Original Work The King's Man (The Zero Enigma 7 (stand-alone))

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jan 10, 2020.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The King’s Man is technically stand-alone, within the overall Zero universe, but knowledge of the last couple of books would probably be helpful <grin>. There will be a recap below. You can pick up the first book on Kindle Unlimited through the links here - The Chrishanger

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

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

    Now read on ...

    Thank you

    Chris

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

    The Chrishanger

    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 result of 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.

    That was five short months ago. Now, Adam is on the verge of finishing his education.
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue

    If there was one lesson my father had hammered into me, time and time again, it was this.

    Never, never, trust an aristo.

    It wasn’t that all aristos were bad people. I’d met some who were good people, who were decent and kind and generous ... as long as it didn’t impinge upon their interests in any substantial way. And I’d met some who seemed to take delight in looking down on the commoners and making them beg, for everything from food and funding - and patronage - to simple survival. They’d been taught to put their interests of their class ahead of everything else, even simple human decency. They were just too different. They could never be trusted completely.

    Father had sworn he would never call upon an aristocrat and he’d kept his oath. He’d worked his way up from the docks through sheer talent, through a gritty willingness to do whatever it took to build up a merchant trader business for himself. He could have had everything on a platter, if he’d become an aristo’s client. They would have given him everything he could handle, at the cost of losing his independence. Once they had him in their clutches, they would never have let him go. The price was too high. And Father had proved it could be done without them. He’d made me swear the same oath when I went to Jude’s.

    I’d kept it, as best as I could. It came with a price. I could be friendly to anyone and everyone, but I could never truly be one of them. I wasn’t an aristo myself, of course, and I was unwilling to submit myself to them. They knew I wasn’t useless, but they also knew I would never be their client. I studied as hard as I could, determined to make a name for myself that relied on no one else. I was going to be the greatest sorcerer in the world. It was why I’d entered the Challenge.

    And then everything changed.

    I’d chosen not to form a team of my own. There just weren’t many students, like myself, who didn’t have ties to the aristos. Even trying to put together a group would have exposed me to humiliation. I was good too, good enough to think I could do it on my own. I thought, as I heard the rumours echoing through the school, that I’d have some advantages if I was alone. I wouldn’t have to fear my allies putting a knife - hopefully metaphorically - in my back. One never knows with aristos.

    The Challenge itself seemed absurdly simple. Capture the Flag, writ large. I suppose that should have tipped me off. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. I woke up in the middle of a forest, miles from anywhere. No worries. I was good at sneaking around. I’d spent my nights at school sneaking around, stealing grub from the kitchens or feuding with the other students. I stayed low, keeping my head down as I inched through the forest towards the castle. I didn’t want to encounter the other teams, not when I couldn’t afford to take a single hit. If I was frozen, or stunned, or trapped in a useless form ... I would lose. No one was going to liberate me before time ran out. It would just make life harder for themselves.

    I watched and waited as two other teams reached the castle, only to start snapping spells at each other instead of splitting up or trying to collaborate. They took each other out, more or less. There were only a couple of students left free by the time I spelled them both and walked past them into the castle. The wards felt stronger than I’d expected, strong enough to confuse my senses. The building’s interior kept shifting. I was impressed, as well as worried. I knew it would be very easy to get turned around and pointed in the wrong direction. I was sneaking down the corridor when I saw someone moving ahead of me. I hexed him ...

    ... And promptly got hexed in the back.

    My body froze, my muscles locking stiff. I wanted to shout, to roar in fury, but it was already too late. I’d been tricked and ... I’d lost. Francis Rubén walked past me, sniggering like a depraved loon. He’d been separated from his team, but ... it had worked out for him. He’d taken me out of the game. He dropped his trousers and mooned me, then walked onwards into the shadows. I stood there, helplessly. There was nothing I could do, but wait for the game to end.

    I’d been beaten before. It happened, no matter how hard I tried. There’s always someone better or luckier or ... simply in a position to take advantage of my mistakes. I didn’t take losing personally. If I was beaten according to the rules, I didn’t mind. It happened. But Francis ... I felt tricked, I felt belittled, I felt humiliated by how he’d rubbed my nose in my defeat. And it didn’t help that the others snickered at me too as they passed. I was frozen, but I could hear them. They pointed and laughed at me, the commoner who’d tried to do the Challenge alone. Alana was particularly cruel. She’d never liked me, ever since I’d asked her to walk out with me. She didn’t pay attention to anyone unless he - or she - could trace their bloodline all the way back to the Thousand Year Empire.

    It felt like hours before I was freed. The Challenge was over. Akin Rubén - one of the few decent aristos I knew - had won. Alana had come second, sort of. Francis was dead. I never heard the full details, which led me to suspect he’d done something embarrassing. I would have liked to think that he’d hexed someone else in the back, but I doubted it. Aristos didn’t get thrown out for cheating commoners. That was how most of their ancestors had risen to power in the first place.

    But the whole affair left me unsure what to do with my life. I was a good magician - I knew that - but what would I do after I graduated? What could I do? There were few careers open to me that didn’t involve asking for patronage, pledging myself to an aristo and following my patron’s orders slavishly. The system had little room for the truly independent. Father had worked hard, but he’d run up hard against the limits. He couldn’t grow his business any further without their help and it was the one thing he refused to do.

    The weeks and months that followed were frustrating, to say the least. Everyone knew I’d been humiliated. They learnt not to snigger so loudly after I claimed Scholar’s Rights and hexed two particularly annoying students until their own mothers couldn’t have recognised them, but I knew they were still laughing. Of course they were! I was a safe target. They wouldn’t get embroiled in a family feud by laughing at me. Whatever I did to them, it wouldn’t last. I forced myself to work hard, putting my all into the exams. And then ...

    I waited, bored. I had to do something to liven things up.

    Ironically, my decision to commit a string of pranks was what opened the door to a whole new world ...
     
    Sapper John, techsar and rle737ng like this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    It was going to be the greatest prank ever.

    I smiled at the thought as I carefully picked my way into the Charms classroom. Jude’s had a tradition of pranksters, students who pushed the limits as far as they would go without crossing the line into outright bullying. I’d gleefully embraced the tradition over the last few months, devising newer and better spells to make everyone - even the victim - laugh. But I hadn’t come up with anything truly new. My pranks were little more than modified or improved versions of older pranks. They’d be saying I was a copycat. And that was intolerable.

    This time, I told myself, it would be different. I was really going to do something new. I was going to upset the aristos, shocking them ... my smile grew wider as I slipped into the empty classroom and made my way to the storeroom beyond. I’d borrow a handful of supplies, turn them into the prank and - afterwards - take whatever punishment came my way. Magister Hugh Von Rupert wouldn’t be too annoyed, I thought. The old geezer barely knew what year it was, let alone the names and faces of the students in his class. He had a first-class mind for magic - I’ll give him that much - but little else. I honestly didn’t understand why students like Caitlyn Aguirre paid so much attention to him.

    The wards on the storeroom parted after a few moments of careful effort. I nodded to myself as I gingerly opened the doors - I wouldn’t put it past the charms tutors to rig a surprise on the far side for any thieving students - and peered inside. The small collection of tools, supplies and textbooks seemed to shimmer in welcome. I stayed where I was, casting a handful of detection spells. Getting caught after the fact was one thing, but getting caught in the act would make me a laughing stock. Being laughed at was worse than detention, or writing lines, or even helping the catering staff prepare the food. If there were any more charms inside the compartment, I might be in some trouble.

    But there were none. I frowned, torn between the urge to get on with it and the sense I should back away now. The storeroom wouldn’t have been left completely undefended. I could hardly be the first student who thought of raiding the charms classroom for supplies. The potions cabinets were heavily defended - most students tried to raid them - but really ... the storeroom should have been defended. Yet ... there was nothing. I narrowed my eyes, then inched inside. I’d come too far to back out now. I’d know, even if no one else did. I would know I’d been a coward, rather than taking what I wanted and withdrawing before lunch was over and the tutors returned. I reached for the nearest box of tools ...

    ... And sensed, more than heard, someone behind me.

    I tensed, bracing myself as I turned slowly. If Magister Von Rupert had caught me ... I might be able to talk my way out of serious - and humiliating - trouble. Boys will be boys and all that guff. My heart sank as I saw Magister Grayson, his hands crossed over his chest and a grim expression on his face. Magister Von Rupert was easy-going, but his partner was vindictive, vicious, vile and a number of other things that also started with V. No one ragged Magister Von Rupert - much - for fear of Magister Grayson. I was doomed, unless ... I groaned to myself. Tradition decreed that any student who managed to get past the tutors and escape was allowed to go free, but I knew I wasn’t going to get past him. Magister Grayson was the toughest tutor in school. A student who tried to give him the traditional black eye would be lucky if he only spent the next few weeks in the hospital wing.

    “Adam Mortimer,” Magister Grayson said. I tried to look for a hint of mercy in his dark eyes, for an awareness that we were nearing graduation, but saw none. “What do you think you’re doing?”

    A hundred answers ran through my mind, all discarded before they were fully formed. I couldn’t lie, not to him. I couldn’t escape either. There was nothing for it, but to take my punishment like a man. I wondered, as I forced myself to relax, what it would be. Tutors weren’t allowed to hit or hex students, unless the students hit or hexed them first, but they had wide latitude for punishment. I was an upperclassman. Maybe he’d humiliate me by assigning me lines, as if I were a lowly lowerclassman. Or maybe he’d tell me to spend the next few days helping the kitchen staff.

    “I was borrowing supplies for a prank, sir,” I said. I didn’t bother to pretend I was sorry, not about anything other than getting caught. He wouldn’t believe me if I’d tried. “I ... how did you know I was here?”

    “That’s none of your business.” Magister Grayson glowered at me. I wondered, suddenly, if he’d swapped shifts with his partner. I’d thought Von Rupert was on duty today. I would never have dared raid the storeroom if I’d known it was Magister Grayson. “You’re meant to be graduating, are you not?”

    “Yes, sir.” I felt a flicker of fear. Could Magister Grayson tamper with my exam results? I didn’t think so - the exams were administered by independent proctors, sworn to neutrality - but it was impossible to be sure. Magister Grayson was good. “I’m due to leave for good in two weeks.”

    “How lucky for us,” Magister Grayson said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I suppose giving you a year’s detention is a bit out of the question.”

    “Yes, sir.” I tried not to smirk. Whatever punishment he gave me, it wouldn’t linger past graduation day. “I’ll be gone soon.”

    “Quite.” Magister Grayson smiled, coldly. I felt another frisson of fear. “Go to the detention hall. Supervise the detentions until dinnertime. And if I catch you in here again, you’ll regret it.”

    I tried not to wince. Supervising detentions was boring. An hour supervising the detention hall was almost as bad as having detention itself. Worse, perhaps, because the supervisor had to keep an eye on the detainees. He wasn’t allowed to read or do his own work or do anything. I’d done a few shifts, an hour at a time, and I’d hated it. I had never been quite sure who was actually being punished. The lowerclassmen in detention or the poor upperclassman who was meant to be watching them.

    “Yes, sir,” I managed. There were worse punishments, weren’t there? “Thank you, sir.”

    Magister Grayson pointed at the door. “Go.”

    I walked past him, gritting my teeth as I strolled into the corridor. There was no point in not doing as I was told. Magister Grayson would report the punishment to higher authority and if I didn’t attend the classroom ... I snorted, rudely. That would get me in real trouble. It might not affect my exam results, but it would certainly affect whatever reference Jude’s gave me after I graduated. Getting caught trying to break into the storeroom was one thing, disobeying orders and welshing out of punishment was quite another.

    And Father would not be pleased, I reminded myself. I didn’t want to go to work for my father, after I graduated, but I might not have a choice. And ... my actions would reflect badly on him. Everyone would be saying he raised a coward who couldn’t look himself in the eye.

    I dawdled as much as I could as I walked through empty corridors and into the detention hall, trying to convince myself the hall would be empty. The exams were almost all over, save for a handful of exams that were intended for specific career paths. I hadn’t taken any of them, if only because I wasn’t sure what my career path was. Everything I wanted to do would have required pledging myself to someone ... I put the thought aside as I peered into the hall and winced. The Head Girl - Alana Aguirre - was sitting at the desk, looking bored. A handful of younger students were sitting at desks, doing their work. They looked too scared to talk out of turn. I didn’t blame them.

    “Adam?” Alana glanced up at me. “You have detention?”

    I tried not to stare. Alana was beautiful, with dark skin, darker eyes and hair so perfect I knew she used magic to keep it in line. I’d found her attractive from the moment I’d started noticing girls as more than oddly-shaped boys. She looked as though she wouldn’t harm a fly. But I knew she not only could harm a fly, she was perfectly capable of turning someone into a fly too. Rumour had it she’d been really terrible to her sister, the Zero. I believed it. I’d asked her out and she’d laughed in my face.

    And it doesn’t help that people keep asking if we’re related. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the thought. They really can’t believe my talent came from the commoner ranks.

    “Yeah.” I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen before I explained. “I’ve been ordered to take over from you. Lucky you.”

    Alana smiled. It lit up her face. “What did you do? Throw a tomato at the Castellan?”

    “Something like that,” I said, vaguely. I wasn’t going to admit what I’d actually been caught doing. Magister Grayson might not be very specific when he reported me to higher authority. Alana had access to the punishment books. If I was lucky, they wouldn’t tell her very much. “The Magister was not best pleased.”

    “Hah.” Alana stood, brushing down her skirt. I tried not to stare at her shirt as she donned her uniform jacket. “Akin’s due to take over in an hour or so. Should I tell him not to bother?”

    “I’m here until dinnertime,” I told her. The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew. “Tell him to do whatever he wants.”

    Alana nodded stiffly, then turned and headed to the door. I resisted the urge to watch her as I took the seat and checked the detention roster, casting my eyes over the list of names. I knew some of them, but - as an upperclassman - I was obliged to pretend I didn’t. It was lucky my sister wasn’t in the crowd. I’d have had to be extra hard on her, just to make it clear I wasn’t favouring her. I settled back into my seat, raising my eyes to study the detainees. They made a show of not looking back at me, save one. Penny Rubén.

    I held her eyes until she looked down, her cheeks burning with humiliation. Penny was a fifth-year student who’d been caught bullying - openly bullying - one of her first-year charges. Akin, her cousin, had caught her. He’d surprised and outraged many of his peers by ensuring Penny had the book thrown at her, rather than dealing with it himself or burying the truth to protect the family name. I wasn’t sure quite what had happened - and not all of the rumours reflected well on Akin - but he’d certainly ensured the problem could not be quietly forgotten. Penny might spent two more years at school, yet ... she’d always be treated as a lowerclassman. One of her former peers had probably given her lines. She couldn’t have been more humiliated if she’d been forced to clean cauldrons like a skivvy.

    Serves you right, I thought. Upperclassmen were not supposed to pick on lowerclassmen, certainly not first-years who were meant to be under their supervision. But Penny was an aristo. Her father, who’d left his family under mysterious circumstances, had probably raised her to suck up to her superiors while sneering at everyone below her. It isn’t as if your punishment will follow you when you graduate.

    I scowled. I’d been assured that wasn’t true. Penny’s reputation would follow her, wherever she went. But it wasn’t a formal punishment. She’d probably find a way to parlay her birth into an advantageous match, or convince her family to give her lots of money in exchange for taking herself out of Shallot. Her family wouldn’t punish her unless she really stepped over the line. Akin’s sister had been sent into exile for high treason. Anything less would probably be quietly ignored.

    Someone coughed. I glared at him, then turned my attention back to the list. A boy who’d been disobedient in Defensive Magic. I was surprised he’d been sent to the hall instead of being put to work by the tutors. A pair of girls who’d been given detention for talking too loudly in the library. Personally, I thought they weren’t being punished enough. I’d always hated chattering brats when I’d been trying to study. And seven other students, girls and boys, who’d been ordered to write some variant of ‘I will do as my tutors tell me without talking back.’ I had to smile at one of the notes - a first-year boy who’d charmed a piece of chalk to write lines on the blackboard for him - and made a mental note to suggest my sister kept an eye on him. Someone with that sort of talent might be worth watching.

    He’s probably got a patron already, I thought, sourly. Aristo students were expected to start recruiting clients young. It just wasn’t fair. I could have had anything I wanted, as long as I pledged myself to someone barely older. If they couldn’t give it to me themselves, their parents certainly could. And even if he doesn’t, that will change before too long.

    I leaned back in my chair, wishing for something - anything - to happen. The rules were clear. I wasn’t allowed to read, I wasn’t allowed to write ... I wasn’t even allowed to engage my charges in conversation, unless one of them did something I could object to. I waited, half-praying for Penny to step out of line so I could stomp on her, but she did nothing. I guessed she knew just how bad things would be for her, over the next two years. She deserved no less. It wasn’t justice, but it would have to do.

    The door opened. I glanced up, just in time to see a brown-haired firstie girl inching into the room. She looked ashamed, as if she was already regretting whatever she’d done. It was probably her first detention. I concealed my amusement as she sneaked forward, as if she could avoid being noticed as long as she stayed quiet. She was already too late to escape notice. Hell, she was ensuring she was noticed by trying not to be noticed. I wondered, idly, how long it would take her to learn that there was nothing more conspicuous than someone trying to hide.

    Probably a commoner, I decided, as she stopped in front of the desk. She looked so tense that I was tempted to shout BOO. An aristo would be a little more confident even if she was walking to her doom.

    I dismissed the temptation - I wasn’t Penny, damn it - and took the slip she offered me. It was clear and concise. The poor girl - her name was Gayle - had been given lines for a poorly-written essay. I guessed she’d been having problems with her handwriting, rather than whatever she’d actually written. I’d had problems too, when I’d been a lowerclassman. Father had made sure I knew how to read and write, but I’d never been a particularly good writer. My tutors had made hundreds of sarcastic remarks as I’d struggled to learn the ropes.

    “Take a seat,” I ordered, as I passed her a pencil and paper. “Write your lines, then you can go.”

    It wasn’t the nicest thing I’d ever done, but the last thing she needed - when she had six more years of schooling to get through - was me going easy on her. The other students might be pretending to ignore us, but I knew they were listening. They’d talk if I went easy on her, if they thought I let her off ... her classmates would hear, eventually, and take it out on her. It wouldn’t be her fault. It wouldn’t be as through she’d begged me to let her go or something along those lines. But they’d take it out on her anyway.

    I watched her sit down, then forced myself to think of something - anything - else. I had only two weeks before I needed to start job-hunting in earnest. I knew my father. He’d put me to work in the shop, or kick me out if I refused to work. And the longer I took to get a proper job, the harder it would be. I glowered at my hands, feeling magic prickling just under my dark skin. It just wasn’t fair.

    Life isn’t fair, I reminded myself. All you can do is play the cards you’re given and hope for the best.

    The door opened, again.

    I blinked in surprise as Akin stepped into the room. Alana should have told him he wasn’t needed ... right? I didn’t think she’d take the risk of letting the Head Boy embarrass himself not when their families were in alliance. Her parents would be furious if she caused a rift between the two families. And her sister, perhaps the most important aristo amongst her generation, would be angry too. She and Akin were betrothed. They seemed to get on better than most betrothed couples.

    “Akin,” I said. “I’m stuck here until ...”

    Akin cut me off. “The Castellan sent me to take your place,” he said. “You’ve been summoned to his office.”

    I blinked. “Why ...?”

    “I have no idea.” Akin smiled, humourlessly. “But you’d better get there quickly.”

    “Will do.” I stood, wondering if I should be relieved or worried. “Have fun.”
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    I've caught the flu, as have the rest of my family. Normal service will be resumed ASAP.

    chris
     
  5. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Hope everyone has a speedy recovery!
     
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    I tried to look confident, as I strode through the corridors and up the stairs, despite the fear gnawing at my soul. It was uncommon for students, even upperclassmen, to be summoned to the Castellan’s office unless they were in real trouble. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done, or anything I might reasonably be suspected of doing, that might have earned me a summons from the school’s master, but ... I couldn’t think of any other reason why I might be summoned either. Even Akin and Alana weren’t important enough to be offered a social invite. Caitlyn Aguirre was perhaps the only student of my generation to merit one and she’d left Jude’s five years ago, after the House War.

    Maybe he just wants to yell at me for breaking into the storeroom, I thought, although that didn’t seem likely. Tradition insisted that a person could only be punished once, no matter what he’d done. Magister Grayson had foreclosed that possibility when he’d sent me to supervise detention. Or maybe something else has happened.

    Ice gripped my heart as I knocked on the half-open door and stepped into the antechamber. The Castellan’s secretary, a sour-faced woman with an expression that could curdle milk, scowled at me, then pointed to the inner door. I set my face in a carefully-neutral expression, then walked into the Castellan’s chamber. He sat behind his desk, glaring at a sheet of official-looking paperwork. Another man sat in front of the desk, turning to look at me. I tensed, despite myself. My instincts recognised a threat when they saw one. He had the air of a man who knew himself so well there was no room for doubt or scruple. His face was handsome, but oddly bland. It was the kind of face that looked as if it would go unnoticed in a crowd.

    I met the Castellan’s eyes. “You called me, sir?”

    “Yes.” The Castellan sounded irked. “Sir Gareth?”

    I blinked as the stranger stood. He was taller than I’d thought, wearing a dark suit that marked him as a king’s messenger. I hesitated, suddenly unsure of the proper protocol. Was I meant to bow or go to one knee ...? The thought burned. I hated bending the knee to anyone. Magic seemed to grow stronger as Sir Gareth studied me. He was a powerful magician. His spells seemed to be spreading out, touching the entire office.

    “We’ll have the room now,” he said. His voice was aristocratic, but oddly accented. I had the feeling he was from the capital, rather than Shallot or one of the border cities. I’d never been outside my hometown. “I’ll speak to you later.”

    The Castellan nodded and stood. I stared in disbelief, unable to wrap my head around someone ordering the Castellan out of his own office. The Castellan might not be the supreme ruler of the school - that was the three lords above him - but he ran the building. It was hard to believe that someone - anyone - would show him so much disrespect. Sir Gareth had to be very important. And if he was a king’s messenger ...

    My thoughts ran in circles. Did Sir Gareth work for the king? Or was he representing another aristocrat? Or ... what did he want with me? Was I in trouble? Or ... I couldn’t think of any explanation that made sense. I wasn’t Caitlyn Aguirre or someone else with a unique talent, someone who might have drawn the attention of the king himself. I was just another common-born magician, with neither money nor connections. There was no reason anyone should be interested in me.

    “Take a seat.” Sir Gareth lowered his voice as he indicated a chair. “We have a lot to cover.”

    I sat, trying hard to focus. What was going on? Sir Gareth snapped his fingers, summoning two decanters and a jug of water from the sideboard. I watched, numbly, as invisible forces manipulated the three items, filling the decanters with water and returning the jug to the side. I took the glass I was offered and eyed it, unsure if I dared to sip. It was both an impressive display of power and a warning. Sir Gareth was clearly someone to take seriously.

    Sir Gareth sat back. “Why did you take the Challenge alone?”

    I felt my cheeks heat. “I thought it would give me a chance to make a name for myself,” I said, truthfully. “If I won, if I became Wizard Regnant, I thought I could get an apprenticeship without any pesky strings attached.”

    “Indeed?” Sir Gareth didn’t smile. “And that was what you wanted?”

    “In part.” I didn’t want to tell him the rest, but I had the feeling I should. “I wanted - I needed - to make a name for myself. I didn’t - I don’t - want to be just another client.”

    “I’ve reviewed your grades,” Sir Gareth said. “And your exam results. You’d hardly be just another client.”

    “I would be.” I eyed him, sourly, as a thought stuck me. “Are you encouraging me to talk?”

    “Yes.” Sir Gareth didn’t sound remotely sorry. “I wanted truthful answers.”

    I glared. “You didn’t trust me?”

    “In this line of work, most people will bend over backwards to tell me what they think I want to hear,” Sir Gareth said, unemotionally. “The truth is often far more important.”

    “I won’t lie to you,” I snapped. It crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be talking to him like that, but I was too angry to care. “What do you want with me?”

    “I’ve reviewed your grades,” Sir Gareth repeated. “You have top marks in everything practical, from Advanced Charms to Forging. Your marks in more abstract studies are poorer - clearly, you don’t take that much interest in history or current affairs. And a couple of your sports masters have remarked that you’re not a team player. What would you say to that?”

    I bet Francis wrote one of those assessments, I thought, nastily. Francis had never liked me. I’d been a good enough player to stay on the field, but not good enough to write my own ticket. And what he meant was that I didn’t spend enough time kissing his unmentionables.

    “I argued that positions within a team should be allocated by skill, not family connections,” I said, coldly. Francis hadn’t liked that argument. The little bastard had genuinely believed he’d won his post though skill, rather than the family name. He’d been good, but not that good. “And my arguments didn’t please the aristos.”

    “I’d wager not,” Sir Gareth agreed. I thought I saw a flicker of amusement cross his face. “You have excellent marks as a duellist. Why didn’t you join the league?”

    “I couldn’t afford the dues,” I said, reluctantly. “It was impossible on my allowance.”

    “An unfortunate problem,” Sir Gareth said. “But not an insurmountable one. You could look for a sponsor.”

    “Which would mean giving up my independence,” I pointed out. “Whoever sponsored me would certainly want something in return.”

    “Quite.” Sir Gareth nodded, curtly. “And where do you see yourself in five years?”

    I frowned. The sudden shift in subject seemed designed to confuse me. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “It isn’t as if I have many prospects.”

    “Really?” Sir Gareth lifted his eyebrows. “Is that true?”

    “Yes,” I said. “The only real prospect is going to work for my dad.”

    I stared at my hands, unwilling to admit how little I wanted to do it. Father wasn’t a bad person - perish the thought - but I wanted to be more than just a merchant tradesman and shopkeeper in Water Shallot. And yet, where could I go? What sort of job could I do without surrendering to the aristos and becoming just another client? I couldn’t imagine anything, save perhaps signing on to a clipper ship and sailing to distant Hangchow. But even the clipper ships belonged to the Great Houses. I wouldn’t have a hope of commanding my own ship, unless I sold myself to the aristos.

    Sir Gareth leaned forward. I had the sense the real discussion was about to begin. “Every year, my office looks for students such as yourself. Skilled magicians, with brains and power ... and independence. People who know Shallot, or the other cities, without being part of the local power structure. I dare say that’s true of you?”

    “I dare say,” I echoed. “Father has a tiny power base, too small to matter.”

    “Quite,” Sir Gareth said. “I have a job offer for you. The training is hard, some would say brutal. You might wash out within the first few weeks or die, if things go badly wrong. The pay is good, but don’t count on having much time to spend it. You’ll have respect, and support, as long as you uphold the law. And you’ll be challenged every day until you retire.”

    I cocked my head. “What sort of job is it?”

    “A King’s Man,” Sir Gareth said. “We’re always looking for new recruits. And we think you have the right stuff.”

    I forced myself to say nothing. My thoughts were a churning mess. I’d heard all sorts of stories about the King’s Men, from damsels in distress being rescued to angry dragons being slain before they could lay waste to entire towns and cities. The King’s Men had done everything, if the stories were to be believed. They’d stopped invasions, put down rebellions, defeated crime lords and aristocrats and generally upheld the law. The stories made them sound like supermen. And they wanted me? I was tempted. By the Ancients, I was tempted.

    And yet, the king was just another aristocrat. Wasn’t he? I didn’t want to pledge myself to any aristocrat. But ... I stared down at my hands, unsure of myself. I wanted the chance to take on a newer and better challenge, whatever the price. What choice did I have? I really didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as a glorified shopboy. Father might not even leave the shop to me. My older sister was first in line and she was determined to turn our small business into a massive enterprise. I had the feeling I’d be spending the rest of my life serving her, when Father finally joined his ancestors.

    I swallowed, hard. “What ... what’s it like?”

    Sir Gareth smiled. “Like I said, the training is hard. And it never stops, even when you graduate. You’ll spend the rest of your life on the cutting edge of magical and military research, leaving spells and techniques you will hopefully never have to use. Your word will be enough to save or damn the accused, to settle disputes and comfort the afflicted. One day, you may find yourself brokering a truce and ending a House War; another, you may find yourself tracking down a murderer or chasing a fugitive across the border. Or you might lead troops into battle, holding the line for reinforcements to arrive. Or ... you might be on the far side of the border, doing whatever you can to slow an enemy army. The only thing you can be sure of, young man, is that each month will be different.”

    “And you want me to pledge myself to the king,” I said. It was hard to keep the bitterness out of my voice. “I don’t want to surrender everything ...”

    “You don’t have to,” Sir Gareth said. “The king understands the importance of listening to his advisors. And his loyal servants.”

    I frowned. “I don’t know,” I said. It was almost - if not quite - a lie. “What ... I ... someone came to you, didn’t they, and made the same offer. What do you wish you’d known before you started?”

    Sir Gareth nodded. I had the feeling he was pleased. “It can be a lonely life,” he admitted, slowly. “You’re obliged to cut all formal ties of obligation. You can stay in touch with your family - many of us do - but you can’t use your position to help them. Should you get married, your wife will have the same issue. She will not be allowed to manipulate you or your position for any reason whatsoever. And ... you may find yourself spending months, if not years, away from her.

    “And you’ll make enemies. There are hundreds of lords and ladies, with power both magical and mundane, who hate us. A couple of us have met with suspicious accidents during the course of an investigation. We never managed to prove who killed them, or even if their deaths weren’t accidents, but ... we know. You might wind up dead, your ashes scattered in a graveyard no one outside the order knows exists.

    “And ... there will be times when there will be no satisfactory end to an investigation. You’ll find the suspect has enough power and influence to escape judgement. Or that the entire issue is hushed up, with agreements made for compensation behind the scenes. Or ... that you’ll be ordered to do something off the record, to ensure there is punishment even if it is never formally acknowledged. If you’re wedded to a happy ending, all the time, you may find this job a little frustrating.”

    I let out a breath. “And Warlocks?”

    “Yes.” Sir Gareth nodded, curtly. “You’ll certainly encounter warlocks.”

    He smiled, thinly. “I understand you don’t like the aristocracy, young man. I don’t blame you. Consider this your chance to keep an eye on it. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a way to teach them a lesson.”

    I frowned. “How many people did you talk to before you spoke to me?”

    “Enough.” Sir Gareth shrugged. “We do a background check before revealing our hand. It saves time. If a candidate is deemed unsuitable ... well, they never know they had our attention in the first place.”

    “I see,” I said. “What did they say about me?”

    “I can’t answer that question,” Sir Gareth said. “Suffice it to say they said nothing to make us rethink our interest.”

    He smiled, rather humourlessly. “Are you interested? Or should I give up?”

    “I’m interested,” I said. Father might not be pleased ... I told myself I’d have to discuss it with him. Technically, I was old enough to make such decisions for myself, but I didn’t want to blindside the old man. I certainly didn’t want to be disowned. “When do I need to give you a definite answer?”

    Sir Gareth smiled. “Intake Day is one week from today,” he said, as he dug into his briefcase and removed a large envelope. The runes sketched on the parchment promised an unpleasant surprise for anyone who tried to open the missive without permission. “You’ll find all the details here. If you’re interested, after you read the papers and consult with your family and friends, just turn up for training as ordered. If you change your mind ... don’t bother. We’ll log you as another reject and proceed to the next set of candidates.”

    “I understand,” I said.

    “Tell the school you’re moving out early,” Sir Gareth added. “Don’t count on coming back within the next couple of months, unless you wash out. If that happens”- he shrugged - “you might as well try to apply yourself elsewhere.”

    “Yes, sir,” I said, reluctantly. “I’ll be there.”

    “Consult with your family first,” Sir Gareth urged. “You’re doing far more than just getting a job. It’s a calling. And things will never be the same again.”

    “I see, I think,” I said.

    “I’d be surprised if you did,” Sir Gareth said, coolly. He placed the envelope on the Castellan’s desk. “It took me years to truly understand what I’d joined, and how it would consume my life.”

    I stared at him. “Is it worth it?”

    “I’ve saved lives. And cities.” Sir Gareth sounded pensive, his eyes looking into a past only he could see. “So yes, it’s worth it. But it does come with a price.”

    “I understand,” I said.

    “Hah.” Sir Gareth smiled, rather coldly. “If you can tell me that again, a year from now, I’ll buy you a drink.”

    I kept my thoughts to myself. I knew I’d have to talk it over with Father, but ... I already knew I was going to be reporting for training on Intake Day. My fingers itched to reach for the envelope, open it and read the papers, to plan my journey to ... to wherever I would be trained. I felt torn between my hatred of surrendering even some of my independence and hope - new hope - of doing something about the aristos. Catching some of them with egg on their face would make everything worthwhile.

    Sir Gareth stood. “I have a final test for you,” he said. “A warning, as well as a test. Are you interested?”

    I blinked. “I don’t ...”

    He jabbed a finger at me. I sensed the surge of magic, a second too late. I’d had defences in place, but they melted like snow in the face of the sun. My body warped and twisted - I felt a surge of pain, burring into the unmistakable sense of being transfigured - my eyesight twisting and bending as the world grew larger. The magic boiled around me. I tried to cast a counterspell, but it refused to work. I looked down at myself and gulped. I’d been turned into a frog! I’d been turned into a frog, as easily as a firstie who knew no magic before he came to school. And all my defences had proven worthless.

    That’s what he’s trying to teach me, I thought, numbly. I hadn’t been so easily defeated since I’d been a little boy, playing in the gutter with the other snipes. There are magics beyond the fields I know.

    “Free yourself, before the Castellan reclaims his office,” Sir Gareth ordered, coolly. “And if you’re still interested, report to the hall on Intake Day.”

    He turned and strode out of the room, leaving me behind.
     
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    I gritted my teeth as I forced myself to calm down and focus, even though panic was yammering at the back of my mind. I was no mere kid, unused to magic. I’d been transfigured hundreds of times over the past decade. I shouldn’t be panicking, not when I was in a form that could move and wave its hands to cast the counterspell. I’d plenty of experience of breaking spells from the inside, freeing myself and going on to strike back at my tormentor. I shouldn’t have any trouble breaking free this time.

    But this spell was different. It roared around me, in a manner I’d never seen or sensed before. The sheer power was terrifying, as if it was forcing me into another shape through naked will alone. I tried to focus, to pick out the spellform and dismantle it from the inside, but it refused to hold still long enough to let me analysis it. I’d seen all kinds of spells designed to make life difficult for anyone who wanted to take them apart, yet ... this was different. It shifted so often that I found it hard to believe it had just turned me into a frog. It could have done something else ...

    I held still, feeling as though a giant weight was pressing down on me. My back felt uncomfortable, as if I’d been forced to the floor in a wrestling match. I knew from bitter experience that if I felt that bad, if someone had me trapped so completely, I’d lost. I’d have no choice, but to tap out in surrender. And yet, there was no one to surrender to. I inched forward, feeling the pressure move with me. The spell wasn’t going to let me go that easily.

    The spell can’t be unbreakable, I told myself. I looked around, trying to spot anything that might help. The Castellan might have a spellbreaker in his office. If he did, I couldn’t see it - or anything else. There has to be a way out.

    I gritted my teeth, trying to push the spell away. It was a raging torrent of energy, pushing down on me ... it barely budged, even when I threw everything I had into the effort. I couldn’t even begin to untangle it. And yet ... a thought stuck me and I forced myself into new effort. I pushed the spellflow back as hard as I could, while inching forward until I fell off the edge of the chair. My concentration snapped the moment I hit the floor, but it didn’t matter. I was outside the spell’s influence. My body returned to normal seconds later. I stumbled to my feet, feeling sweat trickling down my back. That had been too close. The Castellan would certainly have told Sir Gareth if I’d failed the test.

    The envelope called to me. I picked it up, stuck it under my arm and headed for the door. The secretary nodded coldly to me as I left the office on wobbly legs, feeling like someone had cast an instability jinx on me. I hadn’t felt so bad since I’d gone out to a party, drunk a lot more than I should have and wound up nursing a handover through my first classes of the day. I shuddered, feeling sick as I made my way through the empty corridors. No one had said anything about going back to the Detention Hall. I was sure that meant Akin was going to handle the duty until the bell rang for dinner.

    I put the thought aside as I reached the upperclassman dorms and unpicked the hex on the lock. The sixth years had been trying to sneak into our section of the dorms now their exams were over, picking out the rooms they wanted when the next term rolled around. I’d heard that some of them were competing to become Head Boy and Girl, although I had a feeling they were wasting their time. The decision wouldn’t be made in Jude’s. Akin was a decent person, for an aristo, but neither he nor Alana had really deserved the honour. There were others - better students, kinder students - who should have been offered the job.

    I heard footsteps behind me and blinked as Louise Herdsman hurried up to the dorms. We should have been friends - we came from similar backgrounds, with similar stories - but we’d never really got along. Louise had spent her first few years at Jude’s acting like a know-it-all who didn’t, trying to boss everyone around when she wasn’t questioning why things weren’t organised to suit her. I understood her frustration, but … she could be very wearying at times. Her blonde hair hung down to her shoulders, a reminder that she was now a legal adult. She was pretty, yet ... there was something cold and hard around her. I tried to ignore the part of me that suggested I should ask her out.

    “Adam,” Louise said. “I heard you were in trouble.”

    “Foul lies,” I said, wondering what she’d heard. Alana had probably told everyone I’d been given detention. “I am never in trouble.”

    Louise gave me a look that suggested I was something particularly unpleasant she’d scraped off her shoe. Given that she was about as aristocratic as myself, it was a very impressive look. I would have been cowed if I hadn’t known her as a little girl.

    “What are you doing this evening?” Louise sounded indifferent. I had the feeling it was an act. “Are you going to be free?”

    “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I have to go back home.”

    “Ah.” Louise backed off. “I’ll see you later.”

    I watched her go, trying not to let my gaze linger on her behind. Louise ... she hadn’t been trying to ask me out, had she? I didn’t think so. She’d never shown any interest in anyone, as far as I knew. I frowned, then opened my door and stepped into my bedroom. I’d never really minded the dorms, where there had been little privacy, but I had to admit the private bedrooms were much better. It was just a shame that I’d be going back to the family home - and a complete lack of privacy - if becoming a King’s Man didn’t work out. I was too old to share a room with my sisters or father, wasn’t I?

    If we had room to spread out, we would, I thought, as I poured myself a mug of juice and sat on the bed. There was barely enough room to swing a cat, but the chamber was still better than anything I’d had as a youngster. Back home, there’s no way we can make the chambers bigger without magic or money we don’t have.

    I sipped my drink as I opened the envelope and read through the set of leaflets. They weren’t as informative as I’d hoped, although they did manage to answer a couple of questions I hadn’t thought to ask. The Intake Day was going to be held at Haddon Hall, an estate thirty miles north of Shallot. I picked up a map and inspected it, trying to understand how I was meant to get there. There was a stagecoach passing through Haddon itself, but the estate was a mile or two south of the town. I might have to get off at the town and walk to the estate. Or go to Haddon the day before and rent a room for the night. It wasn’t as if it would be hard.

    Just expensive, I mused, tartly. They could have offered to pay my travel expenses.

    I frowned as I worked my way through the rest of the papers, then stood and started to pack up. I didn’t have much, thankfully, but I couldn’t afford to leave anything behind. I had to report for training in a week and ... I didn’t want to lose anything. I glanced back at the list of items I was supposed to bring and frowned. A handful of clothes and nothing else. No spellcasters, no spellbreakers, no toys and games ... not even any books! I wondered, sourly, if we were going to be kept so busy there would be no time for fun. Probably. I didn’t know much about the King’s Men, beyond the fact they’d tried and failed to stop the House War, but I had the feeling we were going to be worked hard. Very hard.

    The room looked oddly bare when I’d finished. I stood, feeling a twinge of disquiet. I’d lived in the room for nine months and ... I hadn’t really made any impression at all. The walls were as barren as they’d been when I moved in. I sighed, remembering how the aristos had decorated their rooms. Even Akin had hung a huge painting of himself and Caitlyn in pride of place. I wondered, as I headed for the door, what Alana made of it. As a reminder her sister was marrying above her, it could hardly be bettered.

    I heard the dinner bell ring as I made my way up to the library, ignoring the handful of lowerclassmen running to the dining hall as if the food was going to run out. They probably expected to be tossed out, a few short seconds after they entered. Upperclassmen lorded it over lowerclassmen. It was the way of things and, now the exams were over, the upperclassmen were free to be jerks. If they wanted to be jerks. I’d never felt the urge myself.

    Probably because I spent too much time fetching and carrying when I was a lowerclassman myself, I thought coldly. The librarian was shutting up his office, but he had no qualms about leaving an upperclassman in the library itself. I don’t want to be a jerk too.

    I smiled at the thought, then turned my attention to the careers section. There was no shortage of information on apprenticeships, from potions and alchemy to healing and financial wizardry, but almost nothing on the Kingsmen. I read through what little there was, frowning in dismay. The Kingsmen were definitely more than just a career, but there were almost no specifics. There were certainly no testimonials from people who’d joined, served their time and retired. I put the papers aside with a sigh. It was clear I wasn’t going to find anything here, not when I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.

    The door opened behind me. I glanced back, just in case. I’d learnt, back in first year, to be wary of anyone behind me. Saline Califon entered the library, shot me a bright smile and headed down the stacks towards the section on law. I smiled after her, then returned my attention to the files. Saline was an odd duck and no mistake. She’d started well, with an academic career everyone envied, then gone downhill sharply. And yet ... she’d started doing better - much better - after the Challenge. I didn’t understand it. She was an aristocrat, with all the power and connections she could possibly want. Why would she slack off in the middle of her schooling? I supposed I might have cared more about it if she’d been common-born.

    I put my thought aside as I found the archived newspapers and started to work my way through them. There were hundreds of stories about the Kingsmen, but it was impossible to sort fact from fiction. The Kingsmen were wondrous supermen, who could go anywhere and do anything; the Kingsmen were buffoons, useless fools who couldn’t even find a trio of missing children. They could do anything, but did nothing; they threw their weight around, but it was all for a good cause. My head throbbed painfully by the time I finished reading the stories from the last couple of years. There seemed to be nothing solid in the papers, nothing more than rumours and innuendo. The Kingsmen themselves didn’t give interviews.

    Which probably isn’t a bad thing, I thought, as I returned the stacks to the shelves. The media would probably tinker with whatever they said to make it more newsworthy.

    I snorted at the thought, then stood and looked around the library. Saline had her head in a book, her pretty face frowning in displeasure. She looked up and met my eyes, challengingly. I looked back at her, silently kicking myself for getting into a pointless contest. I didn’t want to back down, but I didn’t want to make her back down either. The second dinner bell rang, making me jump. I looked away, smiling to myself as I headed back down the stairs. I’d been saved by the bell.

    And now I have to go see Father, I thought, as I returned to my room and picked up my bag and the envelope. And see what he has to say.

    I hurried down the stairs and strode out of the main doors, heading to the gates that led to the city itself. It wasn’t uncommon for older students to leave the grounds for a few hours, now the exams were over, but I still felt oddly exposed as I passed through the gates. Something had been lost, when I’d become an upperclassman. The challenge of scrambling over the back wall, with the prospect of being caught and marched to the office by the groundskeeper, was gone. Skullion had given me a black - well, blacker - eye once. I didn’t mind. I should probably have given up instead of trying to fight, but I’d never been the sort of person to simply give up.

    A figure hurried away from me, heading for the bridges that led to Water Shallot. I blinked in surprise as I recognised Louise. Where was she going? Her family had a shop on the far side of the river, but ... she was heading for the wrong bridge. I opened my mouth to hail her, then told myself - firmly - that it was none of my business. Louise was a qualified sorceress in all, but name. She could take care of herself. Any footpad or predator who tried to grab hold of her would find himself sitting on a lily pad, snapping at flies. And yet ... it was odd for a young woman of her age to head to Water Shallot alone. Didn’t she care about her reputation?

    People will talk, I thought, as I crossed the road to head to a different bridge. I didn’t want her to think I was following her. And her parents will be furious.

    I felt a twinge of sympathy for Louise, mingled with a grim awareness that it could be a great deal worse. People would talk. It was all they ever did. And poor Louise would find herself painted as everything from a scarlet woman to an outright whore. She wouldn’t have to do the crime to serve the time. It would suddenly be very hard for her to get married, if she wanted to get married. Or if anyone wanted to marry her. She did have a very disagreeable personality.

    And she’d probably say the same about you, I told myself. And people have been saying that about your father and sisters too.

    I put the thought aside as I walked along the riverside, staring down into the murky waters. A pair of barges were navigating through Shallot, carrying valuable goods from the docks to the warehouses on the far side of the city. The goods would be on their way to the capital - or somewhere else further up the river - before too long. I’d had a summer job working on the barges, for a couple of years. It had been fun, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make a career out of it. The dockworkers guild was harsh to anyone who refused to bend the knee. I smiled as I turned onto the bridge and crossed into Water Shallot. The city didn’t look any different, not here. The aristos didn’t know what they were talking about.

    Idiots, I thought. They talk about slumming and yet they never see the real slums.

    It would have been funny, if it hadn’t been so tragic. I’d heard dozens of aristo brats drop hints of roguish dealings in Water Shallot, just to impress the girls. They made it sound as if they were travelling to the Desolation, or the jungles of Minima. And they never went to the deep dark places, particularly after nightfall. There were limits to their bravery. I wish I could say I was surprised.

    Water Shallot wasn’t that different to the lower-class regions of South Shallot. The riverside streets were being gentrified, forcing out everyone who couldn’t afford to live there any longer. I wondered where the former residents had gone, now the newcomers had taken their homes and shops. A handful of guardsmen were on patrol, eyes swinging nervously from side to side as they made their way down the street. I was sure they’d run when trouble really broke out. The City Guard was kept deliberately weak by Magus Court. The Great Houses didn’t want to create a rival, or a check on their power. Father and I knew, at base, that the only people who’d defend our home and business were ourselves. We couldn’t rely on the City Guard.

    The streets grew a little more decayed as I walked east, passing through growing crowds of fishermen and dockyard workers who’d finished for the night and now intended to drink themselves into a stupor. I shuddered, knowing how easy it would have been for Father to fall into the same trap. Some of my friends, back when I’d been a child, hadn’t been so lucky. Their fathers, treated badly at work, had taken it out on their wives and families when they’d gotten home. I’d seen the bruises.

    It could have been worse, I told myself. I could have joined them too.
     
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    My father’s shop - and warehouse, as he put it - started life as a fairly small corner shop, one of a dozen under a giant tenement block. He bought it, then took a loan and purchased the two shops next to it and converted them into a single much larger shop. His empire had kept expanding until he’d laid claim to most of the block, with an option to buy what little he didn’t already hold. I had the feeling he’d never gain complete control of the block, but it didn’t matter. He held enough territory to veto anything he didn’t like.

    I stopped in front of the window, inspecting the display of goods intended to entice customers. Father sold everything, from clothes made by part-time seamstresses to meat and fish from the local farms and fishmongers. He’d told me, once, that he intended to make it easy for everyone to shop, for them to come to a single place for their shopping. I hadn’t been convinced - his neighbours would have pushed back hard if they’d thought he was underselling them with the intention of driving them out - but it seemed to be working. The old man always had a lot of satisfied customers. Who knew? Maybe, by the time he died, he’d have taken his empire right to the limits.

    Father doesn’t believe in limits, I reminded myself, as I pushed open the door. A handful of anti-theft spells buzzed around me, then faded into the background. And neither do I.

    “Adam!” I glanced up and smiled as I saw my sister, sitting behind the counter. “Welcome home!”

    “Toni!” I grinned at her as she motioned me to the backroom door. “It’s good to be back.”

    I felt my smile grow wider as Toni led me into the backroom and put the kettle on. My older sister looked strikingly like Alana Aguirre, although there was a faint scar on her face that Alana would have had removed the moment the raw magic faded. I’d watched hundreds of boys pay court to her, only to be thwarted by her demeanour and father’s tongue-in-cheek demands for massive dowries. Alana could hardly have done it better. I grinned at her back, then sat down on the overstuffed armchair. It might have passed through a dozen hands before it came to rest in our shop, but it was more comfortable than the fancy armchairs I’d seen at Jude’s.

    “You’d better have done well on your exams,” Toni said, as she poured hot water into the teapot. “Father will be cross if you don’t have good marks.”

    “I have it on good authority that I’ve done very well,” I said. “How is the shop?”

    “Good enough.” Toni passed me a mug of tea, keeping one for herself. “The new assistant is shaping out well, certainly better than the last one. Poor girl was trying to steal food to feed her family. Dad was a boozer and mother ...” she shrugged. “I had to let her go. We just couldn’t afford the losses.”

    My eyes narrowed. “Are we making a profit?”

    Toni frowned. “Barely. Father keeps finding new things to sell, which is great when they actually sell.”

    “I know.” I sipped my tea thoughtfully. “Some things simply don’t take off.”

    “And others do,” a new voice said. “Welcome home, Adam.”

    I put the mug aside and stood to receive a hug from my father. He was shorter than me, with dark chocolate skin and curly black hair he’d never bothered to straighten. I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t been the fashion. Alana and her sisters - and my younger sister - had it worse. Their hair was meant to be long and straight, not short and curly. I had the feeling they spent hours each day just smoothing it down.

    “Father,” I said, stiffly. “It’s good to see you again.”

    My father nodded. “What? No tea for me?”

    “You weren’t around,” Toni said. “There’s tea in the teapot, if you like.”

    “No wonder no one’s prepared to pay a massive dowry for you,” Father grumbled. His smile took the sting out of his words. “Let me know when you want me to reduce it.”

    I looked from one to the other, realising - for the first time - that Father had set the dowry so high to make it easy for Toni to say no. It would be easy for her to blame the failure of any courtship on her father, who held the purse strings and had veto rights as long as she worked for him. She couldn’t be blamed if her father refused to let her go, could she? I wondered, grimly, if anyone would come along she’d actually want. Water Shallot wasn’t a good place to meet men. Or women, for that matter. I could easily see her deciding she’d prefer to stay single.

    Mother died in childbirth, I recalled. And she was one of the lucky ones.

    Father poured himself a mug of tea and sat down. “It’s great to see you again, Adam,” he said. “But why did you come home so soon?”

    “Did you get kicked out?” Toni smirked. “Or were you simply bored of loitering around the school?”

    “Neither.” I resisted the urge to make sarcastic remarks as I opened my bag and removed the envelope. “I got a job offer.”

    I felt my heart start to pound as I passed the envelope to my father. If he said no ... I could take off on my own, and perhaps I would, but I could hardly come back after a very public break. I wasn’t sure what I’d do, if he said no. I didn’t want to give up the chance to do something great, but ... I knew he wouldn’t be keen on me doing anything for the king. The king wasn’t a normal aristo ...

    “I see.” My father’s voice betrayed nothing of his feelings. “Do you want to do this?”

    “Yes, father.” It was hard to speak definitely, but I had no choice. “It might give me a chance to make a difference.”

    “Might,” Father repeated. He passed the papers to Toni. “Knocking down a building would also make a difference, but not a particularly good one.”

    I scowled. Father was fond of dropping little sayings like that into the mix whenever we argued. It was never easy to tell what he meant - what he actually meant, as opposed to what he said. I’d never known anyone so good at giving mixed messages. Even girls weren’t so good at confusing me. I had the feeling he wasn’t inclined to support me, but ... how could I be sure?

    “I might catch someone with their hand in the till or their pants around their ankles,” I said, pushing as hard as I could. “And that person might be very important indeed.”

    “Which would put you in danger,” Father pointed out, coldly. “You don’t need to be a Kingsman to catch someone with their pants down.”

    “Of course not,” Toni agreed. “You can just go to the brothel.”

    Father gave her a sharp look. Properly brought up young women weren’t supposed to know the brothels existed, although pretty much all of them did. I’d heard plenty of chatter about that too, in both Jude’s and Water Shallot. Any young woman born and bred in the poorest part of the city had to know the brothels were an option, if she had to put food on the table or if there were debts she couldn’t repay. I swallowed, hard. The thought of Toni or Nora ending up in one of them was sickening. I couldn’t bear to think of it.

    “Father,” I said. “What else am I going to do with my life?”

    Father waved a hand at the wall. “You could work here. For me. For us.”

    I shook my head. “I don’t want to be a shopboy,” I said. “And it would be a waste of my education.”

    “You could go into tutoring,” Toni pointed out. “If you’re as good as you say ...”

    “I’d never get a magic licence,” I said. There were some loopholes in the system, mainly covering parents teaching their children, but not ones I could exploit. “The Great Houses have the system all sewn up.”

    I met her eyes. “And besides, can you imagine me trying to teach a little brat? I’d go mad within the week.”

    Toni smirked. “A little brat like you, you mean?”

    “Yeah.” I conceded the point without rancour. “I don’t understand how Father refrained from brutally strangling me.”

    “You got too big, too fast,” Father said. He sipped his tea. “There are other options.”

    “Not many.” I met his eyes, evenly. “I don’t want to be a shopboy. I’m not going to inherit the business, even if I wanted it. Toni will do that ...”

    “Thanks a bunch,” Toni muttered.

    “... And Nora and I will have to find something else to do with our time,” I continued. “I have the grades to seek an apprenticeship, but that would mean pledging myself to an older sorcerer and his family. There aren’t many other options for me, are there? The careers I might want, the careers that might allow me to build a life for myself, come with strings attached.”

    “Strings that will be used to hang you, if you refuse to toe the line,” Father said, evenly. “You’ll be so tied up you won’t be able to move.”

    “Yes. I know.” I shook my head. “At least this way, I might have a chance to accomplish something for myself.”

    “Not for yourself,” Father said. “For the king.”

    He scowled. “And the king was pretty useless during the House War, wasn’t he?”

    I shrugged. I’d never heard a clear explanation of just what had happened during the House War, even though I’d fought beside the others to retake and defend the school. Stregheria Aguirre had been plotting a coup, some said; Crown Prince Henry had been her dupe, her pawn. Or, perhaps, her partner. It seemed unlikely - the Crown Prince would inherit everything when his father died - but I’d heard stranger stories. I didn’t really care. It was more important to look to the future.

    Father let out a long breath. “And you’re sure of this,” he said. He took back the papers and thumbed through them. “You’ve made up your mind.”

    “Yes, Father.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “I do intend to try.”

    “Best you can do,” Father grunted. “You’ll be taking yourself out of the line of inheritance” - he held up a sheet of paper - “but you didn’t stand to inherit much anyway. I think I can still leave you my trousers, if nothing else. The girls aren’t going to want them.”

    Toni rolled her eyes at me. I snorted. Young ladies weren’t supposed to wear trousers. Maybe that would change, one day, but I doubted it. Toni wasn’t going to be blazing a trail. It would have to be someone with real clout, someone like Alana ... I snorted, again. No one was going to see her in trousers anytime soon.

    “And perhaps a little money,” Father added. “And guest-right.”

    “I don’t want anything,” I said, carefully. “Father ...”

    “That’s what I said, when I was your age,” Father said. “And do you know how close I came to utter disaster before you two and your sister were born?”

    “No,” I said.

    “Yes,” Toni said. “You’ve told me often enough.”

    I blinked. “You never told me.”

    “No.” Father shook his head. “There were things I didn’t want to discuss, not until you were an adult. Call me a coward if you like.”

    “I wouldn’t dare,” I said, truthfully. Calling someone a coward, in Water Shallot, was a guaranteed fight. Father had a mean right hook and years of experience at fighting dirty. I’d once seen him pick up a would-be mugger and throw him into a brick wall with tremendous force. “But shouldn’t we be discussing them now?”

    “This evening, if you stay.” Father took one last look at the documents, then passed them back to me. “I don’t think you should be doing this, Adam, but you’re enough like me - when I was your age - that I know you won’t listen if I forbid it. So go and be careful and make sure you get everything in writing.”

    “And write to us,” Toni said. “I’ll be sure to write to you.”

    “And send you pointed little reminders if you fail to write back,” Father said. “She picked up that habit from your grandma.”

    I nodded, remembering how my paternal grandmother had used to write sarcastic notes when we didn’t answer her letters quickly enough. The old lady had had quite a sharp turn of tongue. I hadn’t met anyone quite so sarcastic until I’d gone to school, where I’d discovered that making mistakes could draw an equally sharp comment - and detention - from my tutors. And, somehow, my grandmother had been far more fearsome.

    “Thank you, Father,” I said. “I just couldn’t spend the rest of my life here.”

    “You don’t know how lucky you are,” Father said, curtly. “Do you?”

    “I do,” I said. “But ...”

    “Hah.” Father shrugged. “What else do you have to tell me?”

    “Nothing much,” I said. “What about yourself?”

    “There’s lots of chatter about Prince Jacob of North Cairnbulg coming to town,” Toni said. “Miss Higgins was insisting the prince is going to visit Water Shallot.”

    “I doubt it,” I said. I’d heard rumours about Prince Jacob, but nothing I felt really solid. It was very easy to get nasty rumours in Polite Society. For one thing, Polite Society wasn’t really polite. “Unless they want to get him killed.”

    “You never know,” Father said. “There’s also stories about a challenge to the merchant guild’s representative on Magus Court. Someone else might be putting their hat in the ring.”

    I frowned. “You, Father?”

    “I don’t have the backing,” Father said. “It could be just a pointless challenge, something designed to get concessions from the guild rather than deliberately trying to unseat their representative, but it’s hard to be sure. The guild normally has things sewn up well before voting rolls around. Everyone knows which way to cast their votes and all’s well on the night. But this time, there are odd rumblings from the working men’s clubs. They might have a new leader.”

    “They might?” I shook my head. “I thought they were impossible to lead.”

    “So did I.” Father looked down at his dark hands. “The working men’s clubs have numbers, but they’ve never been a coherent political force. They’ve had too many problems remaining stable for that. If that’s changed, they could swing the voting balance through weight of numbers alone.”

    “Which would be hard luck for the merchant’s guild,” I mused. “They can’t beat up dissenters if the weight of the working men are on the other side.”

    “It might be hard luck for us too,” Father said. “If they start demanding higher wages, we might be in some trouble. We don’t hire many people ourselves, but our supplies certainly do. If they have to raise wages, they’ll have to raise their prices too. And we’ll have to pass it on to our customers.”

    “Who are already unhappy at rising costs,” Toni commented. “If we were the only ones raising charges, Father, we’d lose all our customers. Believe me, it would be pretty bad.”

    “I don’t doubt it,” Father said. He scowled. “Perhaps it’s for the best, Adam. You’ll be away from the city by the time something blows.”

    “If it does,” Toni said. She smiled at me. “I’ll be sorry not to have you working for free, but ...”

    “Go boil your head,” I said, with more maturity than I thought the jibe deserved. “I’d be plotting to remove you within the week.”

    “You would, too,” Toni said. She snorted as she stood. “Do you want something to eat, before you go back to school?”

    My stomach rumbled. “If you don’t mind,” I said. I hadn’t told them I was coming. I could hardly expect them to be ready for me, not with a three-course meal. “But don’t worry about it. I have food waiting for me at school.”

    “I should hope so, given the fees,” Father grumbled. “You make me proud, alright?”

    “Yes, Father.” I stood and shook his hand. “Thank you. For everything.”

    “My son joining the king,” Father said. “Alack the day!”

    Toni put a frying pan on the fire, produced a packet of bacon and eggs and started to cook with practiced ease. “You’d better drop in and see Nora before you take off,” she said, as the bacon started to sizzle. “She’ll miss you when she gets home for summer.”

    “I’ll have to keep it on the down low,” I said. I took the bread and started to slice and butter it. “She won’t thank me for visiting her in public. Upperclassmen are supposed to ignore lowerclassmen.”

    “Really.” Toni shot me a sharp look as she started to fry the eggs. “I guess that explains a lot about your school, doesn’t it?”

    “I suppose,” I agreed. “I’ll find a way to approach her without being noticed. It won’t be easy, but I can do it.”

    “You should just ignore tradition,” Toni said. “What would you do if she was in trouble? Or if there was an urgent message from home?”

    “That would be different,” I said. Toni hadn’t gone to Jude’s. She didn’t know the rules. “But if I speak to her without a good reason, I’ll just make life harder for her.”

    “Bah,” Toni said. She ladled bacon and eggs onto a plate, then thrust it at me. The smell was heavenly. “Eat up. Then you can go.”

    I nodded. I knew she was upset. And there was nothing I could do to make her feel better.
     
    techsar and rle737ng like this.
  9. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    tumblers?

    learning

    hangover


    suppliers

    Ain't autocorrect grand?
     
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