“I want her gone!”
Lady Barb sighed. She’d had a feeling what the staff meeting was about, two days after Grandmaster Gordian had been formally invested with the robes and power of the Grandmaster, but she’d hoped she’d been wrong. The death of the previous Grandmaster – and Master Grey – had rattled more than a few cages in the White City. Far too many powerful people wondered just what sort of monster Void had introduced to Whitehall.
But Emily isn’t a monster, she told herself, as her eyes swept the room, silently gauging how much support she might expect from the senior tutors. She’s … she’s a very flawed person, but a great one. And Gordian …
Grandmaster Gordian dominated the room. He was a tall, powerfully-built man, with long dark hair drawn back in a ponytail. His face seemed somehow ageless, yet lined enough to make it clear he was no longer young; his dark eyes seemed to flicker backwards and forward as they moved from face to face. As the new Grandmaster, a word from him would be quite enough to end the careers of anyone in the room. Lady Barb doubted that many would dare to challenge him openly. But she had no choice.
She took a breath and leaned forward, drawing his attention. “You have no grounds to expel her,” she said, flatly. It was unwise to challenge a senior magician in his place of power, but she wasn’t planning to remain at Whitehall anyway. “She could challenge your decision in front of the council.”
Gordian stared back at her, evenly. “No grounds?”
He forced himself to calm his voice, then went on. “In her first year, the school is invaded by a necromancer,” he snapped. “A number of students are killed …”
“Before she killed the necromancer,” Lady Barb said. She wasn’t sure how Emily had managed to kill Shadye, but she had. “You cannot blame her for the invasion.”
“In her second year, the school is infested with a Mimic,” Gordian continued. “That … creature … would not have escaped, were it not for her!”
“You cannot blame her for that either,” Lady Barb said.
“She also conducted experiments that could have proven disastrous, if unchecked,” Gordian snapped. “She should have been expelled for those alone.”
He tapped the table, sharply. “In her third year, she goes to Mountaintop and leaves the school in ruins,” he added. “And in her fourth year, she kills a tutor!”
“Who manipulated her into issuing something that sounded like a challenge,” Lady Barb pointed out, curtly. It was true, but it wasn’t the version of the story everyone believed. “I don’t think you can blame her for that either.”
“She should have been expelled for her actions in Second Year,” Gordian insisted. “And all of that does not include the results of her conduct outside the school. The Ashworths and Ashfalls nearly went to battle because of her.”
Lady Barb pressed her fingertips together, a mannerism she knew had always irritated her father. “Grandmaster Hasdrubal was the one charged with determining her punishment for her actions,” she said. “He chose not to expel her. You do not have the legal right to retroactively overrule your predecessor and expel her from Whitehall.”
“I am the Grandmaster,” Gordian snapped. “I do have that authority.”
Lady Barb forced herself to meet his eyes. “If you expel her – a very big if – she will have no trouble finding a place at Mountaintop, Stronghold or Laughter,” she said. “They will be delighted to offer her a place.”
“Laughter is very exclusive,” Gordian pointed out.
“The core requirements are breasts and a vagina,” Lady Barb said, knowing the crudeness would irritate him still further. “And I assure you that Emily qualifies on both counts. Her marks in the exams were high and would have been higher still, Grandmaster, if she’d had more time to prepare. She will have no difficulty gaining admittance to any of the other schools.”
“Then let her go,” Gordian insisted. “They can have her.”
“That would be dishonourable,” Sergeant Miles stated. “She saved the school, Grandmaster; three times, by my count. We are indebted to her.”
“After plunging it into danger,” Gordian snapped.
Lady Barb leaned forward, calmly. “There is another problem,” she said. “She may be apprenticed to her … to her father. A girl with such remarkable talent, trained by a Lone Power of his reputation … the potential for disaster is staggeringly high.”
“There are any number of prospective sorcerers who would sell their souls to train under a Lone Power,” Gordian said. But he sounded a little uncertain for the first time since the meeting had begun. “Let her father take her, if he wishes.”
He doesn’t know, Lady Barb noted. Emily’s true origins had leaked in Zangaria, but they hadn’t leaked very far. He believes the cover story.
“I submit to you that allowing Void to take her would not be optimal,” Lady Barb said, gently. “Right now, she has friends at Whitehall and tutors she respects. There is time to shape her, to help guide her down a path that will keep her from becoming a danger to the Allied Lands. Letting her go will cost us that opportunity, once and for all. The very best we could hope for is that she would allow herself to be guided by other tutors in other schools.”
“And that would reflect badly on Whitehall,” Professor Locke stated.
“Merely expelling her for daring to save us would be bad enough,” Sergeant Miles added.
Gordian scowled. “There is no guarantee that a Child of Destiny will be favourable to us,” he pointed out. “Destiny may have his own plans.”
“Keeping her here is the best chance we have of ensuring that we can ride the rapids of change,” Lady Barb said. The prospect of Emily being apprenticed to Void was not to be borne. Void was dangerously unpredictable at the best of times. “We should not consider expelling her.”
“She is dangerous,” Gordian said.
“Not intentionally,” Lady Barb said.
“She is not a malicious student,” Mistress Kirdáne said. “I have never caught her playing tricks on the younglings, or being cruel to dumb animals.”
“One does not need malice to be dangerous,” Gordian said. “Letting her return to Whitehall goes against my better judgement.”
Lady Barb smiled, inwardly. She’d won.
“Allow me to propose a compromise,” she said, pressing her advantage. “You take her back as a probationary student.”
“That would mean she wouldn’t be taking the oaths,” Gordian said.
“But it would also mean you could expel her if things went wrong,” Lady Barb reminded him. Gordian wouldn’t want Emily to take the oaths, not when they were binding on the staff as well as the students. “Apprentice her to Sergeant Miles. She’ll need additional training in martial magic …”
“Out of the question,” Gordian snapped. “She knows quite enough dangerous magic already.”
And she’s quite capable of inventing her own, Lady Barb thought. She’d given a great deal of thought to taking Emily on herself, even though it would have meant staying at Whitehall for another two years. What will Emily do without proper supervision?
“Then let her work with me,” Professor Locke said.
“You already have one probationary student working under you,” Gordian said.
“I can use two,” Professor Locke insisted. He shot Gordian a look that Lady Barn found impossible to interpret. “My new … project … could use an additional pair of hands.”
“It could,” Gordian agreed. “And it would keep her out of trouble.”
Lady Barb scowled. “Emily is not short of enemies,” she said, flatly. “She needs training in protecting herself.”
“I rather doubt that will be a problem,” Gordian said. “She killed a combat sorcerer!”
“That doesn’t make her invulnerable,” Lady Barb snapped.
Gordian held up his hand. “My mind is made up,” he said. “I will summon Lady Emily to Whitehall and speak with her personally. If she’s willing to be a probationary student until I see fit to lift her probation, she may return for her fifth year. Professor Locke will ensure she is kept out of trouble. If not … she can transfer to another school. Whitehall has stood for a thousand years …”
“More like eight hundred,” Professor Locke said. “Although, to be fair, we have no idea when the castle was actually built.”
Gordian silenced him with a glare. “Whitehall has stood for over a thousand years without her and it will stand for a thousand more, with or without her,” he said. “One student, no matter how interesting she is, cannot be allowed to put every other student at risk.”
He rose to his feet. “Lady Barb, you may inform her of our decision,” he added. “And we will hold your exit interview after I have spoken to her.”
It was a dismissal, Lady Barb knew. A rude one, against all the etiquette that had been drilled into her when she’d been declared her father’s heir. And yet, a dismissal none the less. She thinned her lips as she rose, nodding in curt understanding. She’d have a long chat with Emily before taking her back to Whitehall. If nothing else, she had to be warned that the new Grandmaster wasn’t her friend …
She shook her head, irritated. It was going to be a far from easy year.
Poor Emily, she thought. May the gods help her.
Whitehall felt … different.
Emily could feel the chance as soon as she stepped through the main doors, leaving Lady Barb and Frieda behind in the Courtyard. The wards were different, no longer echoing with the personality of their former master. She felt a pang, deep in her heart, as she recalled the old Grandmaster, a man she’d loved and admired in equal measure. He’d given his life to save hers, back when the demon had infected the school. And he’d had enough faith in her to believe she’d survive the duel after his death.
He didn’t deserve to die, she thought.
She braced herself, then walked slowly up the stairs towards the Grandmaster’s office, her footsteps echoing in the empty hall. Lady Barb had offered to teleport Emily and Frieda to Whitehall, but Emily had insisted on hiring a carriage, even though it took longer. She’d needed time to think about what Lady Barb had said, when she’d come to fetch her. But now there was no more time to think. The wards grew stronger as she reached the top of the stairwell and walked down the long corridor, glancing from left to right as she realised that the portraits hanging from the walls had been changed. She didn’t recognise any of the figures looking back at her with disapproving expressions.
At least they took down the picture of me, she thought, wryly. She’d never liked that painting, although she did have to admit that anyone who used it to look for her was going to be disappointed. She’d never been that beautiful – or muscular – in her life. But is that actually a bad sign?
A large portrait of the former Grandmaster hung at the end of the corridor, by the door to the Grandmaster’s office. Emily paused to study it, silently admiring the artist’s talent. The Grandmaster stood in the midst of a crowd of hooded inhuman creatures, holding his staff in one hand and a book in the other; it was hard to tell, somehow, if he was fighting the creatures or directing them. She smiled in sudden amusement as she realised the artist had never seen the Grandmaster in person. His eyes had been drawn in shadow, instead of covered with a blindfold. She still shuddered when she thought of the Grandmaster’s missing eyes.
Former Grandmaster, she reminded herself, sharply. The man she’d come to see would not be pleased, Lady Barb had warned, if she treated him as a temporary Grandmaster. He holds the post now.
She braced herself, then cast a reflection spell and checked her appearance. Lady Barb had advised her to wear sorcerer’s black, a long dark robe that obscured her curves and made her look studious. It contrasted oddly with her pale skin, brown hair and dark eyes, she considered, yet it was probably better than wearing trousers or a dress. She’d considered wearing school robes, but that would have seemed presumptuous. Grandmaster Gordian didn’t want her here. The thought caused her another pang as she raised her hand and tapped once on the door, feeling a ward shimmering in response to her touch. Whitehall was the first true home she’d had, even before she’d come to the Nameless World. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.
You’ll have to leave at the end of Sixth Year anyway, she reminded herself, as the door swung open. They won’t let you stay on as a teaching assistant until you have far more experience.
The Grandmaster – the former Grandmaster – had allowed visitors to step directly into his office, but Grandmaster Gordian clearly felt differently. Emily stepped through the door into a waiting room, dominated by a horse-faced woman wearing red robes and sitting in front of a wooden desk. The former Grandmaster hadn’t had a secretary either, Emily thought. She couldn’t help wondering if that was a bad sign.
She stopped in front of the desk, resisting the urge to curtsey. On one hand, it would be a sign of respect; on the other, the secretary might think she was being mocked. There was no way to know just how close she was to her boss, but she wouldn’t have the post unless her master trusted her completely. Or had bound her to him with unbreakable oaths. Emily shuddered inwardly at the thought, then forced herself to meet the older woman’s dark eyes.
“Lady Emily,” she said. Her voice was very cold. “Be seated. The Grandmaster will see you as soon as possible.”
Emily turned and saw the bench, placed neatly against the wall. She felt a flicker of irritation as she walked over to the bench and sat down, understanding that the Grandmaster was playing games. Alassa – and her father – had taught her more about such power plays than she’d ever wanted to know. By making her wait, he was making it clear that she was coming as a supplicant, putting her firmly in her place. She was tempted to pull a book out of her bag – either one of her textbooks or a novel Frieda had recommended to her – but she forcibly resisted the temptation. There was nothing to be gained by antagonising the secretary or her master. Instead, she toyed with the snake-bracelet and ran through some of the mental disciplines Lady Barb had hammered into her head. She needed to be calm when she faced the Grandmaster.
It was nearly ten minutes, by her reckoning, when a low chime echoed through the air. The secretary glanced upwards, her lips moving silently, then turned her head until she was looking directly at Emily. Emily resisted the urge to shrink backwards under the older woman’s gaze and merely looked back, neither resisting nor bending. There was a long moment of silence, then the secretary nodded curtly.
“You may enter,” she said, flatly.
Emily rose and paced through the door, clasping her hands behind her back as she entered the office. It had changed too, she discovered; the office was bare, save for a large wooden desk and a chair. A single scroll rested on the desk, but otherwise it was empty. The bookshelves and paintings had been removed, leaving the walls completely barren of anything to catch the eye. It served a double purpose, she realised, as the door closed behind her. There was nothing that would tell her anything about the room’s occupant, no hint as to his personality and disposition; there was also nothing that would distract her from him. The man himself, sitting behind the desk, rose to his feet and nodded once to her. There was no attempt to shake hands.
No chair for me, Emily noted, as Gordian sat again. The room felt very cold. And no Kava either.
That, she knew from her etiquette lessons, was a bad sign, a touch of calculated rudeness that made it clear she was far from welcome. A welcome guest would always be offered a drink, which could be politely declined. She pushed the flicker of irritation aside and studied Gordian for a long moment, wondering when the genial man she’d met last year had turned into a cold-hearted bureaucrat. But then, being given responsibility for an entire school had to change a man. And Whitehall was far more than just a school.
Gordian studied her back with equal interest. “Lady Emily,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”
I wasn’t aware I had a choice, Emily thought.
She resisted the urge to say it out loud. Lady Barb had warned her to be on her best behaviour, no matter what provocation she faced. The Grandmaster would seize on any excuse to expel her from Whitehall, casting her adrift to an uncertain future. Emily had no idea what she’d do, if she couldn’t return to Whitehall. Go to Mountaintop? Or try Stronghold? Caleb had told her enough horror stories about that school that she knew she didn’t want to go there, unless there was no other choice.
“I do not want you at this school,” Gordian said, bluntly. She’d expected it, but his words still stung badly. “You are a disruptive influence. Whitehall’s existence has been placed in danger, because of you. The Kingdom of Zangaria has been turned upside down, because of you. The Allied Lands themselves have been changed, because of you.”
Emily kept her mouth firmly closed. It was true enough, she supposed, that Whitehall had been in danger because of her, but she hadn’t done any of it deliberately. She’d never even known about magic before Shadye had kidnapped her, let alone just how much power her knowledge – from a far more advanced world – gave her in the Allied Lands. And she had to admit that her changes, her innovations, had had bad effects as well as good. She’d unleashed forces that might never be tamed by the current ruling class.
“You are reckless, headstrong and dangerous,” Gordian continued. His voice was very calm, but she had no difficulty in hearing the underlying anger. “If it was up to me, you would have been expelled back in your second year. You chose to ignore rules devised for your safety and the safety of your fellow students. Grandmaster Hasdrubal should have expelled you on the spot. It set a poor precedent for later disciplinary action. Challenging a tutor to a duel …”
“He manipulated me into challenging him,” Emily said, unable to keep her mouth closed any longer. “If he hadn’t wanted the duel, he could have refused the challenge …”
“Yes, he could have done,” Gordian agreed. He made an odd gesture with his hand; it took her a moment to recognise that he’d conceded her point. “But a student challenging a tutor does set a grim precedent.”
Emily met his eyes. “And a tutor accepting a duel does … what?”
It was hard to keep the bitterness out of her voice, the grim awareness that Master Grey had meant to kill her leaking through. He would have killed her too, if she’d lost. And it would have been perfectly legal. There would have been some consequences for him, she was sure, but he could never have been charged with her murder. As far as the Allied Lands were concerned, an idiotic student would have been killed before she got anyone else in trouble.
Gordian ignored her point. “And then you turn Zangaria upside down,” he said, repeating his earlier point. “Teleporting out of King Randor’s castle, tearing his wards down in the process … what do you think that did to his reputation?”
“You’re the one who told me to divest myself of my holdings in Zangaria,” Emily pointed out. Hindsight told her she’d been wrong; hindsight told her that King Randor hadn’t intended to order her to unleash a holocaust on countless rebels and everyone else caught up in the blast radius. But by then it had been far too late. “He thought he could use me to his own ends.”
“I’m afraid you will find that’s true of almost everyone,” Gordian said. “And you have not – quite – divested yourself of your holdings, have you?”
Emily frowned. Alassa had patched together a compromise, ensuring that while Emily was persona non grata in Zangaria for the nonce she wasn’t exiled for good. Imaiqah would rule the Barony of Cockatrice in Emily’s absence. In truth, Emily wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She’d never wanted to be a great feudal landlady, she’d certainly never wanted to rule the lives of countless people she would never meet. And yet, throwing the Barony back in King Randor’s face almost guaranteed that whoever took her place would try to roll back her reforms. Imaiqah, at least, would hold the barony in stasis.
“They are no longer in my possession.” Emily said, flatly.
Gordian studied her for a long moment. “You should have been expelled several times over,” he said. “Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir,” Emily said. It struck her, suddenly, that she should have been calling him ‘sir’ all along. Calling attention to it might have been a very bad move. But it wasn’t something she’d done with his predecessor. “I understand.”
“If Grandmaster Hasdrubal saw no reason to expel you, I have no legal right to do so,” Gordian added, slowly. “But I can refuse to allow you to return to Whitehall, if you refuse to attend on my terms.”
Emily waited, not trusting herself to speak.
“You will be a probationary student for a set period of time,” Gordian told her. “During that period, you will be under close supervision, from both myself and the other tutors. I will be keeping a very sharp eye on you. Should you do anything that concerns me, you will be formally expelled from the school. Your father will have no legal grounds for protest.”
She’d known it was coming. Lady Barb had warned her. But it still hurt.
“I understand, sir,” Emily said, quietly.
“A probationary student is apprenticed, until they are either removed from probation or expelled, to a tutor,” Gordian continued. “That tutor will take responsibility for their conduct, in exchange for which they will work for him in whatever manner the tutor deems suitable. You will be apprenticed to Professor Locke. He has a … research project that could use your input. Your free time will be his as long as he has a use for you.”
Emily scowled. She would have preferred to be apprenticed to Lady Barb or Sergeant Miles, but Lady Barb was leaving Whitehall and Sergeant Miles had too much else on his plate. She liked the history professor, yet she knew from Aloha that Fifth Year was hard, very hard. If she spent all of her free time, such as there was of it, on his project, how would she manage to keep up with her fellow students? She wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with her life, after leaving Whitehall, but she did know that higher grades would help open doors in the future.
And besides, she thought, remembering the ring on her finger, I don’t want to let Void down.
“I understand, sir,” she said. She’d have to find a book on probationary students and read it quickly, just to discover what else she’d be expected to do. “What is his research project?”
“I believe he would prefer to tell you himself,” Gordian said. “It is his project, after all.”
He cleared his throat, then unwrapped the scroll. “Your exam results,” he said. “They would normally be sent out a week from today, but I made the decision to unseal yours early.”
Emily leaned forward, torn between anticipation and dread. She’d never cared about her exam results on Earth – it wasn’t as if they would have any bearing on her life – but on the Nameless World they were the difference between a brilliant career and remaining just another sorceress. She would never be poor – she could brew Manaskol, if nothing else – yet she wanted to do more with her life, even if she wasn’t quite sure what yet.
“You passed all of your exams,” Gordian said. It didn’t sound as though he was deliberately dragging out the moment, but it certainly felt that way. “Overall, I would have no hesitation – barring the current issue – in allowing you to progress into Fifth Year and take the courses you requested. As it is, there will be one major change.”
Emily felt cold. Lady Barb hadn’t warned her about this.
“You have requested permission to continue to study combat sorcery under Sergeant Miles,” Gordian said. “He ensured that you would take the theoretical side of the Military Magic exam, which you passed. However, I am not minded to allow you to continue in your studies, even in exchange for working as a teaching assistant. Your apprenticeship to Professor Locke will preclude any other such commitments.”
“I need the training,” Emily said.
She swallowed, hard. Nanette was still out there, along with Fulvia and countless other enemies who resented the changes she’d brought to their world. She needed to know how to defend herself. Lady Barb had taught her, more than once, that raw power alone didn’t guarantee victory. As it was, her enhanced magic made her a target for more than just the necromancers.
“Regardless, you will not be training under Sergeant Miles,” Gordian said, flatly. “It would not be proper.”
Emily fought down the urge to say something sharp and unpleasant. She needed that training, but there were several other options. Mistress Danielle had offered private lessons, after all. She made a mental note to write to the older woman once she escaped the office, then looked up at the Grandmaster. He was regarding her with an unreadable expression.
“I advise you to remain in Whitehall until the start of term,” Gordian added. “Griselda has the details of your classes, reading lists and other details. Collect them from her, then Lady Barb will show you to your bedroom. Your … friend … will also be staying here.”
“Yes, sir,” Emily said. Lady Barb had warned her to expect it, so she’d shut up the house before calling the carriage and heading to the school. Besides, there was only a week until the Fifth Year students were expected to return. A week sharing a room with Frieda wouldn’t be unpleasant. “And thank you.”
Gordian eyed her, darkly. “I’ve done you no favours, Lady Emily,” he said. His voice was suddenly very cold. “And I would advise you not to think otherwise.”
He pointed a finger at the door, which opened. “When you see Lady Barb, ask her to attend upon me when it’s convenient,” he added. “And I hope I don’t see you in here again.”
Because I’ll be in trouble, Emily finished, silently. And you’ll be expelling me.
She dropped a curtsey, then turned and walked out of the room. Griselda – Emily had to admit that the name suited the sour-faced secretary – passed her a sheet of papers as she passed, then nodded to the door. Emily walked through, feeling sweat prickling down her back, and caught sight of the portrait of the former Grandmaster. His death meant that nothing would ever be the same again.
Behind her, the door slammed closed.