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Graduation Day
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

Emily saved Frieda's life, mind and soul ... but now Frieda stands accused of attempted murder - and worse. Frieda must now stand trial, with her life - and Emily's future on the Nameless World - standing in the balance.
   Book 14 in the Schooled in Magic series.

 

 

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Graduation Day

fantasy

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

Prologue

Fulvia would never admit it, not outside the privacy of her own head, but the look on Emily's face as Fulvia stepped into the grandmaster's office made all her past aggravation worthwhile.

Emily looked ... stunned. She hadn't been raised in one of the great families, of course; her father had been negligent in her education. There was no way she knew just how much her gobsmacked expression was giving away. Fulvia could see Emily fighting for self-control, struggling to keep herself calm ... Fulvia relished every moment. The look of shock on the girl's face was delightful.

She hadn't changed much, Fulvia observed. Emily was still tall and willowy, her long brown hair framing a face that was striking rather than pretty. Her magic crackled around her, flickering and flaring as if she was unsure what to do with it. And yet, it was clear that the young girl had been pushed to the limit. Emily wasn't any older than Melissa, Fulvia reminded herself. She might have power - although not as much as everyone thought she had - but she lacked experience. A more experienced magician would know the danger of giving too much away.

And there are so many questions yet to be answered, Fulvia reminded herself. She's nowhere near as powerful as she's supposed to be.

The thought made her lips twitch in amusement. Emily had - somehow - projected an anti-magic ward powerful enough to stop a brewing fight in its tracks. No mean feat, Fulvia admitted, yet it would have required a staggering amount of power. Fulvia herself couldn't have generated so much power, not without a nexus point. And she was easily old enough to be Emily's great-grandmother. Magic power grew with age, but Emily was young. It had been a trick, somehow. Fulvia's mouth widened in amusement as she contemplated the possibilities. She looked forward to finding out how it had been done.

Emily's voice was strangled. "What are you doing here?"

Fulvia met the girl's eyes and waited, silently counting the seconds. It wouldn't do to make the little brat think that Fulvia would hop to answer her questions, would it? And besides, it gave time for more reflection. The girl's accent was odd, odd enough to make Fulvia wonder just where and when she'd learned to speak. It was hardly out of character for Void to raise a daughter in an isolated community - a Lone Power wouldn't want his enemies knowing he had a daughter until she was old enough to go to school - but there were so many gaps in Emily's awareness of the world around her that Fulvia had more questions than answers. Her father had been strikingly negligent in her education.

And where would she have been raised, Fulvia asked herself, where she didn't speak the common tongue?

"I am the Matriarch of House Ashworth," Fulvia said. It felt good to say that again, after two years of humiliation. But really, had Emily expected her to just ... go away? Fulvia had dedicated her life to gathering power. She wouldn't give it up just because she'd had a minor setback. "It is my duty to prosecute crimes against my family."

She looked past Emily, at Gordian. The new grandmaster was staring back at her, his face unreadable. Fulvia silently saluted him, wondering which way Gordian would jump. He wasn't a bad choice for the post, she admitted, but he wasn't beholden to her. She would have preferred someone who would take her side, if push came to shove. But Emily - deliberately or not - had crippled her power base. She hadn't been able to influence the debate over who would be the next grandmaster.

But as long as he stays on the sidelines, it won't matter, she thought. Gordian had made a mistake. A tiny mistake, but one he would come to regret. I can suborn him later.

"I must request that you turn Frieda of No House over to me," she said, flatly. Oh, the look of helpless rage on Emily's face was glorious. "She will answer for her crimes against the family."

"That will not be possible," Gordian said. His voice was toneless. "Frieda has not been expelled from Whitehall. An inquest must be held to determine precisely what happened before she can be handled over to anyone."

Fulvia inclined her head in a slow nod, conceding the point. She hadn't expected anything else. There had been no way to time events perfectly, not when soul magic and mind manipulation was involved. She'd anticipated having to adjust her plans at a moment's notice, just to take events into account. It would be a fantastic battle of wits, one where she had age and experience on her side. She was quite looking forward to it.

Emily looked surprised. Fulvia felt a flicker of amusement. She hadn't expected Gordian to defend Frieda, then. She'd expected ... what? Fulvia smiled as she looked back at the younger girl. From probationary student to Head Girl ... her badge was missing. Former Head Girl, perhaps. It suggested that relations between Gordian and Emily were hardly close. Fulvia made a silent bet with herself that Emily saw Gordian as a potential enemy.

"Very well," Fulvia said. "The papers will be filed by the end of the week. My choice of jurists will be selected shortly. The inquest can take place at your command."

"Thank you." Gordian's voice was still toneless. It was hard to read his emotions. "I will make the arrangements for a secure chamber."

Fulvia nodded. Gordian wasn't being very subtle. His words were a grim reminder that he would uphold his oath, even if it meant making an enemy of some very politically powerful and influential people. But then, he didn't have much choice. Even now, Emily was powerful ... perhaps more powerful than she realized. Who knew what she'd be in the future?

Better to stop her now than find out, Fulvia thought. The little brat had already been staggeringly disruptive, as if her mere touch was enough to throw orderly systems into utter chaos. Fulvia knew she'd been lucky to preserve enough of her power base to regain her position and even that was unsteady. She had to win if she wanted to remain in charge for the rest of her life. Or even just to stay alive.

"That would be satisfactory," Fulvia informed him. "I trust you will also arrange living quarters for myself and my jurists?"

"Of course," Gordian said.

Fulvia switched her gaze back to Emily. The younger girl appeared calm, but Fulvia could tell she was angry. Her body was quivering slightly, as if she was barely restraining herself from going for Fulvia's throat; her hands were clasped behind her back, keeping them out of Fulvia's view. She really was inexperienced. Did she realize, Fulvia asked herself, that she was the true target? That her little friend's life was nothing in the grand scheme of things? That Fulvia had been happy to put her own family at risk just to lure Emily onto a battlefield she didn't understand, let alone control?

And I can prolong things as long as necessary, Fulvia thought.

"Justice will be done," she said. "The assault on Celadon will be avenged."

Emily's eyes twitched, but she said nothing. Fulvia was almost impressed. She had no doubt that the younger girl wanted to blast her, verbally or magically. Emily's hatred was almost a physical force in its own right. She clearly knew Fulvia had hired Daze. And yet ... Daze would have taken that secret to his grave, even if he'd been interrogated by a Lone Power. How had Emily figured out the truth?

It doesn't matter, Fulvia told herself, firmly. She has no proof.

She took a step back. "We will meet in the courtroom," she said. "And justice will be done."

And then she turned and walked out of the room.

 

Chapter One

Emily felt like she'd been punched in the stomach.

It was hard, so hard, to think. Her heart pounded in her ears; her magic crackled as she fought for control. She wanted to lash out, to blast Fulvia with all the power she could muster ... only the grim awareness it would mean certain death for both Frieda and herself kept her from striking first. The ancient crone had baited a trap and she'd walked right into it. She had no idea what to do.

Fulvia hadn't changed a bit. She looked old, her grey hair tied into a solid bun; her face was wrinkled, as if she couldn't be bothered using a glamour to soften her looks. But her back was ramrod straight and her eyes - her hard eyes - utterly unrelenting. Her looks were a choice, Emily thought dully. Fulvia was showing off her age, rather than trying to hide behind cosmetic spells. It was an unsubtle warning that she was far more formidable than she looked. Magic power grew with age, and Fulvia was very old indeed.

Emily fought for control as Fulvia turned and walked out of Gordian's office. Fulvia had manipulated Frieda, and Emily knew it. Daze had warped Frieda's mind, using soul magic to push her until she crossed a line. And yet ... Fulvia had walked in, as calmly as she pleased, and announced herself as the Ashworth Matriarch. How the hell had she regained her power? Emily couldn't begin to imagine how Fulvia had convinced her family to let her reclaim the title. She'd been disgraced ...

She gathered herself, slowly. It had been a long day, too long. Too much had happened in too short a space of time for her to process. Frieda had assaulted Celadon, then fled; Emily had been captured by Daze, only to escape ... her thoughts were a jumbled mess. She'd used soul magic on Frieda to save her friend's life. She needed to sit down and meditate, then sleep for a week. But she doubted she'd have the time.

Gordian cleared his throat. Emily jumped. She'd forgotten he was there.

"I can provide a secure chamber for the inquest," he said, as Emily turned to face him. "But I cannot defend Frieda."

Emily glared at him. "You know she was manipulated."

"We don't have proof," Gordian reminded her. He pointed to the remains of the bracelet resting on his desk. "There are no traces of magic on the bracelet, not now. Even if there were, the magical signature would belong to Frieda. And Daze cannot testify to anything."

"Because he's dead," Emily snarled.

"Quite," Gordian agreed.

Emily took a deep breath as she studied the bracelet. Frieda had made it, but Daze had shaped the spell, twisting Frieda's magic until it had started to drive her insane. It had been clever, Emily admitted sourly. If someone had cast a compulsion spell on Frieda, Whitehall's wards would have sounded the alert the moment she crossed the threshold. But there had been no way to tell the difference between Frieda's protections and the tiny little spell that had pushed her over the edge. She gritted her teeth in frustration. There was no way to prove that Frieda hadn't been in her right mind.

"Fulvia was behind Daze," she said. "She planned all this!"

"Perhaps," Gordian said. "But do you have proof?"

Emily forced herself to think. "I ..."

She looked down at her hands, feeling helpless. Melissa could testify that Daze had worked for Fulvia, perhaps. And Melissa had ample reason to want to weaken Fulvia. But ... but it wasn't proof that Daze had been working for Fulvia when he died. Fulvia could simply claim that Daze had left her service years ago. There would be no way to disprove her words, unless ...

Emily looked up. "We could challenge her to swear an oath."

Gordian's lips twitched. "Trying to force someone to swear an oath is illegal," he said. "And with good reason. Do you want to set a precedent?"

"You forced me to swear an oath," Emily said. "Remember?"

"You were guilty," Gordian pointed out. He smiled, suddenly. "Technically."

"Technically," Emily echoed, wryly. Thinking about time travel and time loops made her head hurt. "I wasn't guilty then."

"No," Gordian agreed. "And I wouldn't have pushed you to swear if there hadn't been a clear and present danger."

"Frieda could swear," Emily said, after a moment. "She wasn't responsible for her own actions."

"In her current state, I'm not sure she could swear an oath," Gordian told her. "And even if she could, it would be meaningless."

He looked down at his desk. "The Ashworths have every right to demand an inquest. After everything that happened over the last few months ... they have every right to want answers. They must determine her guilt - or the lack of it."

Emily's mouth felt dry. "And if she's found guilty?"

"She'll be handed over to them," Gordian said. "After that ..."

They'll kill her, Emily thought. Fulvia will murder Frieda to cover her tracks.

She shuddered. There were worse fates than death. Frieda might be enslaved, or transfigured, or ... she'd read too many horror stories, each one worse than the last. Or ... she might be used as leverage. Emily had risked her life, several times, for Frieda. And Frieda had risked her life for Emily. Fulvia would have Emily at her mercy if she had Frieda as a hostage. Who knew what she'd demand in exchange for Frieda's life?

That might be the point, Emily thought. Frieda was nothing to Fulvia - just another common-born magician - but Emily wasn't. Emily had shamed Fulvia and made her a laughing stock in front of her family and her family's historic rivals. Fulvia had ample reason to want a little revenge. I might be the target, not Frieda.

"I suggest you prepare yourself for the inquest," Gordian said. "As a neutral party, I cannot offer you advice ..."

Emily met his eyes. "Whose side are you on?"

She saw a hot flash of anger in his eyes. "I'm on Whitehall's side," Gordian snapped. "Does that answer your question?"

"No," Emily said. It wasn't enough. How could it be?

Gordian looked back at her for a long moment. "My responsibility is to the school, not to you or Fulvia or anyone else. My job is to ensure that my pupils learn magic in a reasonably safe environment, which includes punishing or expelling students who cross the line. And sometimes, that means removing a student who is disruptive ..."

"Like you wanted to remove me," Emily said, flatly.

"Quite," Gordian agreed. "Right now, we must determine if Frieda was truly influenced by an outside force, in which case she cannot be held accountable for her actions, or if she acted of her own accord. And matters are complicated by the demand that Frieda be handed over to the Ashworths for punishment. This is not something that can be handled quickly. I suggest you find a way to prove Frieda's innocence or come up with something you can offer them, in exchange for a formal renunciation of any demands for punishment."

He rubbed his nose, tiredly. "The basic facts are not in dispute," he added. "Frieda did assault Celadon, after a series of other assaults on students ... including younger students. I simply do not have the influence to keep outsiders from trying to poke their nose into the school, if we do not give them an inquest. It was sheer luck that Frieda was not formally expelled before you brought her back to the school."

And the timing worked out in Fulvia's favor, Emily thought, darkly. Was that sheer luck ... or was someone pulling the strings behind the scenes?

It was hard, so hard, not to second-guess herself. Had Daze been meant to let her go? Or had Fulvia calculated that Emily would find a way to beat him? Or had she devised a whole series of plans, each one designed for a different contingency? She might just have hoped for the best and planned for the worst. Fulvia was dangerously smart. Emily had no way to be sure she wasn't playing into Fulvia's hands. And yet, doing nothing wasn't an option either.

She sat down, resting her hands in her lap. "Will you be genuinely neutral?"

"Yes," Gordian said, flatly. "I don't like you, Lady Emily. But I will uphold my commitments to Whitehall."

Emily winced. She'd known Gordian wasn't fond of her, but ... she sighed, inwardly. She wouldn't have liked it either, if she'd been in his place. Her control over the school's wards gave her a reasonable chance of overriding anything he did, despite his modifications to the spellware. And to him, she might as well be a child. She wasn't even an underage prince or princess elevated to the throne before coming of age.

"Frieda will be held at Whitehall until formal judgement has been passed," Gordian said. "If she recovers before the inquest is completed, she may resume her studies ... although probably not return to classes. I must warn you" - he met her eyes - "that any attempt to flee will be taken as a de facto confession of guilt."

Emily scowled. "And what if the Ashworths attempt to remove her without permission?"

"They won't," Gordian said. "The consequences would be severe."

Hah, Emily thought.

But she had to admit he had a point. The Great Families wanted - needed - to uphold the law, such as it was. Frieda had to be proven guilty before she could be punished. And besides, Fulvia had every reason to prolong the inquest as much as possible. She'd want to tighten the screws before she started haggling for Frieda's life.

"You will be informed once the arrangements for the inquest have been made," Gordian added, curtly. "The details have yet to be sorted out, but" - he shook his head, slowly - "I advise you to look up the procedures and read them carefully. You do not want to be caught unprepared."

Emily felt a hot flash of anger. "Aren't you breaching your neutrality by telling me that?"

Gordian looked back at her, evenly. "Fulvia has taken part in five inquests, Lady Emily. She has played all of the roles, at one time or another. She has enough experience to swing uncommitted jurors onto her side, if you are unable to make a convincing case for Frieda's innocence. I tell you this to balance the scales."

"Oh," Emily said. She took a breath. "In my first year, I ... I almost killed Alassa. There was no inquest."

"No," Gordian agreed, flatly. "But King Randor could have pressed for an inquest, if he'd wished. I believe that Hasdrubal pulled strings to ... convince ... him to let the matter go. I do not have that sort of influence."

And you wouldn't waste it on Frieda, Emily finished, silently.

Gordian was still speaking. "The Ashworths are one of the most powerful families in the Allied Lands," he added. "They cannot let this matter go, Emily. Their enemies will see it as a sign of weakness, one they can ill afford. Melissa's ... defection ... weakened them quite badly, at least until one of her younger siblings takes her place as heir. They have to press for an inquest unless you can find ironclad proof of Frieda's innocence."

"Which may be impossible," Emily said. She shook her head. "How did Fulvia climb back to the top?"

Gordian's face darkened. It struck Emily, suddenly, that he didn't like Fulvia. Oddly, the thought cheered her. Gordian could easily have said nothing, citing his neutrality. But he was helping her, just a little. Perhaps, just perhaps, she could convince him to help more.

"I'm not privy to their inner circle," he said, slowly. "But I would wager that she still knows where all the bodies are buried. It's been over two years since she was disgraced. She might just have managed to convince enough of the senior members to allow her to resume her position. Or she might have blackmailed them. Or ... she might just have been allowed to take the lead here, in the hopes she will also take the blame if it blows up in her face."

Emily groaned. "There's no way to know?"

"Not without being privy to their discussions," Gordian said. "But, no matter who is in charge, the Ashworths have to demand an inquest."

"Unless we can find a face-saving way for them to back down," Emily mused.

Gordian gave her a surprised look. "Correct."

But that won't be easy, Emily thought. Melissa's granddad might negotiate in good faith, but Fulvia won't.

She thought for a long moment. "If the inquest does find Frieda innocent, will they press the matter further?"

"They'll accept the outcome," Gordian assured her. "They won't be happy, of course, but they'll accept it. The alternative is chaos."

Emily nodded, silently blessing Master Tor for his description of magical law. It was harsh and cold and made no pretense at being fair, but it was better than the alternative. The Great Families would uphold the law because they had no choice, even when it didn't work in their favor. If they didn't, the Allied Lands would tear themselves apart. And then the necromancers would walk in and take over.

They would drain the land dry, Emily thought. She'd seen the Blighted Lands. And that would be the end.

She ran her fingers through her hair. She needed a shower - no, a bath. And then sleep. But there were too many things to do.

"How long do we have?"

"It depends," Gordian said. "I can stall for a week or two, in the hopes that Frieda will recover enough to speak in her own defense, but probably not much longer. I advise you to look up the procedures, because you do not want Fulvia to dictate everything. Thankfully, as one of Frieda's guardians-of-record, you can speak for her or arrange for someone else to speak for her. You will be informed when the time comes to take the stand."

"Thank you," Emily managed.

"You're welcome," Gordian said.

He tapped his desk, sharply. "Two other matters, then. You left the school yesterday, even though I told you not to do so. Worse, you didn't report to the Warden as ordered. Normally, that would be a serious offense. Under the circumstances--" he shrugged "--I'm prepared to let it pass without comment. Do not do it again."

Emily fought to hide a smile. She had left the school without permission, hadn't she? She'd forgotten, after everything else that had happened. And failing to report to the Warden ... that wasn't a harmless little prank. But she'd forgotten that too.

"Second," Gordian added. "You are no longer Head Girl. The new Head Pupil will be chosen by me within the next day or so. Tonight, I want you to clear your possessions out of your suite. Madame Rosalinda will arrange another room for you."

"Yes, sir," Emily said.

"Once the next Head Pupil is appointed, you can hand over the office and your files to them," Gordian added. "Cirroc is already handling the dueling club, so there shouldn't be any problems there, but everything else ... make sure your successor hits the ground running. If there are matters that need to be brought to their attention, bring them to their attention. And, afterwards, if a pupil approaches you and asks for help, direct them to your successor."

"Yes, sir," Emily repeated.

She looked down at her pale hands, tiredly. She'd never wanted to be Head Girl. It had been a headache, one she would have declined if she'd been offered the choice. But now ... it hurt to lose the post, no matter how much she hated it. It was clear proof that she'd failed - and she had failed. Gordian was right. She'd allowed Frieda to get out of hand. And then she'd compounded that mistake with blatant disobedience.

Stop moaning about it, she told herself, firmly. You never wanted the bloody job.

"You may also find that your successor bosses you around a little, just to show they're in charge now," Gordian warned. "Just grin and bear it."

Emily snorted. Who would succeed her? Cirroc was the best choice, she thought, but he was already busy with the dueling club? Melissa? Or Pandora? Or Jacqui or Cerise? They'd want it, at least. The others - Caleb, the Gorgon - wouldn't want the job, if it was offered to them. She hoped it wouldn't be Jacqui or Cerise. They already disliked her and loathed Melissa.

"I'll go to the infirmary now," she said. The clock on the wall insisted it was almost dinnertime. She found it hard to believe that so much had happened in less than a day. "I want to check on Frieda before going back to my room."

"Your former room," Gordian corrected. "Report to Madame Rosalinda when you get upstairs."

"Yes, sir," Emily said. She felt a flicker of relief. At least he wasn't ordering her to empty the suite first. "And thank you."

Gordian looked displeased. "I'm just doing my duty," he said, stiffly. "But if you want a word of advice ...?"

Emily blinked. "Yes, please."

"Be very careful," Gordian warned. "Fulvia is known to be extremely clever - and dangerous. That she has regained the matriarchy is clear proof of her power and her willingness to use it. I find it hard to believe that she would expend so much effort to punish Frieda."

But she would to get at me, Emily finished. She'd already come to the same conclusion, but ... it was good to hear that Gordian had the same concerns. I'm the real target, not Frieda.

She rose. "Thank you, sir," she said. "For everything."

"Don't mention it," Gordian said. He gave her an unreadable look. "Ever."

 

Chapter Two

There was still no sign of Madame Griselda, Emily noted, as she stepped out of Gordian's office and shut the door behind her. The outer office was dark and cold, as if its owner had left for the night. She glanced around, reaching out with her senses to make sure she was truly alone, then sat down on the bench. She wanted, she needed, to think.

It was hard to focus. Too much had happened in too short a space of time. How had everything -- from Celadon's near-death to Fulvia's reappearance -- happened in less than a day? Normally, she would be eating dinner with her friends, or perhaps heading to the library to catch up with her studies. She wondered, as she forced her mind to focus, just how events would play out over the next few days. It was sheer luck that it was the weekend. Classes wouldn't be cancelled - or disrupted - because of everything.

No one will thank us for that, she thought, sourly. Sunday will probably be a wasted day.

Emily looked down at her hands. She'd already concluded that Fulvia wasn't interested in Frieda. The younger girl was nothing to her. Emily found it hard to believe that Fulvia had any real concerns for Celadon - or Adana, for that matter. Fulvia had been prepared to force Melissa into an unwanted marriage just to strengthen her control over the family. It was unlikely that she saw either Celadon or Adana as anything other than pawns. Hell, Celadon wasn't even part of the main family. He belonged to a cadet house.

But she wants me, Emily told herself, numbly. And if she can get Frieda handed over to her ...

She shuddered. There was no impartial authority in the Nameless World, nothing that would impose the Rule of Law. Fulvia would have every right to take and punish Frieda, if she was proved guilty ... and proving her innocence would be hard. Gordian was right. There was very little evidence to suggest that Frieda was anything other than a murderous bitch who'd tried to kill her partner. The bracelet wasn't proof of anything - it wouldn't have been even if it were still active. It was Frieda's magical signature on the wretched device.

Her thoughts ran in circles. She couldn't let Fulvia take Frieda. And yet, how could she stop her?

I could take Frieda out of Whitehall myself, she thought. And then run to Heart's Eye ...

She shook her head. It might work - it would work, if she used her control over the wards to subvert Gordian's precautions. But it would get them both branded as outlaws. Fulvia might even be hoping for that outcome. It would undo all of Emily's work in a manner that nothing else, not even her death, would accomplish. Emily could take Frieda to Heart's Eye and then ... and then what? She would be trapped, unable to leave the ruined school. They'd run out of food in fairly short order.

A dozen ideas ran through her head, each one born of desperation. Nothing seemed even remotely workable, short of trying to bargain. But Fulvia would drive a very hard bargain indeed. Emily couldn't imagine what Fulvia would want from her, after everything that had happened in Cockatrice, but she knew it wouldn't be pleasant. Would she give up her life - or her freedom - for Frieda? And could someone as old and canny as Fulvia be trusted to keep her side of the bargain? A skilled magician could easily build a loophole or two into any magical oath.

Despair washed over her as she rested her head in her hands. There didn't seem to be any way out, save perhaps for surrender. And that would come with a high price. She needed help. And advice, and ...

You have time, she told herself, firmly. And you can think about it when you're not so tired and worn.

She rose and walked to the door, stepping into the corridor. The school was eerily quiet, so quiet that her footsteps seemed unnaturally loud. Normally, students would be running through the corridors, perhaps going to the library or playing games with their friends. It was a weekend, after all. Lights Out wasn't so strictly enforced when there were no classes the following day. But she saw no one, not even a tutor, as she made her way to the stairs and headed downwards. It made her feel truly alone.

The portraits on the wall seemed to glower at her as she walked to the infirmary. Emily did her best to ignore them, even though she could feel sparks of raw magic dancing through the air. The portraits weren't magical, unless someone had charmed them, turning them into spies. She knew the spells, but she also knew that most magicians regarded such enchantments as impractical. There were easier and safer ways to keep an eye on the students. Unless, of course, the charmers wanted the students to know they were being watched.

She reached the infirmary door and stopped, unsure if she wanted to go inside. She had no idea what was waiting for her, no idea what she'd see ... part of her just wanted to turn around and go back to her room. Her former room. But she knew she had no choice. She pushed the door open, her eyes widening with surprise as she saw Sergeant Miles standing guard. It shouldn't have surprised her, she told herself crossly. Frieda wasn't exactly a prisoner, if Gordian was to be believed, but she wasn't going to be allowed to leave either.

"Emily." Sergeant Miles didn't sound happy. His voice was hard, promising trouble. It hadn't been a good term for him, even before all hell had broken loose. "She's in there, sleeping."

Emily nodded as he pointed to a door. If the sergeant was angry with her ... she knew she'd have to deal with it, sooner or later. Sergeant Miles might understand why she'd run off after Frieda, but he could never condone it. Or maybe he would, in private. A tutor couldn't be seen to publicly support a student who'd defied the grandmaster to his face.

She tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind. Instead, she pressed her fingers against the door, testing the wards. It opened easily, revealing a private room. Frieda lay on the bed, her eyes closed. Someone had stripped off her clothes, probably for testing; the only thing preserving her modesty was a thin sheet that hid very little. The rise and fall of her chest was so regular that Emily knew Frieda was in an enchanted sleep.

"She had a panic attack," a quiet voice said. Madame Kyla emerged from a side room, carrying a tray of potions. "I had to put her to sleep."

Emily nodded, curtly. "When will she wake up?"

"Probably in two days," the healer said. She put the potions down on the table and turned to face Emily. "She was not in a good state."

Emily closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to gather herself. "How so?"

Madame Kyla snorted. "Where would you like me to begin? She has a number of bruises that really should have been treated - that would have been, if she'd come to me. I found traces of a dozen hexes that weren't cancelled properly, risking serious damage to her body and mind. And she simply wasn't eating properly over the last few weeks. I'd like to keep her asleep long enough for her body to mend itself, but ..."

She sighed. "Under the circumstances, I doubt I'll be allowed to keep her asleep for long."

Emily met her eyes. "Because of the inquest."

Madame Kyla nodded, curtly.

"She was influenced by soul magic," Emily said. "Can you prove it?"

"Samra will need to inspect her, once she awakes," Madame Kyla said. "But it may not be easy."

Emily sighed. "Soul magic is never easy."

"No," Madame Kyla agreed. "I can prove what happened to someone who turns up with a broken arm or a particularly persistent hex. But I can't prove soul magic."

Madame Kyla looked at Frieda. "You should prepare yourself for the worst. Soul magic is dangerously unpredictable. Frieda may never be the same again. I've seen everything from depression and suicide to screaming fits, temper tantrums and panic attacks - worse panic attacks. There may come a time when she'll have to be moved to the Halfway House, if we can't help her here."

Emily shook her head, firmly. She'd seen the Halfway House. It was the closest thing to a mental hospital she'd seen on the Nameless World, a place for people who had been hexed or cursed beyond the point of conventional help. The thought of Frieda going there ... she felt sick. Frieda would waste away if she was committed to the Halfway House. Lady Barb had hinted, none too gently, that far too many of the patients were doing nothing beyond waiting to die.

"I won't let that happen," she said.

"Then you have to prepare yourself to look after her, perhaps for the rest of your life," Madame Kyla stated, bluntly. "Frieda may never be the same again."

Emily followed her gaze. Frieda looked ... smaller, somehow. She'd always been slight - she'd never had enough to eat until she'd moved to Whitehall - but now ... she seemed tiny, almost child-like. Her unkempt black hair fanned out around a narrow face, too sallow to be conventionally pretty and yet striking ... Emily sighed, inwardly. Frieda had a crush on her. Emily had known that for years, but she hadn't realized just how strong it was until she'd seen inside Frieda's mind. Daze had not had any trouble turning the crush into a burning obsession.

A silver bracelet glinted on Frieda's wrist. Emily stared, then swung around to face Madame Kyla. "You put a bracelet on her?"

"It's a monitor," Madame Kyla said, flatly. "I'll remove it before she wakes."

She looked Emily up and down, briskly. "How long has it been since you ate?"

Emily's stomach growled. "I'm not sure," Emily admitted. They'd eaten something before leaving the house, hadn't they? It felt like years had passed since they'd walked out the door, sealing it behind them. "Hours, at least."

"Go get something to eat, then sleep," Madame Kyla ordered. "If you have any problems, come back here and I'll find you something to help you rest."

"Understood," Emily said. She didn't have a bed, did she? Unless Madame Rosalinda had already found her a room. The housemother was brutally efficient. Emily probably had a new room earmarked for her already. For all she knew, Madame Rosalinda was already moving her possessions from one room to the other. It would be impolite, to say the least, but necessary. "I'll sleep when I can."

Madame Kyla gave her a sharp look. "Sleep now."

Emily nodded, then took one last look at Frieda. Her heart ached to see her friend lying there, unmoving beyond the steady rise and fall of her chest. Frieda was normally so active, more active than Emily herself ... dynamic and sociable and friendly and ... Emily cursed Fulvia under her breath as she walked out of the room. Frieda hadn't deserved to have her mind slowly warped, then ripped to shreds. Madame Kyla was right. There was no way to know what state Frieda would be in when she opened her eyes.

Melissa was waiting outside, looking pale. "Emily," she said. "Is it true?"

Emily wondered, sourly, just what Melissa had been told. Rumors went through Whitehall at speeds most people believed impossible. The entire school probably knew Frieda had returned, even though the building was supposed to be on lockdown. Or ... Melissa might have heard that her great-grandmother had paid a very unwelcome visit to the school. Emily doubted Melissa would be pleased to hear that. Fulvia had planned her marriage, then ensured she'd be disowned by her family.

"Fulvia is back," Emily said, flatly.

Melissa flinched. "No."

"She's back," Emily said. She looked past Melissa. Sergeant Miles was still there, leaning against the stone wall. "She's ..."

She shook her head. "We need to talk, later," she added. Melissa owed her a favor or two - and besides, she knew more than Emily ever would about the magical aristocracy. And she had excellent reason to want to get Fulvia kicked out again. "What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Helping Madame Samra, it seems," Melissa said. "What happened to Frieda?"

Emily opened her mouth, then closed it as Sergeant Miles shot her a warning look. "I'll tell you later," she said. "Come find me when you have a spare moment."

Sergeant Miles scowled. Emily looked back at him, evenly. Melissa was the one person who could be counted on to keep it to herself. Everyone else ... rumors were currency at Whitehall. Knowledge was power, after all. The thought made her shiver. No one was entirely sure how old Fulvia was, but she was almost certainly in her second century. The amount of knowledge she must have gained was staggering. She'd know every last loophole in the law ... hell, she might even have helped write the law. House Ashworth certainly had enough influence to ensure the laws were drafted to their liking.

She's had two years to rig the game in her favor, Emily thought. Everyone had thought that Fulvia had retired to a country estate, leaving politics and family affairs behind. They'd been wrong. And I have less than a month to rig it back.

"As you wish." Melissa paused. "You should know that Samra is furious. I'd stay out of her way, if I were you."

Emily nodded. Samra had told her, in no uncertain terms, that using soul magic without permission would cost her everything. Now ... Emily hadn't had a choice, but she didn't know if Samra would see it that way. Her threats against Emily's life suddenly sounded a great deal more real. And if she hadn't been so tired, Emily thought, she might just have taken them more seriously. Right now, they were the least of her concerns.

"I don't think I have a choice," Emily said. "But thank you for the warning."

Melissa nodded, then strode down the corridor.

"Be careful," Sergeant Miles grunted.

Emily looked at him, really looked. He hadn't changed much, as far as she could tell; he was still short, muscular and approachable. His brown hair made him look ten years younger, although there was no way he'd ever be mistaken for one of his students. And yet, there was something different about him. She couldn't put her finger on it.

"You pushed the limits to breaking point," Sergeant Miles added, after a moment. He straightened, his hands dropping to his sides. "If you were still my apprentice ..."

"I did what I thought I had to do," Emily said. She felt a pang of bitter guilt. She liked the sergeant. "And I was right."

"You've also created other problems for yourself," Sergeant Miles said. "And there are limits to what we can do to help you."

Emily froze. "We?"

"The tutors," Sergeant Miles clarified. He nodded to the door, inviting her to walk outside with him. "We cannot offer support or assistance."

Emily allowed herself a moment of relief as they walked into the corridor. She'd feared that he'd meant himself and Lady Barb. Lady Barb wasn't on the teaching staff, not now. Emily could write to her and ask for help and advice ... she could write to Void too. And others ... she had friends and people who owed her favors. Perhaps it wasn't entirely hopeless after all.

"But you can't offer anything to Fulvia either," Emily said. "Is that right?"

"Yeah," Sergeant Miles grunted. "The Grandmaster is charged with ensuring fair play, but beyond that ..."

Emily nodded as his voice trailed off. Whitehall might ensure a level playing field, in the sense it would prevent one side from cheating or make sure that everyone had equal access to resources, but it wouldn't go further. The school certainly wouldn't feel any inclination to help someone who didn't prepare properly before going into the exam room. Students passed or failed by their own efforts. And beyond that ...

Fulvia has had plenty of time to lay her plans, Emily thought, as they reached the lower stairwell. A handful of students were walking down, their eyes lingering on her for long moments as they passed. The school was slowly coming back to life. I've only got a couple of weeks to prepare a defense.

"Do you remember what I told you about preparing battle plans?" Sergeant Miles carefully didn't look at her as he spoke. "About how you need to plan for contingencies, but also leave room for the unexpected?"

"I remember," Emily said, slowly. She'd done battle plans in Second Year, then tried to implement them. It hadn't been easy. No battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy. "You said that the enemy might have plans of his own ..."

"Exactly," Sergeant Miles said. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder, an odd gesture of affection. "Remember that, too."

Emily nodded, slowly. It was advice, even though the sergeant would deny it if asked. Plan for contingencies, then try to anticipate what the enemy would do and plan countermeasures ... it applied in the courtroom as well as the battlefield. Fulvia had had plenty of time ... or perhaps not. Soul magic was dangerously unpredictable. Fulvia couldn't have dictated the precise course and timing of events. She'd have had to update her plans as soon as she knew what shape events would actually take.

"Thank you," she said, as they reached the top of the stairs. The Sixth Year dorms were right in front of them. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"You will," Sergeant Miles confirmed. "Good luck."

 

Chapter Three

"Emily," Madame Rosalinda said, as Emily stepped through the door. "Come with me."

Emily sighed and followed her down the darkened corridor. The common room appeared to be deserted, while the bedroom doors were firmly closed. She guessed the Sixth Years had gone to dinner, now that the lockdown had finally been lifted. They'd be sitting at their tables, pretending not to listen to the rumors flying around the school ... she sighed in helpless frustration. By now, no doubt half the school believed Frieda had murdered someone in cold blood.

And Celadon is probably still in the infirmary. She kicked herself, mentally, for not checking on him. Everyone will be saying Frieda killed him.

Madame Rosalinda stopped outside the door. "Open it," she ordered. "Now."

Emily fought down the urge to tell the older woman where to go. She didn't need more trouble, not now. Defying the grandmaster's orders, leaving the school without permission, being rude to the housemother ... she'd never get a job with a record like that! An insane urge to giggle bubbled up inside her, threatening to reduce her to hysterics. She controlled it ruthlessly as she pressed her hand against the door, feeling the wards slowly unlock at her command. Madame Rosalinda wouldn't be impressed if she burst out laughing, not now.

The door opened slowly, revealing her suite. No one had been inside over the last few hours, as far as she could tell, although she knew that was meaningless. Whitehall's staff included some of the most talented wardcrafters in the entire world. Lady Barb had drilled her, time and time again, on setting up wards to ensure her privacy, but Emily doubted they'd stand up to some of her tutors. They'd forgotten more about wards than Emily had ever learned.

She felt a sudden pang as the housemother sniffed in disdain. The suite was lovely, easily the best place she'd slept in her entire life. A large bedroom, a private bathroom, a kitchen and an office ... it was heaven. Having the room almost made up for being Head Girl and all the troubles that came with it. But now ... she wondered, sourly, where she'd go. Madame Rosalinda might try to force her to share a room with a younger student.

Not likely, she thought. Even a disgraced Sixth Year wouldn't have to share ...

"You're in Room 101," Madame Rosalinda informed her. "Move everything of yours there, then check this suite carefully for anything left behind. If you can't move it, inform me and it will be moved tomorrow."

"Just in time for the next Head Pupil," Emily said.

"Quite." Madame Rosalinda's lips twisted. "You do realize that you're only the third Head Pupil to be stripped of the title?"

Emily shrugged. She had gone through the records, but her two predecessors had been punished for abusing their power, rather than going out on a limb to rescue a friend. They'd deserved to be stripped of their titles, while she was almost relieved. Losing the suite stung, but at least she wouldn't have to handle the responsibilities that came with it. She hadn't wanted them.

Gordian would say that I failed too, Emily thought, ruefully. And he would be right.

"I need a shower," she said. "Can I shower first?"

Madame Rosalinda eyed her for a long moment, then nodded curtly. "Be out of this room by nine bells," she ordered. "And make sure you dismantle all of your wards. The maids will clean it tomorrow."

The housemother turned and walked out of the door, closing it behind her. Emily shook her head as she hurried into the bedroom, wondering why Madame Rosalinda had suddenly soured on her. Had Madame Rosalinda been one of the tutors who'd nominated her for Head Girl? Or was she merely treating Emily coolly because she thought Emily had screwed up?

She stripped off her shirt and trousers and hurried into the shower, pausing to inspect herself in the mirror. Her face was still pale, a nasty bruise clearly visible on her cheek. Other bruises covered her body, suggesting she'd been beaten. She made a mental note to rub salve into them later, then stepped into the shower. The water was hot, running down her body and washing away the sweat and grime. She wanted to stay under the water forever, but she didn't have time. Madame Rosalinda would not be pleased if she wasn't out of the room in an hour or so.

Not much time, Emily thought crossly, as she stepped out of the shower and dried herself with a spell. It's lucky I don't have too many possessions here.

She donned a clean shirt and pair of trousers, then dumped the old pair in the basket of dirty clothes. She'd have to take that out too, she suspected. Madame Rosalinda didn't need another excuse to give her grief. Pushing the thought aside, she pulled her trunk out from under the bed and started to dump clothes and books into the pocket dimension. Lady Barb would have told her off for not sorting them properly, but it hardly mattered. Besides, it wasn't as if she was a clotheshorse like Alassa. She'd had enough dresses, just in Whitehall, to outfit every girl in the school.

And I thought I could leave most of my possessions in the house, Emily thought, feeling another pang of dismay. She'd thought her collection of dangerous books had been well-hidden and protected with layer after layer of wards, but Frieda - or Daze - had somehow managed to get at them. Frieda had possessed access rights to the house, yet ... she shouldn't have been able to get to the books. Another mystery, one she'd have to solve - and quickly. If Frieda or Daze could get in, someone else could do it too.

She made a mental note to ask Lady Barb to help her modify the wards, then walked into the kitchen. It had been ... nice to have a kitchen of her own, even though she was an indifferent cook at best. There had been definite advantages to not having to go down to breakfast or use the communal kitchen down the hall. Now ... she opened the food locker, silently calculating how much she could move to the communal kitchen. There were food lockers in the smaller bedrooms, she thought, but nowhere near as big. Thankfully, she hadn't kept much food in her locker.

But I would have, if I'd had the locker in First Year, she thought. And perhaps I would have learned to cook.

She gritted her teeth as the memories resurfaced. She'd hidden cereal and oat bars in her bedroom on Earth, just in case her mother spent her welfare money on booze instead of food. And besides, she'd preferred to snack in her bedroom rather than risk going downstairs when her stepfather was awake. Frieda had done the same, when they'd shared a room. A person who'd grown up knowing that food was always limited, that it might run out at any moment, had no choice. A hidden cache of food might make the difference between life and death.

Someone tapped on the door, twice. Emily tensed, wondering who would visit her now. Melissa? Or someone else? Perhaps Madame Samra wasn't going to wait for Emily to visit her classroom before she bawled Emily out for using soul magic without permission. Or ... she shook her head, dismissing the thought. There was no point in speculation.

"Come," she called.

The door opened. Caleb stood there, looking pale. "Emily? Are you alright?"

Emily felt a sudden mad urge to take him in her arms. They weren't dating any longer, but ... she pushed the impulse aside, sharply. Her life was complicated enough already.

"No," she said. "Come in and close the door."

Caleb did as he was told. "Is it true, then? You've been demoted?"

"Yeah," Emily said. She looked into her bedroom. Her trunk was clearly visible, standing beside the bed. Thankfully, she hadn't taken the time to personalize her chambers beyond lining some of the walls with books. "I'm no longer Head Girl."

"I'm sorry," Caleb said. "You deserve better."

Emily eyed him, suspiciously. Frieda had attacked Caleb's sister, almost killing her. Caleb had every reason to be angry at Frieda - and Emily, for not stopping Frieda. But it was clear now, in hindsight, that Frieda could not have been stopped unless the bracelet had been removed. And yet, no one had realized that the bracelet was a problem. Daze had done a very good job.

"I never wanted the post anyway," she said, finally. "And now I have worse problems."

She turned back to the kitchen. "Are you here to help?"

"If you'll let me," Caleb said. "What happened? I mean ... what really happened?"

Emily sighed and ran through the entire story as she unpacked the food locker. The milk, bread and cheese could go to her new room; everything else would just have to go to the communal kitchen. Caleb listened, saying nothing, until Emily had finished the story, whereupon he started asking questions. Emily was torn between annoyance and a perverse kind of gratitude. Caleb's interrogation was nothing, compared to what she knew she was going to face. Fulvia would do everything in her power to call Emily's account of events into question.

"She should have been more careful," Caleb said, when Emily had finished. "Letting someone con her into making that bracelet ..."

Emily was too tired to be angry. Besides, Caleb wouldn't be the last to say that. "She's always been weak when it comes to theoretical magic," she said, as she gave the kitchen one last check. The mugs, plates and cutlery belonged to the school. They could be left for the next Head Pupil. "I think she didn't realize the danger until it was far too late."

"Mum always said to be careful," Caleb said. "If you don't understand what you're doing, you should ask someone else ..."

"Frieda doesn't have a mother," Emily snapped. "She died in childbirth, remember?"

Caleb flinched. Emily felt a flicker of guilt, mingled with grim satisfaction. Caleb had never liked Frieda, even when he and Emily had been lovers. Now ... she told herself not to be bitchy. Caleb had better reasons, now, to dislike Frieda. Marian might never be the same again either.

"I'm sorry," she said. She felt a pang of guilt. She'd had the same thought. Frieda could have come to her for help before it was too late. "That was uncalled for."

"No, it wasn't," Caleb said. He looked as if he'd been slapped. "I'm sorry too."

Emily sighed. Frieda hadn't had anyone she could trust, not until she'd met Emily. And Emily had been studying with Lady Barb and Sergeant Miles while Frieda had been on her work placement, where she'd made the bracelet. Perhaps, if she'd shown it to Emily or her supervisor before she put it on for the first time, it would have been possible to save her. But instead ... Daze had done a very good job. The spellwork he'd tricked Frieda into adding to the bracelet made it hard for her to realize that the bracelet might be warping her mind.

And it would take someone with a great deal of experience to notice the spellware, even if they worked their way through the incantations, Emily thought. Frieda simply didn't have the insight to see it.

She felt a sudden pang of envy. Frieda's mother had died in childbirth, Emily's mother had been a drunkard; Alassa's father saw her as a pawn, rather than a person in her own right ... Caleb was the lucky one, even if he didn't realize it. Even Imaiqah's parents had kept one eye on their daughter's marriage prospects. Caleb's mother was strict, strict enough to make Emily uneasy, but there was no doubt that Sienna loved her children. She'd proved that time and time again.

"Can you take the food down to the kitchen?" Emily asked. "I'll move the trunk to Room 101."

"Ouch," Caleb said. "That's right at the end of the corridor."

Emily nodded, curtly. Whoever had designed the section had anticipated over two hundred students, rather than a mere twenty-five. Room 101 was quite some distance from the door ... it was hardly a long walk, but it was symbolically right at the bottom of the pecking order. It wasn't something that meant much to her, she admitted privately, yet most of her fellow students would pick up on it at once. Emily was no longer in favor.

As if I ever was, she thought, crossly. The only thing I could do to earn Gordian's favor would be to leave - and to do that properly I would have had to have done it last year.

She levitated the trunk into the air and ordered it to follow her down the corridor. Cirroc was coming out of his room as she passed. He gave her a reassuring look, then headed off in the other direction. Emily hoped, with a fervor that surprised her, that he'd be appointed Head Pupil in her place. He'd be good at the job - and he'd want it too. She couldn't think of many others who'd be both.

Room 101 was right at the end of the corridor, nearly ten meters from the next - empty - room. Emily rolled her eyes at the melodrama as she opened the door. Room 101 was bigger than she'd expected, larger than Cirroc's bedroom, but it still didn't compare to the Head Pupil's chambers. The bed was smaller, the stove barely large enough to heat a kettle, the bathroom ... she sighed, again. There was no bathtub, just a sink, a toilet and a shower. She told herself, firmly, that it could be worse. She'd been in places where she'd been lucky to get a chamberpot - and places where the inhabitants crapped out the window.

She dumped the trunk on the bed, set the wards and then walked back to her old bedroom. Caleb was waiting for her, seemingly unwilling to enter without her. Emily snorted at the thought, then asked him to check the room for anything she'd left behind while she checked the office. Her files were neat, thankfully. She'd have to go through them with whoever took her place. Hopefully, there wouldn't be too much gloating. Being Head Pupil was a bright mark on anyone's resume.

It could be worse, she thought, tiredly. She remembered Cicero's joke about the one-day consul and smiled. My successor might have been appointed on the very last day of school. He would be so vigilant that he wouldn't sleep during his term in office.

"You've got a basket of dirty clothes," Caleb called. "I can't see anything else."

Emily felt her cheeks redden, even though she knew it was silly. Caleb had seen her naked. He could certainly handle seeing her dirty underwear. And yet ... she shrugged as she walked back into the bedroom. She'd drop the basket off as they went for a very late dinner. She just hoped that no one wanted to ask questions. All she wanted to do was sleep.

She picked up the basket, then looked around one final time. The chambers looked ... oddly unchanged, as if nothing of her had seeped into the walls. She'd never bothered to hang posters on the wall, or decorate the ceiling with paintings from another world, or do anything to mark her territory. There hadn't seemed any point. She would have had to give the chambers up anyway at the end of the year, even if she hadn't been demoted. Her successor wouldn't have wanted to keep Emily's decorations.

The wards glowed in her mind. She reached out and dismantled her private wards, careful to leave the school wards in place. Gordian wouldn't thank her if some enterprising student from one of the lower years managed to break into the Head Pupil's office and write KILROY WAS HERE on the walls. Her successor would have to establish his own network of wards. She finished dismantling the last ward, then turned and took one final look at the room. It was unlikely she'd ever see it again.

"Come on," she said. "Let's go."

She closed the door behind her as soon as they were outside, then led the way down to Room 101. The lights were starting to dim, a stern reminder that they really should be thinking about bed. She checked her watch, noting that it was nearly nine bells. There was time to get something to eat before she slept ...

"I'll make you something in the kitchen," Caleb offered. "There's no need to go down to the dining hall."

Emily nodded, thankfully. "Please," she said. Sienna had taught Caleb how to cook. Indeed, he was a better cook than Emily was. That would probably have caused some amusement, if they'd gotten married. A husband cooking for his wife was seen as something of an oddity on the Nameless World. "Nothing too complex, please."

She dropped the basket off for the maids to collect, then walked into Room 101. The bed had been made, thankfully. She resisted the urge to just climb in and close her eyes. Instead, she walked back to the kitchen. It was mercifully empty, save for Caleb. He was cooking scrambled eggs and bacon in a pan.

"I've been thinking," he said, as he ladled out the food onto a pair of plates. "There are several possibilities ..."

"Tomorrow." Emily caught herself trying to yawn. "Right now, I can barely think."

"I know the feeling." Caleb passed her a slice of bread. Toast had never quite caught on at Whitehall. "Eat up, then go to bed."

"Yes, boss," Emily said. The eggs tasted good, unsurprisingly. But she was so hungry she would have eaten anything, even the slop her mother called stew. "I'll do whatever you say."

Caleb smiled, but it didn't quite touch his eyes. "Bed," he said, firmly. "I'll see you in the morning."

 

Chapter Four

Emily woke up in an unfamiliar bed.

Panic flickered before her memories returned. She was in Room 101, her new bedroom. And her new bed, she reminded herself, as she sat upright and groped for her watch. She hadn't realized just how used she'd grown to her old bedroom until she realized that the walls felt far too close for comfort. Even the hum of magic running through the stone didn't feel very reassuring.

Seven bells, she thought. I could go back to sleep.

It was a tempting thought, but she knew she wouldn't sleep. She'd dreamed - she was sure of it - but whatever she'd dreamed hadn't followed her into the waking world. And yet, sweat ran down her back. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, leaning against the wall until she felt steady enough to move. She'd definitely been spoiled over the last few months, she told herself firmly. There had been times in her life when she would have sold her soul for Room 101.

She stumbled into the bathroom and peered into the mirror. Her face showed as dark rings against pale skin. She looked as though she'd stepped into a boxing ring and been beaten bloody, part of her mind noted as she brushed her hair. Some of the bruises had faded, but others ... they were still marring her skin. She poured herself a glass of water and drank it, then dug through her trunk for a new set of clothes. A shower, then breakfast ... if she was lucky, she'd be in and out of the dining hall before half the student body was even out of bed. It was the weekend, after all. And the lockdown had probably thrown everyone's biological clock out of whack.

And everything else too, she thought, as she undressed, showered and changed into a basic dress. They'll be thinking it's still the middle of the night.

She eyed herself in the mirror, dubiously. Her skin still looked pale and bruised. She rubbed salve on the worst offenders, seriously considering using a glamour to hide the rings around her eyes. But someone would sense the spell and try to cancel it ... she sighed, wishing she'd thought to bring a little make-up. It was technically scandalous for an unmarried girl to use cosmetics, but she was fairly sure no one paid any attention to that rule. Maybe she should ask Melissa if she had something that would suffice. Melissa was a redhead, but otherwise their coloring wasn't that different.

Closing her eyes for a long moment, she checked the wards were firmly in place and then walked out of the room. If there was one advantage to Room 101, it was that there were plenty of other tempting targets for anyone who wanted to break into an older student's bedroom. A younger student who got caught in the corridor would be in trouble, unless they had a very good excuse. But she knew better than to take that for granted. Her rooms had always been prime targets, even before she'd been elected Head Girl. Her reputation had seen to that.

She walked through the outer door, then down the stairs. A handful of students were running down to the armory, grumbling about Sergeant Miles not letting them sleep in. Emily's lips twitched in a moment of humor, mixed with sympathy. She'd learned to dread early morning marches too, although she had to admit the experience had come in handy. She wouldn't have been able to keep going during the war without it. A couple of the students turned to look at her, their expressions unreadable. They hurried onwards when she glared at them, almost tripping over their own feet. Emily couldn't help wondering, as she reached the bottom of the stairs, just what they'd heard. By now, the rumors had probably mutated out of all recognition.

She stepped into the dining room and looked around. It was almost empty, save for a handful of younger students. They glanced at her in surprise, then looked away hastily. Emily swallowed the urge to demand to know what they'd heard. Instead, she walked over to the counter, collected a plate of food and carried it over to an empty table. She didn't really feel like eating, certainly not a whole plateful, but she had no choice. She'd need energy for the ordeal to come.

It was a relief when Caleb arrived, ten minutes later. He collected his own food and sat next to her, looking calm and composed. Emily was glad of his presence, even though her emotions were a jumbled mess. It was nice to know that at least one of the students was still on her side. God alone knew what the other Sixth Years were thinking. A failure had no friends or family, for fear that failure might rub off. And Emily knew, all too well, that she had failed.

"I booked a private room," Caleb said, as they ate. "We can go there after breakfast."

Emily nodded. She poured herself a cup of Kava and drank it while her eyes wandered the room. Hardly anyone was willing to make eye contact. She thought about the rumors that had been running through the school over the last few weeks, then shivered. It was hard to imagine anything worse, but she knew others had stronger - or more perverted - imaginations. She'd given the rumormongers enough to keep them going for years.

She looked at him. "How's Marian?"

"Recovering," Caleb said, flatly. "There wasn't any internal damage, thank all the gods, but ... she had a nasty scare."

Emily winced. Marian had gone through hell, even before she'd been sent to Whitehall. The girl's confidence had been knocked out of her. And Frieda hadn't made matters any better.

"That's good," Emily said. She knew that Marian had been overshadowed by the fake god, but Frieda had been far less forgiving. "I'm sorry about ... well, you know."

"It's a mess," Caleb grunted. "I'll be asking you to help her, you know."

"If I have time," Emily said.

They finished the rest of their breakfast in silence, then headed upstairs to the study rooms. The school was slowly coming to life, more and more students passing them on their way to breakfast. They stared as they saw Emily, falling silent as she walked past. Emily felt as if she was in the middle of a pool of utter silence, as if the world was quietening around her ... it was creepy, even though she'd seen spells that had similar effects. She knew it was no spell that kept their mouths closed.

They're scared, Emily thought. They don't know what really happened.

She fought down a wave of depression as they reached the workrooms. People were scared of her ... she didn't like people being scared of her, even though part of her thought it was better than the alternative. But she'd done a lot of good over the years. She'd saved King Randor's throne, she'd stopped three necromancers, she'd even won a war ... and yet, it wasn't enough. Maybe people being scared was the price she paid for power. But ...

Caleb opened the door. "Coming?"

Emily felt a flicker of déjà vu as they walked into the room. They'd done their joint project together in a similar room, then made out on a table once ... she glanced at his back, wondering what would happen if she jumped him. She dismissed the thought a moment later, cursing herself. They'd had fun, but their relationship was over. They were friends and nothing else.

But it isn't easy to go back, she thought. She remembered his lips pressing against hers. Her heart started to race as she remembered his fingers slipping under her shirt or into her underwear. Or ... she gritted her teeth as she sat down. She couldn't afford to let herself get distracted. She didn't have time. We have to be just friends.

"I've been thinking," Caleb said. "You have to prove Frieda innocent, right?"

"And Fulvia guilty," Emily added.

"You might not be able to do both," Caleb said, bluntly. He met her eyes. "Look, Emily. I believe you, but others won't. You're accusing an elderly and respected matriarch of a very serious crime, one that carries the death penalty. Proving that she's guilty beyond reasonable doubt may be impossible."

Emily glared down at her hands. He was right. She knew he was right. And yet, she didn't want to believe it.

"I could challenge her," she said. The thought of blasting Fulvia apart was tempting, very tempting. "And if I won ..."

"If you won," Caleb interrupted. "I'm not sure you could challenge her, not now an inquest is being organized. And even if you challenged her and won, you wouldn't clear Frieda's name."

Emily felt a flash of anger. "But at least everyone would shut up."

"They wouldn't," Caleb said. "People still talked about you after you killed Master Grey."

"Fine," Emily said, sourly. "What do you suggest?"

"Well, there are four different sets of rules which govern inquests," Caleb said. "I'm not sure which set of rules will actually be used. The Grandmaster will have to determine those, after careful consultation with his staff. But they all have one thing in common - a Prosecutor and a Defender."

Emily nodded. "Fulvia is the Prosecutor."

"Which is interesting," Caleb said. "Normally, the family selects someone disposable, someone who can be disowned if necessary."

"Maybe they think she's disposable," Emily said, darkly. It was a reassuring thought, even though there was no way to be certain. "Perhaps they just brought her back for the trial."

"It might be worth checking," Caleb agreed. "Melissa's been disowned, but she's hardly the only Ashworth in the school. Doesn't Adana owe you a favor?"

"Perhaps," Emily said. She had been Adana's mentor last year, after all. "Celadon certainly isn't going to help, is he?"

"Probably not," Caleb agreed, dryly. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "My point, Emily, is that Frieda needs a Defender. Someone who can hold her own in a courtroom. And while you seem to have slipped into that role by default, it isn't something you can do. Is it?"

Emily scowled, but nodded. She knew she was no good at public speaking. Facing one or two people, she could be persuasive; facing a crowd of strangers, she knew she'd cringe. And a hostile crowd would sense weakness ...

"I see," she said. Caleb had seen her weaknesses as well as her strengths. She silently gave him credit for that, as annoying as it was. "Who do you advise?"

"My mother," Caleb said. "Ask her to serve as the Defender."

Emily blinked. "I thought your mother didn't like Frieda."

"She also owes you a favor," Caleb said. "And she will pay it back, if - when - you ask. And ..."

He sucked in his breath. "I know the odds seem stacked against you, but the Grandmaster cannot convene a kangaroo court. He cannot risk Whitehall's neutrality."

"So he has to make it clear that he put Frieda to death perfectly legally," Emily muttered.

Caleb surprised her by nodding. "Pretty much, yes. He cannot be seen to bend to Fulvia - or her family - without fatally compromising his own career. They have to make a case that will stand up to inspection, Emily. There has to be solid proof of Frieda's guilt. A handful of question marks might be enough to convince the jurists that Frieda was not acting of her own free will. And then ... they might determine a lesser punishment or even decide that the case has not been proven."

He reached out and touched Emily's hand, gently. "My mother will be good at finding the cracks in their case and exploiting them," he said. "And she will repay the favor she owes you."

"Frieda assaulted Marian," Emily pointed out.

"Which is another reason to ask my mother to speak for her," Caleb insisted. "It prevents Fulvia from dragging my family - and my sister - onto the witness stand. I don't want Marian to face an interrogation from a bunch of angry jurors."

Which would probably get Frieda executed on the spot, Emily thought, grimly. If Marian stands up, in her current state, she'll have them all feeling sorry for her.

"Furthermore," Caleb continued remorselessly, "my mother speaking for Frieda is a pretty solid sign that she doesn't consider Frieda guilty. She wouldn't stand up and fight for Frieda's life and freedom if she thought Frieda had acted of her own free will."

"I suppose," Emily said.

She sighed. She wasn't sure what to do. Caleb made a convincing case, but ... she had no idea if Sienna would even agree. It wouldn't be fair to ask her if she did blame Frieda for Marian's condition. And besides, Lady Barb might be a better choice. She'd have to write Lady Barb a letter, sooner rather than later. The afternoon was going to be spent writing letters.

"In the meantime, you work on finding proof that Frieda was actually manipulated," Caleb said. "And, perhaps, find ways to undermine Fulvia's position. If you can draw a line between Fulvia and Daze, she might just abandon the proceedings rather than risk being called to account for herself."

Emily nodded, shortly. "How will the inquest proceed? I mean ... what happens?"

"I don't know which set of rules they'll use," Caleb said. "The most basic inquest will be carried out by the grandmaster himself, serving as sole judge and jury. I doubt the grandmaster will go for that, if only because it'll make him powerful enemies whatever he decides. Then you have the tutors serving as the jury, which isn't likely to happen either."

"Ouch," Emily muttered. She could have bribed Gordian, if he was serving as judge and jury. She had something she knew he wanted. But the tutors? Some of them probably hated her now. They'd nominated her for Head Girl, a position she'd lost because of her own carelessness. "And the other two?"

"Both have outside sets of jurors," Caleb said. "One has the jurors chosen at random, the other has both sides nominating jurors. I'd bet on one of those, just to shift the blame a little, but which one? I have no idea."

"I understand." Emily groaned. "We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"

"I'm afraid so," Caleb said. "Do you want me to write to my mother?"

Emily hesitated. "I'd like to ask Lady Barb first," she said, truthfully. "But you can ask your mother to prepare herself."

"She might also be called as a witness," Caleb reminded her. "Asking her to serve as the Defender eliminates that possibility."

"I'd still like to ask Lady Barb first." Emily looked up at him. "Are there no other options?"

"Not that I know about." Caleb shrugged. "You could try and talk House Ashworth out of bringing charges, but you'd need a fairly hefty bribe."

Emily considered it for a long moment. Fulvia would be satisfied with nothing less than Emily's head on a platter, but what about the rest of her family? Emily had plenty of magical concepts she could show them, from batteries to the secrets behind Whitehall's nexus point. If she offered them to the family ...

It would cause problems, she told herself. The nexus point secrets were bad enough, in the wrong hands. She dreaded to imagine what unfriendly minds could do with them. And the batteries would be even worse. But those problems would be in the future.

"I'll think about it," Emily said. "Do you know anyone who might take a message to Melissa's grandfather?"

Caleb frowned. "Adana would probably be the best bet, although she's too young to have any serious influence," he said. "Melissa herself has been disowned."

"I know," Emily said. "Can she not talk to her father? I mean, as a private citizen?"

"Probably not," Caleb said. "It would depend on the exact terms of her banishment. And they might be very harsh indeed."

"I'll ask her," Emily said. "And then ..."

Caleb held up a hand. "Emily, be careful. Fulvia wouldn't go to all this trouble for Frieda."

Emily felt a chill running down her spine. She'd concluded as much herself, but it still bothered her to hear Caleb say it too. Fulvia wasn't interested in Frieda, not really. She wanted Emily. And that meant ...

She rubbed her forehead in frustration, trying to resist the urge to second-guess herself. The wrong move could bring everything crashing down. All she'd done over the last six years, everything she'd re-created from Earth and given to her new world ... it could all be destroyed beyond repair. Frieda was just a pawn in a deadly game. Fulvia was gunning for Emily herself.

Caleb patted her hand. "I'm on your side. And you do have other friends."

Emily looked at him. "Enough?"

There was a sharp tap on the door.

Caleb looked irked. "Open."

Melissa stepped into the room. She looked tired, as if she hadn't managed to go to sleep. She probably hadn't. Trainee Healers were expected to practice on anyone unlucky enough to enter the infirmary, unless their wounds were genuinely serious. The dueling club and martial magic produced a steady string of injuries to keep the healers in practice.

"Emily," she said. "Madame Kyla sent me to get you. Frieda is awake!"

 

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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

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.

 

###

 

Graduation Day Copyright 2017. 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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