Archive | September, 2021

Emily’s Hypocrisy (Or Lack Thereof)

30 Sep

Emily’s Hypocrisy (Or Lack Thereof)

Half my family is ill, so I wound up doing this instead of continuing with The Family Secret.  Sigh.

There’s been some chatter in reviews of The Face of the Enemy and Child of Destiny that can be summarised as ‘Emily is a hypocrite because she is opposing someone who is trying to do the exact same thing she did in Cockatrice, just on a bigger scale.’  Obviously, as David Weber would put it, I disagree with that assessment.  And this is roughly why:

First, Emily is a child of our world.  She is not, by modern standards, any kind of paleoconservative.  Even if she was, and she went to a world that operates on very medieval principles, they would see her as the liberalist liberal who ever liberaled.  She has imbued attitudes towards other people, such as the radical idea that people aren’t property or the even more radical concept of might not making right, that are quite alien to her new world.

Seriously. You put a far-right guy somewhere 200 years into the past and he’ll be so far to the left Karl Marx will think he’s a cloudcookoolander.

Anyway, Emily does not believe she has the right to treat people as her personal slaves and/or to treat them as objects.  There’s a little nuance here – she believes one has to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves – but generally she’ll leave people alone as long as they leave others alone.

Second, Emily in Cockatrice is not Scarlet O’Hara in Tara.  She has no emotional connection to the barony, let alone any real belief that both the land and the people who work it are her property.  There’s no incentive, as far as she is concerned, to keep the barony because it is hers or to perpetrate a retrograde social system because she’s on top and/or because she believes it’s her duty to her family.  She also has the great advantage that most of the barony’s former elite have been attainted for treason or, if underage, King Randor’s de facto wards rather than being in any position to oppose her.

In short, when faced with the task of re-ordering the barony, Emily’s prime motivation was not her own wealth, power and glory.

Third, when she started, she basically handed out land like candy.  She did an assessment, between Lessons in Etiquette and Study in Slaughter, and generally gave out the land to the people who worked it (who were basically tied to land they didn’t own, de facto slaves, before Emily came along).  She didn’t want to keep the land, beyond the castle itself, and therefore did her best to make sure it went to the people who wanted it.  She also, given her prominence within the barony, took the time to reorder the laws, wipe out half-remembered agreements or documents written in ways the slaves couldn’t read, and generally make sure things were put on a more stable basis.

She also did a degree of tax reform.  Peasants had to give up one tenth, in cash or kind, and everything after that was theirs.

Remember, Emily spent most of her life studying history.  She knows that proper land and taxation reform can make the difference between successful states and failures.

Fourth, beyond this point, Emily let people do more or less as they pleased, relying on their self-interest to do the rest.  Farmers knew how to get more crops from their lands, they were just reluctant to do it – understandably – when their local landlords took pretty much everything beyond they little they needed to survive.  And it worked.  Crop production boomed, triggering off demands for similar reforms in other baronies or mass flight when the local landlords decided to be stubborn.  The sudden surplus brought in more money, which continued to fuel a growing economic boom.  It also made it harder, for the handful of young aristocrats as they came of age, to put the genie back in the bottle.  Emily wasn’t going to help them, they no longer had indentured servants to put to work or armsmen to beat up the unwilling and the king (and later the queen) wasn’t particularly interested in rocking the boat.

Obviously, you can make a case Emily stole their patrimony – and they certainly would.  But Emily wouldn’t be remotely sympathetic to their claim.  As far as she is concerned, there’s no moral difference between powerless serfs tied to their overlords and outright slaves.  They are not property and she wouldn’t go along with anything that would reduce them to servitude once again.

The point is, Emily did very little (relatively speaking).  She set up the basics, ensured a degree of fair play and equality before the law (another radical concept) and little else. 

This isn’t true of others.  Some of Emily’s opponents really do see their subordinates as property.  Others think they have a right to rule through blood or magic.  And still others, including her final enemy, think they know what’s best for everyone and therefore that they have a right to impose their own order, regardless of the opinion of the people being imposed upon.  They think they not only have the right to take control, but they actually can do it.

Emily knows this is not going to work.  The aristocrats, with their bloodlines, will decay rapidly.  The historical pattern suggests successful kings are followed by unsuccessful sons.  The fascistic concept that magic means power and the right to rule also means that the fascist will eventually, inevitably, be overthrown by a greater fascist or plunge their country/family into a war they cannot win.  And the belief someone knows better is almost always nothing more than wishful thinking.  It is impossible for someone at the top of the tree to know everything that is going on, let alone make adjustments for it.  Even with the best will in the world, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of detail and eventually disaster will become inevitable.  The USSR could never compete with the US because central command and control was simply inefficient, as well as providing powerful perverse incentives for someone to cook the books.

In short, which is a bit of a joke after a thousand or so words <grin>, Emily does not see herself as imposing her ideals on everyone, but ensuring a degree of fair play, a clear understanding of the rules and other incentives to both reward hard work and penalise people who try to cheat the system.  It is not perfect, but – from her point of view as a history student – better than many other possible approaches. 

YMMV, of course.

Pulp, Literature and Alternate History

29 Sep

Pulp, Literature and Alternate History

Shortly before I found myself in hospital, I started reading my way through most of Robert A. Heinlein’s works, a quest that I continued while in a hospital bed and eventually turned into Heinlein in Reflection, a short piece of literary criticism focused on Heinlein’s work.  The determination to understand why Heinlein had become and remains popular eventually lead to a realisation about science-fiction and fantasy writing (and indeed other genres).  Each and every book rests on a line drawn between ‘pure pulp’ and ‘pure literature.’

Now, ‘pulp’ is action and adventure.  The Lensmen and Skylark books of the early eras of science-fiction are both heavily pulpy.  They are focused on actions and have very little to say, at least as more than an aside, about the human condition.  ‘Literature’, on the other hand, is all about big ideas and the human condition.  Novels such as Foundation and Rendezvous with Rama are pretty much pure literature.  They are slower to get started than their pulpy counterparts – Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell is very slow to start – but once you get into them they stick.

My theory, regarding Heinlein, was that his earlier books struck an excellent balance between pulp and big ideas, as well as exploring the human condition.  His books all touched upon ‘coming of age’ concepts (more so in the juveniles) while also offering enough pulp to lure the reader into the story.  Red Planet is focused on a struggle against outside interference, and the heroes become part of the battle, yet the way they are brought into the events allows Heinlein to show both the underlying issues of the story and how they can be resolved.  In more general terms, I think this is true of books that have stood the test of time.  The War of the Worlds manages to combine both the war against the Fighting Machines (pulp) and musings on colonialism  (literature). 

Put simply, readers come for the exploding spaceships/daring adventures and stick around for philosophical concepts. 

Alternate History offers writers a chance to both explore wars or campaigns that never happened (and perhaps were never likely to happen) as well as exploring the worlds they created, the questions they raised and considering the likely outcome of major changes in the timeline.  One can both write a story of the defence of Washington after the CSA won the Battle of Gettysburg and explore the implications of the CSA taking the city, or trying and failing to take the city.  A more detailed look at how things would have stacked up, assuming the CSA got into position to storm Washington DC, would tell you many interesting things about how the Civil War really worked.  You can explore the how and why of history by discussing what would have happened if …

This is, in my view, the charm  of the genre.  You can take a look at options not taken – Operation Sealion, for example – and write a story following an attempt to put the plans into action.  Or you can consider a war that never happened, perhaps a clash between the UK and the US in 1930, and write a story following the development of the war from the first engagement to the final outcome.  There is no need, on the surface, to stick that close to detail.  You can get a very good tale without getting everything right.  At the same time, you can’t get too far away from the real world.  The Germans might have invaded Britain if they had ten Bismarck-class battleships to support the landing, but the blunt truth is that they didn’t have anything like enough warships to defeat Home Fleet in open battle. 

Pulp does not need to be perfect.  It just needs to be fun.

Or you can pretend that Sealion went off without a hitch, Britain fell and now your heroes are mounting an insurgency against the Nazis.  At this point, you are starting to slip further towards the literature end of the scale.  How do you fight an insurgency when Britain is apparently alone?  How many people will join you?  How many will collaborate?  How many would like to join you, but are too scared?  (There are lots of jokes about millions of Frenchmen joining the resistance on VE-Day, yet we must be honest.  It is very hard to risk one’s life and one’s family when there is seemingly no hope of victory.) 

These stories can work very well, if done properly.  They need to conjure the impression of a very different world, yet remain focused on the characters.  Harry Turtledove’s Ruled Britannia does both and very well too.

They can also focus on other things.  There is no reason why one can’t have a detective story, or a romance story, or indeed any sort of story that is primarily pulp, but includes literature elements.  The latter are what makes the story last.

And then we move into the territory of pure literature.  Literature books have action and adventure, but they’re not the primary draw.  The Two Georges (Harry Turtledove) is an exploration of a very different world, rather than a story focused on solving the mystery of the missing painting.  Hitler Has Won is a glimpse into the horrors of a victorious Nazi Germany.  It has very little action, and by pulpy standards it is a failure, but as a vision of a world where the Nazis won it is very good.  The author pulls no punches and rightly so.

This doesn’t always work out so well.  How Few Remain is both an excellent overview of an alternate America (and a second clash between the USA and the CSA) and has enough action to draw me in, but its sequels lost me somewhere around the alternate WW2.  Turtledove is more interested in his alternate history than his people, which is something of a weakness when anyone can die and the story doesn’t keep the reader’s interest.

At the extreme, there are books that are detailed campaign histories (Invasion 1940 or The Hitler Options) or basically written timelines and guides to alternate worlds (For Want of a Nail, Look to the West).  They don’t have any characters, not beyond mentions in alternate history writings; they draw in readers who are more interested in overall histories than following characters.  They are not for the casual reader.

Finally, and most importantly, there are books that combine both pulp and literature aspects to draw in the readers and keep them.

There has been a lot of chatter about The Guns of the South, recently, so I’m going to start with one of the best ASB books on the market.  The pulpy elements are the introduction of modern weapons and the effects they have on the battlefield, from the CSA rebounding and suddenly winning its independence to the second war against the AWB terrorists.  Turtledove makes it very convincing and deserves credit for it.  The literature elements are the slow realisation that the CSA was not going to win, and that the Confederates were on the wrong side of history, and – finally – that now they have won they have to start thinking about what sort of nation they want to be.  Turtledove allows his characters to grow and develop, to question the rightness of slavery and eventually decide to abolish it.  It is possible to argue, from a real world point of view, that abolishing slavery would have been pretty much impossible (even if General Lee wanted to make it happen and modern research suggests he wouldn’t).  However, for the good of the book, it had to happen.  We side with the characters because we can see them slowly realising they need to change.

The Draka books can work along the same lines.  On one hand, they portray a military campaign and occupation that would never have happened in the real history.  On the other, they do touch on precisely what the Draka actually are, as well as their impact on the rest of the world.  It’s easy to get drawn into the hero’s view in the first book, then have the veil torn away as you realise the Draka are such monsters they make the Nazis look good.  And then you realise they might well be unbeatable (to be fair, as Ian Montgomtie noted years ago, Stirling wrote the books before the fall of the Iron Curtain). 

A lot depends on the writing.  Stars and Stripes Forever was a failure on both sides.  It does not portray battles very well (the battle between the ironclads is appallingly bad; the rest is not much better) nor does it explore the real-life implications of the UK entering the American Civil War (particularly not as a third power, which is so improbable as to require ASB intervention).

Is there a point to this?  Good question.

If one is an enthusiast about something – anything – there is a certain tendency to get bogged down in the weeds and ignore what makes the genre interesting to the average newcomer.  An alternate historian may spend hours detailing the development of German tanks in an alternate WW2 where Germany never declares war on the United States; the average reader may not be so interested in the nuts and bolts, the little details that will impress the enthusiast (for example, the appearance of Henry Stuart in Look to the West) and prefer, instead, a solid story that draws their attention and holds it, even if they know relatively little – or nothing – of history.  Indeed, their interest in the nuts and bolts may be sparked by alternate history; The Guns of the South certainly interested me in the American Civil War, despite the book’s weaknesses. 

Whether we care to admit it or not, alternate history is something of a niche interest.  There are only a handful of truly successful mainstream alternate history writers – most people who write in the field started in other genres – and most of the alternate histories we see on TV and film are based in other franchises (Star Trek, What If, ‘For Want of a Nail’ Fan Fiction).  The perception that one needs to be grounded in real history to understand alternate history, and that one really needs to have an interest in history, is damaging to the genre, because it encourages readers to skip our books. 

There is nothing wrong, of course, with being an enthusiast.  However, if one’s intention is to draw in new readers, particularly readers who are already spooked by long-running series that may never be finished – Game of Thrones being the obvious example – one must consider that not everyone is as enthusiastic as one’s self and therefore do one’s best to provide material that will interest the newcomer as well as the enthusiast.

In short, one must give room to pulp as well as literature when it comes to writing alternate history.

Out Now – The Cunning Man (A Schooled In Magic Spin-Off)

27 Sep

Schooled in Magic Spin-Off!

Adam of Beneficence wanted to be a magician, and even undertook a magical apprenticeship, but there isn’t a single spark of magic in his entire body.  In desperation, his master arranged for him to study at Heart’s Eye University, a former school of magic that has become a university, a place where magicians and mundanes can work to combine their talents and forge the future together. 

But all is not well at Heart’s Eye.  The magical and mundane apprentices resent and fear each other, the teaching staff is unsure how to shape the university and, outside, powerful forces are gathering to snuff out the future before it can take shape.  As Adam starts his new apprenticeship, and stumbles across a secret that could reshape the world, he finds himself drawn into a deadly plot that could destroy the university …

… And leave Lady Emily’s legacy in flaming ruins.  

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links here: AmazonBooks2Read.  The novella that was rewritten and expanded into a full novel can be found in Fantastic Schools III

Snippet – The Family Secret (The Zero Enigma XI)

13 Sep


Alonzo FitzRubén awoke, in pain.

The world around him was dark, dark and gloomy.  His memories were a confused mess, flashes of words and images that didn’t seem to be in any coherent order.  He’d been in the city, he’d been speaking to Charlotte … to Charlotte Rubén, who hated him and resented, bitterly, the family’s order that she should marry him.  Alonzo knew how she felt.  He hadn’t been too pleased when he’d been plucked out of the training program, his contract sold to House Rubén shortly before he reached his majority.  Sure, they’d made noises about honouring him as one of their own, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that they’d termed him ‘FitzRubén.’  One of them, yet not quite one of them.  They were more considerate to literal family bastards.

He gritted his teeth as he tried to sit up.  His body was aching, as if he’d been brutally beaten to within an inch of his life, but nothing seemed to be broken.  The air was old and dank, pressing against his lungs as he tried to breathe.  His eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dim light, a faint glow filtering down from high overhead.  He’d been in the flightstone chamber, if he recalled correctly … his memories suddenly snapped back into place as he stumbled to his feet.  Something had gone wrong with the flightstone.  The city had wobbled in midair, the magic field holding it aloft threatening to fail, threatening to let gravity reassert itself and pull the immense structure to the ground.  Alonzo had run to the chamber, in hopes of making repairs or – at worst – putting the city down before the field failed completely – but … he wasn’t sure what had happened when he’d touched the flightstone.  There’d been a flash of light and …

I must have been stunned, he thought, numbly.  The city hadn’t been completely abandoned – there’d been a small army of servants onboard – but most of the family had travelled to the city for the big ceremony.  Someone got onboard, stunned me and … and what?

Alonzo muttered a word, half-hoping the wards would hear it and respond.  He had no magic, but the wards could still hear him … there was no response.  The chamber should have been lit instantly, yet … he looked around, shaking his head in disbelief.  There was no sign of the flightstone.  It took him longer than it should have done to realise the crystalline structure was on the floor, in pieces.  He didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin repairing the damage.  He wasn’t even sure it was possible.  It was hard to make out anything in the dim light, but some of the pieces were charred, as if they’d been passed through a fire.  He hadn’t seen anything like it, not even during his training.  What had happened?

He forced himself to stumble to the door and peer down the corridor.  It was dim, lit only by starlight.  He looked up and saw cracks in the roof … cracks that shouldn’t have been there, even if the city had fallen from the sky.  How badly had they landed?  House Rubén prided itself on the finest flying city in the empire.  It had been immense, easily the biggest thing ever to take to the skies.  They’d said it was invulnerable.  And now … he stumbled down the corridor, feeling the ground shifting oddly under his feet.  There should have been a small army of servants, humans and mechanical alike, clearing up the wreckage and laying the groundwork for refloating the city.  Instead, there was nothing.  The city was as dark and silent as the grave. 

We were attacked, he thought.  But how?

The mystery nagged at his mind as he kept walking.  The city was solidly warded.  He’d helped lay the spellforms himself.  No one should have been able to enter without permission, no one should have been able to bring anything destructive inside the wards without setting off all kinds of alarms.  The servants had certain rights – everyone did, apart from Alonzo – but they couldn’t invite friends and family into the city without permission from their masters.  How had it been done?  The attacker would have needed to get into the network of spellstones, linked to the flightstone … Alonzo couldn’t see how it could have been done.  And why had everything failed?

His heart almost stopped as the realisation crashed down on him.  The city had glowed with magic.  It had been crammed with magical artefacts crafted by the family, with artworks and animated paintings and everything else the family refused to throw out.  And … not everything was linked to the spellform holding the city aloft.  Why had everything failed?  It made no sense.  Alonzo could imagine a spellbreaker capable of blasting the entire city, but actually building one would be impossible.  The spellform would be too large to handle.  It would effectively collapse under its own weight.  What had happened?

He tripped over a dark shape and nearly fell to the ground, barely catching himself in time.  A body.  It was a body … he forced himself to turn the body over and check for a pulse.  There was nothing.  The dim light made it hard to see anything, but … it was a serving girl, a young woman who’d been taken on as a domestic, someone who might rise to the top of the servant tree given time and devotion.  Her neck was broken, snapped effortlessly.  Alonzo felt the side of her head and winced.  She’d hit the bulkhead hard enough for the force to break her neck.

I’m sorry, he thought, numbly.  The young woman had always been kind to him, unlike his supposed family.  You deserved better.

Another quiver ran through the ruined city.  Alonzo forced himself to stand up and keep walking.  The city had clearly landed badly, but whatever had happened to bring it down wasn’t finished.  Not yet.  Was the enemy looting the rubble?  Or … was it searching for hostages?  For Alonzo himself?  It was possible – he might be powerless, but his value lay in his lack of magic – yet it didn’t seem right.  He just didn’t understand what he was seeing.  The spellform pervading the flightstone – and the spellstones beyond – had been perfect.  If it hadn’t been, the city would never have taken flight.  He couldn’t believe it had failed … and, even if it had, how had it managed to take down everything?

He scrambled up a servant passageway and pushed open a hatch, clambering out into the open air.  The night sky overhead mocked him.  They weren’t that far from civilisation.  There should have been a small army of flyers overhead, dispatched from military bases as their commanders realised the city had crashed … but nothing moved in the cold night air.  He looked towards the distant hills and sucked in his breath.  There were no lights, no hints of civilisation.  What had happened?  He’d once read a story where a flying city had been sent back in time, a fantastical idea he knew to be completely impractical, but … there should have been lights.  It wasn’t as if they were gliding into unexplored parts of the world …

Alonzo felt a sudden, overpowering sense of loss as he looked around.  The great towers, structures held together by magic as much as everything else, had crumbled.  Their ruins lay in front of him, mocking him.  They should have been glowing with light and life … even now, when their occupants had gone to the Eternal City for Empire Day.  Now, he was alone.  No one moved in the darkness, not even looters.

But he’d always been alone.

Bitterness consumed him as he made his way towards the edge of the city.  There was no point in staying where he was.  The ground was still shifting, suggesting … what?  His stomach growled, reminding him it had been hours since his last meal.  Longer than that, perhaps.  He wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious.  Cold logic told him it couldn’t have been longer than a couple of hours at most, but it felt as if he’d slept for years.  There were stories about that too.

He clambered over the ruins, cursing under his breath.  He hadn’t wanted to join the family, let alone to have his name changed and be told he was going to marry a girl who didn’t want him.  But they’d insisted, pointing out he had to be one of them.  He touched his brown hair, clear proof he wasn’t part of the family and never would be.  He’d been forced to sign the marriage contracts, the declaration he would marry Charlotte.  The ancient magics woven into the family bloodline should have turned his hair blond, in preparation for his unwanted marriage.  It was tradition, but ancient tradition had passed him by.  Charlotte had said it meant he’d never be one of the family.  He feared she was right.

And she didn’t even take me to the Eternal City, he thought, as he scrambled over the remains of a tower.  He should have known which one, but the city was so devastated he honestly wasn’t sure.  She was ashamed to be seen with me.

Hatred washed through him.  His talent made him important, but it also made him vulnerable.  He wanted to escape, but there was nowhere to run.  His master had made that clear, when he’d purchased the contract.  Alonzo could stay with the family, and enjoy the perks while working for then, or … or else.  The master hadn’t specified, leaving the matter to Alonzo’s imagination.  It hadn’t really been necessary.  Alonzo had seen enough cruelty in his young life to be all too aware of what House Rubén could do to him, if he tried to leave.  He was their prisoner.  Allowing him to marry into the family was a sick joke.

The city quivered again.  Alonzo glanced back, looking for something – anything – that would tell him what was going on.  The city was dead, yet it was shifting slightly.  Could the flightstone have come back to life?  Alonzo dismissed the thought almost as soon as he’d had it.  The flightstone had been shattered.  There was no way the smaller spellstones could even begin to shift the city, not without the flightstone.  And yet … he snickered as he realised the family didn’t have the slightest idea what had happened.  The gates were probably dead too.  It would take days for them to get back and … he smiled, bitterly, at the thought of their faces when they saw the ruins.  They wouldn’t have the slightest idea what had happened to their city.

He slowed as he reached the edge of the disc and peered into the darkness.  The city was in ruins and yet … he couldn’t see any way down.  Jumping would be suicidal, certainly when he couldn’t tell what was below him.  It was far too far to fall unless he was diving into water and even then, he would have hesitated.  He looked up, trying to gauge how long he had until sunrise.  Perhaps he could stay in the open and wait.  Someone would be along soon, wouldn’t they?  It was impossible to believe the city would be abandoned …

The city shook, once again.  Alonzo lost his footing and fell, right off the edge.  He screamed as the darkness enveloped him, all too aware he was dead.  The disc was huge.  He was going to fall at least sixty metres, then hit the ground hard enough to kill him … of course it was going to kill him.  He was no magician, with the power to slow his fall or cushion his landing … he was going to die.  The analytical side of his mind noted that great power hadn’t saved the others on the city – even the serving girls knew a handful of spells – and that that detail was probably important, but …

He hit … something.  For a crazy moment, he thought he’d fallen into a lake.  Perhaps they’d crashed on the edge of a large body of water.  And then he took a breath and tasted … something … in the water.  No, it wasn’t water.  It felt as if he was breathing sludge.  He gagged, trying to swim to the surface, but he’d completely lost his bearings.  His eyes were open and yet he could see nothing, beyond an eerie green light that pulsed around him.  Was he in hell?  He might be dying.  He was drowning in a sea of light.  Or … his awareness expanded, becoming something else.  And there were voices, echoing through his mind as they spoke.  They promised him everything.

Alonzo listened.

Chapter One

The stairwell felt as if it stretched down into the darkness below the city.

I stood at the top and braced myself, feeling utterly alone.  No one but family were allowed to visit the crypt.  Akin, my brother, was too busy to accompany me and I didn’t want any of my other relatives to come.  Callam … Callam and I were not yet married, not in the eyes of the Ancients.  I couldn’t invite him, even if he hadn’t been busy himself.  I felt an odd little twinge as I reached for the candle and lit it with a single spell.  The last time I’d visited, I’d been a little girl.  Now, I was a grown woman on the verge of getting married.  And …

The candle felt warm in my hand as I started to walk down the stairs.  The family had spent centuries laying spell after spell on the crypt, to keep out our enemies and – according to some stories – to make sure the dead didn’t rise again.  I could feel them pressing at my mind as I walked, spells so old and powerful they saw through my wards as if they weren’t there.  I didn’t know precisely what would happen if I hadn’t been one of the family, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.  The crypt was the last resting place of our nearest and dearest.  We had an obligation to defend it.

My heart pounded in my chest.  I kept walking, even as I felt history pressing around me.  It wasn’t the first crypt.  That was in the Eternal City, the heart of the Thousand-Year Empire, lost in the wake of the disaster that had shattered the empire beyond repair.  There might have been others, over the years, but this one belonged to my branch of the family.  The names carved into the stone walls were reminders of the great and the good, of men and women who’d served the family well before their deaths, before they’d gone to join the Ancients.  I wondered, numbly, what they thought of me.  I’d betrayed, then saved, the family.  Would they welcome me, when my ashes were placed within the crypt?  Or would they cast me out forever?

It wasn’t a pleasant thought.  The Ancients were always with us.  I’d been taught their names from a very early age, as well as the correct way to honour their memories in preparation for the day I’d join them.  They were always watching … I swallowed hard, wondering how they’d judge me.  I’d been played for a fool, because I’d been young and foolish and Stregheria Aguirre had told me precisely what I wanted to hear.  I’d learnt from it, hadn’t I?  When Uncle Stephen had made the same offer, I’d turned him down.  And then I’d killed him. 

He’s watching too, I thought, numbly.  He’ll be watching me until the day I die.

I shook my head.  Times changed.  Attitudes changed.  People changed.  My ancestors had grown up in very different worlds, as much as the family might wish to deny it.  They might not understand what I’d done; they might judge me by their standards, not mine.  Or … they were dead, untethered from mortal concerns.  They might understand both me and Uncle Stephen, or Uncle Ira; they might understand our feelings and motives even as they judged us poorly.  Maybe they’d even been merciful.  Maybe, once they’d been judged, they’d been allowed to join the ranks of the dead.  Maybe …

Uncle Stephen thought he was saving the family, I thought, coldly.  I could see his reasoning, even though I didn’t agree with it.  What was Uncle Ira’s excuse?

The memories tormented me.  Uncle Ira had seemed a genial old man at first, sent into exile for reasons no one cared to remember.  He hadn’t seemed particularly interested in me, even though he was technically meant to be my gaoler … a gaoler who was in gaol himself.  And he’d turned out to be a warlock, conducted forbidden experiments hundreds of miles from Shallot and House Rubén.  He’d tested some of his spells and potions on me.  I still had nightmares about the brew he’d forced me to drink …

And if I hadn’t stopped him, I thought numbly,  he would have dissected Callam just to figure out how his talent actually works.

I took a long breath as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  The family had never been quite sure what to make of me.  I’d been the daughter of the then-Patriarch, then a traitor at twelve years old, then the person who’d kept them from having to deal with a rogue warlock, then the Heir Primus, then the person who’d turned it down, then the person who’d killed Uncle Stephen and brought his coup to an end and, finally, the sister of the serving Patriarch.  I was sure there were people who were counting down the days until I returned to Kirkhaven Hall, where I would remain … rather than stay in Shallot.  It wasn’t easy to admit I’d made a fool of myself, when Akin had brought me and Callam back to the city, but it was true.  I’d been more in love with the ideal of Shallot and High Society rather than the reality.

The air was cold, cold and clear.  I raised my gaze.  The Cryptkeeper stood in front of the archway, wearing a long dark robe that covered her from head to toe.  Her face was hidden in shadow.  I shivered, despite myself.  The legends insisted the Cryptkeeper was truly ancient, that she dated all the way back to the original family mansion, now lost somewhere in the ruins of the Eternal City.  Or that she was a golem, a creature tied to the blood of the family and charged with defending our best.  I knew the stories couldn’t be true, that the Cryptkeeper was merely an old sorceress who’d committed herself to her role, but it was suddenly easy to believe them.  It was impossible to tell if the Cryptkeeper in front of me was the same person who’d showed us around the Crypt, when Akin and I were young.

“Isabella.”  The Cryptkeeper’s voice was emotionless, but I could feel the raw power behind her.  Some claimed she was empowered by the Ancients themselves to defend their crypt.  I almost believed it.  “Why have you come?”

“I came to speak to my father,” I said.  “And then to say farewell.”

The Cryptkeeper nodded, very slightly.  “And are you prepared?”

I looked down at myself.  I’d donned a formal black dress and tied my blonde hair back in a loose ponytail, tight enough to keep it out of my face while loose enough to avoid giving the impression I was still a child.  I’d scrubbed my face clean of makeup and muttered spells to hide my scent … the former a waste of time, given that I had never really liked makeup and found it a little silly.  Callam hadn’t grown up in the city.  He wouldn’t be impressed if I wasted time making myself look pretty.  His people had never really had the time to bother.

“Yes,” I said, shortly.

The Cryptkeeper raised her staff and knocked, once, on the door.  It opened.  I took a breath and stepped through, all too aware it would close behind me.  The chamber beyond was dark and cold, lit only by a faint blue light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  I stood still, waiting for my eyes to grow accustomed to the light.  Powerful spells hung in the air, crawling over the door – and me – like wasps on honey.  I shuddered as they pressed against my defences, threatening to break them down.  It felt as if I was standing somewhere I didn’t belong.

I took a moment to gather myself, then looked up.  The chamber was immense.  The floor was a pattern of bare stone, broken by earthen graves.  The headstones were a strange mixture, ranging from detailed carvings of the dead person’s face to bare stones, marked only by the corpses name.  I shivered as I stared into the distance.  The far wall was lost in shadow.  It was suddenly easy to believe the chamber went on forever.

“I come to pay my respects,” I said.  My words hung in the cold air.  “Please regard me kindly.”

It was all I could do to step forward, onto the stone path.  The air seemed to grow colder.  I gritted my teeth and kept walking, trying not to think about the dead rising to lash out at the traitor.  They might hate me for betraying the family; they might hate me for killing Uncle Stephen, if they thought he’d done the right thing.  Maybe, by their standards, he had.  Akin was going to marry Caitlyn Aguirre.  And our feud with House Aguirre was legendary.

My legs ached as I walked, passing carved faces with marble eyes that seemed to watch me and statues that moved when I wasn’t looking.  The sense of threat hung in the air, a silent challenge that threatened to drive me out of the chamber … the only thing that kept me going, I admitted to myself, was the simple fact I might never have another chance to say goodbye to my father.  The funeral had been very formal but public.  I hadn’t dared speak to him as the flames consumed his body.  Who knew who might be listening?

Everyone who thinks they’re important, my thoughts answered.  And everyone else too.

I put the thought out of my head as I reached the final gravestone.  My father was flanked by his murderers … I felt a wave of naked hatred, my magic spiking as I fought the urge to rip their ashes from the graves and hurl them into the ocean, rather than leave them next to the man they’d murdered.  It was tradition to bury the dead in rough order and yet … I clenched my teeth, calming myself.  It wasn’t easy.  My father had been a good man, even if he had been a little rigid in his thinking.  He’d done what he could for me, after I fell under Stregheria Aguirre’s influence.  And …

Calm, I told myself.  His murderers are answering to higher judges than you.

I took a breath and studied the gravestone.  My father hadn’t chosen to arrange for anything more complex than a simple stone, with his name carved into the rock.  It felt … impersonal, as if it wasn’t really him.  I knew it was his ashes under the earth and yet … I shook my head.  I’d tried to think of what to say, and come up with all sorts of speeches, but now – looking at his grave – my mind was blank.  I didn’t know what to say.

Think, I thought.  What do you want to say?

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I wish …”

Tears prickled at the corner of my eyes as I sank to my knees.  I wished I’d been a better daughter.  I wished I’d never allowed anger and bitterness at the sheer unfairness of life to overwhelm me, to render me vulnerable when Stregheria Aguirre came calling.  I wished I’d had the strength and determination to make something of myself, rather than let myself be used by someone older and far colder than I could ever be.  And yet, if I hadn’t listened to the old witch, would I have ever met Callam?  Would I have ever fallen in love with him?

Perhaps not, I thought.  It had been a shock, to spend six years away from the city and then return.  My former friends had become snooty monsters who’d mocked and jeered me, then changed their tune the instant they realised I might become the de facto Matriarch of House Rubén.  Perhaps I would have wound up as spoiled and useless as any of them.

I blinked away tears.  “I’m sorry for what I did,” I told the grave.  “And I’m sorry for what I put you through, but … I’m not sorry too.”

There was no reply.  I mentally kicked myself, wondering why I’d even expected one.  My father and I hadn’t spoken as much as we should, and … I knew it had been my fault.  I’d been a traitor.  He’d gone to bat for me, burning up dozens of favours to ensure I’d be sent into exile rather than … rather than anything more final.  If I’d been older, old enough to know better, he couldn’t have saved me.  I hated the thought of being branded a weak and foolish child, of being treated as a pretty young girl rather than a person in my own right, but it had saved my life.   And perhaps, just perhaps, it had laid the groundwork for my return to the city.

“If you hadn’t sent me away, I would never have met Callam,” I said.  “And I’m glad I did, because I love him.”

It wasn’t easy to say.  I’d been raised to understand that my marriage would be arranged by my family and I’d have very little say in it.  I would be lucky if I even knew the groom before the match was arranged.  The handful of chaperoned meetings we’d have, where we’d be watched by elderly relatives who’d forgotten what it was like to be young, wouldn’t be enough to determine what sort of person he was.  And … I shook my head.  My treason made me unmarriageable, as far as High Society was concerned.  It didn’t matter.  Callam didn’t care about the family or anything, beyond me.  I’d allowed us to get close for selfish reasons – I’d admitted as much, to both Callam and my father – but I’d fallen in love with him too. 

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “And I wish …”

I felt more tears in my eyes.  I wished I could see my father in person, one last time.  I wished he’d never died at all, that he could see his grandchildren and dandle them on his knee and give them his blessing when they grew into adulthood.  I wished … I brushed the tears away, angrily.  There was no point in fretting over it now.  My father was dead.  My mother had taken to her rooms, as soon as the funeral was over, and stayed there.  And Akin and I were alone.

“Goodbye, father,” I said.  “I love you.”

I stood, slowly.  The crypt felt oppressive.  I looked up, into the inky blackness.  There was a ceiling – there had to be – but I couldn’t see it.  I took one last look at my father’s grave, then turned away.  The path back to the door seemed endless.  I shook my head and forced myself to walk.  The air was changing, strange sensations pressing around me.  I thought I felt someone breathing on the back of my neck and spun around, to see nothing.  And yet …

The sensation grew stronger as I kept walking, trying not to panic.  It was suddenly easy to believe the dead were coming back to life.  Unseen eyes watched me, judged me; I nearly stepped on an earthen grave, something that would have earned me harsh punishment if anyone had seen.  I tried to calm myself, even as I thought I saw things moving at the corner of my eye.  I’d seen ghosts at Kirkhaven, but here …? I’d never seen them here.

The mansion wasn’t designed to show off our wealth, I thought.  It didn’t feel like one of my thoughts.  It was built so big to keep something else pressed down.

A shiver ran down my spine.  It was all I could do to keep from throwing caution to the wind and start running.  The shadows shifted whenever I looked away, as if they were cast by something that existed outside my perception.  I thought I saw shapes moving above the graves, wisps of something I knew I shouldn’t be seeing.  Lights flickered high above me, voices whispering loudly enough for me to hear, but too quietly for me to make out the words.   I nearly screamed as I felt something touch my leg.  When I looked down, there was nothing.

I heard something behind me and glanced back.  There was nothing … no, there was something, a strange thing hovering over the graves.  My eyes slipped past it, as if it wasn’t there … I thought I felt the ground shift beneath my feet.  The city wasn’t prone to earthquakes and yet … what was it?  I picked up speed, trying desperately not to run.  The dead didn’t want me there, amongst them.  I knew it on a level that could not be denied.  They didn’t want me and they were driving me out and …

The door loomed up in front of me.  I pressed my hand against the stone.  It opened, just slowly enough to make me panic.  I darted through, half expecting to see the Cryptkeeper waiting for me.  She should have been there.  The magic that empowered her was closely linked to the crypt, and the dead ashes within.  I’d been told it was customary to bury the dead below the house because their presence made the mansion ours.  It was an old theory, never really proven …

They didn’t want me, I thought, numbly.  And they made it clear.

A hand touched my shoulder.  I spun around, a nasty hex crackling around my fingers and a dark charm on my lips.  Penny Rubén stood there, raising her hands in surrender.  I nearly blasted her.  She’d given me a terrible fright and …

“Cousin,” Penny said.  She bobbed a curtsey.  “I apologise for disturbing you.”

I scowled.  Penny hadn’t been sure what to make of me, when I’d returned to the mansion, but she’d done her best to suck up to me – and Akin – once she’d realised one of us was going to be the Heir Primus.  She was still trying to suck up to me.  She’d worked out, well ahead of everyone else, that – whatever else could be said about me – I was Akin’s favourite relative.  I tried not to roll my eyes at the thought.  The bar wasn’t set very high. 

“It’s fine,” I lied.  “What is it?”

Penny curtsied again.  “His Excellency would like a moment of your time,” she said.  “I am to take you to him.”

“Oh,” I said, swallowing several other responses that came to mind.  “Lead on.”

Ark Royal Audio Editions

10 Sep

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DRAKE’S DRUM 12-Oct-2021

OUT NOW – Child of Destiny (Schooled in Magic 24)

4 Sep

Eight years ago, the Sorcerer Void saved Emily’s life. To Emily, Void became, in so many ways, the father she’d never had. And yet Void kept a secret from her. To save the Allied Lands from themselves, to keep them from being destroyed by the necromancers or torn apart by their short-sighted rulers, he embarked on a plan to launch a coup and reunite the long-dead empire, a plan that can only end in total war or a permanent living death. He must be stopped.

And now, all that stands between him and his goal is his adopted daughter, Emily herself.

Gathering her allies, Emily prepares herself to return to Whitehall, to face the most dangerous opponent she has ever faced. But as she pits the new world against the old in a desperate bid to undo Void’s work before it is too late, she is forced to confront a deadly truth…

Is it possible that Void might be right?

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