Snippet – The Demon’s Design (Schooled in Magic 25 (Emily!))

30 Jan

Prologue I

If Emily had been asked, in the quiet time before the end of one war and the start of another, what she most enjoyed about being Void’s apprentice, she would have said – without hesitation – the fireside chats.  They sat on armchairs in front of a roaring fire, drinking chocolate and talking about everything from advanced magical theory to the hidden history of the Nameless World and enjoying each other’s company.  Void could and did discourse on a number of subjects for her, drawing links between fields of study that none of her tutors had ever hinted might be connected, answering her questions in a manner that left her eager for more.  It was …

She wondered, at times, if it was what having a father was supposed to be like.  Her father had vanished shortly after her birth and her stepfather had showed little – and then too much – interest in her.  It was hard to know what she should be feeling, when she’d been denied the sense of a paternal figure looking out for her, someone who would always be on her side no matter what she did.  She had never been sure if she should envy the girls who did have fathers, from the strict and overbearing to the relaxed and permissive.  She knew, now, she had had reason to be jealous.  Even the strict fathers had at least cared about their daughters.  And she was sure Void cared about her. 

“It is hard to be sure if there really was a genuine prediction,” Void said, a few nights after her return from Dragora.  “The fortune teller could easily have told Duke Hardcastle what he wanted to hear.”

Emily nodded.  Duke Hardcastle had been told he couldn’t be killed by a man, a prediction that had at least one obvious loophole and a second that hadn’t been apparent, right up until the moment the duke’s preteen nephew had knifed him.  It had struck her as very much the sort of thing a demon would say, if it had been summoned to illuminate the duke’s future when he’d been a young man.  The prediction might have been completely accurate, yet also misleading.  But then, she’d met the duke.  He’d been enough of a misogynist to completely dismiss any possibility of a woman killing him.

But it wasn’t a woman who killed him, she reflected, wryly.  She’d fought the duke to a standstill, but he’d held his own until he’d been stabbed in the back.  It was a boy who was not yet a man.

“If it was a genuine prediction, it came from a demon,” Void continued, echoing her earlier thoughts.  “But demons are untrustworthy.  The prophecy could easily have been worded to steer the duke towards his eventual fate.”

Emily leaned forward.  “Is it possible it really was a genuine prediction?”

“It is impossible to say,” Void said.  “Summoning demons is forbidden for a reason.  The knowledge of how to summon, bind and compel the entities is in very few hands, partly because a simple mistake is enough to doom the caster.  It’s quite possible to accidentally offer the demon more than it intended, allowing it to snatch hold and drag you into the darkness.  I knew one magician who called a demon and demanded a series of services, which had to be paid for with his life.  I don’t believe he even had the satisfaction of getting what he’d asked for in return.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Emily murmured.

“Precisely,” Void agreed.  “If you do summon a demon, you can trade a little of your life essence for a glimpse into the future.  That’s about all you can do, these days, unless you want to take your life in your hands.  The more you demand from a demon, the more it will insist on receiving in return.”

“And they don’t even state the price in advance,” Emily said.

“No.” Void stared at his hands for a long moment, his thoughts elsewhere.  “The DemonMasters of old must have had a solution, at least a temporary one, but we don’t know how it worked.  We do know that their demons eventually broke free and consumed them, when they weren’t trapped and bound until some fool freed them.  There was … someone, a very long time ago, who trapped a demon in his tomb and bound it to protect his body after his death.  It was unable to leave the tomb, but free to do whatever it liked to anyone who forced their way into the chamber.”

Emily shivered.  “What happened?”

“It’s still there, as far as I know,” Void said.  “Other demons were accidentally freed, over the years, and wrecked havoc until they ran out of energy and fell back into the darkness.  Or … there are legends, true, of people finding powerful entities trapped in bottles and being granted wishes in return for freeing them, but they almost always ended up worse off after the wishes were twisted against them.  It’s difficult to tell how many of those stories are actually true, at least in some aspects.  The legends tend to grow in the telling.”

I saw the DemonMasters, Emily recalled.  She’d been thrown back in time, a year and a thousand years ago, to see the final days of the DemonMasters and the dawn of a new age of magic.  None of them were very sane, even the ones who had it under control.

She shivered again, feeling magic running through her blood.  It was hers, as much a part of her body as her arms and legs.  The thought of being dependent on an outside source for power was terrifying, for all the reasons she’d heard and many more besides.  The DemonMasters hadn’t been evil, but the entities they’d summoned and bound had steadily corrupted and weakened them to the point their peers had to kill them before they were lost to the madness.  It was like dealing with something that had a will of its own … no, they did have wills of their own.  And the ability to glance into the future and determine just what to say to steer someone to their doom.

Her eyes narrowed.  “Is there any way to defend against demons?”

“Their sight is difficult to block,” Void said.  “They are not common spies on the same level as ourselves, even ones who have somehow gained access to our blood, but creatures who look at our world from right angles to reality.  They can look around most of our defences” –his lips twitched – “like a flying witch, hovering high overhead and peering down at whatever is hidden inside the walls.  No matter how high you build them, the witch can always fly higher.  But places of great power, such as nexus points, or places shielded by naked iron, have always been relatively safe.  Demon logic seems to prevent them from peeking into such places.”

Emily considered it.  Nexus points existed at all times at once, enabling time travel … although, without the proper spells and waypoints, anyone who tried would be jumping randomly, unsure if they were going to be propelled hundreds of years into the future or stranded thousands of years in the past.  It made a certain kind of sense the demons wouldn’t be able to see inside them, not when all the potential timelines were jumbled up inside the nexus point.  And pure iron … ?  She frowned, inwardly.  Why was that important?

“This place is also secure, or so we are told,” Void said, waving a hand at the walls.  “There’s iron within the stone, woven into the defences, and also an iron vault on the lower levels.  But it has never been tested.  The days in which someone could summon a demon and send it to murder their enemies are long gone.”

“Good,” Emily said, dryly.  It was bad enough dealing with mundane and magical assassins.  Demons would be far – far – worse.  “Can you defend against that?”

Void made a face.  “The ancient tomes are divided on the subject and often contradict themselves … you read one chapter, then you read another that insists the first chapter was utter nonsense.  Demons being demons, it might be possible for two contradictory things to be true at once.  Some argue it is possible to trick or simply outlast a demon, others that there are ways to drive one off or even turn it back on its master.  None of the tricks have ever been tried, to my knowledge.  The knowledge of how to summon an demon and aim it at your enemy has been lost long ago.”

Emily shivered.  She’d had to make a deal with a demon to return from the past, a deal that had involved protecting a collection of books and scrolls from that era … a deal she’d tried to keep by concealing the books under Whitehall and wrapping them in magic drawn from the nexus point.  She’d kept the word of the deal without honouring the spirit … she thought.  It was hard to be sure.  The demon could simply outlast her … she hoped the concealment spells would last forever, but she doubted it.  Nothing lasted forever.  It was one of the many things she’d have to check, after she completed her apprenticeship … if Grandmaster Gordian ever let her back into Whitehall.  Gordian shouldn’t be able to find the books, but who knew?

Her thoughts mocked her.  And what might whisper in his ear, when he’s in the mood to listen?

“It’s supposed to be easier to deal with a bonded demon, one providing the power for a spell,” Void said.  “There are legends of demons bound into swords, or even being the swords, only to break free at the worst possible time and slaughter everyone on the battlefield before falling back into the darkness.  Or … one story insisted a demon could possess a human body and use it, as long as the magic held out.  They became monsters …”

His lips quirked.  “Or it was an excuse to get someone off the hook,” he added.  “I never quite got to the bottom of the affair.”

Emily felt troubled, although she wasn’t sure why.  It was almost as if someone had walked over her grave. 

“What happened?”

“There was a young man, decades ago,” Void said.  “He was a low-ranking aristocrat, not high enough to be really important and not low enough to be ignored.  He had a little magic, enough to cheat at games and a few other things … he was just a fop and a dandy, really, whiling away his time with wine, woman and song.  And then he went on a murder spree, displaying enough magic to daunt a newborn necromancer.  I was involved in tracking him down and … I never quite got to the bottom of it, even after catching and confronting him.”

Emily stroked her chin.  “Was he a necromancer?”

“I don’t believe so,” Void said.  “He didn’t fit the standard profile.  His magic lacked the raw brutality most necromancers display as a matter of course.  There were moments when he was actually doing things I would have sworn impossible, even for me.”

He grimaced.  “His family insisted he’d been possessed.  They might have been right.  Some of the things he said, during our final confrontation …”

The fire crackled and started to die.  “You’d better go to bed,” he said, flatly.  “You have a busy day tomorrow.”

Emily stood and curtseyed automatically, her mind elsewhere.  It was daunting, sometimes, to look at the man she’d come to love as a father and realise he had a wealth of knowledge and experience that made her look like a child.  She’d done more than most people ever would – she’d changed the world, in ways subtle and gross – and yet Void had done so much more.  And there were things even he didn’t know, or threats daunting even to him …

… And she never forgot what he’d said, that summer before the war.

Prologue II

Hildegard awoke, convinced she was no longer alone.

She wasn’t, of course.  Brandon, her boyfriend, was lying next to her, snoring.  She glanced at him, wondering briefly if he’d accidentally awakened her.  They’d spent the day helping to rebuild the school – it was still hard to believe the entire school had been entranced, as easily as a gaggle of mundanes could be controlled by their betters – and the evening enjoying each other, before showering and going to bed.  Her parents wouldn’t approve of their relationship, but Hildegard found it hard to care. Brandon had his flaws, yet …

Something moved, somehow.

Hildegard tensed, feeling more like a frightened child than a powerful magician in her final year of formal schooling.  Sweat prickled on her back, ice seeming to crawl down her spine and expanded until her entire body froze.  It felt more like a nightmare than anything real, anything she could fight … she wanted to pinch herself, or bite her lip, but her body refused to obey her.  She was trapped within her own mind … it was a nightmare.  It had to be a nightmare.

“I’m afraid this is no dream,” a voice said.  The words appeared in her head without quite going through her ears.  She had the sense someone was right behind her, peering over her shoulder, even though she was lying flat on her back.  “If you cooperate, you will not be hurt.”

She swallowed.  Brandon wasn’t moving … surely, he could hear the voice too.  Or … was it all in her head?  Was she going mad?  Hearing voices was never a good sign.  Or … she wanted to think it was just a nightmare, but she could no longer believe it.  It felt like a waking dream.

Her body twitched, moving of its own accord.  It pushed the blanket aside and swing its legs – her legs – over the side of the bed, standing up in a manner that made her feel she was going to tumble and fall like a toddler still learning to walk.  The room lights came on, shredding her last hopes it was all just a dream.  Her body walked up and down, her arms swinging wildly, as whatever force was controlling her body was learning how to do it properly.  She gritted her teeth and tried to fight, centring herself as if she were resisting a compulsion spell, but it was pointless.  Whatever had been done to her was no common spell.  She couldn’t even begin to get a grip on the spellware …

She tried to speak.  Somehow.  “What are you?”

“That is a difficult question to answer,” the voice said.  Panic shot through her.  The voice was inside her head!  It was warm and amused and … oddly masculine.  And not, she thought, entirely human.  “Suffice it to say that I have need of your body.  If you behave, I will refrain from damaging your body.”

Hildegard wanted to scream.  “Let me go!”

The voice ignored her.  Her body stopped in front of a mirror.  Hildegard – mentally – gritted her teeth as the voice studied her appearance, then summoned a nightgown and pulled it over her head, then checked her appearance again.  She looked … normal, save for her eyes.  She hoped, prayed, someone would notice something, if they left the bedroom.  She wasn’t sure what time it was, but … surely, someone would be patrolling the corridors.  Or the wards would realise she was under a spell …

Brandon shifted, his voice sleepy.  “Hilde …”

Hildegard felt a flash of hope, which died a second later as her body turned, raised a hand and cast a spell.  Brandon had no time to react before his body blurred and warped into a tiny statue of himself.  The sheer power was terrifying.  Hildegard was no slouch at magic, and Brandon was nearly as good as herself, but she’d never been able to cast such a spell.  She wanted to think her boyfriend would free himself, yet she knew better.  The spell was so powerful it might be impossible to break, even unintentionally.  It would take years for it to wear off naturally.

“It would have been better for all if he’d slept,” the voice observed.  It sounded vastly amused.  “But it was not to be.”

“Let him go,” Hildegard pleaded.  “Please …”

“When this is over, he will be freed,” the voice told her.  “But then, that depends on your cooperation.”

Hildegard despaired as her body turned and made its way through the door, into the cold corridor beyond.  She was trapped in her own mind, imprisoned by a foe who could read her every thought and react well before she could do something – anything – to free herself.  Her thoughts ran in circles, coming up with plan after plan … none of which were even remotely workable.  She could feel the voice’s amusement as it watched her panic, intruding on her thoughts in a manner she’d thought impossible.  Resistance was futile.  She couldn’t hope to fight and yet she hated the thought of giving up and letting it do whatever it liked with her body.  It was … it was a nightmare.

“Tell yourself that, if it brings you comfort,” the voice observed.  “But this is as real as reality gets.”

Her body felt colder, somehow, as it walked down the stairs, into the hall and down to a concealed entrance she hadn’t known existed.  She – they – were alone.  She hoped someone would notice them – a student raiding the kitchens, a staff member on patrol – but Whitehall was as dark and silent as the grave.  The voice showed no hesitation as it compelled her body to open the hidden door, then walk down into a dusty passageway.  Her body sneezed, helplessly, giving her a window of opportunity to retake control.  It wasn’t anything like long enough.  The voice pushed her back into her box and held her there effortlessly.  And …

It was harder, now, to form coherent thoughts.  “What is this place?”

Surprisingly, the voice answered.  “Old Whitehall,” it said, as if it expected the words to mean something to her.  “The original tunnels, built to channel the power of the nexus point, before our time came to an end.”

Hildegard blinked.  “Our time?”

The voice didn’t answer.  Her body stopped in front of a blank stone wall.  Her hand reached out and pressed against the stone, feeling nothing … and then, in a sudden burst of insight, a webbing of magic hidden under the stone.  It was fiendishly complex, put together by a twisted mind with access to near-infinite levels of power … layers upon layers of magical traps, each one carefully rigged to make it difficult to disarm one without triggering the others.  It was paranoid to a degree that shocked her.  Her uncle had been paranoid, and he’d woven so many traps into his home that he’d never been able to keep servants, but he’d been the most trusting man imaginable compared to the person who’d designed the ward network in front of her.  It was almost as if the designer had wanted to make sure no one, including the designer herself, ever got into the chamber.

“Quite,” the voice agreed.  “Her confidence would normally be entirely justified.  No human mind could handle the level of magic required to break into the chamber.”

Hildegard shivered.  “You’re not human.”


The wards sparkled one final time, then flickered and died.  The stone wall vanished, revealing a dark and dusty chamber beyond.  Hildegard’s body stepped inside, her eyes somehow picking out details despite the darkness.  A pair of wooden tables, piled high with books and scrolls; a wooden chest, bound with iron bands … she shivered, again, as she saw the runes carved into the metal.  Some she recognised, old lettering she knew from her family’s collection of ancient tomes; others were strange, yet somehow terrifying.  She wasn’t sure why.

A sense of victory ran through her mind.  It wasn’t hers.  “Finally.”

“Old books,” Hildegard said.  Or thought.  “You did all this for old books.”

“Very old and very special books,” the voice said.  Her body picked up an ancient manuscript.  Her fingers jerked, as if they were trying to throw the book away.  “And hidden away for a very good reason.”

Hildegard sensed something moving behind her.  Her body turned, just in time to see the stone wall shimmer back into place.  Magic shifted around them, trapping them.  She knew, although she wasn’t sure how, there was no way out.  She couldn’t help herself.  Despite everything, she giggled.

“We’re trapped,” she said.  The voice had taken control of her and used her and … they were both trapped now, doomed to starve to death.  “You’ve killed us both!”

“Really?”  There was no hint of concern in the voice’s tone.  “We shall see.”

Chapter One

The more things change, Emily reflected, the more they stay the same.

She stood on the Royal Mile and looked down the road.  Alexis, the capital city of the Kingdom of Zangaria, was heaving with people, from kings and princes to commoners who’d come in hopes of making a profit from the visitors.  There were ambassadors and diplomats and secret representatives, magicians of all stripes, tradesmen and broadsheet men … and, she suspected, thousands upon thousands of people who wanted to tell their children, in days to come, that they’d visited Alexis during the Conference.  Her eyes flickered over the faces of dozens of people – some aristocrats, some magicians, some commoners – who were making their way up the street to visit the castle or the aristocratic mansions nearby, hoping to threaten or cajole or barter with people they would not, normally, have shared a single word.  Not everyone expected the Conference to solve anything – Emily herself suspected a great many issues were going to be settled through naked force, rather than honeyed words or secret dealings – but it was the chance of a lifetime for make contacts from right across the Allied Lands.  The White City had been orderly.  Alexis … was not,

Her lips twitched as she studied the shops and stalls, lining the roads.  The city’s population  had always been industrious, despite some of their more unpleasant kings and councillors, and they were taking full advantage of the opportunity offered to them.  Food stalls were everywhere, offering everything from half-cooked meat and vegetables to luxury foodstuffs like burgers, pizza and a handful of other earthly dishes she’d recreated and accidentally popularised over the last few years.  Heralds ran up and down the road, bellowing out the latest news so loudly their voices blurred together into a cacophony that was impossible to follow, their messages jumbled together to the point they tested everyone’s patience; broadsheet criers, slightly more restrained, hawked their special editions, often outdated even before they left the printing presses.  The older, more established, shops were doing a roaring trade too.  The tailors and dressmakers were outfitting hundreds of aristocrats keen to follow the latest styles, as well as wealthy merchants and their families who – now the sumptuary laws had been repelled – intended to make themselves look as rich and powerful as the aristocracy, perhaps even make it easier for their children to marry into the aristocracy.  Emily suspected it wouldn’t work out as well as they’d hoped, but who knew?  The world was in flux.  Waves of change were sweeping right across the Allied Lands and the ones who rode the waves might find themselves carried to heights that would have been unimaginable, a few short years ago.

A model steam train chuffed past her, the driver pretending to steer the miniature locomotive as it followed the tiny set of tracks someone had laid around a pair of mid-sized houses and a tiny garden.  The children riding on the model coaches laughed and cheered, their parents eyeing them wistfully as the ride came to an end.  Emily felt a surge of pride as her eyes flickered over the tiny engine – it looked like a toy – and the other amusements shipped in from Cockatrice and Heart’s Eye.  A handful of hot air balloons rose into the air – on tethers, naturally – allowing commoners and aristocrats alike to see their city from above and realise, for the first time, just how large it truly was.  An airship hung in the distance, flying tours around the Royal Lands and reminding everyone just how quickly the balance of power had shifted.  Emily suspected that at least a third of the people clamouring for tours, and rides, of the airship were actually spies, looking for clues to how the airship actually functioned so their kingdoms could build their own.  She knew there were at least five ongoing projects to duplicate, and improve, on the airships.  She’d be surprised if there were weren’t more.

She leaned back as a marching band pranced down the street, playing the Ballard of the Levelling Men.  It was escorted by a number of Levellers, passing out pamphlets inviting the city’s population to do everything from join unions and guilds to demand a share in actually governing the city itself.  Emily doubted Alassa – and the city’s upper classes – were particularly pleased with that, but the genie was out of the bottle and couldn’t be put back with anything less than full-scale war, which the aristocrats might lose.  Alluvia had already fallen completely to revolutionary forces – the reactionaries had been effectively driven out of the country – and quite a few other kingdoms were unsteady, perhaps on the verge of revolution or civil war.  She had the feeling the only thing keeping some kingdoms from collapsing was the simple truth that none of the revolutionaries could agree on what they wanted, something that might change in a hurry if the monarchs worked up the nerve to crack down.  But then, they probably didn’t have the power to impose their will any longer.  Void had left more than a few kingdoms in tatters.

Now we have to pick up the mess, Emily thought, quietly.  And see if we can shape the future.

Hardly anyone paid any attention to her, to her secret amusement and quiet relief.  She didn’t look extra-ordinary to them, although she’d been convinced to swap her favourite blue dress for sorcerer’s black.  It was forbidden for anyone to wear the colour unless they had magic, the garb warning any young bucks and blades – or pickpockets – it might be better to try their luck elsewhere.  Emily was mildly surprised a great many young woman didn’t wear black, despite the law.  The street harassment she’d been cautioned about back home, when she’d been a child, was nothing compared to the harassment faced by powerless young woman on the streets here, particularly if they had no obvious protector.  It made her feel sick to think about it, even though she’d never faced it directly.  She’d done what she could about it, at both Cockatrice and Heart’s Eye, but changing a far too misogynist culture was a long and difficult task.  She feared, sometimes, it wouldn’t be completed in her lifetime.

She shook her head, brushing her brown hair back as she gazed up at the castle.  The last two weeks had been alternatively boring and infuriating, when she’d done her best to help Alassa and the others hammer out a settlement.  They’d gotten nowhere, to the point she suspected they were wasting their time.  It had taken nearly a week to sort out an order of precedence, only to have it overturned within a day … she wondered, sourly, if it might have been wiser to only invite the kings and their ambassadors, rather than the entire world.  But there were so many people who had to have their say, or felt they should, that excluding them would have ensured the settlement didn’t stick.  It was funny, really.  She’d grown up thinking kings were all-powerful, but it wasn’t true.  A king who alienated most of his aristocracy was a dead man walking.  He’d certainly be pretty close to powerless.

“Opportunity for all,” a voice bellowed.  “Land for all!  Titles for all!”

Emily turned, to see a wooden stall festooned with maps of the Blighted Lands.  The necromancers were gone, leaving parts of their former territory opened for settlement and other parts, unfortunately, as dangerous as they’d ever been.  She frowned as she studied the maps – the local mapmakers weren’t very accurate, but these were amateurish even by their standards – and then listened to the speaker promising wealth and glory to anyone who invested in his enterprise.  The crowd seemed unsure what to make of it.  Land was still the key to aristocracy, as far as most of them were concerned, and there was plenty to be had on the wrong side of the Craggy Mountains … if, of course, one survived the first few years of trying to build a settlement.  The necromancers hadn’t been the only monsters lurking in the poisoned lands …

“Lady Emily herself verified the lands,” the speaker proclaimed.  “She cleared them for settlement.”

Emily snorted in disgust and stepped forward, the crowd spotting her outfit and hastily stepping aside.  None of them recognised her – her official paintings were so varied she sometimes wondered just who the artists thought they were painting – but no one in their right mind would try to stop a full-fledged sorceress, not unless they had the power to defend themselves.  Sorceresses tended to be vicious, when it came to defending themselves.  And very few, afterwards, would question their insistence they had been defending themselves.

“Ah, a sorceress,” the speaker said.  “Would you care to invest in this endeavour?”

Emily studied him thoughtfully, long enough to make him look a little nervous.  Up close, he looked a little too good to be true.  Blond hair, neatly styled; a neat little moustache and goatee … his clothes were bright, colourful and carefully tailored, she noted, to allow him to run for his life if the crowd realised they were being conned.  And it was a con.  She knew perfectly well that she had never cleared any lands for settlement, not on the other side of the mountains.

“You say Lady Emily cleared these lands,” she said.  She was tempted to draw it out, but she knew from painful experience that a quick-witted and fast-talking conman could easily outmanoeuvre a socially-awkward person.  Someone who knew how to get the crowd on his side could neatly avoid any probing questions, perhaps even make the asker – though some curious alchemy – into the bad guy.  “Do you have a document, signed in her hand?”

“Of course,” the conman said, quickly.  She thought he was nervous, although it was hard to be sure.  A practiced conman would be good at hiding his real feelings.  “She even verified the maps!”

Emily eyed them.  They were so vague they could be anywhere.  There was no indication of scale, nothing to suggest the true size of the territory … they could show ten square miles, or a hundred, or nothing at all.  A child could have done a better job of drawing an imaginary map, she thought, although she could understand why the conman hadn’t included more than the bare bones. The fewer details on the map, the fewer ways to trip him up.

“How good to hear,” she said, smoothly.  “I’m sure you’ll have no objection to showing us the documents, with her seal?”

The conman hesitated.  “They have to be kept safe,” he said, quickly.  “I can’t be disturbing her for replacements, or she’ll turn me into a toad!”

No, I wouldn’t, Emily thought.  She wasn’t petty or cruel or outrightly sadistic.  If I’d handed you the documents and you lost them, I’d replace them …

The crowd didn’t seem too impressed.  The conman seemed to sense his misstep.  Emily hid her amusement, somehow.  Her reputation was … embarrassing at times, a young woman who was sweetness and light incarnate and always nice to the servants, but it did have a few advantages.  Sometimes.

“We can clear this up easily,” Emily said.  “I can cast a truthspell and you can swear to the existence of those documents, straight from Lady Emily herself.”

The conman turned and ran, sprinting away with astonishing speed.  The crowd surged forward to give chase, a handful remaining behind to loot what they could from the makeshift stall.  Emily hoped there weren’t many people who’d invested in the scam before she’d arrived, although it was impossible to be sure.  The conman couldn’t have been running his scam for long.  The city guards would have noticed – eventually – and started asking a few pointed questions.  Taking an aristocrat’s name in vain would land the conman in very real trouble.  No aristocrat ever born would tolerate it for a moment,

She headed in the other direction, making her way further down the road.  The street seemed to be growing even more crowded, something she would have thought impossible, as more and more people spilled out of the surrounding houses and into the open air.  The locals hadn’t hesitated to open their houses to the visitors, charging a pretty penny for a mattress on a dingy floor … that was luxury, she’d heard, compared to the visitors who were sleeping on stone floors, or occupying one of the rickety apartment blocks that kept falling down every so often, or even sleeping in alleyways that were normally kept clear by the city’s guardsmen.  The aristocrats had turned their gardens into campsites … she wondered, idly, if they were charging rent or, more practically, offering the tents in exchange for later services.  Probably the latter.  The aristocrats wouldn’t charge their peers anything as common as rent.  That was reserved for the commoners.

A shadow fell over her as the airship glided overhead.  The crowd stared, some cringing as if they expected the airship to fall out of the sky or start dropping bombs.  A couple of men muttered protective charms … Emily eyed them warily, concerned they might start hurling fireballs at the airship too.  It should be pointless, if the runic magic worked as advertised, but she didn’t want to test it.  The thought of an airship crashing onto a largely-wooden city was terrifying …

“Make way for His Grace,” a voice bellowed.  “Make way!”

Emily turned and winced as she saw a fancy carriage, escorted by a handful of mounted troopers straight out of a bygone age.  Cavalry still had their uses, she fancied, but not on the battlefield.  She’d seen mounted charges – and hordes of orcs – cut to pieces by modern weapons, changing the face of battle in a handful of bloody and completely one-sided slaughters.  The aristocrats had been slow to realise the truth, until it had been presented to them in a manner they couldn’t ignore.  She felt a stab of sympathy for the mounted horsemen, dressed in colours that would make them easily visible on the battlefield.  They could frighten and dominate unarmed peasants, but armed men would wipe them out in seconds.

“Clear the way,” an imperious voice demanded, from inside the carriage.  “Move the rabble.”

Emily cursed under her breath.  The carriage and its escorts had run straight into a group coming in the other direction.  They were too tightly pressed for one to give way to the other, not easily, and …

A hatch opened.  A middle-aged man poked his head out and glared at the crowd.  “I said clear the way,” he bellowed.  His face was fat and sweaty, his hair seemingly glistening with liquid.  “Whip the rabble if you must …

The second group reacted with practiced speed, drawing muskets and flintlock pistols and pointing them at the first.  Emily groaned.  Levellers.  They had to be.  And if one group started a fight … the range was too close for the armed men to wipe out the cavalry without being threatened themselves, yet too far for the cavalry to take out the gunmen before it was too late.  Her mind raced desperately.  The Levellers wouldn’t back down – it was a point of pride to them that they never bent the knee to anyone – and the wretched aristocrat was unlikely to back down either.  She didn’t know him or recognise his livery, but she knew the type.  The idea a mere commoner could defy them was unthinkable.  It simply didn’t happen.

She hurried forward, wrapping her magic around herself in a protective haze.  Most sorcerers underestimated firearms, particularly the primitive matchlocks that were spreading from kingdom to kingdom like wildfire.  They didn’t see the bullets as dangerous … it had made sense, years ago, but not now.  Now …

“Lady Sorceress,” a Leveller said.  Emily guessed he was the leader … elected, of course.  Levellers never did anything without a debate, then a vote.  The system worked reasonably well from what she’d heard … mostly.  “This man is …”

“Get these dogs out of my way,” the aristocrat howled.  “I have an appointment with Her Majesty and I must not be late!”

“Get out of our way,” the Leveller snapped back.  “We were here first!”

“Turn them into slugs and step on them,” the aristocrat said.  “I …”

Emily held up her ring finger, displaying the signet ring.  The aristocrat stared at it.  Emily was a Baroness, at the very least … her exact rank, she’d realised a while back, wasn’t anything like so clear.  Alassa had offered to confirm her as a Duchess, pointing out that Emily’s position was far more than just another Baroness, but Emily had declined.  She didn’t want or need rank or titles.  In hindsight, if she’d realised what it meant, she might have declined the Barony King Randor had given her.

But it does come in handy, sometimes, she reflected.  I outrank this gentleman.

“You, get out and walk,” she said, firmly.  The nasty part of her mind insisted that some exercise would probably do the man good.  Thankfully, his men were smart enough to sheathe their weapons without waiting for orders.  “You’re not going to get a carriage up the road in time to make your appointment, no matter what sort of force you use.  Your staff can take the carriage back to the coaching house and wait for you.”

She turned to the Levellers.  “You, walk past the carriage and continue onwards.  Understand?”

“Yes, Lady Sorceress,” the leader said.  There was a hint of relief in his voice.  He’d known how nasty it could get, if the confrontation turned into an actual fight.  It could have sparked a riot, perhaps even a war.  “And thank you.”

Emily sighed inwardly.  Not all of his followers seemed so pleased.  She couldn’t blame them.  The aristocrats had treated the commoners like serfs and slaves, even the freemen, and some of their victims wanted to get their own back.  Why not?  She knew the answer – it would end all hope of a peaceful transfer of power – but others didn’t.  They just wanted revenge.

She watched the aristocrat waddle away, then sighed again.  It was going to be a long day.

5 Responses to “Snippet – The Demon’s Design (Schooled in Magic 25 (Emily!))”

  1. benbailey12373 January 30, 2023 at 2:01 pm #

    OMG I was bouncing up and down like a kid on christmas morning when this email came through. I freaking LOVE SIM!!!

  2. Tom January 30, 2023 at 10:22 pm #

    Eagerly awaiting the release

  3. Ermine Todd III February 1, 2023 at 5:27 am #

    Very encouraging start. Thank you. I’ve missed Emily.

  4. Fafnir February 5, 2023 at 5:36 am #

    Yeah! Emily’s back!

    • ananuri February 8, 2023 at 8:24 am #

      Emily is back!!!!! That is great!!!!!

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