Comments would be very welcome.
The bookshelves stretched as far as the eye could see.
Emily pushed the makeshift trolley between the shelves, peering down at the handful of books students had returned to the library. In many ways, Whitehall – although an academy of magic – was very much like a school from her own world, the world she thought about as little as possible. Magical students still returned books late, despite threats of punishment, or returned them to the wrong places. Now that the exam season was drawing to a close, the number of students in the school was dropping sharply, allowing the librarians a chance to resort the books properly. It was a vast project that would be completed just in time for the students to start disordering the books again.
But she had to admit that she rather enjoyed working as a librarian, even though she was really nothing more than a student helper. Whitehall’s vast collection of books was not well ordered, certainly not by the standards of the libraries she’d used as a child. It was impossible to say what gem would be uncovered by sorting through a shelf or two; Emily had developed a habit of putting books aside for her to borrow and read later, even though part of her insisted that it was unfair to the other students. Not that she was the worst offender. Every time she moved a stack of heavy books, she discovered a handful of other books hidden behind them, placed there by a student who wanted exclusive access to them. It was forbidden, naturally, but it never stopped. The spells guarding the library only reacted if books were taken out of the library without permission.
She took a book off the trolley and glanced at the title, A Guide to Simultaneous Magic, before carefully placing it on the shelf. The whole system was badly flawed, she’d long since come to realise, if only because there was no single unifying system. She’d grappled with the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress cataloguing systems as a younger girl, but they’d made it very hard to put a book out of place without it becoming noticeable. In Whitehall, each librarian had their own ideas about where the different books should go. A book on ancient battles might be filed under history, or under military studies. It was impossibly confusing. She’d promised herself that she would work out a system for cataloguing books, but there was just too much else to do. Recreating the Dewey Decimal System was incredibly tricky.
Carefully, she finished returning the books and wheeled the trolley back to the desk. The original librarian had left Whitehall, seemingly at the behest of the Librarians Guild, allowing his assistant to take his place. Lady Aylia was tall and elegant, with long brown hair that reached all the way down to her knees. Emily rather liked her, even if she did have the same attitude as most of the other librarians she’d met in her life. They could have kept the bookshelves in perfect order if it wasn’t for those pesky users mucking up the shelves.
“One of the books you requested has been returned,” Aylia said, nodding to a table inside the office. There were no computers to run catalogues in Whitehall; librarians had to have good memories as well as a great deal of patience. “And I can clear you to take it out of the building, if you wish.”
Emily nodded as she stepped around the desk and into the office, picking up the book from the table. She’d been invited to visit Zangaria by both of her friends, once the exam season was over for good, and – naturally – she’d looked for books on the country. One of them promised to be a complete history of Zangaria, although it was remarkably slim. But then, Zangaria had been part of the old Empire until 170 years ago. It hadn’t really existed until its founding monarch staked his claim to rule.
“Thank you,” she said. There were dire punishments for anyone who tried to take a library book back home without permission. A handful of students had run afoul of the charms already and Emily had had to help sort them out. They’d all claimed to have taken the books by accident, but the spells protecting them weren’t bright enough to know the difference. “I’ll read it tonight and then let you know.”
There was one advantage in locally-produced books; in the absence of a printing press, every word had to be important. The writers had often written their books by hand, relying on clerks to copy them word for word; they couldn’t allow themselves to pontificate too far or they might discover that their book was just too big to be easily copied. They tended to focus on the essentials, rather than trivial details, at least when they weren’t talking about dark magic. Those books tended to be full of evasions, as if the writers had been too scared to say what they actually meant clearly.
Aylia smiled as Emily marked the book out to herself and placed it in her handbag. “And I think that young man is looking for you,” she added. “Should I start preparing the winter feast?”
Emily looked up and saw Jade, waiting for her near the exit. She waved at him, using her hands to signal that she wouldn’t be long, and then scowled back down at Aylia, who seemed remarkably untroubled by her expression. It had taken Emily months to learn about the traditions in the Allied Lands; winter feasts were held to celebrate engagements, while the weddings themselves were carried out in the spring. Or at least that was the ideal. In reality, there were weddings all the year round.
But the thought was absurd. Emily had been sixteen when she’d come to Whitehall; by now, she was fairly sure that she was seventeen, although it was hard to be sure. The local system for measuring days and months seemed to be slightly off-kilter. Jade, on the other hand, was twenty-two in local years, certainly at least four years older than Emily. And he was a senior to boot, one of the stars of the school. He wouldn’t even be in Whitehall next year.
And yet they were friends. They’d been forced to work together in Martial Magic, fought together to escape Orcs and Goblins near the Dark City and survived the assault on Whitehall by Shadye, the Necromancer who had brought Emily to his world. Jade wasn’t scared of her, unlike many of the students who knew she had killed one of the all-powerful necromancers, and he wasn’t trying to suck up to her. Back home, part of her had always envied the social queens. It hadn’t been until she’d found herself simultaneously feared and courted that she realised just how empty a life they’d led.
“Go now,” Aylia said. “There won’t be any more books returned until after the final exams.”
Emily nodded in agreement. In Whitehall, exams were actually important – and meaningful. Students had taken out thousands of books and were actually reading them, although a handful were trying to use spells to make the knowledge sink into their heads without actually cracking open the tomes. Emily had experimented with one of those spells and wound up with a savage headache that had convinced her not to try it again. There was no substitute, it seemed, for actually opening a book.
She picked up her handbag and pulled it over her shoulder, before walking out from behind the desk and over to Jade, who grinned at her. He was handsome, in a rugged sort of way, despite the nasty bruise marking the side of his face. He’d taken a fall in a Martial Magic class two days ago and Sergeant Miles had refused to let him go to the healers, pointing out rather sardonically that the bruise might teach him to watch where he was going in future. In a world where dark wizards could hide the magical counterparts of landmines just about anywhere, Emily suspected that he had a point.
“I was wondering if you’d like to hike up Mount Sunset,” Jade said, as they walked out of the door. Outside, the corridors seemed less crowded than normal. Most of the student body had either gone home for the holidays or were currently sitting their exams. “It’s been a while since we had a proper walk.”
Emily had to smile. Sergeant Miles might have been a combat sorcerer, but he was also a firm believer in physical fitness. His students ran five miles twice a week and performed hundreds of push-ups and other exercises every weekday. Once, she would have blanched at the thought of so much exercise. Now, she was stronger and fitter than she’d ever thought possible.
But Jade was right. It had been months since she’d walked for pleasure.
“Just let me put the book in my room and change,” she said. “And then I’ll meet you down at the side door.”
Her room was empty when she entered it, unsurprisingly. One of her roommates had already headed back home to Alexis City, the other was currently sitting an exam. Emily dropped the handbag in her trunk, pulled off her robe and changed into a shirt and heavy pants, charmed to keep the wearer cool even in the hottest of summers. She stuck a compressed coat in her pocket, after checking that the spells binding it were firmly in place. Whitehall’s weather was somewhat variable, thanks to the vast field of magic surrounding the building, and it was well to be prepared for anything.
The walk to the side door was uncomfortable, but she was growing used to it. Everyone knew that she had defeated a necromancer – and no one knew how, leaving a void they tried to fill with rumours and innuendo. Emily was a necromancer herself. Emily was a freakish rogue talent, with powers naturally superior to a necromancer. Emily had somehow created a spell that cut its way through the toughest of defences. Emily had poisoned Shadye…
But there would have been no point in keeping that a secret, Emily knew. She wouldn’t have been the first person to poison a necromancer; it was the simplest way of dealing with the supremely powerful and completely insane magicians. Why keep that a secret?
She did her best to ignore the glances thrown in her direction as she walked down the stairs, feeling – again – isolated in a vast crowd. If it hadn’t been for Jade and her other friends, she might have despaired, as she had back on Earth. Instead, she just carried on, knowing that she did have people who cared about her. She smiled as she saw Jade standing by the side door, one hand carrying a combat staff he’d been given by the Sergeants. Maybe he didn’t expect to run into trouble, but they’d been taught to be prepared. Trouble could appear at any moment.
“I packed a handful of combat rations,” Jade said, as they walked out of the door. “If we can’t get back in time for dinner…”
Emily had to laugh. It seemed to be a universal law that combat rations tasted awful, even the ration bars produced by Whitehall and the rest of the Allied Lands. The bars were small, no bigger than a bar of chocolate from Earth, and they were filling, but the best of them tasted like cardboard. Sergeant Harkin had remarked that they were meant to encourage soldiers to forage and live off the land, rather than draining the army’s resources by eating the bars. One of the students had asked if the bars served as an excuse for mutiny and earned himself five hundred push-ups for cheek. The Sergeant had never actually answered the question.
She shook her head. “Do you want to walk all the way to the peak?”
“We can try,” Jade said. “Or maybe we can just walk up to the lake instead.”
The air surrounding Whitehall was pure, clear of anything that might signify the presence of a technologically-advanced society. Emily knew enough to appreciate the wonders of technology, particularly after having to live without it for several months, but there were times when she wondered if she was doing the right thing by trying to jumpstart the industrial revolution on her new world. Inhaling the air argued against it…but the sheer depth of human suffering argued for it. Those living without magic had lives that were nasty, brutal and short. Even the aristocracy, with access to magicians if they couldn’t work magic themselves, lived in squalor, at least when compared to Earth.
They chatted about nothing in particular as they walked out of the school’s grounds and up towards Mount Sunset. It was a strange place, even by the standards of her new world, but it was reasonably safe as long as you didn’t stay there after dark. Strange flickers of magic darted through the air, seemingly hovering right on the very edge of perception. It wasn’t unknown for climbers to discover that they couldn’t reach the peak, or that their path twisted on itself so that they found themselves starting up the mountain and then realising that they’d reached the bottom of the path. There were even stranger tales, but none that had been verified. And if the staff had believed that it wasn’t reasonably safe, they would never have allowed the students to go near the mountain.
“I’ve been offered a chance to stay at the school as an assistant,” Jade said, suddenly. “I did well enough in alchemy that Professor Thande thinks I have potential.”
Emily made a face. Alchemy required talents she didn’t have, which was at least partly why she was burning her caldron every second lesson. Thande wasn’t a bad teacher, but his lessons clashed with Emily’s upbringing, where precisely counting the number of times one stirred a caldron didn’t matter. She was still puzzling over the fact that it did seem to matter to Alchemy. A numbing potion worked perfectly if you mixed the ingredients over a low heat and stirred fifty-seven times. It failed if you stirred fifty-six or fifty-eight times.
“There are a few other tutors that want a teaching assistant too, at least for a year,” Jade added. He looked down at her. “Do you think I should stay?”
“I’d miss you if you left,” Emily admitted, honestly. She didn’t have enough friends to casually accept the chance of losing touch with one of them. But on the other hand… “What do you actually want?”
“I want to be a combat sorcerer,” Jade admitted. “Helping to tutor at the school might be a step backwards. I just don’t know.”
Emily didn’t know either. The Allied Lands seemed to consider a person’s ability to do the job rather than their qualifications, something she found rather more sensible than the focus on qualifications back home. She could see tutoring serving as useful experience for a combat sorcerer, but in truth she simply didn’t know. But she knew who might be able to offer proper advice.
“You could ask the Sergeant,” she suggested. Miles was a trained and experienced combat sorcerer, one of the best. He had to be to be trusted to teach potential sorcerers. “He would know what you should do.”
Jade frowned. “But what if he sees it as a lack of confidence?”
“I don’t see why he should,” Emily pointed out. Not that she could blame him for being cautious, even a little paranoid. The Sergeant tested them constantly, in ways that were sometimes obvious and sometimes very subtle. “You need advice and the Sergeant is the best person to answer your questions.”
She shrugged. “What would you do if you refused the tutoring position?”
“Apprenticeship to a combat sorcerer,” Jade explained. “He’d tutor me, supervise me…and finally put me in front of the White Council for final exams. If I passed, I’d be a qualified sorcerer in my own right.”
And if you failed, you might end up dead, Emily thought.
Jade turned away from her, looking down towards Whitehall where it sat in the valley below, pressing his hands together as if he was nervous. “Have you given any thought to what you will be doing in the next few years?”
Emily had to smile. “There are five more years of schooling to go,” she reminded him, rather dryly. “After that…I don’t know. There are just too many things that need to be done.”
“I know,” Jade said. He seemed almost hesitant, unwilling to continue. That was strange and rather out of character; Emily had never seen Jade actually scared. He’d once casually worked his way through an obstacle course that had terrified Emily when she’d first seen it, without showing the slightest sign of fear. “Emily…have you given any thought to marriage?”
“Marriage?” Emily repeated, astonished. She’d never given any real thought to marriage, in either world. “I…”
Jade turned to look at her, his face flushed red. “There is interest,” he admitted. A dozen possible scenarios flashed through Emily’s mind, all rather comparable to a bad romance novel. “You’re the most powerful sorceress of your generation – the most potentially powerful sorcerers, I should say. There is no shortage of interest in you.”
“People I don’t know have been discussing my marriage prospects?” Emily spluttered. The very thought was outrageous, too shocking for words. “Why?”
“Because your children will be powerful too,” Jade explained, blushing slightly. “If you had children with a powerful magician, they might be extremely powerful. And you’re the Necromancer’s Bane, as well as a Child of Destiny. There are ballads sung about you.”
Emily groaned. Years ago, back when her teachers had been trying to spark some interest in music in their charges, they’d been made to sing songs written by the Beatles. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t had to sing Michelle – when one of her classmates had been called Michelle. Her classmates had teased the poor girl mercilessly for weeks. Maybe it was karma, but there were at least seventeen songs about Emily herself running through the Allied Lands, each one more embarrassing than the last. Emily couldn’t remember who had claimed that medieval society was genteel; he’d obviously been completely wrong. One of the songs was crude enough to make a punk rocker blush.
She collected herself as much as she could. “They just want me for my fame?”
“Yes,” Jade said. His blush grew darker. “It’s forbidden to approach someone in her first year, no matter how…famous they are. And no one is quite sure how to approach your Guardian. But that will change.”
“Oh,” Emily said. The thought of hundreds of people she’d never met proposing marriage to her was nightmarish. She’d never even had a boyfriend! “Maybe I should just change my face and hide.”
Jade looked away, clearly embarrassed. “Emily,” he said, slowly, “would you consider marrying me?”
A second later, his form flashed with blue-white light and he froze solid, suspended in time. Emily stared, wondering if her shock and embarrassment had made her work magic by accident, before she sensed the presence behind her. Only one person would have approached them in such a manner – and frozen Jade with absolutely no regard for his feelings.
“Hello, Void,” she said, without looking around. “What are you doing here?”