Snippet – The Grandmaster’s Tale

23 Jan

Another Fantastic Schools novella … speaking of which, if you want to submit a story, check out the rules here.

Prologue

I was not intending, originally, to write this story.

The truth of what happened, many years ago, to unseat Grandmaster Boscha from his tenure at Whitehall was carefully buried, with good reason.  Myself, the prime mover in those events, and my comrades had every incentive to keep the truth to ourselves.  Those who supported Boscha, and found themselves vulnerable when his influence was broken, had similar reasons to keep their mouths shut.  The cover story remains firmly in place until this day.

This statement will not see publication, like my prior missive, until after the death of everyone involved.  The spells I have woven into the parchment will see to it.

The background, of course, is fairly well known.  The war was over.  The empire was gone.  The necromancers were a distant threat on the horizon and the Allied Lands, the union of kingdoms that spent more time fighting each other than the common foe, only existed in embryo.  The schools, once loyal to the Emperor and his court of magicians, were effectively independent, practically statelets in their own right.  Their masters had authority and influence, at least in part, because no one had the power to tell them no.  It was a situation calling for tact, diplomacy and a certain willingness to compromise.  Grandmaster Boscha had none of those things.

He was a … difficult person to understand, let alone to like.  He had reached the peak of his profession, securing a position that would put his name in the historical records, yet he wanted more.  He had little interest, as far as I could tell, in actually ruling the school, leaving the task of keeping the students in order to his staff and prefects.  My brothers and I spent seven years of our lives at Whitehall and the only time we ever spoke to him privately, or visited his office, was when we were punished for the heinous crime of defending ourselves against bratty aristos who thought they were better than us just because they knew their mother’s name.  It was bad enough that we’d been attacked by nine older students who should, on paper, have wiped the floor with us, but worse that the four of us – after winning the fight – were punished.  Boscha didn’t care.  Our attackers were well connected and that was all that mattered to him.  It made sense to me at the time – who cares about four magicians of dubious origin when their attackers had the purest pedigrees anyone could possibly want – but as I grew older I found the whole affair incomprehensible.  Boscha didn’t need to suck up to anyone, not then.  It wasn’t until much later that I found out why.

It had surprised me, when I applied for the post of Charms Master at Whitehall, that he’d accepted me.  In hindsight, I wonder if he even bothered to look at the name on the application letter.  I had the skills and experience to handle the job, but my family had effectively disowned me – after the incident that left two of my half-brothers dead and a third lost to himself – and I brought nothing beyond myself.  There was never any shortage of candidates for any post at Whitehall, from senior tutor to scullery maid, even though the students were rambunctious and prone to abusing both tutors and maids.  The tutors, at least, could defend themselves.  The maids … well, let’s just say there was a reason there used to be an orphanage in Dragon’s Den.  Boscha didn’t care about that either.  I had theories about why, but none of them quite fitted the facts.  Perhaps he really didn’t care.  Who knew?

I was quick to establish my authority.  Students, particularly ones with magic or aristocracy or both, are like wild animals.  You can’t show them a hint of weakness or they’ll walk all over you, the girls as well as the boys.  You can’t be one of the boys – or girls – either, not if you want to be a disciplinarian.  The idea of letting yourself become friendly – or romantically involved – with a student is dangerous beyond words. You had to keep a mental barrier between you and them at all times or, at best, you’d wind up humiliated in front of the entire school.  At worst … you don’t want to know.  Really, you don’t.

It worked, slowly but surely.  I proved I knew what I was talking about – the handful of students who challenged me were effortlessly shown their place – and that I was actually worth taking seriously.  Students have no respect for tutors who clearly don’t know what they’re doing, or lack the personal authority to make themselves heard, but I never had a problem with it.  The disruptions that shook other classrooms never plagued mine after the first year.  Indeed, I was often called upon to help other tutors handle their classes.  Not all of them were grateful.  But who could blame them?  To admit you needed help was to weaken yourself in the eyes of the students.

I could have been happy, I suppose, if I’d stayed a tutor for the rest of my life.  I’d done well and I knew it, rising to the tenured post of senior tutor.  I had a reputation as a tutor no one crossed, certainly not twice, and I had far fewer problems with the students once they realised that I could still see, even though I was blind.  The world might be shades of grey, rather than bright primary colours, but I had no difficulty living a full life.  I could have gone into Whitehall and stayed there for the rest of my life, leaving the rest of the world behind.  I could have been happy …

… But it was not to be.

I had been a tutor for five years when the outside world intruded into my academic paradise and all hell threatened to break loose.

It wasn’t until it was almost too late that I realised it had been invited.

Chapter One

It began, although I didn’t realise it at the time, in a staff meeting.

Grandmaster Boscha was not, as I often had cause to reflect, a very nice man.  He played favourites, promoting his toadies and excusing students he felt might be of use to him, rather than upholding the school’s famed neutrality.  He issued detentions that would make a royal torturer blanch, insisting – when he was challenged, which happened rarely – that they built character.  He turned a blind eye to rampant bullying, corruption and outright criminality, while spending most of his days playing politics while using the school as a personal – and heavily warded – fortress.  Worst of all, he held very long and boring staff meetings. 

Personally, I thought they were cruel, unusual and extremely sadistic punishment.

He was, and remains, a difficult person to describe.  My brother, whose name I will not speak, called him the crookered man, a snide remark that had a great deal of truth in it.  Boscha was tall and pale and yet there was something about the way he held himself that made him look misshaped, as if someone had cast a particularly nasty series of limb-lengthening charms on him and the damage had never truly been repaired.  His hair was dark and oily, spilling around his shoulders like liquid night; his eyes were darker still, set within a face that had more than a hint of demihuman ancestry, in that it looked subtly wrong to the human eye.  I doubted it was true – Boscha wouldn’t have reached his post if there’d been something nasty, or inhuman, lurking within the family tree – but his appearance set off all kinds of rumours.  His angry reaction to questions about his ancestry didn’t put the rumours to rest.  They just convinced his students there was a gem of truth buried under the mountain of bovine excrement the aristocratic families produced to cover it.  I didn’t care.  I had good reason to dislike Boscha without dragging his heritage into it. 

And besides, I was hardly able to point fingers at his background without calling attention to mine.

“The world is changing,” Boscha said.  “And we must embrace it.”

I tried not to groan as he kept talking, hitting us with an endless serious of platitudes that meant – as far as I could tell – very little.  He had a plummy aristocratic voice that grated on my nerves, a grim reminder of my dear Uncle Mago, and made me want to cast all sorts of nasty charms on him.  Or rip out his tongue.  I’d never met anyone who was so fond of the sound of his own voice as Boscha and I’d grown up as part of House Barca, a family known for their egos.  They’re still sneering at House Ashworth for being able to trace its bloodline back only five thousand years.  Personally, I thought the records had been faked years ago and nothing more than a few hundred years old was reliable, but there was nothing to be gained from arguing.  Uncle Mago had thrown a fit when I’d dared ask how reliable our ten thousand year old records actually were.

He should have been a tutor, I thought.  The students would eat him alive.

“The old order is gone,” Boscha continued.  “It falls to us to consider what shape the new order should take.”

I sighed inwardly, my eyes sweeping the room.  Daphne – Boscha’s assistant – was eying him worshipfully.  I wasn’t sure if her admiration was real or feigned, but it didn’t matter.  She had a reputation as a backstabbing sneak who could be relied upon to tattle to her boss if someone did something, anything, Boscha could hold against him.  Mistress Constance, the Alchemy Mistress, looked as if she was quietly going through potion ingredients in her head, an old tactic to keep one’s mind from wandering too far.  Madame Clover, the Healer, looked incredibly impatient … either that, or she wanted to go to the toilet.  I didn’t know.  Lady Pepper, the Combat Magic Tutor, looked as bored as I felt.   Our eyes met – more accurately my covered eyes met hers – and we shared the same thought.  How long could our boss prattle on before actually saying something important?

My mood darkened with every passing second.  I could be in the classroom, preparing my lesson plans for the next week, or supervising detentions.  Or … there was an entire list of things I needed to do, before the coming exams, none of which were being done because I was stuck in the stupid meeting.  Gods!  I didn’t know why Boscha bothered.  He ruled the school.  He could do whatever he liked, more or less, and get away with it.  As long as he was careful not to push his staff too far …

“We must take this opportunity in both hands and seize it,” Boscha continued.  “Both for ourselves, but for the good of our community.”

I wished, suddenly, that he’d given the speech in front of the students.  Someone would have hurled a tomato by now, even though he’d have been flogged to within an inch of his life and whatever was left of him put in the stocks.  Students have low boredom thresholds, particularly when it comes to kneeling on the stone floor in a manner that is pretty much a stress position, and I couldn’t blame one or more for lashing out.  Perhaps I’d volunteer to administer their punishment myself, so I could take them somewhere that sounded unpleasant but was nothing of the sort.  Maybe I could convince the Grandmaster that a few hours in the White City, attending pointless meetings, was sufficient.  But I doubted he’d get the joke.

Or he would, I reflected.  He just wouldn’t see it as a comment on him.

“There are matters that need to be attended to,” Boscha said.  “And I’m sure we are in agreement on this point.”

“Quite,” Madame Clover said.  I was surprised she’d managed to get a word in edgeways.  “We need to do something about students getting injured by other students.  And quickly.”

I winced, inwardly.  Whitehall had always been a rough place – students had been establishing the pecking order since the school’s founding, through force of magic, intimidation and breeding – but it had been getting worse recently as the chaos outside the walls started to spill into the school.  My brothers and I had been lucky.  The four of us had watched each other’s backs, and we’d had the advantage of growing up in a magical household, but other students – particularly the newborns – weren’t so lucky.  A student who didn’t even know he had magic a year ago was hellishly vulnerable, when he found himself in Whitehall.  On paper, he’d come into his magic at the same time as his peers.  In practice, he was so far behind that catching up was incredibly difficult.  They tended to find themselves slaving for the older boys.  It was the only way to get some protection.

I’d always felt sorry for those boys, and done what I could to help.  But it hadn’t been enough.

“Boys will be boys,” Boscha said, dismissively.  “It is of no concern as long as it doesn’t impede their learning …”

Madame Clover cut him off.  I admired her bravery.  Very few people would dare lay a hand on a healer, or hurl a spell, but it was still risky to interrupt her superior.  Boscha had quite a few ways to get back at her without making it obvious.  Or he might just start looking for a replacement.

“The problem is getting out of hand,” Madame Clover snapped.  “Yesterday, I had nine students in the infirmary, all hexed well beyond the point they could heal themselves, and a girl someone had slipped a love potion!  She was lucky, sir, that her friend realised the problem and dragged her to me for a curative before it was too late.  She could have been raped!”

I shuddered.  Love – lust – potions were nasty.  The basic brews would turn their victim into a lusty creature, lost to reason as they tried to satisfy their lusts … with consequences that could easily be imagined.  The more advanced and dangerous brews were far worse.  The victim would become obsessed, either submitting themselves to the brewer or taking them by force.  There were horror stories about people who’d meddled with such potions and wound up hurt, or dead.  None of them were particularly reassuring.  How could they be?

“It will teach her a useful lesson,” Boscha said.  “She could have checked her drink for potion before taking a sip.”

Madame Clover glared.  “This week, I also had twenty servants who’d been hexed or cursed,” she raged.  “Two manservants were turned into toads, a maid was trapped in a mirror and another spelled into walking around naked …”

Boscha shrugged, as dismissively as before.  “They knew the risks when they chose to work here,” he said.  “There’s no shortage of people willing to take their place.”

I suspected he had a point.  Whitehall was a dangerous place to work, if you lacked magic, but the wages were high and you got your basic needs met, letting you save your money instead of spending it on food, drink and somewhere to sleep.  It said something about magical society, I supposed, that while the senior families found magical abuse of mundanes to be contemptible they rarely bothered to do anything about it.  Boscha was unlikely to face any rebukes for not cracking down hard on students who abused the staff.  It was much more likely he’d be scolded for cracking down.  And yet, he had the power to tell the whiners to get lost.  He just had to use it.

No one in their right mind wants their children to learn bad habits, I thought, crossly.  They’ll reflect badly on their parents.

“The point, sir, is that we are allowing some of our students to rampant,” Madame Clover insisted.  “And it is going to bite us.”

“It is vitally important we encourage them to develop their powers,” Boscha said, tartly.  “That which doesn’t kill them makes them strong.”

“That which doesn’t kill can still inflict a great deal of harm,” Madame Clover countered.  “It is only a matter of time, sir, before someone winds up dead!”

“Or broken,” I added.  “There’s no point in fighting if you can’t win.”

Boscha glowered at me.  I forced myself to look back.  I’d met serfs on their plantation fields, working their asses off to grow a tiny crop … serfs who were so battered down by their masters that they couldn’t even raise a hand in self-defence or the defence of their wives and daughters.  They lived in the mud from birth to death, unable to bring themselves to stand up for themselves.  They had legal rights, true, but they couldn’t claim them.  Their masters would crush them if they tried.  And so they just trudged their way through life.

“They can win,” Boscha said.  “If they apply themselves …”

“They keep getting knocked down,” I said.  “At some point, after being knocked down repeatedly, you start wondering if you should bother getting up again.”

Boscha didn’t seem impressed.  I sighed inwardly.  I knew how he felt.  It was hard, almost impossible, to understate the gulf between a magician born into an old and powerful family and a magician who was the first in his family.  The former knew enough theory to be able to put it into use, when he came into his magic; the latter was learning from scratch, forcing him to scramble to catch up before it was too late.  It was like pitting a toddler against a ground man and expecting the toddler to win.  Worse, perhaps.  It was like migrating to a city-state and discovering, too late, that the rules were different and your opponents knew how to manipulate them to best advantage.

Heads I win, I thought, tiredly.  Tails you lose.

“That speaks to a weakness in their character,” he said, finally.  “They must develop their character, and their ability to handle the ups and downs of life, before they start tackling the more advanced magics.  An untrained magician incapable of doing so becomes a major threat, as you know.  You’ve certainly killed enough of them.”

I met his eyes.  “Seven years ago, I killed a magician who went mad because he was mistreated,” I said.  It was true, if one overlooked my brothers being involved and quite a few other details.  “He had to die.  At that point, he was a maddened creature who couldn’t be redeemed, who posed a danger so great that imprisoning him was not an option.  But that doesn’t excuse the way he was treated.”

Boscha looked back at me.  “I was treated poorly until I proved myself too,” he said, flatly.  “I turned out alright.”

“And if you were treated poorly and still say that,” I snapped, “it’s proof you didn’t turn out alright.”

Magic spiked.  I thought, for a moment, he was actually going to start a fight.  What I’d said had been cutting and unpleasant, the sort of thing he could use to justify cursing me into next week if I didn’t back down and grovel … I gritted my teeth, readying myself for a fight.  Boscha wasn’t a weakling – he couldn’t have held the wards if he wasn’t amongst the most puissant magicians in the world – but I had a lot of combat experience, particularly at knife-range.  I was fairly sure Boscha was nowhere near as skilled.  His career before Whitehall was something of a mystery – I knew students who thought Boscha was a homunculus – but he’d never given the impression of having any combat experience.  Indeed, the fact he constantly harped on his position was a very strong sign he didn’t feel particularly secure.

“The problem is spreading to my classes,” Mistress Constance said, breaking the stalemate.  “Last week, I had to discipline both Adrian and Walter for throwing dragon’s root into another student’s cauldron, causing an explosion that could have wounded or killed half the class.  Frankly, I am on the verge of banning both students permanently.  Alchemy is dangerous enough at the best of times, when everyone is behaving themselves, and those students are going to get someone killed.”

I kept my face impassive with an effort.  Adrian of House Rawlins and Walter of House Ashworth had been friends practically since birth, two handsome and cocky young men who would have gone far, if they hadn’t turned their magical talent to making everyone else’s lives miserable.  They knew better than to cause trouble in my class, thankfully, but everywhere else … they and their toadies, Jacky McBrayer and Stephen Root, caused havoc.  I lived in hope that, one day, they would cross the line to the point they could be expelled for good.  But they were good at making themselves appear innocent …

“I believed we discussed the matter at the time,” Boscha said.  “They insisted it was an accident.”

“An accident,” Mistress Constance repeated.  I could hear the sneer in her voice.  “A piece of root accidentally levitating itself into the air, and accidentally flying across the chamber and accidentally splashing into another student’s cauldron and triggering a reaction … all accidentally?”

“Unless you have clear proof it was done with murderous intent, you cannot bar them from your classes,” Boscha said.  “There are rules …”

Mistress Constance fixed him with a stern look.  I had to admire Boscha’s nerve, if nothing else.  Mistress Constance was a skilled alchemist as well as a powerful magician and she hadn’t risen to the top of her profession without being extremely driven.  If she’d been looking at me like that I would have feared for my life. 

“They are undisciplined, arrogant and rude,” Mistress Constance said, coldly.  “And foolish too.”

I felt a stab of sympathy.  It was rare for someone to openly look down on a sorceress for being female – it was a good way to end up a toad – and no one did it twice, but Adrian and Walter were disrespectful as hell.  I knew their fathers.  The poisoned apples hadn’t fallen too far from the tree.  Boscha might not take the disrespect seriously – he might not even be aware it was there – but Mistress Constance had no choice.  And she couldn’t teach the little brats the lesson they so sorely needed.

“They are also talented young lads with astonishing potential,” Boscha said.  “They just need some proper guidance.”

“So give it to them,” Mistress Constance said.  “Or tell their parents to send them to Stronghold.”

“Or to Widow’s Peak,” I muttered.  The fact there was a necromancer squatting in the old fortress wasn’t a problem.  Adrian and Walter might think highly of themselves, and they did have quite a bit to brag about, but a necromancer would have no trouble turning them both into a quick snack.  “Why not …”

Daphne cleared her throat.  “Sir, you have a meeting with Lord Archibald Rawlins in ten minutes.”

Boscha nodded.  I wondered if he was glad of the interruption.  “We’ll continue to discuss the matter later,” he said.  I wondered, idly, what matter?  Adrian and Walter … or whatever he’d intended to discuss when he called the meeting.  Two hours sitting at the table … for what?  I still didn’t know.  If it turned out to be something minor, after all that, I was going to be pissed!

The Grandmaster stood and left the room, Daphne following him like a puppy chasing her master.  I stood myself, exchanging brief looks with the others.  We’d had our differences over the last few years, but none of us liked Boscha.  Or his willingness to tolerate the intolerable.  I made a mental note to ask Mistress Constance for a drink later, in my quarters.  If nothing else, we could compare notes and see if we could determine just what our lord and master was doing now.

It nagged at me as I stepped through the door and headed down the maze of stairs and corridors to my classroom.  Boscha … was a puzzle.  I didn’t pretend to understand what he was thinking.  I’d known people from all walks of life, from commoner-born serfs and merchants to princes, kings and magicians, but Boscha didn’t fit any pattern.  Perhaps he really was a homunculus.  Or a dragon in disguise.  Stranger things had happened.  Or so I’d been told.

I stepped into the charms corridor and stopped dead, my instincts flaring before my conscious mind caught up and realised what was wrong.  A banging noise from one of the cupboards … someone was inside.  And that meant …

… Someone was trapped inside.

7 Responses to “Snippet – The Grandmaster’s Tale”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard January 23, 2023 at 5:08 pm #

    Good Start! 😀

  2. George Phillies January 23, 2023 at 8:19 pm #

    A fine start. Someday, more Queenmaker.

  3. GeorgeW January 23, 2023 at 9:24 pm #

    I’m fifty-plus years out of short pants… and you’d think that in that time our educational institutions would have come up with a cure for bullying. Today’s “zero tolerance policies” certainly aren’t it. They’re just a cop-out so they won’t have to address the problem… or deal with lawsuits. I remember hearing the same empty platitudes back then: “ They can win, if they apply themselves… and come out the better for it…”, etc. BS.
    Good story… so far… 😉

  4. Yanai Siegel January 24, 2023 at 3:20 pm #

    Typo: “grown man” instead of “ground man”, I believe is what you meant.

    Excellent start. More, please?

    • chrishanger January 29, 2023 at 2:22 pm #

      Arrgh!

      Thanks. I’ll fix that.

      Chris

  5. Jill January 27, 2023 at 10:17 pm #

    Chris, are you feeling any better now? Why haven’t you listed “The Revolutionary War” as being out now? This is an important development in The Royal Sorceress series. You have been too busy with your major series to be able to advance it for several years so this is a big deal. Brag about the book a little!

    I pre-ordered it so the only way I noticed it was out was the announcement on Amazon that it was available to read now.

    • chrishanger January 29, 2023 at 2:22 pm #

      I’m promoting it now – things got away with me over the last couple of weeks.

      Chris

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