Archive | August, 2022

OUT NOW – The Prince’s Alliance (The Empire’s Corps XXI)

28 Aug

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Prince Roland was on the verge of winning the war.

Assigned to New Doncaster to train the planet’s armies and lead them into battle, Roland brokered a political compromise that allowed the government to win hearts and minds once the rebels were defeated in the field, then built a formidable military machine that could – and did – push the rebels to the brink of defeat.  But Roland’s success bred hatred and his enemies, seeing him and his loyal troops out on a limb, launched a coup and left Roland stranded deep in enemy territory.

Roland isn’t one to give up.  But, with a government preparing to use desperate measures to obliterate the rebels on one side and a crude alliance of suspicious rebel factions on the other, he must act fact to save the planet …

… Or watch helplessly as the civil war rages on.

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Snippet – The Conjuring Man (The Cunning Man III, a Schooled in Magic spin-off)

19 Aug

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.

Chapter One

“Lady Emily,” Adam said, “is a genius.”

He stood in his workroom, staring down at the collection of notes and spell concepts he’d been given after the end of the siege.  He’d spent the last two weeks going through them, trying to understand how they worked before adapting the concepts to work with the runic tiles and spell circuits he’d devised and he was lost in awe for her work.  And yet, there was something distinctly odd about the notes.  He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was there, something that nagged at his mind.  Something … missing?  He’d asked Master Caleb if he’d extracted papers from the collection, before he’d passed them on to Adam, but Lady Emily’s friend and collaborator had insisted the notes were complete.

And yet, it feels as if she left out the working, Adam mused thoughtfully.  As if she jumped from start to finish without bothering to work through the intermediate steps.

Lilith giggled.  “You’ve been marvelling over those notes for weeks,” she teased, lightly.  “Should I be jealous?”

Adam flushed, looking over at her.  It still baffled him, sometimes, why she was interested in him.  She was beautiful, with long red hair that fell over a heart-shaped face and slender body, and she had magic and connections to boot.  Their relationship felt solid and yet flimsy, as if she’d come to her senses any day and abandon him for someone greater.  It was hard to convince himself otherwise, even though they’d been through hell together.  Arnold – the damned traitor – had come close to killing them and destroying the university twice.  Adam knew it was just a matter of time before the rogue magician reappeared, for a third time.  And who knew what would happen then?

“No,” he said, quickly.  “It’s just that …”

He scowled at the notes.  Lady Emily seemed to have pulled a multitude of concepts out of whole cloth, without going through any developmental stage.  Adam had studied the history of spell design and magical research and he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the final result was always preceded by a multitude of earlier versions that had yet to be perfected.  It held true for steam engines and printing presses and everything else Lady Emily had designed over the last decade – he’d seen the earlier models in the university’s museum – and yet, it didn’t seem to be true for her notes.  It made no sense, not to him.  How had she done it?

“I think her earlier notes never got added to the collection,” he said, finally.  “That’s why there are so many gaps, so many missing pieces of working.”

“Or she didn’t need it,” Lilith countered.  “Quite a few wizards don’t bother to write down details they consider obvious, just to make life harder for anyone who steals their notes.”

Adam wasn’t so sure.  It was true a great many points were never written down, particularly in a sorcerer’s private spellbooks, but anyone who wanted their work to spread to the rest of the magical community had to document and detail everything, from the cauldron volume to the hand motions they made while casting spells.  A powerful sorcerer might be able to skip a few steps, by using his magic to fill in the missing places, but there was no way the caster could write down such a spell and expect others to duplicate it.  He felt a twinge of the old envy, the bitterness and resentment he’d tried to bury for so long.  The task before him would have been so much easier if he’d had magic of his own, rather than borrowed background magic.  And yet, he knew he’d done something new.

“Perhaps,” he agreed.  “It’s clear she thought she’d need a nexus point for some of her spells.”

He smiled to himself.  It had taken weeks to take the runic tiles from a paper concept to something actually workable, and there was still a great deal of research and experimentation to do, but the results were undeniable.  He’d cast spells without magic of his own.  They’d had to adapt the spells to work with the tiles and circuits – a difficult task, even for a trained sorcerer – and not every spell had worked perfectly, but they’d worked.  The world had changed and he’d been the one who’d changed it and … his lips quirked into a smile.  He thought he knew, now, how Lady Emily had felt when her innovations had taken off.  And yet part of him wanted to keep the whole concept to himself.

Too late now, he told himself.  We need the runic tiles to survive.

The thought haunted him.  The university had been lucky to survive the siege.  The enemy army might have been destroyed by the firestorm – the handful of survivors had fled into the desert before the university’s defenders could give chase – but King Ephialtes was unlikely to give up so easily.  His sister was still in the university, still trying to promote herself as an alternative monarch for their kingdom.  Adam had no idea how it would work itself out, but he’d met enough aristos in the last few months to know they were stubborn, stiff-necked and reluctant to concede defeat until they were battered into submission.  They were just too entitled, too convinced of their own right to rule …

He pushed the thought out of his mind as he returned to the spell circuits and started to carve out a new set of runic tiles.  The basic concept had been worked out weeks ago – first on paper and then in the workshops – but the craftsmen needed it as refined as possible before they put them to work.  Adam was thrilled to be part of the airship project and yet … he shook his head.  He didn’t need the glory of flying the airship for the first time.  He’d already flown a hot air balloon over enemy lines, evading their sentries with causal ease.  He could fly on the airship later, when the kinks had been worked out.

And if these runes don’t work properly, the airship won’t survive its first flight, he thought, pushing the next set of carvings into place.  A lone sorcerer will blow it out of the sky with a single fireball.

“Everything has to be flat,” Lilith muttered, a hint of irritation in her voice.  “Why doesn’t it work in three dimensions?”

Adam nodded in understanding.  Lady Emily had drawn on a nexus point.  She’d had enough raw power to force her spellwork into existence, then keep it in place.  They didn’t.  There was a nexus point below their feet, a pulsing source of magic that powered the wards running through the university, but they dared not become dependent on it.  Their spell circuits wouldn’t work outside the walls, if they did.  It was possible to draw on the nexus point through a pair of interlinked chat parchments, but even that had its limits.  Adam wanted – needed – his runic structures to be as independent as possible.

“She probably intended to streamline the concept, once she had the spellwork worked out,” Adam said.  The first printing presses had been crude, to say the least, but the later versions had been much more elegant – and reliable.  “She just never had the chance.”

There was a tap on the door.  Adam looked up, sharply.  There was no one who should be disturbing them.  The university staff had too much else to do, while Taffy – the third of their trio – was working with her fellow craftsmen, trying to get the airship ready for flight before something else happened.  Or working on newer and better weapons.  The university’s sole advantage was the simple fact it was a hotbed of innovation, with magicians and craftsmen constantly looking for newer and better ways to do things.  Adam had no illusions about what would happen if the flow of innovations came to a stop.  The kingdoms and other reactionaries would crush the university through sheer weight of numbers.  It would be the end of everything.

Lilith scowled, her lips thinning. “Come in!”

The door opened.  Jasper stepped into the room. Adam gritted his teeth, feeling a twinge of unease that threatened to unman him.  Jasper was slight, by Beneficence’s standards – he looked more like a scribe or an accountant than a docksman – but he had magic.  He had more power in his little finger than Adam had in his entire body, power enough to stop Adam in his tracks or strip him of his free will or even turn him into a toad – or worse.  Adam glanced down at the spell circuits, hastily plotting how to use them to defend himself.  It would be chancy, but the only alternative was letting Lilith defend him.  And that would make him a laughing stock.

But I did punch Jasper in the nose, after depowering him, Adam recalled.  I’m not as helpless as he thinks.

Lilith scowled.  “Jasper,” she said, stiffly.  “What do you want?”

“Your father requests your urgent presence,” Jasper said, sardonically.  “Yesterday, really.”

“And he sent you with the message?”  Lilith didn’t sound impressed.  “Why?”

Jasper’s face darkened.  “I was waiting outside the council chambers,” he said.  “He volunteered me for the job.”

Adam tried not to smile.  Jasper’s position was a little vague – too many of the older magicians were working to defend the university, rather than tutoring their students and apprentices – but it still had to gall him that he’d been turned into a messenger boy.  It was strange to reflect Jasper was actually a weak magician, one who’d only come to the university because it was the only real option he had.  And yet … Adam shivered, recalling how Jasper had taken his resentment out on him.  Adam was no brawler, no apprentice who delighted in assembling his friends and picking fights with other apprentices, but breaking Jasper’s nose had felt so good.  The magician had needed to be knocked down a peg or two before it was too late.

Lilith stood.  “I’ll be back in a moment,” she said, sourly.  Her relationship with her father was terse, particularly after she’d started dating Adam.  Adam didn’t pretend to understand why Master Dagon had approved of their relationship, then changed his mind shortly afterwards.  “If you finish the tiles before I come back, take them down to the airship.”

Adam nodded, trying not to stare as she hurried out the door.  Her dress clung to her in all the right places … he calmed himself with an effort, reminding himself he wasn’t alone.  Jasper wasn’t making any move to leave … Adam gritted his teeth, bracing himself for trouble.  He had, in theory, the authority to order Jasper to go.  But in practice, giving an order he couldn’t enforce was asking for trouble …

Jasper eyed Adam, thoughtfully.  Adam thought he saw a twinge of uncertainty in the other boy’s eyes.  When they’d first met, Adam had been nothing more than a powerless mundane with delusions he could become a magician.  A great deal had changed since then, from magic-draining potion to runic tiles a mundane could use to cast spells.  Jasper had to be just a little unsure of himself, Adam reasoned.  He knew what a normal magician could do, and mundanes were powerless against him, but Adam …?  Who knew what Adam could do?

“I don’t know what she sees in you,” Jasper said, finally.  “Why does she want you when she could have anyone she wants?”

Adam kept his face under tight control.  The question baffled him too, sometimes, but he was damned if he was discussing it with Jasper.  Or anyone, really.

He kept his voice calm.  “What do you want?”

“I’m curious,” Jasper said, his voice artfully innocent.  “What does she see in you?”

Adam felt a twinge of irritation.  “What possible business is it of yours?”

“A magician has the obligation to look out for other magicians, particularly when they are on the verge of making mistakes that will drag their reputation through the mire,” Jasper said.  “As a son of House Karut …”

“You’re not a son of anything,” Adam charged.  He wasn’t sure that was true, but Jasper was getting on his nerves.  “You’re a newborn magician.”

Jasper’s face darkened.  “How dare you?”

“Easily.”  Adam met Jasper’s eyes, silently daring him to throw the first hex.  It would be the last – Adam was effectively defenceless – but Jasper didn’t know it.  His uncertainty might keep him from testing the waters.  “I have to get back to work.  Say your piece and get out.”

“You have no magic of your own,” Jasper said, waving a hand at the tiles on the workbench.  “You’re just playing with toys.”

“They’re not toys,” Adam snapped, stung.  “And Lilith understands that better than anyone.”

Jasper leaned forward.  “Toys,” he repeated.  “You’re little better than a conjurer.”

Adam felt a hot flash of anger.  Conjurer was not a compliment.  Conjurers were the lowest form of magician, barely equal to hedge witches and a great deal less useful.  They had limited magic, so limited that half of their spellcasting was little more than sleight of hand and con artistry – and couldn’t do anything with their lives, beyond showing off their talents on the streets.  To compare him to a conjurer …

“These toys, as you call them, have already changed the world,” he snarled.  “Or have you forgotten how I broke your nose?”

“Trickery.”  Jasper’s lips twisted into a fake smile.  “I can counter your gas” – he snickered loudly – “easily, now I know what to expect.  That trick won’t work twice.”

“I have other tricks,” Adam said.  He forced as much confidence into his voice as he could.  “Do you want to find out what they are?”

Jasper shrugged.  “Do you think your tricks make you my equal?”

Adam knew better, but he couldn’t resist.  “I think I would have to fall a long way before I became your equal.”

“We’ll see.”  Jasper leaned forward, resting his hands on the workbench.  Adam stood his ground.  “Would you like a place a bet on it?”

“No,” Adam said, curtly.

“Really?”  Jasper smirked.  “Here’s the bet.  We duel, you and I.  Winner gets Lilith’s hand.”

Adam blinked.  “What?”

“If you win, I won’t say another word about your relationship,” Jasper said.  “I’ll even shut down the magicians who are gossiping about you and her, suggesting there’s something … unnatural about your relationship.  You know they’re talking about you.  And her.  Someone is going to do something dumb soon, unless it gets nipped in the bud.  You need me on your side.”

He smiled, nastily.  “And if I win, you ditch her so I can make suit for her hand.  How does that sound?”

Adam had to fight to keep his emotions under tight control.  He knew boys had fought for girls on the streets of Beneficence, but it had never happened to him.  He’d never had a girl, let alone one someone else wanted.  He wasn’t even sure if the winner got the girl.  Here … he found himself utterly unsure of where he stood.  Did magicians fight for girls?  He didn’t know.  He wanted to tell Jasper to get lost, to take his challenge and stick it where the sun didn’t shine, but his stubborn pride refused to let him.  He couldn’t back down.  He just couldn’t.

“Charming,” he said, with heavy sarcasm.  He reached for the runic tiles and pushed them into place.  “Do your worst.”

Jasper darted backwards – clearly expecting Adam to punch him in the nose, again – and raised his hand to cast a spell.  Eldritch light shimmered around his fingertips, flashed out at Adam … and disintegrated into a shower of sparks when it reached the spell circuits.  Jasper gaped, then cast another spell.  It failed just as quickly as the first.

“Toys, you say?”  Adam kept a wary eye on the runic tiles.  The magic was supposed to be absorbed into the spellwork, or dispelled into the surrounding air if it was too great to subsume without overloading the tiles, but the concept hadn’t been tested in an enclosed space.  The magic might contaminate everything in the workroom.  “Your magic is useless now, and all because of my toys!”

Jasper paled.  “Impossible.”

“You saw it happen.  Twice.”  Adam came around the table, careful not to step too far from the tiles.  “The duel is over.  You lost.”

“You didn’t best me,” Jasper snarled.  “You just … cheated.”

Adam felt a hot flash of disgust.  “And what do you call it when you use magic to overpower a mundane, who can no more defend himself against you than a mouse can fight a hawk?”

“That’s different,” Jasper protested.


“Is it?”  Adam clenched his fists.  “At least a real duellist would offer his opponent a choice of weapons, so they fight on equal terms.  You didn’t even have the nerve to do that, you …”

He bit off his words before he accused Jasper of being a coward.  Jasper would never forgive him for that.  He had no idea if the tiles would be able to cope, if Jasper started hurling spell after spell, or if he’d have the sense to use magic to throw something solid at Adam instead …

“I won,” he said.  “Keep your word.”

“She doesn’t really like you,” Jasper snarled.  “And you cheated.  You …”

He shrank, his head and body morphing into a brown furry mass.  Adam barely had a second to realise what was happening before his own vision twisted, the floor coming up towards him at terrifying speed.  His body was changing … he caught a glimpse of fur sprouting on his hands before he squeezed his eyes shut, all too aware someone had cast a spell on him … on both of them.  It should have been impossible, unless …

His eyes snapped open.  The room was suddenly huge, the workbenches and chairs towering over him like apartment blocks looming over the streets.  A rat – another rat – quivered on the floor, right in front of him.  Jasper, part of Adam’s mind noted.  And behind him … he knew, even before he turned his head, who was standing in the doorway.  They’d been so wrapped up in their argument that they hadn’t realised someone had opened the door.

Lilith’s voice was cold, very cold.  “I am not a prize to be won.”

Queenmaker 4

11 Aug

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Chapter Four

I was well used, by this time, to odd looks as I walked from the palace to my mansion.

It baffled me.  The distance between the two wasn’t that great.  It wasn’t as if I was trying to walk from New York to San Francisco.  But they still seemed to expect me to ride on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, rather than sully my feet with walking.  It was just absurd.

Fallon walked beside me, her dark eyes grim.  I suspected she wanted to say something, but wouldn’t – couldn’t – until we reached the mansion.  I felt a twinge of disquiet I didn’t want to look at too closely, after Helen’s words.  Fallon and I were lovers and … did I want to marry her?  I wasn’t sure.  My last marriage had ended badly and I dreaded to think what’ll have happened if I’d stayed in my own world.  Would Cleo have kept the kids from me, while demanding two-thirds of my paycheck?  Or would she have calmed down and come to more reasonable terms?  I didn’t know – and I knew I never would.  My kids were on the wrong side of the dimensional divide and I would never see them again.

I kept my eyes open as we passed through the crowd.  Hundreds of people – merchants and traders, soldiers and craftsmen, aristos and commoners – thronged the streets, some trying to make deals with the queen and her representatives, others trying to make plans for a future that might or might not include a powerful monarchy.  I knew hundreds more had fled – or been ordered to head to the enemy camps by their families – in hopes of making sure their world survived, no matter who won the war.  I kept a wary eye on the latter.  I understood their thinking better than they knew and yet neither I nor Helen could trust them.  They would switch sides the moment a clear winner emerged.

Fallon nudged my arm.  “There’s more of them,” she said, nodding towards a black-clad trio standing by the side of the road.  “How many of them are there?”

I frowned as I saw the Black Roses.  Queen Helen’s men were on the streets … and doing surprisingly little.  They weren’t directing traffic or stopping and searching passers-by or even harassing anyone who looked wealthy enough to draw their eye without being powerful enough to take revenge.  It was odd, in my experience.  The trick to taking control of a city was to make it clear that you were in charge, by making sure everyone was aware of your presence, while not tolerating any rivals.  Helen’s men simply were.

My lips thinned.  Helen’s decision to trust Lord Jacob was either genius or madness and I didn’t know which.  Not yet.  Could he be trusted, on the grounds blood was thicker than water?  Or would his resentment lead him into dangerous waters?  I wished I knew more about their relationship.  Lord Jacob could have been legitimised at any moment, if his father had been willing to take the risk of putting his daughter aside.  Why hadn’t he?  It was, to the locals, the obvious question.  Lord Jacob had the advantage of being male in a society that didn’t think women could rule.

The thought nagged at me as I reached the mansion and stepped through the gates.  The guards nodded to us, keeping their eyes on the crowd.  I hid my amusement with the ease of long practice.  It had taken weeks to convince them they didn’t need to bow and scrape in front of me, certainly not when it would distract them from their duties.  I was no newly-promoted junior officer who needed validation, nor was I am aristrocrat who got my jollies from everyone grovelling in front of me.  And besides, I was uneasily aware the warlords wanted me dead.  There had already been attempts to assassinate me.  One had come so close to success I knew I’d escaped through sheer dumb luck.

Chance and careful planning, I thought, as we entered the mansion.  More of one than the other.

My lips quirked.  Sigmund, my old Castellan, would be utterly horrified if he could see the mansion now.  The great chambers and ballrooms had been converted into offices and workshops, the gardens outside had been repurposed as training fields … hundreds and thousands of people, mainly commoners and soldiers, came and went every day, none of them even bothering to take off their shoes and show proper respect to the master of the house.  The noise wasn’t that loud, but it was impossible to ignore.  Sigmund … my heart twisted, recalling how the old man had betrayed me.  I’d sent him into exile, rather than killing him with my own hands or sending him to the block.  I still didn’t know if I’d done the right thing or not …

“We’ll go to the office,” I said.  “Coming?”

The din slowly died away as we climbed to the uppermost floor.  I’d thrown some of the bedrooms open to my officers and staff, although a certain degree of paranoia had led me to rotate sleeping arrangements for my men.  If something happened to the mansion … the walls were strong, and there were powerful wards worked into the stone, but I was uneasily aware the defences were far from invulnerable.  I dared not give the enemy a chance to kill our entire command staff in a single blow.  It would be utterly disastrous.

“Violet wants to talk to you,” Fallon said.  I followed her gaze to where the former street urchin was lurking, looking out of place despite trading her rages for middle-class garb.  “Can we talk first?”

“Yeah.”  I motioned to Violet to wait, trusting her to speak up if it was truly urgent, then led the way into my office.  “It’s been a long day.”

Fallon said nothing as I poured us both glasses of water and passed one to her.  I frowned inwardly – clearly, something was bothering her – and sat on a comfortable armchair, rather than the sofa.  She would tell me, in her own good time.  I sipped my water and waited, feeling a strange twinge of unreality as my eyes traversed the office.  I’d done what I could to make it a more comfortable place to work – it had been so richly decorated, months ago, that it could have passed for a high-class hotel – but it still felt unreal.  I intended to make sure the new military headquarters, when we had a moment to build it, would look a great deal more functional, rather than being designed to cater to the warlord’s ego.  I’d felt my ego get worse when I’d taken the old chair – it had looked like a throne – and I’d known better than to let the feeling convince me of anything.  Even now, I could lose everything in the blink of an eye.

And besides, we sold the artworks and made enough money to raise more regiments, I thought, sourly.  Comic opera militaries never lasted long when they faced an enemy that put military efficiency ahead of appearance.  If we lose the war, we’ll be lucky if we are merely tortured to death …

Fallon took a breath.  “I … the magicians are coming along,” she said.  I was as blind as the average man to a girl’s true feelings and yet even I knew she was dancing around the real problem.  “We should be ready to coordinate the regiments as they take the offensive.”

I nodded, almost relieved she was focusing on business even though it was a delaying tactic.  It would be years, at best, before we developed working radios, let alone force trackers and everything else we’d used to coordinate modern armies in the field – micromanage, part of my mind added darkly – but magic could fill the gap.  Sort of.  It was crude compared to the old radio net, and I didn’t pretend to understand the limitations, but it was so much better than anything the locals had had before I’d arrived everyone was delighted.  And yet, it was a grim reminder there were parts of my new world that would forever be a closed book.  Magic was dangerously unpredictable.  If a powerful magician joined the war …

Fallon is one of the weakest magicians in the world and yet she can turn you into a frog with a snap of her fingers, my thoughts reminded me.  What can a full-fledged sorcerer do?

“That’s good,” I said.  I met her eyes, trying to be reassuring.  “What do you really want to discuss?”

She swallowed, visibly.  My heart sank.  It was going to be bad.

“I …”  Fallon stopped and swallowed again.  “Elliot, I’m pregnant.”

I stared.  For a moment, my brain refused to accept what it heard.  “What?”

“I’m pregnant,” Fallon repeated.  Her lips twisted into a bitter smile.  “It’s your fault.”

I … I had no words.  She could have punched me in the face and I would have been less surprised.  I’d assumed I couldn’t have more children … stupid, in hindsight.  I was only in my forties and I knew aristos who were still having children well into their sixties.  Sure, Helen might have a deadline, a point beyond which she couldn’t have children of her body, but I didn’t.  I was as fit and healthy as any man in the new world and … and I knew I could have kids.  I already had two …

My mouth seemed to speak without my brain’s input.  “I thought you were taking care of it.”

Fallon looked down.  “I thought I was too.”

“Oh,” I said.  “And …”

I forced myself to think.  It was vanishingly rare for a properly brought up young woman in Johor to have sex outside marriage, unless she was a magician.  The unspoken rules were clear – and as misogynistic as they came.  A woman’s virginity was one of her most prized assets – to herself and to her family – and if she lost it, even through rape, she would be disgraced.  Bastards.  No one chooses to be raped.  And yet, the rules didn’t apply to magicians.  I had no idea if it was because magicians could cast contraceptive spells or simple fear of what a witch might do, if she was subjected to a torrent of misogynistic invective, but it didn’t matter.  I’d assumed Fallon could keep herself from falling pregnant.  And I was wrong.

Oh, the nasty part of my mind whispered.  And are you sure she didn’t set out to get pregnant to lure you into marriage?

I told that part of me to shut up.  Fallon wasn’t Cleo.  She wasn’t … she wasn’t so dependent on me she’d do something incredibly risky, not when we couldn’t be sure we’d get married and live together.  I was a powerful nobleman and my marriage was a matter of state … something else, I reflected ruefully, I had trouble accepting.  Fallon could end up cast aside if she miscalculated, for all she was a magician.  And our child might end up like Jon Snow.  I still wondered why he hadn’t simply walked away from his bitch of a stepmother.  Being pissed at your husband for cheating on you was understandable, but taking it out on the bastard child was unforgivable.

And yet … my mind spun.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about her.  I wasn’t sure how she felt about me.  Did she have feelings for me?  Or had she come with me because she saw a chance to ride my coattails to glory?  Or … I told that part of me to shut up too.  I was going to become a father, again.  I’d sworn to myself I wouldn’t become my father – the bastard had abandoned his children – and I meant it.  I hadn’t left my older children – not willingly – and I wasn’t going to leave this one too.

I took a breath.  “Are you sure?”

Fallon nodded, without looking up.  “I was late,” she said, without going into detail.  “I … I cast a spell to check, then went to the healer.  She confirmed I was pregnant.”

“Oh.”  I needed time to come to terms with the sudden change.  I knew I wasn’t going to get it.  My thoughts were a mess.  I’d put down roots and yet, part of me was afraid to put down more.  If I was trapped in the city … I told myself, angrily, I wasn’t trapped.  There was no reason I couldn’t leave, taking my wife and child with me.  I’d been careful to put some money aside for emergencies, just in case.  “I … how long?”

“The healer said I was about six weeks pregnant,” Fallon said.  “It must have been …”

Her skin darkened.  I flushed, grateful – again – that my complexion hid it.  If she’d conceived the very first time … it felt unbelievable and yet I knew better.  My mother had made it clear to me, when we’d had the talk, that unprotected sex could – and perhaps would – lead to pregnancy, even if it was the very first time.  Fallon was in the prime of life.  There was no reason she couldn’t get pregnant.  And she had …

I wondered, suddenly, what her family would think of it.  They hadn’t been able to pay for her magical education.  The best thing they could have done for her, back in Damansara, was arrange a good match to another merchant, someone who wanted an intelligent and educated wife to help grow his business.  It was sickening to me and yet, it was just a reality of life in my new world.  A woman on her own was dangerously vulnerable. 

That will change, I told myself.  The influx of new ideas and technology would reshape the entire world, no matter what the warlords tried to stop it.  And the next generation will know freedom.

I put that thought aside, then reached for her.  She had to be wondering what I intended to do.  Would I accept the child – accept her – or pretend she was just my mistress and the child had been fathered by someone else or … or what?  I knew officers in my ranks who’d arranged for their mistresses to marry their junior officers, to put a veneer of legitimacy on their bastard children.  I didn’t pretend to understand why anyone would go along with such a scheme, particularly when everyone already knew what was happening even if they claimed otherwise.  There had to be limits, surely?  I’d bitched and moaned about my former commanding officers – some of whom had been time-servers, others dangerously unaware of the realities of modern war – and none of them had ever done anything like that!  And if they’d tried, their court martial would be the shortest formality on record …

“Fallon,” I managed.  “Will you marry me?”

I wondered, suddenly, what I’d do if she said no.  She had to be thinking it.  She wasn’t completely without options, far from it.  She had magic … she didn’t need to marry a man technically old enough to be her father.  If she said no … I tried not to think about the possibilities.  The child was mine.  I would be a part of his – or her – life and that was all there was to it. 

She look up at me, her eyes bright with tears.  “Do you … do you want to marry me?”

My heart twisted.  She knew the realities of the world at a very primal level.  They were part of her life … I told myself, savagely, that they were part of mine too.  I wasn’t the American solider deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else now, not the person who did a tour of duty in a poor and wartorn country before shaking the sand out of my boots and going back home to the real world.  I wasn’t even an immigrant who could concede defeat and go back home.  Back on Earth, I’d been detached from the locals while I was on deployment.  Here … I wasn’t.  And it was high time I accepted it.

“Yes,” I said, simply.  It wasn’t even a lie.  Fallon was beautiful and intelligent and she had magic, all of which made her an asset to an up and coming nobleman.  She might not have the birth for one of my exulted rank … but neither did I! The very thought was absurd.  I doubted the aristocracy, or what remained of it, would be throwing their daughters at me.  “I do.”

I took a breath.  “I’ll make the arrangements at once,” I added.  I wasn’t sure how the locals would react, when someone counted backwards and worked out I’d impregnated Fallon before marrying her, but there was no point in taking chances.  “If you stay here as my Castellan …”

“No.”  Fallon met my eyes, evenly.  “I’m coming with you.”

“The child …”

“Will be perfectly safe,” Fallon said.  Her tone brooked no argument.  “Besides, you have to meet my parents.  Properly.”

“You have to take care,” I insisted.  I wasn’t sure what to say.  “Going into battle could …”

“I will be perfectly safe,” Fallon said.  “I have faith in you.  And the army.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  The army might be the most powerful and capable force on the planet, at least as far as the locals were concerned, but to me it was dangerously ramshackle.  We’d expanded, and then expanded again, and expanded again after that … there were too many soldiers with too little training, very few of whom had seen any kind of fighting.  If my army had been armed with modern weapons and sent to battle a USMC company, the jarheads would have scattered us in short order.  I dreaded to think what would happen if the warlords, who had no qualms about hiring mercenaries, managed to catch us by surprise.  There were limits to how far we could train the men before the shit hit the fan.

“I hope you’re right,” I said, reluctantly.  Legally, once we were married, I could command her to stay behind.  Practically, even trying would destroy our marriage before we even tied the knot.  “Be careful.”

“I will.”  Fallon managed a smile.  “And now you’d better go see what Violet wants.”

I stood and bowed.  “Yes, My Lady.”

Book Review: Stalin’s War

10 Aug

Stalin’s War

-Sean McMeekin

Adolf Hitler dominates discussion of the villains of WW2 for obvious reasons, ranging from the simple fact that it was Hitler who unleashed the war and empowered most of the other villains to a lack of competition.  Mussolini is often taken as a figure of fun, a comic opera bad guy rather than an outright monster (which is far kinder than the original fascist deserves), while Japan never had a dictator who ruled in a similar manner.  Indeed, discussion is so often focused on Hitler that it tends to undermine aspects of the war that had very little to do with him.  The tensions that led to the Pacific War, for example, existed prior to Hitler’s rise to power and would have continued to exist even if some kindly soul had assassinated Hitler before he could start the war.  Worse, it tends to obscure the role of others in starting, fighting and eventually winning the war. 

Sean McMeekin attempts to address this issue by focusing his revisionist history of the war on Stalin and the USSR, rather than Hitler, Mussolini and the westerners who tried in vain to stop him.  It presents a picture of the communists manipulating their way into repudiating the debts owed by Tsarist Russia, then Stalin doing his level best to encourage the Germans, French and British to go to war in 1939, first by diplomatically hinting at Russian involvement on the West’s side and then by acting as Hitler’s de facto military ally during the invasion of Poland, ensuring the Nazis would have no choice but to continue the war against the British and French.  Stalin spent the Phony War, in this telling, securing Russia’s borders and discovering, just in time, the limits of Russian military power by invading Finland.  It was a period of distrust on all sides, with the Allies planning war against the USSR (which would likely have been ineffective, at best) and the Germans intending their own invasion once the Western Allies had been crushed.

Stalin expected Hitler’s invasion of France would bog down.  It was a surprise, to him, when France fell quickly and Britain was effectively chased off the continent.  Stalin seems to have been preparing for war – the book does dismiss the prospects of Russia striking first – but the sheer power of the German military shocked him.  The Russians found themselves tied to Germany while, at the same time, aware Hitler might invade at any moment.  Stalin adopted a policy of both appeasing the Germans while trying to solidify Russia’s position and build up his defences, although there was a lack of serious planning. The Russian forces defending the western borders were primed neither to stand on the defensive nor take the offensive.

The war changed again when Hitler invaded Germany in 1941.  Stalin was quick to ally with the British and Americans, and took them for everything he could get.  Both powers appear to have been wilfully blind to the sheer scale of Russian demands, from short-term supplies to information and technology that would allow the Russians to compete with the Americans after the war.  They also made no attempt to use their colossal leverage over the Russians to push them to concede Polish independence (the author notes, sourly, that the Allies went to war to save Poland from a monster and ended the war with Poland belonging to a different monster) or even to demand the Russians treat British and American POWs decently and send them home.  Stalin’s double-dealing seems to have even extended to Japan, maintaining friendly relationships that might have benefitted the USSR, but the US could and should have regarded as treachery. 

Indeed, as the book goes on, it becomes more and more of a tirade against the fools in Britain and America who allowed it to happen.  The US State Department appears to have been riddled through with Russian spies and sympathisers, while FDR appears to have thought he could do business with Stalin and that their personal connection would override any short-term differences between the two.  The genteel FDR was no match for the gangster Stalin and it showed, even when there was clear proof of Stalin’s perfidy.  Churchill appears to have been somewhat more aware of the risks of dealing with the devil, but Britain’s power was on the wane and there was little he could do.

It is hard to know how seriously to take this.  A more charitable interpretation of the matter would note that Russia was desperately needed to wear down German power before the Western Allies landed in Europe and this was true.  From a cold-blooded point of view, fighting the war to the last Russian wouldn’t have been a bad idea.  There was also a risk that Stalin would come to terms with Hitler at some point, although – given the sheer horror of the Nazi regime – it is unlikely that any peace would last.  Stalin had certainly learnt his lesson about trusting Hitler!

The book does note that leverage existed, perhaps more than was appreciated at the time.  The Russians might have worked hard to downplay or outright deny the importance of lend-lease, but it was vitally important to keep the Russians in the field.  Indeed, the scale of ‘borrowing’ from the US was so great a cut-off would likely have had long-term effects on the Russians … although a cut-off that actually helped the Germans to win would have been disastrous.

Matters came to a head as the tide of war turned against Hitler once and for all, and Stalin showed his true colours.  Nationalist governments (in exile) and partisans were slandered and suppressed.  Communist puppet governments and militaries were installed, starting a brutal struggle that was little-known until after the end of the Cold War.  (Ironically, the Polish Communists proved to be more patriotic than Communist, at least at first, and a surprising number deserted to join various independent Polish forces.)  The West discovered, too late, that it had defeated one foe only to empower another, who’d trapped Eastern Europe in an iron curtain.  Worse, it had promoted the new foe so well it was hard to convince their populations that Communism was evil and Stalin a monster fully comparable to Adolf Hitler.  This touching and misplaced faith in the USSR would go on to blight efforts to contain Stalin and his successors until the USSR collapsed under its own weight. 

On the surface, Stalin’s War does provide a new and worthwhile insight into how Russia’s brooding presence shaped the course of the war even before Operation Barbarossa.  It is undeniable that Stalin worked hard to benefit from Germany’s early victories – before realising he’d empowered a monster himself – and that the geopolitics of Eastern Europe and the Balkans made it hard for the Russians to stand against Germany even if they’d wished to join Britain and France.  Poland and the other Eastern Europeans had excellent historical reasons to fear Russian troops on their soil – and, as 1945 makes clear, they were right to fear.

Stalin’s War also discusses Stalin’s limits as a war leader.  His was the sole will driving the USSR in 1941, yet he didn’t make reasonable defensive preparations (for example, using light forces to hold Eastern Europe and force the Germans to cross hundreds of miles before reaching the real defences) or take seriously reports of German movements in the hours before Barbarossa.  He purged commanders who’d had no time to learn their trade, then penalised common soldiers for daring to be taken captive.  He made many good decisions – staying in Moscow – and he learnt from his mistakes, but he also got very lucky.  If Hitler had been less ruthless, and his treatment of the USSR’s population a little kinder, the war might have gone the other way.

It also indicts the British and American politicians and diplomats who thought they could make nice with Stalin, even regard him as a trustworthy ally rather than the opportunist gangster he was.  Stalin didn’t have grand dreams of conquering the world – unlike Hitler – but he had few qualms about taking whatever he could get, either through force or seduction.  There was more than enough proof of his true character for people to notice, as well as enough leverage to make it possible to demand real concessions in exchange for goods and weapons.  The book also reminds us that distant staffers rarely understand the facts on the ground, which undermines faith in Western advice when the advice is literally suicidal.  (For example, pushing the Chinese Nationalists to accept Communists into their government, something that proved beyond dispute to the Nationalists that America was at best ignorant and at worst openly malicious.) 

That said, at times the book turns into a screed against the wilfully blind that reminds me of the belief in right-wing circles that the US State Department is a greater menace to the United States than Al Qaeda/Islamic State.  There is a lot of truth in this – there were communist sympathisers and even outright spies and agents at the time, as well as careerists who pride themselves on knowing foreign countries when they never stepped outside the embassy and government buildings (if they ever visited at all) – but it does tend to exclude the simple fact the Western Allies needed the USSR and that meant a certain degree of, metaphorically speaking, holding their nose when they dealt with Stalin. 

It also credits Stalin with being a little too manipulative to be true, although it does make clear that Stalin’s plans fell off the rails in 1940, after France was crushed swiftly and brutally by the Germans.  He was far from alone in believing the war would last much longer, or in suspecting Britain would concede defeat and make peace with Germany in 1940 (a belief also shared by Mussolini).  Later, the book credits him with pushing the ‘unconditional surrender’ policy to ensure Germany couldn’t come to terms with the Western Allies and even ensuring – somehow – that Germany made one last throw of the dice in launching the Battle of the Bulge.

It is difficult to know how seriously to take this section, although it is clear that Stalin did manage to keep Britain and America as his allies despite an ever-growing number of red flags.  Stalin wasn’t the only one pushing for unconditional surrender after 1919 and it is absurd to suggest otherwise, although – as the book notes – it made it harder to deal with anti-Hitler factions within Nazi Germany.  This may have suited Stalin, but it also suited his allies.  The logic behind the Battle of the Bulge had little to do with Stalin – Hitler could no longer hope for a strategic victory in the East, yet if he could pull one off in the West …  The operation failed, of course, and failure is always an orphan, but the plan wasn’t as senseless as it seems. 

But this is, in a sense, the true danger of a man like Stalin.  They don’t have grandiose plans that fall apart when they meet reality.  Instead, they take advantage of situations as they develop and work to ensure matters work out to their satisfaction.  Given opportunities to take land or money or power for themselves, they do so.  And they disguise their gangster-like acquisitive natures behind a facade of gentle bonhomie, a friendly attitude that seems to render all their horrors moot, but is really nothing more than the smile on the face of the tiger.  It is also too easy to forget the danger when someone is flattering you, until it is too late.

Overall, Stalin’s War is a very interesting read.  How convincing you’ll find it, though, is a different matter.  The writing slowly becomes a screed against Stalin and those who empowered him and does it, at least in part, by attributing near-supernatural powers to him or crediting him with brilliant insights which may well have been just coincidence.  In doing so, it undermines its own case.  It also relies too much on a deluge of facts and figures – often repeated, like the T-34 being built partly with American technology – that hamper understanding and obscure the main point.

But in a world where gangster politics are on the rise, it is probably a very important book.  Just read with care.

Prospective Themes for future FS Books

9 Aug

This is a set of planned themes for future Fantastic Schools anthologies – as of writing, we don’t know when each of these will be announced, let alone published, but it should give you some idea of what’s coming (and what you can write towards, if you want to.)  Generalist submissions are welcome at any time <grin>.

Fantastic School Sports – sports-themed stories.

Fantastic School Bullies – stories about bullies getting their comeuppances

Fantastic School Isekai – stories in which a person hops into a school in another world.

Fantastic School Outsiders – stories featuring people who interact with the school in some way, but not students.

Fantastic School Staff – staff-based stories.

Fantastic School Wars – military training/war/battles centred stories.

Fantastic Schools Parents – parental involvement

Fantastic Schools Familiars – stories focused on animal companions and suchlike.

OUT NOW – The Prince’s Alliance (The Empire’s Corps XXI)

7 Aug

OUT NOW – REVIEWS AND SHARES WELCOME!

Prince Roland was on the verge of winning the war.

Assigned to New Doncaster to train the planet’s armies and lead them into battle, Roland brokered a political compromise that allowed the government to win hearts and minds once the rebels were defeated in the field, then built a formidable military machine that could – and did – push the rebels to the brink of defeat.  But Roland’s success bred hatred and his enemies, seeing him and his loyal troops out on a limb, launched a coup and left Roland stranded deep in enemy territory.

Roland isn’t one to give up.  But, with a government preparing to use desperate measures to obliterate the rebels on one side and a crude alliance of suspicious rebel factions on the other, he must act fact to save the planet …

… Or watch helplessly as the civil war rages on.

Read a FREE SAMPLE (I’ll put an RTF on the blog when I get home next week), then download from the links below!

Amazon

Amazon UK

Amazon Universal Link

Books2Read (More Bookshops on the Way)

Queenmaker 3

1 Aug

Comments?

Chapter Three

It was a source of some relief to me, and more so to Helen, that the old councillors had blotted their copybooks so thoroughly during the coup.  If her father had died naturally, she would have been obliged to keep them on as her advisors even though she knew their advice was almost always worse than useless.  Instead, they’d either taken part in the plot or done nothing to oppose it when the plotters seized the city, earning themselves an instant death sentence for being on the losing side.  Helen had taken advantage of the sudden vacancies – and the aristocracy’s general loss of influence – to nominate people she could trust, at least partly because they owed everything to her, to the council.  I’d done my best to convince her to listen to them, even if they disagreed with her.  The leaders who didn’t listen to their subordinates were the ones who led their countries to ruin.

I took my seat – Helen had simplified the old protocol, which served to do nothing more than waste time – and looked around the table.  Fallon – now Councillor of Magic – sat facing me;  Lord Harris, an accountant who had been raised to the nobility as Councillor of the Exchequer; Sir Horace, Lord Mayor of Roxanna and Councillor of City; Lord Smith, a merchant prince who’d become Councillor of Merchants and, somewhat to my concern, Lord Jacob, Councillor of State.  He was, according to a magical test, Helen’s illegitimate half-brother.  I hoped he wouldn’t cause problems down the line, even though bastards were technically barred from the throne.  I’d be astonished if he didn’t resent his position.

And she put him in charge of her secret service, I reflected.  Lord Jacob ruled the Black Roses.  That’s either a stroke of genius or a lethal mistake.

I studied Lord Jacob thoughtfully as we waited for Helen.  He was a tall dark-skinned man, his hair cropped close to his skull.  He reminded me a little of myself as a younger man, although I’d never been that good at keeping my emotions under tight control.  His face was a blank mask, completely unreadable.  It bothered me on a primal level that I couldn’t get a good read on him.  His father hadn’t exactly disowned him, or kept him under house arrest, but … he hadn’t been a good father either.  And what sort of relationship did he have with his older half-sister?  I wasn’t even sure the warlords knew he’d existed before he’d been appointed to the council.

Helen entered.  We stood.

“Please, sit,” Helen said. Servants flitted around, bringing food and drink.  I eyed the goblet of mead in front of me wearily, then signalled for water.  The mead had a strong kick and the last thing I needed was to get drunk in front of the council.  “There is much to discuss.”

I nodded as the servants retreated, leaving us alone.  The old council would have thrown a fit if their servants had been banished, as if they couldn’t pour wine without aid.  The newer councillors were a little more self-reliant.  I wondered, not for the first time, how many of the servants had actually been spies, so lowly they were beneath suspicion and yet in perfect places to gather intelligence and forward it to their real masters.  There’d been a purge, after the plotters had been defeated, but I feared we hadn’t eliminated all the spies.  The remainder would still be dangerous, if we hadn’t scared them into keeping their heads down. 

“Warlord Cuthbert has effectively declared war,” Helen said, opening the meeting.  “His verbal message was effectively a demand for our complete submission, his written message was a little more detailed – and contained a handful of suggestions it might be in our interests to cooperate with him against the other warlords – but it effectively boiled down to the same thing.  We have a choice between fighting or bending the knee.  I choose to fight.”

There was no disagreement, open or covert.  I allowed myself another moment of relief.  The old council would have talked and talked and talked, debating meaningless issues as they sought to run out the clock so they didn’t have to make a real decision, but the newer councillors were definitely more practical.  None of us, save for Helen herself, would be allowed to live if we lost the war and Helen would suffer a face worse than death.  The prospect of hanging concentrated the mind wonderfully, as the saying went, particularly when there were still moves one could make to escape the gallows.

“We have been preparing for this moment since we first heard about Aldred’s defeat,” Helen continued.  “Yes, we could have done with a few more months to train more soldiers and produce more muskets, cannon and gunpowder, but we are ready.  We can win.  We will win.”

She looked at me.  “Lord Elliot, you may begin.”

I nodded, unfurling the map I’d brought with me.  It was about as accurate as a child’s sketch of his neighbourhood – if I relied on it completely, I would get very badly lost – but it showed everything in roughly the right position.  Roughly.  The warlord’s lands looked pitifully small and a handful of cities look large enough to be countries in their own right, but it would suffice.  It would have to.  I’d had surveyors drawing up more accurate maps of the country ever since I’d entered Helen’s service, but their work wasn’t even half done. 

“Warlord Cuthbert is a powerful man,” I said, as if everyone around the table didn’t already know that and more besides.  “Prior to the Aldred War, he deployed a force of roughly five thousand men, mainly cavalry with a hard core of heavy infantry.  Since then, we know he has been bulking up his infantry and arming them with gunpowder weapons, although we suspect he’s been reluctant to trust his vassals and serfs with firearms.  We don’t have a solid estimate for how many men he currently has under arms, but I believe fifteen thousand is the upper limit.  This time, the vast majority will be infantry.”

Lord Smith leaned forward.  “Will they fight for him?”

I said nothing for a long moment.  The warlords had, in theory, the lands and populations they needed to raise really large armies.  In practice, given how unpopular they were with the smallholders, serfs and outright slaves that made up the majority of their subjects, they were reluctant to risk mobilising their manpower in large numbers.  Their subjects, armed with weapons that could slay mounted knights and tear down castle walls, could easily decide to turn on their former masters instead.  I’d been sending agents north to encourage underground resistance, even open revolt, for months.  But, in truth, I had no idea if it would have any effect.  I wouldn’t know until the shooting started.

It isn’t easy to break out of a slave mindset, I thought, bitterly.  My ancestors had certainly had trouble standing up for themselves, let alone getting away from the plantations and making their way north to freedom.  The door might be open, beckoning them to a better life, but as long as they can’t muster up the courage to step through …

“We have to assume they’ll fight,” I said, curtly.  I wanted to believe they’d turn on their master, or simply turn and run, but I dared not assume they’d do as I wished.  It would end badly if I relied on something outside my control.  “If if that happens, we’ll have to beat them in the field.”

I drew a line on the map, leading from Cuthbert’s lands to Damansara.  “We know Cuthbert has been backing raiders and mercenaries in Aldred’s lands.  He’s also been sheltering a handful of survivors from the previous war, promising to assist them in regaining their lands and powers in exchange for their fealty.  I suspect Cuthbert will have to advance south fairly quickly, both to isolate Damansara and to keep us from sending aid.  If he isn’t on the march now, he’ll be on his way shortly.”

“If he gets caught up in a lone siege, his army will be pinned down,” Sir Horace said.  “Right?”

“No.”  I shook my head.  A year ago, that had been common sense.  Now, it was outdated and actively dangerous.  “He has gunpowder weapons now.  He can surround the city, bring the walls down with his cannon and then storm the streets beyond.”

I shuddered.  I’d seen horrors in my military service, horrors that haunted my nightmares, but none of them came close to the sheer savage barbarity of a medieval sack.  If Damansara fell, the warlord’s troops would sweep into the city and unleash hell.  They’d loot everything that wasn’t nailed down, rape every woman unlucky enough to fall into their clutches, kill every man of military age … I felt sick, remembering the good people I’d met when I’d lived in the city.  Their council might have been composed of assholes who couldn’t look beyond their own wealth and power, but the common folk didn’t deserve to be thrown straight into hell.

“There is another danger,” I added, reluctantly.  “The city may choose to submit rather than risk a sack.  If that happens, the craftsmen and gunsmiths in the city will be forced to serve Cuthbert.  That’ll give him a chance to even the odds against us.”

Lord Smith made a choking noise.  “They wouldn’t betray their own people!”

“It’s easy to be brave when you’re sitting in an armchair, hundreds of miles from the battle, and talking with the advantage of hindsight,” I said.  God knew I’d met more than a few chickenhawks in my time.  “It’s harder to hold the line when an enemy army is at the gates, armed with weapons that can tear the gates down and deliver the city into their hands.  If the city councillors feel the situation is hopeless, they’ll sell out for the best terms they can get.”


“Which will be harsh,” Lord Jacob said, coldly.

“Yes,” I agreed.  “Damansara’s independence will come to an end.  At the very least.”

I took a breath.  “It will take several days for the warlord’s envoy to return home.  We have a window of opportunity to act, to get the drop on him, if we act now.  If we can protect Damansara, and best Cuthbert’s army in the field, we can intimidate the other warlords into submission and win the war.  But we can only do that if we win.”

“A gamble,” Lord Smith said.

“Life is a gamble,” Helen said, curtly.  “We cannot afford to lose.”

I nodded.  “The warlord’s army is cumbersome,” I said.  “Ours is not.  We have an edge.”

My lips twisted.  I hadn’t understood some of Aldred’s moves during the war until I’d realised his army wasn’t an integrated force, but – in a manner of speaking – a multinational coalition.  It seemed absurd, yet it was true.  The warlord had his personal levies, but much of the rest of his men came from lesser noblemen – all of whom had to be treated with kid gloves – or mercenaries, who refused to throw their lives away for a losing cause.  Getting anything larger than a regiment or two moving in the same direction required tact, diplomacy and a certain willingness to put birth ahead of merit.  Their chain of command had to look more like a spider’s web.  That, at least, wasn’t a problem for me.  My chain of command was so simple even a child could work out who was in command at any given point.

And my men can march for hours without grumbling, which is more than can be said for any of theirs, I thought.  The warlords could set off with a mighty army and discover, when they reached their destination, that half their men had deserted.  Their cavalry spent half their time patrolling the edges of their formations, like the NKVD standing at the rear of Soviet formations during the Great Patriotic War, ready to shoot anyone in the back if they didn’t advance on command. Very few of their infantry actually want to be there.

I smiled.  A year ago, soldiers had been regarded as parasites and mercenaries as something akin to child molesters.  Mercenaries were still hated and loathed – I’d had to promise a reward for anyone who captured a mercenary, just to keep my men from murdering the bastards on the spot if they tried to surrender – but soldiering was starting to look like an attractive career.  My army, the one I’d taken apart and put back together again, had plenty of manpower, without emptying the jails and press-ganging unwary drunkards.  Really, I had more manpower than I needed.  If I’d had a couple of years to build up my forces, it would have been a rout.  The warlords wouldn’t have stood a chance.

“The army will leave in two days,” I said.  It would be a rush, and it wouldn’t look very professional, but it could be done.  “I’ll lead the advance force personally on a force-march to Damansara, using the railway to supplement our troops and resupply our forces.  We should get the regiments in position well before the warlord can get his own troops underway and prepare ourselves to take the offensive.  Either he comes out to fight, in which case we’ll best him in the field, or we’ll strike deep into his lands and take his coalition apart from the inside.”

Lord Jacob shot me a challenging look.  “Can you really convince his vassals to switch sides, when they’ll lose their ancient rights?”

I hid my irritation.  It was a valid point.  Normally, vassals – lesser aristocracy, wealthy freemen – would switch sides the moment they thought their old master could no longer either protect them from their enemies or punish them for desertion.  The monarchy had lost most of its power, in the reign of Helen’s grandfather, because it hadn’t been able to do either any longer.  On paper, an advancing army was just the sort of thing that would have aristocrats frantically re-evaluating their loyalties.  But in practice …

“We will be freeing the slaves, ending serfdom and handing out land rights to the people who actually work the lands,” I said, calmly.  “But if they submit, they’ll be able to keep at least some of their property.  If they refuse, they’ll lose it completely.”

Lord Jacob didn’t look convinced.  Or, perhaps, he’d noted the sting in the tail.  The aristos might want to continue the fight, even though it was suicidal, but the commoners would have other ideas.  Why would they fight for their tormentors?  One might as well expect plantation slaves to don Confederate Grey!  The moment our army approached, the commoners would switch sides fast enough to leave their former masters in the lurch.  It had happened before and it would happen again.

If they surrender, they’ll salvage something, I told myself.  And if they don’t it simply won’t matter.

Sir Horace cleared his throat.  “Are you sure you can beat Cuthbert before the other warlords intervene?”

“Yes,” I said, with a great deal more confidence than I felt.  Nothing was ever certain in war.  “If our reports are accurate, they have yet to mobilise their troops and prepare for the offensive.  We can, and we will, deploy our own forces to hold them back if they do take the offensive before we’re ready for them.  We also have the city’s new defences and the militia to back them up.”

And agents sent into their territory to get them fighting each other, I added, silently.  The warlords were in an odd position.  They had to crush us before we built up the forces to do it to them, but if they won they’d have to figure out how to share the kingdom between them.  Who would be the anointed king?  It seemed absurd, to a man raised in a democratic state, yet they took it very seriously.  The moment one of the warlords becomes king, the rest will start plotting to clip his wings.

I kept that thought to myself.  Instead, I ran through a brief outline of my plans and preparations for war.  They didn’t need to know the precise details – I didn’t think they’d betray us willingly, but what they didn’t know they couldn’t tell – yet it was important they sensed my confidence.  They didn’t need to know all my contingency plans either.  A handful of the wilder plans would only upset them.

“We stand to risk everything, if you offensive fails,” Lord Jacob commented, when I’d finished.  “What happens if we lose?”

“We cannot afford to stand on the defensive,” I told him.  “They could, and they would, pin us down and then crush us.  We have to take the offensive as quickly as possible or we’d be effectively conceding eventual defeat.”

I scowled.  Warlord Aldred’s men hadn’t known about muskets.  They’d charged straight into the teeth of our fire and very few, if any, had lived long enough to understand what had happened to them.  Warlord Cuthbert wouldn’t make the same mistakes.  Given time, he’d dance around us while using his cavalry to harass our farmers and burn down our fields, along with all the improvements I’d made over the last few months.  And then we’d starve …

Helen tapped the table.  “The plan is sound,” she said, as if it had been the first time she’d heard it.  We’d actually discussed a dozen variants over the last few weeks.  “If any of you feel otherwise, say so now.”

No one spoke.  I hoped that was a good sign.  Helen wasn’t one of the idiots who regarded dissent as treason, and blamed the messenger for the message, but everyone at the table – except me – had grown up in a society where saying what one really thought could lead straight to their execution.  Helen didn’t have a reputation for lashing out at the bearer of bad news, but still …

“Good.  We will proceed.”  Helen stood.  “Lord Jacob, attend upon me.”

On that note, the meeting ended.