Ashworth House looked fragile, from the point of view of passing travellers who managed to look through the complex network of concealing and obscurification wards that provided the first line of defence. It perched on a hillside, a mixture of a dozen different styles from right across the Allied Lands, as if each generation of the family had added a whole new wing to the house. And yet, Melissa Ashworth knew, as she walked through the wards, that the house was far from fragile. The nexus point pulsing below the giant building ensured that no conventional attack could hope to breach the defences.
She felt the pull as soon as she passed through the last ward, an insistent tugging that compelled her to walk towards the centre of the house. Gritting her teeth – she was eighteen, not a naughty little girl to be summoned – she resisted the pull as best as she could, dragging her feet as she walked into the house. A handful of servants bowed to her as she passed, then faded away into the back of her awareness as the tug pulled harder. The Matriarch of House Ashworth was clearly impatient. By the time she reached the stone doors that barred the way into the central chambers, she was practically running – and steaming with humiliation.
The doors opened as she approached, revealing a single spotless room, empty save for a set of paintings on the wall, a wooden table and a pair of chairs. One of them was empty, Melissa noted as she stepped inside; the other was occupied by her great-grandmother, the Matriarch of House Ashworth. The compulsion snapped out of existence as the door closed behind her, but she knelt anyway. There was a long pause, then her great-grandmother rose to her feet.
“You may rise,” she said.
“Thank you, Lady Fulvia,” Melissa said. No one dared address the Matriarch by any other title, even grandmother. “I thank you for summoning me.”
“You may be seated,” Lady Fulvia said. “I trust your exam results were satisfactory?”
Melissa felt her cheeks burn as she sat down and looked up at her great-grandmother. Lady Fulvia was tall and inhumanly thin, with a face so pinched with disapproval that she looked as though she was permanently sucking on a lemon. It was a testament to her power that she was still alive – and that no one dared to mock her, even in private. Melissa would sooner have dealt with her grandfather than the aging harridan. But no one would say no if Lady Fulvia chose to make Melissa’s business hers.
“I believe I passed,” she said, finally. “But we won’t have the full results for another week.”
“I suppose not,” Lady Fulvia said. “It was my fault for sending you to that school, even though it was quite unsuitable for one of our bloodline.”
“You told me I could not share the school with the Ashfall Heir,” Melissa reminded her, daringly. “And so I went to Whitehall instead of Mountaintop.”
“How true,” Lady Fulvia agreed. “But we still expect you to do your very best.”
Her voice hardened. “And you seem to have failed to make friends with Void’s daughter.”
Melissa winced at the cold scorn in Lady Fulvia’s voice. No one had known Void had a daughter, right up until the moment she’d arrived at Whitehall. The Lone Power was so eccentric he hadn’t even taught his daughter basic magic, although she had learned very quickly. But, by the time Melissa had received orders to befriend the girl, it had been too late.
“A girl who saved the school, twice,” Lady Fulvia said. “A girl who crippled Mountaintop.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Melissa said.
“And you have failed to befriend her,” Lady Fulvia said. “That does not speak well of you.”
Melissa cringed. Lady Fulvia never hit her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. She had other ways to discipline them. None of them were remotely pleasant.
“But, no matter,” Lady Fulvia said. “There are other, more important issues to discuss. You are a young woman now, are you not? The measurement of blood-to-blood proves you are healthy and capable of bearing children?”
“Yes,” Melissa said, embarrassed.
“Good,” Lady Fulvia said. She gave Melissa a tight smile. “Because you’re going to get married. The Matriarchy of House Ashworth will fall to you, one day, and it is important that you have both the right husband and the right father for your children. I have selected you a suitable man.”
Melissa felt as though she had been punched in the gut. She’d known her marriage would be arranged, but she’d always thought – her grandfather had promised her – that she would have the final say in who she married. To hear Lady Fulvia say, so casually, that her husband had already been selected … she stared, unable to conceal her horror. There was no point in trying to argue, or fight. She knew the Matriarch all too well. Lady Fulvia would simply override whatever she said and the wedding would go ahead anyway.
“My Lady,” she managed finally. “Who have you selected for me?”
“Gaius, of House Arlene,” Lady Fulvia said. “He recently graduated from Mountaintop with impeccable marks and strong magic.”
It took Melissa a moment to place the name. House Arlene wasn’t a strong house, not by the standards of Ashworth or Ashfall. Their very lack of strength, however, made them ideal partners for Lady Fulvia. She could practically dictate the terms of the marriage contract, knowing they would have little choice, but to accept. But … what little she had heard about Gaius hadn’t been good. Women talked, after all, and stories were shared. Few girls had dated Gaius twice. She would have to write to them and find out why.
“You will be formally introduced to him at the Cockatrice Faire,” Lady Fulvia continued, seemingly unaware of Melissa’s innermost thoughts. “The wedding will be held on the final night of the Faire, once all the contracts have been signed. You and he can then enjoy the joys of married life.”
Melissa coloured, then frowned. “Lady Fulvia, I …”
“This is a great opportunity for you, and for your House,” Lady Fulvia continued, smoothly. “I would take it greatly amiss if anything was to interfere with the planned wedding.”
Shit, Melissa thought.
She hadn’t wanted to get married until after her graduation – as a married woman, she might not even be allowed to return to school – but she knew there was no point in arguing. Lady Fulvia would have had the contracts drawn up already, then gone through the formalities of gaining the approval of the family’s adults. The only person who might have been able to say no was Melissa’s father – and he’d died years ago. And she was not of age. She couldn’t refuse for herself.
“Go back to your rooms and prepare yourself,” Lady Fulvia ordered. “We will leave for Cockatrice in four days.”
Melissa winced, inwardly, as her mind caught up with what she was being told. Cockatrice. Of all the places they could hold the Faire, it had to be Cockatrice. It was not enough that she had to be pushed into a loveless marriage, was it? She had to endure her nuptials under the eyes of Lady Emily, Void’s daughter and Baroness of Cockatrice. But again, there was no point in arguing. Lady Fulvia had made up her mind.
She rose, bowed again, then stalked out of the door. There were letters to write, then clothes to pack. And then …
My life is going to change, she thought, morbidly. And who knows what will happen then?
Emily looked up from her book as Alassa and Imaiqah ran into the room, long hair streaming down their backs as they dumped their bags on the table and smiled at her. They’d loudly complained about Emily finishing her exams two days ago – they’d had to keep revising while Emily had been able to relax – but now it was over. Defensive Magic was the final exam of the year.
“Well done,” Emily said, as Alassa sat down on Frieda’s bed. “How did it go?”
“Mistress Tirana hates me,” Alassa said. She ran her hands through her long blonde hair as it fell out of her pins, framing her heart-shaped face. “I accidentally blew up one of her test dummies.”
“Accident, my foot,” Imaiqah said. She sat on the floor, crossing her legs. “You did it on purpose.”
“The idea was to render any potential attacker harmless,” Alassa countered. “I think I made the dummy very harmless.”
“You can say that again,” Imaiqah muttered.
“I think I made the dummy very harmless,” Alassa repeated. She stuck out her tongue at Imaiqah. “And I did, didn’t I?”
Emily snorted as she put her book down on the table. Alassa and Imaiqah were an odd pair, by anyone’s standards. One was tall, blonde and willowy, with a figure that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Barbie doll; the other was shorter, with black hair and darker skin. She couldn’t help feeling a pang of jealously at how close the two had become, particularly in the days she’d been away from Whitehall. It was a natural reaction, she knew, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.
“So we leave in a couple of days,” she said, softly. “Are you packed and ready to go?”
“Yes, mother,” Alassa said, mischievously. “I have everything packed, save for my robes, dresses, underclothes, books …”
“Everything, in other words,” Imaiqah cut in.
“Everything,” Alassa agreed. “But don’t worry about it. We can step through the portal at any time.”
Emily nodded, ruefully. They could have left as soon as their exams were over – some of the students had already decamped back to their homes – but there was, as always, a leaving dance on the last night of term. She would have been happier skipping it altogether; her friends, on the other hand, had been looking forward to it since they’d started Third Year and there was no point in trying to argue with them. Imaiqah had been convincing Emily to try on various dresses for the last two months, while Alassa had threatened to convince her mother to send Emily yet more dresses for her collection. It never seemed to matter that half of them were too revealing for Emily to wear in public, or that the other half were rarely used …
“You must be looking forward to the Faire,” Imaiqah said, changing the subject. “Don’t you think it will be wonderful?”
Emily winced. Last year, she’d been asked – in her persona as Baroness Cockatrice – to host the Faire on her lands. She’d agreed, then left the matter in the hands of her Castellan. There had just been too much going on in Third Year – first at Mountaintop, then at Whitehall – for her to pay close attention to her Barony. Now, she had the uneasy feeling she was in for a surprise when she went back to the castle. The handful of reports she’d received had implied that the Faire would be larger than any before. Everyone wanted to get in on the game.
The door opened again, revealing the Gorgon and Jade. Emily waved cheerfully as the door closed, then winked at the Gorgon. In many ways, she was as much an outsider at Whitehall as Emily herself, all the more so because she looked utterly inhuman. Her body might be humanoid – if green, with scales in odd places – but her head was topped by a writhing mass of snakes. She was one of the cleverest students Emily had met, yet also one of the most unfortunate. There might be no classical racism in the Allied Lands, but supernatural creatures – like Gorgons – were hated and feared.
Jade gave them all a bow. “A pleasure to be invited into this wondrous room,” he said formally, with a smile of his own. “It could not be a greater honour.”
“You’re welcome,” Emily said. Given that Jade had once, in all seriousness, asked her to marry him, it was astonishing how relaxed she found herself around him. “How did your last set of classes go?”
“Reasonably well,” Jade said. He gave Imaiqah and Alassa a significant look. “But it all depends on the exam results now.”
“I think we did well,” the Gorgon said. “But someone blew up a dummy.”
“There’s plenty more,” Jade said, unconcerned. “I blew up a dummy myself when I was a student.”
“See,” Alassa said. “Blowing up dummies is considered good practice.”
“They made me pay for it,” Jade said. “I don’t think they thought I took it seriously.”
Emily smiled at him. “Why?”
“Because I made a show of it,” Jade said. He shrugged. “Sergeant Miles said it was a waste of time and energy.”
The door opened again. Aloha stepped into the room, carrying a small wooden box under her arm. Her dark face twisted into a smile when she looked at Emily, then she closed the door behind her and walked over to the wooden table. Emily rose to her feet and walked over to join her as Aloha put the box down, then opened it. Inside, there were several sheets of charmed parchment. Magic crackled over them as Aloha picked them up and placed them gingerly on the tabletop.
“I had to spend several gold pieces to buy this lot,” Aloha said, as the others gathered round her. “The price of parchment has skyrocketed in the past few months.”
Emily winced, inwardly. That was her fault. Introducing paper had seemed a good idea at the time, but it was now so easy to produce that it was pushing parchment-makers out of business. Unsurprisingly, stocks of parchment itself had started to fall, even though it was used in a number of magic spells and rituals. Emily suspected that the problem would eventually sort itself out – there would still be a demand for parchment from magicians and their students – but for the moment it was harder to get decent parchment. It didn’t make life any easier for struggling students.
“I can pay for it,” Alassa offered.
“I managed to get a grant for materials,” Aloha said, as she finished emptying the box. “But they may force me to repay some of it, once they’ve finished assessing my project.”
She looked at Emily. “Or assessing the degree to which I … borrowed … one of your ideas.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Emily said. “I don’t intend to claim credit for anything.”
The thought made her smile, inwardly. She knew she was no slouch when it came to practical magic, but Aloha was a genius. Emily suspected Aloha was the brightest – certainly the most capable – student in Whitehall. The idea behind the charmed parchment might have been Emily’s – more accurately, it had been something copied from Earth – but it had been Aloha who had made it work.
“I don’t feel good about using one of your ideas,” Aloha admitted.
“You made it work,” Emily reminded her. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“Yet,” Aloha muttered. She cleared her throat. “I would remind you, all of you, that this ritual requires blood. If any of you have a problem with that, say so now or forever hold your peace.”
Emily swallowed, uneasily. She knew – she had very good reason to know – just how dangerous it could be to let someone else have even a drop of her blood. Blood magic could be used to manipulate her mind, force her to do things she would never have considered normally, even control her body like a puppet. None of the others looked any happier at the prospect, even though they’d all known it was coming. To give up a drop of blood was to risk giving up control.
Jade stepped forward. “I’m ready,” he said.
Aloha passed him a tiny silver knife. Like the others Emily had had to use in the past, it would be charmed to prevent the cut from hurting. Jade held his hand over the parchment, then sliced the knife into his flesh. Blood dripped from his palm and down to the parchment, where it pooled on the sheets. Alassa shot Jade an unreadable look, then took the knife and made a cut in her own palm. Emily braced herself, when it was her turn, and then cut herself, very lightly. Cutting her skin wasn’t easy, even with a charmed blade. It was hard to force herself to press the knife against her flesh.
“We begin,” Aloha said, as she produced a silver wand and used it to mix the blood together. “Let the magic flow …”
Emily nearly took a step backwards as spells – complex spells – flared up around the parchment, shimmering into life. There was a moment when she thought everything had failed, then the magic sunk into the parchments and faded from her awareness. Aloha returned the wand to her belt – it was rare for any Whitehall student to use a wand, unless one needed to cast a series of complex spells – and then picked up the first sheet of parchment. It looked indistinguishable from the others.
“This would be yours, I think,” she said to Jade. She passed it to him. “How does it feel?”
“Like magic,” Jade said. “It’s tingling.”
Aloha nodded, then passed Emily a second sheet. It felt like a normal piece of parchment to her, so Aloha took it back and gave her another. This one tingled with magic as soon as she touched it with her bare hands. The remaining pieces of parchment were rapidly exchanges until everyone had a piece that tingled for them, bound – literally – to their blood. Anyone else who happened to look at the parchment would see nothing, but just another piece of blank parchment.
“Right,” Aloha said. She reached into her robes and produced a pencil. “Let me see if this works.”
She wrote a brief sentence on her parchment. There was a tingle of magic, then the sentence appeared on Emily’s parchment. Emily read it quickly, then produced a pencil of her own and wrote a response. Chuckles from the others told her that they’d all seen her words; they hurried to write comments of their own. Emily giggled as their words all appeared in front of her, shown in their handwriting. They all had neater handwriting than her.
But that isn’t surprising, she thought. They were all taught to write precisely because missing a line in one place could completely change the meaning of a sentence. I was taught to write in English.
“We could do with a way to say who’s writing,” Alassa said, as she wrote another comment on her parchment. “And a way to send private remarks.”
Imaiqah snickered. “You want to send a message to your boyfriend?”
Alassa flushed. “It would be a useful thing to do,” she said.
Emily concealed her amusement. Alassa was the Crown Princess of Zangaria, Heir to the Throne, Duchess of Iron … as well as the holder of several dozen other titles, all of which were solemnly recited every time she stepped into her father’s Throne Room. Whatever she might want, she couldn’t have a boyfriend. Hell, it had only been two years ago when a number of princes had sought her hand in marriage. If the Iron Duchess – the former Iron Duchess – and her co-conspirators hadn’t launched their coup attempt, it was possible she would already be married. The thought of her having a boyfriend was laughable.
“That’s not possible,” Aloha admitted. “These six sheets of parchment are bonded together. What is written on one of them, by the designated user, will appear on all of them. Anyone who isn’t included in the original charm won’t be able to see the words, no matter what revealing spells they cast.”
“So don’t go writing sweet nothings to your small army of boyfriends,” Alassa said. Imaiqah flushed. “Can you add someone else to the list?”
“No, sadly,” Aloha said. “If you wanted to include someone else, you’d have to have the entire spell redone.”
“Which wouldn’t be easy,” the Gorgon said. As always, there was a very faint hiss underlying her words. “No one would want to leave their blood somewhere, no matter how secure, just so someone new could be added.”
“Yeah,” Aloha said. “That’s the problem.”
Emily shrugged. “But it’s miles better than anything we had before,” she said, reassuringly. “I think you will have passed with honours.”
“It still wouldn’t have been possible without you,” Aloha muttered.
“But you still made it work,” Emily said, again.
Aloha was right, she had to admit. Emily had remembered the concept of chat programs – MSM Messenger, Facebook, Google Talk – and tried to devise a way to make one work, magically. But it had been more – much more – than merely finding a way to link six sheets of parchment together. If she hadn’t introduced English letters, it would have been hard for anyone to use the parchments without wasting a great deal of space. Old Script might be precise to the point of being thoroughly anal, but it was also far too complex for simple conversation.
“I have a question,” Imaiqah said. “How do you wipe the sheet?”
“A simple erasing spell would suffice,” Aloha said. “I did try to get the sheet to remember everything written, but it didn’t last. If someone’s parchment runs out of space, it will automatically start erasing the older messages.”
So no scrolling up or down, Emily thought. If someone writes something embarrassing, they can keep writing in the hopes of making it vanish.
She shook her head as she placed her parchment on the table, then folded it up and placed it in her pocket. Everyone on Earth seemed to like the idea of instant gratification, but the Allied Lands knew better. The chat parchments were so much better than anything they’d had before, like English letters, stirrups and several other minor ideas from Earth, that everyone would be delighted when they saw them. Aloha would probably become rich, just marketing the chat parchments to her fellow students. It probably wouldn’t be long before they were unceremoniously banned from class.
It may be years before someone comes up with something as functional as a computer, she thought. But I can wait.
“Thank you,” she said, sincerely.
“You’re welcome,” Aloha said. She ran her hand through her dark hair. “I had the idea of making the parchments tingle slightly when someone writes a message, so you can keep it in your pocket and look at it when someone writes you a message. You can alter the overlapping charms, if you wish, to make it sound a bell instead. But that would be rather noticeable.”
They’ll be banned from class for sure, Emily thought, amused. Her old teachers on Earth had always banned cell phones from their classes, which hadn’t stopped a number of students from smuggling them in anyway and using them when the teacher wasn’t looking. But someone could always turn off the noise.
Alassa frowned. “What would happen if someone burned the parchment?”
“You’d lose your link to the network,” Aloha said. She’d learned that word from Emily, back when they’d been discussing the concept. “It might bring down the entire network, depending on precisely what happens. I’ve tried with a couple of linked parchments in the past, but never with six separate groups of interlinked charms. Try not to do it.”
“We won’t,” Emily said. “How do you feel about your exams?”
“I should have the results in a week,” Aloha said. Fourth Years were always marked first, Emily had been told; they were either leaving the school, with basic qualifications, or returning for Fifth Year. “And then … Fifth Year. I hear tell they’re going to have someone special come to teach you and I.”
“Martial Magic,” Emily guessed.
“Yep,” Aloha said. “We’re outside the standard course now.”
Emily shrugged. There was something to be said for repeating the standard course time and time again. She’d failed Second Year Martial Magic, after all, and even picking up on it again after returning from Mountaintop had still left her in limbo. She was expecting to have to repeat the entire year during Fourth Year. It would be a shame, in many ways, but she had to admit she needed the practice.
She looked up as the door opened and Frieda stepped into the room. Her former Shadow had blossomed in Whitehall, although Emily still felt a little responsible for her. It was almost like having a little sister.
“The Grandmaster wants to see you,” Frieda said. “He didn’t sound pleased when he spoke to me.”
“Maybe that was because you were playing Freeze Tag again,” Aloha said, not unkindly. “I thought you and the rest of the new bugs had already got in trouble for it.”
“That was an accident,” Frieda protested. “And they didn’t say we shouldn’t play!”
Emily smiled, then rose to her feet. “Do you mind the others staying here?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jade said. “I have to go back to the Sergeant, anyway. He probably wants me to do more hard work. Character-forming, he calls it.”
“We’ll see you afterwards,” Alassa said, threateningly. “You have to try on a dress or two.”
Emily groaned, then smoothed down her robes. “If we must,” she said, with a sigh. “But nothing too revealing.”
Alassa grinned. “Just you wait,” she said. “Wait and see.”