The castle was hers.
Emily stood in the chamber underneath Cockatrice Castle and closed her eyes. She’d never had a real home before, not one where she’d felt safe and welcome. Even Whitehall wasn’t hers, not in the sense that she could stay there permanently. Here, however, there was a home. It might be a cold castle, incredibly hard to heat save through magic, but it was hers.
The hearthstone lay in front of her, glowing faintly as energy hummed through the wards protecting the castle from magical attack. Emily could sense, without even touching it, the power that was securely anchored in the stone – and the override King Randor had used to secure Cockatrice Castle. It no longer belonged to the treacherous Baron who had plotted against the King – a man whose very name had been stricken from the books – but Emily, who had saved the King and his family from assassination. And it would belong to her heirs in perpetuity.
She felt a curious mix of emotions as she stepped forward and held her hand over the stone. Part of her wondered what her mother the drunkard would have said, if she’d known what her daughter had become; part of her wondered if there were unexpected surprises waiting for the Baroness Cockatrice in the future. The castle wasn’t free; being a Baroness, one of the highest-ranking nobles in the Kingdom of Zangaria, brought obligations of its own. King Randor had set out to reward her, but he had also had an agenda of his own. Emily had no doubt of it. The man who had set out to ride the whirlwind of political and social change Emily had started needed to think at least two steps ahead.
No time to worry about that now, she thought, as she reached into her belt and produced the silver knife. Holding her hand over the stone, she cut her palm, allowing blood to drip down and merge with the wards. The pain vanished almost as soon as it appeared – the knife was charmed to heal its wounds – allowing her to focus on the wards. Magic billowed forward, waiting for her. Closing her eyes, Emily reached out and put her hand on top of the hearthstone.
Her mind reached out, accessing the wards. It was a very different experience to touching the wards protecting Whitehall; here, the wards were crude, anchored within the hearthstone and in need of constant renewal. There was no sense that they were alive or adapting to new situations – or watching for young magicians pushing their luck too far. There was a long moment when she felt that the wards were about to reject her, before they recognised their new mistress and opened up for her. If she wanted, she could make them do anything. She was, to all intents and purposes, the administrator of the castle’s security network.
Someone did a very crude job, she thought, as her mind flashed through the network. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Deprived of the raw power that allowed Whitehall’s wards to exist, the original creators had had to limit the reach and power of their creations. There wasn’t even a ward intended to track magic used within the castle! Making a mental note to change that as quickly as possible, Emily found the administrative centre and issued a handful of instructions, then pulled her mind out of the wards. There was, as always, a brief feeling of disorientation as her mind returned to her body. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if something happened to her body while her mind was drifting around in the wars.
She stepped back from the hearthstone, which was glowing with heavy satisfaction, and walked over to the door. Outside, Bryon of House Cheam was waiting for her, as per her instructions. The young man didn’t look that impressive – he was thin, with short brown hair and soft brown eyes – but he came highly recommended by Imaiqah, one of Emily’s best friends. Reading between the lines, Emily suspected that her friend was sweet on Bryon, even though romance would be difficult now that Imaiqah’s father had been raised to the peerage. Her friend’s marriage would be a political tool, rather than a romantic affair.
“My Lady,” Bryon said.
“Come in,” Emily said, impatiently. There were times when the formalities annoyed her, even though she understood that they were part and parcel of Zangaria’s society, the lubricant that kept it running smoothly. “The wards are waiting for you.”
There was no way that Emily could remain in Zangaria, even though she knew that King Randor would be delighted if she did. She had to go back to Whitehall for her second year of study, leaving Cockatrice Castle and the surrounding lands under the control of a steward. Bryon was young and inexperienced, but he did understand what Emily wanted him to do, as much as anyone born in Zangaria could understand. She’d made a start by reforming the laws the previous Baron had propagated – the man was a scumbag, even if he hadn’t tried to overthrow his King – but there was much else to do. Bryon would just have to make a start on her work.
“Hold your hand over the stone,” Emily directed, as she cleaned the knife. The charms placed on the blade should have removed all traces of her blood, but she knew better than to take it for granted. Besides, taking care of one’s tools and weapons had been hammered into her head at Whitehall. “I’m giving you complete authority over the castle, so be careful. If I have to come home to sort out a mess, I will not be pleased.”
Bryon winced – and Emily cursed herself, inwardly. As Baroness, she held the power of Middle and Low justice in Cockatrice – and High too, if King Randor didn’t wish to deal with it personally. She was effectively judge, jury and executioner … if she’d wanted to lop off Bryon’s head, it was unlikely that anyone would care enough to stop her. Save perhaps Imaiqah, of course, and that wasn’t something that most of the locals would take into account, not when their friendships were often nothing more than political expediency.
She took his hand in hers and cut his palm, just enough to allow the blood to drip onto the stone. The wards hummed loudly enough to be heard for a long moment, before falling back into the background magic pervading the castle. Bryon would have near-complete authority over them, save for a handful of areas that Emily had reserved for herself. For one, he wouldn’t be able to use spell-controlled slaves in the castle itself. The practice might be very secure, although Emily knew how easy it was for the spells to be rewritten by a competent sorcerer, but it still disgusted her. There was no way that she was going to allow anyone under her command to use them.
“I can feel them,” Bryon said, in shock. “I … I don’t think they like me.”
Emily smiled. Bryon came from a merchant family, one step above peasants grubbing in the soil, at least according to the previous Baron. The wards had probably picked up a great deal of their owners personality, even though he hadn’t been the one who had built the castle or forged the wards. They respected Emily because she was now their lord, but it would take them time to grow used to Bryon.
“They’ll come around,” she said, dryly. “Until then, do you think you can control them?”
Now that Bryon’s blood had been linked to the wards, he should be able to control them mentally, no matter where he was in the castle itself. It had taken Emily nearly a week to master it, although she’d had a considerable disadvantage. The time she’d touched the living wards protecting Whitehall had spoiled her, giving her preconceptions that the wards of Cockatrice Castle hadn’t been able to meet. Bryon should find it easier to control the wards, even though he wasn’t a very powerful magician. He had less to unlearn.
Besides, Emily thought, the last Baron wasn’t a magician either.
She led the way up to the Baron’s chambers, shaking her head at how the previous Baron had decorated his castle. He had been a great hunting enthusiast; there was scarcely a room that didn’t have a handful of mounted animal heads placed on the wall, all carefully posed so they looked as savage as possible. There were hundreds of paintings too, each one showing the Baron and his family in heroic poses – and a single painting of the Royal Family, which hung in the Baron’s Reception Room. In hindsight, anyone who looked at the man’s castle would have known that he had dreams of kingship. Nothing else made sense.
He’d also had a staff largely composed of young and pretty girls. Emily had told them that they were free to go, if they wished, but most of them had refused to leave, even though it was clear that the previous Baron had abused them. The pay was better … and besides, young women were less useful on farms than their brothers, particularly if they were no longer virgin. Emily found that sickening and hoped that she would always find it sickening. The day she didn’t, she’d told herself, was the day she’d been in Zangaria long enough to go native.
Emily’s own quarters would be off-limits to everyone while she was away, naturally; the castle’s wards wouldn’t permit entry. She’d put Bryon in the next set of chambers, which had belonged to the previous Baron’s Castellan. The man had vanished after his master had been killed; no one quite knew what had happened to him, but Emily had taken the precaution of erasing all of his access permissions from the wards, just in case. Inside, the room was hot and stuffy; the maids had lit a fire in the grate to warm it.
“Thank you, Milady,” Bryon said, once the door was closed. “I won’t let you down.”
“Good,” Emily said. “I look forward to reading your regular reports.”
She had to smile at Bryon’s expression. Unlike most locals, he had actually been able to read and write before Emily had arrived and taught everyone Arabic numerals and Latin letters, but writing out regular reports would still have been difficult. The Scribes Guild had made itself fantastically wealthy by providing a reading and writing service before Emily had inadvertently destroyed them. Now, over half the Kingdom could read and write using the system she had imported from Earth … but there was still room for scribes. Besides, Imaiqah had assured Emily that Bryon wasn’t as bad as some of the others.
“I’ll send them weekly,” he assured her.
Emily thanked him, then walked back to her own quarters and stepped inside. The rooms still struck her as insanely big – the bed alone was big enough for five people to share – but they gave her privacy, as well as plenty of space to work. She picked up a set of opened letters, dropped them into her borrowed trunk – her previous trunk was on its way to Whitehall, containing a very angry Cockatrice – and then glanced around to be sure that she hadn’t left anything behind. Unlike Alassa, the Crown Princess of Zangaria, Emily always travelled light. She’d never had the opportunity to develop bad habits.
She shook her head as she rang the bell for the maids. It bothered her that she hadn’t heard anything from Jade; he hadn’t written to her once since she’d been raised to the peerage. Had he decided that she was too good for him now, even though her reputation as the Necromancer’s Bane made her more dangerous and forbidding than the average Royal Princess? Or was he busy with his new master? His last message had spoken of new lessons, although he’d been very vague. Vows of secrecy were taken seriously by the magical community. Someone who broke a vow would almost certainly be killed or lose their magic permanently.
The maids appeared and curtseyed to her, something that still made Emily feel rather silly, even though she was their Baroness. She directed them to take the luggage down to the coach, then followed at a rather more sedate pace. There had seemed little point in holding a grand farewell ceremony, not when she would be back in nine months to take a full accounting from Bryon of what had happened in her absence. Besides, she might have been rich, but she didn’t feel rich. Her early life hadn’t prepared her for sudden wealth.
She checked the wards on the carriage before she climbed in, then issued orders to the driver. The carriage lurched into life a moment later, the horses pulling it out of the courtyard and onto the badly-maintained road outside the castle. If it hadn’t been for the spells on the carriage, Emily knew that she would probably have felt seasick within five minutes – and besides, she certainly wouldn’t be able to get any reading done. Still, she pushed the book aside and stared out of the window. The land surrounding the castle were all hers too.
The previous Baron had been a dominating guy, she’d come to realise; he’d rarely allowed his peasants a chance to buy their own land and start growing whatever they wanted to grow. Emily had changed that, to some extent, but making so many changes so quickly would have almost certainly unhinged the local economy. Luckily, the influx of people into the nearby city – taking advantage of Emily’s looser laws – had balanced the increase in food production quite nicely. She hadn’t been so lucky with other matters …
It still struck her as absurd that she was the mistress of all she surveyed. Back on Earth, she would have been trying to scrape up the marks to go to college on a scholarship, hoping that it would give her the background she needed to escape her mother and stepfather once and for all. Here, she was the Baroness … and a single word from her could change the lives of thousands of people. She’d learned that the hard way.
Settling back in her seat, she opened a book and started to read. The previous Baron had been a collector of expensive books, although Emily had a private suspicion that it had been more for the pleasure of ownership than out of any intellectual habits. He’d probably felt that intellectual was a dirty word. Some of the books were on magic, including several that made Emily’s skin crawl whenever she touched them. She’d placed them all in her trunk for Lady Aylia to examine, once she reached Whitehall. The librarian might be able to tell her more about their history.
It was nearly two hours before they reached the outskirts of Alexis, the capital city of Zangaria. Unlike Emily, Alassa couldn’t hope to leave without a major send-off, even though she was only riding to the portal outside the city, where she would step through and reach Whitehall. Emily waited until her coach had come to a stop, then jumped out and pointed the coachman towards the portal. After what had happened the last time she’d used one, she would have preferred to be with her friends when they went through the next. At least Alassa already knew how badly portals affected her.
“Lady Emily,” someone shouted, as Emily walked towards the Royal Carriage. “Are you going back to Whitehall?”
Emily did her best to ignore them. The combination of the new printing presses and the relaxation of most censorship laws had created a flourishing newspaper industry. Most of the newspapers would be gone within six months, she suspected – the economy probably couldn’t support over six hundred new publications within Alexis alone – but that didn’t stop them being annoying. The society pages alone seemed to be ruder than anything she recalled from Earth.
She placed her hand against the wards surrounding the Royal Carriage, waited for them to recognise her and then climbed up, into the cool interior. Alassa, as perfectly poised as ever, gave her a smile; Imaiqah, who seemed a little overwhelmed by all the attention, looked relieved to see Emily. Given how badly the two girls had gotten on before Emily had arrived, at Whitehall, she wasn’t entirely surprised. Now, after Imaiqah had helped save Alassa’s life and kingdom, she was nobility too. It was depressing to realise that made the girls get on better.
“It’s good to see you,” Alassa said, once the door was closed. “I hope that everything is prepared in Cockatrice?”
“I hope so,” Emily said, unsurprised by her discretion. This world offered all sorts of ways to spy on someone – and the new newspapers printed whatever their snoops found out. She had a private suspicion that King Randor already regretted giving the editors so much freedom. “And yourself?”
“They spend most of their time complaining that I didn’t choose a husband,” Alassa said, ruefully. “But after everything that happened …”
Emily nodded in understanding. Alassa’s planned engagement had been pushed to one side by an attempted coup – and, after that, most of her suitors had been recalled home so that their parents could consider the new situation in Zangaria. Alassa hadn’t been too upset, although she’d made a show of moping whenever she’d known she was being watched. She hadn’t really wanted to get married so quickly, even if she was the Crown Princess.
“Don’t worry about it,” Emily advised. “You have plenty of time before you take the throne.”
She braced herself as the carriage lurched forward, approaching the portal. The nexus of magic seemed to reach out for them, pulling the vehicle onwards … and then Emily gasped in pain as the magic threatened to overwhelm her. There was a long moment when she felt she was about to die, or have her soul sucked out of her body, and then the feeling was gone.
“Welcome to Whitehall,” Alassa said, quietly. “And it’s snowing.”
Emily nodded, peering out of the window as the spires of Whitehall came into view.
Somehow, she couldn’t escape the feeling that she was coming home.