The Kingdom of Zangaria has fallen into civil war. On one side, the maddened King Randor and his forces, determined to impose his rule over the entire kingdom;
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The Broken Throne
The dead stretched as far as the eye could see.
Sir Roger stood at the edge of the field and watched as his men, the victors in the savage engagement, looted the bodies of the dead. Weapons, tunics, money... all belonged to the victors. Here and there, a wounded man was put out of his misery by a quick stroke of a sword or the slash of a knife. The medical tents were overflowing with friendly casualties. No one was going to waste time and resources saving enemy lives. It wasn't as if common-born prisoners could be ransomed.
He heard a man shout as he hoisted up a dead body wearing silver armor and a purple cloak, both stained with blood. Sir Roger's eyes narrowed as he recognized the dead body: Lord Redford, a man who'd once been nothing more than a penniless nobleman at King Randor's court. He'd clutched his title, Sir Roger recalled, and sneered at inferiors because it was all he really had. There had been lesser-ranked men - and women too - who'd wielded true power. Perhaps that had been why Redford had thrown his lot in with the Noblest. It had been his only hope of regaining wealth and power that had been frittered away long ago.
And he died on the field, Sir Roger thought, as he watched the dead man's body being stripped bare. He was too brave or stupid to run when we sprang our trap.
He couldn't find it in him to enjoy his rival's death, or the humiliation his body had suffered in the aftermath. It lay on the ground now, as naked as the day it was born, while the men who'd found him hurried towards the rear. The armor alone would bring a pretty penny to the men, if they sold it to the merchants who hovered around the army like flies on shit. They probably wouldn't keep it for themselves. The Sumptuary Laws forbade common soldiers to wear silver armor. Sir Roger had his doubts about the wisdom of that. A skilled archer could put a bolt through a man from right across the battlefield... and silver armor merely told the archer who to target. The conventions of war hinted strongly that aristocrats should be left alone - they could be captured and ransomed - but cold practicalities suggested otherwise. An army might come to pieces if its commander was killed.
It was a sobering thought. He'd walked amongst the dead, after the fighting had ended, in hopes of finding familiar faces. But there had been no sign of any of the senior Noblest, not even Hedrick or Simon Harkness. The former was no surprise - Hedrick Harkness was a coward in a world that frowned on the slightest hint of cowardice - but the latter was odd. Simon Harkness was a man's man. The thought of him running from the battlefield was... unthinkable, somehow. Sir Roger had met the younger man. Simon had always looked as if he had something to prove. The question marks over his parentage had ensured it.
They probably planned for defeat as well as victory, Sir Roger thought, ruefully. The Noblest had gambled by striking directly at Alexis, but they hadn't risked everything on one throw of the dice. That had been smart of them, yet... they might have won if they'd thrown everything they had at him. We came closer to defeat than I want to admit.
He heard trumpets blare and turned, just in time to see a golden horse appear at the edge of the battlefield. Ice ran down his spine as he realized that King Randor himself had come to see the dead... he hastily bushed his armor down, trying to look as presentable as possible as his monarch rode towards him. His personal bodyguard followed, looking more than a little uneasy. Sir Roger didn't blame them. The enemy army had been shattered and put to flight, and Sir Roger had deployed cavalry to chase down and slaughter the survivors before they could regroup, but a single man with a crossbow could change the situation in an instant if he took a shot at the king. Or one of the newer rifles, if one was to be found. Lady Emily had talked about snipers eventually being able to target a man from miles away.
"Your Majesty," he said, going down on one knee. "The field is ours."
"So I see," the king grunted. He surveyed the battlefield for a long moment, then slowly clambered off his horse. "You may rise."
Sir Roger did so, careful not to look up too blatantly. The king was the king, even on a battlefield. He had to be shown proper deference at all times. And yet, something was nagging at the back of Sir Roger's head. Something wasn't quite right. The king wasn't an imposter, he thought, but something else was wrong. He couldn't put his finger on it.
"The enemy army has been smashed, Your Majesty," Sir Roger said. "We captured forty-seven prisoners."
The king smiled, cruelly. "Aristocratic prisoners, of course."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Sir Roger said. No one bothered to take commoners as prisoners. The mercenaries might switch sides, if given a chance, but half-trained peasants were useless. It was easier to put them to flight, or execute them, than keep them prisoner. "I believe the highest-ranking prisoner is Lord Galashiels. He was taken prisoner by..."
"Execute him," King Randor ordered.
Sir Roger felt his mouth drop open. "Your Majesty?"
"Execute him," King Randor repeated, steel in his voice. "Execute them all."
"Do I have to repeat myself?" King Randor's eyes flashed with rage - and, for a moment, something else. But it was gone before Sir Roger could see it clearly. "Execute them!"
Sir Roger braced himself, wondering if the next words he said would be the ones that got him sent to the block. The king was clearly in a vile mood. Whatever had happened in Alexis - and Sir Roger had only heard whispered rumors - had been indisputably bad. Lady Emily had been meant to face the headsman for the first and last time... had she escaped? Or had something else happened? He didn't dare ask.
But he had to argue for his men. "Your Majesty, the prisoners were captured by my subordinates," he said. It would be more accurate to say that the prisoners were largely captured by common soldiers, who'd then been forced to surrender them to higher-ranking officers, but the king wouldn't concern himself with such trivia. "They have a right to claim the ransom."
"The prisoners will have nothing to pay the ransom with," King Randor growled. His fists clenched. "Their families will be wiped from the rolls."
Sir Roger paled. "Yes, Your Majesty. But..."
The king snorted. "Inform the captors that they will be paid a reasonable amount for their captives," he ordered. "But execute them all, at once. Their heads are to be prominently displayed on Traitor's Gate."
"It will be done, Your Majesty." Sir Roger summoned a messenger with a nod. "If that is your command, it will be done."
He swallowed, hard, as he turned away to issue the orders. Aristocrats might die on the battlefield, but to execute them after they'd been captured for ransom... it wasn't done! Who knew what would happen if a loyalist fell into enemy hands? Sir Roger shivered at the thought, knowing the Noblest would certainly retaliate in kind. Any loyalist who was captured would be lucky if he was only beheaded on the spot. It wouldn't be long before both sides were locked in a competition of horror that ran all the way down to the bottom.
And how many loyalists will remain loyal, he asked himself, when the king puts us all in danger?
"A good start," the king said, once the orders were issued. He was surveying the battlefield, pausing here and there to exchange brief words with his men. Sir Roger could see, at times, the fighting prince the king had once been behind his permanent scowl. "How badly did we hurt them?"
"We broke their advance force, Your Majesty," Sir Roger said, after a moment. He knew better than to depend upon estimates. One scout had reported an enemy army of over a million men and promptly been scourged for exaggeration. "Between here and the other two battlefields, I believe we killed around five thousand men. It is hard to be sure."
"But we broke them," King Randor said.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Sir Roger assured him. "Their army showed us their backsides and ran. I already have horsemen hunting them down."
"And it will take them a long time to regroup, particularly if they have no contingency plans for defeat," King Randor mused. "Very well. I want you to deploy half your cavalry to secure the roads into the Harkness Lands. We'll relieve Castle Blackstone, then move against Harkness itself. We will not give them any time to regroup."
"As you command, Your Majesty," Sir Roger said. "But cavalry alone will not be..."
"Your musketmen and cannoneers will follow, once the bridges are secure," King Randor added. "We will not give them time to regroup and obtain more weapons. I want Baroness Harkness crushed before my treacherous daughter has a chance to rally her own forces."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Sir Roger said. Behind him, he heard a shout of protest. "It will take her some time to muster the strength to challenge you..."
"But the Noblest" - the king spat - "and I will weaken each other, if our fight goes on for too long. She will have the time she needs, unless we end it now. Pass the word, Sir Roger; this is total war. Those who do not submit themselves will be destroyed."
The king turned, remounted his horse and cantered away, his bodyguards following him. Sir Roger stared after his king for a long moment, then turned... just in time to see the last prisoner be beheaded. Sir Roger had seen death before - he'd seen men die jousting as well as on the battlefield - but the sight still chilled him. It represented a new kind of warfare, a warfare that was - in its own way - as merciless as the muskets and cannons Lady Emily had introduced to the battlefield. This was no mere skirmish, no test of strength between the king and his barons; this was total war. Randor would be the undisputed master of his kingdom or nothing...
... Or nothing.
Sir Roger shivered as the bodies were left to rot on the muddy ground. He couldn't help thinking that it boded ill for the future.
It wasn't her throne room.
Alassa sat on the chair, which she resolutely refused to call a throne, and studied the map without really seeing it. It wasn't her chair either. It had belonged to either Lord Hans or Lady Regina of Swanhaven, and Jade, when he'd been appointed Baron Swanhaven, had never bothered to replace it. Alassa was tempted to wonder if it had belonged to one of the earlier barons - it was uncomfortably hard, particularly for a pregnant woman - but she didn't care enough to ask. The staff were skittish around her. Jade hadn't made enough of an impression to banish memories of Lord Hans and Lady Regina. Merely asking might cause a panic.
She stroked her growing abdomen, wondering when she'd feel the baby kick. The healers had assured her that it was a normal pregnancy, so far, but Alassa wouldn't feel truly secure until the baby was pushed into the world. Male or female, it would be proof that she was fertile, that she could carry on the dynasty. It was odd to realize that one of the few things she had in common with her father, the few things she'd actually acknowledge, included a determination to have an heir, but it was easier for him. Her father had taken hundreds of mistresses, desperately hoping that one of them would bear him a son. Alassa needed to bear a son of her body. It didn't seem fair, somehow.
I could have killed Father, she thought, remembering the moment - three weeks ago - when she'd had her father in her sights. If she'd pulled the trigger, she could have put a bullet right through his head. And who knows what would have happened then?
In truth, she wasn't sure why she hadn't pulled the trigger. Her father and she had never been particularly close, even before he'd locked her up in the Tower of Alexis and thrown away the key. She wanted, she needed, to take the throne that had been her birthright from the moment it became clear that her father would not have a legitimate male child. And she knew her father's reign would be bad for the kingdom. He'd already tried his hardest to execute Alassa's closest friends.
I was weak, she told herself, although she wasn't sure if that was actually true. Could a daughter kill her father? Could a daughter take the throne after she killed her father? She'd hardly be the first monarch to inherit after her predecessor died under dubious circumstances that no one dared look at too closely. If I'd killed him...
The thought was like a stab to the gut. She knew, deep inside, that she hadn't wanted to kill him. A daughter should not kill her father. She'd always assumed that her father would die and she would succeed him, not that she'd kill him. She had spent too much of her life looking for his approval to want to kill him. A dead man couldn't smile at her when she did something clever and give her his blessing. She'd always envied Imaiqah's easy relationship with her father, even though that had nearly got Imaiqah killed. King Randor had never had time for his daughter.
She touched her abdomen again, gritting her teeth. There was no choice, not now. She had to kill her father, directly or indirectly, or he'd take her child. Alassa had no doubt, not now, that her father would have had her killed, after the baby was born. Killed... or banished to some desolate castle in the badlands where no one would think to look for her, while he raised her child in his own image. She had to kill her father for the sake of the child. She had no choice...
... But she didn't like it.
The wards quivered, just slightly, as Jade passed through the outer layers and stepped through the door. Alassa rose, then threw dignity to the winds and ran to him. Jade was hot and sweaty and smelt of mud, but she didn't care. She pressed her lips to his and kissed him as hard as she could, enjoying the brief sensation. She'd been lucky in Jade. Other husbands would have tried to take power for themselves. That would not have been a happy marriage.
"You should be taking more care of yourself," Jade said, touching her abdomen gently. "Really..."
"I have to be active," Alassa reminded him. She understood his concern - and she even shared his fears for the baby - but there were other considerations. "The people have to see me on the throne."
It was an odd thought. Her father had never worried about the good opinions of anyone who didn't have a title. They were less than nothing to him, unless they did something that merited ennoblement. But Alassa... most of her friends were commoners. Neither Emily nor Imaiqah - nor Jade, for that matter - had been born noble. It was hard to understand, sometimes, why commoners couldn't do as they were told, but she thought she could use it. She'd just have to remember not to repeat her father's mistake once she was secure on her throne.
And I have to seek popularity, she thought. What choice do I have?
"I suppose," Jade said. She knew him well enough to know that it wasn't the end of the argument, but there were too many listening ears near the makeshift throne room. "You'll be pleased to know that the first regiments are marching out now. If your father does decide on a lightning strike at Swanhaven, we'll be ready for him."
Alassa nodded. She understood little of military strategy - she'd certainly never been allowed to lead troops in combat - but Jade could fill in the gaps. Her father had only a handful of options if he wanted to crush the rebels before it was too late. A direct stab at Swanhaven was perhaps his best bet. He'd be a fool to target Cockatrice before Swanhaven was neutralized.
"And if he doesn't, we can take the offensive," she added. "It will take him months to crush the barons."
"Let us hope so," Jade said. He wasn't as confident as she was that the Barons would manage to delay the king for long. The Noblest were a pack of traitors. They'd come apart if the king managed to land a few solid blows. "We probably need to start planning to move against Winter Flower."
Alassa frowned. A month ago, the thought of ravaging Winter Flower from one end to the other would have been very satisfactory. Alicia, Baroness Winter Flower, had had the nerve to bear King Randor a son. Babe in arms or not, Alexis was a deadly threat to Alassa's position. But Alicia had risked her life - and worse - to help Jade and his friends spring Alassa from the Tower. Alassa honestly wasn't sure how she should react to Alicia now. Her emotions were a mess.
"Yeah." She reached out and held him, tightly. "But we can do that later."
Jade smiled. "As you command, Your Highness."
Alassa elbowed him. "We're alone. You don't have to be formal."
And she kissed him again.
The night was warm, uncomfortably so. It reminded her of too many other dark days.
Emily lay on the hillside and peered down towards the castle below. It wasn't much of a castle - it was really nothing more than an oversized blockhouse - but it blocked the bridge crossing the River Swanhaven and prevented traffic from moving between Swanhaven and Winter Flower. Emily didn't need to be Alexander the Great to understand the strategic significance of the otherwise unimportant castle. As long as it remained in the king's hands, it made it impossible for Alassa to move an army into East Swanhaven and secure her borders with Winter Flower. Worse, perhaps, it prevented river trade that countless communities depended upon to survive. The economic damage from a long-term lack of trade would cause all sorts of problems on both sides of the divide.
Her eyes narrowed as she studied the building. She was no expert in castle design - she'd never had the chance to study the mechanics at Whitehall - but it would be difficult to take by conventional assault. It was positioned neatly in the middle of a river, forcing any would-be attackers to advance along the bridge if they wanted to reach the gates. They'd be exposed to archers, perhaps even musketmen, along the way, even if they were protected by siege engines. And getting a catapult - or a cannon - into position to bombard the castle would be tricky. Emily silently admired the designers. They'd taken a small building that should be impossible to defend and turned it into an impregnable fortress.
And we can't even starve them out, she thought. She'd seen the manifests. The castle had enough supplies to keep a company of soldiers fed for months. Somehow, she doubted King Randor had skimped on the supplies. We simply don't have the time.
And yet, there was no choice. The castle - and the bridge - had to be taken. Fording the river was supposed to be impossible, at least in large numbers. Alassa had teams of engineers working on pontoon bridges, but they thought it would be several weeks before the bridges were ready. By then, King Randor could have moved an entire army up to the border, blocking his rebel daughter from driving on the capital. Emily shuddered to think of just how many people would die if Alassa had to force her way across the river. The waters would turn red with blood.
She turned to look at Cat, lying next to her. He looked odd in the darkness, the night-vision spell she used washing his face of color. She wondered, absently, how she looked to him. She'd donned a pair of dark trousers and a shirt - and concealed her hair under a cap - but she wasn't hidden from his gaze. She hoped she was hidden from the castle's guards, if they were watching the hillside. They'd set up protective wards, of course, as soon as they'd crawled into view, but a single charmed arrow would be more than enough to ruin the mission. King Randor had encouraged his archers to develop their skills, handing out rewards to any who proved able to hit a target at over two hundred meters. Emily was all too aware that they were far closer to the castle than that.
The king won't have sent his best archers up here, she told herself, although she wasn't sure she believed it. King Randor had a lot of archers. He needs them down south in Harkness.
"There's no way we're going to get close to the castle without being seen," she muttered, trusting in the spell to hide her words. Sergeant Miles had taught her just how far sound could travel in the night air. "What do you think?"
"Agreed," Cat said. "We don't even dare try to swim to the castle."
Emily nodded. She was a confident swimmer - Sergeant Miles had taught her - but the river was too dangerous to take lightly. They might be able to make it to the castle walls, if they were lucky, yet there was no way they could take any supplies with them. Their magic might be enough, but it might not be. She reached out with her senses, feeling - gingerly - for protective wards. The castle had two, both very limited. It suggested there was no sorcerer in residence.
"King Randor doesn't have enough sorcerers to risk one here," Cat said, when she pointed it out. "He'll be keeping them close to home."
"Let's hope so," Emily said, doubtfully. King Randor might not have many first-rank sorcerers, but he could have hired a dozen magicians and put them to work. He'd need someone to help keep his disparate forces connected, if nothing else. A communications sorcerer could make good money during wartime. "Do you really want to risk flying to the castle?"
Cat glanced at her. "Do you see any other option?"
Sergeant Miles would kill the pair of us if we suggested flying to him, Emily thought. In theory, the plan was perfect; in practice, if there was even a fifth or sixth-rank magician in the castle, the plan was suicide. It wouldn't take much magic to disrupt their spells and send them plunging to their deaths. But it would give us a chance to take them by surprise.
She shook her head, trying to conceal her nervousness. Flying to the castle was exactly the sort of plan Cat would devise, despite the dangers. Hell, the dangers were one good reason why no one would expect them to try to fly. But she wasn't anything like so confident that the plan was a good idea. And yet... she couldn't think of anything better. They simply didn't have the time.
"I'll alert Sergeant Rotherham," Cat said. "You wait here and watch for signs of trouble."
Emily nodded and turned her attention back to the castle. It was a dark brooding mass, barely visible even though the night-vision spell. No lights shone from its arrow slits, the better to ensure its occupants remained accustomed to the dark. Emily wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not. King Randor would have wanted to show off his strength as much as possible, particularly if he was running a bluff. The castle might be undermanned, given the circumstances. Randor had had no reason to expect trouble from Swanhaven or Cockatrice - he'd had Alassa and Imaiqah imprisoned until they'd been broken out two weeks ago - and he might have withdrawn the troops to the south.
But they were patrolling during the daytime, Emily reminded herself. The locals had been very clear on that point. And they've been interrogating and searching everyone who wants to cross the bridge.
Cat scrambled back to her. "The sergeant's putting his men in position now," he said, as he stood. "Are you ready?"
No, Emily thought. "Yes," she murmured. "I'm ready."
"Good." Cat winked at her, a brief flashing expression in the darkness, then cast the first spell. "Try and stay over the river. It might save your life if you lose control of the spell."
Or get blasted out of the sky, Emily thought, as she cast her spell. She felt her body slowly rise into the air, gusts of wind pushing at her as she levitated towards the castle. What are the odds of surviving if we crash into the water?
She tried not to think about it as they glided over the river and headed towards the castle, her eyes probing for signs of watchmen on the tiny battlements. There would be someone on watch, she was sure, even if the castle's wardens thought themselves impregnable. She dreaded to think what the king would do to any of his people who allowed themselves to be surrounded during the night. She'd watched a man get beaten within an inch of his life merely for falling asleep on watch.
A flicker of movement caught her eye. She tensed as she saw the lone watchmen lean against the battlements surveying the darkness. His face was pale against the shadows, peering constantly from side to side... he never looked up. Emily wasn't surprised. The odds of being attacked from the air were very low. There were people in Cockatrice who were experimenting with hot air balloons and gliders, but so far results had been mixed. It would be years before the Nameless World's armies deployed parachutists against their foes.
Cat dropped down towards the battlements and landed neatly, one hand snapping into a casting pose. The guard whirled around, then froze as Cat hit him with a freeze hex. Emily landed beside him, feeling a flicker of sympathy for the guard. If they won, he'd be spending the rest of the war in a POW camp; if they lost, he'd be in deep shit with his superiors when the spell wore off. He'd be lucky if he wasn't simply carried to the battlements and thrown into the rushing water below.
"Got him." Cat stopped in front of the door and muttered a charm. The lock clicked open without resistance. "Shall we go?"
Emily let Cat take the lead as they slipped into the castle. The stairwell was strikingly narrow, tight enough to make her feel claustrophobic and dark enough to make her acutely unsure of what waited at the bottom. Cat had to bow his head to avoid cracking it against the stone roof. Emily felt her hair brush the roof as they reached the bottom and opened another door. It led into a small guardroom. Four men were sitting at the table, drinking and playing cards. They looked up and stared in horror as Cat froze the first two...
"Intruders," a third shouted. "Intruders..."
Emily froze him. The fourth grabbed an earthen mug and threw it at them. She swore, then sidestepped it neatly, freezing yet another guard a second later. But it was too late. She heard clattering in the distance as the rest of the guards realized the castle was under attack and scrambled to its defense. Cat shoved the guards to one side and strode to the nearest doorway. The sound of clattering grew louder.
"They're in their armor," he muttered. "It might be charmed."
Emily nodded and readied her spells. Charmed armor could absorb or deflect a handful of curses, but a series of spells would be more than enough to overwhelm any protections worked into the metal. She wondered, as it got louder, if Randor had given any charmed armor to the guards. If there was anywhere he should have sent the armor, save for Alexis itself, it was here... but charmed armor was expensive. Randor might have hesitated to send it anywhere outside the capital.
The first three men appeared, wearing conventional armor. They should have been weighed down by the its sheer weight, but they moved with surprising speed. Emily had long-since ceased to marvel at just how fast knights and guards could move, or how strong they were. Knights had to work hard to earn their spurs, training for years before they were deemed ready to wear their lord's colors. They couldn't simply pick up a gun and start shooting.
Cat threw the first spell, freezing the lead guardsman in place. Emily joined him, but the guards kept coming, using their frozen companions as human shields. Emily was almost impressed. Whoever was in charge on the other side had clearly thought fast. Worse, they'd realized the freeze spells would protect their victims from anything else hurled in their direction. They were better than standard wooden or metal shields.
Clever, Emily thought. And futile.
She gathered her magic, then summoned a wind and blew it down the corridor. The guards wobbled, then tumbled over, thrown head over heels by the sheer force of the wind. Cat snapped out spells, freezing every soldier who came into view; they crashed, hard, against the stone walls and toppled to the ground. Emily allowed herself a moment of relief, then ran forward. A handful of guards moaned in pain and she froze them on the spot. It would give the poor bastards some relief until the spells wore off or were removed.
"We have to get down to the gates," Cat snapped, as he moved past her and down the corridor. "Once the sergeant is in, we can search the castle properly."
Emily nodded and followed him as he found another stairwell leading down to the ground floor. The stench of horseshit rose up to greet them. Emily breathed through her mouth as they reached the bottom and looked around, hunting for the gatehouse. The horses were an unexpected bonus - Alassa's cavalry would be delighted to have them - but she'd never liked the mangy beasts. Despite Alassa's best efforts, Emily knew she would never be anything more than a marginal horsewoman.
A hand grabbed her cap, yanking her back. It came loose, allowing her hair to tumble down. Emily heard someone gasp behind her - clearly, her assailant hadn't realized he'd caught a woman - and then threw a hex over her shoulder. Her attacker flew back, still holding onto her hair. Emily hit the ground hard enough to hurt, but rolled over and stunned him before he had a chance to stick a knife in her. The stable boy - she thought he was a stable boy - looked disconcertingly young. She rather doubted he was even in his teens.
Poor kid, she thought. It was far from uncommon for children to be given adult responsibilities - the stable boy might well have been fostered to one of the men upstairs - but it never ceased to surprise her. And he'll be going into the camps too.
She heard the sound of a fireball behind her and spun around. Cat stood by the door, trading hexes with a pair of men in armor. Emily thought they were sorcerers, at first, but then she saw wands. It was unlikely they had any real magic, then. A person with a spark of power - but very little else - would probably not be able to use a wand, not in the way Alassa had used hers six years ago. No, someone else had charged the wands and issued them to the soldiers.
And issued them with charmed armor too, Emily thought. It was a neat little trap. Cat could take out one soldier, but the other would get him. But whoever had planned the ambush hadn't realized that there were two attackers. I can get the other one...
"You take the one on the left," Cat said, as the two armored men started to advance. A fireball struck Cat's wards and exploded, the heat of the flames scorching the stone walls. "I'll take the one on the right..."
"I've got a better idea," Emily said. "Hang on."
She stepped forward, shaping a spell with her mind. The guardsmen didn't have any idea how their wands worked. They were merely jabbing them at their targets, trying to force them back before they ran out of magic. Emily wondered, as she finished the spell, just how much magic had been invested in the wands. It couldn't be that much. Apart from her batteries, anything used to store magic leaked with terrifying speed. The wands might already be on the verge of dying.
A fireball slammed into her wards and detonated with a loud bang. Emily ignored it, concentrating on her magic. She cast the spell a moment later, ignoring Cat's puzzled frown. The guards seemed to hesitate, then jabbed the wands at her again... and stumbled back as the wands exploded with terrifying force. Emily smiled as the guards hit the floor, their armor ruined by the blasts. She'd turned the air surrounding them into pure oxygen. Their own fireballs had exploded the moment they'd been cast.
Cat ran forward and froze both of the guards, muttering spells to put out the fire. "Emily," he called back. "What did you do?"
"I'll explain later," Emily said. She was surprised the technique hadn't been reverse-engineered three years ago, when she'd used it against Master Grey, but it was quite possible that no one had been able to figure out what she'd done. The Nameless World hadn't realized yet that air was a combination of gases, one of which was explosive in sufficient quantities. "We have to get to the gates."
"Down here," Cat said. "Watch my back."
Emily nodded as Cat hurried down the corridor and into the gatehouse. It was remarkably simple for a castle's portcullis, although she supposed the designers hadn't been able to make it as secure as they would have liked. The building wasn't big enough for a proper gatehouse.
It's still pretty secure, she thought, as Cat used magic to force the cogs to move. It must take at least four strong men to move the gates without magic.
The portcullis opened with a rattling sound. Emily tensed, glancing back the way they'd come. If there was anyone in the castle still able to walk, they knew where Emily and Cat were. She moved to the corridor and listened carefully, but she heard nothing. A moment later, Sergeant Rotherham and his men flowed into the castle. They looked around admiringly, their eyes lingering on Emily. She flushed. They admired Cat, both as a combat sorcerer and a soldier, but they practically worshipped her. She didn't feel comfortable with it. There was no way she could live up to the legend.
"Search the building, then bring the prisoners outside," Cat ordered. "And if you find any papers, I want to see them."
"Yes, My Lord," Sergeant Rotherham said. He looked at Emily. "My Lady?"
Emily sighed, inwardly. "Do as he says," she said, ignoring Cat's huff. "We need to have this building secured before dawn."
"Overall, a successful operation," Cat said, as the sun started to rise. He held out a mug of mulled wine. "Do you not think?"
Emily shrugged, watching the prisoners as they were marched to the nearby field under heavy guard. The senior officers had given their parole - and the enlisted men would probably be quite happy to swap sides or simply go home - but it would be a while before any were released. Alassa and Jade needed to interrogate them, even though it was unlikely that any of them knew anything useful. Randor wouldn't have sent his most capable subordinates to a place he'd believed was going to be quiet.
She took the mug, muttered a spell to neutralize the alcohol, then took a sip. It tasted foul, but it was warming. A cold air was blowing down from the distant mountains, driving away the warmth of night. The clouds overhead promised rain sometime in the middle of the day. Emily hoped they'd be well on their way to Swanhaven City before the skies opened and the downpour began. Travel wasn't easy on Zangaria's poor excuse for a road network.
We should just teleport, she thought, as she took another sip. But we have to conserve our magic.
She wanted to lean into Cat's arms, but she knew better than to show any hint they were in a relationship in front of the men. They'd think less of her, no matter what she'd done. It wasn't fair, but it had been drummed into her head right from the start. Men respected women who acted like men, who shared the burdens and didn't complain. They didn't respect women who showed any traces of femininity. It was all too easy for grumblings about female weaknesses to take root if men felt the women were getting special treatment.
Sergeant Rotherham approached and stopped at a respectful distance, carrying a sheaf of paper. Emily nodded to him, motioning for the sergeant to approach. The formality practiced by Alassa and Jade - and even Cat - was alien to her, despite four years of Martial Magic. She'd wanted to be a combat sorceress and a mediator, once upon a time, but military discipline - and the lines drawn between the ranks - had never sat well with her. She would sooner treat the sergeant as a living person than a servant.
"My Lady, My Lord," Sergeant Rotherham said. "These are all the papers we were able to recover."
Emily took the sheaf and glanced through them, quickly. Alassa had made it clear that they were to recover all the intelligence they could, although Emily hadn't expected to find copies of King Randor's top secret war plans. Randor hadn't remained king for so long by being trusting, or by telling his subordinates more than they actually needed to know at any given point. The papers were a handful of readiness reports from further south, a promise of reinforcements at some unspecified future date and a broadsheet containing an outline of the battle outside Alexis. Emily read it carefully, noting all the exaggerations and unanswered questions. It was unlikely in the extreme that the Noblest had lost over a million soldiers in the brief engagement. She didn't think they had a million soldiers. There was no way their baronies could support such a huge army.
"I see the broadsheets retain their reputation for dishonesty," Cat said, reading over her shoulder. "I doubt the king really charged the enemy on a golden steed."
Emily nodded in agreement. King Randor was no coward, but he'd hardly be fool enough to expose himself when there was no adult heir in waiting. His bastard son was barely two years old; his legitimate grandchild hadn't even been born. Alassa might wind up with the throne by default, assuming she hadn't been stricken from the rolls like her uncle. Emily rather suspected it was only a matter of time until Randor disinherited his daughter, if he could get the politics to work. It would be hard to strike Alassa from the line of succession without disinheriting her child too.
"We know there was a battle," Emily said. She scanned the broadsheet for any hints of truth among the lies, but found nothing. The broadsheet singers rarely bothered with truth when lies were much more dramatic. By the time their readers found out, the broadsheets had moved to something new. "And it's evident that Randor won."
She reread the papers, but found little of interest. The reinforcements were a potential concern, but judging by the date on the letter it would be several weeks before they materialized. King Randor had been pulling troops out of Winter Flower to support the push south, into the rebel baronies; he hadn't realized that another threat would materialize in the west. Now, he was caught between two fires. If Alassa managed to build up her army before the king crushed the Noblest, Randor might be on the verge of losing the war. But if he had the chance to deal with one threat before the other threat became serious...
Cat looked at Rotherham. "You'll remain here and secure the castle," he said. "Search everyone who wants to cross the bridge, or sail down the river, but otherwise do not attempt to impede transit. If enemy forces arrive, beat them off. It is vitally important that we keep the castle under our control."
Sergeant Rotherham saluted. "And the prisoners, My Lord?"
"Keep them under guard." Cat looked pensive, just for a moment. "Did we capture anyone important?"
"No, My Lord," Sergeant Rotherham said. "The senior officer was a relatively low-ranked knight."
"Which doesn't mean he's ignorant," Emily said, quickly. "Randor was promoting a great many junior noblemen so they'd stay loyal to him."
"Yes, My Lady," Sergeant Rotherham said. "Do you wish to have him put to the question?"
Interrogated and tortured, you mean, Emily thought. The casual brutality of life on the Nameless World never ceased to horrify her. And we don't even know if he knows anything.
"No," she said, finally. It was unlikely the king had shared anything with a junior nobleman, whatever his position. "Keep them under guard in the nearby town."
Sergeant Rotherham looked concerned. "They have given their parole."
"Keep them under guard anyway," Cat said, sharply. "The sorcerers have to have a look at them. We don't know if they can be trusted to keep their parole."
Emily couldn't disagree. Technically, a captured nobleman could give his parole - his word not to fight - in exchange for release, but practically she had no idea if their prisoners would keep their word. Promises made to rebels had no validity, as far as the kings and princes of the Allied Lands were concerned. Alassa would execute any paroled nobleman who was captured bearing arms against her - that was her legal right - but Randor would probably execute any paroled nobleman who refused to fight. Perversely, keeping them prisoner was actually doing them a favor.
Sergeant Rotherham bowed his head, then hurried off to attend to the prisoners. Emily finished her mug, put it to one side for the troopers to pick up, then turned her gaze towards the castle. It looked more intimidating in sunlight, a blocky mass squatting on the bridge like a troll waiting for an unwary traveler to walk into its mouth. Emily studied the fast-flowing river for a moment, then caught herself stifling a yawn. She'd been up far too long.
"We'd better move," Cat said, softly. "The weather won't stay good."
He turned and strode towards the town. It had been deserted months ago, apparently; the locals, fearing what the castle's guards might do to them, had decamped en masse into the undergrowth or headed to the mountains. Emily didn't blame them. Everyone knew war was coming. The peasants and townspeople would have their houses looted, their meager supplies stolen, their women raped and their menfolk conscripted into the army. Alassa had already executed two men for rape - and a third for stealing - but it would be a long time before the peasants trusted any soldier. They regarded the army with the same kind of loathing people felt for cockroaches. Only mercenaries were lower on the social scale.
Emily followed Cat, her body starting to ache. She needed rest, but she didn't dare show weakness. People would talk. Alassa might be happy being a princess and a queen, set on a pedestal with her strong right arm by her side, but Emily knew it wouldn't suit her. Alassa would be very isolated as she began her reign. Emily wasn't the most sociable of people - she knew her weaknesses all too well - but she didn't want to be that isolated.
I should have become a librarian, she thought, wryly. But destiny had another idea.
A troop of mounted guards stood next to a carriage, waiting by the deserted inn. Cat spoke briefly to their leader, issuing orders, then motioned for Emily to climb into the carriage. Emily gritted her teeth as she pulled open the door. Whoever had designed the carriage hadn't heard of suspension, let alone spells to smooth the ride. She was going to be black and blue by the time they reached Swanhaven. Cat scrambled up next to her and sat on the wooden seat. Emily suspected he would have preferred to ride a horse, but he'd chosen to keep her company instead. She appreciated that more than she cared to admit.
The carriage rattled into life, the guards shouting cheerfully as they led the way onto the muddy road. Randor and his ancestors had inherited a road network from the old Empire, but they hadn't bothered to maintain it. The network had been falling apart for years, even though it was vitally important for moving the king's troops around as well as trade. Emily had a sneaking suspicion the barons had deliberately allowed the roads to rot. They'd do anything to reduce the king's ability to bring them to heel.
That will have to change, she thought. It was only a matter of time before new roads - and railroads - started to bind the kingdom closer. Alassa will have to change it when she takes the throne.
Cat muttered a handful of spells to make the journey a little easier as the carriage picked up speed. Emily nodded in gratitude, then added a couple of privacy spells of her own. The guards might be watching the carriage, looking for glimpses of their important passengers in a private moment. Alassa might regard her servants as little more than tools - although she'd been getting better about that - but Emily had never made that mistake. Servants had eyes, ears and - sometimes - a motive to betray their more abusive masters. And their masters rarely suspected them even when it was clear they'd been betrayed...
Emily dismissed the thought as she leaned back against the hard wooden box, closing her eyes and trying to sleep. Cat took her hand and held it, gently; Emily leaned against him, silently relieved that he'd joined her. He was strongly muscular, far stronger than any of the teenage boys she'd avoided on Earth, but he was softer than the carriage walls. His arm wrapped around her as she slowly went to sleep.
She jerked awake what felt like bare minutes later. Her body was aching uncomfortably, all pins and needles. Cat shifted against her, but didn't stir. Emily smiled wanly - his snores were loud enough to wake the hounds of hell - and then checked her watch. It was early afternoon. They'd been asleep for hours. She shrugged, massaged some feeling back into her legs, then pushed the curtain aside and peered out. The carriage was passing through a mid-sized town, townspeople turning to stare as the carriage went by. Emily was surprised the town hadn't been evacuated too, but they probably thought they were far enough from the border to remain safe. Besides, the road followed the river up to Swanhaven - and Beneficence. Abandoning the town would only drive the river trade into the hands of their rivals.
Emily leaned forward, forcing herself to look more closely. There were a handful of children on the street, all boys. There were no girls or young women at all. The only women she saw looked to be in their sixties, although she knew looks could be deceiving. There was a very good chance that the women were in their forties, perhaps even younger. Childbirth and poor nutrition ensured they aged rapidly. Emily had met women who were grandmothers at thirty. Things would change, she thought, when Alassa took the throne. The New Learning had already started to change the world.
The carriage passed out of the town and into the countryside, driving past endless fields of corn and cattle. Emily noted a handful of downtrodden peasants working the fields and felt a pang of sympathy, knowing - all too well - that the peasants might have lost their lands to legal trickery and found themselves forced to become serfs, working the land they'd formerly owned. It was just another reason for the peasants to hate the nobility, just another reason for them to take advantage of the war to help themselves. She'd heard reports of manors being burnt and tax records being destroyed. It would take years to put the system back together, if anyone felt it was worth trying. The nobility couldn't keep the peasants enslaved forever.
Cat shifted against her as the carriage finally passed through the gates and entered Swanhaven City. Emily wrinkled her nose as the wind shifted, blowing the stench of too many humans too close together across her nostrils. Jade had instituted strict sanitation laws when his father-in-law had given him the barony, but they clearly hadn't been a great success. It would take time for people to stop crapping out the windows, even though there was a bounty paid for chamberpots of night soil. The nitrates in human shit could be used to make gunpowder.
Perhaps we should increase the bounty, she thought, as the smell grew worse. It clearly isn't enough.
She nudged Cat, gently. He started awake, one hand coming up in a casting pose before realizing he was perfectly safe. Emily had to smile as he brushed his hair back from his face, although she knew it wasn't funny. Pillion, one of the boys who'd shared Martial Magic with her when she'd been in First Year, had been punched in the face when he'd tried to wake Jade from a sound sleep. Sergeant Miles had not been amused. He'd bawled Pillion out for being stupid enough to stand too close to a sleeping - and armed - man in a place they'd been told to consider a combat zone. Emily had always been careful to keep her distance ever since.
"We're here," Cat said. He peered out of the window. "Where are we?"
Emily rolled her eyes. Clearly, Cat was still half-asleep.
"We're coming up the Baronial Mile now," she said. Swanhaven was practically a miniature version of Alexis, right down to the road leading up to the castle. The streets were lined with expensive houses, mainly occupied by merchants and tradesmen who made a living through dominating the river trade. "We'll be there in a minute."
"Good," Cat said. He rubbed his legs, thoroughly. "We can bask in the praise for a job well done."
Emily snorted as the carriage crossed the drawbridge, passed through the gatehouse and rattled to a halt in the courtyard. Her hair threatened to stand on end as Jade's wards swept over them, making sure they were who they claimed to be. She sensed powerful magics waiting, ready to snap at any unauthorized intruders. Jade's paranoia had grown to new heights after the first assassination attempt.
Cat opened the door and jumped down to the cobblestones. Emily followed, a little more gingerly. Her body felt stiff and sore. She needed a long bath and a sleep in a proper bed, although she doubted she'd have time to have either before they were summoned to Alassa's presence. Hopefully, she'd at least have a chance to splash water on her face. Alassa would be understanding, if they turned up dirty and smelly, but her war council might not be quite so generous. It wasn't enough to be good, Emily had heard. It was important to look good too. Spells just weren't good enough.
A messenger appeared and went down on one knee. "My Lord... ah, My Lady, My Lord... the Princess Regnant summons you to her august presence."
Emily hid her amusement. The boy - he looked to be no older than twelve - had messed up the precedence. Technically, he should have hailed Emily first, then Cat. He'd realized his mistake too late to do anything, but try to pretend it hadn't happened. She felt a stab of wry sympathy for the poor youth. He'd be beaten savagely if his superiors heard what had happened. Precedence was serious business.
"We thank you," she said, grandly. Cat wouldn't make an issue of it, she thought, and no one else had heard. "We just need to use the washroom, then we will attend upon the princess."
The messenger bowed his head. "Of course, Your Ladyship," he said. "I will lead you to the washroom at once."
Emily exchanged a smile with Cat, then allowed the messenger to bring them into the castle. The wards grew stronger, shifting around her as if they weren't certain she was allowed into the building. Jade was definitely feeling paranoid.
But who can blame him? Emily thought, as the messenger showed them the washroom. If Alassa dies, his life will be over.
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.
Schooled in Magic fantasy series
Author web site.
The Broken Throne Copyright © 2018. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
To order this book:
Christopher has a number of interesting articles up at his blog,
"The Stronghold Academy of Martial Arts"
"Religion in the Nameless World
"The Military in the Nameless World - A Very Brief Overview"
"Wedding Hells: Randor and Alicia"
"Past Tense: Freedom and (Women's) Rights"
"Wedding Hells Appendix (II) - History Exam"
"Idle Musings (SIM 10)"
"Whitehall's Liability Insurance"
"Emily and the Barony of Cockatrice"
"Bonus Material: Whitehall History Essay Question"
"Schooled in Magic: Jade, Emily and Alassa" [Warning: spoilers]
"Deconstructing Emily" [...There are a handful of spoilers for Books 1-6, so read carefully.]
"Love's Labor's Won: Playing the Blame Game [Warning; spoilers!]
"Christmas Post: Five Things that Could Have Happened to Emily"
"The Tragedy of Marius Drake [Warning: massive spoilers in this post.]
"Meet My Character Blog Hop" [Master Tor]
"Draft Afterword (I)" [Cincinnatus]
"But What Do We Do on Our Hols? An Introduction to Lessons in Etiquette"
"The Free City of Beneficence" [A new setting for Schooled in Magic.]
"An Introduction to Schooled in Magic"
"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
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."
"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful. "No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book
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Christopher has a number of interesting articles up at his blog, The Chrishanger.
"Idle Musings (SIM 10)"
"Draft Afterword (I)" [Cincinnatus]
"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books
"Deconstructing Emily" blog post
"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book
Back to the Featured books
Back to Twilight Times Books main page
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2018. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2018 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 10-29-18.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.