Snippet – Nanette’s Tale

11 Apr

Prologue

In hindsight, the memories mocked her.

Nanette had been sixteen – barely sixteen – when she’d met Aurelius for the first time.  The Administrator rarely had time for first-year students, particularly those of no good family.  It wasn’t until she found herself in his office, staring expulsion right in the face, that she’d had a chance to study him for the first time.  He was a man of power, a man so sure in his own power that he had no need to play dominance games with anyone.  And part of her wanted that for herself.

And so she squared her shoulders, looked him right in the eye, and told him the truth.

“She treated me badly, sir,” she said, when Aurelius pointed out that her former mistress was currently in the infirmary.  “And I wanted to get her off my back.”

Aurelius raised his eyebrows.  “And how did you do it?”

Nanette stumbled through a complex explanation.  Ophelia – the girl who’d been supposed to mentor Nanette, in exchange for service – had been fond of pinching her at the slightest excuse.  Nanette had put together a spell that not only transferred the pain to the older girl, but magnified it.  Ophelia had pinched Nanette’s upper arm, hard enough to leave bruises on her pale skin.  Ophelia must have felt as if her arm had been caught in a pressure spell.

“Fascinating,” Aurelius said, when she had finished.  “And where did you learn to cast such a complex spell?”

“The library,” Nanette said.  The spell had really been a mixture of charms and potions.  It had been the only way she’d been able to attach it to the older girl.  “I put it together.”

“I see.”  Aurelius said nothing for a long moment.  “Can you give me any reason why you should not be expelled?”

“We were told the system was meant to teach us the skills we needed for later life,” Nanette said.  She was tempted to plead, but her instincts told her she’d get nowhere.  “I’d say it succeeded.”

“Indeed,” Aurelius said.  He cocked his head.  “I will take you as my ward.  You will work for me as you learn from me.”

Nanette had wondered, even then, if he’d wanted something more.  She was no sheltered flower, no well-connected girl whose family would protect her if an unsuitable suitor came calling.  And Aurelius was a powerful man, used to taking whatever he wanted.  But – to her early surprise – he’d kept his word.  He’d taken her under his wing, he’d spent the summers teaching her everything from etiquette to spells that would have upset many older magicians if they’d realised she knew them … he’d been, in many ways, the paternal figure she’d wanted since her father had died.  Not, she admitted, that he’d gone easy on her.  He was a stern tutor, quick to correct her when she made mistakes.  But he was fair.

She’d grown to trust him.  She’d even grown to love him.  And then …

The memories rose up within her, mocking her.  She’d gone to Whitehall, posing as a transfer student.  It had been easy.  She knew how to remain unnoticed, how to hide within the shadows and social conventions; she knew how to ensure she remained unsuspected, even as she collected the intelligence she’d been ordered to obtain.  And she’d found it easy to watch Whitehall’s most famous student from a distance.  She’d almost been unhappy when her cover had finally been blown and she’d been forced to flee.

She felt hatred curling around her heart as the memories flowed through her mind.  Aurelius had wanted to bring Emily to Mountaintop, explaining that she could be converted to their cause.  And he’d taken her as a protégé … Nanette had been angry, hating the younger girl for taking her place.  She’d followed orders, even as matters started to spiral out of control; she’d held her tongue, even when she could have put a knife in the Child of Destiny’s back.  And, when she’d finally stood revealed in front of the younger girl, Emily had thrown a Death Viper at her.  Nanette still couldn’t believe it.  If she hadn’t touched the snake …

The memories of pain were too strong.  She cringed, trying not to remember the tendrils of ice and fire burning through her veins.  Her hand was gone and her arm was going and she was doomed … Emily, the girl who’d killed her, had saved her by cutting off her arm before hurrying onwards to meet her destiny.  Nanette wasn’t sure quite what had happened then, as she’d stumbled out of the school.  She hadn’t realised Aurelius was dead – and the school was no longer a safe haven – until it was far too late.  She’d turned her back and fled, knowing she had nowhere to go.  She’d staked everything on her tutor …

… And now she was crippled, broken, on the run and alone.

Chapter One

Magicians, Aurelius had said, were superior beings.

Nanette didn’t feel very superior as she staggered up the dingy stairs to her even dingier room.  Her arm – her stump – ached, no matter how many spells she cast to dull the pain.  Her magic felt weak, as if it was fading into nothingness.  The bumps and bruises she’d picked up during her escape from Mountaintop had failed to heal, even though it had been a week since she’d fled the school.  And her skin felt unclean where the alleyrat had grabbed her.  Once, it would have been easy to turn him into a slug and step on him.  Now, the effort of merely casting the spell had nearly killed her.  She honestly wasn’t sure if she’d managed to kill him or not.

And the landlord is just biding his time, she thought savagely, as she stumbled through the door and slammed it closed.  She’d seen the way the bastard looked at her, when she’d taken a room at the inn.  It’s just a matter of time until he does something stupid.

She forced herself to keep moving until she collapsed in front of the bed.  Her bag hit the floor, hard enough to break one of the jars.  She heard the crack, but felt too drained to do anything about it before the liquid stained the floorboards.  The landlord would throw a fit about that, she was sure.  He’d demand she paid for it.  And she had no idea how she was going to pay him.  She had the skills to steal whatever she wanted – if she couldn’t get honest work – but she didn’t have the magic.  Anyone who wanted to hire her wouldn’t be doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

Her heart started to beat, erratically, as she leaned against the wooden frame.  She wasn’t sure how she’d managed to escape the school, let alone reach Dragon’s Den.  Her memories were a blur, lost behind pain and delirium.  She’d teleported, of course, but how?  Aurelius had made her practice, time and time again, when she’d sneaked into Whitehall.  Perhaps the lessons had taken better than she’d thought.  Dragon’s Den was hundreds of miles from Mountaintop.  It was safe, for the moment.  The searchers wouldn’t think to look for her there.

They might find my body, she thought, numbly.  I can’t go on like this.

She felt helpless, bitter … alone.  She’d always been able to rely on Aurelius.  Her mentor had taught her everything, from magics that were rarely shared with students to how to be a social chameleon.  Nanette knew she had the skills to make something of herself, if she survived the next few days.  But she knew it was unlikely.  The Death Viper had wounded her.  It would have killed her, if Emily hadn’t saved her life.  Nanette stared down at the stump, wondering if death would have been preferable.  She knew what cripples could expect, in cold and merciless towns.  Emily might have saved her only to damn her to a lingering death.

Cold hatred twisted in her heart.  Her mentor was dead.  He’d been a father to her – he’d meant the world to her – and now he was dead. And Emily … the Child of Destiny had gone back to Whitehall, leaving Mountaintop a smoking ruin.  Perhaps that was why the searchers hadn’t tracked her down.  Perhaps they were too busy saving what they could from the ruins.  Or perhaps they simply didn’t care.  Maybe she’d never been truly important.  Maybe they hadn’t even realised she was missing.

She closed her eyes.  It was futile, utterly futile.  She could neither beg nor borrow nor steal the potions – or ingredients – she needed to heal herself.  She could no more convince a local brewer to prepare them for her than she could talk her way out of trouble, when the searchers finally caught up with her.  And she could still feel the poison within her.  Her magic was steadily weakening.  It was only a matter of time before she became truly defenceless.  The landlord would have his fun, then throw her into the allay to die.

Perhaps it would have been better not to rise so high, she thought, grimly.  I would not have known there was so far to fall.

Something moved, behind her.  “Hello.”

Nanette tensed, trying to spin around.  Her body failed her and she wound up a crumpled heap, staring at the man sitting on the rickety wooden chair.  It was the landlord … no, it wasn’t the landlord.  The man wore a hooded clock, his face shrouded in a glamour that made it hard to see his features.  A long iron-tipped staff rested in his hand.  She couldn’t muster the magic to peer through the spell, but she rather suspected it didn’t matter.  The searchers had found her.  It was over.

“You look a mess,” the stranger said.  She wondered, insanely, if he wasn’t a searcher, as if he’d merely caught a sniff of a strange visitor and come to investigate.  “What happened to you?”

“None of your business,” Nanette managed, somehow.  Her voice sounded weak and feeble, even to her.  “Who are you?”

“Call me Cloak,” the man said.  “How did you get here?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Nanette said.  She could feel the poison rushing through her blood, inching towards her heart.  “Go away.”

“You’re dying,” Cloak said.  “Do you really want me to go away?”

Nanette didn’t have the strength to glare at him.  He wasn’t going to help her.  A hundred ideas ran through her mind, ideas she might be able to use to convince him to help, but … most of them were useless.  And the ones that weren’t were almost worse.  She had sacrificed so much in the last few days.  She wasn’t going to sacrifice her dignity too.

Cloak stood, picked up her bag and started to unload it onto the bed.  “You broke a jar of ointment,” he observed.  “You’re lucky it didn’t have the chance to mingle with the powdered rhino horn.”

“Go away,” Nanette said.  If he wanted to rob her … she didn’t care any longer.  Her entire body was growing numb.  She knew she should be concerned, but … it was hard to muster the feeling.  “I don’t …”

“I can help you,” Cloak said.  “In exchange, I need you to perform a task for me.  And, if you complete it to my satisfaction, I’ll give you a permanent job.”

“Hah,” Nanette mumbled.  She knew she should ask more questions, demand to know the details before she committed herself, but she was dying.  And she wanted very much, despite everything, to live.  “Fine.”

Cloak knelt down, placed his hand under her chin and lifted her head so she was staring into his shrouded eyes.  “Do you accept my offer?”

“Yes.”  Nanette hoped she hadn’t made a mistake.  “I do.”

“Good.”  Cloak removed a glass vial from a hidden pocket, popped it open and held it to her lips.  “Drink this.”

Nanette obeyed.  The liquid tasted warm and sunny, bringing back memories of a childhood that had been spent in a fatherless home.  She felt magic trickling through her, a wave of warmth that banished the numbness.  Her entire body shook and started to sweat.  A ghostly sensation nearly overwhelmed her, a suggestion her missing hand was still there.  Tears prickled at the corner of her eyes as she forced herself to sit up.  She suddenly felt like running and jumping and dancing and …

Cloak caught her arm, just in time to keep her from falling.  “Sit down on the bed and wait,” he advised.  “It takes some time for the potion to run its course.  And then we’ll have to do something about your arm.”

“You can regrow my arm?”  Nanette knew it was possible, but it wasn’t cheap.  A merchant would have to work for years to scrape together the funds.  There was no way her family could have afforded it, in the days before Aurelius had taken her under his wing.  “I …”

“There are a few healers who won’t ask inconvenient questions,” Cloak said.  She thought she saw him smile, beneath the glamour, but it was hard to be sure.  “I’ll take you to one of them.”

“Thanks.”  Nanette felt woozy, as if she’d drunk something she really shouldn’t.  “I … what did you give me?”

“A very special potion, devised to counteract Death Viper venom,” Cloak said.  “Thank you for giving me the chance to test it.”

Nanette stared at him.  “You didn’t know if it would work?”

Cloak snorted.  “How many people do you know who managed to touch a Death Viper and live to tell the tale?”

“Touché,” Nanette muttered, sourly.  She could have saved her own life, if she’d thought to cut off her wrist, but the pain had banished all rational thought from her mind.  It was quite possible she was the only living survivor in recent memory.  And she’d only survived because someone had acted to save her.  “I … I take your point.”

She forced herself to focus as sweat poured down her back.  Her magic felt weak, but slowly starting to recover.  She felt as if she’d tired herself out, not as if she was on the verge of death.  Her body still ached, but … she felt stronger than she’d felt in days.  The urge to get up and move was fading, yet … she knew she could get up.  It was just a matter of time before she recovered most of her former abilities.  And then …

Making that potion couldn’t have been easy, Nanette thought, grimly.  It would have cost him badly.  And he’ll want something of equal value in exchange.

She studied him, carefully.  “What do you want me to do for you?”

“I want you to steal a book for me,” Cloak said.  “Does that answer your question?”

Nanette nearly laughed a bitter laugh.  Of course he wanted something illegal, something that would get them both in real trouble if they were caught.  She was already in trouble.  Emily would have made a report, damn the girl.  There was no longer any mystery who’d played Lin, who’d pretended to be transfer student long enough to spy on the Child of Destiny.  Lin had been a mask, one she’d discarded when she’d left Whitehall School; Nanette was her real name.  There was no way she could go home or resume a normal life.  The searchers would be looking for her.

“A book,” she repeated.  It would be something dark, she was sure.  Probably one on the Proscribed Index.  Aurelius had had quite a collection, some of which she’d read.  There were books that could get someone in real trouble, if they so much as glanced at the bloodstained cover.  “Which book?  And where?”

Lamplighter’s Lines,” Cloak said.  “And the copy I want is at Laughter.”

Nanette blinked.  Lamplighter’s Lines was restricted, but it wasn’t that restricted.  It wasn’t Malice, or Chanson’s Charms, or Midsummer Murders, or anything else that might be understandably regarded with fear and horror.  A student could read Lamplighter’s Lines, if they convinced the librarian they had a legitimate reason.  She’d read it herself.  The spells were dubious, but they were hardly dark.  And many of them were outdated.

“I don’t understand,” she admitted.  “You want me to steal a book you could consult anywhere?”

“The original owner of that copy wrote notes in the margins,” Cloak explained.  “I want those notes.”

“I see, I think,” Nanette said.  She was in no place to argue.  “And you want the copy at Laughter?”

She frowned.  She’d heard all the stories, particularly the ones whispered in the dorms after Lights Out, but … she’d never actually visited the school.  She was fairly sure most of the horror stories were exaggerated, if only because it was hard to believe anyone would actually send their children to such a school if it truly was that horrid.  Mountaintop had its flaws – had had its flaws, if Emily had truly destroyed the school – but it wasn’t that bad.  One just had to learn to manipulate the system to one’s own advantage.  And some of the whispers she’d heard about her alma mater had been insane.  The teachers did not perform blood rites when the students were asleep, nor did they sacrifice firsties to dark gods. 

“Yes,” Cloak said, patiently.  “And I want it quickly.”

Nanette rubbed clammy sweat from her brow and forced herself to think.  It wasn’t easy to get into a magic school.  Sure, she could pretend to be a transfer student again, but last time she’d had Aurelius filing the paperwork well in advance.  Lin had had a solid paper trail when she’d entered Whitehall.  Someone would ask questions if she just appeared out of nowhere.  She could replace another student, but it would be tricky.  Even an unpopular student would be hard to replace, if only because of the number of people who’d met her.  The slightest mistake might expose the deception, leaving her in enemy territory with little hope of escape.  She could set up a paper trail herself, but it would take time.  Her new persona would have to enter next year, as a completely new student.  She didn’t think she had the time.

“I don’t think I could crack the defences,” she said, slowly.  Sneaking into the school might be doable, but not quickly.  “They’d have to have a reason to accept me.”

“One month from today, Princess” – the sneer in Cloak’s voice suggested it was nothing more than an affection – “Nadine of Hightower will be joining the student body.  You can take her place, if you cannot come up with a better idea.”

Nanette’s eyes narrowed.  “Why her?”

Cloak didn’t seem annoyed by her question.  He merely shrugged.

“The young lady is apparently quite unpleasant,” Cloak said.  “She is, for better or worse, the natural-born daughter of Hedrick Harkness.  Baron Harkness, after he was … encouraged to marry Baroness Lillian Harkness of Zangaria.  The man is … how shall I put it?  A milksop wimp.  King Randor was unwise to expect him to keep his unwanted wife under control.”

“Of Zangaria,” Nanette said.  A wash of hatred flashed through her.  “Emily’s country.”

“Indeed,” Cloak said.  “Nadine was kept in an isolated castle with her mother and a handful of servants.  She does indeed have a strong talent, but she was … prevented … from applying to Whitehall or Mountaintop.  It is only recently that she was able to convince her father to petition the king to let her apply to other schools.  Laughter was the only one that agreed to take her, after a fairly considerable bribe.  I believe it was that – and that alone – that convinced them to accept her in the middle of term.”

“Which is never a pleasant experience,” Nanette said.  A girl who entered school on the same day as a bunch of strangers had an excellent chance of making friends.  A girl who entered late would discover that all the friendships had been made before she arrived – and there was no room for her.  “Should I feel sorry for her?”

“If you like,” Cloak said.  He made an impatient gesture with one pale hand.  “The important point is that no one at the school has met her.”

Nanette nodded in understanding.  She wouldn’t jar someone’s preconceptions if they had no preconceptions.  “How long have you been planning this?”

“I had someone else in mind,” Cloak said.  “But you represent a better option.  You have the skills and experience to pull the mission off without a hitch.”

And I’m expendable, Nanette added, silently.  He won’t regret my death.

“I understand,” she said.  “How do you intend for me to get the book out of the library?”

“I’ll give you a replacement copy,” Cloak said.  “And teach you how to transfer the security charms to a new book.  They won’t realise the original book has been stolen because, as far as they’ll be able to tell, they’ll still have it.”

“Clever,” Nanette said.  She’d have to practice the spells repeatedly.  And spend time thinking through all the possible contingences.  And memorise everything she could about Nadine.  And get used to thinking of herself by another name.  “You seem to have all the answers.  What now?”

“Now you wash, you change and you come with me,” Cloak said.  He passed her a simple apprentice’s robe, something that would go unnoticed in any major town or city.  “Unless you particularly want to remain here.”

“No, thank you,” Nanette said.  She stood.  Her legs felt steady, as if she hadn’t been at death’s door.  Sweat trickled down her back.  “Would you mind waiting outside?”

Cloak nodded and left the room.  Nanette watched him go, wondering who he truly was.  He’d known who she was, he’d known where to find her … who was he?  It wasn’t as if she’d had a plan to flee to Dragon’s Den.  And yet … she stood, forcing herself to undress carefully before wiping herself down and donning the robe.  The sooner she got her hand regrown, the better.  She’d never really felt sorry for the cripples she’d seen on the streets before there’d been a very real prospect of joining them.

She brushed her hair back, then stepped outside and cast a pair of charms on the door.  The landlord would be in for a shock, when he tried to sneak into her room.  The spells wouldn’t last forever – she didn’t have the magic to make them last, not yet – but a few weeks as a pig would teach him a lesson about creeping on vulnerable young girls.  Cloak watched her, saying nothing.  She couldn’t tell if he approved or not.  Aurelius would have approved.  It was the job of a superior to chastise one’s inferiors. 

“Take my hand,” Cloak ordered.

Nanette obeyed.  A moment later, they were somewhere else.

17 Responses to “Snippet – Nanette’s Tale”

  1. William Ameling April 11, 2020 at 3:58 pm #

    This is only less than a year (maybe even only half a year) since Emily acquired her Death Viper. I am guessing that Cloak knew that and had prepared a possible antidote for Death Viper venom. IF so, he is someone who knows a great deal about Emily and has been watching her closely. We know that Cloak is on the Council that governed Mountaintop (see the beginning and end of Book 5 School of Hard Knocks).

    I have speculated in the past that Cloak was Void, but I find it hard to believe that Void was that interested in gaining control of Zangaria to be behind the revolt attempt that we saw in Book 2. He just would not want to spend the time away from his study of magic that it would take to rule that country effectively.

    I think that one way or another, we will learn who Cloak is in the next couple SIM Books.

    I am hoping that we might see The Artful Apprentice out on this coming Tuesay. I think that many of CNs kindle titles have come on Tuesdays.

    • Phoenix April 16, 2020 at 4:30 am #

      Where are these sim books?

      • William Ameling April 16, 2020 at 8:07 pm #

        Kindle on Amazon.com, I am not sure if they are available elsewhere.

        Schooled In Magic is a great series of books. For the first 4 School years we had one School Book followed by a Summer Book away from the School per School year. The 5th and 6th Years basicly had 4 Books per School Year with a lot of time spent at non School locations. It is now getting into the post School period where she is finishing up her education as an apprentice to become a Master of Magic.

        But Emily is more than just a student at a School of Magic, she has introduced a lot ideas from our Earth into that World which have caused a lot of needed changes.

  2. William Ameling April 11, 2020 at 6:55 pm #

    There is another plausible sequence of Events: Since Nanette does not remember how she got to Dragon’s Den, Cloak may have taken her there from Mountaintop, then left her there until he got/found/made a cure for poisoning from the Death Viper, and then came back to Dragon’s Den with the cure in order to recruit Nanette.

  3. Ryan April 11, 2020 at 7:48 pm #

    Any news on the book release? I’m sitting on pins and needles in quarantine.

    • chrishanger April 12, 2020 at 4:07 pm #

      It’s on the way – I just did the second major edit, so the editor is having a final look-through.

      Chris

  4. G April 12, 2020 at 3:40 am #

    Wonderful! Will this be published separately? I still think Cloak is Void–he wasn’t behind the coup in book 2, but he’s made it quite clear he doesn’t approve of Emily being involved with Zangaria and could have sent Nanette in to stir the pot in Wedding Hells…I also still wonder how that spell scroll in Master Wolf’s handwriting appeared in Beneficence in Fists of Justice–Emily said it was more developed than the work she’d seen Wolf do during her time in Old Whitehall–did Wolf somehow survive the attack on him at the end of Past Tense? Maybe by hiding after he created a mimic with his memories?

    • chrishanger April 12, 2020 at 4:08 pm #

      This story is meant for the second fantastic schools anthology.

      Chris

      • G April 13, 2020 at 4:11 am #

        Has the first Fantastic Schools anthology been published yet? Can’t find it on Amazon…

      • chrishanger April 20, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

        Not yet, but soon.

        Chris

  5. William Ameling April 12, 2020 at 11:36 am #

    I wonder how long Nanette will stay at Laughter after her mission is done? It would be one way of establishing a new Identity for Nanette as a graduate of Laughter although that would take a lot of time, i.e. 6 years.

    Nanette would not necessarily have to steal the Book, she could read the copy Cloak wants and then copy the the marginal notes into the copy he is giving her to substitute. Assuming that she can read and copy all of the margin notes accurately (which might not be easy to do).

    • georgephillies April 16, 2020 at 4:27 am #

      Copy? That does not work, even with current medieval manuscripts. There was a program to microfilm them, but that meant as example of many that you could not see the little holes in the manuscript due to needles being stuck in them for good reasons, as explained to me by my late cousin, who taught Middle English.

  6. stephen April 12, 2020 at 5:36 pm #

    While I don’t believe that Cloak is Void, it’s highly likely that Void is fully aware of cloak and Nannet. Void is letting things play out, in the hope it will open peoples eyes to the real threat. That would both explain him being upset with Emerly helping maintain royalty and the warning by the dragon in the first book.

    • Phoenix April 14, 2020 at 5:23 am #

      I think Cloak is the king from the story that Storm was talking about in book 11

  7. Phoenix April 16, 2020 at 1:38 pm #

    Are we going to found out who the boy was that saved Emily in the first book? Then who the king in that tomb that master storm was talking about in book 11? Who was the fae that was imprisoned in hearts eye because he saw Emily in book 11 when she was taming the nexus point and push her mind out went she was losing it and then in book 18 he just walked away do you think he was the same guy that was talking to her in book 9 when she was trying to fix the nexus point in white hall?

  8. William Ameling April 16, 2020 at 8:11 pm #

    I wonder about that Magician that Caleb’s Father told Emily about as they were coming into the Harbor at Beneficence.

  9. person April 21, 2020 at 2:02 pm #

    Cant wait, I am really exited for the next book.

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