I’ll do a DVD commentary if anyone’s interested …
As soon as she was sure her mother was asleep, Alba pulled her wand out of her sleeve and tapped it against the anchorstone embedded within her bedroom window. There was a flicker of magic – strong enough for her to feel, but too weak to trigger the house’s wards – and the protections unlocked. Opening the window, Alba clambered out and scrambled down the uneven wall until her feet touched the ground.
She glanced up and down the alleyway, then waved her wand again. The window slid closed, stopping a second before the lock could snap shut. Alba allowed herself a moment of relief as she carefully recharged the wand, channelling magic and spells into the wood. She thought she’d worked out the spells properly, but accidentally locking herself out of the house would be embarrassing. Her mother would be furious if she caught her daughter outside after nightfall. Alba would be lucky if she wasn’t grounded for the next thousand years.
A shape appeared at the far end of the alley. “Alba?”
“Quiet,” Alba hissed, as she slipped the wand into her belt. “Mum’s wards might notice you!”
She smiled as her boyfriend came into view. They were very different; she was short, with red hair cropped close to her scalp, while Antony was tall, his pale skin contrasting oddly with his dark hair and darker almond eyes. Like many others from the merchant class, his father had been born in Beneficence, but his mother’s family hailed from somewhere on the other side of the known world. She didn’t hold that against him. Beneficence lived by trade. Family connections to distant lands could only come in handy. Besides, he was one of the few boys brave enough to court the daughter of a sorceress. Most young men didn’t have the nerve.
“We’re going to be late,” he muttered, as he took her hand and hurried her down the alleyway. “How far do the wards stretch?”
“I’m not sure,” Alba confessed, sourly. She touched her wand, feeling a flicker of the old regret. She’d been born with magic, but not enough to justify her parents paying for a proper magical education. The spells her mother had taught her – and the spells she’d sneaked out of her mother’s spellbooks – were all she’d ever had. “I think we’ll be safe once we’re out of the allay.”
“I hope you’re right,” Antony said. He glanced at his watch. “Vesperian always throws the best parties.”
Alba had to smile. “Did your father get the contract?”
“And several hundred notes,” Antony added. “We should be sitting pretty for the next few years, at least until Vesperian’s Track is completed.”
“Good,” Alba said. Antony would be first in line to take over his father’s business. It would give him a secure base to support a wife, if they got married. Alba’s family was wealthy – she could support herself, if necessary – but they’d expect Antony to pay for everything. And they should have no grounds to object. Antony might not be a magician, but he could definitely lift Alba up the social scale. “And how much of the negotiation did you do?”
“Just a little,” Antony said. One of the reasons Alba liked him was that he wasn’t as boastful as some of the other young men she’d known. “I purchased a few dozen notes for myself, though, at very good rates. They should pay off in a couple of years.”
The streets grew more crowded as they made their way towards Starry Light, the wealthiest part of the city. Beneficence never slept, not even late at night. Her heart pounded with excitement. It wasn’t something she saw often, not when her mother was a little overprotective. She smiled as she saw a line of dancers making their way down the street, clapping and cheering as they extolled the praises of someone she’d never heard of for guildmaster. Antony pulled her through the crowds, then stopped. There were so many people that they’d be very late.
“We’d better go this way,” he said, pulling her into another alley. “We don’t want to be too late.”
Alba smiled. There were alleys down in the Lower Depths, her mother had warned her, where anyone foolish enough to enter would never emerge again. She’d never been allowed to visit the area, so she didn’t know if it was true. But here, with the City Guard patrolling regularly, the alleys were clear. Drunks, beggars and muggers knew better than to tangle with the Guard. The alleyway even smelled better than the street near her house.
Her smile grew wider as they came out of the maze and walked towards the mansion. No one really knew how rich Vesperian actually was, but anyone who owned a giant mansion in Beneficence – where space was at a premium – had to be immensely rich. The line of young men and women entering the mansion, some of the women wearing dresses that revealed far too much of their bodies, was just icing on the cake. She recognised a number of men and women who were either wealthy and powerful in their own right or heirs to great wealth and power. A handful surrounded them as they made their way through the gates, her skin crawling as she sensed a powerful ward protecting the mansion. Antony waved them away, promising to speak to them later.
“Thank you,” Alba whispered. Antony had promised her a night of dancing, not a night of secret negotiations. Besides, how secret could anything be at this party? “Shall we dance?”
“Of course,” Antony whispered back. “They’ll be waiting for me after I see you home.”
He led her into the mansion and onto the dance floor. Alba shook her head in disbelief at the sheer luxury, ranging from the colossal tables groaning under the weight of food to the golden statues and expensive paintings that dominated the room. A couple were explicit enough to make her blush. She had no idea how the artist had managed to convince anyone to do that long enough for him to make the preliminary sketches. Antony paid no attention to them, much to her relief. Hopefully, they wouldn’t give him any ideas. She liked him more than she cared to admit, but she wasn’t ready to do more than kissing yet. Besides, there were other complications.
“We’re just here to dance,” Antony said, when a pair of middle-aged men tried to call him over. Alba was relieved. They’d been on the dance floor for nearly an hour, but neither of them wanted to leave just yet. “I’ll be back in the office tomorrow.”
Alba smiled at him. “What do they want to talk about?”
“Business,” Antony said. He beamed. “We’re hot at the moment, you know.”
“I know,” Alba said.
She leaned in and kissed him, then jerked her head towards the door. Many of the younger boys and girls were heading home, clearly hoping to get back before curfew. She wasn’t the only one who’d sneaked out, she was sure. Being caught at the dance, particularly as the night wore on, would ruin a young person’s social life. Everyone knew what happened in the wee small hours of the morning, even if no one could put it into words.
Antony grinned back at her as he led her back through the doors and out onto the streets. The air felt colder now, a faint … edge … flickering at the edge of her awareness, but she barely noticed. Antony led her back into the maze of alleyways, picking his way through the darkened streets with easy assurance. And yet … Alba found herself glancing from side to side as she realised what was missing. The allay was completely empty.
“We’re nearly home,” Antony said. He turned to face her. “Did you have a good time?”
“I did,” Alba said. Her heart was suddenly pounding in her chest. “I …”
She leaned forward, lifting her head so he could kiss her. His lips felt soft and warm against hers, just for a second. And then he tensed …
“I don’t want to end up like Jaya,” he said. “Is it safe …?”
Alba felt another flicker of irritation. Jaya and Ridley, Alba’s elder sister, had dated, until he’d put his hand under her shirt and discovered, the hard way, that their mother had layered protective spells on her daughters. Alba had been too young to be interested in men at the time, but she still recalled the shouting match. Ridley hadn’t even known she’d been protected until it was too late. Jaya had left the city afterwards and never been seen again.
“It should be,” she said. She lifted her lips for another kiss. “As long as we don’t go too far.”
He kissed her again. The world seemed to darken, just enough for Alba to notice. An electric shock ran through the air. For a horrified moment, she thought she was wrong, that Antony’s kisses had triggered a protective hex. And then her boyfriend looked up, his eyes looking past her. His mouth dropped open. They were no longer alone.
Alba turned, one hand snatching her wand from her belt. She might not be a powerful magician, but she could make any unwary footpads regret they ever saw her. And then she froze as she saw the … entity … standing behind them. For a long moment, her eyes seemed to blur as her mind struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. The entity was no taller than Antony, yet he seemed to be infinitively tall; he was human, but somehow far more real than any mere human. His face and beard seemed to be carved from granite. His dark eyes were deep pools of shadow. She couldn’t even look at him.
“Justice,” Antony breathed.
Alba started. It was a trick. It had to be a trick. Some sorcerer’s idea of a joke, perhaps. Or maybe her mother had decided to scare them both … she lifted her wand, casting a cancellation charm. The entity didn’t vanish. Instead, it’s presence seemed to grow stronger and stronger until it overpowered her. It was so big. She heard her wand clatter to the ground. A moment later, she fell to her knees. She couldn’t help herself. Her body felt utterly drained of energy.
The entity strode forward, its footsteps shaking the cobbles below her knees. It was all Alba could do to keep watching it as it came to a halt in front of Antony. Her boyfriend had fallen to his knees too. She could see him trembling as the entity stared down at him. Her mouth was dry, with fear and … and something she didn’t care to identify. It couldn’t be a real god, could it?
“Antony, Son of Emil,” the entity said. It spoke in a quiet voice that boomed in Alba’s ears, each word precisely enunciated. “You and yours have led this city to ruin.”
“Mercy,” Antony gasped.
“There is no mercy,” the entity said. There was a power in its voice, a sheer conviction that every word it spoke was unquestionable truth. “There is only Justice.”
Antony’s body blazed with light. Alba screamed, feeling as if daggers were being driven into her very soul. She squeezed her eyes closed, desperately trying to block out the pain. And then the light faded. She fell backwards, bumping her shoulder on the cobblestones. The pain made her jerk her eyes open …
… She was alone.
Her fingers touched her wand. The tingle, the sensation she felt whenever she touched a charged wand, was gone. She couldn’t muster the energy to prepare a spell, let alone power it. The darkness seemed stronger, somehow, as if the moon and stars had been blotted from the skies. And yet …
She stumbled to her feet. Antony was still kneeling on the ground, utterly unmoving. She reached for his arm and touched cold stone. He’d been turned to stone … no, if he’d been petrified, she would have felt a tingle … wouldn’t she?
The moon came out again, shining into the alleyway. And she screamed, again, as she caught a glimpse of his face …
It was twisted in horrific agony.
The air … smelled.
Emily was dimly aware, at the back of her mind, that someone was knocking on a wooden door. And yet, it didn’t seem important. She wasn’t even entirely sure where she was. The ground was shifting beneath her, sending up alarm bells she couldn’t quite hear. And yet …
“Emily,” a voice called. A male voice. “Wake up!”
Emily jerked awake. She was on a ship, she recalled; a merchant ship that did double duty as a warship, when the seafaring states went to war. And she was heading to Beneficence. And Casper was dead …
“I’m awake,” she managed. She opened her eyes. Her stomach muttered rebelliously. “I’ll be along in a moment.”
“Good,” General Pollack said. His voice was so close that she looked around in alarm before realising that he was on the far side of a wooden door. “Come meet me on the quarterdeck when you’re ready.”
Emily nodded to herself as she heard the sound of his footsteps striding away. She was, as far as she knew, the only woman on the ship, although General Pollack had told her stories of young girls who’d run away to sea and somehow managed to conceal their gender for decades. Emily wasn’t sure how that was possible – she’d seen the crew quarters and their complete lack of privacy – but she was prepared to take his word for it. She might have tried to run away too, if she’d thought it possible. And, perhaps, if she’d had any stomach for seafaring. She’d been on the boat for five days and she still felt seasick.
She sat upright, glancing around the cabin. It belonged to the captain, who’d flatly refused to let anyone else give up their sleeping space to the young sorceress, noblewoman and war heroine. Emily would have been more impressed if she hadn’t known that the captain had moved into his first mate’s cabin, who in turn had displaced the officer directly below him … she shook her head, telling herself that she should be grateful. The cabin was cramped and smelly, despite the gilded wooden bulkheads, but it was private. She’d seen the way some of the sailors – and officers – looked at her when they thought she wasn’t looking.
Swinging her legs over the side, she stood, careful not to bang her head on the low ceiling as she slipped on her shoes. Sleeping in her clothes made her feel icky, but there was no way she’d wear a nightgown, let alone sleep naked, on the ship. She took some water from her canteen and splashed it on her face, then examined her face in the mirror. Her hair was a mess – she hadn’t had a chance to take a hair-growth potion back in Farrakhan – and her face was pale, dark circles clearly visible around her eyes. She looked distressingly like a raccoon – or, perhaps, someone who’d come off worst in a fight. Her shirt and trousers looked unclean, as if they hadn’t been washed for a few days. The only real consolation was that most of the crew looked worse.
We should have teleported, she thought, as she felt the deck shifting beneath her feet. Her legs felt wobbly, just for a second. I could have teleported us both back to Cockatrice and we could have crossed the bridge there.
She took a sip of seasickness potion – it wasn’t strong enough to provide more than minimal relief, but anything stronger would have impaired her mind – and headed for the door. General Pollack had insisted on taking his son’s remains home via ship, despite her objections. In hindsight, Emily told herself, she should have asked to remain at Farrakhan with Sergeant Miles or even asked the sergeant to prolong her apprenticeship for an additional couple of weeks. But she hadn’t.
The smell – too many humans in too close proximity, mingled with salt water – grew stronger as she pushed her way out into the corridor. She could hear chatter coming from far too close to her, but she couldn’t see anyone. A metal grate, set within the wooden deck, led down to the lower decks. The sailors would be down there, she knew; the night crew would be trying to rest, even as the day crew went to work. She wondered, absently, why some of the crew were talking. They’d be keeping their comrades awake.
Or maybe not, she thought, as she walked into the next compartment. They’ll be so tired they can sleep through anything.
She drew in her breath as she saw the coffin, mounted neatly on a wooden block. It was a simple design, with a name and a handful of runes carved into the wood. And yet, it was empty. Casper’s body had been blasted into dust, the remains drifting down towards the nexus point and vanishing. No spell she knew could salvage anything that was indisputably Casper. But General Pollack had insisted on taking a coffin home anyway. Emily didn’t think that was healthy, yet she knew everyone grieved in their own way.
You’d think differently if you lost a child, she told herself. You’d want to believe that some of him had been laid to rest too.
A small book lay on top of the coffin, protected by a simple wardspell. Emily felt a twinge of pain, remembering just how many magicians and officers had written a brief farewell into its pages. Casper had deserved better, even if he had died a hero. Far too many others had already been forgotten, after dying in defence of the Allied Lands. No one, as far as she knew, had any idea how many soldiers and civilians had actually died. Most of them would only be mourned by their families.
She shook her head, then turned and headed for the outer door. A gust of cold air struck her as she pushed it open and stepped out onto the deck. Willow was rolling, gently, as she made her way along the green coastland, her deck shivering as she ploughed her way through the uneven waves. Emily felt her stomach twist and swallowed hard, promising that she wouldn’t throw up in front of the sailors. Her legs felt unsteady as she forced herself to walk towards the quarterdeck. Every movement felt, to her, as though the ship was on the verge of capsizing. She told herself, firmly, that her mind was playing tricks on her, but it didn’t feel very convincing. She’d never managed to get her sea legs.
Willow felt small to her, even though she’d been in more confined spaces. Emily couldn’t help thinking that she was tiny, compared to a ship on Earth. Ninety crew and ten guests, all crammed into her hull … she turned as she heard a shout, just in time to see a young boy scrambling up the mainmast and into the crow’s nest. The boy couldn’t be anything like old enough to shave, let alone go to Whitehall. It still surprised her, even now, to see children performing adult tasks. The four sailors who scrambled up to the forward sails dwarfed the cabin boy.
“My Lady,” Captain Rackham said. “Thank you for sharing my table.”
Emily – reluctantly – held out her hand for him to kiss, then withdrew it as soon as she decently could. Captain Rackham looked like a pirate, right down to the black waistcoat and the cutlass on his belt. He probably was a pirate from time to time, she knew; Willow was fast enough to catch and overwhelm anything smaller than a full-fledged warship, if there were no witnesses. No one would ask too many questions either. The Empire had worked hard to keep the seas clear of pirates, but it had been a long time since anyone had been in a position to patrol the waves.
“Please, be seated,” Captain Rackham added. “My table is your table.”
“Thank you,” Emily said.
She sat next to General Pollack, silently welcoming the older man’s presence as she nibbled a piece of hardtack and salt beef. A midshipman – probably under contract to the captain – passed Emily a glass of lime juice, his eyes flickering over her face as if he were trying to memorise every detail. Emily braced herself, then drank the glass at one swallow. It was so sour that she hadn’t been surprised when the captain had told her that some of the sailors refused to drink it, even though it was the only thing protecting them from scurvy. He’d made it clear that he expected everyone on his ship to drink their juice, even if they weren’t part of his crew. It kept them safe.
The other passengers made small talk, making no effort to include her. Emily was silently grateful, even though she knew they probably considered it standoffishness. Her stomach left her in no state for idle chatter. She listened, saying nothing, as the passengers chatted about the war, bouncing question after question off General Pollack. Thankfully, none of them knew who she was. They’d be much more insistent on trying to open lines of communication if they’d known the truth. She might be in exile – technically – but she was still Baroness Cockatrice. Her word was gold.
King Randor probably feels otherwise, she thought, ruefully.
General Pollack elbowed her, gently. “Eat more,” he warned. “We’ll be heading into land soon.”
Emily made a face as the midshipman placed a small bowl of stew in front of her, but tried to eat it anyway. It tasted faintly unpleasant, as if the meat had been cooked in vinegar. And yet, she knew she was eating better than any of the sailors. They were lucky if they got hardtack and salted fish. She’d seen a number of crewmen fishing during the voyage, trying to catch something to supplement their rations. Apparently, anyone who caught a fish was allowed to keep half of it for himself.
She glanced from face to face, reminding herself – again – that the Nameless World was strikingly diverse. Four merchants, one of them accompanied by his eldest son; three noblemen, who could presumably have used a portal and a lone man who said nothing, his eyes flickering everywhere. The merchants were chatting loudly about steam engines and what they’d do to shipping, once the first steamboats set out on the open sea. Emily couldn’t help noticing that the captain seemed vaguely affronted by the suggestion. Willow wouldn’t be able to compete if – when – the steamboats lived up to their promise.
As long as they have wood or coal to burn, she reminded herself. All this ship needs is a strong wind.
“Come,” General Pollack said. Emily looked down at her bowl and discovered, to her surprise, that she’d finished it. “We’re just rounding the headland now.”
Emily followed him, all too aware of eyes watching her as they climbed down the ladder and headed to the prow. The sailors might enjoy looking at a young woman, but the passengers were more interested in marriage alliances. General Pollack had had to explain that his charge was already engaged, much to Captain Rackham’s amusement. He was the only one who knew the truth. Emily would have found it amusing if it hadn’t been so annoying. Had they really expected that General Pollack would give them her hand in marriage?
They think you’re his niece, she reminded herself. And your uncle would have considerable power over your marriage.
She pushed the thought aside as she joined General Pollack at the prow. A young lad was sitting at the very front of the ship, mounted on the bowsprit above the wooden mermaid figurehead. Emily couldn’t help thinking that he looked awfully unbalanced as he carried out his duties, but the cabin boy seemed to take it in his stride. He practically had the sea in his blood. Chances were, Emily recalled, that he was a sailor’s son, born and raised by the docks. Going to sea would have seemed natural.
“The captain is altering course,” General Pollack commented. He pointed a finger towards the shoreline. “What do you make of that?”
Emily frowned, holding up her hand to block out the sunlight as she peered into the haze. A faint smudge of utter darkness could be seen … a black cloud, hanging in the air over a distant bay. It was raining … wasn’t it? Underneath, there were jagged rocks and the remains of a building. A castle, perhaps, or a lighthouse. It stood on its own, completely isolated. There were no other signs of habitation. And yet, the cloud seemed to pulse, as if it had a malignant mind of its own …
A hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped.
“Careful,” General Pollack said. “People have been known to be … to be touched, even at this distance.”
Emily gave him a sharp look. “What is it?”
“It used to be called Roderick’s Bay,” General Pollack said. “Now, everyone calls it Bad Luck Bay.”
He lifted his hand, making an odd gesture towards the cloud. “Roderick was a sorcerer, perhaps one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world,” he added. “He was the lord and master of a small community on the edge of the Barony of Swanhaven. Thirty or so years ago, he vanished into his tower and started work on a new spell. A year after that, the tower collapsed into rubble and that thing” – he nodded at the cloud – “appeared over the remains. Since then, anyone foolish enough to go too close has suffered terrible bad luck. The community he ruled broke up shortly afterwards, most of its inhabitants heading south into Swanhaven. It was quite a scandal at the time.”
Emily frowned. “What was he doing?”
“No one knows,” General Pollack said. “But no one will risk going into the bay. Ships have been known to run aground on rocks that weren’t there before the … well, whatever he did.”
“And no one saw anything of him,” Emily guessed.
“No one,” General Pollack agreed.
The mist hanging over the coastline grew thicker as Willow advanced steadily westwards, the captain and first mate barking incomprehensible orders that rang in Emily’s ears. Seagulls appeared out of nowhere, cawing to one another as they landed on the sails. The sailors cheered as the first bird touched down, then returned to their work. It was proof, Emily supposed, that they were nearly home, even though they’d been close to land for most of the voyage. No one in their right mind would want to set sail on the Great Sea, let alone the Roaring Depths. Very few ships that headed away from the mainland were ever seen again.
But there is a third continent, Emily recalled. She’d seen the map, carved into the stone deep below Whitehall. What’s waiting for us there?
She smiled, despite herself, as she saw the pod of dolphins jumping through the waves, showing themselves briefly before disappearing back under the water. They didn’t show any fear of the boat, even though fishermen sometimes hunting dolphins. Perhaps they were trained … or, perhaps, they realised the large boat wasn’t a fishing ship, let alone a giant whaler. The sailors had told dozens of stories about men who’d set off to hunt the whales, only to discover that the whales could fight back. Without harpoon guns, hunting whales was a dangerous endeavour.
And that might change, she thought. What happens when someone invents a harpoon gun?
“Watch,” General Pollack said. The mist was growing stronger, gusts of wind blowing water into her face. “You’ll never forget this.”
Emily took hold of the rail and held on, tightly, as Willow started to roll alarmingly. She saw – she thought she saw – glimpses of rocks, just below the surface, visible for bare seconds before vanishing under the waves. They weren’t about to run aground, were they? She hoped – prayed – that the captain knew what he was doing. If worse came to worst, she told herself firmly, she could teleport off sinking ship …
… If, of course, she had time to cast the spell.
The mist parted, suddenly. Emily sucked in her breath, honestly awed, as Beneficence came into view. She’d seen the city before, from the shore, but this was different. Beneficence was perched on a towering rock, a strange mixture of buildings mounted on buildings that seemed to reach up towards the sky. Hundreds of people were clearly visible, climbing up and down ladders that went all the way down to the waterline, where they met tiny boats tied up by the cliff face. The sight took her breath away.
Willow rounded the edge of the rock, then seemed to spin in place before lunging into a giant bay. The Caldron was immense, crammed with ships of all shapes and sizes; behind them, Emily could see ladders and steps that led up to the city above. It felt almost claustrophobic to her, as if it was both large and terrifyingly small; the water heaved and boiled, threatening to push the ship in all directions. The tiny beach on one edge of the Caldron seemed almost an afterthought. There were so many children playing in the sand that there just didn’t seem to be enough room. Their older siblings were scrambling over the rocks, scooping up crabs and dropping them into buckets. They’d make good eating, if cooked properly.
“We’ll be the first off the ship, once we’re tied up,” General Pollack said. “Your bag will be delivered directly to the house.”
Emily nodded. She hadn’t brought much, beyond a change of clothes. Her staff and some of her other tools had been left with Sergeant Miles, who’d promised to take them back to Whitehall for her. There was nothing dangerous in her rucksack, certainly nothing of use to anyone else.
“Ah,” General Pollack said. He pointed towards the docks. “The welcoming committee.”
Emily smiled, despite herself. Caleb was standing there, wearing a long dark cloak. Beside him …
“Lady Barb suggested that your friend be invited too,” General Pollack said. He looked oddly amused. “I trust she will be a suitable chaperone?”
“I think so,” Emily said.
“Very good,” General Pollock said. Willow bumped against the dock, a trio of sailors scrambling down to secure the lines. “Welcome to Beneficence!”