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The Demon's Design
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter



The most dangerous collection of tomes of eldritch lore in the world lies buried under Whitehall,
its existence known only to a select few. But now those books have been stolen,
forcing Emily to give chase before their thief can use them to unleash a nightmare...

   Book 25 in the Schooled in Magic series.



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Author News





The Demon's Design


Christopher G. Nuttall




As you know, I have tried my best to keep each volume of this series as stand-alone as possible . with varying levels of success. Given that, as of writing, there are twenty-five mainstream novels, eight novellas (two not published yet; follow me online for updates), three short stories and a collection of background notes, there are obvious limits to how stand-alone any later book can be.

Jane, Daughter of Gerald, mentioned in the introduction, made her appearance in The Muckraker's Tale, published in Fantastic Schools IV. Adam and Lilith made their first appearance in The Cunning Man and developed elements of magitech, some of which are referred to in this volume, in The Infused Man and The Conjuring Man.

Please feel free to check them out for a whole new look at the Nameless World.



Historian's Note

The below article was written by Jane, Daughter of Gerald (aka The Muckraker) and published in The Whitehall Times, shortly after the defeat of the Sorcerer Void and the end of the Void Wars. Lady Emily has not commented on the article.


What Can One Say About Lady Emily?

The strangest thing about Lady Emily is how little how little we know about her.

This may seem odd, to many of my readers, but there is a point. The average aristo child, born to a family magical or mundane, makes an impact from the moment they draw breath. Their naming day is a public event, their birthdays are more about their parents than themselves, their achievements, no matter how minor, are feted as if they were the greatest or most unique achievements in the history of mankind. They are pawns in their family's endless battles for power and prestige, their lives mapped out in many ways before they reach their first birthday. Indeed, in many ways, one can track the shifting ebb and flow of power politics by noting who is invited to birthday celebrations, who is considered a suitable ward, whose children are considered acceptable candidates for betrothal and so many other hints of favor and disapproval shown by the parents. It is easy to mock such treatment of one's children, but it served a vitally important purpose: A family that did not constantly tend to its own position was a family that would soon find itself declining into irrelevance.

And yet, there is no recorded trace of Lady Emily's existence until she turned sixteen.

There are stories aplenty about her, true, but few hard facts. Her father is believed to be the Sorcerer Void-one of the most powerful and feared sorcerers in the world even before he mounted his bid for ultimate power-yet it has never been confirmed. Void is listed as Lady Emily's guardian, a position with the rights and responsibilities of fatherhood, and yet one suggesting more distance between them than one would expect if they were father and daughter. It would not be out of character for Void, a man who worked hard to bury his own family of origin, not to reveal the existence of a child, but it is odd. If nothing else, his daughter should have had a chance to meet her extended family.

If her father's identity is uncertain, her mother's is a complete mystery. There are few hints of Void having any sort of close connection to anyone, save Emily herself. He did have a relationship of sorts with Princess Iolanthe of Parsee, but by all accounts the relationship was not sexual, and in any case, the timing doesn't work out. He also took a female apprentice, Lady Barb, who could have given birth to Emily, but again the timing rules against it. Lady Barb's apprenticeship ended under mysterious circumstances, but there is no serious suggestion that she fell pregnant by her master or that she gave birth to anyone. It is possible, of course, that Void impregnated one of his maids - perhaps the most likely scenario - yet this would be somewhat out of character. For all the fear and awe he inspired, there is no suggestion he ever took advantage of anyone. The blunt truth is that we simply don't know.

As far as anyone can tell, Emily appeared out of nowhere.

Her early career is well known, although it is difficult - even now - to sift through the rumors and parse out the truth. Emily arrived at Whitehall - riding on a dragon, of all things - and rapidly established herself as one of the school's most remarkable students, fighting and defeating a necromancer in her very first year. She would also go on to befriend Princess Alassa and Countess Imaiqah of Zangaria, finding herself - by accident or design - in the middle of the struggles for power threatening to tear the kingdom apart. It is safe to say that, in a single year, Emily achieved more than nearly anyone else in recorded history ever did in their entire lives. She rose from complete obscurity to become one of the most famous people in the world.

Her greatest achievement, however, was the New Learning. Emily introduced, through her friends, a whole new system of letters and numbers, followed by dozens - perhaps hundreds - of technological innovations that changed the world. The printing press, the steam engine, the guns that allowed us to stand up to the necromancers, then the aristos ... they all stemmed from Lady Emily's fertile brain. She made no attempt to keep this learning from spreading - indeed, she rewrote the laws of her barony to encourage sharing ideas and designs - earning herself the enmity of nearly every other aristo and many senior magicians. If this worried her, she kept it to herself.

It did raise questions, of course. King Jorlem of Alluvia, who would later lose his throne and his head to a revolution, argued Lady Emily was embarking on a long-term plan to take control of the entire world, something that would have seemed fanciful before she appeared. Academic Adana, an intellectual in the service of King Randor of Zangaria, suggested that Emily was little more than a figurehead, a pretty face introducing ideas developed by a committee of inventors to ensure the real developers remained unknown. His analysis of Emily's early work argues that her inventions were suspiciously mature and showed no hint of passing through a series of experimental stages before the final design was shared with the entire world. This is, of course, easily explained. The early models Emily introduced were not, of course, finalized. As she said herself, her designs - the steam engine in particular - have long since been superseded by designs worked out by others, who took her work and improved upon it. She did not create a finished product, and neither did any of the inventors who followed in her footsteps.

Emily's career continued to develop, as the years rolled on. She defeated a necromancer in the Cairngorms, took possession of the nexus point at Heart's Eye (defeating another necromancer in the process), fought in the Zangarian Civil War (rumors she'd somehow lost her powers in the aftermath of the war were rapidly disproven), founded a university at Heart's Eye, led a campaign to invade the Blighted Lands and defeat the remaining necromancers (and succeeded so well the depraved magicians no longer pose any sort of threat), all the while continuing to turn out newer and better innovations, both magical and mundane. It should have led to a world of peace and prosperity.

It did not.

The Allied Lands had always been held together by the threat of necromantic invasion. The sudden end of the threat unleashed social pressures that threatened to tear the edifice apart, pressures - we later discovered - that were stoked by Void himself, intent on taking over the Allied Lands to save them from themselves. Emily found herself both blamed for the chaos - somewhat unfairly; she had nothing to do with problems that existed years before she was born - and charged with stopping him, even though it required her to take up arms against her (presumed) father. She was, for better or worse, successful. Void was defeated, but many of the problems that had empowered him remained.

I do not know Lady Emily personally. Few do. She has a reputation for being friendly, but reserved - and also, according to some of her classmates, a little odd, as if she'd been born and raised somewhere very different. Indeed, this is a mystery. A young woman raised in an aristocratic family or a sorcerous household would not display the compassion and respect Lady Emily does for those beneath her, nor would such a young woman devote any effort to helping them climb to heights of wealth and power they might have thought beyond them. A common-born child might have had a different outlook on life, but she wouldn't have the lack of automatic respect for the aristocracy that is clearly visible in Lady Emily. It has been suggested she was raised by someone other than Void, but who? What sort of upbringing could create someone like her?

I don't know, but it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she's here, giving us all hope for a better future. I look forward to following her future career with great interest.


Prologue I  

If Emily had been asked, in the quiet time before the end of one war and the start of another, what she most enjoyed about being Void's apprentice, she would have said - without hesitation - their fireside chats. They sat on armchairs in front of a roaring fire, drinking hot chocolate and talking about everything from advanced magical theory to the hidden history of the Nameless World and enjoyed each other's company. Void could and did discourse on many subjects for her, drawing links between fields of study that none of her tutors had ever hinted might be connected, answering her questions in a manner that left her eager for more. It was.

She wondered, at times, if it was what having a father was supposed to be like. Her father had vanished shortly after her birth, and her stepfather had showed little - and then too much - interest in her. It was hard to know what she should feel, when she'd been denied the sense of a paternal figure looking out for her, someone who would always be on her side no matter what. She had never been sure if she should envy the girls who did have fathers, from the strict and overbearing to the relaxed and permissive. She knew, now, that she'd had reason to be jealous. Even the strict fathers had at least cared about their daughters. And she was sure Void cared about her.

"It is hard to be sure if there really was a genuine prediction," Void said, a few nights after her return from Dragora. She'd asked him about her adventures in Dragora and one thing had led to another. "The fortune teller could easily have told Duke Hardcastle what he wanted to hear."

Emily nodded. Duke Hardcastle had been told he couldn't be killed by a man, a prediction that had at least one obvious loophole and a second that hadn't been apparent, right up until the moment the duke's preteen nephew had knifed him. It had struck her as very much the sort of thing a demon would say, if it had been summoned to illuminate the duke's future when he'd been a young man. The prediction might have been completely accurate, yet also misleading. But then, she'd met the duke. He'd been enough of a misogynist to completely dismiss any possibility of a woman killing him.

But it wasn't a woman who killed him, she reflected, wryly. She'd fought the duke to a standstill, but he'd held his own until he'd been stabbed in the back. It was a boy who was not yet a man.

"If it was a genuine prediction, it came from a demon," Void continued, echoing her earlier thoughts. "But demons are untrustworthy. The prophecy could easily have been worded to steer the duke towards his eventual fate."

Emily leaned forward. "Is it possible it really was a genuine prediction?"

"It is impossible to say," Void said. "Summoning demons is forbidden for a reason. The knowledge of how to summon, bind and compel the entities is in few hands, partly because a simple mistake is enough to doom the caster. It's quite possible to accidentally offer the demon more than intended, allowing it to snatch hold and drag you into the darkness. I knew one magician who called a demon and demanded a series of services, which had to be paid for with his life. I don't believe he even had the satisfaction of getting what he'd asked for in return."

"Be careful what you wish for," Emily murmured.

"Precisely," Void agreed. "If you do summon a demon, you can trade a little of your life essence for a glimpse into the future. That's about all you can do, these days, unless you want to take your life into your own hands. The more you demand from a demon, the more it will insist on receiving in return."

"And they don't even state the price in advance," Emily said.

"No." Void stared at his hands for a long moment, his thoughts elsewhere. "The DemonMasters of old must have had a solution, at least a temporary one, but we don't know how it worked. We do know that their demons eventually broke free and consumed them when the demons weren't trapped and bound until some fool freed them. There was. someone, a very long time ago, who trapped a demon in his tomb and bound it to protect his body after his death. It was unable to leave the tomb, but free to do whatever it liked to anyone who forced their way into the chamber."

Emily shivered. "What happened?"

"It's still there, as far as I know," Void said. "Other demons were accidentally freed, over the years, and wreaked havoc until they ran out of energy and fell back into the darkness. Or. there are legends, true, of people finding powerful entities trapped in bottles and being granted wishes in return for freeing them, but they almost always ended up worse off after the wishes were twisted against them. It's difficult to tell how many of those stories are true, at least in some aspects. The legends tend to grow in the telling."

I met the DemonMasters, Emily recalled. She'd been thrown back in time, a year and a thousand years ago, to see the final days of the DemonMasters and the dawn of a new age of magic. None of them were sane, even the ones who thought they had it under control.

She shivered again, feeling the magic run through her blood. It was hers, as much a part of her body as her arms and legs. The thought of being dependent on an outside source of power was terrifying, for all the reasons she'd heard and many more besides. The DemonMasters hadn't been evil, but the entities they'd summoned and bound had steadily corrupted and weakened them to the point their peers had to kill them before they were lost to the madness. It was like dealing with something that had a will of its own. no, they did have wills of their own. And the ability to glance into the future and determine just what to say to steer someone to their doom.

Her eyes narrowed. "Is there any way to defend against demons?"

"Their sight is difficult to block," Void said. "They are not common spies on the same level as ourselves, even ones who have somehow gained access to our blood, but creatures who look at our world from right angles to reality. They can look around most of our defenses" -his lips twitched - "like a flying witch, hovering high overhead and peering down at whatever is hidden inside the walls. No matter how high you build them, the witch can always fly higher. But places of great power, such as nexus points, or places shielded by naked iron, have always been relatively safe. Demon logic seems to prevent them from peeking into such places."

Emily considered it. Nexus points existed at all times at once, enabling time travel. although, without the proper spells and waypoints, anyone who tried would be jumping randomly, unsure if they were going to be propelled hundreds of years into the future or stranded thousands of years in the past. It made a certain kind of sense that the demons wouldn't be able to see inside them, not when all the potential timelines were jumbled up inside the nexus point. And pure iron.? She frowned, inwardly. Why was that important?

"This place is also secure, or so we are told," Void said, waving a hand at the walls. "There's iron within the stone, woven into the defenses, and also an iron vault on the lower levels. But it has never been tested. The days in which someone could summon a demon and send it to murder their enemies are long gone."

"Good," Emily said, dryly. It was bad enough dealing with mundane and magical assassins. Demons would be far worse. "Can you defend against that?"

Void made a face. "The ancient tomes are divided on the subject and often contradict themselves. you read one chapter, then you read another that insists the first chapter was utter nonsense. Demons being demons, it might be possible for two contradictory things to be true at once. Some argue it is possible to trick or simply outlast a demon, others that there are ways to drive one off or even turn it back on its master. None of the tricks have ever been tried, to my knowledge. The knowledge of how to summon a demon and aim it at your enemy was lost long ago."

Emily shivered. She'd had to make a deal with a demon to return from the past, a deal that had involved protecting a collection of books and scrolls from that era. a deal she'd tried to keep by concealing the books under Whitehall and wrapping them in magic drawn from the nexus point. She'd kept the word of the deal without honoring the spirit. she thought. It was hard to be sure. The demon could simply outlast her. she hoped the concealment spells would last forever, but she doubted it. Nothing lasted forever. It was one of the many things she'd have to check, after she completed her apprenticeship. if Grandmaster Gordian ever let her back into Whitehall. Gordian shouldn't be able to find the books, but who knew?

Her thoughts mocked her. And what might whisper in his ear, when he's in the mood to listen?

"It's supposed to be easier to deal with a bonded demon, one providing the power for a spell," Void said. "There are legends of demons bound into swords, or even being the swords, only to break free at the worst possible time and slaughter everyone on the battlefield before falling back into the darkness. Or. one story insisted a demon could possess a human body and use it, as long as the magic held out. They became monsters."

His lips quirked. "Or it was an excuse to get someone off the hook," he added. "I never quite got to the bottom of the affair."

Emily felt troubled, although she wasn't sure why. It was almost as if someone had walked over her grave.

"What happened?"

"There was a young man, decades ago," Void said. "He was a low-ranking aristocrat, not high enough to be really important and not low enough to be ignored. He had a little magic, enough to cheat at games and a few other things. he was just a fop and a dandy, really, whiling away his time with wine, women and song. And then he went on a murder spree, displaying enough magic to daunt a newborn necromancer. I was involved in tracking him down and. I never quite got to the bottom of it, even after catching and confronting him."

Emily leaned forward, resting her hands on her lap. "Was he a necromancer?"

"I don't believe so," Void said. "He didn't fit the standard profile. His magic lacked the raw brutality most necromancers display as a matter of course. There were moments when he was actually doing things I would have sworn impossible, even for me."

He grimaced. "His family insisted he'd been possessed. They might have been right. Some of the things he said, during our final confrontation."

The fire crackled and started to die. "You'd better go to bed," he said, flatly. "You have a busy day tomorrow."

Emily stood and curtseyed automatically, her mind elsewhere. It was daunting, sometimes, to look at the man she'd come to love as a father and realize he had a wealth of knowledge and experience that made her feel like a child. She'd done more than most people ever would - she'd changed the world, in ways subtle and gross - and yet Void had done so much more. The thought that there were things even he didn't know, or threats daunting even to him.

.And she never forgot what he'd said that summer before the war.


Prologue II

Hildegard awoke, convinced she was no longer alone.

She wasn't, of course. Brandon, her boyfriend, was next to her, snoring. She glanced at him, wondering briefly if he'd accidentally awakened her. They'd spent the day helping to rebuild Whitehall - it was still hard to believe the entire school had been entranced as easily as a gaggle of mundanes could be controlled by evil magicians - and the evening enjoying each other, before showering and going to bed. Her parents wouldn't approve of their relationship, but Hildegard found it hard to care. Brandon had his flaws, yet.

Something moved, a presence beside her, behind her.

Hildegard tensed, more like a frightened child than a powerful magician in her final year of formal schooling. Ice seemed to crawl down her spine and expand until her entire body froze. It felt more like a nightmare than anything real, anything she could fight. she wanted to pinch herself, or bite her lip, but her body refused to obey. She was trapped within her own mind. it was a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.

"I'm afraid this is no dream," a voice said. The words appeared in her head without quite going through her ears. She had the sense someone was right behind her, peering over her shoulder, even though she was staring up at the ceiling. "If you cooperate, you will not be hurt."

She swallowed. Brandon wasn't moving. surely, he could hear the voice too. Or. was it all in her head? Was she going mad? Hearing voices was never a good sign. Or. she wanted to think it was just a nightmare, but she could no longer believe it. It felt like a waking dream.

Her body twitched, moving of its own accord. It pushed the blanket aside and swung its legs - her legs - over the side of the bed, standing in a manner that made her feel she was going to tumble and fall like a toddler still learning to walk. The room lights came on, shredding her last hopes that it was all just a dream. Her body walked up and down, arms swinging wildly, as if whatever force was controlling her body was learning how to do it properly. She gritted her teeth and tried to fight, centering herself as if she were resisting a compulsion spell, but it was pointless. Whatever had been done to her was no common spell. She couldn't even begin to get a grip on the spellware.

She tried to speak. Somehow. "What are you?"

"That is a difficult question to answer," the voice said. Panic shot through her. The voice was inside her head! It was warm and amused and. oddly masculine. And not, she thought, entirely human. "Suffice it to say that I have need of your body. If you behave, I will refrain from damaging it."

Hildegard wanted to scream. "Let me go!"

The voice ignored her. Her body stopped in front of a mirror. Hildegard - mentally - gritted her teeth as the voice studied her appearance, then summoned a nightgown and pulled it over her head, then checked her appearance again. She looked. normal, save for her eyes. She hoped, prayed, someone would notice something if they left the bedroom. She wasn't sure what time it was, but. surely, someone would be patrolling the corridors. Or the wards would realize she was under a spell.

Brandon shifted, his voice sleepy. "Hilde."

Hildegard felt a flash of hope, which died a second later as her body turned, raised a hand and cast a spell. She tried to fight, to throw everything she had into stopping the spell before it jumped from her fingers to her boyfriend, but it was futile. The effort left her tired and worn, for nothing. Brandon had no time to react before his body blurred and warped into a tiny statue of himself. The sheer power was terrifying. Hildegard was no slouch at magic, and Brandon was nearly as good as she was, but she'd never been able to cast such a spell. She wanted to think her boyfriend would free himself, yet she knew better. The spell was so powerful it might be impossible to break, even intentionally. It would take years for it to wear off.

"It would have been better for all if he'd slept," the voice observed. It sounded vastly amused. "But it was not to be."

"Let him go," Hildegard pleaded. "Please."

"When this is over, he will be freed," the voice told her. "But then, that depends on your cooperation."

Hildegard despaired as her body turned and made its way through the door, into the cold corridor beyond. She was trapped in her own mind, imprisoned by a foe who could read her every thought and react well before she could do something - anything - to free herself. Her thoughts ran in circles, coming up with plan after plan. none of which were even remotely workable. She could feel the voice's amusement as it watched her panic, intruding on her thoughts in a manner she'd thought impossible. Resistance was futile. She couldn't hope to fight, and yet she hated the thought of giving up and letting it do whatever it liked with her body. It was. it was a nightmare.

"Tell yourself that, if it brings you comfort," the voice observed. "But this is as real as reality gets."

Her body felt colder, somehow, as it walked down the stairs, into the hall and down to a concealed entrance she hadn't known existed. She - they - were alone. She hoped someone would notice them - a student raiding the kitchens, a staff member on patrol - but Whitehall was as dark and silent as the grave. The voice showed no hesitation as it compelled her body to open the hidden door, then walk down into a dusty passageway. Her body sneezed, helplessly, giving her a window of opportunity to retake control. It wasn't long enough. The voice pushed her back into her box and held her there effortlessly. And.

It was harder, now, to form coherent thoughts. "What is this place?"

Surprisingly, the voice answered. "Old Whitehall," it said, as if it expected the words to mean something to her. "The original tunnels, built to channel the power of the nexus point, before our time came to an end."

Hildegard blinked. "Our time?"

The voice didn't answer. Her body stopped in front of a blank stone wall. Her hand reached out and pressed against the stone, feeling nothing. and then, in a sudden burst of insight, a webbing of magic hidden underneath the stone. It was fiendishly complex, put together by a twisted mind with access to near-infinite levels of power. layers upon layers of magical traps, each carefully rigged to make it difficult to disarm one without triggering the others. It was paranoid to a shocking degree. Her uncle had been paranoid, and he'd woven so many traps into his home that he'd never been able to keep servants, but he'd been the most trusting man imaginable compared to the person who'd designed the ward network in front of her. It was almost as if the designer had wanted to make sure no one, including the designer herself, ever got into the chamber.

"Quite," the voice agreed. "Her confidence would normally be entirely justified. No human mind could handle the level of magic required to break into the chamber."

Hildegard shivered. Somehow. "You're not human."


The wards sparkled one final time, then flickered and died. The stone wall vanished, revealing a dark and dusty chamber beyond. Hildegard's body stepped inside, her eyes somehow picking out details despite the darkness. A pair of wooden tables, piled high with books and scrolls; a wooden chest, bound with iron bands. she shivered, again, as she saw the runes carved into the metal. Some she recognized, old lettering she knew from her family's collection of ancient tomes; others were strange, yet terrifying. She wasn't sure why.

A sense of victory ran through her mind. It wasn't hers. "Finally."

"Old books," Hildegard said. Or thought. "You did all this for old books."

"Very old and very special books," the voice said. Her body picked up an ancient manuscript. Her fingers jerked, as if they were trying to throw the book away. "And hidden away for a very good reason."

Hildegard sensed something moving behind her. Her body turned, just in time to see the stone wall shimmer back into place. Magic shifted around them, trapping them. She knew, although she wasn't sure how, there was no way out. She couldn't help herself. Despite everything, she giggled.

"We're trapped," she said. The voice had taken control of her and used her and. they were both trapped now, doomed to starve to death. "You've killed us both!"

"Really?" There was no hint of concern in the voice's tone. "We shall see."


Chapter One

The more things change, Emily reflected, the more they stay the same.

She stood on the Royal Mile and looked down the road. Alexis, the capital city of the Kingdom of Zangaria, was heaving with people, from kings and princes to commoners who'd come in hopes of making a profit from the visitors. There were ambassadors and diplomats and secret representatives, magicians of all stripes, tradesmen and broadsheet men. and, she suspected, thousands upon thousands of people who wanted to tell their children, in days to come, that they'd visited Alexis during the Conference. Her eyes flickered over the faces of dozens of people - some aristocrats, some magicians, some commoners - who were making their way up the street to visit the castle or the aristocratic mansions nearby, hoping to threaten or cajole or barter with people with whom they would not, normally, have shared a single word. Not everyone expected the Conference to solve anything - Emily herself suspected a great many issues were going to be settled through force, rather than honeyed words or secret dealings - but it was the chance of a lifetime to make contacts from right across the Allied Lands. The White City had been orderly. Alexis. was not.

Her lips twitched as she studied the shops and stalls lining the roads. The city's population had always been industrious, despite some of their more unpleasant kings and councilors, and they were taking full advantage of the opportunity offered to them. Food stalls were everywhere, offering everything from half-cooked meat and vegetables to luxury foodstuffs like burgers, pizza and a handful of other earthly dishes she'd recreated and accidentally popularized over the last few years. Heralds ran up and down the road, bellowing the latest news so loudly their voices blurred into a cacophony that was impossible to follow, messages jumbled together to the point they tested everyone's patience; broadsheet criers, slightly more restrained, hawked their special editions, often outdated even before they left the printing presses. The older, more established, shops were doing a roaring trade too. The tailors and dressmakers were outfitting hundreds of aristocrats keen to follow the latest styles, as well as wealthy merchants and their families who - now that the sumptuary laws had been repealed - intended to make themselves look as rich and powerful as the aristocracy, perhaps even make it easier for their children to marry into the aristocracy. Emily suspected it wouldn't work out as well as the merchants hoped, but who knew? The world was in flux. Waves of change were sweeping across the formerly Allied Lands and the ones who rode the waves might find themselves carried to heights that would have been unimaginable a few short years ago.

A model steam train chuffed past, the driver pretending to steer the miniature locomotive as it followed the tiny set of tracks someone had laid around a pair of mid-sized houses and a tiny garden. The children riding on the model coaches laughed and cheered, their parents eyeing them wistfully as the ride came to an end. Emily felt a surge of pride as her eyes flickered over the tiny engine - it looked like a toy - and the other amusements shipped in from Cockatrice and Heart's Eye. A handful of hot air balloons rose into the air - on tethers, naturally - allowing commoners and aristocrats alike to see their city from above and realize, for the first time, just how large it truly was. An airship hung in the distance, flying tours around the Royal Lands and reminding everyone how quickly the balance of power had shifted. Emily suspected that at least a third of the people clamoring for tours, and rides, of the airship were spies, looking for clues to how the airship functioned so their kingdoms could build their own. She knew there were at least five ongoing projects to duplicate and improve the airships. She'd be surprised if there weren't more.

She leaned back as a marching band pranced down the street, playing the Ballad of the Levelling Men. It was escorted by a number of Levellers, passing out pamphlets inviting the city's population to do everything from join unions and guilds to demand a share in governing the city itself. Emily doubted Alassa - much less the city's upper classes - were particularly pleased with that, but the genie was out of the bottle and couldn't be put back with anything less than a full-scale war, which the aristocrats might lose. Alluvia had already fallen to revolutionary forces - the aristocrats had been effectively driven out - and quite a few other kingdoms were unstable, perhaps on the verge of revolution or civil war. She had the feeling that the only thing keeping some kingdoms from collapsing was the simple truth that none of the revolutionaries could agree on what they wanted, something that might change in a hurry if the monarchs worked up the nerve to crack down. But then, they probably didn't have the power to impose their will any longer. Void had left more than a few kingdoms in tatters.

Now we have to pick up the mess, Emily thought. And see if we can shape the future.

Hardly anyone paid attention to her, to her amusement and relief. She didn't look extraordinary, although she'd been convinced to swap her favorite blue dress for sorcerer's black. It was forbidden for anyone to wear the color unless they had magic, the garb warning any young bucks and blades - or pickpockets - it might be better to try their luck elsewhere. Emily was mildly surprised a great many young women didn't wear black, despite the law. The street harassment she'd been cautioned about back home, when she'd been a child, was nothing compared to the harassment faced by powerless young women on the streets here, particularly if they had no obvious protector. It made her sick to think about, even though she'd never directly faced it. She'd done what she could, at both Cockatrice and Heart's Eye, but changing a far too misogynistic culture was a long and difficult task. She feared, sometimes, it wouldn't be completed in her lifetime.

She shook her head, then brushed her brown hair back as she gazed up at the castle. The last two weeks had been alternatively boring and infuriating whenever she'd done her best to help Alassa and the others hammer out a settlement. They'd gotten nowhere, to the point she suspected they were wasting their time. It had taken nearly a week to sort out an order of precedence, only to have it overturned within a day. she wondered, sourly, if it might have been wiser to only invite the kings and their ambassadors, rather than the entire world. But there were so many people who had to have their say, or felt they should, that excluding them would have ensured the settlement didn't stick. It was funny, really. She'd grown up thinking that monarchs were all-powerful, but it wasn't true. A king who alienated most of his aristocracy was a dead man walking. He'd certainly be pretty close to powerless.

"Opportunity for all," a voice bellowed. "Land for all! Titles for all!"

Emily turned to see a wooden stall festooned with maps of the Blighted Lands. The necromancers were gone, leaving parts of their former territory open for settlement and other parts, unfortunately, as dangerous as they'd ever been. She frowned as she studied the maps - the local mapmakers weren't accurate, but these were amateurish even by their standards - and then listened to the speaker promising wealth and glory to anyone who invested in his enterprise. The crowd seemed unsure what to make of it. Land was still the key to aristocracy, as far as most of them were concerned, and there was plenty to be had on the wrong side of the Craggy Mountains. if, of course, one survived the first few years of trying to build a settlement. The necromancers hadn't been the only monsters lurking in the poisoned lands.

"Lady Emily herself verified the lands," the speaker proclaimed. "She cleared them for settlement."

Emily snorted in disgust and stepped forward, the crowd spotting her outfit and hastily stepping aside. None of them recognized her - her official paintings were so varied she sometimes wondered just who the artists thought they were painting - but no one in their right mind would try to stop a full-fledged sorceress, not unless they had the power to defend themselves. Sorceresses tended to be vicious when it came to defending themselves. And very few, afterwards, would question their insistence they had been defending themselves.

"Ah, a sorceress," the speaker said. "Would you care to invest in this endeavor?"

Emily studied him thoughtfully, long enough to make him look a little nervous. Up close, he seemed a little too good to be true. Blond hair, neatly styled; a neat little moustache and goatee. his clothes were bright, colorful and carefully tailored, she noted, to allow him to run for his life if the crowd realized they were being conned. And it was a con. She knew perfectly well that she had never cleared any lands for settlement, not on the other side of the mountains.

"You say Lady Emily cleared these lands," she said. She was tempted to draw it out, but she knew from painful experience that a quick-witted and fast-talking conman could easily outmaneuver a socially awkward person. Someone who knew how to get the crowd on his side could neatly avoid any probing questions, perhaps even making the asker - through some curious alchemy - into the bad guy. "Do you have a document, signed in her hand?"

"Of course," the conman said, quickly. She thought he was nervous, although it was hard to be sure. A practiced conman would be good at hiding his real feelings. "She even verified the maps!"

Emily eyed them. They were so vague they could be anywhere. There was no indication of scale, nothing to suggest the true size of the territory. they could show ten square miles, or a hundred, or nothing at all. A child could have done a better job of drawing an imaginary map, although she could understand why the conman hadn't included more than the bare bones. The fewer details on the map, the fewer ways to trip him up.

"How good to hear," she said, smoothly. "I'm sure you'll have no objection to showing us the documents, with her seal?"

The conman hesitated. "They have to be kept safe," he said, quickly. "I can't be disturbing her for replacements, or she'll turn me into a toad!"

No, I wouldn't, Emily thought. She wasn't petty or cruel or out rightly sadistic. If I'd handed you the documents and you lost them, I'd replace them.

The crowd didn't seem too impressed. The conman seemed to sense his misstep. Emily hid her amusement, somehow. Her reputation was. embarrassing at times, a young woman who was sweetness and light incarnate and always nice to the servants, but it did have a few advantages. Sometimes.

"We can clear this up easily," Emily said. "I can cast a truth spell and you can swear to the existence of those documents, straight from Lady Emily herself."

The conman turned and ran, sprinting away with astonishing speed. The crowd surged forward to give chase, a handful remaining behind to loot what they could from the makeshift stall. Emily hoped there weren't many people who'd invested in the scam before she'd arrived. The conman couldn't have been running his scam very long. The city guards would have noticed - eventually - and started asking a few pointed questions. Taking an aristocrat's name in vain would land the conman in real trouble. No aristocrat ever born would tolerate it for a moment,

She headed in the other direction, making her way further down the road. The street was growing even more crowded, something she would have thought impossible, as more and more people spilled out of the surrounding houses and into the open air. The locals hadn't hesitated to open their houses to the visitors, charging a pretty penny for a mattress on a dingy floor. that was luxury, she'd heard, compared to the visitors who were sleeping on stone floors, or occupying one of the rickety apartment blocks that kept falling down every so often, or even sleeping in alleyways that were normally kept clear by the city's guardsmen. The aristocrats had turned their gardens into campsites. she wondered, idly, if they were charging rent or, more practically, offering the tents in exchange for later services. Probably the latter. The aristocrats wouldn't charge their peers anything as common as rent. That was reserved for the commoners.

A shadow fell over her as the airship glided overhead. The crowd stared, some cringing as if they expected the airship to fall out of the sky or start dropping bombs. A couple of men muttered protective charms. Emily eyed them warily, concerned they might start hurling fireballs at the airship too. It should be pointless, if the runic magic worked as advertised, but she didn't want to test it. The thought of an airship crashing onto a largely wooden city was terrifying.

"Make way for His Grace," a voice bellowed. "Make way!"

Emily turned and winced as she saw a fancy carriage, escorted by a handful of mounted troopers straight out of a bygone age. Cavalry still had their uses, she fancied, but not on the battlefield. She'd seen mounted charges - and hordes of orcs - cut to pieces by modern weapons, changing the face of battle in a handful of bloody and completely one-sided slaughters. The aristocrats had been slow to realize the truth, until it had been presented to them in a manner they couldn't ignore. She felt a stab of sympathy for the mounted horsemen, dressed in colors that would make them easily visible on the battlefield. They could frighten and dominate unarmed peasants, but armed men would wipe them out in seconds.

"Clear the way," an imperious voice demanded, from inside the carriage. "Move the rabble."

Emily cursed under her breath. The carriage and its escorts had run straight into a group coming in the other direction. They were too tightly pressed for one to give way to the other, not easily, and.

A hatch opened. A middle-aged man poked his head out and glared at the crowd. "I said clear the way," he bellowed. His face was fat and sweaty, his hair seemingly glistening with liquid. "Whip the rabble if you must."

The second group reacted with practiced speed, drawing muskets and flintlock pistols and pointing them at the first. Emily groaned. Levellers. They had to be. And if one group started a fight. the range was too close for the armed men to wipe out the cavalry without being threatened themselves, yet too far for the cavalry to take out the gunmen before it was too late. Her mind raced desperately. The Levellers wouldn't back down - it was a point of pride to them that they never bent the knee to anyone - and the wretched aristocrat was unlikely to back down either. She didn't know him or recognize his livery, but she knew the type. The idea a mere commoner could defy him was unthinkable. It simply didn't happen.

She hurried forward, wrapping her magic around herself in a protective haze. Most sorcerers underestimated firearms, particularly the primitive matchlocks that were spreading from kingdom to kingdom like wildfire. They didn't see the bullets as dangerous. it had made sense, years ago, but not now. Now.

"Lady Sorceress," a Leveller said. Emily guessed he was the leader. elected, of course. Levellers never did anything without a debate, then a vote. The system worked reasonably well from what she'd heard. mostly. "This man is."

"Get these dogs out of my way," the aristocrat howled. "I have an appointment with Her Majesty, and I must not be late!"

"Get out of our way," the Leveller snapped back. "We were here first!"

"Turn them into slugs and step on them," the aristocrat said. "I."

Emily held up her ring finger, displaying the signet ring. The aristocrat stared at it. Emily was a Baroness, at the very least. her exact rank, she'd realized a while back, wasn't anywhere near as clear as that. Alassa had offered to confirm her as a Duchess, pointing out that Emily's position was far more than just another Baroness, but Emily had declined. She didn't want or need rank or titles. In hindsight, if she'd realized what it meant, she might have declined the Barony King Randor had given her.

But it does come in handy, sometimes, she reflected. I outrank this gentleman.

"You, get out and walk," she said, firmly. The nasty part of her mind insisted that some exercise would probably do the man good. Thankfully, his men were smart enough to sheathe their weapons without waiting for orders. "You're not going to get a carriage up the road in time to make your appointment, no matter what sort of force you use. Your staff can take the carriage back to the coaching house and wait for you."

She turned to the Levellers. "You, walk past the carriage and continue onwards. Understand?"

"Yes, Lady Sorceress," the leader said. There was a hint of relief in his voice. He'd known how nasty it could get if the confrontation turned into an actual fight. It could have sparked a riot, perhaps even a war. "And thank you."

Emily sighed inwardly. Not all of his followers seemed pleased. She couldn't blame them. The aristocrats had treated the commoners like serfs and slaves, even the freemen, and some of their victims wanted to get their own back. Why not? She knew the answer - it would end all hope of a peaceful transfer of power - but others didn't. They just wanted revenge.

She watched the aristocrat waddle away, his guards falling into formation around him, then sighed again. It was going to be a long day.


Chapter Two

"Thank you for coming," Imaiqah said, as Emily stepped into the coffee shop. "I wasn't sure you'd make it."

"I wasn't sure I'd make it," Emily said. She took off her cloak, then gave her old friend - her first true friend - a hug. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to get here earlier."

She grinned at Imaiqah, who smiled back. It was astonishing how much her friend had changed in the last six years, growing from a shy student into a mature businesswoman, sorceress and queen's counsellor. Imaiqah wore her brown hair down, framing her round and friendly face and sparkling brown eyes. Imaiqah might not be as beautiful as Alassa - few were - but she was pretty in her own way. Emily knew she had suitors, as a magician and a newly minted aristocrat, yet she'd turned them all down. Emily suspected she knew why. It wasn't easy to find someone who liked her for herself, rather than her money, magic and status.

"It's not a problem," Imaiqah assured her. "It isn't as if you're late to class."

Emily had to smile. Being more than five minutes late to class, at Whitehall, meant arriving to discover the door firmly locked and a stern note ordering you to make sure you had a very good excuse when you made your apologies to the tutor. Emily had heard students grumbling about the rules, but she approved. She'd been in too many classes, back on Earth, that had been constantly interrupted by students coming in late. It was a wonder how anyone had learnt anything in those classes. She had known people there who would've argued that the students didn't learn anything.

She looked around with interest as Imaiqah led her through the café and into the back rooms. The coffee house was no gaudy drinking hall for aristocrats, no pub for commoners; it looked and felt more like a library or bookstore, although it served drinks from all around the known world as well as offering books and places for people to meet and talk. Her eyes flickered over the clientele, noting aristocrats rubbing shoulders with wealthy commoners, magicians and other types they'd normally try to ignore, or cut dead, if they happened to meet in public anywhere else. Imaiqah had said, firmly, that whatever happened inside the coffeehouse stayed in the coffeehouse, on pain of permanent banishment. It worked, somewhat to Emily's surprise. But then, the coffeehouse had wealthy and powerful patrons and provided a place for them to make contact with newcomers to the city. Anyone who got banned would find themselves at a severe disadvantage.

"We brought in some new tea leaves, from the other side of the world," Imaiqah commented, as they entered a private drinking room. It managed to look both elegant and shabby at the same time, creating an air that was surprisingly comfortable. "Would you like to try?"

"Why not?" Emily had never been a big tea drinker, but Alassa and Imaiqah had been broadening her horizons since they'd first become friends. "What else do you have?"

"Sweet cakes," Imaiqah said, with a wink. "And a few other treats."

She motioned for Emily to sit on a comfortable sofa, then rang the bell for the maid. The young woman was dressed in a surprisingly restrained fashion, covered from head to toe in muted colors. it took Emily a moment to realize her outfit was designed to allow her to blend into the background, like a soldier in camouflage. She supposed it made a certain kind of sense. Imaiqah wanted her coffeehouse to be a place of intellectual stimulation and debate, when it wasn't allowing important people to meet and talk out of the public eye, and dressing the waitresses to stand out wouldn't help. They were there to serve, nothing else. And perhaps to keep an eye on the patrons. There were too many locals who regarded servants as little more than part of the furniture.

Imaiqah settled back in her armchair. "We have a bunch of newcomers tonight," she said, seriously. "A couple of aristocrats from the border, a handful of professors from various schools and a pair of public intellectuals, one of whom is also an artist. Do you want to meet with any of them?"

"Not if I can avoid it," Emily said. It had been a very long day. "Can I?"

"Of course," Imaiqah said. They shared an understanding look. "I did say they were here to relax, not to talk about their. causes, but."

Emily nodded, wryly. There were few people of consequence - aristocrats, magicians, wealthy commoners, or narcissists - who could resist the chance to buttonhole someone, anyone, they thought could help them get whatever they wanted. She'd done her best to keep the number of private interviews and appointments she'd had to offer as low as possible, but dozens of petitioners had intercepted her as she walked from place to place to state their case and beg for her help. She didn't have time to listen to even a tiny fraction of their requests, let alone help them. And yet, it was hard to tell them to get lost. She hated being rude.

"The Dispossessed wanted to talk to you specifically," Imaiqah added. "I was careful not to tell them where they might find you."

"They probably walked past me on the street," Emily said, wryly. "Or got caught in the crowd."

"Yeah," Imaiqah agreed. "They're not happy with you."

Emily nodded, sourly. The Dispossessed - the aristocrats who'd fled their estates and countries ahead of angry mobs and outright rebels - loathed her, although it wasn't her fault that they'd treated their people so badly they took the first opportunity they could to rise against their masters. She'd lost count of the number of aristocrats who'd been hunted down and beaten to death in the last few months, or of the number who'd fled to one of the other kingdoms to lick their wounds and plot revenge. Lurid stories of rebel atrocities had dominated the broadsheets for months, with surprisingly little exaggeration. The sheer level of hatred the aristocracy had engendered demanded outright violence on a fearful scale. Male aristos had been castrated, then killed; female aristos had been raped and sold into slavery; children had been, if they were lucky, sent to poor families to be raised as commoners. God alone knew how many aristocrats had vanished without a trace. She'd met refugees who had no idea if they were the last of their families but feared the worst.

They blame me for the hatred they caused, she thought. If she'd grown up as a serf, treated as little better than property, she'd resent it too. The aristocrats had treated their dogs better than their serfs. Even the freemen, with legal rights, had been treated like shit. And now they're reaping what they sowed.

"There's nothing I can do for them," she said, tiredly. She wanted to do something, even just arranging for the aristocracy to leave peacefully, but everyone would stop listening the moment she refused to give them everything they wanted. There was no longer any room for compromise. "And if they treated their own people a little better, perhaps they wouldn't be in this mess."

Imaiqah nodded. "I told them as much," she said. "But they didn't listen."

"No," Emily agreed. The aristocrats had been raised to think they were entitled to rule and to hell with what anyone else thought about it. Even the decent and sensible ones still thought they had the right to call the shots, dominating the world through the sheer power of their presence. "But I don't want to think about them right now."

The servant returned, carrying a tray with a teapot and three mugs. "Thank you," Imaiqah said, taking the tray. "Show Prince Jade in when he arrives."

"Yes, My Lady."

Emily raised her eyebrows as the servant retreated, with a casualness that would have earned her a whipping in an aristocratic court. "Jade is coming here?"

"He needs a break too," Imaiqah said. "It's been a difficult few weeks."

"For everyone," Emily agreed. "Are they still giving him grief over being a mere Prince Consort?"

"I'm afraid so," Imaiqah said. "You'd think they'd find some other way of getting at him."

Emily sighed, inwardly. It was rare, vanishingly so, for the husband to be so clearly subordinate to his wife, even when the wife was the queen of an entire country. Jade was a combat sorcerer, a genuine war hero and father of the next monarch. and yet, his wife's political enemies seemed bound and determined to insist Jade should master his wife and rule the country through her. She had no idea if it was naked misogyny or a ruthless attempt to cause trouble - Alassa wasn't the sort of woman to retreat to the boudoir and let the men run the show - but it hardly mattered. It was threatening to undermine her rule.

"He's an easy target," she said, finally. "Are they still tossing names of prospective husbands at you?"

Imaiqah nodded. "Yeah, ever since I said no to Roger." she shrugged - "and you? How's Caleb?"

Emily blushed. "We're together," she said. "But we also have to be apart."

"I was surprised you didn't stay at Heart's Eye," Imaiqah said. "You'd be welcome there."

"It was a quick visit," Emily said. The university had grown by leaps and bounds, evolving in directions she hadn't expected when she'd laid the groundwork. The whole idea of magitech was hardly new to her - she'd read countless novels involving some form of magic-based technology - but the university had made it work. The old spell processor idea had been given new life. in a way, it threatened to change the world as much as gunpowder and firearms, for better or worse. "I couldn't stay long."

"I hope you managed to have some time with him," Imaiqah teased. "Are you going to get married?"

Emily snorted. "I don't know," she said. "Right now, I have too many other things to worry about."

She took the cup Imaiqah offered and thoughtfully sniffed the liquid. She'd never really considered getting married, back home. It hadn't worked out too well for her mother. Now. part of her wanted to marry Caleb and bear his children and raise a family together, yet the rest of her was fearful of the cost. What would it be like, for her?

"I couldn't stay long," she repeated. "But I'll have to go back, after this" - she waved a hand at the wall, indicating the chaos outside - "is over."

"If it ever is," Imaiqah said. "They're still no closer to any sort of agreement, not even on the smallest things."

"No," Emily agreed. There were too many issues - some already settled by force, others left in limbo - that might never be resolved. "But what happens if the Allied Lands fall apart completely?"

"They already have, arguably," Imaiqah said. "The only thing holding it together is sheer inertia. The White City is lost to us, Resolution Castle is a smoking crater. I doubt there are more than a handful of mediators left, hardly enough to rebuild. Right now, all we're doing is formalizing the new world order and fretting over what might happen if the raw magic down south continues to spread."

Emily made a face. The nexus point under the White City, the home of the long-gone Imperial Family, had been snuffed out centuries ago, until she'd accidentally reignited it in the closing days of the Necromantic War. It wasn't the only nexus point to come back to life, and the world could have coped if that was all it had done, but the raw magic had spilled out of the nexus point and forced the city's population to flee or risk a fate worse than death. She'd been there, during her flight, and discovered the city was no longer inhabitable. The stories from the handful of others brave or foolish enough to visit had been so widely divergent that it was hard to tell if the raw magic was causing havoc or if they'd simply made the tales up. She didn't want to go back, but she feared she might have no choice. God alone knew what would happen if the wild magic spread beyond the mountains.

We can't evacuate forever, she thought, numbly. Sooner or later, we'll run out of space.

The door opened. Jade stepped into the room, wearing an outfit more suited to a low-ranking nobleman than the husband of a queen and father of a princess. Emily grinned as Imaiqah waved Jade to a seat, then poured a third mug of tea. Jade was as handsome as always - she knew there was nothing fake about his muscles, or his blond hair and bright blue eyes - but he looked tired. Emily knew he'd been supervising the security arrangements, a difficult task when a third of the attendees thought they had the right to whip anyone who annoyed them and another third was determined to make sure no one laid a finger on them again. Jade had the rank, at least, to shut down most of the troublemakers. But the ones who technically outranked him tended to cause the most trouble.

"It's good to see you again," Jade said, as if he hadn't seen them both only a few short hours ago. "Thanks for sorting out Duke Astaulf. He bitched and moaned so much he barely had any time to state his case."

Emily shook her head. "What was his case?"

"He used to hold lands in Zangaria and tried to play both sides during the Civil War," Jade said. "Or at least his representatives did. King Randor seized his holdings for the Crown, when Astaulf refused to bend the knee for fear of offending his other monarch, and they were passed to Alassa when she won the war. And now he wants them back."

"Ouch," Imaiqah said. "He'll have to choose a side."

"Too late now," Jade said, cheerfully. "He had the nerve to tell Alassa his heart would be with her even if his body was elsewhere, serving his other monarch. She wasn't impressed."

Emily smiled, although she knew it was a serious issue. There'd been too many high-ranking aristocrats who'd had estates in two or more kingdoms, forcing them to try to somehow maintain a balancing act of paying homage to one monarch without offending the other to the point he charged the aristocrat with treason and seized his lands. It was a difficult, almost impossible, balancing act, particularly if the monarchs went to war. And now, without the necromancers to force the Allied Lands to work together, it was a given that - sooner or later - there would be war.

And the aristos will have to choose a side or risk losing everything, she reflected. The duke might be wiser to accept that his lands are permanently gone and leave it at that.

"The lands are also being governed in line with the Great Charter," Imaiqah pointed out. "He'll have problems adapting."

"I'm sure he will," Emily said.

Jade looked irked. "I was. approached. by Lord Donegal," he said, shortly. He sounded as if he were biting into a lemon. "He wishes me to make approaches to you on his behalf."

Emily blinked. "Me?"

"You," Jade said. "His father was executed after the attempted coup against the king. Being underage at the time, he was taken as a king's ward and eventually farmed out to a loyalist nobleman. He didn't take any part in the civil war, but. he comes of age this year."

"And so?" Emily didn't recall meeting Lord Donegal, although she supposed she'd probably crossed paths with the child before the civil war. If he'd only just come of age. there wasn't a hard and fast rule on when children became adults, not when vast estates and vested interests were involved, but there were limits on how long a young man could be kept legally a child. He'd be somewhere between fifteen to nineteen. "He wants to marry me?"

Jade grinned. "Oh, probably."

Imaiqah elbowed him. "His father's lands were part of Cockatrice," she said. "And he wants them back."

"Crap," Emily said. "And he thinks."

She stared down at her hands. She'd never been particularly interested in ruling the barony. She'd reformed the laws and tax codes, and redistributed the lands, and ... and then, left the people to get on with it. She'd never thought they were hers, not in any real sense of the word. The idea that she had the right to treat them as her private property was. unthinkable. She wasn't Scarlet O'Hara. People weren't property. And if the aristos disagreed. it didn't matter. She wasn't going to treat people that way and that was the end of it.

"I don't know," she said, slowly. On one hand, she supposed the boy had the legal right to try to claim his estates. On the other, he was likely to wind up dead if he tried to reclaim the lands she'd redistributed to the peasants. "I'll think about it."

Jade nodded. "There are other issues," he said. "Lord Donegal isn't the only one, just the oldest."

"Tell them to buzz off," Imaiqah urged. "He's just another entitled brat."

"But fucking around with the right of inheritance could cause other problems," Jade countered. "And set precedents that'll bite us later."

Emily made a face. It was a thorny issue.

"I'll deal with it when I have a free moment," she said, finally. "And."

The world shifted around her, a wave of. something. crashed into her mind and made her want to retch. It was a stench. no, worse than that. It was as if she'd plunged into a cesspit, something so vile it struck her like a physical blow. For a horrible moment, she thought she'd been poisoned. that they'd all been. She could hear someone throwing up outside. Magic. Someone had attacked them with magic.

"This way," Jade snapped. He was on his feet, one hand resting on the sword she'd given him years ago. "We need to move. And fast!"


Chapter Three

Emily half-expected, as they stumbled out of the coffeehouse, to see the signs of an attack. A burning building, the aftermath of an explosion. something, anything, other than a crowd that seemed torn between panic and uncertainty. Magicians were retching, as were a handful of others, but the remainder looked more puzzled than sick. Some were starting to inch away from the magicians, and everyone else who'd thrown up.

"It's just magic," Jade said, grimly. His eyes found the castle, then swept up and down the street. "Only the people with magic sensitivity are affected."

Emily nodded, trying to localize the feeling. It had vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving her unsure it had ever happened. If she hadn't seen so many people affected by the sensation, she would have wondered if she'd imagined it. Her head felt weirdly fragile as she closed her eyes and reached out further, trying to understand what had happened and why. An attack? If so, had it been mistimed or miscalculated? The attacker could not have assumed the sensation would kill them, could they? Surely, if they wanted to take advantage of the disorientation, they would have launched their attack by now. It was rapidly becoming too late to take advantage of anything.

"Too many people felt it," Imaiqah said. "What is.?"

The air seemed to swell, suddenly growing hot and humid and disgusting beyond words. Emily tasted something on her tongue, something she didn't want to think about; she felt a sensation that appalled her and yet called to her at the same time, an urge to do something so utterly taboo that half the thrill of doing it came from breaking the taboo into a hundred little pieces. She closed her eyes, gritting her teeth and doing her best to ignore the sound of people throwing up and retching as she reached out again, trying to locate the source. It was somehow obscene that she couldn't find it at once, as if it existed only in her own head. It felt as if she were sick and yet also imagining being unwell.

"Got it," she said. The source appeared to be all around her, but she could peer through the haze and pick out the exact source. Her eyes snapped open. "It's down the road."

Jade cursed. "The aristo quarter."

"Where the quality lives," Imaiqah agreed. "Why there?"

"Stay here," Jade ordered Imaiqah. "If we don't come back, go to the palace and tell Alassa what happened."

He set off down the road. Emily glanced at Imaiqah, then followed Jade as he fought his way through the crowd. Magicians, and a number of people who had some sensitivity to magic but little else, were hurrying to get away from the source as the sensation billowed over the city again, while others were starting to follow. Emily saw a food cart tip over as someone ran into it, the owner struggling desperately to keep it upright long enough to save the food. She cast a spell to help him, but the effort made the sensation worse. Much worse. Other stalls and carts weren't so lucky. She shuddered, helplessly. The clean-up was going to be a nightmare.

The streets fell quieter as they hurried into the fanciest part of town, a maze of large townhouses and miniature mansions belonging to families that could trace their ancestry back hundreds of years. It had always struck her as odd that such homes, often quite small, commanded such high prices - and, of course, they were rarely sold to anyone outside the aristocracy. Magic sparkled in the air as wards came to life, trying to protect the occupants from whatever was happening. She suspected they weren't as effective as their owners might hope. The sensation, whatever it was, burned through her mental defenses as if they weren't there. She felt uncomfortably naked.

"Shit," Jade muttered, as they rounded a corner. "Here?"

Emily let him take the lead, giving her a chance to look around. A building sat dead ahead of her, a monstrous structure that looked as if someone had taken a Greek temple and mashed it into a bank, or a guildhouse. There was something about the building's appearance that sent a chill down her spine, as if there was something subtly wrong. Strange lights flickered in the windows, casting a baleful glow over the darkening streets. A handful of men in fancy uniforms - private guards, she guessed - stood outside, arguing with a pair of city guardsmen. They looked relieved to see Jade. She was surprised they recognized him.

"Prince Jade," one said. "I."

"Something is happening," the guardsman said. He sounded nervous. "I."

Jade cleared his throat. "Tell me what happened," he said, addressing the private guardsman. "Calmly, if possible."

The guardsman glanced from side to side, as if hoping his master - and a small army of lawyers - would appear from nowhere to keep him from having to answer Jade's questions. Emily felt a stab of sympathy that surprised her. Legally, the private guardsmen had no authority; worse, he was addressing the man who not only commanded the city guard and the country's armies, but also held the power of low and middle justice. Practically, the private guardsmen had a surprising amount of power. as long as they were backed by their masters. But where were they?

"I escorted Lady Fletcher to the hall. ah, My Lord," the guardsman stammered. He didn't seem able to meet Jade's eyes. "I. she told me to wait outside and I."

Jade leaned forward. "And.?"

"And then. that happened," the guardsman said. "I. two guardsmen went inside and didn't come out again. I. we. I. we sent for help and waited and."

"And they did nothing," the city guardsman put in. "My Lord, I have already sent for sorcerers."

"Good thinking," Jade said. His eyes never left the private guardsman. "And what was Lady Fletcher doing in the hall?"

"I don't know," the guardsman said. Emily couldn't tell if he was telling the truth or lying to protect his mistress. It could be either. "I ... she didn't confide in me."

Jade glanced at the city guardsmen. "Set up a perimeter," he ordered. "No one is to enter or leave the hall without my permission."

Emily caught his eye as the guards hurried to work. "What is the hall?"

"It is the Worshipful Domain of the Burning Ram," Jade said, his tone dripping disdain. "Or so we are assured. It's a club for junior aristocrats to drink and smoke and fuck and do whatever else they want, while they wait for their parents to die so they can inherit their estates and begin the cycle all over again. They could join the army or head off to see the world, but instead."

He broke off as the sensation washed over them again. "I don't like it," he said. "Whatever is going on inside is bad."

Emily nodded, grimly. The city guard had a handful of sorcerers on the payroll, and there were others who could be deputized at need, but it was going to take time to assemble them and the rest of the troops. She had no idea what was going on, inside the hall, yet. she feared they didn't have the time to wait. The sensation was growing stronger, bringing with it the sense of looming disaster. She dared not hesitate. She wasn't even sure reinforcements would do any good.

She swallowed hard, tasting something foul. "I can go," she said. She had no idea how many people were trapped in the hall, but. they needed help. "You get your people ready. I'll try and get a look at what's going on inside."

Jade hesitated. "Are you sure?"

"I fought necromancers," Emily reminded him, dryly. "I don't think anyone will fault you for letting me go first."

"Hah," Jade said. It was almost insanely optimistic. Emily knew she was the best choice to go, and he knew it too, yet someone would taunt Jade for sending a girl ahead of him. They'd happily forget everything Emily had ever done, just to undermine Jade and Alassa. And yet, Jade put his duty ahead of his own personal feelings. "Be careful, alright?"

Emily nodded, then braced herself and started towards the hall. The sensation washed around her as if she were waist-deep in water or sludge. Her legs twitched uncomfortably, something tugging her and, at the same time, pushing her back. It was hard to step through the door - solid stone, ajar - and peer into the lobby. The hallway was strikingly ornate and deserted. Eerie lights flickered over the hanging clothes of gold, marble staircases and jeweled chandeliers that were spinning as if being blown by an unseen and unfelt wind. It felt almost as if she'd stepped into a haunted house, a house of horrors. she gritted her teeth and forced herself to keep going, following the sensation as it called her on. Things glittered at the corner of her eye, never there when she turned to look at them directly; the lights seemed to brighten and dim with no discernible pattern. She was sure the shadows moved every time she looked away from them.

No doormen, she thought. She'd visited a handful of clubs, over the last few years, and they'd all had doormen to keep out the riffraff. There were no men in the lobby. did that mean they'd relied on wards to keep out uninvited guests? Or had something happened to the doormen? The urge to turn and go back to Jade was almost overwhelming. What the hell happened here?

Her back prickled as she stepped through another open door and walked down a corridor lined with portraits. It felt as if she were being watched by unseen eyes, by someone from a distance. she glanced at the portraits and scowled as she noticed the eyes following her, an effect that did nothing for her peace of mind. She didn't recognize any of the faces, and the nameplates underneath had been removed, suggesting. what? She didn't know. The air shifted around her, blowing hot and cold. She kept walking, allowing the sensation to draw her further. It was right in front of her.

She paused as she reached another set of doors and peered into a gaudy antechamber. A handful of bodies were on the ground, faces twisted in agony. Emily had to catch herself to keep from running to them, forcing herself to be mindful of traps as she approached. They looked like private guards. she shuddered in horror as she saw a man's face, trapped in a permanent rictus of horror. He looked as if he'd gazed upon something that had turned him to stone, except his body was still flesh and blood and very - very - dead. She cast a pair of spells in hopes they could tell her how the men had died, but. the response was confused. Her senses were almost overwhelmed. It was like trying to hear a whisper in a crowded concert hall, with a rock and roll band playing something so loud they were threatening to bring the roof down.

Rest in peace, she thought. The guards looked to have died of fright. she knew spells that could do something like that, but there was no trace of magic surrounding the corpses. There's nothing I can do for you now.

The sensation lapped around her as she straightened and made her way to the other door. The hall felt weirdly familiar. it took her a moment to realize it was modelled on the king's audience chamber, with the antechamber giving the petitioners a chance to compose themselves as they waited in line for their audience. The hall wasn't even that much smaller than the castle's chamber. She smiled despite her unease and peered into the next room.

It was a nightmare.

Magic crackled in the air, hovering around a cluster of kneeling forms like vultures shadowing a man on the verge of death. She could feel raw pieces of spellwork in the air, darting from place to place as if they were unsure of where to come to rest; she thought, as she tried to study the spells, that whatever they'd been trying to do hadn't so much failed as jammed, leaving the casters trapped in the middle of their spell. Their. their ritual. She shuddered as her eyes flickered over the ritualists, noting how they'd stripped themselves naked and cut their wrists, offering themselves to the spell. And how they'd positioned themselves around a circle.

An empty circle, Emily thought. It was surprisingly large, for such a ritual. Or is it?

She cursed under her breath as she tried to pick out the underlying logic of the spell. There had to be something, otherwise the spell wouldn't even have gotten off the ground, but there were so many pieces of rogue spellware that she couldn't isolate a pattern. It was as if someone had taken a dozen different spells, chopped them apart and then mashed them together randomly, the kind of amateurish spellcasting she'd been cautioned to avoid on the grounds she'd probably get herself killed trying. It was almost insulting that the spell had worked as well as it had, although she couldn't figure out what they'd been trying to do.

If they wanted to call a demon, she thought numbly, where is it?

The sense of being watched grew stronger as she studied the ritualists, but there was no one in sight. She checked around the room and saw no one, not even a lone ritual master who'd tricked the others into donating their lives to his spell. Her eyes flickered over the ritualists, trying to pick out a leader. had he accidentally caught himself in his own spell? It wasn't impossible, if you didn't know what you were doing. Rituals were always tricky and rarely attempted if there was an alternative. Or. had they tried to carry out a ritual they'd found in a book without realizing that most of the old spells had been booby-trapped, requiring anyone who found them to parse out the spellwork carefully before they tried the spell?

Emily's heart twisted as she spotted a kneeling woman, her eyes blank and hopeless. The girl looked. like a young girl who'd been made up to look older, much older. It wasn't convincing. except it was. The girl was being drained of life, every year she would have had being fed into the spell. Emily swallowed, hard, as she silently counted the trapped men and women. She knew what a necromancer could do with a single sacrifice. What would happen if someone - or something - drained thirty-three young people of everything they had? She didn't want to know.

Her mind raced. Dragging the ritualists out of the spellware was likely to get them killed. Draining the spellware required tools she didn't have. and couldn't get, not in time to make a difference. Even if she teleported back to Whitehall or Heart's Eye and grabbed what she needed, it would be too late. And leaving them to die wasn't an option. No matter how she looked at it, she couldn't figure out what the ritual had been intended to do or what would happen when the ritualists started to die. She doubted it would be pleasant.

Think, she told herself. How do I take the spell apart from the inside?

She inched forward, stepping into the heart of the storm. She hadn't taken part in the ritual. She should be safe enough, as long as she didn't cross the circle they'd drawn, but. a nasty feeling nagged at her as she started to feel out the more understandable parts of the spellware edifice. Pulling on the wrong piece of magic might cause the entire structure to collapse, forcing her to drain the raw power through her wards - which would likely kill her - or try to channel it up and out of the hall, into the open air above. She had no idea what that would do, but.

Make a battery, she thought, taking one of the rings off her finger. It wasn't a very good anchor for a pocket dimension, but it would have to suffice. She had no time to get anything else. Drain the magic into the battery, hope the rest of the spellware collapses and frees the ritualists before they die.

She felt the power crackling around her as she cast the spell, grateful that Void had drilled her mercilessly in solo spellcasting. He'd pushed her hard, trying to distract her as she worked her spells. he'd taught her well, she thought, as the raw magic crackled against her wards like fire brushing against her dress. It felt as if she was messing with something too hot to handle, pain shooting up her palm and into her body as she tried to channel the magic through the twist in time and space and into the battery. She'd done it dozens of times before, yet this time the magic almost moved like a living thing.

Someone giggled.

Emily spun around. The ritualists were falling. dying. They were falling into a circle. a second circle! She'd been tricked, lured into a trap. a trap baited with dying youngsters and timed to ensure she had no time to parse out all the spellwork, a trap she could not resist.

She darted back, hoping to escape, but it was already too late. The world went white.





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.

Discussion Forum

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
  Fists of Justice  book 12
  The Gordian Knot  book 13
  Graduation Day  book 14
  Alassa's Tale  book 14.5
  The Princess in the Tower  book 15
  The Broken Throne  book 16
  Cursed  book 17
  Mirror Image  book 18
  The Artful Apprentice  book 19
  Oathkeeper  book 20
  Little Witches  book 21
  The Right Side of History  book 22
  The Face of the Enemy  book 23
  Child of Destiny  book 24
  The Demon's Design  book 25

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 Demon's Design Copyright © 2023. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.


To order this book:
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List Price: $6.50 USD


  Author News


Christopher has a number of interesting articles up at his blog, The Chrishanger.

"The Stronghold Academy of Martial Arts"

"Emily's Finances"

"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?"
Author interview on Blogcritics

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

Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books

"Deconstructing Emily" blog post

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

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

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

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

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

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book






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