Original Work The Family Pride (The Zero Enigma VI)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jun 11, 2019 at 6:34.


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  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Family Pride may require some explaining.

    Basically, I was midway through The Zero Curse when it crossed my mind that I could write a handful of stand-alone stories set in the Zero universe. A number of ideas occurred to me, some of which I plotted out at once, but I had to put them aside while I finished the first trilogy. One of them - The Family Shame - follows Isabella Ruben, after she was exiled from her family for betrayal during The Zero Equation. This one - The Family Pride - follows her brother, Akin Ruben.

    All you really need to know is that Akin and Cat, heroine of The Zero Blessing (and The Zero Curse and The Zero Equation) came from rival families. Think the Hatfields and McCoys, only with magic. Despite that, Akin and Cat became friends during the trilogy and, in a bid to cement the fragile post-House War peace, they were betrothed (a legal fiction making it difficult for either family to plot against the other) with the intention that they would get married when they were of legal age (or refuse to marry, in which case there would still have been peace for a few years).

    That was five years ago, in-universe. Now, that marriage is starting to loom ...

    As always, comments, spelling corrections, etc are warmly welcomed.

    As this is primarily meant for younger readers, please could you also keep an eye out for things that might not be appropriate for them.

    Now read on ...

    Thank you

    Chris

    PS - a couple of people were asking how to follow me. Just watch my blog <grin>.

    The Chrishanger
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue

    When I was a child, one rule was drummed into me from the very start. Anything, for the family. It was a very clear rule. The family was my home, my tribe. It sheltered me, protected me, empowered me. And, in exchange for everything it gave me, I was to always put the family first. I could leave, if I wished, but if I left I gave up everything. The family came first. Always.

    Isabella, my twin sister, and I had grown up together, told - practically since birth - that we were expected to be a team, against both the outside world and the family itself. The family might show a united front to outsiders - Father had made that very clear, during his long and tedious lectures on politics and family loyalties - but we bickered amongst ourselves in a constant, genteel struggle for power. My sister and I - as the Patriarch’s sole children - were expected to inherit, yet we could lose that position in a moment if we showed ourselves unworthy. In truth, I wasn’t sure I cared. Isabella might enjoy the drive for power, she might strive to establish herself as a leader amongst our generation ... I did not. I was always more interested in forging, and magic, than playing power games. It didn’t matter if I wanted to inherit or not. I was going to inherit anyway. Father had it all under control.

    I was ten years old, a year short of going to Jude’s for the first time, when I finally realised just how far apart Isabella and I had become.

    It was a long hot summer, dominated by endless lessons from our teachers and supervised playdates with children from other aristocratic families. The games might have been fun, if they weren’t so tightly controlled; I might have enjoyed it, just a little, if we’d been allowed to run free, like children who had no aristocratic parents to disappoint. Instead, we were expected to act like miniature adults, demonstrating our manners on one hand and our magic on the other. The playdates were boring. I found myself sneaking off as soon as possible. It was worth the lecture from Father just to be alone for a few short hours.

    I was sitting in my study, reading a book on advanced forging techniques, when Isabella burst into the room. I looked up, alarmed. We’d both practiced unlocking the other’s door, but it was generally understood that neither of us would actually enter the room without permission. Our bedrooms were ours, the only rooms in the mansion that were truly private. Even our Governess was supposed to knock. There had been times when I’d kept my mouth firmly closed, when she knocked on the door, and waited for her to go away. It worked. Sometimes.

    Isabella and I looked alike, naturally, but - as we grew older - we had started to diverge. Her blonde hair, the same colour as mine, hung down in a single long braid, while mine was cropped close to my skull. Her blue eyes, I fancied, were a little sharper than mine, although our parents claimed they were identical. The green dress she wore was a copy of one of Mother’s gowns, a dress so complex that it was difficult to put it on without magic; I, thankfully, was allowed to wear shirts and trousers. Isabella couldn’t wear trousers. The old ladies of the family would throw their hands up in horror at the mere thought, then subject her to very astringent criticism. A young lady of House Ruben wearing trousers? What was the world coming to? Horror of horrors!

    “Akin!” Isabella looked flushed, as if she had been running. “You have to help me!”

    I stood up, glancing out the opened door. I half-expected to see Madame McGinty - our Governess, a woman who would explode with fury if we forgot to call her Madame - charging down the corridor in a towering rage. Isabella had been picking fights with the governess more and more as we grew older, constantly struggling against the governess’s dictates as she fought to establish herself as a young girl. I was on her side, naturally. Madame McGinty was not a nice woman. But the corridor was empty.

    The door closed at my command. “What happened?”

    Isabella held up a book. “I ... ah ... borrowed this,” she said. “You have to help me.”

    I swallowed, hard. “You ... you took that from Father’s bookcase?”

    Isabella nodded, her head bobbing so rapidly that her braid swung loose. I stared, unable to help myself. Father had made it clear that we were not to touch the books on his private bookcase. Some of them could be very dangerous to the unprepared. I had no idea how Isabella had managed to circumvent the locking charms, let alone steal the book without being frozen in place or zapped into a frog or having something unpleasant happen to her. She’d always been better at charms than I, yet Father was much older and far more experienced. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked with my Father - he was always busy, managing the family - but I had a healthy respect for his powers. He’d been practicing magic for longer than I’d been alive.

    “He’ll kill you,” I said, horrified. Not literally, I hoped, but Isabella would be in a lot of trouble. Father would hit the roof. Isabella would be grounded for so long that her grandchildren would still be trapped in her bedroom. “Why did you ...?”

    Isabella met my eyes, her blue eyes wide. “I had to know.”

    I winced in perfect understanding. We had been taught to be curious, to study magic and develop our knowledge as far as possible. It seemed almost a crime to ignore books, even ones that were dangerous. I’d read hundreds of textbooks and tomes that had been intended for older children, although I hadn’t been permitted to try any of the spells. I understood perfectly why Isabella would want to read a forbidden text. They were forbidden. That was half of the fun!

    “He’s coming,” Isabella said. She was always pale, but now she was so white that her skin looked almost translucent. “He’ll find me and ...”

    Her voice trailed off. Isabella was already in trouble. She’d mouthed off to Madame McGinty earlier in the day and the Governess had not been pleased. Mother wasn’t going to be pleased either, when she came home from her society meeting. It really would not do to have a young lady showing anything less than the proper respect ... Mother would be angry and Isabella would be grounded and it was a horrible ghastly mess.

    “What can I do?” I looked at the book. The title was faded, which meant it was old and probably very rare. “Isabella ...”

    “Tell Father you took the book,” Isabella said. “Please.”

    I blinked. “You want me to lie to Father?”

    “He’ll kill me,” Isabella pleaded. “But he won’t kill you.”

    I heard the bitter frustration in her voice and winced. Isabella would never be Heir Primus, let alone Matriarch. House Ruben was always led by a Patriarch. I might inherit my father’s titles and position, but Isabella ... the best she could hope for was marrying into a position of power. She would have power, I’d been assured, just as Mother had power ... it wouldn’t be hers. It was a sad irony of our lives that I, who didn’t want power, was going to inherit it. And my sister would never have power in her own right.

    I would have traded places. Yes, I would have done. Isabella actually wanted the power.

    “He won’t kill you,” I pointed out. “The worst that will happen is that you get grounded ...”

    “Yeah, but I have to attend the Lancet Party,” Isabella said. “It’s the event of the year, before school. I have to go, just to solidify alliances ...”

    I rolled my eyes. Yes, I knew alliances were important. Yes, I knew it was vital to have friendships before we went to school. Yes, I knew that who one knew could be very important in later life ... but I didn’t really care. I’d been surrounded by sycophants for most of my life. Isabella, on the other hand, was determined to be a social queen. She’d started training for the role at a very young age.

    “Please, Akin,” Isabella pleaded. “I need this. I’ll repay you ...”

    There was a solid knock on the door. I blanched, feeling my stomach starting to churn. Only one person knocked like that, only one. Father. I looked at Isabella, at my sister’s pleading face, and made up my mind. I took the book, then cast a simple spell. The door opened. My father stepped into the room.

    “Akin, Isabella.” His voice was very calm, so calm I knew he was angry. My father rarely showed any display of temper. “Would one of you care to explain ...?”

    I held up the book. “It was my fault, Father.”

    Father eyed me for a long moment, his face utterly implacable. I couldn’t tell if he believed me or not. I wasn’t a good liar and Father had been running the family since well before I was born. But his face showed no trace of his feelings. Isabella was going to owe me big. I made a mental note to ensure that she paid through the nose.

    “Your fault,” Father said, slowly. “And why did you take the book?”

    “I was curious.” I could have kicked myself. I hadn’t thought to take a look at the book before Father had arrived. I could have come up with a convincing reason to borrow the book if only I knew the subject. “It was the first I touched.”

    “Indeed.” Father’s gaze moved from me to Isabella and back again. “Give it to me.”

    I held out the book. Father took it, his eyes never leaving my face. I knew, with a sickening certainty, that he knew I was lying. But he said nothing.

    “I’m sorry, Father.” My voice shook, although I wasn’t sure if I was afraid or angry at Isabella for getting me into this mess. “I just wanted to know.”

    “Curiosity killed the cat,” Father said, quietly.

    “Satisfaction brought it back.” Isabella gave him a charming smile. “Father ...”

    I shot her a sharp look. This wasn’t the time to be flippant. It never was, when Father was concerned, but now was a particularly bad time.

    Father gave her a stern look. “I believe Madame McGinty is looking for you, young lady.”

    “Oh,” Isabella said.

    “And you can go find her, afterwards,” Father continued. “Akin, I am very disappointed in you.”

    I looked down. “Yes, Father.”

    “You will report to my office after dinner, where we will discuss your punishment.” Father’s voice brooked no disobedience. “And you will remain in your room until dinner.”

    “Yes, Father.”

    Father studied me for a long moment. I was fairly sure he knew that ordering me to stay in my room wasn’t much of a punishment. I had books to read, experiments to plan ... and a perfect excuse to avoid everyone until dinnertime. Cousins Francis and Bernard had been nagging me to play hide-and-seek with them. I liked them both, but they were a bit much when I was trying to study.

    “Good,” Father said. “And the next time you want to read one of my books, ask first.”

    He turned and swept out of the room. The door closed behind him with a sharp thud. I sensed the spell a moment later, keeping me firmly in my room. Anyone else could come and go as they wished, but I ... I was stuck, until Father lifted the spell. I ...

    Isabella gave me a hug. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. “I owe you my life!”

    “Hah,” I muttered. I hugged her back, very briefly. Dramatics aside, it was nice to know our relationship wasn’t totally lost. “Anything, for the family.”
     
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The corridor leading to my father’s office seemed endless.

    Isabella and I used to joke, in happier times, that Father used magic to deliberately extend the corridor. It wasn’t impossible. House Ruben was so old that magic had seeped into the very bones of the mansion. The inside was bigger than the outside, in places; there were staircases that went up to be the basement and corridors that twisted in odd ways, threatening to go in directions the human mind couldn’t grasp. Father could have extended the corridor for miles, if he had wished, but I doubted it. I simply didn’t want to reach the far end.

    I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I made my way along the corridor. Isabella and I - and all the other children - had been told, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to enter the office floor unless we were specifically invited. And we were only invited when we were in trouble. I didn’t think I’d done anything that might get me in trouble, certainly not in the last few weeks of summer, but ... I couldn’t help reviewing everything that had happened, wondering what Father might have found offensive. Perhaps someone had seen Cat and I exchanging brief kisses, when we’d last met. We might be betrothed, yet there were limits to how far we could go. We’d been chaperoned, but ...

    That was two weeks ago, I reminded myself. Father would have told me off by now, if he was going to tell me off at all.

    I pushed the thought aside as I came to the first set of family portraits. The first one showed my parents, Lord Carioca Rubén and Lady Jeannine Rubén, on their wedding day. I stopped to look at them for a long moment, before heading on. Everyone said my father and I looked alike, but I couldn’t see it. Father was taller and more dignified than I would ever be. The next portrait showed Isabella and I, as children. We’d been five when the portrait had been painted ... I smiled, as I walked past a series of portraits, each one painted a year after the last. Isabella and I really had looked alike, back then. We’d joked that we could swap clothes and no one would notice the difference.

    My good humour faded as I reached the eleventh portrait. It was the last one that showed Isabella, before her disgrace. She looked young and pretty, dressed in her school uniform ... I swallowed, hard, as I remembered the House War and Isabella’s role in it. She’d betrayed the family, she’d thrown her lot in with Stregheria Aguirre ... she whose name was never spoken. Isabella had been young, young enough to avoid execution, but not young enough to avoid punishment. My sister had been in exile for the last six years. I’d only seen her once, in all that time. Her letters had been upbeat - reading between the lines, I thought she’d found something to do with herself - but something was missing. A little of her fire, her passion for life, her determination to be great, had died with Stregheria Aguirre.

    And the Crown Prince, I thought. He died too.

    I swallowed, hard, at the thought. I’d killed the Crown Prince, with the family sword. It was currently resting in a scabbard attached to my back, the scabbard charmed to make the sword difficult to see unless someone’s attention was drawn - specifically - to its presence. I had the right to wear it - the blade had bonded to me, once Cat had repaired it - but not everyone liked the idea of me carrying a priceless Object of Power everywhere I went. It was silly - it wasn’t as if students my age didn’t know a handful of killing spells - yet ... there was no point in arguing. Besides, the sword was - technically - a betrothal gift. It was going to get sticky if the betrothal fell through and Cat’s family demanded the sword back.

    I touched the hilt - it felt reassuringly solid against my skin - and forced myself to walk further down the corridor. The portraits changed, showing me - and me alone. There was no sign of Isabella. I might as well be an only child, for all the acknowledgement my parents made of their daughter. She was lucky they’d kept her childhood portraits. I knew that some of the family elders had demanded they be destroyed. Isabella had betrayed the entire family. They would forgive a great deal, but not that.

    And if they hadn’t pushed so hard, Father might have given them what they wanted, I thought, as I reached the final portrait. He couldn’t let them browbeat him into submission.

    I stopped and stared up at the portrait. Cat and I stood together, flanked by both sets of parents. Cat’s sisters were missing, no doubt a diplomatic measure to conceal Isabella’s absence. We both looked older than we were, but ... I smiled, feeling a rush of affection. I’d always known my parents would choose who I married, yet ... I’d been lucky. Really, I would have been lucky if I’d known Cat.

    My father’s door was solid wood. Privacy charms - some basic, some quite nasty - crawled across it, their mere presence daring me to tap the door. I braced myself, then lifted my hand and knocked. There was no sound, but I could feel the vibrations as they echoed through the ether. There was a long pause, just long enough for me to wonder if Father had been called away on short notice, before the door swung open. Uncle Davys stepped out.

    “Akin,” he said, sternly.

    “Senior.” I bowed, quickly. Uncle Davys - my father’s twin brother - was very insistent on proper protocol being followed at all times. It was no surprise to me that Cousin Francis was a little hellion. “Father summoned me ...”

    “Quite.” Uncle Davys didn’t sound pleased. I knew he’d been one of the loudest voices demanding that Isabella’s sentence be made permanent. “You may enter.”

    He walked past me and strode down the corridor. I glared at his retreating back, resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at him. My father and his brother had fallen out long ago, before they’d married and had kids, but they couldn’t ignore each other. Uncle Davys had been the Heir Primus, until I was born; even now, he still had power and position within the family. I was surprised that Francis and I got on, most of the time. It helped, I suppose, that we were very different.

    I turned and stepped into my father’s office. It was an immense room, the walls lined with mahogany and studded with bookcases and cupboards. Two comfortable armchairs rested in one corner, another was dominated by an oversized wooden desk and a chair that looked more like a throne. A large portrait of the entire family - Isabella included - hung from one wall. There were no windows. The light came from a handful of glowing crystals, embedded in the ceiling. I schooled my face into careful impassivity as my father stood to greet me. He looked tired, tired and old. For the first time, it struck me that my father really was old.

    Not that old, I told myself as I bowed. He’s only in his early fifties.

    “Akin.” My father sounded tired too. “Take a seat, please.”

    He indicated the armchairs. I allowed myself to relax, slightly. If I’d been in trouble, I would never have been allowed to sit. I’d have had to stand in front of the desk and listen while he told me off for whatever I’d done. I sat, leaning back into the comfortable chair. My father sat on the other, resting his hands on his lap. Even when he was at home, even in his office, he wore fancy suits. It had never creased to puzzle me. No one would dare say a word if Father chose to wear something comfortable.

    “You’re going back to Jude’s in a week,” Father said, shortly. There was never any small talk with him, not when he had something important to discuss. “Are you looking forward to it?”

    “Yes, Father.” It was true. I was. I’d miss the mansion - and my private forgery - but I was learning a great deal at school. The chance to work with Magister Tallyman was not to be tossed aside lightly. I’d already started to plan how I’d ask him for an apprenticeship, after I finished my final year at school. “It should be fun.”

    “You should be more concerned with your exams, not with fun.” Father made the word sound like a curse. “Your exam results will dominate the next decade of your life.”

    “Yes, Father,” I said.

    Father nodded, slowly. “You will be Head Boy, of course.”

    I blinked. “What?”

    “You will be Head Boy.” Father sounded irked. He didn’t like repeating himself. “You’ll share the honour with Alana Aguirre, who has been appointed Head Girl.”

    “Father ...” I stared at him. “Father, I didn’t ask to ...”

    “Of course not.” Father snorted, as if I’d said something stupid. “You are a Ruben, son, and Heir Primus. It would be surprising indeed if you weren’t Head Boy. It would be quite difficult, quite difficult indeed, if Alana had been a boy too ...”

    “I didn’t earn it,” I protested. “I don’t want it.”

    “You don’t become Head Boy through merit,” Father pointed out, dryly. “And whether or not you want it doesn’t matter. You are going to be Head Boy, Son, and you are going to be good at it.”

    “Father ...”

    My father held up his hand. “The decision has been made, Son, and favours have been called in. It cannot be changed.”

    I scowled in mute resentment. Father hadn’t asked if I wanted it. Why would he bother? He’d been making decisions for me - and the rest of the family - for years. But then, if he’d asked me I would have said no. I didn’t want to be Head Boy.

    Father met my eyes. “Are you feeling up to discussing this rationally?”

    “Yes, Father.” It was hard to keep the anger out of my voice. I was seventeen, not a baby who couldn’t be trusted to keep his hand out of the fire. “Why?”

    “You are aware, of course, that there have been some ... rumbles ... of discontent amongst the family,” Father said. “On one hand, they have been ... concerned ... about me and my rule ever since Isabella ... left us. There have been suggestions whispered - and not very quietly either - that I am not up to the job. And, on the other hand, they have been deeply worried about the alliance between us and House Aguirre. They would prefer not to see the alliance become permanent.”

    I frowned. “Father, House Aguirre has the only known Zero. They are ...”

    Father cut me off. “I am aware of the advantages” - he shot me a smile that made him look years younger - “and also of your ... feelings ... regarding your betrothed. I have no reason to doubt that a permanent alliance would be good for the family, for both families. Less so, of course, for the rest of the city.”

    “But who cares about them?” I spoke with more bitterness than I intended. “The family comes first, always.”

    “Quite.” My father studied his hands for a long moment. “They are also concerned about you.”

    “Me?”

    “You,” Father confirmed. “You have many strengths, Akin, but you also have weaknesses. There are ... concerns that you are unable to manage the responsibilities that come with being Heir Primus and, eventually, Patriarch. And your betrothed has similar issues. It isn’t as if you’re betrothed to Alana.”

    I blanched. I liked Cat - Caitlyn Aguirre - but Alana? She’d grown up a lot, in the years since I’d first met her, yet she still had a sharp edge and sharper tongue. She and Isabella had been very alike, in a great many ways. Isabella had envied Alana, as well as hated her. Alana didn’t have a family that stuck to the old traditions, even though they’d died with the Thousand-Year Empire. She could succeed her father and take control of her family. And I pitied the poor bloke who married her.

    “I have the family sword,” I pointed out. I tapped the hilt, drawing his attention to the blade. “Doesn’t that prove something?”

    “The family council would object, loudly, to the suggestion that receiving the sword as a betrothal gift qualifies you for anything,” Father countered. “You were merely the first one to touch the sword, after it was repaired. It could have been Francis or ...”

    “Or Isabella,” I finished. “She could have taken the sword.”

    My Father’s face darkened, as it always did when my sister was mentioned. I knew he loved her, even though he found it hard to show it; I knew he regretted sending her away, even though he hadn’t been given a choice. He had to wonder, deep inside, if he’d failed as a father. His daughter had turned traitor. It was a wound that cut to the quick.

    “Quite,” he said. “The family council is lining up possible candidates right now. We have to move fast.”

    I leaned forward. “Why bother? I don’t want the job and ...”

    Father glared. “The family gives you many things,” he said. “You have safety and security, wealth and power and education” - he waved a hand in the vague direction of Water Shallot -“that the average commoner could never dream of having. The family gives you a showed and a shield so you may fight for the family. And in exchange, you will serve the family. It is your duty.”

    “Yes, Father.” I did my best to hide the sarcasm in my tone. It might drive him over the edge. “Anything, for the family.”

    The look Father gave me suggested that I hadn’t managed to hide the sarcasm. “You should know, by now, that everything has a price. And the price the family demands, for what it gives you, is service. It is your duty to complete your education, marry well and - eventually - lead the family.”

    “And if I don’t want the job?” I pressed on before he could explode. “What if Cousin Shawn or Cousin Alcamo would do a better job?”

    “Well” - Father’s voice dripped poison - “on one hand, that isn’t very loyal to our branch of the family tree. Is it? And, on the other hand, reshuffling the succession will cause all manner of resentments. There will be endless disputes over just who should succeed me if you refuse the honour. That would be very bad, would it not?”

    I knew the right answer. “Yes, Father.”

    Father eyed me. “And so you must prove yourself worthy of the title you carry before my enemies can muster enough votes to challenge the succession. You must do something that will convince the doubters that they can support your succession, rather than trying to unseat you before I die or retire. No one expects you to be me, not yet, but they do want to see signs of promise.”

    It was hard not to give a sarcastic answer. “I don’t think that being Head Boy will be that impressive, not to them. How many strings did you pull to get me the job?”

    Father seemed oddly pleased by my comment. “Too many. But you’re right. The family council will not be impressed. You’re going to do something else.”

    I felt a flicker of fear. What could he have in mind? Marrying Cat clearly wasn’t good enough. Cat and I had been betrothed for years. The arrangement might be a legal fiction, at least on paper, but it couldn’t be dismissed. It had to be treated as real - as legitimate - right up until the point Cat and I grew old enough to marry ... or say no. The fire-breathers who wanted to restart the House War couldn’t do anything until the betrothal was formally ended.

    “It also has to be done quickly,” Father added. “There is a push, even amongst my allies, for you to be declared adult immediately after you leave school. Cat too, meaning that you will be expected to marry in a year or two. The ones who want to unseat you will have to act fast - and that means you’ll have to prove yourself this year too.”

    I scowled. I knew the betrothal was important, but I didn’t want to think about it. “What do they want me to do? Fight a dragon?”

    “No,” Father said. “You might fight a dragon, you might even kill a dragon, but that wouldn’t prove anything. Your detractors might even claim that just going out to fight a dragon is proof you’re an idiot. And they might be right. It would be very stupid.”

    “Yes, Father,” I said.

    Idiot would be the right word, I supposed. Dragons were nasty, immensely strong flying monsters that breathed fire and were practically immune to conventional weapons. Thankfully, they rarely flew into civilised lands, preferring to haunt the Desolation. Dragon hunters were amongst the bravest men in the world. They also had the highest death rates. It was rare for a man to stay in the profession after he’d brought down a single dragon. The skin alone would be more than enough to make him wealthy for life.

    “You need to demonstrate the skills to run the family,” Father said. “Everything from strong and skilled magic to leadership and teamwork. And you have to do it in a year. Less than a year, really. You cannot fail.”

    His voice was very firm. “You, Akin, are going become Wizard Regnant.”
     
  4. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    Hard to miss "sword" methinks.
     
  5. Dont

    Dont Just another old gray Jarhead Monkey Site Supporter+++

    Ceased??

    It had never creased to puzzle me. No one would dare say a word if Father chose to wear something comfortable.

    It is good to see you back.. Hope your health is well.
     
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    I stared at him. “Wizard Regnant?”

    “The Challenge,” Father said. “You are going to take the Challenge - and you’re going to win.”

    I found myself with nothing to say. Isabella would have come up with a glib comment, something that would have annoyed our father beyond words, but me? I had nothing. I knew about the Challenge, of course, and I knew that most young magicians wanted to be crowned Wizard Regnant, but not me. It was a honour, I’d been told, but ... it wasn’t one I wanted or needed. Cousin Francis or Isabella would have liked to complete, I was sure. Not me.

    “Father,” I managed. “I don’t have time to take the Challenge.”

    My father’s eyebrows crawled upwards. “I’ve studied your school reports very carefully,” he said. “You are not such a poor student that you need to spend your final year studying ...”

    “But I have too much else to do.” I found myself struggling for excuses. “You’ve lumbered me with the Head Boy job and ...”

    “Most people would be grateful to be named Head Boy,” Father pointed out, smoothly. “It does open doors, in later life.”

    “Not for me,” I countered. “I’m the Heir Primus of House Ruben and ...”

    “Yes. And you can lose that in a moment, if the family council votes to replace you.” My father lifted a hand in warning. “Akin, this is not a game. You have a position you won by luck, not by proving yourself. And now you do have to prove yourself, if you want to keep the position.”

    His voice rose. “And I will not have you throw everything away, not now. I’ve worked too hard to ensure that my bloodline remains prominent amongst the family line.”

    I swallowed. “Yes, Father.”

    Father glowered at me for a long moment. “To the unintelligent, the Challenge seems thoroughly pointless. It appears to be of no more import than football or dodgeball or one of a thousand other games where the cranially impaired throw balls around and bore everyone to death with tales of famous goals they scored or matches they saved through their sole efforts. You would be right to dismiss a man my age, Akin, who bragged about his victories on the field at school. They are so far in the past that no one really gives a ... no one really cares.”

    Isabella wouldn’t agree, I thought. My sister had joined the netball team back when we’d been firsties, back before her disgrace. I’d always assumed it was a chance to network, rather than for the joy of the game, but her letters made it clear she missed the sport. Cat, on the other hand, would agree with you.

    “However, to the more discerning, the Challenge has greater meaning.” Father held me in place with his eyes, his demeanour making it clear that I’d better pay attention - or else. “It is impossible to win through luck, or personal skill. The only way to win is to demonstrate the skills required of a patron, which - by astonishing coincidence - are the skills required to run a Great House. On a smaller scale, of course, but still ... if you do well at the Challenge, and become Wizard Regnant, you will be accepted as Heir Primus without further argument. And that is what you are going to do.”

    “It isn’t a coincidence at all,” I muttered.

    “No, it isn’t.” Father smiled in approval. I would have enjoyed it more if he hadn’t been setting me up for trouble. “The Challenge is just like a war game, only slightly more genteel. Slightly. You’ll face the same sort of challenges” - his lips quirked into a smile - “as I do on a daily basis. And if you do well, you’ll demonstrate that you have the potential ability to take my place. No one expects you to be perfect, right from your first day. You should see the list of mistakes I made in my first year. But they will be a great deal more tolerant of your mistakes if they think you have the potential to overcome them.”

    “I see,” I said.

    “Everyone knows the winner will go on to great things,” Father insisted. “And it will win you time to establish yourself as Heir Primus.”

    “Yes, Father.” I wasn’t sure I wanted it, but ... I knew I couldn’t say no. “Anything, for the family.”

    “Indeed,” Father said. “Anything.”

    I looked down at my hands. I’d have to read the rules - I’d never bothered to study them religiously, unlike some of the more sporty boys in the dorm - and see if I could find a way to win without too much effort. Or wasting too much time. In theory, I didn’t need to study that hard to pass my exams; in practice, I knew I had to work hard if I wanted to impress Magister Tallyman and convince him to take me as an apprentice. Or another Forger, if Magister Tallyman refused to take me. Magister Tallyman’s recommendation would go a long way, if it was given freely. There was no way I could force him to recommend me.

    “I’ll do my best,” I promised.

    “I want you to do more than your best,” Father said. “I want you to win.”

    “Yes, Father.” I looked up. “And Father, if I do this, can we recall Isabella from exile.”

    My father’s face darkened, just for a second, before it went completely impassive. “You do realise she might be happier where she is?”

    I scowled. Isabella was in exile, trapped at Kirkhaven Hall. She was a very long way from the closest city, let alone Shallot. I couldn’t believe she was happy there. She was practically in solitary confinement. The girl I remembered, the social queen who’d built a circle of friends and clients, couldn’t possibly enjoy being on her own. I was sure she wanted to come back as soon as possible.

    Although all her friends and clients abandoned her even before she was disgraced, I thought, sourly. I hadn’t failed to take note. If Isabella could lose her friends so quickly, over something as minor as losing a duel she should have won, I could lose mine too. And I had never been the most sociable of people. If she comes home, how many people will welcome her.

    Father seemed to read my mind. “She would be effectively confined to the hall,” he said, nodding towards the walls. “No one would invite her to parties, no one would take her as an apprentice ... no one would want to have anything to do with her, even for us. She would be ostracised, right from the start. She would be about as welcome in polite society as Lady Younghusband.”

    I blanched. I had no idea what Lady Younghusband had done - the grown-ups had spoken of it in hushed whispers, when I’d been around - but it had been serious. It must have been. She’d had to close her mansion, dismiss most of her servants and retire to her country estate, where she spent her days doing ... what? I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. High Society didn’t care what she did, as long as she did it a long way from Shallot.

    “Isabella is a lot younger than Lady Younghusband,” I pointed out. “And ...”

    Father cut me off. “And if Isabella hadn’t been so young,” he said, “she would have been beheaded.”

    I shuddered, helplessly. The thought of my sister laying her head on the block ...

    “People will forget that, once they see her seventeen-year-old self.” Father’s voice was remorseless. “They won’t remember that she was a young girl. They’ll think of her as an adult, old enough to make her own decisions and take the consequences; they’ll think she knew what she was doing and ostracise her.”

    “She was a child!” I protested. “Father, she was young.”

    “And now she’s practically an adult,” Father said. “Can you imagine me as a little boy?”

    I shook my head. It was impossible to believe, truly believe, that my father had once been a little boy. I knew it must have been true, once upon a time, but ... I didn’t really believe it. I just couldn’t accept, emotionally, that my father had ever been young. The tales some of my older relatives had told about my father ... they couldn’t be about him, could they? He could never be a child to me.

    “Of course not.” Father smiled, thinly. “And there will be people who will not accept that Isabella could ever have been a child.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” I insisted. “Even if she’s back here ...”

    “Confined to the mansion?” My father quirked an eyebrow. “What sort of life is that?”

    I had to admit he had a point. I’d never really liked going outside, not when there were books to read and magic to perform, but Isabella had always been an active girl. She’d learnt to ride when she was a child - it had taken me considerably longer to master the beasts - and she’d explored the city with her friends, well before she’d gone to school. Madame McGinty had once spent hours screaming at her for climbing a tree in the grounds and ruining an expensive dress. Isabella might see the mansion as nothing more than a prison cell. A luxurious cell, to be far, but a cell nonetheless.

    “And besides, the family council will never agree,” Father said. “And even if they didn’t, the king will never agree.”

    I scowled. “Father, it was I who killed the Crown Prince ...”

    “And it took me months of negotiating to keep the king from demanding your surrender,” Father snapped. “Yes, the brat was a traitor who betrayed his own father. I know it and you know it and everyone important knows it. But the king cannot admit it, not publicly. He was furious ...”

    He stood and started to pace. “If we didn’t have that betrothal contract, if we didn’t have your betrothed’s family helping us, we might have been in some trouble. I could have lost you as well as your sister.”

    “Father ...” I found myself, again, lost for words. “I thought ... if I hadn’t killed him, I ...”

    “I know,” Father said. “And so does the king. But he lost a son.”

    He turned to face me. “You’ll understand when you have children. You’ll go through times when you wish you’d never had them, you’ll go through times when you’ll want to strangle them with your bare hands, but ... you’ll love them and, in the end, you won’t want anything bad to happen to them. You’ll find it difficult to refrain from jumping in, the moment your kids encounter a problem, and solving it for them. Childrearing is a lot harder than it looks.”

    You hired nurses and governesses to do the heavy lifting, I thought. My parents had been distant figures, when I was a child. Mother and Father had been there for us, but ... we’d spent most of our time with the help. You didn’t see us as much as we would have liked.

    I found myself feeling disturbed, in a manner I found almost impossible to articulate. There had been times when my parents had been angry at me, there had been times when they’d imposed discipline with a heavy hand, but ... I’d never felt they didn’t want me. Or Isabella, even after everything. It had never occurred to me that there might have been times when my parents regretted having children. Or that they’d been trying to do me a favour when they’d left me to sort out my problems for myself.

    “Yes, Father,” I said, finally.

    Father snorted. “You say that now. Just you wait till you and Cat have kids.”

    I blushed. I couldn’t help myself. “Father ...”

    “Grandchildren are the reward for the grandparents, and the punishment for the parents,” Father added. “I’m sure Cat’s father will agree.”

    I wanted to vanish. Or melt into the floor. Or simply turn invisible.

    “Just you wait,” Father said. He made it sound like I would be executed in the evening. “Just you wait.”

    “I’m sure I can do a better job,” I said, nettled. “I learnt from you.”

    Father laughed. “I said that to your grandfather,” he said. There was a hint of rueful admiration in his tone. “And I never realised how much he did for me until I had children myself.”

    “Yes, Father,” I said.

    “But, right now, it is politically impossible to bring Isabella back, even if we keep her confined to the mansion.” Father sat down, resting his hands on his knees. “We couldn’t convince the family council to let us bring her back and, even if we did, we would still have to convince the king. If Isabella had been a few years older, she’d be dead.”

    “You said,” I muttered.

    “And even though we played her up, as much as possible, as a victim of Stregheria Aguirre’s manipulations, it still made her look very bad.” Father shook his head. “We can’t bring her back anytime soon.”

    I looked down at the floor. “Yes, Father.”

    “And it would cost us a great deal,” Father added. “Have you been following the news from Magus Court?”

    “No, Father,” I said. “I ...”

    Father let out a long angry sigh. “You should. You really should.”

    “Yes, Father.”

    “Right now, the Great Houses are waiting to see if our alliance with House Aguirre is formalised, when you and Caitlyn become adults.” Father met my eyes, silently daring me to look away. “If we do become permanent allies, it will have a serious effect on the balance of power. The other Great Houses will combine against us, because they will not accept permanent submission. We know they’re looking for a Zero of their own. Sooner or later, they’ll find one.”

    I nodded. Cat could not be unique.

    “And they’re also working on ways to bell the cat.” Father smiled, as one does at a pun that isn’t really funny. “They’re giving Magus Court more power, legal and practical; they’re strengthening the City Guard and appointing a High Inquisitor, with authority to investigate and punish warlocks. They say it’s for the good of all, and some of them may even believe it, but we know it’s an attempt to put restraints on our power. A smooth succession, when I die or retire, is a must. It is vitally important that you are prepared to take my place.”

    “Yes, Father,” I said, sweetly. “Wasn’t that the problem with Crown Prince Henry?”

    Father looked unamused. “Quite. But believe me, there will be a lot of work for you to do.”

    I stared. “Father, I want an apprenticeship ...”

    “Your apprenticeship will be with me,” Father said. “You’ll learn to row, young man, before you take the helm.”

    My heart sank. “Father, I ... it isn’t what I want.”

    Father’s voice was surprisingly gentle. “We don’t always get what we want, Akin. You were born to power and that brings responsibilities ...”

    “But I don’t want them!” I knew I sounded like a child, but I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t want my life decided for me ...”

    “I know,” Father said. He reached out and rested a hand on my shoulder. It was so out of character for him that it caught my attention immediately. “If Isabella was still here, without a shadow over her, I might consider teaching her too, so she could ... advise ... you. And if there was someone else I trusted to serve, I’d teach him instead. But I cannot. I have to teach you, my only son. There’s no one else.”

    “Perhaps we shouldn’t keep power.” I wanted to scream. It was all I could do to keep from tearing off my family ring and throwing it in his face. “I don’t want it ...”

    “And if it was clear that you weren’t going to succeed me, either through removing yourself from the line of succession or being removed from it, there would be a power struggle to determine who would take my place.” Father’s eyes bored into mine. “And, right now, that would be disastrous. It would destroy everything our ancestors worked for, over the last few centuries. I will not allow it.”

    I stood, trying to keep him from seeing the pain in my eyes. My family could trace its linage all the way back to the days before the Thousand-Year Empire, to a time that was as much myths and legends as hard facts. I could recite the entire family tree, from a half-forgotten tribal headman to ... well, me. My ancestors had been so haughty that they could trace their ancestry right back to the very first men and women known to exist. And yet, the family had hit hard times. We - my family - was a branch of a branch of the original family. It had taken us centuries to climb back to the very pinnacle of power.

    The portrait on the wall seemed to be laughing at me. I glared at it, feeling a wave of bitterness. I loved my family, really I did, but ... I didn’t like the obligations that came with being part of the house. I envied Cousin Francis and Cousin Penny, more than I cared to admit. They could find masters, if they wished; they could build careers for themselves, they could make their own lives ...

    But Father was right. I had to succeed him. There was no choice.

    “When I was your age, I wanted to be a sailor,” Father said, quietly. “I do understand.”

    I glanced at him, understanding - suddenly - when he’d invested so much money in foreign trade. It was hard to imagine that my father had wanted to sail to the Silver Isles, or distant Hangchow, but ... I believed it.

    “Yes, Father.” I turned to face him and bowed, formally. “Anything, for the family.”
     
    rle737ng, techsar and mysterymet like this.
  7. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Glad to see you back, Chris. How are you feeling?
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Right now? A lot of tiredness, aches and pains. But getting better.

    Chapter Three

    The family library was immense, taking up nearly two entire floors of the mansion. Isabella and I had only been permitted to enter under supervision when we’d been children, a restriction that had only been lifted when we’d gone to school. Indeed, the library had been a good place to seek solitude over the years. Most of my peers were either banned from the library, on the grounds they weren’t that closely related to the core bloodline, or disinclined to spend time reading when they could be playing instead. Cousin Francis would sooner be seen dead than reading in the library.

    Twit, I thought, as I stepped through the door. Powerful wards curled around me, then faded away once they’d confirmed my identity. Knowledge is power and all the knowledge of the world is stored here.

    I sobered as I looked around the stacks. That wasn’t true and I knew it. The family never threw anything out, which meant there were books and magazines and newspapers that dated back centuries ... the books, at least, almost certainly outdated by now. It was interesting to know what our ancestors had thought, years ago, but modern magic had moved on. I shook my head slowly, then walked into the reading room. The librarian kept a handful of modern textbooks, academic journals and law books there, expecting that we’d use them more than anything else. I rather thought he was right. There weren’t that many of us who were interested in digging into the past.

    “Akin, my boy,” Uncle Malachi said. “How are you?”

    I blinked in surprise. Uncle Malachi had been in the hall for years - he had his own suite and everything - but it was rare to see him in the library. He spent most of his time wheeling and dealing, schmoosing with my father, Uncle Davys and everyone else who haunted the mansion. Indeed, he was one of the few people who managed to remain on good terms with both my father and his brother. It helped, I supposed, that he wasn’t really family. He’d married my Aunt. He might be an Uncle, but he’d never inherit anything.

    “Uncle,” I said. He’d given me permission, long ago, to call him uncle, rather than senior. “It’s been a long day.”

    Uncle Malachi waved to the armchair next to him. “Come and tell me all about it?”

    I sat, resting my hands on my lap. Uncle Malachi looked jovial and stout, unlike my father and his brother. And he wasn't blond. His brown hair flopped over a face that was starting to show the effects of too much good food and not enough exercise. He’d always been friendly, always been willing to advise me and my sister ... he’d always been a friendly ear, someone willing to listen to us. Most adults had wanted us to be seen, but not heard, when we’d been children. Even now, it was hard to believe that any of them would take me seriously. They’d known me as a child. But Uncle Malachi had always listened to me.

    “Father wants me to take the Challenge,” I said, numbly. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

    “At the beginning,” Uncle Malachi said. “Why does he want you to take the Challenge?”

    “To prove myself,” I said. “It ... I don’t want to do it.”

    Uncle Malachi looked pitying. “You know your father took the Challenge, when he was your age?”

    I blinked in surprise. “My father?”

    “Your father,” Uncle Malachi confirmed.

    If it had come from anyone else, I wouldn’t have believed it. My father’s disdain for sports - and everything related to sports - was well-known. He’d reprimanded Isabella for kicking a ball around the grounds, instead of spending her time developing her magic and learning how to be a proper young lady. My father ... but then, he had insisted that I take the Challenge. And he’d given good reasons, too. It was suddenly easy to believe that he’d had the same problem. His grandfather might have ordered him to take the Challenge too.

    “Oh,” I said. “And what happened?”

    Uncle Malachi looked ... vague. “Something happened. There was some sort of ... scandal. It got hushed up at the time, but ... your father was never crowned Wizard Regnant. Or anything, for that matter. Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy.”

    I blinked. “Everyone?”

    “Everyone,” Uncle Malachi confirmed. “Whatever happened was pretty bad.”

    “And it was bad enough that everyone had to be sworn to secrecy?” I shook my head in disbelief. Asking someone for an oath was ... bad manners, at the very least. At worst, it was an outright demand for complete and total surrender. “Was it something to do with Uncle Joaquin? Cat’s father?”

    “I don’t think so,” Uncle Malachi said, slowly. “But you won’t find anyone who’ll discuss it with you.”

    I frowned. I couldn’t believe my father could be so petty as to hold a grudge over a sporting event. I knew the Challenge was important, but ... there was a new Wizard Regnant every year or so. Wasn’t there? Or ...

    “And everyone has been sworn to secrecy,” I mused. “Why is it so important?”

    “Are you really that naive?” Uncle Malachi met my eyes. “The Challenge is more than just a game, Akin. Everyone knows the winner is marked out for great things.”

    “Father said the same,” I said.

    “He may not have explained it properly,” Uncle Malachi said. “The Challenge is important - and very far from fair. Cheating and outright sabotage is perfectly legal, as long as people cheat in the approved manner. And there have been quite a few contests where no one emerged victorious. There doesn’t have to be a winner.”

    “And Father didn’t win,” I commented. “Why not?”

    “The details were hushed up, as I said,” Uncle Malachi reminded me, without the irritation Father would have shown at repeating himself. “But ... it must have been bad. The Challenge is important. Enough leaked out, I think, for your father to wind up with egg on his face. It would have made his early years as Patriarch difficult. If you win ... it will reflect well on him.”

    “Oh,” I said.

    “The Challenge is really a mirror of inter-house politics,” Uncle Malachi added. “Whoever puts together a winning team is destined for greatness.”

    “My father lost ... and he’s still great,” I pointed out, sardonically. “What happened to the other losers?”

    “Some got points just for trying,” Uncle Malachi said. “Others ... vanished, after they graduated. But Akin ... everyone who won went on to great things.”

    “So you keep saying.” I wasn’t that impressed. “Where do I find a copy of the rules?”

    “They haven’t changed in the last fifteen years,” Uncle Malachi said. He pointed a finger at a handful of volumes, resting on the bookshelf. The closest was marked with Jude’s logo. “You’ll probably find the latest there, if you look. Check when you get to school, just in case there were any changes over the last year. They may be revised again.”

    I frowned. “Again?”

    “There was a really big cheating scandal sixteen years ago,” Uncle Malachi said. “You would have been a baby at the time. I’m not sure what happened, really. Someone found a way to cheat that was against the spirit of the rules, but not the letter. In any case, they revised the rules carefully to prevent it from happening again.”

    “And they didn’t tell us what they did?” That sounded odd, to me. “Why not?”

    “They probably didn’t want to give future contestants ideas,” Uncle Malachi offered, after a moment. “There’s cheating and then there’s cheating.”

    He stood. “I have a meeting with your uncle in twenty minutes,” he said. “But if you want to chat, afterwards, I’m available.”

    “Thanks, Uncle,” I said. “I’ll see you later.”

    I watched him walk out of the room, then stood myself and reached for the latest copy of Jude’s rules and regulations. I’d read it once, when I’d gone to school, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the sporting rules. They’d never really interested me. A handful of warnings about not turning Magisters into toads, casting mind-control spells on fellow students and the dangers of drinking concentration potions before an exam greeted me as I opened the cover, reminding me that the rules did change fairly regularly. I wondered, idly, just which student had managed to turn a Magister into a toad. That would have been an impressive feat. Anyone who taught at Jude’s would be an above-average magician, no matter what they taught. I found it hard to believe that even an upperclassman could turn a Magister into a toad.

    Maybe it was Madam Ruthven, I thought, uncharitably. The historian had the unearthly gift of being able to suck the fun out of her subject, as if she were a vampire and history lessons were her prey. It isn’t as if anyone has seen her do much magic.

    I felt a pang of guilt - Cat couldn’t do any magic - and pushed the thought aside as I flipped through the book. Rules on how to treat lowerclassmen, rules on how to handle upperclassmen ... detailed instructions for cleaning and pressing one’s uniform jacket? I was starting to think that whoever had written the book had been paid by the word. They always used five words where one would do. I was starting to feel a little frustrated by the time I reached the correct section. Irritatingly, it had been separated from the rules governing football, netball and all the other sporty wastes of time ...

    ... And the very first paragraph was a warning that the Challenge could prove deadly.

    I felt my heart skip a beat as I read through the section. The Challenge had rules - the writer had said, without bothering to elaborate - but even within the rules, contestants could die. A girl had died, four years ago ... I’d been in second year at the time, hadn’t I? How had I not heard about it? And a boy had died three years before that ... others had been badly injured, including one boy who would never be the same again. The book didn’t go into details, which I found more than a little ominous. Magic could heal almost any sort of physical damage. What had happened to the injured student? Perhaps he’d gone mad.

    And Father wants me to compete, I thought, as I turned the page. Perhaps he’s gone mad.

    Once I was past the harrowing warnings - and the blunt statement that anyone who competed knew the risks - I finally reached an outline of the rules themselves. They appeared to be relatively simple, something that worried me. I could compete on my own, if I wished, or form a team of up to ten students - all upperclassmen. Lowerclassmen were specifically forbidden from taking part. I supposed that made sense. There weren’t many lowerclassmen, myself included, who could have matched magic against an upperclassman.

    And we’re not allowed to ask for help from anyone significantly older, I mused. The rule was clearly designed to prevent us from enlisting adult help. No parents, no teachers, no one from outside the school ...

    I frowned. Cat and I were the same age, but - depending on how I looked at the rules - enlisting her help was probably out of the question. Uncle Malachi had pointed out that there was cheating and then there was cheating. The rules weren’t too clear on where the limits actually lay, but asking for Objects of Power from my betrothed was probably too blatant for the staff to tolerate. No one else would be able to do it. And there was no clear explanation of what we’d actually have to do. I assumed we wouldn’t be kicking a football around the field, but ... what would we be doing? The rules weren’t clear on that point.

    It could be anything, I thought, slowly. I could ask Father, but if he hadn’t volunteered the information it was unlikely he’d give it to me if I asked. What do they want us to do?

    I considered it for a long moment. Something that required a team ... yes, I could do it alone, legally, but I had the feeling that that would be asking for trouble. A magical duel, trading spell for spell? Or ... or what? A set of tasks that had to be completed in a given time? I’d done group projects at school, working with my handful of friends. Maybe the Challenge was the same thing, on a bigger scale. I didn’t know.

    Shaking my head, I closed the book and surveyed the remaining shelves. The earlier editions weren’t any help, although one of them went into gruesome detail about an accident that had been expunged from the later versions. I returned the original book to the shelf, then turned and walked out of the library. It was late afternoon, nearly dinnertime. Thankfully, I’d been told I could take it in my rooms.

    Isabella would have done a better job, I thought, as I walked up the stairs. She’d have loved the Challenge.

    I felt a pang of guilt as I reached my room, passing a pair of lesser cousins - both too young to go to school - on my way. They seemed so happy and free ... it made me wonder if Isabella and I had been so innocent, once upon a time. I heard their laughter as I opened the door, the sound cutting off abruptly as the door closed behind me. I’d warded the suite against sound years ago. I had never been able to get used to hearing noises while I slept and worked.

    My dinner was already waiting on the table when I arrived, concealed neatly under charmed covers that kept the food in stasis. The maid had come and gone ... thankfully, she hadn’t entered my bedroom or my study. I’d had to explain to her, years ago, that she couldn’t tidy my desks and shelves. Everything was ordered. It was just my order, impervious to lesser minds. Cat had laughed, when I’d told her. Mother had been much less amused.

    Isabella was much the same, I thought. She had her own way of doing things too.

    I sat down and removed the covers. The kitchen staff had outdone themselves, cooking a meal of roast lamb, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy, with sticky toffee pudding for desert. My father had hosted a dinner for lunch, if I recalled correctly. I wondered, suddenly, just who he’d been hosting and why. It couldn’t have been a big family gathering or I would have been forced to attend. Maybe it had been a friend or ... or Uncle Joaquin, coming to discuss plans for the wedding. I felt my stomach sink at the thought. I liked Cat. Really, I did. But I wanted our wedding to be more than just a family event, more than just the glue that bound our alliance together. I wanted ...

    What you want doesn’t matter, a voice said, at the back of my head. It sounded very much like my father. Anything, for the family.

    I scowled. I knew the problem. As long as Cat and I were children, we couldn’t get married. Of course not. And that meant that the ultimate question of whether or not we’d actually get married rested in limbo. But, once we were declared adults, we would have to make an actual decision. And I knew we wouldn’t be allowed to delay for long ...

    Being betrothed did have its advantages, I reminded myself, sourly. Normally, I would have spent my summers being introduced to suitable young women - and being chaperoned, heavily, as we talked about absolutely nothing. But that couldn’t happen as long as I was betrothed. I didn’t have to worry about filling out a dance card either. It would be insulting to my betrothed to dance with anyone else. Now, though, the time has come to pay the piper.

    I ate my dinner, put the plates to one side - the maid would collect them later - and walked into my study, closing and locking the door behind me. I was fairly sure my father could get into the room if he wanted - he was the mansion’s wardmaster - but everyone else would have real problems breaking into my room without setting off the alarms. I glanced around, quietly making sure that everything was where I’d left it, then sat down at my desk and reached for paper. I’d promised myself that I’d write a letter to Isabella before I went back to school ...

    And I’m going to have to be careful what I write, I thought, sourly. The family council read the letters I wrote to Isabella, on the grounds an exile had no right to privacy. They’d wanted to read the letters I sent to Cat too, but Father had overruled them. Who knows what they’ll conclude from my scribbling?

    I rolled my eyes, wrote the letter and placed it in an unsealed envelope. There was no point in charming it shut. If the family council couldn’t open it, they’d toss it in the fire. They’d made that clear, long ago. Uncle Davys had been very firm about it. I had never understood why he’d been so angry at Isabella, but he’d made his point. The nasty part of my mind wondered why he couldn’t simply remove the charm, read the letter and replace the charm himself. He wasn’t a poor magician, whatever else he was. It wouldn’t be that much of a hassle.

    Perhaps he just wants to make it clear that she’s in trouble, I thought, as I placed the letter in the box and headed into my bedroom. Or perhaps he’s just a pain in the neck.

    My lips quirked. I knew worse things to call them. But if I said them too close to Mother ...

    Bedtime, I told myself, firmly. Tomorrow will be a very busy day.
     
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    I felt the ward jangle as someone opened the door, jerking me out of a sound sleep. I sat upright, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The maid - she was new, barely a year younger than myself - started backwards, almost dropping the tea tray. Her face went so red that I was sure she expected to be fired on the spot. I smiled at her, as reassuringly as I could. I didn’t think I had the power to fire a maid. Mother ran the house with a rod of iron and she would be furious if I presumed to tread on her toes.

    “Just put it there,” I said, indicating the table. “I’ll put it outside when I’m done.”

    The maid placed the tray on the table, curtseyed delicately and retreated backwards out of the room. I tried not to stare. She was a very pretty girl and the maid’s outfit suited her, but Mother had made it very clear that the maids were not to be touched. Given that she’d actually hit a distant uncle with wandering hands - and banished him from the household shortly afterwards - I wasn’t inclined to take liberties. Besides, Cat would kill me.

    I stood, stumbled over to the table and inspected the tray. Coffee and milk, nothing else. Mother expected me to join the others for breakfast, then. I sighed - it was really too early in the morning for Cousin Francis - and drank my coffee, savouring the weak taste. I’d never been able to understand how my father could drink coffee that was darker than Cat or Uncle Joaquin. His coffee tasted so foul that I’d spat it out, after I’d taken a sip. Maybe it was an adult thing. I’d discovered, over the last year, that a lot of things I’d considered unbearably disgusting - when I’d been a child - were actually palatable to the adult palate.

    They’d have to be, I mused, as I finished the coffee and headed into the shower. Otherwise, no one would eat or drink them.

    The thought made me smile. Father had told me, when he’d been in one of his better moods, that people didn’t buy and serve expensive dishes for the taste. They did it to show off their wealth. A man who could serve his guests roast griffin or boiled harpy was a man of wealth and power, if not taste. Beef, lamb and chicken might taste better, but they were common. I snorted as I washed and dried myself, then donned a simple suit. Thankfully, men weren’t expected to wear a new dress every day.

    I carried the tray into the living room and put it on the table for collection, then headed down to the small breakfast room. It felt odd to be eating there, now I was seventeen, but I wasn’t -- yet - a formal adult. Kids didn’t eat breakfast with their parents, not in a house governed by rules that dated back over a thousand years. We ate alone, in a room that had been designed for us. The wards on the walls kept us from making a mess ... I sighed, as one of the maids hurried over to pull out a chair for me. It wasn’t as if I was seven.

    “Hey, Akin.” Cousin Penny was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of porridge. “How are things this morning?”

    I sat down. It was too early in the morning for Cousin Penny too. Uncle Malachi’s daughter was two years younger than me; blonde, beautiful and disgustingly cheerful. She wore a green dress that reminded me of Isabella ... she reminded me of Isabella, save for having a face that was a little more rounded than Isabella’s. Her dress was pushing the edge of what was socially acceptable, for a young girl. I had a feeling that she’d be ordered to change, the moment Uncle Malachi or Mother saw her. There was no way she’d be allowed to leave the mansion looking like that. She was lucky her mother had stayed on the estate, rather than returning to her family home.

    “Tiring,” I said, shortly. The maid brought me a plate loaded with bacon, eggs and potato cakes. “How are you?”

    “Oh, just fine.” Penny’s smile - somehow - grew wider. “Auntie has been teaching me special spells.”

    I rolled my eyes. There were no shortage of rumours, exaggerations and outright lies about spells that could only be cast by women, spells that were passed from mother to daughter by word of mouth and never written down. I doubted they were really that special. It wasn’t that hard to unravel a spell designed for women and adapt it so it could be cast by a man, if someone had crafted such a spell in the first place. Most spells were designed so that anyone could cast them, if they had the power.

    “Don’t mock,” Penny said. “They’re very interesting spells.”

    “I’ll take your word for it,” I muttered. If the spells were that secret, why wasn’t Aunt Petal teaching her daughter? Mother was only a Ruben by marriage. “Are you looking forward to going back to school?”

    “I’m going to be a dorm monitor,” Penny said, excitedly. “I’ll be in charge!”

    “My sympathies.” I swallowed a piece of bacon, then poured myself more coffee. “You’ll find it hard work.”

    “Not me.” Penny sounded confident. “I’ll just tell them what to do and they’ll fall in line.”

    I heard a crashing sound outside and turned, just in time to see Cousin Francis hurry into the room looking innocent. I knew he’d done something. No one looked that innocent in our family, not unless they’d done something Not Allowed. I glanced past him, half-expecting to see an angry adult bearing down on him. Uncle Davys was so strict he made my father look like Uncle Malachi. No wonder Cousin Francis was such a tearaway.

    Francis closed the door and sat down, without waiting for the maid. “So ... what’s up with you?”

    I studied him for a long moment. He was blond - like everyone else who shared the family bloodline - and devastatingly handsome, to the point where he was the envy of almost everyone in my year. Girls adored him, boys wanted to be him. He was the kind of person to whom almost everything, from academic honours to sporting victories, came easily. I would have envied him myself, perhaps, if I hadn’t already been betrothed. It was something of a puzzle that we actually got on.

    “I’m taking the Challenge,” I said, bluntly. “It’s going to detract from my schooling.”

    “Oh, hard luck old bean.” Francis affected an accept that made me want to grind my teeth. “Why not just throw the contest? Sit down and do nothing until time runs out.”

    “Father will kill me,” I said. If I did lose my position as Heir Primus, Francis was on the short list of possible candidates to take my place. “I’m very attached to my life.”

    “And Catty won’t be impressed if you just flunk out,” Penny pointed out. “She’ll think you’re a ...”

    I glared at her. “Cat. Or Caitlyn. Not Catty. Treat her with some respect!”

    “You better had,” Francis added. “Lady Caitlyn will be running this house, one day.”

    Penny flushed. “I ... she won’t have time to run the house. Not if she’s forging every day.”

    That was a good point and so I chose to ignore it. “You will treat her with respect,” I said, stiffly. Penny was no longer a lowerclassman, and I could no longer give her lines, but I wasn’t going to let that pass. “She is my betrothed and she is going to be my wife and you will not ...”

    Penny held up her hands in surrender. “I yield. I’m sorry.”

    “I think you should do some more toadying, maybe a little kowtowing,” Francis said. “Then we’ll know you’re sincere.”

    “Oh, shut up,” I told him. Father had taught me that it was dangerous to back someone into a corner, to force them to surrender or fight to the death. Penny had apologised. “Just let it go.”

    “Everyone was talking about your victory on the field,” Penny said, quickly. “What happened?”

    Francis beamed so brightly that I knew he’d just been waiting for someone to ask that question. “Well, it was the last few seconds of the match,” he said. “The scores were perfectly even. Half the team has been sent off for turning their opponents into footballs and tossing them in all directions. The referee was clearly biased against us, after someone who shall remain nameless had hexed him when his back was turned. And we had to win ...”

    He made sweeping gestures with his hands as he retold the story. “I took the ball from Gavin and ran forward, inching it towards the goal. The goalie got ready to kick it back and I hexed the ground under his feet, turning it to mush. He ended up flat on his back, looking like a right plonker. And I kicked the ball right into the goal. Goal! The crowd went wild. They cheered and cheered and cheered.

    “The captain of the other team must have swallowed a dictionary. He shouted a whole list of insults at his goalie, calling him a nincompoop, a nitwit, a ... somewhere in the middle, the referee yanked him off the pitch and put him on the bench. The crowd pointed and laughed. I took the opportunity to score a second goal! Goal! And then the time ran out. We won!”

    I snorted. I didn’t believe half of the story, although I was fairly sure that Francis had scored the winning goal. He wouldn’t have tried to lie about something that could be easily checked. I knew people who would find his bragging so irritating that they’d happily spend hours trying to catch him in a lie. Francis wasn’t really given to lying, in any case. He was more likely to bend the truth in creative directions.

    “And you managed to win the game.” Penny’s eyes were shining. “What are you going to do for an encore?”

    “There’ll be matches this year,” Francis said. “And afterwards ... I don’t know.”

    I felt a flicker of sympathy, mingled with amusement. It was rare for someone to make a living through football. Uncle Davys would certainly refuse to let Francis try. He’d probably disown his son if Francis chose to waste his adulthood playing sports, instead of studying magic. And yet ... if anyone could make it, Francis could. He was irritating, at times, and easy to envy ... but I didn’t really hate him. No one did.

    “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I assured him.

    “You never come to the matches,” Francis pointed out. “How do you know?”

    “Yeah,” Penny said. “You ought to show your loyalty by attending the matches.”

    I shook my head, firmly. Team sports were bad enough when playing. I’d never liked them and I’d dropped gym class as soon as I could. But watching was worse. If I’d wanted to watch a bunch of idiots running around on a muddy field, I could have sat on the roof and watched the neighbourhood children at play.

    “You could always watch the netball matches.” Francis elbowed me. When I looked at him, he winked. “You never know what you might see.”

    I felt my cheeks redden. “I don’t have time.”

    “Excuses, excuses,” Francis said. “Just because you’re betrothed doesn’t mean you can’t look.”

    “No,” I said, more sharply than I’d intended. “But that doesn’t mean I should look.”

    “I’m going to be a dorm monitor,” Penny said, quickly. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

    I could have kissed her for changing the subject before it went somewhere - anywhere - I didn’t want it to go. “I don’t know. Is it wonderful?”

    Francis smirked. “Do you think we should tell her? Or should we let her innocence be shattered like everyone else?”

    Penny scowled at him. “What do you mean?”

    “Well,” Francis said. “If youth and beauty wishes an education from old age and beauty ...”

    “You’re two years older than me, not two decades,” Penny snapped. “You’re not even two years older than me! More like nineteen months!”

    “And yet, I look down at you from my lofty perch.” Francis stood and made a show of looking down his nose at her. “So young, so tender, so ignorant ...”

    Penny pointed a finger at him. I sensed a spell building under her skin. “Talk.”

    France, just for a second, looked as if he was going to dare her to hex him. I hoped she’d have enough sense not to try. Francis was much stronger and far more experienced than her - I supposed his cheating on the football field had given him some useful skills after all - but whoever won, we’d all catch it from our parents. Mother would be furious if we destroyed the breakfast room. I couldn’t see Uncle Davys or Uncle Malachi taking it lightly either.

    “It’s really very simple.” Francis affected an unconcerned drawl, but I could see him readying a shield charm under the table. “You think you’re going to sleep easy, in a dorm full of brats who’ve probably never spent a night away from home? Some of them will want their mummies. Some will want their teddy bears. Some will want you to do their homework for them ... and believe me, you’re the one who will get into trouble if they don’t do their homework. The ones who come from powerful families will sneer at you, like this” - he sneered - “and the scholarship kids will need to be taught how to behave before they mortally offend someone with their lack of manners.”

    He smiled. “And guess who gets to teach them?”

    Penny lowered her hand. “I’ll find others who can teach them.”

    “It’s your job,” Francis jibed. “If you ask Akin’s friend - you know, the pretty redhead - to teach them, she’ll get the credit. Not you. You’ll get pointed questions about why you couldn’t do your job, followed by being marked down. You won’t become Head Girl, for sure.”

    “Pretty redhead?” Penny eyed Francis, sardonically. “I thought you were dating Dinah.”

    Francis’s face fell. “Dinah dumped me at the end of last term,” he said. “She wanted ... well, she wanted ...”

    “Someone who cared for her?” Penny stuck out her tongue. “Or someone who could actually keep his eyes to himself?”

    I kept my thoughts to myself. It wasn’t uncommon for upperclassmen to date, but ... it was easy to get into real trouble. My father had warned me, when I’d gone into the upper years, that I had to be careful. I was betrothed. Anything I did wouldn’t just reflect badly on me and my family. It would reflect badly on Cat as well.

    “She wanted a betrothal before she ... well, before she’d accept my suit.” Francis reddened. “And that wasn’t in the cards.”

    “I see,” Penny said, drawing out the words. “How ... charming.”

    I nodded in agreement. Francis was a catch, I supposed, but ... Dinah came from a good family. She wouldn’t be inclined to get close unless there was a formal betrothal contact, a promise of marriage ... I felt a flicker of sympathy for both of them. It was definitely easier to have a betrothed already. But then, if I’d disliked Cat, it would have become a nightmare very quickly.

    “So I’m free,” Francis said. “Hurrah! No ball and chain for me!”

    Penny pulled a notepad out of her dress pocket. “Note to self,” she said, as she pretended to write. “Warn all girls to stay away from Francis.”

    “Oh, go off and boil your head.” Francis elbowed me. “You want to be my wingman? We’re allowed to go out of the school this year, you know.”

    I lifted an eyebrow. “And you haven’t been sneaking out every night since we became upperclassmen?”

    “Maybe not every night,” Francis said. “Every second night, perhaps.”

    The door opened before he could continue. I looked up and saw the butler enter the room, carrying a silver tray. A blue envelope rested on the tray, addressed to me. I took it, nodded my thanks and turned it over and over in my hands. The back was covered with Jude’s logo, just like the books.

    “Wow,” Penny said. “I got one of those. You’re going to be a dorm monitor too?”

    “I can’t see it happening,” Francis said. “He could be a sports monitor, but ...”

    “No.” I opened the envelope, carefully. “No one would appoint me sports monitor.”

    “Nah,” Francis agreed. “You’d never do anything with the role.”

    I didn’t bother to deny it. Instead, I pulled out the letter. It was short, straight to the point. I would have been impressed if it hadn’t been bad news.

    “I’m Head Boy,” I said.

    “Hah, hah, very funny,” Francis said. He produced a screeching sound that might have been a laugh, if someone used their imagination. A great deal of their imagination. “The very thought ...”

    I offered him the letter. “Read for yourself.”

    Francis took it, then pretended to gulp. “Well, so long Jude’s. It was nice knowing you - and the pile of rubble you become.”

    Penny narrowed her eyes. “How did you get the job?”

    “Oh, the usual,” Francis said. “A few thousand crowns to the Triad, a few thousand more to the Castellan, a couple of hundred to the Magisters, a bottle of cheap rotgut to the poor bugger who’s in charge of cleaning the school ...”

    “That isn’t fair,” Penny protested.

    Francis winked at me. “You can give her lines, you know? And there aren’t any limits. You could make her write out a billion lines.”

    “I never wanted the job,” I said, as Penny paled. “And I ...”

    “Tough cheese, dear boy,” Francis said. “You’ll just have to enjoy it. Or do it so badly your father puts you out of everyone else’s misery.”

    It was a line that deserved a snappy response, something that would put him firmly in his place. Isabella would have thought of one, I was sure. But I didn’t.

    “Oh, shut up,” I said.
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    My mother was delighted when I showed her the letter, so delighted that she almost convinced me that she believed I’d become Head Boy though merit, rather than Father bribing all and sundry to get me the post. She promptly ordered the staff to start preparing a family banquet, loudly bemoaning the simple fact that there just wasn’t time to invite half the city. I wasn’t too bothered, even though I would have liked to see Cat before I went back to school. It was a lot easier to talk to her when we weren’t being chaperoned by adults who listened carefully to whatever we had to say.

    And then report it back to both sets of parents, I reminded myself, as I packed my trunk for school. Whatever we say, they’ll hear.

    I groaned at the thought, then finished packing. It hadn’t been easy to convince Mother to let me do my own packing, rather than leaving it to the maids. She’d only relented after I became an upperclassman, although she had insisted on giving me a list of things to pack and checking it twice. I couldn’t help thinking that she was worrying over nothing. Seven pairs of black trousers, seven black jackets, seven white shirts, seven pairs of black socks and black underwear ... and a single, neatly tailored suit for special events. It wasn’t as if I needed seven pairs of everything. Besides, I didn’t attend many formal dances. Being betrothed, I could only attend if my betrothed also attended. And Cat and I had grown very ingenious, over the years, at coming up with excuses for one or both of us not to attend.

    Francis tapped on my door, an hour before the banquet. “Guess what I got?”

    “An offer of marriage from Sonia Graceland?” It was mean-spirited, but I couldn’t resist. The poor girl had been on the marriage market for so long that her odds of making a good match were low. I’d heard too many of my relatives gossiping about her. Sonia could pass for forty-three, apparently, with the light behind her. “Or something more serious?”

    “I made Sports Captain,” Francis said. He waved a letter under my nose. “Read it and weep!”

    “Those poor sporty fools,” I said. “Sports Captain, huh? How many people do you think Uncle Davys bribed to get you that slot?”

    Francis coloured. “I earned it myself.”

    “Oh dear,” I said. “They really must be scraping the barrel.”

    “You know perfectly well I earned it,” Francis said. “Besides, who else could they pick?”

    I shrugged. Francis might be right. He was captain of two different teams - football and dodgeball - and ... well, I had to admit he’d led both teams to victory. They wouldn’t have tolerated an incompetent in his place, whatever his connections. I could easily see Francis being appointed Sports Captain purely on merit. I just didn’t really believe it.

    “Good luck,” I said. “Is it true the Sports Captain gets ritually debagged if his team loses?”

    Francis snapped his fingers. Sparks darted in all directions. “I’ll make anyone who tries very sorry.”

    I slammed my trunk closed, placed a couple of locking charms on the latch and pushed it into place for the manservants to collect, later in the day. Mother might insist on checking - she still talked to me as though I was a little boy, even though I was nearly an adult - but I had no doubt she could unlock and replace the charms for herself, if she wanted. Besides, I hadn’t put anything too personal in the trunk. That was reserved for my carryall.

    “Don’t forget to pack your supplies for the Challenge,” Francis said. “You could bring anything you wanted.”

    “A guaranteed win would be nice,” I said, dryly. The dinner bell rang, summoning us to the dining hall. “But I don’t know how to pack that.”

    I checked my appearance in the mirror, making sure I looked as presentable as possible, then headed to the door. If there was one advantage to the banquet being held at such short notice, it was that I wasn’t expected to don my finest clothes. Only family would see me. I could let my hair down, if only metaphorically. The thought made me snort. If Penny or Cat let their hair down in public, before they were declared adults, it would be a major scandal.

    Francis fell into place beside me as we walked down the stairs. “Any thoughts on strategy yet?”

    “None.” I sighed. “I don’t even know what we have to do.”

    “Win.” Francis elbowed me. “That’s all you have to do.”

    I snorted, rudely. Francis was entirely correct, but ... I put the thought aside as we walked into the dining room. It was a very light gathering, for a family banquet. Only forty-seven adults and nineteen children, ranging from five to seventeen. I was surprised when Mother pointed to a seat at the adult table, right next to my parents and Uncle Davys. I was being considered an adult? Even discovering that Francis had a chair right next to mine wasn’t enough to dull my delight. I’d been too old for the children’s table for years.

    “Penny looks green with envy,” Francis said, in a whisper that was designed to carry. “She’s still trapped with the toddlers.”

    Uncle Davys gave him a sharp look that would have quelled me in an instant. Francis puffed up, looking ready to argue with his father in public. I nudged him, quickly. If Francis spoilt the banquet, Mother would be furious. Uncle Davys might have to banish his son from the mansion. Forget treason and betrayal. Ruining a family banquet was unforgivable. My eyes found the empty chair, on the other side of the table; I sighed, feeling a pang of bitter regret. Isabella should be sitting there ... I wondered, grimly, where she was. She wouldn’t have received my letter yet.

    Father called the banqueters to order and then made a short speech, praising me for being appointed Head Boy. I did my best to look modest, convinced that everyone in the room knew I hadn’t earned the post. Beside me, Francis waved cheerfully when his name was mentioned. I tried not to roll my eyes. Sports Captain wasn’t a minor position - it wasn’t as if he’d been appointed ink monitor - but it wasn’t a gateway to greater things. Unless ... perhaps Francis could make it a gateway. He certainly had the wit to succeed.

    The crowd drank my health, then started to eat. Mother - perhaps wisely - had ordered that neither Francis nor I were to be offered alcohol, even though we were being treated as adults. I didn’t really blame her. The wine was strong and ... I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in public. My one encounter with alcohol had been enough to convince me that I had no head for wine. Father had promised that he’d teach me how to be a mead snob, when I left school, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’d sooner talk about forging, if I had to make pointless conversation with strangers. At least I might be able to make intelligent conversation.

    Auntie Danni caught my eye as we moved on to the second course. “So, when do you think you’ll be an adult?”

    I flushed. I knew what she meant. When would Cat and I be getting married? I looked down at the table, trying not to show my embarrassment. I’d be declared an adult soon, perhaps as soon as I left school. Cat ... I wondered, suddenly, when she’d be declared an adult. It wouldn’t be long either. Both sets of parents were running out of excuses to delay matters.

    “I don’t know,” I said. “It depends on my parents.”

    I heard the same question, time and time again, as the banquet wore on. I’d known the adults engaged in a lot of pointless chatter, but I’d never really grasped that the pointless chatter could hide conversational attacks and verbal manipulations. I felt naked and unprotected, convinced that whatever I said would wind up being used against me. I honestly didn’t know why my father put up with it. Or why Isabella wanted it. My life would be so much easier if I served an apprenticeship, then set up shop as a forger. A skilled forger - and I knew, without false modesty, that I was a skilled forger - could make a very good living.

    It was almost a relief when the banquet finally came to an end. Penny, Francis and I were sent upstairs to shower and change into our travelling clothes, while the adults headed into the smoking room for after-dinner drinks and conversations. Father had told me that a great many decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms, between gentlemen of both genders; now, I believed it. A banquet wasn’t just an excuse for a good time. Father and his peers would use the banquet as a cover for private chats and deal-making.

    I showered, changed, picked up my carryall and knocked on Francis’s door. “You decent?”

    “No, but come in anyway,” Francis called. “Ready to go?”

    “Yeah.” I pushed open the door and stepped inside. Francis’s rooms were smaller than mine, but not by much. “You?”

    “Ready,” Francis said. He snorted. “We could just walk to school, you know.”

    I nodded. It wouldn’t be that long a walk, even if night was starting to fall. We wouldn’t be in any danger, but ... tradition was tradition, not to be gainsaid by mere mortals. We were to drive to school in a carriage, wearing travelling clothes rather than school uniforms ... I rolled my eyes. The cloak I wore over my suit felt uncomfortably warm. I muttered a spell to cool myself as Francis led the way downstairs. Our trunks were already in the carriage.

    Penny met us at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a long cloak over a dark blue outfit. She didn’t look pleased, but kept whatever was bothering her to herself. I nodded to her and led the way out the door. The carriage was already waiting in the driveway, a pair of manservants standing beside it. They opened the door as we approached, pulling down a tiny staircase to allow Penny to board without damaging her dress. I felt a flicker of sympathy. Her dress made it hard for her to take part in our games.

    The carriage rattled into life as soon as we took our seats. I leaned back in my chair, silently willing the other two to remain silent while we drove back to school. The others, for a wonder, kept their mouths shut. They probably felt the same mixture of anticipation and fear that I did. The carriage rumbled over the bridge to South Shallot - I wanted to peer down at the boats on the river - and headed onwards. Outside, I could hear people shouting and cheering. Shallot was the city that never slept.

    “I want to be on the netball team,” Penny said, suddenly. “You can do that for me, can’t you?”

    Francis smiled. “What’s it worth?”

    Penny coloured. “Francis!”

    “Be nice,” I said, reprovingly. As Sports Captain, Francis had the final say on who played in competition matches. “You want the best players on your teams, don’t you?”

    “Ah, but is she the best?” Francis smirked. “If she fumbles a ball ...”

    I pushed back the curtain and stuck my head out the window as Francis and Penny argued backwards and forwards. Jude’s was just coming into view, a cluster of buildings that had long-since been merged into one giant structure. Jude’s had been expanding for years, according to the histories; one day, I thought, it would eventually absorb the whole city. And yet, I knew there were entire sections that had been abandoned, boarded up and eventually allowed to fall into disuse. I’d spent many happy hours exploring them with my friends.

    The wards tingled as the carriage passed through the gate and headed up towards the main entrance. The walls were low, but topped with steel spikes and charmed devices to present a challenge to any student who wanted to sneak out for a night on the town. It was traditional for upperclassmen to make their way through the wards, even students who had the right to come and go as they pleased. Francis had even boasted of giving a porter a black eye. I suspected he was telling the truth. Tradition also dictated that a student who managed to escape the porters was allowed to go free.

    “And we’re back,” Francis said. The carriage rattled to a halt. “You know what the students from Roanoke said about Jude’s?”

    I didn’t, but I could guess. I’d seen Roanoke - and a couple of other schools - and they’d been magnificent, towering buildings with more grandeur than a Great House. Jude’s, by contrast, looked more than a little ramshackle, as if the school had no real pride in itself. But I wouldn’t have traded Jude’s for anywhere. There was something about the slapdash nature of the building that appealed to me. I wasn’t sure what. A slapdash approach to forgery - or any branch of magic, really - was asking for serious injury or death.

    A porter came up to us as we disembarked and looked at Penny. “You are ...?”

    “Penelope Ruben,” Penny said. “I’m ...”

    “In fifth-year,” the porter said. “Proceed at once to your dorm and remain there until breakfast.”

    Penny flushed angrily, but the porter ignored her. “You two are to make your way to the seventh-year suites,” he said, turning to me and Francis. “Your trunks will be sent along in due course.”

    “And mine?” Penny didn’t react well to being dismissed. “What about ...?”

    “You’re still here?” The porter gave her a sharp look. “One demerit for not following orders and one demerit for being cheeky.”

    Penny glared at him, then turned and marched to the entrance. I tried not to laugh. Penny was an upperclassman now, but there was still a strict social hierarchy. She was probably the lowest-ranking student right now, at least until the lowerclassmen arrived tomorrow. And yet ... I shook my head, hoisted my carryall over my shoulder and headed towards the entrance myself. Behind me, I heard the porter barking orders to his staff. They’d move the trunks to the dorms before we had a chance to miss them.

    “Ah, poor Penny,” Francis said. “I knew her.”

    “She isn’t going to be killed,” I pointed out. Two demerits were bad, but I’d had worse. I was sure Penny had had worse too. “She’ll get over it.”

    Jude’s felt ... odd as we made our way up the chairs. The corridors felt empty, even though I could hear faint sounds in the distance. The majority of the upperclassmen had either already arrived or would join us tomorrow, accompanying their siblings amongst the lowerclassmen. I hoped they’d remember to keep their distance, once they reached school. Upperclassmen and lowerclassmen didn’t socialise, even if they were siblings. It was social death to be seen with someone significantly younger than you. Last year, I’d had to pretend I didn’t know Penny when she’d been given detention.

    Another porter met us at the top of the stairs. “The Head Boy and Head Girl share the princely suite,” he said, pointing to a gold-edged door at the near end of the corridor. “The Sports Captain gets a room of his own.”

    “Hard luck,” Francis said, cheerfully. He leaned closer to whisper. “Do you share the same ...”

    “Shut up,” I hissed. I didn’t know if the porter could give demerits and I didn’t want to find out the hard way. And I really didn’t want rumours getting around. “You ...”

    The porter cleared his throat. “You’re expected to report for breakfast at nine o’clock tomorrow, then attend upon the Castellan in his office at eleven.”

    “Nine o’clock,” Francis said. “They’re letting us sleep in.”

    “Just you wait,” I muttered. Upperclassmen had to set their own alarm spells. “We’ll be getting up at seven for the rest of the year.”

    The porter shrugged, then motioned for us to walk past him. I felt the wards crackling around me as I led the way down the corridor, strong enough to make it clear that this was upperclassmen territory, yet too weak to actually keep lowerclassmen out. It made sense, I supposed. The Head Boy’s suite was also his office, his place of work. A lowerclassman might have to visit, without an invitation. I wasn’t allowed, I guessed, to bar the outer door.

    Francis stopped in front of his door and glanced at me. “See you tomorrow?”

    “Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”

    I hurried down the corridor and stopped outside the Head Boy’s suite. A handful of charms rested on top of the wood, ranging from a basic locking charm to a complex spell designed to prevent scrying. I puzzled over it for a moment, then decided there would probably be students who’d want to spy on the Head Boy. They’d get into awful trouble if they were caught - a boy had been expelled for trying to scry the female changing room - but I knew that probably wouldn’t stop them. The students were ambitious. They wouldn’t have come to Jude’s if they weren’t.

    The door opened when I pressed my hand against the wood, the charms retreating back into the ether. I pushed the door wide open and surveyed the room. It was strange, an odd mixture of homely and official. Two large wooden desks were placed against the wall, with solid wooden chairs; a pair of sofas had been placed in one corner ... it reminded me of my father’s office. And yet, it was mine. Mine and ...

    Alana was sitting on one of the sofas. “Well, hello,” she said. Her voice was very calm. “Come on in.”
     
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    I felt my heart begin to pound. “Hello.”

    Alana sat upright, crossing her long legs. “Close the door and come on in,” she said, deadpan. “We have to chat.”

    I pushed the door closed behind me, then placed my carryall against the wall. I liked Cat - I missed Cat - but I’d always been wary of her sister. Alana had grown up a lot, in the years since the House War, yet she remained sharp-tongued, devilishly clever and magically powerful, always willing to avenge slights with a hexes and even borderline curses. Cat had told me enough about her childhood to ensure that I never wanted to turn my back on her sister. And yet ... we had to share a suite?

    “I suppose we do,” I said. “What do we have to talk about?”

    I sat down on the sofa and studied her for a long moment. Alana was tall, with very dark skin and long dark hair bound up in a single loose braid that looked as if it were threatening to come undone at any moment. She was pushing the edges of acceptability, for a girl of her age, but I doubted anyone would say anything. She was her family’s Heir Primus, after all, and I would be very surprised if her hair did come down in public. Alana was more than skilled enough to make sure it remained firmly in place.

    She and Cat - and Bella, the third triplet - were fraternal siblings, but ... they didn’t really look alike. Alana’s face was sharper, her eyes were darker ... I thought. They lacked the warmth I’d seen in Cat’s eyes. And her black dress was just a little too tight, too daring for her sibling. Cat had never worn anything like it, even when - particularly when - we’d been chaperoned. Alana was definitely pushing the limits as far as they would go. I wondered, absently, what her parents had said about it.

    “You’re Head Boy.” Alana shot me a wink. Her voice was sardonic. “Congratulations. I’m sure you earned it.”

    “And you’re Head Girl,” I pointed out. “I’m sure you earned it too.”

    “Well, quite.” Alana smiled, revealing a set of very white teeth. “I’m sure we both earned it.”

    I yawned, suddenly. “Are we going to spend the rest of the evening lying to each other about what we earned?”

    “Why not?” Alana managed an elaborate shrug. “It’s what all the important people do.”

    Isabella would probably have agreed, I thought. And she would have taken part too.

    Alana rested her hands on her knees. “Let us be brutally honest. We don’t like each other very much. Your family and mine have been enemies for billions upon billions of years.”

    “A gross exaggeration,” I said.

    “Whatever.” Alana shrugged, again. “That said, on one hand, you are betrothed to my sister and so I have to be nice to you. Or at least polite to you. And, on the other hand, we have a shared responsibility. We have to be polite to each other.”

    “I can do that,” I said. Mother had taught me how to cut someone dead without ever stepping outside the bounds of good taste. “And ...”

    Alana held up a single dark hand. “And, as you must be aware, the alliance between our families is uniting others against it. You and I ... will probably be pressured to do something stupid that will be used to harm our families. It is important that we at least pretend to get along.”

    She smiled. For a moment, I could truly believe that Cat and Alana were sisters. “All you have to do, if you care about the alliance, is do everything I say.”

    I snorted, dryly. “I have a better idea. You do everything I say.”

    Alana giggled. “Fat chance. But you see the point? In private, we can disagree as much as we like. But in public, we have to pose a united front. No hexing or undermining where the baddies can see us.”

    “Agreed,” I said. She was right, as much as I hated to admit it. We were allies, forced together by circumstances and familial manoeuvring. “In public, we will be the best of friends.”

    “That won’t be easy,” Alana said. “We’re also rivals. You’re taking the Challenge, are you not? So am I.”

    “Ouch,” I said. I could have kicked myself. That had never crossed my mind ... and it should have done. A girl as ambitious as Alana would take the Challenge. Of course she would take the Challenge. No one, not even her father, could have forbidden it. “So we’re rivals too?”

    “Yeah.” Alana looked pensive, just for a second. “I can’t join your team and you can’t join mine.”

    “I know,” I said. Neither of us could take a subordinate position. We would be team leaders or nothing. “I trust you’ll excuse me if I don’t wish you good luck?”

    “I don’t need luck,” Alana said. “And I have plans.”

    She leaned back against the sofa. “We can cooperate, as Head Boy and Head Girl. Have you seen your rooms?”

    I shook my head. “I’ve only just arrived.”

    “The rooms are identical,” Alana said. “You have a large bed and a bathroom ... you can use your room for whatever you like, as long as you don’t disturb me. I won’t rat you out if you don’t rat me out. The main room” - she indicated the office with a wave of her hand - “and the private kitchen is shared. Clean up your mess, keep control of your guests and I won’t complain.”

    “Likewise,” I said. Alana had clearly put some thought into sharing a suite. I wished I’d had the foresight to do the same. “If we’re supposed to use this space as an office, we’ll just have to share it.”

    “Quite.” Alana shrugged. “Pick a desk, any desk. I’ve already chosen my room.”

    “Either one,” I said. “Now, if you don’t mind ...”

    Alana held up a hand. “Are you still carrying the sword?”

    I nodded, shortly. “I take it everywhere.”

    “May I see it?” Alana cocked her head. “I won’t touch.”

    Her eyes opened wide as I reached back and drew the blade from the scabbard. It glowed faintly in my hand. I could feel the sword yeaning to be used, demanding to be tested ... I’d discovered, over the years, that it could cut through wards as if they weren’t there and guide my hands as I fenced with blademasters. It was too dangerous to use for practice duels, I’d been told. The sword wanted to win.

    “Impressive,” Alana said. She leaned forward. “How do you carry it? Doesn’t it dig into your back?”

    “It’s barely there,” I said. The scabbard was an Object of Power, a present from Cat. I didn’t pretend to understand how it worked. The sword wasn’t just hidden, it was ... practically intangible until I touched the hilt. I could press my back against the chair and feel nothing, thanks to the magic. And yet, I could never quite forget that it was there. “Magic.”

    Alana smiled, but it didn’t quite touch her eyes. “Cat’s work?”

    “Yeah.” I nodded. “She forged it for me.”

    “You’d better get her something very good for her birthday,” Alana said. I thought I caught a hint of regret in her voice. “And not the formalised gift either.”

    I shrugged. Mother had supervised the formal gift-giving, insisting that - as my betrothed - Cat was not to be subjected to my taste in presents. She’d made me give my betrothed a whole string of birthday gifts, ranging from the faintly absurd to the inappropriate. My private gifts had been much more personal, I thought. Cat clearly felt the same way. Her private gifts had actually been useful.

    “I’ll try,” I said. “Has she complained?”

    “No.” Alana smiled. “But I’ll let you know if she does.”

    There was a knock on the door. I stood and opened it. A pair of porters were waiting outside, with our trunks. A familiar face stood behind them. I smiled and stepped to one side to allow them to enter. I hadn’t seen much of Rose over the summer, but she hadn’t changed much. Her long red hair, tied in a neat braid, hung down over a white dress that managed to be both simple and elegant. Cat’s mother had done wonders for Rose’s sense of style.

    “Akin,” Rose said. She glanced at Alana. “And Alana ...”

    “Ah, the chaperone,” Alana said. “Cat’s not here, I’m afraid.”

    Rose flushed. I looked away, in the hope that neither of the girls would see me flushing too. Rose had been our chaperone, but she’d been a very understanding chaperone, always willing to look away at the right times. Not that Cat and I had done very much, of course. A handful of kisses ... it wasn’t really that bad. Was it?

    “It’s good to see you again,” Rose said, as the porters placed the trunks in our room and departed without a word. “I’ve missed you.”

    “I missed you too,” I said, honestly. I liked Rose, if only because she didn’t have a secret agenda. Everyone else I knew had secret ambitions, even the younger kids. Rose just wanted to be a Healer. And she’d make it, too. Patronage from both our families would see that she had all the opportunities in the world. “What were you doing all summer?”

    “Studying with us,” Alana said. She motioned for Rose to sit next to her. “And learning all sorts of interesting spells.”

    “Lady Aguirre is a good teacher.” Rose sat, as far from Alana as she could while sharing the same sofa. “And she told me all sorts of things.”

    “Including some spells that are normally kept within the family,” Alana said. “I was quite surprised.”

    I wasn’t. Rose was Cat’s best friend, as well as a client of two families. Cat’s mother had excellent reason to teach Rose a handful of spells, even if they were supposed to remain in the family. Rose was practically part of the family. I wondered, idly, what my own mother had taught Rose. I’d seen them chatting together, when Rose had visited the mansion. It was a shame she couldn’t stay with us.

    “They were very interesting spells,” Rose said. She crossed her legs. “I also heard something from Lord Aguirre, something that ... are you taking the Challenge?”

    “So it seems,” I said, dryly. Rose knew about the Challenge? I was surprised. She’d never struck me as particularly sporty. She certainly hadn’t wasted her time playing netball when she’d been a lowerclassman. “I wasn’t given a choice.”

    “It is very important,” Alana pointed out. “And that is why I will be Wizard Regnant.”

    “Says you,” I said, without heat. “What happens if you lose?”

    “I won’t lose,” Alana said.

    Rose cleared her throat. “I understand you have to form a team,” she said. “Cat ... Cat suggested I should join.”

    I blinked in surprise. Cat had never liked sports either, although - in her case - she couldn’t play properly. She’d be unable to hex the other players - or keep herself from being hexed, right from the start. She could produce Objects of Power to even the odds, but ... I had a feeling they’d be confiscated. There were rules against using Objects and Devices of Power on the playing fields. I’d never seen the point, personally. The players had few qualms about bending the rules in order to win.

    “She did?” I knew I sounded stupid. “I ...”

    “She did,” Rose confirmed. “And I think I could take part ...”

    “You can’t.” Alana was trying to sound regretful, but she wasn’t suceeding. “You can’t take part in the contest.”

    Rose gave her a sharp look. “Why not?”

    I echoed her. “Why not?”

    Alana met my eyes. “Rose is a client of both houses,” she said. “By competing against me, she is taking sides against my house ... mortally offending one of her patrons. And you know what that will do for her reputation.”

    Rose looked from Alana to me and back again. “That’s not true ...”

    “It is,” Alana said. “Akin?”

    I forced myself to think. Father had drummed it into my head, time and time again, that patrons and clients had certain responsibilities to each other. A patron was supposed to assist his client, in exchange for support and obedience. A patron and a client could break up, amiably enough, and no one would think less of either of them, but outright betrayal ... I cursed under my breath, using a word Mother would have slapped me for even knowing, let alone saying in front of two young ladies. Alana was right. Rose couldn’t join my team. She couldn’t join either team. It would be seen as a betrayal.

    Uncle Joaquin might be fine with it, I thought. Rose could certainly ask his permission to play on my team. But even if he said yes, it would destroy her reputation as a reliable client ...

    “It’s true,” I said, slowly. “You can’t join my team. Any team.”

    “Even mine,” Alana said. This time, she actually sounded regretful. “You’ll just have to sit on the sidelines and cheer loudly.”

    “If they let us cheer,” Rose said. “You know there’s no actual description of the Challenge itself? Nothing written down, as far as I can tell.”

    I nodded. “Just a handful of vague hints,” I agreed. “Nothing actually useful.”

    Alana stood. “Perhaps they want us to be ready for anything,” she said. “Or maybe they just want to test our skill at improvising.”

    “Or maybe they just make the rules up as they go along,” I said. I’d played that game as a child, although I’d quickly grown bored of it. “We might get told, an hour before we start, that all of our plans and preparations were worse than useless.”

    “Maybe.” Alana sounded disturbed. “But that doesn’t make sense, does it?”

    “Why not?” Rose grinned. It made her look stunning. “You can’t expect the world to play by the rules, can you? The rules can be rewritten. On the spot, if necessary.”

    “Then there would be no point to the Challenge,” Alana insisted. “How could we prove ourselves as ... well, anything ... if the rules change at will? We might as well get onto the field to play netball, then get told we’re going to play football instead.”

    Francis would be pleased, I thought. He always said netball was a game for girls.

    But I took her point. The Challenge would be pointless if it didn’t map onto the patron-client game we’d be expected to play as adults. It was a test of one’s ability to build a team, to make alliances and work out the best way to make use of one’s teammates ... I felt a flash of regret that Rose couldn’t join me. She might lack family connections - blood connections, at least - but she had a hard core of common sense. Francis and Penny and many others I knew lacked it. Francis was more interested in playing games than preparing himself for the future.

    “We’ll see,” I said. “The Castellan wants to see us tomorrow, doesn’t he?”

    “Yeah,” Alana said. “He’ll tell us what he wants us to know.”

    And leave us to figure out the rest for ourselves, I thought.

    “I’m sorry,” Rose said, looking at me. “I thought it could help ...”

    “Don’t worry about it,” I said. I thought, briefly, about writing to Uncle Joaquin anyway, then dismissed the idea. Whatever he said, whatever he did ... it wouldn’t matter. Rose would be blighted anyway. “But thanks for offering.”

    “I’m sorry too,” Alana said.

    “I bet you are,” Rose snapped.

    She stood, smoothing down her dress. “It’s late,” she said. “And we have to be up early tomorrow.”

    “Not that early,” Alana objected. “We’re getting a late breakfast.”

    “And then we have to study,” Rose pointed out. “Our real classes start on Tuesday, remember?”

    “I won’t forget,” I assured her. “And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

    Rose left the room, closing the door behind her. I watched her go, then turned to look at Alana. She was looking half-amused, half-apologetic. I wondered, sourly, if she’d really set out to do Rose a favour ... or simply throw sand in my gears. It could easily be both. She’d managed to maintain a level of plausible deniability ... I would have been impressed, if it hadn’t been aimed at me. Uncle Joaquin’s successor was devious, cunning ... she’d pulled off a coup and even I had to thank her for it.

    “Bedtime,” I said, firmly. “See you tomorrow?”

    “Of course,” Alana said. “Take a look around before you go to bed.”

    I peered into the kitchen and smiled. There was a kettle, a stove, a food preserver ... I couldn’t cook anything more complex than scrambled eggs and toast, but I wasn’t much of a cook anyway. A collection of jars held everything from tea leaves and coffee grains to sugar and cereal. I nodded to myself, then picked up my carryall and stepped into my bedroom. It was huge, easily large enough for two or three people. The bed alone was massive.

    And the bathroom could easily have come from home, I thought. I had a bath, as well as a shower and a washbasin. A mirror hung on the wall, charmed to show my reflection from any angle. They’re treating us well ...

    I sobered. The room came with a price, one I had to pay. I was Head Boy - and I had to be a good Head Boy. If I failed, if I screwed up, my family would be shamed. Father would be furious. And how could I blame him?

    Anything for the family, I reminded myself, as I undressed and clambered into bed. It was soft and warm, certainly when compared to dorm mattresses. Anything, anything at all.
     
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    “So.” Francis sidled up to me as I loaded my plate with bacon and eggs. “Did you have a good night?”

    “It was a comfortable mattress,” I assured him. I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t going to rise to the bait. “And I would have overslept, if I hadn’t set an alarm spell.”

    “You know what I mean,” Francis said. “Did you have fun?”

    “We’re in separate bedrooms,” I said, tiredly. If Alana overheard him, Francis was going to have a miserable year. “And you should know better than to suggest otherwise.”

    Francis snickered. “Just a joke,” he said. He took a plate for himself, then followed me to the table. “You should see the humour in it.”

    I rubbed my eyes. “I’m sure I could see the humour in turning you into a frog, if I tried. Or an earthworm.”

    “I’m sure you could too,” Francis said. He looked around the room. “I’m sure there are more than a dozen of us, you know?”

    “They’re still in bed,” I hazarded. I’d set my alarm, but others - who normally relied on parents or maids to wake them - might have forgotten. Or perhaps they just didn’t feel like eating. They were going to bitterly regret that, later in the day. “Does it matter?”

    “You never know,” Francis said. “The ones who get up early might be the ones to beat.”

    I surveyed the room for a moment. There was no sign of Alana or Rose, but Bella - Cat’s sibling - was sitting at a table, munching her way through an immense plate of bacon and eggs. She had her back to me, so I didn’t wave. Bella was nice, but in a vague kind of way. Cat had said that Bella was strong in magic, yet too lazy to really aim for greatness. Beside her, I saw a pair of clients. The nasty part of me wondered if they were doing Bella’s homework.

    “Maybe,” I said. “You got up too early, didn’t you?”

    “I already took a look at the sports hall,” Francis said. “This year is going to be great.”

    I shrugged and started to eat. The bacon tasted fine, but the eggs were a little overdone. The cooks needed to turn out as many as they could, rather than cooking them to perfection ... I shrugged and ate them anyway. Rose had made it clear that the simple breakfasts we endured at Jude’s were the height of luxury, compared to breakfasts in peasant villages and sailing ships. I supposed she was right. I didn’t have to walk very far to see poverty. The people who lived in Water Shallot rarely had two crowns to rub together.

    “I have a different question,” Francis said. “Have you made any progress on picking out a team?”

    “No.” I shook my head, bitterly. “Rose can’t join and ...”

    “Too bad,” Francis said. “It would have been lovely to have her with us.”

    I blinked. “Us?”

    “I’m joining you,” Francis said. “Did you think I was going to let you face the Challenge alone?”

    “I didn’t think about it,” I admitted. In hindsight, I should have asked. “Did your father give his blessing?”

    Francis snorted. “I could do everything my father wants, so perfectly that even he couldn’t find fault, and you know what? He’d find fault anyway. I haven’t bothered to ask him. If I volunteer, and you accept, he can’t yank me out.”

    I nodded, slowly. Francis wasn’t a declared adult, not yet, but ... he was too old to be unceremoniously yanked out of a team. It would be the clearest possible demonstration of his father’s lack of regard for him. Uncle Davys had enemies. They wouldn’t hesitate to take note. Crown Prince Henry wasn’t the only son who’d turned on his father. He was merely the one unfortunate enough to be a prince when it all came apart.

    “I’d be happy to have you,” I told him. I wasn’t lying. Francis and I were very different, but I’d never doubted his nerve. I’d once watched him pick his way through a series of wards, any one of which would have done him serious injury if he’d tripped it. “And that means I just need eight others ...”

    “I don’t think you need the full ten,” Francis said. “But you have to be careful who you pick. I think a lot of upperclassmen are either patrons or clients already.”

    I felt my heart sink. Isabella was good at making friends and building networks. Me? Not so much. I was on cordial terms with most of my fellows, but ... I wasn’t that close to any of them. And I hadn’t even been trying to build a patronage network. I’d assumed it would come to me, automatically, when I succeeded my father. I’d been a bloody idiot.

    “I’ll ask around,” Francis assured me. “It doesn’t matter if I get egg on my face.”

    He grinned. “Just don’t ask Dinah. She hates me.”

    “She’s a smart girl,” I said. “But I think she’s a Bolingbroke client.”

    I slowly ate my breakfast, watching as the dining hall filled with upperclassmen. Penny stepped into the room, accompanied by two of her friends. She shot a glance in my direction, but otherwise ignored me. I understood. In public, we didn’t know each other. Behind her, I saw a handful of familiar faces; Alana, Rose, Clarian Bolingbroke ... and Lindsay, the only other betrothed girl I knew. Alana seemed to be dominating the group, of course. I wondered, sourly, just how many of her followers were her clients.

    “She’s pretty,” Francis said. I thought he was talking about Alana. “Lucky so-and-so.”

    “She’ll turn you into a frog if you make even the slightest hint of an improper suggestion to her,” I said, turning back to my food. “And if she does, don’t expect me to undo the spell.”

    “That’s alright.” Francis made a show of puffing up his chest. “I like a challenge.”

    I finished my breakfast without incident, then checked the clock. There was still an hour to go before we saw the Castellan, so we wandered the school and checked out the library. It was closed. Francis laughed at my stunned face, then pointed out that the librarian was probably still on holiday. She wore herself out, each term, trying not to scream at users who damaged books. Rumour had it she’d killed a student who’d dropped a book in the toilet. I was fairly sure it wasn’t true.

    “We can see the sports field instead,” Francis said. “Coming.”

    I shrugged and followed him towards the east side of the school. I’d never liked the sports section - a combination of playing halls, games fields and running tracks - but it felt different now I was an upperclassman, someone who didn’t have to play games. The girls were lucky. Games weren’t compulsory for them. The air felt cold as we made our way through the bleachers, Francis giving a running commentary on what he was going to change when he took office. I think the sports masters used wards to keep the air chill deliberately. It was the sort of sadistic thing they’d do.

    “Time to go inside,” I said, an hour later. “The Castellan is waiting for us.”

    Francis nodded. We walked back inside and through a maze of corridors and stairs to the Castellan’s outer office. It was a large room, seemingly bigger on the inside; it held the entire class of seventh-years comfortably, rather than cramming us all into a tiny space. I looked around to see if anyone was missing, but it looked as if we were all here. Rose came over to join us, looking relieved. She didn’t have that many friends, either. That had always puzzled me. Rose was friendly enough - and well-connected. I knew that quite a few families had tried to lure her into a marriage contract.

    And they’d be lucky to have her too, I thought. She’d bring more than just family connections to the match.

    The Castellan stood on a small podium. He spoke quietly, but his words carried. “Thank you for coming,” he said. He waved a hand at the door, which shut with an audible thump. “I won’t keep you for long.”

    He paused, just long enough for us to quieten down. “This is your last year with us, unless - by some mischance - you repeat the year. Some of you have already been declared adults. The remainder will almost certainly be declared adults, upon graduation. You will find that, in this year, we will largely treat you as adults. You will have freedoms that the students below you will not enjoy.”

    “Poor souls,” Francis whispered.

    I hissed at him to be quiet as the Castellan kept speaking. “You have already completed your first set of exams, but your second and final set of exams will be decisive. Your futures, if you intend to continue to develop yourselves, will depend upon your results. You may be allowed to repeat the year, but you’d better have a very good excuse. Please bear in mind that slacking off is not considered a suitable excuse. You will be treated as adults. Adults do not need to be kicked out of bed and forced-marched to the study halls. If you can’t motivate yourselves, too bad. We’re not going to do it for you.

    “This year will also see the Challenge. As seventh-years, you have the right to form a team, join a team or try to take the Challenge alone. You do not have to do it - don’t let anyone tell you differently - but a good showing, even if you don’t win, can be beneficial in later life. If you want to take part, inform me within the week. Anyone who tries to sign up after next Monday will be given detention instead.”

    There were some chuckles. I wondered if I could find a way to delay matters until time ran out. But Father would be furious.

    “Cheating has long been a part of the Challenge, as you may have realised,” the Castellan added. “It isn’t uncommon for teams to harass the other teams. It is all perfectly legal, if it is conducted in the proper and acceptable ways. However, I must warn you” - his cold gaze swept the room - “that the proper and acceptable ways do not include the destruction of school projects, schoolwork or anything that might seriously impede your victim’s ability to pass their exams. Anyone caught doing that will be flogged.”

    His gaze hardened. “It may amuse you to note that the ban on corporal punishment, through a loophole that may have been deliberately written into the rules, doesn’t cover acts of misbehaviour conducted as part of the Challenge. Yes, you will be flogged. And then you will be expelled. Do not try us on this.”

    “So we’re allowed to injure our fellow students,” Francis whispered, “but not destroy their schoolwork?”

    “Quite right, Mr. Ruben.” The Castellan had very sharp hearing. “And please bear in mind that they can injure you too.”

    I glanced at Francis. “Shut up!”

    The Castellan smiled, humourlessly. “You may look for recruits amongst the upperclassmen, from fifth to seventh years. You may not try to recruit a lowerclassman without specific permission, which will probably not be granted. You may use anything you produce for yourself, or can obtain from your fellow students; you may not ask for help from anyone outside the school, without - once again - special permission. I might add that such permission, again, will probably not be granted.”

    Which means I definitely can’t ask Cat, I thought. It wasn’t a surprise, but it still stung. And I can’t buy anything from a forger either.

    “Finally, you will notice that the descriptions of the Challenge are a little bit vague,” the Castellan said. “You will not know what you are actually meant to be doing until just before the Challenge actually begins. This will force you to think, I believe. All I will tell you, here and now, is that we will give you a task to perform. And if you fail, you fail.”

    I swallowed, hard. The room was very quiet.

    “And now for better news,” the Castellan said. “Akin Ruben, Alana Aguirre, come forward.”

    I glanced at Francis, then walked to the front of the room. Alana stood next to me as we turned and faced the crowd. She made the school uniform look good. But then, so did most of the other aristocratic girls. The ones who could arrange for private tailoring had done so. I knew Francis had done the same. I hadn’t really bothered, myself.

    “After much careful contemplation, Akin and Alana have been appointed Head Boy and Head Girl,” the Castellan said. “They will wield the full authority of their role, subject only to myself. I trust you will make their assumption of the position an easy one.”

    No one even pretended to be surprised. They’d probably heard through the grapevine, if they hadn’t seen Alana and I go in and out of our suite. And it didn’t take a genius to work out who was most likely to be appointed. Our families were the most powerful in the city, at least for the moment. It would be more remarkable if one or both of us didn’t get the job.

    “You will assume your full duties from this moment onwards,” the Castellan added. “Good luck.”

    My mouth was dry. “Thank you, sir.”

    “There is a sign-up list outside my office,” the Castellan said. “If you want to form a team, take a new sheet, add your name to the list and then write the names of your teammates underneath. People who are not listed as being part of your team will not be allowed to join the Challenge. That said ... you can keep adding team members right up until the moment the Challenge is formally announced. At that point, you’re committed.”

    His eyes swept the room. “If you want to undergo the Challenge on your own, you can. But the odds of victory are very low. Consider yourself warned.”

    There was a long pause. “Mr. Ruben, Miss Aguirre, remain behind. The rest of you are dismissed.”

    I glanced at Alana as the room emptied. Francis was the last to leave, throwing me a jaunty salute before hurrying through the door. I had a feeling he was going to wait outside, just so he’d be the first to hear the news. Or maybe he’d go back to the sports field. He had work to do, organising the team captains and planning the first competition match ... I felt a sudden burst of gratitude. Francis could easily have begged off joining my team. Instead, he’d been the first to commit himself.

    The Castellan turned and led us into his inner office. I couldn’t help looking around with interest. I’d never been inside, not when students were only allowed to enter when they were in serious trouble. Cat had been inside, back in her first year, when she and Rose had been threatened with expulsion for conducting dangerous experiments. I wondered, as I took the indicated seat, just how many strings Uncle Joaquin had pulled to keep the two girls from being unceremoniously kicked out of the school.

    And it was lucky he did, I reminded myself. Cat might never have discovered what she was if she’d gone home ...

    “Here are your handbooks and punishment books,” the Castellan said. He passed us each a pair of notebooks. “As you may be aware, you have the right to punish upperclassmen as well as lowerclassmen. However” - he shot a sharp look at Alana - “there will be dire consequences if you are caught abusing your power. You will not enjoy them.”

    Of course not, I thought. Punishment isn’t meant to be enjoyable.

    “Your exact duties are specified in the handbook, but there are a handful I need to bring to your attention.” The Castellan turned his gaze to me. “You are responsible for supervising the monitors, from dorm and homework monitors to lunch and hall monitors. You are responsible for handling problems facing younger students; if they come to you, you are to help them. You will also be responsible for organising committees, at least until you can find someone willing and able to handle the task. And you will be responsible for giving the final speech on Graduation Day.”

    “Both of us?” Alana leaned forward. “Or just one of us?”

    “You’ll write the speech together,” the Castellan said. “And if there are any ... consequences ... you’ll face them together too.”

    I had to smile. I’d sat through six Graduation Day speeches from successive Head Boys and Girls and they’d all been bland, boring and tedious. But there had been one, given a couple of years before I’d been born, that had brought the house down. The students had laughed, if rumour was to be believed; the important guests hadn’t considered it anything like so funny. I had no idea what had happened to the Head Boy, but I doubted it had been pleasant. I knew Magisters didn’t like being played for fools.

    “We’ll be careful,” I said, dryly.

    “Very good,” the Castellan said. “The lowerclassmen will start arriving this afternoon. You can assist the porters. I suggest you spend the morning reading your handbooks so you know what to do.”

    “Yes, sir,” I said.

    “Good,” the Castellan said. “Dismissed.”

    I glanced at Alana, then led the way out of the room. The sign-up list was already pinned to the notice board, with a handful of names already written down. Ayesha and Zeya McDonald, Hamish Bolingbroke, Adam Trencherman ... the latter, I noted, seemed bound and determined to complete the Challenge on his own. He’d already torn away the space for names to be entered beneath his own.

    “Interesting,” Alana mused. “I didn’t expect Hamish to join.”

    “You’d expect Clarian to join,” I agreed. Hamish was a Bolingbroke, but from a distant branch. Clarian was from the main bloodline. Her brother was the Patriarch. “But she’s obsessed with potions.”

    I sighed as I picked up the pen. It didn’t matter.

    Shaking my head, I signed my name.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    In all honesty, I hadn’t realised just how much work went on behind the scenes.

    Mother had made sure I knew the basics of household management, of course, but she had the butler and a small army of servants to help her. Jude’s had the Head Porter and his assistants, yet there was still a great deal of work for the upperclassmen. I understood, now, why senior upperclassmen were so willing to hand out hundreds of lines for the slightest infraction. The lowerclassmen had a nasty habit of producing hundreds of problems for the upperclassmen to solve.

    Alana and I barely had a moment to catch our breath before the firsties began to arrive. We showed them into the Great Hall, where the Castellan welcomed them to Jude’s, then supervised as they were sorted into halls. I couldn’t believe just how young they looked, young and nervous and utterly unsure of themselves. Had I ever been that young? They looked like little kids, kids who’d borrowed clothes from their older siblings and were trying to pretend to be grown up. A handful were snivelling, trying not to cry openly. I hoped they managed to control themselves. No one would forget a firstie who cried for his mother on his very first day. I told myself, firmly, that I hadn’t felt even a flicker of concern at sleeping so far from my parents. It wasn’t as if my bedroom had ever been right next to theirs.

    The firsties milled about, their eyes going wider and wider with every second. I almost envied them, as young and innocent as they were. They’d make their closest friends and greatest rivals at Jude’s ... perhaps even their future partners. I allowed my eyes to skim over them, noting which ones wore tailored uniforms and which ones had purchased trousers or skirts from the thrift shop. The latter would be commoners, commoners who’d either won scholarships or convinced their parents to take out loans to fund their education. It wasn’t a bad bet. A student who completed the first four years of schooling would be in a good place to make an excellent living, even if they never took the final three years or served an apprenticeship. I’d known quite a few ‘new men’ who’d climbed to power, even winning seats in Magus Court. They deserved every bit of their success.

    And I’m supposed to be looking out for talent, I reminded myself. It seemed futile. The firsties were so young - the youngest was probably no older than eleven - that it was impossible to tell which of them would be great. I’d just have to watch and wait ... no, Penny would have to watch and wait. I wouldn’t be around long enough to watch the firsties develop. She’ll be the one who picks the next generation of clients.

    The sorting finally came to an end. Alana glanced at me, then shrugged. I’d never really liked public speaking, even though Father had made me take rhetoric classes over the summer holidays. Francis had been good at it, of course. He might not be able to put together a complete argument, certainly not a written argument, but he was glib. He could argue with the best of them. It helped, I supposed, that he was popular. People wanted to believe whatever he had to say.

    I stepped forward. “Raven Dorm, follow me. Hawk Dorm, follow the Head Girl. Everyone else, remain in the hall until called.”

    The Ravens shuffled forward, their eyes downcast. I groaned inwardly, reminded myself that most of them wouldn’t have spent more than a night or two away from home, then commanded them to follow me. They’d been sorted at random, ten total strangers ... all girls. Alana would handle the boys. I cast my eyes over them once again, then beckoned for them to follow me. It took several minutes for them to form a proper line.

    I tried to see the school as they saw it, as I led them up the stairs. I’d spent years exploring the structure, trying to grasp the underlying logic ... if, indeed, there was any logic. They’d probably get lost, the first time they tried to make their way from the dorms to the breakfast hall. The Magisters would be quite understanding for the first few days, then increasingly sarcastic. The poor firsties would have to learn their way around very quickly, if they didn’t want to get into trouble. A few nights in detention would convince any sluggards to learn the rules.

    They’re so young, I reminded myself. I wondered, suddenly, if this was how my father saw me and my sister. So young, so innocent, so ... I shook my head. I didn’t want to think about it. They’ll learn, in time.

    I heard a voice behind me, so weak I could barely make out the words. “Who’s that?”

    The girl flushed when I glanced back, cringing as if she expected a blow. I wondered, idly, what sort of horror stories she’d heard from her parents and older siblings. My older relatives had told all sorts of stories, terrifying Isabella and I until Mother had overheard Uncle Remus and pointed out - very sarcastically - that no one would have survived such treatment, with or without magic. If Mother hadn’t made it clear that he was talking nonsense ...

    I followed her gaze. She was pointing at a portrait, hanging from a wall. A dark-skinned girl, her lips curved in a mischievous smile that suggested she knew something we didn’t. I could believe it. I knew her story ...

    “That’s Caitlyn, the Zero,” another firstie said. “She’s ...”

    “It isn’t.” I had to struggle to hide my amusement. “That’s Anna the Artificer.”

    I motioned for them to keep walking, leaving the portrait behind. The firstie girl wasn’t that far wrong. Anna the Artificer was one of Cat’s ancestors, a very distant relative. But she hadn’t been a Zero. I didn’t know that much about her - reading between the lines, I was sure she was a natural-born child - but no one had had any trouble duplicating her work. Cat, on the other hand, was unique. No one else could make Objects of Power.

    As far as we know, I reminded myself. Someone could easily have found another Zero and kept their existence to themselves.

    We stopped as we reached the entrance to Raven Dorm. “As you enter,” I said, “place your hand against the Raven. The door will recognise you in future, allowing you to come and go as you please.”

    As Penny pleases, I added, silently. Sneaking around may be tradition, but you have to sneak.

    The door opened. Penny was standing inside, looking stern. I could practically hear the firsties gulp. Penny looked so strict that I almost quailed. I winced, making a mental note to keep an eye on her. The dorm monitor was supposed to supervise the firsties, true, but she was also supposed to teach them the ways of the school and be the first port of call if they needed help. Penny should have refused the post, if she didn’t feel capable of handling it. But then, if she’d refused ... it was pretty certain she’d never be offered another.

    I met Penny’s eyes. “Good luck.”

    Penny shot me a look that said, very clearly, get out. I made a show of looking around - there didn’t seem to be any real difference between the male and female dorms - and then turned and retreated, leaving the firsties to their fate. They seemed worried as they watched me go, very uncertain of themselves. I didn’t really blame them. They were equals now, at least in theory. And they had to learn to get along.

    Poor kids, I thought.

    I headed back downstairs, collected the second group of girls and led them to their dorms. This group seemed a little more lively, probably because they’d had a chance to chat while waiting for me. I smiled at some of their jokes, glancing back to see the first friendships being formed. I hoped they’d last, once the school settled down. There was no way to avoid dorm room politics, even if you came from the bluest of blue blood. If someone wound up at the bottom, permanently, their life would not be worth living. I’d never really enjoyed the endless struggle for prominence.

    But you never really had to play, either, I reminded myself. Your family was so high and mighty that you never had to worry about being on the bottom.

    I put the thought aside as I returned, once again, to the Great Hall. There were four groups of female students this time, forty in all. I took the remaining two to their dorms, introduced them briefly to the dorm monitors and then met Alana at the bottom of the stairs. She looked tired, even though it was the middle of the day. I didn’t blame her. The girls had been quiet, but the boys might have been more rowdy. They might also have been more inclined to challenge a Head Girl’s authority.

    Alana laughed, softly, as she saw me. “Were we ever that young?”

    “Of course not,” I lied. “I sprang into being at the tender age of sixteen.”

    We shared a brief laugh. I didn’t really miss my days as a lowerclassman, although I missed Cat. We’d had so much fun together, developing our forging skills. No one else came close to either of us, not even Francis or Rose. They’d both need years of additional instruction before they caught up with me. Trying to catch up with Cat was hopeless.

    Alana leaned against the wall. “There was one young boy who reminded me of my cousin,” she said. “Can you believe he actually tried to cast a spell on me?”

    I couldn’t. “Really?”

    “An itching spell.” Alana snickered, rudely. “Quite a nice little cast too. He’s going to be a prankster in future, you mark my words.”

    “Oh.” I disliked pranksters. They thought their pranks were funny. Their sycophants generally agreed. Their victims, on the other hand, weren’t laughing. “Did you set him straight?”

    “Five hundred lines,” Alana said, with heavy satisfaction. “And detention in the weekend, which I will have to supervise.”

    “How uncommonly generous of you,” I said, dryly. “I’m surprised you didn’t give him something worse.”

    “It’s his first day.” Alana shrugged. “And I made it clear that he could expect worse if he went around hexing upperclassmen.”

    I nodded. Upperclassmen were not permitted to start a hexing war with lowerclassmen, but they were permitted to finish one. Any lowerclassman who hexed an upperclassman had better be ready for the hexing of his life, followed by lines and detentions. Alana had been remarkably merciful. I wondered if she’d seen something of herself in the little brat. She’d been willing to throw hexes around freely as a firstie too.

    “The girls behaved themselves,” I said. “A handful looked unhappy to be at school, away from their parents ...”

    “They’ll get over it, if they don’t want their dormmates making fun of them,” Alana commented. “And they’ll see their parents soon enough, at half-term.”

    “If they can afford to go home,” I countered. I’d never given it any thought, at least until I’d met Rose. “A poorer student might have to stay at school over the holidays.”

    “How unfortunate.” Alana shrugged. “Better to live here than go back to a hovel.”

    I opened my mouth to point out that commoners didn’t always live in hovels, then decided it was pointless. Alana knew Rose too. If she hadn’t drawn the right conclusions by now, she probably wouldn’t draw them at all. Instead, I glanced at my watch. It was nearly dinnertime and felt like bedtime. I didn’t have any official duties until the weekend. Perhaps I could get away with skipping dinner and going straight to bed.

    The door opened. Francis walked in, looking depressingly cheerful.

    “Akin,” he called. He glanced at Alana, then managed a deep bow. “My Lady!”

    Alana looked unimpressed. “What do you want?”

    “Well, I have a list, if you’re interested.” Francis grinned, broadly. “But I actually came to borrow my cousin.”

    “My sympathies,” Alana said, to me. “Good luck.”

    “And I was wondering if you’d like to go to town this weekend,” Francis added. “I’ll show you a time you will never forget.”

    “I have no doubt of it,” Alana said, her tone leaving no doubt that she didn’t mean it in a good way. “I have detention this weekend.”

    Francis opened his eyes, wide. “Detention? What did a girl like you do to deserve detention?”

    Alana held up a hand. I saw a hex dancing around her fingertips before she thought better of it. I wasn’t sure who’d win, if they started hexing each other, but it didn’t matter. The Magisters would be unimpressed. Alana and Francis could be stripped of their posts at will, if they misbehaved. They hadn’t even been Head Girl and Sports Captain for a week!

    “I can give you lines, you know,” Alana growled. “And I will, if you insist on being stupid.”

    She turned and strode off. Francis made rude gestures at her back as she stepped through the door, closing it behind her. I sighed in exasperation. One day, Francis was going to get himself in very real trouble. I had no idea what Uncle Joaquin would say, if Alana had walked out with Francis, but I doubted it would be anything good. Francis was hardly a suitable partner for a Heir Primus.

    “That girl has a stick up her ... backside,” Francis said. He gave me a jocular wink. “They’re the best, you know.”

    “No,” I said. I didn’t want to hear it. “I have to work with her ...”

    “I could do a lot more with her,” Francis said. “And if I were ...”

    “Shut up,” I said. I was too tired for banter. “What do you want?”

    “I’ve just been addressing the sports teams,” Francis said. “We lost a bunch of players last term. A third graduated, you know. The rest decided that schoolwork was more important, the traitors.”

    “How terrible,” I said. “To think that their futures are more important than kicking a ball around a muddy field.”

    “I’ll have you know that the field isn’t muddy,” Francis protested. “It’s covered in grass!”

    I shrugged, unconcerned. “What do the sports teams have to do with me?”

    “Well, no one would expect you to play football,” Francis said. “They might as well expect Blair to play football.”

    “How lucky for me,” I said, sarcastically. Blair wasn’t a bad sort, but he was really quite alarmingly fat. I didn’t know why he hadn’t brewed or bought himself a slimming potion and drunk it. “What do you want with me?”

    “Well, it turns out that the Head Boy has to write a note, requesting additional resources for the sports team,” Francis said. “You have to countersign it, at the very least.”

    I blinked. “I do?”

    “Yeah.” Francis smiled. “You’re not going to say no, are you?”

    “You should have asked Alana,” I pointed out. No one would trust my opinion on sporting matters. Did the teams need new equipment? I didn’t know. Nor did I care. “Preferably before you tried to ask her out.”

    Francis snorted. “Ah, you know her. She’d refuse to sign anything I put before her.”

    “She does have a working brain,” I said.

    “It’s important,” Francis insisted. “I have to have teams lined up before the end of the month or we won’t be able to join the leagues ...”

    “How terrible,” I said. “I ...”

    “It is terrible,” Francis said. “We’d be laughing stocks.”

    “Jude’s is a school of magic, not a school of sports,” I said. “No one judges us by the quality of our sporting teams.”

    “Yes, they do.” Francis leaned forward. “Our players cast spells to help them play, remember. The spells they devise often have practical uses. Remember Wilberforce? He got a charms apprenticeship because of the sporting spells he invented.”

    That was true, I supposed. It had never really impressed me - one could invent spells without playing sports - but I could see the appeal. And sports did have a greater impact on the school than most people realised. It probably wouldn’t hurt if I played a role, no matter how minor, in procuring supplies for the teams. It might even work to my advantage.

    “Give me the list.” I met his eyes. “And be reasonable. They’re not going to shell out a million crowds for sporting equipment.”

    “I’m only asking for half a million crowns.” Francis grinned at my shocked face. “I kid, I kid. A hundred thousand crowns.”

    “And if they give you a hundred thousand crowns, in cash or credit, I’ll run naked through the school,” I said. Francis would be lucky to get a thousand crowns. “Put forward a reasonable request and I’ll countersign it. Put forward something that makes us both look like utter idiots and I’ll use it for toilet paper.”

    “Maybe if I submit two requests,” Francis mused. “One for you and one for Her Mightiness, the Head Girl. The Castellan might not notice ...”

    “He would,” I predicted. The Castellan’s secretary, a sour-faced prune who’d been horrible to Cat during her early months at school, was renowned for never missing anything. She’d spot the trick instantly and report it to her superior. “And then the three of us would look like idiots.”

    Francis smirked. “We don’t already look like idiots?”

    “You’re the one kicking a ball around the field,” I said. “You tell me.”

    “Hah,” Francis said. “So ... any thoughts on who we should ask to join us?”

    “Not yet,” I said. I yawned. I wanted dinner and bed. I’d settle for bed. “But I’m working on it.”

    “Better hurry,” Francis advised. “All the good students are already taken.”
     
    techsar and rle737ng like this.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    Francis, I was starting to realise as I followed my peers into Magister Niven’s classroom, had had a point. Indeed, he might have been righter than he knew. There were forty students in my year and nearly all of them were spoken for, one way or the other. Not everyone was taking part in the Challenge - unsurprisingly - but even the ones who weren’t still had connections that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to take my side. And even asking them was a severe breach of etiquette.

    I sat next to Francis and watched as Magister Niven strode to the front of the room. He was dressed in an outfit that had been fashionable hundreds of years ago, but now made him a laughing stock ... or would, if we didn’t know him so well. Magister Niven delighted in forcing us to question assumptions - his first class had been called Questioning Assumptions - and we knew very little about him. I honestly wasn’t even sure if he was male or female. I assumed he was a man, but ... I didn’t know. He wore male clothing one day and female clothing the next. It was impossible to say anything for certain.

    Cat loved him. I found him annoying.

    Francis nudged me. “He looks like a giant fruit trifle.”

    I hid my amusement. Magister Niven might overlook the cheek - he’d overlooked things that would make other Magisters explode with rage - or he might not. He liked being unpredictable. And besides, his class was always interesting. He was one of the rare teachers who allowed us to talk back, who expected us to openly debate with him. We just had to be able to back up our words. I respected him for it, even if I didn’t like him very much. The other Magisters never admitted their faults.

    Magister Niven waved a hand at the door. It slammed closed. The click of the lock was very audible in the sudden silence.

    “Be seated,” he said, as if we weren’t already seated. “Class is now in session. Latecomers will be hexed.”

    He paused, allowing his words to sink in. “This - our final year together - will be a little different from the norm. I have done my best to teach you to think for yourselves. If you haven’t mastered the art by now, you are unlikely ever to succeed and thus have doomed yourself to a lifetime of meritocracy. You must be careful who you follow, for they will always have their own interests - not yours - at heart. And if you remember nothing else I teach you, this years, remember that. It will save you much heartache in the future.

    “But if you are here now, you presumably know how to think. I won’t test your fragile little brains any further.”

    His words hung in the air. “This year, your final year, is centred on Shallot itself. We have studied the history of the city, now we were study the politics. Some of you” - his gaze rested on me for a long moment - “will have learnt this at your father’s knee. Others will have picked it up over the last few years. And still others will have chosen to blind themselves to politics. That is a mistake. As a great sage observed, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is always interested in you. It is my job, in my final year, to make sure you have the background knowledge you need to navigate the political world.”

    “So he’s going to teach everyone how to play,” Francis muttered, to me. “That’ll make life harder ...”

    Magister Niven had sharp ears. “Francis. Perhaps you could explain why I shouldn’t teach politics?”

    Francis stood. We had to stand when answering questions. I wondered, idly, what sort of response he’d give. It would be difficult to justify not teaching politics ...

    “Yes, sir,” Francis said. “With all due respect, you are a Magister. You are not a politician. Your lessons, therefore, are theoretical. They are not rooted in experience. You cannot explain how politics work because you have never worked in politics.”

    “An interesting answer,” Magister Niven said, as Francis sat. “Would anyone care to make a rebuttal?”

    Louise held up her hand, then stood when Magister Niven gave her the nod. “You might not have experience, but you do know how the system works. You can teach us to use it even if you haven’t used it yourself.”

    “Very true,” Magister Niven said.

    “And you can make sure we’re all on a level playing field,” Louise continued. “No one will have an unfair advantage.”

    Francis nudged me. “Where does she think she is?”

    The class snickered. Louise flushed, angrily. Magister Niven fixed Francis with a sharp look, then motioned for Louise to sit down. She did, her face red. I felt a flicker of sympathy, mixed with irritation. Louise was a know-it-all who knew everything, apart from basic manners. I didn’t think she had any real friends in our year.

    “She drank too much Clever Dick Potion,” Francis muttered. This time, he had the sense to keep his voice low. “Lots of brains, no friends at all.”

    I gave him a sharp look, then studied Louise as Magister Niven started to draw a diagram on the blackboard. She was a tall, auburn-haired girl who would have been pretty if she’d bothered to put any effort into her appearance. Her parents were merchants, if I recalled correctly; wealthy enough to send their daughter to Jude’s, but probably not wealthy enough to buy her some etiquette lessons. She was smart - no one could deny it - and she wanted everyone to know it. No one could stand her for long. I’d heard through the grapevine that she’d practically been kicked out of two separate dorms by her dormmates. I had no idea why.

    “Shallot was originally founded in the Sixth Century of the Thousand-Year Empire,” Magister Niven informed us. “A number of Great Houses took advantage of the founding to establish themselves as movers and shakers in the field outside the Eternal City. Others, already well-established in imperial politics, made sure to plant branches in the new city. This was lucky, as it ensured they survived the collapse of the Thousand-Year Empire. Those branches found themselves the last survivors of their families.”

    I shivered. My family had been one of those branches.

    “Our historical records of precisely what happened after the Fall are somewhat lacking,” Magister Niven continued. “However, it is fairly clear that the Great Houses managed to retain control of the city and defend it, once the civil wars began. Their eventual alliance with the kingdom ensured that they would no longer need to fear an outside threat, at least for a few hundred years. Their independence was a fact. However, this presented them with the problem of running the city. On one hand, they had power. On the other, they had to figure out a way to keep it.”

    He gave us a toothy smile. “Power is a curious thing. On one hand, it can be enforced - by the mailed fist and spellcaster, if necessary. But, on the other hand, it relies on a certain degree of acquiescence from the disempowered. Those who are at the top find themselves in a lonely spot, while those who are below them work to undermine their power and claim it for themselves. To govern, one needs the consent of the governed. And when the governed withdraw their consent, chaos follows. The Great Houses needed a resonable degree of consent in order to function. But why should anyone offer that consent?”

    His gaze swept the room. “Anyone?”

    Alana stood. “We were the ones who saved the city,” she said. “The power was ours by right.”

    “Your ancestors saved the city,” Louise said, without standing up. “You didn’t.”

    “Silly girl,” Francis muttered.

    “She has a point,” I muttered back. “And ...”

    “Quiet,” Magister Niven ordered. He gestured to Alana. “Answer that, please.”

    Alana shot Louise a look that promised trouble later. “The Great Houses saved the city and passed what they’d saved to their descendents. Over the years, they amassed great wealth and power which they also passed down to their descendents. It was theirs. They could do whatever they liked with it. And they passed it down to their descendents. What I inherited from my ancestors is mine by right.”

    Magister Niven nodded, slowly. “Louise? Rebuttal? And stand, this time.”

    Louise stood, valiantly ignoring the snickers behind her back. “We’re not talking about private property or possessions,” she said. “We’re talking about power over people.”

    “A very good point,” Magister Niven said. He motioned for Louise to sit. “The Great Houses might feel that the power was theirs by right. But they also knew that everyone outside the aristocracy would feel differently. How, then, did they invite the commoners to join the political structure? How did they give the commoners a stake in the city without conceding too much power?

    “It was not easy. Too little democracy and a large percentage of the population would be effectively disenfranchised. Their interests would not be heeded, as they did not have the vote. The enfranchised, for want of a better word, would organise the government to suit themselves. This would lead to resentment, unrest and eventual revolution. But, on the other hand, too much democracy would be equally destructive. The voters would vote for bread and circuses, which would give rise to a class of politicians who would promise to satisfy their demands ... they would not offer good government, but seek public approval by giving the mob whatever it wanted. This would eventually lead to collapse.”

    Louise stood. “People aren’t stupid.”

    “No, they’re not.” Magister Niven nodded. “But they are self-interested. And the lure of getting something for nothing is one that has seduced many a bright spark. Rationally, one might understand that there are limits. Practically, not so much.”

    He paused. “Eventually, they established Magus Court.

    “There are one hundred seats in Magus Court. Each one represents a tribe - and every adult citizen within the city is enrolled in at least one tribe. A sailor, for example, is enrolled in the sailing tribe, with a right to vote for his representative. Indeed, the sailor may also be a member of a different tribe, with a right to vote there too. It isn’t uncommon for someone to be a member of five or six tribes. I myself have four different memberships, thus four different representatives.

    “Each tribe is allowed to govern its internal voting structure as it sees fit. The systems are transparent, by law. The sailing tribe, for example, gives more weight to captains and officers than it does to ordinary seamen. The Potion Masters Guild, on the other hands, treats all of its qualified members as equals. Once someone qualifies, they have the right to demand enrolment - and the guild, which is a tribe, does not have the right to turn them away.”

    He paused, significantly. “And what are the Great Houses? Tribes.”

    I nodded as a rustle ran around the room. I’d knew that, but I’d rarely heard it stated so bluntly. The Great Houses controlled, directly or indirectly, around sixty to seventy seats on Magus Court. Individual houses might come and go - we’d lost power and regained it - but the system itself would go on. It was fiendishly clever, I acknowledged. The commoners - from dockyard workers to merchants and traders - had a vote, but their vote didn’t count for very much. They could better themselves, if they worked hard ... yet, if they did, they often got absorbed into the system. A large-scale reform movement was simply impossible.

    Because once someone has reached the top, Father had said once, they don’t want to bring the system crashing down.

    “That is the key to understanding the stability of our system,” Magister Niven informed us, calmly. “It is not impossible to climb the ranks, to become a ‘new man.’ It is, indeed, a great honour to be a ‘new man.’ But the price for climbing the ranks is becoming one with the system. It is very difficult to work outside the system. Those who do are often criminals.”

    Louise stuck up a hand. “Because they’re working outside the system?”

    “Because they’re committing criminal acts,” Magister Niven said, dryly. “Did you ever hear of a Thieves Guild? A Kidnappers Tribe? A society for people who cross the road without regard for oncoming traffic?”

    “That’s not what I meant,” Louise said.

    Magister Niven cocked an eyebrow. “And what did you mean?”

    Louise reddened as the class tittered. “I meant ... what if someone doesn’t want to join a tribe? Or a guild?”

    “At the very least, any adult citizen would be enrolled in one of the residential tribes,” Magister Niven said, quietly. “But why would they not want to join one of the working tribes? Or found a tribe of their own? It isn’t impossible.”

    “A tribe could bar someone from joining,” Louise insisted.

    “Not legally,” Magister Niven said. “If you met the criteria for joining a tribe, they could not reject you. Nor could they rewrite the rules to reject you, unless they somehow managed to exclude you without excluding current tribesmen. And if they do, there are ways to complain.”

    “If you have money to take it to court,” Louise said.

    “Quite,” Magister Niven said. “And might I remind you, again, that you should stand when you have something to say?”

    “Twit,” Francis muttered.

    I nudged him. Oddly, despite myself, I felt a twinge of respect for Louise. She wasn’t liked, not really, but ... she hadn’t tried to change herself in order to fit in. Rose hadn’t managed that, nor had any of the others ... I wondered, suddenly, if it would be worth the effort of getting to know her a little better. She was irritating, but smart. And she was clearly determined to go places.

    But not if she keeps alienating people, I reminded myself. Father had made it clear that people would remember whatever we did at school. If people remember her as a horror, they won’t give her any chances once she leaves school.

    “The patron-client system pervades the political structure,” Magister Niven said, addressing the entire class. “A patron offers support to his clients - everything from money to positions and promotions - and, in exchange, expects the unstinting support of his clients. A client in a powerful position - a tribal representative, for example - is expected to favour his patron, not - perhaps - the people who voted him into office. He is therefore required to perform a careful balancing act between the interests of his patron and his voters. A wise patron will not put too much pressure on his client. A client who fails because he is unable to maintain the balancing act is useless.”

    “That’s not fair,” Louise muttered.

    Magister Niven gave her a sharp look. “Of course it’s not fair,” he said. “The world is not fair. We are not equals, right from birth. Some people have advantages, others disadvantages ... a person can be as smart as a whip and still be denied promotion, forced to watch helplessly as people with better connections are promoted over their heads. And luck - good or bad - plays a role. A moment of bad luck can bring your entire world crashing down.”

    He met her eyes. “I have spent years teaching you to question your assumptions. And one you must question, one you must discard, is the belief that life is fair.”

    “It could be worse,” Francis said.

    “Yes, it could be,” Magister Niven agreed. “And yes, you could try to make it better. But if you want to make something better, you have to start by understanding why things are the way they are. There is nothing to be gained by flailing around at random. Learn to row before you take the helm.”

    He scowled. “And remain behind, after class,” he added. “I want a word with you.”

    I nudged Francis. “You got in trouble!”

    “Hah,” Francis said.

    Magister Niven raised his voice. “For your homework tonight, I want you to contemplate an age-old riddle. There is a gate, standing alone, in the middle of a field. It appears to be completely pointless. Should the gate be removed? I want your answers by the end of the week, before our next class. And there will be a prize for the one who gives me the best answer.”

    Francis grinned. “Do you think it will be something worth having?”

    I shrugged. Magister Niven gave all kinds of rewards. And then he forced us to try to understand why he might have given us those particular rewards. Some of the things he’d given me, over the years, were so pointed that he might as well have stabbed me with a knife.

    “Dismissed,” Magister Niven said. “I’ll see you next week.”

    “I’ll see you at lunch,” I told Francis. I didn’t think he’d be in real trouble - he’d probably just get a punishment essay, in addition to his regular homework - but that wouldn’t stop me rubbing it in. “And then we have Defence.”

    “That’s always fun,” Francis agreed. He stood and started to amble towards Magister Niven’s desk. “Be seeing you.”

    I nodded as I picked up my carryall, my eyes seeking Louise. She looked downcast as she packed her backs, alone in the middle of the crowd. She ... I made a mental note to approach her, when I had a moment. It was unlikely anyone had secured her services already. Hardly anyone could stand her. Clever as she was, her personality drove everyone away.

    And I don’t have many other choices, I reminded myself. All the good ones are taken.
     
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    “I see I didn’t manage to drive you away,” Magister Harmon said, when we gathered in his classroom after lunch. He gave us all a toothy grin. “I’ll just have to work harder, won’t I?”

    We shuddered in unison. Our first five years of Defence - Protective and Defensive Magic, according to the school handbook - had been conducted by Magistra Solana, a stern but decent teacher who’d instructed us in the fundamentals. I’d liked her, more than I cared to admit. She’d put us all on solid ground when she’d taught us magic. But now, as upperclassmen, we were instructed by Magister Harmon, the roughest and toughest teacher in the school. He was a good teacher, I supposed, but he was also horrible. He seemed intent on driving as many of his students as possible into fleeing his class and never coming back.

    I tried to keep my face impassive as I listened to him. He was a short muscular man, with a scarred face and hair shaved so close to his scalp that he was practically bald. He’d been a soldier in the King’s Life Guards and never let anyone forget it, although rumour had it that he’d been kicked out for unacceptable brutality. I’d asked Father about it, after I’d met Magister Harmon for the first time, and Father had laughed. Unacceptable brutality, apparently, was how someone got in.

    “We’ll be spending the afternoon making sure you haven’t gone soft over the summer,” Magister Harmon informed us. “And then we will start on some really interesting spells.”

    I shivered. The classroom was freezing. I think he charmed it deliberately. The shorts and shirt I wore - that we all wore - didn’t provide anything like enough protection. He’d told us that suffering built character, but personally I thought he was just a sadist. Making us suffer was part of his job. I honestly didn’t know how he got away with it.

    Probably because he’s an equal opportunity sadist, I thought. Everyone suffers at his hands.

    “I trust you brought your sword,” Magister Harmon said, addressing me. “You’re going to be needing it.”

    “Yes, sir,” I said. I reached back and grabbed the hilt. “I’m ready.”

    “Very good.” Magister Harmon pointed towards the line of training dummies, positioned against the far wall. “Here we go.”

    He snapped his fingers. The training dummies jumped to life, their inhuman forms snapping into attack position. I drew the sword in one smooth motion as the others grabbed swords off the walls, whispering curses as hexes started to fly. The dummies moved with inhuman speed. I had to let the sword guide me in snapping their hexes out of the air. Two students were knocked to the ground - hard - before they could muster a protective charm.

    “Don’t clump up like that,” Magister Harmon barked. “Defend yourselves!”

    A dummy lunged at me. The sword darted out, guided by its formidable magic, and sliced right through the dummy’s chest. It fell to the ground, in pieces. I saw sparks of magic darting around it as another dummy appeared, trying to hex me. I deflected the spell, then stabbed it with the sword. It collapsed too, emitting an inhuman sound. I shivered as I ducked another hex.

    “Here,” Francis called. “Quickly!”

    I covered his back as he matched blades with another dummy, forcing it to lower its guard before he hit it with a fireball and blew it into bits. I saw Alana and Bella, also fighting back to back as the dummies closed for the kill. One appeared, ready to move into Alana’s blind spot and hex her; I sliced it in half without thinking, watching the pieces fall to the ground. She shot me an unreadable look, then nodded her thanks. I grinned at her, then moved on to the next target. And then, suddenly, everything was over. The dummies were all gone.

    “Form a line, those who can.” Magister Harmon didn’t sound impressed. “How many of you lost?”

    I glanced at the students on the ground. Eight were down, held in place by magic. “Eight, sir.”

    “I have two points to make,” Magister Harmon said. “First, if that had been a real fight, eight of your comrades would be dead.”

    I swallowed, hard. There were only twelve students in the class. Only four of us had lasted long enough to defend ourselves.

    “And second,” Magister Harmon continued, “don’t assume ...”

    A spell slammed into my back. My arms and legs locked, painfully. I tumbled forward, catching sight of Bella falling too. Someone - I think it was Francis - landed on my back as I hit the ground. The impact hurt, even through the spell. I struggled, trying to cast a counterspell, but it was impossible. I couldn’t even focus my mind well enough to call on the sword.

    “... That the battle is over until the fat lady sings,” Magister Harmon said. “Can you hear singing? I can’t.”

    An invisible force gripped me, flipping me over. I landed on my back, looking up at the dummies. They’d reconstituted themselves the moment our backs were turned, then hexed us. I cursed under my breath. Magister Harmon had deliberately set us up to fail. Of course he had. He wanted us to learn a lesson.

    Magister Harmon snapped his fingers. The spell holding me broke. I sagged, my muscles aching painfully. My jaw hurt from where it had hit the ground. I scooped up the sword and forced myself to stand. It was a mistake to show weakness in Magister Harmon’s class. He could practically smell it. Beside me, Alana staggered to her feet. Her face was set in an expression of pinched determination. And yet, she looked subdued. Even Francis looked subdued. There were no quiet whispers in his class.

    The dummies turned and ambled back to the wall. I watched them go, then turned my attention to my classmates. Bella looked as if she’d been badly shocked, but otherwise unharmed; Louise’s cheeks were burning with humiliation. Beside her, Saline - another girl, one I barely knew - seemed unmoved. Her face was slack, as if she wasn’t quite there. I wondered, suddenly, if she’d caught the brunt of the hexes. Should she go see the healers?

    Magister Harmon didn’t seem to think so. “I trust you all understand,” he said. “You cannot take anything for granted.”

    He looked at me. “Put that sword away,” he added. “The rest of you, return your blades to the wall.”

    I did as I was told, even though I wanted to keep hold of the blade. I could trust it to defend me, although it wasn’t very good at telling the difference between a mock attack and something that was actually deadly. If the dummies had been real people, they would be dead. I let go of the hilt, feeling my body sag as I broke the connection. The sword didn’t just guide my blows. It boosted my endurance too.

    “Divide into teams,” Magister Harmon ordered. “No, I’ll do it for you.”

    I glanced at Francis, who shrugged as he was paired with Bella. I expected to be paired with Alana, but instead ... Magister Harmon pointed Saline towards me. I saw a flicker of concern cross Louise’s face - I wondered, just for a moment, if I’d been wrong about her not having friends - as Saline joined me. I really didn’t know either of them that well. They’d both been in different classes, over the last two years. But they’d survived two years with Magister Harmon. They had to have something going for them.

    “We will practice blocking exercises,” Magister Harmon informed us. “I trust that you remember how to cast a block?”

    “Yes, sir,” I said.

    “Good,” Magister Harmon said, once the others had agreed. “Go. Find a space and go.”

    “A pity we can’t find a space on the other side of the school,” I said, to Saline. “It would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

    She eyed me for a long moment, as if she hadn’t understood what I said. I met her eyes, trying to see if they were unfocused. If she was concussed ... I’d have to tell Magister Harmon, I’d have to take her to the healers. But then she smiled, brightly. It made her face light up.

    “Yes, it would be.” Her voice was very soft. “But he would object.”

    I studied her as we found a space and faced each other. She was shorter than me by about a head, with light brown skin, dark brown eyes and long hair that hung down in two neat braids. Her shirt was loose, but ... I would have found the sight more interesting if the room hadn’t been so cold. She wore a pair of glasses, somewhat to my surprise. It wasn’t that difficult to fix someone’s eyesight. And the belief that a disability somehow led to greater strength in magic had been disproven long ago. No one let their children remain disabled these days, not if they had the money or magic to fix the problem.

    “Do you want to block me?” I looked down. “Or should I block you?”

    Saline hesitated, just long enough to make me wonder about her. Again. “I’ll block you,” she said. “Please ...”

    I nodded. “It’s fine with me.”

    She smiled, then started to cast the spell. Her movements were slow, but sure. I had a feeling she’d be in some trouble if she ever had to cast the spell in real life. I hoped Magister Harmon hadn’t noticed. He’d knock her flat on her back if he did, then point out just how much worse it would have been if she was facing a real attacker. He had never bothered to pretend the world was a decent place. I respected Magister Harmon for that, even though I didn’t like him. I had too many relatives who believed children shouldn’t be told the truth.

    I mustered the fireball, then threw it at her block as hard as I could. The air in front of her seemed to solidify as my spell struck it, exploding into a sheet of fire as it slammed into her magic. A wave of heat gusted across me, fading quickly as the room’s temperature reasserted itself. I saw her smile again - it was oddly endearing - and then threw the second fireball, right at her block. It shimmered in and out of existence as I pounded it, again and again. I focused my magic, pushing her as hard as I could. And then the block shattered ...

    Saline dropped to the ground and rolled over as the remnants of her magic flew in all directions. For a horrible moment, I thought I’d really hurt her. It was possible. Magister Harmon didn’t bother with the safety wards Magistra Solana cast before every lesson. But instead ... she sat up, giggling. It dawned on me that she’d allowed herself to drop before the block finally crumbled.

    “Good,” Magister Harmon said. “But what was wrong with it?”

    I jumped. I hadn’t realised he was behind me. I certainly hadn’t heard him ... I turned slowly and wished, a second later, that I hadn’t. He was so close that I would have slammed into him, if I’d jumped back. It was a wonder I hadn’t heard him.

    “It held,” I said, surprised. Saline was strong, whatever else could be said about it. “I had to batter it down.”

    “Really.” Magister Harmon didn’t sound impressed. “Raise a block. Saline can batter it down.”

    He stepped to one side as I raised the block. It was a simple spell, on the surface, but it required a great deal of concentration and power to hold it firmly in place. There were simpler defensive spells, from shield charms to personal wards, but none of them would last long on the battlefield. Most killing spells, I’d been warned, would cut through them like a knife. And there were times when ducking and dodging wasn’t an option.

    I raised the block, then waited. Saline was taking her time.

    “Now, if you please,” Magister Harmon ordered. “I don’t have all day.”

    Saline lifted her hand, then snapped it down as she cast a fireball. It wobbled backwards and forwards as it flew towards me, veering from side to side so rapidly that I was half-convinced it was going to hit Magister Harmon before it struck my block. And yet ... there was a lot of power tired up in that fireball. The force of the impact nearly pushed me back. I closed my eyes and concentrated, feeding as much power as I could into the block. It solidified rapidly, a second before the next fireball hit it. The third destabilised and exploded midway between us.

    “You stupid girl,” Magister Harmon bellowed. “What were you thinking?”

    Saline looked as if she wanted to cry, but didn’t quite dare. Magister Harmon bawled her out, pointing out just how dangerous it was to cast an uncontrolled fireball ... I felt my heart wrench in sympathy as he finally turned away, his glare lighting on me. I knew I was in trouble. I just didn’t know why.

    “So,” he said. “What’s wrong with the block?”

    “It worked, sir,” I protested. Behind him, I could see Saline wiping away a tear. “It worked ...”

    “Of course it worked.” Magister Harmon sneered, as if I’d said something very stupid. “If it hadn’t worked, our Head Boy would be a blackened corpse on the ground.”

    And you’d probably love that, I thought. Logic told me it wasn’t true, but it was very hard to believe. One less stupid student to worry about.

    Magister Harmon took a step back. “Raise the block again,” he ordered. “Now.”

    I hurried to do as I was told. Saline was in no state to cast another spell. And that meant ...

    Magister Harmon raised his hand and cast a fireball. I barely saw it before it slammed into my block with terrifying force. It was all I could do to hold the spell together. My magic screamed in pain as he hit the block a second time, bursts of heat leaking through as the block began to come apart. I tried to stumble backwards, or drop to the ground like Saline had done, but my legs felt rooted to the spot. And then a third spell hit the block, shattering it into a million pieces. A wave of force picked me up and threw me towards the far wall. I knew I was dead ...

    ... And then I hit a safety ward and bounced.

    Magister Harmon strode forward as I fell to the ground, landing on my bottom. “What went wrong?”

    “You broke the block,” I managed. My bottom hurt. “You hit it too hard.”

    “Obviously.” Magister Harmon sneered, again. “But what really went wrong is that you allowed the block to hold you in place. You poured too much magic into it, instead of planning for what you’d do if - when - the block collapsed. And what happened?”

    “The block collapsed,” I said, dully.

    “Correct,” Magister Harmon said. “Tonight, I want you to think about what you should have done. You’ll have another chance tomorrow.”

    “Yes, sir,” I said.

    He strode off to bully Francis and Bella, who’d been knocking each other around with great abandon. I watched him go, then looked at Saline. Louise was standing next to her, whispering words of quiet encouragement. I felt a sudden rush of warmth, mixed with pity. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with Saline - if anything was wrong with Saline - but it was nice of Louise to help her. And her suggestions weren’t bad ones either.

    I took a breath, then walked over to join them. “Are you okay?”

    Saline nodded, shortly. She was breathing heavily - and I could see a tear in her eye - but she was holding herself together. I wasn’t sure Isabella would have done so well. But then, even Magister Harmon would have hesitated to shout at Isabella. A word in my father’s ear would have ruined Magister Harmon’s career.

    “You did well,” I said. “You nearly took down my block.”

    Louise glared at me. “What do you want?”

    I felt a flicker of irritation and suppressed it, ruthlessly. “I have an offer for you, for both of you,” I said. “If you’re interested, come to the Head Boy’s suite after dinner.”

    Louise’s eyes narrowed. “And if we’re not interested?”

    “Then don’t come,” I said. I could have ordered her to come, but I had the feeling that would be a mistake. “But you might find it useful.”

    I looked at Saline. “You too.”

    “... Maybe,” Saline said. Her voice was dreamy. “Maybe we will.”

    “And maybe we won’t,” Louise said. Her eyes were sharp and cold. I knew she was looking for the sting in the tail. I hoped she’d realise there wasn’t one to find. “I ...”

    Magister Harmon’s voice echoed through the giant classroom. “Over here, now!”

    I nodded to the girls, then turned and hurried back to the front. Magister Harmon had finished reviewing the blocks and was now handing out homework assignments. I sighed as he passed me a sheet of paper, with instructions to read a dozen sourcebooks by the end of the week. It was going to keep me busy, even if I didn’t get any more homework from anyone else. I had too much else to do.

    Francis nudged me as class was dismissed, not a moment too soon. “What did you have to say to dumbo and the know-it-all?”

    “I thought I might convince them to join us,” I said, airily. “And you’d better be nice to them too.”

    Francis blinked. “Really?”

    “Yeah,” I said. I sobered as the enormity of what I’d done began to dawn on me. “And now I just have to think of how to convince them.”
     
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  16. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    crowns?

    tied
     
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    It wasn’t easy to plan a meeting.

    I hadn’t realised that, either, until I’d had to do it for myself. My mind ran in circles as I tried to decide how best to proceed, what sort of offer I could make to them ... Isabella would have done a much better job. Francis, of course, was no help at all; Alana, who kindly agreed to leave us alone for an hour or so, wouldn’t have given me advice if I’d asked. It was bad enough that we were going to be unchaperoned. People would talk, even though there were four of us in the room. I just hoped Cat let me explain if she ever caught wind of it.

    Francis arrived as planned, taking the seat on the sofa I offered. I could invite all three of them into my bedroom, but I thought that would be a bad idea. Louise and Saline would already be nervous about visiting me, even if it was just a friendly chat. Besides, technically, there was nothing wrong with inviting them into my sitting room. Alana could come back at any moment.

    Of course, none of the Grande Dames will accept that explanation if they want to make an issue of it, I thought, as I heated water in the pot. They could make things really difficult for all four of us if they wished.

    There was a knock on the door. I exchanged glances with Francis, then hurried over and opened the door. Louise and Saline stood there, the former looking nervous and the latter ... curiously unconcerned, as if she was drifting through life. I glanced past them - the corridor was empty - and motioned for them to step into the room. They’d clearly put some thought into the meeting too. Louise wore a long blue dress, her hair in tight braids; Saline had remained in her school uniform, but redone her braids to make it clear that they wouldn’t be coming down easily. I wasn’t blind to the underlying meaning. I wondered, absently, if it would matter. We all had enemies.

    “Take a seat,” I said, indicating the other sofa. “Tea? Coffee?”

    Louise shot me a sharp look, as if she was wondering just what I had in mind. “Tea would be lovely, thanks. Saline?”

    “Yes, please,” Saline said.

    I nodded as I went to get the drinks. Louise had picked up that much etiquette, at least. If a guest was welcome, one offered a drink. I poured four mugs of tea, placed them on a tray and carried them back into the main room. Louise and Saline were sitting on the sofa, facing Francis. They still looked tense. I put the tray on the table and sat down myself. My mouth was dry. I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

    Louise broke the silence. “I’m sure you had a reason for inviting us here,” she said, dryly. “Can we get to it?”

    Francis snickered. “You have a more important social event to get to?”

    Louise flushed, angrily. “If you called us here to mock us ...”

    “I didn’t.” I shot a sharp look at Francis, reminding him to be nice. “I had something else in mind.”

    “Indeed.” Louise took her mug, but didn’t put it to her lips. “And that would be ...?”

    I took the plunge. “I’m taking the Challenge,” I said. “And I would like to ask you - both of you - to join my team.”

    Louise’s face went very hard. “If this is a joke, I swear I’ll ...”

    “It’s no joke.” I felt a pang of sympathy. Louise was abrasive - and bossy - but she had to feel very alone at times. She didn’t even have dormmates any longer. Saline was the closest thing to a friend she had and ... it couldn’t be a very satisfactory friendship. “I could use both of you.”

    She studied me for a long minute. I tried to look as open and honest as I could. She’d probably been pranked before, by people who wanted to irritate her ... she was, I suspected, one of the people who could never keep from rising to the bait. In some ways, she reminded me of Isabella. She’d never been very good at letting things go either. But then, she’d also had power and position. Louise had none.

    “And you want us,” Louise mused. “Why us?”

    “You should be honoured,” Francis told her. “This is a great opportunity ...”

    “To have everyone laughing at me, again?” The bitterness in Louise’s voice was almost palatable. “Why should I do anything for you?”

    “Akin is a Heir Primus, soon to be Patriarch,” Francis pointed out. “You should be honoured that he has chosen you for his team.”

    “Shut up,” I said, before Louise could explode with rage or storm out. “What do you want?”

    Louise blinked. “What do I want?”

    “If you’re on the winning team, you’ll have ... opportunities that normally wouldn’t be open to you,” I told her. I’d looked it up. The victorious team members often did quite well for themselves. “I can’t guarantee a victory. But I can guarantee to make it worth your while. What do you want?”

    Her face remained blank, but I could tell she was interested. She’d learnt to control her face, yet ... she was leaning forward, betraying her interest. My mother would never have revealed so much to watching eyes. But then, my mother had nestled at the core of High Society for nearly four decades. Louise would always be an outsider, even if she married well.

    “What are you offering?” The studied disinterest in her voice would have been insulting, if I hadn’t known she didn’t mean it. “What can you give me?”

    I looked back at her evenly, daring her to put her cards on the table. “What would you like?”

    “He can give you anything.” Saline’s voice was soft, but it cut through the air like a charmed knife. I’d nearly forgotten she was there. “Your dreams, Louise. He can give you your dreams.”

    Louise coloured. “Akin ... are you serious?”

    “Yes.” I leaned forward. “What do you want?”

    I saw a flash of bitterness, mingled with desperate hope, cross her face. “I want ... I want to establish myself. I want to be something for myself, not because of who fathered me or my bloodline or ... or anything. I want to be important. I want to do good and ...”

    “On your own?” Francis cocked an eyebrow. “No one ever accomplished anything on their own.”

    “I don’t want to be dependent on others,” Louise said. “I just want to be me.”

    I bit down the urge to point out that Louise was already Louise. “What sort of good do you want to do?”

    “I want to make things better.” Louise looked down at her mug. She still hadn’t taken a sip. “I want to go into politics and make things better ...”

    “And everyone hates you,” Francis said, snidely. “You do have a habit of rubbing people the wrong way.”

    “I have to make myself heard,” Louise snapped. “Just because you have a list of titles as long as my arm ...”

    “That doesn’t mean you have to treat people like idiots.” Francis cut her off. “You talk down to people, all the time. And they resent it. You nag them to do something and they’ll decide not to do it, even if it means cutting off their nose to spite their face. They’ll hurt themselves because it’s the only way to keep from giving in to you.”

    “I tell them what they need to hear,” Louise insisted.

    “And they resent you for it.” Francis shrugged. “Why do you think you were never in the running for Head Girl?”

    Louise glared. “Because Alana has a powerful family?”

    “That’s part of it,” Francis conceded. “But you lack the ability to get along with your peers.”

    “But I’m right,” Louise said. “I ...”

    “It doesn’t matter.” I met her eyes. “Being right isn’t enough. If you want social credit - and influence, influence enough to get people to listen to you - you need to be liked. Or at least tolerated.”

    “And no one has to tolerate you,” Francis finished.

    “Including you, it would seem.” Louise crossed her arms under her breasts. “What would you suggest?”

    “You want to go into politics,” I mused. It made sense. A merchant’s daughter would have a reasonable chance of rising to power within the merchant’s guild, particularly if she had powerful friends and connections. “My patronage would help, I suppose, but it would also be a hindrance. You’d want to appear as independent as possible.”

    I studied her for a long moment. “I’ll help you learn how to make yourself respected, if not liked,” I said. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I could try. “And that would teach you how to build the connections you need if you want to go into politics.”

    Louise scowled. “I don’t want connections,” she said. “I want people to vote for me because they support me, not because of who I am.”

    “The two are intermingled.” I let out a long sigh, silently grateful that my father had drilled the facts of political life into my head. “If people don’t like you, they will be automatically prejudiced against anything you should happen to say. If you bombard them with facts and figures” - I’d read Louise’s essays, when I’d been assisting Magister Tallyman - “they will start to tune you out. And your opponents will not hesitate to take advantage of it. They’ll call you everything from a killjoy to a maiden aunt and mock you relentlessly.”

    “They do already,” Louise said.

    “Yes,” I agreed. “And you never fail to rise to the bait.”

    “You don’t have to like people,” Francis agreed. “But you do have to fool them into thinking you like them.”

    “That’s breathtakingly cynical,” Louise objected.

    Francis smirked. “But true.”

    “I can teach you,” I said. I’d have to give that some thought, but I was sure it could be done. “And if you join my team, I will.”

    “I want something else,” Louise said. “I want to be on one of the committees.”

    I hesitated. I could put her name forward - I could even insist on her being seated, if I was willing to horse-trade with Alana. But would it reflect well on me? Louise had many virtues, I admitted privately, yet she didn’t play well with others. She’d either drive away the remainder of the committee, leaving her to do all the work herself, or push them into open rebellion. I’d heard stories about committee meetings that had turned into warzones, the staff being forced to intervene ... I scowled. That would not look good on my record. And yet, she had to start somewhere.

    “I’ll see,” I said, carefully. “Which one did you have in mind?”

    “I’m not sure.” Louise sounded surprised. Perhaps she’d thought I’d reject the idea out of hand. “Perhaps the TA committee? Or the Graduation committee? Or even the Yearbook committee?”

    “I’d have to think about that,” I mused. It would be difficult to get Louise on the TA committee, particularly as she hadn’t been a TA. The other two ... perhaps. I’d have to discuss it with Alana. “They start operating after half-team, so you’d have to wait anyway.”

    Louise met my eyes, challengingly. “You give me your word to do your best,” she said, “and I’ll join your team.”

    Saline nudged her, sharply. “Be careful ...”

    I held up a hand. “I’ll do my best,” I said. “But I can’t guarantee anything.”

    Francis nodded. “And he can’t put you on any of the sporting committees,” he said. “That’s my call.”

    Louise shuddered. “I hate sports.”

    “Really?” Francis leered cheerfully at me. “Looks like we’ve found you a bride.”

    I flushed in embarrassment. “I’m betrothed.”

    Francis laughed at his joke. Louise lifted her hand, as if she were about to hex him before thinking better of it. I was glad she didn’t. Francis would have hexed her back and then ... the entire team would have disintegrated before it even got off the ground. Beside Louise, Saline looked as if she wanted to disappear. I didn’t blame her.

    I looked at Saline. “And what do you want?”

    “She wants help,” Louise said.

    I met her eyes. “I’m asking her,” I said. “Let her answer for herself.”

    Louise reddened, her eyes dropping to her knees. I winced, inwardly. It would take a long time to cure her of all her bad habits, time she probably didn’t have. I made a mental note to see if I could find her an etiquette teacher. They were normally expensive, at least to commoners, but there were plenty of people in the family who could help. They’d do it for me, if I became Wizard Regnant. They’d know I’d be Patriarch one day.

    Saline squeezed her friend’s arm, gently. “I know the magic,” she said haltingly, “but it only comes slowly. I need ... I need to work on my spells. I want to make my family proud.”

    I studied her, thoughtfully. There was nothing wrong with her power, just her ability to use it. She wasn’t stupid, just ... slow. It was odd, to say the least. Maybe she’d been moved ahead too quickly. It was dangerous to advance without a solid grasp of the fundamentals, the aspects of magic my parents had taught me from birth. If Saline had lost her grip on the fundamentals, she’d never master advanced magic. Or maybe she’d simply peaked. There were a few rare cases where a magician had reached a certain point and simply stopped advancing. But someone would have noticed ... wouldn’t they?

    “We can practice spells together,” I said. If nothing else, she could help us practice our spells before we were thrust into the Challenge. “And perhaps we can work our way through the textbooks.”

    Saline gave me a shy smile. “That would be very good, thank you.”

    I smiled back. “Will you join the team?”

    “We’ll both join the team,” Louise said, after a wordless glance with Saline. “And even if we lose ...”

    “You’ll be able to make something of it,” Francis said. “And if you don’t ... at least you’ll have a chance.”

    Louise - finally - took a sip of her tea. “So. What do we have to do for the Challenge? Because I looked it up and there’s next to nothing in the library, just a list of winners and losers and people who died during the game.”

    “You can’t find all the answers in books,” Francis said.

    “You can at least find out what people want you to know,” Louise countered. “Or think or believe or ... or whatever.”

    I nodded. A liar wouldn’t lie unless he wanted to be believed, Father had said. Knowing what someone was prepared to lie about was instructive, if one had time to think about it. I’d never really understood until I’d grown older. You could learn a great deal about someone by the lies they told.

    “They want us to be surprised,” Saline said, softly. “If we knew what we were doing, ahead of time, we could prepare.”

    “Obviously,” Francis said. “So what do we do?”

    I held up a hand. “They tell us that the whole game is a test of our abilities,” I said. “I think they’d want us to do more than simply duel the other teams. There must be a goal, a victory condition ...”

    “Perhaps it’s simply last man standing,” Francis said. “There are four teams right now, counting us. Perhaps we’re meant to fight it out with the others.”

    “I hope not,” Louise said. “It seems a little pointless.”

    “Yeah.” I nodded in agreement. “They’d want us to do more than just fight.”

    “And there would be no big secret around a fighting game,” Saline pointed out. “The people who watch football know the rules as well as the players.”

    Francis smiled. “You watch football?”

    “Sometimes.” Saline blushed. It looked oddly endearing on her light brown skin. “It can be relaxing.”

    “You must come to my next game.” Francis’s smile grew wider. “You’ll enjoy it.”

    Louise and I shared a look of perfect mutual horror. It was not our idea of a good time.

    I cleared my throat. “First, we practice our spells ... both for duelling and everything else. Second, we work on preparing tools and equipment. We’re allowed to take whatever we can carry onto the field, as long as we make it for ourselves.”

    Francis smirked. “I didn’t make my clothes,” he said. “Does that mean we have to play naked?”

    “No.” Louise crossed her arms. “Definitely not.”

    “Probably not,” I said. “But we can’t bring in weapons and supplies from outside.”

    Francis sobered, rapidly. “Does that include your sword?”

    I blinked. I hadn’t thought about it, but ... did it include the sword?

    “I don’t know.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to check. I could claim innocence if no one told me I couldn’t take the sword. “We’ll see if they say anything about it.”

    “They may argue that bringing it is cheating,” Louise pointed out. “You should ask.”

    “Maybe,” I said. “So ... we start planning and practicing on the weekend?”

    “Saturday would be fine,” Louise said. “I ...”

    “I have sports,” Francis said, flatly. “Sunday.”

    “Sunday,” I agreed. I had a vague plan for Saturday, if Rose was around. “Louise? Saline? Is that alright?”

    “Yeah,” Louise said. “And” - she paused, rethinking whatever she had been going to say - “thank you.”

    “You’re welcome,” I said. “And thank you too.”

    “Just don’t let us down.” Francis ignored the sharp look I sent him. “This isn’t a game.”

    “Then perhaps you should take it seriously,” Louise said, dryly. She stood. Saline followed her. “See you on Sunday.”

    “Well,” Francis said, when they were gone. “This should be interesting, right?”

    “Yeah,” I said. It wasn’t quite the word I would have chosen. “Interesting.”
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    “I thought you’d be too busy to explore,” Rose said, after breakfast on Saturday morning. “I hear you have a team now.”

    I eyed her. “Where did you hear that?”

    Rose shrugged. “Oh, here and there. It’s no big secret, is it?”

    “I suppose not,” I said, as we walked down the corridor. “I wish you could join.”

    “I wish I could too,” Rose said. “But it isn’t possible.”

    I tried not to yawn. We’d only been back at school for a week and I already felt tired. The teachers had plunged us in at the deep end, barely taking a single period to review material we’d covered last year before leading us into the future. Advanced Potions with Magistra Loanda, Charms with Magister Grayson and Magister Von Rupert, even Forging with Magister Tallyman ... I’d barely had any time to myself. And what little time I had was spent being Head Boy. I supervised detentions, lectured a handful of lowerclassmen caught in upperclassmen territory and a dozen other duties I hadn’t known I had to do until I’d been given the job. No wonder it came with so much prestige. A successful Head Boy had a lot of work to do.

    At least Alana is on duty this morning, I told myself. I was always on duty, in a sense, but we’d agreed on a rota for weekend duties. She gave me some time to myself.

    I grinned at Rose as we hurried down the stairs and into the lower levels. Jude’s was a maze of abandoned sections, hundreds of rooms and compartments that had simply been sealed off from the rest of the school and left to themselves. I’d spent much of the last six years exploring the underground passageways and I still didn’t know them all. I swear some of the abandoned buildings were bigger on the inside. The internal geometry of the school seemed to defy logic and reason.

    There’s an Object of Power buried under the school, I reminded myself. Cat had told me about it, years ago. That’s probably warping the local dimensions out of shape.

    “They’re going to offer me a healing apprenticeship next year,” Rose said, as she fiddled with a locked door. It wasn’t very secure. The staff had barely made even a token effort to keep people out of the underground. “You think I should do it?”

    “I think you’d be good at it,” I said. The door came open, revealing a darkened corridor beyond. A handful of light gems, embedded within the ceiling, glowed faintly, so faintly that they barely provided any illumination at all. “And it would give you an excellent start in life.”

    “I know,” Rose said. “But I want to be more than just a healer.”

    I peered down the corridor, then cast a night-vision spell. “What do you mean?”

    “Well, I want to help everyone,” Rose said. “And not just the people who can pay.”

    It struck me, suddenly, that Rose and Louise had a great deal in common. “I think there would be nothing stopping you from helping everyone,” I said. “You’d just have to have the magic.”

    “But not everyone can pay,” Rose said.

    I grinned as I started to walk down the corridor. “You have powerful connections, Rose. I’m sure you can get a stipend as you help the poor.”

    Rose followed me. “I spent part of the summer working in a clinic,” she said. “And it was hard to see people who needed help being unable to get it, because they couldn’t afford it. The healers worked for free, some of them, but they couldn’t afford the potions they needed to treat the sick ...”

    I nodded, slowly. The economics of potions were very simple. The ingredients, even the very basic ingredients, cost money. And then one had to pay the brewer. It wasn’t illegal to brew potions at home - the law would have been unenforceable, if it had been on the books - but healers were supposed to purchase their potions from guildsmen. It was the only way to guarantee quality. But it also drove the price upward ... Rose had a point. Even a very basic potion could cost two or three times as much as it should by the time it reached the patient.

    “There must be some way to fix the problem,” I mused. “Perhaps you and Louise should talk about it.”

    I heard the surprise in her voice. “Louise?”

    “She wants to change things too,” I told her. “You and her might get along.”

    I took a breath as we passed through a ruined door. The air tasted of dust. My throat was suddenly very dry. I took a drink of water from my canteen - six years of exploring had taught us to bring supplies - and cast a filtering spell on my mouth. Dust boiled up around us as we made our way further into the complex. I could feel it crawling into my clothes and running down my skin. I was going to have to take a proper bath when I got back to my suite. Alana was probably going to make sarcastic remarks about me trailing dust everywhere I walked.

    “I’ll see,” Rose said. “But she hasn’t shown any interest in me.”

    I winced, inwardly. The Great Houses didn’t have to look down on the commoners. We were secure in our supremacy. But someone who was only inches above the poverty line, someone who was all too aware that a single misstep could send them plunging back into poverty ... there was no one so aware of their place, and determined to keep it, as someone who lived next to a poor district. Louise’s parents were probably more snobbish than mine.

    “Give her time,” I said. “Maybe she’ll learn.”

    “Maybe,” Rose said, doubtfully.

    I nodded in wry understanding. Common-born or not, Rose had shown a willingness to learn - and enough power and promise for people to overlook her flaws. Louise had power and intelligence - more intelligence than power, I suspected - but she seemed to expect the world to change for her, rather than trying to adapt herself to the world as it was. It was an odd attitude, for someone from a merchant family. I’d always thought merchants had a good grip on reality. Perhaps Louise had been spoilt when she was a little girl. Or perhaps she was just too stubborn to change. I could understand why someone might think changing was a kind of giving up.

    We pushed open another door and peered into a small classroom. My eyes went automatically to the bookshelves - I’d found some interesting books under the school - but these shelves were empty. The classroom itself looked eerie. I could have believed that the students would return within hours, perhaps days, if the chairs, desks and tables hadn’t been so dusty. I reached out and touched one of them. The dust was so deep that I was certain that no one had entered the room in the last few years.

    “This would make a good place to practice spells and stuff,” I commented. “We’re meant to find a base ...”

    Rose snickered. “Should I know where your base is ...?”

    “I trust you not to tell,” I said. The rules stated that we had to have a base, somewhere that wasn’t a classroom, a bedroom or otherwise restricted in anyway. We could secure it ourselves, if we wished, but we couldn’t rely on higher authority to secure it for us. “You won’t, will you?”

    “Well ...” Rose drew out the word. “What’s it worth?”

    I grinned, knowing she was teasing me. “My appreciation?”

    “I’ll settle for a visit to the potions lab,” Rose said. “Or a trip outside the walls.”

    “We could.” I was surprised. “You can go on your own, you know.”

    Rose shook her head. “I’d sooner have someone with me,” she said. “I feel ill-at-ease within the city.”

    “I’ll come,” I promised. “And we can try and take Cat too.”

    “I’ll look the other way from time to time,” Rose said. “But not too often.”

    I rolled my eyes. High Society wouldn’t bat an eyelid at Alana and I sharing a suite, if only because we weren’t sharing an actual bedroom. And the very idea of Rose and I doing something when we were alone wouldn’t occur to any of them. But if Cat and I were seen in public, without a chaperone, we’d face some pretty astringent criticism. We couldn’t even talk in private - just talk - without fuelling the rumours. I promised myself that I’d make any rumourmongers pay, if I ever figured out who they were. The really dangerous ones managed to hide themselves pretty well.

    “Thanks,” I said. “Perhaps we should go to the zoo.”

    Rose laughed and followed me through a series of twisting corridors. I honestly didn’t understand why this part of the school had been abandoned. There were sections that seemed permanently on the verge of collapsing, perhaps sparking a general collapse as they tumbled into rubble, but this section seemed intact. Classrooms, dorms, a handful of offices ... I opened a drawer in one of the offices and found coins dating back over a hundred years. I pocketed half of them and gave the rest to Rose. It was possible they were worth quite a bit of money now.

    “Everyone else will be setting up secret bases too, won’t they?” Rose grinned as we started to make our way back towards the surface. “Are you going to look for them?”

    I shrugged. Sabotage might be part of the Challenge, but ... I didn’t have anything worth sabotaging, not yet. The four of us - I’d have to look for at least one or two more - had barely got off the ground. I wondered, absently, what they’d think about sabotaging the other teams. Francis would be all for it, I was sure; Louise and Saline might have other ideas. Louise clung to the rules so tightly that I doubted she’d approve of any attempt to make things harder for the other teams.

    But they’ll start making things harder for us, soon enough, I mused. And then we’ll have to start pushing back.

    “I don’t think I’m allowed to discuss it with you,” I said, finally. “And besides, I have no grand plans either.”

    Rose nodded. “Alana said the same,” she said. “She can’t discuss her plans with me.”

    I smiled. “I’m just glad she doesn’t have you,” I said. “You’d tip the balance in her favour.”

    “Thanks.” Rose reddened. “Be glad she doesn’t have Cat.”

    “Yeah.” I sighed, tiredly. “I am ...”

    I broke off as I heard the sound of crying, coming from further down the corridor. No, not crying. Whimpering. I glanced at Rose, then picked up speed. Something was dreadfully wrong. If someone was in trouble ... the noise grew louder as I walked up the corridor, trying to determine precisely where we were. We were just outside the more well-travelled parts of the school, the corridors and passageways everyone knew about even if they didn’t use ...

    “Let me go,” someone sobbed. “Please ...”

    I clenched my fists as I turned the corner. Two beefy-looking boys and a girl - all three of them upperclassmen - were casting hexes on a pair of lowerclassmen. A girl was stuck to the ceiling, hanging from her hands and legs waving helplessly in the air; a boy was leaning against the wall, his face covered with painful pimples and bruises. He cried out, again, as a hex stuck his chest. They weren’t just trying to humiliate him. They were trying to hurt him and ... a rush of anger shot through me. How dare they?

    “Stop.” My voice thundered through the air. “Now!”

    The upperclassmen jumped, then spun to face me. The boys looked, just for a moment, as if they wanted to fight; the girl glanced at the nearest door, as if she was calculating if she could make a run for it. I readied myself, suddenly unsure of my badge’s ability to stop a fight. If I lost, my position as Head Boy would become untenable. I’d be a laughing stock.

    I met their eyes, one by one. “What do you think you are doing?”

    The girl looked defiant. “This is our territory,” she said. “And ...”

    I made a show of looking around. “I don’t see any markers. Do you?”

    The girl coloured, angrily. “This is our territory. Everyone knows it!”

    “Really? I don’t.” I glanced at Rose. “Do you know it?”

    “No.” Rose shook her head. “No one told me.”

    “We found this place,” one of the boys said. “It’s ours.”

    I glared at him. “Then you put locking spells on the doors, or traps to discourage intruders,” I said. That, at least, was tradition. “You do not torture students who happen to enter anyway.”

    “It isn’t torture,” the girl protested. “It’s just ...”

    I cut her off. “You’re upperclassmen,” I told them. “You’re meant to set an example. A good example. Not engage in sadistic tortures, particularly not of lowerclassmen ...”

    “But ...”

    I ignored her as I drew the punishment book from my belt. “The three of you have detention,” I said. “And you will write out a hundred lines, each. I will not bully younger students.”

    “That’s not fair,” one of the boys said. “I ...”

    “Quite right,” I agreed. “You can write out two hundred lines instead.”

    The girl glared at the boy, then looked at me. “We can’t have detention ...”

    “Yes, you do.” I stared her down. “Would you like to do five hundred lines instead?”

    “... No,” the girl said.

    “Scram,” I ordered. “And don’t let me catch you bullying anyone, ever again.”

    They turned and ran as if they were being chased by men with whips. I watched them go, then motioned for Rose to help the girl while I tended to the boy. The upperclassmen had been cruel. The girl’s weight could have pulled her arms out of their sockets, even if the bullies didn’t do anything else to her. And the boy’s face was bloated with hex scars and even a couple of minor curses ... I cancelled them all, carefully. His face slowly returned to normal.

    “... Thank you,” he managed. He couldn’t meet my eyes as he wiped away tears. I understood, better than I cared to admit. He’d been utterly outmatched, but he still felt as though he’d shamed himself. I hoped the girl wouldn’t tease him for breaking down. That would rub salt into the wound. “We were just exploring ... we didn’t know it was their room ... we didn’t ...”

    “They should have marked it,” I said, gently. Rose and I had been chivvied away from rooms upperclassmen had claimed for themselves - and we’d tripped a handful of traps, which had been quite embarrassing - but we’d never been tortured. The upperclassmen had stepped well over the line. “If they’d wanted to keep it to themselves, they would have sealed it.”

    I patted him on the back, silently wishing I could do more. He could have been my brother. But then, if he had been my brother, no one would have thought less of either of us if I’d taught the three upperclassmen a lesson. A real lesson. But I couldn’t help him so openly, not now. He was just lucky I’d stumbled across the scene. No one would call him a sneak.

    Perhaps the rules do need to be changed, I thought, tiredly. But how?

    The girl came over to me, rubbing her arms. “Thank you.”

    “You’re welcome,” I said. She looked painfully thin, with pale skin and stringy red hair in a loose braid that had nearly come apart ... a commoner then, probably from the far north. I wondered, absently, if she knew Rose. “And just be careful where you go next time.”

    The girl nodded, her eyes lingering on my Head Boy badge. “Is it true you know Lady Cat?”

    “He’s going to marry Lady Cat,” Rose put in.

    “Lady Caitlyn,” I corrected, sternly. One couldn’t shorten a lady’s name when one used her title. It was disrespectful. “And yes, I know her.”

    The girl nudged the boy. “Markus, you should ask him.”

    I frowned. “Ask me for what?”

    Markus looked even paler. “I want to be a TA,” he said. “Magister Tallyman’s TA.”

    “You’ll find him a demanding soul,” I said, warningly. I’d spent four years as Magister Tallyman’s TA. Demanding was being polite. A forger could not afford incompetence or sloppiness. There were no shortcuts - and anyone who thought otherwise was likely to injure or kill himself. “And if you make a mistake, he’ll sack you.”

    “If you put my name in, I’ll do anything,” Markus said. “Anything, anything at all.”

    “Don’t say things like that,” I snapped. My mother had told me, during lessons, never to make any open-ended promises. They had a habit of coming back to haunt you. “But I can put a word in for you, if you like. How are your grades?”

    “Good,” Markus said. “I like forging, but ... I don’t have the background for an apprenticeship unless I TA or something.”

    I nodded, slowly. I could have had that apprenticeship, if Father hadn’t said no. And if I couldn’t have it ...

    “I’ll put your name forward,” I said. I’d been meaning to talk to Magister Tallyman anyway, when I had a moment. “But if you let me down, I’ll be furious.”

    “He’ll turn you into a toad,” the girl said, cheekily.

    Rose cleared her throat. “And who are you?”

    “Isabel,” the girl said. “Nice to meet you!”

    I flinched. “Isabel,” I said. It was suddenly very hard to speak. I knew I was being silly, but I couldn’t help it. I had to swallow hard before I could continue. “Nice to meet you too.”
     
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