Archive | April, 2021

Guest Story: Forgotten Friendships

22 Apr

A Note from Jagi:

Back in 2018, when Chris was in the hospital, I wanted to write something to cheer him up. He had asked me if I would like to write a story where my heroine, Rachel Griffin, meets Emily. I loved the idea, but I didn’t have any clear notion of a plot. So I spent some time thinking about his world and where I might fit in a story. 

As I thought I recalled that he had a plot hole, where the Warden–a one of a kind irreplaceable homuculus–had been destroyed, but in a later book, the Warden was alive again.

Could I write a story, I wondered, that would fill that plot hole for him? I thought it was the kind of thing that might give him a bit of a chuckle and raise his spirits.

But then, life intervened. My computer crashed, and I lost what I had already written. Then the kids were out of school, and I had no time.

But the story stayed with me. I kept thinking about it. Then, last night at 3 am, it suddenly all came together in my head. 

And here it is!

Forgotten Friendships

The candles flickered, illuminating the black lines of the designs drawn upon the stone. The two students hunched over an arcane book, stolen from the restricted section of the library, which they read by the light of a glowing ball of light.

“And you are sure this will work?” asked the first young man, who looked to be in his late teens. He had dark hair that hung over his eyes and, like his fellow, was dressed in the black robes that all Whitehall students wore.

“Sure. I’ve seen my father do it loads of times,” replied his companion, who was approximately the same age, with freckles and a thatch of blond hair. “He uses it every year to make the tax man forget that he didn’t tax us.”

“And it will make Professor Locke forget that we didn’t hand in our assignment?”


The boys began to chant. A darkness swirled in the center of the star drawn on the stone. A figure began to form: ugly, horned, wings of smoke.

“Oh great demon,” the boys chanted, “Cause to be forgotten that which we…”

“What’s that?” cried the dark-haired boy, pointing.

Something dangled from the demon’s hand and it was writhing. Something dark blue that stuck out from a mass of writhing black cloth. Looking closer, they realized that the fiend was clutching a single leg, clothed in some unfamiliar style of loose, dark blue pants. Exactly what the leg was attached to, they did not wait to find out.

Terrified, both boys turned tail and ran, nearly knocking over a young woman who happened to be walking by in their rush to escape.

*                                                          *                                                          *

Emily stepped into the chamber the two boys had just vacated, wondering what had sent the upperclassmen scurrying. Was there another mimic free wandering the corridors? Then, she stepped back, startled, at the sight of the demon. She was only a second year here at Whitehall. No one had covered what to do about demons.

“Put me down, you annoying rotter!” a young woman’s voice issued from the writhing form beneath a single leg—clad in navy blue sweatpants? Apparently, the demon was holding a young woman by one foot.

With a jolt of shock, Emily realized that the girl had a British accent. What’s more, she was speaking English.

“Release me, fiend of the pit,” the English girl said sternly, “in the name of…”

“Yes. Yes. I will go,” the demon said languidly, “but here’s a little present to keep you busy.”

The demon vanished, dropping the girl, who fell to the floor with a thump and a cry. In the fiend’s place growled three hellhounds, gigantic black dogs as big as Shetland ponies. The infernal canines howled and dashed forward, out the door, and down the hallway, nearly bowling over Emily. Only newly developed instincts from her martial magic training saved her.

The girl jumped up and pelted out of the chamber, and down the hallway after the dogs. Shoulder-length black hair flew every which way and the skirt of her robes flew out behind her. It was not a Whitehall robe but looked like something worn to a graduation, but old fashioned. The newcomer was tiny, probably around eleven or twelve, and Asian.

“Quick!” the girl, “We must stop them before they hurt someone.”

Emily ran after her.

*                                                          *                                                          *

Around the corner, the two boys who had fled were backing slowly away from the slavering hellhounds. Emily promptly turned both boys into frogs. Served them right for summoning a demon. That was forbidden magic and would probably get them expelled if they were caught. Besides, dogs were not likely to be too interested in frogs.

Sure enough, the hellhounds loped down the hall, ignoring the green, hopping amphibians.

“Wha—!” the young girl cried, stopping abruptly. “You turned them into frogs w-with no wand! You just did it!”

“Sure,” Emily panted as she ran by her, “It’s a beginner’s spell.”

“No,” the girl objected hotly, sprinting to keep up. “No, it’s not! I’m Rachel, by the way. Rachel Griffin.”

“I’m Emily.”

“Pleased to meet you. American, are you? Glad of that. When the demon yanked me away, I was afraid I might end up in another world.”

“We are in another world,” Emily said grimly.

“Oh,” the girl sounded glum. Then, more cheerfully, she said, “There’ll be time enough to worry about that later. Let’s stop those evil dogs.”

*                                                          *                                                          *

Ahead, they could hear a deep barking. Bursting around another corner, they saw a terrifying sight. The gigantic dogs were dragging a body, a dead body, by the look of it.

Emily skidded to a stop, horrified.

“Stand back,” Rachel announced.

She drew a wand from her sleeve, a length of silver with a gem at the tip, and whistled. Blue sparkles came from the wand and from her mouth, dancing through the air. The sparkles missed one hulking hellhound but swirled around the other two. Both of these stopped moving, freezing mid bark and growl.

Emily turned the last dog into a turtle. Stooping, she turned it on its back so it could not get away and then ran over to the dead body.

“Oh, thank goodness!” she exclaimed, relieved, “It’s just the Warden.”

“Why does that make it okay?” Rachel gazed at the canine-worried body curiously.

“He was already dead. His body must have been waiting in that room for burial, or whatever they do with dead homunculi.”

“He…” Rachel knelt and peered at the Warden closely, poking it in the cheek and stomach, “…wasn’t real?”

“Not the way you and I are, no. He was a very complicated artifice.”

“A person made by alchemy?” Rachel titled her head, still peering at the Warden intently. “How bizarre.” Then, turning to Emily, she blurted out. “Can you teach me to do that? Turn a person into a frog!”

Emily hesitated. “I’m not sure if I should.”

“Why not?” she cried. “It would be so useful. You have no idea how tedious and irksome transformation spells are when you need to use thaumaturgy to prepare them.”

She hesitated momentarily. The girl’s appearance reminded her of Lin and everything that had gone wrong this year, but she had seen how the child arrived, and the girl spoke English, so she was probably telling the truth, not another plant sent to gain Emily’s trust for some nefarious purpose. Besides, it was not as if the spell to turn someone into a frog was any great state secret. The very fact that she could perform magic and didn’t know it corroborated her story. So that left…

“It’s just,” Emily said apologetically, “you’re so young. I don’t know if they teach these spells to children as young as…”

“I’m sixteen,” Rachel said dryly. She pulled her overly large robe tight against her body, so that Emily could see she was, indeed, shaped like a sixteen-year-old.

“Oh. So you are.” Emily replied just as dryly. “Sorry.”

Rachel shrugged. “No worries, as Zoë would say. Everyone makes that mistake. So…can you? Teach me, I mean. Is there something I could do for you in return?”

Now it was Emily’s turn to shrug, “Not unless you happen to be carrying a copy of The Way Things Work.”

“The one with the mammoths?” asked Rachel, curiously.

“I hadn’t thought of that one, but it would do.”

Rachel rocked back on her heels, thinking. “Do you have a way to copy pages?”

“You mean like a Xerox machine?”

Rachel paused a moment before admitting, “I… don’t really know what that is.”

“There’s a spell for it,” Emily assured her.

“Splendid!” Rachel clapped her hands together. “I think we have ourselves a deal.”

*                                                          *                                                          *

For the next hour, Rachel and Emily sat hunched together in an out of the way corner of the library. Sitting on a stool meant to help students reach higher shelves, Rachel closed her eyes. Then, with a word and a gesture, she pulled a double-sided page of The Way Things Work, complete with illustrations garnished with mammoths, out of mid-air. She did the same thing over and over and over, until she had done it four hundred times. Each time, she had Emily copy the page, both sides because, she insisted, her pages would vanish within 24 hours. It was tiring, but Emily did not mind. Having these pages were going to be so useful to her efforts to modernize the Nameless world

*                                                          *                                                          *

“So you don’t have a temple to Apollo at Westminster or on Fifth Avenue?” Rachel asked during a break, after the two young women had paused to compare their home worlds.

Emily shook her head. “No. It sounds like we’re from different worlds.”

“A pity. Else I could have taken you home when I go,” replied Rachel kindly.

Emily nodded. She did not say that she was not at all sure she wanted to go back. Here she could use magic. She had defeated a necromancer and was considered a Child of Destiny. Back home, she had nothing.

But she did have questions. “So your world has cars and airplanes but also magic?”

“The magic is hidden, from the Unwary,” Rachel responded.

“Like Harry Potter,” said Emily. “Is there a Hogwarts?”

“Yes, up north, just south of Scotland, but it’s just a School of the Wise. There’s no Harry Potter.”

“Oh, too bad.”

“Indeed. Though,” Rachel said thoughtfully, “I’ve always rather thought that James Darling, Agent, was a bit like Harry Potter—or maybe like what that story would have been like if Harry’s father, James Potter, had been in Harry’s shoes. James and the other Six Musketeers—our James, not Potter—even defeated a terrible enemy and saved the world. As to his friends… Scarlett Mallory was a bit like Hermione, and Mr. Fisher could have been Neville. But, sadly, the resemblance ends there. The rest of the Six Musketeers—the MacDannan—really aren’t much like anyone in Harry Potter. In fact, we’ve found out that they are from a completely different story, one about Celtic gods and fairies and Queen Elizabeth.”

“People come out of stories,” Emily asked skeptically.

“Some do,” said Rachel. “Or rather, what is true in one world is reflected as stories in another. I bet there are stories about you, too.”

“I doubt it,” Emily snorted. “At least, I hope not. That would be disturbing.”

“Oh, I don’t know. You might be a very popular heroine, with fans all over the whole globe.”

*                                                          *                                                          *

The two girls returned to their work. About half an hour later, Rachel held up the very last page.

“There it is. The whole book.”

Emily smiled, pleased. “If what little I already shared with the world has had such an effect, I can’t wait to see what the rest of this does. Come on. I’ll teach you the spell now.”

There in the back corner of the library, she quietly taught Rachel how to turn someone into a frog and explained the basic principles both of how to alter the spell to produce mouse, or a turtle, or some other animal. She also tried to teach her how to break out of the spell. Rachel grasped the concept of the transformation spell instantly, but try as she might, she could not break out on her own when Emily turned her into a frog. Emily gave her what she hoped was an encouraging smile and told her to keep practicing.

Then she told Rachel to cast the spell.

“You mean, on you!”

Emily nodded.

“What if I muck it up?

“You won’t. Even the first years master this spell easily. And you obviously already understand more of the concept than I did when I learned it.”

Rachel bit on her lip, concentrating. Her first two tries did nothing. Then, poof, Emily turned into a mouse.

Emily broke the spell and stood up. “Very good.!”

“I did it!” Rachel jumping up and down, grinning with delight. “I did it! I did it!”

In her excitement, she knocked an old book off a cart. The aged tome split in two  Rachel’s face fell as she looked at the broken spine.

“Poor book.” She picked up the damaged volume and petted it gently. Then her face lit up. She pointed her wand at the book. There were no sparkles this time, just a slight glitter in the diamond at the tip.

The broken binding knitted itself back together.

Emily’s jaw dropped. “How did you do that?”

“It’s just a cantrip I have stored in my wand,” Rachel explained. “Mends broken things.”

“Does it work on people?”

“No. Only on inanimate…” Rachel suddenly grabbed Emily’s arm. “Oh my! I have just been struck by the most brilliant notion!”

*                                                          *                                                          *

The two girls stashed the newly-minted copy of The Way Things Work under a back shelf in a hiding place Emily had discovered during her time working in the library. Then, they returned to the corridor where they had first met. Looking left and right down the hallway to make sure no one was about, they slipped into the room where the damaged Warden lay. Rachel pointed her wand at the homunculus. The tip glittered.

“I fired off three of them just to be sure,” she whispered to Emily. “When adults do big repair jobs, they have many people work together. Multiple cantrips is the closest I can come.”

Before their eyes, the Warden’s mauled body knitted back together.

“Oh.” Rachel’s face fell. “I thought it would come back to…er…not exactly life.”

“All its magic was drained.”

“Was that all?” She gave a crisp nod. “I can fix that.”

Rachel closed her eyes for a moment. Opening them again, she touched her wand to her mouth and then pointed it at the Warden. The diamond tip glinted. Rachel winced in pain. She looked a bit wan.

The Warden opened its eyes and sat up. “Are you reporting for punishment?”

It seemed confused. Emily felt a slight sense of surprised. Usually, the Warden seemed to have an uncanny ability to know just about everything.

But then, it had been dead all day.

“No, sir,” Rachel replied very politely. “You were injured. We have repaired you.”

“Then go about your business,” stated the Warden.

*                                                          *                                                          *

“Do you have to go now?” Emily asked as they left the Warden. “That’s too bad. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the questions I want to ask.”

“I feel I must,” Rachel said sadly. “I would love to stay and learn more. I’m sure we could have such fun! But those at home must be worried about me. I was, after all, yanked off by a demon. Last time they saw me, I was dangling by one foot.”

“True.” Emily grinned at the memory. “Can you visit again?”

“Oh, I do hope so!” Rachel replied.

*                                                          *                                                          *

Alone in the empty chamber where she had first appeared, Rachel Griffin knelt upon the floor and placed two origami cranes made of pure 24 karat gold upon the floor in front of her.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if gearing herself up for an ordeal.

Then, she called out, “Kefwyth Caziel!

The corner of the room grew darker and darker. Then a wolf made entirely of blackness stepped from the shadows. It shook itself. Then suddenly, it was merely like a unusually large black wolf. It was a large and majestic animal with blood red eyes, and yet, somehow, it managed to look slightly scruffy.

“Rachel Griffin.” The Wolf trotted closer, growling slightly. “Why should I do whatever you are about to ask me to do?” He stopped suddenly and looked around. “Where are we?”

Rachel knelt quietly, waiting for him to notice. The Wolf glanced back at her and saw the golden cranes.

“Ah,” he muttered under his breath, “using my own gratitude against me.”

“Caz,” Rachel spoke up. “Be a dear and take me home, will you?”

The Wolf grunted. “If I must. I supposed Zad would be miffed me if he came back and discovered that I’d misplaced his pet.”

Rachel lowered her eyes and hid her smile. She knew the Wolf referred to her that way to in hopes of irritating her, like calling someone the teacher’s pet, but secretly she loved the idea that Caziel thought of her as belonging to the Raven.

The Wolf looked down at the cranes. Then he stepped forward and put his mouth over them. He did not swallow, but when he lifted his head, they were gone. “Why did you put out two?”

“I need another favor.”

“Oh, do you?” he drawled sardonically.

“A demon brought me here. Can you clean off whatever it did to me? After all, you don’t want to take some demon curse back to our world. What would Zadkiel say?”

The Wolf sniffed her and backed up, his nose scrunching as if he had smelled something bad. He stood stiff-legged for a time. After about a minute, he spoke.

“It left a curse of forgetfulness. Won’t affect you, of course. I can clean it off of you all the same. But it will still be on this place.”

“What will the curse do?” she asked.

“It will make everyone in this place forget you and anything you did here.”

“Even Emily?” Rachel cried, aghast.

“Even so.”

“But she’ll have the book I made for her,” Rachel said, relieved.

Caz shook his wolfy head. “She won’t remember to go back for it.”

“Oh, that is a shame. And after all that work?” She sagged. Looking up, she asked plaintively, “Can’t you remove it, the curse, I mean? At least from her?”

He shook his shaggy black head. “I’d have to fight the demon. Not a hundred percent sure I could take it. Maybe if I were on my own time, but as long as I am temping for Zad—as you so obnoxiously put it—” he glared at her, “I dare not risk it.”  

Rachel giggled.

The Wolf cocked his head as if looking into the distance. “I can’t remove it, but I can make it so that if your friend Emily uses the local memory magic, she will happen to remember everything she would have found useful from the book. Best I can do.”

“That is very kind of you,” Rachel said, touched. “Thank you.”

The Wolf grunted.

Sabriost,” he growled, growing slightly larger.

Rachel did not wait to be asked twice. She sprang up and leapt onto the back of the black Wolf. She put her arms around his neck, laying her face against his thick fur. The Wolf grunted again, not entirely unkindly.

As he prepared to depart, Rachel asked suddenly. “Oh, but what about the Warden? I restored him to working order. Surely, someone will have to remember that!”


“What will they think happened?” Rachel asked as the Wolf leapt and stars began to stream by them.

Caziel shrugged. “Most likely? They’ll just forget it had ever been damaged. Or maybe they’ll just think they’ve made a new one.”

Out Now – The Face of The Enemy (Schooled in Magic 23)

18 Apr

The Necromantic Wars are over, but there is no peace. In the aftermath of the struggle, long-held grudges are boiling over and conflicts are breaking out. The monarchs want to settle border disputes, the aristocrats want to impose their will on monarchs and peasants alike, the commoners want freedom and justice and the magical communities want to rule all or else separate themselves from the mundanes. And most of this chaos is being orchestrated by Emily’s mentor, the sorcerer Void. He believes the only path to salvation for the Allied Lands is to make himself the undisputed ruler of the world.

After discovering the truth – too late – Emily is on the run, blamed for the disorder by friend and foe alike. With a handful of allies by her side, Emily must find a safe place to gather herself and strike back before it is too late to save what remains of the Allied Lands. And yet, as she flees through lands plagued by civil wars and rebellious nobility, hunted by powerful sorcerers, aristocrats and rebels who want to kill her or use her for their own purposes, she is forced to accept it may not be possible to save everything and to realize, as much as she might wish to deny it, that her mentor might be right.

And yet, she also knows the path to hell is paved with good intentions…

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The Zero Secret – CH1

15 Apr

Chapter One

The Object of Power was a mystery.

I stared at it, feeling a puzzlement I was unwilling to admit to anyone – except, perhaps, Akin.  I knew – now, after years of research and experimentation – how to trace the lines of magic that traced out the spellform within the Object of Power.  I should have been able to determine how it interacted with the magical field and project – roughly – what it was intended to do.  A working Object of Power should have been easy to understand.  I didn’t have to take it to bits to figure out how it worked.  This one, however …

It was odd.  It looked like a glowing orange rectangular building block, no larger than my arm, yet all my tests indicated it was actually a cube.  It wasn’t uncommon for an Object of Power to look weird, as if the human mind wasn’t quite capable of grasping what it was seeing,  but this one was particularly odd.  I hadn’t been able to determine anything about it, from what processes had been used to forge it to what it actually did.  The more I looked at it, the more my puzzlement grew.  I was the most experienced Zero in the world – until recently, I’d been the only known Zero – and yet I couldn’t understand what I was seeing.  The Object of Power just made no sense.

I reached for my heavy spectacles and put them on, peering at the strands of power running through the Object of Power.  They twisted in ways I couldn’t follow, as if they were gliding in and out of reality itself.  I’d sketched the lines out repeatedly, in hopes of calculating even a tiny fraction of their function, but I’d drawn a blank.  The Object of Power seemed to do nothing, beyond producing a bright orange glow.  I was sure there was more to the mystery artefact than that.  There was no need to go to so much trouble to forge a light.  I could have crafted something to produce light that would have been quicker, simpler and easy to repair if it broke.

And there’s no one who can offer me advice, I thought, as I took a step back from the workbench and removed the spectacles.  Not being able to see magic was a severe disadvantage.  One of my first projects had been to forge an Object of Power that would allow me to see magic before it touched my skin.  No one who has the slightest idea how to take the Object apart.

I rubbed my eyes.  The Thousand-Year Empire had spent hundreds of years honing its understanding of magic.  It had known how to make best use of its magic-less Zeros.  And yet … so much had been lost since the Thousand-Year Empire had collapsed.  I’d come so far since discovering my talent – and the truth behind the Empire’s fall – and yet I knew there was so much left to be rediscovered.  The volumes upon volumes of surviving books hadn’t been as helpful as I’d hoped, even after I’d worked out what was missing.  The Empire had considered some things so obvious they’d never been written down.

The air shifted, wafting against me.  I sighed.  The Workshop – my Workshophad been designed for an entire class of Zeros.  Six years ago, we’d believed it was just a matter of time before more Zeros were discovered.  I’d seen myself studying long-lost magics and powers with my peers, uncovering secrets and discovering newer and better ways to do things.  Instead, I was alone.  Callam, the only other known Zero, had little interest in forging.  It was still hard to believe.  If he’d chosen to stay in the city …

My heart twisted.  Callam was engaged to Isabella Rubén.  Akin’s sister.  My … I shook my head, dismissing the memories with a flicker of irritation.  Isabella and I might be on better terms these days, but I was still wary of her.  The sooner she went back to her country estate, the better.  I’d gone to some trouble to forge Objects of Power to keep her and Callam safe.  It was just a matter of time before someone tried to force him to work for them.  Why not?  It wasn’t the first time.  I’d been kidnapped too, six years ago.

“Ah hem,” a voice said.  “What are you doing here?”

I jumped and tried to hide it.  There weren’t many people who could sneak up on me.  My senses were sharp, at least partly because I couldn’t rely on magic to protect me.  My sisters could, perhaps, but anyone else … I turned, composing my face with an effort.  Mum stood on the other side of the workroom, right on the edge of the red line, arms folded under her breasts.  I swallowed, hard.  Mum had spent the last week working herself into a frenzy, making sure everything was ready for the High Summer Ball, when my sisters and I would be presented to High Society.  Everyone who was anyone – or considered themselves someone – would be there.  I wasn’t so concerned myself.  I was already betrothed.  Akin and I could spend the night dancing, then slip off …

Mum tapped her foot.  “Do you know what time it is?”

“I lost track of time,” I said.  “It was three o’clock a moment ago.”

“Really?”  Mum pointed a finger at the clock on the wall.  It was pure clockwork, without even a hint of magic.  “What time is it?”

I followed her finger.  “Oh.”

“Oh indeed, young lady.”  Mum was normally kinder, but the last week had worn her down to the point she was snapping at anyone who crossed her path.  “It is six.  Six in the evening.  And when are you supposed to make your debut in front of High Society?”

“Eight,” I said, sourly.  The ball was supposed to start at seven, but – by tradition – the great and the good would be fashionably late.  We wouldn’t be presented until there was a good-sized audience.  “I’ve got time.”

Mum rested her hands on her hips.  It was hard to see, sometimes, how we were related.  My mother and I had the same dark skin, dark eyes and darker hair, but her face was sharp while mine was slightly more rounded.  I supposed it wasn’t that hard to understand.  Alana had taken after our mother, Bella had taken after our father and I, the third sister, looked like a mix of both of them.  And yet …

“You may feel that you don’t have to be there,” Mum said.  “Your sisters, however, need to be formally introduced.  And you need to be there too, to remind everyone of your existence.”

I tried not to roll my eyes.  I’d heard the lecture before, time and time again.  It never changed.  I was betrothed, but my sisters weren’t.  Not yet.  They needed to dance with eligible young men while their parents discussed possible engagements and … I shook my head.  My sisters were amongst the most eligible young women in the city.  They could be as ugly as Great Aunt Stregheria and they’d still be sure of good matches.  It might even be better for them if I wasn’t around.  There were too many families who feared what would happen if their firstborn heir was born without magic.

“And Akin will also be there,” Mum said.  That was a change.  “You want to be there for him, don’t you?”

I nodded, stiffly.  Akin and I had been betrothed for years.  I loved him, but … I’d expected years, perhaps even decades, before he had to take up his duties as Patriarch of House Rubén.  Our planned honeymoon had already been ruined.  There was no one he could trust to run the house, even for a few short weeks.  I understood – I’d been raised in the same culture, where the family came before the individual – but it still hurt.  It felt as if I would never get to leave the city again.

“Now, come here,” Mum said.  “Or do I have to frog-march you up to your rooms.”

I hastily put down my tools and hurried over to join her.  I’d drawn the red line to keep magicians out of my workspace, for fear of what would happen when their magical fields interacted with the Objects of Power.  I’d nearly died when a potion had exploded in my face.  Mum wouldn’t mean to ruin weeks of work, but she would if she crossed the line.  She shot me a stern look and marched down the corridor, away from the workshop.  I closed the door, snapped the protective bolt into place and followed her.  There was no point in arguing when my mother was in a murderous mood.

This is her day as much as it is yours, I reminded myself, sourly.  You don’t get a day of your own until you get married.

The corridors felt deserted as we made our way upstairs.  The majority of the staff would be in the ballroom or the kitchens, making the final preparations for the ball.  The remainder would be getting my sisters ready, dressing them as if they couldn’t don their own clothes.  I had to smile, even though it wasn’t really funny.  There were outfits that couldn’t be donned without help.  Thankfully, my sisters and I – in a rare moment of complete agreement – had refused to walk down the stairs wearing anything of the sort.  Mum hadn’t been pleased, but she’d backed down.

“It is important that you be there,” Mum said, as we stopped outside my rooms.  “Your sisters need you.”

I groaned.  I’d always taken a certain pride in paying as little attention as possible to the conventions of High Society.  It wasn’t as if they could kick me out.  My talents were effectively priceless and I was already betrothed.  I could cheat on my exams, murder my parents and – horror of horrors – wear trousers in polite company and no one would dare say anything against me.  Not openly, at least.  But I knew it wasn’t so easy for my sisters.  The Grande Dames were doing to pass judgement on them tonight.  And I had to be there.

“Fine.”  I stepped forward and pushed the door open.  “Let’s get it over with.”

“Yes,” Mum agreed.  She patted my shoulder.  “You’ll be fine.”

I tried not to show my discomfort as I stepped into the room.  Janet, Grace and Ellen – the maids – were already there.  They were lesser family, close enough to the main bloodline to be assured of employment and yet too far to be given any real power.  They didn’t have the talent to boost their position, or set themselves up as family clients.  There were times when I envied them.  They could go anywhere they wanted – they could even leave the city – and no one would give much of a damn.  Me?  It was hard enough walking the streets of North Shallow without a bodyguard.

The door closed behind me.  I felt uncomfortably vulnerable.  I didn’t like maids entering my rooms – I’d made it clear none of them were to enter my bedroom – and three of them at once bothered me.  It made me feel like I was about to be jumped.  My lips twisted at the thought.  It wasn’t that far from the truth.  Mum would have given them strict orders to disregard any objections – as if I was a toddler, unable to tell what was good for me – and prepare me for the ball.  I felt like a prize sow, going on display.  And it still struck me as pointless.

“This way, My Lady,” Ellen said.  She was only a couple of years older than me, but she had a no-nonsense attitude I would have admired under other circumstances.  “We have everything ready.”

I swallowed several cutting remarks as they led me into the bathroom and started to remove my clothes before half-carrying me into the bathtub.  The water smelt almost overpoweringly sweet, laced with perfume that my mother brewed personally.  The scent would fade, a little, by the time I joined my sisters for the ceremony.  I tried to stay still – somehow – as hands picked through my hair, undoing the braids and washing my scalp.  It struck me, suddenly, that after today I’d never wear my hair in braids again.  I’d be an adult.  I could do everything adults could do.  I could …

But they still won’t leave me alone with Akin until we’re safely wed, I thought, with a flicker of sour amusement.  Does this ceremony have any real meaning at all?

I tried not to snap at them as they helped me out of the bath, dried me with a pair of spells and then ran charmed combs through my hair.  It had always been springy, but High Society demanded long straight locks that ran all the way down to my backside.  It had been a minor frustration, when I’d been a child.  There were charms to straighten one’s hair, which my sisters had learnt as a matter of course, but I’d never been able to use them.  It hadn’t been until I’d forged Objects of Power to comb my hair that it had become a little easier.  Those charms, at least, had lasted more than an hour or so.

“I can dress myself,” I argued, as they led me into the next room.  The guest bed was covered in bags from the most exclusive tailors and dressmakers in the city.  “You don’t have to do it for me.”

“We have our orders, My Lady.”  Ellen sounded regretful.  I felt a twinge of guilt.  Very few people defied my mother, certainly not twice.  “Please let us do our job.”

I closed my eyes and waited as they swarmed around me, putting the white dress over my shoulders and then making small adjustments to be sure it fit perfectly.  Hands brushed though my hair, emplacing a blue flower within my locks, a reminder to all who cared to see that I was betrothed.  I doubted there was anyone in attendance who didn’t know.  The family – both families – had spent the last six years telling everyone that the match would bring lasting peace.  They’d had to offer some kind of proof of their words.

“You look lovely, My Lady,” Ellen said.

I opened my eyes and looked into the mirror.  I almost didn’t recognise the girl – young woman – looking back.  My dark hair framed a rounded face and fell around my shoulders, the white dress flattered my figure without showing anything below the neckline.  They’d even put concealer on my hands, hiding the scars from a lifetime of forgery.  I doubted that would last more than a few hours, even though there was no magic involved.  It wasn’t as if Akin didn’t already know they were there.

“It feels strange, not to be wearing braids,” I said, to myself.  It felt as if I was naked in public.  “Does it get better?”

“Yes, My Lady,” Ellen said.  She’d worn her hair down for years.  “It does.”

Janet cleared her throat.  “My Lady, do you have the necklace?”

I nodded as I opened a drawer and pulled out a small box.  The necklace looked crude to my eyes – a tiny wire cage encompassing nothing – but it started to glow the moment I prodded it with my finger.  A magician would see a pulsing light hanging just above my breasts.  I wondered how many of them would understand they were looking at an Object of Power, a reminder of my talents and my value to the family.  The light grew brighter as I snapped the necklace into place, then faded slightly.  Alana and Bella would be wearing charmed gemstones.  They’d look better than mine – they’d spent months practicing the art of inserting spells into gemstones – but they wouldn’t be anything like as unique.  There was no shortage of people who could enchant gemstones to show off their skills.

But they’ve both chosen complex spells, I reminded myself.  And neither of them dared ask anyone for help.

“Very good, My Lady,” Ellen said.  She glanced at the clock.  It was closer to eight than I’d thought.  “Are you ready?”

I hesitated, then nodded.  It felt as if I was going to meet my fate.  I’d attended several coming-out balls over the last few months, but I hadn’t been the guest of honour.  Now … if I put a foot wrong, the Grande Dames would still be talking about it when my grandchildren had coming-out balls of their own.  I supposed that explained Mum’s bad mood.  She knew better than I did that a mistake, here and now, would haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Ellen opened the door, then led me down the corridor.  I felt my heart starting to pound as we moved down two flights of stairs and stepped into the antechamber.  My sisters were already there, wearing the same white dresses and white flowers in their hair.  I had to admit they wore their dresses better than me.  They’d spent their time attending social engagements and learning the ropes, while I’d stayed in the Workshop.  I didn’t think I’d wasted my time.

The maid left us alone.  I looked around.  The room was bland.  There was nothing to eat or drink, nothing save for a clock.  It ticked, loudly.  I cursed the sadist who’d designed it under my breath.  The sound was getting to me.  If I’d had my tools, I could have fixed it. 

“I thought you were going to be late,” Alana said.  She sounded worried, not teasing.  “Mum and Dad are already downstairs.”

“Mum wouldn’t let me be late,” I said.  Alana and I weren’t exactly close, but I knew what she was thinking.  She was going to lead the family, when Dad retired or passed on.  If she messed up now, it would be a disaster.  “Don’t worry about it.”

The bell rang.  It was time.

Alana held out a hand.  “Come on,” she said, as the door opened.  “Let’s go.”

My stomach churned.  I wanted to run back to my room and hide.

Instead, I took her hand.

The Zero Secret Prologue

10 Apr

I just had this going through my head.


It just wasn’t fair!

Lady Henrietta Rubén lay on her bed and sulked.  It wasn’t fair.  The entire family, from the highest to the lowest, was attending the Empire Day ceremony, save for her.  The cloud mansion was deserted, save for her – and the small army of meksects.  Everyone – at least, everyone who mattered – was in place to see and be seen, save for her.  It just wasn’t fair!

She glared at her image in the reflective gem, thinking words she’d never dare say out loud, certainly nowhere her mother could hear.  Everyone said she looked like her mother – long blonde hair, a heart-shaped face, lips that could turn from smile to ice in a second – and yet, she was still a child.  Legally.  She was seventeen and still a child, still bound by her parents’ will, still locked in their home with no right to leave.  She hadn’t minded, not until her mother had ruined her prospects.  Everyone was attending the ceremony, save for her.  High Society would be talking about her.  They would wonder, behind their painted faces and false smiles, just what she’d done to deserve to be grounded on this, the greatest day of the century.  Henrietta had no idea what excuse her mother would give, if she’d even bother to come up with a story, but it didn’t matter.  High Society would draw its own conclusions.  It always did.

Her mother’s condemnation rang in her ears.  “You can trace your bloodline back through a thousand generations of powerful magicians,” she’d said.  “You are the descendent of Senators and Grand Senators and Consuls, men and women who have served the Empire loyally and been rewarded for their service.  And yet, you throw it all away on that boy!”

Henrietta winced at the thought.  Johan Aguirre was hardly a weakling.  His family had been part of the aristocracy for over a hundred years.  They had powerful magic which they’d shared with the world.  So what if they kept their seat in distant Shallot, rather than establishing a home in the Eternal City?  Johan was a good man, from a strong bloodline.  He would father strong children.  And all they’d done, really, was trade letters.  They had never been alone long enough to do anything more.

She clenched her fists as she sat upright, wondering who’d ratted her out.  Her brothers and sisters, intent on preventing her from forming a relationship?  Her cousins, keen to weaken the core bloodline’s grip on the family?  Her maid … it was possible.  The woman knew better than to alienate her charge’s mother, even if it meant betraying a confidence.  It didn’t matter.  The letters she’d thought were hidden had found their way to her mother and she’d pronounced a fearful sentence.  Henrietta had pleaded, then begged, in a manner that would have shamed her ancestors.  Her mother had been firm.  Henrietta was not to attend the ceremony – or even leave the cloud mansion – and if she tried, the meksects would stop her.

Henrietta stood, brushing down her dress and glaring around the room.  It was crammed with wonders, from expensive books to the very latest in crystal games, but she wanted to be at the ceremony.  She needed to be there.  She racked her brains, trying to think of a way to get out without being caught, but nothing came to mind.  The mansion’s wards were strong.  They’d stop her if she tried to leave, or summon a bubble, or even call one of her friends to take her away.  Not that anyone would come, she reflected sourly.  They were all at the ceremony.

She paced through the door and along the corridor, heading up to the roof.  The mansion was completely deserted, save for the meksects.  She could break into the other rooms, in search of blackmail material or something, but there was no joy in it.  Not now.  She shook her head as she reached the upper level and stepped onto the penthouse floor.  Her mother had had the whole mansion covered in bunting, ensuring anyone who flew nearby was treated to as diorama of the family’s greatest achievements.  Henrietta suspected her mother was wasting her time.  Her ancestors had been so significant that their deeds were listed in even one-volume historical textbooks.  The family certainly splashed out enough money, every year, to see that it was so.

I’ll have to move to Shallot and live with Great Uncle Mycroft, she thought, as she walked the balcony and peered over the city.  No one will take me seriously here, not after …

She shook her head, feeling tears prickling at the corner of her eye.  Great Uncle Mycroft was a drinker.  Or so she’d been told.  She’d heard worse, whispered by servants and very distant relatives.  Too high-ranking to be simply ignored, or squashed by his superiors, he’d been sent to Shallot and promised a generous pension as long as he didn’t come back.  Henrietta wondered, idly, if she’d be able to claim the same.  Perhaps she could meet Johan in Shallot or … who knew?  Her mother would probably disown Henrietta if she married without the family’s consent.

The wind shifted.  A faint gust of something blew against her face.  Henrietta brushed the hair out of her eyes, frowning at a sudden sense of disquiet.  The Eternal City looked so safe and tranquil.  The skies were crowded with floating mansions and CityBlocks, the streets below were clean and tidy … perfectly maintained by the ever-present meksects.  Bubbles of light flew through the air, gliding towards the Grand Senate itself.  She felt her heart sink as her eyes followed a bubble, carrying a latecomer to the floating building.  There were people from all over the Empire, the great and the good, gathered in the hovering mansion.  Deals would be being made, marriages would be being arranged … the power structure of the next fifty years was being shaped right in front of her and she was excluded.  She knew she wasn’t that important, in the greater scheme of things, but …

Another gust of something brushed against her, a strange feeling of weakness that ran through her body.  Henrietta shivered, even though the air was warm.  The city’s weather was always hot and sunny, thanks to the spells pervading the floating buildings.  She’d been surprised to encounter rain, the first time she’d travelled outside the city.  The idea of water falling from the sky still struck her as strange.

The Grand Senate tilted, then fell.

Henrietta stared, convinced – just for a second – that she was imagining it.  The Grand Senate was older than her grandmother.  It had floated above the city for countless years, casting a shadow over the entire world.  And yet … the building hit the ground with a tremendous noise, a shockwave rippling out from the impact and straight towards her … Henrietta tensed, too late, as the air slapped against her bare skin.  Horror flared through her mind.  Her family had been there.  Her parents, her siblings … everyone’s parents and siblings.  And …

She stared as the remainder of the floating mansions started to fall.  A bubble altered course, trying to get away from … from whatever was happening.  Too late.  Henrietta saw the light wink out, the darkened flying machine losing power and falling out of the sky.  She thought she  saw a screaming figure jumping clear, waving his hands in a desperate spell.  Nothing happened.  She saw him vanish and knew he’d hit the ground.  The impact would have killed him.

The scale of the disaster was beyond her.  The falling mansions were crashing into each other, showing debris on the streets below.  She saw an apartment block crumble into rubble after it was struck, watched helplessly as another simply collapsed into dust for no apparent reason.  There were hundreds of thousands of people in the city.  It was beyond her to comprehend that many of them were already dead, that many more would die in the next few moments.  The world was changing before her eyes.

She heard something crash behind her and turned to see a meksect grind to a halt, its mandibles falling to the ground as it lost power.  Her servant … something twisted in her heart, an instant before the world shifted under her feet.  The mansion was starting to tilt … no, it was starting to fall!  Whatever had ruined the city hadn’t stopped, not yet.  Henrietta was too numb to panic.  She raised her hand and chanted a levitation spell.  The wards should have stopped her, but she couldn’t feel them any longer.  She could fly up and hover until the disaster came to an end.  It wasn’t much of a plan, but she couldn’t think of anything else.  She kept chanting …

Nothing happened.

Panic flared through her mind.  The magic … the magic was gone.  She couldn’t sense the wards because they were gone too.  The meksects were dying because they ran on magic … the entire city ran on magic.  The floating mansions and palaces and castles and government buildings were plummeting and no one could do anything to save them!  She held out a hand, summoning her flying stick … and realised, an instant too late, that it was pointless.  If the bubbles were dying, the flying sticks were likely dying too.

The mansion fell.  Henrietta ran, knowing it was already too late.  Her family was dead.  She would be dead too, within the next few seconds.  Great Uncle Mycroft would be all that was left of them … she felt the floor tilt again, then fell backwards as gravity reasserted itself.  She saw another bubble flying past her and felt a moment of hope, before realising it was heading down.  Her feet lost their grip completely as the mansion dropped from the sky, sending her flying into the air …

… And, screaming helplessly, Henrietta fell towards the ground far below.