Original Work Work Experience (Schooled In Magic IV)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Nov 24, 2013.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone
    Work Experience is Book IV of the Schooled in Magic series, which first appeared on this site in September 2012 and was followed by Lessons in Etiquette and A Study in Slaughter.
    Schooled in Magic was picked up by Twilight Times Books and should be published in April 2014. Books II and III will be published in September and December, all things going well. The book underwent a savage edit (a painful, but ultimately rewarding process) before its final submission.
    The basic idea of the series revolves around Emily, a teenage girl from Earth who is accidentally kidnapped to a nameless world of magic. (The fact that the world has no formal name is actually very important and does not reflect incompetence on the part of the author.(1)) In the first book, she settles into Whitehall and starts to learn how to use magic. In the second book, she goes to her best friend’s kingdom and helps avert a coup d’état. In the third book, she finds herself dealing with the fallout of her actions just as a murderer starts to stalk the halls of Whitehall (2).
    In the meantime, she starts introducing ideas from our world into one that is at roughly 1500, going by technical development.
    If you want to read the first three books, please open a conversation and send me an email address. Or, if you want updates on publication and suchlike, please join my facebook group (Christopher G. Nuttall | Facebook) or blog (The Chrishanger | Welcome to my Writing World – please read the 'about' page before proceeding.).
    Thank you very much for your time.
    Chris
    (1) I think that sounds convincing. I have a good excuse, honest.
    (2) What priceless prose!
     
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue
    The first thing Holly knew, when she opened her eyes, was that she was no longer alone.
    The second thing she knew was that the intruder had cast a complex spell on her. She couldn’t move a muscle, apart from her mouth. Even her eyes refused to open.
    She refused to panic. At fifty years of age, most of them spent living in her shack, Holly had little fear of death. Besides, the intruder had to be a powerful magician – he’d walked through her wards and protections without triggering any alarms – but it was unlikely that he meant her any real harm. If he had, he could have cut her throat before she ever woke up.
    “Good morning,” a cultured voice said. It was male, but otherwise unfamiliar. A spell was probably being used to disguise the speaker. “I apologise for casting a spell on you, but I would prefer to remain unknown.”
    “I am sure of it,” Holly said, dryly. “And why exactly have you invaded my home?”
    “I came to make you an offer,” the voice said. There was a clink as something was dumped onto the rickety table. “An offer of power.”
    Holly snorted. She’d heard such offers before. Hedge Witches lived closer to the untamed wild magic than any of the snooty graduates of Whitehall, Mountaintop or the other magical academies. She'd seen her first demon before she even had her first blood.
    And she knew what demons wanted. “And all you want in exchange is my soul?”
    “Not at all,” the voice assured her. “I merely wish you to use what I bring you.”
    Holly didn't believe him. In her experience, nothing was ever given for nothing. There was always something desired in exchange, no matter how many pretty words might be used to hide it. And power always came with a price.
    The voice became seductive. “Have you never wished for more power?”
    Holly would have nodded, if she had been able to move. She’d been born to a poor family, in a poor village. Only a talent for magic had saved her from being sold or married off as soon as she first passed blood. But she had never been powerful enough to go to one of the academies. Instead, she had learned from the local Hedge Witch and, when the elderly woman had died, Holly had taken her place.
    But it was a frustrating job. People relied on her and were terrified of her in equal measure. They begged for her help and whispered about her behind her back. And, no matter what she did, she knew she couldn't help all of them. She had dedicated her life to the folk of the mountains, yet it was never enough. And the demons knew how she felt. It was why they kept coming to her, tempting her with dreams of power.
    “Yes,” she said, out loud.
    “These are the tools of a magician who garnered power,” the voice said. He tapped something that sounded like wood. “A skull of memories. A book of spells. And a knife of power.”
    “I can't read,” Holly confessed.
    There was a chuckle from the darkness. “The New Learning hasn't spread this far yet, has it?”
    He cleared his throat, then pressed on before Holly could ask him what he meant. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. There was an easy confidence in his voice that both puzzled and alarmed her. How long had he been spying on her to have such an accurate idea of her capabilities? “The skull will provide all the guidance you need. All I ask in return is that you help the folk of the mountains.”
    Holly clenched her teeth, pressing against the spell. It refused to break. “Why ... why are you doing this?”
    “Because someone has to,” the voice said. It was a delightfully uninformative answer. “And because the people need help. You know how powerless they are.”
    He was right, Holly knew. The mountainfolk scrabbled to make a living from the soil. What little they had was taxed, often heavily, by the Lords of the High Castles. Their sons were pressed into armies, their daughters often forced into effective prostitution; entire families had been broken up because their masters decided that it was necessary. Hedge Witch or no, Holly had never been in a position to stop the aristocrats from bullying the common folk. If she’d tried, she knew the aristocrats would have called for a magician from the academies to deal with her. All she could do was watch.
    But if she were offered the power to change it, would she?
    She had to admit that she probably would. The only reason the aristocrats held power was that they were powerful. If she had more power, she could make them bend to her will. And then she could ensure that the mountainfolk had a chance to live free.
    “Good luck,” the voice said.
    The spell unravelled moments later. Holly’s eyes jerked open, but all she saw was the cramped interior of her shack. Her tutor had told her that a Hedge Witch shouldn't crave luxury; the shack was barren, apart from a pile of blankets, a table, a handful of shelves and a small fireplace. The shelves were crammed with potion ingredients Holly had collected herself. She stumbled to her feet and looked around, sharply. Her vast family of cats seemed to have vanished completely.
    Carefully, she tested the wards. As far as she could tell, they were intact. But the intruder had walked right through them.
    She looked down at the table and scowled. As the voice had promised, there was a skull, a book ... and a knife. The skull glittered with magic of a kind Holly had never seen before – she resolved to be careful when trying to use it – and the book seemed impenetrable. But it was the knife that caught her attention. It was a long dagger, with odd runes carved into the blade ...
    ... And it was made of stone.
     
    bagpiper, kellory, STANGF150 and 2 others like this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One
    The room looked perfectly safe. Emily was suspicious at once.
    She stepped into the room, hand raised in a defensive posture. Magic crackled over her fingertips as she glanced around, looking for unexpected surprises. Blackhall was crammed with traps, some magical, some mundane; the merest touch could trigger something that would explode in her face. And, with Emily the only student in the building, the traps could be keyed to her personally.
    The room was empty, save for a potted tree that grew out of a pot and reached up through a hole in the ceiling. Emily eyed it doubtfully, then cast a series of magic-detection spells. The tree was completely out of place, so out of place that she suspected that it was part of a trap. And yet it just seemed to be a perfectly normal tree ...
    Puzzled, she inched over towards the door on the far side of the room and cast another detection spell. The door itself seemed safe, but there was a powerful spell on the doorknob, one keyed to touch. The moment she touched it, she would unleash ... what? So far, Blackhall’s defences had included everything from stunning spells to immediate eviction from the building. Emily couldn't count the number of times she’d touched the wrong thing and triggered a trap.
    She glanced behind her and muttered a curse. The door through which she had entered was gone. The only way out was through the sealed door. Absently, she tested the walls – she’d escaped one trap by blasting through the walls – and discovered that they were held firmly in place by magic. Clearly, Sergeant Miles wasn't about to allow her to use the same trick twice.
    There was no time for further reflection. Kneeling down beside the door, she started to work on the spell guarding the doorknob. She expected it to be tricky – the sergeants were brilliant at inventing complex traps – but the spell unravelled almost as soon as she touched it with her magic. Emily blinked in surprise; that had really been too easy. And then she sensed the second spell coming to life. A second spell had been hidden behind the first, waiting for the first spell to be removed. Emily threw up her hands as a wave of magic surged out at her, but it was too late.
    She felt the spell strike her, warping her body. The experience wasn't painful, but it was thoroughly uncomfortable – and interfered with her own magic. She saw hairs sprouting on her palms a moment before her head started to swim, her perspective changing rapidly. Her vision faded, then recovered. The room suddenly seemed a great deal larger ...
    Dear God, she thought, as she looked down at herself. I’m a cat!
    The cattish instincts crashed into her mind a moment later. Prank spells provided their victim with protections against losing their minds, but the sergeants had obviously gone for something nastier. Emily found herself leaping across the room before her mind quite caught up with what she was doing. The tree she’d dismissed as unimportant suddenly looked great fun to climb. She looked up, remembering that the tree led out of the room. If Sergeant Miles hadn't come to get her, she might not have failed ... yet.
    She climbed up the tree, marvelling inwardly at how nimble the cat-form was, then slipped into the crack in the roof. Inside, there was a long low passageway, smelling of something that alarmed her cattish side. Emily concentrated – it would be far too easy to lose herself inside the cat’s mind – and forced her way onwards, hoping and praying that the spell wouldn't wear off while she was in the passageway. If she was lucky, she would end up trapped; if she was unlucky, her human body wouldn't be able to fit into the passageway ...
    There was a faint hissing sound – her fur stood on end – and then the snake came into view, sliding towards her with deadly intent. She was probably imagining it, she told herself, but the snake seemed to look malicious. Beady eyes fixed on her as it advanced. Her cat-form shuddered, then went still. Emily remembered The Jungle Book and felt a flash of alarm, realising just how the snake had caught its dinner. She had almost been hypnotised into waiting patiently to be devoured.
    She braced herself – and jumped as soon as the snake lunged at her. There was a dull thud as its head struck the stone floor, followed by an angry hiss. Emily felt the cat’s panic as she ran forward, past the writhing tail and out through another crack. The snake’s hisses seemed to grow louder, but it didn't follow her out into the room. Emily wondered, absently, if the snake was actually part of the tests, before deciding that it probably was. The wards would have kept it out if the sergeants hadn't wanted it there.
    The cat instincts seemed to grow stronger as she looked around the room, threatening to overwhelm her human body. Emily mentally gritted her teeth as she struggled to cast the counter-spell; her mind was starting to merge into the cat’s, which meant that she no longer thought that being a cat was odd. Panic howled at the back of her mind as she fought the spell, but it refused to break. Was she doomed to spend the rest of her life as a cat?
    “That’s a nasty spell,” a voice said.
    Emily jumped, then skittered towards the far side of the room. She’d been so caught up in the mental struggle that she hadn't realised that she was no longer alone.
    “Let me help,” the voice added.
    There was a snapping sound, as if someone had snapped their fingers. Emily closed her eyes hastily as her body twisted, then slowly returned to human form. When she opened them, she found herself kneeling on all-fours. And, standing in the centre of the room, was the sorcerer Void.
    He looked older than he had the last time Emily had met him, something that bothered her. For a man who claimed to be over a hundred years old, he had a streak of vanity in his character that kept him using rejuvenation spells to appear young. Now, his brown hair was shading to gray and his skin was lined and pitted with wrinkles. He wore a simple black robe, loose enough to cover everything. Emily had the odd impression that he was actually weaker than he looked.
    She straightened up, embarrassed. “Void,” she said, feeling an odd mixture of emotions. He was her Guardian – and the closest thing she had to a father. And yet he hadn't visited Whitehall since the Mimic had been destroyed. The other students had been visited by their parents, who had descended on Whitehall en masse, but Emily had been left alone. Part of her resented it. “It’s good to see you again.”
    “And you,” Void said. “I was ... gratified to receive your exam results.”
    Emily found herself blushing. Back on Earth, no one would have given a damn about her grades. Hearing that Void cared pleased and worried her in equal measure. It was strange to have someone looking out for her welfare, yet it made her feel unsteady. The person who should have looked out for her welfare had climbed into a bottle and never come out.
    “Thank you,” she said. She knew she’d done well. Thanks to Mistress Sun and Lady Barb, her charms were head and shoulders above her classmates. The only class she’d actually failed was Martial Magic, where she simply hadn't been able to keep up with the more experienced students. She would have to repeat most of the class in Year Three. “Were you pleased?”
    “Of course,” Void said. “I’m very proud of you.”
    Emily’s blush deepened. “Do you ... do you want to go back to Whitehall?”
    “I’d prefer not to speak with the Grandmaster,” Void said. He looked around the room, contemplatively. “Besides, this place brings back old memories. I ran through the maze myself too, once upon a time.”
    When dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Emily thought, snidely. She didn't say it out loud.
    “Besides, I came to talk to you personally,” Void added. “There have been interesting developments. A necromancer is dead.”
    Emily blinked. Necromancers were immensely powerful magicians, feeding on the life and magic of their victims to power their spells. Channelling such power through their minds always drove them insane, eventually. Shadye, who had brought Emily into her new world and then been killed by her, had been utterly barking mad when he’d died. Emily still had nightmares about facing him. She suspected she wasn't the only one.
    She forced her mind to work properly. “Poison?”
    “Apparently, the necromancer’s throat was slit,” Void said. “Necromancer Harrow lived on the far side of the Desert of Death, ruling the remains of a small kingdom. I ... kept an eye on him, worrying about the day he decided to cross the desert and attack the Allied Lands. And then his wards shivered and collapsed. When I investigated, I discovered that he was dead.”
    Emily considered it. Necromancers did not die easily – and, from what she’d heard, their deaths brought on massive explosions as their stolen magic erupted from their bodies. The only exception to that rule had been Shadye, whom Emily had trapped in a pocket dimension which had then been snapped out of existence. Harrow’s body should have been utterly destroyed, along with a large part of his enslaved kingdom.
    “That's not bad news,” she said, slowly. “Is it?”
    “We do not know how the necromancer was killed,” Void pointed out. “Fingers were pointed in your direction.”
    He quirked an eyebrow at Emily. “Was it your work?”
    Emily shook her head, hastily. Her method for killing necromancers required a nexus and enough time to set up the trap. She certainly hadn't left Whitehall to go hunting necromancers.
    “The Desert of Death,” she said, slowly. She’d taken an interest in the geography of the Allied Lands, but map-reading had never been her forte. “Isn't that near where we’re going?”
    “Yes,” Void said, tonelessly. “You should be very careful. We do not know what happened to Harrow, which leaves us with a worrying mystery. Whoever killed him may have powers about which we know nothing.”
    Emily nodded in understanding. The Allied Lands didn't know what she’d done to kill Shadye, thanks to the Sorcerer’s Rule. It had given her a reputation that made her feared and admired in equal measure. No one had ever taken on a necromancer in single combat and lived to tell the tale – apart from Emily herself. Some claimed she was naturally powerful, others that she’d cheated in some way ... and still others that she was a necromancer herself. Rumours and innuendos would follow her for the rest of her life. If someone else had beaten a necromancer, one on one ...
    “You think we might encounter the killer?”
    “It’s a possibility,” Void said.
    “Maybe it was another necromancer,” Emily pointed out. “They’re not exactly friendly ...”
    “We don't know,” Void admitted. “Few necromancers would willingly lower their guard when another necromancer was close by. But it is a possibility.”
    He cleared his throat. “I want you to be very careful when you're on your roving patrol,” he added. “Keep a sharp eye out for trouble. Hell, keep a sharp eye out for trouble anyway. I hear that the mountain lords have been plotting trouble for each other ever since the Empire fell. You might wind up in the midst of another coup.”
    Emily shook her head. “I very much hope not,” she said, primly. The last attempted coup had been nightmarish, with one of her best friends a prisoner and the other very much at risk. “Lady Barb intends for us to stay out of danger.”
    Void smirked. “Danger will find you,” he assured her. “It always does.”
    Emily nodded, reluctantly.
    “I meant to ask,” she said. She’d actually written several letters, none of which had been returned. That had hurt, but if Void had been spying on a necromancer, he wouldn't have had time to reply. “What are you planning to do about Lin and Mountaintop?”
    “The Grandmaster has requested that he be allowed to handle it,” Void said. His face twisted into a thin smile. “I have agreed to respect his wishes.”
    Emily lifted her eyebrows. If there was one thing she had learned about Void, who had saved her life and sent her to Whitehall, it was that he had a habit of riding roughshod over everyone else if he felt it was the right thing to do. Lady Barb disliked him, with reason; the Grandmaster seemed to be wary of him. And non-magicians found the thought of Emily being his bastard daughter worrying. Void had quite a reputation.
    “And I understand that you have been corresponding with young Jade again,” Void said, hastily changing the subject. “Have you made up your mind about him?”
    Emily flushed. Jade had proposed to her at the end of her first year at Whitehall – and, by his lights, he'd done her a favour. But Emily had been reluctant to commit herself, not after watching how badly her mother had screwed up her life by marrying the wrong men. And then she’d been ennobled and Jade’s letters had dried up for months. Now they were talking again, but there was a barrier between them that hadn't been there before. It wasn't considered socially acceptable for a commoner, even a combat sorcerer in training, to court a Baroness.
    “We're going to meet soon,” she said. Jade’s letters had talked endlessly about the Great Faire, which was apparently going to be held near Lady Barb’s home. “I think we’ll talk about it.”
    “Good luck,” Void said. He smirked. “Would you care to know how many requests for your hand I have received?”
    No,” Emily said, quickly.
    Void laughed. “I’ll see you again soon,” he said. He gave her a small wave. “Goodbye.”
    There was a surge of magic and a flash of light. When it faded, he was gone. Emily felt a flicker of envy – she planned to learn to teleport as soon as possible – and then scowled as the door opened. Ahead of her, she saw a passageway leading out of the building. Sergeant Miles clearly felt that having Void’s help to return to human form was cheating. Gritting her teeth – if the sergeant decided she'd done it deliberately, she wouldn't be sitting comfortably for a few days – Emily walked through the doors and out into the grounds. Bright sunlight struck her and she lifted a hand to cover her eyes.
    “Careful,” Sergeant Miles said. “You never know what you might miss.”
    Emily turned to face him. He was a short friendly-looking man, the sort of man anyone could trust on sight. And he was, Emily knew. He took very good care of his students, including Emily, giving them good advice and encouragement when they needed it. But woe betide the person who tried to take advantage of his good nature.
    “That was Void,” he said, shortly. “I thought it was him.”
    “Yes,” Emily said. “I didn't call him ...”
    “I didn't say you did,” Sergeant Miles pointed out, dryly. “Is it just me or are you being too defensive these days?”
    Emily shrugged. Term had ended a week ago; Alassa and Imaiqah had gone home to Zangaria, leaving Emily to wait for Lady Barb. She'd been ... encouraged to spend her days practicing with Sergeant Miles, who didn't seem to have anywhere else to go. But the tests had gotten harder and harder, constantly pushing her to the limit.
    “Lady Barb wishes you to meet her in the library,” the Sergeant added. “Good luck on your patrol.”
    “Thank you,” Emily said. “And thank you for keeping me busy.”
    She turned and walked through the forest, back towards Whitehall. For once, there wasn't even a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly warm; she smiled as she caught sight of a flock of butterflies floating through the air, followed by a handful of bees. When Whitehall came into view, she stopped and stared at the castle before resuming her walk. It still struck her as wondrous, even after two years. There was nothing like it on Earth.
    Inside, she blinked in surprise as she saw two boys cleaning the Grand Hall. Both of them had been held back after a prank had gone wrong – Emily didn't know the full details – and had been set to cleaning the castle. Given Whitehall’s multidimensional nature, Emily rather doubted they would be finished before the holidays were over and schooling resumed. There were literally miles of corridor in the building.
    She walked past them and headed up the stairs to the library. Whitehall felt strange without most of its students, although at least there wouldn't be a crowd in the library. Lady Aylia was sitting behind her desk, carefully marking and tagging the new books from various printers. Emily couldn't help a flicker of pride at seeing books produced by her printing presses. Given a few years, they were likely to revolutionise education in the Allied Lands.
    “She said to take a seat and wait,” Lady Aylia said. She barely looked up from her work. “I believe the Grandmaster wished to speak with her.”
    Emily nodded, unsurprised. They had planned to leave two days ago, but something had popped up and Emily had been told to stay at Whitehall. The Allied Lands didn't believe in precise schedules, something that amused and irked her in equal measure. Sitting down at one of the desks, she pulled her notebook out of her pocket and started to write down ideas and thoughts. There were spells she wanted to develop, spells that might help the Allied Lands when the necromancers finally came over the mountains ...
    She’d faced Shadye and won – by cheating. The next necromancer she faced might be far harder to defeat.
    And she knew precisely what they would do to a world she had come to love.
     
  4. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Welcome back Chris, you were greatly missed!
     
  5. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    OMG I am so glad you have brought Emily back for another round!
     
  6. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Agreed...looking forward to this continuation!
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two
    “Ahem,” a quiet voice said.
    Emily jumped. She’d been so wrapped up in her work that she hadn't heard Lady Barb coming into the library and sneaking up behind her. She glanced at her watch and discovered that she’d been sitting at the table for over an hour, scribbling down possible ways to make the spell work properly. But, no matter how she worked the variables, there didn't seem to be any way to use the spell safely.
    She turned and looked up at Lady Barb. The older woman smiled back at her, although there was something in her expression that suggested she was deeply worried about something. As always, Lady Barb looked formidable. Her long blonde hair cascaded down over stout shoulders and a muscular body. She might not have the porcelain-doll features Alassa enjoyed, but she had attracted the attention of dozens of male students. Emily rather suspected that the students were the ones who didn't take her class. Lady Barb was a hard taskmaster.
    “You have to be more careful,” Lady Barb warned, dryly. “You never know who might be sneaking up on you.”
    Emily smiled. “In the library?”
    “Most of the spells used to keep students quiet have been deactivated for the summer,” Lady Barb pointed out. “If there were more students here ...”
    Emily shrugged, her mind filling in the blanks. Students were allowed – even encouraged – to prank one another, in the belief that it taught them how to react to unexpected situations and learn how to defend themselves. But, right now, there were only a handful of students left in Whitehall. Even the Gorgon, who was one of the most studious students in Second Year, had gone home. Emily was the only student of her age to remain in Whitehall.
    Lady Barb nodded towards Emily’s notebook. “Are you keeping up with your security spells?”
    Emily gritted her teeth, then nodded. After Lin had stolen her notes and vanished from Whitehall, Lady Barb had given her a crash course in security spells that were normally untaught until the student took on an apprenticeship. Making them work was different, but no one apart from Emily herself should be able to read her notes. Lady Barb had warned her that she would be testing the notebook on a regular basis and Emily would regret it if she managed to crack the protections hiding her work. Part of Emily resented it, but she understood just how dangerous it would be if her notes fell into the wrong hands.
    More of my notes, she told herself, as she closed the notebook and felt the spells slide into place. They were based on her blood, rather than anything else; Lady Barb had told her that her unique blood – she had no relatives in the new world – would be the strongest protection she could hope to provide. She didn't have to worry about a brother or sister accidentally cracking her protections. But there was no such thing as a completely unbreakable spell ...
    She passed the notebook to Lady Barb and settled back to watch, hoping and praying that the spells remained unbreakable. Some of them were harmless – or at least not particularly innovative – but some of them were revolutionary. She’d used memory charms to write down as much of the Mimic’s spell-structure as she could, knowing that whoever had created the mobile spells was a genius as well as a monster ... and she dreaded to think what use an evil magician would make of them. The Mimic had been based on necromancy ... somehow, the creator had managed to make necromancy practical. There was just too much room for abuse.
    But it wasn't the worst of the spells.
    She caught her breath as Lady Barb broke the first ward. Shadye had died through luck, she had to admit, and there were other necromancers out there. One day, Emily knew, they would come over the mountains and attack the Allied Lands in force ... and, on that day, they might prove unstoppable. She’d devised the nuclear spell to repel that offensive, but it refused to work properly. If triggered, it would detonate within seconds ... taking out the caster as well as its target. And splitting atoms didn't seem to require a very powerful magician. There were times when Emily suspected that this world’s industrial revolution would lead to complete and total disaster.
    Good thing it wasn't a computer wizard who came here, she thought. He’d be a God-Mode Sue by now.
    Lady Barb muttered an oath as her hands jerked back, shocked. “Not bad,” she said, drawing Emily’s mind out of her thoughts. “And the first ward was well-placed to distract attention.”
    Emily smiled, feeling a flicker of pride. Lady Barb rarely gave praise, but when it was given it was always deserved. The heavy security wards she’d wrapped around the notebook would almost certainly attract attention, so she’d crafted the first ward to resemble a normal privacy ward and the second one to conceal the others. If someone had seen the wards without that cover, they would have known that there was something inside worth concealing. No one, with the possible exception of Alassa, would conceal their personal journal with so much determination.
    She took the notebook back and dropped it into her bag. “Are we ready to go?”
    “More or less,” Lady Barb agreed. She gave Emily a reproving look. “Do you have your bag packed?”
    “It’s in my room,” Emily confirmed. “Most of my stuff is going to be stored at Whitehall.”
    “It should be safe enough,” Lady Barb agreed.
    Emily had her doubts. Whitehall was supposed to be invulnerable, but Shadye had broken into the school in her first year and the Mimic had killed dozens of students in her second year. There were times when she wondered if the Grandmaster blamed her for the series of disasters, even though he’d shown no sign of it. Her arrival at the school had triggered off the series of events that led to Shadye’s invasion.
    She stood up. “Where should I meet you?”
    “In the Entrance Hall,” Lady Barb said. “I hope you have packed everything I told you to pack ...?”
    Emily nodded. Lady Barb had told her that she would have to carry everything herself, without benefit of magic. She was stronger than she’d ever been on Earth, but she knew there were still limits to how much she could carry physically. During Martial Magic it had taken her months to build up the muscles the boys had taken for granted.
    “Go,” Lady Barb ordered. She smiled. “But there’s no real hurry.”
    Emily waved goodbye to Lady Aylia, then walked out of the library and down towards the dorms. The school was quiet, too quiet. She found herself looking around warily as she passed a line of statues – famous magicians through the ages – and stopped in front of a painting one of the older students had produced. Every time she looked at it, she couldn't help feeling embarrassed. It purported to show her battle with Shadye, but she knew all-too-well that the battle had been very different. She’d certainly not been a match for the maddened necromancer in raw power.
    She’d protested to Lady Barb when the painting had first been hung on the walls, but the older woman had pointed out that the painting helped reassure the younger students and their parents that Whitehall was safe. Emily hadn't been convinced – magic could be very dangerous, even without a necromancer or a dangerous monster running loose in the school – yet further argument seemed futile. She looked up at her figure in the painting and shook her head, running her hands through her long brown hair. She’d never been so beautiful in her entire life. Hardly anyone could recognise her from the painting.
    Snorting, she pressed her hand against the stone and watched as the door slid open, revealing a darkened corridor leading towards Madame Razz’s office. The stout housemother was nowhere to be seen, thankfully. Most of the First Years had gone home, but the handful who hadn't were driving her slowly insane. Emily smiled to herself as she walked down the corridor and stepped through the door leading to her room. She rather liked the housemother, but the older woman was immensely strict at times.
    Inside, she couldn't help wincing at how bare the room seemed. Emily and the Gorgon had shared it for the rest of the year, after Lin had made her escape, but the Gorgon was gone and there would be another room next year. The Gorgon’s bed had been stripped down to the mattress, leaving her side of the room looking mournful. Emily felt an odd lump in her throat as she walked over to the mirror and looked at her own reflection. Once, she’d had problems growing used to the idea of sharing her room with anyone. Now ... she found she missed the Gorgon. And the rest of her friends.
    She almost didn’t recognise the girl looking back at her. Long brown hair framed a face that was pale, but stronger than it had been two years ago. Her body had filled out too. At Whitehall, she’d eaten better than she’d ever eaten on Earth, while the Sergeants had made her exercise constantly. It was unpleasant to realise that she would never have had the chance to grow and develop on Earth ... she shook her head, pushing the thought aside. There was no time for woolgathering.
    Lady Barb had given her strict instructions on what to pack in her bag. There was one set of dress robes, carefully tailored for her at Dragon’s Den, one standard student set of robes and four walking outfits. She’d also been warned not to bring more than a handful of books, something that bothered her more than the prospect of wearing dress robes. Her collection of books was small, but growing rapidly. Being separated from them bothered her, even though she knew it wasn't logical.
    Emily picked up the white envelope from the cabinet and opened it, pulling out the single sheet of creamy white parchment inside. She’d never really cared about her grades on Earth, not when they were meaningless to her. But in Whitehall, grades were important. The exams she’d taken a month ago would help to shape her future, at least the part of it she would spend at Whitehall. She skimmed through the parchment, noting – again – that she’d done very well. Martial Magic was the only course she’d failed outright.
    I would have had to retake parts of it anyway, Emily reminded herself. Sergeant Miles wouldn't let me waste time.
    Shaking her head, Emily undressed, removing the uniform she’d worn in Blackhall, and jumped into the shower for a quick wash, then dried herself with a spell and pulled on the first walking outfit. Lady Barb hadn't told her what she should wear for the trip, but Emily was already dreading the passage through the portal. If nothing else, she could clean one of the walking outfits easily. The garments were already charmed to keep dust and mud from sticking permanently.
    Once she was dressed, she took one last look at her trunk, feeling oddly upset at the thought of leaving it behind. The first trunk was long gone, but it had been the first thing she’d bought with money she’d earned at Whitehall, while the second was actually an improvement. Yodel had done very good work, she had to admit, even if he'd helped Emily get into real trouble. But it hadn't really been his fault ... she picked up the trunk, marvelling at the charm that made it almost weightless for its rightful owner, and carried it out of her room. Down the corridor, she could hear Madame Razz telling off one of the first years. Emily rolled her eyes as she walked into the storeroom and carefully placed the trunk in a sealed compartment. It should be safe for three months.
    “Your parents paid for you to stay for extra tuition,” Madame Razz’s voice proclaimed, as Emily stepped back into the corridor. “I don’t think they meant for you to try to rig the beds with itching spells. Or were they just trying to get rid of you for a few more weeks?”
    Emily winced as the two came into view, Madame Razz dragging the unruly First Year by her ear. Parents of magical children who weren't magical themselves were often unsure of the way to treat their gifted children. Emily had heard horror stories about children – teenagers, really – using their magic to lord it over their parents, relatives and childhood friends. Imaiqah had been lucky, she knew. Other parents tended to allow their children to fade away into the magical community.
    She wondered, absently, if the First Year knew how lucky she was to have decent parents. Emily’s father had left his family when her daughter had been very young, her mother had been steadily drinking herself to death and her stepfather ... Emily shuddered as the memory rose up to torment her, before she forced it back into the darkness of her mind. She was no longer on Earth and she would never see him again. Stepping back into her room, she glanced around to make sure that she hadn't left anything behind. The dirty uniform would be picked up by the servants and washed; there was nothing else in the room that belonged to her. It looked almost as if she’d never lived there at all.
    Emily picked up her bag, slung it over her shoulder and walked out of the room, refusing to look back. There was no sign of Madame Razz; Emily hesitated, wondering if she should say goodbye, then decided against it and walked out of the compartment and down towards the Entrance Hall. The two pranksters were still cleaning the Great Hall thoroughly, supervised by a grim-faced Master Tor. Emily scowled at his back – Master Tor had made his intention of leaving Whitehall quite clear, but he had yet to actually leave – and walked around the Great Hall. She didn't really want to talk to a teacher who’d disliked her long before he’d actually met her.
    Lady Barb was waiting in the Entrance Hall, a small bag slung around her shoulder. Emily caught the look in her eye and wordlessly handed over her own bag for the older woman to search. It was irritating not to be trusted to pack her own bag, but Lady Barb had made it clear that it would be hard to replace anything she’d missed once they were on their way.
    “Good,” Lady Barb said, finally. “But you probably shouldn't carry so many books. You will be busy.”
    Emily nodded, but made no move to remove the books.
    Lady Barb smiled and passed the bag back to her. “Just remember you have to carry them,” she warned, as Emily took the bag. She’d said the same thing time and time again. “I won’t be carrying them for you.”
    “I know,” Emily said, quietly.
    She looked up as the Grandmaster stepped into the hall. He looked older, somehow, the lines on his face clearer than ever. His eyes, hidden behind a cloth, seemed to twitch in Emily’s direction. Lady Barb dropped him a long sweeping bow, which Emily followed a moment later. The Grandmaster bowed in return, then smiled tiredly.
    “You should take great care,” the Grandmaster said. He looked directly at Emily. “I do not believe that your guardian came on a whim.”
    Emily blinked – she hadn't told anyone what Void had said – and then recalled that Blackhall was as closely monitored as Whitehall. The Grandmaster had probably known that Void was there the moment he’d passed through the outer protective wards.
    “We’ll talk about it soon enough,” Lady Barb promised. There was a hint of irritation in her voice. “And I thank you for your patience with me.”
    “You’re welcome,” the Grandmaster said. Emily glanced from one to the other in bemusement. What were they talking about? “And I wish you a safe and educational trip, Lady Emily.”
    “Thank you, sir,” Emily said.
    “And I will expect regular reports,” the Grandmaster added. “In triplicate.”
    Lady Barb snorted. “Only if you write them yourself,” she said. “I don’t think either of us will have the time.”
    Emily nodded, quickly.
    Lady Barb caught her arm and pulled her towards the door. Outside, the sun was high in the sky, casting rays of light towards the ground. Emily looked behind her as they walked down towards the edge of the wards surrounding the castle, catching sight of the two pranksters as they were marched into the Entrance Hall. Neither of them looked even remotely happy.
    “But what,” Emily asked, “did they do?”
    “They came up with an ingenious scheme for sneaking into the girls changing room,” Lady Barb told her. Unlike most of the other teachers, she never withheld anything from her charges. “It really was quite clever ... but they were caught. The Grandmaster assigned them to clean the school in hopes of deterring others from trying the same trick.”
    Emily shuddered. She had enough problems undressing in front of her fellow girls, let alone boys. The thought of someone spying on her as she undressed ... she shuddered again, remembering just how many spells there were protecting the changing rooms. If one of the boys had managed to bypass them ...
    She opened her mouth to ask how they did it, but Lady Barb caught hold of her arm before Emily could say a word. “Close your eyes,” Lady Barb instructed. “And don’t open them until I say so.”
    Emily blinked in surprise. “We’re not going to the portal?”
    “No,” Lady Barb said. She wrapped her arms around Emily in a gentle, but firm hug. “Close your eyes.”
    Emily obeyed.
    A moment later, she felt a surge of magic surrounding her.
     
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three
    Emily forced her eyes to stay closed as the world shuddered around her, then the magic faded away to nothingness. There was a long moment of complete disorientation – Emily realised, suddenly, that they were teleporting – and then Lady Barb slowly let her go.
    “Open your eyes,” she ordered.
    Emily opened her eyes and looked around. It was twilight, the last traces of sunlight falling behind the mountains in the distance. High overhead, the stars were coming out, twinkling madly in the darkness. It had been early afternoon at Whitehall, she knew, but now ... they had to have teleported over half the continent. Her head spun, but she managed to keep her footing. Teleporting wasn't anything like as bad as stepping through a portal without proper precautions.
    “This is my family’s land,” Lady Barb informed her. “And that’s my home, over there.”
    Emily followed her gaze. A wall, barely two metres high, was broken by a pair of wrought-iron gates, allowing her to see the garden – and the manor house beyond. It looked like an Edwardian building, Emily decided, with at least three floors. She followed Lady Barb towards the house, feeling the outer edges of the wards brushing lightly against her magic. The building looked indefensible, but as long as Lady Barb had magic it wouldn't be a problem. It was simple to construct wards to keep non-magical thieves out.
    The gates creaked open as they approached, allowing them to walk up the path towards the house. Emily couldn't help admiring the garden, even though it looked like someone had scattered seeds at random, just to see what would happen. The bushes and trees looked natural, while – in the undergrowth – she heard small animals scuttling for cover. She turned her attention back to the house as Lady Barb stopped in front of the heavy wooden door, then pressed her hand against a stone set in the wood. There was a flare of magic and the door unlocked, piece by piece. Emily stepped backwards as the magic flared again, looking up at the house. Up close, it had a vaguely sinister appearance that bothered her.
    The door opened, allowing Lady Barb to step inside. “Come,” she ordered, as Emily hesitated. “I bid you welcome to my home.”
    Emily had to think to remember her etiquette. “I thank you for welcoming me,” she said, after a moment. “I pledge to hold my hand in your house.”
    Lady Barb clicked her fingers. The corridor flared with light, bright enough to make Emily cover her eyes before it dimmed to a more manageable level. She looked around, fascinated, but only saw bare wooden walls ... no, the walls were carved into elaborate patterns and runes. There were no paintings or other decorations, but there wouldn't be. The runes were almost certainly part of the house’s defences against intruders.
    “You need to practice your etiquette,” Lady Barb warned. “The last place you want to accidentally insult another magician is his own house.”
    Emily swallowed. She hadn't yet started to study wards, but she did know that a magician who owned a house and crafted the wards himself was almost impossible to defeat on his home territory. Etiquette was important for magicians, if only to prevent accidental insults, but she had to study aristocratic etiquette as well as magical etiquette. Something that would insult Alassa’s father would be ignored by a magician.
    Lady Barb led her into a large kitchen. Emily couldn't help admiring the structure, although she had no idea how the two of them could cook anything by themselves. It looked as though at least four cooks were required, but they were alone. The house felt empty. Lady Barb grinned at her, then motioned for Emily to put her bag down on the table.
    “Take a seat,” she ordered, as she used a spell to light a fire. “I’ll make some Chocolate for us both.”
    Emily nodded. Hot Chocolate – or something that passed for it – would help her to sleep, particularly if she combined it with a small dose of a sleeping potion. Jet lag wasn't a problem in the new world, but teleport lag might well be ... her body was still insisting that it was early afternoon, even though it was dark and cold outside. She sat down on a dark wooden stool and watched as the older women moved around her kitchen with easy competence. It was barely five minutes before they both had a steaming cup of Chocolate in front of them.
    “There are some matters we need to discuss,” Lady Barb said, once she had taken a sip of her drink. “For a start, you do realise that you are both famous and notorious?”
    “I might just have noticed,” Emily said, sardonically. “It’s hard to avoid being aware of it.”
    They shared a smile. Most of the ballads about the Necromancy’s Bane bore little resemblance to reality, but that didn't stop the bards from singing them and generally spreading her fame everywhere. Some of them were so outrageous that Emily had actually considered trying to sue for libel, only to discover that she would have to invent the legal framework first before launching the suit.
    It wasn't something she found comfortable – and not just because people were judging her by the ballads, rather than anything she’d actually done. Fame had never really been one of her ambitions, particularly not when it brought worse enemies than depraved stalkers. The innovations she’d introduced to the new world, starting in Zangaria, were slowly turning it upside down. Her long list of enemies might have started with the necromancers, but it didn't end there.
    Lady Barb reached into her bag and produced a small pendant. “This is a glamour-stone,” she said, dropping it on the table. “It will disguise you from anyone who doesn't actually know you personally. The fact you’re wearing it will be obvious, but no one will be so gauche as to try to take it from you. And you won’t have to expend any energy to maintain the glamour.”
    Emily nodded. Almost all of the girls at Whitehall – and quite a few of the boys – used glamours to hide tiny imperfections in their bodies. The only girl she knew who didn't use glamours was Alassa – and she had been engineered to be stunningly beautiful. Even Emily herself had been tempted, although in the end she had chosen to stick with her natural appearance. If nothing else, she didn't have to expend energy maintaining it.
    “Emily is also not a common name,” Lady Barb added, as Emily picked up the stone and examined it carefully. She’d been warned, more than once, to be careful with anything someone else provided for her, no matter who it was. Sergeant Miles had demonstrated several of the simplest traps for his students, leaving them all more than a little paranoid about their fellows. “I’m going to call you Millie when we’re in public. Make sure you cast a privacy ward if you want to talk to someone else.”
    “I understand,” Emily said. It seemed embarrassing to have to hide her identity, but she knew Lady Barb was right. “Will I have to talk to others?”
    “I thought you wanted to talk to your young friend,” Lady Barb said. “But he would recognise you at once, naturally.”
    Emily felt her cheeks heat up. It would be the first time she’d seen Jade in over a year, a year of somewhat strained correspondence ... she pushed the thought aside, firmly. She couldn't hide behind email – or letters – at Whitehall, not indefinitely. Hell, she couldn't use email at all. She had only a faint idea of how to start generating electricity.
    If it works in this universe, she told herself. She was fairly sure it would – there were electric currents in human brains, after all – but she didn't know for sure.
    “We are going to be here for three days,” Lady Barb said. “Your mornings will be spent brewing specific potions, which you should have no problems with, and doing some private studies. You may spend the afternoon at the Faire, if you wish. As my apprentice, at least for the summer, you will not be expected to mingle with the great and the good. They won’t know who you are.”
    Emily nodded, relieved. She knew enough about the politics of the magical families to want to avoid them as long as possible. The deluge of messages asking for her hand in marriage had taught her that she would have to be careful. They knew her as someone who could give her children powerful magic, not a person in her own right. In some ways, it was just as bad as the arranged marriage Alassa was expected to have.
    “Thank you,” she said, and meant it. “I don’t like crowds.”
    Lady Barb shrugged. “Most magicians tend to become unsociable as they grow older,” she said, softly. “I ... forced myself to overcome it.”
    She finished her Chocolate and stood up, forcing Emily to take her last sip. At least it was sweeter than the Chocolate served in Whitehall, she told herself. Normally, she had to add at least a spoonful of sugar to drink it properly. Lady Barb waved a hand, banishing both cups to the sink, and then led Emily out of the kitchen and up a flight of stairs. There was a musty atmosphere in the upper levels that suggested that no one had entered the house for a very long time.
    “This is the library,” Lady Barb said, as she opened a door. Inside, the walls were lined with books, old books. It was tiny compared to a library on Earth, but Emily knew that she was staring at thousands of gold coins worth of books. Before she'd introduced the printing press, books had to be written and bound manually. The various Scribes Guilds had made fortunes copying rare and important books for their clients. “Do you like it?”
    Emily nodded, wordlessly. She’d always loved libraries.
    “You can read anything, apart from the books on the topmost shelves,” Lady Barb said. She gave Emily a warning look. “Some of them are too advanced for you, as of yet, while some of them are specific to my family. Reading them would be very dangerous for your health, Emily. Don’t try to open them.”
    Emily felt a flicker of resentment. She’d always hated being told that something was too advanced – or too adult – for her to read. The librarians back on Earth had sometimes questioned her when she’d taken adult books out of the library, demanding to know if her mother knew she was reading them. But her mother had been too drunk to care.
    She shook her head. These books weren't adult fiction, but books of magic, keyed to a specific family line. Lady Barb was right. Reading them could be very bad for her health.
    “I won’t,” she promised. She hesitated, then asked the question that had come to mind. “Could your brother’s wife read them?”
    Lady Barb shook her head. “Only someone who shared the family’s bloodline could open the books safely,” she said. “A wife wouldn't count, no matter how close she was to her husband.”
    Emily shivered, remembering the offers of marriage. They’d been made to Imaiqah too ... and, before she’d been ennobled herself, Imaiqah might well have been tempted. A place in a magical family, adding her wild magic to the family’s bloodline ... it was a better match than she could have hoped for as a merchant’s daughter. But she would never truly be one of the family. She would never be able to read their books.
    Lady Barb placed a hand on Emily’s shoulder. “I know how you feel,” she said, quietly. “But you have to understand the dangers. Don’t touch the books.”
    “I won’t,” Emily repeated.
    Lady Barb strode over to the bookshelves and pulled a book off the shelf, followed by three more. “These are for you to study, when you’re not brewing potions,” she said. “Be warned; I shall expect you to be perfect with the potions. The people we will be visiting will have no other sources, but us. A mistake could have lethal consequences.”
    Emily gritted her teeth. Alchemy – which included potions – was not her best subject, despite a handful of private lessons with Professor Thande. She knew she could brew most of the First Year potions in controlled conditions, but she’d come alarmingly close to flunking the exam completely. If Lady Barb hadn't forced her to take advantage of being a Second Year to use one of the private rooms to practice, she suspected she wouldn't be able to make the potions she wanted now.
    Lady Barb smiled at her expression. “I think you’ll do fine,” she said, placing the books on the table. “Consider this your reward.”
    Emily glanced down at the covers. One of them was a guide to the Cairngorm Mountains, where they would be travelling, but the others ... all three of them were on enchantment. She recognised one of the titles and winced, remembering the book she’d borrowed from Yodel that Master Tor had confiscated. But why did Lady Barb have a copy?
    “You can read these books,” Lady Barb said, “but no experimenting without my agreement and supervision. I expect you to study them carefully, write out whatever you have in mind and then discuss it with me thoroughly before we actually try any experiments. Do you understand me?”
    “Yes,” Emily said, flinching under Lady Barb’s gaze. The last time she had tried an unauthorised experiment, it had nearly cost her everything. “I won’t try anything without your presence.”
    “Good,” Lady Barb said. She tapped the table. “You can take the books to your room, if you like, but don’t try to remove them from the house. The wards will take exception to it.”
    She turned and marched out of the library. “There are three floors to this house,” she said, as Emily hurried after her. “Don’t try to enter any locked doors; they’re rooms belonging to other members of my family and I can't vouch for any wards or other unpleasant surprises they might have left behind. Your room is safe, but feel free to erect wards of your own – just remember to dismantle them before we leave the house for good.”
    Emily followed her into a smaller room. “This is the guestroom,” Lady Barb said, by way of explanation. She dismantled a set of stasis wards surrounding the bed, which was larger than Whitehall’s standardized beds but smaller than the beds Emily had enjoyed in Zangaria. “There’s a bathtub in the next room, beside the toilet. You’ll have to use magic to heat the water, I’m afraid.”
    “Ouch,” Emily said. Sergeant Miles had taught her a whole series of spells that would be useful on camping trips, starting with a simple spell to boil water, but he'd also warned her of the dangers. Making the spell too powerful was a good way to get burned. “No hot running water?”
    Lady Barb snorted. “This isn't Whitehall, you know,” she said. “And everyone who lives here has magic.”
    Emily nodded. Running water was rare outside Whitehall and various aristocratic castles – and hot running water was even rarer. Imaiqah had told her once that she had fallen in love with Whitehall’s showers, even though they were weaker than showers on Earth. But, in many ways, Emily was the only student at Whitehall who’s living conditions had actually degraded since coming to the school. Hot and cold running water was one of the things taken for granted on Earth.
    “Get a good night’s sleep,” Lady Barb said, as she turned and headed back towards the door. “My room’s at the bottom of the corridor, but don’t disturb me unless it is truly urgent. I don’t like being disturbed at night.”
    “Me too,” Emily said. She’d had to disturb Madame Razz more than once, when she’d had nightmares after the Mimic had been destroyed. The housemother had not been pleased at all. “And thank you.”
    Lady Barb smiled, rather coldly. “This is the easy part,” she said. “It will get harder – much harder – once we’re on our way.”
    She was right – again. Emily had done enough forced marches with the Sergeants to know just how difficult it could be to walk from place to place carrying a bag. But there were no cars in this world, no helicopters or aeroplanes. There was nothing more advanced than a horse and cart for the average non-magical citizen. And she still hadn't learnt how to teleport.
    Pity no one flies broomsticks here, she thought, ruefully. But it would be way too easy to knock them out of the sky.
    Emily watched Lady Barb go, closing the door behind her, then turned to look around the room. It was bare, no more decorated than any of the other rooms she’d seen, but there was a simplicity about it that appealed to her. She opened the door and walked down to the kitchen to pick up her bag, then walked back to the room, feeling the wards pressing in around her as she moved. The house felt far less friendly than Whitehall, no matter how much its mistress liked her guest. But the effect faded away as soon as she was back in the guestroom.
    She undressed rapidly, then opened her bag and produced the nightgown. She’d never been able to sleep naked in her life, certainly not since her mother had married again. The house was empty, apart from Lady Barb, but Emily still couldn't relax. She pulled the gown over her head, used a simple spell to clean her teeth and then reached back into the bag for a phial of sleeping potion. Placing it by the bedside, she climbed into bed and took a sip. As always, it tasted unpleasant. But it did its job.
    And then the nightmares started.
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four
    ... The Mimic advances towards her, a glowing mist of eerie blue-white light. Emily raises her hands to cast the counter-spell, but the Mimic doesn’t even flinch. It just keeps coming. She feels her mind start to shiver under the pressure of its magic, her thoughts scattering in preparation for being absorbed. The Grandmaster should be here, but he is gone ... Emily stumbles, then falls to her knees. Her body starts to break up into dust ...
    Emily snapped awake, screaming.
    For a long moment, she fought to control herself. Her entire body was drenched with sweat, soaking her gown. It took minutes to even remember where she was and what she was doing, lying in an unfamiliar bedroom. Somehow, she managed to sit upright and push the blankets aside, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and stand upright. Her legs felt wobbly and unstable.
    A dream, she told herself, firmly. It had all been a dream.
    But her mind refused to believe it, not really. She'd had nightmares for the first month or two after the Mimic had been destroyed, but then they’d faded away. Now, however, with the change to a new bedroom ... she gritted her teeth and walked towards the bathroom, hoping that the water wasn't too cold. She needed to wash the sweat from her body and hope it helped her to recover from the nightmare.
    The bathroom was larger than she'd expected, with a large bathtub in one corner. Emily turned on the tap, then splashed water on her face. The shock woke her up properly, allowing her to concentrate on casting a heating spell for the water. It bubbled rapidly and started to steam, but she kept pouring cold water into the tub until it was warm rather than boiling hot. As soon as she could, she removed her gown and climbed into the bathtub, washing the sweat from her body. The water, thankfully, helped her to relax.
    She winced at the half-remembered dream as she allowed the water to work on her tense muscles. There was much to admire in Whitehall and the surrounding world, but one thing she couldn't admire was the complete absence of psychologists. She couldn't talk to anyone about PTSD, not when any hint of mental instability was sure to cause a panic. Mental instability was associated with one particular kind of magician, the necromancers. If she’d gone to someone – anyone – and confessed to any form of mental disorder, she suspected she wouldn't like the consequences.
    It made sense, she knew. No one would want the necromancers to discover a way to come to terms with their own madness. Shadye had been dangerously irrational, lashing out with a staggering amount of power ... and completely fixated on the so-called Child of Destiny he’d kidnapped from Earth. If he’d been less focused on Emily, she knew, he might well have destroyed Whitehall completely and killed Emily herself. But it was no reassurance when she wanted someone to talk to.
    Naked, she stepped out of the tub and dried herself with a spell, then glanced in the mirror. Her eyes looked tired, her face looked pale; she scowled in annoyance and then walked into the bedroom. Lady Barb hadn't issued any instructions for what she should wear, so she reached for the standard student robes. Alassa might bemoan their shapelessness, but Emily had always found them reassuring. Besides, there was no need to wear anything underneath them apart from a set of equally shapeless panties and one of her makeshift bras.
    Carefully, she opened the door and smiled as she smelled something cooking down below. It smelt faintly of bacon and eggs, although there was something else in the mix she didn't recognise. She walked down and into the kitchen, where Lady Barb was frying something on the grill. The older woman looked up and frowned when she saw Emily.
    “Rough night?”
    Emily flushed. “You could hear me?”
    “Your face tells it all,” Lady Barb said. She labelled eggs, bacon and fried bread onto a plate, then passed it to Emily. “What did you dream about?”
    “The Mimic,” Emily confessed. The food smelt heavenly. “Is there no potion for barring nightmares?”
    “You soon wouldn't be able to sleep at all without it, if you took it more than once,” Lady Barb pointed out, dryly. She placed a plate of her own on the table, then sat down facing Emily. “The best cure for nightmares is to work hard, sadly.”
    Emily nodded, then started to eat. The bacon tasted lovely, the eggs were nice ... but there was something odd about the bread. It struck her, a moment later, that she wasn't entirely sure it was bread. Or, if it was, it was a very strange kind of bread.
    “We’re going to leave after eating breakfast,” Lady Barb said. “I suggest you wear your dress robes, unless you have a very strong objection.”
    She smiled at Emily’s expression. “And saying you don’t like the style doesn't count,” she added. “I expect you to wear them today, then perhaps you can leave them behind.”
    Emily made a face. Her normal robes were brown, but the dress robes were golden and made her look faintly ridiculous. Only the fact that everyone else in Second Year and above was expected to wear them too made them even remotely bearable. Alassa looked good in them, but Alassa looked good in everything. Emily, on the other hand, had no real sense of vanity, yet she still felt absurd in the robes.
    “You’ll be fine,” Lady Barb assured her. She finished her food and banished the dishes to the sink. “Go get dressed. I’ll meet you downstairs in twenty minutes.”
    Sighing, Emily obeyed. The dress robes weren't comfortable, no matter how many charms she used to try to make them tolerable. She looked at herself in the mirror, then strode downstairs, unable to escape the feeling that she looked a giant target and nothing else. Lady Barb met her at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a long black set of robes that marked her as a sorceress. Emily felt a flicker of envy which she rapidly suppressed. Lady Barb had worked hard to become a combat sorceress.
    “Two words of warning,” Lady Barb said, as she opened the door. “This is neutral ground, so be polite to everyone you meet. You don’t want or need more enemies. And, if you have to come back to the house, just remember what I said about the locked doors. The house is always more aggressive about guests when none of its family are home.”
    Emily swallowed, then nodded.
    Outside, the air was fresh and clean, smelling faintly of honeysuckle. Emily saw tiny insects buzzing through the garden, while birds flew high overhead, calling out to their fellows. The garden looked even less tidy in daylight, but she had to admit that it was all the more attractive. She’d seen organised gardens in Zangaria, where not a leaf was out of place, but they seemed unnatural compared to the wilderness.
    “My grandmother used to grow her own herbs in the garden,” Lady Barb said, as they walked out the gate and started down a long road. “I didn't inherit her talent, so I merely left the plants to grow as they saw fit. Whenever I wanted something from the garden, I’d just take it; sometimes, I’d let my cousins explore the garden for something they wanted for themselves.”
    The road led downwards into a large valley. Emily sucked in her breath as she saw the tents coming into view, crammed together around a handful of larger houses. There were hundreds of people milling around, chatting and looking at stalls. Emily fought down the urge to run as she realised just how many people had gathered, then forced herself to follow Lady Barb down towards the gates. A ward brushed against her mind and she shuddered, before the magic parted to let her through.
    “The only people allowed to enter are magicians,” Lady Barb said, softly. “But not all magicians. One of your friends would not be welcome here. Can you guess who?”
    Emily remembered Lady Barb’s warnings about the books and nodded. “Imaiqah.”
    “Wrong,” Lady Barb said. “It’s Alassa. She would not be welcome here.”
    Emily blinked in surprise. “Why?”
    Lady Barb shrugged. “She lucked into her position, purely through choosing the right parents,” she said. “The Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Great Houses fight for their positions, testing magical skill against magical skill. They make certain to breed their children with new magicians, just to strengthen their talents. Alassa’s father ... will breed her with someone who suits his kingdom, not her magic. She wouldn't be welcome here.”
    “It sounds absurd,” Emily said.
    “It’s the way they are,” Lady Barb said, without taking offense. She smiled at Emily. “Welcome to the Annual Faire.”
    Emily followed Lady Barb through the maze of stalls and performance artists, unable to believe the sheer variety. There were stalls overloaded with potion bottles, wands, magical tools and books. Behind them, hundreds of sellers chatted rapidly to prospective customers, their words blurring together into an omnipresent buzzing that threatened to overwhelm Emily’s senses. She couldn't help pausing in front of one of the bookstalls and looking at the titles, although there didn’t seem to be anything too interesting. Most of the texts on offer were textbooks she’d seen at Whitehall.
    “Most of the ... more sensitive titles are kept hidden,” Lady Barb explained, as Emily followed her away from the stall. “If you happened to want a copy, you’d have to give the Bookseller’s Guild a request – and they’d find it for you, if they could. Some books you can't have for love or money.”
    She paused, nodding to another bookstall. “But you might have changed all that, Millie.”
    Emily followed her gaze. The bookstall was crammed with books produced in a newfangled printing press, one of the later designs out of Zangaria. Unlike the previous stall, there were several copies of each title on display, just waiting for someone to pick them up. None of the titles looked particularly interesting, save two. One discussed famous magicians of the last century, the other claimed to be a history book. She picked the latter up and saw another book underneath. This one was a reprint of a textbook she recalled from First Year, one so rare that the only copies in Whitehall were in the library.
    “Traditionalists say that the printing press takes something out of us,” the seller said, as she examined the book. “But for us, business is booming.”
    Emily had to smile. The printing press had revolutionised the world already – and the pace of change was only going to increase. There were already dozens of newspapers in Zangaria and the rest of the Allied Lands, while producing copies of older books would help knowledge to spread quickly from place to place. In ten years, perhaps less, every student at Whitehall would be able to have their own copies of each and every textbook required for their studies. Emily almost envied them. As exams grew nearer, competition for rare copies of books only grew more and more fierce.
    “You can look for books later,” Lady Barb said, firmly. “There are quite a few other people you should see here.”
    She pointed towards a group of women sitting behind a long table. Somewhat to Emily's surprise, they were wearing face veils that concealed almost everything. Their robes were even more shapeless than Whitehall’s standard robes. Behind them, a second set of women wore chainmail bikinis and carried long swords as well as staffs. They glared at anyone who paid too much attention to the first set of women. Emily’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. The table was almost completely empty, despite its size.
    “They're the Virgin Sisterhood,” Lady Barb explained. “There are certain rites that can only be performed by a maiden, a virgin girl. The women in veils are the virgins, the ones who can and will do the work. Their sisters, the ones behind them, are their guardians and protectors. If someone wanted to harm a maiden, their sisters would die in their defence.”
    Emily found herself giving the women a second look. “They’re combat sorceresses?”
    “Some of them are,” Lady Barb said. “Others ... are mere fighters, which doesn't stop them being dangerous.”
    She led Emily further into the tightly-packed mass of stalls, pointing out isolated items of interest along the way. “That storekeeper is selling love potion,” she said. “It's barely legal; it’s charmed to ensure that only two people, who drink it willingly, are affected by the magic. The magical families tend to use them to ensure that a young couple remain in love long enough to produce children.”
    Emily shuddered at the thought. Love potions were banned at Whitehall, considered effectively akin to rape. Did it make a difference, she asked herself, if two people took a potion to bind them together? Or did it merely mean that they were raping themselves?
    “Those charms are fidelity charms,” Lady Barb continued, unaware of Emily's thoughts. “It makes it impossible to sleep with anyone other than your wife or partner. That potion is a conceptive potion. If you take it before sex, you will almost certainly become pregnant. Behind it, there’s a contraceptive potion. It’s stronger than anything you will be allowed to use at Whitehall.”
    “Oh,” Emily said.
    Lady Barb turned to look at her. “A little overwhelmed?”
    “Just a little,” Emily confessed. The stalls seemed to be crowding in on her. She wanted to run and escape. “Is there somewhere we can go?”
    Lady Barb nodded and led her through the crowd of people, heading towards a large tent on the edge of the Faire. Outside, a young girl – Emily estimated her age at thirteen, although it was impossible to be sure – was singing sweetly to the crowd. Emily hesitated, studying the girl’s face. She looked vaguely Chinese, mixed with European. If she had magic, it was impossible to tell.
    Inside, there were tables, chairs and a handful of serving maids carrying trays of drink everywhere. Lady Barb motioned for Emily to sit down, then ordered two mugs of Kava from the maids, who nodded and leapt to obey. Emily found herself taking deep breaths as she focused her mind, remembering what the Sergeants had taught her. Magic was always safer when used by a focused magician.
    “Don’t worry about it,” Lady Barb said, as she sat down beside Emily. “The magic in the air gets to everyone, at first. You’ll grow used to it.”
    Emily rubbed her forehead, feeling something throbbing under her skull. “Do you really?”
    “It's a sign of strong magic to react to magical fields,” Lady Barb reminded her. “You shouldn't have forgotten that so quickly.”
    She nodded towards the entrance. “See anyone you recognise?”
    Emily looked, but it took her several moments to spot a familiar face. Melissa was standing in the open air, speaking to a woman who looked old enough to be her great-grandmother. Unlike Emily, she wasn't wearing golden dress robes, but a white dress that showed off her long red hair and the shape of her body. It didn't look as though Melissa was enjoying her discussion with the older woman.
    “Melissa comes from a magical family,” Lady Barb said, quietly. “By now, she will be expected to enter into a marriage contract with someone approved by her family. Quite a few such contracts are made at the Faire.”
    Emily felt a flicker of sympathy for Melissa, despite knowing just how badly Melissa could act, on occasion. She’d hated Alassa – at least the Royal Brat she'd been before encountering Emily – and that hatred had been transferred to Emily, when Emily had actually helped Alassa get through her basic classes. Since then, they’d sniped at each other constantly at Whitehall.
    She looked up at Lady Barb. “What if Melissa says no?”
    “Her family might disown her,” Lady Barb said, softly. “If they did, she would be obliged to make her own way in the world. Which she probably could – her tuition fees are paid, so she could certainly stay at Whitehall until Sixth Year if she tried hard. But I don't know if she would do such a thing. Most people raised in magical families understand that they have a duty to help the family expand.”
    Emily looked over at her. “Like you?”
    Lady Barb gave her a sharp look. “Like me,” she said, after a moment. “But I never married.”
    She nodded towards the door before Emily could question her further. “You may recognise someone else here,” she added, changing the subject. “Who do you see?”
    Emily felt her heart leap into her mouth as she recognised the youth making his way towards the tent, following an older man with a grim expression on his face. He was older, his hair had been cropped to his skull and he walked with a confidence that outshone the young man Emily remembered, but there was no mistaking Jade. Emily found herself rising to her feet as they entered the tent, a silly smile spreading across her face. Whatever their relationship actually was – and she honestly didn't know – it was genuinely good to see Jade again.
    Jade cast a privacy ward in the air, then smiled back at her. “Emily,” he said. She couldn't help noticing that his face had acquired a couple of new scars. “How are you?”
    The man beside him cleared his throat, loudly.
    “This is Master Gray, my Master,” Jade said, introducing the man. “Master, this is Emily of Cockatrice.”
    Master Grey met Emily’s eyes as she curtseyed, then introduced Lady Barb. She couldn't help thinking of a monk; bald, muscular and grimly determined to trample over whatever opposition barred his way to his destination. His eyes were dark and cold, studying her as though she was something he’d scraped off his shoe.
    “A pleasure to meet you,” he said.
    Somehow, Emily found it hard to believe him.
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five
    “Well,” Lady Barb said, after the maids had served them all Kava, “how have you been coping with your new apprentice?”
    Master Grey gave her a long considering look. “Well enough,” he said, heavily. “And yourself?”
    Emily exchanged a glance of mutual embarrassment with Jade. She’d heard that some children found their parents permanently embarrassing, particularly when their friends had met them, but it was never a sensation she had experienced – until now. Hearing Master Grey and Lady Barb exchange careful compliments – as if Jade and Emily weren't even there – was definitely embarrassing. And then there was the way Master Grey looked at her while drinking his Kava.
    “We are currently undergoing a temporary arrangement,” Lady Barb said, stiffly. “She cannot enter a full apprenticeship until she leaves school.”
    Master Grey lifted his eyebrows. “Tell me,” he said, addressing Emily directly, “how did you defeat the Mimic?”
    “The Grandmaster starved it of magic,” Emily said. It was the official cover story; the Grandmaster had flatly forbidden anyone who knew the truth to share it. “And then it died.”
    Master Grey didn't look as though he believed her. “And how did you kill Shadye?”
    Emily felt sweat prickling on her forehead. “Through magic,” she said, finally. “And ...”
    Lady Barb cleared her throat. “The Sorcerer’s Rule protects her,” she said. “And such knowledge should not be shared widely.”
    She looked over at Jade. “Why don’t you young folk chat over there while we ... discuss matters?”
    Emily stood up before Jade could say a word. Jade blinked in surprise, but followed her over to a table on the far side of the tent. The maids gave them an enquiring glance, then left them alone as Jade cast a privacy ward. Emily looked down at the table as she sat down, feeling utterly unsure of herself. What did Master Grey think of her? Nothing good, she was sure.
    “I’m sorry about him,” Jade said, awkwardly. “He’s obsessed with defeating the necromancers.”
    Emily had to smile. They did sound like a pair of children commiserating about their incredibly embarrassing parents. But then, an apprentice was effectively bound to their master until the apprenticeship came to an end. In one sense, Master Grey was Jade’s father – or at least someone standing in his father’s place.
    “He seems to have agreed with you,” Emily said, frantically casting around for something to say. “Have you enjoyed yourself?”
    Jade brightened, slightly. “I’ve had a very good time, but a very hard time,” he said. “Master Grey thinks that Sergeant Harkin was too soft.”
    Emily winced in sympathy. Sergeant Harkin had pushed his trainees forward relentlessly, teaching them never to surrender or simply give up. No one would have called him soft, certainly no one who had seen how he treated his trainees. But then, with more than a handful of students, he hadn't had time to give everyone his personal attention. An apprentice was assured of the personal attention of his master.
    She listened with genuine interest as Jade outlined a handful of stories. Master Grey believed in plunging his apprentices into the deep end, apparently; they’d started out near the Desert of Death, then explored the mountain range near Whitehall in hopes of finding Shadye’s tunnel before another necromancer could discover it. Emily had a private suspicion that the tunnel had collapsed when Shadye had died, but she knew the Allied Lands couldn't take it for granted. It was only a matter of time before Shadye’s lands were absorbed by another necromancer.
    “The rumours say you beat the Mimic in single combat,” Jade explained, when he'd finished. “No one knows quite what happened.”
    Emily rolled her eyes. Compared to some of the stories about her, including the ones that implied the use of forbidden sex magic, that story was almost reasonable. But it still wasn't true.
    “I just helped locate it,” she said. That much, at least, was common knowledge within Whitehall. “And I passed all of my exams, save one.”
    Jade quirked an eyebrow. “Martial Magic?”
    Emily nodded, embarrassed.
    Jade reached over and patted her hand. “You’ve already had a year I never had,” he pointed out, dryly. “By the time you leave Whitehall, you will have a far better grounding than myself. Master Grey had to teach me so much.”
    Emily looked down at her hand, feeling her emotions spinning around until she was unsure of what she was feeling. She disliked being touched, at least without invitation, but Jade made her feel ... nothing. Was that even remotely normal?
    Jade looked up. Emily followed his gaze. Master Grey was standing, but still speaking to Lady Barb.
    “Emily,” he said, quickly, “will you walk out with me this evening?”
    Emily hesitated. Was he asking her out on a date?
    Of course he is, idiot, she told herself.
    Dating wasn't something she’d done on Earth, not when she was considered weird by just about everyone ... and hadn't dared expose herself in any case. And, at Whitehall, her obscure social status made it harder for people to ask her out ... if, of course, they managed to look past her defeat of Shadye. Jade was the first person who had expressed interest in Emily herself, rather than her genes. But her own feelings were incredibly conflicted. Part of her wanted to accept – she trusted Jade – and part of her wanted to run to Lady Barb and hide.
    “I will,” she said, forcing the words out. “And thank you for coming ...”
    Jade smiled. “My Master is one of the guards here,” he said. “I wasn't really given a choice.”
    Master Grey dispelled the privacy wards, then nodded for Jade to follow him out of the tent. Emily watched him go, then looked up at Lady Barb. The older woman had a pinched, disapproving expression on her face that made her look older, somehow. Emily hesitated, then told her about Jade asking her out.
    “Go tomorrow,” Lady Barb said, firmly. “Not tonight.”
    Emily opened her mouth to argue – the longer she delayed, the easier it would be to have second thoughts – but she saw the glint in Lady Barb’s eye and nodded in submission. She would have to send Jade a message, she knew, or call after him ... but she didn't know where to find either Jade or Master Grey. Lady Barb caught her shoulder and steered her towards the open air, then out past the tents. Emily realised, as they made their way around the edge of the Faire, that they were heading back towards Lady Barb’s house.
    “There are things I need to show you,” Lady Barb said, shortly. “And you may not be in any fit state for anything tonight.”
    Emily swallowed. What did Lady Barb have in mind? She had warned Emily that they would be keeping up with her lessons in unarmed combat, training her to fight without magic or blades, but she didn't mean to do it today, surely? Or had Master Grey annoyed her to the point where she wanted to work it out somehow? But Emily knew, without false modesty, that she was no match for the older woman.
    Lady Barb said nothing else until they were back inside her house. She led the way into a living room, which looked oddly informal. The chairs scattered around in front of the fire were old, but comfortable. Emily found herself liking the room on sight. It might not be anything like as elegant as the aristocratic chambers she'd seen, but it seemed more suited to Lady Barb somehow.
    “Take a seat,” Lady Barb ordered. She perched on a cushion, folding her hands in her lap. “Do you want something to drink?”
    Emily shook her head as she sat down facing her tutor. Lady Barb seemed tense, unsure – for once – of what to do. It bothered Emily more than she cared to admit. The Mimic might have left them all a little unsure of what was happening, but Lady Barb had recovered from that experience quicker than anyone else. But now she was unsure again ...
    “My father was the youngest son of the family patriarch,” Lady Barb said. “He wasn’t a powerful sorcerer, so he tended to spend most of his time in the library. Not that he was incompetent, of course. Given time, he could still beat his older brothers.”
    Emily nodded. Stupid and incompetent magicians didn't tend to last very long – and a magician lacking in raw power wasn't necessarily a pushover. Someone with enough knowledge and skill could make up for a shortage in power, particularly if he or she had time to prepare the battleground in advance. Sergeant Miles had taught her more than a few tricks she could use against a stronger opponent, if she was forced to fight against her will.
    But she had no idea why Lady Barb was telling her this, now.
    “One day, he met a Traveller Witch in the woods,” Lady Barb added. “They became lovers – and she became pregnant. Nine months later, she left me on the doorstep and ran off.”
    Emily stared at her. “Why?”
    “There are different ... traditions in magic, as you know,” Lady Barb said. “My mother believed that I should be raised by my father, which I was. His family weren't too pleased at first, but when they discovered I was quite powerful they changed their tune.” She rolled her eyes. “I grew up here until I was twelve, when my mother returned and asked to take custody of me for a few years. My father exploded with rage.”
    “I’m not surprised,” Emily said. She could imagine exactly how Lady Barb’s father had felt. He'd raised his daughter, taught her everything from magic to letters and numbers, and then her mother had come back into his life and demanded custody, if only for a short while. It was utterly outrageous. “What happened?”
    “There was a big shouting match,” Lady Barb said. Her lips twitched. “I overheard most of it, particularly when my grandfather joined in. In the end, I was allowed to go stay with my mother for the summer months.”
    She shrugged. “The Travellers have a very light existence, but it isn't an unpleasant one,” she added. “I rather enjoyed it, once I got used to living in a wagon and moving from place to place. My mother wasn't a powerful witch, but she knew how to brew potions and use small magic. I learned a great deal from her.”
    Emily remembered all the times she’d fantasized about her father – her biological father – coming back to take her away and shivered. Lady Barb hadn't been unhappy, growing up with her father; if there had been a real custody battle it might easily have torn the family apart. But things were different for magical families ... who knew? Perhaps they would just have booted Barb’s mother out of the house and told her never to come back.
    “When I was sixteen, they offered me the chance to choose between Whitehall, Mountaintop or homeschooling,” Lady Barb continued. “I chose Whitehall. Most of my relatives were homeschooled, but I didn't want to go straight into the family. Mountaintop seemed more ominous to me, for some reason. Most magical families send their children there.”
    She snorted. “It turned out that I had a natural talent for Healing,” she admitted. “Or so they said. My mother forced me to learn how to take care of patients while I was studying with her. It was simple to add magic to the mix once my powers developed properly. I don't think it was a real talent. And I had to fight tooth and nail to convince them that I could become a combat sorceress. They didn't want to risk a skilled Healer.”
    Emily heard the cold ice in Lady Barb’s voice and shivered. She’d been told, more than once, that careers in magic were often determined by a person’s talents ... and if Lady Barb had looked like a skilled Healer, Whitehall wouldn't want to steer her away from Healing.
    She looked up at the older woman. “Why did you want to become a Combat Sorceress?”
    Lady Barb looked at her for a long chilling moment. “I grew up here,” she said, waving her hand around to indicate the house. “It was safe and warm, particularly for children. The worst danger was accidentally picking up something magical and we were taught, almost as soon as we could walk, to be careful what we touched. And my father was a decent man.
    “Spending time with my mother was an eye-opener. I learned that people outside weren't safe, that they were preyed on by those stronger than themselves ... I had the idea that I could protect the weak and powerless, if I learned how to fight. And I was good at it.”
    Emily nodded. “Why didn't you apply to replace Sergeant Bane?”
    Lady Barb scowled. “It’s untraditional for training officers to be women,” she said, darkly. “Young men tend to need more thumping before they learn to respect women as warriors – and most trainees are young men. Most of them are idiotic enough to convince themselves that they held back when they faced a woman on the training field, no matter how convincingly they were thrashed. But I may well return for Third or Fourth Year to give you additional training.”
    Emily considered it. She hadn't noticed any of the male students at Whitehall giving the female teachers grief, but most of the teachers – even Master Tor – knew their subjects well enough to convince their students not to mess with them. But Martial Magic, which was half physical exercise, might be a harder class for a woman to teach. There were only a handful of girls in the class and all of them were worked to the bone. The Sergeants didn't hold back for them.
    “Stupid,” she said, finally.
    “Very stupid,” Lady Barb agreed. “After I graduated from Whitehall, I was apprenticed to a sorcerer, learned the ropes and gained my mastery. And then I met Void.”
    Emily nodded, remembering what she’d been told.
    “Master Grey doesn't seem to like me,” she said, changing the subject hastily. “What did I do to him?”
    “Distracted Jade, I imagine,” Lady Barb said. “It isn't customary for apprentices to maintain relationships outside of the apprenticeship. Most apprentices cut themselves off from everyone else during their training. Master Grey is enough of a traditionalist to be irked at you distracting his student.”
    Emily flushed. “I didn't mean to distract his student!”
    Lady Barb laughed, not unkindly. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” she advised. “Here, in the Faire, there will be time for you and Jade to talk properly, without interruption.”
    “Thank you,” Emily said. “Can I ask a question?”
    “You just did,” Lady Barb pointed out. She smirked, then grinned at Emily. “Go ahead.”
    Emily braced herself. “Are you married?”
    Lady Barb lifted her eyebrows. “Tell me,” she said, “do you see a husband around here?”
    Emily felt her cheeks heat, but she pressed on. “It’s just ... you’re ... your family will want you to get married, won’t it?”
    “I never found the right person,” Lady Barb said, taking pity on her. “There was a Combat Sorcerer I met once, but he died in battle against the necromancers. Since then, no one had really managed to impress me. And my family knows better than to try to push me into anything.”
    “That’s good,” Emily said. “Where are they?”
    “My father died a long time ago,” Lady Barb admitted. There was a bitterness in her tone that made Emily sit up and take notice. “My mother ... I haven’t seen her in years. She might well be dead by now too. I inherited the house and little else. My uncles sometimes try to talk me into spending more time with the family, but I don’t listen to them very often. They weren't always kind to my father.”
    She shrugged. “We may meet some of them over the coming week,” she added. “It would probably be best to make sure they don’t know who you are, Millie.”
    Emily nodded. She couldn't help wondering if Lady Barb had a ulterior motive for chatting about her past, although Emily had been curious. Lady Barb was an intensely private person in many ways, rarely telling anyone much about herself. For her to open up so much ... either she wanted Emily to know or she had something else in mind.
    “I have something to teach you,” Lady Barb said, standing up. “But I think we should eat lunch first. You will need energy for this.”
    Emily stood and followed her into the kitchen. Lady Barb opened a set of cabinets, cancelled a series of stasis spells and produced bread, cheese and ham, which she placed on the table. Emily started to carve up the bread to make sandwiches, while Lady Barb boiled soup. It was a simple meal, certainly compared to the aristocratic feasts, but Emily didn't mind. Besides, the aristocracy often seemed to be competing to win a prize for worst table manners in the world.
    “Good work,” Lady Barb said, as she placed a bowl of chicken soup in front of Emily. “The last person I brought here didn't know how to help at all.”
    Emily felt an odd flicker of jealousy. “Who was he?”
    “He suffered a nasty accident and I found myself detailed to look after him for a few months,” Lady Barb said. “If you’re cooped up with someone, you either get very close or you wind up hating each other. I definitely ended up hating him, even though it wasn't entirely fair.”
    She shrugged. “Eat up,” she ordered. “You are going to need your strength.”
    Emily nodded and tucked into the food. The prospect of learning new magic always gave her an appetite. Besides, she’d learned from the Sergeants that she should always eat when she had the chance. She might not have the chance again.
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six
    “What I’m about to show you,” Lady Barb said, as they walked back to the library, “is rarely shown to anyone beneath Fifth Year. In fact, the senior tutors can decide that a certain pupil should never be told about this kind of magic, let alone taught how to do it safely. You must not discuss it with your friends, ever.”
    Emily gave her a sharp look. “So why are you teaching it to me?”
    “Because you will probably wind up rediscovering it for yourself,” Lady Barb said, as she stopped in front of a bookshelf. “And because it has been decided to push your education as far forward as possible. And because you should be able to handle it now.”
    Emily hesitated. “Will you get in trouble for teaching me?”
    “I’d prefer not to discuss it with anyone,” Lady Barb admitted. “The Grandmaster is the only other person who knows and he gave his approval.”
    She pressed her hand against the bookshelf. There was a dull rumbling sound and the entire bookshelf retreated backwards and to the side, revealing a darkened stairwell leading down into the bowels of the planet. Lady Barb cast a light-spell, illuminating the stone stairs, then started to walk down into the darkness. Emily hesitated again, then followed her, pressing one hand against the stone wall. It reminded her uncomfortably of Shadye’s fortress in the Blighted Land, but now she could sense the magic running through the stone. Something – or someone – was constrained down below.
    “You are free to back out at any time,” Lady Barb called back, as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “There are magicians, including some quite powerful, who cannot commit themselves to any form of ritual. Their own doubts and fears make it impossible. If you want to back out, just say so. I won’t be upset.”
    Emily swallowed as she stepped into the stone chamber. It was dark, so dark that the darkness seemed to absorb the light from the spell. A moment later, the spell flickered out completely and Emily froze, trapped in the darkness. It took her several seconds to realise that there was a faint blue glow from the floor ... and several seconds more to realise that the glow emanated from runes carved into the stone. Some of them she recognised, others were completely unfamiliar. They surrounded a glowing blue circle in the centre of the room.
    She found her voice. “What is this place?”
    “A modified spellchamber,” Lady Barb said. There was a grim note to her voice that suggested that she too had doubts. “My great-grandfather built it, back before he was shipped off to an isolated island to carry out his research in private. It’s been tested extensively since then, but I haven't used it very often.”
    Emily nodded. A spellchamber was nothing more than a safe place to practice spells ... looking around, she could see that most of the runes were designed to channel magic away from the circle, allowing the spell to be cast without interference. But this chamber was far stronger than the chambers she’d used at Whitehall. The closer she stepped to the circle, the harder it was to sense any ambient magic in the air at all.
    Lady Barb stepped over the glowing blue line and turned to face her. “This should not be dangerous,” she said, “but it can be. Do you want to back out now?”
    Emily shook her head. She didn't even know what was going on.
    “Then step into the circle,” Lady Barb ordered. “But don’t put your foot down on the blue light.”
    Emily obeyed. A shiver ran down her spine as she sensed the sudden absence of the remaining ambient magic. The runes, she realised, had to be absorbing and directing the mana out of the circle, creating a space that was completely empty of undirected magic. Her own magic suddenly seemed to blossom within her, making her very aware of its presence.
    “Sit down,” Lady Barb ordered. She produced a knife from her robes and examined it, carefully. Emily stared at it in horror until she realised that the blade was silver, rather than stone. “We are going to explore the simplest form of ritual.”
    Emily nodded, her throat suddenly dry. The books she’d read in the library had talked about how magicians could use rituals to cast formidable spells, but they hadn't gone into details, beyond a handful of warnings about how immensely dangerous such spells could be. Given some of the stories, Emily could well believe it. One story talked about a group of magicians who had destroyed an entire city.
    “Sit down,” Lady Barb repeated. Emily obeyed, hastily. “And give me your hands.”
    Emily hesitated, then held out her hands. Lady Barb took them and held her, gently.
    “Now,” Lady Barb said. “I want you to close your eyes and focus on your magic. It should be easy here.”
    It was, Emily already knew. She closed her eyes ... and the sensation of her magic, pulsing in tune with her heartbeat, grew stronger and stronger. The magic seemed to swell up within her, then fade away, then swell up again in an endless tide. Lady Barb rubbed her palms gently as the sensation overwhelmed her. The touch was all that was keeping her from being completely absorbed in her own mind.
    “Visualise the magic moving through your bloodstream,” Lady Barb instructed quietly. “Imagine it moving from place to place, carrying power through your body.”
    Emily nodded, keeping her eyes closed. The more she focused her mind, the more she was aware of magic moving through her bloodstream ... and concentrating in her mind, her heart and her womb. It reminded her of the moment Shadye had forced her to stab Sergeant Harkin with a necromantic knife, right in the heart. Shadye had intended to force her to drain the Sergeant’s magic, unaware that Harkin had no magic. Now ...
    “Be aware of your skin, holding in the magic,” Lady Barb said. Her words made it real, somehow. “Concentrate your mind on visualising the skin.”
    There was a long pause. “I’m going to cut your palm,” she added. “When I do, try to direct some of your magic up and out of your body. Don’t channel it through your mind, channel it through the cut. Do you understand me?”
    Emily nodded, nervously. There was a faint stabbing sensation from her palm, then nothing. But she could see her magic reacting to the cut, flickering around as if it wasn't quite sure what to do. Emily hesitated, then attempted to guide some of her magic out of her body. But it refused to do more than spin around the cut. And then the cut closed up completely.
    “You healed yourself,” Lady Barb observed. She sounded more amused than annoyed. “I’m going to cut you again.”
    There was another stabbing sensation. This time, Emily managed to guide a little magic up and out of her body. It seemed to fade away into the chamber, directed by the runes. Emily felt a sudden dizzy sensation, then the cut healed again. Lady Barb’s grip tightened, just slightly, then relaxed.
    “Using your mind’s eye,” Lady Barb ordered, “look upwards. Sense the magic.”
    Emily forced herself to concentrate, despite the sudden weakness in her limbs. Above her, magic was slowly seeping into the runes. It was her magic, she realised, now as familiar as her own face. And it was fading away ...
    “Open your eyes,” Lady Barb said.
    Emily opened her eyes and looked around. The entire chamber was glowing with light, banishing the shadows. Her magic, she realised, was powering the runes, which had directed the magic into harmless light. Lady Barb let go of her hands, then stood. But when Emily tried to stand, her legs betrayed her. She couldn't stand upright at all.
    “It always leaves a magician weak, the first time,” Lady Barb said. “How are you feeling?”
    “Weak,” Emily said. She tried to analyse her own feelings, but they were such a conflicted mess that it was impossible to sort them out. Giving up magic like that made her feel uncomfortable, yet there was a strange tingling in her hand that was almost pleasurable. “What ... what happened to it?”
    “Here, the runes redirect the magic,” Lady Barb said. “When a ritual is used in the field, one of the magicians is placed in charge of shaping the magic and directing it towards its target, leaving the others vulnerable. Does it remind you of anything?”
    Emily shivered. “Necromancy.”
    Lady Barb nodded. “There are two differences,” she said. “First, the magicians involved in a ritual are giving up magic willingly – and a controlled amount of magic, rather than everything they have. Second, the magic gathered is not channelled through the prime magician’s mind, but through the spell-structure and runes he has created. Insanity is not a serious risk.”
    “I see,” Emily said. It was still almost impossible to even think about moving. “Can’t this be used to match a necromancer?”
    “Once or twice, if you happened to get lucky,” Lady Barb said. “But setting up a ritual can take time and effort. Necromancers don't have to worry about it.”
    Emily nodded.
    Lady Barb squatted down until she was facing Emily, looking into her eyes. “Can you think of another danger?”
    The basic necromantic rite wasn't complicated, Emily knew; Shadye might have taught her, but she could have figured it out from what she’d learned in books and private sessions with Mistress Sun. But it was all-or-nothing; the necromancer took everything his victim had, drawing it through his mind and driving himself insane. And yet ... it wasn't just magic they took ...
    She shuddered. “Life force,” she said. “A ritual can be used to share life force.”
    “It can,” Lady Barb agreed. “And only necromancy is considered so vile.”
    Emily blinked in surprise. “Why?”
    Lady Barb gave her a reproving look. “Oh, Emily,” she said, in a voice more suited to an aged grandmother than a middle-aged woman, “you have so many years left and I have so few. Why don't you give me some of your years?”
    She continued in a more normal voice. “There are rejuvenation spells that drain life force from their victim and give it to the caster,” she added. “If enough life force is drained, the victim will die of old age.”
    Emily shuddered at the implications. “A magician could have a child, then drain that child,” she said, remembering how her magic had concentrated around her womb. “Or they could kidnap a newborn and drain her. Or ...”
    “It's been known to happen,” Lady Barb said, shortly. “And while rituals require a degree of consent, you know how easy it is to just strip magic and life force from an unwilling victim.”
    She helped Emily back to her feet. “We need to leave the chamber to finish draining away the magic,” she said, as she picked Emily up in a fireman’s carry. “It will take some time for it to be clean again.”
    Emily nodded, still feeling exhausted. Lady Barb carried her out of the chamber and back up the stairs, then placed her down gently on a chair in the library. Emily sat there and watched as Lady Barb resealed the bookshelf, then walked away and left her alone. She couldn't muster the strength to move until Lady Barb returned, carrying a mug of hot Kava in her hands. Emily took it and sipped gratefully.
    “Be very careful with the drink,” Lady Barb warned her. “If you spill it on a book, my father will come back to murder you personally.”
    “I understand,” Emily said, quickly. She’d always hated people who damaged books – and that had started on Earth, where truly irreplaceable books were rare outside academic libraries. Here, where only a relative handful of books were printed on her printing presses, a damaged book might be impossible to replace. “I won’t spell a drop.”
    “See that you don't,” Lady Barb said. She looked around, her gaze moving from shelf to shelf. “My father loved this room. He designed it personally.”
    Emily nodded, sipping her drink.
    “You did very well, for a beginner,” Lady Barb added. She looked up, meeting Emily’s eyes. “I would suggest that you didn't try again for several days, though. And don’t discuss this with anyone else. If Jade asks you what you were doing, tell him that I was forcing you to brew.”
    “I won’t,” Emily promised. The Kava made her feel better, although her magic felt weak and wan inside her. She couldn't help wondering just how long it would take to regenerate. Her palm itched and she glanced at it, seeing two faint scars where Lady Barb had cut her. “What happened to the blood?”
    Lady Barb smiled and passed her the knife. Emily tried to cast a cleansing spell, but it refused to work properly. Lady Barb shook her head, then offered Emily a cloth. Emily cleaned the knife carefully, admiring the way the light glimmered off the silver blade, then put the cloth in her pocket. She knew better than to leave samples of her blood lying around, particularly after Shadye had used one to control her.
    “Sit here until you feel better,” Lady Barb urged. “I can find you a book, if you like, or we can chat ...”
    “Batteries,” Emily said, as something clicked in her mind. “That’s why you showed me the ritual.”
    Storing magic wasn't easy, if only because it tended to leech out into the surrounding atmosphere. The only way to lock it in for longer than a few hours was to use wards or dedicated spell-structures, which had to be carefully configured ... and still tended to lose magical energy over a long period of time. Building semi-permanent wards was Fifth and Six Year level at Whitehall. But even wards weren't raw magic.
    Emily had reasoned that the magic wouldn't flow away if the magic had nowhere to go. If a pocket dimension was used as a storage space, the magic would be trapped. But her first experiments had been halted and while she'd done some theoretical work, she’d never been able to create a pocket dimension of her own. And she hadn't worked out how to insert magic into the dimension.
    But the ritual might work, she saw now. All she would have to do was concentrate, cut her own palm and emit magic into the pocket dimension. It would be stored there ...
    “Very good,” Lady Barb agreed. “And how do you plan to use it?”
    Emily hesitated, realising Lady Barb was right. Necromancers went insane because they channelled vast amounts of power through their minds. If she drew on a battery, she would be running the risk of being driven insane by her own power. Coming to think of it, could she draw on someone else’s power from another battery? What if it was that, rather than contact with their own magic, that drove necromancers insane?
    But it was something she didn't dare try to test.
    “You could probably use it like a modified ritual,” Lady Barb said, after a moment. She stood up, pulled a book from the shelves and opened it, looking for a particular chapter. “You’d have to set up the spell-structure, rather like using a wand, then open the hatch and let the power flow. But if it failed ... well, you might end up with an explosion. Or a wave of wild magic.”
    Emily frowned. The whole concept sounded obvious to her. “No one ever tried this before?”
    “Not as far as I know,” Lady Barb admitted. “But you know how easy it is to hide something in this world – and how many sorcerers keep secrets.”
    The Mimic, Emily thought. Everyone had believed that they were living creatures – and why not, in a world that included dragons, demons and gorgons. But they were actually spells, the most elaborate and complex spells Emily had ever seen. Someone had created them, built them up piece by piece, then sent them out to wreck havoc. And no one had had the slightest idea what their creator had done until Emily had uncovered the truth.
    “We will be practicing creating pocket dimensions while we’re walking from village to village,” Lady Barb said. She pointed a long finger at Emily. “And you will be very careful what you do. There isn't anyone who can help out there, apart from me.”
    Emily nodded, ruefully.
    “I leant my lesson,” she said, tartly. “I ...”
    “Really?” Lady Barb asked. “Remind me; which students were faking library passes when they should have been in New Learning?”
    Emily flushed. New Learning was her least favourite class, if only because most of what it taught was derived from innovations Emily herself had introduced. She wasn't even sure why the Grandmaster and Mistress Irene had inserted her into the class. But Alassa had talked her into skipping once, then they’d faked library passes for the next two classes. Eventually, inevitably, they’d been caught. They hadn't been able to sit comfortably for several days afterwards, to say nothing of having to redo several essays and other assignments. It hadn't been a pleasant week.
    She yawned, suddenly.
    “You can have a nap,” Lady Barb said. She gave Emily a smile as Emily blushed furiously at her sudden loss of control. “I’ll send Jade a note explaining that I’ve worked you halfway to death and you’ll see him tomorrow. Speaking of which, I will have to leave the house early tomorrow morning, so when you wake up eat breakfast, then start practicing your potions. I want them all perfect by the time I return.”
    She helped Emily to her feet, showed her the brewing chamber, then escorted her into her bedroom. Emily closed her eyes as soon as her head hit the pillow, then fell asleep. And this time there were no dreams to torment her.
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven
    The following morning, the house felt oddly empty – emptier than usual. Emily awoke, feeling much better, washed herself and walked down to the kitchen. A note on the table reminded her about her potions work, ending with a dire threat to forbid her from seeing Jade if she hadn't produced a series of perfect potions by the time Lady Barb returned home. Emily rolled her eyes, then took the bowl of porridge off the stove and ate it slowly, savouring every bite. It wasn't something she’d expected to like, but she enjoyed eating it at Whitehall.
    Once she’d finished eating, she walked into the brewing chamber and examined the piles of ingredients. There was nothing too dangerous, according to two years of Alchemy; she wasn't expected to brew anything really complex. But it was still not one of her skills, even though she rather liked Professor Thande. The man’s willingness to constantly push the limits – and encourage his students to do the same – made her feel much better about her poor lab work.
    The first potion was a standard pain relief draught, one she knew how to make from memory. It was commonly used for headaches, she’d been taught, although – like all potions – it had a tendency to become additive if overused. The one time Professor Thande had been genuinely angry with an experimenting student had been when the student had made a potion actually taste nice. Thande had pointed out, sharply, that anything that encouraged people to take potions was asking for trouble.
    Emily sorted out the piles of ingredients, one by one. Imaiqah had worked with her for hours, helping to improve her technique. One of the simplest tricks was to lay everything out beforehand, then start brewing. She lit the fire under the caldron with a simple spell, then poured in water and waited for it to boil. Once it was ready, she added the herbs and then a handful of less pleasant ingredients. There were times when she suspected she would have preferred not to know what went into the potion.
    She kept stirring it until it boiled again, then settled down into an unpleasant green colour. Once it was done, she removed the caldron from the fire and poured the liquid into a bottle, then left it there to cool down. Lady Barb wouldn't be able to find anything wrong with it, she told herself, as she cleaned the caldron and set it up again. The next potion was taught to both male and female students, but female students had a strong motive to learn. It helped prevent cramps and bleeding during their time of the month.
    The first potion went wrong, somehow. Emily swore, poured the mess into a container for disposal and started again. Frustration was a problem when making potions, Professor Thande had told them more than once; their magic could accidentally interact with the magical transformation taking place inside the caldron. Disasters – caldrons were known to explode on a regular basis - occurred when someone was irritated or frustrated. But the second version came out fine.
    Emily sat down to rest for half an hour while it cooled down, reading through one of the books Lady Barb had picked out for her, then returned to the brewing chamber. The third potion was designed to handle poison, flushing out any toxins within the victim’s body. It wasn't even remotely clean, she knew, but it worked. She brewed it perfectly, then went on to the fourth potion. It took her four tries to get the contraceptive potion to come out properly.
    She looked up as she felt the wards shiver around her, then heard the sound of Lady Barb making her way down the corridor and into the chamber. She looked tired, but happy; Emily smiled at her, then waved a hand at the prepared potions. Lady Barb nodded to her and checked them, one by one. They all passed muster.
    Emily relaxed, slightly, as she finished the final potion. “I finished them all,” she said, as Lady Barb moved over to stand beside her. “They’re perfect.”
    “Good enough,” Lady Barb agreed. “You used a little too much rabbit blood for the contraceptive potion. It won’t last more than a week outside a charmed bottle.”
    “Sorry,” Emily said, tiredly. She still didn't understand what kind of mind would devise tests to explore the magical potency of rabbit blood. Professor Thande and the other alchemists had to be out of their minds. “Do you want me to redo it?”
    “Not now,” Lady Barb said. She turned and headed back towards the door. “Bottle up the potions you’ve made, clean up the room and then wash yourself, thoroughly. There aren't so many wards here.”
    Emily nodded and started to clean the caldron. Professor Thande had taught his students not to use magic anywhere near their tools, pointing out that it could produce unexpected results the next time they started to brew. She wiped it clean with boiling water, then placed it and the rest of the tools on a shelf to drip dry. Once she’d bottled the potions, she left the room, washed herself and walked back down to the kitchen. Lady Barb was busy laying out food and drink for lunch.
    “I spoke to Jade,” Lady Barb said, when Emily sat down. “He’s going to pick you up at sixteen bells so you can both watch the duelling.”
    Emily blinked. She knew that magicians used duels to settle disputes, at least when one side refused to back down or apologise after a long argument, but duelling wasn't taught at Whitehall unless the student wanted to become a champion dueller. Sergeant Miles, when asked, had pointed out that duels followed rules and war tended to have none – and teaching his students to respect rules wasn't doing them any favours. Emily tended to agree with the Sergeant, although she knew that some of the boys had objected.
    She looked up at Lady Barb. “Why does Jade want to watch?”
    Lady Barb’s lips twitched. “Master Grey is going to be competing,” she said. “I believe that Jade wishes to support his master.”
    “Oh,” Emily said. She had never cared for sporting events – she’d done her best to support Alassa in playing Ken, but it wasn't one of her pleasures – but she had to admit that she was curious. Besides, it would give her a chance to evaluate Master Grey. “I see.”
    Lady Barb nodded. “You can read in the library until he arrives,” she said. “I’d suggest wearing your student robes, rather than the golden ones. You don’t want to be mistaken for a qualified magician.”
    Emily lifted an eyebrow. “Magicians tend to jostle each other,” Lady Barb elaborated. “If one of them thinks you’re a qualified magician, he might try to put you down in hopes of boosting his own status. But it’s considered unwise to try any games with a student. The Grandmaster would not be amused.”
    “I see,” Emily said.
    She ate her food, then went back to the library and started to reread Yodel’s book on pocket dimensions. Like before, it was complex, often taking entire pages to explain something that could have been covered in a paragraph or two. She finished it, scribbled a series of notes to herself, then opened one of Lady Barb’s books. Much to her irritation, it was simpler and far easier to understand. She was so engrossed in it that she didn't hear Lady Barb behind her until a hand fell on her shoulder.
    “You need to pay more attention to your surroundings,” Lady Barb reproved her. “It’s nearly time for Jade to arrive.”
    Emily glanced at her clockwork watch, then jumped up and ran to her room. Lady Barb’s laughter followed her as she undressed, washed herself again and pulled on her student robes. It seemed impossible to do anything with her hair, apart from tying it into a long ponytail ... but she hadn't done anything more complex when she'd first met Jade. She glanced at herself in the mirror, then walked downstairs as she felt the wards shiver, announcing his presence.
    “Welcome,” Lady Barb said, opening the door. “She’s just coming.”
    She winked at Emily, turning her head so Jade couldn't see. “I want you back home before midnight,” she warned. “Or there will be consequences.”
    Emily felt herself flush, although part of her was a little relieved. Her impulses were confusing; part of her wanted to spend time with Jade, part of her wanted to leave him and remain alone. Shaking her head, she nodded to Lady Barb and walked out of the door. Jade smiled at her as the door closed, then turned to lead her back towards the Faire. In the distance, she could hear the sound of cheering crowds.
    “It’s been a long time,” Jade said, as they walked. “I’ve missed you.”
    “I’ve missed you too,” Emily said, although she wasn't sure if that was true. She’d enjoyed Jade’s company ... but that had been before he’d come out and proposed to her. Everyone had noticed that he liked her, apart from Emily herself. Having him propose to her had been a shock. “Martial Magic just hasn't been the same.”
    Jade smiled. “You would have done well, with or without me,” he said. “You have talent.”
    “But I still failed,” Emily said. “I don’t know what I will be doing next year.”
    “Most students tend to take Martial Magic in Fifth or Sixth Year,” Jade pointed out. “I think they won’t have a problem with you repeating the class in Third Year.”
    Emily nodded, silently. As embarrassing as it was to repeat a class, she did need the practice ... and she wasn't sure what she would do after completing the second year of Martial Magic in any case. Normally, students went straight into apprenticeships with qualified sorcerers, like Jade, but she had four more years of schooling ahead of her first. She looked up at Jade, wondering what had happened to get his face scarred – and why he hadn't healed the scars completely.
    “I made the mistake of asserting that I was ready to face a master swordsman,” Jade admitted, when she asked. “He cut my face – and Master Grey told me to keep the scars.”
    They stopped outside a hollow in the ground, surrounded by watching magicians. In the centre, a set of wards had been drawn up to protect the spectators and prevent outside interference. They reminded Emily of the wards Sergeant Miles erected to protect his pupils, although they felt as if several different magicians had created them together. Perhaps they had, she decided. One person working alone could always decide to cheat.
    “These are the newcomers,” Jade told her, nodding towards the two magicians inside the wards. One of them was holding a staff, Emily noted, while the other was carrying a pair of wands, one in each hand. “The serious fights don't start until later.”
    Emily nodded, remembering a piece of advice from Alassa. “So,” she said, “what happens?”
    Jade smiled, glad of the chance to explain. “Level One duelling is a duel until one of the fighters is unable to continue,” he said. “Level Two is fought out until someone is seriously injured. Level Three is a fight to the death, with no quarter asked or received. Most of the duels here are Level Two, but sometimes there's a grudge match where one participant is killed.”
    “Oh,” Emily said. In the hollow, the two fighters were throwing spells at each other with icy determination. It was hard to tell which one of them was more advanced; they seemed evenly matched. “Why are they using wands?”
    “They’re allowed to use wands and staffs by prior arrangement,” Jade explained. “The challenged party is allowed to set the terms for the duel, but there are limits. You cannot use something you don’t bring into the arena with you, for example, and you can't take help from outside the arena. That would count as cheating and the mediators” – he pointed a hand towards a pair of men dressed in white – “would intervene.”
    Emily looked back towards the arena, just in time to see the wand-holding magician thrown back against the wards. He crumpled to the ground and lay still. His opponent eyed him carefully for a long moment, then turned and bowed to the crowd. There were a handful of scattered cheers, but not much enthusiasm. The winner didn't seem amused and stalked out of the arena as soon as the wards were lowered.
    “That was a very basic duel,” Jade said. “It isn't what they came to see.”
    The next two magicians looked flamboyant, both wearing robes that suggested they were colour-blind. Emily had to fight down the urge to snicker when they bowed to each other, then stared in awe as they threw waves of raw magic without bothering to wait for a countdown. The wards flashed blue time and time again as streaks of magic slammed against them, suggesting that both magicians were unleashing vast amounts of power. Emily found herself wondering what would happen if the wards collapsed, then pushed the thought aside as the two magicians converged. It was growing harder to see them in between flashes of magic.
    “A grudge match, if not one to the death,” Jade explained. Emily barely heard him over the roar of the crowd. “Those two are brothers – and rivals.”
    There was a final multicoloured flash of light ... and one magician collapsed to the ground, blood leaking from his severed hand. Emily shuddered, even though she knew that a Healer could reattach the hand within moments. The winner picked up his opponent’s staff, ritually broke it – there was a sound like a thunderclap as it snapped – and tossed the pieces to one side. Emily had to cover her ears as the crowd went wild. The winner waited until the wards dropped, then marched outside, waving to his fans.
    The next three duels were less violent, but considerably more interesting. There must have been some careful negotiation prior to the match, Emily decided, for the participants seemed more interested in placing their spells carefully than actually winning. The crowd didn't seem too amused either, but the competitors ignored them. By the time the matches came to an end, the crowd seemed relieved. Emily tended to agree.
    “They probably agreed to hobble themselves,” Jade told her, as the final pair of duellists limped off the field. The duel had ended in a draw. “There are several schools that limit the type of spells you can use in a formal duel.”
    He winked at her as someone new stalked onto the field. Master Grey stood in the centre of the arena, holding his staff above his head. Emily watched with sudden interest as the mediators announced him as the undefeated champion, three years running. The crowd went wild, shouting and screaming for their hero. To his credit, Emily decided, Master Grey didn't look impressed. Indeed, he almost seemed bored.
    “He insisted that anyone who wanted to challenge him had to declare a Level Three,” Jade said, as the first competitor stepped into the arena. He was a tall bulky man, stripped to the waist, with runes carved into his bare flesh. The crowd gave him a good-natured cheer as he bowed to Master Grey, then lifted his staff. “He thought it would cut down on challengers.”
    Emily stared at him. “This duel is to the death?”
    “Yes,” Jade said.
    Emily opened her mouth to ask what would happen if Master Grey lost, but the Mediator blew his whistle before she could speak. Master Grey lowered his staff and waited; his opponent gazed at him, seemingly unmoving. Emily watched, puzzled, as the two magicians stared at each other, neither one making a move. They both seemed to be biding their time.
    The newcomer snapped first, hurling a powerful curse at Master Grey. Master Grey blocked it with seemingly effortless ease, then dodged two more before launching his own curse back at the challenger. The challenger caught it on his staff – brilliant green-blue balefire flared around it for a long moment – then threw another curse back at Master Grey.
    Emily found herself staring as the two competitors exchanged spells. Master Grey was good, she had to admit, good enough to be intimidating. Some of his spells actually worked on the surrounding arena, rather than on his target; one of them even turned part of the ground to quicksand, just long enough to snare his competitor. Emily felt her heartbeat starting to race as Master Grey unleashed a cutting charm, then a transfiguration spell that turned the quicksand to solid rock. His competitor held up his staff, blocking the cutting charm, but he was hopelessly trapped. A moment later, it was all over.
    The crowd went wild. Emily felt sick. She'd seen death – and sudden brutal injury – but she was never comfortable with it. Master Grey held up his staff, then looked towards the wards as the next competitor was shown into the arena. Emily looked at Jade and shivered as she realised just how excited he was. His tutor had probably taught him how to duel.
    “Disgusting,” she said, quietly.
    “It can be,” Jade admitted.
    Emily flushed. She hadn’t realised he could hear her.
    “But it can also be exciting,” Jade added, seriously. “Facing someone in single combat, beating someone in single combat ... knowing that you’re alive and a victor and he isn't. It’s additive.”
    It must be a guy thing, Emily thought. She’d faced Shadye in single combat – and cheated. Even so, she knew how close she had come to losing everything. The entire world had been at risk.
    “Come on,” Jade said, holding out a hand. “We’ll go get something to eat.”
    Emily gave him a surprised look. “You want to leave your Master?”
    “I think you’re more important right now,” Jade said. “And besides, he’ll never notice.”
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight
    The noise of the crowd faded away as Jade led Emily towards a long low building, illuminated by magic lights hanging in the air. Inside, she could hear the sound of people talking, but garbled by a basic privacy ward that prevented her from actually understanding any of the words. A man wearing a butler’s uniform met them as they entered the door and escorted them to a small room, where a candlelit table was waiting. Emily blinked in surprised as she saw it, then looked up at Jade, who smiled back at her. She was touched, despite herself. It was very romantic.
    “Order whatever you like,” Jade said, nodding towards the menu. “I’m buying.”
    Emily had to admit she was impressed as she looked down at the menu. The Empire might have spread cooking and traditions all over the world, but it was rare for a restaurant or eatery to serve more than one style of food. Here, though, there was food from all over the world, probably prepared in advance and stored in stasis compartments. Magic made preserving food so much easier than freezers and microwaves. She picked a chicken dish, cooked in cream, and lime juice. Jade picked roast beef and non-alcoholic wine.
    “Master Grey is good at duelling,” Jade said, when the waiter had been and gone. “What did you think?”
    “He’s killing his fellow magicians,” Emily said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Is he mad?”
    Jade looked surprised, then cast a privacy ward. “He isn't the one issuing the challenges,” he pointed out, mildly. “He only set the terms of the duels.”
    Emily rolled her eyes. “But either he dies or his challenger dies,” she countered. “Either way, the Allied Lands lose a magician.”
    “He can’t back out or deliberately allow someone to win,” Jade said. “If he did, someone would call him a coward.”
    Men, Emily thought. Did duelling win someone the post of most powerful magician in the world? It couldn't, she decided; she hadn't seen Void or the Grandmaster duelling with their rivals. Or Lady Barb, for that matter. It clearly wasn't necessary to duel to earn accolades.
    “If someone challenged me,” she said, “could I avoid having to fight?”
    “Depends,” Jade said, thoughtfully. “If you were a duellist, you couldn't really avoid the challenge without conceding your position without a fight. If you’d insulted someone so badly they felt the urge to wipe the smile off your face, you couldn't avoid the duel without sacrificing all the respect you’d earned. Otherwise ... you could simply decline the duel without consequences.”
    He smiled. “But most people are too scared of you to pick a fight.”
    Emily shivered. Her status as the Necromancer’s Bane – and now the person who had defeated a Mimic – had given her a formidable reputation, but it was largely undeserved. There was no easy way to duplicate the trick that had killed Shadye, while the Mimic had been overwhelmed by the combined power of several magicians. If Master Grey or someone on the same level challenged her to a duel, she would lose.
    “Let’s hope it stays that way,” she muttered. She looked up, meeting Jade’s eyes. “Why doesn't he like me?”
    “I think he thinks you upset the natural order,” Jade confessed. “He wasn't too happy over me writing to you, I can tell you.”
    Emily flushed. Master Tor had been the same, judging her by her reputation before he'd even met her. And Master Tor had tried hard to get her blamed for the Mimic’s first attack and then expelled from Whitehall. He’d had political motives ... if she’d realised just how many problems King Randor making her a Baroness would cause, she might have refused the honour, even if she had to speak up in front of a giant crowd. Emily might have hoped to fly under the radar, but Baroness Emily was a political figure.
    “I didn't mean to make life difficult for you,” she mumbled. She clutched Lady Barb’s pendant, silently grateful for the protective glamour. “I’m sorry.”
    “Don’t be,” Jade said. “It wasn't your fault.”
    “It might well have been,” Emily said. “I ...”
    She was interrupted by the arrival of the waiter, two trays of food floating in the air behind him. Emily smiled at the display, then watched as the trays were unloaded and spells removed, allowing the aroma of the food to reach her nostrils. The smell was good, although not quite as good as some of the places she'd tried in Dragon’s Den. She waited for the waiter to withdraw, then tasted the chicken. It tasted more than a little dry.
    “Someone made you a political pawn,” Jade said, once the waiter had vanished again. “I don't think that was your fault, no matter what Master Grey says.”
    Emily rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache coming on. She knew, intellectually, that people talked about her, but she was still unprepared for the reality. It hadn't been something she’d had to worry about on Earth, not when she was so utterly unimportant. Here, someone could make a decision concerning her in the White City or Alexis and she would never hear of it until it was too late.
    “Still, you might want to be careful,” Jade added. “King Randor might not have expected you to be more than a Baroness in name only.”
    “I know,” Emily said. The handful of lessons she’d had in estate management had only underlined just how little she actually knew. Aristocratic children, even Alassa, were taught the basics at their parents knee, but Emily had only recently been ennobled. How could she hope to learn enough to keep her from depending on subordinates? “But I couldn't say no.”
    “He might have thought he was doing you a favour,” Jade pointed out. “You saved his throne; he had to reward you in a manner consummate with your deeds. Most people would be delighted to be ennobled, even if they didn't have lands added as part of the deal.”
    Emily shuddered. Baroness was no empty title. She was, to all intents and purposes, the owner of hundreds of square miles of land – and thousands of people, some of whom were effectively bound to her family line. The sheer weight of responsibility had fallen on her like a hammer from above, forcing her to hire managers to handle the task. And she’d hidden from it afterwards, she knew. She didn't really comprehend what she’d been given, not at an emotional level.
    “He should have given me a smaller title,” she admitted. Even the smallest title brought a stipend from the Crown, one that could only be cancelled in the event of outright treason. “I might have been able to handle it.”
    She shook her head. Stipends were one of Zangaria’s major problems, although the coup attempt against King Randor had allowed him a chance to take aim at some of the useless aristocrats infesting his court. Their ancestors had done something useful and had been rewarded, but the current crop merely drew on the King’s money and protested loudly when he hinted they might want to find proper jobs. But then, there weren't enough positions suitable for all of them in Zangaria.
    Or at least positions consummate with their titles, she thought. Muckraker sounds about right for most of them.
    “But then he wouldn’t have given you a suitable reward,” Jade said. He smiled, then changed the subject. “I understand that Lady Barb is a hard taskmaster ...?”
    Emily blinked, then realised that Lady Barb had told him that Emily would be busy on the first day. “She is,” she confirmed. “Healing was the hardest class at Whitehall.”
    “Cat told me that she gave no quarter,” Jade said. “And now you have her all to yourself.”
    Emily snorted. “What sort of person is Master Grey?”
    “Tough, very tough, but fair,” Jade said. “He’s taught me more than I ever learned from the Sergeants.”
    “You should have gone into Martial Magic in Fifth Year,” Emily said, rather tartly. She liked the Sergeants. Men less like her stepfather were hard to imagine. “We spent the year learning how to crack defences and pick our path carefully through Blackhall.”
    “So I heard,” Jade said. “And Alassa started her own Ken team?”
    “She did,” Emily said. “And she’s definitely having fun.”
    She felt an odd flicker of envy. She’d never liked team sports on Earth, yet part of her had always envied those who could throw themselves into the game. Alassa and Imaiqah had done just that, but Emily hadn't been able to follow them. She couldn't even play for fun.
    “Good for her,” Jade said. “Cat had quite a lot to tell me.”
    Emily groaned. “What did he say?”
    She listened to a somewhat warped recounting of last year at Whitehall as she finished her meal, pointing out the problems from time to time. The Allied Lands didn't have the internet, but somehow rumours still moved at the speed of light, mutating very quickly into something utterly unrecognisable. No wonder Master Grey viewed her with dire suspicion, she decided, as she heard that she’d somehow forced Master Tor to hand in his resignation. The tutor’s decision to leave the school hadn't been her fault.
    “The only true story in all of that,” she said, when Jade had finished, “was the one about us sneaking out of class to go to the library.”
    Jade snorted. “What were you thinking?”
    Emily shook her head. Once, she’d watched a movie where the hero and his girlfriend had skived off school and gone to an art gallery. She hadn't been unable to avoid wondering if there would be fewer complaints from the teachers if all skiving pupils had spent their day off so productively. But then, she had never felt as if she’d learned much in school on Earth.
    “They were trying to teach me what I already knew,” Emily admitted, finally. “And I’d taught Alassa and Imaiqah myself.”
    “Your class,” Jade said. He laughed, quietly. “I don’t even know why they made you take it.”
    Emily wondered, absently, just how many people knew that she was responsible for the New Learning. English letters and Arabic numerals had already worked a colossal transformation in the Allied Lands and there was much more to come. Merely having the ability to write and sound out words phonically made it much easier for people to learn to read and write. There might be no agreed system of spelling yet, but someone who could read could work out what a word was, even if the spelling was different. The Scribes Guilds had had a bumpy introduction to the new system, yet they'd adapted fairly well. Others hadn't been so lucky.
    If the Accountants Guild knew that I’d destroyed them, she asked herself, what would they do?
    She had a terrible feeling she knew the answer. The Accountants had worked with numerals that made Latin numbers look simple, a system that took years to master. They’d taken ruthless advantage of their position too, charging their clients vast sums of money just to do their accounts. But Arabic numerals, double-entry bookkeeping and a handful of other tricks had revolutionised the world. The guild had never recovered.
    “I don’t know either,” she admitted. But she had a very good idea. “Maybe they didn't want to call attention to what I’d done.”
    Jade nodded as the waiter returned, took away the dishes and offered the desert menu. Emily shook her head and, after a moment, Jade shook his head too. The waiter bowed and retreated, leaving them alone again. Emily watched him go, then looked up at Jade. She knew him well enough to know that he was nervous, even though he was trying to hide it. The sight made her feel nervous too.
    “Last year,” Jade said, slowly, “I ... I proposed to you.”
    Emily nodded, without speaking. It had been no surprise to anyone, apart from her, that Jade had been interested, but he hadn't said anything until the very last day of term. But then, there were rules governing relationships within Whitehall’s walls. Jade would have ended up in hot water if he'd spoken to her earlier.
    She hadn't been quite sure what to make of it at the time. Part of her had to admit that she liked Jade, part of her thought she only liked him as a friend. He’d kissed her – and she’d enjoyed it – but the thought of going further bothered her deeply. In the end, she hadn't really given him an answer at all ...
    And that, she knew, had done him no favours. Jade wasn't ... well, her, but he would have his own set of marriage offers from magical families. If he picked one of them, particularly after concluding his apprenticeship, he would be well-placed for the future. Marrying Emily as she’d been at the end of First Year – a stranger in a strange land, feared more than loved – wouldn't have been as good for him. It was easy to believe that he had genuine feelings for her. She hadn't had much to offer him then.
    But now ...? She was a Baroness.
    She cringed, mentally. Earth’s modern-day love stories said that love could appear anywhere, among people of any class. But the past said otherwise and the Allied Lands agreed. Alassa wouldn't have had so much problems finding a husband – she still hadn't found a husband – if she hadn't been Heir to the Throne of Zangaria. Back then, Jade’s proposal had almost been a favour. Now, it was socially laughable.
    He’d meant well; she knew he’d meant well. But she wasn't even sure she wanted it.
    Jade cleared his throat. Emily realised she’d retreated into her thoughts.
    “I ... know that it must be awkward for you now,” he said. “But I gave my word.”
    He hadn't, Emily recalled. He’d made her no promises. She hadn't asked for them.
    But her feelings were a tangled mess. Did she want him? Had he found someone else? The thought stung, even though logically she knew it shouldn't. She hadn't promised him anything either; they certainly hadn't agreed not to look elsewhere. And it had to have been hard for him, studying under a man who disliked Emily herself.
    “No, you didn't,” she said, very quietly.
    Jade didn't disagree.
    Emily winced, inwardly. She knew she should cut through the tangled mess and talk bluntly, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. The fear of hurting him was too strong. She would sooner have faced the Warden with nothing more solid than a feeble excuse. And she wasn't even sure what she felt herself.
    “I liked you – I still like you,” Jade said. He stared down at the table, unwilling or unable to meet her eyes. “But things have changed. You’re a ... noblewoman now.”
    “I can be a noblewoman and a magician,” Emily pointed out. She was hardly the only noblewoman with magic; Alassa had been born noble, as well as magical. “But I know what you mean.”
    She wished she'd sorted out her own feelings beforehand, but she’d shied away from the thought. If she’d known – she had known. But she hadn't done anything about it.
    He doesn't want me anymore, she thought. She could understand his feelings – in the cold-blooded calculus that governed aristocratic marriages, she was well above his station – but it still hurt. If he married her now, he would be little more than her consort, forever tied to her apron strings. No one would take him seriously.
    And Jade was ambitious. He wanted to make a name for himself.
    “Look at me,” she said, quietly. Jade looked up, meeting her eyes. “Did you find someone else?”
    Jade shook his head, wordlessly. Emily wondered, absently, if that was actually true. One advantage of being in Martial Magic was spending time with older boys, boys who sometimes forgot that Emily was young and female. They’d talked, unaware that she could hear them, about a brothel in Dragon’s Den. It was quite possible that Jade had indulged too ...
    “I understand,” she said, softly. It hurt – and yet it was also a relief. “Can we just be friends?”
    Jade looked relieved, just for a moment. Emily felt a sudden sharp desire to hurt him, to lash out verbally or physically, a desire she forced back into the back of her mind. At least he’d talked to her, openly. She mentally gave him credit for that. Boys found it hard to talk about their emotions, almost as hard as she found it herself. She'd never talked openly to anyone until she’d met Alassa and Imaiqah.
    “Friends,” he agreed. He held out a hand. Emily shook it firmly. “Do you want to go to a play tomorrow?”
    Emily found herself torn between laughing and crying. “A play?”
    “There are some actors here,” Jade said. “They’re putting on a performance tomorrow – I think it’s The Folly of The Heart.”
    Emily gave him a sharp look, then nodded. “I’d be glad to go,” she said. It wasn't entirely untrue. She hadn't seen any plays in the Allied Lands – or on Earth, for that matter. The closest had been an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet at school, which hadn't gone very well. Too many people had giggled when Romeo kissed Juliet. “And thank you.”
    She stood, feeling the urge to get back to her bedroom and think about what had happened.
    “I’ll pay for half the dinner,” she said, as Jade followed her. “It isn't fair for you to pay all of it.”
    “It isn't a problem,” Jade assured her. The waiter reappeared, holding out a piece of elaborately-decorated parchment. Jade took it, passed him a pair of gold coins, then shoved the bill into his pocket. “Really.”
    Emily frowned. The value of coins – even gold coins – was variable, but she’d never eaten a meal that cost so much in Dragon’s Den. Clearly, the cooks had a captive audience.
    “I’ll walk you home,” Jade said. “Coming?”
    Shaking her head, Emily followed him out the door and into the darkness.
     
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine
    “Well,” Lady Barb said, the following morning. “Do you want to talk about it?”
    Emily shook her head as she sat down at the table, rubbing at her eyes. She hadn't slept at all, if only because she had replayed her conversation with Jade over and over in her head. Part of her regretted agreeing to be just friends, part of her was relieved. And yet she still felt ... snubbed, for want of a better word. Her feelings were a mess.
    “No, thank you,” she said, finally. “I just need some sleep.”
    “I noticed you didn't sleep,” Lady Barb said. “Why didn't you take something to make you sleep?”
    Emily’s eyes narrowed, then she realised that the wards monitored her condition as long as she was in the house. Parents tended to use them to keep an eye on their children; Whitehall’s wards alerted the staff if someone was seriously hurt or bullied by someone in a higher year. It wasn't something she liked, she had to admit. She’d spent most of her life hiding from her stepfather’s gaze.
    “I didn't feel like it,” she said, regretfully.
    “You should have two more potions to brew,” Lady Barb said. She placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of Emily, then reached out and touched her forehead. “I would suggest reading books, though. You’re bleeding magic.”
    Emily looked down at her palm, then realised what Lady Barb meant. Magic responded to emotion and, the more she used her magic, the easier it was for her power to slip out of control and produce unpredictable effects. Most new magicians, she’d been told, were discovered after they produced their first spark of magic when hurt or upset. Emily herself was something of an exception to that rule, but only because she’d grown up on Earth.
    “I’m sorry,” she said, slowly. “I ...”
    “Just go to the library after breakfast or take a sleeping potion,” Lady Barb told her. She sat down facing Emily and opened a parchment letter. “We have our official orders.”
    Emily lifted an eyebrow, so Lady Barb held out the parchment for her to read. It was written in the old language, forcing her to struggle to decipher it. Not for the first time, she wondered just how Whitehall had managed to get so far without English letters. If it hadn't been for translation spells, she doubted half of the students could even read. She’d certainly needed one for her first year at the school.
    The orders seemed simple enough, but the writer had padded them out. Lady Barb and her apprentice – Emily wasn't mentioned by name – were ordered to walk through the Cairngorm Mountains, helping the locals and searching for traces of magic. If they found anyone with new magic, they were to provide basic instruction and then invite the new magician to Whitehall or one of the other magical schools. There wasn't anything more specific, much to Emily's surprise.
    “Interesting,” Lady Barb said. “Here.”
    She passed Emily a second note. Emily read it, quickly. It warned that a handful of children had been reported missing in the Cairngorms, all too young to have developed magic. Emily looked up, worried. Missing children were never a good sign.
    “Could be werewolves,” Lady Barb said. “There’s a werewolf pack on the other side of the mountains. Or vampires. Or plain old human unpleasantness. We’ll see what we see when we get there.”
    Emily nodded. “There’s a letter for you,” Lady Barb added. “The Grandmaster forwarded it here. No one else knows where you are.”
    The letter was enfolded in creamy white paper, sealed with a spell that ensured that only the recipient could read it. Emily frowned down at it for a long moment, then opened it with her bare hands. She knew from experience that using anything else, even a paper knife, might convince the spell that someone unauthorised was trying to read it, destroying the paper and erasing the message. Inside, there was another sheet of expensive paper. She pulled it out and read it, carefully.
    “They’re asking me to host the next Faire in Zangaria?”
    Lady Barb looked up, surprised. “Interesting,” she said. “I wonder how many deals were made behind the curtains.”
    Emily hesitated, rereading the letter. It was simple and quite uninformative, as if the writer had assumed that she would know what he was talking about. He wanted the next magical gathering to be held in Zangaria, in Cockatrice. Emily read it a third time, then looked up at Lady Barb. The older woman seemed more amused than puzzled.
    “Well,” Emily said. “Should I agree?”
    Lady Barb considered it. “The Faire is traditionally neutral,” she said. “It won’t reflect badly on you to host it, if you wish to do so.”
    “And I should show off some of the other innovations in Zangaria,” Emily said, thoughtfully. “Let word spread far and wide.”
    She gritted her teeth. Some innovations had spread far already, others were moving slower than she would have preferred ... and some she would prefer to keep under wraps. But she wasn't entirely sure just how many innovations Lin had managed to steal before she’d vanished from Whitehall. It was quite possible that whoever was backing her knew about gunpowder, cannons and steam engines. Emily hadn't expected to keep the latter a secret – they’d shown off a very basic locomotive in Zangaria – but the others would really upset the balance of power.
    “It would,” Lady Barb agreed, tonelessly. “Still, it’s your choice. No one will think any more or less of you if you say yes or no.”
    Emily looked down at the letter one final time, then made up her mind. “I’ll write to Bryon,” she said. “He can have permission to arrange everything and I’ll leave it in his hands.”
    Lady Barb shrugged. “Go to the library after you finish breakfast,” she said, again. “Or go back to bed.”
    Emily nodded. Once the breakfast was finished, she walked back into the library and settled down in front of the books Lady Barb had found for her. The final book on enchantment talked about anchoring a pocket dimension to an object, outlining the basic spells to create a trunk that was bigger on the inside than on the outside. Emily had seen the spells before, but these was actually simpler. Yodel’s book had skipped quite a few stages in creating pocket dimensions. She worked her way through the book, feeling exhaustion slipping up on her ...
    The next thing she knew, someone was poking her in the arm. She started awake, embarrassed. Lady Aylia had told her that sometimes students had to be awakened in the library, before their stores grew loud enough to trigger the security spells. Lady Barb laughed at her confusion, then helped her sit upright. Emily’s arms ached from lying on the books.
    “You’re lucky my father didn't see you doing that,” Lady Barb said, dryly. “He would have been furious.”
    Emily nodded, blearily. “I didn't mean to fall asleep ...”
    “You've been asleep for nearly six hours,” Lady Barb told her. “I think you probably needed it.”
    She looked down at Emily’s notes. “What are you planning this time?”
    Emily had to smile at the resigned note in the older woman’s voice. “A protective shelter,” she said, seriously. “A pocket dimension capable of hiding someone from pursuit.”
    Lady Barb frowned. “You do realise that such a dimension might not be safe?”
    “I know,” Emily said.
    The books hadn't been too clear, but she’d reasoned out that time did funny things inside pocket dimensions. It didn't flow at all within her trunk, keeping whatever she’d locked inside in stasis, while other pocket dimensions sped up time or slowed it down. Whitehall didn't seem to have those problems, but Whitehall had a nexus for power. There was no way a single magician could produce anything akin to the school.
    “You’d also have problems getting out,” Lady Barb added. “I don’t think you could open a gateway back to the normal world.”
    Emily scowled. She had a feeling that the energy levels required to get into the pocket dimension were much smaller than the energy levels required to get out. There was no way to be sure, though. Whitehall’s best researchers hadn't come up with a way of measuring magic like electricity.
    “I could program the dimension to open up automatically after a set period of time,” Emily said. “If the dimension was still anchored to this world ...”
    “It might work,” Lady Barb said, after a moment of silent contemplation. “However, I would advise you to be very careful. Being trapped in a pocket dimension might be fatal.”
    Emily nodded.
    “Tell me,” Lady Barb said, changing the subject. “Did you make any plans with Jade?”
    “We’re going to see a play tonight,” Emily said. “I ...”
    Lady Barb studied her for a long moment. Emily scowled, inwardly. She wasn't quite used to the idea of someone looking after her, even Lady Barb. God knew Emily’s mother had been more interested in drinking herself to death then paying attention to her daughter. Emily could have worn the skimpiest of clothes and stayed out all night; her mother would never have noticed. But Lady Barb definitely would.
    Emily wasn’t sure how she felt about that either. It felt nice to have someone looking out for her, but at the same time she didn't like having someone looking over her shoulder. Her mother had betrayed her and she didn't really want another mother, no matter how nice it felt to have someone caring.
    “Make sure you have a proper nap tonight,” Lady Barb ordered, finally. If she had doubts about Emily meeting Jade again, she kept them to herself. “I’ll expect you to catch up with your potions tomorrow, or you won't be going out again.”
    Yes, mother, Emily thought, even though she knew it was immature. She also knew why Lady Barb wanted her to master the potions. In the mountains, there were no alchemists or apothecaries. She would have to make the potions the locals needed or they would have to go without. Lady Barb would be too busy discussing other matters with them.
    “I will,” she promised, out loud.
    “Good,” Lady Barb said. She made a show of checking her watch. “The play is at nineteen bells, so I suggest you have a wash and then dress in a different set of robes.”
    Emily looked down at her matted robes and scowled. They were designed to survive everything from alchemical accidents to pranks played by the students on each other, but they couldn't disguise the fact she’d effectively fallen asleep in them. Standing up, she nodded to Lady Barb and walked out of the library, leaving the books behind. A moment later, she heard Lady Barb clearing her throat loudly.
    “Watch your notes,” she warned, picking up the pieces of paper and shoving them at Emily. “You never know who might be watching.”
    Flushing, Emily took the notes and returned to her bedroom, where she buried them under a handful of security wards. She would have to copy them down into her notebooks later, she knew; there was no point in erecting solid wards over the pieces of paper and parchment she’d used in the library. Cursing, she removed the pendant and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was pale and there were dark shadows under her eyes. The sight bothered her more than she cared to admit. Walking into the bathroom, she undressed and washed quickly, allowing the cold water to shock her awake. She was barely dressed again when she felt the wards quiver in welcome.
    “That’s Jade,” Lady Barb called, as Emily hurriedly pulled the pendant over her head. “Be careful, all right?”
    Emily nodded, although she knew Lady Barb couldn't see her. Just how much had the older woman guessed? She had far more experience than Emily; she’d probably read the full story off Emily’s face in the morning. And then a sleepless night wasn't a good sign ... shaking her head, she walked downstairs and nodded to Jade. He’d clearly exchanged a few words with Lady Barb.
    “Thank you for coming,” Emily said, as they walked through the gates. “I had no idea where to meet you.”
    Jade looked at her, surprised. “What did you say to her?” He asked. “She was quite insistent that I should behave myself.”
    “Nothing,” Emily said, wondering just what conclusions Lady Barb had drawn. Did she think Jade had molested her in some way? But Jade wasn't that sort of person. Besides, molesting a student would draw the wrath of the Grandmaster ... and Lady Barb herself. And Void, in Emily's case. “I just didn’t sleep very well.”
    Jade said nothing, leaving Emily wondering just how easy it would be to maintain a friendship after a semi-relationship. They walked down the hill and into a larger tent, the largest Emily had yet seen. Inside, it had been set up like a theatre, with a large stage at one end of the room and uncomfortable-looking benches lined up and crammed with people. Emily smiled at the sight of a handful of comfy chairs, clearly reserved for the elderly or important people, then sat down on one of the benches. Jade sat next to her and cast a silencing ward as the tent slowly filled to the limits.
    “This play dates back to the days of the Empire,” Jade explained, as the magical lights started to dim, focusing attention on the stage. “The basic plot hasn't changed at all.”
    Emily had her doubts about that, but she kept them to herself as the actors appeared on stage and the performance began. Most of the special effects were literal magic, she saw, more interesting and exciting than any play performed on Earth. The plot itself seemed a little confusing at first, until around thirty minutes into the performance. It clicked in Emily’s mind.
    “But love is mine to take and hold,” the male lead proclaimed. “Love to be found where I choose.”
    “And yet, love blinds one to the truth,” the secondary female lead warned. “You cannot hope to gift the gifted.”
    Emily couldn't help thinking of Doctor Faustus. The male lead had fallen in love with a mundane woman, a woman possessing no magic at all. It wasn't a choice his family approved, unsurprisingly, and they were very unpleasant to the poor girl. The actress playing the mundane woman was turned into a pig, a goat and a donkey in the first act alone, despite the best efforts of her lover. And then her lover had made a bargain with a demon to grant her magic powers. But the price turned out to be more than they could pay.
    “You ordained that power would be granted in spite of the gods,” an actor proclaimed, calling out the male lead. “Did you always assume it came without a price?”
    “I loved her, I know, and yet I love her still,” the male lead countered. “But I no longer know why.”
    Emily shivered. The demon’s price for granting the woman magic powers had been their love for one another, all that held them together. They might still be physical lovers, but the sensation of true love was gone. How could the relationship last when they were little more than friends with benefits? In the end, the couple parted, no longer truly lovers.
    “The play is popular,” Jade explained, when the actors finally took their leave. “But I don’t know why.”
    “I think I do,” Emily said. Perhaps it was her studies on Earth, but she thought she understood. “It's a warning.”
    She scowled. It was a warning to children of magical families, warning them not to marry powerless mundanes. The power imbalance in the relationship could destroy it, completely. But really ... what was the difference between a man being strong enough to beat his wife when she disobeyed him and a woman having the power to turn her man into a frog for being a bastard? Power wasn't just counted in magic.
    But a wife could fight back against her husband, she thought. A mundane couldn’t fight a magician.
    She allowed Jade to lead her to a smaller eatery, then joined him for dinner. It was easier talking to him now, she decided, even though he seemed to want to spend most of the time talking about his apprenticeship. Emily listened, filing everything he told her away in her mind. One day, she knew, she might well have a full apprenticeship herself. But she didn’t want it with someone so determined to kill anyone who challenged him.
    “It's not common for a male sorcerer to take a female apprentice,” Jade cautioned her. “I think the only exceptions were when the sorcerer was more interested in men than women.”
    Emily smiled. Homosexuality wasn't taboo, but it was hedged around by customs and traditions that seemed to change depending on wealth or social class. A magician wouldn't draw any raised eyebrows if he doing the penetrating, yet he would be sneered at if he allowed himself to be penetrated. Emily suspected the taboo said more about men than anyone would care to admit. There was nothing comparable for lesbians.
    “We're due to leave tomorrow,” Jade said, softly. “Will you write to me?”
    “I will,” Emily promised. Hadn't she been doing that all term? “Where are you going?”
    “I’m not sure,” Jade confessed.
    He led her back to the house, then stopped outside and gave her a tight hug. Emily returned it, but she felt nothing, no sense that she wanted it to go further. She’d felt more the first time he'd kissed her, almost a year ago. Was there something wrong with her?
    “I will write,” she said, pushing her thoughts aside. There would be time to think about them later. “And you take care of yourself.”
    “You too,” Jade said. “I’ll see you soon.”
    Emily watched him walk away into the darkness, then turned and stepped through the gate into the house.
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten
    The next few days passed surprisingly quickly. Emily spent her mornings brewing potions and her afternoons reading her way through Lady Barb’s library or writing letters to her friends. Lady Barb took her around the Faire one day and introduced her to a handful of people, but most of them weren't particularly interested in just another apprentice. Emily rather preferred their indifference to the interest they would show if they knew who she actually was.
    On the final day, Lady Barb took her into a different chamber and produced a small pencil-sized stick from her bag. Emily stared down at it, unable to escape a nagging sense of familiarity. It was tiny, yet somehow she knew she already knew what it was; she just couldn't place it. Lady Barb snorted and removed the miniaturisation spell. The staff snapped back to its normal size in her hand.
    “Your staff,” Lady Barb said. She held it out for Emily to take. “I trust you recall how to use it – and the dangers of using it?”
    Emily nodded. Sergeant Miles had taught her how to shape spells and embed them within the wood, but he’d also warned her of the dangers of excessive use. It was far too easy to lose the ability to cast spells without a staff or a wand ... and, if she did, she would be dependent on someone else to prepare the wand for her. Alassa, thankfully, had mastered the art after spending years using a wand, but Emily wasn't sure she could match it. Only sheer determination had kept Alassa trying until she’d gained the skill.
    She took the staff in her hand, feeling it quivering against her bare palm. It felt ... seductive, the magic in her responding to the handful of spells lodged within the wood. She had to smile, wondering what a psychologist would make of men using staffs, then carefully let go of it. As always, it stood on its end without falling over.
    “You are to carry it with you, but you are not to use it without permission,” Lady Barb told her. “Shrink it down and keep it hidden.”
    Emily nodded. She was seventeen – at least she was fairly sure she was seventeen – and it was rare for anyone to start working with staffs until they were at least twenty. Using it in public would suggest either vast power or little skill, both of which would attract unwanted attention. She cast the shrinking spell, then stuck the staff up her sleeve. If nothing else, she could use it to fight physically, rather than using magic. Sergeant Miles had taught her how to use a staff for that too.
    “Good,” Lady Barb said, once the staff was safely concealed. “Have you packed everything?”
    Emily nodded. She’d spent half of the previous day washing her robes without using magic, then hanging them on the line to dry. Lady Barb hadn't been very understanding when Emily had asked why they couldn't use magic, pointing out that they had to learn not to use magic for everything. Emily couldn't help wondering what Whitehall would make of a washing machine or an iron. It was astonishing just how easy life was, in many ways, on Earth.
    “Splendid,” Lady Barb said. “Come with me. I have something to show you.”
    Emily followed her back into the library, then stopped in front of a bookcase. For a moment, she thought they were returning to the spellchamber, but it was very definitely a different bookcase. Behind it, there was another staircase leading down into the darkness. Lady Barb cast a light spell, then started to walk down the stairs. Emily followed her, nervously. The last time hadn't been fun at all.
    She swallowed. “How many secret passages are there like this?”
    Lady Barb turned and grinned at her. “That’s a secret,” she said. “But there are quite a few.”
    Emily smiled, trying to calm her nerves. Secret passages seemed to be common in Whitehall, Zangaria’s castles and now magical houses. But it did make a certain kind of sense, she knew. The Grandmaster, King Randor and the others would want a way of moving around without being seen – and besides, looking for the passages in Whitehall was one of the great student traditions. Emily knew where a handful of them were, but there were dozens of others.
    They reached the bottom and stopped, on the edge of a patch of earth. Emily watched as the light spell grew brighter, revealing patches of earth intermingled with stone, as if it were a giant chess board. No, she realised suddenly, as she saw the runes carved into the stone; it was a graveyard, a crypt. None of the names below the runes were familiar.
    “My family members have been buried here for centuries,” Lady Barb said, very softly. In the distance, Emily was sure she could hear dripping water. “One day, I’ll be buried here too.”
    Emily looked up, peering into the darkness. It was impossible to tell how far the chamber stretched, but it had to be colossal. Hundreds of people could be buried here, deep below the ground. She looked back at Lady Barb and saw that she was pale, suddenly much older.
    “When I was a child,” Lady Barb said softly, “we were told that the dead held parties here while the living slept. I always envied them, because my father wasn't inclined to hold many parties in his hall. One night, I slipped down into the crypt and saw ... nothing.”
    She shook her head. “My mother’s people taught that the dead are reborn as part of the world surrounding us,” she added. “I like to believe that’s true.”
    Emily felt a moment of sympathy. As a child, she’d known that Father Christmas wasn't real; he’d never visited her house. She’d never really understood until she was older why so many other children had believed in him. They hadn't lost the illusions that came with being a child, the belief that their parents could fix anything and the Tooth Fairy was real. Emily had never been allowed such illusions.
    Lady Barb turned. Emily hesitated, then called out to her. “Why did you bring me here?”
    “I wanted you to see it,” Lady Barb said. She walked up the stairs, but her voice floated back. “Don’t linger, Emily. There are dangers down here.”
    Emily took one final look at the nondescript patches of earth, then followed her up the stairs and into the light. Lady Barb’s expression was tightly controlled, suggesting that she was upset about something. The last time she’d looked like that, she’d been scolding Emily, Alassa and Imaiqah for skiving off their classes. This time, however, she didn't look unhappy with Emily, but someone else.
    “Grab your bag, then make sure you have everything,” Lady Barb said. “I’m going to be sealing the house and I will be very upset if I have to unseal it before the end of the summer.”
    “Understood,” Emily said. She looked at Lady Barb for a long moment. “Are you all right?”
    “Go,” Lady Barb snapped.
    Emily fled. She’d never been very good at noticing when someone was hurting, or when someone was feeling anything at all. It had surprised her when she’d realised just how badly depressed Alassa had become, or that Jade was interested in her ... she pushed the thought aside as she walked into her room and picked up her bag, then checked around for anything she might gave left behind. The notes she’d written had been copied into her notebooks and then reduced to dust in the fire. Taking the bag, she walked back downstairs. Lady Barb was waiting at the door, a pinched expression on her face and a wand in her hand.
    “I’ll meet you outside the gates,” Lady Barb said. “Just wait for me there.”
    It took ten minutes before Lady Barb joined her, putting the wand into her bag as she closed the gates behind them. The wards shivered back into place, sealing the house. Emily wondered, absently, just how long they would last before they collapsed into nothingness without a magician to sustain them, but there was no way to ask. There were questions it was unwise to ask out loud.
    “Come on,” Lady Barb said. “Our transport is waiting at the other side of the Faire.”
    Half of the visitors had already departed, Emily discovered, as they walked through where the Faire had been. The others were busy shutting up their stalls and loading their remaining goods onto carts, protected by magicians or armed mercenaries. Emily reminded herself, sharply, of her plans to set up a proper bank. It was something she intended to do, either in Cockatrice or somewhere else, once she had enough money to make it work. But she hadn't worked out all the details yet.
    “They normally sell some books cheaply after the Faire officially ends,” Lady Barb commented. “Would you like to stop and see what they have?”
    Emily hesitated, tempted, then shook her head. “I’d have to carry them all, wouldn't I?”
    “Yep,” Lady Barb said. She smiled, brightly. “But I wouldn't have minded.”
    “Of course not,” Emily agreed. “I’d be carrying them.”
    Lady Barb laughed as they walked past the half-dismantled stalls and headed towards a number of gipsy-like wagons. They looked almost too small to be real, she saw, as if they were expensive toys rather than real wagons. A handful of young children, some of them wearing ragged clothes, were running around them, playing a game of chase. Behind them, their older relatives were slowly loading some of the wagons with supplies and the remains of their stalls.
    A dark-skinned girl who looked no older than Emily herself stood and walked over to meet them. “Karman,” Lady Barb said, formally, “I would like to introduce Millie, my apprentice. Millie, this is Karman of the Diddakoi Travellers.”
    “Pleased to meet you,” Karman said. Her voice was oddly accented in a manner Emily didn't recognise. “You are welcome among us, if you come in peace.”
    “I do,” Emily said, formally. She couldn't help a flicker of envy as she studied Karman. The girl was naturally beautiful, without the inhuman perfection of Alassa. Her long dark hair reached all the way down to her thighs. There was a suppleness around her body that suggested she spent most of her time in the open air. “I thank you for accepting us.”
    “We will leave in an hour, we hope,” Karman said, addressing Lady Barb. “You will ride in the guest wagon.”
    Emily couldn't help being charmed as they walked past the family wagons. They were decorated with carved wood, tiny icons and runes, almost imperceptible behind a concealing glamour. The guest wagon was larger, but the bunk beds were tiny and there was no room to swing a mouse, let alone a cat. And there was someone inside already. Emily blinked in surprise as she recognised the singer from the first day of the Faire. The girl looked back at her shyly.
    “We don’t bite,” Lady Barb assured the girl, dryly. “Don’t worry about us.”
    The girl would have no problems in the bunk beds, Emily saw, but both she and Lady Barb would have real problems. Even Imaiqah, who was shorter than Emily, couldn't have fitted into one of the bunks safely. There were certainly no charms expanding the space inside the wagon. Lady Barb saw her face and grinned, mischievously.
    “We’d normally sleep under the stars,” Lady Barb told her. “Unless it was raining, of course.”
    She motioned for Emily to climb into the wagon, then left her alone. Emily exchanged glances with the young singer – at a guess, she couldn't be more than thirteen – then opened her bag and found a book. She was engrossed in it when Lady Barb returned, leading a large horse by the reins. The horse looked larger than any of the riding horses Emily had ridden, but definitely tamer. Emily smiled in relief as Lady Barb hooked the horse to the wagon, piece by piece. Alassa might like riding over the countryside at breakneck pace, jumping hedges and ditches with abandon, but Emily had never liked riding. She always had the impression that the horse was just biding its time before throwing her off and bolting.
    “Most people sit on the edge of the wagon and watch the countryside go by,” Lady Barb pointed out, as the first wagon started to move. The guest wagon, it seemed, would be at the very rear of the small convoy. “Don’t you want to see where we’re going?”
    Emily sighed, put the book aside and peered into the distance. A handful of mountains could be seen, rising up until their peaks were hidden in the clouds. Mapping wasn't one of her skills, even after months spent working with the Sergeants on following map-based directions, but she was fairly sure that the mountains were the Cairngorms.
    “Right,” Lady Barb said, when Emily asked. “The Travellers won’t be going up the mountains themselves, but they’ll let us off when we finally reach the bottom of the mountainside. There’s a road there we can follow until the first village.”
    Emily nodded, feeling nervous. The first village was where their mission would truly begin and, despite all the preparation, she felt unready. It was funny, she told herself, how she was willing to risk her own life, but not put other people’s lives in her hands. And if she made potions that went bad ... she swallowed at the thought, shivering. What if she made a mistake and someone died?
    She wanted to crawl back into the wagon and hide, but instead she found herself looking at the countryside as the convoy moved onwards. The disorganised woodland slowly gave way to fields, with peasants working the farms and a small castle in the distance. She guessed that Lady Barb’s extended family owned the land where the Faire had been held, while the territory outside it was owned by the local nobility.
    “I should have read more about this area,” she muttered.
    “Yes, you should,” Lady Barb agreed. “Did you read the material I gave you on the Cairngorms?”
    Emily nodded. It hadn't sounded very welcoming. The region had been ruled by a King for the first fifty years after the Empire had collapsed, but then something had happened to the monarchy and the Mountain Lords had ruled the territory ever since. Reading between the lines, Emily suspected that the Lords had actually assassinated their monarch. Relations between them and the Allied Lands were fragile at the best of times, with only the distant threat of the necromancers to keep them working together.
    “You’ll need to keep it in mind at all times,” Lady Barb warned. “We would prefer not to get entangled in local politics.”
    “I understand,” Emily said, silently reminding herself to reread the material. Lady Barb had told her she could keep that particular set of notes. “But what happens if we do?”
    “We try to get out of it,” Lady Barb said.
    The farmland gave way to a river running down towards the sea, too deep and rapid for them to dare to cross. Instead, the wagons turned and headed northwards until they found a bridge and crossed over. Emily felt an odd shiver of magic as they passed over the running water, but couldn't attach a name to the sensation. Lady Barb didn't seem surprised when she pointed it out.
    “There's often traces of magic in water,” Lady Barb explained. “Didn't you learn that from Professor Thande?”
    Emily nodded, embarrassed. Alchemy was all about releasing the natural magic in raw materials. Water was normally neutral, but it could pick up magic and transfer it elsewhere, under the right conditions. She couldn't help wondering what such magic would do to someone who drank the water. Perhaps, she decided, it accounted for the appearance of magic talents. She’d read a fantasy story where a magic fountain had gifted its first drinkers with magic powers.
    “I did,” she confessed.
    “My parents wanted me to go to school,” the singer said, piping up suddenly. “But my uncles said no.”
    “That’s not uncommon among Travellers,” Lady Barb said. “They’re not counted as new magicians, so their fees are rarely paid by the Allied Lands. Most of them have to learn from their parents and never really qualify as trained magicians. My mother might not have let me go, if I’d stayed with her.”
    Emily looked at the singer, feeling an odd hint of pity. She was a good singer, one who could charm anyone who heard her ... and she would never have a chance to develop her magical talent. Her family considered it more important to let her sing for money then pay for her to go to Whitehall. But there were other sources of cash ...
    I could fund her, Emily thought, wondering if Lady Barb would read her face. I have the money.
    She looked down at the girl, silently resolving to discuss the matter with Lady Barb as soon as they were alone. Whitehall wasn't that expensive compared to her income from Cockatrice; she could easily fund one student. Hell, she could fund a dozen students and never notice the loss. But she had no idea of the practicalities of the situation.
    Lady Barb gave her a sharp look, as if she had understood what Emily was thinking. “Do you want to take the reins for a while?”
    Emily shook her head. She didn't trust horses, even horses that acted docile.
    “I’ll take them,” the singer said. “Horses like me ... except when I tried to clean them as a kid.”
    “If you like,” Lady Barb said. “What’s your name?”
    “Jasmine,” the singer told her. There was a hint of pain in her voice. “Just plain Jasmine. My parents died years ago.”
    Poor girl, Emily thought, bitterly. She loved her parents before they left her.
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    I don't know why links are popping up in the text, but please don't follow them. It only encourages them. <grin>

    Chris
     
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Eleven
    The sun was starting to set in the sky as the convoy pulled into a clearing in the midst of a forest. Emily jumped down from the wagon, feeling her body aching from sitting too long, and stretched until she had worked some of the kinks out of her muscles. Lady Barb stepped down with more dignity, then released the horse and led the beast over to a place he could pick at the grass. Emily watched as the Travellers organised their wagons and then started to prepare dinner. She wanted to help, but she wasn't sure what she could do.
    “Set up the caldron,” Lady Barb ordered, when she returned. “I agreed to provide them with pain-relief potions, ones using Whitehall’s specific recipe.”
    Emily blinked in surprise. She’d never heard of a specific recipe for Whitehall. As far as she knew, the potions were fairly common – and even if they’d started out unique, someone would have analysed and duplicated them by now. But she pushed the thought aside and unloaded the small caldron from Lady Barb’s bag, followed by a small handful of ingredients. Painkiller potion was fairly easy to brew.
    She lit a small fire, carefully placed the caldron over the heat and filled it with water. Jasmine sat down next to her and watched, saying nothing, as the water slowly started to bubble. A handful of young boys came up too, but walked away disappointed when they discovered that Emily wasn't using toad’s eyes, fish eggs or anything else equally gross. Emily had to smile at their reactions; normally, she disliked cutting up small animals and insects with a passion. No wonder, she decided, most alchemists were male.
    Once the potion was cooling, she sat back and studied the Traveller family, trying to work out who was who. In Zangaria, it would be blindingly obvious who was in charge – and their sons and daughters would wear their colours. Here, with everyone wearing simple ragged clothing and little in the way of jewellery, it was hard to tell. Everyone adult either looked young, not much older than Emily herself, or old enough to pass for her grandparents. She wasn't even sure who was the mother and father of the dozens of kids running around the encampment.
    “They don’t take blood relations as being all-important,” Lady Barb explained, when she returned from speaking with the older Travellers. “A child born to a Traveller family will have at least five or six mothers and fathers, no matter who actually sired the child or gave birth to him. It’s a loving environment, but it can be a little stifling at times.”
    Emily wasn't so sure about that, she decided. The children were running wild, despite shouts from an older girl who seemed to be their designated nursemaid. There was a look in her face of quiet desperation, reminding Emily of Imaiqah as she’d been the first day Emily and her had actually met. The older girl eventually dragged two of the boys back to the fire and plunked them down in front of a forbidding-looking elder man. Emily couldn't help noticing that the man winked at the boys as soon as the girl’s back was turned.
    The Traveller adults seemed surprisingly varied. Half of the adults looked as though they’d grown up in Germany, complete with blonde hair and blue eyes that would have made Hitler proud, the remainder were a strange mixture of ethnic groups. She saw a young woman who looked Chinese, a man with black skin and an older woman who might have been Indian, although her skin was so winkled it was hard to be sure. The children seemed to be mixed race, like many of the magical families. Emily reminded herself that racism – at least among normal humans – was largely unknown among the families. They found it more useful to combine genetic heritages from all over the globe.
    And then they take it out on werewolves and gorgons, she thought, cynically. What’s the point of discriminating against humans when there are non-humans about?
    “You must have found it hard to adapt,” Emily said, looking up at Lady Barb. “How did they treat you?”
    “I did,” Lady Barb said. Her lips quirked with hidden amusement. “My father wasn't quite as bad as King Randor when it came to spoiling his daughter, but I was the apple of his eye. I was not always a very well behaved child. My mother ... was not amused.”
    She leaned over and checked the potion, carefully. “Good work,” she said, finally. “Let it finish cooling, then they can drain it into bottles for themselves.”
    Emily felt a flush of pride. She’d never really been praised by her mother and her stepfather would sooner have joined his wife in a bottle than praise his stepdaughter. And there was no point to praise at school, not on Earth. She’d known all too well that it was utterly pointless to work hard. But Lady Barb’s praise meant something to her. She wasn't someone who gave praise easily.
    “Thank you,” she said. “What are we going to do now?”
    “It doesn't look like rain,” Lady Barb said, looking up at the darkening sky. High overhead, the stars were starting to glimmer into existence. “Fetch the blankets from the wagon and we’ll sleep under the stars.”
    Emily nodded, just as a young boy ran up to them, carrying two bowls of stew and a pair of spoons. Lady Barb took them, smiled at the boy and passed one of the bowls to Emily. Emily sniffed it, decided it smelled nice, and took one of the spoons. She was careful not to ask what went into the strew, knowing that it might put her off eating it. She’d watched the Sergeants make food from ingredients they’d scrounged from the surrounding countryside more than once and it never failed to bother her. But she was the only person at Whitehall who would be bothered.
    Jasmine walked off, back towards the fire. Moments later, Emily heard her voice drifting back as she started to sing. She felt a shiver of envy – on Earth, Jasmine would probably have had the talent to escape being born on poverty – before realising that she was being silly. Talent and fame didn't always go together. But then, she’d never shared the music tastes of the other girls on Earth.
    She looked over at Lady Barb. “Jasmine should go to Whitehall,” she said, seriously. “Can I sponsor her?”
    Lady Barb frowned. “You’d need to speak with her uncles,” she said, after a moment’s thought. She smiled, but it didn't quite touch her eyes. “Do you even know the girl well enough to make such an offer?”
    Emily scowled. Lady Barb was right. She barely knew Jasmine ... and she was considering making a fairly sizable financial commitment to the young girl’s education. But there was something about Jasmine that reminded Emily of herself, a girl caught in a family situation she couldn’t escape on her own. Emily hadn't escaped on her own. Shadye had kidnapped her, stealing her from Earth. If he hadn't tried to kill her immediately afterwards, Emily suspected that he wouldn't have had any problems turning her to the darkness.
    “But it isn't uncommon,” Lady Barb added, softly. “You do realise that you’d be creating a permanent tie between you and her?”
    “I think so,” Emily said. The richer magical families often sponsored new magicians – or magicians from poorer magical bloodlines – in exchange for later favours. Imaiqah’s fees had been paid by Whitehall’s fund for new magicians, but several others she knew were committed to their sponsors. Some of them would probably wind up marrying into the magical families, adding their wild magic to the family’s genetics. “But I wouldn't want much from her.”
    “I’m glad to hear it,” Lady Barb said, dryly. There was a long pause as she looked up at the stars, then over at the gathering Travellers. “If you wish, I will speak with her current guardians for you. Maybe, in fact, I will not mention that you wish to do it. But they may well say no. The Travellers dislike obligation to anyone outside their families.”
    Emily understood. One of the traditions at Whitehall that puzzled her, then alarmed her, was that obligations had to be repaid, somehow. Outside very close friends, there was no such thing as Christmas presents. Every gift had to be repaid in kind, with something of equal value. The dresses Alassa’s mother kept sending Emily, Alassa had explained, created a tie between Emily and Queen Marlena, even though Emily hadn't wanted to create the tie herself. Or, for that matter, wear the dresses. But it was hard to refuse without permanently damaging their relationship.
    It was easy, she knew, for someone to be pushed into a subordinate position. A richer or better-connected student could create an obligation to a poorer student, simply by giving them expensive gifts. Whitehall’s rules on relationships made sense in that light, she knew; an older student could easily take advantage of a younger student. But the rules only seemed to push the practice underground. If Emily hadn't been close friends with Alassa, she suspected she would have been drowned in expensive gifts.
    “I repaid my own fees,” Emily said, finally. “I’m sure Jasmine could do the same.”
    Lady Barb snorted. “I rather doubt it,” she said. “You were very lucky.”
    Emily nodded. She wasn't quite sure who had actually paid her fees – Mistress Irene hadn't been very clear on the matter when Emily had asked – but she’d returned the money anyway, once she was sure she could support herself. Neither the Grandmaster nor Void had ever commented on it. She suspected – she hoped – that meant they approved.
    “I will speak to her guardians,” Lady Barb said, again. “It will be a year or two before she can go to Whitehall in any case. She isn't that old and her powers have yet to develop properly.”
    She smiled, suddenly. “The Travellers hold the record for the greatest number of child magicians,” she added. “They’re so frequently exposed to wild magic that their powers often develop earlier than their parents might wish.”
    Emily shuddered. Students at Whitehall could be cruel – but children could be crueller. The thought of a young boy or girl armed with magic was horrifying, particularly as they wouldn't be in an environment where their use of magic could be monitored and supervised. And she'd read horror stories about what happened to such magicians when they finally went through puberty. Quite a few of them didn't survive the experience.
    “I’ll go speak to them once the entertainment is over,” Lady Barb added, sitting up. “Go fetch the blankets, then you can get some sleep.”
    Emily obeyed, scrambling back into the wagon and finding the blankets on the cramped bunks. She couldn't help feeling a little wistful as she jumped back down, watching the Travellers gathered around the fire. An older man was playing a violin, several of the young couples were dancing ... they were a family, no matter how strange. They had an easy companionship that she'd never known. Their children grew up knowing there were people looking out for them at all times. Even if they chaffed sometimes under the restrictions, they also knew they were safe.
    She felt a tinge of envy as she laid out the blankets, one by one. It would be nice to share such companionship, but she wasn't even sure where to begin. She liked her handful of friends, yet she wasn’t always sure how to handle being friends with anyone. There were times she just wanted to be alone, in the company of her own thoughts ... she shook her head, bitterly. She’d never really had friends – or respected mentors – until she’d come to Whitehall.
    It was far too dark to read – she half-wished for a Kindle, although she had no idea if it would even work – so she lay back on the blankets and stared up at the stars. She’d never paid much attention to them on Earth, not when she knew she would never be able to reach orbit, let alone the moon or mars. Now, she knew how to use them to find her way, thanks to the Sergeants, but she had no idea if they were the same stars as looked down on Earth. If they were different, she asked herself, what were the implications of that?
    She tensed as she felt someone moving next to her, then relaxed slightly as she realised it was only Jasmine. The younger girl lay down on the blankets and closed her eyes, seemingly unaware of just how badly she’d alarmed Emily. Emily sighed, waiting for her heart to stop pounding in her chest. It had taken months for her to get used to the concept of having roommates, people who slept in the same room. And now, Jasmine had casually disturbed her ...
    The entertainment had come to an end, she realised. She looked around and saw Lady Barb, her long blonde hair glistening in the firelight, talking to an older man. It was hard to believe that he was related to Jasmine; where Jasmine was pale, he was dark. But there were so many ethnic groups mixed in the community that it was quite possible he was related to Jasmine’s father. Emily watched for a long moment and then settled back on her blankets and closed her eyes.
    “I liked watching you brew,” Jasmine confided. “What were you making?”
    Emily smiled. “Green,” she said, without opening her eyes. “A nugget of the purest green.”
    The next thing she knew was a shock as cold water splashed over her face. She jerked awake as water cascaded down her shirt, looking around in shock. No one at Whitehall would have disturbed her sleep, certainly not during the run-up to exams. They needed their sleep just as much. But now ... she sat up, choking, and saw two boys running away. The sun was inching its way into the sky, casting brilliant rays of light over the land.
    “Little brats,” Lady Barb swore. She lifted her hand and cast a spell after the boys, just as they dodged behind a wagon. Emily sensed a flare of magic and knew that the spell had reached its targets, even though they were out of eyeshot. If she’d had any doubts about Lady Barb being a powerful magician, that would have erased them. “I’m sorry about that, Millie.”
    It took Emily a moment to remember that she was being called Millie. “It’s ok,” she said, although it wasn't. Her clothes were not only drenched, they were clinging to her skin in a manner she found uncomfortably revealing. “Let me dry myself.”
    It took three tries before she managed the spell properly. Her hair still felt damp afterwards, but at least she no longer had water dripping down her body. Lady Barb stood up, dried herself and stalked off towards where the boys had tried to hide. Emily wondered what she’d done to them, hoping it was something truly unpleasant. Beating someone halfway to death didn't seem enough, somehow. She helped Jasmine to her feet, then cast another drying spell for the younger girl. Jasmine didn't seem too upset by the whole experience.
    “They're always like that,” she said, as Emily ran her fingers through her hair. “You get used to it.”
    Lady Barb reappeared, dragging both boys by their ears. They both looked rather shell-shocked, Emily saw, neither of them seemed to be really fighting or trying to escape. Lady Barb dragged them over to the adults, then had a brief terse conversation. Emily checked on the potion and discovered to her relief that it was unharmed, then started to move it into the bottles for storage. She’d had to clean the caldron before they packed up for the day.
    “I’m sorry about that,” Lady Barb repeated, as she walked back to the wagon. “They’re going to be punished.”
    “Thank you,” Emily said, feeling an odd surge of vindictiveness. There had been times when she'd wished she had siblings, but she wouldn't have wanted to expose anyone else to her stepfather. Besides, it was hard to be alone when surrounded by family. “When are we leaving?”
    Lady Barb nodded towards the mountains. “We’ll be there in a couple of hours, once we depart,” she said. “And then we’ll be on our own.”
    Emily allowed herself to look forward to it as they ate breakfast, then packed up the campsite and buried their waste. Neither of the boys reappeared from their wagon, perhaps fortunately. Emily couldn't help feeling murderous towards them, even though they probably hadn't meant to really scare her. But it wouldn't be easy to sleep again in the campsite.
    “Set up wards,” Lady Barb advised, when Emily asked for advice. “You can hold one in place long enough to get some sleep, can't you?”
    Emily scowled, irritated at herself. She didn't use protective wards at Whitehall, nor had she used them in Zangaria or at Lady Barb’s home. But she could have used them at the campsite to ensure that her sleep was undisturbed, at least by children. Lady Barb wouldn't have any difficulty waking her if necessary.
    “I can,” she agreed, sourly. She dried the blankets, then returned them to the wagon. “What did ...”
    She nodded towards Jasmine. “They said we could provide the money, provided the obligations were all on her,” Lady Barb said. “It sounds cold, but it isn't uncommon.”
    Emily hesitated, looking at the younger girl.
    “I’ll talk to her,” Lady Barb said, as the Travellers started to hitch the wagons to the horses. “If she accepts ... you can talk to her later.”
    “I understand,” Emily said, reluctantly. She knew Lady Barb knew more about the whole system than her, but it still annoyed her. “I’ll let you handle it.”
    Lady Barb gave her a long look, then nodded.
     
  18. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    More More More!!! :)
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve
    Emily had never seen mountains until she’d been kidnapped by Shadye. Since then, she'd see the mountains that surrounded Whitehall and explored them with Jade, but the Cairngorms were different. She couldn't help staring as the mountains grew closer, reaching up towards the sky. The countryside changed too; trees clung closer and closer to the road, casting dark shadows over the wagons. Emily shivered as she peered into the forest, wondering what might be lurking inside. She'd read enough to know that anything could be waiting for them in the darkness.
    The convoy lurched to a halt. “Here we are,” Lady Barb said, as she passed the reins to Jasmine. “That’s where we’re going.”
    Emily followed her pointing finger. The trees parted, just enough to reveal a rocky path leading upwards into the mountains. Emily shivered when she saw the shadows moving ahead of them, then pushed the thought aside and picked up her bag. Lady Barb exchanged a few brief words with Jasmine, then jumped down and walked up to the lead wagon. Emily said goodbye to Jasmine, biting her tongue to keep herself from asking what she’d said to Lady Barb, then jumped down herself. Up close, the pathway didn’t look any more inviting.
    A cold wind blew through the trees as Lady Barb came back to join her, the horses neighing in farewell as the convoy started to move again. Emily waved to Jasmine as the last wagon moved past her, then drove down the road and vanished in the distance. She couldn't help missing the convoy, now they were alone. It seemed impossible to believe that there were any other humans nearby.
    “No time to waste,” Lady Barb said, briskly. “Come along.”
    She turned and started to walk up the path. Emily followed her, silently grateful for the route marches the Sergeants had forced their students to undertake. Without them, she knew she would have real trouble walking up the path. Her footing was unstable and there were nasty-looking rocks everywhere, as if whoever had made the pathway had deliberately set out to make it hard to follow. She heard the sound of water tinkling in the forest, but saw nothing within the shadows. There didn't even seem to be any animals moving under the trees.
    “Jasmine was very interested in your offer,” Lady Barb said. She didn't even sound winded by the march. “I gave her a signed paper to show to the recruiting officers, when she comes into her magic. Her fees will be paid at that time, if she still wants to go.”
    Emily nodded. “Will she actually go?”
    “It depends,” Lady Barb said. “She may not develop enough magic to fit in at Whitehall – or she may never develop magic at all. If so ...”
    Her voice trailed off, but Emily understood. There were a handful of people who had magic, but were never able to actually access and use it. For an ordinary person from an ordinary family, it was no hardship; they might never even know what they had. But for someone from a magical bloodline, being unable to use magic would be disastrous. There were only a handful of courses at Whitehall that didn't include magic.
    She shivered. It hadn't taken her more than a few days before she’d learned enough spells to make her really dangerous, at least to someone without magic. That, she’d been told, was the real reason why Whitehall and the other magical schools recruited from non-magical bloodlines, quite apart from any genetic requirements. It simply wasn't safe for magical children to be taught alongside non-magical children.
    “We shall see,” she said, out loud. “That was an impressive spell you used on the brats.”
    Lady Barb smiled. “Keep concentrating and you might be able to do it yourself,” she said, dryly. “But it isn't particularly easy.”
    They walked in companionable silence for nearly thirty minutes before they came to a bridge. Emily felt a chill running down her spine as she looked at the bridge – and at the rushing water underneath, racing towards an unknown destination. There were enough jagged rocks half-hidden by the water to make crossing without a bridge a dangerous prospect. But there was something about the bridge that bothered her, even though she couldn't place her fingers on it.
    “Look at the logs,” Lady Barb said. She pointed a finger towards the pieces of wood. “They weren't cut with axes or saws.”
    Emily frowned. They looked almost like someone had chewed them. Something very big. The teeth marks looked several times the size of her own mouth, yet there was something disturbingly human about them. Lady Barb looked around, studying the water, then smiled at pointed towards a large rock on the other side of the river. Emily followed her gaze, then frowned in puzzlement. The rock was large enough to stand on, easily. But there was nothing else odd about it.
    “Watch,” Lady Barb said. She picked up a stone and tossed it towards the rock, striking it easily. “Watch and learn.”
    Emily jumped as the stone started to move, standing upright and revealing a humanoid form. For a moment, she thought it was made of stone, before she realised that it was actually very good at blending into its surroundings. Emily couldn't help thinking of a giant misshapen baby, made of grey flesh. The troll stood, dark eyes searching for the person who had dared to set foot on his bridge. Lady Barb stepped forward, holding her staff in one hand. The troll stopped moving its head and glared at her, never taking its eyes off the staff. It recognised it, Emily realised.
    “Follow me,” Lady Barb hissed. She knelt down and started to crawl across the bridge. The troll made a hissing sound, like a kettle that had been left on too long, but made no attempt to grab her. “Hurry!”
    Emily hesitated, then crawled after the older woman. The bridge felt terrifyingly unstable, as if one false move would toss her off into the troll’s waiting jaws. It hissed again as she passed over its position, then fell back into hiding. Emily sighed in relief as she reached the far side of the bridge and looked back at the troll. It was almost completely concealed within the rushing water.
    “They’re not very smart,” Lady Barb commented, as they walked away from the bridge, “but they have a natural talent for building bridges that appear safe until it’s too late. Most people who live here know to look for signs a troll built the bridge.”
    Emily frowned. “Why don't the locals try to kill it?”
    “They’re not fond of visitors in these parts,” Lady Barb admitted. “They wouldn't care too much if the troll ate someone, particularly a taxman.”
    She smirked. “But those particular people are probably inedible,” she added. “They couldn't be eaten at all.”
    Emily had to smile, feeling some of the tension draining away. “What about the children?”
    “They generally learn better from a very early age,” Lady Barb said. “Although they have to be careful. Some of the creatures that lurk in the innermost reaches of the forest are quite cunning and very dangerous.”
    She launched into a story that reminded Emily of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, except the boy actually did see a dangerous creature, which vanished the moment he called for his father and uncles. His relatives didn't believe him, beat him and left him alone with the sheep. But the creature reappeared and kept reappearing until the boy no longer cried for help. And then it ate him up, followed by the sheep.
    Emily had no trouble believing the story. There were all kinds of monsters running loose in the world, from Centaurs to Goblins and Orcs. Even dumb animals could develop a kind of intelligence if they were exposed to wild magic – or to the experiments of magicians with more power than ethnical boundaries. Hell, there were even magicians trying to breed intelligent horses, claiming that they would be useful in war. Emily suspected the whole idea was asking for something to go badly wrong.
    She mulled it over as she kept walking, wondering just where the troll had come from. It might have looked humanoid, but there was no hint of humanity around its eyes, suggesting that it wasn't a descendent of a human who’d been touched by the Faerie. Maybe it had just evolved through contact with wild magic, like the dragons and the other completely non-human creatures that hid from human eyes. She shook her head, dismissing the thought. It was unlikely that she would ever know.
    They reached a clearing and stopped, long enough to catch their breath. Emily looked up towards the higher mountains and saw a dark castle perched on a peak, towering ominously over the land. It didn't look any bigger than her own castle in Cockatrice, although it was difficult to be sure.
    “It belongs to the local lord,” Lady Barb said. She shrugged, expressively. “You can imagine how hard it was to build, even with magic.”
    Emily rolled her eyes. If there was one constant between this world and Earth, it was that the rich and the powerful demanded accommodation in line with their status. The aristocrats built towering castles and manor houses for themselves, while the commoners had to struggle in tiny hovels, fighting to survive another day. It was something she knew her innovations would eventually challenge, but it wasn't going to be an easy transition. There were times when she wondered if she shouldn't have kept her mouth shut instead of introducing new ideas to the Allied Lands.
    But gunpowder might make it easier for them to fight the necromancers and their armies, she thought. Orcs were tough and bred like rabbits – and the necromancers could intimidate them into unquestioning obedience. And each of them was tougher than the average human. And English letters will allow millions to learn to read.
    Lady Barb smiled at her, then led her back onto the path. This time, it snaked down into a long valley, covered with trees. Emily was suddenly very aware of birds flying through the trees, while a handful of small animals could be heard in the undergrowth. It was almost as if someone had flipped a switch, turning on the sound. She shook her head in puzzlement as she heard something ahead of her, then caught sight of a handful of sheep – and a pale-skinned boy watching them. He started, lifting a heavy wooden stick, then relaxed when Lady Barb held up her hands.
    “We’re almost there,” Lady Barb commented. “Not long to go now.”
    Emily nodded at the boy, who smiled shyly at her. She had to look strange to him, she realised slowly, almost like someone from a different planet. Even though she was wearing a basic walking outfit rather than robes, she still looked different. She wondered, absently, what sort of life the boy led among the mountains, but she didn't dare pause long enough to ask. Lady Barb was walking faster now that the end of the walk was in sight.
    “A word of warning,” Lady Barb said, once they were out of earshot. “You’ve grown used to magic at Whitehall.”
    Emily hesitated. She’d been at Whitehall for two years and there were times when magic – and the customs of the Allied Lands – could still surprise and horrify her. There was so much she had to learn, more – she suspected – than she would ever be able to learn, no matter how much time she spent in the library. And then there was the strange and confusing history of the Allied Lands. The more she looked at it, remembering what she knew from Earth’s history, the more she suspected that history had been ineptly rewritten.
    “Yes,” she said, finally.
    “You use magic as naturally as breathing, now,” Lady Barb continued. “When you are injured, you can be healed within a day. You turn your friends and rivals into small animals or objects and think it’s nothing more than a great joke.”
    Emily shook her head. Magical transformation – voluntary or involuntary – might be a regular part of life at Whitehall, but it wasn't something she suspected she would ever grow used to. And then there were the transformed beasts she’d seen hunted in Zangaria ...
    Lady Barb looked into her eyes. “That isn't true for the people here,” she warned. “Magic is strange, powerful and unpredictable ... for them. They’ve seen people warped and twisted by wild magic, to the point where they’re often glad to give up their children who happen to have developed magical powers. Quite a few of your fellows at Whitehall will never go home once they graduate. Some of them may not even wait that long to break all contact with their families.”
    Emily swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. She had never really wanted to go back home, but surely someone who had a loving family would feel differently. But if the locals were so scared of magic ...
    “Don't use magic directly, unless you have no other choice,” Lady Barb said, gently. “We don’t want to scare them if it can be avoided.”
    She turned and led the way down the path. Emily followed after a moment, remembering how much magic she'd seen in Whitehall – and how little she'd seen in Zangaria. But even there, among the aristocracy, there was power enough to allow them to stand as equals to magicians. Here ... she swallowed again, realising just how powerless the locals actually were, compared to her friends. Magic would definitely terrify them.
    “They used to kill very young children who showed signs of magic,” Lady Barb called back to her, without turning around. “We think it still goes on, in places.”
    The path broadened suddenly as it led down into the village. Emily wrinkled her nose as the smell hit her, a combination of dirty animals and filthy humans that reminded her of some of the smaller hamlets she’d seen on the trip to Zangaria. Basic sanitation, it seemed, had never reached this village. The handful of locals she could see looked filthy, wearing homemade clothes that wouldn't even have been used as rags in Whitehall. A handful of children, too young to be put to any proper work, were gathered outside one of the houses, listening to a lecture from a man who looked old enough to be Emily’s great-grandfather.
    Lady Barb strode forward, into the village. Emily followed, looking around at the houses. Most of them were built out of wood – there was certainly no shortage of that, in the mountains – but a handful were built out of stone. She guessed they belonged to the handful of important men in the village; if they followed the same pattern as villages in Zangaria, there would be a headman who served as the village boss. But there would also be some degree of discussion among the older villagers, she suspected. The headman wasn't really powerful enough to keep everyone in line if they decided they wanted to get rid of him.
    A door opened and a man strode out, followed by a teenager. Emily found herself disliking both of them on sight; the older man had a greedy face that irked her, while the younger boy made no attempt to hide the fact he was staring at her chest, even though her shirt was largely shapeless. She fought down the urge to hide behind Lady Barb as the older man came to a halt in front of her and bowed, politely. Lady Barb nodded in return.
    “My Lady Sorceress,” the older man said. “I bid you welcome to my village.”
    Emily studied him thoughtfully. His clothes were still homemade, but there was a definite suggestion that they were slightly better than the clothes worn by the other villages. He wore a thin gold chain around his neck, an oddly girlish decoration that – she suspected – marked him out as the headman. His face was fleshy, barely hidden behind a short reddish beard that concealed his chin.
    “We thank you,” Lady Barb said. She indicated Emily with a nod. “This is my apprentice, Millie.”
    “Charmed,” the younger man said.
    His father gave him an indulgent smile. “My son, Hodge,” he said. “A fine young man.”
    Emily kept her face expressionless, somehow. Hodge was very definitely a younger version of his father, save for a beard. She didn't like the look in his eye at all, or the way his gaze kept dropping to her chest and below. It was a relief when the headman turned and led the way towards another stone building, right in the centre of the village.
    “I will have food and drink sent to you,” the headman assured Lady Barb. “How long will you be staying?”
    “Two to three days,” Lady Barb said. “We will start seeing people tomorrow.”
    Her voice hardened. “And I trust there will be no delays this time?”
    Emily gave her an enquiring look, but Lady Barb said nothing.
    The guesthouse was larger than Emily had expected, yet it was all one room. There were two beds placed against one wall, a large pail of water and an empty bucket. It took her a moment to realise, with a shudder, that it was intended to serve as a chamberpot. At least they weren't expected to go outside to do their business, she told herself. It wasn't very reassuring.
    “Set up the caldron, then start brewing all of the potions, one by one,” Lady Barb ordered, as she erected wards around the guesthouse. “There should be ingredients in the cupboard. Make a list of everything you take and use. Someone will have to replace them, sooner or later.”
    Emily nodded. “I will,” she said. “What was the delay?”
    “Some people didn't want their relatives to seek treatment,” Lady Barb told her. “The mountainfolk can be very secretive at times. And they often have things they want to hide.”
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen
    The bed was uncomfortable and itchy. Emily tossed and turned frantically for a couple of hours, despite her exhaustion, before giving up and taking a swig of sleeping potion. She still felt tired when Lady Barb poked her in the ribs, snapping her awake. Muttering curses under her breath, Emily rolled out of bed and glared down at her body. There were tiny insect bites covering her legs.
    “Rub potion on them,” Lady Barb directed. “Then get into your working robes.”
    Emily nodded and did as she was told. Lady Barb didn't seem fazed by their living conditions, but as a combat sorceress she’d seen much worse. The Sergeants hadn't insisted they camped out in the middle of an insect nest, no matter how hard they’d made her march from Whitehall to a camping site and then back again. She wiped her body with cold water, then pulled on her robes. Thankfully, the charms on the robe helped calm her itch.
    “There’s food on the table,” Lady Barb added. “I let you sleep in a little. You needed it.”
    The food turned out to be bread, milk and cheese. All three tasted stronger than anything she'd eaten at Whitehall, the cheese powerful enough to make her breath through her mouth as she ate it. She guessed that they were all produced locally, rather than obtained from a larger town. The villagers would have to support themselves.
    “They do,” Lady Barb confirmed, when Emily asked. “They have cows and sheep here, as well as whatever they can hunt and kill in the forest. The real problems come in wintertime.”
    Emily shivered. Snow hadn't been a problem for Whitehall, but it would be murderous for isolated villages on mountainsides. She could imagine the snow pressing down until the villages were completely buried, their inhabitants frozen to death. They’d have to store enough food to keep themselves alive over the winter, she knew. And if they didn't have enough, they would starve even if they didn't freeze.
    “Ouch,” she said, as she finished her meal. “Do the lords let them keep enough to live?”
    Lady Barb smirked. “The villagers are very good at hiding food,” she said. “But if you should happen to notice a cache, keep your mouth shut.”
    “Understood,” Emily said. If the local lords were anything like the Barons of Zangaria, the question wasn't how much they took, but how much they let their peasants keep. “I won’t say a word.”
    She cleaned up the table, then watched as Lady Barb filled the caldron with water and boiled it with a simple spell. “We’ll be seeing people as soon as we open until dusk,” Lady Barb predicted. “I know you haven't taken the oaths, but I suggest that you keep your mouth shut about anything you see here. If someone asks, point them to me.”
    Emily nodded. Students who became Healers took complex oaths, some binding them to secrecy and others preventing them from claiming obligations from their work. She wasn't sure she wanted to be a Healer, even though she’d mastered most of the basic healing spells, and no one had asked her to take the oaths. But she promised herself she’d keep her mouth shut anyway. No one would talk to a doctor if they thought the doctor would broadcast the news to the entire world.
    There was already a small queue of people outside when Lady Barb opened the door. Emily watched as the first one, an elderly woman, was shown into the room and the door firmly shut behind her. The woman gave Emily a droll smile, then removed her skirt and sat down on the table without being asked. Her legs were marred with dark marks, as if she was bleeding under the skin.
    “Old age,” Lady Barb said, very quietly. “It’s a wonder you’re still alive.”
    “Too stubborn to die,” the old woman said. Her voice was cracked and broken, but Emily could hear grim determination in her tone. “I’ve outlived four lords and I would like to outlive a fifth.”
    Emily watched as Lady Barb cast a healing spell, doing what she could. “Your body is slowly breaking down completely,” she said. “I don’t think it can stay active for much longer.”
    The woman shrugged, stood upright and pulled her skirt back on. Emily felt an odd sense of queasy fascination as the woman nodded to her and hobbled towards the door. Lady Barb opened it, allowed her to leave and then invited the next person into the room. He was a young boy, holding his arm as though it pained him.
    “See what you make of it,” Lady Barb said, addressing Emily. She looked at the boy and smiled at him. “Don’t worry. My assistant will take care of it.”
    Emily gulped. Healing was complex; she might not be bad at it, but she wasn't sure she wanted to test her skills on a young boy. He couldn't be older than ten, she decided, as she placed her fingertips on her arm – he gasped in pain – and cast the first spell. Sensations flooded through her mind, telling her that he’d broken his arm and then had it badly set by a mundane doctor. He’d been incredibly lucky not to wind up a cripple, which would have ensured an early death. The villagers wouldn't be able to provide for a cripple.
    “Good work,” Lady Barb said, when Emily explained what she’d found. “Now ... fix it.”
    Emily braced herself and cast the second spell. Most healing spells tended to deal with the immediate problem, but in this case there were other problems that might only be made worse if she sealed the bone back into place. The body wanted to heal, she’d been told, yet if the damage remained untended long enough the body might come to believe that was the natural state of affairs. Emily carefully returned the bone to where it should be, then carefully repaired the rest of the damage. She settled backwards with a sigh, feeling tired and exhausted. And to think that was only the first customer!
    “Stay still,” Lady Barb said. She checked Emily’s work, then nodded in approval. “Good work.”
    Emily flushed in relief.
    “Take this potion for now,” Lady Barb directed, “then come back this evening if you are still sore.”
    The boy nodded, sat upright and scurried towards the door. Emily watched him go, silently praying she hadn't missed anything. Lady Barb reached out and squeezed her hand gently, then called for the next patient. An alarmingly thin woman, obviously pregnant, crept in as if she expected to be attacked at any moment. Lady Barb stood, helped her to sit down, and checked on the baby with practiced ease.
    “I think he’ll be coming out in a few more days,” she said. The woman relaxed with obvious relief. “But you need to eat more and avoid heavy activity.”
    The woman snorted. Emily saw her point. The villagers might make some allowances for a pregnant woman, but they couldn't afford to have anyone just doing nothing. For all she knew, the woman was expected to go straight back to housework or whatever village women did. They couldn't laze around like lady aristocrats.
    “It could easily be worse,” Lady Barb said, as the woman left the room, closing the door behind her. “I’ve seen children strangled in the womb when the umbilical cord wraps around their neck, suffocating them. They’re often still in the womb until delivery, but when they are delivered they’re dead. Even magic can't bring them back to life.”
    Emily shuddered. Pregnancy wasn't something she’d thought much about, even though she knew it was her duty to deliver a Heir to Cockatrice. On Earth, there were midwives to help with the birth and technology that could tell a baby was in trouble before it was too late. But here ... death in childbirth was far from uncommon. If the woman had needed emergency help, could they have helped her? She’d never practiced helping someone to give birth.
    The next few patients were simpler, thankfully. Lady Barb inspected them, used some magic to heal the damage and then lectured her patients on being more careful next time. Some of the damage reminded Emily of battered students after Martial Magic, although Sergeant Miles had normally healed any damage as soon as the class had finished. Here ... if there was fighting, there would be no one to help the injured. One man had even lost an eye.
    “I can't repair your damaged eye,” Lady Barb told him, tartly. “What happened to it?”
    The man shrugged. He’d been in the pub, he explained, and a fight had broken out. He didn't remember what the fight had actually been about, only that he’d enjoyed himself and wanted to do it again. Emily looked at him and shook her head. What was the point of battering one’s fellow villagers to a pulp, then doing it again and again?
    “They don't have much to do with their lives,” Lady Barb told her, once the patient had departed. “They work with the animals, grow their small crops ... and drink alcohol they produce themselves. None of them can read or write and they’d be suspicious of anyone who could, even us. Readers and writers work for the lords.”
    Emily nodded. Zangaria might have avoided the sniffling bureaucracies of Earth, but it did have a network of educated men who kept careful tabs on what the peasants should be able to produce each year. They were intensely hated, if only because their predictions didn't always jibe with reality – and, naturally, their predictions were never wrong. Banishing them from Cockatrice had been one of Emily's first decisions, when she’d finally worked out just how baleful an influence they were. It had made her very popular with her subjects.
    They paused for lunch, then handled the next set of patients. Most of them had minor injuries – she guessed that the headman had done some organising – but a couple seemed reluctant to talk to either of the magicians. Lady Barb had to point out, sardonically, that they could hardly heal someone if they didn't know what was wrong before the men confessed to having problems with their private parts. Emily looked away, embarrassed, as Lady Barb inspected the damage, then promised to brew potions to handle the problem. She washed her hands thoroughly as soon as the men went out the door.
    “They should have been more careful where they put it,” Lady Barb said, angrily. “I’ve yet to see a whore in a inn who didn't have something nasty waiting for anyone foolish enough to touch her.”
    Emily winced. “But what about their wives?”
    “What indeed?” Lady Barb asked. “I can brew a potion to deal with the wasting rot, but if their wives don’t drink it too the disease will just re-infect them.”
    She glanced out of the door. “There’s only two more people waiting to see us,” she said. “I want you to handle them while I make a start on brewing the potion. Don’t worry; if you find something you can't handle, don’t hesitate to call for me.”
    Emily nodded. The first patient turned out to be an older man who had a nasty cough. Emily ran a check, discovered an infection in his lungs and removed it, then told him to be more careful what he smoked. He was still laughing as he walked back out the door. Emily sighed, then called for the final patient. He was a young boy, short with dark hair and blue eyes; Emily quietly estimated him to be no more than ten years old. The way he looked around, peering into the darkest corners, suggested he was jumpy. But there was nothing obviously wrong.
    “You’re safe here,” Emily said, feeling her heart go out to him. She couldn't help feeling a sense of kinship with the young boy. There was something about him that reminded her of herself. “Sit down on the table, please.”
    The boy walked over to the table and stopped, unmoving. Emily frowned; he wasn't sitting down or undressing ... or trying to speak. Was he mute? Or ... she hesitated, then motioned for him to undress. His entire body trembled as he pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it on the ground. Emily took one look at his back, then looked away, horrified. Her gorge rose within her and she had to swallow hard to prevent herself from being sick.
    She’d seen horror. She’d seen Shadye and the Mimic. But this was different, all too human – and somehow all the worse for it. The boy’s back was covered in dark scars, several ending in very nasty bruises. Emily had seen marks on her own buttocks when she’d been caned by the warden, but this was worse. The skin had broken under the blows and become infected in several places. It was clear, she realised, as she forced herself to concentrate, that the boy hadn't been caned. The bruises at the end of the scars were where the belt buckle had hit and broken his skin.
    Be clinical, she told herself. But it was so hard to look and not feel the desire to tear the person who’d beaten the boy into hundreds of tiny pieces. She could turn them into slugs and stamp on them, turn them into rabbits and set the dogs after them ... there were so many options, but none of them would help him now. The infection was spreading so rapidly that she was honestly unsure how he’d stayed alive, let alone reasonably mobile.
    “Finish undressing,” she told him, even though she didn't really want to know. She raised her voice, hoping that Lady Barb wasn't in one of the stages where the potion couldn't be left untended for more than a few seconds. “I think you should take a look at this.”
    She looked back at the boy, then turned away and threw up, violently. The bruises covered his buttocks and the back of his thighs, marching down his skin with almost military precision. Emily had had problems sitting comfortably for hours after the Warden had caned her, but this ... she cursed herself for ever moaning about the Warden’s punishments. This was far worse than anything she'd ever endured, even in the moments everyone had wanted to blame her for the Mimic’s trail of bodies.
    Lady Barb looked pale as she ran her fingers over the bruises, then pushed the boy into bending over the table. Emily looked away, sickened. Lady Barb’s voice was cold and clinical, but Emily knew her well enough to hear the outrage she couldn’t quite hide.
    “No sign of rectal damage,” she said. “But, under the circumstances, it’s a small mercy.”
    Emily shook her head when Lady Barb motioned for her to take a look. She'd always disliked examining private parts in class, even though the parts were mounted on a homunculus. Here, she didn't want to strip the boy of what little privacy he had left ... no, that wasn't entirely true. She didn't want to see any signs of whatever else had happened to him. It was selfish, but she couldn't help herself.
    “No physical reason for inability to talk,” Lady Barb noted. “Muteness probably comes from fear. Mental damage is a very strong possibility.”
    No, Emily thought. The Allied Lands stigmatised any signs of mental trauma or illness, fearing that it was a sign of necromancy. There were no psychologists to help coax the boy out of his trauma, no one who might be willing to help ... she closed her eyes, wondering if there was something she could do to help. But she couldn't take in everyone, could she?
    “Pass me the painkilling potion,” Lady Barb ordered. Her voice was still clinical, almost completely dispassionate. “And then stand ready to help me if necessary.”
    Emily hated her at that moment, hated her cold clinical approach to the problem. Cold logic told her that rage and fire wouldn't help, but cold logic was no comfort. Lady Barb took the potion, helped the boy to drink enough of it to numb his entire body, then started casting spells over his back and buttocks. The infection would have to be removed before the skin could be healed.
    It hadn't been once, Emily told herself, as she watched, fighting to avoid retching again and again. The boy had been beaten to within an inch of his life, not once, but many times. Each of the scars lay on an older scar ... she wasn't even sure how the boy had remained alive for so long. How often had he been beaten that he’d managed to keep going despite the pain?
    She watched the scars heal up, remembering one of the lectures Lady Barb had given her class when they’d talked about working as Healers. It was quite possible for someone to be tortured, healed and then tortured again, prolonging his torment indefinitely. Lady Barb had told them that it wasn't quite a violation of Healer Oaths, but they might have to be prepared to decide if they wanted to cooperate or not. And, if they decided poorly, they might be blamed for the whole affair.
    “We can't send him back,” she said, as the boy slipped into an enchanted sleep. Lady Barb helped him down to the floor and placed him on a rub, but even so he didn't look comfortable. Emily wondered what nightmares would torment his sleep, then decided she didn't want to know. “What are we going to go with him?”
    Lady Barb shook her head. “I’ll have to talk to the headman,” she said. “He will have to make the final decision.”
    She turned and headed for the door. “Stay with him,” she added, as she picked up her staff. “He shouldn't wake up for a few hours, but just in case ... keep an eye on him.”
    Emily watched her go, then turned back to the boy, picked up a blanket and draped it over his body. He looked small, too small. He’d been deprived of food as well as love and care.
    Poor bastard, she thought. But we can help him, can’t we?
     
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