The Royal Sorceress–Snippet One

15 Nov

Chapter One

“Are you paying attention to me?”

Lady Gwendolyn Crichton looked up at her tutor, deliberately allowing a languid expression to cross her face. Henry Morrison was the latest of the tutors her mother had selected for her, a pimply-faced youth who had won a scholarship to Oxford – a scholarship that had paid for lessons and lodging, but very little else. His desperation to make ends meet – and to afford to match the lifestyle of his richer contemporaries – had ensured that he’d accepted the position without asking too many questions. He was the seventeenth tutor Gwen had endured since coming into her powers and, if she had anything to say about it, he wouldn’t be the last.

“I am listening carefully,” she assured him, in the airy voice that irritated her father and drove her mother into fits of rage. Poor Morrison was no match for her. “Pray, continue. I am agog.”

Morrison gave her a long look and then turned back to his book. Gwen sighed inwardly. It was a shame he wasn’t more handsome, or she would have flirted with him in the certain knowledge that it would have impelled her mother to dismiss him at once. But there were some things she couldn’t bring herself to do, even if the rewards seemed likely to be vast. She would just have to find another way of convincing her mother to find another tutor. It wouldn’t be the first time, after all.

“As we covered yesterday,” Morrison said, “the American rebels made a serious tactical error when they allowed their ragtag army to be cornered near New York. They were unaware of the Talkers assigned to General Howe’s army, which allowed him to coordinate his activities on a scale the Americans could not begin to comprehend. The traitor Washington’s army was trapped and forced to surrender, bringing the period of outright warfare in the Americas to an end.”

Gwen smiled and pretended to listen. There was only one subject she wanted to study and Morrison, whatever his other qualities, was not permitted to teach it. Indeed, as far as she could tell, he had no magic whatsoever. He certainly didn’t know much about the history of magic, or how it had flourished since the legendary Professor Cavendish had first codified its principles and put it to work in the service of George III. Women, as a general rule, were not expected to study magic, let alone apply it. As the eldest daughter of Lord Rudolph, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Gwen’s course had been set a long time before she’d grown into maturity. She would learn how to be a respectable aristocratic housewife, marry a man her parents chose for her and bear his children. No one had anticipated that Gwen would develop magic, or that the rumours surrounding her would make it impossible to find a proper suitor. At seventeen years old, she knew that she should already be married.

She ran a hand through her long golden hair, her lips thinning into a frown. She didn’t want a husband, or a family; she wanted to learn about magic. But it was not a career path for a respectable young woman, or so she had been told. There was no way that her parents would allow her to set out on her own path. They wanted her to serve them by marrying someone who could help her father’s career, or – failing that – to die an old maid. Gwen couldn’t expect anything better from life, magic or no magic. For a highly intelligent young woman, it promised to be a fate worse than death.

Morrison cleared his throat again. “Please pay attention to me, Lady Gwen,” he said. “I still have to cover the aftermath of the rebellion in the colonies.”

“I am paying attention to you,” Gwen said. She gave him a smile that should have chilled his blood. “You’re very…interesting to watch.”

“I just said that you had a leg growing out of your chest,” Morrison said, with some irritation.

“I thought you were being metaphorical,” Gwen said. Her smile widened, to the point where Morrison looked away, unable to meet her gaze. There was a reason Gwen hadn’t been allowed to go to school, even the expensive finishing schools that turned young ladies brains into mush. Her father knew better than to turn her loose on other young ladies, or tutors who couldn’t devote all of their time to her. “It was an interesting parable to the case of the Americans…”

“It was not,” Morrison said, hotly. He was only a year or two older than her, but he was already schooled in not allowing his betters to irritate him. It was just a shame that he hadn’t met anyone like Gwen before. “You’re not paying attention to me.”

Gwen sighed inwardly and drew on her powers. Her skin seemed to glow with bright light, before flames appeared around her, illuminating her body. Morrison stumbled backwards in shock, one hand reaching for the decanter of water before he caught himself. To someone utterly unfamiliar with magic, it would have looked if Gwen had spontaneously burst into flames. The heat would scorch the chair, the table and Morrison himself if he got too close.

He stared at her for a long moment, and then almost ran out of the door. Gwen watched him go, slowly pulling the magic back inside herself. It wasn’t his fault, she told herself, even though part of her felt a guilty thrill at how she’d scared him half to death. He was just her mother’s tool in the endless battle to turn Gwen into a proper young lady, one who could make her mother proud. But a life spent as the wife and helpmeet of a suitably aristocratic young man was Gwen’s worst nightmare.

She pulled herself to her feet and headed over to the desk. Morrison had left his books behind him and she opened one of them at random. At least he hadn’t been that bad a history teacher. History was also not a subject for young ladies, but her mother had reluctantly agreed to allow her to study it in exchange for an hour’s practice with the harp every day. Music was the thing in High Society these days and a young woman who could play was assured of finding a husband, or so Lady Mary believed. Gwen doubted that anyone could play the harp well enough for a prospective husband to overlook Gwen’s other failings.

The book was written in dull tones, somehow sucking the excitement out of the Anglo-Spanish War of 1799, yet Gwen was midway through a description of the Battle of Cuba when the door burst open and Lady Mary stormed into the room. Gwen’s mother had the same blonde hair as her daughter, but where Gwen was slim her mother was alarmingly fat and energetic. Lady Mary had always said that she’d married beneath herself, even if Lord Rudolph had been an up and coming politician in government. The Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs wasn’t exactly a powerless post.

“Gwen,” her mother snapped. “What did you do to poor Henry?”

Gwen sighed inwardly. Her mother always bought out the worst in her. “I was bored, mother,” she said, sardonically. “His lessons were driving me insane.”

“And you will drive me insane,” her mother snapped back at her. “How do you think you will get a good husband if you keep doing…that?”

“Most of the men you have introduced me to are cads of the first order,” Gwen said, imitating the tone her brother had used during his teenage years. Like most aristocratic men, he’d spent them gambling, drinking and whoring – although Gwen wasn’t supposed to know about the whoring. At least her brother knew better than to try to lord it over her, no matter what the Church said about the duties of a sister to a brother. “I would sooner marry a muckraker than any of those weak-chinned vagabonds with titles.”

Her mother purpled. “And you’d be lucky if you married anyone,” she said, tartly. “It is not right, in a respectable society, for a woman to practice magic.”

Gwen’s eyes flashed and she felt the familiar pain behind her eyes, the sense that her magic was flaring up and demanding an outlet. She clamped down on it hard. Her father might be able to tolerate her scaring the staff, but losing control and harming – or killing – her mother would be disastrous. His reputation would be utterly destroyed. If she’d had proper training, perhaps it would be easier to control her magic. Young male magicians didn’t burn down houses by accident; they learned how to do it on purpose.

“I have no wish, my darling mother, to marry anyone,” she said, flatly. “You may as well stop trying to shove me into the arms of any passing nobleman. I will not marry him.”

Lady Mary glared down at her daughter. “You seem to be unaware of your place in society,” she said. “You were born into great wealth and power. Your position means…”

“That I have to do what I am told,” Gwen said, dryly. Her mother had said the same thing almost every day, ever since the day Gwen’s magic had first flared to life. She’d been nine years old at the time, verging on womanhood. Her life had turned upside down that day and would never be the same again. “You would prefer me to be like Lady Cecelia?”

“She does do honour to her parents,” Lady Mary pointed out.

“Cecelia is the most boring person in the world,” Gwen said. “All she talks about are horses and men, mainly the horses. Her parents have bought her over a hundred horses and a small staff to take care of them. And she can talk about nothing else!”

Her mother scowled. “It is more womanlike to care about horses than…”

There was a knock on the door and Lady Mary stopped in mid-sentence. The door opened, revealing a maid, one of the younger ones. Like most of the servants in Crichton House, she had nowhere else to go. Gwen’s reputation drove away servants who found employment elsewhere – but then, what could one expect from the lower classes? They expected her to wear black and cackle to herself while drowning eggshells in a caldron, or having midnight orgies with the devil and his servants. In some ways, Gwen envied the servants. They might face Lady Mary’s temper or the back of her hand, if they displeased her, but at least they weren’t suffocated under her towering ambitions.

“Begging your pardon, Lady Mary, Lady Gwen, but Lord Randolph requests the pleasure of Lady Mary’s company in his study,” the maid said. She was short, with curly brown hair and eyes that refused to look up from the ground. Gwen terrified her. “He said it was urgent.”

“You’ve probably upset Henry so much he’s given in his notice,” Lady Mary said. Her voice could have cut through glass. “Go see what your father wants, child. I’ll start looking for a new tutor.”

Gwen nodded and left the room, heading down the long corridor to her father’s side of the house. She rarely entered his study; if only because he flew into a rage at the slightest hint that anyone had tampered with his papers. Gwen had spent many happy hours in the library as a child, but now that she wanted more advanced books to read – particularly books on magic – her father had refused to buy them for her. And, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed any resources of her own. Whatever she inherited from her parents would go to her husband.

She stopped outside her father’s door and hesitated. Her father was a gentle man, outside his work, but she knew that he was growing increasingly exasperated with her. God alone knew what he would say; he might even decide to marry her off to someone, with or without her consent. Or perhaps he would do worse, if there was anything worse. Shaking her head, she lifted her hand and knocked twice on the hard wooden door. A moment later, her father’s voice bellowed for her to come in.

Her father’s study was a cosy room with a roaring fire, several shelves of books and a number of comfortable chairs. He wasn’t alone, she realised in shock, as she recognised Lord Mycroft, one of her father’s peers at work. He was an immensely fat man with sharp, intelligent eyes, wearing a suit that had to be specially made for him. Beside him, another man sat, wearing a black cape that covered his suit and holding a top hat in one hand. He looked up at her as Gwen hastily bobbled a curtsey to the men and his blue eyes seemed to peer right into her very soul. His pinched face and greying hair suggested that he was old enough to be her grandfather; for a moment, Gwen wondered if she was about to be introduced to her new husband. The thought was absurd, she told herself firmly. Her father wouldn’t have invited Lord Mycroft to anything that wasn’t strictly government-related. It was strange enough seeing him outside his normal routine of office, his club and home.

Lord Randolph was as thin as his wife was fat, a hard-worker who had made himself rich and earned a peerage through careful speculation in the British shipping industry. Her father had pioneered the use of airships to connect Britain with Europe, Russia and even the Ottoman Empire, a trade that had brought the British Empire closer together. Lady Mary had the blood to ensure that her son rose to the very highest levels of society. It had been a match made in heaven.

“Gwen,” her father said. He didn’t seem annoyed with her, which suggested that Morrison hadn’t managed to complain to her father or hand in his notice. Perhaps he was just having a cup of tea with the cook. Tea was good to settle one’s nerves. “You know Lord Mycroft, of course” – Gwen nodded – “and this is Master Thomas, the Royal Sorcerer.”

Gwen stared at him. She had had no formal training in magic, and she’d had to learn by herself, but even she had heard of the Royal Sorcerer. The post belonged to the strongest magician of unimpeachable loyalty to the Crown and the British Empire. Only two magicians had ever held the post, if she recalled correctly. They’d both been men, of course.

“Charmed,” Master Thomas said. He took Gwen’s hand – Gwen fancied there was a tingle of magic as his hand touched hers – and raised it to his lips, kissing the air just above her bare skin. “I have wanted to meet you for quite some time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Gwen stumbled. She rarely met anyone who had impressed her on first glance, even King George IV. The Royal Sorcerer had wanted to meet her? He could have visited at any time and Lady Mary would have been more than happy to play chaperone. “The pleasure is mine.”

Lord Mycroft cleared his throat loudly. “The Empire has something of a problem, Lady Gwen,” he said. His voice was sharp, as penetrating as his blue eyes. Lord Mycroft was a genius, a man who had made his own place in government. He had no discernable vices, or indeed any interests at all outside making the government run smoothly. “Our monopoly on magic has slipped over the past two decades.”

Gwen nodded, without speaking. The French and Spanish had originally persecuted the magicians who had appeared within their borders, even though magic had given the British Empire some of its most stunning victories. It was too much to hope that the Kings and Emperors of Europe – or Russia, or the Ottomans – would not eventually accept and even condone magic practiced in their name. Britain might have ruled a vast empire, but magicians seemed to appear almost at random. A slip in the magical monopoly would be disastrous. At the very least, any war with the French or Spanish would be fought on even terms.

“It was originally hoped that a new Master Magician would appear who could take Master Thomas’s place when he retired,” Lord Mycroft continued. “At first, we had high hopes for one young magician who entered the service of the Crown, but matters came to a bad end. Finding people with the required…qualifications is not easy, and of course not all of them are suitable for the most sensitive post in the country. Master Thomas has convinced us that we must look outside the traditional boundaries for recruitment.”

“Lady Gwen,” Master Thomas said. “We first became aware of your magic during that…unfortunate incident when you were barely nine years old. Your parents were contacted by the Royal College and asked to keep an eye on any further development of magical potential. It was seriously considered to offer you a chance to train with us, but various other events prevented us from making a formal offer until now.”

His sharp eyes met hers. “I need an apprentice,” he said, flatly. “Would you be interested in serving your country as the next Royal Sorcerer?”

“Royal Sorceress,” Lord Mycroft corrected.

“I…” Gwen broke off, astonished. She hadn’t dared hope that they would make an offer of training, let alone offer her a post in government. If she succeeded Master Thomas, she would be the most powerful woman in Britain since Elizabeth I. And there had been people who had whispered that Queen Elizabeth had been a witch, although they hadn’t dared whisper it very loudly. “I would be honoured.”

Automatically, she glanced over at her father. Lord Rudolph wouldn’t like the idea, she was sure, but if Lord Mycroft was involved then the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, would have a hand in it somewhere. If he refused to allow Gwen to apprentice herself to the Royal Sorcerer, his career would hit a brick wall and he knew it. Lady Mary would not be charmed with the idea of her daughter leaving home as an apprentice, rather than a wife, but what could she do?

“I have provisionally granted my consent,” her father said. His voice was under tight control, but Gwen was sure that she detected a hint of…concern. Lady Mary was not going to like it, not even slightly. On the other hand, Gwen would be mixing with blue-blooded aristocratic magicians. She might find a much better match among their set. “Should you refuse, of course…?”

Gwen smiled. Her father loved her, despite everything. He hadn’t even taken a cane or his belt to her when she sent tutor after tutor fleeing in horror. And he wouldn’t have allowed Lady Mary to marry her off to a man she detested.

“I won’t lie to you, Lady Gwen,” Master Thomas said, quietly. “The position is difficult and very dangerous. You will be pressed to the limit; you’ll have to learn magic quicker than anyone else your age. We wouldn’t offer you the chance to learn if we didn’t think that you were capable of it, but we will understand if you reject the offer.”

Gwen didn’t hesitate. “I would be honoured,” she said. It was everything she had ever dared to dream of, when she allowed herself to consider a life without her social obligations. “Thank you, sir, thank you.”

She found herself dancing out of the room, leaving the adults behind to talk through the details of her apprenticeship. Her mother was waiting outside, looking angry enough to curdle milk. Perhaps she had some way of listening to her father’s meetings, or perhaps she had merely heard from the Butler who had come to visit.

Gwen jumped in before her mother could say anything. “Guess what, mother,” she said. “I’m going to be the Royal Sorceress!”

Her mother fainted dead away.

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