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The Princess in the Tower
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

Everyone knows that the Tower of Alexis is impregnable ...
... But Emily intends to prove them wrong.
   Book 15 in the Schooled in Magic series.

 

 

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The Princess in the Tower

fantasy

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

Prologue I

Alassa cursed as she jabbed the needle into her finger. Again.

It wasn't particularly ladylike to swear, but she didn't care. She wasn't the kind of person who liked being confined to a single suite, no matter how luxurious. She wanted to take her horse out for a ride or practice her magic or share a bed with her husband, not waste her time sewing...she'd never had the talent for needlework, no matter how many governesses had tried to train her in the genteel arts.

She eyed her work for a long moment, then tossed it aside and began to pace the suite. It had everything she could reasonably want, except windows and freedom. The lights brightened and dimmed randomly, leaving her unsure just how long she'd spent in the suite. Her body didn't appear to have changed that much, as far as she could tell, but without magic it was hard to be sure how well the pregnancy was progressing, if it was progressing at all. She was all too aware that her family found it hard to have children. The mere fact that it had taken her so long to conceive, even with a husband who wasn't remotely related to her, was proof that the pregnancy wouldn't be easy.

It has to be done, she thought, resting her hand on her abdomen. The child will be the next monarch of Zangaria.

A wave of despair crashed over her as she lay back in her bed. She'd gambled-she'd risked everything for her friend-and she'd lost. Her father had given her an opportunity to prove that she would defy him, that she would turn against him, and-like a silly little girl-she'd taken it. And yet, no matter how many times she second-guessed herself, she knew she'd had no choice. Imaiqah-one of her two closest friends-was condemned by the mere fact of being related to a traitor, a man who'd betrayed the king. Alassa knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the death warrant was nothing more than a formality. She'd had to move to save Imaiqah before it was too late. And she'd failed...

Jade was out there, somewhere. She clung to the thought, even though she had no way to know if he'd received her message. Mouse might have been caught, when she slipped out of the castle and into the town...or she might have betrayed her mistress and taken her message straight to the king. And if Jade hadn't received the message...? He'd be suspicious, wouldn't he? She'd made a point of chatting with him via parchment every day they'd spent apart. He might sneak back into the kingdom rather than ride up the High Street, sure of a hero's welcome. She hoped he would have the sense to be careful-his father-in-law wouldn't hesitate to have him executed if he fell into the king's hands-and bring help. He'd need a great deal of assistance if he wanted to save his wife.

And his child from being raised by the king, Alassa thought. She didn't think her father would have her executed, but he'd certainly send her into comfortable confinement shortly after she'd given birth. Boy or girl, her child would be the next legitimate ruler. He'll take the child and raise him in his own image.

She stared up at the ceiling, battling despair. Imaiqah might have already been executed, now that she'd served her role. Sir William should have been safe-he'd been following her orders-but he might have been sent into exile. Not knowing was worse than anything. She'd tried asking her keeper about her friends and servants, but the wretched woman had refused to be drawn on the matter. Alassa, it seemed, was to be kept in a perpetual state of ignorance. Her letters to her mother and father had never been returned. She didn't even know precisely how long she'd been a prisoner.

The door opened. Alassa tensed automatically, then told herself to relax as a maid walked into the suite. There was no point in trying to fight. She knew from bitter experience that the suite's wards would immobilize her-in the most humiliating manner-if she tried to attack the maids. She thought she could break through the wards, if she had her magic, but her keeper had been very careful. She'd been forced to drink potions to keep her magic suppressed every day.

She glared at the maid as the young woman placed the tray on the bedside table, then curtseyed. She wanted the girl to flinch, even though it was unmannerly of her. But the maid showed no reaction, save for pointing a finger at a glass. Alassa grimaced as she reached for it, knowing that-again-there was no choice. If she didn't drink the potion willingly, she'd be forced to drink anyway. She'd had that lesson hammered into her too.

"Very good, Your Highness," the maid said, as Alassa swallowed the potion in one gulp. "I will be back for the tray when you've finished your meal."

Alassa scowled at her retreating back, taking a drink of mead to wash away the taste of the potion. It tasted fundamentally wrong. She'd tried a few tricks, when she'd started, to make it look as though she'd drunk the potion, but nothing had worked. It was clear proof, as if she'd needed any, that she was under constant observation. The wards would allow their mistress to spy on her captive at any moment if she wished. They might even be clever enough to alert her if Alassa did something dangerous.

Damn it, Alassa thought.

The food was good, but she could only pick at it-listlessly-as she sat back on her bed. She was trapped, her body and brain already turning to mush. The servants were practically treating her like a baby, someone who couldn't even get dressed on her own. Whitehall had taught her that she didn't need servants to dress herself, but now...it was hard to muster the energy to do anything. She couldn't help wondering if there was more to the potion she'd been fed than she thought. She'd always been an energetic girl.

But not for long, if I don't get out of here soon, she thought. She could practically feel herself wasting away as her world shrank to the suite's four walls. Jade...where are you?

 

Prologue II

There was a small army of guards on the streets.

Sir Roger of the Greenwood kept his face under tight control as his horse cantered up the High Street, his guardsmen following at a distance. He hadn't expected cheering crowds-it wasn't as if he'd won a great victory in the last six months-but the sullen atmosphere pervading the city was worrying. There was hardly anyone on the city's streets, save for the guards. The shops were open, but deserted; the temples were open, yet few people seemed to be going to pray. Alexis seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting for something to happen.

Perhaps something has already happened, he thought, grimly. He'd heard hundreds of rumors, but each one had been crazier than the last. It feels as if we're about to go to war.

A twinge of unease ran down his spine as he cantered over the drawbridge and into the courtyard, the amulet around his neck growing warm as it sensed the wards surrounding the castle. He had no magic himself-and he didn't entirely trust those who did-but he took it for granted. King Randor appeared to have strengthened his defenses, physical and magical, more than ever before. There were hundreds of guards within eyeshot, some of them watching him as though they thought him a potential threat. Roger's eyes narrowed. He wasn't fool enough to think the guards would respect his rank if the king had ordered them to be suspicious of everyone who entered the castle.

He jumped off his horse as he saw a familiar-and unwelcome-face making its way towards him. Viscount Nightingale, Master of the King's Bedchamber... somehow, slimier than ever before. The only thing that kept him alive, Roger knew, was the king's favor, a favor that would inevitably be lost one day. The bastard had so many enemies that the only real question was which one of them would get to him first.

"Sir Roger," Nightingale said. "The king commands your immediate presence."

Roger looked down at his sweaty clothes, then shrugged. There was no hurry, as far as he knew, but the king's orders were not to be disobeyed. If he wanted Roger's urgent presence-even a Roger smelling of sweat, mud and horse-he'd get it. It was possible, he supposed, that Nightingale had set out to embarrass him, but it wasn't likely. Abusing the king's authority would be a good way to get his head on the chopping block. Nightingale knew better than to risk alienating his protector for nothing more than snide amusement.

He passed the horse's reins to a young man from the stables, then followed Nightingale into the castle and through a dizzying series of security checks. The guards frisked him thoroughly, removing his sword and both of his daggers before letting him into the king's antechamber. Roger felt a flicker of humiliation at the search, knowing that only his relatively low birth allowed the king to risk treating him so poorly. He wouldn't have risked searching a baron so thoroughly. But then, it would be a rare baron who was allowed a private audience with the king.

Nightingale indicated the door, his posture indicating that Roger should walk through alone. Roger bit down several cutting remarks-there was nothing to be gained by making an enemy of a man who had the king's ear-then walked through into the king's audience chamber. It felt cold, despite a roaring fire in the grate. The king himself sat on his throne, his face so impassive that it could have been carved from stone. There was no sign of the Crown Princess or her husband.

"Your Majesty," Roger said, taking off his hat as he went down on one knee. "It is a great honor to be..."

"You may stand and face Us," King Randor said, cutting off the flattery. "We have questions for you."

Roger stood, carefully. "I am at your service, Your Majesty."

He studied the king for a long moment. Randor had always been a powerful man-the tales of his martial exploits hadn't been exaggerated-but now he looked...old. There were streaks of grey in his bushy brown beard. And yet, he wore a sword-it looked to be a charmed blade-at his belt, as well as a suit of golden armor. The runes carved into the gold would make it almost invulnerable to brute force. Randor was clearly expecting attack.

"You opened correspondence with Lady Imaiqah," Randor said. "Did you come to any...agreement with her?"

Roger blinked. The king had urged him to open communications with Lady Imaiqah, with a view to getting married at some point in the future...clearly, the king was shifting away from that version of events. No doubt the politically-correct version wouldn't mention the king at all. He'd been unsure how best to proceed when it came to courting a common-born noblewoman who was also a sorceress and close friends with two of the most powerful and dangerous people in the kingdom. No sorceress would accept the role of a traditional noble-born wife.

"No, Your Majesty," he said, carefully. "We have yet to formally meet."

The king studied him for a long moment. "The Lady Imaiqah is currently in the Tower," he said. He didn't have to say which tower. "Her father was responsible for the attack on Our daughter, on her wedding day."

"Your Majesty," Roger said. He was torn between defending Imaiqah's honor and backing away from her as quickly as possible. There was no way they could get married now. A traitor's kin were automatically sentenced to death, just for existing. Traitors had to know their families would pay the price if they gambled and lost. "I had no idea."

"Nor did We," the king said. "Lady Emily, it seems, was the only one who knew until recently."

Roger swallowed, hard. "Lady Emily?"

"Yes," the king said. "She knew and she said nothing."

He changed the subject with dizzying speed. "How stand the regiments?"

"The first four regiments of musketmen are ready to deploy, Your Majesty." Roger was finding it hard to think clearly. "I believe the remaining six regiments require more seasoning."

"We are surrounded by enemies, Sir Roger," King Randor said. It was hard to tell if he was speaking of the entire kingdom or using the Royal We. "Your regiments may be all that stands between Us and civil war."

Roger bowed his head. He was a very junior nobleman-and he came from common-born stock-but he'd heard the rumors. The remaining barons were readying themselves for one final joust with the king, while the merchants and peasants were intent on claiming a share of power for themselves. There were stories of taxmen disappearing in the night, of entire communities that slaughtered the king's inspectors and then fled into the wilderness...the entire kingdom was on a knife edge. And other stories, stories that were completely unbelievable. The war could not be long delayed.

He looked up, meeting the king's eyes. King Randor was his patron; he'd been his patron since the day he joined the army. He would no more betray his monarch than he'd cut off his manhood. And the king knew it too. He would not have entrusted the musketmen to Roger if he'd had the slightest doubt of Roger's loyalty. An unscrupulous man could do a great deal of damage with ten regiments loyal to him.

"It is my pleasure to serve, Your Majesty," he said. "What do you wish of me?"

"Bring your regiments to Alexis," King Randor said. "And make preparations to move against the barons."

"Of course, Your Majesty," Roger said.

"We will consider the matter of your marriage more fully at a later date," King Randor added, coolly. "There will be many available heiresses after the campaign is concluded."

Roger nodded. The king would distribute the heiresses-and their lands-as spoils of war, sharing them with his supporters. No one, least of all the monarch, would care what the women thought about it. He allowed himself a moment of hope-a good match would render his position effectively impregnable-and then dismissed it. He'd have to wait and see what the king was prepared to offer him.

And hope the king survives long enough to reward me, he reminded himself.

"I thank you, Your Majesty," he said.

"You may go," King Randor said.

Roger bowed. "I am at your service, Your Majesty." He glanced around the empty room. Where was the Crown Princess? And her husband? "I live to serve."

"Exactly," King Randor said. "And do not forget it."

 

Chapter One

"Emily?"

Emily jerked awake, her eyes snapping open as she brought one hand up in a casting pose. Someone was close to her, far too close to her...she lowered her hand as she remembered, with a flicker of irritation, just where she was. Cat knelt in front of her, his face grim. Behind him, at the front of the covered wagon, Jade was pulling the horses to a stop. Her body ached as she forced herself to sit up. The stories of settlers driving into the Wild West had somehow managed to miss just how uncomfortable it was to ride in the back of a cart.

"Cat," she managed. She'd slept for...how long? It didn't look any dimmer outside, so it probably hadn't been more than an hour or two. "What's happening?"

Cat stood and held out a hand. "I think you'd better come look at this. It's not good news."

Emily took his hand and allowed him to pull her up. He'd shaved his hair, save for a single blonde forelock, and dressed in leathers. A sword, a knife and a small wand hung at his belt. It marked him as a mercenary, a sellsword of no fixed abode, but it still felt odd to look at him. She didn't think the mercenary look suited him-or Jade, for that matter. Both boys-men, really-looked unsettlingly violent.

But at least they don't look like a Prince Consort and a Combat Sorcerer, she thought, stumbling towards the front of the wagon. She remembered her own disguise and scowled. Or a kept woman, for that matter.

She peered into the bright sunlight, one hand covering her eyes. Jade had stopped beside a copse of trees, planted to mark the boundaries between one set of common-held lands and the next. A set of bodies hung from the trees; their throats were slashed, blood staining their clothes and pooling on the ground. Flies buzzed, their hum somehow ominous in the warm air. The wind shifted, blowing the stench towards them. Emily had to fight not to cover her nose as the smell of decaying bodies washed over the wagon. The bodies had clearly been dead for days.

"Tax farmers, at a guess," Cat said, from behind her. His voice was very calm. "Or perhaps the local noble's functionaries, plotting to enclose the fields and turn the peasants into serfs."

He nudged Jade. "I thought you were meant to be doing something about this."

"Very few complaints ever reach the king," Jade said, tartly. "And when they do, you can rest assured that he always rules in favor of the nobleman."

"And so the commoners take matters into their own hands." Cat waved a hand towards the bodies. "Who do you think they work for?"

Emily shrugged. The bodies wore a lord's colors and badge, but she didn't recognize the livery. Yellow and black, with gold trim...it was probably a middle-ranking nobleman. She didn't want to go any closer to the bodies, even though it was possible one of them was carrying something that might give her useful intelligence. The smell alone was off-putting, but the prospect of the murderers having booby-trapped the bodies was worse. Sergeant Miles had told her, more than once, that peasant uprisings were always savage. The peasants knew little of the laws of war and cared less. Besides, it wasn't as if they could expect any mercy either.

She looked away, her eyes sweeping over the checkerboard fields. They would be held in common, if she recognized the signs correctly; an entire village of peasants would work them collectively, giving half of their crop to their local nobility and keeping the rest for themselves. Tiny canals ran between the fields, so dry that only a trickle of water remained. The fields themselves looked abandoned, save for a handful of scarecrows. She was no expert, but it didn't look as though they were being regularly tended. The peasants seemed to have vanished, leaving the fields behind.

They might not have had a choice, she thought, looking back at the hanging bodies. If the lord was planning to enclose the fields...

Her heart clenched. The nobility wanted to enclose the fields, claiming that larger fields would produce more crops. And they were right, she supposed. She'd seen the figures when it had been proposed at Cockatrice. It would be more efficient. But it would also turn the peasants into serfs, destroying what little freedoms they had left. She'd banned the practice in Cockatrice. Other aristocrats were far less concerned about the rights and freedoms of their tenants, let alone their traditional way of life.

"We'd better be going." Jade cracked the whip and the horses started to move. "I don't want to be around when someone comes to take down the bodies."

Emily nodded in agreement as she settled back on the hard, wooden seat. The air outside was foul, but it was better than trying to sleep in the back of the wagon. She checked her headscarf, just to be sure her hair was still concealed, then looked down at the loose shirt and trousers she wore. She looked like a camp follower, a woman who served two mercenaries in exchange for protection...part of her found it humiliating, if only because Jade and Cat would have to treat her as a servant when they met other travelers, but she had to admit it was a good disguise. Between the headscarf, the clothes, and the dust on her skin, it was unlikely that anyone would draw a connection between her and the Necromancer's Bane.

"We're not moving fast enough," Jade muttered. "We're not going to be in Alexis for another week."

"It can't be helped," Cat said, from where he was sitting in the back. "Unless you want to change your mind and teleport..."

Jade made a rude sound, but Emily didn't miss the worry and desperation in his voice. "You know better than that," he said. "We can't risk being detected."

Emily nodded, remembering the day they'd sat down in Dragon's Den and hashed out the possibilities. King Randor, whatever else could be said about him, was far from stupid...and he had magicians in his service. Teleporting into Alexis-or even into the countryside near the city-risked detection, bringing the king's army down on their heads. And while they could teleport into Beneficence, Emily had checked with Markus and he'd told her that anyone who crossed the bridge into Cockatrice was subjected to a careful examination. King Randor lacked the tools to carry out a real check-computers and databases were far in the Nameless World's future-but his guards would know to watch for any inconsistencies. Or maybe they just used truth spells.

It was a risk they couldn't afford to take.

"We'll be there in time," she said, resting a hand on his shoulder. It was a gesture of affection she would never have normally allowed herself. But she trusted Jade. "The king won't hurt Alassa until she gives birth."

"Hah," Jade muttered. "He has a bastard son, you know."

Emily looked away. Jade was right. Randor's son might be a bastard-and the mother married to someone else-but the king wouldn't have any difficulty proving that he'd fathered the child. And, in the absence of any fully-legitimate heir, he could probably convince the nobility to accept the child as his successor. Enough noblemen had been concerned about the prospect of a Ruling Queen-and about Alassa taking the throne-to make it hard for anyone to dissent.

"He won't risk hurting a woman," Cat said. "The nobility wouldn't stand for it."

Emily glanced into the darkened rear. "They have no qualms about beating and raping and even killing their maidservants," she pointed out, sharply. "I've seen fathers complaining about the treatment of their daughters while beating their wives bloody. Why would they question the king?"

"Because Alassa is a noblewoman, even if she is removed from the line of succession," Cat pointed out. He ignored Jade's snort. "They'll be reluctant to condone the king abusing a noblewoman, whoever she is. They like to think of themselves as chivalrous."

Emily rolled her eyes at him. On the face of it, Cat was right; knights and noblemen did like to think of themselves as the protectors of the gentler sex. And yet, she couldn't help noticing that their chivalrous conduct had the unintentional effect of making noblewomen practically helpless. They couldn't protect themselves, they couldn't speak for themselves, they couldn't even dress themselves. Everything was done for them by their small army of servants. As children, they were little more than dress-up dolls; as adults, they were expected to have babies-after their marriage was arranged for them-and nothing else. Legally, they were effectively children-and property.

It does have some advantages, she conceded. It was vanishingly rare for a noblewoman to be executed, whatever the crime. Hell, she'd heard of noblewomen deliberately running up vast debts which their husbands were legally liable to pay. But I would find it maddening.

"They may make an exception in Alassa's case," she said, finally. Alassa had been the Crown Princess...she still was, as far as everyone knew. She was hardly some decorative bauble of a noblewoman. Her magic alone made her dangerous to men who thought that women simply couldn't make the hard decisions. "And they certainly will in Imaiqah's."

Her heart clenched again. King Randor hadn't just arrested Alassa, if Jade's source was correct. He'd arrested Imaiqah as well. Emily didn't know why he'd arrested both of her best friends, but she had a very nasty idea. Paren-Imaiqah's father-had betrayed his monarch, which meant a certain death sentence for his entire family. None of the nobility would have any qualms about arresting a common-born sorceress.

And we don't even know if they're still alive or not, she thought. Jade was sure that Alassa was still alive, but there was no way to be confident. Their marriage bond wasn't as intense as Melissa and Markus's. And there is definitely no way to be sure about Imaiqah.

"She is a noblewoman," Cat said. "I'm sure she'll be fine."

Emily sighed, inwardly. She knew that wasn't necessarily true. She needed to have a talk with Jade and Cat, sooner rather than later, about what Paren had done. Jade wouldn't be happy when he heard the truth, even though he liked Imaiqah. He'd accuse Emily of ignoring a time bomb that had blown up in Alassa's face. And he wouldn't be wrong, either.

She leaned her shoulder against the wooden railing and watched the countryside go by. A handful of scattered farmhouses and peasant hovels came briefly into view, half-hidden in the fields, but they looked deserted. Two were little more than burned-out shells, their occupants either dead or long gone. There was no sign of the sheep, pigs or chickens that most farmhouses would keep as a matter of course. She shuddered as she realized yet again that Zangaria was on the brink of war. The tensions had been rising for years, but now...now they were on the verge of exploding into violence.

No, she told herself. The violence has already started.

Emily heard snoring from behind her and smiled, despite herself. Cat had the gift of being able to sleep whenever and wherever he wanted, a gift Emily rather wished she'd managed to master. Sergeant Miles had urged her to try, but she simply hadn't had the time. Too much had happened in the last few months for her to concentrate on developing her magic. She should be back at Whitehall...

She felt a bitter pang, mingled with the grim understanding that she'd finally outgrown the school. Whitehall would always feel like home, she thought, and maybe one day she'd be back, but she'd never be a pupil again. She had a life outside the school now. And it hadn't been the same since Grandmaster Hasdrubal had died. Grandmaster Gordian simply wasn't his equal. She hoped he'd keep his side of the bargain and look after Frieda. There was no way she could visit her younger friend while she was trying to rescue Alassa and Imaiqah.

At least I got a chance to say goodbye, she thought. To her and to Lady Barb.

The sun was slowly starting to set as a small town came into view. Jade guided the cart down the road, eyes flickering from side to side as he watched for signs of trouble. It wasn't uncommon for footpads to jump carts and wagons when the drivers thought they were safe, although Emily doubted they'd mess with a pair of sellswords. Too much chance of getting killed for too little reward. And if the footpads realized they were attacking three magicians instead...

We need to keep our magic concealed, she reminded herself. The word was out. King Randor was hiring-and sometimes conscripting-every magic-user in his kingdom. Or we'll find ourselves enlisted in his magic corps.

Her eyes narrowed as the town came closer. It was surrounded by a wooden palisade, a sign that it was a free town, but someone had been piling up earth to make it stronger. Emily didn't think it would keep out a determined attack, let alone a magician, yet it might just deter bandits. Law and order had to be breaking down. Free or not, a town wasn't supposed to build defenses that might actually keep the local lord from asserting his authority. The mere fact that the townspeople had managed to get away with it was worrying.

"Watch my back," Jade muttered, as he pulled the wagon to a halt. A set of guards were walking towards them, looking nervous. Emily had seen enough fighting men to know that the guards didn't have any real training at all. Their weapons were probably more dangerous to their wielders than the enemy. "Cat, get up!"

Emily heard Cat standing behind her, but she didn't look back. Jade jumped down from the wagon, careful to keep his empty hands in view, and walked towards the guards. Emily kept a wary eye on him, feeling a flicker of annoyance at how the guards barely glanced at her before dismissing her as unimportant. She knew she should be grateful to be ignored, particularly if Randor had any idea that she was accompanying Jade, but still...

"They're taking their time," Cat whispered. "What are they doing?"

"No idea," Emily whispered back. It wasn't uncommon for gates to be firmly closed after dark and not opened again until morning, no matter who demanded entry, but it was barely twilight. "Talking, it seems."

Jade turned and hurried back to the wagon. "We're not allowed in the town," he said flatly, as he scrambled back onto the seat. "But there's an inn on the far side, outside the walls. They're playing host to a great many sellswords."

"You'd think they'd want to hire us," Cat said. "Did you see the way that idiot was holding his sword?"

"He came pretty close to unmanning himself." Jade cracked the whip and the horses started to move, circling the palisade. "But we don't want employment here, do we?"

"They wouldn't want sellswords in their town at all, if it could be avoided," Emily pointed out. "We're about as welcome as wolves amidst the flock."

She shook her head. Their cover story made sense. King Randor had put out a call for sellswords, as had most of the nobility. But it carried its own risks. Mercenaries were not loved, even during wartime. They were regarded as locusts; no, worse than locusts. She'd heard stories of sellswords being caught away from their bands and being brutally murdered by peasants who wanted to strike back at their unwanted guests. Jade had been insistent that they find a place to stay every night, even though it meant slowing their journey. The risk of being attacked if they camped in the open was too great.

"I took a look through the gate while they were talking," Jade said. "I didn't see any young men, save for a cripple. They were all old."

"Conscripted," Cat said.

"Or they've taken to the hills," Jade said. He pointed towards the rolling tree-covered hills in the distance. They were part of the Royal Forest, if the map was to be believed, and technically forbidden to peasants, but the locals had never paid much attention to unenforceable laws when their livelihoods were at stake. "You could hide and feed an entire army in there if you wanted."

Emily shrugged. It didn't matter. What did matter was that Zangaria was going to explode. All the grievances that had been neglected for decades, perhaps centuries, were about to tear the entire country apart. It wouldn't be long before the urge to start settling grudges turned into a demand for wholesale reform...

"There's the inn." Jade pointed to a long wooden building, positioned temptingly beside the Royal Road. A small statue holding a lantern stood in front, inviting passing travelers to rest their weary heads in a proper bed; behind, she could see-and smell-the stables. "Shall we go see if they have a room for us?"

"Hopefully, one without too many tiny visitors," Emily said. She'd never stayed in an inn that hadn't had everything from rodents to insects running around. The food would need to be tested carefully or they'd be laid up for days with stomach cramps. "Or will that cost extra?"

"Probably," Jade said. "But we're only going to be staying there for one night."

"We should be able to get some news too," Cat pointed out. "Right now, we don't know enough to make a plan."

"True," Emily agreed. The inn didn't look very inviting, but they were short of choices. It was probably too much to hope for a bath, or anything remotely resembling a shower. There would be buckets of cold water for washing and chamberpots under the bed. And that was if they were lucky. "Let's go, shall we?"

 

Chapter Two

"Busy place," Cat commented, as they drove up the driveway. "I can hear the drunken singing from here."

Emily nodded, tersely. The inn seemed to grow larger with every passing second, large enough to pass for a hotel on Earth. Someone had paved the drive with cobblestones-she was amused to note that they'd paid more attention to their drive than the Royal Road-but it was clear that hundreds of horses and carts had passed through in the last few days. The sound of music-and glasses clinking-was growing louder too. She felt a lump form in her stomach as she looked up at the forbidding building. It felt...unsafe.

Stout heart, she told herself, as Jade pulled the wagon to a stop. You've been in worse places.

"Ho!" She looked up and saw a young boy, around ten years old, running towards them. "I...welcome!"

Emily's eyes narrowed. The boy was young, wearing a cap, a brown jerkin and loose trousers that seemed to be a size or two too big for him. No, for her. The disguise was a good one-and Emily probably wouldn't have seen through it if she hadn't had plenty of experience with women dressing as men-but it wasn't good enough. The clothes were just a little too loose for peasant garments that could be resized on the fly. She wondered, as the girl reached the cart and bowed deeply, if Jade or Cat had seen through it too. She'd known plenty of people who'd see someone dressed as a boy and assume 'he' was a boy.

"Ho," the greeter said, again. She wouldn't be able to pass for a boy for much longer, not if her voice didn't grow deeper. "Rooms for three?"

"Yes," Jade said. He jumped down to the cobblestones and motioned for Cat to pass him the trunk. "And a place in the stables for our horse and wagon."

The girl bowed, again. "My mother will handle the details inside," she said, pointing to the door. "I'll take your horses to the back now."

Emily watched her scramble up with all the ease of youth, feeling an odd mixture of emotions. Children in the Nameless World were different. They were expected to make themselves useful from a very early age. It still felt odd to see children with adult responsibilities, but she had to admit it was the making of them. The kind of psychosis that had been all too common back home, where children were not allowed to grow up until the appointed time, was rarely seen on the Nameless World.

But she also knew why the girl was wearing male guise. It would keep her safe in a world full of threats. Hundreds of people would be passing through the inn every day and some of them would be dangerous. A young girl might look vulnerable...she felt sick at the very thought. The Nameless World had its downsides too. Someone with enough rank or wealth or power-or magic-could get away with anything.

She scrambled down to the cobblestones, slung one of the bags over her shoulders and followed the men to the main entrance. A handful of older men were sitting outside, swapping gossip and smoking something that smelled sickly-sweet. Emily had no idea what it was, but she doubted it was doing their lungs any good. Their eyes flickered over her as she walked past, then looked away. She wasn't remotely surprised to see, as they walked into the inn, that a middle-aged woman was sitting behind the table. Greeting the guests was woman's work. The flintlock lying on her desk, on the other hand, was a considerable surprise. She'd known handheld guns were starting to spread across Zangaria-everyone wanted one, no matter what the king said-but she wouldn't have expected to find one here.

And too many people won't know what it is, she thought, wryly. A weapon wouldn't deter anyone if they didn't realize it was a weapon. Or maybe they'll believe it has supernatural powers.

Jade did the talking. "We want a single room for the three of us, with the proper facilities."

The woman looked at Emily with a hint of disdain before frowning up at the blackboard behind her. Emily felt her cheeks heat. Passing for a kept woman was embarrassing, even though she was fairly sure no one would be able to penetrate her disguise. Even if they figured out that she wasn't some peasant girl who'd run off in search of adventure-or to escape an unwanted marriage-they'd never guess the truth. But it also meant dealing with society's contempt. Prostitutes were right at the bottom. The innkeeper would feel free to look down on her.

She turned away, allowing her eyes to roam around the hallway. It was dark, illuminated only by a handful of flickering lanterns. Someone had placed them very carefully, ensuring that the innkeeper could see her guests while making it harder for the guests to see her. The walls were cloaked in shadow, probably hiding the remnants of previous guests as well as the dirt and grime that was omnipresent in the Nameless World. Music echoed down one corridor: a man bellowing out a bawdy ballad, accompanied by something that sounded vaguely like a guitar. The lyrics were explicit enough to make her cringe.

The innkeeper coughed, loudly. "Women are to eat in the upper hall," she said, stiffly. "Men are to eat in the lower floor."

Emily nodded, keeping her face impassive. It was a wise precaution. The inn appeared to be bursting with guests, most of whom would probably be mercenaries. Better to try to keep men and women separate than risk a fight breaking out over one of the girls. She shifted her bag, then followed Jade and Cat through a low-hanging door and up a narrow flight of wooden stairs. It was so dark that she wanted to cast a night-vision spell. Someone was likely to have an accident if they had to sneak down in the middle of the night.

And we're going to have real trouble if there's a fire, she thought, as they reached the top of the stairs. A pair of heavyset men with swords were standing at the top. Getting everyone out in a hurry will be difficult.

She tensed as she saw Jade's hand resting on his dagger. Drawing his sword in such a confined space would be difficult. Hell, the inn might have been designed to make fighting difficult. She'd been in castles built to make life harder for anyone trying to fight their way up the stairs. She touched her own dagger, hidden in her sleeve, as the two men looked at them, then stepped aside. Her skin crawled as their eyes wandered over her chest. She was showing nothing, but it didn't matter. The men hadn't seen a young woman in far too long.

Her back itched as they made their way down the corridor, careful not to show any sign of fear. Jade and Cat had plenty of experience-she knew she'd never be a swordmaster herself-but fighting without magic was always chancy. The men were mercenaries, judging by their clothing. They had probably fought in wars where the rules of warfare were nothing more than sick jokes. They might well be experienced enough to make up for Jade and Cat's youth.

And if we reveal we're magicians, we will draw too much attention to ourselves, she reminded herself. We must pass unnoticed.

Jade stopped outside a wooden door and inserted a large iron key into the lock. Emily wasn't remotely impressed. She could have picked that primitive lock with her eyes closed, without magic. The smell of...something...wafted out as the door opened, forcing her to breathe through her mouth. Inside, it was dark and uncomfortably warm. Cat stumbled into the room and opened the shutters. It didn't look as though anyone had bothered to clean the room before renting it out again.

"It could be worse," Cat said, as light streamed into the room. "At least we have some air."

"And we're trapped, if we need to get out in a hurry," Jade said, pointing to the iron bars covering the windows. "Are we guests or prisoners?"

"They probably don't want people running off without paying," Cat said. "Emily? What do you think?"

Emily looked around the room. Two wooden beds-she rather suspected the innkeeper had thought she would be sharing with one of the men-covered in sheets that looked decidedly unclean. Chamberpots under the bed, as she'd expected; a bucket of water in the corner, clearly an afterthought. The New Learning included plenty of warnings about how diseases spread, and how even something as simple as boiling water or washing one's hands could keep them from spreading, but not everyone believed it. There were places on the Nameless World-particularly near cities-where drinking the water was a good way to commit suicide.

"It will have to do," she said, as she put her bag down. There was no point in complaining about it. The innkeeper had no reason to think they needed a better room, assuming one was available. They might have been given the best room in the inn. "Are you hungry?"

"Yeah," Cat said. He winked at her. "Shall we go down for dinner?"

"We can't go together," Jade reminded him. His expression darkened. "I don't like leaving our stuff here."

"Put up a very basic ward," Cat suggested. "We should be able to get away with it."

Emily had her doubts. No one would think twice about a mercenary carrying a wand, or a handful of protective amulets, but a ward would be far too revealing. If, of course, someone dared try to search the room. A thief would be risking everything if he were caught. No one would bat an eyelid if a would-be thief was killed by his victim. She'd seen mutilated criminals wandering around towns in the past. None of them had any hope of a better life.

"Rig the door, instead," she suggested. "A charm to keep it closed unless one of us is turning the key should be workable."

"Good thought," Jade said. "Give me a moment."

Emily watched as he set up a handful of tells to alert them if someone managed to enter and search the room anyway, then hurried back down the stairs to the upper hall. It was bigger than she'd expected, given that women wouldn't be that common on the roads; women crammed the tables, while a grim-faced waitress moved from table to table, taking orders and bringing food from the kitchen. Emily felt her stomach churn-she knew how grimy inn kitchens could be-but there was no alternative. The only consolation was that the men wouldn't be having anything better.

A middle-aged woman waved to her. "Just passing through?"

"Yes," Emily said, taking the implied invitation and sitting down. She would have preferred to eat alone, but that wasn't a possibility either. "We're going to Alexis."

"I hear the roads are clogged there," the woman said. "We're heading away from Alexis."

Emily ordered food-rabbit stew and bread-then leaned back in her chair and listened to her dining companions as they talked. Sharing stories and rumors was a tradition, she'd heard, but it wasn't something she'd done before. The last time she'd been to an inn, it had been with Lady Barb, deep in the Cairngorms. There just hadn't been enough people traveling to keep the tradition alive. Here, it was different. She said as little as she could as they talked.

"The king is supposed to have locked up the princess," one woman said, when the conversation turned to politics. She looked to be a merchant's wife, although she could easily have been the merchant herself. "She's somewhere in the castle."

"Rubbish," another woman said. "She's dead."

"Or leading an army against the king," a third woman said. "The rumors keep growing."

"I heard she was caught in bed with a footman," the second woman said. "Or even a maid."

The women giggled. Emily felt a hot flash of anger on Alassa's behalf, even as she tried to work out who might be spreading the rumors and why. It wasn't the first time she'd heard awful stories about Alassa, stories that would make her seem unsuitable for the throne...the mere suggestion that Jade might not have fathered Alassa's child would call the baby's legitimacy into question. But there were plenty of paternity spells to make sure the child was truly his...

"Baron Gaillard has been taxing all caravans that pass through his territory," the merchant woman said. "He's even been putting the squeeze on the free towns."

"He isn't the only one," the second woman said. Emily had no idea what she did. Her clothes suggested a middle-class life, but they were curiously bland. "Baroness Winter Flower has demanded more taxes too."

Emily frowned. Alicia? King Randor's former mistress? Or had her husband taken control of the barony? Lord Burrows wouldn't have been married off to a baroness if the king hadn't been sure of his loyalty. Who was really in charge? And why were they raising taxes?

They want a fighting fund, she thought, grimly. And who knows what side they'll take?

"I hear there's trouble in Cockatrice," the merchant woman said. "We were hoping to go there, after visiting Callable."

"Cockatrice?" Emily leaned forward, interested. "What's happening there?"

"It depends who you believe," the merchant woman said. "But most of the stories agree that the king's man in the castle is shitty."

"The baroness should go back," the second woman grumbled. "My husband isn't going to invest any monies if he doesn't trust the baron to repay him."

So your husband is a banker, then, Emily thought. Or a loan shark.

The third woman looked at Emily. "What is it like, traveling with two sellswords?"

Emily lifted her eyebrows in surprise, then realized the woman must have seen Jade and Cat when they'd walked her down to the hall. Their forelocks made them instantly recognizable as mercenaries. And...she met the woman's eyes, reading the challenge there. She wanted to put Emily down, to put her right at the bottom of the table hierarchy...Emily almost laughed at just how petty it was. It wasn't as if any of them were in school.

And if you knew who you were talking to, she thought wryly, you'd throw yourself on the ground so fast you'd crack your head against the stone.

"It's never boring," she said, choosing to pretend she wasn't supposed to be ashamed of herself. Most of the kept women she'd seen in Farrakhan had looked downtrodden, all too aware that they could be replaced at any moment. "And I've seen things you would not believe."

The merchant woman smiled, a little weakly. "Why don't you tell us about them?"

Emily shrugged and launched into a story about the battles in and around Farrakhan. She had been there, after all. And even if they doubted her, they'd never be able to prove she was lying. Halfway through the story, her meal arrived. She picked at the rabbit stew and bread as she talked, enjoying their attention. It might make them see the world a little differently.

"So you won the war," the merchant woman said, finally.

That was truer than she knew, Emily reflected. "Yeah," she said. "And then we were told to move out of the city before the end of the month."

"Because sellswords are unpopular," the third woman said. "No one wants you around when there's no risk of war."

Emily nodded. No one liked mercenaries, not even the noblemen who hired them. And a mercenary who was badly wounded would be lucky if he received anything in the way of medical attention. Even a chirurgeon would be reluctant to treat a mercenary.

"Which is why you're going to Alexis," the banker woman said. "What do you think will happen there?"

"We'll find work, of course," Emily said. "I'll spend my days washing their clothes and shining their swords, then we'll move on."

"And they call you Emily," the merchant woman said.

Emily had to fight to keep the surprise off her face. The woman must have overhead Jade or Cat addressing her by name.

"My name is Millie," she said. "They just like the sound of Emily."

"They like the thought of sleeping with the sorceress," the banker woman said.

Emily didn't have to fake embarrassment. The cover story would ensure that no one would connect her with the real Emily, but it was still embarrassing. She looked down, allowing them to draw their own conclusions. They'd believe those more than anything Emily might tell them.

The merchant woman sniffed, then changed the subject. Emily listened as she finished her stew, enjoying it more than she wanted to admit. It had taken her a while to get used to eating rabbit, when the sergeants had caught rabbits to feed their students on overnight forced marches, but the meat tasted good. And selling the pelts was apparently a good way for country boys to earn a little money.

She knew she should stay longer and see what other rumors she could pick up, but she suspected it would be useless. No one knew anything for sure. The civil war was about to begin, the civil war was underway, the civil war was already over or never going to happen or...there were just too many contradictory rumors. Instead, she bid her dining companions farewell and left the room. Her thoughts were a muddle. She knew she needed to lie down and sleep.

And wake up tomorrow covered in insect bites, she thought. It had happened before and would no doubt happen again. They'd run out of insect-repelling incense long ago. Surely we could cast a ward against insects.

The inn felt oddly quiet, although she could hear music in the distance. Someone would have hired an entertainer to keep the men quiet, she was sure. It might save the inn from being torn apart if the mercenaries got bored and started a fight. She walked along the wooden corridor, suddenly unsure of the way back to her room...

...And then she heard someone grunt in pain.

 

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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

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 Princess in the Tower Copyright 2018. 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- via Amazon Kindle; Amazon.co.uk; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; 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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