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The Artful Apprentice
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

For Emily, the time has come to begin her apprenticeship with Void. But as Void introduces her to levels of magic she never knew existed, she finds herself fighting desperately to keep up, to defeat challenge after challenge to prove her worth...

And, when Void sends her on an errand, she finds herself facing a choice that could destroy her...

...Or unleash a nightmare that could destroy the entire world.

 

 

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The Artful Apprentice

fantasy

Christopher Nuttall

 

 

 

Prologue


I don’t like it.”

Sergeant Miles resisted the urge to say something cutting as Lady Barb paced his office, her footsteps wearing a groove in the carpeted floor. Lady Barb had always been the one to take action, the one who’d been prepared to do anything — no matter how dangerous — to accomplish her goals. It was something they had in common. Neither of them was the type of person who sat back and did nothing even if it was the smartest thing to do. They had to be doing something...

But now, there was nothing they could do.

He watched as Lady Barb paced, finding himself — for once — at a loss for words. He knew Lady Barb disliked — hated — Void. She’d been his apprentice, once upon a time. Miles wasn’t sure of the details, or why she’d left so abruptly, but no one would leave such an apprenticeship unless they had no other choice. Lady Barb wasn't incompetent or stupid or lazy. She couldn’t have been dismissed for any of the usual reasons. He didn’t think he wanted to know the truth. It had to have been something bad.

Emily shouldn’t be going to him,” Lady Barb insisted. She turned to face him, long blonde hair fanning out as she moved. “There are others...”

Like whom?” Miles met her eyes, evenly. “There are few other teachers who can prepare her for mastery.”

You could,” Lady Barb snapped. “Or I could. Or Irene or...”

Miles shook his head, curtly. “I could make a combat sorcerer out of her,” he said. “So could you. But she wants to be more than just a combat sorcerer. She hasn’t peaked yet.”

There are others,” Lady Barb insisted. “Hasdrubal is dead, but there are others.”

Maybe,” Miles said. “Hasdrubal would have been ideal.”

And safer,” Lady Barb said. “For everyone.”

Miles rubbed his forehead. “Do you have the power to stop her from going to him?”

Lady Barb shot him a sharp look. “Whose side are you on?”

Yours. Emily’s.” Miles looked back at her, calmly. He loved her. He really did. But training and inclination forced him to state the facts as he saw them. “The blunt truth is that there are few others who can prepare her for the future. You can’t do it. I can’t.”

You took her to war,” Lady Barb reminded him.

I know.” Miles shook his head. “The fact remains...”

It isn’t safe,” Lady Barb insisted, cutting him off. “And you know it as well as I do.”

Miles knew, without false modesty, he was a patient man. He’d schooled teenagers who thought they knew everything through the long and painful process of discovering they didn’t. He’d handled aristocrats with egos the size of Whitehall itself; he’d dealt with commoners who barely had the self-confidence to raise their voices when confronted with their social betters. He knew when to be stern and when to be encouraging. It was more an art than a science and he knew he was good at it. But there were limits.

Emily doesn’t have any parents here,” he pointed out, calmly. He was upset too — he didn’t trust Void either — but there was no point in beating a dead horse. “Your... authority... over her vanished the moment you stepped back from teaching. Her formal — legal — guardian is Void himself.”

She’s more than old enough to put that aside,” Lady Barb snapped. “It was a legal fiction from the start.”

And one that’s proven damned convenient over the last six years,” Miles pointed out. “How many people left her alone because they thought she was Void’s daughter?”

He pressed on before Lady Barb could try to answer. “There’s no one, not even Void himself, who can tell her not to take the apprenticeship and make it stick. And... who would?”

Me,” Lady Barb said, stubbornly.

You’d be advising her not to take an apprenticeship that could turn her into one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world,” Miles said. “This is an apprenticeship she wants. She could have had her pick of masters, if she wished. There isn’t a sorcerer who’d refuse her. She’s chosen to study under Void and we need to respect that choice.”

It could get her killed,” Lady Barb insisted. She rested her hands on her hips. “Or changed. The person who emerges at the far end may not be the person we know and love.”

Miles cocked his head. “Do you have so little faith in her?”

You know as well as I do that he’ll put her in danger, just to see how she copes,” Lady Barb snapped. “Void cannot be trusted.”

There are people who say the same of you,” Miles said. “And me.”

Lady Barb snorted. “Absurd.”

But true.” Miles stood and tried to hug her. “I understand your concerns. I’m sure you’ll ensure that she knows about your concerns. But there’s nothing we can do. She wants to study under him.”

Ha,” Lady Barb said, brushing away his hug.

Miles nodded, trying not to be offended. He’d known Emily for six years. She’d been an odd student, even by Whitehall’s standards. Miles hadn’t understood Emily until he’d learned the truth about her origins. No wonder she was a little strange. And yet... there was no doubting her bravery, her skill at magic and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of simple human decency. Miles had met many magicians he’d thought would eventually go mad, getting themselves and others killed as they pushed the limits until they snapped. Emily wasn’t one of them.

We can’t stop Emily from going,” Miles said. “And if you push too hard, you may drive her away from you. She’s old enough to rebel against her parental figures. He’s not going to have an easy time with her either.”

Lady Barb gave him a sour look. “Do you have sisters?”

I’ve taught students for over a decade,” Miles reminded her. He’d never had many girls in his classes. The ones who had studied under him had been so driven that they’d often outshone the boys. “I am not entirely deprived of powers of observation.”

He smiled. “Didn’t you rebel against your parents?”

No.” Lady Barb shook her head, a hint of pain in her eyes. “My father never said...”

She grimaced. “So... what do we do?”

Be there for her,” Miles said. He hugged her, tightly. This time, she returned the hug. “That’s all we can do.”

Yes.” Lady Barb pulled back. “And I’ll warn her to watch her back.”

She can’t distrust her master,” Miles said.

She must.” Lady Barb reached for her cloak and pulled it on. “You mark my words. Void isn’t tutoring her out of the goodness of his heart. He has an agenda.”

You don’t know that,” Miles said.

I do,” Lady Barb said. “He’s up to something. And Emily may find herself in serious trouble.”

And she turned and walked away.

 

Chapter One


Welcome to Zugzwang,” Lady Barb said, as the teleport field faded. “We’re only a short walk from the tower.”

Emily glanced at her, sharply. The older woman had been unusually short-tempered as they’d traveled from Zangaria to Zugzwang, barely saying anything beyond commands and vague descriptions. Emily could tell that something was bothering Lady Barb, but what? She wasn’t sure she wanted to pry. Lady Barb was not the sort of person to get wound up over nothing.

She looked around with interest as Lady Barb led her through the town. It was the sort of place she’d have loved if she had time to explore. A cluster of shops — bookshops, apothecaries, general stores — dominated the center, surrounded by a number of smaller houses and a single, giant inn. The people on the streets looked prosperous and happy, unlike many other places she’d visited. She smiled as she saw the schoolchildren heading to school, looking surprisingly enthusiastic. The schoolmaster, standing by the door, nodded to them. He looked more competent — and decent — than any teacher she’d known on Earth.

And the New Learning has made it here, she thought, as she spotted the letters and numbers carved into the wall. Who knows how far the children will go?

She said nothing as they kept walking, passing a single pub and a stagecoach center. Lady Barb hadn’t been entirely clear on how Zugzwang related to the local aristocracy, or even if there was a local aristocracy, but Emily could tell the townsfolk enjoyed a hearty degree of independence. They wouldn’t have worked so hard if they thought there was a risk of being taxed into destitution at an aristocrat’s whim. She looked towards the distant mountains, noting the absence of any large castles. Here, so far from civilization, commoners could assert themselves. She wondered if that would change over the next few years. A dozen kingdoms were already building railways to link their towns and cities together.

Lady Barb pointed towards a handful of houses slightly larger than the rest. “There’s a small number of magicians here,” she said. “You’ll probably meet some of them.”

Emily nodded. Zugzwang wasn’t their final destination, but she’d been told it was traditional — Lady Barb had said it with a pronounced sneer — for apprentices to approach their master’s home on foot. Emily suspected Void didn’t care about tradition any more than she did, but... she wondered, suddenly, if Lady Barb was deliberately wasting time. They could have teleported a lot closer to the tower without ignoring tradition. It was unlikely anyone would have noticed, let alone cared.

She said nothing as they left the town and headed up a stony path. The landscape changed rapidly, becoming a valley heading further towards the mountains. She could feel wisps of wild magic in the air, brushing against her senses. The path didn’t look particularly well-trodden. The more she looked at it, the more she thought it was a water-cut gully that could turn nasty if the rain started to fall. She glanced at the clear blue sky, wondering just how often it rained. She’d been caught in enough rainstorms, in the Cairngorms or along the Craggy Mountains, to know not to take them lightly. It was very easy to get lost — or worse — in the gloom.

The locals never come up here,” Lady Barb said, as if she were answering a question someone had asked. “The mountains” — she jabbed a finger towards the distant peaks — “are forbidden.”

Emily took a breath. “Forbidden?”

There’s a lot of wild magic there,” Lady Barb said. Her voice was curt, hard. “Anyone who walks into the region doesn’t come out again.”

I can imagine.” Emily ran a hand through her long brown hair. “Why does he live here?”

You’ll have to ask him,” Lady Barb said, shortly. “A person like him could live anywhere.”

Lady Barb kept going, forcing Emily to hurry. It grew warmer as sunlight poured into the valley. Sweat beaded on Emily's back, turning her dress into a sticky nightmare. She cursed the lack of warning under her breath, wishing she’d had time to wear something a little more practical. Void wouldn’t care if she turned up in trousers and a shirt instead of a thoroughly impractical dress. But he had made it clear he wanted her now. She was mildly surprised he’d let her take the time to establish Heart’s Eye before summoning her.

And I had to leave it behind, Emily thought. She trusted her friends to handle the university as it started to grow into something real, but she wanted to be part of it. Will I be able to go back for a visit anytime soon?

She sighed, inwardly, as she mentally reviewed the notes on apprenticeships. There were few hard and fast rules. A master was supposed to give his apprentice a through grounding in his subject, but little else. There were apprentices who were treated as children, she’d read, and apprentices who were treated as slaves. There were masters who were kind and caring and masters who had no qualms about beating their apprentices bloody. And there were no guidelines on just how long an apprenticeship should take. Jade had completed his apprenticeship in a year. Others... had taken five to ten years to graduate.

A prickle ran down her spine as the background magic field grew stronger. It felt oddly like the tainted sandstorms around Heart’s Eye, but far — far — kinder. She felt almost as if she’d come home. And yet, something was missing. She looked around, trying to work out what wasn’t there. It took her longer than it should have to realize there were no animals shifting though the undergrowth, no birds flying through the sky, no insects buzzing from flower to flower. There was no animal life at all.

Nearly there,” Lady Barb grunted. “Are you ready?”

Emily caught her breath. “Yeah,” she managed. She’d gotten a little out of shape over the past month. Sergeant Harkin would have laughed — and then insisted on forced marches until she regained her muscle tone. She promised herself, silently, that she’d exercise more over the coming months. “I think so.”

Good.” Lady Barb stopped as they reached the top of the gully. “Can you see the tower?”

She stepped aside to allow Emily to peer into the valley below. It was immense, a green sea surrounded and concealed by towering mountains. The sight took her breath away. It was a whole secret valley, hidden from prying eyes. A single tower stood in the exact center of the valley, surrounded by rings of green. Emily stared, trying to understand what she saw. The tower was surrounded by grass, then a ring of trees, then more grass, then... her eyes narrowed as she saw the runes. Void — or whoever had designed and built the tower — had landscaped the surrounding environment to create a web of subtle magic. The tower might be completely invisible to anyone who hadn’t been invited. She understood, now, why the locals had never discovered the valley. It had been carefully hidden from them.

The tower itself looked... odd. Emily couldn’t help thinking of a rook. It seemed to vary in size, being both large enough to hold a small army and small enough to let her pick it up with her bare hand. She’d seen the towers within the forests of Zangaria, the tiny fortresses designed to give the gamekeepers somewhere to rest their heads when they weren’t harassing poachers, but this... she frowned, trying to see though the haze. The tower was impossible to properly see. It looked as if part of the building existed in another dimension, somewhere the eye couldn’t see.

Which isn’t impossible, she reminded herself. She’d been in plenty of buildings that were bigger on the inside. He could build himself an entire TARDIS if he had the power and time.

Lady Barb stepped back, leaning against the stone. “I can’t come any further,” she said, pointing towards a path leading down into the valley. “You have to proceed alone.”

She sounded so curt that Emily knew something was wrong. “Lady Barb...”

You can call me Barb now, if you wish.” Lady Barb smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes. “I’m no longer your tutor.”

Emily met the older woman’s eyes. She’d never been the most sensitive to people's emotions, but... she knew Lady Barb well enough to know she rarely shied away from anything. There wasn’t much that could bother her, let alone stop her. She practically defined ‘stiff upper lip.’

Barb,” she said, carefully. “What’s bothering you?”

Lady Barb said nothing for a long moment. That was worrying. Lady Barb had given Emily — and a number of other students — the sex talk without hesitation. She’d had no trouble talking about subjects that would — and did — make Emily blush. And she’d rushed into battle without hesitation. No one became a combat sorceress unless they were brave. Emily felt her heart sink. Anything that could bother Lady Barb to the point she started to act like a surly teenager had to be bad.

You shouldn’t be going to him,” Lady Barb said, finally. “I don’t trust him.”

Emily bit her lip, lightly. “Because of what he did to you?”

He said, back when I was his student, that the ends justified the means.” Lady Barb’s face went carefully blank. “I’ve always found that the means make the ends. You might start with noble intentions, you might think you’re doing the right thing, but — in the end — you jump right off the slippery slope. It helps” — she smiled, sardonically — “if you’re not the one doing the bleeding. Or the dying.”

The path to hell is paved with good intentions,” Emily said, quietly.

Yes!” Lady Barb met her eyes. “There aren’t many people out there who dance in glee at their own evilness. There aren’t many people who openly rejoice at being bad people. But there are millions of people who will cheerfully do something evil for their cause, telling themselves — all the time — that it’s perfectly fine. Because it’s in a good cause.”

Emily wasn’t sure that was true. She’d met a lot of people who seemed to be unpleasant merely for the sake of being unpleasant. But... she scowled. Many of them had thought they were entitled to take whatever they wanted, to loot, rape and kill to their heart’s content. Or simply to be in charge because of who their parents had been.

He’s one of them,” Lady Barb said. “He thinks he’s doing the right thing. He might even be right, from his point of view. But he’s prepared to do awful things for his mission. Missions. He doesn’t let anything get in his way.”

She met Emily’s eyes. “I know you like him. I don’t blame you. He saved your life.”

He sent me to Whitehall,” Emily pointed out.

Yes,” Lady Barb agreed. “Now tell me... was he doing what was best for you, at the time, or merely getting you out of his hair?”

Emily felt a hot flash of anger. “He didn’t have to send me to Whitehall.”

No,” Lady Barb said. “He didn’t. But it got you out of his hair.”

He could have done anything to me,” Emily said. She owed Void for sending her to Whitehall. “He could have left me to die. Or thrown me out. Or sold me to the slavers. Or turned me into a... into anything. He didn’t have to do anything. But he sent me to Whitehall.”

And it worked out for him,” Lady Barb said. “Everyone thinks he has a daughter who’s changed the world.”

It worked out for me too,” Emily said. She’d felt sad, at the time, when Void had told her she had to go. But, in hindsight, it had worked out perfectly. “I can live with it.”

I know.” Lady Barb shook her head. “Emily, I understand. I know he did something good for you. I know you want to think the best of him. But I also know he moves people around like pieces on a kingmaker board. He used me. He might use you. I’d be surprised if he hasn’t already used your reputation for advantage. Having a daughter who killed one necromancer would be a huge asset. How many necromancers have you killed again?”

Too many,” Emily said.

And everyone else would say not enough,” Lady Barb said. She let out a heavy sigh. “He taught me a lot. I won’t deny it. But he also used me. He also put me in terrible danger. And, in the end, he didn’t even fight to keep me. He didn’t even care enough to badmouth me to everyone else.”

Emily blinked. “Is that a bad thing?”

Not for me.” Lady Barb snorted. “But... if a master-apprentice relationship fails, it isn’t uncommon for each of them to blame the other. I certainly expected him to tell the world what a bad student I was. Or, if the master is honest enough to admit it wasn’t the apprentice’s fault, I would expect him to say so. Void said nothing. No praise, no slander, no nothing. I don’t think he really cared enough to bother.”

She held up a hand. “I think he can do a good job, if he’s prepared to engage with you. But I also expect him to have his own agenda. You’re a priceless asset — far more than I ever was — and I expect him to find ways to use you. And you may not like what he does. And you may not like his arguments, afterwards. And you...”

Her voice trailed off. Emily said nothing. She understood Lady Barb’s anger. She would have found it hard to forgive if she’d been used as the bait, particularly if she hadn’t been told about and consented to the plan in advance. And yet, Void had been nothing but good to her. He’d saved her life, sent her to Whitehall, given her a chance to stand on her own two feet... he’d even saved her life again, back during the Tarsier War. Dua Kepala would have killed her — or worse — if Void hadn’t intervened. She had every reason to be grateful.

And I want to know what he can teach me, she thought. She’d met hundreds of powerful magicians, from maddened necromancers to the Grandmasters of Whitehall and legendary figures from the past, but Void was in a class of his own. He was practically a power in his own right. There were nations that lacked his power. I saw him using magics I can’t even begin to match.

You’re terrifyingly innovative,” Lady Barb said, after a moment. “And he’ll find a way to use that too.”

Emily nodded, stiffly. The nuke-spell alone would be utterly disastrous in the wrong hands. It was sheer dumb luck that no one had managed to work out what she’d done, let alone duplicate it. And then there were the batteries, or the portable portals... her counterpart from the alternate dimension had even managed to create a portable teleport. Emily knew it could be done, even if she didn’t know how. She’d crack that problem eventually. In a sense, she already had.

He doesn’t have any right to demand my innovations,” she said, carefully. “The Sorcerer’s Rule...”

Doesn’t apply to anything you devise while you’re an apprentice,” Lady Barb warned her. “He’ll want to know what you did, believe me. And... there have been cases of masters stealing ideas and credit from their students. Maybe you’ll be safe from that — everyone knows you’re brilliant — but you should still be careful.”

And half the ideas they credit me with inventing came from Earth, Emily thought. Too many people already know there’s something odd about them.

She put the thought aside, meeting Lady Barb’s eyes. “Do you want me to turn and walk away?”

If it were up to me, then yes.” Lady Barb looked back at her calmly. “I don’t think this is going to end well. I don’t think he can be trusted to put your safety first. And... given the impact you’ve already had on the world, there’s a strong case to be made that he really shouldn’t. You need to watch your back.”

Emily shivered. “I know you don’t trust him...”

I don’t,” Lady Barb said, flatly. Her face was cold and hard. “He was a poor master. His track record with apprentices is not great. He has power and skill enough to awe anyone, even me, but... it isn’t that he’s a bad teacher. It’s that he might well put you at risk for his own purposes. Or worse. You cannot afford to assume he has your best interests at heart.”

I’ll be careful,” Emily promised. “And I’ll keep in touch.”

If you have the time.” Lady Barb smiled. It looked unnatural. “Apprentices are traditionally kept very busy. I won’t be surprised if you don’t write to me. But that won’t keep me from worrying.”

Emily reached forward and gave the older woman a tight hug. “Thank you for caring, really.”

Lady Barb hugged her back. “I do care,” she said. “If things were different...”

She shook her head. “I can’t take you any further,” she repeated. “Go down the path, approach the tower and... good luck. And watch your back. Please.”

I will.” Emily let go of Lady Barb and stepped back. “I’ll see you soon.”

Yes.” Lady Barb and nodded curtly. Magic gathered around her. “I’m sure you will.”

There was a flash of light. When it faded, Lady Barb was gone.

Emily stared at where she’d been for a long moment, her stomach churning. She didn’t know what to make of the older woman’s warning, even though she knew it had been delivered in good faith. She’d watch her back, but... she sighed. There was no more time.

Turning, she started to make her way down the path and into the valley

 

Chapter Two


The path was harder to navigate than Emily had expected. The wild magic in the air bubbled around her, making it harder to pick her way than it should. She wished she’d thought to levitate, even though it would have been dangerous with the magical currents swilling around the tower. The tower seemed to blur, even as she reached the bottom of the path and peered through the trees. She couldn’t see any doors or windows. It wasn’t clear how she was meant to get inside.

The first test, she thought, as she started to walk. He won’t make it easy.

The temperature continued to rise. Her dress stuck to her skin as she made her way through the eerie forest, her footsteps echoing oddly. She could feel unseen eyes watching her, even though she saw nothing amidst the foliage. This far from civilization, there could be anything lurking in the undergrowth. The locals talked about the other folk and stayed as far as they could from high-magic regions. Who knew what might be waiting for someone foolish enough to wander in? Who knew if the poor intruder would ever be seen again? A prickle of magic pressed against her wards as she reached the edge of the forest. The tower stood in the middle of a grassy clearing. It still looked strange, as if it was so close she could touch the stone walls and yet, at the same time, hundreds of miles away. There was just too much raw magic in the clearing.

She braced herself, mouth suddenly dry. Lady Barb’s vague warnings echoed in her head. She’d known enough of the story to know the older woman couldn’t have wanted to talk about it. And yet... she hesitated, torn between her friend’s advice and her desire to learn more. Lady Barb’s first apprenticeship had gone sour. It didn’t mean that Emily’s apprenticeship would go the same way. Jade had mastered combat sorcery at an unprecedented pace. Cat — too — had learned the ropes at terrifying speed. She knew others who’d been shaped by their apprenticeships...

Her thoughts spun in circles. She’d done more in six years than most sorcerers would do in a lifetime. She was hardly short of options. She could study at her own pace, if she wished, or devote her life to Heart’s Eye and the New Learning. There were hundreds of concepts she wanted to develop, if she managed to work out what was missing. The gaps in her knowledge — the gaps between knowing something was possible and knowing how to do it — were maddening. She knew it was possible to build an internal combustion engine, but how? She didn’t know. She could happily spend years trying to close the gaps. She didn’t have to go to Void. She could turn around and walk away.

But she knew, even as she formulated the thought, that she wouldn’t. Magic called to her in a way no earthly discipline had ever done. She knew, without false modesty, that she was good at it. She knew she’d outgrown Whitehall long before she finally left. She knew... she knew she didn’t want to stop. She’d seen Void go toe-to-toe with a necromancer and hold his own. There were no other sorcerers she knew who could do that. She’d cheated to win her battles. And the magics he’d used... she wanted them for herself. She knew the dangers, but she couldn’t stop. She had to go on.

Emily centered herself, then walked forward. The tower shimmered in front of her, maintaining a steady distance. Emily frowned. The space around the tower was warped and twisted. The distance between the edge of the clearing and the tower itself seemed infinite. She could walk for days and never close the gap. She smiled — she should have known it wouldn’t be that easy — and reached out with her mind, studying the currents of magic as they boiled around the tower. They were odd, strong and weak at the same time. She wasn’t sure what they were designed to do. Keeping intruders out seemed to be a happy accident. They seemed more focused on something else. She felt her eyebrows furrow as she realized Void — or whoever had built the tower — had combined active magic with subtle magic. She’d been told that was impossible. She wondered how they’d managed to do that without burning out the runes.

She looked down, eyes picking out faint discolorations on the grass. She’d seen the runes worked into the surrounding foliage, but — up close — she understood just how much effort had been lavished on turning the tower into a place of power. The surrounding magic was channeled into the tower, turned into a protective field that was — in some ways — more powerful than Whitehall’s defenses. Void didn’t have a nexus point, as far as she knew, but he didn’t need it. He’d turned the local magic into his first line of defense.

Brilliant, Emily thought. She had to admire the trick. The grassy runes would regrow if the local magic burned them out. Indeed, the power itself might be channeled through the runes without doing any damage. And very difficult to overpower.

She studied the runes for a long moment, then started to inch forward. It felt as if she were picking her way through a minefield. The tower seemed to expect her to dance forward, following a path only she could see. She sensed greater powers lurking in the shadows as she approached, powerful spells readying themselves to blast an intruder to flinders — or worse — if someone tripped the alarm. The flares of magic grew stronger, confusing her. The magic tried to make her turn around and walk back the way she’d come. She gritted her teeth, tightening her defenses as much as possible as strands of power plucked at her thoughts. Void wouldn’t be impressed if she let herself be manipulated. Or if she had her memory wiped by his spells.

No wonder no one comes here, she thought. Anyone who enters the valley without permission leaves with a gap sliced out of their memory.

She walked into the wall. Emily staggered, swallowing a curse as she pressed against the stone. The magic tightened, a defensive circle around the tower. There was barely any space to move without crossing the circle and inviting certain death. She gritted her teeth and reached out with her senses, trying to find the entrance. The tower seemed dead and cold, despite magic flowing through the stone. She wondered, suddenly, if the entire tower was comprised of magic. It should be impossible, without a nexus point, but Void seemed to have power to spare. His runic structures might be able to keep a conjuring in place for more than a few short minutes.

The tower felt... solid. She inched along the wall, pressing her fingers against the stone as she kept searching for the way in. There was nothing, yet... she had the uneasy sense that something watched her, biding its time. She felt like a mouse, all too aware that the cat lurked on the other side of the wall. She kept moving, hoping to find something — anything — that might show her how to get inside. Last time, Void had teleported her into the tower. She looked up, wondering — again — if she should try to levitate. But the magical currents surrounding the tower were so strong that she suspected she’d wind up being smashed against the stone or thrown into the mountains. There was no way to know if she’d manage to survive...

Think, she told herself. How does he get into the tower?

She scowled. Void had teleported. She didn’t dare. If the wards weren’t programmed to accept her, she’d wind up scattered across thousands of miles. Or worse. Whitehall dumped unwanted teleporters in an oubliette. She dreaded to think what the tower’s defenses might do. And...

A thought struck her. She lifted her hand and tapped on the stone. “Knock, knock.”

The world spun. She tightly closed her eyes against a blinding light. When it faded, she stood inside a small room. It was completely barren, save for a single door leading into a room. Emily blinked, then remembered Lady Barb’s lessons. She was an apprentice now, on the verge of formally presenting herself to her master. She had to prepare herself properly. She reached out with her senses, but found nothing beyond the room itself. There had to be wards surrounding her, yet... she couldn’t feel them. She couldn’t help being impressed as she stepped into the room. Normally, she’d be able to sense the wards even if she couldn’t look past them.

She sucked in a breath as she looked around. The bathroom was surprisingly modern, by local standards. A tub, a shower, a simple robe sitting on a chair, a large mirror... she eyed it warily, remembering the mirrors in Heart’s Eye. Her reflection looked back, evenly. There were no differences, as far as she could tell, but it would be a long time before she trusted any mirror ever again. The alternate versions of herself and her friends had been nightmarish. She hated to think that, if things had been different, the alternates might have been them.

Shaking her head, she turned and undressed before climbing into the tub. The water was perfect, the charms woven into the tub keeping it warm and ready. She let out a long breath as the sweat and dirt left her body, resisting — as best as she could — the urge to just lie back in the bath and sleep. She’d done it before, at Whitehall. The baths had been a luxury, even for her. There were students who’d never even seen a shower until they’d gone to school.

You can’t stay here, she told herself. You have to move.

The water flowed through her hair... she winced, wondering if she should have cut it. Her hair was her only vanity... she dismissed the thought, irritated. Void would tell her if her hair was getting in the way.

She sat up, then removed the bath plug and reached for the shower. Warm water cascaded down her bare skin, removing any remnants of dirt. She smiled tiredly, then turned off the water and muttered a spell to dry herself. She’d never liked wasting time with towels, even at Whitehall. She reminded herself, dryly, that she'd been safer at Whitehall than she’d ever been on Earth. If nothing else, she had been able defend herself in the school.

Putting the thought aside, she stepped out of the bathtub and picked up the robe. It was simple, yet elegant. Emily had never been a clotheshorse, unlike Alassa, but she knew enough to tell that the robe had been made from the finest silks. It was black, so dark she felt as if she were touching a shadow, save for a single white band around her upper right arm and a sigil just above her right breast. It was a simple interplay of red thread, four symbols drawn into a pattern that nagged at her. She was sure she’d seen something like it before, but where? It wasn’t a rune. It was her master’s colors.

She pulled the robe on, smiling at how snugly it fit. It had clearly been professionally tailored, designed to hint at her curves rather than revealing anything... she wondered, suddenly, how it had been done. Void had never asked her for her measurements. Magic? Probably. She studied herself in the mirror, feeling a twinge of déjà vu. Mountaintop’s uniform had clearly been based on the apprenticeship robes. Their jackets had had white bands too. She thought, suddenly, of Frieda. Her friend had gone back to Whitehall to start her fifth year. Emily had barely had time to dash off a quick note to her before Lady Barb had teleported her to Zugzwang.

The stone floor felt oddly warm against her bare feet as she returned to the entrance hall. She wasn’t surprised to notice a second door waiting. She braced herself and stepped into the next room. Void stood there, wearing a long dark robe that was very similar to hers, save for the absence of a white band. He was no apprentice. She felt a sudden shiver as his dark eyes met hers. He looked... younger than she’d expected, but his eyes reflected his true age. He was easily old enough to be her grandfather.

She studied him for a long moment, waiting for him to speak. His face was pale and sharp, pitch-black hair hanging to his shoulders. He was handsome, yet... she felt no spark of attraction. She told herself, sharply, that she certainly shouldn’t. He was a lot older than her. And he was her teacher. And yet... she kept her face carefully blank. She thought she should have felt something. She’d met enough handsome men over the last six years to know she should have felt something.

He has to speak first, she reminded herself, as the silence grew and lengthened. Lady Barb had drilled that into her head too. But how long do I have to wait?

Her stomach rumbled. She was suddenly very aware she wasn’t even sure what time it was. She’d left her watch with her clothes — and besides, it was set to Zangarian time. Where was Void’s tower? She didn’t know. It could be anywhere. She’d certainly never had the time to look around when Void had rescued her from Shadye and sent her to Whitehall. They could be next to the school or right on the other side of the world. She simply didn’t know.

Emily.” Void’s voice was calm, carefully controlled. If he felt anything, if he was eager or nervous or anything, she couldn’t tell. “Are you ready to begin your apprenticeship?”

Emily swallowed, hard. “Yes.”

Lady Barb had told her what to do, drilling it into her head time and time again until Emily could have recited it in her sleep. She started to kneel, flushing slightly at the thought of kneeling before him... before anyone. She’d never liked showing respect to aristocrats and senior magicians. She simply hadn’t grown up in a world where people bowed and scraped to masters who could cut off their heads or turn them into frogs if they felt disrespected. And yet, Void deserved respect. Didn’t he?

Void put out a hand, stopping her. “Don’t kneel,” he said. “You’re here to study magic. To understand magic. You’re not a servant.”

Emily hesitated, torn between Lady Barb’s instructions and Void’s wishes. She knew his wishes were paramount — masters had huge authority over their apprentices — but she honestly wasn’t sure what to do. Was it a trick? Or a trap? She’d dealt with at least a dozen tutors who’d delighted in forcing their charges into making sadistic choices between following orders or standing up for the rules. And here... what were the rules? She didn’t know.

She stood, clasping her hands behind her back to keep them from shaking. Void’s face was expressionless. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. She waited, telling herself to be calm. He wouldn’t have summoned her just to dismiss her. He’d been an apprentice himself, over a century ago. He’d understand what she was feeling. Wouldn’t he?

Welcome,” Void said, finally. His dark eyes, so dark they were almost pools of shadow, bored into hers. “Are you ready to commit yourself to magic?”

Emily nodded. “Yes...”

She stopped. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to call him. Sir? Master? Lord Master? She didn’t know. There was no hard and fast rule. Lady Barb hadn’t told her either.

Void smiled. It transformed his face. “In public, you can call me Master. In private, you can call me what you like.”

Provided it's respectful.” Emily smiled back. “Right?”

Right,” Void agreed. “Insulting one’s master is not a good way to begin. Being stupid enough to do it within earshot is worse.”

Yes...” Emily hesitated. Calling him Void felt wrong, almost over-familiar. “I...”

And disrespecting one’s master in front of the other masters is even worse,” Void said, dryly. “It makes your poor master look bad.”

Yes, sir,” Emily said.

Void nodded, then studied her for a long moment. “While you’re here, I expect you to commit yourself to studying and understanding magic. By law and custom, I am required to give you a day off every fortnight. You may contact your friends or teleport to Zugzwang or do whatever you like on those days. Otherwise, your time is mine. Do you understand?”

Yes, sir,” Emily said.

Void turned. “Come.”

Emily blinked in surprise as he led her through a door that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Lady Barb had told her that there would be oaths, oaths of obedience and secrecy and a handful of other things, but... Void hadn’t asked her to swear anything. Did he intend to do it later? Or... she doubted he’d forgotten. It wasn’t the sort of thing one forgot. She wondered if she should ask, then shook her head. Better to let him bring it up in his own time.

We’ll eat,” Void said. He walked into a mid-sized dining room. A single large pot sat on the table. It smelled like stew. Emily felt her stomach rumble again as she took the proffered seat. “And then we’ll talk.”



 

 

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Author Bio

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

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

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

Website: http://www.chrishanger.net/
Blog: http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall
Discussion Forum http://thewritersclub.prophpbb.com/

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

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 Artful Apprentice Copyright 2020. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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

 

  Author News

  Articles

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

"The Stronghold Academy of Martial Arts"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/the-stronghold-academy-of-martial-arts/

"Emily's Finances"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/10/01/emilys-finances/

"Religion in the Nameless World
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/religion-in-the-nameless-world/

"The Military in the Nameless World - A Very Brief Overview"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/the-military-in-the-nameless-world-a-very-brief-overview/

"Wedding Hells: Randor and Alicia"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/wedding-hells-randor-and-alicia/

"Past Tense: Freedom and (Women's) Rights"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/past-tense-freedom-and-womens-rights/

"Wedding Hells Appendix (II) - History Exam"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/wedding-hells-appendix-ii-history-exam/

"Idle Musings (SIM 10)"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/idle-musings-sim-10/

"Whitehall's Liability Insurance"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/whitehalls-liability-insurance/

"Emily and the Barony of Cockatrice"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/emily-and-the-barony-of-cockatrice/

"Bonus Material: Whitehall History Essay Question"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/bonus-material-whitehall-history-essay-question/

"Schooled in Magic: Jade, Emily and Alassa" [Warning: spoilers]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/schooled-in-magic-jade-emily-and-alassa/

"Deconstructing Emily" [...There are a handful of spoilers for Books 1-6, so read carefully.]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/deconstructing-emily/

"Love's Labor's Won: Playing the Blame Game [Warning; spoilers!]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/loves-labours-won-playing-the-blame-game/

"Christmas Post: Five Things that Could Have Happened to Emily"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/christmas-post-five-things-that-could-have-happened-to-emily/

"The Tragedy of Marius Drake [Warning: massive spoilers in this post.]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/11/23/the-tragedy-of-marius-drake/

"Meet My Character Blog Hop" [Master Tor]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/meet-my-character-blog-hop/

"Draft Afterword (I)" [Cincinnatus]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/draft-afterword-i/

"But What Do We Do on Our Hols? An Introduction to Lessons in Etiquette"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/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.]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/the-free-city-of-beneficence/

"An Introduction to Schooled in Magic"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/an-introduction-to-schooled-in-magic/

 

Interviews

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

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

Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books

"Deconstructing Emily" blog post

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

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

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

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

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

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book

 

  Reviews
 




 


 

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