Snippet - Child of Destiny (Schooled in Magic Finale (sort of))

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chris
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Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Snippet - Child of Destiny (Schooled in Magic Finale (sort of))

Post by chris »

Prologue I

Frieda felt ... unsettled.

She could not, try as she might, put her finger on why she felt unsettled. Nothing had changed. She was a student in Whitehall, doing her final year before serving an apprenticeship to gain her mastery or joining Emily or one of her older friends in the formerly Blighted Lands to build a life of her own. She woke up in the morning, she ate breakfast, she went to classes, she ate dinner and went straight to bed. It was the typical life of a student preparing frantically for her final exams, the life she’d wanted before it was finally within her grasp. She wanted - desperately - to prove to Emily and Hoban and everyone else that she was worthy of the attention they’d lavished upon her. She wanted to make them proud.

And yet, she felt unsettled.

The world itself was ... strange. She felt as if she was staring at the school around her through a plane of tinted glass, as if her vision was blurred and warped. Things moved at the corner of her eye, only there when she wasn’t looking for them. They were gone when she turned her head. She soon forgot they were there at all, except ... every time she saw them the memories returned. Strange things shifted, little hints that something wasn’t quite right in the school. She served as detention monitor, yet no one had detention; they looked forward to the weekend, but no one went to Dragon’s Den; she missed her friends and her lover dreadfully, yet she couldn’t muster the energy to so much as touch the chat parchments to write them a quick note. She wanted to see Emily again, if only to compare notes on the sheer strangeness around her, but the urge to send her a message was gone almost as soon as she registered it ... as if, in truth, it had never been there at all.

She made her slow way through the school, feeling sure something was wrong and yet unable to articulate it in a manner that made sense, even to her. Her arms and legs and mouth seemed to move of their own accord. She sat in classes and gave answers by rote - a flicker of remembered pain shot through her mind, to vanish before she quite registered it had been there - and stared at textbooks without ever quite reading them. She walked past the snobbish little brat who’d tried to hex her two years ago, without feeling as though she ought to watch her back. The brat - Frieda had never bothered to learn the younger girl’s name - had a habit of trying to hex older students, yet ... she did nothing. She didn’t even made a rude sign as Frieda turned the corner. Something was definitely wrong.

The thought nagged at her mind, battling a tidal wave of lassitude that threatened to suck her down and keep her down. She was tired. Permanently tired. It shouldn’t have surprised her - she was a student on her final year, as her thoughts reminded her again and again - and yet it did. It wasn’t that far into the year. She’d laid the groundwork well, taking advice from Emily and Jade and some of her other older friends. She’d planned to steadily ramp up her studies - and practical coursework - over the year, to be at the top of her game when she took the final exams. Emily had left before taking them herself - Frieda missed her, more than she could say - but Jade and Cat had set a very high bar. Frieda wasn’t fond of Cat. She would have liked to beat his final score ...

Her thoughts twisted, oddly, as she walked back to her bedroom. There were people in the corridor, ghostly people ... she blinked and they were gone, as if they’d never been. A flicker of panic shot through her - if she was losing her mind, she’d be lucky if she wasn’t simply expelled or even executed before she became a danger to everyone else - before it too was gone, buried under the lassitude. She slipped into her room and threw herself on the bed, silently grateful Whitehall gave its final year students rooms of their own. She’d never been comfortable sharing a room with anyone, not since Mountaintop. She’d had to order Hoban to sleep somewhere else, just so she could sleep comfortably herself. There’d been no choice. And yet ...

She tensed, suddenly. How long had it been?

The flicker of alarm died almost as soon as it flowered, but this time she tried to cling to it. How long had it been since she’d heard from anyone? Days? Weeks? Months? Years? She knew her friends were busy - Emily was a teacher at Laughter, Alassa was ruling a country with Jade and Imaiqah by her side, the Gorgon was doing an apprenticeship at Heart’s Eye and being groomed to take over as administrator when her mistress retired - but it was strange not to hear anything, even a brief note reassuring her they were fine and they’ll be in touch later. Emily wasn’t the best at keeping in touch with anyone - she had a nasty habit of putting people out of her mind as soon as she lost sight of them - yet she always made time for Frieda. It was strange ...

She yawned, suddenly. It had been a long day. She’d been doing ... her heart stopped, just for a second. What had she been doing? She’d been ... what? She’d gone to class and ... and what? What spells had she done? What essays had she written? What questions had she answered? Her mind went blank. Nothing had happened. She hadn’t been praised for her successes or scorned for her failures, she hadn’t been given extra credit for helping the tutors or punished for disrupting the class ... no one had. The tiredness seemed to grow stronger, threatening to pull her down. The bed was calling to her. She wanted ... she wanted to sleep and yet ... for a moment, she felt torn between two different versions of herself. She was lying on the bed and standing in front of the bed and ... her head spun. It made no sense. It made no sense. It made ...

The world twisted. She was standing - no, kneeling - beside the bed, with no clear memory of how she’d gotten there. One moment, she’d been on the bed; the next, she was kneeling beside it. A strange thrill ran through her, as if she was doing something naughty ... she wasn’t sure what. She was alone. She could do whatever she liked, in the privacy of her own room. And yet ... she felt as if she’d gotten away with something. Her thoughts churned as the lassitude returned, the tiredness trying to drive her back to bed. It was powerful and implacable and ... it wasn’t her.

The awareness flashed through her, driving the cobwebs from her mind. She’d been entranced. They’d all been entranced. It wasn’t the first time she’d been compelled to do something - it was a common prank - but this time was ... dangerous. Her thoughts spun in mad circles as she leaned forward. She could still feel the spell pressing down on her. It should have been impossible. Awareness of the spell should have been enough to free her from its grasp. And yet, it was starting to push her thoughts back into helpless submission, into a complete lack of awareness of the world around her. Frieda couldn’t understand the point of the spell - she could imagine a hundred more interesting uses, rather than just compelling the students to behave - but it didn’t matter. The spell was so powerful it was simply grinding her down. There was no way she could get out of the school before she fell back into the trance.

She bit her lip hard, the pain clearing her thoughts for a few precious seconds. The drawer beneath her bed was unlocked, without even a single charm to protect her most treasured possessions. Her tutors would reprimand her for carelessness, if they knew what she’d done, but it worked in her favour. The chat parchments were wrapped in her underwear, buried under a handful of blue books and other possessions. She ripped one free and pressed her fingers against it, allowing her magic to ignite the spell ...

... And touched, to her dull surprise, a questing mind.

Prologue II

Maddy had, in her own quiet estimation, a good life.

It hadn’t been easy, not at first. Her family had had too many daughters and not enough sons ... something that would have been disastrous, if they’d lived in the countryside rather than Zugzwang. Instead, she’d learnt at her mother’s knee, planning to go into service as soon as she was old enough in hopes of saving a nest egg she could use to attract a husband. Men asked fewer questions, she’d been told, if the woman had enough money to make her a very good catch indeed. It didn’t hurt if the woman knew how to cook too.

She’d been nervous, when she’d been offered a position in the Sorcerer Void’s tower. He was the most famous resident of the district - and it’s quiet protector, a man with a reputation that kept kings and bandits and taxmen well away from the town - but very little was actually known about him. Even the most daring of young men wouldn’t willingly set foot in his valley. The handful who had lost bets and found themselves forced to try to find the valley as part of their forfeit had found themselves completely lost, the moment they stepped beyond the town’s formal boundary. The tower was impossible to find, unless one was invited. Maddy had been afraid, when she’d walked the charmed path for the first time, that she’d never be seen again. There were no shortage of rumours about what happened to young women who entered service with a magician.

But Void wasn’t a bad master, Maddy had decided long ago. He didn’t molest his maids, nor did he abuse them ... she knew masters and mistresses who’d done that and worse to helpless young women in their thrall. Her duties were relatively light, even when her master was in residence; she had time to study, to broaden her mind, to make herself more attractive to a merchant or travelling trader who might want a wife who was more than a pretty face. The only downside was that he didn’t seem to trust his maids. The geas he’d put on them, the moment they entered his service, kept them from breathing so much as a single word about their master to anyone. It was unpleasant, but it could be a great deal worse. And his protections made it all worthwhile. The last young man who’d tried to put his hand up her skirt without permission, last year, had found himself a toad seconds later. It had taught him a lesson he’d never forgotten.

She smiled to herself as she walked the path, down to the town. The master was not in residence, nor was his apprentice and her personal maid. Maddy had never been quite sure what to make of her. Silent had done her duties with calm efficiency, but she’d never spent any time with her fellow maids ... as if she thought she was better than them. No, as if she thought she was just marking time. Maddy puzzled over it for a long moment, then shrugged and dismissed the thought. If Void wanted to tolerate Silent’s odd behaviour, it wasn’t Maddy’s problem. All that mattered, right now, was that the master wasn’t home and the maids could slack off, just a little. They could take turns to visit the town and the master wouldn’t be any the wiser.

Zugzwang rose up around her as she walked on, a strange combination of thatched cottages and stone blocks, the latter a testament to the town’s reputation for safety. She smiled and brushed back her hair as she spotted two of the local lads leaning against the pub’s door, clearly waiting for the owner to open the door and invite them inside. It was a little early in the day for drinking, but it wasn’t her problem either. They smiled back at her, shyly, as she walked on. They were handsome enough, she supposed, but their clothes marked them as labourers. She wanted to travel. Marrying a labourer or a farmer would guarantee she’d spend the rest of her life in Zugzwang, without so much as seeing what lay on the other side of the hill. She’d plucked up her courage and asked her master, once, to take her with him when she travelled. He’d been kind, but he’d said no. Maddy winced, inwardly. Perhaps it would have been wiser to ask his apprentice. Lady Emily was strange, even by sorceress standards, but she was a young woman. She should have understood.

A man stepped out of the alleyway, blocking her path. Maddy tensed, then relaxed. She had Void’s protections. No one would be fool enough to try to lay so much as a finger on her, not without her permission. The clothes she wore - a cut above the outfits worn by the more regular domestics - should have been a tip-off that her master was someone important, someone who might see an attack on his servant as an attack on him. She was safe.

“My Lady,” the man said. He spoke with an unfamiliar accent. Maddy vaguely recalled a pair of travelling merchants from Alluvia who’d spoken with similar accents, but she’d been barely six years old at the time and her memories were unreliable. “Can I have a moment of your time?”

Maddy dropped a grand curtsy, rather than the more servile one she’d been taught. “Of course, My Lord.”

If he was affronted by her mockery - if he even recognised it for what it was - he showed no sign. “Your master has been accused of starting the war,” he said. “Do you think that is actually true?”

Maddy blinked. War? What war? She’d heard rumours of unrest right across the Allied Lands, from commoners turning on aristocrats to mundanes turning on magicians, but she hadn’t believed a word of them. It just didn’t happen. The sun might as well revolve around the world. And besides ... she remembered hearing a couple of local merchants whining about refugees passing through, but she hadn’t taken them very seriously. She certainly hadn’t seen them for herself.

“His former apprentice has turned on him,” the man continued. “She’s told everyone the war is his fault.”

Maddy felt her tongue lock, just for a second. The geas still held her in its power. She could no more talk about her master and his apprentice, without his permission, than she could leap tall buildings in a single bound. The one time she’d tested the geas had been bad enough she’d sworn never to do it again, ever. And ...

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “I don’t have the time right now.”

She strode past the man, silently daring him to put out a hand to stop her. He did nothing. She felt his eyes watching her as she walked down the street and turned the corner ... she shook her head as it dawned on her just how odd the encounter had actually been. The man hadn’t been interested in her personally ... a rogue magician, perhaps? She was all too aware that magicians spent half their time spying on other magicians. And with Lady Emily resident within the tower, interest had doubled. She’d heard from the other maids that the master had spent weeks tightening the defences, before leaving on his latest mission.

Putting the thought out of her mind, she walked into the greengrocers. The old woman who ran the shop was normally up for a chat, alternatively gossiping about the town’s affairs and prattling about young men of good character who just happened to be in the market for a wife. Maddy didn’t really mind, although she knew she wasn’t interested. The old woman meant well ...

... And yet, she fell silent the moment Maddy walked into the shop.

Ice prickled down her spine as she made her selection, paid and walked out again. The old woman was normally talkative, to the point it was impossible to shut her up. And yet, she was quiet now ... when Maddy had arrived? Had she been talking about Maddy? Or her master? Or ... or what?

The sense that something was wrong only grew stronger as she made her way through the town, doing her shopping in an orderly manner. Shopkeepers looked worried, the moment she walked into the town; young men who would ordinarily have tried to flirt with her hurried away, as if the hounds of the seven hells were after them; young women who wanted to talk about going into service themselves looked away, as if they were reluctant to meet her eye. Maddy felt uneasy, as if the ground itself was shifting under her feet. The last person to be shunned by the entire town had committed adultery with a travelling vagabond ... unwisely doing the deed in her own home, where her husband had caught her. Maddy knew she hadn’t done anything of the sort. It would be a brave man who dared suggest she’d lost her virginity to her master. And she hadn’t! And yet ...

She paused outside the bookshop, admiring the handful of new books in the window and trying to decide if she should buy one. The world still seemed to be tilting on its axis. The bookseller would normally be trying to entice her in, showing off books that came from the other side of the Allied Lands ... she could see him through the window, lurking on the far side of the counter and pretending she wasn’t there. She was tempted to throw caution to the winds and stride into the shop, practically daring him not to serve her, but she refrained. She wouldn’t have her master’s protection forever. If she abused it, her past would come back to haunt her when she left his service.

Instead, she picked up the broadsheets by the door and skimmed them. The bookseller didn’t come out to complain, to insist she paid for them ... proof, if she’d needed it, that something was deeply wrong. The headlines were as hyperbolic as ever - she’d once read a claim that the duchess of somewhere or other had given birth to twin goblins, or that the king of some kingdom had had nine piglets by the royal sow - but there was something oddly real about them. The Allied Lands were collapsing into chaos. Kings were being overthrown, aristocrats were being slaughtered by their serfs, village headmen were being chased out by their former subjects ... the details kept changing, yet they all had one thing in common. Void - her master - was the one pulling the strings. And Emily, his apprentice, was standing against him.

Maddy stared down at the papers for a long moment, then took some coins from her purse and threw them at the bookseller before turning and hurrying back to the path. She had to warn the others, although she had no idea what they could do. They were just maids, after all. They were powerless, unable to do anything without permission. They - and Zugzwang itself - would be nothing more than a prize for the victor. And ...

Her heart twisted. She wasn’t the only powerless person in the world. Everyone in Zugzwang knew they existed at Void’s mercy, that he could rain fire and death on the town, that he could drive them away on a whim. And beyond Zugzwang ... there were countless men and women - commoners, serfs, slaves - who were caught in the middle, doomed to suffer in the fighting and then become prizes themselves. It had been a good life, Maddy thought, but it was over. The entire world was being turned upside down. Nothing would ever be the same again.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

Nothing.

Chapter One

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

Emily raised her head. The chat parchment in front of her was dull and cold, practically lacking magic. She’d worked hard to blend her magic with Alassa’s in a bid to make contact with Frieda, somewhere inside Whitehall, but nothing had happened. She cursed, not for the first time, the loss of her own chat parchments. The delicate magics within the parchment she’d tried to modify might not have survived her meddling. She might as well have lit a match and set fire to it.

Her head swam. It had been hours since she’d spoken to Void in the Dreamtime and she still felt tired, utterly disconnected from the world. She’d slept afterwards - she’d thought she’d slept, Jan had sworn blind she’d slept - and yet she felt as if she’d been awake for days. Her magic felt odd, as if her power was both at its peak and completely drained at the same time. She wondered, grimly, if Void had bent his word to her. He’d told her she was safe, within the Dreamtime, but he’d forgotten more magic than she’d ever known. He could have found a way to strike at her, to weaken her, without ever quite breaking his word.

He certainly found a novel way to keep his oath to the Allied Lands, she reflected, sourly. He thinks he’s protecting the Allied Lands, and therefore keeping his oath, by taking over.

Alassa cleared her throat, then repeated the question. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Emily flushed. “Do I have a choice?”

“Yes.” Alassa rested her hands on her hips. “You can stay here and send someone else in your place.”

“There’s no one else, unless you want to send Nanette alone,” Emily pointed out. “The two of us are the only ones who might be able to break into the tower.”

Alassa looked thoroughly displeased. Emily understood. Her friend - the Queen of Zangaria - had spent the last week trying to rally resistance to Void, a difficult task when the White Council was gone, the Allied Lands in ruins, the portal network destroyed and half the remaining magicians unsure of what was really going on. Void’s plan might have gone off the rails - slightly - but he was already recovering. It was just a matter of time before he pushed forward and finished the job. Alassa had used Emily’s name as a rallying cry, used her reputation to convince outsiders to back her. Losing Emily now would damage the cause beyond repair.

Emily sighed, inwardly. She understood Alassa’s concerns. Void’s Tower made the Tower of Alexis look utterly undefended ... and breaking into the Tower of Alexis had been extremely difficult. It had come very close to getting Emily killed. And that had been with Jade and Cat, two men she trusted completely, by her side. Nanette, on the other hand, had been a thorn in her flesh from the day they’d first met. They might be allies now, but no one really trusted her. Emily found it hard to turn her back on the other girl, even after their minds had touched. Nanette wasn’t an ally, not really. They just had a shared goal.

She ran her hand through her hair. There simply wasn’t anyone else. Jade was Alassa’s strong right hand. The Queen needed him. Jan was a skilled charmsmith - and her lover - but Emily wasn’t blind to his flaws, his lack of enthusiasm for actual fighting. Caleb wasn’t much better. Cat would have been ideal, but he was on the wrong side of the Craggy Mountains. And Sergeant Miles ...

Alassa was saying something. Emily dragged her attention back to her.

“... We don’t even know the spells are safe,” Alassa said. “Can you trust them?”

“I think so,” Emily said. “They’ve been checked extensively.”

Alassa’s perfect lips twisted into a scowl. “And if you’re wrong?”

Emily winced, inwardly. Alassa wasn’t usually so ... timorous, but - normally - the entire world wasn’t resting on her shoulders. Zangaria had weathered the storm far better than its neighbours, in no small part due to the changes Emily had wrought, yet large swathes of the kingdom were still in chaos, with enemy troops loose on the wrong side of the border. Void would turn his attention to the kingdom soon enough, they were sure; his enhanced troops and sorcerers would bolster the forces of the neighbouring kings as they invaded from three directions at once. Alassa’s army was experienced, loyal and modern, but it wouldn’t be enough. The moment Void had finish securing the nexus points, he’d deal with Zangaria.

And yet, she knew Alassa had a point. Teleporting was dangerous, these days. Void had used the nexus points to cast a spell over the land, overriding the preset destination and casting anyone who tried to teleport into Whitehall’s oubliette. Emily had been there, years ago. She knew it was impossible to escape, even for a skilled and powerful magician. Void would have all the time in the world to inspect his prisoners, to determine if they were any use to him, then dispose of them if they weren’t. The only way to teleport safely - from what they’d been able to determine - was to use a teleport gem. And yet, even they weren’t completely trustworthy. Emily had devised the concept, before the world had gone mad, but it had been Void who’d made it workable. He knew the spells better than she did.

“The only other option is staying here and waiting for him to come get us,” she said, more tartly than she’d intended. “We’re not ready to start the march to Whitehall yet.”

She rubbed her eyes, then stood, folded the chat parchment and passed it back to Alassa. It hadn’t worked and she wasn’t sure why. Frieda might be entranced, so deeply enspelled she wasn’t aware of time passing, or she might simply be held in stasis ... or Void, knowing Frieda was the closest thing Emily had to a younger sister, had simply put her somewhere she could do no harm. Or, perhaps, she’d accidentally ruined the parchment when she’d tried to modify the spells. Writing messages hadn’t produced a response. In truth, she feared the worst. Void had the nexus point and control of the school’s wards. He could keep everyone in the building entranced so deeply they forgot their own names.

“You are in no state to go,” Alassa said, as she slipped the parchment into her dress. “You should rest first, before trying anything.”

“The longer we wait, the greater the chance he’ll do something to keep us out,” Emily said, although she knew Alassa was right. “The tower is heavily defended. If he erases us from the wards, we won’t be able to get to the walls, let alone inside.”

Alassa nodded, her lips thinning in disapproval, and led the way into the corridor. Emily followed, wincing at the devastation. The twin bouts of fighting had done immense damage, from tearing down tapestries and shattering suits of ancient armour to smashing doors and scorching the stone walls with traces of powerful magics She wondered, as she eyed her friend’s back, if part of Alassa’s bad mode stemmed from the fact she no longer felt safe in her own castle. Void’s troops had nearly captured her and her family, only a few short weeks ago. The fighting to recover the castle before it was too late had been horrific. And her loyalists had paid the price.

She spotted a serving girl, hastily pressing herself into the wall as the queen and the kingdom’s foremost noblewoman walked past. Emily felt a twinge of sympathy for the young woman, barely entering her teens. She’d been caught in the middle when the invaders had stormed the castle, held prisoner until Alassa and Jade had rallied their forces and struck back ... and now, like the rest of the surviving staff, unable to leave the castle without permission. Void had proved himself a master of mind control - and infiltration. The young girl might be an unwitting spy, programmed to report to her master without ever being aware of her actions. No truth spell could reveal the truth if she didn’t know it herself. Emily had considered using soul magic, in hopes of identifying the unwilling spies, but the risks were just too high. Void could easily have planted a booby trap in their minds to take out anyone foolish enough to try.

Jade met them as they descended the stairs. “Emily,” he said. His tone was flat, his words blunt. And he had a black eye. “The sergeant is growing worse.”

Emily winced. “There’s no improvement?”

“No.” Jade shook his head, curtly. “One moment, he’s perfectly normal; the next” - he touched the blacked eye - “he’s lashing out at everyone, apparently convinced he’s on the verge of being sacrificed by a necromancer. His chambers are surrounded by the most powerful wards we can devise and yet ... his magic is still threatening to burn out of control. If he loses it completely ...”

“I know.” Emily had been cautioned, more than once, that a sorcerer who went mad might start tapping into levels of power beyond any sane sorcerer. She’d read a handful of books - all banned, with good reason - that suggested madness made it impossible for the sorcerers to know their limits, allowing them to push well past them. “We can keep him asleep, can’t we?”

Jade shot her a pitying look. “Not for long,” he cautioned. “His magic is resisting the potions and there are limits to how much Durian we can feed him. Even non-magical sleeping draughts are only having a limited effect. You might need to consider a final solution.”

Emily grimaced. Sergeant Miles was the last of the major adults in her life. Sergeant Harkin, Grandmaster Hasdrubal, Lady Barb ... even King Randor and Void himself ... had all left her, all dead save for Void. She didn’t want to kill him, or send him to his death, and yet she knew the sergeant would sooner die than go mad, his madness contaminating the entire world. Alassa would have killed Sergeant Miles herself, or ordered him killed, if he hadn’t been ... him. Keeping him in the castle was just too dangerous. And yet ...

I could take him away with me, she thought. But where?

Her mind churned. There had to be something she could do. But what? The Nameless World had no concept of curing the insane, of helping the mad back to sanity. The mere idea was regarded with naked horror, simply because a maddened sorcerer’s madness was the only thing that made it possible to defeat him. Void wasn’t mad, just ... convinced he was doing the right thing. A necromancer, or a madman, was dangerously unpredictable. They tended to lose track of what they were doing ...

“We’ll deal with him after we get back,” she said. “Please keep an eye on him.”

“I will,” Jade said. “But you do understand we can’t keep him under control much longer?”

Emily said nothing as they walked into the next chamber. The teleport gems were laid out on the workbench, waiting for Jan to finish slipping them into the spell lattice. Nanette stood by the wall, flanked by Sienna and a nervous-looking guardsman, who’d probably been assigned to escort her as a red line. He wore a suit of charmed armour, covered in runes that would absorb or deflect spells hurled at him, but a sorceress as powerful and capable as Nanette would have no trouble finding a way through to him. If nothing else, she could simply levitate a rock and hurl it at him with all the force of a cannonball, cracking his armour like an eggshell. Emily hoped Alassa would find a way to reward the guard. He hadn’t volunteered to follow a sorceress who could kill him on a whim.

“Emily,” Nanette said. Her accent had changed, from a slightly-haughty magical accent to something that was a closer match to Emily’s own. “Are you ready to go?”

Emily studied her thoughtfully. Nanette looked ... ordinary, neither an aristocrat nor a serving maid. She had long brown hair and a bland face, the kind of appearance that would go unnoticed unless she chose to step into the light; she wore a simple shirt and leggings that could have belonged to anyone from a merchant’s daughter to a peasant woman working the fields. Her clothes were carefully tailored, neither designed to show off her curves nor hide them completely. Emily guessed it would be a matter of moments for Nanette to change her appearance to the point that no one, even someone who knew what she looked like, would recognise her. She could even, by hiding her hair and tightening her clothes in all the right places, pass for a young man. And there was no magic involved in the transformation, not at all. She was just plain good at disguising herself.

Which gives her an edge, Emily thought, crossly. She knew how to use magic to disguise herself, to pass as something she wasn’t or simply keep people from looking at her too closely, but she knew she couldn’t fool another magician. It was a breach of etiquette to peer through someone’s glamour, yet the mere presence of a disguise spell was proof the user had something to hide. Nanette could walk right through a set of sensing wards and no one would realise she had something to hide.

“Just about,” she said. They’d planned the operation as best as they could, but too much of their planning was based on guesswork. There were sections of the tower that neither of them had been allowed to see. They didn’t even know if the maids were still there. Void could easily have sent them home with generous payments and sealed the tower ... if he’d had the time. “And yourself?”

“Ready.” Nanette grinned, as if she expected the operation to be easy. Emily suspected it was just another facade. She’d hate to face Nanette across the poker table. “And then we go on to Whitehall.”

“If you want to take a shot at him alone, you can go.” Alassa’s voice was cold and hard. “If you want to actually have a chance to succeed, you should wait for the rest of us.”

Nanette dropped a perfect curtsey. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

Emily groaned, inwardly. Alassa and Nanette stood in odd contrast to one another. Alassa was the centre of attention, her beauty and carefully-tailored dress marking her as someone to watch; Nanette was a living shadow who could present the impression of being whatever she liked, someone who practically went unnoticed unless she made her presence obvious. And yet, they had a great deal in common. They were both powerful magicians, they’d both been taught to keep their full powers carefully hidden from the outside world ...

And they both hate each other, Emily thought. Alassa had nearly been killed, through Nanette’s manipulations; Imaiqah had lost a father who’d been a good and decent man. Emily wasn’t sure how Nanette felt about Alassa, but she’d be surprised if Nanette - a common-born magician - didn’t feel a twinge of contempt for the girl who’d been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. As long as they work together long enough to win the war.

“We’ll go as soon as the spell is ready,” Emily said. “Jan?”

“I’ve calculated the correct configuration to slip through the spellweb,” Jan said, as he slipped the final crystals into place. “You shouldn’t have any trouble getting there, but you’ll materialise very close to Zugzwang rather than the tower. I don’t want to risk trying to drop you any closer. The tower has its own defences, as you know, and the raw magic further up the mountain will make your life interesting if you brush against it without proper preparations.”

“Interesting,” Nanette repeated. There was a hint of amusement in her voice. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Jan held up a pair of gemstones. “I’ve spelled these to drop you back here, just outside the walls,” he said. “Don’t try them inside the castle unless you’re desperate. I tried to duplicate the spells he used, to allow you to teleport out of Whitehall, but I can’t swear they’ll work.”

“Whitehall didn’t want me dead,” Emily said, wryly. “The tower might have other ideas.”

“He was the only one who could allow teleporting in or out of the tower,” Nanette agreed. She glanced at Jade, her eyes going wide in a show of girlish enthusiasm. “Do we have any up to date intelligence on the situation in Zugzwang?”

Emily sensed Alassa tensing beside her. Jade, to his credit, didn’t seem impressed.

“The last reports from the region suggested there was little trouble, beyond a handful of brief clashes between low-level aristocrats and commoners,” Jade said. “That was two weeks ago. I sent a pair of agents with chat parchments to report back, once we knew what was actually going on, but they haven’t arrived yet.”

“No,” Emily agreed. A month ago, she could have teleported across the entire world in less than a second. Now, teleporting was dangerous and travelling from one side of Zangaria to the other would take weeks, even if they didn’t run into bandits, rebels and invading armies, all bent on looting, raping and burning their way across the country. Law and order had broken down everywhere. “We’ll be there ahead of them.”

She looked at the glowing crystal, then hefted her knapsack and slung it over her shoulder. There was no point in delaying, not any longer. Time was definitely not on her side. She held out a hand, steadying herself as Nanette took it. She didn’t trust the other woman very far - not very far at all - but she understood Nanette’s desire for revenge. Void had killed her first true father-figure, then used the death to manipulate her. She had a score to settle with him.

Emily smiled as the others stepped back, then reached out and touched the crystal. The world went white ...

... And then plunged into darkness.
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