Archive | May, 2021

Quick Questions (SIM Novellas)

30 May

Hi, everyone

Now that Fantastic Schools III is out, I’d like to pose two questions to my readers.

One – do you think I can expand The Cunning Man’s Tale into a full novel (with the events of the novella serving as the first quarter of the novel)?  If so, does the first-person format work for you or should I switch back to third-person?

Two – for Fantastic Schools IV, I’ve decided to write something less connected to the mainstream storyline (as I hoped to have FS3 out before The Face of the Enemy, which didn’t happen).  Would you rather:

-The Chaperone’s Tale.  The only way common-born Juliet can afford to go study magic at Whitehall is by agreeing to work as an unofficial (and technically forbidden) servant for Princess Mariah.  Unfortunately, Mariah is a brat with a knack for finding trouble …

-The Laughing Girl’s Tale.  Basically, the story of how Laughter Academy was founded.

-The Muckraker’s Tale.  A young would-be broadsheet writer starts a newspaper at Whitehall and finds herself discovering a truth many students would prefer to keep hidden …

Out Now – Fantastic Schools (Volume III)

29 May

Featuring a whole new Schooled in Magic novella, The Cunning Man’s Tale.

Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and – perhaps – battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Follow the daughter of a witch who wants to learn white—not black—magic, a trio of students sent on a mysterious task, a kidnapped student trying to escape, a troll who wants to study among the humans, and a magic-less boy with a chance to learn magic, if he survives his first month at a magical university.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

Includes stories by:

Christopher Nuttall
Roger D. Strahan
Denton Salle
Karina Fabian
Frank B. Luke
George Phillies
Aaron Van Treeck
Becky R. Jones
Jay Barnson
Emily Sorensen
Peter Rhodan
Rhys Hughs
J.F. Posthumus
Barb Caffey

Purchase from Amazon HERE.  And discuss it on the forum here!

Review: The New Galveston Duology (Dale Cozort)

29 May

The New Galveston Duology (Dale Cozort)

New Galveston Book 1: Operation Croatoan

New Galveston Book 2: The Wild East

Dale Cozort is well known amongst alternate history fans for his detailed WW2 scenarios and, more rarely in the AH world, equally detailed scenarios following possible Native American/Spanish Conquest period.  He brings an astonishing grasp of both periods to his work, with enough details to make them some of the most plausible timelines/outlines in the genre.  Dale does his research and it shows.

In the New Galveston books, Dale combines both time periods to create a very different world.  In 1939, when much of the US Navy was at sea holding a massive exercise – with President Franklin Roosevelt as the guest of honour – the United States simply vanished, to be replaced by an alternate new world still inhabited solely by the descendents of the Aztecs, Incas and North American tribal societies.  (The US vanishing is not unique – John Birmingham did it well in Without Warning – but replacing the US with a ‘new’ New World is unique as far as I know.)  The remnants of the US try to settle the new land, but find themselves competing with foreign powers, including the Nazis and the Japanese, both of whom have allied themselves with the Aztecs and other hostile Indian powers.  And an uneasy peace is about to be broken as the Nazis make a bid to take over the New World …

The story is very pulpy, with a handful of very diverse characters competing to stop the Nazis and save the New World before it is too late.  There are relatively few moments of contemplation – instead, rather, all-out action as the characters race across the ‘undiscovered’ lands in constant running battles.  The bigger actions – the USN fighting the German Navy – are largely off-screen, although it is clear the battles are quite significant.  It also draws in political insights, from the US being reluctant to arm local allies (and, accidentally, forcing them to bend the knee to the Aztecs), to the impact of a vast new space for exploration and settlement.  The politics are a tight squeeze for the US, caught between multiple different factions of varying levels of hostility.  And the Nazi plot to cripple and isolate the remnants of America is horrifyingly plausible. 

There are issues I might take with the global politics.  Losing the US in 1939, even before the war broke out, would severely damage the global economy (although not to the extent of Without Warning).  The Reich might actually be less able to sustain a war – and in this timeline it is clear Hitler never invaded Poland – but it would be balanced by Britain and France being thrown back on their own resources.  Given time, the Reich would peak and start to decline – just when this would happen is hard to calculate, as Britain and France – and to some extent Russia – would be weakened by the loss of the US.  I’m also unsure if the Germans could have deployed a major fleet – pretty much everything they had – to the New World.  Even if they had bases in the region, they would not be capable of supporting the fleet. The logistics would be an absolute nightmare.

The book doesn’t try to sugar-coat either the Native Americans or the Nazis themselves, nor does it skim away from the immense problems facing the Native Americans when the confronted Europeans for the first time.  Disease is a serious problem, even with ‘modern’ vaccination techniques; tribal warfare and constant feuds makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a stable society to arise.  (The Aztecs had actually neared the limits of their expansion when the Spanish arrived.)  The willingness of certain powers to ally with the Nazis is quite plausible, particularly when the Germans appeared to be the only outsiders willing to trade modern weapons to the locals.  They are, of course, planning to backstab the Aztecs when they’ve outlived their usefulness. 

Overall, the two books are good quick reads.  I might quibble about the ending – and I would love to see a third book – but I enjoyed reading them.  You might too.

Book Review: The Other Time (Mack Reynolds, Dean Ing)

23 May

The Other Time

-Mack Reynolds, Dean Ing

Stories in which someone is sent back in time and starts making changes, for better or worse, have always been a favourite of mine, although the genre is never easy to get right.  It is difficult to understand the technical limitations facing the locals, as well as the simple fact they have a very different mindset.  Slavery, for example, is repulsive to us – and rightly so – but simply part of many primitive societies.  Indeed, it can be difficult to convince people set in their ways (with very little room for manoeuvre) to change on your say-so.  Doing a story in which this happens convincingly is very difficult.

(The Baen cover is better, IMHO.)

The Other Time follows the adventures of Don Fielding, an American archaeologist who falls through a rift in space-time and finds himself in the Mexico of the past, when the Spanish Conquistador had just begun their conquest.  (This neatly solves the language issue, as Don speaks both Spanish and a handful of local tongues.)  Blundering into Cortés’s camp, Don makes the mistake of telling him about the rich lands to the north – ironically, ones that don’t yet exist in Cortés’s time – and finds himself a prisoner, eventually sentenced to death. 

Making his escape, Don flees to Tenochtitlan, becomes an adoptive brother of a leading Aztec nobleman and winds up advising them on how to resist Cortés, eventually becoming the war leader and effective dictator of the Aztec Empire.  Although not a military man, Don’s combination of hindsight – he knows what to expect, before events start to change – and cunning give him the edge, allowing him to leverage the empire’s greater manpower to produce a victory, assimilate the surviving Spanish and set out to build a world where the Americans meet the Europeans as near-equals.  The book does end with the outcome unresolved, but it is clear that history has been changed beyond repair.

Don is, right from the start, a likable character – it helps he has no emotional tie to Cortés and his men.  The book does a good job of showing his earlier befuddlement and while he does make mistakes, they are understandable ones.  He never talks down to the Aztecs or indeed anyone else, despite knowing far more than they do about what is to come.  There are limits to what he can do – and what he can convince them to do – and the book acknowledges this.  The locals find him a little odd, but it generally works.  He serves as the eyes through which we see the Aztecs, a society very different to our own, and allows us to recognise their possession of traits we recognise as virtues.  This is also true of the Spanish themselves.  They may be painted as greedy monsters, which was party true in the original timeline, but they have virtues too.  How well this works out will depend on your point of view.  Don is, at one point, shunned for not leading his men into battle, unlike both his closest allies and Cortés himself. 

The authors show an excellent understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Aztecs, detailing why they lost so badly in the original timeline and altering matters to reshape the future.  Don does not snap his fingers and bring forth modern weapons from the soil to arm his troops.  Instead, he uses his manpower advantage to bait traps and try to force the Spanish into killing grounds, leveraging their weaknesses against them while trying to capture as many Spanish craftsman and horses as possible.  He also starts introducing concepts like the wheel, allowing the Aztecs a chance to take his ideas and build on them.  His insights into how the Spanish think also prove instructive – Don points out, to several Spanish commoners, that they’re not going to wind up rich men, as Cortés and the aristocracy will take most of the loot.  In the end, he uses the promise of genuine wealth to convince man of the Spanish to stay with him.

At the same time, however, the book does suffer from two major weaknesses.  The first one is that the impact of smallpox on the Aztecs is significantly understated.  The disease was so lethal because the Aztecs had no immunity whatsoever, a problem made worse by the demands of the war.  It is possible that a sizable number of newcomers could have made a difference, simply by taking care of the ill before becoming infected themselves, but there just weren’t enough people to handle the task. 

The second is that the Aztecs themselves are, for what of a better term, whitewashed.  They were not nice people.  They were an aggressive empire with a nasty habit of bullying its neighbours, taking their people for sacrifice and generally being thoroughly unpleasant to everyone they happened to encounter.  Cortés had no trouble finding allies in his war against the empire because there were a lot of tribes and cities that loathed the Aztecs and would be happy to side with anyone standing against them.  While in the long term this was disastrous – in much the same sense as Russians who sided with the Nazis against the Soviets; they traded a bad master for an even worse one – it was understandable.  Don does nod to the difficulty of convincing other cities to let bygones be bygones, but I think the book understates it. 

(The suggestion the Aztecs saw Cortés, and  later Don himself, as a god is mentioned, but it isn’t clear how seriously anyone really took it.)

Overall, though, the book does maintain a fun pulpy atmosphere.  The action moves quickly, the infodumps are worked neatly into the text.  It does sometimes get a little strange – there is a suggestion that La Malinche (aka Doña Marina) originally let Don go because he kissed her, something Cortés never did – but those are minor issues.  The book does paint the Spanish as heartless conquerors, which is largely true (although the historical Cortés wanted to present the entire empire to his king, rather than destroy it) and general monsters, although – unlike Turtledove’s The Guns of the South – the primary audience was not composed of people who might take offense at a nakedly hostile depiction. 

OUT NOW – Void’s Tale (A Schooled In Magic Novella)

16 May

A hundred years before Emily, just after the fall of the Empire and the start of the Necromantic Wars, Void worked for the White Council as an agent of last resort, the sorcerer they called upon when no one else could complete the mission.  But this mission may make or break him.

Searching for a missing alchemist, Void is drawn into a deadly plot threatening the newborn Allied Lands, one that may send them plunging into ruin.  And, as he starts trying to unpick the plot, he is forced to confront a truth that will change his life forever …

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon or Draft2Digital NOW!

Out Now – Drake’s Drum (Ark Royal 17)

16 May

Humanity is on the ropes.  Despite military victories, the sheer grinding power of the alien virus is taking its toll.  The space navies are pushed to the limit, the colony worlds are fighting a desperate war against the infected, the economy is on the brink of utter collapse and Earth herself has come under attack.  But there is one ray of hope.  If a small force can penetrate to the heart of the alien empire and tear it apart, it might just win humanity enough time to save itself and win the war once and for all.

Captain Thomas Hammond of HMS Lion and Captain Mitch Campbell of HMS Unicorn were never friends, even before a very personal betrayal ripped them apart and turned them into enemies.  But now, pitted against an overwhelming foe, they must work together to save the human race …

… Or their ships and crews will merely be the first of many to die.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon (specific links below because universal links have been adding oddly lately) or Draft2Digital here!  And don’t forget to discuss it on my new forums.

Amazon US – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0951C35P8
Amazon UK- https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0951C35P8
Amazon CAN –https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0951C35P8
Amazon AUS – https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B0951C35P8

ALSO – A New Schooled In Magic Novella – Void’s Tale.

Snippet – The Prince’s War

15 May

I just had this running through my head.

Prologue

From: An Unbiased History of the Imperial Royal Family.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

It is extremely difficult to trace the history of the Imperial Royal Family – as it became known – past the final stages of the disintegration and the early days of the Unification Wars.  Part of this, of course, is an inevitable result of the wars and their attendant devastation; a great many records were lost and/or deliberately destroyed during the fighting.  Certain factions, particularly during the opening stages of the conflict, believed that it would be better to erase the past so the human race could stride forward into a brave new future, and therefore set out to capture or destroy as many records as possible.  Others simply ignored the danger of historical erasure, and revisionism, until it was too late. 

But a far more significant problem was caused by the newborn Imperial Household’s determination to legitimatise its position.  There were no shortage of academics willing to take thirty pieces of silver – or, more practically, lands and titles – in exchange for creating largely or entirely fictional genealogies for their patrons to use as propaganda.  The results were quite remarkable.  The First Emperor was hailed as the direct descendent of such figures as Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Elizabeth Tudor and many others, ranging from Jesus Christ to George Washington and Joe Buckley.  Links were drawn between him and nearly every figure of consequence, to a truly absurd degree.  He was not only the sole heir to every kingdom on Old Earth, but also lands that simply never existed, including little known fictional kingdoms such as Gondar, Narnia and Wakanda.

This had two unfortunate – and entirely predictable – effects on academic enquiry.  An unwary student, more intent on getting a good grade rather than actually think about the material in front of him, might not notice the inconsistencies and frank impossibilities, such as a marriage between Queen Elizabeth Tudor of England (1533-1603, PSE) and Shaka Zulu (1787-1828, PSE), a marriage that would have been unlikely even if the two hadn’t lived and died nearly two hundred years apart.  A more perceptive student, on the other hand, might realise there were just too many discrepancies to be accidental and come to the conclusion that the whole field was irredeemably damaged beyond repair.  Such students would either leave of their own accord or, if they alienated their academic supervisors, would be pushed out or simply sidelined.  The Imperial University’s administrators knew very well there were fields of enquiry that could not be touched, not without angering their patrons.  What was the life of one student compared to the whole university?

Perversely, the truth is better than the fairy tale.  The First Emperor – whose name was largely stricken from the records, to be replaced by a decidedly impersonal title – was a high-ranking military officer during the early years of the disintegration.  Realising the endless wars were futile – his autobiography makes no mention of the burning ambition that was a mark of his career – he convinced a number of his fellows to mount a coup, seized control of the government and then embarked upon a series of increasingly sophisticated military campaigns to bring the rest of the settled worlds under his control.  He was more than just a naval officer, it must be noted; his skill at convincing former opponents to join him, or at the very least not to oppose him, was quite remarkable.  When he took the title of Emperor, he rewarded his followers by making them Grand Senators.  They in turn rewrote history to make it appear they had always been part of the rightful ruling class.

Whatever else can be said about the First Emperor, he did his work well.  By the time his son succeeded to the Imperial Throne, the empire was on a solid footing and could easily survive a handful of weak or clumsy rulers.  There was enough of a balance of power, the ruling class felt, to ensure both a degree of stability and a certain amount of social mobility.  It should have endured forever.

It did not.  It took years – centuries – for decay to start to take hold, but it did.  A trio of weak emperors allowed the Grand Senate to take more and more power for itself, then – worse – failed to play the different factions within the senate to right the balance of power.  Social mobility slowed to a crawl, the successive emperors losing much of their influence as they were increasingly dominated by the aristocracy.  Many of them lost themselves in mindless hedonism, whiling away the hours with wine, women, song and pleasures forbidden even to the aristocracy.  The handful who tried to reclaim their birthright were swiftly slapped down by the new rulers of empire.  Emperor Darren II was assassinated – it was blamed on terrorists, but the act was clearly ordered by the aristocracy – and Empress Lyudmila was held prisoner by her unwanted husband, then murdered when she produced a heir. 

By the time the Empire entered its final days, the Imperial Throne was occupied – to all intents and purposes – by Prince Roland, known to the public as the Childe Roland.  He was officially declared a great moral and spiritual leader, but the reality was somewhat different.  Prince Roland – the Grand Senate hadn’t been able to decide on when he should be formally crowned – was, by the time he entered his teenage years, a useless layabout.  The only good thing that could be said about him, it should be noted, was that he’d not fallen as far into depravity as some of his ancestors.  It was generally believed that it was just a matter of time.

The Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, in a desperate bid to turn the situation around, made use of the Corps’s long-held power to appoint bodyguards to the Imperial Household and assigned Specialist Belinda Lawson to take care of the prince and, hopefully, make a man out of him.  She was rather more successful than one might expect, knocking some sense into the nearly-adult prince, but it was already too late.  Earth collapsed into chaos and it was all Belinda could do, along with the prince, to escape.  The Empire died and, as far as anyone outside the Corps knew, Prince Roland died with it.  In reality, he was transferred to a Marine Corps starship.

This was, as far as the Corps was concerned, an awkward position.   Roland was the legal ruler of the known galaxy.  However, practically speaking, he ruled nothing.  The Empire was dead and gone.  The Corps could not recover even the Core Worlds, already blighted by civil war, let alone the rest of the settled worlds.  Roland was an Emperor without an Empire; an unfinished young man who might be an asset but might equally become a burden.  And that left the Corps with a serious problem.

What – exactly – were they going to do with Prince Roland?

Snippet – Child of Destiny (Schooled in Magic Finale (sort of))

14 May

MAJOR SPOILERS – BE WARNED.

Also here – https://authornuttall.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&p=251#p251

Prologue I

Frieda felt … unsettled.

She could not, try as she might, put her finger on why she felt unsettled.  Nothing had changed.  She was a student in Whitehall, doing her final year before serving an apprenticeship to gain her mastery or joining Emily or one of her older friends in the formerly Blighted Lands to build a life of her own.  She woke up in the morning, she ate breakfast, she went to classes, she ate dinner and went straight to bed.  It was the typical life of a student preparing frantically for her final exams, the life she’d wanted before it was finally within her grasp.  She wanted – desperately – to prove to Emily and Hoban and everyone else that she was worthy of the attention they’d lavished upon her.  She wanted to make them proud.

And yet, she felt unsettled.

The world itself was … strange.   She felt as if she was staring at the school around her through a plane of tinted glass, as if her vision was blurred and warped.  Things moved at the corner of her eye, only there when she wasn’t looking for them.  They were gone when she turned her head.  She soon forgot they were there at all, except … every time she saw them the memories returned.  Strange things shifted, little hints that something wasn’t quite right in the school.  She served as detention monitor, yet no one had detention; they looked forward to the weekend, but no one went to Dragon’s Den; she missed her friends and her lover dreadfully, yet she couldn’t muster the energy to so much as touch the chat parchments to write them a quick note.  She wanted to see Emily again, if only to compare notes on the sheer strangeness around her, but the urge to send her a message was gone almost as soon as she registered it … as if, in truth, it had never been there at all.

She made her slow way through the school, feeling sure something was wrong and yet unable to articulate it in a manner that made sense, even to her.  Her arms and legs and mouth seemed to move of their own accord.  She sat in classes and gave answers by rote – a flicker of remembered pain shot through her mind, to vanish before she quite registered it had been there – and stared at textbooks without ever quite reading them.  She walked past the snobbish little brat who’d tried to hex her two years ago, without feeling as though she ought to watch her back.  The brat – Frieda had never bothered to learn the younger girl’s name – had a habit of trying to hex older students, yet … she did nothing.  She didn’t even made a rude sign as Frieda turned the corner.  Something was definitely wrong.

The thought nagged at her mind, battling a tidal wave of lassitude that threatened to suck her down and keep her down.  She was tired.  Permanently tired.  It shouldn’t have surprised her – she was a student on her final year, as her thoughts reminded her again and again – and yet it did.  It wasn’t that far into the year.  She’d laid the groundwork well, taking advice from Emily and Jade and some of her other older friends.  She’d planned to steadily ramp up her studies – and practical coursework – over the year, to be at the top of her game when she took the final exams.  Emily had left before taking them herself – Frieda missed her, more than she could say – but Jade and Cat had set a very high bar.  Frieda wasn’t fond of Cat.  She would have liked to beat his final score …

Her thoughts twisted, oddly, as she walked back to her bedroom.  There were people in the corridor, ghostly people … she blinked and they were gone, as if they’d never been.  A flicker of panic shot through her – if she was losing her mind, she’d be lucky if she wasn’t simply expelled or even executed before she became a danger to everyone else – before it too was gone, buried under the lassitude.  She slipped into her room and threw herself on the bed, silently grateful Whitehall gave its final year students rooms of their own.  She’d never been comfortable sharing a room with anyone, not since Mountaintop.  She’d had to order Hoban to sleep somewhere else, just so she could sleep comfortably herself.  There’d been no choice.  And yet …

She tensed, suddenly.  How long had it been?

The flicker of alarm died almost as soon as it flowered, but this time she tried to cling to it.  How long had it been since she’d heard from anyone?  Days?  Weeks?  Months?  Years?  She knew her friends were busy – Emily was a teacher at Laughter, Alassa was ruling a country with Jade and Imaiqah by her side, the Gorgon was doing an apprenticeship at Heart’s Eye and being groomed to take over as administrator when her mistress retired – but it was strange not to hear anything, even a brief note reassuring her they were fine and they’ll be in touch later.  Emily wasn’t the best at keeping in touch with anyone – she had a nasty habit of putting people out of her mind as soon as she lost sight of them – yet she always made time for Frieda.  It was strange …

She yawned, suddenly.  It had been a long day.  She’d been doing … her heart stopped, just for a second.  What had she been doing?  She’d been … what?  She’d gone to class and … and what?  What spells had she done?  What essays had she written?  What questions had she answered?  Her mind went blank.  Nothing had happened.  She hadn’t been praised for her successes or scorned for her failures, she hadn’t been given extra credit for helping the tutors or punished for disrupting the class … no one had.  The tiredness seemed to grow stronger, threatening to pull her down.  The bed was calling to her.  She wanted … she wanted to sleep and yet … for a moment, she felt torn between two different versions of herself.  She was lying on the bed and standing in front of the bed and … her head spun.  It made no sense.  It made no sense.  It made …

The world twisted.  She was standing – no, kneeling – beside the bed, with no clear memory of how she’d gotten there.  One moment, she’d been on the bed; the next, she was kneeling beside it.  A strange thrill ran through her, as if she was doing something naughty … she wasn’t sure what.  She was alone.  She could do whatever she liked, in the privacy of her own room.  And yet … she felt as if she’d gotten away with something.  Her thoughts churned as the lassitude returned, the tiredness trying to drive her back to bed.  It was powerful and implacable and … it wasn’t her.

The awareness flashed through her, driving the cobwebs from her mind.  She’d been entranced.  They’d all been entranced.  It wasn’t the first time she’d been compelled to do something – it was a common prank – but this time was … dangerous.  Her thoughts spun in mad circles as she leaned forward.  She could still feel the spell pressing down on her.  It should have been impossible.  Awareness of the spell should have been enough to free her from its grasp.  And yet, it was starting to push her thoughts back into helpless submission, into a complete lack of awareness of the world around her.  Frieda couldn’t understand the point of the spell – she could imagine a hundred more interesting uses, rather than just compelling the students to behave – but it didn’t matter.  The spell was so powerful it was simply grinding her down.  There was no way she could get out of the school before she fell back into the trance.

She bit her lip hard, the pain clearing her thoughts for a few precious seconds.  The drawer beneath her bed was unlocked, without even a single charm to protect her most treasured possessions.  Her tutors would reprimand her for carelessness, if they knew what she’d done, but it worked in her favour.  The chat parchments were wrapped in her underwear, buried under a handful of blue books and other possessions.  She ripped one free and pressed her fingers against it, allowing her magic to ignite the spell …

… And touched, to her dull surprise, a questing mind.

Prologue II

Maddy had, in her own quiet estimation, a good life.

It hadn’t been easy, not at first.  Her family had had too many daughters and not enough sons … something that would have been disastrous, if they’d lived in the countryside rather than Zugzwang.  Instead, she’d learnt at her mother’s knee, planning to go into service as soon as she was old enough in hopes of saving a nest egg she could use to attract a husband.  Men asked fewer questions, she’d been told, if the woman had enough money to make her a very good catch indeed.  It didn’t hurt if the woman knew how to cook too.

She’d been nervous, when she’d been offered a position in the Sorcerer Void’s tower.  He was the most famous resident of the district – and it’s quiet protector, a man with a reputation that kept kings and bandits and taxmen well away from the town – but very little was actually known about him.  Even the most daring of young men wouldn’t willingly set foot in his valley.  The handful who had lost bets and found themselves forced to try to find the valley as part of their forfeit had  found themselves completely lost, the moment they stepped beyond the town’s formal boundary.  The tower was impossible to find, unless one was invited.  Maddy had been afraid, when she’d walked the charmed path for the first time, that she’d never be seen again.  There were no shortage of rumours about what happened to young women who entered service with a magician.

But Void wasn’t a bad master, Maddy had decided long ago.  He didn’t molest his maids, nor did he abuse them … she knew masters and mistresses who’d done that and worse to helpless young women in their thrall.  Her duties were relatively light, even when her master was in residence; she had time to study, to broaden her mind, to make herself more attractive to a merchant or travelling trader who might want a wife who was more than a pretty face.  The only downside was that he didn’t seem to trust his maids.  The geas he’d put on them, the moment they entered his service, kept them from breathing so much as a single word about their master to anyone.  It was unpleasant, but it could be a great deal worse.  And his protections made it all worthwhile.  The last young man who’d tried to put his hand up her skirt without permission, last year, had found himself a toad seconds later.  It had taught him a lesson he’d never forgotten.

She smiled to herself as she walked the path, down to the town.  The master was not in residence, nor was his apprentice and her personal maid.  Maddy had never been quite sure what to make of her.  Silent had done her duties with calm efficiency, but she’d never spent any time with her fellow maids … as if she thought she was better than them.  No, as if she thought she was just marking time.  Maddy puzzled over it for a long moment, then shrugged and dismissed the thought.  If Void wanted to tolerate Silent’s odd behaviour, it wasn’t Maddy’s problem.   All that mattered, right now, was that the master wasn’t home and the maids could slack off, just a little.  They could take turns to visit the town and the master wouldn’t be any the wiser.

Zugzwang rose up around her as she walked on, a strange combination of thatched cottages and stone blocks, the latter a testament to the town’s reputation for safety.  She smiled and brushed back her hair as she spotted two of the local lads leaning against the pub’s door, clearly waiting for the owner to open the door and invite them inside.  It was a little early in the day for drinking, but it wasn’t her problem either.  They smiled back at her, shyly, as she walked on.  They were handsome enough, she supposed, but their clothes marked them as labourers.  She wanted to travel.  Marrying a labourer or a farmer would guarantee she’d spend the rest of her life in Zugzwang, without so much as seeing what lay on the other side of the hill.  She’d plucked up her courage and asked her master, once, to take her with him when she travelled.  He’d been kind, but he’d said no.  Maddy winced, inwardly.  Perhaps it would have been wiser to ask his apprentice.  Lady Emily was strange, even by sorceress standards, but she was a young woman.   She should have understood.

A man stepped out of the alleyway, blocking her path.  Maddy tensed, then relaxed.  She had Void’s protections.  No one would be fool enough to try to lay so much as a finger on her, not without her permission.  The clothes she wore – a cut above the outfits worn by the more regular domestics – should have been a tip-off that her master was someone important, someone who might see an attack on his servant as an attack on him.  She was safe.

“My Lady,” the man said.  He spoke with an unfamiliar accent.  Maddy vaguely recalled a pair of travelling merchants from Alluvia who’d spoken with similar accents, but she’d been barely six years old at the time and her memories were unreliable.  “Can I have a moment of your time?”

Maddy dropped a grand curtsy, rather than the more servile one she’d been taught.  “Of course, My Lord.”

If he was affronted by her mockery – if he even recognised it for what it was – he showed no sign.  “Your master has been accused of starting the war,” he said.  “Do you think that is actually true?”

Maddy blinked.  War?  What war?  She’d heard rumours of unrest right across the Allied Lands, from commoners turning on aristocrats to mundanes turning on magicians, but she hadn’t believed a word of them.  It just didn’t happen.  The sun might as well revolve around the world.  And besides … she remembered hearing a couple of local merchants whining about refugees passing through, but she hadn’t taken them very seriously.  She certainly hadn’t seen them for herself.

“His former apprentice has turned on him,” the man continued.  “She’s told everyone the war is his fault.”

Maddy felt her tongue lock, just for a second.  The geas still held her in its power.  She could no more talk about her master and his apprentice, without his permission, than she could leap tall buildings in a single bound.  The one time she’d tested the geas had been bad enough she’d sworn never to do it again, ever.  And …

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said.  “I don’t have the time right now.”

She strode past the man, silently daring him to put out a hand to stop her.  He did nothing.  She felt his eyes watching her as she walked down the street and turned the corner … she shook her head as it dawned on her just how odd the encounter had actually been.  The man hadn’t been interested in her personally … a rogue magician, perhaps?  She was all too aware that magicians spent half their time spying on other magicians.  And with Lady Emily resident within the tower, interest had doubled.  She’d heard from the other maids that the master had spent weeks tightening the defences, before leaving on his latest mission. 

Putting the thought out of her mind, she walked into the greengrocers.  The old woman who ran the shop was normally up for a chat, alternatively gossiping about the town’s affairs and prattling about young men of good character who just happened to be in the market for a wife.  Maddy didn’t really mind, although she knew she wasn’t interested.  The old woman meant well …

… And yet, she fell silent the moment Maddy walked into the shop.

Ice prickled down her spine as she made her selection, paid and walked out again.  The old woman was normally talkative, to the point it was impossible to shut her up.  And yet, she was quiet now … when Maddy had arrived?  Had she been talking about Maddy?  Or her master?  Or … or what?

The sense that something was wrong only grew stronger as she made her way through the town, doing her shopping in an orderly manner.  Shopkeepers looked worried, the moment she walked into the town; young men who would ordinarily have tried to flirt with her hurried away, as if the hounds of the seven hells were after them; young women who wanted to talk about going into service themselves looked away, as if they were reluctant to meet her eye.  Maddy felt uneasy, as if the ground itself was shifting under her feet.  The last person to be shunned by the entire town had committed adultery with a travelling vagabond … unwisely doing the deed in her own home, where her husband had caught her.  Maddy knew she hadn’t done anything of the sort.  It would be a brave man who dared suggest she’d lost her virginity to her master.  And she hadn’t!   And yet …

She paused outside the bookshop, admiring the handful of new books in the window and trying to decide if she should buy one.  The world still seemed to be tilting on its axis.  The bookseller would normally be trying to entice her in, showing off books that came from the other side of the Allied Lands … she could see him through the window, lurking on the far side of the counter and pretending she wasn’t there.  She was tempted to throw caution to the winds and stride into the shop, practically daring him not to serve her, but she refrained.  She wouldn’t have her master’s protection forever.  If she abused it, her past would come back to haunt her when she left his service.

Instead, she picked up the broadsheets by the door and skimmed them.  The bookseller didn’t come out to complain, to insist she paid for them … proof, if she’d needed it, that something was deeply wrong.  The headlines were as hyperbolic as ever – she’d once read a claim that the duchess of somewhere or other had given birth to twin goblins, or that the king of some kingdom had had nine piglets by the royal sow – but there was something oddly real about them.  The Allied Lands were collapsing into chaos.  Kings were being overthrown, aristocrats were being slaughtered by their serfs, village headmen were being chased out by their former subjects … the details kept changing, yet they all had one thing in common.  Void – her master – was the one pulling the strings.  And Emily, his apprentice, was standing against him.

Maddy stared down at the papers for a long moment, then took some coins from her purse and threw them at the bookseller before turning and hurrying back to the path.  She had to warn the others, although she had no idea what they could do.  They were just maids, after all.  They were powerless, unable to do anything without permission.  They – and Zugzwang itself – would be nothing more than a prize for the victor.  And …

Her heart twisted.  She wasn’t the only powerless person in the world.  Everyone in Zugzwang knew they existed at Void’s mercy, that he could rain fire and death on the town, that he could drive them away on a whim.  And beyond Zugzwang … there were countless men and women – commoners, serfs, slaves – who were caught in the middle, doomed to suffer in the fighting and then become prizes themselves.  It had been a good life, Maddy thought, but it was over.  The entire world was being turned upside down.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

Nothing.

Chapter One

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

Emily raised her head.  The chat parchment in front of her was dull and cold, practically lacking magic.  She’d worked hard to blend her magic with Alassa’s in a bid to make contact with Frieda, somewhere inside Whitehall, but nothing had happened.  She cursed, not for the first time, the loss of her own chat parchments.  The delicate magics within the parchment she’d tried to modify might not have survived her meddling.  She might as well have lit a match and set fire to it.

Her head swam.  It had been hours since she’d spoken to Void in the Dreamtime and she still felt tired, utterly disconnected from the world.  She’d slept afterwards – she’d thought she’d slept, Jan had sworn blind she’d slept – and yet she felt as if she’d been awake for days.  Her magic felt odd, as if her power was both at its peak and completely drained at the same time.  She wondered, grimly, if Void had bent his word to her.  He’d told her she was safe, within the Dreamtime, but he’d forgotten more magic than she’d ever known.  He could have found a way to strike at her, to weaken her, without ever quite breaking his word.

He certainly found a novel way to keep his oath to the Allied Lands, she reflected, sourly.  He thinks he’s protecting the Allied Lands, and therefore keeping his oath, by taking over.

Alassa cleared her throat, then repeated the question.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Emily flushed.  “Do I have a choice?”

“Yes.”  Alassa rested her hands on her hips.  “You can stay here and send someone else in your place.”

“There’s no one else, unless you want to send Nanette alone,” Emily pointed out.  “The two of us are the only ones who might be able to break into the tower.”

Alassa looked thoroughly displeased.  Emily understood.  Her friend – the Queen of Zangaria – had spent the last week trying to rally resistance to Void, a difficult task when the White Council was gone, the Allied Lands in ruins, the portal network destroyed and half the remaining magicians unsure of what was really going on.  Void’s plan might have gone off the rails – slightly – but he was already recovering.  It was just a matter of time before he pushed forward and finished the job.  Alassa had used Emily’s name as a rallying cry, used her reputation to convince outsiders to back her.  Losing Emily now would damage the cause beyond repair.

Emily sighed, inwardly.  She understood Alassa’s concerns.  Void’s Tower made the Tower of Alexis look utterly undefended … and breaking into the Tower of Alexis had been extremely difficult.  It had come very close to getting Emily killed.  And that had been with Jade and Cat, two men she trusted completely, by her side.  Nanette, on the other hand, had been a thorn in her flesh from the day they’d first met.  They might be allies now, but no one really trusted her.  Emily found it hard to turn her back on the other girl, even after their minds had touched.  Nanette wasn’t an ally, not really.  They just had a shared goal.

She ran her hand through her hair.  There simply wasn’t anyone else.  Jade was Alassa’s strong right hand.  The Queen needed him.  Jan was a skilled charmsmith – and her lover – but Emily wasn’t blind to his flaws, his lack of enthusiasm for actual fighting.  Caleb wasn’t much better.  Cat would have been ideal, but he was on the wrong side of the Craggy Mountains.  And Sergeant Miles …

Alassa was saying something.  Emily dragged her attention back to her.

“… We don’t even know the spells are safe,” Alassa said.  “Can you trust them?”

“I think so,” Emily said.  “They’ve been checked extensively.”

Alassa’s perfect lips twisted into a scowl.  “And if you’re wrong?”

Emily winced, inwardly.  Alassa wasn’t usually so … timorous, but – normally – the entire world wasn’t resting on her shoulders.  Zangaria had weathered the storm far better than its neighbours, in no small part due to the changes Emily had wrought, yet large swathes of the kingdom were still in chaos, with enemy troops loose on the wrong side of the border.  Void would turn his attention to the kingdom soon enough, they were sure; his enhanced troops and sorcerers would bolster the forces of the neighbouring kings as they invaded from three directions at once.  Alassa’s army was experienced, loyal and modern, but it wouldn’t be enough.  The moment Void had finish securing the nexus points, he’d deal with Zangaria.

And yet, she knew Alassa had a point.  Teleporting was dangerous, these days.  Void had used the nexus points to cast a spell over the land, overriding the preset destination and casting anyone who tried to teleport into Whitehall’s oubliette.  Emily had been there, years ago.  She knew it was impossible to escape, even for a skilled and powerful magician.  Void would have all the time in the world to inspect his prisoners, to determine if they were any use to him, then dispose of them if they weren’t.  The only way to teleport safely – from what they’d been able to determine – was to use a teleport gem.  And yet, even they weren’t completely trustworthy.  Emily had devised the concept, before the world had gone mad, but it had been Void who’d made it workable.  He knew the spells better than she did.

“The only other option is staying here and waiting for him to come get us,” she said, more tartly than she’d intended.  “We’re not ready to start the march to Whitehall yet.”

She rubbed her eyes, then stood, folded the chat parchment and passed it back to Alassa.  It hadn’t worked and she wasn’t sure why.  Frieda might be entranced, so deeply enspelled she wasn’t aware of time passing, or she might simply be held in stasis … or Void, knowing Frieda was the closest thing Emily had to a younger sister, had simply put her somewhere she could do no harm.  Or, perhaps, she’d accidentally ruined the parchment when she’d tried to modify the spells.  Writing messages hadn’t produced a response.  In truth, she feared the worst.  Void had the nexus point and control of the school’s wards.  He could keep everyone in the building entranced so deeply they forgot their own names.

“You are in no state to go,” Alassa said, as she slipped the parchment into her dress.  “You should rest first, before trying anything.”

“The longer we wait, the greater the chance he’ll do something to keep us out,” Emily said, although she knew Alassa was right.  “The tower is heavily defended.  If he erases us from the wards, we won’t be able to get to the walls, let alone inside.”

Alassa nodded, her lips thinning in disapproval, and led the way into the corridor.  Emily followed, wincing at the devastation.  The twin bouts of fighting had done immense damage, from tearing down tapestries and shattering suits of ancient armour to smashing doors and scorching the stone walls with traces of powerful magics  She wondered, as she eyed her friend’s back, if part of Alassa’s bad mode stemmed from the fact she no longer felt safe in her own castle.  Void’s troops had nearly captured her and her family, only a few short weeks ago.  The fighting to recover the castle before it was too late had been horrific.  And her loyalists had paid the price.

She spotted a serving girl, hastily pressing herself into the wall as the queen and the kingdom’s foremost noblewoman walked past.  Emily felt a twinge of sympathy for the young woman, barely entering her teens.  She’d been caught in the middle when the invaders had stormed the castle, held prisoner until Alassa and Jade had rallied their forces and struck back … and now, like the rest of the surviving staff, unable to leave the castle without permission.  Void had proved himself a master of mind control – and infiltration.  The young girl might be an unwitting spy, programmed to report to her master without ever being aware of her actions.  No truth spell could reveal the truth if she didn’t know it herself.  Emily had considered using soul magic, in hopes of identifying the unwilling spies, but the risks were just too high.  Void could easily have planted a booby trap in their minds to take out anyone foolish enough to try.

Jade met them as they descended the stairs.  “Emily,” he said.  His tone was flat, his words blunt.  And he had a black eye.  “The sergeant is growing worse.”

Emily winced.  “There’s no improvement?”

“No.”  Jade shook his head, curtly.  “One moment, he’s perfectly normal; the next” – he touched the blacked eye – “he’s lashing out at everyone, apparently convinced he’s on the verge of being sacrificed by a necromancer.  His chambers are surrounded by the most powerful wards we can devise and yet … his magic is still threatening to burn out of control.  If he loses it completely …”

“I know.”  Emily had been cautioned, more than once, that a sorcerer who went mad might start tapping into levels of power beyond any sane sorcerer.  She’d read a handful of books – all banned, with good reason – that suggested madness made it impossible for the sorcerers to know their limits, allowing them to push well past them.  “We can keep him asleep, can’t we?”

Jade shot her a pitying look.  “Not for long,” he cautioned.  “His magic is resisting the potions and there are limits to how much Durian we can feed him.  Even non-magical sleeping draughts are only having a limited effect.  You might need to consider a final solution.”

Emily grimaced.  Sergeant Miles was the last of the major adults in her life.  Sergeant Harkin, Grandmaster Hasdrubal, Lady Barb … even King Randor and Void himself … had all left her, all dead save for Void.  She didn’t want to kill him, or send him to his death, and yet she knew the sergeant would sooner die than go mad, his madness contaminating the entire world.  Alassa would have killed Sergeant Miles herself, or ordered him killed, if he hadn’t been … him.  Keeping him in the castle was just too dangerous.  And yet …

I could take him away with me, she thought.  But where?

Her mind churned.  There had to be something she could do.  But what?  The Nameless World had no concept of curing the insane, of helping the mad back to sanity.  The mere idea was regarded with naked horror, simply because a maddened sorcerer’s madness was the only thing that made it possible to defeat him.  Void wasn’t mad, just … convinced he was doing the right thing.  A necromancer, or a madman, was dangerously unpredictable.  They tended to lose track of what they were doing …

“We’ll deal with him after we get back,” she said.  “Please keep an eye on him.”

“I will,” Jade said.  “But you do understand we can’t keep him under control much longer?”

Emily said nothing as they walked into the next chamber.  The teleport gems were laid out on the workbench, waiting for Jan to finish slipping them into the spell lattice.  Nanette stood by the wall, flanked by Sienna and a nervous-looking guardsman, who’d probably been assigned to escort her as a red line.  He wore a suit of charmed armour, covered in runes that would absorb or deflect spells hurled at him, but a sorceress as powerful and capable as Nanette would have no trouble finding a way through to him.  If nothing else, she could simply levitate a rock and hurl it at him with all the force of a cannonball, cracking his armour like an eggshell.  Emily hoped Alassa would find a way to reward the guard.  He hadn’t volunteered to follow a sorceress who could kill him on a whim.

“Emily,” Nanette said.  Her accent had changed, from a slightly-haughty magical accent to something that was a closer match to Emily’s own.  “Are you ready to go?”

Emily studied her thoughtfully.  Nanette looked … ordinary, neither an aristocrat nor a serving maid.  She had long brown hair and a bland face, the kind of appearance that would go unnoticed unless she chose to step into the light; she wore a simple shirt and leggings that could have belonged to anyone from a merchant’s daughter to a peasant woman working the fields.  Her clothes were carefully tailored, neither designed to show off her curves nor hide them completely.  Emily guessed it would be a matter of moments for Nanette to change her appearance to the point that no one, even someone who knew what she looked like, would recognise her.  She could even, by hiding her hair and tightening her clothes in all the right places, pass for a young man.  And there was no magic involved in the transformation, not at all.  She was just plain good at disguising herself.

Which gives her an edge, Emily thought, crossly.  She knew how to use magic to disguise herself, to pass as something she wasn’t or simply keep people from looking at her too closely, but she knew she couldn’t fool another magician.  It was a breach of etiquette to peer through someone’s glamour, yet the mere presence of a disguise spell was proof the user had something to hide.  Nanette could walk right through a set of sensing wards and no one would realise she had something to hide.

“Just about,” she said.  They’d planned the operation as best as they could, but too much of their planning was based on guesswork.  There were sections of the tower that neither of them had been allowed to see.  They didn’t even know if the maids were still there.  Void could easily have sent them home with generous payments and sealed the tower … if he’d had the time.  “And yourself?”

“Ready.”  Nanette grinned, as if she expected the operation to be easy.  Emily suspected it was just another facade.  She’d hate to face Nanette across the poker table.  “And then we go on to Whitehall.”

“If you want to take a shot at him alone, you can go.”  Alassa’s voice was cold and hard.  “If you want to actually have a chance to succeed, you should wait for the rest of us.”

Nanette dropped a perfect curtsey.  “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

Emily groaned, inwardly.  Alassa and Nanette stood in odd contrast to one another.  Alassa was the centre of attention, her beauty and carefully-tailored dress marking her as someone to watch; Nanette was a living shadow who could present the impression of being whatever she liked, someone who practically went unnoticed unless she made her presence obvious.  And yet, they had a great deal in common.  They were both powerful magicians, they’d both been taught to keep their full powers carefully hidden from the outside world …

And they both hate each other, Emily thought.  Alassa had nearly been killed, through Nanette’s manipulations; Imaiqah had lost a father who’d been a good and decent man.  Emily wasn’t sure how Nanette felt about Alassa, but she’d be surprised if Nanette – a common-born magician – didn’t feel a twinge of contempt for the girl who’d been born with a silver spoon in her mouth.  As long as they work together long enough to win the war.

“We’ll go as soon as the spell is ready,” Emily said.  “Jan?”

“I’ve calculated the correct configuration to slip through the spellweb,” Jan said, as he slipped the final crystals into place.  “You shouldn’t have any trouble getting there, but you’ll materialise very close to Zugzwang rather than the tower.  I don’t want to risk trying to drop you any closer.  The tower has its own defences, as you know, and the raw magic further up the mountain will make your life interesting if you brush against it without proper preparations.”

“Interesting,” Nanette repeated.  There was a hint of amusement in her voice.  “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Jan held up a pair of gemstones.  “I’ve spelled these to drop you back here, just outside the walls,” he said.  “Don’t try them inside the castle unless you’re desperate.  I tried to duplicate the spells he used, to allow you to teleport out of Whitehall, but I can’t swear they’ll work.”

“Whitehall didn’t want me dead,” Emily said, wryly.  “The tower might have other ideas.”

“He was the only one who could allow teleporting in or out of the tower,” Nanette agreed.  She glanced at Jade, her eyes going wide in a show of girlish enthusiasm.  “Do we have any up to date intelligence on the situation in Zugzwang?”

Emily sensed Alassa tensing beside her.  Jade, to his credit, didn’t seem impressed.

“The last reports from the region suggested there was little trouble, beyond a handful of brief clashes between low-level aristocrats and commoners,” Jade said.  “That was two weeks ago.  I sent a pair of agents with chat parchments to report back, once we knew what was actually going on, but they haven’t arrived yet.”

“No,” Emily agreed.  A month ago, she could have teleported across the entire world in less than a second.  Now, teleporting was dangerous and travelling from one side of Zangaria to the other would take weeks, even if they didn’t run into bandits, rebels and invading armies, all bent on looting, raping and burning their way across the country.  Law and order had broken down everywhere.   “We’ll be there ahead of them.”

She looked at the glowing crystal, then hefted her knapsack and slung it over her shoulder.  There was no point in delaying, not any longer.  Time was definitely not on her side.  She held out a hand, steadying herself as Nanette took it.  She didn’t trust the other woman very far – not very far at all – but she understood Nanette’s desire for revenge.  Void had killed her first true father-figure, then used the death to manipulate her.  She had a score to settle with him.

Emily smiled as the others stepped back, then reached out and touched the crystal.  The world went white …

… And then plunged into darkness.

Chapter Twenty

13 May

Also here – https://authornuttall.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=8&p=250#p250

Chapter Twenty

“The only easy day was yesterday,” I said, cheerfully.  “Tomorrow will be a great deal harder.”

I hid my amusement with an effort as I stood in the training field, surveying a scene that would have made my old drill instructors faint in horror.  The troops in front of me looked decidedly the worst for wear.  It would have been easy to think we’d lost the battle, rather than smashed the enemy army and given the warlord a bloody nose.  A couple of days of wine, women and song – I was amused to note that some of the songs I’d rewritten had already spread from one end of the city to the other – had clearly taken their toll.  I just hoped the men understood we’d won the battle, rather than the war.

“We gave the bastards a damn good kicking,” I continued.  “We blasted them to hell and back and send them running home, crying for their mamas.  But next time, they’re not going to come in so fat and happy.  They’re going to know what we can do and be a little more careful.  We have to be ready for them.”

I allowed the words to hang in the air as my gaze moved over the troops, lingering briefly on the handful of prospective sergeants.  I hoped – God, I hoped – that my judgement wasn’t flawed.  There was no support structure, not here; there were no MPs to enforce my judgements nor senior officers who’d actually understand what I was doing.  A single bad apple could and would poison the entire batch.  I’d gained one hell of a lot of credit when I’d led the troops to victory, but … victory had a habit of concealing all the problems that could have easily proven fatal, if the battle had gone the other way.  It was easy to learn from defeat, harder to learn from victory.

“So … we’re not going to take it easy.”  I gave them a cold smile.  “We’ll be working even harder to get back into shape, so we’ll be ready when the shit starts flying again.”

I kept an eye on them as I led them on a long march, alternating between running and walking to push them to the limit.  There was surprisingly little grumbling, despite the hangovers from too much alcohol and dubious potions.  It worried me a little.  Grunts always grumbled, in my experience.  When they didn’t, it suggested their CO was a dipshit or someone was planning something.  But here … I told myself, firmly, that everything I’d put them through had been soundly validated during the battle.  They knew – now – I hadn’t been making them suffer because of sadism.

And having the entire city turn out for them can’t have hurt either, I thought.  They have pride in themselves now.

The grumbling didn’t get any worse as we sweated out the alcohol, then started the march back to the garrison.  Rupert had arranged a rapid expansion, dispatching a small army of carpenters to build more barracks and training grounds for the growing army.  I would have preferred to barrack the men inside the city itself, behind solid stone walls, but the city fathers had flatly refused any suggestion the men should be allowed to live freely inside the city.  I supposed they had a point.  It would be a great deal harder to desert if one had to cover a mile of flat ground, rather than just leave the garrison, turn the corner and vanish.

We stopped by the mess hall, the men looking tired but happy.  The suspicious bastard in me wondered if they were up to something.  The more optimistic part of me kept insisting we had won a battle and it would take a few more days for the post-victory thrill to wear off.  I hoped I was right as I turned to face them.  I didn’t need more trouble.  I had Harbin lurking in the background, no doubt planning trouble himself.  He’d been assigned to raise more cavalry regiments.  Rupert had insisted it would keep him busy.  I had my doubts about that too.

“Horst, Fallows” – I snapped out three more names – “remain behind.  The rest of you, go stuff your faces.”

The men cheered and hurried into the mess hall.  I made a mental note to work on discipline later, then turned to the five men I’d held back.  They looked torn between eagerness and concern, if not fear.  Being singled out by one’s commanding officer was rarely a good thing here, where commanding officers could use their men as slaves – or beat them to death – without consequences.  That was going to change, I vowed as I led the prospective sergeants into the training hall and motioned for them to relax.  The army was going to treat its recruits like family, not tools that happened to think.

“The first set of new recruits will be arriving this afternoon,” I said.  I would have been happier if things hadn’t moved quite so fast, but we needed to get the process well underway before the city fathers started having second thoughts.  Or the recruits themselves started thinking better of their sudden attack of patriotism.  “You five have been tapped to serve as training officers.  The good news is that there will be more pay.  The bad news is that there will be more responsibility – and if you fuck up you will be in deep shit.”

I allowed my voice to harden.  “You know how I trained you.  You know – now – that the training served a useful purpose.  I expect you, if you accept these positions, to do the same as I did.  If you mistreat the recruits, if you bully them or steal from them or forget your duty to train them as I trained you, I will fucking take you behind the bike shed and break you.  Is that clear?”

They nodded, hastily.  They might not know what a bike shed was – I hadn’t seen anything resembling a bicycle on the streets – but they got the general idea.  I took advantage of their silence to outline the training program, talking them though everything I’d done – to them, when they’d been raw recruits – and explaining the rationale behind it.  They listened nervously, as if they were too worried to ask questions.  I sighed, inwardly.  I wouldn’t have complained if they’d asked questions.  It was often the only way to learn.

“Some of you have done training duties before,” I finished.  “This will be profoundly different.  Do not, and I mean do not, fuck it up.”

I dismissed them to the mess hall, then followed, hiding my concerns behind a blank mask.  It was hard to play the bully without actually being a bully, without going too far and crossing the line into outright sadism.  I’d heard stories of troops who fought because they were more afraid of their commanding officers than the enemy, but they rarely ended well.  The poor bastards who’d tried to stop us when we invaded Iraq had often surrendered, when their commanding officers were blown away.  A number had even shot the regime’s mouthpieces in the back and simply gone home.  I wanted them to be a solid cadre of training instructors, not bullies.  I promised myself that, if any of them screwed up, I’d stamp on them so hard we could use them for paper.

“The section leaders will escort you to weapons practice,” I said, when the troops finished eating.  “I’ll join you in an hour or so.”

I gathered the instructors and headed back to the training ground.  There was a spell, I’d been told, that allowed someone to be in two places at once … I wished I could do it, although I had no idea how it actually worked.  It was hard enough to multitask in one body, let alone two.  I shook my head, putting the thought aside as I strode into the training ground.  The new recruits were waiting for us.  They looked surprisingly eager.  My eyes swept over them, feeling a twinge of amusement.  This was no motley collection of drunkards, poor men and petty criminals given the choice between the army or mutilation.  They’d actually volunteered to join.  I spotted shopboys and the teenage children of prosperous merchants and a recruit who looked suspiciously like a woman in male clothing.  I wondered, idly, how she intended to maintain her disguise in the barracks.  There was no privacy, even in the privies …

“Welcome,” I said.  “I am Master Sergeant Elliot” – I’d effectively given myself a promotion, although the rank structure was so fluid I doubted anyone would notice until lifted myself up to General – “second-in-command of this garrison and chief instructor.  With me are sergeants …”

I ran through the same spiel I’d given the first time around, with a handful of tiny modifications.  The recruits would know their rights, although if they wasted my time by complaining someone expected them to actually work they’d regret it.  I had a feeling there would probably be some issues.  Damansara wasn’t very democratic, as I understood the team, but citizens had certain rights.  The shopboys considered themselves a step or two above the lowest of the low.  They might try to protest if we pushed them around.

They can try, I told myself.

I answered a couple of questions, then directed the recruits on a march and hammered basic commands into their heads.  They did better than I’d expected, although some grumbled more than others.  I wondered, idly, if they’d expected a training montage they could just breeze through, making them trained men at the end of the day.  It wasn’t that hard to train men to use muskets, and other basic firearms, but if they didn’t learn to work together they were going to be of very limited value.  I kept a wary eye on the new sergeants as I let them take the lead, hoping and praying none of them screwed up.  Thankfully, my warnings seemed to have sunk in.  They behaved themselves.

A messenger arrived, just as the new recruits were being marched to the mess hall for their first taste of military food.  “Sir, the special recruits are on their way.”

“When they arrive, have them shown into Bond Hall,” I ordered.  It hadn’t been easy to locate enough special recruits.  I’d had to promise Seles an exclusive interview in exchange for his help.  “Have them served food” – a sign, by local custom, that one was welcome – “and then inform me.”

“Yes, sir.”

The messenger hurried off.  I winced, inwardly.  Rupert knew what I was doing – vaguely – but he hadn’t asked anything like enough questions.  He wouldn’t be the first commanding officer I’d had who’d wanted to maintain a certain degree of plausible deniability, just in case he had to pretend he’d been ignorant of what I was doing, yet … he faced worse than a court martial if my plans turned into a political hot potato.  I cursed under my breath.  The city fathers blew hot and cold all the goddamned time.  It would be so much easier if they just left the triumvirate alone to get on with it.

Not that Harbin would let me do it, if he knew what I was doing, I thought.  And Lord Winter is about as effective as a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

I sighed inwardly as I spoke briefly to Fallows, leaving him in charge of the sergeants and the recruits, then headed to Bond Hall.  It wasn’t much, just a framework building that could easily have passed for a gym ball.  I stepped inside, taking a moment to inspect the special recruits before they noticed me.  There were ten of them, in hard-worn clothes with hard-worn faces.  A couple looked vaguely familiar.  They might have been amongst the men I’d freed, back when I’d been a guardsmen.  I hoped so.  It would be helpful if some of them had reason to trust me.

They turned to face me, looking worried.  I didn’t really blame them.  Seles had promised safe conduct, if they came to meet me at the garrison, but they had no reason to trust his word.  Or mine, come to think of it.  The city spent half its time exploiting runaway serfs and the other half rounding them up and sending them back into slavery.  That was going to change, I was sure.  There’d be no need to send the serfs back after we’d thrashed their masters and given the poor bastards their freedom.

“Many weeks ago, I freed a bunch of you from captivity,” I said.  They’d know what I’d done, I was sure, even if none of them had actually been there.  “Do you remember?”

“Yes,” one of them said.  His voice was thick with doubt.  “Was that really you?”

I nodded.  “I got caught in a sorcerer’s trap,” I reminded them.  “And I ended up looking a complete fool.”

They eyed me thoughtfully.  I hoped that meant they’d listen.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

“The war isn’t over,” I said.  “Warlord Asshole” – I saw them smile – “is going to resume the offensive, the moment he thinks he can win.  It won’t take him long to obtain muskets for his own men, train them in their use and point them at us.  Even before then, he can keep the pressure up by harassing convoys heading towards the city or simply blocking his farmers from shipping food to us.  A smart commander would realise that trying to starve us out – rather than meet us on the battlefield – is the better option.  And if he does, he might just win.”

“How reassuring,” the spokesman said, dryly.

I smiled.  “We are currently working on building up our forces to give him a bloody nose when he tries again, which he will, and take the offensive,” I told them.  “I need two things from you, both of which will make it easier to plan a more … final end to the war.  If you assist us, you will be granted citizenship and a hefty financial reward.”

The spokesman met my eyes.  “And if we refuse?”

“You can go back to the city and vanish into the population,” I told him.  “The choice is yours.”

I waited, bracing myself.  They had no love for their former masters.  They wouldn’t have fled if they hadn’t been discontented.  And yet, they had no reason to trust me – or my masters – either.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already considering contingency plans, for when – if – I betrayed them.  I’d had nothing to lose, as far as they were concerned, when I’d broken some of them out of captivity.  Now … I had altogether too much to lose.

And none of it is permanent, I reminded myself, as they exchanged speaking glances.  It could be taken away at any moment.

“We’ll stay,” the spokesman said.  “What do you want us to do?”

“Two things,” I said.  “First, we know very little about lands beyond the city’s formal border.  The maps show roads and suchlike, but little more.  I need you to help fill in the blanks, to tell me where the farms and villages and strongpoints and castles are … to tell me, if you know, how the warlord actually governs his lands.  Everything, basically.  Who did you report to, when you were there; who they report to … and so on and so on, right up the chain.  I have a lot of questions and more will develop, I’m sure, as you tell me more about the warlord’s lands.”

“We can try,” the spokesman said.  “But many of us had very restricted lives.”

“Every little helps,” I assured him.  I wasn’t expecting vast qualities of completely trustworthy intelligence.  The serfs – even their masters – lived in very limited worlds.  They knew very little about life fifty miles away, let alone the other side of the world.  Places like Zangaria and Alluvia might as well be Narnia or Neverland, as far as they were concerned.  “I just need an idea of how things work.”

The spokesman nodded.  “And the second thing?”

I let out a breath.  Rupert knew I intended to learn from the runaways.  He didn’t know what else I intended to ask them to do.

“I want some of you to go back and prepare your people for liberation,” I said.  Serf revolts were apparently common, even though they were brutally crushed very quickly.  “I want you to tell them that we’ll be coming, to take weapons and supplies and whatever else you need to give your people a fighting chance.  Tell anyone who wants their freedom to plan for an uprising, but to wait until our troops are in position to support them.  It will happen sooner than you think.”

The spokesman scowled at me.  “Really?”

“I hope so,” I said.  “I’ve already placed orders for thousands of muskets, flintlocks, cannons, barrels of gunpowder and everything else we’ll need to fight a war.  It’ll be easy to skim a few of each off the top, for you to smuggle into the warlord’s lands.  I don’t promise the uprising will be easy, but it might be better for you if you and your people play a major role in your own liberation, instead of waiting for someone else to free you.  It can be done.”

“We need to discuss it,” the spokesman said.

“I’ll give you an hour,” I said.  “Once I’m back, you can give me your answer.”

I left them alone and went to check on the recruits, then the more experienced soldiers.  The section leaders were doing better than I’d expected – if that continued, I promised myself, they’d become sergeants or lieutenants in their own right.  The troops, newly aware of just how formidable their muskets could be, were training hard.  I calculated that they’d be shooting four balls a minute within the week.

As long as supplies hold out, I thought, we should be able to win.

The spokesman greeted me when I returned to the hall.  “We’ve decided to accept your offer,” he said.  “If you give us the supplies, we’ll take them home.”

“Good.”  I allowed myself a moment of relief.  The runaway serf community was fairly tight-knit.  If they said no, the rest of the community would probably say the same.  “Now, let us discuss the lay of the land.”

What? More Updates?

10 May

Hi, everyone

This is just a really quick update <grin>.

I’ve finished the first draft of The Zero Secret and it is currently on its way to the editor.  I don’t know how long it will take to incorporate everything, but hopefully it won’t take too long.  The cover has been completed and you can see it by clicking this link

Both Drake’s Drum and Void’s Tale are also waiting on their final edits, which will hopefully be completed shortly.  The former needed a considerable amount of smoothing out – horror of horrors – and then real life got in the way.  On the plus side, both Cast Adrift and The Face of the Enemy have done very well and I hope to start work on Child of Destiny shortly.

I’m not sure when yet.  For various reasons, this week needs to be kept relatively free of large-scale projects.  I don’t know precisely how things are going to go – I thought I’d be somewhere else today – but I do have a list of small-scale things that need doing and possibly a few more Stuck in Magic chapters. 

That said, we are hopeful that Fantastic Schools III (including a Schooled in Magic novella) will be out shortly, followed rapidly by Fantastic Middle Schools (including a pair of short The Zero Enigma stories).  And, as always, if you want to submit a story for the next collection, check out the details here.

In the longer term, I’m still considering what to do.  Do you want …

More Cast Adrift?

More The Empire’s Corps?

More The Zero Enigma?

Or something completely new?

Let me know!

Chris