Alassa’s Tale–Snippet II

3 Nov

Just a treat for the readers …

Prologue

King Randor had, as far as anyone outside a very small group of trusted counsellors knew, three reception chambers in his castle. There was the Great Hall, where the monarch might address the court or hold formal events; there was the Privy Chamber, where the Privy Council met and talked; there was the King’s Bedchamber, where the king’s most intimate associates – or those the king wanted to favour – were invited for private discussions. A watching courtier could tell who was in favour and who was being frozen out, or who had influence over the king, simply by determining where the king chose to meet them. A man who was invited to the Privy Chamber was a man to watch.

There were two other reception chambers, protected by a combination of subtle magic, powerful wards and simple misdirection. The Royal Chamber was reserved for the Royal Family and the king’s most trusted counsellors, it’s mere existence known to a select few. The other – the Black Chamber – belonged to the spies. Only a handful of the king’s agents knew of the chamber – or how to use the secret passages to enter without being detected – and none of them could step into the castle itself without Randor’s permission.

The chamber itself was surprisingly bare, for all that it belonged to the king. Randor sat in a large chair, rather than a throne, and sipped from a glass of wine he’d poured himself. Dust hung in the air, a mocking reminder that the chamber hadn’t been cleaned for nearly a year. It would soon be time to bring a maid in to do the work, then execute the poor girl and dispose of her body somewhere in the catacombs. Randor had balked when his father had shown him the chamber, back when he’d been on the verge of ascending to the throne, but he’d long since lost any doubts about the practice. Secrets had to be maintained, whatever the cost in blood and treasure. And it was never safe to know the secrets of a king.

He took a sip of his wine as he brooded. He’d been king for nearly thirty years, yet he was on the verge of losing his grip on the kingdom. The barons were rebellious, the common folk were revolting … and he couldn’t trust even his own family! His brother was an enchanted fool, locked up for his own safety; his daughter was an ambitious bitch, moving steadily to secure more and more power for herself. It didn’t really surprise him – Alassa was his daughter, after all, and it hadn’t been that long since Randor had fought for scraps of power from his father – but it worried him. A conflict between the royals could easily lead to outright civil war as the barons sought to take advantage of the chaos.

And the more I restrict her, he thought grimly, the more likely it is that she will rebel.

He stroked his beard, cursing his own mistakes under his breath. He’d banked everything on getting a son, a legitimate heir. Even if the baby boy had been four or five years younger than Alassa, there would have been plenty of time to raise him to be a king and teach Alassa that her duty lay in supporting her brother. Alassa was a competent sorceress, after all. And if you couldn’t trust your own flesh and blood, who could you trust? They would have made a great partnership … but it had never come to pass. Alassa had been his only child – she was still his only legitimate child – until well after he’d been forced to confirm her as his primary heir. And then …

The irony was enough to make him wonder if he’d offended one of the gods. He’d seduced Alicia – the sole surviving heir to the Barony of Gold – as an act of revenge against her dead father more than anything else. The pleasure he’d got from making her crawl had been amusing, all the more so because he knew her father would be screaming curses from the traitor’s grave. But Alicia had become pregnant and given birth to a handsome baby boy, fifteen years too late. Randor ground his teeth every time he thought about it. There was no way he could put Alassa aside, not now, without sparking outright revolution. And Alassa would be a formidable foe.

He took another sip of his wine. His father had had no trouble controlling Randor, but Randor had never been in any doubt that he would succeed his father. He’d undergone an apprenticeship under a harsh taskmaster, a father who had never hesitated to box his ears for mistakes or failure. But King Alexis the Great had understood Prince Randor because he’d been a young man, once upon a time. Randor hadn’t had that advantage with his daughter. In hindsight, he knew he should have treated Alassa as his heir from birth. But he’d squandered the opportunity in his desperate bid for a son.

And Alassa has some of the most powerful people in the world on her side, Randor thought, grimly. And she has time on her side.

The room felt colder, suddenly. He still shivered when he remembered Emily breaking out of his wards, even though a dozen wardcrafters had sworn blind they were unbreakable. Randor had had the men executed afterwards, more to assuage his fear than anything else. Emily could have killed him in that moment and he knew it. And he was sure she knew it too.

If I’d known how many changes she would bring, I would have had her killed, he told himself, again. A girl from an alternate world … if it hadn’t been Alassa who’d told him, he wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s too late now.

He looked at the simple wooden table, wondering if he had the time to watch his son grow to manhood. It would be good to have another heir, given that Alassa and Jade had yet to produce a child of their own. And then … who knew?

But he doubted the barons would give him that time. He’d banned private armies, after the coup attempt six years ago, but he knew the barons were secretly building up their forces in preparation for a war. They knew, as well as he did, that it was only a matter of time before hostilities broke out, once again. And the commoners were arming too. He knew that revolutionary groups were spreading, despite his best efforts. Recruiting sergeants had been attacked, tax collectors had been brutally murdered, priests who proclaimed the divine right of kings and noblemen had been driven from their temples … chaos was spreading, no matter what he did.

And Alassa … who knew what Alassa would do?

She had options, Randor acknowledged. And a very good reason to want to seize power before Alexis – Alicia’s child – grew up. And if she chose to side with the barons or one of the revolutionary movements … why not? That was precisely what Randor’s own father had done, when he’d assumed the throne. He’d played the barons off against the commoners and, in doing so, had taken control of the kingdom. Why would Alassa not do the same? She was a girl, just as Prince Alexis had been a fop who loved to play with soldiers. It would be easy for Alassa’s allies to underestimate her until they felt the knife at their throats …

The wards shifted, slightly. Randor tensed as he sensed his visitor walking up the hidden passageway, their presence muffled by the wards. The doorway opened a second later, allowing a cloaked figure to step into the chamber. She threw back her hood, revealing a pale face topped with inky black hair. Her dark eyes were wide with surprise.

“Your Majesty!”

She went down on one knee, hastily. Randor concealed his amusement behind his beard. Sir Xavier hadn’t told her she would be meeting the king, then. But the report from the Black Daggers had been clear. This was a report Randor had to hear.

“You may rise,” he said. He reached out with his senses, using the wards to get a better impression of his visitor. A magician … a powerful magician. She was masking well, hiding her power behind her wards, but that in itself was revealing. She might well be strong enough to face a combat sorcerer. “I understand that you have a report for me.”

“I do,” the girl said. She looked around twenty-five, although appearances could be deceiving. “I am Lynnette … Your Majesty … I discovered …”

“There’s no one here to hear us,” Randor said, dryly. There was no reason to take official notice of her stumbles. “You may speak freely.”

“I discovered treason, Your Majesty,” Lynnette said. “Treason most foul.”

Randor tensed. One hand reached for the sword at his belt. “Explain.”

“I must distress you,” Lynnette said. “I …”

“Then distress me,” Randor snapped, impatiently.

“I was tracing the remnants of the plotters who attacked the wedding, last year,” Lynnette said. “Sir Xavier tasked me with finding out who backed them.”

Randor nodded, slowly. The plotters – who’d come within millimetres of killing both Randor and Alassa – had been slaughtered. But someone had backed them, someone powerful. And that person had remained unidentified.

“It was Paren who supplied the funds,” Lynnette told him. “And the Lady Emily knew.”

It took Randor a moment to understand what she’d said. Paren? Paren the merchant? Paren the man Randor had lifted into the aristocracy? Paren the man whose daughter was one of Alassa’s closest friends and advisers? Paren …

A hot flash of anger roared through him. He believed it. Paren had means, motive and opportunity. And his daughter … his daughter was far too close to Alassa. Imaiqah had to know, which meant …

And Emily knew, he thought, angrily. His thoughts spun from side to side. He needed time to think. And she said nothing.

He looked up into two dark eyes. “Do you have proof?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lynnette said. She recovered a set of papers from her bag. “Emily knew. And I believe that Lady Imaiqah knew too.”

Randor nodded, impatiently. Paren would not have left his daughter out of the planning, not when she’d been organising the wedding. Smuggling weapons into the ceremony would have been easy – had been easy – with Imaiqah’s connivance. And that meant … either Imaiqah had cold-bloodedly plotted the murder of her friend or she’d intended Alassa to take the throne after Randor’s death. And then … did Alassa know? Had she plotted to turn her wedding into a patricide?

And I let Imaiqah go to Cockatrice, he thought. What is she doing there?

He cursed. He’d have to act fast, but that wouldn’t be easy. Alassa had been sent off on a diplomatic trip, but she’d be back soon. Too many things would have to be set in motion before Alassa returned to the castle. And then …

If Alassa was ignorant, this will teach her a lesson, he thought. Trust was not something to be used in great quantities. And if she’s guilty … I still have a son.

His thoughts hardened. And I will hand the kingdom over to him if Alassa plotted to kill me.

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Updates–The Cruel Stars, Graduation Day, The Hyperspace Trap

3 Nov

In all honesty, I was starting to think that The Cruel Stars was cursed.

Well, not really. But I have a chest infection that gave me a few nasty days – I thought I must have caught a cold on top of the chest infection last Sunday, as I certainly felt worse than day – and we had a number of other issues to sort out. Some better than others, I suppose – I took Eric to a Halloween party last Monday, which was a better use of my time than sitting around coughing. <grin>.

Anyway, I’ve finished the first draft of The Cruel Stars. I’m hoping to get it edited next week, then uploaded to Amazon for distribution. I’ve also done what are – I hope – the final set of edits for The Hyperspace Trap (nee Becalmed) and the first set of edits for Graduation Day. The planned due date for the latter is December 15th, but it depends on how the second set of edits go. Oh … and here’s the cover.

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And I’ve started plotting out the Alassa’s Tale novella and The Princess in the Tower.

Next week, I start Cat’s Paw (The Unwritten Words I). I really need to think of a better title.

Thanks for reading!

Chris

Discrimination By Any Other Name Is Still Discrimination

3 Nov

“If you want to know how Trump was elected, ask yourself how a laid-off, cisgender, straight, white, male coal miner who went back to community college to learn computers might react to [Madeleine Leader’s email].”

National Review

So this pops up in my Facebook feed.

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Now, before certain people start catcalling, I will acknowledge from the start that questions have been raised about the email’s validity. There is at least a possibility that the whole thing is a fake. It is painful to believe that someone in charge of one of the most important political parties in the West was stupid enough to commit to writing something that is blatantly illegal, but given how much else they committed to writing – and then lost in a hack – it is not completely beyond the bounds of probability.

Let us assume, purely for the sake of argument, that the email is legitimate. In that case, what does it mean?

If you don’t mind, I’m going to approach the issue from a somewhat roundabout direction.

People have … call them attributes. Some of these attributes are set at birth (skin colour, gender, etc), some change as you grow older (age) and others are the result of education or other choices. An IT geek has a computer science degree as one of his attributes, a military sniper has a sharpshooter qualification. A criminal’s criminal record is one of his attributes; a child’s age is his or hers. Now, the important thing about attributes is that some of them are important and some aren’t.

For example, when I hire an editor, I want someone with experience in editing (specifically in the same genre). That’s the attributes I need to take into consideration. I wouldn’t hire an editor who specialised in romance novels for one of my fantasy books, even though romance and fantasy have a great deal in common. I’d look for someone with a solid background in the genres I write, with a good reputation for working with authors towards a shared goal.

What I won’t take into account are little details like age, gender, sexual orientation, skin colour … all attributes that have no bearing on the job at hand.

Why should I? What possible purpose would it serve? What do those details matter to me?

I think – and I’m pretty sure that most people would agree with me – that the person who is best qualified for the job should get the job. And it is fairly easy to come up with a list of reasonable – and defendable – qualifications for the job. You can even put in a physical description if you can prove those qualities are not arbitrary, that they actually matter – a Pakistani actress to play Kamala Khan, for example, or a female janitor to service the girls toilets in a co-ed school. But all of those qualifications – and their defences – should also be able to stand up to the common sense test. Why insist on a Pakistani actress when an Indian actress would be able to do the job?

If the best person for a particular job is a forty-year-old lesbian from Croydon, she should get the job. And if the best person happens to be a twenty-year-old straight white man from Glasgow, he should get the job. And very few people will complain. And, if they do, it is fairly easy to prove them wrong.

The problem with Affirmative Action (or whatever you want to call it) is that it adds an arbitrary and pointless qualification(s) to the job requirements. These qualifications can and do exclude people who would otherwise be qualified for the job. And, as I have written before, the effects are poisonous for everyone, up to and including the people Affirmative Action is intended to help. It merely breeds division into our society.

But there is a more fundamental point that must be noted.

Nelson Mandela’s particular genius did not come in leading a revolutionary moment. It came in understanding the importance of ensuring a victory that all sides – including most of the apartheid regime’s former supporters – could live with. If the choice facing white South Africans was nothing more than fight to the death, with the possibility of winning, or being brutally slaughtered … what sort of idiot would expect them not to fight? There were plenty of whites who wanted to end Apartheid – it was economically unsustainable, regardless of any moral issues – but why would they be willing to cut their own throats? Or surrender the reins of power, knowing that the state might be turned against them? If the choice faced is one between being the victim or the victimiser, it is obviously safer to be the victimiser.

On one hand, you’re storing up hatred for yourself and your descendents. On the other, you’re not being slaughtered now. And that is a plus by anyone’s definition.

The most war-torn parts of the world, as Dale Cozort put it, are the “ones where old injustices or perceived injustices are most remembered and most important to people. Look at the Middle East with its oil revenue poured into re-fighting its many age-old feuds. Look at the Balkans and the way the countries there periodically tear themselves and each other apart. Even within countries that are predominantly prosperous, groups that dwell on old injustices tend to end up in pockets of poverty.”

No one would deny that there has been discrimination in the past. But does this excuse perpetrating discrimination? Is this really the future we want for ourselves?

There comes a time when you have to draw a line between the past and the future. There comes a time when you have to agree to let bygones be bygones, when you have to agree to put the past where it belongs and walk forward together into a brighter future. But that will not come if you perpetrate discrimination against people who were not alive when the original discrimination began and have no moral responsibility for the crime. If [insert identity group here] thinks it cannot get a fair chance, why should it support political parties that seem hell-bent on punishing them for the crimes of their ancestors?

The problem with most groups based on identity politics – everything from Black Lives Matter to Men’s Rights Activists – is that they’re too interested in emoting to think about how they look to outsiders and, more importantly, what sort of world they might create. A group that sidelines others will not enjoy their support, a group that is outright intolerant will be hated and detested even if it had a valid point when it started! One has to have an endgame in mind, one that outsiders can tolerate. Or face the prospect of accomplishing precisely nothing.

I’m not scared of free competition. If a publisher comes to me and says “we’d like to publish you, but [author] sold ten times as many books as you and so we’re going with them instead” I’d understand. I wouldn’t be very happy, but I’d understand. And if the publisher said “we’re looking for stories by military vets only” I’d understand – I could have joined the military but I didn’t.

But if the publisher said “we’re going with [author] because [author] ticks a box in the diversity checklist” … I’d be pissed. Of course I’d be pissed. How the hell am I supposed to compete against that? It isn’t my fault that I was born with a number of unchangeable attributes. And this would poison my attitude towards that author.

On the micro scale, the attitude expressed Madeleine Leader might go some way towards explaining the problems facing the DNC. If they’re choosing everyone from gofers to presidential candidates to tick a diversity checkbox, rather than competence, they should count themselves lucky they hadn’t had more problems. But on the macro scale, as Rod Dreher points out, it explains why the Democrats lost. And why people who would otherwise be repulsed by Trump will not vote for the Democrats.

People are not, as a general rule, selfish. But they are self-interested. They look for the advantage for themselves, for their families, for their communities. And what sort of idiot would expect someone to sacrifice the best interests of their family for strangers?

Guest Post: The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…

29 Oct

By Matthew W. Quinn

One rule of Internet discourse that it’s wise to follow is to avoid reading the comments. There, protected by anonymity, all sorts of ugly commentary tends to flourish. If you value having a positive view of humanity, by all means stay away.

However, occasionally one can learn from the comments section. Awhile back, Chris was so gracious as to host a guest post promoting my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set in Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire universe. I related the Alliance strategy depicted in that story to Billy Mitchell’s thesis on air power trumping capital ships and cited the case of Operation Ten-Go in which dozens of American carrier aircraft sank the Japanese super-battleship Yamato and several of its escorts, killing thousands of Japanese at a cost of a dozen or so of their own.

Well, not everybody agreed with my argument. The gentleman (or lady) whose handle was Pyo pointed out that the distances involved in space battle are vastly larger than those in an oceanic battle. A space-opera setting will also feature vastly more advanced sensory technology to track incoming enemies and combat in space lacks the drag imposed by water or even air that contribute to a capital ship being less maneuverable than a fighter. Pyo also pointed other variables like energy shields, rapid-firing point-defense weapons, etc. that wouldn’t have been a factor in WWII naval battles. The user whose handle is Tim pointed out that PT boats are the same size as aircraft and were much less maneuverable on the water. In a space battle all vessels are maneuvering in the same medium, depriving aircraft of that advantage.

Pyo in particular made a very good point, which I responded to by citing the example of Battlestar Galactica. Multiple capital ships bunched together could create a very effective flak barrier, while energy shields make it so you’d need many torpedo hits, not just one or two, to actually inflict damage. That’s one reason the Cylons resorted to trickery (human-appearing infiltrators, hacking and disabling ships) as much as they did in the Second Cylon War–disrupting the flak barrier, even for a moment, would be necessary for their missile-spam strategy to bear fruit. And in an environment without drag, a capital ship’s much larger power-plant could make it far more faster and maneuverable in relationship to attacking fighter-craft than an earthbound battleship would be against torpedo bombers.

All those factors come into play in my newest Fallen Empire Kindle Worlds novella, "Discovery and Flight." The story takes place before and after Buroker’s short story "Remnants," which you can find in the You Are Here short-story collection. "Remnants" describes the Alliance having to evacuate one of its bases after fending off an Imperial assault that devastates its fleet. "Discovery" tells the tale of that battle and how much more difficult the Alliance’s fighter-heavy space force would find multiple Imperial capital ships supporting each other against torpedo barrages instead of the two Imperial cruisers they managed to separate in "Ten Davids."

So if you want to see more of Lieutenants Geun Choi and Tamara Watson–along with the canon characters Alisa Marchenko and Bradford Tomich–or just want a fun military scifi/space-opera story, check out "Discovery and Flight."

Social Change in SF/Fantasy

23 Oct

I’m trying to rest today, but this article got me thinking …

There are times, in medieval British history, when one could reasonably think that history repeats itself.

The story is always the same. Pushed too far, the commoners revolt. Being often armed and dangerous, these revolts come very close to success. And then the monarch promises compromise and reform and the rebels disband, only to be hunted down like dogs once the government reasserted its power. Richard II, Henry VI and Henry VIII all came very close to losing their thrones to peasants. And while the rebels sometimes managed to get the government to change its mind – the poll tax of 1381 was scrapped after the revolt – it was rare for them to achieve much of anything.

Indeed, even when Charles I had proven himself a treacherous and utterly untrustworthy monarch – and he was stripped of all effective power – Parliament hesitated before executing him. He was the king!

Kings had been killed before, of course. Edward II had been murdered after he’d been overthrown (unless you believe he was held prisoner after his reported death.) Richard II was murdered after his overthrow. The Princes in the Tower vanished and were widely believed to have been murdered by Richard III. But they were all murdered by their successors or, in one case, a high-ranking nobleman. (Roger Mortimer was savaged by historians after he was overthrown and executed too, perhaps because he wasn’t crowned king himself.) The idea of the commoners overthrowing and killing the king was unthinkable.

Part of this, of course, was the myth of ‘evil counsellors.’ The myth insisted that all the bad things were done by the king’s counsellors, not the king himself. If the king actually knew what was being done in his name, the story went, he would act immediately to punish the evil-doers and rule wisely and justly from that moment on. There was very little actual truth in the myth, but it served a useful purpose. Rebels demanded the heads of ‘evil counsellors,’ not the king himself. And if matters got too far out of hand, those counsellors could be sacrificed to preserve the monarchy.

But a more fundamental point was that people of that era – even as late as the Glorious Revolution and the Jacobite Rebellion – believed firmly in the social hierarchy. The crowned and anointed king was at the top, followed by the various orders of noblemen and churchmen all the way down to peasants and serfs. This was how they thought things were supposed to be – the peasants wanted good rulers, not chaos. And those who did question the social order were often considered dangerous heretics. John Ball, for example, was rapidly smacked down when he moved from questioning the church – a cause that many noblemen privately supported – to questioning the noblemen themselves. His famous question – “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” – was not one they wanted the peasants to ask.

The author condemns the social structure of JK Rowling’s Wizarding World – and, more fundamentally, insists that Hermione’s lust for social justice – particularly for the House Elves – fades as she adopts a pragmatic approach to civil rights. Equality is a fine thing to fight for when you’re a passionate teenager, she notes, but dreams fade into incremental bureaucratic reality when you grow up, get married, and get serious.

It’s a valid point. But it also bears some examination.

It is instructive to note that Hermione makes a number of fundamental mistakes when trying to free the elves. First, she refuses to accept that the majority of elves see nothing wrong with their treatment. Second, she is unable to grasp that not everyone shares her opinion of the situation; Ron, for example, sees nothing wrong with how the elves are treated despite not owning an elf himself. (Or, for that matter, having any real prospect of owning one.) And third, directly related to the second, she is unable to put together a coherent argument that might convince people who are neutral or leaning towards the other side. Like the vast majority of social justice warriors, Hermione assumed that her emotional reaction to House Elf enslavement – and she was right to regard it as horrific – was sufficient to force everyone else to act. She made no attempt to understand those she was trying to help – and their oppressors.

Hermione Granger Quotes

(A statement that is flatly incorrect.)

Rowling depicted the results quite accurately. Harry and Ron, her closest friends, have to be bullied into supporting her – it’s clear they find it embarrassing – while everyone else laughs at her. She gains nothing from her rather strident approach to the whole situation, while making life harder for everyone else in her dorm (as the House Elves are reluctant to clean the room.) And trying to give the elves clothes is pointless when she doesn’t own the elves and therefore cannot free them!

Societies – real as well as fictional – exist the way they do because of certain underlying realities. Throughout history, women were often regarded as second-class citizens; although it was far from uncommon for women to build power bases of their own, they did this by working within the system and manipulating it. This was not just because men were physically stronger than women, although that played a part. It was because a woman had a very real chance of dying in childbirth, even if she got the best medical care available at the time. There is no suggestion that Pompey the Great ever mistreated Julia Caesar – indeed, he was regarded as shamefully infatuated with his young bride – but that didn’t stop her dying in childbirth.

There are other points, of course. Farmers would try to have large families because they needed hands to help on the farm. Male children were often seen as more important than female children because boys stayed to work the farm while girls married out (often as soon as they could bear children themselves) and went to work for their husband’s family. The high mortality rate in the past often meant that a peasant would be married several times, with a brood of children and stepchildren that would confuse anyone trying to work out their relationships. There was always something to do on the farm, for everyone: sowing the fields, feeding the animals, cleaning the house, cooking, sewing … the tasks were endless.

This isn’t something that is easy to comprehend. Emma Watson, upon being cast as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, asked what Belle did with her time. She even insisted that the live-action Belle be an inventor. But in saying that, Emma Watson only revealed her own ignorance. A young girl growing up in such a place, without a mother, would have no shortage of things to do. She would be expected to keep house for her father: cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. There were no mod-cons to make it easy, either. Belle would have had to do everything by hand …

… And Gaston would have been seen as a great catch. Belle’s father would have been overjoyed if such a man had been courting his daughter. And no one would have cared about Belle’s opinion at all.

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Those who want social change, therefore, face two problems. First, there are plenty of people amongst the ‘downtrodden’ who fear change and what it may bring in its wake. This isn’t entirely an unreasonable concern. The French Revolution was necessary, but the Terror was chaotic – resulting in civil wars within the civil war – and the lives of many Frenchmen grew worse even before Napoleon took over. Educating one’s children might lead to them putting on airs and graces, instead of working on the farm. There actually was a brain-drain from the Russian countryside before the Revolution because the educated no longer had a place in the villages.

Second, perhaps more importantly, the people on top don’t want social change. Why should they? History tells us that if the people had waited for the elites to grant them social change, they’d still be waiting. Why would a slaveholder in Dixie give up his slaves? Freeing the slaves would mean losing the plantation – at the very least, he’d have to pay the former slaves to work – while keeping them might save his land and profits. Why exactly would he want to support abolition? Worse, perhaps, a number of men who don’t own slaves would also oppose abolition. They wouldn’t want free blacks to enter the labour market, thus driving wages down.

The writer of the article then refers to The Goblin Emperor, a book I got about a third of the way through before giving up. Her snide observation that the anarchists are regarded as insane misses the point that insane is exactly how they’d be regarded, back in the past. And this would be true of anyone who wanted too much change, too quickly. Like it or not, the rapid spread of the internet has caused us problems we have yet to resolve – in hindsight, would it have been wiser to go slower? But no one could direct the storm once it had begun …

The Goblin Emperor is apparently disappointing because social change is very slow. (I didn’t get that far, so I don’t know how true this is.) But social change – real social change – requires generations. It’s easy to smear radicals as … well, radicals. Those who want change must be prepared to argue for it – and they must have a valid answer when someone asks, as they will, ‘what’s in it for me?’

More importantly, directed social change requires an understanding of how society actually works. A lone king or emperor may not be able to accomplish much, even if – in theory – he is all-powerful. Noblemen, or the church, or even the bureaucracy will turn against him if he pushes for too much, too fast. Sometimes this will be as minor and petty as refusing to accept that a commoner can be given a knighthood, sometimes it will be more significant – insisting on keeping a monopoly, perhaps. A person who rages against the machine without understanding how the machine works will not be able to play John Galt and stop the motor of the world.

And yet, societies do change.

Sometimes, something happens that loosens the bonds of society. The Black Death killed hundreds of thousands of people, but it also allowed the survivors to start demanding better terms or they’d move elsewhere. Wages, accordingly, went up. At the same time, it also induced the gentry and nobility to start taking more interest in local postings … which upped the corruption in local government.

Other changes were technological. The spread of reading and writing allowed ideas to move from place to place, encouraging social change. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist promoted social change by making reasonable arguments and illustrating the hypocrisy of reactionaries. So too did books like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. It was no longer possible to shoot the messenger, once books and broadsheets became popular. Steam technology allowed faster movement from place to place, while improvements to farming technology eliminated the economic impetus for chattel slavery.

And still other changes were medical. The Pill allowed women to enter the workforce, as well as decoupling sex and reproduction. This caused other changes … premarital sex was no longer sinful, at least for the women, and virginity was no longer so highly prized. And so on and so on …

A writer who tries to use social change as the centre of the novel, therefore, faces two significant problems. On one hand, he must make social change interesting; on the other, he will face people who will argue that that ‘it wouldn’t have happened like that.’ Naomi Alderman’s The Power starts to collapse into an incoherent mess as her background overwhelms the foreground. It is very difficult to get a story out of pure social change. I would like a universe where we all develop the power to teleport, but how would I turn the social change into a story?

It’s a problem I have grappled with myself, when writing Schooled in Magic. It was always my intention to show what the influx of new ideas – first, ideas introduced by Emily; second, adaptations and improvements made by the locals – would do to a society that was, in many ways, stagnant. Emily’s education was not the best, but she knew enough to introduce everything from simple letters and numbers to paper and printing presses. (A secondary advantage is that she can imagine newer and better ways to use magic, causing yet another set of revolutions.)

This has happened in the real world, to some extent. Cortes – the Conqueror of Mexico – was a middling general by European standards. But he had a far more advanced playbook than the Aztecs and was able to use the weaknesses in their society to bring them down. Emily’s mindset allows her to make intellectual leaps that are beyond most of the locals – to them, she came out of nowhere. Her limited knowledge is more than enough to change the world.

But these changes have effects that are bad as well as good. A new banking system allows commoners to horde money, but it also kicks off a financial bubble that eventually – inevitably – explodes. Broadsheets (newspapers) allow more and more people to become aware of the world outside their spheres of interest, yet they also undermine the social order and threaten the position of the kings and princes (and sorcerers). Steam railways change the world by allowing movement over far greater distances. Newer and better understandings – germs, for example – have their own effects. Even something as simple as standardised measurements can turn the world upside down.

And yet, these changes take time. By ‘now,’ most of the low-hanging fruits have been picked. Greater changes will take time, far more time. And there will be people who have an interest in trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

And changes take time in the real world too.

The writer asks why SF has lost its ability to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But the blunt truth is that most SF utopias – The Culture, for example – require technological breakthroughs that have not – yet – happened. It also relies upon super-intelligent AIs – the Minds – to run the society. Star Trek: The Next Generation has the same problem. The human race may have evolved – Captain Picard: “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives” – but it has done so because of technological advances that have eliminated everything from hunger to (most) disease. There is no fundamental need for humans to acquire wealth in such surroundings because they don’t need it. This is a better world, but – from a storytelling point of view – it’s also boring.

It’s also worth noting that capitalism – and competition, and enlightened self-interest – have done more for the lives of the poor than any other form of government. Communism is nothing more than the equal distribution of poverty, the ultimate end result of the steady reduction of interest in actually working. Why work when the rewards of not working are just the same? Socialism is a dead end without the technology to make it work. Fascism and monarchism – and direct democracy – have their own limits; some obvious and brutal, some so small that they appear insignificant until too late. Social change is not always a part of epic fantasy – from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones – because the basic structure of their worlds mandates against it.

In conclusion, I’d like to make a simple observation.

The reference to Hillary Clinton made me smile, for all sorts of reasons. One of them was Hillary – or her ghost-writer – comparing her to Cersei Lannister, particularly when Cersei is made to walk the streets naked as a punishment for her crimes. (Ironically, Englishwomen were often spared the worst when a king was on the throne, whatever their crimes; Mary and Elizabeth had far less hesitation in executing their sisters.) But there is no doubt that Cersei Lannister was guilty of everything from incest to murdering her husband and abusing her children. It was a cruel and gendered punishment (a man would have been executed) but it was not undeserved. If Hillary Clinton identifies with Cersei, does that mean that Hillary is guilty too? She certainly has the ‘evil counsellors’ – Anthony Weiner copped a great deal of the blame for her loss, rather than Hillary herself.

And one might also argue that one of the reasons Trump won was simply that he was more popular than Hillary – he certainly enjoyed a broader base of support – something that is not unlike to Henry VI being more popular than Richard II.

But there is a more serious point. The writer calls the Clintons a de facto aristocratic family – and one of the things aristocracies do is slow progress. Hillary Clinton had countless advantages when she took the field against Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 – in the latter, she had the nomination stitched up ahead of time – but she lost both times. And part of the reason she lost is that she didn’t have an inherent understanding of politics, unlike Obama, Trump and Bill Clinton. But how could she have developed one when she never had to face a serious challenge until it was too late?

The monarchies – and aristocrats – want to ensure that there are no social changes which undermine their power. (This is as true of the Bushes as it is of the Clintons, as well as the Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts.) But this slows development to a crawl. Worse, the aristocrats lose touch with reality. On one hand, Hillary Clinton and the DNC was unable to adapt to a new reality; on the other, moderate reformers in the past got eliminated, clearing the way for rather less moderate reformers. One can argue that the RNC crushed the Tea Party, thus clearing the way for a man who proved a far more capable enemy – Donald Trump.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson of fantasy is not that knights and dragons and damsels in distress are cool, but that no one in their right mind would want to live there, let alone surrender their lives to a monarch …

… And, if you want social change, you have to start by understanding why society works the way it does.

Reviewers Behaving Badly

20 Oct

I’ve caught a chest infection, which has slowed me down so updates are going to be a little delayed. But I just had to write about this.

Let me be blunt.

Reviewing a book you haven’t read is despicable. Reviewing a book that isn’t out yet is disgraceful. Reviewing – and slamming – a book for political reasons is contemptible.

Hard on the heels of The Black Witch controversy comes another one. American Heart – a novel that seems to be an updated version of Huckleberry Finn, with Muslims instead of runaway black slaves – has been hammered by online reviewers, even though the book hasn’t been officially released and the majority of reviewers almost certainly haven’t read the book (which probably explains why very few reviews go into actual detail.) Here’s an example from Goodreads:

american heart review

One of the fundamental truths of writing – and I speak as a writer – is that there will always be bad reviews. And there is nothing that can be done about them. Readers have a right to their opinions and if they don’t like your book, they don’t like your book. I’ve had my fair share of reviews that made me want to reach through the computer screen and strangle the reviewer, but I can’t (and I shouldn’t if I could). Honest bad reviews are the price we pay for honest good reviews – and a detailed bad review is often worth its weight in gold.

Dishonest reviews – and by dishonest I mean reviews that aren’t focused on the fundamental issue of whether or not the book is actually any good – weaken the system. A reviewer who slammed Netflix’s Death Note for being whitewashed may have a point, but it doesn’t answer the important question. Why should such reviews be taken seriously? And why should a review site that bows to outside pressure be taken seriously either?

Look, there’s a right way to handle controversial books. Put up a positive review and a negative review – a thoughtful negative review. Let the readers read both reviews and make up their own minds. Surrendering to an online onslaught, on the other hand, is nothing more than cowardly. At best, it diminishes Kirkus – rest assured I won’t bother to read their reviews in future – while, at worst, it encourages more online harassment now the trolls have scented blood. Showing weakness in the face of the mob is always a mistake.

What makes this particularly sad – and yet unsurprising – is that the author bent over backwards to try to avoid this controversy. She ran it past a Muslim friend, then the publisher sent it to the so-called Sensitivity Readers in the hopes of removing anything vaguely problematic. And yet, the book got slammed anyway. I haven’t read American Heart, of course, but I do wonder at readers who challenge a book that, on the face of it, insists that a minority group is human too. What’s wrong with that?

The simplest lesson of the whole affair, basically, is don’t feed the trolls. But there is a more important point.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Inside GamerGate. And one of the points the author made was that GamerGate started an anti-harassment patrol of its own, which was apparently highly successful. But none of GamerGate’s critics seemed inclined to recognise the patrol’s existence, let alone its good work. As the author put it:

“As a result, the effort began to fall away as their efforts weren’t being recognised and they were being blamed for harassment as well as being undermined from within Gamergate by the free speech extremists. Why labour so much on behalf of your enemies when they won’t acknowledge your effort or apologise for implicating you in mass harassment?”

American Heart was not written by a demented (left-wing or right-wing) extremist who thinks that everyone who doesn’t agree with him 100% should be sent to the death camps and exterminated. It was written by someone who meant well, someone who wanted to remind the world of our common humanity. (The same lesson Huckleberry Finn tried to teach.) And her reward for that was being savaged by her own side. Why should she – why should anyone – try again?

No one, least of all me, would deny that a book can be legitimately criticised. And there are certainly grounds for criticising American Heart (another here). But the legitimate criticism is drowned out – in this case and many others – by illegitimate criticism and reviewers behaving badly. Saying you don’t like the book is one thing, harassing reviewers, publishers and authors is quite another. And the people who lose are the authors, who don’t get thoughtful reviews, and the readers, who cannot trust the reviews.

Sigh. As far as I can tell, the only person who acted like an adult is the author herself.

If you can’t act like an adult, don’t read adult books.

Alassa’s Tale–Snippet

15 Oct

This probably merits some explanation.

I’ve got … something, perhaps a cold, that kept me from writing yesterday. But I had this scene running through my head, demanding I write it. It’s the first chapter of Alassa’s Tale, a novella I intend to bridge the gap between Graduation Day (Schooled in Magic 14) and The Princess in the Tower (Schooled in Magic 15). Obviously, this is written from Alassa’s POV instead of Emily’s. Comments would be very welcome.

I have a vague plan for writing the rest of the novella in December, but a lot depends on precisely what happens over the month.

Until then … Enjoy!

Chapter One

Alassa threw back her head and laughed.

The King’s Road opened up in front of her as the horse galloped forward. She heard Jade cry out behind her, his voice lost in the clatter of hooves. He’d only want her to slow down, she knew. Jade was a brave man, but he absolutely refused to allow her to take risks. Her smile grew wider as the horse moved faster, racing down the road. A woman was expected to obey her father, then her husband, but she was the Crown Princess. Exceptions were made for her.

And a sorceress, she thought. Exceptions are made for them too.

The wind grew stronger, blowing through her golden hair. She allowed it to stream out behind her, enjoying the sensation of freedom. It wouldn’t last, she knew, not when they were back home. Her father would expect her to play her role as Crown Princess, Heir to the Throne. He wouldn’t allow her to shirk her duties, not if she wanted to succeed him. It had taken him years to come around to the idea of his daughter following him, rather than a strapping son. And the hell of it was that now, after acknowledging his daughter as his heir, King Randor had a son. A bastard, to be sure, but a son none-the-less.

Forget about him, Alassa told herself, sharply. She knew she’d be seeing too much of the little brat over the next few years, even if her father had promised to keep the boy’s parentage a secret. Enjoy your freedom while it lasts.

The horse neighed as the trees grew closer, casting the road into shadow. Alassa glanced behind her, seeing nothing. Jade was a good horseman, one of the best she’d seen, but she’d been riding practically since she’d been old enough to walk. And Jade’s horse wasn’t quite as good as hers. She’d insisted on the best for herself and got it, too. The rest of the convoy – their guards and attendants – wouldn’t have a hope of catching up with either of them until they slowed down.

Better let him catch up, sooner or later, she thought. The thought of galloping all the way to Alexis was delightful, but she didn’t really want to abandon Jade. I don’t want to get too far ahead.

She smiled at the thought. Jade would be angry, of course, pointing out that she’d put her life at risk – as well as the unborn baby in her womb. If, of course, there was a child. She wasn’t sure herself, not after two false alarms. Jade and she would have an argument, once they reached the castle and established privacy wards, an argument that would end with hot make-up sex. She felt her smile grow brighter. She couldn’t wait.

The King’s Road grew bumpy, the horse catching itself an instant before it could plunge its foot into a pothole. Alassa pulled back on the reins, slowing the horse down … just a little, just enough to ensure their safety. Her lips thinned with disapproval. The local villagers were supposed to keep the King’s Road in good repair, even though they weren’t supposed to use it for themselves. No doubt they’d done as little as they felt they could get away with, so far from Alexis. Peasants rather bothered to think about their betters. Or care, for that matter, that they really weren’t that far from the capital. Her father could dispatch a team of inspectors and soldiers at any point, if he wished.

They haven’t even cut the undergrowth back from the road, she thought, displeased. The King’s Roads were meant to allow horsemen and carriages to race from one side of the kingdom to the other. And they needed constant maintenance or else they would slow passage. Father will definitely not be pleased.

She looked behind her, again. There was still no sign of Jade. She smiled again, knowing that he would be miles ahead of the convoy. They’d have a chance to kiss, a little, before the mounted men caught up with them. It wasn’t something she’d ever seen herself doing in married life, but … Jade wasn’t the kind of man she’d expected to marry. She felt a sudden rush of affection for her husband – and her father, the man who’d accepted her choice. She knew too many princesses and noblewomen who’d been forced into unhappy marriages for reasons of state. Princes and noblemen had been forced to wed too – of course – but they had alternatives. No one cared – much – if a husband had a mistress, but a wife …?

We have to be sure who fathered the children, she reminded herself, sourly. It was just another grim reminder that, if her father had had a legitimate son, she would have been put out of the line of succession years ago. The nasty part of her mind wondered just what she would have done, if her father had had a son. Would I have accepted it? Or would I have cursed the child before he grew into a man.

The surge of magic caught her by surprise. She reacted instantly, drawing on her own magic to hurl herself into the air. Her riding skirt billowed around her, an instant before the horse ran straight into the spell and froze. A trap. She’d almost ridden straight into a trap. Another spell crackled past her, cast by someone on the ground. She shaped an attractor spell of her own, aiming it at the nearest treetop as her levitation spell failed. The tree seemed to bend, just for a second, before she was suddenly shooting towards it. She cancelled the spell an instant before she slammed into the wood, grabbing onto the branch before gravity could reassert itself and she started to fall.

She grinned, savagely, as she peered downwards. There were too many leaves and branches for her to actually see anything with the naked eye, but she could sense at least one sorcerer down on the ground. He didn’t appear to have very good control over his magic. Very few sorcerers would willingly show their full power to the world, which meant she was either dealing with an incompetent or someone too powerful for him to hide his full power. Or someone who wanted her to think he was one or the other.

The tree shook, violently. Alassa glanced up, sighted another treetop and cast a second attractor spell. She flew off the branch, yanked forward by an irresistible force. Jade had explained, in detail, precisely why the spell worked – and why balancing the weights was important – but Alassa didn’t care about the details. She wasn’t Emily, who’d happily spend an afternoon taking the spell apart to find out how and why it worked, then rewrite the spellware to suit herself. All Alassa cared about was how it could be used.

She cast a third spell as she flew through the air, latching on to a third tree. The magic balanced, allowing her to hang motionless in the air. Jade had told her that it was an old combat sorcerer trick, although he was the only combat sorcerer she’d seen use it. Even Master Grey hadn’t used it, in his final duel. But then, he’d been confined to the duelling circle. There had been no room to fly.

One of the spells snapped, cancelled by her unseen attacker. Alassa gasped as she hurled towards the other tree, catching herself an instant before it was too late. She grinned as she crawled around the tree trunk, moving from branch to branch. The sorcerer had assumed, no doubt, that she was levitating. He’d probably expected her to fall out of the air and land at his feet. But instead she’d been yanked out of the way.

She looked down, trying to peer through the leaves. The sorcerer would be able to sense her, she was sure. She couldn’t hide herself and use magic, not simultaneously. And yet, she could easily make her escape. Her fingers reached down and touched her shirt, where the baby was growing … if, indeed, there was a baby. She could turn herself into a bird and hide in the woods, or simply move from tree to tree until she crossed paths with Jade and her guards. It would be the smart thing to do …

Pulling her magic around her, she threw herself down towards the ground. Another spell shot past her, a moment too late. They were trying to capture her, then. A trained sorcerer had no shortage of options if he wanted her dead, rather than locked away in a hidden cell. Not someone who wanted to cause chaos, then. There weren’t that many factions that would come out ahead if King Randor was suddenly left without a heir. The list of suspects was long, but manageable.

She hit the ground, her magic cancelling her fall. Magic billowed out in all directions – she heard a male voice curse – as she landed, looking around quickly. Two men, both dressed as peasants, were forced back by her magic, holding up their hands to shield themselves. She snapped her fingers at them, casting a pair of transfiguration spells. They should have been transformed into frogs, but the magic snapped out of existence an instant before it touched their skins. Not sorcerers themselves, then … yet someone had given them protections. The list of suspects suddenly seemed a little shorter.

A hand fell on her upper arm, swinging her around. Another man stood there, leering down at her. Alassa felt a flicker of contempt as she threw a punch at his jaw, casting the force punch spell an instant before she made contact. The man’s head disintegrated under the force of the blow. She yanked herself free of his grip as his body collapsed, resisting the urge to kick him as hard as she could. What had he thought she was? A pampered princess who’d faint the moment she saw blood? Or a scared little girl who’d be too frightened of the big strong man to fight back? Or … there were women in the court who’d probably surrender at once, if someone grabbed their arm, but not her. She was a sorceress! Didn’t they know she was a sorceress?

She turned back to the other two men, glancing around for the sorcerer. Where was he? Had she landed on him? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t see him anyway. And there was no time to reach out with her senses. The two men were advancing on her, carefully. One of them was holding a iron net, runes carved into the metal. A good trick, she acknowledged sourly. Once they had her pinned down, they’d be able to stun or drug her before they carried her deeper into the forest. Even Jade would have problems tracking them down before they reached their lair. And then they’d probably use her as leverage to make her father do whatever they wanted.

Hell, no, she thought.

Alassa took a step backwards, studying the men as they advanced. They didn’t seem to be angry that one – perhaps two – of their fellows had died, even though they were clearly a team. Professionals, then. Mercenaries? Or armsmen? They were definitely not peasants, whatever they might be wearing. Their clothes were too clean. It was a dead giveaway, even if they weren’t moving and acting like soldiers. The ambush had come far too close to outright success. It might still succeed.

Hell with that, she thought.

She cast another pair of spells, watching them flicker and die, then cast a kinetic spell on a tree branch. The two men didn’t look impressed as she pushed it at them, clearly not recognising the threat. A normal spell would fail the minute it struck their protections, dropping the branch to the ground, but Alassa hadn’t cast a normal spell. Emily had taught her something better, something guaranteed to take even a trained sorcerer by surprise. The spell might die, the moment it was cancelled, but the motion it had imparted to the tree branch would live on. She watched with grim satisfaction as it slammed into its targets, hurling them backwards. One of them hit a tree hard enough to break his neck. The other was badly wounded. It was a minor miracle that he’d survived.

A spell slammed into her back, throwing her to the ground. The sorcerer. She cursed her mistake as she hit the dirt, trying to force herself to move forward as another spell smashed her back down again. She’d forgotten him … how had she forgotten him? She twisted, fighting the power as it burned through her protections one by one. The sorcerer was bending over her, his face so indistinct that her eyes just seemed to slip over him. A glamour, then, a glamour so powerful that it had caused her to lose track of him altogether … until he’d attacked her.

The last of her protections started to die. She’d be helpless … panic yammered at the back of her mind, panic she ruthlessly suppressed. She forced herself to roll over, slipping the virgin blade from its sleeve and slashing out towards him. He was quick. He jerked back, so quickly that all she did was cut him. But it was enough. His glamour snapped, an instant before he staggered and fell. The poison on the blade was very quick. Only a trained alchemist could possibly have brewed an antidote and none of them could have brewed it in time to save the victim’s life. He tried to lift his hand, perhaps to cast one final spell, but it was already too late.

Alassa stood, returning the dagger to her sleeve and brushing the dirt off her clothes as she looked down at the dead body. The sorcerer was a complete stranger, somewhat to her relief. At least he wasn’t a graduate of Whitehall! But then, someone who’d been at the school would know better than to underestimate her. She glanced up and smiled as Jade’s horse cantered into the clearing, her magic crackling on the air. He’d sensed something, alright. And he’d pushed his horse with magic. The poor creature looked as though it was on the verge of collapse.

Lady Cecelia will not be pleased, Alassa thought, wryly. The Lady of the Stables was one of the most intimidating people in the castle. She’d been one of the very few people Alassa had respected and feared as a child. But he had no choice.

She grinned as Jade jumped off his horse. “What kept you?”

Jade stared back at her. “What happened?”

A dozen mischievous answers ran through Alassa’s mind, but she walked forward and kissed him instead. He kissed her back, hard. Someone had tried to kidnap her, but he’d failed … he’d failed completely. She pushed against him, feeling his muscles start to relax. She’d escaped. She wanted to celebrate …

Someone groaned. She jerked back, one hand reaching for the dagger. One of the attackers was still alive … badly wounded, mortally wounded, but alive. Jade walked towards him, motioning for her to stay back. Alassa followed, studying the wounded man carefully. His legs were a mangled mess and, judging from the way he was struggling to breathe, he had internal injuries too. A trained healer might be able to save him, but who’d want to waste effort trying? He’d committed an act of treason against his king!

She drew the dagger. “Answer my questions and I’ll give you a quick end,” she said. Emily would not approve, but Emily wasn’t the one who needed answers. Besides, there were no other ways to make him talk. No one would send armsmen or mercenaries out on a kidnap mission without making sure they couldn’t be forced to divulge information. The only way to get answers was to make the wounded man talk willingly. “If not … I’ll just leave you here.”

He looked back at her, his eyes filled with horror. There was no hope of survival. He knew it as well as she did. And being left behind … he might die quickly or he might be chewed to death by wild animals. The blood would draw foxes and wild boar to the clearing. Alassa wouldn’t have cared to face a boar, not without proper weapons or magic.

“I …”

He convulsed, sharply. Alassa started forward, but Jade caught her arm and pulled her backwards. The wounded man shuddered, then went limp and unmoving. Jade stepped forward and prodded him, not gently.

“A suicide spell,” he said, finally. “One designed to keep him from talking under any circumstances.”

And one he would have had to have accepted willingly, Alassa thought. It would have been a very complex spell. A simple one wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between being wounded and being tortured. Who are we facing?

Alassa reached out and took Jade’s hand, just for a moment. His warm grip was reassuring, even though she knew she should be worried. Someone had risked an ambush, within a few hours of Alexis. And even though the ambush had failed, the person behind it was still unknown. One of the Barons? Or one of the more radical factions? Or someone trying to cause trouble? Everyone knew the kingdom was on a knife-edge. An attack on the Crown Princess might just start a slide towards civil war.

She let go of Jade’s hand, stepping away from him and standing straighter as the guardsmen raced into the clearing, followed by the four carriages. Her personal bodyguards jumped off their horses, weapons raised … too late. She kicked herself, mentally. Too many people knew she had a habit of galloping off, leaving her husband and bodyguards behind. That piece of predictable behaviour had nearly gotten her kidnapped – or killed. Her father was not going to be pleased.

“Your Highness,” Sir William said. “Are you alright?”

Alassa looked back at him, evenly. Sir William was one of the very few senior knights – he was old enough to be her father – who didn’t appear to resent taking orders from a young woman. And he wasn’t scared of her magic either, as far as she could tell. That made him practically unique, around the court. But then, she had been a little monster when she’d come into her powers. And there was no way she could show weakness now. Too many older men saw her as a foolish female, someone who would allow either her hormones or her husband to guide her. She honestly wasn’t sure which one they found most objectionable.

Probably the prospect of Jade giving me orders, she thought. The unfairness burned in her gut. Even something as simple as holding Jade’s hand would be seen as a sign of weakness, while boys half her age could lead men and win renown on the battlefield. At least my hormones are aristocratic hormones.

She pushed the resentment out of her head. She was Crown Princess – and she would be Queen, in time. The kingdom would be hers until she died, whereupon it would be passed down to her eldest child. That was all that mattered.

“Put the bodies in the carriage,” she ordered. She carefully didn’t answer his question. It wasn’t one he would have asked a man. “We’ll see if we can identify them when we get home.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Sir William said.

“I don’t recognise any of the bastards,” Jade said, as the troopers hurried to obey. “Not even the sorcerer.”

Alassa nodded, stiffly. There were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of sorcerers in the Nameless World – and not all of them went to school. The bastard who’d set the ambush could have studied at Mountaintop or Stronghold or … he might simply have been taught by his parents. There was no guarantee that an investigation would turn up his name, let alone whoever had hired him. The unknown backers had worked hard to ensure they wouldn’t be fingered by their servants.

“We’ll find out,” she promised. Anger burned within her, demanding retribution. Someone had tried to kidnap her, to turn her into a pawn in their game. “And then we’ll kill them.”

Sir William stamped back to her. “The bodies have been stowed, Your Highness,” he said, curtly. “I suggest we move.”

Alassa looked at her horse. The poor beast was lying on the ground, dead. Whatever spell had been used to freeze the beast had snapped during the brief fight – or, perhaps, the sorcerer had killed the horse, just to make sure she couldn’t jump on and flee. He definitely hadn’t known her very well, had he?

“Give me one of the spare horses,” she ordered. She was aware of Jade shifting behind her, but deliberately didn’t look at him. “The rider can stay in the carriage.”

Sir William looked, just for a moment, as if he wanted to protest. Alassa didn’t blame him, not really. He would be in deep shit when they got home, if only for letting her get so far ahead of him that she’d run into an ambush and had to fight her way out by herself. Jade was equally guilty, but Jade was Prince Consort. There was literally no one else to blame.

But I won’t let them put me out of the way, either, Alassa thought. They wouldn’t tell a king or a prince to hide.

“As you command, Your Highness,” Sir William said. “Shall we go?”

Alassa nodded. Jade was not going to be pleased, but he’d keep his thoughts to himself until they were alone. And then … they’d argue, they’d fight, and then they’d make up. She definitely couldn’t wait.

“Yes, Sir William,” she said. “We shall go.”