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Lessons in Etiquette
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

After completing her first year of learning magic at Whitehall School, Emily accepts an invitation from Princess Alassa to accompany her on her progress back to her home country of Zangaria, where the princess may meet her future husband. But dark forces are at work, plotting to capture the princess ... and undo all of Emily's work.
Book 2 in the Schooled in Magic series.

 

 

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Lessons in Etiquette

fantasy

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

Prologue

The Tower sat alone in the midst of desolation.

Years ago, well before the collapse of the Empire, two powerful sorcerers had duelled each other, neither one willing to yield before it had been too late. They’d died…but the damage they’d done to the land had endured for hundreds of years, leaving wild magic to drift through the countryside and warp all the living things it touched. No one lived within miles of the Tower; no one saw the murder of crows that flew high over the tainted landscape and came to land on the battlements.

And no one saw the crows blur together and become a man.

The Sorcerer Crow smiled to himself as he pulled his dark cloak around his form. Few sorcerers could handle permanent polymorph transformations, certainly not without taking on some of the aspects of their animal form. It was far more common for their thoughts to slowly blur into the animal’s mentality until they forgot that they had once been human. His solution – sharing his mind among a flock of crows – seemed to work. And besides, few sorcerers, even the most paranoid, would expect it. Any advantage was worth claiming when one was plotting treason.

His smile grew wider as he entered the Tower and saw the watcher waiting for him, standing in the shadows. As always, his employer had chosen to conceal his features behind a glamour, spelled right into the fabric of the hooded robe he wore. It was an unusual trick for a trained magician, let alone a sorcerer, but Crow could appreciate the advantages one could claim from it. If nothing else, it would be very difficult for an investigator to identify any particular magical signature.

It still bothered him that he didn’t know the identity of his master. But, if nothing else, it was proof that he was working for a powerful magician.

"Greetings," the watcher said. Even his voice had been changed; it was spelled to sound neutral, utterly unrecognizable. "I have heard rumors from Whitehall. Are they correct?"

"Yes," Crow said, simply.

The watcher made a hissing noise, one of anger – or frustration. Only one thing at Whitehall interested him; the progress of Crown Princess Alassa’s magic studies. Even the attack on Whitehall by the Necromancer Shadye hadn’t interested him, despite the fact that Shadye had been stopped by a Child of Destiny. The same Child of Destiny who was now Princess Alassa’s first real friend. And, to some extent, her tutor.

Alassa’s early education, in everything from magic to government, had been disastrous. She lacked the ability to concentrate on anything for long, or the self-discipline she required to master magic, the key to ruling successfully. Her parents had hoped for a male child, for a prince who would keep the throne strong; they’d allowed their daughter to become spoiled before finally admitting that she was the only heir they were ever likely to have. And then it had been too late to hammer some sense into the young girl’s head. Crow’s employer had been delighted. An incompetent queen on the throne was part of the plan.

But then Alassa had gone to Whitehall. And everything had changed.

"A Child of Destiny," the watcher mused. "Much can happen when a Child of Destiny is involved."

"She killed a necromancer in single combat," Crow said. "Whatever else she may be, she is clearly a very powerful sorceress."

"Or a necromancer herself," the watcher reminded him. No other necromancers had been killed in duels with sorcerers; they’d been outthought or poisoned. "Do you feel that she is dangerous?"

"I feel that a capable Alassa is not in our interests," Crow said, softly. "She may well be able to take the throne without a protector."

It would have been easy to kill the princess, even though she was well-guarded after an attempted kidnapping in Dragon’s Den last year. The chaos that had enveloped Whitehall after the necromantic attack would have provided the perfect opportunity. But a dead princess was in no one’s interests, not when her death would have led to civil war.

But a princess who could be manipulated, a princess who could be controlledthat was a prize worth any amount of effort to secure. Who cared about the trappings of power when the reality was so much more rewarding?

Years ago, the Twelve Barons had managed to turn King Bryon into a cipher, powerless to prevent the aristocrats from tightening their control over Zangaria. But they’d reckoned without his son, the future King Alexis, who had turned his hobby of playing with soldiers into a deadly weapon that he had used to recover control over his father’s kingdom. And Alexis’s son had continued his father’s policies. The barons had been forced to wait, gnashing their teeth in impotent fury, until King Randor’s wife had given him a girl-child.

No one expected Alassa to be able to hold the throne without powerful support. And the price for that would be compromising her independence.

"We must act now," the watcher said, "before this…regrettable independence of mind the princess has developed grows worse. She is returning to Zangaria for her Confirmation. It will give us our best chance to strike."

Crow bowed his head. Zangaria was poised on a knife-edge, at least partly because of the Child of Destiny. It hadn’t taken much research to realize that all the new ideas flowing around Alexis City had come from the Child of Destiny, or that Alassa was offering royal patronage to some of the merchants who used the new ideas. The nine remaining barons, stubbornly conservative, hated and feared change, suspecting that some of the new concepts would reshape their world. Crow had a feeling that they were right.

After all, reshaping the world was what Children of Destiny did.

But Destiny was fickle. Nothing was set in stone.

"Alassa will be bringing her friend," Crow said. "What do we do with the Necromancer’s Bane?"

The answer was immediate.

"Kill her."

 

Chapter One

Emily had fallen in love with Whitehall’s library as soon as she’d first laid eyes on the massive chamber. The bookshelves stretched as far as the eye could see, each one crammed with books on hundreds of different magic and magic-related subjects. Getting permission to work in the library had almost been a dream come true. It allowed her a chance to practice the local language as well as explore the shelves for anything new and interesting. She was almost guaranteed to find something.

She pushed the creaking wooden trolley between the shelves, peering down at the handful of books students had returned to the library. In many ways, Whitehall – although an academy of magic – was very much like a school from her own world, the world she tried to think about as little as possible. Magical students still returned books late, despite threats of punishment, or returned them to the wrong places. Now that the exam season was drawing to a close, the number of students in the school was dropping sharply, allowing the librarians a chance to re-sort the books properly. It was a vast project that would be completed just in time for the students to start disordering the books again.

But she had to admit that she rather enjoyed working as a student librarian. Whitehall’s vast collection of books was not well ordered, certainly not by the standards of the libraries she’d used as a child. It was impossible to say what gem would be uncovered by sorting through a shelf or two; Emily had developed a habit of putting books aside to borrow and read later, even though part of her insisted that it was unfair to the other students. Not that she was the worst offender. Every time she moved a stack of heavy books, she discovered a handful of other books hidden behind them, placed there by a student who wanted exclusive access to them. It was forbidden, naturally, but it never stopped. The spells guarding the library only reacted if books were taken out of the library without permission.

She took a book off the trolley and worked out the title, A Guide to Simultaneous Magic, before carefully placing it on the shelf. The whole system was badly flawed, she’d long since come to realize. There was no single unifying system. She’d grappled with the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress cataloguing systems as a younger girl, yet they’d made it very hard to put a book out of place without it becoming noticeable. In Whitehall, each librarian had their own ideas about where the different books should go. A book on ancient battles might be filed under history, or under military studies. It was impossibly confusing. She’d promised herself that she would work out a system for cataloguing books, but there was just too much else to do. Recreating the Dewey Decimal System was incredibly tricky.

Carefully, she finished returning the books and wheeled the trolley back to the desk. The original librarian had left Whitehall, seemingly at the behest of the Librarians Guild, allowing his assistant to take his place. Lady Aylia was tall and elegant, with long brown hair that reached all the way down to her knees. Emily rather liked her, even if she did have the same attitude as most of the other librarians she’d met in her life. They could have kept the bookshelves in perfect order if it wasn’t for those pesky users mucking up the shelves.

"One of the books you requested has been returned," Aylia said. She took a thin volume out from under the counter and placed it on the wooden table. "And I can clear you to take it out of the building, if you wish."

Emily nodded as she took the book. She’d been invited to visit Zangaria by both of her friends, once the exam season was over for good, and – naturally – she’d looked for books on the country. One of them promised to be a complete history of Zangaria, although it was remarkably slim. But then, Zangaria had been part of the old Empire until 170 years ago. It hadn’t really existed until its founding monarch staked his claim to rule. And the handwritten books of this world tended to be concise because of the time and expense required to copy them.

"Thank you," she said. "I’ll read it tonight and then let you know."

Aylia smiled as Emily marked the book out to herself and placed it in her handbag. "And I think that young man is looking for you," she added. "Should I start preparing the winter feast?"

Emily looked up and saw Jade waiting for her near the exit. She waved at him, and then scowled at Aylia, who seemed remarkably untroubled by her expression. It had taken Emily months to learn about the traditions in the Allied Lands; winter feasts were held to celebrate engagements.

But the thought was absurd. Emily had been sixteen when she’d come to Whitehall; by now, she was fairly sure that she was seventeen. Jade, on the other hand, was twenty-two in local years, certainly at least four years older than Emily. And he was a senior to boot, one of the stars of the school. He wouldn’t even be in Whitehall next year.

And yet they were friends. They’d been forced to work together in Martial Magic, fought together to escape orcs and goblins near the Dark City, and survived the assault on Whitehall by Shadye, the Necromancer who had brought Emily to his world. Jade wasn’t scared of her, unlike many of the students who knew she had killed one of the all-powerful necromancers, and he wasn’t trying to suck up to her. Back home, part of her had always envied the social queens. It hadn’t been until she’d found herself simultaneously feared and courted that she realized just how isolated a life they’d led.

"Go now," Aylia said. "There won’t be any more books returned until after the final exams."

Emily nodded in agreement. In Whitehall, exams were actually important – and meaningful. Students had taken out thousands of books and were actually reading them, although a handful were trying to use spells to make the knowledge sink into their heads without actually cracking open the tomes. Emily had experimented with one of those spells and wound up with a savage headache that had convinced her not to try it again. There was no substitute, it seemed, for actually opening a book.

She picked up her handbag and pulled it over her shoulder, then walked over to Jade, who grinned at her. He was handsome, in a rugged sort of way, despite the nasty bruise currently marring the left side of his face. He’d taken a fall in a Martial Magic class two days ago and Sergeant Miles had refused to let him go to the healers, pointing out rather sardonically that the bruise might teach him to watch where he was going in future. In a world where dark wizards could hide the magical counterparts of landmines just about anywhere, Emily suspected he had a point.

"I was wondering if you’d like to hike up Mount Sunset," Jade said, as they walked out of the door. Outside, the corridors seemed less crowded than normal. Most of the student body had either gone home for the holidays or were currently sitting their exams. "It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper walk."

Emily had to smile. Sergeant Miles might have been a combat sorcerer, but he was also a firm believer in physical fitness. His students ran five miles twice a week and performed hundreds of push-ups and other exercises every weekday. Once, she would have blanched at the thought of so much exercise. Now, she was stronger and fitter than she’d ever thought possible.

But Jade was right. It had been months since she’d walked for pleasure.

"Just let me put the book in my room and change," she said. "And then I’ll meet you down at the side door."

Her room was empty when she entered it, unsurprisingly. One of her roommates had already headed back home to Alexis City, the other was currently sitting an exam. Emily dropped the handbag in her trunk, pulled off her robe and changed into a shirt and heavy pants, charmed to keep the wearer cool even in the hottest of summers. She stuck a compressed coat in her pocket, after checking that the spells binding it were firmly in place. Whitehall’s weather was somewhat variable, thanks to the vast field of magic surrounding the building, and it was well to be prepared for anything.

The walk to the side door was uncomfortable, but she was growing used to it. Everyone knew that she had defeated a necromancer – and no one knew how, leaving a void they tried to fill with rumors and innuendo. Emily was a necromancer herself. Emily was a freakish rogue talent, with powers naturally superior to a necromancer. Emily had somehow created a spell that cut its way through the toughest of defenses. Emily had poisoned Shadye…

But there would have been no point in keeping that a secret, Emily knew. She wouldn’t have been the first person to poison a necromancer; it was the simplest way of dealing with the supremely powerful and completely insane magicians. Why keep that a secret?

She did her best to ignore the glances thrown in her direction as she walked down the stairs, feeling – again – isolated in a vast crowd. If it hadn’t been for Jade and her other friends she might have despaired, as she had back on Earth. Instead, she just carried on, knowing that she did have people who cared about her. She smiled as she saw Jade standing by the side door, one hand carrying a combat staff he’d been given by the sergeants. Maybe he didn’t expect to run into trouble, but they’d been taught to be prepared. Trouble could appear at any moment.

"I packed a handful of combat rations," Jade said, as they walked out the door. "If we can’t get back in time for dinner…"

Emily had to laugh. It seemed to be a universal law that combat rations tasted awful, even the ration bars produced by Whitehall and the rest of the Allied Lands. The bars were small, no bigger than a bar of chocolate from Earth, and they were filling, but the best of them tasted like cardboard. Sergeant Harkin had remarked that they were meant to encourage soldiers to forage and live off the land, rather than draining the army’s resources by eating the bars. One of the students had asked if the bars served as an excuse for mutiny and earned himself five hundred push-ups for cheek. The sergeant had never actually answered the question.

She shook her head. "Do you want to walk all the way to the peak?"

"We can try," Jade said. "Or maybe we can just walk up to the lake instead."

The air surrounding Whitehall was pure, clear of anything that might signify the presence of a technologically-advanced society. Emily knew enough to appreciate the wonders of technology, particularly after having to live without it for several months, but there were times when she wondered if she was doing the right thing by trying to jumpstart the industrial revolution on her new world. Inhaling the air argued against it…but the sheer depth of human suffering argued for it. Those living without magic had lives that were nasty, brutal and short. Even the aristocracy, with access to magicians if they couldn’t work magic themselves, lived in squalor, at least when compared to Earth.

They chatted about nothing in particular as they walked out of the school’s grounds and up towards Mount Sunset. It was a strange place, even by the standards of her new world, but it was reasonably safe as long as walkers didn’t stay there after dark. Emily saw strange flickers of…something darting through the air, hovering right on the very edge of perception. It wasn’t unknown for climbers to discover they couldn’t reach the peak, or that their path twisted on itself so that they found themselves starting up the mountain and then realizing that they’d reached the bottom of the path. There were even stranger tales, but none that had been verified. And if the staff had believed it wasn’t reasonably safe, they would never have allowed the students to go near the mountain.

"I’ve been offered a chance to stay at the school as an assistant," Jade said, suddenly. "I did well enough in alchemy that Professor Thande thinks I have potential."

Emily made a face. Alchemy required talents she didn’t have, which was at least partly why she was burning her caldron every second lesson. Thande wasn’t a bad teacher, but his lessons clashed with Emily’s upbringing, where precisely counting the number of times one stirred a caldron didn’t matter. She was still puzzling over the fact that it did seem to matter to Alchemy. A numbing potion worked perfectly if you mixed the ingredients over a low heat and stirred fifty-seven times. It failed if you stirred fifty-six or fifty-eight times.

"There are a few other tutors that want a teaching assistant too, at least for a year," Jade added. He looked down at her. "Do you think I should stay?"

"I’d miss you if you left," Emily admitted, honestly. She didn’t have enough friends to casually accept the chance of losing touch with one of them. But on the other hand…"What do you actually want?"

"I want to be a combat sorcerer," Jade admitted. "Helping to tutor at the school might be a step backwards. I just don’t know."

Emily didn’t know either. The Allied Lands seemed to consider a person’s ability to do the job as well as just their qualifications, something she found rather more sensible than the focus on qualifications back home. She could see tutoring serving as useful experience for a combat sorcerer, but in truth she simply didn’t know. But she knew who might be able to offer proper advice.

"You could ask the sergeant," she suggested. Miles was a trained and experienced combat sorcerer, one of the best. He had to be the best to be trusted to teach potential sorcerers. "He would know what you should do."

Jade frowned. "But what if he sees it as a lack of confidence?"

"I don’t see why he should," Emily pointed out. Not that she could blame him for being cautious, even a little paranoid. The sergeant tested them constantly, in ways that were sometimes obvious and sometimes very subtle. "You need advice and the sergeant is the best person to answer your questions."

She shrugged. "What would you do if you refused the tutoring position?"

"Apprenticeship to a combat sorcerer," Jade explained. "He’d tutor me, supervise me…and finally put me in front of the White Council for final exams. If I passed, I’d be a qualified sorcerer in my own right."

And if you failed, you might end up dead, Emily thought.

Jade turned away from her, looking down towards Whitehall where it sat in the valley below, pressing his hands together as if he was nervous. "Have you given any thought to what you will be doing in the next few years?"

Emily had to smile. "There are five more years of schooling to go," she reminded him, rather dryly. "After that…I don’t know. There are just too many things that need to be done."

"I know," Jade said. He seemed almost hesitant, unwilling to continue. That was strange and rather out of character; Emily had never seen Jade actually scared. He’d once casually worked his way through an obstacle course that had terrified Emily when she’d first seen it, without showing the slightest sign of fear. "Emily…have you given any thought to marriage?"

"Marriage?" Emily repeated, astonished. She’d never given any real thought to marriage, in either world. "I…"

Jade turned to look at her, his face flushed red. "There is interest," he admitted. A dozen possible scenarios flashed through Emily’s mind, all rather comparable to a bad romance novel. "You’re the most powerful sorceress of your generation – the most potentially powerful sorceress, I should say. There is no shortage of interest in you."

"People I don’t know have been discussing my marriage prospects?" Emily spluttered. The very thought was outrageous, too shocking for words. "Why?"

"Because your children will be powerful too," Jade explained, blushing slightly. "If you had children with a powerful magician, they might be extremely powerful. And you’re the Necromancer’s Bane, as well as a Child of Destiny. There are ballads sung about you."

Emily groaned. Years ago, back when her teachers on Earth had been trying to spark some interest in music in their charges, they’d been made to sing songs written by the Beatles. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t had to sing Michelle – when one of her classmates had been called Michelle. Her classmates had teased the poor girl mercilessly for weeks. Maybe it was karma, but there were at least seventeen songs about Emily herself running through the Allied Lands, each one more embarrassing than the last. Emily couldn’t remember who had claimed that medieval society was genteel; he’d obviously been completely wrong. One of the songs was crude enough to make a punk rocker blush.

She collected herself as much as she could. "They just want me for my fame?"

"Yes," Jade said. His blush grew darker. "It’s forbidden to approach someone in her first year, no matter how…famous they are. And no one is quite sure how to approach your guardian. But that will change."

"Oh," Emily said. The thought of hundreds of people she’d never met proposing marriage to her was nightmarish. She’d never even had a boyfriend, nor had she really wanted one. She’d had enough bad experiences with her stepfather to put her off the idea of dating men forever. "Maybe I should just change my face and hide."

Jade looked away, clearly embarrassed. "Emily," he said, slowly, "would you consider marrying me?"

A second later, his form flashed with blue-white light and he froze solid, suspended in time. Emily stared, wondering if her shock and embarrassment had made her work magic by accident, before she sensed the presence behind her. Only one person would have approached them in such a manner – and frozen Jade with absolutely no regard for his feelings.

"Hello, Void," she said, without looking around. "What are you doing here?"

 

Chapter Two

"It’s been a while," Void said, as Emily turned to face him. "Am I not allowed to visit my favorite ward?"

Emily scowled at him. Void had rescued her from Shadye, moments before the maddened necromancer would have plunged a knife into her chest, sacrificing her to an extra-dimensional force he’d called the Harrowing. And then he’d sent her to Whitehall, where she’d learned to manipulate magic and – eventually – to defeat Shadye when the necromancer had attacked the school. But she still knew very little about Void, from why he’d saved her life to why so many other magicians were scared of him.

Even his appearance seemed to be variable. Right now, he looked like a young man, with long dark hair, a sly smile – and a way of moving that suggested his body wasn’t quite suited to his mind. He wore the simple outfit of a common laborer, rather than the glorious robes affected by other magicians, and carried a wooden staff in one hand. His face was too striking to be really called handsome, even if he hadn’t had the smile hinting that he couldn’t be completely trusted. She thought there was something aristocratic in his looks.

"He wants to marry me," Emily said, wondering inwardly if Void’s appearance was a coincidence. "What did you know about that?"

"Nothing," Void said. He grinned, brilliantly. "But I can’t say it surprises me."

"Well, it surprised me," Emily said. And yet, in hindsight, wasn’t it obvious that Jade had been interested in her? He’d certainly spent more time with her than necessary. "Why does he like me?"

She hesitated, then plunged on. "And he said that there were people discussing my marriage prospects," she added. "Why?"

Void tilted his head slightly, as if he didn’t quite understand why she was upset. "You know that magic is passed on through the blood," he said. "The children of magicians are likely to be magicians themselves. If you were to marry another magician, or at least bear his children, those offspring would be very powerful indeed. Quite a few of the older bloodlines would be interested in recruiting you."

"I’m not a brood cow," Emily snapped. She looked into his dark eyes, glinting with suppressed amusement, and felt her temper fray. "And are you arranging my marriage with someone I don’t know?"

"You killed a necromancer," Void reminded her, dryly. "I rather doubt that anyone would dare to try to force you into a marriage." He paced over to Jade’s frozen form and examined him, thoughtfully. "They are much more likely to try to seduce you, or to seduce your guardian."

"You are my guardian," Emily said. "Have you been getting offers for my hand?"

"I never bother to pay attention to such things," Void said. "Should I be arranging a match for you?"

"No," Emily said, sharply. "I… I don’t want to marry anyone, particularly not someone I don’t know. I’m too young."

"Girls can be married from the moment they start their cycles," Void reminded her. "And marriages can be arranged from the moment a girl takes her first breath. Just ask your royal friend."

Emily flushed. She’d known that Alassa would have to marry for political reasons, not for love – and even Imaiqah, the daughter of an increasingly wealthy merchant, would have to consider her father’s wishes when she married. But it had never really occurred to Emily that such rules might apply to her. Why should they? She had no family here, unless one counted Void…

What if someone wanted to get close to him?

But she didn’t have to take it that far. She was powerful, she was wealthy…and she was famous. There would be no shortage of people willing to court her, just in hopes of sharing the benefits she might bring to this world. The fact that an extremely powerful sorcerer was her guardian was merely the icing on the cake.

She looked up at Jade and cursed under her breath. What were his true motives?

"He wants to marry me," she said, numbly. "He’s five years older than me and he wants to marry me."

"There are elderly men who marry very young wives," Void pointed out. He sounded bored, as if he hadn’t really wanted to discuss Emily’s marriage prospects at all. One thing Emily had learned about her guardian was that he had a very short attention span. "Five years is not that great a difference."

But it would be on Earth, Emily thought. Anyone Jade’s age who courted a sixteen-year-old girl would have raised eyebrows, at the very least. It wouldn’t have made that much difference if Emily had been ten years older, but sixteen…

"Why me?" Emily asked. "Does he really want to marry me?"

Void let out a sigh. "While I cannot deny that his family would benefit from having you marry their son," he said, tartly, "they are not well-placed to take proper advantage of it. It is therefore likely that Jade genuinely does have feelings for you."

He waved his hand in the air, dismissing the matter. "But I didn’t come here to help you handle your suitors," he added. "There are more important concerns."

Emily shook her head. "I don’t know what to make of it all," she admitted. "Does he – like – like me?"

Void ignored her. "Your friend the crown princess is taking you to Zangaria," he said. "Are you aware that her country is currently balanced on a knife-edge?"

Emily hesitated, then shook her head. She’d done her best to follow local politics, but they were often confusing, seeming to rely more on personal relationships than geopolitics. And there were times when the Allied Lands seemed too stupid to survive. The necromancers were still lurking in the Blighted Lands, waiting for an opportunity to break through the mountains and invade the free territories. If Emily hadn’t killed Shadye, the necromancer who had kidnapped her from Earth, the war might have been over six months ago. The necromancers would have won.

And yet the Allied Lands still squabbled over petty issues.

"Alassa is the only heir her parents have," Void said. "If she fails to inherit the throne – if she fails to have children who can inherit the throne in turn – her country will face considerable unrest. Or, for that matter, if she marries poorly, her husband might become a plague on the country. There are too many issues surrounding her future – and some of those issues are your fault."

Emily blinked. "Mine?"

"You helped your friend to introduce new ideas into their society," Void reminded her. "Some of those ideas are proving quite…destabilizing."

He shrugged, expressively. "Not that they really need the excuse to start slipping towards civil war," he added. "If something were to happen to Alassa, there would be an unprecedented struggle to determine who would be the next monarch."

Emily scowled at him. "If that were the case," she said, "why would they want to kill Alassa?"

Void smiled, but it didn’t quite touch his eyes. "Who benefits from chaos in the Allied Lands?"

The answer to that question was obvious. "Necromancers," Emily said. Shadye hadn’t expressed any interest in capturing Alassa, but he’d been completely fixated on Emily herself. Given time, he might have seen the advantages in using mind-control spells on Alassa, or simply killing her to produce chaos. "Are they planning to kill her?"

"It’s possible," Void said. "But you know how hard it is to get intelligence out of the Blighted Lands."

He carried on before Emily could say a word. "There are other threats," he added. "Do you realize that Zangaria has never had a queen?"

Emily nodded. She’d learned that from studying Alassa’s country, before they’d become friends, and she’d discovered that she didn’t really envy the princess. Female sorcerers weren’t uncommon, but female rulers were unusual in the Allied Lands. Part of it was because the law stated that male heirs were always first in line to their thrones, yet there was also a sexism pervading the attitudes to monarchy. A female ruler was assumed to be incapable of displaying the thrusting vigor of a king.

But there was more to it than that. Women were expected to be subordinate to their husbands – at least, unless they were powerful sorceresses. A queen who married would find herself sharing power, even through a king would be under no such obligation. And if she chose the wrong man, the results could be disastrous. Earth’s history showed that all too clearly. Mary, Queen of Scots, had chosen badly and the whole affair had blown up in her face. So too had Mary Tudor.

"You also know that Alassa was not given a proper magical education," Void added. "Do you realize that may have been because certain factions wanted her dependent upon a Court Wizard?"

Emily remembered her first meeting with Alassa and scowled. Alassa had been spoilt, surrounded by cronies who kept telling her that she was the most important person in Whitehall. The thought of someone like that on a throne was chilling. Later, they’d become friends, but Alassa still had a strong sense of self-importance even if she had learned a little humility. At least she’d also learned, the hard way, that sycophants were not to be trusted. When they’d come crawling back, long after Alassa had been given time to brood, she’d sent them all packing with a few well-chosen words.

But Alassa had also not been a skilled magician. Indeed, she had memorized a number of spells, rather than actually understanding the theory behind them. She’d been powerful, but a properly-trained magician would have tied her up in knots if they’d fought. It had been Emily’s patient tutorage that had helped her to understand magic theory and to actually make progress. They’d passed the Charms exams together.

And, in truth, Emily had deduced that someone wanted to keep Alassa dependent on her Court Wizard much earlier. And there was only one logical motive.

"Because they thought a girl-ruler would be easier to handle without magic," she said, feeling vaguely insulted. All of her knowledge of her own world’s history suggested that male rulers were allowed to get away with a great deal of crap, while female rulers were held to an impossibly high standard. "Why don’t they just shut up and accept it?"

Void eyed her darkly. "If Alassa marries someone from within the kingdom, that person’s family will be promoted above all others," he said, as if he’d expected her to know that. "The balance of power within the kingdom will be upset. If Alassa marries someone from outside the kingdom, a new factor will be introduced into local politics. Normally, a queen would be expected to find a strong protector, someone masculine who will safeguard her rule. Whoever Alassa chooses will become very powerful indeed."

"I can’t see Alassa choosing anyone," Emily admitted. Even if her friend hadn’t been aware of the potential dangers – her protector might start becoming her master – she wouldn’t want to share power with someone else, particularly not someone who had a power base of his own, separate from her. "She’d want to rule on her own."

"And as long as she remained childless, the succession would be in question," Void said. "The White Council is very concerned."

Emily gave him a sharp look. She knew next to nothing about the White Council, apart from the fact that it meant different things to different people. Alassa had told her that it was the parliament that debated the unified response to the necromancers – and to other threats, although she had yet to hear of any more dangerous than the supercharged magicians in the Blighted Lands. But the grandmaster had hinted that it was composed of magicians, magicians who considered themselves responsible for safeguarding the Allied Lands. And Void had apparently called on the Council to discuss Emily’s future, back when he’d rescued her from certain death.

"I see," she said, finally. "What do you want me to do?"

Void grinned at her. "What makes you think I want you to do anything?"

"You came here and interrupted me," Emily pointed out. Part of her was grateful – at least she had a chance to think about what she could say to Jade – but the rest of her was irked at his presumption. "I don’t think you came just to tell me vague generalities about Alassa’s kingdom."

"True enough," Void agreed. He cleared his throat, pretending to read from an invisible document. "The White Council would prefer that the country remain stable, with a clear line of succession to the throne. They would be very grateful for anything you do that helps ensure such a happy outcome."

Emily felt her lips twitch. "They think that I can help keep the country stable?"

"The White Council is not supposed to interfere overtly in the internal affairs of individual Allied Lands," Void admitted. "You, however, are a close personal friend of the crown princess, the girl who will be at the heart of the coming political turmoil. If you manage to keep her alive and reasonably independent, the White Council would be very relieved."

"Reasonably independent," Emily repeated. She shook her head. "It seems to me that independence might be difficult, whoever she picks as husband. Maybe she should just remain unmarried."

"Then the succession would be disputed," Void said, crossly. "There are no other direct heirs to the throne. Unless Alassa has children, there will be at least seven different noble families with vague claims – claims that will be heavily disputed by everyone else."

Emily smiled. "Why can’t she have children without getting married?"

"Because such children would not be accepted as fully legitimate," Void said. "Besides, she will be expected to marry. The only question is who she chooses."

His eyes glittered. "If you were a man," he added, "I would advise you to court her."

Emily snorted. "And seeing you are a man," she countered, "why don’t you court her?"

Void wagged his finger at her, although it was clear that he was trying not to laugh. "You should consider yourself lucky," he said. "Don’t you know that there are guardians who would beat their wards for that?"

He shook his head, unable to repress a smile any longer. "A powerful sorcerer as consort might make sense – it would certainly terrify the aristocrats into behaving themselves – but it would have other risks," he added. "And besides, you do realize that I am over a hundred years old?"

Emily snickered. "You don’t know anyone else who might be interested in courting Alassa?"

"I’d be worried about adding monarchical power to any sorcerer’s already formidable powers," Void said, softly. "You already know that some sorcerers go too far in their quest for power."

"I know," Emily said.

From what she had been able to discover, necromancers rarely started out as monsters, intent on sacrificing countless innocent victims in order to boost their power. Indeed, the insanity that came with the power should have deterred all but the most foolhardy. But sorcerers who wanted greater power often took the first stumbling steps into necromancy without fully realizing what they were doing, at least until it was too late. And then they became addicted to the rush of power that came with the dark magic. As far as Emily knew, no one had ever broken the addiction. They weren’t even able to understand why anyone would want to break free.

Void looked back at Jade, then down at the grass. "The Allied Lands have been enjoying a period of stability," he said. "That’s also your fault – although no one is actually complaining about this one. We’d like that stability to last as long as possible."

Emily made a face. Shadye’s attack on Whitehall, a seemingly impregnable fortress, had come within bare inches of succeeding. The Allied Lands had been forced to face the fact that if he had succeeded, the mountain range separating them from the necromancers would have been breached and the hordes would have been free to ravage the southern countries bordering the mountains. It wouldn’t be long, Emily suspected, before the Allied Lands started bickering again, but for the moment the near-disaster had concentrated quite a few minds.

"I’ll do my best," she promised. How exactly was she supposed to convince Alassa to pick a husband? Perhaps she should pick a prince from the other side of the Allied Lands…if that would actually work. She needed to do more reading. "And what should I do about this?"

She waved a hand at Jade. "I don’t even know why he wants to marry me," she protested. "What should I do?"

Void grinned. "You protested at the thought of people organizing your marriage for you," he said, "and now you’re asking me to tell you what to do?"

Emily flushed.

"If you want to marry him," Void added, "I will not raise any objection. Quite a few of the older pupils at Whitehall are married, along with some of the tutors, so the grandmaster is unlikely to object. And anyone else…well, you are the Necromancer’s Bane. They’ll keep their objections to themselves."

His eyes narrowed. "Do you want to marry him?"

Emily hesitated. "I don’t know," she admitted, finally. She did like Jade – and, unlike so many others, he didn’t seem to be scared of her. But then, he’d seen some of her early blunders in Martial Magic. The others knew her only by reputation. "I…"

"Then wait until you’re sure," Void suggested. "You’re a magician – the normal courtship rules don’t really apply to you. You won’t lose anything by turning down any other proposals that come your way. Once you actually know what you want, you can decide what to do. Just don’t invite any demons to share your bed. That always ends badly."

"Demons?" Emily repeated. "Why…?"

"Some people are idiots who think they can play with fire without being burned," Void said. "Now if you will excuse me…"

Emily opened her mouth, but it was already too late.

Void was gone.

 

Chapter Three

The spell on Jade broke an instant after Void vanished.

He turned back to face her, seemingly unaware that any time had passed. Emily wasn’t too surprised. She’d experienced the spell herself and had been utterly unaware of it, until someone had pointed out that the sun had moved. Jade might have noticed – they’d been taught to tell the time by reading the sun’s position – but he hadn’t been frozen for very long.

And what if he thought she had frozen him?

"I… I don’t know," she said, out loud. What had they been talking about before Void had arrived? "This is all so…sudden."

Jade looked about as red as Emily felt. "I know," he admitted. "It’s just that…"

Emily held up a hand before he could say anything else, thinking hard. On Earth, courtship was a long process, with both parties slowly drawing together. There was a great deal of plausible deniability built into the system, she realized, allowing one party to withdraw without embarrassment if they realized that the other party wasn’t really interested. But Jade had come right out and declared his interest, as if he expected that would be enough. Perhaps it would be, for anyone born to this world. Emily was from somewhere very different.

What could she say? Did she like Jade? He was handsome, and kind, and he’d been a friend when too many others had been terrified of her – but would they really be good as a couple? Or was she being silly? This wasn’t a world where couples could easily separate if they found out that they were incompatible after getting married. But then, Jade’s family was of little consequence and Emily’s was non-existent. Her thoughts spun through her head, leaving her unsure of what to do. Did she want to kiss him? Would it be easy to kiss him? She had never even kissed a boy on Earth.

No one had warned her that someone would want to court her. How had she missed even considering the possibility? But on Earth, she had been a social outcast and she’d just assumed that it would be the same at Whitehall. God knew she’d gone through real troubles just to make a handful of friends – and they, in their own way, were outcasts too. Hell, was Jade an outcast? He certainly seemed more popular than Emily had ever been.

She pushed her wandering thoughts aside and looked up at him. "I cannot get married yet," she said, finally. Void had said that there were older students who were married; absently, she wondered what sort of provisions were made for them. Married quarters? "I’m not saying no, but I want to wait."

Jade looked…oddly hurt. "I understand," he said, tightly. "I shouldn’t have sprung it on you so quickly. I…"

His voice trailed off.

Emily felt a pang of guilt, even though cold logic told her that she had nothing to be guilty about. She hadn’t played with Jade’s emotions, nor had she hinted to him that she might have been interested…or had she? For all she knew, the amount of time she’d spent with him might have been interpreted as a sign of interest. Back home, male-female friendships were far from uncommon, but here they seemed to be rare. Come to think of it, the only girls she’d seen being friendly with the boys outside classes were the other three girls from Martial Magic. Or were they being courted too?

"It’s all right," Emily said, although she wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth. She did feel flattered that he’d asked, even though she’d never expected such a…blunt proposal. "I just…can you ask me again later?"

But he’d been asking her about staying in Whitehall, she remembered suddenly. Had he really been asking if she wanted him to stay with her?

And men say we women are impossible to understand, she thought, sourly. They should try walking a mile in our shoes.

"I can," Jade said. "I’m sorry if I was…impolite."

Emily made a face. "You weren’t bad at all," she said, as reassuringly as she could. Her own emotions were spinning around in her head. "Don’t worry about it. I will consider your proposal, but I have to complete my education before actually getting married."

And what happens, a dark voice at the back of her head muttered, if he finds someone else he likes between now and then?

Jade reached out suddenly and gave her a hug. Emily somehow managed to stop herself from flinching back, for very few people had ever hugged her in her life. Her mother had shown more interest in the bottle than in her only child, her stepfather had never been affectionate towards her…and the only person at Whitehall who had hugged her was Imaiqah. Now…she felt Jade’s hands enfolding her and forced herself to relax. The hug didn’t feel bad at all.

"Thank you," he said. It would have been easy to kiss him. "I… should we go back to the school?"

Emily winced, inwardly. "I think that would be best," she admitted. "I need time to think."

There was an uncomfortable silence as they walked back down the path to Whitehall. Emily wondered, bitterly, if they would ever recapture the easy friendship they’d had before he’d proposed to her. She’d liked laughing and joking with him, so much more than anything she’d had on Earth. But maybe he’d only spent time with her because he was interested in marrying her. How could she have missed it?

She grimaced as they entered the school’s grounds, passing through the outer protective wards that were intended to keep out unwanted guests. Emily had always been sensitive to the wards, but ever since Shadye had invaded the school she’d had the distant impression that the wards didn’t really like her. They weren’t really alive, not as she understood the term, yet it was impossible to escape the pervading sense of dislike radiating out from the wards. But maybe it wasn’t too surprising. Emily might have saved the school, and the Allied Lands, but her mere presence had also put them in terrible danger. Shadye had used a sample of her blood to manipulate her, using her to take down the wards from the inside.

"I’ll see you at the dance," Jade said, as they stepped into the school. "Will…will you be all right?"

"Yes," Emily said, flatly. Even a blind man would have realized that she was upset. But then, Jade had done better reading her than she had in reading him. "I’ll see you at the dance."

She walked up the staircase before he could say anything, shaking her head inwardly as she felt the school’s interior twisting around her. Whitehall had been shaped by some very crafty magicians and the staircases and corridors often led directly to where someone wanted to go – or needed to go, if they were in trouble. She stepped off the stairs and found herself in front of the unmarked wall concealing the entrance to the first-year dormitories. Pushing her hand against it to open the hidden door, she stepped through the gap and into the long corridor that led down to the laundry room. Memories rose up within her as she heard Madame Razz, the housemother, angrily lecturing a first-year girl on poor behavior. Emily shook her head, wondering what had happened, then walked down to Alassa’s room.

The door opened when Emily knocked, allowing her to step inside. Alassa’s room was identical to Emily’s, apart from the single large family portrait hanging over her bed. Like Emily, she had two roommates, both of whom had already gone home for the holidays. One of them had caught Emily, several months after she’d arrived at Whitehall, and thanked her for helping to make living with the princess bearable. Apparently, Alassa had been a right pain in the behind to her roommates, as well as everyone else.

"Don’t you dare laugh," Alassa said, as Emily closed the door. "I have to wear this outfit on the journey home."

Emily looked…and had to suppress a smile. Alassa was almost inhumanly perfect, with long blonde tresses, a heart-shaped face and a perfect body. She was also wearing a blue dress that made her look rather like a peacock, complete with feathers sticking up behind her hair. It actually suited her, Emily decided, although she wouldn’t have been comfortable showing off so much of her cleavage. But then, Alassa’s breasts were perfect too.

"They expect you to wear that in the coach?" She asked, surprised. It looked as though one person would have problems putting it on without help. "Wouldn’t it get crumpled?"

"My father wishes me to make a proper appearance," Alassa said. She peered at herself in the mirror, twisting and turning until she was satisfied. "It seems that there won’t be anywhere to change until we actually get to the palaces and castles we’re going to be staying at along the way."

Emily resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. It would have been simple for Alassa to go home using a portal, or a teleport spell. Instead, her parents insisted that she ride home in a coach, allowing her to visit a number of castles belonging to other royal families before she was formally confirmed as heir to the throne. Alassa had tried to explain why this was important, but she hadn’t been sure of the details and Emily had ended up more confused than ever.

"This isn’t the only dress either," Alassa added. "My mother has sent me fifteen dresses, one for each day. And I have to put them all on without help. Mother always said that I should never become dependent upon the servants to get dressed."

"Sounds like good advice," Emily said. "Anything someone else does for you is something you can’t do for yourself."

Some of the more absurd royal courts on Earth had actually had protocols for who was to help the royal family dress in the morning. Some of the stories had been so absurd that she’d been left shaking her head in disbelief. At least Alassa didn’t seem to have to parade around naked to convince potential in-laws that she was healthy and fertile. It had struck Emily as little more than an excuse for the in-laws to be perverted, although it did make a certain kind of sense. Several royal families had tried to conceal their ugly daughters until the marriage had taken place.

"So I have been told," Alassa said. She muttered a charm and the dress suddenly loosened and started to fall off her body. "This dress isn’t even the worst of them."

She scowled. "And I won’t even have my servants with me," she added. "I am to be completely dependent upon their hospitality. The Duchess of Iron thinks that it will be good for me. Personally, I think that Mother issued the orders and then blamed the duchess."

Emily watched as Alassa stepped out of the dress, then carefully placed it back in her traveling chest. The princess’s underwear was almost non-existent, surprisingly. But then, every student at Whitehall was expected to wear the same all-concealing robes. Emily couldn’t help noticing that Alassa had a dagger strapped to her right thigh, although she couldn’t imagine how her friend was meant to draw it without tearing her dress. There didn’t seem to be any slit she could use to reach it.

"There’s a spell that turns the lower half of the dress to dust," Alassa explained, when Emily asked. "It shouldn’t be used except in case of absolute need, when modesty is no longer a pressing concern. The dagger itself is rather special."

Charmed, Emily guessed. It would be much easier to set a spell to pop the dagger into Alassa’s hand. But if the blade was charmed, the spell would be unreliable.

Alassa turned back to face Emily, holding up a long cream-colored garment. "What do you think of this?"

Emily shook her head slowly. "I think you won’t be able to get into it without help," she said, finally. "How are you going to tie up the back?"

"Bet you I can," Alassa said. She lifted the garment over her head, then allowed it to fall down. A moment later, her head emerged from the top, while her hands came out of the sleeves. She muttered a handful of charms and then caught her breath as the inbuilt corset squeezed tightly. Clearly, the royal family had yet to embrace the bras Emily had introduced several months ago. Or maybe they were just impractical. "How do I look?"

"Dancing is going to be difficult," Emily said. The dress fanned out so far that any partner would be unable to do more than hold hands with Alassa. It was also surprisingly loose around the chest, concealing her breasts, while tightening around her abdomen. Emily couldn’t help thinking of an exaggerated hourglass. "What is the dress actually for?"

"It preserves one’s dignity," Alassa said, stiffly. It couldn’t be easy to breathe while wearing that corset. "I will be meeting potential husbands on the journey home and a dress like this helps ensure a lack of scandal."

"Oh," Emily said. It shouldn’t have surprised her, not after what Void had said, but it still left her feeling uncomfortable. "Because they can’t reach anything more delicate than your hands?"

"That’s the idea," Alassa said. She lifted up the hem and showed Emily the additional layers of cloth below. "Even the most ardent lover would have difficulty gaining access to my hidden jewel."

"Oh," Emily said. She shook her head. "Do you think I should start wearing one?"

Alassa threw her a sharp glance. "Why do you think you might need one?"

Emily hadn’t meant to tell her about Jade, but somehow the whole story came tumbling out of her lips. She needed to talk to someone and Void, whatever his other attributes, couldn’t really offer proper advice.

Alassa smirked. "I was wondering when he’d have the courage to approach you," she said. "It isn’t as if dealing with your guardian would be easy."

"You knew?" Emily demanded. "You knew he liked me?"

"Of course," Alassa said. "Was it not obvious?"

"I missed it," Emily admitted. "Was I the only person to miss it?"

Alassa looked oddly apologetic. "You really are from someplace different," she said, as if she were reminding herself of that fact. "I should have pointed it out to you."

She muttered a charm and the dress jumped up, allowing her to pull it off her body and return it to the chest. "He always spent time with you," she reminded Emily. "When I was there, he still paid attention to you. How did you miss it?"

"By being an idiot," Emily sighed. But then, it wasn’t as if Jade could have taken her out to dinner, or to a movie. "But what do I do about it?"

Alassa considered it as she produced the third dress. "Well, Jade’s family isn’t very prominent, so you wouldn’t gain much advantage from being allied with them," she said. "On the other hand, his relations wouldn’t have a strong motive to betray you later on. And they are tied to the Allied Lands as a whole, rather than to a specific kingdom. It could be quite advantageous to you to remain independent of the various monarchs."

"Oh," Emily said.

"Jade himself is a handsome young man, without blemishes or defects of character," Alassa continued. "He’s a capable magician, with excellent prospects; he could become a combat sorcerer, or stay at Whitehall as a tutor. Maybe not particularly wealthy, but that isn’t really a problem for you, is it?"

Emily nodded. Thanks to her innovations, she was actually reasonably wealthy by the standards of the Allied Lands. She wasn’t anything like as rich as one of the royal families, or the long-established trading houses, but she was getting there. And besides, it wasn’t as if she needed more money than she already had.

"So you could do worse," Alassa concluded. "But then, you could also do better. There are quite a few prominent families with strong magical bloodlines. I’d be expecting them to make Imaiqah an offer soon – she’s newblood, with magic they’d like to add to their own. You would gain access to a whole strata of connections and influence in exchange for marrying one of their sons and bearing his children…"

She looked up, meeting Emily’s eyes. "And then there’s the whole Child of Destiny aspect," she added. "You have proved yourself. Lots of families would want you."

Emily stared at her. The whole process struck her as rather cold-blooded. She knew, intellectually, that marriage had meant different things throughout the years, but she had never realized that such considerations might affect her marriage. But then, she’d never really considered getting married at all. It certainly hadn’t worked out for her mother.

She shook her head, dismissing the memories. "How did you become so good at evaluating marriage prospects?"

"My mother insisted that I should be able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of any proposed union," Alassa said. "Do you know how many people have tried to get my parents to promise me to them since I was a child?"

She shrugged. "My father may offer to arrange a match for you. For a young girl without a real family, that would be a very tempting prospect."

"And bind me to Zangaria," Emily said. Alassa’s parents had told her to stay close to the Child of Destiny. "Do you think I should accept Jade’s proposal?"

"I’d suggest waiting to see what other offers you received," Alassa said. She scowled down at the dress, then put it back in the chest without trying it on. "Of course, Jade may believe that he is doing you a favor. If you happened to be married, or engaged, people couldn’t try to court you – at least, not so blatantly."

"And now I’m confused," Emily admitted. "Why can’t these things be simple?"

Alassa took the question seriously. "Because marriage is more than just the union of husband and wife," she said. "It is also the union of two families, of combining their resources and building something greater. When a kingdom is concerned, marriage may decide the fates of thousands upon thousands of people. Such things should never be entered into lightly."

She shrugged. "Consider yourself lucky," she added. "The kingdoms we will be visiting each have a prince who may wind up marrying me. And I have to dance with them all, showing respect to all, but favor to none. That won’t be easy."

Her lips twisted into a mischievous smile. "And by the way, my mother sent some dresses for you. Why don’t we try them on right now?"

Emily groaned.

 

Chapter Four

The grand hall of Whitehall, illuminated by globes of light hovering in the air, was large enough to accommodate a small army. Emily sucked in her breath sharply as she stepped through the main doors and walked down the stairs into the throng, admiring the hundreds of portraits the servants had hung on the walls. Once, they had been covered with delicate carvings that had represented the many magical disciplines, but Shadye’s horde of monsters had ripped the room apart, searching for hidden students. Emily privately felt that the portraits offered more than the carvings, an opinion she kept to herself.

"You look nice," Alassa muttered in her ear. "You don’t need to worry at all."

Emily winced. She’d never really worn dresses on Earth, so she’d had problems learning to move in the robes worn by all students. The dress Alassa’s mother had sent for her, however, was something different. It was tight around the bust and thighs, showing off the shape of her body without actually revealing any bare flesh below her neck. Moving in it was difficult and she couldn’t help feeling that it was going to split open the moment she sat down, no matter how many protective charms were woven into the material. On the other hand, it was one of the more modest dresses in the hall.

The leaving dance was one of the few occasions where students were allowed to wear something apart from robes and they’d taken full advantage of it. Some of the male students wore courtly outfits – one of them had come dressed up in a robe that changed color every ten seconds – while their female counterparts wore everything from dresses to tight trousers that left almost nothing to the imagination. Emily caught sight of one girl who was wearing nothing more than a wire bikini and thong before looking away, embarrassed. Few of the guys seemed to have any compunction about staring.

"She’s going to be a sorceress," Alassa pointed out. "What does she care if they stare at her?"

"They’re going to be sorcerers," Emily countered.

"They still wouldn’t want to make an enemy of her," Alassa said. "A sorceress is not someone to alienate."

Emily nodded and looked away, towards one of the portraits. It showed a tall man in dark robes, wearing a hood that cast a shadow over his appearance. The only thing she could make out for sure was that he had a very strong chin, almost completely devoid of stubble. Looking at the tiny nameplate underneath, she carefully sounded out the name; JACKCLAW THE STRONG. At least she was learning to speak and read the local language, although her accent was still being mocked by some of her fellow students. Translation spells were so much easier, but they tended to be somewhat unreliable.

"I see boys coming this way," Alassa muttered. She’d worn a long green dress, almost identical to Emily’s apart from the gold lace that marked her out as a lady of quality. "Do you want to dance with them? It will be good practice."

"So you said," Emily said. She’d been warned that there would be a formal ball every night during the journey to Zangaria, where Alassa would be expected to dance with her would-be suitors, but she wasn’t very good at dancing, if only because she hadn’t danced at all until she’d come to Whitehall. "Do I have to?"

"Yep," Alassa said. She grinned. "Here is a friend of yours."

"Lady Emily," Cat said, with a florid bow. He was several years older than her, but they shared the Martial Magic class. "Would you do me the very great honor of taking a turn around the dance floor?"

Emily hesitated, then Alassa gave her a gentle push forward into Cat’s arms. He caught her hands and pulled her out into the dancers, who were lining up for a new dance. Emily found herself staring around in panic – she didn’t know what to do – before realizing that one of the players at the front of the hall was about to give instructions. They sounded awfully complicated, she decided as the music started to play, but as the dancers began to move she realized that it was just a matter of following the music as much as anything else. Besides, Cat made a very tolerant partner.

"I still remember my first dance," he admitted, as the tune finally came to an end. "I trod on so many toes that fifteen girls threatened to hex me."

He gave her a second bow. "Would you care for another dance? Or maybe you should let one of your other admirers take you around the hall."

Emily glanced around, surprised. Several other boys, including two she didn’t recognize, looked to be angling to catch her eye. It puzzled her – surely they couldn’t all think of her as a marriage partner – until she realized that there were more guys than girls in the hall. Every girl had a handful of admirers trailing after her. Emily found herself flushing, then summoned up her courage, winked at Cat, and headed over to one of the guys she didn’t know.

"Thank you," he stammered, as the music started to play again. "I’ll try not to tread on you."

Surprisingly, Emily found herself relaxing as she traded partners again and again, feeling that she could actually begin to enjoy the dancing. It wasn’t the same as formal balls, Alassa had warned her, but there were fewer expectations; no one seemed to seriously expect a marriage proposal to be sorted out on the dance floor. And there was no dance card; she could dance with whoever she liked, without needing to worry about offending anyone. Alassa seemed to have no shortage of older males dancing with her either. Most of them Emily vaguely recognized as having some aristocratic ties.

She forced herself to take a breath after the seventh dance and headed over to the buffet tables the staff had placed along the wall. They were piled with food, ranging from dishes and treats that were vaguely familiar to items she had never seen or imagined before coming to Whitehall. It was funny how she never really felt homesick, not even after discovering that magic couldn’t solve everything. But then, she’d never really felt as if she belonged on Earth.

I owe Shadye, she thought. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He’d kidnapped her, tried to kill her, then manipulated her – and then she’d had to kill him. There had been no choice.

"The grandmaster has put on a decent spread," a rather snooty voice said, from behind her. "One of the man’s redeeming features, if you ask me."

Emily turned, to see a tall thin man peering down his nose at her with a practiced smirk. He seemed instantly dislikeable, the kind of person who would happily condemn Emily for not being practically perfect in every way, yet…there was something about him that nagged at her mind. The more she tried to see his features, the more they seemed to slip away from her, as if something was interfering with her perception. And that meant he was hiding under a powerful glamour…

Understanding clicked. "Void?"

Her guardian tapped his lips, mischievously. "The grandmaster doesn’t know I’m here and I would prefer to keep it that way," he said. "I’m casting a privacy ward, but do try and look a little disgusted. No doubt Sir Dogsbody here" – he gestured to himself – "has been commissioned on behalf of someone high-and-mighty to try to convince you to marry his son. Or something like that."

Emily found her voice. "What are you doing here?"

"You need a more imaginative question," Void informed her. He picked up a sausage-like delicacy and popped it into his mouth. "There have been…developments. Are you aware that Alassa’s escort has reached Dragon’s Den?"

Emily shrugged. Whitehall paid lip service to the claim that its students were all equal, even though some of them were definitely more equal than others. Consequently, the small squadron of troops and combat sorcerers who would be escorting Alassa – and Emily – to Zangaria had been ordered to stay in Dragon’s Den overnight, before picking her up in the morning. It struck Emily as a waste of resources, but apparently it was tradition and couldn’t be gainsaid by mere mortals.

"I checked them out at a distance," Void added. "Their leader is Lady Barb."

He spoke as though the name should have meant something to Emily, but it meant nothing, nothing at all. "I’ve never heard of her," Emily admitted finally, when it became clear that Void was not going to elaborate. "Who is she?"

It was hard to tell with the glamour messing up her perception, but Void looked almost…embarrassed. "Lady Barb has heard of you," he said. "More importantly, she…has a grudge against me. And you’re my ward."

Emily blinked in surprise. "A grudge against you?"

"Yes," Void said. "It’s a long story. And it isn’t one I choose to share. But I suggest that you bear in mind that she may dislike and distrust you merely because of me."

"Why?" Emily asked. "What happened?"

"I do not choose to share the story," Void said. "All I can do is suggest that you watch your back. She’s too…honorable to stick a knife in it without good cause, but she will distrust you."

He held up a hand before Emily could say anything. "I would have warned you earlier, if I’d known," he added. "I just suggest that you bear in mind that she hates me. Watch yourself."

Emily watched as he turned and walked off into the crowd. His glamour seemed to twist slightly; one moment he was there, the next moment she had lost track of him completely. She shook her head in disbelief as the privacy ward fell away, wondering how he’d quite managed to get into the school. It was a droll reminder that she had a very long way to go before she could match Void, or the grandmaster.

And he’s just like Batman, she thought, as she started to eat her food. He vanishes while you are finishing a sentence.

"Good food," Alassa said, coming up beside Emily. Her small army of admirers watched her from a distance as she piled a plate high with meat patties and vegetable rolls. "Do you have something like it in your homeland?"

Emily winced. Most of the students accepted the unspoken suggestion that Void, Emily’s guardian, was in fact her real father. It certainly seemed to make sense; Void wouldn’t want to advertize that he had a daughter, but he wouldn’t want to abandon her completely either. Alassa, however, had deduced that Emily came from somewhere very different, although she hadn’t worked out the truth. Emily had promised that she would tell her friend on the day she was crowned queen, when she was no longer under her father’s power. It would be a long time, she hoped, before she had to keep that promise.

"Something like it," she said, vaguely. In fact, she had the distant feeling that Whitehall’s food was considerably healthier. "Are we going to be eating like this every day?"

"Of course not," Alassa said. She gave Emily a thin smile. "Each of the monarchs will feel the need to actually entertain us. Not like him. You think he’s courting her?"

She nodded towards the grandmaster, who was standing at the head of the room, talking eagerly with Mistress Kirdáne, Head of Magical Creatures. The little man still wore the blindfold – a simple dirty rag – that he’d worn the day Emily had first met him, but there was no mistaking the power flowing through his body. Emily knew he could have cured himself easily – magic could repair damaged eyes – but instead he chose to remain blind. It didn’t seem to slow him down.

"I don’t think he will be putting on a show for us," Emily said, dryly. "And Mistress Kirdáne will happily have you mucking out the stables if you make any more veiled suggestions."

Alassa shrugged, unrepentantly. "He kept large parts of the school stable with a rampaging necromancer trying to impose his will on the structure," she said. "I could easily see someone wanting to bear his child."

Emily glowered at her. "You’ve got mating on the brain."

"You started it," Alassa countered. Her face fell, briefly. "But I may end up engaged before I come back to Whitehall."

"I’m sorry," Emily said, softly. "If you want to run away…"

"My parents would just track me down and drag me back," Alassa said. "And besides, if I did manage to escape successfully, there would be civil war. I couldn’t have that on my conscience."

You’ve grown up, Emily realized, feeling an odd twinge in her heart. This new improved Alassa was her work, yet would she still need Emily? Or would they drift apart?

"I believe that someone wants to dance with you," Alassa said, taking Emily’s plate out of her hand. "Go tell him that there’s no hard feelings."

Emily looked up and saw Jade standing there, oddly hesitant. It was worrying to see him like that, particularly because of the bravery he’d shown when they were being chased by orcs and goblins. But asking a girl out could be harder for a boy than fighting an enemy – and Jade had asked her for something more than a casual date. Swallowing, she walked over to Jade and held out her hands. He took them and pulled her out onto the dance floor.

Jade was a better dancer than Cat, Emily decided several minutes later. The instructions were even more complicated, but Jade followed them without hesitation and Emily simply followed him. As the music changed, some of the couples went off the floor, only to be replaced by newcomers. Emily shot Jade a sharp glance and realized that he’d timed it perfectly. The next dance was a slow waltz, very romantic.

Or maybe he hadn’t, she realized, as he flushed. "Don’t worry," she muttered, as they moved together. His arms enfolding her felt surprisingly reassuring. "We can dance."

She felt a tingle running down her spine as Jade cast a privacy ward of his own. Unlike Void’s, which had been so subtle she had barely noticed it, this one muffled the music slightly, as well as the babble of the other couples. Emily lifted a single eyebrow questioningly.

"I’d prefer to talk without being overheard," Jade admitted. Naturally; he’d taken her up the mountain so he could propose without listening ears. He hadn’t realized that Void would follow them. "Emily…I’m sorry if I was too forward."

He must have talked to someone, Emily realized. But who? She assumed that the boys had housemasters – rather like Madame Razz supervised the first-year girls – but she’d never met Jade’s housemaster. Or maybe he’d talked to Sergeant Miles, or one of the male tutors. He might even have approached one of the female tutors, hoping that they’d be able to give him good advice.

But it didn’t really matter.

"It just surprised me," she admitted. And then Void had arrived and confused her. She’d been so distracted that she hadn’t been able to think properly. "Jade…"

She broke off, considering what to say. "Jade, I have to finish my schooling before I consider marrying anyone," she said, finally. "And you will need to establish yourself as a combat sorcerer first, someone everyone can respect."

Jade flushed. "I hadn’t meant that we should get married at once," he admitted. "I believed that we could come to some agreement and marry later, when I am ready to give you a dowry."

Emily felt her own face flush. She hadn’t even considered a dowry; she hadn’t bothered to look up how it worked in this world. From what Imaiqah had said, the parents of the girl were expected to provide her with a lump sum, although quite what happened to it after marriage seemed to depend upon the kingdom’s individual laws. Some kingdoms seemed to believe the money should stay with the girl, others ruled that it went to the husband – or the husband’s parents.

And if monarchy was involved, the girl’s dowry might include the entire kingdom.

"I don’t need a dowry," she said. It had taken her months to get used to the money system of her new world, but she was fairly sure that she already had more than Jade would make in several years. She suspected that pointing that out wouldn’t help. "Look, I like you and I care about you, but we need time. I am not going to accept any marriage proposals from anyone until after I graduate."

Jade looked at her for a long moment. "You will consider mine?"

"Yes," Emily said. Just for a moment, she wished to be emotionless. Part of her thought she should say yes to his proposal. The rest of her pointed out that they might not be good together. God knew she had her problems with men and male attention. Could they come to love one another? Were they really suited to be a married couple? "I promise that I will consider your proposal."

For a moment, his lips were very close to hers. It was the easiest thing in the world to brush her lips against his, feeling a tingle running through her body as they kissed. She was suddenly very aware of her heartbeat pounding inside her chest. Her first kiss…

"I’m going to be apprenticing with a combat sorcerer," Jade admitted. "But I will keep in touch."

Emily felt a surge of conflicting emotions. Was he abandoning her? Or was he trying to see if they did have something that would last? She could beg him to stay…

"You’d better write to me every week," she said. At least she’d mastered handwriting, even though it took hours to compose a simple letter. "And make sure you keep me informed."

"You too," Jade said. He smiled – and, for a moment, Emily felt as if everything was back to normal. Except it would never be normal again. "I hope you have a good time in Zangaria."

"Me too," Emily said. Between Alassa’s warnings of endless dances – and Void’s rather more practical warning – she was nervous about the trip. "And I will not forget to write."

She kissed him again, then cancelled the privacy ward and headed to the door. The dance might have gone on until the wee small hours, but she needed rest. They had to be up early the following morning. Alassa’s escort would be arriving at ten bells to take her home.

At least Void warned me, she thought, as she reached her bedroom. But what happened between him and Lady Barb?

 

Chapter Five

Emily was awoken by a groaning sound as Aloha pulled herself out of bed.

"The sergeant is going to kill me," she said, as she sat upright. "I drank too much last night."

She glanced over at Emily. "I’m sorry about waking you," Aloha added. "I just have to go wash before the march begins."

Emily nodded at her retreating back. Sergeant Miles had announced that the remaining students in Martial Magic would enjoy one final route march before they went home for the holidays, but Emily was excused the march on the ground she was traveling to Zangaria. She wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it; she’d grown to love walking in the countryside, but route marches were never fun, even now that she was stronger and healthier than she’d ever been on Earth.

"I didn’t sleep very well anyway," she said, as her roommate entered the washroom. "Don’t worry about it."

She sat upright in bed and reached for her watch. It was nearly seven bells, almost time to get up anyway. Emily ran her hand through her brown hair, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. Her body felt tired, but a strong mug of Kava would make her feel better. Besides, unlike the other students, she hadn’t been drinking alcohol. The others were likely to be nursing hangovers.

Jade had kissed her. The thought returned to her mind unbidden as she dug into her cabinet and found the traveling clothes Alassa’s mother had sent for her. Jade had kissed her…and she’d let him. She hadn’t even felt repulsed. It had been her first kiss and…did that mean that she was in love, or merely that she’d not wanted to humiliate him any further by pushing him away? But then, she hadn’t wanted to push him away…her thoughts spun round and round until she felt a little dizzy. What did she actually want from him?

And everyone probably saw you kissing him, she told herself, angrily. The privacy ward might have made it impossible for someone to eavesdrop, but it wouldn’t have stopped them seeing the kiss. There had been couples on the dance floor who were going much further than simple kisses, yet…this was different. Emily attracted too much attention to hope that the school had missed the kiss. By now, no doubt there would be rumors – she blushed furiously at the thought – that Jade had spent the night in her bed, even though she hadn’t activated the special privacy ward that would have told Aloha to spend the night somewhere else.

Aloha emerged from the washroom looking a little better, but still hung-over. Emily reached into her chest, found one of the potions they’d been given for dealing with headaches and feminine problems and passed it to her friend, who took it gratefully.

"Thank you," Aloha said. She opened the bottle and drank it quickly, grimacing at the taste. "And I hope you have a good journey. It can be murder."

Emily tossed her a sharp look, then walked into the washroom herself. Unlike many medieval institutions, Whitehall insisted that everyone wash regularly, something that had surprised Emily when she’d first heard about it. Later, she’d realized that her new world didn’t have modern medicine, but it did know about germs and how they spread disease. A person who washed was healthier than a person who chose to remain dirty. Shaking her head, Emily allowed warm water to cascade over her, then dried herself with a simple spell. It was so much easier than using a towel – and besides, her hair dried instantly.

Stepping back out of the washroom, she discovered that Aloha had already gone, no doubt in hopes of a big breakfast before joining the rest of the Martial Magic class. Feeling an odd sense of relief – she liked Aloha, but she didn’t want to talk – Emily picked up her traveling outfit and began to pull it on. The garments felt rougher than the dresses, yet they still managed to look reasonably attractive, even on Emily. And they were charmed to protect their wearer against the weather.

Once she’d finished dressing, Emily stood in front of the mirror and studied herself, unable to avoid a smile. She looked rather like an Elizabethan gentleman, with a pair of dark trousers, a dark shirt and a belt wrapped around her lower chest. Normally, she’d gathered from Alassa, a traveler would be expected to wear a sword, but few sorcerers would ever carry one unless they were engaged in ritual magic. They knew far more powerful protections. She tested her wards to make sure they meshed well with the spells on the outfit, then headed for the door. They had been warned to eat a good breakfast.

Hardly anyone seemed to be stirring as she walked out of the dorms and down towards the dining hall. Whitehall almost felt deserted, the ebb and flow of magic that ran through the building seemingly diminished by the absence of its students. Emily felt a pang of sadness that puzzled her, until she realized that she was already homesick. Not homesick for Earth, where she’d been ignored at best, but for Whitehall – and she hadn’t even left. Part of her wanted to cancel the trip and stay at the school for the holidays, if that were permitted. It occurred to her, as she stopped outside the heavy stone door leading into the dining hall, that she knew almost nothing about her tutors outside the classroom. Did Professor Thande have a wife? Or did Mistress Irene have a husband? Or...

She pushed the door open and stepped into the dining hall. It was nearly empty, apart from a couple of students she vaguely recognized. Oddly, there was no sign of Aloha. Maybe the sergeant had decided to leave very early and Aloha hadn’t had time to grab more than a few combat rations before running down to the armory. It sounded cruel, but the sergeant had always pushed the limits.

The kitchen staff seemed to be bright and cheerful, smiling at Emily as soon as she leaned on the counter. They didn’t look to have spent the night partying; Emily wondered absently just what the domestic staff did when the students were back home. Maybe they threw parties for themselves…she couldn’t see the grandmaster objecting very strongly, even though she suspected that some of the aristocrats would have thrown a fit at the thought of commoners enjoying themselves. Besides, they worked in a school where the students had magic and bad senses of humor. They deserved a chance to relax after the students had gone home.

Emily took a bowl of porridge and a large mug of Kava and found herself a seat at one of the tables. Normally, they were segregated by age, but Emily had been something of an exception to that rule even before half the school had gone home. As a student in Martial Magic, which pulled in pupils from every age group, she’d been expected to join her teammates half the time, even if they were all older than her. At least they’d stopped treating her like a little girl, or someone who had pulled strings to get into the class – but then, she had beaten a necromancer. It was hard to argue that she was still unqualified after the demise of Shadye.

The porridge tasted bland, but it was probably the best thing for the students after drinking themselves senseless last night. Emily sipped the Kava carefully, wincing slightly at the taste, although no one actually drank the school’s Kava to enjoy themselves. It tasted rather like ultra-strong coffee, with enough caffeine to shock anyone awake. Emily had tasted better Kava at Dragon’s Den and wondered why Whitehall served such an awful blend, before deciding that the school would prefer to avoid caffeine dependency. She had never bothered to ask to confirm her theory.

She looked up as Alassa made her entrance. The royal princess looked perfect, as always, but Emily could tell that her friend hadn’t slept much better than herself. Alassa picked up a jug of Kava, without taking any food, and stumbled over to sit beside Emily, muttering something about not being hungry. She sounded more nervous than anything else, even though she should be used to taking part in royal processions. But then, one of the princes she was going to meet along the way might become her future husband and consort.

"Need to get dressed again," Alassa muttered, as she slurped her Kava. "Can’t go out looking like this."

Emily rolled her eyes. Her friend wore traveling clothes that were almost identical to Emily’s, apart from the single golden star on the front of her shirt. It didn’t even cling to her body, refusing to reveal too much of her curves, although Alassa’s golden locks shone against the dark material. Maybe Alassa was just suffering from excessive nerves…Emily gave her friend a concerned look, then waved to one of the staff. A moment later, a bowl of porridge was put in front of Alassa and she started to eat automatically.

"You look lovely," Emily said.

"Liar," Alassa said, without heat. "They’re going to be sending maids to help me dress. And they’re all going to be reporting on me."

It took Emily a moment to realize that Alassa meant the monarchs who hoped to marry their younger sons to the princess. They would all want to ensure that Alassa was physically healthy – and they probably wouldn’t trust a medical report from her parents, if such information was ever released outside the Royal Family. There was no reason they couldn’t ask a healer to perform a medical check, except that would probably have been intrusive. Emily rolled her eyes at the thought, then finished her Kava.

"I should have insisted on bringing my own servants," Alassa continued. She sounded almost dazed. "I could have used it as an excuse to keep the others out of my rooms."

"I can help you dress," Emily offered. But she knew almost nothing about how to help someone dress, even if the dresses were designed to allow Alassa to don them without needing outside help. It wasn’t as if she understood local cosmetics; hell, even looking at makeup and perfume risked running into a political and social minefield. "Or maybe we could hire someone…"

"Probably wouldn’t work," Alassa said. She finished her porridge and looked down at her empty bowl, as if she hadn’t quite realized that she was eating. "They’d still insist on sending in their own people to stare at me."

She shook her head. "Let me try and get ready on my own first," she added. "I’ll give you a call if I need help."

Emily nodded. It was funny just how little privacy Alassa had, despite having been born a royal princess. Everything from her monthly cycles to her conduct when dealing with her social inferiors would be carefully recorded by someone. And while her servants back home had been there to help her, Emily had no doubt that they reported directly to her parents – and all other interested parties. No doubt the preparations for a royal wedding included a careful inspection of her health and fertility. No wonder Alassa had turned into such a brat.

"I’ll be in the library," Emily said, as she stood up. "And I’ll meet you in the entrance hall at ten bells, if you don’t call me earlier."

"See if you can research privacy spells," Alassa said weakly, with a ghost of a smile. "There won’t be any privacy in any of the castles."

Emily scowled at the thought as she walked out of the dining hall. Whitehall was a place of education, yet there were secret passages that ran throughout the building, some of them allowing their occupants to peek into various classrooms and dorms. She’d never managed to convince the grandmaster to tell her why they’d been built, or, for that matter, why Shadye had known of their existence. Perhaps the students were meant to find them, or maybe the staff wanted a way to move around without being noticed. But then, given the building’s mutable interior, it should have been easy to construct private corridors for themselves.

The library was dark and cold, but a touch of Emily’s hand against the charmed doorknob allowed her entry. One advantage of working with the librarian was that she was allowed access at all times, although she had wondered if that would still hold true now that term was officially over for the summer. She stepped into the massive room and through the silencing wards that kept students from talking above a whisper, looking around to make sure that she was really alone. Rumor had it that the Lady Aylia slept in the library. Emily had certainly never seen her outside her domain.

Smiling to herself, Emily walked into one of the smaller rooms and inspected the graduation rolls. Whitehall kept very detailed records of its students, allowing newcomers to look up the grades of famous sorcerers…although they weren’t as useful as Emily had expected before she’d actually started to use them. Sorcerers often changed their names once they graduated, ensuring that their enemies couldn’t use their true names against them; it still bugged her that she had never managed to identify Void’s records. Or, for that matter, the grandmaster’s records. The only staff member she’d been able to find had been Professor Thande…and his record had included a handwritten note from his tutor suggesting that he be dispatched to a deserted mountaintop where he could practice his experiments without risking anyone else’s life.

And she’d never located anything that might have belonged to Shadye…

Pushing the thought aside, Emily found the set of records that were sorted by name and looked up Lady Barb. It was easier than she’d expected; Barb was apparently short for Barbara, rather than an assumed name like Shadye or Void. But the record was of minimal use; Barb had been an excellent student, with very high marks for Healing, then she’d gone into Martial Magic in her sixth year, like Jade. And then she’d graduated and apprenticed under an unnamed sorcerer.

Void? Emily asked herself. Back when she’d first met him, Void had admitted that his history of taking apprentices wasn’t very good. Indeed, he’d told her that she was safer going to Whitehall than learning from him. Could Lady Barb have been Void’s apprentice at one point? But surely Void would have told her if that were the case.

Thoughtfully, Emily reread the record, trying to draw out any hidden clues. But there was almost nothing beyond the bare facts, certainly very little about Lady Barb’s background or post-Whitehall life. It didn’t surprise her – Alassa’s records left out plenty of details, including the fact that she was a crown princess – but it was frustrating. Whitehall was primarily concerned with educating young magicians, rather than keeping tabs on them afterwards. That was someone else’s problem.

Putting the graduation record back on the shelves – taking it out of the room would have triggered the wards – Emily stepped back into the main library and walked down to the genealogy section. On Earth, genealogy covered family trees; here, it seemed to include people who worked for the principle family, as well as plenty of other details that Emily wouldn’t have thought needed to be included. Pulling out the first tome describing Zangaria, Emily looked for any records that might touch on Lady Barb. Unsurprisingly, she was listed as a combat sorceress, hired to defend the queen. That made a certain kind of sense, Emily decided. The king wouldn’t want a male sorcerer looming over his wife when he was gone.

On impulse, she pulled out the blood rankings for the kingdom and studied them carefully. Alassa was right at the top; her father just below her, although a rather droll note suggested that he was no longer capable of fathering children. Reading between the lines, Emily decided that it meant he’d been having affairs and none of them had led to illegitimate children. Quite what they would have done if the only possible heir had been a bastard child was open to question. Maybe the queen would go into seclusion and then take the child as her own.

Returning the book to the shelves, she stood up and wandered through the library, glancing from book to book. She’d loved libraries back home and she loved this one; indeed, it had a more authentic attitude than many of the ones she remembered from her childhood. There were no computers, no video games, just books…and powerful spells intended to ensure that users actually kept quiet. She caught sight of a row of books that were chained to the shelves and smiled, remembering many happy hours of standing there and studying the charms. They couldn’t be taken out of the library, but she’d memorized the spells and copied them into her personal grimoire.

Absently, she picked one of the books off the shelves and glanced at it. Mentalism magic was complex and it was rare for anyone below fourth-year to try to learn it, but she’d had no choice. Shadye had invaded her mind and used her as a weapon against Whitehall. She needed a defense in case someone else managed to secure some of her blood. The memory of being moved like a puppet provided all the incentive she required. And yet there was no way to test it without actually convincing someone to try to control her, which posed dangers of its own. Who did she trust far enough to let them take some of her blood?

Catching herself, she glanced at her watch. It was almost ten bells.

Emily straightened up, returned the book to the shelf and then left the library. It was time to pick up her chest, meet up with Alassa and leave the school. And, she reminded herself, to meet Lady Barb. God alone knew how that was going to go.

 

Chapter Six

Lady Barb was easily the most striking woman that Emily had met.

She was tall, taller than Emily, with blonde hair cropped close to her head. Her body was incredibly muscular, reminding Emily of Sergeant Harkin; her face was not classically beautiful, but one look told Emily that this was not a person to take lightly. She wore a silver breastplate, dark trousers and a sword, even though she was clearly a powerful sorceress. Emily could feel the magic surrounding her as soon as she walked into the entrance hall.

Lady Barb was talking to the grandmaster, their voices hidden behind a privacy ward. She looked like a giant compared to his diminutive form, although Emily suspected that the grandmaster probably had the edge in raw power. Lady Barb threw Emily a sharp glance as soon as she saw her, before shifting her gaze to Alassa. She must have seen something she liked, because she nodded before returning her attention to the grandmaster. Emily wondered if they were talking about her, or Alassa. Lady Barb didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would put up with a royal brat.

"Oh, joy," Alassa muttered. "Here comes the twisting tongue."

Emily blinked. She hadn’t spotted the other man standing by the main door – Lady Barb had taken all of her attention – until he started to step forward. There was something about his movement that made her think of crawling, at least partly because he kept bowing in Alassa’s direction, almost as if he were dancing towards her. His face, when he straightened up briefly, looked remarkably unformed, almost as if he had no character at all. And his eyes glinted oddly when he looked at Emily.

"Princess," the man said, in a breathy voice. "You are the light that knows no borders, the joy that grows in hearts, the…"

Emily’s first impulse was to snicker. The man seemed to be exaggerating every movement, as well as bombarding Alassa with absurdly flattering praise…and then she realized that he meant every word. He seriously believed that she would be impressed by such praise, even though she had to know that it was absurd. Emily glanced at her friend, saw a half-bitter expression on Alassa’s face and realized that she must have grown up hearing it every day. No wonder she had turned into such a brat. A child couldn’t have known the difference between honest praise and someone flattering her because of her birth.

What a crawler, she thought, as the praise turned ever more fulsome. I wonder how much they have to pay him for that…

"Thank you," Alassa said gravely, cutting him off in mid-flatter. "Emily, this is Viscount Nightingale, the Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber. Viscount, this is my friend the Lady Emily, the Necromancer’s Bane. Treat her with respect."

The Viscount stepped forward, bowed deeply in front of Emily, then managed to look surprised and offended – and yet unbothered – in the same instant. Emily realized that she was supposed to present him with her hand to kiss and hesitated, before gritting her teeth and holding out her palm. The Viscount kissed her hand lightly and then stepped back, bowing again. Emily had to fight down the urge to wipe her hand on her trousers.

Alassa cleared her throat. "I trust that the horses and carriages are ready," she said, in her regal voice. "We have a long trip ahead of us and I wish it to be comfortable."

"Of course, Your Highness," Nightingale said. "I have organized the trip to be as comfortable as possible. We will be visiting many people who wish to admire your regal beauty."

"Good," Alassa said. Her voice didn’t sound very pleased, but Nightingale didn’t seem to notice. "Bring the horses to the main entrance. Now."

Nightingale bowed and backed out of the room. Emily shook her head in disbelief as he somehow navigated his way out of the door without turning his back, as turning his back on Alassa would have been a deadly insult. The princess winked at Emily, then leaned closer to whisper in her ear.

"He’s very minor nobility," she said. "If he happened to displease my father in any way, he would be exposed to all of his enemies instantly."

Emily nodded, tartly. It hadn’t been uncommon for medieval kings to choose to uplift men from the lower ranks, men who had no choice but to be loyal – for the moment they lost their usefulness, they could be handed over to their enemies. And if they happened to be tax collectors or lawgivers, they wouldn’t have many friends anywhere. Maybe Nightingale had more qualifications than being able to ladle on the flattery at a moment’s notice, but she hadn’t been able to see them.

"Emily," the grandmaster said. He’d dispelled the privacy ward. "This is Lady Barb. She will be joining us next year as Head of Healing."

Lady Barb didn’t blink, Emily realized, as she held out her hand. The sorceress just stared at her, her blue eyes unreadable. Her hand, when she took Emily’s hand and shook it firmly, felt strong enough to crush Emily’s to powder with ease. And she could feel the magic crackling around her, a presence more daunting than most of the other tutors.

"Pleased to meet you," she said, finally. She couldn’t help feeling disconcerted; Void had been right, Lady Barb didn’t seem to like her. "I hope you will enjoy working here."

Lady Barb’s eyes glittered. "And you are the girl who defeated a necromancer," she said, without letting go of Emily’s hand. Her voice was cold, dispassionate, almost completely stripped of femininity. Was that the price for being a combat sorceress? But Mistress Irene didn’t seem so dispassionate. "How did you manage to defeat Shadye?"

"We agreed that the knowledge would remain restricted," the grandmaster said, hastily. "It is far better for the necromancers to wonder what happened than to confirm their theories."

Lady Barb looked at him, then turned her gaze back to Emily. "And you are the closest friend of the princess," she said, nodding to Alassa. "Are you capable of defending her?"

"She is," Alassa said, before Emily could say a word. "And you shouldn’t question her competence…"

"It is my job, Your Highness," Lady Barb said. There was no hint of sycophancy in her voice at all. She let go of Emily’s hand and stepped backwards. "Your protection from all threats is my prime concern."

There was something in her voice that made Emily start in anger. She knew all of the rumors about what had happened when she’d faced Shadye for the final time – and one of them, the most damning, was that she’d become a necromancer herself. Emily knew that she’d shown no sign of necromantic madness, the insanity that overwhelmed anyone who tried to drain the mana and life force from a sacrifice, but it could take time for the madness to become noticeable. And if someone was deeply worried, they might assume that Emily was simply more capable of keeping the madness under control for years.

But if that were possible, she thought sourly, there would be no necromantic threat.

Lady Barb didn’t move, but Emily sensed the sudden spike in the magic field, an instant before a flickering orb of green light flashed towards her. She recognized the hex from Martial Magic, a spell that weakened personal protective wards rather than trying to break through them outright. The spell could be an absolute nightmare to dispel, simply because it was designed to be immune to standard dispelling charms. Emily reacted on instinct, reshaping her wards and deflecting the green light away from her. It flashed over the hallway and struck the stone wall, vanishing in a shower of sparks.

"Not too shabby," Lady Barb said, finally. Her eyes betrayed her irritation. "Perhaps you can protect the princess after all."

Emily scowled at her, unable to avoid the feeling that she would have liked Lady Barb if the older woman hadn’t taken such an instant dislike to her. And the test could easily have been worse. If the hex had a chance to get enmeshed in her wards, the only other thing she could have done would have been to drop the wards completely, rendering her vulnerable to all kinds of jinxes, hexes and curses. Sergeant Miles had tested them by including a nasty transfiguration charm in the hex; anyone stupid enough to drop their wards found themselves croaking on the floor before they realized their mistake.

And then she realized the true purpose of the test. A necromancer might not have had the skill – or the patience – to deflect the hex. Instead, a necromancer would simply have swamped the hex with so much magic that it would have evaporated before it could do serious damage. If Emily had done that…it would have exposed her as a necromancer for sure. Few magicians her age would have had the power reserves to risk using so much magic. Emily was fairly sure that she couldn’t have done it.

Of course, trying and failing would have been a pretty good sign too, she thought.

"She can," Alassa said. "But tell me – isn’t protection your responsibility?"

Lady Barb gazed at her evenly, keeping her eyes fixed on Alassa until the princess lowered her eyes. "It is not easy to protect someone from their friends," she said, finally. "Or, for that matter, from their own foolishness."

She had a point, Emily had to admit. A husband – or a friend – would be able to get into position to hurt Alassa far more easily than someone from the outside. And it would be harder to tell if Alassa was actually in danger…Emily had a sudden vision of someone hitting Alassa, while her guards on the outside of her chambers had no idea that she was in deadly danger. Alassa would have to be very careful who she married. It would be easy to marry someone because of their political connections, without realizing that he was also a complete sadistic bastard. Or someone who allowed being king to go to his head.

The grandmaster cleared his throat. "Lady Emily has earned our trust," he said, his sightless eyes peering at Lady Barb. "And she is free of the taint of necromancy."

"I trust your judgement," Lady Barb said, flatly. "Your Highness – are you ready to depart?"

"There are two trunks, both sealed with protective charms," Alassa said. She looked over at Emily and winked. "Emily has a chest too, also sealed."

Lady Barb’s lips twitched. "I shall inform the staff," she said. "They shouldn’t go prying into your possessions in any case, but the warning should help."

She turned and strode off, leaving Emily staring after her. Lady Barb did look and act like Sergeant Harkin, if infinitely more attractive than the sergeant, who had been heavily scarred a long time before he’d come to Whitehall. Could she be his sister? The records hadn’t mentioned her family, but Sergeant Harkin hadn’t been a magician. Whitehall might not have considered his existence important enough to record.

But it was impossible to tell. Harkin’s face had been so badly scarred that any family resemblance had been destroyed.

She could have been his student, Emily wondered. He was certainly at Whitehall during her last year…

"This will be your first holiday away from the school," the grandmaster said. "If you wish to return earlier, we will accept you."

Emily nodded. She’d been to Dragon’s Den, and the Martial Magic class had been hiking around the nearby mountains, but she’d never been further away from Whitehall. The thought threatened to bring on another bout of premature homesickness, even though she knew that she could return to the school simply by using a portal. Void, of course, could teleport…but apparently the spell needed years of effort to master, to the point where only a handful of sorcerers could perform it reliably. She had no idea if the grandmaster could teleport.

"Thank you," she said, looking down at the little man. That was something she should know better than to think, even in the privacy of her own head. The ‘little man’ in question could turn her into a toad without even needing to think about it. "I’ll come back if I need to."

On Earth, she hadn’t really traveled very far. Her stepfather hadn’t seen the value in family holidays and refused to waste money on camping trips, let alone exotic foreign holidays. And yet it could take less than a day to travel around the entire planet. Here, travel times were much greater, even with portals involved. Maybe the Allied Lands did have a good excuse for near-constant bickering, after all. Even the smaller kingdoms were large by their own standards. And the necromancers were a very long way away.

One of the ideas that she’d mentioned to Imaiqah’s father was bicycles. What would that do, she wondered, when they were introduced? The last letter she’d had from him had said that there were problems with producing the first experimental models, although he had gone on to say that the artisans expected to overcome them fairly quickly. Emily possessed a great deal of theoretical knowledge, but it had surprised them both to realize that her practical knowledge was very limited. Even when she knew what she was talking about in great detail, it took months of experimentation before they had a working model.

"And take care of the princess," the grandmaster added. "She is quite important to us."

Emily surprised herself by giving the grandmaster a hug, before turning and following Alassa towards the main entrance. She’d never actually used the entrance hall herself; from what she’d picked up, it was rarely opened except when students were entering or leaving the school at the start and finish of term. Now, it opened out onto a courtyard, where a dozen carriages were waiting for them. Dozens of brightly-clad footmen bowed in unison when they saw Alassa, while armed soldiers raised their spears in salute. There didn’t seem to be more than thirty soldiers, which seemed remarkably light until Emily realized that the only people who would risk an all-out attack on the princess’s escort were the necromancers. Thirty soldiers or three hundred…they’d just be giving the necromancers more targets.

One of the carriages was painted gold, shimmering as the rays of sunlight struck it. The vehicle seemed like something out of a fantasy movie, perhaps one with a genie or fairy godmother who had turned a scullery maid into a princess for the night. Lady Barb nodded to Alassa and pointed them towards a different carriage, one that seemed far simpler than the golden coach. Emily had to smile; Sergeant Harkin had lectured them on the value of concealment and deception in war – and anyone who was targeting the princess would expect her to be in the golden carriage.

"Just for us," Alassa said, as Nightingale started to climb into the carriage. The Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber – whatever that meant – looked rather discomforted, but stepped away from the vehicle. "Emily, make sure you have a book with you."

Emily nodded and held up one of the tomes she’d borrowed from the library. Alassa grinned at her and scrambled up into the carriage, without waiting for anyone to set up a proper set of steps. Emily followed her; after the endless obstacle courses the sergeants had put her though, climbing into the carriage was easy. Inside, it was light and airy, charmed to keep them both relatively cool. The glass windows - a sign of great wealth, as glass was hugely expensive – were also charmed, allowing them to see out without letting anyone else see in.

"I thought you would prefer not to ride with anyone else," Alassa said. Her face twisted into a grimace. "If you were a man, we would have had a chaperone just to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid."

She glanced over at the wooden walls as the vehicle shook, before the horses started to pull it out of the courtyard. "Can you check the privacy wards? I don’t trust them to have made the wards airtight."

Emily nodded and started to work. Most magicians had a specific affinity for one area of magic and hers, it seemed, was charms. Alassa had finally learned enough to qualify for second-year – mainly because Emily had been tutoring her – but Emily was still much better than her at charms. She studied the charms for a long moment, then scowled and added a further charm of her own. Why did Nightingale – or perhaps Lady Barb – think that they could spy on their princess?

"They’d say that it was their job," Alassa explained. She sounded irked, unsurprisingly. "And Nightingale takes his job very seriously."

Emily listened to the explanation, shaking her head in disbelief. She would never have imagined that anyone would appoint a man to supervise their daughter’s bedchamber, but apparently it ran in the family. The Master of the Princess’s Bedchamber held control over appointments within the bedchamber, which provided all sorts of opportunities for patronage, if not outright corruption. Emily could only hope that his duties didn’t include watching as the princess prepared for bed.

"Each of these people need money," she said, remembering one of the reasons the French Revolution had destroyed the French Monarchy. "They must be an immense drain on your father’s money."

"He grumbles about it every year," Alassa said. "They all claim a salary, even the Keeper of the Royal Privies, who never comes closer to Alexis than his castle on the edge of the mountains…"

Emily stared at her. "You really have a Keeper of the Royal Privies?"

Alassa giggled. "There’s a position for everything," she admitted. Her face sobered, suddenly. "Blame it on Bryon the Weak. If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t be in this mess. But he never could say no to anyone with a title."

 

 

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Author Bio

Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to children’s SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester... before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.

Chris has been involved in the online Alternate History community since 1998; in particular, he was the original founder of Changing The Times, an online alternate history website that brought in submissions from all over the community. Later, Chris took up writing and eventually became a full-time writer.

Chris has produced The Empire’s Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo’s famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.

Website: http://www.chrishanger.net/
Blog: http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall

TTB titles:

Schooled in Magic fantasy series
  Schooled in Magic  book 1
  Lessons in Etiquette  book 2
  Study in Slaughter  book 3
  Work Experience  book 4
  The School of Hard Knocks  book 5
  Love's Labor's Won  book 6
  Trial By Fire  book 7
  Wedding Hells  book 8
  Infinite Regress  book 9
  Past Tense  book 10
  The Sergeant's Apprentice  book 11

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire military SF series
  Barbarians at the Gates  book 1
  The Shadow of Cincinnatus  book 2
  The Barbarian Bride  book 3

Author web site.

 

###

 

Lessons in Etiquette Copyright © 2014. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- via Amazon Kindle; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; Kobo Books
List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available now!
Amazon.com;  Amazon.co.uk;  Barnes & Noble;  Indy Bookstores; The Book Depository (free delivery world-wide)
List Price: $18.95 USD

 

  Author News

"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
Author interview on
Blogcritics

"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Author interview on Blogger News

Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books

"Deconstructing Emily" blog post

"Schooled in Magic is a fantasy book, but it draws extensively from real history."
Guest post on As the Page Turns

"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on Review From Here

"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on The Story Behind the Book

"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful.
I think they were hoping I'd know some great secret to success that I could tell them."
Guest post on The Writer's Life eMagazine

"No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Author Christopher G. Nuttall discusses The Decline & Fall
of the Galactic Empire novels in an interview with Edinburgh49

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book

 

  Reviews

"...Emily and Alassa are strong female heroes, remaining composed in the face of danger and asserting themselves when necessary. The book speaks to those who wonder how much developed nations should interfere in the cultivation of a developing society. Lessons in Etiquette is a simple story with strong characters and big ideas."
~ Caryn Shaffer,
San Francisco Book Review.
 




 


 

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