Archive | October, 2021

Standing Alone Appendix: Interstellar Law

27 Oct

Does this make sense?

Appendix: Interstellar Law

Galactic Law, as laid down – at least in part – by the Alphans rests on a somewhat contradictory premise.  On one hand, all races deserve a certain degree of legal rights as well as responsibilities; on the other, it is extremely difficult to keep an interstellar power from putting its own interests first, regardless of the harm they do to any less powerful or outright defenceless race that happens to find itself in the superpower’s path.  Cynics insist the Alphans devised Galactic Law to justify and legitimise their own conquests, as they were once the galaxy’s foremost conquerors.  It is generally agreed the cynics are correct.

The Alphans divided intelligent races into three different subsets.  Galactics are races capable of both defending their homeworlds and exerting their influence outside their borders.  Spacefarers are capable of defending themselves, yet have little influence outside their homeworlds.  Primitives are unable to reach orbit, let alone defend themselves against a spacefaring opponent.  Each subset has different rights and responsibilities, towards both themselves and other intelligent races.  Galactics, for example, have the right and the responsibility to take the primitives in hand, to provide guidance to their clients in exchange for service.  In theory, the superior race is expected to uplift their inferiors.  In practice, this generally means a considerable degree of exploitation, if not outright slavery, for races that are unable to defend themselves.  Very few primitive races have ever broken free from their unwanted patrons.

From a moralistic point of view, this is outrageous and many interstellar races and factions regard de facto enslavement with horror.  From a practical point of view, the only way to keep the more aggressive races from occupying primitive worlds is force and, when the aggressor is too powerful to be easily deterred, the other interstellar powers tend to look away rather than try to do something about it.  Nothing short of blatant defiance of the law (direct or indirect genocide) will provoke a response and, with the Alphans no longer willing to provide any degree of leadership, it is generally believed that even the handful of protections extended to primitive races no longer hold force.

Indeed, the only real check on patron abuse comes from the patrons being legally responsible for their clients.  Primitive races are, legally, children; they cannot be penalised, under the law, for their ignorance and/or stupidity.  If a human were to assassinate a Galactic while Earth was under Alphan rule, the Alphans would be legally responsible for the deed (in the same way a parent would be obliged to repay money a child had stolen).  It isn’t uncommon for rebel groups to try to create incidents that force other interstellar powers to pressure the patron race, regardless of the cost.  If nothing else, it makes life harder for the occupying power and demonstrates they don’t control the primitive homeworld (see below).

Spacefaring races do have title over their own homeworlds (and star systems) and have rights that are generally respected (if nothing else, races that understand technology do tend to be better allies than outright slaves.)  However, they are legally obliged to bend to the will of the local superpower and, if they lose their ability to protect their home system, they run the risk of losing their political influence (see below).  Their positions are rarely pleasant, let alone secure.  They are not allowed, for example, to let their space be used for military operations, but lack the power to prevent it.  Indeed, if their local superpower loses influence, the spacerfarers may find themselves thrown into the hands of another superpower.  It is extremely tricky to navigate such chaos without losing what remains of their former independence.

Both spacefarers and Galactics have, at least in theory, complete internal autonomy.  The Alphans originally tried to impose their legal code on everyone else, but discovered very quickly that their laws were often unsuitable for other races.  As long as a race’s internal affairs don’t impinge upon other powers, it can generally do whatever it wants on its own homeworld or enclaves, up to and including outright genocide.  Most races at least try to be circumspect when dealing with others, regardless of the relative balance of power, but visitors to alien worlds are advised to study both local law and custom before leaving the ship.  A person who commits a crime under local law can be deported and blacklisted, even if they are not legally charged (as the crime isn’t a crime under their native law.)

The owner of a certain volume of space – a star system, for example, or a sector – is the interstellar power that can and does exert control over the volume.  The owner must be able to prevent incursion, from either other interstellar powers or independent forces (pirates); the owner’s own laws and social systems must be dominant, with all others existing at the owner’s sufferance.  For example, the Vultek enclaves within Alphan space may be governed by Vultek law, but Alphan law has primacy whenever multiple races are involved.  The ruling power must be capable, also, of protecting other Galactics making transit through the sector.  Failure to do this effectively means the other powers have the right to take steps to protect their own people, such as providing convoy escorts or even establishing military bases within the sector.  This often provides perfectly legal cover for covert destabilisation operations, mounted in hopes of providing an excuse to send warships into the sector on ‘temporary’ missions that never actually end. 

It should be clear that ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ are not the driving principles of Galactic Law.  The Alphans themselves would admit as much, pointing both to their own (presumed) superiority as well as the simple fact the races are not equal.  There is little room for moralistic platitudes and, in truth, most races find them annoying.  Galactic Law does not exist as a supranational power structure, binding on all races, but as a framework to migrate conflicts (open and covert) between interstellar powers.  It is ruthlessly practical, with only a few hints of idealism (the prohibition on interstellar genocide, for example); it has few, if any, enforcement mechanisms beyond the superpowers being willing to band together to punish an offender. 

And, now the Alphans are leaving the interstellar stage, it is no longer clear who – if anyone – will even make a pretence at upholding interstellar law.

Snippet – The Prince’s Gambit (The Empire’s Corps 20)

25 Oct

Prologue I

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

As we have seen in previous chapters, Prince Roland – the last surviving member of the Imperial Family – was extremely lucky to escape Earth before Earthfall.  The Childe Roland – as he was known – was a spoilt brat, permanently on the verge of descending into a sybarite madness that would have suited the real rulers of the empire quite well.  It was only through the intervention of a Marine Pathfinder, Belinda Lawson, that Prince Roland started to climb out of the pit his minders had dug for him.  Indeed, it is quite possible – if Earthfall had been somehow delayed – that the prince would have grown into a fine young man.

But it was not to be.  Roland fled Earth and found himself in the custody of the Terran Marine Corps.  This posed a serious problem.  Legally, Roland was the ruler of the empire; practically, the empire was gone and hardly anyone would be willing to recognise Roland as the master of anything.  Even the Marine Corps had its doubts.  Roland’s reputation preceded him, to the point it was unlikely anyone who hadn’t met him would offer any support.  His value as a rallying cry for loyalists was very limited.  The corps finessed the problem by arranging for Roland to attend Boot Camp, under an assumed name.  It would either make a man out of him, and give him a solid grounding in military and civil realities, or prove beyond reasonable doubt he was unsuited for any major role in the post-Earthfall universe.

Results were decidedly mixed.  Roland had definite natural talent.  At the same time, he still bore the scars of his earlier life.  The corps was honestly unsure if he should receive advanced training, with the aim of turning him into a full-fledged Marine, or quietly sidelining him into a less significant role.  It was decided, after much consideration, to offer Roland a chance to take command of a military training and assistance team, which would be assigned to New Doncaster.  The risk appeared minimal.  New Doncaster was a volatile planet, and long-term projections indicated the world would either fall into civil war or be invaded by one of its neighbours, but – in the short-term – Roland should be able to prove himself without any real risk.  Just in case, Specialist Rachel Green – a Pathfinder – was assigned to serve as a covert bodyguard.

It rapidly became clear that events on New Doncaster were not following the expected timescale. The situation was degenerating rapidly.  Roland’s training mission worked hard to build up the local military, despite opposition from government factions, but it was barely enough to stabilise the line.  It seemed unlikely, despite Roland’s best efforts, that that planet could remain stable long enough for the government to start addressing deep-rooted structure issues underlying the conflict.  Indeed, there were plenty of factions that saw no need to address the issues.

Roland showed both the strengths and weaknesses of a young officer with little practical experience.  He devised a scheme to mount an airborne raid on a rebel base, which worked surprisingly well; he also drew up a plan to establish defence lines and blockhouses throughout the threatened islands in a bid to curtail rebel activities, a plan that might have worked if he’d had more resources at his disposal.  On the other hand, he also put his life at risk – sometimes to show the troops he was sharing the risks, sometimes for his own selfish reasons – and it could easily have ended in disaster.  However, he had good reason to think his plan would slow the rebel advance, giving the government a chance to at least try to hammer out a political solution.

He was wrong.  The rebels had long been planning a major offensive.  Roland’s army camp and the capital island came under heavy attack.  The spaceport, and the understrength Marine contingent providing protection, was destroyed in a single cataclysmic bombing.  It seemed likely, as Roland led his troops in defence of the government, that the rebels had dealt a fatal blow.  Perhaps, if Roland had not acted so quickly, they would have won.  Instead, though heavy fighting and a great deal of luck, Roland was able to drive the rebels off Kingston and save the government. 

However, the remainder of the rebel plans went off without a hitch.  The government’s authority across the outlying plantation islands, long hotbeds of insurgent activity, fell to rebel forces with terrifying speed.  It rapidly became apparent that, far from being beaten, the rebels had preserved much of their strength and were working to build up their forces as quickly as possible.

And, as Roland assumed command of the planetary military, it became clear the war was far from over.

Prologue II

Ludlow Estate, New Doncaster

It felt odd, Lord Hamish Ludlow reflected, to hold a party in the middle of a war.  His estate – and the island – was as secure as his personal armsmen could make it, but he had few illusions about what would happen if the rebels dispatched a small army to take his mansion and lands.  The seas were choppy, and the only safe way to reach the island was by aircraft, yet the rebels were master sailors and it was quite possible his household included a number of sympathizers.   They were supposed to be trustworthy – they’d worked for his family for generations – but who could tell these days?  Hamish had cracked down hard, using the war situation as an excuse to keep his clients and servants under right control, yet he feared the worst.  If the spaceport hadn’t been destroyed, he would have been very tempted to send his wife and daughters into orbit for their own safety.

Because the rebels made it clear they consider women and children to be legitimate targets, Hamish thought, coldly.  He’d seen the images from the first uprisings, the handful of video files that had been transmitted across the globe.  If they storm the island, they’ll show no mercy to everyone.

The thought pained him as he swept through the dance hall, quietly directing a handful of his fellows towards the meeting room.  His wife had arranged the ball with her usual skill, inviting everyone who was anyone; he had to admit, as he passed a pair of young debutantes being chaperoned by their mothers, that she’d done a wonderful job.  It was important to keep up the pretence all was normal, as well as reminding the young men what they were fighting for.  He smiled, inwardly, as he spied a handful of men in fancy uniforms.  They looked ready and able to fight for the planet.  He just hoped they did as well on the battlefield as they did on the dance floor.

Hamish nodded politely to a maid as he left the hall, making his way down to the secure conference room.  It looked like a comfortable sitting room, complete with armchairs, a well-stocked drinks cabinet and a fire burning merrily in the fireplace, but his family had invested millions of credits in making the chamber as secure as possible.  They weren’t exactly going to discuss treason, but … he shook his head.  The lower orders – and those who’d thrown their lot in with them – wouldn’t understand, if they knew what he was doing.  They’d assume he was merely being a selfish bastard, rather than a true son of New Doncaster.  His lips thinned at the thought.  Once, he could have spoken his mind and all would have listened.  Now … saying one’s mind risked social death.  It was just a matter of time until it meant literal death.

He poured himself a drink, then waited for the remaining three men to arrive.  They were older aristocrats, all descendents of the founders themselves … all so deeply rooted in the planet’s history that the mere thought of pulling up roots and moving elsewhere was unthinkable.  There were no women, nor any young and foolish men.  Hamish’s mouth twisted in distaste.  It was hard to know who could be trusted, these days.  The war had sorted the men from the boys, true, but it had also made it hard to oppose the government.  And yet, when government policy threatened to lead the planet to ruin …

“Hamish,” Lord Prestwick said.  He was older than Hamish, with grey hair and cold blue eyes, but his mind was as sharp as ever.  “I assume there’s a reason you called us here?”

“Yes.”  Hamish looked from face to face.  “The first offensive will begin tomorrow.”

None of the men, he noted sourly, showed any hint of surprise.  They’d owned the government, at least until the Prime Minister had made peace with the townspeople, and they still possessed a considerable degree of influence.  The aristocracy had scattered its clients throughout the government structure; some openly patronised – in all senses of the word – some under strict orders to keep their true allegiances concealed.  It would have been more surprising if they hadn’t been aware the offensive was about to begin.  The media might have been muzzled, but word had been spreading anyway.

“That is good, is it not?”  Lord Doncaster was the oldest man in the room and the only one who could claim descent from the Doncaster.  He never let anyone forget it.  “The rebels are about to be crushed, freeing the islands from their iron grip.  Is that not good news?”

“Perhaps,” Hamish said.  It was good news.  The aristocracy owned the rebel islands.  Losing them to the rebels had been painful.  A number of families had gone bankrupt when their ability to pay their debts had been called into question, because they’d lost control of their lands and plantations.  “And yet, what does it mean for the future if the army emerges victorious?”

The question hung in the air.  It wasn’t enough to beat the rebels.  They had to restore the founding families to their former position of absolute mastery over the planet and that wasn’t going to be easy.  Hamish wasn’t blind to the implications of letting the townspeople have a share in government, certainly not after studying the history of Earth.  His distant ancestors had lost much of their power, after they’d widened the franchise to the point anyone could vote.  Earthfall was clear proof of what could happen, if there was too much democracy.  He had no intention of letting it happen to his homeworld.  New Doncaster had once been a shining beacon of civilisation.  God willing, it would be again.

“The army is under our control,” Lord Doncaster pointed out.  “Their victories are our victories.”

“Except we don’t control the army,” Lord Prestwick countered.  “General Roland Windsor controls the army.”

He looked at Lord Windsor.  “Is he not one of yours?”

“No,” Lord Windsor said, flatly.  “When Roland Windsor arrived, we did a search of the archives.  There are quite a few people with the same name, as you can imagine, but none of them are our Roland Windsor.  If there is a family connection, it is a long way back in time.  We may share a name, but we have nothing else in common.”

“Even so,” Lord Prestwick said.  “He should support you.”

Hamish kept his face under tight control.  The age-old tradition was very simple.  The family supported its children – it birthed, educated and employed them – and, in exchange, the children supported the family.  Lord Oakley, the Prime Minister, had betrayed his family, as well as the rest of the aristocracy.  And Roland Windsor … it was not clear if there was any connection between the imprudent young man and the Windsors of New Doncaster, but it provided a handy tool to hack away at the soldier’s reputation.  It would be easy, with a word or two in the right ear, to brand Roland Windsor a traitor.  He would never see it coming.

He tapped his glass, drawing their attention back to him.  “We have spent the last six months building up the army,” he said.  “The rebels are tougher than we thought” – it cost him to admit it – “but our victory is inevitable.  And what will happen then?”

The words hung in the air.  He didn’t give them time to react.

“Our forefathers were the ones who realised this world could become more than just a settlement, a refuge from the political storms battering the homeworld,” he said.  “They saw profit.  They invested vast sums in turning the planet into a going concern.  They made it work!  And are we going to step aside, to surrender to rebels and traitors and short-sighted fools and give up everything we’ve built?”

Lord Doncaster frowned.  “The government has agreed to limited political reform.”

“If there was no further reform, I might be less concerned,” Hamish told him.  “But it is unfortunately clear that each reform, each change in the rules, will lead to more demands and more changes and, eventually, we’ll surrender everything to keep the peace.  It has happened before, time and time again, on hundreds of worlds.  Once you get on the slippery slope, you cannot keep yourself from sliding down to disaster.  And if you try to say no, to uphold your old rights, you will be branded a reactionary fool if not an outright monster.  Do we want it to happen here?”

He watched their faces, hoping they’d understand and agree.  He had contingency plans, if one of the little party decided to go straight to the government, but putting them into practice would be difficult.  The old freedoms were gone.  The government’s emergency laws left little room for the old rights.  The days he was the absolute lord and master of his estate were gone.  It was up to him to bring them back.

“The army is largely townie,” he pointed out.  “What will it do, if it emerges victorious?”

“General Windsor is a Marine,” Lord Doncaster said.  “Will he not be recalled, and moved to another trouble spot?”

“We cannot count on it,” Hamish said.  “And there are townie officers making their way up the ladder.”

“They won’t reach the top,” Lord Prestwick argued.

“They’ll be in position to mount a coup,” Hamish disagreed.  “The rebels did it.  Why can’t they?”

Lord Windsor leaned forward.  “Your point is taken,” he said.  “I assume you have something in mind?”

“This is our world,” Hamish said.  He needed to remind them of it, time and time again.  They had to keep their eyes on the prize.  “And we need to defend it.”

He took a breath, then started to outline his plan.

Chapter One

Mountebank Island, New Doncaster

From above, Specialist Rachel Green noted, New Doncaster was a surprisingly beautiful planet.

The hang glider – a flimsy device that would be torn to shreds, if the weather changed before she reached her destination – seemed to shift slightly as she glided towards Mountebank Island.  Her passive sensor array picked up a handful of radar pulses, but not – thankfully – any active sensors that might pick her out against the charged atmosphere before it was too late.  The glider was so fragile, she’d been assured, that most sensors wouldn’t have a hope of spotting it, although she had no illusions about what would happen if the rebel defences did.  She wasn’t anything like high enough to see a missile coming towards her before it reached its target, nor would she have any hope of survival if it did.  Stealth was her only real defence and she knew it might not be enough.

It will have to be, she told herself.  We cannot afford to fail now.

She took a breath, waiting patiently as the island slowly came into view.  It looked tiny from overhead, a postage stamp of greenery set in an endless blue sea, falling slowly into darkness as the sun sank behind the horizon.  The sole city was a mass of dark buildings, the plantations beyond a haze of greenery and the burnt-out remains of manor houses and indent barracks.  Rachel’s lips twisted in disgust.  It wasn’t the first time she’d found herself, and the corps as a whole, supporting a government that didn’t deserve to exist, but it had never sat well with her.  She would have preferred to land an entire division, then thrash both the government and the rebels before dictating terms that might just keep the planet from exploding again when the division was pulled out and sent to the next trouble spot.  But it was not to be.  The government was the only hope of maintaining any sort of stability and that meant supporting it to the hilt.

For what it’s worth, when we have so little to offer, she thought.  New Doncaster just isn’t that important.

The thought mocked her.  She’d had reservations about the mission when she’d first been briefed, although she’d had to concede it was better than either being reassigned to another special ops team or being sent into deep cover somewhere in the former core worlds.  The Commandant had even suggested it would be a milk run, a chance to ease herself back into service after losing most of her former team.  It would hardly be the first time she’d handled close-protection duty, with orders to watch her charge while watching his back.  And yet, Prince Roland?  Everything she’d heard about the young prince had suggested he was a degenerate, a fop lost in pursuit of pleasure … the idea he might make a Civil Guardsman, let alone a Marine, was absurd.  She’d half-expected disaster, right from the start.

And yet, he’s done better than I thought, she admitted, in the privacy of her own mind.  He has his flaws, and weaknesses, but he’s done well.

She twisted her head slightly, looking up.  The handful of government-owned satellites had been zapped when the rebels had started their offensive, although between their outdated technology and New Doncaster’s weather they’d been practically useless.  The government had made overtures to the spacers, in hopes they’d replace the lost satellites, but the spacers had been reluctant.  Rachel suspected half of them supported the rebels or simply wanted to wait and see who won before openly choosing a side.  The remainder wanted independence.  She had the feeling they would do what they could to stir the pot, making sure the war on the surface lasted long enough to ensure the winner inherited a ruined planet.  And there was nothing she could do about it.

And there’s no way I can send a message to Safehouse either, she thought.  I don’t even know what happened to the messages I sent to the dead drop.

She cursed under her breath.  New Doncaster had been largely isolated since Earthfall, with only a handful of starships passing through the system before the simmering discontent had exploded into open war.  She’d sent a handful of messages on passing starships, in hopes of forwarding updates to her superiors, but she knew it would be months – at best – before there was any reply.  It was unlikely the corps would divert a starship to investigate what had happened, not unless the Commandant decided to reassign Captain Allen or Roland himself.  And then … Rachel shook her head as a gust of wind carried her over the island.  Captain Allen was dead, killed by treacherous attack.  Roland probably wouldn’t want to leave.

Rachel put the thought out of her mind as she checked the sensor array again.  The rebels didn’t appear to be using radio, let alone microburst transmitters, although the latter were difficult to detect, let alone pin down, before it was too late.  They’d probably be relying on landlines, if the island’s primitive communications infrastructure remained intact, or simply using couriers to take messages from place to place.  It was what she would have done, if she had been on the other side.  She knew from grim experience that anyone radiating a signal in the middle of a war zone was practically asking to get killed.

Her terminal vibrated, once.  It was time.

She braced herself.  The darkness was inching forward.  Her eyes had been heavily enhanced, allowing her to see in the dark, but she knew not to count on it.  She was too high up to be seen by the naked – unenhanced – eye, yet … she took a breath as she unhooked herself from the glider, then allowed herself to plummet down.  The glider itself would be swept up by the wind and blown well out to see before it came down, or so she’d been assured.  She hated the idea of leaving anything to chance, but trying to land the glider or destroying it both raised the odds of detection.  She’d been careful to ensure the glider was as clean as possible, with nothing that suggested it was anything other than a civilian model flown by a dangerous sports club.  By the time it was found, if it ever was, it would be too late.

The air snapped at her as she fell, a silent reminder of her first parachute jump.  It had been fun and terrifying … here, she ran the risk of falling straight into an enemy camp.  The intelligence staff had done their best to pin down the rebel positions, but their best wasn’t anything like good enough.  The rebels knew how to conceal their camps, how to keep their forces safe from prying eyes.  Rachel trusted the odds – they were in her favour – but mentally prepared herself for the worst.  If she did land in an enemy camp, she’d have to kill her way out before they recovered and brought her down.  Roland would never know what had happened to her.

She counted down the seconds, one hand on the parachute cord.  It was never easy to be sure when one should deploy the parachute, not on a high-attitude low-opening drop.  Opening the chute too early could get her killed, either by the weather throwing her right across the island and into the sea, or an enemy sniper spotting her and trying to do something about it; opening it too late could see her plunging into the ground hard enough to kill her, even with the chute slowing her fall.  She kept counting, drawing on all her experience to pick the right moment to pull the cord.  The chute blossomed above her, jerking violently as the ground came up and hit her.  Rachel grunted in pain as she landed, drawing her pistol as she ducked down and swept the chute aside.  She was alone.  The half-assed road was as still and quiet as the grave.

Bad thought, Rachel told herself, as she swept up the remains of the chute and hurried into the jungle.  Very bad thought.

She paused, listening with her enhanced ears.  The jungle was never quiet – she could hear birds and insects moving through the trees, heedless of her presence – but she couldn’t make out any signs of rebel activity.  She reminded herself, sharply, that that was meaningless.  The rebels had good jungle tradecraft.  The ones who hadn’t developed such skills, in the years before the insurgency had turned into outright war, had been killed long ago.  She turned slowly, listening carefully, then knelt down and dug a small hole with her multitool.  The chute needed to be buried, before someone spotted it and started to ask the wrong – or rather the right – questions.  It wouldn’t be the first time a mission had been compromised by a local spotting something out of place, then passing a warning up the chain to higher authorities.

And we have no friends on this island, she reflected, as she kicked dirt into the hole before moving away.  No one here will give the government a friendly word, let alone any actual support.

She took a breath as she checked her compass, then started to walk north, remaining within the jungle while following the road.  It would rain soon, concealing the few traces of her presence.  She kept her eyes on the rough road, reminding herself the lack of paving wasn’t proof it had fallen into disuse.  The planetary government – and the aristocracy – hadn’t been interested in investing in transport infrastructure, not this far from the coast.  And besides, even if they’d tried, the rebels would have tried to stop them.  A working road network would have made it easier for the militia to move troops from place to place.

The air grew warmer as she walked, faint flashes of light from the dark clouds suggesting a thunderstorm was on the way.  Rachel kept moving as the road widened, leading onto the remains of a plantation.  The rebels had wrecked it beyond repair, burning the manor and the surrounding houses to the ground, then tearing up the alien plants to ensure it would be years – at best – before the plantation could be made profitable once again.  She felt a flicker of sympathy for the former workers, men and women who’d been told they could earn their way out of debt slavery … only to discover, when they crunched the numbers, that the system was carefully rigged to make escape impossible.  She cursed the government under her breath.  If they’d wanted an insurgency, they could hardly have done a better job. 

No bodies, she thought, as she circumvented the plantation.  Perhaps that’s a good sign.

She dismissed the thought as she resumed her walk.  There were hundreds of refugees from the rebel-held islands, people who’d fled the wrath of rebels with nothing to lose but their chains, yet there should have been more.  There’d been a middle class, small yet not insignificant; there’d been aristocrats and overseers and trusties who … she shook her head.  It had been six months.  Anyone who hadn’t made it out, in the first chaotic week, was either behind enemy lines or dead.  The rebel leadership, to its credit, had tried to put a lid on the violence, but the hatred was just too great.  Rachel knew what might have happened, to any of the former masters caught behind the lines.  They’d be lucky if they were only killed by their former slaves.

The ground rose under her feet.  The skies rumbled, the first smatterings of rain falling around her.  Rachel almost welcomed it as she saw lights in the distance, heard the sound of roaring engines.  She ducked down, careful to choose a vantage point that would let her watch the road without being seen herself.  A line vehicles came into view, driving down the dirt road.  Rachel eyed them warily.  The rebel soldiers on guard looked antsy, their weapons shifting from side to side as if they expected to be attacked at any moment.  She wondered, idly, if there were loyalists or criminals within the jungle.  It wasn’t impossible.  Mountebank was not a penal island, not one of the hellish colonies where serious criminals were sent to work themselves to death, but it was quite possible some of the indents were guilty of more than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They might not have found themselves welcomed by the rebels …

Her eyes narrowed.  The vehicles looked like technicals – civilian vehicles hastily outfitted with makeshift armour and weapons – but there was something about them that had her instincts sounding the alarm.  Purpose-built military vehicles?  The design was odd, but she couldn’t deny the practicality.  Would the rebels prefer to build such vehicles, rather than tanks or IFVs?  There was no way to know.  They might be better off relying on designs they understood, rather than expending resources on vehicles that might prove to be nothing more than expensive white elephants.

She waited for the convoy to vanish into the darkness, then resumed her walk towards the enemy installation.  Intelligence had sworn blind the rebels had set up their HQ near the centre of the island, well away from either Mountebank City or the majority of the plantations.  Rachel hadn’t expected the spooks to get it right, but – as she closed on the installation – she realised the rebels definitely had something in the right location.  Her sensor array picked up a couple of microbursts, compressed and encrypted to the point even modern computers would take weeks to decrypt the signals.  She frowned as she slowed her advance, careful to keep watching for enemy spies.  A regular military base would have cut the foliage back, in hopes of keeping someone from creeping up on the fence.  The rebels hadn’t had that option – it would have revealed their base’s presence – but they were doing their best to compensate.  Their patrols were alarmingly random.

Someone’s been studying the right books, she thought.  The patrol would have caught her, if she hadn’t stayed back to watch and study their patterns.  They appeared to be completely random.  There’s no way to predict when a patrol will be passing by.

Rachel slipped back, then studied the rebel base from a distance.  It was half-hidden in the foliage, like the base they’d attacked before the insurgency had kicked into high gear, to the point it was hard to be sure how big it really was.  There were no vehicles within view, nothing to suggest the base was nothing more than a jungle resort or hidden settlement.  If there hadn’t been regular patrols, and microburst transmissions, she would have wondered if the spooks had made a mistake.  Hell, it was quite possible the real HQ was somewhere nearby … but not too near.  The rebels would be foolish to assume their microbursts couldn’t be detected, then pinned down.  A single prowling drone could drop a missile on the transmitter before the crew could escape. 

She kept inching back, then started to make her way around the edge of the base.  The patrols were too solid for her to risk trying to sneak into the base itself, not without setting off the alarms.  She thought she could get through, particularly if the rebels were distracted, but it was hard to be sure.  Better to wait until the offensive began, then go to work.

Dawn glimmered in the distance as she swept through the surrounding area, looking for hints of a secondary base.  There was nothing, but that was meaningless.  The rebels knew how to survive in the jungle, knew what was safe to eat, knew where to find water … in their shoes, she might set up a tent, or even a very basic shelter.  The rain wouldn’t make that easy, but better to be damp and free then dry and in a POW camp.  Rachel knew Roland had worked hard to convince the government to treat prisoners well, yet she was all too aware hardly anyone believed it would keep its word.  It was hard to take prisoners when the prisoners feared they’d either be worked to death or simply shot out of hand.

She glanced at her terminal, then tapped a code into the touchscreen.  The microburst transmitter sent two wordless bursts, before shutting down completely.  Rachel was already moving.  It was unlikely the rebels could track her signals, even if they had modern sensor arrays, but she dared not rule it out.  The rebels had some support from off-world factions, factions that had remained carefully anonymous.  It was quite possible they might have been sent modern gear.  Better to be safe, she reasoned, than sorry.

There was no hint she’d been detected, as she put some distance between herself and her former position.  She breathed a sigh of relief, then found a place to hide and settled down to wait.  There wasn’t long to go, not before all hell broke loose.  She checked her stimulant reserve, preparing for the coming chaos.  She’d pay for using the boost later, when all was said and done, but there was no choice.  She dared not let herself be captured or killed.  If Roland hadn’t figured out what she really was, she would have been standing beside him, watching his back.  Instead, she’d been pressed into service.

He had no choice, she reminded herself.  Roland had been persuasive – and right.  The political situation was a ramshackle nightmare.  The only reason he’d been put in overall command was to ensure the blame didn’t fall on any of the locals, if the coming engagement ended in disaster.  And she knew what was at stake.  The army must not lose the first battle or it will lose the war.

But she knew, even as she rested and waited, that there were no guarantees in war.

Her Majesty’s Warlord 9-10

21 Oct

Chapter Nine

“My Lord.”  Craftsman Amman bowed before me, in a manner that suggested he wanted to throw himself at my feet for fear of my reaction if he didn’t.  “I … I thank you, once again.”

I nodded, feeling a twinge of … of something I didn’t want to look at too closely.  It had been two days since I’d gone to the slave market, purchased Amman and his family – and the rest of his tiny corporation – and freed them and … and I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.  Amman was practically genuflecting in front of me … I wondered, sourly, if the men who’d freed the slaves back home had had the same problem.  Amman and his family knew their lives and freedoms depended on me, even though I’d told them they were free.  They had to keep me sweet and …

It made me sick.  Had my ancestors felt the same way too?

“You’re welcome,” I said, trying to put it behind me.  I’d invited him to my office … in hindsight, that might have been a mistake. He might have been more comfortable in the workshop, or out in the courtyard.  “Have you decided if you want to stay?”

Amman hesitated, then nodded.  I wished I could read him better.  It was hard to say if he truly wanted to stay, and take my money as a working man, or flee the city with his friends and family.  I would let them go … of course, he didn’t know I’d let them go.  I’d heard all the stories of slaveowners manipulating finances to keep the slaves from buying their freedom, or calling out the guard when the slaves tried to leave and insisting they were actually runaways, little more than their master’s property.  If he really wanted to leave … I groaned, inwardly.  As far as he was concerned, I had about as much credibility as a Human Resources shithead swearing blind that of course everything was anonymous and the boss would never know who’d made the fatal complaint.  I could have made him all the promises I liked and none of them would be binding, not in truth.  And he knew it.

“Good.”  I decided to take his words at face value, at least for the moment.  He’d come to understand, in time, that I would let my workers go when they wanted to leave.  Indeed, once they’d mastered the new techniques, I was rather counting on it.  “Is the workshop suitable?”

A hint of pride entered Amman’s tone.  “Combined with our tools, which were sold with us, we can make anything you want,” he said.  “What would you like us to build, Master?”

I cringed, inwardly.  “Sir will be sufficient,” I said, as I took a set of papers and parchments out of the drawers.  “Some of these came from Damansara’s craftsmen, funded by me on condition they were shared freely, without any obligations.  Others were drawn up by me personally, but will require some adaption before they can be made practical.  What do you think of them?”

Amman took the papers and started to glance over them.  “Take your time,” I told him.  “I have all day.”

It wasn’t entirely true, I reflected, but it might make him a little more comfortable.  Besides, I needed a rest.  I’d spent the last two weeks working with the army, when I wasn’t consulting with my fellow officers and councillors or walking the streets to get a feel for the city.  The former had been exasperating – the councillors seemed intent on dragging their feet as much as possible – and the latter was difficult.  There was no mistaking the fact I was a great man, as far as the locals were concerned.  Any hope of finding out what people were really thinking was fading fast.  I was starting to think I’d need to wear a disguise if I wanted to go outside without being recognised, perhaps even a magical glamour.  Fallon could probably come up with something, if I asked.  She’d spent her time with a set of tutors, broadening her magic as much as possible.

I must be getting used to this place, I reflected wryly.  Last year, that would have been absurd beyond words.

Amman looked up.  “My … sir … we have already been constructing primitive printing presses,” he said.  His lips twisted.  “They were not popular.  I think … they played a role in our debts being called in and us …”

His voice trailed off, but I had no difficulty understanding  his meaning.  “You’ll be following my orders,” I assured him.  It was a perfect defence, as far as the locals were concerned.  The idea a subordinate might have the right to question his orders was unthinkable.  A colonel who followed his general’s orders to lay waste to a town could not be blamed for the atrocity.  “Can you construct the improved versions?”

“Yes.”  There was no doubt in Amman’s tone.  “But they will be copied very quickly.”

I shrugged.  I’d pushed the original craftsmen, back in Damansara, to come up with printing presses that were as close to portable as possible.  A skilled printer could put his press together, run off a few dozen copies of a newsletter and then break it down again, before someone realised what he was doing and called the guard.  I had the feeling a free – or freer – press would do wonders for pushing more modern attitudes into the city, from the advantages of the New Learning to encouraging people to know – and stand up for – their rights.  There were no independent newspapers here, or so I’d been told, but that was about to change.

My lips twitched.  I intended to let my staff steal all the ideas they wanted.  They’d do a few months with me, then leave to set up their own newsletters … just as I’d planned.  I doubted many of them would last very long, but once the genie was out of the bottle the locals couldn’t stuff it back in again.  They’d think of me as a sucker, as the idiot who’d just let his apprentices take his intellectual property, never realising it was what I’d intended all along.  And if it helped them to underestimate me …

First things first, I reminded myself.  You have a long way to go.

“The farming tools are relatively simple, but they will be costly,” Amman warned.  “How do you … ah … sir, how do you intend to sell them?”

“Good question,” I said.  I’d come up with a handful of ideas, once I had a few proof-of-concept models ready for demonstration, but I suspected I’d have to play it by ear.  Helen and her father had granted me vast estates, yet I hadn’t had time to go see them.  Perhaps if I set up a farming cooperative, with the farmers paying a small fee to borrow the tools … I’d seen similar concepts back home.  “For the moment, concentrate on crafting the tools.  We’ll show them off when they’re ready.”

And, once again, someone will steal the ideas, I added, silently.  We won’t even try to stop them.

I put the thought aside and leaned forward.  “And the guns?”

“Trickier,” Amman said.  “The basic designs are simple, but …”

“If you can come up with an improvement, or two or three, you will be vastly rewarded,” I promised.  Making gunpowder was relatively simple, but churning out vast numbers of muskets and flintlocks was a great deal harder.  I’d brought a considerable number from Damansara and would probably have to purchase more, yet … as long as we were dependent on the city, they’d have considerable influence over us.  Better to build up the local industry as much as possible.  “And if you can simplify the process, to the point even relatively untrained apprentices can do some of the work … there will be rewards for that too.”

I saw him wince, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.  Local industries were cottage industries, where a highly-skilled craftsmen – or a small cooperative – churned out a relatively small number of goods, ranging from farming tools to swords, armour and everything else.  The idea of an assembly line, in which the overall job was broken down into a number of stages – each one handled by a single apprentice – was not only alien to them, but also a direct threat to a system that suited the craftsmen very well.  They might not be aristocracy – and they were obliged to bow and scrape in front of their social superiors – yet they had a surprising amount of wealth and power.  An assembly line would weaken them … and, I reflected grimly, also make it harder for their apprentices to become craftsmen in their own right. 

“We don’t have time to train more craftsmen,” I said.  I’d have to do something about that, as the assembly lines sprang out of my head and into reality.  Perhaps particularly good apprentices could be given more formal training, then raised to become craftsmen themselves.  If nothing else, work on an assembly line would separate the men who could concentrate on a particular task from those who couldn’t.  “If the warlords build new and better armies first, they’ll lay waste to the city and kill us all.”

Amman nodded, reluctantly.  “There are other problems,” he warned.  “We might not have enough iron to build steam engines or railways.”

That was curious, although perhaps not for the reasons he thought.  I had no difficulty in understanding shortages of iron, but … railways was a British term.  Did that mean my predecessor was British?  Or was it just a linguistic coincidence?  There was no reason the locals had to call their railroads by that name.  They might easily have come up with railways to separate them from the roads.  And yet …

I put the thought aside for later consideration.  “We’ll concentrate on printing presses, steam engines and other smaller devices for now,” I told him.  I liked the idea of laying down tracks and riding the railroad – railway – into enemy territory, as General Sherman had done during the War between the States, but it would be years before we could hope to match the Union Army.  Hell, there was no way we could match the Army of Northern Virginia either.  “But I do want you to try this …”

Amman took the paper I offered him and frowned.  “What is this?”

I met his eyes.  “See what you make of it.”

He looked down, just for a second.  I kicked myself, mentally.  It wasn’t a test and yet … he’d seen it as a test, as something that might cost him everything if he got the answer wrong.  I told myself, sharply, to remember he’d been traumatised.  He’d lost everything, even his rights as a free man.  He had been on the verge of being permanently separated from his wife and children when I’d stepped in and saved him.  And yet, what could I do about it?  What reassurance could I offer?  The grim truth was that nothing I could say or do could possibly make him feel secure.  How could it?

“I don’t understand.”  Amman looked as if he was bracing himself for a blow.  “I thought it was a steam engine, at first, but it’s nothing like it.  It’s … I don’t understand.”

“It’s a bioreactor,” I explained.  I used the English word, as the locals had yet to come up with the concept.  My predecessor clearly hadn’t known they were possible or they would have been introduced already.  “It uses animal waste and human sewage to produce methane gas, which can be piped away, stored, and used as a cheap source of fuel.”

Amman frowned.  I understood.  The locals knew a great deal about science, more than one might expect, but there were vast gaps in their knowledge.  Even full-fledged craftsmen didn’t know the chemical composition of air, or that matter was made up of atoms, or … hell, they didn’t really understand how disease spread or how a handful of simple precautions could keep germs from spreading.  It made me wonder if magic had made the elites intellectually lazy.  What was the point of working out the scientific method when a wizard could just wave a wand to perform miracles?  My lips twitched.  If the stories from the war were true, bullets beat wands any day.  Give me a good sniper rifle and I’d pick off a magical long before he knew I was there, let alone try to turn me into a frog. 

“I see, I think,” Amman said.  He sounded doubtful.  “What do we do with the fuel?”

I smiled as I explained.  Gas stoves looked complicated, but they were really very simple.  It would be easy enough to pipe the gas from the storage barrel into the stone and set it alight.  The risks could be easily managed, giving the poor a way to cook food that didn’t involve either vast amounts of firewood, or coal, or magic.  And once people realised that human and animal waste could be used to produce gas, and they would, they’d start picking it off the streets and transporting it to the nearest bioreactor.  I’d make sure anyone who brought in some shit was properly rewarded. 

There’s no point in nagging people to clean up their shit, because eventually they just get tired of hearing it, I reflected.  Appealing to someone’s self-interest is far more likely to produce the desired results.

“I can build this,” Amman said.  “But there will be risks.”

“Yeah.”  I grimaced.  “We have to be careful.”

I met his eyes.  “You already have a staff, and a budget,” I said.  “I want you to hire apprentices, obtain supplies and turn these” – I waved at the papers – “into workable hardware that can be duplicated as quickly as possible.  Get the apprentices working on assembly lines, four days a week; give them a more comprehensive education on the fifth day and let them take the remaining two days off.  Organise a rota so the assembly lines keep going and” – I smiled – “producing enough guns, gunpowder and everything else we need.  The city is counting on us.”

Amman bowed.  “Sir,” he said.  “I won’t let you down.”

I nodded, dismissing him.  The assembly lines – primitive factories – were going to change everything.  I needed to convince the aristocracy to start investing, to put money into the factories in exchange for a share of the profits, before they realised just how much they were going to change.  The aristocrats who saw their interests being threatened … I sighed inwardly, remembering how many activists had staunchly refused to look at the world from the other side’s point of view.  A person who stood to lose much, if not everything, would do everything in his power to stand in the path of progress … and if he understood the world far better than the progressives, might be very good at making progress stop.  And here … I shook my head.  My predecessor had ensured there would be progress.  The only question was how much of the old order would survive the transit to the new.

There was a knock on the door.  I looked up.  “Come!”

Fallon stepped into the room.  I tried not to stare.  She was practically glowing with light and life.  Her dress shimmered around her so fluidly I was convinced it was magic.  “I’ve just finished my lessons,” she said.  “Guess what I can do?”

I pretended to consider it.  “Turn people into frogs?”

“And a few other things,” Fallon said, gleefully.  I tried not to flinch as she waved her fingers in the air.  “I’ve been working on the communication spells too.  We should be able to send voice messages, although the range is very limited.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.  I didn’t pretend to understand the laws of magic, but it was clear there were more limitations than I’d been led to expect.  “Can we hire more chatterers too?”

“We’ve found a couple of possible candidates,” Fallon said.  “But all the best magicians have long since left the city.”

She shrugged, expressively.  “I chatted to Via,” she added.  “She’s deeply worried.”

I blinked.  “Via?”

“Amman’s wife,” Fallon said.  “She’s a bit older than me, but … she knows more about craftsmanship than I’d thought.  She would have gone far, if she’d been born with magic.  Or a penis.  She was very lucky to meet and marry Amman, someone who actually listens to her.”

“I see,” I said.  “How do I make them understand I’m not going to sell them back into slavery?”

“You can’t,” Fallon said, echoing my earlier thoughts.  “I tried to reassure Via, but she’s fearful.  She’ll always be worried about her children.”

“Yeah.”  I stared at the papers on my desk.  “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Fallon changed the subject.  “Did Amman like your ideas?”

“He’s going to work on them,” I said.  I’d given up trying to explain they weren’t really my ideas, although I’d had to spend quite some time working out how the original inventors had made their inventions work.  The army had taught me a hell of a lot about improvising when I was short on supplies, but I hadn’t realised how many gaps there were in my knowledge until I’d had to start work from scratch.  “And some of the others will have to be introduced differently …”

My voice trailed off as I looked at her.  “I think I’ve had an idea,” I said.  “And I need to see the princess.”

“Send a messenger first,” Fallon reminded me.  “In fact, send a messenger asking to see her tomorrow.  You don’t want to make it look urgent.”

“I suppose so,” I said.  The palace was under constant observation.  If I hurried to the princess, tongues would start to wag.  “We’ll go see her tomorrow.”

Fallon beamed.

Chapter Ten

“It’s always a pleasure to see you,” Princess Helen said, as Fallon and I were shown into her offices.  “I trust the magic lessons are proceeding apace?”

Fallon dropped a deep curtsey, then stayed on one knee.  “I am learning more every day, Your Highness,” she said.  “It will be a long time before I take my exams, if I ever do, but I am improving.”

“There are some advantages in not taking the exams,” Princess Helen said, waving for Fallon to stand.  “You can keep your potential enemies guessing at your true power.”

“Like you,” I said.  It was an open secret Princess Helen had magic, but no one was sure how much.  I’d heard people whispering she could barely light a candle – which was more than I could do – and others suggesting she was a minor goddess.  I supposed the ambiguity worked out well for her, making it harder for her enemies to work up the nerve to attack.  And yet, it wasn’t enough.  “You do the same.”

“More or less.”  Princess Helen gave me a long look.  “There’s been some chatter about you freeing slaves, then taking them into your service.”

I resisted the urge to point out the sheer naked immorality of slavery, particularly when it was extended to women and children who’d never backed the bills or taken the loans or whatever excuse the slavers used to force their victims into slavery.  Princess Helen was as liberal as they came, in Johor, which meant that – by my standards – she was so far to the right that she made common or garden fascists look libertarian by comparison.  She’d been raised to think of herself as superior to the common herd and only the fact she’d been born female, with the threat of being forced into a marriage she didn’t want hanging over her head, had kept her from turning into someone akin to Harbin Galley.

Instead, I appealed to common sense.  “We are entering an era in which mere rote work is no longer enough,” I told her.  “The workers must not only work, but think about what they’re doing as they do it.  Slaves are poor industrial workers, Your Highness, because they have no share in the fruits of their labours and therefore no incentive to do more than the bare minimum.  They certainly will not come up with new ideas and share them with their masters, the ones who treat them as property.  Why should they?”

I let the words hang in the air for a long moment.  “By freeing them, and paying a decent wage as well as providing food and lodging, I give them a share in my success, which provides an incentive to put their brains – as well as their bodies – at my disposal.  When they do well, I will reward them; when they leave, as they will eventually, they will tell their successors that I am a good employer who treats his subordinates decently.”

“Which is how you treat your ladies, Your Highness,” Fallon added.  “The principle is the same.”

Helen nodded, then waved us to a sofa.  “I will leave it in your capable hands,” she said, as she sat herself and called for drinks.  “I understand matters have been proceeding well with the army?”

“Well enough,” I said.  “There’s a lot of dead wood that will need to be removed, if they don’t shape up quickly, but I’ve decided to give them two more weeks to prove they can learn before I bring the hammer down.”

Princess Helen frowned.  “Is that a good idea?”

“Maybe.”  I smiled, rather humourlessly.  “They were trained in an environment that rewarded certain behaviours, behaviours that made sense on the parade ground but will get men killed on the battlefield.  Those uniforms alone will be enough to get them blown away, if an enemy gunner gets them in his sights.  Right now” – I paused – “I cannot blame them for falling in line, when not doing so would get them in hot water, but I can and I will blame them for failing to adapt to the new world.  I’ll give them a chance.  One chance.  If they flub it, they’re out.”

The princess said nothing as the maid returned, carrying a tray of drinks.  I took a cup of tea and rested it on my lap, wondering what the princess was thinking.  Was she having second thoughts about putting the army in my hands?  There was no way some of the officers were going to stay in the army, not if I had my way, and they all had powerful families or patrons who would raise a stink if they got discharged.  And that would put the princess in a difficult position.  Her father might have no choice, but to insist I got discharged instead.  I sighed inwardly.  If I got ordered to leave …

Perhaps I can send the aristocratic idiots into a battle they’re sure to lose, the nasty part of my mind whispered.  They don’t believe me when I tell them that charging into massed gunfire is a good way to commit suicide.

I put the thought out of my head.  “We’re working on weapons, as well as magical training aids,” I added.  “We should be ready for more and better training in a week or so.”

“Good,” Princess Helen said.  “Have you visited your estates?”

“No.”  I shook my head.  “I simply haven’t had time.”

“It would be a good idea to go, once the army is firmly in hand,” the princess said.  “Right now, your stewards are running things.  You cannot leave them alone for long or they’ll take advantage.”

“I’ll go, when I have a moment,” I assured her.  It was hard to wrap my head around just how much she’d given me, when she’d taken me into her service. A mansion and estate within the city – and more, much more, in the countryside.  It wasn’t quite real.  And yet, she was right.  I should visit as soon as possible, just to get a feel for the country.  “Right now, I have a proposal to discuss with you.”

Princess Helen twitched.  “I just warded off a proposal from a distant prince,” she said, sardonically.  “I do hope yours is more practical.”

I had to smile.  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to approach the issue in a somewhat roundabout way,” I told her.  I’d spent hours trying to decide how best to make the proposal, knowing it could easily blow up in my face.  “Can I?”

“Of course,” Helen said.  “I enjoy your company.”

The hell of it, I reflected as Fallon hid a smile, was that she had a point.  I wasn’t her father, nor was I an overbearing aristocrat or a servile commoner.  I wasn’t bent on forcing her into marriage or grovelling at her feet, begging for crumbs from her table.  The locals might talk if she spent too much time with me, even with Fallon chaperoning us both, but she might choose to ignore the babble.  My company had to be better than pretty much all of the alternatives.  And she was more lonely, I suspected, than she let on.

“I’ve been writing down everything I remember about medicine and medical treatment,” I said, carefully.  My predecessor had done a great deal too, from what I’d heard, but most of those books hadn’t made their way so far east.  The ones I’d read had told me nothing I didn’t already know.  “I’m not a doctor – ah, a chirurgeon – but I know a great many things that either were never discovered here, or simply never got into the common awareness.”

Helen raised her eyebrows.  “Why not?”

“I suspect magic had something to do with it,” I told her.  “You don’t need to worry about setting a broken bone, or prescribing medicine, if you can just brew a potion or cast a spell to save a life.  But the cost of buying even a simple potion is too high for the average commoner and so they are dependent on the chirurgeons, who are pretty much butchers.”

Helen grimaced.  “There’s no way to convince magicians to lower their prices.”

I nodded.  I’d looked into it, back in Damansara.  It hadn’t taken me long to realise the magicians weren’t driving up their profits.  Potion ingredients really were that costly, particularly the ones that had to be shipped across the continent or were simply difficult to grow.  Demand would never outstrip supply, as far as I could tell.  My dream of providing magical healing to my entire army had died before it could come into focus.  And there was no way to lower production costs, not without massive investment.  I simply hadn’t had the time.

“There is a lot we can do,” I said.  “Even simple things like telling people to boil water before drinking, or washing their hands before eating, would do a great deal to make the population more healthy.  More complex tasks like nursing the wounded and offering better medical care during childbirth” – I tried not to shudder as I recalled the one and only local midwife I’d met – “would have a more profound effect, given time.  The problem, of course, is convincing people to follow medical advice, or work as chirurgeons themselves.  It isn’t no.”

“No,” Helen agreed.  “What do you have in mind?”

I met her eyes.  “You told me you had a network of aristocratic women who reported to you,” I said.  “How many of them, do you think, who might be interested in going into nursing and medical care?”

Helen blinked.  “You want them to become chirurgeons?”

“Not exactly,” I temporised.  There were female healers, but they had magic.  Chirurgeons were almost universally male.  Midwifes were female, but their training was practically non-existent and they tended to call for chirurgeons or healers if they ran into something they couldn’t handle.  I shuddered to think of how many local women had died in childbirth, killed by something a trained midwife back home could handle effortlessly.  No wonder so many people were nervous about Helen getting married before taking the throne.  Even if her husband didn’t try to dominate her, she might die in childbirth while leaving the succession unsettled.  “I want them to become doctors and nurses.”

Helen half-smiled.  “They are quite bored.”

“There were aristocratic women, back home, who organised medical efforts for the soldiers,” I said.  Florence Nightingale had been one of the first – if not the first – but she’d been followed, very quickly, by Clara Barton.  They’d done a lot of good in an era where taking care of the fighting man wasn’t a governmental priority.  “Some of them went home, unable to stand the blood and gore; others stood their ground and became very proficient indeed.  If we can do here, to the point of using them to channel new medical ideas into society …”

“Their fathers and husbands will not approve.” Helen pointed out.  “And they will say their womenfolk are too delicate to be exposed to the horrors of either medicine or war.”

Fallon snorted.  “And who do they think is exposed to the worst of the horrors?”

I winced.  Local armies had a reputation for rape as well as looting and burning their way through the local population.  I’d made it clear, when I’d built my first army, that rape would not be tolerated and I’d still had to hang a few men to make the point stick.  Most commanders wouldn’t bother to even try to put a stop to it, as long as the victims were commoners.  Mercenaries were even worse.  They rarely checked which side of the border they were on before they started looting, raping and pillaging.  And women were often their victims.

“I know that,” Helen said, with a hint of exasperation.  “Their womenfolk will be exposed to the horrors of childbirth, if nothing else.  But it won’t be easy to convince them to let their womenfolk learn medicine, let alone go anywhere near the battlefield.”

She smiled, rather coldly.  “Unless … unless we play it as a religious obligation and find a patron temple,” she added.  “It may work, if it becomes fashionable.  I’ll have to talk to some of my supporters.”

“Call them Nightingales,” I suggested.  “And make a show of recruiting common-born women too.”

Princess Helen rang the bell for the maid, then spoke to her in a low voice.  I pretended not to listen as I considered the possibilities.  The princess hadn’t rejected the concept out of hand, which I’d feared, but I’d forgotten how closely non-magical women were tied to their menfolk.  Even Helen was subordinate to her father and while it had its uses, I knew it galled her.  It was quite possible, I conceded mentally, that the concept of training aristocratic women as doctors and nurses would never get off the ground.  I might have to start training commoner women instead, which would cause its own problems.  The noblewomen would have enough social clout, I hoped, to force people to take them seriously.

“Can it be done, without magic?”  Princess Helen met my eyes.  “It isn’t a safe world out there.”

“It isn’t,” I agreed.  Princess Helen might live in the lap of unimaginable luxury, by local standards, but she was still horrifyingly vulnerable.  I’d saved her from being forced into marriage once, yet … I shuddered.  Her enemies only had to be lucky once.  She had to be lucky all the time.  “But I’ve known women who have become battlefield doctors and done a very good job of it.”

I gritted my teeth.  It couldn’t have been easy for Clara Barton or Florence Nightingale, born in an era where upper-class women weren’t expected to be much of anything, but they’d persisted and succeeded.  It could be done.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy – and I was sure a lot of early volunteers would back out as soon as they realised how much they had to learn and do – but the ones who persisted would go on to glory, breaking the glass ceiling and charting a path for their successors.  And, I hoped, making it easier for the aristocracy – and everyone else – to embrace the New Learning.  The women might have little formal power, but that might not stop them being effective.

Particularly once they realise how much safer childbirth will be if the midwife washes her hands before going to work, I thought, numbly.  I vaguely recalled it had taken years for doctors to embrace germ theory, to understand how important it was to keep one’s hands washed at all times.  Their self-interest will force them to support me.

The maid returned, leading an older woman wearing a long white robe.  “Your Highness,” the maid said.  “Lady Vesta of the Crone.”

A priestess, I thought.  The locals had many gods, ranging from simple household gods to entities who – I thought – were counterparts of Odin, Thor and many others.  I didn’t pretend to understand the different temples, cults, and semi-legal religious orders.  And one from a female-only temple.

Lady Vesta studied me thoughtfully.  I returned the favour.  She looked to be in her late fifties, although it was impossible to be sure; she had the air of a favourite grandmother, but there was a glint in her eye that suggested she was always looking out for the main chance.  I smiled, inwardly.  I’d met plenty of preachers like her, back in the Middle East.  They were always looking for ways to expand their power and influence, to the point they’d do pretty much anything to help you as long as you returned the favour.  I was privately relieved.  Their more fanatical counterparts were a great deal harder to handle.

“Your Highness,” Lady Vesta said.  Her voice was quite aristocratic.  I reminded myself that a religious calling – real or feigned – was one of the few ways for a noblewoman to build a career and gain influence.  Even if she were married, her husband’s authority stopped at the gates of the temple.  “You have called me and I have come.”

“My warlord came to me with a suggestion,” Helen said, and briefly outlined the entire concept of female doctors and nurses.  “We thought you might be interested in supporting a whole new order of Nightingales.”

Lady Vesta looked calculating.  I braced myself, unsure which way she’d jump.  The Crone was a popular goddess, at least amongst the noblewomen, but she was also a little controversial.  I didn’t pretend to understand the local religious politics either, although I suspected the real problem was that her temple often provided sanctuary to noblewomen fleeing abusive husbands.  It was a rare man who’d dare to force the temple’s doors, knowing it would bring him the wrath of every temple and religious order in the city.  Even the orders who hated the Crone and her followers would unite behind them, for fear of what might happen if they didn’t.

“It might be possible,” Lady Vesta said, finally.  “But we are not a wealthy order.”

Helen snorted, then got down to business.  I kept my mouth shut and watched, genuinely impressed, as they sorted out the terms.  The temple would create and fund the Order of Nightingales, spreading the knowledge as widely as possible; Lady Vesta would make a show of pretending it was secret knowledge, but quietly let it slip out into the wider world to encourage the other temples – and everyone else – to use it themselves.  I hoped – prayed – it would work.  If the rest of the aristocracy said no, before it was too late, we might have to rely on the commoners anyway.

“Very good,” Helen said, when they’d finished.  “And you can rely on my patronage later on.”

Lady Vesta smiled, shooting me an unreadable look.  I wondered what she saw.  I wasn’t local, with a willingness to accept women as equals that was rare outside the magical community … did she have the slightest idea how far I’d come?  Or did she just think I was sucking up to Helen, in hope of keeping her sweet?  Who knew?

The Crone might, I reflected, as the meeting came to an end.  It might be time to start taking a proper interest in local religion, now it has taken an interest in you.

It was a sobering thought. A year ago, I hadn’t believed in magic.  It was just a myth, but here it was real.  Who knew what else was real?  The gods and goddesses?  Or God Himself?  I’d been raised a Christian, but I’d never taken it very seriously.  How could I?

Worry about it later, I told myself.  Right now, you have too much else to do.

Mystic Albion: A Brief Overview

10 Oct

Just some background, perhaps for ‘The Stranded’. What do you think?

Mystic Albion A Brief Overview

The early history of Mystic Albion is shrouded in mystery.  The generally accepted version is that the Old Gods, realising the magic on Earth was slowly draining away (and the lack of it would eventually kill them), opened portals to Mystic Albion and moved there in a single giant exodus.  Mystic Albion became, in effect, the source of the legends of godly realms, from Valhalla and Asgard to Heaven itself.  It is not clear if this is actually true.  The gods – and entities so powerful and different from humans that they might as well be gods, when they’re not being eldritch nightmares – have not spoken to the human settlers in centuries.  It is generally believed they have gone beyond the borders of human understanding (although their places of power in Mystic Albion are still given a wide berth, just in case).

What is known is that, with the magic drain steadily increasing, a young witch called Anne Boleyn made a deal with an entity from Mystic Albion.  (Some say it was the Faerie Queen, others that it was someone or something far darker).  The terms of the deal were relatively simple.  Anne would bear a child who would eventually rule England, in exchange for which portals between the two worlds would be opened (as long as possible) and the magic users of Britannia would emigrate to Mystic Albion, where they would be safe from increasing persecution.  Anne perhaps should have been a little more careful with the precise wording of the deal, as her child was a girl and this led rapidly to the destruction of her reputation and her execution.  (This is often held up as a cautionary tale for young wizards, who are often enthralled with the idea of making deals with such creatures.)  Despite Anne’s death, Elizabeth Tudor came to rule England and the portals opened, in places that came to be known as Gatehouses.  The Tudor authorities quietly ignored the whole affair, at least as long as Elizabeth was on the throne.  Besides, magic was a thing – even if it was less powerful than it had been – and they saw it as better to get rid of it rather than risk pushing the magicians to do something desperate.  Upon Elizabeth’s death, and James I’s assumption of the throne, the Gatehouses started to close.  The last of them, in Yorkshire, closed when James started openly hunting witches. 

(Quite what happened to the magic users who remained behind was never established.)

Mystic Albion is, at least on the surface, divided into seven princedoms, which are (in honour of Elizabeth) ruled by princesses, but their power is actually quite limited.  They are judges, when cases come to trial, and very little else.  Most communities (cities, farming villages) tend to have a great deal of autonomy, as many of them have enough magic to make life difficult for would-be tyrants; others are so close to the borderlines between human and ‘other’ lands that trying to overshadow or occupy the communities might well prove dangerous.  The princesses do control the Knights, who serve as the ultimate law-enforcement arm in the event of a dark magic outbreak, but normally most law and order issues are handled by the local communities. 

The ‘other’ lands are, legally, untouchable regardless of their current status.  People who enter sometimes don’t come out again, or find themselves returning to a time years after their own, or wind up changed by the inhabitants. 

There are other human communities, established by other exiles from Earth.  Contact between them and Mystic Albion is limited, although trade routes are slowly being established.  It isn’t easy.  Most forms of transport are incapable of long ocean crossings, ensuring that contact relies on boats (sailing ships) or flying sorcerers.  Attempts to set up portals between Mystic Albion and Mystic North America (dominated by various tribes, descended from Native Americans) have been unsuccessful.  To all intents and purposes, Mystic Albion is alone in the world.

Socially, most people are regarded as effectively equal.  Magic levels the playing field between males and females, aristocrats and commoners; a person who finds one community unwelcoming, for whatever reason, is free to leave and find somewhere else.  This is easy; flying carpets, broomsticks and even portals and floating carriages are available for all, in exchange for a nominal fee or service. 

Magic is a part of life, to the point it has effectively prevented the development of actual technology.  The average person knows at least a few basic spells; the hyper-powerful wizards are capable of building castles in the clouds, flying around the entire world in hours and many other tricks.  There is a considerable amount of rivalry amongst the stronger magical bloodlines, but – as sorcery requires a certain degree of maturity – the benefits of cooperation tend to convince most sorcerers to at least try to work together.  Some bloodlines arrange marriages for their children, in hopes of breeding stronger and stronger magicians, but the results have been mixed.  No one knows why.

There are, at base, two types of magicians; heads and hearts.  The hearts (performers) tend to be more powerful, at least at first, but they tend to run into problems because they rarely learn the basics and find themselves unable to progress past the point they can no longer compensate for the flaws in their spellwork with magic.  The heads (technicians) tend to be slower to develop, but they master the basics and generally speed past the hearts once the hearts reach their natural stopping point.  (Put simply, a heart can build a castle out of cloud-stuff, but they cannot modify the castle; a head might take longer to bend the cloud-stuff to his will, but can turn it into whatever he wants).  It is generally agreed that a heart can beat a head if they catch him by surprise, but given time to prepare a head can catch a heart very effectively.

The centre of magical research lies in Gatehouse.  Originally, it was the York Gatehouse (and its location corresponds to York on Earth), but now it is just the Gatehouse.  The Gatehouse Portal itself is long gone.  Instead, students with high magical aptitude are tutored in the basics of magic while they work to discover their specific talents and inclinations.  The school takes students of all ages and social classes (insofar as they exist) and it isn’t uncommon to have children sharing classes with adults old enough to be their grandparents.  All forms of magic are studied at Gatehouse, but several types – particularly dark or demonic magics – are studied in theory only.  A student with an inclination towards them would be quietly told to leave, before they could corrupt others. 

Gatehouse is ruled by the Merlin (it’s a title, not a gender-specific name) who is selected by the princesses.  The Merlin is normally a powerful sorcerer, but not amongst the most powerful (as they tend to lose interest in the world or, worse, start playing power games with it).  Below him, there are a multitude of teachers. 


9 Oct

Hi, everyone

It’s a smaller update this time, I’m afraid.  I completed the first draft of The Family Secret, but – as always – it needs a great deal of editing and suchlike before it can be put on sale.  Standing Alone is being edited now, so – as you can see – there’s a bit of a backlog.  Still, it could be worse <grin>.

My planned next project, in a couple of weeks (school holiday and really, I need a rest), is The Prince’s Gambit, a direct sequel to The Prince’s War.

Beyond that, I would like to try something new.  It’s a choice between a pure alternate history story and a semi-urban fantasy.  The former is set in the 1950s, a world where the Third Reich bestrides Europe, Hitler is dying … and, as the succession question suddenly becomes very dangerous, Werner Von Braun, the founder of the Nazi Rocket Program, wants to defect to the West.  (I don’t have a title for this yet, so suggestions welcome).  The latter – provisionally entitled The Stranded – follows a trio of students from a magical world who find themselves trapped in our world, unaware that they’re under threat from shadowy enemies intent on keeping the doors between the two firmly closed. 

Which one would you like to see?


Her Majesty’s Warlord (7-8)

7 Oct

Chapter Seven

“I must say,” Sir Essex said, “I find your tales of horsemen being gunned down before they reached the enemy to be absurd.  I served in the Necromantic War and I am telling you, the cavalry is still the king of the battlefield.”

I did my best to look interested, although it was a tough sell.  Sir Essex’s bragging was about as realistic as the man who claimed to have been part of Seal Team C4, with the added disadvantage his stories took place on the far side of the globe and were therefore impossible to disprove.  He was worse than any stolen valour lunatic, I decided, as he was wealthy and powerful enough to convince most listeners to overlook the discrepancies in his stories.  I was entirely sure he was making most of them up out of whole cloth, then exaggerating to the point of madness.

“We charged the orcs,” Sir Essex continued.  “And they melted before us like a woman before a strong man.”

It was not easy to keep my expression blank as his story grew more and more detailed – and absurd.  I’d barely gotten used to the concept of a world that had real live orcs, let alone gorgons, dragons and things that went bump in the night.  All the stories suggested orcs were strong enough to lift a car, with tough skin that was difficult even for arrows to penetrate and internal organs so redundant that an arrow to the heart might not be enough to kill the creature.  The idea of jumping on horseback and charging into a line of orcs sounded like a painful way to commit suicide, not a war-winning tactic.  The books I’d read suggested orcs were too dump to panic, when they were attacked.  And if they stood their ground, even when armed with nothing more dangerous than swords and clubs, they’d be the ones who won the day.  The cavalry would be effortlessly crushed.

“Lady Emily herself gave me a kiss,” Sir Essex continued.  “She rewarded me heavily for my great deeds.”

I wasn’t impressed by that, although … Emily?  It was a common name back on Earth, but here?  I couldn’t recall meeting anyone called Emily in Damansara, although – to be fair – it was a woman’s name and I hadn’t had that much contact with the female side of the city.  I’d certainly never been invited to their gatherings, let alone been introduced to the young debutantes as they paraded themselves for marriage.  She was probably just a lady of a castle, someone holding the fort while her husband went off to war.  I guessed she was far above Sir Essex or his tale would have been a great deal more shocking.  It really wasn’t easy not to roll my eyes.  I’d never liked bragging on the streets, let alone in the army or my strange new world.

“And then we rode all the way back home, charging orcish nests on the way,” Sir Essex bragged.  “We drove them before us like …”

“Something you drove before you?”  My patience snapped.  “I was wondering … when you left the fort and charged the orcs, was that not tactically unsound as it exposed your men to enemy fire?”

Sir Essex reddened.  “The orcs couldn’t hit a man standing still,” he snapped.  “They certainly couldn’t hit a man on horseback.”

“And when you left the fort, in defiance of instructions from your commanding officer, did that not show an inability to take orders?”  I probably shouldn’t have pressed him so hard, but he really had been getting on my nerves.  “I’m surprised you weren’t sent home in disgrace.”

“My commanding officer was a very timid man,” Sir Essex insisted.  I saw a glint of naked hatred behind his smile and winced, inwardly.  “I made the right call and he rewarded me for it.”

“You were very fortunate,” I told him, in a tone that suggested I knew he was lying his ass off.  “To take your men into such a firestorm, then extract them alive, and then get told you were in the right all along … my, how fortunate you were.”

Sir Essex drew himself to his full height and glared down at me.  I braced myself, half-expecting to be slapped – a challenge to a duel – or for him to draw his sword and try to cut me down where I stood.  It was technically forbidden for people, even high noblemen, to bring weapons into the palace without permission, but Sir Essex – and pretty much all of the councillors – had ignored the rule.  I waited, wondering what he would choose.  If he started to draw his sword, I’d bury my fist in his chest and to hell with the consequences.

“You are a mercenary,” Sir Essex informed me.  “I wouldn’t expect you to understand the honour and the glory of making war in a righteous cause, instead of serving whoever can pay your fees.  The princess is deluding herself if she thinks you can build her a proper army, one that can actually take the field.  And when she realises the truth, she’ll have your head.”

He turned and stalked off, in a manner that could hardly have been bettered by an affronted child.  I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at his back – it would have been childish myself – and then turned away, surveying the reception room.  The councillors had flowed into the chamber as soon as the meeting came to an end and were currently milling around, eating the king’s food and drink while chatting about nothing in particular.  A number of servants flowed through the room, refilling glasses and carrying messages.  I wondered, idly, how many of them were quietly listening to the aristocrats as they chatted, then reporting back to their master.  Princess Helen was easily smart enough to consider the possibilities …

I felt my heart sink as I surveyed the noblemen.  They were fiddling while the city – and the monarchy – was steadily ground down to powder.  I’d listened to them arguing during the meeting – it had only been three hours, but felt much longer – and knew most of them were going to be problems.  They really didn’t want anything to change, not as long as they were comfortable.  But they were frogs splashing around in water, unaware that – as the water grew hotter and hotter – they were about to be cooked.  Perhaps literally.  I’d been told that turning people into frogs was a favoured magical jest.  It made me feel sick.

Someone came up behind me.  I tensed, automatically.  I’d always been very aware of my surroundings, something that had saved my life more than once.  I didn’t think anyone would walk up and put a knife in my back here, but who knew?  The king was a weak man, forced to keep his councillors divided to prevent them from uniting against him.  If someone killed me in the palace, the king might be forced to ignore it just to keep the peace.

The person cleared his throat.  I decided it was time to stop pretending I didn’t know he was there and turned, trying not to slip into a defensive stance.  The army had taught me a number of martial arts that were unfamiliar here, but I wasn’t about to gamble everything that my moves were completely unknown.  There might be a local martial art that was practically identical to one I’d been taught, save for the name.  If the newcomer thought I was readying myself to attack, or expected to be attacked …

Lord Bardwell bowed, politely.  “Lord Elliot,” he said, as I returned his bow.  “I hope we will have many productive days in the future.”

I nodded, studying him thoughtfully.  He was shorter than me, probably short enough to be a little sensitive about his height even though he was hardly a dwarf.  His brown hair was cut short, framing a face that had too many signs of good living to be particularly intimidating; his clothes were expensive, showcasing his wealth.  He had the air, I decided, of a used car salesman, someone doing his best to project an air of gentle bonhomie to his latest mark as he plotted how best to separate the customer from his money.  I made a mental note never to let his hands anywhere near my wallet.  Just because he moved like a man unused to combat didn’t mean he couldn’t be dangerous.

“I hope so too,” I said, politely.  “The New Learning offers many opportunities for expanding the tax base, then investing the money wisely in more infrastructure.”

Lord Bardwell nodded, as if I’d spoken words of wisdom so obvious as to be beyond question.  “I already have committees considering how best to take advantage of the New Learning,” he said.  “We’ll find a way to make it work and then put the plan into practice.”

Or you’re hoping the plans will die in committee, I added, silently.  Lord Bardwell was the Councillor of the Exchequer, the person charged with controlling the kingdom’s finances.  I suspected he’d taken advantage of the post to feather his own nest, both by taking money for his own use and manipulating the finances to establish a solid patronage network of his own.  He might not be Pompey or Caesar, but he could certainly be Crassus.  We have a lot of work to do and you’re in the way.

“We don’t have much time,” I said.  “We need to establish everything from gunpowder mills to factories for muskets, flintlocks and cannons.  And we need to do it quickly.”

“Of course, of course,” Lord Bardwell said.  “I do trust Sir Essex will not be too put off by you.  You’ll need his cooperation when it comes to rebuilding the army.”

I tried not to show my annoyance at the sudden shift in subject.  I’d seen it before, back in Iraq and Afghanistan, when someone was unwilling to listen to you, let alone do what you want, and yet reluctant to say so out loud.  Lord Bardwell reminded me of any number of local dignitaries, tribal heads and religious leaders, who refused to have anything to do with anything unless their palms were crossed with silver first.  Lord Bardwell would want a cut of every new factory, a share in the wealth … I wouldn’t have minded it that much if he’d treated the establishment of new facilities as a priority, handing out loans to everyone who wanted to set one up for themselves.  Instead … he’d be wasting his time, trying to make sure the right people got the contracts, while the warlords rearmed their armies and prepared to go on the offensive again.

But it wasn’t something I could do something about, not yet.  “Sir Essex was talking about a Lady Emily,” I said.  “Who is she?”

Lord Bardwell looked thoughtful.  “It rather depends on who you believe.”

I nodded, impatiently.  Tales grew in the telling, particularly in a world where it took weeks for news to cross from one side of the continent to the other.  It didn’t help, I supposed, that everyone added their own embellishments, to the point it was impossible to discern the kernel of truth buried amongst the mountains of bullshit.  Lady Emily could be anything from a lady of a castle, as I’d originally thought, or a sorceress who’d fought in the war.  If that was the case … I smirked, then tried to hide it.  A sorceress wouldn’t give Sir Essex a kiss.  The man was handsome enough, I supposed, but his attitude was so entitled he made the average rich kid back home look humble. 

And yet, Emily was an odd name for this world.

“Some people say she’s a child of destiny, that she will save or damn the world,” Lord Bardwell said.  “Others say she’s a sorceress, daughter of a powerful sorcerer, or that she’s the secret child of a king who was sent into exile.  Some believe she’s a genius beyond peer, the one who started the New Learning; others think she was merely a lucky noblewoman who took advantage of the inventors, rather than doing things for themselves.  She saved a school of magic, or destroyed it.  She led troops into battle and smote down a necromancer with the blink of her eye.  She killed a king, then gave away the throne.  And she …”

My eyes narrowed as Lord Bardwell kept pouring out the stories.  The stories really had grown in the telling.  I didn’t have to know much of anything to be sure the tales were wildly exaggerated.  It was difficult to believe someone could have done so much, advancing both sorcery and technology.  The era of the polymath had ended long ago.  Even here, with a much smaller technological base, it was hard to believe someone might master both science and technology.  And yet …

The thought haunted me.  Is this Emily a cross-dimensional traveller too?

My mind churned.  It was hard to believe.  I knew I’d had problems and I was a big strong man with military experience.  A young girl … could she survive in a brutal world long enough to prove she could change it for the better?  It seemed unlikely.  I’d assumed my predecessor was a man because it would be infinitively harder for a woman to make any headway at all.  And if she was from my world, how did she have magic?  Had she come with enough tech to pretend to be a wizard, faking it until she made it?  I couldn’t see how she’d have magic … real magic.  The Wizarding World didn’t exist, not in real life.  And yet, it was simply impossible to believe someone had just invented everything from gunpowder to the printing press.  The letters and numbers alone were a dead giveaway.  They couldn’t be native to this world.  They’d been introduced by someone like me.

And if she really is a cross-dimensional traveller, I asked myself, should I be seeking her out?

I forced myself to think coldly.  I had no idea how many of the stories were true.  They might all be exaggerated to the point of worthlessness.  And … I had no way to know how she’d react to my presence.  And … I’d given my word to Princess Helen.  I’d stay with her until she had an army she could use to crush the warlords, then consider sending messages to the west.  Perhaps … I wondered, too late, if I’d made a mistake plagiarising all those songs.  If the stories had a core of truth, if this Emily really did exist, she’d know there was another traveller the moment she heard a bard singing one of the songs. 

“My Lord?”  Lord Bardwell sounded mildly annoyed.  “What do you think?”

I flushed.  Thankfully, my skin hid it.  “I think we may never know what really happened,” I told him.  “Did Sir Essex really go to the war, or did he hide somewhere and return – months later – swearing blind he’d been to the front?”

Lord Bardwell laughed, perhaps a little longer than the weak joke deserved.  “He did indeed go, My Lord,” he said.  “But where he went I cannot say.”

He bowed again, then turned and left.  I smiled as a servant stopped in front of me, offering to refill my glass.  I shook my head, then thanked him politely.  I’d never been much of a drinker and the wine was too sweet for my palate.  Besides, it would be insanely dangerous to get drunk here.  I moved around the chamber, exchanging sweet nothings with the other councillors as we sized each other up.  They didn’t seem to like me, although I was sure it was nothing to do with my colour or my mercenary background.  My mere presence, as His Majesty’s Warlord, was a threat to the council’s balance of power.  They feared what I could do even as they tried to recruit me to their causes.  I did my best to remain as non-committal as possible, keeping my real thoughts to myself.  They would unite against me the moment they realised just how badly I intended to reshape the balance of power.

“My Lord, we must talk later,” Sir Horace said.  The Lord Mayor of Roxanna seemed more worried than annoyed about me.  “We must determine figures for the City Guard.”

And try and give them some proper military training, I thought.  It was an old trick, a cunning way to evade military limits imposed by outside powers.  Even a week or two of training would make it easier to mobilise, the moment we tore up the treaties and openly prepared for war.  Is there a limit to the number of Guardsmen we can raise?

“Of course, Your Grace,” I said.  I hoped that was the right honorific for the Lord Mayor.  He might have been elected democratically – for a given value of the word – but he shared power with the king’s Councillor of City and the king’s warlord.  It struck me as a recipe for confusion, rather than efficiency.  Hopefully, if I flattered the mayor a little, he’d listen to me.  “We must put more guardsmen on the streets as quickly as possible.”

And make sure they actually know how to behave, I added, silently.  The Damansara City Guard had been so corrupt that calling them corrupt was a criminal understatement.  They fawned upon the nobility, while taking bribes and harassing women and generally acting like a hostile army in an occupied city.  We need the support of the people, not their silent loathing.

I looked up as I heard an older nobleman braying like a mule.  It wasn’t going to be easy.  I was sure the councillors really would try to stop us, as soon as they realised the truth …

But it won’t matter, I told myself.  They can’t turn the clock  back now.

Chapter Eight

“You have to watch Lord Bardwell,” Princess Helen said, as we rode down to the garrison in her carriage.  “He’s not remotely trustworthy.”

I frowned.  “Then why doesn’t your father send him away?  Give him a noble title and a sinecure and put him right on the fringes of power, perhaps even lands on the far side of the country?”

The princess scowled.  “He has powerful connections everywhere,” she said.  “He’s also good at scraping up funds for my father’s games, things that showcase royal pomp while drawing a veil over royal powerlessness.  My father thinks he can do no wrong.”

And if he’s funding certain projects but not others, I thought, it suggests he’s actually manipulating the kingdom’s finances to suit himself – and his backers.

I forced myself to think.  It had been a long time since I’d read Game of Thrones, but hadn’t there been an accountant who’d been making the kingdom’s finances look worse than they actually were?  I couldn’t recall the details, yet … I wondered, coldly, just who Lord Bardwell actually supported in this game of thrones.  Weakening the kingdom by undermining its finances suggested the warlords, but … it was quite possible the warlords were simply refusing to pay for military and infrastructure improvements, rather than having Lord Bardwell under their thumb.  Or the commoners preferred to fund white elephants than projects that might actually improve the local economy.  Or … I shook my head.  I didn’t know enough about the kingdom to say for sure.  I’d refrain from doing anything as long as I was unsure what was actually going on.  And then …

“I’ll see how much funding I can scrape up from my estates,” Princess Helen said, her mind moving ahead in leaps and bounds.  “But it won’t be easy to convince the council to ensure the new infrastructure is spared taxation, at least for the first few years.”

I winced.  One didn’t have to ban an industry to get rid of it.  One just had to keep piling on regulations and taxation until the owners just got sick of fighting the system and gave up, leaving the system wondering what had happened to the tax money.  I’d heard of plenty of innovative ideas that had been killed before they were even tested, let alone put into operation.  Here … I made a mental note to work on the council, to get the majority to purchase stocks in the new companies.  If they were getting money for nothing – the thought galled me, but it had to be endured – they might not be so quick to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. 

The carriage rattled to a halt.  Trumpets blared as the doors were wrenched open.  I tried not to recoil in shock at the long line of gaudily-dressed soldiers, wearing bright red outfits that would make them stand out on the battlefield.  The commanding officers, somehow, managed to look even fancier.  A modern sniper would have no trouble wiping them out, picking most of them off before they even realised they were under attack.  Even here … well, there were stories of enchanted arrows that always hit their targets.  I could easily imagine a sorcerer with a crossbow, picking out an enemy commander and shooting him with an arrow.  Hell, the local archers were pretty good shots.  I hoped, prayed, the commanders didn’t wear such uniforms in the combat zone.

Don’t be stupid, the nasty part of my mind pointed out.  These bastards don’t ever see combat zones.

Princess Helen seemed utterly unconcerned as she stepped out of the carriage and walked up the line of soldiers, heading to their commanding officers.  I followed, feeling torn between the sense I was in the wrong place and a certain level of embarrassment at the sheer level of naked sycophancy.  I had to admit there’d been sycophants back home – one could always rely on having at least one officer prepared to get ahead by licking the CO’s boots – but this … I tried not to cringe as the commanders knelt before the princess, practically licking her hands as they sang her praises.  I groaned, inwardly, as the ceremony went on and on.  The soldiers were well-drilled, I’d give them that much, but I had no trouble picking out the subtle signs of discontent.  Their faith in their commanders was non-existent.

There was an asshole who rounded us up, after Fallujah, and got us to stand in line for photographs after we staggered out of the city, I recalled.  I’d come very close to striking him, even if it would have ended with me in Leavenworth.  And he had nothing on these guys.

“I thank you,” Princess Helen said.  She gestured to me.  “I present to you, His Majesty’s Warlord.”

I nearly jumped as the soldiers acclaimed me.  I knew I’d done well, in Damansara, and yet … I tried to blot out as much of the flattery as possible as I was introduced to the senior officers, while the juniors hurried off to prepare their men for the show.  A dozen names went in one ear and out the other, men with ranks that were so far beyond them that it was hard not to laugh.  Honestly!  Whoever heard of a general in command of, at best, a company?  And half of them were aristocrats.

“We have prepared a formal demonstration for you,” Lord General Dalton said.  He’d been Earl Marshal’s second and now he was mine.  “Please, allow us to lead you to the stand.”

I wondered, numbly, if it would be better to rebuild the army from scratch as Dalton led us to the parade ground.  It was larger than I’d thought, going by the map; the handful of soldiers in plain view looking scattered and isolated against the stands.  I guessed the army had once been a great deal larger … either that, or someone had been more interested in building truly spectacular garrisons than raising troops.  It wouldn’t have surprised me.  There’d been a bunch of jokes about Europeans who’d paid millions for fancy HQs, but not one red cent for the poor bloody infantry.  And here, the problem might be a great deal worse.

“You’ll be impressed, My Lord,” Dalton said.  I honestly didn’t know how he could live with himself.  His fawning was so overt … how in the name of God wasn’t he cringing in self-loathing and disgust?   The only upside, I thought, was that he wouldn’t be trying to openly sabotage me.  “The men have spent the last week preparing to showcase their skills.”

I leaned forward, watching as the men formed up.  Their commanders barked orders – they had good parade ground voices, I conceded – and steered their men through a series of complex manoeuvres that looked almost like dances.  I cursed under my breath, not bothering to hide the displeasure on my face.  They might be good dancers, as long as someone was telling them what to do, but they were not prepared for actual fighting.  The moment something unexpected happened, they’d be thrown into chaos.

Princess Helen nudged me, a subtle sign of support.  “What do you think?”

“No combat-capable unit has ever passed a formal inspection, Your Highness,” I said.  “And no unit trained to pass a formal inspection has ever done well in combat.”

“My Lord Elliot,” Dalton said.  He sounded so shocked he almost forgot to be sycophantic.  “Surely, you jest.”

“No.”  I remembered the confusion during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the 507th Maintenance Company had spectacularly failed its first combat test, and shuddered.  We’d learnt a lot of lessons during the fighting, but they’d been lessons we should have mastered during training, when the worst that could happen was a great deal of embarrassment.  “You have a ceremonial force, not one ready to take the field.”

I stood before he could object and raised my voice.  “COMPANY, LEFT!”

The lines dissolved into utter confusion.  A third of the men tried to follow my orders, another third tried to follow the orders they’d expected to here; the remainder seemed caught between two fires, unwilling to commit themselves to going either left or right.  I tried not to think about the confusion that would occur, if that happened on the battlefield.  The advancing company would be milling about in disorder, while the enemy were ruthlessly taking aim.  Even one of Sir Essex’s fictional cavalry charges would be enough to drive them off the field and win the day.

Dalton coughed.  “My Lord, I …”

“Clearly have a lot of work ahead of you,” Princess Helen said, cutting him off.  “Elliot, you may begin at once.”

“Yes, My Lady,” I said.

“I …”  Dalton spluttered.  I could guess what he was thinking.  Women had no place on the battlefield.  Princess Helen’s opinions didn’t matter because she was a woman.  But she was the heir to the throne, the person who might remove Dalton if he talked back to her … hell, she’d appointed me as his superior.  “Yes, My Lady.”

“Tell the men to return to their barracks, then give them each a day of liberty,” I ordered, as the princess returned to her carriage.  The officers seemed shocked the formal ceremony had come to such an abrupt end.  “We have much to discuss.”

I pasted a look daring someone to challenge me as Dalton hastily showed me the remainder of the garrison and introduced me to a couple of officers, including another Lord General who appeared to be Sir Essex’s second in command.  Lord General Suffolk looked just as snooty as his superior, I decided, but there seemed to be a hint of competence behind his painted face and fixed smile.  I hoped that wasn’t just wishful thinking.  The cavalry was no longer the king of the battlefield – we’d proved that, the first time we’d engaged the warlord’s cavalry with musketmen – but the mounted riders still had their uses.  If nothing else, they could find the enemy and report back so the infantry could march forward and kill the bastards.

“My Lord,” Dalton said, as he showed me into a fancy office.  I looked around and knew my predecessor had never seen a battlefield.  It was so gaudy that I was certain we could fund an entire regiment if we stripped out and sold the furnishings.  The ‘I-Love-Me’ display on the wall was beyond absurd.  “My Lord, the men will be punished for their failures …”

“No.”  I pointed to a chair, then sat myself.  I’d have to arrange for new – and worse – furniture.  The armchair belonged in a country club, not a military office.  “There is no such thing as bad men, merely bad commanders.”

“Right you are, My Lord.”

I felt my temper fray.  If that was sarcasm, it was definitely not the time and place.  If it was more sycophancy … I was done with it.  Really, I was.  Grown men shouldn’t be crawling like … I remembered some of the flattery that had been piled on Saddam Hussein and shuddered.  Even he would have cringed at some of the flattery I’d heard here.  And he’d ended his days on the end of a rope, because his subordinates had been too scared to tell him the truth.  I didn’t want that to happen to me.  Or to Princess Helen.

“You have trained these men to look good,” I said, coldly.  “But they are not ready to take the field.  They have no muskets, no cannons … not even crossbows.  Their drill is impressive, as long as they don’t run into anything unexpected.  They would have trouble putting down a gaggle of untrained and unarmed serfs, revolting in the countryside.  A real opponent would crush them like bugs.”

Dalton lowered his eyes, looking – just for a second – like a child who expected to be slapped by an abusive father.  I scowled, hardening my heart.  He was a grown man … I supposed it wasn’t entirely fair to blame him for following orders, which excused pretty much anything and everything as far as the locals were concerned, but he’d left me with an awful mess to clear up.  It wouldn’t be easy to retrain the men, even with the assistance of the people I’d brought with me.  They already thought they knew it all.  And they were wrong.

I allowed my voice to gentle, just a little.  “We have a lot of work to do,” I said.  “I don’t want someone crawling before me, agreeing with whatever I say.  I want someone I can trust to handle the task of preparing the army for war, real war.  I want – I need – you to work with me.  If you follow orders, if you learn to think for yourself and offer your own suggestions, I will be delighted.  I will use my influence to ensure you are raised to the peerage.  If not … it would be better for you to leave now, before you can do any more damage.”

And before I give into the temptation to separate your head from your shoulders, I added, silently.  I could do it.  I had the power of life and death over my common-born men and I’d bet my life Dalton was a commoner, rather than an aristocrat.  A nobleman wouldn’t have needed to degrade himself so much during his climb to the top.  If you’re not willing to work with me, you’ll have to go now before you can do any more damage.

“My Lord …”  Dalton swallowed hard.  “If those are your orders, I will obey.”

I decided that was as good as I was going to get.  Dalton was not in an easy position.  His former commanding officer could have broken him on a whim.  I could too … if I stayed, he’d be well-advised to cosy up to me, but if I left as quickly as I’d come he’d be up a certain creek without a certain paddle.  I made a mental note to see about convincing the princess to hold the prospect of a peerage in front of his nose, just to imply the promise would be kept even if I vanished shortly afterwards.  It was probably the most we could do for him, until we won a few victories.

“Good,” I said.  “Send a messenger to my mansion, order my officers to report here as soon as possible, then bring me the organisational files.  I need to know what we have to work with, before we can devise a proper training program.”

Dalton nodded, stood, and left the office.  I stood myself and looked around in amused disbelief.  The office felt more like a bordello than anything else.  I hadn’t seen so much gilt since … since ever.  I inspected the desk, noting to my complete lack of surprise that nine of the ten drawers were empty.  The tenth was shut so tightly – probably with magic – that I couldn’t force it open.  I made a mental note to have a sorcerer take a look at it, if I couldn’t convince Earl Marshall to open it for me, then put it aside as I found the maps.  The countryside map was a work of art – I was honestly impressed – but so inaccurate I had the feeling it would be worse than useless.  The chart put Damansara so close to Warlord Aldred’s lands that it implied one could walk from the city to the warlord’s castle in less than an hour.  I shook my head.  I’d have to arrange for newer and better maps.

The door opened.  Dalton entered, carrying a handful of parchment scrolls.  I felt my heart sink as he placed them on the table, then unrolled them.  The parchment should have been replaced by paper long ago … I groaned, inwardly, as I saw the Old Script writing.  It was so fiendishly complicated that, even with my talent for languages, reading it was a giant pain in the ass.  The local scribes might be on the way out, thanks to the printing press and a better alphabet, but they were determined to hold on as long as possible.

“This is the table of organisation,” Dalton informed me, as he traced a line down the parchment.  “By treaty, we are permitted to raise three thousand men at most.”

I cursed, out loud.  Three thousand?  It was true that most local armies were composed of conscripted peasants, with a hard core of aristocratic officers and experienced soldiers – and mercenaries – but only three thousand?  I put my dismay aside and forced myself to think.  It wouldn’t be that hard to pull a fast one, perhaps by discharging men into the reserves or simply providing military training to the guardsmen or … I added it to the list of things I’d need to do, sooner rather than later.  Perhaps we could put together some kind of volunteer musket association.  It would have the added advantage of getting more firearms into private hands. 

“We’ll need to build up a new army bureaucracy as well,” I said.  The Old Script wouldn’t do, not if it left me dependent on scribes and translators.  “And then we’ll need to work on …”

I looked up as Horst and Fallows were shown into the office, their eyes going wide as they saw the opulence.  They wouldn’t be as shocked as me – the wealthy locals were expected to show off their wealth – but they wonder if I’d been corrupted.  The sooner I refurbished the office, or moved to a new one, the better.

“We have a lot of work to do,” I said, waving them to chairs.  “Tomorrow, we’ll start training in earnest.”

Dalton looked surprised.  “My Lord, the men will not be prepared for further training.”

“You mean they’ll come back to the garrison with massive hangovers,” I said, dryly.  “No, we don’t have time to waste.  And we need to discharge a bunch of long-serving men to open room for newer recruits …”

I smiled, rather coldly.  “Believe me, they’ll have less to unlearn.”

Her Majesty’s Warlord 6

6 Oct

As always, comments and thoughts on tech improvement welcome.

Chapter Six

I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all.

I woke slowly, my brain dimly aware someone was knocking at the door.  I wasn’t sure why I’d slept so deeply, although the combination of extensive travel and the sheer magnitude of the changes in my life had probably had something to do with it.  I rolled over, silently kicking myself for not leaving my pistol or dagger within reach.  I didn’t know anyone in the mansion, save for a handful of staff.  I doubted any of them had been vetted for loyalty to me when they hadn’t even known I’d be their new master for more than a day.

The bed felt warm and welcoming, tempting me to stay under the sheets, but the sunlight streaming through the window was a grim reminder it was time to get up.  I sat upright, bracing myself, and shouted for the knocker to come in.  The door opened, revealing a young maid who couldn’t have been older than fourteen, looking as though she thought she was stepping into a lion’s den.  I didn’t blame her, even though I would never have dreamt of taking advantage.  I’d heard enough stories about how servants were treated to know their lives and employments constantly hung by threads.  If I’d been in her shoes, I’d have been nervous too.

She curtseyed.  “My Lord, a messenger has arrived from the palace,” she said, the words slightly tripping over themselves as she tried to get them out.  “You are summoned to the king’s council, two hours from now.”

“Thank you,” I said.  The maid started, as if she’d expected a slap instead.  My predecessor really had set some low standards, if basic politeness was unexpected.  “Please inform the messenger that I will be there, then ask the kitchens to send up some breakfast.”

“Yes, My Lord,” the maid said.  “I … do you require the carriage?”

I shook my head in amused disbelief.  The palace wasn’t that far away and the streets were crowded.  I could probably walk there quicker than I could ride, certainly without ordering my drivers to use whips to clear the way.  Besides, my legs would probably atrophy if I took the carriage everywhere.  I didn’t need to show off my wealth and power.  I was all too aware that what the princess had given, she could easily take away if I didn’t prove my worth.  It would be better if I didn’t get used to it.

“No, thank you,” I said.  “You may go.”

The maid flushed, then curtsied again and hurried out before I could change my mind.  I felt a twinge of sympathy as she closed the door behind her, then made a mental note to ensure my servants were paid and treated well.  Loyalty was a two-sided thing.  I’d learnt that well before I’d joined the army.  An employer who treated his employees well would reap the rewards; a pointy-haired boss who acted like an asshole was sure to have employees who were keeping their mouths closed, making sure they didn’t stick their heads above the ramparts and quietly searching for jobs at better companies.  Here, I knew better than anyone that the servants had eyes, ears and minds of their own.  They could easily spy on me for my rivals if I treated them poorly, taking a measure of revenge for mistreatment.  It would be better, I told myself, to take steps to avoid such a problem before it killed me.

I showered quickly, then changed into a simple tunic before heading back into the bedroom.  My breakfast was already waiting for me … I felt my heart twist as I realised, not for the first time, that I might never have true privacy again.  The servants would be all around me, for as long as I lived in the mansion.  There were so many hidden passageways – servant corridors – running through the mansion that whatever I said might be overheard by listening ears.  I reminded myself to be careful what I said and did out loud, then forced myself to eat as much as possible.  I had no way to know when I’d be eating again.

You’re going to the palace, my thoughts reminded me.  You’ll be fed.

Sigmund looked scandalised as I walked downstairs and headed outside without a care in the world.  I hid my amusement – his status was based on mine, which meant my unwillingness to display my wealth would reflect badly on him – as I passed through the gates and walked down to the palace.  The streets bustled with life, even though it was relatively early.  I saw a pair of aristocratic women screaming at each other, their maids exchanging glances of silent commiseration; I saw an overweight lord barking instructions to his armsmen, ordering them to clear the streets with the flats of their blades.  I felt a flicker of sympathy as I walked past the scene.  The lord couldn’t be that important, if the streets hadn’t already been cleared for him.  The armsmen would be thrown under the bus if it turned out they’d struck a higher-ranking personage.

The palace loomed up in front of me.  I took a moment to assess it properly.  The building was effectively defenceless, unless there were magical protections I couldn’t see or sense.  I wished I’d brought Fallon with me, but she hadn’t been invited.  Perhaps I could have gotten away with inviting her anyway, yet … I shook my head as I completed my assessment.  A team of half-trained boy scouts could have seized the palace effortlessly, although holding it against a counterattack would be pretty much impossible.  I put the thought out of my mind as I reached the gatehouse.  The guards boggled at me.  They knew who I was – the princess would have made sure of it – but they hadn’t expected to see me on foot.  I made a point of chatting to them as they summoned a servant, trying to make myself friendly and approachable.  It might be nice to have sources amongst the king’s personal armsmen.

A guide appeared, a middle-aged man wearing a uniform that would have embarrassed a potentate from a military-ruled country.   I resisted the urge to say something sarcastic as he bowed so low his nose seemed to brush against the ground, then led me up the steps and into the palace itself.  If I’d worn a uniform like that in a combat zone, a sniper would have blown my brains out within seconds.  I told myself there was no reason to expect a sniper with a modern rifle out here.  Muskets and flintlocks were all very well and good, but they were so inaccurate that the safest person in the zone was probably the person who was being targeted.  And besides, combat inside the city was probably more genteel than violent.  Whoever said words would never hurt him had clearly never met an aristocrat.  They could cut a man dead with a well-chosen word or two.

Princess Helen greeted me as I was shown into the council chamber.  It was empty, save for the pair of us; I wondered, idly, if the rest of the councillors were caught in traffic or making a show of their independence by turning up late.  The king might be the king, but his authority and power were very limited.  It made me wonder just how much he – and his daughter – expected me to achieve.  I kept that thought to myself as the councillors filed in and helped themselves to cakes and drinks from the buffet, giving the princess a moment to introduce them to me.  It wasn’t hard to pick up on her angry.  Taking food before the king arrived was a subtle sign of disrespect.  It wouldn’t have meant much of anything to me, but to the princess it was as good as a knife in the back.  And it would be difficult to call them out for it without drawing attention to the royal family’s weaknesses.

We stood as the king entered and took his seat at the head of the table, then motioned for us to sit.  I sat on one side of him, where the princess had told me to sit; she sat on the other side of me, her face schooled into an expression of calm respect that I was fairly certain fooled absolutely no one.  She really wasn’t in an easy position.  From her muttered comments, half the councillors had dreams of marrying her and the other half vetoed any prospective husband before negotiations could get past more than expressions of vague interest.  I felt a twinge of pity, mingled with concern.  The princess was in her thirties.  Soon, it would be too late to have children.  And then, the future of the monarchy itself would be in doubt.

“My councillors,” the king said.  A hint of heavy irony echoed in his tone.  The princess had told me that he’d only been able to choose a handful of his councillors freely, the remainder having been elected by the simple fact their wealth and power made them impossible to ignore.  Even the ones he’d chosen weren’t entirely trustworthy.  “We wish to introduce to you, formally, the newest member of our council.  Elliot, Son of Richard, His Majesty’s Warlord.”

I held my face under tight control as the councillors looked at me.  Some of them looked cautiously welcoming, others looked as if I was something they’d scraped off their shoe.  One man looked angry, his face twisting with rage before he hid it behind a blank mask.  I guessed I – or the princess – had stepped on his foot, perhaps without offering any form of compensation.  I hoped he wasn’t going to be a problem.  We had quite enough already,

The king continued to speak, extolling my virtues as a soldier to the point he made me sound like every military genius rolled into one.  I kept my face impassive and allowed my eyes to wander along the table, quietly assessing the councillors.  It was hard to gauge their feelings – they’d grown up in a world where showing their true thoughts could lead rapidly and inevitably to the block – but very few of them looked happy.  Some of them would have ties to the warlords, I reflected; some of them would prefer to be big fish in a tiny pond rather than risk the pond getting any bigger.  They were already on top, with a long – long – way to fall.  Why would they want to risk rocking the boat.”

“The insult from Warlord Cuthbert cannot be borne,” the king finished.  “Attempting to kidnap my daughter and force her into marriage is outright treason, treason that cannot be allowed to go unpunished.  Lord Elliot will be charged with ensuring his crimes meet swift and certain retribution.”

If Helen really had been kidnapped, raped, and forced into marriage, you would have swallowed your pride and pretended everything was aboveboard, I thought, coldly.  Treason is only treason if it fails.

“Your Majesty,” the angry man said.  “The Royal Army is not prepared for a punitive campaign.”

“The army was formerly under your command, Earl Marshall,” Princess Helen said.  “Why is the army not ready?  Why have you failed to take advantage of the New Learning?”

The angry man – Earl Marshall – started to splutter.  I tried not to smile at his expression.  The princess was a councillor, as well as the de facto heir, but she was also a woman and if he gave vent to his feelings he’d wind up looking like a fool.  His face twisted as he tried to come up with a rebuttal that wouldn’t make him look stupid, or incompetent, or on the enemy payroll.  I saw a faint flicker of a smile cross the princess’s lips.  There weren’t many pleasures in her life, so she made the most of the few she had. 

“By treaty, there are strict limits on the forces under Your Majesty’s personal control,” Lord Thurston said.  Princess Helen had introduced him as the Councillor of Foreign Affairs, which meant he was primarily responsible for trying to play the warlords off against one another to keep them from seizing the capital, deposing the king and taking the crown for themselves.  “A rapid expansion of the army will be seen as a breach of the treaty.”

“That is correct,” Earl Marshall said.  “The army is already at full strength.”

“It will need to be retrained,” Princess Helen said, coolly.  “Lord Elliot has already taken a city’s army and turned it into a war-winning force.  He can do it again, for his king.”

And for you, I added, silently.  A professional army under the king or queen’s direct control would be the aristocracy’s worst nightmare.  Cold iron, as the poem went, was the master of gold and silver; a king with the power to crush his rebellious servants was one his servants had to fear.  The world is already changing.  The question now is … can you get ahead of the changes and make use of them before they sweep over you?

“I remain unconvinced that a mercenary” – Lord Daladier made the word sound like a racial slur, spoken by a racist too stupid to realise how stupid he sounded – “could possibly retrain an army to crush a warlord.”

Princess Helen emitted a girlish giggle I knew would get on their nerves.  “Are you saying, Honoured Lord, that the City Fathers of Damansara gave the credit to” – she gasped in mock shock – “a mercenary?”

I saw a handful of smiles running around the table, quickly suppressed.  The concept was absurd.  The City Fathers had stolen a great deal of the credit and would probably have taken it all, if there hadn’t already been songs and ballads about my service running from one end of the city to the other.  I’d written – technically rewritten – most of them myself.  I doubted Stonewall Jackson would have approved of my revisions to Stonewall Jackson’s Way, but I found it hard to care.  Besides, he would have liked the City Fathers even less.

Sir Essex, Master of Horse, leaned forward.  “Perhaps he can speak for himself, Your Highness,” he said, in an oily tone.  “Elliot, can it be done?”

I suspected I was meant to be offended he hadn’t called me Lord Elliot.  If I’d grown up an aristocrat in Johor, it probably would have been a mortal insult.  Personally, I didn’t care.  I’d earned my military rank, which was pretty much meaningless here, but the lordship was a gift from my patron.  If I had children in this world, they’d have to be reminded – time and time again – that it wasn’t ours by right.  It wouldn’t be an easy lesson to drive home.

“It can.”  I projected all the confidence I could muster into my voice.  Technically, Sir Essex was my subordinate.  Practically, right now, my ability to bring him to account for his actions was very limited.  “We have the people, the resources and, most of all, the time to retrain the army to teach Warlord Cuthbert a lesson.”

“Really?”  Earl Marshall wasn’t impressed.  “And how do you intend to do it?”

I looked at Princess Helen, who gave me a slight nod.  “Right now, the warlords are in disarray,” I said.  “Warlord Aldred is already gone.  His lands are in chaos.  The remainder haven’t suffered any losses, certainly nothing so severe, but the defeat of their peer is proof they can be beaten too.  Their people are taking heart from the recent victory, which means the warlords need to rearm and retrain their armies before they confront rebellions in their rear or turn to face us.  In short, they don’t have many options.  Not now. “

The words hung in the air for a long cold moment.  “We have a window of opportunity to rearm and retrain our own armies, then take the offensive and teach Warlord Cuthbert a lesson,” I said.  “In that time, we will arm the men with firearms rather than swords, spears and pikes; we will drill them in proper military discipline, teaching them the skills they’ll need to fight their way to victory on a modern battlefield.  We may have limits on the forces we can raise and deploy, but – if those forces, man for man, are far better than their enemies – we can still win.  And then we can make it clear to the rest of the warlords that the world order is rapidly changing.”

I showed no sign of my inner turmoil as I watched them absorb my words.  Some of them had close ties to the warlords.  They’d oppose me on principle.  Others … they’d feel threatened by change and do what they could to suppress it as long as possible, on the grounds they didn’t want to risk losing what little they had.  And yet … Princess Helen had created a situation in which they couldn’t oppose me, and her, openly.  They wouldn’t want to go on the record as the ones who refused to rearm and retrain the army.  I doubted they were happy – some of them were probably already considering more drastic solutions – but as long as they didn’t do anything effective for a while I didn’t care.  Give me a few months, building on the legacy of the first cross-dimensional traveller, and the changes would start to snowball beyond their ability to stop.

We’re already there, I mused.  How can I steer the changes so they benefit me?

“Then it is decided,” the king said.  “We will proceed.”

“As Your Majesty pleases,” Sir Essex said.  “However, there are issues that must be raised …”

I sighed, inwardly, as Sir Essex started to talk with all the grim determination of a politician intent on running out the clock.  Others joined him, making worthless suggestions or trying to impose limits on my activities.  I kept my face under tight control, telling myself it wouldn’t matter for long.  A few months and the king and his daughter – and me – would be in a far stronger position.  We could tell the aristocrats to get behind him or get into line for the block.

A few months, I told myself.  I’d put up with a lot of chatter, if the chatter didn’t turn into effective opposition.  That’s all we need.

OUT NOW (Updated) – The Cunning Man (A Schooled In Magic Spin-Off)

2 Oct

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, (Or read here, or here, or here because the website is currently down) 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