Original Work Lessons in Etiquette (Schooled in Magic II)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Dec 22, 2012.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Lessons in Etiquette is the sequel to Schooled in Magic, which I hope you will remember. Currently, it can be found in this forum in draft form (without some of the changes I have incorporated after it was edited.)

    I plan to start writing at full speed on Monday 24th, assuming all goes according to plan. Please comment if you like it, have nits, questions, suggestions, etc.

    On other news, I am giving away Kindle freebies for Xmas – check out this blog post for details. http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/christmas-freebies/

    Please review if you like them!

  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    The Tower sat alone in the midst of desolation.

    Years ago, well before the collapse of the Empire, two powerful sorcerers had duelled each other, neither one willing to yield before it had been too late. They’d died ... but the damage they’d done to the land had endured for hundreds of years, leaving wild magic to drift through the countryside and warp all the living things it touched. No one lived within miles of the Tower; no one saw the murder of crows that flew high over the tainted landscape and came to land on the battlements.

    And no one saw the crows blur together and become a man.

    The Sorcerer Crow smiled to himself as he pulled his dark cloak around his form. Few sorcerers could handle permanent polymorph transformations, certainly not without taking on some of the aspects of their animal form. It was far more common for their thoughts to slowly blur into the animal’s mentality until they forgot that they had once been human. His solution – sharing his mind among a flock of crows – seemed to work. And besides, few sorcerers, even the most paranoid, would expect it. Any advantage was worth claiming when one was plotting treason.

    His smile grew wider as he saw the watcher hanging back, just inside the Tower. As always, his employer had chosen to conceal his features behind a glamour, spelled right into the fabric of the hooded robe he wore. It was an unusual trick for a trained magician, let alone a sorcerer, but Crow could appreciate the advantages one could claim from it. If nothing else, it would be very difficult for any investigator to identify any particular magical signature.

    It still bothered him that he didn't know the identity of his master. But, if nothing else, it was proof that he was working for a powerful magician.

    “Greetings,” the watcher said. Even his voice had been changed; it was spelled to sound neutral, utterly unrecognisable. “I have heard rumours from Whitehall. Are they correct?”

    “Yes,” Crow said, simply.

    The watcher made a hissing noise, one of anger – or frustration. Only one thing at Whitehall interested him; the process of Crown Princess Alassa’s magic studies. Even the attack on Whitehall by the Necromancer Shadye hadn't interested him, despite the fact that Shadye had been stopped by a Child of Destiny. The same Child of Destiny who was now Princess Alassa’s first real friend. And, to some extent, her tutor.

    Alassa’s early education, in everything from magic to government, had been disastrous. She lacked the ability to concentrate on anything for long, or the self-discipline she required to master magic, the key to ruling successfully. Her parents had hoped for a male child, for a prince who would keep the throne strong; they'd allowed their daughter to become spoiled before finally admitting that she was the only Heir they were ever likely to have. And then it had been too late to hammer some sense into the young girl’s head. Crow’s employer had been delighted. An incompetent Queen on the throne was part of his plan.

    But then Alassa had gone to Whitehall. And everything had changed.

    “A Child of Destiny,” the watcher mused. “Much can happen when a Child of Destiny is involved.”

    “She killed a necromancer in single combat,” Crow said. “Whatever else she may be, she is clearly a very powerful sorceress.”

    “Or a necromancer herself,” the watcher reminded him. No other necromancers had been killed in duels with sorcerers; they’d been outthought or poisoned. “Do you feel that she is dangerous?”

    “I feel that a capable Alassa is not in our interests,” Crow said, softly. “She may well be able to take the throne without a protector.”

    It would have been easy to kill the Princess, even though she was well-guarded after an attempted kidnapping in Dragon’s Den last year. The chaos that had enveloped Whitehall after the necromantic attack would have provided the perfect opportunity. But a dead princess was in no one’s interests, not when her death would have led to civil war. Outside Alassa, everyone else with a claim to the throne was either too old or simply too far from the main line of succession. There were at least seven people who could claim a right to the throne and none of them would willingly bend the knees to another.

    But a princess who could be manipulated, a princess who could be controlled ... that was a prize worth any amount of effort to secure. Who cared about the trappings of power when the reality was so much more rewarding?

    Years ago, the Twelve Barons had managed to turn King Bryon into a cipher, powerless to prevent the aristocrats from tightening their control over Zangaria. But they’d reckoned without his son, the future King Alexis, who had turned his hobby of playing with soldiers into a deadly weapon that he had used to recover control over his father’s kingdom. And Alexis’s son had continued his father’s policies. The Barons had been forced to wait, gnashing their teeth in impotent fury, until King Randor’s wife had given him a girl-child.

    No one expected Alassa to be able to hold the throne without powerful support. And the price for that would be compromising her independence.

    “We must act now,” the watcher said, “before this ... regrettable independence of mind the Princess has developed grows worse. She is returning to Zangaria for her Confirmation. It will give us our best chance to strike.”

    Crow bowed his head. Zangaria was poised on a knife-edge, at least partly because of the Child of Destiny. It hadn’t taken much research to realise that all the new ideas flowing around Alexis City had come from the Child of Destiny, or that Alassa was becoming involved in offering Royal Patronage to some of the merchants who used the new ideas. The Barons, stubbornly conservative, hated and feared change, suspecting that some of the new concepts would reshape their world. Crow had a feeling that they were right.

    After all, reshaping the world was what Children of Destiny did.

    But Destiny was fickle. Nothing was set in stone.

    “Alassa will be bringing her friend,” Crow said. “What do we do with the Necromancer’s Bane?”

    The answer was immediate.

    “Kill her.”
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The bookshelves stretched as far as the eye could see.

    Emily pushed the makeshift trolley between the shelves, peering down at the handful of books students had returned to the library. In many ways, Whitehall – although an academy of magic – was very much like a school from her own world, the world she thought about as little as possible. Magical students still returned books late, despite threats of punishment, or returned them to the wrong places. Now that the exam season was drawing to a close, the number of students in the school was dropping sharply, allowing the librarians a chance to resort the books properly. It was a vast project that would be completed just in time for the students to start disordering the books again.

    But she had to admit that she rather enjoyed working as a librarian, even though she was really nothing more than a student helper. Whitehall’s vast collection of books was not well ordered, certainly not by the standards of the libraries she’d used as a child. It was impossible to say what gem would be uncovered by sorting through a shelf or two; Emily had developed a habit of putting books aside for her to borrow and read later, even though part of her insisted that it was unfair to the other students. Not that she was the worst offender. Every time she moved a stack of heavy books, she discovered a handful of other books hidden behind them, placed there by a student who wanted exclusive access to them. It was forbidden, naturally, but it never stopped. The spells guarding the library only reacted if books were taken out of the library without permission.

    She took a book off the trolley and glanced at the title, A Guide to Simultaneous Magic, before carefully placing it on the shelf. The whole system was badly flawed, she’d long since come to realise, if only because there was no single unifying system. She'd grappled with the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress cataloguing systems as a younger girl, but they’d made it very hard to put a book out of place without it becoming noticeable. In Whitehall, each librarian had their own ideas about where the different books should go. A book on ancient battles might be filed under history, or under military studies. It was impossibly confusing. She'd promised herself that she would work out a system for cataloguing books, but there was just too much else to do. Recreating the Dewey Decimal System was incredibly tricky.

    Carefully, she finished returning the books and wheeled the trolley back to the desk. The original librarian had left Whitehall, seemingly at the behest of the Librarians Guild, allowing his assistant to take his place. Lady Aylia was tall and elegant, with long brown hair that reached all the way down to her knees. Emily rather liked her, even if she did have the same attitude as most of the other librarians she’d met in her life. They could have kept the bookshelves in perfect order if it wasn't for those pesky users mucking up the shelves.

    “One of the books you requested has been returned,” Aylia said, nodding to a table inside the office. There were no computers to run catalogues in Whitehall; librarians had to have good memories as well as a great deal of patience. “And I can clear you to take it out of the building, if you wish.”

    Emily nodded as she stepped around the desk and into the office, picking up the book from the table. She’d been invited to visit Zangaria by both of her friends, once the exam season was over for good, and – naturally – she’d looked for books on the country. One of them promised to be a complete history of Zangaria, although it was remarkably slim. But then, Zangaria had been part of the old Empire until 170 years ago. It hadn't really existed until its founding monarch staked his claim to rule.

    “Thank you,” she said. There were dire punishments for anyone who tried to take a library book back home without permission. A handful of students had run afoul of the charms already and Emily had had to help sort them out. They’d all claimed to have taken the books by accident, but the spells protecting the books weren't bright enough to know the difference. “I’ll read it tonight and then let you know.”

    There was one advantage in locally-produced books; in the absence of a printing press, every word had to be important. The writers had often written their books by hand, relying on clerks to copy them word for word; they couldn't allow themselves to pontificate too far or they might discover that their book was just too big to be easily copied. They tended to focus on the essentials, rather than trivial details, at least when they weren't talking about dark magic. Those books tended to be full of evasions, as if the writers had been too scared to say what they actually meant clearly.

    Aylia smiled as Emily marked the book out to herself and placed it in her handbag. “And I think that young man is looking for you,” she added. “Should I start preparing the winter feast?”

    Emily looked up and saw Jade, waiting for her near the exit. She waved at him, using her hands to signal that she wouldn't be long, and then scowled back down at Aylia, who seemed remarkably untroubled by her expression. It had taken Emily months to learn about the traditions in the Allied Lands; winter feasts were held to celebrate engagements, while the weddings themselves were carried out in the spring. Or at least that was the ideal. In reality, there were weddings all the year round.

    But the thought was absurd. Emily had been sixteen when she'd come to Whitehall; by now, she was fairly sure that she was seventeen, although it was hard to be sure. The local system for measuring days and months seemed to be slightly off-kilter. Jade, on the other hand, was twenty-two in local years, certainly at least four years older than Emily. And he was a senior to boot, one of the stars of the school. He wouldn't even be in Whitehall next year.

    And yet they were friends. They’d been forced to work together in Martial Magic, fought together to escape Orcs and Goblins near the Dark City and survived the assault on Whitehall by Shadye, the Necromancer who had brought Emily to his world. Jade wasn't scared of her, unlike many of the students who knew she had killed one of the all-powerful necromancers, and he wasn't trying to suck up to her. Back home, part of her had always envied the social queens. It hadn't been until she’d found herself simultaneously feared and courted that she realised just how empty a life they’d led.

    “Go now,” Aylia said. “There won’t be any more books returned until after the final exams.”

    Emily nodded in agreement. In Whitehall, exams were actually important – and meaningful. Students had taken out thousands of books and were actually reading them, although a handful were trying to use spells to make the knowledge sink into their heads without actually cracking open the tomes. Emily had experimented with one of those spells and wound up with a savage headache that had convinced her not to try it again. There was no substitute, it seemed, for actually opening a book.

    She picked up her handbag and pulled it over her shoulder, before walking out from behind the desk and over to Jade, who grinned at her. He was handsome, in a rugged sort of way, despite the nasty bruise marking the side of his face. He’d taken a fall in a Martial Magic class two days ago and Sergeant Miles had refused to let him go to the healers, pointing out rather sardonically that the bruise might teach him to watch where he was going in future. In a world where dark wizards could hide the magical counterparts of landmines just about anywhere, Emily suspected that he had a point.

    “I was wondering if you’d like to hike up Mount Sunset,” Jade said, as they walked out of the door. Outside, the corridors seemed less crowded than normal. Most of the student body had either gone home for the holidays or were currently sitting their exams. “It’s been a while since we had a proper walk.”

    Emily had to smile. Sergeant Miles might have been a combat sorcerer, but he was also a firm believer in physical fitness. His students ran five miles twice a week and performed hundreds of push-ups and other exercises every weekday. Once, she would have blanched at the thought of so much exercise. Now, she was stronger and fitter than she’d ever thought possible.

    But Jade was right. It had been months since she’d walked for pleasure.

    “Just let me put the book in my room and change,” she said. “And then I’ll meet you down at the side door.”

    Her room was empty when she entered it, unsurprisingly. One of her roommates had already headed back home to Alexis City, the other was currently sitting an exam. Emily dropped the handbag in her trunk, pulled off her robe and changed into a shirt and heavy pants, charmed to keep the wearer cool even in the hottest of summers. She stuck a compressed coat in her pocket, after checking that the spells binding it were firmly in place. Whitehall’s weather was somewhat variable, thanks to the vast field of magic surrounding the building, and it was well to be prepared for anything.

    The walk to the side door was uncomfortable, but she was growing used to it. Everyone knew that she had defeated a necromancer – and no one knew how, leaving a void they tried to fill with rumours and innuendo. Emily was a necromancer herself. Emily was a freakish rogue talent, with powers naturally superior to a necromancer. Emily had somehow created a spell that cut its way through the toughest of defences. Emily had poisoned Shadye ...

    But there would have been no point in keeping that a secret, Emily knew. She wouldn't have been the first person to poison a necromancer; it was the simplest way of dealing with the supremely powerful and completely insane magicians. Why keep that a secret?

    She did her best to ignore the glances thrown in her direction as she walked down the stairs, feeling – again – isolated in a vast crowd. If it hadn't been for Jade and her other friends, she might have despaired, as she had back on Earth. Instead, she just carried on, knowing that she did have people who cared about her. She smiled as she saw Jade standing by the side door, one hand carrying a combat staff he’d been given by the Sergeants. Maybe he didn't expect to run into trouble, but they’d been taught to be prepared. Trouble could appear at any moment.

    “I packed a handful of combat rations,” Jade said, as they walked out of the door. “If we can't get back in time for dinner ...”

    Emily had to laugh. It seemed to be a universal law that combat rations tasted awful, even the ration bars produced by Whitehall and the rest of the Allied Lands. The bars were small, no bigger than a bar of chocolate from Earth, and they were filling, but the best of them tasted like cardboard. Sergeant Harkin had remarked that they were meant to encourage soldiers to forage and live off the land, rather than draining the army’s resources by eating the bars. One of the students had asked if the bars served as an excuse for mutiny and earned himself five hundred push-ups for cheek. The Sergeant had never actually answered the question.

    She shook her head. “Do you want to walk all the way to the peak?”

    “We can try,” Jade said. “Or maybe we can just walk up to the lake instead.”

    The air surrounding Whitehall was pure, clear of anything that might signify the presence of a technologically-advanced society. Emily knew enough to appreciate the wonders of technology, particularly after having to live without it for several months, but there were times when she wondered if she was doing the right thing by trying to jumpstart the industrial revolution on her new world. Inhaling the air argued against it ... but the sheer depth of human suffering argued for it. Those living without magic had lives that were nasty, brutal and short. Even the aristocracy, with access to magicians if they couldn't work magic themselves, lived in squalor, at least when compared to Earth.

    They chatted about nothing in particular as they walked out of the school’s grounds and up towards Mount Sunset. It was a strange place, even by the standards of her new world, but it was reasonably safe as long as you didn't stay there after dark. Strange flickers of magic darted through the air, seemingly hovering right on the very edge of perception. It wasn't unknown for climbers to discover that they couldn't reach the peak, or that their path twisted on itself so that they found themselves starting up the mountain and then realising that they’d reached the bottom of the path. There were even stranger tales, but none that had been verified. And if the staff had believed that it wasn't reasonably safe, they would never have allowed the students to go near the mountain.

    “I’ve been offered a chance to stay at the school as an assistant,” Jade said, suddenly. “I did well enough in alchemy that Professor Thande thinks I have potential.

    Emily made a face. Alchemy required talents she didn't have, which was at least partly why she was burning her caldron every second lesson. Thande wasn't a bad teacher, but his lessons clashed with Emily’s upbringing, where precisely counting the number of times one stirred a caldron didn't matter. She was still puzzling over the fact that it did seem to matter to Alchemy. A numbing potion worked perfectly if you mixed the ingredients over a low heat and stirred fifty-seven times. It failed if you stirred fifty-six or fifty-eight times.

    “There are a few other tutors that want a teaching assistant too, at least for a year,” Jade added. He looked down at her. “Do you think I should stay?”

    “I’d miss you if you left,” Emily admitted, honestly. She didn't have enough friends to casually accept the chance of losing touch with one of them. But on the other hand ... “What do you actually want?”

    “I want to be a combat sorcerer,” Jade admitted. “Helping to tutor at the school might be a step backwards. I just don't know.”

    Emily didn’t know either. The Allied Lands seemed to consider a person’s ability to do the job rather than their qualifications, something she found rather more sensible than the focus on qualifications back home. She could see tutoring serving as useful experience for a combat sorcerer, but in truth she simply didn't know. But she knew who might be able to offer proper advice.

    “You could ask the Sergeant,” she suggested. Miles was a trained and experienced combat sorcerer, one of the best. He had to be to be trusted to teach potential sorcerers. “He would know what you should do.”

    Jade frowned. “But what if he sees it as a lack of confidence?”

    “I don't see why he should,” Emily pointed out. Not that she could blame him for being cautious, even a little paranoid. The Sergeant tested them constantly, in ways that were sometimes obvious and sometimes very subtle. “You need advice and the Sergeant is the best person to answer your questions.”

    She shrugged. “What would you do if you refused the tutoring position?”

    “Apprenticeship to a combat sorcerer,” Jade explained. “He’d tutor me, supervise me ... and finally put me in front of the White Council for final exams. If I passed, I’d be a qualified sorcerer in my own right.”

    And if you failed, you might end up dead, Emily thought.

    Jade turned away from her, looking down towards Whitehall where it sat in the valley below, pressing his hands together as if he was nervous. “Have you given any thought to what you will be doing in the next few years?”

    Emily had to smile. “There are five more years of schooling to go,” she reminded him, rather dryly. “After that ... I don't know. There are just too many things that need to be done.”

    “I know,” Jade said. He seemed almost hesitant, unwilling to continue. That was strange and rather out of character; Emily had never seen Jade actually scared. He’d once casually worked his way through an obstacle course that had terrified Emily when she’d first seen it, without showing the slightest sign of fear. “Emily ... have you given any thought to marriage?”

    “Marriage?” Emily repeated, astonished. She’d never given any real thought to marriage, in either world. “I ...”

    Jade turned to look at her, his face flushed red. “There is interest,” he admitted. A dozen possible scenarios flashed through Emily’s mind, all rather comparable to a bad romance novel. “You’re the most powerful sorceress of your generation – the most potentially powerful sorcerers, I should say. There is no shortage of interest in you.”

    “People I don’t know have been discussing my marriage prospects?” Emily spluttered. The very thought was outrageous, too shocking for words. “Why?”

    “Because your children will be powerful too,” Jade explained, blushing slightly. “If you had children with a powerful magician, they might be extremely powerful. And you’re the Necromancer’s Bane, as well as a Child of Destiny. There are ballads sung about you.”

    Emily groaned. Years ago, back when her teachers had been trying to spark some interest in music in their charges, they’d been made to sing songs written by the Beatles. It wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't had to sing Michelle – when one of her classmates had been called Michelle. Her classmates had teased the poor girl mercilessly for weeks. Maybe it was karma, but there were at least seventeen songs about Emily herself running through the Allied Lands, each one more embarrassing than the last. Emily couldn't remember who had claimed that medieval society was genteel; he’d obviously been completely wrong. One of the songs was crude enough to make a punk rocker blush.

    She collected herself as much as she could. “They just want me for my fame?”

    “Yes,” Jade said. His blush grew darker. “It’s forbidden to approach someone in her first year, no matter how ... famous they are. And no one is quite sure how to approach your Guardian. But that will change.”

    “Oh,” Emily said. The thought of hundreds of people she'd never met proposing marriage to her was nightmarish. She’d never even had a boyfriend! “Maybe I should just change my face and hide.”

    Jade looked away, clearly embarrassed. “Emily,” he said, slowly, “would you consider marrying me?”

    A second later, his form flashed with blue-white light and he froze solid, suspended in time. Emily stared, wondering if her shock and embarrassment had made her work magic by accident, before she sensed the presence behind her. Only one person would have approached them in such a manner – and frozen Jade with absolutely no regard for his feelings.

    “Hello, Void,” she said, without looking around. “What are you doing here?”
    kellory, Pezz, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  4. srchdawg

    srchdawg Monkey+++

    Good start picked up right where Book 1 finished

  5. Wags

    Wags Monkey+

    looking forward to seeing this story unfold!
  6. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

  7. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    aw man, I'll be gone tomorrow & miss the next chapter!! :(
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    “It’s been a while,” Void said gravely, as Emily turned to face him. “Am I not allowed to visit my favourite ward?”

    Emily scowled at him. Void had rescued her from Shadye, moments before the maddened necromancer would have plunged a knife into her chest, sacrificing her to an extra-dimensional force he’d called the Harrowing. And then he’d sent her to Whitehall, where she’d learned to manipulate magic and – eventually – to defeat Shadye when the necromancer had attacked the school. But she still knew very little about him, from why he’d saved her life to why so many others seemed to be almost scared of him.

    Even his appearance seemed to be variable. Right now, he looked like a young man, with long dark hair, a sly smile – and a way of moving that suggested that his body wasn't quite suited to his mind. He wore the simple outfit of a common labourer, rather than the glorious robes affected by other magicians, and carried a wooden staff in one hand. His face was too striking to be really called handsome, even if he hadn't had the smile hinting that he couldn't be completely trusted. And, in some ways, he looked almost aristocratic.

    “He wants to marry me,” Emily said, wondering inwardly if Void’s appearance was a coincidence. “What did you know about that?”

    “Nothing,” Void said. He grinned, brilliantly. “But I can't say that it surprises me.”

    “Well, it surprised me,” Emily said. And yet, in hindsight, wasn't it obvious that Jade had been interested in her? He’d certainly spent more time with her than necessary. “Why does he like me?”

    She hesitated, then plunged on. “And he said that there were people discussing my marriage prospects,” she added. “Why?”

    Void tilted his head slightly, as if he didn't quite understand why she was upset. “You know that magic is passed on though the blood,” he said. “The children of magicians are likely to be magicians themselves. If you were to marry another magician, or at least bear his children, those kids would be very powerful indeed. Quite a few of the older bloodlines would be interested in recruiting you.”

    “I’m not a brood cow,” Emily snapped. She looked into his dark eyes, glinting with suppressed amusement, and felt her temper fray. “And are you arranging my marriage with someone I don’t know?”

    “You killed a necromancer,” Void reminded her, dryly. “I rather doubt that anyone would dare to try to force you into a marriage.” He paced over to Jade’s frozen form and examined him, thoughtfully. “They are much more likely to try to seduce you, or to seduce your Guardian.”

    You are my Guardian,” Emily said. “Have you been getting offers for my hand?”

    “I never bother to pay attention to such things,” Void said. “Should I be arranging a match for you?”

    No,” Emily said, sharply. “I ... I don’t want to marry anyone, particularly not someone I don’t know. I’m too young.”

    “Girls can be married from the moment they start their cycles,” Void reminded her. “And marriages can be arranged from the moment a girl takes her first breath. Just ask your royal friend.”

    Emily flushed. She’d known that Alassa would have to marry for political reasons, not for love – and even Imaiqah, the daughter of an increasingly wealthy merchant, would have to consider her father’s wishes when she married. But it had never really occurred to Emily that such rules might apply to her. Why should they? She had no family here, unless one counted Void ...

    What if someone wanted to get close to him?

    But she didn't have to take it that far. She was powerful, she was wealthy ... and she was famous. There would be no shortage of people willing to court her, just in hopes of sharing the benefits she might bring to this world. The fact that an extremely powerful sorcerer was her Guardian was merely the icing on the cake.

    She looked up at Jade and cursed under her breath. What were his true motives?

    “He wants to marry me,” she said, numbly. “He’s five years older than me and he wants to marry me.”

    “There are elderly men who marry very young wives,” Void pointed out. He sounded bored, as if he hadn't really wanted to discuss Emily’s marriage prospects at all. One thing Emily had learned about her Guardian was that he had a very short attention span. “Five years is not that great a difference.”

    But it would be on Earth, Emily thought. Anyone Jade’s age who courted a sixteen-year-old girl would have raised eyebrows, at the very least. It wouldn't have made that much difference if Emily had been ten years older, but sixteen ...

    “Why me?” Emily asked. “Does he really want to marry me?”

    Void let out a sigh. “While I cannot deny that his family would benefit from having you marry their son,” he said, tartly, “they are not well-placed to take proper advantage of it. It is therefore likely that Jade genuinely does have feelings for you.”

    He waved his hand in the air, dismissing the matter. “But I didn't come here to help you handle your suitors,” he added. “There are more important concerns.”

    Emily shook her head. “I don’t know what to make of it all,” she admitted. “Does he – like – like me?”

    Void ignored her. “Your friend the Crown Princess is taking you to Zangaria,” he said. “Are you aware that her country is currently balanced on a knife-edge?”

    Emily hesitated, then shook her head. She’d done her best to follow local politics, but they were often confusing, seemingly to rely more on personal relationships than geopolitics. And there were times when the Allied Lands seemed too stupid to survive. The necromancers were still lurking in the Blighted Lands, waiting for an opportunity to break through the mountains and invade the free territories. If Emily hadn't killed Shadye, the necromancer who had kidnapped her from Earth, the war might have been over six months ago. The necromancers would have won.

    And yet the Allied Lands still squabbled over petty issues.

    “Alassa is the only Heir her parents have,” Void said. “If she fails to inherit the throne – if she fails to have children who can inherit the throne in turn – her country will face considerable unrest. Or, for that matter, if she marries poorly, her husband might become a plague on the country. There are too many issues surrounding her future – and some of those issues are your fault.”

    Emily blinked. “Mine?”

    “You helped your friend to introduce new ideas into their society,” Void reminded her. “Some of those ideas are proving quite ... destabilising.”

    He shrugged, expressively. “Not that they really need the excuse to start slipping towards civil war,” he added. “If something were to happen to Alassa, there would be an almighty struggle to determine who would be the next monarch.”

    Emily scowled at him. “If that were the case,” she said, “why would they want to kill Alassa?”

    Void smiled, but it didn't quite touch his eyes. “Who benefits from chaos in the Allied Lands?”

    The answer to that question was obvious. “Necromancers,” Emily said. Shadye hadn't expressed any interest in capturing Alassa, but he’d been completely fixated on Emily herself. Given time, he might have seen the advantages in using mind-control spells on Alassa, or simply killing her to produce chaos. “Are they planning to kill her?”

    “It’s possible,” Void said. “But you know how hard it is to get intelligence out of the Blighted Lands.”

    He carried on before Emily could say a word. “There are other threats,” he added. “Do you realise that Zangaria has never had a Queen?”

    Emily nodded. She’d learned that from studying Alassa’s country, before they’d become friends, and she’d discovered that she didn’t really envy the Princess. Female sorcerers weren't uncommon, but female rulers were unusual in the Allied Lands. Part of it was because the law stated that male heirs were always first in line to their thrones, yet there was also a sexism pervading the attitudes to monarchy. A female ruler was assumed to be incapable of displaying the thrusting vigour of a king.

    But there was more to it than that. Women were expected to be subordinate to their husbands – at least, unless they were powerful sorceresses. A Queen who married would find herself sharing power, even through a King would be under no such obligation. And if she chose the wrong man, the results could be disastrous. Mary, Queen of Scots, had chosen badly and the whole affair had blown up in her face. So too had Mary Tudor.

    And whoever Alassa married might end up ruling the kingdom beside her.

    “You also know that Alassa was not given a proper magical education,” Void added. “Do you realise that may have been because certain factions wanted her dependent upon a Court Wizard?”

    Emily remembered her first meeting with Alassa and scowled. Alassa had been spoilt, surrounded by cronies who kept telling her that she was the most important person in Whitehall. The thought of someone like that on a throne was chilling. Later, they’d become friends, but Alassa still had the sense of self-importance even if she had learned a little humility. At least she’d also learned the hard way that sycophants were not to be trusted. When they’d come crawling back, long after Alassa had been given time to brood, she’d sent them all packing with a few well-chosen words.

    But Alassa had also not been a skilled magician. Indeed, she had memorised a number of spells, rather than actually understanding the theory behind them. She’d been powerful, but a properly-trained magician would have tied her up in knots if they’d fought. It had been Emily’s patient tutorage that had helped her to understand magic theory and to actually make progress. They’d passed the Charms exams together.

    “Because they thought a girl-ruler would be easier to handle without magic,” Emily said, feeling vaguely insulted. All of her historical knowledge suggested that male rulers were allowed to get away with a great deal of crap, while female rulers were held to an impossibly high standard. “Why don’t they just shut up and accept it?”

    Void eyed her darkly. “If Alassa marries someone from within the kingdom, that person’s family will be promoted above all others,” he said, as if he’d expected her to know that. “The balance of power within the kingdom will be upset. If Alassa marries someone from outside the kingdom, a new factor will be introduced into local politics. Normally, a Queen would be expected to find a strong protector, someone masculine who will safeguard her rule. Whoever Alassa chooses will become very powerful indeed.”

    “I can't see Alassa choosing anyone,” Emily admitted. Even if her friend hadn't been aware of the potential dangers – her protector might start becoming her master – she wouldn't want to share power with someone else, particularly not someone who had a power base of their own, separate from her. “She’d want to rule on her own.”

    “And as long as she remained childless, the succession would be in question,” Void said. “The White Council is very concerned.”

    Emily gave him a sharp look. She knew next to nothing about the White Council, apart from the fact that it meant different things to different people. Alassa had told her that it was the parliament that debated the unified response to the necromancers – and to other threats, although she had yet to hear of any more dangerous than the supercharged magicians in the Blighted Lands. But the Grandmaster had hinted that it was composed of magicians, magicians who considered themselves responsible for safeguarding the Allied Lands. And Void had apparently called on the Council to discuss Emily’s future, back when he’d rescued her from certain death.

    “I see,” she said, finally. “What do you want me to do?”

    Void grinned at her. “What makes you think I want you to do anything?”

    “You came here and interrupted me,” Emily pointed out. Part of her was grateful – at least she had a chance to think about what she could say to Jade – but the rest of her was irked at his presumption. “I don’t think you came just to tell me vague generalities about Alassa’s kingdom.”

    “True enough,” Void agreed. He cleared his throat, pretending to read from an invisible document. “The White Council would prefer that the country remain stable, with a clear line of succession to the throne. They would be very grateful for anything you do that helps ensure such a happy outcome.”

    Emily felt her lips twitch. “They think that I can help keep the country stable?”

    “The White Council is not supposed to interfere overtly in the internal affairs of individual Allied Lands,” Void admitted. “You, however, are a close personal friend of the Crown Princess, the girl who will be at the heart of the coming political turmoil. If you manage to keep her alive and reasonably independent, the White Council would be very relieved.”

    “Reasonably independent,” Emily repeated. She shook her head. “It seems to me that independence might be difficult, whoever she picks as husband. Maybe she should just remain unmarried.”

    “Then the succession would be disputed,” Void said, crossly. “There are no other direct heirs to the throne. Unless Alassa has children, there will be at least seven different noble families with vague claims – claims that will be heavily disputed by everyone else.”

    Emily smiled. “Why can't she have children without getting married?”

    “Because such children would not be accepted as fully legitimate,” Void said. “Besides, she will be expected to marry. The only question is who she chooses.”

    His eyes glittered. “If you were a man,” he added, “I would advise you to court her.”

    Emily snorted. “And seeing you are a man,” she countered, “why don’t you court her?”

    Void wagged his finger at her, although it was clear that he was trying not to laugh. “You should consider yourself lucky,” he said. “Don’t you know that there are Guardians who would beat their wards for that?”

    He shook his head, unable to repress a smile any longer. “A powerful sorcerer as consort might make sense – it would certainly terrify the aristocrats into behaving themselves – but it would have other risks,” he added. “And besides, you do realise that I am over a hundred years old?”

    Emily snickered. “You don’t know anyone else who might be interested in courting Alassa?”

    “I’d be worried about adding monarchical power to any sorcerer’s already formidable powers,” Void said, softly. “You already know that some sorcerers go too far in their quest for power.”

    “I know,” Emily said.

    From what she had been able to discover, necromancers rarely started out as monsters, intent on sacrificing countless innocent victims in order to boost their power. Indeed, the insanity that came with the power should have deterred all but the most foolhardy. But sorcerers who wanted greater power often took the first stumbling steps into necromancy without fully realising what they were doing, at least until it was too late. And then they became addicted to the rush of power that came with the dark magic. As far as Emily knew, no one had ever broken the addition. They weren't even able to understand why anyone would want to break free.

    Void looked back at Jade, then down at the grass. “The Allied Lands have been enjoying a period of stability,” he said. “That’s also your fault – although no one is actually complaining about this one. We’d like that stability to last as long as possible.”

    Emily made a face. Shadye’s attack on Whitehall, a seemingly impregnable fortress, had come within bare inches of succeeding. The Allied Lands had been forced to face the fact that if he had succeeded, the mountain range separating them from the necromancers would have been penetrated and the hordes would have been free to ravage the southern countries bordering the mountains. It wouldn't be long, Emily suspected, before the Allied Lands started bickering again, but for the moment the near-disaster had concentrated quite a few minds.

    “I’ll do my best,” she promised. How exactly was she supposed to convince Alassa to pick a husband? Perhaps she should pick a prince from the other side of the Allied Lands ... if that would actually work. She needed to do more reading. “And what should I do about this?”

    She waved a hand at Jade. “I don’t even know why he wants to marry me,” she protested. “What should I do?”

    Void grinned. “You protested at the thought of people organising your marriage for you,” he said, “and now you’re asking me to tell you what to do?”

    Emily flushed.

    “If you want to marry him,” Void added, “I will not raise any objection. Quite a few of the older pupils at Whitehall are married, along with some of the tutors, so the Grandmaster is unlikely to object. And anyone else ... well, you are the Necromancer’s Bane. They’ll keep their objections to themselves.”

    His eyes narrowed. “Do you want to marry him?”

    Emily hesitated. “I don't know,” she admitted, finally. She did like Jade – and, unlike so many others, he didn't seem to be scared of her. But then, he’d seen some of her early blunders in Martial Magic. The others knew her only by reputation. “I ...”

    “Then wait until you’re sure,” Void suggested. “You’re a magician – the normal courtship rules don’t really apply to you. You won’t lose anything by turning down any other proposals that come your way. Once you actually know what you want, you can decide what to do. Just don’t invite any demons to share your bed. That always ends badly.”

    “Demons?” Emily repeated. “Why ...?”

    “Some people are idiots who think they can play with fire without being burned,” Void said. “Now if you will excuse me ...”

    Emily opened her mouth, but it was already too late.

    Void was gone.
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    The spell on Jade broke an instant after Void vanished.

    He turned back to face her, seemingly unaware that any time had passed. Emily wasn't too surprised. She’d experienced the spell herself and had been utterly unaware of it, until someone had pointed out that the sun had moved. Jade might have noticed – they'd been taught to tell the time by reading the sun’s position – but he hadn't been frozen for very long.

    And what if he thought she had frozen him?

    “I ... I don’t know,” she said, out loud. What had they been talking about before Void had arrived? “This is all so ... sudden.”

    Jade looked about as red as Emily felt. “I know,” he admitted. “It’s just that ...”

    Emily held up a hand before he could say anything else, thinking hard. On Earth, courtship was a long process, with both parties slowly drawing together. There was a great deal of plausible deniability built into the system, she realised, allowing one party to withdraw without embarrassment if they realised that the other party wasn’t really interested. But Jade had come right out and declared his interest, as if he expected that would be enough. Perhaps it would be, for anyone born to this world. Emily was from somewhere very different.

    What could she say? Did she like Jade? He was handsome, and kind, and he’d been a friend when too many others had been terrified of her – but would they be really good as a couple? Or was she being silly? This wasn't a world where couples could easily separate if they found out that they were incompatible after getting married. But then, Jade’s family was of little consequence and Emily’s was non-existent. Her thoughts spun through her head, leaving her unsure of what to do. Would it be easy to kiss him? She had never even kissed a boy on Earth.

    No one had warned her that someone would want to court her. How had she missed even considering the possibility? But on Earth, she had been a social outcast and she’d just assumed that it would be the same at Whitehall. God knew she'd gone through real troubles just to make a handful of friends – and they, in their own way, were outcasts too. Hell, was Jade an outcast? He certainly seemed more popular than Emily had ever been.

    She pushed her wandering thoughts aside and looked up at him. “I cannot get married yet,” she said, finally. Void had said that there were older students who were married; absently, she wondered what sort of provisions were made for them. Married quarters? “I’m not saying no, but I want to wait.”

    Jade looked ... oddly hurt. “I understand,” he said, tightly. “I shouldn't have sprung it on you so quickly. I ...”

    His voice trailed off.

    Emily felt a pang of guilt, even though cold logic told her that she had nothing to be guilty about. She hadn't played with Jade’s emotions, nor had she hinted to him that she might have been interested ... or had she? For all she knew, the amount of time she’d spent with him might have been interpreted as a sign of interest. Back home, male-female friendships were far from uncommon, but here they seemed to be rare. Coming to think of it, the only girls she’d seen being friendly with the boys outside classes were the other three girls from Martial Magic. Or were they being courted too?

    “It's all right,” Emily said, although she wasn't sure if she was telling the truth. She did feel flattered that he’d asked, even though she’d never expected such a ... blunt proposal. “I just ... can you ask me again later?”

    But he’d been asking her about staying in Whitehall, she remembered suddenly. Had he really been asking if she wanted him to stay with her?

    And men say we women are impossible to understand, she thought, sourly. They should try walking a mile in our shoes.

    “I can,” Jade said. “I’m sorry if I was ... impolite.”

    Emily made a face. “You weren't bad at all,” she said, as reassuringly as she could. Her own emotions were spinning around in her head. “Don’t worry about it. I will consider your proposal, but I have to complete my education before actually getting married.”

    And what happens, a dark voice at the back of her head muttered, if he finds someone else he likes between now and then?

    Jade reached out suddenly and gave her a hug. Emily somehow managed to stop herself from flinching back, for very few people had ever hugged her in her life. Her mother had shown more interest in the bottle than in her only child, her stepfather had never been affectionate towards her ... and the only person at Whitehall who had hugged her was Imaiqah. Now ... she felt Jade’s hands enfolding her and forced herself to relax. The hug didn't feel bad at all.

    “Thank you,” he said. It would have been easy to kiss him. “I ... should we go back to the school?”

    Emily winced, inwardly. “I think that would be best,” she admitted. “I need time to think.”

    There was an uncomfortable silence as they walked back down the path to Whitehall. Emily wondered, bitterly, if they would ever recapture the easy friendship they’d had before he’d proposed to her. She’d liked laughing and joking with him, so much more than anything she'd had on Earth. But maybe he’d only spent time with her because he was interested in marrying her. How could she have missed it?

    She grimaced as they entered the school’s grounds, passing through the outer protective wards that were intended to keep out unwanted guests. Emily had always been sensitive to the wards, but ever since Shadye had invaded the school she’d had the distant impression that the wards didn't really like her. They weren't really alive, not as she understood the term, yet it was impossible to escape the pervading sense of dislike radiating out from the wards. But maybe it wasn't too surprising. Emily might have saved the school, and the Allied Lands, but her mere presence had also put them in terrible danger. Shadye had used a sample of her blood to manipulate her, using her to take down the wards from the inside.

    “I’ll see you at the dance,” Jade said, as they stepped into the school. “Will ... will you be all right?”

    “Yes,” Emily said, flatly. Even a blind man would have realised that she was upset. But then, Jade had done better reading her than she had reading him. “I’ll see you at the dance.”

    She walked up the staircase before he could say anything, shaking her head inwardly as she felt the school’s interior twisting around her. Whitehall had been shaped by some very crafty magicians and the staircases and corridors often led directly to where someone wanted to go – or needed to go, if they were in trouble. She stepped off the stairs and found herself in front of the unmarked wall concealing the entrance to the first-year dormitories. Pushing her hand against it to open the hidden, she stepped through the gap and into the long corridor that led down to the laundry room. Memories rose up within her as she heard Madame Razz, the housemother, angrily lecturing a first-year girl on poor behaviour. Emily shook her head, wondering what had happened, then walked down to Alassa’s room.

    The door opened when Emily knocked, allowing her to step inside. Alassa’s room was identical to Emily’s, apart from the single large family portrait hanging over her bed. Like Emily, she had two roommates, both of whom had already gone home for the holidays. One of them had caught Emily, several months after she’d arrived at Whitehall, and thanked her for helping to make living with the princess bearable. Apparently, Alassa had been a right pain in the behind to her roommates, as well as everyone else.

    “Don’t you dare laugh,” Alassa said, as Emily closed the door. “I have to wear this outfit on the journey home.”

    Emily looked ... and had to suppress a smile. Alassa was almost inhumanly perfect, with long blonde tresses, a heart-shaped face and a perfect body. She was also wearing a blue dress that made her look rather like a peacock, complete with feathers sticking up behind her hair. It actually suited her, Emily decided, although she wouldn't have been comfortable showing off so much of her cleavage. But then, Alassa’s breasts were perfect too.

    “They expect you to wear that in the coach?” She asked, surprised. It looked as though one person would have problems putting it on without help. “Wouldn't it get crumpled?”

    “My father wishes me to make a proper appearance,” Alassa said. She peered at herself in the mirror, twisting and turning until she was satisfied. “It seems that there won’t be anywhere to change until we actually get to the palaces and castles we’re going to be staying at along the way.”

    Emily resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. It would have been simple for Alassa to go home using a portal, or a teleport spell. Instead, her parents insisted that she ride home in a coach, allowing her to visit a number of castles belonging to other royal families before she was formally confirmed as Heir to the Throne. Alassa had tried to explain why this was important, but she hadn't been sure of the details and Emily had ended up more confused than ever.

    “This isn't the only dress either,” Alassa added. “My mother has sent me fifteen dresses, one for each day. And I have to put them all on without help. Mother always said that I should never become dependent upon the servants to get dressed.”

    “Sounds like good advice,” Emily said. “Anyone someone else does for you is something you can't do for yourself.”

    Some of the more absurd royal courts on Earth had actually had protocols for who was to help the royal family dress in the morning. Some of the stories had been so absurd that she’d been left shaking her head in disbelief. At least Alassa didn't seem to have to parade around naked to convince potential in-laws that she was healthy and fertile. It had struck Emily as little more than an excuse for the in-laws to be perverted, although it did make a certain kind of sense. Several royal families had tried to conceal their ugly daughters until the marriage had taken place.

    “So I have been told,” Alassa said. She muttered a charm and the dress suddenly loosened and started to fall off her body. “This dress isn't even the worst of them.”

    Emily watched as she stepped out of it, then carefully placed it back in her travelling chest. Alassa’s underwear was almost non-existent, surprisingly. But then, every student at Whitehall was expected to wear the same all-concealing robes. Emily couldn't help noticing that Alassa had a dagger strapped to her right thigh, although she couldn't imagine how her friend was meant to draw it without tearing her dress. There didn't seem to be any slit she could use to reach it.

    “There’s a spell that turns half of the dress to dust,” Alassa explained, when Emily asked. “It shouldn't be used except in case of absolute need, when modesty is no longer a pressing concern. The dagger itself is rather special.”

    She turned back to face Emily, holding up a long cream-coloured garment. “What do you think of this?”

    Emily shook her head slowly. “I think you won’t be able to get into it without help,” she said, finally. “How are you going to tie up the back?”

    “Bet you I can,” Alassa said. She lifted the garment over her head, then allowed it to fall down. A moment later, her head emerged from the top, while her hands came out of the sleeves. She muttered a handful of charms and then caught her breath as the inbuilt corset squeezed tightly. Clearly, the royal family had let to embrace the bras Emily had introduced several months ago. “How do I look?”

    “Dancing is going to be difficult,” Emily said. The dress fanned out so far that any partner would be unable to do more than hold hands with Alassa. It was also surprisingly loose around the chest, concealing her breasts, while tightening around her abdomen. Emily couldn't help thinking of an exaggerated hourglass. “What is the dress actually for?”

    “It preserves one’s dignity,” Alassa said, stiffly. It couldn't be easy to breathe while wearing that corset. “I will be meeting potential husbands on the journey home and a dress like this helps ensure a lack of scandal.”

    “Oh,” Emily said. It shouldn't have surprised her, not after what Void had said, but it still left her feeling uncomfortable. “Because they can’t reach anything more delicate than your hands?”

    “That’s the idea,” Alassa said. She lifted up the hem and showed Emily the additional layers of cloth below. “Even the most ardent lover would have difficulty gaining access to my hidden jewel.”

    “Oh,” Emily said. She shook her head. “Do you think I should start wearing one?”

    Alassa threw her a sharp glance. “Why do you think you might need one?”

    Emily hadn't meant to tell her about Jade, but somehow the whole story came tumbling out of her lips. She needed to talk to someone and Void, whatever his other attributes, couldn't really offer proper advice.

    Alassa smirked. “I was wondering when he’d have the courage to approach you,” she said. “It isn't as if dealing with your Guardian would be easy.”

    “You knew?” Emily demanded. “You knew he liked me?”

    “Of course,” Alassa said. “Was it not obvious?”

    “I missed it,” Emily admitted. “Was I the only person to miss it?”

    Alassa looked oddly apologetic. “You really are from someplace different,” she said, as if she were reminding herself of that fact. “I should have pointed it out to you.”

    She muttered a charm and the dress jumped up, allowing her to pull it off her body and return it to the chest. “He always spent time with you,” she reminded Emily. “When I was there, he still paid attention to you. How did you miss it?”

    “By being an idiot,” Emily said. But then, it wasn't as if Jade could have taken her out to dinner, or to a movie. “But what do I do about it?”

    Alassa considered it as she produced the third dress. “Well, Jade’s family isn't very prominent, so you wouldn't gain much advantage from being allied with them,” she said. “On the other hand, his relations wouldn't have a strong motive to betray you later on. And they are tied to the Allied Lands as a whole, rather than to a specific kingdom. It could be quite advantageous to you to remain independent of the various monarchs.”

    “Oh,” Emily said.

    “Jade himself is a handsome young man, without blemishes or defects of character,” Alassa continued. “He’s a capable magician, with excellent prospects; he could become a combat sorcerer, or stay at Whitehall as a tutor. Maybe not particularly wealthy, but that isn't really a problem for you, is it?”

    Emily nodded. Thanks to her innovations, she was actually reasonably wealthy by the standards of the Allied Lands. She wasn't anything like as rich as one of the royal families, or the long-established trading houses, but she was getting there. And besides, it wasn't as if she needed more money than she already had.

    “So you could do worse,” Alassa concluded. “But then, you could also do better. There are quite a few prominent families with strong magical bloodlines. I’d be expecting them to make Imaiqah an offer soon – she’s newblood, with magic they’d like to add to their own. You would gain access to a whole strata of connections and influence in exchange for marrying one of their sons and bearing his children ...”

    She looked up, meeting Emily’s eyes. “And then there’s the whole Child of Destiny angle,” she added. “You have proved yourself. Lots of families would want you.”

    Emily stared at her. “How did you become so good at evaluating marriage prospects?”

    “My mother insisted that I should be able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of any proposed union,” Alassa said. “Do you know how many people have tried to get my parents to promise me to them since I was a child?”

    She shrugged. “My father may offer to arrange a match for you. For a young girl without a real family, that would be a very tempting prospect.”

    “And bind me to Zangaria,” Emily said. Alassa’s parents had told her to stay close to the Child of Destiny. “Do you think I should accept Jade’s proposal?”

    “I’d suggest waiting to see what other offers you received,” Alassa said. She scowled down at the dress, then put it back in the chest without trying it on. “Of course, Jade may believe that he is doing you a favour. If you happened to be married, or engaged, people couldn't try to court you – at least, not so blatantly.”

    “And now I’m confused,” Emily admitted. “Why can't these things be simple?”

    Alassa took the question seriously. “Because marriage is more than just the union of husband and wife,” she said. “It is also the union of two families, of combining their resources and building something greater. When a kingdom is concerned, marriage may decide the fates of thousands upon thousands of people. Such things should never be entered into lightly.”

    She shrugged. “Consider yourself lucky,” she added. “The kingdoms we will be visiting each have a prince who may wind up marrying me. And I have to dance with them all, showing respect to all, but favour to none. That won't be easy.”

    Her lips twisted into a mischievous smile. “And by the way, my mother sent some dresses for you. Why don’t we try them on right now?”

    Emily groaned.
    kellory, Pezz, srchdawg and 2 others like this.
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    The Grand Hall of Whitehall was large enough to accommodate a small army, illuminated by globes of light hovering in the air. Emily sucked in her breath sharply as she stepped through the main doors and walked down into the throng, admiring the hundreds of portraits the servants had hung on the walls. Once, they had been covered with delicate carvings that had represented the many magical disciplines, but Shadye’s horde of monsters had ripped the room apart, searching for hidden students. Emily privately felt that the portraits offered more than the carvings, an opinion she kept to herself.

    “You look nice,” Alassa muttered in her ear. “You don’t need to worry at all.”

    Emily winced. She’d never really worn dresses on Earth, so she’d had problems learning to move in the robes worn by all students. The dress Alassa’s mother had sent for her, however, was something different. It was tight around the bust and thighs, showing off the shape of her body without actually revealing any bare flesh below her neck. Moving in it was difficult and she couldn't help feeling that it was going to split open the moment she sat down, no matter how many protective charms were woven into the material. On the other hand, it was one of the more modest dresses in the hall.

    The leaving dance was one of the few occasions where students were allowed to wear something apart from robes and they’d taken full advantage of it. Some of the male students wore courtly outfits – one of them had come dressed up in a multicoloured robe that changed colour every ten seconds – while their female counterparts wore everything from dresses to tight trousers that left almost nothing to the imagination. Emily caught sight of one girl who was wearing nothing more than a wire bikini and throng before looking away, embarrassed. Few of the guys seemed to have any compunction about staring.

    “She’s going to be a sorceress,” Alassa pointed out. “What does she care if they stare at her?”

    Emily nodded and looked away, towards one of the portraits. It showed a tall man in dark robes, wearing a hood that cast a shadow over his appearance. The only thing she could make out for sure was that he had a very strong chin, almost completely devoid of stubble. Looking at the tiny nameplate underneath, she carefully sounded out the name; JACKCLAW THE STRONG. At least she was learning to speak and read the local language, although her accent was still being mocked by some of her fellow students. Translation spells were so much easier, but they tended to be somewhat unreliable.

    “I see boys coming this way,” Alassa muttered. She’d worn a long green dress, almost identical to Emily’s apart from the gold lace that marked her out as a lady of quality. “Do you want to dance with them? It will be good practice.”

    “So you said,” Emily said. She’d been warned that there would be a formal ball every night during the journey to Zangaria, where Alassa would be expected to dance with her would-be suitors, but she wasn't very good at dancing, if only because she hadn’t danced at all until she’d come to Whitehall. “Do I have to?”

    “Yep,” Alassa said. She grinned. “Here is a friend of yours.”

    “Lady Emily,” Cat said, with a florid bow. He was several years older than her, but they shared the Martial Magic class. “Would you do me the very great honour of taking a turn around the dance floor?”

    Emily hesitated, then Alassa gave her a gentle push forward into Cat’s arms. He caught her hands and pulled her out into the dancers, who were lining up for a new dance. Emily found herself staring around in panic – she didn't know what to do – before realising that one of the players at the front of the hall was about to give instructions. They sounded awfully complicated, she decided as the music started to play, but as the dancers started to move she realised that it was just a matter of following the music as much as anything else. Besides, Cat made a very tolerant partner.

    “I still remember my first dance,” he admitted, as the tune finally came to an end. “I trod on so many toes that fifteen girls threatened to hex me.”

    He gave her a second bow. “Would you care for another dance? Or maybe you should let one of your other admirers take you around the hall.”

    Emily glanced around, surprised. Several other boys, including two she didn't recognise, looked to be angling to catch her eye. It puzzled her – surely they couldn’t all think of her as a marriage partner – until she realised that there were more guys than girls in the hall. Every girl had a handful of admirers trailing after her. Emily found herself flushing, then summoned up her courage, winked at Cat, and headed over to one of the guys she didn't know.

    “Thank you,” he stammered, as the music started to play again. “I’ll try not to tread on you.”

    Surprisingly, Emily found herself relaxing as she traded partners again and again, feeling that she could actually begin to enjoy the dancing. It wasn't the same as formal balls, Alassa had warned her, but there were fewer expectations; no one seemed to seriously expect a marriage proposal to be sorted out on the dance floor. And there was no dance card; she could dance with whoever she liked, without needing to worry about offending anyone. Alassa seemed to have no shortage of older males dancing with her either. Most of them Emily vaguely recognised as having some aristocratic ties.

    She forced herself to take a breath after the seventh dance and headed over to the buffet tables the staff had placed along the wall. They were piled with food, ranging from dishes and treats that were vaguely familiar to items she had never seen or imagined before coming to Whitehall. It was funny how she never really felt homesick, not even after discovering that magic couldn't solve everything. But then, she’d never really felt as if she belonged on Earth.

    I owe Shadye, she thought. It wasn't a pleasant thought. He’d kidnapped her, tried to kill her, then manipulated her – and then she’d had to kill him. There had been no choice.

    “The Grandmaster has put on a decent spread,” a rather snooty voice said, from behind her. “One of the man’s redeeming features, if you ask me.”

    Emily turned, to see a tall thin man peering down his nose at her with a practiced smirk. He seemed instantly dislikeable, the kind of person who would happily condemn Emily for not being practically perfect in every way, yet ... there was something about him that nagged at her mind. The more she tried to see his features, the more they seemed to slip away from her, as if something was interfering with her perception. And that meant that he was hiding under a powerful glamour ...

    Understanding clicked. “Void?”

    Her Guardian tapped his lips, mischievously. “The Grandmaster doesn't know I’m here and I would prefer to keep it that way,” he said. “I’m casting a privacy ward, but do try and look a little disgusted. No doubt Sir Dogsbody here” – he gestured to himself – “has been commissioned on behalf of someone high-and-mighty to try to convince you to marry his son. Or something like that.”

    Emily found her voice. “What are you doing here?”

    “You need a more imaginative question,” Void informed her. He picked up a sausage-like delicacy and popped it into his mouth. “There have been ... developments. Are you aware that Alassa’s escort has reached Dragon’s Den?”

    Emily shrugged. Whitehall paid lip service to the claim that its students were all equal, even though some of them were definitely more equal than others. Consequently, the small squadron of troops and combat sorcerers who would be escorting Alassa – and Emily – to Zangaria had been ordered to stay in Dragon’s Den overnight, before picking her up in the morning. It struck Emily as a waste of resources, but apparently it was tradition and couldn’t be gainsaid by mere mortals.

    “I checked them out at a distance,” Void added. “Their leader is Lady Barb.”

    He spoke as though the name should have meant something to Emily, but it meant nothing, nothing at all. “I’ve never heard of her,” Emily admitted finally, when it became clear that Void was not going to elaborate. “Who is she?”

    It was hard to tell with the glamour messing up her perception, but Void looked almost ... embarrassed. “Lady Barb has heard of you,” he said. “More importantly, she ... has a grudge against me. And you’re my ward.”

    Emily blinked in surprise. “A grudge against you?”

    “Yes,” Void said. “It’s a long story. And it isn't one I choose to share. But I suggest that you bear in mind that she may dislike and distrust you merely because of me.”

    “Why?” Emily asked. “What happened?”

    “I do not choose to share the story,” Void said. “All I can do is suggest that you watch your back. She’s too ... honourable to stick a knife in it without good cause, but she will distrust you.”

    He held up a hand before Emily could say anything. “I would have warned you earlier, if I’d known,” he added. “I just suggest that you bear in mind that she hates me. Watch yourself.”

    Emily watched as he turned and walked off into the crowd. His glamour seemed to twist slightly; one moment he was there, the next moment she had lost track of him completely. She shook her head in disbelief as the privacy ward fell away, wondering quite how he’d managed to get into the school. It was a droll reminder that she had a very long way to go before she could match Void, or the Grandmaster.

    And he’s just like Batman, she thought, as she started to eat her food. He vanishes while you are finishing a sentence.

    “Good food,” Alassa said, coming up beside Emily. Her small army of admirers watched her from a distance. “Do you have it in your homeland?”

    Emily winced. Most of the students accepted the unspoken suggestion that Void, Emily’s Guardian, was in fact her real father. It certainly seemed to make sense; Void wouldn't want to advertise that he had a daughter, but he wouldn't want to abandon her completely either. Alassa, however, had deduced that Emily came from somewhere very different, although she hadn't worked out the truth. Emily had promised that she would tell her friend on the day she was crowned Queen, when she was no longer under her father’s power. It would be a long time, she hoped, before she had to keep that promise.

    “Something like it,” she said, vaguely. In fact, she had the distant feeling that Whitehall’s food was considerably healthier. “Are we going to be eating like this every day?”

    “Of course not,” Alassa said. She gave Emily a thin smile. “Each of the monarchs will feel the need to actually entertain us. Not like him. You think he’s courting her?”

    She nodded towards the Grandmaster, who was standing at the head of the room, talking eagerly with Mistress Kirdáne, Head of Magical Creatures. The little man still wore the blindfold – a simple dirty rag – that he’d worn the day Emily had first met him, but there was no mistaking the power flowing through his body. Emily knew he could have cured himself easily – magic could repair damaged eyes – but instead he chose to remain blind. It didn't seem to slow him down.

    “I don’t think he will be putting on a show for us,” Emily said, dryly. “And Mistress Kirdáne will happily have you mucking out the stables if you make any more veiled suggestions.”

    Alassa shrugged, unrepentantly. “He kept large parts of the school stable with a rampaging necromancer trying to impose his will on the structure,” she said. “I could easily see someone wanting to bear his child.”

    Emily glowered at her. “You’ve got mating on the brain.”

    You started it,” Alassa countered. Her face fell, briefly. “But I may end up engaged before I come back to Whitehall.”

    “I’m sorry,” Emily said, softly. “If you want to run away ...”

    “My parents would just track me down and drag me back,” Alassa said. “And besides, if I did manage to escape successfully, there would be civil war. I couldn't have that on my conscience.”

    You’ve grown up, Emily realised, feeling an odd twinge in her heart. This new improved Alassa was her work, yet would she still need Emily? Or would they drift apart?

    “I believe that someone wants to dance with you,” Alassa said, taking Emily’s plate out of her hand. “Go tell him that there’s no hard feelings.”

    Emily looked up and saw Jade standing there, oddly hesitant. It was worrying to see him like that, particularly because of the bravery he’d shown when they were being chased by orcs and goblins. But asking a girl out could be harder for a boy than fighting an enemy – and Jade had asked her for something more than a casual date. Swallowing, she walked over to Jade and held out her hands. He took them and pulled her out onto the dance floor.

    Jade was a better dancer than Cat, Emily decided, several minutes later. The instructions were even more complicated, but Jade followed them without hesitation and Emily simply followed him. As the music changed, some of the couples went off the floor, only to be replaced by newcomers. Emily shot Jade a sharp glance and realised that he’d timed it perfectly. The next dance was very romantic.

    Or maybe he hadn't, she realised, as he flushed. “Don’t worry,” she muttered, as they moved together. His arms enfolding her felt surprisingly reassuring. “We can dance.”

    She felt a tingle running down her spine as Jade cast a privacy ward of his own. Unlike Void’s, which had been so subtle she had barely noticed it, this one muffled the music slightly, as well as the babble of the other couples. Emily lifted a single eyebrow questioningly.

    “I’d prefer to talk without being overheard,” Jade admitted. Naturally; he’d taken her up the mountain so he could propose without listening ears. He hadn't realised that Void would follow them. “Emily ... I’m sorry if I was too forward.”

    He must have talked to someone, Emily realised. But who? She assumed that the boys had housemasters – rather like Madame Razz supervised the first-year girls – but she’d never met Jade’s housemaster. Or maybe he’d talked to Sergeant Miles, or one of the male tutors. He might even have approached one of the female tutors, hoping that they’d be able to give him good advice.

    But it didn't really matter.

    “It just surprised me,” she admitted. And then Void had arrived and confused her. She’d been so distracted that she hadn't been able to think properly. “Jade ...”

    She broke off, considering what to say. “Jade, I have to finish my schooling before I consider marrying anyone,” she said, finally. “And you will need to establish yourself as a combat sorcerer first, someone everyone can respect.”

    Jade flushed. “I hadn't meant that we should get married at once,” he admitted. “I believed that we could come to some agreement and marry later, when I am ready to give you a dowry.”

    Emily felt her own face flush. She hadn't even considered a dowry; she hadn't bothered to look up how it worked in this world. From what Imaiqah had said, the parents of the girl were expected to provide her with a lump sum, although quite what happened to it after marriage seemed to depend upon the kingdom’s individual laws. Some kingdoms seemed to believe the money should stay with the girl, others ruled that it went to the husband – or the husband’s parents.

    And if monarchy was involved, the girl’s dowry might include the entire kingdom.

    “I don’t need a dowry,” she said. It had taken her months to get used to the money system of her new world, but she was fairly sure that she already had more than Jade would make in several years. She suspected that pointing that out wouldn't help. “Look, I like you and I care about you, but we need time. I am not going to accept any marriage proposals from anyone until after I graduate.”

    Jade looked at her for a long moment. “You will consider mine?”

    “Yes,” Emily said. Just for a moment, she wished to be emotionless. Part of her thought she should say yes to his proposal. The rest of her pointed out that they might not be good together. Were they really suited to be a married couple? “I promise that I will consider your proposal.”

    For a moment, his lips were very close to hers. It was the easiest thing in the world to brush her lips against his, feeling a tingle running through her body as they kissed. She was suddenly very aware of her heartbeat pounding inside her chest. Her first kiss ...

    “I’m going to be apprenticing with a combat sorcerer,” Jade admitted. “But I will keep in touch.”

    Emily felt a surge of conflicting emotions. Was he abandoning her? Or was he trying to see if they did have something that would last? She could beg him to stay ...

    “You’d better write to me every week,” she said. At least she’d mastered handwriting, even though it took hours to compose a simple letter. “And make sure you keep me informed.”

    “You too,” Jade said. He smiled – and, for a moment, Emily felt as if everything was back to normal. Except it would never be normal again. “I hope you have a good time in Zangaria.”

    “Me too,” Emily said. Between Alassa’s warnings of endless dances – and Void’s rather more practical warning – she was nervous about the trip. “And I will not forget to write.”

    She kissed him again, then cancelled the privacy ward and headed to the door. The dance might have gone on until the wee small hours, but she needed rest. They had to be up early the following morning. Alassa’s escort would be arriving at ten bells to take her home.

    At least Void warned me, she thought, as she reached her bedroom. But what happened between him and Lady Barb?
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments would be nice - and Merry Christmas!

    Chapter Five

    Emily was awoken by a groaning sound as Aloha pulled herself out of bed.

    “The Sergeant is going to kill me,” she said, as she sat upright. “I drank too much last night.”

    She glanced over at Emily. “I'm sorry about waking you,” Aloha added. “I just have to go wash before the march begins.”

    Emily nodded at her retreating back. Sergeant Miles had announced that the remaining students in Martial Magic would enjoy one final route march before they went home for the holidays, but Emily was excused the march on the ground she was travelling to Zangaria. She wasn't quite sure how to feel about it; she’d grown to love walking in the countryside, but route marches were never fun, even now that she was stronger and healthier than she’d ever been on Earth.

    “I didn't sleep very well anyway,” she said, as her roommate entered the washroom. “Don’t worry about it.”

    She sat upright in bed and reached for her watch. It was nearly seven bells, almost time to get up anyway. Emily ran her hand through her brown hair, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. Her body felt tired, but a strong mug of Kava would make her feel better. Besides, unlike some others, she hadn't been drinking alcohol. The others were likely to be nursing hangovers.

    Jade had kissed her. The thought returned to her mind unbidden as she dug into her cabinet and found the travelling clothes Alassa’s mother had sent for her. Jade had kissed her ... and she’d let him. She hadn't even felt repulsed. It had been her first kiss and ... did that mean that she was in love, or merely that she’d not wanted to humiliate him any further by pushing him away? But then, she hadn't wanted to push him away ... her thoughts spun round and round until she felt a little dizzy. What did she actually want from him?

    And everyone probably saw you kissing him, she told herself, angrily. The privacy ward might have made it impossible for someone to eavesdrop, but it wouldn't have stopped them seeing the kiss. There had been couples on the dance floor who were going much further than simple kisses, yet ... this was different. Emily attracted too much attention to hope that the school had missed the kiss. By now, no doubt there would be rumours – she blushed furiously at the thought – that Jade had spent the night in her bed.

    Aloha emerged from the washroom looking a little better, but still hung-over. Emily reached into her chest, found one of the potions they’d been given for dealing with headaches and feminine problems and passed it to her friend, who took it gratefully.

    “Thank you,” Aloha said. She opened the bottle and drank it quickly, grimacing at the taste. “And I hope you have a good journey. It can be murder.”

    Emily tossed her a sharp look, then walked into the washroom herself. Unlike many medieval institutions, Whitehall insisted that everyone wash regularly, something that had surprised Emily when she’d first heard about it. Later, she’d realised that her new world didn't have modern medicine, but it did know about germs and how they spread disease. A person who washed was healthier than a person who chose to remain dirty. Shaking her head, Emily allowed warm water to cascade over her, then dried herself with a simple spell. It was so much easier than using a towel – and besides, her hair dried instantly.

    Stepping back out of the washroom, she discovered that Aloha had already gone, no doubt in hopes of a big breakfast before joining the rest of the Martial Magic class. Feeling an odd sense of relief – she liked Aloha, but she didn't want to talk – Emily picked up her travelling outfit and began to pull it on. The garments felt rougher than the dresses, yet they still managed to look reasonably attractive, even on Emily. And they were charmed to protect their wearer against the weather.

    Once she’d finished dressing, Emily stood in front of the mirror and studied herself, unable to avoid a smile. She looked rather like an Elizabethan gentleman, with a pair of dark trousers, a dark shirt and a belt wrapped around her lower chest. Normally, she’d gathered from Alassa, a traveller would be expected to wear a sword, but few sorcerers would ever carry one unless they were engaged in ritual magic. They knew far more powerful protections. She tested her wards to make sure they meshed well with the spells on the outfit, then headed for the door. They had been warned to eat a good breakfast.

    Hardly anyone seemed to be stirring as she walked out of the dorms and down towards the dining hall. Whitehall almost felt deserted, the ebb and flow of magic that ran through the building seemingly diminished by their absence. Emily felt a pang of sadness that puzzled her, until she realised that she was already homesick. Not homesick for Earth, where she’d been ignored at best, but for Whitehall – and she hadn't even left. Part of her wanted to cancel the trip and stay at the school for the holidays, if that were permitted. It occurred to her, as she stopped outside the heavy stone door leading into the dining hall, that she knew almost nothing about her tutors outside the classroom. Did Professor Thande have a wife? Or did Mistress Irene have a husband? Or...

    She pushed the door open and stepped into the dining hall. It was nearly empty, apart from a couple of students she vaguely recognised. Oddly, there was no sign of Aloha. Maybe the Sergeant had decided to leave very early and Aloha hadn't had time to grab more than a few combat rations before running down to the armoury. It sounded cruel, but the Sergeant had always pushed the limits.

    The kitchen staff seemed to be bright and cheerful, smiling at Emily as soon as she leaned on the counter. They didn't look to have spent the night partying; Emily wondered absently just what the domestic staff did when the students were back home. Maybe they threw parties for themselves ... she couldn't see the Grandmaster objecting very strongly, even though she suspected that some of the aristocrats would have thrown a fit at the thought of commoners enjoying themselves. Besides, they worked in a school where the students had magic and bad senses of humour. They deserved a chance to relax after the students had gone home.

    Emily took a bowl of porridge and a large mug of Kava and found herself a seat at one of the tables. Normally, they were segregated by age, but Emily had been something of an exception to that rule even before half the school had gone home. As a student in Martial Magic, which pulled in pupils from every age group, she’d been expected to join her teammates half the time, even if they were all older than her. At least they’d stopped treating her like a little girl, or someone who had pulled strings to get into the class – but then, she had beaten a necromancer. It was hard to argue that she was still disqualified after Shadye had been killed.

    The porridge tasted bland, but it was probably the best thing for the students after drinking themselves senseless last night. Emily sipped the Kava carefully, wincing slightly at the taste, although no one actually drank the school’s Kava to enjoy themselves. It tasted rather like ultra-strong coffee, with enough caffeine to shock anyone awake. Emily had tasted better Kava at Dragon’s Den and wondered why Whitehall served such an awful blend, before deciding that the school would prefer to avoid caffeine dependency. She had never bothered to ask to confirm her theory.

    She looked up as Alassa made her entrance. The Royal Princess looked perfect, as always, but Emily could tell that her friend hadn't slept much better than herself. Alassa picked up a jug of Kava for herself, without taking any food, and stumbled over to sit beside Emily, muttering something about not being hungry. She sounded more nervous than anything else, even though she should be used to taking part in royal processions. But then, one of the princes she was going to meet along the way might become her future husband and consort.

    “Need to get dressed again,” Alassa muttered, as she slurped her Kava. “Can’t go out looking like this.”

    Emily rolled her eyes. Her friend wore travelling clothes that were almost identical to Emily’s, apart from the single golden star on the front of her shirt. It didn't even cling to her body, refusing to reveal too much of her curves, although Alassa’s golden locks shone against the dark material. Maybe Alassa was just suffering from excessive nerves ... Emily gave her friend a concerned look, then waved to one of the staff. A moment later, a bowl of porridge was put in front of Alassa and she started to eat automatically.

    “You look lovely,” Emily said.

    “Liar,” Alassa said, without heat. “They’re going to be sending maids to help me dress. And they’re all going to be reporting on me.”

    It took Emily a moment to realise that Alassa meant the monarchs who hoped to marry their younger sons to the princess. They would all want to ensure that Alassa was physically healthy – and they probably wouldn't trust a medical report from her parents, if such information was ever released outside the Royal Family. There was no reason they couldn't ask a Healer to perform a medical check, except that would probably have been intrusive. Emily rolled her eyes at the thought, then finished her Kava.

    “I should have hired my own servants,” Alassa continued. She sounded almost dazed. “I could have used it as an excuse to keep the others out of my rooms.”

    But persona servants aren't allowed at Whitehall, Emily thought, quietly.

    “I can help you dress,” she offered, aloud. But she knew almost nothing about how to help someone dress, even if the dresses were designed to allow Alassa to don them without needing outside help. It wasn't as if she understood local cosmetics; hell, even looking at them risked running into a political and social minefield. “Or maybe we could hire someone ...”

    “Probably wouldn't work,” Alassa said. She finished her porridge and looked down at her empty bowl, as if she hadn't quite realised that she was eating. “They’d still insist on sending in their own people to stare at me.”

    She shook her head. “Let me try and get ready on my own first,” she added. “I’ll give you a call if I need help.”

    Emily nodded. It was funny just how little privacy Alassa had, despite having been born a Royal Princess. Everything from her monthly cycles to her conduct when dealing with her social inferiors would be carefully recorded by someone. And while her servants back home had been there to help her, Emily had no doubt that they reported directly to her parents – and all other interested parties. No doubt the preparations for a royal wedding included a careful inspection of her health and fertility. No wonder Alassa had turned into such a brat.

    “I’ll be in the library,” Emily said, as she stood up. “And I’ll meet you in the entrance hall at ten bells, if you don’t call me earlier.”

    “See if you can research privacy spells,” Alassa said weakly, with a ghost of a smile. “There won’t be any privacy in any of the castles.”

    Emily scowled at the thought as she walked out of the dining hall. Whitehall was a place of education, yet there were secret passages that ran throughout the building, some of them allowing their occupants to peek into various classrooms and dorms. She’d never managed to convince the Grandmaster to tell her why they’d been built, or, for that matter, why Shadye had known of their existence. Perhaps the students were meant to find them, or maybe the staff wanted a way to move around without being noticed. But then, given the building’s mutable interior, it should have been easy to construct private corridors for themselves.

    The library was dark and cold, but a touch of Emily’s hand against the charmed doorknob allowed her entry. One advantage of working with the librarian was that she was allowed access at all times, although she had wondered if that would still hold true now that term was officially over for the summer. She stepped into the massive room and through the silencing wards that kept students from talking above a whisper, looking around to make sure that she was really alone. Rumour had it that the Lady Aylia slept in the library. Emily had certainly never seen her outside her domain.

    Smiling to herself, Emily walked into one of the smaller rooms and inspected the graduation rolls. Whitehall kept very detailed records of its students, allowing newcomers to look up the grades of famous sorcerers ... although they weren't as useful as Emily had expected, before she'd actually started to use them. Sorcerers often changed their names once they graduated, ensuring that their enemies couldn't use their true names against them; it still bugged her that she had never managed to identify Void’s records. Or, for that matter, the Grandmaster’s records. The only staff member she’d been able to find had been Professor Thande ... and his record had included a handwritten note from his tutor suggesting that he be dispatched to a deserted mountaintop where he could practice his experiments without risking anyone else’s life.

    And she’d never located anything that might have belonged to Shadye ...

    Pushing the thought aside, Emily found the set of records that were sorted by name and looked up Lady Barb. It was easier than she’d expected; Barb was apparently short for Barbara, rather than an assumed name like Shadye or Void. But the record was of minimal use; Barb had been an excellent student, with very high marks for Healing, then she’d gone into Martial Magic in her sixth year, like Jade. And then she’d graduated and apprenticed under an unnamed sorcerer.

    Void? Emily asked herself. Back when she'd first met him, Void had admitted that his history of taking apprentices wasn't very good. Indeed, he'd told her that she was safer going to Whitehall than learning from him. Could Lady Barb have been Void’s apprentice at one point? But surely Void would have told her if that were the case.

    Thoughtfully, Emily reread the record, trying to draw out any hidden clues. But there was almost nothing beyond the bare facts, certainly very little about Lady Barb’s background or post-Whitehall life. It didn't surprise her – Alassa’s records left out plenty of details, including the fact that she was a Crown Princess – but it was frustrating. Whitehall was primarily concerned with educating young magicians, rather than keeping tabs on them afterwards. That was someone else’s problem.

    Putting the graduation record back on the shelves – taking it out of the room would have triggered the wards – Emily stepped back into the main library and walked down to the genealogy section. On Earth, genealogy covered family trees; here, it seemed to include people who worked for the principle family, as well as plenty of other details that Emily wouldn't have thought needed to be included. Pulling out the first tome describing Zangaria, Emily looked for any records that might touch on Lady Barb. Unsurprisingly, she was listed as a combat sorceress, hired to defend the Queen. That made a certain kind of sense, Emily decided. The King wouldn't want a male sorcerer looming over his wife when he was gone.

    On impulse, she pulled out the blood rankings for the kingdom and studied them carefully. Alassa was right at the top; her father just below her, although a rather droll note suggested that he was no longer capable of fathering children. Reading between the lines, Emily decided that it meant he’d been having affairs and none of them had led to illegitimate children. Quite what they would have done if the only possible heir had been a bastard child was open to question. Maybe the Queen would go into seclusion and then take the child as her own.

    Returning the book to the shelves, she stood up and wandered through the library, glancing from book to book. She’d loved libraries back home and she loved this one; indeed, it had a more authentic attitude than many of the ones she remembered from her childhood. There were no computers, no video games, just books ... and powerful spells intended to ensure that users actually kept quiet. She caught sight of a row of books that were chained to the shelves and smiled, remembering many happy hours of standing there and studying the charms. They couldn't be taken out of the library, but she’d memorised the spells and copied them into her personal grimoire.

    Absently, she picked one of the books off the shelves and glanced at it. Mentalism magic was complex and it was rare for anyone below fourth-year to try to learn it, but she’d had no choice. Shadye had invaded her mind and used her as a weapon against Whitehall. She needed a defence in case someone else managed to secure some of her blood. The memory of being moved like a puppet provided all the incentive she required. And yet there was no way to test it without actually convincing someone to try to control her, which posed dangers of its own. Who did she trust far enough to let them take some of her blood?

    Catching herself, she glanced at her watch. It was almost ten bells.

    Emily straightened up, returned the book to the shelf and then left the library. It was time to pick up her chest, meet up with Alassa and leave the school. And, she reminded herself, to meet Lady Barb. God alone knew how that was going to go.
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  12. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    A very well written work as usual Chris. You are truly a talented young man with many gifts. Please continue on with your writings!
    Wags likes this.
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    Lady Barb was easily the most striking woman that Emily had met.

    She was tall, taller than Emily, with blonde hair cropped close to her head. Her body was incredibly muscular, reminding Emily of Sergeant Harkin; her face was not classically beautiful, but one look told Emily that this was not a person to take lightly. She wore a silver breastplate, dark trousers and a sword, even though she was clearly a powerful sorceress. Emily could feel the magic surrounding her as soon as she walked into the entrance hall.

    Lady Barb was talking to the Grandmaster, their voices hidden behind a privacy ward. She looked like a giant compared to his diminutive form, although Emily suspected that the Grandmaster probably had the edge in raw power. Lady Barb threw Emily a sharp glance as soon as she saw her, before shifting her gaze to Alassa. She must have seen something like liked, because she nodded before returning her attention to the Grandmaster. Emily wondered if they were talking about her, or Alassa. Lady Barb didn't seem to be the kind of person who would put up with a royal brat.

    “Oh, joy,” Alassa muttered. “Here comes the twisting tongue.”

    Emily blinked. She hadn't spotted the other man standing by the main door – Lady Barb had taken all of her attention – until he started to step forward. There was something about his movement that made her think of crawling, at least partly because he kept bowing in Alassa’s direction, almost as if he were dancing towards her. His face, when he straightened up briefly, looked remarkably unformed, almost as if he had no character at all. And his eyes glinted oddly when he looked at Emily.

    “Princess,” the man said, in a breathy voice. “You are the light that knows no borders, the joy that grows in hearts, the ...”

    Emily’s first impulse was to snicker. The man seemed to be exaggerating every movement, as well as bombarding Alassa with absurdly flattering praise ... and then she realised that he meant every word. He seriously believed that she would be impressed by such praise, even though she had to know that it was absurd. Emily glanced at her friend, saw a half-bitter expression on Alassa’s face and realised that she must have grown up hearing it every day. No wonder she had turned into such a brat. A child couldn't have known the difference between honest praise and someone flattering her because of her birth.

    What a crawler, she thought, as the praise turned ever more fulsome. I wonder how much they have to pay him for that ...

    “Thank you,” Alassa said gravely, cutting him off in mid-flatter. “Emily, this is Viscount Nightingale, the Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber. Viscount, this is my friend the Lady Emily, the Necromancer’s Bane. Treat her with respect.”

    The Viscount stepped forward, bowed deeply in front of Emily, then managed to look surprised and offended – and yet unbothered – in the same instant. Emily realised that she was supposed to present him with her hand to kiss and hesitated, before gritting her teeth and holding out her palm. The Viscount kissed her hand lightly and then stepped back, bowing again. Emily had to fight down the urge to wipe her hand on her trousers.

    Alassa cleared her throat. “I trust that the horses and carriages are ready,” she said, in her regal voice. “We have a long trip ahead of us and I wish it to be comfortable.”

    “Of course, Your Highness,” Nightingale said. “I have organised the trip to be as comfortable as possible. We will be visiting many people who wish to admire your regal beauty.”

    “Good,” Alassa said. Her voice didn't sound very pleased, but Nightingale didn't seem to notice. “Bring the horses to the main entrance. Now.”

    Nightingale bowed and backed out of the room. Emily shook her head in disbelief as he somehow navigated his way out of the door without turning his back, as turning his back on Alassa would have been a deadly insult. The Princess winked at Emily, then leaned closer to whisper in her ear.

    “He’s very minor nobility,” she said. “If he happened to displease my father in any way, he would be exposed to all of his enemies instantly.”

    Emily nodded, tartly. It hadn't been uncommon for medieval kings to choose to uplift men from the lower ranks, men who had no choice but to be loyal – for the moment they lost their usefulness, they could be handed over to their enemies. And if they happened to be tax collectors or lawgivers, they wouldn't have many friends anywhere. Maybe Nightingale had more qualifications than being able to ladle on the flattery at a moment’s notice, but she hadn't been able to see them.

    “Emily,” the Grandmaster said. He’d dispelled the privacy ward. “This is Lady Barb. She will be joining us next year as Head of Healing.”

    Lady Barb didn't blink, Emily realised, as she held out her hand. The sorceress just stared at her, her blue eyes unreadable. Her hand, when she took Emily’s hand and shook it firmly, felt strong enough to crush Emily’s to powder with ease. And she could feel the magic crackling around her, a presence more daunting than most of the other tutors.

    “Pleased to meet you,” she said, finally. She couldn't help feeling disconcerted; Void had been right, Lady Barb didn't seem to like her. “I hope you will enjoy working here.”

    Lady Barb’s eyes glittered. “And you are the girl who defeated a necromancer,” she said, without letting go of Emily’s hand. Her voice was cold, dispassionate, almost completely stripped of femininity. Was that the price for being a combat sorceress? But Mistress Irene didn't seem so dispassionate. “How did you manage to defeat Shadye?”

    “We agreed that the knowledge would remain restricted,” the Grandmaster said, hastily. “It is far better for the necromancers to wonder what happened than to confirm their theories.”

    Lady Barb looked at him, then turned her gaze back to Emily. “And you are the closest friend of the princess,” she said, nodding to Alassa. “Are you capable of defending her?”

    “She is,” Alassa said, before Emily could say a word. “And you shouldn't question her competence ...”

    “It is my job, Your Highness,” Lady Barb said. There was no hint of sycophancy in her voice at all. She let go of Emily’s hand and stepped backwards. “Your protection from all threats is my prime concern.”

    There was something in her voice that made Emily start in anger. She knew all of the rumours about what had happened when she’d faced Shadye for the final time – and one of them, the most damning, was that she’d become a necromancer herself. Emily knew that she'd shown no sign of necromantic madness, the insanity that overwhelmed anyone who tried to drain the mana and life force from a sacrifice, but it could take time for the madness to become noticeable. And if someone was deeply worried, they might assume that Emily was simply more capable of keeping the madness under control for years.

    But if that were possible, she thought sourly, there would be no necromantic threat.

    Lady Barb didn't move, but Emily sensed the sudden spike in the magic field, an instant before a flickering orb of green light flashed towards her. She recognised the hex from Martial Magic, a spell that weakened personal protective wards rather than trying to break through them outright. The spell could be an absolute nightmare to dispel, simply because it was designed to be immune to standard dispelling charms. Emily reacted on instant, reshaping her wards and deflecting the green light away from her. It flashed over the hallway and struck the stone wall, vanishing in a shower of sparks.

    “Not too shabby,” Lady Barb said, finally. Her eyes betrayed her irritation. “Perhaps you can protect the Princess after all.”

    Emily scowled at her, unable to avoid the feeling that she would have liked Lady Barb if she hadn't taken such an instant dislike to her. And the test could easily have been worse. If the hex had a chance to get enmeshed in her wards, the only other thing she could have done would have been to drop the wards completely, rendering her vulnerable to all kinds of jinxes, hexes and curses. Sergeant Miles had tested them by including a nasty transfiguration charm in the hex; anyone stupid enough to drop their wards found themselves croaking on the floor before they realised their mistake.

    And then she realised the true purpose of the test. A necromancer might not have had the skill – or the patience – to deflect the hex. Instead, a necromancer would simply have swamped the hex with so much magic that it would have evaporated before it could do serious damage. If Emily had done that ... it would have exposed her as a necromancer for sure. Few magicians her age would have had the power reserves to risk using so much magic. Emily was fairly sure that she couldn't have done it.

    Of course, trying and failing would have been a pretty good sign too, she thought.

    “She can,” Alassa said. “But tell me – isn't protection your responsibility?”

    Lady Barb gazed at her evenly, keeping her eyes fixed on Alassa until the Princess lowered her eyes. “It is not easy to protect someone from their friends,” she said, finally. “Or, for that matter, from their own foolishness.”

    She had a point, Emily had to admit. A husband – or a friend – would be able to get into position to hurt Alassa far more easily than someone from the outside. And it would be harder to tell if Alassa was actually in danger ... Emily had a sudden vision of someone hitting Alassa, while her guards on the outside of her chambers had no idea that she was in deadly danger. Alassa would have to be very careful who she married. It would be easy to marry someone because of their political connections, without realising that he was also a complete sadistic bastard. Or someone who allowed being King to go to his head.

    The Grandmaster cleared his throat. “Lady Emily has earned our trust,” he said, his sightless eyes peering at Lady Barb. “And she is free of the taint of necromancy.”

    “I trust your judgement,” Lady Barb said, flatly. “Your Highness – are you ready to depart?”

    “There are two trunks, both sealed with protective charms,” Alassa said. She looked over at Emily and winked. “Emily has a chest too, also sealed.”

    Lady Barb’s lips twitched. “I shall inform the staff,” she said. “They shouldn't go prying into your possessions in any case, but the warning should help.”

    She turned and strode off, leaving Emily staring after her. Lady Barb did look and act like Sergeant Harkin, if infinitively more attractive than the Sergeant, who had been heavily scarred a long time before he'd come to Whitehall. Could she be his sister? The records hadn’t mentioned her family, but Sergeant Harkin hadn’t been a magician. Whitehall might not have considered his existence important enough to record.

    But it was impossible to tell. Harkin’s face had been so badly scarred that any family resemblance had been destroyed.

    She could have been his student, Emily wondered. He was certainly at Whitehall during her last year ...

    “This will be your first holiday away from the school,” the Grandmaster said. “If you wish to return earlier, we will accept you.”

    Emily nodded. She'd been to Dragon’s Den, and the Martial Magic class had been hiking around the nearby mountains, but she’d never been further away from Whitehall. The thought threatened to bring on another bout of premature homesickness, even though she knew that she could return to the school simply by using a portal. Void, of course, could teleport ... but apparently the spell needed years of effort to master, to the point where only a handful of sorcerers could perform it reliably. She had no idea if the Grandmaster could teleport.

    “Thank you,” she said, looking down at the little man. That was something she should know better than to think, even in the privacy of her own head. The ‘little man’ in question could turn her into a toad without even needing to think about it. “I’ll come back if I need to.”

    On Earth, she hadn't really travelled very far. Her stepfather hadn’t seen the value in family holidays and refused to waste money on camping trips, let alone exotic foreign holidays. And yet it could take less than a day to travel around the entire planet. Here, travel times were much greater, even with portals involved. Maybe the Allied Lands did have a good excuse for near-constant bickering, after all. Even the smaller kingdoms were large by their own standards. And the necromancers were a very long way away.

    One of the ideas that she’d mentioned to Imaiqah’s father was bicycles. What would that do, she wondered, when they were introduced? The last letter she’d had from him had said that there were problems with producing the first experimental models, although he had gone on to say that the artisans expected to overcome them fairly quickly. Emily knew a great deal of theoretical knowledge, but it had surprised them both to realise that her practical knowledge was very limited. Even when she knew what she was talking about in great detail, it took months of experimentation before they had a working model.

    “And take care of the Princess,” the Grandmaster added. “She is quite important to us.”

    Emily surprised herself by giving the Grandmaster a hug, before turning and following Alassa towards the main entrance. She’d never actually used the entrance hall herself; from what she'd picked up, it was rarely opened except when students were entering or leaving the school at the start and finish of term. Now, it opened out onto a courtyard, where a dozen carriages were waiting for them. Dozens of brightly-clad footmen bowed in unison when they saw Alassa, while armed soldiers raised their spears in salute. There didn't seem to be more than thirty soldiers, which seemed remarkably light until Emily realised that the only people who would risk an all-out attack on the Princess’s escort were the necromancers. Thirty soldiers or three hundred ... they’d just be giving the necromancers more targets.

    One of the carriages was painted gold, shimmering out as the rays of sunlight struck it. The vehicle seemed like something out of a fantasy movie, perhaps one with a genie or fairy godmother who had turned a scullery maid into a princess for the night. Lady Barb nodded to Alassa and pointed them towards a different carriage, one that seemed far simpler than the golden coach. Emily had to smile; Sergeant Harkin had lectured them on the value of concealment and deception in war – and anyone who was targeting the Princess would expect her to be in the golden carriage.

    “Just for us,” Alassa said, as Nightingale started to climb into the carriage. The Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber – whatever that meant – looked rather discomforted, but stepped away from the vehicle. “Emily, make sure you have a book with you.”

    Emily nodded and held up one of the tomes she’d borrowed from the library. Alassa grinned at her and scrambled up into the carriage, without waiting for anyone to set up a proper set of steps. Emily followed her; after the endless obstacle courses the sergeants had put them though, climbing into the carriage was easy. Inside, it was light and airy, charmed to keep them both relatively cool. The glass windows - a sign of great wealth, as glass was hugely expensive – were also charmed, allowing them to see out without letting anyone else see in.

    “I thought you would prefer not to ride with anyone else,” Alassa said. Her face twisted into a grimace. “If you were a man, we would have had a chaperone just to make sure we didn't do anything stupid.”

    She glanced over at the wooden walls as the vehicle shook, before the horses started to pull it out of the courtyard. “Can you check the privacy wards? I don’t trust them to have made the wards airtight.”

    Emily nodded and started to work. Most magicians had a specific affinity for one area of magic and hers, it seemed, was charms. Alassa had finally learned enough to qualify for second-year – mainly because Emily had been tutoring her – but Emily was still much better than her at charms. She studied the charms for a long moment, then scowled and added a further charm of their own. Why did Nightingale – or perhaps Lady Barb – think that they could spy on their Princess?

    “They’d say that it was their job,” Alassa explained. She sounded irked, unsurprisingly. “And Nightingale takes his job very seriously.”

    Emily listened to the explanation, shaking her head in disbelief. She would never have imagined that anyone would appoint a man to supervise their daughter’s bedchamber, but apparently it ran in the family. The Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber held control over appointments within the bedchamber, which provided all sorts of opportunities for patronage, if not outright corruption. Emily could only hope that his duties didn't include watching as the Princess prepared for bed.

    “Each of these people need money,” she said, remembering one of the reasons the French Revolution had destroyed the French Monarchy. “They must be an immense drain on your father’s money.”

    “He grumbles about it every year,” Alassa said. “They all claim a salary, even the Keeper of the Royal Privies, who never comes closer to Alexis than his castle on the edge of the mountains ...”

    Emily stared at her. “You really have a Keeper of the Royal Privies?”

    Alassa giggled. “There’s a position for everything,” she admitted. Her face sobered, suddenly. “Blame it on Bryon the Weak. If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn't be in this mess. But he never could say no to anyone with a title.”
  14. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    Thank You Chris for this wonderful Christmas present. =)
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    Emily had rather mixed feelings about Dragon’s Den. On one hand, it was the closest settlement to Whitehall and a place she could go to visit every month with her classmates. And it was where she and Alassa had first become true friends. On the other hand, the first time she’d visited she’d been kidnapped by a dark magician and the next few times – after Shadye had been defeated – the city fathers had insisted on fawning over her. She’d had to go under a glamour to be sure of not being recognised.

    The city was independent, at least in theory; no monarch ruled in Dragon’s Den. It allowed a greater degree of social mobility than any of the kingdoms, even the most progressive ones. But there were monarchical kingdoms nearby and they could have threatened Dragon’s Den, if necessary. Dragon’s Den would be difficult to take outright – there were a number of sorcerers living within the city, who would certainly lend their weight to the defence – but raiding parties could easily destroy most of the farms surrounding the city. It existed in a rather precarious relationship with its neighbours, which might have been why part of the city turned out to cheer as Alassa’s convoy poured through the streets. Or they might just have been glad of the break from their labours.

    Emily shook her head as the carriage finally pulled clear of the city and headed northwards, up a solid stone road that had been created in the days of the Empire. From what she'd read, part of the infrastructure the Empire had gifted its successor states was rotting away, despite everything the White Council could do to convince the kingdoms to maintain them. Emily couldn't help wondering if the kingdoms were merely trying to save a few gold coins, or if they were worried that the White Council might try to rebuild the Empire. Having the roads to move troops around without needing portals would be very helpful.

    And besides, she thought grimly, the necromancer armies don’t really need roads.

    She turned her attention back to her book, silently cursing the writer for his reluctance to say certain things bluntly. A history book should include at least the bare outline of events, but this one – written by someone who lived in Zangaria – either fawned on the Royal Family, or barely touched on questions that Emily wanted answered. The books written by the History Monks were much more dispassionate, but they couldn't be taken out of the library. And besides, they were banned in most of the kingdoms. Possession of them was an instant jail sentence.

    “This book is stupid,” she exploded, finally. “What was the Glorious Laying of the Stone?”

    “House Alexis had a gem – they called it the Soul Stone – that had been passed down from the time of legends,” Alassa said. “When they became the rulers of Zangaria, they laid the Soul Stone in the foundations of the castle – my birthplace. It’s been there ever since.”

    She shrugged as she saw the book’s title. “That writer fawns even more than Nightingale,” she added, rather sarcastically. “You’ll notice that he skims over Bryon.”

    Emily flicked through a few pages and nodded. Bryon, who had apparently ruled for forty-five years, didn't seem to have done anything of interest. The three pages covering his period as King barely listed anything, beyond a handful of facts and figures. Emily shook her head in disbelief, unsure of just what to read into it. Few kings on Earth had ruled for so long without doing at least something of historical interest, even if it was just surviving on the throne.

    “You called him Bryon the Weak,” she remembered. “What did he actually do?”

    Alassa grinned and assumed a pose that reminded Emily of Professor Locke, their history tutor. “My father insisted that I memorise it all,” she admitted. “Bryon lost control over the noble families. They started raising their own armies of guardsmen, hiring combat sorcerers and other magicians, then they started pushing Byron to allow them to tighten their grip. My father said that he would have made a good scholar, but he was a poor king. He just didn't have the nerve to confront his nobles before it was too late.”

    Emily listened with interest. The medieval kings on Earth had faced similar problems. At worst, the king became first-among-equals, unable to impose his will on his noblemen. It hadn't been until the invention of gunpowder and heavy cannons that a monarch had been able to cow his aristocrats, even though many had maintained a limited form of independence for years. Bryon, it seemed, had disliked confrontation. His aristocrats had taken ruthless advantage of it.

    She looked down at the book. All of a sudden, the silence covering forty-five years of history made much more sense.

    “So,” she said. “What happened?”

    Alassa’s smile widened. “He had a son, Prince Alexis,” she said. “The Prince loved playing with his toy soldiers, so much so that his father gave him a whole regiment of real soldiers to lead out on pretend manoeuvres. No one seemed to realise that the Prince had watched his father’s humiliation and sworn to avenge it, or that he would have the patience to build up an army bit by bit. When he took the throne, the nobles discovered that King Alexis III had a much larger force than any of them – and intended to use it. The three most troublesome noble families were completely exterminated by the King’s forces.”

    Emily checked the next few pages in the book. They told the same story, although they also included editorials that claimed that the three exterminated families had deserved to be wiped out to the last man, woman and child. The writer didn't seem to be bothered by the fact he’d hinted, earlier, that nothing much had happened during Bryon’s reign, leaving the sudden civil war and slaughter a surprising change. Someone who read it without any other knowledge might conclude that the whole problem had appeared in the early months of King Alexis III’s reign.

    “I see,” she said, finally. Reading between the lines, it looked as though there was much more to the story than the writer decided to tell his readers. “And since then ... ?”

    Alassa looked down at her hands. “My father has been trying to keep the Barons in check,” she admitted. “I ... I may not have been very helpful.”

    That, Emily knew, was one hell of an understatement. Even before Void had passed on his warning, she’d deduced that someone had been working to cripple Alassa’s future. If she’d taken the throne before she'd met Emily, she might not have noticed that her power was being eroded away until it was far too late. The nobles might determine who she married, who became King ...

    ... But it would be harder than that, wouldn't it? Whoever married Alassa would share her power, in custom if not in law. And if one of the nobles got into that position, he would leave his former allies behind. No, they’d be much more likely to choose a non-entity for the position, someone who posed no threat to them. They wouldn't want someone from another kingdom, who might bring allies – and armies – to assist his wife.

    You don’t know enough, Emily reminded herself, as she put the book to one side. Figure out the rest first and then make your judgements.

    “Nightingale is a bit of a crawler,” she said, out loud. “Why do you tolerate him?”

    “I didn't select him,” Alassa reminded her. “The post he holds is passed down through his family. It would be difficult to get rid of him unless he was caught committing treason.”

    Emily rolled her eyes. Who would have thought that absolute monarchy would be so difficult?

    But there was no such thing as an absolute monarchy. Even the worst dictators on Earth had been at the top of a pyramid of allies and people who benefited from their rule. Those who failed to manage their inner circle properly tended to run into trouble. And Kings and Queens throughout history had faced the same problem. Charles I of England had tried to rule his country personally. Even with – in theory – absolute power – the result had been a slow slide to disaster. Louis of France hadn't been able to reduce the vast expenditure on the French Court before it had been too late. Those who had won rights – like Nightingale – were jealous of them, protecting them with all the force at their command.

    “Maybe you need to give him the task of keeping the privies,” Emily said. “Can you swap his position for the other one?”

    “The Keeper of the Royal Privies has been passed down from person to person ever since King Alexis I took the throne,” Alassa pointed out. “It couldn't be simply given to someone else.”

    “Particularly as the person holding the title doesn't have to actually do anything,” Emily guessed. At least Nightingale seemed to do something useful, even if it was just assigning the maids and other servants to Alassa’s bedchamber. The Keeper of the Royal Privies presumably didn't actually clean them himself. He might have been more willing to surrender the title if he actually had to do the work. “I think you need a cull.”

    “My father thinks the same,” Alassa admitted. “It's making it happen that is the difficult part.”

    She leaned over and peered out of the window, watching as the farmland slowly turned into forest. Emily had memorised a couple of maps, but mapmaking wasn't very detailed in her new world, apart from a handful she'd seen in Martial Magic. One of the books Sergeant Miles had ordered the class to read had detailed problems with basic maps, including the mapmakers leaving off little details like contour lines and hidden sinkholes. According to the book, at least one military operation had gone badly wrong because the pass shown on the map simply didn't exist.

    “We’ll go hunting in the Royal Woods,” Alassa promised. “You’ve never hunted before?”

    Emily shook her head. Hunting wasn't common where she lived – and besides, she saw little point in chasing harmless creatures with a gun. Jade had talked about his father hunting monsters that had come over the mountains from the Blighted Lands, but those creatures posed a clear and present danger to the civilian population. Rabbits and foxes and whatever else Alassa’s family might hunt weren't that dangerous.

    “You’ll love it,” Alassa assured her. “Besides, you learned how to ride really quickly.”

    Emily nodded, ruefully. Alassa had insisted on teaching her – and Imaiqah – how to ride, at least partly to get others who could ride out with her, now that her cronies had all been scared away. Emily hadn't enjoyed the first few rides, but once she’d mastered the trick of controlling the horse she’d found herself enjoying it. And she’d watched in amazement as Alassa had taken care of her own horse. Clearly, Alassa had managed to learn more than Emily had ever realised, even when she’d been a spoilt brat.

    “Just you wait until you meet Lady Cecelia,” Alassa added. “She is completely horse-mad. Lives on her own, refuses to marry ... spends all of her time in the saddle or in the stable. Even my father doesn't get as much respect from her as she gives to her horses. She was the one who gave me my first pony.”

    She looked down for a long moment. “I wasn't properly grateful,” she admitted. “She swore never to allow me to buy one of her horses until I admitted to her what I’d done wrong.”

    Emily lifted an eyebrow, then realised that Alassa didn't want to talk about it. But Emily could guess; Alassa might not have realised, at first, that the most important part of owning a pony – or a horse – was taking care of the beast. It was easy to imagine the brat Alassa had been refusing to sweep out the stable, or brush the pony’s fur, or whatever else one had to do to take care of a large animal. If Lady Cecelia was as horse-mad as Alassa suggested, she would have been outraged at such mistreatment. And she clearly wouldn't have hesitated to give the young princess a piece of her mind.

    Alassa might envy Emily, if she knew the truth about her origins. No matter what she did in the future, there were people who would already remember the little brat she’d been as a child. She could never escape the shadow of her past. But Emily had left her past behind when Shadye had brought her into this world. Everything she’d done on Earth seemed almost dreamlike to her – and no one else would truly understand it, no matter how she tried to explain.

    She shifted position and watched as the forest grew thicker. The trees were growing closer to the road, she realised, providing no shortage of concealment for bandits who might want to sneak up on the small procession. Sergeant Harkin, in one of his many lectures, had admitted that the borderlands between countries were often lawless, if only because neither country could patrol it without making the other suspect that they intended to launch an invasion. Besides, the poor bastards who actually lived there, he’d added, found themselves visited by tax collectors from both countries. Was it any wonder, Emily had asked herself, that they might turn to raiding?

    The forest vanished suddenly, to be replaced by a wooden fort that seemed to have come out of the Wild West. Emily stared at it, unable to understand why they’d even bothered to build it when a single fire-spell would turn it into an inferno. Some of the fortress designs they’d studied in Martial Magic had been designed to force attacking magicians to waste power, but they’d been composed of stone and warded to make it harder to break them down. The fort was stupid and senseless.

    “Border forts are rarely well-designed, unless they’re at a chokepoint,” Alassa said, when Emily asked her what the fort was designed to do. “They are always the first targets when someone comes storming over the borders, so no one invests much in them. And wood is cheap out here.”

    “That actually makes sense,” Emily said, shaking her head. “How did you know that?”

    Alassa stuck out her tongue. “My father is the King, my Uncle is a Duke and one of my protectors is the Man At Arms,” she said. “I often heard them talking about our borders when I was younger.”

    There was a rap on the door, followed rapidly by the sound of someone trying to open it. The lock clicked and the door opened, allowing Lady Barb to stick her head into the carriage. “We’re staying here long enough to change the horses,” she said. “If either of you want to answer the call of nature, now is the time.”

    Emily made a face. One thing she did miss from Earth were proper toilets. Whitehall did have plumbing, but hardly anywhere else did, particularly out in the wild. She’d lost a great deal of modesty in Martial Magic, yet she didn't particularly want to do her business in front of a horde of strangers.

    “It's a good idea to go,” Alassa said, standing up. “You never know when you might have the chance to go again.”

    Emily sighed and followed her out of the carriage. The fort smelt funny to her, a faint mixture of burnt wood and oil. And horses, dozens of horses. There was a field behind the fort where several dozen horses were kept, ready for the next courier who needed to change animals. Several of them were being led out to replace the ones pulling the carriages; Emily couldn't help, but notice the stirrups the riders were using. That had been her idea, one of the concepts she'd introduced. They’d clearly spread further than she had realised.

    The next part of the journey passed quickly, once they finished at the fort and headed back on to the roads. Emily found herself staring out of the window as the procession passed through a series of small hamlets, each one barely large enough to support more than twenty people. Or maybe there were other houses hidden away in the undergrowth. There was no time to do more than pick up impressions before they were past the hamlet and heading back down an empty road.

    She felt the carriage slow down as they entered a larger town, with massive buildings built out of stone. There was a large crowd cheering them, although Emily had the private suspicion that some of them were there because they hadn't been given any choice. But others seemed more than willing to welcome the Princess of Zangaria and invite her to marry their prince. Emily was still shaking her head as they left the town behind and headed onwards. Did they really think that Alassa would make her choice based on who shouted the loudest?

    “I can't marry the Crown Prince of another kingdom,” Alassa explained, “and Alluvia has too many other princes. If I married one and took him away ...”

    Understanding clicked in Emily’s mind. “It reduces the risk of civil war,” she said. “They’d be glad of that, wouldn't they?”

    “If I had a brother, he would be the heir and I would be the spare,” Alassa said. She looked oddly wistful for a long moment. “If I had two brothers, the younger might try to overthrow the older. And I would be sent off to marry someone to seal a treaty. But I am alone.”

    She looked up as the carriage rattled over a bridge. “But we’re almost at the castle,” she added. “And then we have to get dressed. Before we are formally presented to the King ...”

    They shared a groan. “You’re lucky,” Alassa added. “You won’t have it so bad.”
    kellory, Pezz, srchdawg and 2 others like this.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thank you! BTW, you can download Alone for free from Kindle - please do, and leave a review ;)

  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    Emily sucked in her breath sharply as the carriage rumbled towards Castle Alluvia. It was a massive structure, seemingly larger than Whitehall, perched on a craggy rock that allowed it to dominate the city below. The city itself was much smaller than Dragon’s Den, somehow giving the impression of being compact, as if thousands of people had been jammed into a relatively small space. It had no walls, something that puzzled Emily as the carriage started to head up the street towards the castle. But then, if someone did attack, the population could be herded into the castle or – more likely – told to flee into the countryside and fend for themselves.

    The street was lined by cheering people, who waved at the carriage as the small procession drifted past. Emily had to smile as she realised that most of them grew less enthusiastic once the golden carriage had passed, even though Alassa hadn’t passed yet. But it did prove that the diversion was working and no one knew where the Royal Princess actually was. The wards surrounding the vehicles would make it harder for magic to be used to target her. Emily settled back as the road circled the castle, before finally reaching the gatehouse. She felt a tingle as they passed through an outer set of wards – weaker than Whitehall’s wards – and came to a halt in the courtyard.

    Whitehall was dimensionally transcendent, larger on the inside than on the outside. Castle Alluvia was very definitely not; the courtyard seemed tiny, barely large enough to house Alassa’s vehicles and escorts. Lady Barb rapped on the carriage’s door, inviting them both to climb out of the vehicle. Emily jumped down gracefully, then turned to help Alassa climb down with somewhat more dignity. The Princess looked around with interest, even as everyone from the castle’s staff bowed to her. Emily followed her gaze, unable to escape the impression that Castle Alluvia was crude compared to Whitehall. But then, there was nowhere near as much magic worked into its structure.

    “Your Highness,” Nightingale said. He looked tired, but there was nothing wrong with his outfit, a garish mixture of purple and green. “You must change, and then be presented to the king.”

    Emily rolled her eyes at the little man’s self-importance, although he was right. Protocol dictated that Alassa could not be greeted formally until she was presented to the kingdom’s monarch, which meant that she had to be dressed for the part. Emily had wondered why the king couldn't simply meet them outside the castle, to which Alassa had pointed out that she was the guest and the king couldn’t be seen to come to meet her. And besides, she’d added a moment later, they both smelled pretty rank after hours in the cramped carriage. She didn't want the king’s first impression of her to be that she was smelly.

    Nightingale had evidently been to Castle Alluvia before, for he led them over to a little door set into the stone walls. Inside, it was dark, without even a hint of light. Emily hesitated, but Alassa marched inside as if nothing could stop her. And perhaps it couldn't. Emily looked up at the darkening sky, caught sight of a handful of birds flying around the castle’s towers, and stepped inside. There was a second tingle – the doorway was protected against intruders – and then she was in a small corridor leading into the building.

    Whitehall’s corridors were massive, wide enough to allow several people to walk side-by-side at once. Castle Alluvia had corridors so thin that Emily felt a hint of claustrophobia, illuminated only by burning torches rather than magical lights. It made sense, she knew; anyone who attacked the castle would have to come at the defenders one at a time. Even so, it still felt odd compared to Whitehall. But then, the defenders of this castle didn't have vast amounts of magic to help them.

    And if they were attacked by a necromancer, it wouldn't matter anyway, she thought. Whitehall hadn't been saved by its powerful wards, just Emily ... and knowledge from a very different world.

    If anything, the staircases were even worse. Alassa had to bow her head to avoid striking it on the stone ceiling, while Emily could barely stand upright. It was impossible to escape the feeling that the castle was permanently on the verge of collapse, or that the passageways would become so small that she would find herself trapped there. She bit her lip and followed Alassa, reminding herself that the King of Alluvia wouldn't want to kill or embarrass his distinguished guest.

    “Your rooms, Your Highness,” Nightingale said, as they came out of the stairwell. “The castle’s staff will tend to your needs.”

    “Very good,” Alassa said. She sounded like a Princess, almost like the brat she’d been when Emily had first met her. “You may leave us.”

    Nightingale bowed and left the room, leaving the girls alone. Emily watched him go, closing the door behind him, and then looked around Alassa’s room. It was massive, with a huge four-poster bed at the head of the room, illuminated by a chandelier filled with glowing candles. Emily couldn't help wondering how they managed to light them all, before deciding that it didn't matter. It gave the room an oddly romantic atmosphere.

    There was a smaller bed placed in one corner, although it was still larger than the bed she’d had at Whitehall. It took Emily a moment to realise that they were meant to be sharing the same room, although she wasn't sure why that had surprised her. She’d shared a room at Whitehall with two other students and Alassa had done the same; hell, one of Alassa’s roommates had thanked Emily for helping the royal brat turn into a decent human being.

    “No windows,” Alassa said. They shared a long look. “I’m sick of being in rooms without windows.”

    Emily couldn't help agreeing. Their dorms at Whitehall had no windows either – and they were illuminated by magical lights. But then, no one would want to run the risk of an assassin climbing up the castle walls and getting into the room through a giant window. And besides, the more cynical part of Emily’s mind added, it would be harder for Alassa to leave without the king’s permission.

    She walked over to a door set in one wall and opened it, peering inside to see a wash basin and privy. There didn't seem to be any plumbing, she realised after a moment; there were vast jugs of water waiting for them to wash themselves. Whitehall’s showers had been primitive compared to the ones she remembered from Earth, but Castle Alluvia didn't even seem to understand the concept of plumbing. Void had told her never to drink water that hadn’t been boiled, proving that the locals understood the existence of germs – or was that just sorcerers. Could they drink the water in the castle?

    “Boil it with your magic,” Alassa suggested. There was a sharp knock on the door and the Princess raised her voice. “Come in!”

    The door opened, revealing five young women dressed in simple black robes, with white caps on their heads. Emily remembered vaguely that white caps denoted personal servants in some kingdoms, but there were so many differences between the different kingdoms that made up the Allied Lands that it was impossible to know for sure. In some ways, the Allied Lands worked hard to prove that they were separate kingdoms, although they hadn’t – yet – managed to establish separate languages. The Empire had existed long enough to ensure that everyone spoke the same standard tongue, although it might fade away, given time.

    Four of the maids went down on their knees, facing Alassa; the fifth remained standing, but bowed her head. “Your Highness, we have come to tend to your needs,” she said. “It is High Majesty’s instruction that you present yourself before him.”

    Alassa kept her face expressionless. “Bring up my trunks from the carriage,” she ordered, grandly. “And bring up Emily’s as well.”

    Three of the girls vanished out of the door, presumably to go downstairs and recover the trunks, while the other two advanced on Alassa and started to undress her. Emily stepped to one side, wondering absently how the girls intended to bring up the trunks; it would be very difficult to get them up the claustrophobic stairwells. Magic, perhaps – or maybe there were other, wider stairwells for the servants. Alassa had yet to be welcomed formally by the king.

    The girls returned with the trunks and put them in the centre of the room, then walked out of the door again. Emily opened her trunk and recovered one of the dresses Alassa’s mother had sent her, silently grateful that the Queen hadn't wanted to risk Emily outshining her daughter. The green dress might have been very simple, if expensive by the standards of Zangaria, but it was also easy to put on without needing help. She concealed a smile as the maids pulled Alassa’s clothes off, just as the door opened again and the three maids returned, carrying a large bathtub of scented hot water.

    Alassa threw her a dirty look as the maids started to wash her, as if she couldn't wash for herself. Emily wondered how her friend managed to endure it; she couldn't have tolerated complete strangers stripping her naked and then washing her thoroughly. Shaking her head, she walked around to the other side of the bed and hesitated, unable to decide if she should undress now or wait until the maids were gone. Being naked in front of her roommates had been hard enough, but she didn't even know the maids. Maybe it was that sheer lack of personal relationship that made it easier to accept it.

    But then, Alassa hadn't been raised to think of the lower classes as human.

    “You may use the remaining water,” the head maid said. “It is still warm.”

    Emily wondered just what they’d been told about her; she might not have been an aristocrat, but she was the Necromancer’s Bane. Did the king really want to offend her? It struck Emily, a moment later, that she was thinking like Alassa had thought, back when they’d first met. There was no reason to assume an insult without proof – besides, Alassa was easily more important, socially, than herself. Even if she had beaten a necromancer.

    “Thank you,” she said, and saw the maid’s eyes widen. Did no one thank their servants at Castle Alluvia? Probably not; like Alassa, they would have been brought up to see the servants as part of the furniture. “Can you find me a towel?”

    The water smelled faintly of flowers and herbs, she decided, as she undressed and washed herself. There didn't seem to be any dedicated bathroom; the water splashed on the marble tiles, creating a slipping hazard. Emily wondered if they were just going to leave the puddles there, before realising that the maids would probably come into the room while they were being presented to the king and clean up the mess. She made a mental note to ensure that her trunk was locked before she left the room. No doubt the king would expect his maids to search their possessions if they had a chance.

    After the long journey, it felt good to wash, although she would really have preferred a shower. She found herself considering ways to convince the king to install modern plumbing, before realising that they could have done it long before Emily had been brought into their world. Maybe someone was hoping that the king and his family would rot in the filth of their own living accommodations ... it didn't seem too likely, but it made her smile as she towelled herself down and donned the dress. In the mirror, she looked rather unimpressive, almost waiflike.

    She heard a muttered curse from behind her and turned to see Alassa, still being worked on by the maids. Two of them were working on her hair, propping it up in a manner that made Emily think of Marge Simpson; two more were poking and prodding at her blue-white dress, fanning it out to ensure that no one could do more than hold hands with her. Emily couldn't help noticing that the dress was rather like a wedding garment from Earth and wondered if the symbolism – a virgin bride – held true for Zangaria too. Was Alassa a virgin? It was odd, given how much else they'd shared, they’d never talked about sex. And Alassa hadn't raised the topic when Emily had told her about Jade’s proposal.

    It was nearly an hour before the maids finally pronounced themselves satisfied. Emily had gone from amusement to boredom and had been reading a book, which she returned to the trunk as Alassa stared at herself in the mirror. She did look striking, although Emily had some difficulty understanding how she was meant to go through the corridors without brushing her hair against the ceiling. They met eyes and Alassa winked at her, then dismissed the maids with a wave of her hand.

    “Remember your protocol,” Alassa said, as the door opened again. Nightingale and Lady Barb stepped into the room. The Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber had changed into an outfit that was even more eye-catching than the first; Lady Barb didn't seem to have changed at all. “I bow to the king; you count ten ticks and then curtsey. Then stay on one knee until he gives you leave to rise.”

    Emily nodded. Alassa had told her the same thing for the last ten days before they left Whitehall. She was nervous, Emily knew, fearing that she wouldn't make a good impression. Her prospective husbands might have heard of her reputation and feared to marry her – or, alternatively, they could have thought that a royal brat would be easy to manipulate. It still struck Emily as odd, but a mistake on her part could reflect badly on Alassa.

    “Your Highness,” Nightingale said. “You look wonderfully regal.”

    Alassa nodded imperiously, but said nothing.

    “Come with us,” Lady Barb ordered. She didn't seem very impressed with Alassa’s royal title, or perhaps it was just the company she kept. “His Majesty is waiting for you.”

    Emily stayed one step behind Alassa as they walked out of the second door and into a antechamber that houses two beds. Nightingale and Lady Barb were literally sleeping outside Alassa’s door, Emily realised; absently, she wondered how they tolerated each other. Somehow, she couldn't see them being friends. Outside the antechamber, there were three soldiers on guard duty, two of them wearing the livery Emily had seen on the guards escorting the carriage. The third wore different colours.

    The corridors were wider deeper inside the castle, she saw, as they walked down a massive flight of staircases and stopped outside a pair of giant wooden doors. Alassa gave her a nervous glance, then winked as the doors began to open, revealing the royal court. Hundreds of people were inside the chamber; they turned to look as Alassa strode in, staring at the royal princess. Emily almost quailed before a push from Lady Barb forced her to start walking up the aisle. It was impossible to escape the sense that she was attending her own wedding.

    King Jorlem was a tall, powerfully-built man who was slowly turning to fat. He seemed to be bald, wearing a heavy crown as if it were the lightest thing in the world. Emily couldn't help thinking of Henry VIII, before realising that King Jorlem, at least, had two male heirs. If he had any daughters, none of the genealogical tables Emily had consulted had shown them. But he'd want daughters, wouldn't he? They could make useful alliances, particularly if they couldn't actually inherit on their own.

    Alassa stopped, two meters in front of the throne, and bowed. Emily felt her heartbeat racing faster as she counted ten seconds, then curtseyed. Despite all the practicing Alassa had made her do, she still nearly tripped over herself. A moment later, she went down on one knee, feeling oddly exposed, almost humiliated. King Jorlem wasn't her king. Besides, no one knelt to the President.

    “We welcome you, Crown Princess of Zangaria,” the king said. His voice was thin and reedy, but there was no mistaking the absolute assurance of power behind it. “You are most welcome in Our court.”

    “I think you, in the name of my father,” Alassa said.

    Emily listened as they exchanged ritual platitudes, wondering just how long she was supposed to stay on one knee. No doubt anyone born to this world would be able to stay there as long as necessary, but Emily felt her body going stiff. To distract herself, she looked around as best as she could without moving her head too much, catching sight of a tall handsome youth who was eying Alassa with an unreadable expression. The Crown Prince, Emily decided. He wouldn't be able to marry Alassa. Beside him, his brother looked faintly bored by the whole affair.

    One man, wearing long black robes with golden stars, was staring at her. Emily looked back at him, sensing magic spinning around his form; he had to be the Court Wizard. He would have heard of her and, like so many others, wondered just what she’d done to defeat Shadye without embracing necromancy herself. She felt his magic field touching hers lightly and stiffened, unsure of quite what he was trying to do. Read her mind? She tightened her defences anyway, deliberately looking back at the king. After a moment, the intrusion faded away and disappeared.

    “And so you are welcome,” King Jorlem concluded. He glanced briefly at Emily, a flash of curiosity in his eyes. “You may rise.”

    Emily stood up.

    “We shall now proceed to the Great Hall for the welcome feast,” the King added. His face twisted into a grin. “We shall show you proper hospitality.”

    He stood up and took Alassa’s hand, as if he were her true father. Emily watched as he led her towards another set of doors, then started to follow them. The rest of the court followed in their wake.
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  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    The protocol officers didn't seem to know what to make of Emily. On one hand, the official story explaining her origins placed her firmly in the servant class, suggesting that she should be eating with the other servants in the kitchen. On the other hand, the widely-held belief that she was in fact Void’s bastard daughter suggested that they didn't want to risk offending an extremely powerful sorcerer by giving his daughter less than full honours. And she was not only Alassa’s close personal friend – and quite wealthy in her own right - but she was also the student who had defeated a necromancer in a duel. Who knew what she would be capable of when she grew up?

    In the end, they’d put her at the High Table, sitting next to the Crown Prince. Lady Barb and Nightingale had been given seats at a lower table; Lady Barb didn't seem to mind, but Nightingale looked furious. He’d been effectively demoted by King Jorlem, Emily realised, after some thought. Seating was based on social class and the mere presence of a handful of guests upset all of the arrangements. It struck Emily as rather silly, although she had a feeling that it served a useful purpose. She just didn't know what it could be.

    “I often thought that I would like to go to Whitehall,” Crown Prince Dater said. He seemed less inclined to take protocol seriously than the junior aristocrats; besides, he could talk to Emily without committing himself to anything. “But I had to stay home and learn how to rule.”

    Emily found herself liking the Crown Prince, even though she had the feeling that he was a skilled dissembler. The Allied Lands had quite a few cases of young heirs deciding that it was time to take the throne by assassinating their fathers – and, for that matter, fathers killing sons because they feared their ambitions. All of them were partly covered up in the official records, although the History Monks had recorded the truth. No wonder their books were banned in most of the kingdoms.

    “It was Hedrick who had the magical inclination,” Dater added, a moment later. “And he is courting your Princess.”

    Emily glanced over at where Alassa was sitting, between King Jorlem and Prince Hedrick. Hedrick was handsome enough, in a bland sort of way, but the bored expression on his face didn't bode well for any future romance. He could at least pretend to be interested in Alassa. His father, on the other hand, was bombarding her with questions, some of them clearly about Emily. Alassa didn't seem to be uncomfortable talking about her friend. It probably served as a distraction from having to talk about herself.

    Hedrick had magic? Emily hadn't sensed anything from him, but then he might not be powerful enough for it to register – or powerful and disciplined enough to conceal his power. He didn't seem to be carrying a wand, a sure sign of poorly-developed talent, but he was wearing a sword ... though that might have been protocol. Apart from King Jorlem and his children, none of the aristocrats carried weapons. The king could have ordered them all cut down in a moment.

    She glanced at some of the aristocrats, noting that some of them were staring at her, probably wondering just what made her so special. How many of them had magic? The various noble bloodlines worked hard to develop their magical talents, even to the point of inviting commoners like Imaiqah – and Emily herself, she acknowledged with an internal scowl – to contribute genes. Absently, she wondered just how many of those unions bore the required fruit. Nothing she’d read in the library had suggested much understanding of genetics; there had certainly been no mention of anything reassembling DNA.

    “Hedrick talked about becoming my Court Wizard, but father wants him to marry someone outside the kingdom,” Dater continued. He sounded almost wistful. “Hedrick himself doesn't seem to care very much.”

    He glanced at his father, who was still chatting to Alassa, and then back at Emily. “So ... what really happened at Whitehall?”

    Emily flushed. “I beat Shadye,” she said, simply. “And it isn't something I can talk about.”

    “I am a Crown Prince,” Dater said. “You can tell me?”

    “I can't,” Emily said, shaking her head. “We have to keep the necromancers guessing.”

    Dater gave her a sharp look. He’d grown up in a shark tank, to all intents and purposes, and had to learn how to play the great game of intrigue – as Alassa had called it – very young. If something was being kept a secret, it implied that there was a strong motive to keep it a secret – and the mere act of deciding what had to be kept secret often implied the motive. It would be easy for someone to draw the conclusion that Emily was ashamed of what she had done, or knew that it would be an instant death sentence if word got out. And that suggested necromancy.

    No one seemed to believe that necromancers could conceal their true nature for very long. The mere act of sucking so much mana and life energy through their brains and into their wards unhinged them. A necromancer could easily vaporise someone who looked at him the wrong way, secure in the conviction that the act wouldn't give him away. His warped mind wouldn't see anything wrong with that at all. By that standard, Emily had shown no signs of necromancy.

    But people would always wonder ...

    “Maybe the Grandmaster came up with something,” Dater prodded. “Or maybe he did something careless and died because of it.”

    “Maybe,” Emily agreed.

    She looked up as the servants brought in the first part of the meal. Hundreds of rabbits had been killed and cooked by the kitchen staff, before being carried upstairs and placed in front of the diners. Emily had known, intellectually, that meat didn't come out of nowhere, but she’d never truly grasped it until she’d seen the Sergeants cooking animals they’d caught to feed their students. Now, it was almost commonplace to see whole animals. But they were rabbits ...

    And there are people who eat snails, she reminded herself, tartly. And cats, and dogs, and insects.

    “This is just the beginning,” Dater warned her, as the servants placed a slice of meat on her plate. “There will be much more to come.”

    Emily worked a charm Sergeant Miles had taught her to make sure that the food was actually safe to eat. She'd had several bouts of queasiness when eating the food at Whitehall, even though most of it was cooked properly. And then there had been the dinner Cat had cooked for them in Martial Magic, which had left the entire team throwing up. The Sergeants had laughed at them afterwards. They’d been warned to make sure that the meat was cooked properly. Thankfully, the charm revealed that the food was safe.

    Dater chatted to her about nothing in particular as the servants brought course after course, almost all roasted or stewed meat. There were only a handful of vegetable dishes and slices of bread to go with the meat, as well as large flagons of wine and mead. Emily took a sniff of a drink Dater called Golden Mead – apparently imported from another continent at great expense – and decided that it probably wasn't safe to drink. The last thing she wanted to do was to get drunk and babble all of her secrets to listening ears.

    “I had to calm down the Counting Guild after the new numbers reached the kingdom,” Dater said. “They were insisting that they be completely banned. My father trusted me to come to an arrangement with them. And then the abacus made it impossible. We ended up having to disband the guild.”

    Emily felt a shock running through her chest. The new numbers had been her fault, one of the simplest innovations she’d suggested to Imaiqah’s father. Arabic numerals were so much easier to use than symbols that made Latin numerals look simple and easy. And then there had been double-entry bookkeeping, which made it much easier for shopkeepers to do their own accounts, and the abacus. The Accounting Guild of Zangaria had been crippled, then ruined, by the innovations. They’d exploited too many people to survive the crash when they’d lost their monopoly.

    Dater’s face was unreadable. Did he know that Emily had been the one who had ‘invented’ the new numbers? Alassa had deduced it, but Alassa had access to some inside knowledge, knowledge that Dater might well have missed. Not, in the end, that it mattered. The first abacuses had been very basic, designed from Emily’s memories. Now, there was a sixth generation design out there and hundreds of craftsmen were competing to come up with the seventh.

    “I'm sorry about that,” she said, sincerely. She’d theorised that there would be more work for accountants than ever – and there probably would be, once the first true corporations were established on this world. But the guild in Zangaria had made too many enemies to survive in its current form. She assumed that was true of the other guilds too. “But they could get work on the printing presses.”

    Dater’s face flickered, unpleasantly. The first printing press hadn't worked too well – it had been laughable compared to one Emily recalled from school, let alone a laser printer – but the craftsmen had picked up on the idea and run with it. Now, there was a very basic system for producing paper, which would eventually lead to the mass production of books. Previously, the only way to copy a text had been to do it by hand. Now, hundreds of copies could be produced very quickly. It would be a long time before the process was mature – the craftsmen were still making improvements – but it had already started to have an impact on society.

    It would continue to snowball, Emily knew. The Empire’s script, which looked like a cross between Arabic and Chinese, was almost impossible to learn properly unless one started very young. Even the basic script needed years of training to master; Imaiqah had been lucky that her father had been able to afford a tutor for her. And Alassa had never been a very good student, at least before she'd met Emily. But English letters were so much easier to learn and master that they were spreading like wildfire. The Scribes Guild had not been amused.

    “You’re supposed to be a Child of Destiny,” Dater pointed out. “Do you know where this is taking us?”

    Emily hesitated, then decided to be blunt. “I think it will make you stronger, in the long run,” she said. “What good is a newborn baby?”

    Dater’s lips twitched. “I have yet to marry myself,” he admitted. “My father is still in the process of selecting a bride for me.”

    “Oh,” Emily said. She’d focused on girls being pushed – or forced – into marriage, but it should have occurred to her that boys would face the same pressure to marry. But then, boys had more social freedom than girls, unless the girls happened to be sorceresses. “Do you have any say in it at all?”

    “My father said that I could lie with her until she had a couple of boy-children, then give her a tower somewhere if she didn't please me,” Dater said. “But I hope it is someone I will be able to talk to. It’s hard to talk to anyone when you’re the Crown Prince. Even Hedrick doesn’t really understand.”

    Emily nodded. “People keep telling you what they think you want to hear,” she said, remembering Alassa’s cronies. “Or they tell you what they want you to hear.”

    “That is indeed the problem,” Dater said. “Do you know that, as Crown Prince, I am called upon to investigate murders in the city? I was inundated with suspects even before I had looked at the corpse.”

    You investigate murders?” Emily asked, in disbelief. Somehow, she couldn't quite imagine the sober Crown Prince walking around in a deerstalker and carrying a magnifying glass. “Why you?”

    “The only person senior to me is my father,” Dater reminded her. “No one can refuse to talk to me.”

    It made a certain kind of sense, Emily decided, reluctantly. A nobleman would hardly agree to talk to a common-born investigator, or even a fellow nobleman. But the Crown Prince, the acknowledged Heir, could ask questions without forcing the nobleman to lose face in front of anyone else. And besides, it was probably good publicity for the royal family, particularly if nobles were involved in the crime.

    Or maybe not. “What happens if the murderer comes from a noble family?”

    Dater had the grace to look embarrassed. “That depends on who he murdered,” he admitted. “If it was a common-born whore ...”

    A trumpet blared before he could finish. King Jorlem stood up, waited for silence and then spoke out loud. “My son, Prince Hedrick, Duke of Harmonious Repose, Lord of the Middle Realm, will be accompanying the Princess Alassa on her journey back to Zangaria, where he will make his suit in front of her family,” he said. “Should he succeed in winning her hand, we will enjoy a close alliance with a northern land, an alliance that is in both of our interests. I call on you all to praise the gods and ask them to shine their light upon the couple.”

    There was a brief outbreak of cheering. Alassa’s face was unreadable, but Emily could see the tension in the way she held herself. King Jorlem had talked as though it was already a done deal, as if all that had to be done was the mere formality of asking her parents to bless the match. Had Alassa given him that impression, or was he merely trying to push her into accepting Prince Hedrick as a partner?

    Maybe I should send a message back to Whitehall and ask for the Prince’s records, Emily thought. The Grandmaster might think carefully on the political implications before sending them, but Lady Aylia wouldn't hesitate, if Emily phased the request carefully. She believed that information wanted to be free. See just what he got in his exams before he graduated.

    He was at least five years older than Alassa – more likely six, Emily realised – but that wouldn't seem to be a problem to their eyes. Age wasn't such an issue when dealing with princes; it only seemed to matter seriously when princesses were concerned. It made sense – a princess who had passed the menopause simply couldn't have any more children – but it still made Emily shudder in disgust. Did they view every princess as a brood cow? Or, for that matter, princes as stud bulls.

    But he looked ... bored.

    Was he homosexual? Emily wondered. Admittedly, Alassa wasn't wearing one of the dresses that exposed most of her breasts to public view, but she would have expected a young man to show more interest in the beautiful princess. Or maybe he was simply very good at concealing his true feelings, just like his brother. And if he was homosexual ...? James of Scotland – later James I of the United Kingdom – had been homosexual and it hadn’t stopped him from siring three children. That said, his kingdom might have regretted his second son taking the throne as Charles I.

    “As the Princess must continue her journey to her kingdom tomorrow, we shall celebrate her arrival tonight,” the king continued. “Let the revels begin!”

    The noblemen stood up as a flock of servants arrived and started pulling the tables aside, while a set of minstrels started to play in the far corner. Prince Hedrick stood up, after his father had shot him a sharp glance, and held out a hand to Alassa. Emily had to smile inwardly as Alassa stood up, took the Prince’s hand and allowed him to lead her down to the dance floor. Unlike in Whitehall, she realised, there was an order to the dances that allowed the various unmarried noblemen to switch between potential wives. Hedrick, on the other hand, seemed to be stuck with Alassa.

    A surprising amount of noblewomen seemed to surround the king as soon as he stepped down from the High Table. Dater leaned over and explained that ever since their mother had died, the king had been taking solace by dancing with as many noblewomen as possible. If it had gone further than dancing ... no one seemed to know. Or care; a brief period as the king’s mistress could set a woman up for life, or even bring honour to her family. Emily rolled her eyes and sat back, watching the dancing.

    The first dance finished, allowing a balladeer to start singing a ballad. Emily winced inwardly, wondering if she could get away with making herself invisible or simply running out the door, as she recognised the song as one of the ballads about her. At least it wasn't one of the truly crude ones. She'd promised herself that if she ever got her hands on the person who had written a raunchy song implying that she’d used forbidden sex magic to beat Shadye, she’d do a great deal worse than turning him into a slug.

    “He doesn't sing very well,” Emily muttered, when the ballad had finally finished. “Why do you keep him?”

    “Father likes his old war songs,” Dater admitted. He held out a hand and stood up. “Would you care to join me on the dance floor?”

    The honest answer to that was no, but there was a desperation in his eyes that made Emily relent. Of course; if he danced with someone, courtly whispers would have them engaged by the end of the day. And if he happened to compromise himself in any way, it might prove disastrous to the monarchy. At least he had real power to console himself for having to adhere to protocol as closely as possible.

    But he could dance with Emily without upsetting anyone.

    She was very tired by the time the ball finally came to an end.
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    “What a ... boring little tit,” Alassa said, as soon as the maids had been chased out and the door firmly closed. “I cannot understand why his father was so sure Hedrick would make a good match for me.”

    “He knows magic,” Emily pointed out. “And he’s the only spare they have.”

    “I’d have to put up with him for years,” Alassa protested. “He didn't even stare at my chest!”

    Emily blinked as she started to undress. “You want him staring at your chest?”

    “It would have been a kind of interest,” Alassa said. “Instead, I didn't have the impression he cared about me or marriage at all. No liking for me, no liking for the power of being my consort ... not even any thoughts of how his marriage could help his kingdom.”

    She rolled her eyes. “I hope that the next one is better,” she added. “Because I am not marrying Hedrick!”

    “Tell your parents,” Emily said. “Coming to think of it, how can we send a message back to Whitehall?”

    Alassa frowned as she started to undo her dress. The maids had been distressed when Alassa had ordered them to leave without undressing her, but Alassa had been insistent. Besides, getting out of the dress was a great deal easier than putting it on. And she wasn't expected to wear it again for months, if at all. The sheer scale of waste was appalling, Emily had decided. Even by the standards of a royal family, the dresses weren't cheap.

    “If you don’t mind it being read, you can use the communications sorcerer,” Alassa said, finally. “Lady Barb will have used him to inform my parents that we arrived here safely. But if you do want to keep the contents to yourself, you’ll have to send it via courier in a sealed envelope. The Allied Lands work hard to keep their couriers safe from interference.”

    Emily nodded, sourly. “Do I have to go down to the city to hire one?”

    Alassa snorted. “You’re in a Royal Castle,” she said, dryly. “Just call one tomorrow, once you’ve written the message. One will come.”

    She finished undressing and walked over to the mirror. Her skin showed no trace of the stresses of the journey, or the dancing they’d done for hours after dinner. Emily almost envied her, even though she could hear the tiredness in her friend’s voice. Her body showed too many signs of stress, even after months of heavy exercise in Martial Magic. At least she didn't ache so badly these days.

    “We have to be away early tomorrow,” Alassa said. “We can’t show too much interest in one place, or other suitors will start wondering if we’ve made arrangements with King Jorlem.”

    Emily finished pulling off her dress and underclothes, then walked over to the trunk and retrieved her nightgown. Alassa might feel comfortable sleeping without anything covering her, but Emily had never been able to sleep naked. On Earth, she had sometimes worried about her stepfather coming into the room, particularly when he’d been drunk. And in Whitehall, she’d never had a room of her own. She had always shared with two other girls.

    “Good night,” she said, shaking her head at Alassa’s massive bed. It looked easily large enough to hold seven people without them having to be very friendly. “How do we turn off the candles?”

    “You don’t,” Alassa said. “I can draw the curtains around the bed, but ...”

    She scowled. “I shall have words with Nightingale,” she added. “You have to sleep in the light.”

    Emily shaped a spell in her mind and then cast it towards the candles. Darkness was a simple spell with a number of military applications. It created a zone of absolute darkness that was nearly impossible to see through without powerful magic, or spells attuned to the original spell. The user could easily sneak up on someone before they managed to dispel the darkness, or use it as cover for an escape.

    She swore out loud as she realised her mistake. With the candles shrouded, the entire room had plunged into darkness. Alassa tittered as Emily generated a simple light globe and found her way to her bed, climbing in and pulling the sheets up to cover her body. The bed might have looked crude, but it was comfortable. Although, she had to admit, after sleeping on the hard ground more than once, anything would have felt comfortable.

    “Good night,” Alassa said. “Lady Barb will wake us in the morning.”

    Emily closed her eyes and ...

    She snapped awake, her eyes springing open and peering into the darkness. Something was wrong. She couldn't say what had woken her, except perhaps the training and experience the Sergeants had hammered into her head. One of their many tests had been to have someone sneak up on the pupils while they were sleeping, ready to perform a nasty trick that would teach them not to fall asleep in hostile territory – or at least to set wards and other traps to ensure that sneaking up on them wasn't easy. Emily still remembered the humiliation of waking up to discover that she – and the other Redshirts – had been tied up and rendered completely helpless. Someone with bad intentions could have easily slit their throats while they were sleeping.

    For a long moment, she heard nothing, apart from a faint snoring from Alassa. They had never shared a room together before, but Aloha snored and Emily had eventually grown used to sleeping though it. And then she’d learned how to cast silencing charms that had made the whole matter irrelevant, leaving her to wonder why she hadn't thought of it earlier. Emily listened, carefully, unsure of what had awoken her. And then she heard the very light tread of someone trying hard not to make a sound.

    The Sergeants had taught her how to listen to her surroundings. She’d been blindfolded while the other trainees tried to sneak up on her. One of them – Jade, she recalled – had the bright idea of tossing a shoe over her head to create a distraction, for which he had received a pat on the back from Sergeant Miles. Now, though, she held herself still as she listened, trying to pick out the sounds of individual people. Someone was in the room.

    One person, she decided, after a long moment. There only seemed to be one person in the room, apart from herself and Alassa. And it probably wasn't Alassa or one of her escorts; surely, not even Nightingale would come into the princess’s room while she was sleeping. Besides, he would probably have announced himself, rather than sneaking in ... unless he wanted to peek at a sleeping beauty. Emily pushed the thought aside savagely as she strained her ears for other clues. Nightingale would have to be insane to try to sneak up on a sorceress-in-training.

    Emily braced herself, recalling what she could of the room’s layout. The trunks were at the far end of Alassa’s bed; they hadn't had time to push them to one side. Her own bed was in one corner ... maybe she could roll out of bed without being heard. But then, if someone was trying to sneak in, they’d be listening carefully for signs of trouble. Emily peered into the darkness, wondering if she dared use one of the spells Sergeant Miles had taught her. She could see in the darkness like a cat, if she used the spell, but it would also reveal that she was awake. If, of course, the intruder was sensitive to magic ...

    Maybe it’s the prince, hoping for a more intimate meeting, Emily thought, then dismissed it with a shrug. Hedrick hadn't shown the imagination necessary to be a royal brat, let alone a royal would-be rapist. And Alassa wouldn't have led him on like that. Could it be the other prince? Some instinct told her that it was unlikely, although she wasn’t sure why. Too many of the lessons the Sergeants had taught her provided information without her really knowing why she knew something.

    But she had to do something. Carefully, she concentrated on the spell that had plunged the room into darkness. It was still there, still drawing on her mana; it needed so little power that she could have maintained it all night without feeling the drain. Closing her eyes, Emily reached out towards the spell and cut off the mana. It faded away rapidly, allowing the candles to shine out and illuminate the room. They weren't particularly bright, not compared to a magical light, but anyone who was used to the darkness would think that they had suddenly stared into the sun. Emily heard a curse in a feminine voice and opened her own eyes, using one hand to shield herself. One of the maids stood at the far end of Alassa’s bed, holding a stone wand in one hand.

    Emily threw a freeze spell, as she had been trained to do in Martial Magic. The maid lifted the wand and deflected it, somehow. Emily blinked in surprise, before realising that someone had loaded the wand with spells and charged it with mana, allowing her to use magic without actually having the gift. Or maybe she was just a very poor magician. Her expression seemed curiously dull for someone who had been trying to break into a princess’s room.

    And then she plucked a knife off her belt and threw it at Emily.

    Emily ducked, silently thanking the Sergeants for their training. Most magicians relied on their magic, they’d warned, which left them vulnerable when their magic failed them. The knife struck the wall in a shower of bright red sparks, drawing Emily’s attention to the blade. It was stone, with a number of runes cut into the hilt, runes that helped to channel mana and life force. A necromancer? But why would a necromancer use a wand?

    Scream, you idiot, she told herself. The Sergeants had also told her that if an attack was about to take place, the person standing watch should make a loud noise. How the hell had she forgotten that? She bellowed “INTRUDER” as loudly as she could, while launching a second spell at the maid. The maid deflected it with her wand, just as Alassa poked her head out of the curtains. Emily took advantage of the sudden distraction to fire off a binding spell and watched the maid crumple to the ground, ropes appearing from nowhere and tying her up. It was a far more complex spell than the freeze jinks, Sergeant Miles had explained, but it was also far harder to deflect. The wand clattered to the floor as the maid let go of it, then she hit the ground herself.

    The door burst open, revealing Lady Barb. She was carrying a glowing sword in one hand, while deadly balefire crackled around the other. And she was wearing full uniform ... had she even slept? Part of Emily’s mind wondered just what she’d been doing while a maid crept into Alassa’s room – but then, the maid had been good at sneaking around. Who knew what other passageways there might be into the guest quarters?

    “Get away from her,” Lady Barb snapped. “Who is she?”

    “She’s an assassin,” Emily snapped back, ignoring the instruction. The maid was staring up at her with wide frightened eyes, her breathing suddenly ragged and uneven. Emily couldn't tell if she was panicking or if she’d taken poison. There was no way to know. “And I don't know who she is!”

    Lady Barb muttered a spell and the maid’s robe disintegrated, revealing a small belt of knives and a couple of artefacts Emily didn't recognise. “Cursed,” Lady Barb muttered, as she removed the knives without touching the blades. “And very dangerous.”

    “By the gods,” Nightingale’s voice said. “Is Her Highness safe?”

    Alassa drew herself up, crossing her arms under her bare breasts, and glared at him. “Her Highness is safe,” she snapped. “And Her Highness wishes you to get out of here. Now.”

    Nightingale hesitated, as if he were on the verge of protesting, and then walked out of the room. Outside, Emily could hear frantic demands for information from the other guards, all of whom had been bypassed. Heads would be rolling, Emily realised, and King Randor might make sure that it happened literally. If Alassa had been assassinated, the succession crisis would take place at once.

    “Stay on the bed,” Lady Barb ordered Alassa. She looked over at Emily. “Do you recognise the runes on the blades?”

    Emily had to fight to keep herself from looking away. “No,” she said, finally. “I’ve never studied runes properly.”

    A cursed blade would be lethal, even if the target was only scratched. Given time, an ingenious enchanter could produce one that would be lethal only to a single specific victim. Or the reverse, ensuring that the blade could never be turned against its owner. She’d barely studied enchanting weapons, but from what the Sergeants had said she knew that some killed instantly while others inflicted a nasty curse on their target.

    “Necromantic runes,” Lady Barb said. “Why were they on her blade?”

    Emily stood up, walked back to her bed and looked down on the knife that had been flung at her. It was stone, just like the knife Shadye had pressed into her hand six months ago, but it felt different. Shadye’s knife had been drenched in the blood of the innocent – and Sergeant Harkin, who had insisted that Emily kill him, knowing that his lack of magic would give Shadye an unpleasant shock. This knife ... was just a knife.

    “It isn't a necromantic blade,” she said. Absently, she ran a pair of testing charms over the knife, finding nothing. Of course, the Sergeants had also warned her that some cursed items were very good at concealing their true nature. “ It doesn't have the feel of one of their knives.”

    She cursed her own mistake a moment later. With so few details of what had actually happened at Whitehall confirmed – and with countless rumours spreading across the Allied Lands – she had just given Lady Barb another reason not to trust her. Picking up a pillow, she used it to pick up the blade and carry it over to where Lady Barb had put the other weapons, then looked at the maid. She was shaking with fear.

    “She wasn't a magician,” Emily added.

    “So it would seem,” Lady Barb agreed. She picked up the girl’s wand and examined it. “A very basic weapon, charged with mana – not a tool for more complex spellwork. I wonder who created it.”

    Alassa and Emily exchanged glances, then Alassa spoke what they were both thinking. “Hedrick?”

    “He doesn't benefit at all from your death, Your Highness,” Lady Barb pointed out. “At best, he loses his chance to be King of Zangaria. At worst, he gets blamed for your murder and his father hands him over to your father in chains. It’s hard to see who does benefit from your death.”

    She reached out, grabbed the maid by the shoulders and pulled her to her feet. “Tell me,” she said, staring into the maid’s eyes, “why did you try to kill the princess?”

    The maid staggered, then sagged in Lady Barb’s hands. “She’s fainted,” Lady Barb observed, with a hint of disgust. “I’d better go talk to His Majesty. Someone will have to tell him what happened before he gets it from the rumours that will already be fanning around.”

    Alassa nodded, although Emily could tell that she was worried. She'd been injured before – Emily had almost killed her on their second meeting, although it had been an accident – but facing assassins in the darkness was different. And the assassin had been one of the servants, the men and women who were beneath her notice. Who else might intend to pick up a knife and bury it in Alassa’s back?

    “I want you to ward all the doors,” Lady Barb ordered Emily. “And then do not come out until I call you. Whoever else tries to get in, don’t let them. And feel free to use lethal force if they prove too insistent.”

    “Understood,” Emily said. She scowled as a thought struck her. “Why didn't you ward the doors yourself?”

    “It is insulting to King Jorlem to suggest that we don’t trust him,” Lady Barb admitted. Her face twisted into a bitter sneer. “I think we’re past that, right now.”

    She threw the bound maid over her shoulder, used a spell to pick up the knives and the wand, then headed for the door. “Remember what I said,” she added. “No one gets in until I call you.”

    Emily watched her close the door, then started to ward it. Warding a room from the inside was simple, but it could also be dangerous when the magician wasn't keyed into the overall protective wards. It was quite possible that the Court Wizard would complain loudly – but, as Lady Barb had pointed out, they were beyond caring. And it was also possible that the Court Wizard had a hand in the whole affair. Just because neither Emily nor Lady Barb had been able to think of a motive didn't mean that someone else couldn’t ...

    And if they had managed to blame it on the necromancers ...?

    “Can you sleep here?” Alassa asked. Her perfect face looked worried, almost scared. She'd known that she was a potential target from birth, but it hadn't been until meeting Emily that she’d really come to believe it. “The bed is big enough for both of us.”

    Emily hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Just let me finish doing the wards first,” she said. “You go to sleep. I’ll join you in a moment.”

    “If I can sleep,” Alassa admitted. “I ... why did she want me dead?”

    “I wish I knew,” Emily said. She finished the wards and straightened up. Sharing a bed was something she had never done, but Alassa needed it. “We’ll find out tomorrow.”
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  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    Lady Barb had let them sleep in, Emily was surprised to realise, when she was finally woken by the sound of banging on the door. Rolling out of bed, Emily shaped a spell in her mind as she padded over to the door, cancelled the ward and opened it. Lady Barb stood there, looking rather tired. Emily guessed that she hadn’t slept at all since the assassin had been caught.

    “Get washed and dressed – travelling clothes,” Lady Barb ordered. Two maids stood behind her, carrying another massive tub of warm water. “Then we have to speak to His Majesty.”

    Emily nodded, then looked at the maids. “Are they ... safe?”

    “We searched them,” Lady Barb said, “but keep an eye on them anyway.”

    The maids stepped into the room and put the tub down on the floor. Lady Barb followed them and assumed a watchful pose, leaning against one wall. Emily scowled as she realised that that they were going to have even less privacy that she’d thought, then turned and walked back to the bed. Alassa was waking up slowly, one hand on her dagger.

    “Time to get up,” Emily said. She looked over at Lady Barb. “Is there any chance of a large mug of Kava?”

    “Downstairs,” Lady Barb said. “If you are not rested, you can sleep in the carriage.”

    Emily didn't feel very rested – but then, drifting off to sleep after the maid had been captured had been difficult. The wards she’d constructed around the room weren't very strong, certainly not strong enough to stand up to a combat sorcerer for more than a few minutes. On the other hand, if someone had tried to break them down, she would have been alerted before it was too late. Sleeping in the rocking carriage suddenly seemed like a very good idea.

    She tried to ignore the maids as she washed, then dressed herself in travelling clothes. Alassa did the same, waving away their attempts to help her. Emily had to smile as Alassa used a very basic spell to keep her hair under control, even though neither of them had been able to get the spell to remain in place permanently. A maid who was close enough to brush Alassa’s hair was also close enough to cut her throat.

    Lady Barb inspected them both quickly, then led the way out of the room. Outside, the guards were on the alert, clutching weapons as they eyed their local counterparts suspiciously. Emily wasn't very reassured; the maid had slipped past them without being noticed, which should have been impossible. But Sergeant Miles had taught her that someone with magic could sneak past anyone without magic, as long as they were careful and didn’t make silly mistakes. And if the necromancers really were involved, the guards would last about as long as a snowflake in hell.

    “The castle is on alert,” Lady Barb muttered, as they walked down a corridor. Guards were everywhere, although Emily had a feeling that there were so many guards that someone with bad intentions could probably sneak through in the confusion. “And King Jorlem is very unhappy at what almost happened to you.”

    Emily had expected to return to the Grand Hall, but instead Lady Barb led them into a smaller chamber, barely larger than their room. King Jorlem and his younger sat at a long table; they stood up as Alassa entered the room. The King looked tired, but grimly determined; Prince Hedrick, Alassa’s prospective husband, didn't seem to care that Alassa had almost been assassinated. Crown Prince Dater was nowhere to be seen.

    “Please, be seated,” King Jorlem said. “I will have food brought in for you.”

    “Thank you,” Alassa said, as she took the seat facing King Jorlem. “Right now, we need Kava more than anything else.”

    “It will be provided,” King Jorlem assured her. “And I deeply regret what happened last night.”

    Emily leaned forward. “Do you know why she did it?”

    “The Court Wizard is examining her now,” the King said. If he was annoyed at Emily asking him a question, he said nothing. “Hopefully, we should have answers before you depart.”

    Emily concealed a flash of bitter amusement as the maids put steaming mugs of Kava in front of them. It was impossible to escape the feeling that King Jorlem wanted them out of his castle, which made sense if he believed that the necromancers were involved. Whitehall hadn’t been able to keep Shadye out for long – certainly not with his secret weapon in the castle itself – and Castle Alluvia’s defences were flimsy in comparison. A necromancer would knock down the walls and smash the castle flat.

    But then, she asked herself, why would they try to assassinate Alassa when they could just take out the entire castle?

    Necromancers were insane. Everyone knew that – but Emily knew that they could also be surprisingly rational. Or, for that matter, delay their pleasures long enough to allow all the pieces to fall into place. And yet she found it hard to understand why a necromancer would use a maid to assassinate Alassa. Unless they wanted King Jorlem blamed for the attack ... but that seemed rather subtle for a necromancer. She rubbed the side of her head, cursing the tiredness under her breath. Maybe it would make more sense when she felt better.

    She sipped her Kava as the servants returned, bringing large platters of meat, eggs and bread. Once, just looking at the meal would have made her feel sick; now, thankfully, she could eat it – and be grateful for a high-energy breakfast. There were almost no fatties in Whitehall; magic was demanding, even of those who didn't take plenty of physical exercise along with their magic studies. The food and drink made her feel a little better, although the necromantic plot – if it was a necromantic plot – didn't make any more sense. But then, looking for sense in an insane mind was probably a waste of time.

    Prince Hedrick still didn't seem to show any real reaction to Alassa – or anyone else, for that matter. He just sat there languidly, seemingly unwilling to do anything. Emily watched him eat with a dainty caution that seemed almost the exact opposite of his elder brother, wondering just what was going through his mind. If he had graduated from Whitehall, he couldn't be stupid – or touched in the head, as the locals said. Stupid magicians lasted about as long as it took them to mess up a spell and blow themselves to bits.

    The food wasn't quite as good as the meals at Whitehall, she decided, as she finished her meal and pushed the plate to one side. On the other hand, she had a feeling that they would be grateful for it; there hadn’t really been any lunch yesterday, not even combat rations. She had realised that nobles considered sandwiches to be commoner food during her first month at Whitehall, but it seemed odd that they would starve themselves deliberately while travelling.

    She looked up as the door opened, revealing Crown Prince Dater and the Court Wizard. They were followed by five other men in military tunics, two of them clearly magicians even though they weren't wearing robes or carrying staffs. Emily frowned inwardly as she saw one of them looking at her, then looking away sharply when he realised that she had realised that he was staring. Was he impressed with her reputation, Emily asked herself, or was he being wary? Were the other magicians intended to back the Court Wizard up if he confronted Emily?

    “Father,” Crown Prince Dater said, with a bow. “We have completed the interrogation of the maid.”

    Of course, Emily realised. He’d told her that it was his job to serve as chief investigator of any serious crime. And this one definitely involved the nobility.

    “Good,” King Jorlem said. “And what have you discovered?”

    “Ails was deeply in love with Hedrick,” Dater said. He sounded as if he didn't quite believe what he was saying. “She believed that he was going to marry Princess Alassa and go to live in Zangaria, that her only hope for keeping him with her was to murder the princess before it was too late.”

    Lady Barb swung around to stare at Prince Hedrick. “And what do you know about this?”

    Hedrick showed the first trace of any real emotion – annoyance – that Emily had seen on him.

    “I know nothing about it,” he said. “I certainly did not know that she was in love with me.”

    “And no doubt you didn't tumble her when you had a moment,” Lady Barb sneered. She turned back to the Crown Prince. “I thought that all of your servants were under loyalty and obedience spells. How could she successfully break into the princess’s room and come close to murdering her?”

    “We believe that she convinced herself that murdering the princess was in the crown’s best interest,” the Court Wizard said. “As such, she could have brought herself to assassinate the princess ...”

    Emily frowned inwardly as Lady Barb picked away at the explanation. She’d studied mind control spells after Shadye had used one on her and discovered that they were tricky things to use properly. The more powerful the spell, the greater the risk of side-effects, including reducing the intelligence of the victim. Most servants were under spells that prevented them from knowingly doing anything to harm their masters, but if the maid had reasoned out that killing Alassa was in their best interests, she could have done it. Perhaps.

    She held up a hand before the argument could grow any worse. “Where did she get the wand? And the knives?”

    Dater frowned. “We are investigating,” he said. “Whoever made the wand was clearly a formidable enchanter, but there are at least seven possible suspects in the city. The maid herself was not a magician. As for the knives ... they’re really nothing more than stone. They could have come from anywhere.”

    But the runes couldn't have, Emily thought. Either they were necromantic blades that simply hadn't been used before or they were fakes, intended to convince us that we were looking at necromantic work.

    Stone knives weren't uncommon outside the nobility, she’d learned, when she’d been researching how magic interacted with materials. Professor Thande, in one of his many digressions, had explained that stone could soak up a surprising amount of magic, or channel it without turning to dust. Some metals allowed faster passage of magic, but they tended to decay rapidly. The necromancers used stone tools because metal knives would destroy themselves before they had finished draining every last drop of mana and life energy from the corpse.

    But there was no point in trying to ban stone knives. They were simply too common – and besides, iron was too expensive. Emily had actually managed to dig the formula for making steel out of her mind and pass it on to the blacksmiths, but they hadn't managed to actually produce it yet. And aluminium was shockingly expensive. If Emily had been carrying a couple of cans of fizzy drink when she'd been yanked into the new world, she would have been set up for life. Aluminium hadn't become commonplace until new techniques for producing it had been discovered.

    “Really,” Lady Barb said. She shot Emily a sharp glance, no doubt wishing to question her further on why she knew that the blades weren't necromantic, then looked back at the Crown Prince. “I would like to interrogate the girl for myself.”

    “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” the Court Wizard said. “I ... broke her mind.”

    Lady Barb’s eyes glittered. “Your servant should have been under spells that made it impossible for her to lie to you,” she said, addressing the Crown Prince. “Why was it necessary to break her mind while questioning her?”

    There was a long uncomfortable pause. “She was not quite right in the head,” Dater said, finally. “Either because she fell in love with Hedrick” – he shot his brother a snide glance, which brought no visible response – “or because there was something wrong with the obedience spells. She just started to babble when we asked her questions.”

    “Or someone befuddled her,” Lady Barb pointed out. “Did you check for that before you started poking into her mind?”

    Emily shivered. A sorcerer could peer into someone’s mind, if they were prepared to commit what was effectively mental rape. But it had very real effects, including causing terrible pain and – perhaps – snapping someone into insanity. What would it do to a girl who was already under an obedience spell – and, perhaps, someone else’s spells too? She could easily see a necromancer pushing the first set of spells aside, then imposing his own ... but why would they be so subtle? It wasn't in their nature.

    But who else benefited from Alassa’s death?

    King Jorlem didn't benefit at all. He would have risked war with Zangaria if the princess died while in his castle. And if Hedrick didn’t want to marry Alassa, he could have gotten out of it without threatening his father’s kingdom.

    And no one in Zangaria benefited. Without a clearly defined heir to the throne, there would be civil war once King Randor died. Such chaos in the north would suck in the neighbouring nations, each one looking for its own advantage. Eventually, the necromancers might be able to take advantage of a weakened Allied Lands ... maybe it was their work after all. But it was still oddly subtle. There was no reason why they couldn't have the same results by attacking Castle Alluvia openly.

    Emily shook her head, tiredly. Maybe she was underestimating them. Or maybe she was missing something obvious.

    “So we are left with a mystery,” Lady Barb concluded. “A young maid who might have been so deeply in love that she risks a war between two countries, a young maid who has never been touched by the prince she loves. Or a young maid who was used as a tool by someone else in an attempt to assassinate Princess Alassa. I do not like mysteries.”

    “You go too far,” Dater snapped. “We handled this investigation as carefully as we could ...”

    King Jorlem tapped the table sharply, silencing his son. “Her first priority is safeguarding Alassa,” he said. “Hedrick; did you know anything about this?”

    His son shook his head. “I never even looked at her,” he said. “I had no idea she cared so much.”

    Emily scowled, inwardly. Even without obedience spells, the maids wouldn't have been able to say no if the princes had wanted to have some fun with them. God knew that plenty of kings and princes on Earth had managed to have bastard children, often healthier children than they’d had with their wives. Henry VIII had even tried to have his bastard son put into the line of succession, although that had been before the birth of his sickly legitimate son. He had probably rolled over in his grave when he realised that both of his daughters had sat on the throne after him.

    But the princes might not have cared all that much about the maids. It was easy to imagine one of them giving gifts to his favoured maid, or simply using her and then pushing her aside. And why would the maid become infatuated with Prince Hedrick? Why not his considerably more handsome elder brother?

    Maybe you’re just being shallow, Emily told herself, and snorted.

    “We will accept that, for the moment,” Lady Barb said, finally. “King Randor has instructed us to continue with the progression, despite the fact that we are already running late. With your permission, Your Majesty, we will depart for Red Rose.”

    “Hedrick should be ready to go with you,” King Jorlem said. He gave his son a sharp look. “And I'm sure that he will be a credit to the kingdom.”

    Emily doubted that, but held her tongue.

    “We will leave in twenty chimes,” Lady Barb informed Hedrick. “Be there – or you can catch up with us.”

    “I think we can forgo the full departure ceremony,” King Jorlem said, standing up. His sons followed him a moment later. “It has been a pleasure seeing you again, Alassa. You were barely knee-high when I last saw you.”

    Alassa stood up, walked around the table and gave him a formal embrace. The Crown Prince wrapped her in a bearhug, then whispered something in her ear that made her giggle. Hedrick didn't even bother to hug her, although that might have been protocol. He was going to be travelling with them. Emily had listened carefully to all of Alassa’s lectures, but she knew that she didn't have all of the protocols fixed in her head.

    “And it was interesting to meet the famous Necromancer’s Bane,” the King added, looking at Emily. “The Allied Lands owe you a great debt.”

    “Thank you,” Emily said. She stood up and then curtseyed as best as she could in the travelling clothes. “And thank you for the hospitality.”

    Lady Barb shot her a sharp look – clearly, that was pushing the limits – but the King merely laughed.

    “I wish you were staying for longer,” he said. He certainly sounded sincere, but he’d been King long enough to know how to lie convincingly. “There is so much we could have shown you – and many of the sorcerers wish to talk to you. But it is not to be.”

    He waved his hand in a ritual pattern. “May the gods continue to smile upon your journey,” he added. His voice softened as he looked at Alassa. “And may the life of two become one.”

    Emily watched him walk out of the room, followed by his two sons, then looked at Alassa and raised an eyebrow.

    “He’s expressing the hope that I will marry soon,” Alassa said. She turned and started to walk towards the door. “Come on. We’re going to spend most of the day in the carriage. Again.”
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