Snippet – The Lady Heiress

12 Jun

Prologue

I think about my father a lot.  Even when I’m trying not to.

I still remember the last day I saw him, six years ago.  I still remember the day he sent me away.

We’d never really been close.  He was Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter, and he always had something to do.  He’d always been a distant figure to me.  He’d acknowledged me as his child – it wasn’t as if I was a natural-born daughter – but he was always too busy to spend time with me.  It wasn’t uncommon amongst the Great Houses.  I was unusual in spending so much time with my mother, rather than being farmed out to a succession of governesses and private tutors.  It wasn’t until much later that I understood why.

He hadn’t sent me to Jude’s.  I should have gone when I turned twelve, like all the children of the Great Houses, but he’d insisted on keeping me at Lamplighter Hall.  I’d argued and pleaded and even resorted to screaming, to no avail.  Mother had care of my education, with my aunts and uncles filling in the blanks.  It wasn’t that they were bad at teaching – I suppose it was easier with only one student to teach – but it wasn’t the same.  Mother kept saying Father would change his mind, yet … I think she knew better.  I think she knew he’d never change his mind.

And then she died in the House War.

I don’t remember who told me.  My memories are a blur.  The only clear memory I have from that time is my father saying that he was sending me to school, that he was sending me away.  I was too dazed to care.  My mother was dead and … it wasn’t until I got to Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies that I realised he’d sent me away, that he didn’t want to see me again.  I was a reject, an outcast like all the other long-term boarders.  I was … unwanted.

I don’t know why my father sent me away.  He never said.  I used to fret endlessly over what I’d done, back before I grew old enough to realise I’d done nothing.  I used to wonder if I was – somehow – responsible for mother’s death, for my father’s constant absences … if, perhaps, my father blamed me for something beyond my control.  I wouldn’t be the first girl to be sent away because her family could no longer cope, but … why me?

He wasn’t a monster.  There were fathers who were abusive to their daughters, who shouted at them and beat them and arranged matches to men of good families … my father wasn’t like that.  And there were fathers who spoilt their daughters rotten or paid no attention to them … as if they were just little people who happened to share the house.  My father wasn’t like that either.  I didn’t know why he’d sent me away.  And I wished – more and more, as I got older – that I could remember his face.  My family were little more than shadows.  Only a couple bothered to say in touch with me and none of them told me anything useful.  None of them told me why.

I grew up at Grayling’s.  I wasn’t the only long-term boarder.  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get to go home over the summer, who grew from thirteen to nineteen without ever seeing her parents.  But I was the only one whose family lived nearby, the only one who could have gone home …

… And then I got the letter that told me my father had died. 

And then everything changed.

Chapter One

I’d always liked secrets.

It wasn’t anything bad.  Not really.  Knowledge was power in Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies.  Knowing something everyone else didn’t know – or knowing something someone else wanted to remain secret – was always advantageous in the endless struggles for social status.  I’d grown to adulthood learning to keep my ears open and my mouth closed, learning how to put the puzzle pieces together to work out what was actually going on.  I knew more about my fellow students – and the staff – than they could possibly imagine.  I knew who had a crush on who, who was sneaking out at night to see her boyfriend, who was plotting against Mistress Grayling … I knew and I kept it to myself.  Secrets were currency, as far as I was concerned.  They lost their value the moment they became public.

Grayling’s had been the making of me, for better or worse.  I’d done well in my lessons, both the formal tuition and the other – far more useful – lessons I’d learnt from the other girls.  I knew how to evade the locking charms on the dorms, how to hack through the spells on the outer doors and sneak into the gardens … or get over the walls to meet a boy.  I knew which prefects could be trusted to turn a blind eye, as long as the relationship was harmless, and which prefects would blow the whistle for the sheer pleasure of watching some hapless romantic be roasted in front of the entire school the following morning.  I’d even managed to convince some of the latter to let me go, just by telling them a tiny little secret.  They thought I’d sneak on them.  Of course they did.  It was what they would have done.

I smirked to myself as I slipped out of my bedroom and peered down the darkened corridor.  It was nearly midnight, but I could see a pair of younger miscreants standing at one end of the corridor, hands firmly charmed to their heads.  I rolled my eyes at their backs.  The sheer illogic of the system had never creased to amuse me.  If a young girl was caught out of bed, but still within the dorms, she was told to stay out of her bed … it had never really made sense.  Or maybe it did.  I’d been forced to stand in the corridor, looking like an absolute dork, often enough to learn a few basic heating charms.  I supposed it did provide a certain encouragement.

And if you get caught once you pass the doors, I reminded myself, you’ll be in real trouble.

I inched soundlessly down the corridor and round the corner.  Katie – my roommate – had stayed outside after Lights Out, planning to meet her boyfriend in the gardens.  She’d been confident she could evade discovery long enough to have her fun and sneak back inside, but I wasn’t so sure.  The Head Girl had been on the prowl over the last few days.  Marlene had always had it in for me, and Katie by extension.  I’d broken her nose when we both thirteen years old.  Mistress Grayling had been more upset about the punching – young ladies did not resort to physical violence, she’d said – than anything else.  She would have been less upset if I’d turned Marlene into a frog.

The charms on the door were complex, but not too complex.  I’d often wondered if the entire tradition of sneaking out after Lights Out was designed to encourage us to learn skills that would be useful in later life.  The staff could have kept us locked up, if they’d been willing to put some work into it.  I carefully unpicked them, then slipped through the door and into the corridor beyond.  My heart started to thump as I inched onwards.  I was committed.  If I was caught outside the dorms after Lights Out, I’d be called out during Assembly and humiliated in front of the entire school.  Not for being out of the dorms, but for being caught.

I donned a pair of charmed spectacles as soon as I was round the corner, looking around with interest.  I’d often suspected the prefects had ways to track active magic within the school, but they’d find it harder to detect and locate an active Device of Power.  The building seemed to come to life around me, flickers of magic darting through the walls as I hurried to the stairs and headed downwards.  There was something truly eerie about the school, after dark.  It was easy to believe, suddenly, that the school’s ghosts came out and danced in the darkness.  I’d heard all the stories.   They seemed very real.

The air was silent, too silent.  I kept to the side, careful not to put any weight on loose floorboards or squeaky stairs.  The prefects might be lurking in the shadows, waiting for me.  I hadn’t been fool enough to tell anyone I was sneaking out, let alone where I was going, but it was quite possible someone else had.  Stealing food from the kitchens for a midnight feast was an old tradition too.  And if someone in the lower dorms had been planning it, they might just have been overheard by one of the prefects.  They knew all the tricks.  They’d been students too, once upon a time.

Although it’s hard to believe, sometimes, I told myself.  I wouldn’t have thought Marlene had ever been young if I hadn’t grown up with her.

I smiled at the thought, then put it to one side as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  The lobby was empty, although I tensed as I spotted the line of portraits on the wall.  Rumour had it the paintings had eyes, charmed to allow Mistress Grayling to see through them.  I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I did my best to stay out of eyesight anyway.  Just in case.  The paintings were supposed to show headmistresses from the last three hundred years, but I hadn’t been able to help noticing they all looked alike.  Rumour also claimed Mistress Grayling was a vampire.  It was hard to believe she might have been young too.

The thrill of being somewhere I shouldn’t grew stronger with every passing second.  Students weren’t allowed in the lobby, unless they’d been ordered to the headmistress’s office.  It was a silly rule, one of many, but so strictly enforced that I was half-convinced Mistress Grayling really was a vampire.  Or that she was keeping something from us.  Or … I resisted the urge to snort as I crawled under the final painting, then straightened as I stared at the office door.  It was far more likely, really, that Mistress Grayling was merely exercising her authority.  I’d grown up in a Great House.  I knew it was important to use one’s authority or risk losing it.

I pressed my fingers against the doorknob, parsing out the charms.  They were complex – I’d had a look at them the last time I’d been summoned to the office – but not unbreakable.  I braced myself, then started to work.  The charms hadn’t been made that tight.  Mistress Grayling couldn’t keep us out completely without barring the staff as well.  Personally, I would have considered that a fair trade.  There were some good teachers, but also some I’d pay money never to have to see again.

The door clicked.  I froze.  The noise sounded very loud in the silent school.  If I was caught  now, I’d be a laughing stock.  Marlene – and everyone else, even Katie – would laugh like a hyena if I was caught.  The door slid open, allowing me to peer inside.  The chamber was as dark and cold as the grave. Mistress Grayling had the largest office in the school – there were classrooms that were smaller – but there was no hint of any personality.  It was as colourless as the woman herself.  No paintings, no trophies … nothing.  I was almost disappointed as I inched into the chamber, pushing the door closed behind me.  There was no other way out.  If someone came, I’d have to hide in the shadows and hope for the best.  I smiled, allowing my tension to drain away as I walked towards the filing cabinets.  I’d often wanted to take a look inside, but I’d never dared.  Not until now.  The exams were over.  Like it or not, I’d be leaving the school forever in a few weeks.  It wasn’t as anyone would care if I got expelled. 

The cabinet charms were weaker than I’d expected.  I frowned, wondering if I’d been tricked somehow.  The files – the real files – could be elsewhere.  Mistress Grayling’s rooms were on the other side of the school.  It was quite possible she kept the real files there.  I felt my heart sink as I unpicked the charms, one by one.  Surely, she wouldn’t be quite so careless about her files.  The real charms had to be elsewhere.

Magic crackled around me as I picked apart the last charm and pulled the cabinet open.  Rows of files greeted me, each one labelled with a number and nothing else.  I muttered a word that would have me going to bed on bread and water if a prefect – or the tutors – heard.  It would be difficult, if not  impossible, to figure out whose file was whose.  There had to be trick to it … I scanned the numbers, trying to think.  I didn’t have a student number, did I?  It wasn’t as if they didn’t call me by name.  Or … I smiled, suddenly, as my birth date jumped out at me.  It had to be my file.  I’d have known if someone shared my birthday.

I pulled the file free, unpicked the locking charm and opened the box.  My permanent record book sat on top.  I put it to one side and inspected the rest of the papers.  A letter from my father, pleading for Mistress Grayling to take me as a pupil … it was dated shortly after the House War, barely a day after my mother died.  My heart clenched in pain.  My father had started planning to send me away at once?  And to Grayling’s?  Tears prickled in my eyes.  I blinked them away, harshly.  Father had had a good reason.  I was sure he’d had a good reason.  But the letter merely referred to unspecified reasons …

My eyes narrowed as I skimmed the remainder of the letters and accounts.  Mistress Grayling had written to my father twice, demanding payment … payment for what?  My head spun as I tried to understand what I was seeing.  Payment … for me?  If my school fees were unpaid … I’d have been kicked out.  I was sure of it.  Mistress Grayling wasn’t running a charity.  She’d told us often enough.  But father could have paid easily … right?  I skimmed through the rest of the papers, trying to read between the lines.  It wasn’t easy.  My father – and Mistress Grayling – seemed to be committing as little as possible to paper.  The only exception was a note from my uncle, asking permission to take me out for a day … I nearly destroyed the letter as I realised it was dated five months ago.  Mistress Grayling hadn’t bothered to ask me if I wanted to go.  And I would have.  It had been too long since I’d so much as left the school.

And Uncle Jalil probably thinks I’m a rude little snob, I thought, angrily.  He wouldn’t have minded if I’d said no – my exams had been coming up – but saying nothing was dreadfully rude.  Mistress Grayling’s managed to land me in trouble.

I scowled as I carefully closed up the box, then returned it to the shelf.  I’d have to find a way to apologise without admitting what I’d done.  And to confront Mistress Grayling.  She had every right to bar me from going, if she’d thought I needed to study, but she really should have told me.  I wasn’t sure how.  The headmistress would be furious if she knew I’d pried into her private correspondence.  The rest of the staff wouldn’t be amused either.

My eyes narrowed as I spotted the account books at the bottom of the cabinet.  They were covered in charms, charms I’d learnt in class.  I picked apart the ones intended to keep unauthorised readers from opening the books, then frowned down at the figures.  Mistress Grayling’s handwriting was awful.  The charms would make it hard to deliberately miscalculate one’s sums, but they were still hard to read.  It looked as though the school was losing money.  I wasn’t too surprised.  Mistress Grayling had never struck me as a particularly good headmistress.

I tensed as I heard a sound from outside the windows.  The grounds outside were dark, but … I remembered, suddenly, how many girls might be sneaking out to see their boyfriends or catch up with their pashes.  I returned the book to the shelf, hastily repaired the damaged charms and headed for the door.  If someone peered in, they might see me.  I doubted they’d sneak – it would be instant social death, if we found out who’d done it – but they might take advantage of knowing.  Who knew what they’d demand from me if they knew what I’d done?

My heart started to pound, again, as I heard more sounds from outside.  Someone was talking … I winced in sympathy.  No one would be talking so loudly if they hadn’t already been caught, probably by one of the less amiable prefects.  They might manage to talk one of the others into letting them go, if they didn’t make it impossible by accidentally waking the whole school.  I smiled at the thought, even though I knew it wasn’t really funny.  If they got everyone out of bed, they’d have no trouble spotting my absence.  And then I’d be in trouble. 

I inched into the lobby, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could.  The outer door was already opening.  I started to move towards the stairs, then caught myself and slipped into the shadows, wrapping the strongest obscurification charm I could around myself.  The charms were subtle, so low-power they were very hard to detect …  as long as I didn’t draw someone’s attention.  I knew stronger spells, but the mere act of trying to use them might reveal my presence.  And if I was caught …

The outer door opened.  I knew who it was, who it had to be, before she came into sight.  The common or garden students were never permitted to use the front door.  Even prefects were discouraged from using the door, particularly after Lights Out.  It had to be Marlene … my heart sank as the Head Girl came into view, followed by my roommate.  Katie had her hands on her head, a clear sign she’d been caught.  I felt a stab of sympathy, mingled with fear.  If Marlene marched Katie straight back to our room, there was a good chance she’d realise I was missing too.  I wasn’t scared of being caught, not really, but … I breathed a sigh of relief as Marlene pushed Katie towards the lower door.  It looked as if she was going to wake the duty tutor.  I thought a string of uncomplimentary things as they vanished into the darkness.  Poor Katie would be in real trouble.  The duty tutor would not be in a good mood if she was woken in the middle of the night.

And Marlene might be in some trouble too, I told myself.  I clung to the thought as I started to inch back up the stairs.  The duty tutor really won’t be happy if she’s woken.

I smirked at the thought, even though I knew it was unlikely.  Marlene was the Head Girl.  She had the authority to wake the tutor if she felt it necessary.  And her family was quite well connected.  Marlene might get told off, but little more.  She certainly wouldn’t be stripped of her post.  I put the thought out of my head as I hurried back to the dorms, slipping through the doors and into my room.  The corridors were completely empty.  I was in my bed, pretending to be asleep, when Katie was thrust back into the room.  Marlene snapped something at her – I couldn’t make it out – and closed the door.  I peered out as soon as she was safely gone.

“You okay?”

Katie shook her head.  “I’ll be seeing the headmistress tomorrow,” she said.  “And Marlene has me on the detention roster for the rest of the year.”

She snickered.  “I’m not going to be here for the rest of the year.”

“How unfortunate for Marlene,” I said.  “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah.”  Katie shrugged.  “Better than the bloke my parents wanted me to marry, I can tell you.”

I nodded.  Katie’s parents had tried to arrange a match for her.  I’d helped her break it off before it was too late.  She’d been lucky.  An aristocratic maid, even one with strong magic, might have found it a great deal harder to stand against parental pressure to marry.

“Better get some sleep,” I said.  “The morning is not going to be fun.”

“No.”  Katie made a face.  “Do you think I’ll get expelled?”

“It would be a little pointless now,” I reminded her.  “You’ve sat your exams.”

I pulled the cover over my head and closed my eyes, muttering a sleep spell.  I’d pay for it in the morning with a banging headache, but there was no choice.  There were only five hours until I was meant to get out of bed or there’d be no breakfast.  And Marlene would be watching.  If she spotted I was tired, she might deduce I’d been out of bed after Lights Out …

… And, five hours later, she tried to break down the door.

7 Responses to “Snippet – The Lady Heiress”

  1. William Ameling June 12, 2020 at 4:50 pm #

    Not who I was expecting, I thought it was going to be about Cat’s sister.

    • chrishanger June 20, 2020 at 3:48 pm #

      I can’t think of a good story hook for ether of the other two.

      Chris

  2. George Phillies June 12, 2020 at 9:58 pm #

    Excellent opening. House Lamplighter. Groaaaan. But good start. The final ‘she’ might better be replaced with the name. The designeted victim, err, heroine, seems to have picked up a significant amount of knowledge of magic someplace.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 12, 2020 at 10:15 pm #

      I took it that Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies also teaches magic. 😉

    • ACYoung June 17, 2020 at 2:51 pm #

      I note that the final ‘she’ is ambiguous. We’re meant to believe that it’s Marlene (Head Girl), but it could also be Mistress Grayling (in theory it could also be any other female teacher or pupil, but since they haven’t been named it is unlikely). Which of the two it is will have an impact on where the story goes from here. Leaving us to wonder makes a useful end-of-Chapter 1 cliff-hanger.

      There is one question generated by the book title that has yet to be answered: Who is the Lady Heiress? Is it the as-yet-unnamed heroine, another pupil, or someone she has yet to meet? If the first, an urgent need for notification could be a reason for the extreme door knocking.

  3. yetanotherjoe June 17, 2020 at 1:16 am #

    As always,you leave is waiting for more! 😊

    • yetanotherjoe June 17, 2020 at 1:20 am #

      Sorry, As always, you leave us waiting for more! 😊

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