I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing this – probably up to CH10, if anyone is interested in me continuing … <grin>.
Aguirre Hall is more than just my family’s residence. It’s the centre of our power.
One of the fundamental points that I’ve noticed a lot of light fantasy works miss is just how the nobility – however defined – wields power. Lord Whatever isn’t just powerful because he’s rich, he’s powerful because he has a small army of retainers at his disposal. The old families of England – the Percy Family, for example – were never just a small extended family. They had loyal servants and clients, soldiers and suchlike under their command. The monarch might be the titular ruler of the country, but overmighty noblemen could often threaten the monarch’s position.
As military tech advanced, it became harder and harder for the great noblemen to match the central government. During the English Civil War, King Charles had problems recruiting soldiers, as the old nobility had been weakened during Queen Elizabeth and King James’s reign. They never truly recovered, even after the Restoration, which is partly why Bonnie Prince Charlie was never successful in raising the English Jacobites. Post-1745, private military forces in the UK largely faded completely.
(I think Rowling nodded to this when she gave Draco two cronies – Crabbe and Goyle.)
In this case, Cat’s father is the ruler of a large household of magicians and forgers, with clients all over the city. He’s a very powerful man.
I followed my father through the gates – warded extensively to keep out hawkers, traders and pedestrians, even though I couldn’t sense the spells – and up towards the hall. It is an immense building, a mansion composed of stone and practically coated in protective enchantments and spells. The magical community is fond of testing our protections from time to time, sending probes over the walls and into our wards. So far, none of them have actually managed to break through the defences.
Travis, the butler, opened the door as we approached. He’s lesser family – he has a blood tie to us – and it gives him an ability to sense the more senior members as they walk into the mansion. I rather liked him, despite a snooty attitude that grated on my nerves from time to time. My sisters joked he had his nose so high in the air that he kept walking into walls, but I didn’t think so. Besides, he had always been kind to me.
Lesser family, in this case, refers to people who are related to the mainline family, but not that closely. Travis is effectively a client of his Great Uncle.
“Sir,” he said, addressing my father. “Your family is gathered in the lower dining room.”
“Very good,” Dad said. “We shall attend on them at once.”
I sighed – I’d hoped for a chance to sit down and plot revenge – but Dad clearly had other ideas. It was too much to hope that he would punish Alana, of course. He wanted me to develop my powers … and if that meant allowing my sister to jinx and hex me whenever my back was turned, he’d allow it as long as she didn’t do anything life-threatening. Social death, of course, didn’t register. It never seemed to occur to my father that while he had the power to be rude to all and sundry, I didn’t have the same luxury. No one made allowances for zeroes.
Like too many parents, Cat’s father believes that children can be pushed into progressing further if life becomes uncomfortable for them. He therefore turns a blind eye to Alana bullying Cat, telling himself that it’s actually good for her. Obviously, he’s wrong. Cat has all the incentive she needs to learn magic, but not the ability.
The hallway opened up in front of us as my father headed for the stairs, his calm measured tread echoing in the air. I followed him, pausing just long enough to glance at the Family Sword, buried in the Family Hearthstone. The sword is a genuine Object of Power, crafted over a thousand years ago and handed down from generation to generation. According to legend, only a true member of the family can draw the sword from the stone. I’ve seen a couple of apprentices, strong young men, try and fail to pull it free. The sword had been utterly unmovable.
I’ve tried to draw a distinction between Objects of Power and Devices of Power – the former actually hold a mythical status, like the One Ring or the Deathly Hallows, even when their use is seemingly mundane.
I’d tried to pull it out myself, one day when Alana’s taunts had become unbearable. The sword had come out easily, even though I’d only been nine years old. It was proof, I suppose, that my parents didn’t take in a foundling they’d found on the steps … but I still couldn’t do magic. Half the sword’s true powers seemed beyond my reach. My father, wielding the sword, could work wonders. But then, he could work wonders without the sword too.
Yep, Cat is definitely her father’s daughter. He checked.
“Come on,” Dad said, crossly. “Don’t dawdle.”
I gave the sword one last look, then hurried up the stairs after him. The lower two floors of the mansion are devoted to my family’s work, ranging from living rooms for the apprentices and servants to forges, spell-crafting chambers and the lower library, one of the finest libraries in the world. The really interesting – and unique – texts are kept in the upper library, but most magicians would be pleased merely to have a look at the lower library. It’s the greatest store of magical knowledge in the kingdom, outside Jude’s, and it’s all ours.
Another source of power within this world is having sole possession of magical textbooks handed down from the Thousand Year Empire.
The upper two levels, protected by a set of inner wards, are reserved for the family. No one, not even Dad’s most trusted apprentices, can pass through the doors without permission, unless they’re recognised as being of family blood. The doors open easily at my touch, but won’t move an inch for someone who isn’t keyed into the wards. And there are more powerful defences lurking in reserve, just waiting for someone foolish enough to break through the outer layer. A magician who tries to break into our private quarters will spend the rest of his life wishing he hadn’t.
The downside of living in such a household is that your house isn’t just a house, but an administrative centre. Like the White House, only a relatively small collection of rooms are put aside for the family itself.
I wanted to go to my bedroom, if only long enough to splash water on my face, but Dad led me down the corridor and into the dining room before I could say a word. The smaller dining room is still larger than the classroom, easily big enough to sit thirty or forty guests … I’ve often wondered why Dad insists on having family dinners, when we could easily eat in our rooms. There are only five of us, after all. My parents, my sisters and myself.
Alana shot me a smug look as I entered the room. She looked … regal. My mother had been teaching Bella and her all the tricks she needed to get herself crowned queen bee, once she entered Jude’s. I’d sat in on a couple of lessons, when Bella had insisted on not suffering alone, but I’d found them immensely boring. Popularity was meaningless compared to power and I had none. As long as my sisters were around, I’d always be an outcast. Who would be my friend when it would expose them to my sister’s malice?
This is, of course, one of the many reasons why school bullying is so destructive.
Kids – and many adults, when the internet lynch mob is on the prowl – have a habit of shying away from someone who is being bullied, fearful of attracting the attention of the bully to themselves. This actually makes life worse for the victim, as he/she comes to see the entire population of the school as the bully, even when most of the students haven’t actually done anything.
Like I said, I hated school.
I rolled my eyes at Alana, trying not to show how much it hurt to see her. Alana held herself like an adult, her long dark hair hanging down to brush against her shoulders. The dark blue dress she wore drew attention to her face, which was carefully made up to hide all traces of imperfections. Even at twelve, Alana was tall. She’d be taller than my mother by the time she graduated and went on to run the family. And the simple necklace she wore, glittering with eldritch light, was a sign of power.
“Dad,” Bella said. “You’re back!”
Dad smiled at her. I tried to keep my expression under control as I sat down. Bella had always been Dad’s favourite, although I’d never understood why. She was short and pudgy, barely putting in the minimum effort to succeed at anything. I could imagine her graduating from school and then coming home to spend the rest of her life vegetating, despite having more magic in her fingertips than most people have in their entire bodies. She was clever enough, when she could be bothered to be clever, but she rarely cared enough to put in the effort. I would have done far more if I’d had her powers.
Both Alana and Bella went off the rails, but they went off in different directions. Alana thinks she’s entitled to power and is willing to work to get it, while Bella is content to sup from the silver spoon for the rest of her life. Indeed, both of them suffered because their parents were more focused on trying to help Cat than them.
But then, she didn’t need to work, not if she didn’t want to. The family would take care of her for the rest of her life.
Dad clapped his hands, the sound echoing outside the room. I groaned inwardly – even that simple spell was denied me – and watched as Lucy wheeled the food into the room. The last day of schooling, it seemed, was special. Cook had produced his finest roast beef, then used magic to keep it hot until we were ready to eat. Lucy might be a maid, but even she could cast the spells to release the food. She’d always been nice to me, at least when she knew I was listening, yet I’d seen her cast a few disdainful glances at me when she’d thought I wasn’t looking. I don’t know why. Alana had targeted Lucy with a few nasty spells before Mum had put a stop to it. Whatever Mum had said to my sister had clearly been effective.
Lucy, like Travis, is lesser family. She resents Cat because Cat has a high position, despite a complete lack of magic. This wasn’t too uncommon amongst bastard children of the nobility from 1100 onwards, where they would often be raised at Court (like Henry Fitzroy) but never have a chance at real power. I don’t know how many of them turned traitor, but I’d bet good money that quite a few of them did.
“Let us eat,” Dad said, after casting a spell to make sure the food was safe to eat. I don’t know why he bothered – the cook had been with the family longer than I had been alive – but he insisted on checking, every time. He’d taught us all the spells too, although I couldn’t make them work. Someone who wanted to poison me would have an easy time of it. “Lucy, carve the meat.”
Henry, the cook, had excelled himself – as usual. I would have enjoyed the meal, I thought, if I hadn’t been brooding. Alana had probably ensured I wouldn’t get to enter upper school, even if my father shovelled money in their direction. Madam Rosebud was probably already complaining to the headmaster about my cheeky attitude. And if I didn’t get to go on, what then? There were no apprenticeships for students without powers, at least in Shallot. I couldn’t even get hired as a sailor until I was older!
And I’d still need some spells if I wanted to sail, I thought, numbly. What can I do with no magic at all?
This is, again, the crux of the problem.
“I worked out the last stages of the potion,” Mum said. “The idiot who wrote the book left out two steps and altered five of the quantities.”
One of the points that will become important later is that this society suffered a major disaster – the fall of the Thousand Year Empire – several hundred years ago and a great deal of knowledge was lost. The books that remain often leave details out – including one of great significance – because the writer couldn’t imagine anyone not knowing it. Kat’s mother, among others, tries to work out what’s missing.
“Well done, Mum,” Bella said. “Can anyone brew it now?”
“Caitlyn can’t,” Alana said. She snickered. “Zeros can’t brew potions.”
I felt my cheeks heat with helpless rage. Mum had taught me how to brew, but – of course – I lacked the magic to trigger the cascade that turned the potion from a mixture of odd ingredients to something useful. It didn’t matter how carefully I followed the instructions, or what changes I made if I felt like experimenting … nothing worked. Alana or Bella could take a potion I’d brewed and trigger it, but I couldn’t trigger theirs. Maybe I was doomed to work in an apothecary. Someone who had enough magic to start the cascade, but lacked the patience to brew the mixture properly …
“That’s very good, dear,” Dad said. “Are you going to write it up?”
“I think so,” Mum said. “It isn’t anything worth trying to reserve for the family.”
“Don’t let Stregheria hear you say that,” Alana said. She was trying to be grown-up, acting as though she was an adult already. “She’d expect you to reserve it.”
Alana admires her Great Aunt, but for the wrong reasons – Great Aunt Stregheria is a powerful and independent woman who can get away with slapping (in effect) one of the most powerful men in the world. Alana actually sees that sort of power as something to aspire to, but doesn’t see the downsides – no one likes Great Aunt Stregheria and no one will help her if she’s in trouble.
Mum looked annoyed, her lips thinning until they were almost invisible. Great Aunt Stregheria certainly would expect the recipe to be held in reserve. She was a selfish old biddy, one utterly devoted to herself. Mum had never liked her, even before she’d turned Mum’s children into frogs. I’d heard, afterwards, that Mum had been on the verge of calling Stregheria out for a duel. Stregheria was old and powerful, but I wouldn’t have bet against my mother. She was powerful too.
“There is little to be gained by keeping it back,” Mum said, stiffly. “It’s a basic healing potion, not something radical.”
I don’t know if it comes across here, but Cat’s mother is a researcher at heart – she loves unlocking secrets and proving her skills. It sometimes leads to … interesting … discussions with her husband.
I listened, absently, as we finished our dinner. I’d hoped, as soon as Lucy had removed the plates, to be allowed to leave, but no such luck. Dad told all three of us to follow him to his study. I sighed, even as Alana exchanged excited looks with Bella. Dad’s study, to them, was a hall of wonders. To me it was just another dangerous room in a dangerous house.
It was, in many ways, the sort of study I’d like to have. The walls were lined with bookshelves, including many volumes I knew were unique or forbidden; the chairs were charmed to be comfortable, all the better to allow my father to work. But I also knew the room was strongly warded, so strongly warded that even Mum couldn’t enter without permission. Alana had tried to sneak in a few times, but she’d always been caught. Dad had not been amused.
“Your mother and I have made some decisions about your futures,” Dad said, once we were sitting on comfortable armchairs. They were so large that I half-wondered if someone had cast a shrinking spell on me when I wasn’t looking. Even Dad looked small, sitting on his chair. “The three of you will be going to Jude’s.”
This is not, of course, what Cat expected.
It was so unexpected that I didn’t quite grasp what he’d said, not for a long chilling moment. It had to be a joke, a cruel joke. Even my sisters looked shocked. Alana actually paled. And why not? I’d long since given up hope of going to Jude’s. Entering a school for magicians without magic … it would have been safer to cover myself in fish sauce, then go for a swim in the shark tank.
Originally, this was a concept that was meant for Schooled In Magic. But I’d set that universe up in a manner that made it impossible – or, at least, impossible for anyone to actually succeed. Like I believe I mentioned, I wish I’d had this core idea before I started work on SIM.
“Dad,” Alana managed, finally. “Caitlyn can’t go to Jude’s!”
Dad fixed her with his stern look. “And why not?”
Bella spluttered. “Because she’s a zero!”
Alana and Bella are being brats here, but they do have a point.
I’m actually quite fond of situations where the jerkass has a point. Normally, the point is ignored because the jerk isn’t popular. Really, that happened to me a lot during my schooldays. I’d say something and be ignored because one of the more popular students had a better idea.
“Caitlyn defeated a spell that bested me,” Dad pointed out, icily. “Can either of you say the same?”
“… I,” Bella said. “Dad …”
Alana took over. “Dad, she hasn’t been able to cast a single spell,” she said, talking about me as if I wasn’t there. “She can’t even do this!”
She waved a hand in the air. Sparkling light appeared out of nowhere, surrounding her like a halo. It was a very basic spell, perhaps one of the most basic. Light could be bright, perhaps even blinding, but it couldn’t cause any real harm. Most parents preferred to use light spells to teach their kids because the risk of accidentally starting a fire or injuring themselves was minimal.
And she was right. I couldn’t even do that.
“Your sister has magic,” Dad said, firmly. It was a tone that promised punishment to anyone who dared to disagree with him. “She just cannot access it. Being at Jude’s will help her to develop her magic.”
I swallowed, hard. “Dad … I can’t go.”
“You will,” Dad said. “The family needs the trinity.”
“We have a weak link,” Alana muttered.
This world believes that twins – and triplets and so on – actually reinforce the magic, if they learn to work as a team. This is true, sort of. It isn’t true here because Cat can’t work magic with her siblings, hence the weak link remark, and the other two have very different personalities.
Dad gave her a long considering look. “Do you still want to go to the party tomorrow evening?”
Alana winced. “Yes, Dad.”
“Then be quiet,” Dad ordered.
He looked back at me. “Caitlyn, I understand your concerns,” he said. “Be that as it may, you do have magic. You have to be trained to use it.”
“I don’t,” I said, miserably.
Alana had told me that I’d be disowned when I turned twelve, if I didn’t show any signs of magic. I didn’t want to believe her, but I’d always worried. She’d certainly made it clear that she would disown me, when she became head of the family. Her great and terrible future would be blighted by a powerless sister …
Alana is probably right here, even though – again – she’s being a jerk. Having a complete zero in the family raises interesting and quite worrying questions about what might be running through the bloodstream. It will not only undermine Alana by calling her magic into question, it will weaken her hand when it comes to discussing potential marriage arrangements after she graduates. Suitors will wonder if Alana’s kids will be born without magic too.
“You can and you will,” Dad said. “Your mother and I are in agreement. You and your sisters will enter Jude’s after the summer holidays.”
Bella looked … nervous. “We could learn from you instead …”
“You’re growing older,” Dad said. “And there are limits to what we can teach you.”
This is true. Their parents are knowledgably people, but they’re not tutors.
“And we have to make friends and contacts,” Alana added.
“Quite right,” Dad agreed.
The British Boarding Schools and Universities – particularly Oxford and Cambridge – were (and indeed still are) more than just educational establishments. Students, mostly from wealthy or well-established families, would go to school in hopes of making friends and contacts among others – rather like Yale in the US, which taught five presidents and plenty of other movers and shakers.
This, as I noted in another essay, is true of Hogwarts too. The school actually gives the Wizarding World its core monoculture. Jude’s has the same advantages and disadvantages, although it’s hardly the only school in the world.
He launched into an explanation of the problems facing our house, the same explanation he’d given me earlier. I barely heard a word. My sisters had spent the last four years tormenting me with magic, but now … now I was going to school. Jude was a good school, according to my parents, yet I’d heard horror stories from some of the apprentices. If you had strong magic, the school was great; if you were weak, you were picked on by everyone else. And the teachers did nothing to stop it. Alana and Bella wouldn’t have any trouble – the family name would make up for any problems – but me …? I’d be lucky if I wasn’t permanently trapped as a frog by the end of the first week.
Cat is panicking here. Trapping someone as a frog permanently is beyond most first year students.
Alana poked my arm. “Pay attention.”
I looked up. Dad was looking back at me, annoyed.
“Now, there will be some specific accommodations made,” he said. “Alana, Bella … you will not discuss your sister’s problems with anyone. You will both be under a binding spell to make sure of it.”
“But Dad,” Alana protested. “I …”
“The matter is settled,” Dad said, firmly.
Alana shot me a nasty look that promised trouble. A binding spell wasn’t particularly dangerous, not if cast by a skilled mage, but it was a very blunt way of saying that my father didn’t trust her to keep her mouth shut. It was an insult, in many ways. And I wouldn’t put it past my sister to figure out a way around the binding. Dad wouldn’t risk putting a strong spell on his daughter. If nothing else, Mum wouldn’t let him.
Cat’s father isn’t entirely blind to just how badly Cat is treated, even though he thinks it’s for her own good. Now, with all three of them going to school, he’s prepared to make life harder for Alana and Bella.
On the other hand, like Cat says, putting a binding on someone is offensive. And he can’t use one strong enough to really make sure they don’t cause trouble.
I tried, anyway. “Dad, I can’t work magic,” I said.
Dad cocked his head. “Do you want to work magic?”
I nodded. I’d wanted it ever since I’d understood that my parents were magicians. And I still wanted it. The power Bella wasted so casually … what could I do, if that were mine instead of hers?
“Then this is your best chance,” Dad said, seriously. He clapped his hand on my shoulder, reassuringly. I knew he meant well, but … “The tutors are the best in the world. They can teach you.”
“Your last chance,” Alana said.
I shook my head. I’d never been able to get a spell to work, not one. There were people with no talent who could do better than that. But me? I couldn’t cast a single spell.
Perhaps I should run away, I thought. It was a tempting thought. But where would I go?
Cat does not know anything about the world outside Shallot, beyond crude stereotypes. This obviously becomes important later.
Dad clapped his hands together. “Caitlyn, you can go,” he said. “Alana, Bella; I have some other matters to discuss with you.”
I nodded, then turned and left the study. My sisters were going to hate me after today. The binding wouldn’t hurt them – Dad would see to that – but it would be humiliating. I’d find it humiliating too, if someone had cast such a spell on me. And they had …
Revenge, I promised myself. Alana might have magic, but I wasn’t going to bow the knee to her. I wasn’t doing anything else until bedtime, so I might as well plan revenge. And then see if I can give her a fright.
Smiling, I hurried back to my room. I had some thinking to do.
One of the points I tried to work on here is that Cat isn’t a passive victim, unlike Johan of The Very Ugly Duckling. She’s smart, she’s knowledgeable and she’s flatly reluctant to give in. She may not have any magic of her own, but she does try to find ways to get back at her sisters for their bullying. The jury is out, of course, on if this makes her a good person or not.