Her Majesty’s Warlord (Stuck in Magic 2 (Serial))

8 Sep

Prologue

I was a stranger in a very strange land.

Is that dramatic enough?  Good.

My name is Elliot Richardson, US Army.  I came home from base one night to discover my wife, Cleo, in bed with the neighbour.  The ensuring shouting match ended poorly, with me driving away into the unknown.  I didn’t know where I was going, nor did I really care.  I just wanted to get as far away from her, and the ruins of my former life, as possible.

I got my wish, in the strangest way possible.  The world lit up so brightly I thought the country had been nuked.  Instead, my car crashed through a gap in the fabric of reality and crashed in a ditch in broad daylight.  The interstate was gone.  Instead, I was on a road in the middle of nowhere.  It wasn’t until I encountered the Diddakoi Travellers that I realised I hadn’t fallen through space and time, but right outside existence as I knew it.  You see, they had magic.  Magic was real.  You will, perhaps, understand my shock.

The Diddakoi let me stay with them long enough to get my bearings and, with the aid of magic, start learning the local language.  It was an interesting time, although so different from my past life that I found it hard to adapt.  My new world was very strange.  I wanted to go home, to my kids, but there was no way to get back.  You see, I was in a world of magic, but I had no magic myself.  What was I going to do?

It got stranger as I started to learn more about the new world.  It was clear that someone, perhaps from Earth – my Earth – had been introducing new concepts and technologies that had seemingly come out of nowhere.  Primitive muskets, steam engines and printing presses co-existed with magic, farmers who worked the fields by hands and an aristocracy so determined to maintain its own position that it was unable to save itself from internal or outside threats.  I found it frustrating.  I could have introduced those concepts myself, but how?  I was alone.  I had no money, no status, no nothing.  Why would any of them listen to me long enough to let me prove what I could do?

One thing led to another and, after a wrongheaded attempt to defend the Diddakoi from a warlord’s men, I found myself in Damansara, a city that was – in theory – politically neutral.  In reality, the warlords could tighten the screws any time they chose and the city would have no choice but to bend the knee.  I made a mistake – I tripped a street rat who’d stolen a loaf of bread – and found myself inducted into the City Guard.  It was a good way to learn more about the city, I felt, but the guard was a deeply corrupt organisation.  I made a powerful enemy in Harbin Galley, an aristocratic teenage brat, when I stopped him from raping Gayle Drache.  It wasn’t until much later I realised I’d also made a handful of allies.

It didn’t take long for me to run into trouble.  I was American, with a sense of morals to match; I couldn’t tolerate the blatant corruption and unfairness of the city indefinitely.  I nearly got myself sold into slavery after attempting to free captured serfs, only to be intercepted by Rupert Drache, Gayle’s brother.  Rupert had just been appointed Commander of the Garrison, the city’s makeshift defence force, and he needed an advisor.  Or, more accurately, he needed someone to do the job for him.  His political enemies had set him up to fail, to be the scapegoat when the warlords started applying pressure once again.  And I saw opportunity to finally make a mark on the world.

I grasped the chance with both hands and started to build a proper army, complete with the latest – as far as the locals knew – in military technology.  My troops weren’t pretty-boy cavalry or household troops who looked good, but ran at the first hint of actual violence.  I taught them to the infantry, to fight as an organised force rather than a mob.  It worked.  The warlord tried applying pressure, once again, and we gave him a bloody nose.  Rupert’s enemies were shocked.  The world shifted on its axis.

The warlord didn’t seem inclined to accept his defeat with good grace.  I worked frantically to expand the army, all too aware the warlord was doing the same.  I learnt how to use small magics in combat, how to take advantage of magicians with very slight gifts; I worked with refugee serfs to build spy and rebel networks deep within enemy territory.  I started, with Rupert’s help, to build a patronage network of my own.  Our time ran out, however, when the warlord finally started to pressure us again.

I drew up a plan and convinced Rupert to go along with it.  Instead of waiting to be hit, as we were expected to do, we went on the offensive instead.  The warlord and his men never saw us coming, not until it was far too late.  We smashed his troops in open combat, shattering once and for all the myth of his invincibility.  His own people, downtrodden serfs who hated him and now no longer feared him, rose up in his rear.  We kept moving, punching through his defences and eventually smashing his castle, breaking his power beyond repair.  It was a stunning victory, capped by the rescue of Princess Helen – daughter of the powerless King Jacob – from the forces of Warlord Cuthbert.  We had changed the world.

But my victory led to a more personal defeat.  My sudden rise had discomforted the city fathers, including some of Rupert’s family.  The rebellions I’d seeded, and the tactics I’d introduced, could easily be turned against them and they knew it.  They planned to quietly kill me, before my power base grew to the point I could crush them effortlessly.  Princess Helen warned me of the plot, then offered to take her into my service.  It would mean leaving everything I’d built behind, but … it was the best of a bad set of options.  I didn’t want to launch a coup and I didn’t want to leave everything and run.

And so, nearly a year after I arrived in the Kingdom of Johor, I finally found myself in the capital of a powerless king.  And that king’s daughter wanted me to make him powerful once again.

Chapter One

Roxanna stank.

It shouldn’t really have surprised me, as I made my way down the street.  The locals had yet to understand the importance of indoor plumbing, let alone an efficient garbage disposal service.  The aristocracy had cold running water – you had to be a magician to have hot water on tap – but everyone else did their business in chamberpots or threw their wastes into the streets.  The gutters were better than I’d expected, I conceded grudgingly, yet pouring waste into the river wasn’t that great an idea.  It was no surprise to me that the city had regular epidemics that threatened to spread out of control.  I intended to change it as soon as possible.

The street was crowded, but the people gave me a wide berth.  They knew me by reputation.  Elliot, Son of Richard; His Majesty’s Warlord.  The title felt oddly cumbersome, and reminded me of the enemies gathering in the distance, but it came with some advantages.  Princess Helen had granted me property and lands, as well as authority over the army and the guardsmen.  Everyone wanted to be my friend, or stay well away from me until they knew if I’d last the year.  It hadn’t taken me long to work out that royal appointees either became hideously corrupt very quickly or suffered accidents that were nothing of the sort.  I kept my eyes open, one hand resting on the pommel of my sword.  I preferred the pistol, really, but the sword was more intimidating.  Despite everything, the locals had yet to realise how much firearms had changed the world.  They might have had a point.  The muskets my troops had carried into battle were so inaccurate that the safest person on the battlefield was probably the target.  They had to fire massed volleys to be sure of hitting something.

Fallon walked two steps behind me, something I found a little irritating even though I knew it was local custom.  She wasn’t my wife or my daughter or a noblewoman in her own right.  She was my assistant … as far as the locals were concerned, she was my servant.  We’d drawn some odd glances, from men who wondered if she was my lover or found it odd that I had a female assistant.  Most aides and secretaries were male, in Damansara and Roxanna alike.  Women were supposed to remain in their homes and remain out of politics.  I knew they were more involved than their menfolk wanted to believe.  Princess Helen was likely to inherit the throne when her father, King Jacob, passed away.

The crowds seemed more … flamboyant than the crowds from Damansara or New York.  Noblemen wore fancy outfits, each one worth more than a year’s salary for a skilled labourer; their retinues, orbiting their patrons like planets around the sun, wore his colours to show their allegiance.  I couldn’t help thinking they looked like peacocks.  Noblewomen wore gowns that looked like something out of a medieval court, resting on wires – or something – that fanned the dress out to make it hard for someone to get too close.  I understood, better than I cared to admit.  Roxanna wasn’t a safe place for young women.  If you weren’t escorted by guards, or lacked magic, someone would try to grope you.  Fallon had already zapped five men this morning alone.  I hoped they were still in pain.  The shock felt like touching an electric fence.

They were, I noted as we approached the market, a very diverse crowd.  Roxanna sat on a river as well as a dozen trade routes, inviting people from all over the known world to pass through the city on their way to their final destination.  There were white and black and brown and yellow faces, as well as people who were clearly demihumans.  There were men and women and children, ranging from aristocrats and magicians to merchants and unskilled labourers from the edge of the city.  I saw young children running wild, including a pair of girls in male clothes.  It was something else I wanted to tackle, when I had a chance.  Some of the street kids would find gainful employment, but the majority would drift into criminal gangs or prostitution, if they lived long enough.  I doubted many of them would make it into their teenage years.  The winters were nowhere near as cold as my hometown, somewhere on the far side of the dimensional divide, but they were quite bad enough.

A hand touched my money pouch.  I snapped my hand down, swatting away a hand.  A young boy – he couldn’t have been older than ten, although it was never easy to be sure – looked up at me, his eyes oddly resigned.  Another child pickpocket, I thought, probably working for an older man who made Fagin look like a saint.  I knew the type.  The boy didn’t move, clearly expecting a kicking – or worse.  I’d seen noblemen crush street kids under their horse’s hooves.  No one would fault me if I reached down, snapped the boy’s neck and dumped his body in the gutter.  No one would hold me to account.

I felt sick.  I raised my hand for a slap, telegraphing the movement so openly my old instructor would despair.  Showing your opponent what you intended to do was never a good idea.  The kid got the hint.  He turned and fled, just as I brought my hand down; he vanished into the crowd as if the devil himself was in hot pursuit.  It was impossible to blame him.  His master should understand, I hoped.  The boy had had no choice.

Fallon pitched her voice so low only I could hear.  “You let him go?”

“Yes,” I said.  “What else could I do?”

I gritted my teeth as we resumed our walk.  What else could I do?  I could have dragged the boy to the guardhouse, where his hands would be cut off … if he was lucky.  There were no juvenile courthouses in Roxanna, no schools to give young crooks a second chance at life.  I doubted there was any point in trying to explain my feelings, not to Fallon.  She’d grown up in Damansara, where one slip could cost you everything.  It was easy to insist that criminals should be treated with respect when you weren’t one of their victims.  The victims would sooner have the crooks beaten to death than given a stern lecture and then set free. 

The streets grew more crowded as we turned into the marketplace and made our way past the stalls.  People were selling goods and books – and broadsheets – from all over the known world.  Heralds were shouting loudly, trying to deafen the crowd with stories that were suspiciously impossible to verify.  I heard one insisting Warlord Aldred was still alive, a moment before he was swarmed by angry citizens and chased out of the marketplace.  I tried not to laugh.  Warlord Aldred was dead.  I’d killed him myself. 

I shook my head as I glanced at the broadsheets.  Their stories contradicted each other, to the point I simply didn’t know what to believe.  The war was about to start, the war was underway, the war had ended … it was hard to say which side had won.  I glanced at a detailed story that insisted an army had marched thousands of miles in a single day and snorted in disbelief.  Portals – magic gateways that linked two places together – could get an army from place to place instantly, but it would take at least ten days to march a thousand miles.  Personally, I suspected that was insanely optimistic.  The local militaries thought logistics was a dirty word.  I knew where they were coming from – it was fun to come up with plans that looked good on paper, but were simply impossible in the real world – but logistics could not be ignored.  I doubted they could keep an army in food and water long enough for it to march a thousand miles.  It had taken a modern army nearly three weeks to get from Kuwait to Baghdad – just over four hundred miles – and that had been with tanks, trucks, and superiors who thought starving the troops under their command was a war crime.  Here … the troops were lucky if they got scraps.

You’ll fix it, I told myself.  And then things will be different …

A man ran up to me and bowed deeply.  “My Lord!  My Lord!  Have we got something for you!”

I nearly drew my pistol.  It took me a moment to relax and realise I wasn’t about to be attacked.  Local merchants could be quite aggressive, rather like people trying to sell you timeshares or multilevel marketing back home.  It could be quite difficult to get away from them without being blatantly rude or threatening.  The man in front of me looked surprisingly prosperous for a merchant, wearing an outfit made of the finest silk without ever quite breaking the sumptuary laws.  The gold chain around his neck was a clear sign he enjoyed aristocratic patronage.  I looked him up and down, feeling a twinge of dislike.  A wealthy merchant was unlikely to threaten me, or lead me into an ambush, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to sell me overpriced crap.  The aristocrats would sooner spend themselves into debt than haggle.  It was beneath them.

He made a grasping motion, as if he’d been about to grab my arm before thinking better of it.  I glanced at Fallon, who shrugged, then indicated for him to lead on.  I’d made it clear I was in the market for modern weapons – by local standards – as well as steam engines, books and other trade goods from half-mythical places like Beneficence, Cockatrice and Heart’s Eye.  It didn’t mean I’d buy whatever I was offered – someone had tried to sell me a pile of scrap, claiming it was a collection of weapons – but I knew I had to look at it.  If it was a waste of time … well, I had time.

The stalls slowly became more upmarket as we walked up the marketplace.  The shops behind them, the kind of places where asking the price was a clear sign you couldn’t afford it, thronged with aristocrats and wealthy merchants.  I frowned as we kept moving, passing advertisements offering steam engines capable of impossible speeds, unsure where we were going.  We turned the corner at the top of the street and passed through a gate into a courtyard and …

I stopped, dead.  It was all I could do not to recoil in horror.

“The men are skilled craftsmen,” the merchant assured me.  “Their wives are cooks and seamstresses and …”

I barely heard him.  I was too busy trying not to be sick.  I’d seen slave markets before – on Earth, as well as Damansara – but this was … this was worse.  The men and women on the stage were naked, their hands trapped in cangues that exposed everything they had; I clenched my fists as I saw the slave brands, burnt into their bare necks.  They were charmed to keep the slaves obedient, at least until the magic wore out.  By then … I shuddered.  I’d heard horror stories, first told as jokes by the guardsmen and then deadly serious, after I’d nearly been slaved myself.  My ancestors had been slaves.  Why would I want to tolerate slavery now?

A wash of bitterness ran through me.  Back home, we’d been ordered not to interfere in local customs, even when said customs were terrible and put us firmly on the wrong side.  Here, I hadn’t had the clout to free the slaves … was that still true?

The merchant – no, the slavedealer – was still babbling.  “And they have children, who can be sold or …”

I clenched my fists.  The slavedealer’s voice trailed off as he saw the murder in my eyes.  If he’d put children on the stage, I would have killed him on the spot and to hell with the consequences.  Perhaps he had an aristocratic patron, perhaps one of the princess’s enemies … the ones who couldn’t decide if they wanted to marry her or set her up as a puppet or simply sell her to the highest bidder.  I doubted they’d care that much, if I killed the man.  He wasn’t the only one.  There’d been dozens of the bastards in Damansara alone.

“My Lord,” the slavedealer said.  His voice was shaky, as if he didn’t quite understand what had gone wrong.  I supposed he didn’t.  Slavery was hardly taboo amongst the locals.  They honestly didn’t see anything wrong with it.  “I …”

I cut him off.  “Where did they come from?”

“Ah …”  He swallowed and started again.  “The men were craftsmen who defaulted on their debts.  I purchased them and …”

“Right.”  I resisted the urge to break his nose.  Barely.  I knew how the system worked – if you got into debt, you paid it off one way or the other – and it revolted me.  The loan sharks were merciless.  I guessed the craftsmen had been cunningly manipulated, their debts toyed with until they crossed the line and found themselves unable to pay … at which point they’d been rounded up, branded, and sold into slavery.  “And you took their families.”

The slavedealer puffed up slightly.  “They all owe the debt, My Lord,” he said.  If I hadn’t wanted to punch him before, I felt it now.  “Their children go with their families.  I am a merciful man.”

My stomach churned.  There were no child labour laws here.  Kids could go into service from a very early age – or worse.  I pushed the thought out of my head and did a quick count.  There were fifteen adults on the stage.  The hopelessness in their eyes nearly broke me. 

“I would like to buy one,” I said.  “How much is the most expensive?”

“Well, My Lord,” the slavedealer said.  “I …”

I cut him off, then repeated my question.  “How much is the most expensive?”

The slavedealer opened his mouth, closed it, then started again.  “Fifteen silvers, My Lord.”

I nodded, curtly.  The value of the local currency seemed to fluctuate at random – the Royal Mint had clipped the bronze, silver and gold coins so often they were rarely worth their face value – but fifteen silvers was more or less reasonable.  I would have preferred to simply take the slaves, and throw the slavedealer into his own cangues, yet … it couldn’t be done.  Not yet.  Perhaps not ever.

“I’ll take them all,” I said. “Fifteen silvers for each adult, the children free.”

The slavedealer opened his fat gob.  “My Lord, I …”

I rested my hand on my sword.  “Are you disputing with me?”

His mouth opened and closed like a fish.  I caught and held his eyes.  I was an aristocrat, as far as the locals were concerned, and turning down my offer could have life-shortening consequences.  I’d seen aristocratic brats kick down doors and tear up shops when the shops were closed or the staff couldn’t get them whatever they wanted.  He had to be aware I could kill him and probably get away with it … my hand itched to draw my sword and cut him down on the spot.  I didn’t give him time to come up with any objections, just leaned forward and issued orders in my best snooty manner.  Harbin Gallery would be proud.

“Have them moved to my mansion at once,” I said.  “You will receive your payment upon delivery.”

The slavedealer hesitated, then bowed in submission.  I cursed my luck.  If he’d come up with an objection, I could have killed him.  Or something.  It would have made life complicated – his slaves would have still been his property – but I might have been able to handle it.  Might.  I turned and strode away, Fallon trailing behind me.  I could feel his eyes boring into my back. 

It was nearly an hour before the slaves arrived at my mansion, looking terrified.  I didn’t blame them.  They might be skilled slaves, but they were still slaves.  They’d become property.  My property.  As debt-slaves, they weren’t even allowed to try to earn money to buy their freedom.  The cangues might have been removed, but the slave brands were still there.  They’d be unable to disobey direct orders as long as the magic lingered … I paid the man, then ordered one of my guards to throw him out with extreme force.  It wasn’t much, compared to what he deserved, but it would have to do.

I surveyed my new property.  “You’re all free,” I said.  They stared at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues.  I’d paid a small fortune for them.  “You can stay here until the brands wear off, then go wherever you like.”

“But …”  A brown-skinned man stared at me.  He was probably about the same age as myself, but looked older.  “My Lord, what …?”

“If you want to work for me, you will be welcome,” I said.  “I need trained and skilled craftsmen to help with my projects.  You will be paid very well, for your time.  Or you can leave, once the brands are gone.”

His confusion would have been funny, if it wasn’t so serious.  I was going to be a laughingstock when word got out, even though – by my standards – I’d done the right thing.  Slavery was just plain wrong.  I made a mental note to start devising a story, for the moment Helen asked what I’d been thinking.  She wouldn’t understand why I’d freed them, let alone everything else.  Perhaps I could remind her that slave brands weren’t always trustworthy.  A cunning mind could find a loophole in his orders.  Or … simply let me use his body, while keeping his thoughts to himself.  It was hard to innovate when you weren’t rewarded for your efforts.  Why bother?

I shook my head as the craftsmen, and their families, were shown to their temporary living spaces.  The story sounded good.  And it would make sense to the locals, if they bothered to ask me why I’d done it.  But it wasn’t the truth.  The truth was that freeing the slaves was simply the right thing to do.

And when I have the chance, I told myself, I’ll free the rest of them too.

2 Responses to “Her Majesty’s Warlord (Stuck in Magic 2 (Serial))”

  1. Roger Strahan September 8, 2021 at 1:32 pm #

    Good start on the next one. Interesting that you are serializing the story.

  2. John Work September 8, 2021 at 1:42 pm #

    Excellent. I just finished Child of Destiny. Was afraid I’d have to wait a while for my “Warlord fix”. Looking forward to seeing how this develops.

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