The Great Game (The Royal Sorceress 2)–Snippet

8 Oct

Chapter One

“It’s a shame you can’t hide your chin,” Olivia said, as Gwen studied her own reflection in the mirror. “Without it, you’d fool even a sharp-eye.”

Gwen snorted. Her adopted daughter had grown up on the streets. Physically, she was somewhere around ten years old – it was impossible to be sure – but mentally she was well over forty. Children grew up quickly on the streets and those unlucky enough to be born female tended to suffer more than most. Gwen had railed against her own upbringing, but she’d been lucky – very lucky – compared to Olivia. A few more years and she would no longer have been able to pass for a boy.

“True,” she agreed. “But I might not be able to fool a Sensitive.”

She studied herself thoughtfully. The black jacket and white shirt she wore – the very latest in male fashion – had been carefully designed to hide the swell of her breasts, while the top hat disguised her short blonde hair. She’d had to cut it short while she’d been training under Master Thomas, but she’d kept it short even after she’d succeeded him as Royal Sorceress. It was short enough to pass for a slightly-effeminate male hairstyle, or so she hoped. Elaborate wigs, which would have hidden everything, were currently out of fashion. Even her mother, who would have fainted if she’d realised that Gwen was dressing up as a man, hadn’t been able to see when wearing wigs would be fashionable once again.

Most importantly of all, she looked nothing like Lady Gwen Crichton, Royal Sorceress.

“You’ll certainly fool those toffs you’re going to see,” Olivia assured her, with the certainty of one who knew. “That lot never look very closely at someone wearing the right clothes. I know conmen who profited simply by dressing the part.”

Gwen took one final look in the mirror and then turned, picking up the cane that had been passed down to her from Master Thomas. The elderly magician had left her almost everything he’d owned, including money, property and a set of notebooks that were written in a scrawled hand that was almost impossible to decipher. Looking down at it, Gwen felt herself feeling the same ambience she always felt towards the memory of her mentor. Master Thomas had plucked her from her boring life and trained her as a sorceress – and she would always be grateful – but he’d also been responsible for unleashing a nightmare on London to defeat the Swing. Gwen was one of the very few people who knew the truth, even though it was something she would have preferred to forget.

There was a knock at the door. “Begging your pardon, My Lady, but Inspector Jude is downstairs,” the maid said. “He awaits your pleasure.”

Gwen nodded to Olivia and walked to the door. Cavendish Hall was massive, with several entrances that allowed her to leave unseen. She might have been the Royal Sorceress, with the formal power to deal with all legal and military matters involving magic, but the remainder of the Sorcerers Corps was unsure of how to deal with her. If they’d had another Master Magician, Gwen knew, she would have been expected to stand aside for him. But they didn’t. Some of the traditionalists were even making noises about appointing a committee of magicians to take Master Thomas’s place. Only the newcomers supported her without reservation.

Inspector Jude stepped out of the carriage and nodded politely to Gwen. Like her, he’d dressed up in the garments of a young nobleman, one of the many who were born and bred outside London and gravitated to the capital city when they came of age. She had to admit that he wore the clothes better than her, complete with a hint of stubble that gave him a daringly rakish look. No one would have taken him for a Bow Street Runner, at least not on first sight.

“They’re definitely having a meeting tonight,” he said, as she climbed into the carriage and sat down. “We saw the Worshipful Master heading for the hall barely an hour ago.”

“Good,” Gwen said, tightly. She always felt nervous before walking into trouble, even though she was fine once the trouble actually began. “Let’s hope that it isn’t just another false alarm.”

The Worshipful Order of Ancient Wisdom had seemed, at first, like just another craze spreading through legions of aristocratic men who refused to do anything useful with their lives. Most of them were second or third sons who wouldn’t inherit either land or property, leaving them living in considerable luxury without any real goals in life. Those who had the inclination joined the army, or the navy, or even the Colonial Service. The remainder just idled around London, enjoying an endless series of parties, hunts and other diversions. It wouldn’t be the first time that they’d started trying to play around with magic.

But there were rumours about the Worshipful Order, disturbing rumours, and it was Gwen’s task to investigate. They’d become more blatant in the six months since the Swing, since Master Thomas had died, as if they didn’t expect Gwen to hold them to account. She’d known that they would have to do something the moment she’d read the file. But punishing young aristocrats required a far higher level of proof than punishing common people.

The carriage rattled noisily as it crossed the bridge and headed into Pall Mall. Once, it had been the most expensive part of London, but that had been before the Swing, before rebels had held the capital city long enough to destroy many of the hated symbols of wealth. Now, several dozen buildings were being rebuilt, yet the richer part of the population had started to gravitate outside the city. Gwen’s brother had informed her that flats in Pall Mall were actually going surprisingly cheaply these days.

Inspector Jude didn’t bother with small talk as the carriage turned the corner and headed down towards the Worshipful Order’s hall. Gwen felt her stomach clench as she checked both the cane – which concealed a sword – and the hidden revolver she carried in her jacket. There would be policemen, and a Talker, waiting near the building, but she’d had enough experience by now to know how quickly a situation could get out of hand.

“Here we are, My Lord,” Inspector Jude said. “Remember to swagger as you jump out of the carriage.”

Gwen smiled as the carriage lurched to a halt, a moment before one of the doormen opened the door and waited for the occupants to step outside. She jumped down, silently relieved that she no longer had to wear skirts at all, no matter how scandalous her mother and her friends found it, and strode up to the door with all the confidence she could muster. Lord McAlister, her alter ego, wouldn’t allow anything to stand in her path. Gwen kept walking and the doormen simply melted away. They knew that the Worshipful Master loved inviting the other aristocrats to his little coven. Anyone who knew about it, they assumed, had been invited. Gwen had no intention of correcting them just yet.

“Ah, Laird McAlister,” the Worshipful Master said. Gwen braced herself as his gaze flickered over her, but he looked away without seeing anything suspicious. The smell of brandy suggested that he’d been fortifying himself before the meeting actually began, unsurprisingly. Some of the party set could drink all night and never notice any ill-effects in the morning. “Welcome, welcome; please, take a place in the hall.”

Gwen nodded and headed into the main room. It had been heavily altered to suit the Order’s needs, complete with two stone tables in the centre of the room, one much larger than the other, and five heavy chandeliers of lights hanging high overhead. They spun slowly, casting odd shadows over the spectators – and the robed members of the Order. Apart from the Worshipful Master himself, they all wore masks to conceal their identities. It was another sign that they were pushing the limits, even for men with fine aristocratic families. They really didn’t want to be caught.

The room filled up slowly. As Gwen had expected, there were twelve members of the Order openly decked out in their ropes, and around forty unrobed men who seemed to be nothing more than spectators, all instantly recognisable to someone who had grown up in the aristocracy. The unrobed men were drinking heavily, served by maids who walked from person to person carrying glasses and bottles while doing their best to avoid groping fingers. There didn’t seem to be any aristocratic women in the room, for which Gwen was grateful, knowing that one of them might have been able to see through her disguise. Besides, aristocratic women were prone to a different sort of silliness than the men.

“Welcome, one and all,” the Worshipful Master said. The doors slammed closed with a heavy thud. “Today, we will crack open the secrets that lead to magic and invest ourselves with the power of sorcerers!”

He produced a book and placed it down on the smaller table. Gwen recognised it at once and had to fight to keep her face calm. The volume, written by a mad Arab, was well known in the occult world, but it was all nonsense. Certainly, none of the spells within the volume had worked when the Royal College had tried them, back during the early days of magic. And none of the known forms of magic had been listed in the book.

“We shall summon an entity from the ninth plane of hell,” the Worshipful Master said. He certainly sounded as though he believed what he was saying, although Olivia had once told Gwen that sounding sincere and honest was a vital requirement for being a conman. “To prepare the room, we will chant a summoning rite. Join us, once you pick up the words.”

He clicked his fingers, and then started to chant in a language Gwen didn’t recognise. A moment later, the other brothers joined in, creating a sonorous, almost hypnotic effect. It was nonsense – magic simply didn’t work that way, as Gwen knew better than anyone – and yet it was captivating. The rhythms were easy to learn and follow; one by one, the audience slowly joined in with the brothers. She exchanged a brief look with Inspector Jude and started to mutter the words herself, wondering which language they were using. Or maybe the Worshipful Master had made them up. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a few dozen nonsense syllables and recite them with apparent sincerity.

The chant seemed to change once everyone had picked up the words. Gwen listened as the Worshipful Master added his own words, his voice echoing out over the background, while the brothers kept repeating the same mantras. He would have made a good singer, she considered, if he’d been able to go on stage, but it would have been a major scandal. It wouldn’t do for the scion of an aristocratic family to stand up and sing like a common music hall jockey.

Finally, a bell rang and the Worshipful Master fell silent. The chant slowly died away, leaving them standing silently in the midst of the room.

“We have been heard,” the Worshipful Master said. “He hears us. He is coming.”

A dull thump echoed through the hall. Despite herself, Gwen tensed. There was so much they didn’t know about magic; it might just be possible that the Worshipful Master and his Order had stumbled into something new. But all of her instincts told her otherwise, despite the shiver running down her spine as another thump shook the building. And then a door opened at the far end of the room and two more brothers, robed and masked, walked in, carrying a girl between their shoulders. She was naked, but didn’t seem aware of it. One look and Gwen knew that she had been drugged. The dull expression in her eyes was proof of that.

“We will offer this life to the dark one,” the Worshipful Master said quietly, as the Brothers helped the girl onto the larger stone table. “She will die and we will be rewarded with power beyond imagination.”

Gwen glanced at Inspector Jude, who nodded, one hand reaching into his jacket for his concealed revolver. Nodding back, she closed her eyes and sent a single thought to the Talker outside the building. Come.

“With this blade,” the Worshipful Master said, “we will send her to the afterlife and…”

Gwen stepped forward and reached out with her magic, yanking the knife out of the Worshipful Master’s hand. He stared at it, and then at Gwen, his face twisted with disbelief and shock. Gwen caught the knife in one hand – one glance at it told her that it came from John Wells, a well-known fake magician – and slammed it to the floor. It shattered into a spray of stone fragments.

“You are all under arrest,” she said, drawing on her magic to illuminate her form. They’d see through her disguise now, so she pushed as much Charm into her voice as she could. “Sit down and wait quietly until the police get here.”

Some of the aristocrats, too weak-minded or stupid to shake of the Charm, complied at once. The others, already panicking, kept running, heading for the doors that led to the outside world and freedom. None of them could afford to be caught. A handful produced weapons and hesitated, unsure if they should be pointing them at Gwen or at the Worshipful Master. Gwen had no doubt that they were wondering if they could convince their families that they were actually spying for the government…

The Worshipful Master snarled and produced another knife, throwing it at Gwen with lethal force. Gwen caught it effortlessly and threw it back, angling it right between his legs. He let out a yelp as the knife sliced through his robes and fell over backwards, just as two other bystanders opened fire on Gwen. The bullets bounced off her shields and ricocheted around the hall. One of the Charmed aristocrats on the floor let out a yell as a bullet grazed his shoulder.

“You are under arrest,” Gwen repeated, as Inspector Jude produced a pair of handcuffs and cuffed the Worshipful Master. Down below, policemen were flooding into the building, rounding up everyone inside. No doubt most of them would claim to have nothing to do with the Order; some of them might even be telling the truth. But Gwen found that rather unlikely. “Tell me; just what did you expect would happen when you killed the poor girl?”

The Worshipful Master glared at her. “I would have been granted power far superior to yours,” he snarled, finally. Gwen couldn’t tell if he was serious, or if he was still trying to con her. He really should have known better. “And then I would have ruled the world.”

Gwen shook her head as two burly policemen arrived. “Have him taken to the cells, somewhere separate from the rest of his Order,” she said. The remaining members of the Order had surrendered without a fight and, once they’d been cuffed, their masks had been removed. Gwen recognised all, but one of them as scions of powerful families. Their arrest was likely to lead to a power struggle between the King’s Government and their relatives, all of whom would be outraged at their children being arrested. “And keep them separate as well.”

“Certainly, My Lady,” Inspector Jude said. The policeman beside him gave Gwen a sharp look, as if he hadn’t realised that she was female until Jude had pointed it out. “I trust that you will be taking the case directly to the Minister of Justice?”

“I will,” Gwen said. Master Thomas could have dealt with everything on his own authority – but he’d had sixty years of experience and knew where most of the bodies were buried. Gwen had much less latitude…and far more political enemies. The ones who didn’t consider her a foolish female – never mind the fact that Queens tended to be better for the country than Kings – believed that she was too young to do her job. “And see where they found her.”

A police doctor was already looking at the intended sacrifice. “She’s been drugged, probably with a light doze of chloroform,” he said. “It would probably be better to let her recover here and then transfer her to one of the hospitals, where she can be interviewed.”

“See to it,” Gwen ordered. “I can write a chit for a Healer’s services, if necessary.”

She took one last look at the Worshipful Order of Ancient Wisdom and then walked out of the door, back onto the streets. A small army of policemen were identifying, booking and finally marching off the aristocratic witnesses, using kid gloves. Gwen found it hard to blame them; even a very junior aristocrat could file a complaint that would ruin a constable’s career. The Bow Street Runners might have been purged of the worst of the corruption after the Swing, when they had failed to keep the streets under control, but there were still bad apples within the bunch.

Taking a copy of the arrest list from Inspector Lestrade, who could never have passed for an aristocrat, she walked off in the direction of the Houses of Parliament. If she knew Lord Mycroft, he’d still be working on papers in his office until midnight and he’d need to see the arrest list as soon as possible. The Worshipful Order of Ancient Wisdom would create a political nightmare as soon as they were released from custody.

But there had been no choice. Sacrificing a human being was very definitely crossing the line, even though Gwen had known that it would be futile. They’d had to be stopped, even if it meant risking the stability of the government, even if it meant risking her own position.

Because if she couldn’t stop well-connected men from murdering members of the lower orders, what had Jack died for anyway?

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3 Responses to “The Great Game (The Royal Sorceress 2)–Snippet”

  1. Tamara September 27, 2013 at 2:09 am #

    Good book 🙂 I liked it better than the first part.
    When will I get Necropolis? *giggles*

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sepiachord – Alternate History Weekly Update #75~ - October 16, 2012

    […] The Great Game (The Royal Sorceress 2)–Snippet by Chris Nuttall. […]

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