply for a job.  Or what was fair pay.  Or what my legal rights were … actually, I was fairly sure I didn’t have any rights.  Damansara didn’t strike me as a place founded on law, order and a shared understanding of the rules.  The citizens had presumably evolved ways to govern themselves, but I didn’t even know who to ask for help.  And who would give me help?  I didn’t know that either.

The marketplace surrounded me as I wandered through the square.  The merchants might be interested in hiring me … it was galling to consider being a shopboy or delivery man after spending years in the army, but it was better than starvation.  I’d known too many people who’d refused to do menial labour, even when it was that or starve.  I knew better than to let myself fall into that mindset.  And yet, I didn’t even know where to begin.  Who’d be interested in hiring me?  I didn’t even know how to ask.

I wandered past a stall piled high with fruits and vegetables, wondering if the stallkeeper would be interested in a spare pair of hands.  I needed somewhere to stay as well as money to earn my keep … I was used to sleeping in uncomfortable places, but I doubted I’d last a night if I tried sleeping in an alleyway.  Shantytowns and homeless encampments tended to be thoroughly unsafe for strangers.  I was lucky I wasn’t a young woman running away from home.  I’d probably find myself being sweet-talked by a pimp, then get put to work turning tricks on the street.  Somehow, I couldn’t see myself being a successful prostitute.  Even Cleo had hesitated to describe me as handsome.

The thought hurt, more than I cared to admit.  I’d loved her.  I loved my boys.  But I’d never see them again and they’d never know what had happened to me.  The army would probably class me as a deserter, as someone who’d driven into the countryside and vanished … I made a face.  They’d never even find the car.  And …

I heard a shout behind me and turned, just in time to see a young boy – he couldn’t be older than fourteen, although it was hard to be sure – running away from a stall as if the hounds of hell were behind him.  He held a loaf of bread in one hand.  The merchant was shouting about thieves … I realised, to my horror, that he’d stolen the bread.  A flash of naked anger ran through me.  I’d known too many would-be shopkeepers ruined because of thieves, their livelihoods destroyed because they couldn’t replenish their stock or … I lunged forward without thinking and tackled him.  He tumbled to the ground, lashing out with surprising strength.  It was hard to get a grip on him.  He twisted and turned in a desperate bid to escape.  I held him down, ducking a wild blow aimed at my face as I caught his arms and pressed them against the ground.  The loaf of bread hit the street and lay still.  I hoped someone wouldn’t try to eat it.  I’d seen animals shitting and pissing on the ground.  There were things on the cobblestones no one wanted in their mouth.

“Got the brat!”  I looked up to see a pair of city guardsmen running towards me.  “Good work!”

The thief twisted underneath me.  One of the guards clapped me on the shoulder, then pushed me off the boy and kicked him hard.  Too hard.  I tensed, suddenly wondering if I’d made a mistake.  The boy was a thief and yet … the other guard caught hold of the lad by his hair and yanked him upright, then searched him roughly.  A set of pouches tumbled to the ground.  I guessed the boy was a pickpocket as well as a thief.  And yet …

I eyed the guardsmen warily as they pocketed the pouches, making sure to keep their hands on the boy.  They looked … it was hard to put the feeling into words.  They didn’t look very professional.  They looked more like thugs than real policemen.  I had the feeling they were the type of guardsmen who’d take bribes, who’d exploit their positions for all they were worth.  I’d met the type, in Afghanistan.  They’d managed to unite entire districts against them.  A shudder ran down my spine.  Who could blame the locals for wanting the policemen dead?

“You’ll come with us,” the lead guard said.  I was certain it wasn’t a request.  “Come.”

I hesitated.  They were muscular, but I didn’t think they knew how to use it.  I could take them both, even without the gun.  And yet … I considered running, on the assumption I could simply outrun them, but where would I go?  The boy I’d caught moaned in pain as one of the guardsmen kicked his ankle, hobbling him.  I sighed and fell into step beside them.  It was hard not to miss the looks people were giving me.  They probably felt I’d done the wrong thing.  I was starting to feel the same way too.

The crowds parted as we walked down the streets.  I couldn’t help noticing how many people turned away from the guardsmen, as if they were fearful of attracting their attention.  I’d seen that before too, in places where honest policemen met unpleasant ends and government cared more for appearance than reality.  I wasn’t sure this place was advanced enough to care about appearance, but … I considered, again and again, simply running for my life.  And yet, it was pointless?  Where the hell would I go?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have shot those guys, I thought, morbidly.  Perhaps I should have asked Jasmine to take me …

The boy let out a moan as a small fortress came into view.  I stared in astonishment.  The guardhouse was a blocky structure that looked designed to withstand a siege, surrounded by a wall topped with iron spikes.  A pair of guardsmen stood outside the gates, their hands resting on their swords.  The street beyond was surprisingly quiet.  I guessed no one wanted to walk past the guardhouse for fear they’d be dragged inside and tortured.  My escorts spoke to the gatekeepers, then marched through the gate and into the building.  The air inside was surprisingly cold.  I shivered, helplessly.  The thief was passed to a pair of guardsmen and I was shown to a stone bench.  I shrugged, sat and waited.  It wasn’t as if I had anything else to do.

I forced myself to wait for what felt like hours.  Guardsmen – all men, I noted – came and went with astonishing regularity.  They wore the same uniform – a white tunic with a black belt and sash – but otherwise they were strikingly dissimilar.  Some were old, some were young; their skins ranged from white to black and everything in between.  Some of them looked as if they could get into Special Forces without even trying, others were weirdly acrofatic to the point I couldn’t help wondering if they’d been cursed.  One of the weirder looking men reminded me of Obelix.  They chatted to each other like …

Silence fell.  I looked up to see a middle-aged man making his way towards me.  He wore the same white tunic, but a golden – or at least gold-coloured – sash.  I would have known he was in charge even without it, from the way the rest of the guardsmen deferred to him.  His face was rough, covered with unkempt stubble; his smile was missing several teeth; his piggish eyes showed a glint of intelligence unleavened by humanity.  I was careful not to meet his eyes as he marched closer.  I had the feeling he’d take it as a challenge.

He looked me up and down, his expression managing to suggest he’d seen more impressive people sleeping rough on the streets.  I did my best to remain calm, yet ready to act.  I’d met my share of unfit commanding officers, but the newcomer managed to be worse.  He looked the type to explode at a moment’s notice, the type who could be set off by anyone or anything.  I braced myself, unsure if I’d be rewarded or punished.  It was quite possible I’d made a serious mistake and put my neck in the noose.

“So,” the newcomer said.  He had no indoor voice.  He sounded like a sea captain trying to make himself heard in a storm.  “Who are you?”

“Elliot, sir,” I said.

“I am Captain Alder, City Guard,” the man thundered.  He turned away.  “Come.”

I stood and followed him through a twisting maze of corridors.  The building felt old, as if it had been passed down from generation to generation of guardsmen.  I suspected the interior had been designed to confuse intruders as much as anything else, although there was no way to be sure.  Captain Alder marched onwards without so much as slowing down, forcing everyone else to get the hell out if his way.  I wasn’t even sure he was looking where he was going.  It looked as if he didn’t have to.  I saw men jumping out of his way as if they were about to be run down by a charging elephant.

My lips quirked.  I hastily smoothed them into a neutral expression as Captain Alder led me into a small room.  Another man – tall, thin, bald and strikingly pale – stood to greet us.  He nodded to Captain Alder, then looked at me.  I felt an odd little tingle as his eyes met mine for a second.  Magic?  The man was dressed in black.  Jasmine had told me that magicians were the only people allowed to wear black clothes. 

Crap, I thought.  I didn’t have the slightest idea what this man could do, but … there was something in Captain Alder’s posture that suggested the magician was dangerous.  It was strange, very worrying.  I’d known boys who were so insane, so willing to do anything to hurt someone even if it meant getting hurt themselves, that they’d scared even grown men.  What now?

“Sit,” Captain Alder ordered.  He pointed to a chair.  “Why did you help my men?”

I felt a strange compulsion to answer – and answer truthfully.  It was disconcerting to feel my lips threatening to move of their own accord, to speak words that I didn’t quite want to speak.  I tried to shape a lie, it refused even to form.  I cursed under my breath, wondering if I should shoot the pair of them and then try to escape.  Magic … who knew what the sorcerer could do to defend himself?  They had guns.  It wasn’t impossible they knew how to protect themselves too.

“I don’t like thieves,” I said, finally.  It was true.  It was also a test of just how much the spell would allow me to do.  I could say anything I liked, as long as it was true.  I’d just have to be careful my answers matched the questions.  I was pretty sure they had ways of making me talk.  “They ruin lives and businesses.”

“Good.”  Captain Alder seemed oddly amused by my answer.  “You’re new to the city, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  I tried to tell a half-truth, to say I’d been in the city before, but I couldn’t force myself to shape the words.  “I’ve only just arrived.”

“I see,” Captain Alder said.  “Where do you come from?”

I tensed.  They might not believe the whole truth, spell or no spell.  And if they did … I shuddered, inwardly.  I wasn’t sure what would be worse.  If they believed me … I wondered what they’d do.  Laugh at me?  Enslave me?  Sell me to someone who could put my knowledge to work?  Or … I didn’t want to know.

“I was brought from a distant land,” I said, carefully.  “I’ve been travelling ever since.”

The sorcerer leaned forward.  “You have a translation spell on you,” he said.  “Why don’t you speak the common tongue?”

“I was never taught how to speak it,” I said.  “I’m trying to learn.”

Captain Alder studied me for a long moment.  “Did you run away from a farm?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“Good,” Captain Alder said.  He seemed pleased by my answer.  It took me a moment to realise he’d have had to return a runaway to his former master.  “What are you doing in the city?”

“Looking for a job,” I said.  “It isn’t going very well.”

Captain Alder laughed.  “What sort of job do you want?”

“Something that pays and lets me have a place to sleep,” I said.  There were several other answers, but I didn’t want to get into them.  I needed to learn how the city really worked – and master the common tongue – before I tried anything more complex.  “I’m not that picky.”

Captain Alder and the sorcerer exchanged glances.  “Last question,” Captain Alder said.  “Do you want to join the guard?”

I blinked in surprise, then kicked myself.  There was no reason to believe the locals vetted the guardsmen very thoroughly, if at all.  Captain Alder had confirmed that I was new to the city and in desperate need of a job and … he didn’t need to know anything else.  Hell, he might see my lack of anywhere else to go as a positive advantage.  Besides, I might just have made myself unpopular by catching the thief.  The locals probably didn’t like thieves, but I’d bet my life they hated the City Guard even worse.  I might discover the locals didn’t feel inclined to help me at all.

“It would be a good job,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that was true.  The spell should have kept me from lying, but … what if I didn’t know I was lying?  I found it hard to believe the spell could determine absolute truth or … I shook my head.  There would be time to think about the implications later.  I needed to learn the common tongue, then start studying.  “I would be interested.”

“Good.”  Captain Alder glanced at the sorcerer.  “Thunder, I’ll see you later.”

The sorcerer – I tried not to snicker at the name – stood and left the room.  I shaped a lie in my mouth, just to test if the spell was still working.  The lie seemed ready to leave my lips.  I didn’t dare say it out loud as Captain Alder stood and stared down at me.  I was taller than him, I thought, but he had a presence that dominated the room.  It was hard to escape the sense I was far too close to a wild animal, one that might turn on me at any moment.  I wasn’t sure what I’d managed to get myself into, this time.  Working as a guardsman might just land me in worse trouble.

“Kneel,” Captain Alder ordered.  “Have you ever sworn fealty before?”

I shook my head.  I’d taken the oath, when I’d joined the army, but I had a feeling Captain Alder meant something different.  It was disturbing to kneel, let alone place my hands in his and listen to a string of words that bore no resemblance to anything I’d heard back home, even in period dramas.  There was no mention of truth, justice or even law and order.  Instead, I was told to obey orders from my superiors and little else.  Back home, I’d been told policemen spent years training for the role.  Here … the ability to wield a club or a whip was sufficient.  I suspected there was no such thing as a written law code.

“Welcome.”  Captain Alder relaxed, slightly, when he’d finished reciting the oath.  He hadn’t asked me to recite it back to him, not even the important parts.  “I’ll have you outfitted at once.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask questions so quickly – Captain Alder would probably react badly – but I owed it to my conscience to take some risks.  “Sir … the boy I caught … what will happen to him?”

“The street rat?”  Captain Alder shrugged, as if the matter was of no importance.  “He’ll be lamed, probably.  Or sold into slavery.  There are lots of people who’ll pay good money for a young worker …”

I felt my gorge rise.  I’d caught the boy and condemned him to … I swallowed hard, cursing myself savagely.  What the hell had I done?  This wasn’t America.  This was … this was somewhere completely different.  And I might have made a dreadful mistake.

Learn the rules, I told myself, savagely.  There was nothing I could do to save the boy.  Not now.  And then you can figure out how to make things better.