Original Work The Lady Heiress (The Zero Enigma 8 (stand alone))

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jun 12, 2020.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Lady Heiress 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. 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.
     
    Srchdawg-again likes this.
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue

    I think about my father a lot. Even when I’m trying not to.

    I still remember the last day I saw him, six years ago. I still remember the day he sent me away.

    We’d never really been close. He was Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter, and he always had something to do. He’d always been a distant figure to me. He’d acknowledged me as his child - it wasn’t as if I was a natural-born daughter - but he was always too busy to spend time with me. It wasn’t uncommon amongst the Great Houses. I was unusual in spending so much time with my mother, rather than being farmed out to a succession of governesses and private tutors. It wasn’t until much later that I understood why.

    He hadn’t sent me to Jude’s. I should have gone when I turned twelve, like all the children of the Great Houses, but he’d insisted on keeping me at Lamplighter Hall. I’d argued and pleaded and even resorted to screaming, to no avail. Mother had care of my education, with my aunts and uncles filling in the blanks. It wasn’t that they were bad at teaching - I suppose it was easier with only one student to teach - but it wasn’t the same. Mother kept saying Father would change his mind, yet ... I think she knew better. I think she knew he’d never change his mind.

    And then she died in the House War.

    I don’t remember who told me. My memories are a blur. The only clear memory I have from that time is my father saying that he was sending me to school, that he was sending me away. I was too dazed to care. My mother was dead and ... it wasn’t until I got to Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies that I realised he’d sent me away, that he didn’t want to see me again. I was a reject, an outcast like all the other long-term boarders. I was ... unwanted.

    I don’t know why my father sent me away. He never said. I used to fret endlessly over what I’d done, back before I grew old enough to realise I’d done nothing. I used to wonder if I was - somehow - responsible for mother’s death, for my father’s constant absences ... if, perhaps, my father blamed me for something beyond my control. I wouldn’t be the first girl to be sent away because her family could no longer cope, but ... why me?

    He wasn’t a monster. There were fathers who were abusive to their daughters, who shouted at them and beat them and arranged matches to men of good families ... my father wasn’t like that. And there were fathers who spoilt their daughters rotten or paid no attention to them ... as if they were just little people who happened to share the house. My father wasn’t like that either. I didn’t know why he’d sent me away. And I wished - more and more, as I got older - that I could remember his face. My family were little more than shadows. Only a couple bothered to say in touch with me and none of them told me anything useful. None of them told me why.

    I grew up at Grayling’s. I wasn’t the only long-term boarder. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get to go home over the summer, who grew from thirteen to nineteen without ever seeing her parents. But I was the only one whose family lived nearby, the only one who could have gone home ...

    ... And then I got the letter that told me my father had died.

    And then everything changed.
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    I’d always liked secrets.

    It wasn’t anything bad. Not really. Knowledge was power in Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies. Knowing something everyone else didn’t know - or knowing something someone else wanted to remain secret - was always advantageous in the endless struggles for social status. I’d grown to adulthood learning to keep my ears open and my mouth closed, learning how to put the puzzle pieces together to work out what was actually going on. I knew more about my fellow students - and the staff - than they could possibly imagine. I knew who had a crush on who, who was sneaking out at night to see her boyfriend, who was plotting against Mistress Grayling ... I knew and I kept it to myself. Secrets were currency, as far as I was concerned. They lost their value the moment they became public.

    Grayling’s had been the making of me, for better or worse. I’d done well in my lessons, both the formal tuition and the other - far more useful - lessons I’d learnt from the other girls. I knew how to evade the locking charms on the dorms, how to hack through the spells on the outer doors and sneak into the gardens ... or get over the walls to meet a boy. I knew which prefects could be trusted to turn a blind eye, as long as the relationship was harmless, and which prefects would blow the whistle for the sheer pleasure of watching some hapless romantic be roasted in front of the entire school the following morning. I’d even managed to convince some of the latter to let me go, just by telling them a tiny little secret. They thought I’d sneak on them. Of course they did. It was what they would have done.

    I smirked to myself as I slipped out of my bedroom and peered down the darkened corridor. It was nearly midnight, but I could see a pair of younger miscreants standing at one end of the corridor, hands firmly charmed to their heads. I rolled my eyes at their backs. The sheer illogic of the system had never creased to amuse me. If a young girl was caught out of bed, but still within the dorms, she was told to stay out of her bed ... it had never really made sense. Or maybe it did. I’d been forced to stand in the corridor, looking like an absolute dork, often enough to learn a few basic heating charms. I supposed it did provide a certain encouragement.

    And if you get caught once you pass the doors, I reminded myself, you’ll be in real trouble.

    I inched soundlessly down the corridor and round the corner. Katie - my roommate - had stayed outside after Lights Out, planning to meet her boyfriend in the gardens. She’d been confident she could evade discovery long enough to have her fun and sneak back inside, but I wasn’t so sure. The Head Girl had been on the prowl over the last few days. Marlene had always had it in for me, and Katie by extension. I’d broken her nose when we both thirteen years old. Mistress Grayling had been more upset about the punching - young ladies did not resort to physical violence, she’d said - than anything else. She would have been less upset if I’d turned Marlene into a frog.

    The charms on the door were complex, but not too complex. I’d often wondered if the entire tradition of sneaking out after Lights Out was designed to encourage us to learn skills that would be useful in later life. The staff could have kept us locked up, if they’d been willing to put some work into it. I carefully unpicked them, then slipped through the door and into the corridor beyond. My heart started to thump as I inched onwards. I was committed. If I was caught outside the dorms after Lights Out, I’d be called out during Assembly and humiliated in front of the entire school. Not for being out of the dorms, but for being caught.

    I donned a pair of charmed spectacles as soon as I was round the corner, looking around with interest. I’d often suspected the prefects had ways to track active magic within the school, but they’d find it harder to detect and locate an active Device of Power. The building seemed to come to life around me, flickers of magic darting through the walls as I hurried to the stairs and headed downwards. There was something truly eerie about the school, after dark. It was easy to believe, suddenly, that the school’s ghosts came out and danced in the darkness. I’d heard all the stories. They seemed very real.

    The air was silent, too silent. I kept to the side, careful not to put any weight on loose floorboards or squeaky stairs. The prefects might be lurking in the shadows, waiting for me. I hadn’t been fool enough to tell anyone I was sneaking out, let alone where I was going, but it was quite possible someone else had. Stealing food from the kitchens for a midnight feast was an old tradition too. And if someone in the lower dorms had been planning it, they might just have been overheard by one of the prefects. They knew all the tricks. They’d been students too, once upon a time.

    Although it’s hard to believe, sometimes, I told myself. I wouldn’t have thought Marlene had ever been young if I hadn’t grown up with her.

    I smiled at the thought, then put it to one side as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The lobby was empty, although I tensed as I spotted the line of portraits on the wall. Rumour had it the paintings had eyes, charmed to allow Mistress Grayling to see through them. I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I did my best to stay out of eyesight anyway. Just in case. The paintings were supposed to show headmistresses from the last three hundred years, but I hadn’t been able to help noticing they all looked alike. Rumour also claimed Mistress Grayling was a vampire. It was hard to believe she might have been young too.

    The thrill of being somewhere I shouldn’t grew stronger with every passing second. Students weren’t allowed in the lobby, unless they’d been ordered to the headmistress’s office. It was a silly rule, one of many, but so strictly enforced that I was half-convinced Mistress Grayling really was a vampire. Or that she was keeping something from us. Or ... I resisted the urge to snort as I crawled under the final painting, then straightened as I stared at the office door. It was far more likely, really, that Mistress Grayling was merely exercising her authority. I’d grown up in a Great House. I knew it was important to use one’s authority or risk losing it.

    I pressed my fingers against the doorknob, parsing out the charms. They were complex - I’d had a look at them the last time I’d been summoned to the office - but not unbreakable. I braced myself, then started to work. The charms hadn’t been made that tight. Mistress Grayling couldn’t keep us out completely without barring the staff as well. Personally, I would have considered that a fair trade. There were some good teachers, but also some I’d pay money never to have to see again.

    The door clicked. I froze. The noise sounded very loud in the silent school. If I was caught now, I’d be a laughing stock. Marlene - and everyone else, even Katie - would laugh like a hyena if I was caught. The door slid open, allowing me to peer inside. The chamber was as dark and cold as the grave. Mistress Grayling had the largest office in the school - there were classrooms that were smaller - but there was no hint of any personality. It was as colourless as the woman herself. No paintings, no trophies ... nothing. I was almost disappointed as I inched into the chamber, pushing the door closed behind me. There was no other way out. If someone came, I’d have to hide in the shadows and hope for the best. I smiled, allowing my tension to drain away as I walked towards the filing cabinets. I’d often wanted to take a look inside, but I’d never dared. Not until now. The exams were over. Like it or not, I’d be leaving the school forever in a few weeks. It wasn’t as anyone would care if I got expelled.

    The cabinet charms were weaker than I’d expected. I frowned, wondering if I’d been tricked somehow. The files - the real files - could be elsewhere. Mistress Grayling’s rooms were on the other side of the school. It was quite possible she kept the real files there. I felt my heart sink as I unpicked the charms, one by one. Surely, she wouldn’t be quite so careless about her files. The real charms had to be elsewhere.

    Magic crackled around me as I picked apart the last charm and pulled the cabinet open. Rows of files greeted me, each one labelled with a number and nothing else. I muttered a word that would have me going to bed on bread and water if a prefect - or the tutors - heard. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to figure out whose file was whose. There had to be trick to it ... I scanned the numbers, trying to think. I didn’t have a student number, did I? It wasn’t as if they didn’t call me by name. Or ... I smiled, suddenly, as my birth date jumped out at me. It had to be my file. I’d have known if someone shared my birthday.

    I pulled the file free, unpicked the locking charm and opened the box. My permanent record book sat on top. I put it to one side and inspected the rest of the papers. A letter from my father, pleading for Mistress Grayling to take me as a pupil ... it was dated shortly after the House War, barely a day after my mother died. My heart clenched in pain. My father had started planning to send me away at once? And to Grayling’s? Tears prickled in my eyes. I blinked them away, harshly. Father had had a good reason. I was sure he’d had a good reason. But the letter merely referred to unspecified reasons ...

    My eyes narrowed as I skimmed the remainder of the letters and accounts. Mistress Grayling had written to my father twice, demanding payment ... payment for what? My head spun as I tried to understand what I was seeing. Payment ... for me? If my school fees were unpaid ... I’d have been kicked out. I was sure of it. Mistress Grayling wasn’t running a charity. She’d told us often enough. But father could have paid easily ... right? I skimmed through the rest of the papers, trying to read between the lines. It wasn’t easy. My father - and Mistress Grayling - seemed to be committing as little as possible to paper. The only exception was a note from my uncle, asking permission to take me out for a day ... I nearly destroyed the letter as I realised it was dated five months ago. Mistress Grayling hadn’t bothered to ask me if I wanted to go. And I would have. It had been too long since I’d so much as left the school.

    And Uncle Jalil probably thinks I’m a rude little snob, I thought, angrily. He wouldn’t have minded if I’d said no - my exams had been coming up - but saying nothing was dreadfully rude. Mistress Grayling’s managed to land me in trouble.

    I scowled as I carefully closed up the box, then returned it to the shelf. I’d have to find a way to apologise without admitting what I’d done. And to confront Mistress Grayling. She had every right to bar me from going, if she’d thought I needed to study, but she really should have told me. I wasn’t sure how. The headmistress would be furious if she knew I’d pried into her private correspondence. The rest of the staff wouldn’t be amused either.

    My eyes narrowed as I spotted the account books at the bottom of the cabinet. They were covered in charms, charms I’d learnt in class. I picked apart the ones intended to keep unauthorised readers from opening the books, then frowned down at the figures. Mistress Grayling’s handwriting was awful. The charms would make it hard to deliberately miscalculate one’s sums, but they were still hard to read. It looked as though the school was losing money. I wasn’t too surprised. Mistress Grayling had never struck me as a particularly good headmistress.

    I tensed as I heard a sound from outside the windows. The grounds outside were dark, but ... I remembered, suddenly, how many girls might be sneaking out to see their boyfriends or catch up with their pashes. I returned the book to the shelf, hastily repaired the damaged charms and headed for the door. If someone peered in, they might see me. I doubted they’d sneak - it would be instant social death, if we found out who’d done it - but they might take advantage of knowing. Who knew what they’d demand from me if they knew what I’d done?

    My heart started to pound, again, as I heard more sounds from outside. Someone was talking ... I winced in sympathy. No one would be talking so loudly if they hadn’t already been caught, probably by one of the less amiable prefects. They might manage to talk one of the others into letting them go, if they didn’t make it impossible by accidentally waking the whole school. I smiled at the thought, even though I knew it wasn’t really funny. If they got everyone out of bed, they’d have no trouble spotting my absence. And then I’d be in trouble.

    I inched into the lobby, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could. The outer door was already opening. I started to move towards the stairs, then caught myself and slipped into the shadows, wrapping the strongest obscurification charm I could around myself. The charms were subtle, so low-power they were very hard to detect ... as long as I didn’t draw someone’s attention. I knew stronger spells, but the mere act of trying to use them might reveal my presence. And if I was caught ...

    The outer door opened. I knew who it was, who it had to be, before she came into sight. The common or garden students were never permitted to use the front door. Even prefects were discouraged from using the door, particularly after Lights Out. It had to be Marlene ... my heart sank as the Head Girl came into view, followed by my roommate. Katie had her hands on her head, a clear sign she’d been caught. I felt a stab of sympathy, mingled with fear. If Marlene marched Katie straight back to our room, there was a good chance she’d realise I was missing too. I wasn’t scared of being caught, not really, but ... I breathed a sigh of relief as Marlene pushed Katie towards the lower door. It looked as if she was going to wake the duty tutor. I thought a string of uncomplimentary things as they vanished into the darkness. Poor Katie would be in real trouble. The duty tutor would not be in a good mood if she was woken in the middle of the night.

    And Marlene might be in some trouble too, I told myself. I clung to the thought as I started to inch back up the stairs. The duty tutor really won’t be happy if she’s woken.

    I smirked at the thought, even though I knew it was unlikely. Marlene was the Head Girl. She had the authority to wake the tutor if she felt it necessary. And her family was quite well connected. Marlene might get told off, but little more. She certainly wouldn’t be stripped of her post. I put the thought out of my head as I hurried back to the dorms, slipping through the doors and into my room. The corridors were completely empty. I was in my bed, pretending to be asleep, when Katie was thrust back into the room. Marlene snapped something at her - I couldn’t make it out - and closed the door. I peered out as soon as she was safely gone.

    “You okay?”

    Katie shook her head. “I’ll be seeing the headmistress tomorrow,” she said. “And Marlene has me on the detention roster for the rest of the year.”

    She snickered. “I’m not going to be here for the rest of the year.”

    “How unfortunate for Marlene,” I said. “Did you have a good time?”

    “Yeah.” Katie shrugged. “Better than the bloke my parents wanted me to marry, I can tell you.”

    I nodded. Katie’s parents had tried to arrange a match for her. I’d helped her break it off before it was too late. She’d been lucky. An aristocratic maid, even one with strong magic, might have found it a great deal harder to stand against parental pressure to marry.

    “Better get some sleep,” I said. “The morning is not going to be fun.”

    “No.” Katie made a face. “Do you think I’ll get expelled?”

    “It would be a little pointless now,” I reminded her. “You’ve sat your exams.”

    I pulled the cover over my head and closed my eyes, muttering a sleep spell. I’d pay for it in the morning with a banging headache, but there was no choice. There were only five hours until I was meant to get out of bed or there’d be no breakfast. And Marlene would be watching. If she spotted I was tired, she might deduce I’d been out of bed after Lights Out ...

    ... And, five hours later, she tried to break down the door.
     
  4. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    A zero with magic enough?
     
  5. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Zeros have no magic.
     
  6. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Caitlyn is not the girl in question...therefore not a Zero.
     
  7. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    So it appears. That said, she's not identified. Yet. That was the lefthanded point.
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    I jerked awake. “What ...?”

    The door opened. Marlene burst into the room. I stared at her. She looked ... dishevelled, her blonde hair dangling in ringlets rather than being neatly tied back into braids. She looked so unlike herself that, for a moment, I honestly wondered if someone was playing games with doppelganger potion. It wouldn’t be the first time. A girl had been suspended a year or so ago for impersonating another girl in a bid to steal her boyfriend.

    “She wants to see you,” Marlene gabbled. “Mistress Grayling. She wants to see you.”

    I glared at her, mainly to conceal the sudden spike of fear. What did Mistress Grayling know? If she knew I’d been in her office, I was probably in some trouble. No, there was no probably about it. Teachers were meant to turn a blind eye to certain things - such as pantry raids - but I had a feeling the list didn’t include covert searches of an office.

    “You should have knocked,” I managed. When in doubt, go on the attack. “I could have been dressing!”

    “She wants to see you,” Marlene repeated. She sounded as though she’d had a nasty shock. I wondered if she’d been yanked out of bed, just so she could yank me out of bed. It was the sort of thing that made sense to tutors, if no one else. “You have to go see her now ...”

    “Let me get dressed first.” I pushed the covers aside and scrambled out of bed. “Do you have orders to escort me? Or are you just admiring my beauty?”

    Marlene glowered. “Get down to her office,” she snapped. “And hurry.”

    She turned and stormed out of the room, banging the door closed behind her. I made a hex sign at the door - it would make her life interesting, if she tried to barge in again - and hurried over to the dresser. There was probably no time to take a shower ... I snorted as I donned my uniform, muttering a pair of cleaning spells as I sat down in front of the mirror. My skin felt unpleasantly dry as the magic crackled over me, but at least I was clean. Behind me, I heard Katie sitting up in bed. I doubted she was looking forward to seeing the headmistress either.

    “What did she want?” Katie sounded as if she hadn’t slept a wink. I didn’t blame her. “Or did I just have a nightmare?”

    “I have no idea,” I said, reaching for the hairbrush. “She probably didn’t get much sleep either.”

    I studied myself in the mirror as I carefully brushed my hair, using the repetitive motion to calm myself. My face looked back at me: light brown skin, dark brown eyes, black hair ... the village boys said I looked striking, although my features were hardly that uncommon in Shallot. I looked more like my mother than my father ... I felt a sudden pang as I realised, again, that I didn’t really remember either of them. I had a pair of pictures in my personal album, but they didn’t quite feel real. I met my own eyes, schooling my features into calm immobility. Mistress Grayling was probably fishing for information. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d sweated me - or another student - when she wasn’t sure who’d really been the guilty party.

    Kate walked up behind me. “Do you want me to come with you?”

    “Better not,” I said, as I braided my hair. “It might give her ideas.”

    “I think she already has enough ideas of her own,” Kate snorted. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”

    I felt my heart sink - again - as I stood and headed for the door. Breakfast. The mere thought of eating something, even something bland, was enough to make my stomach churn. If Mistress Grayling knew I’d been in her office ... I told myself, firmly, that the old biddy didn’t have any proof of anything. And yet, she’d sent Marlene to wake me ... I shook my head. Mistress Grayling would have dragged me out of bed myself if she’d had solid proof of anything.

    There was no sign of Marlene as I stepped through the door. I glanced up and down the corridor, then headed to the stairs. It was the quickest way to Mistress Grayling’s office, even if we weren’t supposed to use them. I composed an argument for any wandering prefects as I hurried down the stairs - Marlene had made it sound urgent, after all - then dismissed the thought. The corridors were quiet. My fellow inmates - students - were probably still trying to sleep. They could catch a few more minutes before the breakfast bell rang.

    And the exams are over, I reminded myself as I walked down the stairs and knocked on the headmistress’s door. There’s no point in getting up to study now.

    The door opened, revealing Mistress Grayling seated behind her desk. I felt another shiver of nervousness as I entered the room. Mistress Grayling was old - no one knew for sure how old she truly was - but there was no hint of weakness or vulnerability about her. She was tall and stern and very capable of cowing any wayward girl. Her gimlet eyes fixed on me and I cringed, inwardly. And yet ... there was something in her eyes I was not used to seeing. Sympathy?

    “Take a seat,” Mistress Grayling said. She waved a hand towards a handful of chairs, pressed against the far wall. “Please.”

    I swallowed hard, feeling a growing sense of unreality. Mistress Grayling had never invited me to sit in her presence. Young Ladies - you could just hear the capital letters thudding into place - were supposed to stand in her presence, hands firmly clasped behind their backs. It was supposed to teach us humility. Instead, it taught us how petty and pointless authority figures could be. I reached for the closest chair and carried it back to the desk, almost wishing she had made me stand. It would have made it easier to focus.

    Mistress Grayling’s lips thinned. “I received a letter from Shallot this morning, brought by special courier,” she said. “I’m afraid it’s bad news.”

    I blinked, torn between relief and a sudden - crushing - sense of fear. I wasn’t in trouble ... I wasn’t in trouble, but I was very sure I didn’t want to hear her next words. My head spun as I leaned forward, wishing I was in trouble. It would have made more sense ...

    “The letter was a formal notification,” Mistress Grayling continued. “Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter, has died.”

    For a moment, my mind refused to comprehend what she’d said. Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter ... my father? It was hard to understand that my father might have been my father to me - obviously - but Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter, to everyone else. My breath caught in my throat. My father was dead? My father ... I stared at her, feeling the room starting to spin around me. I would have collapsed, if I’d remained standing. Mistress Grayling had done me a favour.

    “I ...” I swallowed, hard. “My father?”

    “Yes.” Mistress Grayling looked ... surprisingly sympathetic, for someone who’d once told a twelve-year-old girl to stop blubbering after her pet rat had died. “I’m very much afraid so.”

    I stared at her, feeling ... I wasn’t sure how I felt. My father had always been a distant figure. It was hard, somehow, to put a face to him ... to realise he was more than just a name. I tried to remember him, but ... I couldn’t. And ... I felt a sudden surge of anger, directed at Mistress Grayling. The headmistress could have softened the blow. She could have ... I felt tears prickling at the corner of my eyes. I’d known I’d be going back to Shallot, after graduation. I’d told myself I’d have a chance to meet my father again, to ... to take up my place within the family. And ...

    “There are a number of issues that have to be discussed,” Mistress Grayling said. She picked a letter off her desk and eyed it dourly. “Do you wish to go through them now or wait until after Assembly?”

    “Now,” I said, blinking away tears. I wanted - I needed - something to distract me from the sudden sense of emptiness in my chest. My father was gone ... it didn’t feel quite real. “Who wrote to you?”

    Mistress Grayling ignored the question. “First, you have been named the de facto Matriarch of House Lamplighter,” she said. There was a hint of displeasure in her voice. “Your father’s first will states that you are to be raised to adulthood upon his death, if you have not already been acknowledged so.”

    I felt as if I’d been hit with a confusion hex. I was an adult? None of the other girls, not even Marlene, were considered adults. They wore their hair in braids ... I felt a hot flash of glee at the certain knowledge Mistress Grayling could no longer treat me like a child, mixed with grief and rage that I’d only been raised to adulthood upon my father’s death. I’d looked forward to my Season, to being introduced to High Society as an eligible adult ...

    My fingers moved of their own accord, slowly pulling out the braid until my long hair fell over my shoulders. I’d wear it down from now on, at least until I got married. My thoughts ran in circles. It should have been the proudest day of my life, the day my parents realised I was an adult in my own right, but ... the price was too high. My parents were dead. I wondered, suddenly, what had happened to the rest of the family. House Lamplighter was small, but I was hardly alone. There were other claimants to the headship. I was a little surprised my father had named me to succeed him before I had a chance to build a power base of my own.

    And I haven’t been back to the city for six years, I thought, numbly. I’d followed the news as best as I could - Mistress Grayling banned most broadsheets, ensuring there was a lively trade in forbidden newspapers - but it had never felt like something that affected me personally. I lived in a bubble. No, I had lived in a bubble. I have to get back there as soon as possible.

    I straightened and looked at Mistress Grayling, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on her nose. “I have to get back to the city,” I said. “Please can you arrange a coach?”

    “There are other matters that need to be discussed.” Mistress Grayling opened a drawer and produced a file. A very familiar file. “Are you aware your fees are largely unpaid?”

    “No,” I said, keeping my face under tight control. We’d been taught to be honest, but there were limits. “My fees were never discussed with me.”

    “You were a child.” Mistress Grayling held out the file. “Such matters are rarely discussed with children.”

    I studied the file, pretending to read it. The school fees were nine hundred crowns a year, a sizable sum even for the aristocracy. Marlene regularly bragged about her family’s wealth, but no one could help noticing she was the only member of her family to attend Grayling’s instead of Jude’s. I liked to think her parents found her as obnoxious as we did, yet ... I put the thought out of my mind. It wasn’t important. Right now, I had too many other problems.

    “You have been here for six years,” Mistress Grayling informed me, as if I hadn’t already known. “Your father only paid for two of those years.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that,” I mumbled. I read the file again, carefully noting everything I’d missed last night. “Why didn’t you expel me?”

    Mistress Grayling glowered. “Your father talked a good game,” she said. “And I felt sorry for you.”

    I tried not to snort. Mistress Grayling was not known for being sympathetic to anyone, particularly her students. Their comfort was hardly her top priority. She certainly had no qualms about meting out horrific and humiliating punishment to girls who pushed her a little too far. And she could easily have simply refused to take me if my family didn’t pay the fees. I was sure there was something she wasn’t telling me.

    “Really?” I tried to meet her eyes without quite meeting her eyes. “What did he offer you?”

    “Nothing of great importance.” Mistress Grayling’s expression grew worse. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to pay.”

    I snickered. I couldn’t help myself. “You’re going to drain my tuck shop allowance?”

    Mistress Grayling half-rose, then stopped herself. I was an adult now. She couldn’t give me a slap - or worse - for cheek. Not now. I felt a sudden thrill, even though I’d been told that adulthood brought its own risks and responsibilities. If she laid a finger on me now, I could drag her through the courts or challenge her to a duel or ...

    “This is no laughing matter,” Mistress Grayling said. Two bright spots coloured her cheeks. “The fees are important and ...”

    I kept my voice as even as possible. “As Matriarch of House Lamplighter, I will - naturally - honour all debts incurred by the family,” I said. “However, I will have to study the records first to determine what, if anything, the family owes you. And, in order to do that, I will have to return to Shallot as quickly as possible.”

    Mistress Grayling looked irked. “You intend to leave ahead of time?”

    “Yes.” I stood, holding out the file. “Please have this copied for me, along with a complete statement of what you believe you’re owed. I’ll collect it before I leave.”

    “The debt ...”

    “The debt needs to be confirmed before I can pay,” I said, feeling a flicker of guilty glee as I cut her off. I didn’t have to listen to the old bat any longer. Adulthood was fun. “I’ll be in my bedroom. When the coach is ready, send the Head Girl to inform me.”

    Mistress Grayling looked as if she’d bitten into a lemon. I would have been more alarmed if that hadn’t been how she looked most of the time. “As you wish.”

    “Thank you.” I swallowed the urge to tell her precisely what I thought of her school - and her teaching style. “I’ll need the letters too.”

    “Yes.” Mistress Grayling held them out. “Your formal exam results will be forwarded to you, along with your final records and references from any of your tutors. Should you wish to retake any of the exams, you can apply to the authorities in Shallot.”

    I nodded, tersely. I had no intention of retaking any of the exams. There was no need. I couldn’t balance my duties to the family with a career ... I frowned, realising - not for the first time - just how little I knew of current affairs. Who would challenge me for the headship? Who would promise to support me overtly and do their level best to undermine me covertly? Family politics were confusing, almost impossible to follow unless you were immersed in them from birth. Sorting out the pecking order, all the little alliances and principalities that made up the whole, was incredibly difficult. It was just like boarding school.

    Except worse things can happen than waking up a toad, I thought. A shiver ran down my spine. My father might have named me his heir, but there were limits to how far his writ ran now he was dead. I might be voted out of the family.

    My heart clenched. I might need those exam results after all.

    Mistress Grayling looked down at the file. “I’ll have these copied for you,” she said. It was a dismissal and I knew it. “And you’ll be informed when the coach is ready.”

    I nodded. “Are there any letters of mine you held back? Letters from my family?”

    “It is not school policy to withhold letters, outside exam season,” Mistress Grayling said. It was a lie. I’d found the proof yesterday. “If we believe someone ... unsuitable ... is writing to one of our students, we raise the issue with that student’s parents.”

    You let Christie get letters from her creep of a fiancé, I thought, coldly. And her family wouldn’t object because they’re the ones who arranged the match.

    “I’m glad to hear it,” I said, artfully. “I’d hate to hear there were letters that went missing in transit.”

    “Quite.” Mistress Grayling’s face was a mask, but she changed the subject quickly enough to convince me I’d hit a nerve. “You may take your breakfast in the teacher’s lounge, if you like. Or I can have Cook bring you something ...”

    “I don’t feel like eating,” I said. I knew I should eat something, but ... I couldn’t face the thought of food. My stomach was churning. I felt as though I was on the verge of retching helplessly. “I ... thank you.”

    I hesitated, then headed for the door. I could feel her eyes burning into my back as I opened the door and hurried out, but she didn’t call me back. I was being rude - I should have dropped a curtsy, probably - yet ... she’d lied to me. I knew she had withheld letters. And I’d make sure to use that information for leverage when she demanded I pay my fees. There were hundreds of students - and former students - who’d be unamused to hear their letters had been held back ...

    And then it hit me, like a curse between the eyes.

    My father was dead.
     
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    I don’t know how I got back to my room.

    We’d been taught not to cry in public. Girls who blubbered were mocked relentlessly. It was supposed to toughen us up. And yet ... tears welled up in my eyes as I stumbled along the corridor and practically crashed into my room. Katie was gone ... either to breakfast or to face the music for being caught out of bed last night. I didn’t care, not really. Right now, I just wanted to be alone. I sat on the bed, trying not to cry. It was hard, so hard, to remain focused.

    I peered down at the letters, trying to deny what I was seeing. My father couldn’t be dead, but ... he was. A formal death notification, countersigned by two healers ... there was no hope, someone had added in pencil, that he’d attempted to fake his death and vanish into the shadows. My eyes narrowed as I read the handwritten note time and time again. Why had they thought, even for a moment, that my father had faked his death?

    And they confirmed it was his body, I thought, numbly. Why did they go so far?

    I tried to reason it out, but drew a blank. It made no sense. My father’s death was untimely, but there was no hint of foul play. I read the letters again, noting that his first will had been very short. He’d left everything to me. His second will would be read later, if I recalled correctly. That one would touch on his authority within the family and his successor’s relationship to his clients. I swallowed hard, realising - once again - just how little I really knew. Who were my father’s clients? What did he do for them? Would they stay with me?

    My eyes started to blur again. I put the letters aside and buried my head in my hands. I was an adult now, not a schoolgirl. I couldn’t hide behind the innocence of youth. I had all the rights and responsibilities and freedoms of adulthood, including the freedom to take the consequences. I looked around the bedroom, seeing it with fresh eyes. It had been a nest, a haven from the rest of the school. But I would never sleep in the uncomfortable bed again.

    Which is probably for the best, I told myself. I could lodge a formal complaint about the accommodations now.

    I snickered at the joke, then stood and opened my drawers. My clothes - a child’s clothes - lay in front of me. We were discouraged from wearing anything too fancy, even outside school hours, but I had a small collection of dresses I’d worn over the summer holidays. My heart clenched. I was hardly the first nor only boarder to stay at the school over the summer, but ... I could have gone home. Why hadn’t my father let me go home? I wished, suddenly, that I’d sneaked out and walked to the city. It would have been risky, but at least I would have seen my family again. Now ... I wasn’t even sure who was in and who was out. I picked up my blazer and stared down at it. I wouldn’t be wearing it again. I’d probably wind up donating it to a younger student.

    The door rattled, then burst open. Marlene shoved Katie into the room, then stopped and stared at me. I stared back, my mind going blank. What had caught her attention? Katie was staring too ... it struck me, suddenly, that I looked awful. Tears in my eyes, my hair hanging down ... they didn’t know what to make of me. I bit my lip. Marlene was no longer a problem. I had bigger fish to fry.

    I glared at her. “Get out.”

    Marlene blinked in surprise, then turned and left. I was surprised she didn’t slam the door again. Technically, she should have curtseyed and addressed me by my title or honorific, but ... I shook my head. Making her scrape and bow to me would be very satisfactory, I supposed, yet pointless. I was leaving the school. She wouldn’t see me again for the rest of term.

    Katie glanced at me, one hand playing with her braid. “Lucy ...?”

    “My father’s dead,” I said. “My father’s dead and ... and I’m going home.”

    “I’m sorry,” Katie said. I knew she meant it. “I ... when are you going home?”

    “Today.” I reached for my trunk and snapped it open, then started sorting through my clothes. The uniforms were largely worthless, outside the school. I’d leave them behind for the scholarship girls. The rest would have to be sorted again when I got home. “I’m not staying for graduation.”

    “Probably a good idea,” Katie said. She winced as she sat on the bed. “Marlene was a right” - she chuckled, suddenly - “I can’t think of any word rude enough for her.”

    “Yeah.” I grinned, although I felt little real humour. “How badly did she frighten your boyfriend?”

    “I think the mere sight of her was enough to make him flee.” Katie shook her head. “Can I ride back with you?”

    I blinked. “You don’t want to stay for graduation?”

    “My family can’t afford it.” Katie looked downcast, just for a second. “I was hoping to cadge a ride with the supply truck, next weekend.”

    I felt a stab of sympathy. Traditionally, senior students were allowed a little more freedom after they finished their exams. I’d been planning to go wild myself ... I groaned, inwardly, as I remembered I was now an adult. I couldn’t paper the towers with toilet paper or craft a trap for the prefects, not now. And ... I reminded myself, sharply, that Katie’s parents weren’t aristocrats. They’d had to scrimp and save to get their daughter a place at the school. I hoped it was worth it for them. Personally, I wasn’t so sure.

    “If you want to come, you’re welcome.” I picked out a dress and dropped it on the bed, then finished loading the trunk. “I’ll be glad of your company.”

    Katie beamed. “Thanks!”

    I smiled back at her, then hastily changed into the dress and bagged up my old school uniforms. They’d be washed, before being dispatched to the thrift shop. I made a careful note to ensure they were handed out for free, rather than being sold to wealthy students and their parents. It was unlikely a really wealthy student would wear my cast-offs - aristocrats preferred to have their uniforms carefully tailored and charmed - but I wouldn’t put it past the tutors to try to make a quick buck. They charged for everything, jacking the price up as much as possible. I remembered my father’s debts and shivered. Why hadn’t Mistress Grayling cast me out years ago?

    Maybe she did feel sorry for me, I thought. It seemed unlikely, but the headmistress rarely took charity cases. I doubted my fees had been paid by one of the scholarship funds. I was a good student, but not that good. Or was she hoping she could claim something more than money from me?

    I puzzled it over as I pocketed the letters and splashed water on my face. It just made no sense. Had she wanted my father in her debt? Or had she been told all fees would be paid when I graduated ... I doubted it. I’d studied business in school. It was a lot easier to insist on payment in advance, rather than chasing up debtors after the fact. Maybe she’d thought she could collect the money through the courts. It was possible, but ... were they the family’s debts or my father’s debts? If the latter ... I wasn’t sure who’d be liable, now he was gone. My lips twitched. I’d been a child, until my father had died. There was no way I could be held liable, no matter what I’d signed. Now ...

    Katie changed into a simple dress and preened in front of the mirror as she started to braid her hair. “It would be a lot easier if we were allowed to wear trousers.”

    “You can start a trend,” I said, dryly. I agreed with her - trousers were far more practical than dresses - but any girl who wore them could expect a lot of sharp and sarcastic remarks from the older generation. I didn’t know anyone my age who could start a trend of girls wearing trousers. It would practically have to be an aristo, someone who could stand against her own family. “Maybe you could convince everyone to follow you.”

    “I doubt it.” Katie grinned at me. “My father’s too busy trying to make money.”

    “Good for him,” I said. “I ...”

    My heart sank, again. My father was dead. My father was dead and ... I missed him suddenly, with an intensity that surprised me. I’d always assumed there’d be time to get to know him, when I finally graduated and returned to the city. And now he was dead. How many others were dead too? How many of my aunts and uncles, the ones who’d tutored me in magic, were still alive? Uncle Jalil had written to me, but what about the others? Why hadn’t they written to me?

    “I’m sorry.” Katie rested a hand on my shoulder. “I wish I could make it better.”

    “Me too.” I put my hand on hers, just for a second. “But there’s nothing we can do.”

    Katie hugged me. “The ancients will accept him as one of their own.”

    I nodded, stiffly. They said no one was ever truly gone until they were forgotten. I’d been taught to recite a family tree that claimed to stretch back all the way to the Thousand Year Empire, although - reading between the lines - our records grew a little imprecise five hundred or so years ago. It wasn’t uncommon for the Great Houses to burnish their records and claim ancestors who’d never really existed, although none of them would ever admit to it. I doubted they knew the truth. No one really knew what had happened so long ago.

    And not reciting the names of the ancients would have consequences, I thought. I wasn’t sure I believed in the ancients, but the thought was comforting. My father and mother were waiting for me on the far side of the grave. They’ll be gone once they’re forgotten.

    I felt another chill as I stared down at my hands. It shouldn’t take long to organise a coach, surely. The school had a stable full of horses and a team of coachmen to convey us from place to place. Rumour had it the coachman’s apprentice was very good at kissing ... I snorted, reminding myself how rumours grew and grew until they became completely unrecognisable. It was impossible to say for sure.

    There was a knock on the door. “Marlene, I bet,” Katie muttered. “Should we pretend we’re asleep?”

    “She’d just come crashing in,” I muttered back, although I wasn’t sure that was true. Marlene might be Head Girl, but even she had to follow the courtesies. If an adult happened to file a complaint ... I dismissed the thought as I raised my voice. “Come!”

    Marlene stepped into the room. “The coach will be ready to go in an hour,” she said, as she held out a thick envelope. “And Mistress Grayling wanted me to give you these.”

    “Thanks,” I said, shortly. An hour? What was the coachman doing? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “Katie and I will be downstairs in an hour.”

    “Very good.” Marlene hesitated, as if she had something she wanted to say. “I ... can I accompany you to Shallot.”

    I blinked. “You want to leave the school?”

    “I want ...” Marlene changed tack, sharply. “I want to go home.”

    “Really?” I made a show of raising my eyebrows. “You don’t want to stay for graduation?”

    “I may come back for the ceremony,” Marlene said. “But I don’t want to stay here any longer.”

    I frowned. Marlene was Head Girl. Mistress Grayling would hardly object to Katie accompanying me - if Katie couldn’t pay, she’d be kicked out faster than a thief - but Marlene? She had her duties, didn’t she? And she was meant to deliver the address during the graduation ceremony. Mistress Grayling would kick up a fuss if Marlene insisted on leaving the school. If nothing else, she’d have to hastily appoint a new Head Girl.

    “As a responsible adult” - I allowed that word to linger on my tongue - “I have to ask if you’ve checked with the headmistress.”

    Marlene coloured. “I’m sure Mistress Grayling will raise no objection.”

    “I’m not.” I was tempted to make her crawl a little. I’d never really forgiven her for lording it over me for the last six years. She’d been a heartless so-and-so when I’d first met her and authority had only made her worse. I had the feeling she was in for a nasty shock when she went home. Her family might be powerful, but she wasn’t that important to them. “But if Mistress Grayling feels otherwise, you can accompany us.”

    “Thank you.” Marlene bobbed a curtsy as she headed for the door. “You won’t regret this.”

    “I already do,” I muttered, once the door closed behind her. “And I bet you’ll make me regret it even more.”

    Katie shot me an odd look. “Why didn’t you just say no?”

    I frowned. I wasn’t sure of my own motives. I wasn’t even sure I was in a position to say no. I didn’t own the coach, nor did I pay the coachman’s wages ... if Marlene managed to convince Mistress Grayling to let her go, there was nothing I could do about it. And yet ... I shrugged. It was quite possible Mistress Grayling would simply say no. Marlene was Head Girl. She couldn’t simply leave the school without a good excuse.

    “You’d better tell Mistress Grayling you want to go too,” I said, instead. I cast a pair of lightening charms, then picked up the trunk and steered it towards the door. “I’ll see you in the hall.”

    “Sure.” Katie waved a hand at the dresser. “What do you want to do with your cosmetics?”

    I shrugged. Cosmetics were technically banned, although there weren’t many girls who didn’t bring at least some cosmetics to school. The girls who couldn’t get them for themselves traded with the girls who could. I’d never really understood the lust for cosmetics when one could simply cast glamours, but I supposed the lure of the forbidden drew students like flies to honey. The handful I owned were reserved for trading with the other girls.

    “Leave them,” I said, after a moment. “Or take them, if you want them.”

    “Whoever inherits this room will have a nice surprise,” Katie said. “Right?”

    I shrugged. We were meant to clean our own rooms - and there were weekly inspections, with the prefects searching for dust - but I was fairly sure Mistress Grayling or one of the housemothers would insist on having the rooms cleaned professionally before someone new moved into the chambers. There were enough horror stories about newcomers finding everything from leftover hexes to downright malicious curses to ensure the tutors would make sure the rooms were safe first.

    “I’ll see you downstairs,” I said. It wasn’t that important. Once I was out the door, I’d never be coming back. And I’d be quite happy if I never saw Mistress Grayling again. “Good luck.”

    I floated the trunk down the stairs - it wasn’t as if anyone was going to stop me now - and left it in the lobby while I checked out the teacher’s lounge. It was certain death - or at least a million detentions - for a student to enter the chamber, with or without permission, but no one stopped me when I peeked inside. I was almost disappointed. The thrill of sneaking into a place I wasn’t supposed to go, and the certainty I’d pay a steep price if I were caught, was gone. Instead ... I looked around the chamber, rolling my eyes at the stories whispered in the dorms. The teachers looked surprisingly normal. They were drinking coffee like real people, not climbing out of coffins or polishing their whips or any of the hundred other disreputable things they were supposed to do in their private chambers. The walls were not lined with gold. I poured myself a mug of coffee, then forced myself to eat a pair of sweet buns for breakfast. They tasted better than the ones served to us, but otherwise ...

    Marlene was waiting for me when I went back to the lobby. “Mistress Grayling said I could accompany you.”

    I scowled, kicking myself for not saying no. Perhaps I would have been overruled, perhaps not. “Behave yourself,” I said, darkly. “I don’t want to hear a peep of complaint from you.”

    “Of course, My Lady,” Marlene said. Her voice dripped honey and acid. “It will be my deepest honour, My Lady.”

    “And you can remove your tongue from my boot,” I added. “Please.”

    Marlene looked as if she wanted to say something cutting, but Katie arrived before she could get the word out. I breathed a sigh of relief as the outer door opened, revealing the coachman’s apprentice. I guessed he was taking us to the city. I rather assumed his master had decided the job was beneath him.

    Or maybe it’s a reward, I thought. They’d be time for him to go shopping once he drops us off.

    “Goodbye school,” Katie said, as our trunks were loaded into the coach. “We won’t be seeing you again.”

    “You’re still a child,” Marlene said. “You might be coming back.”

    “Never,” Katie said.

    “Never,” I echoed, as we scrambled into the coach. “I have better things to do with my time.”

    Moments later, the coach rattled into life.
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    We said nothing as the coach rattled away from the school.

    I peered out the rear window, watching as Grayling’s vanished into the distance. The school was an ugly blocky building - rumour insisted it had been designed by a madman - that was profoundly unsuited to its role, but it had been my home for the last six years. I’d been allowed to go to the nearest town, from time to time, yet I’d never been allowed to return to Shallot. I felt very mixed feelings as we rounded the corner, passing through the gatehouse and driving onto the road. It felt good to be an adult, but ...

    “It won’t be a long drive,” Marlene said. “Did anyone think to bring a pack of cards?”

    I meant to read my letters, I thought, sourly. I didn’t plan on having you accompany me.

    “Here,” Katie said. She produced a pack of cards from her dress. “You want to play Spellbinder or Frogmaker?”

    “Frogmaker,” Marlene said. “Lucy? You want to play?”

    I hid my sour amusement with an effort. Marlene would normally look down her nose at Katie. Katie might not be quite a commoner, but Marlene and Katie were not - and never would be - social equals. And yet, trapped in the coach, Marlene was happy to treat Katie as a friend. I wondered if she thought pretending to be nice for an hour would make up for seven years of bossiness, harassment and outright bullying. I doubted she had the self-awareness to even think she needed to make up for something. She’d certainly never struck me as very intelligent.

    “Sure,” I said. It would help keep my mind off the coming ordeal. “Deal me in.”

    “Great,” Marlene said. “I’ll go first.”

    I found it hard to care enough to argue. My mind kept wandering. My father’s funeral was tomorrow and then ... I’d have to face the family conclave. I tried to remember who might be still active, who might have reason to oppose my rise to the headship, but it was hard to draw any real conclusions. Uncle Algernon had been my father’s strongest opponent, back in his early days, but he’d been sent into permanent exile for recklessly endangering his children’s lives. The others ...? I wasn’t sure. Auntie Aggie? Uncle Simon? Someone I couldn’t even remember? I mentally cursed my father, even as I mourned him. I should have been at his side, learning how to handle the family. I was going to be entering politics blind.

    “Lucy?” Katie sounded concerned. “Are you alright?”

    “Just tired,” I lied. “It’s been a long day already.”

    “You’re normally a better player,” Marlene agreed. “I just beat you twice.”

    “Did you?” I honestly hadn’t noticed. “Well done.”

    “Hah.” Marlene looked displeased. “Did you also forget about the money you agreed to pay me, if I won?”

    I tried not to flinch. That comment had landed too close to home. “I’m still trying to forget,” I told her, trying not to sound too angry at her jest. “You have to stop reminding me.”

    The coach rattled - again - as we crested the hill and drove down towards Shallot. I pushed open the curtain and peered out the window. Shallot looked ... bigger ... then I remembered, although it had been a long time since I’d left the city. I had no trouble picking out the three sections of the city, divided by the river as it made its way down to the sea. My eyes moved from ship to ship, from the tramp freighters making their way up and down the coast to the giant clipper ships preparing to sail to Hangchow. I’d heard some men - and women - had made their fortunes in the east. A couple of girls I’d known had talked openly about their dreams of travel. I hoped, just for a second, they made it. I’d have liked to go with them too.

    “We’ll be stopping in North Shallot,” Marlene said. She sneered at Katie, a fitting return to form after an hour of trying to be nice. “Will you be able to get home from there?”

    “I’ll have no trouble walking across the bridges,” Katie said, dryly. “You’re the one who tried to cheat on the cross-country dash.”

    Marlene flushed and glared. I tried not to snicker. Marlene had tried to cheat, unaware the games mistress knew all the tricks. Marlene had had to run the dash again while the rest of us went for lunch. I would have felt sorrier for her if she hadn’t been so awful. As it was, I’d joined in the sniggers. One might win respect by cheating and getting away with it, but there was no sympathy in the school for someone who got caught. It was yet another lesson the school probably hadn’t meant to teach us.

    I turned away and watched as we passed through the gatehouse and drove into North Shallot. It was the richest part of the city, the roads lined with trees and beautiful mansions surrounded by powerful wards. The men and women on the streets wore fancy clothes, suggesting they were either incredibly rich or doing their level best to pretend they were. I looked down at my dress and frowned. It had been the height of fashion, two years ago. It wasn’t any longer. I told myself, firmly, that it didn’t matter. Everyone would know me, soon enough. I’d be rich and powerful enough not to have to care what everyone thought.

    Marlene tapped on the wood. “Just drop me off after the next mansion.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” the driver called back. “It shall be done.”

    “After the next mansion?” I rolled my eyes at her. “Don’t want to be seen with us, do you?”

    “Compared to you two, I look great,” Marlene said. “I don’t want to outshine you.”

    I bit down a sarcastic remark as the coach rattled to a halt. Marlene had to be really ashamed of us. She’d look odd floating a trunk through the air, instead of being driven to the front door and helped out. But ... I shrugged, watching as she scrambled out and collected her trunk from the undercompartment. It was quite possible she wanted to visit a few other places before she went home instead. She might want to visit her friends or ... maybe she even had a boyfriend. Marlene was pretty enough, I supposed. She might show a nicer side of herself to a boy she liked. Or a girl. I could see either one really upsetting her family if they didn’t approve of the partner.

    “Where does she live?” Katie looked around with interest as the coach rattled back to life and headed down the road. “Where is she going?”

    “I have no idea,” I said. I winked. “She’s probably off to meet someone her parents won’t like.”

    I sobered as the coach turned the corner. Marlene might be obnoxious, but she had all the disadvantages of being an aristocrat with few of the advantages. On one hand, her parents and family would do their level best to keep her under control; on the other, she probably wouldn’t have much hope of either rising to the top or building a small power base for herself. A crafty person might make something of her position, but it wouldn’t be easy. The Grande Dames of High Society would do everything in their power to crush a young upstart.

    And they’re going to have problems coming to grips with me, I thought. I’m too young for them to take seriously and too powerful for them not to take me seriously.

    “I’ll drop Katie off here,” the driver called. “It’s only a short walk to the bridge.”

    “Thanks,” Katie said. She leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “Take care of yourself, okay? And give me a call if you need to talk.”

    “You too,” I said. It was a shame I couldn’t invite her to stay with me, but I wasn’t confirmed yet. Afterwards ... I wondered if she’d enjoy visiting Lamplighter Hall. “I’ll see you soon.”

    I felt my heart starting to pound again as soon as the coach rattled to life again. I was going home. I was going home and ... I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Home had always been where my parents had lived, but my mother had died six years ago and I’d barely known my father before he sent me away. I reached for the letter in my pocket, feeling my heart twinge in pain. It couldn’t be all my father had sent, right? I told myself there would be a letter waiting for me at Lamplighter Hall, something my father would have written and charmed so that only I could read.

    The driver’s voice broke into my thoughts. “The gates aren’t opening.”

    I peered through the window. The gates were closed. The gatehouse was empty. I peered at the sign - LAMPLIGHTER HAL - and swore under my breath. There was a missing letter, an empty space where the letter should have been ... I opened the door and jumped out, slipping and sliding on the muddy ground. The road running beside the house was in our care. And yet ... I felt my heart sink. Something was very wrong.

    “My Lady?”

    “Unload my trunk,” I ordered, as I touched the gate. The charms woven into the metal recognised me as a family member and unlocked, allowing me to push the gate open. There should have been someone in the guardhouse, but the tiny building was completely empty. I shivered, peering up towards the house. My memories insisted it should glow with light, but instead it looked more than a little faded. “I’ll walk from here.”

    “Aye, My Lady,” the driver said. He looked at the house and frowned. “Have we come to the right place?”

    I hesitated. I honestly wasn’t sure. My memories did not match the scene before me. The drive looked muddy in some places and overgrown in others, the doors looked marred by age and dark magic, the lawn was patchy ... the statues of my ancestors looked as if no one had bothered to maintain them. I shivered, again. It was the right place. I was sure of it. But there was no one hurrying to greet me.

    “Yes,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “I’ll be fine.”

    He tipped his hat to me, then scrambled back into the driver’s seat as I levitated my trunk and started up the driveway. A faint smell hung in the air, a faint stench of something I couldn’t quite place. I peered towards the distant potions gardens and shivered when I realised the plants had been allowed to grow out of control. They’d have to be trimmed and pruned at the very least, before we could start using them again. It was quite possible the cross-contamination had given birth to something dangerous. There were magical plants that produced deadly gasses when they were burnt. I’d have to arrange for a proper expert to come inspect the garden and do whatever was necessary to clean up the mess. And ...

    I swallowed hard as I stared at the closed doors. They should have opened for me already. There should have been someone in the hall to greet me ... I wondered, suddenly, if I was alone. Or if the hall had been abandoned ... I inched forward, directing my trunk ahead of me. What had happened? Why? I touched the door and breathed a sigh of relief as it unlocked and opened for me. The charms recognised me, even if no one else did. The wards shimmered around me as I stepped into the hall. Someone was coming down the stairs ...

    “Lucy!”

    I stared. “Uncle Jalil?”

    My mother’s older brother came into the light. He looked older than I remembered, his skin a shade darker, his beard shot through with gray and white streaks. It looked as if he was losing his hair, despite the magic running through his blood. I found it hard to reconcile the man in front of me with the uncle I’d known as a little girl. It had been six years since I’d seen him, but he looked to have aged twenty. I couldn’t believe it.

    “Lucy,” Uncle Jalil said. His suit looked old too, as if he couldn’t afford the latest styles. “Welcome home.”

    He started to hug me, then stepped back and held out his hand instead. I took it and clasped it lightly, then pulled him into a proper hug. “It’s been a long time,” I said. “What ... what happened?”

    Uncle Jalil winced. “I’ve got a lot to tell you,” he said. “And you’re not going to like it.”

    I looked around. The entrance hall was badly lit, but I could see well enough to notice that a dozen paintings - at least - had been removed from the walls. A handful of statuettes I remembered from my childhood, including one that had been damaged when Cousin Oliver threw it at his older brother during a tantrum, were also missing. Dust hung in the air, suggesting no one had bothered to sweep the floors, polish the walls or do any of the hundreds of tasks one had to do if one wanted to keep a Great House in good condition. I reached out with my senses, studying the wards. They welcomed me. The wards were the only thing within eyeshot that appeared to be in good repair.

    “I’m starting to feel that way,” I said. I lowered my trunk to the floor, then looked at the stairs. “Where is everyone?”

    Uncle Jalil winced, again. “The majority of the servants were laid off, or chose to work elsewhere,” he said. “Only a handful remained.”

    I stared at him. “They were laid off?”

    “Yes.” Uncle Jalil sounded as if he would sooner be talking about something - anything - other than this. “They were let go.”

    “I see,” I said. I didn’t, not really. “Uncle ... what about the family?”

    “Most of them moved out,” Uncle Jalil said. “The remainder are largely concentrated in the backhouse. Your father didn’t like them hanging around. He didn’t trust them. He thought they were plotting against him. I think he only trusted me because I was his brother-in-law, not an actual brother. He knew I couldn’t rule the family.”

    I shook my head slowly. “Uncle ... is there something to drink?”

    Uncle Jalil laughed, humourlessly. “Come with me.”

    I followed him down a corridor and into what had once - probably - been a waiting room for the servants. I took a seat and watched as he heated water with a spell, then poured it into two mugs and added tealeaves. It was the sort of simple task most aristocrats would delegate to a servant. I knew girls of aristocratic stock who’d be horrified at the mere thought of brewing their own tea, let alone brushing their own hair or cooking their own food. I supposed boarding school had done something for me. I was far better prepared to look after myself than one of those shrinking violets.

    “I’m afraid the budget doesn’t run to alcohol,” Uncle Jalil said, as he passed me a steaming mug. “And besides, as your uncle, I can’t serve alcohol to you anyway.”

    “I have never so much as touched a drop,” I lied. Actually, one of the girls had smuggled in a bottle of farmhouse whiskey for a midnight feast. It had tasted so vile that I’d sworn off the stuff from that moment on. The banging headache the following morning, when we’d had a charms test, hadn’t helped. “Uncle ... what happened?”

    “It’s a long story,” Uncle Jalil said. “Where do you want me to start?”

    “At the beginning,” I said. My patience was beginning to wear thin. “What. Happened?”

    Uncle Jalil let out a long breath. “Your father was a very imaginative man,” he said, in a tone that suggested it wasn’t entirely a compliment. “He’d hoped to repair the family fortunes, which were already flagging when he married your mother, and put them on solid ground. Instead, he had a run of bad luck. Some of his investments flopped, while others failed to make a profit. We were staggering along when the House War broke out. It crippled us.”

    My eyes narrowed. “Uncle ... we didn’t take part in the House War.”

    “Not directly,” Uncle Jalil agreed. “It didn’t save us. We’d invested heavily on opening new trade routes to Minima and Hangchow. The fighting destroyed our warehouses and wiped out any chance of us recovering our investment, let alone making a profit. Your father did everything he could to conceal it, but the writing was firmly on the wall. He spent the last six years, ever since Razwhana died, trying to save the family.”

    “He sent me away,” I said. “Why?”

    “I believe he feared you might be dragged down with him,” Uncle Jalil said. “The blunt truth, Lucy, is that the only reason he kept his post was that no one else wanted it. He didn’t listen to the conclave - or me, really. They didn’t try to vote him out because that would have left them holding the bag.”

    “And so they all inched away,” I said, slowly. I sipped my tea as I tried to think. “I ... didn’t you try to tell him? I thought you were an accountant!”

    “I am,” Uncle Jalil said. “Yes, I did try to tell him. He didn’t listen. He just went ahead with zany scheme after zany scheme until he finally died and left you holding the bag. As your uncle” - his eyes met mine - “my honest advice is to decline the poisoned chalice he’s left you and leave the city for good.”

    “I can’t do that,” I said. “I ...”

    “I know.” Uncle Jalil looked away. “And I am sorry.”
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Five

    There was hardly anyone at my father’s funeral.

    I stood beside Uncle Jalil and pretended to listen as the speaker - my father’s oldest surviving relative - droned on and on about my father’s accomplishments to a handful of people who’d probably come to make sure my father was truly dead. Uncle Jalil had suggested hiring professional mourners, but one look at the account books - the ones carefully hidden from everyone else - had been enough to convince me we couldn’t afford them. Besides, everyone would know. I couldn’t help wondering, as my eyes swept from side to side, if it really mattered. House Lamplighter was collapsing into rubble. We had so little the vultures weren’t even bothering to gather.

    My heart sank as I surveyed the mourners. Twelve people, just twelve ... two of them servants and three more family members who practically had to attend. House Lamplighter had once commanded small armies of kin and enough wealth to corrupt a small city, but now ... I picked out the names and faces, silently noting who’d been kind enough to attend. I’d make the others pay, I vowed to myself. They should have attended. It was their duty.

    The speaker finally droned to a halt and raised his hand, pointing at the pyre. I forced myself to watch as my father’s body caught fire, the remnants of magic within his dead flash sparking brightly as the flames turned him to ash. His soul was long gone, I told myself; he’d joined the ancients in the world of the honoured dead. I shivered, feeling my legs wobble uncomfortably as the flames grew hotter. I wanted to believe there was something after death, even though I feared what my ancestors would say. The world had changed in so many ways since House Lamplighter first rose to power.

    I closed my eyes in pain. My father was dead ... I felt a gaping emptiness in my chest, a dull awareness that something was missing. I’d been taught that crying was bad, that giving vent to one’s emotions was wrong, but ... I’d been taught to conceal my pain, yet there was nothing to hide. I felt ... numb. I’d seen so little of my father since birth that it was hard to feel anything. What had he been like, really? A kind man? A decent man? Or a monster? I just didn’t know.

    The flames reached their peak, then abated as the remainder of the body crumpled to dust. The ashes would be picked up by the wind and swept over the garden, an offering to the ancestors who’d built the manor so long ago. I wondered, grimly, what they thought of us now. They had to be ashamed. I’d never truly realised how badly my family was going downhill until I returned home.

    No wonder the healers were so determined to ensure it really was father’s body, I thought, dully. I’d read the reports carefully, noting just how thoroughly they’d done their work. They must have wondered if he’d faked his death.

    I swallowed, hard. I’d sneaked into the crypt to view the body, even though tradition insisted the Heir Primus was supposed to pretend her successor had never really lived. The Head of the Family was dead, long live the Head of the Family. The face that looked up at me had been a stranger, a face so unlike mine that it was hard to believe we’d been related. I had his colouring - and his eyes, I’d been told - but the rest of my features came from my mother. I supposed that wasn’t entirely a bad thing. My mother had been a beauty in her day, everyone insisted. And my father had had a beard.

    Uncle Jalil put his hand on my arm. “Do you want to speak to the mourners?”

    I shook my head, unable to put my feelings into words. My father was dead ... I wondered, sourly, just how many of the mourners had come to make sure my father truly was dead. I’d heard all the jokes, back when they’d been funny ... I supposed it said something that so few people had come to make sure of it. My father had lived and died without making many friends, let alone enemies who’d come to gloat. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or discomforted. House Lamplighter had once been amongst the powerful. Now ... how many of us were even left?

    The wind picked up, scattering the ashes across the overgrown lawn. I lifted my eyes to the mansion, silently calculating everything that would need to be fixed before the building crumbled into ruin. They’d really known how to build in those days, I’d been assured, but even the greatest of the Great Houses needed proper maintenance from time to time. There was no choice. The walls might be solid, and charmed to repel everything from subtle scrying to powerful curses, but the windows and interiors were far less solid. We might be left with nothing more than a framework if the rest of the building collapsed. I counted windows that needed to be replaced and shuddered. I’d been taught that putting on a good face was half of making a good impression. My father had clearly forgotten that lesson.

    It would have been relatively cheap to shower, put on makeup and don a fancy dress, I reminded myself, dryly. Fixing everything wrong with the mansion would be a great deal more expensive.

    My heart sank. I’d donned mourning garb for the funeral - it was tradition, no one would say a peep about it - but I didn’t have anything else to wear. I snorted with bitter amusement. There were entire wardrobes of clothes that could be adjusted to fit me, but they weren’t remotely fashionable. I’d be mocked if I wore a dress from last season, let alone the last hundred years. People would say I couldn’t afford anything better. They’d be right. Perhaps I could claim it was a family tradition ... the thought lingered in my mind. It was doable. If I made a show of wearing my father’s styles ...

    And then people would be shocked I wore trousers, I thought. There’s no way to win.

    I heard the mourners leaving behind me, Uncle Jalil bidding them a polite farewell, but I didn’t look round. We were supposed to host a feast for the mourners, but - as I wasn’t technically confirmed as Matriarch - we could skip the requirement without exciting too much comment. I rather suspected no one would care enough to comment. Twelve people, just twelve, had come to the funeral. The servants would be already heading back to their rooms ... I wondered, idly, if they’d hold a private wake for their former master. Katie had told me servants and commoners had their own traditions and rituals. I wasn’t sure I believed her, but it was nice to think that someone would have held a formal ceremony for father ...

    A tingle ran down my spine. I’d spent the last six years in boarding school. I’d leant to tell when someone was sneaking up on me, either to slap me on the back or hit me with a particularly nasty hex. I tensed, readying a counterspell as I turned. A young man - a few years older than me, with an artfully bland face - stood behind me. His eyes were firmly fixed on my face. He wore a fashionable suit, the kind of outfit that would be worn by an aristocrat who dabbled in trade, but the way he wore it suggested he hadn’t grown up with high fashion. I felt a flicker of envy. There was something to be said for a childhood that didn’t include endless etiquette and presentation lessons. Or an environment where the slightest mistake would be remembered and dragged up to be used against you years later.

    “Lady Lamplighter?”

    I nodded as I studied him. He was handsome, I supposed, but ... bland, definitely bland. He had a very forgettable face, neither striking nor ugly enough to linger in my memory. His suit hadn’t been professionally tailored either. It fitted him well, but not perfectly. A commoner pretending to be an aristocrat? Or an aristocrat who’d fallen on hard times? I suspected the former. His accent was perfect enough to suggest he was hiding something. A lower-class accent? It was quite likely.

    “I am Clive,” he said. “I speak for Zadornov.”

    He spoke the name as though it should mean something to me, but it didn’t. I’d never heard of Zadornov, even though I’d been warned to memorise everyone of importance within the city. I was out of touch, but ... if Zadornov was important, I’d have heard of him. I’d heard of a great many people who thought they were important too.

    I met his eyes, feeling my temper start to fray. “And who is Zadornov?”

    Clive’s eyes widened, just for a second. “A businessman,” he said. His voice was polite, but firm. “Your father owes him money.”

    “My father is dead,” I said. I waved a hand at what remained of the ashes. “Dead and gone.”

    “The fact remains, the debt is now due,” Clive said. “My master wishes to discuss repayment.”

    “Does he?” I groaned, inwardly. “My father’s secondary will has yet to be read. If you feel you have a claim on his personal estate ...”

    “Your father signed agreements, in his persona as Patriarch,” Clive said. “Those debts have to be honoured.”

    I felt a stab of pure anger. I’d just watched my father die. I hadn’t even started coming to terms with his death, let alone working my way through the account books. I didn’t know what my father owned, either personally or professionally, and I didn’t much care. I had too many other problems.

    “Your father owes my master money,” Clive said. I thought I heard a hint of amusement in his voice. “The original sum, combined with interest, is over two thousand crowns.”

    I blinked. “Two thousand crowns?”

    “Yes,” Clive agreed. “The original sum was a thousand crowns. Combined with interest ...”

    “A ruinous rate of interest,” Uncle Jalil said, as he came up behind us. “I saw the paperwork, young man. The interest rate was so high because it was a personal loan to Lord Lucas, not a family loan. It cannot be passed to his heir.”

    Clive shifted, moving uncomfortably. It dawned on me, suddenly, that he really was quite young. He couldn’t be more than twenty-five, perhaps younger. And yet ... I cursed my father under my breath, even though it was technically blasphemy. What had he done?

    “If you have a legal claim on any part of my father’s estate,” I said, “you have to put it in writing before the will is read and approved. That’ll be in three days from now.”

    “I will inform my master.” Clive bowed, formally. “A pleasure meeting you, Lady Lamplighter.”

    He turned and hurried off. I watched him until he’d passed through the gates, then turned to Uncle Jalil. “Who’s Zadornov?”

    “A loan shark.” Uncle Jalil shifted uncomfortably. “That’s a person who makes loans at ...”

    “I know what a loan shark is,” I said, crossly. There’d been a couple of girls at school who’d made a tidy profit by loaning money to their fellow students, then collecting it back with interest. “Why did father go to him?”

    “Because he was short of money and no one was prepared to lend it to him,” Uncle Jalil informed me. “You can review the contract if you like.”

    “I will.” I knew more than a little about inheritance law, but I was uncomfortably aware I was out of my depth. Father hadn’t just been my father. He’d been the Patriarch of House Lamplighter. The contract might be vague on precisely who was liable for the debt, if he died ... I scowled. It was going to be a legal headache. How many of father’s possessions had really been his? “Uncle ...”

    “We’ll talk about it later,” Uncle Jalil said. “You have company.”

    I raised my eyebrows as Ellington, the butler, walked up to us. He was a tall dark man, wearing a simple black suit. I couldn’t recall him ever wearing anything else, even when I’d been a child. His family had worked for ours for generations, the older children going into service as soon as they came of age ... I wondered, suddenly, if they were really as happy as they claimed. As a child, I’d never questioned it. As an adult ...

    “My Lady,” Ellington said. His voice was formal, as always. “I grieve with thee for thy father, who is now amongst the ancestors.”

    “I thank you,” I said, equally formally. There weren’t many people, even amongst the aristos, who used the old terms. “May the Ancients welcome you as well.”

    Ellington bowed. “It will be my honour to serve you,” he said. “And I bid thee welcome to thy home.”

    I nodded, unsure of the formal response. “I’ve not been confirmed yet.”

    “This is your home,” Ellington said. “It will always be your home.”

    He bowed again, then took his leave. I shook my head as he turned away, understanding - finally - what my tutors had meant when they’d lectured me on noblesse oblige. Ellington was old enough to be my grandfather - literally - but I was responsible for him. And his family. And all of the other servants. My heart sank as I remembered walking the halls, remembering how many servants had once lived and worked in Lamplighter Hall. Now ... how many were there? Five. Just five, one of whom was too old to work. They were my responsibility now. I couldn’t just kick them out to starve.

    Ellington could probably get a job elsewhere, I thought, although I wasn’t sure that was true. The Great Houses preferred to hire their kin for the senior household roles, regarding them as more trustworthy than outsiders. The others ...

    “That man is more loyal than your father ever realised,” Uncle Jalil said, quietly. “Lucas always took him for granted.”

    “I know,” I said. “What happened to the other servants?”

    “They didn’t get paid,” Uncle Jalil said. There was a hint of waspishness in his voice, as if I’d asked a silly question. “And so they left.”

    I winced, inwardly. A common or garden servant could get a job anywhere, as long as they had a good character. I’d heard more than enough grumbling about competition for good servants from my mother, back before the House War. The old retainers like Ellington ... my heart sank as I realised I might be wrong. If he left the household, someone would ask pointed questions about precisely why. They’d wonder if he’d resigned or been kicked out or ... if they thought he’d been disloyal, they’d refuse to hire him. And I was responsible for him. And everyone else.

    The wind blew again. I watched the ashes blowing across the grounds, then turned and started to walk back to the hall. The remaining mourners had left without so much as bothering to offer their condolences. I ground my teeth in bitter frustration, even though I was relieved. I didn’t want to exchange insincere chitchat with relatives who either wanted the headship for themselves or were silently grateful they’d been spared the poisoned chalice. Idiots. They could have just left. It wasn’t as if they needed to stay on the sinking ship.

    I said nothing until we stepped back into the hall. It should have been warmer inside the building - it was summer, damn it - but it felt cold. I muttered a heating spell as I looked around, my heart sinking as I saw the dust. It felt as if I were walking into an abandoned building, not the heart of a Great House. The wards sparkled around me - they, at least, knew me - but there was little else welcoming. I stared up at the bare spaces on the walls, where the paintings should have been. What had happened to them?

    “Your father sold many of them,” Uncle Jalil said, as if he’d read my thoughts. “Others were placed into storage ...”

    “He sold them?” I couldn’t believe it. “Why?”

    “He was desperate for capital,” Uncle Jalil said. “And short of ways to get it.”

    I felt my heart sink, again. Again. “Why didn’t he tell me? Why did he send me away?”

    “For your own good, I suspect,” Uncle Jalil said. “You were the Heir Primus by default, Lucy, but you were isolated from the realities of the role. He kept you in ignorance to ensure you could not be blamed for his failings, let alone forced to pay his debts. You - you personally - are not legally responsible for anything he did. If you’d stayed here, if you’d effectively been apprenticed to him, you might have wound up bearing some of the blame.”

    “Really?” I wasn’t sure of that. “Do apprentices get blamed when their master makes a mistake?”

    “Sometimes,” Uncle Jalil said. “If the apprentice is taken on with the intention of eventually inheriting his master’s business ... yes, he could be blamed. It would be assumed, rightly or wrongly, that he’d played a role in making the decisions. A Heir Primus who was involved throughout his teenage years would certainly have played a role ...”

    “I was at school,” I protested.

    “Yes,” Uncle Jalil agreed. His voice was very calm. “And that’s why you have a clean slate.”

    I nodded, slowly. “I’m going to his rooms,” I said. “Meet me there in thirty minutes. I want to know everything.”

    “I’ll be there,” Uncle Jalil said. If he took offense at my tone, he didn’t show it. “And I’ll have Jadish bring us some tea. We’re going to need it.”
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    I felt oddly out of place as I walked up the stairs to the top floor, even though Lamplighter Hall was mine now and the wards parted at my touch. My father’s domain had been firmly off limits to everyone, save for his friends and business associates. Mother hadn’t been allowed onto the floor, even though ... I shook my head as I opened the door and peered into the empty office. My father had lived and worked up here ... I thought, just for a moment, that I could see his ghost sitting behind a large wooden desk. The wards crackled around me as I walked towards the desk and sat on his chair. It was mine now, but ... it didn’t feel mine.

    The sensation of unreality grew stronger as I looked around the chamber. One wall was covered in bookshelves, crammed to busting with volumes that looked untouched; another was covered in maps and drawings that didn’t seem to be in any reasonable order. A pair of wooden filing cabinets were placed against the third wall, between the window panes. My father had been able to stand by the window and stare over North Shallot. I wondered what he’d seen, when he’d had the time. A city of opportunity or a land of rivals who’d tear him down if he gave them half a chance? Or both?

    I tried to open the drawer, but couldn’t. The locking charms were designed to keep everyone out, even me. I studied them for a moment, then made a mental note to try to unpick them later. I might need to hire help. My father could easily have woven a lethal curse into the charms, if he’d been sure no one he liked would try to break into the drawer. I supposed anyone who actually tried would have proven themselves thoroughly untrustworthy. I smiled, although there was little humour in it. He’d gone so far to protect his secrets, whatever they were, that he’d kept them from his heir too.

    The smell of old leather rose up around me as I leaned back in the chair. It had clearly been designed for someone bigger than me ... bigger than my father too, unless he’d gained and lost weight in the six years since I’d last seen him and his death. I felt silly sitting on the chair, but ... it had been my father’s. I didn’t want to put it aside and bring in something more suitable, not yet. It was all I had to remember him.

    I heard a noise at the door and looked up. Jadish stood there, carrying a tray of tea and biscuits. I smiled, feeling oddly conflicted. Jadish - Ellington’s granddaughter - had practically grown up with me. We’d been friends, despite the vast gulf between us. And yet ... I wondered, suddenly, why she hadn’t written to me. She’d shared my lessons. She could read and write better than some of the girls at school.

    “My Lady.” Jadish dropped a neat curtsy. She wore an old fashioned maid’s outfit that clashed oddly with her dark skin. Her hair was still in braids. “It’s good to see you again.”

    “And you,” I said, honestly. She’d be accused of being overfamiliar everywhere else, but ... I didn’t care. Not here, at least. “I missed you.”

    Jadish looked down. “The master wouldn’t let me write to you. Not one word.”

    I winced. “It wasn’t your fault,” I assured her. If father had forbidden her to write, she’d be whipped - or worse - if she went against him. “I ... why? Did he say why?”

    “No, My Lady.” Jadish shook her head. “He just ordered me to mind my own business.”

    She put the tray on the desk as Uncle Jalil entered, carrying a handful of leather folders under his arm. “We can pour the tea,” I said, quickly. “I’ll speak to you later.”

    Jadish dropped another curtsy. “Of course, My Lady.”

    I watched her go, then tightened the wards as soon as the door closed behind her. “Why did father forbid her to write to me?”

    “I believe it would have been improper for you to receive letters from a servant,” Uncle Jalil said. “Your father would certainly have believed it to be so.”

    I scowled. “I would have been happy to receive letters from anyone.”

    “And those letters would not have remained private,” Uncle Jalil pointed out. “Or have things changed since my day?”

    “Probably not,” I admitted, sourly. We’d had enough hints, over the years, that Mistress Grayling read our letters. I picked up the teapot and started to pour. “Milk? One lump or two?”

    “No milk, one lump,” Uncle Jalil said. “And you have to remember your father was a very complex man, facing a series of very complex problems.”

    “Bully for him,” I muttered. I passed him a cup, then sank back into the leather chair as he sat facing me. “How bad is it?”

    “The tea is very good,” Uncle Jalil said. He hadn’t touched it. “But I’m afraid our financial situation is very bad.”

    I took a breath. “Details?”

    Uncle Jalil looked back at me, evenly. “Where would you like me to start?”

    “The beginning,” I said. “I thought we were a wealthy house.”

    “We were, a few hundred years ago.” Uncle Jalil smiled, humourlessly. “Of course, that was before any of us were born.”

    He indicated the folders on the table. “Like I told you, the family had been in decline for quite some time before your father assumed his position as head. We were finding it hard to concentrate the wealth we needed to invest in everything from farming and mining for forgery and enchantment. We were barely able to meet our obligations to keep things on an even kneel. Even when we did” - he shrugged, elaborately - “we were unable to halt our steady decline. Your grandfather tried to cut expenditure as much as possible, but it made no difference. We were being left behind.”

    I considered it for a moment. “And then?”

    “Your father attempted to amass the cash we needed to invest,” Uncle Jalil said. “He started well, I admit, but he failed to quit while he was ahead. He made a string of bad calls, investing in unprofitable farmland and mines that proved largely worthless; he invested heavily in international shipping and trade, only to lose most of his investments during the House War. He hadn’t bothered to insure most of it, you see, and the insurance on what little he did insure was nowhere near enough to repay our losses. He couldn’t even get rid of the farmland. People wouldn’t even take it.”

    “Ouch,” I said.

    “Yes.” Uncle Jalil stared at his fingers for a long moment. “Your father got desperate. He sent you away, then tried to get more cash. He sold everything he could see, sometimes at knockdown prices. He took out loans, creating a complex network of deals that even I have been unable to entangle, throwing money at every halfway solid business opportunity that came his way. And none of them worked. By the time he died, apparently of natural causes, he was deep in debt. Personal debt. He had no hope of repaying the loans.”

    I met his eyes. “Apparently of natural causes?”

    “It might have been suicide,” Uncle Jalil admitted. “Your father was certainly ingenious enough to ensure his suicide looked natural.”

    “Oh.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about it. “I ... how much money do we have now?”

    “Almost nothing,” Uncle Jalil said, bluntly. “Lucy ... what little income we have comes from our lands and we practically have to keep reinvesting if we want the money to keep flowing.”

    I cocked my head. “I thought we grew potions ingredients?”

    “Yes, but we’re not the only ones growing potions ingredients,” Uncle Jalil reminded me. “If we put up our prices, Lucy, we’ll lose sales. Customers will go elsewhere.”

    “And that will be that,” I muttered. I’d studied business at school. It had been mandatory for aristos. “What do we have that we can sell?”

    “Almost nothing,” Uncle Jalil said. “What little we own is entailed. It cannot be sold as long as the family survives. We can’t even loan it to someone willing to pay through the nose ... if such a person even exists. Your father sold everything he could to raise money. About the only thing he didn’t sell was you.”

    I made a face. “He wouldn’t have.”

    “He couldn’t have,” Uncle Jalil corrected. “As long as you were underage, nothing could be finalised. You could repudiate the betrothal the moment you came of age. And that would have upset a whole string of apple carts.”

    I shuddered. “Is there nothing we can do to raise cash?”

    “Almost nothing,” Uncle Jalil said. I was getting sick of hearing that. “We can sell our vote, in Magus Court, but ... we only have one seat and no influence. There’s no way we can ramp up the price unless the vote is really close.”

    “I see.” I glared at the folders. “What do you advise?”

    “Leave.” Uncle Jalil met my eyes, evenly. “You’re an adult. You can go elsewhere. You don’t have to stay on the sinking ship. And your father’s debts are going to catch up with us sooner rather than later. Whoever becomes head will have to deal with them.”

    “I ...” I shook my head. “I’m Heir Primus.”

    “By default,” Uncle Jalil said. “You didn’t come of age until after your father’s death. You don’t have to accept the poisoned chalice. You can go before the conclave and formally refuse to accept it or ... or you can just leave. You’re an intelligent young woman with a good education. You’ll be fine.”

    I looked at him. “But what about the servants? Ellington and Jadish ... what about you?”

    “I’m an old man,” Uncle Jalil said. “What happens to me is not important.”

    “And the servants?” I pressed as hard as I dared. “What happens to them if the family collapses?”

    “Jadish is young and pretty,” Uncle Jalil said. “She’ll have no trouble ...”

    “I can’t just abandon them,” I said. “And I can’t abandon the family.”

    “What family?” Uncle Jalil shook his head. “Lucy, the days when there were hundreds of kindred living within this hall are gone. Half the surviving family couldn’t be bothered to come to your father’s funeral. Walk away. Walk away, now. Leave the ones who haven’t already deserted to their fate. You don’t have to die with them.”

    “I can’t go,” I said. I’d been raised to think of myself as having a duty to the family. “I can’t just abandon them. Or the family ...”

    “Your father spent six years racking up debts as he tried to strike it big,” Uncle Jalil snapped. “Lucy ... do you think you can do any better?”

    “I’m going to have to try,” I said. “Will you stay?”

    “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Uncle Jalil said. “Lucy ... are you sure? Because once you’re recognised as Matriarch, you’ll be committed.”

    “I know.” I looked around the room. “But I can’t just walk away.”

    “You can,” Uncle Jalil said. “Take Jadish with you, if you like. Take Ellington ...”

    I shook my head. The obligation to the family name was too strong. Yes, I could abandon my name and walk away ... but I couldn’t have lived with myself afterwards. I was Lucille of House Lamplighter and that was all there was to it. I’d just have to think of a way to raise money that would give us half a chance of settling ourselves. I just wished I knew what that might be.

    Start small, I told myself. And find something you can sell.

    “You’re not confirmed yet,” Uncle Jalil said. “If you leave before then, you’re free and clear.”

    “I know,” I mumbled. A hundred ideas, all wildly impractical, danced through my head. “How many family are left? I mean ... family with voting rights?”

    Uncle Jalil grimaced. “Technically, twenty-seven,” he said. “A third of them have strong ties to other families, to the point they’ve effectively cut their ties to us.”

    I blinked. “They’ve disowned us?”

    “No one’s disowned anyone.” Uncle Jalil smiled, rather coldly. “They just do their level best to pretend we don’t exist.”

    “Oh.” I’d known girls like that at school. They’d been just as irritating as the brats who hurled hexes whenever someone turned their back. “They haven’t formally given up their vote?”

    “No.” Uncle Jalil’s smile grew colder. “They simply haven’t bothered to vote.”

    “I see,” I said. “Can you write them a note as my closest adult relative? Or do I have to do it myself?”

    “It depends,” Uncle Jalil said. “What do you want to say?”

    “I’m going to hold a Family Conclave,” I said. “Five days from now ... I think that’s enough time to clean up the meeting room and go through the accounts. Anyone who doesn’t attend will be deemed to have forfeited their voting rights and classed as inactive members of the family. Their children, assuming they have them, will no longer be considered family. The ones who have no interest in salvaging the sinking ship will take themselves out of the picture.”

    “You’ll annoy them,” Uncle Jalil pointed out.

    “And they’ll have to decide if they want to take the role for themselves,” I said. I had few illusions - the vast majority of my kin didn’t know me and those that did remembered me as a little girl - but I was Heir Primus, Matriarch Presumptive until I was voted out of office. It would be hard for anyone to organise opposition without outing themselves as my enemy - there were only twenty-seven voters - and anyone who did would probably find themselves lumbered with the poisoned chalice. “Let them be annoyed, as long as they stay out of my way.”

    Uncle Jalil raised his eyebrows. “You do know your family, right?”

    I felt a stab of pain. “I haven’t seen any of them in six years,” I snapped, a little harsher than I’d meant. “They didn’t make any attempt to contact me.”

    “True,” Uncle Jalil agreed.

    “And ... why didn’t they try to stop my father?” I could have kicked myself for not having asked earlier. “Surely, they could have brought him to heel.”

    “Different reasons for different kindred,” Uncle Jalil said. “Some didn’t know or care what your father was doing, as long as they received their allowance. Some thought he’d succeed - he could talk the talk, even if he couldn’t walk the walk - and stayed out of his way. And others had links outside the family. They were unwilling or unable to say anything, let alone do anything.”

    He made a face. “And Lucy ... they don’t know just how bad things are.”

    I shook my head. “They never thought to ask?”

    “Your father played games with the books,” Uncle Jalil said. “He was quite a creative accountant.”

    “And you helped him,” I said. “Right?”

    “I swore an oath, when he married my sister,” Uncle Jalil said. “I never married myself. I never had children. At my age, it is certain I never will. Your father - and you - were the only relatives I had left. Now, it’s just you.”

    “I’m sorry,” I said. I meant it. “Why didn’t you ever ...?”

    Uncle Jalil said nothing for a long moment. “It never seemed the time,” he said. “And now” - he shook his head - “it is too late.”

    He pushed the folders towards me. “I’ll write the letter and bring it to you for approval,” he said. “You go through the papers, see how much the family owes ... maybe it’ll change your mind. You can still leave, Lucy. You don’t have to stay.”

    “I do,” I said. “This is my family.”

    “Make sure you wear armour when you go into the chamber,” Uncle Jalil said. “And cover your back. At least one of your relatives will try to put a knife in it.”

    “I’ll look the part,” I promised. “I’m sure they won’t try to kill me.”

    “Probably not literally,” Uncle Jalil agreed. “But you know what? They’ll do everything in their power to discredit you, if they scent weakness. And you don’t have anything like the clout your father or grandfather had ...”

    “We’ll see,” I said. I’d already had a couple of ideas. They might just buy me time to come up with something to improve the family fortunes. And if they didn’t ... I shook my head. I had to be optimistic. “Uncle ... can I count on you?”

    “You can count on me, as long as you listen to me,” Uncle Jalil said. “Your father never listened.”

    “I’ll listen,” I promised. “But I can’t say I’ll do as you wish.”

    Uncle Jalil laughed. “Believe me, I understand,” he said. He stood, brushing down his trousers. “Read the papers. Decide what you want to do. Ask me if you have any questions.”

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

    “Hah.” Uncle Jalil didn’t look pleased. “I’ve done you no favours. You really should leave.”

    I watched him go, then poured myself another cup of tea as I opened the first folder. The accounts were fantastically complex, but ... I worked my way through them, doing my best to ignore the growing headache. Uncle Jalil had understated the situation, I realised slowly. My father had mingled his personal accounts with the family’s accounts, a major problem if one wanted to sort out what he’d owed personally from what the family owed. It was going to be an utter nightmare. He’d sold stuff to himself at knockdown prices - literally - so he could sell it onwards ...

    We have nothing to lose, I thought. It was true. I had very little that was truly mine. So we might as well gamble ...

    Slowly, carefully, I started to draw out a plan.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    The meeting room looked ... clean.

    I hid my amusement as my kindred - those who could be bothered to attend the conclave - slowly filed into the room. Ellington had taken their coats, as they entered the hall; Jadish had offered them tea, coffee, juice or water as they passed through the door. They didn’t know - they couldn’t know - that we’d spent the last three days cleaning the room from top to bottom, brushing the floor, washing the windows and even hanging paintings on the walls to remind the voters that they were family. I wondered what they’d say, if they knew I’d been scrubbing with the servants. They’d probably have a collective heart attack.

    My face remained impassive as the room slowly filled. I remembered a couple of voters, vaguely, but most of them were effectively strangers. I wished I knew them better. Uncle Jalil and Jadish had filled me in, as best as possible, but they had no way to know which way the voters would jump when I forced them to make a choice. They might be happy to leave me in control, they might insist on someone older taking the role or ... worst of all, they might want me to have the title while exerting real power themselves. I couldn’t allow it. I had no intention of allowing them to turn me into a figurehead while they looted what remained of the family’s assets and vanished.

    I winced, inwardly. If anything, Uncle Jalil - now sitting at the far end of the table - had understated the case. We barely had two bronze ringlets to rub together. What little we earned had to be reinvested immediately, for fear of losing everything. And our debts were terrifyingly high. Even without the money my father had owed, we were in serious trouble. It might take a lifetime to pay them off.

    We don’t have a lifetime, I thought, as Jadish handed out drinks. Uncle Jalil’s figures had been very precise. We were eating our seed corn, what little there was of it. We have five years at the most.

    Jadish left, closing the door behind her. I walked forward and stood at the head of the table, hands clasped behind my back to keep them from shaking. Mistress Grayling had forced us to give speeches in public, insisting we learnt to speak even to very hostile audiences. I silently blessed the old lady, even though she hadn’t been able to show us what it was like to speak to a roomful of kindred. The worst threat at school had been public humiliation. Here ... I could be kicked out of the family or simply voted off the council. I smiled as best as I could, trying not to show any fear. They’d take it as a sign of weakness.

    “I am Lucilla of House Lamplighter, Daughter of Lucas and Razwhana Lamplighter, Heir Primus and Matriarch Presumptive of House Lamplighter,” I said. They couldn’t dispute my titles without calling the entire family into question. “As such, in line with both family custom and the terms of my father’s will, I am declaring myself Matriarch of House Lamplighter. If any of you wish to challenge, or nominate someone else for the role, do so now or forever hold your peace.”

    My words hung in the air. I looked from face to face, wondering if anyone would take up the challenge. They’d certainly had ample time to do it over the last six years. Instead, they’d practically rubberstamped my position. I suspected that meant they didn’t realise how bad things had become. They’d have thought twice about my father nominating his successor if they’d understood just how much damage he’d done.

    I gave them nearly two minutes to formulate a response, then pressed on. They’d had plenty of time to plan a counter-nomination, if they’d wished. Only twelve kindred had bothered to attend the conclave. I snorted, inwardly. One didn’t have to be as cunning as Jagi Lamplighter, founder of our house, to realise someone could easily have packed the seats to ensure their candidate was selected. It would only have taken a handful of votes to unseat me, making it difficult for me to rule the family even if I regained my place. They knew it as well as I did. I knew better than to think it was a vote of confidence.

    “Very good,” I said. “And now, as Matriarch of House Lamplighter, I want my year. If any of you wish to oppose me, do so now or wait for a year. Anyone who attempts to oppose me before then will be regarded as a traitor and summarily disowned.”

    A rustle ran around the table. I waited, feeling my heart thudding in my chest. If they refused to oppose me now, I’d have a year without any opposition from within the family. It was tradition, but House Lamplighter was in trouble. I wanted - I needed - to make it clear I was going to have my year. They couldn’t object if I hammered someone for opposing me before the year was out.

    “You are young,” Auntie Dorcas said. She was old enough to be my grandmother, although - as far as I could tell - she’d done nothing for the family. “You will require advice.”

    “I will happily listen to advice,” I told her. It was true, even though I doubted the elderly woman would have anything useful to say. “I will not brook open opposition.”

    I pushed on before someone else could throw the outcome into doubt. “This is your chance to oppose me,” I said. “After that, you have to give me my year.”

    Auntie Dorcas looked thoroughly displeased. The remainder of the kindred didn’t look any happier. I’d backed them into a corner. They could oppose me now, which would mean trying to find an alternate candidate, or let me have my head. They’d be disgraced if they tried to challenge me before the year was through. No one would ever trust them again. I suspected it didn’t matter as much as they thought, but my successor - whoever was unlucky enough to get the nomination and win the vote - would assume they’d put a knife in his back at the earliest opportunity. Either they stood against me now or they gave me a chance to prove myself.

    “I will take your silence for consent,” I informed them. “And now, I have something important to say.”

    I gathered myself. “The family is in serious trouble. We are practically bleeding money. We are the laughing stock of the city. Our industries are barely bringing in enough to repay their costs, our clients have largely deserted us and we have very little of value left to sell. Our goal, from this moment forth, will be to save ourselves from complete destruction and start the long climb back to the top. Do any of you have any objection to this goal?”

    There was no answer. I smiled, inwardly. Of course there was no objection. They weren’t fools, no matter what my father had thought. They knew the family’s position was steadily weakening, even though they hadn’t bothered to unseat my father before it was too late. I doubted it would have made much difference, although ... who knew? I had only a handful of ideas and practically all of them were risky as hell.

    “I expect you to put the family first,” I said. “All of you. Whatever we say or do in private, I want us to be one big happy family in public. No public arguments. No public disgraces. No secret off-the-record whining to the newspaper muckrakers. No scandals that make us look stupid or greedy or evil. Those of you who have married into other families” - I allowed my eyes to linger on two aunties who’d married out years ago - “will still be obliged to put our family first. If you want to leave now, then go. There will be no hard feelings. If you try to walk a line between the two families, or serve the other family solely, it will be regarded as betrayal and treated accordingly.”

    I braced myself, half-expecting half the table to stand and go. Auntie Gladys and Auntie Emma stood and headed for the door. Auntie Erica shifted, as if she was unsure if she should stay or go. I felt a flicker of sympathy, even though I knew it could be dangerous. Auntie Erica had married out, years before I was born, but her husband had died shortly afterwards. She was not wholly part of either family. It was easy to feel sorry for her, but I had no time for divided loyalties. I needed the council behind me. Anyone who refused to commit themselves had to go.

    “This is a mistake, child,” Auntie Erica said. “I can remain part of both families.”

    “Choose,” I said, remorselessly. I felt a pang of guilt, which I swiftly and ruthlessly suppressed. “One family or the other.”

    Auntie Erica opened her mouth, as if she intended to continue the argument, then closed it again without moving. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her, if she wanted to stay. No one would trust her again, if she betrayed me after a very clear warning, but that might not keep her from doing something stupid. I hoped I could rely on her ... I turned away, deliberately giving her the chance to leave. I doubted she’d go. Her other family had little time for her. She’d failed to get pregnant before her husband died.

    We’re cruel, sometimes, I reminded myself. I knew the reason. I knew all the justifications. But I couldn’t shed the feeling I’d done something wrong. Auntie Erica had done nothing to me. She certainly hadn’t been one of the older women who’d tried to make a lady out of me. I’ll do what I can for her, afterwards.

    “Very good.” I sat, indicating the discussion was now closed. I didn’t think they’d be loyal - and I doubted it would be a year before they started plotting against me - but I’d won some breathing space. “I assume you’ve all had a chance to read my father’s will. Do you have any comments?”

    “Just one,” Uncle Stefano said. “Does he have any right to leave so much to you?”

    Uncle Jalil cleared his throat. “Lord Lucas stated that his entire estate, save for a handful of individual bequests, was to be passed down to his sole child. There is no question he had every right to dispose of his property however he pleased. The only real question lies in what was his personally, as opposed to what was in his custody in his role as Patriarch, but as his heir in both roles is the same person I think we can afford to overlook it.”

    “It is never a good idea to overlook anything,” Uncle Stefano said. He was a lawyer, although he’d been out of practice for years. “We do not wish more of our property to be sold off.”

    “I have no intention of selling anything off,” I said. It wasn’t entirely true. I did have one thing that could be sold. “And we do have time to go through the collection and sort out his personal possessions. There’s no great hurry.”

    “Perhaps the matter could be put to a committee,” Auntie Dorcas said.

    It would certainly keep you out of trouble, I thought. But I want to go through my father’s papers first.

    I sighed, inwardly, as the argument roared around the table. It was pointless. The councillors wouldn’t be able to claim or use any of my father’s possessions, personal or not. They were wasting their time. I wondered, sourly, if they knew it. They might not have realised how bad things truly were.

    “There’s no great hurry,” I repeated. “Either way, the possessions will come to me.”

    “Perhaps you should draw up a will of your own,” Uncle Stefano said. “And make provision for your children.”

    “I have none,” I said, dryly. “Right now, providing for my children is hardly important.”

    “You do need to think about the future,” Auntie Dorcas said. “And you have to designate a Heir Primus.”

    “I’ll give the matter some thought,” I assured her. There weren’t any real candidates, not if I wanted to stick with tradition. The Heir Primus should come from the next generation, a generation that didn’t even exist. I had a pair of distant cousins who might qualify, but their parents hadn’t bothered to attend the conclave and they weren’t even in their teens ... I made a mental note to look into it. The wretched elder was right. I did need a named heir, at least until I had a child myself. “Perhaps you could form a committee to look into that as well.”

    “It might be better to look for a prospective husband for you,” Uncle Randolph said. “A child of your body would be ...”

    “The question of who I marry is none of your concern,” I said, cutting him off sharply. His point had hit too close to home. “My father did not see fit to arrange anything for me, Uncle, and he was the only one with the authority to do so. I can handle such affairs myself.”

    “The council is required to approve,” Auntie Dorcas said. “I believe we have that right.”

    “Not entirely,” I said. “By custom, the Family Head is required to approve. He - she - has the right to veto, or place conditions on a match. The council has the right to overrule the judgement, if the happy couple wish to challenge.”

    I allowed myself a smile. It was a rather convoluted piece of reasoning, but it should stand up to scrutiny. I’d be in the odd position of approving my own match ... my smile grew wider. Technically, I’d also be passing judgement on myself. I’d hardly appeal against my own decision. And I had a year to do whatever I pleased before they could turn on me.

    “I intend to take this family back to the heights of power,” I said. “Rest assured, I will do nothing to harm it.”

    The words hung in the air for a long moment. “We’ll meet again in a week,” I added, keeping my voice calm. “Before then, I want you to prepare lists of your skills - magical, social, whatever - and those of your servants, clients and friends. We have a lot of work to do and I intend to hit the ground running. Our ancestors are looking down on us. I do not intend to disappoint them.”

    I smiled, then stood. “Thank you for coming. I’ll see you next week.”

    The councillors stood as I turned and headed out the room, signalling the meeting was over. They’d stay and chat, I suspected, although they wouldn’t say anything useful. I was the wardmaster. They’d have to assume I’d be listening to them. The hell of it was that I hadn’t had time to rig the wards, or do more than take control and add a handful of minor flourishes. They could sit and talk about the weather in perfect privacy.

    Jadish stood outside. “My Lady? Should I serve food?”

    I was thrown, very briefly. “If they want it, then do,” I ordered. It was hard to keep things straight in my head. Jadish was a friend and a servant and a friend ... she’d seen me on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor like a common laundry maid. “If they want shown out instead, please escort them to the door.”

    Uncle Jalil caught up with me as I walked back to my father’s office ... to my office. I frowned inwardly, then remembered he probably wouldn’t have been welcome once I’d left. He wouldn’t have been welcome at all, not really, but they would have been politer while I was in the room. He wasn’t real family, they’d say. He’d married into the family. It didn’t make him trustworthy ...

    I have to trust someone, I thought. I couldn’t do everything alone. And I trust Jalil far more than any of the aunts and uncles back there.

    “You did well,” Uncle Jalil said, once the wards were firmly in place. I had no doubt my relatives would try to spy on me if they could. “Although you did back them into a corner.”

    I nodded. “I don’t want them to have any room for ... creative misinterpretations,” I said, flatly. I’d spent half my time at school coming up with loopholes in the rules, but the stakes were a little higher now ... and the consequences for failure far worse. “I need them behind me, Uncle, or at least not trying to stab me in the back.”

    “You bought yourself a year,” Uncle Jalil said. He strode over to the window and peered at the overgrown garden. “What are you going to do with it?”

    I said nothing for a long moment. I’d gone through the accounts as carefully as I could, highlighting various points for later consideration. I’d studied the reports from the farms, contemplating the prospects for investment ... I’d even read the newspapers, looking for ways to make money. I was starting to understand, almost despite myself, my father’s desperation. We needed to spend money in order to make money and we couldn’t make money because we didn’t have the money to spend ...

    No wonder they didn’t oppose me very effectively, I thought. It would have been amusing, if I hadn’t been the one in charge. Even a token show of resistance might have left them holding the bag.

    I turned to face him. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” I said. I did have one thing that was solely within my power to sell. Myself. “I’m going to get married.”
     
  14. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    High English would insist on "as."
    Can't find it just now, but Lucy is either Lucille or Lucilla of House Lamplighter. Both forms show up once each.
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    “What?”

    Uncle Jalil caught himself as he turned to face me. “You’re going to get married? To whom?”

    “Good question,” I agreed. “You can help me find a prospective husband.”

    I tried not to smile at his expression. He looked as if I’d punched him in the stomach or gone out in public wearing trousers. It really shouldn’t have surprised him that badly. I was nineteen, easily old enough to marry. My father would have been looking for a husband for me from the moment he formally acknowledged me as an adult. I’d known girls who’d been engaged and married before they left school. Now ...

    Uncle Jalil found his voice. “Lucy ... what are you thinking?”

    “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” I said. I looked him in the eye. “What are my chances of marrying another aristocrat?”

    I watched his mouth move silently as he tried to compose an argument that wasn’t completely wrong-headed. “You do have a famous name,” he said, finally. “And there are families who might value you ...”

    “No.” I shook my head. “We’d be the junior parties in any aristocratic match. The only thing we have of any value is our seat on Magus Court and they’ll insist on gaining control as part of the marriage agreement. We’d continue to exist as a name, but little else. House Lamplighter will effectively vanish from the books. And that’s the best-case outcome.”

    I went on, trying to hide my own doubts. “And even if that wasn’t true, who’d marry me? I don’t have wealth or land or anything really. The most eligible bachelors won’t be interested in me. The ones who have power - or will inherit power - will be discouraged by their parents and families. It would have to be someone on the edge of their family and ... they wouldn’t have any real influence, with or without me. There’s no way we can ally ourselves with another Great House.”

    Uncle Jalil didn’t look reassured, but he couldn’t dispute my logic. “What do you have in mind?”

    “There are commoners, wealthy commoners, who want to move up in the world,” I said. “And we have something they’ll want.”

    “I ...” Uncle Jalil broke off and started again. “You want to marry yourself to a commoner?”

    I nodded, trying to ignore the memories of schoolgirls sneering at aristos who married beneath themselves. A commoner might be wealthy enough to stand amongst the aristocrats, perhaps even outshine them, but he wouldn’t be able to claim a title dating all the way back to the Thousand Year Empire. The most impoverished Great House was socially superior to a merchant family who could buy and sell everything the aristocracy owned out of pocket cash. I’d heard enough rumours, at school, to know there were merchants who wanted to buy their way into the aristocracy through marriage. They’d had few takers.

    “We have something they want,” I said. “A name, a title, and a voice in government.”

    “And everyone else will look down on them,” Uncle Jalil said. “They won’t be real aristocrats.”

    “Their children will be counted amongst the aristocracy,” I said. The Great Houses had no qualms about convincing powerful common-born magicians to marry into their ranks. “My husband might not be counted as their equal, but my children will be aristocrats in their own right.”

    Uncle Jalil shook his head, slowly. “And that’s your plan?”

    “Not quite.” I tried not to show my own qualms. “I have some ideas for making money, but a terminal shortage of cash. We need money and quickly before we can do anything. So ... we find a wealthy commoner who wants to marry into the aristocracy and come to terms with him. A year-long engagement, backed by cash. If I decide, at the end of the year, not to go through with the marriage, we repay the cash. It’s simple.”

    “Really.” Uncle Jalil didn’t sound pleased. “You’re basically selling yourself for money.”

    “We take the money they give us and use it to make more money,” I said. “And then we repay them and break the engagement at the end of the year.”

    Uncle Jalil snorted. “And what if you can’t repay them?”

    He turned and paced over to the windows. “Lucy, you’d be putting your name to a contract stipulating that you’ll be marrying him, or his son, in a year. What happens if you can’t repay him? You’ll be sued. You might wind up having to marry him anyway.”

    I smiled at his back. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

    “You might wind up having to marry him anyway,” Uncle Jalil repeated, with icy patience. “Or you might wind up being kicked out of the family ... which will make life interesting because there’s no one who can take your place in the marriage agreement. Or ... the best you could hope for, I think, is becoming a laughing stock. No one would ever take you seriously again.”

    “I don’t think they take me seriously now,” I said, as I reached for the newspaper. There’d been a time when changes in House Lamplighter would have been reported in breathless tones. Now ... I’d read the newspapers religiously since I’d returned to the city. We hadn’t been mentioned, not once. My name hadn’t even been included in the list of debutantes who’d be starting their season in a few weeks. “Has anyone made an offer for my hand?”

    Uncle Jalil swung around to face me. “Lucy, this isn’t funny,” he said. “You’re agreeing to marry a stranger, to bear his children ...”

    “I know.” I shook my head. “Do you have a better idea?”

    “No,” Uncle Jalil said. “But as your uncle I have to warn you ...”

    “We have very little we can leverage to obtain money,” I said. I understood his concern, but we were short on options. “My hand in marriage is the only thing we can offer, as far as I can tell; it’s the only thing that will give us the leverage to get what we want on favourable terms. And even if it goes wrong ... it won’t be the end of the world.”

    “You may feel differently, after you’re married,” Uncle Jalil warned.

    “Good point,” I agreed. “You’d better make sure you find someone young and handsome as well as someone wealthy.”

    Uncle Jalil emitted a strangled sound. “Lucy ... are you sure?”

    I met his eyes. “Yes.”

    “I hope you’re right,” he said. “You want me to handle the search?”

    “Yes.” I couldn’t trust anyone else to handle it. I couldn’t handle the search myself either, not when I was the one who’d make the final decision. Uncle Jalil could always tell an unsatisfactory partner he’d have to check with me, giving him a chance to break off the negotiations without insulting the other party. “Someone wealthy, someone with resources we can use” - I allowed my voice to harden - “and someone desperate enough to pay in advance.”

    “I hope they gave you the talk when you were at school,” Uncle Jalil said, darkly. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

    I snorted. I’d grown up in the aristocracy. I’d known my parents would have a say in who I married, unless I wanted to elope. The concept of being married to a stranger was hardly unknown to me. The aristocracy tried hard to ensure the couple had a chance to get to know one another before they signed the contract, but they could never be left alone together. I remembered some of the stories from the dorms and shuddered. There were no shortage of tales about girls who only discovered the terrible truth about their husband on their wedding night. I hoped most of those tales were exaggerated.

    “I know,” I said. “Once you have a list of prospective candidates, let me know. I’ll go through them before we make any final offers.”

    Uncle Jalil nodded, curtly. “I’ll see what I can dig up,” he said. “But it won’t be easy.”

    “Just don’t tell any of the others,” I said. “We don’t want them insisting on having their say.”

    “They’ll insist anyway, when they find out what you’re planning,” Uncle Jalil said. “I doubt they’ll be happy if - when - you marry a commoner.”

    “No,” I agreed. “But they’ll just have to cope.”

    I looked down at my hands as he left the room. Uncle Jalil was right. It was a gamble. It was a terrible risk. No one would say anything if we repaid the money before the deadline - marriage contracts were rewritten or broken all the time as the balance of power shifted from side to side - but if we failed to repay the money we’d find ourselves in hot water. We would be sued. Or worse. I could easily see my prospective husband using the disaster as evidence we shouldn’t be trusted with his money. That would be awkward.

    Particularly if he has to take on our debts, I thought. I’d seen the figures. We were in deep trouble. He might balk at letting us have anything.

    I tried to put the thought out of my mind as I opened the newspaper and started to skim the society pages. As always, the news was a mixture of gossip, rumours and statements put out by paid shrills ... I shook my head as the reporter detailed the deeds of a notorious rake old enough to be my father. The rake should have shown a little decorum, the reporter insisted; I had the feeling, reading between the lines, that the reporter was a little envious. I rolled my eyes and read the next story. The wedding of Akin Rubén and Caitlyn Aguirre would be formally announced later in the summer - I was sure I’d read the story somewhere before - but no date had been set. I frowned, feeling a twinge of envy. Akin Rubén and Caitlyn Aguirre would be one hell of a power couple. No one would ask them to repay their debts.

    “If they even have debts,” I muttered. I flicked through the pages as a thought crossed my mind. “If she’s producing Objects of Power, she can practically set her own prices.”

    I cursed under my breath. Some people had all the luck. They’d been a flurry of interest in girls who had little or limited magic, the year after the story broke. Grayling’s had tested each and every girl in hopes of finding a zero, to no avail. Everyone had magic, even the ones who could barely cast a spell to save their lives. I’d never been good at forging - it wasn’t a reputable career for a young lady - but if I’d been a zero ...

    There’s no point in fretting over what could have been, I told myself. I’ll just have to make do with what I have.

    I found the page I was looking for and read it again. And again. House Rubén and House Aguirre were planning to hold their first joint ball in two weeks, but they didn’t have a venue. Or so the reporter claimed. It sounded silly on paper - both families had multiple properties within the city - and the reporter clearly thought they were being stupid, but I could see the problem. Neither of the Great Houses would want to give the impression that they were submitting to the other. If one Great House hosted the ball, the other would be offended. And there wasn’t anywhere neutral ...

    “Everyone’s taking sides,” I muttered to myself. I’d heard the rumours. House Rubén and House Aguirre were just too powerful. The remaining Great Houses were starting to unite against them. “But no one thought to ask us.”

    I felt a twinge of irritation at being ignored, even though I knew I should be relieved. We had no armsmen, no army of powerful sorcerers and forgers to take the war to the enemy ... the last House War had broken us and we hadn’t even been involved in the fighting! We’d been collateral damage. A handful of the more alarmist rumours even suggested we were staring down the barrels of another House War. House Lamplighter might be obliterated in passing or snatched by whoever came out ahead. And that would be the end.

    The thought I’d had earlier resurfaced. “We don’t owe anything to either side,” I muttered, as I put the paper to one side. “We could host the ball.”

    I stood and headed for the door. Dust hung in the air as I walked along the corridor and down the stairs, trying not to notice all the missing portraits. There’d been a painting of me as a baby hanging at the bottom of the stairs, if I recalled correctly. Where was it? I couldn’t believe father had managed to sell it. Who’d want to buy? I told myself I’d check the basement as I walked into the ballroom. It was dark and cold. Dust lay on the floor like sand on a beach.

    Tears prickled at my eyes as I looked around. I’d been a child, the last time we’d held a ball, but I still remembered the lights and sounds and fancy dresses as aristocrats moved around the room. I thought I could hear the band playing a dance tune as I ploughed though the dust, peering into alcoves and small hidden rooms where the real business had been transacted ... one upon a time. The rooms were shabby, the privacy wards frayed and old. I was surprised my father hadn’t maintained them. Surely, he’d hoped to give me a Season ...

    He didn’t have the money, I thought. My heart twisted. I’d been promised a Season ... I tried to tell myself I was being silly, or selfish, but it still hurt. I’d heard the stories of fancy gowns and glittering lights and adoring hordes and endless dances while one’s parents hammered out the marriage contract. Father couldn’t have afforded a Season for me.

    I gritted my teeth. Kate had pointed out, rather sarcastically, that the debutantes were treated like prize animals, put on display for potential buyers. There was no difference between a debutante ball and a shop window ... I’d been mad at her at the time, but I was starting to think she had a point. Maybe she was the lucky one. She wouldn’t be put on display ... she might even have the freedom to say no, after both sets of parents had hammered out the contract. Akin Rubén and Caitlyn Aguirre might have the power to say no and stand against their families. There weren’t many others, boys as well as girls, who could defy their elders without getting kicked out and disowned.

    The sinking feeling in my heart grew worse as I walked up the stairs. I remembered the marble shining under the lights, but now it was gray and dull. The dust had made the stairs slippery. I held the banister as I reached the top of the stairs, trying not to curse as the dust - somehow - grew thicker. The spells that should have kept me safe were long gone. I made a mental note to get them replaced. Nothing could be left to chance. The railings on the balcony didn’t look very safe either. I’d have to have them checked too.

    Ellington stepped out of a servants entrance and looked at me. “My Lady, the remaining councillors have left the hall.”

    “Good,” I said. I waved a hand at the floor below. “How long would it take to clean up and fix everything?”

    “If we had the staff, a week,” Ellington said. “Right now, we don’t.”

    I nodded. He was right. “I want you to think about how to handle it,” I said. “If we hire the staff ... how much do we need to do to make the hall presentable ... things like that.”

    “My Lady, it would require time and money,” Ellington said. He looked around the giant chamber, then back at me. “There are literally hundreds of things we’d need to do.”

    “And what we’d have to do to host a ball,” I said. “How long would that take?”

    Ellington said nothing for a long moment. “Assuming we had the staff, and assuming money wasn’t a problem, we could clean the first and second floors in a week or two. We’d have to clean the kitchens and replace some of the equipment before we could cook enough food ... we’d probably have to hire more kitchen staff too. It would be tricky.”

    I nodded. “Start putting together a list of what we need to do, so we can host a ball,” I ordered. “Let me worry about getting the cash.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Ellington said. His expression was bland, but I could hear the doubt in his words. There were aristocrats who’d give him the boot for that. “It will be quite expensive.”

    “I’ve spotted a gap in the market,” I told him. It was true. There were advantages to being weak and irreverent. No one would take advantage of us, or attack us, if there was nothing to gain. “And we have to move fast if we want to take advantage of it.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Ellington said. He raised a single polite eyebrow. “Would you like me to put together a more balanced budget as well?”

    “No,” I said. We’d only get one chance to make a splash. “We have to make this place look perfect. Dust the floors, wipe the windows, polish the brass and gold, refresh the spells, hang up the paintings ... everything. We have to move fast.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Ellington said. I knew him well enough to know he still had his doubts. “I’ll see to it at once.”

    “Please.” I smiled at him to conceal my doubts. “It’s time to bring the hall back to life.”
     
    Darkwolf, Srchdawg-again and rle737ng like this.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    “Shit!”

    I swore out loud as my father’s spells snapped at me, blue sparks burning my skin. His drawers were locked solid, sealed against anyone ... even me. He’d been a better sorcerer than I’d realised, I reflected sourly as I rubbed my hand. I supposed I was lucky he hadn’t used a stronger or nastier curse. He could have turned a would-be thief into a frog, or frozen him in time, or simply killed him outright. What had my father been trying to hide? I’d spent two days trying to hack the spells and gotten precisely nowhere.

    “Language,” Uncle Jalil said. He stood in the doorway, his face grim. He held a leather folder under one arm. “You’re not old enough to swear like a trooper.”

    I swallowed the response that came to mind as I straightened up. “Right now, I feel old enough to be a grandmother,” I said. My hand hurt too much for me to be polite. “What was he trying to hide?”

    “I don’t know,” Uncle Jalil said. “You might want to call an expert.”

    “Maybe later,” I said. I didn’t know who I could trust. “Did you get my note?”

    “Yes,” Uncle Jalil said. “It’s a good idea, if you can get the money.”

    I sat down, resting my elbows on the table. “And can we get the money?”

    “If you’re determined to go through with your mad plan ...” Uncle Jalil nodded as he sat down, resting the folder on his lap. “I have a handful of prospective candidates.”

    “Good,” I said.

    “I was very careful,” Uncle Jalil said, “but you really didn’t give me enough time to do a proper write-up on all of them. Basically, I looked for candidates who wanted to buy their way into the aristocracy, who could afford it and, most importantly of all, didn’t have the ability to simply dominate us. Anyone who had strong connections to another Great House was dismissed out of hand. I also decided against a couple of men old enough to be your father and one who could easily have been your grandfather.”

    “Good thinking,” I agreed. An older man would be harder to control. He’d want to control me. “What do we have?”

    “I went through the list to confirm they really were wealthy, then narrowed it down to nine possibilities,” Uncle Jalil explained. “Two of them are rich in their own right, the remainder are sons of wealthy men. Their fathers would be happy, I suspect, to meet our terms. They really do want to buy their way into the aristocracy.”

    “And they’d jump through hoops to get in,” I mused. “What’s the best choice?”

    Uncle Jalil looked displeased. “You’re the one who’s going to get married, if your scheme fails,” he said. He passed me the folder. “I think you should decide for yourself.”

    I opened the folder and skimmed the contents. Uncle Jalil had done a good job, although - as he’d warned - two days was hardly long enough to carry out a proper background check. It was quite possible to put on a show of wealth that would keep people from asking questions ... I had the feeling, looking at the account books, that my father had spent most of his time pretending to be rich. And yet ... I shook my head. There was no point in worrying about that now. I had to look to the future.

    The first file was a middle-aged man, twenty years older than myself. I dismissed him instantly and moved to the next. He was younger, but there were question marks over the precise origin of his wealth. I frowned, putting him aside for later consideration. I had few scruples, but there were limits. I couldn’t take the risk of running afoul of a con artist. It would destroy my chances of rebuilding the family fortunes. The third was a young man, a year or so older than myself, whose father’s money rested in land. I studied the folder for a long minute, thinking hard. The father was definitely wealthy enough to buy House Lamplighter out of pocket change.

    “This son should be married already,” I said, holding up the file. “What’s wrong with him?”

    “I believe he’s completing a charms apprenticeship,” Uncle Jalil informed me. “His sister appears to be the one who’ll be taking over the family firm. She’s got a reputation as a shrewd businesswomen.”

    “I see,” I said. I read the rest of the file. “They’re very determined, aren’t they?”

    “Yes,” Uncle Jalil said. “And desperate to be recognised as aristocrats.”

    I nodded, slowly. The family patriarch had made his money by purchasing land and houses in Water Shallot, then renovating them to sell to families from South Shallot. He been in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the gentrification of the riverside, I noted; he’d reinvested his first fortune, purchased more houses and started to rent them out. There was no doubt he was a wealthy man. Uncle Jalil had collected copies of the title deeds. He could easily raise millions of crowns by selling half his properties.

    “He doesn’t have any land in North Shallot,” I mused. Land in North Shallot was expensive, but not that expensive. “How so?”

    “I believe he was frozen out, when he tried to buy,” Uncle Jalil said. “The landowners were pressured not to sell.”

    “That makes sense.” I winced in sympathy. The aristocrats wouldn’t hesitate to slap down a commoner they felt was getting too big for his trousers. They could bring one hell of a lot of pressure to bear against anyone they felt was likely to sell. “I’m surprised my father didn’t sell to him.”

    “The only property we have in North Shallot is Lamplighter Hall,” Uncle Jalil said, “and that’s entailed. It cannot be sold.”

    “Yes.” I put the file to one side and scanned the others. Two more looked possible, although I didn’t care for the way they did business; the remainder had too many warning signs for me to be entirely keen on making them an offer. “They do seem the best candidates.”

    I turned back to the file and scanned the notes. “Gary Prestwick, charmsmith,” I read. “I see he got good marks at Jude’s.”

    “And a good character,” Uncle Jalil reminded me. “He wouldn’t have gotten his apprenticeship if his tutors hadn’t vouched for him.”

    “I know.” I continued to read, wondering if I would have known and liked him if I’d gone to Jude’s myself. It was unlikely. He was a commoner. I might not even have so much as known he existed. The year between us would have been an unbridgeable gulf. “He did well, didn’t he?”

    “Yes,” Uncle Jalil said. “Does he take your fancy?”

    I gave him a sidelong look. “Does it matter?”

    “It does, if you wind up spending the rest of your life with him.” Uncle Jalil looked as if he wanted to say something else, but thought better of it. “Lucy ... this could go horribly wrong.”

    “How so?” I could tell there was something he wasn’t sure he should say. “Uncle ... what aren’t you telling me?”

    “Lucy ...” Uncle Jalil let out a breath. “Your parents saw their marriage” - he stopped and started again - “your parents were mature. They had come to an agreement about how they should share their lives, after their marriage was arranged, and they stuck to it. They ... your parents both knew how things worked. And that’s true of their peers too. There are families that exist in name only, with both partners seeing other people. It works because everyone involved knows the score. As long as the families remain united, as long as there’s a heir or two, people don’t care.

    “But your parents both grew up in the same environment. The young men I picked out for you grew up in a very different environment. They might expect something more from you. They might expect” - he shook his head - “I understand your logic, and I do appreciate what you’re doing, but you have to be careful. There’s only so far you can push someone before they break.”

    I stared down at my hands. “Uncle ... I know the risks.”

    “We shall see.” Uncle Jalil collected his files. “Do you want me to open formal talks with the Prestwick family?”

    “Yes,” I said. “And we have to hurry.”

    “That’ll give them an advantage,” Uncle Jalil warned. “They’ll know we’re short of cash.”

    “I know.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they already knew we were short of cash. If they were that desperate to join the aristocracy, why hadn’t they made my father an offer already? I shivered, wondering if they had. My father could have declared me an adult years ago, if he’d wished. “We need the money.”

    “Yes,” Uncle Jalil said. “If you want to refurbish the hall in a week, you’ll need a lot of money.”

    “And try to pressgang the rest of the family into picking up brushes and helping,” I said, dryly. “Do you want to help?”

    “Not really.” Uncle Jalil shrugged. “I’ll open negotiations with them, see what they say.”

    “Please.” I stood. “This is our only hope of overcoming our debts and making something of ourselves.”

    “I think there are limits on how much we can make by offering the hall as neutral ground,” Uncle Jalil said. “They’re not going to pay for everything.”

    I shrugged. “We’ll see,” I said. “They might pay for refurbishing if they see the advantages of having neutral ground.”

    Uncle Jalil stood and headed for the door. “I’ll be back as soon as possible,” he said. “And you’d better read the contract carefully.”

    He left, closing the door behind him. I scowled, unwilling to admit his warnings had resonated with me. I’d heard all the stories about how marriage really worked, but I hadn’t really believed them until now. The dreams of romantic love had always been a chimera for me and my peers. I wondered, suddenly, which families truly existed in name only. As long as they put a happy face on in public, no one would give much of a damn.

    But it’s different for the commoners, I told myself. Isn’t it?

    I stood, pushed the chair back and knelt beside the charmed drawers. They remained firmly closed - the scars on my hand bore mute testament to their defences - even as I muttered a pair of countercharms. The locking spells held firm. I briefly considered getting a spellbreaker or wardcracker and putting it against the drawers, but I had a feeling that would trigger an explosive reaction. There was a fairly simple spell designed to disintegrate everything inside the container if the wards started to fail. My father wouldn’t have needed help to cast it. He’d been a skilled sorcerer in his day.

    Blue sparks snapped at me. I yanked my hand back, muttering words I wasn’t supposed to know. Now ... I snorted as I studied the keyhole. I was an adult now. I could swear blue murder if I liked, although - as a young aristocratic debutante - I probably shouldn’t swear too loudly. The Grande Dames of High Society, who’d be on the prowl for any excuse to tear down someone younger and prettier than themselves, would take advantage of my lapse to crush me. The men wouldn’t care, but ... they’d be made to care.

    My eyes lingered on the keyhole for a long moment. It was nothing more than a formality ... or was it? I knew a hundred charms that could open and close simple locks. I’d used them time and time again, at school, until I could cast them without leaving a trace. No sorcerer worthy of the name would rely on a simple physical lock. It could be picked easily ...

    I drew a hairpin from my hair and poked the lock gingerly. Nothing happened for a long moment, then blue sparks lashed out at me. I threw myself backwards, just in time. The charms still held good. I glared at the keyhole, wondering why it was even there. I’d known trucks and drawers and even cabinets that had no visible keyholes. They’d just drawn attention ... I stood, brushing down my dress. Father hadn’t been stupid. If he’d left the keyhole in place, there must have been a reason.

    My eyes drifted around the room. The bookshelves looked untouched. The cabinets were open, but useless. I’d gone through the paperwork and found nothing, beyond account books carefully sorted into two piles. Father had clearly kept a lot of secrets from the rest of the family. I wondered, as I inched towards the bookshelves, why no one had thought to question him. Had they been afraid of what they might find?

    Up close, the books definitely looked untouched, as if they’d been purchased in bulk and then simply placed on the shelves and abandoned. I scanned the titles, wondering why my father had even wanted them. Books on every magical subject under the sun contrasted oddly with titles on distant lands and empires that had died so long ago no one remembered their names and tomes on theories most people considered absurd. Why ... I remembered my schooling and smiled. A bookshelf was a great place to hide something you didn’t want found. I started removing the books on the topmost shelf and feeling behind them. It wasn’t long before my fingers touched something metallic. I picked it up and carried it into view. It was a tiny gold - and charmed - key.

    “Clever,” I said, as I carried it back to the desk. “The charms can’t be undone without the key.”

    I knelt beside the drawers and pushed the key into the lock. Magic sparkled over me, then faded as I turned the key. The drawer snapped open. I pulled it out and peered inside. A handful of account books, a pair of notebooks and a spellcaster that felt ... wrong. My skin crawled when I touched it. I had no idea what my father had been doing with it, but it had clearly left a mark. I tried not to disturb it as I removed the account books. There was a small pile of letters underneath them. I took them too, then closed the drawer. I’d have to go through them all.

    The letters were charmed, but I had no trouble opening them. Mistress Grayling’s handwriting, all too familiar after years of reading my own reports, leapt off the page. She’d written to my father to remind him of the deal he’d made, the deal that allowed me to stay at the school ... I frowned, wishing that she’d been a little more direct. The letter was suspicious, but hardly incriminating. I suspected that meant they were trying to hide something. If they’d come to an agreement to defer payment for a few years, they’d hardly be reluctant to write it down.

    I frowned as I read through the remaining papers. Father had written to everyone for money, it seemed, and they’d all turned him down. I spotted a handful of very familiar names amongst the letters, names I knew from school gossip. And, at the bottom, there was a letter signed by Zadornov. It told my father, in no uncertain terms, that he had two weeks to repay his debts. There was no ‘or else’ but it was clearly implied. The letter was dated ten days before my father’s death.

    A shiver ran down my spine as I reread the letter. Uncle Jalil hadn’t said much, hardly anything, about Zadornov. Who was he? Why had he loaned my father money? Why had he made a personal loan? I opened the account books and frowned as I ran my eye down the figures. The interest rate really had been impossibly high. My father had to have been mad. Or desperate ...

    And yet, he didn’t try to marry me off, I thought numbly. That speaks well of him, doesn’t it?

    There was a knock at the door. I hastily put the letters and notebooks back in the drawer, then concealed the key in my pocket. “Come!”

    Uncle Jalil stepped into the room. “I spoke to Danny Prestwick, Gary’s father.”

    I blinked. How long had I been lost in my thoughts?

    “Good,” I said, absently. I was still reeling from the letters. “What did he say?”

    “He’s prepared to advance us the money,” Uncle Jalil said. He reached into his pocket and produced a slip of charmed parchment. “He wants a very solid agreement in exchange, Lucy, and he wants you to get to know his son too.”

    I took the parchment and read it carefully, line by line. Mistress Grayling had told us, more than once, that we had to pay close attention to anything we signed. It was quite easy to accidently sign away everything, if we weren’t careful. Danny Prestwick’s lawyer was surprisingly blunt. If we failed to repay the advance one year after the contract was signed, I would have to go through with the marriage or lose everything.

    “It might not hold up in court,” Uncle Jalil said. “But we can’t afford decent lawyers.”

    “We do have Uncle Stefano,” I reminded him.

    “Stefano hasn’t argued in front of a court for years,” Uncle Jalil snapped. “I wouldn’t trust him to argue that water is wet or that two plus two equals four. And even if I did ... there’s very little room for creative misunderstandings. Lucy ...he thinks he has us over a barrel. That’s why the negotiations were so short. If we don’t repay him, you will have to go through with it.”

    “So you keep saying.” I reread the parchment carefully. “Do we have a choice?”

    Uncle Jalil said nothing.

    “No,” I said. “What happens if he refuses to go through with it?”

    “I imagine his father will deal with him,” Uncle Jalil said. “That will be ... unpleasant.”

    I stared down at the contract. If something went wrong ... I was going to marry someone I didn’t know, someone I hadn’t even met. And too many things could go wrong. I wished, suddenly, that I’d turned my back and walked away. But I couldn’t. It would have meant abandoning the family.

    “I’ll meet him at the ball,” I said, as I signed. “And, as soon as I get the money, we’ll start work.”
     
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    “You’ll be pleased to know that House Rubén and House Aguirre have accepted your offer to hold the ball,” Uncle Jalil said, five days later. “They’ve even agreed to pay for your services.”

    I nodded, feeling stiff and sore. Ellington had gone to the Hiring Hall and hired a hundred maids, cleaners and part-time sorcerers to prepare for the ball, but it was still a staggeringly huge task. I’d watched maids working in droves to dust the floors, polish the brass and everything else we needed to do, then walked down to the kitchens to check on the hired staff as they cleaned the stoves, replaced the preservation spells on the cellars and stockpiled enough food and drink to accommodate an army. I had the nasty feeling an army might be preferable. We’d told everyone who’d listen that the hall was neutral ground, that we had no interest in the feuds and infighting that dominated High Society, but the only thing keeping the Great Houses from trying to drag us into the fray was the simple fact we had nothing to offer them. That might change, if my plans worked.

    Unless they’re happy to let us stay in the middle, I thought, as I brushed damp sweat from my brow. I’d hoped and prayed to my ancestors, but there’d been no guarantee House Rubén and House Aguirre would accept my offer. It was all too easy, as I tossed and turned in my uncomfortable bed, to fear the worst. We want them to think of us as harmless middlemen.

    I scowled as we walked through the hall, keeping a respectful distance from the hired men. Jadish was standing in a crowd of maids, directing them to clean the bedrooms, change the bedding and scrub the bathrooms before the first guests started to arrive. I doubted we’d have many, at least the first time, but we couldn’t keep the hired servants forever. They’d go back to the Hiring Hall when the money ran out. I nodded to her, then led Uncle Jalil up the stairs to the uppermost floor. It had been carefully sealed off, before the hiring hands had been allowed to enter the hall. Anyone caught there would be sacked without reference.

    “They’re working wonders,” Uncle Jalil said. “I didn’t think they could get the dust out of those carpets.”

    “Me neither,” I said. The drapes had once been colourful, if my memories didn’t lie. They’d been so laden with dust they’d been on the verge of collapsing before they’d been cleaned. “Did they have a chance to clean your room?”

    “I can handle that myself,” Uncle Jalil said. “Right now, you have to worry about the hall.”

    “Tell me about it,” I said, as we entered the office. “What about the other Great Houses?”

    “I’ve had sniffs of interest from several others,” Uncle Jalil said. “I think they’re waiting to see how the first ball goes before they commit themselves. They’ll definitely see advantage in holding some of the other mixed balls here, particularly given the rumoured troubles between Bolingbroke and McDonald, but it all depends on how we do.”

    “Then we’d better do very well,” I said. “I put Ellington in charge. He’s doing a good job.”

    “Your aunts won’t like it,” Uncle Jalil said. “Have you told them you’re engaged?”

    I winced. Auntie Dorcas had thrown a fit when I’d told her. The others had either screamed or fainted. Apparently, I was marrying beneath myself. No one short of a Heir Primus would suffice for me. They didn’t seem to know, or care, that no Heir Primus would marry me and, if one did, the family’s independence would vanish like morning dew. I’d heard more nonsense in half an hour from my relatives than I’d heard over the last six years at school, where one couldn’t reasonably expect the snooty girls to know better. To hear them talk, you’d think I was defiled forever. I might as well be marrying the lad who ate the dung.

    “Yes,” I said. Uncle Jalil hadn’t been there, for which I was grateful. He already had enough enemies on the council. “They weren’t pleased.”

    “So I hear,” Uncle Jalil said. “The next year will be very interesting.”

    “Hah.” I made a rude sound as I sat behind the desk. “Either we earn enough money to repay the loan and break the agreement, or I get married.”

    “And they try to strip you of your post,” Uncle Jalil said.

    “We’ll see,” I said. If my plans failed, I probably would be stripped of my post. I wondered how that would affect the marriage contract. It was quite possible they’d sue us for breaking the agreement .... I shrugged. It wouldn’t be my fault. “Uncle, I need to ask you something. Again. Who’s Zadornov?”

    Uncle Jalil let out a heavy sigh. “I’d hoped the matter would remain forgotten.”

    “I don’t think this is something that’ll go away,” I said, as I opened the drawer and removed the secret accounts. “Uncle ... who is Zadornov?”

    “Officially, he’s a businessman with a somewhat shady reputation,” Uncle Jalil said, with another sigh. “Unofficially, he’s a loan shark, a smuggler and quite possibly a few other things as well. Rumour insists he’s been connected with everything from arson and theft to kidnapping, rape and assassination. There’s never been any evidence of anything beyond making dubious loans.”

    “Like the one he made to my father?” I passed him the account books. “What was he thinking?”

    “Your father? I imagine he was desperate.” Uncle Jalil skimmed the books with practiced ease. “And Zadornov? I dare say he thought he could get something out of the deal.”

    I let out a breath. “What do we do about it?”

    “Legally speaking, the debt died with your father,” Uncle Jalil said. “There are no grounds for him to demand the money back from you, or the family as a whole.”

    “And practically speaking?” I ran my hand through my hair. “If he demands the money back, what then?”

    “I don’t know,” Uncle Jalil said. “We got a nice lump sum, but ...”

    I met his eyes. “It’s not enough to cover the debt, is it?”

    “No.” Uncle Jalil shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”

    “We’ll just have to wait and see if he comes calling,” I said. “And then decide what to do about it.”

    “I think he’ll wait until you become successful,” Uncle Jalil said. “There’s nothing to be gained by trying to force you to give him money you don’t have.”

    “Yeah,” I agreed. I cleared my throat, changing the subject. “Will Gary be at the ball?”

    “Yes.” Uncle Jalil paused, meaningfully. “We are obliged to provide a chaperone.”

    I made a face. Traditionally, the chaperone should be an older woman, but there weren’t many candidates. Auntie Dorcas would be unbearable, no matter who I married. The others were even worse. I could ask a girlfriend, but most of my old friends were either still at school or disqualified. Kate would be terribly out of place. Marlene ... I shook my head. I needed it examined for thinking of her, even for a second. She’d embarrass me in front of the Great Houses.

    “Jadish can chaperone us, when we’re not in public,” I said. It wasn’t perfect, but I could rely on Jadish to cover for me. “It should please everyone.”

    “It’ll please no one,” Uncle Jalil predicted. “They’ll insist you ordered Jadish to lie.”

    “We’ll just have to live with it,” I said. “There aren’t any other candidates.”

    “If you say so.” Uncle Jalil returned the account books. “I’d say your father was insane, but ... I know he was desperate. And the way all his endeavours kept failing ... I’d almost say he was cursed.”

    “I didn’t think that was possible,” I said. “Is it?”

    “He had a habit of taking risks,” Uncle Jalil said. “And eventually they caught up with him.”

    There was a knock on the door. I looked up. “Come!”

    Jadish stepped into the room and dropped a curtsy. “My Lady, the dressmaker is here.”

    I groaned inwardly as I stood. “Show her to the fitting room,” I said. “I’ll be down in a moment.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Jadish said.

    “I’ll talk to you later,” I told Uncle Jalil as Jadish withdrew. “And we can decide what to do about the secret debts after the ball.”

    I felt cold as I walked down to the fitting room, feeling - again - a grim awareness of just how poor we truly were. I’d hired one of the most exclusive dressmakers in the city, but she normally catered to the upper middle classes. The Great Houses had dressmakers of their own, dressmakers and tailors who’d grown up in the families .... I gritted my teeth in frustration. It would be decades, at least before House Lamplighter reached the heights again. I doubted my children would want to train as dressmakers.

    “You must be Lucilla,” the dressmaker said, as I stepped into the fitting room. She was a short woman with a bright smile and white hair. I had the feeling she was plump, but her long dress made it hard to be sure. “I’m Garland. Just Garland.”

    “Just Lucy,” I said. Lucilla might be my formal name, but I’d always preferred Lucy. “Thank you for coming.”

    “It’s quite alright, my dear.” Garland patted me on the shoulder, then pulled me into the centre of the room. “You want a formal dress, right? Just one?”

    “For the moment,” I said. Dresses were expensive. Marlene and her peers might be able to buy dresses by the cartload, but I’d bankrupt myself if I tried. “And I need it fast.”

    “So I hear.” Garland pulled a spellcaster out of her pocket and waved it around me. “Your measurements are pretty simple. I can tailor another dress to fit you, if you like. It’ll be cheaper and quicker than making something new.”

    “That would be good,” I said. “What do you have in mind?”

    “Depends on you, my dear,” Garland said. “You’re the host, if I understand correctly, but not the centre of attention. You want to look masterful, to make it clear you’re in charge, yet you don’t want to dominate the room. That’s quite a challenge.”

    “Men have it easy,” I said, as she wrapped a measuring tape around my thighs. “They don’t have to wear fancy dresses.”

    Garland winked at me. “It takes more effort to hide their bellies, my dear.”

    I had to smile. “I’ll take your word for it.”

    “You should.” Garland winked, again. “You don’t want to compete, so I suggest you keep it simple. A long evening gown, perhaps. Your family crest will go on the breast, but nothing else. Keep your neckline clean, without even a necklace. I’d suggest tightening the garment around the breasts, but not actually revealing any bare flesh. You don’t want them thinking of you as a young woman, or indeed a woman at all.”

    “I don’t think that’s possible,” I pointed out. “I’ve got breasts.”

    “And you can dress to draw attention away from them, my dear,” Garland explained, as she kept poking at me. “Dress is half the battle.”

    She leaned back and looked me up and down. “White, green or blue would go well with your skin, but they’re striking. I’d suggest a dull red. I should be able to refit a couple of dresses to fit you, if you like those colours. Or you could wear black, in memory of your father. I think you could carry it off nicely.”

    I held up a hand. “I’ll stick with red,” I said. “What else do you advise?”

    “Red should suffice,” Garland said. “I’ll have to do you something else, if you go to another ball. You won’t be running the show there.”

    “No,” I agreed. “Green, for the second dress. I don’t want to look too striking.”

    Garland nodded as she finished taking measurements. “I’ll be back tomorrow with the refitted dresses,” she said. “I normally charm them against everything from rain to ill-use, and I can weave a handful of cooling charms into the garment if you wish, but I’m not sure how well the refitted dresses will take the charms. You may have to renew them. I can also add a deflation charm, but ...”

    I shook my head. “I think I can manage without,” I said. “How quickly can you finish the work?”

    “It shouldn’t be more than a day or so,” Garland assured me. “I’ll do much of the work when I get back to the shop, then I can either finish the job here tomorrow or bring them back to you the following day. You’ll have them in time for the ball.”

    And hope they don’t look second-hand, I thought. The Grande Dames would be watching me like ... Grande Dames. Even hawks weren’t as perceptive as Grande Dames looking for something to complain about. That might get embarrassing.

    I sighed inwardly as I ran the bell for Jadish. Garland was right, in at least one sense. It wasn’t really my ball, even though I was the host. I wasn’t going to be the centre of attention ... and yet, by hosting the ball, I was going to attract attention. It was going to be an interesting balancing act. Hopefully, the old ladies would think I’d have a Season next year ... or that I’d been denied the chance to have one through no fault of my own. Father could have given me a Season. Holding one for myself would have seemed a little ... egotistical.

    And pointless, given that I’m not going to marry a fellow aristocrat, I told myself, as Garland escorted the older woman off the premises. Why would anyone come to my Season if they know I’m not going to marry them?

    Jadish returned, looking grim. “My Lady,” she said. “Lord Jalil said you wished to see me.”

    “I need a chaperone,” I said. “Will you do the honours?”

    “I ...” Jadish caught herself. “My Lady?”

    It was hard to put my thoughts into words. “The man I might marry is coming to the ball,” I said. “I need to speak to him. Alone. But not alone. I need you to be with us, your ears jammed firmly shut.”

    “Yes, My Lady,” Jadish said. “Do you want me to look away too?”

    “Perhaps.” I felt myself blush. Thankfully, my colouring hid it. “It depends.”

    “Yes, My Lady.” Jadish dropped a curtsy. “I’ll do as you wish.”

    I smiled, then sobered. “How are things? I mean ... how are things really?”

    Jadish hesitated. “We’re going to need more staff ... more permanent staff,” she said, carefully. “We just can’t keep the hall going without more people. There’s no way we can keep the place clean, let alone do anything else ...”

    “I understand,” I said. “And I’ll work on it. My father ...”

    I looked at her. “How was my father?”

    “I really couldn’t say, My Lady.” Jadish looked down. “It isn’t my place ...”

    “Yes, it is,” I said. “I won’t be angry, whatever you say.”

    Jadish didn’t look convinced. “He was never able to focus,” she said, finally. “And he was never concerned with running the house.”

    “Thanks,” I said, rather sourly. I’d guessed that much for myself. “I’ll try and do better.”

    I dismissed her with a nod, wondering if she wanted the post of housemistress. Jadish was young, but there wasn’t anyone more familiar with the house. We’d explored every last inch of the building, save for the uppermost floor, as children. Ellington would probably be pleased if his granddaughter was promoted. The old man was getting on in years, no matter how he tried to hide it. Perhaps that was why he’d allowed the hall to decay. He’d simply been too tired to do his job.

    Time to go back to work, I told myself as I headed back to the office. I had to take the long way around. The painters were hastily slapping paint on faded wallpapers, muttering spells to ensure the paper was thoroughly hidden under the paint. There’s too much to do.

    The days seemed to blur together as the ball came closer. I worked from dawn till dusk, checking and rechecking everything to ensure nothing went wrong. I barely had time to get my dress fitted, even though I knew my aunties would make a fuss if I looked anything less than perfect. They were largely useless ... I wanted to disown them, simply because they refused to do anything to help prepare the hall. There was no reason Auntie Dorcas couldn’t have helped host the ball, damn it. I didn’t think she was public enemy number one, although I wasn’t sure of it. It was certainly odd for her - and the others - to refuse to help when they could have taken advantage of the work to make new contracts. I was more than a little worried about it.

    And we’re spending money we might not be able to repay, I reminded myself. Ice congealed in my heart every time I thought about it. The money - my dowry - had been a sizable sum, only a few short days ago. I done everything I could to cut costs, but we were still spending money like a teenage aristocrat ... the irony wasn’t lost on me. What happens if we can’t pay it back?

    The question mocked me. I knew the answer. I’d get married and then ...

    I shook my head. It wasn’t going to happen. I was going to take what I had and parlay it into money and rebuild my family and repay the loan and ...

    And I’ll have to come up with something else, I told myself, feeling a twinge of desperation. I had a year, but I already felt trapped. Merely hosting balls isn’t going to be enough.
     
    Darkwolf, mysterymet, techsar and 2 others like this.
  18. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    trunks

    hired

    rang

    hostess?

    Jadish
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    “We should be having the debutantes walking down the stairs,” Auntie Dorcas whispered, as we stood by the doors and welcomed the guests to the hall. “They’re entering like commoners!”

    I resisted the urge to say or do something thoroughly unpleasant. Auntie Dorcas had finally - finally - agreed to help host, but she’d spent most of the afternoon either criticising or complaining about my choices. Nothing was good enough for her, from the piles of food and drink to the dresses I’d had cleaned for the rest of the family. If there had been any other choice, any at all, I’d have banned her from the entrance and probably from the entire hall. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had days to offer her comments.

    “This is an informal ball,” I muttered. It was really more of a formal informal ball, but the nasty part of my mind insisted she wouldn’t understand. “It isn’t a formal coming-out.”

    I pasted a smile on my face as the Aguirre triplets stepped into the hall and curtsied to me. Alana was tall, a sharp smile on her dark face; I felt a stab of envy, knowing Alana and her sisters would never have to worry about money. House Aguirre was rich and powerful beyond words. Bella looked bored, despite the opportunities for networking; Caitlyn looked as if she would rather be somewhere - anywhere - else. The three girls still had their hair in braids, even though they were passing eighteen. I was pretty sure that burned, even though it had its uses. They’d be spared the worst consequences of their mistakes.

    “Thank you for inviting us,” Alana said, in a tone that suggested I should be grateful she’d darkened my door. “And congratulations on assuming the Matriarchy.”

    “I thank you,” I said. It would be a long time before Alana became Matriach of House Aguirre. I was pretty sure, from what I’d read in the newspapers, that she was already undergoing a long apprenticeship. Her father probably already bounced ideas off her ... I kept my face under tight control, trying to hide the sudden spurt of grief. I’d have sold my soul for a proper relationship with my father. “I trust you’ll enjoy the day.”

    They curtseyed again. I tried not to stare at the Object of Power dangling from Caitlyn’s neck. It was hard to tell what it did - I guessed it was a protection charm of some kind - but it was a sign she could not be taken lightly. I’d heard the rumours about her, back when I’d been a child myself. She’d had no magic, they’d said. I had a feeling all the people who’d mocked her - and her family - were kicking themselves. Caitlyn’s talent was all the more important for being so rare. If there were any other Zeroes around, they were keeping their talents to themselves.

    I watched them go into the hall, then turned to meet the next set of guests. They started to blur together as the evening wore on, from older men and women who seemed disinclined to take me seriously to younger aristocrats who almost seemed ... envious. I supposed they didn’t know how desperate we were. They probably thought I had wealth and power and freedom to do whatever I wanted. They didn’t realise I was trying to find a way to keep the family afloat.

    A low gong echoed through the hall as the servants brought out the first trays of food. The band started to play. I turned to stare into the hall, feeling oddly out of place in my own home. Ellington and the staff had done a wonderful job. I barely recognised the hall. The dust was gone, the marble and brass had been cleaned, banners hung from the walls ... I shook my head, trying to pretend - just for a moment - that it wasn’t borrowed glory. Jadish had been right. We simply didn’t have the staff to keep up appearances. And yet, appearances were all we had.

    “Go circle the room,” Auntie Dorcas advised. “Press the flesh. And be seen to press the flesh.”

    I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I was the hostess. Everything rested on me. And I had to look as calm and composed as a duck drifting on the water. I smiled, remembering how my etiquette tutors had explained that ducks always looked calm on the surface, while paddling desperately underwater. My staff knew what to do, I reassured myself. I could afford to relax, just a little bit, and enjoy myself.

    The dancers moved onto the floor and started to dance in time with the music. I watched, trying not to feel too envious of the other girls. They wore fancy dresses, each one unique ... I hoped. I’d heard the rumours of what had happened when two aristocratic women had attended the same ball, wearing the same dress from a supposedly exclusive designer. Their frank exchange of views had turned into a full-scale brawl, with hexes and curses flying everywhere. I prayed that wouldn’t happen in Lamplighter Hall. I’d done what I could with the wards, but they were nowhere near as strong and capable as I wished.

    I walked from group to group, feeling ever more out of place. I didn’t fit in with the girls my age, the ones who had their own little cliques from Jude’s. They seemed unsure what to make of me. I was their age, yet I was the host. And the older aristocrats had no place for me either. They seemed to think I was too young to be taken seriously ... or, perhaps, they knew I had little to offer. I drifted around the room, acknowledging the handful of bows and curtsies I got from the other aristocrats. And ...

    “You wouldn’t believe just how much money I made in the last week,” a voice said. I turned, trying not to prick up my ears too obviously. If there was one thing I’d learnt at school, it was how to listen without making it obvious. “I found out what Tailstock wanted and by golly I gave it to him.”

    I felt a sudden flicker of interest. The speaker - Robin Bolingbroke, if I recalled correctly - was an unpleasantly corpulent man, one arm wrapped around a woman several years his junior. He was holding forth to a cluster of other men, all of whom were listening to his drunken rambles with rapt attention. I felt a flicker of distaste, mingled with interest. Robin Bolingbroke was something in finance, if I recalled correctly. He had to be rich, with his own money as well as his family allowance. The woman next to him, wearing a dress so low I thought it was on the verge of slipping off, wouldn’t have given him the time of day if he didn’t have money.

    Robin Bolingbroke went on and on, babbling about dealings I could barely follow. He’d figured out what someone wanted, I thought from what little I could understand, and found a way to give it to them ... creaming off a hefty profit in the bargain. I silently replayed what he’d said in my head, trying to sort out what he’d done. He couldn’t have done it without money ... could he? A thought started to nag at the back of my mind as Robin turned away, guiding his mistress towards the private rooms. I felt a stab of sympathy for the poor woman. Who was she? And why was she desperate enough to ally herself with ... him?

    I put the thought out of my mind as I continued to circle the room, listening to private conversations. Robin’s plan had worked, I suspected, because Robin had had the money to gamble. He could lose his personal fortune, if things went badly wrong, but simply fall back on his allowance. And he was hardly the Patriarch. Simon Bolingbroke had no obligations to pay Robin’s debts. The wretched man couldn’t lose.

    “It’s not easy to get the parts these days,” another man said. I recognised him as a distant relation of Lord Carioca Rubén, although I couldn’t blame the name. “The artificers are doubling their prices and refusing to experiment.”

    “Then you should invest in more artificers, Albrecht,” his partner said. “Or maybe work to convince them to experiment.”

    I frowned as I walked around them, mentally picking apart the conversation. It was hard to believe House Rubén, of all the Great Houses, was short of artificers and forgers. It wasn’t as if they didn’t have the money to invest in experimenting either. And yet ... I listened as covertly as I could, then moved onwards before they noticed. I had a feeling there was an in there, if I could find it. I promised myself I’d consider it later, when the ball was over. Right now, I had too much else on my mind.

    The evening slowly turned to night as I kept moving, my eyes criss-crossing the ballroom. Caitlyn Aguirre was talking to Akin Rubén, her betrothed; a pair of older women stood nearby, close enough to keep a sharp eye on them without actually listening to their conversation. I wondered, idly, if I could arrange a private meeting between them ... it would be good to have one or both of them owing me a favour. Ayesha and Zeya McDonald were flirting outrageously with a pair of boys I didn’t recognise, both countrified by their accents; I had a feeling the flirtation was going to end in heartbreak. Saline Califon strode across the room, her face grim and cold. And, behind her, I saw Marlene. She looked, in her own way, as isolated as myself.

    My eyes narrowed. That was odd. Marlene had always bragged about her friends back home ...

    A hand touched my arm. I tried not to jump as I turned to see Auntie Dorcas. I mentally kicked myself for allowing myself to get lost in my own thoughts. I’d exposed my back ... I told myself, sharply, that I was no longer at school. High Society had its dangers, but being hexed in the back was not one of them. Probably. It would be the height of rudeness to throw a hex at the hostess in her own domain.

    “Lucilla.” Auntie Dorcas said. “Your young man” - her lips thinned with distaste - “is waiting in the green room.”

    “Thank you,” I said, feeling my heart skip a beat. It was a business transaction, nothing more ... yet I couldn’t help feeling nervous. The meeting could end really badly. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

    “I shall accompany you,” Auntie Dorcas said. “Your reputation must not be tarnished ...”

    It was all I could do not to scream at her, even though we were in public. “I need you on the floor,” I said, pitching my voice as low as I could. “Jadish will chaperone us.”

    Auntie Dorcas looked irked. I gave her a warning stare, then turned and walked through the throng. She’d probably hoped I’d put up with her peering over my shoulder, rather than make a public fuss. It would have made me look weak, whatever happened. Auntie Dorcas might pretend she cared about my reputation, but I knew better. She thought she could limit my authority. I took a breath, calming myself as best as I could. She’d had her chance. I wouldn’t hesitate to banish her if she challenged me too openly.

    I passed Auntie Ainslie, who was cheerfully assuring a group of older biddies that House Lamplighter was honouring its ancestors by wearing their clothes. It was hard not to smile at her blatant lies - we would have brought new clothes for everyone, if we could have afforded them - even though I had to admit it was a pretty good story. I made a mental note to work on it. The Great Houses were big on tradition. We might start a whole new fashion by going back to a very old one.

    Jadish waited outside the door, wearing an outdated maid’s uniform. It was far too frilly for my tastes, but she made it look good. She curtsied as soon as she saw me, then stepped back. I felt oddly nervous, unsure of myself. I’d spoken to boys before - I’d even had a couple of local boyfriends, when I’d been at school - but this was different. It was a business transaction and yet it wasn’t ... I winced, inwardly. It didn’t matter. I was committed. I’d been committed from the moment I signed the contract and taken the money.

    I pushed open the door, telling myself - again and again - that I could cope, that I could handle whatever happened ... that, as a mature woman, I could deal with anything. And yet, I didn’t feel very mature. I wished, suddenly, that my mother was still alive, or that I had a female relative I could trust. I’d hate to take advice from Auntie Dorcas. She’d always keep one eye on how she could make a situation work for her.

    “Lady Lamplighter.” The boy inside the room stood and bowed. “I’m Gary Prestwick.”

    I studied him, all too aware he was studying me too. He didn’t look any older than me ... indeed, his curly hair and babyish face made him look slightly younger. His skin was strikingly pale, his rounded head topped with blond hair that reminded me - however faintly - of Akin Rubén. I wondered if there might be a family connection, then snorted at myself for the stupid thought. Blond hair proved nothing. Uncle Jalil’s background check hadn’t turned up any links to the aristocracy.

    My eyes roamed over his body, reading the clues. His black suit was simple, yet perfectly tailored. He looked slim, although he lacked the sporty appearance that was so fashionable amongst the aristocracy. His hands were faintly scarred, suggesting a background in forgery as well as charms. There were strong ties between the two disciplines, if I recalled correctly; a charmsmith could easily become a forger, without needing to start again.

    Jadish closed the door behind us, a little louder than necessary. I was almost grateful for the reminder she was there. Auntie Dorcas would have been obnoxious, at the very least ... and she was the best of my relatives. I wondered, not for the first time, why my father hadn’t offered my hand in marriage well before I’d left school. Sure, I could have said no ... but why hadn’t he even tried to talk me into it?

    “Gary,” I said. My throat was suddenly dry. I was all too aware of the wards pressing down on us. The family might be spying on us ... I didn’t think Auntie Dorcas could hack the wards, but it was quite possible. She’d lived in the hall long enough to fiddle with the spellforms before she moved out. “I’m Lucy.”

    Gary sat down, looking just as awkward as I felt. “It’s good to meet you,” he mumbled, glancing nervously at Jadish. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

    “Oh dear.” I managed a smile at the weak joke. “Don’t believe everything you read in all the major newspapers.”

    “I never read them,” Gary said. He grinned. I was surprised by how much it lit up his face. “They told me you were good at charms.”

    I wondered, idly, who’d told him that - and why. I’d done well in charms - and I’d learnt how to hack them, thanks to school - but I wasn’t an expert. Perhaps Uncle Jalil had been trying to convince Gary I’d make a good match. That was odd, but my uncle was perhaps the only one who’d understand Gary’s point of view. He was minor aristocracy, only a step or two up from a commoner. Auntie Dorcas would be completely unsympathetic to him. She’d assume he’d be grateful to marry into the family.

    “I like to study them,” I said. It was true, sort of. “Perhaps we can talk about them in a less ... formal ... setting.”

    “I think I’m supposed to clear my throat here,” Jadish said. She made a sound that was more like a lion preparing to roar. “Right?”

    I had to smile as Gary flushed. “Maybe not,” I said. “Tell me about yourself.”

    It had been, I decided as our meeting finally came to an end, a pleasant hour. Gary didn’t disgrace himself. I hoped I hadn’t disgraced myself either. It would be embarrassing if Gary’s father demanded the money back ahead of time, or forced his son to stay with me even though he disliked me ... I’d seen unhappy marriages amongst the aristocracy. I’d heard the stories and rumours too. They never ended.

    “I’ll see you again,” I promised. Jadish would show him out, ensuring the guests didn’t have a chance to see him and gossip. “Somewhere better, I think.”

    Gary smiled as he stood and bowed. “Be seeing you.”

    I nodded, then walked back to the ballroom. It had grown later than I’d realised. The guests were starting to drift outside, summoning their carriages and heading home. A gust of wind blew across the lawn, bringing with it the promise of a better future. I saw Robin Bolingbroke clambering into his carriage, accompanied by his mistress. He was too drunk to get inside until she helped him with a quick spell. I hoped he forgot how talkative he’d been. He’d given me an idea ...

    Marlene walked up to me. “You threw a good party, Lucy.”

    “Thanks,” I said, sardonically. It had been a ball, not a party. I doubted she cared. “Did you have a good time?”

    “I met my friends,” Marlene said. “So yeah ...”

    I watched her walk down to the gate and frowned. She didn’t have a carriage? She shouldn’t be in any danger if she walked home - she had strong magic, as well as a family name - but it was odd for an aristocrat to walk. People would talk. I shook my head - it wasn’t my problem - and turned to head back inside. I was tired, desperately tired ...

    ... And an idea, a very interesting idea, was starting to take shape in my mind.
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    “Have you seen the papers?”

    I scowled at Uncle Jalil as I stepped into the kitchenette. My uncle was looking disgustingly fresh and alert for someone who was not only old enough to be my father, but couldn’t have gone to bed last night any earlier than myself. A small pile of letters and newspapers rested on the table beside my seat, half of them probably nothing more than brief notes of thanks - written and signed by the secretary’s secretary - for hosting the ball. I poured myself a mug of coffee, silently grateful I hadn’t joined my peers in drinking. I’d managed to get drunk once, just once. The hangover had been bad enough to convince me to swear off drinking for life.

    “No,” I said. The coffee tasted vile, but it woke me up. “What do they say?”

    Uncle Jalil picked up the society pages and made a show of reading aloud. “A fantastic debut ... a glimpse of a brighter future ... a stunning new face on the scene ... marvellous food ... wonderful drink and plenty of it ...”

    I snorted. “How much did we pay the reporters?”

    “We didn’t.” Uncle Jalil grinned, although there was little real humour on his face. “How many invitations do you think the reporters will get if they badmouth the hosts?”

    “None.” I sat down and picked up the closest newspaper. “Do they get paid by the superlative?”

    “Probably.” Uncle Jalil shrugged. “Oh, by some standards the ball was boring. Boring and ... well, boring.”

    I smirked, despite myself. “How boring.”

    “Point is, you don’t want the ball to be too exciting,” Uncle Jalil said. “You hosted two rival families - and a bunch of others - and no one got embarrassed, or cursed, or killed, or anything. A good time was had by all. You’ll be able to host more balls in the future.”

    “How lucky for us,” I said, sourly. The ball might have gone well, but I’d been too stressed to enjoy it. “Are they going to pay us to host more balls?”

    “Probably,” Uncle Jalil said. “As word gets around, we’ll have more offers.”

    “As long as they pay for it,” I muttered. I really didn’t want to look at the account books, not today. I was all too aware we’d paid too much for the ball, even though House Rubén and House Aguirre had met some of our expenses. They hadn’t been interested in paying for the cleaning. “We’re going to need more money, uncle.”

    “I know.” Uncle Jalil sobered. “But we should start earning money shortly.”

    I scowled, then turned my attention to the newspapers. Uncle Jalil had been right. The ball had gone well, as far as the reporters were concerned. I had to smile as I read one reporter’s description of a dance that made very little sense. It felt like padding. He was probably paid by the word. Another reporter lingered on Alana Aguirre’s dress, talking about her outfit in ways that made me feel dirty. I suspected the reporter was going to find himself in hot water very quickly, even though he - technically - hadn’t broken any laws. His editor would put a knife in his back in a desperate bid to avoid trouble for himself.

    “They do seem to think we did well,” I said. “Have you heard anything from anyone else?”

    “You have a stack of letters,” Uncle Jalil reminded me. “I think you’ll find that half of them are invitations.”

    I glanced at him, then started to open the letters one by one. He was right. I had invitations to a dozen balls, dances and parties, ranging from House Bolingbroke to House Rubén and House Aguirre. I felt a thrill, dampened only by the certain knowledge I didn’t have friends in any of those houses. My father had made a serious mistake by not sending me to Jude’s. I didn’t know anyone in the city, not personally. My peers would have no interest in welcoming me into their group ... why should they? I winced, remembering how hard it had been to enter Grayling’s a year ahead of everyone else. It had taken far too long for me to make even one friend.

    “I can’t take Gary, can I?” I knew the answer already. I might be as poor as a ... well, as a heiress whose father had spent her inheritance before she came of age, but I was still an aristocrat. Gary was a commoner. “Who should I take?”

    “Not me,” Uncle Jalil said, quickly. “And I’d suggest, if you happened to ask, that you didn’t take Uncle Hove either.”

    I nodded. Uncle Hove was old and long-winded and convinced he was an expert at wheeling and dealing. He was just like Robin Bolingbroke, except older, uglier and broke. My father had marginalised him a long time ago, even though - I tried not to groan - they had an awful lot in common. I couldn’t take Uncle Hove anywhere. People would assume he spoke for me, then try to sue me when he promised them something he couldn’t deliver. It probably wouldn’t get that far - the people he wanted to engage knew very well his family was poor - but I couldn’t take the chance. It would be a headache I didn’t need.

    “Maybe I’ll ask Auntie Dorcas,” I said. She’d be a millstone around my neck, but she had enough sense not to start high-level discussions without my permission. Except ... it would make me look weak too. “Or maybe a friend from school.”

    I felt an odd little pang as I opened the rest of the letters. Marlene, Kate and I had left school ... but the rest of our class would be graduating in a day or two. They’d be filtering back to their homes, heads filled with knowledge and skills ... not all of which, I was all too aware, their parents would like. There was no way I could go back long enough to attend the ceremony ... I wondered, not for the first time, if Marlene would go back. She was - or at least she’d been - the Head Girl. She’d been meant to give a speech.

    And she also knows some of us were plotting a humiliating revenge, I reminded myself, dryly. There were few secrets at Grayling’s. Marlene had been unpleasant enough, even before she’d been given authority, that quite a few girls had been plotting something nasty. Making Marlene’s clothes fall off in front of the parents might be a step too far ... no, I knew girls who wouldn’t hesitate to plot such an atrocity. Maybe she was just looking for a way to escape before it was too late.

    I put the thought out of my head. Marlene didn’t matter any longer. Kate ... I felt a pang of guilt that I hadn’t been to visit my friend. I should have, damn it. Commoner or not, Kate had been a better friend than most. I made a mental note to write her a letter, asking if we could meet. She might be busy ... I wondered, suddenly, if she knew Gary. Her father was an artificer, if I recalled correctly. It was quite possible they knew of each other.

    Uncle Jalil returned to his paper as I made myself breakfast and forced myself to eat. I knew girls who’d have a heart attack at the mere thought of cooking their own food, let alone cleaning the dishes afterwards, but Grayling’s had taught me how to take care of myself. We’d had fun heating soup in the dorms ... we’d nearly been caught, a few times, yet that had been part of the thrill. What was the point of cooking and eating after Lights Out if there wasn’t a chance we’d get in real trouble?

    “You met Gary,” Uncle Jalil said, from behind the newspaper. “What did you think?”

    I glowered. “Did the muckrakers have anything to say about it?”

    “No,” Uncle Jalil said. “As far as I can tell, no one apart from us knows he came.”

    “Good,” I said, curtly.

    I felt ... I wasn’t sure how I felt. I’d liked Gary, but ... I knew marrying him would be seen as something tawdry, even though everyone knew everyone did it. I was pretty sure Caitlyn Aguirre and Akin Rubén weren’t marrying for love. They were both so important and powerful that their families would do everything in their power to ensure they got married as soon as they came of age. Aristocrats got married for money and power all the time, but ... there was normally a figleaf of respectability around it. I wouldn’t have that, once I married Gary. There’d be no cover. Or ... was that true? Gary was an apprentice charmsmith. He’d be a good match ...

    But not good enough for the Heir Primus, I thought, sourly. I tried to imagine the reaction if Akin Rubén decided he wanted to marry a common-born girl, even if she was the most powerful sorceress in the world. If Caitlyn had been a commoner, heads would explode the moment they heard about the match. It isn’t going to be easy.

    I bit my lip, feeling a flicker of guilt. It was a business transaction. It was a business transaction. The thought went through my head time and time again, mocking me. It would have been easier, I supposed, if Gary had been as coldly pragmatic as myself. We could have worked out a simple agreement, made arrangements for one or both of us to have relationships on the side and kept our disagreements private. But I’d liked Gary. He was far too open for a simple business arrangement.

    Unless he’s playing you, my thoughts mocked. You’ve met quite a few slippery people who looked and acted like total fools.

    Uncle Jalil cleared his throat. “Lucy?”

    I blinked, realising I’d lost track of the conversation. “I’m sorry. You were saying?”

    “I was asking what you made of him,” Uncle Jalil said. “And if you’ll be happy with him?”

    “I don’t think we get to be happy,” I said, dodging the question. “I am required to choose my husband for the good of the family. Being happy doesn’t come into it.”

    I met his eyes. “Were my parents happy?”

    “I believe so,” Uncle Jalil said. “Your mother certainly never complained to me.”

    “Right ...” I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I’d heard schoolgirls complaining about overbearing or bratty brothers. I didn’t have any siblings, but ... if I had, I wasn’t sure if I’d take my complaints to them or not. Siblings were meant to love each other, yet if the stories I’d heard were true ... I shook my head. “Why did they only have one child?”

    “I don’t know,” Uncle Jalil said. “I never pried into their personal lives.”

    I finished my breakfast and put the plates in the sink for later cleaning, feeling unsure of myself. My parents should have had more children. Everyone knew that twins and triplets had greater magical power than singletons. But they hadn’t ... did they think they couldn’t provide for them? They’d certainly have had problems providing a dowry for me ... I shook my head as we walked up to the office. It didn’t matter. They’d both died before they had to make some hard decisions about my marriage.

    And this way, you’ll be making the choices yourself, I thought. You won’t be able to blame a bad match on your parents.

    Uncle Jalil took his seat as I walked to the window and peered over the city. “I’ve been going through the accounts,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s bad news.”

    Ice gripped my heart. “We’ve spent everything already?”

    “No, but we don’t have that much money left,” Uncle Jalil said. “And there’s no point in trying to reinvigorate the mines. Or the farmlands.”

    I turned to look at him. “Is there no hope of” - my imagination failed me - “of digging up more ore?”

    “Right now, if I understand the reports correctly, we cannot produce metallic ore cheaply enough to compete with the other families,” Uncle Jalil said. “Our extraction costs are higher, forcing us to either raise our prices or sell at a loss. Either way, we lose.”

    “Then ...” I felt a twinge of desperation. “Are there no other uses for abandoned mines?”

    “Not that I’m aware of,” Uncle Jalil said. “It’s possible a speculator might buy the mine, but ...”

    He paused. “There are some mushrooms and fungi that have alchemical uses,” he added. “We might be able to grow them underground, but we’d still be competing against long-established producers.”

    “We could undersell them,” I said. “Right?”

    “I doubt it,” Uncle Jalil said. “They’d know what we had in mind. They’d either lower their own prices for a while or simply ignore us, on the grounds we couldn’t produce enough to compete with them. They might even be right.”

    I cursed under my breath as I turned back to the window. There were a dozen mansions within view, each one owned by a family that had money to burn. Literally, perhaps. They had so much money that all they had to do was leave it into the bank and it would make more money. I ground my teeth in resentment. The other Great Houses didn’t have money troubles. Some of them had so many advantages that it was hard to see how they could ever be unseated.

    Not like us, I thought, sourly. Desperation was clawing at my heart. We’d put on a good show, but that was all it was. There was no way we could translate the ball - or a series of balls - into real wealth and power. We can’t win for losing.

    “Look into it,” I ordered, as I walked back to the desk. “We’ll have to be very careful with the rest of the money.”

    “Yes,” Uncle Jalil said. His voice was very blunt. “We have debts to service.”

    I understood, suddenly, why my father had turned to a loan shark. He could talk a good game, as long as he kept up the appearance of wealth and power. No one would demand immediate repayment, until word started to spread that he might not be able to repay his debts. And once word did get out ... I shuddered. Everyone would demand repayment at once, even if it meant giving up some of the interest. My father had to have been desperate, if he’d gone to a loan shark. He had to have been unable to think of any other way to save himself.

    Keep running, I told myself. A shiver ran down my spine. I had a sudden vision of my father running like the wind, chased by a horde of faceless enemies. Like it or not, I was in the same boat. I’d bought time, but nothing else. And now I was running too. If you stop, they’ll catch up.

    “I’ll talk to you later,” I said. I sat down and picked up a charmed notebook. “I need to think.”

    Uncle Jalil stood and left the room. I opened the notebook and started to write. I’d always had a good memory, something I’d been encouraged to develop at school. We’d been meant to keep diaries, but we all knew that everything we wrote down would be used in evidence against us at some later date. I’d read a few of the diaries. They’d been so boring I thought they could have made an effective substitute for sleep potions. I smirked at the thought - it was a shame I couldn’t turn the effect into a charm - then wrote down everything I’d overheard at the party. Most of it was useless, and some - I suspected - was actively misleading - but there were some gems amongst the manure. Robin Bolingbroke had given me an idea.

    It will be risky, I thought, as the idea took shape in my head. And if I get caught ...

    I shook my head. I was desperate. I wanted - I needed - to save my family. That was worth any risk ... I stood and walked to the cabinets, digging into my father’s private files. He’d collected a lot of information over the years, ranging from facts and figures to floor plans and spell charts. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Information was power - I’d learnt that at school - but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his files. Perhaps he’d never intended me to inherit them. Perhaps he’d planned to reorder or destroy them before I returned from school. Or perhaps ... I shook my head as I started to work through the files. There was an entire section on House Bolingbroke, including a collection of rumours that veered between plausible and utter nonsense, often in the same story. Father - and whoever he’d hired to dig up dirt - must have been going out of his mind with frustration. The stories were so absurd it was hard to believe there was even a grain of truth to them.

    Shaking my head, I collected the files and carried them to the desk. I’d have to go through them one by one, to study and swot as intensely as if I were still in school. I couldn’t afford a mistake ... I scowled, remembering how many times my tutors had given us false or misleading information to catch cheaters. They’d been easy to spot, if one had the slightest background knowledge or even a hint of common sense ...

    If this works, it will be brilliant, I thought. My stomach threatened to curdle. I felt sick, a tension I hadn’t felt since the first time I’d slipped into someone’s room to hex their bed sheets. There would have been no excuse, none at all, if I’d been caught. And if it fails, the entire family will fall with me.
     
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