Original Work The Broken Throne (Schooled in Magic 16)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jul 16, 2018.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Broken Throne (Schooled in Magic 16) is the direct sequel to The Princess in the Tower, starting roughly two weeks after the escape from Alexis. A three-sided civil war has broken out and Emily (and her friends) are right in the middle ...

    (Dramatic drum roll ...)

    All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

    The bad news is that my health hasn't been great - and I’ve got a couple of family matters to attend to - so updates may be a little erratic.

    If you’re interested in following my writing and hearing news of new releases (and a ton of other goodies), please follow my blog (The Chrishanger) or my mailing list (chrishanger-list Info Page). My Facebook fan page is also online - Christopher G. Nuttall - but Facebook has been playing silly buggers recently, so you’re better to follow either of the first two options (or both <grin>).

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Chris
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue I

    The dead stretched as far as the eye could see.

    Sir Roger stood at the edge of the field and watched as his men, the victors in the savage engagement, looted the bodies of the dead. Weapons, tunics, money ... all belonged to the victors. Here and there, a wounded man was put out of his misery by a quick stroke of a sword or the cut of a knife. The medical tents were overflowing with friendly casualties. No one was going to waste time and resources saving enemy lives. It wasn't as if common-born prisoners could be ransomed.

    He heard a man shout as he held up a dead body wearing silver armour and a purple cloak, both stained with blood. Sir Roger’s eyes narrowed as he recognised the dead body: Lord Redford, a man who’d once been nothing more than a penniless nobleman at King Randor’s court. He’d clutched his title, Sir Roger recalled, and sneered at his inferiors because it was all he really had. There had been lesser-ranked men - and women too - who’d wielded true power. Perhaps that had been why Redford had thrown his lot in with the Noblest. It had been his only hope of regaining wealth and power that had been frittered away long ago.

    And he died on the field, Sir Roger thought, as he watched the dead man’s body being stripped bare. He was too brave or stupid to run when we sprang our trap.

    He couldn’t find it in him to enjoy his rival’s death, or the humiliation his body had suffered in the aftermath. It lay on the ground now, as naked as the day it was born, while the men who’d found him hurried towards the rear. The armour alone would bring a pretty penny to the men, if they sold it to the merchants who hovered around the army like flies on shit. They probably wouldn’t keep it for themselves. The Sumptuary Laws forbade common soldiers to wear silver armour. Sir Roger had his doubts about the wisdom of that. A skilled archer could put a bolt through a man from right across the battlefield ... and silver armour merely told the archer who to target. The conventions of war hinted strongly that aristocrats should be left alone - they could be captured and ransomed - but cold practicalities suggested otherwise. An army might come to pieces if its commander was killed.

    It was a sobering thought. He’d walked amongst the dead, after the fighting had ended, in hopes of finding familiar faces. But there had been no sign of any of the senior Noblest, not even Hedrick or Simon Harkness. The former was no surprise - Hedrick Harkness was a coward in a world that frowned on the slightest hint of cowardice - but the latter was odd. Simon Harkness was a man’s man. The thought of him running from the battlefield was ... unthinkable, somehow. Sir Roger had met the younger man. Simon had always looked as if he had something to prove. The question marks over his parentage had ensured it.

    They probably planned for defeat as well as victory, Sir Roger thought, ruefully. The Noblest had gambled by striking directly at Alexis, but they hadn’t risked everything on one throw of the dice. That had been smart of them, Sir Roger admitted, yet ... they might have won if they’d thrown everything they had at him. We came closer to defeat than I want to admit.

    He heard trumpets blare and turned, just in time to see a golden horse appear at the edge of the battlefield. Ice ran down his spine as he realised that King Randor himself had come to see the dead ... he hastily bushed his armour down, trying to look as presentable as possible as his monarch rode towards him. His personal bodyguard followed, looking more than a little uneasy. Sir Roger didn't blame them. The enemy army had been shattered and put to slight, and Sir Roger had deployed cavalry to chase down and slaughter the survivors before they could regroup, but a single man with a crossbow could change the situation in an instant if he took a shot at the king. Or one of the newer rifles, if one was to be found. Lady Emily had talked about snipers eventually being able to target a man from miles away.

    “Your Majesty,” he said, going down on one knee. “The field is ours.”

    “So I see,” the king grunted. He surveyed the battlefield for a long moment, then slowly clambered off his horse. “You may rise.”

    Sir Roger did so, careful not to look up too blatantly. The king was the king, even on a battlefield. He had to be shown proper deference at all times. And yet, something was nagging at the back of his head. Something wasn’t quite right. It wasn't an imposter, he thought, but something else. He couldn't put his finger on it.

    “The enemy army has been smashed, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. “We captured forty-seven prisoners.”

    The king smiled, cruelly. “Aristocratic prisoners, of course.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. No one bothered to take commoners as prisoners. The mercenaries might switch sides, if given a chance, but half-trained peasants were useless. It was easier to put them to flight, or execute them, than keep them prisoner. “I believe the highest-ranking prisoner is Lord Galashiels. He was taken prisoner by ...”

    “Execute him,” King Randor ordered.

    Sir Roger felt his mouth drop open. “Your Majesty?”

    “Execute him,” King Randor repeated, steel in his voice. “Execute them all.”

    “Your Majesty ...”

    “Do I have to repeat myself?” King Randor’s eyes flashed with rage - and, for a moment, something else. But it was gone before Sir Roger could see it clearly. “Execute them!”

    Sir Roger braced himself, wondering if the next words he said would be the ones that got him sent to the block. The king was clearly in a vile mood. Whatever had happened in Alexis - and Sir Roger had only heard whispered rumours - had been indisputably bad. Lady Emily had been meant to face the headsman for the first and last time ... had she escaped? Or had something else happened? He didn’t dare ask.

    But he had to argue for his men. “Your Majesty, the prisoners were captured by my subordinates,” he said. It would be more accurate to say that the prisoners were largely captured by common soldiers, who’d then been forced to surrender them to higher-ranking officers, but the king wouldn't concern himself with such trivia. “They have a right to claim the ransom.”

    “The prisoners will have nothing to pay the ransom with,” King Randor growled. His fists clenched. “Their families will be wiped from the rolls.”

    Sir Roger paled. “Yes, Your Majesty. But ...”

    The king snorted. “Inform the captors that they will be paid a reasonable amount for their captives,” he ordered. “But execute them all, at once. Their heads are to be prominently displayed on Traitor’s Gate.”

    “It will be done, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. He summoned a messenger with a nod. “If that is your command, it will be done.”

    He swallowed, hard, as he turned away to issue the orders. Aristocrats might die on the battlefield, but to execute them after they’d been captured for ransom ... it wasn't done! Who knew what would happen if a loyalist fell into enemy hands? Sir Roger shivered at the thought, knowing that the Noblest would certainly retaliate in kind. Any loyalist who was captured would be lucky if he was only beheaded on the spot. It wouldn't be long before both sides were locked in a competition of horror that ran all the way down to the bottom.

    And how many loyalists will remain loyal, he asked himself, when the king puts us all in danger?

    “A good start,” the king said, once the orders were issued. He was surveying the battlefield, pausing here and there to exchange brief words with his men. Sir Roger could see, at times, the fighting prince the king had once been behind his permanent scowl. “How badly did we hurt them?”

    “We broke their advance force, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said, after a moment. He knew better than to depend upon estimates. One scout had reported an enemy army of over a million men and promptly been scourged for exaggeration. “Between here and the other two battlefields, I believe we killed around five thousand men. It is hard to be sure.”

    “But we broke them,” King Randor said.

    “Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger assured him. “Their army showed us their backsides and ran. I already have horsemen hunting them down.”

    “And it will take them a long time to regroup, particularly if they have no contingency plans for defeat,” King Randor mused. “Very well. I want you to deploy half your cavalry to secure the roads into the Harkness Lands. We’ll relieve Castle Blackstone, then move against Harkness itself. We will not give them any time to regroup.”

    “As you command, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. “But cavalry alone will not be ...”

    “Your musketmen and cannoneers will follow, once the bridges are secure,” King Randor added. “We will not give them time to regroup and obtain more weapons. I want Baroness Harkness crushed before my treacherous daughter has a chance to rally her own forces.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. Behind him, he heard a shout of protest. “It will take her some time to muster the strength to challenge you ...”

    “But the Noblest” - the king spat - “and I will weaken each other, if our fight goes on for too long. She will have the time she needs, unless we end it now. Pass the word, Sir Roger; this is total war. Those who do not submit themselves will be destroyed.”

    He turned, remounted his horse and cantered away, his bodyguards following him. Sir Roger stared after his king for a long moment, then turned ... just in time to see the last prisoner be beheaded. Sir Roger had seen death before - he’d seen men die jousting as well as on the battlefield - but the sight still chilled him. It represented a new kind of warfare, a warfare that was - in its own way - as merciless as the muskets and cannons Lady Emily had introduced to the battlefield. This was no mere skirmish, no test of strength between the king and his barons; this was total war. Randor would be the undisputed master of his kingdom or nothing.

    Sir Roger shivered as the bodies were left to rot on the muddy ground. He couldn’t help thinking that it boded ill for the future.

    And when this is done, he asked himself bleakly, will any of us have a future?
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue II

    It wasn't her throne room.

    Alassa sat on the chair, which she resolutely refused to call a throne, and studied the map without really seeing it. It wasn’t her chair either. It had belonged to either Lord Hans or Lady Regina of Swanhaven and Jade, when he’d been appointed Baron Swanhaven, had never bothered to replace it. Alassa was tempted to wonder if it had belonged to one of the earlier barons - it was uncomfortably hard, particularly for a pregnant woman - but she didn't care enough to ask. The staff were skittish around her. Jade hadn't made enough of an impression to banish memories of Lord Hans and Lady Regina. Merely asking might cause a panic.

    She stroked her growing abdomen, wondering when she’d feel the baby kick. The healers had assured her that it was a normal pregnancy, so far, but Alassa wouldn't feel truly secure until the baby was pushed into the world. Male or female, it would be proof that she was fertile, that she could carry on the dynasty. It was odd to realise that one of the few things she had in common with her father, the few things she’d actually acknowledge, included a determination to have a heir, but it was easier for him. Her father had had hundreds of mistresses, desperately hoping that one of them would bear him a son. Alassa needed to bear a son of her body. It didn’t seem fair, somehow.

    I could have killed Father, she thought, remembering the moment - three weeks ago - when she’d had her father in her sights. If she’d pulled the trigger, she could have put a bullet right through his head. And who knows what would have happened then?

    In truth, she wasn't sure why she hadn't pulled the trigger. Her father and her had never been particularly close, even before he’d locked her up in the Tower of Alexis and thrown away the key. She wanted, she needed, to take the throne that had been her birthright from the moment it became clear that her father would not have a legitimate male child. And she knew her father’s reign would be bad for the kingdom. He’d already tried his hardest to execute Alassa’s closest friends.

    I was weak, she told herself, although she wasn’t sure if that was actually true. Could a daughter kill her father? Could a daughter take the throne after she killed her father? She’d hardly be the first monarch to inherit after her predecessor died under dubious circumstances that no one dared look at too closely. If I’d killed him ...

    The thought was like a stab to the gut. She knew, deep inside, that she hadn't wanted to kill him. A daughter should not kill her father. She’d always assumed that her father would die and she would succeed him, not that she’d kill him. She had spent too much of her life looking for his approval to want to kill him. A dead man couldn't smile at her when she did something clever and give her his blessing. She’d always envied Imaiqah’s easy relationship with her father, even though that had nearly got Imaiqah killed. King Randor had never had time for his daughter.

    She touched her abdomen again, gritting her teeth. There was no choice, not now. She had to kill her father, directly or indirectly, or he’d take her child. Alassa had no doubt, not now, that her father would have had her killed, after the baby was born. Killed ... or banished to some desolate castle in the badlands where no one would think to look for her, while he raised her child in his own image. She had to kill her father for the sake of the child. She had no choice ...

    ... But she didn't like it.

    The wards quivered, just slightly, as Jade passed through the outer layers and stepped through the door. Alassa rose, then threw dignity to the winds and ran towards him. Jade was hot and sweaty and smelt of mud, but she didn't care. She pressed her lips to his and kissed him as hard as she could, enjoying the brief sensation. She’d been lucky in Jade. Other husbands would have tried to take power for themselves. That would not have meant a happy marriage.

    “You should be taking more care of yourself,” Jade said, touching her abdomen gently. “Really ...”

    “I have to be active,” Alassa reminded him. She understood his concern - and she even shared his fears for the baby - but there were other considerations. “The people have to see me on the throne.”

    It was an odd thought. Her father had never worried about the good opinions of anyone who didn't have a title. They were less than nothing to him, unless they did something that merited ennoblement. But Alassa ... most of her friends were commoners. Neither Emily nor Imaiqah - nor Jade, for that matter - had been born noble. It was hard to understand, sometimes, why commoners couldn't do as they were told, but she thought she could use it. She’d just have to remember not to repeat her father’s mistake once she was secure on her throne.

    And I have to seek popularity, she thought. What choice do I have?

    “I suppose,” Jade said. She knew him well enough to know that it wasn’t the end of the argument, but there were too many listening ears near the throne room. “You’ll be pleased to know that the first regiments are marching out now. If your father does decide on a lightning strike at Swanhaven, we will be ready for him.”

    Alassa nodded. She understood little of military strategy - she’d certainly never been allowed to lead troops into combat - but Jade could fill in the gaps. Her father had only a handful of options if he wanted to crush the rebels before it was too late. A direct stab at Swanhaven was perhaps his best bet. He’d be a fool to target Cockatrice before Swanhaven was neutralised.

    “And if he doesn’t, we can take the offensive,” she added. “It will take him months to crush the barons.”

    “Let us hope so,” Jade said. He wasn’t as confident as herself that the Barons would manage to delay the king for long. The Noblest were a pack of traitors. They’d come apart if the king managed to land a few solid blows. “We probably need to start planning to move against Winter Flower.”

    Alassa frowned. A month ago, the thought of ravaging Winter Flower from one end to the other would have been very satisfactory. Alicia, Baroness Winter Flower, had had the nerve to bear King Randor a son. Babe in arms or not, Alexis was a deadly threat to Alassa’s position. But Alicia had risked her life - and worse - to help Jade and his friends spring Alassa from the Tower. Alassa honestly wasn't sure how she should react to Alicia now. Her emotions were a mess.

    “Yeah,” she said. She reached out and held him, tightly. “But we can do that later.”

    Jade smiled. “As you command, Your Highness.”

    Alassa elbowed him. “We’re alone,” she said. “You don’t have to be formal.”

    And she kissed him again.
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The night was warm, uncomfortably warm.

    Emily lay on the hillside and peered down towards the castle below. It wasn’t much of a castle - it was really nothing more than an oversized blockhouse - but it blocked the bridge crossing the River Swanhaven and prevented traffic from moving between Swanhaven and Winter Flower. Emily didn’t need to be Alexander the Great to understand the strategic significance of the otherwise unimportant castle. As long as it remained in the king’s hands, it made it impossible for Alassa to move an army into East Swanhaven and secure her borders with Winter Flower. Worse, perhaps, it prevented the river trade that countless communities depended upon to survive. The economic damage would cause all sorts of problems on both sides of the divide.

    Her eyes narrowed as she studied the building. She was no expert in castle design - she’d never had the chance to study the mechanics at Whitehall - but she had to admit that it would be difficult to take by conventional assault. It was positioned neatly in the middle of a river, forcing any would-be attackers to advance along the bridge if they wanted to reach the gates. They’d be exposed to archers, perhaps even musketmen, along the way, even if they were protected by siege engines. And getting a catapult - or a cannon - into position to bombard the castle would be tricky. Emily silently admired the designers. They’d taken a small building that should be impossible to defend and turned it into an impregnable fortress.

    And we can’t even starve them out, she thought. She’d seen the manifests. The castle had enough supplies to keep a company of soldiers fed for months. Somehow, she doubted King Randor had skimped on the supplies. We simply don’t have the time.

    And yet, there was no choice. The castle - and the bridge - had to be taken. Fording the river was supposed to be impossible, at least in large numbers. Alassa had teams of engineers working on pontoon bridges, but they thought it would be several weeks before the bridges were ready. By then, King Randor could have moved an entire army up to the border, blocking his rebel daughter from driving on the capital. Emily shuddered to think of just how many people would die if Alassa had to force her way across the river. The waters would turn red with blood.

    She turned to look at Cat, lying next to her. He looked odd in the darkness, the night-vision spell washing his face of colour. She wondered, absently, how she looked to him. She’d donned a pair of dark trousers and a shirt - and concealed her hair under a cap - but she wasn’t hidden from his gaze. She hoped she was hidden from the castle’s guards, if they were watching the hillside. They’d set up protective wards, of course, as soon as they’d crawled into view, but a single charmed arrow would be more than enough to ruin the mission. King Randor had encouraged his archers to develop their skills, handing out rewards to any who proved able to hit a target at over two hundred metres. Emily was all too aware that they were far closer to the castle.

    The king won’t have sent his best archers up here, she told herself, although she wasn’t sure she believed it. King Randor had a lot of archers. He needs them down south in Harkness.

    “There’s no way we’re going to get close to the castle without being seen,” she muttered, trusting in the spell to hide her words. Sergeant Miles had taught her just how far sound could travel in the night air. “What do you think?”

    “Agreed,” Cat said. “We don’t even dare try to swim to the castle.”

    Emily nodded. She was a confident swimmer - Sergeant Miles had taught her - but the river was too dangerous to take lightly. They might be able to make it to the castle walls, if they were lucky, yet there was no way they could take any supplies with them. Their magic might be enough, but it might not be. She reached out with her senses, feeling - gingerly - for protective wards. The castle had two, both very limited. It suggested there was no sorcerer in residence.

    “King Randor doesn’t have enough sorcerers to risk one here,” Cat said, when she pointed it out. “He’ll be keeping them close to home.”

    “Let’s hope so,” Emily said, doubtfully. King Randor might not have many first-rank sorcerers, but he could have hired a dozen magicians and put them to work. He’d need someone to help keep his disparate forces connected, if nothing else. A communications sorcerer could make good money during wartime. “Do you really want to risk flying to the castle?”

    Cat glanced at her. “Do you see any other option?”

    Sergeant Miles would kill the pair of us if we suggested flying to him, Emily thought. In theory, the plan was perfect; in practice, if there was even a fifth or sixth-rank magician in the castle, the plan was suicide. It wouldn’t take much magic to disrupt their spells and send them plunging to their deaths. But it would give us a chance to take them by surprise.

    She shook her head, trying to conceal her nervousness. Flying to the castle was exactly the sort of plan Cat would devise, despite the dangers. Hell, the dangers were one good reason why no one would expect them to try to fly. But she wasn’t anything like so confident that the plan was a good idea. And yet ... she couldn’t think of anything better. They simply didn’t have the time.

    “I’ll alert Sergeant Rotherham,” Cat said. “You wait here and watch for signs of trouble.”

    Emily nodded and turned her attention back to the castle. It was a dark brooding mass, barely visible even though the night-vision spell. No lights shone from its arrow slits, the better to ensure its occupants remained accustomed to the dark. Emily wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. King Randor would have wanted to show off his strength as much as possible, particularly if he was running a bluff. The castle might be undermanned, given the circumstances. Randor had had no reason to expect trouble from Swanhaven or Cockatrice - he’d had Alassa and Imaiqah imprisoned until they’d been broken out - and he might have withdrawn the troops to the south.

    But they were patrolling during the daytime, Emily reminded herself. The locals had been very clear on that point. And they’ve been interrogating and searching everyone who wants to cross the bridge.

    Cat scrambled back to her. “The sergeant’s putting his men in position now,” he said, as he stood. “Are you ready?”

    No, Emily thought. “Yes,” she said, quietly. “I’m ready.”

    “Good,” Cat said. He winked at her, a brief flashing expression in the darkness, then cast the first spell. “Try and stay over the river. It might save your life if you lose control of the spell.”

    Or get blasted out of the sky, Emily thought, as she cast her own spell. She felt her body slowly rise into the air, gusts of wind pushing at her as she slowly levitated her way towards the castle. What are the odds of surviving if we crash into the waters?

    She tried not to think about it as they glided over the river and headed up towards the castle, her eyes probing for signs of watchmen on the tiny battlements. There would be someone on watch, she was sure, even if the castle’s wardens thought themselves impregnable. She dreaded to think what the king would do to any of his people who allowed themselves to be surrounded during the night. She’d watched a man get beaten to within an inch of his life merely for falling asleep when he was meant to be on watch.

    A flicker of motion caught her eye. She tensed as she saw the lone watchmen, leaning against the battlements as he surveyed the darkness. His face was a pale shape against the shadows, peering constantly from side to side ... he never looked up. Emily wasn’t really surprised. The odds of being attacked from the air were very low. There were people in Cockatrice who were experimenting with hot air balloons and gliders, but so far results had been mixed. It would be years before the Nameless World’s armies deployed parachutists against their foes.

    Cat dropped down towards the battlements and landed neatly, one hand snapping up in a casting pose. The guard whirled around, then froze as Cat hit him with a freeze hex. Emily landed beside him, feeling a flicker of sympathy for the guard. If they won, he’d be spending the rest of the war in a POW camp; if they lost, he’d be in deep shit with his superiors when the spell wore off. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t simply carried to the battlements and thrown into the rushing waters below.

    “Got him,” Cat muttered. He stopped in front of the door and muttered a charm. The lock clicked open without resistance. “Shall we go?”

    Emily let Cat take the lead as they slipped into the castle. The stairwell was strikingly narrow, tight enough to make her feel claustrophobic and dark enough to make her acutely unsure of what was waiting at the bottom. Cat had to bow his head to avoid cracking it against the stone roof. Emily felt her hair brush against the roof as they reached the bottom and opened another door. It led into a small guardroom. Four men were sitting at the table, drinking and playing cards. They looked up and stared in horror as Cat froze the first two ...

    “Intruders,” a third shouted. “Intruders ...”

    Emily froze him, then swore as the fourth grabbed an earthen mug and threw it at them. She sidestepped it neatly and froze the guard a second later. It was too late. She could hear clattering in the distance as the rest of the guards realised that the castle was under attack and scrambled to its defence. Cat shoved the guards to one side and walked to the nearest doorway. The sound of clattering was growing louder.

    “They’re in their armour,” he muttered. “It might be charmed armour.”

    Emily nodded and readied her spells. Charmed armour could absorb or deflect a handful of curses, but a series of spells would be more than enough to overwhelm the protections someone had worked into the metal. She wondered, as the sound grew louder, if Randor had assigned charmed armour to the guards. If there was anywhere he should have sent the armour, save for Alexis itself, it was here ... but charmed armour was expensive. Randor might have hesitated to send the armour anywhere outside the capital.

    The first three men appeared, wearing conventional armour. They should have been weighed down by the sheer weight of metal, but they moved with surprising speed. Emily had long-since ceased to marvel at just how fast the knights and guards could move, or how strong they were. Knights had to work hard to earn their spurs, training for years before they were deemed ready to wear their lord’s colours. They couldn’t simply pick up a gun and start shooting.

    Cat threw the first spell, freezing the first guardsman in place. Emily joined him, but the guards kept coming. They were using their frozen companions as human shields. Emily was almost impressed at the concept. Whoever was in charge on the other side had clearly thought fast. Worse, they’d realised that the freeze spells would protect their victims from anything else hurled in their direction. They were better than standard wooden or metal shields.

    Clever, Emily thought. And futile.

    She gathered her magic, then summoned a wind and blew it down the corridor. The guards wobbled, then tumbled over backwards, thrown downwards by the sheer force of the wind. Cat snapped out spells, freezing every soldier who came into view; they crashed, hard, against the stone walls and fell to the ground. Emily allowed herself a moment of relief, then ran forward. A handful of guards were moaning in pain and she froze them on the spot. It would give the poor bastards some relief until the spells wore off or were removed.

    “We have to get down to the gates,” Cat snapped, as he moved past her and down the corridor. “Once the sergeant is in, we can search the castle properly.”

    Emily nodded and followed him as he found another stairwell leading down to the ground floor. The stench of horseshit rose up to greet them. Emily forced herself to breathe through her mouth as they reached the bottom and looked around, hunting for the gatehouse. The horses were an unexpected bonus - Alassa’s cavalry would be delighted to have more horses - but she’d never liked the mangy beasts. Despite Alassa’s best efforts, Emily knew she would never be anything more than a marginal horsewoman.

    A hand grabbed her cap, yanking her backwards. It came loose, allowing her hair to tumble down. Emily heard someone gasp behind her - clearly, her assailant hadn't realised he’d caught a woman - and then threw a hex over her shoulder. Her attacker flew backwards, still holding onto her hair. Emily hit the ground hard enough to hurt, but rolled over and stunned her assailant before he had a chance to stick a knife in her. The stable boy - she thought he was a stable boy - looked disconcertingly young. She rather doubted he was even in his teens.

    Poor kid, she thought. It was far from uncommon for children to be given adult responsibilities - the stable boy might well have been fostered to one of the men upstairs - but it never ceased to surprise her. And he’ll be going into the camps too.

    She heard the sound of a fireball behind her and spun around. Cat was standing by the door, trading hexes with a pair of men in armour. Emily thought they were sorcerers, at first, but then she saw the wands. It was unlikely they had any real magic, then. A person with a spark of power - but very little else - would probably not be able to use a wand, not in the way Alassa had used hers six years ago. No, someone else had charged the wands and issued them to the soldiers.

    And issued them with charmed armour too, Emily thought. It was a neat little trap. Cat could take out one soldier, but the other would get him. But whoever had planned the ambush hadn’t realised that there were two attackers. I can get the other one ...

    “You take the one on the left,” Cat said, as the two armoured men started to advance. A fireball struck Cat’s wards and exploded, the heat of the flames scorching the stone walls. “I’ll take the one on the right ...”

    “I’ve got a better idea,” Emily said. “Hang on.”

    She stepped forward, shaping a spell with her mind. The guardsmen didn’t have any idea how their wands worked. They were merely jabbing them at their targets, trying to force them back before they ran out of magic. Emily wondered, as she finished the spell, just how much magic had been invested in the wands. It couldn't be that much. Apart from her batteries, anything used to store magic leaked with terrifying speed. The wands might already be on the verge of dying.

    A fireball slammed into her wards and detonated with a loud bang. Emily ignored it, concentrating on her magic. She cast the spell a moment later, ignoring Cat’s puzzled frown. The guards seemed to hesitate, then jabbed the wands at her again ... and stumbled backwards as the wands exploded with terrifying force. Emily smiled as the guards hit the floor, their armour ruined by the blasts. She’d turned the air surrounding them into pure oxygen. Their own fireballs had exploded the moment they’d been cast.

    Cat ran forward and froze both of the guards, muttering spells to put out the fire. “Emily,” he called back. “What did you do?”

    “I’ll explain later,” Emily said. She was surprised the technique hadn’t been reverse-engineered three years ago, when she’d used it against Master Grey, but it was quite possible that no one had been able to figure out what she’d done. The Nameless World hadn’t realised that air was a combination of gases, one of which was explosive in sufficient quantities. “We have to get to the gates.”

    “Down here,” Cat said. “Watch my back.”

    Emily nodded as Cat hurried down the corridor and into the gatehouse. It was remarkably simple for a castle’s portcullis, although she supposed the designers hadn’t been able to make it as secure as they would have liked. The building wasn’t big enough for a proper gatehouse.

    It’s still pretty secure, she thought, as Cat used magic to force the cogs to move. It must take at least four strong men to open the gates without magic.

    The portcullis opened with a rattling sound. Emily tensed, glancing back the way they’d come. If there was anyone in the castle still able to walk, they knew where Emily and Cat were. She moved to the corridor and listened carefully, but she heard nothing. A moment later, Sergeant Rotherham and his men flowed into the castle. They looked around admiringly, their eyes lingering on Emily. She felt herself flush. They admired Cat, both as a combat sorcerer and a soldier, but they practically worshipped her. She didn’t feel very comfortable with it. There was no way she could live up to the legend.

    “Search the building, then bring the prisoners outside,” Cat ordered. “And if you find any papers, I want to see them.”

    “Yes, My Lord,” Sergeant Rotherham said. He looked at Emily. “My Lady?”

    Emily sighed, inwardly. “Do as he says,” she said. “We need to have this building secured before dawn.”
     
  5. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    he wanted to admit?

    Brushed

    she

    she

    Not too sure how it prevented trade over the long haul but could certainly be used to control it.
     
    duane likes this.
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    “Overall, a successful operation,” Cat said, as the sun started to rise. He held out a mug of mulled wine. “Do you not think?”

    Emily shrugged, watching the prisoners as they were marched to the nearby field under heavy guard. The senior officers had given their parole - and the enlisted men would probably be quite happy to swap sides or simply go home - but it would be a while before any of them were released. Alassa and Jade would want to interrogate them, even though it was unlikely that any of the officers knew anything useful. Randor wouldn’t have sent his most capable subordinates to a place he’d believed was going to be quiet for the foreseeable future.

    She took the mug, muttered a spell to neutralise the alcohol, then took a sip. It tasted foul, but it was warming. A cold air was blowing down from the distant mountains, driving away the warmth of the night. The clouds overhead promised rain sometime in the middle of the day. Emily hoped they’d be well on their way to Swanhaven City before the skies opened and the downpour began. Travel wasn’t easy on Zangaria’s poor excuse for a road network.

    We should just teleport, she thought, as she took another sip. But we have to conserve our magic.

    She wanted to lean into Cat’s arms, but she knew better than to show any hint that they were in a relationship in front of the men. They’d think less of her, no matter what she’d done. It wasn’t fair, but it had been drummed into her head right from the start. Men respected women who acted like men, who shared the burdens and didn’t complain. They didn’t respect women who showed any traces of femininity. It was all too easy for grumblings about female weaknesses to take root if men felt the women were getting special treatment.

    Sergeant Rotherham approached and stopped at a respectful distance, carrying a sheaf of papers. Emily nodded to him, motioning for the sergeant to approach. The formality practiced by Alassa and Jade - and even Cat - was alien to her, despite four years of Martial Magic. She’d wanted to be a combat sorceress and a mediator, once upon a time, but military discipline - and the lines drawn between the ranks - had never sat well with her. She would sooner treat the sergeant as a living person than a servant subject to her whims.

    “My Lady, My Lord,” Sergeant Rotherham said. “These are all the papers we were able to recover.”

    Emily took the sheaf and glanced through them, quickly. Alassa had made it clear that they were to recover all the intelligence they could from the castle, although Emily hadn’t expected to find copies of King Randor’s top secret war plans. Randor hadn’t remained king for so long by being trusting, or by telling his subordinates more than they actually needed to know at any given point. The papers were a handful of readiness reports from further south, a promise of reinforcements at some unspecified future date and a broadsheet containing an outline of the battle outside Alexis. Emily read it carefully, noting all the exaggerations and unanswered questions. It was unlikely in the extreme that the Noblest had lost over a million soldiers in the brief engagement. She didn't think they had a million soldiers. There was no way their baronies could support such a huge army.

    “I see the broadsheets retain their reputation for dishonesty,” Cat said, reading over her shoulder. “I doubt the king really charged the enemy on a golden steed.”

    Emily nodded in agreement. King Randor was no coward, but he’d hardly be fool enough to expose himself when there was no adult heir in waiting. His bastard son was barely two years old; his legitimate grandchild hadn’t even been born. Alassa might wind up with the throne by default, assuming she hadn’t been stricken from the rolls like her uncle. Emily rather suspected it was only a matter of time until Randor disinherited his daughter, if he could get the politics to work. It would be hard to strike Alassa from the line of succession without disinheriting her child too.

    “We know there was a battle,” Emily said. She scanned the broadsheet for any hints of truth among the lies, but found nothing. The broadsheet singers rarely bothered with truth when lies were much more dramatic. By the time their readers found out, the broadsheets had moved to something new. “And it’s evident that Randor won.”

    She reread the papers, but found little of interest. The reinforcements were a potential concern, but judging by the date on the letter it would be several weeks before they materialised. King Randor had been pulling troops out of Winter Flower to support the push south, into the rebel baronies; he hadn’t realised that another threat would materialise in the west. Now, he was caught between two fires. If Alassa managed to build up her army before the king crushed the Noblest, Randor might be on the verge of losing the war. But if he had the chance to deal with one threat before the other threat became serious ...

    Cat looked at Rotherham. “You’ll remain here and secure the castle,” he said. “Search everyone who wants to cross the bridge, or sail down the river, but otherwise do not attempt to impede transit. If enemy forces arrive, beat them off. It is vitally important that we keep the castle under our control.”

    Sergeant Rotherham saluted. “And the prisoners, My Lord?”

    “Keep them under guard.” Cat looked pensive, just for a moment. “Did we capture anyone important?”

    “No, My Lord,” Sergeant Rotherham said. “The senior officer was a relatively low-ranked knight.”

    “Which doesn't mean he’s ignorant,” Emily said, quickly. “Randor was promoting a great many junior noblemen so they’re stay loyal to him.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Sergeant Rotherham said. “Do you wish to have him put to the question?”

    Interrogated and tortured, you mean, Emily thought. The casual brutality of life on the Nameless World never ceased to horrify her. And we don’t even know if he knows anything important.

    “No,” she said, finally. It was unlikely the king had shared anything with a junior nobleman, whatever his position. “Keep them under guard in the nearby town.”

    Sergeant Rotherham looked concerned. “They have given their parole.”

    “Keep them under guard anyway,” Cat said, sharply. “We don’t know if they can be trusted to keep their parole.”

    Emily couldn’t disagree. Technically, a captured nobleman could give his parole - his word not to fight - in exchange for release, but practically she had no idea if their prisoners would keep their word. Promises made to rebels had no validity, as far as the kings and princes of the Allied Lands were concerned. Alassa would execute any paroled nobleman who was captured bearing arms against her - that was her legal right - but Randor would probably execute any paroled nobleman who refused to fight. Perversely, keeping them prisoner was actually doing them a favour.

    Sergeant Rotherham bowed his head, then hurried off to attend to the prisoners. Emily finished her mug, put it to one side for the catering crew to clear up, then turned her gaze towards the castle. It looked more intimidating in sunlight, a blocky mass squatting on the bridge like a troll waiting for an unwary traveller to walk into its mouth. Emily studied the fast-flowing river for a moment, then caught herself stifling a yawn. She’d been up for far too long.

    “We’d better move,” Cat said, softly. “The weather won’t stay good.”

    He turned and strode towards the town. It had been deserted months ago, apparently; the locals, fearing what the castle’s guards might do to them, had decamped en masse into the undergrowth or headed up to the mountains. Emily didn’t blame them. Everyone knew that war was coming. The peasants and townspeople would have their houses looted, their merger supplies stolen, their women raped and their menfolk conscripted into the army. Alassa had already executed two men for rape - and a third for stealing - but it would be a long time before the peasants trusted any soldier. They regarded the army with the same kind of loathing people felt for cockroaches. Only mercenaries were lower on the social scale.

    Emily followed him, feeling her body start to ache. She needed to rest, but she didn’t dare show weakness in front of the men. People would talk. Alassa might be happy being a princess and a queen, set on a pedestal with her strong right arm by her side, but Emily knew it wouldn’t suit her. Alassa was going to be very isolated as she began her reign. Emily wasn’t the most sociable of people - she knew her weaknesses all too well - but she didn’t want to be that isolated.

    I should have gone into library work, she thought, wryly. But destiny had another idea.

    A troop of mounted guards stood next to a carriage, waiting by the deserted inn. Cat spoke briefly to their leader, issuing orders, then motioned for Emily to climb into the carriage and sit down. Emily gritted her teeth as she pulled open the door. Whoever had designed and built the carriage hadn’t heard of suspension, let alone spells to smooth the ride. She was going to be black and blue by the time they reached Swanhaven. Cat scrambled up next to her and sat on the wooden seat. Emily rather suspected he would have preferred to ride a horse, but he’d chosen to keep her company instead. She appreciated that more than she cared to admit.

    The carriage rattled into life, the guards shouting cheerfully as they led the way onto the muddy road. Randor and his ancestors had inherited a road network from the old Empire, but they hadn’t really bothered to maintain it. The network had been falling apart for years, even though it was vitally important for moving the king’s troops around the kingdom as well as trade. Emily had a sneaking suspicion that the barons had deliberately allowed the roads to rot away. They’d do anything to reduce the king’s ability to bring them to heel.

    That will have to change, she thought. It was only a matter of time before new roads - and railroads - started to bind the kingdom closer together. Alassa will have to change it when she takes the throne.

    Cat muttered a handful of spells to make the journey a little easier as the carriage picked up speed. Emily nodded in gratitude, then added a couple of privacy spells of her own. The guards might just be watching the carriage, looking for glimpses of their important passengers in a private moment. Alassa might regard her servants as little more than tools - although she’d been getting better about seeing them as human - but Emily had never made that mistake. Servants had eyes, ears and - sometimes - a motive to betray the more abusive masters. And their masters rarely suspected them even when it was clear that they had been betrayed ...

    Emily dismissed the thought as she leaned back against the hard wooden box, closing her eyes and trying to sleep. Cat took her hand and held it, gently; Emily leaned against him, silently relieved that he’d joined her. He was strongly muscular, far stronger than any of the teenage boys she’d avoided on Earth, but he was softer than the carriage walls. His arm wrapped around her as she slowly went to sleep.

    She jerked awake, what felt like bare minutes later. Her body was aching uncomfortably, pins and needles running up and down her arms and legs. Cat shifted against her, but didn’t stir. Emily smiled wanly - his snores were loud enough to wake the hounds of hell - and then checked her watch. It was early afternoon. They’d been asleep for hours. She shrugged, massaged some feeling back into her legs, then pushed the curtain aside and peered out. The carriage was passing through a mid-sized town, townspeople turning to stare as the carriage went by. Emily was surprised the town hadn't been evacuated too, but they probably thought they were far enough from the border to remain safe. Besides, the road followed the river up to Swanhaven - and Beneficence. Abandoning the town would only drive the river trade into the hands of their rivals.

    Emily leaned forward, forcing herself to look more closely. There were a handful of children on the street, all boys. There were no girls or young women at all. The only women she saw looked to be in their sixties, although she knew looks could be deceiving. There was a very good chance that the women were in their forties, perhaps even younger. Childbirth and poor nutrition had ensured they aged rapidly. Emily had met women who were grandmothers at thirty. Things would change, she thought, when Alassa took the throne. The New Learning had already started to change the world.

    The carriage passed out of the town and into the countryside, driving past endless fields of corn and cattle. Emily noted a handful of downtrodden peasants working the fields and felt a pang of sympathy, knowing - all too well - that the peasants might have lost their lands to legal trickery and found themselves forced to become serfs, working the land they’d formerly owned. It was just another reason for the peasants to hate the nobility, just another reason for them to take advantage of the war to help themselves. She’d heard reports of manors being burnt and tax records being destroyed. It would take years to put the system back together, if anyone felt it was worth trying. The nobility couldn’t keep the peasants enslaved forever.

    Cat shifted against her as the carriage finally passed through the gates and entered Swanhaven City. Emily winkled her nose as the wind shifted, blowing the stench of too many humans in too close proximity across her nostrils. Jade had instituted strict sanitation laws, when his father-in-law had given him the barony, but they clearly hadn’t been a great success. It would take time for people to stop crapping out the windows, even though there was a bounty paid for chamberpots of night soil. The nitrates in human shit could be used to make gunpowder.

    Perhaps we should increase the bounty, she thought, as the smell grew worse. It clearly isn’t enough.

    She nudged Cat, gently. He started awake, one hand coming up in a casting pose before realising that he was perfectly safe. Emily had to smile as he brushed his hair back from his face, although she knew it wasn’t really funny. Pillion, one of the boys who’d shared Martial Magic with her when she’d been in First Year, had been punched in the face when he’d tried to wake Jade from a sound sleep. Sergeant Miles had not been amused. He’d bawled Pillion out for being stupid enough to stand too close to a sleeping - and armed - man in a place they’d been told to consider a combat zone. Emily had always been careful to keep her distance.

    “We’re here,” Cat said. He peered out of the window. “Where are we?”

    Emily rolled her eyes. Clearly, Cat was still half-asleep.

    “We’re coming up the Baronial Mile now,” she said. Swanhaven was practically a miniature version of Alexis, right down to the road leading up to the castle. The streets were lined with expensive houses, mainly occupied by merchants and tradesmen who made a living through dominating the river trade. “We’ll be there in a minute.”

    “Good,” Cat said. He rubbed his legs, thoroughly. “We can bask in the praise for a job well done.”

    Emily snorted as the carriage crossed the drawbridge, passed through the gatehouse and rattled to a halt in the courtyard. Her hair prickled, threatening to stand on end, as Jade’s wards swept over them, making sure that they were who they claimed to be. She sensed powerful magics waiting in reserve, ready to snap at any unauthorised intruders. Jade’s paranoia had been growing to new heights after the first assassination attempt.

    Cat opened the door and jumped down to the cobblestones. Emily followed, a little more gingerly. Her body felt stiff and sore. She needed a long bath and a sleep in a proper bed, although she doubted she’d have time to have either before they were summoned to Alassa’s presence. Hopefully, she’d at least have a chance to splash water on her face. Alassa would be understanding, if they turned up dirty and smelly, but her war council might not be quite so generous. It wasn’t enough to be good, Emily had heard. It was important to look good too.

    A messenger appeared and went down on one knee. “My Lord ... ah, My Lady, My Lord ... the Princess Regnant summons you to her august presence.”

    Emily hid her amusement. The boy - he looked to be no older than twelve - had messed up the precedence. Technically, he should have hailed Emily first, then Cat. He’d realised his mistake too late to do anything, but try to pretend it hadn’t happened. She felt a stab of wry sympathy for the poor youth. He’d be beaten savagely if his superiors heard what had happened. Precedence was serious business.

    “We thank you,” she said, grandly. Cat wouldn’t make an issue of it, she thought, and no one else had heard. “We just need to use the washroom, then we will attend upon the princess.”

    The messenger bowed his head. “Of course, Your Ladyship,” he said. “I will lead you to the washroom at once.”

    Emily exchanged a smile with Cat, then allowed the messenger to lead them into the castle. The wards grew stronger, shifting around her as if they weren’t certain she was allowed into the building or not. Jade was definitely feeling paranoid.

    But who can blame him? Emily thought, as the messenger showed them the washroom. If Alassa dies, his life will be at an end.
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    “Emily,” Alassa called, as Emily and Cat stepped into the meeting room. “It’s good to see you again.”

    Emily nodded, studying her friend carefully. Alassa looked to have aged ten years overnight since the escape, her heart-shaped face worn down by the trials and tribulations she’d undergone. Her long blonde hair flowed down her back, standing out against the long green dress she wore. Whoever had designed it had done a good job, Emily noted, as she approached Alassa’s chair. It was feminine - no one could be in any doubt that Alassa was female - but it wasn’t blatantly sexual. Her figure was barely visible, almost completely left to the imagination. The only place where the dress was tight was around the growing baby bump. Alassa wanted to make it clear that she was carrying a legitimate child in her womb.

    “It's good to see you too,” Emily said, going down on one knee. Behind her, she knew Cat was kneeling too. It felt weird to be paying so much respect to her friend, but she knew it was important. Alassa could not afford to be familiar in front of so many watching eyes. She had to keep a distance from her friends or her relationships might be used against her. “It’s been too long.”

    Alassa smiled, rather wanly. “You may rise,” she said. She indicated a pair of seats, midway down the table. “Please, be seated. We look forward to hearing your story.”

    Emily sat, tensing slightly as a trio of servants entered carrying glasses of wine. The servants would have been vetted, of course, but could they really be trusted? They’d probably worked for Lord Hans and Lady Regina before the previous rulers of the barony had died in Alexis; indeed, it was quite possible that they were spying for the king. Randor might not be quite as blind to the danger posed by listening servants than they’d assumed. He’d already promoted one woman, a combat sorceress, to a very high-ranking post indeed. Emily took her glass, muttered a spell to check it was safe to drink, then left it on the table. She had never liked drinking, even when the alcohol was removed. It reminded her too much of her mother.

    She leaned back and surveyed the table as the servants left, closing the doors behind them. Jade sat at Alassa’s right hand, a sword sitting prominently on his belt. He was the only man allowed to wear a sword in the presence of the Princess Regnant, although Emily rather suspected it was meaningless. She, Cat and Imaiqah - sitting on Alassa’s left side - were powerful magicians. A lone swordsman wouldn’t stand a chance. But then, Jade was a sorcerer too. Emily didn’t fancy her chances if she had to fight Jade in a no-holds-barred duel.

    Her eyes wandered down the table, picking out names and faces. Sir William, Alassa’s Master of Arms; one of the very few men, perhaps the only man, Jade trusted with his wife’s safety. Randor had banished Sir William from his court, after Alassa had been imprisoned, but he’d made his way to Swanhaven shortly after Alassa proclaimed herself the Princess Regnant. Lord Summer, Lord Wolfe and Lord Dandelion, the latter glowering around as if he was daring anyone to make fun of his name; they were noblemen who’d thrown their lot in with Alassa, giving her a legitimacy she might have otherwise struggled to obtain. And, sitting at the end of the table, Mayor Heron and Lord Hollyford, both tradesmen who’d earned wealth and power as a result of the New Learning. They might not be able to trace their families back to the old days, but they were both competent and capable men. Emily had known them both from Cockatrice. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised they’d wound up on the war council.

    “Lady Emily,” Alassa said. “What - precisely - happened when you reached the castle?”

    Emily took a breath, then ran through the whole story as concisely as possible. Jade and Imaiqah looked pleased, she noted; the three lords didn’t look as if they believed her. Emily had a nasty feeling that they were sitting on the fence, even though it was unlikely that Randor would forgive them if they fell into his clutches. They had a great deal to lose if the king won the war. She hoped Alassa - and Jade - were keeping an eye on them. If there was anyone likely to think about switching sides, particularly if the war went badly, it was the aristocrats.

    And they already have reason to complain, Emily thought. Jade, charged with building up Alassa’s army, had been reluctant to put aristocrats in high positions simply because they were aristocrats. They feel they’re being denied positions that are owed to them.

    “The road to Winter Flower lies open, then,” Alassa said. “Lord Cat? Do you have anything you wish to add?”

    “No, Your Highness,” Cat said. “Lady Emily has touched on the important parts.”

    “I trust the prisoners will be ransomed,” Lord Summer said. “Our cash reserves are quite low.”

    Alassa looked at Emily, who inclined her head to Cat. “We did not capture anyone of particular note,” Cat said, stiffly. “Their families may pay a ransom for their safe return, if the king lets them, but they will probably not be able to raise a considerable sum. I think we would be better served by keeping them prisoner.”

    Emily nodded in agreement. Randor was unlikely to be keen on ransoming the prisoners, not when the money would go straight into Alassa’s war chest. He didn’t need the prisoners returned - it wasn’t as if they’d captured Sir Roger or Lord Nightingale - and their families weren’t important or influential enough to force his hand. He’d be more likely to refuse permission to collect a ransom than grant it.

    “We still need this war to end quickly,” Lord Summer said. “What happens if we are unable to pay the army?”

    “It comes apart,” Jade said, flatly.

    “Impressive,” Cat muttered, so quietly that Emily was the only one who could hear him. “A nobleman who understands the sinews of war.”

    Emily tapped her lips, warning Cat to be quiet. It was impressive, she supposed, although Lord Summer did have some genuine military experience. She’d heard that he’d been at Farrakhan, even though she hadn’t met him there. General Pollack had assigned Lord Summer to cover the army’s flanks, then harass the invading army during the siege. He’d done well, probably. There certainly hadn't been any suggestion he’d been derelict in his duty.

    Alassa tapped the table, sharply. “The king” - Emily caught the hint of pain in her voice - “and the Noblest have been weakened by their recent battle. Reports are vague, if not outright contradictory, but it seems clear that both sides took a beating.”

    “Then we have a window of opportunity to go on the offensive,” Lord Wolfe said. He was young, no older than Jade or Cat. Emily hadn’t met him at court, but she’d heard that he was both brave and foolhardy. He’d also been nominated as a potential husband for Imaiqah, before she’d started exchanging letters with Sir Roger. “Let us strike now and win our rights!”

    “That might be dangerous, My Lord,” Jade said, coolly. “The vast majority of our levies have seen nothing in the way of actual combat. They are simply not ready for going into battle. Our more experienced men, such as they are, have been doing what they can, but our forces are not ready. The raw material is there, yet it will take time to shape them into combat troops.”

    “And I was told that all you had to do was put a gun in a man’s hand,” Lord Wolfe said. His tone was snide, but Emily heard a hint of doubt underneath. He’d grown up in a world where a fast cavalry charge could win the day; now, charging into the teeth of massed gunfire was nothing more than suicide. “Do we not have enough guns?”

    “They need to learn everything from taking orders to marching in line,” Jade said. “And even though it is easy to teach them how to fire a gun, it is harder to show them how to use their weapons effectively. There is still too much work to do.”

    Alassa gave him a considering look. “How long?”

    “I’d say we need a month, perhaps two,” Jade said. “And then we’ll be ready to take the offensive.”

    Emily frowned, wondering if Alassa and Jade had planned the entire conversation ahead of time. He wouldn't contradict her in public, but ... he was urging caution without forcing Alassa to rule for or against her councillors. Alassa didn’t lack for either courage or cunning - or, for that matter, an understanding of the men she had to rule. She couldn’t afford to come down on Lord Wolfe like a ton of bricks - that would anger him for nothing - but she couldn’t allow him to win the day either.

    “Then there’s still room for a harassment campaign,” Lord Wolfe said. “Let us strike into Winter Flower and force the king’s whore to fight!”

    “We shall see,” Alassa said. Emily knew her well enough to hear the anger in her tone. Her friend had never forgiven Alicia, Baroness Winter Flower, for sleeping with Alassa’s father and bearing his child. Alicia hadn’t been given a choice, but Alassa found it hard to be sympathetic. The bastard son was a potential threat to her throne. “Jade? The map?”

    Jade unrolled the map of Zangaria, positioning it so that everyone could see. It was a real work of art, Emily noted; it had been designed to allow its owner to draw marks on the material without damaging the map itself. Someone had probably worked magic into the parchment, she thought. It would remain intact long after everyone at the table was dead and gone.

    “We have heard that the king intends to take the war into the Harkness Lands,” Jade said, bluntly. “So far, we have no reason to doubt it. It will take him several weeks to relieve Castle Blackstone, then move against Harkness itself. That will put the majority of his army a number of weeks from Winter Flower.”

    Emily had her doubts, although she trusted Jade’s opinion. King Randor’s infantry could march roughly ten to fifteen miles in a day, assuming they were marching down reasonably decent roads. They might be able to cover more ground, she supposed, but that would exhaust them by the time they reached their destination. His cavalry would be able to move faster, of course, yet they wouldn't be able to do more than slow Alassa down. Indeed, perhaps they should hope that Randor did force his men to march at a terrifying pace. They would be in no state for a fight when they arrived.

    “The king may then stab into the Gaillard, Silversmith and Thornwood Lands,” Jade continued. “It depends on precisely what the Noblest do when the king crushes Baroness Harkness. They may simply grovel in the mud for forgiveness.”

    “Perhaps,” Emily said. The noblemen of Zangaria were the most treacherous people she’d ever encountered. If the Noblest thought they’d lose, they’d happily grovel to the king. “But surrenders are not being accepted.”

    “Then they will have to fight,” Jade said. “This gives us an opening.”

    He traced out a line on the map. “Assuming the situation doesn’t change, I propose sending our regiments directly into Winter Flower, with the intention of taking and holding the major cities. That will force the king to fight to defend Winter Flower or allow us to secure road and waterways leading to Alexis. Worse, perhaps, it will also cut him off from the barony’s resources. It will no longer be sending money to his war chest and conscripts to his armies.”

    It will also alienate Alicia, Emily thought. She will see her barony slip away, no matter what she does.

    “This will give us time to build up further regiments and support bases for a drive on Alexis itself,” Jade said. “Once the capital falls, the king will be cut off from his support and isolated. At that point, we can come to terms with him.”

    Or kill him, Emily added, silently. Would Alassa kill her father? She’d already had one chance to win the war in a single blow and chosen to let it go. Randor will never accept a quiet retirement.

    “It seems a workable plan,” Lord Dandelion said. “But what happens to the captured barony?”

    “That will be decided later,” Alassa said. Her lips tightened, just for a second. “We have to win the war first.”

    She looked from face to face. “Does anyone have any concerns about Jade’s plan?”

    Jade’s plan, Emily thought. They won’t dare criticise something you wrote, but they’ll happily tear Jade’s planning to shreds.

    “Merely that it gives the king too much time to wreak havoc in the south,” Lord Summer said. “We do not know he won’t forgive the Noblest.”

    “A valid concern,” Alassa said. “But we have little choice.”

    She raised her voice, slightly. “We’ll hold another meeting tomorrow. If you have any concerns about the plan, after you’ve slept on it, raise them then. Until then ... dismissed.”

    Emily remained seated as the lords and tradesmen vacated their seats. They wouldn’t be happy that Alassa was holding an inner council meeting, one from which they were excluded, but there was little choice. Alassa couldn’t let her hair down in front of anyone she didn’t trust completely. Emily leaned back in her chair as Jade tightened the privacy wards, scanning the room for any sign of magical or mundane surveillance. They were in the heart of a heavily-guarded castle and he was still feeling paranoid.

    “You did very well,” Alassa said, once the doors were closed. “Both of you did very well.”

    “It was nothing,” Cat said, deadpan. “But we’ll happily accept any rewards you choose to bestow.”

    “The reward for completing a dangerous mission is another dangerous mission,” Jade said, dryly. He wrapped an arm around Alassa and held her, gently. “I’m sure we’ll find another tempting opportunity to get you killed sooner or later.”

    “Preferably later,” Imaiqah said.

    Emily smiled at her oldest - her first - friend. “How have you been?”

    Imaiqah winced. The healers had fixed the physical damage the king’s torturers had inflicted on her, but they’d been unable to do anything about the mental damage. Imaiqah would have to recover alone. Alassa had kept her busy, ensuring that Imaiqah had no time to brood, but she couldn’t be busy all the time. Emily had tried to talk to Imaiqah about it, the last time they’d been together, yet her friend had been reluctant to discuss it. Emily’s imagination offered far too many explanations she didn’t want to believe.

    “I’ve been better,” Imaiqah said. “But I’ve been keeping busy.”

    “She’s been supplying the army,” Alassa said, with obvious pride. “And she’s forged new trading links with Beneficence.”

    “Good,” Emily said. Beneficence had been turning itself into a factory city before Vesperian’s Folly had gone bust, taking the city’s fragile economy with it. The inhabitants would probably welcome the chance to sell to Alassa, despite the risk of angering King Randor. Alassa paid in cash. Besides, she would also be a much better neighbour. “Take care of yourself, please.”

    Alassa nodded, impatiently. “Do you have any concerns about the plan?”

    “Merely that it will ... upset ... Alicia,” Emily said. “She is supplying us with useful information.”

    “Assuming she hasn’t been caught and turned,” Jade said, sharply. “The king could be telling her precisely what to write.”

    “That’s always a risk,” Cat said. “And well ... let’s face it, what we’re hearing is what we want to hear.”

    “We’ll just have to take the risk,” Emily said. Alicia was not in a good position. If she was caught, she would have no hope of escape. It was rare for a woman to be executed, particularly a noblewoman, but there were worse things that could happen to them. “We would know if Randor was slipping an army into Winter Flower, wouldn’t we?”

    “Probably,” Jade said. “He might be able to get a cavalry unit across the river and into Winter Flower - or Swanhaven - without being spotted, but I don’t see how he could get his entire army into position. We have pickets covering all the major roads in and out of Swanhaven.”

    “Maybe he’ll bring them by ship,” Cat suggested. “Those riverboats could carry a few hundred men apiece, couldn’t they?”

    “Perhaps,” Alassa said. She cleared her throat. “Alicia’s barony ... like I said, we’ll decide what will happen to the barony after the war is over. If she serves me well, she can have it in her sole possession. I doubt she’ll want to keep Lord Burrows.”

    “Assuming he survives,” Jade said. “Lord Burrows is King Randor’s man, through and through.”

    Emily nodded in agreement. King Randor wouldn’t have given Alicia’s hand in marriage - and the immense dowry that came with it - to someone he didn’t trust completely. Lord Burrows had a good reputation for loyalty. And, being a known homosexual, he wouldn’t be easily seduced into disloyalty by his wife. And he wouldn’t care that his wife had given birth to a bastard.

    “We can consider that later too,” Alassa said. She smiled, tiredly. “For the moment, then, perhaps you will all join me for dinner. We can have a private meal, far from the maddening crowd.”

    “I’d like that,” Emily said. Her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been far too long since she’d eaten anything more substantial than a ration bar. “How have you been coping here?”

    “It’s been fun, in a way,” Alassa said. She looked pensive, just for a second. “But the real test will begin soon.”

    Yeah, Emily thought. You’re going to war against your father.
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    Emily opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling, feeling oddly unsure of herself. The room was one of Jade’s finer guestrooms, a suite that was the closest the Nameless World could come to a five-star hotel, yet she felt uneasy. She tensed as the wards quivered against her awareness, warning her that someone was trying to get through the door. A spell formed in her mind as she undid the wards holding the door closed, allowing the intruder to step into the room. A maid, her eyes wide with fear, stumbled forwards. She carried a small collection of firelighters and wood in her arms.

    “My Lady,” she said, torn between clutching the wood to her chest and curtseying. “I ...”

    “It’s alright,” Emily said, checking that Cat was decently covered. “You can make the fire, then withdraw.”

    The maid managed a half-curtsey, then hurried over to the fireplace and set to work. Emily watched her for a moment, wondering just how she’d ended up in the castle. Was she the sister or daughter of someone already working there? Or had she merely been lucky enough to win a coveted position? Emily found it hard to believe that there was so much competition for scullery maids and other lowly positions, particularly when some of the castle’s lords and masters had been far less decent than Jade, but she knew it was true. Service in a castle could be a girl’s way out of a downtrodden life, perhaps even a chance to earn wealth and power herself. Emily knew that would change - women were starting to work outside the home in Cockatrice - but it would take years. She doubted the poor girl in front of her had a hope of seeing a factory.

    “Thank you, My Lady,” the maid said, as the fire came to life. “I’ll be back to replenish the fireplace in an hour.”

    She dropped a curtsey, then backed out of the room as if she expected Emily to blast her to atoms the moment she turned her back. Emily shook her head, torn between amusement and sympathy. She wouldn’t kill the girl, let alone report her to her superiors, but she was perhaps unique among the nobility. Emily had seen great ladies order lowly maids flogged until they were bleeding, simply for making small mistakes in etiquette. The poor girls had no choice, but to take it.

    Cat stirred and sat upright, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “What time is it?”

    “Seven o’clock,” Emily told him, glancing at the clock on the stone walls. “Time you got up and out of bed.”

    She pulled a blanket around herself as she stood and headed for the bathroom. Cat had seen her naked - he’d been inside her - and there was no one else around, but she wasn’t comfortable with anything that smacked of public nudity. The bathroom was as luxurious as the rest of the suite, yet the tub in the middle of the room had no taps. Instead, someone had filled the tub with cold water and left it to settle. Emily muttered one spell to clean the water and another to heat it, then clambered into the tub and sighed in relief. The warmth slowly started to undo the kinks in her muscles. She’d been hurting more than she realised.

    Someone knocked on the door. Emily listened as Cat answered, his voice too low for her to make out the words. A moment later, she heard him padding back across the bedroom and into the bathroom. She fought the urge to sink further into the water as he entered the room, stark naked. She hoped he hadn't shown himself off to the messenger.

    “The Levellers are arriving after breakfast,” Cat said, as he climbed into the bathtub. “Alassa wants us both there.”

    Emily nodded shortly, wondering which particular Leveller cell was coming to greet the princess. Tam, Imaiqah’s distant cousin, had stayed in Alexis, unless he’d somehow managed to get out of the city in the chaos. She puzzled over it for a moment, then dismissed the thought as she washed her hair before climbing out of the tub and drying herself with magic. There was no point in wondering. She’d find out soon enough. She hurried back into the bedroom, dressed quickly and inspected herself in the mirror. The tall confident girl looking back at her was almost a stranger. She found it hard to believe, as she tied her hair back into a ponytail, just how much she’d changed over the last six years. The scrawny girl who’d been dragged into the Nameless World was nothing more than a distant memory.

    Cat joined her, giving her a quick kiss before dressing rapidly and heading for the warded door. Emily followed him, enjoying the brief moment of domestic life. She suspected she wouldn’t be comfortable sharing her life completely with someone else, but - for the moment - she could enjoy being with him. It wasn’t something she’d been able to do before. Caleb and her had never been able to move in together, no matter how close they’d become.

    Not that we have really moved in together, she thought. We’re just sharing a room.

    Breakfast had been laid out in the dining room, with a handful of guests picking at their food and drink. Emily wondered, sourly, just how much money had been wasted on the buffet, even though she knew that Alassa had to set a good table. There was no sign of the princess herself, unsurprisingly. Alassa and Jade would eat in private, then join the others in the Throne Room. Emily took a plateful of food and sat next to Cat. It still astonished her just how much she managed to put away every day without getting fat. But then, fat magicians were astonishingly rare.

    “It’s time,” Cat said, as a gong echoed through the chamber. “Shall we go?”

    Emily nodded, wiped her mouth and led the way down the corridor to the Throne Room. The wards seemed weaker here, as if they were calibrated to provide a certain degree of protection rather than simply keep intruders out. Jade had to be raging about that, Emily thought. There was no way he could keep Alassa completely safe when she had to receive ambassadors and messengers from all over the kingdom. It wouldn’t be long before she started to receive representatives from other kingdoms too. The nations bordering Zangaria would be delighted if a long period of civil war gave them the opportunity to make territorial gains.

    She pushed the thought aside as they stepped into the Throne Room. It was nowhere near as grand as King Randor’s - Alassa’s father wouldn’t have allowed his barons to outshine him - and it was smaller, but it was suitable. If nothing else, Emily reflected as she took a place near Alassa, there wasn’t enough room for all the hangers-on who would have crowded the king’s chamber. The handful of people lining the walls had legitimate reasons for being there, rather than merely wanting to see and be seen.

    The herald stepped forward as the doors crashed open. “The Honourable Gentlemen, Bradford and Masterly.”

    Emily leaned forward as the two Levellers came into view. They looked to be prosperous merchants, rather than farmers or peasants. That wasn’t too surprising. The merchants were rich and able enough to know they deserved more, and smart enough to understand that the entire system needed to be changed, while the farmers and peasants were more concerned with survival than political reform. They’d be happy just to get rid of the taxman and recruiting sergeant.

    Cat nudged her. “Do you know these people?”

    “No,” Emily muttered back. She studied the two men thoughtfully, noting the clothes they wore. Their outfits were strikingly close to aristocratic, without quite breaking the Sumptuary Laws. “But I’d be surprised if they weren’t from Cockatrice.”

    “Your Highness,” the lead man said. He bowed, but did not go down on one knee. “I am Bradford, Speaker for the Levellers of Cockatrice.”

    “I greet you,” Alassa said. If she was annoyed by the unsubtle warning that the Levellers were not her servants, no trace of it showed in her face. “And I greet your friend, Mr. Masterly.”

    Masterly bowed. “Your Highness.”

    “We have heard much of your willingness to acknowledge our natural rights,” Bradford said, without bothering with any preamble. Emily suspected that Alassa found it something of a relief. “It is our belief that supporting you would be the best course of action to secure our rights.”

    “I thank you,” Alassa said.

    “We have many cells, scattered throughout the kingdom,” Bradford said. He looked just a little perturbed by Alassa’s apparent lack of reaction. “Our people work in factories, trade on the rivers, serve in city guards. We have vast influence and power, which we are prepared to put at your disposal.”

    “Indeed,” Alassa murmured.

    Emily frowned. Bradford didn’t appear to be bluffing, although Emily doubted he really was as influential as he claimed. The Levellers resisted all authority, including their own. It was possible that Bradford didn’t have any real control outside Cockatrice City, let alone Cockatrice Barony. And it was also possible that he wasn’t based in Cockatrice City. He hadn’t paid any attention to Emily, even though a person who lived in Cockatrice would probably have seen her during the Faire. Someone who lived outside the city would probably not recognise her. Emily hadn’t seen a single portrait of herself that looked remotely realistic.

    “However, we must make a request in turn,” Bradford said. “The price for our assistance is your adoption of the Cockatrice Charter and your promise to spread it throughout the land.”

    Ouch, Emily thought.

    She sucked in her breath, sharply. That was going to cause problems. Alassa would turn most of the aristocracy into her instant enemies if she propagated the charter. They wouldn’t want to honour a charter that actually granted rights to the lower orders. And yet, it would also serve as a rallying cry. Alassa would have no trouble recruiting thousands of volunteers for her armies if she was offering them something more than a chance to get killed for their social superiors.

    And the nobility has had its day, Emily thought. King Randor will kill anyone who shows the slightest hint of defiance to his rule.

    “An interesting request,” Alassa said. She stared at Bradford for a long chilling moment. “It would certainly have major political ramifications.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Bradford said. “It would convince many of us to back you, instead of sitting on the fence.”

    Alassa’s voice hardened. “My father will not let any of you live. He sees you as a challenge to his power. You would be well advised to support me anyway.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Bradford said. “But we have no interest in replacing one tyrant with another. We require a gesture of your sincerity.”

    “And I have no way to know if you truly possess the power you claim,” Alassa added. “Are you truly in a position to help me?”

    “I believe that some of your councillors smoothed our path to this audience,” Bradford said, calmly. “Is that not enough?”

    “Perhaps,” Alassa said. She leaned back on her throne, considering. “I must discuss such a decision with my advisors. Please, wait outside. I will have an answer for you shortly.”

    Emily watched, grimly, as the chamber was cleared of everyone, but Emily, Imaiqah and Alassa herself. Jade and Alassa had had a muttered conversation, followed by Jade leaving the room to take care of the Levellers. Emily wondered, as she watched him go, if he liked being excluded from the discussion. Alassa couldn’t afford to have people thinking that Jade was the power behind the throne, the one who was really in charge, but Jade had to find it a little irritating. He was a married man, yet most of the rights of a married man were denied to him. Emily had no idea how he felt about that.

    But a married man normally has complete power over his wife, she reminded herself. Alassa can hardly be blamed for wanting to make it clear that he has no power over her.

    “Emily,” Alassa said. Now they were alone, her voice sounded a little less stable. “Can they be trusted? Can they ... can they be useful?”

    “I don’t know,” Emily admitted.

    “I know Bradford,” Imaiqah said. “He’s always straddled the line between Cockatrice and Beneficence. He was one of the people smart enough not to invest in Vesperian’s Folly, back before the bubble burst. And he’s rich and powerful enough to want more. The chances are good that he can give you some quite considerable help.”

    “And he’s a Leveller,” Alassa mused. “Is he a true believer?”

    “He might well be,” Imaiqah said. “Alassa, he clawed his way up from practically nothing to a position of considerable wealth and power. He has good reason to resent a system that classes him as a social inferior, despite his achievements. My father ...”

    Felt pretty much the same way, Emily thought. Imaiqah’s father had committed high treason in a desperate bid to force the king to keep his promises. He’d died in the attempt, his double life remaining a secret for nearly two years afterwards. Can we trust them?

    Alassa looked at Emily. “What do you think?”

    Emily took a moment to organise her thoughts. “The Cockatrice Charter guarantees the rights of people living within the barony,” she said, carefully. She’d based it on a cross between Magna Carta and the American Constitution. “Most of the rights are relatively simple; a limited form of democracy, trial by jury, freedom of speech and expression, patent rights, rights for women and children ... I don’t believe any of them will cause long-term harm. But, on the other hand, if you swear to impose the charter right across the kingdom, you will make a great many enemies.”

    “Most of whom would like nothing more than to kill my husband, murder my baby and marry me off to the man of their choice,” Alassa said, sharply. She touched her belly, lightly. “I think they will always be my enemies, even when they are prostrating themselves in front of me.”

    “I fear you are right,” Imaiqah said. “But propagating the charter might also turn Lord Summer and his compatriots against you.”

    Alassa cocked her head. “Does it matter?”

    Emily hesitated. None of the lords were particularly wealthy or powerful. Indeed, the only reason they’d joined Alassa was the hope she’d return lands they’d lost long ago. They certainly lacked the influence of a baron or even the resources of a manor lord. Lords Summer and Wolfe might have some real military experience, but they were hardly irreplaceable. Jade and Cat had more experience than either of the aristocrats.

    “Perhaps not,” Emily said, finally. “But they will feel slighted.”

    “The more imaginative ones will see ways to turn the Charter to their advantage,” Imaiqah mused. “There are ways a powerful nobleman can profit without squeezing the peasants until they bleed.”

    “That’s true,” Emily agreed. “And you can probably find ways to cushion the blow.”

    “Except they’ll all be wanting me to cushion the blow,” Alassa said, dryly. “How many noblemen will come running to me when it looks like I am going to win?”

    Emily grinned. “Does it matter?”

    “It might,” Alassa said, seriously. “It depends on what sort of dowries they bring with them.”

    She leaned back in her throne, resting her hands on her knees. “It’s a gamble,” she said. “I’ll be trusting in the new and rejecting the old.”

    “The old nearly overthrew your father twice,” Emily pointed out. “And it seriously weakened your great-grandfather. The new ... is more likely to give you a chance to assert your position.”

    “Until it decides the kingdom is better off without a monarch,” Alassa mused. “We’re unleashing a whirlwind, Emily. Who knows where it will end?”

    Emily shrugged. Britain had evolved into a constitutional monarchy, with real power vested in parliament; France, on the other hand, had had a series of bloody revolutions that had torn the old order apart, only to replace it with something similar. She could understand why Alassa was so concerned. She could be making a deal with the devil. But change was already on the way. Emily and the New Learning had seen to that. There was no longer any belief in the divine right of kings. And those who made peaceful change impossible made violent revolution a certainty.

    “It represents your best chance to win,” she said, finally. “And even if Bradford is ... exaggerating ... his power, you will still pick up support from the other Levellers.”

    “And trigger uprisings across the kingdom,” Alassa said. “Where will it all end?”

    She stood. “I’ll inform them that I will swear to uphold the charter,” she said. “No” - her lips curved into a smile - “I’ll propagate my own charter. It’ll be exactly the same, only applicable to the entire kingdom.”

    “You can erase my name if you like,” Emily said. She wasn’t really concerned. Alassa was crossing her own personal Rubicon. “I don’t mind.”

    “We’ll make it spectacular,” Alassa said. “A formal ceremony, witnessed by everyone. And I’ll make the oath publicly ...”

    “Jade will not be happy,” Imaiqah warned. “A large crowd? It will be hard to guarantee your safety.”

    “I have to take the risk,” Alassa said. She looked at Imaiqah, then Emily. “Would my father remain behind, in safety, while his men won victories in his name?”

    “I think he would take his safety seriously,” Emily said. “If you die ...”

    “I’ll talk to Jade,” Alassa said. “It won’t be a pleasant conversation, but we’ll have to have it anyway. And then we’ll make the arrangements.”

    “And then the die will be cast,” Emily commented.

    “Quite,” Alassa agreed. She smiled, looking more like her old self. “Let the dice fly high!”
     
  9. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    their meager supplies

    BTW, I whole heartedly approve of any and all Thomas Hardy references made by any native residents of The Nameless World. :D
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 17, 2018
  10. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Horsefeathers. He was planning on a nap.

    madding

    Methinks you meant "he" in this instance.
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    It wasn’t evident to anyone who didn’t know them, Emily thought, but it was clear - as Jade and Alassa entered the makeshift temple - that they’d had a row. Jade would not have been keen on Alassa exposing herself to danger, while Alassa - just as pigheaded and stubborn - would have resisted the suggestion she remain behind while sending a double to the ceremony. Emily was silently glad she hadn’t been anywhere near the couple when Alassa had told Jade what she had in mind. It wouldn’t have been pleasant to watch.

    She shifted uncomfortably in the long white dress, feeling exposed. The material was not translucent, and it was loose enough to hide her curves, but she couldn’t escape the impression that one drop of rain would turn the dress transparent. It was, apparently, traditional. Everyone in the small group by the altar wore white, the men as well as the women. Alassa looked like a bride on her way to the reception instead of a supplicant begging the favour of the gods.

    Emily forced herself to look around the temple, although she was uneasily aware that eyes were watching her. Alassa’s councillors were standing by the doors, the aristocrats looking as if they’d sooner be somewhere - anywhere - else while the commoners looked pleased; the Levellers stood near the altar, watching as Alassa offered her respects to the gods. They looked pleased too, although their hard eyes suggested they didn't entirely trust their princess to keep her word. An oath sworn before the gods was hardly a magically-binding oath. There would be no repercussions for breaking an oath in the mortal world.

    And no one is sure the gods really exist, Emily thought. It was hard, sometimes, to take the gods seriously. She’d had her doubts about the local customs even before the fake god had arisen in Beneficence. Who knows if there truly is an afterlife?

    Her eyes narrowed as she studied the group. A young girl stood behind Bradford and Masterly, looking so much like Melissa that Emily thought, just for a second, that she really was Melissa. But there was no sense of magic around her, no sense that she was the head of a magical family. The real Melissa was on the other side of the Nameless World. A chill ran down Emily’s spine, as if someone had walked over her grave. The young woman’s mere presence nagged at her mind. It meant something. But what?

    Keep an eye on her, Emily told herself, firmly. And watch to see if she does anything suspicious.

    She looked away, surveying the temple. The walls were lined with statues, from the patron deity of Swanhaven to the Crone Goddess herself. A handful of bowls sat beneath some of the statues, waiting for donations of food and money. In theory, they were given to the poor; in practice, Emily rather suspected that the priests took the donations for themselves. It was easy to be cynical when the priests appeared to be just as mired in the mundane world as everyone else. The temples were some of the greatest landholders in the kingdom. She had no trouble seeing why Randor and his ancestors had worked hard to balance the competing religious factions. United, they would pose a formidable threat to the crown.

    Alassa cleared her throat, loudly. “I am Alassa, Princess Regnant of Zangaria, Daughter of Randor, Granddaughter of Alexis,” she said. Her voice echoed through the temple, despite the lack of an amplification spell. “I call upon you call to bear witness, in the sight of the gods, to my words.”

    There was a long pause. “I swear, before the Crone Herself, that I will uphold the provisions of the Great Charter. I swear that I will use the Charter as the basis for my rule, I swear that I will treat it as the words of the gods themselves. I swear, before the Crone and all of the gods, that the Great Charter will become the law of the land itself.”

    Emily heard a sharp intake of breath from behind her. She didn’t look round to see who’d betrayed their surprise so openly. Alassa was playing with fire, if one believed in the Crone Goddess. She was a vengeful deity, always ready to pour trials and tribulations on any of her followers who failed to live up to her ideals. Emily had no idea how seriously Alassa took the rites and rituals of the Crone - she’d always had the impression that Alassa followed the religion as a form of teenage rebellion rather than true conviction - but Alassa had effectively nailed her colours to the mast. The Crone might not punish her for breaking her word. Her people would.

    “The Great Charter will be propagated throughout the land,” Alassa said. Her word was already being acted upon. The printers had worked through the night to churn out hundreds of pamphlets, each one carrying a complete copy of the Great Charter. “And, wherever I hold sway, it will become the law of the land.”

    Emily glanced at Lord Summer. He didn’t look happy. He’d suggested that the Great Charter should be extended to lands Alassa didn’t hold, and not given any power in territory she did hold, but Alassa had overruled him. The commoners would rise up against her if she tried to cheat them so blatantly. Besides, the Great Charter was nothing more than words - outside her territory - until she gained the power to impose it on the entire kingdom. The Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t freed the slaves in the Confederate States either.

    We still have to win the war, Emily thought, grimly. She’d listened to the plans, and endless arguments over the right way to take the war to their enemies, but talking would only get them so far. It wouldn’t be long before they actually went to war. And if we lose, the Great Charter will become nothing more than a memory.

    She forced herself to listen attentively as Alassa led the gathered crowd in prayer. It was a fairly simple prayer, one that could be offered to many gods. The Nameless World had never invented monotheism. A man could follow one god or many or none, if he wished. There was no sense that one religion was right and all the others were nothing more than fakes; indeed, men believed in all the gods without praying to them. And yet, it was considered rude to deny the gods completely.

    The crowd slowly dispersed once the prayer had come to an end, a number picking up copies of the Great Charter as they left the temple. Emily smiled, rather wanly. The vast majority of people in Swanhaven and Cockatrice could read, even if it was the phonic alphabet she’d taught them rather than Old Script. There would be no room for debate over the contents of the Charter, no opportunity for unscrupulous lords and ladies to covertly rewrite the provisions. Emily suspected that the letters and numbers she’d introduced would cause just as many changes as gunpowder and steam engines, in the long run. It would certainly be a great deal easier for people to tell if they were being scammed.

    Cat caught her arm. “She’s committed now, you know.”

    Emily glanced at him. She had no idea if he was deeply religious or not. Soldiers and combat sorcerers tended to pray to the gods of battle, proving - once again - that there were no atheists in foxholes. Cat might well have taken the whole ceremony very seriously. She wondered, morbidly, if they should talk about religion. If they stayed together for years ...

    “I know,” she said, dismissing the thought. Cat had made it clear that he wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship. “Do you think it was a good idea?”

    “She needed to do something dramatic,” Cat said. “But swearing an oath before the Crone in public ...?”

    He looked towards the statue of the goddess and shuddered. Emily nodded in grim understanding. The Crone Goddess might have been female, but there was nothing feminine about her. She was the patron goddess of women everywhere, the binder of oaths and the avenger of wronged women. Emily was mildly surprised that the religion hadn’t been driven underground long ago. But then, the Crone also punished women who fell from the straight and narrow.

    And the kings and princes are probably too cynical to believe in the gods, Emily thought, wryly. She’d never seen anything to suggest that theocrats genuinely believed in their religion. They may feel that toleration is a small price to pay for peace and quiet.

    “It was very dramatic,” she said, banishing the thought. “And it will have been taken seriously.”

    She turned as she heard someone come up behind her. Bradford stood there, looking torn between embarrassment and nervousness. Technically, she was his feudal lady. He should have paid homage to her as soon as he entered Swanhaven. But he clearly hadn’t recognised her. Emily wondered, absently, who’d told him the truth. Behind him, the Melissa-lookalike just looked nervous. Emily guessed she was Bradford’s daughter or niece. Nepotism was alive and well in the Nameless World.

    “My Lady,” Bradford said. He bowed, stiffly. “I thank you for your support.”

    “You are welcome,” Emily said, ruefully. “But I think you will find that the princess chose to implement the charter herself.”

    Bradford didn’t look as though he believed her, although he was clearly unwilling to call her a liar to her face. Emily resisted the urge to roll her eyes. There were times when it seemed that everything good in the kingdom was attributed to her, while everything bad was blamed on an endless series of scapegoats. She had written the original charter - that much was true - but it had been Alassa’s idea to swear a public oath. King Randor’s daughter had a much surer grasp of public relations than her father.

    She studied at Whitehall, Emily reminded herself. The students hadn’t been permitted servants. Some of them had taken it hard. Alassa’s title didn’t mean much there.

    “Regardless, we thank you,” Bradford said. He nodded to the girl, who inched backwards slightly. “This is Iodine, my daughter.”

    “My Lady,” Iodine said, dropping a curtsey.

    Emily nodded to her, formally. Up close, Iodine didn’t look that much like Melissa. She had long red hair, flowing down her back and brushing against her bottom, but there was a hardness in her freckled face that spoke of a life spent scrabbling for scraps of wealth and power. Emily guessed that her family had only recently started to earn serious money, let alone establish themselves as a political force. Iodine wore her fine clothes as if she wasn’t used to wearing them.

    “A pleasure,” Emily said, finally.

    Bradford coughed. “Iodine is a very smart girl,” he said. “She can read and write in both Old and New Script. She was in line to become an accountant when the guild collapsed.”

    Emily lifted her eyebrows. There had been no guarantee that Iodine would actually have become an accountant, but even getting in line was an impressive achievement. She couldn’t think of many other girls who could have done it, particularly as it was a job for life. They’d face a great deal of discrimination. There were too many men who thought that women took jobs from men who needed to put food on the table. And if Iodine married ...

    “That is impressive,” she said, wondering precisely what Bradford actually wanted. “Can we get to the point?”

    Bradford looked oddly relieved. “I would like you to offer her a place in your retinue.”

    Emily blinked. She had a retinue? Other noblewomen might be surrounded by their personal entourages, from maids and gossipmongers to butlers and bodyguards, but she had never felt the need. Having a personal servant, let alone a small army of personal servants, had always struck her as a little creepy. Besides, she had no idea what Void would say if she insisted on bringing a servant to her apprenticeship. She had a feeling the sorcerer wouldn’t allow her to do anything of the sort.

    We didn’t have servants at Whitehall, she thought. Alassa had had real trouble learning to cope. And I don’t need a servant now.

    She forced herself to think. She wasn’t blind to the underlying reasons behind the request. Bradford would profit if he was seen to have a relative in Emily’s retinue, even if Iodine did nothing more than brush Emily’s hair every morning. The mere hint of influence could be spun into a powerful patronage network, given time. Emily had no intention of allowing him to play political games with her name. And yet ... turning down the offer would have consequences. Who knew what Bradford would do if he felt insulted?

    “I don’t have a retinue at the moment,” she said, finally. There was nothing that Iodine could do for her. “But I can recommend Iodine for a position in the princess’s household. Would that be sufficient?”

    “It would be quite sufficient,” Bradford said.

    “The final decision will not be made by me,” Emily said, with the private thought that Alassa might not be happy to have a Melissa lookalike on her staff. Alassa and Melissa had been enemies for years. “But I can put her name forward if you like.”

    “Please,” Bradford said. He bowed, again. “I thank you.”

    Emily watched Bradford and Iodine go, feeling torn between wry amusement and cold annoyance. She understood his problem - he lacked the power base he’d need to protect himself if someone with more wealth and power turned on him - but, at the same time, she couldn't help feeling a little manipulated. Bradford wanted to make use of her for his own reasons. Emily wondered, absently, what Iodine wanted. A young woman with her qualifications could practically write her own ticket, back in Cockatrice. She wouldn’t have so much opportunity if she entered Alassa’s - or Emily’s - service.

    “Interesting,” Cat said. He sounded more amused than anything else. “Why didn’t you take her on?”

    “I don’t need a servant,” Emily said. She led the way out of the temple and onto the muddy street, muttering a spell to ensure they wouldn’t be recognised. “Can you imagine what Sergeant Miles would say?”

    “He wouldn’t be pleased,” Cat said. “How many aristocratic commanders turned up to the war with a small army of servants in tow?”

    Emily nodded. “Too many,” she said. “And how much trouble did they cause?”

    She stepped to one side as a line of troops marched down the street, their weapons slung over their shoulders. They were singing a marching cadence that was strikingly obscene. The men looked professional enough, to the untrained eye, but Emily had seen enough real soldiers to tell that the new recruits hadn’t had any real experience. They hadn’t yet seen the elephant. She wondered, grimly, just how many of them would survive their first real battle. Or how enthusiastic they’d be after they saw their comrades blown to bits. No one really understood how gruesome war could be until they saw it with their own eyes.

    “Bunch of pansies,” Cat said. He spat into the gutter. “I bet you that half of them don’t even know how to fire a gun.”

    “You didn’t know how to fire a gun until Farrakhan,” Emily reminded him. She wasn’t surprised by his attitude. Cat had seen a real war. “They will learn.”

    “Hah,” Cat muttered.

    Emily gave him a sharp look. “Don’t you think they have a chance?”

    “They’re not ready for war,” Cat said, flatly. “Jade was right. It will be weeks before we are ready to take the offensive.”

    He said nothing else as they made their slow way through the muddy streets. Small groups of people were everywhere, holding copies of the Great Charter and discussing its contents in excited voices. A handful of broadsheet singers were waving newspapers about, demanding attention. Emily glanced at the front cover and rolled her eyes. Apparently, King Randor had had nine piglets by the royal sow. Alassa was not going to be pleased when she heard that.

    It could be worse, Emily thought. She hasn’t heard the worst of the rumours yet.

    She put the thought aside and watched the city prepare for war. Blacksmiths were forging weapons; swords, shields and guns. Cooks were preparing salt beef and other foodstuffs that would keep for months. Young women were sewing uniforms for the soldiers and, less pleasantly, preparing medical supplies. Emily shuddered as she saw the chirurgeons barking orders to their apprentices, readying them for duty with the army. Magical healers could fix anything that wasn’t immediately fatal, but chirurgeons were little more than butchers. She’d introduced some medical knowledge - it was astonishing how many lives had been saved simply by insisting on proper sanitation - yet it would be a long time before doctors on the Nameless World saved more patients than they killed. The chirurgeons simply didn’t know what they were doing.

    They reached the castle and walked over the drawbridge. Someone - Jade, probably - had doubled the guard, turning the gatehouse into a minor fortress in its own right. Emily allowed the wards to wash over them, confirming their identity, as Cat spoke to the guard commander. A number of horses waited in the courtyard, their flanks covered with coats of arms. Alassa had visitors.

    A messenger appeared as they reached the door. “My Lady, My Lord, the Princess Regnant requests your urgent presence.”

    Emily looked down at her garb. The white dress was stained with mud. She wanted to change, but she knew Alassa wouldn’t summon her unless it was urgent. Her friend knew better.

    “We’ll be there in a moment,” she said, reassuringly. “I just need to splash some water on my face first.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” the messenger said.
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    “Lady Emily,” Alassa said, as Emily and Cat entered the small conference room. “Thank you for coming.”

    “It is my pleasure,” Emily said, gravely.

    She took the seat Alassa indicated and looked around the room. Four men sat facing Alassa, their clothes marking them out as noblemen. She thought she recognised one of them, perhaps from Alexis, but she couldn’t put a name to the face. The other three were complete strangers. She rested her hands on the table, waiting to hear what the newcomers had to say for themselves. They wouldn’t have risked the king’s anger - by travelling into Swanhaven - if they hadn’t been desperate.

    “Viscount Hansel has come with a proposition,” Alassa said. She cocked her head to one side. “I thought you might be interested in hearing it.”

    Emily kept her face impassive. Alassa was behaving ... oddly. She was normally much more decisive. Did she want Emily to make a show of supporting her? Or talking her out of ... of what? Viscount Hansel - the man she thought she recognised - was a stranger, as far as she was concerned. He’d never been formally introduced to her. She couldn’t even remember if they’d exchanged greetings during one of King Randor’s formal balls.

    Viscount Hansel was a tall man, with a puffy face that looked as if it hadn’t decided what it wanted to be. And yet, he was clearly an adult. Emily suspected he was in his mid-thirties, if not older. His dark hair and darker eyes gave him a sharp appearance that worried her more than she cared to admit. It was hard not to dislike him on sight.

    “My Lady,” Viscount Hansel said. “I come with a proposition.”

    And presumably not an offer of marriage, Emily thought. What do you want?

    “My lands are in the western half of Winter Flower, centred on Eagle’s Rest,” Viscount Hansel said, after a moment. “And they are on the verge of revolt. Lord Burrows” - his face twisted, as if he wanted to spit - “has been bleeding us dry. It is only a matter of time before something explodes.”

    Emily glanced at the map on the wall. Viscount Hansel might not have the vast landholdings of a baron, but he was hardly a landless aristocrat with nothing more than a name. Eagle’s Rest sat on the Swanhaven River, a few miles east of the castle Emily and Cat had captured, in prime position to take advantage of the trade routes running through the kingdom. Why had he come to Alassa? Did he hope that Alassa would calm his revolting subjects? Or ... or what? It was hard to see how Viscount Hansel benefited from making contact with Alassa and her followers.

    “We - my brother and I - are prepared to pledge ourselves to your cause,” Viscount Hansel said, looking at Alassa. “With our help, you can weaken the entire western defence line around Alexis and open the way for a drive on the capital itself.”

    Alassa leaned forward. “And in exchange?”

    “We want our rights and prerogatives respected,” Viscount Hansel said. “Our titles to our lands should be confirmed.”

    “I see,” Alassa said. Her gaze moved to the other two men. “And do you feel the same way?”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” one of the men said. “We will pledge ourselves to you if you swear to uphold our rights and prerogatives.”

    “Indeed,” Alassa said. She smiled, humourlessly. “Wait. I will have an answer for you soon.”

    Emily expected the four aristocrats to protest as they were hurried out of the room, but they said nothing. They had to be desperate, then. And that meant ... what? She wished she knew them better, even though she doubted they’d get along. She might at least have some idea what they really wanted.

    “An interesting development,” Alassa mused, once the door was closed. “What do you make of it?”

    “They’re on the verge of being overthrown,” Jade said. “Or simply losing their rights and prerogatives to the king and his servants. They are desperate.”

    “True,” Alassa agreed. “They wouldn't have come here if they weren’t desperate.”

    “And Hansel is willing to pledge himself to you to avoid being overthrown,” Emily said. She took a long breath, contemplating the situation. “Alassa, he’s trying to place you in a particularly nasty position.”

    “Explain,” Alassa ordered.

    Emily looked back at her, evenly. “If you support him, Alassa, you might be backing him against his people,” she said. “The Levellers will not be happy. On the other hand, if you don’t support him, you will be seen as a poor friend and worse ally.”

    “And his people might have good reason to want to revolt,” Jade said. “I’ve heard stories about Hansel. He is not a good lord.”

    Alassa let out a long breath. “And I trust him about as far as I can throw him.”

    Cat snickered. “With magic, Your Highness, that is quite some distance.”

    “That said, Hansel is also taking a serious risk,” Alassa continued, ignoring Cat with a thoroughness Emily could only admire. “My father will not forgive him for travelling to Swanhaven, particularly as his brother accompanied him. They’ll be stripped of their lands when he finds out about it. They must feel they have no choice.”

    “They might be on the verge of losing their lands anyway,” Jade said, quietly. “Either to the king, who isn’t likely to be merciful, or to their own people.”

    “You can’t afford to back him,” Emily said. “It would make a mockery of the Great Charter.”

    “I know,” Alassa said. “And I have no doubt that Hansel will do everything in his power to cling to power. He’ll make whatever deals he has to make, then break them when he thinks he can get away with it. He’s a liability.”

    “Then send him away,” Imaiqah said. “Or put him in jail.”

    “He came under a promise of safe conduct,” Jade said. “We cannot simply toss him into the nearest cell and throw away the key.”

    “He’s presented us with an opportunity,” Alassa said. “And yet, he’s also a liability.”

    She met Emily’s eyes. “Are you feeling up to taking on another mission? You and Cat?”

    “Sure,” Cat said, before Emily could reply. “I was getting bored here.”

    Emily nodded, slowly. “What do you want us to do?”

    “Hansel is right, damn the man,” Alassa said. “If we can encourage Eagle’s Rest - and the surrounding countryside - to rebel against Lord Burrows and Alicia, we will make it impossible for my father to mount an offensive into Swanhaven until the rebels are brutally crushed. It will give us the opportunity to finish building up our army and take the offensive into their territory.”

    “And make it easy to advance on Winter Flower itself,” Jade added.

    “I want you to accompany Hansel as he returns to his lands,” Alassa said. “Make contact with the rebels, establish supply lines and encourage them to rise up against their oppressors when they have an opportunity. And, perhaps just as importantly, ensure that Hansel is not in a position to simply crush the rebels when they’ve served their purpose. We can’t afford to let him regain supreme power.”

    “Sounds like fun,” Cat said.

    Emily wasn’t so sure. She’d never been to Winter Flower. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d walked into danger, but ... this time, she couldn’t trust her allies. Viscount Hansel would put a knife between her ribs or cut her throat the moment he felt she was no longer useful. He had no magic, as far as she could tell, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. She would have to watch her back as long as she remained in his company.

    Cat will be with me, she thought. And I am the best choice for the mission.

    “We can do it,” she said, slowly. “But we will have to watch our backs.”

    “Yeah,” Cat said.

    “The rebels will listen to you, Emily,” Alassa said. Her lips twisted, as if she’d bitten into something sour. “You have more credibility than anyone else.”

    “Then make Hansel swear to uphold the Great Charter before we leave,” Emily said. “It will make it harder for him to change his mind.”

    “And give the rebels a prefabricated excuse for revolution if he tries to undo the charter,” Alassa commented. “Good thinking.”

    Emily winced. There was no way Viscount Hansel would willingly uphold the Great Charter. He’d see it as an assault on his limitless powers within his lands - and he’d be right. But Alassa couldn’t afford to put the charter aside, either. It would undermine her standing with the commoners who were the backbone of her rule. She would need to force Hansel to swear ... and be ready to step in when, not if, he tried to cheat.

    “Thanks,” she said. She wasn’t particularly enthusiastic, but it had to be done. “Cat and I should be able to handle the mission.”

    “Of course we can,” Cat said. “Just you and I ...”

    “Take some extra men too,” Jade advised. “You can’t be everywhere at once.”

    Alassa nodded, slowly. “Bring in Hansel and his followers,” she ordered. “And give them a copy of the charter.”

    Emily watched as Hansel and his companions were escorted back into the room. They looked confident, as if they knew there was no way Alassa could reject their proposal. Emily studied them thoughtfully, wondering which one would be the first to switch sides again. It was easy to imagine Hansel choosing to side with the king - or the Noblest - if they made him a better offer. Randor couldn’t intend to slaughter all his noblemen, could he?

    But Hansel would have owed homage to Alicia’s father, Emily thought. Randor would have suspected his loyalties right from the start.

    “We have discussed your proposal,” Alassa said. “And we are disposed to accept, if certain conditions are met.”

    Hansel’s eyes narrowed. “Conditions?”

    “The Great Charter will be imposed over the entire kingdom, including Winter Flower,” Alassa said. Imaiqah passed Hansel a copy. “You will be obliged to uphold the charter once we have recovered your lands.”

    Hansel took the copy and read it, quickly. His face flickered through a dizzying series of emotions, from shock and disbelief to a contemplative smirk that told Emily, if she’d had any doubt, that Hansel would find a way to skirt or neutralise the charter within his lands. She doubted it would end well for anyone. Alassa might not care - much - if Hansel was torn to pieces by his own people, but she’d have to act to punish the men responsible. That would definitely not end well.

    “Your Highness,” Hansel said. “I ...”

    He swallowed and started again. “This will not uphold my rights and prerogatives.”

    “It certainly places some limits on your power,” Alassa agreed. “And it grants rights to everyone, even commoners and slaves. But it does not render you powerless.”

    Hansel’s face twisted. Beside him, his brother didn’t look remotely happy. Emily wondered, absently, if they’d take their horses and go straight home ... except they wouldn’t have risked pledging themselves to Alassa if they had any other choice. What would they do? She suspected she knew the answer. They’d find a way to cheat.

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Hansel said. “Is this your price for your support?”

    “Yes,” Alassa said, flatly.

    “Then we will uphold the charter,” Hansel said. “I trust that will be suitable?”

    Until you find a way to cheat, Emily thought.

    “It will do,” Alassa said. “Lady Emily and Lord Cat - and a handful of others - will accompany you back to Eagle’s Rest. They will assist the rebels and ensure they are pointed at the right targets. I trust that is satisfactory?”

    Hansel looked as if he wanted to object, but didn’t quite dare. Emily didn’t blame him. If there was anyone he didn’t want in his territory, it was her. She’d done enough - both in the real world and the fevered delusions of the broadsheet singers - to suggest that her mere presence brought chaos and disruption. Hell, Hansel knew she was at least partly responsible for the social upheaval that had led to civil war. He had to see her as a potential threat to his position.

    But he had no choice. “That will be satisfactory, Your Highness,” he said. “When will we depart?”

    “In a few days,” Alassa said. “It will take that long to prepare supplies for the mission.”

    And that, Emily knew, wasn’t true. Alassa would have no difficulty finding supplies for a cavalry troop, let alone a pair of magicians. She wanted to make Hansel and his friends wait for reasons of her own. Emily made a mental note to quiz her about it later - no doubt there was a logic to Alassa’s thinking - and then leaned forward. She wanted to hear Hansel’s response.

    “We may not have much time,” Hansel said. His voice was low, urgent. “I would urge haste.”

    “We will see.” Alassa smiled. “My people will ensure that you are assigned chambers within the castle. You will have time to attend meetings of the war council before setting off on your mission.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Hansel said. He sounded tired, although not defeated. “We will be honoured.”

    Alassa nodded. “I thank you for bringing this opportunity to us,” she said. “You are dismissed.”

    Jade tapped the table as soon as Hansel and his friends were escorted out of the room. “He was not happy, Alassa. I suspect he will start looking for loopholes at once.”

    “I know,” Alassa said. “But we can’t allow this opportunity to slip by either.”

    Emily met her eyes. “How do we know it isn’t a trap?”

    “I don’t think they could have predicted that I would send you and Cat to Eagle’s Rest,” Alassa said, after a moment. “And even if they could, you two are powerful enough to blast your way out of a trap.”

    “Perhaps,” Emily said. Raw power was no guarantee of victory. She’d learnt that the hard way. Matilda - Randor’s combat sorceress - had been a nasty surprise. Who knew how many other combat sorcerers Randor had under his sway? “We will be very careful, of course.”

    “Yeah,” Cat said. “And if it is a trap, Hansel will not live long enough to gloat.”

    Alassa rubbed her forehead. “Good,” she said. “I want the bastard dead, if he betrays you.”

    “It’s only a matter of time,” Jade said. His voice was very cold. “I doubt Hansel is capable of adapting to the new world.”

    Emily stood. “If you don’t mind, I would like to take a nap before dinner. It feels as if I’ve been awake for days.”

    “Politics,” Alassa said, dryly. “It wears you out.”

    “Speaking of politics,” Emily said, “Bradford came to me with an offer.”

    Alassa listened in silence as Emily told her about Iodine and her father’s request, then nodded curtly. “I can’t say I'm surprised,” she said. “I’ll have Iodine summoned tomorrow morning and interviewed. If she’s willing to work hard, if she’s willing to swear the oaths, I’ll give her a chance.”

    Emily blinked in surprise, then caught herself. Alassa had grown up in a culture where nepotism - and supporting one’s relatives - was common. She wouldn’t see anything wrong with Bradford trying to promote his daughter at every opportunity. The only real problem was that Iodine might not be suitable, yet impossible to dismiss. But her father wasn’t that important. Alassa could probably find her a position that was nicely harmless if she felt that simply dismissing the girl would have political implications.

    Which probably explains why so many of Nightingale’s relatives found positions at court, Emily thought. Nightingale was constantly promoting them to his king.

    Alassa’s eyes went wide, just for a second. Her hand rested on her belly. “Emily, feel this.”

    Emily reached out and touched the baby bump. For a moment, she felt nothing ... and then, Alassa’s body jerked as the baby kicked. Proof, if she needed it, that Alassa’s unborn child was healthy. She felt ... she wasn’t sure how she felt. Part of her wanted children of her own, part of her feared that she would turn into her mother. She hatred the thought of putting another child through the hell that had been her childhood.

    “All our own work,” Jade said, mischievously.

    Alassa elbowed him. “You insufferably proud cad.”

    Emily looked from one to the other, then shook her head. “I’ll see you this evening,” she said, as she headed for the door. “And then ...”

    Cat followed her as she walked down the corridor, through a tangled network of wards and into the bedroom. Emily smiled, even though she felt too tired to do much of anything. The door closed behind them as Cat wrapped his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck, his fingers working on her straps. Emily pulled away, gently. She was far too tired.

    “I just need to nap,” she said, feeling torn. Part of her wanted him to make love to her. “Join me?”

    “I need to check out the map,” Cat said. He gave her one last kiss, then turned away. “And decide how we should get to Eagle’s Rest.”

    “Riding, I guess,” Emily said. Viscount Hansel and his supporters had ridden all the way to Swanhaven. She wondered, suddenly, how they’d crossed the river. Had they forded the river somewhere or talked their way past Sergeant Rotherham and his men? “We can go past the castle.”

    “And pick up the sergeant,” Cat said. “He’ll come in handy.”

    He winked at her, then headed out the door. Emily watched him go, then lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. It was time to sleep. Soon, they’d be on their way to Eagle’s Rest ...

    ... And there would be no time to sleep at all.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    Emily had half-expected that there would be little to do over the next few days, save for planning the mission and preparing supplies, but she’d been wrong. Alassa kept her busy, doing everything from inspecting factories and troop training sessions to making speeches to keep everyone’s mind focused on the war. She barely had any time for herself. The only upside, as far as she could tell, was that she didn’t have any time to meet with Viscount Hansel and his men. She had the feeling that the meeting wouldn’t prove to be very constructive for either of them.

    It was astonishing, she felt, just how much enthusiasm there was for the war. Young men joined the army, marching off to glory; young women clapped and cheered for the handsome soldiers, pledging that they would remain faithful until their boyfriends returned to marry them. Someone had even started a movement to shun those who refused to fight, or to serve the war effort, even though Alassa had tried to discourage it. Emily suspected the enthusiasm wouldn't last, once the costs of the war became apparent, but it did keep everyone moving in roughly the same direction. Randor and the Noblest wouldn’t be remotely capable of harvesting anything like so much popular support.

    Her lips twitched as she watched the recruits being put through their paces. Good iron is not used to make a nail, Emily quoted mentally, and good men are not used to make soldiers.

    She had to smile, even though she knew it wasn’t particularly funny. The Nameless World’s commoners regarded soldiers as parasites and mercenaries as unspeakable scum, but now ... the young men who had signed up to fight for their princess and the Great Charter were being feted as heroes. They had a cause, a reason to fight ... something far more important than a minor dispute between two noblemen or a king deciding to try to expand his landholdings at the expense of another. Emily looked at the men and wondered, absently, where it would end. Perhaps, just perhaps, an army that had something to fight for would be able to take the war into the Blighted Lands. It was only a matter of time until another Necromancer decided to march his armies to war.

    “I thought I’d find you here,” Jade’s voice said, from behind her. “What do you think of the men?”

    Emily glanced at Jade as he sat down on the grassy knoll. “They’re trying,” she said. “But they don’t have anything like enough personal attention.”

    Jade shrugged. “There were only a handful of us in Martial Magic,” he said, “and the sergeants could afford to work with us individually. Here ... we have a handful of sergeants and thousands of men. Given time, we will build up a training cadre, but ...”

    “Not enough time,” Emily finished. “Pity we can’t hire more mercenaries.”

    “I’d be worried about hiring too many mercenaries,” Jade said. “We don’t want them teaching the troops bad habits. The commoners might worship Alassa - and you - now, but that will change if our men start looting and raping their way across the kingdom.”

    “I understand,” Emily said. She gave him a long look. “How are you coping with impending fatherhood?”

    “I’m terrified,” Jade admitted. “What happens if I mess up?”

    “You won’t,” Emily said, reassuringly. Jade would have to fall a long way before he matched her stepfather. She certainly couldn’t imagine him walking out on his wife and child, like her real father. “Just try to remember that a child is a child, not a miniature adult.”

    Jade nodded, although it didn’t look as though he believed her. Children on the Nameless World had to grow up quickly. There was no real sense that childhood was a special time, one that should be enjoyed. Instead, children went to work as soon as possible. Imaiqah had been helping her father with his work almost as soon as she’d been able to pick up and carry boxes.

    She heard the sound of running footsteps and turned to see a messenger hurrying towards them. “My Lord, My Lady, the Princess Regnant demands your presence!”

    Jade stood. “Both of us?”

    “Yes, My Lord,” the messenger said. He was panting heavily. “Both of you.”

    “Then we’re on our way,” Jade said, grandly. “You may go.”

    The messenger took a look at the recruits on the field, then hurried off towards the distant castle. Jade and Emily followed, a little more sedately. The streets were crammed with people, now that more troops had been brought in from the outlying cities and towns, but they made way for them as they pressed through. Jade looked pensive as they reached the castle, his eyes narrowing. A golden carriage stood in the courtyard, watched by a handful of guards.

    More representatives, Emily thought. What now?

    She followed Jade into the castle and down the corridor into the Throne Room. Alassa was seated on her throne, flanked by Imaiqah and Lord Summer; Cat stood near them, standing next to Iodine. Emily felt a stab of ... something, even though there was no sense they were friends, let alone anything more. She told herself, firmly, that she’d worry about her feelings for Cat later, once the war was over. Right now, they had more important problems to worry about.

    Jade took Lord Summer’s place, next to his wife. Emily stepped up to stand beside Cat and looked around. The Throne Room was heaving, with everyone from Bradford to Viscount Hansel waiting to hear what Alassa had to say. Her eyes sharpened as she caught sight of the two men kneeling in front of the throne, wearing the livery of Baron Harkness. Messengers from the Noblest? They wouldn’t wear such clothes unless they genuinely represented their master. It would cost them their lives.

    Alassa spoke, her voice commanding instant silence. “State your proposal.”

    Another proposal, Emily thought, sourly.

    “My mistress and her allies propose an alliance,” the messenger said. “They suggest that it is in our best interests to cooperate.”

    “Indeed,” Alassa said. “And what terms do they intend to offer?”

    “We will fight together to remove King Randor from power,” the messenger said, “and place you on the throne. Once the war is over, all parties will return to the balance of power that held sway ten years ago. The rights and prerogatives of the barons, everything from seats on the council to the right to raise fighting men, will be respected and upheld.”

    Ouch, Emily thought.

    Alassa leaned forward, her face darkening. “It seems to me,” she said coolly, “that you are offering me nothing more than what my father had, ten years ago. An overmighty nobility, a kingdom constantly on the edge of civil war ... not, in short, anything satisfactory. I see no reason to accept an offer that guarantees another civil war a decade or so in the future.”

    “Your Highness, separately the king may best us both,” the messenger said. “But together we would be invincible.”

    He paused. “And we would hand Duke Traduceus over to you as well. You would be responsible for taking care of him.”

    “Indeed,” Alassa said, icily.

    She leaned back in her throne, her eyes hard. Emily felt a flicker of sympathy. It was the same offer Viscount Hansel had made, but on a far greater scale. The messenger was quite right. Separately, Alassa and the Noblest might be beaten; together, they would have the power to crush the king. But the price was too high. Alassa could not recognise the barons’ rights and prerogatives without scrapping the Great Charter. And even if she evaded an uprising over that, she’d eventually have to fight the barons again anyway.

    “So,” Alassa said, addressing the court. “Any comments?”

    Viscount Hansel stepped forward. “Your Highness, there are many advantages to the alliance,” he said. “Their assistance will be invaluable in defeating the king before he turns on us. It would also ensure that Your Highness took the throne without any dispute over the succession.”

    And it would also make it harder for Alassa to deny you your ancient rights and prerogatives, Emily thought, sourly. No wonder you jumped on the bandwagon when the music started to play.

    “But the Noblest lost a battle,” Bradford said, coolly. “Can they guarantee that they will rebuild their forces before the king smashes them flat?”

    “We lost a battle,” the messenger said. “But Lord Harkness was able to withdraw his forces before the king could close the trap. We are currently regrouping to resume the offensive.”

    “I would not assume that you could retake the offensive,” Sir William said. “The king knows the importance of continuing the offensive into enemy territory.”

    Alassa looked at Emily. “Lady Emily, what do you think?”

    I wish I knew the right answer, Emily thought, dryly. Alassa and Jade might have had time to discuss how they’d handle an emissary from the Noblest, but they hadn’t shared their thoughts with her. And the right answer, in this case, is the one you want me to say in front of your court.

    She took a breath. “There are advantages to the offer,” she conceded. There was no point in trying to deny it. “But there are also disadvantages. The rights and prerogatives of the barons would clash, badly, with the Great Charter. You would be betraying one group of your supporters, your loyal supporters, in hopes of wooing aristocrats who have no intention of letting you take the throne without paying a steep price.”

    “Commoners cannot offer the support and legitimacy offered by my mistress,” the messenger said, quickly.

    “The barons have had their day,” Emily told him. “Either the king grinds them into the dirt or their own people overthrow them. Their time is up.”

    “Perhaps,” Alassa said.

    She invited more people to comment and listened, carefully, as they argued for or against the alliance. It was interesting, if unsurprising, to note that the majority of the aristocrats were in favour of the alliance, even though they stood to gain almost nothing. The commoners were more divided. Some favoured the alliance, on the grounds it would end the war before the entire country was devastated; some were adamantly opposed, calling it a betrayal of everything they’d pledged themselves to defend. Emily tended to side with the latter. There was little to be gained - and much to be lost - by making a deal with the Noblest. They simply didn’t have much to offer.

    Alassa held up her hand for silence. “I have considered your offer,” she said, “and I have heard the arguments for or against the alliance. And I have decided to reject your offer of an alliance. You cannot, or you will not, offer me anything that makes accepting the alliance worthwhile. I see no reason to side with you when I, or my child, will sit on the throne in good time.”

    She paused, dramatically. “I am prepared to talk with barons and other aristocrats who are prepared to submit themselves to me, but I will not give them unbridled power. That didn’t end well for my great-grandfather. Go back to your mistress, tell her what I have said and inform her that if she wishes to retain anything, she must pay homage to me.”

    The messenger paled. “Your Highness ...”

    “There is no room for debate,” Alassa said. “Go back to your mistress and tell her what I have said.”

    She nodded to the guards, who helped the messenger out of the chamber. Emily felt a stab of sympathy, even though she’d disliked the messenger on sight. Baroness Harkness would not be pleased when she heard his message. She’d risked a great deal by making contact, although - unlike Viscount Hansel - she was already a known rebel. The king could hardly get angrier with her. Emily wondered, absently, what would happen if Baroness Harkness fell into Randor’s hands. Would she be reduced to chattel, once again? Or would the king overcome his reluctance to execute women and have her beheaded? He’d come far too close to cutting off Emily’s head.

    Alassa spoke into the silence, directing the court to discuss other matters. The chatter ran backwards and forwards, covering hundreds of different subjects. Emily did her best to pretend to pay attention as bureaucrats recited production statistics and training officers discussed just how near their men were to going into combat. She’d known that anyone who wanted to run an estate had to keep a firm grasp on dozens of issues, but Alassa seemed to have it worse. She would need to learn to delegate sooner or later.

    But that lets people like Nightingale set the agenda, Emily reminded herself. Alassa doesn't want to wind up hostage to a man like him.

    “Thank you all for coming,” Alassa said, eventually. “You are dismissed.”

    She met Emily’s eyes as the crowds started to file out of the chamber. “Not you, Emily,” she said. “Will you join me in my suite?”

    Emily nodded and followed Alassa through a side passage. No one followed them, not even Imaiqah. She guessed that Alassa had planned the meeting before the messenger had even turned up, although there was no way to be sure. The messenger might have been careful not to give any advance warning of his coming. It would have been harder to turn him away if he’d presented his credentials at the gates.

    “Have a seat,” Alassa said, visibly relaxing. “Iodine appears to be working out, I admit.”

    “Good,” Emily said.

    Alassa rang a bell. A maid entered, a moment later, carrying a tray of drinks and snacks. She placed it on the table, then withdraw as silently as she’d come. Alassa nodded to the tray, inviting Emily to help herself. Emily took a mug of Kava and sat back in a sinfully comfortable seat. Alassa shrugged off her outer dress, dropped it on the floor and sat down too, still modestly clad. There were nasty red marks on her skin where the straps had been too tight.

    “I heard the offer twice,” Alassa said, taking a mug herself. “Emily, did I do the right thing?”

    Emily took a moment to consider her answer. She hadn’t lied when she’d pointed out that the alliance came at too high a price, for all the good it would do. Alassa would find the Noblest a millstone around her neck when the time came to organise the post-war kingdom. And yet, the alliance would have shortened the war. King Randor couldn’t fight on two fronts. He would have to either come to terms with his enemies or die in futile combat.

    “I think so,” she said, finally. “An alliance with the Noblest would have destroyed your credibility amongst the Levellers. And the commoners.”

    Alassa took a sip of her drink. “It feels so strange,” she mused. “Once, the support of the barons would have determined if I took the throne or not. Now ... now I don’t need them.”

    She shook her head. “But I understand them, Emily. I don’t understand the Levellers.”

    “I know,” Emily said. “But you will.”

    “Hah,” Alassa said.

    Emily smiled. She understood the problem, but she had no idea how to solve it. Alassa had grown up in a world where birth, not ability, determined how far you went in life. Her royal birth had given her status - and protection - while her magic had allowed her to go to Whitehall, but her femininity had been a curse as much as a blessing. Alassa would have been married off the moment she reached her majority if she’d had a legitimate brother, almost certainly to a king or a prince. Even that was a mixed blessing. Commoner women did not marry princes in the real world. It simply wasn’t done.

    “They want everyone to have the same opportunities,” she said, finally. “How many opportunities did your birth open to you?”

    Alassa looked pensive. “And how many problems did it bring in its wake?”

    “Too many,” Emily admitted. She jabbed her thumb towards the window. “And yet, I’m sure I can find a hundred women out there who’ll happily trade places without even trying.”

    “Probably,” Alassa said.

    She rested her hand on her belly, feeling the baby kick. “What sort of world am I going to give to my child?”

    “A different one,” Emily said, carefully. It would be better, for some. It would be worse, for others. But her history studies had told her that change always benefited some people more than others. “I think it will be a world of great promise and opportunity.”

    “Ever the optimist,” Alassa said. She put her mug down on the table. “I thought I knew how to command, how to issue orders. But now ... the lives of everyone in this castle, in this barony, depend upon me. If I issue the wrong orders, many of them will die.”

    And many will die, even if you issue the right orders, Emily thought. She kept that thought to herself. Sergeant Miles had hammered it into her head, but Alassa didn’t need to hear it right now. There’s no such thing as a perfect choice.

    Alassa said nothing for a long moment, then looked up. “I want you to visit the firearms factory tomorrow and check on production,” she said. “And then ... and then you can set off to Eagle’s Rest.”

    “And watch my back all the way,” Emily said.

    “Don’t hesitate to turn Hansel into a slug and step on him if he causes trouble,” Alassa said, darkly. “We don’t need him that much. We may not need him at all.”

    “We will see,” Emily said.

    “Yes, we will,” Alassa said. Her face changed, as if she’d made a decision not to dwell on matters that couldn’t be changed. “How are you and Cat getting along?”

    Emily blushed. “Fine,” she said. “We’re having fun.”

    “Glad to hear it,” Alassa said. “But it isn’t meant to be just fun.”
     
  14. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    promulgated
     
  15. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    then withdrew as silently
     
  16. KrisP

    KrisP Monkey

    hated ?
     
  17. FlyingPenguin

    FlyingPenguin Monkey

     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Sorry about the delay. Friday-Sunday was very bad.

    Chapter Eleven

    Eagle’s Rest had a nasty edge in the air as the small convoy passed through the gates.

    On the surface, it was just like any other city on the Nameless World. A handful of wide roads, hundreds of alleyways and shops and tottering apartment blocks that looked as if one gust of wind would be enough to blow them down. The New Learning hadn’t made so much of an impression here, she noted; the streets were covered in a thin layer of human and animal waste that stank so badly she wanted to gag. Rats, some of them large enough to pass for cats, darted across the road, showing no fear of the horses or their hooves. It was a typical medieval town.

    And yet, she could feel the edge in the air. There were no cheers as the lord of the city returned to his manor, no whoops and catcalls from an enthusiastic crowd. The threat of violence hung in the air, promising that - one day - the people of the city would rise up and take what was theirs. The air of sullen submission was an illusion. It wouldn't be long before all hell broke loose. Viscount Hansel rode down the centre of the road without a care for the people in his way, forcing them to run in all directions to avoid his horse’s hooves. Emily couldn't help thinking that it wouldn’t be long before his people rebelled and killed him. And she and her friends would be caught in the middle.

    We don’t need him that much, she thought, as her horse kicked its way through mud. Do we?

    Cat pulled his horse up beside her. “Mercenaries,” he said, quietly. “Look.”

    Emily followed his gaze. A cluster of armed men stood on a corner, their hands on their swords and their eyes constantly sweeping the streets for threats. They wore leathers, rather than armour; they wore no livery, save for an armband in Hansel’s colours. The local population gave them a wide berth, as if they feared they’d be snatched off the streets if they went too close. Emily feared they might be right. Mercenaries had a bad reputation for killing people first and asking questions later. And - as they cantered up the road - she saw mercenaries everywhere.

    “The king was hiring every mercenary he could find,” Cat said, pitching his voice so low that even Emily could barely hear him. “I dread to imagine how much Hansel is paying every day to keep so many mercenaries under his colours.”

    Emily nodded. Sergeant Miles had told her that mercenaries were fundamentally disloyal. It was rare for a mercenary - or an entire company of mercenaries - to desert, but they only stayed under their master’s flag as long as they were paid. A late payment could mean the mercenaries walking off the job, sometimes simply crossing the lines to the other side. And they were rarely willing to put their lives in mortal peril. Hansel had to be paying out thousands of crowns a day, just to keep his mercenaries under his command. She couldn’t help wondering just how long he could keep paying them.

    And they might be all that’s keeping him in power, she thought numbly. When they go, he goes too.

    She cursed under her breath, savagely. The local population had every reason to be furious with their lord. Mercenaries had no interest in keeping people sweet, not when they had no true loyalty to their master. Emily would bet good money that there had already been a string of incidents, from looting to rapes, that would swell the tide of hatred within the city. Hansel probably wouldn’t bother to make concessions, let alone hang any of his men for abusing the citizens. It was a sickening thought. He’d sooner keep the mercenaries sweet than his own people.

    The city didn’t look any better as they cantered up towards the manor house. It wasn’t a real castle, although the mercenaries - and Hansel’s private guard - had done some work to fortify it over the last few months. Emily felt her lips twitch, humourlessly, as she contemplated what Sergeant Miles would say to any of his students who did such a poor job. They’d set up trenches and defensive lines, but they hadn’t knocked down any of the nearby houses to create a firebreak. Emily could see a dozen ways to overwhelm the defenders and take the manor without magic or firearms. She was surprised that Hansel couldn’t see them too.

    She caught Cat’s eye. “Did Hansel ever go to war?”

    “Nothing more challenging than hunting bandits.” Cat sounded grimly amused. “There’s no sense he’s an actual coward, so I’m guessing his father didn’t let him go to war.”

    Emily nodded. It wasn’t uncommon for an aristocrat’s firstborn son to be treated with extreme care, as if he were made of fragile china, although it had always struck her as absurd. King Randor had certainly gone to war almost as soon as he was old enough to don armour and carry a sword, even if he’d had an older officer standing by to offer advice and forceful suggestions. But Hansel? It didn’t look as though Tobias had gone to war either. An experienced officer would have seen the cracks in the defences and done something about them.

    If he can, she thought, as they rode up to the gates. The houses on each side of the walls looked expensive. They were right next to the very seat of power, after all. Emily doubted they were anything like as costly as houses in Alexis - a garret along the Royal Mile could cost as much as a mansion in Cockatrice or Swanhaven - but whoever lived there would be a big fish in a very small pond. Perhaps they can’t knock them down, or even turn them into strongpoints.

    The gates opened. Emily looked from side to side as the horses cantered up the driveway and stopped in front of the manor. A small army of servants were already waiting for them, their leader - a tall grey-haired man who looked as if the slightest breeze would blow him away - looking frankly nervous. Emily suspected he wasn’t anything like as old as he looked, but dealing with Hansel - she thought - was more than enough to prematurely age anyone. He bowed, deeply, as Hansel jumped off his horse and landed neatly on the cobblestones. Emily remembered Sergeant Miles lecturing his students about showboating and smiled. It was a good way to get injured - or killed - for nothing. Hansel didn’t have a healer to put a broken ankle back together with a click of the fingers.

    “Welcome home, My Lord.” The grey-haired man glanced at Emily, then looked back at Hansel. “All remains as you left it.”

    “I had no doubt of it, Saran,” Hansel said. “I trust that we are ready to receive guests?”

    “Your message was received, My Lord,” Saran said, with another bow. “I have prepared two guest rooms, as you specified.”

    “Take our noble guests” - Hansel indicated Emily and Cat - “to their rooms, then have their escorts assigned places in the barracks. They can join us for dinner when they’ve had a chance to freshen up.”

    Emily looked at Cat, who shrugged and exchanged a few brief words with Sergeant Rotherham before climbing off his horse and handing the reins to a stable boy. Emily lowered herself down a little more gingerly, feeling her body aching - again - as she touched the ground. Four days of hard riding had made her a little more accustomed to the sensation, but she still felt as if she’d been beaten half to death. Hansel - damn the man - didn’t seem to suffer at all. She felt sorry for his poor horse.

    “I welcome you to my lord’s horse,” Saran said. Up close, it was easy to see the strain on his face. He was old enough, Emily thought, to have been the castellan to Hansel’s father. It couldn’t be easy taking orders from men you’d known as babes in arms. “Please treat it as your own.”

    Emily reached out with her senses as Saran led them through the doors and into the manor, trying to determine what - if any - magical defences the building had. There were a handful of wards - one that prevented scrying, one that preventing teleporting, several more than didn’t seem to have any practical purpose - but very little else. It looked as though Hansel and his brother had simply hired a magician to put the wards in place, then dismissed him immediately. There was no sense that anyone was controlling the wards, let alone reinforcing them. Emily had no doubt she could break through the wards within seconds, if necessary. It was a curious gap in his defences.

    She put the thought aside for later consideration and looked around. The interior of the manor was odd, as if the designer couldn’t decide if it was meant to be a luxury home or a warehouse. There were paintings and statues and pieces of artwork everywhere, ranging from a copy of King Randor’s official portrait to a dramatic painting showing the Royal Wedding. Alassa lay on the ground, face-down in a pool of her own blood, while He-Man and She-Ra tried desperately to save her life ... Emily flushed as she heard Cat snicker delightedly. She supposed He-Man and She-Ra were meant to be Jade and herself, but ... she shook her head in disbelief. Whoever had painted the picture clearly hadn’t been at the wedding, nor had they met anyone they’d tried to paint. Emily looked nothing like She-Ra and she knew it. Even the hair colour was wrong.

    Cat elbowed her. “Do you think he’d sell us the painting if we asked?”

    “Only for burning,” Emily muttered back.

    Saran led them up a flight of stairs and stopped in front of a wooden door. “Lady Emily, this is your suite,” he said. “The maids have already prepared it for you, but please don’t hesitate to ring the bell if you require anything. Your personal maid will attend to you. Lord Cat will be in the next suite, just down the corridor” - he pointed - “and dinner will be served in one hour. Do you require anything else?”

    “No, thank you,” Emily said. She took a coin from her pocket and held it out to him. “For you?”

    Saran made the coin vanish with practiced ease, then opened the door for her. Emily stepped through, noting - in passing - that there was no lock. It wasn’t entirely uncommon, in a world where everyone who was anyone had personal servants, but it still grated. Her bedroom back on Earth hadn’t had a lock either, no matter how many times she’d asked for one. It made her feel vulnerable.

    I can ward the room, once I’ve checked it out, she thought, as she closed the door behind her and looked around. And that should make life difficult for any spies.

    She took a long breath and surveyed the room. It was massive, easily large enough to house three or four beds. A single large bed sat in the centre of the room, flanked by a pair of giant wardrobes. It looked as though there was more storage space than she’d ever have to use, but she’d seen how many clothes Alassa and her fellow noblewomen had carried from place to place. Hansel might actually have given her less storage space than a clotheshorse would need. Emily wondered, as she glanced into the bathroom, if it was intended as a subtle insult to her. Or maybe she was just over-thinking it. Hansel was a very minor nobleman compared with Alassa and the Barons. His guests might not need quite so many wardrobes.

    And besides, he knows I was on horseback, Emily thought. She’d packed a bag, but it wasn’t particularly large. He knows I didn’t bring that much with me.

    There was a tap on the door. A footman stood there, carrying her bag. Emily took it, tipped him and then placed it on the floor. The man hesitated, as if he wanted to say or do something, then bowed and retreated into the distance. Emily closed the door, then checked the wards on the bag. It looked as if no one had tried to open the bag during transit. Her lips quirked, humourlessly. Opening a sorceress’s bag was de jure suicide on the Nameless World.

    She put a locking spell on the door - there wasn’t even a bolt, to her amused horror - and sat down on the bed, carefully reaching out with her senses. If there was any active spellware within the suite, save for her own protective wards and the locking spell, she couldn’t sense it. She checked twice, just to be sure. There were ways to conceal a surveillance spell - or simply emplace it quite some distance from the target - that she’d been taught to use. But there was nothing. Hansel didn’t seem inclined to use magic to spy on his guests.

    Emily smiled, then started to search the room. She’d seen enough peepholes to guess where they might be hidden, particularly if there were servant passageways on the other side of the suite. It took her twenty minutes to find the first peephole; the second and third, the latter in the bathroom, were considerably easy to find. Emily rolled her eyes in disgust. She’d seen enough peepholes to know what they were used to do. She cast a handful of spells to ensure that any peepers would see nothing - it was tempting to add a hex that would make any peepers go blind - and a ward to alert her if someone tried to peer into the room. Hansel would be a social pariah if he or his staff were caught peeking on high-ranking guests - no one cared about the maids - but Emily suspected he wouldn’t care.

    And he’ll probably want to search my bag, Emily thought, as she walked into the bathroom and undressed. Her body was covered in fading bruises. He’ll want to know what I’ve brought here.

    The bathtub, to her surprise, had cold water on tap. Someone must have refitted the manor when hot and cold running water became fashionable, although they clearly hadn’t bothered to establish a link to the boiler. That was a far more complex piece of work. Emily filled the bath with cold water anyway, used a spell to warm it and then climbed into the tub. A long soak was just what the doctor ordered. It was a shame she couldn’t stay in the tub for long.

    There was a handful of taps at the door, beating out a pattern. Emily stood, muttered a spell to dry herself and then headed back into the bedroom. It had to be Cat on the other side. No one else knew the pattern. She grabbed a robe from her bag and pulled it on, then opened the door. Cat stood there, looking disgustingly clean and healthy. Emily felt a flicker of amused envy. Men seemed to be able to undress, wash and dress within minutes.

    “Dinner will be served in five minutes, apparently,” Cat said. He stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. “Are you ready to go down?”

    Emily shook her head as she searched through the bag. Alassa had insisted that she pack a handful of dresses, as well as shirts and trousers, but she honestly wasn't sure what she should wear. She had never been particularly concerned about fashion, yet she knew she had to make a good impression ... for Alassa’s sake, if not her own. She eventually settled on the long blue dress and changed into it, ignoring Cat’s hints that there was something else she could be doing. By the time Saran materialised, his face longer than ever, she was ready.

    “This way, My Lord, My Lady,” Saran said.

    They followed him down the stairs and into a large dining hall. It was smaller than King Randor’s Great Hall, Emily noted, but somehow it managed to look just as large. Row after row of tables, utterly groaning under the weight of food ... Viscount Hansel had thrown a colossal spread for his guests. Emily looked around and felt her heart sink. It looked as though Hansel had invited every nobleman, wealthy merchant and military officer in the barony. They were eating and drinking like pigs.

    She tried to hide her shudder as Saran led her past a row of tables and up to the high table, where Hansel and his brother were sitting. They rose to greet Emily and Cat as they approached, offering a short speech to make it clear that the newcomers were honoured guests. Emily groaned, inwardly, as the speech came to an end. Hansel had managed to suggest that she, the famed Necromancer’s Bane, was on his side. There was no way to keep her presence a secret now. She took the seat she was offered, on Hansel’s right side, and surveyed the crowd, wondering which one would betray them. Hansel was hardly the sort of man to inspire loyalty, even in his closest friends.

    “Try some roast boar,” Hansel said. He filled her glass with wine, personally. “Or would you rather chicken or beef or ...?”

    “Chicken would be fine,” Emily said. The last time she’d eaten roast boar, at one of King Randor’s feasts, she’d been treated to a story about how the beast had been tracked and killed. She had no qualms about eating meat, but she took no pleasure in hunting either. It wasn’t her favourite sport. “I’m sure it will be tasty.”

    “Indeed it will,” Hansel said. He splashed more wine into her glass, even though she hadn’t touched it. “And tomorrow you can get to work.”

    Emily resisted the urge to groan. It was going to be a very long evening.
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    If anything, the evening had been worse than Emily had feared.

    There had been much eating, much drinking, much singing and much pinching of the serving girls, who’d responded with fixed smiles that hadn’t shown in their eyes. It had made Emily’s blood boil to watch them be harassed, time and time again, and yet be unable to do anything about it. She’d seen better-behaved men - aristocrats and commoners - during the preparations for war against a necromancer. Hansel seemed blind to the sheer level of hatred he was evoking. Emily had a silent bet with herself that it wouldn’t be long before one of his maids put a knife through his heart.

    And then she’d be executed for killing a nobleman, Emily thought. Unless someone smuggles her out of the manor first.

    It had been a relief to walk back upstairs to her suite, write a short message for Alassa on the chat parchment and collapse into bed. Cat had stayed behind, apparently to take part in a drinking contest. Emily had been tempted to drag him upstairs, but she knew that would have reflected badly on both of them. Thankfully, she hadn’t been expected to join. For once, the casual sexism of the Nameless World worked in her favour. She just hoped Cat had had the sense to use a spell to stave off drunkenness.

    He was looking surprisingly fit and healthy the following morning, as breakfast was served in Emily’s suite. The maid, a frightened little girl who hadn’t dared say even a single word to her, had wheeled it in, then vanished before Emily could give her a tip. Emily wondered what that meant, although she was sure it was nothing good. By now, the staff probably knew that Emily and Cat were good tippers. The maid’s superior would be expecting a cut of any tips - and woe betide the poor girl if she didn’t have any. Perhaps it was a kind of passive resistance. She couldn’t give her mistress any money if she didn’t have any money.

    “I cheated,” Cat said. He speared a piece of meat with his fork, dipped it in gravy and ate it with apparent gusto. “But Hansel didn’t cheat and he came very close to winning. I’ve never seen anyone drink so much without kneeling over.”

    “How ... impressive,” Emily said, disgustedly. “Do we know where we are going today?”

    “Tobias was supposed to set up the meeting,” Cat said. “I suspect he’s probably in charge of running his brother’s surveillance network. He didn’t doubt it was possible.”

    “We’ll see,” Emily predicted. Tobias had always struck her as lost in his brother’s shadow, a common fate for second-born sons. They couldn’t be allowed to overshadow the older child, the one who would inherit everything. “Why didn’t they wipe them out?”

    “I don’t know,” Cat said. “It isn’t as if they don’t have the mercenaries to crush the Levellers in the streets.”

    Emily considered it. The mercenaries might find themselves caught in a riot if they tried to arrest the Levellers. They were so unpopular that the townspeople might turn on them even if they were arresting people everyone hated. Maybe Hansel - or Tobias - wasn’t as blind to their failings as she’d assumed. They had to know they were in a pretty weak position. No wonder they’d risked making open contact with Alassa.

    “We have to move fast,” she said, as she finished her breakfast. It sat uneasily in her stomach. The meat had tasted fine, but there had been something thick and unpleasant about the gravy. “That fool told the whole world and his wife that I was here.”

    “It may have been a ploy to let the Levellers know you were here,” Cat said. “But yes, you’re right. Lord Burrows will know within a day or two, if he doesn’t know already.”

    Emily nodded. A man like Viscount Hansel practically begged to be assigned a covert watchdog. King Randor probably had a small army of spies within the manor. Emily wondered, vaguely, just who it might be, then dismissed the thought. They had to assume that anything said publicly would be spread right across the kingdom within the week.

    And then Lord Burrows will have to do something about it, Emily thought, as she washed and changed into her trousers. A small glamour would ensure that most people who looked at her saw a man, as long as they didn’t look too closely. How long will it take for him to put together a force to capture Eagle’s Rest?

    Cat stood, brushed down his shirt and trousers, then headed for the door. Emily followed him, altering the wards to allow the maid to remove the remainder of the food without getting hexed. There was nothing in the room she needed to conceal, save perhaps for the handful of chat parchments. She cast a spell to hide them from prying eyes, pushed her bag under the bed and followed Cat down the stairs. The manor was quiet. She guessed that the revellers were still sleeping it off.

    Tobias met them in the lobby, looking as if he hadn’t been drinking at all. Emily’s eyebrows arched upwards. Had he been cheating too? She reached out with her senses, trying to determine if he was a magician, but he appeared to have no magic at all. If he was a magician masking his power, he was a very good one. She kept a wary eye on him as he exchanged a few brief words with Cat, then led them outside. Sergeant Rotherham was waiting, smoking a pipe of herbal weed. He snubbed it out on his tunic and saluted when he saw them. Emily couldn’t help thinking that he’d had a better evening than either of them.

    “My Lady, My Lord,” Sergeant Rotherham said. “Shall we go?”

    “Yes,” Tobias said. “The meeting has already been arranged.”

    He led them through the side gates and out onto the streets. The air was warm, without a hint of rain, but there were few civilians to be seen until they were well away from the manor house. Emily looked from side to side, careful to keep one hand on her sword. Eagle’s Rest didn’t feel any better, now they were on foot. It was going to be harder to get away from an angry mob, unless they teleported. They might not have any other choice. The streets grew darker as Tobias led them into a maze of passageways and allays, some lined with homeless sleeping rough. Emily felt her heart clench in sympathy. She’d managed to do something for the poor and downtrodden in Cockatrice.

    “This is the Rabid Wolfhound,” Tobias said, as they approached a pub. “They wanted to meet you here.”

    Emily bit down the temptation to point out that the Rabid Wolfhound was about the most disreputable pub she’d seen in her entire life. A handful of men sat inside, drinking heavily; a small cluster of prostitutes stood by the counter, displaying their limited charms to all and sundry. Emily couldn’t help feeling that they looked ghastly. A short unhappy lifetime had left them looking as if they were on the verge of death. She found it impossible to believe that anyone would want to touch them.

    This is where prostitutes go to die, she thought, numbly.

    A fight broke out. She scrambled backwards, half-drawing her sword before realising that the patrons were ignoring the newcomers and going at each other with hammer and tongs. They weren’t holding back, either; they were smashing away with fists, feet and every improvised weapon that came to hand. The prostitutes whooped and hollered, shouting encouragement to the combatants. Emily honestly couldn’t tell what had started the fight.

    Tobias ignored the fracas magnificently and spoke, briefly, to the bartender. “This way,” he said, when he’d finished. “They’re through here.”

    Emily followed him, quietly tightening her wards as the sound of fighting grew louder. Jars of beer were flying in all directions, smashing into the walls and shattering, pieces of debris crashing to the ground. It was a relief when Tobias led them into a dingy back room that stank of something unpleasant. At least there was no immediate danger.

    Well, we know why they picked this place, she thought, as she scanned the darkened room. A lone man was waiting for them, standing by the other door. Hansel couldn’t get soldiers into this place without having to fight the patrons.

    Tobias cleared his throat. “I was told we’d be meeting the leaders.”

    “You are meeting me,” the figure said. It had a raspy voice, as if something was wrong with its throat. “The others were unsure about gathering in one place.”

    “I see,” Tobias said. “I have brought the Necromancer’s Bane.”

    “Ah,” the figure said. “And is there any proof she is the Necromancer’s Bane?”

    Emily shaped a spell with her mind and cast it. The room filled with pearly white light, exposing the figure for the first time. He appeared to be about ten years older than Emily, but his face was badly scarred and his throat looked as if someone had tried to cut it many years ago. There hadn’t been a healer, Emily guessed. It appeared to have been left to heal naturally. It was a ghastly sight.

    “I have papers from Her Highness,” Emily said, removing her flat cap. Her hair spilled down her back. “And I can do more magic if you like.”

    “Maybe later,” the man said. “I am ... Gus. I speak for the Levellers.”

    “He does,” Tobias said, quietly.

    “And so you should listen,” Gus said. Emily had the odd feeling that he was talking to Tobias, not her. “We have no interest in your war. We do not want to support a bratty princess or her tyrant of a father; we do not wish to be ruled by a king’s whore or a foolish aristocrat. We owe nothing to either Princess Alassa or Viscount Hansel. We see no reason to fight for them.”

    “You are our subjects,” Tobias protested. He sounded honestly shocked. “We are set above you ...”

    “By an accident of birth,” Gus said. “There is nothing about you, or your brother, that suggests you have any natural right to rule over us. Your father” - he spat - “was a hard man to love, but he did something for the city. What have you done, boy? You inflicted mercenaries on us?”

    Tobias reddened. “We wouldn’t have hired mercenaries if you hadn’t threatened to overthrow us!”

    “We wouldn’t be trying to overthrow you if you hadn’t been making it impossible for us to live decent lives,” Gus snapped back. “And your mercenaries are making it worse.”

    Emily clapped her hands, sharply. “Can I speak?”

    “We would not have agreed to this meeting if you hadn’t been involved,” Gus said. “Time is on our side.”

    That, Emily suspected, was true. Tam had been in a weak position, when they’d made contact with him, but Gus was in a very strong position. Indeed, he might not realise just how strong his position actually was. Viscount Hansel couldn’t turn the mercenaries on the Levellers without triggering a general revolution, but - at the same time - he couldn’t keep the mercenaries on his payroll forever. In the short term, the situation had stalemated; in the long-term, Gus and the Levellers might be able to take Eagle’s Rest without a fight. They’d still have to deal with whoever came out on top in the civil war, but they’d be well-placed to convince the winner to deal.

    “Alassa issued the Great Charter, back in Swanhaven,” she said, holding out a copy. “It’s her manifesto. It’s her pledge that the entire kingdom will be run like Cockatrice.”

    “A tempting pledge,” Gus observed, dryly. “But also one we don’t trust her to honour.”

    Cat stiffened. “She swore an oath.”

    “Oaths can be broken,” Gus pointed out. “And aristocrats have often believed that they can give their word to a commoner and take it back whenever the mood strikes them.”

    “Alassa would not break her word, not like that,” Emily said, quietly.

    “You say that,” Gus said. “And I’m inclined to believe that you think she won’t break her word. But we have had centuries of aristocratic promises being broken when they became inconvenient. We see no reason to put our lives on the line for any aristocrat.”

    Emily took a moment to consider her next step. The hell of it was that she understood his point, even though she didn’t agree with it. If Alassa had stayed the bratty princess Emily had met in Whitehall, if the only way Emily had to judge Alassa was through rumours and innuendo, she might have been careful about pledging her word too. And Viscount Hansel didn’t help. She had no doubt that stories of his evening feast had already started to pervade a city on the edge of starvation. The locals would not be happy.

    “I am not a diplomat,” she said, drawing herself upright. “So I will be blunt.

    “There is a war on. It will not be long before Her Highness - or Lord Burrows - sends an army through his region. There may even be two armies heading through this region and clashing at Eagle’s Rest. You know how important the city is to anyone who wants to march men east to Alexis. There is no way you can stay out of the war. You have an interest in helping one side secure the region as quickly as possible.”

    She paused to allow her words to sink in. “If Lord Burrows wins, King Randor wins. And the king has no interest in allowing you to survive. Don’t underestimate the sheer weight of firepower he can bring to bear against the city. The defences won’t stand up to massed cannon fire. You and your fellows, everyone who believes in the Leveller ideology, will be hunted down and killed, along with your families. Randor intends to remove every last trace of the New Learning.

    “Alassa has offered you a chance to get everything you want - certainly, everything you need - on a silver platter. If you help her win, you’ll no longer have to worry about having a tyrant put in place to rule over you; if you have an army of your own, with modern weapons, you’ll have bargaining power to ensure she keeps her word. But if you want to win, if you want to survive, you need to help us.”

    “And trust you,” Gus said. “The city will be ours soon. Perhaps we can wait and then bargain with the princess.”

    “It will never be yours,” Tobias snapped. “You are ...”

    Emily cut him off. “You’re forgetting Lord Burrows,” she said. “If you take the city, you will have an army breathing down your neck sooner rather than later. And Alassa will see no advantage in helping you if you’re unwilling to help her. You’ll be pinning down troops that would otherwise be blocking her advance. She’ll be quite happy to let you wear them down while she prepares her forces for the final engagement.”

    “An interesting argument, Lady Emily,” Gus said. He touched his scarred neck. “Can we trust the princess?”

    “The world is changing,” Emily said. “Alassa understands that, even if Tobias and his brother do not. You can trust her to keep her word. And, besides, one of her best friends, the one who endured imprisonment with her, is a commoner.”

    “Who was ennobled,” Gus reminded her. “As you yourself were ennobled.”

    “But she was born a commoner,” Emily said. There was no point in talking about her own genealogy. King Randor hadn’t told the world she wasn’t Void’s daughter, for reasons of his own, but Emily had no intention of discussing Earth with anyone she didn’t trust. “And she will be Alassa’s closest advisor when the war is over.”

    Gus let out a heavy sigh. “You make a convincing case, Lady Emily, although many of us are reluctant to fight for Hansel and ...”

    “Viscount Hansel,” Tobias snapped.

    “I will discuss the matter with my peers,” Gus said. “And you will have an answer by close of day.”

    “Very good,” Emily said. She would have been surprised - and suspicious - if Gus had given her an immediate answer. “If you see here” - she produced another scroll from her bag - “we can offer everything from weapons to military training. Now the river is open, they can be floated down the waters on barges.”

    “I see,” Gus said. He sounded a little surprised. “You seriously intend to give us weapons?”

    “Yes,” Emily said, curtly. She passed him the rest of the paperwork, saving only her credentials. The letters of introduction from Cockatrice and Swanhaven would definitely catch his eye, when he had time to go through them. “How else would you be able to fight?”

    She wondered, absently, if he’d noticed the underlying message. The river was now open, as long as the banks on both sides remained in friendly hands. She wouldn’t care to sail a barge through a hail of arrows. Whoever controlled Eagle’s Rest would be in a very powerful position, when the war was finally over. The Levellers needed that control.

    “You will be contacted,” Gus said. He held out his hand. Emily shook it, firmly. “Be seeing you.”

    He turned and strode out the door. Emily caught a glimpse of a dingy alleyway - and a whiff of human waste - before the door rattled closed again. She let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. Gus might join them, he might not ... she shook her head as they turned to walk back into the pub. Civil wars were always complicated. There were factions within factions and age-old hatreds and people with their own agendas ...

    We’ll just have to cope with it, she told herself, firmly. And hope for the best.
     
  20. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    my lord's house

    alleys
     
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