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.

13 Responses to “The Zero Secret Prologue”

  1. abcd April 10, 2021 at 9:13 pm #

    Very good! Love this series!

  2. Neil April 10, 2021 at 9:19 pm #

    The scale of the disaster was beyond her. The falling mansions were crashing into each other, showing debris on the streets below – showering? ex slush pile 🙂

  3. benbailey12373 April 10, 2021 at 9:22 pm #

    Ah that made me feel so sad

  4. Hayden April 10, 2021 at 10:14 pm #

    So is there a place we can go to read “face of the enemy” chapters now that Baen is gone?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 10, 2021 at 10:20 pm #

      Baen’s Bar is Back but the last few chapters of “Face Of The Enemy” didn’t get posted there.

  5. juan Suros April 11, 2021 at 12:20 am #

    Shallot was the Ruben’s Kirkland hall! What fun.

  6. Kris April 12, 2021 at 4:24 pm #

    Oh! very good…. note: *showering* not showing debris😉

  7. George Phillies April 12, 2021 at 5:58 pm #

    So does she perish, or does her boyfriend save her, thus showing that the two houses are actually related to each other?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 12, 2021 at 6:05 pm #

      I could be wrong, but I think she is killed.

      All Magic is stopped in the City, there’s no way that her boyfriend could have saved her (even if he was in the City).

      • George Phillies April 12, 2021 at 8:20 pm #

        If the boyfriend is outside the city, he can cast a spell. Can it be active inside the city?

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 12, 2021 at 8:27 pm #

        My Assumption is that if Magic worked where he is and he could see her peril, then the spell would fade before it could save her.

        IE the City was in a Magic Free Zone and magic cast outside of the City would fail within the City.

      • AC Young April 13, 2021 at 1:37 pm #

        My memory may be faulty, but from what I remember about the description of this incident in the original trilogy, magic in this world relies upon a magical field. If the field is drained then spells stop working (in the original trilogy the example is given of battles where so much magic is used that the magical field is temporarily drained in that location).

        In this incident (assuming it is what we all think it is) the magical field is deliberately drained across the city. This caused all the spells keeping the buildings afloat to fail. Another of the consequences is if a spell were to be cast from outside the area of effect it would fail as soon as it entered the area of effect, as there would be no magic in the area to support it.

        Could Henrietta survive regardless? Doubtful, but there may be a set of extremely unlikely coincidences under which she decelerates sufficiently slowly to a stop that she survives. Unless it is stated that such coincidences occured I’m going to assume that she’s one of the many casualties.

  8. Someone April 13, 2021 at 5:04 pm #

    So are there going to be flying palaces and mansions again? Or did this sort of thing die with the empire?

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