Archive | July, 2022


31 Jul

Hi, everyone

This is just a short update – sorry.  <grin>,

Basically, my family and I have been in Malaysia for the last month and I’ve been doing my best to take it easy (helped by the fact I got a lot done shortly before we left and I’m just waiting on the edits for The Prince’s Alliance, All for All and Chrishangers.  I’ve really just done a handful of chapters of Queenmaker for the blog and a short novella for Fantastic Schools, entitled The Muckraker’s Tale.

The Muckraker’s Tale is set in the SIM universe, but it presents a very different character – someone Emily might not like, if they met.  It’s also set between The Artful Apprentice and Oathkeeper, and features an aspect of the universe Emily had no interest in and was never forced to pretend otherwise.  I’m hoping people will like it.  I’m also considering ways to expand the story into a full novel, but it depends on reception. 

I’ve also been plotting more stories, including The Demon’s Design, which will be the first of a new story arc for Emily, and The Revolutionary War, which will be a return to the universe of The Royal Sorceress and tie up some plot threads while laying others.  I also intend to plot Lone World at some point, which is the direct sequel to Endeavour, but I haven’t got too far on that yet. 

My current plans are to keep taking it easy until I get home, whereupon:

Aug – The Conjuring Man (The Cunning Man Finale)

Sept – The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress 5)

Oct – The Alchemist’s Secret (The Zero Enigma)

Nov – Pandora’s Box (Special Project – more later).

And, of course, I intend to continue with Queenmaker.

What do you think?


Queenmaker CH2

31 Jul

Chapter Two

The envoy goggled.  The court laughed.

I didn’t blame them.  I hadn’t seen a man gape like that outside a bad cartoon.  The envoy looked as if he’d been punched in the face and yet, couldn’t quite wrap his head around what had happened.  I supposed he had a point.  If you were prancing around, being all Mouth of Sauron, you’d be surprised if someone flipped the script on you too.

“You jest,” he managed finally.  “My master …”

“Has sent you here with a message, we presume,” Helen said.  Her tone was calculated to get on the envoy’s nerve.  The reminder he was just an envoy probably didn’t help.  “Let us hear you out, before we throw you out.”

The envoy spluttered.  I hid my amusement with an effort.  It was very far from diplomatic, and I’d tried to argue in favour of more diplomacy when Helen and I had discussed our plans for the envoy’s arrival, but she’d insisted.  I understood her thinking.  There was nothing we could reasonably offer the warlords, certainly nothing they’d accept.  They were little better than gangsters, taking everything they could and then demanding more.  And if the monarchy had stood up to them, decades ago, the kingdom would be in a far better state.

It is always easy to try to appease the unappeasable, I thought.  How many times had that lesson been learned and forgotten, only to be learned again?  But once you pay the Danegeld you never get rid of the Dane.

“My master is greatly concerned with your preparations for war,” the envoy said.  His voice dripped honey and battery acid.  I felt my fist clench with a burning desire to punch the envoy in the face.  “He and his peers see them as a direct threat, and a stark renunciation of agreements signed by your father and grandfather.  They demand you meet their terms at once or face war.”

Helen affected a bored look.  “And what are their terms?”

The envoy steadied himself.  “First, you are to immediately disband your forces and dismiss your troops,” he said.  “Second, you are to banish all foreign mercenaries” – he gave me a nasty look – “from the kingdom.  Third, you are to permit the exiles, unjustly banished from their homes, to reclaim their lands and titles.  Fourth, and most importantly, you are to submit the question of your marriage to a commission who will consider the interests of the kingdom and determine who you will marry.”

I sensed, more than saw, Helen’s flash of anger.  But her voice was studiously calm.  “Is that all?”

“My master and his allies will dispatch troops to enforce the agreement, once you accept it,” the envoy said.  “They will be accompanied by the exiled noblemen and distinguished judges who will consider each case on its merits and determine what level of recompense should be paid to the dispossessed.  You yourself will be taken into protective custody and …”

“And raped.”  Helen’s voice was suddenly icy cold.  “That’s what your master has in mind, isn’t it?”

The envoy looked shocked.  “My master has nothing, but the greatest respect for you …”

Helen cut him off.  “Your master attempted to kidnap me, then backed treacherous nobles in a bid to murder my father and unseat me,” she snarled.  “If that is respect …”

She calmed herself with an effort.  “What does he do to people he doesn’t respect?”

My lips twisted.  Warlord Cuthbert was right at the top of Helen’s shit list – and who could blame her?  He really had tried to kidnap her, and then force her into marriage.  I felt a flicker of sympathy for his wife and children, who would be put aside in favour of a woman who could legitimise his bid for the throne.  It made me wonder what sort of agreements the warlords had made, between themselves.  The only reason they hadn’t forced Helen into marriage long ago, long before my arrival, was that they hadn’t been able to agree on how to share power amongst themselves.  If they’d come to an agreement …

We can probably play on their fears, even if they have, I reflected.  They’re not the most trusting of people.  They’ll be watching their allies for betrayal even as they pretend to cooperate with them.

“Your Majesty …”  The envoy took a breath and started again.  “Your Majesty, I am charged with carrying your reply back to my master.”


Helen rose to her feet, looking every inch the warrior queen.  She’d had more training, in magic as well as mundane fighting skills, than the average princess, although it was all too likely her enemies would think her defenceless.  My spies told me too many of her lower-ranking noblemen had received messages from the warlords – some offering wealth and power, some so bizarrely focused on male bonding it was hard to believe anyone could take them seriously – and while I thought none of those offers had been accepted it was impossible to be sure.   Too many high-ranking men had doubts about serving under a woman.  Idiots.  Helen was already shaping up to be a more effective monarch than her father.

“Your master’s terms are rejected,” Helen said.  “There will be no more discussion.  You will go back to your master and inform him he has one week to disband his troops and come to this city – alone and unarmed – to pay homage to me, or he will be crushed and his family driven from the kingdom. Do you understand me?”

I winced, inwardly.  One week … it was barely enough time for the envoy to get to his master and make his report, let alone for the warlord to mount a horse and ride back to the city.  And demanding the warlord came alone, without even a handful of escorts …?  It was the kind of demand one made after beating the enemy army, not before; the kind of demand that would only be accepted, by prideful and stubborn men, when resistance was no longer anything but kicking and biting on the way to the gallows.  Warlord Cuthbert was more likely to order his troops to march south immediately, than disband his soldiers and bend the knee to the queen.

If he comes alone, he knows he’ll be imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure, I thought.  And if his son leads troops to free him, the queen might order him executed out of petty spite.

I sighed inwardly.  Johor was a snake pit, a snake pit that made Game of Thrones look positively civilised.  There was no real law and order, certainly no government capable and willing to enforce the law without fear or favour … it was quite possible, I reflected, that the warlord’s sons would go on the offensive in hopes their father would be executed, allowing them to lay claim to their inheritance.  They’d never say it out loud – sons were supposed to be loyal to their fathers, even though everyone knew their loyalty could be very self-serving indeed – but it was true.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the envoy said.  His face was pale.  I’d heard Warlord Cuthbert had a nasty habit of blaming the messenger.  I didn’t think he could make the message any more palatable either.  No amount of delicate wording could disguise the fact Helen had demanded the warlord’s unconditional surrender.  I wondered, idly, if the messenger would try to lie to his master.  It would cost him his head.  Helen would make sure he took a written copy of the message back too.  “I understand.”

Helen snapped her fingers.  Two black-clad men emerged from the curtains behind the throne, grabbed hold of the envoy and half-carried, half-dragged him out of the chamber.  A rustle ran through the room, the crowd struggling to come to terms with the latest development.  It was vanishingly rare for anyone to mistreat a messenger, no matter what he’d come to say.  It was a declaration of total war. 

I frowned inwardly.  Helen’s private guardsmen – the Black Roses – had expanded rapidly, after she took the throne, but … I wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with them.  They reported directly to her, through their commander … I understood, I really did, that Helen didn’t want to become dependent on anyone but it still bothered me.  The Black Roses were more than just her guard.  They were expanding into intelligence and counterintelligence and making their presence felt on the streets.  I feared they’d wind up causing a disaster at the worst possible time.

And they look too much like a secret police force, I reflected.  They’re already very unpopular outside the palace.

Helen addressed the crowd.  “For generations, the warlords – my father and grandfather’s overmighty subjects – have terrorised the kingdom, threatening to send us all to rack and ruin.  No more.  There will be no more concessions.  There will be no more submissions.  They will be stopped.  They will be destroyed.”

Her words hung in the air.  “If any of you are afraid to fight, go back to your homes and abandon all hope of a place in the new world.  Or run to the warlords and be destroyed with them.  But if you are ready to fight for the throne, for a kingdom free of overmighty subjects, remain with us now.  Make your choices quickly and well.  There will be no second chances.”

I smiled, inwardly.  Too many of the old aristocracy had a nasty habit of playing both sides of the field.  They sent one of the sons to fight for the king and the other, as the saying went, to fight for the rebels, in hopes of ensuring they’d have someone who could speak for them no matter who won the war.  Helen had done everything she could to make it impossible for someone to sit on the fence, from executing or exiling most of the old nobility to ennobling merchants and craftsmen who could be relied upon to support her.  I scanned the crowd, carefully noting reactions.  The new noblemen were excited and afraid.  They wouldn’t keep their titles, if the warlords won the war.  They’d be lucky to keep their lives.

I shuddered, inwardly.  I’d started a wave of land reform, first in my estates and then in estates belonging to executed or exiled aristocracy, that was reshaping the kingdom.  If the peasants were allowed to own their own land … the warlords would crush the poor bastards, if they won the war.  Land reform was a direct threat to their wealth and power and they knew it.  So too were guns and everything else that levelled the playing field, allowing the commoners a chance to stand up to their betters.  Helen’s supporters knew they were playing for keeps.  If the warlords won, they’d do everything in their power to turn back the clock.

It won’t work, I told myself.  It’ll just lead to newer and bloodier rebellions against the status quo.

My lips twisted.  No one, not even my closest supporters, knew precisely how far I was prepared to go.  I’d practically surrendered my estates to the tillers.  I’d allowed some of our most sensitive technological secrets to be leaked.  I’d ensured the spread of reading and writing and everything else … whatever happened, the kingdom would never be the same again.  The warlords were just a remnant of a dim a distant past, soon to be forgotten completely.  I wouldn’t be another Andrew Johnston.  I wouldn’t betray the people who trusted me and fought for me and expected me to honour my promises …

“I cannot promise an easy victory,” Helen said.  “There will be much bloodshed before the warlords are done.  But we will win.  Never doubt we will win.  Dismissed.”

The courtiers bowed or curtseyed, then hurried out of the chamber.  I wondered how many of the old hands were convinced, given that the meeting with the envoy had been little better than a masterful – and pre-planned – performance.  Helen had to do a surprising amount of her business in public, if only to keep rumour-mongering to a dull roar, but there’d still be suspicions she’d made time to have a private chat with the envoy earlier.  There’d be people watching to make sure he really was thrown out of the city, rather than kept in the guardhouse until Helen could meet with him again,

At least Helen keeps a tight grip on these sessions, I thought.  Her father had held audiences where everyone, or at least everyone who thought they were anyone, had insisted on having their say.   It was astonishing how many people could say the exact same thing time and time again, rarely even bothering to vary the words, just so they could tell the world they’d had their say.  And she listens when people bring their concerns to her in private.

“Elliot,” Helen said.  She stood, brushing down her robes.  She’d insisted on wearing her father’s outfits, rather than the dresses that looked as if they’d come out of a Disney princess movie, but I rather thought they suited her.  “Walk with me.”

I nodded, following her as she led the way through the curtains and into a long – and private – corridor.  There were people in the kingdom, even in the palace, who would have killed to have a private meeting with the queen … I felt a twinge of amusement at their probable reactions, if they’d known I didn’t share their awe.  There was nothing special, to me, in spending time with an aristocrat.  Besides, I knew Helen as a person.  She was more than just a monarch to me.

“It should be safe to talk here,” Helen said.  “My maids and guards are loyal.”

I nodded, feeling a twinge of pity.  Helen had next to no privacy.  She’d rarely been alone, from the moment she’d been born till the day she took the throne and became queen … even now, her ladies were never far away.  We’d searched the aristocratic townhouses, after the coup, and discovered missives from her ladies-in-waiting and maids, reporting on everything from her reading patterns to her menstrual cycles.  It was creepy.  I’d had very little privacy in the army, but …

And a bunch of maids were executed, to remind the others to keep their mouths thoroughly closed, I thought.  It should keep them quiet and loyal for a few months, although I doubted it would last forever.  The maids might be scared into submission, but her ladies came from prominent families.  They’d face immense pressure to give their impressions of their mistress to their masters.  The poor girls will be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

“There will be no peace now,” Helen added, after a moment.  “Good.”

I nodded, curtly.  I’d seen enough war – here and back home – to know war wasn’t particularly glorious.  I knew men who’d gone to war and come home crippled, despite everything modern medical technology could do.  Here, it was far worse.  A man who lacked the money to pay for a healer would be lucky if he came home with amputated limbs.  I’d done what I could to improve what passed for medical science, but … I shuddered.  It would be kinder to send a man to be tortured.

“We couldn’t have come to terms with them anyway,” I said.  The warlords were clearly spoiling for a fight.  Helen could give them everything they wanted and they’d have found an excuse to go to war anyway.  Not that she could, even if she wanted to.  The changes had spread too far to be reversed.  “Not after …”

I sighed.  The kingdom had existed in an uneasy balance of power for decades, the king too weak to put down his overmighty subjects and the warlords reluctant to rock the boat by trying to unseat the king permanently.  I’d changed that, partly by accident, when I’d defeated Warlord Aldred.  The warlords had thought they could just play a waiting game to bring the kingdom to heel.  I’d proven the kingdom could and would take the offensive and slay the warlord beasts in their lairs. 

And now they’re ganging up on us, I thought.  Cuthbert wasn’t the only warlord modernising and mobilising his forces.  The remainder were preparing for war too.  They had no illusions about how deeply Helen hated them, about what she’d do if she had them in her power.  She’d sign their execution warrants with a smile.  They have to hang together or be hanged separately.

Helen touched my arm.  I tensed, despite myself.  We might be alone, but … we weren’t really.  The rules had changed since she took the throne – she’d effectively had herself declared a man, just to ensure she could attend council meetings – yet there were limits.  If rumours got out …

“Elliot,” she said.  “Can we win?”

I took a breath.  “Yes,” I said.  It wasn’t an idle boast.  I’d spent the last few weeks planning the war.  It was going to be tight – we had better weapons, the warlords had more experienced men and mercenaries – but we could do it.  “It can be done.”

Helen smiled, humourlessly.  “I believe you once told me nothing is certain in war.”

“It isn’t,” I said.  “But we can stack the deck in our favour if we move fast.”

“Good.”  Helen changed the subject with surprising rapidity.  “And Fallon?  Have you agreed on a date yet?”

I hesitated.  The idea that my marriage was an issue of national security still felt absurd.  Sure, I was one of the most powerful noblemen in the kingdom, but I still felt like a poor boy who’d joined the army to better himself and climbed all the way to the top.  And yet, it was no longer true.  My every word was law for hundreds of thousands of people who’d never even heard of me a year ago.

“We are making progress,” I said.  Someone – I forgot who – had cautioned me against falling in love with local girls, while on deployment.   It could lead to complications … not, I supposed, that it mattered here.  I’d never be going home again.  “Why do you ask?”

“The longer before you take her to wed, the harder it will be for her,” Helen said.  Her face was blank.  I couldn’t tell if she was advising me to marry now or forget the whole thing and just keep Fallon as a mistress.  It was not a pleasant thought.  “Make your mind up quickly.”

Her lips twitched.  “And I’ll expect to see you both at the council meeting this afternoon.”

I nodded.  “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Book Review – The Armchair General: Can You Defeat The Nazis?

29 Jul

The Armchair General: Can You Defeat The Nazis?

-John Buckley

If you were the decision-maker at the turning points of WW2, knowing what they knew at the time, could you do better?  Or worse?

One of the fundamental problems with writing alternate histories is that writers have the benefit of hindsight.  The mistakes of the past are laid bare, with all their disastrous consequences exposed, to the point it becomes very easy to condemn the people of the time for making them.  This is misleading, because the people who made the decisions didn’t have the advantage of hindsight.  They had to make decisions based on what they knew at the time, not on truths that seem self-evident to their descendents.  It is easy to say, for example, that Churchill should have made a major commitment to North Africa earlier than OTL, but Churchill could not be sure Operation Sealion was a non-starter until much later than any of his critics.  Indeed, most of the great mistakes of the past – studied without hindsight – start looking more like the best course of action at the time.

John Buckley has attempted to outline this by taking a new approach to alternate history.  Instead of picking a single POD and detailing the possible consequences – the approach taken by military alternate history writers such as Kenneth Macksey and Peter Tsouras – Buckley presents eight moments of WW2 history where the right or wrong choices would determine the course of history, outlines what the major players knew at the time (as best as can be determined) and invites you to consider what decisions you might make.  This may seem like a simplistic Choose Your Own Adventure game book, and indeed it does come across as something akin to it, but it is soundly grounded in real history and – to a very large extent – keeps the alternate outcomes very realistic (and discusses why the ‘right’ answer was not always evident at the time.)

For example, with the advantage of hindsight, Winston Churchill was the obvious man to lead Britain to victory in WW2.  This was not evident at the time, as Buckley makes clear; Churchill’s war record was something of a mixed bag (he successfully evaded much of the blame for the Norwegian disaster), he had enemies in high places and, worst of all, there was no obvious way for Britain to actually win.  The French had been crushed, the Italians were on the verge of entering the war … was it not time, people asked, for Britain to fold its cards and seek peace with Adolf Hitler when Britain still had something to use as a bargaining tool?  Buckley makes a very good case that the decision to continue the war was nowhere near as inevitable as it might seem.  Halifax, as PM, might have decided to bring the war to an end before it was too late.

Even if Churchill becomes PM, there are still problems facing the reader.  Should Britain make a secret approach to Hitler through Mussolini’s good offices?  If Churchill agrees, he may find himself presented with terms he’d find it hard to refuse (although the idea of Hitler keeping any agreements he made was laughable after Munich) or face a revolt in the Cabinet as the doves force a leadership contest; if he refuses, he may face the leadership contest anyway. 

The book is at pains to note that while private discussions with Hitler were a bad idea, they weren’t outrageously bad.  Halifax – as either PM or Foreign Secretary – had a duty to explore all options, although one doesn’t need hindsight to know Hitler couldn’t be trusted.  (The book does reserve some scorn for Samuel Hoare, who clearly learnt nothing from the run-up to war.)

The book then shifts to North Africa and, in doing so, casts light on the very limited options available to Churchill and the Vichy French.  Was it a mistake to divert British troops to Greece in 1941?  The outcome of the troops remaining in North Africa, according to Buckley, suggests both yes and no.  On one hand, Italian Libya would have been crushed well before the Germans could move troops into position to support their allies; on the other, it would have set off a political firestorm in French North Africa and Vichy France.  The book points out that French options were, in some ways, the most limited of all.  If they supported the British, Germany would take revenge on mainland France; if they fought, they’d be drawn ever-further into collaboration and submission. 

The book moves from Britain to Russia and asks, grimly, what the Russians should have done after the Germans invaded?  Should they keep Stalin or take advantage of his momentary discomfort to overthrow him?  Regardless, should they fight to hold Moscow or seek peace with Germany, even one on unfavourable terms?  This is, in many ways, the hardest part of the book to follow.  Stalin was a monster, Hitler’s equal in mass genocide, yet without his iron will would Russia survive long enough for the tide to turn?  It is hard to say.  On one hand, Stalin was strong because he allowed no strong followers (ensuring his successor wouldn’t share his powers); on the other, Stalin’s mistakes in the run up to the war were disastrous.  What should you do?  Buckley presents a nuanced answer.

Even as the tide turns in Russia’s favour, there was still no guarantee of a Russian victory, raising the prospect of a somewhat more balanced peace.  What if the Russians signed a treaty with Germany in 1943 and bowed out of the war?  Unlikely?  Perhaps, perhaps not – Russia had suffered badly in the war and the prospect of a Second Front had been put back to 1944.  The book outlines the problems facing the Russians, then details what might have happened if the two sides agreed on a treaty.

This leads into another possibility – a Second Front in 1943.  The overall outlook for an invasion isn’t as bad as is often suggested, at least on paper, but Buckley is careful to make clear that there were good reasons to put the invasion off until 1944.  The defences were weak – true – but American troops weren’t ready to fight Germans and the British could not afford a major disaster.  The book suggests that an invasion in 1943 wouldn’t have been a complete disaster, but it wouldn’t have won the war as quickly as its proponents hoped and ended with the allies effectively trapped in a pocket, needing to break out before they could resume the advance.  But a solid lodgement in France would make it a great deal easier for the US to reinforce the troops, then take the offensive in 1944.  It would certainly improve logistics!

Having looked at overall strategy, the book also looks at two major battles – Operation Market Garden/Arnhem – and Midway – that might have gone differently, if the people involved had made different decisions.  This is, unfortunately, a less convincing pair of scenarios.  An American defeat at Midway would be embarrassing and painful, but the Japanese would find it incredibly costly to take Midway and they’d still be ground under by the sheer weight of American production in the next two years.  Market Garden, by contrast, might provide better results if the operation was more limited, but Buckley believes it would not have made a major difference.  He might well be right.  The planning for Market Garden was flawed right from the start.

The book also studies two technical POD, the decision to concentrate on aerial bombing and to fund atomic research.  The former, I think although I may be wrong, is a little over-optimistic.  Bomber Command never had the technology for precision bombing and, while there was something to be said for developing a dive-bomber capability to match Germany, I doubt improving the bombing fleet to the point it could do real damage was feasible.  Putting more resources to the naval war might work better, perhaps defeating the U-Boats earlier than OTL, but it hard to be sure because the Germans would still be deploying U-Boats.  I think this is probably the weakest part of the book.

The idea of not funding atomic research is a little vaguer than the rest of the possible outlines, but does suggest it might well have happened.  Atomic science was in its infancy and no one could be sure it was worth it.  If it wasn’t funded … what then?  Buckley suggests Japan would have been invaded instead, followed by a possible war against Russia.  He also suggests the German program would never have produced a viable weapon, although – again – it is hard to be sure.  A Germany that didn’t drive most of its best minds into exile would, at least in theory, have a solid ground for atomic research.

Overall, the book does a decent job at presenting the background, including what the key players knew at the time, and outlining possible alternatives.  It is easy to say, of course, that the reader should always follow the ‘right’ path, but the book is good at making clear there was no obviously right path.  Buckley picks PODs where there is a surprising amount of ambiguity and it shows.  I think he was careful to avoid PODs where the right thing to do was obvious.

When presenting characters – historical figures – he also places them in context and makes it clear that they will benefit personally from their decisions (or perhaps not – a known backstabber, even with a good cause, will never be trusted again.)  This is fascinating, in that it sometimes shines light on minor figures who stood – for a brief moment – at a turning point in history.  He makes them come alive as men who could, if they made the wrong choice, doom both themselves and their countries.

It is possible, of course, to argue that his decision to limit the scope of his alternate outcomes was a bad one.  But, looking at history from decades in the future, it is clear the idea of a world-bestriding Reich was the stuff of fantasy rather than sober reality.  Few choices would have been completely disastrous (possibly the only real disaster would be Russia making peace in 1941) and Buckley, I think, made it clear. 

He also, for better or worse, shies away from assessing the enemy’s decisions.  It would be interesting to assess Hitler’s decisions (as well as his Italian and Japanese counterparts) and see how well they hold up based on what he actually knew, but it would be incredibly controversial.  He also makes a handful of notes about Churchill not being politically correct by today’s standards, a point that not only detracts from the text but also raises the issue of looking at the world through Stalin’s eyes.  (Although, to be fair, he does call Stalin a psychopath and suggests a Molotov-headed government would be better for Russia.)  While this may be true, and Churchill has been attacked recently by people who think modern values can be projected back into the past, they would not have any bearing on his contemporaries.  Being an imperialist, and believing the British Empire was a force for good in the world, was not regarded as a bad thing in 1940 and the idea it would have entered anyone’s calculations is absurd.

If you’re in to alternate history, or even history in general, I think you’ll like this book. 

Book Review – Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-1943

13 Jul

Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-1943

-John Gooch

What was Mussolini thinking?

Italy’s performance in the Second World War is often taken as the stuff of light comedy.  The Italians were, we are told, comic opera actors who ran away when the first shots were fired and needed to be bailed out, repeatedly, by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.  Their participation in the war was a net drain on German resources, to the point they played a role in Germany’s ultimate defeat by fighting alongside them.  In the (possible) words of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, being allied with Italy meant being shackled to a corpse.  The best thing the Italians could have done for their allies was staying out of the war.

The misconception the Italians were always nothing more than cowards and incompetents has made it hard for anyone to assess their participation with a clear eye.  Mussolini was – is – a figure of fun, a harmless blimp who could be mocked relentlessly while there was and remains very little funny about Adolf Hitler.  And yet, John Gooch has attempted to peer through the myths and legends of Italy’s war and ask precisely how and why the Italians did so badly.  It is a dense tome, but none the less important if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of the war.

On a operational level, the Italians were never as bad as their detractors claimed.  When they had a workable plan, and the support they needed, they tended to do a great deal better than the stereotype.  Their invasion of Ethiopia was reasonably well planned and conducted with a certain degree of competence.  Their participation in the Spanish Civil War was, again, reasonably competent.  They made an attempt at an early blitzkrieg-style offensive that worked better than anyone had a right to expect, although not enough to prove Italy’s military might by winning the war.  Their early contribution to Operation Barbarossa involved a number of reasonably well-equipped divisions that did fairly well, up to Stalingrad.  They did not, of course, face the Red Army alone, but they did better than one might think,

When they lacked support and planning, the Italians tended to do very badly.  The plan to invade Egypt was poor and the planning for Greece almost non-existent, to the point the offensive barely got off the ground and – in both cases – the Italians came very close to a decisive defeat.  Morale crumbled when senior leadership was not up to the task – and it rarely was – leading to countless Italians simply throwing down their guns and walking into POW camps.

Italy’s strategic thinking was almost non-existent too.  There was no clear-eyed assessment of Italy’s power relative to Britain, France (even in 1940, after the French were effectively beaten by the Germans), Russia and America.  The result was strategic chaos.  Italy might have made a far more worthwhile contribution to the war by invading Malta in 1940, which would probably have been a walkover, but instead Mussolini tried to invade France and Egypt, in hopes of securing claims to territory when Britain sought terms with Nazi Germany.  Britain did not, of course, seek terms and so the Italians found themselves out on a limb.

Many of these problems can be blamed on Mussolini.  He was shrewd enough to make a bid for leadership, when Italy found itself in economic trouble, but he lacked the intellect and realism to understand the reality of his position.  His country was incredibly dependent on outside trade, ensuring the war would swiftly lead to Italy’s industries grinding to a halt.  He lacked the forward planning to compensate, insofar as it was possible, and even if he had the Italian economy probably couldn’t have adapted.  The Germans offered Italy plans for advanced tanks and aircraft, which were rejected as Italy couldn’t afford to churn them out even with the plans. 

These problems pervaded Italy’s power structure.  There was very little formal cooperation between the army, the navy and the air force.  Mussolini lacked a general staff capable of forcing his officers to work together, let alone point them at a single goal.  Italy had too many incompetents in high places, not all of whom could be removed when their incompetence was too clear to be missed. 

In a sense, Mussolini shot his bolt too soon.  Italy helped Franco win his war at a very high cost, very little of which was ever repaid.  (The author points out that the ultimate effects of Italy not trying to help Franco are unknowable.)  Italy burnt up too much of its deployable forces and military stockpiles, ensuring the armies that tried to seize Egypt and Greece were dangerously weak.  Italy lacked the resources to experiment with better weapons and tactics and rapidly found itself outmatched by both Britain and Russia.  The fact the Germans had more and better of everything was a constant source of resentment amongst the Italian military.

The combination of operational, tactical, strategic and geopolitical weaknesses ensured Italy would eventually become more and more dependent on Germany.  Mussolini’s dreams of fighting a separate war were rapidly proved to be nothing more nothing more than delusions and the Germans, despite Hitler’s personal affection for Mussolini, were quick to understand it and gave the Italians very little freedom of movement.  Even without that, the Germans simply lacked the resources Italy needed.  The Italians cut themselves off from the sources of supply they needed to survive. 

The book also sheds new light on Italian anti-partisan efforts, which were – like the rest of the country’s war effort – a very mixed bag.  The Italians did better than the Germans on anti-partisan efforts in Russia – they had the advantage of being neither Nazis nor Communists – but their anti-partisan efforts in the Balkans were marked with the same savage brutality as the Nazis, Russians and Japanese efforts elsewhere.  The problem was made worse by deeply corrupt military leadership, who preferred to loot and enjoy themselves rather than trying to solve a problem that was probably beyond solving.  These efforts came to an end when Italy left the war, with a surprising number of Italians joining the partisans and fighting the Nazis. 

Italy’s departure from the war was marred with the same incompetence that marked its entry.  It was hard for anyone to plot Mussolini’s ouster, both because he was still surprisingly popular and because Hitler would be sure to react badly.  Ironically, it was the Fascist Party that moved against him first.  The timing was badly handled and what hope there was of allied troops entering Italy in time to deter a German invasion was rapidly lost.  Italy became a battleground for the rest of the war, a problem that could have been avoided if their leader had shown a certain amount of common sense.

Could Italy have done better?

The short answer is yes.  Staying out of the war would have been better for Italy and Nazi Germany.  If Italy had been determined to take part in the fighting, in hopes of snatching booty before the peace treaty, it would have been better to concentrate on Malta and North Africa rather than France or Greece.  Malta was barely defended in those days, while a reinforced and mobile Italian army might have been able to push to the Suez Canal and occupy Egypt before the British redeployed their forces to keep the Italians out.  If Italy had done so well, it would have offered the best chance for Italy to keep its gains and avoid being overshadowed by the Germans.

This would, however, have required Mussolini to be the thing he wasn’t – a practical man who understood his limits, and that of his military, and stayed within them.  Instead, he set his country on a path that led to its inevitable destruction, the downfall of his regime and his own execution.

This is not a biography of Mussolini.  But if you want to know why Italy did so badly, this is the book for you.  It does jump around a little, and it can be a bit wordy at times, but overall it is well worth a read.

Snippet – The Muckraker’s Tale

13 Jul

This is the start of a Fantastic Schools novella. As always, comments are warmly welcomed.


This is the greatest story ever told.

Hyperbole, of course.  But Dad always said a little hyperbole never hurt anyone and believe me, he should know.  He was a broadsheet reporter before broadsheets were even invented and his job meant he had to keep himself employed by keeping his clients invested in his work.  If that meant exaggerating a few details, he did it.  And he had very few qualms about it too.

My father was a bastard, in birth if not in behaviour.  He was born on the wrong side of the blankets and while his father had made provisions for his support and education, the rest of his family were nowhere near so welcoming.  His stepmother hated him – he was a grim reminder that her conduct had to be above reproach while her husband could go whoring and no one would say a word – and his half-brothers and sisters loathed him.  He had a reasonably decent education, but what could he do with it?  I don’t blame him for going into quasi-exile and heading to Dragon’s Den, where talent sometimes rose above birth and breeding.  He had enough magic as well as education to make a living for himself.  And he had something to offer.

His family wanted to know what was going on in Dragon’s Den.  Who was in, who was out, who was on the rise and who was going down … my father, armed with talent and determination and a certain willingness to let the pureblood aristocrats make fools of themselves, slotted neatly into his new role as correspondent.  He collected gossip, verified it as best as he could, and then wrote it in letters for his clients.  He called himself a correspondent and wrote to anyone willing to pay his fees.  They called him a muckraker and regarded him with the same kind of loathing and contempt they reserved for whores, scullery maids and mercenaries, even as they made use of their services.  Dad found it amusing to watch how none of them would be seen in public with him, but begged him – when they were firmly out of the public eye – to keep them informed of what was going on.  The first person to hear the news, in the distant mansions of the rich and aristocratic, would have an edge over his competitors.  And Dad was the best in the business.

He had few principles, but the ones he did have he held tightly.  He dug up the truth as best as he could and did everything in his power to make sure it was the truth.  He guarded his reputation for honesty like aristocratic women guarded their reputations for chastity.  Truth was a defence against his clients, when they questioned his word.  They considered him a deniable and ultimately expendable asset, but they knew better than to break their word with him.  He’d ensure the entire world knew what they’d done and no one would ever trust them again.

I don’t know how he survived long enough to get married and have a daughter, let alone raise her to follow in his footsteps.  His profession was a hazardous one.  By his retelling – and for once I don’t think there was any hyperbole – he’d come close to death a thousand times in his first decade as a correspondent.  He’d been beaten up by private guards, turned into animals and objects by magicians, even attacked in the streets by faceless assassins who could have been sent by anyone, anyone at all.  Mum always feared that one day he’d go out in pursuit of a story and never come back, but he survived.  Personally, I suspected it was because he was useful to everyone, even the ones who hated him.  They didn’t kill him because they wanted to make use of him.  His best tips often came from people who wanted to make trouble for their rivals.

And then the New Learning changed everything.

Dad was the best in the business, but even he couldn’t write to everyone.  There weren’t many scribes willing to work for him – the Scribes Guild frowned on correspondents – and there were limits to how much news he could send to his contacts.  The printing press and cheap paper changed all that.  Dad bought one of the first presses and expanded his services, then – when he heard about broadsheets – started his own.  Everyone – everyone who thought they were anyone, at least – bought copies, just to make sure their names weren’t amongst the gossip.  The vast majority of new broadsheets lasted only a few editions before folding and vanishing, their writers and editors unable to bring in enough money to keep themselves going, but Dad survived and prospered and grew wealthy.  He was rich enough to send me to Whitehall to study magic.  And that was when I started the school newsletter.

Whitehall Times was my baby.  I liked to think it would keep the students informed of what was going on, from minor matters to major; I liked to think its stories would rock the establishment and keep the tutors honest, as well as giving the students a chance to get involved in running the school.  But, in truth, my lofty dreams crashed straight into reality.  It wasn’t easy to keep the paper interesting and some of my colleagues had weird ideas of what would actually sell copies.  I mean, who cared about the kitchen staff’s plans for the dinner welcoming the new students?  They served the same thing every year!

I told myself we needed a scoop.  And fast.

And that, my readers, was why I was sneaking into the sport captain’s office on a very early morning.

Chapter One

If you ask an old student of Whitehall, they will tell you there is a tradition of trying to sneak into the offices and escape without being caught.  What they won’t tell you, I reflected sourly as I made my way through the air vents, is that it is very hard to avoid being caught.  The youngest and least experienced of the tutors still has at least five or six years of experience on even the oldest students, meaning that it is rare for anyone to get through the wards and escape without being detected.  They may tell you that you’ll get a pass, if you steal the exam questions ahead of time, but it hardly ever happens.  It’s much more likely you’ll be trapped in the wards and held prisoner, until the tutor arrives to free you.  And then you’ll be in deep trouble.

I concentrated on breathing through my mouth as I crawled onwards.  The sports captain had been careful, very careful, to protect the doors to her office and I doubted I could crack them, certainly not without setting off the alarms.  But, like most students who weren’t particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of her profession, she might have missed the air vents when she layered wards over her office to keep out intruders.  It was claustrophobic as hell – and I was sure there were mutated rats scurrying around in the darkness – but no magic blocked my way as I reached the end of the passage and peered through the darkness.  I’d checked the outline of the office carefully, the last time I’d been forced to enter, and if I was right …

Got it, I thought.

I smirked.  Someone – years ago – had put a cupboard right in front of the air vent.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Juliet of House Remora, Captain-General Sports, wasn’t an idiot – idiotic students rarely made it to the uppermost years – but she was very single minded and I doubted she’d bothered to take the furniture out to make sure there were no concealed passageways or air vents.  Hell, for all I knew, she might have thought the walls were rock solid.  It seemed an unpardonable oversight to me, but Dad had told me it was astonishing what people took for granted.  He’d spent his fair share of the time spying on his targets from a safe distance.  Sometimes, he’d discovered – too late – that it wasn’t anything like safe enough.

Perhaps I should have felt guilty, as I drew the charmed ear trumpet from my pouch and pressed it to my ear.  Dad had never had any qualms about spying on people, but he’d grown up in a mansion where there was no real privacy.  The staff had orders to keep an eye on all the children, even the ones who’d reached their majority.  They’d certainly kept a very strict eye on him.  I drew the line at spying on someone in their bedroom, but otherwise?  The sporting section was open to all.  And besides, it was a matter of public interest.

Of course it is, I told myself.  Everyone wants to know how the sporting captains lay their plans for the year.

It was, I had to admit, a frustrating problem.  In theory, anyone could start a sports team and declare themselves a captain.  In practice, the well-connected students had a much better chance of making their team last long enough to play their first game, let alone enough to become a permanent part of the school.  The old teams had been around for years, the captaincies carefully passed down from student to student in a bid to ensure power remained in the right set of hands.  Sports was serious business – or so I’d been told; personally I’d never been inclined to care – and organising the teams was of vital importance.  And the process was anything, but transparent.  How did they do it?

Bribes, probably, I thought.  Give the captain money – or a promise of future favours – and you’ll be on the team.

I rolled my eyes.  School sports were more than just a chance to blow off steam on the playing fields.  The sportsmen could – and did – make contacts that would help them climb to the top, after they left school.  I’d heard rumours of sports captains making all sorts of trades to ensure they got the right players – the well-connected or otherwise useful, rather than brilliant players – and there was a lot of resentment amongst those who couldn’t make the grade.  I didn’t pretend to understand why the staff hadn’t cracked down on it to ensure everyone got a fair chance of playing in the championship league, but perhaps it served a vital purpose.  Or perhaps they simply didn’t care.

Grandmaster Gordian started a Duelling Club, I recalled.  Surely, he’ll care if I prove the captains are taking bribes.

My ear trumpet twitched.  I smirked.  I’d have been caught in an instant if I’d sneaked a probe into the chamber, unless Juliet had bribed someone to take her exams for her, but it was astonishing just how far sound could travel even within a deadening privacy ward.  I twisted the trumpet, trying to pick out the words without making a sound myself.  It wasn’t easy to get anything.  It sounded as if they were sharing a drink, perhaps even a dinner.  I guessed one of the richer students had laid out a buffet, in hopes of impressing his fellow captains.  It was the sort of thing they’d do.

“I’d like to take Cameron,” a male voice said.  I couldn’t be sure, but the sheer dripping entitlement in the tone suggested it was a very snooty student indeed.  There were only a handful of suspects.  “Can I trade him for Gabby?”

“Gabby isn’t good enough for my team,” Juliet said.  Her voice had rubbed me the wrong way from the very first day we’d met, when she’d been charged with mentoring me and a bunch of other girls.  She’d done as little as she could get away with and, unsurprisingly, she’d gotten away with it.  “She’s certainly not a fitting replacement for Cameron.”

“She does have the looks,” the male student said.  I could hear the leer in his voice.  “I thought you chose your team based on looks?”

I didn’t need to see Juliet’s face to sense her anger.  “A team must be more than just presentable,” she said.  I’d been told she paid for uniforms for her entire team, binding them to her.  “And you, Blair, should know better than to make such an offer.”

Curse him, I thought.  Or something.

I kept the thought to myself.  Blair was a swaggering, boastful, outrageous pain in the ass who somehow – even I had to admit – managed to lead his team to victory time and time again.  I felt a twinge of sympathy for Juliet.  Blair was two years younger than her and normally she could have shut him down with a few well-chosen words – or hexes – but he was also a captain and she had to treat him as an equal.  And he took full advantage …

“Perhaps I could make an offer for him instead,” a third voice said.  “If I trade you Miller and Parkinson …”

I forced myself to relax and listen as the conversation went on and on.  I’d been sure the process was corrupt, right from the start, but it was still astonishing to discover how little sportsmanship played in the negotiations.  They talked about their players as though they were nothing more than pieces on a gameboard, to be shuffled around at will.  The idea they might have thoughts and feelings of their own was alien to them … I shook my head as one captain offered a bribe and another accepted, arranging a player’s transfer without bothering to ask what he thought of it.  The hell of it was that they’d probably get away with it.  A player who refused to transfer would be kicked out of the team and never allowed to play again.

And I can do something with this, I told myself.  I had an amazing story ready to go.  As long as I was careful, I could get the broadsheet printed and distributed before Juliet and her peers realised what I was doing.  And then … I’d have to watch my back for a few days, but it would be worth it.  Their players would revolt against them if they knew how casually they were being traded.  It will make the paper …

Something landed on my butt, something sharp.  I yelped, stifling myself an instant too late.  Dad had taught me how to be stealthy, but … I heard someone shout and swore under my breath, crawling back as fast as I could.  The sound had carried into the room and they were looking for me … how long would it take for them to realise where I was?  Not long … I heard breaking wood behind me and crawled faster, knowing they’d torn the cupboard from the wall.  I felt a pair of questing spells coming after me and deflected them as best as I could, even as I found the next air vent and pushed it open, darting through it as the last of thje spells faded away.  If I was lucky, I should be able to get out the door and down the corridor at breakneck speed before they cut me off.  If … magic snapped at me, invisible hands pulling me back to the vent.  Shrewd thinking on their part, I conceded.  If they trapped me, they’d have all the time in the world to compel me to forget what I’d heard.  Dad had told me he was sure he’d had a slice gapped out of his memory once or twice. 

Creepy, I thought.  There were mental disciplines to recall memories magicians wanted you to forget, but they were unreliable.  I was no expert.  If they catch me …

I pushed the spell aside with an effort and ran through the door, heading down the corridor.  They hadn’t gotten a good look at me.  They’d have to conclude it could have been anyone, if I made it to the upper levels.  Students running around as if a tiger was on their tail was hardly an uncommon sight and not everyone liked the captains.  They’d keep their mouth shut, probably.  I hoped so.

Magic spiked, behind me.  The spell slammed into my back.  My body froze, then tumbled to the ground.  The impact would have hurt if the spell hadn’t been binding me in place.  I cursed as I tried desperately to cast a counterspell.  Juliet was strong, stronger than I’d dared admit to myself.  I could have escaped one of my peers, if they’d frozen me, but not an older student.  A strong hand gripped mine and rolled me over.  I found myself looking up into Juliet’s blue eyes.

She was beautiful.  Beautiful and cold.  Long blonde hair framed a delicate face and hung over muscular shoulders.  Juliet was no academic, but everyone knew she was one of the best sportswomen in school.  She was proud, tough, and not given to allowing anyone to get away with the slightest hint of disrespect.  And she’d caught me spying on her.

I wanted to wince, but I couldn’t move a muscle.  I was in deep shit.  Older students were not allowed to pick on younger students, a rule I suspected was honoured in the breach rather more than the observance, but if the younger student started something the older student was allowed to finish it.  Juliet could curse me and swear blind it was a terrible accident or … I heard running footsteps coming up behind her and groaned mentally.  The other captains would demand harsh punishment.  I was really in deep shit.

“And what,” a mild voice asked, “is going on here?”

Juliet’s face tightened.  I felt a flash of hope, mingled with a strange and bitter resignation.  I’d been saved by the grandmaster and … oh, no one was ever going to let me forget it.  It would be better if I’d taken my lumps and then put the matter behind me.  Instead …

“We caught Janet spying on us,” Juliet said, and explained.  I was surprise she tattled so quickly – and in so much detail.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  If the grandmaster thought they were picking on me for no reason, they might be expelled.  “And we were going to bring her to you.”

My name is Jane, I thought, angrily.  Did Juliet really not remember me?  Or was she being insulting?  It was unlikely the grandmaster would call her on it and if he did, she had plausible deniability.  Damn it!

“I see.”  Grandmaster Gordian made a dismissive gesture with one hand.  I found myself suddenly free.  My body collapsed in a heap.  “Jane, accompany me.”

I staggered to my feet, all too aware of Juliet’s eyes burning into my back, and followed the grandmaster as he led the way to his office.  Passing students stared at me, wondering what I’d done to draw the attention of the grandmaster himself.  Was it pity in their eyes, or amusement?  It was always hard to tell.  The grandmaster was supposed to keep himself aloof from the younger students, or so I’d been told.  He’d certainly never spoken to me in private before, even when I’d put together the proposal for Whitehall Times.  I wondered, sometimes, if there’d been a debate amongst the staff, or if they’d just rubber-stamped the paper without bothering to read it.  My broadsheet wasn’t the strangest proposal that had been approved …

I’d never been in the grandmaster’s office before.  I couldn’t help looking around with interest, my eyes drinking in the bookshelves, the portraits and the heavy wooden desk positioned in the centre of the room.  The grandmaster’s chair was suspiciously close to a throne.  He motioned for me to stay on the near side of the desk as he took his seat and scowled.  I clasped my hands behind my back to keep them from shaking.  It was almost a relief there was no chair for me.

“Perhaps you could tell me,” the grandmaster said, “precisely why you were spying on the captains?”

His tone was mild, but I didn’t need to hear the ice to know I’d better come up with a very good explanation indeed.  And I didn’t think I could.  Spying on one’s fellow students might be a hallowed tradition, but so were harsh punishments for anyone who got caught.

“I’m waiting,” the grandmaster said.  “Why?”

I met his eyes.  “The student body has long wanted to know precisely how the sports captains make their selections, sir,” I said, carefully.  “The captains themselves don’t tell the candidates how and why they make their choices, they just issue the final results and force everyone to accept them.”

“There is nothing stopping the disappointed from founding their own teams,” the grandmaster pointed out, in the same mild tones. “There is room for everyone.”

“There isn’t,” I insisted.  I remembered myself a second later.  “Sir.”

The grandmaster studied me for a long cold minute.  “I was not best pleased when you put forward your proposal for a school newsletter.  It was a good idea, in theory, but your father’s reputation precedes you.  I did not expect you’d be able to content yourself with matters of interest to the school …”

“This is a matter of interest,” I insisted.

“… And now you have been caught spying on older students,” the grandmaster continued, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.  “That is not acceptable conduct.”

Spying on them was perfectly acceptable, I thought, darkly.  It was spying on them and getting caught you found so offensive.

“I am not pleased, young lady,” the grandmaster told me.  “You have betrayed the trust vested in you.  Frankly, your newsletter should be shut down.  I understand your arguments – and those of your supporters – but you have undermined the school.  The championship is coming up and we do not have time to deal with the problems you have raised.”

I felt my heart clench.  “You mean, the unfairness of the process?”

“Life is not fair,” the grandmaster snapped.  “And it is vitally important the championships go off without a hitch.”

Because the old grandmaster had little interest in sporting events and kept us largely out of them, I thought, nastily.  And you want to change things.

The grandmaster kept talking, unaware of my inner thoughts.  “After this meeting, you will report to the Warden and then you will wait in your bedroom.  I will not shut down your newsletter – not yet – but I will appoint an editor who will ride herd on you and tape down any wild ideas before they lead the newsletter to ruin.  That person will have authority over the newsletter, with the final say on what does and does not get published.  If you defy them, they will have the power to sack you.”

I blanched.  “It’s my newsletter!”

“No,” the grandmaster said.  “It’s the school’s newsletter.  You may have made the proposal and done the legwork, but the school funded the printing press and provided the office and how much else?  We own it.  If you want to abandon your project, you may.  If not, you need someone riding herd on you to make sure you don’t do something stupid.  Again.”

I ground my teeth.  “Sir …”

The grandmaster cut me off.  “It isn’t up for debate,” he said.  “If you want the newsletter to continue, with your involvement, you can do it with supervision.  If not … you may go.”

“Yes, sir,” I grated.  There was no point in arguing further.  Some people would dig their heels in and refuse to concede an inch, or worse, if you kept up the pressure.  I had a nasty feeling Grandmaster Gordian was one of them.  Lady Emily might have been able to talk sense into him.  I couldn’t.  “I look forward to meeting my new boss.”

“Glad to hear it,” the grandmaster said.  He didn’t react to my sardonic tone.  “Now, go.”

Snippet – The Conjuring Man Prologues

8 Jul

These are drafts, so please feel free to comment.

Prologue I

Background: The following is a transcript of a speech given by Adam of Heart’s Eye, one year after his discovery of the principles of magitech made him the poster child for magical/mundane cooperation.  The speech was widely distributed and just as widely banned, but this did not stop it from providing impetus to a growing movement to push the limits of magitech as far as they would go.


I grew up in a city-state.

Many people say that social mobility is easy within a city-state.  There is some truth to that – and compared to the countryside it is very easy to rise in the city – but it can be difficult to rise above your station.  Much of your life is determined by an accident of birth.  If your family is rich, you will have all the education and opportunities you could desire; if your family is poor, and struggling to keep from drowning in a tidal wave of debt, you will not have the time to study and better yourself.  Lady Emily says that one must spend money in order to make money, which can be tricky if you don’t have the money to spend.

I didn’t.

I wanted to be a magician.  It was unfortunate that I lacked the magic to seek a magical education, or the money that might have transformed me into a theoretical magician capable of devising spells, but never casting them.  I was lucky enough to win an apprenticeship with a master open-minded enough to give me a chance, yet it seemed impossible I would ever make something of myself.  It was not until I was … encouraged to travel to Heart’s Eye and study magic there that I found the key to a whole new branch of magic, a magic anyone – from the strongest magician to the weakest commoner – could use.  I could not have had that insight anywhere else.

But it was not just me.  Master Landis took me in and encouraged me to experiment.  Lilith and Taffy helped me to experiment.  Craftswoman Yvonne and Enchanter Praxis assisted in building the tools we needed, often devising newer and better ways to produce them in the process.  I have been credited with founding the field of magitech, but the truth is that it was a joint effort.  Everyone I named and more beside played a role in turning magitech into a workable branch of magic, one that has grown beyond my wildest dreams and continues to grow.  And it could not have happened anywhere else.

Lady Emily intended to turn Heart’s Eye into a crucible of innovation.  She laid the groundwork, from freedom of speech and assembly to the gathering of knowledge, insight and resources that powered the development of magitech.  She created a university where mistakes were allowed to pass, as long as you learnt from them, and even outright failures offered data that could be very useful indeed.  She told us that we always learn from our work, that we must be sensible and mature and tolerant of those who disagree with us, as long as they are tolerant of us.  She told us that all ideas would be tested, that the golden ideas would shine in the sun and the dross clearly visible for all to see.  And she was right.

Freedom, Lady Emily said, is a constant struggle.  And, again, she was right.

Our university is under threat, by those who consider us a threat.  We represent a new way forward, a way for everyone to climb as high as they can … a threat, to those who fear they will be surpassed by the new.  Their people will look at us, at the glittering civilisation we will build, and ask their rulers why they can’t do the same.  And they can’t, because to defeat us they will have to become us and we will win.

To them, we represent a threat far more insidious than anything they have ever faced.  We are not invaders, bent on conquest.  We are not usurpers, putting our claims to the test of battle.  We are not barbarian hordes or dark wizards or even necromancers.  We are an idea, the idea of freedom and self-determination and the right of a man or woman to work his way to the top, or to have a say in the government of their countries.  We are their worst nightmare given shape and form.  We are a free-thinking people.  They don’t want anyone, from the lowest serf grubbing in the dirt to the armsmen and soldiers who maintain their world, asking why?  Why should they be in charge?

And really, why?

To them, we are an existential threat.  Invading armies can be beaten.  Usurpers can be crushed.  Or, if they win, they’re the rightful rulers all along.  Us?  We are a challenge to their order, a rebuke of their conduct that grows stronger with every passing year.  They must crush us, strangling us in our cradle, before our mere existence crushes them.  They have already waged war on us, sending sorcerers and armies against us.  And they will keep going, because they must.  The alternative is their own people rising up against them.

What is a king, without his regal grandeur?  Just a man.

They don’t want us working together.  They don’t want fisherfolk working with merchants.  They don’t want soldiers working with civilians.  They don’t want magicians working with mundanes.  They don’t want us to work together for fear we will unite against them.  They work so hard to keep us apart, to formant hatred between magicians and mundanes, civilians and soldiers, cityfolk and countryfolk, because they fear what we would do if we united.  And they are right to fear. 

Look at what we have done, here at Heart’s Eye.  Look what we will do, if we have time.

We defeated a sorcerer.  We defeated a king.  I charge you all – wherever you came from, wherever you are going – to remember how we defeated an undefeatable king.  I charge you all to remember what we did, and carry it with you when you leave this place.  I charge you all to spread the story far and wide, to tell the world that freedom is within our reach and that we can take it.

We won, through working together.  And I promise you this.

We will win again.

Prologue II

“You lost.”

Master Lance, who had called himself Arnold only a few short weeks ago, didn’t look into the shadows, didn’t meet the gaze of the sending lurking there.  The chamber was as heavily-warded as a powerful sorcerer could make it, but he wasn’t particularly surprised his masters had reached through his defences as if they were as gossamer-thin as a child’s play-wards.  He was bound to them, by oaths of blood and bone, and he could no more escape them than he could cut his own throat.  It wouldn’t save him, if he did.  He’d been told that even the dead served their former masters after they passed beyond.

“A minor setback,” he said, calmly.  “The overall plan proceeds.”

“The king’s armies have been destroyed,” his master said.  “And his sister has declared herself queen.”

“One army,” Lance corrected.  He cared nothing for the men, commoners or aristos, who’d died in the fire.  “King Ephialtes has others.”

“His kingdom is in turmoil,” his master said.  “And all because of a weak little mundane.”

Lance winced at the sarcasm poisoning his master’s tone.  It was deserved.  The average sorcerer wouldn’t have paid any attention to a threat from a mundane, but Lance?  He’d been there, when Adam had taken the first fumbling steps towards magitech.  He should have taken steps to ensure Adam could never become a threat, from planting commands in his mind to stealing a sample of blood for a long-distance curse.  And he hadn’t.  And Adam had beaten him, not once but twice.  Lance had to admit he’d made a terrible mistake.  It would have been so easy to break Adam, the second time, or even simply put a fireball through his head.

“The Allied Lands themselves are in turmoil,” his master said.  “Void has made his bid for supreme power.  His daughter moves against him.  We will never have a better opportunity to secure a foothold, and a nexus point, for ourselves.  Nor will we be able to recover Heart’s Eye.”

“There are other nexus points,” Lance pointed out.  “And …”

His master cut him off.  “There are other nexus points, true, but none of such great importance to us,” he hissed.  “It is vitally important the nexus point be secured.  The university comes second.”

“Of course, Master,” Lance said, controlling his temper.  He’d have the university and the nexus point and then they would see.  If only his old masters hadn’t called him back to their banner … he snorted in disgust, remembering how Adam had wanted to be a magician so badly.  Would he have been quite so enthusiastic, if he’d known the price?  “I will not fail you.”

“No,” his master agreed.  There was no attempt to hide the threat in his voice.  “You will not,”

The shadows darkened, then snapped out of existence.  Lance staggered as the presence vanished with them.  His master was strong, too strong.  And yet … his master knew Lance was plotting against him, but did he realise how far Lance intended to go?  Of course he did … it was, after all, the only way to rise.  Lance hadn’t wanted to come back, but his master hadn’t given him the choice.  He was lucky he’d had enough freedom to lay his plans in a manner that allowed him to blame the failure on the king.

He straightened, brushing down his robes as someone knocked on the door.  Lance waved a hand impatiently, commanding the door to open.  The serving maid on the other side looked as if he’d frightened her out of her wits.  Or someone else had … Lance felt his lips thin in disgust.  He’d done a great many horrible things in his time – his style of magic demanded it –but there were limits.  He didn’t do horrible things for the sake of doing them.  King Ephialtes’s new followers, loyalists and mercenaries alike, didn’t seem to have any limits.

“Master,” the girl said, prostrating herself. Her voice shook.  “His Majesty summons … ah, requests your presence.”

Lance felt a wave of disgust at such weakness, mixed with a droll awareness the girl had no better prospects.  She was small and weak and would never rise any higher … he wondered, as he dismissed her with a wave of his hand, if she would have done better at Heart’s Eye.  Probably, if she could have gotten there.  Lance wasn’t going to help.  She had nothing to offer him, in exchange.

He checked his wards, then strode through the corridor to the king’s private chambers.  The king hadn’t spent any time in his throne room, or even addressing his court, since his armies had been scattered and broken.  Lance knew, despite the king’s best efforts to hide it, that Ephialtes had been having private meetings with his officers, as well as hiring mercenaries and other magicians.  The man wasn’t broken, not yet, but … Lance shrugged.  Ephialtes would hate it, if he knew, yet the truth was the king meant no more to Lance than the poor little girl.  He was a tool, nothing more.  It was of no great concern if the king got what he wanted out of the bargain or not,

The maid would probably be more useful, he reflected, wryly.  Certainly in the long run.

“Sir Sorcerer.”  King Ephialtes looked tired, tired and stressed.  A goblet of dark red wine sat on his desk, untouched.  His eyes flickered from side to side, even though he’d put a dozen sorcerers to work warding his chamber to the point that even Lance would have trouble taking the wards down without raising the alarm.  “Are you ready to take control of the university for me?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lance said.  He would take control.  He just wouldn’t hand it over to the king.  “Are your forces ready to move?”

“There are rebels and traitors within my city, within my kingdom,” Ephialtes said.  It was practically a hiss.  “You will assist me in rounding them up.  And quickly!”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Lance said, smoothly.  There was nothing to be gained – yet – by showing the king precisely how small and helpless he was.  Besides, he was right.  The king now had a challenger, a rival monarch, in the form of his own sister.  Factions that might otherwise submit to the king were weighing up the odds, trying to ensure they came out on the winning side.  King Ephialtes needed to strike first.  “I am at your command.”

He bowed, deeply.  And smiled.

Queenmaker Pro/CH1

8 Jul

Queenmaker is the direct sequel to Stuck in Magic and Her Majesty’s Warlord, both available here.

It’s a serial, so updates will probably be sporadic,

Comments, suggestions and death threats warmly welcome (except the threats)



It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.  It was a piece of shameless plagiarism …

… But I like to think Charles Dickens would have approved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got to work at once.  I took the decorative – and completely useless – army they gave me and turned it into a decent fighting force.  I took the wealth they gave me and invested it, funding the development of printing presses and factories as well as guns and weapons.  I took the estates they gave me and handed them over to the farmers, giving them incentive to produce all the food they could instead of the bare minimum.  I made all sorts of contacts with the city underground that saved my life.  And I started to fall in love with Fallon, a sorceress-in-training.

But I had made enemies, powerful enemies.  The local nobility were threatened by my arrival and my success.  The thought of the king and his daughter wielding a powerful army was enough to convince the bastards something had to be done – and quickly.  They started by slandering Helen, by telling the world I’d deflowered her – lying shitheads – but they rapidly moved on to outright treason.  The coup – I’ll give them that much – was well-planned.  Fallon and I were kidnapped by a sorcerer, while the nobility took control of the city and murdered the king.  They told themselves that all they had to do, to win, was marry Helen off to their chosen monarch.

They should have killed me.  It was their first mistake.  And their last.

We escaped – you don’t want to know how – and made our way to my estates.  My private army – I was allowed to recruit armsmen – marched on the city, while I and a handful of allies sneaked through the defences, liberated the prisoners and retook the castle, saving Helen’s life.  She was crowned Queen – the first Ruling Queen Johor ever knew – while I, now the mightiest of her aristocrats, readied myself for the wars to come. 

I did not have long to wait.

Chapter One

The day war broke out, I said to Lord Brock “you fool.”

Alright, I didn’t say it.  But I thought it.  Lord Brock was Queen Helen’s strongest supporter amongst what remained of the city’s aristocracy, a man so old he seemed to think he was serving her grandfather … personally, I thought he was a little senile.  It wasn’t clear quite what he’d been doing when the Traitors, as Helen insisted the coup plotters be called by everyone, had taken over the city, but I suspected he was too slow to realise anything had happened until it had been too late for him to do much of anything.  And it had worked out for him.  Helen had so few aristocrats willing to support her that the ones who did come forward were guaranteed high positions and heavy responsibilities.

I sighed inwardly as I surveyed Lord Brock’s work.  Roxanna had never been particularly well defended – the warlords wanted to make sure they could kick the king’s ass whenever he tried to stand up to them – and there just hadn’t been time to built more than a handful of thin and fragile walls before the Traitors made their move.  The fact they hadn’t tried to make the defences even stronger when my army had been breathing down their neck was telling, at least in my opinion.  They might have told themselves they were standing up for tradition and a rightly ordered society, but the truth was they were serving the warlords.  I wondered, nastily, if Lord Brock was doing it too,  Or if he really was senile.

The walls in front of me would have been daunting, once upon a time.  They were built of solid stone, with guardposts at regular interviews and plenty of room for soldiers to man the battlements and rain death on anyone stupid enough to try to clamber over and force their way into the city itself.  Before me – before the mysterious Emily – the walls would have forced the attackers to either lay siege to the city, a time-consuming process that might easily have led to disaster, or accepted horrendous losses in a bid to storm the walls and take the buildings beyond.  Now … the attackers could batter the walls down with cannons, or dig mines under the city, cram them with gunpowder and blow the walls to hell, or even – if some of the stories were true, fly over the walls and land within the city itself.  Lord Brock’s defences were worse than useless.  They’d make the defenders think they could hold out indefinitely when they’d barely protect the city for a few days, if the defenders were lucky.  I shuddered to think what modern guns and bombs would do to the walls.

I tried to be diplomatic.  Really, I did.

“My Lord” – I used his title in a bid to soften the blow, even though I technically took aristrocratic precedence – “the defences need to be deepened.  The enemy will break through and we have to be ready to cut them off and throw them back.”

Lord Brock looked mutinous as I went on and on, outlining the need for trenches, makeshift minefields and a hundred other tricks more suited to the Western Front than a world barely nosing its way into the gunpowder age.  I understood his feelings – he’d grown up in a world where strong walls made good neighbours – but I had no time for them.  Warlord Cuthbert had made his hostility very clear, the day he’d tried to kidnap Helen, and nothing he’d done since then had suggested he’d changed his mind.  He’d bankrolled the Traitors and the sorcerer who’d kidnapped me, all the while building up a modern army.  I doubted he was my match when it came to training men for the new style of warfare – I had the advantage of hindsight, of knowing what had worked for Lee, Grant, Pershing and so many others – but quantity had a quality all of its own.  What did it matter if each of my soldiers was worth two of his, I asked myself, if we were outnumbered three to one?

“I’ll send out more workers and advisors,” I told him finally, reminding myself to make sure I put someone capable of being both firm and diplomatic in command.  I’d had commanding officers who’d hidden away, leaving command in the hands of their NCOs … funny, I’d never thought I’d miss the lazy bastards.  It would be better for all concerned if Lord Brock stayed in nominal command while someone else did all the work, but he was too stubborn to go to his tent and claim the credit afterwards.  “We have to be ready to stand off a major offensive.”

“We’ll bleed him white if he tries,” Lord Brock assured me.  “The walls will stop an army.”

They won’t stop a modern army – or what passes for a modern army in this place – for long, I thought, tiredly.  Perhaps it was time for Lord Brock to suffer an accident.  The man was old enough to be my grandfather.  It was a minor miracle he’d lasted long enough to declare for the queen.  No one would think much of it if he passed away peacefully one day.  The sooner he’s removed, the better.

I sighed, again, as I took my leave.  Lord Brock seemed to be loyal enough.  His son had vanished under mysterious circumstances – personally, I suspected he’d backed the Traitors to make sure the family would have a foot in both camps – and he had no other heirs, nor did he have much to leave to anyone.  I had no qualms about assassinating snooty assholes who sneered at me and my men for being commoners – or, worse, mercenaries – but it went against the grain to kill someone for being a bit limited in his thinking.  Armies had a nasty habit of training for the last war, rather than the next, and it wasn’t easy to break them of that thinking.  The fighting in Iraq would have gone better, I thought, if we’d realised we’d be fighting a multi-sided insurgency from the very start.

My bodyguards kept their distance as I walked around the city, my keen eye surveying the small army of soldiers, labourers and – unfortunately – slaves as they trained for war or built the defences.  Helen had freed all the old slaves, but a surprising number of aristocratic retainers and mercenaries had survived the purge and promptly found themselves enslaved and put to work.  My stomach churned in disgust.  I’d done everything in my power to eradicate slavery and now I was forced to use slave labour?  I knew I didn’t have a choice – if we killed the bastards, their guilds would ally against us; if we kicked them out we’d just be sending the warlords free reinforcements – but it still gnawed at me.  It felt like a betrayal of everything my ancestors had undergone, when they’d been sold into slavery and put to work in the fields.

The mercenaries will be freed once the fighting is over, I told myself.  And the retainers will have a chance to earn their freedom.

I kept my face under tight control as we passed one of the mustering points outside the city, where the new recruits were drilling under the experienced eye of my slightly more experienced soldiers.  Helen had seized ultimate power, which meant she could mobilise the entire city for war – and God help anyone who dared defy her – and thousands of young men had flocked to the colours, but it wasn’t all good.  I didn’t have anything like enough training sergeants, let alone an entire infrastructure to support them.  I was doing my best to supervise them, but I was uneasily aware there were all sorts of opportunities for abuse, graft and all the other problems that exploded into the light when an army expanded too far too fast.  It was just a matter of time before something really serious happened, something I’d have to punish harshly to make sure everyone drew the right lessons.  I wasn’t looking forward to it,

And we won’t know how the city-folk will react, when they face the elephant for the first time, I thought, as we neared the factories,  How many will run, when they hear the sound of guns?

“Wait outside,” I ordered.  There was no threat to me inside the factories.  “I’ll be back in a moment.”

Craftsman Amman met me with a sweeping bow as I stepped into his fortress.  I nodded back to him, silently relieved I’d managed to convince him not to prostrate himself before me whenever I entered the room.  I’d saved him and his family from a fate worse than death and I knew he was grateful, but there were limits.  No wonder so many aristocrats were entitled brats, if they grew up with everyone grovelling before them.  My children, if I ever had more children, wouldn’t be allowed to think themselves better than anyone else,  They’d be cleaning their own damned rooms and making their own damned beds.

“My Lord,” Craftsman Amman said.  “Thank you for coming.”

I nodded, impatiently.  I’d freed him and his family and yet he’d stuck with me.  I supposed it spoke well of him, if badly of the world outside.  “Your message said you’d made progress?”

“Of a sort,” Craftsman Amman said.  “Not as much as I had hoped, but progress.”

I kept my face under tight control.  It wouldn’t do to let him think I was disappointed, let alone angry, at the lack of progress.  Craftsman Amman had grown up in a world where satisfying his patron – me – was all-important and failure would be harshly punished, even if it wasn’t his fault.  I was within my legal rights to whip him or toss him onto the streets or do horrible things to his family … I told myself, grimly, that he and everyone else would eventually grow out of those attitudes.  But until then, it was just something I’d have to tolerate.  Besides, it wasn’t as if I’d given him an easy job.

I’d read hundreds of books where the time traveller had invented modern technology in the past, books that had made it seem easy.  Real life was rarely so obliging, even without someone who appeared to have taken all the low-hanging fruit.  I would have killed for a book explaining how things worked – hell, I would happily have worked with one of General Lee’s engineers, if it meant having access to his knowledge and skills.  Railroads, telegraph wires, ironclads …

It hadn’t been easy to design a very basic electric generator.  The army had taught me a lot – the less said about public education the better – but there’d never been any lessons in rebuilding civilisation from scratch,  I’d had a friend who’d been deeply into survivalist dogma and, as much as I hated to admit it, he would probably have done better than me.  The knowledge in my head wasn’t anything like as useful as I’d hoped.  And yet, I had been able to reason out the basics.

Craftsman Amman pointed to the device on his workbench.  “This produces very faint flickers of electric power, My Lord,” he said.  He’d been doubtful when I’d explained the concept to him, even though he’d been one of the first craftsmen to embrace the New Learning when it reached Roxanna.  “But it doesn’t produce a steady stream of current.”

“Not yet,” I said.  It would be years, if not decades, before we could build anything resembling a modern tech base, but we’d get eventually.  “You can flicker a light bulb or send a signal through the wire, right?”

Craftsman Amman looked worried.  “Yes, but …”

I nodded in understanding.  We’d had to invent light bulbs too.  Craftsman Amman had had to resort to sorcery to make the first bulbs work, something that worried me.  My smartphone hadn’t survived whatever had brought me to my new world, which meant … what?  There was magic in the air, literally.  I vaguely recalled some gibberish from Harry Potter about modern tech not working in magical environments.  If the air was saturated with high-energy fields or something along those lines – I was no sorcerer – there might be a hard cap on just how much technology we could develop,  The idea of developing our very own internet might be a non-starter.

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I told myself.

“Share what you’ve developed,” I told him.  “And see who picks up your work and runs with it,”

“My Lord,” Craftsman Amman said.  “The more people who know about this …”

“The more minds working on a given problem, the greater the chance of someone figuring out a solution,” I told him.  I’d told him that before, I was sure, but … I understood, better than I cared to admit.  Trade secrets were the key to a better life, for the craftsman who devised them.  What sort of fool would give away his edge so quickly?  And yet, my mystery counterpart had done that and more.  “You’ll still be in the lead.”

And have first call on everything I remember from Earth, I added, silently.  You really will have an edge.

“I’ll write it up now,” he said.  “And … what do we do about the light bulb?”

“We need to be able to produce a vacuum without magic,” I mused.  It could be done – there was no magic on Earth – but I had no idea how.  “Offer a reward to the craftsman who figures it out, on the usual terms.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Craftsman Amman said, reluctantly.  “I’ll see to it personally.”

“You did well,” I told him.  “I …”

Someone banged on the door.  I cursed, one hand dropping to the flintlock pistol I wore on my belt.  I still missed the modern firearm I’d brought with me, but that was lost somewhere in the countryside.  The sorcerer who had … it unmanned me to even think of what he’d done – had been sitting on a treasure trove and tossed it away, as casually as one as one might discard a cigarette butt.  I rested my hand on the pistol as the door opened, bracing myself.  It was probably bad news.  My bodyguards wouldn’t have let him through unless he was a messenger.

“My Lord!”  The messenger threw himself to the ground.  “I come with …”

“Get to the point,” I growled.  I wasn’t dumb enough to shoot the messenger, literally or figuratively,  Unfortunately, too many local aristocrats thought blaming the messenger for bringing bad news was somehow a good idea.  Idiots.  Bad news didn’t go away if you kicked the messenger in the nuts and threw him out the window.  It just ensured you didn’t get the bad news until it was far too late.  “What happened?”

“My Lord, a envoy has arrived from Warlord Cuthbert,” the messenger said.  “He requested an immediate audience with Her Majesty.  She requests your urgent presence.”

“Understood,” I said.  It wasn’t a short walk from the walls to the palace, but it was better to walk than take a horse.  Too many aristos wouldn’t give a damn who got crushed under their hooves … I shuddered.  There was no way I could allow myself that attitude.  I needed the support of the people and it was terrifyingly easy to lose.  “I’ll be on my way at once.”

I nodded to the craftsman – he was already mentally back at work, trying to solve the problem I’d given him before other minds started to compete – and hurried out, leading my bodyguards in a swift jog through the gates.  The guards checked my credentials – they looked nervous as they did it, but at least they did it – before waving me through.  I made a mental note to commend them as we broke into a run, heading the streets towards the palace.  If I knew Helen, and I did, she’d stall as long as possible.  The aristos might say that any insult to their ambassadors was an insult to them, but the truth was there was nothing we could reasonably offer – including Helen’s hand in marriage, the throne and my head on a pike – that would satisfy the warlords.  War was coming.  Everyone knew it, even the people who normally had their heads firmly buried in the sand.

The stench wafted across my nostrils as we jogged over the bridge and into the palace.  I grimaced.  Helen had put the heads of her enemies on pikes and left them there to rot, a grim reminder of just what had happened to the men who’d killed her father and tried to force her into marriage to a useless fop.  I’d tried to talk her out of it – the rotting heads were breeding grounds for disease – but she’d been adamant.  Helen was a Ruling Queen in a world where women rarely held power in their own right.  She had to make it clear she could be twice as ruthless as any man.

“My Lord.”  Chamberlain Arnett bowed.  “Her Majesty is waiting in the Throne Room.”

I nodded, silently relieved there was no time to change.  I looked like a soldier returning from the wars, not an aristocrat or an officer with more gold braid than brains.  The old court would have been shocked.  The new was more jingoist than the idiots Rhett Butler had scolded for having nothing, but cotton, slaves and arrogance.  I put the thought out of my head as I stepped through the rear curtains and took my place beside Helen, just as the herald announced the envoy’s arrival.  He looked just as I’d expected, an aristocrat wearing his master’s livery.  I didn’t need to look at Helen to feel her bristle.  He was the living representative of everything she hated, of the men who’d constantly humiliated her father and tried to force her into marriage.

The envoy didn’t bow, or prostrate himself.  It was a calculated insult.  Luckily, we’d planned what to do.

I stepped forward, looked him in the eye, and smiled.  “We accept your surrender.”

Chris Hemsworth said it better, I think.  But the effect was much the same.