Original Work The Family Secret (The Zero Enigma 10)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Sep 13, 2021 at 6:07.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, Everyone

    The Family Secret has a rather complex place in the developing story arc. Basically, it fits into a subseries that starts with The Family Shame (which kicks off immediately after the first three Zero books) and carries on, to some extent, through The Family Pride and The Family Name. If you don’t want to read those books - can offer copies for people who read and comment on this book - all you really need to know is that Isabella Ruben was branded a traitor and sent into exile, found a new place for herself at Kirkhaven Hall, was tempted with the prospect of family power ... and chose to return to Kirkhaven, with her fiancé, rather than try to make a bid for power herself after her father’s death. Right now, Isabella is on the way home, unaware that the events of The Zero Secret are about to cast a long shadow over her new home.

    (I’ve posted a longer outline at the front of the book.)

    The Zero Blessing, the first book in the series, is on Kindle Unlimited - https://www.azonlinks.com/B06XPXGHKV

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

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    Chris

    PS - OUT NOW – Cast Adrift (Cast Adrift I)

    Historian’s Note

    The Thousand-Year Empire dominated the twin continents of Maxima and Minima through two advantages, an unmatched command of magic and the development of Objects of Power, magical weapons and tools that made them seemingly invincible. But the Empire fell and the secret of making Objects of Power was lost.

    Hundreds of years later, a young girl - Caitlyn Aguirre - was born to a powerful magical family. Caitlyn - Cat - should have been powerful herself, like her two sisters, but she seemed to have no spark of magic at all. She lacked even a sense for magic. In desperation, her parents sent her to Jude’s in the hopes that exposure to magical training would bring forth the magic they were sure lay buried within her. There, she met Isabella and Akin Rubén, children of her family’s greatest enemy. Isabella became her rival, while she formed a tentative friendship with Akin.

    Cat developed no magic, but she discovered something else. Uniquely, as far as anyone could tell, she had no magic at all. She eventually discovered that a complete lack of magic was necessary for forging Objects of Power. Far from being useless, her talent made her extremely valuable and utterly irreplaceable. As far as anyone could tell, Cat was the only true ‘Zero’ known to exist. This led to her - and her friends, Akin and Rose - being kidnapped, then targeted by Crown Prince Henry and Stregheria Aguirre, Cat’s Great Aunt, when they launched a coup against the Great Houses and the King himself. Their subversions - which turned Isabella against her family - nearly led to complete disaster ... and perhaps would have done, if Cat and Akin hadn’t become friends.

    In the aftermath, Cat proposed that she and Akin should be betrothed, creating a marriage bond between their families and making it impossible, at least for the next few years, for the two houses to come to blows. This was - reluctantly - accepted, with the proviso that either Cat or Akin could refute the agreement if they wished, when they came of age. Cat left Jude’s to found her own school, where other Zeroes - when they were found - would be taught.

    Meanwhile, the Great Houses had to deal with the repercussions of the attempted coup and the sudden shift in the balance of power. Isabella Rubén, condemned as a traitor, was exiled to Kirkhaven Hall, where she discovered a secret her family had sought to bury ... and a new secret, one of her own. Others took advantage of the chaos to stake a claim to power themselves, plots that were only foiled through sheer luck and outside intervention. The city remained unstable ...

    Six years passed, slowly. Akin Rubén went back to school for his final year, to discover - thanks to his father - that he had to compete in the Challenge, a contest to find the ‘Wizard Regnant.’ Reluctantly, Akin complied, forming a team consisting of his cousin Francis and a handful of misfits, including merchant’s daughter Louise Herdsman and Saline Califon, a distant relative who was under a spell cast by her wicked uncle. Despite Francis’s betrayal - the work of Malachi Rubén, a shadowy figure from the family’s past - Akin managed to realise the true nature of the Challenge and forge a last minute alliance with Alana Aguirre, Cat’s sister, that allowed them to share the victory.

    This did not please everyone, most notably Adam Mortimer. Disgusted with the Great Houses, and uneasily aware his city was on the brink of exploding into class war, Adam joined the Kingsmen and became instrumental in stopping a plot to use Infernal Devices to trigger the war. However, he was unable to prevent the plotters from damaging the city’s harmony and far too many innocents wound up paying the price.

    One of them was Lucy Lamplighter, who inherited House Lamplighter after her father was killed in a detonation and discovered, the hard way, that her family was effectively bankrupt. Embarking on a desperate scheme to rebuild the family fortune, Lucy found herself tangled in a complex web of blackmail spun by Malachi Rubén and was forced to kill him in order to save her life and reputation.

    Unknown to Lucy, this accidentally upended plans by Stephen Rubén to break the alliance between House Rubén and House Aguirre. Discovering that Isabella Rubén had forged a relationship with Callam - the only other known Zero - Stephen mounted a plan to bring her back to the city, make her Heir Primus of House Rubén and shatter the alliance once and for all. Unfortunately for him, Isabella had come to realise she didn’t want the post and intended to return to Kirkhaven as soon as possible. Undaunted, Stephen mounted a coup in a final desperate attempt to stop the alliance. The coup failed, but claimed the life of Lord Carioca Rubén - Akin and Isabella’s father. Akin, now Patriarch, took control of the family and promised the alliance would remain intact.

    However, events got in the way. Cat was asked, by her old tutor, to return to the Eternal City to investigate strange energies emitting from the ruins. There, she clashed with hidden warlocks and discovered both a flying city and a dark truth about their world. The magic field, the source of all power, is growing stronger ...

    ... And, right across the world, people are starting to notice.
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue

    Alonzo FitzRubén awoke, in pain.

    The world around him was dark, dark and gloomy. His memories were a confused mess, flashes of words and images that didn’t seem to be in any coherent order. He’d been in the city, he’d been speaking to Charlotte ... to Charlotte Rubén, who hated him and resented, bitterly, the family’s order that she should marry him. Alonzo knew how she felt. He hadn’t been too pleased when he’d been plucked out of the training program, his contract sold to House Rubén shortly before he reached his majority. Sure, they’d made noises about honouring him as one of their own, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that they’d termed him ‘FitzRubén.’ One of them, yet not quite one of them. They were more considerate to literal family bastards.

    He gritted his teeth as he tried to sit up. His body was aching, as if he’d been brutally beaten to within an inch of his life, but nothing seemed to be broken. The air was old and dank, pressing against his lungs as he tried to breathe. His eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dim light, a faint glow filtering down from high overhead. He’d been in the flightstone chamber, if he recalled correctly ... his memories suddenly snapped back into place as he stumbled to his feet. Something had gone wrong with the flightstone. The city had wobbled in midair, the magic field holding it aloft threatening to fail, threatening to let gravity reassert itself and pull the immense structure to the ground. Alonzo had run to the chamber, in hopes of making repairs or - at worst - putting the city down before the field failed completely - but ... he wasn’t sure what had happened when he’d touched the flightstone. There’d been a flash of light and ...

    I must have been stunned, he thought, numbly. The city hadn’t been completely abandoned - there’d been a small army of servants onboard - but most of the family had travelled to the city for the big ceremony. Someone got onboard, stunned me and ... and what?

    Alonzo muttered a word, half-hoping the wards would hear it and respond. He had no magic, but the wards could still hear him ... there was no response. The chamber should have been lit instantly, yet ... he looked around, shaking his head in disbelief. There was no sign of the flightstone. It took him longer than it should have done to realise the crystalline structure was on the floor, in pieces. He didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin repairing the damage. He wasn’t even sure it was possible. It was hard to make out anything in the dim light, but some of the pieces were charred, as if they’d been passed through a fire. He hadn’t seen anything like it, not even during his training. What had happened?

    He forced himself to stumble to the door and peer down the corridor. It was dim, lit only by starlight. He looked up and saw cracks in the roof ... cracks that shouldn’t have been there, even if the city had fallen from the sky. How badly had they landed? House Rubén prided itself on the finest flying city in the empire. It had been immense, easily the biggest thing ever to take to the skies. They’d said it was invulnerable. And now ... he stumbled down the corridor, feeling the ground shifting oddly under his feet. There should have been a small army of servants, humans and mechanical alike, clearing up the wreckage and laying the groundwork for refloating the city. Instead, there was nothing. The city was as dark and silent as the grave.

    We were attacked, he thought. But how?

    The mystery nagged at his mind as he kept walking. The city was solidly warded. He’d helped lay the spellforms himself. No one should have been able to enter without permission, no one should have been able to bring anything destructive inside the wards without setting off all kinds of alarms. The servants had certain rights - everyone did, apart from Alonzo - but they couldn’t invite friends and family into the city without permission from their masters. How had it been done? The attacker would have needed to get into the network of spellstones, linked to the flightstone ... Alonzo couldn’t see how it could have been done. And why had everything failed?

    His heart almost stopped as the realisation crashed down on him. The city had glowed with magic. It had been crammed with magical artefacts crafted by the family, with artworks and animated paintings and everything else the family refused to throw out. And ... not everything was linked to the spellform holding the city aloft. Why had everything failed? It made no sense. Alonzo could imagine a spellbreaker capable of blasting the entire city, but actually building one would be impossible. The spellform would be too large to handle. It would effectively collapse under its own weight. What had happened?

    He tripped over a dark shape and nearly fell to the ground, barely catching himself in time. A body. It was a body ... he forced himself to turn the body over and check for a pulse. There was nothing. The dim light made it hard to see anything, but ... it was a serving girl, a young woman who’d been taken on as a domestic, someone who might rise to the top of the servant tree given time and devotion. Her neck was broken, snapped effortlessly. Alonzo felt the side of her head and winced. She’d hit the bulkhead hard enough for the force to break her neck.

    I’m sorry, he thought, numbly. The young woman had always been kind to him, unlike his supposed family. You deserved better.

    Another quiver ran through the ruined city. Alonzo forced himself to stand up and keep walking. The city had clearly landed badly, but whatever had happened to bring it down wasn’t finished. Not yet. Was the enemy looting the rubble? Or ... was it searching for hostages? For Alonzo himself? It was possible - he might be powerless, but his value lay in his lack of magic - yet it didn’t seem right. He just didn’t understand what he was seeing. The spellform pervading the flightstone - and the spellstones beyond - had been perfect. If it hadn’t been, the city would never have taken flight. He couldn’t believe it had failed ... and, even if it had, how had it managed to take down everything?

    He scrambled up a servant passageway and pushed open a hatch, clambering out into the open air. The night sky overhead mocked him. They weren’t that far from civilisation. There should have been a small army of flyers overhead, dispatched from military bases as their commanders realised the city had crashed ... but nothing moved in the cold night air. He looked towards the distant hills and sucked in his breath. There were no lights, no hints of civilisation. What had happened? He’d once read a story where a flying city had been sent back in time, a fantastical idea he knew to be completely impractical, but ... there should have been lights. It wasn’t as if they were gliding into unexplored parts of the world ...

    Alonzo felt a sudden, overpowering sense of loss as he looked around. The great towers, structures held together by magic as much as everything else, had crumbled. Their ruins lay in front of him, mocking him. They should have been glowing with light and life ... even now, when their occupants had gone to the Eternal City for Empire Day. Now, he was alone. No one moved in the darkness, not even looters.

    But he’d always been alone.

    Bitterness consumed him as he made his way towards the edge of the city. There was no point in staying where he was. The ground was still shifting, suggesting ... what? His stomach growled, reminding him it had been hours since his last meal. Longer than that, perhaps. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious. Cold logic told him it couldn’t have been longer than a couple of hours at most, but it felt as if he’d slept for years. There were stories about that too.

    He clambered over the ruins, cursing under his breath. He hadn’t wanted to join the family, let alone to have his name changed and be told he was going to marry a girl who didn’t want him. But they’d insisted, pointing out he had to be one of them. He touched his brown hair, clear proof he wasn’t part of the family and never would be. He’d been forced to sign the marriage contracts, the declaration he would marry Charlotte. The ancient magics woven into the family bloodline should have turned his hair blond, in preparation for his unwanted marriage. It was tradition, but ancient tradition had passed him by. Charlotte had said it meant he’d never be one of the family. He feared she was right.

    And she didn’t even take me to the Eternal City, he thought, as he scrambled over the remains of a tower. He should have known which one, but the city was so devastated he honestly wasn’t sure. She was ashamed to be seen with me.

    Hatred washed through him. His talent made him important, but it also made him vulnerable. He wanted to escape, but there was nowhere to run. His master had made that clear, when he’d purchased the contract. Alonzo could stay with the family, and enjoy the perks while working for then, or ... or else. The master hadn’t specified, leaving the matter to Alonzo’s imagination. It hadn’t really been necessary. Alonzo had seen enough cruelty in his young life to be all too aware of what House Rubén could do to him, if he tried to leave. He was their prisoner. Allowing him to marry into the family was a sick joke.

    The city quivered again. Alonzo glanced back, looking for something - anything - that would tell him what was going on. The city was dead, yet it was shifting slightly. Could the flightstone have come back to life? Alonzo dismissed the thought almost as soon as he’d had it. The flightstone had been shattered. There was no way the smaller spellstones could even begin to shift the city, not without the flightstone. And yet ... he snickered as he realised the family didn’t have the slightest idea what had happened. The gates were probably dead too. It would take days for them to get back and ... he smiled, bitterly, at the thought of their faces when they saw the ruins. They wouldn’t have the slightest idea what had happened to their city.

    He slowed as he reached the edge of the disc and peered into the darkness. The city was in ruins and yet ... he couldn’t see any way down. Jumping would be suicidal, certainly when he couldn’t tell what was below him. It was far too far to fall unless he was diving into water and even then, he would have hesitated. He looked up, trying to gauge how long he had until sunrise. Perhaps he could stay in the open and wait. Someone would be along soon, wouldn’t they? It was impossible to believe the city would be abandoned ...

    The city shook, once again. Alonzo lost his footing and fell, right off the edge. He screamed as the darkness enveloped him, all too aware he was dead. The disc was huge. He was going to fall at least sixty metres, then hit the ground hard enough to kill him ... of course it was going to kill him. He was no magician, with the power to slow his fall or cushion his landing ... he was going to die. The analytical side of his mind noted that great power hadn’t saved the others on the city - even the serving girls knew a handful of spells - and that that detail was probably important, but ...

    He hit ... something. For a crazy moment, he thought he’d fallen into a lake. Perhaps they’d crashed on the edge of a large body of water. And then he took a breath and tasted ... something ... in the water. No, it wasn’t water. It felt as if he was breathing sludge. He gagged, trying to swim to the surface, but he’d completely lost his bearings. His eyes were open and yet he could see nothing, beyond an eerie green light that pulsed around him. Was he in hell? He might be dying. He was drowning in a sea of light. Or ... his awareness expanded, becoming something else. And there were voices, echoing through his mind as they spoke. They promised him everything.

    Alonzo listened.
     
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The stairwell felt as if it stretched down into the darkness below the city.

    I stood at the top and braced myself, feeling utterly alone. No one but family were allowed to visit the crypt. Akin, my brother, was too busy to accompany me and I didn’t want any of my other relatives to come. Callam ... Callam and I were not yet married, not in the eyes of the Ancients. I couldn’t invite him, even if he hadn’t been busy himself. I felt an odd little twinge as I reached for the candle and lit it with a single spell. The last time I’d visited, I’d been a little girl. Now, I was a grown woman on the verge of getting married. And ...

    The candle felt warm in my hand as I started to walk down the stairs. The family had spent centuries laying spell after spell on the crypt, to keep out our enemies and - according to some stories - to make sure the dead didn’t rise again. I could feel them pressing at my mind as I walked, spells so old and powerful they saw through my wards as if they weren’t there. I didn’t know precisely what would happen if I hadn’t been one of the family, but I knew it wouldn’t be good. The crypt was the last resting place of our nearest and dearest. We had an obligation to defend it.

    My heart pounded in my chest. I kept walking, even as I felt history pressing around me. It wasn’t the first crypt. That was in the Eternal City, the heart of the Thousand-Year Empire, lost in the wake of the disaster that had shattered the empire beyond repair. There might have been others, over the years, but this one belonged to my branch of the family. The names carved into the stone walls were reminders of the great and the good, of men and women who’d served the family well before their deaths, before they’d gone to join the Ancients. I wondered, numbly, what they thought of me. I’d betrayed, then saved, the family. Would they welcome me, when my ashes were placed within the crypt? Or would they cast me out forever?

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. The Ancients were always with us. I’d been taught their names from a very early age, as well as the correct way to honour their memories in preparation for the day I’d join them. They were always watching ... I swallowed hard, wondering how they’d judge me. I’d been played for a fool, because I’d been young and foolish and Stregheria Aguirre had told me precisely what I wanted to hear. I’d learnt from it, hadn’t I? When Uncle Stephen had made the same offer, I’d turned him down. And then I’d killed him.

    He’s watching too, I thought, numbly. He’ll be watching me until the day I die.

    I shook my head. Times changed. Attitudes changed. People changed. My ancestors had grown up in very different worlds, as much as the family might wish to deny it. They might not understand what I’d done; they might judge me by their standards, not mine. Or ... they were dead, untethered from mortal concerns. They might understand both me and Uncle Stephen, or Uncle Ira; they might understand our feelings and motives even as they judged us poorly. Maybe they’d even been merciful. Maybe, once they’d been judged, they’d been allowed to join the ranks of the dead. Maybe ...

    Uncle Stephen thought he was saving the family, I thought, coldly. I could see his reasoning, even though I didn’t agree with it. What was Uncle Ira’s excuse?

    The memories tormented me. Uncle Ira had seemed a genial old man at first, sent into exile for reasons no one cared to remember. He hadn’t seemed particularly interested in me, even though he was technically meant to be my gaoler ... a gaoler who was in gaol himself. And he’d turned out to be a warlock, conducted forbidden experiments hundreds of miles from Shallot and House Rubén. He’d tested some of his spells and potions on me. I still had nightmares about the brew he’d forced me to drink ...

    And if I hadn’t stopped him, I thought numbly, he would have dissected Callam just to figure out how his talent actually works.

    I took a long breath as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The family had never been quite sure what to make of me. I’d been the daughter of the then-Patriarch, then a traitor at twelve years old, then the person who’d kept them from having to deal with a rogue warlock, then the Heir Primus, then the person who’d turned it down, then the person who’d killed Uncle Stephen and brought his coup to an end and, finally, the sister of the serving Patriarch. I was sure there were people who were counting down the days until I returned to Kirkhaven Hall, where I would remain ... rather than stay in Shallot. It wasn’t easy to admit I’d made a fool of myself, when Akin had brought me and Callam back to the city, but it was true. I’d been more in love with the ideal of Shallot and High Society rather than the reality.

    The air was cold, cold and clear. I raised my gaze. The Cryptkeeper stood in front of the archway, wearing a long dark robe that covered her from head to toe. Her face was hidden in shadow. I shivered, despite myself. The legends insisted the Cryptkeeper was truly ancient, that she dated all the way back to the original family mansion, now lost somewhere in the ruins of the Eternal City. Or that she was a golem, a creature tied to the blood of the family and charged with defending our best. I knew the stories couldn’t be true, that the Cryptkeeper was merely an old sorceress who’d committed herself to her role, but it was suddenly easy to believe them. It was impossible to tell if the Cryptkeeper in front of me was the same person who’d showed us around the Crypt, when Akin and I were young.

    “Isabella.” The Cryptkeeper’s voice was emotionless, but I could feel the raw power behind her. Some claimed she was empowered by the Ancients themselves to defend their crypt. I almost believed it. “Why have you come?”

    “I came to speak to my father,” I said. “And then to say farewell.”

    The Cryptkeeper nodded, very slightly. “And are you prepared?”

    I looked down at myself. I’d donned a formal black dress and tied my blonde hair back in a loose ponytail, tight enough to keep it out of my face while loose enough to avoid giving the impression I was still a child. I’d scrubbed my face clean of makeup and muttered spells to hide my scent ... the former a waste of time, given that I had never really liked makeup and found it a little silly. Callam hadn’t grown up in the city. He wouldn’t be impressed if I wasted time making myself look pretty. His people had never really had the time to bother.

    “Yes,” I said, shortly.

    The Cryptkeeper raised her staff and knocked, once, on the door. It opened. I took a breath and stepped through, all too aware it would close behind me. The chamber beyond was dark and cold, lit only by a faint blue light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. I stood still, waiting for my eyes to grow accustomed to the light. Powerful spells hung in the air, crawling over the door - and me - like wasps on honey. I shuddered as they pressed against my defences, threatening to break them down. It felt as if I was standing somewhere I didn’t belong.

    I took a moment to gather myself, then looked up. The chamber was immense. The floor was a pattern of bare stone, broken by earthen graves. The headstones were a strange mixture, ranging from detailed carvings of the dead person’s face to bare stones, marked only by the corpses name. I shivered as I stared into the distance. The far wall was lost in shadow. It was suddenly easy to believe the chamber went on forever.

    “I come to pay my respects,” I said. My words hung in the cold air. “Please regard me kindly.”

    It was all I could do to step forward, onto the stone path. The air seemed to grow colder. I gritted my teeth and kept walking, trying not to think about the dead rising to lash out at the traitor. They might hate me for betraying the family; they might hate me for killing Uncle Stephen, if they thought he’d done the right thing. Maybe, by their standards, he had. Akin was going to marry Caitlyn Aguirre. And our feud with House Aguirre was legendary.

    My legs ached as I walked, passing carved faces with marble eyes that seemed to watch me and statues that moved when I wasn’t looking. The sense of threat hung in the air, a silent challenge that threatened to drive me out of the chamber ... the only thing that kept me going, I admitted to myself, was the simple fact I might never have another chance to say goodbye to my father. The funeral had been very formal but public. I hadn’t dared speak to him as the flames consumed his body. Who knew who might be listening?

    Everyone who thinks they’re important, my thoughts answered. And everyone else too.

    I put the thought out of my head as I reached the final gravestone. My father was flanked by his murderers ... I felt a wave of naked hatred, my magic spiking as I fought the urge to rip their ashes from the graves and hurl them into the ocean, rather than leave them next to the man they’d murdered. It was tradition to bury the dead in rough order and yet ... I clenched my teeth, calming myself. It wasn’t easy. My father had been a good man, even if he had been a little rigid in his thinking. He’d done what he could for me, after I fell under Stregheria Aguirre’s influence. And ...

    Calm, I told myself. His murderers are answering to higher judges than you.

    I took a breath and studied the gravestone. My father hadn’t chosen to arrange for anything more complex than a simple stone, with his name carved into the rock. It felt ... impersonal, as if it wasn’t really him. I knew it was his ashes under the earth and yet ... I shook my head. I’d tried to think of what to say, and come up with all sorts of speeches, but now - looking at his grave - my mind was blank. I didn’t know what to say.

    Think, I thought. What do you want to say?

    “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish ...”

    Tears prickled at the corner of my eyes as I sank to my knees. I wished I’d been a better daughter. I wished I’d never allowed anger and bitterness at the sheer unfairness of life to overwhelm me, to render me vulnerable when Stregheria Aguirre came calling. I wished I’d had the strength and determination to make something of myself, rather than let myself be used by someone older and far colder than I could ever be. And yet, if I hadn’t listened to the old witch, would I have ever met Callam? Would I have ever fallen in love with him?

    Perhaps not, I thought. It had been a shock, to spend six years away from the city and then return. My former friends had become snooty monsters who’d mocked and jeered me, then changed their tune the instant they realised I might become the de facto Matriarch of House Rubén. Perhaps I would have wound up as spoiled and useless as any of them.

    I blinked away tears. “I’m sorry for what I did,” I told the grave. “And I’m sorry for what I put you through, but ... I’m not sorry too.”

    There was no reply. I mentally kicked myself, wondering why I’d even expected one. My father and I hadn’t spoken as much as we should, and ... I knew it had been my fault. I’d been a traitor. He’d gone to bat for me, burning up dozens of favours to ensure I’d be sent into exile rather than ... rather than anything more final. If I’d been older, old enough to know better, he couldn’t have saved me. I hated the thought of being branded a weak and foolish child, of being treated as a pretty young girl rather than a person in my own right, but it had saved my life. And perhaps, just perhaps, it had laid the groundwork for my return to the city.

    “If you hadn’t sent me away, I would never have met Callam,” I said. “And I’m glad I did, because I love him.”

    It wasn’t easy to say. I’d been raised to understand that my marriage would be arranged by my family and I’d have very little say in it. I would be lucky if I even knew the groom before the match was arranged. The handful of chaperoned meetings we’d have, where we’d be watched by elderly relatives who’d forgotten what it was like to be young, wouldn’t be enough to determine what sort of person he was. And ... I shook my head. My treason made me unmarriageable, as far as High Society was concerned. It didn’t matter. Callam didn’t care about the family or anything, beyond me. I’d allowed us to get close for selfish reasons - I’d admitted as much, to both Callam and my father - but I’d fallen in love with him too.

    “I’m sorry,” I said. “And I wish ...”

    I felt more tears in my eyes. I wished I could see my father in person, one last time. I wished he’d never died at all, that he could see his grandchildren and dandle them on his knee and give them his blessing when they grew into adulthood. I wished ... I brushed the tears away, angrily. There was no point in fretting over it now. My father was dead. My mother had taken to her rooms, as soon as the funeral was over, and stayed there. And Akin and I were alone.

    “Goodbye, father,” I said. “I love you.”

    I stood, slowly. The crypt felt oppressive. I looked up, into the inky blackness. There was a ceiling - there had to be - but I couldn’t see it. I took one last look at my father’s grave, then turned away. The path back to the door seemed endless. I shook my head and forced myself to walk. The air was changing, strange sensations pressing around me. I thought I felt someone breathing on the back of my neck and spun around, to see nothing. And yet ...

    The sensation grew stronger as I kept walking, trying not to panic. It was suddenly easy to believe the dead were coming back to life. Unseen eyes watched me, judged me; I nearly stepped on an earthen grave, something that would have earned me harsh punishment if anyone had seen. I tried to calm myself, even as I thought I saw things moving at the corner of my eye. I’d seen ghosts at Kirkhaven, but here ...? I’d never seen them here.

    The mansion wasn’t designed to show off our wealth, I thought. It didn’t feel like one of my thoughts. It was built so big to keep something else pressed down.

    A shiver ran down my spine. It was all I could do to keep from throwing caution to the wind and start running. The shadows shifted whenever I looked away, as if they were cast by something that existed outside my perception. I thought I saw shapes moving above the graves, wisps of something I knew I shouldn’t be seeing. Lights flickered high above me, voices whispering loudly enough for me to hear, but too quietly for me to make out the words. I nearly screamed as I felt something touch my leg. When I looked down, there was nothing.

    I heard something behind me and glanced back. There was nothing ... no, there was something, a strange thing hovering over the graves. My eyes slipped past it, as if it wasn’t there ... I thought I felt the ground shift beneath my feet. The city wasn’t prone to earthquakes and yet ... what was it? I picked up speed, trying desperately not to run. The dead didn’t want me there, amongst them. I knew it on a level that could not be denied. They didn’t want me and they were driving me out and ...

    The door loomed up in front of me. I pressed my hand against the stone. It opened, just slowly enough to make me panic. I darted through, half expecting to see the Cryptkeeper waiting for me. She should have been there. The magic that empowered her was closely linked to the crypt, and the dead ashes within. I’d been told it was customary to bury the dead below the house because their presence made the mansion ours. It was an old theory, never really proven ...

    They didn’t want me, I thought, numbly. And they made it clear.

    A hand touched my shoulder. I spun around, a nasty hex crackling around my fingers and a dark charm on my lips. Penny Rubén stood there, raising her hands in surrender. I nearly blasted her. She’d given me a terrible fright and ...

    “Cousin,” Penny said. She bobbed a curtsey. “I apologise for disturbing you.”

    I scowled. Penny hadn’t been sure what to make of me, when I’d returned to the mansion, but she’d done her best to suck up to me - and Akin - once she’d realised one of us was going to be the Heir Primus. She was still trying to suck up to me. She’d worked out, well ahead of everyone else, that - whatever else could be said about me - I was Akin’s favourite relative. I tried not to roll my eyes at the thought. The bar wasn’t set very high.

    “It’s fine,” I lied. “What is it?”

    Penny curtsied again. “His Excellency would like a moment of your time,” she said. “I am to take you to him.”

    “Oh,” I said, swallowing several other responses that came to mind. “Lead on.”
     
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  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    I tried not to glare at Penny as she led me up the stairs.

    She was very much like me ... the me I’d been, before I’d gotten mixed up with Stregheria Aguirre and Uncle Ira and everyone else who’d used me as a pawn. Blonde and beautiful, with a family name that would encourage everyone to turn a blind eye to my misdeeds ... I wondered, suddenly, if I would have wound up like Penny, if I’d stayed in the city. It was hard to believe that I would abuse younger students who’d been placed in my care, but ... no, I couldn’t believe I would. And yet, I’d only learnt that lesson after I’d been sent to Kirkhaven, where I’d been pushed around by Uncle Ira and Morag. Perhaps, if I’d stayed, I would have stewed in my own bitterness until I became as heartless and cruel as Stregheria Aguirre.

    I frowned at Penny’s back. She was an odd duck. Akin had shown her kindness, after she’d been knocked back to lowerclassman, and she’d rewarded him by saving his life when Uncle Stephen had mounted his coup, but ... could she be trusted? She was Malachi’s daughter, after all, and Malachi had betrayed his adopted family. And yet, what else did she have? Her father was dead, her mother had practically disowned her, her former friends had abandoned her - like mine - and she’d never been particularly popular amongst the clan. Akin was the only person who’d give her the time of day and she knew it. She wasn’t fool enough to throw it away, was she?

    Akin always sees the good in people,, I thought. It was tinged with a hint of the old bitterness. And it always works out for him.

    The thought mocked me as we reached the top of the stairs and headed down to my father’s office. The corridor was lined with family portraits, including a handful of mine that had been hastily taken out of storage when I’d been restored to favour. Some brownnoser within the household staff had probably done it without orders, all too aware that I was Akin’s closest relative and only sister. I stopped in front of the latest portrait - it was six years out of date - and stared at my past self. What would I tell her, I wondered, if I could go back in time and speak to her? Would I tell her to befriend Caitlyn? Would I caution her about Stregheria Aguirre? Or would I say nothing? If I hadn’t been sent to Kirkhaven, I would never have met Callam. And now I couldn’t imagine a life without him.

    My father’s door - Akin’s door - loomed up in front of me. I felt a trace of the old reluctance to raise my hand and tap on the wood. I’d never been allowed to enter the office without permission, when I’d been a child; the only times I’d been sent to my father’s chambers had been for scoldings, after I’d gotten in trouble for something. And now ... it felt wrong, somehow, to feel Akin’s magic woven into the door. It wasn’t the same. The office was my father’s. It was hard to accept it was no longer his. Akin felt like an intruder in his own home.

    Penny glanced at me. “Do you want me to accompany you?|”

    I shot her a nasty look as I tapped on the door. Akin was my brother, not some distant relative who only knew me by reputation. The idea I’d be scared to face him ... I schooled my face into a mask as the door opened, allowing me to step into the antechamber. My father’s secretary was gone, his desk empty. I felt a flicker of surprise, followed by the dull realisation I really shouldn’t be. The old secretary had already been pensioned off, in accordance with my father’s will. I wondered where he’d gone, then decided it didn’t matter. The poor man had devoted himself to my father. He deserved a rest, preferably somewhere a considerable distance from Shallot. The oaths he’d sworn, the vows of perpetual secrecy, might not hold indefinitely, now my father was dead.

    The door closed behind me, locking Penny out. I kept walking to the second door, which swung open as I approached. Bright sunlight spilled out, the windows beyond giving my father - no, Akin - an unmatched view of the city. We owned a goodly portion of it, I reminded myself, as did the rest of the aristocracy. The remainder was divided amongst the handful of middle class merchants and their families.

    Akin stood as I entered, standing behind our father’s desk. I felt yet another twinge of discomfort. It was hard to shed the impression of a child, playing at being an adult, even though I knew it was stupid. Akin and I were twins. He was the same age as me and I’d been running Kirkhaven Hall for the last five years. And yet ... I hesitated, suddenly unsure if I should curtsey or not. Uncle Davys had been respectful to our father, at least in public, but he’d been a possible candidate for the patriarchy. I ... I had been raised to be married off - and married well - from the moment I came out of the womb. The stubborn part of me refused to curtsey, certainly not in private. The rest of me was unsure if needling Akin was the right thing to do.

    “Isabella,” Akin said, coming around the desk and holding out a hand. “I’m glad you came.”

    I smiled, rather wanly. Akin wasn’t a snooty brat, not like ... not like the person I’d been, years ago. Of course he wouldn’t demand respect from me, certainly not in private. I allowed him to push me towards the sofa, then watched as he poured two mugs of tea and held one out to me. I took it gratefully, smoothing out my dress as I sat. Up here, in the bright sunlight, it was easy to forget everything that had happened in the crypt.

    “Thank you for letting me say goodbye,” I said. I took a breath. The memories were fading rapidly, as if I’d imagined everything. “The dead weren’t quiet.”

    Akin looked perturbed. “They say the house was built to keep something else down,” he said, quietly. “I don’t know if there’s any truth to the story.”

    He took a sip of his tea. “What happened?”

    I took a breath, then outlined the whole story. Somehow, it wasn’t easy to put it into words. The memories felt like ... shadows, memories of memories rather than the memories themselves. It made me wonder just what would happen, when I passed on myself. Would the dead accept me? Or would they refuse to take me into their arms?

    “There are nearly a thousand years worth of family buried beneath the mansion,” Akin said, when I’d finished. “I’d be surprised if they weren’t unquiet.”

    I leaned forward. “Is there anything in the files that might explain what’s happening?”

    Akin shook his head, wordlessly. I understood. A thousand years ago, no one had expected Mycroft Rubén to become Patriarch of House Rubén. He’d been sent into exile and promised a generous pension, as long as he stayed away from the Eternal City. It had saved his life, as well as catapulting him into the very highest ranks of society. I wondered, idly, what he’d felt when he’d realised the fortunes of House Rubén now depended on him. And what he’d been doing when the empire fell. Uncle Ira had taught me a great many very dark things could happen, a long way from civilisation.

    “I’ll consult with the Cryptkeeper,” Akin said, finally. “I’m sure she can’t twist my ear this time.”

    I blinked. “Pardon?”

    Akin flushed. “Shortly after you were sent into exile, I tried to get into the crypt. I had the idea I’d petition the Ancients or you directly, like Tomas or Falcone Rubén. She caught me before I could even get through the door and twisted my ear, nearly wrenching it off. Father was not pleased.”

    “With you or with her?” I was oddly touched. Tomas and Falcone Rubén were legends. “I ... you did that for me?”

    “I tried,” Akin said. “I didn’t get very far.”

    He cleared his throat as he sat upright. “But enough of such painful reminiscences,” he said. “We have a great deal to discuss.”

    I straightened. “I know.”

    Akin said nothing for a long moment, then leaned forward. “First things first. The council is in disarray. Lots of finger-pointing and suchlike, everyone trying to prove they spent the entire period of Stephen’s coup in their rooms, singing tunelessly and utterly unaware of what was going on while waiting to see who came out on top.”

    “Oh.” I had to smile. “Is that why half the servants quit without notice?”

    “Probably.” Akin smiled back, then held out his hand to summon a file from his desk. “Anyway, I took advantage of the confusion and got the council to approve your marriage contract. They were so desperate to please they signed without insisting on any changes. You got more or less what you wanted.”

    I took the file, opened it and skimmed the documents quickly. I’d drawn up a simple contract, no more than four paragraphs, but the family lawyers had somehow managed to turn it into a ten-page legal nightmare. I felt my head start to pound as I parsed out the legalese, trying to make sure there were no snakes in the grass waiting to bite me, or Callam, or my future children. It wasn’t easy. The family couldn’t afford to kick me out completely. My children might wind up being the only heirs the family had.

    Unless we want a repeat of Uncle Stephen’s coup, I thought. I wondered, sometimes, how he’d meant to solve the problem of finding a candidate for the patriarchy without alienating two-thirds of his supporters. The legal fiction he’d proposed to put me forward as a candidate wouldn’t stand up for long. The sooner Akin and Cat have children, the better.

    “There’s a summary at the back,” Akin said, when I’d reached the last page. “And yes, it is legally binding.”

    I shot him a cross look, then ran my eye down the list of bullet points. Callam and I could get married, with the family’s full approval. Kirkhaven Hall would remain with me and my heirs until we chose to let it go. Callam would do some forging for the family ... not as much as they might want, but enough to convince them to let us have some freedom. And my children would have a place in the line of succession, assuming they were boys. I felt a flicker of irritation as I realised the lawyers had taken out the loophole. I’d written the summery to make sure the girls had an equal shot at the post.

    Not that it matters that much, I told myself. Akin and Cat will have kids too and they’ll be first in line.

    “It looks good,” I said, parsing through the rest of the documents. There was no need for the family to issue a marriage licence - as Lady of Kirkhaven Hall, I could write and issue one to myself - but it would ensure outsiders couldn’t question the validity of our marriage. “I notice there’s no agreement to visit his family.”

    Akin raised an eyebrow. “I imagine our father would have gone, given time,” he said. “And I will make time myself, when I have it.”

    I nodded in understanding. I’d spent the last two weeks helping him sort out our father’s filing system. I didn’t know how he’d managed to keep track of everything. I’d found Kirkhaven a little overwhelming and that was a great deal smaller than a family with business interests right across the known world. Father had kept files on everything, keyed to his bloodline. Some of them were very interesting indeed. It made me wonder, at times, if he’d considered blackmail to be perfectly acceptable.

    “There’s a second issue, though,” Akin said. He met my eyes. “Do you feel safe up there?”

    “Yes,” I said, flatly.

    “You shouldn’t,” he said. “Three months ago, no one knew who Callam was. They didn’t even know he existed. He was completely off the books, just another commoner in a thriving sea of commoners. Now, they know who he is and they know what he can do. They’re going to be coming for him.”

    I grimaced. “Your kidnappers couldn’t make Cat work for them.”

    “They didn’t know how her talent works,” Akin countered. “The next set of kidnappers won’t be so ignorant. They’ll keep Callam under tight control, probably by threatening your life; they’ll make damn sure he doesn’t have the chance to forge something to get you out of imprisonment before it’s too late. Sure, he can’t be frozen or transfigured or compelled permanently. What does it matter when they can just chain him to the wall?”

    My heart twisted. “Are you saying we can’t go home?”

    Akin hesitated. “The risk is considerable,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay?”

    I scowled. I’d dreamed of a return to High Society ever since I’d been kicked out of Shallot for treason. And yet, when I’d returned, I’d made an utter fool of myself. There was nothing like being rejected one moment, then being embraced the next, to convince a person that High Society was as fickle as a lovelorn loon. And it had nearly cost me Callam. I didn’t want to stay, not when I knew he wouldn’t be happy. Hell, I wouldn’t be happy. I’d seen behind the curtain and I knew, now, the prize was not worth the effort. Sure, I could make myself a social queen. But it wouldn’t make me happy.

    “I’m sure,” I said.

    Akin said nothing for a long moment. I knew what he was thinking. It was what I’d be thinking, if our roles were reversed. He was the Patriarch. It was his duty to tell us to stay, for our own good. It wouldn’t be the first time a Great House had had to imprison someone to keep them from harming themselves. And yet ... he’d hate the thought of throwing us into a cell and locking the door. He was a decent person. He’d find it hard to put the interests of the family ahead of basic decency.

    “Cat produced a collection of Objects of Power to protect the hall from unwanted intruders,” he said. “You shouldn’t have any trouble installing them. I want that to be your first priority when you get home.”

    I nodded, allowing myself a moment of relief. A person could be talked into almost anything, as I knew through bitter experience. Akin could have talked himself - or allowed himself to be talked - into keeping us prisoner. He’d dress it up nicely, but there’d be no way to avoid the fact we’d be prisoners. It was lucky, I supposed, that the council was in such disarray. If they were more organised, they’d threaten to remove Akin for daring to let us go.

    “I will,” I said. “And thank you.”

    Akin smiled. “I hope you’ll be back for the wedding.”

    “I wish you could attend mine,” I told him. It was true. I didn’t want a big wedding, and I certainly didn’t want to compete with every other summer wedding, but I didn't want to exclude my brother either. “Could you make it up?”

    “I wish I knew,” Akin said. He waved a hand at the wooden cabinets. “I don’t have any free time at all.”

    I gave him a severe look. “And what will you do when Cat returns?”

    Akin flushed. “She’ll understand.”

    “She’ll want to have your attention,” I said. “Trust me. She’s a young woman. She’ll want attention from her man.”

    His flush grew darker. “I am not having this discussion with you.”

    “I’m serious,” I told him. “You have to pay attention to her as well as the family.”

    “And then something will explode, because I took my eye off it,” Akin said. “There was no time for a gradual transfer of power. Cat will understand.”

    I doubted it. Caitlyn might have been raised in the same culture as Akin and I, and told her marriage would be arranged by her family, but ... I knew she was fond of Akin. I didn’t have to ask her to be sure of it. She wouldn’t have spent so much time with him if she’d found his company disagreeable, if she’d considered the betrothal just another business arrangement. My brother had come home with puffy lips more than once ... hell, he’d asked me to look the other way when I’d chaperoned them. There was no way in hell Cat would go so far if she didn’t like him.

    “I know how you feel,” I said. “I’ve wrestled with paperwork myself. But you need to make time for her too or risk losing her.”

    Akin looked pained. “I’ll do my best.”

    “Good.” I finished my tea. “I take it you have no objection to us leaving tomorrow, as planned?”

    “You’ll be travelling incognito,” Akin said. “As far as anyone outside the mansion knows, you’ll be spending the next few days in prayer and reflection before departure. I’ll make sure they don’t have any reason to question your presence.”

    “As long as they don’t ask to see me,” I said. “Right?”

    “That would be awkward,” Akin agreed. He stuck out his tongue. “But I can just tell them you’ve been grounded.”

    I snorted. “Do you expect anyone to believe it?”

    Akin laughed. “It’s such a stupid lie, it practically has to be the truth because who’d be so stupid as to tell such a lie?”

    I stuck out my tongue. “You.”

    “I’ll see you at dinner,” Akin said. “And I hope it works out for you.”

    “Me too,” I said. “Me too.”
     
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    My chambers felt a little eerie, as always, as I pushed the door open and stepped into my private living room. They’d been designed for a child, for the little girl I’d been before I’d been sent into exile, and it showed. The walls were pink, the furniture was child-sized and the books were definitely aimed at young girls. I frowned as I spotted a copy of Moral Instruction for Young Ladies, sitting next to several volumes of A Child’s Adventures in School, the former dreadfully boring and the latter crafted to impart lessons in how to behave in public ... I rolled my eyes as I stepped into the bedroom, closing the door behind me. The heroine had gone to school, done well in classes, done well in sports and stopped the evil teacher from kidnapping the king’s son ... all without mussing her dress or losing one iota of her femininity. I knew, now, it was absurd. I’d seen enough perils to be aware it was impossible to get through them while maintaining a dainty pose.

    At least they changed the bed, I thought, as I slumped on it. There’s no way I could have slept on my old bed.

    I snorted at the thought. My old bed had been designed for a child. Height runs in the family and yet, they’d given me a bed they’d known I’d grow out of. I was surprised they’d changed it before I returned, given how little else they’d done. My parents must have tried to convince themselves that I was still twelve, that they hadn’t really missed anything over the past six years. I felt a flicker of guilt. They could have guessed at my development, just by looking at Akin. We were twins. There really weren’t that many differences between us.

    Apart from breasts and a few other things, I thought, amused. But such matters are never mentioned in polite society.

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. I’d never realised just how ignorant I was about my own body until Callam’s mother had sat me down and explained. Some of the spells I’d been ordered to memorise, without any apparent reason, made sense; others, at least so far, had no discernible purpose. It made my blood boil to realise how much had been kept from me, for what? I assumed my parents would have talked to me about it as I matured - the signs would have been impossible to miss - but it still annoyed me. What was the point of keeping it secret? Did they think it would never touch me if I remained in ignorance?

    I looked at the clock. It was three o’clock. Callam wasn’t due back for at least another hour. Akin had arranged for him to be given a tour of a handful of forgeries, as well as some basic instruction in advanced forging techniques. Cat would have been a better tutor - I told myself, firmly, not to be jealous - but Cat was gone. I wondered, idly, what she would find in the ruins of the dead city. Akin had been there, six years ago. He’d told me it was nothing more than tainted rubble.

    And hardly anyone stays there, for love or money, I thought. The longer one stays near the city, the longer one bears its taint.

    Someone knocked on the door. I jumped, then sat upright and brushed down my dress. I was used to privacy at Kirkhaven, but here ... the maids felt free to enter my chambers whenever they liked. I’d spent my early years in a goldfish bowl and I’d never even known it, not until I’d been sent into exile. The maids were spies, reporting back to my parents. I didn’t really blame them. Mother was quite within her legal rights to fire them on the spot if the poor girls hid something from her.

    “Come,” I said.

    The door opened, revealing a young girl who couldn’t have been older than ten. “My Lady,” she said. “Her Ladyship requests your urgent presence.”

    I stood. “Please inform her I’ll be along in a moment,” I said. “I just need to do my hair.”

    The girl curtseyed, then backed out of the room. I felt a twinge of sympathy. Six years ago, the servants had been part of the furniture. I’d never given any thought to their feelings about anything. And then I’d been sent to Kirkhaven Hall, where I’d been expected to take care of myself ... I knew, now, that servants had very hard lives indeed. I kicked myself for not asking the girl to stay with me. Mother could hardly blame her, if I’d ordered her to stay. It might have spared her my mother’s wrath.

    She lost her husband two weeks ago, I told myself. Be nice.

    I looked at myself in the mirror, brushed back my hair so it fell down my back, then left my bedroom and hurried to my mother’s chambers. By custom, the lady of the house had a suite to her own ... I wondered, suddenly, how things would sort themselves out when Cat moved into the house. Technically, she’d be the first lady. My mother wouldn’t take that very kindly and yet, what could she do? Her husband was dead. She’d been effectively demoted.

    And Akin isn’t going to kick her out, I thought, coldly. She knows that, doesn’t she?

    The wards around my mother’s chambers were strong, too strong. I wasn’t sure if it was paranoia or if she had reason to fear. My mother had enemies amongst the family, enemies she’d inherited when she’d married into the bloodline and enemies she’d made since becoming the first lady. And now ... I shook my head. They’d be foolish to risk Akin’s anger. He wouldn’t take it lightly, if anyone offered blatant disrespect to his mother.

    I tapped the door. There was a long pause, just long enough for me to wonder if I’d made a mistake, then the door was opened by a servant. Someone new, someone I didn’t recognise ... she dropped a curtsey to me, then led me into my mother’s boudoir. I sensed magic crackling around her as she stepped to one side, suggesting she was more than just a simple maidservant. She looked a little too old for that. I sighed, inwardly. Did Akin know my mother had hired an outsider? I made a mental note to ask him, then put the thought aside. My father had settled quite a sum on my mother, when they’d married. What she did with it was up to her.

    My mother sat at her dressing table, brushing her long blonde hair. I hesitated, suddenly unsure what to say. My mother looked ... faded, as if she no longer cared to maintain appearances. It bothered me. Appearances were my mother’s bread and butter. She’d worked hard to befriend the right people, only to lose everything overnight when I’d been sent into exile; she’d recovered, somehow, right before her husband died. It struck me, suddenly, that she might have been isolated from society too. She was no longer the first lady of the mansion, married to one of the most powerful men in the city. She was just another person with a borrowed name and finite funds.
    She looked up, suddenly. I was struck by the hopelessness in her eyes. She’d always been beautiful, but now she looked ... stretched. Her face was longer, almost inhumanly pale ... I dropped a curtsey, although she didn’t seem to notice. I almost wished I’d ignored the message and stayed in my room. My mother ... she wasn’t the worst mother, not in the city, but she was very demanding. And now ... it broke my heart to look at her.

    “Bella,” she said. “It’s good to see you again.”

    Bella, I thought. Bella was Cat’s sister, not me. She knows I hate that name.

    I braced myself. “Thank you, Mother,” I said, with the formality she liked. “What can I do for you?”

    “You spoke to your father,” she said. “What did he say?”

    A shiver ran down my spine. “He did not speak to me in words,” I said, slowly. “I will not hear from him until after he dies.”

    Mother looked back at her mirror. “I did care for him, you know,” she said. “It just ... it wasn’t easy.”

    I nodded, curtly. Mother had married into the family. She’d been - she was - a powerful magician, with a list of qualifications as long as my arm, but she’d been a commoner until she married my father. It really hadn’t been easy to carve out a niche for herself, twice. I wondered, suddenly, if she was on the verge of giving up. Could she climb back to the heights again? Too many people preferred to adore the sunrise, rather than sunset. I opened my mouth to suggest she left the city, to go somewhere she could practice her magic in peace, then stopped myself. There was no way she’d react well to me saying anything of the sort.

    “And now he’s gone,” she said. “I miss him.”

    “So do I.” I took a long breath. “All we can do is move on.”

    Mother frowned. “Yes ...”

    She shook her head. “Your young man,” she said, changing the subject with a rapidity that surprised me. “Is he a good man?”

    “Yes,” I said. It would have been easy for Callam to abandon me, to sell his talent to the highest bidder ... or even to leave me along, back at Kirkhaven Hall. “He’s a very good man.”

    “Men are good at pretending, until it’s too late,” my mother said. “My sister married poorly, as you will recall. Your grandparents were unwise to agree to the match.”

    I blinked. I knew I had relatives on my mother’s side of the family, but I’d never actually met them. My mother had never gone into details, but - reading between the lines - I thought she’d always been a little ashamed of her poorer relatives. I’d seen it happen before, time and time again. Uncle Malachi had had the same attitude.

    And you gave poor Rose a very hard time because she dared to be born to a commoner family, my conscience reminded me. How can you blame your mother when someone like you probably did the same to her?

    “Callam isn’t like that,” I said, pushing the thought aside for later contemplation. I’d only known Rose for six or seven months before I’d been sent into exile. How much damage could someone like me have done, if they’d spent seven years with their victim? “He’s a good man.”

    “Good or not, be careful,” my mother said. “And make sure you use barrier spells for at least the first year or two.”

    I flushed. “Mother, I ...”

    “I offered a barrier charm to my sister,” my mother said, as if I hadn’t spoken. “She refused to use it. And then she was trapped.”

    “I ...” I shook my head. I was not having this conversation. “Mother, I do understand.”

    “Do you?” Mother looked up at me. “And how do you know?”

    I felt my temper flare. It took me several seconds to put it under control. “I consulted with a healer,” I said. It was hard to keep from snapping. “You know, when I grew up.”

    “I meant to talk to you about the facts of life,” she said. “But it never seemed quite the time until it was too late. My parents were brutally honest about it. I wanted to spare you that until you were older.”

    “I understand,” I said, curtly. “And I do not fault you for it.”

    “Good,” Mother said. “I do hope it works out for you. But remember, young men can be very unpleasant when they don’t get what they want. Keep your spells at the ready and remember to listen, when your brain starts telling you to run. And don’t let his family get the better of you too.”

    “I won’t,” I said.

    Mother looked down. I had a sudden flash of insight into what the first years of her marriage must have been like. My father had been a decent man, but he would have been under a lot of pressure to sire children as quickly as possible. I dreaded to think how the early days had gone, before she’d had her children and could afford to concentrate on building her position in society. If there were people who’d urged my father to discard me, what would they have said about my mother? I doubted they’d been that overt - my father wouldn’t have taken it too calmly - but they’d have hinted until he got the message. And then what? Maybe he’d just pretended he didn’t understand. He’d been good at hiding his real feelings until it had been too late.

    “You never said anything about your sister before,” I said, trying to change the subject myself. “What was she like?”

    “A lot like you,” my mother said. “Pretty. Intelligent. Blinded by a young man’s stunning good looks. And it ruined her.”

    I clenched my fists, feeling my magic starting to spike. “Callam isn’t like that, really.”

    The bleak look she gave me killed my anger before it could take form. “That’s what she used to say. I warned her, you know. I knew he was a bad one, the moment I set eyes on him. He was just a little too handsome and he smiled a little too much and he was fond of testing the limits, pressing against her boundaries until she lowered them for him. She slept with him before they were married. She confessed to me, afterwards. And then, when they were married, he turned into a monster.”

    I took a breath. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “But it won’t be like that for me.”

    “I hope so,” my mother said. “I’m sorry. I should have been there for you. I should have laid the groundwork for a courtship for you, not ...”

    I’m glad you didn’t, I thought. I’d been too young for a courtship when I’d been sent into exile and too disgraced for a betrothal. That would just have made life impossible.

    I sighed, inwardly. I thought I understood. She thought she could have vetted any young man who came into my life, to ensure he was a good person - and, if the marriage failed, to spread the blame a little. And to make herself a name as a matchmaker ... no, it wasn’t going to happen. Neither Akin nor I had needed our mother to help arrange our matches and I doubted Penny or any of her sisters would be interested. She had nowhere to begin.

    “It will be better for us,” I said. “And if it isn’t, at least it will be my own fault.”

    Mother smiled, wanly. “True.”

    I stared at her as she turned back to the mirror. “I’ll be heading back to Kirkhaven soon,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ll be back.”

    “Perhaps that is a good thing,” my mother said. “I am trapped here, as surely as anyone else who married into the Great Houses. I cannot leave, nor can I climb any higher. Malachi went nuts and I thought he was mad, but I understand now. I was just a trophy wife and now I’m a trophy mother.”

    “No.” I gathered myself with an effort. “You are a skilled magician. You could put those skills to work, instead of sitting in your chambers brushing your hair.”

    Mother’s eyes flashed. “How dare you?”

    I was almost relieved to see her anger. “I was depressed too, when I was sent to Kirkhaven,” I said. “I moped around the estate a lot, getting wet in the rain, before I met Callam. Before I realised I could still make something of myself. You are older and wiser and have enough magic to build a whole new career. And you ...”

    My heart twisted as my voice rose. “I know I was a terrible daughter. I know I ruined your hopes and aspirations. But it doesn’t have to be the end!”

    Mother eyed me for a long moment. “You weren’t any worse than any of the other aristocratic brats I knew, when I was twelve,” she said. “Treason never prospers because, when it does, no one dares call it treason.”

    “The wrong side of the war is always the one that lost,” I misquoted. “And we did lose. But I made something of myself afterwards.”

    “You were twelve,” she reminded me. “Do you think you would have kept your head on your shoulders if you’d been a mere four years older?”

    “Probably not,” I said. I had no idea when my parents would have declared me an adult, if I hadn’t been sent into exile, but I was fairly sure sixteen was old enough to be charged as an adult regardless. “But you didn’t commit treason either.”

    “No,” my mother agreed. “I suppose that’s true.”

    She stood and held out a hand. “I’m sorry, Isabella. I wish I’d been a better mother. I wish ... we could undo what happened, before it was too late. But we can’t.”

    “No,” I said. I’d had the same thought myself, earlier in the day. “We can try to move on with our lives though, can’t we?”

    “We can try,” she said.

    I took a breath. “Was he a good husband?”

    Mother hesitated. “He was good, by the standards of his social class. He treated me well, certainly better than some of the other husbands I know. Wives talk, as you will find out. And he cared deeply about you and your brother, although he was never very good at showing it. The family came first, always. You know that.”

    “Yeah.” In truth, I wasn’t sure that was true. “I know.”

    “And don’t say yeah,” she said. “That’s bad manners.”

    I grinned. “Yes, mother.”
     
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    “Isabella,” Penny said, an hour later. She had a smirk on her face I didn’t like at all. “Callam is waiting for you in the small dining room.”

    “Good,” I managed. My emotions were still churning after talking to my mother. “Is Akin there?”

    “No.” Penny’s smirk widened. “Do you want me to accompany you?”

    “That depends.” I met her eyes, daring her to look away. “Do you want me to turn you into something that has neither ears nor eyes?”

    Penny pretended to consider it. “It could start all sorts of rumours.”

    I sighed. I was so sick of society’s rules. There was no point in pretending my reputation mattered one whit to anyone. Treason against the crown and being alone with an unrelated man? By the Ancients, how would I recover from that? Besides, Callam and I were engaged. We were going to be wed. There was no reason for the family not to let us spend time together, as long as it wasn’t in a bedroom. And I didn’t really care about the family’s opinions any longer.

    “Akin will join us soon enough,” I told her. “And you can go eat dinner somewhere else.”

    “As you wish,” Penny said. I thought she sounded hurt, but it was hard to be sure. “Have fun.”

    I felt a twinge of regret as she hurried away. There was no need to pick a fight with her. I knew how badly it could hurt, to be excluded from whatever was going on. But ... it would be a long time before I trusted her completely. Akin would be wise to guard his back around her. The apple might not have fallen as far from the poisonous tree as we’d hoped.

    It isn’t as if she has anywhere else to go, I reminded myself, as I made my way into the dining room. She’s utterly dependent on the family name.

    Callam stood, smiling at me. I smiled back, feeling the tension lift. Callam wasn’t classically handsome, certainly not in the manner honed by countless aristocrats, but he was more than handsome enough for me. There was a honesty and openness around his face, and his sandy brown hair, that spoke well of him. His body was muscular, a legacy of spending most of his life working with his hands. It was hard to believe Callam was actually quite small, by country standards. I’d met men who appeared twice his size.

    “It’s good to see you again,” he said, as if we hadn’t seen each other at breakfast. “How was your day?”

    I leaned forward and allowed him to kiss me gently. I didn’t dare do more, not when Akin might walk in at any second. Callam understood. I saw him smile as our lips parted, then winked at me. I winked back, trying not to giggle like the schoolgirl I’d been. It felt as though we were getting away with something, even though we weren’t. The days when we might have faced harsh punishment, or social doom, were over. In a sense, they’d never really been.

    “The crypt was ... unquiet,” I said, finally. Callam hadn’t been able to see the Kirkhaven ghosts. I wasn’t sure what that meant. “How was your day?”

    “I learnt a few things,” Callam said. He liked forging, but he didn’t share Cat’s obsession with the art. “They were quite interesting, but ...”

    He shrugged. I nodded. Callam had started late. He might never be as good as Cat, even if he spent every waking hour at the forge. It was odd - if I’d had such a gift, I would have worked hard to develop it - but Callam didn’t value the magical arts as much as me. He certainly didn’t want to spent his time experimenting with new designs. Better to forge some minor Objects of Power and then rest, rather than letting his interests consume him.

    “I tell you something, though,” Callam said. “There’s been a string of odd ... accidents ... in magical places.”

    I frowned. It had only been ten days since the coming out of Alana, Bella and Caitlyn Aguirre had been ruined by ... by what? A freak failure in the mansion’s wards? An attack from a previously unknown enemy? Or ... or what? Akin had told me, in confidence, that no one was really sure what had happened, but Cat felt there’d been an unexplained power surge that had damaged the wards. And if there’d been more incidents since then ...

    “What happened?” I picked up the menu and eyed the words without actually making them out. “How bad was it?”

    “Some power surges in odd places,” Callam said. “In others, explosions as potions destabilised or wards fading, as if they’d been warped out of shape. No one seems to know how or why, or even if it’s nothing more than a string of unrelated accidents. How often do potions explode without Objects of Power?”

    “Too often,” I said, sourly. I’d blown up dozens of cauldrons when I’d worked to develop my skills. Kirkhaven Hall had never had the specialised wards in place around Jude’s. “Is there a pattern to the incidents?”

    “Not as far as anyone can tell, from what I overheard,” Callam said. “I don’t think they knew I was listening.”

    I snorted. Callam was a lot cleverer than he looked. He was the son of a schoolmaster, after all. I had no doubt he would have gone far, if he’d been born with magic. And the magicians in the forgery had overlooked him completely and talked freely in front of him, as if he were an oathbound servant. I winked at him as I turned my attention to the menu. It was something to think about later.

    “Order what you like,” I told him. “We’re leaving tomorrow.”

    “Cat showed me how to install her protections,” Callam said. “I think we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.”

    I tried not to feel a sudden flash of jealously. I didn’t think Penny or any of the other girls I’d known would try to steal him, or even appeal to him, but Cat was a different story. She was as powerless as himself and exotic besides, as strange as that seemed to me. What if ... I shook my head. It hadn’t been Cat who’d befriended him, when he’d been as alone and isolated as myself. It hadn’t been Cat who’d saved his life, when Uncle Ira had tried to dissect him. It hadn’t been Cat who’d recognised his talent and helped him to develop it and kept her mouth shut, when the truth could have taken her straight back to the city. Callam wasn’t a rake, moving from girl to girl as casually as he changed his clothes. He was a good and decent man.

    And you know he doesn’t want to live here, my thoughts pointed out. You should be grateful for what you’ve got.

    “I’m glad of it,” I said. It was true. Shallot was no longer my home. “You do understand the risks?”

    Callam looked perturbed. He’d never quite grasped the concept of everyone wanting a piece of him, willing or not. The idea of great men he didn’t even know existed dispatching kidnappers and armies to cart him back to their castles was bizarre. And yet, the danger couldn’t be underestimated. Cat had been kidnapped, six years ago. She’d been very lucky to escape. Akin was right. We dared not assume the next bunch of kidnappers would make the same mistake.

    “We should be fine,” he said, finally. “The greatest danger is a siege.”

    “Assuming someone sends a small army after us,” I said. We were too close to the border for comfort, although if our neighbours had sent an army into our territory it would be an act of war. “But you’re right. We need to lay in stocks of food as well as everything else.”

    I studied the menu, then made my selections. Seafood wasn’t completely unknown at Kirkhaven - there were rivers and lakes nearby - but saltwater fish and shellfish were relatively rare. I ordered fish strew and watched as Callam ordered a simple lamb and potatoes dish. He’d never gotten used to the wide variety of foods in the city either. He was lucky not to attend a gourmand party. From what I’d been told, they competed to offer the weirdest and most expensive foods in the world.

    “We leave tomorrow,” I reminded him. “Have you packed everything?”

    “More or less,” Callam said. “You?”

    “Just about.” I hadn’t had much worth taking back to the hall, save for a handful of childhood trinkets I’d missed over the last few years. “I don’t see any point in bringing my old clothes back home.”

    Callam laughed. “They’re a little small, aren’t they?”

    I nodded. My parents and relatives had given me hundreds of dresses, before I’d been sent into exile. I didn’t think I’d worn so much as half of them and they were now far too small for me. I was tempted to keep a handful for my future daughters, assuming I had any of my own, but the remainder would have to be given to the family. There were quite a few girls in the right age and size brackets to wear them. They’d be glad to have the dresses. I doubted any of them would care they’d come from a traitor.

    I was forgiven, I reminded myself. And my record has been wiped clean.

    “I don’t need them, up there,” I said. “Not yet, anyway.”

    Callam nodded. “Did you buy any more potion seeds?”

    “I have enough, I think,” I said. Not everything would grow in my greenhouses, but I intended to see what I could do. “And then ...”

    There was a tap at the door. I glanced down at myself hastily, just to check I was decent, before the door opened. Akin stepped inside, looking tired and worn. I understood all too well. Paperwork wasn’t very energetic, but you had to read each and every page before you signed or you might find you’d accidentally signed a blank check. It couldn’t be easy, going through piles of paperwork older than the three of us put together. My father had run the family for so long there were few people who remembered anyone else in his chair.

    “Welcome back,” I said, as he sat down. “How was your day?”

    “Tiring,” Akin said. “I’m going to have to hire a secretary. Two secretaries. Penny’s been angling for the job, but she doesn’t have the experience to make it work.”

    Callam leaned forward. “What happened to her, anyway?”

    Akin shot me a look. I shrugged. I wasn’t privy to all the details, beyond what he’d sent me in his letters. I was fairly sure he’d left a lot of details out. Our letters were charmed to ensure that they could only be read by their intended recipient, but the Great Houses had been spying on each other since the days of the empire. There was a very good chance they’d managed to intercept at least some of the letters. It was just something we had to take into account.

    “Penny is the oldest daughter of Malachi Rubén,” Akin said, curtly. “Malachi was ... not a very nice person. He was one of my father’s friends, when he was at school, but he always had his eye open for the main chance. My father brought him into the family, gave him a wife and a name, yet ... that didn’t stop him scheming to gain more power and influence while largely ignoring his children. A few months ago, he pushed Francis - our cousin - into making a bid for power. Francis died and, in the aftermath, Malachi was pushed out of the family. And then ...”

    I raised my eyebrows. “And then?”

    “Good question,” Akin said. “He set up shop in Water Shallot, then ... well, no one knows anything for sure. He had ties to various political movements, apparently; he died in a fire under mysterious circumstances. No one knows, because no one wants to ask questions about how he died. I think a lot of people were quietly relieved when he died. His body was never found.”

    “So he’s not in the crypt,” I mused. It was hard to believe genial old Uncle Malachi had been responsible for Cousin Francis’s death, but ... I remembered him helping me to read a dark arts book and shivered. “Do we know for sure he’s dead?”

    “Father was sure,” Akin said. “I take his word.”

    The maids arrived, carrying dinner into the room. I leaned back in my chair and smiled as they put the stew in front of me, along with a glass of fruit juice and a small helping of pudding. Callam looked as if he wanted to tuck in at once, but had the grace to wait for the maids to finish serving and then withdraw. Thankfully, it wasn’t a formal party. I’d done my best to teach him how to eat at a proper dinner, but there were so many rules - all of which were pretty much pointless - that we’d barely covered the basics.

    “So what does that mean for Penny?” Callam started to carve his meat as he spoke. “Is she condemned, because of her father?”

    “No,” Akin said. “She used to be ... not a very nice person. She’s getting better,. But it will be a long time before people like and trust her.”

    “She did save your life,” I pointed out, mischievously. “And she might make a good assistant.”

    “She has two more years of schooling to go,” Akin said. He looked, just for a moment, as if he’d bitten into something sour. “And she isn’t going to enjoy it.”

    I nodded in agreement. Penny had been an upperclassman, before she’d been demoted back to lowerclassman. Everyone who disliked her - and there wasn’t a shortage of those - had a perfect chance to take revenge. She would be spending every free moment fetching and carrying, or writing lines, or cleaning the floors ... or whatever else her tormentors could pile on her. I was torn between a certain amount of sympathy and amusement. She’d been mean to countless people and now they were being mean right back.

    Akin tapped the table. “I’ve prepared the overnight coach for your journey,” he said. “The drivers have been sworn to secrecy. As far as anyone outside the mansion is concerned, they’re taking urgent messages to Garstang, on the far side of the border. In a sense, they are. I do have messages I want them to take, and I’ve made arrangements for them to be received. No one will realise, at least until it’s too late, that they made a side trip to drop you off.”

    His tone hardened, as if he was trying to convince himself. “They’ll maintain a steady pace, changing horses every so often, just to make it harder for anyone to intercept you. It won’t be very comfortable, so make sure you dress well and pack plenty of books. And blankets, for when you sleep.”

    I grimaced. I liked to ride - I’d learnt when I was a young girl and continued as I’d grown older - but spending hours in a carriage was not going to be fun. We’d be cramped when we finally reached our destination, no matter how many spells we used to smooth out the journey. The overnight coach wasn’t meant to stop, even to stretch legs or answer the call of nature. I could see Akin’s point - no one would expect him to put his sister and an unrelated man in the overnight coach - but it worried me. The coach might be targeted for reasons that had nothing to do with us.

    Hell of a risk, though, I thought. Overnight coaches had diplomatic immunity. Even the king would hesitate to stop and search the vehicle, for fear of triggering a war. The entire world would turn against him - or anyone smaller, who dared to try to raid the coach. The bandits would have nowhere to hide if they raided the coach between us and Garstang.

    “We’ll cope,” I said. We could cast a few privacy wards around ourselves and do things that were a little more fun than sitting primly and pretending we were enjoying the ride. “I’ll make sure to pack a good lunch too.”

    “More than just one day’s worth,” Akin said. He looked pained. He knew what was coming. He’d made the journey himself, before Uncle Stephen had put his plans into action. “It’ll take at least two days to reach your destination.”

    I felt a flicker of sympathy for the horses. They’d be pushed to breaking point, then left at the coachhouse to recover. Poor beasts. It was standard practice, when messages and goods had to be sent without magic, but ... I shook my head. Our best bet lay in speed. We dared not travel openly, not until the political crisis settled down. Akin would be in trouble if the council realised we’d left, at least before there was some clear understanding of our future. Callam’s future. No one would care about me if I wasn’t going to marry him.

    “We’ll be fine,” I reassured him. “And thank you.”

    “My pleasure.” Akin lifted his glass in salute. “You’re sure I can’t convince you to stay?”

    “I have no place here.” I didn’t have to look at Callam to know he agreed. My presence would be pointless. Worse than pointless. And Callam didn’t want to stay here either. “And you might be better off without me.”

    “Matter of opinion,” Akin said. “I think you’re the only one who wouldn’t stick a knife in my back if you thought you could get away with it.”

    The sad thing, I reflected gloomily, was that he was probably right.
     
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    I felt weirdly out of sorts, the following morning, as I woke, showered, dressed and made my way to the dining room for breakfast. It wasn’t something I could put my finger on, but it was there. A sense of discomfort, a sense the other shoe was about to drop. It was my last night in the family mansion, at least for several months, and ... I sighed inwardly as I helped myself to eggs and toast. The family hadn’t really acknowledged I was leaving. It would only have risked drawing attention from outside.

    You’ll be fine, I told myself. This time, at least, you’re leaving of your own free will.

    Callam entered, looking disgustingly fresh. I smiled at him, despite the uneasy sensation in my heart. He’d never had any trouble sleeping, he’d told me; country folk rose and went to bed with the sun. I rather envied him, although I knew enough about the lives of country women to be glad I wasn’t in their shoes. Unless one had a gift for magic, one would live a highly restricted life that would never go more than a few miles from one’s hometown. I wondered, idly, if that would change as more and more Objects of Power came on the market. Akin had told me about the planned sliders leading between Shallot and a dozen other cities. They’d make stagecoaches obsolete overnight.

    “Eat well,” I told him. “We won’t get another cooked meal until we’re back at the hall.”

    “I will,” Callam said. “And you eat well too.”

    I grimaced. The overnight coach was supposed to be fast - it was fast - but it was going to be uncomfortable, no matter how many spells and charms we used to soften the journey. It was lucky we loved each other ... hell, it was lucky we knew each other. Most people who booked urgent passage on the overnight coaches didn’t get to choose their travelling partners, let alone anything else. There were no shortage of horror stories about what happened when - if - one of the partners turned out to be a highwayman, a vampire or a werewolf. I’d read enough of them to be sure the writer had never met any of them.

    They think vampires are romantic because they’ve never felt sharp teeth in their neck, I thought, coldly. Vampires were predatory monsters, plain and simple. There was nothing that could be done to bring them back to their former state. And if they ever met one, they’d die in fright.

    I had to force myself to eat. My stomach grumbled in protest, even though the scrambled eggs and toast were cooked to perfection. It was a far cry from the meals I’d tried to make for myself, when I was twelve. Morag had forced me to eat my own creations, pointing out it was the only way I’d learn. I scowled at the memory. Why was it that I could brew perfect potions, following a faded recipe laid down by someone hundreds of years ago, and yet I couldn’t help turning perfectly good ingredients into something a dog would refuse to eat? I just didn’t have the cooking knack and yet, I should. It made no sense.

    “The staff will take your trunks down to the coach,” I said, as I drank coffee. It didn’t do anything for my mood. “Check before you go, make sure you didn’t leave anything behind.”

    “I checked,” Callam said. “There’s nothing left, save for the clothes on my back.”

    I told myself I was being silly. Callam hadn’t brought much and, despite my best efforts, he hadn’t bought much either. He’d accepted a pair of fancy suits, for formal occasions, but little else. He could fit everything he wanted to keep into one trunk, while I needed at least three. And I’d spent a chunk of the evening sorting out everything I’d left behind, when I’d been sent into exile, and dividing it up amongst the younger family. There was little worth keeping in my possession, save for a ancient necklace I’d been given when I was a child. It would have to be passed down to the firstborn daughter of the main bloodline, whoever that happened to be. Would my first child be a girl? Or Cat’s? I didn’t know.

    The food sat poorly in my stomach. I drank the rest of the coffee, then waited for Callam to finish. I should have ordered something simpler, perhaps bread and ham ... no, I shook my head. Whatever was wrong with me couldn’t be fixed by eating something simple. The world felt slightly out of kilter. It felt as if my life was going to change, once again.

    Pay attention to those feelings, Granny McVeigh had said. I remembered the old woman and shivered helplessly. The hedge witch was a strange combination of a practical magician and a fantasist. Your mind is trying to tell you something.

    Callam looked up. “Isabella?”

    “I’m ... I’m fine,” I said. It was impossible to put the feeling into words. “Are you ready to go?”

    “More or less,” Callam said, as Akin stepped into the room. “I’m ready.”

    Akin smiled, although the expression didn’t touch his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t had any sleep last night. I hoped Cat would make him sleep, when she returned from the Eternal City. He was going to start making mistakes, if he was exhausted when he returned to his paperwork. And who knew what would happen then? My father had once told me a story about a man who hadn’t been paying attention and accidentally signed his own death warrant. It had been funny, until he’d pointed out it could easily happen to me.

    “The coach is in the coachhouse,” he said, tiredly. “Meet me down there in twenty minutes.”

    I grinned. “Can’t wait to get rid of us, hey?”

    “You’re the one who wants to go,” Akin said. “I’m sure we can find a place for you if you want to stay.”

    “Maybe a tiny room, deep under the mansion,” I said. “I’m sure you can find a place for us there.”

    The thought mocked me as we returned to our rooms one final time - the less said about the toilets on the coach, the better - before making our way down to the coachhouse. The mansion felt empty, now that most of the relatives had left the city after Akin’s inauguration. They’d be back for his wedding, I reflected spitefully. It would be the event of the year ... I promised myself I’d do whatever it took to be there, just for his sake. I could bury my feelings for Cat, for him. I hoped she felt the same way too.

    Callam squeezed my hand, gently. “Are you sorry to leave?”

    I had no answer. I missed my father. I was going to miss my brother, even my mother. But I could no longer hide from the truth. High Society was a joke, nothing more than old women pretending they were important and younger women doing everything in their power to join them, while the real decisions were made elsewhere. They’d rejected me, then accepted me ... I wasn’t sure, nor did I really care, how they felt about me now. It didn’t matter. I was going to be on the way back home shortly, to a life I’d built for myself. And no one could stand in my way.

    “No,” I said, finally. Whatever I had here, it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Akin’s either. He held the family in trust for the next generation. “I can’t wait to be home.”

    The scent of horses greeted me as I led the way into the coachhouse. They were normally separate from the main building, but a distant ancestor had - for some reason - built his coachhouse so it was part of the mansion itself. I suspected he’d probably had things he wanted to hide, even though the horses wouldn’t be happy to be driven into the building rather than waiting in the courtyard. It wasn’t impossible. The family had secrets. There were things we never shared with our more distant relatives, let alone the rest of the world.

    Akin and Penny stood beside the overnight coach, looking up at it. It was bigger than a standard carriage, easily big enough to carry us, our luggage and a tiny washroom compartment. The windows were small and heavily charmed, to keep outsiders from looking in. I tested the spells around the coach and breathed a sigh of relief. It should be impossible for anyone, even a blood relative, to tell we were inside. Akin would ensure no one realised we’d left until we were safely back home, with the protective Objects of Power firmly in place.

    “I’ll miss you,” Akin said. He took a step forward and hugged me, tightly. “You’d better make sure to write.”

    “And you’d better make sure to get some sleep,” I said, to cover the lump in my throat. “Go back to your bedroom, when we’re gone, and rest.”

    Akin laughed politely, as one does at a joke that isn’t really funny. I felt a twinge of sympathy. Akin was the Patriarch now. No one would say a word if he decided to spend the day in bed, perhaps after taking a sleeping potion, but they’d notice. They’d see it as a sign of weakness. Or laziness. Or something, anything; whatever they wanted to make of it. I knew it was just a matter of time before someone started plotting against him. My brother wouldn’t have long to prepare before his rivals started to undermine his position.

    But half the old guard are dead and the remainder are discredited, I told myself. The threat might come from his own generation, instead.

    “I welcome you to the family,” Akin said, to Callam. They shook hands. “And I hope to see you again soon.”

    “And I you,” Callam said. “Be safe.”

    Penny smiled at us both, then stepped back as the driver opened the coach door. I glanced at her, suddenly unsure what to say. Akin might have a few words with the school about her punishment, if it occurred to him he could. It would take some time for him to realise the full extent of his power, I feared. Father had pulled strings to make sure he would be Head Boy. Would he realise he could help Penny? And would he?

    It isn’t your problem, I told myself. Penny deserved both sympathy and condemnation. They can sort it out themselves.

    I took one final look around the coachhouse, then scrambled into the coach. The interior was bigger than I’d expected, but cruder. The seats were wooden, without cushions; the tiny washroom was so small I doubted an overweight man could even get inside. I wished we could travel as we’d done before, spending the nights in inns, but I knew it wasn’t possible, not if we wished to travel undetected. Once we were home, once everything settled down, things would be better. I hoped.

    Callam joined me, sitting on the other side. My lips quirked. If my mother had seen us ... she would have thrown a fit. A big fit. The drivers were - technically - our chaperones, but they weren’t in the box. My privacy wards would keep them from watching us. And ... I shook my head as Akin clambered up to say a final goodbye, then jumped down and banged the door closed. I no longer cared what High Society thought. They changed their opinions at the drop of a hat.

    The coach rattled. I peered out the window and saw Akin and Penny retreating to a safe distance as the doors opened, the coach lurching violently as it jerked into life. I muttered a pair of cushioning spells, wondering who’d charmed the seats when the coach had been put together in the first place. It probably wasn’t their fault. Cushioning spells had a tendency to wear off, for reasons I didn’t pretend to understand. Neither my tutors nor my books had covered it.

    We passed through the doors, down the drive and out onto the street. I spotted a trio of women, dressed like peacocks, heading to the next mansion. They paid no attention as we drove past. It hurt, even though I knew I should be grateful. North Shallot had been my home once, yet ... I was leaving like a criminal trying desperately to remain unseen. I kept watching, fixing the details in my mind. Shining mansions, townhouses built to show off their owner’s wealth, shops so exclusive that asking the price was a clear sign one couldn’t afford it ... my heart twisted, remembering when my mother had taken me shopping, when we’d gone to cafes afterwards and passed judgement on the people outside. I’d been a little brat, I recalled. I really hadn’t known how lucky I’d been. The vast majority of young girls had had far harder lives.

    And they don’t let spite and bitterness lead them into treason, I thought, sourly. I really had been a little fool. How many of them would even have the opportunity?

    The coach picked up speed as it crossed the bridges, rattling its way into South Shallot. I pointed out a handful of places, noting the school, the shopping districts for young students and homes ... I’d once hoped to convince Callam’s parents to move to the city, back when I’d thought I could have my cake and eat it too. Callam’s father was a good teacher. He might have had little to teach me - my tutors had taught me to read and write when I was very young - but he’d done well in the village. And ... I shook my head. Callam hadn’t wanted to move and it was his opinion that mattered. I wasn’t sure his father wanted to move to the city either.

    I sighed inwardly as we glided past a row of apartment blocks - they hadn’t been there, six years ago - and out into the countryside. Traffic levelled off sharply. Very few people travelled outside the city, save for the aristocracy, and even they didn’t travel in the early morning. I cringed, violently, recalling the tantrum I’d thrown when I’d been travelling to the country estates. I’d been seven at the time and I’d bitterly resented being taken from the city, when my friends were throwing parties ... in hindsight, I couldn’t blame my mother and my governess for being snappy. I should have known better. And now ...

    You can’t change the past, I told myself, once again. All you can do is learn from it.

    The coach climbed the hill that marked the edge of the city’s territory, seeming to pause slightly as it reached the peak. I braced myself, fearing the worst. King Rufus hated me - with reason. And he wanted Callam - and Cat - under his control. He’d be foolish to pick a fight with the Great Houses, but he might not have a choice. Cat had changed the balance of power, even if she hadn’t - yet - shattered it beyond repair. And now there were two people whose power rested in their powerlessness. If the king wanted to snatch us, he’d never have a better chance.

    I stared through the window as the road twisted slightly, giving me a view of the city before we started the long road north. Shallot seemed to glow in the bright sunlight, the buildings shimmering with light. We couldn’t see the poverty of Water Shallot, or the cool practicality of South Shallot, or even the individual mansions of North Shallot. There was just the city and the ocean beyond, a wash of light shading to blue. It was rarely cold in Shallot. It rarely rained. It was funny, I reflected, how that felt odd now. Up north, it was a rare day when it didn’t rain at least once.

    Callam rested a hand on my shoulder. “Are you alright?”

    “I don’t know,” I said. “It feels like ...”

    I wasn’t sure how I felt. I hadn’t been allowed to watch the city falling away behind me, when I’d been sent into exile. The armsman who’d escorted me had made it clear I was a prisoner and nothing more, to the point he’d threatened to tie my hands if I gave him the slightest bit of trouble. Bastard. It wasn’t as if I could have given him any. I hoped he’d sweated a little when I’d been - briefly - Heir Primus.

    No. I shook my head. I’d outgrown the city, as surely as I’d outgrown my old dresses. They were useless ... to me, if not to anyone else. I had moved beyond them, just as I’d moved beyond the city. It wasn’t home any longer. And there was no point in dwelling on the past.

    The coach lurched again, picking up speed as it ran down the hill. The city fell away behind us, vanishing behind the hill so quickly it was easy to pretend it wasn’t there. I sucked in my breath as we tore into the forest, heading through the trees and into the farmland at a terrifying pace. The city was gone. I felt a sense of loss, and yet a sense of freedom. I didn’t have to watch myself any longer.

    I pulled the blind down - old habits die hard - and leaned into Callam’s arms. It was going to be a long trip, no matter what happened, and we were going to be very busy when we got home. We’d have to speak to his parents, then arrange the wedding, then ... there were a thousand other things we had to do before we could tie the knot. We might as well take advantage of our privacy. It wasn’t going to last.

    “We’ll be home soon,” I said, as I raised my lips for a kiss. “And then we can get back to work.”
     
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    The journey was ... boring.

    It was funny, I reflected, how most of the travel books had made travelling seem such an experience. The great explorers had enjoyed the journeys almost as much as they’d enjoyed the arrivals. The Grande Dames had written elaborate accounts of their journeys when they’d gone on the Grand Tour, claiming they’d been greeted by cheering crowds and given the keys to entire cities ... cities that might be magnificent, they’d claimed, but couldn’t possibly be compared to Shallot. And yet, somehow, they’d never touched on the boredom. I rapidly found my world shrinking, as time moved on. It felt as if there was nothing outside the box.

    I kissed Callam, time and time again, then went to my books, but it was hard to concentrate on anything. Even a simplistic novel with a plot so predicable I had no trouble guessing who’d done it didn’t hold my interest, while I just couldn’t focus on anything more complicated. Callam didn’t seem to be taking it any better than me. The box was confining and uncomfortable, even if we had enough privacy to do almost anything we liked. The more scandalous explorers, the ones who’d claimed to have a girl - or a boy - anywhere they went, had never talked about that. I had the sneaky feeling they’d made most of the stories up.

    Time dragged. I forced myself to lie on the bench and close my eyes, trying to sleep. It was long in coming, even though I was tired. The jerking as we paused long enough to get fresh horses before resuming our journey, constantly yanked me out of sleep. Callam looked tired too, his normal calm placidity pushed to the limit. I told myself it would be better, next time, if we walked or rode on horseback. At least we wouldn’t feel trapped and imprisoned in a space no larger than my wardrobe. The shaking grew worse, no matter how much magic I wove into our protections. Some of the lurches were so violent that they nearly threw us off the benches.

    “We’re home,” Callam said.

    I blinked, shocked. I’d lost track of time, but ... we weren’t at the hall, were we? We couldn’t be. A drumming sound echoed through the coach. In my dazed state, it took me a moment to realise it was the rain. The skies had greeted our return with a downpour. I snorted, tiredly, as I settled back onto the bench. It was sheer good luck I’d thought to wear trousers, even though my mother would have been shocked and High Society hadn’t recovered from the last time I’d worn trousers in public. I smiled at the thought as I drifted off again. I’d started a new fashion trend. There were quite a few girls risking social death and wearing trousers, thanks to me. The Grande Dames hadn’t been able to do much of anything about it.

    The coach lurched, violently. Something cracked. The force of the impact sent me rolling off the bench and crashing to the floor. Something heavy landed on top of me a moment later, knocking the wind from my lungs. I nearly panicked, nearly lashed out with my magic as the world tilted around me. Callam was on top of me ... another shock ran through the coach as we hit the ground. I struggled to breathe as Callam tried to get off me. It wasn’t easy. The coach was lying at an angle and he couldn’t move without pressing down on me.

    “We hit something,” Callam said, as he managed to clamber back to the bench. “We must have.”

    I nodded in agreement as he helped me up. My body was bruised, my limbs aching as I peered towards the hatch. The coach was tilted sharply, suggesting we’d lost a wheel. I cursed under my breath, hearing the rain beating on the roof. It might be quite some time before we could get moving again, let alone get help. How far were we from Kirkhaven? I’d lost track of time so badly I honestly didn’t know. There was quite a good chance we were some distance from anyone who could help.

    “We can’t stay inside,” Callam said, practically. “Not here.”

    “No,” I agreed. I checked I was decent, then pushed open the hatch. Rain splashed down, cold and hard and oddly welcoming, after the warmth of Shallot. I cast a spell to shield us from the water, all too aware it wouldn’t last long. In hindsight, I should have brought a coat as well as trousers. “This way.”

    I silently blessed him, as I scrambled out of the coach, for convincing me to help him go climbing, build treehouses and quite a few other things Young Ladies of Quality were not expected to do. It wouldn’t be so easy to get out without practice. My head was spinning too much for me to risk levitating myself into the open air. I dropped to the ground, wincing as I realised the road had turned into a sea of mud. My spells started to fail a moment later. I reinforced them with an effort, wishing I’d thought to bring an umbrella too. The water droplets had always worn down my shields.

    Callam dropped down beside me. “What happened?”

    I sucked in my breath as I surveyed the damage. It was worse than I’d thought. The coach had been blown towards the edge of the road, until the left wheels had gone into the ditch. The hubs were snapped, the wheels broken beyond easy repair; the rods linking the wheels together broken in several places. I’d hoped I could use magic to perform a basic repair - as if the drivers couldn’t do it for themselves - but it was useless. The charms around the wheels were sparking weirdly, the metal scorched and charred. I looked around, staring into the darkened countryside. Had we been cursed? Had we driven over a concealed hex? There was no one in sight. And yet, I had the feeling we were being watched.

    The driver came up to me and doffed his hat. “My Lady, we cannot get the coach back into the road, let alone repair the damage.”

    I tried not to say something unladylike as I surveyed the damage. The ditch was a muddy nightmare, a far cry from Shallot’s clean and tidy roads. The right wheels - what remained of them - were trapped in the mud, the lower coach half-buried too. No wonder the charms were so badly weakened, I noted. The impact could have - would have - killed us if the charms hadn’t done their job. I tried to summon a spell to levitate the coach into the air, but it was pointless. Even if I could get the vehicle onto the road again, the damage was just too great.

    “I see.” I looked up and down the road. The rain made it hard to see more than a few metres in either direction. The sky overhead was so dark and gloomy it was hard to believe it was midday. I muttered a spell to check the time, just to be sure. It was just after noon. We were meant to reach the hall in an hour or two. I felt a twinge of guilt. If I hadn’t wanted to get there so quickly, perhaps we would have avoided the accident. “This isn’t going to be easy.”

    I looked at Callam. “Do you know where we are?”

    “This is the road leading up to Kirkhaven,” Callam said, calmly. His shirt was drenched with water. I flushed, suddenly, as I realised mine wasn’t any better. “Kirkhaven itself is an hour or so away on foot.”

    The driver looked doubtful. “Begging your pardon, My Lord, but how can you be sure?”

    “I’ve been all over the region,” Callam said. It was true. I knew he’d explored most of the countryside before he’d met me. “This is the main road. If we follow it, we’ll get to Kirkhaven.”

    I frowned. The road was narrow and in poor repair. Calling it a main road seemed absurd. The locals were meant to keep it in good condition, but they’d never done more than the bare minimum. Good roads meant more taxmen, taxmen who were dumb enough to believe that good roads meant a prosperous community that needed its rates raised. I’d heard stories about taxmen going missing, their bodies swept into ditches and buried under the mud. I believed them. The locals had been here for centuries, Kings and their servants came and went. The locals remained.

    “Then we have to go there and ask for help,” I said. Mother would want me to go back into the carriage and wait, while the servants went to recruit assistance. I had no intention of staying in the box for a moment longer. “If Callam and I go, then send help back, will that be all right?”

    The driver looked astonished I was asking his opinion. I hid my amusement. I’d learnt the hard way that servants generally knew what they were doing - and how a careful servant could manipulate his master into ordering the servant to do whatever the servant wanted to do. Besides, it wasn’t as if I had many servants. There was a shortage of people willing to travel all the way to the hall. My reputation probably didn’t help.

    “Yes, My Lady,” he said, clearly biting down on a suggestion I should stay with the coach. “We can wait here until the rain stops, then do what we can before help arrives.”

    I nodded, then looked at the coach. The storage compartments were sealed, both physically and magically. The trunks had their own protections. Their contents should be safe from the rain, at least long enough for us to get them to the hall. I made a mental note to make sure the drivers had a proper rest at the hall, before going on their way. Akin would understand. The accident hadn’t been their fault. He’d make sure no one else knew what had happened.

    “We’ll send help back,” I promised. “But if someone comes along before we do, travel to Kirkhaven and then on to the hall.”

    “Yes, My Lady.”

    The driver still sounded a little incredulous, I noted, as Callam and I turned away and started to walk. It wasn’t the sort of consideration he’d expect from his mistresses. Mother would have stayed in the coach and refused to budge, while Penny or Cat ... I shook my head. Cat would probably have found a way to repair the coach, either by creatively using the resources at her disposal or forging something to handle the job. I told myself I shouldn’t be too envious. Cat’s talents made her important, but they also made her vulnerable. I knew it was true of Callam too.

    I took his hand as the downpour grew worse. Water ran down my hair and slid into my dress, trickling down my back and pooling in my boots. I silently thanked the Ancients I’d thought to wear proper boots, rather than the slipper-like shoes that were fashionable right now. They were made of something that felt like paper and would probably last about as long, in the rainstorm. Water in my boots was unpleasant, but better than the alternative. Running around barefoot was not a good idea. There could be anything in the mud.

    The sense of being watched grew stronger as we kept moving. I looked from side to side, noting how the trees seemed to be moving closer to the road. The locals had planted them in hopes of keeping the rain from eroding the soil, with mixed results, but ... I thought I saw things moving within the darkness and looked away. It might not be something dangerous - there were crofters up north who lived on their own, completely isolated from the rest of the district - yet I had my doubts. I couldn’t hear any rodents in the undergrowth or birds flying through the trees. It felt worrying, even though the rain was still pouring down. The wildlife had probably taken shelter until it finally stopped.

    Callam squeezed my hand, gently. I looked at him, trying not to laugh as I realised he was completely drenched. I wasn’t any better. My shirt was sodden, clinging to my skin and revealing everything I had ... it was embarrassing. I shook my head in irritation as we kept going, putting one foot in front of the other time and time again. Callam had told me, years ago, that the trick of walking long distances was not to think about the distance, merely to concentrate on one’s footsteps. And yet, it was hard not to think about how far we had to walk. The mud would double or triple the time it would take to reach the town.

    The landscape changed as we walked out of the forest and headed up the road. The moor on either side looked harmless, broken only by gushing water running down the hillside on a journey that terminated somewhere far below. The streams looked as if they were on the verge of breaking their banks, the moor turning watery as rainwater pooled on the grass. I knew it was dangerous to walk on the moor, particularly in darkness. It was all too easy to walk into a bog and drown. Even an experienced local could put his foot in the wrong place and be sucked under before he escaped.

    That was how Uncle Ira got away with it for so long, I thought, numbly. The locals believed the missing, the dead, took a wrong turning and walked straight into the bog. They knew the bodies would never be found.

    I felt my thoughts start to wander as we kept moving. My body ached and yet ... it didn’t matter, as if I was only imagining the aches. The water splashed around my feet, thunder growling in the distance as the downpour - finally - started to come to an end. I wanted to squeeze water out of my shirt, even though I knew it was pointless. The rain wasn’t done with us yet. The wind spat droplets into our face as we passed through another corpse of trees, branches waving madly in the breeze. I shivered, again. It was almost a relief to be back in the open. It couldn’t be long now ...

    Something moved, at the corner of my eye. I looked up, sharply. A wavy sheet of light, so translucent it was hard to believe it was even there, hung at the edge of the trees. It was nothing more than a light and yet ... I tightened my grip on Callam’s hand, suddenly absolutely certain the light was looking back at me. A ghost ... the ghosts had vanished, after Uncle Ira’s death. Had they returned?

    Callam looked at me. “Isabella?”

    I couldn’t take my eyes off the light. “Can’t you see it?”

    “See what?” Callam sounded perplexed. “What is it?”

    I swallowed. Callam couldn’t see ghosts, any more than he could sense magic when it wasn’t affecting him directly. He’d saved my life, when we’d visited the fallen city, even though he hadn’t been able to tell what he was saving me from. I leaned back against him, unwilling to take my eyes off the ghost. It just stood there. I was certain it was still looking at me.

    “There’s a ghost,” I whispered. “It’s just ... standing there.”

    Callam’s grip tightened. He’d heard all the stories, from strange lights in the downpour to creatures that lured the unwary into their lairs and consumed them. I hadn’t been able to understand how the old tales had persisted - some of them spoke of creatures that simply couldn’t exist - until I’d spent my first winter in Kirkhaven. So far from civilisation, it was easy to believe there were things in the darkness, just waiting for you. I thought myself a sophisticated girl, raised in a tradition of rational magic, and even I had felt it. The ghosts were out there. Waiting.

    Lightning flashed. I blinked, reflexively. The ghost was gone.

    “It’s gone,” I breathed. I forced myself to look around. There was no sign of the ghost. Or anything, beyond the last of the raindrops falling on the ground. The sky was starting to lighten. Who knew? Perhaps we’d get some sunlight before it rained again. “I can’t see it any longer.”

    “Good.” Callam sounded disturbed. The ghosts might not be able to drain him, as they’d drained me, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t hurt him. Could they see him? What were they? I didn’t know. “We need to move.”

    I nodded as we resumed our walk. The skies cleared, shafts of sunlight stabbing down from high above. I heard water gurgling as streams flowed down the mountainside and looked up, towards distant peaks lost in the cloud. No one lived up there, from what I’d been told. The mountains were just too dangerous. Even the locals gave them a wide berth.

    If the ghosts are back, I asked myself, what does it mean?

    Callam laughed, suddenly. “Welcome home.”

    I had to smile as we walked into the valley. It was creepy - I hadn’t forgotten the ghosts that had walked the halls, then tried to kill me - but still ... it felt like I’d come home. I reminded myself, sharply, that we weren’t home yet. I needed to speak to the coachhouse, to arrange for help for the carriage, before we headed up to the hall. I couldn’t leave the drivers stranded, certainly not so far from civilisation. It would be unforgivable.

    “And you,” I said, although I’d be happier when I reached the hall. The clouds hadn’t cleared as much as I would have liked. Experience told me there was going to be another downpour soon. “Welcome home.”
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    Kirkhaven had grown a little, in the six years since I’d been sent into exile, but it maintained the same grey character I’d seen when I’d first visited the town. The homes were built of grey stone, as were the handful of shops, the coachhouse and the small walls the locals used to mark the property boundaries. The handful of people on the streets wore bland clothes, with none of the colour I’d seen in Shallot. I muttered a spell to dry my clothes as we made our way to the coachhouse, all too aware of eyes watching us. Shallot and Kirkhaven had one thing in common. There was no shortage of elder folk ready to scold the youngsters for testing the limits. Wearing something that exposed anything below the neckline, here, was worse than murder.

    I put the thought out of my head as I stepped into the coachhouse. It was technically mine, as Lady of Kirkhaven, although I’d signed the deeds over to the innkeeper and his family as long as they wished to run the business. It wasn’t very profitable - my ancestors wouldn’t be impressed - but I hoped it would encourage more traffic running through the town and up to the hall. There was no point in selling the finest potions, and a handful of Objects of Power, if you couldn’t get them to their destination. The locals didn’t seem sure what to make of the new coachhouse. I’d been amused to note some of them had borrowed the horses from time to time.

    “My Lady?” Bruno, the innkeeper, gaped at us. “What ...?”

    “My carriage had an accident,” I said, curtly. Bruno was a good man, but he talked. Word would spread around the town so fast, followed by all sorts of rumours. “Can you send a coach and a repair team back down the road?”

    “Of course, My Lady,” Bruno said. “Will you accompany them?”

    “No.” I shook my head as I outlined what had happened, and what the repair team would probably need to get the carriage back on the road. “Tell the drivers to take the coach all the way to the hall, then change horses tomorrow.”

    Bruno nodded, his calculating expression suggesting he was already totting up the bill. I didn’t really blame him. The coachhouse was too far off the beaten track to maintain a repair and recovery team on permanent standby, so he’d have to call the men in from the fields and compensate them for lost labour. I doubted it would take that long to recover the coach, once the team arrived, but it would be a pain. They might have to transfer the trunks to another coach and send them to the hall first, before pulling the carriage out of the ditch and repairing it. I made a mental note to check the seals. The locals prided themselves on their honesty, which was sometimes brutal, but there was no point in taking anything for granted.

    “Yes, My Lady,” Bruno said. “Would you like a drink?”

    I glanced at Callam, who nodded. “Just tea,” I said. “We have to get back underway shortly.”

    Bruno nodded and hurried away, returning moments later with two mugs of weak tea. I took a sip as the innkeeper left again, allowing the warmth to spread through my body, then forced myself to relax as I silently took stock of my surroundings. The inn was nearly empty, save for a set of older men drinking and gossiping. I tried not to roll my eyes. The first time I’d overheard them, I’d thought they were talking nonsense. It had taken me quite some time to realise their gossip was so out of date that they were talking about things that had happened when my father was a child and Uncle Ira had only just come to Kirkhaven Hall. They’d be talking about me and Callam now, I was sure of it. It wouldn’t take a genius to realise we’d walked a long way on our own.

    So what? I finished my tea and put the mug on the counter, followed by a pair of coins. It should be enough. It isn’t as if we’re not engaged.

    Bruno returned, looking pleased with himself. “My Lady, the repair team is assembling now,” he said. “They’ll be on their way shortly.”

    “Good.” I took a breath. “Tell them to report to me at the hall afterwards.”

    I saw a flicker of displeasure cross his face, coming and going too quickly for me to call him out for it. Bruno had probably been hoping I’d give him the tip, so he could take his cut before he passed what was left to the team. If they didn’t know they’d been cheated, they wouldn’t turn on him ... I sighed, inwardly, as we turned away and left. It wasn’t as I wasn’t going to pay the bill. Bruno would have more than enough money for himself - I knew he was going to pad the bill as much as possible - without stealing from the team.

    And he’s playing with fire, I reflected. If they catch him, they’ll beat him to within an inch of his life.

    Kirkhaven seemed slightly more lively as we made our way down the road that led - eventually - to the hall. Small children ran around underfoot, their older counterparts being drilled in chores by their parents now they were old enough to handle them, Boys were heading to the river and lakes beyond to fish, carrying buckets and nets, while the girls were cooking, cleaning and doing dozens of other chores under their mother’s watchful eyes, working hard to prepare themselves for marriage. I’d been expected to do the same, I reflected sourly. Everyone had assumed I’d grow up, marry for the good of the family and move into my husband’s home. The trappings might be different, but - at base - it was just the same.

    A handful of children waved to me. I waved back, nodding politely to their parents. The older folk didn’t know what to make of me, not really. Uncle Ira had been a distant landlord - he’d never really cared to use his power - and they’d appreciated it, right up to the moment they’d discovered he’d murdered at least twenty people. I was a different story. I was too young for them to take seriously and yet I’d saved them from Uncle Ira. And I did have the power to make my feelings known. I didn't blame them for being unsure of me. I was a creature from a very different world.

    The noise tailed off as we reached the edge of the town and walked up to the hall. The road hadn’t been properly maintained, any more than the main road, despite my best efforts. I stepped over potholes that were older than me, then peered into ditches that drained water into a river that probably predated the kingdom, if not the empire. I’d found all sorts of old structures around the estate, as if my family had built Kirkhaven Hall on something far older ... just like our mansion in Shallot. I wondered, suddenly, just how many of my ancestors were buried under the hall.

    Probably none, I thought. The old rituals were clear. The ashes of the dead had to be laid to rest under the family’s mansion and nowhere else. It isn’t as if Kirkhaven Hall was ever that important.

    I frowned as we kept walking, picking our way along paths we’d explored when we’d been younger. I’d spent a few hours exploring the records, back in Shallot, but there’d been very little about Kirkhaven Hall. The hall - or at least the estate - predated the Fall. The records, and there had to have been records, had probably been stored in the Eternal City. Who had claimed the land? Who had built the hall? And why? The style did suggest the modern hall had been built after the empire had fallen, but it was impossible to be sure. Uncle Ira had had allies in Shallot. One of them could easily have arranged for the records to be quietly misfiled. It was the best way to conceal them from prying eyes.

    The skies darkened with terrifying speed. I looked up, then glanced at Callam as the first raindrops started to fall. Water splashed down once again, the path turning to mud under our feet. Steams of water flowed from above as leaves gave way under the weight, allowing the water to fall to the ground. I groaned as a stream of water landed on my head and poured down my spine. I’d only just dried myself! I doubted the outfit would survive long enough to be washed, even if dried it again. There were limits to how many times you could use the spells before the garment simply fell apart.

    “I think we’d better run,” Callam said, as thunder rolled overhead. There was hardly any break between the thunder and the lightning. The storm was coming in fast now. “Or get back onto the road.”

    I nodded, pulling him towards the road. Trying to run along the path in the rain was asking for a broken ankle, or worse. I knew some healing magic, but I wasn’t a trained healer and it was inadvisable to try to heal yourself. There were some sorcerers who might take the risk, if they felt there was no other choice, yet they might kill themselves by accident. A magic spike at the worst possible time would be difficult to dampen, if it came from your body.

    The road felt unsteady under our feet, water pooling in the potholes and spilling over the edges. I cursed out loud as I put my foot in one, the sudden jolt of cold water shocking me as it poured into my boots. They’d have to be replaced too, damn it. I had wellies in the hall - and I no longer cared who insisted wellies were unladylike - but they were useless until we actually got there. I felt a stab of sympathy for the drivers, who’d be caught in the open - again. I hoped they’d have the sense to shelter in the carriage. I wouldn’t condemn them for it, even though I knew aristocrats who would. How could I blame them? It was what I’d do myself.

    Thunder rolled, louder this time, as we reached the gates. They were closed and locked. I pressed my hand against the iron charm, muttering a spell under my breath. The wards predated Uncle Ira, layer upon layer of protections that dated back hundreds of years. He hadn’t tried to dismantle them, pointing out - when I’d asked - that it might be impossible to put them back together, let alone anchor new wards to the hall. I hoped they hadn’t caused any problems for the staff. They shouldn’t have, but old wards could be dangerously unpredictable. I wondered, as the gates slowly swung open, if they’d kept the ghosts bound to the hall.

    But I didn’t take down all the wards when I defeated Uncle Ira, I thought, as we passed through the gates. Just the ones that protected his stronghold.

    I put the thought out of my mind as we made our way past the satellite quarters and headed up the driveway. I’d had a handful of the tiny houses fixed up - one for Callam’s parents, the rest for staff who’d already been dragged a long way from their homes - but they seemed dark and cold. Where were they? I stared at the tiny homes, wondering if I should try to force my way in to check. Had they gone to Caithness for the day, only to be caught in the storm? Or had they decided my absence was a good time to hand in their notice and depart? Or ... I told myself not to be silly. It might feel like evening, but it was only mid-afternoon. They would be at work.

    The rain grew worse, falling in torrents as we forced our way towards the hall. My clothes were so drenched I thought, just for a moment, that we’d stumbled into a pond. The wind snapped and snarled at us, blowing gusts of cold air from unpredictable directions. I thought I saw traces of purple lightning in the sky, gone before I could be sure. The greenhouses ... I felt a flash of alarm as pieces of wood hurtled through the air, narrowly missing me. Were the greenhouses safe? I’d charmed them extensively, and designed them to withstand the downpour even without the magic, but would they be safe? Or was I about to gaze upon the ruin of my hard work? I gritted my teeth, telling myself they’d be fine. I’d put a lot of effort into protecting them from the weather.

    Callam grabbed my hand, an instant before the deluge struck me in the face. I staggered backwards as water slammed into my mouth, choking as I fought to spit it out. The water tasted of mud ... for a moment, I thought I’d accidentally triggered one of the defensive spells woven into the wards. Or that someone had charmed the water and thrown it into our faces in a bid to drive us away. I reached out with my mind, but sensed nothing beyond the wards themselves. And yet, it felt as if someone had dumped a bathtub of water over us.

    We fought our way on as the wind picked up, gusts of cold air making us shiver as the rain kept pouring. A dark shape loomed up in front of us, so dark and ominous that it took me a second to realise it was the hall. We’d made our way into the courtyard. The winds howled one final time - it was suddenly very easy to believe they were living things, trying to keep us out - and then petered away as we stepped into shelter. Whoever had designed the hall, my father had pointed out, had put the door at the wrong end of the opening corridor. I’d disagreed. The corridor would provide shelter for visitors, without letting them into the hall or forcing the residents to let them in without carrying out the proper checks. Uncle Ira had found it very useful.

    I took a breath as the rain cut off abruptly, suddenly very aware I looked like a drowned rat. Water was pouring down my body and pooling around my feet. I kicked off my boots - they were definitely lost, unless I could get a cobbler to repair them - and my socks, allowing the water to flow freely. The wards buzzed around me, jangling an alert. The lights inside grew brighter. I braced myself. The staff hadn’t known I was coming back, but the wards would have alerted them. Probably. There were too old to be completely reliable.

    The door crashed open. “Ancients,” Cathy gasped. “My Lady, what have you ... what’s happened to you?”

    “The rain,” I said, wryly. “We had a bit of an accident.”

    Cathy looked flabbergasted. I tried not to snort as she practically dragged us into the lobby and muttered a string of drying spells. I’d chosen her with extreme care. She was old enough to be my grandmother, experienced enough to be helpful and offer good advice without actually being capable of stopping me if I chose not to listen. I’d had quite enough of governesses and nannies and, technically, I’d been a legal adult from the moment I’d inherited the hall. If Cathy had realised why I’d picked her, she’d never said.

    “You need a bath and a change of clothes,” Cathy said, sternly. “What happened?”

    “The coach had an accident,” I said, and gave a quick explanation. “When the drivers arrive, have the coach unloaded and then let them sleep in the guest quarters for the night. Make sure they get something to eat. We didn’t have any proper food on the journey.”

    “I’ll bring you some food.” Cathy looked as if she wanted to berate me for travelling alone - Callam didn’t count, in the eyes of High Society - but changed her mind. “Soup, at first. Then something warmer, once you’re clean and dry.”

    She flicked her gaze at Callam. “And you too, young man. I’ll have a meal sent to your room.”

    I nodded, thankfully. My body was cold and wet and I felt as if I’d been beaten to within an inch of my life. The journey had taken its toll, even before we’d been forced to walk the rest of the way. Callam shot me a relieved look, then hurried away. I hoped Cathy wouldn’t try to have a word with him later. She’d never said anything about how close we were, but I was sure she’d noticed. One didn’t serve as a roving governess without a sharp eye for childish mischief. I hadn’t been that much older than her last set of charges.

    Cathy held out a hand to help me up the stairs. I forced myself to walk without help. I had grown far too dependent on servants when I’d been a little girl and Morag ... my cheek ached where the older woman had slapped me, six years ago. She’d been an unpleasant person, and she’d been Uncle Ira’s willing helper, but I understood - in hindsight - how she’d felt. I really had been a spoilt brat.

    “I’ll run you a bath,” Cathy said, once we were in my rooms. The curtains were firmly shut, but I could hear the wind howling outside. “Would you like chicken or vegetable soup?”

    “Chicken, please,” I said. “Don’t bring anything more. I’ll take my meal in the small dining room.”

    “Of course, My Lady,” Cathy said. “And will the young gentleman be joining us?”

    “Yes,” I said. The marriage permissions were in the coach, somewhere in the storm, or I would have shown them to her. “And please invite Sandy too.”

    Cathy looked pleased. “Yes, My Lady.”
     
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    The bath felt heavenly.

    I nearly fell asleep as the warm water pulsed against me, soothing my aches and pains. It felt as if I’d come home, as if ... I muttered a pair of spells to wash my hair, then remove the dirt and grime before clambering out of the tub. I didn’t have that long to soak, not if I wanted to meet the drivers and Sandy before I went to bed. It was late afternoon, according to the clock, but my body refused to believe it. I was sure, deep inside, that it was closer to midnight.

    Magic wafted around me as I stood upright, sweeping the water from my body and dropping it back in the tub. I smiled and pulled out the plug, silently grateful the renovations had included the installation of a proper set of water pipes. Back when I’d first arrived, I’d had to haul buckets of water from the kitchen and heat the tub with magic if I wanted a bath. Morag hadn’t been very helpful. She’d been too consumed with bitterness to care about an unwanted houseguest.

    You could have gone the same way too, my thoughts reminded me. And you’re lucky you didn’t.

    I put the thought aside as I stepped into the bedroom and headed over to the wardrobe. It was my bedroom, designed for me: shelves of books, a single painting of my immediate family, dating back to the year before I’d been sent into exile and a wardrobe full of practical, rather than fashionable, clothes. My mother would be shocked, I reflected as I opened the wardrobe, if she saw how many pairs of trousers I owned. She would insist it wasn’t decent to wear trousers on the estate, where anyone could see. But I wasn’t going to tend to the greenhouses in a fancy dress.

    The thought made me smile as I pulled on my clothes, then stepped over to the window. The rain had stopped, but vast puddles of muddy water lay on the front lawn. The skies were still overcast, suggesting it was just a matter of time before the rain started again. I felt a twinge of guilt. I was inside, warm and cosy, while the driver and the repair team were out in the cold and wet. There was no sign of them in the distance, something that worried me. It was possible they’d made their way to the coachhouse before it started to rain again, or taken shelter from the downpour somewhere along the road, but I didn’t know. I wondered, idly, what would happen if they vanished without trace. Akin had gone to some trouble to craft a cover story for our journey home. The people waiting for the overnight coach would be alarmed if it never showed.

    I’ll have to let him know, if it doesn’t arrive tonight, I thought. And then we’ll have to begin the search.

    I brushed my hair back and tied it into a loose ponytail, then left the room and headed down the corridor. It was colder here, despite the renovations, although nowhere near as cold as it had been six years ago. Uncle Ira had had ice water in his veins, probably literally, and Morag had been too depressed to consider anything that might make the hall a little more habitable ... although, to be fair, it was unlikely Uncle Ira would have let her bring strangers into the hall. He hadn’t been pleased to see me, even though he’d come to consider me a useful test subject. Why would he want craftsmen who might notice something was wrong and report it to higher authority? Or do something about it themselves?

    A shiver ran down my spine as I reached the small dining room, a sensation that came and went so quickly I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. I looked back, warily. There was nothing and yet ... I shook my head. Neither Sandy nor Cathy had wanted to take rooms on the fourth floor, an odd display of propriety hundreds of miles from anyone who’d care. The rooms were meant for family and family alone ... Cathy, at least, had wanted to object when I’d opened one for Callam. We hadn’t been engaged back then.

    I pushed the door open and stepped inside. The room was surprisingly warm and cosy, although it was a little too big to be comfortable. Kirkhaven Hall had been built, depending on which records one believed, in an era where the lord of the mansion was supposed to hold court while eating his dinner. I thought it was a little absurd. I didn’t want to be watched while I ate, or listen to someone pleading his case when I was distracted. Perhaps it had been a sign of insecurity. The family might be old, but we hadn’t always been listed amongst the great and powerful. Whoever had built the mansion might have been trying to put on a show of power, in hopes of keeping people from looking too closely. It was quite possible.

    Sandy looked up from the table, then stood. I saw a multitude of emotions crossing her face as she dropped a curtsey. Six years ago, I wouldn’t have understood. Sandy had to find it galling that I’d hired her, given the age gap between us. But it had also been my fault - partly - that no one else wanted to hire her. She hadn’t been at fault for Cat’s kidnapping, or my fall from grace, but the Great Houses had wanted a scapegoat. Sandy had been elected.

    “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon,” Sandy said. There was a hint of discomfort in her tone. “Should we be worried?”

    “It was deemed better to return now, before word got out,” I said. “We couldn’t send word of our coming ahead of us.”

    Sandy frowned as she sat back down. I studied her, thoughtfully. She was pretty, with long brown hair and a plain and simple face, but there was something haunted in her gaze. I wondered, sourly, if she’d spent the last month with her partner in Caithness, rather than attending to her work at the hall. Sandy was conscientious, but she had to be aware she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life at Kirkhaven Hall. Her young man might take her away from it all.

    I sat, facing her. “What happened?”

    “We’ve been seeing ghosts,” Sandy said. “Too many ghosts.”

    “I saw one on the way up,” I said, grimly. “What happened here?”

    Sandy shook her head. “It’s hard to say,” she admitted. “We’ve heard strange sounds in the night, seen ghostly shapes walking the corridor ... two of the stableboys quit without notice after coming face to face with something they refused to talk about, but clearly scared them to death. I saw ... I saw something, when I was brewing potion. It was like ...”

    She ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

    “There were ghosts back when Uncle Ira lived here,” I said. I’d wondered, when I’d realised he was a warlock, if they were the last remnants of his victims. “They vanished after his death.”

    “And now they’re back,” Sandy said. “The staff are jumpy, My Lady. I had to let some of them move back to the town, rather than live here or in the servant houses.”

    I blinked. Kirkhaven was hardly a normal aristocratic residence, but it was still a sign of trust and good standing to be allowed to reside within the hall. I’d heard of servants being let go, or fired for bad conduct, but never being asked - or allowed - to live elsewhere. It was bad manners, I’d been told, not to let a servant sleep within the hall. If you wanted them to be loyal to you, you had to be loyal to them. The very least you could do was make sure they didn’t have to spend their wages on rent as well as everything else.

    “Odd,” I said, finally. “Why?”

    “It’s like someone has cast an aversion ward over the hall,” Sandy said. “There’s something wrong. Nothing you can put your finger on, but it’s there.”

    “I assume you checked,” I mused. “Did someone curse us from a safe distance?”

    “We found nothing,” Sandy said. “But that might be meaningless.”

    I made a face. Aversion wards were tricky things. They played on the victim’s thoughts and feelings, convincing the target they didn’t want anything to do with whatever the ward protected. It was hard to tell you were being influenced by a ward because you were coming up with your own excuses, your own reasons to be somewhere - anywhere - else. I’d been cautioned never to use them, unless I was desperate. The long-term results could be dangerously unpredictable. A person who’d been affected might never be able to overcome the ward’s effects.

    And if you use the ward to drive someone away from you, my old tutor had warned, he might be so consumed with irrational loathing that he’ll break your neck without ever quite knowing why.

    “We’ll have to check,” I said. It was possible someone had slipped a curse through the wards. They were so unwieldy a skilled sorcerer might have been able to do it. “Did you detect any more intruders?”

    “No, My Lady.” Sandy looked displeased. “And we kept our eyes open too.”

    I let out a breath. Someone had probed the defences, shortly before I’d been recalled to Shallot. I still didn’t know who. Morag was the most likely suspect - she’d allied herself with Uncle Stephen, in hopes of a return to the family’s bosom - but she was dead. If not her, then who? Perhaps I was overthinking it. Sandy’s letters hadn’t mentioned any further intruders. They might simply have followed us to Shallot.

    The door opened. Callam stepped into the room, looking surprisingly cheerful. I grinned at him as he took his seat. He was home too. A maid followed, carrying a tray of food. She looked jumpy. I cursed under my breath. I’d gone to some trouble to convince the young woman that I wasn’t a complete brat - my reputation had preceded me - but the maid didn’t seem to be worried about me. She looked as if she expected something to jump at her at any moment.

    “Thank you,” I said, as she put the tray on the table. “Don’t worry about waiting for us. You can clean the table tomorrow, if you want.”

    The maid curtsied and withdrew silently. I glanced at the clock and sighed. It really did feel a lot later than it was. The old books had talked about travel sickness, about travellers being convinced they were out of sync with their destination, but I’d never really understood it until now. I’d spent half the coach ride asleep and then walked to the town, in the dismal light and pouring rain. I told myself, as I removed the lid to reveal a simple casserole and mashed potatoes, that I’d feel better tomorrow. A good night’s sleep was just what I needed.

    Sandy took a small portion for herself, then kept talking. “Overall, we have kept brewing potions and preparing ingredients as per your instructions and sending them to purchasers,” she said. “The accounts are downstairs, ready for your inspection. There have been a number of more complex requests, some of which may require more ... specialised ... equipment. I’ve put the letters in your office, and informed the senders that you’ll have to make the final decision, but I think some of them may be beyond us. We need to hire a proper potioneer.”

    I made a face. There were some potions that were incredibly difficult to prepare properly unless one was extremely skilled ... or had access to specialised Objects of Power. Callam had forged an entire collection for me, ensuring I could brew the potions by simply pouring in the ingredients and following the instructions. I was fairly sure Cat had done the same for her family, given her mother’s profession, although I had never dared ask. It might have started people wondering where I’d found the Objects of Power. Privately, I feared I might have pushed my luck a little too far. I wasn’t an unskilled brewer, and I’d had a great deal of private tuition, but I was hardly a Potions Master. And yet I seemed to be brewing potions that would be difficult for a world-class mistress like Sofia Aguirre?

    “If we can find one willing to move out here,” I said. I wasn’t sure I wanted one. A master of a magical art would be unwilling to listen to me, at least when it came to his speciality. It might cause me all sorts of problems. “What exactly do they want?”

    Sandy frowned, her brow furrowing as she recalled the letters. “One wants a highly-specialised healing and regeneration potion. Another wants a purgative. My guess is that he was cursed, as he could obtain simpler purgatives from any apothecary without trouble. A third wants an antidote ... reading between the lines, I think he was bitten by a werewolf and needs a cure. But I don’t know for sure.”

    Callam leaned forward. “Why don’t they tell us everything?”

    “Because it would be embarrassing,” Sandy said. “And they don’t want to reveal the truth.”

    “I’ll read the letters when I have a moment,” I said. “They may have to be a great deal more specific if they want a potion that will actually work.”

    “Yep.” Sandy smirked. “I think most of the letters are just testing the waters. They want to know if we can do what they want us to do before they commit themselves.”

    I sighed and turned my attention back to my dinner. I’d worry about the letters tomorrow. If the matter was urgent, the writers would have sent messages to potioneers in the city, rather than sending them all the way to me. Most potioneers would be discreet, even if they were asked to do something openly criminal. They couldn’t afford to get a reputation for telling tales out of the apothecary or they’d never get any more commissions, no matter how good they were. I made a mental note to be wary when I read the letters. It was just possible one of the writers did intend to do something criminal.

    There was a knock on the door. I looked up as it opened, revealing Cathy. “My Lady, the coach has arrived,” she said. “I’ve had the drivers unload the trunks into the hall, then sent them to the servant quarters.”

    “Good,” I said, relieved. “How are they?”

    “Wet.” Cathy shook her head in disapproval. “They should have been properly prepared for the roads up here.”

    I nodded. The main road leading from Shallot to Caithness and then across the border into Garstang was in far better condition. The drivers might not have realised just how rough the road to Kirkhaven actually was, at least until it was too late. I’d walked them myself, but I’d never tried to drive a carriage down them. A gust of wind at the worst possible time might pick up a coach and throw it into the ditch. The hell of it was that we might have been lucky to survive.

    “I’ll make sure to mention it in my letters,” I said. “For the moment, make sure they’re fed and watered and given a sizable tip. They can proceed onwards tomorrow, if the weather is better.”

    “It’s been more erratic lately,” Sandy put in.

    “There has been more rainfall,” Cathy agreed.

    Callam snorted. “How could you tell?”

    I couldn’t disagree. I didn’t think there’d been many days, in the past six years, when water hadn’t poured from the skies. There’d been snow and sleet during winter, but otherwise ... no, there hadn’t been many rain-free days. The idea of more rain ... I shook my head in dismay. We would have to check the greenhouses tomorrow, perhaps reinforce the spells protecting them. The last thing I needed was for a particularly strong rainfall to break the glass and ruin the plants underneath.

    “The ponds overflowed,” Cathy said, curtly. “And the streams turned into small rivers.”

    “We’ll have to check the wards,” I said. They’d been weaker, somehow, at the point the stream flowed out of the estate. I didn’t know how or why, but it was inarguable. It was how I’d managed to get out, after Uncle Ira had banned me from leaving. “And everything else, before we get back to work.”

    “There’s been no obvious failings,” Sandy said. “But we don’t know enough to be sure.”

    “We can position the new protections in place, then start dismantling the old wards,” I said, shortly. “And, while we’re doing that, we can see how they really work.”

    “That might not be easy,” Sandy said. “Where are half of the wards anchored?”

    I grimaced. I didn’t know.

    Cathy took a step backwards. “With your permission, My Lady, I’ll see to the drivers,” she said. “Will you want to speak with them tomorrow morning?”

    “I don’t think so,” I said. I didn’t really want them thinking about me. It could lead to them saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. “They’ll want to be on their way as quickly as possible, once the sun rises. If they ask for anything, within reason, give it to them. And give them my regards.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Cathy said.

    I looked back at Sandy. “We’ll talk tomorrow about the rest of the letters,” I said. “But we need to do the protections first.”

    Sandy took the hint and stood. “Of course, My Lady,” she said. “I’ll have everything ready for you.”

    She left the room, leaving us alone. I breathed a sigh of relief, even as I heard thunder rumbling and water starting to splatter against the windows once again. We were home.
     
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    “You should probably get some sleep,” Callam said, as we finished our dinner. It was very simple, compared to the food in Shallot, but it was tasty and filling and we didn’t need anything else. “And so should I.”

    I nodded. It had been a long day and my body honestly wasn’t sure what time it actually was. The clock insisted it was evening; my body insisted the clock was lying. It would take some time to get used to the gloom again, I told myself, as I pushed the plate into the centre of the table. It didn’t matter, not to me, if the maids didn’t collect them until the following day. I had the feeling I was going to sleep late, rather than return to my usual schedule at once. It wouldn’t cost me anything if I slept in, just once.

    “Yeah.” I stood and held out a hand. “Shall we?”

    The corridor outside felt cold and dark, even though the lamps were glowing brightly. I scowled as I felt another shiver running down my spine, the quiet so ... pervasive that it felt as if the world was waiting for something to happen. I forced myself to think as we made our way down the hall, stopping in front of Callam’s bedrooms. Sandy had said the ghosts were back ... they’d been frightening, six years ago, but they hadn’t harmed me. Not here, at least. The ghosts in the fallen city had come within an eyeblink of killing me.

    My mind churned. No one had come up with a really good explanation for ghosts, although there were hundreds of theories. Some claimed ghosts were the last remnants of powerful magicians, their passing leaving an impression on the world around them; some claimed ghosts were family magics, haunting their descendents ... some even implied ghosts were glimpses of alternate worlds, of planes of reality so different from ours that we could only see them at the corner of our eyes. I had no idea which one was true, although I rather hoped the ghosts were traces of our ancestors. It would be nice to think there was something of my father left in the mortal world.

    But if that was true, my thoughts pointed out, they’d be traces of Uncle Ira too.

    Callam glanced up and down the corridor, then gave me a quick hug. I hugged him back, before gently pushing him towards the door. The room was his room. It felt wrong to even think about entering, whatever our relationship. I wondered, as he winked at me and stepped inside, if I should start preparing the marital bedchamber. My parents had had separate rooms of their own, as well as the master bedroom. I thought I understood why. They’d both needed spaces to themselves, as well as a place to sleep together.

    I flushed at the thought as I made my way to my chambers. I didn’t want to think about it. I knew my parents must have slept together at least once, but ... I shook my head. They hadn’t told me much about how it worked, either. It had been Callam’s mother who’d filled me in on the details and ... I wondered, suddenly, if she’d realised where things were going. I’d have to talk to them as soon as possible, to show them the marriage certificates and arrange the wedding. There were already too many irregularities around the whole affair for anyone’s peace of mind. Callam hadn’t asked my father’s permission to marry me ... not, I supposed, that I would have been pleased if he had. It might be customary, but the family had sent me into exile. They didn’t get a say in who I married.

    Although my father might not have brought it to their attention, I mused. And now he’s dead, no one can say it didn’t happen.

    I pushed open the door and stepped into my bedroom. It felt like home. I stepped over to the windows and peered out - the skies were dark, but I could see flashes of lightning in the distance - before pulling the curtains firmly closed. The wards felt normal, as if nothing had happened since I’d left the hall. I probed them anyway, just to be sure, then locked the door and changed into my dressing gown and headed for bed. I didn’t want the maids to wake me, not early in the morning. They could bring me my breakfast when I actually woke up.

    The bed felt soft and comfortable. I lay down and closed my eyes, muttering a spell to turn off the lights. The hall felt ... normal. I slowly drifted off to sleep ...

    ... And snapped awake, what felt like seconds later, convinced I was no longer alone.

    I froze, feeling sweat prickle on my forehead. I’d entertained the romantic notion, when Callam and I had grown closer, that one day he would sneak into my room after dark, even though I’d known it wasn’t going to happen. It was the stuff of romantic novels, not the real world. Callam wouldn’t - and, if he did, it would be a major scandal. His parents would throw a fit. They’d been reluctant to consent to him moving into the hall in the first place. It was only the fact he was a legal adult that had kept them from forbidding it altogether.

    My mouth opened as the sensation grew stronger, oppressive. It didn’t feel like Callam. It didn’t feel human. It felt ... I braced myself, half-expecting to feel something touching me in the darkness. It was hard, so hard, to concentrate. I knew plenty of spells I could use to defend myself, from simple tricks like freezing an attacker to nastier curses that could castrate or even kill someone who threatened my virtue, but I couldn’t bring any of them to my lips. I felt as if I was being held down by a great weight, by ...

    No, I thought. I gathered what remained of my strength, then kicked upwards. The blankets went flying. I shaped and cast a lightspell, even as I readied something nastier. Where ...?

    There was no one there. The room was empty. And yet, it no longer felt like mine. It was ... it was slanted, as if the world was very slightly off its axis. I felt like an intruder in my own chambers. I thought I felt something behind me and spun around, flames crackling over my fingertips, but there was nothing there. The room was empty and yet ... I was sure there was something, lurking at the corner of my eye. I understood, now, why so many of the servants wanted to stay in the town. The hall was creepy after dark.

    The window rattled. I stared at it. The storm outside was howling, gusts of wind battering the glass. Rain splattered against the windows ... I leaned back in bed, unsure if I’d been having a nightmare or if there’d been something in the room with me. Older mansions drew all kinds of supernatural vermin, I’d been told, although I’d seen nothing beyond ghosts at Kirkhaven. Perhaps they’d been scared of Uncle Ira. A warlock would have few qualms about cutting up brownies and pixies for his experiments.

    I rubbed my forehead, brushing away the sweat. Perhaps it had been a nightmare. It had been a long and disturbing day, even before Sandy had told me what had been happening in my absence. I’d had nightmares before, bad ones, after I’d been sent into exile, after Uncle Ira had nearly killed me. I wanted to believe it was nothing more than a nightmare. But it was hard to convince myself it was true. I no longer felt safe in my room.

    The wards hummed around me. I lay back in my bed, cancelling the light with a muttered spell. My heart was beating so loudly I was sure it was audible right down the hall. And yet ... perhaps I was still dreaming. Perhaps ...

    ... Something touched me.

    I couldn’t move. I was frozen, paralysed with terror. My body refused to obey my commands. I couldn’t lash out with my fists, or cast a spell, or even scream. I felt as if I was no longer alone, as if some creature was holding me prisoner ... I felt as if I was drowning, as if I’d walked into the mire and been sucked into the bog. The memory of watching a cow sink to its death, beyond all help of salvation, chilled me to the bone. Callam had warned me, years ago, that the mire was deadly. It had been hard to believe until I’d seen it myself.

    My body twisted, practically throwing me out of bed. I hit the floor hard and rolled over, muttering a defensive spell. Light flared, revealing ... nothing. The room was empty and yet ... it felt wrong, alien. It wasn’t mine any longer. Terror ran through me as I forced myself to my feet, the urge to fight or flee for my life running through me. The shadow seemed deeper, darker ... they seemed to move when I wasn’t looking. I felt something behind me, again, but this time I didn’t dare turn around. I had the feeling that, if I turned, it would be the last thing I ever did. Sweat ran down my back. It was all I could do to inch towards the door.

    The shadows shifted, again. I panicked and ran, throwing open the door and fleeing into the corridor. The cold struck me like a physical blow. I felt trapped in a nightmarish place between wakefulness and sleeping, as if the world was both normal and yet, at the same time, completely alien. The lights should have come on automatically, as the wards sensed my presence. They should have banished the darkness and yet ... instead, they barely seemed to light at all.

    I whimpered, suddenly unsure what to do. Cathy and Sandy and nearly everyone else would be asleep, in the servant quarters. They wouldn’t thank me for running to them. And yet ... the shadows flickered again, driving my panic. I ran down the corridor, heading straight to Callam’s room. My thinking wasn’t clear. He couldn’t see the ghosts. Perhaps he could protect me from them. Perhaps they wouldn’t dare go near him. Perhaps ... my thoughts ran in frantic circles, each one madder than the last. It was hard, so hard, to focus as I pushed open the door and ran into his bedroom. I hadn’t felt so afraid since Uncle Ira’s death.

    There were no lights in his room, but a faint radiance shimmered through the windows. The moon hung in the air, beams of silver light pouring into the room. It was enough, barely, to let me see him sitting up in bed. Callam was a heavy sleeper, and he had to be as tired as I’d been, but ... I’d made a lot of noise as I crashed into his room. It crossed my mind, just for a second, that I might be about to compromise myself, but ... I was too scared to care. I was sure something was after me, something all the worse for being only half-seen.

    “Isabella?” Callam sounded groggy. “What?”

    I lunged into his bed and wrapped my arms around him. He hugged me back automatically, although he was clearly shocked. He might have entertained thoughts of me coming to him, in the middle of the night, but not like this. I was shaking like a leaf on a tree ... I wanted to bury myself in his arms and forget about the world. And yet ... I knew I couldn’t. Whatever had chased me from my room might be coming after me.

    “Isabella?” Callam drew back, slightly. “What happened?”

    “I ...” I found it hard to put the feeling into words. “I ... there was something in my room.”

    Callam held me, gently, as I struggled to think. He hadn’t visited the hall, let alone slept in one of the bedrooms, until after the ghosts had vanished. And he couldn’t see the wretched things anyway. He could sleep comfortably, without being disturbed by night terrors ... I felt a sudden surge of envy, mingled with something I didn’t want to look at too closely. Cat hadn’t had an easy time of it, when she’d seemed to be nothing more than a powerless throwback. I wouldn’t have had it any better, if I’d been born with her talent. Akin would have been kind to me - I was sure of it - but Francis and Penny would have treated me like something a gentleman’s gentleman would scrape off a shoe.

    “It’s alright,” Callam said. “You’re safe now.”

    I twisted in his arms until he was pressed against my back, his arms still wrapped around me. He felt warm, warm and welcoming and safe. His room felt ... normal, reassuringly normal. It was suddenly very easy to believe I’d imagined everything, that I’d been having a nightmare and that I’d let it get the better of me ... I had been through a lot, in the past two months. I’d gotten engaged, become Heir Primus, thrown it away, defeated a coup and, finally, been allowed to return home. Cold logic suggested nightmares should be expected, particularly here. And yet, it had felt very real.

    Tiredness overcame me. I had a thought, just for a second, that the maids might wake Callam in the morning, that they’d bring him coffee and discover me in his bed. It would be a scandal ... I was too tired and scared to care. My awareness faded away as he shifted against me, his warmth banishing the shadows. It felt wonderful to be in his arms ...

    The light woke me, snapping me back to awareness. Callam had left his curtains undrawn, allowing the sunlight to stream through the windows and wake me. It didn’t feel wrong to be in his arms, even through one of his hands had cupped my breast in his sleep. I pulled free gingerly, trying not to wake him. The night felt like a bad dream. I would have wondered if anything had happened, if I hadn’t woken in his bed. He’d driven the shadows away.

    Magic doesn’t linger on him, I reminded myself, as I sat upright. If something did happen, last night, it might not have been able to effect him.

    I frowned as I brushed my hair out of my eyes. It felt grimy, as if I hadn’t washed it for weeks. The clock insisted it was early morning ... I gritted my teeth as I stood, brushing down my nightgown. It was decent, even by my mother’s exacting standards, but it wasn’t meant to be worn in public. I shook my head as I pulled it around me. It wasn’t as if I’d had time to get dressed properly before fleeing for my life.

    Callam shifted in bed. I wanted to climb back under the covers, even though I knew - in the cold light of day - it was a bad idea. Someone would notice. Someone would talk. I was fairly sure someone on my staff had been reporting to my father, although they clearly hadn’t been very good at it. They’d missed Callam’s true nature completely. I smiled, then scowled as another thought struck me. They wouldn’t have to report to Shallot to cause problems for me. They’d just have to gossip where Callam’s parents would hear it.

    I sighed, then headed for the door. The corridor outside was cold, so cold I had to wrap my arms around myself as I walked back to my room. Something moved, ahead of me ... I nearly threw a curse at the figure before realising it was one of the younger maids. She’d probably annoyed Cathy, if she’d been landed with the job of lighting the early morning fires and whatever else maids did before their mistresses woke. I did my best to pretend she wasn’t there as I passed. Technically, she should have been out of sight. I hoped that meant she wouldn’t tell anyone she’d seen me.

    Not that the servant passageways are much use here, I reflected. We never bothered to renovate most of them.

    The maid said nothing. I felt a twinge of pity, which I pushed aside ruthlessly. It would be better for everyone if I kept pretending I hadn’t seen her. She was young, young enough to be allowed a few mistakes ... I told myself, firmly, that I wasn’t going to wind up like Lady Dandelion or Reginald Bolingbroke. If the rumours were true, they did things to their maids that shocked even the hardened souls of the aristocracy. I could only pray the stories were made up of whole cloth.

    My room felt ... normal, as I stepped inside and pushed open the curtains. Bright sunlight banished the shadows, casting the chamber into sharp relief. It was easy to believe, now, that it had been a nightmare. The room seemed untouched by outside forces. And yet ... I hadn’t imagined it. I was sure I hadn’t imagined it.

    Someone could have tinkered with the wards, I told myself. The wards felt normal too, but - from what I’d been told - the first thing any intruder would do when he broke into a warded property was to fix the wards to ensure they kept insisting everything was perfectly normal. They’re so complex it would be difficult to spot a subtle alteration.

    I shook my head. I was grasping at straws. Whatever had happened, last night, hadn’t been my imagination, or a nightmare, or the results of subtle suggestions from a concealed hex or curse. It had been real. I’d been driven from my chambers and sent running into someone else’s bed ...

    ... And yet, in the bright sunlight, it felt nothing more substantial than a dream.
     
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Ten

    “Isabella,” Callam said, as I entered the dining room. “What happened last night?”

    It struck me, suddenly, that he must have wondered if he’d been dreaming too. He’d been in the twilight world between sleeping and wakefulness when I’d crashed into his room ... he might have been sure he’d been dreaming, if I hadn’t left any evidence of my presence. Were there blonde hairs in his bed? I tried not to think about what would happen if the maids found them. They couldn’t possibly have come from him.

    “I’m not sure,” I admitted. In the cold light of day, it was hard to believe what I’d done. It wasn’t the first time we’d fallen asleep together, but it was the first time we’d shared a bed for the night. “There were ...”

    The memories seemed faded, as if they truly were nothing more than dreams. And yet ... I shook my head, trying to convey the suggestion I didn’t want to talk about it just yet. Callam seemed concerned, but disinclined to pry. I breathed a sigh of relief as the maids entered, bringing eggs, toast and coffee. We ate quickly, the horrors of the night slowly fading from our minds. If I hadn’t woken in his bed, only a couple of hours ago, I would have thought it was nothing more than a dream.

    Sandy entered, looking disgustingly fresh. “The overnight coach is on its way, with a letter of understanding,” she said. “Hopefully, it won’t cause any problems.”

    I nodded. Sandy would have written the letter to explain why the coach had been delayed, rather than continuing its journey through the rainy night. I hoped no one looked at it too closely. I’d told Sandy to be vague, but there were laws against writing blatant lies into letters of understanding and there was only so much she could say without crossing the line and rendering herself vulnerable. I told myself it probably wouldn’t matter. The coach wasn’t taking vitally important messages, messages too sensitive to be trusted to quicker means of communication. Akin had simply drawn up the plans to provide a convenient cover to get us back home.

    “The trunks are still in the hallway,” Sandy added. “Do you want them sent up to your chambers?”

    “I think we’d better unpack most of the stuff downstairs,” I said. “Can you find a map of the estate and put it in the secretary’s office?”

    “Of course,” Sandy said. “And the letters?”

    “Put them there too,” I said. “I’ll read them after lunch.”

    Sandy nodded and left the room. I turned my attention back to my breakfast and finished it quickly. The maids had left a newspaper beside the plate, but it was at least a week out of date. The front story was all about the ... incident ... at House Aguirre, an incident I recalled well. I’d been there. The story was long on speculation and short on actual detail; the writer, I noted, seemed to have plucked some of his facts from thin air. King Rufus’s grandson hadn’t been killed in the incident, as the paper claimed, for the very simple reason he hadn’t been anywhere near the city. The poor kid’s father had been a traitor who’d betrayed his father. It couldn’t be easy for him, growing up under his grandfather’s watchful eye. And yet, he was still a child. He was younger than I’d been when I went into exile.

    I put the paper aside, resisting the urge to write to the editor and point out the inaccuracies. The writer wrote to shock and amuse, not to convoy information. I stood, brushed down my shirt and trousers and headed for the door. Callam followed, looking thoughtful. I took his hand and squeezed it, wishing - not for the first time - that we didn’t have to worry about watching eyes. It would be different once we were married.

    Although we’d still have to be careful what we did in the public eye, I thought. Too much public affection would set tongues wagging too.

    I scowled. It wasn’t going to be easy. I couldn’t recall my parents ever showing affection when they were in public, beyond holding hands. They’d never kissed where I - or anyone - could see them. I didn’t know how they coped. There had been times, over the last year, when Callam and I had gone into the woods, just so we could kiss without risking everything. I felt my mood darken as I remembered some of the horror stories I’d been told, when I’d been too young to truly understand them. I knew, now, why young girls - and boys - went too far and plunged into scandal. My hormones wanted it. It was hard to understand why i should tell them to shut up.

    The entrance hall was brightly lit, sunlight flowing through the big windows. The garden beyond looked as unkempt as always, a reminder my limited staff didn’t have time to take on the gardening as well as everything else. Truthfully, I rather liked the garden as it was. It lacked the neatness of the gardens back home, the ones maintained by small armies of gardeners to the point that nothing was out of place, but it was definitely pretty. Uncle Ira hadn’t bothered to do anything, leaving the trees and bushes to grow as they pleased. I had to admit the result was quite pleasing to me.

    “We should go for a walk later,” Callam said, as we stopped by the trunks. “Or go now, before it rains again.”

    I hesitated, unsure. I did need to check the greenhouses and survey the servant houses and stables, particularly the homes that had been left empty after the refit. And the sun outside really wouldn’t last. I could see clouds in the distance, gathering around the hidden mountain peaks. I made a small bet with myself that the sunlight wouldn’t last for more than an hour - and even that was optimistic. I did want to go outside ...

    “We should do this first,” I said, opening the first trunk. “Our presence here won’t remain a secret for long.”

    Callam nodded, although I could tell he didn’t believe me. Not really. I pulled apart the packing material and stared down at the Objects of Power, nesting in the bedding. Cat had outdone herself. They were small - the largest was no bigger than my head - and yet they glimmered with suppressed potential. It was hard to even look at them closely without feeling as though my head was about to hurt, as my vision was dragged in directions my mind refused to comprehend. I tried not to feel envious. Cat - and Callam - had remarkable talents, but they were also horribly vulnerable. They’d both be prisoners still, if their captors had realised how their talents really worked.

    “We might have to plan these carefully,” I said. Putting the central spellstone in the heart of the mansion wouldn’t be that hard, but putting the smaller ones in place outside the hall would be tricky. “They have to cover the entire estate or the whole exercise will be worse than useless.”

    I put the Objects of Power back in the trunk and closed it, feeling an odd twinge of relief. The Objects of Power were essential, if we wanted to live here without dealing with kidnapping parties and invading armies, and yet there was something about them that felt unnatural. I frowned, remembering how odd Cat had seemed to me. Maybe it had just been me being a little brat. Cat and I had been destined to be enemies - and would have been, if she’d had a talent like mine. Instead ... I shook my head. I hadn’t had the same reaction to Callam. And Akin certainly hadn’t had it to Cat ...

    “She is good, isn’t she?” Callam looked down at the trunk, his gaze dark. “I’ll never be as good as her.”

    “You don’t have to be,” I assured him. “You just need to know what you can do.”

    I straightened and strode into my office. It had been abandoned years ago, perhaps when Uncle Ira had taken possession of the hall, and left empty until the renovations had begun. I’d claimed it as my office, the centre of my business; private enough for me without being so private none of my staff could enter without my permission. There were hints of Sandy’s presence everywhere, from her perfume drifting in the air to a half-completed letter resting on the desk. I glanced at it, skimming the words. She was telling someone, very diplomatically, to go jump off a cliff. The letter beside the draft told me why. The writer wasn’t just asking for something complex, but something so dark it was utterly illegal.

    Bastard, I thought. What do you want with a binding potion?

    The map lay on the table, as I’d asked. I stared down at it, silently comparing the ancient document with the reality I’d explored over the last five years. The old mapmakers had been good, given their limitations - a great many mapmaking magics had been lost when the empire fell - but time had taken its toll. There were buildings on the map that had been abandoned and worn down by the weather hundreds of years ago, as well as buildings that were missing because they hadn’t existed when the map was drawn. I frowned, wondering why so many parts of the surrounding estate had been shaded black by the artist. Had something been there, once upon a time? Or had the artist intended to come back and fill them out later? There were some family secrets that were only passed down by word of mouth. It was quite possible someone had died early, I reflected, and the secret he’d kept had died with him.

    “Cat said the protections would adapt to the estate,” Callam said, as he stood next to me. “But we have to be careful where we put them.”

    I nodded, slowly. Magical theory had never really been one of my specialities. My early tutors had drilled the basics into my head, but I’d been kicked out of school well before I could advance into the higher classes. I’d done my best to keep up with my peers - particularly as Callam knew far less than me - yet I knew my limits. I’d have to get Sandy to check the maths, before we started emplacing the Objects of Power. A mistake would be difficult to fix. I doubted Cat would be willing to come all the way to Kirkhaven just to help us sort out the mess.

    And she isn’t even in Shallot, I reminded myself. My brother hadn’t been clear on how long Cat would be in the Eternal City. She won’t get our messages until it’s far too late to be helpful.

    I sat down, reached for a piece of paper and started to work my way through the calculations. Some of it went against the grain, as if two plus two actually equally three. I had to remind myself, sharply, that Objects of Power didn’t have the same limitations as Devices of Power. The rules were different. They could cast a far more reliable web of protections over the estate, as long as they were put in the right place and left unmoved. My head started to ache painfully. It wasn’t easy to think like ... like Cat. No wonder she’d had so much trouble at school. She’d been taught things that, to her, just weren’t so.

    Focus, I told myself, sternly. Think about her later.

    It was nearly an hour before I managed to grind my way through all the calculations. Callam sat beside me, his presence reassuring even though he was drawing diagrams of his own rather than trying to help. I made a mental note to consider hiring a theoretical magician, if I could find one willing to relocate to Kirkhaven. He’d have a good chance to make a mark, if I paired him with Callam. Callam could turn his theories into reality and ...

    I sat back, rubbing my head. The calculations in front of me felt wrong. It felt as if I was deliberately making a mistake, as if I were sending my queen to be taken on the chessboard or walking outside my rooms without bothering to get dressed first. And yet ... I thought they were right. I stood, ringing the bell for a maid. When she arrived, I sent her to get Sandy. My head was hurting too much for me to take my work on faith. Better to check everything now than risk a mistake we couldn’t fix easily, if at all.

    “This should be easy to forge,” Callam said, holding out a diagram. “And then we can combine your magics and my talents to make something interesting.”

    I nodded, although my headache made it hard to be sure he was right. I’d have to check his work when I felt better, before he actually tried to forge it. Sandy entered, holding another letter in one hand. I took it, then wordlessly passed her the calculations. Sandy nodded, her brow furrowing as she studied my work. She wasn’t particularly interested in magical theory, but she’d had six years of schooling I lacked. In hindsight ...

    “Curious,” Sandy said, as her eyes moved from the calculations to the map and then back again. “This estate seems designed for Objects of Power-based wards.”

    “It is quite old,” I agreed. I wasn’t sure when the hall had actually been built, but the estate had been ours for centuries. It might well have belonged to us before the empire fell ... I cursed the missing records under my breath. Why hadn’t copies been kept right across the empire? No one had had any reason to think the empire would vanish overnight, but still. “Do you think I got the calculations right?”

    “I think so.” Sandy frowned, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to try to recheck the calculations after lunch. We don’t want any mistakes.”

    “No,” I agreed.

    “You also have a message,” Sandy added. There was a glimmer of amusement in her tone. “Master Tobias and Mistress Catha would like to invite you for lunch.”

    Callam sucked in his breath. “Really?”

    “Really.” Sandy made a show of raising her eyebrows. “You don’t think your parents want to see you - both of you - after your return from the city?”

    I flinched, suddenly unsure of myself. Callam hadn’t found it easy to meet my parents ... I shook my head, telling myself I’d met his parents hundreds of times. They lived on my estate! And yet ... this was different. Callam and I had been friends well before we’d started inching towards becoming lovers, before talking about marriage. Now ... I understood why so many romantic stories ended with the happy couple running away together. It just wasn’t easy to meet one’s future in-laws and tell them you were going to marry their child.

    What did our father think, I asked myself, when Cat proposed the betrothal?

    “I should have gone this morning,” Callam said. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “I forgot it was the weekend.”

    “Me too,” I said. There was no school on weekends, back in Shallot, but everything else was open. Up here, it was a rare shop that would be open during the weekend. The schoolhouse would be closed, Callam’s parents enjoying a day of peace before his father had to go back to work. “I’m sorry. I should have thought.”

    “Far be it from me to dispute it,” Sandy said, sweetly. “Anyway, you’re invited to their house at midday. I took the liberty of saying you’d probably attend.”

    I glanced at the clock. It was 1130. If she’d given me only thirty minutes warning back home ... I shook my head, looking down at myself. I didn’t have to wash, change into a dress and do my hair in accordance with the latest fashions. The locals would not be impressed. I could go in shirt and trousers ... perhaps a slightly looser shirt. It would suffice.

    “We have to go,” Callam said. “Did the documents arrive?”

    “They should be in the trunks,” I said. I’d have to dig them out. Technically, I could give myself permission to marry, but there was no point in creating potential legal headaches in the future. “Do you want to get changed?”

    Callam shook his head. “I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “They won’t expect to see me in anything more fancy.”

    I nodded. “Give me a moment to splash some water on my face, then I’ll join you,” I said. “We can walk down together.”

    “And I’ll have these ready for you after lunch,” Sandy said. She ran her eye down my work. “I think it shouldn’t be that hard to check the positioning before we start putting the spellstones in place.”

    I nodded, then hurried to the nearest bathroom to wash my face and check my appearance in the mirror. I had no makeup, but the locals wouldn’t be impressed if I did. Cosmetics - magical or mundane - were still frowned up, this far from the cities. I’d known girls get into real trouble for putting on lip gloss, let alone powdering their faces. And their brothers had been in hot water for experimenting with enhancement spells.

    My lips quirked, then thinned as I looked at myself. Callam’s parents were good people and yet ... I was nervous. What if they said no? They couldn’t, could they? Callam was a legal adult, as was I ... their permission was just a formality. It wasn’t as if they could threaten to disown him. Callam was hardly the heir to a duchy, who risked losing everything if his parents refused to bless his marriage. Right?

    Right, I told myself. And they already knew it was coming. Didn’t they?
     
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  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    This section is from Adam's POV
    Chapter Eleven: Adam

    “I have the feeling,” I muttered to Caroline, “that we may be in some trouble.”

    Caroline shot me a look that quelled my joke before it had ever really taken off. We were close, closer than we technically should be, but there were limits. Victory had a thousand fathers; defeat, and we’d been defeated, was an orphan. If we’d succeeded, if we’d pulled the mission off without a hitch, all irregularities would have been overlooked. We would have been hailed as heroes. Instead, we’d failed.

    I wondered, as we were escorted towards Tintagel Palace, if we should be in chains and magic-dampening shackles. The king would not be happy with us. There was a very good chance we would be summarily dismissed from his service, perhaps even sent straight to prison or the hangman’s noose. It didn’t matter that we’d been following orders, orders written by people who hadn’t seriously believed they’d ever need to be put into practice. We had failed and, worse, we’d been seen to fail. The king really would not be happy.

    And we’re deniable assets, I mused. No one would believe the king if he claimed we’d gone rogue, that we’d exceeded our orders to a truly absurd degree, but everyone would pretend to take his word for it. Better that than risk a major constitutional crisis, perhaps even a direct clash between King Rufus and the Great Houses. We might not be coming out of this alive.

    I took a breath as Tintagel Palace swallowed the skyline. It looked like just another aristocratic mansion, rather than the castles further to the north that marked the border, but I could feel the layers upon layers of wards protecting the king as we were guided to a concealed entrance. The local aristocracy would have people watching the regular entrances, making note of who got to enter through the main gatehouse and who was relegated to the side doors. They used it to determine who was in and who was out, who might command the king’s ear and who might be praying the king didn’t notice him until he climbed his way back into favour. I supposed we were the latter. The fact we hadn’t been allowed to enter through even the servants entrance was not a good sign. The king didn’t want anyone knowing we’d been summoned to explain ourselves.

    The door opened, revealing an antechamber and four stern-looking guards. I submitted to the search without complaint, even when they confiscated my sword, spellcaster and a handful of other devices. Caroline seemed to be carrying so many knives I honestly didn’t know how she could walk. The guards didn’t seem pleased or annoyed as they piled them up, putting them aside for our return. Our hopeful return. There was a very good chance we’d be rushed to the executioner’s block before someone started to ask awkward questions.

    And news of the flying city has probably already reached the capital, I thought. The king’s channels were the fastest in the kingdom, but there was no way to keep everyone else from sending word as quickly as possible. We were bare hours - at best - ahead of the news becoming public knowledge. The king might want to put a seal on the matter before it can be used to undermine his position.

    I glanced at Caroline and winced, inwardly. It might have been better for us personally if we’d escaped, taking advantage of the opportunities we’d been given to vanish. The king would have pronounced us traitors and put a bounty on our heads, but he wouldn’t have looked for us too hard. He might have found us. We could have fled to the border and vanished into Garstang, or the Southern Princedoms, or taken a clipper ship to the Silver Isles. But we couldn’t. We owed it to the king to explain our actions. And our families might suffer if we vanished before it was too late.

    The guards escorted us down a barren corridor, the wards pressing against our magics as we made our way to the king’s private chambers. The palace was huge, so immense it was easy to conceal a whole network of rooms and corridors the general public didn’t have the slightest idea existed. It reminded me of Jude’s, although the school had been thrown together by chance and constant expansion rather than deliberate planning. I wondered, morbidly, what had happened to the architects. It was never a good thing to know the secrets of a king and the royal family was known for its ruthlessness. King Rufus was merely the latest of a very long line, one that had no intention of ending with him.

    I braced myself as the guards opened the doors, revealing a small chamber. The king sat in a throne-like chair, waiting for us. I stepped into the chamber, sweat prickling down my back as I struggled to remember the protocol. I hadn’t been raised amongst the aristocracy. The Kingsmen had given me some basic training, but not enough. In hindsight, we might have been given the mission because any failures could be blamed on our youth and inexperience.

    “Kneel before the king,” the herald barked.

    We knelt. I studied the king as best as I could, trying not to make it obvious. He was a large barrel-chested man, easily old enough to be my grandfather. His armour glinted with protective spells, capable of deflecting anything save perhaps an Object of Power. His red hair was starting to turn grey, a grim reminder he wouldn’t be on the throne forever. The succession was going to be a nightmare. His son had betrayed him, leaving a minor child as heir to the throne. I feared Parliament would not be quick to confirm a child as king, or - worse - they’d gladly accept the chance to ram changes through the political system before the child grew old enough to rule in his own name. Legally, a minor child could renounce anything done in his name, before he reached his majority; practically, it was rarely so easy. The changes might have become too entranced to remove without a major fight.

    “Rise,” the king ordered. He sounded calm, too calm. “Tell me what happened.”

    I glanced at Caroline, who clasped her hands behind her back as she started to speak. We’d written incredibly detailed reports, all of which had been rushed to the capital almost before the ink had had time to dry, but the king wanted to hear it from our lips. I wasn’t sure if he wanted us to condemn ourselves or if he was looking for insights we hadn’t included in the original reports. The king wouldn’t have remained the king if he’d lacked for both cunning and a certain understanding of how people thought. His face was a blank mask. I wished I knew what he was thinking.

    If Caroline had any doubts, I couldn’t hear them in her voice. “We were assigned to escort the mission to the Eternal City, Your Majesty, under orders to both protect the explorers and, if necessary, take possession of anything that might threaten the balance of power. Matters were slightly complied by Lord Aguirre’s demand that we swear an oath to protect his daughter, Lady Caitlyn. Regardless, we remained with the mission and accompanied them during their probes into the ruined city.”

    She took a breath. “This rapidly became extremely dangerous. The city was infested with both grave robbers and ghosts, the latter nearly killing several of us. During one probe, we were attacked and scattered and nearly trapped in a still-operative forgery. Eventually, we were trapped. We believed the mission had come to a premature end.”

    Her words hung in the air. “We didn’t know, until we were rescued, that Caitlyn Aguirre had found a flying city in reasonably good condition. From what she told us, she was able to make enough repairs to get the city flying again, then heading back to the Eternal City. She couldn’t repair everything, not in time, but what she found was quite bad enough. Flying machines, meksects and a working forgery. In our judgement, the flying city didn’t just tilt the balance of power. It destroyed it beyond all hope of repair.”

    The king looked at me. I nodded. Everyone had hopes and dreams of finding an Object of Power that would make them invincible, at least for a few glorious months before someone else managed to find a way to counter or simply steal the artefact. Entire fortunes had been built on a single lucky strike; entire kingdoms had arisen and then fallen as their collections of ancient artefacts were put to use, then lost or stolen. I’d grown up on tales of noble warriors who’d been unbeatable, as long as they held their sword. I’d wanted to be one of them myself, although - in the long run - I probably couldn’t have made much of a difference.

    But the city was something else. It was in ruins - large sections were completely beyond repair, or simply unliveable - but that would change. Caitlyn had a forgery and a small army of meksects at her command. Given time, she could repair the damage and turn the flying city into a major threat to everyone. Even if she didn’t want to, I had no doubt her father - or her bitch of a sister - would see the implications. She hadn’t found one of the legendary flying battleships, or ironclads that had been unsinkable by any known magic, but the flying city was quite bad enough. The capital had no defence, if Cat decided to come calling. She could simply land her city on top of the palace and crush the wards under the weight.

    “We believed we had to take control, of both the city and Lady Caitlyn herself,” Caroline continued. “We laid our plans, then struck. We captured Caitlyn, then laid claim to the flight deck and took control. The rest of the passengers should have been unable to stop us, even if they’d realised what we were doing. However, we were unsuccessful. Caitlyn was somehow able to escape and turn the city against us. We were taken prisoner and escorted, in chains, to Shallot.”

    My gut burned. I still didn’t know how Cat had done it. She had no magic. We’d been careful to bind her, then strip her of her tools and keep her under guard. She should not have been able to free herself, let alone - somehow - get into place to retake the city. In hindsight, perhaps we should have killed her. She was a sweet girl, the nicest of her family, but her mere existence was a dangerous threat. I was surprised the king hadn’t ordered her sent to him long ago.

    Her family is very powerful, and she’s marrying into another powerful family, I reminded myself. And if even if that wasn’t true, the Great Houses would be reluctant to let the king push them around.

    The king studied us for a long moment. “What happened when you reached Shallot?”

    Caroline sounded irritated. “They were painfully polite,” she said. “We were held for two hours, then released into the royal representative’s custody. They didn’t even bother to question us.”

    They already knew our motives, I added, silently. And killing us would have risked a major clash with the monarchy.

    The king looked at me. “Do you have anything to add?”

    “No, Your Majesty,” I said. “We attempted to carry out our orders and failed.”

    “Quite,” the king agreed. “And your failure has had unfortunate consequences.”

    He didn’t elaborate, but he didn’t have to. My earlier thoughts haunted me. The king could throw us to the wolves, swearing blind he knew nothing of our plans. It was unlikely he’d take any responsibility, not when we’d failed. We’d risked everything, for nothing. If we’d taken the city, perhaps even crashed it into the waters, he might have been able to spin it in his favour. But we’d failed.

    His eyes moved from me to Caroline and back again. “Do you have anything you wish to say in your defence?”

    I hesitated, then shook my head. There was no point in offering excuses, not when the failure was just too great. My father had taught me there were times when you just had to admit your guilt, take your licks and try to learn from the experience. There was no justifications we could offer that hadn’t already crossed the king’s mind, no excuses that would save us from the consequences of our failure. My lips threatened to curve into a deeply inappropriate smile. I’d known the job was dangerous when I’d taken it. And that I might be disowned, like a girl who’d disgraced her family, if I screwed up.

    “No, Your Majesty,” Caroline said.

    I felt a twinge of guilt. My family were powerless. There was a good chance they’d pass unnoticed, when the public recriminations began. Caroline, on the other hand, was a natural-born child from an aristocratic family. They’d disown her - again - the moment they realised what had happened. It might take some time, I reflected. Caroline wasn’t exactly an uncommon name, while she’d dropped her family name when she’d joined the Kingsmen. Her disgrace might just pass unnoticed ... no, that wasn’t likely. Her family had plenty of enemies. One of them would blow the whistle.

    “Very good,” the king said. “It is my considered judgement, as your monarch, that your actions made sense. You acted in the best interests of the kingdom, in line with the oaths you swore when you entered my service. That you failed does not, in my view, render your motives invalid.”

    I braced myself. His words were kind, but I knew the other shoe was about to fall.

    “That said, your failure has led to a political crisis,” he continued. “We have been seen to step outside the normal formal constraints and, worse, be unsuccessful. We might have been able to finesse the politics, if you had succeeded, but you failed. This requires a degree of punishment, to convince watchers that the matter has been handled.”

    You want to use us as scapegoats, I thought. I understood, all too well. What choice do you have?

    “Fortunately, I have a second mission that requires a pair of agents on long-term deployment,” the king said. “Officially, you will have been sent into internal exile; unofficially, you will have a task to carry out. Your orders, unfortunately, will be a little vague. A great deal depends on precisely what happens. Our contingency plans, and orders issued, may wind up outdated before they’re even written down.”

    I winced. This wasn’t going to be good.

    The king leaned forward. “Adam, I believe you have met Isabella of House Rubén?”

    “The traitor,” I said. I vaguely recalled her as a young girl, shortly before the coup. I’d probably laid eyes on her in Shallot, before we headed to the Eternal City, but she hadn’t made an impression. “I can’t say we’re friends. I doubt she remembers me.”

    Caroline cleared her throat. “There was a vague suggestion her partner lacked magic ...”

    The king nodded. “Yes. Callam, son of Tobias, is a Zero. And, apparently, engaged to Isabella of House Rubén.”

    “Oh.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. If there was anyone who embodied the ideal of the spoilt aristo brat, it was Isabella Rubén. And yet ... I reminded myself she’d been twelve when I’d known her. She might have grown up a little, after being sent into exile. I wouldn’t have cared to put money on it, but it was possible. “Another Zero ...”

    “Their declared intention is to return to Kirkhaven as quickly as possible,” the king informed us. “My sources within the city had noted Isabella hasn’t been seen in public for a couple of days, which may suggest she and her partner are already on their way back home. This creates an interesting dilemma. Leaving them alone is not an option, but - at the same time - trying to force them to work for the crown may not be an option either. And, because they’re so close to the border, there is a very real risk they might be kidnapped or killed before we can react.”

    Caroline frowned. “Surely, her family would have considered the risks.”

    “I assume so,” the king said. “We dare not rely on whatever protections her family may have put in place, no matter what form they take. We have to assume the worst, that they will be targeted ... or, for that matter, that she might have plans of her own. The fact she apparently didn’t tell her father about her boyfriend, when recruiting him would have washed away all her sins, is worrying. She made a very deliberate choice to stay in Kirkhaven.”

    “She may have decided to honour his wishes,” Caroline said. “If her plans rely on his cooperation ...”

    I tried not to snort. Isabella Rubén was a ... a Rubén. It was hard to believe she’d take anyone’s concerns seriously, if that person couldn’t trace his family all the way back to the empire and beyond. She’d committed treason at twelve! If she could do that, what else could she do?

    “Regardless, your orders are to take up residence near the estate and keep an eye on them from a distance,” the king said. “If nothing happens, hopefully matters will stabilise here and we can hand the mission to a long-term team. If something does happen ... your superiors will discuss possible contingencies with you this afternoon, but you may be thrown back on your own wits. At worst ...”

    He paused. “At worst, you may have to take them both out. Quickly. Do you understand me?”

    Kill them, I translated. I didn’t join the Kingsmen to be an assassin.

    Caroline bowed her head. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    “Good,” the king said. “My aide will take you to the planning chambers. I want you out of the city by nightfall.”

    I nodded. It was harsh, but better than we had a right to expect. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
     
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    The skies were suspiciously blue as we made our slow way down the driveway, unwilling to reach the point we had to stop holding hands. I could hear insects buzzing through the trees, taking advantage of the bright sunlight to search for pollen and whatever else they did before the rain came again. We stepped between puddles of water, trying not to get our trousers soaked before we reached the tiny residences. Callam’s parents would not be impressed if we were wet, on a rare dry morn.

    I heard my heart thumping as we rounded the corner, letting go of Callam’s hand an instant before we came into view. There was no sign of his parents, as we made our way towards their house, but I knew from grim experience it wasn’t always easy to spot a pair of watching eyes. Callam’s father was a minor magician - his daughters had more power in their little fingers than he had in his entire body - yet he was far from inept. He and his wife could be watching us from a safe distance ...

    You’re being paranoid, I told myself. The rules aren’t so strict here.

    My mouth was dry. I swallowed, wishing I’d thought to bring water. The rules might be strict, back in Shallot, but everyone knew them. The family elders would conduct the first talks, haggling for hours over the terms of the marriage agreement before the lawyers - both sets of lawyers - earned their pay by suggesting changes that protected the interests of the happy couple. And then ... I remembered Akin’s description of how our father and Cat’s father had haggled too, determining what sort of dowry would be settled upon them both ... I cringed, silently glad I wouldn’t be doing that. Akin wasn’t something to be sold to the highest bidder and nor was I.

    And neither is Cat, I thought. She’s a person in her own right too.

    The cottage looked warm and friendly, but it was hard not to feel intimidated as we stepped through the gate and walked up to the door. The building had been on the verge of falling apart, six years ago, before it had been heavily renovated. Now ... I watched water pouring from the gutters and frowned, reminding myself I had to check on the greenhouses. They’d looked fine, from a distance, but I had to be sure. It would be a pain if I had to rebuild one or more of them from scratch.

    Callam knocked on the door, then waited. I told myself there was no reason to worry, if his parents didn’t open the door at once. They had no doorman, no one tasked with opening the door and nothing else. Father had once told me it was a sign of wealth and power to hire a man for a simple task, even though it struck me as wasteful. The poor man couldn’t do anything when his services weren’t required, but wait. Surely, there was something else he could have been doing while waiting ...

    The door opened. Callam’s mother stepped out and swept him into a hug. I felt an odd mix of emotions I didn’t want to look at too closely, for fear of what they might say about me. My mother had never been so demonstrative, not even in private. Mistress Catha ... she was smart and insightful and wore her emotions on her sleeve. She was genuinely pleased to see her son again. And perhaps she was pleased to see me.

    “Isabella,” she said, giving me a quick hug. She smelt of fresh-baked bread, not perfume. “It’s good to see you too.”

    “Thank you,” I said, returning the hug. It had taken me years to convince her to stop calling me ‘My Lady.’ “It’s good to be home.”

    “Come in, come in,” Mistress Catha said. “Tobias is just on his way.”

    I followed them into the living room, marvelling at how cramped and yet homely the cottage managed to be. The scent of bread hung in the air, mingling with something I couldn’t quite place. A pair of drawings hung on one wall; a second was covered in shelves crammed with old books, from writing primers to spellbooks. The furniture was bold and crude and yet there was something fitting about it. I smiled as she directed me to the table. It might be cramped, but it felt like a true home.

    “How was the city?” Mistress Catha placed glasses of milk in front of us. “Were the streets really paved with gold?”

    “Big,” Callam said, deadpan. “And no, the streets were ordinary cobblestones.”

    I smiled as I sipped my milk. It was fresh and wonderfully creamy. “We had a good time,” I said. “But it’s great to be home.”

    Master Tobias stepped inside and nodded to his son. He seemed to have grown older, in the months since I’d last laid eyes on him, although that could have been something to do with his work. The value of education was important, as far as the locals were concerned, but so too was having the young folk working on the farms or in the homes. They couldn’t attend school regularly, not like the cityfolk. Master Tobias did not have an easy job.

    Callam lifted the folder he’d been carrying. “We have some documents and ...”

    “Eat first,” his mother said, as she carried a large bowl into the room and placed it on the table. “We’ll discuss more practical matters after lunch.”

    I nodded, smiling as she removed the lid to reveal a simple soup. The locals didn’t waste anything, not even animal bones and vegetable scraps. It had taken me a while to learn how they made chicken and vegetable soup, rending down the bones for stock and then boiling vegetables to extract every last bit of flavour. And that was one of the simpler recipes. I really didn’t want to know how they made some of the odder meals. The sheep’s stomach had been quite bad enough.

    Tobias leaned forward as his wife ladled out the soup. “Did you see the girls?”

    “They’re having fun,” Callam said. “Apparently, they’re the terrors of the school.”

    I nodded. Callam’s twin sisters were strong enough to be holy terrors - and, thanks to the magics I’d taught them, it was unlikely their peers would be able to force them to bend the knee. The reports suggested it was a toss-up between them graduating at the top of the class and being expelled for bad behaviour. I hoped it would be the former. My father - I felt a pang at his loss - had hinted they might just be our clients, ensuring it wouldn’t be easy to expel them.

    “A shame they couldn’t come up for the summer,” Mistress Catha said. “It would be good to see them again.”

    I felt another pang as I dug into the soup. It was tradition for common-born students to spend the summer holidays in the city, all the better to separate them from their families. It was expensive to take the stagecoach all the way to Caithness and then walk to Kirkhaven, but ... it wasn’t impossible. I could have paid for it, if I’d thought of it. And yet ... I sighed inwardly. Callam had mixed feelings about his sisters. His talents were far rarer, and far more useful, but that hadn’t stopped them being little brats to him. He might not have been happy if I’d offered to pay for them to visit their home.

    The chatter ran around the table, touching on everything from the new schoolhouse in the town to stories from distant Caithness and Shallot that were hopelessly out of date. I listened quietly, feeling twinges of envy at how close Callam was to his parents. They didn’t have responsibilities to a greater family, to put the interests of the family ahead of their children ... I felt the knot of tension in my chest slowly unwind as I realised they wouldn’t regard me as an unsuitable match. Even if they did, they wouldn’t stand in Callam’s way. I finished my soup and took a little more, wondering if my peers knew what they were missing. The recipe didn’t sound very nice, but one couldn’t argue with the results.

    “So,” Mistress Catha said, when she cleared away the soup bowls and refilled our glasses with milk. “What do you want to show us?”

    Callam flushed. “Her father gave us permission to wed,” he said, reaching for the file. “And her brother confirmed it.”

    Master Tobias lifted a single eyebrow. “Her brother?”

    “My father was murdered,” I said, tartly. I ran through a brief explanation, covering all the salient points while leaving out the details that would upset them for nothing. “My brother, who took his place, confirmed his approval of our marriage.”

    “I see.” Mistress Catha studied me thoughtfully. “Are you pregnant?”

    I spluttered, shocked. It wasn’t an unreasonable question - country folk didn’t always marry until the bride was pregnant, just to confirm she could - but I was fairly sure I wasn’t pregnant. Not yet. There were horror stories about what happened to women who got pregnant out of wedlock, if they were aristocrats. The best they could hope for was being told to raise the child somewhere well away from Shallot. No one would give up a child of the blood, but ...

    “No,” I said. A flash of anger ran through me. “And I should know, too.”

    Callam reddened, slightly. Tobias affected the deafness that came over men whenever women’s issues were mentioned. Mistress Catha looked torn between amusement and concern. I hastened to assure her, ignoring male embarrassment, that - as far as I knew - both Callam and I were fully fertile and indeed compatible. Probably. I didn’t know if Callam’s talents would breed true. If they did ... I gritted my teeth. Cat hadn’t had an easy time of it, growing up powerless in a family known for great magics. My children might have the same problem.

    “I’m pleased to hear it,” Mistress Catha said. “When and where do you intend to get married?”

    “In town,” Callam said. “We should probably throw a party.”

    I nodded. One thing Kirkhaven and Shallot had in common, when it came to weddings, was that they were social events. Everyone got invited and, even if they weren’t, they came anyway. It was a chance for everyone to eat, drink and make merry, staying in the tent long after the newly-weds had made their escape. I’d attended several myself, in my role as Lady of Kirkhaven. I could hardly refuse to put on a party now. It would be most ... impolite.

    Just because the rules are different here doesn’t mean they don’t exist, I thought. And everyone expects they’ll be invited.

    “And a fairly standard ceremony?” Mistress Catha leaned forward. “Or will you be bringing something up from Shallot?”

    I shrugged. The legalities had already been arranged. There’d been no need for an extensive marriage contact, not when Callam was a commoner and I was - technically - out of the line of succession. We might wind up with problems if Akin and Cat didn’t have children, rendering our children potential heirs, but ... I shook my head. It wasn’t going to happen. I was quite happy to hold a party, let the mayor declare us married and leave it at that. We didn’t need a ten-day celebration that would put a coronation to shame.

    “Yes,” I said. “We can honour local tradition if you wish.”

    “It might be politic,” Master Tobias agreed.

    Mistress Catha stood. “I need to clean up in the kitchen,” she said, looking at me. “Perhaps you would like to assist me?”

    Because you want to talk in private, I added, silently. Mistress Catha had never asked me to help her clean up before, although that might change when I was her daughter-in-law. They were meant to help their mothers-in-law. Some of them resented it so bitterly I had no trouble understanding why they’d headed to Caithness and vanished. What do you want to say?

    The kitchen was small, barely large enough for the two of us. I heard Mistress Catha mutter a privacy spell, ensuring the men couldn’t overhear. I wondered, idly, if Callam believed I was actually helping her. It was unlikely. I’d been taught to clean my own equipment - my tutors had insisted on it - but not to wash dishes like a kitchen maid. Morag had hammered some cooking skills into me, yet ... no, it wasn’t likely. I’d hired a cook almost as soon as I’d inherited the hall.

    “My son is very fond of you,” Mistress Catha said. “Are you fond of him?”

    “Yes,” I said. My mouth was suddenly dry. Again. I liked Callam - I found him attractive, I enjoyed his company - but I wasn’t blind to the advantages of binding him to me. His talents were remarkable - and rare. “I ... I love him.”

    Mistress Catha eyed me for a long cold moment. “You come from very different worlds,” she said. “Have you talked about expectations?”

    I said nothing. It had never really occurred to me that things would be different. And yet, it should have done. My only model for marriage was my parents and they hadn’t been as happy as they might have wished. They’d slept in separate beds, once their children had been born. Would Callam expect the same? Or something different? I didn’t know.

    Mistress Catha met my eyes. “Marriage is a lifetime commitment,” she said, quietly. “You will walk into the tent a young girl and emerge a woman, linked to a man by bonds no one can break. You and he will have to learn to live together, to understand each other and work out compromises that will allow you to overcome the first bumps in the road. I’ve seen marriages where one partner completely dominates the other, using fists or a sharp tongue to make sure they remain in charge, and those marriages are never happy. Even a much less ... unpleasant ... marriage can go sour, if the people involved become more concerned with being right, all the time, than living together. You don’t have to be right about everything and nor does he.”

    I flushed. “I know I’m not perfect.”

    “No one is,” Mistress Catha said. “And because you are from different worlds, you will have different expectations. What do you want from him? What does he want from you?”

    “I ...” I found myself unable to answer. “We’ll work it out.”

    “You must,” Mistress Catha agreed. “You will have children, sooner or later. What sort of world do you want to make for them?”

    She reached out and rested a hand on my shoulder. “Talk to him,” she said. “You are making a lifetime commitment, not ... spending a day in his company.”

    I sucked in my breath. I’d known girls, back in Shallot, who’d treated their wedding day as the highlight of their life. They’d worked towards it, spending vast fortunes in a bid to outshine everyone else ... perhaps I would have done the same, if I’d stayed in the city. But none of them had given any thought to what would happen on the day after the wedding, let alone the rest of their lives. I wondered if my parents had been the same, when they’d gotten married. Hell, what sort of wedding would Cat demand from Akin?

    Cat’s too practical to be impressed by a wedding that costs more than a fleet of clipper ships, I told myself. She’d be happy with a simple exchange of vows.

    “I’ll talk to him,” I promised. I didn’t think Callam would want a marriage where he was in control, all the time, but he wouldn’t want me in total control either. “And ... we’ll plan from there.”

    “Good.” Mistress Catha winked at me. “I know, it isn’t easy to have such discussions. But it’s better to have them now, before you’re committed, then to discover the hard way your expectations are incompatible.”

    She let go of me and turned away. “And there’s a second piece of advice I should give you,” she added. “The wedding is yours. The marriage is yours. Don’t let anyone, including me, try to make it about them. It’s your day.”

    “Maybe we should just run away,” I said, although I knew it wasn’t practical. Callam was right. We’d attended a bunch of wedding parties. We really should host one in return. “I’ll do my best.”

    I sighed, silently relieved my mother wouldn’t be attending. She’d do her best to take over, to craft the entire event from top to bottom ... I’d heard horror stories of overbearing mothers and mothers-in-law, whispered after Lights Out before I’d been sent into exile. There was something about a wedding that brought out the worst in people.

    “You’ve been good for him,” Mistress Catha said. “I’ll admit, I had my doubts when you and my son became friends. The stories about you were not good. But you’ve grown up and matured and become someone I’ll be proud to call my daughter-in-law. And I hope it won’t be long before I have grandchildren to sit on my knee.”

    I flushed, remembering how I’d made an utter fool of myself only two short months ago. If she’d seen me then ... it had been Callam who’d snapped me out of it, who’d taught me I no longer wanted what I was being offered. Embarrassing, yes. But I’d deserved it.

    “Me too,” I said, slowly. “Should we rejoin the men?”

    “Right now, Tobias is giving Callam a lecture,” Mistress Catha said. “We’ll rejoin them when they’re done.”

    “Oh dear, “ I said. “Should I be worried?”

    Mistress Catha smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “He’ll be concerned about what I might say to you too.”
     
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Thirteen

    “Do you want to talk about it?”

    I blinked as we made our way down to the greenhouses. We hadn’t stayed long, not after Mistress Catha and I had rejoined the men, but it was clear Callam was embarrassed. I wondered, numbly, what his father might have said to him. Advice for a happy marriage? Or ... I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Father and Akin had to have talked about it, when he’d grown old enough to realise what the betrothal actually meant. I was tempted to write to him and ask, but I doubted I’d get a straight answer. He’d probably been cautioned to keep the discussion private.

    “I don’t know,” I admitted. His mother was right. We did have to talk about our expectations. But it felt as if doing so would kill the marriage before it even got started. “What do you want from marriage?”

    “Not that,” Callam said. “Last night.”

    I felt myself flush and looked away. I’d half-hoped he’d forgotten. The sunlight had dimmed the memories, leaving me feeling silly for overreacting ... and I’d climbed into his bed. I’d never done that, not in all the time we’d been together. It was something neither of us had expected until we tied the knot. And yet ...

    “I was scared,” I admitted. “I was ...”

    Callam reddened, then looked away. I remembered, suddenly, that I’d woken to feel his hand on my breast. It wasn’t the first time he’d touched me there, or I’d touched him somewhere else, but ... I’d been asleep, unable to say yes or no. And yet, I’d climbed into his bed. I shook my head. It wasn’t as if he’d forced himself on me, or done something I could not forgive. For all I knew, he’d cuddled up to me while we’d both been asleep. I’d certainly cuddled up to him.

    “It was a bad night,” I said, finally. “And I’m glad you were there.”

    “I’m glad you came,” Callam said. He took my hand and squeezed it lightly. “What do you expect from marriage?”

    I had to smile, although the question bothered me. I’d thought about my future husband as a young girl, but my thoughts had all been idle fantasies, born of soppy novels and an awareness of my duty to the family. Sex didn’t exist. Children magically appeared from nowhere. Now ... I knew too much to be in a state of ignorant bliss. I was a young adult and it was time I acted like it.

    “We live together, sleep together, have children together,” I said. “And we run the business together.”

    Callam smiled. “Sounds like a plan.”

    I grinned back at him. There would be bumps along the road, as his mother had said. We would find it hard to share a suite, let alone a bed. I thought I understood why my parents had kept separate rooms, even when they’d been closer. I would find his things intermixed with mine, at the worst possible time. But we could get through it. As long as we loved and respected each other, we’d be fine.

    Remember, you have to respect him if you wish him to respect you, his mother had said. If you don’t show him what you want, he won’t show it to you.

    The greenhouses rose up in front of us, sparkling in the bright sunlight. I glanced towards the distant clouds, gathered around concealed peaks, then opened the door and led the way inside. The heat slapped against me like a physical blow. I felt sweat prickling down my back as I closed the door behind us, then walked down the aisle checking the pots and plants. The greenhouse was charmed to maintain a steady temperature, allowing the plants to grow in a climate that would normally kill them the instant they poked their shoots above the ground. It was inefficient, compared to the great greenhouses near the bigger cities, but it would suffice. I didn’t need ultra-rare - and expensive - ingredients when I had Objects of Power to assist with the brewing.

    And no one figured it out until I slipped up, I thought. Giving Akin the spellbreaker had saved his life, but it had set off a trail of hexes that had eventually led him back to me - and Callam. If things had been different ...

    “I think they’re welcoming you home,” Callam said. “They’re bending towards you.”

    I smiled, rolling my eyes as I inspected the pots. The plants did seem to be curving slightly towards the aisle, but it was more to do with some of them coming loose from the sticks holding them upright than anything else. I fixed a handful back in place, then made a mental note to come back and do the rest if Sandy hadn’t finished checking my calculations. I didn’t know how long she’d take. It might take most of the day.

    We may need to pick up the pace, I thought, as we walked to the second greenhouse. It won’t be long before the watchers realise we’ve returned home.

    The thought nagged at my mind. Strangers would stand out a mile, in Kirkhaven, but Caithness wasn’t that far away. There were hermits in the wood who lived on rainwater, roots and the occasional rabbit. A spy with proper training could sneak up to the edge of the wards and remain undetected, as long as he was careful. Callam had taught me how to live off the land. I had no doubt a spy could do it too.

    We chatted about nothing in particular as we walked through the remaining greenhouses, fixing a handful of damaged plants and picking up two dead roots for disposal ... I cursed under my breath as I noted the fire-seed tree had failed to flower. It had been a challenge to emplace the tree, let alone keep it properly fed and watered long enough for it to flower and seed. No wonder the seeds were so expensive, I noted. I’d have to try again next year, in hopes of producing something I could sell. The tree was pretty enough, but it was useless if it refused to flower.

    “No real damage,” I concluded, relieved. “The greenhouses remained stable.”

    Callam grinned. “I had faith in your spells.”

    I nodded, unable to resist the feeling the spells were more fragile than he knew. It was easy enough to charm glass against a single heavy blow - I’d been forced to master the spells as soon as I’d taken possession of the hall - but harder to protect them against constant battering from wind and rain. Each individual raindrop was so light it barely registered, but a small pool of water could be surprisingly heavy. I’d designed the greenhouses to keep water from pooling on the roof and yet, I feared it wouldn’t be enough. But the greenhouses had held.

    “We’d better go back to the house,” I said, despite the temptation to walk a little into the woods and kiss. “Sandy will be done by now.”

    Callam looked disappointed - he’d probably been having the same thought - but followed me up the hill and around the small pond. It was overflowing, water spilling out of the pool and splashing down towards the river. Whoever had designed the pond hadn’t expected quite so much rainfall, I figured, which was decidedly odd. Anyone who lived more than a few days in the hall would know just how often it rained. And yet ... I frowned, wishing, not for the first time, that I knew who’d designed the hall and the surrounding estates. The pond might have been better served in the days before the hall was abandoned to the wilds.

    I turned to watch the water soaking the grass as it flowed down to the river. It was possible the whole system was a deliberate overflow, although there were easier ways to do it. What had they been doing? It looked as if they’d done something stupid, in a manner that should have made it clear precisely how stupid it was. Father had told me that some fools could be quite ingenious indeed, and insecure men could be unwilling to admit their plans needed rethought before matters proceed beyond repair, but it was odd. Even if the original designer hadn’t noticed, his successors should have sounded the alarm.

    My feet threatened to slip as we made our way around the pond. I forced myself to tread carefully. I’d fallen into the pond once and I had no desire to repeat the experience. The water had been cold, even by the standards of Kirkhaven. The local lads bragged of swimming naked in the rivers and lakes, but I’d never been tempted to join them. It wasn’t the warm waters off North Shallot.

    Callam followed me, picking his way around the lake and back up the hill to the lawn as thunder rumbled in the distance. I kicked myself, mentally. It looked as if it was going to rain - again - shortly, a storm that might last until nightfall. I might not be able to plant any of the subunits until the following day ... I checked the wards, mentally, as we reached the hall. They seemed intact, but how could I be sure? Better to get the more modern protections in place as quickly as possible, before we had unwelcome guests. I dared not assume they wouldn’t have a trained wardsmith with them.

    “My Lady.” Cathy dropped a curtsy as we entered. “Would you like tea? Or something to eat?”

    “Just tea, please,” I said. Local soups were far more filling than the clear broth I’d drunk as a young girl. “Have it sent to the office.”

    I pushed the door open and led the way inside. Sandy was sitting at the desk, reading a set of letters. She smiled at us, wanly, as I closed the door, then pointed to the calculations. There were a handful of minor changes, but nothing too serious. I silently compared her work to mine, checking hers as thoroughly as I could. She’d done a very good job.

    “Thanks,” I said. Outside, the skies were darkening. “We may have to wait to emplace the outer units until tomorrow.”

    “In the mud and cold,” Sandy said. “Do you want me to come with you?”

    I shook my head. I trusted her, but it was better she didn’t know the exact location of the Objects of Power. She already knew enough to guess at their rough locations ... oaths or no oaths, if the more repressive of my relatives knew what she knew, they’d scream for the memory to be wiped from her mind or for her to be placed under a far stronger compulsion or even murdered outright. Akin wouldn’t go along with it, but the council might try to overrule him. They wouldn’t expect him to fight to the last over an unimportant woman of no real family.

    “We can handle it,” I said, studying the map. Something was nagging at my mind, but what? “How many more letters did we get?”

    “Five,” Sandy said. She held them out. “Nothing too worrying, this time. A couple just want more than we can reasonably supply.”

    “I think the secret is out and spreading,” I said. “There’s no point in trying to hide anymore.”

    “And someone may need our help,” Callam added. “We can’t overlook it.”

    I nodded as I scanned the letter. The writer wanted antidote ... a lot of antidote. He was a little vague on the reasoning, but - reading between the lines - I figured he or someone very close to him had been cursed. It had to be a nasty spell, one that required constant treatment if it didn’t eat the victim up from the inside. And ... I felt a surge of pity. The antidote he needed was relatively simple, but difficult to brew in such quantities. He was probably writing to everyone, splashing out money like water. I hated to think what might happen if - when - he ran out.

    “Yeah,” I agreed. “We can give him the potions he needs now, without having to worry about someone working out what we’re actually doing.”

    Sandy smiled. “That will be a relief,” she said. “I’ve heard of cooking the books to hide one’s income, but ...”

    I nodded. My father had drilled me in household management from a very early age - even if I had accountants to do the figures for me, I had to check to ensure they weren’t trying to cheat me - but I’d never had to do anything as complex as finagling the figures to conceal the sheer volume of potions we were dispatching. I’d done my best, yet ... I hoped - prayed - none of the family accountants got a good look at the books. They’d realise I was selling potions at a colossal mark-up, to the point people were paying ten times what the potion was worth, and start asking questions. The lie wouldn’t last once they started poking at it. And then ... it wouldn’t take them long to realise I’d deliberately understated the sheer volume I’d sold.

    We won’t have to fake it any longer, I told myself. That should make things a great deal easier.

    I stood and headed back to the hall, the others following. The trunks were still there. I opened the one with the Objects of Power and carefully removed the centre spellstone, holding it up to admire it under the light. Sandy sucked in her breath as she saw it for the first time, admiring the sheer workmanship. I passed it to Callam, then closed and locked the trunk. The others could be taken upstairs, but not the one with the other protections. I was going to have to take them out of the mansion and install them tomorrow.

    “Callam, come on,” I said. It was suddenly very hard to speak, as if the sight had frozen my tongue. “Sandy, we’ll see you at dinner.”

    The air seemed to grow colder as we found the staircase leading down to the basement and headed down into the dark. I muttered a spell to light the way, but the shadows seemed reluctant to be banished completely. The walls changed, moving from wood and plaster to cold damp stone. I thought I heard water dripping in the distance as we reached the bottom of the stairs and looked around. The basement reminded me of the crypt, although the surface beneath my feet was cold stone. I frowned, something nagging at my mind. Where was the wardstone?

    They didn’t have the technique worked out in those days, I reminded myself. They anchored the wards to the building itself instead of a lone wardstone.

    I frowned. I’d never really dared explore the ward network. It was dangerous, even if you were blood-linked to the spells. Most wards were designed to make it hard for anyone to feel them out and, here, there were so many layers of wards it was impossible to determine where they were anchored. I hadn’t wanted to accidentally crash the entire network. Even Uncle Ira had been reluctant to meddle and he’d known more about the wards than anyone else.

    The light seemed to flicker slightly, as we centred ourselves under the hall. The darkness felt cold and oppressive, yet there was a sense of someone - perhaps something - holding its breath and biding its time. I tried to tell myself I was imagining it, as I directed the light to ensure the cellar was empty. It was a wine cellar, I noted, although the bottles had been stripped out long ago. The framework holding them in place was in ruins, as if someone had torn the wood apart to build a fire. Perhaps they had. The estate was surrounded by trees, but they were inevitably damp and cold. They didn’t burn very well.

    “There,” I said. “Put it down, gently.”

    Callam nodded, lowering the protective spellstone to the ground. I watched, suddenly unsure of myself. The spellstone was glowing, a faint golden light that threatened to drive away the shadows and yet ... I couldn’t even begin to parse out the magic woven through the Object of Power. It was no Device of Power, no combination of spellforms woven together to form a greater whole; it was a single spellform, so far beyond me it could be doing anything and I’d never know about it until it was too late. Could Cat be trusted? She didn’t like me very much ... she could have set me up for a fall. But ...

    I took a knife from my belt and gently pressed it against my palm. The charm kept the cut from hurting, as blood pooled on my palm, but it was still disconcerting. I frowned as I allowed the blood to spill over the protections, the spellform growing brighter as it bonded itself to me. It felt as if it was driving away the darkness, finally protecting the hall.

    “Do it too,” I said. “Quickly.”

    Callam nodded. He couldn’t touch the wards directly, let alone command them, but it was important they acknowledged him as the co-master or they might exclude our children, on the grounds they weren’t solely mine. I’d heard stories about that, when the techniques were new and untried. Siblings were fine, children were not. I hoped the protections accepted him. They should. Cat had designed them and she knew what he was. She’d hardly forge something that could be turned against her, if someone worked out what she’d done.

    “Tomorrow, we put the rest of the stones in place,” I said. “Now ... I guess I’d better go read those letters.”

    “How terrible.” Callam smiled at me, then lowered his voice. “Do you want to join me tonight?”

    I reddened. “It might be a good idea,” I said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”
     
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