Snippet – The Face of the Enemy (SIM 23)

5 Mar

The Face of the Enemy is very much a direct sequel to The Right Side of History, so BEWARE SPOILERS.

Prologue I

Alassa felt … uneasy.

The feeling nagged at the queen’s mind as she performed her duties, holding audiences and private conferences and meditating disputes between aristocrats, magicians and commoners that – if allowed to fester – could easily get out of hand.  A vague unease, a sense that something was deeply wrong … she paced her halls and chambers, reaching out with her mind to check the wards again and again as she tried to put her finger on the problem.  But there was no reason to be uneasy, as far as she could tell.  The wave of unrest sweeping across the Allied Lands had yet to touch Zangaria.  She thought – she hoped – it never would, not when the civil war had laid the groundwork for a more meritocratic society.  She’d had more than enough time to plan the future, then steer her kingdom to glories untold.

And yet, the feeling refused to fade.

Driven by a concern she couldn’t put into words, she cancelled her planned attendance at the ambassador’s ball and retreated to her chambers.  Her staff would have to make her apologies to the guests, then explain that Her Majesty would reschedule as quickly as possible.  The gossips would be chattering soon, if they weren’t already.  Some of them would whisper a mere woman couldn’t handle a kingdom.  Others would wonder if she was pregnant with her second child.  And still others, the ones who had assassins on their payroll, would start planning her downfall.  Alassa didn’t fear death, but she feared the chaos that would follow her assassination.  Her daughter – Little Emily – was barely a year old.  A child monarch would be lucky to survive long enough to rule in her own right.

She dropped her queenly mask as soon as she stepped into her bedroom and sat on the bed.  It was hard, sometimes, to pretend to be utterly unbothered by everything happening around her, to pretend she liked or cared or didn’t want to turn particularly irritating courtiers or petitioners into slugs and stamp on them.  They didn’t see her as a person, not in any real sense.  Some of them saw her as a force of nature, something to be endured or resisted or manipulated into working for them.  Others … saw any hint of weakness as a sign the time had come to move ahead with their plans.  Alassa had no doubt of it.  There were men and women in her court who’d plotted her father’s death.  They would plot hers too if she gave them half a chance.

The door opened.  Jade stepped into the room.  “You cancelled the state dinner?”

“They can still have it,” Alassa said, waspishly.  She trusted Jade – he was the only man she trusted completely – but he didn’t understand.  How could he?  “I’m just not going to attend.”

“Disaster,” Jade said, deadpan.  He sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder.  “I’m sure they’ll be very upset.”

Alassa elbowed him.  The ambassadors would be very upset.  They’d see it as a sign the monarch didn’t care about maintaining good relations with the remainder of the Allied Lands, something she could ill-afford after her intervention at Resolution Castle.  She’d staked everything on her defence of her friend, an act that would be used against her if she didn’t manage to convince most of the coalition that it had been in their interests.  She thought she’d succeeded, but it was hard to be sure.  Too many of her fellow monarchs were expert in keeping their options open as long as possible.  Alassa was all too aware they could – and perhaps would – turn on her at any given moment.  The Allied Lands were in turmoil.  And too many of the kings and princes blamed Emily for their woes.

She frowned, rubbing her forehead.  The last report from Whitehall had made it clear nothing would be resolved in a hurry.  There were just too many sticking points, too many disputes that had been allowed to fester while the Allied Lands stood together against the necromancers.  Alassa knew she was lucky to have escaped many of the problems – she had no claims to foreign lands, nor did most of her surviving nobility – but she hadn’t escaped them all.  Her ambassadors had stated it would be weeks, if not months, before the issues came close to a resolution.  Alassa wasn’t surprised.  The monarchs would have to work in unison to solve most of their problems and it was the one thing they couldn’t do.

“Something is wrong,” she said.  Saying it out loud felt vaguely silly.  “I can feel it.”

Jade frowned.  “Pay attention to your instincts,” he said.  “They’re not trying to mislead you.”

Alassa snorted.  She knew her instincts were good.  She just wished they’d tell her why they insisted something was about to do wrong.  She couldn’t point to anything and say that was why she was uneasy.  It was never easy to explain that, not to a man.  They didn’t believe in women’s intuition, not least because it was subconscious.  They found it all too easy to mock and belittle.  And yet ..

She stood and started to pace the chamber.  The sense just wouldn’t go away.  She muttered a spell, peering through the wards into the nursery.  Little Emily was taking a nap.  She looked perfectly healthy … Alassa knew, all too well, that appearances could be deceptive.   Little Emily had the best medical care and support in the world, yet she could still die … Alassa gritted her teeth, banishing the thought as she banished the spell.  Her daughter would live to adulthood, then take the crown when Alassa died.  She would.

Jade smiled at her.  “Do you want to go to bed?”

Alassa laughed.  “Do you ever think of anything else?”

Her husband affected a gormless expression.  “There’s something else?”

“Hah.”  Alassa didn’t feel any real humour.  “I feel …”

She shook her head.  She hadn’t felt so uneasy since the moment she’d discovered her father had sired a bastard son.  A son!  She wasn’t proud of how she’d reacted, how close she’d come to murdering the child’s mother, but …her stomach churned as she remembered the day she’d realised she’d become expendable.  Her father had always wanted a son.  He could easily have finagled the politics, once she was out of the way.  And …

Alassa told herself, sharply, that those days were over.  Her father was dead.  His loyalists were scattered or broken.  She was the unquestioned ruler of Zangaria and yet … she cursed under her breath.  The reports from Alluvia were grim.  A city had risen, a king had been killed by his own people … Alassa grimaced.  There were threats of uprisings right across the Allied Lands.  Events were spiralling out of control.  Zangaria might remain immune, for the moment, but she feared it wouldn’t last.  Her Levellers might want to level society still further.

The air shifted.  She turned, just in time to see three black-clad figures materialise within her chambers.  For a moment, Alassa honestly thought it was an illusion.  The castle was heavily warded, a network of protections that should have ensured no one, not even Alassa herself, could teleport into the castle.  Her chambers were covered in layer after layer of wards that made them the single most heavily protected place in the kingdom.  And yet …

Jade leapt to his feet, drawing his sword in one smooth motion.  The figures spun around to face him, the leader moving his arm to block the blade.  Alassa expected the blade to cut the man’s arm off, but instead it shattered.  They didn’t seem to be wearing armour – their clothes were black shadow, covering them from head to toe – but it didn’t matter.  Jade stabbed the remnants of the blade into the leader’s chest, onto to see the hilt break in his hand.  The intruder lashed out at him, cracking a palm into Jade’s arm.  Alassa heard the bone snap as the intruder made contact.

She snapped out of her funk and hurled a death curse at the nearest intruder.  He shrugged it off.  Alassa blinked, then hurled three more spells in quick succession.  Charmed armour could be overwhelmed, if one hit it with multiple spells.  The intruders didn’t even blink.  Their masked faces turned to look at her.  She couldn’t see their eyes, but she could tell they were looking at her.  The leader picked Jade up and hurled him across the room, then reached for her.  Alassa gritted her teeth, tying to think.  She had a dagger in her sleeve, but she was entirely sure it would be useless.  Jade was strong enough to cut a man in two and yet his blade had shattered when it hit the intruder. 

Alassa cast a locomotive spell, aimed at the bed.  It ripped itself away from the wall and crashed into the intruders, scattering them like ninepins.  Alassa didn’t hear a sound as they were bowled over, no grunts or cries of pain or anything.  A chill ran through her as she darted to Jade, helped him to his feet and directed a second spell at the floor underneath the intruders.  It should have turned the stone to a swamp, trapping them long enough for Alassa to retreat and summon reinforcements.  Instead, the floor shattered.  The intruders plummeted to the floor below.

“This way!”  Jade snapped out a spell, despite his pain.  The wall disintegrated, allowing them into the next chamber.  “Hurry!”

Alassa reached out with her mind as they darted into the nursery.  The wards had gone down, completely down … she hadn’t sensed anything.  There hadn’t even been a hint the wards had come under attack, let alone that they’d been taken down.  She felt a flash of panic.  What the hell were they fighting?  Little Emily woke and started to cry.  Alassa grabbed her daughter as she heard the sound of running footsteps outside the door.  Her guards?  More intruders?  Or … right now, she didn’t know.  She had no shortage of enemies, but …

Jade cursed under his breath.  “They’re on the lower levels.”

“Shit.”  Alassa gritted her teeth as her daughter cried louder.  The intruders were clearly sweeping the entire castle.  It was just a matter of time before they reached the royal chambers and broke through the door.  “We need to get out of here.”

She led the way to a giant painting of King Alexis the Great, who had probably never looked so dashing and heroic in his life, and tore it away from the walls.  The secret passageway beyond led to her father’s hidden rooms, chambers he’d used to practice forbidden magics and – eventually – become a necromancer.  Alassa thought she could smell him in the air as they hurried down the hidden passage, descending dark and dusty stairs to the catacombs below the city.  There weren’t many people who knew they even existed.  The intruders certainly hadn’t used them to get into the castle.  They’d hacked the wards and teleported into the castle.

The governess started to gibber.  “Be quiet,” Alassa ordered.  She wished for Mouse or someone else, someone else who had a good head on their shoulders.  “Be quiet or go back inside.”

She felt, more than saw, Jade’s reproving look.  She couldn’t bring herself to care.  Her kingdom was under attack, by … by whom?  She couldn’t believe another kingdom could have mounted such an attack, nor the Levellers … the magicians?  It was possible.  She knew there were magical factions that believed they had a right to rule …

The ground trembled under her feet as they reached the bottom of the stairs and hurried into the catacombs.  Alassa closed the door behind them, then passed Little Emily to the governess and inspected Jade’s arm.  It had been snapped in several places.  She muttered a healing spell, then turned and led the way further into the darkness.  Where could they go?  The castle was no longer safe, which meant … what?  If it was a coup, it was a decidedly odd one. 

Jade caught her arm.  “We’ll go to the Tower.”

Alassa glanced at him, then nodded.  It was good thinking.  The Tower of Alexis was the second-most secure building in the city.  She had troops and magicians quartered there.  If the attackers, whoever they were, had concentrated on the castle, she could rally her men and launch a counterattack.  If not … she’d know they’d taken the Tower before she showed herself.  She gritted her teeth, feeling fear slowly being replaced by anger.  She hadn’t fought her own father for the kingdom, only to lose it to invaders … invaders who’d attacked her in her own bedroom.  She’d make them pay for invading her home.

She clamped down hard on her anger as the passageway slanted upwards.  The air grew cold and damp.  They were too close to the river for her peace of mind.  She thought she heard people and rats scurrying in the darkness, but she ignored them.  Most people stayed out of the catacombs, for fear of floods and supernatural vermin lurking in the shadows.  Those that didn’t were no threat to her.  The air only grew lighter as she clambered into a basement, then up the stairs into a disused fishing dock.  Her father had made sure it remained disused.  It wouldn’t do to have commoners stumble on the secret exit.

“The Tower looks intact,” Jade said.  “Let me go first.”

Alassa nodded, hiding her fear as he hurried down the riverside.  Instead, she turned to look at the castle.  She should have been able to sense the wards, even a mile away.  Instead, there was nothing.  They’d been taken down so quickly and cleanly she hadn’t even noticed there was anything wrong, unless … perhaps that had been the source of her unease.  She’d been connected to the wards.  Perhaps …

Jade returned.  “The Tower is still loyal,” he said.  “They don’t know what’s going on.”

“No,” Alassa agreed.  “But we’re going to find out.”

She clenched her fists.  “And then we’re going to make the bastards pay.”

Prologue II

The teleport spell was badly prepared.  Master Lucknow had thrown it together as fast as possible, the moment he’d become aware of the enchantment enslaving his mind.  It had held him so thoroughly he hadn’t even realised he’d been enchanted, not until the spell had started to crack of its own accord.  It had all he’d been able to do to cast the teleport spell, focused on Resolution Castle.  There had been no time to snatch his treacherous apprentice or any of his comrades before it was too late.  It had been all he could do to save himself.

He landed badly, the floor slamming into his face hard enough to make him cry out in pain and frustration.  He’d been a trained combat sorcerer longer than his apprentice had been alive and yet he’d … he gritted his teeth as he forced himself to stand.  The Whitehall Conference had been a trap and he’d walked right into it.  Emily and her master had trapped them within an enchantment so powerful, and yet so subtle, that it had been sheer luck he’d managed to escape.  He looked around, hoping his comrades would materialise beside him. B It was hard to believe he’d been the only one to escape.  There’d been dozens of trained sorcerers in the wretched school.

His fury rose as he walked into the castle itself, passing through a layer of wards that should have kept out anyone and anyone without prior permission.  Lucknow wasn’t so sure.  Emily had found at least one way to get into a heavily-warded building, perhaps by using a nexus point to break down the wards.  She was … Lucknow ground his teeth in frustration.  He should have put a knife in the girl, no matter the certainty of her wretched father and her friends coming to avenge her death.  Lucknow knew he’d failed.  He’d feared the worst, when he’d seen the batteries, but … he hadn’t even dreamed how bad it could become.  If she could enchant an entire school of magicians, what couldn’t she do?

He gritted his teeth as he walked into the war room and beheld a scene of semi-organised chaos.   A handful of communications and mapping sorcerers were updating the map of the Allied Lands, covering it with red markers.  Lucknow studied the map for a long cold moment, realising the attacks had taken place everywhere.  Almost everywhere.  There were no reports of attacks on Heart’s Eye … not, he supposed, that it was a surprise.  Emily owned Heart’s Eye.  His eyes trailed over the map, noting locations that had been hit by … by who?  He ground his teeth.  Emily was an aristocrat as well as a magician, one who’d been on the winning side of a civil war.  No one would say anything if she raised a private army of her own, not until it was far too late.

I should have killed her while I had the chance, Lucknow thought.  It’s too late now.

“Master Lucknow.”  Master Ham looked relieved to see him.  “What happened?”

“Whitehall was attacked and enchanted,” Lucknow said.  It shamed him to admit that he’d been enchanted, as easily as a commoner mundane with no resistance to magic at all, but there was no point in denying it.  He forced himself to tell the entire story.  “Emily and Void have declared war on the entire world.”

“Gods,” Master Ham said, when he’d finished.  “What do we do?”

“We stop them.”  Lucknow stared at the map.  It was covered in red pinpricks, and it looked as if utter disaster had struck, but it wasn’t hopeless.  He knew – he doubted Emily and Void did – that there was a great deal of land between the pinpricks.  The rebels might hold the cities, the centres of formal power, but there was plenty they didn’t control.  “We need to move and move fast.”

He started snapping orders, taking control effortlessly.  He was the senior survivor, as far as he knew.  It was his duty to organise resistance.  Resolution Castle hadn’t come under attack.  Not yet.  Emily and Void had probably overlooked it.  He could make use of their blindspot long enough to plan a counterattack.  The situation looked bad, but there were still cards to play.  There were monarchs and aristocrats he could summon, magicians he could talk or cajole or threaten into joining him, troops he could deploy … even Emily’s supporters might be unnerved by the chaos she’d unleashed.  He could try to convince them to join him.  Even if they refused, it might put some doubts in their heads.

“And contact all the bounty hunters,” he finished.  He doubted they’d have any luck, not against two of the most powerful and capable sorcerers in the worlds, but it might buy him some time.  “We’re going to put a price on their heads.”

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter One

Lady Barb was dead.

Emily stared into the fireplace, one hand stroking the snake in her palm, as she tried to come to terms with everything that had happened.  Lady Barb was dead.  Void had betrayed her.  The Allied Lands were in chaos …

… And Lady Barb was dead.

She wanted to scream in fury and bitter frustration.  Lady Barb had been the closest thing she’d ever had to a real mother, to someone who cared for her and helped her and didn’t hesitate to point out when she was doing something dumb.  God knew her real mother had crawled into a bottle and refused to come out, even when Emily had needed her.  Lady Barb had been the person Emily had needed, long before she’d ever realised how much she needed her.  And now she was dead.

Guilt and shame warred in her mind,  She’d known Void was up to something, that he’d had an agenda of his own, but she’d never realised just how thoroughly he’d manipulated her.  Or just how far his plans extended.  Lady Barb had tried to warn her, but … Emily’s heart clenched in pain.  Void had saved her life, all those many years ago, and introduced her to the magic she loved.  Her mind spun in circles.  Perhaps she could have stopped him, if she’d realised what he was doing before it was too late.  Perhaps she could have talked him out of trying to impose his will on the world.  Perhaps …

She ground her teeth.  Void had a point.  She knew he had a point.  She’d seen enough selfishness, short-sightedness and sheer bloody-mindedness, right across the Allied Lands, to understand his motives.  She’d watched, helplessly, as kings prepared to crush rebels and magicians plotted to impose their supremacy.  Someone had to do something, but Void’s cure was worse than the disease.  He’d crush the selfish aristocrats and curb the magician supremacists and establish a new order, a new order that would rapidly and inevitably decay into tyranny.  And he’d expected her to rule when he was gone … she shook her head.  There was no way anyone could keep such a system intact, even her.  She’d studied enough history to know there was no way it could be done.

Aurelius curled against her palm.  Emily felt a twinge of envy.  The Death Viper didn’t have any real awareness of his own, just a series of impulses that directed him to build a nest, find a mate, sire children and repeat, time and time again, until he died.  Emily almost envied the snake for his simplicity, even though she knew it was silly.  She wouldn’t have liked losing her awareness, if she’d had the mental capacity to realise what she’d lost.  And yet, she wouldn’t have to endure the sting of betrayal – and the grim awareness she’d played a role in unleashing disaster – if she didn’t have the intelligence to understand it.

She felt tears prickling in her eyes and wiped them away, angrily.  They’d spent the last week riding through the countryside, doing their best to stay out of sight.  The kingdom was in the middle of a civil war and strangers were not welcome, particularly strangers from Dragon’s Den and Whitehall.  Emily herself had to stay out of sight, simply because the authorities – the White Council or Void himself – had put a bounty on her head.  And if she was caught … she shuddered.  It was possible the locals would turn a blind eye, but also possible they’d hand her over in hopes of currying favour with whoever won the war. 

Her lips quirked, sourly.  Which war?  Crown Prince Dater – King Dater – and his armies were battling rebels, while Void steadily put his pieces in place to take the remainder of the Allied Lands.  There was no way to know what was happening beyond the horizon, although there was no shortage of rumours.  She’d heard everything from a watchful peace to outright civil war and necromantic invasions.  She grimaced, cursing her mistakes yet again.  She hadn’t had time to recover her chat parchments, either the ones she’d kept with her in Freedom City or the ones she’d stored in Dragon’s Den.  There was no way to get in touch with her friends.  She couldn’t even teleport.

She looked up.  The night sky was bright with stars, twinkling above her, but she could sense magic pulsing through the air.  Anyone who tried to teleport would wind up in a dungeon, if Sergeant Miles was correct, or dead.  Emily had spent several days trying to crack the spells, but there was no way to override them without leading Void right to them.  And she had no doubt he wouldn’t come himself.  He’d suspect a trap.  He’d send a small army of sorcerers and soldiers after them instead.

I never even realised I could be kept from teleporting, she thought, sourly.  Whitehall had had wards to keep intruders from teleporting into the building, but she’d never seen anything like it on a national scale.  She guessed he’d taken Whitehall’s protective wards and used the nexus point to project them over the countryside.  It wasn’t as if he’d care about objections from other sorcerers.  And he has a rough idea of where we are.

She grimaced.  She’d never really grasped just how big the Allied Lands really were until she’d found herself facing the prospect of having to walk or ride all the way to Zangaria.  It would take weeks, assuming they switched horses regularly; she knew, all too well, they wouldn’t.  Void would look at a map and make some assumptions about how far they could have travelled, then distribute his forces to block all the likely routes.  He still had thousands of square miles to cover, but she suspected he had the manpower to do it.  He’d been planning for decades.  He probably had a private army of his own, ready and waiting to back up his coup.  For all she knew, he had an entire kingdom on the other side of the Craggy Mountains.

Emily let out a breath, forcing herself to relax.  There was nothing she could do about it, not now.  She didn’t even have a plan.  She’d have to come up with something, and fast, before it was too late … but what?  Void was no maddened necromancer, nor was he an aristocratic fop who could be goaded into making a mistake.  He was powerful, capable and knew far too much about the New Learning – thanks to her – for anyone’s peace of mind.  As long as he held Whitehall in an iron grip, it might be impossible to bring him down.

Another pang of guilt ran through her.  She’d left Frieda behind, along with countless other students, teachers, ambassadors and representatives.  Void could do whatever he wanted to them.  He wasn’t a cruel man – Emily found it hard to believe he’d hurt Frieda, just to make Emily suffer – but he could talk himself into doing whatever he wanted.  He could use Frieda to get into Emily’s house or … or what?  He might even enchant Frieda, then set her to the task of hunting Emily down.  The possibilities were endless.

He won’t hurt them, Emily told herself.  Whitehall had students from all over the Allied Lands and some of them had very powerful connections indeed.  He won’t want to turn the entire world against him.

She shook her head as she looked around the campsite, half-hidden in the forest.  She was alone, save for Aurelius.  Sergeant Miles, Aiden and Jan had gone to the nearest town in hopes of purchasing supplies and obtaining intelligence, if whatever rumours they heard could be justly called intelligence.  Hopefully, no one would pay too much attention to three men travelling together – Aiden had kept her male guise – but it was hard to be sure.  Void probably knew Sergeant Miles had left Dragon’s Den by now.  He certainly knew Emily respected and trusted the sergeant.  It wouldn’t be too hard for him to guess they were together.  There weren’t many people Emily trusted completely.

And the sergeant would have good reason to seek revenge, Emily thought.  Sergeant Miles had been Lady Barb’s lover.  Void might be quietly relieved she’d taken the sergeant from Dragon’s Den.  If there’s anyone who might know a backdoor into Whitehall, it’s the sergeant …

She snorted at herself.  Void was powerful, easily the most powerful and capable sorcerer she’d ever encountered.  Sergeant Miles was tough too, but … Emily doubted he’d win in a straight fight.  He wouldn’t fight one.  Sergeant Miles was a ruthless pragmatist.  He’d sneak into the school and put a charmed blade in Void’s back, if he had the chance.  If she hadn’t taken him away … she shook her head.  Sergeant Miles might just wind up being killed for nothing.  Void had had plenty of time to reconfigure the school’s wards to keep unwanted intruders out.  He’d have no trouble dealing with a half-mad lover bent on revenge.

Her hair prickled.  She had the sudden feeling she was being watched.  It wasn’t uncommon in the forest – there were places no human dared go, for fear of the Other Folk – but … she stood, reaching out with her mind.  Flashes and flickers of magic – alien magic – darted though the air.  They didn’t seem to be looking for her, but it was hard to be sure.  Aurelius crawled up her sleeve, curling around her upper arm.  The snake was disturbed too.  Emily doubted that was a good sign.

Something moved, at the corner of her eye.  Emily moved, raising her hand to cast a shield … too late.  Something struck her chest, between her breasts; she took a breath and tasted durian on the air.  Gas?  Her magic spluttered, then faded, as the potion worked its way through her system.  Gas?  She’d never heard of a potion being turned into gas, although she had to admit it was possible.  The evidence was right in front of her.  Her magic was gone.

A figure stepped out of the trees and pointed a flintlock at her chest.  “Raise your hands.  Now.”

Emily stared at him for a long moment, then obeyed.  The intruder looked like a soldier or a mercenary.  He held the flintlock in a manner that suggested he knew how to use it, complete with pointing the weapon at her chest rather than her head.  Flintlocks were notoriously inaccurate, even in the hands of an experienced user.  And she’d have a good chance to survive if she was shot in the chest.  Her eyes flickered over the man’s body.  Strong, his clothes cut to allow him to move freely … he knew what he was doing.  Her heart sank as he studied her in return.  He was no outlaw, no bandit planning her rape and the theft of everything they’d brought with them.  He knew who he was following and he’d come prepared.

Gas, she thought.  Void knew how to draw the magic out of a potion and manifest it elsewhere.  Had he continued that research to produce durian gas?  Why hadn’t he mentioned it to her?  She could have protected herself, if she’d known it was a possibility.  It would have been easy … her lips quirked.  He didn’t mention it to me because he knew he might have to use the trick to bring me down.

She met his eyes.  “Who are you?”

“You’re going to make me rich,” the man said.  He stepped forward, keeping his flintlock aimed at her.  His eyes swept over her body, looking for concealed weapons.  “And that’s all that matters.”

“A bounty hunter,” Emily said.  Her mind raced.  The bastard had either gotten very lucky or … she didn’t want to think about the other possibilities.  Void shouldn’t have been able to get a lock on their position.  If he had, he would have sent more than a single bounty hunter.  “Do you think there’s a price on my head?”

The hunter said nothing for a long moment.  Emily studied him, hoping to see a kernel of doubt within his eyes.  She didn’t look anything like the legendary Lady Emily.  None of her portraits had ever looked like her, to the point that anyone who relied on them wasn’t going to have any luck.  Some of the paintings hadn’t even got her hair colour right.  It was possible, just possible, she could delude the hunter into thinking he’d caught the wrong girl.  Void wouldn’t be very pleased if the hunter wasted his time …

He walked closer.  Emily braced herself.  The moment he gave her a clear shot, she’d put a knee in his groin or a fist in his throat.  She had no intention of giving him a straight fight either.  He might underestimate her strength – it was rare for magicians to develop their muscles – but he’d still be stronger than her.  She had to cripple or kill him with the first blow.

The hunter stopped and produced a small crystal from his pocket.  It glowed the moment he held it close to her.  Emily blinked, honestly shocked.  A crystal tuned to her magical signature?  Or just to her personally?  She’d never heard of anything like it.  Perhaps Void had inserted a ward-like spell into the crystal, or …

“You’re definitely going to make me rich,” the bounty hunter said.  There was a note of dark pleasure in his voice.  “Turn around.  Lie down on the ground.”

“Whatever he’s offering, I can double it,” Emily said.  The hunter had to have been sent by Void.  There wasn’t anyone else who could have charmed the crystal to point to her.  No one knew her magic as well as her master.  “Or there are other compensations …”

“Turn around.  Lie down.”  The hunter jabbed his flintlock at her.  “Now.”

Professional, Emily thought, sourly.  And the moment he has me bound.

She gritted her teeth as she lowered herself to the ground.  The hunter wasn’t taking any chances.  She wouldn’t be able to lash out at him, not before he’d bound her hands and hefted her over his shoulder.  He’d probably have a horse somewhere nearby.  By the time Sergeant Miles and the others returned, the bounty hunter would have her halfway to Whitehall.  They wouldn’t have a hope of catching up before it was too late.  And as long as the hunter was careful to force-feed her potion, she couldn’t be able to escape.

A thought crossed her mind.  There might be a way out.

She anticipated his next order and put her hands behind her back.  He wouldn’t look too closely, she hoped.  Void knew what to look for, but … would he have told the hunter?  She didn’t know.  She grunted as he put his boot on her backside, pinning her to the ground.  He really wasn’t taking any chances.  His hands clutched her wrists, holding them together effortlessly.  She heard the manacles clinking as he pulled them from his belt.  He knew what he was doing …

Aurelius struck.  The hunter screamed, letting go of her as the snake slid up his sleeve and headed for his neck.  The rotting touch alone would have been lethal, if he hadn’t been given immediate medical aide, but Aurelius sank his fangs into the hunter’s skin and put him beyond all hope of recovery.  Emily rolled over and sat upright, just in time to see the hunter stagger and collapse to the ground.  His eyes budged at her, his hand grasping for the flintlock before he finally expired.  Emily didn’t dare let herself feel guilty.  The hunter would have delivered her into Void’s hands, ensuring his victory.  She dreaded to think what he might have in mind for her.

She waited until the corpse had stopped twitching, then searched it roughly.  A pair of capsules – she scented durian on one, suggesting it was made of compressed gas – a cluster of papers, some money and a sketch map of the surrounding countryside.  Someone was thinking ahead, she noted.  The bounty hunter – probably more than one – had been assigned to maintain watch on a specific part of the country, with orders to intercept any strangers and take them to Dragon’s Den.  She wondered, idly, what King Dater thought of rogue bounty hunters in his territory.  It was just another sign law and order had collapsed.

The snake felt satisfied as she picked him up and let him curl around her neck while she examined the crystal.  It was tuned to her … she guessed the range was very short or Void would have tracked her down with ease.  The bounty hunter couldn’t have been sure it was her, not until he’d been very close.  She cursed under her breath, wondering what he’d had in mind if it turned out he’d caught the wrong woman.  Somehow, she doubted he would have apologised.  It was far more likely he would have cut her throat and walked away, leaving her body for her friends and family to find.  Bounty hunters were known for ruthlessness.  Void was gambling by using them.

And if someone realises this bounty hunter has gone missing, she thought, they may guess where we are.

Her heart twisted.  It might not matter.  If there were hundreds of bounty hunters searching for them, there was a good chance they’d be spotted again and again and the next time, she might not be so lucky.  She might encounter someone smart enough to knock her out or … she shook her head.  There was nothing she could do about it, unless she wanted to go back to Void herself and surrender.  She was damned if she was giving up.  Void had to be stopped.

But, she admitted to herself as she looked at the body, it wasn’t going to be easy.

12 Responses to “Snippet – The Face of the Enemy (SIM 23)”

  1. Jared March 5, 2021 at 8:37 pm #

    I can’t wait for the rest!! Lol

  2. Robert kaliski March 6, 2021 at 12:38 am #

    I am kinda hoping Emily at the end of her series gets a decent life, either as head mistress of her school or as Empress Emily. Well she may not want the second but if it happens she at least brings some good to the nameless world

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 6, 2021 at 2:47 am #

      Empress Emily?

      Well, if she got stuck with that Job, hopefully Alassa is still around to “help her out”. 😉

  3. ananuri March 7, 2021 at 8:31 pm #

    thanks for this – hope the whole book will follow soon. SIM is definitely my favorite series.

  4. John March 8, 2021 at 7:30 am #

    I’m absolutely astonished. I really didn’t see this coming. I love that it happened, but also bloody hate it 🤣🤣 Looking forward to the next installment!

  5. Dave March 10, 2021 at 12:08 am #

    I long expected Void to be nefarious, in fact I suspected that he was a necromancer, and was just hiding it some way. I was shocked that Lady Barb was killed, that just doesn’t seem right. I sincerely hope that the next book has Emily getting even, perhaps a nuke spell on Void’s home.

  6. Callum G March 10, 2021 at 10:30 am #

    The way this coup has been setup, I don’t think Emily gets her desired happy ending.

    Too many monarchs, powerful sorcerers and other politically strong people are going to be angry (or dead). Even if she proves she’s 100% innocent, she’ll still be the person ultimately responsible for the changes that caused this. Not to mention she almost certainly provided the key for Void to begin his takeover. Hell, by their knowledge she’s his daughter in a world where the sins of the father are enough to hang the family.

    I fear there will be no appeasement. If Emily wants to live, she might finally have demonstrate to the entire Allied Lands that she can be much worse than just a Lone Power.

    PS: So a nation-wide anti-teleport spell. I wonder if magic on that level will cause any annoyance to the non-human races. And when it comes to travel, I think there’s a Dragon who (maybe) owes Emily as favour…

    • ibenny March 26, 2021 at 11:04 pm #

      I’m thoroughly hyped, can’t wait to read it! For me the ending of the last book was quite shocking, honestly, so I’m all the better looking forward to how this one will unfold.

  7. stephen March 14, 2021 at 5:24 pm #

    So very much looking forward to reading the face of the enemy. After being betrayed by someone who Emily would have trusted with her life (probably). But now betrayed in the same way as Cabiria of House Fellini (cursed) and with Void having a good knowledge of her weaknesses, Emily is now the underdog big time. Absolutely no idea how she will get out of this with everyone thinking she is working with Void and himself believing she will come round to he’s thinking, it’s quite a conundrum. The only thing I can think of, is a variation of a mimic powered by a nexus point. As likely as not the one in whitehall. Whatever happens i can’t wait.

  8. MorkR March 17, 2021 at 10:36 pm #

    I’m presuming that the title is another hint about what is to come and who Void really is, or related to. I think I worked out his surname but I need to find time to read one of the earliest books ;-).

    I found it interesting that in the afterword Chris wonders why no one asked about the ‘gaping emptiness’; I’m kind of hoping that those who guessed the link didn’t want to leak a spoiler to anyone else.

  9. yetanotherjoe March 20, 2021 at 8:24 pm #

    So it is Void who is looking like the bad guy. He certainly has a reason to be pissed at the White Council, he has been the one gets all of the crappy jobs and clean ups. It almost seems like he should be sporting red eyes. I was thinking that maybe he was being unduly influenced by someone/something, that take one pretty big player to fool his powers.

    No matter why, he has has his own agenda, as the Dragon said in volume one and it does look like he played Emily.

    Maybe the demon who gather up all of Void’s half-brothers’ souls will collect his?I

    I need to stop, my mind is melting………

  10. Bewildered March 22, 2021 at 8:43 am #

    Random thought – is the Baen shutdown having a detrimental impact on editing?

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