Original Work The Revolutionary War (The Royal Sorceress V)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Sep 20, 2022.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Revolutionary War is the book in The Royal Sorceress series, starting as Lady Gwen and her paramour, Bruce, return from Colonial America to Britain. It may not make much sense without reading the earlier books, so I’m happy to provide copies of the first four books to any readers willing to comment on this one. Please let me know if you want copies (PM me an email address.)

    You can find the series page – and free samples – here: The Chrishanger

    I’m not actually sure how things will go, as I have a lot of other things to do – and a bunch of upcoming medical appointments – but I will do my best.

    (Quick addendum – for various reasons, barring a failed COVID test, I have to go into hospital for day surgery on Saturday. Ideally, I’ll pick up and carry on, but there may be delays.)

    As always – gets down on hands and knees, assuming the well known ‘taxpayer’ yoga position – I welcome all comments; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

    I’ve been working on expanding my list of ways for people to follow me. Please click on the link to sign up for my mailing list, newsletter and much - much - more.

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    Thank you

    Chris

    PS - want to write a magic school story? Fantastic Schools 5 and Fantastic School Hols – Call For Submissions
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue

    Simone prided herself on never being afraid of men.

    She was a Talker, with the ability to read thoughts and emotions and incredible insight into the male psyche even when she wasn’t using her talents. She knew what buttons to press to make a man think or say whatever she wanted, to spill his secrets or pledge himself to her life and defence even without any pledges from her in return. She’d used her talents on behalf of the empire and her adopted father, Ambassador Talleyrand long enough to know precisely what she was doing. She wasn’t fool enough to think herself immune from consequences, in the ever more faction-ridden Bourbon Court, but she knew that, as long as she was useful, she’d be relatively safe from harm.

    And yet, Duke Philippe scared her.

    He strode beside her, his arm resting on hers in a manner that might have seemed affectionate under other circumstances, his presence overshadowing her thoughts. She couldn’t read his thoughts, or even pick up a sense of his emotions, and it bothered her. No one had said anything bad about him, as far as she knew, and yet their thoughts – when they thought about him, which was as little as possible – were coloured with apprehension, even fear. Duke Philippe was a close confident of the king, yet very few people knew anything about him beyond his rank and title. It wasn’t even clear what he did for the king.

    Simone titled her head just slightly, enough to study him. He was a handsome man in his late thirties, wearing surprisingly modest dress for a courtier at Versailles, yet there was something about his appearance that made her feel uneasy. She couldn’t put it into words. She was used to seeing men and women who dressed themselves to draw the eye, or to shock, and yet … there was just something off about him. She tried, once again, to extend her magic and read him, but there was nothing. It was worrying. She knew people with the mental discipline to keep her out, or keep their thoughts spinning to prevent her from following the mental strands, but this … it was almost as if he wasn’t there. If he hadn’t had his arm on hers, holding her tightly enough to make it clear she couldn’t break free, she would have thought he really wasn’t.

    Her mind raced as they passed a pair of sentries and walked down a flight of stairs. She’d never been to the very lowest levels, but she’d heard the rumours. It was an open secret that the king had prisoners here, men and women arrested by lettres de cachet and held in the dungeons by the king’s personal authority … held without any hope of freedom unless the king decided to let them go. Others … there were all sorts of whispers, from secret brothels for pleasures denied even to the courtiers to private meeting rooms, where the king met with foreign ambassadors away from prying eyes. Her blood ran cold as they passed a pair of Royal Guardsmen, wearing combat uniforms rather than the peacock finery of the sentries above; proof, if she needed it, that the normal rules didn’t apply below the ground. If she’d realised where she was going …

    She swallowed, hard. She’d hadn’t been in any position to argue, when the message had arrived at the suite she shared with her adopted father. She’d been summoned … and Duke Philippe himself had arrived to escort her. It wasn’t the first time she’d been invited to the palace – she was the adopted daughter of a great nobleman – but it was by far the strangest and the most dangerous. The war wasn’t going well. The failed invasion of Britain, the defeat in America, the chaos to the east … she’d caught a handful of officers bemoaning the war, arguing that the empire should seek peace with the British so they could make territorial gains in Russia while the Russians fought their civil war. If the factions had turned murderous … it wouldn’t be the first time. She tried not to shiver in fear. Every Frenchman dreaded a return to the Unrest of 1789, where revolutionaries had almost taken Paris, or the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. And yet, with the war going poorly, who knew what would happen?

    People are starving, she reflected, grimly. She wasn’t a well-dressed princess whose life was a constant whirl of parties, romantic relationships and little else. She knew the public mood was darkening. One didn’t need to read minds to know that. And when people are starving and desperate, they do desperate things.

    Duke Philippe tightened his grip, just enough to make her wince. “Beyond this door, keep your thoughts to yourself,” he said. His tone was curiously flat, as if he cared nothing for her. Simone knew men who were enraptured by her beauty and men who disdained her for being a woman and yet, Duke Philippe – somehow – was worse. She had the impression he’d break her neck in an instant if it suited her, without even a flicker of emotion. “There are secrets here that must not be spoken.”

    Simone gritted her teeth, fighting not to pull away. It was hard, even as he loosened his grip. There would be marks on her bare skin … she knew, all too well, the dark underside of the fairy tale palace, the aristocratic women who used makeup to hide their bruises and the serving girls too poor or powerless to do the same. She controlled her thoughts with an effort as the doors swung open, revealing a simple chamber. Her heart seemed to skip a beat as she was guided into the room, the four men already present not even deigning to look at her. The room was completely unfurnished, save for a simple stone block. Fear ran through her as she realised where she was, where she had to be. It was the king’s judgement hall.

    “Stay quiet,” Duke Philippe ordered. “Say nothing.”

    The other set of doors opened. Two guards entered, dragging a beaten and bound man between them. Simone’s thoughts darted towards him, despite the warning, and stopped –dead – as she tasted his mind aura. It was almost as familiar to her as her own … Talleyrand, Ambassador Talleyrand, her adopted father and guardian and master and … she staggered, nearly fainting, as her father was pushed to the block. If Duke Philippe hadn’t been holding her arm, she feared she would have collapsed.

    A man stepped forward. He wore royal livery, but she didn’t recognise him. The king had many servants, some kept in the shadows. There was no shortage of rumours about them either.

    “Talleyrand,” he said. “You have been judged guilty of …”

    Simone didn’t listen to the charges. She’d always known her adopted father was venial in almost every sense of the word, with an insatiable appetite for titles, money and women, but … they didn’t matter. The simple fact he’d been brought here and treated as a rebel, rather than as a man of aristocratic blood, spoke volumes. The specific charges were nothing more than a thin veneer of legality, spread over a judicial murder to conceal the simple fact the victim had been sacrificed to appease the victorious faction. Simone knew no one would be fooled. One faction had gained ascendency and marked Talleyrand for death, proving their supremacy in a way no one could deny.

    Duke Philippe’s grip tightened, again. “Watch.”

    Simone blinked away tears as her adopted father was hauled to the block and shoved into place. There were no speeches, no final chance to sway the crowd … what crowd? Simone was powerless and everyone else agreed Talleyrand had to die. She forced herself to stand tall and watch, silently grateful he didn’t look at her, as the axe came down. It was over so quickly she barely had a second to say a prayer for him. Talleyrand hadn’t been perfect – far from it – but he’d been far from the worst of guardians. She didn’t have to read minds all day to know that, either.

    “It is done,” Duke Philippe said, pulling her away from the scene. “Come.”

    Simone found her voice, the moment they were back outside. “Why …?”

    “These are dangerous times for the empire,” Duke Philippe said. There was still no emotion in his voice. “His Majesty has determined that a new policy is needed, to win the war and ensure Bourbon Supremacy for the rest of time. I, his Master of Magic, have been ordered to carry out the policy. You will assist me.”

    “I …” Simone caught herself. Talleyrand had been one of the most powerful courtiers at Versailles. His execution was clear proof the balance of power had shifted. She was mildly surprised she hadn’t been executed too, or sent to the breeding farms. She wasn’t meant to know they existed, but she did. “I serve His Majesty.”

    “Quite,” Duke Philippe agreed. “And don’t you forget it.”

    He let go of her and turned, walking back up the corridor. Simone knew he expected her to follow him – and knew he was right. What else could she do? She reached for her power as she started to walk, making one final attempt to reach into his mind and read his thoughts. This time, there was something … a jarring series of images, all tangled together into a single horrific mass. Simone had to bite her lip to keep from gasping. If he realised what she’d done, she’d never leave the court alive.

    God, she asked herself. Her adopted father was dead … who else could she ask for help? She hadn’t precisely been kept isolated from the rest of the courtiers, but they hadn’t been very welcoming either … no, they’d be completely unwelcoming now Talleyrand had been executed. No one would give her so much as a smile, for fear it would draw entirely the wrong type of attention. What do I do now?

    Something crystallised in her mind as she studied his back. She’d loved Talleyrand, regardless of his flaws, and he’d served his king loyally. She wanted to make the court pay for what they’d done to him. And besides, whatever the cost, Duke Philippe had to be stopped.

    And Simone would have her revenge.
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One: London, England

    London stank.

    Bruce floated above the city and breathed in the air, wondering – not for the first time – how people managed to live in such a nightmare. New York was cramped and unpleasant in places, but the wide open world beyond the colonies had all the living space anyone could possibly want. London, by contrast, sprawled for miles, a tangled nightmare of government buildings and aristocratic districts surrounded by circles of lower and lower class housing that eventually ended in slums and shanty housing owned by distant uncaring landlords and ruled by criminal gangs. London was the greatest city of the greatest empire the world had ever known and yet, looking at the capital from above, it was hard not to see the city as the rotten core of a rotten empire. He had no idea, he really didn’t, why so many people were allowed to waste their lives in the slums. It would be so much kinder to ship them to North America, Australia, or even to Africa.

    And this is when the city is shrouded in night, he thought, dully. It looks worse during the day.

    He sucked in his breath, shaking his head. His father had told him tales of London and he wished, almost, he’d never seen the reality. It was a shining city on a river and also a hellhole resting on a bog. The population were great and noble and yet also sullen and murderous. It was hard to believe Gwen had been born and raised in London, but then … he only had to look beyond the edge of the city to see aristocratic enslaves, islands of greenery threatened by the ever-advancing tidal wave of civilisation. The great mansions weren’t castles, not by any stretch of the imagination, but they might as well be, given how they protected the inhabitants from the reality of the world surrounding them. There’d been changes, he’d been told, after the Swing …

    … And yet, from high above, it seemed nothing had changed in years.

    Something moved, below him. Bruce darted to one side, gritting his teeth as he felt magic trying to envelop him. Two – no, three – figures were flying towards him, their hands raised as they steered magical force in a bid to grab and crush his magic. The spikes of raw power were meant to panic him, hinting it was a matter of seconds before his power failed and he plunged to the ground. Bruce refused to allow himself to be intimidated as he called on his own magic, snatching a fireball out of nowhere and hurling it at the lead figure. It should have forced the man to concentrate on his own defence, to wrap himself in power rather than try to snatch Bruce out of the air, but instead the fireball exploded harmlessly against an invisible wall. Bruce felt a flicker of wry amusement. It was hard not to be impressed at how well the three magicians – all Movers – worked together. One to carry the three into the air, one to defend them, one to attack. It might just work.

    Bruce took a breath and dissolved his magic. They expect him to either go on the offensive himself or try to flee. Instead, gravity took effect and he plummeted downwards. The magicians seemed to hesitate, unsure if they’d done more than they’d intended or if he was trying to con them. Bruce took full advantage, wrapping his power around him to ensure he fell faster and further. They’d be after him in a moment – he was surprised they weren’t already giving chase – but he had a few seconds. He dropped into the alleyway, gritting his teeth as he channelled all his power into a dead stop. He would have survived the landing if he’d come down hard, but the impact would have been impossible for even a blind man to miss. The rest of the magicians were out there somewhere, hunting him … he kept moving, keeping his head down as he flew through the alleyways. A handful of homeless people scattered as he kept moving … he felt a twinge of guilt, combined with the grim awareness they could easily have signed up to sail abroad instead. British North America was always looking for new colonists, particularly ones hungry for land and money of their own. He hoped they’d think about it, as he darted through an even darker alleyway. The ladies of the night waved at him …

    He sensed the spike of power, an instant before the bolt impacted on his magic. For a second, the darkened alleyway was as brightly lit as the Royal College. He caught sight of two magicians ahead of him, both aiming their fingers … he ducked instinctively as they directed streams of raw power at him, trying to batter down his defences by naked force. It was surprisingly inelegant, but it might just work … he reached out with his magic and yanked on nearly pieces of debris, picking them up and throwing them at the magicians. His lips quirked as they hastily started shooting the debris out of the air instead, rather than trying to duck. He had to admit it made a certain degree of sense. There was no way to be sure he wouldn’t steer the debris directly into someone’s chest. Perhaps it wouldn’t kill them, but they’d be bruised enough to make them regret tangling with him.

    The air twisted, as second later, as a swarm of … something brushed against him. His mind blanked – bees or wasps or … something – before he realised it was animated dust. It didn’t seem dangerous, certainly not when compared to the more powerful magicians hunting him, but it made it difficult to see and he dreaded to think what it would do if it got into his mouth and lungs. Gritting his teeth, he ducked and put all his power into pushing the dust away from him. A wind rushed through the alleyway, knocking down one of the Blazers who’d been fool enough to stand up again. Bruce barely noticed. He couldn’t see the Changer who’d animated the dust, nor the Infuser who’d probably assisted the bastard, and that meant there was no way to stop him doing the same thing again. Worse, the bright light had probably brought the Movers down on him too. If they hadn’t known where he was before, they sure as hell did now.

    No point in trying to hide, he thought. And that gives me options …

    He closed his eyes and drew on his magic, generating a blinding light. Someone cried out … it wouldn’t blind them permanently, he hoped, but they’d be blinking away tears long enough for him to get moving. The light vanished … he opened his eyes and looked forward, wincing in sympathy as he saw a magician rubbing his eyelids frantically. His partner raised a hand, directing a bolt of magic towards Bruce. Quick-witted enough to close his eyes, Bruce reflected, or simply lucky enough to be looking away from the light before it had snapped out of existence. It didn’t matter. The rest of the magicians were briefly stunned, long enough for Bruce to fly straight at the Blazer and knock him down. Again.

    There was no time to savour his brief victory. Bruce kept moving, staying low rather than risk the skies. There would be too great a risk of being spotted, even though the darkness and smog should have hidden him perfectly. And yet … he ducked, sharply, as the world seemed to explode around him. The three Movers dropped down, their power lashing out like a hurricane. Bruce barely had a second to keep his head down as they threw enough bricks and stone to make an entire house at him, chunks of debris slamming into his magic and making him wince in pain. In theory, his defences were impregnable. In practice, enough hammering could and would bring them down.

    Damn it, he thought. It was hard to see clearly in the semi-darkness, but it looked as if the Movers were fighting blind. They shouldn’t be able to see him, let alone actually fight. There was something weirdly unfocused about their power, but … they were still fighting with surprising effectiveness. If he stood still, they’d zero in on his position and take him down. How are they doing it?

    His mind raced, considering the options. Were they Masters? Bruce would have bet his inheritance they were nothing of the sort, not when the Royal Sorcerers Corps had spent years trying to avoid making the decision to recruit Lady Gwen. They would have happily left her to rot if they’d had any alternative. Hell, Bruce knew there were quite a few magicians who chafed at the thought of taking orders from a woman, and a mere girl at that. The only other Master was Bruce himself and the senior magicians were still trying to decide if the disadvantages of him being American outweighed the advantages of having a penis. He rolled his eyes at the thought. Bastards. If they’d known precisely how Gwen and Bruce had met, they’d have had a collective heart attack. They really didn’t think …

    Understanding clicked as the Movers kept coming, their power reaching out to grab him. They were a team! The heavy hitters might have taken the lead in the bid to catch him, but their supporters weren’t far away. There’d be a Seer and a Talker – perhaps more than one – watching from a safe distance, coordinating the battle. The idea of surrendering control of his body and magic to anyone was unpleasant, and he doubted he could do it for anything, but the team had probably practiced long enough to overcome the instinctive reluctance to do anything of the sort. That they were using it in battle … they’d had to have spent months practicing. Bruce had to admit it was clever, and not something anyone would have reasonably expected.

    He tossed a handful of debris at them – he’d be astonished if it slowed them down for more than a few moments, but every second counted - and reached out with his mind. Gwen was the expert, when it came to the mental talents. She had a precision he could only admire, a degree of control he’d thought impossible before meeting her. Bruce suspected it had something to do with their upbringing. He’d been raised as a young man – and it had been expected he’d inherit his father’s title and lands – while she’d been raised as a young woman, someone who’d be married off for best advantage after she was introduced to High Society. She’d never been supposed to use her powers openly …

    Got you, he thought. The Talkers hadn’t tried to latch onto Bruce’s mind directly – he was sure he would have felt them reading his thoughts, even if he was in the middle of a battle – but he could still feel them, right on the edge of his awareness. They were closer than he’d expected or at least they felt that way. The mental magics behaved oddly where distance was involved, in ways that didn’t quite make sense. Did you come to share the danger or do you have to be close to use your powers effectively?

    It didn’t matter. He drew on his power, broadcasting a disruptive thought into the air. No normal person, magician or no, would so much as notice its presence, but a Talker would be sent reeling by the sheer wrongness of the thought. It was like … he wasn’t sure how to put it into words … perhaps being hit in the face by human faeces, only worse. The blowback made him gag, even as the Movers staggered, their coordination gone. Bruce could do nothing about the Seer, if there really was a Seer, but it didn’t matter. There was no way for the Seer to keep the Movers informed, not now the Talkers were out of the game.

    Keep moving, he told himself. It wasn’t that long until daybreak. Don’t let them get a solid idea of where you are.

    He dropped to the ground and started to run, picking his way through the shadows with practiced ease. They’d be looking for someone flying, or wrapped in magic, rather than someone showing no visible signs of power. The confrontation had sent hundreds of people running in all directions, further confusing the searchers. It was quite possible he’d be able to walk right out of the cordon, as long as he kept his head down and doffed his forelock when he saw the searchers. His lips quirked at the thought. The hunters were proud men who considered themselves touched by God, even if they hadn’t been born to the very highest levels of the aristocracy. They’d have trouble wrapping their heads around someone pretending to be a powerless commoner.

    Which is a mistake on their part, he thought. The Sons of Liberty had had plenty of sources amongst the American aristocracy and almost all of them had been resentful servants. A commoner might pass unnoticed in a place an aristocrat would be spotted effortlessly.

    He slowed his movements as he felt questing mental probes rippling the air, trying to pose as a cripple. There was a decent chance he’d simply be overlooked in the confusion ... perhaps. It was impossible to be sure. Seers tended to be dangerously unpredictable and a Talker might latch onto his mental aura without ever realising their thoughts were brushing against a cripple’s mind. His thoughts hardened in disgust. It was technically illegal to read someone’s mind without their consent, or a court order, but the rule was honoured more in the breach than the observance. Gwen had told him, bitterly, that aristos who loudly proclaimed female magicians should never be trained to use their powers had few qualms about using their mind-reading daughters to give them an edge in negotiations, particularly when no one knew their children had magic. And …

    The world seemed to explode around him. Bruce hurled himself into the air as two waves of magic slammed together, where he’d been an instant ago. He realised his mistake a second later. There was no reason for a vagrant, someone down on his luck and sleeping on the streets, to have such tight mental discipline, particularly when he had no reason to think he’d need it. Perhaps he should have tried to put together a better cover story, but it wouldn’t have fooled the questing minds for long. He twisted his magic as the Movers closed in, sending a blast of raw power directly towards them while using a stream – almost a thread – of magic to yank him backwards, swinging from building to building. His old teacher hadn’t been strong in magic, unlike his charge, but he’d made up for it in ingenuity. Who needed to fly when you could swing through the air.

    He glanced at the sky. The first hints of dawn could be see, although it was hard to be sure of anything in perpetually gloomy London. He pushed out another mental broadcast, hopefully knocking the Talkers back down again. It wouldn’t take long for the Movers to realise they’d been conned … if they didn’t already know it, he’d be astonished. But as long as he stayed ahead of them, he should be fine. The flying magicians could catch up with him quickly – they could probably move faster than him – but everyone else would be restricted to shank’s pony. They couldn’t get into position unless the Movers slowed him down. And …

    Something struck him, hard. Bruce barely had a second to realise what was happening before he – they¬ – were plummeting to the ground. There was hardly any time to cushion the impact as the paving stones came up and hit him. The landing jarred him so violently it knocked the wind from his lungs. His attacker’s magic was tearing into his, shredding his defences and brushing against his bare skin. He tried to summon his power to counterattack, but it wasn’t enough. All he managed was to knock the hat from her head. Blonde hair spilled down and brushed against his hands.

    “Got you,” Gwen said.

    Bruce looked up at her. She was beautiful, despite her rather severe clothing carefully cut to hide as much of her figure as possible. His heart raced, his body suddenly very aware of hers pressing against his. His magic thrummed … he raised his head, their lips touching without conscious thought. It was hard, very hard, to break the kiss. And yet, he had no choice. If someone saw them kissing openly, before their marriage, it would ruin her. Bruce would take a terrible revenge, if he ever figured out who’d done it, but the damage would be beyond repair. They weren’t even allowed to hold hands in public.

    “You got me,” Bruce said. There was no point in denying it. “Are you going to let me breathe now?”

    Gwen rolled off him and stood, brushing down her dark outfit. “You did well,” she said, picking up her hat and putting it on her head. “There aren’t many people who can stay ahead of us for long.”

    “Thanks,” Bruce said. It was hard not to wonder if there really was an us. She didn’t normally fight as part of a team, let alone the first and greatest team of magicians in the known world. Merlin should have recruited her long ago and yet they hadn’t, while they’d extended an offer to Bruce with insulting speed. “What now?”

    “Now?” Gwen shrugged, then composed herself as the sound of running footsteps echoed towards them. “Now, we go over the chase, and then you and I have an appointment at the hall.”

    Bruce swallowed. “Do I really have to meet your parents?”

    Gwen laughed, but there was an edge to it. “I’m afraid so,” she said. “It won’t be easy to marry without their permission.”

    “Charming,” Bruce said. It was going to be a disaster. He knew it. “But anything for you.”
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two: Versailles, France

    Raechel Slater-Standish had thought, without irony, that she was a bad girl. Her parents had died when she’d been a child, leaving her in the care of a pair of guardians who cared more about propriety than the well-being of a young girl, never hesitating to punish her for failing to live up to their expectations. Raechel had rebelled, of course, as she grew into her teenage years, attending social clubs and dances properly brought up young women weren’t supposed to know existed. She’d been courted by everyone – her beauty and inheritance drawing men to her like flies – and she’d had few qualms about pushing the limits as far as they would go. The more her aunt lectured and punished, the more Raechel had been determined to be a free-thinking young woman …

    She knew, now, she’d been a child playing at being bad. In London, High Society was stodgy and dull and merciless to anyone caught breaking the rules, particularly if they were young women. In Versailles, High Society was an endless series of entertainments and social crazes and activities that would have given her aunt a heart attack, if she’d walked into the ballroom and gazed upon the youngsters enjoying themselves. Raechel wore a dress that exposed the tops of her breasts, and had a slit to reveal brief flashes of her shapely legs as she walked, but she was easily one of the more modest young women in the ballroom. She could see women practically topless, to all intents and purposes, and others who looked as if their dresses were about to fall off at any moment. Perhaps they were, part of her mind reflected wryly. It didn’t look as if they needed any encouragement.

    The young – and not so young – men weren’t any better. They wore fancy wigs and fancier uniforms, some carefully cut to reveal their muscles and others tailored to hide their paunches. Raechel had quietly decided, although it was hard to be sure, that anyone who had a chest covered in medals was only pretending to be a soldier …at least, they’d probably never seen any real action. The Franco-Spanish aristocracy was supposed to supply the great captains of tomorrow, the young men who’d lead their troops to victory over the enemies of their empire, but it wasn’t easy to balance the quest for glory with the risk of being killed in combat. There were no shortage of volunteers for safe postings, fewer willing to go into commands that might get them killed. Her lips twisted in disgust. An army didn’t just need generals and other high-ranking officers. It needed junior officers too and aristos willing to take on those roles were few and far between.

    Her lips twitched in cold amusement. The Bourbons didn’t make their own lives any easier when it came to filling out their armies. Technically, anyone who could claim aristocratic descent could demand a place at court; practically, many were too poor to buy commissions or simply too far from the main aristocratic bloodlines to command postings of real authority. They just couldn’t be trusted. It was hard, sometimes, not to look around the court and see quiet desperation under the painted smiles. The men and women in front of her clung to their aristocratic descent because it was all they had. They were nothing without it.

    And there are so many aristos out there that it is easy to insert one or two more into the lists, she thought, her lips twitching as she nodded politely to an older woman. They didn’t even notice!

    She smiled. She’d doubted her cover story would stand up to strict scrutiny when she reached Versailles, but no one had batted an eyelid when she’d presented her papers and explained she was the daughter of an aristo who’d left court under a cloud and died without ever regaining his position. She knew that wouldn’t last, if she got too close to someone actually important, but that was unlikely too. There were no shortage of young women with aristo backgrounds coming to court in the hopes of making a good match, only to discover the best they could hope for was becoming a powerful man’s mistress. They just didn’t have the money to overcome the simple fact they hadn’t been raised at Versailles and didn’t have anything to offer those who had.

    And just paying them all pensions is a major drain on the empire’s funds, Raechel thought, wryly. She’d been taught as little as possible about money – her guardians had clearly envisaged continuing to handle her affairs, even after she was married off to a young man of their choosing – but even she could tell that thousands of relatively small pensions added up to a hell of a lot of money. The Bourbons would be better off telling them to go seek their fortune overseas …

    A hand grabbed her arm. “Raechel,” a voice said. “That’s where you are!”

    Raechel kept her face under tight control. Louis – he had claimed a title others argued he had no right to – was a mid-ranking cavalry officer who seemed to spend most of his time at court, rather than leading his men into combat. He was handsome enough, she supposed, but his behaviour made the great rakes back home look like the stodgiest of men. His hand pressed against her back as he pulled her into the dance, drifting downwards until it was practically touching her buttocks. Raechel found it hard not to react. They were in public and … she shook her head. There were couples practically making love on the dance floor.

    She kept her mouth shut and her ears open as they moved around the room. People talked openly, sharing rumours that veered from the possible to the downright insane. The French armies had taken London and were marching on Edinburgh. No, the armies had taken Edinburgh and were marching on London. Russian troops were passing through Afghanistan to invade India … no, Afghanistan had swallowed the Russian army as effortlessly as it had swallowed every other invasion force since Alexander the Great. Raechel doubted that one was even remotely true. She’d been in Russia, before the war, and seen how the country had collapsed into anarchy. It was unlikely the country had much hope of invading anyone in a hurry.

    “My unit might be going to Spain soon,” Louis said, softly. “Do you want to wish me well?”

    Raechel shrugged. She suspected Louis would not be accompanying his unit, no matter where it went. He was just trying to get her to sleep with him … hardly a mortal sin in the court, unlike High Society back home, but she knew his type. He’d pay court to her until she gave him what he wanted, then she’d never see him again. And if he got her pregnant … sure, there were ways to avoid pregnancy, but none of them were particularly reliable. And there was no way in hell she could marry him.

    She pretended not to hear as her eyes swept the giant ballroom. A handful of familiar faces were gathered at the head of the room, talking in low voices. There was a gulf between them and the rest of the grandees, between the ones with true power and ones who had nothing but names and bloodlines. She saw a handful of men and women eying them with envious eyes, clearly unable or unwilling to hide their desperation. They wanted something solid, something they could rely on, and yet they’d never get it. Their time was running out and what did they have to show for it? Nothing.
    Louis tightened his grip. “I said …”

    A loud BANG echoed through the ballroom. Raechel spun around as the crowd rustled in front of her, the first clue the explosion wasn’t part of the planned entertainments. A man – so beaten down by life it was hard to tell how old he was – stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at them with wild eyes. Smoke billowed behind him, the last remnants of something he’d done to distract the guards. Raechel braced herself, half expecting the menfolk to charge the anarchist while the women made their escape. The powerful people were already slipping to the rear.

    “THE PEOPLE WANT BREAD,” the anarchist screamed. His voice echoed louder than Raechel would have considered humanly possible. Magic? The Bourbons claimed that there were no lower-class magicians, but Rachel knew for a fact they were lying. They’d helped Jack in his mad plan to topple the British Government, over a year ago. “THE PEOPLE WANT PEACE! THE PEOPLE WANT FREEDOM!”

    He stood taller, his coat opening to reveal the gunpowder bags wrapped around his chest. Raechel sensed, more than saw, the crowd starting to back away. The ballroom was vast, but the doors were small. It was impossible for more than a handful of people to get out before the anarchist blew them all to hell. She felt Louis freeze beside her, unable to decide if he should shield her from the blast or simply run for his life. His first real brush with danger, she suspected. God knew, she hadn’t handled her first encounter with actual danger so well.

    Her mind raced. How much gunpowder had he packed into those bags? How many metal fragments had he added, to make sure they were blasted right across the room? The guards could shoot him at any moment, but would that trigger the blast? She didn’t know … she feared the worst. Her eyes flickered to the floor … could she get down in time? At least her dress wouldn’t get in the way. There were ladies with dresses so complex they couldn’t take them off without help, so widespread they were practically holding the wearer upright. She doubted they could tear them off before it was too late.

    “AND MOST OF ALL,” the anarchist boomed, “THEY WANT TO BE RID OF YOU! DEATH TO THE ARISTOS!”

    His hands slapped against his chest. His form exploded, the blast roaring outwards … and stopping, dead. Raechel heard people fainting behind her … for a moment, her own legs buckled before her mind caught up with what was happening. There was a Mover in the audience, a magician who’d wrapped the anarchist in an invisible sphere of magic. The blast hadn’t gotten very far at all. Louis shivered beside her as the blast faded and vanished, the bloody remains of the mad bomber falling to the stone floor. The cleaners would mop it up – they had practice in removing blood and vomit from the floor – and then it would be gone, along with all evidence of the man’s existence. By tomorrow, the story would probably have grown to the point no one believed it. And then …

    “Well,” Louis said. “That was exciting, wasn’t it?”

    Raechel felt a surge of naked hatred as the crowd started to chatter, sharing tales about the whole incident that were already growing in the telling. If he’d thrown her to the ground and shielded her, she would have appreciated it … instead, he’d just stood there like an idiot until it had been too late to do anything. The aristos around her were already dismissing the threat, laughing at the idiot of an anarchist who’d blown himself up. They were pretending the threat hadn’t been real – had never been real. Didn’t they realise how close many of them had come to death?

    “He was a fool,” Louis said. His lips pressed far too close to her ear. “What would have happened to the country if he’d actually blown us all up?”

    It would run a lot smoother, Raechel thought nastily, and have a lot more money.

    She bit her lip to keep from saying it out loud. The Franco-Spanish Bourbon Empire was the single greatest threat to the British Empire, now the Russians were fighting a multisided civil war. They’d already landed one army on English soil and no one expected them to be deterred by the invasion’s failure, not now they didn’t have to worry about being stabbed in the back by the Russians. There were already new ironclads taking shape in the shipyards – Raechel had gathered the details from a dockyard owner trying to impress a pretty girl – and she dreaded to think what would happen if they set sail. The French would need a lot of luck to get a second army over the channel, but they’d only have to be lucky once.

    Her eyes wandered back towards the stairwell. The servants were nearly finished mobbing away the remains, the aristos studiously ignoring them. Raechel wondered, idly, how many of them were spies, paid by the king and his court to keep a close eye on the aristocrats as they partied their lives away. It wasn’t impossible. She knew from experience no one paid attention to servants and even when the risk was pointed out to them, tended to dismiss it. And yet … her heart seemed to skip a beat as she spotted a tanned man watching the servants, his expression unreadable. He looked like a don and yet … there was something about him that wasn’t quite right.

    She nudged Louis. “Who’s that?”

    “That’s Duke Philippe,” Louis said. There was an hint of envy in his voice. “Kinsman to the king, they say. He’s a very important man.”

    I have no doubt of it, Raechel thought, darkly. It was irritating she couldn’t pump Louis for more precise answers, but it was better he thought of her as a silly little girl rather than an intelligent women. She was sure half the simpering women on the ballroom floor were doing the same thing, hiding their intelligence to make themselves seem less of a threat to the men. And what does he do for the king?

    She contemplated it for a long moment. French aristocratic politics had been hard enough to follow, she’d been told, even before the Spanish and Latin American aristos had been added to the mix. Being close to the king was very much a mixed blessing. On one hand, you had the best choice of assignments and military commands; on the other, you’d be regarded as a potential usurper, someone with the bloodline to take the throne if the king appeared to be weak or vulnerable. She wondered if Duke Philippe had any designs on the throne. If he was a magician, and someone had clearly stopped the anarchist from blowing up the entire ballroom, he’d have one hell of a edge. Who knew what he’d do with it?

    “Come,” Louis said. “My room isn’t that far away.”

    Raechel groaned inwardly. Louis was pulling at her and she couldn’t break free, not without causing a scene. She had some tricks up her sleeve, if he insisted on a private party, but none of them were guaranteed to work. Once they were alone, he’d get much more insistent on finally going all the way … Raechel tried not to shudder. She was no virgin – she’d given her maidenhead up out of pure spite, after a particularly sharp lecture from her aunt – but the thought of sleeping with a cowardly fop bothered her.

    “Raechel!” A hand caught hers and yanked her away from Louis. “I’ve been looking for you all night!”

    Raechel blinked, then hastily organised her thoughts into disciplined rows as she recognised her unexpected saviour. Lady Simone … they’d met before, in Russia. And she was a mind-reading magician. Raechel tried not to cringe as Simone led her away, ignoring Louis’s muted protests. Simone was head and shoulders above him and … Raechel snorted inwardly. Louis wouldn’t be in any real trouble. Her, on the other hand … if Simone had recognised her, or started listening to her thoughts, Raechel might be in very deep trouble indeed. Her tutors had made it clear, months ago, that if she was caught she’d be lucky to be merely arrested and thrown out of the country.

    “I know the oaf,” Simone said, tightly. “I thought you could use a hand.”

    “Thank you,” Raechel managed. If things had been different, she could have believed Simone was just a girl helping out another girl who’d managed to get herself into hot water. But she knew better. “I …”

    Simone tapped her lips. “No need to thank me,” she said. “Just do me the honour of listening.”

    Raechel braced herself, steeling her thoughts as best as she could. She was as intensely focused as they came, or so she’d been assured, and yet she had no magic. There were limits to how much she could do to keep Simone out of her thoughts … she glowered at the girl’s back, wondering if she should knock Simone out and run. There were contingency plans … besides, young women fleeing the court in varying levels of undress were hardly unknown.

    “This room is private,” Simone said, as they entered a bedroom. “And they’ll be expecting us to make good use of the bed.”

    “Oh,” Raechel said. She knew it was possible for a woman to make love to another woman, or a man to make love to a man, but she’d never seen it. The whole concept was regarded with muted horror back home, even though some of England’s kings had been more fond of their male companions than their queens. “Why did you …?”

    Simone sat on the bed and met Raechel’s eyes. For the first time, Raechel saw a hint of desperation within the other girl’s dark orbs. Simone wanted – needed – her to listen. And that meant … Raechel had met her fair share of battered wives, women pretending everything was fine even as the bruises were clearly visible on their skins, and Simone reminded her far too much of them. And that meant … what?

    “I know you’re a spy,” Simone said. “And …”

    “And what?” Raechel had been almost certain her cover had been blown – Simone really had met her before she’d become an intelligence agent – but it still felt like a slap to hear it said so boldly. “What do you want?”

    “I want you to send a message to London,” Simone said. “I need your help.”
     
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three: London, England

    Gwen sat, resting her hands on her lap, and kept her thoughts to herself.

    It would have been easier to simply fly to Crichton Hall. Easier, perhaps, but … it would have been quicker. Much quicker. In truth, she wasn’t looking forward to the coming discussion at all. She was a young woman who really shouldn’t have accepted a man’s offer of marriage without consulting her parents – hell, Bruce shouldn’t have offered to marry her without asking her father first. She’d bent propriety into a twisted mess by not heading straight to the hall, as soon as they returned to England. Sure, she had her duties to attend to, but she could have made time for her family …

    Her hands toyed with her trousers. She stilled them with an effort. There was no point in revealing her nervousness. Her parents weren’t bad, not compared to some others in High Society, but they’d find ways to object to the marriage if they took a dislike to her prospective husband. God alone knew what the lawyers would say. The martial settlement would be a nightmare, not least because Gwen had money and property of her own and the legal right to use it as she pleased. She was legally a man, in many ways, and her detractors hadn’t hesitated to point it out. It wouldn’t be long before someone started hinting Bruce was legally a woman. Her lips twisted in disgust. The Trouser Brigade had the right idea. It was high time women had the legal right to own property and keep their own money.

    Bruce caught her eye. “There’s always Gretna Green.”

    Gwen smiled, wanly. They could fly north to Scotland and get married there … but there would be hell to pay. Probably. There was no way she could be cut off from her own property – it didn’t matter what her parents would settle on her, not when she was already wealthy – but people would talk. She rubbed her forehead in irritation. People always talked. It hadn’t taken her long to realise that the most bellicose of men – and women – were the ones in no personal danger. The worst of society’s ladies were always the ones who couldn’t be knocked down a peg or two.

    “They’ll love you,” she said, although she feared the worst. Bruce came from decent stock – his father was the Governor-General of America – and yet, he was more American than British. Gwen found it refreshing, but her parents might simply not know what to make of him. “And we have to give them a chance to accept you.”

    She felt the butterflies in her stomach grow worse as the carriage turned into the driveway and headed up to the hall. Properly brought up young women did not travel alone with young men, let alone … her stomach twisted as she remembered the moment they’d made love after fighting the enemy magicians. She didn’t regret it, not really, but it could easily have had dangerous repercussions. If she’d gotten pregnant … she thought she was safe, yet it was hard to be sure. Her periods had always been so faint she’d been surprised to be told other women cramped so badly they had to stay in bed. But then, she was a Master Magician. She might easily have been healing herself without knowing what she was doing.

    The carriage rattled to a halt. Gwen heard someone shouting outside and braced herself. She’d fought enemy magicians. She’d flown into the path of enemy guns. Why was facing her parents so … so terrifying? It wasn’t as if their disapproval really mattered, in the long run? There was no point in threatening to settle nothing on her when she had money of her own. And yet … she stood as the coachman opened the door and stepped back, allowing her to descend. She wanted her parents to approve and that was all there was to it.

    And they’ll turn the wedding into the social event of the year, she thought, morbidly. It won’t be about us …

    Crichton Hall rose up in front of her, the butler standing on the steps to welcome her home. She heard Bruce suck in his breath behind her ... she tried, just for a moment, to see the mansion through his eyes. It was surprisingly big, for a relatively small family, but Gwen’s parents had been reluctant to try for a third child. The rumours about her had made it hard for them to risk bringing another baby into the world, or so she’d been told. Perhaps their marriage was sexless, now they’d done their duty … she cut that train of thought off before it could go any further. She knew her parents must have had sex twice, but she didn’t want to think about it.

    “Impressive,” Bruce said. “How old is the hall?”

    Gwen hesitated. “The hall has been in existence, in one former another, for over five hundred years,” she said. “It was rebuilt twice, the second time by Bess of Hardwick, and there weren’t many additions since then.”

    She forced her legs to move and walked up the steps. The butler bowed deeply – she couldn’t help noticing there were more streaks of grey in his hair – and nodded to the maids behind him, who eyed Gwen warily as they hurried to the carriage to collect the bags. Gwen didn’t recognise them, unsurprisingly. Crichton Hall had always had problems attracting maids, after the rumours about the family’s witchy daughter had started to spread. Gwen had never turned a maid into a toad – that wasn’t even possible – but when had rumours needed a basis in truth? There was a girl who’d been exiled from High Society for something she’d supposedly done two years before her birth.

    “My Lady,” the butler said. “Lord and Lady Crichton are waiting in the drawing room.”

    “Thank you, Woodstown,” Gwen said. She felt a twinge of unease as she stepped into the hallway. It didn’t feel like home any longer. “We can find our own way.”

    The butler nodded and stepped back. Gwen suspected he was privately relieved. Servants saw and heard everything and the prospect of being caught between a pair of parents and their daughter had to worry him. Woodstown had been with the family for decades – he’d been in their service well before Gwen’s birth – and yet, if the hall changed hands, he might be cast out as easily as a piece of rotting meat. He was dependent on them and yet …

    Gwen kept walking, feeling the hall humming around her. The drawing room was neutral territory, neither her father’s study nor the more intimate chambers further into the hall. She hoped that was a good sign. If they’d wanted to meet in more formal surroundings, or even somewhere outside the hall, it would have been a very bad sign indeed. She paused outside the door, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, and looked at Bruce. His face was so calm and composed Gwen knew he was nervous. She’d met enough young aristocrats, desperate not to let the side down, to know what nervousness looked like.

    And Bruce really did go into battle, she reminded herself. There was no need to worry her family with all the details, particularly his ties to the Sons of Liberty. That’s more than can be said for quite a few other potential suitors.

    She pushed the door open. The drawing room hadn’t changed at all. There were two comfortable sofas, a simple yet elegant table, a writing desk pressed against the far wall and – looming over the room – a portrait of the first Lord Crichton, a man who’d been born in the reign of Henry V and died after the rise of Henry VI. Reading between the lines in the family archives, Gwen suspected he’d been a trimmer who’d been careful to keep his options open to make sure he could switch sides, when the time came, without being forced to pay by his former allies. He wasn’t the only one, she reflected. A surprising number of noble families from that era had made a habit out of turning their coats, whenever one side appeared to be in the ascendant, and then turning them back again whenever the tide turned.

    “Gwen,” Lord Rudolf Crichton said. “Welcome home.”

    “Thank you, Father,” Gwen said. Lord Rudolf was a decent father, if stuffy and boring and somewhat unimaginative. “Please, allow me to introduce Bruce Rochester, my fiancée.”

    Her mother stood. Gwen braced herself, again. Lady Mary Crichton could be … difficult, at times, veering between enough formality to make her husband seem a rake and an zany enthusiasm that made it impossible to follow her thoughts. Gwen still cringed at the memory of her mother trying to arrange her marriage when she’d been eight, although thankfully that hadn’t managed to get far enough for papers to be signed before the prospective husband’s family had had second thoughts and pulled out. The marriage wouldn’t have been real until they’d matured, of course, but it could have become a legal nightmare if the final documents had been signed and sealed. And then her mother had thought she should set her cap at Master Thomas …

    “Well,” Lady Mary said, looking Bruce up and down. “Your father is Marquess of Swanhaven, is he not?”

    “Indeed he is,” Bruce said. Gwen thought she detected a hint of pompous amusement in his tone. “And Governor-General of British America.”

    Lady Mary nodded. “And your mother?”

    “She was American, but of good colonial stock,” Bruce said. “My father never spoke an ill word about her.”

    “That is always good to hear,” Lady Mary said. She motioned for Gwen and Bruce to sit, then sat herself. “And yourself …?”

    “I am first in line to inherit my father’s lands and titles,” Bruce said. “I already hold several thousand in the funds, as I am sure you are aware.”

    Lady Mary didn’t bother to deny it. The moment she’d received word Gwen had engaged herself to Bruce, without even bothering to consult her parents, she would have hired agents to look into Bruce’s background, finances and general health. Gwen wondered, idly, what they’d reported back to their mistress. Bruce’s father was of very good stock, as far as the nobility were concerned, but his mother was a direct descendent of Benjamin Franklin. He might have been officially pardoned, after the defeat of the American rebels, and taken up a role in the post-war government, yet … her lips twitched in cold amusement. Bruce took after his grandfather more than anyone would care to admit.

    “We are aware,” Lord Rudolf said. Gwen suspected her father felt a little blindsided. He’d normally have more time to consider his response to his daughter’s planned marriage. “You are aware, of course, that Gwen has an older brother?”

    Gwen stiffened. Bruce showed no visible reaction. “Yes, My Lord.”

    “There are limits, of course, to what we can settle on her,” Lord Rudolf continued. “The hall itself, and many of our other properties, are entailed and must remain with the family, passed down to our oldest son. It isn’t quite clear what will happen if David dies without issue, given Gwen’s curious legal status, and there is no guarantee the matter will be resolved in a hurry.”

    Bruce leaned forward. “I quite understand,” he said. “I do have, as you know, sufficient monies to maintain your daughter in a reasonable manner. I am not given to gambling or drinking, nor do I or my father have significant debts that require constant servicing. As a government servant, I am paid a reasonable salary and, when my father passes on, I will inherit his lands and titles. In short, I am not marrying your daughter for your money – or hers – and I have no intention of laying claim to her marriage settlement.”

    His lips twisted into a smile. “Does that address all your concerns?”

    Gwen saw her mother smile, just for a second before she hid it behind her hand. Bruce had cut right through the nonsense, right though the delicate questioning to determine if Bruce was, in some ways, utterly unsuitable for marriage. She found it hard to hide her own amusement, even though she knew her father meant well. There were too many rakes who sought to marry money and to hell with the girl, who often found herself effectively abandoned when the money ran out. It was a little insulting – she could take care of herself – but it came from a good place. Really.

    Lord Rudolf stiffened. “Gwen is my daughter,” he said. “It is important to me that she is happy in her marriage.”

    “Thank you, Father,” Gwen said. Only a very sharp ear would have detected a hint of sarcasm in her tone. The faint twitch crossing her mother’s face suggested she had heard it. “I appreciate your concern for me.”

    “It is important that you be happy,” Lord Rudolf said. “And all the more so given your … position.”

    Gwen kept her thoughts to herself. Her father would have married her off without a second thought, if she’d had the courtesy to be born without magic. Not through malice, she knew, but the results would have been much the same. Her husband might have been staid and boring or cruel and abusive … it wouldn’t have mattered, as long as the marriage delivered what her father wanted. There were times when she envied the freedom Irene Adler and her peers knew, even though it came with a high price. They didn’t have to worry about getting married off to a near-stranger.

    Or not getting married at all, she thought. Father would have worried about that too.

    She cleared her throat. “We will be happy,” she said. “And there is very little else at stake.”

    Her father nodded, shortly. David would inherit nearly everything. There was no real need to draw up a detailed marriage settlement, not when Gwen didn’t stand to get anything beyond a few thousand pounds. Not that that would stop him, of course. He’d want to make sure the families were tied closely together. Bruce’s father was actually higher up the social ladder than Gwen’s, even though he’d married an American. And that would raise her father’s status too.

    “Very good,” Lady Mary said. She reached for the silver bell and rang it once. “Perhaps we should have some tea.”

    Gwen nodded, leaning back against the sofa cushions. She was tempted to reach out and squeeze Bruce’s hand, but her mother would have fainted or … Gwen sighed inwardly, telling herself she wouldn’t have to wait long. They might have problems being alone together without someone noticing – if they weren’t being watched constantly, she’d eat her hat – but once they were married no one would say a word. Probably. She forced herself to wait as the maid entered, carrying a tray of tea and cakes. The poor girl had probably been waiting for the bell. Gwen hoped her mother was paying the maid well.

    “The fighting in America has calmed down a little,” Lord Rudolf said, as the tea brewed. “Are you still planning to return to Mexico?”

    “I’ve been told I’ll be going with the army,” Bruce said. It was an open secret an army was being prepared for departure. Its destination was supposed to be a secret, but everyone knew it was going to the Americas. “The French are apparently reeling from the defeat we gave them in the Americas and the Duke of India wants to hit them before they can recover.”

    “We intend to marry shortly before the army departs,” Gwen put in. “I trust that meets with your approval?”

    Lady Mary poured the tea, then handed it out. “There’ll be less time than I would hope to plan a proper wedding,” she said. “Is there a reason for such haste?”

    Gwen felt her cheeks heat at the unsubtle implication. “Mother, our duties will keep us apart from time to time,” she said. The idea of her staying at home, waiting for her husband to come home, was just absurd. “We do not need a big wedding.”

    “But it may serve a purpose beyond your marriage,” Lord Rudolf said. “Do you not want to make it a society event?”

    Gwen resisted the urge to point out that High Society had done its level best to pretend she didn’t exist for years. There was nothing to be gained from hosting a wedding that had to be open to everyone who considered themselves important, from her closest friends to her worst enemies. Her father might see it as a networking opportunity, a chance to have private chats with ministers he couldn’t been seen with elsewhere, but her … she sighed, inwardly, as she realised her mother would remain adamant. She wanted – needed – her chance to be the mother of the bride. And if David never got married …

    “I would prefer a simple wedding,” she said, finally. It was going to be a pain. She could justify excluding her detractors if she restricted the guest list to friends and family alone, but otherwise … “And I see no reason to allow my wedding to be turned into a political football.”

    “You are a political figure,” Lord Rudolf pointed out, calmly. “And so is your future husband.”

    Gwen tried not to make a face. He had a point. She was the Royal Sorceress and Bruce was next in line to Swanhaven, as well as being a magician in his own right. There’d be people feeling slighted if she declined to invite them, damn it. And yet …

    “We can hold a ball later, after the war,” she said, although she suspected she was going to lose the argument. “But now, we shouldn’t make a big show of it.”

    “People will talk,” Lady Mary said, flatly. “And you know it.”

    “Yes,” Gwen agreed. She thought she knew, now, why so many women threw fits over their weddings. There were just too many people offering advice that was nothing of the sort and suggestions that were nothing more than orders. “They do nothing else.”
     
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four: Versailles, France

    It was a misnomer, Raechel Slater-Standish had discovered years ago, to think of Versailles as just another palace. Buckingham Palace was a palace, a large building in the centre of the city; Versailles was practically a small town, with the palace surrounded by a handful of other palaces, mansions, army barracks, servant quarters and parklands, the latter veering between beautiful gardens to a mock peasant village that was about as realistic as her cover. Raechel had seen peasant villages, during her journey to Versailles, and none of them looked anything like as fanciful. Or as clean. It was proof, if she’d needed it, that the monarchy and aristocracy of the Bourbon Empire had long since lost touch with their people. They didn’t even have the wit to live in Paris!

    She walked through the gardens, keeping her eyes open for signs she was being watched or followed. There were more guards everywhere, from finely-dressed guardsmen in ceremonial dress to soldiers in combat uniforms. Horsemen galloped up and down, so intent on protecting the royal complex – and making sure a second anarchist didn’t get through the defences – that they didn’t even look twice at her. Raechel suspected someone in authority had lit a fire under their rears. The next anarchist might be lucky enough to take out a bunch of dancing aristocrats.

    And someone probably had their head cut off for their failure. Raechel thought. It wasn’t that hard to get through the outer defences, but into the palace itself? Their replacement must be determined not to let the same thing happen on his watch.

    She sobered as she circumvented the gardens and made her way down to the residential suites. They were small grey buildings, designed to remind the common-born guests that, no matter how much money they had, they would never be nobility. Raechel kept her thoughts to herself as she spotted a pair of noblemen ahead of her, sneaking into the district so obviously it was unlikely they hadn’t been spotted a long time ago. She wondered, idly, what they were doing. Perhaps they were going to the brothel. It was supposed to be easy to find a willing partner at court, but some people had tastes that would revolt even a courtier. Or maybe they were keeping an eye on her …

    Her eyes flickered from side to side. The vast majority of the female courtiers were in the gardens, enjoying a pleasant summer day. Their menfolk were with their regiments, playing at being soldiers, or heading to the gambling dens before returning to the palaces. There weren’t many people within eyeshot, although that was meaningless. She’d been taught how to shadow someone without making it obvious and she dared not assume her French counterparts hadn’t had the same training. They controlled the entire complex. They certainly had enough manpower to rotate watchers so she never realised she was being watched.

    I could be making a mistake, she thought, as she turned into the dressmakers avenue. If Simone was lying to me …

    She swallowed, hard. Simone had certainly sounded as if she were telling the truth … but she might just be a very good liar. Mind-readers were extremely capable liars, not least because they could pluck the right answer from the target’s mind or simply adapt their approach to suit the target’s prejudices. Raechel thought her mental defences had kept her thoughts private, but it was impossible to be sure. Simone was probably very good at reading people even without her magic. She’d been trained by one of the wiliest men in Europe and then given a chance to show what she could do.

    The dressmaker’s shop was unmarked. Raechel bowed her head, trying to look as though she was sneaking into the shop, as if anyone spotting her would be the end of the world. It might, this time. In London, the very best dressmakers never advertised. Their clientele liked the thought of exclusivity, of never having to share their dressmaker with anyone else. Here … the dressmakers were cheap, by local standards, and only patronised by financially embarrassed aristocratic women. Raechel’s lips quirked in grim amusement. If someone saw her in the shop, they’d deny it till their dying day.

    They’d have to admit they were patronising the shop too, she thought. And that would mean they were too poor to afford full-priced dresses.

    She took a long breath as she closed the door behind her and looked around, drinking in the sight of piles upon piles of dresses and dressmaking material, the former sold or donated by the wealthy aristocrats to help their impoverished brethren. It seemed a sick joke to her – the dresses in front of her, even the tattered, torn and strained garments, could have fed a poor family for weeks – but it was courtly life, a façade of wealth and power concealing a reality of poverty and powerlessness. She supposed that explained why so many noblemen and women came to court to leech off the king, no matter the cost to the kingdom. They simply couldn’t afford to support themselves back home.

    “My Lady,” Irene Adler said, stepping out of the shadows. Raechel felt a questing mind touch hers, just enough to confirm her identity. “I trust you enjoyed wearing the previous gown?”

    Raechel smiled, looking her mentor up and down. Irene Adler was a social chameleon, someone who could don a noblewoman’s clothes one day and a washerwoman’s the next and assume the role as easily, as effortlessly, as she put on the clothes. She made a very convincing dressmaker, even though the role was incredibly challenging. Raechel had heard teenage aristos throwing fits because their dresses weren’t perfect or didn’t have enough tassels or gold lace or … she refused to consider she’d been a little like them, once upon a time. If she hadn’t found something to do with her life, who knew what would have become of her?

    “It was divine,” she said. “Do we have time to do a proper fitting?”

    Irene nodded and stepped past her to put the CLOSED sign into place. No one would think anything of it. They’d know the shop wasn’t really closed, but they’d also know the customer didn’t want to be seen inside the shop. Raechel sighed, although she knew it made more sense than she’d thought, the first time she’d been told how she was going to keep in touch with her superior. One had to keep up appearances, if one was of noble blood.

    “We should be safe to talk,” Irene said. “I have an appointment at two, however.”

    “And I need to be gone beforehand,” Raechel agreed. Whoever was coming really wouldn’t want to be seen. “We have a problem.”

    She took a breath, then outlined everything that had happened the previous night. “I think she’s telling the truth,” she said, finally. “But it’s hard to be sure.”

    Irene looked, just for a moment, as if she’d bitten into something sour. “Can you confirm Ambassador Talleyrand was actually executed?”

    “There was no formal announcement,” Raechel said. “But everyone knows he had his head cut off.”

    “Odd,” Irene said. “He wasn’t exactly popular. The king could easily have blamed everything that happened, over the last two years, on the ambassador and used his death as an excuse to change course.”

    Raechel wasn’t so sure. The Bourbons were facing a nightmarish dilemma. They’d demanded huge sacrifices from their people, first to build up an army and navy to challenge Britain and then to fight a war on multiple fronts. If they lost the war, or even came to terms short of total victory, who knew how their people would react? And if the various nationalist and ethnic fractures within the empire started to crack …

    “They need to win,” she said, finally. “And if Simone is right, they’re getting desperate.”

    “If,” Irene said. “Do you trust her?”

    “I think she was telling the truth, as she knew it,” Raechel said. “But she could have been lying to me, or she could have been lied to herself …”

    “True.” Irene picked up a dress and frowned at the shoddy patchwork, “If she knew about you, she could have come after me. That she didn’t is … indicative.”

    Raechel shivered. It wasn’t fair dealing with mind-readers. Simone could have been shadowing Raechel, reading her thoughts as they passed through her head … if she’d picked up one hint about Irene, she could have unravelled the rest of the network very quickly and then … Raechel swallowed, wondering if Simone and her backers were just waiting for the rest of the network to be exposed before they swooped down and rolled it up. She had no illusions about her fate, if she was caught. The odds of her ever getting home would be very low.

    “She asked for help, on behalf of her allies,” Raechel said. “Do we pass the word to our superiors?”

    Irene said nothing for a long moment. “It would be very much in character – would have been – for Talleyrand to be perfectly aware of who was plotting rebellion in Paris,” she said, slowly. “He was just the sort of person who’d keep communications links open, just to make sure he’d come out on top if the rebels turned into revolutionaries and took control of the entire country. It’s also possible he told her what he knew, or she read it from his mind. But we cannot be sure.”

    “No,” Raechel agreed, waspishly. “What do you want me to do?”

    “I need to pass the message up the chain,” Irene said. “Our superiors will have to make the final decision. We’ll be left in the dark until we need to know.”

    “What we don’t know we can’t tell,” Raechel said. She liked to think she could stand up to interrogation, but she’d been cautioned everyone broke eventually. “What do you want me to do now?”

    Irene frowned. “Have you heard any other rumours?”

    “The anarchists are getting bolder,” Raechel said. “That was true even before the attack last night. Lots of rumours about food riots, men deserting their regiments or escaping the recruiters before they can be conscripted into the army. Plus … there’s at least some suggestion the empire should seek peace with Britain so it can expand east, but I don’t know if that’s anything more than angry grumbling. I don’t know if any of it will become something more serious.”

    “It depends on just what happens,” Irene told her. “I take it your latest conquest was useless?”

    “He couldn’t tell me anything of great value,” Raechel said. “But Simone interrupted before we could get anywhere.”

    “See what he can tell you, but otherwise just keep your eyes open,” Irene said. She picked up a pad and scribbled out a receipt. “This’ll be your excuse to come back in a couple of days.”

    Raechel took the receipt and shook her head in amused disbelief. To a peasant, the listed price for an aristocratic dress would be eye-wateringly high. To a noblewoman, it would be far too low. It was an excuse to keep it hidden, she thought, as she tucked it safely into her underwear. Anyone who found it would understand perfectly why she didn’t want it seen by prying eyes. Bad enough she was reduced to buying recycled dresses, worse that she wasn’t even paying half price for them.

    “I’ll be back,” she said. “Watch yourself, alright?”

    Irene nodded, drawing the dressmaker persona around her like a shroud as Raechel headed for the door. She’d be fine, Raechel thought. She’d been a trained agent for longer than Raechel had been alive and her magic would give her at least some warning if the guardsmen swooped on the shop. Raechel had seen Irene pass for a man, more than once. She could knock out a guard, steal his uniform and simply walk out of the complex before anyone realised what she’d done and raised the alarm. Raechel would have a far harder time of it.

    She made a show of sneaking through the avenues, passing slightly more upmarket shops and residences before turning to head back to her residence. She’d had to argue hard to get a room in the lodge, something that had made her fear she’d blown her cover before she realised how bad some of the other women were. They were getting free lodging – and food and drink – and yet they were complaining, as if they could convince the king’s servants to get them better rooms by sheer force of personality. Raechel had heard whispering from her fellows that some really had jumped up the ladder, by starting relationships with powerful men that might – or might not – lead to marriage. It might not matter. A woman who saved the rewards of a relationship might be set for life, if it lasted long enough.

    “Raechel,” a woman called. Raechel sighed inwardly as she spotted Marie … Marie of a set of names and titles that were almost as fictitious as Raechel’s own. She did have aristocratic blood, according to the court records, but hardly enough to count in any real sense of the word. “I hear you were walking out with Louis!”

    “Perhaps,” Raechel said. She pushed a fake smile onto her face. “Which Louis?”

    Marie giggled, as if Raechel had just cracked a joke. Louis was one of, if not the, most popular male names in France. There were so many men called Louis, including the king himself, that it wasn’t easy to separate them. And … Raechel tried not to roll her eyes at Marie’s enthusiasm. She was hardly an old woman, not by any reasonable standard, but her time was running out. If she didn’t make it soon, she wouldn’t make it at all.

    “A dashing horseman,” Marie said. “Is it true he rides you like a horse?”

    Raechel kept her smile in place as Marie giggled again. “I wouldn’t know,” she said, trying to sound conspiratorial. “We haven’t been alone together, not yet.”

    “Dear me,” Marie said. She lowered her voice until she was pretending to whisper. “Is there something wrong with him?”

    “I’m sure he’s just waiting for the right woman to marry,” Raechel said, purposely misunderstanding. Better to have Marie think she was naive than calculating. She had a nasty suspicion, at times, that Marie was a little smarter than she let on. “Besides, he hasn’t made a formal suit for my hand.”

    Marie giggled, once again. “I hear he’s off to the wars,” she said. She made a kissing sound. “Are you going to give him a proper farewell?”

    “Perhaps I’ll give him a proper welcome home,” Raechel countered. She probably wouldn’t have to worry about it. By the time Louis returned, she’d be seeing another potential source. “Or …”

    She looked up as Jeanne, another lodger, burst through the door. “The news,” she said, practically gasping for breath. “Have you heard the news?”

    Raechel and Marie exchanged glances. Information was power at court. It was rare for anyone to share something they, and only they, knew … even if they knew it wouldn’t remain a secret for long. Jeanne was a lot smarter than Marie. She’d keep secrets … Raechel felt cold, wondering just what had happened. If it was something big enough to make Jeanne act like a child …

    “There’s a revolt,” Jeanne gasped. “In Spain!”

    “In Spain?” Marie made a sound that might – charitably – have been called a snicker. “And what does Don Cortes make of it?”

    “I don’t know,” Jeanne said. “I just heard the news. There are uprisings in a dozen cities and all is chaos!”

    Raechel said nothing, leaving Marie to probe Jeanne for details she didn’t have as she thought fast. Spain was linked to France through dynastic marriage, and she knew French and Spanish troops had fought together against the British in America, but she doubted the Spanish cared that much for the French. Spain had once ruled much of the known world. Now, she was a client state of France and, no matter how hard the rulers worked to integrate the two countries, it was unlikely the Spanish liked being subordinates. They were a proud people, with much to be proud of.

    “Don Cortes will act fast, I am sure,” Marie said. “He’s always saying he is the rightful heir to Spain.”

    “He’ll have been arrested by now,” Raechel said. Don Cortes was a fool. She’d never been sure why the Bourbon Court tolerated him, or the rest of his circle. It might have been better to quietly kill him and blame it on the British. “They won’t let him leave court.”

    Jeanne smirked. “You want to go see the show?”

    “I need to find Louis,” Raechel said. It wasn’t wholly faked. Louis had told her his regiment would be going to Spain … and now, it looked as if they’d be headed right into the fire. Had someone known the revolt was coming? Or … she wondered, suddenly, if the French could find enough regiments to put down the rebels before it was too late. What if they didn’t? “If he’s on his way to France …”

    “Use your mouth,” Marie advised. She grinned at the flash of disgust that crossed Raechel’s face. “It’s always the safest way.”

    Raechel pretended not to hear her. Her mind was racing. She needed to know what was going on, and quickly, before she returned to Irene. Her mentor would hear the news quickly, Raechel was sure, but not whatever rumours were flooding the court. Irene would have to send word back to England and then … who knew? If Spain left the empire, could the French continue the war alone?

    “Come on,” Marie said. The urgency in her voice would have made Raechel smile, if the situation wasn’t so dire. But then, she’d never met an aristocrat who thought France might lose the war. “We have to hurry.”

    “Coming,” Raechel said.
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five: London, England

    “You’ve been oddly quiet,” Lady Mary said, when Lord Rudolf and Bruce had retired to the study. “Should I be concerned?”

    Gwen tried to keep her face impassive. It was hard to command respect and obedience is a young women, commanding men old enough to be her father, but it was harder still to command anything from the woman who’d given birth to her. Lady Mary was, and would always be, her mother … and yet, she’d always been hard to handle. Gwen knew she’d been lucky in so many ways – she knew girls who were still ruled by their mothers and mothers-in-law – but it was difficult to believe it. And part of her, she admitted sourly, resented her mother’s reluctance to allow her to enter High Society as a young woman.

    “I don’t know what to say,” she admitted, finally. Cold logic told her that her mother had gone through the same experience, when she’d been engaged to be married, but she found it hard to believe. The woman who’d given birth to her could not have been a little girl, then a young woman … could she? It was impossible and yet she knew it was true. “Was it so hard, when you were a young woman?”

    “My parents arranged the match, but they did want me to consent,” Lady Mary said, glancing at the door. Gwen wondered how many servants were within earshot – and hoped they’d have the sense to leave, now the conversation was growing more intimate. “They insisted I spent some time with your father, and other prospective husbands, so I’d know what was I was getting into. And what was getting into me.”

    For a moment, Gwen thought she’d misheard. “Mother!”

    Lady Mary smiled, but there was a twinge of sadness to it. “Your grandmother, may she rest in peace, was quite blunt about the realities of married life once I was properly engaged,” she said. “She was adamant a young woman should be protected, even from herself, but also that she should know the facts of life before the wedding night. The books, alas, are quite useless even when you can find a copy.”

    Gwen nodded curtly. The medical textbooks she’d read had either skipped over the realities of sex and reproduction or actively misled anyone unfortunate enough to study them. It was bad enough that she could look at her body and know the writers were either wrong or lying, harder still for a young man who couldn’t know the truth until his wedding night. She wondered, rather snidely, if the writers had ever actually met a woman, let alone seen one naked. It wouldn’t be that hard. There were no shortage of whores in London and they’d probably be happy to undress for an examination, rather than something more intimate. But then, the writers seemed more intent on discouraging experimentation than informing their readers.

    “And I suppose I have to ask,” Lady Mary said. “Gwen, are you pregnant?”

    “No.” Gwen put as much certainty into her voice as she could. “And I have reason to know.”

    “Good.” Lady Mary made a very visible attempt to bite down the next question. “And how far have you gone with him?”

    Gwen flushed. “A handful of kisses, nothing more,” she lied. There was no way in hell she’d confess the truth to her mother, not as long as she had a choice. “We are waiting for the wedding night.”

    Lady Mary cocked an eyebrow. “It is very easy to get into trouble, when your emotions are driving you into the arms of young men,” she said. “When you get into that sort of trouble, it is very difficult to get out of it.”

    “So you told me, when you were explaining why I couldn’t leave the house without a chaperone,” Gwen snarled. It had hurt, back then, to know she couldn’t go anywhere alone. “It isn’t fair.”

    “The world isn’t fair,” Lady Mary told her, curtly. “If a young man gets a young woman into trouble, he can drop a few hundred pounds on her and ensure his prospects are not ruined by an unwanted child. No one knows he is no longer a virgin and no one much cares if they work out the truth. A young woman, by contrast, will have her life ruined. The best she can do is convince her mother to present the newborn child as hers, maintaining a veneer of respectability that could be destroyed in an instant. Even then … the fact she is no longer a virgin can and will make it impossible to find a good match …”

    “Even though men can sleep with whores and no one bat an eyelid,” Gwen snapped. She knew half the magicians under her command patronised brothels whenever they weren’t on duty. “Why is it so important?”

    “There must be no question over who fathered the child,” Lady Mary said. Her face twisted in disgust. “Believe me, when your magic started to appear there were questions over precisely who had fathered you. It was not easy to dismiss them, at least until you were older and started to develop your father’s nose. I was lucky your father never paid heed to the rumours. It might have ended badly.”

    Gwen swallowed. “I never knew.”

    “Probably for the best,” Lady Mary told her. “But yes, it is important to guard your reputation carefully. Once gone, it can never be regained.”

    She paused. “And that is why you shouldn’t be aiming for a quick and simple marriage. People will talk.”

    “So you said, repeatedly,” Gwen said. Her mother had been saying that for years. “They do nothing else.”

    “And your reputation is already overshadowed by your magic,” Lady Mary warned. “Do you really want to make it worse?”

    Gwen laughed, humourlessly. “Do you think it can get worse?”

    She went on before her mother could say a word. “I have men under my command refusing to follow my orders – or claiming they’re following the orders I would have issued, if I’d been born a man. I have men who think I should sit in my office and do nothing while they do all the work and others who think I should step down and let someone else take up the job while I … go out of sight and out of mind. What does it matter, if they think I married too early or too late?”

    “If you have a child shortly after your wedding, people will talk,” Lady Mary said, flatly. “We were lucky it took us several years to have David.”

    “Lucky,” Gwen repeated. She didn’t want to think about her parents having martial relationships. She’d sooner fight another Null, with her clothes stripped from her and her hands bound behind her back. “I’m not pregnant.”

    “And it is never easy to tell when you will get pregnant,” Lady Mary said. “Laura Winters got pregnant on her wedding night, but the child was premature. If she hadn’t been kept under tight supervision, in the months before her wedding, it would have been easy for her detractors to destroy her reputation. If you get pregnant …”

    She paused, dramatically. “We should have had this talk earlier, but better late than never.”

    Gwen wanted to cover her ears as her mother started outlining the facts of life. She wasn’t wholly ignorant – she’d listened to Irene and the handful of other woman in the Royal College well before she’d met Bruce – but it was still embarrassing, very embarrassing, to hear her mother talk about such matters. She really didn’t want to think about her mother and father doing such things, or … some of the advice was good, she supposed, but other bits simply didn’t apply to her. She was not going to stay at home like a good little wife while her husband went drinking and whoring … Lady Mary had been lucky, she supposed, that her husband was so staid and boring. Gwen doubted her father had the imagination to even consider finding a whore.

    “Ruth’s – you know Ruth – husband went to India,” Lady Mary told her. “He wrote to his wife and asked permission to take a heathen lover, claiming the heat inflamed his lusts and demanded release. She gave him permission, of course, as long as he was good to the girl.”

    “And she didn’t want to go to India herself?” Gwen knew the answer even as she asked the question. A properly brought up young women was not supposed to be interested in sex. It was something to endure, not to enjoy. And yet, she couldn’t deny she’d enjoyed the first tryst … she scowled inwardly as she recalled how their emotions had run away with them, leaving them in no state to say no. “Did he take care of the girl?”

    “Perhaps he did,” Lady Mary said. “Ruth studiously refrained from asking.”

    Gwen nodded. The older woman would have a considerable degree of freedom and independence while her husband was on the other side of the world. Her family – both sides – would probably try to meddle, but there’d be limits to how far they could push her as long as her husband was away. Why rock the boat?

    “Others have a harder time of it,” Lady Mary added. “Their husbands are wild and beat them and they have to keep smiling.”

    “I won’t tolerate it,” Gwen said, curtly. She knew girls who used makeup to hide the bruises – and others who were too beaten down to try. In theory, the girl’s family was supposed to step in if her husband was mistreating her; in practice, it didn’t often happen. The wife was the husband’s property and he had the final say in how she was treated. Her magic sparkled at the thought. Bruce wasn’t like that, but if he was … striking her would be last thing he did. No one would ever find the body. “I won’t!”

    “You wouldn’t be the first person to say that,” Lady Mary said. “That’s why a proper marriage settlement is so important. Your father is already discussing the details with your … prospective … husband.”

    Gwen met her eyes. “Bruce’s family is superior to ours,” she said, flatly. “If I didn’t have magic, you’d be over the moon about him trying to court me.”

    “Yes,” Lady Mary agreed. “And I’d be worried about why he was courting you too.”

    “Why …?” Gwen shook her head. Her mother would be right to be concerned. Bruce’s father wouldn’t pass the viceroyalty down to his son, but everything else … “Why is High Society so … judgemental?”

    Lady Mary looked back at her. “High Society is a ladder,” she said, slowly. “You get onto the ladder and start your climb to the top, but other people are in the way. If you can push them off the ladder, it makes it easier for you to get to the top.”

    “Except it isn’t like that,” Gwen said. “If you are born into a decent family, you start out on a higher level than everyone below you.”

    She scowled. She wouldn’t have hated it so much if it really had been a meritocratic climb to the top. But it wasn’t. A commoner might not even be able to get on the ladder – and if she did, though money or marriage, she’d never be able to climb very high. The Great Ladies of High Society guarded their perches jealously, closing ranks against interlopers. She wondered, suddenly, how many of them had hoped for a better life – or at least more independence – before finding themselves hemmed in by social laws and convention. The sour-faced old women who made disapproving sounds at young women who dared show their ankles had been young too once, as hard as it was to believe. And they’d been warped and twisted to the point they no longer had any empathy for the young.

    “No,” Lady Mary agreed. “But it is the only way to rise.”

    Gwen nodded, slowly. She’d been lucky in so many ways. If she hadn’t had magic … her father’s position would have ensured she entered society at a high rung, but hardly the highest. Gwen loved her father, yet she had to admit he wasn’t that high in the hierarchy and there were limits to what he could do for her. And her mother … she wondered, not for the first time, if her mother was disappointed in her husband’s lack of overt ambition. If he’d climbed higher, she would have risen with him.

    “There is much else I can tell you about married life,” Lady Mary said. “But, in the end, the choice is yours. My parents gave me a choice and I will offer the same to you.”

    “Really?” Gwen met her eyes. “And how much of a choice was it?”

    “I rejected four prospective suitors before I was introduced to your father,” Lady Mary said, simply. “My parents didn’t try to force me into the match.”

    Gwen considered it. Her mother’s choices might have been more limited than she was saying. She wouldn’t have been introduced to anyone unless her parents approved beforehand. If a known rake – or cad – came calling, her parents would have told the wretched man to peddle his wares elsewhere. They certainly wouldn’t have arranged a match between their aristocratic daughter and a commoner. Her lips twitched. Perhaps they would, if the commoner had money. There were quite a few matches, these days, that traded aristocratic names for money. She wasn’t against it. One Swing had been quite enough.

    “I’m glad they gave you a choice,” she said, finally. “And Bruce is my choice.”

    “He seems a nice young man,” Lady Mary said. “But I wish I could speak to his family.”

    And the women of the American Viceroy’s Court, Gwen added, silently.

    She scowled. There were always rumours about the great and the good – everyone loved to hear stories that painted them in a bad light – but if someone really was a bad egg the rumours would be passed from woman to woman in a manner that could not be ignored. If Gwen had wanted a Londoner, her mother could have made sure there were no worrying rumours about him, but Bruce had been raised in America. Her mother had no contacts there.

    “His mother died when he was young,” she said. “Don’t you trust me to make good decisions?”

    “When I was a little younger than you, there was a man who charmed me,” her mother said, bluntly. “He was older and more glamorous and had an air … oh, I liked him. I wanted him. He would kiss me and …”

    Gwen stared in disbelief. “Mother!”

    “Your grandmother put a stop to it,” Lady Mary said. “I was mad. I was madly in love with him. I came up with all sorts of mad plans to escape the hall and run to him and … I didn’t know the details, back then, but I was sure it was going to be good. We were going to be husband and wife and do everything husbands and wives did and …”

    She stared down at her hands. “It was lucky I never had the nerve to go to him. I discovered, later, that he was nothing more than a rake. He deflowered three girls – that I know of – before he was driven out of High Society and sent overseas. His family sent him money on condition he never returned to Britain, or so I was told. The girls he deflowered? Ruined, each and every one of them.”

    Gwen swallowed, remembering how close she’d been to Sir Charles Bellingham. The man had kissed her and come very near to taking her maidenhead …

    “I never knew,” she said. A properly brought up young woman should denounce her mother for even thinking about allowing a rake anywhere near her. The woman she’d become had to admit it was an easy mistake to make. “Mother …”

    “I wanted him,” Lady Mary said, flatly. “I was young. I didn’t know what I really wanted. I didn’t even know the facts of life. I was so much in love – in lust – with him that I overlooked all the warning signs. The flashes of anger whenever things didn’t quite go his way. His tendency to slip his hand where it didn’t belong. The fact none of the maids would stay in his presence any longer than they absolutely had to … a couple of older girls tried to warn me, in hindsight, but I didn’t understand what they were trying to tell me.”

    She looked up. “I have never told anyone this, Gwen. Your father doesn’t know. Your grandfather never knew. Your grandmother took the secret to her grave. The only reason I am telling you, here and now, is to warn you not to let your feelings blind you to a man’s true personality. Because once you get married, you are committed. It is very difficult to escape a marriage, particularly if you have children. You must be careful to avoid making a mistake.”

    “I wish …” Gwen swallowed, hard. “I wish you’d told me this before.”

    Lady Mary met her eyes. “I was ashamed,” she admitted. “Ashamed of my own foolishness. If he’d held me down and had his way with me, it would have been easier to bear. Instead … I nearly trapped myself, because my feelings blinded me to the truth.”

    “Bruce isn’t like that,” Gwen said. He’d certainly respected her reluctance to have sex a second time, before marriage. If she had gotten pregnant, it would have been disastrous. “Do you like him?”

    “There’s a lot to like about him,” Lady Mary said. “But you’re the one getting married. And the one who’ll have to bear the burden of a bad match.”

    Gwen nodded. “I won’t let him push me around.”

    “They all say that,” Lady Mary warned. “But once you are married, you are married for life.”
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six: London, England

    Bruce wasn’t sure what to make of Lord and Lady Crichton.

    Lord Rudolf was old in bearing, although he wasn’t anything like as old as Bruce’s father. Gwen had described him as staid and stuffy and, looking at him, Bruce understood precisely what she meant. He was a grey man, a simple bureaucratic civil servant without the ambition or ability to become a grey eminence ruling the world from behind the scenes. He would serve his government and king faithfully, without regard for his personal feelings. His wife, Lady Mary, looked like an older version of Gwen, although she held herself so proudly Bruce suspected she came from lesser stock. The higher one was, the less one needed to proclaim one’s status to the world.

    He listened to their questions, torn between amusement and irritation. His father had made it clear he was a good catch for anyone, socially superior to everyone save for the king and his immediate family. Being American would be held against him by small-minded society matrons who thought travelling to Manchester greatly daring, but everyone else would respect his family’s title and wealth. He wasn’t particularly concerned with just how much money Gwen’s father offered to give her, as part of the marriage settlement. His family had enough money to keep themselves comfortable for the next few generations. And yet …

    They mean well, he told himself. He’d been raised in America, and his grasp of social protocol was somewhat limited, but he knew Gwen had pushed the rules as far as they would go by accepting his suit before asking her parents. If he’d been in Britain, he’d have had to ask her father first and if her father had said no … they’d have had to go to Greta Green or simply give up. They’re looking out for their daughter.

    He looked around with interest as Lord Rudolf led him to his study, leaving the womenfolk behind. Crichton Hall was old, old in a way no building in Colonial America would ever be. Even the great mansions of New York were relatively new. Bruce had hoped to visit Mexico, and see what remained of the old empires, but it had never happened. Perhaps that would change, once the army reached Mexico. Or perhaps not. He might simply not have the time.

    “Please, take a seat,” Lord Rudolf said. He walked around his desk and sat down. “Tea?”

    “Please,” Bruce said. He didn’t want to drink too much, but it was socially unacceptable to refuse. “It would be my pleasure.”

    He leaned back in his chair and studied the room, trying to glean something of Lord Rudolf’s personality from his private chambers. It was neat and tidy, so perfectly organised Bruce was tempted to wonder if he’d been taken to a decoy chamber rather than the older man’s private study. The books and files on the shelves were arranged neatly – he made a bet with himself they were in perfect order – while the walls were clean, rather than covered with paintings or maps. The only hint of actual character was a simple portrait on the far wall, depicting a loving couple with two small children. It took him a moment to realise it showed Gwen as a little girl. It was hard to reconcile the grown woman he knew with the child in the painting.

    Lord Rudolf said nothing until the maid arrived, served them both tea and then retreated as silently as she’d come. Bruce appreciated the lack of any power games, although it was an open question which of them was really in a position to play games. He considered the issue for a moment, then shrugged. His father had always gotten on well with his father-in-law and Bruce wanted the same, if only for Gwen’s sake. She wouldn’t be happy if her husband picked a fight with her father. Or vice versa.

    “It’s good to meet you,” Lord Rudolf said. His tone was so neutral Bruce couldn’t tell if he meant it. “Tell me, why do you want to marry my daughter?”

    Bruce hesitated, unsure how to put his feelings into words. Gwen was … special. He’d known hundreds of young ladies – there was nothing like being a Viceroy’s son to draw the women – but they’d all been dull and boring, when they hadn’t felt like putty in his hands. Some had been silly and prone to giggling, some had been concealing their intelligence behind a veneer of fake stupidity and incomprehension … really, he had no idea why young women liked pretending to be dumb. He knew women who ran entire households or businesses … they couldn’t have done that, could they, if they hadn’t been able to count past ten without taking off their shoes. Gwen was intelligent and driven and beautiful and powerful …

    … And he was not, in the slightest, intimidated by her.

    “I love her,” he said, finally. “We have much in common.”

    “You’re both magicians,” Lord Rudolf said. “Why did you hide your magic?”

    “It wasn’t meant to remain secret indefinitely,” Bruce said. It wasn’t wholly true, but it was a believable cover story. “My tutor felt it would be better if I were trained before I sailed to Britain to join the Sorcerers Corps. He was murdered before he had the chance to inform his superiors I existed.”

    “I see,” Lord Rudolf said. Bruce wondered, suddenly, if someone had told him to ask the question. There were a lot of issues that had been carefully obscured, in the wake of the Sons of Liberty and Franco-Spanish invasion of America. “Does your father approve of the match?”

    “Yes, sir,” Bruce said. “I believe he wrote to you.”

    “Yes,” Lord Rudolf confirmed. He sipped his tea, clearly preparing for the next question. “You are aware, of course, that Gwen is our second child, and stands to inherit very little?”

    Bruce nodded, curtly. “It has been mentioned.”

    “Quite,” Lord Rudolf agreed. “I can settle the sum of five thousand pounds on her, but little else.”

    His words hung in the air. Bruce frowned, certain he was missing something. Five thousand pounds was a lot of money. It wasn’t as if he needed the cash. He had money of his own and so did Gwen … hell, they didn’t even need a settlement or a dowry or anything. And yet … he cursed under his breath as he realised the problem. They had to offer him something that matched his status in society as best as they could and yet, what could they offer? Clearly, being American hadn’t knocked him as far down the ladder as he’d thought.

    He took a breath. “May I talk bluntly?”

    “Of course,” Lord Rudolf said. His face told a different story. “You may speak freely.”

    “I don’t need the money,” Bruce said. “And nor does she. There is no need to try to make a monetary offer. We both have enough money to live.”

    “Quite,” Lord Rudolf said, as if Bruce hadn’t understated the matter considerably. “You do realise, whatever happens, you will not have access to her property? It is hers and it will remain hers until she dies, at which point it will be passed down to her heirs.”

    “I understand,” Bruce said. It was an odd arrangement, one that probably wouldn’t have stood up to a legal challenge, but who had standing to sue? Master Thomas hadn’t had any children, nor any close family. “I am not marrying her for her money. I don’t need it.”

    Lord Rudolf looked irked. “Be certain,” he said. “There is no way you will be allowed to take possession of her property.”

    Bruce felt a hot flash of irritation, calmed by the grim realisation Lord Rudolf was trying to look out for his daughter. He supposed it spoke well of the man. He’d known fathers who’d happily do whatever they had to do to make sure their daughters married well, even if it meant signing over their rights, money and property to their husbands. And then, if the marriage hadn’t worked out, the poor girls had been trapped in loveless matches while their husbands drunk or whored or did whatever the hell they wanted.

    And Gwen’s property does make her one hell of a catch, he thought, sourly. Her family might not be able to settle much on her, but it hardly mattered when she had property of her own. Her father needs to look out for her interests.

    He met the older man’s eyes. “I understand,” he said. “And, as I have said, I do not need her property. I have money of my own – I have a job, no debts, no family obligations that require me to send money elsewhere. We will be man and wife and that will be all there is to it.”

    “Legally, you will be man and man,” Lord Rudolf said. “I trust that will not cause problems?”

    Bruce snorted. “A legal fiction,” he said. “And one that has no bearing on me.”

    “I hope it stays that way,” Lord Rudolf said. He finished his tea and set the cup back on the desk. “My lawyer will be in touch. The marriage settlement will be five thousand pounds, and a small house in the country. There will be legal protections for Gwen in the event of something unfortunate happening, with provisions for children – including, I might add, the child she legally adopted. I suggest you speak with a lawyer of your own before signing the paperwork. It may keep you from being blindsided later.”

    “You move quickly,” Bruce observed.

    “My daughter is determined to marry you before you depart for Mexico,” Lord Rudolf said, dryly. “And given her legal position, it would be difficult to stop her if she chose to go against our will.”

    He stood. “Welcome to the family,” he added. “I hope you and Gwen have a very long and happy life together.”

    Bruce nodded, following the older man as he led the way back to the drawing room. Gwen and her mother were talking quietly, falling silent when the menfolk returned. Bruce felt a stab of sympathy. It couldn’t be easy being both a daughter and a prospective bride. He’d had problems when his father had treated him as a child, even though he’d been a legal adult for years. But then, his father was old enough to be his grandfather. Their marriage hadn’t borne fruit until it had been almost too late.

    “We have come to an agreement,” Lord Rudolf said. “The lawyer will look at it shortly and then finalise the documents.”

    Gwen nodded, visibly biting her lip. Bruce suspected she was concerned about what would happen to her role, once she was a married woman. Officers were expected to marry, but female officers … save for Gwen herself, there were no female officers. Would she be expected to defer to her husband? Or … Bruce wasn’t a history expert, but even he knew how dangerous it could be for a ruling queen to marry. Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots had both suffered badly, for poor choices of partners … and, from what he’d been told, no partner would have been acceptable.

    “Good,” Gwen said. Bruce wondered suddenly what the women had been discussing while the men had been away. Men? It wasn’t impossible. God knew men talked about women when there were none within earshot. “I think …”

    There was a sharp rap on the door, which burst open before anyone could say a word. A maid practically fell through the door, gasping for breath. “My Lady,” she managed. “My Lady, we just received a message from London. Lady Gwen and Lord Bruce have been summoned to Whitehall at once!”

    “But …” Bruce was relieved to see Lady Mary didn’t rebuke the poor maid. “We planned dinner …!”

    “Duty calls,” Gwen said. She stood, brushing down her suit and trousers. “Bruce?”

    Bruce stood, shaking hands with Lord Rudolf and nodding politely to Lady Mary before following Gwen back to the driveway. The maid had had the presence of mind to summon the carriage from the gatehouse, he noted; it was already rattling up as they left the hall and paused in the doorway. Bruce glanced at Gwen – her face was grim, but he thought he detected a hint of relief – and then shrugged to himself as they scrambled into the coach and closed the door. The driver cracked the whip and the coach rattled away.

    He took a breath. “What happened?”

    “Lord Mycroft knew where we were going,” Gwen said. “He wouldn’t have recalled us unless it was urgent, something that couldn’t wait more than an hour or two.”

    Bruce frowned. “How do you know the message was from him?”

    Gwen smiled. “Who do you know who could send such a message and expect it to be obeyed?”

    Her lips tightened. “Something must have gone badly wrong.”

    Bruce felt his heart start to race. “An invasion?”

    “It’s possible,” Gwen said. “The last invasion was beaten back, the invading army destroyed or forced to surrender, but the French have quite a few other armies. And … we heard nothing, as far as I knew, yet they could easily have put a landing together on the fly.”

    Bruce met her eyes. “What else could it be?”

    “I don’t know,” Gwen said. She made a visible attempt to change the subject. “Those were my parents. I hope they haven’t put you off getting married.”

    Bruce reached out and squeezed her hand lightly. It was hard to see how Gwen had come from Lord Rudolf and Lady Mary, although Gwen did look like a younger version of her mother. Lord Rudolf was … boring, even though he clearly was trying to do his best for his daughter. He’d probably be happier if Gwen had been a nice normal daughter without magic or property of her own, if only because it would be easier to work out the marriage settlement. The poor man had to make a show of matching whatever Bruce brought to the match, even though everyone knew it was impossible …

    Gwen looked back at him. “Father didn’t scare you too badly?”

    “No.” Bruce tried not to laugh at the thought. He was a Master Magician as well as Lord Rudolf’s social superior. There was no way he’d be intimidated by a grey man in a grey position. “But he was looking out for you.”

    “That’s good, I suppose,” Gwen told him. “Mother had a few things to say about … married life.”

    Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Should I be worried?”

    Gwen grinned, although there was a hard edge to the smile. “I never really thought about my parents being people,” she said. “They are just my parents.”

    “The idea of my father doing anything with my mother is a little hard to grasp,” Bruce agreed. “I don’t know how they did it.”

    He snorted, as they shared a laugh. His father was a stately old aristocrat, not … he remembered the rush of pure lust and desire, after the battle with the enemy magicians, that had driven them to make love for the first time. They’d rutted like animals and … he met her eyes, suddenly aware they were sharing the same thought. Their lips were very close … he kissed her lightly, the kiss growing in power as she returned it. He inched closer, until his hands were brushing against her jacket. Her bare skin was buried under layer upon layer of clothing and yet he felt as if there was nothing between them, nothing to keep him from having her … his manhood stiffened, demanding attention. The kisses were growing ever stronger. It crossed his mind the driver might hear something, but who cared? If the man said a word, Bruce would kill him in cold blood and drop his remains into a cesspit. Gwen moaned, deep in her throat, as his hand inched inside her jacket, her nipple hard against his skin …

    The coach rattled, sharply. Gwen drew back, her hair spilling down around her face. Bruce wanted her … God, he wanted her. He took a deep shuddering breath, trying to calm himself as Gwen fixed her hair and jacket. They didn’t have time. The coach was heading straight to Whitehall, the driver shouting to clear the way … there’d be no time to clean up afterwards, after … he forced himself to straighten his own jacket. They might be engaged, but they dared not be caught being intimate until after the wedding. Hell, being caught together even after the wedding would be awkward.

    “Later,” Gwen managed. “There has to be somewhere …”

    “There are hotels,” Bruce said. “Aren’t there?”

    Gwen looked doubtful. “The staff can be nosy,” she said. “Or … there was a big scandal when a newlywed couple went to a hotel for their wedding night, then the hotel staff tried to arrest them for adultery because there was a mix up with the wedding certificate. Or another one where the couple really were running away together. If we get caught …”

    Bruce scowled, but calmed himself as best as he could. Gwen was right. It would be hard for him if they got caught and worse for her. He could beat up anyone talking out of turn – no one would think anything of him calling out someone insulting his wife – but she couldn’t … damn it. It wasn’t fair. A normal husband could beat or kill a man who was rude to his wife, but if he did it he’d undermine her position. She’d never forgive him for it.

    The carriage came to a halt. “We’re here,” Gwen said. She schooled her face into a blank mask. If he hadn’t known they’d been kissing, he would never have believed it. “Behave yourself.”

    “Of course,” Bruce said, with the private thought he could always ambush an insulter in an alleyway and leave him a broken wreck. “Don’t I always?”
     
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven: London, England

    Gwen kept her face under tight control as they were escorted to the officers underneath Whitehall.

    It wasn’t easy. She’d wanted to go further, much further. She’d hated pouring cold water on Bruce’s idea of finding a hotel, when her body had wanted him inside her and … hell, there was no reason they couldn’t go to one of the properties Master Thomas had left her or even find a residence somewhere outside London. And yet, if they were seen together, it would be utterly disastrous. Bruce could get away with it, but she couldn’t. It just wasn’t fair.

    Her lips tightened. She’d never considered her mother might have had an encounter with a rake. It was just … impossible. The idea of her mother … and yet, she had to admit it had been hard to steel herself to resist the urge to just tear off her clothes and make love to him. The driver would keep his mouth shut and if he didn’t … she scowled, her mood darkening. She could do anything to the driver, anything at all, and yet it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. The genie would be loose and they’d be no hope of putting it back in the lamp and sealing it away. She’d just have to put up with it.

    She allowed herself a smile as she was shown into the conference room, Lord Mycroft – the one and only person to treat her as an equal – sat at the head of the table. Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of India, sat next to him; Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, sat on the other side. Gwen was mildly surprised he wasn’t chairing the meeting, but Whitehall was Lord Mycroft’s territory. Sir Edmund Hellebore sat at the far end, his eyes flickering to Gwen and then back again. Gwen had barely exchanged a handful of words with him, but she knew he was one of Lord Mycroft’s rivals. And he was a known magician.

    “Lady Gwen, Lord Bruce,” Lord Mycroft said. “Please, take a seat.”

    Gwen sat, resting her hands on the table. There was no point in pretending to be a properly demure young lady, not here. Proper young ladies weren’t invited to meetings that were clearly intended to be deniable … her eyes darted to the Duke of India, who looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. He was an old man and yet, no one doubted his mind was as sharp as ever. Lord Liverpool had been wise to keep him in government, rather than accept his request for a field command or let him retire to the countryside.

    “There has been an interesting development, two in fact,” Lord Mycroft said. The fact he was giving the briefing was more proof, as if she needed it, that the entire meeting was off the record. “A pair of remarkable opportunities have landed in our lap.”

    “And we must act fast,” the Duke of India rumbled. He’d been known as a quick and decisive commander in his day and, even though he’d slowed down a little, he still had the nerve to act without recourse to higher authority. Gwen could respect that, even if he had a habit of talking down to her at times. “This opportunity must not be allowed to slip through our fingers.”

    Lord Liverpool leaned forward. “Perhaps you could start from the beginning?”

    Lord Mycroft indicated the map on the wall. “It has long been our belief that the union between France and Spain, and various smaller countries and societies, was unlikely to last more than a few years. While the leadership may be tightly united – and that is debatable – there remains the legacy of centuries of war, mistrust, religious conflict and outright racism, problems that have been largely insoluble. France took most of the key roles for itself and the other states within the union bitterly resented it. The early victories – against Prussia, Russia and Portugal – did not threaten the union’s survival. However, defeat appears to have opened faultlines within their government that lead to outright revolution.”

    He paused. “Reports are vague, and in a few cases somewhat contradictory, but it appears there was a rising in southern Spain, a region well known to be restive even at the very best of times. The local military forces attempted to squash the fighting, only to be defeated – some reports say the troops murdered their officers and switched sides – and the rising spread rapidly. This led directly to a second set of uprisings in Portugal, which have been largely successful. So far, the fighting hasn’t spread into northern Spain, but we think it is only a matter of time.”

    “We have an army here, ready for Mexico,” the Duke of India said. “But if we send it to Portugal and Spain instead, the French will be finished.”

    Gwen considered it thoughtfully. Portugal had been occupied for decades, after the French invaded, put a puppet king on the throne and stamped on any hint of rebellion with undisguised savagery. She knew hundreds of thousands of Portuguese had fled their country, some heading for Britain and others trying to make it to the old colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. If they’d revolted …

    She leaned forward. “Who’s in command of the rebellion?”

    “We don’t know,” Lord Mycroft said. “The old aristocracy of Portugal was either driven away or assimilated into the Bourbon Family. It isn’t clear, yet, if anyone will emerge from the rubble to take command. In Spain, the situation is a little more complex. Some of the local nobility have been attempting to assert control, but they’ve been challenged by town councils and communities that loathe the local nobles as much as they hate the French. It was always a snake pit, politically speaking. It may take time, again, for a clear leader to emerge and take command.”

    “And the French will be sending their own armies,” the Duke of India said. “We have to support the rebels as quickly as possible.”

    Gwen nodded, slowly. Neither France nor Spain – alone – could challenge the British Empire. If their union of crowns could be broken in two, and if they started fighting each other, the war would be over. Britain would have all the time she needed to rebuild, raise new armies and lay claim to the New World. And then she’d become unchallengeable.

    “It would also be risky, if your army were to be lost,” Lord Liverpool said. “We have one army. A defeat would set the war effort back by years.”

    “The risk is smaller than you think,” the Duke of India fired back. “We would enjoy complete naval supremacy. We’d also have magicians. We’d be able to pick and choose our landing sites, then withdraw the troops if it turns out the enemy is stronger than we thought. If their navy comes out to fight, we’ll squash it; if it doesn’t, their morale will plummet and victory will be within our grasp.”

    “Particularly if their navy is also feeling mutinous,” Lord Liverpool said. “Are they?”

    “Unknown,” Lord Mycroft said, bluntly. “We know they took heavy losses during the invasion of England – their ships were poorly manned and poorly led – but we don’t know how it affected their morale.”

    Gwen’s lips twitched. “It’s hard to imagine it did anything good for their morale.”

    Sir Edmund shot her a sharp look, but didn’t reply directly. “And what happens if the rebels refuse to cooperate with us?”

    “It is unthinkable the rebels in Portugal will refuse to work with us,” Lord Mycroft said, calmly. “They have long resented their subordination and without our help, their rebellion will be quashed. Spain is a harder question, but if our officers on the spot are diplomatic it is at least possible they’ll work with us against the common foe. We will be careful not to suggest, at any point, we have any territorial ambitions. Gibraltar will remain Spanish.”

    “That will be a political nightmare,” Lord Liverpool pointed out. “The backbenchers will not be pleased.”

    Gwen nodded, coldly. Gibraltar had been captured during the last major war and the Bourbons had flatly refused to even consider returning it to Britain. She understood their thinking – the Spanish would have rebelled thirty years earlier if the French had suggested giving up the ruined town and fortress – but it was still galling. Gibraltar, in enemy hands, locked British ships out of the Mediterranean and kept British forces from intervening in Italy, Greece or North Africa. But it was unlikely the Spanish would willingly give it back.

    “Perhaps not,” Lord Mycroft agreed. “But we must avoid causing undue offense to our allies. Given time, the French will reassert themselves and resume control of Spain and Portugal- if we give them the time. Better to deal with the Spanish then face a reunited empire under a regime that has brutally put down an insurrection, and has trained and experienced troops to take the offensive against us.”

    He paused. “And that leads neatly to the second issue.”

    His eyes lingered on Gwen for a long moment. “We have received a message from a … dissident … faction in Paris. They inform us that the French have found way to … enhance … magical ability, to the point they have been able to put together a whole new force of military sorcerers. Combined with an extensive building program – both warships and airships – it poses a significant threat to our physical security. If the figures are accurate, and the ones we have been able to check appear so, the French may be able to land a second invasion force in just under a year.”

    Gwen sucked in her breath. “How do they enhance magical abilities?”

    “The message didn’t say,” Lord Mycroft said. “However, we have some reason to believe the French were either involved with the Russian experiments or recovered information from the Russian scientists, the ones who fled west when all hell broke loose in Russia. The French have always been behind us, when it comes to pure magical research. They couldn’t afford many scruples about how they catch up, if they are desperate.”

    “They are,” Lord Liverpool said. “The war is a death match now. They win or they lose completely. No middle ground.”

    Gwen kept her face impassive. She’d seen the horrors the Russians had unleashed – and heard Olivia’s nightmarish stories of what her captors had done to her, when she’d been their prisoner. She was uneasily aware Britain had a research program too, one that pressed against the limits of the acceptable. And she wondered, sometimes, if there weren’t programs that had been kept from her. She’d made her opposition to immoral research very clear.

    The French may think they don’t have a choice, she mused. And if they are prepared to gamble everything on a mad quest for victory …

    She didn’t want to think about it. The necromantic outbreak in Russia had killed millions and it would have been worse, much worse, if the maddened Tsar remained in control of his undead armies. Were the French walking down the same path? Or … or what? There’d been quite a few experiments that hinted at possible results, if one discarded all moral and ethical principles. If the French were pushing ahead, she dreaded to think what they might have found and weaponised.

    “The dissidents have requested our help,” Lord Mycroft said. “In exchange for our assistance, they’ll help us win the war.”

    “Odd,” Lord Liverpool said. “Are they traitors to their own country?”

    “Or is this a trap?” Sir Edmund tapped the table. “What do they want from us?”

    “Magical training,” Lord Mycroft said. “And little else.”

    “Still …” Lord Liverpool’s face twisted in disgust. “Traitors.”

    “One man’s traitor is another man’s patriot,” Bruce said. “Do we have any other options for ending the war quickly?”

    Gwen winced, inwardly. She was surprised no one had objected to Bruce attending the meeting … she felt her mood darken as it dawned on her someone really should have raised an objection. His entire position was a little undefined. And yet, he’d been allowed to walk into the meeting and sit next to her …

    “No,” Lord Mycroft said. “If the dissidents are on the level, they might be able to bring down the French Government. But if it is a trap, whoever we send to France will be in terrible danger.”

    “And that raises another question,” Gwen said. “Can we get someone into France?”

    “We think so,” Lord Mycroft said. “Getting to France itself will be easy. Getting to Paris will be a great deal harder. The French have been tightening up their internal security and even with inside help, it won’t be easy to get into the city.”

    Sir Edmund looked at Gwen. “You speak French, don’t you?”

    “Yes,” Gwen said. It was an odd question. Most upper-class boys and girls were taught to speak French from a very early age. She couldn’t pose as a native, she thought, but she could certainly communicate with them. “But I’ve never been to France.”

    She sighed, inwardly. It had been common, before the war, for noblemen – and some noblewomen – to travel to France, Italy and even Spain before returning home and assuming their positions in society. She’d never gone. Her father had been reluctant to leave the country when she’d been a child and, as she’d grown older, her magic had made it impossible to take her anywhere. And now it was too late.

    Lord Mycroft held up a hand. “It might be a trap,” he said. “We will be dealing with people who have interests ... that will not always accord with our own, even if they are on the level. They may oppose the government without opposing the country. They may also be dangerous enemies in the long run, if peace is followed by another war. In truth, we don’t know very much for sure. The handful of pieces of information we have been able to verify are far outweighed by the ones we can neither prove nor disprove.”

    “Whoever we send will have to be very capable,” Sir Edmund said. “And also capable of escaping if this really is a trap.”

    Gwen closed her eyes for a long moment. She had a feeling she knew where this was heading. “You want me to go,” she said. “Don’t you?”

    There was a glimmer of triumph in Sir Edmund’s eyes. “You would be the best suited for the mission, for various reasons.”

    Bruce shifted beside her. Gwen tried to ignore him. “I have never been to Paris, or even to France,” she said, as if that was in doubt. “My French is perfect, on paper, but I have no hope of fooling a native.”

    “The pen of your aunt is no longer in your garden,” the Duke of India cracked. “And whatever other such nonsense you were taught to say.”

    Gwen hid her amusement. The old man was right. Her tutor had drilled her on complicated phrases and sentences she suspected were rarely, if ever, heard in France itself. She might speak the language, but not in a flowing manner that would hide her true origins. She’d have to practice, and fast, if she wanted to convince people she was a genuine Frenchwomen. She wasn’t even sure she could get away with it …

    “I can go,” she said. There was nothing else she could say, not if she wanted to keep their respect. They’d shun a man who declined a dangerous mission … in some ways, it would be worse for him. He’d get called a coward. She’d merely get sneered at for being a weak and feeble woman, someone who naturally could not be expected to undertake a dangerous mission. “If it turns out to be a trap, I can fly away.”

    “I’ll come with you,” Bruce said. “Someone has to watch your back …”

    “No,” the Duke of India said. “You’re needed with the army.”

    “There is an entire corps of sorcerers who can accompany the army,” Bruce snapped. Gwen winced at the frantic desperation in his voice. He knew she could take care of herself and yet it would look bad, very bad, if he let her go alone. “You don’t need me.”

    “We will, if we encounter more enemy sorcerers,” the Duke of India told him. “There is no way to be sure of anything until we arrive.”

    “Perhaps not,” Gwen said. There’d be Talkers with the army … perhaps Talkers already on their way, disguised as merchants or sailors. “How do you plan to get me into France?”

    “We’re still working on the details,” Lord Mycroft said. “Give me a day or two to find a way that isn’t too risky.”

    Gwen studied the map for a moment. It was a shame she couldn’t simply fly across the English Channel and make her way directly to Paris, but it would be asking for trouble. The French were supposed to have a network of Seers watching for flying magicians and if she was spotted they’d be on her with terrifying speed. In theory, if she stayed on the ground, it would be easier to remain unnoticed unless she did something stupid.

    They’re probably watching for local common-born magicians, she thought. The French had been reluctant to risk recruiting commoners, at least at first, but that might have changed under the pressures of war. And if I get detected in the open, I’ll have to fight my way out.

    “Good,” Lord Liverpool said. “We move to support Portugal and Spain against France, while offering covert help to the French underground. Does anyone have any significant objections?”

    “I see no alternative,” the Duke of India said. “Do you?”

    “No.” The Prime Minister leaned back in his chair. “We must move fast. This opportunity will not come again.”

    “No, My Lord,” Lord Mycroft said. “This is how we should proceed …”
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone


    Tomorrow, I’m going into hospital for gallstone surgery. It’s meant to be a day surgery, but I don’t know if that’ll happen (they said that about chemo too and I wound up being in hospital for three weeks) and I don’t know what state I’ll be in for the days after the operation. I’ll pick this up again as soon as possible.


    Until then … comments are always welcome.


    Chris
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    It was a frustrating day.


    Basically, I got to the hospital, had all the pre-operation checks (including a chat with the anaesthetist) and then there was a discrepancy between the first set of ultrasound scans that revealed I had a gallstone problem and later scans (ultrasound and CT) that didn’t show any gallstones currently inside me. So … I wound up going for another scan, which was a little inclusive; either the gallstones are too small to see easily, which is apparently possible, or they were passed out some time ago.


    So … I’ve been told to wait and see what develops. I have more scans due towards the end of next month, so they should be able to get a better look then.


    Thanks to everyone who wished me well <embarrassed grin>.


    On a different note, I can testify that Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor is a very good book. I read it in the waiting room.


    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Russia-Revolution-Civil-War-1917-1921/dp/1474610145
     
  13. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Hopefully you have passed the stones and won’t need the surgery!
     
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight: London, England

    Bruce had never felt quite so …

    In truth, he wasn’t sure how he felt. Trapped, perhaps; trapped between two choices, both equally bad. The idea of being sent to war didn’t bother him – he’d fought before, as a Son of Liberty, and he knew he could handle it – but the idea of letting Gwen go into horrendous danger on her own was … it was unthinkable. What sort of man would let his fiancé go into the dark heart of an evil empire? He’d be lucky if he wasn’t mocked for the rest of his life for agreeing to let her go. And if she died … his heart twisted painfully as it dawned on him she might not survive the war. The French knew her. They wouldn’t take chances if they captured her. They’d kill her and dump her body in a ditch.

    The meeting droned on. It took him all his self-control to keep from exploding at the men – the men – who proposed to send a young woman to enemy territory. There was no way to be sure it wasn’t a trap, no way to be certain the French dissidents weren’t being used by their government … no way to be sure the French dissidents were actually real. Bruce had been a Son of Liberty. He knew the risks in contacting foreigners and asking for aid … risks that would be magnified, impossibly so, when asking for help from the old enemy. England and France had been at war, on and off, for centuries. The French dissidents had to know what it would cost them to accept help from the British, if it became public. And it would.

    Their government might not know the dissidents are accepting help, he thought, with a flicker of gallows humour. But that won’t stop them from accusing the dissidents of doing it anyway.

    “I trust you can discuss the specifics with Lady Gwen,” Lord Liverpool said, finally. Bruce allowed himself a moment of relief. He’d thought his father’s meetings were long, but he hadn’t had to sit through them. “Master Bruce, the army will be enriched by your presence.”

    “Thank you,” Bruce said. It was hard to keep his voice under control. “I live to serve.”

    Lord Liverpool seemed to miss the sarcasm. The Duke of India shot him a sharp look. Bruce stared back at him, torn between admiration for a man who was clearly still a force even though age had taken its toll on his body and resentment for someone who was taking him away from his fiancé. The Duke was the greatest living soldier, of that there was no doubt, and yet … Bruce wondered, sourly, if his glory days were over. He’d mastered his trade in the days of rifles and cannon, not steam-powered ironclads and airships. Was he still up to the job? Or was he trapped in the past?

    He kept his face under tight control as he looked at Lord Mycroft. The man was immensely fat – the nasty party of Bruce’s mind whispered he was a danger to shipping – his strong cheekbones and chin marred by all the signs of good living. His hair was receding rapidly, to the point it was a surprise he hadn’t donned a wig. Bruce wanted to dislike him, for steering Gwen towards the mission, and yet there was something about the man that made him difficult to dislike. Gwen had said he was one of the finest minds in the world, if not the finest. And yet … Bruce felt a wave of resentment. This was the man who was sending his fiancé into terrible danger.

    “The basic concept is sound,” Lord Mycroft said, once the rest of the ministers had left the room. “There are still trading ships operating between London and Amsterdam. We’ll send you on one, attached to a trading mission that’ll eventually get you into Paris. Your cover story should stand up to close inspection.”

    Gwen’s lips twitched. “We are still trading with the enemy?”

    Lord Mycroft snorted. “It would be more accurate to say we’re trading with the Dutch, who are trading with the French,” he said. “They’re caught between two powerful enemies and have to chart a careful course between them, just to ensure they don’t find themselves beholden to one and facing a nasty little war with the other. We’ve been keeping an eye on the trade without making any overt attempts to shut it down, not least because it lets us have considerable insight into continental politics. The trading networks are often more aware of what is going on than the secret service.”

    “I see,” Bruce said. His voice hardened, revealing too much of his inner feelings. “And you are prepared to tolerate their double-dealing?”

    “They have no choice.” Lord Mycroft didn’t seem annoyed, but his eyes rested on Bruce thoughtfully. “The French can invade if they wish, although it would be a very hard campaign and they’d take immense losses for very little return. We would find it harder to invade and occupy the republic, but we could shut down their foreign trade and take over their colonies. They have to steer a course between us, as I said, or risk losing everything no matter who wins the greater war.”

    “And you are trusting them with Gwen’s safety,” Bruce snapped. He was aware, suddenly, of Gwen bristling beside him. “You cannot trust any of them. For all you know, this is a trap.”

    “There are no certainties,” Lord Mycroft agreed. “But we cannot afford to let this opportunity go by.”

    “If you trust them,” Bruce said. “Can you be sure the dissidents won’t turn on us?”

    “There are no certainties,” Lord Mycroft repeated. “We don’t know what, if anything, the French have discovered. They claim they can boost magic … we simply don’t know. We do know that there is an uprising in Spain, and that there are Frenchmen who think their empire needs a change of course.”

    “And you are sending Gwen into a snake pit,” Bruce said. He’d been a revolutionary. He knew how quickly allegiances could shift, if something – anything – changed. “Send me instead.”

    Gwen leaned forward. “Do you speak French?”

    “Yes,” Bruce said. His father’s tutors had drilled it into him, with book and cane. “My French is acceptable.”

    “Are you sure?” Gwen’s voice was hard. “If your accent gives you away …”

    Lord Mycroft cleared his throat. “I have urgent business in another room,” he said. He stood, with remarkable agility for a man of his bulk. “I shall return shortly.”

    Bruce blinked. Urgent business? What could be more urgent than this? There hadn’t even been a message … unless Lord Mycroft was a Talker, with all that implied. But he hadn’t sensed any attempt to read his mind … not, he supposed, that a smart Talker would try. Lord Mycroft knew Bruce was a Master Magician. Why try something that would not only fail, but turn Bruce into a formidable enemy?

    He watched the older man leave, trying to calm his thoughts. Lord Mycroft’s tailors had made no attempt to disguise his size, something that would have been impossible but still … Bruce would have expected it. He knew men who preferred tailoring their clothes to healthy exercise, although very few of them could make it work. And yet … the door closed, surprisingly quietly. The room suddenly felt very small.

    Gwen’s voice was practically a snarl. “And what has got into you?”

    Bruce gritted his teeth, feeling his temper boil. No one spoke to him like that … no one, not even his father. And yet … he controlled himself with an effort, all too aware his anger was covering for worry and fear. He didn’t want to risk losing her … no, he didn’t want her to go alone. She was his fiancé. He couldn’t let her go.

    “I have worked for years to earn a little respect,” Gwen snapped. “And you threaten it by trying to go in my place!”

    “You could die,” Bruce said. It was hard to conceal his anger … not, he suspected, that she was fooled. She’d always been better at the mental arts than him. “If you get caught, do you know what could happen to you?”

    “Yes!” Gwen leaned forward until they were practically touching. “I know. But that isn’t going to stop me.”

    “You’ve never even been to France,” Bruce pointed out. “If you stick out …”

    “Neither have you,” Gwen interrupted. “Or did you manage to sneak from New York to Paris and return in time for tea?”

    “No,” Bruce said. “But I’ll draw a hell of a lot less attention than a pretty girl.”

    Gwen’s temper flared. Bruce could sense her anger pulsing against her self-control. He cursed himself under his breath. It had been the worst possible thing to say. She’d spent far too long trying to convince people she could do her job, despite being a young woman … hell, she was young enough for most of the government ministers to see her as a child. And yet … he didn’t want her to go.

    “I went to Russia undercover,” Gwen snapped. “Do you think I can’t handle France?”

    “The French know you,” Bruce countered. “What happens if they get their hands on you?”

    “I am aware of the risks,” Gwen said, stiffly. “But some risks have to be taken.”

    “Then let me come with you,” Bruce said. “The army doesn’t need me!”

    “It does,” Gwen said, flatly. “It needs a Master Magician. It also needs someone with natural authority” – her lips twisted into a bitter grimace – “who can bond with the officers and men. I can’t, as you know. And I would be happier with someone I trust out there too.”

    Bruce blinked. “You don’t trust your subordinates?”

    “I trust them to be themselves,” Gwen said, a little vaguely. “They have a nasty habit of ignoring my orders if they think they know better.”

    She took a breath, her anger pulsing on the air. “Go back to the Royal College. Get ready to depart. The Duke does not let the grass grow under his feet. I’ll be along after I finish discussing matters with Lord Mycroft.”

    Bruce blinked. “You’re sending me away?”

    Gwen met his eyes. “I cannot have someone – anyone – undermining me in front of the government ministers,” she said. “I have worked too long to convince them I need to be taken seriously …”

    “They’re sending you to Paris!” Bruce was too shocked to muster a more coherent response. “Gwen, they’re sending you to …”

    Gwen cut him off. “I may be your fiancé, but I am also a person of considerable power and authority. I am not – I cannot be – the kind of wife who stays at home and never speaks when her husband is present. I will not submit wordlessly to your authority and I will not let you push me into the backroom when the men are talking. And I will not let you beat me, verbally or physically, if you think I am misbehaving.”

    She kept her eyes steady. “If you have a problem with that, let me know now and we can go our separate ways.”

    Bruce felt his emotions shift so rapidly he couldn’t keep up … anger and fear and worry and despair and … he knew he was no coward, no fool, and yet he had no idea what to say. He wanted to reassure her and he wanted to yell at her and … he gritted his teeth, clamping down on his feelings. He’d thought he understood what her position implied, but … he kicked himself. Stupid. He’d considered her something akin to a female shopkeeper, or a housekeeper, not a government official in her own right. And …

    “I’m sorry,” he said. It was never easy to apologise, but … it had to be said. “I just … I just want you to be safe.”

    “Life isn’t safe, even for young women who stay at home and never go outside,” Gwen said. “Do you know how many women die in childbirth?

    She shook her head. “Go back to the college,” she said. “I’ll see you there.”

    Bruce nodded stiffly, then stood. They were alone and yet … were they unobserved? There might be prying eyes watching them … he touched his lips gently, the closest he could come to blowing a kiss, and turned and hurried out the door. A young man was already waiting for him, ready to show him back to the carriage. Bruce left it in Whitehall and took to the air, flying back to Cavendish Hall. London might be a smoggy nightmare of a city, but it wasn’t that hard to pick out the important buildings from overhead. Besides, it gave him time to think.

    His mind churned. He’d never really considered what getting married would be like. His mother had died when he was very young and his father had never remarried. He’d known other married couples, of course, but he’d never seen how they interacted in private. Of course not. The very idea was absurd. His friends had rarely talked about it either. It was funny, he reflected sourly, that they’d boasted about things they’d done with various young women – most of which he suspected to be nothing more than blatant lies – and yet they’d never talked about how their fathers treated their mothers. The only time anyone had ever talked about anything of the sort had been when a particularly amusing scandal had broken into the public eye.

    He dropped down and through the open skylight, landing neatly in the barracks. It was galling to sleep so far from Gwen’s suite, but propriety demanded they keep their distance until the wedding night. He snorted in annoyance – he didn’t really care who talked about them – and pushed the thought aside. Their first argument had been vicious. She wasn’t going to want to do anything intimate with him for a while. And if they were setting off within a day or two, the plans for a quick wedding had been disrupted beyond repair.

    The barracks felt weird as he made his way down the corridor. It had little in common with an army barracks, beyond the name, yet it was almost empty. The majority of the Royal Sorcerers Corps was on deployment, dozens of rooms left unoccupied until their return, leaving only a handful of magicians in London. Official magicians, at least. Gwen had told him there was a surprisingly high number of female magicians, their existence officially denied even as their families made use of their talents. His lips twitched in cold amusement. How would their future husbands cope with magical wives? Would it solve all their problems or create new ones?

    “My Lord,” a voice said, as he reached his suite. “A word?”

    Bruce gritted his teeth. He’d slipped. He’d been too lost in his own thoughts to notice the man standing near the door. His eyes narrowed as he recognised the speaker. Pinfold was a Blazer, a man with enough power to make a name for himself, yet he’d always struck Bruce as something of a coward. He certainly hadn’t done any military duty, beyond guarding London against probing airships. That hadn’t happened for a while. The first bombing raids had been so costly both sides had decided there was no point in trying again.

    “If you must,” he said. He was damned if he was inviting Pinfold into his rooms. “What do you want?”

    Pinfold seemed surprised at his curt voice, but pressed on. “I need to discuss a matter of some delicacy with you,” he said. “Can we discuss it in your chambers?”

    “No.” Bruce rested his hands on his hips, not bothering to try to hide his irritation. It had been a long day. “Get to the point.”

    “Many of us feel the demands of war dictate the corps be led by an experienced fighting man,” Pinfold said. “Lady Gwen, despite her many good qualities, does not have the talent for …”

    “You are aware, are you not, that Gwen is my fiancé?” Bruce clenched his fists. Blazer or no, he was sure he could break the man’s nose before he could react. “Choose your next words carefully.”

    Pinfold hesitated, but didn’t back down. “We feel she is better suited to running the corps here, rather than leading it into battle,” he said. “We think …”

    Bruce interrupted. “Who’s we?”

    “Some of us,” Pinfold said. Bruce wasn’t sure if he was concealing the names or if he was speaking for himself, rather than a handful of others. “We would like to nominate you as her replacement. We think …”

    “Really?” Bruce darted forward and shoved Pinfold against the wall. “And you think I would betray her just like that?”

    Pinfold stared at him. “But …?”

    “But what?” Bruce pushed harder. It would be easy, so easy, to summon his magic and smash Pinfold into a bloody mess. Or snap his neck and drop the body in the river. Or something … cold anger burned through him, mocking his earlier thoughts. He loved Gwen. He might have argued with her, but he loved her. “You thought I would betray her?”

    “But …” Pinfold stuttered and gathered himself. “It’s for her own good.”

    “No, it bloody isn’t,” Bruce snarled. He sniffed, then rolled his eyes in disgust. The toad had wet himself. Disgusting. “You go back to your friends, if they even exist, and tell them I won’t betray her. And if I hear you doing this again, I’ll tear you to pieces.”

    He turned and stepped into his room, closing the door behind him. Pinfold didn’t even have the nerve to blast him in the back … he scowled, bitterly, as he headed to his bed. Gwen had told him she had enemies, but he hadn’t thought they’d try something so blatant. Clearly, being an American trumped being a young woman.

    If he’s operating on his own, that’s one thing, he thought. Pinfold was a coward. It was unlikely he’d have the nerve to do anything alone. If he is part of a group, though, they could cause real trouble.

    He scowled. And I have to talk to her about this, as quickly as possible.
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    Gwen gathered herself.

    It wasn’t easy. She’d heard all sorts of horror stories from married women about how their husbands could turn from being nice acceptable prospects to bullying monsters as soon as they put the ring on their wife’s finger. Her own mother had been remarkably lucky compared to some of the others, from the women who talked openly about their problems to the silent little mites who, no matter how they tried, couldn’t hide the bruises. It was a reality of life for wives that their husbands were not only superior to them by law, but also physically strong enough to impose themselves on their wives. It wasn’t true of her, she knew, yet she was unique. And Bruce …

    He means well, she thought. She’d tasted his feelings during the brief argument. The worry, the fear … the awareness, despite everything, that she might go to Paris and never come back. Gwen wasn’t blind to the risks, but they could be managed. And he really can’t come with me.

    She sighed. She was uneasily aware she really wasn’t the best choice for a military deployment. She would find it difficult, if not impossible, to bond with the rest of the commanding officers, even though she was hardly inexperienced. A young officer who’d bought his commission without a shred of experience would find it easier to make ties with his seniors, although they’d be careful to keep an eye on him until they were sure he knew what he was doing. It would be difficult for her, even with the Duke’s open support. Hell, his support would probably make things worse.

    The door opened. Lord Mycroft stepped back into the chamber, closing the door behind him. Gwen felt a rush of gratitude. Lord Mycroft had been perceptive enough, thankfully, to let them have the argument in private. One of Lady Mary’s better pieces of advice had been to never disagree with your husband, or fiancé, in public. Gwen suspected, from her own experience, that it made it harder for someone to back down and consider her arguments logically. Master Thomas had said the same, a few short years ago.

    Praise in public, punish in private, he’d said. The more public the punishment, the more they’ll resent it.

    “It is never easy, to have one set of plans and then have to switch at short notice,” Lord Mycroft said. “But I am sure you will cope.”

    “We will,” Gwen said. She understood Bruce’s feelings, and his position, but did he understand hers? “Do you really think you can get me to Paris without problems?”

    “We believe so,” Lord Mycroft told her. “The great trading families have few qualms about allowing their daughters to accompany them to Paris and Versailles. You’ll be posing as one of them until you reach the city, whereupon you’ll be handed over to the local agent on the ground. There are some safe houses and suchlike within Paris itself, which you’ll be briefed upon before you leave. Naturally, this information is to go no further.”

    “Naturally,” Gwen echoed. She wouldn’t be told everything. What she didn’t know she couldn’t be made to tell. “And once we’re there?”

    Lord Mycroft frowned. “Your contact will be Simone,” he said. “I believe you know her.”

    Gwen’s eyebrows shot up? “Simone? Ambassador Talleyrand’s daughter?”

    “Adopted daughter,” Lord Mycroft corrected, mildly. “And yes, it’s the same person.”

    “And she is a dissident.” Gwen didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. “Is she really …?”

    Lord Mycroft said nothing for a long moment. “Ambassador Talleyrand was executed a week ago,” he said. “It wasn’t formally announced, and his head wasn’t put on a spike as an example to others, but – from what we’ve heard – no one is in any doubt what happened. His death marks a major shift in Franco-Spanish policy.”

    Gwen frowned. “Is that tied to the rebellion in Spain?”

    “It may be,” Lord Mycroft said. “Ambassador Talleyrand was definitely a member of the peace faction, and his execution is a clear warning to the rest that peace is no longer on the table. He certainly was involved in trying to smooth out the differences between France, Spain and the rest of the Bourbon Empire. But … it may also be a coincidence. We don’t think anyone in Versailles plotted to induce the Spanish to rebel.”

    His lips twisted into a brief smile. “Not intentionally, anyway.”

    “No,” Gwen agreed.

    Lord Mycroft met her eyes. “Simone got in touch with one of our agents at Versailles,” he said, “and requested to pass on a message. The dissidents want our help.”

    Gwen said nothing for a long moment, then frowned. “Simone is a dissident?”

    “It isn’t clear,” Lord Mycroft said. “It’s quite possible there were – are – ties between the peace faction at Versailles and the dissidents in Paris. The Bourbon Government is something of a hodgepodge grafted onto a far older state and the links between them are not always easy to understand. Loyalists, dissidents and opportunists rub shoulders openly, I believe. And there are links between shopkeepers in the city and farmers outside the walls and …”

    He met her eyes. “My office has been predicting a major revolution in France for the last four decades. They came very close to an open breakdown of law and order in 1789 and a crisis was only just averted through emergency spending and a certain display of naked force, both of which left scars on the French psyche. There have been some attempts to address the problems undermining the French state, but most of them have failed because Versailles is unwilling to demand sacrifice from the nobility and the clergy. If they’d avoided war, or won quickly, disaster might have been averted for quite some time. Instead, they are on very thin ice.”

    “Because the war bogged down,” Gwen said.

    “Yes.” Lord Mycroft raised his eyes to look at the map. “There are too many faultlines within their empire, not all of which can be papered over. And if they explode …”

    He looked back at her. “Can we trust Simone?”

    Gwen hesitated. They’d met twice and, in both cases, Simone had struck her as being loyal to her adopted father, if not the state itself. And now Talleyrand was dead …

    “I don’t know,” she said, finally. Her father was a government minister. What would she do if he was executed by the government he’d served loyally for his entire adult life? Her magic pulsed in response, reminding her she could take revenge. Simone had much less power and yet, with a little effort, who knew what she could do? “But do we have a choice?”

    “No.” Lord Mycroft shifted, uncomfortably. “There have been some … political changes here too. The war should have been short and victorious – they thought, once we defeated the French in England and America, the end would come quickly. Some think we need to push harder, others that we should seek peace now while the French are weak and unable to continue the fight. Lord Liverpool’s position is nowhere near as strong as he would prefer.”

    “And so he’s willing to gamble on supporting the rebels in Spain,” Gwen said. “If he’s wrong …”

    “A failure would make his position untenable,” Lord Mycroft agreed. “But that’s far from the only problem. The stresses and strains of war are causing our own system to buckle. If the government falls, there’ll be an election at the worst possible time.”

    “So we need to win,” Gwen said. “And quickly.”

    “Yes.” Lord Mycroft looked back at the map. “There have been some very quiet peace talks – talks about talks, more accurately – but they’ve gone nowhere. That’s worrying. The French know they’re on the back foot. They should be trying to talk peace – or, at the very least, trying to stall for time. That they’ve done neither …”

    “They think they can still win,” Gwen said. “What do they have up their sleeve?”

    “I wish I knew,” Lord Mycroft said. “If the war rested on cold economics and logistics, our ultimate victory would be assured. The French have always been behind us, magically, and they haven’t been able to catch up. But … they may have found something they think will give them an edge. We simply don’t know.”

    Gwen took a breath. “I’ll go to Paris,” she said. “And see what happens from there.”

    “I can’t give you more specific orders,” Lord Mycroft agreed. “But anything you can do to cause trouble for the French would be very helpful.”

    “The army will probably cause a lot of trouble on its own,” Gwen commented, wryly. She was no logistics expert, but she’d read accounts of campaigning in France and Space. The landscape made logistics difficult, to the point the French would have very real trouble keeping their forces supplied if the British had control of the seas. “How badly will it hurt the Bourbons if the Spanish drop out of the empire – and the war?”

    “Hard to say,” Lord Mycroft said. “Spain is no longer the unchallenged master of South America. But I can’t imagine the results will be good for the enemy.”

    “No,” Gwen said. It was hard to say if Latin America would follow Spain out of the war – the Bourbons, to give them due credit, had worked hard to give the locals a stake in their empire – but even if Latin America stayed in the war the effects would be profound. “It wouldn’t be remotely good for them.”

    Lord Mycroft nodded. “And Gwen, watch your back.”

    Gwen’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

    “You have enemies,” Lord Mycroft said. “Some dismissed you because you were – are – a girl. Others, now, dislike and resent you because of your involvement in political affairs. They see it as meddling and regard the American intervention as the very last straw.”

    Gwen felt a hot flash of anger. “Did I have a choice?”

    “No,” Lord Mycroft said. “But it is not given to us to make a mistake, then learn from it and rewind history to avoid making it in the first place. They think you did the wrong thing because they don’t know what would – might - have happened if you hadn’t interfered in American affairs. And others …”

    He shook his head. “Lord Liverpool and the Duke are in your corner,” he said. “Others are not. Watch yourself.”

    “I will.” Gwen stood. “And you watch your back too.”

    Lord Mycroft chuckled. “Anyone who takes a shot at me is bound to hit something,” he said, mischievously. “Luckily, I can stand to lose a few pounds.”

    Gwen smiled, then turned and left the room. Her thoughts churned as she made her way back to the carriage. She’d done the right thing – she knew it – and yet, as she clambered into the carriage and told the driver to take her back to the hall, she suspected it was going to come back to haunt her. No good deed went unpunished … she wished, suddenly, she’d kept hold of the blackmail material she’d destroyed years ago. It might have kept her enemies from plotting against her.

    Bastards, she thought. What are they thinking?

    She glowered into the darkening sky. She’d done her duty. More than that, really; she’d saved England from an uprising, she’d eliminated a spy ring, she’d prevented Russia from turning the entire world into a charnel house, she’d beaten a French invasion of England and another in America. And yet, it wasn’t enough? What did she have to do to earn even half the trust and respect that had been extended to Master Thomas? Defeat King Louis in single combat? Or smash a French army with a wave of her hand? Or … or what?

    The carriage rattled to a halt. “My Lady,” the driver said. “We have arrived.”

    Gwen nodded, then opened the door and levitated into the air. She had no desire to walk through the hall, not when it would mean talking to whoever she met on the way. The more sensible magicians were gone, either standing watch near Dover or heading to Portsmouth to link up with the Duke of India’s fleet. They were lucky they’d made most of the preparations to deploy an army ahead of time, even though they’d planned to send it to Mexico. A few weeks either way and they’d have real problems getting troops to Spain in time to make a difference. If the French didn’t have plans to deal with a Spanish revolt, she’d be astonished.

    She dropped through the skylight and landed neatly on the floor, then straightened. It had been a long – long – day and all she wanted to do was sleep. She had no idea how she was going to talk to Bruce, when she saw him again … would she see him again? She knew one husband who had a habit of walking off for days, when his wife upset him, and another who was called away so often his wife never knew if he’d be coming home until he walked through the door. Bruce wasn’t that sort of bastard, but … she shook her head. They weren’t used to being engaged, let alone married. And while they’d been together on the boat, they hadn’t exactly been under any real stress.

    Her lips thinned as she spotted the pile of paperwork on the desk. Her subordinates could and did make a lot of decisions for themselves, but there were matters only she could handle. And … she wondered, suddenly, if allowing her subordinates so much latitude had been a mistake. It was one thing when she was in the colonies, and there was no time for her a message to reach her before a decision had to be made one way or the other, but quite another when she was in London. She scowled as the pile seemed to grow larger, then sighed inwardly. She’d have to see to it that, when she returned, she knew exactly what was being done under her name.

    She put the thought aside as she headed to bed, wishing – not for the first time – that Bruce could join her. It would be nice to sleep with his arms around her … no, it wasn’t possible, not until the wedding. Even then … she scowled. There were few wives living in the hall and barracks, even though most of the senior magicians were married. It might be better if Bruce and she lived elsewhere …

    There was a knock on the door. Gwen tensed. Bruce? No, Bruce wouldn’t come sneaking through the hall to her. Someone would see him, draw the right conclusion and all hell would break lose. He wasn’t that dumb. He’d be smart and fly from the barracks to the skylight and … even that would be risky, with so many watching eyes. She ground her teeth in silent frustration as she stepped back into the living room, reaching out with her mind to open the door. Who could she ask for advice? Her mother? Lord Mycroft … he might have some insights, but she didn’t want to show weakness in front of him. Who else? She didn’t know.

    “My Lady,” Martha said. The maid looked as calm and composed as always. She’d been with Gwen long enough to take everything, including magic and magicians, in her stride. “I have two messages from the War Office.”

    Gwen nodded curtly as she popped the seal and opened the first envelope. Lord Mycroft really didn’t believe in letting the grass grow under his feet. The formal orders for Bruce to report to Portsmouth had already been written, as had a very vague set of instructions for her. She wondered, sourly, if Lord Mycroft had known she’d volunteer for the mission. Probably. He was one of the smartest and most insightful people she knew and he’d never made the mistake of treating her as something lesser, just because she was a woman. He’d probably assumed she’d go and ordered everything prepared, even before telling her what he had in mind. And if she’d said no, someone else would have gone in her place.

    Bruce can’t go, she thought. She knew Bruce was good at playing roles – he’d certainly convinced her he was a useless fop – but he was needed elsewhere. And there are no other Master Magicians to send.

    Martha cleared her throat. “Will that be all, My Lady?”

    “Please take this letter to Master Bruce’s rooms and slip it under his door,” Gwen said, holding out the first set of orders. She thought he’d have been sent a copy of his own, but it was good to be careful. “If he’s awake, tell him I’ll see him at breakfast.”

    “Yes, My Lady.” Martha dropped a curtsey, then straightened. “It will be done.”

    Gwen nodded, dismissing the maid. There’d be no time to arrange a private meeting, not if they had to depart so quickly. She dared not invite Bruce to her suite – not alone – nor could she go to his rooms. And … she ground her teeth in frustration. They needed to talk. They needed to discuss everything and … it wasn’t going to happen, not in time. And … she was tempted to ask the maid – Martha had seen far more of the dark underside of humanity than her – but she dared not. She trusted Martha and yet … who knew?

    If I was courting someone who lived here, he’d probably know just where to go, she thought, with a flicker of disquiet. There were hotels that looked the other way, as long as they were tipped heavily and the guests were discreet. She was almost tempted to find one. They could spare a few hours, couldn’t they? But what was tolerable in a woman was intolerable in a man. And I’d never hear the end of it.

    She closed and locked the door, then headed for bed. There was no point in worrying about it now. All she could do was rest, and hope tomorrow would bring better news.
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten: London, England

    Bruce had never felt quite so frustrated in his life.

    It wasn’t the training he’d done over the last two days that bothered him. Under other circumstances, the chance to train beside Merlin – and a number of other experienced magicians – would have been a dream come true, once he’d convinced them that being American didn’t mean he was incompetent, stupid or otherwise unworthy to fight beside the best of the best. He would even have enjoyed himself, if he hadn’t been worrying so much about Gwen. Pinfold, the little rodent, hadn’t dared show his face again, but he wasn’t brave enough to make his suggestion so brazenly unless he was sure he wasn’t alone. Bruce wondered, between bouts of training, which of the senior magicians were planning to stab Gwen in the back. He hadn’t even had a chance to tell her what had happened.

    His mind churned as the carriage rattled its way back towards London. He’d threatened Pinfold in a place there was little true privacy and yet, no one had said anything about it? That was odd. Pinfold would probably have aimed to have the discussion as covertly as possible and yet … surely, he would have gone whining to his supporters after Bruce had threatened him, unless someone had told him to keep his mouth firmly shut. Or … Bruce wanted to believe Pinfold was alone, that he was jealous of Gwen and trying to put her down, but it was impossible to convince himself. Pinfold simply didn’t have the nerve. Someone else was behind him, someone with enough nerve and power to stiffen Pinfold’s spine.

    Damn it, he thought. It was bad enough they hadn’t had a chance to talk, after they’d calmed down. It was worse to think she was going into danger, without him by her side. He’d follow orders, he’d do whatever she said … he shook his head crossly, knowing it wouldn’t happen. Gwen was so determined to prove she was as good as any man that she wasn’t going to do everything she could to tip the odds in her favour. What do I do if she dies?

    The thought was nightmarish. He loved Gwen. He … knew there’d never be anyone like her. Other girls felt like putty in his hands, all coy and giggling in a bid to draw his eye as they hinted at marriage … marriage not to him, but to his titles and bank account. His lips quirked into a bitter smile as the carriage rattled again. If there was a way to separate him from his title, the girls would chase the title and reject him. It was the way of the world. A man might lust and even love – and a woman too, although polite society insisted otherwise – but marriages were between families. Bruce liked to think he was a handsome soul, yet it mattered not. Everyone knew what happened to women who married penniless men.

    He shoved the thought out of his mind. It didn’t matter. Gwen would be fine, he told himself. She really had gone into danger, time and time again. And while he’d posed as a useless young man, he’d never tried to pretend to be anything other than American. Passing as a Frenchman might be beyond him, no matter how well he spoke the language. And yet, he feared for her. He didn’t want to let her go again.

    The carriage rattled to a halt. Bruce heard voices outside, demanding papers. The driver answered, his words too low for Bruce to make them out. They must have satisfied the guards, for the carriage shuddered back into life and headed onwards. Bruce sighed inwardly and gathered himself. It wouldn’t be long now.

    Sure, his thoughts mocked. And then it will be a very long time before you see her again.

    His heart twisted as the carriage stopped one final time. The driver jumped down and opened the door, revealing a simple port. A trading ship – sail rather than steam – floated at the dockside, even though it was quite some distance from the river mouth. Bruce didn’t like the implications. He knew from his old life just how easy it was to smuggle arms and ammunition by water, even into the heart of a giant city. He wasn’t sure how close they were to Whitehall, but if they were in London they were too close for comfort. He took a long breath, tasting the air. The stench of London assaulted him once again.

    We need to live out in the countryside, he thought, coldly. Growing up here can’t be healthy.

    He jumped down and made his way to the dockyard. The ship rose and fell as the water made its way down to the sea. He glanced into a warehouse and frowned as he saw crates upon crates of goods, each one carefully labelled in English and French. It really didn’t seem a good idea to be trading with the enemy, even by proxy. He had no idea if the secret intelligence network remained undetected or if the Bourbons were just biding their time, monitoring who and what passed through the network before rolling it up. There was no way to be sure, he reflected. Intelligence and counter-intelligence work was all smoke and mirrors and the real successes – and failures – often went unnoticed, at least by everyone outside the field. It was quite possible they’d all been taken for fools.

    The small party waved to him as they stood, just inside the warehouse. Bruce headed towards them, silently gauging the location. The dockyard was carefully designed to make it hard for anyone, even a flying magician, to see inside the compound. If he was any judge, the guards on the gate were soldiers rather than commercial guardsmen or policemen. And that meant … he wondered, suddenly, just what would happen if the London mob thought the dockyard was trading with the enemy. It wouldn’t be pleasant.

    “Bruce,” Gwen said. “I’m glad you could make it.”

    Bruce nodded, wishing – again – for some private time. There were too many witnesses; Lord Mycroft, Sir Edmund, a man he didn’t recognise. He wanted to tell her what had happened, what Pinfold had said to him, but how could he in front of strangers? And there were too many docksmen walking around, carrying crates onto the sailing ship. What would happen if they saw something and spread the word?

    He sucked in his breath as he looked at Gwen. She’d ditched her uniform, trading it for a simple dress and shirt that made her look like a prosperous trader, or the daughter of one. Her hair was hanging down in a neat little ponytail … he wondered why she hadn’t braided it, then remembered she’d need a maid to assist her. It wouldn’t be possible, not when a travelling women wealthy enough to have a maid would draw attention. He felt a twinge of something as he looked at her, something he didn’t care to look at too closely in front of witnesses. Gwen might be wearing strange clothes, but she was still Gwen. She hadn’t changed at all.

    “You look demure,” he said, finally. He’d wondered how she’d intended to convince the French she wasn’t the Royal Sorceress, but looking at her he knew the answer. Gwen was blonde and blue eyed and … there were thousands upon thousands of young women who matched that description. The French wouldn’t try to arrest them all – how could they? The very thought was absurd. “No one would know you.”

    Gwen smiled. “My mother certainly would not,” she said. “I know how to play the role.”

    Bruce let out a breath. “She’d certainly be shocked,” he agreed. He mentally cursed the onlookers. There was so much he wanted to say, but … he dared not. “Will you be careful?”

    “I always am,” Gwen said. “And you?”

    “I’ll come back with my shield or on it,” Bruce promised. He didn’t want to be thought a coward – or someone who’d be unmanned by his first taste of European war. “And you …”

    Sir Edmund cleared his throat. “I believe we are on a schedule,” he said, as the last of the crates were loaded onto the ship. “Sir Sander?”

    “Right you are,” the stranger said. He had an odd accent, one Bruce couldn’t place. He had a feeling it was an affection. “Lady Gwen, with your permission …?”

    Gwen met Bruce’s eyes. He saw a hint of love and regret and affection in her gaze, there and gone in seconds. It would be so much easier if they could talk mind to mind – he kicked himself, mentally, for not suggesting they practice – rather than out loud. There really were too many listening ears. And watching eyes … he wanted to reach out and take her in his arms, but he dared not. People would talk.

    “I’ll be back,” Gwen said. “Don’t let the Duke do anything stupid.”

    “I’ll do my best,” Bruce said. “Good luck.”

    He stepped back and gritted his teeth as Gwen and Sir Sander walked up the gangplank and onto the ship. He had no idea what sort of cover story had been created to explain her presence – Sir Sander hadn’t looked old enough to have a grown daughter – but it hardly mattered. Part of him was bitterly jealous at watching the man stand so close to his fiancé, the rest of him feared what could happen to her, alone on the high seas. Everyone knew what sailors did, even if they had trouble putting it into words. And the traders weren’t even naval officers.

    Not that naval officers are that much better, he thought, tartly. Lord Nelson seduced a married woman and carried on with her, long after the war ended in stalemate.

    “She is a very capable young woman,” Lord Mycroft said, as if he’d read Bruce’s thoughts. “She can handle herself.”

    “I should be with her,” Bruce said. He felt like a failure, even though orders were orders. The gangplank was being withdrawn, the lines unlocked one by one … he glanced into the darkening sky, wondering why the ship hadn’t left earlier. They’d have to be careful to make it down the Thames in the semi-darkness. The river pilots were experienced men, and the rover had been carefully charted over the years, but one uncharted sandbank would slow the voyage even if it didn’t bring it to a humiliating end. “She shouldn’t be alone.”

    “She won’t be alone,” Lord Mycroft assured him. “She has friends in Paris.”

    “Frenchmen,” Sir Edmund said, coldly. “And traitors to their own people.”

    Bruce scowled at him. “You are taking a hell of a risk with her life.”

    “She is sworn to the crown, as are we all,” Sir Edmund said. “We all do what we can. Lady Gwen is best suited for Paris and so she’ll go to Paris. You are best suited for the army and so you’ll go to Spain. Wave goodbye, then head back to Portsmouth. The army will be on the move shortly.”

    He turned and strode away. Bruce scowled at his back. It would be easy, so easy, to put a blast of magic in the man’s back. If he had magic, whatever it was, it wouldn’t be enough to stop him. There was no way in hell Sir Edmund was a Master Magician. He’d be in Gwen’s place if he was and … Bruce turned away, looking at the ship. It was already gliding away from the dock, a pair of lights burning brightly as darkness fell. A gust of cold wind blew over the river, sending shivers down his spine. He wanted to fly to her and yet … it was already too late.

    It isn’t too late, his thoughts argued. He was a fast flyer and the ship was hardly out of range. He could be on the deck before anyone even noticed his coming. I could get to her and …

    He glanced at Lord Mycroft. The man was making no attempt to move, even though Gwen was gone. What was he even doing on the dockside? Bruce doubted he’d come for the good of his health. Gwen had said Lord Mycroft spent most of his time moving between his office, his club and his rooms, somewhere in Whitehall. It spoke well of him, Bruce supposed, that he’d come to say goodbye. And yet, if he stayed there, Bruce couldn’t move without being instantly spotted …

    “She has enemies,” Lord Mycroft said. His voice was calm and composed, but there was a hint of something cold lurking behind the bland tone. “Some of them put her name forward for the mission.”

    Bruce stared at him. “She volunteered …”

    “There was never any doubt of it,” Lord Mycroft said, sharply. It was suddenly very hard to think of him as anything, but an elder statesman of no small renown. Bruce was suddenly reminded of his father … no, of a version of his father with all the dross burned away to reveal a cold calculating mind determined to do whatever it had to. It made him wonder just how far Lord Mycroft would go, to accomplish his goals. “Her enemies counted on it.”

    “Then I’m going with her,” Bruce said. He could fly to the boat now and to hell with what Sir Sander had to say about it. “She needs me.”

    “She needs a covert bodyguard,” Lord Mycroft said. He stuck a hand into his pocket and produced a wallet, which he passed to Bruce. “Take this, then fly to the boat and stowaway. Stay out of sight – don’t let anyone see you, not if it can be avoided. If she remains unaware of your presence, stay and protect her from a distance. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes, My Lord,” Bruce said, automatically. There were few people who commanded that sort of respect from him, but Lord Mycroft definitely qualified. Now. “What about the Duke?”

    “I’ll speak to him,” Lord Mycroft assured him. “He will not be pleased, but he’ll cope.”

    Bruce took a breath. “Why are you doing this? And why ... why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

    “Because I don’t want anyone to know she has a bodyguard,” Lord Mycroft told him. “And because you’ll go anyway, with or without permission. Won’t you?”

    Bruce coloured. He’d been through a dozen crazy plans, each one more insane than the last, ever since he’d been sent to Portsmouth. He could have risked flying directly to Paris – it wouldn’t be that hard – or taken a boat to the French coast and flown from there. There might be watching magicians, but he was sure he could have evaded them. He might even have been able to get to the coast without using magic, then bribe someone to take him to Paris. It would hardly have been that difficult.

    “Yes, My Lord,” he said, finally. He tucked the wallet in his belt. “I won’t let you down.”

    “Worry more about her,” Lord Mycroft said, bluntly. His voice was very hard. “And don’t let yourself be seen unless there’s no other choice.”

    Bruce nodded, then turned away. The ship was almost lost in the gathering gloom, the only sign of its presence a single light glowing on the stern. The famed London fog was closing in … he grinned at Lord Mycroft, then hurled himself into the air and flew over the choppy waters. The river seemed to splash around him, the waters filthy beyond words, as he darted towards the ship. It rose up in front of him, seemingly both huge and incredibly flimsy. Bruce had to admire the sailors for risking their lives in the toy … he told himself, firmly, that Christopher Columbus had opened up the new world with ships no larger than the Dutch vessel in front of him. She was as safe as possible, in a world with rough seas and magicians …

    He held himself by the deck as his eyes searched for a porthole. It was smaller than he’d expected, and locked besides, but he could cope. He drew on his magic, studying the lock and cabin through his mind’s eye, before unpicking it and levitating himself through the porthole. The sailors would have trouble believing anyone could have sneaked through the hole, but it was child’s play for him. There was no one between him and the hold, also locked. He had no trouble getting inside and locking the hatch behind him. The air was stuffy and unpleasant, but it was better than London’s ghastly stench.

    And now, all I have to do is wait, he told himself. It wouldn’t be that hard to avoid detection as long as he was careful, although he’d need to go look for food shortly. He hadn’t had time to get anything beyond the wallet and a quick check revealed nothing save for money and a set of false papers. It’ll only take two days to reach the Dutch Republic and then …

    He sighed inwardly as he sat down to wait. There were too many things that could go wrong. The English Channel and North Sea were notoriously dangerous bodies of water. The French Navy might spot them coming and insist on searching the ship … hell, the Royal Navy might do the same. The naval officers on both sides wouldn’t be happy at the semi-legal trade, even if their governments tolerated it for reasons of their own. And Gwen might sense his presence … Bruce tried not to think about what she’d say, if she knew he was shadowing her from a distance. Lord Mycroft had told him to go, but still … she’d be furious.

    But I couldn’t let her go alone, he thought. It was tempting to think he should go back to London and wring Pinfold’s neck until he talked, but Gwen came first. And as long as she’s alive, the rest doesn’t matter.
     
    mysterymet likes this.
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven: Ostend, Dutch Republic

    Gwen felt … uneasy.

    It wasn’t something she could put into words, but … it was there. A vague sense of disquiet, a feeling something wasn’t quite right, something … she paced the cabin repeatedly, checking and rechecking for peepholes and other unpleasant surprises. The cabin was tiny and smelly and generally unpleasant, yet it seemed to be private. And yet …

    I don’t know if Sander has a real daughter or niece or whatever, she thought, but I feel sorry for her.

    She scowled as she sat on the bunk and waited. It wasn’t the first time she’d travelled by sea – she’d sailed to America and back only a few short months ago – but she hadn’t been practically kept prisoner in her cabin. It didn’t matter that she could have picked the lock effortlessly with a hairpin, or simply blasted her way through the wood with magic; she was a prisoner, to all intents and purposes, and all the talk of safety merely grated on her. And yet … she scowled, remembering all the stories of what sailors did when confronted with something female, young and apparently defenceless. Sander had a point. It was better to keep temptation out of their way. Damn him.

    The ship rocked again, the sailors shouting outside as they steered her into the estuary. The crossing had been rough, the ship shifting so violently under her feet that she’d wondered if they were on the verge of capsizing. If the ship kneeled over … she wasn’t sure if she could get out before it was too late, if water slammed into the cabin while the ship sank to the bottom of the sea. She certainly couldn’t breathe underwater. She’d have to wrap herself in magic and fly up, hoping for the best. And if her oxygen ran out before she reached the surface …

    She heard someone rattling at the door and forced herself to stand on wobbly legs, looking down to make sure she was decent. She’d heard women had far more rights and freedoms in the Dutch Republic and yet, Sander had insisted she wore an outfit so demure she blended into the background. She supposed it wasn’t a bad choice on his part. She was meant to go unnoticed, either by watchful magicians or – more likely – guards and soldiers hunting for smugglers and criminals. There were horror stories about them too.

    And a couple of people tested the lock, she reminded herself. She’d heard the lock rattle in the middle of the night. Sailors, testing their luck? Or Sander making sure she hadn’t left the cabin? If this is someone else …

    The door opened. Sander entered, his face grim. “We have arrived,” he said, stiffly. “Are you ready?”

    Gwen nodded, curtly. She didn’t have much with her, save for a single bag she picked up and slung over her shoulder. There’d been no point in bringing much else with her. Her bags would probably be searched at one point, she’d been cautioned, and bringing anything obviously English would lead to questions she didn’t want to answer. It was a shame she hadn’t even been able to bring anything to read … she sighed inwardly, eying the bible on the table. It wasn’t the one she’d grown up with, when she’d been a little girl. But it had been all she’d had to distract herself from the rough seas and the task ahead of her.

    Sander beckoned her to follow him as he turned and walked back through the door. Gwen looked around, just to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind, then walked after him as he led the way through a pair of wooden doors and out onto the deck. The stench of a coastal town slapped her in the face, so similar and yet so different to London … she looked around, interested, as they made their way to the gangplank. Ostend was … odd. There were row upon row of drab grey buildings, broken by a handful of odder designs that seemed a little out of place. A pair of churches and a synagogue sat next to a mosque and a building she didn’t recognise, streams of people flowing in and out to pray for good weather and safe voyages before they set out on their travels. They seemed very diverse, she noted; men in drab clothes rubbed shoulders with men in courtly outfits and women in dresses that would scandalise High Society, men from Africa and the Ottoman Empire brushing up against men from China, Japan, India and a handful of other places Gwen had read about, but never seen. It was rare to see so much diversity in London, outside the docks, yet here …

    This is a coastal city, she reminded herself, as they made their way down the gangplank and onto the street. They trade with the entire world here.

    She kept her eyes open as they kept walking. There didn’t seem to be any police or customs agents checking the passengers as they disembarked, let alone searching the cargo for prohibited goods. She wondered at it, then remembered the Dutch Republic was practically run by its merchants, none of whom would be remotely happy with a government that impeded free trade. They had to keep the trade links open, come what may. Without them, the Dutch Republic would be nothing more than a tiny state on the edge of the Bourbon Empire. They’d be gobbled up whenever the French felt the need for a short victorious war to remind everyone they were the leading state in Europe, if not the world.

    Her eyes narrowed as she spotted the gunnery positions on the edge of the harbour, covering the approaches. The Dutch weren’t taking chances. The Spanish had tried to crush them, in the days of Imperial Spain, and the long and brutal war had left vast swathes of the republic in ruins. They’d fought the British and French later, barely preserving their independence against extremely powerful foes. Gwen had to admire their determination. She wondered, idly, if Britain would do so well, if she hadn’t been protected by the English Channel.

    The sense of unease refused to fade as they left the harbour and walked into the town itself. It felt strikingly compact, as if the population was crammed into a tiny space, yet there was no sense of oppression or disharmony. The people looked and sounded free … her lips twitched, briefly, as she spotted a number of women walking the streets alone, without even a hint of a male guardian. Rare, in London, but here … others manned shops, or spoke at street corners, or just seemed to enjoy life. Their outfits veered between the staid and unquestionable to the striking and stunning, some even revealing their shapely legs or the tops of their breasts. Gwen shook her head in disbelief. Anyone who walked into High Society like that, back home, would be the talk of the town. And not in a good way.

    Sander reached a large warehouse complex on the edge of town and stopped. “The convoy should be ready to depart,” he said, shortly. “Are you ready?”

    Gwen nodded, feeling uncomfortably like a package being handed from person to person. “Yes.”

    “Good,” Sander said. “Remember the cover story, and say as little as possible. Your French is not good.”

    Gwen scowled at his back as he turned away and headed into the warehouse, although she knew he had a point. She could make herself understood, but her accent was too English for anyone’s peace of mind. There were limits to how far she could disguise herself. She’d spent some time, before departure, working with a French tutor who spoke with a southern accent, but he’d cautioned her she didn’t sound anything like as countrified as she needed to be. Gwen’s lips twitched sourly at the thought. It might be better to seem like a country mouse than a city lion, in a world where countryfolk were often looked down upon by their city relatives, but it was still annoying. And if her accent wasn’t perfect – or too perfect – someone might start asking questions.

    Better to be thought an idiot than a spy, she told herself. Paris – like London – was a melting pot. The young and eager – or desperate – flocked in droves to the capital city, hoping to make better lives for themselves and largely failing. If they don’t take me seriously …

    She pushed the thought aside and watched as the convoy assembled. It was bigger than she’d expected – nine passenger coaches, fourteen wagons loaded with cargo – but she supposed it didn’t matter. Sander had given her a crash course in the underground economy – a fancy term, she’d thought, for smuggling networks – and he’d noted that, as the formal economy staggered and collapsed, the underground was coming more and more into the open. She’d thought it was just rare and expensive products, but apparently it was food and drink as well as silks, satins and quite a few other things. It made her wonder how bad things had become in France, if smugglers were making money by sneaking food into the country. Couldn’t France feed itself?

    Sander motioned for her to clamber into a carriage, then followed her. Two older woman joined them, their eyes flickering with cold disapproval – Gwen had no trouble recognising it – that seemed to be directed more at Sander than herself. It took her a moment to realise they didn’t think he should be supervising her so closely, even though her cover story insisted she was a distant relative accompanying him to learn the trade. Or perhaps they were just annoyed at having to share a carriage with a man. They could hardly talk freely with him sitting right next to them.

    She peered through the window, watching as the last of the smugglers moved into position. She’d always had the impression smugglers sneaked around – there was no shortage of folk legends about heroic smugglers outwitting customs and exercise men – but the Dutch didn’t seem to be making any attempt to hide. Sander had sworn blind it was safe … she gritted her teeth as the carriage rattled into life, the drive surprisingly smooth as they made their way through the streets. That changed, the moment they passed through the gates. The Dutch roads were worse than the roads outside London, something she would have considered impossible. But then, the Dutch had a vested interest in making it difficult to drive from the French border to the cities.

    A handful of horsemen – clearly French – joined them as they drove down the road, passing fortifications from simple trenches to massive fortresses bristling with guns. She was surprised the Frenchmen were being allowed to see the defences, then decided it was probably an attempt to remind them that any attempt to invade the republic would be costly even if the invaders occupied the entire country. The Dutch had plans to blow the dykes – the dams – and flood vast swathes of their own country, perhaps even drowning an invading army as it marched west into the heart of Dutch territory. Gwen had no idea how well it would work out, but she had to agree it was a reasonable deterrent. The cost of cleaning up the mess would be staggering. And if the floods destroyed an entire army …

    She tried to relax as the convoy – growing larger all the time – drove onwards, the landscape shifting constantly between patches of farmland and clumps of rocky wilderness that looked tough territory for armies. Sander said nothing – she wondered if he wished they were alone, so he could talk to her – and the two women kept their thoughts to themselves. Gwen wished for a book – for something, anything, to do – as time ticked on and on. Sander had said they’d be in France by the end of the day, but … it felt as if they were barely moving. She would have preferred a railway carriage. The French were behind England, when it came to using railways to link the disparate regions into one, but they weren’t that far behind. Surely there’d be a rail line to the Dutch Republic or two.

    But the Dutch don’t want the French that close to their border, she thought. And the French might feel very much the same way.

    The landscape continued to change as they headed towards the border, the farms becoming larger and seemingly more prosperous. Gwen tried not to yawn, unwilling to sleep so close to Sander and two women she didn’t know. The disapproving looks they kept shooting her reminded her of society matrons back home, although she didn’t know what they found so annoying. Compared to some of the girls in Ostend, she was practically covered from head to toe. Perhaps they suspected she wasn’t quite what she seemed. It wasn’t uncommon for a wealthy man to hide an affair by claiming his mistress was actually a relative …

    And yet, there’d be no need to hide it if that was the case, she reflected. The Dutch aren’t as priggish as the English.

    The carriages rattled to a halt. Gwen leaned forward to peer out the window. A handful of guards stood in front of a small building … she couldn’t help thinking, looking at it, that it looked like an absurdly tiny castle. She smiled as Sander stepped past her and clambered to the ground, then held out a hand to help her follow him down. The women tut-tutted in disapproval, just loud enough to be heard. Gwen ignored them, choosing instead to look around as they walked to the guardhouse. She’d half-expected the French border to be walled solid, but there was nothing beyond the guardhouse and a handful of boundary markers that flowed into the distance and vanished in the haze. Gwen snorted at herself a moment later. France was a big country. It would be fantastically expensive to build a wall around the Dutch Republic and, if they did, it would be as pointless as Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans might have expected the Scots to stay on the far side, although Gwen doubted it. They’d learnt better. So had the French.

    “Stay here,” Sander ordered.

    Gwen nodded as Sander went forward to talk to the officer in charge. The French troops were odd. They were finely dressed – they stood out so clearly she knew they weren’t expecting trouble – and yet, they managed to look sullen and slovenly. They didn’t look anything like as tough as the Franco-Spanish troops she’d faced in America … she had the feeling that, despite their uniforms, their morale was in the pits. She frowned. Had they even been paid? Sander certainly didn’t seem to have any trouble convincing them to take a bribe …

    Sander rejoined her. “We’re good,” he said, as he led the way back to the carriage. The leading wagons were already driving forward, passing the guardhouse and heading into France. “No trouble at all.”

    Gwen blinked. “They just took the money?”

    “That, and a few other things,” Sander said, vaguely. “The border guards are supposed to be well paid, for their service, but their pay is often weeks or months delayed. Even when they get it … prices are rising constantly, so the money is worth less and less and they can’t feed their families. We come along and offer a bribe for safe passage, without any attempt at a search, and they leap at the chance.”

    “I see,” Gwen said, remembering her earlier thoughts. Fancy uniforms were meaningless if you didn’t get paid. “Doesn’t anyone check up on them?”

    Sander laughed, harshly. “There isn’t an officer in the borderlands who doesn’t have at least some ties to the smugglers, or the republic, or both. People have been going back and forth across the border for centuries, no matter who’s in charge. To hell with religion or politics or whatever, there’s money to be made. No one wants to rock the boat. And if they did, they wouldn’t last long.”

    His expression darkened. “A couple of years ago, a senior official was sent out to clean up the mess. A wealthy man, with courtly connections and everything else he needed to ensure he didn’t have to take bribes. And he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the back repeatedly. It was very tragic.”

    Gwen said nothing as they scrambled back into the carriage, the driver cracking the whip as soon as the door was firmly closed. A shiver ran down her spine as they passed the guardhouse, crossing the line into France. Enemy territory … she was almost disappointed, as they rattled down the road, that it looked no different to the land on the far side of the border. The handful of farmers – all male – could have passed for Dutchmen. If she hadn’t already known she’d crossed the border she wouldn’t have known at all. There was nothing in view to suggest she was in a foreign country.

    Her lips tightened. France was enemy territory. There were no shortage of utterly absurd stories about the evils lurking in France, ranging from monstrous people to outright monkeys. An English town had even hanged a monkey on the grounds he had to be a Frenchman. And yet, France looked surprisingly like England. The buildings were a little different, she had to admit, but otherwise … she shook her head in irritation. She’d read the canards they said about her. She knew very well they were nothing but lies.

    Everyone demonises their enemies, she thought, ruefully. It’s easier to slander them than address their points.

    “We’ll be stopping shortly for the night,” Sander told her. He sounded relieved, as if he’d been more worried about the border crossing than he’d been prepared to admit. “And we’ll resume our journey in the morning.”

    Gwen nodded, shortly. It had been a very long day.
     
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve: Border Region, France

    Bruce was reluctant to admit it, as he rode beside the carriages, but it had been disturbingly easy to attach himself to the convoy. He’d expected to find it hard, if not impossible, and yet they’d accepted it without a second thought. There were quite a few different groups of traders, smugglers and travellers, all heading in the same general direction, and no one had objected to a another horseman. Perhaps it made a certain kind of sense – there was strength in numbers, after all – but it still bothered him. If he’d joined the convoy, who else had done the same?

    The feeling of unease grew stronger as they crossed the border and headed into France itself. It was no surprise they’d bribed their way past the guards – Bruce had been a Son of Liberty long enough to know customs and exercise men were mindlessly corrupt and venial – but the landscape beyond was strikingly poor. Bruce had travelled up to Canada – it had been New France, before British and Colonial American troops had conquered it – and the Frenchmen had been happy, prosperous and relatively peaceful. France itself … Bruce wasn’t a farming expert, but he had the sense the farmers were producing less and less with every passing year. A surprising number of farms seemed poor, or abandoned, or … it boded ill, he thought, for the future. If France really couldn’t feed itself …

    He’d expected the convoy to stop at a traveller’s inn, as would have happened in Britain, but instead they came to a halt in a clearing, a few miles inside the border. Bruce clambered off his horse and stretched, keeping a wary eye out for Gwen. It might have been smarter to follow the convoy at a safe distance, and he intended to put some distance between them as soon as he could, but a lone horseman would inevitably draw more attention when he crossed the border. Bruce didn’t want to risk it. Lord Mycroft had given him some money, but nowhere near enough to convince the guards to look the other way. They’d be a great deal more suspicious of a man on his own.

    There was no grumbling, he was surprised to note, as the convoy prepared a hasty meal, then settled down to rest. The womenfolk – including Gwen – were kept separate from the men, something Bruce knew would annoy her even though it would ensure she didn’t stick out too much. He accepted a request to join the guards for a few hours, then sat back and waited as the remainder of the convoy headed to bed. Some would sleep under the wagons, but others would rest their weary heads under the stars. Bruce felt a twinge of pain as he forced himself to stay awake. There were four guards and if they all fell asleep …

    The very fact they need to establish a guard rota is bad news, he thought, as he concentrated on smoothing his aches and pains. Do they expect to be attacked?

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Highwaymen weren’t unknown in Britain, but they rarely attacked anything bigger than a single carriage or two. There might be patches of extreme violence up in the north of Scotland and Ireland, from what he’d heard, but England was relatively safe. France felt more like the wilderness to the east of the colonies, back in America. Patches of civilisation, tiny outposts of western civilisation surrounded by unexplored and untamed lands … no one dared travel alone, outside the stockades, unless they were very brave or very stupid. Bruce was a powerful magician, perhaps one of the most powerful in the world, and yet even he wouldn’t go alone. Not there.

    He gritted his teeth. He was a skilled horseman – he’d been learning to ride almost as soon as he’d learnt to walk – but he had his limits. The horse he’d hired at staggering expense didn’t seem to like him either. He was going to be sore tomorrow, no matter what he did. He was almost tempted to try to stay awake all night, although he knew it was a very bad idea. He’d be in no shape for anything the following morning.

    The night air seemed cool, yet there was an edge of threat to the wind that made it hard to relax. He closed his eyes, opening his mind gingerly. There was no way to be sure there were no enemy sorcerers watching for invaders, and Gwen herself wasn’t that far away, but as long as he was careful there’d be nothing for them to detect. The real danger was a mind-reader insisting on checking each and every person in the convoy … not, he supposed, that even the French would dare risk that. Talkers were the most feared and hated magicians, even though they were far less destructive than Movers or Blazers. But then, no one liked the thought of having their mind read …

    Something brushed against his mind, a flicker that was gone almost as soon as he detected it. Bruce bit his lip hard to keep from reacting. A questing mind ...? Someone taking the risk of reaching out with their mind, in hopes of detecting someone responding to the probe? Or … it didn’t feel like a provocation. It felt more like a flicker of magic far too close for comfort. It wasn’t Gwen. Her magic was far more controlled.

    Bruce stood, drawing on all his stealth to slip away without making a sound. The other guards would think he was going to relieve himself, somewhere in the trees. Bruce’s lips twisted in disgust. They wouldn’t expect him to go that far, not when there could be anything lurking in the shadows. He’d grown up on stories of the men who opened up vast tracts of America to settlement … and what happened to those men when they went too far from the campfire, when they were caught and killed by the Indians. There weren’t any Indians here, he was sure, but someone was far too close for comfort. The pulse of magic was closer now – and stronger. He didn’t like it.

    His eyes seemed to sharpen as he drew on his magic. He’d never been anything like as precise as Gwen, when it came to the mental arts, but he knew enough to be dangerous. The darkness faded, as if it were broad daylight. He saw – sensed – a handful of people inching towards the camp, at least one of them a magician. An unpleasant sensation ran down his spine, as if someone had brushed their hands against his body without his permission. A charmer, he realised dully. And a very powerful one too.

    The men came into sharp focus as he paused, careful to hide within the shadows. A couple looked like deserters – they wore military uniforms, tattered and torn – but the remainder were just bandits. They seemed famished, as if they hadn’t had a decent meal for years. Bruce shuddered in disgust. They’d be desperate, which would make them dangerous. He’d overheard someone claiming the French had resorted to cannibalism, something he’d dismissed the moment he’d heard it. Now, he wondered if he’d been wrong. If the French really were that desperate …

    He pushed the thought aside. He could sneak back to the camp and raise the alarm and … and then what? Some of the smugglers were armed, but there was no guarantee they could beat the bandits. Even if they did, the fighting might draw attention from the border guards … particularly if Gwen used her magic. The bandits had remained undetected for quite some time – Bruce suspected that meant the French didn’t have magicians to spare for bandit hunting – but that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t take notice. Better to deal with them himself and hope for the best.

    And they will loot the convoy, rape the women and then kill everyone, he thought, as he scooped up a rock and captured it with his mind’s eye. The bandits wouldn’t want to leave any witnesses. They don’t deserve to live.

    He pushed the rock forward with his mind. It hissed silently through the air and struck a bandit with terrifying force, cracking his skull so hard he had no time to make a sound before he died. Bruce felt the man’s mind snap out of existence, but had no time to consider the enormity of what he’d done. He caught the man’s body with his magic and lowered it gingerly to the ground, then steered the rock into the second bandit. His skull shattered, droplets of blood and gore flying everywhere. The other bandits tensed, hands snapping to weapons. They had surprisingly good discipline, Bruce noted coldly. They didn’t make a sound, even though they knew something had gone wrong.

    For all they know, he tripped and hurt himself, he thought, as he reached out with his magic once more. The forest was a surprisingly noisy place, even at night. He’d actually thought it was quieter than it should be, although he wasn’t sure why. The bandits didn’t know they’d been spotted, not yet, and if they were quiet they might still be able to get into position to attack the convoy or back off without confirming their presence to the guards. But it is too late for them.

    The closest bandit had no warning as Bruce’s magic tightened on his skull and crushed it to a pulp. The further ones started to move backwards, their eyes searching for threats, but it was too late. Bruce killed them all, one by one, as he searched for the magician. A man broke and run, heading into the distance. Bruce guessed he was the magician – most Charmers were cowards – and reached out to catch the man’s leg, sending him crashing headfirst into the ground. His senses swept the forest for more threats and confirmed there were no more bandits save for the leader, then relaxed. Bruce walked calmly to the fallen man and stared down at him, then turned him over. The man was a sinewy weakling, surprising for someone who worked on the farm. His face was pockmarked with traces of smallpox …

    “Let me go,” the man hissed. His voice dripped magic, despite his pain. “Let me go …”

    Bruce felt the magic batter against his mental defences, then fade to nothingness. Charmers could be very dangerous, particularly if their victim had no idea he was being influenced, but they had their limits. One didn’t need magic to resist, just a tight grip on one’s own thoughts and feelings. He reached down and pressed the man’s lips closed. Actually tearing out the man’s tongue might not be enough to still his power – Charm worked in ways no none quite understood – but it would cripple it. He’d certainly need time to relearn how to use his power and Bruce doubted he’d have the time. A man leading a mob of bandits – and given how poorly they’d acted, he suspected he knew how the Charmer had taken control – was pretty much always on the edge.

    “I have questions,” he whispered, pitching his voice as low as he could. Sound could travel surprisingly far in the darkness and if the guards had heard anything, they’d be on the alert for more. “Come with me and answer them and I’ll let you go. Refuse to answer and I’ll hurt you.”

    He yanked the bandit to his feet and pushed him further into the forest. It wasn’t easy to guess a safe distance, so he walked further than he thought necessary. The bandit didn’t try to struggle. Bruce was almost disappointed. Charmers tended not to engage in fisticuffs – and the bandit knew Bruce was stronger even if he didn’t know Bruce had magic – but still he should have tried to fight. Or run. Or something …

    They reached a small clearing, illuminated by moonlight. Bruce shoved the bandit to the ground and bent over him. Dark eyes stared back, full of fright. The bandit probably wasn’t used to losing control, particularly with his magic. Bruce had heard stories of Charmers – including a handful who never realised they actually had magic – taking control so effortlessly resistance was utterly futile. Like most bullies, they crumbled when challenged by someone more powerful.

    “Pathetic,” he said. “Why did you attack us?”

    “We’re starving,” the bandit said. Bruce tasted the truth in his words … and more besides, a disgusting pulse of lust and bitterness that boded ill for anyone who fell into his hands. “We need food.”

    “And you thought to rob us,” Bruce said. There’d only been twenty bandits, nineteen of whom were dead. The convoy outnumbered them … although, if the bandits managed to take out the guards, they might just manage to get the drop on everyone else. One could go quite some distance through bluff, bluster and a willingness to be absolutely ruthless if push came to shove. “Why?”

    “We need food,” the bandit repeated.

    Bruce frowned. It was hard to be sure, but the man sounded a little more educated than he’d expected. “How did you become a bandit anyway?”

    The bandit glared at him. “Who are you?”

    “I’m asking the questions,” Bruce said. He rested his foot on the man’s chest, daring him to resist. “You’re an educated man, aren’t you? Why are you a bandit?”

    “I …” The bandit sagged noticeably. “I went to school. I was going to be a schoolmaster. They discovered I had magic. They were going to kill me, just for existing, and so I fled and became the leader of a gang and …”

    “You compelled them to follow you,” Bruce said. He couldn’t imagine the bandits following their leader willingly. He was too much of a wimp in a land where strength came first. “Why were they trying to kill you? Who did you Charm?”

    “No one,” the man protested. Bruce suspected that wasn’t entirely true. It would be quiet easy to seduce a wife, or a daughter, or … who knew? Perhaps he’d tried to charm a tax inspector and discovered, too late, the man was trained to resist charm. “They wanted to kill me for existing!”

    Bruce frowned. He’d been told the French had banned magic, to the point of executing every magician who fell into their hands, but that policy had fallen by the wayside as soon as they’d realised how much magic helped their British enemies. They’d still crippled themselves, killing hundreds of magicians and convincing others to keep their powers secret as long as possible … or to flee, either to England or the New World or somewhere else that wouldn’t try to murder them. And yet … he scowled down at the man. He might have been forced to flee – Bruce had his doubts, knowing how much damage a Charmer could do if he didn’t realise he had magic – but that didn’t excuse his crimes. Bruce had grown up in America. He didn’t coddle men who preyed on their fellows …

    And I can’t leave him alive, he thought, coldly. He had no doubt the bandit, lacking any faith in his magic and all too aware his gang had been slaughtered, wouldn’t hesitate to sell him out. He could tell the government about me.

    He bounced a handful of questions off the bandit, although the man knew little useful and cared less. Yes, farming was growing less and less profitable. Yes, taxes were getting higher and higher. Yes, the nobles and the clergy and the well-connected weren’t paying their fair share … they were even being coddled by the government, even as the poor were taxed out of house and home. The entire countryside was simmering with anger and rebellion, the bandits merely the tip of a growing iceberg heading straight for the ship of state. Bruce was surprised the countryside hadn’t exploded already. But then, it was never easy to predict when sullen anger would turn to violence.

    “Let me go,” the bandit pleaded. His magic leaked into his voice, to no avail. “Please …”

    Bruce reached out with his magic and crushed the bandit’s skull. The man went limp. Bruce sighed inwardly. The man was no Robin Hood, no Ethan Allen … no heroic warrior who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, as if such figures really existed. He might have been driven out of house and home, but – since then – he’d looted and raped and killed his way across the countryside. His band of cutthroats would have slaughtered the entire convoy if they’d been given a chance. The man had died relatively peacefully – and painlessly – and that was all Bruce would do for him.

    Rest in peace, he thought, as he searched the man’s clothes. There was nothing; no coins, no maps, not even a weapon or two. Proof, if he’d needed it, that pickings had been very slim indeed. There was no point in trying to steal from people who didn’t have anything worth the risk. Goodbye.

    He turned and made his way slowly back to the campsite. It hadn’t been that long since he’d left, but … he allowed himself a sigh of relief as the guards paid no heed to him. If they’d heard something … he scowled as he remembered something else the bandit had said, something that matched his own observations. There was much less wildlife in the region than he’d expected, not even small animals scurrying through the undergrowth. He didn’t like it. If the locals were hunting so desperately they didn’t leave a breeding population behind …

    Good god, he thought, as the guard shift finally came to an end. Crop failures were hardly unknown – he’d heard of farmers losing everything they’d planted to locusts or unexpected weather – but this was on an impossible scale. It was almost too big to comprehend. The entire country might be on the verge of total famine.
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen: Paris, France

    “Paris,” Sander said. He’d grown more willing to speak, once the two women had departed … not without a final sniff. “Once we’re through the gates, we’ll be there.”

    Gwen nodded. It had been an eye-opening trip in many ways, even as the convoy had started to split up, the various groups heading to their separate destinations. She’d seen the lands and farms around London and noted how they seemed to flow into the city, but the region around Paris was worse. It was hard to be sure – she was no expert – but the small farms appeared to be on their very last legs, while the larger fields looked as if they were being worked to death. There were signs of trouble everywhere, from armed guards patrolling the roads to burnt-out houses, farms and churches, the latter apparently desecrated as well. Gwen understood, better than she cared to admit. The Bourbons had forced the Pope to bend the knee to them long ago, putting the Catholic Church at their service and ordering the clergy to keep the commoners in line. It hadn’t taken long for dissidents to start popping up in previously peaceful regions.

    And for the church to be seen as just another oppressor, she reflected. The French Church was one of the greatest landholders in the country, snapping up lands with a passion that far exceeded any sense of prudence. Worse, it didn’t pay taxes. Gwen had always found it maddening to be lectured on social propriety by women who clearly didn’t practice it themselves and she assumed the average Frenchman, when told about his duty to pay taxes to his king, felt much the same way. No wonder so many churches are being attacked.

    The landscape seemed to grow darker as they crossed a river and headed down to Paris itself. The city was surrounded by slums, rows upon rows of shanty housing and shacks that were grim and dirty and crammed with the poor and the desperate. The hopelessness was stifling … she shuddered as she saw a handful of women selling themselves, their children sitting next to them, as listless as the rest. The guards patrolled in small groups, where they patrolled at all. She tried not to be sick as the wind shifted, blowing an unspeakable stench into her face. The French knew how to boil water and wash thoroughly to keep their population healthy, but it stank as if they’d forgotten basic hygiene. She turned away as she saw a young child lapping from a pool of brackish water. If the poor child lasted a year in the slums …

    Her stomach twisted painfully. She wasn’t sure – yet – if she wanted children. She’d never discussed it with Bruce – the thought reminded her there were a lot of other things they’d never discussed – and yet, she was sure he’d feel an obligation to have at least one or two children. Gwen wasn’t her father’s only child – and she wouldn’t even carry the family name after she married – but Bruce was an only child. He’d need to have children to carry on the family name. And … she tried not to think about it. She knew how dangerous it could be to carry a child to term, even in the best of places. Here … she didn’t want to contemplate it for a moment. Any pregnant women in the slums was unlikely to survive giving birth.

    No wonder the French moved their court out of the city, she thought, as they neared the walls. Paris was supposed to be beautiful, but – to her – it looked like just another city. The walls seemed to come from another era, in which the city might come under siege at any moment, yet the shacks and slums pressed so close to the walls she had no doubt they were effectively useless. The king wouldn’t want to be so close to this … this nightmare.

    She sucked in her breath and forced herself to wait as they joined a long line of wagons, carts and carriages trying to get through the gates. A stream of people on foot walked past them, mainly farmers and other countryfolk … she guessed they were looking for work in the big city. Anyone who was anyone would ride, on a horse or in a carriage, and the poor … she cursed under her breath as the line inched forward, painfully slow. Why didn’t they just open up the gates and let everyone come and go as they pleased?

    Because the city is already bursting with people, she thought, answering her own question. And they want to know who’s coming into their capital before they let them pass.

    It felt like hours before the carriage finally reached the towering gatehouse. The guards were more alert than the border guards, she noted, although they paid little attention to her. She relaxed, slightly, even though they’d expect her to be annoyed at how they were pawing their way through her bag. It wasn’t as if she’d brought dozens of dresses and expensive pantaloons … how could she, when she was pretending to be a trader’s distant relative? She certainly couldn’t be expected to dress to the nines, let alone … she shook her head and waited, keeping her mouth shut as the guards bombarded Sander with questions. He answered them all calmly, even when they turned insulting. It was a relief when they were finally allowed to drive through the gates and into the city itself.

    “Better to let them find a small problem, then wonder why they can’t find anything,” Sander commented. “As long as they think we’re not up to something really bad …”

    Gwen nodded, studying the streets of Paris with a cold critical eye. Paris had been a favoured destination of the Grand Tourists, before the war, and their descriptions had imbued the city with a brilliance and a glamour she considered sorely lacking. There were streets of remarkable elegance, she noted, but the majority were as dark and grimy as any London could boast. The alleyways were crammed with shacks, just like the slums outside the walls, while the inns were crowed with men drinking away their sorrows. Tension hung in the air, a promise of violence and death to come. She hadn’t felt anything like it, not even during the worst of the Swing. London’s poor had the opportunity to emigrate to the New World. Paris didn’t seem to have that option.

    She kept her thoughts to herself as a military patrol strode past, the officer on horseback and his men on foot. Bastard. She understood the importance of projecting authority, but she doubted the officer was trying anything of the sort. Being on a horse while his men walked just made him look insecure, if not a coward planning to gallop away if the crowd turned and attacked them. Horses were fantastical beasts of war, she knew, but they could be very vulnerable in confined spaces. The officer might be an idiot as well as a coward.

    The carriage drove into a courtyard and rattled to a halt. “Home away from home,” Sander said, cheerfully. He opened the hatch and jumped down, then helped her to step after him. “And your friend should already be on the way.”

    Gwen nodded. They’d stopped beside a building that looked like a cross between an inn and a warehouse. Teams of men were already walking towards the remains of the convoy, hurrying to unload so the legal goods could be sold and the semi-legal and flat-out illicit goods smuggled further into the city. Gwen suspected they didn’t need to move so quickly, but who knew? Paris wasn’t the borderlands. It was a great deal harder to bribe the local police and guardsmen, from what she’d been told. The military patrols, in particular, were drawn from the fancier regiments. They were often too wealthy to bribe.

    Sander showed her into a small room and told her to wait. Gwen sat down and picked up a newspaper, her eye running down the articles. She’d been told the French press was heavily censored, when it wasn’t controlled – directly or indirectly – by the government, but she hadn’t realised how much was kept from the population until she read the newspaper for herself. There was no mention of anything from America, no hint of revolution in Spain, no suggestion a French invasion force had stormed British beaches, only to be driven back into the sea. And nothing, nothing at all, about food shortages and all the other problems she’d noted during the trip from Ostend to Paris. The writing was so bland it was easy to see why so few people believed it.

    She leaned back in her chair, opening her mind slightly. There were no magicians – no active magicians – near her, at least as far as she could tell. There were no suspicious minds either, although that was meaningless. She couldn’t passively read someone’s mind, not without reaching out and … she shook her head. Right now, it would be dangerous to risk opening her mind any further. God alone knew what might crawl into her thoughts.

    A mind brushed against hers, lightly. She started, gathering her power. If she was caught … she’d have to fight her way out and hope she could make it clear of the city before she ran out of magic. If there was anywhere, anywhere at all, where the French would concentrate their magicians … she breathed a sigh of relief as Irene Adler stepped into the room, wearing a dress that made her look like just another poor woman working desperately to keep food on the table and a roof above her head. Her old friend and tutor looked Gwen up and down, then grinned. Their minds touched again, a subtle warning to be quiet as Irene unslung her bag and opened it to reveal another dress. Gwen took it and the hat, then pulled them on and followed Irene through the door. Sander knew she was going. Anyone else shouldn’t notice them at all.

    She kept her eyes open as they left the warehouse and made their way through the streets, carefully avoiding the city centre. The people on the streets looked drab and sullen, although there were flashes of colour and bright display that drew the eye for a few brief seconds. The whores waved and beckoned, even to two women … Irene ignored them and Gwen followed her lead. It felt like she was adrift in a dreamlike world, everything ever-so-slightly out of place, by the time they stepped into a simple dressmaker’s shop. Irene closed the door and slid the bolt. Gwen sagged, feeling safe for the first time in days.

    Safe, her thoughts mocked. You’re not that far from the Bastille.

    “It’s been a while,” Irene said, as she turned to lead Gwen further into the shop. She spoke perfect French, with a surprisingly formal accent. Gwen wasn’t surprised. Irene changed her personas as easily as Gwen changed her dresses. “I hear you’re getting married.”

    “Yes,” Gwen said, in English. “I …”

    “French,” Irene snapped. “You speak that tongue here, someone will overhear and report it.”

    Gwen flushed, cursing herself. It had been a stupid mistake. “Sorry,” she said, in French. “It’s been a long day.”

    “For everyone,” Irene said. “We were lucky we had this place organised ahead of time. Even so, when she turned up, we had to scramble to deal with her.”

    Simone, Gwen thought. Does Irene trust her?

    She leaned forward, putting the question into words. “Can we trust her?”

    “She guards her thoughts well, that one,” Irene said. “Not that I wouldn’t do the same, if I was in her place. We owe her nothing and she knows it. But I’ve picked up enough hints from around here” – she waved a hand in the air – “to think something is going to change and change fast. They’re not dispatching a major force to Spain.”

    Gwen frowned. Bruce was going to Spain … he might be there already, if he’d been assigned to the lead elements. The Duke of India had talked about using rebel-held ports to unload his army … if the ports remained in rebel hands, when the Royal Navy arrived. It was odd the French weren’t taking the crisis seriously. If the British landed an army and took control of Portugal, and secured the borders between Portugal and Spain, it would be extremely difficult to dislodge them.

    “Why?” Gwen found it hard to believe. “Don’t they know the risks?”

    “Yes, or so I assume,” Irene agreed. “A number of courtiers have very private doubts … never said out loud, of course. They assume, rightly or wrongly, that expressing their doubts will get them beheaded. They might be right. Versailles has done a lot of clamping down over the last few days, after an anarchist broke into a ballroom and tried to blow up the guests. If anyone really has raised objections, I haven’t heard about it.”

    Gwen nodded. “Would you?”

    “It’s hard to say,” Irene said. “The French aristocracy is a mess. Anyone who can prove they have aristocratic blood is legally entitled to a pension, a room and a place at court. The cost is staggering, even though most aristos aren’t really entitled to that much. The bigger aristos, the landholders and a handful of military officers as well as the blood royal, are the ones who are really important, and – of those – the ones with real influence are the ones the king keeps close. They are smart enough to keep their mouths shut, at least when they don’t know who’s listening.”

    “It sounds like a nightmare,” Gwen observed.

    “It is.” Irene shot her a mischievous look. “King Louis – every third Frenchman is named Louis – has real power. His wife has very little, at least in public. Even so, they can’t change protocol. They have almost no privacy, surrounded by aristos dancing attendance on them while trying to get the king to agree to … to anything. Half the aristos have claims on property and titles held by the other half, which means they’re constantly suing for the return of … of anything. The other half are determined to keep whatever they’ve got …”

    She shook her head. “It’s no surprise to me that very little gets done. They need to reform just about everything, from land ownership to the tax system and religious settlements, before the country explodes, but every time someone proposes a change everyone else gangs up on him and the suggestion is firmly buried. So yes … I do think that anyone with doubts would have kept his mouth shut. There’s nothing to be gained by getting one’s head lopped off for nothing.”

    Gwen nodded. “And to think I used to imagine being presented at court.”

    Irene snorted. “You should be glad you’re not a young woman living here,” she said. “It’s a whole different world. The majority of the aristos have nothing better to do, but chase women – or men – and plot against their peers. You can’t wave a hand without hitting someone plotting against someone else, often for the smallest of stakes. The queen is a particularly enthusiastic plotter, I’m sorry to report. She has little else to do with her life.”

    “Poor woman,” Gwen said. It felt odd to feel sympathy for a French queen, but … she knew what it was like to be trapped in a goldfish bowl. “What now?”

    “I have deliveries to make,” Irene said. “As far as anyone is concerned, you’re my new apprentice from the south. Your mother was English which will explain your accent, if anyone bothers to ask. That’ll give us a chance to explore the city, letting you get your bearings before we make contact with her and decide how to proceed. I was … discouraged … from making any contacts with the underground, at least until now. And we might walk into very real trouble.”

    Gwen frowned. “How so?”

    “Paris is on the edge,” Irene said, bluntly. “The police are doing what they can to break up any revolutionary circles, but … there are more revolutionaries than policemen and a hell of a lot more angry and frustrated people on the streets, keen to take their rage out on any passing policemen. There are parts of the city that are simply too dangerous for the police now, or for anything less than a cavalry regiment. Even the upper-class districts aren’t exactly safe now. Half of them are revolutionaries themselves or think the coming revolt will end with them on the top … Gwen, it makes the anger and ambition that drove the Swing seem like nothing.”

    “Ambition?”

    “Oh, yes,” Irene confirmed. “You want to be a high-class lawyer? You’d better have good connections or you’ll never get anywhere. The ones who don’t …? They’re hungry and smart and very resentful at being unable to use their education. They want to climb through merit and they can’t, because merit is a feather compared to the stone of having the right connections or the right bloodline or whatever. And they’re not even the worst of the problems facing the country. Everyone is angry and everyone wants to fight.”

    Gwen swallowed. “How long do we have?”

    “I don’t know,” Irene said. “The king is either unaware of the problem or unable to do anything about it. The aristos – and the church – would sooner die than give up a tiny fragment of their power, possessions and prestige. And there’s a war on … some commoners are patriotic enough to think they should remain quiet as long as the fighting is going on, while others are starting to think the demands of the war will force the king to grant concessions …”

    She paused significantly. Gwen nodded. “Concessions he might not be able to grant.”

    “No,” Irene agreed. “Gwen, one way or another, all hell is going to break loose soon. And when it does, we have to be ready.”
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fourteen: Paris, France

    Bruce had thought the countryside was bad. Paris was worse.

    He fell back as the remnants of the convoy approached the gates, choosing to abandon the horse rather than try to take him into the city. He had no papers, no way to convince the guards he was allowed to pass through without further ado … he considered, briefly, trying to charm his way through before dismissing the thought as too reckless even for him. The guardsmen on the gates would probably have been trained to detect and resist Charm and even if they weren’t, there were too many of them to be sure he could convince them all to believe he had every right to be there. He needed to find another way into the city.

    The stench assaulted his nostrils as he strolled through the slums, cloaking himself in an illusion that would make him hard to spot. It was hard to keep his mind focused on the magic when, everywhere he looked, he saw poverty and deprivation on an unimaginable scale. He’d seen Indian camps after traders had sold them their fill of alcohol and slave ships crammed with their human cargo and yet, neither of them came close to the horror surrounding the city of lights. Paris was supposed to be the greatest city in Europe, a favoured destination for British tourists and American dissidents, but … he wondered, sourly, if the nightmare surrounding him was why so many Sons of Liberty had gone to Paris and simply vanished. The reality of Paris might have convinced them they were on the wrong side.

    Or the French decided they were no longer useful and executed them, he thought, as he tried to breathe through his mouth. The stench, incredibly, was growing worse as he neared the river. The waters were sluggish with waste, from human piss and shit to effluent from factories on the other side of the city. The French had been caught by surprise by the industrial revolution, as well as magic, but they’d been making up for lost time with all the desperation of men who knew they had to catch up or be left behind. The American guests probably made the mistake of talking frankly to their autocratic hosts.

    His stomach twisted, painfully, as he surveyed the river. The French had built a bridge across the river and turned it into a checkpoint, searching every boat that tried to make its way into the city. Guardsmen – in surprisingly fancy uniforms – inspected every passing vessel with dismaying competence, ignoring protests from the crews. They looked ready to slap down any troublemakers with extreme force, Bruce noted; they certainly didn’t seem inclined to tolerate much of anything. He wondered why the crowd hadn’t overwhelmed them by sheer force of numbers, then spotted the fortifications and turrets resting just inside the city. The idea of the Royal Navy forcing its way up the river to attack Paris was absurd, but that hadn’t stopped the French turning their city into a fortress. They were more paranoid about their own people than their hereditary enemies.

    He turned away, heading back into the slums. The guards on the bridge were too alert to challenge and he’d bet good money there were magicians behind them., ready to deal with any magical threats. He wondered if he’d made a mistake by not trying to slip through the gates, then dismissed the thought. He still didn’t have papers. He briefly considered trying to waylay a traveller and stealing his papers, before deciding he wouldn’t know enough to fool the guards. They weren’t just looking at papers and internal passports. They were asking questions and making careful note of the answers. And if the answers were wrong …

    Bruce mentally kicked himself as he wandered, unwilling to risk stopping and waiting for nightfall. The poverty brushed closer, from men desperately cooking what little they could find over open fires to women selling themselves and their children … his stomach twisted in utter disgust as he saw a woman offering her young daughter to men who clearly had at least some money. Bruce had thought himself used to horror – he’d seen more than he’d wished, even in genteel New York – but this was beyond anything he’d ever envisaged. Men, women and children caught rats … he saw a child catch a rat, only to have it yanked out of his hand by an older boy who ran into the slums and vanished before anyone could give chase. The hopelessness surrounded him, a listlessness that made him wonder how many people had just lain down and died. There were no bodies within view, as far as he could tell. He dared not think about what their absence might mean.

    His heart sank, again, as he spotted a handful of clergymen. One was preaching the importance of obedience to authority, to King Louis – God’s regent on Earth – and to the Royal Family … and, of course, to the aristocracy. The others handed out bowls of soup and mugs of water, after speaking quickly to each visitor to determine their faith. Bruce shuddered. France had been racked by religious conflict for years and yet, surely it didn’t matter in the face of such deprivation. He looked at the clergymen, wearing decent clothes and looking down on the people they were trying to help, and felt a surge of hatred. He’d never thought much of the independent preachers who preached to the poor and downtrodden in London and New York, but at least they were trying to help. The French priests seemed more inclined to lecture the poor than try to help.

    Nightfall came rapidly, but not rapidly enough. Bruce kept himself out of sight as everyone who could scurried into makeshift shacks and shanties, leaving the night to criminals and rebels. There were no visible guards on patrol – he was amused to note the priests had vanished with the sunlight – and no one trying to take their place, save for a handful of criminal gangs. The population was too poor to be worth robbing. He scowled as he slipped past a ragged tent, noticing a man trying to sweet-talk a young woman who couldn’t be older than Gwen … the hell of it, he thought, was that life in a brothel would be far – far – kinder than life in the slums. And yet … he bit down, hard, on the urge to intervene. He needed to get into the city and hide before daybreak.

    The walls rose up in front of him, a solid stone barrier that wouldn’t have stopped an army for more than a minute or two. A volley from a battery of modern artillery would smash it down effortlessly. He wondered, idly, just how many tunnels had been dug under the wall, then decided it was probably pointless. The slums pressed against the walls so solidly there were no shortage of places for someone to climb up and over the walls. He found a suitable clambering spot and slipped upwards, silently grateful his magic let him see in the dark. The guards overhead didn’t have lights or magic. The air seemed to grow lighter as he lifted himself onto a rickety roof and scrabbled onto the wall. Something creaked below him, cautioning him he needed to move fast. New York’s rooftops were reasonably solid. The slums were so fragile a man climbing on the roof might fall through into the nightmare below.

    He paused as soon as he got onto the wall, looking into Paris itself. The city of lights was shrouded in darkness. A handful of government buildings were lit up, and he could see some streetlights, but the remainder of the city was dark and cold. He shuddered in disgust, then cursed himself – again – as he realised his second and greatest mistake. Paris was huge … where was Gwen? Sander had been supposed to take her to his warehouse and hand her over to … someone. Who? And where? Bruce gritted his teeth in frustration. He really hadn’t thought it through very well. Gwen could be anywhere within the city and as long as she didn’t make herself obvious, he’d never find her.

    A sound caught his ear and he froze. A scraping sound, behind him … he turned, slowly, to see a gang of workers – smugglers – carefully scrambling over the wall. They carried heavy bags, crammed with … Bruce had no idea, but they clearly knew what they were doing. They didn’t seem to have any difficulty navigating in the dark …

    They’d know where to find the rebel underground, he thought. If there’d been rebels in New York and Boston, they’d be rebels in Paris. They might be able to help me.

    He inched forward, keeping his eyes open. The smugglers had shoved ladders into position on the inner side of the wall, allowing them to scramble to the ground. Bruce wasn’t surprised. The wall wasn’t intended to defend the city from invaders, but to keep the poor and dispossessed out of the city. He hesitated, trying to think what to say. Smuggler rings tended to be paranoid at the best of times, from what he’d learnt when he’d been a Son of Liberty, and rarely trusted anyone who wasn’t part of their family. They were often family businesses …

    A crack ran through the air, so loud he thought it was a gunshot. A ladder was breaking … he acted instinctively, reaching out with his magic to catch the two men clambering down before they fell. One of them cried out as he was lowered to the ground, the other – with more presence of mind – drew a dagger the moment his feet touched the muddy pavement, his eyes flickering from side to side. Bruce wondered, as he levitated himself down too, if he’d made another mistake. The vast majority of local magicians were government servants … but then, why would a government servant save a falling smuggler? The government wouldn’t hesitate to execute them if – when – they were caught.

    He stepped forward, suddenly unsure what to say. “Greetings,” he said, in careful French. Gwen had been right about that too. His French was good, but far from perfect. He’d just have to claim to be a sailor who worked with men from all over the world and hope no one tried to poke holes in his tale. “I need your help and …”

    The smuggler muttered a word in a language Bruce didn’t recognise. His mind churned. The British Government had worked hard to convince the Welsh, Scots and Irish to stop using their own languages and speak English exclusively … had the French done the same? He doubted they could have excluded Spanish, given how many people spoke Spanish over French across the Bourbon Empire, but everything else …? Did France have languages other than French? He had no time to figure it out.

    “Magician,” one of the men said, sullenly. “What do you want?”

    “A place to stay for the night,” Bruce said. He’d discuss the rest later. “That’s all.”

    The smugglers muttered together, what little he could hear in the same unknown language. His mind churned, wondering if he’d made a mistake. If they betrayed him …

    The sound of running footsteps assaulted his ears. Bruce cursed under his breath. He’d wondered why there were no visible guards … they weren’t on the battlements, he noted, but lurking in the shadows underneath. The broken ladder had called them as definitely as … he shook his head and reached for his magic, bracing himself. The guards needed to be stopped without killing them …

    “Close your eyes,” he said, sharply. “Now!”

    He turned and generated the brightest light he could. It flared for a second – he didn’t dare hold it any longer – but it was long enough. The guards staggered back, dropping their weapons and rubbing their eyes. He doubted he’d blinded them permanently, but it didn’t matter. He’d used so little magic to generate the light that it was quite possible it had gone unnoticed, that the French would look for a more scientific explanation …

    A hand grabbed his arm. “This way,” the smugger snapped. “And quickly!”

    Bruce gritted his teeth, keeping his eyes open as the smugglers led him through a maze of backstreets and alleyways. He’d half-expected the roads to be empty, but there were people sleeping in doorways or slipping up and down under cover of darkness … someone shouted behind them, but the sound was swallowed by the immensity of the city. Paris was … he shook his head. Some streets seemed dangerously hot, others so cold he shivered helplessly.

    The smugglers stopped by a darkened building and opened a hatch. Bruce watched the first two jump down, then catch the sacks as they were lowered into the darkness and placed them carefully out of sight. The remainder dropped down, motioning for him to follow before pulling the hatch back into place and lighting a lantern. Bruce looked around, then nodded in understanding. He’d seen something like it, back in New York. The innkeepers preferred to lower barrels of beer into a basement, rather than roll them through the inn and down the stairs …

    “Well,” a droll voice said. “My name is Jean-Luc. Who are you?”

    “A friend,” Bruce said, vaguely. He hadn’t had time to come up with a cover story, let alone a false name. Was Bruce a common name in France? He had no idea. Gwen could pass unnoticed, but Bruce? “And a runaway magician.”

    Jean-Luc – if that was the man’s real name, Bruce would eat his hat – studied Bruce thoughtfully. Bruce looked back at him, trying to assess the man. Jean-Luc was short, with curly black hair, dark eyes and an unshaven face. His clothes were dark and drab … not, Bruce reflected, that a smuggler would wear something particularly noticeable. There were traces of hard work clearly visible on his hands, scars that suggested he’d been working from a very early age. He wondered, idly, what Jean-Luc made of him.

    “A runaway,” Jean-Luc repeated. “From whom?”

    “I came into my magic back home,” Bruce said, carefully. It wasn’t an uncommon story, from what he’d heard. A great many magicians remained undiscovered until they used their magic for the first time. “I killed an aristo who wanted to rape my sister and had to go on the run. I came here to see what work I could find …”

    Jean-Luc snorted. “A bad place to hide from the aristos, my friend.”

    Bruce smiled. “Would they expect to look for me here?”

    He waited, bracing himself. Jean-Luc might not buy the story. It was plausible – it had happened – and there was certainly no way it could be easily disproved, but the smuggler hadn’t lasted so long by being trusting. He might think he owed Bruce a favour or two, yet he might also wonder if he was being conned. And if he knew enough about magic to realise Bruce had shown two different kinds of power …

    “You’re a Mover,” Jean-Luc said. Oddly, he used the English word. Bruce did his best to show as little reaction as possible. “How did you make the flash?”

    “A magnesium grenade and a great deal of luck,” Bruce said. It would be difficult to disprove – and, if rumours spread, would distract attention from him. “I only had one.”

    Jean-Luc smiled. “Of course,” he said. “And what do you want to do now?”

    Bruce shrugged. “Can you give me a place to rest, for the night? I’ll leave tomorrow.”

    “You can also stay and work with me, at least for a while,” Jean-Luc said. “If you want a job …”

    “Yes, please,” Bruce said. Jean-Luc would be suspicious if Bruce turned him down flat. He might even start thinking about killing Bruce, rather than risk him walking away with enough information to betray Jean-Luc and the rest of his gang. Bruce already knew too much for anyone’s peace of mind. And yet, Bruce had also saved their lives. “It’ll be something to do.”

    “Of course,” Jean-Luc agreed. “Come with me.”

    He turned and clambered up a wooden staircase. Bruce followed him up and into a simple pub. It looked very much like its British and American counterparts, right down to the beer-stained tabletops and stools that looked as if they were on the verge of collapsing under their own weight. The air stank of cheap alcohol … Bruce was tempted to ask just what Jean-Luc had been smuggling into the city, but dismissed the thought before he could take the risk. It would be far too dangerous to ask, not yet. Perhaps not ever.

    “You can sleep on the floor,” Jean-Luc said. He opened a concealed cupboard and tossed a pair of blankets at Bruce. “There’s a privy in the next room” – he pointed – “and some water in the bucket. We’ll be opening in the morning, so you have to be up and about before then – I’ll show you the ropes when you get up.”

    Bruce nodded. It was a gesture of trust, but … he’d bet good money it was also a secret test of character. Would he take advantage of the opportunity to search the pub for money and booze? Or would he sleep like a baby, safe in the knowledge he wouldn’t be harmed? He shrugged as he found a place to lie down that wasn’t too grimly, reminding himself he’d slept in worse places. Jean-Luc might be considering cutting Bruce’s throat while he was asleep … he drew on his magic, weaving a tissue-thin shroud of power around him. It wouldn’t stop a determined attacker, but it would slow him down long enough for Bruce to wake and lash out with the rest of his magic.

    Tomorrow, I have to find Gwen, he thought. It wasn’t going to be easy, even if Jean-Luc let him wander the city long enough to get his bearings. And when I find her, I have to look out for her.

    On that note, he fell asleep.
     
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