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.

4 Responses to “The Zero Secret – CH1”

  1. Someone April 15, 2021 at 10:05 pm #

    “I could cheat on my exams, murder my parents and – horror of horrors – wear trousers in polite company”

    Isn’t it supposed to be ok to wear trousers now because of what happened in the previous book?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 15, 2021 at 10:14 pm #

      1) Cat’s thoughts may reflect that she hasn’t caught up on the change in fashion.

      2) Events at the end of the last book may have “killed” the change in fashion.

      3) Cat’s parents (and the Grand Dames of her Family) may not accepted (yet) the change in fashion.

      • Someone April 15, 2021 at 10:30 pm #

        It would be a shame if the fashion was killed. Isabella turning High Society upside down was one of the best things in the previous book.

  2. rwahrens April 16, 2021 at 5:15 am #

    Lovely! I can’t wait! (But then, I can NEVER wait, so…)

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