Snippet: The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress V)

20 Sep


Simone prided herself on never being afraid of men.

She was a Talker, with the ability to read thoughts and emotions and incredible insight into the male psyche even when she wasn’t using her talents.  She knew what buttons to press to make a man think or say whatever she wanted, to spill his secrets or pledge himself to her life and defence even without any pledges from her in return.  She’d used her talents on behalf of the empire and her adopted father, Ambassador Talleyrand long enough to know precisely what she was doing.  She wasn’t fool enough to think herself immune from consequences, in the ever more faction-ridden Bourbon Court, but she knew that, as long as she was useful, she’d be relatively safe from harm.

And yet, Duke Philippe scared her.

He strode beside her, his arm resting on hers in a manner that might have seemed affectionate under other circumstances, his presence overshadowing her thoughts.  She couldn’t read his thoughts, or even pick up a sense of his emotions, and it bothered her.  No one had said anything bad about him, as far as she knew, and yet their thoughts – when they thought about him, which was as little as possible – were coloured with apprehension, even fear.  Duke Philippe was a close confident of the king, yet very few people knew anything about him beyond his rank and title.  It wasn’t even clear what he did for the king.

Simone titled her head just slightly, enough to study him.  He was a handsome man in his late thirties, wearing surprisingly modest dress for a courtier at Versailles, yet there was something about his appearance that made her feel uneasy.  She couldn’t put it into words.  She was used to seeing men and women who dressed themselves to draw the eye, or to shock, and yet … there was just something off about him.  She tried, once again, to extend her magic and read him, but there was nothing.  It was worrying.  She knew people with the mental discipline to keep her out, or keep their thoughts spinning to prevent her from following the mental strands, but this … it was almost as if he wasn’t there.  If he hadn’t had his arm on hers, holding her tightly enough to make it clear she couldn’t break free, she would have thought he really wasn’t

Her mind raced as they passed a pair of sentries and walked down a flight of stairs.  She’d never been to the very lowest levels, but she’d heard the rumours.  It was an open secret that the king had prisoners here, men and women arrested by lettres de cachet and held in the dungeons by the king’s personal authority … held without any hope of freedom unless the king decided to let them go.  Others … there were all sorts of whispers, from secret brothels for pleasures denied even to the courtiers to private meeting rooms, where the king met with foreign ambassadors away from prying eyes.  Her blood ran cold as they passed a pair of Royal Guardsmen, wearing combat uniforms rather than the peacock finery of the sentries above; proof, if she needed it, that the normal rules didn’t apply below the ground.  If she’d realised where she was going …

She swallowed, hard.  She’d hadn’t been in any position to argue, when the message had arrived at the suite she shared with her adopted father.  She’d been summoned … and Duke Philippe himself had arrived to escort her.  It wasn’t the first time she’d been invited to the palace – she was the adopted daughter of a great nobleman – but it was by far the strangest and the most dangerous.  The war wasn’t going well.  The failed invasion of Britain, the defeat in America, the chaos to the east … she’d caught a handful of officers bemoaning the war, arguing that the empire should seek peace with the British so they could make territorial gains in Russia while the Russians fought their civil war.  If the factions had turned murderous … it wouldn’t be the first time.  She tried not to shiver in fear.  Every Frenchman dreaded a return to the Unrest of 1789, where revolutionaries had almost taken Paris, or the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants.  And yet, with the war going poorly, who knew what would happen?

People are starving, she reflected, grimly.  She wasn’t a well-dressed princess whose life was a constant whirl of parties, romantic relationships and little else.  She knew the public mood was darkening.  One didn’t need to read minds to know thatAnd when people are starving and desperate, they do desperate things.

Duke Philippe tightened his grip, just enough to make her wince.  “Beyond this door, keep your thoughts to yourself,” he said.  His tone was curiously flat, as if he cared nothing for her.  Simone knew men who were enraptured by her beauty and men who disdained her for being a woman and yet, Duke Philippe – somehow – was worse.  She had the impression he’d break her neck in an instant if it suited her, without even a flicker of emotion.  “There are secrets here that must not be spoken.”

Simone gritted her teeth, fighting not to pull away.  It was hard, even as he loosened his grip.  There would be marks on her bare skin … she knew, all too well, the dark underside of the fairy tale palace, the aristocratic women who used makeup to hide their bruises and the serving girls too poor or powerless to do the same.  She controlled her thoughts with an effort as the doors swung open, revealing a simple chamber.  Her heart seemed to skip a beat as she was guided into the room, the four men already present not even deigning to look at her.  The room was completely unfurnished, save for a simple stone block.  Fear ran through her as she realised where she was, where she had to be.  It was the king’s judgement hall.

“Stay quiet,” Duke Philippe ordered.  “Say nothing.”

The other set of doors opened.  Two guards entered, dragging a beaten and bound man between them.  Simone’s thoughts darted towards him, despite the warning, and stopped –dead – as she tasted his mind aura.  It was almost as familiar to her as her own … Talleyrand, Ambassador Talleyrand, her adopted father and guardian and master and … she staggered, nearly fainting, as her father was pushed to the block.  If Duke Philippe hadn’t been holding her arm, she feared she would have collapsed.

A man stepped forward.  He wore royal livery, but she didn’t recognise him.  The king had many servants, some kept in the shadows.  There was no shortage of rumours about them either. 

“Talleyrand,” he said.  “You have been judged guilty of …”

Simone didn’t listen to the charges.  She’d always known her adopted father was venial in almost every sense of the word, with an insatiable appetite for titles, money and women, but … they didn’t matter.  The simple fact he’d been brought here and treated as a rebel, rather than as a man of aristocratic blood, spoke volumes.  The specific charges were nothing more than a thin veneer of legality, spread over a judicial murder to conceal the simple fact the victim had been sacrificed to appease the victorious faction.  Simone knew no one would be fooled.  One faction had gained ascendency and marked Talleyrand for death, proving their supremacy in a way no one could deny.

Duke Philippe’s grip tightened, again.  “Watch.”

Simone blinked away tears as her adopted father was hauled to the block and shoved into place.  There were no speeches, no final chance to sway the crowd … what crowd?  Simone was powerless and everyone else agreed Talleyrand had to die.  She forced herself to stand tall and watch, silently grateful he didn’t look at her, as the axe came down.  It was over so quickly she barely had a second to say a prayer for him.  Talleyrand hadn’t been perfect – far from it – but he’d been far from the worst of guardians.  She didn’t have to read minds all day to know that, either.

“It is done,” Duke Philippe said, pulling her away from the scene.  “Come.”

Simone found her voice, the moment they were back outside.  “Why …?”

“These are dangerous times for the empire,” Duke Philippe said.  There was still no emotion in his voice.  “His Majesty has determined that a new policy is needed, to win the war and ensure Bourbon Supremacy for the rest of time.  I, his Master of Magic, have been ordered to carry out the policy.  You will assist me.”

“I …”  Simone caught herself.  Talleyrand had been one of the most powerful courtiers at Versailles.  His execution was clear proof the balance of power had shifted.  She was mildly surprised she hadn’t been executed too, or sent to the breeding farms.  She wasn’t meant to know they existed, but she did.  “I serve His Majesty.”

“Quite,” Duke Philippe agreed.  “And don’t you forget it.”

He let go of her and turned, walking back up the corridor.  Simone knew he expected her to follow him – and knew he was right.  What else could she do?  She reached for her power as she started to walk, making one final attempt to reach into his mind and read his thoughts.  This time, there was something … a jarring series of images, all tangled together into a single horrific mass.  Simone had to bite her lip to keep from gasping.  If he realised what she’d done, she’d never leave the court alive. 

God, she asked herself.  Her adopted father was dead … who else could she ask for help?  She hadn’t precisely been kept isolated from the rest of the courtiers, but they hadn’t been very welcoming either … no, they’d be completely unwelcoming now Talleyrand had been executed.  No one would give her so much as a smile, for fear it would draw entirely the wrong type of attention.  What do I do now?

Something crystallised in her mind as she studied his back.  She’d loved Talleyrand, regardless of his flaws, and he’d served his king loyally.  She wanted to make the court pay for what they’d done to him.  And besides, whatever the cost, Duke Philippe had to be stopped.

And Simone would have her revenge.

Chapter One: London, England

London stank.

Bruce floated above the city and breathed in the air, wondering – not for the first time – how people managed to live in such a nightmare.  New York was cramped and unpleasant in places, but the wide open world beyond the colonies had all the living space anyone could possibly want.  London, by contrast, sprawled for miles, a tangled nightmare of government buildings and aristocratic districts surrounded by circles of lower and lower class housing that eventually ended in slums and shanty housing owned by distant uncaring landlords and ruled by criminal gangs.  London was the greatest city of the greatest empire the world had ever known and yet, looking at the capital from above, it was hard not to see the city as the rotten core of a rotten empire.  He had no idea, he really didn’t, why so many people were allowed to waste their lives in the slums.  It would be so much kinder to ship them to North America, Australia, or even to Africa.

And this is when the city is shrouded in night, he thought, dully.  It looks worse during the day.

He sucked in his breath, shaking his head.  His father had told him tales of London and he wished, almost, he’d never seen the reality.  It was a shining city on a river and also a hellhole resting on a bog.  The population were great and noble and yet also sullen and murderous.  It was hard to believe Gwen had been born and raised in London, but then … he only had to look beyond the edge of the city to see aristocratic enslaves, islands of greenery threatened by the ever-advancing tidal wave of civilisation.  The great mansions weren’t castles, not by any stretch of the imagination, but they might as well be, given how they protected the inhabitants from the reality of the world surrounding them.  There’d been changes, he’d been told, after the Swing …

… And yet, from high above, it seemed nothing had changed in years.

Something moved, below him.  Bruce darted to one side, gritting his teeth as he felt magic trying to envelop him.  Two – no, three – figures were flying towards him, their hands raised as they steered magical force in a bid to grab and crush his magic.  The spikes of raw power were meant to panic him, hinting it was a matter of seconds before his power failed and he plunged to the ground.  Bruce refused to allow himself to be intimidated as he called on his own magic, snatching a fireball out of nowhere and hurling it at the lead figure.  It should have forced the man to concentrate on his own defence, to wrap himself in power rather than try to snatch Bruce out of the air, but instead the fireball exploded harmlessly against an invisible wall.  Bruce felt a flicker of wry amusement.  It was hard not to be impressed at how well the three magicians – all Movers – worked together.  One to carry the three into the air, one to defend them, one to attack.  It might just work.

Bruce took a breath and dissolved his magic.  They expect him to either go on the offensive himself or try to flee.  Instead, gravity took effect and he plummeted downwards.  The magicians seemed to hesitate, unsure if they’d done more than they’d intended or if he was trying to con them.  Bruce took full advantage, wrapping his power around him to ensure he fell faster and further.  They’d be after him in a moment – he was surprised they weren’t already giving chase – but he had a few seconds.  He dropped into the alleyway, gritting his teeth as he channelled all his power into a dead stop.  He would have survived the landing if he’d come down hard, but the impact would have been impossible for even a blind man to miss.  The rest of the magicians were out there somewhere, hunting him … he kept moving, keeping his head down as he flew through the alleyways.  A handful of homeless people scattered as he kept moving … he felt a twinge of guilt, combined with the grim awareness they could easily have signed up to sail abroad instead.  British North America was always looking for new colonists, particularly ones hungry for land and money of their own.  He hoped they’d think about it, as he darted through an even darker alleyway.  The ladies of the night waved at him …

He sensed the spike of power, an instant before the bolt impacted on his magic.  For a second, the darkened alleyway was as brightly lit as the Royal College.  He caught sight of two magicians ahead of him, both aiming their fingers … he ducked instinctively as they directed streams of raw power at him, trying to batter down his defences by naked force.  It was surprisingly inelegant, but it might just work … he reached out with his magic and yanked on nearly pieces of debris, picking them up and throwing them at the magicians.  His lips quirked as they hastily started shooting the debris out of the air instead, rather than trying to duck.  He had to admit it made a certain degree of sense.  There was no way to be sure he wouldn’t steer the debris directly into someone’s chest.  Perhaps it wouldn’t kill them, but they’d be bruised enough to make them regret tangling with him.

The air twisted, as second later, as a swarm of … something brushed against him.  His mind blanked – bees or wasps or … something – before he realised it was animated dust.  It didn’t seem dangerous, certainly not when compared to the more powerful magicians hunting him, but it made it difficult to see and he dreaded to think what it would do if it got into his mouth and lungs.  Gritting his teeth, he ducked and put all his power into pushing the dust away from him.  A wind rushed through the alleyway, knocking down one of the Blazers who’d been fool enough to stand up again.  Bruce barely noticed.  He couldn’t see the Changer who’d animated the dust, nor the Infuser who’d probably assisted the bastard, and that meant there was no way to stop him doing the same thing again.  Worse, the bright light had probably brought the Movers down on him too.  If they hadn’t known where he was before, they sure as hell did now.

No point in trying to hide, he thought.  And that gives me options …

He closed his eyes and drew on his magic, generating a blinding light.  Someone cried out … it wouldn’t blind them permanently, he hoped, but they’d be blinking away tears long enough for him to get moving.  The light vanished … he opened his eyes and looked forward, wincing in sympathy as he saw a magician rubbing his eyelids frantically.  His partner raised a hand, directing a bolt of magic towards Bruce.  Quick-witted enough to close his eyes, Bruce reflected, or simply lucky enough to be looking away from the light before it had snapped out of existence.  It didn’t matter.  The rest of the magicians were briefly stunned, long enough for Bruce to fly straight at the Blazer and knock him down.  Again.

There was no time to savour his brief victory.  Bruce kept moving, staying low rather than risk the skies.  There would be too great a risk of being spotted, even though the darkness and smog should have hidden him perfectly.  And yet … he ducked, sharply, as the world seemed to explode around him.  The three Movers dropped down, their power lashing out like a hurricane.  Bruce barely had a second to keep his head down as they threw enough bricks and stone to make an entire house at him, chunks of debris slamming into his magic and making him wince in pain.  In theory, his defences were impregnable.  In practice, enough hammering could and would bring them down.

Damn it, he thought.  It was hard to see clearly in the semi-darkness, but it looked as if the Movers were fighting blind.  They shouldn’t be able to see him, let alone actually fight.  There was something weirdly unfocused about their power, but … they were still fighting with surprising effectiveness.  If he stood still, they’d zero in on his position and take him down.  How are they doing it?

His mind raced, considering the options.  Were they Masters?  Bruce would have bet his inheritance they were nothing of the sort, not when the Royal Sorcerers Corps had spent years trying to avoid making the decision to recruit Lady Gwen.  They would have happily left her to rot if they’d had any alternative.  Hell, Bruce knew there were quite a few magicians who chafed at the thought of taking orders from a woman, and a mere girl at that.  The only other Master was Bruce himself and the senior magicians were still trying to decide if the disadvantages of him being American outweighed the advantages of having a penis.  He rolled his eyes at the thought.  Bastards.  If they’d known precisely how Gwen and Bruce had met, they’d have had a collective heart attack.  They really didn’t think …

Understanding clicked as the Movers kept coming, their power reaching out to grab him.  They were a team!  The heavy hitters might have taken the lead in the bid to catch him, but their supporters weren’t far away.  There’d be a Seer and a Talker – perhaps more than one – watching from a safe distance, coordinating the battle.  The idea of surrendering control of his body and magic to anyone was unpleasant, and he doubted he could do it for anything, but the team had probably practiced long enough to overcome the instinctive reluctance to do anything of the sort.  That they were using it in battle … they’d had to have spent months practicing.  Bruce had to admit it was clever, and not something anyone would have reasonably expected.

He tossed a handful of debris at them – he’d be astonished if it slowed them down for more than a few moments, but every second counted –   and reached out with his mind.  Gwen was the expert, when it came to the mental talents.  She had a precision he could only admire, a degree of control he’d thought impossible before meeting her.  Bruce suspected it had something to do with their upbringing.  He’d been raised as a young man – and it had been expected he’d inherit his father’s title and lands – while she’d been raised as a young woman, someone who’d be married off for best advantage after she was introduced to High Society.  She’d never been supposed to use her powers openly …

Got you, he thought.  The Talkers hadn’t tried to latch onto Bruce’s mind directly – he was sure he would have felt them reading his thoughts, even if he was in the middle of a battle – but he could still feel them, right on the edge of his awareness.  They were closer than he’d expected or at least they felt that way.  The mental magics behaved oddly where distance was involved, in ways that didn’t quite make sense.  Did you come to share the danger or do you have to be close to use your powers effectively?

It didn’t matter.  He drew on his power, broadcasting a disruptive thought into the air.  No normal person, magician or no, would so much as notice its presence, but a Talker would be sent reeling by the sheer wrongness of the thought.  It was like … he wasn’t sure how to put it into words … perhaps being hit in the face by human faeces, only worse.  The blowback made him gag, even as the Movers staggered, their coordination gone.  Bruce could do nothing about the Seer, if there really was a Seer, but it didn’t matter.  There was no way for the Seer to keep the Movers informed, not now the Talkers were out of the game.

Keep moving, he told himself.  It wasn’t that long until daybreak.  Don’t let them get a solid idea of where you are.

He dropped to the ground and started to run, picking his way through the shadows with practiced ease.  They’d be looking for someone flying, or wrapped in magic, rather than someone showing no visible signs of power.  The confrontation had sent hundreds of people running in all directions, further confusing the searchers.  It was quite possible he’d be able to walk right out of the cordon, as long as he kept his head down and doffed his forelock when he saw the searchers.  His lips quirked at the thought.  The hunters were proud men who considered themselves touched by God, even if they hadn’t been born to the very highest levels of the aristocracy.  They’d have trouble wrapping their heads around someone pretending to be a powerless commoner.

Which is a mistake on their part, he thought.  The Sons of Liberty had had plenty of sources amongst the American aristocracy and almost all of them had been resentful servants.  A commoner might pass unnoticed in a place an aristocrat would be spotted effortlessly.

He slowed his movements as he felt questing mental probes rippling the air, trying to pose as a cripple.  There was a decent chance he’d simply be overlooked in the confusion … perhaps.  It was impossible to be sure.  Seers tended to be dangerously unpredictable and a Talker might latch onto his mental aura without ever realising their thoughts were brushing against a cripple’s mind.  His thoughts hardened in disgust.  It was technically illegal to read someone’s mind without their consent, or a court order, but the rule was honoured more in the breach than the observance.  Gwen had told him, bitterly, that aristos who loudly proclaimed female magicians should never be trained to use their powers had few qualms about using their mind-reading daughters to give them an edge in negotiations, particularly when no one knew their children had magic.  And …

The world seemed to explode around him.  Bruce hurled himself into the air as two waves of magic slammed together, where he’d been an instant ago.  He realised his mistake a second later.  There was no reason for a vagrant, someone down on his luck and sleeping on the streets, to have such tight mental discipline, particularly when he had no reason to think he’d need it.  Perhaps he should have tried to put together a better cover story, but it wouldn’t have fooled the questing minds for long.  He twisted his magic as the Movers closed in, sending a blast of raw power directly towards them while using a stream – almost a thread – of magic to yank him backwards, swinging from building to building.  His old teacher hadn’t been strong in magic, unlike his charge, but he’d made up for it in ingenuity.  Who needed to fly when you could swing through the air.

He glanced at the sky.  The first hints of dawn could be see, although it was hard to be sure of anything in perpetually gloomy London.  He pushed out another mental broadcast, hopefully knocking the Talkers back down again.  It wouldn’t take long for the Movers to realise they’d been conned … if they didn’t already know it, he’d be astonished.  But as long as he stayed ahead of them, he should be fine.  The flying magicians could catch up with him quickly – they could probably move faster than him – but everyone else would be restricted to shank’s pony.  They couldn’t get into position unless the Movers slowed him down.  And …

Something struck him, hard.  Bruce barely had a second to realise what was happening before he – they­ – were plummeting to the ground.  There was hardly any time to cushion the impact as the paving stones came up and hit him.  The landing jarred him so violently it knocked the wind from his lungs.  His attacker’s magic was tearing into his, shredding his defences and brushing against his bare skin.  He tried to summon his power to counterattack, but it wasn’t enough.  All he managed was to knock the hat from her head.  Blonde hair spilled down and brushed against his hands.

“Got you,” Gwen said.

Bruce looked up at her.  She was beautiful, despite her rather severe clothing carefully cut to hide as much of her figure as possible.  His heart raced, his body suddenly very aware of hers pressing against his.  His magic thrummed … he raised his head, their lips touching without conscious thought.  It was hard, very hard, to break the kiss.  And yet, he had no choice.  If someone saw them kissing openly, before their marriage, it would ruin her.  Bruce would take a terrible revenge, if he ever figured out who’d done it, but the damage would be beyond repair.  They weren’t even allowed to hold hands in public.

“You got me,” Bruce said.  There was no point in denying it.  “Are you going to let me breathe now?”

Gwen rolled off him and stood, brushing down her dark outfit.  “You did well,” she said, picking up her hat and putting it on her head.  “There aren’t many people who can stay ahead of us for long.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said.  It was hard not to wonder if there really was an us.  She didn’t normally fight as part of a team, let alone the first and greatest team of magicians in the known world.  Merlin should have recruited her long ago and yet they hadn’t, while they’d extended an offer to Bruce with insulting speed.  “What now?”

“Now?”  Gwen shrugged, then composed herself as the sound of running footsteps echoed towards them.  “Now, we go over the chase, and then you and I have an appointment at the hall.”

Bruce swallowed.  “Do I really have to meet your parents?”

Gwen laughed, but there was an edge to it.  “I’m afraid so,” she said.  “It won’t be easy to marry without their permission.”

“Charming,” Bruce said.  It was going to be a disaster.  He knew it.  “But anything for you.”

3 Responses to “Snippet: The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress V)”

  1. STEPHEN HULLOTT September 20, 2022 at 1:17 pm #

    Bravo! So happy you’re extending this series.

  2. James Jeffery September 20, 2022 at 2:18 pm #

    I’ve read all CGN’s books apart for this series, I don’t know why but they didn’t appeal to me. After reading this excerpt I will be buying them now.

  3. Thomas October 26, 2022 at 5:17 pm #

    I loved this series and its finally coming back. Thank you.

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