“They say you can get a good view from here,” the voice said. “Do you like what you see?”
Gannet ignored the voice, choosing instead to look out of the window at the sight below, even though it tore at his soul. Fourteen people – nine men, five women – were positioned in the stocks, surrounded by the City Guard. They’d been arrested only two days ago and slammed into pillory, without even a pretence of a trial. But then, everyone had known they were guilty of the charges laid against them. They just hadn’t believed that they were crimes.
They won’t last much longer, he thought, morbidly. One woman – she’d been thirty, if he recalled correctly – was already lolling to one side, her head bruised and battered where pieces of rotten fruit had struck her. They haven’t had anything to eat or drink since they were chained up in the stocks.
He clenched his fists in bitter, helpless rage. Five minutes. It had been only five minutes that had made the difference between his escape and him being arrested with the others. If Rahsia hadn’t delayed him with news of potential new allies among the magicians …
I’d be down there too, he thought. Trapped, helpless and surrounded by the people I wanted to save.
It had all seemed so simple, once upon a time. The New Learning had swept through Zangaria like wildfire, bringing change in its wake. Hundreds of thousands of people could now read, write and do their sums, without the aid of a guild. The printing presses had followed, allowing the newly-enlightened population to actually learn about the world surrounding them for the first time in their lives. And, with the political ideas emitting from Cockatrice, Gannet had dared to hope they were on the cusp of real lasting change – and freedom.
He knew, without false modesty, that he was smart. He’d been a merchant, after all, and no merchant lasted long without a canny eye for opportunities. But his low birth had doomed him to obscurity. His lack of connections ensured he would never be anything more than a small shopkeeper, beneath the attention of those who called themselves his betters. But why were they his betters? What separated an aristocrat from a commoner, beyond an accident of birth? Aristocrats were no more or less moral than commoners, he knew from bitter experience; commoners could show more nobility than some of the noblest aristocrats.
Cold hatred flared in his heart as he lifted his eyes and stared at Swanhaven Castle, a brooding dark mass looming over the city. Lord Hans and Lady Regina lived there, competing for the favour of King Randor and struggling to win the Barony of Swanhaven for themselves. One of them had issued the orders to crack down hard on the freethinkers, taking his friends into custody and placing them in the stocks to dry. Gannet neither knew nor cared which of them had actually issued the orders. They were both part of a vile and corrupt system that needed to die.
There were stories, hundreds of them, of brave swordsmen who’d fought their way into castles and emerged with the maiden fair, but Gannet knew he was no fighter. Like all commoners, he’d been denied the chance to wield anything more dangerous than a club. It was death for him to own a sword, let alone seek training in its use. And, with the castle surrounded by wards as well as armed guards, even a truly legendary swordsman would be unable to find a way past the defences and into the keep. There was nothing he could do.
He swung around, suddenly, to glare at Rahsia. “Did you know this would happen?”
The dark-haired girl shook her head. She was around twenty, if he was any judge, although magicians were fond of making themselves look younger. She’d introduced herself, when they’d met for the first time, as a representative from a handful of magicians who also wanted political change. Gannet had been suspicious – magicians were practically noblemen – but she’d done nothing to justify his concerns. Indeed, he’d even found her quite pleasant company when they’d talked about other things. She certainly wasn’t one of the young firebrands who talked of nothing, but revolution and war – and the paradise that was sure to come, once the aristocrats were dead.
“There was no warning,” she said, softly. “We have no contact with the magicians in the castle.”
Gannet nodded, cursing inwardly as a loud cheer rose up from the square below. Someone had probably thrown a rock and killed one of the prisoners, but he didn’t want to look to find out for sure. A friend of his might have died. If they’d been interrogated first, before being put on display, they might even have betrayed him. He knew he didn’t dare go back to his garret.
They won’t have found everyone, he told himself. I can rebuild …
“There’s nothing to be done here,” Rahsia said. She rose from the bed and held out a hand. “We should go.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” Gannet said. It wasn’t quite accurate – a dosshouse would be happy to put him up without asking any questions – but for once in his life he didn’t know what to do. “They’ve won.”
“Not yet,” Rahsia said. She gave him a considering look. “The core problem, as you know, is that the lords and ladies are backed by the king.”
Gannet scowled back. “Of course I know,” he snapped. “Everyone knows that!”
It was true, too. The peasants might – might – be able to overthrow a village headman, or a minor noble. But the barons – or the king himself – would be sure to respond. Entire villages had been burned to the ground, their populations slaughtered or sold into slavery, just for daring to lift a hand against their lords and masters. It had made the survivors unsurprisingly reluctant to risk taking a stand, even when their betters insisted on taxing the villages so harshly that their mere survival was in doubt. No wonder, Gannet thought, that so many had fled the lands to the towns – or Cockatrice. There was nothing left for them in the countryside.
“Then the problem lies with the king,” Rahsia said. “We should seek to kill him and exterminate his line. And there will never be a better chance.”
“The king,” Gannet repeated. He was a minor merchant, by all the gods; he didn’t even live in Alexis! “You want to assassinate the king?”
“Yes,” Rahsia said, firmly. “And his daughter. The Iron Duke – the former Iron Duke – has already been disgraced. With the king and his crown princess gone, there will be no legitimate heir to the throne.”
“There are barons,” Gannet pointed out.
“None of whom had a clear-cut claim,” Rahsia countered. “Those who did were killed after the coup attempt in Alexis. The survivors do not have a strong blood-link to the Line of Alexis. There will be civil war if they start disputing over who should take the throne.”
Gannet thought, fast. Like all merchantmen, he did his best to keep appraised of power struggles amongst the aristocracy, even though his ability to affect them was practically non-existent. The strongest surviving baron was, ironically, the one who was least interested in actually wielding her power – and, perhaps, the one who would be the best monarch for the country.
“There’s Baroness Cockatrice,” he said. “Would she take the throne?”
“I have it on good authority that Lady Emily is not interested in such power,” Rahsia said, dryly. “But even if she was, she’d be challenged by the other barons. They would see her as a more dangerous threat than any other.”
“So there will be civil war,” Gannet said.
“Yes,” Rahsia said. “The social structure that binds the country together will shatter once the king is dead. Aristocrat will turn on aristocrat, which will give you the chance to prepare your forces to act. And all you have to do is kill the king and his sole heir.”
Gannet hesitated. King Randor had to go – the man had worked with the commoners to save his throne, then started to marginalise them as best as he could – but he had no particular dislike of the princess. He’d heard stories, of course, yet they’d all been so inflated by the time they’d reached Swanhaven that he didn’t believe them. And besides, some of the stories about Lady Regina were far worse.
But the death of one young girl was a small price to pay for freedom.
“It won’t be easy,” he said. That was an understatement, all right. “How do we even get into the castle?”
Rahsia smiled. “Let me worry about that,” she said. “You just work on building up a strike force.”
The magic felt … odd.
Power sparkled around her fingertips as she cast the spell. A glowing ball of light appeared in front of her, casting a soft radiance over the chamber. It was a simple spell, one she’d mastered very quickly, yet it felt odd. Her magic felt odd. The light globe started to glow brighter as she pumped more power into the spell, then changed rapidly into an ominous red glow that pulsed against her skin. It felt almost as if she were being sunburned. She cursed under her breath, fighting to control the spell; slowly, far too slowly, the light globe returned to normal and drifted into the air.
“Not too bad,” Void said.
Emily scowled at him. “It’s shabby,” she protested, crossly. Her head throbbed as she cancelled the spell. “And it could have turned dangerous.”
“But it didn’t,” Void said. He rose to his feet and held out a hand to Emily, inviting her to stand. “You’re doing better than I expected, under the circumstances.”
Emily felt her cheeks heat. “Thank you,” she said, as she took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. “But it still feels frustrating.”
“Your magic has expanded,” Void said, “without giving you the time you needed to learn to handle it. The spells you cast by instinct are now massively overpowered. You just need to learn to control the flow of magic again.”
He turned and walked through the door into the next room. Emily followed him, shaking her head in private amusement as he motioned her to a chair and picked up a large jug of Kava from the sideboard. She knew he had servants – she’d met them when he’d rescued her, so long ago – but he hadn’t brought any of them into her house. Instead, they’d split the cooking duties between them. And he’d never complained about her food.
She studied him as he turned to take the seat facing her. His appearance had changed, several times, since they’d first met; this time, he was tall, with long dark hair that flowed down to his shoulders and an angular face that reminded her of the hunting hawks she’d watched in Zangaria. His dark eyes were easily the darkest she’d ever seen, so dark she sometimes fancied she could just fall into them and never climb out. And the aura of power, which hung around him like a shroud, warned anyone who met Void that he was a very dangerous man.
“You have been doing well,” he said, as he passed her a mug of Kava. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” Emily said.
Void frowned. “No nightmares?”
“Not really,” Emily said. She had been taking potions every night for a week, but even after that she hadn’t had many bad dreams. She’d expected to revisit the duel again and again in her sleep, yet she’d seen almost nothing. “Is that a bad thing?”
“You tell me,” Void said.
Emily frowned. She’d killed a man, personally. It wasn’t the first time she’d killed, but it was the first time she’d done it with her bare hands. Master Grey had wanted to kill her and she’d killed him … and she felt almost nothing, as if she’d lost the ability to care. She’d snuffed out his life to keep him from taking hers …
She looked down at her hands. They were shaking.
“I don’t know,” she said, finally.
Void cocked his head. “And how are you feeling physically?”
Emily took a sip of her Kava before answering. “I have a slight headache,” she said. She rubbed her eyes with her free hand. “And it feels like my skin is on fire. Is that normal?”
“Very little about this is normal,” Void said. “I think your mana reserves have swelled past the point you can handle them. You need to spend more time in the spellchambers, casting spells.”
Or draining the magic into a battery, Emily thought. It hadn’t been too hard to set up another couple of batteries, once her magic had renewed herself. But what happens if this carries on?
“It’s a muscle,” Void said, seemingly unaware of her thoughts. “You need to practice constantly to keep it in shape.”
He shrugged. “But you can handle that, I think,” he added. “You haven’t gone mad, thankfully.”
Emily gave him a sharp look. “Is that why you stayed? Did you think I would go mad?”
Void met her eyes, unapologetically. “The possibility needed to be considered,” he said, firmly. “And …”
“And someone had to be there to … handle me if I went mad,” Emily interrupted. She couldn’t help feeling a stab of betrayal. Void was the closest thing she had to a real father, but he’d stayed with her out of fear she’d go mad. “Did you plan to kill me?”
Void held her gaze. “Would you rather leave a prospective necromancer to her own devices?”
Emily shivered. Void had saved her life … but Lady Barb and the Grandmaster had both warned her that he shouldn’t be taken for granted. He’d done a great deal of dirty work for the White Council in the past, trampling roughshod over everything else just to get the job done. She had no doubt he would have killed her if she’d gone mad …
… And he would have been right. A maddened magician with her level of control – and her knowledge from another world – would have been very dangerous. But the thought didn’t make her feel any better.
“No,” she said, finally. She put the mug down on the table. “But I haven’t gone mad, have I?”
“No,” Void agreed. “And the more you practice with your magic, the easier it should become to handle it.”
He cleared his throat, loudly. “There are, however, a number of matters we should discuss,” he said, changing the subject. “For starters, Mistress Irene informs me that you will need to be back at Whitehall within the week if you wish to take your Fourth Year exams. Under the circumstances, Emily, I have no doubt you could redo Third and Fourth Year if you wished, instead of trying to take the exams now. I suggest you think about it over the next day or so and then let me know what you want to do.”
Emily didn’t need to think about it. “I want to go back,” she said. “I can’t leave Caleb in the lurch.”
Void smiled. “Missing him already, are we?”
“Yes,” Emily said, feeling her cheeks warming again. She’d wanted to invite her friends – and her boyfriend – to the house, but Void had cautioned her against it. “Is that so wrong?”
“No,” Void said. He smirked. “I would advise you not to discuss your expanded powers with him, as he might get a little jealous, but that’s your choice. You might also want to warn him that you’re not entirely stable right now. There’s a good chance you’ll say something to him you’ll both regret.”
Emily coloured. The first few days in the house had been bad, very bad, as her magic slowly returned. She’d found herself crying for no reason, then screaming her rage to the heavens, unable to keep herself under control. Void had been immensely patient, she’d come to realise slowly; she doubted there were many tutors at Whitehall who would have put up with her for longer than a few hours. She’d probably have been expelled several times over by now.
Void shrugged. “That does lead neatly to a second pair of issues we need to discuss,” he added. “The first is this.”
He reached into a pocket, produced a small wooden box and passed it to her. Emily opened it carefully, after casting a handful of spells to check it was safe, and blinked in surprise as she realised it contained a ring. There was a faint hint of magic surrounding the gold and silver band, but it didn’t feel hostile. In fact, it felt almost welcoming.
She looked up at him. “Are you asking me to marry you?”
Void blinked, nonplussed. “What?”
Emily sighed. “Where I come from, married couples exchange rings,” she explained. Void had listened to her stories of Earth with great interest, but she’d never discussed marriages with him. “The boy offers the girl a ring when he wants to marry her.”
Void looked faintly displeased. “Traditionally,” he said stiffly, “a sorcerer will receive four rings in his – or her – lifetime. The first one” – he pointed to the box in Emily’s hand – “is a family ring, which is generally presented when the sorcerer is deemed mature. Most families hand them out in a private ceremony after the sorcerer passes his first set of exams. Among other things, they serve as proof of identity.”
Emily looked down at the ring for a long moment. “And what does this one mean?”
“People will ask why I haven’t given you a ring,” Void said, dryly. “That one marks you as a member of my family.”
“Oh,” Emily said. It was suddenly very hard to speak. She had to swallow, hard, before she could say a word. “Do … do you have any other family?”
“I’m the last of my family,” Void said, curtly. “But I do not believe they would object to me welcoming you into the family. It is far from uncommon to adopt promising newborn magicians and they are always treated as if they were born into the family.”
He shrugged. “You can wear the ring, if you like, or keep it with you,” he added. “Certain people may ask you to present it. If they do, make sure you have it on your finger when you show it to them.”
Emily nodded, looking down at the ring. “What are the others? I mean, the other rings?”
Void held up a hand, revealing three rings. “You’ll get a ring when you complete your Sixth Year exams and leave Whitehall,” he said. “Your master, assuming you do an apprenticeship, will give you a ring when you complete your training. And you’ll get a fourth ring when you have a child.”
“You’ve only got three rings,” Emily said.
“So I do,” Void agreed. He tapped the table, firmly. “You have entered a formal courtship with Caleb, as I understand it. You will be going to Beneficence after your exams, correct?”
“Yes,” Emily said. She had no intention of letting him distract her for long. “I’m going to meet his parents. Lady Barb said she would accompany me.”
“She’s there to be your chaperone,” Void said, curtly. “Under the terms of a formal courtship, his parents will be taking a good long look at you and your choice of chaperone.”
Emily frowned. “Will they expect you to come?”
“It is generally assumed that a chaperone will be female,” Void said. “A combat sorceress would be regarded as an excellent chaperone. She will be expected to defend your honour to his parents. However, there will be times when you are expected to defend your own honour.”
“I see,” Emily said, uncertainly.
“His siblings may challenge you, gently,” Void added. “Keep your tone polite, but don’t give them any ground. They’ll be looking for signs of weakness.”
He paused. “You and Caleb will be expected to behave yourselves,” he warned. “His family will be watching to see how you treat him – and vice versa. When you’re at a formal setting, be formal. Don’t kiss in public …”
“I wouldn’t,” Emily objected.
“And I strongly advise you not to be caught in bed with Caleb while you’re in his family home,” Void finished, ignoring her comment. “His family will not approve.”
He held up a hand before she could say a word. “Lady Barb will probably go through how you should behave with you too,” he added. “I suggest you listen to her. She’s been through it herself.”
Emily blinked, distracted from her embarrassment. “I thought she’d never married!”
“Her courtship failed,” Void said. “Yours …”
He shrugged. “The purpose of a courtship is to build up a lasting relationship,” he said, after a moment. “Sometimes, two people find that they are incompatible, no matter what they do. There is no shame in breaking off a courtship, even as you approach the wedding day; better that, Emily, than being tied to someone you don’t like.”
“I understand,” Emily said, quietly. She took a breath. “What happens if his family doesn’t like me?”
“Or thinks you’re too dangerous to bring into the family,” Void added. “It would depend on Caleb. Is he willing to give up his family to be with you?”
Emily swallowed. “I don’t know.”
“You’re not just marrying him,” Void said. “You’ll be joining his entire family. You might discover that you can’t bear the thought of being married to them.”
Emily looked down at her pale hands. She would have left her family without a second thought; hell, she’d certainly never tried to find a way back to Earth. But Caleb? He’d admitted he had problems with his family, but he didn’t hate them the way Emily had hated her stepfather. Would he leave his family for her? Could she ask him to make such a sacrifice?
“I don’t want to think about it,” she admitted, reluctantly.
“No one will think any less of you if you decide that you cannot bear to be married to them,” Void said. “There are dozens of failed courtships every year, Emily. But you are the one who has to make that choice. I cannot dictate it for you.”
“Fulvia tried to dictate who Melissa married,” Emily pointed out, mulishly.
“I’m not Fulvia,” Void countered. “And I have very little to gain or lose from your courtship. Fulvia had the interests of an entire family to consider; I … my position is not dependent on you.”
Emily considered it. “Is that true of his parents?”
Void shrugged. “Caleb is the second-born, isn’t he?”
“I think so,” Emily said. She forced herself to remember what Caleb had said. “He’s definitely got at least one older brother and a second brother – I think he’s three or four years younger than Caleb.”
“They’re not that important a family,” Void said, dispassionately. “They may see advantages in having their son married to you. I think they may be a little disappointed that it wasn’t their eldest son who started to court you, because he’d be the heir. But if something were to happen to him, Caleb would be next in line.”
“Caleb isn’t going to worry about that,” Emily objected.
“He should,” Void said. “Unless he leaves the family, he will be the heir if something happens to his older brother.”
“It all sounds very cold,” Emily said.
“Courtships are cold,” Void said. “But when they work, they tend to work very well.”
He shrugged, again. “If you really want to go back to Whitehall, I’ll arrange for you to be collected tomorrow; we can shut the house down together. After that, you’ll be the only person who can enter and leave at will.”
Emily felt a stab of bitter pain. The Grandmaster was dead. He’d left her the house and a letter, warning her that her life was about to become a great deal harder. Part of her just wanted to stay in the house, wrapping her wards around herself and forgetting the rest of the world. But she couldn’t, not if she wanted to pass her exams. She needed those qualifications to advance.
And Alassa would kill me if I didn’t attend her wedding, she thought.
The thought caused another bitter pang. Alassa and Imaiqah would be leaving Whitehall after their exams. She’d be alone; her only true friend left at the school would be the Gorgon, unless she left too. Frieda would be staying, of course, and so would Caleb, but it wouldn’t be the same. The former was two years younger than her; the latter was her boyfriend, not someone she could confide in.
“I have somewhere I need to be,” Void added, quietly. “I probably won’t see you again for a while. But, for what it’s worth, I’m very proud of you.”
“Thank you,” Emily said, quietly. “For this and … and everything.”
“You’re welcome,” Void said. He tapped the box. “Aren’t you going to put on the ring?”
Emily hesitated, then cast a handful of detection spells. Void nodded in approval – he’d warned her, several times, to be sure she checked before touching anything – and waited until she was sure the ring was safe. It felt warm against her bare skin, she discovered, pulsing faintly with magic. And it felt almost as if it belonged.
“I wonder,” she said, slowly. “Does this make you my father?”
“It makes you part of the family, such as it is,” Void said. He’d never talked about his family, even when he’d encouraged her to open up about her mother and stepfather. “There’s only me now.”
“I’m sorry,” Emily said.
“Don’t be,” Void told her. “Their deaths weren’t your fault.”
Emily looked down at the ring, drinking in the details. It looked as if he’d wrapped a piece of golden thread around a silver thread and melted them together, weaving magic into the raw material until it was almost alive. She’d seen more elaborate pieces of jewellery – Alassa wore them frequently – but the ring was special. It told her that she belonged.
Carefully, she placed it on her finger. It was a little loose, but as the magic spiked around the ring it tightened just enough to ensure it wouldn’t fall off. She pulled at it and discovered that it needed a hard tug to pull it free. She’d never really liked rings – she’d never had the money to buy any jewellery on Earth – but Void’s ring seemed perfect.
“Welcome to the family, Emily,” Void said. He took a breath. “And now you can go practice your spells for the rest of the day.”
Emily laughed and did as she was told.