Snippet – The King's Man (Zero 7)

10 Jan

Comments welcome!

Prologue

If there was one lesson my father had hammered into me, time and time again, it was this.

Never, never, trust an aristo.

It wasn’t that all aristos were bad people.  I’d met some who were good people, who were decent and kind and generous … as long as it didn’t impinge upon their interests in any substantial way.  And I’d met some who seemed to take delight in looking down on the commoners and making them beg, for everything from food and funding – and patronage – to simple survival.  They’d been taught to put their interests of their class ahead of everything else, even simple human decency.  They were just too different.  They could never be trusted completely.

Father had sworn he would never call upon an aristocrat and he’d kept his oath.  He’d worked his way up from the docks through sheer talent, through a gritty willingness to do whatever it took to build up a merchant trader business for himself.  He could have had everything on a platter, if he’d become an aristo’s client.   They would have given him everything he could handle, at the cost of losing his independence.  Once they had him in their clutches, they would never have let him go.  The price was too high.  And Father had proved it could be done without them.  He’d made me swear the same oath when I went to Jude’s.

I’d kept it, as best as I could.  It came with a price.  I could be friendly to anyone and everyone, but I could never truly be one of them.  I wasn’t an aristo myself, of course, and I was unwilling to submit myself to them.  They knew I wasn’t useless, but they also knew I would never be their client.  I studied as hard as I could, determined to make a name for myself that relied on no one else.  I was going to be the greatest sorcerer in the world.  It was why I’d entered the Challenge.

And then everything changed.

I’d chosen not to form a team of my own.  There just weren’t many students, like myself, who didn’t have ties to the aristos.  Even trying to put together a group would have exposed me to humiliation.  I was good too, good enough to think I could do it on my own.  I thought, as I heard the rumours echoing through the school, that I’d have some advantages if I was alone.  I wouldn’t have to fear my allies putting a knife – hopefully metaphorically – in my back.  One never knows with aristos.

The Challenge itself seemed absurdly simple. Capture the Flag, writ large.  I suppose that should have tipped me off.  Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.  I woke up in the middle of a forest, miles from anywhere.  No worries.  I was good at sneaking around.  I’d spent my nights at school sneaking around, stealing grub from the kitchens or feuding with the other students.  I stayed low, keeping my head down as I inched through the forest towards the castle.  I didn’t want to encounter the other teams, not when I couldn’t afford to take a single hit.  If I was frozen, or stunned, or trapped in a useless form … I would lose.  No one was going to liberate me before time ran out.  It would just make life harder for themselves. 

I watched and waited as two other teams reached the castle, only to start snapping spells at each other instead of splitting up or trying to collaborate.  They took each other out, more or less.  There were only a couple of students left free by the time I spelled them both and walked past them into the castle.  The wards felt stronger than I’d expected, strong enough to confuse my senses.  The building’s interior kept shifting.  I was impressed, as well as worried.  I knew it would be very easy to get turned around and pointed in the wrong direction.  I was sneaking down the corridor when I saw someone moving ahead of me.  I hexed him …

… And promptly got hexed in the back.

My body froze, my muscles locking stiff.  I wanted to shout, to roar in fury, but it was already too late.  I’d been tricked and … I’d lost.  Francis Rubén walked past me, sniggering like a depraved loon.  He’d been separated from his team, but … it had worked out for him.  He’d taken me out of the game.  He dropped his trousers and mooned me, then walked onwards into the shadows.  I stood there, helplessly.  There was nothing I could do, but wait for the game to end.

I’d been beaten before.  It happened, no matter how hard I tried.  There’s always someone better or luckier or … simply in a position to take advantage of my mistakes.  I didn’t take losing personally.  If I was beaten according to the rules, I didn’t mind.  It happened.  But Francis … I felt tricked, I felt belittled, I felt humiliated by how he’d rubbed my nose in my defeat.  And it didn’t help that the others snickered at me too as they passed.  I was frozen, but I could hear them.  They pointed and laughed at me, the commoner who’d tried to do the Challenge alone.  Alana was particularly cruel.  She’d never liked me, ever since I’d asked her to walk out with me.  She didn’t pay attention to anyone unless he – or she – could trace their bloodline all the way back to the Thousand Year Empire.

It felt like hours before I was freed.  The Challenge was over.  Akin Rubén – one of the few decent aristos I knew – had won.  Alana had come second, sort of.  Francis was dead.  I never heard the full details, which led me to suspect he’d done something embarrassing.  I would have liked to think that he’d hexed someone else in the back, but I doubted it. Aristos didn’t get thrown out for cheating commoners.  That was how most of their ancestors had risen to power in the first place.

But the whole affair left me unsure what to do with my life.  I was a good magician – I knew that – but what would I do after I graduated?  What could I do?  There were few careers open to me that didn’t involve asking for patronage, pledging myself to an aristo and following my patron’s orders slavishly.  The system had little room for the truly independent.  Father had worked hard, but he’d run up hard against the limits.  He couldn’t grow his business any further without their help and it was the one thing he refused to do.

The weeks and months that followed were frustrating, to say the least.  Everyone knew I’d been humiliated.  They learnt not to snigger so loudly after I claimed Scholar’s Rights and hexed two particularly annoying students until their own mothers couldn’t have recognised them, but I knew they were still laughing.  Of course they were!  I was a safe target.  They wouldn’t get embroiled in a family feud by laughing at me.  Whatever I did to them, it wouldn’t last.  I forced myself to work hard, putting my all into the exams.  And then …

I waited, bored.  I had to do something to liven things up. 

Ironically, my decision to commit a string of pranks was what opened the door to a whole new world …

Chapter One

It was going to be the greatest prank ever.

I smiled at the thought as I carefully picked my way into the Charms classroom.  Jude’s had a tradition of pranksters, students who pushed the limits as far as they would go without crossing the line into outright bullying.  I’d gleefully embraced the tradition over the last few months, devising newer and better spells to make everyone – even the victim – laugh.  But I hadn’t come up with anything truly new.  My pranks were little more than modified or improved versions of older pranks.  They’d be saying I was a copycat.  And that was intolerable.

This time, I told myself, it would be different.  I was really going to do something new.  I was going to upset the aristos, shocking them … my smile grew wider as I slipped into the empty classroom and made my way to the storeroom beyond.  I’d borrow a handful of supplies, turn them into the prank and – afterwards – take whatever punishment came my way.  Magister Hugh Von Rupert wouldn’t be too annoyed, I thought.  The old geezer barely knew what year it was, let alone the names and faces of the students in his class.  He had a first-class mind for magic – I’ll give him that much – but little else.  I honestly didn’t understand why students like Caitlyn Aguirre paid so much attention to him.

The wards on the storeroom parted after a few moments of careful effort.  I nodded to myself as I gingerly opened the doors – I wouldn’t put it past the charms tutors to rig a surprise on the far side for any thieving students – and peered inside.  The small collection of tools, supplies and textbooks seemed to shimmer in welcome.  I stayed where I was, casting a handful of detection spells.  Getting caught after the fact was one thing, but getting caught in the act would make me a laughing stock.  Being laughed at was worse than detention, or writing lines, or even helping the catering staff prepare the food.  If there were any more charms inside the compartment, I might be in some trouble.

But there were none.  I frowned, torn between the urge to get on with it and the sense I should back away now.  The storeroom wouldn’t have been left completely undefended.  I could hardly be the first student who thought of raiding the charms classroom for supplies.  The potions cabinets were heavily defended – most students tried to raid them – but really … the storeroom should have been defended.  Yet … there was nothing.  I narrowed my eyes, then inched inside.  I’d come too far to back out now.  I’d know, even if no one else did.  I would know I’d been a coward, rather than taking what I wanted and withdrawing before lunch was over and the tutors returned.  I reached for the nearest box of tools …

… And sensed, more than heard, someone behind me.

I tensed, bracing myself as I turned slowly.  If Magister Von Rupert had caught me … I might be able to talk my way out of serious – and humiliating – trouble.  Boys will be boys and all that guff.  My heart sank as I saw Magister Grayson, his hands crossed over his chest and a grim expression on his face.  Magister Von Rupert was easy-going, but his partner was vindictive, vicious, vile and a number of other things that also started with V.  No one ragged Magister Von Rupert – much – for fear of Magister Grayson.  I was doomed, unless … I groaned to myself.  Tradition decreed that any student who managed to get past the tutors and escape was allowed to go free, but I knew I wasn’t going to get past him.  Magister Grayson was the toughest tutor in school.  A student who tried to give him the traditional black eye would be lucky if he only spent the next few weeks in the hospital wing.

“Adam Mortimer,” Magister Grayson said.  I tried to look for a hint of mercy in his dark eyes, for an awareness that we were nearing graduation, but saw none.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

A hundred answers ran through my mind, all discarded before they were fully formed.  I couldn’t lie, not to him.  I couldn’t escape either.  There was nothing for it, but to take my punishment like a man.  I wondered, as I forced myself to relax, what it would be.  Tutors weren’t allowed to hitor hex students, unless the students hit or hexed them first, but they had wide latitude for punishment.  I was an upperclassman.  Maybe he’d humiliate me by assigning me lines, as if I were a lowly lowerclassman.  Or maybe he’d tell me to spend the next few days helping the kitchen staff.

“I was borrowing supplies for a prank, sir,” I said.  I didn’t bother to pretend I was sorry, not about anything other than getting caught.  He wouldn’t believe me if I’d tried.  “I … how did you know I was here?”

“That’s none of your business.”  Magister Grayson glowered at me.  I wondered, suddenly, if he’d swapped shifts with his partner.  I’d thought Von Rupert was on duty today.  I would never have dared raid the storeroom if I’d known it was Magister Grayson.  “You’re meant to be graduating, are you not?”

“Yes, sir.”  I felt a flicker of fear.  Could Magister Grayson tamper with my exam results?  I didn’t think so – the exams were administered by independent proctors, sworn to neutrality – but it was impossible to be sure.  Magister Grayson was good.  “I’m due to leave for good in two weeks.”

“How lucky for us,” Magister Grayson said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I suppose giving you a year’s detention is a bit out of the question.”

“Yes, sir.”  I tried not to smirk.  Whatever punishment he gave me, it wouldn’t linger past graduation day.  “I’ll be gone soon.”

“Quite.”  Magister Grayson smiled, coldly.  I felt another frisson of fear.  “Go to the detention hall.  Supervise the detentions until dinnertime.  And if I catch you in here again, you’ll regret it.”

I tried not to wince.  Supervising detentions was boring.  An hour supervising the detention hall was almost as bad as having detention itself.  Worse, perhaps, because the supervisor had to keep an eye on the detainees.  He wasn’t allowed to read or do his own work or do anything.  I’d done a few shifts, an hour at a time, and I’d hated it.  I had never been quite sure who was actually being punished.  The lowerclassmen in detention or the poor upperclassman who was meant to be watching them.

“Yes, sir,” I managed.  There were worse punishments, weren’t there?  “Thank you, sir.”

Magister Grayson pointed at the door.  “Go.”

I walked past him, gritting my teeth as I strolled into the corridor.  There was no point in not doing as I was told.  Magister Grayson would report the punishment to higher authority and if I didn’t attend the classroom … I snorted, rudely.  That would get me in real trouble.  It might not affect my exam results, but it would certainly affect whatever reference Jude’s gave me after I graduated.  Getting caught trying to break into the storeroom was one thing, disobeying orders and welshing out of punishment was quite another.

And Father would not be pleased, I reminded myself.  I didn’t want to go to work for my father, after I graduated, but I might not have a choice.  And … my actions would reflect badly on himEveryone would be saying he raised a coward who couldn’t look himself in the eye.

I dawdled as much as I could as I walked through empty corridors and into the detention hall, trying to convince myself the hall would be empty.  The exams were almost all over, save for a handful of exams that were intended for specific career paths.  I hadn’t taken any of them, if only because I wasn’t sure what my career path was.  Everything I wanted to do would have required pledging myself to someone … I put the thought aside as I peered into the hall and winced.  The Head Girl – Alana Aguirre – was sitting at the desk, looking bored.  A handful of younger students were sitting at desks, doing their work.  They looked too scared to talk out of turn.  I didn’t blame them.

“Adam?”  Alana glanced up at me.  “You have detention?”

I tried not to stare.  Alana was beautiful, with dark skin, darker eyes and hair so perfect I knew she used magic to keep it in line.  I’d found her attractive from the moment I’d started noticing girls as more than oddly-shaped boys.  She looked as though she wouldn’t harm a fly.  But I knew she not only could harm a fly, she was perfectly capable of turning someone into a fly too.  Rumour had it she’d been really terrible to her sister, the Zero.  I believed it.  I’d asked her out and she’d laughed in my face. 

And it doesn’t help that people keep asking if we’re related.  I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the thought.  They really can’t believe my talent came from the commoner ranks.

“Yeah.”  I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen before I explained.  “I’ve been ordered to take over from you.  Lucky you.”

Alana smiled.  It lit up her face.  “What did you do?  Throw a tomato at the Castellan?”

“Something like that,” I said, vaguely.  I wasn’t going to admit what I’d actually been caught doing.  Magister Grayson might not be very specific when he reported me to higher authority.  Alana had access to the punishment books.  If I was lucky, they wouldn’t tell her very much. “The Magister was not best pleased.”

“Hah.”  Alana stood, brushing down her skirt.  I tried not to stare at her shirt as she donned her uniform jacket.  “Akin’s due to take over in an hour or so.  Should I tell him not to bother?”

“I’m here until dinnertime,” I told her.  The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew.  “Tell him to do whatever he wants.”

Alana nodded stiffly, then turned and headed to the door.  I resisted the urge to watch her as I took the seat and checked the detention roster, casting my eyes over the list of names.  I knew some of them, but – as an upperclassman – I was obliged to pretend I didn’t.  It was lucky my sister wasn’t in the crowd.  I’d have had to be extra hard on her, just to make it clear I wasn’t favouring her.  I settled back into my seat, raising my eyes to study the detainees.  They made a show of not looking back at me, save one.  Penny Rubén.

I held her eyes until she looked down, her cheeks burning with humiliation.  Penny was a fifth-year student who’d been caught bullying – openly bullying – one of her first-year charges.  Akin, her cousin, had caught her.  He’d surprised and outraged many of his peers by ensuring Penny had the book thrown at her, rather than dealing with it himself or burying the truth to protect the family name.  I wasn’t sure quite what had happened – and not all of the rumours reflected well on Akin – but he’d certainly ensured the problem could not be quietly forgotten.  Penny might spent two more years at school, yet … she’d always be treated as a lowerclassman.  One of her former peers had probably given her lines.  She couldn’t have been more humiliated if she’d been forced to clean cauldrons like a skivvy.

Serves you right, I thought.  Upperclassmen were not supposed to pick on lowerclassmen, certainly not first-years who were meant to be under their supervision.  But Penny was an aristo.  Her father, who’d left his family under mysterious circumstances, had probably raised her to suck up to her superiors while sneering at everyone below her.  It isn’t as if your punishment will follow you when you graduate.

I scowled.  I’d been assured that wasn’t true.  Penny’s reputation would follow her, wherever she went.  But it wasn’t a formal punishment.  She’d probably find a way to parlay her birth into an advantageous match, or convince her family to give her lots of money in exchange for taking herself out of Shallot.  Her family wouldn’t punish her unless she really stepped over the line.  Akin’s sister had been sent into exile for high treason.  Anything less would probably be quietly ignored.

Someone coughed.  I glared at him, then turned my attention back to the list.  A boy who’d been disobedient in Defensive Magic.  I was surprised he’d been sent to the hall instead of being put to work by the tutors.  A pair of girls who’d been given detention for talking too loudly in the library.  Personally, I thought they weren’t being punished enough.  I’d always hated chattering brats when I’d been trying to study.  And seven other students, girls and boys, who’d been ordered to write some variant of ‘I will do as my tutors tell me without talking back.’  I had to smile at one of the notes – a first-year boy who’d charmed a piece of chalk to write lines on the blackboard for him – and made a mental note to suggest my sister kept an eye on him.  Someone with that sort of talent might be worth watching.

He’s probably got a patron already, I thought, sourly.  Aristo students were expected to start recruiting clients young.  It just wasn’t fair.  I could have had anything I wanted, as long as I pledged myself to someone barely older.  If they couldn’t give it to me themselves, their parents certainly could.  And even if he doesn’t, that will change before too long.

I leaned back in my chair, wishing for something – anything – to happen.  The rules were clear.  I wasn’t allowed to read, I wasn’t allowed to write … I wasn’t even allowed to engage my charges in conversation, unless one of them did something I could object to.  I waited, half-praying for Penny to step out of line so I could stomp on her, but she did nothing.  I guessed she knew just how bad things would be for her, over the next two years.  She deserved no less.  It wasn’t justice, but it would have to do.

The door opened.  I glanced up, just in time to see a brown-haired firstie girl inching into the room.  She looked ashamed, as if she was already regretting whatever she’d done.  It was probably her first detention.  I concealed my amusement as she sneaked forward, as if she could avoid being noticed as long as she stayed quiet.  She was already too late to escape notice.  Hell, she was ensuring she was noticed by trying not to be noticed.  I wondered, idly, how long it would take her to learn that there was nothing more conspicuous than someone trying to hide.

Probably a commoner, I decided, as she stopped in front of the desk.  She looked so tense that I was tempted to shout BOOAn aristo would be a little more confident even if she was walking to her doom.

I dismissed the temptation – I wasn’t Penny, damn it – and took the slip she offered me.  It was clear and concise.  The poor girl – her name was Gayle – had been given lines for a poorly-written essay.  I guessed she’d been having problems with her handwriting, rather than whatever she’d actually written.  I’d had problems too, when I’d been a lowerclassman.  Father had made sure I knew how to read and write, but I’d never been a particularly good writer.  My tutors had made hundreds of sarcastic remarks as I’d struggled to learn the ropes.

“Take a seat,” I ordered, as I passed her a pencil and paper.  “Write your lines, then you can go.”

It wasn’t the nicest thing I’d ever done, but the last thing she needed – when she had six more years of schooling to get through – was me going easy on her.  The other students might be pretending to ignore us, but I knew they were listening.  They’d talk if I went easy on her, if they thought I let her off … her classmates would hear, eventually, and take it out on her.  It wouldn’t be her fault.  It wouldn’t be as through she’d begged me to let her go or something along those lines.  But they’d take it out on her anyway.

I watched her sit down, then forced myself to think of something – anything – else.  I had only two weeks before I needed to start job-hunting in earnest.  I knew my father.  He’d put me to work in the shop, or kick me out if I refused to work.  And the longer I took to get a proper job, the harder it would be.  I glowered at my hands, feeling magic prickling just under my dark skin.  It just wasn’t fair.

Life isn’t fair, I reminded myself.  All you can do is play the cards you’re given and hope for the best.

The door opened, again.

I blinked in surprise as Akin stepped into the room.  Alana should have told him he wasn’t needed … right?  I didn’t think she’d take the risk of letting the Head Boy embarrass himself not when their families were in alliance.  Her parents would be furious if she caused a rift between the two families.  And her sister, perhaps the most important aristo amongst her generation, would be angry too.  She and Akin were betrothed.  They seemed to get on better than most betrothed couples.

“Akin,” I said.  “I’m stuck here until …”

Akin cut me off.  “The Castellan sent me to take your place,” he said.  “You’ve been summoned to his office.”

I blinked.  “Why …?”

“I have no idea.”  Akin smiled, humourlessly.  “But you’d better get there quickly.”

“Will do.”  I stood, wondering if I should be relieved or worried.  “Have fun.”

7 Responses to “Snippet – The King's Man (Zero 7)”

  1. James Jeffery January 10, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

    Another snippet that leaves you wanting more. Hurry up Christopher.

  2. Stuart van Zee January 10, 2020 at 4:51 pm #

    Hadn’t gotten to read it yet, but just wanted to comment. Man you got the most awesome covers! This one looks incredible.

    I’m an aspiring author (isn’t everyone?), and I hope once I get to the point where I start publishing, I’ll figure out how to have such good covers.

  3. STEPHEN HULLOTT January 10, 2020 at 8:16 pm #

    Has all the makings of another absorbing read from the Zero Universe. Looking forward to it’s release.

  4. Jill January 11, 2020 at 2:04 am #

    Looks like another fun read! Happy writing.

  5. Guy Marc GAGNÉ January 11, 2020 at 3:37 am #

    Actually, I find it refreshing to see you pick up on Adam’s thread.
    I do not recall you elaborating on his circumstances at the time of his solo participation in The Challenge.
    Cannot say I begrudge you, as you have chosen to explore the universe of the commoners who seek to make a mark independently of the patronage system. This should be quite entertaining as well as highly revealing of the true nature of their society and the various competitions of the Aristo families with each other and their relationship to the Crown. How can a commoner navigate these waters whilst attempting to take advantage of any breach in the facades…

  6. Mike Lloyd January 11, 2020 at 1:46 pm #

    Sounds good Chris, will you be posting the dreft to beta read on spacebattles again? I think I missed the last few, will have to pick them up on amazon.

  7. georgephillies January 15, 2020 at 3:46 am #

    Covers? Brad Fraunfelter. Decide what you want and pay up, if he will take you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: