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Pre-Order Now – Chrishangers!

25 Sep

I’m trying an experiment in which I put this up for pre-order, in hopes of a sales surge on launch day.  Please pre-order now if interested <grin>.

For the past decade, I have been writing science-fiction, fantasy and alternate history novellas and short stories, some of which have been published, others left to languish and still others existing only in my mind until I started to put this collection together, both in commemoration of my first decade as a successful writer and as an introduction to my longer works and universes.

Ride with Princess Alassa as she discovers how far her father will go to keep his throne, then join a young witch facing a dilemma that forces her to choose between her school and her friend.  Learn what happened, far in the past, when Void and his brothers set out to change the world, then follow a young Emily as an older sorceress challenges her principles and threatens a fate worse than death.  See what might be required to settle the asteroids – and defend them.  Learn what might have happened if Germany had tried to fight on in 1919, or send Graf Zeppelin to raid convoys in 1941, or even tried to invade Britain in 1940 – unsuccessfully. 

Featuring stories from Ark Royal, Schooled in Magic and others that stand-alone, and a certain amount of author commentary, Chrishangers features glimpses of worlds very different and yet still human, realities alien to ours and yet connected … and much, much, more.

Pre-Order HERE!

You Will Get …

Hasdrubal’s Tale (Schooled in Magic) – New

Alassa’s Tale (Schooled in Magic) – Reprint

The Right Thing To Do (Schooled in Magic)            – New

A Little Knowledge (Schooled In Magic) – New

The Man Behind The Curtain (Schooled in Magic) – New

The Second Battle of Dorking (Stand Alone) – New

A Strategic Analysis of European Defence and Security Policy Immediately Prior to the EU-Russia War (The Fall of Night) – New

When The King Enjoys His Own Again (Alternate History)            – New

The Kaiserin of the Seas (Alternate History)            – Reprint

Drang nach Osten (Alternate History) – Reprint

Sealion Fails (Alternate History) – New

A Woman’s Place is Out in Space (Ark Royal) – New

Life During Wartime (Ark Royal) – Reprint

OUT NOW – The Stranded (Mystic Albion I)

21 Sep

Centuries ago, the magic left our world … and the magicians went with it, stepping into the Gates to Mystic Albion and leaving OldeWorld – Earth – forever.  Since then, the two worlds have remained separate, until now.

Three young magicians, experimenting with dangerous spells, find themselves accidentally transported to the world their ancestors fled.  Finding friends and allies, they try to blend in as they struggle to find a way back to their home, unaware that danger lurks in the shadows of a very alien world …

… And that they are already running out of time.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon or Books2Read.

You Might Also Like – The Chimera Coup

OUT NOW: The Chimera Coup (The Heirs of Cataclysm Book 1)

20 Sep

Once, there was a shining civilization grounded on magic, with sorcerers, flying cities, iron ships, and castles in the clouds, and wonders beyond the dreams of mortal men.

And then, in a single cataclysmic moment fifty years ago, magic flared and the wondrous world came to an end. What few who survived are struggling to reclaim what they lost, while darker forces plot to shape the future to something more to their liking.

John, a young magician, is expelled from school after a disastrous experiment scarred his girlfriend and sent to join a band of adventurers in the Wildlands, the rough and twisted lands on the edge of the civilized world. Their first mission: defeat an evil sorcerer and liberate his thralls before he becomes a threat to all.

But it may already be too late…

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase HERE!

Snippet: The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress V)

20 Sep

Prologue

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.”

Oh No More Updates!

16 Sep

It’s been a rough few weeks.

The good news is that my lymphoma is completely in remission.  It left its scars on my body, unfortunately, but the doctor is fairly confident it isn’t going to come back – at least, not in a hurry.  There are no guarantees, of course, and it will be a long time before I stop panicking at every unexplained twinge – the ones I ignored in 2017, to my cost – but it’s good news.  The bad news is that my sinus problem keeps popping up, every time I go off the antibiotics and they’re actually proving less effective, so the doctor is hoping to get to the bottom of that sooner or later.  And I have a gallstone operation on the 24th.  Joy.

That said, I have completed the first draft of The Conjuring Man, the third and final Cunning Man book.  I have also finished a novella for Fantastic SchoolsThe Muckraker’s Tale – and a handful of short stories for various collections.  The Stranded is just waiting on the cover before I bring it out, while All for All is still waiting on the edits.  You can also pre-order The Family Secret in audio through the link here and Stuck in Magic is on the way.

(There’s been a slight delay with the next Ark Royal – my plot fell apart and I need to come up with something new.)

Despite all that, I’ve gotten behind on a lot of other things.  I’ve been trying to catch up with email and FB messages, but there’s a bunch I haven’t had time to read, let alone reply to.  If you’re still waiting on a reply, sorry – I’ll try and get to it soon.

In other news, we enjoyed our time in Malaysia and Turkey.  Our flight from Edinburgh wasn’t that bad – the check-in went surprisingly well, security was clogged with people and passing through was harder because the rules weren’t updated to account for the pressure – but it was delayed for four hours, so we hung around in the airport until we were allowed to board the plane.  Turkey wasn’t too bad, although our favourite restaurant had shut down between 2019 and 2022, so we couldn’t go there.  Malaysia is as hot as always.  I’ve discovered I really hate writing on a laptop keyboard too.

It’s interesting to see how Malaysia is coping with COVID.  We were told we needed a vaccination certificate to enter, but no one checked it.  The bigger shopping malls in KL are checking the Malaysian app for vaccine certificates, but no one else is bothering as far as I can tell.  (We attended my brother in law’s wedding and no one checked there either, despite hundreds of people being crammed into a relatively small space.)  There’s been a lot of economic damage, but mainly – as far as I can see – to the bigger names and shopping facilities.  A lot of the smaller stuff seems to have picked up and carried on, although it’s hard to be sure.

I’m hoping to start The Revolutionary War next week, luck and health permitting.

On other news, the themes for Fantastic Schools 7 and 8 will be ‘sports’ and ‘staff,’ basically stories centred on school sports or the staff, teachers, janitors, etc.  If you’re interested in submitting a story, please check out the rules and drop us a note.

And please feel free to follow me.

Chris

Background: The Machinists

13 Sep

These are background notes for a possible story/trilogy. What do you think?

Background: The Machinists

Of all the various ideologies that sprang out of the tumultuous years of the British Civil Wars (1642–1651), one would not expected Mechanism to rise from nothing to become the dominant ideology of the entire world and soar system beyond.  Many people expected, even after King Charles was stripped of his title and beheaded, that the kingdom would eventually have another king or collapse into chaos in the absence of a strong monarch.  Instead, the groundwork for the transition to a whole new society was laid – partly by accident – and Mechanism became a political movement that undermined its enemies to the point long-term resistance was simply impossible.

Mechanism was born from the fertile mind of Admiral Lord Treathwick and his two children, General Arnold Treathwick (eventually Lord Protector) and Sarah Treathwick.  Lord Treathwick was, at the time, a high-ranking naval officer who sided with Parliament in the opening years of the civil war (ensuring that Mechanism had a powerful backer right from the start) while Arnold was a young man who joined the Parliamentary cause, became a close personal friend of Oliver Cromwell and eventually assisted him to construct the New Model Army that won the first round of conflict.  Sarah Treathwick, unusually for her era, was one of the most educated women in the country, and the inventor of the first steam engine and advanced guns.  She was, in many ways, the true founder of Mechanism.  She was certainly the one who took the time to analyse the political issues being discussed during the era and forge them into a workable ideology.  In later years, it would be claimed Mechanism had many fathers but only one mother.

Mechanism claims to be a scientific ideology, although – at least at first – there was a strong religious tinge to its platform.  It is based on three core points:

First, mankind has a duty to study his environment and advance his technology so he can reach his full potential.  In the early days, it was argued that doing so would allow man to rise above the savage and closer to God; later, as religion declined in importance, the concept of mankind actually becoming godlike would eventually take centre stage.

Second, all men – regardless of colour, gender or creed – have the same inherent potential to rise and, if they choose to do so, they should be accepted as equals.  Mechanism had a superiority complex, like many other ideologies, but it also makes room for newcomers willing to join up.  Linked to this, deliberately suppressing anyone’s potential is regarded as fundamentally harmful.  Slavery and serfdom, for example, were eventually banned within the Mechanist Protectorate, then the rest of the world. 

Third, Machinists have a duty to spot individuals with considerable potential and take them as their clients, offering them opportunities to develop their skills and rise in the ranks.

The success of Mechanism, at least in the early years, is easily explained.  The development of steam-powered warships changed the face of warfare, allowing the newborn Protectorate to crush the Dutch and secure vast possessions in North America and the Caribbean.  The development of railways – and eventually steam-powered cars and airships – allowed the country to be united as never before, particularly in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s campaigns against the Scots and Irish.  Sarah, in the meantime, worked to lure more female minds into engineering and medicine, in particularly creating a sisterhood of nurses who revolutilised medicine.  More significantly, the development of patron/client relationships, modelled by General Treathwick, ensured the Protectorate would always have a sizable reservoir of talented men to call upon.  Indeed, while Oliver Cromwell still assumed  de facto supreme power as Lord Protector, he knew to pay close attention to his supporters, including General Treathwick and his sister. 

Cromwell’s death, in 1660, brought hope to the remaining monarchists and others who felt threatened by the rise of Mechanism.  This hope was swiftly quashed.  The post of Lord Protector was passed, as planned, to General Treathwick, while a handful of minor rebellions against the Protectorate were swiftly crushed.  This was unfortunate for the exiled Charles Stuart (the Protectorate never accepted his claim to be Charles II) and he, with backing from the French and Spanish, triggered off the First Global War.  This was a mistake.  Charles’s attempt to invade England swiftly reminded the English while they’d deposed his father, while the Franco-Spanish invasion of the Dutch Protectorate (brought into the Protectorate after their defeat) rapidly bogged down.  The Protectorate rallied and counterattacked, sweeping the seas clean of enemy ships and mounting a major invasion of France itself.

On paper, their armies didn’t stand a chance.  They were grossly outnumbered by the forces the French (and Spanish) could raise against them.  In practice, the odds were a great deal better than they looked.  The Protectorate troops were better led, better disciplined and better equipped than their enemies, who were not only behind the technological curve but also led by aristocrats who lacked the experience to understand how war had changed in the last hundred years.  Worst of all, for the French and Spanish, their enemy’s ideology was extremely attractive to vast numbers of their own people, who liked the idea of having land redistributed, limited taxes, freedom of religion and much – much – else.  The Royalist Alliance, as it eventually became known, gave the Protectorate some nasty moments, but eventual revolutions in their rear made it impossible for them to hold their kingdoms together.  The remainder of the royalists fled east, to Russia, while the Protectorate rebuilt their kingdoms and assimilated them.  It was the dawn of a whole new age.

Development moved fast.  Railways extended east into Europe and west into North America.  (The Russians and Ottomans, realising the threat, started their own industrialisation programs in a desperate bid to catch up.)  The natives were either assimilated or simply pushed aside (Machinist histories tend to gloss over effective genocide) while the new colonies grew rapidly.  The transfer of power to a third Lord Protector, upon General Treathwick’s death, effectively marked the day Mechanism came of age.  There were other ideologies, mainly religions, but none of them were politically powerful.  Mechanism had effectively assimilated them too.

It was not long, as technology continued to develop, that clashes started between the Protectorate and its new enemies.  The Russians and Ottomans remained in their strange alliance while, as the Protectorate extended its tendrils into the Far East, it found itself clashing with China, Japan and various Indian states.  Japan, internally divided, was swiftly annexed and assimilated (a process made easier by the Mechanist lack of overt racism); India and China rapidly became battlegrounds, with Protectorate influence inching up from the south while the Russians and Ottomans divided Persia between them and probed from the north and west respectively.  The result was inevitable.  War.

The Second Great War (1800-1815, as it became known, was brutal.  Both sides had built powerful armies, navies and air forces, pushing the limits of available technology as far as they would go.  The Russians were not quite as advanced as the Protectorate, but they made up for it by sheer weight of numbers and a police state that made it difficult for Mechanism to spread into their lands.  However, as the war progressed and both sides developed rockets and atomic weapons, the Protectorate’s superiority began to tell.  Russia’s surrender in 1815 brought the war to an end – fighting would continue for years in many places, with the last resistance not quashed until 1890 – and left the Protectorate dominating the planet.  It was quick to seek a new cause, by developing space technology and reaching the nearby moon and planets. 

And then, in 2000, the Protectorate – experimenting with FTL travel – discovered it could extend its reach into other timelines …

***

The Protectorate (formally the Mechanist Protectorate) is a curious mix between fascism, communism and what we might call a military democracy.  It is a highly-regimented society that is surprisingly good at ensuring its citizens find roles that are both satisfactory for them and the wider world.  It expects citizens to work to rise within the ranks and yet ensures everyone has the basics of life, from enough to eat and drink to basic education and assessment tests customised to ensure students go where they’d best suited.  It is a supremacist society in the truest possible sense, but – at the same time – it is very welcoming of immigrants and outsiders who are willing to conform.  The fact there is a clear and very valid path to citizenship, even to leadership, accounts for the society’s ability to convert outsiders and effectively steal their talented (and often unfairly restrained) citizens for themselves. 

On paper, all citizens are created equal.  (In practice, there’s always been a certain degree of nepotism within the upper ranks, although a combination of social pressure and dire consequences for incompetence keeps it under control.)  Everyone has the same basic education and access to resources, as well as skilled teachers capable of separating students by ability.  At twelve, students are put through a set of aptitude tests and then offered places in higher education tailored to their particular skills and aspirations.  At eighteen, they are generally streamlined into their future careers, whatever they may be.  They are often also quietly introduced to prospective partners, although there is little compulsion in such matters.

Young men are expected to either enter long-term employment or join the military (or related divisions, such as space exploration).  Young women are expected to spend their early adulthood having children; they don’t enter employment until much later, after the children are weaned and sent to school.  (This isn’t a hard and fast rule, although the government works hard to ensure women with good genes pass them on by supporting mothers and, in some cases, ensuring children from extremely talented women are taken into care right from birth.)  Once in employment, the newcomers are encouraged to seek out mentors who will assist them in developing their careers, eventually rising as far as they can go. 

The population is effectively divided into ranks, based on how high their talents and competences can take them.  The upper ranks are supposed to serve and protect the lower ranks, on the theory talent can come from anywhere, and to a large extent it generally worked.  Once someone reaches the higher ranks in their particular career, they have the vote and a certain amount of influence.  There are more checks and balances, largely unwritten, in this structure than you might think.  A military regiment, for example, has the right to elect and impeach its officers (in peacetime; doing it under fire is regarded as a major disciplinary issue and almost always leads to court martial and death sentences.)  A wise senior, whatever his rank, will listen to his subordinates and at least try to justify his decision to them.

The enfranchised citizens elect representatives to the Assembly and Parliament, which in turn elect the Lord Protector (both Head of State and Head of Government) from a handful of names.  This is not a particularly transparent process and involves a great deal of horse-trading between the various government, military and industrial interests, although – again – there is some incentive to justify the final selection.  It is hard for the average person to make their opinions felt, but the risk of a politician being unseated can never be wholly discounted. 

The Protectorate itself is divided into states (some matching the pre-1600 political boundaries) and dominions.  States have effective internal rule in line with Mechanist principles.  Dominions have, at least on paper, a ruling class of Mechanists that is open to any of the locals who want to forsake their old ways and join up.  In theory, non- Mechanists are free to do as they like as long as they don’t threaten the state, directly or indirectly; in practice, there is strong social pressure to conform and woe betide anyone who stands between the Protectorate and something it wants.  The Protectorate has few qualms about using the most extreme measures to deal with opposition, from military invasion to effective genocide. 

For the citizens, life isn’t that bad.  The basic necessities are provided.  (The Mechanists are fond of remarking you have to work to earn if you want more than the basics.)  There is a certain degree of political and personal freedom.  Those who start their own businesses and prosper can expect great honour, even a sudden rise in the ranks.  There is even a remarkable amount of freedom of speech (you are free to criticize the Lord Protector and his individual officers, but not the Protectorate or Mechanism itself) and social mobility.  For the military, there are also opportunities to show your talents and win promotion, first through skirmishes in the dominions and then through interdimensional invasions.

The Protectorate will never admit it, but there is a small underclass of citizens who cannot or will not fit into society.  Some of them are considered harmless and largely ignored (drug addicts, for example, or internet trolls); others, who start preying on the rest of society, are rapidly arrested and transported to penal camps, where they can either work or starve.  Actual subversives are rare, to the point the handful who do pop up are often ignored too.  The ones who do draw attention from the security forces are normally offered a flat choice between exile or the camps.

Outside the Protectorate, life is often rough.  The Dominions offer few comforts for outsiders, provoking bitter hatred and resentment; it is clear, to anyone with eyes to see, that the policy is effective cultural genocide.  (The Protectorate’s official position is that anyone who refuses to accept Mechanism deserves everything they get.)  Tech levels are low – Protectorate policy is to ban anything that might have military applications – and medical care very limited.  There are persistent uprisings, but none of them come close to posing a real threat and, to some extent, they are actively encouraged to blood newly-raised military formations and wipe out potentially dangerous agitators. 

***

The Protectorate is extremely technologically advanced.  The development of basic antigravity technology opened up the skies, allowing vast numbers of citizens to be transported to orbit.  The technically is still quite limited, but the military uses it for both hovertanks – capable of flying over rivers and seas, if not levitating above a certain height – and flyers (effectively supersonic VTOL aircraft).  Antigravity tech is far from perfected – oscillations in the field can tear the generator apart, forcing an emergency landing or, more likely, the flyer simply dropping out of the air and crashing.

The core of the Protectorate military is the formidable Cromwell Hovertank – a giant beast, armed with heavy plasma cannons, laser point defence and strobe pulsars designed to cause everything from panic to convulsions amongst unprotected targets.  (The Protectorate uses them for crowd and riot control.)  The Cromwell carries two platoons of unarmoured soldiers within its hull – armoured soldiers ride on top – as well as a three-man crew.  In theory, one person can operate the tank; in practice, this is only attempted under dire circumstances.

The Cromwell is backed up by the Knight Battlesuit – an armoured combat suit worn by infantry – and Angel Flyer, a supersonic aircraft aimed with plasma cannons and EMP bomblets (designed to fry unshielded) electronics.  They are also capable of carrying and deploying fusion nukes.  The fighting units are backed up by extremely capable support units, ranging from electronic warfare teams capable of hacking almost any primitive database to repair crews and intelligence teams trained to extract information from unwilling donors.

The Protectorate’s greatest invention, however, is the Interdimensional Transpositioner, device capable of swapping a piece of land in the Protectorate’s timeline for one in another dimension.  The device is far more efficient than interdimensional gates – which are extremely difficult to keep open permanently, without gateway generators on both sides of the dimensional walls – but is so costly and requires so much power to operate that it cannot be used very often and rarely more than once every two months.  The Protectorate’s standard procedure, therefore, is to use it to shift a military base – roughly the size of a small town – into the target timeline, which is then on its own until the Transpositioner can be repowered or a gateway set up to allow for steady contact between the two timelines.  These bases are extremely well-equipped and, at least in theory, capable of surviving long enough for contact to be established.

(In the event of there being natives transposed into the Protectorate timeline, they are rapidly seized and interrogated by intelligence teams to determine what sort of world exists on the far side.  They are rarely returned, unless they prove willing to assist the conquest and take high position in the post-conquest world.)

The Protectorate’s medical technology is also very advanced, with almost nothing beyond its power to cure if it isn’t immediately fatal.  Genetic engineering of more advanced humans has been discussed, but the general consensus is that it should be avoided beyond the very basics (improvement of human immune systems) as it would make it difficult for newcomers to rise if they were competing against their genetic superiors.  The nastier members of the government have been openly speculating about plagues to wipe out outsider populations, but as of now such discussions haven’t gotten beyond the theoretical.

That may, of course, change.

***

From its earliest days, the Protectorate either destroyed and rebuilt enemy societies or effectively took them over and started to reshape the country from there.  The Dutch, for example, preserved much of their cultural background from the pre-conquest days for quite some time afterwards (as Dutch society was partly compatible with the Protectorate) while France and Spain had their societies rebuilt.  India, and to some extent Japan, had the Protectorate either replacing the top-most layers of society or subverting them, inviting the former rulers to join the Protectorate and work towards full assimilation.  This is, to a very large extent, the Protectorate’s preferred approach.  It not only allows the Protectorate to make use of the enemy society’s structure and resources without a major war, but let’s enemy citizens self-select into Protectorate society, skimming the cream from the top.  Compared to Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the USSR, the Protectorate is a very enlightened conqueror.

That is not to say conquest is desirable.  The Protectorate has no qualms about crushing opposition, be it military or civilian.  It dislikes using nuclear weapons, even ones that leave no radiation behind, but will do it if it feels the need.  It is very experienced in ferreting out insurrection and willing to do whatever it takes to crush it.  Worst of all, while it would prefer to capture a society more or less intact, it is willing to destroy it in order to take it.  (“We had to destroy the village to save it” is perfect logic, as far as they are concerned.)  The more a society resists, the more inferior it is and the more willing the Protectorate is to smash it flat and rebuild from scratch.

It is, in short, an opponent to be feared.

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

28 Aug

(Now with FREE SAMPLE Link)

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, then download from the links below!

Amazon

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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

Comments?

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.