Archive | March, 2018

Snippet – The Princess in the Tower (Schooled In Magic 15)

11 Mar

Prologue I

Alassa cursed out loud as she jabbed the needle into her finger. Again.

It wasn’t particularly ladylike to swear, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t the kind of person who liked being confined to a single suite, no matter how luxurious. She wanted to take her horse out for a ride or practice her magic or share a bed with her husband, not waste her time sewing … she’d never had the talent for needlework, no matter how many governesses had tried to train her in the ladylike arts.

She eyed her work for a long moment, then tossed it aside and began to pace the suite. It had everything she could reasonably want, except windows and freedom. The lights brightened and dimmed randomly, leaving her unsure just how long she’d spent in the suite. Her body didn’t appear to have changed that much, as far as she could tell, but without magic it was hard to be sure how well the pregnancy was progressing, if it was progressing at all. She was all too aware that her family found it hard to have children. The mere fact that it had taken her so long to conceive, even with a husband who wasn’t remotely related to her, was proof that the pregnancy wouldn’t be easy.

It has to be done, she thought, resting her hand on her abdomen. The child will be the next monarch of Zangaria.

A wave of despair crashed over her as she lay back in her bed. She’d gambled – she’d risked everything for her friend – and she’d lost. Her father had given her an opportunity to prove that she would defy him, that she would turn against him, and – like a silly little girl – she’d taken it. And yet, no matter how many times she second-guessed herself, she knew she’d had no choice. Imaiqah – one of her two closest friends – was condemned by the mere fact of being related to a traitor, a man who’d betrayed the king. Alassa knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the death warrant was nothing more than a mere formality. She’d had to move to save Imaiqah before it was too late. And she’d failed …

Jade was out there, somewhere. She clung to the thought, even though she had no way to know if he’d received her message. Mouse might have been caught, when she slipped out of the castle and into the town … or she might have betrayed her mistress and taken her message straight to the king. And if Jade hadn’t received the message …? He’d be suspicious, wouldn’t he? She’d made a point of chatting to him via parchment every day they’d spent apart. He might sneak back into the kingdom rather than ride up the High Street, sure of a hero’s welcome. She hoped he would have the sense to be careful – his father-in-law wouldn’t hesitate to have him executed, if he fell into the king’s hands – and bring help. He’d need a great deal of assistance if he wanted to save his wife from certain execution.

And his child from being raised by the king, Alassa thought. She didn’t think her father would have her executed, but he’d certainly send her into comfortable confinement shortly after she’d given birth. Boy or girl, her child would be the next legitimate ruler. He’ll take the child and raise him in his own image.

She stared up at the ceiling, battling despair. Imaiqah might have already been executed, now she’d served her role. Sir William should have been safe – he’d been following her orders – but he might have been sent into exiles. Not knowing was worse than anything. She’d tried asking her keeper about her friends and servants, but the wretched woman had refused to be drawn on the matter. Alassa, it seemed, was to be kept in a perpetual state of ignorance. Her letters to her mother and father had never been returned. She didn’t even know precisely how long she’d been a prisoner.

The door opened. Alassa tensed automatically, then told herself to relax as a maid walked into the suite. There was no point in trying to fight. She knew from bitter experience that the suite’s wards would immobilise her – in the most humiliating manner – if she tried to attack the maids. She thought she could break through the wards, if she had her magic, but her keeper had been very careful. She’d been forced to drink potion to keep her magic suppressed every day.

She glared at the maid as the young woman placed the tray on the bedside table, then curtseyed. She wanted the girl to flinch, even though it was unmannerly of her. But the maid showed no reaction, save for pointing a finger at a glass. Alassa grimaced as she reached for it, knowing that – again – there was no choice. If she didn’t drink the potion willingly, she’d be forced to drink anyway. She’d had that lesson hammered into her too.

“Very good, Your Highness,” the maid said, as Alassa swallowed the potion in one gulp. “I will be back for the tray when you’ve finished your meal.”

Alassa scowled at her retreating back, taking a drink of mead to waste away the taste of the potion. It tasted fundamentally wrong. She’d tried a few tricks, when she’d started, to make it look as though she’d drunk the potion, but nothing had worked. It was clear proof, as if she’d needed any, that she was under constant observation. The wards would allow their mistress to spy on her captive at any moment, if she wished. They might even be clever enough to alert her if Alassa did something dangerous.

Damn it, Alassa thought.

The food was good, but she could only pick at it – listlessly – as she sat back on her bed. She was trapped, her body and brain already turning to mush. The servants were practically treating her like a baby, someone who couldn’t even get dressed on her own. Whitehall had taught her that she didn’t need servants to dress herself, but now … it was hard to muster the energy to do anything. She couldn’t help wondering if there was more to the potion she’d been fed than she thought. She’d always been an energetic girl.

But not for long, if I don’t get out of here soon, she thought. She could practically feel herself wearing away as her world shrank to the suite’s four walls. Jade … where are you?

Prologue II

There was a small army of guards on the streets.

Sir Roger of the Greenwood kept his face under tight control as his horse cantered up the High Street, his guardsmen following at a distance. He hadn’t expected cheering crowds – it wasn’t as if he’d won a great victory in the last six months – but the sullen atmosphere pervading the city was worrying. There was hardly anyone on the city’s streets, save for the guards. The shops were open, but deserted; the temples were open, yet few people seemed to be going to pray. Alexis seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting for something to happen.

Perhaps something has already happened, he thought, grimly. He’d heard hundreds of rumours, but each one had been crazier than the last. It feels as if we’re about to go to war.

A twinge of unease ran down his spine as he cantered over the drawbridge and into the courtyard, the amulet around his neck growing warm as it sensed the wards surrounding the castle. He had no magic himself – and he didn’t entirely trust those who did – but he took it for granted. King Randor appeared to have strengthened his defences, physical and magical, more than ever before. There were hundreds of guards within eyeshot, some of them eying him as if they thought him a potential threat. Roger’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t fool enough to think the guards would respect his rank if the king had ordered them to be suspicious of everyone who entered the castle.

He jumped off his horse as he saw a familiar – and unwelcome – face making its way towards him. Viscount Nightingale, Master of the King’s Bedchamber … somehow, slimier than ever before. The only thing that kept him alive, Roger knew, was the king’s favour, a favour that would inevitably be lost one day. The bastard had so many enemies that the only real question was which one of them would get to him first.

“Sir Roger,” Nightingale said. “The king commands your immediate presence.”

Roger looked down at his sweaty clothes, then shrugged. There was no hurry, as far as he knew, but the king’s orders were not to be disobeyed. If he wanted Roger’s urgent presence – even a Roger smelling of sweat, mud and horse – he’d get it. It was possible, he supposed, that Nightingale had set out to embarrass him, but it wasn’t likely. Abusing the king’s authority would be a good way to get his head on the chopping block. Nightingale knew better than to risk alienating his protector for nothing more than snide amusement.

He passed the horse’s reins to a young man from the stables, then followed Nightingale into the castle and through a dizzying series of security checks. The guards frisked him thoroughly, removing his sword and both of his daggers before letting him into the king’s antechamber. Roger felt a flicker of humiliation at the search, knowing that only his relatively low birth allowed the king to risk treating him so poorly. He wouldn’t have risked searching a baron so thoroughly. But then, it would be a rare baron who was allowed a private audience with the king.

Nightingale indicated the door, his posture indicating that Roger should walk through alone. Roger bit down several cutting remarks – there was nothing to be gained by making an enemy of a man who had the king’s ear – then walked through into the king’s audience chamber. It felt cold, despite a roaring fire in the grate. The king himself sat on his throne, his face so impassive that it could have been carved from stone. There was no sign of the Crown Princess or her husband.

“Your Majesty,” Roger said, taking off his hat as he went down on one knee. “It is a great honour to be …”

“You may stand and face Us,” King Randor said, cutting off the flattery. “We have questions for you.”

Roger stood, carefully. “I am at your service, Your Majesty.”

He studied the king for a long moment. Randor had always been a powerful man – the tales of his martial exploits hadn’t been exaggerated – but now he looked … old. There were streaks of grey in his bushy brown beard. And yet, he wore a sword – it looked to be a charmed blade – at his belt, as well as a suit of golden armour. The runes carved into the gold would make it almost invulnerable to brute force. Randor was clearly expecting attack.

“You opened correspondence with Lady Imaiqah,” Randor said. “Did you come to any … agreement with her?”

Roger blinked. The king had urged him to open communications with Lady Imaiqah, with a view to getting married at some point in the future … clearly, the king was shifting away from that version of events. No doubt the politically-correct version wouldn’t mention the king at all. He’d been unsure how best to proceed when it came to courting a common-born noblewoman who was also a sorceress and close friends with two of the most powerful and dangerous people in the kingdom. No sorceress would accept the role of a traditional noble-born wife.

“No, Your Majesty,” he said, carefully. “We have yet to formally meet.”

The king studied him for a long moment. “The Lady Imaiqah is currently in the Tower,” he said. He didn’t have to say which tower. “Her father was responsible for the attack on Our daughter, on her wedding day.”

“Your Majesty,” Roger said. He was torn between defending Imaiqah’s honour and backing away from her as quickly as possible. There was no way they could get married now. A traitor’s kin were automatically sentenced to death, just for existing. Traitors had to know that their families would pay the price if they gambled and lost. “I had no idea.”

“Nor did We,” the king said. “Lady Emily, it seems, was the only one who knew until recently.”

Roger swallowed, hard. “Lady Emily?”

“Yes,” the king said. “She knew and she said nothing.”

He changed the subject with dizzying speed. “How stand the regiments?”

“The first four regiments of musketmen are ready to deploy, Your Majesty.” Roger was finding it hard to think clearly. “I believe the remaining six regiments require more seasoning.”

“We are surrounded by enemies, Sir Roger,” King Randor said. It was hard to tell if he was speaking of the entire kingdom or using the Royal We. “Your regiments may all that stands between Us and civil war.”

Roger bowed his head. He was a very junior nobleman – and he came from common-born stock – but he’d heard the rumours. The remaining barons were readying themselves for one final joust with the king, while the merchants and peasants were intent on claiming a share of power for themselves. There were stories of taxmen disappearing in the night, of entire communities that slaughtered the king’s inspectors and then fled into the wilderness … the entire kingdom was on a knife edge. And other stories, stories that were completely unbelievable. The war could not be long delayed.

He looked up, meeting the king’s eyes. King Randor was his patron, he’d been his patron since the day he joined the army. He would no more betray his monarch than he’d cut off his manhood. And the king knew it too. He would not have entrusted the musketmen to Roger if he’d had the slightest doubt of Roger’s loyalty. An unscrupulous man could do a great deal of damage with ten regiments that were loyal to him.

“It is my pleasure to serve, Your Majesty,” he said. “What do you wish of me?”

“Bring your regiments to Alexis,” King Randor said. “And make preparations to move against the barons.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Roger said.

“We will consider the matter of your marriage more fully at a later date,” King Randor added, coolly. “There will be many available heiresses after the campaign is concluded.”

Roger nodded. The king would distribute the heiresses – and their lands – as spoils of war, sharing them with his supporters. No one, least of all the monarch, would care what the women thought about it. He allowed himself a moment of hope – a good match would render his position effectively impregnable – and then dismissed it. He’d have to wait and see what the king was prepared to offer him.

“I thank you, Your Majesty,” he said.

“You may go,” King Randor said.

Roger bowed. “I am at your service, Your Majesty,” he said. He glanced around the empty room. Where was the Crown Princess? And her husband? “I live to serve.”

“Exactly,” King Randor said. “And do not forget it.”

Chapter One

“Emily?”

Emily jerked awake, her eyes snapping wide open as she brought one hand up in a casting pose. Someone was close to her, far too close to her … she lowered her hand as she remembered, with a flicker of irritation, just where she was. Cat knelt in front of her, his face grim. Behind him, at the front of the covered wagon, she could see Jade pulling the horses to a stop. Her body ached as she forced herself to sit up. The stories of settlers driving into the Wild West had somehow managed to miss just how uncomfortable it was to ride in the back of a cart.

“Cat,” she managed. She’d slept for … how long? It didn’t look any dimmer outside, so it probably hadn’t been more than an hour or two. “What’s happening?”

Cat stood and held out a hand. “I think you’d better come look at this,” he said. “It’s not good news.”

Emily took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. He’d shaven his hair, save for a single blonde forelock, and dressed in leathers. A sword, a knife and a small wand hung at his belt. It marked him as a mercenary, a sellsword of no fixed abode, but it still felt odd to look at him. She didn’t think the mercenary look suited him – or Jade, for that matter. Both boys – men, really – looked unsettlingly violent.

But at least they don’t look like a Prince Consort and a Combat Sorcerer, she thought, stumbling towards the front of the wagon. Or a kept woman, for that matter.

She peered into the bright sunlight, one hand covering her eyes. Jade had stopped beside a corpse of trees, planted to mark the boundaries between one set of common-held lands and the next. A set of bodies hung from the trees; their throats were slashed, dried blood staining their clothes and pooling on the ground. Flies buzzed around them, their hum somehow ominous in the warm air. The wind shifted, blowing the stench towards them. Emily had to fight not to cover her nose as the smell of decaying bodies washed over the wagon. The bodies had clearly been dead for several days.

“Tax farmers, at a guess,” Cat said, from behind her. His voice was very calm. “Or perhaps the local noble’s functionaries, plotting to enclose the fields and turn the peasants into serfs.”

He nudged Jade. “I thought you were meant to be doing something about this.”

“Very few complaints ever reach the king,” Jade said, tartly. “And when they do, you can rest assured that he always rules in favour of the nobleman.”

“And so the commoners take matters into their own hands,” Cat said. He waved a hand towards the bodies. “Who do you think they work for?”

Emily shrugged. The bodies wore a lord’s colours and badge, but she didn’t recognise the livery. Yellow and black, with gold trim … it was probably a middle-ranking nobleman. She didn’t want to go any closer to the bodies, even though it was possible that one of them was carrying something that might give her useful intelligence. The smell alone was off-putting, but the prospect of the murderers having booby-trapped the bodies was worse. Sergeant Miles had told her, more than once, that peasant uprisings were always savage. The peasants knew little of the laws of war and cared less. Besides, it wasn’t as if they could expect any mercy either.

She looked away, her eyes sweeping over the checkerboard fields. They would be held in common, if she recognised the signs correctly; an entire village of peasants would work them collectively, giving half of their crop to their local nobility and keeping the rest of themselves. Tiny canals ran between the fields, so dry that only a trickle of water remained. The fields themselves looked abandoned, save for a handful of scarecrows. She was no expect, but it didn’t look as though they were being regularly tended. The peasants seemed to have walked away, leaving the fields behind.

They might not have had a choice, she thought, looking back at the hanging bodies. If the lord was planning to enclose the fields …

Her heart clenched. The nobility wanted to enclose the fields, claiming that larger fields would produce more crops. And they were right, she supposed. She’d seen the figures when it had been proposed at Cockatrice. It would be more efficient. But it would also turn the peasants into serfs, destroying what little freedoms they had left. She’d banned the practice in Cockatrice. Other aristocrats were far less concerned about the rights and freedoms of their tenants, let alone their traditional way of life.

“We’d better be going,” Jade said. He cracked the whip and the horses started to move. “I don’t want to be around when someone comes to take down the bodies.”

Emily nodded in agreement as she settled back on the hard wooden seat. The air outside was foul, but it was better than trying to sleep in the back of the wagon. She checked her headscarf, just to be sure her hair was still concealed, then looked down at the loose shirt and trousers she was wearing. She looked like a camp follower, a woman who served two mercenaries in exchange for protection … part of her found it humiliating, if only because Jade and Cat would have to treat her as a servant when they met other travellers, but she had to admit it was a good disguise. Between the headscarf, the clothes, and the dust on her skin, it was unlikely that anyone would draw a connection between her and the Necromancer’s Bane.

“We’re not moving fast enough,” Jade muttered. “We’re not going to be in Alexis for another week.”

“It can’t be helped,” Cat said, from where he was sitting in the back. “Unless you want to change your mind and teleport …”

Jade made a rude sound, but Emily didn’t miss the worry and desperation in his voice. “You know better than that,” he said. “We can’t risk being detected.”

Emily nodded, remembering the day they’d sat down in Dragon’s Den and hashed out the possibilities. King Randor, whatever else could be said about him, was far from stupid … and he had magicians in his service. Teleporting into Alexis – or even into the countryside near the city – risked detection, bringing the king’s army down on their heads. And while they could teleport into Beneficence, Emily had checked with Markus and he’d told her that anyone who crossed the bridge into Cockatrice was subjected to a careful examination. King Randor lacked the tools to carry out a real check – computers and databases were far in the Nameless World’s future – but his guards would know to watch for any inconsistencies. Or maybe they just used truth spells. It was a risk they couldn’t afford to take.

“We’ll be there in time,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder. It was a gesture of affection she would never have normally allowed herself. But she trusted Jade. “The king won’t hurt Alassa until she gives birth.”

“Hah,” Jade muttered. “He has a bastard son, you know.”

Emily looked away. Jade was right. Randor’s son might be a bastard – and the mother married to someone else – but the king wouldn’t have any difficulty proving that he’d fathered the child. And, in the absence of any fully-legitimate heir, he could probably convince the nobility to accept the child as his successor. Enough noblemen had been concerned about the prospect of a Ruling Queen – and about Alassa taking the throne – to make it hard for anyone to dissent.

“He won’t risk hurting a woman,” Cat said. “The nobility wouldn’t stand for it.”

Emily glanced into the darkened rear. “They have no qualms about beating and raping and even killing their maidservants,” she pointed out, sharply. “I’ve seen fathers complaining about the treatment of their daughters while beating their wives bloody. Why would they question the king?”

“Because Alassa is a noblewoman, even if she isn’t in the line of succession,” Cat pointed out. He ignored Jade’s snort. “They’ll be reluctant to condone the king abusing a noblewoman, whoever she is. They like to think of themselves as chivalrous.”

Emily rolled her eyes at him. On the face of it, Cat was right; knights and noblemen did like to think of themselves as the protectors of the gentler sex. And yet, she couldn’t help noticing that their chivalrous conduct had the unintentional effect of making noblewomen practically helpless. They couldn’t protect themselves, they couldn’t speak for themselves, they couldn’t even dress themselves. Everything was done for them by their small army of servants. As children, they were little more than dress-up dolls; as adults, they were expected to have babies – after their marriage was arranged for them – and nothing else. Legally, they were effectively children – and property.

It does have some advantages, she conceded. It was vanishingly rare for a noblewoman to be executed, whatever the crime. Hell, she’d heard of noblewomen deliberately running up vast debts which their husbands were legally liable to pay. But I would find it maddening.

“They may make an exception in Alassa’s case,” she said, finally. Alassa had been the Crown Princess … she still was, as far as everyone knew. She was hardly some decorative bauble of a noblewoman. Her magic alone made her dangerous to men who thought that women simply couldn’t make the hard decisions. “And they certainly will in Imaiqah’s.”

Her heart clenched again. King Randor hadn’t just arrested Alassa, if Jade’s source was correct. He’d arrested Imaiqah as well. Emily didn’t know why he’d arrested both of her best friends, but she had a very nasty idea. Imaiqah’s father had betrayed his monarch, which meant a certain death sentence for his entire family. None of the nobility would have any qualms about arresting a common-born sorceress.

And we don’t even know if they’re still alive or not, she thought. Jade was sure that Alassa was still alive, but there was no way to be confident. Their marriage bond wasn’t as intense as Melissa and Markus’s. And there is definitely no way to be sure about Imaiqah.

“She is a noblewoman,” Cat said. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

Emily sighed, inwardly. She knew that wasn’t necessarily true. She’d have to have a talk with Jade and Cat, sooner rather than later, about what Paren had done. Jade wouldn’t be happy when he heard the truth, even though he liked Imaiqah. He’d accuse Emily of ignoring a time bomb that had blown up in Alassa’s face. And he wouldn’t be wrong, either.

She leaned her head against the wooden railing and watched the countryside go by. A handful of scattered farmhouses and peasant hovels came briefly into view, half-hidden in the fields, but they looked deserted. Two were little more than burned-out shells, their occupants either dead or long-gone. There was no sign of the sheep, pigs or chickens that most farmhouses would keep as a matter of course. She shuddered as she realised that Zangaria was on the brink of war. The tensions had been rising for years, but now … now they were on the verge of exploding into violence.

No, she told herself. The violence has already started.

Emily heard snoring from behind her and smiled, despite herself. Cat had the gift of being able to sleep whenever and wherever he wanted, a gift that Emily rather wished she’d managed to develop herself. Sergeant Miles had urged her to try, but she simply hadn’t had the time. Too much had happened in the last few months for her to concentrate on expanding her magic. She should be back at Whitehall …

She felt a bitter pang, mingled with the grim understanding that she’d finally outgrown the school. Whitehall would always feel like home, she thought, and maybe one day she’d be back, but she’d never be a pupil again. She had a life outside the school now. And it hadn’t been the same since Grandmaster Hasdrubal had died. Grandmaster Gordian simply wasn’t his equal. She hoped he’d keep his side of the bargain and look after Frieda. There was no way she could visit her younger friend while she was trying to rescue Alassa and Imaiqah.

At least I got a chance to say goodbye, she thought. To her and to Lady Barb.

The sun was slowly starting to set as a small town came into view. Jade guided the cart down the road, eyes flickering from side to side as he watched for signs of trouble. It wasn’t uncommon for footpads to jump carts and wagons when the drivers thought they were safe, although Emily doubted that they’d mess with a pair of sellswords. Too much chance of getting killed for too little reward. And if the footpads realised they were attacking three magicians instead …

We need to keep our magic concealed, she reminded herself. The word was out. King Randor was hiring – and sometimes conscripting – every magic-user in his kingdom. Or we’ll find ourselves enlisted in his magic corps.

Her eyes narrowed as the town came closer. It was surrounded by a wooden palisade, a sign that it was a free town, but someone had been piling up earth to make it stronger. Emily didn’t think it would keep out a determined attack, let alone a magician, yet it might just deter bandits. Law and order had to be breaking down quite badly. Free or not, a town wasn’t supposed to build defences that might actually keep the local lord from asserting his authority. The mere fact that the townspeople had managed to get away with it was quite worrying.

“Watch my back,” Jade muttered, as he pulled the wagon to a halt. A set of guards were walking towards them, looking nervous. Emily had seen enough fighting men to know that the guards didn’t have any real training at all. Their weapons were probably more dangerous to their wielders than the enemy. “Cat, get up!”

Emily heard Cat standing behind her, but she didn’t look back. Jade jumped down from the wagon, careful to keep his empty hands in view, and walked towards the guards. Emily kept a wary eye on him, feeling a flicker of annoyance at how the guards barely glanced at her before dismissing her as unimportant. She knew she should be grateful to be ignored, particularly if Randor had any idea that she was accompanying Jade, but still …

“They’re taking their time,” Cat whispered. “What are they doing?”

“No idea,” Emily whispered back. It wasn’t uncommon for gates to be firmly closed after dark and not opened again until morning, no matter who demanded entry, but it was barely twilight. “Talking, it seems.”

Jade turned and hurried back to the wagon. “We’re not allowed into the town,” he said flatly, as he scrambled back onto the seat. “But there’s an inn on the far side, outside the walls. They’re playing host to a great many sellswords.”

“You’d think they’d want to hire us,” Cat said. “Did you see the way that idiot was holding his sword?”

“He came pretty close to unmanning himself.” Jade cracked the whip and the horses started to move, circling the palisade. “But we don’t want employment here, do we?”

“They wouldn’t want sellswords in their town at all, if it could be avoided,” Emily pointed out. “We’re about as welcome as wolves amidst the flock.”

She shook her head. Their cover story made sense. King Randor had put out a call for sellswords, as had most of the nobility. But it carried its own risks. Mercenaries were not loved, even during wartime. They were regarded as locusts; no, worse than locusts. She’d heard stories of sellswords being caught away from their bands and being brutally murdered by peasants who wanted to strike back at their unwanted guests. Jade had been insistent that they find a place to stay every night, even though it meant slowing their journey. The risk of being attacked if they camped in the open air was too great.

“I took a look through the gate while they were talking,” Jade said. “I didn’t see any young men, save for a cripple. They were all old.”

“Conscripted,” Cat said.

“Or they’ve taken to the hills,” Jade said. He pointed towards the rolling tree-covered hills in the distance. They were part of the Royal Forest, if the map was to be believed, and technically forbidden to peasants, but the locals had never paid much attention to unenforceable laws when their livelihoods were at stake. “You could hide and feed an entire army in there if you wanted.”

Emily shrugged. It didn’t matter. What did matter was that Zangaria was going to explode into war. All the grievances that had been neglected for decades, perhaps centuries, were about to tear the entire country apart. It wouldn’t be long before the urge to start settling grudges turned into a demand for wholesale reform …

“There’s the inn,” Jade said. He pointed to a long wooden building, positioned temptingly beside the Royal Road. A small statue stood in front, inviting passing travellers to rest their weary heads in a proper bed; behind, she could see – and smell – the stables. “Shall we go see if they have a room for us?”

“Hopefully, one without too many tiny visitors,” Emily said. She’d never stayed in an inn that hadn’t had everything from rodents to insects running around. The food would need to be tested carefully or they’d be laid up for days with stomach cramps. “Or will that cost extra?”

“Probably,” Jade said. “But we’re only going to be staying there for one night.”

“We should be able to get some news too,” Cat pointed out. “Right now, we don’t know enough to make a plan.”

“True,” Emily agreed. The inn didn’t look very inviting, but they were short of choices. It was probably too much to hope for a bath, or anything remotely resembling a shower. There would be buckets of cold water for washing and chamberpots under the bed. “Let’s go, shall we?”

Up for Preorder–Invincible (Ark Royal 12)

10 Mar

Invincible_final3

All is not well in the Human Sphere. The alliance between the Great Powers is starting to fall apart, the human economy cannot keep up with the urgent need for newer and better starships and politicians are demanding an end to military spending. For the Royal Navy, desperately trying to do too many tasks with too few ships, it is the worst possible time for a new threat to appear.

When a generation starship is detected approaching a British colony world, HMS Invincible is dispatched to intercept the aliens before they can make landfall. But the newcomers bring with them tidings of a new and deadly threat, an expansionist alien race far too close to the Human Sphere for comfort …

… And a sinister horror beyond human understanding.

Preorder HERE: US, UK, AUS, CAN

OUT NOW–Thunder and Lightning

10 Mar

thunder and lightning cover

In the early twenty-second century, humanity has spread through the solar system – and their electromagnetic signals have traveled hundreds of light years. An alien race called the Oghaldzon has decided that mankind is dangerously insane… and must be forcibly taken under control.

The invasion fleet’s technology is decades ahead of Earth’s best. They have more ships than the human fleets combined, and a seemingly-inexhaustible number of ground troops. And they’re not afraid to kill billions of people.

Humanity is outnumbered, outgunned, and divided. But they have a few cards left to play – and they’re not going down without a fight.

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Good News …

9 Mar

It’s been a particularly irritating week, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s over now <grin>

Several good pieces of news. Invincible is going up for pre-order now and it will be going live on 15th March. Thunder and Lightning, an older book that has been extensive rewritten by Leo Champion, is up for purchase now – I’ll be putting links on the blog soon, once I have a sample in place – and the audio version of The Zero Curse is up for pre-order too.

And I’ll be starting The Princess in the Tower on Sunday.

The current schedule looks like this:

March – The Princess in the Tower (Sim 15, making SIM the longest-running series)

April – The Family Shame (Zero 4)

May – The Embers of War (Kat Falcone 6)

June – The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience 5)

July – The Broken Throne (SIM 16)

Chris

Snippet–The Family Shame

7 Mar

It will be a while until i write the rest of this, but this scene was going through my head.

Prologue

It was a truth often acknowledged, Lord Carioca Rubén thought grimly, that House Rubén was the oldest Great House in Shallot. House Rubén could trace its linage all the way back to the Senatorial Families of the Golden City, a claim that none of the other Great Houses could make. Indeed, House Rubén was also the only Great House to cling to the customs and traditions of a long-vanished world that had, as far as the rest of the city was concerned, outlived their usefulness long ago. He’d seen it, once, as proof they were different, that they were born to eventually take supreme power.

Now, the traditions were a noose around his neck.

He stood in the centre of the Chamber of Judgement, his hands clasped behind his back as the arbiters took their places. Their faces were concealed behind black cloaks and powerful wards, their identities hidden even from the Patriarch himself. They would be men, of course, but beyond that …? Carioca understood the logic behind the tradition – he would have tried to bribe or threaten the arbiters, if he knew who they were – and at one point he would have supported it. Now … he would gladly throw tradition out of the window, if it would save his daughter’s life. He’d been very lucky that Isabella simply hadn’t been executed on the spot.

“We have discussed the matter of Isabella Rubén at great length,” the lead arbiter said. His voice was muffled by the wards. No one, not even the other arbiters, would know who he was. A friend, an enemy … or merely someone who’d lost confidence in Carioca’s leadership? “It is beyond doubt that she committed treason, against both the family and the kingdom itself. And that she acted without direction from a senior member of our family.”

Carioca felt his heart clench. Isabella wouldn’t have been expected to defy a senior member of the family, if he’d ordered her to follow his instructions. She was twelve. She wasn’t expected to make decisions for herself. If she had even a flimsy excuse to blame her actions on someone older, wiser and more powerful than herself …

“Worse, she chose to ally herself with Stregheria Aguirre,” the arbiter continued. “It is impossible to believe that she thought she was acting in the best interests of the family, or even that she was trying to secure the family’s future in the event of Crown Prince Henry’s coup suceeding. Isabella would have claimed power over the remainder of the Great Houses, assuming Stregheria Aguirre actually honoured her side of the agreement, but there would be little left to rule. House Rubén would be left broken in the wake of the coup.”

And the House War, Carioca thought. Stregheria Aguirre had laid her plans well. She’d played Isabella like a puppet. And, because she was an Aguirre, there was no way Isabella could be forgiven for allying with her. House Aguirre was the enemy. She thought she had no choice.

He winced, inwardly. Any father whose child turned against the family was a failure as a parent. That much was undeniable. How much of what had happened was his fault? Perhaps, if he’d been a stricter or a more attentive parent, Isabella would never have looked elsewhere for validation. Perhaps, if he’d fought for her right to succeed him as Patriarch, she wouldn’t have felt she needed to step outside the family line for power. Isabella was his daughter. How could she not be ambitious? But even he could not overturn centuries of tradition. He hadn’t even realised he needed to try until it was too late.

“If Isabella was a grown woman, she would have been executed by now,” the arbiter stated, flatly. “Treason is a serious offense. The king has already executed a number of Crown Prince Henry’s supporters, even members of the highest nobility. As it is, considering her age, we have decided to be merciful.”

Carioca wasn’t relieved. Mercy was a word with many meanings. Isabella was too young to be executed, perhaps, but there was no way she could be saved from punishment. He’d been lucky to escape being summarily stripped of his title himself. If he hadn’t been a war hero, if Caitlyn Aguirre hadn’t made her proposal to end the House War – and the endless feud – he might have lost everything. As it was, there was no guarantee that his son would be able to succeed him. The family council might choose to elect someone else in his place.

And the king will be demanding some punishment, he thought, grimly. Too many noblemen – and army officers – had backed Crown Prince Henry’s bid for the throne. It had been sheer luck that the original plan had had to be replaced at short notice. He cannot let a known traitor get away with it.

“Isabella will be sent into exile,” the arbiter informed him. “We have decided that Kirkhaven Hall will make a suitable home for her until we see fit to recall her from exile.”

“I protest,” Carioca said, immediately. “Kirkhaven Hall is no place for a young girl.”

“She will not be alone,” the arbiter said.

“But there will be no one of her age there,” Carioca said. He was all too aware that he was coming close to pleading. “She will …”

“She is being punished,” the arbiter said. “A few years in exile will teach her a lesson and satisfy the king. Should she comport herself in a manner that suggests she has learnt something from the experience, she will eventually be allowed to return to the city.”

But what she did will never be forgotten, Carioca thought, glumly. Too many people knew the truth for it to be forgotten, even if he bribed or threatened people into silence. House Rubén had enemies. They’d drag the matter up every time they needed to weaken the family’s reputation still further. Isabella will never live it down.

He stared into the arbiter’s hooded face and knew there was no point in arguing. The family demanded its pound of flesh. Isabella had betrayed them, a crime that could never be forgiven. Scheming to become Patriarch was one thing, but actually planning to ruin the entire family was quite another. There were few worse crimes. Carioca’s enemies might take pleasure in putting a knife in his back, while he was weak, but even his allies would agree that Isabella needed to be punished. Sending her into exile, cutting her off from the friends and family she’d need to make a name for herself, was harsh. Her future prospects would be utterly ruined.

As if they weren’t anyway, Carioca thought. Who would want her to marry into their family now?

“Isabella will leave tomorrow morning,” the arbiter said, firmly. “You will not be permitted to talk to her before her departure, nor will you write to her without the family council’s approval. Should you attempt to contact her secretly, her exile may be extended and your own position will be subject to examination.”

Carioca gritted his teeth, wondering – again – who was under the hood. One of his enemies, definitely. The list was a depressingly long one. He’d stood on too many toes during his rise to power. And now he was weak, someone had decided to have a go at him. If he didn’t try to contact Isabella, his fitness as a father – and Patriarch – would be called into question. But if he did try to contact his daughter, his enemies would have all the excuse they needed to strip him of his position. He could not win.

“I understand,” he said.

Isabella would not have an easy time of it. Kirkhaven Hall was in the highlands, right on the border with Galashiels. There were only a couple of people living there, both of whom had been sent into exile themselves long ago. Isabella would have books, of course, and plenty of room to practice her magic, but her education would suffer. And she would be unable to build the circle of patronage that any young person needed to make something of themselves in adult life. She would be alone, in a very real sense, for the rest of her life.

But at least she will be alive, he told himself. And, one day, she will return to us.

But he knew that day would be a very long time in coming.

OUT NOW – The Hyperspace Trap

6 Mar

Nuttall-TheHyperspaceTrap-FTfix

The first Angel in the Whirlwind Spin-Off

A year after the Commonwealth won the war with the Theocracy, the interstellar cruise liner Supreme is on its maiden voyage, carrying a host of aristocrats thrilled to be sharing in a wondrous adventure among the stars. The passengers include the owner and his daughters, Angela and Nancy. Growing up with all the luxuries in the world, neither sister has ever known true struggle, but that all changes when a collision with a pirate ship leaves the cruiser powerless and becalmed in hyperspace. And they’re not alone.

Now, the mysterious force that’s living on this floating graveyard is coming for Supreme’s crew and passengers. As madness starts to tear at their minds, they must fight to survive in a strange alien realm.

And there’s no way out…

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from Amazon here: US, UK, AUS, CAN.

The Dubious Wisdom of Children

6 Mar

The Dubious Wisdom of Children

This is a bit of a ramble. It went in a direction I didn’t quite expect.

If you are not a socialist at 15, you have no heart. If you are still a socialist at 25, you have no brain.”

-Original Source Unknown.

When the son was fifteen, as the saying goes, the father knew nothing. The old man was so ignorant that the son could hardly bear to be in the same room as him. But when the son was twenty-five … gosh! It was amazing how intelligent the father had become.

I don’t think I need to point out that the father’s intelligence had not changed. Rather, the son’s perception of his father’s intelligence had changed. Kids – and by kids I mean everyone who has yet to physically and mentally leave adolescence – are rarely capable of appreciating the wisdom of their elders. It’s quite common to believe that our parents are mired in the past; not evil, per se, but trapped by outdated preconceptions about the universe. Each successive generation believes, for example, that it has invented everything. It comes as a surprise to discover that one’s parents know all about things like homosexuality, porn and other matters that one prefers not to discuss with one’s parents.

The thing is, there are really two different kinds of learning. There’s what we may as well call ‘book-learning,’ when someone reads a book and hopefully learns something, and what we will call ‘experience-learning.’ That is the kind of education you get when you actually start doing something, instead of just learning about it. If you do the former, you learn about the ideal; if you do the latter, you learn about the reality. You understand, at a visceral level, limitations that people who have not done it do not understand.

I was taught a great deal of nonsense at school. Some of it was relatively harmless, some of it was dangerous – most school and university career centres are given to pushing students into doing things that actually impede their chances of getting a job – and it was quite hard to tell the difference. I simply didn’t know enough to separate the words of genuine wisdom from the harmless and dangerous pieces of nonsense. Academics – particularly the ones who have never worked outside the academic world – are rarely as clever and knowledgeable as they think … and they will not admit it. They probably don’t even realise it. This tends to lead to all sorts of problems with their conception of what happens in the world runs headlong into reality.

For example, when I was at primary school, there was a big to-do about gathering food and sending it to Africa. (There was a country (Ethiopia?) that was suffering a major famine and, our teachers told us, we were going to help.) It was a great cause – and, on the surface, it looked quite reasonable. Britain’s farms were producing more food than Britain could possibly eat, so why not send the food to Africa? What sort of monster could argue against feeding the starving?

The problem, as any realist would tell you, is that the food aid would have disastrous long-term effects on the locals. First, as the men with guns eat first, you’d be feeding the armies fighting the civil war that caused the famine in the first place. Second, as the different sides would not be keen on feeding their enemies, you would encourage them to attack aid workers to keep the food from being distributed. Third, as the locals would not be buying locally-produced food, the local farmers would not be able to make ends meet and would, eventually, be driven to starvation themselves. What do you think would happen when the influx of foreign food stopped? The path to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions.

Indeed, socialism and communism sounds good to the idealist. In theory, there is nothing wrong with either socialism or communism. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” But, again, the realist would raise a number of questions. Who decides how the common-held property is divided up? Who decide what constitutes ability and need? And what do you do when the people whose property you’re trying to take away and redistribute say no? (As they will.) A realist, with the experience to understand that vapid political slogans and indecipherable buzzwords do not constitute a worthwhile plan of action, let alone lead to a new heaven and a new earth, will reject communism.

But the idealist does not have the understanding to say no.

Kids aren’t stupid, by and large. But they are ignorant and driven by feelings. I shudder to think of just how ignorant I was when I was a teenager, convinced – like most teenagers – that I knew everything. It is this sort of ignorance that leads to exploitation by politicians who understand how best to manipulate idealistic kids into supporting bad ideas without bothering to think about the eventual end result, let alone realise that people who oppose such ideas actually have good reasons for their opposition.

Pretend you’re one of the American kids marching for gun control. What do you actually want? And what do your backers actually want? (Hint – it may not be the same thing.) Perhaps you want reasonable regulation of privately-owned firearms? What constitutes reasonable regulation of privately-owned firearms? And why might people disagree with you? If you figure that out, you might be ready to actually think about the issues. As Chesterton put it:

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

A kid may think that an idea is a good one because it has the backing of the local jerk jock, alpha cheerleader … or some celebrity who hasn’t lived in the real world for years. The person who puts the idea forward is more important than the idea itself. (Cue all the jokes about college students praising Trump’s ideas when they’re told they’re Obama’s.) An adult should know better. And most of us do grow out of such conceits, if only because the real world is much less forgiving than college. The people who don’t – the people who never have to fend for themselves (a politician who has never lived outside politics, for example) – are the people who you should know not to take seriously.

I’m writing this because of a claim that liberals will inherit the Earth, because conservatives are aging dinosaurs who will die out. I don’t think that any realist would believe such a claim for a moment. The problem is that kids who leave college or university will enter a world where their ideals – and their concept of how the world works – will be put to the test and found wanting. It’s easy to support liberal ideas like ‘Ban the Box’ or ‘Affirmative Action’ when you’re not charged with actually dealing with the consequences. An idealist would argue that they will improve the world, but a realist would tell you – from experience – that they will make things worse. And the realist is right. The world does not care about your feelings.

If someone comes to me and says ‘I considered the advantages and disadvantages of Hillary Clinton and compared them to the advantages and disadvantages of Donald Trump and concluded that Hillary would make the better POTUS,’ I would accept that even though I disagree. But if someone said ‘I voted for Hillary because it’s time America had a female POTUS’ I would dismiss their opinions at once. Realism does not allow for electing someone based on their gender, but on their fitness for the job.

Point is, when I was a teenager I believed a great many things. Some of them I carried into adulthood, because they stood the test of time. Others I discarded when experience taught me that they were nonsensical. I am a conservative because experience had taught me that liberals are more likely to be dangerous – and rewrite the rules on a whim, because they don’t really understand what they’re doing – than conservatives. But, by the standards of 1960, I would be incredibly progressive and, by the standards of 1860, I would be so far to the left that I would be lost in the haze.

I thought, once upon a time, that European unity was a good thing. I cannot deny that it has had many positive effects. But it has also had many bad effects, caused by politicians who pushed too far too fast … and failed to understand that not everyone agreed with them, or that they needed to compromise and make concessions before they alienated vast numbers of people so badly that they would turn away from traditional political parties. It should not have surprised me, perhaps. If there is one thing I learnt from boarding school, it is that anyone who claims to want to help me is more interested in his or her self-interest than my well-being.

There was a time when I believed that I could rely on authority. But that did not last. I learnt, that hard way, that authority – again – is more interested in itself than in me. You cannot trust a bureaucrat these days, nor a politician or civil servant … trust is declining all over the world. And the less trust people have, the less willingness they have to make society work.

Like I said, I am a conservative because I believe that many liberal ideas are actively dangerous. Not because liberals mean ill, but because they don’t bother to think about the long-term effects of their actions. If you happen to be one of the students rioting in the streets or campuses because of ‘social justice’ or ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘not my president’ there is a very good chance you will have problems finding a job. You’re certainly not preparing yourself for work. (If you were one of the students who forced a college to cancel a musical because a white girl got the lead role, please rest assured that I would never offer you a job.) But you’re also harming your ideals by making yourselves look silly, idiotic, violent or all three. You’re not preparing for a world of social justice, harmony and utter fairness, but encouraging sensible people to demand a crackdown. The reaction has already begun.

Liberals have come to believe that the ends justify the means, that a sufficiently noble cause makes anything permissible. Everything from internet shame mobs to doxxing – which can lead to very real deaths – is acceptable, provided it is in a good cause. But conservatives believe that the means make the ends, that either liberals will teach conservatives to throw away the principles of conservatism and just hit back (the Alt-Right may be a forerunner of this) or liberals will turn on themselves. As A Man For All Seasons put it:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Either way, humanity loses.

The idea of a ‘conservative’ is changing over time, as new ideas are tested and then either integrated or discarded. Some of the older generations of conservatives are indeed being sidelined, while their younger counterparts cheerfully accept homosexuality and other concepts that horrify the older conservatives. But, as people enter the real world, they tend to grow more conservative. They see idealism meet reality – they learn how things actually work – and they discard the idealism of youth.

So … what next?

2 Mar

In all honesty, I was starting to think that Invincible (Ark Royal 12) was cursed.

It’s been one thing after another – me getting ill, snow suddenly shutting down most of Edinburgh, me getting ill again – and there were times when I was seriously thinking that I wouldn’t be able to complete the book. Of course, a lot of that was probably the illness talking. I’m not sure what’s really wrong – the doctors say it’s a chest infection, but it’s proven resistant to antibiotics and stuff – and it is really getting me down.

Anyway, hopefully, I should finish the first draft of Invincible tomorrow. I’m hoping for a release date of 15th March, although it depends on the edits and suchlike. I’m going to have a break – of sorts – for the next few days, then I’m going to have to get my ducks in a row for The Princess in the Tower (SIM 15).

So here’s the question … which story do you want after The Princess in the Tower?

There are two choices:

The Family Shame is basically a stand-alone book set in the Zero universe, following the adventures of Isabella as she is sent into exile for her actions during The Zero Equation and finds herself confronting a dark secret. It’s a chance to explore aspects of the universe that Cat couldn’t really touch upon, while also allowing a flawed character to find some basic common decency … actually, it’s a bit more than that, but that’s the basic idea.

The Long-Range War is book V of A Learning Experience, with the Tokomak mounting their long-awaited attack on the Solar Union and the human race attempting to starve them off, unaware that the aliens have dark plans of their own.

So, which one do you want? Let me know here or on the Facebook page.

Chris

Guest Story: Countdown to Zero Hour

2 Mar

This probably requires some explanation.

I’ve been collaborating with Jagi Lamplighter on the blog ‘Fantastic Schools and Where We Find Them’ and – well, to cut a long story short – she decided to write a crossover story where Rachel Griffin (her adventures start here) finds herself attending Jude’s and meeting Cat and her friends. Obviously, it isn’t very canonical, but … I like it. Seeing my characters in someone else’s hands is quite insightful <grin>.

If you like it, feel free to comment.

Chris

Author’s Introduction

Rachel Griffin, the daughter of a British duke, is a student at Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts. She studies magic along with her peers, many of whom are better sorcerers than she. However, she has one unique give none of them share, a perfect memory.

Rachel is part of a club called the Die Horribly Debate Club that consists of students devoted to saving the world—or at least to arguing about hot to do it. In her own series, the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment, she is currently thirteen. However, at a later point in her career, she will have a chance to do some world hopping. This story takes place during that period.

Since this is older Rachel, there are a few spoilers, but I have tried to keep them to a minimum.

Rachel-4 Zero Blessing Cover R2 FOR WEB

Countdown to Zero Hour

One moment, Sigfried was mouthing off at the Prince of Darkness, the next, Rachel Griffin found herself seated in class.

Only, it was not a real classroom, with a large wooden table at the center, and chairs seated around it. Rather, it was a classroom out of a children’s book, with small desks lined up side by side in a row—the kind of schoolroom where Unwary children study. Rachel might have thought it quaint and picturesque, if the tutor had not called on her at exactly that moment.

This must be a nightmare, she thought. Things like this happen in nightmares. At least, I’m not naked.

Reflectively, she looked down to make sure and was startled to see herself dressed in an unfamiliar, mundane, school uninform with a dark jacket and the shortest skirt she had worn in her entire life. Her knees were exposed, and there were boys in the room!

Worse, she let out a long sad sigh, all her lovely curves were gone. She was back to resembling a ten-year-old.

“Miss Griffin?” the tutor called again. He was an intellectual-looking bald man, who seemed to be tag-teaching the class with an old gentleman. “Can you answer the question?”

How did he know her name?

“No, sir,” she replied honestly.

“No? Come, it’s a simple question. What is the formula?”

This was so unfair.

Rachel closed her eyes for just a moment and took a steadying breath. She clamped down her desire to explain exactly why she could not answer the question, as it was never wise to give information away without knowing the stakes. Grimly, she resolved to wait until she understood her situation before she burned any bridges.

“I am sorry, sir. I seem to be…a bit disoriented.” She ran the back of a hand across her forehead, hoping that he would interpret this as her being ill without her having to strictly lie.

It was not that Rachel objected to lying. She did it both often and blithely. But, even she would rather speak the truth whenever it was an option. Lies required a good deal of upkeep.

“Very well, Miss Aquirre?”

Two girls answered simultaneously. Rachel judged them to be about twelve years old, which was probably the age she was now, too. Both girls were dark-skinned with long braids. Their features were quite similar, but that was where their resemblance ended. The one to her right was confident with an air of arrogance that reminded Rachel of Belladonna Marley. The one directly on her left, looked sullen and less sure of herself, but she had a keen intelligence in her eye.

The tutor patiently listened to first one girl and then the other. He frowned slightly at the answer of the confident one, but the meeker girl won a bright smile. Apparently, her answer had been correct.

Rachel recalled this girl’s answer three times, remembering her words exactly as they had been said. It did not help. Not only did she not understand what was being said, she could not even identify what Art it related to—even when she compared it with all the encyclopedias she had read, which meant only one thing…

She was on another world.

* * *

The third time the quieter girl—Miss Caitlyn Aguirre according to the tutor—answered perfectly, Miss Alana Aguirre threw her a very snide look.

“What’s the point of knowing all this theory if a person can’t even pull off a single spell?” Alana muttered snidely to a girl sitting beside her, who giggled. Alana raised her hand and her voice. “Magister Grayson, how much of our grade is based on the practical?”

Some of the other students snickered. A few others seemed less entertained, particularly a red-haired girl and a pale young man who had the look of the aristocracy about him. Caitlyn Aguirre said nothing, merely ducking her head and pretending that she had not heard this, but her face had a sour look.

The theoretical portion of the class broke up, and the students headed for their places for the practical portion. Rachel remained at her desk, wondering what to do next. On one hand she was intensely interested in seeing what they were about to do. If she understood correctly, they were discussing an entirely new branch of magic, a new Sorcerous Art. And that was something she was dying to learn more about.

On the other hand, the one who had sent her here had not done so for her health. If he was following his previous M.O., something here would be deadly dangerous and infinitely tempting. She would have to proceed with caution. And, of course, fifteen minutes of magic class told her nothing about the local politics—well, nothing that was not strictly obvious, such as that this was a stratified society with children from families of different ranks.

She could tell that much by observing the demeanor, deportment, and quality of belongings of her fellow students.

As to the rest… So far, she had neither run screaming down the halls no dissolved into a puddle. That was good, commendable even.

Yet, the terror of being far away from home and all by herself—at least, she had seen no sign of Sigfried yet—was beginning to gain ground. She could hide it with easy, the secret dissembling techniques she had learned from her mother allowed her keep a mask of calm over her face. Inside, however, the feeling of panic was rising. If this continued, very soon, she would have a real headache.

How was she going to find her way home?

Alana and two other girls walked by where Rachel and Caitlyn still sat at their desks, the three girls chatting snidely among themselves, but loud enough for Caitlyn to hear. Something Alana said must have hit home, because Caitlyn winced.

Rachel hated bullies. She was sick of seeing people pushed around by loudmouthed girls who thought they could get away with anything they wanted because they had powerful magic. Sadly, such behavior seemed to be part of school life everywhere, but it should not be part of family life. Families were to be fought for.

Some things were just too much to take.

“I beg your pardon,” Rachel turned on Miss Alana Aguirre. “But are you attacking your sister in public? Your own sister? Are you commoner? Have you no proper manners at all?”

Alana was so startled that, for a moment, she could not speak.

Rachel added casually, “Picking on your own sister is like gouging out your own eye or deliberately adding a wart to an otherwise pretty face.”

Alana was an attractive young woman, but her scowl turned her ugly. “What’s it to you, Hangchow girl? Mind your own business!”

Rachel had no idea what a Hangchow girl was, but she could tell that the word was intended as a slur.

“I will mind my own business,” she replied, her words crisp and precise, “and I suggest you mind yours…which is to keep family business where it belongs, within your family.”

Alana lifted her head proudly and stomped off, followed by her friends, but Rachel noticed the pale aristocratic boy nod his head, a slight smile of approval on his lips.

“Thank you,” murmured Caitlyn, “though I’m not sure if that will make her better or worse.”

“Worse most likely,” Rachel sighed, deflated. “Mouthing off almost never leads to any long term improvement. And on that account, if I have made things harder for you, I beg your pardon.”

“No, it’s all right,” Caitlyn almost smiled. “It’s a novelty to have someone stand up for me. She’s going to be horrible no matter what any of us do.”

“I know people like that,” Rachel murmured under her breath.

The two of them joined the others for the practical exercise. The air of sullen glumness about the other girl grew stronger the closer they came to the other students. Noticing how everyone was pairing off to thrown spells she did not understand, Rachel made a sudden decision.

Leaning toward Caitlyn, she whispered, “Am I correct in discerning that you are not keen on joining the practicals either?”

“You could say that,” muttered Caitlyn glumly.

“If I go and tell the tutor…Magister Grayson that I am ill, and I would like someone to escort me to the infirmary—and I ask for you—will you show me where it is?”

“The infir…you mean the healers? Sure. Anything to get out of class. But…don’t you know where they are?”

Rachel tilted her head and regarded Caitlyn Aguirre. “I… Do you think that I should? Know where they are, I mean?”

“Well, you have been here a few months now. Didn’t someone give you a tour.”

“Interesting.” Rachel digested this information.

* * *

“So, you know who I am?” Rachel asked as the two girls walked down the long stone corridors past busts of famous men and women, none of whom Rachel recognized.

“Of course,” Caitlyn shrugged. “You’re one of my roommates, even if we haven’t talked much.”

“And…whom do you think I am?”

“You’re Rachel Griffin of House Griffin. Your family recently returned from Hangchow, where your father married a native woman. Your grandfather was a very important general. House Griffin is not as influential as Aguirre or Rubin at the moment, but it has been great in times past.”

“Interesting,” Rachel repeated, pursing her lips. Perhaps Hangchow was the Orient, reflecting her Korean ancestry?

Aloud, she said, “And you are Caitlyn Aguirre of…” Rachel put two and two together and came up with— “House Aguirre? You are a twin, but your other sister is…” she did not want to insult the girl’s sister. Many families fight among themselves but turn on outsiders who show disrespect. She settled for… “a bit of a prig?”

“Triplet,” Caitlyn looked at her oddly, “Everyone knows that. There’s no way you could have missed it.”

“Ah…about that….”

Rachel stopped and looked to the left and right. The hall was empty, except for a few upperclassmen in the distance. Caitlyn Aguirre seemed like someone who might be trustworthy, and Rachel needed an ally, someone to tell her where to find things, if nothing else.

Stepping closer, she asked, “If I tell you a secret, will you promise not to tell?”

With an unexpected seriousness, Caitlyn replied. “Yes. I can keep secrets.”

Rachel took a deep breath and then plunged. “I have no idea where I am.”

“I…beg your pardon.”

“One minute I was at school—and by school, I mean my school, Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts. The next moment I was here, sitting beside you in class. I have no idea where I am; what I am supposed to be doing; what kind of culture you have here; what the class was teaching. Nothing.”

“You mean…” Caitlyn’s eyes were dark and concerned. “You have amnesia? You’ve forgotten how you came to be here? Is Roanoke a school in Hangchow? Has this ever happened to you before?”

“It’s happened before,” Rachel replied, shivering slightly at the thought of amnesia. Memory loss terrified her. “but not in the way that you mean.”

“How so?”

“I…have an enemy. He likes playing cat and mouse games. He throws my brother and I into situations where he thinks he’s going to give us enough rope to hang ourselves. This isn’t the first time he has done it.”

“You think he drugged you and wiped your memory,” Caitlyn asked, shocked.

Rachel sighed. “I don’t think I am properly communicating the scope of the problem.”

“Then explain it to me,” Caitlyn replied simply.

Rachel smiled slightly. She liked the other girls no-nonsense attitude. She wished more of her friends at home were like that.

“I’m from another world.”

“Another… What?” Caitlyn’s voice rose loudly.

Rachel lowered her own. “I am front another world. I recognize nothing. Not the people. Not the magic. Not the words you use for places. Nothing.”

“I..I don’t…”

“There are many worlds. There used to be millions, as many worlds as stars in the sky. Then some fools destroyed the World Tree, and they all came tumbling down. Now there are about fifty known worlds, but there are a whole slew of others that fell into the darkness. Some of these are not very far down. Does your world have some kind of famous disaster or cataclysm reflected in your history?”

“Yes.” Caitlyn moistened her lips. “but it happened centuries ago.”

“That could be it.”

“All this…I don’t know what to think.”

“It doesn’t really matter what you think about it,” Rachel replied, taking the practical approach. “What matters is that I know nothing. And, unless you can help me, Miss Aguirre, by filling me in on how your school is laid out, where we eat, where I sleep, and what in the world our school work is about, I’m sunk.”

“Another world… Such things are theoretically possible, based on my understanding of basic principles, but…” The other girl glared at Rachel, looking quite suspicious. “Why should I believe you?”

Rachel thought about this for a while. “Well, for one thing, the only thing I am asking is help not looking like I’m from another world. Help fitting in. Knowing the basic things I would know if I were…whomever you think me to be.”

Caitlyn was quiet for an uncomfortably long time, just staring at Rachel. Then, she made some kind of decision.

“Come on, I’ll show you around. We’d better swing by the healers first, as we said we were going there. The Magisters’ll check. ” The other girl began walking again. “Oh, and you might as well call me Cat.”

* * *

“So this it the library?” Rachel spun around. Her lips parted in wondrous delight. “Entirely full of books I have never read! ‘Oh, what brave new world!’ Only, you probably don’t know that quote either, do you? Do they have Shakespeare here?”

As they walked through the long corridors, Rachel had answered nigh on three million questions Caitlyn had posed about Earth, Rachel’s life, and magic as Rachel knew it. Finally, the other girl had grudgingly admitted that maybe Rachel actually was from another world—not so much because of anything Rachel had told her as because of what she did not know. Apparently, Rachel showed such an appalling ignorance of ordinary things—more so than merely having grown up in Hangchow could have accounted for.

She had spent the rest of the school day in the healers claiming she had a headache, so as to avoid going to classes, the subjects of which she had not even heard of before. Apparently, today had been a half day and the next day was their equivalent of Sunday, which gave her a day and a half to at least become nominally familiar with five subjects.

Now Caitlyn and her best friend Rose, the red-headed girl from class, had taken her to the library, so that they would have a private place to speak and study. It was not until she stepped into the library and saw all the unfamiliar books that the true significance of where she stood had begun to sink in. For the Girl Who Wanted to Know Everything, there was nothing more wonderful than a collection of entirely new knowledge.

It was eerie, though. Everything was different. The sizes of books, the materials they were bound in, even the smell of the paper was slightly different, as if it came from a different type of wood pulp.

A shiver ran down her spine. It was the uncanny valley of libraries.

“Spear shaking? Never heard of that. Is it a dance?” asked Rose.

“No, he’s…um, never mind.” Rachel wet her lips. She waved a hand at the shelves. “Where should I start? What’s best?”

“Do you want history? Or class work?” ask Cat. She pointed at a nearby shelf. “First year books are there. History’s up that aisle.”

“And we’re first years?” Rachel rolled her eyes and sighed. “I was sixteen this morning.”

“Sixteen!” Both girls looked shocked.

“You mean, you got younger?” asked Rose.

Rachel shrugged. “Not really, I suppose. I just look younger.”

“I would hate to lose years and the respect that goes with them,” Rose said sympathetically. “Do you come from a big family?”

“Three sisters and two brothers—though one’s adopted.”

“I come from a big family, too,” Rose said it almost as if she was making an reluctant admission. “We live on a farm.”

“Really, I love farms! We have many tenant farmers on my father’s estate, some have been there for centuries. My ex-boyfriend lives on a chicken farm. He’s a commoner, too.”

Cat and Rose gawked at her. “You have an ex-boyfriend.”

“I was sixteen a few minutes ago.”

“I’m not sure my parents would let us have boyfriends, even if we were sixteen,” murmured Cat.

Rachel gave her an understanding smile. “Mine didn’t, either.”

“Is that why he’s an ex?” asked Rose.

“Only in part.”

“Was he an idiot?” asked Cat.

“If so, you’re well rid of him,” added Rose. “My cousin dated a young man who turned out to be unreliable. We were all relieved when she broke it off.”

Rachel smiled a little, sad half smile. “Actually, he’s a really wonderful boy. I just…wasn’t old enough, I guess. It doesn’t really matter now.” She glanced around the library at some of the older classmen studying in the distance. Moving closer to the other girls, she indicated one of them with her elbow. “Looks like you have some nice boys here. That one’s rather cute. Who’s he?”

“An older classman!” Rose averted her eyes quickly.

“First years never talk to upperclassmen,” Cat explained, “It’s one of the rules.”

Rachel gaped, flabbergasted. “What…you don’t talk to the older students? Not at all?”

“No,” Cat said flatly. “Not unless you have a very good reason.”

“It was talking to upperclassmen that got us kidnapped,” added Rose.

“You’ve been kidnapped, too?” Rachel asked with interest. “Did they truss you up and try to throw you in a furnace? That happened to me.”

“No,” Rose said sadly, “They geased us and made us spy on Caitlyn and threatened us—Akin and I—to blackmail Cat to force her to make Objects of Power.” She saw Rachel’s blank look. “It’s something only Cat can do.”

“Oh,” Rachel murmured. “That sounds terrible.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Well, let me get to the books.”

“Before we go…” Rose’s voice sounded uncertain. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but…we’ve been tricked before. How do we know you’re actually…what you say you are? We’ve been tricked before. Is there anything that can be done to verify your story?”

“That I’m a girl from another world flung through space and time and turned into a twelve-year-old? Not that comes to mind,” answered Rachel. “Can you think of anything?”

“You could take an oath,” challenged Cat.

“Is that magical? As in there are bad effects if I break it?” asked Rachel.

The other girls both nodded.

Rachel sighed. “Very well. Let’s get it over with. Word it carefully.”

The other two girls seemed surprised when Rachel was willing to do this, but they had her swear. When they were done, Rachel began walking along the shelves. She pulled out books with titles that suggested the classes on the schedule Caitlyn had found in her books and piled them on the table. When she had piled up a dozen, she sat down and began flipping through them, turning the pages as quickly as her could while still making sure that her gaze fell squarely on each entire page.

At first, the other girls went back to their own studying. After about fifteen minutes of this, however, Rachel found that they were both staring at her.

“What are you doing?” Rose asked. She sounded sincerely puzzled.

“You can’t be reading…not at that speed,” said Caitlyn.

Rachel gave them a friendly smile. “No. Not even I can read at that speed.”

“Then…” Cat shrugged, looking at her curiously.

“I…” she looked around, “Oh, you are both being so helpful…” She closed the fourth book in her pile. “I would appreciate it if you did not mention this to anyone else. I find it is useful that people not know.”

Both girls nodded.

“I have a perfect memory. Once I see the page, I will remember it forever. I still have to read it, if I want to know what it says, but I can read it in my head. If I look at these books now, I can try to sort out what they mean later, during lunch or while in bed.”

“That’s… amazing!” Rose’s eyes shown. “I wish I could do that. That would so helpful when taking tests.”

“Yes,” Rachel allowed herself a wry half-smile. “That it is.”

“That is amazing,” Caitlyn looked thoughtful. “Well, we’ll let you get to it then. We, too, have studying to do. We have to catch up on the month we missed while being kidnapped.”

* * *

Later that evening, the three girls walked up the stairs to their dorm.

“So, I’ve memorize my schedule,” said Rachel, “and the map of the school…the local part of it that’s in my notebook, anyway—your school may, possibly, be larger than my house. I now know where my classes are. But you’ll have to help me with the rest. If you could make a point of addressing people by their name whenever they approach…that would help extraordinarily.”

“This is so weird,” Rose murmured. “Sorry, I just…I remember you being here, for months.”

Caitlyn said slowly, “Now that you’ve brought it to my attention, I remember you being here—but I can’t think of anything you’ve actually said or done. It’s like you were randomly inserted into group scenes as an additional body in a crowd. I remember you…but I don’t.”

Rachel shivered. Memory manipulation disturbed her.

“Which is weird, because magic doesn’t usually stick on me,” Caitlyn added.

“It probably wasn’t magic,” Rachel said glumly. “Not what you mean by the word, anyway. It was probably the person who sent me here who did it. That or your Guardian.”

Rose and Caitlyn exchanged glasses.

“Um…we have families,” said Rose. “We don’t have guardians. Not evil ones who would cast spells on us anyway.”

Rachel smiled and nodded. She did not bother trying to explain.

They continued up the stairs. They lived in Raven dorm, which Rachel found comforting. Zadkiel was still missing, but she had tried calling Caziel, hoping that the Wolf would take pity on her and give her a ride home. Alas, he had not come.

She had also tried calling Leander, but he had not appeared either. She had called out to the local Guardian as well but had not received an answer. Either the Romanov’s had never assigned a Guardian to this world, or Rachel was not significant enough to warrant its attention.

That left the Fox.

She was not sure she was up to trying that yet. They had been on awkward terms since the day she slapped him. She still felt uncomfortable about what he had done. She had no reason to think he would come if she called.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs behind them. Rachel paid no attention, but Caitlyn looked back nervously.

“Duck!” Cat shouted.

“Duck wh—” Rachel began, starting to turn around.

But then, she was frozen. Her body stiffened. No effort to move her limbs produced any effect. Nor was it just here. Beside her, Rose was motionless as well.

Oh no. Not this again.

Frozen. Without the aquamarine amulet her older brother had given her, she was no longer immune to this hex. Rachel hated being frozen. Enmity toward whomever had done this coursed through her veins.

Only then did she realize that she was falling.

The other two girls had been squarely on a step, but Rachel had been mid-step. Now that her weight was no longer going forward, she was tilting backwards. Please let us go. Please let us go! She willed silently, but it was no good.

Her body slowly tipped backwards. Before her eyes, the hallway became the ceiling became snickering girls who seemed to stand upsidedown at the bottom of the flight of stairs. The whole process of tipping over seemed to take an excruciating amount of time, which made her hope of managing to somehow catch herself even crueler.

Caitlyn was still moving. The hex had not affected her, which was odd as she had been standing directly between Rachel and Rose. When Cat realized what was happening, she leapt for Rachel, and outstretched. Only it was too late.

Rachel was already sliding down the stairs, headfirst.

She bumped along the stairs, gaining speed. It didn’t hurt yet. She wondered if it would when the magic wore off. She tried to remain calm as she slid helplessly, to resign herself to her fate. After all, at least she had not just been sprayed by a skunk. But this time it did not work. Anger boiled within.

Sliding on her back, head first, down the stairs, she zoomed onto the landing, where she came to a stop. Three girls stood above her, laughing. She did not recognize any of them, but the tallest bore a family resemblance to the pale aristocratic boy from her first class.

“Look at the runt!” howled one of the girls, nearly choking with laughter. “That’s so funny. Isabella, can we do that again?”

The taller pale girl, who must be Isabella, dismissed the comment with a curt wave. “A waste of a spell. It should have been Miss Zero who fell. Even the stairs object to her presence. She…”

Caitlyn’s voice shouted down from higher up. “That was dangerous. One of us could have broken our necks!”

“Oo!” Isabella replied scornfully. “The Zero’s free. But she can’t help her friends. They’re stuck until…” Isabella’s voice went flat. “Oh. An object. That’s cheating.”

Suddenly, Rachel could move again. She moved experimentally, but, amazingly, nothing hurt. She did not know if that was due to the nature of the magic used, or if she owed thanks to the time that Leander had breathed on her familiar—making her, finally, immune to damage from falling.

Rachel jumped to her feet, glaring. Isabella was not even looking at her. The tall girl was too busy taunting Rachel’s new friend. She had totally humiliated Rachel, and she did not even care.

How dare she!

Fury possessed Rachel. She whistled.

As blue sparks shot from her mouth, she cried out, “Tiathelu!”

The hex struck all three girls, who stopped moving. Rachel gestured with both hands and all three of them shot up into the air, dangling dangerously above the lower flight of stairs. Shouting, she moved them apart from each other, two girls going one way and Isabella flying the other. Then, Rachel rotated her fingers, spinning the girls head over heels.

“Wow! Look at her go!” Farther up the stairs, Rose clapped her hands.

“That’s…how are you doing that?” cried Caitlyn.

The anger drained out of Rachel. Chagrinned, she realized that she was giving herself away. If anyone else had seen them, they might know right off that this was not native magic. She righted the three girls and lowered them safely to the landing.

Then, she crossed her arms and glared at them.

“You are so lucky,” she spoke with aristocratic preciseness, “that I have decided to take pity on you, and put you down. I suggest, in the future, you think twice before attacking me. Next time, I shall not go so easy on you.”

Then, leaving them standing motionless, unable to express their ire, Rachel marched up the stairs to where her two new friends waited.

“That was excellent,” Rose clapped shyly. “But…what did you do?”

Rachel shot her a mysterious half-smile. “Magic.”

* * *

The next two weeks were like a blur. Rachel spent hours in the library, scanning books. She read and studied, studied and read. She read about history. She read about magic. She read about geography. She even read about cooking. When she was eating or walking to class, or even sitting in class, she was really reading.

Only very little of it helped.

The history and geography was straightforward enough. She now knew where Hangchow was and how the Empire had ended when the Eternal City—which she mentally called Flying Rome—fell. It was the magic that baffled her.

It seemed to be algebra or calculus, only it was magic. But it was not math and magic back home, in the sense of drawing wards or delineating the precise percentage of enchantment vs. conjuring necessary to layer a thaumaturgy spell. Rather this was something entirely different

Whatever it was, she could not follow it.

Classes were even worse. At least, Rachel had successfully found her way to each one, so she could arrive on time. And she had figured out that her hair had to be in braids. All girls wore braids here. But that was about all she could be glad of. Each class was more of a nightmare than the last one. She was constantly put on the spot and embarrassed, with students snickering behind her back and blaming her foreign upbringing for her ignorance. It made nice cover, but it did not help her bruised pride.

Rachel was used to doing well in class, and these classes all seemed as if they would be fascinating, were she not so far behind. Always coming in last was humiliating.

Protective and Defensive Magic class was not so bad. She felt like she could almost grasp what was being said there. At least, the principles made sense to her, even if the application was unfamiliar. In Practical Charms, the theoretical portion was fascinating—when she could understand enough to follow it at all—but the practicals were terrifying. She had not yet figured out how to use their magic, so she was constantly afraid that her dueling-trained instincts would take over and betray her. Then she would be grilled on why her magic was different. Neither Caitlyn nor Rose could enlighten her as to what might happen if the truth were revealed. She did not want to risk it.

Potions class was even more horrid. It probably would not have been a bad class for anyone who liked cooking, but Rachel had never done any cooking, beyond making tea with a self-heating pot. She had hardly ever been in a kitchen, except to ask for treats and send messages to her friend, the cook’s grandson. She had never cut anything beyond her meat and vegetables at dinner and had no chopping skills of any kind.

Worse, when she finally managed to get all her ingredients chopped and into the pot, it exploded, splashing her and those near her with boiling, foul-smelling liquid. That had required another trip to the healers. Rachel had feared she might be expelled—until she discovered that exploding potions was a regular occurrence.

And she had thought some of the classes at Roanoke were dangerous!

Forging class was interesting in theory. In practice, it required delicate with one’s hands, another talent Rachel lacked. Had there been needlework magic, she might have excelled, but physical crafts were not her forte.

The final class was the most baffling at all. It was, apparently, a class in questioning expectations. However, as Rachel lacked the expectations of the locals, the entire process was a mystery to her. She was not taken in by deceptions that confused everyone else, and she totally failed to grasp things that everyone else understood. For the first time in her scholarly career, she had not even the slightest notion of how well she was doing in this class. She could not even figure out how to begin to evaluate this.

The magic itself was quite interesting. Some of the actual effects was similar to what she was used to, but other things were new. They could transform a person into a frog with a single, hand-cast spell—no carefully layering of cantrips, enchantment, and conjuring mixed in just the right amounts and stored inside a thaumaturgical gem. A few words, a gesture, and, boom, a girl became a frog.

The first time it happened to her, Rachel panicked.

Suddenly, the world was enormous, and her body felt all jumpy, leaping long distances at the slightest noise. Even afterwards, she felt jumpy and strange. Food did not agree with her properly until the next day.

By the fourth time, she had the presence of mind to call upon her family’s dissembling techniques, and, poof, she was a girl again. Caitlyn and Rose complimented her on how quickly she had turned back, but Rachel was truly shaken. If she had needed any proof that she was Sun Li’s great-grand-daughter, she now had more than she required.

The next time Alana or Isabella or one of the other girls who she had mouthed off to turned her into a frog, she just endured it until someone freed her. Maybe being a frog was not really so bad.

What she needed was a charm bracelet full of protective alchemical talismans. At first, she thought she could make herself one. But when she asked Caitlyn and Rose if she could borrow an essence glass, the other girls had never heard of such a thing. Nor did Rachel have a wand—not one she could understand, at any rate. So she had to settle for storing charges of defensive magic in the gem of a ruby ring she found in her drawer. The gem was far from thaumaturgical grade, however, and would only hold ten spells. Still, it gave her a make-shift dueling ring.

She did not know enough thaumaturgy to set up spells with triggers, however, so it did not stop her from being hexed from behind.

Worse of all, however, was that she was land-bound. The humiliations might not have been so bad, if there had been brooms and flying. But not only did she not have Vroomie, she could not get her wings to unfold. Not since she turned twelve—the first time—had she been stuck on the ground for so long.

Never had she missed the skies more.

* * *

Things came to a head one evening in the library. Rachel let out a long painful moan and clunked her head against the table.

“I can’t do this.” She thunked her head on the wood again. “Usually, I’m good at picking up new things, but nothing is making any sense. I think I am getting worse.”

Rose patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Rachel. You’ll get it. I didn’t know anything when I came either. Honest. And when I say anything, I really mean it. I hardly knew how to read. Caitlyn helped me so much, and I caught up. At least you know some magic, even if it is different magic. If I can do it, you can, too.”

“But equations? Advanced formulas?” Rachel moaned. “It’s like physics all over again!”

“What’s physics?” asked Caitlyn, looking up from where she was sketching a diagram.

Rachel rested her cheek on one hand. “It’s a kind of magic called science. I’m not bad at it, mind you. In fact, I’m rather good—for a novice. For a time, I loved it. But then…” she sighed.

“What happened?” asked Rose, closing the book she had been trying to force herself to read.

“I invited my best friend Astrid to have lunch with my other friends, the ones who are interested in such things,” Rachel explained. “After that, I never got a word edgewise. Astrid turned out to be much, much better at it than I am.”

“That’s too bad,” Rose said sympathetically.

“Each day at lunch, I would listen to the conversation between her and my other friends. I could remember everything they said. Each night, I would go back to my dorm and read and study and try to figure out what they had meant. Sometimes it was too advanced, but usually I could figure it out! The next day, I would come back all happy that I now understood what they had said—and they’d be on to something new.”

“What happened?” asked Caitlyn.

Rachel gazed miserably at the table. “Something bad.”

“You stopped being friends?” Rose asked, worried.

Rachel gave her a little smile. “Not that bad. After a while, I just dropped out of the conversation. Since I couldn’t talk about physics, I spent all my time talking to the other person at the table who was not as interested in physics.” She stopped, her face tomato red. “Let’s just say it led to the worst mistake I have ever made.”

“Sounds horrible,” said Rose.

“It should have been…but it wasn’t, in all the wrong ways,” Rachel muttered back, her cheeks still uncomfortably warm. “But that’s not the point. The point is that I cannot make heads or tails of all this.” She pushed forward a piece of paper on which she had been doodling one of the formulas from the book she was reading.

Caitlyn spun the paper around and examined it. Then she stared at Rachel. “What books did you read?”

“Those. Over there. You said they were good books for beginners.”

“I think someone must have miss-shelved a few books. This is some very advanced stuff. Stuff even I would have trouble, and I have studied this ever since I was seven.”

Rose leaned forward. “Rachel, Caitlyn taught me, and I started knowing nothing. I couldn’t even read properly. Lets find you the books she started me on.”

The three girls headed over to the stacks together. Caitlyn pulled out an entirely different set of books from those Rachel had started chosen that first day.

“Here. Try these.”

* * *

For the next week, Caitlyn and Rose kindly put aside time each day to answer Rachel’s questions. First Rose explained the basics to her. Then Caitlyn would explain anything that Rose got wrong. This helped both Rachel and Rose.

Rachel began doing a little better in class, but something was still missing. At home, she understood the magic at a fundamental level—understood the basic principles of what was being achieved. Here, she did not. It gave her a new sympathy for her adopted brother Sigfried, who had grown up in the mundane world, and who had gone a little crazy when he discovered that the laws of nature were not what he had understood them to be.

Only, there was something familiar about what she was learning, something that should click together in her mind, but it was not clicking.

She mentioned this when the three girls were sitting together in the dining hall, eating lunch.

“It’s like…I am about to understand it, only I can’t. Not familiar in the sense of something I’ve seen before. Just something—a pattern?. I keep waiting for it to make sense, but so far…” Rachel shrugged.

“You answered a question correctly in class yesterday,” Rose said encouragingly.

“At least you successfully cast a spell last week,” Cat said sardonically. “I’m a zero.”

“You can forge objects of power,” objected Rose. “No one has been able to do that in like a thousand years!”

“That is very cool, by the way,” Rachel smiled at Caitlyn. “I think the things you’re making are magnificent!”

Caitlyn shivered slightly. “Going from no talent to one that people want to kidnap you for in under a month is…disturbing.”

Rachel and Rose simultaneously bit their lips, not sure what to say.

“Don’t give up, Rachel,” Rose said finally. “You’ll figure it out.”

“Thanks.” Rachel sighed. She arched her back, stretching. “I’m finally getting used to the food here. Wonder if I’ll miss it when I get back home.”

Rose nodded. “The food is excellent here at Jude’s Academy. A bit rich, though.”

Simultaneously, Caitlyn begged Rachel, “Please don’t just our food by the stuff they serve here. It’s very plain!”

The two locals looked at each other. Rachel giggled.

Rose asked, “Do you think they are missing you, your family and friends?”

“If they have noticed I am gone.”

“You don’t think anyone would notice you are missing?” Cat asked, surprised. “But you’ve mentioned family and friends.”

“It’s not that I think they don’t care,” Rachel explained. “It’s that the time flows differently between worlds. Once Siggy and I were gone for a good while, but no time had passed at home. I’m sure they miss me, if any time has passed.”

“How are you enjoying being here?” asked Rose.

“All right, I guess.” Rachel looked around the dining room. “People are not as friendly as at Roanoke and this not talking to the upperclassmen is bonkers. But worst of all is the ‘group think’ thing. I don’t know how you all can bear it.”

“Group…think?”

Both of the local girls looked puzzled.

“You know, where they punish one of you if another one misbehaves. Or they punish Sandy for things we do. It’s barbaric. The unfairness of it galls me.”

“It does seem unfair,” Caitlyn agreed quietly, “but that’s the way things have always been done. They don’t do that where you come from?”

I think they do it in my world, too, but not at Roanoke.” Rachel shuddered. “I’m really glad, too. I have enough problems without having to constantly feel bad that I was getting some hapless senior resident in trouble. That would have been ghastly!”

For some reason that made Rose giggle. The other two stared at her. Then they began to grin as well. After a moment, all three were laughing.

“At least Isabella has stopped hexing me every time I turn a corner,” Rachel said, still chuckling. “That’s an improvement.”

“That’s because she thinks your magic is my fault,” Caitlyn groaned. “She’s convinced that, since your so laughable in class, you must be able to do unfamiliar things because I made you Objects of Power that do those things. I wish I could have found a way to keep her from finding out what I could do. Now she blames everything on me forging an item of power. I’ve created a monster.”

“She was always a monster,” giggled Rose.

The three girls started laughing all over again.

“She does seem to enjoy blaming you, Cat,” Rose agreed finally. “But why don’t you tell people—Sandy at least—that it wasn’t you? Rachel’s hexes, I mean.”

“And make her suspicious of Rachel again?” asked Caitlyn.

“Why should anybody be suspicious?” Rose pressed. “Can’t we just claim that any unfamiliar magic is something she learned in Hangchow?”

“Oh, Rose, that’s brilliant!” cried Rachel.

“That is a good idea!” Cat agreed, “Wonder why we didn’t think of it earlier.”

“It might be a problem if one of our teachers had traveled there,” said Rose, “But I’ve been asking around, and I haven’t heard that they have. Not for a significant time, anyway.”

* * *

Magister Tallyman circled the forging class. A big bustling man, he strode with long steps, his hands clasped behind his back as he bent to examine each student’s work. He stopped to speak good-naturedly with this student or that, making his progress slow.

This gave Rachel a little time to work.

She looked down at the horribly scratched metal sheet before her. Theoretically, her skills at drawing should carry over to this sort of work, but somehow the etching did not come easily. She was about to reach for yet another sheet of metal—she had been told that if she used too many more, her account would be charged—when an idea struck her.

The assignment was just to make the spellform. They were not expected to show that it actually worked. This meant, it only had to look right. Rachel glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder. The tutor was busy speaking to a group of young men who were asking him about a problem they were having with their project. She stood and walked toward the supply cabinet where the metal sheets were stored. Only, on the way, she paused and looked at Rose and Cat’s work—since the assignment was only for show, Cat was working near the rest of them—though, as one of the tutor’s assistance, Cat was often away from her desk, checking on other students. When they didn’t object, she picked up both of their pieces, turning them over and examining this side and that. Putting them down again, she continued to the cabinet, where she opened its door.

The moment the door blocked the class’s view , Rachel closed her eyes. She pictured the spellform perfectly in her mind, exactly as it should look with all the runes of power in place.

Then, she conjured it.

Casually returning to her seat, she lay the fake conjured sheet on her desk. She was not an advanced enough conjurer to make the device of the correct substances, but it looked perfect. As long as no one picked it up or dropped it—it would shatter like porcelain—she might actually pass this assignment.

Freed from the need to continue this particular task, Rachel’s eyes fell on the materials before her: copper wire and…gold foil.

Fetching a pair of pliers, she pulled up from her memory every reference she could recall to how to make a cinqfoil. In principle, the process was simple. The school was filled with wards and glyphs and traps. The natives seemed to be able to sense some of these things. Rachel was not as blind to these energies as Caitlyn, who apparently could not sense them at all, but neither had she been practicing since childhood. Sometimes, if she thought back, she could remember lines of rainbow light—similar to what the Raven’s magic looked like—winding their way through the school. But most of the time, she was just blindsided by magic that other people could sense.

But if she had a cinqfoil, she would be able to tell it was there. It would not be as fancy as Caitlyn’s spectacles, which were very much like Rachel’s mother’s glasses, but it would be better than nothing. Besides, it would be useful when she recharged the spells in her ring.

The tight coil needed for the base was simple enough, but Rachel could not seem to coax the copper wire into its proper shape. The third time she accidentally cut it rather than crimping it, she cried out in frustration.

A pleasant masculine voice spoke behind her. “Do you need help?”

It was Magister Tallyman’s other assistant, Akin Ruben, the pale aristocratic boy who was Cat’s friend.

Rachel’s eyes widened. She had not realized how tall he was. He seemed quite intelligence and had a pleasant manner, but Rachel had noticed a slight wistful, almost hanged-dog, air about him that she found unappealing. His gaze was keen and clear, however, as he regarded her.

“Um…yes, actually.” Rachel sighed. “I seem to be making a mess of it.”

“Can you explain what you are trying to do?”

“I’m trying to twist the wire into a tight coil. Um…here.”

Rachel whipped out a piece of paper and drew a picture of the inner workings of the cinqfoil, according to a textbook she had once read. She used the precise lines and shading technique that she favored when drawing illustrations. Then she presented it to Akin.

The young man’s eyes widened. “You draw very well.”

“Thank you,” Rachel lowered her lashes shyly. “I work very hard at it.”

He turned the picture left and right. Then, crossing to the main tool box, he camp back with a different type of pliers. With these, he was quickly twisted the wire in the exact way she had failed to do. As he worked, all his uneasiness vanished. He now looked confident and focused. From this angle, she had a good view of his aquiline nose and well-formed line of his jaw.

Rachel averted her eyes. Best not to gawk at twelve-year-old boys, even very handsome twelve-year-old boys. That could only lead to trouble.

As she waited patiently, it occurred to her to wonder if maybe the uncertainness she sensed about him was a new thing, a reaction to the humiliation of having been kidnapped and geased that Cat and Rose had described. Having some experience with such things—both directly and indirectly—Rachel felt a keen sympathy to his plight.

Akin worked steadily following Rachel’s instructions until the entire device was complete. He brushed one of the delicate gold foil petals with the pad of his finger.

“What is it?

“A cinqfoil.”

“What’s it do?”

“Detects magic. Would you like to see?”

“Sure.”

Without thinking Rachel whistled a paralysis hex. Blue sparkles danced across her desk. To her utter delight, the little gold foil petals of the device opened, indicating that magic was present.

“Look!” she practically squealed. “It worked!”

Akin was squinting at her. “Isabella said that you whistled up magic. No one believed her.”

Oops.

“Oh. That.” Rachel waved absently. “It’s a family talent.”

He nodded, as if such things existed. He tapped her conjuration. “Nice spellform.”

* * *

Now that she knew it was possible, Rachel wanted to make a cinqfoil herself. She fetched more supplies and hunkered down to work. She was so intent on what she was doing that Magister Tallyman did not kick her out immediately after class. It was their last class for the day, and Akin and Cat were staying anyway to work on a project.

The gold foil was not as hard for Rachel as the copper wire. It folded like origami paper, and she had become adept at origami. She was carefully folding the fifth petal when a loud crash reverberated through the room.

Rachel looked up. There was no sign of the tutor or Cat, but Akin took off at a run. Leaping up, Rachel followed him.

They ran into a much larger chamber. In it, a disgruntled Caitlyn was climbing out of what could only be a crashed flying device. The device looked a bit crumpled, but it was basically in one piece.

“It worked!” Cat cried, triumphant. “It worked!”

“But it crashed,” said Magister Tallyman.

“That’s because I don’t know how to control this one. It’s not quite the same as the last one. It rolled sideways when I didn’t mean to.”

Rachel’s ears perked up. She walked forward as if mesmerized, gazing at the short squat winged device with wonder and love. The others did not seem to notice her. She carefully did nothing to draw herself to their attention.

Caitlyn jumped back in and tried again. Rachel watched very carefully as she and the flying machine bobbed first this way and then that. She noted what action on the controls produced roll, pitch, and yaw.

Finally, she could bear it no longer.

She cleared her throat. “I believe I may be able to help.”

* * *

For the next half an hour, Rachel described the principles of flying, wrote down vector equations, and demonstrated how to use a very light touch to coax a high-strung flying device into obeying your wishes. The vehicle had short squat wings like those of a diving falcon. Caitlyn explained that she had chosen this the flying devices from among she had found in the old books because it was so compact. Rachel suspected, glancing at the blue prints, that it had been some form of speedster, designed to be flown very quickly, most likely by an experienced air jockey. Drawing on what she had learned during her study of the wings of birds, Rachel sketched out a wider wing, more like a swan’s, that she thought would prove for more stable flight.

When Magister Tallyman began questioning her about how she could know such a thing, Cat cut him off by claiming that, where Rachel had come from, she had had access to a flying device. The statement was truer than her friend realized.

Caitlyn and the tutor went off to redesign the wings. Rachel stayed behind, loathed to part from even this tiny amount of flying. Instead of following them, she dawdled behind, showing Akin how to work the controls. He picked it up quickly. Rachel enjoyed sitting close beside him as he worked. Caitlyn and Rose were far better friends than the girls she knew at home, except Astrid, but she did miss Sigfried and Gaius.

Boys were so pleasant to talk to.

As they climbed out, the tall boy asked with false casualness. “Has Caitlyn said anything about me.”

From anyone else, Rachel might have thought this was a request for compliments, but something about the pale boy’s expression suggested otherwise.

“Do you mean in relation to when you were all kidnapped?” Rachel asked slowly.

He did not answer, but with his pale skin, the slightest heightening of color was quite obvious.

“To tell you the truth,” Rachel began seriously. She could not help drawing her answer out to torment him, just a little. “Yes, she have.” He looked so intent, she almost felt bad about teasing him. “But she’s only ever say good things about you.”

“Really?” He suddenly seemed much less awkward, as if a weight had left his shoulders. “That’s…a relief.”

Rachel stopped and gazed at him steadily. “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

“Maybe,” He looked away. “But I should have been able to break free, somehow.”

A little smile flitted over Rachel’s lips. “You remind me of someone I know.” Her smile died. “Something a bit like what happened to you happened to him.”

“As bad as being geased and forced to spy on his friend—and forced to make her forge weapons for an enemy?” Akin asked bitterly.

“Less bad in some ways,” acknowledged Rachel. “Worse in others.”

“How could anything be worse?”

“At least you weren’t forced to do anything…shameful.”

Akin’s face went paler still. “True.”

Rachel leaned forward and lay a hand on the tall boy’s arm. She gazed up into his eyes. “My friend—the one that went through something a bit like what happened to you—told me something once that I think helps in such cases. About how to live with yourself afterward. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes. Actually, I would.”

She lowered her voice so that her intonations matched those of Vladimir Von Dread when he spoke the words to her the first time, in London. She quoted only the part that seemed appropriate: “My friend said, ‘We will make mistakes because none of us are perfect.  And, honestly, I have no time for regrets. There is much too much to do in this life. If I make a mistake I will deal with it afterward. I do not have time to be slowed by doubts about future actions… I could curl up and wail about my failure, or I could continue to work…I choose the latter…’

Akin leaned back, looking thoughtful. “I like your friend’s attitude. I will have to think about this. Acting rather than regretting. I’ve tried regretting, and it’s not pleasant.”

Rachel nodded.

“Your friend sounds like an impressive person, if he really lives up to those words.

“Oh, he does!” Rachel paused. “He’s a prince, actually.”

“A…prince!” Akin looked duly impressed. “You’re friends with a prince?”

Several, Rachel thought, but saying it aloud would smack of boasting, so she merely nodded.

“You’ve given me a good deal to think about,” he said quietly after a time. Rachel noted that the hanged-dog air she had observed about him in the past was nowhere to be seen. “Plus, it’s a relief to know that Cat isn’t telling tales about me.”

Rachel flashed him a half-smile “I think she’s just glad that the two of you are still friends. A lesser man might have distanced himself.”

Akin’s back straightened, as if he were proud to not be the lesser man.

* * *

.Rachel was waiting for her turn at the practicals, her mind tracing the formulas Caitlyn had been showing her. The forces involved in the magic were beginning to make sense to her. They were a lot like vectors of speed and mass. Only, she still had the feeling that there was something else going on, something she was missing.

Caitlyn handed her the next in a series of equations. “And this is the one Alana always uses to deflect spells.”

Rachel gazed at it. “This is what I need to learn. One of my great fears in this class has been that some spell will come fly at me, and my dueling instincts will kick in. I’ll Beathe or Nothor it before I realized what I’m doing.”

Caitlyn gave Rachel an odd look. “I’ve heard those words. Aren’t they part of a warding spell? Two different spells, I think.”

Rachel sat straight up, alert. “You’ve heard words from the Old Tongue?”

“Yes. Would you like to see the equations for that spell?”

“Yes! Yes, I would.”

Caitlyn drew it out. Rachel blinked at it.

“Could you demonstrate it for me?”

“No,” Cat said wryly, “I’m a zero. Remember?”

“That’s fine. I don’t want to see you cast it. I just want to see the words and gestures in slow motion.”

“Sure. Even I can do that.” Caitlyn stood up and performed the spell.

Rachel gawked. There in the middle of the spell was the word nothor…and the gesture for nothor at exactly the same moment.

Rachel tipped back on her heels and closed her eyes. Calling up her memory, she ran through every spell she had seen anyone cast anywhere in the school since she arrived. She only caught a few words of the old tongue, but the gestures—there were dozens of familiar gestures! She had not noticed because they were mixed up with others she did not know.

Rachel’s eyes flew open. She stared at the equation again.

Oh.

No, couldn’t be.

Could it be?

A feeling like tongues of lightning flickered up and down her body. She hardly dared breathe. There seemed to be a correlation between the formulas and the gestures. Could it be that these people had the math for the Original Tongue? Could they have figured out the formulas underpinning the basic flows of all of the Art of Canticle?

There were tales of canticlers who could speak to rocks and talk with trees; however, many of the gestures that accompanied the original words had been lost. This meant that Canticlers were reduced to using only familiar cantrips. But, if the gestures—or the magic they guided—could be recreated, what could not a canticler do?

Cat had showed her how to do amazing things with the equations, to enhance and augment whatever magic the formulas were be applied to. And how to use the formulas to confirm that the forces involved would not cancel themselves out or explode. The people on this world applied these equations to specific spells they had discovered by trail and error.

But Rachel spoke the Original Language. She could use it to say anything.

She sat there for the next ten minutes, working out formulas in her head. For the first time in her life, she was actually using the advanced math that she had dragooned Gaius into teaching her. At each step, she cross-references her findings with books from the library here that she had memorized. And then…

“I have it! I have it!” She jumped up and down excitedly, momentarily losing track of where she was.

“Do you, Miss Griffin,” asked Magister Grayson, “would you care to show the rest of us?”

“Certainly!” She laughed, giddy. “What would you like me to do?”

The tutor gestured. Alana Aguirra waited for the next person to step forward and become her partner. Rachel stepped forward, and they squared off. She stood sideways in a fencer’s stance, smiling. Within, however, she was thinking furiously, correlating all that she had just discovered.

Alana prepared to throw her first spell. Rachel raised her hands, and, gesturing, began to speak.

Words of the Original Tongue flowed from her tongue, as she issued instructions. At the same time, she concentrated on the equations Cat had shown her, amplifying and dampening each effect as she desired. Where she did not know the correct hand-gestures, she took her guidance from what she had discovered in the books in the library.

The air hardened before her, blocking all incoming spells. Beyond that, the chairs burst into leaves and flowers. The tables lumbered to life and moved towards her to protect her. The floor beneath Alana grew soft, and the other girl began to sink into it. With a scream, Alana threw herself backwards, scrambling away.

Rachel threw back her head and laughed.

This! This was what the Die Horribly Debate Club had been searching for, a power that could level the playing field against their uber-powered enemies. If she was truly going to lead the Keybears on their impossible mission, a glimpse into the secret underpinnings of magic itself might be exactly what she needed.

Speaking the silvery words of the Original Tongue, Rachel commanded the universe to exalt her. Her clothing rippled in a wind that only blew on her. Her hair unraveled from its braids, flying free behind her head like a black silk banner. Behind her, cloth ripped, and then…

Feathers. Silver feathers with black tips floated everywhere.

She was all powerful! She could bring the entire school to life. She could freeze the air around her enemies or command the earth itself to devour them. She could do anything she desired!

Roooaaar!

Her head snapped up, and she pulled in her wings. She did not need to look around to know where that sound had come from. It had come from her memory, and she knew exactly what it meant.

This power hunger was what the one who sent her here had wanted, for her to hang herself with magic that was too powerful.

“Oyarsa!” Rachel shouted, making the accompanying gesture.

Everything snapped back to normal. The floor hardened; the air softened; the tables stopped walking. A few of the chairs still sprouted bright-colored blooms, but otherwise, the class room had returned to what it had been before. The silvery feathers had already begun to disappear, only a few still remained. Her shoulders, however, felt unusually cold.

Legaralqué!” she yelped.

The ripped back of her uniform mended itself.

The tutors and the other students all stared at her in astonishment. Shoving her normal fear of being the center of attention to one side, Rachel spread her arms and bent at the waist in a formal bow.

“How…how did you do that?” asked a startled Magister Grayson.

Rachel flashed him a mischievous smile. “Magic.”

* * *

The tutors pelted her with questions, but Rachel did not care. She felt somehow that she was finally free to return home. So when she was instructed to report to speak with the Castellan in the morning, she merely nodded and smiled.

She would be gone before the morning.

Before she left, however, she wanted to do something for Caitlyn. It was the other girl’s patient tutoring and solid grasp of the magical equations had made this possible. Rachel would be returning home with secrets that might help them save everyone—if she could only keep her head and use them wisely.

But what would Caitlyn want?

What Cat needed was Salome Iscariot. Isabella Ruben and Alana Aguirre were just the kind of bullies Rachel’s friend Salome excelled at destroying. Miss Iscariot had an uncanny ability to find a person’s mental weak points and trick them into embarrass themselves in public in some disastrous way that always left the bully a social pariah—but they later seemed to recover, a better person for the experience.

Only, now that Rachel understood the source of Salome’s power, she would not wish that on anyone. But what if she could take a page from Salome and do something along those lines? Glancing around the dining hall at where Isabella glared at Cat and at where Cat’s sister, Alana, sat brooding, Rachel had a sudden idea.

* * *

Back in her room, Rachel set about packing up her things. The contents of her small bureau were strewn across her bed. Clothing, notebooks, textbooks, and her hand-made cinqfoil all sat atop the comforter as she contemplated which ones to pack and which to leave here. There was no point in taking books, of course, as she had memorized them, but she was less sure about the clothing. Would she ever want to wear her uniform again?

There was no way she could know for certain, but she felt that this discovery was the thing that she had been meant to find here—the thing that could give her a huge advantage over her adversaries—or lead her to destroy herself. And that was, so far as any of them could tell, what Lucifer wanted, which meant her hunch was probably right.

He would probably let her go home now.

It had not occurred to her the first time that perhaps Caziel had not come because he could not hear her. With what she had learned today, she could increase the power of the Word of Summoning, making it more likely that one of the Gray Patrol could hear her.

She would try tonight after dinner.

Footsteps sounded in the dorm room. Rachel did not look up from where she was writing something down a notebooks she intended to leave behind until, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a motion among the gold petals of the cinqfoil. Without even raising her head, she sent the incoming spell back at the caster.

Straightening and peering around her bed curtains, she saw Isabella Ruben standing stock still with a startled expression on her face. Rachel slipped on her mask of calm, but inside, she chuckled with glee.

Walking forward with calm dignity, she lifted her right index finger and moved it horizontally.

“Obé”

The hex released. Isabella stumbled slightly, catching her balance.

“Miss Ruben, I have something to say to you,” Rachel said seriously.

“Why should I listen to you?” Isabella snarled.

Calling upon all the dignity of her ancient family line, Rachel drew herself up straight in imitation of her Victorian Grandmother, making every one of her few inches work double time. She must have succeeded because Isabella’s eyes widened, and she took a slight step back.

Rachel spoke as she might have to Von Dread, “You and I are both scions of ancient houses. We understand the practical necessities, how our Houses must strive with one another to prove our strength. And this includes why students such as yourself should have rivals. By flexing your wings, so to speak, you demonstrate your prowess to the future clients among our fellow students. They see that you are sharp-witted and that the power of your house can be trusted.”

Rachel took another step forward, her eyes boring into the other girl’s. “But all that is for naught if you waste your skills on a soft target.”

“Soft…target?” Isabella frowned.

“Showing off your magic skills against a rival worthy of your position is impressive to others. They see what you can do and grow to admire you. Focusing your skills on an opponent who is not worthy, however, does not make you look good. It makes you look like a bully.

“People do not like bullies, Miss Ruben. Oh, they may cheer you on, but underneath, they fear they could be the next target. Also, they wonder: why do you always pick a weaker target—could it be that you are not capable of more? You will not gain your house clients by bullying…a cripple.”

Isabella blinked. Part of her face was trying to sneer, but Rachel could see that her words were striking home.

Rachel did not think of Cat as a cripple, of course, but she had chosen her words to make her point to Isabella.

“You think I need a more impressive rival?” Isabelle asked, clearly struck by the thought.

“It must be someone of equal stature to yourself and of equal ability—so your victories become clear, decisive successes. And, so that, as you strive against her, you truly sharpen your skills to the best of your abilities.”

More to herself than to Rachel, Isabella murmured, “Who, I wonder.”

“Is there any question?” Rachel countered. “There is only one person in our year who is your equal—perhaps even your better: the heir to House Aguirre.”

With that Rachel turned on her heels and returned to her bed to finished packing. Behind her, Isabella remained standing almost as still as if she had been hexed, a very thoughtful expression on her face.

* * *

Rachel found her second quarry just as the other was approaching the dining hall.

“Alana Aguirre, may I have a word?” Rachel inclined her head respectfully.

“With me?” Alana asked, frowning. “What about?”

“I am leaving. Before I go, I want to give you a piece of advice. I know you think very little of me, but I am also from a House of ancient dignity. One that has withstood the test of time. I urge you to heed what I am about to say.”

“You talk strange.” Alana snorted “No one says ‘heed’”

“You are the heir to House Aguirre, but you do not actually become the leader unless you are affirmed by members of the House, is that correct?”

“Yes. So what? Are you threatening me?” She started to raise her hands.

Rachel shook her head. “Have you ever given thought to what their standards will be—for deciding if you acceptable as their new leader?”

“Whether I am a strong person, good with magic,” Alana shot back. “That kind of thing.”

“No.”

“What do you mean: no?”

“Many people are strong and good at magic. But what, specifically, will your family members be looking for most of all in their new leader?”

“I don’t know.” Alana rolled her eyes. “What?”

“Loyalty to the family.”

Alana turned her head, regarding Rachel sidelong. “Wha…”

“They want someone who will protect them. You could be the greatest—whatever you call a sorcerer—in the world, but if they think you are going to play politics with family members, if they think you are petty and don’t actually have the family’s interest at heart… Will they pick you?”

Alana’s disdainful expression had not changed, but she shrugged. “Probably not.”

“If you want to take over your family, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to demonstrate your loyalty to your family—all members of your family?”

“You know, I really don’t like you…but,” Alana ran a hand over her tightly braided hair, “much as I hate to admit it, you might have a point. I hadn’t ever thought about it in that way.”

“Maybe you should do something to demonstrate your loyalty to your family for all to see.”

“Ah, now it comes out.” Alana crossed her arms. “And what is it that you think I should do to wow all my stogy aunts and great-aunts and such? Some favor for my annoying sister?”

“Put Isabella Aguirre in her place.”

“W-what?” Alana leaned forward, intrigued. “Okay…I admit. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Challenge Isabella to a duel. Scholar’s Rights? Whatever you lot call it. Make it clear for all to see that if anyone attacks a member of House Aguirre, they have to answer to you.”

A slow grin spread over Alana’s face. “‘They have to answer to me.’ I like the sound of that.”

* * *

During dinner, Rachel pulled out the notebook she intended to leave behind. “Cat, I have something for you.”

“What is it?” Both Caitlyn and Rose leaned forward.

Rachel opened the notebook and pushed it toward them. “Assuming I have done it correctly, here is the schematics for the spell we use for our floating harnesses. In particular, the ones we use for bristleless training. The way the spell works, it only activates if you come within a foot and a half of another object. Then, suddenly, it slows you down. We use it for flying practice, so that the person wearing the harness won’t crash into the ground. But, used correctly, you should be able to adapt it to your flying device—so that it will keep you from crashing.”

“Wow! That’s very helpful!” Caitlyn cried, delighted. “I can’t wait to see if I can get it to work. You can come, too, if you like.”

Rachel shook her head. “I’m going home. At least, I’m going to try, as soon as dinner is over. You can come with me,” she added shyly. “To say good-bye if it works.”

“You mean…you’re going away?” Rose looked stricken.

Rachel swallowed with some effort. “I’m going to miss you guys, too…but there are a lot of things I need to be doing. More…than you could possibly imagine. And a lot of people who might be worried about me.”

“Will we never see you again?” asked Rose.

Rachel smiled at her. “I won’t be needing my ring where I’m going, the one with the ruby? I left it in your drawer, Rose—as a thank you, for your part in helping to teach me. There are ten spells in it. You and Cat will figure out how to cast them. Once they’re spent, you can sell the ring. For money for clothing or to help your family.”

Rose began to thank her but was interrupted by Alana calling Caitlyn’s name. Before Alana could continue, however, Isabella made some snide remark from the other side of the room, whether towards Alana or Cat, Rachel could not tell.

Alana bristled. In a loud voice, she called, “Isabella Ruben, I am tired of you picking on my sister. I call Scholar’s Rights! I challenge to a duel!”

Isabella leapt eagerly to her feet. “I accept!”

Alana and her friends moved closer, discussing terms with Isabella and her friends. Caitlyn watched all this open-mouthed. Inwardly, Rachel’s heart sang. It might not last. Things might be back to normal in a week, but at least, Cat would have one week of peace.

“I wonder how that happened,” Rachel spoke normally, but she could not keep all of the mirth out of her voice.

Cat turned and looked at her. “Is this your doing?”

“Maybe,” said Rachel with a wink.

* * *

“I guess this is good-bye,” Rachel said to Caitlyn and Rose as the three of them walked up onto the roof. “Or it will be, if what I am about to try works.”

“I’m going to miss you,” Rose looked in danger of being teary-eyed.

“It has been fun having another friend around,” said Caitlyn.

“I have my heart on learning how to travel on my own,” Rachel told them. “If I do, I’ll come back one day and visit. But for now…it’s occurred to me that maybe no one was coming when I called because they couldn’t hear me. With what I figured out today in class—thanks to the two of you—I think I can magnify the power of the basic summoning cantrip. Let’s see if it works.”

“Not sure what you said, but…I hope it is successful,” said Rose.

They reached the roof. Rachel stared in wonder out at the city of Shallot spread out beneath them, a whole alien city with buildings of an architecture

“You mean all this time I could have been coming up here?” she cried in wonder. “I would have spent all my time up here, had I known! On the other hand, maybe it’s for the best,” she murmured as she stared out at the inviting rooves and towers. “I might have forgotten that I can’t fly here.”

She turned in a slow circle, memorizing everything as far as she could see. Then, she stepped forward into an open place.

“Could you plug your ears for just a moment? If I tell you my friend’s name—well, he’s not exactly a friend—he’s going to be very angry at me.”

The other two girls stepped back a bit.

Rachel crossed her fingers. Then, after doing the formula in her head one last time, she cried out, “Kefwyth, Tamiel!”

An extremely large black Fox with a white tip to his tail came trotting across the roof.

“Rachel Griffin!” The Fox cocked his head to one side. “I found you!”

With a cry of delight, Rachel rushed to him and hugged him.

“A lot of people looking for you.” The Fox licked her face fondly. “Let’s get you home.”

Rachel had just enough time to wave good-bye.

The End