Updates and Zero Curse Snippet

29 Aug

So, here we are again <grin>

The first piece of good news is that I finished the draft of The Zero Curse today. Ideally, I’ll have the first set of edits done by the end of the week, then I can send it directly to the story editor. (TZB got an extensive edit, for various reasons; TZC deserves the same.) If we are lucky, it will be released midway through September.

The second piece of good news is that I finished the first set of edits for The Gordian Knot. There will probably be a second set of edits – and we’re waiting on the cover – but if we’re lucky it will be released late September/early October. I’ll have hopefully finished the first draft of Graduation Day by then too.

The third piece of good news is that the audio version of The Zero Blessing is due out 12th September.

And to celebrate, here’s an (unedited) snippet from The Zero Curse.

Zero Curse Final Cover R2 FOR WEB

Chapter Two

I was tempted, very tempted, to pretend I hadn’t heard the dinner gong, when it echoed through the house. But I knew my mother would not be fooled. She’d spelled the gong to ensure that anyone within the grounds could hear it, even if they were in the library or a sealed workroom. I finished the last of the runes, then hurried back to my bedroom. The maids had already laid my clothes on the bed.

At least they don’t have to worry about me warding my room, I thought sourly, as I closed the door behind me. My sisters could use magic to keep their possessions safe – and unhexed – but I wasn’t so lucky. They just have to worry about keeping Great Aunt Stregheria happy instead.

I couldn’t help feeling a flicker of sympathy. This time, thankfully, my parents had not insisted that we wait hand and foot on the old crone, but that meant that the duty was shifted to the younger maids. I didn’t think there was any crime that deserved such a horrific punishment. If Great Aunt Stregheria was rude and thoroughly unpleasant to us, her nieces, I dreaded to think how horrible she must be to minor family. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been told the maids had quit on the spot rather than work for us any longer.

The dress was as frilly and absurd as I feared, I discovered. Mum didn’t normally bother making us dress for dinner, but with Great Aunt Stregheria at the table we had to look our best. I glanced wistfully at the shower, then at the grandfather clock my parents had given me after I returned home. There wasn’t time to do more than wash my hands and splash water on my face before I got dressed. Being late for a formal dinner – even a dinner that only featured one guest – was the sort of thing that would lead to a frank exchange of views with my mother. She detested Great Aunt Stregheria, but she detested rudeness still more.

I pulled on the wretched dress, then inspected myself in the mirror. The long white grown looked faintly absurd on my lanky form, even though it contrasted nicely with the colour of my skin. I was lucky that mum hadn’t joined other High Society ladies when it came to the latest fashions for growing girls. I’d seen dresses that were so absurdly complex that the wearer needed two maids to help them get the dresses on and off. I couldn’t help feeling as though the girls were forced to wear them, which made me wonder why the adults wore similar dresses. But then, the dictates of fashion had always been a mystery to me.

Mum would have to use magic to force me into such a dress, I thought.

I smiled at the thought, even though it wasn’t really amusing. Thankfully, my mother had given me something relatively comfortable. Alana might enjoy wearing ballroom gowns that were really scaled-down adult dresses, but I never had. I was not going to walk around wearing a fanned-out dress so large that sitting down at the dinner table would prove impossible. I’d long since come to believe that the reason society ladies stayed so thin was because they couldn’t sit down to dinner, while eating on one’s feet was regarded as bad manners. But perhaps it had something more to do with the formal dancing afterwards.

Pulling my hair down, I braided it into a long ponytail and inspected it in the mirror. Great Aunt Stregheria would sniff, I was sure, if there was even a single hair out of place. She’d probably be looking for some reason to complain, if I knew her. It was a mystery to me why anyone asked her back for a second time. I was fairly sure that my father hadn’t invited her, not after what had happened two years ago. But that did raise the question of why she’d come.

And why Dad let her through the gate, I thought, as clipped on my earrings and concealed a bracelet high up my sleeve. Mum banned her from the estate after she used her magic on us.

The second gong rang, the sound echoing through the house. I swallowed hard – the prospect of facing Great Aunt Stregheria again was enough to make me want to run away – and headed for the door. June, the youngest of the maids, stood outside, looking as if she was nerving herself up to knock. I don’t know why she was so worried. It wasn’t as if she was dancing attendance on Great Aunt Stregheria. In her place, I would have been thrilled to be well away from the guest wing.

“You look lovely, My Lady,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, tartly. The dress might not have been uncomfortable, but it wasn’t what I liked to wear. “Leave the room alone. I’ll clean it up later.”

June curtseyed, a flicker of … something … crossing her face. I felt a stab of guilt, which blurred into the butterflies in my stomach. It was probably too late to commit some hideous crime that would get me sent to bed without supper. And even if I did, my mother would probably insist that having to go to dinner was a worse punishment than going without. An evening with Great Aunt Stregheria would feel like an eternity.

I touched the bracelet on my arm as I walked down the corridor, passing a long row of portraits that glowered down at me disapprovingly. I’d often wondered just how I fitted into the family, even though I could draw and wield the Family Sword. The Aguirre Family dates all the way back to the Thousand-Year Empire, if you believe our historians. We have always been powerful magicians, counsellors to kings … sometimes even kingmakers in our own right. My lack of magic had shamed the entire line. Alana had told me, more than once, that I’d be disowned – or worse – the moment she took over the family. There had been times when I feared my parents would disown me well before they died.

And now they know what I can do, I thought. They don’t want to disown me now.

A cold shiver ran down my spine as I reached the formal dining room. It was immense, easily large enough to accommodate a couple of hundred people. The large table in the centre of the chamber looked tiny, faintly absurd compared to the immensity of the room. I would have preferred the family dining room, which was smaller and more comfortable, but my mother clearly had other ideas. Perhaps she was hinting that Great Aunt Stregheria was far from welcome. I rather doubted Great Aunt Stregheria had gotten the message.

My father sat at one end of the table, his face utterly expressionless; my mother sat at the other, her lips so thin with disapproval that they’d practically vanished. Great Aunt Stregheria sat next to my father, her dark eyes cold and hard. Belladonna, my other sister, sat on the far side, as far from our unwelcome guest as she could without being unbearably rude. The tension in the air was so thick that you could cut it with a knife.

“Caitlyn,” Dad said. He rose, indicating the seat next to Great Aunt Stregheria. “Please, take a seat.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. My mouth was dry. Sitting next to Great Aunt Stregheria … I would sooner have sat next to a basilisk. Or a dragon. At least it would have been over quickly. I walked around the table, pausing long enough to curtsey to my mother, then took the seat. Courtesy forbade me from inching the chair away from the vindictive old crone.

Great Aunt Stregheria turned to look at me. I looked back, fighting down the urge to cringe back in my chair. It was hard to believe that she was related to my father, even though I’d seen her wield the Family Sword too. My father was a tall, powerfully-built man; Great Aunt Stregheria was slight, but with an attitude of power and menace that made her look like a vulture eying wounded prey. Her skin was still flawless, her hair as black as night … I couldn’t help wondering if she used magic to keep it that way. My father was twenty or so years younger than her and he was already showing signs of going grey.

Perhaps it’s having us as kids, I thought, as I turned my attention to the table. The maids had covered the table with a white cloth, then laid out a dozen sets of cutlery each. Great Aunt Stregheria never married, let alone had children.

I should have felt sorry for her, I knew. Even now, Great Aunt Stregheria wore her hair down, signifying an unmarried woman of marriageable age. And yet, she had never married, never had children. It was one of the reasons her parents – my grandparents – had decided to pass the family headship to my father, rather than someone close to them in age. But the nasty part of my mind had no trouble understanding why Great Aunt Stregheria was still unmarried, despite her family ties. There wasn’t enough wealth and power in the world to make someone willingly spend the rest of their life with her.

Mum cleared her throat. “Where is Alana?”

Bella looked up. “I haven’t seen her all day, Mum …”

I froze as the realisation crashed into my head. I’d left Alana frozen … and she was still frozen. It was the only explanation of why she hadn’t made it to dinner. Alana admired Great Aunt Stregheria, even though she feared the old crone too. And besides, she knew better than to be late. Alana had always taken the social niceties more seriously than either Bella or me.

Dad eyed me, suspiciously. He practically had a sixth sense for when one of us had done something Not Allowed.


I wanted to lie. But I knew better. “I … I reflected her spell onto her and left her frozen in the cupboard, near my workroom,” I said. “She must still be trapped.”

My father gave me a look that promised trouble later, then rang the bell for the maid. When Lucy appeared, he told her where to find Alana and escort her to the dining room as quickly as possible. I groaned inwardly, kicking myself for forgetting. Alana wouldn’t have time to change, let alone do anything else. She’d have to come to the table in her afternoon dress. My parents might not object – much – to us casting spells on each other, but they’d be annoyed if we made them look bad in front of outsiders. And Great Aunt Stregheria would rub it in as much as possible.

We sat in uncomfortable silence until Alana arrived, her face a mask that concealed pure rage. I would have to watch my back for the next few days. Alana would slam a hex into me as soon as she got a chance. And while I could protect myself – now – to some extent, she knew I wasn’t invulnerable. She was certainly smart enough to think of a way to get around my protections.

“Be seated,” Dad said. His dark eyes swept the table. “Let us give thanks to our ancestors for our lineage.”

I cupped my hands over the table and muttered the prayer, under my breath. I’d been told that my ancestors looked down on us from the Realm of the Dead, but I didn’t really believe it. My ancestors had probably turned their backs on me a long time ago. And I wasn’t sure my father believed it either, although he was careful to keep the family shine in good repair. But Great Aunt Stregheria would have called him out for dishonouring our ancestors, if he’d missed the prayer.

My father rang the bell, again. “Let us eat.”

I did my best to ignore the looming presence of Great Aunt Stregheria – and the nasty looks Alana sent me from time to time – as we ate our way through a five-course meal. Henry had excelled himself, as always. I would have enjoyed the carrot soup and roast lamb if I hadn’t been uneasily aware that the real business would be concluded over dessert. Great Aunt Stregheria had to have a reason to visit, after all. Something had to have changed, recently, to make her visit us – and make my parents let her in the house. And I could only think of one thing that had changed.

“The trade dispute with Salonika has been resolved, in our favour,” Great Aunt Stregheria said. She spent much of her time in Tintagel, the capital of the Kingdom of Tintagel. (Our ancestors were really imaginative people, I don’t think.) I couldn’t help wondering why King Rufus hadn’t banished her to some distant estate years ago. “You should be seeing more trading ships over the next few years.”

“That is good,” my father said. “And the … disagreement … with Valona?”

“It remains unresolved,” Great Aunt Stregheria informed him. “Valona is unwilling to make border concessions until we resolve the issue of access to what remains of the Eternal City.”

Alana leaned forward. “I thought they could just sail around to the inner sea and travel directly to the Eternal City.”

Great Aunt Stregheria sneered at her. “Everyone knows that the waters around the Eternal City are infested with monsters,” she said, in the tone one would use to address a very stupid child. “Sailing ships cannot reach the city with any guarantee of return.”

Alana looked crushed. I was torn between feeling sorry for her and an odd guilty pleasure in her humiliation. She’d treated me poorly for years. I’d spent more time than I cared to think about as a frog, or a toad, or something inanimate, purely because Alana had wanted to practice her hexes. And yet, she didn’t deserve to be verbally shredded by a woman old enough to be her grandmother. Great Aunt Stregheria didn’t look remotely ashamed. I was very glad she’d never had children.

“We are currently haggling over access rights through the Blyton Pass,” Great Aunt Stregheria continued, ignoring my mother’s sharp look with practiced ease. “But His Majesty is reluctant to allow complete access unless we have the right to inspect caravans leaving the cursed lands.”

“One would consider it pointless,” Alana muttered. She shot me a sharp look. “There’s only one secret to be found, isn’t there?”

“Correct,” Great Aunt Stregheria said. She turned to look at me. “And now that secret is out.”

I tried to look back evenly, although she was sizing me up like a piece of meat on the market stall. There was only one secret from the Eternal City that everyone wanted, the secret of how to make Objects of Power. Objects of Power had been what turned a relatively small city in a poorly-populated region into the master of much of the known world, but the secret of how they’d been made had been lost when the city fell. And I’d cracked that secret weeks ago.

And word is spreading, I thought. Dad had taken me from the school immediately after my duel with Isabella, but the rumours had already started. By now, they would be halfway around the world. No wonder Great Aunt Stregheria came to visit.

Great Aunt Stregheria turned her attention back to my father. “It has become common for an aristocratic child to be fostered in the home of a distant relative,” she said. “Such practices are meant to teach the child social graces and introduce the young one to society without the distracting presence of a pair of doting parents. Many of my friends are playing host to children from across the kingdom and even outside it. The youngsters are gaining much from being fostered.”

From being in the capital, I finished. And meeting people who will grow up to be the next generation of rulers and generals and everything else a society needs to work.

I understood how it worked, even though I’d never liked it. I’d grown up in Shallot, where there were hundreds of aristocratic children; I knew everyone who was powerful or likely to become so, when their parents died. And yet, my lack of magic ensured that they had never really been my peers. I had been an outcast. But someone who grew up on a distant country estate might be the only aristocratic child for miles around. Socialising with children far below their lofty birth just was not done. Sending them to be fostered was the only logical solution.

Unless you decide to spend time with the commoners instead, I thought. Rose was a common-born girl and she was my best friend. And she was a powerful magician. She might have been more powerful than either of my sisters, if she’d been trained from birth. But hardly anyone would do that outside school.

Great Aunt Stregheria was still speaking. “Such an arrangement has many advantages for the parents as well,” she added. She sounded faintly amused. “Quite apart from being free of their little darlings for several years, save for the occasional home visit, they gain access to a network of society patrons and clients who are willing to promote them to the king.”

“We are aware of the tradition,” my mother said, flatly. Her voice was toneless, but I knew from bitter experience that that meant she was angry. “Is there a point to this discussion?”

I blinked. Mum was rarely so rude. She must be really angry.

Great Aunt Stregheria looked back at her, then at me.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Her eyes bored into mine. I looked away. “I would like to foster Caitlyn in Tintagel.”


11 Responses to “Updates and Zero Curse Snippet”

  1. P August 29, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

    Well, that’s certainly a curse.

    Also, minor typo. “Our ancestors were really imaginative people, I don’t think.” I think you meant “weren’t really imaginative”.

    • Lillibeth August 30, 2017 at 1:37 am #

      Read it sarcastically and it will make sense.

  2. FarWalker August 29, 2017 at 9:08 pm #

    Great news. Don’t want to wish my life away but I can’t wait until the next couple of books are released. Thanks for the update.

  3. RunsInShadows August 29, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

    My rebellious side was screaming through this entire snippet. I do hope that Great Aunt Stregheria gets her just comeuppance from the foster experience. Darth Ol’Batty

  4. Kell Harris August 30, 2017 at 12:29 am #

    Man I am still alarmed at the animosity between Alana and Cat. Are her parents really going to do nothing?

  5. Anarchymedes August 30, 2017 at 10:21 am #

    ‘The long white grown looked faintly absurd on my lanky form…’ Shouldn’t it be ‘the long white GOWN?’

  6. Juan T Suros September 1, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    What an interesting twist. Caitlyn has longed for an escape from her family for years, and here is an opportunity to do so. A view of the Capitol of this world would be interesting, as well. Looking forward to reading the book!

  7. Enwezor September 4, 2017 at 2:04 am #

    Nooo, don’t send her there! Poor Caitlyn – I think she will end up there though!

  8. kilowog77 September 4, 2017 at 4:06 am #

    Is graduation day going to be the last SIM novel? If not are you going to change your naming convention for the series? I know there are exceptions (wedding hells, past tense, etc.) but for the most part you’ve kept to the theme of learning and once Emily graduates it won’t be optimal. Just curious keep up the good work.

    • chrishanger September 6, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

      No. But it is the end of her time at Whitehall.


  9. Bryce September 4, 2017 at 8:41 pm #

    I was wondering are we still looking for a mid October release of Gordian’s knot?

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