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The School of Hard Knocks
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

A plot is being hatched at Mountaintop Academy, a plot that threatens the lives of Emily and her friends... and the integrity of the Allied Lands. In a desperate bid to uncover the secrets of Mountaintop, and recover her stolen notes, Emily goes undercover into Mountaintop, a mission that may cost her everything...    Book 5 in the Schooled in Magic series.

 

 

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The School of Hard Knocks

fantasy

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

Prologue

The Council Chamber was two miles below the desolate wastelands surrounding Mountaintop, hidden from prying eyes and accessible only through the most powerful magics. Generations of Councillors, even in the glory days of the Empire, had layered spells over the chamber, ensuring that no one could enter save with the permission of one of their fellows. It was the most secure location in the world. And the only way to access it was to walk through a series of caves that were hellishly dangerous to the unwary.

Aurelius, Administrator of Mountaintop, stepped into the chamber and looked around, his gaze passing over the fourteen men and women who made up the Star Council. Collectively, they were the most powerful group of magicians in the world, certainly in political terms. A Necromancer or a Lone Power might have access to more raw magic, but the former would lack the skill and the latter the inclination to turn it into political power. And even the greatest Lone Power could not stand against the united Council.

He took his seat at the stone table, etched with runes to discourage hostility and looked up at the map drawn on the back wall. A good third of the continent was shaded black, representing territories dominated by Necromancers and lost to the Allied Lands. The remainder were divided into political and magical sections, the kingdoms ruled by monarchs and the cities ruled by local councils and the Great Houses. It was a chilling reminder, he knew, that the Necromancers were slowly winning the war. The average peasant in the fields, even the monarchs on their thrones, could forget, but magicians never could. If the Necromancers had banded together, the war would have been lost long ago.

Or they had been losing, he reminded himself. Two years ago, something had changed. A new factor had entered the war. And two Necromancers had died at the hands of a single magician. Despite himself, despite the clawing fear that had gnawed at his heart since he’d been brought into the Council, Aurelius had taken heart. The opportunity in front of them could not be ignored any longer.

"The MageMaster is dying," he said, without preamble. "He has turned most of his official duties over to me."

"But not the oaths," Cloak observed. His tone was lightly mocking. "You’re practically a free agent."

Aurelius kept his face impassive with the ease of long practice. The Councillors were supposed to keep their identities secret, but few secrets lasted long when powerful sorcerers were probing, searching for answers. He knew the identities of thirteen of the fourteen other Councillors–Masters of Great Houses, Guild Leaders–yet it galled him that he had never been able to uncover Cloak’s true identity. Someone so powerful–and power was a given for anyone capable of reaching the chamber–should not be able to remain unidentified.

And yet Cloak was anonymous.

Even his appearance was bland, an illusion of mundane normality that hid his true features under a glamor. It was rude, Aurelius knew, to attempt to see through the disguise, yet he had tried, more than once. And he had always failed. Cloak was very practiced at keeping his identity to himself. He’d been on the Council for over seventy years, longer than all but three of his fellows, yet none of them knew his name.

If I had been on the Council when you joined, Aurelius thought darkly, I would have demanded to know your name. Or at least what you want to be called.

He looked at the others, putting Cloak out of his mind. "We have an opportunity to bring the Child of Destiny to Mountaintop," he said. "She would be under our tutelage."

"It would be risky," Master Ashworth commented. "Particularly after the events of last year."

"But necessary," Master Ashfall snapped. "The Lady Emily is the greatest force for change–for hopethat we have seen since the Fall of the Empire. We need to shape her, to steer her towards our thinking, particularly now that she is a Baroness of Zangaria. Mundane power must not be allowed to go to her head."

"Power has gone to yours," Master Ashworth said. "Do you not understand the dangers of provoking a confrontation with Whitehall–or Void?"

Aurelius smiled as the two magicians bickered. No one quite knew why House Ashworth had fragmented, allowing some of their number to form House Ashfall, but the two Great Houses had been at daggers drawn ever since. Cooler heads had not been able to dampen the hatred that flared whenever the two families met. Indeed, House Ashworth sent its children to Whitehall while House Ashfall sent its children to Mountaintop, just to prevent them from continuing the feud in supposedly neutral territory. And what one Master supported, the other opposed on principle.

He cleared his throat, catching their attention. "We would not threaten her life," he said. "To threaten her in that manner would trifle with destiny itself."

Cloak snorted. "And do you believe in destiny?"

"I do not disbelieve," Aurelius said, coolly. "The Lady Emily has killed two Necromancers in single combat. She has turned the Kingdom of Zangaria on its head. The changes caused by her mere presence have rippled out, producing unintended consequences and side effects. But what else does a Child of Destiny do?"

"They upset the balance of power," Master Zane said. The ancient magician leaned forward, one hand resting on the table. Unlike the others, he wore no glamor, only his lined and wizened face. "We should kill her now."

Master Ashworth slammed one hand against the table. "Are you mad?"

"There are risks in keeping her alive," Master Ashfall noted, smoothly.

"She’s an inexperienced child," Cloak said. "She can be manipulated."

"A child who has killed two necromancers," Master Ashfall said. "Trying to keep her prisoner might prove disastrous. Is it really worth the risk?"

Aurelius pointed to the map. "Two years ago, we knew we were losing the war," he said, flatly. "And then the Necromancer Shadye died at Whitehall."

He knew they understood. They might have their differences with the Grandmaster of Whitehall–and his faction in the White City–but they knew that Whitehall should have been able to remain secure indefinitely. And then Shadye had burst into the school, smashing that old certainty beyond repair. If he hadn’t been killed shortly afterwards, Aurelius knew, the gateway to the Allied Lands would have lain open and Shadye’s army of monsters would have laid the land waste.

"A Child of Destiny must tip the balance against the Necromancers," he said, quietly. It would not help to show his desperation so openly. "She would not need to exist if Destiny intended them to win."

"True," Master Toadstool agreed.

"But what does it profit us," Master Zane asked, "if she destroys our stability too?"

"Then we teach her how we think," Aurelius snapped. "And why we have to be the way we are."

"A seduction," Cloak observed. His voice sparkled with amusement. "Or are you planning a conquest?"

"No," Master Ashworth snapped. Magic crackled around his eyes, shimmers of power that tingled through the room before slowly fading into the wards. "My granddaughter is the same age. I will not have that tradition resurrected, not now."

Aurelius nodded. "I do not believe that would end well," he said, lightly. "We merely wish to show her how we live, not push her into a stand against us. We will not hold her for long against her will. If worst comes to worst, we will graciously allow her to leave, armed with knowledge she can use against the Necromancers."

"You assume she will remain focused on them," Master Zane observed. "But as a Baroness of Zangaria she would have more... mundane interests."

"My spy reported that she has little interest in her new responsibilities," Aurelius said. "We may well be able to convince her to abandon them."

"Which would cause problems in Zangaria," Master Ashworth said.

"Which would be none of our concern," Master Ashfall countered. "I believe the Compact is still in force, is it not?"

"For the nonce," Aurelius said.

"But we are talking about breaking it," Master Zane pointed out. "If we succeed she will join us, thus forsaking Zangaria."

"That is why we have to act now," Aurelius said. "Before she becomes too involved with mundane interests."

He looked around the chamber. "It is time to vote," he said. They had debated the plan endlessly, ever since Shadye’s death. But it hadn’t been until the MageMaster weakened badly enough to pass most of his duties to Aurelius–and access to the wards running through Mountaintop–that it had become practical. "Do we vote aye or nay?"

Cloak’s illusion never wavered, but there was a definite hint of amusement in his tone. "I believe we are forgetting one tiny detail," he said. "A Lone Power. How... careless a thing to forget."

"Void... will have other issues to keep his attention," Aurelius said, stiffly. "But I do not believe he would object, provided she was not harmed. And she will not be harmed. Merely... re-educated."

One by one, they voted.

Aurelius smiled as the votes were tallied. All of them, even Masters Ashworth and Ashfall, had voted in favor, some more enthusiastically than others. Some probably had plans to draw advantages from the whole scheme, others because they intended to use it as leverage in later negotiations, but in the end it didn’t matter why they’d agreed. He knew, even if they didn’t, that it didn’t really matter why they’d voted in favor.

All that mattered was that they had.

 

Chapter One

Emily glanced both ways up and down the corridor, then knelt in front of the heavy stone door and reached out with her mind. There was no physical lock holding it shut, merely an incredibly complex spell woven together from literally hundreds of spell components. It would pose no barrier to the person who had set the spell, but anyone else would find themselves either unable to enter or be forced to unpick the spell piece by piece, just to gain entry. The spell was so well-crafted that it was already reacting to her intrusion.

She felt a moment of admiration for the professor who had created the spell–she had hardly any time to study it to determine how best to proceed–then plunged her mind into the spell, trying to sniff out its weak spot and destroy it. A spell so complex would have no shortage of components that could be removed, weakening the spell; she pushed her mind forward, feeling magic crackle around her as the spell continued to react. To stop now would leave her exposed to the spell–and whatever it was designed to do to unwanted intruders.

It felt like hours before she saw the knots of spell components holding the whole network together, but she knew it was no more than a few seconds. Time always seemed to slow down when she thrust her mind into a web of magic. Summoning a dispersal spell, she pushed it at the spell component and watched it evaporate into nothingness. The magic chasing her seemed to fade at the exact same moment. Emily felt a flicker of triumph, which faded as she realized the remainder of the network of spells wasn’t collapsing. Instead, it was reconfiguring itself...

Horror flashed through her mind as she recalled the Mimic, then she realized–too late–what she was seeing. The professor had been clever, very clever. His spell had been designed to collapse into another pattern when someone removed the vital component. The magic powering the spell hadn’t evaporated; it had merely fallen into another spell and charged the new pattern instead. And there was no time left to deal with the new configuration. Magic flared around her...

...And she found herself back in her body, utterly unable to move.

Damn, she thought.

It had been Lady Barb’s idea to have Emily test her skills against the defenses various professors mounted on their doors. Trying to break into professorial offices was an old tradition at Whitehall, after all. Emily had cracked three doors in the last two days, but they’d belonged to professors known to be weak in magic or magical skill. Professor Lombardi was neither.

She gathered her magic and tried to break the spell holding her firmly in place, but it refused to budge. It was difficult to tell if the spell was simply resistant to the magic she was using or if there was something about it that broke up and absorbed the spellwork before she could even trigger it. The professor’s defenses were clearly far more complex than the simple freeze spells students practiced on one another in First Year.

"Well," a voice said. "What do we have here?"

Emily had to wait until Professor Lombardi stepped into her field of vision before she saw him. He was a short man with lightly-tanned skin, wearing–instead of the robes of professors and students–a leather jacket and trousers that seemed to catch and reflect the light in odd ways. The scars on his hands, a reminder of failed experiments, seemed to look worse every year. And he looked far from happy.

"Emily," Professor Lombardi said. "You do realize that trying to break into the office of a Charms Master could be very dangerous?"

Yes, Emily thought. It was a point of law in the Allied Lands that magicians could do anything they wanted to anyone who tried to break into their homes. A magician’s home was his kingdom and he could defend it however he saw fit. The Grandmaster wouldn’t allow his professors to use anything lethal to defend their offices, but anyone caught in the act of trying to break in could expect harsh punishment at the very least.

"Let us see now," Professor Lombardi said. He inspected the door, then turned to meet her frozen eyes. "You got past the first level, but the second caught you. I’d expect better from a student with more advanced tutoring in charms."

He paused. "Of course, the third or fourth levels were primed with nastier defensive spells," he added. "The third level would have turned you into a slug, while the fourth level would have knocked you out and kept you out. And you really don’t want to know what the fifth level would have done. Now... punishment."

Emily cringed, mentally, as Professor Lombardi assumed a contemplative pose. He wasn’t an easy-going professor, not by any definition of the term. Emily had seen enough accidents, even in a carefully-supervised classroom, to find it hard to blame him. A moment’s carelessness could inflict permanent damage on an idiotic student. At the very least, she could look forward to a short uncomfortable session with the Warden.

"I’m afraid that won’t be necessary," Lady Barb’s voice said. She sounded to be coming down the corridor, but Emily couldn’t turn her head to see. "Emily was acting on my instructions."

Professor Lombardi’s face darkened. "And do the two of you have an excuse for setting a student loose on my wards?"

Emily felt a flicker of surprise. Two of them?

"Yes," Lady Barb said. "It’s called practice."

Emily heard her fingers snapping. A second later, the spell holding Emily in place shattered, releasing her from its grip. She staggered and would have fallen to the ground if Professor Lombardi hadn’t held out a hand and caught her. Her heartbeat was suddenly very loud in her ears, as if all involuntary functions had come to a halt while she’d been held by the spell. Or perhaps there was some function included in the spellwork that had kept her calm, despite being helplessly trapped. She knew she couldn’t ask the professor until he was in a better mood.

She turned, forcing herself to stand upright. Tall and blonde, Lady Barb’s patrician composure broke slightly to wink at her. Her silver armor glittered in the light emanating from the walls. Beside her, Sergeant Miles looked like an amiable gnome. His short brown hair seemed damp, clinging to his skull. Emily’s eyes narrowed as she realized he was standing too close to Lady Barb, his sleeve brushing against hers...

It was selfish, she knew. But she couldn’t help a pang of bitter jealously and fear at this fresh evidence that Lady Barb and Sergeant Miles were lovers.

"This is outrageous," Professor Lombardi said. "You do not turn a student loose on my wards for practice."

"You were the first professor who managed to stop her," Lady Barb pointed out, mildly. "I think you should be proud of your success."

Professor Lombardi glowered at her, but Lady Barb cut him off before he could say anything.

"Emily, the Grandmaster wishes to speak with you," she said. "Go to his office. I’ll speak to you afterwards."

"And you can tell him that I object in the strongest possible terms to allowing anyone to practice on my wards," Professor Lombardi said. "And if you hadn’t been encouraged by your tutors..."

"Testing wards is hardly an unimportant part of her training," Sergeant Miles said. As always, he seemed utterly inoffensive. If Emily had met him without his armor or uniform, she would never have taken him for a soldier, let alone a combat sorcerer. "And besides, testing the defenses here is an old rite of passage for students."

"And so is hideous punishment for those who get caught," Professor Lombardi snapped. "Emily; go."

Emily nodded apologetically and fled down the corridor. Behind her, she heard the argument getting louder, then fade out as Whitehall’s wards absorbed the noise. She slowed as soon as she turned the corner and walked up the stairs to the Grandmaster’s office. Whitehall felt eerily quiet to her, although she wasn’t sure if she was imagining it. She knew it would be another month before the majority of the staff and students returned from holiday and resumed their studies.

She paused outside the Grandmaster’s office and checked her appearance in the mirror hanging from the wall. Her dark brown hair had grown longer, reaching down to the small of her back. She was tempted to keep it that way, although she knew she would need to cut it before classes resumed in the fall. But her face no longer looked pale, even compared to the dark shirt and trousers she wore, while her body looked stronger and healthier than ever. And she felt more confident too, despite the certain knowledge that she would have been in real trouble if Lady Barb hadn’t intervened. She could have endured whatever Professor Lombardi chose to dish out as punishment.

The Grandmaster’s door was solid wood. Emily hesitated, then tapped once. It creaked open a second later, allowing her to enter the office. Surprisingly, there was a large bookshelf mounted against the far wall, something that hadn’t been there the last time she’d visited the Grandmaster’s office. The Grandmaster normally kept his office completely barren, which no longer surprised her. He was blind.

"Emily," the Grandmaster said, rising to his feet. "Take a seat."

Emily sat and studied the Grandmaster as he returned a book to the shelf. He was a short man, barely taller than Sergeant Miles, yet he radiated power that blurred into the wards surrounding Whitehall. As always, a white cloth was wrapped around his eyes, a reminder of his blindness. Emily knew he had to see in some form, perhaps through magic, but she had no idea how it worked. She’d asked, once, and had been told she would have to wait to learn when her own magic was strong enough to use the technique.

Perhaps I should introduce Braille, she thought, morbidly. There were spells to cure blindness, but they were only available to the rich or well-connected. Poorer victims couldn’t hope to have their blindness cured. It made them completely useless to their families, nothing but an additional mouth to feed. Braille might make the difference between them having a chance to live or being thrown out into the gutter to die.

But she didn’t know how to recreate Braille from what little she knew of it...

The concept might work if I passed it on to someone, she thought. They’d have a clue how to proceed...

The Grandmaster cleared his throat. Emily started in embarrassment.

"I trust you have been enjoying your time at school without actually having to attend classes," the Grandmaster said. "You’ve certainly been keeping the librarian busy."

Emily flushed. She’d spent over half of each day in the library, just reading her way through the colossal collection of books on magic and the Allied Lands. The remainder of the days had been spent with Lady Barb or Sergeant Miles, exercising and practicing newer forms of magic. Some of them had been so tricky she doubted she would be able to master them for years to come.

"Yes, sir," she said.

The Grandmaster hesitated, then got to the point. "You will recall the events of last year, of course," he said. "Lin stole some of your notes and almost killed you."

Emily nodded, even though the Grandmaster couldn’t see it. She still had nightmares about how close she’d come to death, time and time again. The Mimic would have killed her outright, then stolen her form, but the Gorgon’s magic would have leeched away her thoughts piece by piece, eventually leaving her as nothing more than a stone statue. It was a thoroughly horrifying way to die.

And the Gorgon would have been blamed for my death, she thought. Lin would have covered her tracks very neatly.

"We have been investigating since then," the Grandmaster continued. His voice sounded oddly awkward. "We have uncovered a plot to kidnap you."

Emily blinked. "Kidnap me?"

"You are quite important," the Grandmaster pointed out, sardonically. "If you didn’t have such a powerful guardian, it is quite likely there would be more plots to kidnap or assassinate you. Your mere presence has turned the world upside down."

Emily took a long breath. "And what should I do? Hide?"

"No," the Grandmaster said. "We want you to let yourself be kidnapped."

He went on before Emily could say a word. "The kidnap plot seems to come from Mountaintop," he said, referring to one of the rival schools of magic. Lin had come from Mountaintop, along with a number of other exchange students. "They actually asked for you to be considered for the student exchange program in Second Year. Now... we believe they are moving to find a way to bring you to Mountaintop without our permission."

Emily frowned. "By kidnapping me?"

"They would probably make it look like an accident," the Grandmaster said. "Or perhaps have someone else do the kidnapping, then claim they rescued you. The point, Emily, is that they would have you at Mountaintop. At that point..."

He hesitated, noticeably. "At that point they will try to seduce you."

Emily felt herself blushing. Male attention had always bothered her, although she had a feeling that it was more of a legacy from her stepfather than anything more fundamental. But the thought was absurd. Did they plan to send a handsome young wizard to woo her?

"They’ll offer you knowledge and power," the Grandmaster said. "Lin... will have told them that you have a habit of pushing the limits. They’ll give you access to forbidden books, show you magics you are not yet ready to handle and encourage you to progress forward as fast as you think you can go. Mountaintop does not have a reputation for turning out excellent sorcerers without cause, Emily. There is a great deal they will be able to offer you."

"Oh," Emily said. She swallowed, nervously, as it dawned on her that it would be tempting. She’d resented the librarian’s flat refusal to show her some of the forbidden books without permission from the Grandmaster more than she cared to admit. "But what will they want in exchange?"

"They’ll want you, on their side," the Grandmaster said.

Emily frowned before she looked up at him, staring at the cloth covering his eyes. "And why do you want me to... to let them kidnap me?"

The thought was nightmarish. She hated being helpless. Being trapped by a professor’s wards was one thing, but deliberately letting herself be taken... it was horrifying. She felt her heart start to pound as it dawned on her she could be walking into a trap.

"There’s something going on at Mountaintop," the Grandmaster said. He picked a file up from his desk and passed it to her. "Spying on us is one thing, but there are other–worrying–rumors. The MageMaster hasn’t been seen in public for over a year and we have picked up hints that there’s a power struggle underway within the school. This plot to kidnap you may be part of it, Emily, or it may be something more sinister.

"We have tried to discover what is happening, but none of our sources have been able to provide answers. And yet Mountaintop produces a fourth of the combat sorcerers and trained magicians available to the Allied Lands. We must know what is wrong, if something is wrong. And we have been unable to slip someone through their defenses."

"But they want me there," Emily said, remembering the story of the Trojan Horse. "They’ll take me in because they want me."

"Precisely," the Grandmaster said.

"And you want me to do what?"

"Look around," the Grandmaster said. "Find out what’s happening, if you can. We don’t expect you to do anything else."

"That sounds vague," Emily told him.

The Grandmaster smiled. "There’s no point in issuing precise instructions you might not be able to follow," he said. "We don’t know what you’ll find when you enter the school."

Emily stared down at her pale hands. "And what... what if they just kill me?"

"They’d be out of their minds," the Grandmaster said.

Emily just looked at him. She’d been in the Allied Lands for just over two years. In that time, she’d met far too many people who could be described as being out of their minds. Shadye the Necromancer, the Iron Duchess, Hodge...

"They believe you to be a Child of Destiny," the Grandmaster said. "Right now, the Necromancers are slowly winning the war. Your presence must swing matters in our favor because there’s no other way it can go. Your loss would mean all of us losing everything to the Necromancers.

"And besides, for you to suffer an accident would start another war," he added. "You are a student of Whitehall, after all, and entitled to our protection. And your guardian would hardly take your death lightly. No, they won’t kill you. But they will try to seduce you."

He paused. "And you already know there are far too many ways to tamper with a person’s mind."

Emily nodded. Lin had been a mistress of Subtle Magic. So had Mother Holly. And, done properly, it was incredibly difficult to prove that someone had been under the influence at any time. She might go to Mountaintop and find herself slowly bewitched, never knowing she wasn’t acting entirely of her own volition. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

But Lin had her notes. Who knew what she could do with them?

Gunpowder, Emily thought. Steam engines. Everything else I thought might be worth considering...

And she could copy them, easily, her own thoughts reminded her. By now, there could be hundreds of copies. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

"You don’t have to decide immediately," the Grandmaster said. "And we won’t hold it against you if you decide to turn down the task. But we need an answer within two or three days."

"I understand," Emily said.

"You can consult Lady Barb or Sergeant Miles, if you like," the Grandmaster told her. "And don’t worry about Professor Lombardi. I’ll have a few words with him."

Emily nodded, ruefully. All of a sudden, spending the next few weeks in detention didn’t seem like a bad thing. It might be dirty and unpleasant, but it didn’t carry the risk of death.

"How long will you want me to stay there?" she asked. "A month?"

"They will try to tempt you into spending your entire Third Year at Mountaintop," the Grandmaster said. "It won’t affect your grades, I think."

"I see," Emily said.

"You may go," the Grandmaster said. He tapped his desk, then looked at her with his sightless eyes. "You’re excused from everything else for the rest of the day. But think carefully before you give us an answer."

Emily nodded, then stood and left the room.

 

Chapter Two

Emily paused to wipe the sweat from her eyes as she reached the ledge, then sat down on the grassy knoll. Jade had shown it to her, two years ago, back when they’d first started exploring the mountains surrounding Whitehall. He’d claimed that it made an excellent place to sit and think, well away from the school yet close enough to get back quickly if necessary, but in hindsight Emily sometimes wondered if he’d had other motives in bringing her to the secluded spot. It assured privacy... at least to magicians. But it hardly mattered now.

She shook her head, then gazed down at the school. From high overhead, Whitehall shimmered in the sun. Brilliant flickers of light seemed to dance around the castle, giving it an atmosphere of fragility, almost like a fantasy palace from a Disney movie. And yet the wards protecting the building were far stronger than any merely physical defense. It was impossible to break them without inside help.

And Shadye had inside help, she reflected, bitterly. Me.

The memories of Shadye’s attack on Whitehall still felt nightmarish, even now. It was odd how her memories of Earth had faded as she’d grown accustomed to the Nameless World, but she’d never quite been able to rid herself of her darker memories. Shadye had used her, manipulating her sleeping body like a puppet, forcing her to lower the wards and allow him access to Whitehall. And he’d come far too close to success to suit her.

She sighed before forcing her churning thoughts to slow down. Shadye was dead, forced into a pocket dimension that had then been deleted, wiping him from existence. Few people knew how he’d broken into Whitehall and fewer still knew how he’d been defeated. Emily’s success had made her a hero, yet it had also started ripples of change running across the Allied Lands. The innovations she’d introduced, ideas from Earth, had spread far out of her control. It was no wonder, she admitted privately, that she’d been targeted by spies, kidnappers and assassins. The knowledge in her head could change the Allied Lands for the better–or the worse.

"You shouldn’t come up here alone," a familiar voice said, from behind her. "This isn’t a safe place for anyone, let alone you."

Emily flushed as she turned to see Lady Barb pulling herself onto the ledge. The older woman looked tired, yet surprisingly understanding as she strode over and sat down next to Emily, staring out over the castle below. Emily sighed inwardly–she’d hoped to be alone for a good while, long enough to have a proper think–then started to rise to her feet. She wanted to pace.

"Sit down," Lady Barb said, without turning her head. "You really shouldn’t have come up here."

"I wanted to be alone," Emily confessed. "I..."

"There’s an entire castle full of empty classrooms and abandoned dormitories," Lady Barb pointed out, snidely. "You could have sneaked into a Year Six study and claimed it as your own."

"It wouldn’t have been the same," Emily said. She knew just how closely the interior of Whitehall was monitored. Anyone who had wanted to find her quickly could have just asked the wards. "And besides..."

She waved a hand, indicating the natural beauty surrounding them. On Earth, she had never left the city, never seen anywhere closer to nature than a park. But here... Sergeant Miles and Jade had introduced her to the joys of walking for pleasure, even though the mountains surrounding Whitehall were home to all manner of creatures, some of them more dangerous than anything walking on two legs. But she’d been careful not to go anywhere near the truly dangerous areas.

"You should have asked one of us to accompany you," Lady Barb said, firmly. "Particularly now. The Grandmaster told you what he had in mind, I assume?"

"Yes," Emily said. She felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment. It had never really occurred to her that anyone would need to give up their work to accompany her up the mountain, even now. Some of the teachers had more time for her now it was outside term time, but others had left the building for a well-deserved holiday. She hadn’t wanted to intrude on their business, whatever it was. "I’m sorry."

"So you should be," Lady Barb said, firmly. She turned, allowing her bright blue eyes to meet Emily’s. "Have you come to a decision?"

Emily frowned and looked away. "I don’t know," she said. "Part of me wants to do it, to recover the notes Lin stole; part of me thinks it’s too dangerous..."

"This from the girl who challenged Mother Holly," Lady Barb said, dryly. "And has the most fearsome reputation in the Allied Lands."

"Apart from Void and the others like him," Emily said. She looked around, half-expecting the ancient sorcerer to appear. "Do you think he would approve of this?"

Lady Barb snorted. "Do you need his permission to go to the bathroom?"

Emily looked back at her, refusing to be distracted. "This is a little more complex and dangerous than going to the bathroom," she said. "And I don’t know what he would make of it."

"Sink or swim," Lady Barb said. "That will be his attitude."

She shrugged. "Emily," she added, "there’s one thing you need to know right now. If you refuse this mission, no one will complain and it will certainly not be counted against you in the future. You have no obligation to help us deal with the puzzle surrounding Mountaintop, or anything other than being a good student and graduating with a respectable number of awards and plaudits."

"But it’s partly my fault," Emily said. "Lin... Lin wouldn’t have come to Whitehall if I hadn’t been there."

"True," Lady Barb agreed. "But that doesn’t make it your responsibility to deal with the aftermath."

Emily shook her head, slowly. The great advantage of everything she’d introduced to the Allied Lands was in how easily everything could be duplicated. Kings and princes had barely realized there was a new system of reading and writing–to say nothing of numerals and printing presses–before it had already swept the Allied Lands. People who had been forced to memorize hundreds of thousands of symbols to read and write–and even those interested in basic learning had needed to master thousands of symbols–had no trouble at all with the English alphabet. Their spelling might be chaotic, but it was far superior to the previous system. And there were other innovations on the way.

But she had no idea how many of her notes Lin had copied or stolen over the months they’d shared a room. Had she copied the plans for steam engines, rifles and machine guns... or something far more dangerous? The nuke-spell? Mother Holly’s death had been largely explained, according to the Grandmaster, by her losing control of the magic she’d stolen, but Emily doubted the cover story would be universally believed. Mountaintop might put her notes together with the observed end results and draw the correct conclusion.

"We don’t know much about Mountaintop," Lady Barb said, breaking into her thoughts. Her voice was oddly pensive. "The exact location of the school is unknown. We don’t even know the names of most of the teachers who teach at Mountaintop. The only thing we know for certain is that almost all of the magical families send at least one or two of their children there to study. And that they graduate a sizable percentage of the combat sorcerers available to the Allied Lands."

Emily frowned. "You don’t even know where to look for the school?"

"We have a rough idea," Lady Barb explained. "But we don’t have a precise location."

"Oh," Emily said.

She rolled her eyes. Magicians seemed to have a somewhat childish obsession with secrecy, even though she had good reason to be grateful for the law that insisted that no magician could be forced to share his inventions and innovations with his peers. Apparently, spying on one’s fellow magicians could take up a great deal of an up-and-coming magician’s time, something Emily found a little depressing. Earth had only progressed as far as it had because ideas were shared, then improved upon and shared again. There was no such thing as crowd-sourcing for magicians.

It was something she wanted to change. But, given how hard it was to encourage magicians to work together, she knew it wouldn’t be easy.

"I thought everyone knew where Whitehall is," she said. "How can they be unaware of Mountaintop’s location?"

"Different priorities," Lady Barb said. "Back in the days of the Empire, Whitehall was meant to introduce the magical and non-magical families as much as it was meant to teach, while Mountaintop was dedicated to turning out combat sorcerers. They were allowed to hide themselves from detection."

She shrugged. "And now... we don’t know where to look for them," she added. "They don’t seem to have a nexus point for us to track. But neither do any passing necromancers."

Emily shuddered. Shadye had torn Whitehall apart in his bid to capture her, despite the presence of hundreds of magicians of varying levels of power and training. The battle had been savage and would have been lost if Emily hadn’t thought very fast on her feet. It was quite understandable that Mountaintop would wish to hide. But it was also very worrying.

"They could kill me or keep me prisoner indefinitely," she said, numbly.

"They would be fools," Lady Barb said, bluntly. "Holding you indefinitely, let alone killing you, would certainly provoke a reaction from your... from your supposed father. The more blatant methods of controlling your mind would also be considered far beyond the pale. If they weren’t desperate, I suspect, they would never be considering any form of blatant attempt to grab you."

Emily looked at the older woman. "Desperate?"

"They’re taking a risk," Lady Barb said. "A serious risk. This could spark off a civil war among magicians, draw the wrath of a Lone Power or even hand the Allied Lands to the necromancers on a plate. They wouldn’t be committing themselves this openly if they didn’t have good reason to believe it was necessary."

"I see," Emily said.

She sighed, knowing she’d already made up her mind. "How are we going to do this?"

"If you’re willing to take the risk," Lady Barb said, "you and I will travel to the White City. I have an open invitation to meet up with several prominent figures in the White Council and I intend to introduce you to them."

Her lips quirked. "It will be completely hush-hush, of course," she added. "The entire city will be aware of your presence within hours."

Emily had to smile. "And they’ll try to kidnap me?"

"They’ll certainly have no better chance," Lady Barb said, smiling back. Her expression vanished a moment later. "However, they’ll probably want to make it look like an accident that you ended up in Mountaintop. They wouldn’t kidnap you violently and then expect you to play the role of a normal student."

"I suppose not," Emily said. The Grandmaster had said the same thing. She had a sudden mental vision of being chained to a desk and being expected to pay attention to a faceless teacher. It didn’t seem like an environment that would be conducive to learning. "They’d want me to think I’d been rescued from a worse fate."

"It’s quite likely," Lady Barb agreed. She reached out and gripped Emily’s shoulder. "You have to understand the risks, Emily. We will give you all the protections we can, all the little precautions that most magical children learn from the day they start practicing magic, but it would be easy for them to play games with your mind. You, of all people, know how easy it is to influence a person’s thoughts."

Emily nodded, eyes downcast. Blatant mind control spells were noticeable, but subtle magic, pushing a person’s thoughts in a particular direction, was incredibly hard to spot, let alone counteract. A victim might never realize that he or she wasn’t acting of his own volition. If Lin hadn’t used such magic on her, Emily reflected bitterly, the spy might have been discovered before the Mimic had been destroyed and the wards lifted, allowing her to make her escape.

She looked down at the two bracelets on her arm. One was her familiar, trapped in an inanimate form; the other was a protective bracelet she’d sewn herself, back during the days they’d stayed in the Cairngorm Mountains. The second bracelet protected her from subtle magic, she knew, but the first thing any kidnappers would do if they wanted to make her vulnerable would be to remove the bracelet and everything else. Her lips thinned at the thought, then relaxed.

They’d have a very nasty surprise if they removed the wrong bracelet, she thought, morbidly.

"There are other forms of temptation," Lady Barb told her. "You could be offered power beyond your wildest dreams."

"I have power," Emily pointed out. "But I never wanted it."

Lady Barb lifted an eyebrow. "You never wanted to reshape the world to suit yourself?"

Emily flushed red. On Earth, she would have given her eyeteeth for enough power to protect herself from the outside world, but she’d never wanted power over other people. But being a baroness was all about having power over her subordinates... her serfs. In a very real sense, she owned hundreds of thousands of people. It wasn’t something she was comfortable with, nor did she really want it. Yet, as far as she could tell, there was no way to put it down.

"Not like that," she said. If she’d been able to choose, she would have gone into a library and just stayed there. "Can they offer me something beyond being a Baroness of Zangaria?"

"Yes," Lady Barb said, flatly.

Emily waited for her to elaborate, but the older woman said nothing, withdrawing into her thoughts. There was a peal of thunder in the distance, loud enough to surprise her. When she looked up, she saw dark clouds gathering over the mountain peaks in the distance. The weather surrounding Whitehall, thanks to the nexus point under the castle, was variable and subject to change without notice.

Lady Barb climbed to her feet. "We’d better get down off the mountain," she said, as she held out a hand to help Emily. "We don’t want to get caught in a rainstorm."

She kept talking as they found the path and made their way downwards, passing endless bushes of prickly thorns and trees that seemed to reach upwards to infinity. "You won’t be able to change your mind afterwards," Lady Barb warned, as Emily followed her. "I don’t think we will be able to get someone in to help you. Picking you for this mission is clever, but it has a great many risks."

Emily frowned. "Clever?"

"Anyone else–any normal exchange student–would be kept under tight supervision," Lady Barb said. "He would never be shown any of the innermost secrets of Mountaintop. You, on the other hand... they’d want to seduce you to their side. They will have good reason to show you everything they can."

A low rumble of thunder interrupted her words. Moments later, raindrops started crashing down around them. Emily cast a basic ward to protect herself, then kept following Lady Barb as water started to pool around their feet. Lady Barb didn’t bother with a ward. She didn’t seem to care about the water, Emily realized. All that mattered to Lady Barb was getting back to Whitehall as quickly as possible.

"You need to watch your back carefully," Lady Barb warned, as they reached the edge of the wards protecting the castle. Lightning flashed as they stepped through the wards and ran towards the heavy doors. "You cannot trust anyone there."

Emily canceled her protective spell as they tumbled into the castle. "Is there no one who could advise me?"

Lady Barb hesitated. "There is someone," she said, finally. There was something in her voice that made Emily reluctant to press the issue. "I will speak with him and see if he will assist us."

She took a breath before casting a spell to dry herself. "You can join me and Sergeant Miles for dinner tonight," she said. "Then you can go to bed. There will be quite a bit of preparation to do before we turn you loose on Mountaintop."

Emily nodded, feeling a sudden surge of affection for the prickly older woman. "Thank you," she said, sincerely. She paused. "Did you know about this before we left for the mountains?"

"Yes," Lady Barb said. She held up a hand before Emily could say a word. "And I didn’t tell you, to answer your next question, because you didn’t need to worry about it during our holiday."

"Holiday," Emily repeated. It had been muddy and unpleasant and she’d seen more than she’d wanted to see of how the poorer parts of the Allied Lands lived. But it had also been educational, and she’d enjoyed having Lady Barb to herself. It was almost like having a proper mother. "Thank you, I suppose."

"Thank me when you come back," Lady Barb said.

She turned and headed towards the stairs, then stopped and looked back. "Join us in my apartment at three bells," she told Emily. "I’ll have a book sent to you, one from the forbidden section. I want you to read it thoroughly, as I will quiz you over dinner. And then you will have some hard choices to make."

"I understand," Emily said, even though she didn’t. But she also knew she’d get nowhere by badgering the older woman. Students at Whitehall were expected to do more than just memorize something long enough to pass an exam and then forget it. "I’ll see you at dinnertime."

 

Chapter Three

"I understand that you read the book," Professor Eleas said, the following morning. "Do you understand what we’re asking you to do?"

Emily swallowed, and nodded. The book had made uncomfortable reading. There was one permanent defense against subtle magic, but it involved carving runes into her bare flesh, personally. The defense, for reasons the book’s author had felt unable to specify, didn’t work so well if someone else carved the runes.

She looked around the office, unwilling to meet the petite professor’s compassionate gaze. It was a fascinating room, lined with overflowing bookshelves, enough books to keep Emily going for weeks. One wall was decorated with tiny knives and surgical tools that were part of the professor’s craft, while a small chair sat in the far corner. Emily wanted to look away from it, knowing–thanks to her reading–what purpose it served. Reluctantly, she looked back at the professor. His gaze had never left her face.

He was a short potbellied man, wearing nothing more than a loincloth. His skin, even his bald head, was covered in runes, mostly carved by himself. Emily shuddered at the thought of pricking her own skin with a knife, let alone following a careful outline to complete the rune on her bare skin. The professor had carved so many runes into his body that a single mistake could have destroyed his life’s work. Few magicians used so many runes, even to protect themselves. Emily understood why.

"Emily," the professor repeated. "Do you understand what we’re asking you to do?"

"Yes," Emily whispered. "You want me to carve my own skin."

"Yes," Professor Eleas said, bluntly. "It will not be easy. One mistake, just one, and we will have to heal the skin quickly and start again. We cannot risk allowing you to walk away with an imperfect rune on your body. The results would be... bad."

Emily nodded, unable to speak. Her reading had told her precisely how bad it could be, if she made a single mistake. She might accidentally curse herself, leave her mind open and vulnerable or even blight herself with bad luck. There were too many dangers for anyone to accept it blithely.

"They’ll know what I did," she said, quietly.

"They will," Professor Eleas agreed. "But how could they complain?"

They couldn’t, Emily thought, gazing at the professor’s bare chest. Everyone who can uses protection against subtle magic.

"Lady Barb will draw out the rune on your body," the professor said. He touched his chest, between his nipples. A large rune had been carved out there, glowing with a faint blue light. "But I will have to check it before you start carving."

Emily flushed. "There’s no alternative?"

"I am the expert," Professor Eleas said. He didn’t sound annoyed. "There’s no time to call anyone else, Emily." He tried a reassuring smile. "Lady Barb will be in the room."

Emily cringed, mentally. She’d never liked undressing in front of anyone, even other girls. Growing up in a house where her stepfather had watched her had left her mentally scarred, unable to wear tight-fitting or revealing clothing for fear of exposing far too much. And yet, somehow, it was no longer as horrifying a thought as it had once been.

But there was no time to dwell on her feelings.

"I understand," she whispered, gritting her teeth. "Let’s get on with it."

Professor Eleas nodded, making a motion in the air with his left hand. Moments later, Lady Barb entered, her face utterly expressionless. Emily knew the older woman well enough to understand that she was worried, perhaps more worried than she was prepared to admit. She’d known just how hard it would be for Emily to expose herself to anyone.

"Draw out the rune," Professor Eleas ordered, passing her the chalk. "I will turn my back."

He suited action to words as Lady Barb stepped over to Emily and motioned for her to take the chair. Magic–barely powerful enough to be sensed over the constant background hum from the school’s wards–shimmered around Emily as she sat down, doing what it could to prepare her for her ordeal. Lady Barb sighed, then pointed a finger at Emily’s shirt. Flushing, Emily pulled it off, then removed her makeshift bra. Lady Barb rested one hand on Emily’s shoulder and then started to draw on her bare flesh between her breasts. Looking down, Emily could see a simple rune taking shape. It looked like a slightly lopsided six-point star.

"Done," Lady Barb said. Compared to the complex, snake-like runes on the professor’s bare back, it was simplicity itself. "Professor?"

Emily closed her eyes, feeling her face grow red and hot. There was a long pause, then she heard the professor turn away again. Lady Barb pushed something into her hand; Emily opened her eyes and saw a simple silver knife. She knew, from experience, that it would be spelled to remain sharp and clean indefinitely. And that it would cut through her flesh as easily as it would cut through butter.

"Be careful," Lady Barb said, as she rolled a large mirror over to allow Emily to see what she was doing. "And if you make a mistake, put the knife down at once."

"I know," Emily said, miserably. She had to do it. If anyone else did the carving, the rune could simply be healed, canceling the magic. The only way to embed it into her skin properly was to carve it herself. "I understand."

She couldn’t help staring at her breasts as she lifted the knife, feeling just how solid it was in her hand. They were nowhere near as large or shapely as Alassa’s–but then, she’d never wanted to have giant breasts in the first place. Her damned stepfather had left her with enough body issues to worry about what would happen, if they’d been any larger. And besides, she simply hadn’t eaten enough as she was growing to make them grow properly, along with the rest of her body. She’d been more than a little malnourished when she’d arrived at Whitehall.

At least I’m not a D-Cup, she thought. That would attract far too much attention.

Carefully, she placed the blade against her chest, but hesitated. There was no way any form of pain relief spells could be used, not here. Magic always came with a price, she knew, and pain was part of the price for carving magical runes into one’s own body. She gritted her teeth, then pressed the blade against her skin. It was hard, so hard, to overcome her body’s reluctance to harm itself. But if it wasn’t, she suspected, she might have killed herself long before she’d discovered the multiverse was far bigger than anyone knew.

This is my world now, she thought. And I will defend it.

She felt a prick as the blade pierced her skin. A drop of blood appeared around the blade, followed by a pain that seemed somehow greater than reasonable for a simple prick. But it was true that a simple paper cut could hurt worse than broken bones, she thought in an attempt to distract herself, although she’d never been sure why. It was almost more than she could do to move the knife, but as she drew it along her skin it was somehow easier and easier to make the cut. She twisted the knife to follow the drawn rune, sucking in her breath at the pain.

And then there was a flare of magic. It was done.

"Good," Lady Barb said. She produced a cloth and wiped Emily’s chest, removing the blood. The wound itself was already healing with astonishing speed, the process accelerated by the magic surrounding the chair. "Good enough, I believe. Professor?"

Professor Eleas turned and inspected Emily’s work. "Good," he said, coldly. "It will provide protection against light subtle magics–and warn you of the presence of more complex magics."

Emily nodded, suddenly feeling very lightheaded.

"Drink this," Lady Barb said, passing Emily a potions gourd. "It won’t taste nice, but it will help."

It tasted horrible, Emily discovered, as she drank the potion. Potions never tasted very nice. But the dizziness slowly faded away, allowing Emily to stand and look down at the mess she’d made. Blood had stained her trousers, leaving her feeling uncomfortably messy and unclean.

Maybe I should have stripped, she thought. But she’d been unable to bear the thought of removing everything.

"There’s a shower and clean clothes in the next room," Lady Barb said. She pointed towards a door in the wall Emily was certain hadn’t been there a moment ago. "Wash yourself thoroughly, then get dressed and come meet me in the drawing room. Put the rest of your clothes in the basket and the household staff will dispose of them."

Emily nodded, feeling oddly disconnected from her body, then trudged through the door. Inside was a simple shower, almost like one from Earth. Whitehall was staggeringly luxurious compared to the rest of the Allied Lands, even the monarchs who dominated most of the kingdoms; indeed, she had a feeling that she was the only student whose living conditions had degraded since coming to the school. But she wouldn’t have given it up for anything, she told herself savagely. Whitehall was the only place she’d ever felt truly at home.

She washed thoroughly before looking at her chest in the mirror. The rune was harder to see than she’d expected, nothing more than a set of lines on her bare skin, but she could sense its presence in the magic field surrounding her body. She checked herself carefully, making sure that she wasn’t bleeding magic in all directions, then dried her body and reached for the robe Lady Barb had left for her. Once, she’d never worn anything like it. Now, wearing the long robes felt almost like second nature. She pulled it over her head, checked her appearance in the mirror again, then walked out the door and headed through the long series of corridors. As always, they changed when she wasn’t looking.

"Emily," the Grandmaster said, as she entered the drawing room. It was a relatively simple room, set aside for the older students and their advisors. Emily suspected she wouldn’t have been allowed to use it during term time. "I understand you did well."

"More than well," Lady Barb said. She smiled at Emily, then nodded towards a steaming jug on a side table. "Pour yourself a drink and sit down."

Emily obeyed. The teachers seemed somewhat more relaxed around her–and the handful of other students in the castle–over the holidays. She’d been warned, by Lady Barb, not to expect it to continue when term resumed. The teachers had their hands full keeping order and making sure their charges didn’t accidentally kill themselves. They couldn’t afford to show any kind of favoritism when magic could be extremely dangerous, except on rare occasions.

"You will be leaving tomorrow," the Grandmaster said. "There is a World Game Tournament about to commence in the White City. It will serve as a suitable excuse to have you attend, without arousing suspicions."

"A World Game?" Emily asked. "What’s that?"

Lady Barb smirked. "You’ll find out," she said. "But you won’t be attending for more than a day or two. I imagine that allowing you to go back to Whitehall without an escort will give them an opportunity to strike."

Emily nodded, trying to remember if she’d read anything about World Games. She’d always had a good memory for facts and figures, something that had served her in good stead at Whitehall, but she couldn’t recall anything about World Games. But then, she had spent much of her time studying magic and history rather than what passed for current affairs. It was just something else that everyone born in the Allied Lands would probably take for granted, and expect her to take for granted too.

The Grandmaster leaned forward. "There is a great deal we have to go over," he said, "but time is not exactly on our side. Or theirs, for that matter. You may well have to rely completely on yourself."

"I know," Emily said. Sergeant Miles had said the same thing, repeating the point time and time again. She had a feeling that Sergeant Miles privately suspected the whole affair was a fool’s errand. "I am ready."

Lady Barb eyed her. "That’s misplaced confidence and you know it," she said. "I expect you to keep your eyes and ears open, but not to do anything stupid. There’s no point in wreaking a terrible revenge if you’re dead."

"True," the Grandmaster agreed. He clapped his hands together, loudly. "We will eat lunch now, Emily, and you can spend the rest of the day being briefed."

Dinner was a surprisingly enjoyable affair, Emily discovered. Outside his office, the Grandmaster seemed almost a different person, someone happy to talk about magic, history and the mischief some of his students got up to when they thought he wasn’t watching. Emily had never known that he’d once been the Charms Tutor, or that he’d accidentally turned one of his fellow teachers into a yak when he’d been demonstrating something altogether different to his students. She couldn’t help wondering–and then damning herself for stupidity–if her teachers on Earth had had lives outside of school too.

Of course they had, she told herself. Or did you just believe they slept in coffins under the school when there were no children around?

"Take an hour to rest," the Grandmaster urged when dinner finally came to an end. Emily glanced at her watch and was astonished to discover just how much time had passed. "And then we will see you in my office."

Lady Barb followed Emily out of the room, pulled the door closed and caught Emily’s arm. "I would advise you to write letters to your friends," she said. "I would also advise you to write a will. You might not come home from this little... adventure."

Emily agreed and walked back to her room. It felt odd to sleep alone, but she knew she would miss it when her roommates returned to Whitehall. Or so she’d thought before she’d been told she needed to go to Mountaintop. Finding a pad of paper, she sat down at her desk and started to compose a letter to Alassa. She honestly wasn’t sure what to say. It looked like she would be away from Whitehall for at least part of Third Year, perhaps all of it. And if she didn’t come back...

It would feel wrong to be without her friends, she thought, feeling a flush of shame. She hadn’t been the best of friends to them, not when she hadn’t really known what it was like to have friends. And what would they feel about her if she never came home? Would Alassa mourn her death or be privately relieved that Emily, who had turned her kingdom upside down, was no longer in a position to change things? But the pace of change probably wouldn’t slow down much, even if she died.

Pushing that aside, Emily wrote a series of letters to everyone she knew, then another set to be delivered in the event of her death. Once that was done, she turned her attention to writing a will. On the face of it, she had little to leave to anyone, apart from the Barony of Cockatrice. King Randor might choose to override her wishes–Emily had no natural-born heir to take her place–but she left it to Imaiqah anyway. It would be good for Alassa to have at least one friend who wouldn’t be afraid–now–to tell her when she was being a stubborn idiot. Besides, Imaiqah would probably have a better idea of what to do with the Barony than Emily herself.

Shaking her head, she sealed the letters before sorting them into two piles. One set would be sent from the castle tomorrow, the remainder would be held in storage until she either destroyed them herself or she died. She looked down at the reminder of her mortality, then rose to her feet and carried the letters out of the room, closing the door behind her. A pair of students were cleaning the floor as she passed, both looking thoroughly sick of being worked to death. Emily felt little sympathy for the two miscreants. She knew what they’d done to deserve being held over the holidays and forced to clean the school without magic.

"Emily," Lady Barb said, as she entered the mailroom. The older woman had written several letters of her own. "Are you ready to be briefed?"

"I think so," Emily said. She placed her letters in the box, knowing they’d be sent as soon as humanly possible. They’d get there, eventually, but the Allied Lands postal service left something to be desired. "Are you ready to brief me?"

Lady Barb nodded, then led her out of the room and through a maze of corridors to the Grandmaster’s office. The Grandmaster himself was absent, Emily saw, but Sergeant Miles and a man she didn’t recognize were seated at a desk, drinking Kava and talking in hushed voices. They stopped talking as soon as they saw Emily, suggesting they’d been talking about her. Emily couldn’t help the flush that rose to her cheeks. She had never been comfortable with her unwanted fame, let alone the stories that had spread from one end of the Allied Lands to the other. Some of them were thoroughly embarrassing–or disgusting.

"There is a great deal to remember," Lady Barb said, as she motioned for Emily to take a seat. "Listen carefully."

She was right, Emily discovered. Hours seemed to fly past as they drilled her, time and time again, in everything from tradecraft to escape techniques. Some of them were linked to what she’d already learned at Whitehall, others were completely new. The only thing they refused to teach her was how to teleport. She just wasn’t ready to master teleporting, Sergeant Miles said, and Lady Barb agreed. Emily accepted it, resentfully. Teleporting seemed vastly preferable to hours spent riding from one place to another, but channeling so much power while remaining focused was difficult.

"Make sure you get plenty of sleep," Lady Barb said, finally. There was no give in her voice at all. "We’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning."

"I’ll do my best," Emily said. She knew there was no point in arguing. Her sleep had been oddly peaceful since returning to Whitehall, but she knew that wouldn’t last. She had a feeling she had been suffering from a form of PTSD. And, from what she recalled, PTSD could reoccur without warning. "I’m not sure I will remember all of this."

The stranger laughed, not unkindly. "Not many people do, unless they are forced to absorb it over long periods," he said. "Use memory spells later, when you’re ready to remember. And then concentrate on what else you need to know."

Emily nodded, then allowed Lady Barb to lead her back to her room.

 

 

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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.

 

###

 

The School of Hard Knocks Copyright © 2015. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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List Price: $6.50 USD

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List Price: $18.95 USD

 

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"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
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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"
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"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
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"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."
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