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Out Now – The Face of The Enemy (Schooled in Magic 23)

18 Apr

The Necromantic Wars are over, but there is no peace. In the aftermath of the struggle, long-held grudges are boiling over and conflicts are breaking out. The monarchs want to settle border disputes, the aristocrats want to impose their will on monarchs and peasants alike, the commoners want freedom and justice and the magical communities want to rule all or else separate themselves from the mundanes. And most of this chaos is being orchestrated by Emily’s mentor, the sorcerer Void. He believes the only path to salvation for the Allied Lands is to make himself the undisputed ruler of the world.

After discovering the truth – too late – Emily is on the run, blamed for the disorder by friend and foe alike. With a handful of allies by her side, Emily must find a safe place to gather herself and strike back before it is too late to save what remains of the Allied Lands. And yet, as she flees through lands plagued by civil wars and rebellious nobility, hunted by powerful sorcerers, aristocrats and rebels who want to kill her or use her for their own purposes, she is forced to accept it may not be possible to save everything and to realize, as much as she might wish to deny it, that her mentor might be right.

And yet, she also knows the path to hell is paved with good intentions…

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The Zero Secret – CH1

15 Apr

Chapter One

The Object of Power was a mystery.

I stared at it, feeling a puzzlement I was unwilling to admit to anyone – except, perhaps, Akin.  I knew – now, after years of research and experimentation – how to trace the lines of magic that traced out the spellform within the Object of Power.  I should have been able to determine how it interacted with the magical field and project – roughly – what it was intended to do.  A working Object of Power should have been easy to understand.  I didn’t have to take it to bits to figure out how it worked.  This one, however …

It was odd.  It looked like a glowing orange rectangular building block, no larger than my arm, yet all my tests indicated it was actually a cube.  It wasn’t uncommon for an Object of Power to look weird, as if the human mind wasn’t quite capable of grasping what it was seeing,  but this one was particularly odd.  I hadn’t been able to determine anything about it, from what processes had been used to forge it to what it actually did.  The more I looked at it, the more my puzzlement grew.  I was the most experienced Zero in the world – until recently, I’d been the only known Zero – and yet I couldn’t understand what I was seeing.  The Object of Power just made no sense.

I reached for my heavy spectacles and put them on, peering at the strands of power running through the Object of Power.  They twisted in ways I couldn’t follow, as if they were gliding in and out of reality itself.  I’d sketched the lines out repeatedly, in hopes of calculating even a tiny fraction of their function, but I’d drawn a blank.  The Object of Power seemed to do nothing, beyond producing a bright orange glow.  I was sure there was more to the mystery artefact than that.  There was no need to go to so much trouble to forge a light.  I could have crafted something to produce light that would have been quicker, simpler and easy to repair if it broke.

And there’s no one who can offer me advice, I thought, as I took a step back from the workbench and removed the spectacles.  Not being able to see magic was a severe disadvantage.  One of my first projects had been to forge an Object of Power that would allow me to see magic before it touched my skin.  No one who has the slightest idea how to take the Object apart.

I rubbed my eyes.  The Thousand-Year Empire had spent hundreds of years honing its understanding of magic.  It had known how to make best use of its magic-less Zeros.  And yet … so much had been lost since the Thousand-Year Empire had collapsed.  I’d come so far since discovering my talent – and the truth behind the Empire’s fall – and yet I knew there was so much left to be rediscovered.  The volumes upon volumes of surviving books hadn’t been as helpful as I’d hoped, even after I’d worked out what was missing.  The Empire had considered some things so obvious they’d never been written down.

The air shifted, wafting against me.  I sighed.  The Workshop – my Workshophad been designed for an entire class of Zeros.  Six years ago, we’d believed it was just a matter of time before more Zeros were discovered.  I’d seen myself studying long-lost magics and powers with my peers, uncovering secrets and discovering newer and better ways to do things.  Instead, I was alone.  Callam, the only other known Zero, had little interest in forging.  It was still hard to believe.  If he’d chosen to stay in the city …

My heart twisted.  Callam was engaged to Isabella Rubén.  Akin’s sister.  My … I shook my head, dismissing the memories with a flicker of irritation.  Isabella and I might be on better terms these days, but I was still wary of her.  The sooner she went back to her country estate, the better.  I’d gone to some trouble to forge Objects of Power to keep her and Callam safe.  It was just a matter of time before someone tried to force him to work for them.  Why not?  It wasn’t the first time.  I’d been kidnapped too, six years ago.

“Ah hem,” a voice said.  “What are you doing here?”

I jumped and tried to hide it.  There weren’t many people who could sneak up on me.  My senses were sharp, at least partly because I couldn’t rely on magic to protect me.  My sisters could, perhaps, but anyone else … I turned, composing my face with an effort.  Mum stood on the other side of the workroom, right on the edge of the red line, arms folded under her breasts.  I swallowed, hard.  Mum had spent the last week working herself into a frenzy, making sure everything was ready for the High Summer Ball, when my sisters and I would be presented to High Society.  Everyone who was anyone – or considered themselves someone – would be there.  I wasn’t so concerned myself.  I was already betrothed.  Akin and I could spend the night dancing, then slip off …

Mum tapped her foot.  “Do you know what time it is?”

“I lost track of time,” I said.  “It was three o’clock a moment ago.”

“Really?”  Mum pointed a finger at the clock on the wall.  It was pure clockwork, without even a hint of magic.  “What time is it?”

I followed her finger.  “Oh.”

“Oh indeed, young lady.”  Mum was normally kinder, but the last week had worn her down to the point she was snapping at anyone who crossed her path.  “It is six.  Six in the evening.  And when are you supposed to make your debut in front of High Society?”

“Eight,” I said, sourly.  The ball was supposed to start at seven, but – by tradition – the great and the good would be fashionably late.  We wouldn’t be presented until there was a good-sized audience.  “I’ve got time.”

Mum rested her hands on her hips.  It was hard to see, sometimes, how we were related.  My mother and I had the same dark skin, dark eyes and darker hair, but her face was sharp while mine was slightly more rounded.  I supposed it wasn’t that hard to understand.  Alana had taken after our mother, Bella had taken after our father and I, the third sister, looked like a mix of both of them.  And yet …

“You may feel that you don’t have to be there,” Mum said.  “Your sisters, however, need to be formally introduced.  And you need to be there too, to remind everyone of your existence.”

I tried not to roll my eyes.  I’d heard the lecture before, time and time again.  It never changed.  I was betrothed, but my sisters weren’t.  Not yet.  They needed to dance with eligible young men while their parents discussed possible engagements and … I shook my head.  My sisters were amongst the most eligible young women in the city.  They could be as ugly as Great Aunt Stregheria and they’d still be sure of good matches.  It might even be better for them if I wasn’t around.  There were too many families who feared what would happen if their firstborn heir was born without magic.

“And Akin will also be there,” Mum said.  That was a change.  “You want to be there for him, don’t you?”

I nodded, stiffly.  Akin and I had been betrothed for years.  I loved him, but … I’d expected years, perhaps even decades, before he had to take up his duties as Patriarch of House Rubén.  Our planned honeymoon had already been ruined.  There was no one he could trust to run the house, even for a few short weeks.  I understood – I’d been raised in the same culture, where the family came before the individual – but it still hurt.  It felt as if I would never get to leave the city again.

“Now, come here,” Mum said.  “Or do I have to frog-march you up to your rooms.”

I hastily put down my tools and hurried over to join her.  I’d drawn the red line to keep magicians out of my workspace, for fear of what would happen when their magical fields interacted with the Objects of Power.  I’d nearly died when a potion had exploded in my face.  Mum wouldn’t mean to ruin weeks of work, but she would if she crossed the line.  She shot me a stern look and marched down the corridor, away from the workshop.  I closed the door, snapped the protective bolt into place and followed her.  There was no point in arguing when my mother was in a murderous mood.

This is her day as much as it is yours, I reminded myself, sourly.  You don’t get a day of your own until you get married.

The corridors felt deserted as we made our way upstairs.  The majority of the staff would be in the ballroom or the kitchens, making the final preparations for the ball.  The remainder would be getting my sisters ready, dressing them as if they couldn’t don their own clothes.  I had to smile, even though it wasn’t really funny.  There were outfits that couldn’t be donned without help.  Thankfully, my sisters and I – in a rare moment of complete agreement – had refused to walk down the stairs wearing anything of the sort.  Mum hadn’t been pleased, but she’d backed down.

“It is important that you be there,” Mum said, as we stopped outside my rooms.  “Your sisters need you.”

I groaned.  I’d always taken a certain pride in paying as little attention as possible to the conventions of High Society.  It wasn’t as if they could kick me out.  My talents were effectively priceless and I was already betrothed.  I could cheat on my exams, murder my parents and – horror of horrors – wear trousers in polite company and no one would dare say anything against me.  Not openly, at least.  But I knew it wasn’t so easy for my sisters.  The Grande Dames were doing to pass judgement on them tonight.  And I had to be there.

“Fine.”  I stepped forward and pushed the door open.  “Let’s get it over with.”

“Yes,” Mum agreed.  She patted my shoulder.  “You’ll be fine.”

I tried not to show my discomfort as I stepped into the room.  Janet, Grace and Ellen – the maids – were already there.  They were lesser family, close enough to the main bloodline to be assured of employment and yet too far to be given any real power.  They didn’t have the talent to boost their position, or set themselves up as family clients.  There were times when I envied them.  They could go anywhere they wanted – they could even leave the city – and no one would give much of a damn.  Me?  It was hard enough walking the streets of North Shallow without a bodyguard.

The door closed behind me.  I felt uncomfortably vulnerable.  I didn’t like maids entering my rooms – I’d made it clear none of them were to enter my bedroom – and three of them at once bothered me.  It made me feel like I was about to be jumped.  My lips twisted at the thought.  It wasn’t that far from the truth.  Mum would have given them strict orders to disregard any objections – as if I was a toddler, unable to tell what was good for me – and prepare me for the ball.  I felt like a prize sow, going on display.  And it still struck me as pointless.

“This way, My Lady,” Ellen said.  She was only a couple of years older than me, but she had a no-nonsense attitude I would have admired under other circumstances.  “We have everything ready.”

I swallowed several cutting remarks as they led me into the bathroom and started to remove my clothes before half-carrying me into the bathtub.  The water smelt almost overpoweringly sweet, laced with perfume that my mother brewed personally.  The scent would fade, a little, by the time I joined my sisters for the ceremony.  I tried to stay still – somehow – as hands picked through my hair, undoing the braids and washing my scalp.  It struck me, suddenly, that after today I’d never wear my hair in braids again.  I’d be an adult.  I could do everything adults could do.  I could …

But they still won’t leave me alone with Akin until we’re safely wed, I thought, with a flicker of sour amusement.  Does this ceremony have any real meaning at all?

I tried not to snap at them as they helped me out of the bath, dried me with a pair of spells and then ran charmed combs through my hair.  It had always been springy, but High Society demanded long straight locks that ran all the way down to my backside.  It had been a minor frustration, when I’d been a child.  There were charms to straighten one’s hair, which my sisters had learnt as a matter of course, but I’d never been able to use them.  It hadn’t been until I’d forged Objects of Power to comb my hair that it had become a little easier.  Those charms, at least, had lasted more than an hour or so.

“I can dress myself,” I argued, as they led me into the next room.  The guest bed was covered in bags from the most exclusive tailors and dressmakers in the city.  “You don’t have to do it for me.”

“We have our orders, My Lady.”  Ellen sounded regretful.  I felt a twinge of guilt.  Very few people defied my mother, certainly not twice.  “Please let us do our job.”

I closed my eyes and waited as they swarmed around me, putting the white dress over my shoulders and then making small adjustments to be sure it fit perfectly.  Hands brushed though my hair, emplacing a blue flower within my locks, a reminder to all who cared to see that I was betrothed.  I doubted there was anyone in attendance who didn’t know.  The family – both families – had spent the last six years telling everyone that the match would bring lasting peace.  They’d had to offer some kind of proof of their words.

“You look lovely, My Lady,” Ellen said.

I opened my eyes and looked into the mirror.  I almost didn’t recognise the girl – young woman – looking back.  My dark hair framed a rounded face and fell around my shoulders, the white dress flattered my figure without showing anything below the neckline.  They’d even put concealer on my hands, hiding the scars from a lifetime of forgery.  I doubted that would last more than a few hours, even though there was no magic involved.  It wasn’t as if Akin didn’t already know they were there.

“It feels strange, not to be wearing braids,” I said, to myself.  It felt as if I was naked in public.  “Does it get better?”

“Yes, My Lady,” Ellen said.  She’d worn her hair down for years.  “It does.”

Janet cleared her throat.  “My Lady, do you have the necklace?”

I nodded as I opened a drawer and pulled out a small box.  The necklace looked crude to my eyes – a tiny wire cage encompassing nothing – but it started to glow the moment I prodded it with my finger.  A magician would see a pulsing light hanging just above my breasts.  I wondered how many of them would understand they were looking at an Object of Power, a reminder of my talents and my value to the family.  The light grew brighter as I snapped the necklace into place, then faded slightly.  Alana and Bella would be wearing charmed gemstones.  They’d look better than mine – they’d spent months practicing the art of inserting spells into gemstones – but they wouldn’t be anything like as unique.  There was no shortage of people who could enchant gemstones to show off their skills.

But they’ve both chosen complex spells, I reminded myself.  And neither of them dared ask anyone for help.

“Very good, My Lady,” Ellen said.  She glanced at the clock.  It was closer to eight than I’d thought.  “Are you ready?”

I hesitated, then nodded.  It felt as if I was going to meet my fate.  I’d attended several coming-out balls over the last few months, but I hadn’t been the guest of honour.  Now … if I put a foot wrong, the Grande Dames would still be talking about it when my grandchildren had coming-out balls of their own.  I supposed that explained Mum’s bad mood.  She knew better than I did that a mistake, here and now, would haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Ellen opened the door, then led me down the corridor.  I felt my heart starting to pound as we moved down two flights of stairs and stepped into the antechamber.  My sisters were already there, wearing the same white dresses and white flowers in their hair.  I had to admit they wore their dresses better than me.  They’d spent their time attending social engagements and learning the ropes, while I’d stayed in the Workshop.  I didn’t think I’d wasted my time.

The maid left us alone.  I looked around.  The room was bland.  There was nothing to eat or drink, nothing save for a clock.  It ticked, loudly.  I cursed the sadist who’d designed it under my breath.  The sound was getting to me.  If I’d had my tools, I could have fixed it. 

“I thought you were going to be late,” Alana said.  She sounded worried, not teasing.  “Mum and Dad are already downstairs.”

“Mum wouldn’t let me be late,” I said.  Alana and I weren’t exactly close, but I knew what she was thinking.  She was going to lead the family, when Dad retired or passed on.  If she messed up now, it would be a disaster.  “Don’t worry about it.”

The bell rang.  It was time.

Alana held out a hand.  “Come on,” she said, as the door opened.  “Let’s go.”

My stomach churned.  I wanted to run back to my room and hide.

Instead, I took her hand.

Stuck in Magic 17

13 Apr

Also here –

Come join<wink>

Chapter Seventeen

The summons arrived at nightfall, the messenger barely giving Rupert a chance to wake me – and for me to pass command to Horst and Fallows – before hurrying us back to the city.  We had special permission to return, something that underlined just how serious matters were as we dressed in our finest uniforms – Rupert’s would have outshone even a dictator’s personal outfit – and joined the council of war in the city palace.  It was neutral ground, apparently, which didn’t keep it from being surrounded by legions of private guards.  I wondered, idly, just what could be done to defend the city if those men were under my command.

I hadn’t had any real hopes for the council of war – the city government was such a mess that it was hard to say who was responsible for what – but it managed to be worse than I’d feared.  Men were shouting at each other, trying to sort out a pecking order before they decided on a response to the crisis; servants were making their way from table to table, handing out drinks that stank of alcohol.  I declined, and signalled to Rupert that he should decline too.  We needed clear heads.  I watched, feeling my heart sink as senior aristocrats finally managed to impose some semblance of order on the crowd.  If a relatively small council was like this, it was a wonder anything got done.  I supposed I should be grateful.  A more efficient city government would probably have been better at hunting down the runaways and staving off the war.

You have a chance to prove yourself, I thought.  Don’t fuck it up.

My eyes glided around the room.  I recognised Lord Drache – Rupert’s father – sitting next to an older man who reminded me of Harbin Galley.  His father?  Harbin himself was standing on the other side of the map table, wearing a blood-red tunic covered in gold braid and medals.  Stolen valour, or I was a fool.  The British officers of old had worn red so the blood wouldn’t show and demoralise the troops, something I’d always thought was a little silly.  It was unlikely Harbin had even considered showing so much consideration in his life.  He probably thought it made him look good.  Me?  I thought it made him look like a target.

He looked at me, just for a second.  His eyes glinted.  I couldn’t tell if he remembered me or not.  He probably thought all guardsmen looked the same.  And yet, standing next to Rupert … it was hard to tell.  The look he directed at Rupert was anything, but friendly.

“The warlord intends to send a troop of cavalry down the road to the outskirts,” a young man I didn’t know said.  His fingers traced a line on the map.  “They’ll occupy Pennell” – a small town on the edge of the city’s formal jurisdiction – “and then devastate the farms before retreating, having given us a bloody nose.”

I frowned.  “How can you be sure?”

The room rustled.  I realised I’d made a mistake, talking out of turn.  Harbin sneered.  His father frowned, disapprovingly.  The remainder of the room seemed unsure what to say or do.  I might be a commoner, but I was also one of Rupert’s liegemen … I disliked the thought of people considering me property, yet it had its advantages.  Rupert and his family might have to back me up just to save face.

“That’s what they’ve always done,” the young man said.  “The warlords don’t want to lay siege to the city.  They just want to remind us of our place.”

“And they haven’t made any preparations for a long war, Tobias,” Lord Drache said.  “They just want to give us a bloody nose.”

I swallowed the urge to point out that was exactly what Tobias had said as the aristocrats started arguing again.  They didn’t seem to want to fight, or do anything – really – beyond bending over and taking it.  I shuddered.  A long drawn-out war would be very bad for the city, but constantly surrendering would be bad too.  And yet …

“You’ll make your stand at Pennell,” Lord Galley said.  He gave Rupert a cold smile.  “Make the city proud, before you run.”

Rupert stiffened.  I didn’t have to look at him to know what he was thinking.  If he ran, he’d be branded a coward and blamed for the disaster.  His enemies would have all the excuse they needed to strike at him – and, through him, his father.  If he stood and fought, he’d be killed along with his men, giving the warlord a cheap victory to soothe his injured feelings.  I felt a flash of naked hatred for Lord Galley and his rapist son.  I’d loathed some officers back home – and what I thought of our political masters was unprintable – but none of them had ever sent me into a fight they expected me to lose.

Well, I thought.  We’ll just have to see what we can do about it.

I listened, matching names to faces as the chatter ran around the room.  The city fathers were acting like a bunch of headless chickens, already bending over and bracing themselves for the kick up the backside they knew they were going to receive.  They were already beaten, I noted sourly.  I’d seen it before – bullied kids and communities who didn’t dare raise a hand to their tormentors in the certain knowledge that resistance would only prolong the agony – but this was worse.  They expected Rupert and his men, the men I’d trained, to die.  They didn’t think we could make a stand.

It felt like hours before the room came to a decision everyone knew was inevitable – that had already been made – right from the start.  Rupert’s father spoke briefly to him, then departed with the rest of the city fathers.  I hoped he’d said something encouraging.  Harbin paced around the map table, swinging his arm as if he were pushing his way through an admiring crowd.  I rolled my eyes.  I understood the value of making a show, but not when there were so few witnesses.  There was nothing he could do that could change our opinion of him.

“Well,” Harbin said.  He sneered, openly.  “I trust you have a plan?”

“We have our orders to make our stand at Pennell.”  Rupert sounded stunned, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened.  “We have to meet them there.”

I frowned as I studied the map.  It wasn’t a very good map, but – thankfully – I’d ridden around the city and the surrounding regions.  I silently corrected the details in my head as I assessed the situation.  Tobias had a point.  The warlord didn’t have to come down the road – he could send his troopers cross-country, if he wished – but it was a good way to show his power.  Any invading force wanted to prove it had complete freedom of movement, if only to convince the locals that resistance was futile.  Besides, it would also allow him to look threatening without actually trying to break the walls.  His troops could break off and run if they ran into something they can’t handle.

“They’ll scatter you, the moment you form a line,” Harbin said.  He struck a ridiculous pose.  “My cavalry are under your command.  Where would you like us to be?”

I looked at him.  “How quickly can you get a message from an observation post to the army?”

Harbin blinked.  “What?”

“You may have to use short words,” Rupert said, wryly.  “Harbin doesn’t understand long ones.”

“You …”  Harbin clenched his fists, then carefully unclenched them.  “What do you mean?”

I sighed, inwardly.  I disliked Harbin.  I had the feeling he’d been behind the plan to put us out on a limb and then saw it off behind us.  But, as nice as it was to hear Rupert coming back to life, it wasn’t helping.  I needed Harbin to actually think about what he was doing.

“We need a handful of cavalry troopers to monitor the approaches and bring warning of the enemy advance,” I said.  I drew out lines on the map.  “How quickly could you get the message to us?”

Harbin frowned.  “My men are not glorified messenger boys.”

“They need to be, for this,” I said.  I patiently repeated the question.  “How quickly could you get the message to us?”

“Quickly,” Harbin said, vaguely.  He poked the map, indicating a position between Pennell and Damansara.  “We will take up station here, in position to react to the engagement.”

You mean, you want to be in position to run if things go badly, I thought.  I could see the logic, as cowardly as it was.  You don’t think we can win the coming engagement, do you?

“Keep most of your troopers here,” I said.  “Station four along the approaches.  I want them to alert us when the enemy comes into view.”

Harbin scowled.  “As you wish,” he said.  “We’ll be ready.”

I eyed his back, silently measuring it for the blade as he stomped off.  It looked as if he was going to be trouble.  The city’s cavalry was drawn from the aristocracy, who lavished care and attention on their horses and uniforms … I made a face.  A well-run cavalry unit would be very useful, but I had a feeling Harbin’s men were going to be worse than useless.  They wouldn’t want to charge into danger for fear of getting their uniforms smudged.  Harbin’s plan was simple enough.  He’d watch the engagement from a safe distance and then, after we were scattered, gallop back to the city to report our defeat.  Sir John Cope would be proud of him.

My lips quirked.  I could rewrite the song, afterwards, to make fun of Harbin.

Rupert sagged.  “I’m sorry I got you into this,” he said.  “You can leave, if you want.”

“And then what?”  I supposed it spoke well of him, that he was at least offering me the chance to leave.  “What will you do without me?”

Rupert made a face.  “What can I do?”

I could think of several answers, but they weren’t particularly helpful.  Rupert thought he was going to his death, that all he could do was die bravely … and even if he managed that, his death was going to be reported – by Harbin – as cowardly and shameful.  The temptation to just pack his saddlebags with as much as he could carry and then run had to be overwhelming, but he was standing his ground.  I felt a sudden rush of affection.  Rupert and I weren’t friends – the difference between us was just too great – but I didn’t want to see him die.  He was trying, at least.  I’d known greenie offices who’d done worse.

“This is the map,” I said, forcing him to focus on me.  “Do they always come down the road?”

“Yes.”  Rupert shook his head.  “Those towns and villages are always the first to be attacked.”

I frowned, never lifting my eyes from the map.  The enemy tactic made sense.  They could march through the cropland, burning and destroying, without ever being trapped and forced to fight.  I hoped the townspeople were already on their way to the city.  Local armies didn’t seem bound by any laws of war, as far as I could tell.  They’d loot, rape and burn their way through the towns unless they were stopped.  I grimaced.  I’d done my best to drill proper standards into the soldiers I’d trained, but I knew they probably hadn’t taken them to heart.  I was dreading the day I’d have to make an example of one of them …

“We need to put out pickets ourselves,” I said.  I didn’t trust Harbin to do it properly.  His men might make a terrible fuss if they got scratched by a bush.  Or something.  Decorative units were rarely worth what they were paid, in my experience.  “I wish …”

I glanced at him.  “Can you send messages through magic?”

“Yeah …”  Rupert looked at the map.  “What do you have in mind?”

“We need warning of their approach,” I said, patiently.  I would have killed for a set of radios.  Or recon drones.  Or orbiting satellites.   Hell, I would have killed for a tank or two.  I’d have settled for one of the tanks that crackled the Hindenburg Line in 1918.  It might have been a great deal more useful to me than a modern Abrams.  “Once we have it, we can form a line to block them.”

“And then what?”  Rupert sighed.  “We fire a shot and run?”

“No.”  I clapped his shoulder, trying to project as much confidence as possible.  “We kick their ass.”

I grinned.  “They won’t expect us to stand and fight.  They’ll come in fat and happy and impale themselves on us.  We’ll smash them and then Harbin can chase the survivors all the way back home.”

Rupert gave me a doubtful look.  “What if you’re wrong?”

“We’ve been training for this,” I countered.  “And they don’t expect a real fight or they would have made a few more preparations.  We can give them a nasty fright, at the very least.”

I kept my face under tight control as I talked him through the plan.  I didn’t mean to slap the invaders and send them running back home with a bloody nose.  I meant to smash them utterly.  It was the only way to convince the warlords to back off before they managed to blockade or starve the city – or worse.  As long as they controlled the countryside, they could harry us relentlessly until we ran out of food.  Damansara’s population was just too large to be kept fed for long.  It was just a matter of time before a siege started to bite.  We had to make sure they never had the chance to envelop and starve us.

“I hope you’re right,” Rupert said, when I’d finished.  “We’ll certainly give them a fright.”

I grinned.  Rupert’s best hope – his only hope – was winning a battle everyone expected him to lose.  If he did … his prestige would soar.  He’d be able to recruit and train more men, then take them into battle for his city.  And I would have a great deal of power too.  I could finally start getting things done.

Don’t put the cart before the horse, I reminded myself.  There was no point in dreaming about the future, not when I had too many other things to do.  You have to win the battle first.

“I have to speak to my father,” Rupert said.  “You go back to the camp and get ready for departure.”

“Let them sleep,” I said.  It was only one in the morning.  “The battle won’t be fought until the afternoon, at the very earliest.  They’ll need their beauty sleep.  I’ll have them woken at the usual time and prepared for combat.”

Rupert nodded to the door.  I took the hint and headed outside, passing several uniformed guards as I made my way outside.  It wasn’t a long walk back to the Garrison and I needed time to think.  Rupert could take the coach, when he’d finished with his father.  It struck me – too late – that I should have warned him not to tell his father about our plans.  The aristocracy was given to boasting and, if I were in command of the enemy force, I would have inserted spies into the city.  A single moment of bragging might ruin everything, for everyone.

A man blocked my way as I left the palace.  “Sergeant Eliot?”

I tensed, one hand dropping to the dagger on my belt.  It wasn’t my preferred weapon, but it had its uses.  For one thing, the locals would recognise it as a weapon.  They still didn’t quite comprehend guns.  “Yes?”

“I’m Seles,” the man said.  He stood in the light, something I found oddly reassuring.  A footpad would have clung to the shadows.  “I’m a broadsheet writer.  I was wondering if I could ask you a favour.”

“You can ask,” I said, warily.  The local broadsheets – newspapers – were no better than the rags back home.  They didn’t even have the decency to print their lies on toilet paper.  Half of them were controlled by the aristocracy and their stories covered little else, the remainder were regularly shut down or harassed by private armies or street thugs.  Telling the truth was a crime, if someone powerful objected.  “What do you want?”

“I want to accompany the army,” Seles said.  “It would be my big break.”

“It would?”  I wasn’t so sure.  The local rags might not have anything to say about the battle, win or lose.  “Why do you think it would help?”

“The broadsheet writers who went into the Blighted Lands became famous,” Seles said.  “This is my chance to do the same.”

I said nothing for a long moment.  I’d heard the stories, but they’d grown and grown in the telling until it was impossible, at least for me, to draw truth from the bodyguard of wild exaggerations and outright lies. They couldn’t all be true, could they?  And yet, I could see his point.  A chance to become the local counterpart of Woodward and Bernstein was hardly to be sniffed at, despite the danger.  I didn’t know if he thought he’d be reporting on a victory or a defeat, or if he’d realised he might wind up dead with the rest of us, but … I shrugged.  I’d just had an idea.

“I think we can help each other,” I told him, as I started to walk.  He fell into step beside me, a sign he considered me an equal.  I decided to roll with it.  “Here is what I want you to do …”

The Zero Secret Prologue

10 Apr

I just had this going through my head.


It just wasn’t fair!

Lady Henrietta Rubén lay on her bed and sulked.  It wasn’t fair.  The entire family, from the highest to the lowest, was attending the Empire Day ceremony, save for her.  The cloud mansion was deserted, save for her – and the small army of meksects.  Everyone – at least, everyone who mattered – was in place to see and be seen, save for her.  It just wasn’t fair!

She glared at her image in the reflective gem, thinking words she’d never dare say out loud, certainly nowhere her mother could hear.  Everyone said she looked like her mother – long blonde hair, a heart-shaped face, lips that could turn from smile to ice in a second – and yet, she was still a child.  Legally.  She was seventeen and still a child, still bound by her parents’ will, still locked in their home with no right to leave.  She hadn’t minded, not until her mother had ruined her prospects.  Everyone was attending the ceremony, save for her.  High Society would be talking about her.  They would wonder, behind their painted faces and false smiles, just what she’d done to deserve to be grounded on this, the greatest day of the century.  Henrietta had no idea what excuse her mother would give, if she’d even bother to come up with a story, but it didn’t matter.  High Society would draw its own conclusions.  It always did.

Her mother’s condemnation rang in her ears.  “You can trace your bloodline back through a thousand generations of powerful magicians,” she’d said.  “You are the descendent of Senators and Grand Senators and Consuls, men and women who have served the Empire loyally and been rewarded for their service.  And yet, you throw it all away on that boy!”

Henrietta winced at the thought.  Johan Aguirre was hardly a weakling.  His family had been part of the aristocracy for over a hundred years.  They had powerful magic which they’d shared with the world.  So what if they kept their seat in distant Shallot, rather than establishing a home in the Eternal City?  Johan was a good man, from a strong bloodline.  He would father strong children.  And all they’d done, really, was trade letters.  They had never been alone long enough to do anything more.

She clenched her fists as she sat upright, wondering who’d ratted her out.  Her brothers and sisters, intent on preventing her from forming a relationship?  Her cousins, keen to weaken the core bloodline’s grip on the family?  Her maid … it was possible.  The woman knew better than to alienate her charge’s mother, even if it meant betraying a confidence.  It didn’t matter.  The letters she’d thought were hidden had found their way to her mother and she’d pronounced a fearful sentence.  Henrietta had pleaded, then begged, in a manner that would have shamed her ancestors.  Her mother had been firm.  Henrietta was not to attend the ceremony – or even leave the cloud mansion – and if she tried, the meksects would stop her.

Henrietta stood, brushing down her dress and glaring around the room.  It was crammed with wonders, from expensive books to the very latest in crystal games, but she wanted to be at the ceremony.  She needed to be there.  She racked her brains, trying to think of a way to get out without being caught, but nothing came to mind.  The mansion’s wards were strong.  They’d stop her if she tried to leave, or summon a bubble, or even call one of her friends to take her away.  Not that anyone would come, she reflected sourly.  They were all at the ceremony.

She paced through the door and along the corridor, heading up to the roof.  The mansion was completely deserted, save for the meksects.  She could break into the other rooms, in search of blackmail material or something, but there was no joy in it.  Not now.  She shook her head as she reached the upper level and stepped onto the penthouse floor.  Her mother had had the whole mansion covered in bunting, ensuring anyone who flew nearby was treated to as diorama of the family’s greatest achievements.  Henrietta suspected her mother was wasting her time.  Her ancestors had been so significant that their deeds were listed in even one-volume historical textbooks.  The family certainly splashed out enough money, every year, to see that it was so.

I’ll have to move to Shallot and live with Great Uncle Mycroft, she thought, as she walked the balcony and peered over the city.  No one will take me seriously here, not after …

She shook her head, feeling tears prickling at the corner of her eye.  Great Uncle Mycroft was a drinker.  Or so she’d been told.  She’d heard worse, whispered by servants and very distant relatives.  Too high-ranking to be simply ignored, or squashed by his superiors, he’d been sent to Shallot and promised a generous pension as long as he didn’t come back.  Henrietta wondered, idly, if she’d be able to claim the same.  Perhaps she could meet Johan in Shallot or … who knew?  Her mother would probably disown Henrietta if she married without the family’s consent.

The wind shifted.  A faint gust of something blew against her face.  Henrietta brushed the hair out of her eyes, frowning at a sudden sense of disquiet.  The Eternal City looked so safe and tranquil.  The skies were crowded with floating mansions and CityBlocks, the streets below were clean and tidy … perfectly maintained by the ever-present meksects.  Bubbles of light flew through the air, gliding towards the Grand Senate itself.  She felt her heart sink as her eyes followed a bubble, carrying a latecomer to the floating building.  There were people from all over the Empire, the great and the good, gathered in the hovering mansion.  Deals would be being made, marriages would be being arranged … the power structure of the next fifty years was being shaped right in front of her and she was excluded.  She knew she wasn’t that important, in the greater scheme of things, but …

Another gust of something brushed against her, a strange feeling of weakness that ran through her body.  Henrietta shivered, even though the air was warm.  The city’s weather was always hot and sunny, thanks to the spells pervading the floating buildings.  She’d been surprised to encounter rain, the first time she’d travelled outside the city.  The idea of water falling from the sky still struck her as strange.

The Grand Senate tilted, then fell.

Henrietta stared, convinced – just for a second – that she was imagining it.  The Grand Senate was older than her grandmother.  It had floated above the city for countless years, casting a shadow over the entire world.  And yet … the building hit the ground with a tremendous noise, a shockwave rippling out from the impact and straight towards her … Henrietta tensed, too late, as the air slapped against her bare skin.  Horror flared through her mind.  Her family had been there.  Her parents, her siblings … everyone’s parents and siblings.  And …

She stared as the remainder of the floating mansions started to fall.  A bubble altered course, trying to get away from … from whatever was happening.  Too late.  Henrietta saw the light wink out, the darkened flying machine losing power and falling out of the sky.  She thought she  saw a screaming figure jumping clear, waving his hands in a desperate spell.  Nothing happened.  She saw him vanish and knew he’d hit the ground.  The impact would have killed him.

The scale of the disaster was beyond her.  The falling mansions were crashing into each other, showing debris on the streets below.  She saw an apartment block crumble into rubble after it was struck, watched helplessly as another simply collapsed into dust for no apparent reason.  There were hundreds of thousands of people in the city.  It was beyond her to comprehend that many of them were already dead, that many more would die in the next few moments.  The world was changing before her eyes.

She heard something crash behind her and turned to see a meksect grind to a halt, its mandibles falling to the ground as it lost power.  Her servant … something twisted in her heart, an instant before the world shifted under her feet.  The mansion was starting to tilt … no, it was starting to fall!  Whatever had ruined the city hadn’t stopped, not yet.  Henrietta was too numb to panic.  She raised her hand and chanted a levitation spell.  The wards should have stopped her, but she couldn’t feel them any longer.  She could fly up and hover until the disaster came to an end.  It wasn’t much of a plan, but she couldn’t think of anything else.  She kept chanting …

Nothing happened.

Panic flared through her mind.  The magic … the magic was gone.  She couldn’t sense the wards because they were gone too.  The meksects were dying because they ran on magic … the entire city ran on magic.  The floating mansions and palaces and castles and government buildings were plummeting and no one could do anything to save them!  She held out a hand, summoning her flying stick … and realised, an instant too late, that it was pointless.  If the bubbles were dying, the flying sticks were likely dying too.

The mansion fell.  Henrietta ran, knowing it was already too late.  Her family was dead.  She would be dead too, within the next few seconds.  Great Uncle Mycroft would be all that was left of them … she felt the floor tilt again, then fell backwards as gravity reasserted itself.  She saw another bubble flying past her and felt a moment of hope, before realising it was heading down.  Her feet lost their grip completely as the mansion dropped from the sky, sending her flying into the air …

… And, screaming helplessly, Henrietta fell towards the ground far below.

Stuck in Magic CH16

9 Apr

Also here –

Chapter Sixteen

If you watch a movie about young men becoming soldiers, you will almost inevitably find yourself watching a training montage of clumsy oafs becoming skilled men.  You’ll watch days and weeks compressed into a few minutes, with problems smoothed out almost before you notice they were there.  I’d never liked such montages, because they are often dangerously deceptive.  The real world is rarely so obliging.

And yet, three weeks slipped by almost without me noticing.

We fell into a routine, of sorts.  I put the recruits through their paces, time and time again, and expanded the training routine as they learnt to obey orders.  I divided them into groups and made them compete, or work together against other groups.  They got better over time, as I had expected, although I wound up expelling two men to the guardhouse for gross incompetence and outright malice.  A couple of others tried to challenge me, when they found the training a little too rough: I knocked them both down, then spoke encouragingly to them.  They weren’t doing too badly, given that I’d put the entire program together from memory and improvised to cover the gaps.  I’d known recruits who’d done a lot worse.

I smiled as I led them into the training hall.  The muskets lining the walls were the latest in military technology, which wasn’t saying much by my standards.  The pistol I wore at my belt – sooner or later, I’d have to show it to the gunsmiths – was a far more accurate weapon.  They were crude, imprecise and – even after a few hours of practice – I hadn’t been able to load and fire the weapon more than twice a minute.  We were going to be firing in rows, taking turns to fire, reload and fire again, just to maintain a steady rate of fire.  And the smoke was going to be appalling.

As long as we put out enough musket balls, I thought, it shouldn’t matter.

I sighed, inwardly.  I would have sold my soul for a dedicated gunsmith.  I had a friend who’d spent his entire life quietly stockpiling the tools to make guns, so he could arm himself when – if – the government confiscated his giant arsenal of firearms.  I wished he’d been with me.  He would have been very helpful.  I’d heard of terrorists in caves hammering out AK-47s.  If I could have done that, we could have pumped out enough firepower to take the world.

“This is a musket,” I said.  I doubted they’d seen firearms, let alone handled them.   The weapons had yet to take off.  “Your musket is your best friend on the battlefield.  You are going to take very good care of your musket and, in exchange, it will take very good care of you.  You will learn to fire it, to clean it, to have it ready at all times … you will even take it to bed and sleep with it.”

I ignored the sniggers.  “And when it breaks, you will fix it,” I added.  “I’ll be teaching you how to do that too.”

The musket felt uncomfortably fragile as I held it up.  I’d ordered bayonets for the men – they could become makeshift pikemen if the enemy got too close – but I’d left them off.  They had to get used to carrying the muskets, before I let them march around with edged weapons.  There would be just too many injuries.  I’d tried to arrange a permanent healer, but it was simply too expensive.  The chirurgeons – the closest thing the locals had to doctors – were little better than butchers.  I knew more battlefield medicine than they – I’d nearly killed one for not observing proper sanitation – and I hadn’t done more than the basics.  Calling myself a medic would be stolen valour, only worse.

“You will get used to firing the muskets as quickly as possible,” I said.  “We won’t worry too much about accuracy, at the moment.  The idea is to put out as many bullets as possible and let them impale themselves on our guns.”

There were more sniggers.  I rolled my eyes, then talked them through loading, firing and cleaning the musket.  They took the weapons as Horst and Fallows handed them out, then did their best to follow me.  They were almost completely unfamiliar with even the concept of firearms.  I had to rebuke one trooper for peering down the barrel and another for pointing his musket at one of his comrades.  I drilled them mercilessly, hammering the laws of firearms safety into their heads and handing out punishment duties for those slow up on the uptake.  I didn’t want to lose anyone to accidents, not when we might be going to war at any moment.  Rupert had told me, in confidence, that the political situation was deteriorating.  It added a certain urgency to our efforts.

“Your muskets will be inspected every day,” I informed them, once I thought they had the hang of it.  They hadn’t fired a single shot, not yet.  “Anyone with a dirty musket will be required to spend his free hour cleaning it.  Anyone with a broken musket will be paying for a new one.”

I ignored the groans running through the room.  I’d hired a proper accountant to collect the men’s wages, which I’d convinced Rupert to raise every time the men completed a training cycle, and keep the money safe under heavy guard.  It was a more trustworthy system than the local banks – apparently, they did everything they could to convince people to put their money into the banks and then worked hard to convince their customers not to take the money out – although it was fraught with risks.  I’d threatened the accountant with a slow and painful death if anything as so much as a single cent went missing.  I silently blessed whoever had introduced numbers and double-entry bookkeeping to this world.  It made keeping an eye on the accountant so much easier.

We might have to set up a more trustworthy bank, I thought.  The wealthier citizens kept most of their money at home, making it harder to convince them to invest.  But that’ll have to wait for a while.

I marched them out of the fort and onto the firing range.  My old instructor would have been outraged if he’d seen it, but it would have to do.  I’d stuck poorly-carved wooden shapes the far end of the range, intending to symbolise advancing infantry and charging horsemen.  They weren’t that detailed, but they didn’t have to be.  We were going to be blowing them to hell repeatedly.  Besides, I didn’t want to remind anyone that we were training against cavalry.  The warlords were probably watching us.

“Watch carefully,” I said, after outlining the rules of range safety.  I hefted my musket, demonstrated how to load the weapon, took aim and pulled the trigger.  There was a loud BANG, followed by a cloud of smoke.  I gritted my teeth.  The musketmen were likely to be blinded by their own firing, at least as long as the smoke lasted.  I wasn’t sure what could be done about that.  “Now, in pairs, try it yourselves.”

I forced myself to remain calm, wishing – not for the first time – for modern weapons and trained instructors.  The recruits were eager, particularly after what I’d shown them, but the muskets were completely new.  I watched as they tried to fire, then scrambled to reload.  It was painfully slow.  A troop of cavalry charging towards them might overwhelm their position before they managed to fire a second round … I told myself, firmly, that sheer volume of fire would be enough to stop the horses in their tracks.  It would, too. 

The men were disappointed when I called a halt to the shooting and formed them into lines for battlefield drill.  The concept was simple enough, although – like so many brilliant ideas – harder to execute than it looked on paper.  One row would fire, then kneel to reload while the second row fired; the second row would then kneel too while the third row fired … I hoped, given time, that we’d be able to pump out six volleys within a minute.  And yet, the smoke was going to be a real problem.  I reminded myself this universe had magic.  Perhaps there were spells to generate wind, to blow the smoke away from our eyes.

“Good work,” I said, finally.  They’d picked up the idea very quickly.  It would take days – perhaps weeks – of practice before they did it instinctively, but I was fairly sure it would come in time.  I’d spent the last three weeks drilling them to take orders.  “Now, back to the barracks for our pre-dinner run.”

I allowed Horst and Fallows to take command – they were coming along well, although I was afraid to leave them unsupervised for too long – and headed towards the officers’ quarters.  Rupert was living there permanently, learning his trade – in theory – from Harris.  I pitied him.  Harris wasn’t my idea of a good commanding officer, or anything really.  He certainly hadn’t shown anything like as much care for his men as Rupert, let alone the average West Pointer.  I’d met conceited newly-minted officers who thought they knew everything who’d been more thoughtful than our general.  I couldn’t wait for Rupert to take his place.

Rupert was waiting for me in the stables.  “Sergeant.”

“Sir,” I said.  Our working relationship was a little odd.  I could give him advice, but only in private.  Thankfully, he wasn’t trying to exercise direct command over the training units or it would have gotten a little sticky.  The recruits weren’t stupid.  If they saw an officer who didn’t know what he was doing, they’d hold him in contempt.  “Did you have a good day?”

“It was interesting,” Rupert said.  I was fairly sure that was a lie.  I’d advised him to study logistics, on the grounds he was a better organiser than a tactician, but logistics were boring right up until you realised your war effort depended on them.  “And I’m looking forward to our ride.”

I followed him to the horses and mounted up.  I’d let him teach me how to ride, local style – it wasn’t something I’d mastered back home – in the hopes it would let him keep some of his pride.  The aristocracy were all expected to be master horsemen, including the younger women.  Rupert was pretty good at riding, even though he’d never considered joining the cavalry.  And he wasn’t a bad teacher either.

The air smelt cleaner as we cantered away from the garrison and the city beyond.  We weren’t allowed to re-enter the city, not without special permission.  I was fairly sure Rupert was bored.  Normally, the aristocracy could come and go as they pleased, but Rupert’s enemies would make sure he kept his distance.  I’d done what I could to offer friendship to him, at least in private, although it wasn’t easy.  We had grown up in very different societies.  It was easy to forget, until it suddenly wasn’t.

I shook my head as I kept riding, allowing him to correct me from time to time as I surveyed the lands around the city.  Damansara’s precise borders beyond the walls were a little vague, something that made no sense to me until I realised it gave the warlords a considerable amount of influence over the city without having to make their hostility so overt no one could avoid taking notice of it.  Personally, I thought it was silly.  Someone sidling into attack range might not have hostile intentions, but it was still dumb to let them get so close without making sure of them.  I ground my teeth in bitter memory.  There’d been too many times in Iraq we’d had to wait to be hit, even though we could have killed the attackers before they got close enough to hurt us.  Here, at least, the rules of engagement were a little more sensible.

The thought cheered me as we galloped through villages and hamlets, cantering past fields – some showing signs of dehydration – and over bridges that struck me as a little pointless.  I could have waded though the rivers below with ease.  The city needed to sink some boreholes quickly, to search for underground reservoirs, or start and irrigation program.  I’d tried to suggest it to Rupert, as well as a dozen other ideas, but they’d gotten nowhere.  Rupert was a wealthy young man, with extensive connections, yet … he didn’t have anything like enough power and influence to get things done.  I wondered, idly, if what the city needed was a dictator, someone with the authority to get things moving.  It would have been so much easier, during the war, if we hadn’t had to get authorisation from Washington before doing pretty much anything.

I dismissed the old bitterness – it was unlikely I’d ever see home again – and concentrated on assessing the landscape from a military point of view.  The soil was hard, barren in a number of places; I doubted we could force an advancing army to pass through a bottleneck.  Hell, there was nothing stopping the warlords from sending their cavalry on a slash-and-burn mission through the fields.  Normally, they wouldn’t be able to destroy the fields beyond repair – that was far harder than most people thought – but here … I wasn’t so sure.  The farmers were permanently on the edge.  If they were killed, or driven away from their fields, it might be enough to prevent the farm from being saved.  I cursed under my breath.  The city was in a deadly trap.  We’d have to break out before it was too late.

We, I thought, with a flicker of amusement.  When did it become ‘we’?

Rupert slowed his horse.  “You’re being very quiet.”

“I’m just considering how and where the war is going to be fought,” I said.  There was no point in pretending there wasn’t going to be war.  The warlord was just piling on the pressure, trying to find something the city couldn’t give him.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure why he was bothering to come up with an excuse.  It wasn’t as if any of the other warlords – or the king – was willing or able to stop him.  “How much longer do we have?”

“I wish I knew,” Rupert said.  He glanced north, towards the warlord’s lands.  “He has a small army under his permanent control.  He could be advancing towards us tomorrow.”

I doubted it.  The warlord’s power rested on his ability to raise and deploy troops.  If those troops were lost, the warlord’s power would be lost too.  I’d never met any of the local warlords, but I’d met their counterparts in Afghanistan.  They’d been reluctant to fight to the finish, even when the enemy was on the ropes, for fear they would be finished too.  And the hell of it was that they had a point.

“They’re demanding that we hand over more serfs,” Rupert added.  “And we can’t.”

“No,” I agreed.  The warlord might be smarter if he turned a blind eye to the runaways, but … I shook my head.  It wasn’t going to happen.  There were just too many messages going back and forth.  A successful runaway would tell his friends and family that he’d found a home and work in the city, encouraging them to flee too.  “We just can’t find them.”

“They’re getting better organised,” Rupert agreed.  “They don’t want to be sent back and who can blame them?”

I nodded.  It wasn’t uncommon for immigrants and expats to put together private self-help networks, particularly those who knew the local government and population were either hostile or likely to become so, and once those networks got established they were extremely difficult to take down.  The immigrants were often unwilling to cooperate, while excluding anyone who wasn’t an immigrant themselves.  The former serfs could hide themselves in the big city, burrowing deep into the slums.  The City Guard didn’t have the manpower to root them out.

Not unless they show themselves too obviously, I thought.  And even then, it’s just a drop in the bucket.

I allowed myself to consider, briefly, recruiting some of the former serfs.  They’d make good soldiers.  They were already used to hard physical labour – they’d grown up on farms – and they didn’t dare let themselves be captured.  Recaptured.  And yet … I shook my head.  It would be considered a provocation.  The idea would have to wait until the local government conceded it was in a fight to the death.

Provoking the war to happen at a time and place of our choosing might work, I considered, but the longer we can put it off the better.

We chatted happily as we wheeled about and started to ride back to the fort.  Rupert talked about tactics – he’d been studying the old books – and I was happy to discuss them with him.  Some lessons were timeless – I intended to write down all I remembered from Sun Tzu and his fellows – while others were pointless.  The cavalry, king of the battlefield, was going to be dethroned soon.  Once machine guns were developed, they’d be slaughtered as easily as the French at Agincourt.

“Harris is planning to retire soon,” Rupert said.  “And then I’ll be the general.”

“You need to keep studying,” I said.  Sir Joseph Porter had been better qualified, although not by much.  His position had been purely administrative and everyone knew it.  “And we need to build up a staff.”

I smiled as Damansara came into view, twinkling lights shining on the walls as the sun slipped below the horizon.  It was easy to believe, from a distance, that the city was a wonderland of peace and prosperity, a civilised oasis in a world of violence and brutality.  It looked safe and tranquil and utterly timeless …

The war started two weeks later.

Stuck in Magic 15

7 Apr

Also on forum –

Chapter Fifteen

Two days later, we left the city and rode out to the garrison.

It was larger than I’d expected, after reading my way through countless military and procurement reports that had the stench of wishful thinking, if not corruption and outright lying.  The city’s defenders seemed determined to lie to themselves, let alone everyone else, even as the warlords tightened the screws.  They could have put up a much better fight, I thought, if they’d made use of the resources at their command.  Instead, they’d fired a handful of arrows for the honour of the flag – metaphorically speaking – and then surrendered and bent the knee to the warlords.  I couldn’t understand it.  Their history of appeasement made Chamberlain look like Winston Churchill. 

The air tasted faintly of sand, hopelessness and despair.  I’d had my struggles during basic – we all had – but at least I’d volunteered.  The men I had to train – the men I had to train Rupert to lead into battle – had been offered a flat choice between slavery or the army.  I had the feeling, reading between the lines, that the soldiers wouldn’t see much of a difference.  They were held in poor regard, banned from the city until they served their term … unless their commander chose to employ them as cheap labour.  And yet … I told myself, firmly, that I could do it.  I could turn them into soldiers.

General Harris – the old commander – greeted us at the gates.  Rupert spoke calmly to him, showing no trace of the fear and despair he’d shown me.  I used the time to study General Harris and the honour guard thoughtfully.  They were decked out in fancy uniforms that would have shamed a dictator, uniforms that would have made them easy targets in a real war.  I could have wiped them out – and most of the garrison for good measure – if I’d had a sniper rifle and bad intentions.  General Harris reminded me of General Winfield Scott – I’d seen photographs when I’d studied the War between the States – although it was hard to be sure.  He looked good-natured, but indolent.  His uniform was expertly tailored, but even his tailors couldn’t disguise his paunch.  I hoped he’d have the sense to stay well out of the way.

I said nothing as we were shown into the garrison itself – the interior looked like a weird cross between a barracks and a prison – and directed into the training ground.  The prospective soldiers were waiting for us.  I hoped to God they hadn’t been ordered to stand in lines, because their lines were so ragged it was impossible to tell who was meant to be standing where.  My eyes ranged up and down the rows.  There were men who looked sullen, ready to cause trouble; there were men who looked hungover, as if they’d been drunk out of their minds when they signed the papers and became soldiers … they wore so many mismatched clothes that I was silently glad I’d had the foresight to order better uniforms.  They might not be BDUs, but they’d be better than nothing. 

My eyes narrowed, suddenly, as I spotted Horst and Fallows in the front row.  The two guardsmen – former guardsmen, I guessed – gave me hostile looks.  I cursed under my breath as I realised Captain Alder, deprived of the chance to sell me into slavery, had punished Horst and Fallows instead.  That was an unexpected complication.  The two guards probably felt personally betrayed.  They hadn’t been ordered to keep an eye on me, but …

I met their eyes and sent a hand-signal, one they’d taught me.  Wait.

Rupert shot me a pleading look.  I sighed and stepped forward, raising my voice. 

“I am Sergeant Elliot,” I said, in my best parade ground manner.  I’d already given up trying to explain Richardson.  Local naming conventions were just too different.  “Some of you are here because you volunteered.  Some of you are here because you weren’t given a choice.  I don’t care why you joined, nor do I care who or what you were before.  All that matters, to me, is that it is my job to prepare you for military service.  You have my word, which you will come to trust, that I will treat you all the same.”

I was dimly aware of Rupert backing off as I leaned forward.  “Are there any of you, right here, right now, who thinks he can take me in a fight?  Now is your chance.  Who’s first?”

My eyes swept the row of men.  I didn’t have any real support structure, not here.  I didn’t have senior officers who’d back me or MPs who’d enforce my orders … I wanted, I needed to establish dominance as quickly as possible.  They had to understand that I knew what I was talking about, that trying to fight or resist would just make matters worse.  Some of them, I was grimly sure, would be irredeemable.  And yet, I wasn’t allowed to kick them out.

A overbuilt man lumbered out of the crowd and came at me.  His muscles were impressive, but he telegraphed his punch.  I stepped to one side, then stuck out a foot.  He tripped and hit the ground.  The crowd snickered as he pushed himself to his feet, his face darkening with anger, and came at me again.  I avoided his next three punches, then twisted, threw him to the ground and pressed my fingers into his throat.  He struggled for a moment, then lay still.

“Good,” I said.  I helped him to his feet, patted him on the back and sent him back to the crowd.  “Anyone else?”

Two more men came at me.  I handled them both, with slightly more trouble in the case of one who looked like a cutpurse.  He’d clearly seen some action on the streets.  I knocked him down, helped him up and sent him back to the line, then waited to see if anyone else would try.  I wanted them to know they’d had their chance to take me in a straight fight.  It was the only way to be sure they would listen to me.

“Good,” I said, when no one moved.  “If you follow orders, I’ll make men out of you.  If not …”

I let the words hang in the air for a long moment, then led them on a run around the compound.  It was curiously hard.  I’d kept myself fit, over the last few weeks, but there was something about the garrison that trapped the heat.  I made a mental note to ensure better facilities as we ran through the gates, around the walls and back inside again.  The older soldiers stared at us in disbelief.  None of them had gone through anything similar.  I guessed the warlords trained their soldiers better.  It was the only reason they could dominate the much larger city.

And weapons training can make the difference between freedom and slavery, I thought.  They wouldn’t want just anyone to have military training.

I led them into the barracks and looked around.  They were in better condition than I’d expected.  Rupert had promised he’d have them cleaned and readied for the recruits and he’d kept his word.  The showers looked rough and ready, but they’d do.  I’d been posted to worse places in Iraq.  A large pile of clothing – I’d had makeshift uniforms prepared by local seamstresses – waited for us.  I  motioned for the men to choose their uniforms, then get changed.  It was astonishing no one had thought of tailoring uniforms to match the local environment.  Their muskets and flintlocks might not be able to hit the broad side of a barn – they relied on massed fire, not accuracy – but their archers were pretty damn good.  I’d cautioned Rupert to make sure he wore something that didn’t stand out on the battlefield.

“Choose a bunk, one each,” I ordered.  “This will be your home for the next few weeks.”

I watched them change and inspect the facilities, all the while issuing orders and brief explanations.  Hygiene came first.  Each barrack would have a rota for cleaning the showers, washing out the makeshift toilets and sweeping the floors.  The men themselves would be expected to shower at least once a day, keeping themselves as clean as possible.  It wouldn’t be that clean – water was in short supply – but it would be a great deal better than anything they’d had before.  I wasn’t an expert in so many things – I wished I’d spent time as a Drill Instructor, instead of just being a raw recruit – but I knew the basics.  The remainder I’d rediscover along the way.

“Don’t dawdle,” I said, as we marched back onto the training ground.  “Everything has to be done at a run.”

I felt sweat prickling my back as I put them through their paces.  The whole concept of basic training was to make sure everyone picked up the basics and learned to speak a common language.  It was both easier and harder here, easier because there was no universal training system and yet harder because I was making it up from my own experience.  I’d never realised just how hard the instructors had worked, when I was in basic.  They’d probably have called it karma.  I didn’t have anyone ready or able to back me up either.  Rupert had long since vanished.

Which isn’t a bad thing, I told myself.  I’ll just have to build him up later.

The lunch bell rang.  I marched the recruits across the field and into the makeshift chow hall.  Rupert hadn’t let me down.  The food was very basic – rice, meat, stringy vegetables – but there was a lot of it.  The recruits had never eaten so well in their lives.  I kept up the discipline, preventing a mad rush to the tables and instead making sure everyone had something to eat before allowing them to start.  It was something I knew would breed resentment – it certainly had, back home – but it was also something they needed.  I ate myself, silently drawing out more training programs.  They were going to have to learn to work together – and to trust me – before I put muskets in their hands.

And we’re going to have to get them lined up first, I reminded myself.  Rupert was purchasing a small arsenal, but it wasn’t going to be easy to streamline the design.  We might have to pick one design and hire a bunch of craftsmen to churn out hundreds of duplicates.  If we all use different weapons and ammunition, it will lead to one hell of a mess.

I whistled, twenty minutes later.  “Back on the field,” I ordered, quietly ignoring the grumbling.  “Give me another run around the walls.”

The day wore on.  I showed them how to do press-ups, sit-ups and a dozen other simple exercises I’d been taught in basic.  They seemed astonished I handed out press-ups and suchlike as punishments, rather than using my fists, but went with the flow.  I smiled behind my hand.  Hitting recruits was a serious offence back home … and besides, making them do extra exercises instead helped prepare for war.  We marched up and down, drilled with broom handles in place of pikes and muskets, then moved into the chow hall for dinner.  They looked tired.  I’d kept them very busy.  They would go into the barracks, lie down and go straight to sleep.

And tomorrow we’ll do it all again, I thought.

“Back to the barracks,” I ordered, once they’d chewed their way through dinner.  “Get a shower, get undressed, get into bed.”

I watched them run back into the barracks – they were too tired for anything more than bed – and then waved to Horst and Fallows.  The two guardsmen scowled at me as I led them away from the barracks, into the room I’d designated my office.  It wasn’t much – I’d have to bed down in the barracks myself, at least until I had a handful of trainees I could trust to stand night watch – but it would do.

Horst glared.  “What were you thinking?”

“That isn’t your concern right now,” I snapped.  I had no intention of getting into an argument.  It would just waste time.  “What happened to you two?”

“The captain told us we were being exiled to the garrison,” Fallows said, curtly.  “For failing to train you, apparently.”

I felt a flicker of sympathy.  Captain Alder had clearly taken his anger out on the two poor guardsmen.  He might not have been able to sell them into slavery, but he’d certainly done the next best thing.  Or so he thought.  I knew them both.  They had experience that could be helpful, if they were prepared to work with me.  For me.  They wouldn’t like it – they’d been my superiors, only a few short days ago – but it was the best offer they were going to get.

“You have two choices,” I said.  “I’m starting something great here.  You can join me, and work with me openly, or you can serve out your enlistment in the ranks and go back to the city when you’re done.”

The bitterness in Horst’s voice was almost palatable.  “Go back to what?”

“Good question,” I agreed.  Horst couldn’t go back to the City Guard.  There wouldn’t be many other options either.  His best bet might be joining a mercenary band, which would require him to do more than the bare minimum.  “Like I said, I’m starting something great here.  Do you want to get in on the ground floor?  Or do you want to just stay in the ranks until your enlistment expires?”

“And do you think these … these people can actually fight?”  Horst snorted.  “You knocked them down pretty easily.”

I swallowed the sharp retort that came to mind – I could knock him down pretty easily too – and leaned forward.  “There are no bad men, merely bad leaders,” I said.  I’d never been sure it was entirely true – I’d met a few enlisted men who really should have been discharged for cause – but it was close enough.  “The raw material is there.  I can train them to proper standards before we actually have to go to war.”

“You hope,” Fallows corrected.

“I hope,” I agreed.  I shrugged.  “Look, I owe you two.  Here is your chance to be something better, to be something great.  Do as I tell you – help me – and you’ll go far.  Or, like I said, serve out your enlistment and vanish back into the city.”

“Fine.”  Horst conceded with ill grace.  “What do you want us to do?”

“Learn your lessons,” I said.  “You taught me.  Let me teach you.  I’ll be watching for signs of leadership potential.  If you do well, if you learn your lessons, I’ll let you teach the next set of recruits.  And if you do well at that, you might even go further.”

Fallows frowned.  “Do you think you’ll be allowed to promote us to officer rank?”

It was a good question, I conceded.  I – or, more accurately, Rupert – had a great deal of authority, but there were limits.  Officers were selected by the city, which meant they were either aristocrats like Rupert or merchant sons who bought commissions.  I doubted either of us would be allowed to select our own officers, but it didn’t matter.  The company – the army – was going to be run by its NCOs.

“No aristo is going to let us become officers,” Horst agreed.  “They’ll look down at us and laugh.”

“You might be surprised,” I said, vaguely.  I didn’t really had time to explain non-commissioned officers to them.  It was going to be hard enough hammering proper skills into their heads without provoking resentment – or worse.  They’d picked up too many bad habits in the City Guard.  “Give me time.”

I led them back to the barracks and pointed them to their bunks, then headed for mine.  It had been a tiring day, all the more so because I hadn’t realised how hard it was going to be until I’d started.  There were just too many things that had to be done, all by me.  I would have killed for a couple of friends with actual experience.  I’d disliked my first set of instructors and yet … I would have been glad to see them now.  They would have been very helpful.

And while you’re wishing, I thought, why don’t you wish for the Lost Regiment?

The thought made me smile, even though I knew the Lost Regiment would have looked suspiciously at me.  They’d certainly have no idea what to make of Damansara.  And yet, they’d probably do a far better job.  A thousand men, with a far better understanding of how to produce their tech … of course they could do better.  The gap they had to close wasn’t so wide.  They could have taken the city, hammered out a 1860s tech base and set off to conquer the world.  And they could have done it too.

I smiled, then started to compose a list of things I needed to do tomorrow.  More drills, more exercises, more practice … I was going to need to train Horst and Fallows as quickly as possible, just to give me time to work with Rupert.  He needed to learn how to handle his men before he tried to lead them into battle and got them all killed.  It would take time, time I wasn’t sure I had, to prepare him for the role.  Really, I’d be happy to let him take the credit as long as he stayed out of the way.

And as long as no one outside the army realises what he’s done, he’ll probably be quite happy too, I thought.  That really won’t be a bad thing.

On that note, I fell asleep.

Snippet – Void’s Tale (Schooled in Magic Spin-Off)

31 Mar

Hi, everyone

Void’s Tale is a Schooled in Magic novella, filling in some of the background to The Right Side of History and The Face of the Enemy.  It takes place roughly 90 years before Schooled In Magic.  I don’t think there are any major spoilers for either, but you might want to be careful anyway.

As always, comments, corrections and suchlike are warmly welcomed.

I’ve been working on expanding my list of ways for people to follow me.  Please click on the link to sign up for my mailing list, newsletter and much – much – more.

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PS –


Emily dreams.

She dreams she stands on a vast ocean, the dark waters shifting below her feet.  Strange lights and dark shapes move within the shadows, things she dares not look at too closely for fear they might look back.  High overhead, the sky is a nightmare of lights and things that burn at her mind, eyes belonging to creatures and intellects so far beyond hers that even taking note of their presence risks madness.  She is alone and yet the sense of vast powers moving and shifting around her pervades her mind.  Lightning-fast thoughts dance at the corner of her eyes, daring her to look at them.  The dream world is a very dangerous place for an unshielded mind. 

“I thought we should talk.”  Void is behind her and in front of her and beside her … somehow, this does not surprise her.  “Here, we cannot be overheard.”

Emily steps back, bracing herself.  Void looks … old, his body bent under the weight of some vast burden.  Grey hair shrouds his face, hiding everything but his eyes.  It strikes her, suddenly, that this is how Void sees himself.  He may look young, in the real world, but he is old.  Emily knows it is just a matter of time before his magic can no longer keep him alive.

Her voice sounds weird, even to her.  “What is this place?”

“This is the dreamtime,” Void tells her.  For a moment, they are master and student again.  She feels the warmth of his regard enveloping her.  She likes it and hates it and wishes that certain things were not so.  “This is the place where minds, all minds, come to rest.”

He speaks the truth, Emily realises dully.  The ocean below her feet is the vast dreaming mind of humanity itself.  The things above her are linked to humanity and yet so far beyond it that there are no points in common.  She remembers some of the things she’d seen outside the fabric of reality, when she was thrown back in time or linked to the entity that had invaded Heart’s Eye; she shivers at the grim reminder of just how fragile reality truly is.  The longer she stays in the dreamtime, the harder it will be to return.  Cold ice washes down her spine as the implications dawn on her.  She might never escape the dreamtime.

She faces him.  She turns to face him.  She doesn’t face him.  All are true in the dreamtime.

“You thought we should talk,” she says.  “Fine.  Talk.”

Void says nothing for a long moment.  She can see thoughts – shadowy thoughts – below the water, below his feet.  The surface ripples beneath him.  She thinks, suddenly, of just how much power he’s expanding to bring her into the dreamtime.  She knows he will not hurt her and yet … she fears.  She looks away, up towards a black sun high overhead.  It seems to peer back at her.  She dreads to imagine what it must be.

“You wanted to know why I was taking control,” Void says.  “And you didn’t like my answer.”

“No,” Emily says, warily.  She understands his point of view, she follows his reasoning, but she doesn’t agree it justifies everything he’s done.  “You have a point.  But your actions have made everything worse.”

“I didn’t account for you,” Void agrees.  A wash of affection follows his words.  “A person from a world beyond my ken … no, I couldn’t account for you.”

He takes a step back.  “I can’t say anything more to you,” he said.  “There are no words I can use.  But I can show you.  Here, in the dreamtime, you can see my memories.  You can walk beside me as I made the fateful choice, the decision to take power for myself and use it.  You can watch through my eyes and decide if you would have made the same decision – or not.”

Emily cocks an eyebrow.  “And afterwards?”

“And afterwards, you are free to go,” Void says.  “You have my word.”

“I see.”  Emily thinks, quickly.  She cannot stay in the dreamtime for long.  Her body will die, leaving her a ghost on the astral plane.  “I’ll take your word.”

Void smiles, and snaps his fingers.  The ocean seems to shift beneath her feet …

… And his memories reach up and overwhelm her.

Chapter One

There is a place near Whitehall, far too close to the Dark City for comfort, where the grass will never grow again.

I stood on the edge of the clearing and peered across the scene.  Two of my brothers had died there, ten years ago; a third had seen something so terrible the sight had permanently blinded him.  Even I hadn’t been unscarred, although I could never have put the feeling into words someone could understand.  It felt like a shadow of a scar on my soul.

The magical emanations burned at me.  The power we’d unleashed – for a few short seconds – had blighted the landscape permanently, bleeding into the surrounding foliage and warping it beyond recognition.  No one came here, not even the more intellectually-challenged students who thought they could handle anything.  The otherworldly magic in the air drove them away.  I was the only person I knew who could breach the clearing and I couldn’t stay for long.  The magic was just too dangerous.

I stared at the scorched ground, breathing a silent prayer for my brothers.  The four of us had grown up together, outcasts from our more distant relatives because of how our father had chosen to sire us.  We had studied magic together, we had gone to school together, we had done everything together.  We’d thought we could change the world, for the better.  And we’d been wrong.  We’d played with fire and two of us had died, vaporised so completely there’d been nothing left of them.  My brother and I hadn’t even been able to take their bodies home for proper funeral rites.

The magic shifted, a faint otherworldly sense pressing against my mental shields.  I wanted to run.  I wanted to walk into the clearing, into another world.  I wanted … I clenched my fists as the contradictory urge grew stronger, unwilling to let it get the better of me.  I’d spent ten years researching the spell we’d tried to use, the rite we’d found in a forgotten tome and tested carefully before we actually cast it.  I still didn’t know if we’d made a dreadful mistake or if the entire spell had been a booby trap from the start, designed to kill anyone stupid enough to try it.  It gnawed at me, in the darkest nights.  What had we done?  What had we really been trying to do?

My nails dug into my hands.  My memories were vague.  I’d performed spell after spell designed to drag up old memories and yet, everything that had happened between the moment we’d started the rite and recovering in the burnt-out clearing was a blur.  I remembered … thingsthings I couldn’t see properly.  I knew I should be glad – my brother had been blinded – and yet there was a part of me that just wanted to know.  What had really happened in the period I couldn’t remember?

The magic shifted again.  I thought I heard my brother’s voice on the wind, calling to me.  It wasn’t real and yet it felt real.  I turned and walked away.  Whatever we’d done, we’d blighted the land beyond repair.  I had been lucky to survive.  The sensation faded as I walked faster, unwilling to spend another second near the otherworldly magic.  There was nothing I could do about it.  The land was blackened and burnt and no longer the province of human minds.  It wasn’t safe for anyone, not now.

I dismissed the thought as I walked onwards, my magic bending the trees and foliage around me.  There were no paths here.  No students explored this far from the school, no hunters prayed on the local wildlife … I’d been told there were a handful of hermits living so far from the civilised world, but I’d never seen them.  The odds were good they were no longer entirely human.  Being so close to the wild magic of the Greenwood did unpleasant things to humans, at least those without the proper protections or agreements.  The Other Folk were always haunting the land.  I could feel unseen eyes watching me.

The sensation faded, the moment I reached the ancient road that led from Whitehall to Dragon’s Den.  There were agreements here, agreements forged so long ago that no one really knew who’d put their name to them, agreements that the students would remain untouched by the Other Folk.  I’d hunted through the archives, trying to determine who – or what – had written the agreements and bound themselves to them, but I’d drawn a complete blank.  There was just no way to know what had really happened, so long ago.  Perhaps it had been the first emperors.  They could speak for the human realm.

I felt the shadows of the past lifting as I kept walking, heading down to the town.  Dragon’s Den had survived the fall of the empire reasonably intact, given that it was ruled by Whitehall School rather than the local magnate – who now styled himself King of Alluvia – but everyone thought it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose.  The town had attracted hundreds of refugees from magical communities over the last few decades, all of whom had been trying to find permanent homes that didn’t involve bending the knee to the newborn kingdoms or long-standing magical aristocracy.  The non-magicians in the town were having an even worse time of it.  There were just too many low-power magicians who took their frustrations and resentments out on their magic-less neighbours rather than trying to build up the power to strike back at their tormentors.  It was said – truly – that if you walked down the wrong street at the wrong time you’d go through at least five unwilling transformations before you reached the end.

A gaggle of students stood at the edge of the town.  They weren’t helping.  The Grandmaster was a firm believer in harsh discipline – I’d felt his wrath often enough – but he cared nothing for the mundanes in his town.  The students had no qualms about acting like entitled brats, intimidating the townsfolk and often humiliating them for shits and giggles.  Slip someone a love potion or a particularly nasty charm and watch the results, laughing all the time … bastards.  I didn’t bother to mask my magic as I walked past the students, watching in dark amusement as they scattered and fled.  No one would have faulted me for slapping them down, even without provocation.  The only safe streets in the town were the ones protected by powerful magicians.  It was unlikely things would improve unless the Grandmaster took a personal hand or he was replaced with someone a little more aware of his responsibilities.

The town was disturbingly quiet as I walked through the streets.  There were fewer students than I’d expected, even though it was a weekend.  Perhaps they were up to something or … I shrugged.  It wasn’t my problem.  I wasn’t a teacher.  I didn’t have the patience for it.  A young woman, barely out of her teens, made eyes at me.  I glanced at her, noted her dress – she was clearly from a magical bloodline – and ignored her.  My cousins had been raised to marry the strongest magicians they found, practically ordered to seduce them in hopes of breeding even stronger magicians.  I might be handsome – if I said so myself and of course I did – but it wouldn’t matter if I was uglier than a troll’s buttocks.  The girls would still be pushed into trying to marry me.

I felt nothing.  I’d never really been interested in anyone.

The cafe sat at the edge of the town’s centre, owned and run by a powerful magic.  I could feel his wards pulsing through the air, even from a distance.  A pair of students hung upside down outside, trying to keep their robes in place as they dangled from invisible strings.  They’d probably tried to harass the patrons on a dare, only to discover – too late – that the owner was too strong for them.  I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen to them.  The owner could do whatever he wanted, from putting them to work washing dishes to turning them permanently into toads.  The Grandmaster wouldn’t care enough to help them.

I stepped through the door, hung my cloak on a hook and walked to the table.  My brother – Hasdrubal – sat there, his eyes hidden behind a tattered blindfold.  He could still use magic to see – his first students had found that out the hard way – but ten years of research hadn’t been able to uncover a way to repair his eyesight.  Whatever had happened, it had proven impossible to fix.  And that should have been impossible too.

It was growing harder to tell we were brothers, I reflected, as I took the seat facing him.  I was tall, with pale skin, dark eyes and long dark hair that fell down to my shoulders; he was shorter, his eyes hidden, his body hunched as if he were carrying some great weight.  I supposed that being a teacher must have taken a toll, particularly with a Grandmaster who didn’t give much of a damn about his kids.  I had no illusions about the students.  They’d been obnoxious when I’d been a student and they were still obnoxious, even to the teachers.  My brother was the most powerful teacher in the school – he was head and shoulders ahead of many others – but that only made the thought of getting the better of him all the more attractive.  There wouldn’t be a student who hadn’t at least considered trying to sneak into his office.  Anyone who tried and succeeded, according to tradition, would be granted a free pass for the year.

Poetic justice, I thought, with a flicker of dark humour.  We tried to sneak into their offices when we were students too.

“Void.”  Hasdrubal looked irked.  He’d never liked the moniker I’d chosen.  “Thank you for coming.”

“Your message was very clear,” I said.  “You had someone you wanted me to meet?”

“Someone who wanted to meet you,” Hasdrubal said.  He flicked his finger in the air, sending a message.  “He has a job for you.”

“Oh, does he?”  I made a face.  I’d had a feeling it was yet another commission from the White Council.  Or, more accurately, a subcommittee of a committee within the council … a confusing mixture of sorcerers and aristocrats and newly-minted kings who could neatly evade the blame and deny everything if something went spectacularly wrong.  “And who might this person be?”

Hasdrubal nodded in the direction of the rear door, a moment before it opened.  I smirked inwardly – the door led to stairs, which led to the brothel – and then schooled my face into an expressionless mask as Lord Ashworth stepped into the cafe.  I wasn’t too surprised to see him – Lord Ashworth had always been too mealy-mouthed to do anything directly – but lurking there?  It was commonly believed he didn’t any balls.  His face twisted as he saw us, his lips starting to curve into a sneer before he hastily hid it.  He’d never liked my father.

“Lord Ashworth,” Hasdrubal said.  His voice was calm, so calm I knew he was irritated.  “Please.  Join us.”

Lord Ashworth sat, his face artfully blank.  I had no trouble reading his eyes.  He was both confident and afraid, a reflection of his power and his awareness of my far greater power.  I had no family – we’d been disowned after my father died – while he had a small army of magicians at his beck and call, but we both knew I could kill him.  He was far too close to me for his peace of mind.  I might not make it out alive – House Ashworth would spare no expense to hunt me down – but he’d be dead.

“Void,” Lord Ashworth said.  He summoned the waitress and ordered the most expensive drinks on the menu.  “We have a problem only you can solve.”

I resisted the urge to point out I wasn’t amused by his petty flattery.  I had no false modesty – I knew I was good – but I was hardly unique.  He didn’t want my problem-solving skills.  He wanted a deniable asset, someone who could be disavowed if necessary.  He wanted … he wanted something he’d be unwilling to come out and say.  I kept my face carefully blank, despite my disgust.  Lord Ashworth was one of the most powerful men in the world.  He didn’t have to jump around the issue for hours before finally getting to the point.

The waitress returned, with three glasses of something rare and expensive.  I didn’t touch it.  I didn’t want to accept any obligation to Lord Ashworth, no matter how small.  If he noticed – if he cared – he gave no sign.  Instead, he sipped his own glass with casual abandon.  I noticed a flicker of disgust cross my brother’s face.  Drunken magicians were dangerous.  Hasdrubal had managed to convince the staff to ban alcohol from the school, but the students could still drink in town.  And when they got drunk …

“We have a problem,” Lord Ashworth said.  “Have you ever been to the Principality of Yolanda?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never actually visited.”

Lord Ashworth made a face.  “The principality is really nothing more than a town, some countryside and a handful of mountain passes,” he said.  “It would have been swallowed by a bigger kingdom by now, except for a combination of geography and political reality.  Her neighbours – she has three – want her, but they don’t want their rivals getting their hands on her either.  King Jonathon – he styles himself the just – has managed to play his neighbours against one another, through a mixture of threats and promises.  It doesn’t hurt that Yolanda has a sizable magical community.  King Jonathon himself may be a mage.”

I nodded, impatiently.

“We have been quietly monitoring the situation,” Lord Ashworth said.  “The White Council has been using it as an example of what the council can do, meditating disputes between kingdoms and arranging matters so everyone is reasonably happy.  Keeping Yolanda independent, and the trade routes open, is in everyone’s interests.”

“Of course,” I agreed.  “And what does this have to do with me?”

“A handful of magicians, including a top-rank alchemist, have gone missing,” Lord Ashworth said.  “They were in Yolanda, all long-term residents.  And we don’t know what’s happened to them.”

“An alchemist,” I repeated.  “Was he one of the ones with … interesting … ideas?”

She,” Lord Ashworth corrected.  “And no, Layla wasn’t known for flights of fancy.  There was certainly no suggestion she should take her experiments somewhere unpopulated, where she would be the only person at risk if something went badly wrong.  She ran a simple apothecary and generally kept herself to herself.  She had no partner, no children, no apprentice.  The only reason we know she’s missing is because her former master didn’t get a letter from her.”

I had no patience for his bullshit.  “You mean, she was there to keep an eye on things for you,” I said.  “And you lost contact with her.”

Lord Ashworth didn’t bother to deny it.  I wasn’t too surprised.  House Ashworth had clients everywhere, as did the rest of the Great Houses.  I’d long suspected they were used as a covert intelligence network, particularly the ones with no apparent links to the magical aristocracy.  For all I knew, Layla might even be related – indirectly – to Lord Ashworth himself.  She would hardly be the first member of magical aristocracy to set off on her own path, trying to forge a life for herself.  And as long as she stayed in touch and made herself useful, her family wouldn’t care.

“We made indirect inquiries,” Lord Ashworth said.  “We were told she closed her shop and left.  That would be so out of character for her that we know it’s not true.  Further inquires revealed a number of other magicians going missing.  It isn’t easy to keep track of magicians, and it isn’t uncommon for the more independent-minded to simply vanish after graduation, but somewhere between five and twelve magicians have gone missing.”

“In Yolanda,” I said.

“Yes,” Lord Ashworth confirmed.  “They were all residents of the city.”

“And not the sort of people who would simply vanish one day,” I mused.  “What have you done about it?”

“We cannot send an investigation team into the town,” Lord Ashworth said.  “The politics are very delicate right now.  If the monarch refuses to allow it, we cannot do it.  We can’t even ask without risking a political crisis.”

“That is true.”  Hasdrubal looked as disgusted as I felt.  “There is nothing, legally, that can be done.”

“Really.”  I met Lord Ashworth’s eyes.  He looked away.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Go to the town, find out what’s happening and report back to us,” Lord Ashworth said, bluntly.  “We’ll decide what to do upon your return.”

“If that is what you want,” I said, with heavy sarcasm, “it will be my pleasure to serve.”

“Good,” Lord Ashworth said.  He slapped a pair of gold coins on the table, then stood.  “You know where to find me when you have something to report.”

He strode away.  I stuck my tongue out at his retreating back.  It was childish, but … I’d put up with his sneers since I’d been a child.  Even now, when he needed me, he sneered.  I was going to make him pay for it, one day.

“There are odder rumours coming out of the region,” Hasdrubal said.  “One of them involves a necromancer.”

I doubted it.  The established necromancers were quite some distance to the south.  There might be a newborn necromancer in Yolanda – the rite was terrifyingly easy – but there was no way he could escape notice.  Not for long.  The tiny kingdom would be knee-deep in bodies by now.  The White Council would have all the excuse it needed to intervene.  None of the surrounding kingdoms would argue.

“I’ll sneak into the town, see what I can dig up,” I said.  “But it isn’t a necromancer.”

“No,” Hasdrubal agreed.  “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t something bad.”

I couldn’t disagree.  Magic could make monsters out of magicians.  I knew that far too well.

Stuck in Magic CH14

30 Mar

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Chapter Fourteen

I felt as though I was in hell.

My head hurt, pounding like a drum.  My throat was dry.  My body felt as if I’d gone several rounds with an artilleryman and lost decisively.  My … my memory was hazy, but I had the vague recollection someone had been trying to kill me.  Panic shot through me as my memories snapped back into place.  I’d tried to free the runaway serfs, only to be captured myself, threatened with a fate worse than death and then … Captain Alder had knocked me out.  Where the hell was I now?

I forced myself to remain still and keep my eyes closed as I reached out with my senses.  I was lying on a bed, I thought.  It didn’t feel as though I was tied or chained.  I could hear someone – one person – breathing lightly.  It sounded feminine, although I couldn’t tell for sure.  Jasmine?  I didn’t know any other women, not on this side of the dimensional divide, certainly none who would come to my aid.  Who was she?  I hesitated, then opened my eyes wide.  The light was bright enough to make me regret it.

“Drink this,” a female voice said.  “It’ll help.”

I forced myself to sit upright, despite the throbbing headache.  The room was small, with nothing beyond a simple bed and a chair, but I had the sense of wealth and power.  A young woman was standing beside the bed, holding out a glass … a real glass.  She looked to be around twenty, with reddish skin, short dark hair and a pair of gold spectacles.  She wore a simple white robe that concealed everything below the neckline, held firmly in place by a green band wrapped around her wrist.  I would have liked her if we’d met under other circumstances. As it was …

She pushed the glass into my hand.  I sniffed it warily, then shrugged and drank.  If they’d wanted to poison me, they hardly needed to resort to subterfuge.  They could have bashed my head in or slit my throat while I was unconscious.  It tasted foul, as if I’d drunk oil mixed with rotten fruit, but the pain faded away.  The woman smiled at me, then recovered the glass.  My eyes narrowed as I looked at it … really looked at it.  Glass was expensive, very expensive.  Whoever had brought me here was staggeringly wealthy by local standards.

“You probably need to drink some water too,” the woman said, pushing another glass into my hands.  “And then you can meet the master.”

My eyes narrowed, just for a second.  If she noticed, she gave no sign.  I drank the water – it tasted pure, not the brackish slop I’d endured in the guardhouse – and stood, taking the opportunity to check for damage.  There was a nasty bump on the back of my head, which felt uncomfortable when I pressed my fingers against it, but I was otherwise unhurt.  My body felt surprisingly energetic, despite the beating I’d taken.  I wondered, as I flexed my muscles, just what had been in that potion.  The recipes I’d seen had sounded like something out of a jokey child’s cookbook.

The woman watched me with an amused expression.  “Are you done?”

I nodded, glancing down at myself.  Someone had removed my guard’s uniform and replaced it with a simple tunic.  My gun and supplies rested on a table, along with a belt.  I donned it quickly, breathing a sigh of relief it hadn’t been stolen.  I guessed the rest of the stuff I’d brought – and left at the guardhouse, along with my savings – had been taken by now.  The guardsmen might have been honest enough not to steal from each other, but I was probably no longer a guardsman.  I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was now.  What had happened to me, when I’d been unconscious?

“This way, please,” the woman said.

I shrugged and followed her through a  maze of white corridors.  The interior was odd, a strange combination of Roman and Middle Eastern architecture that seemed designed to allow air to flow freely through the house – the mansion – and yet, somehow, keep the air cool.  Magic?  It was possible.  I saw a handful of men and women along the way, all – judging by their outfits – servants.  I frowned, inwardly.  Where the hell was I?  One of the mansions I’d been told never to even look at?  Or … or what?  The only good sign, as far as I could tell, was that I wasn’t in chains.  And yet, even that was meaningless.  If my captor was a magician, he could stop me in my tracks with a wave of my hand.

We stopped outside a brown door.  The woman tapped on it once, then pushed it open and motioned for me to step into the room.  It looked like an office, bigger than anything I’d ever owned.  The desk and chairs looked small, as if they were dollhouse furniture in a room for grown adults; the walls were bare, save for one covered in maps of the city and the surrounding countryside.  The room was brightly lit by wide-open windows, brilliant sunlight streaming into the chamber.  I blinked, half-covering my eyes.  It was just too bright.

“Greetings.”  A young man stood behind the desk.  “Thank you for coming.”

I bit down a sarcastic response – I was fairly sure I hadn’t had a choice – and studied him thoughtfully.  He looked to be in his mid-twenties, with long dark hair and light brown skin, but there was something unfinished about his features.  I had the mental impression of a greenie lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, utterly unaware of the real world.  I’d met my fair share of them, back in the service.  Some of them matured into decent commanding officers.  Some of them just got good men killed because they mistook education for experience.  I allowed my eyes to wander over his clothes.  They were finely cut, the very epitome of local high fashion.  I was looking at someone so wealthy and powerful that he didn’t need to show off.  Everyone who mattered would already know who he was.

Or at least his family is wealthy and powerful, I reminded myself  I’d heard of rejuvenation spells, but the young man’s attitude didn’t suggest an old mind in a young body.  It remains to be seen what he’ll do when – if – he inherits.

“I’m Rupert Drache,” he said.  “I think you may have heard of me.”

I nodded.  “Yes,” I said.  “You were the one who bribed Captain Alder not to punish me.”

“You saved my sister from a fate worse than death,” Rupert said.  “You didn’t deserve to be punished for it.”

“No,” I agreed.  The local sexual mores struck me as bizarre at best, harmful at worst, but I knew there was no point in trying to change them.  If Rupert’s sister had reported her rape, she would have been disgraced; if she’d kept it to herself, she wouldn’t have been a virgin on her wedding night.  The bridegroom would have been very disappointed.  He might even have used it as an excuse to annual the wedding.  “What happened?  I mean, after I was knocked out?”

Rupert gestured to a chair, motioning for me to sit.  “Most guards would have walked away, rather than risk getting involved.  You didn’t.  You could say I took an interest in you.  I asked your comrades to tell me about you …”

Bribed them to talk, I translated, silently.

“… And about what little they knew of your past.  I was going to approach you in a week or two anyway, when I heard the news.  Captain Alder was going to sell you.  I … convinced … him to let me take you, and all of your possessions, instead.”

I tried not to scowl.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing.”  Rupert met my eyes.  “You paid in advance, when you saved my sister.  But” – he took a breath – “I do have a job offer for you.”

“It seems I have nowhere else to go,” I said, ruefully.  Rupert might let me collect my possessions and walk out without a backward glance, but where could I go?  Staying in the city would be a bad idea, yet … how could I travel?  Sign up with a merchant’s convoy as a bodyguard?  “What do you want from me?”

Rupert sat, resting his hands on the desk.  “I understand you have a … military … background?”

“You could say that,” I said, carefully.  “I was a soldier, for a time.”

Rupert’s hands twisted.  He was clearly nervous.  “By tradition, each of the high families has to take a turn commanding the Garrison,” he said.  “The position is normally determined by lot, because the commander cannot return to the city – he must remain in the Garrison – without special permission.  Lord Galley – Harbin’s father – has managed to convince the remainder of the high families that I would make a great commanding officer.”

I frowned.  “And that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes,” Rupert said.  “For me, at least.”

I understood.  The city’s defence forces were pitiful.  Command of the garrison was roughly akin to reassignment to Antarctica, somewhere so far out of the way that it served a convenient dumping ground for officers the military wanted to punish without making it blatantly obvious.  Rupert wouldn’t be allowed to return to the city until his term expired, unless the city came under attack.  Harbin’s father had managed to ensure Rupert would be trapped outside the city, unable to influence events, for at least five years.  Bastard.  This wouldn’t have happened if he’d taught his son not to rape.

“For two years, I will be expected to train the next cadre of soldiers,” Rupert continued, mournfully.  “And I don’t have the slightest idea where to begin.”

“And you want me to do it,” I said.  I wasn’t adverse to the idea.  Command of the troops – real command, if not formal command – might be useful.  “Is that what you have in mind?”

“Yes.”  Rupert didn’t try to hide his desperation.  “We might be going to war soon too.”

I blinked.  “How so?”

Rupert waved a hand at the map.  “Every year, we get thousands of runaway serfs from Warlord Aldred’s estates.  He isn’t happy, as you may have heard.  He puts a lot of pressure on the city fathers – the high families – to return them, rather than let them blend into the city’s population and vanish.  Your actions yesterday … well, let’s just say they made it harder to give him what he wants.  We think it’s just a matter of time before he starts cutting our trade routes, banning imports to the city or simply marching on the walls to give us a good thrashing. “

He grimaced.  “And when that happens, the city fathers normally write off the defenders and bend the knee to the warlord.”

I winced.  “Lord Galley expects you to stand and die in defence of the city.”


“Ouch.”  I could see the logic.  Rupert would either be killed in hopeless battle or turn and flee the battlefield.  Either way, his political career would be at an end.  It was cold, calculating and completely ruthless.  “Why don’t you build a bigger army and give the warlord a thrashing instead?”

Rupert looked at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues.  “The warlords are too strong to resist,” he said.  “All we can do is make a stand, get hammered and then accept whatever terms they offer.”

I studied the map thoughtfully.  I wasn’t sure that was true.  The warlords might be hell on wheels – more likely, hell on horseback – in the countryside, but taking an entire city was a very difficult task.  Fallujah had been an absolute nightmare and we’d had trained soldiers and technology Rupert and Warlord Aldred couldn’t even begin to imagine.  The simple fact Warlord Aldred hadn’t brought the city under his direct control argued that he couldn’t.  He had to fear the costs of trying to storm the walls.  A warlord who lost most of his troops was no longer a warlord.  I’d seen that play out in Afghanistan.

And they have muskets and other new firearms, I mused.  I doubted the warlords had embraced the new weapons.  God might have made men, as the saying went, but Sam Colt made them equal.  A warlord wouldn’t want weapons that would make a serf the equal of a trained knight.  I could put a gun in a child’s hand and he could blow away a soldier with years of training.  The balance of power might not be as unfavourable as he thinks.

“If you give in to bullies, I said, you’ll just guarantee more bullying,” I said.  Giving Hitler what he’d demanded had just led to more demands.  “You need to prepare for a real fight.”

Rupert raised his eyebrows.  “And when they starve the city?  Or try to take the walls?”

“You can keep him back, if you have a proper army,” I said.  I had several ideas along those lines, but they’d have to wait until I made a name for myself.  “How many men do you have under your command?”

“The garrison is supposed to have six hundred,” Rupert said.  “Two hundred are meant to be under my direct command, once I train them.  I won’t assume command of the entire garrison until my processor reaches the end of his term.”

I blinked.  The city had a population of at least four hundred thousand, probably more.  Thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of people lived off the books, hidden away in the grey and black economy that the city fathers pretended didn’t exist.  The city should have been able to field a much larger army without too many problems.  It wasn’t as if it didn’t have the supplies to equip them, the craftsmen to make weapons … I gritted my teeth as I realised how difficult it was likely to be.  The city fathers were unlikely to be able to put together a bigger army.  The corruption that pervaded the city would make it impossible.

And they don’t want to encourage the commoners to think of themselves as powerful, I reflected, sourly.  That would end with the commoners destroying the high families.

Rupert looked downcast.  I didn’t blame him.  He’d been sent out to die and there was nothing he could do about it.  Whatever he did, he was fucked.  Unless …

“Two hundred men,” I mused.  “We can do something with that, if you supply them and let me train them.  How much money are you willing to spend?”

“I have an allowance,” Rupert said.  His lips twisted.  “I’ve been promised money from the city fathers, but …”

He shrugged, expressively.  I understood.  The money would pass through so many hands – dwindling all the while – that, by the time it reached him, it would be much reduced.  It wouldn’t be cheap to supply even a small army with everything from plate armour to spears, maces,  flails and everything else it might need.  Even if I concentrated on muskets and other primitive gunpowder weapons instead, it was going to be tricky.  And yet, if I could get enough muskets – perhaps even cannons – I could make a real difference.

“I don’t know what to do,” Rupert said.  “I’m going to die.”

“No, you’re not,” I said.  “We are not going to give Lord Galley the satisfaction of sending you to your death.  You’ve already hired someone who knows how to turn a handful of civilians into fighting men.  Give me the supplies and let me do my job and I’ll produce something you can be proud of.  Who knows?  If we look tough, we might even deter the warlords from attacking.”

Rupert looked unconvinced.  “Does that work?”

“Bullies never look for a fair fight,” I told him.  “They might lose.  No, they pick on people too weak to defend themselves.  If that person looks tough, ready to fight, ready to hurt the bully even if they’ll go down themselves, the bully will look for other targets.  Look tough and ready to fight and you won’t have to fight.”

It might not have been convincing, if Rupert hadn’t been desperate.  His enemies had done their work well.  He needed to win … he needed to listen to me.  I doubted there was anyone else who could help him … who would.  The city’s defenders couldn’t take care of themselves and the mercenaries simply couldn’t be trusted.  I owed him.  It wasn’t much, but it was all he had.

“Very well,” Rupert said.  “What do you need?”

“For starters, some idea of what you’re prepared to spend, and what we can obtain on short notice,” I said.  “And then I need a detailed breakdown of your order of battle and what weapons and supplies are available to the garrison.”

“You can work with my secretary,” Rupert said.  He looked somewhat confused by my choice of words.  “He’ll help you with whatever you need.”

At least he has the sense to get out the way, I thought.  I’d have to educate him in war, but that could be done later.  Once I proved I knew what I was talking about, he’d listen to my quiet lectures.  That’s better than most green LTs manage.

Rupert stood.  “There’s one other thing I have to tell you,” he said.  “You know you had a protective charm?”

“Yeah,” I said, carefully.  I hadn’t known, not until Thunder had tried to magic me.  “What about it?”

“My family’s magician took a look while you were sleeping,” Rupert said.  “She said it was a very strange charm, very powerful.  But it was designed to only work once.”

He met my eyes.  “The charm is gone.   Don’t pick a fight with another sorcerer.”

I swallowed.  “Yes, sir.”

OUT NOW – Cast Adrift (Cast Adrift I)

28 Mar

Five hundred years ago, the human race discovered it was not alone in the universe when Earth was invaded and forcibly integrated by the Alphan Empire.  Over the years, humans have grown used to their position within the empire, serving as soldiers and spacers for alien masters as well as building a place in the universe for themselves.  But now, in the aftermath of a violent interstellar war that shattered the power of the Alphans, humanity has rediscovered its pride.  Humanity wants to be free.

Facing a war they will lose even if they win, the Alphans give humanity its independence once again.  Humanity stands alone in a hostile universe, facing alien threats that regard humans as nothing more than servants – or weaklings, easy meat for armed conquest.  And if the human race cannot learn to stand on its own two feet, without its masters, it will rapidly discover that it has traded one set of masters for another …

… And if they lose the coming war, all hope of independence will die with it.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the following links: Amazon USUKCAAUSUniversal and Draft2Digital (more links being added all the time).  And read the Afterword here.

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27 Mar

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