Snippet – The Family Name (Zero 9)

5 Jan


The Chiltern Lodge, Stephen Rubén had decided long ago, had been built by someone who wanted to convince his guests that he was still a man of power and influence.  It had taken Stephen a few days of digging in the family achieve, a punishment set by his father decades ago, to determine he’d been correct.  The lodge had been constructed for a loser in the endless struggles for power over the family, a particularly sore loser who’d taken his failings out on the local wildlife.  Everything about the lodge was on a grand scale, from the dining hall – roomy enough for a hundred guests – to the animal heads decorating the walls.  It screamed rustic in a manner that mocked the owner’s pretensions.  It was no great surprise to Stephen that no one had been particularly interested in taking the lodge for themselves, when the original owner died.  The lodge might be visually stunning, surrounded by beautiful countryside and yet crammed with all the comforts of home, but it was too far from Shallot to serve as a permanent base.  To take possession of the lodge was to concede, to one’s shame, that one no longer had a part to play in the games of power.

And yet, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, it had its uses.

The lodge’s staff had been surprised when he’d arrived, but they hadn’t hesitated to prepare rooms for Stephen and his guests.  Stephen had been tempted to send them away, perhaps permanently, yet he’d known his guests wouldn’t appreciate having to fend for themselves during their little safari.  They hadn’t come to slaughter the local wildlife, let alone skin and cook the remnants of poor woodland creatures blasted by enhanced spellcasters.  The mere idea of making their beds for themselves … his lips quirked in amusement.  They’d done enough of that at Jude’s.

He lit the fire in the grate with a spell, then sat back in his comfortable armchair and waited for the remainder of the cabal to arrive.  They’d taken a risk gathering so far from the city, even with a cover story firmly in place, but there was no time for half-measures.  The very future of the family itself was at stake.  And there was no hope of saving their lives and their futures through more … legitimate channels.   Lord Carioca Rubén, Patriarch of House Rubén, had committed himself and his family to a course that would lead to either apotheosis or nemesis.  Stephen was all too aware that apotheosis was not on the cards.

“I trust this chamber is secure.”  Andrew Rubén was a tall man, his handsome face marred by a duelling scar.  “The staff can hardly be trusted not to report back to Carioca.”

“There are privacy wards already in place,” Stephen assured him.  It was unlikely the patriarch was paying close attention to them, with so many other problems concerning him, but he hadn’t survived so long by neglecting the basics.  “The staff are barred from these rooms.”

“You’ll excuse me if I check for myself,” Jeanne Rubén said.  It wasn’t a question.  She looked soft and warm, everyone’s favourite auntie.  It was easy to underestimate her, yet her smile and greying hair concealed a mind as sharp as an enchanted blade.  “I cannot live without the family, not at my age.”

“And I have matters to attend to in Shallot,” Davys Rubén said.  He wore mourning black, for his son who’d died only a few short months ago.  “Why are we here?”

Stephen waited for Jeanne to finish her examination of the charms, then studied his little cabal as they took their seats.  Andrew had been denied the power and positions he thought were his by right – a fairly common delusion – and, with the next generation readying itself to take the reins, faced a choice between gambling everything or retiring to the hinterlands of power.  Jeanne had old resentments driving her forward, demanding revenge for years of being told she couldn’t reach for supreme power herself.  And Davys had a son to avenge.

“Malachi is dead,” Stephen said, flatly.

“Good.”  Davys stared into the fire.  “The bastard got my son killed.”

“We had hoped Malachi could undermine our lord and master,” Stephen reminded him.  The disgraced outsider, the blackmailer, had been a tool.  Stephen had hoped he could rely on the man’s bottomless malice to damage Carioca without doing too much harm to the family as a whole.  He wouldn’t shed any tears for the man’s fiery death, but it had deprived him of a prospective weapon at the worst possible time.  “His death is quite awkward.”

He raised his voice, drawing their attention to him.  “The High Summer Ball will be held one month from now, in Aguirre Hall.  The ball will serve as both the coming-out party for the Aguirre Triplets and the formal announcement that Akin and Caitlyn are to be married.  The wedding date itself is still being negotiated, according to my source, but the general feeling is that it will take place on Winter’s Eve.  Carioca” – his voice darkened – “will not want to delay the nuptials too much.”

“Of course not,” Andrew said.  “The happy couple might decide they didn’t want to get married after all.”

“Which is possible,” Davys pointed out.  “They are betrothed, not engaged.”

“They appear to be very fond of each other,” Jeanne said, blandly.  “Their parents have worked hard to foster the match.  They are more compatible, in many ways, than most aristocratic couples.  I do not believe they will refuse to marry, when the time comes.”

Stephen grimaced.  Aristocratic matches were not about love.  Of course not.  The families came first.  Always.  The happy couple would have – should have – been raised to be realistic about such things.  As long as there were a handful of children, with no doubt about the bloodlines, the parents could do whatever they liked.  Stephen himself spent as little time with his wife as possible.  The feeling was mutual.

A flash of rage shot through him.  A Rubén, marrying an Aguirre?  Unthinkable.  Caitlyn could trace her ancestry back a thousand years, but Akin – and Stephen himself – could list his ancestors all the way back to the days before the Thousand Year Empire.  They’d been founders, senators, even emperors.  House Rubén had had its ups and downs – there’d been times when they’d been on top and times when they’d been clawing their way back up to the top – but the family had never declined for long.  House Aguirre … they were nothing more than parvenus.  They should have married into the older families, not set up bloodlines of their own.

He calmed himself with an effort.  “If we don’t act now, Akin will be the next Patriarch and Caitlyn will be his wife.  The two families will slowly merge, leaving us – ­us – on the sidelines.  Our bloodlines will be diluted, our family magics shared or lost forever.  We will lose everything, even our name!”

“And if we do act, we lose access to Caitlyn’s … talents,” Jeanne pointed out, evenly.  “House Aguirre will have an unbeatable advantage.”

“Caitlyn cannot be unique,” Stephen said.  “There have to be others.”

“We have found none,” Jeanne said.

Stephen said nothing for a long moment.  He had a trump card, a piece of information that had fallen into his hand, but he didn’t dare play it openly.  Not until they were ready to follow him.  There were too many players in the game for his peace of mind.  The cabal was hardly bound together by oaths of blood and promises of ancestral retribution.  Carioca would probably be very forgiving to whoever came to him, to betray the cabal before it was too late.  Stephen would have rewarded a willing traitor and he was fairly sure Carioca would do the same. 

“She isn’t invulnerable,” Davys pointed out.  “She can be killed.”

“That would trigger a House War,” Jeanne countered.  “And even if it didn’t, Akin would hunt the murderers down and kill them.”

Andrew leered.  “What about her children?  Would they have her talents … and their weaknesses?”

Stephen made a face.  The family – both families – had carefully avoided the question of precisely what would happen if Akin and Caitlyn’s children lacked magic.  Caitlyn was far from useless – she alone could make Objects of Power – but she was horrendously vulnerable too.  Stephen had been told that compulsion spells prevented her from actually doing anything useful, yet there were other ways to make someone compliant.  And if her children lacked magic too …

If they can’t defend themselves, they cannot lead the family, he thought.  And her family will feel the same way too.

Jeanne cleared her throat.  “What do you propose we do?”

She leaned forward, speaking with cold certainty.  “Francis is dead.  There are no other possible candidates for the patriarchy, certainly none who can hold a candle to Akin and would be interested in the role.  The majority of the new generation has made their peace with the concept of him suceeding his father.  The ones who might want to reach for the brass ring themselves have no hope of success.”

Stephen nodded.  He’d hoped Carioca and Davys would have more children, more prospective candidates for the patriarchy, but they’d been careful.  Very careful.  Carioca hadn’t wanted too many children competing for his favour, while Davys had clearly assumed Francis would either compete with his cousin or use his position as a bargaining chip when Akin succeeded his father.  None of them had realised that Malachi would push Francis too far, or that the Challenge would end in the young man’s death.  The disaster had left them scrambling to find another candidate before it was too late.

Andrew coughed.  “Penny?”

Jeanne snorted.  Penny Rubén had been doubly disgraced, first by being the daughter of Malachi and then by being demoted back to lowerclassman at school.  Akin himself had done it, supposedly for the best of motives.  Stephen suspected the younger man had planned it carefully, ensuring he could knock Penny down a peg or two in a manner no one could really challenge.  It was what Stephen would have done.  Akin might appear to be a genial good-natured child – young adult, now – but he was Carioca’s son.  He’d learnt his father’s lessons well. 

Davys looked up.  “House Aguirre’s Heir Primus is Alana, not Caitlyn,” he said.  “I don’t think Alana will give up her power so readily, even if merging the two families is good in the long run.”

“She may not have a choice,” Andrew said.  “What better dowry could Caitlyn bring than a prospective merger?”

Stephen cleared his throat.  “There’s one other possible candidate,” he said.  “Someone who might – who might – accept our guidance.”

“Really?”  Davys didn’t look impressed.  “Do you think Carioca has a natural-born son?”

“No,” Stephen said.  “I mean Isabella.”

Jeanne choked.  “Isabella?  But she’s a …”

A girl, Stephen finished, inwardly.  Tradition insisted that only men could head aristocratic families and House Rubén, traditional in all things, refused to bend to the modern world.  Jeanne had seen her ambitions curtailed for the same reason as Isabella herself.  Her femininity meant she couldn’t rise to the very top, even though she would have been good in the role.  And are you going to support me now, because it may force the family to discard that tradition for the good of all?

Andrew had the same thought.  “Isabella is a girl,” he said.  “Carioca will laugh at us.”

“And she’s in exile,” Jeanne added.  Her face was so expressionless Stephen knew she was thinking furiously.  “She betrayed the family.”

“She was young,” Stephen countered.

“Isabella is a girl,” Andrew repeated.  “I think you’re overlooking the simple fact that she isn’t eligible to lead … by the ancestors!  She’s in exile!”

“Carioca wants to bring her home,” Davys said, slowly.  “The council voted to send her into exile and leave her there.”

“Yes,” Stephen said.  “And we represent a good chunk of the council.  We could bring her exile to an end.  We can also nominate her as a prospective leader.”

Jeanne made a rude sound.  “And how do you intend to convince the council to break with tradition?”

“Yeah.”  Andrew leaned back in his chair.  “The council rejected Jeanne, even though Jeanne was infinitively superior to Carioca.  She had age and knowledge and practical experience, all of which Isabella lacks.  Why should they accept someone who is even younger than Carioca himself, when he assumed the role?”

“There are two factors in our favour,” Stephen said.  “First, we would be putting her forward as a regent, rather than a patriarch – a matriarch – in her own right.  There is precedent for both regencies, when the new generation is immature, and for women to serve in such roles.  There is also precedent” – he allowed himself a smile – “for a regency to evolve into a de facto patriarchy.  I might refer you to …”

“Yes, but not for a woman,” Jeanne snapped.  The bitterness in her voice was clear.  “Your precedents will not hold up if Akin challenges them, let alone someone else from the next generation.”

“We comprise a sizable fraction of the council,” Stephen reminded them.  “As long as she has our support, no challenge can hope to succeed.”

And that will keep her in line, his thoughts added, coldly.  She’ll do everything in her power to make sure she doesn’t lose our support.

“You cunning bastard.”  Andrew clapped his hands.  “You’ve found a loophole!”

Davys looked uncomfortable.  “You mentioned two factors,” he said.  “What’s the other one?”

Stephen braced himself.  They were ready, he thought.  But what if he was wrong?

“I had a visit recently, from another disgraced member of the family,” he said.  “She told me something that changes everything.”

“Really?”  Davys didn’t look impressed.  “And what was that, pray tell?”

Stephen told them.

Chapter One: Akin

To attend Magus Court, to shadow my father from chamber to chamber, is a great honour.

I told myself that, again and again, as we strode down the long corridor to the innermost chambers.  The centre of the corridor was clear, no one would dare get in our way, but the walls were lined with clients, soldiers, lobbyists, politicians, newspaper reporters and sycophants who wanted to pay us for the privilege of kissing our boots, all talking so loudly the words blurred into a deafening howl.  My father appeared to be ignoring them, but – every so often – he would nod to someone and his secretary, bringing up the rear, would make arrangements for a private interview later in the day.  He’d told me it was a good way to make sure he knew what was really going on, that no one further down the food chain was trying to limit what information reached his ears.  It struck me as uncomfortably paranoid, but I’d learnt a hard lesson from Uncle Malachi.  It was hard not to grimace at the thought.  He might be dead, under mysterious circumstances, but his influence lingered on.

A young reporter, barely out of her teens, caught my eye.  “When’s the wedding?”

I gritted my teeth, schooling my face into a blank mask as I fixed my eyes to my father’s robes.  The golden outfit he wore, topped with an fancy wig, marked him as a man of power and influence, a man who drew supplicants to him like flies to honey.  I’d learnt to detest the hordes of vultures as I started my apprenticeship with my father, the men and women offering anything – anything at all – in exchange for a word in my ear.  A tiny minority had something useful to offer, my father had said.  The trick was telling which ones were worthy of an offer of patronage.

The reporter kept pace with us, somehow.  “Have you agreed on a date …?”

I kept my face blank, somehow.  It had taken months to agree that Cat – and her sisters – would have their coming-out ball on High Summer, at the end of the Season.  Cat had been a little ambient about it, but her sisters had been furious at being kept as children while their peers made the leap to adulthood.  The families were still arguing over when – precisely – Cat and I would be married.  Personally, I just wanted to get it done and dusted.  I wanted to be with her, not forced to meet under chaperonage or snatch a few private minutes from our families.  But no one could hide from the implications of our match.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

A pair of armsmen appeared from nowhere, seemingly literally, and frogmarched her out of the corridor.  I hoped they’d be gentle.  The poor girl probably just wanted a scoop, something that would make her name in a competitive world.  I didn’t really blame her, even though she’d poked a running sore.  Cat and I would be married.  There was too much riding on the wedding for either of us to back out, if either of us wanted to back out.  We just didn’t know when we’d be married.

We reached the end of the corridor and passed through a pair of security wards tuned to our magic.  Boswell – the secretary – remained behind, speaking to a handful of potential clients, while we walked into the elevator and allowed it to carry us upwards.  I relaxed, slightly, as more and more privacy wards fell into place.  Father held himself steady.  He’d told me, more than once, that the wards didn’t guarantee our privacy, even here.  Magus Court was layered with hundreds upon thousands of protective spells, but every sorcerer who fancied himself a player was trying to break them.  Knowledge was power, particularly if one was the only person who knew it.

The door hissed open, revealing a secure chamber.  Alana and Uncle Joaquin – Lord Joaquin Aguirre, her father – were already waiting for us, her father sitting on a comfortable armchair and Alana standing behind him as if she were nothing more than a servant.  She was learning from her father, just like me.  She met my eyes and winked, then lowered her gaze again.  It was hard to believe, sometimes, that she and Cat were siblings.  They were very different.

I studied her, thoughtfully, as I took my place behind my father.  Alana wore a long white robe, very much like mine, although her personal tailor had tightened it around the chest … I was surprised her father hadn’t ordered her to change before they left the manor.  The dress contrasted oddly with her dark face and darker hair, the latter still in braids despite her age.  I was sure she found that more than a little humiliating.  Her friends and many of her cousins had already been through their coming-out, when they were formally acknowledged as adults.  Alana might be her father’s heir, but she couldn’t even speak for herself …

Maybe that’s the point, I thought.  If she messes up now, it can just be blamed on her immaturity and everyone will pretend to believe it.

I shoved the feeling aside as our respective fathers exchanged greetings and got down to work.  They’d been rivals before becoming allies and there were times when I thought they would be more comfortable returning to rivalry, even though it would tear the alliance between our families apart.  I wondered, deep inside, if either of them had their doubts about the future.  They’d gambled everything on a plan to keep the two families allied permanently, but … things were going to change.  The families might never be united, yet …

Alana looked calm and composed as our fathers talked, hashing out issues in private so they could present a united front in public.  It was an impressive act, I had to admit.  She stood at attention, hands clasped behind her back.  If I hadn’t known her so well, I wouldn’t have known she was bored stiff.  Not, of course, that she wasn’t paying attention.  Her eyes were demurely lowered, but I was sure she was listening to every word and filing it away for later consideration.  I told myself I should be doing the same thing.  Father had made it clear he wouldn’t live forever.  There would come a time when I’d have to step into his shoes.  It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  I wasn’t one of the spoilt brats counting the days until my parents died.  I wanted them to live!

“The question is, do we accept her as a representative?”  Father’s voice was very quiet, a sure sign he was talking about something important.  I hastily replayed the conversation in my mind.  “And do we accept she won the vote legitimately?”

Uncle Joaquin frowned.  “It would be very hard to prove she didn’t.  The dockworkers are a very numerous group.  It makes it harder for anyone to rig the elections.”

Including us, I thought, coldly.  In theory, the guilds elected their representatives to Magus Court.  In practice, the guilds were so riddled with aristocratic patronage networks that we had a great deal of say in who got elected to what.  The bigger the group, the harder it is to control.

“And that means she outdid our own picked nominees,” Father said.  “Do we go along with it or do we seek to reject her?”

I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he’d smiled.  “Akin?  What do you think?”

“I think we have to accept the result, unless we have clear proof she cheated,” I said.  I found it hard to believe that Louise Herdsman had cheated, even after the Infernal Devices that had shook the city last month.  She wasn’t the type to cheat, particularly when she knew she had powerful enemies who would do everything in their power to prove she cheated.  “We have to uphold the system or it’ll collapse, taking us down with her.”

“And she’s just one person, with few real connections,” Alana added.  “Let her waste her time playing politics.  It’ll dampen the reformist fire.”

I kept my face impassive.  Louise Herdsman was a merchant’s daughter, hardly the sort of person to impress Alana.  Or Isabella, for that matter.  It was easy to class her as a know-nothing know-it-all, someone who couldn’t even be bothered to dress the part.  And yet, she was a very capable and determined magician in her own right.  Her zeal for social reform had only sharpened, in her last few months at Jude’s.  I wasn’t remotely surprised she’d walked into the trepid reform movement and made it her own.  The real surprise was that she’d managed to win enough dockworkers to her banner to win an election.  And yet …

Clever, I conceded.  She comes out ahead whatever we do.

“She might have some useful ideas,” I said, carefully.  “She really shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Father glanced up at me.  “Do you think she’d work with us?”

I hesitated.  I’d worked with Louise myself, back when we’d taken the Challenge.  She was a hard person to like, with so many rough edges it was easy to see why she had few real friends, but … she wasn’t a hard person to admire.  She had a passion that burned deep within her, a passion I found appealing and terrifying at the same time.  I honestly wasn’t sure how to put that into words.  They’d probably come back to haunt me.  Alana would see to it personally.

“I think she’d be open to discussions,” I said, carefully.  “But she wouldn’t be open to bribery or corruption.”

“Every man has his price.”  Alana didn’t seem impressed.  “And we can bid very high indeed.”

“I doubt it,” I said.  “There are some things money can’t buy.”

Our respective parents tabled the matter, for the moment, and moved on to a different topic.  I forced myself to listen, doing my best to keep my boredom off my face.  Alana seemed as impassive as ever, but I could tell she was bored too.  And she wanted to be her father’s successor.  I wasn’t anything like so keen on the idea.  I didn’t really want to spend my days in Magus Court, holding meetings in smoke-filled backchambers, or dealing with an endless succession of clients and supplicants.  If Isabella hadn’t been disgraced, if women had been allowed to lead the family, I would have stepped aside without hesitation.  Isabella would have been good at it.  Me?  I wasn’t sure I’d be anything more than a placeholder until the true successor arrived.

The thought bothered me more than I dared say, not to my father.  I was looking at nearly two centuries of life, barring accidents or acts of war.  I was going to be spending those years building my position, then securing my position so I could pass it to my son without a major struggle.  I’d seen enough of father’s manoeuvrings to know just how far he’d gone to make sure I could take his place.  His enemies wouldn’t be able to regroup in time to make a challenge when he stepped down …

My father cleared his throat.  “We could do with some coffee,” he said.  “Perhaps you two could go fetch it.”

Alana looked displeased, just for a second.  We might be the juniors, the lowest-ranking people in the room, but … we were aristocrats.  We weren’t servants.  And yet I wasn’t anything like so unhappy.  It was a chance to step out of the chamber and relax, before returning to the political debate.  I wasn’t remotely fooled by the genteel talk.  Our fathers were skirmishing as aggressively as a pair of duellists, testing each other before they moved in for the kill.

I bowed and headed for the door.  Alana followed me.  I could feel her gaze boring into my back.  I was pretty sure she was irked at having to leave, that she thought our fathers would be discussing matters they thought unsuitable for our ears.  There was only one issue my father wouldn’t discuss with me, one issue that he thought better handled by my elders and betters.  And that was the date Cat and I were to be married.

“You defended Louise,” Alana said, as soon as we were alone.  “Do you like her that much?”

“She’s an impressive person,” I said.  I wasn’t blind to the unasked question.  Alana might have feared I had feelings for Louise, just because I’d worked with her and tutored her.  “And she has the courage of her convictions.”

Alana snorted.  “And yet she didn’t spend any time forming alliances with her classmates.”

I stopped and turned to look at her.  “She’s just gotten herself elected to Magus Court,” I said, bluntly.  “And she did it alone, without becoming someone’s client.  She didn’t need an alliance, any more than she needed to submit herself permanently to one of us.  She’s become one of the most important people in the city and she’s no older than you or I.”

“Hah.”  Alana snorted, again.  “She’s nowhere near as powerful as us.”

“You and I inherited our positions,” I reminded her.  I doubted she’d understand.  “Your sisters aren’t interested in power.  I don’t have any brothers.  Neither of us had to compete for our family titles, let alone at a severe and seemingly permanent disadvantage.  Louise, on the other hand, had to fight for everything.  She’s not someone to underestimate.”

Alana walked past me, into the tiny kitchenette.  I knew she didn’t believe me, yet … I had been paying attention to Father’s lessons.  Louise was in a strong position, perhaps stronger than she knew.  There was no way the Great Houses could unite against the Dockworkers Guild, not without cutting their own throats.  It would be very hard, if not impossible, to convince them to recall her, let alone elect one of our clients in her place.  I had a feeling we’d hexed ourselves in the foot.  There’d been so many possible candidates, clients of one family or another, that Louise hadn’t needed an absolute majority to win.  She’d just needed more votes than anyone else.

And she doesn’t even have to do much to keep them happy, I thought.  I was suddenly convinced she knew precisely what she was doing.  As long as she doesn’t make any serious mistakes, they’ll keep voting for her.

I dismissed the thought as I stepped into the kitchenette myself.  It was small, surprisingly compact for Magus Court.  Alana poured water into a jug, muttered a heating spell and settled back to wait.  I found a pair of plates, piled them high with biscuits and placed them both on a tray.  Cat would probably laugh, if she saw me waiting on my father.  I wondered, idly, what Louise would think of it.

Alana cleared her throat.  “You know what they’re discussing?”

I nodded.  “Have you heard anything?”

“Dad’s been hinting we’ll be coming out at the end of the summer,” Alana said.  There was a hint of bitterness in her voice.  She was eighteen and yet she was still legally a child.  I was sure her friends and cronies were carefully not mentioning it in a manner that drew attention to the elephant in the room.  “Have you heard anything?”

“Nothing too specific,” I confessed.  Father had acknowledged me as an adult after I’d completed the Challenge.  I had a feeling he might have waited longer, if I hadn’t proved myself.  “I’ve been told to keep my nose out of the discussions.”

Alana smirked, her dark eyes sparkling with sudden mischief.  “And have you actually obeyed?”

I felt my cheeks heat.  “Father wouldn’t be very pleased if he knew I was spying on him.”

“So, you have.”  Alana’s smirk grew wider.  “What did you hear?”

“Nothing.”  I shook my head in some frustration.  The discussions had taken place on neutral ground.  House Lamplighter perhaps, if they hadn’t been held at Magus Court itself.  “I haven’t heard the matter being discussed, not formally.  Just a lot of stupid chatter from stupid relatives.”

It wasn’t easy to keep the bitterness out of my voice.  House Rubén had been invaded by hundreds of relatives, ranging from my father’s cousins to people who had a very weak tie to the family … all of whom insisted on speaking to me, congratulating me on suceeding my father – even though I hadn’t even done it yet – and trying to convince me to remember them when I came into my own.  The fact the last two points contradicted themselves didn’t seem to bother them.  The only upside, as far as I could tell, was that I was building a list of people I really didn’t want on the family council. 

But I might not be able to keep them out, I thought, curtly.  I hadn’t realised, until he’d explained to me, why Father allowed some of his enemies to keep their seats.  Their positions are just too strong.

Alana tapped the pot, then poured water into the cups.  “I almost forgot,” she said, as she put the milk jug on the tray.  “I have a message for you.”

Somehow, I doubted she’d forgotten anything.  And there was only one person who’d use Alana as a go-between.  “From Cat?”

“She wants to see you.”  Alana’s voice was suddenly serious.  “In the Workshop, as soon as possible.  She burned up a favour to get me to pass the message on.”

I blinked.  Alana and Cat might have been getting on a little better, since their disastrous first decade, but Cat wouldn’t ask her sister for anything unless it was important.  And … it wasn’t the sort of message she’d normally trust to anyone.  Asking me to visit her – alone – could land us both in hot water.   Betrothed or not, we weren’t supposed to be unchaperoned until the wedding. 

“I’ll sneak off after lunch,” I said.  “Cover for me?”

“You’ll owe me,” Alana said.  “And believe me, you’ll pay.”

I nodded as I picked up the tray and carried it back into the meeting chamber.  It was hard not to keep the concern off my face.  Cat had a dozen ways to send me a perfectly legitimate message, including a couple that – probably – wouldn’t go through one or both families first.  If it was that important … I wondered, suddenly, if I should fake an illness and leave early.  Father wouldn’t be pleased, but …

“Thank you,” Father said.  He took the coffee and sipped it.  “Joaquin?”

“We have come to a decision,” Uncle Joaquin said.  He looked at his daughter, his dark face unreadable.  “The High Summer Ball will be held at Aguirre Hall.  It will serve as your formal coming-out party …”

Alana gasped, losing – for once – control of her face.  I swallowed hard, a multitude of feelings racing through me.  I didn’t know what to think.  The wedding date itself might not have been set, but it was only a matter of time.  And then … I stared down at my hands, suddenly apprehensive.  Cat wanted to see me.  Why?

“Thank you, Dad,” Alana said.  She dropped a curtsey that looked completely heartfelt.  “I won’t let you down.”

“I have every faith in you,” Uncle Joaquin said.  “And your siblings.”

Father glanced at me.  “The formal announcement will be made at lunchtime,” he said, quietly.  “Until then, try not to cheer too loudly.”

I grinned.  Cat and I were going to be married!  And … I promised myself, as our fathers discussed the arrangements for the ball, that I was going to see her as soon as possible.  If she wanted me to visit, if she’d gone to some trouble to ensure I got the message quickly, it had to be urgent.  And …

Go see her, before everyone else hears the news, I thought, numbly.  I was pretty sure the word had already gotten out.  Father and Uncle Joaquin wouldn’t have made up their minds on the spur of the moment.  I’d be surprised if the gossip papers weren’t already putting out special editions.  And find out what she wants before it’s too late.

18 Responses to “Snippet – The Family Name (Zero 9)”

  1. William Ameling January 6, 2021 at 5:36 am #

    The most likely possibility is that Stephen has discovered Isabella’s has a Zero friend.

  2. CEC January 6, 2021 at 3:02 pm #

    I enjoyed this snippet and I’m looking forward to another Zero Enigma book! It’s my favorite series 🙂

  3. Isabella's #1 Fan January 6, 2021 at 5:59 pm #

    Previous books prove Isabella can become a talented magician and a better person. I hope she redeems herself in the most emotional way possible and finds a path towards greatness.

    “What is better – to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?” – Paarthurnax, Skyrim

    • William Ameling January 6, 2021 at 8:43 pm #

      I am hoping to see Isabella overcome attempts to use her against her brother and father. Then get restored to a better status with the main Family Council as a result. Will she end up marrying her own Zero close friend? That would be a surprise, both brother and sister each being married to a (different) Zero.

      Cat is my favorite Zero character

      • Abraham January 6, 2021 at 9:20 pm #

        This may seem a bit silly, but when I read The Family Shame I got from Isabella an adventurer vibe. Someone with ambition, who sets off to explore the world. Maybe go into the desolation or slay a dragon or something along those lines. Going back to live in Shallot as an aristocrat sounds kinda boring for Isabella.

        BTW, I like both Cat and Isabella.

  4. William Ameling January 7, 2021 at 12:45 am #

    Going with her Zero friend to visit the far away Oriental equivalent of that World, could also be an interesting choice/future for Isabella, and finally let us see that part of the World in new Books.

    It might be considered a form of exile, or just a way to get her away from the other members of the Family trying to use her as weapon, until Akin gets more settled into his role as Heir, and starts raising a family with Cat. With the promise of better status in the Family when she returned.

    The bigger question is IF and HOW (Does Cat train him?) her Zero friend gets trained as a Zero. That could preclude her going away for a long time, if she keeps her friendship (possible marriage someday?) going with him. A marriage to a 2nd Zero could raise her position/power considerably, if she can make peace with Cat at the same time.

    • Janet January 12, 2021 at 6:51 am #

      Isabella’s Zero friend must have managed to at least partly train himself – sine isabella gave Akin an Object of power to help Saline with.

  5. William Ameling January 7, 2021 at 12:48 am #

    Could Cat have have gotten some hint of the existence of the Zero, and maybe Isabella? Is that what she wants to talk to Akin about?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard January 7, 2021 at 1:45 am #

      Well, there was that Spell-Breaker that Akin got from Isabella. 😉

      • AC Young January 7, 2021 at 8:49 am #

        Possibly. Though if I recall correctly Isabella insisted both that she’d “found” it lying around, and that Akin couldn’t tell Cat about it. It was also destroyed during the challenge.

        It’s also possible that Cat’s found out by a different route. (I’ve wondered if Isabella would try to make peace with Cat via back door channels (given her disgrace she wouldn’t be permitted to do so via her own family) – perhaps an indiscreet comment during such communications?)

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard January 7, 2021 at 2:04 pm #

        It was broke, not destroyed.

        And IIRC in Family Pride, Akin was going to ask Cat to try to fix it.

  6. Arthur D. January 7, 2021 at 12:17 pm #

    Will we see the “Old Magic” Isabella has been studying? And what about the ghosts and the sinister statues?

  7. Tom Howl January 7, 2021 at 2:57 pm #

    Shallot is too small. Isabella be building the next empire.

  8. William Ameling January 7, 2021 at 5:19 pm #

    The Zero(s) and those associated with them, as more are found and trained, will open the door to building whatever structure replaces the Thousand Year Empire, because only they can build the Orbs of Power at the base of the old Empire. Up until now that true replacement was not possible.
    So for the moment that means Cat and Akin, Isabella and her friend, and their Families. Versus the other Families and members inside their own Families, who will lose relative Power, as well as other Cities and Countries. “Interesting Times”. This process will take decades and lifetimes (and lives).

  9. Joaquin Castillo January 8, 2021 at 6:06 am #

    Loved your latest AR book. Very entertaining. My only gripe is that you repeat yourself too much. How many times do you have to say that space is vast and that an enemy fleet could be lurking, and a few more examples. I think you need a better editor. Aside from that, solid book.

  10. Someone January 11, 2021 at 7:10 pm #

    Isabella has great potential. She can become a very powerful magician, as we’ve seen in The Family Shame. She has also grown to be a good person because of her interaction with commoners.

    She needs an opportunity to redeem herself by saving Cat somehow from a terrible fate. Hopefully that would start a friendship between the two.

    I liked the idea that was mentioned here of her travelling the world. That would open up a lot of potential writing material. A lot of kingdoms, magical creatures, and magical places were mentioned in previous books. Perhaps it’s time to explore these places. Someone as tough and strong as Isabella could certainly do it. And she could help people along the way. It would be better than coming back to live with a family\society that caused her nothing but pain.

    Also, I hope she has the guts to wear trousers if she visits Shallot despite what High Society would think. That would be fun to read.

    Finally, I hope someone teaches Alana a lesson about humility. That would be fun to read as well.

    • Abraham January 11, 2021 at 8:34 pm #

      Isabella definitely deserves a better future. She was poorly raised by a harsh family and horrible parents. She was manipulated by a horrible person and then abandoned. And then she was tortured by a warlock. And all of that happened while she was twelve years old. And despite that, she eventually became a good person. She’s one of the best characters in this series and I hope she fulfills her dreams and finds happiness and purpose.

  11. Peter January 12, 2021 at 9:04 pm #

    I hope Isabella continues on her path of becoming a good person. She needs to be put in a tough spot and prove that she has a kind heart.

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