Sons of Liberty (The Royal Sorceress IV) Background British North America

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Sons of Liberty (The Royal Sorceress IV)
Background – British North America

The destruction of George Washington’s army in the Battle of Brooklyn effectively concluded the American Rebellion, although it was a further two years before combat operations finally came to an end. General Howe’s occupation of every major American settlement, the absence of help from France, the treachery of Benedict Arnold and the flight of much of the remaining Continental Congress ensured that further large-scale resistance was rapidly and cheaply suppressed. A grateful George III and Lord North appointed the Brothers Howe (General William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe; Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe) as joint Viceroys of the Americas, with orders to bring the whole matter to a speedy conclusion.

Once firmly lodged in command, General Howe handled the problem of the Americans with a combination of tact and firmness. Never one to believe that British and Americans were separate, his attitude was one of a loving but firm father. The small fry – individual soldiers who had served in Washington’s army – were released on their pledge not to take up arms against the British Crown. Larger fish – including the captured congressmen – received more individual attention. George Washington and a number of others were hanged; Benjamin Franklin was dispatched to Britain, where he spent the rest of his life in Cambridge University in reasonable comfort. (Arnold, not the most popular person in America or Britain, was quietly reassigned to the East Indies, where he died some years later.) Howe was determined to avoid large-scale reprisals and worked hard to keep the bulk of the American population reasonably happy with his rule.

Matters were helped by the outbreak of (yet another) war with France and Spain. British troops (and American militias) helped to capture large swathes of Franco-Spanish territory, as well as pushing the borders of explored territory further north. The Indian problem – a constant headache along the frontiers – was solved by constant raids, forcing the Indians south-west into Franco-Spanish territory. Quebec, which half-heartedly rebelled against British rule, suffered from mass expulsions; the population was largely transported to Louisiana (perversely, this gave the Franco-Spanish enough of a population to stiffen the defences of their territory.)

The end of the war saw the redesign of the local government. Each of the fourteen colonies (Quebec was counted as a colony, although its population remained low for decades) was to have a local parliament, which would serve as local government. The parliaments would be responsible for raising militia – to secure the borders – and maintaining the road network, to enable additional troops to be rushed around the continent if necessary. Central government would be vested in the Viceregal Government and American House of Lords, under the Viceroy (a political appointee from Britain). Wealthy Americans would be eligible for the peerage; indeed, the tendency for wealthy Americans to marry British aristocrats and claim peerages was a constant – but minor – scandal between 1804-1832.

Voting rights were, however, strongly restricted. Originally, voting was the province of white men who owned land; later, as American merchants gained in political power, voting rights were extended to everyone who had more than a certain amount of money in the funds (the banks). Surprisingly, a number of women claimed the right to vote long before the Trouser Brigade movement spread into the Americas. However, the limitations on voting threatened to cause political unrest as the elites were more interested in securing their own power than expanding the base of their support.

A further problem was caused by the expansion of slavery. Black slaves imported from Africa had no rights and, by 1830, the slave-owners were so firmly established in the halls of power that attempts to ban the slave trade (or mistreatment of slaves) in both Britain and America failed spectacularly. This caused considerable unrest among poorer whites, who suspected that the slaves were a security risk (slavery had been banned in Franco-Spanish territory, one of many measures intended to bind the overseas territories more firmly to the Franco-Spanish Empire) and feared that slave labour would be used to push them out of work. Limitations on American-based factories (much resented in many quarters) only made matters worse.

The American population responded to this in several different ways. Large numbers of freeholders started to head west, beyond the borderline, and establish their own settlements beyond government control. (The government quietly assisted this in some cases, as the settlers were seen as better allies than the Indians.) The interior of America became a semi-lawless patchwork of settlements; some impinging on the government’s attention, particularly during the ill-fated Whiskey Rebellion of 1797, others having very little contact with mainstream society.

Others, however, started to join increasingly radical political parties. While the defeat of the American Revolution had quelled the desire for full independence, the Swing in Britain and (yet another) threatened war with France fuelled the desire for change. An American version of the Whigs started to claim seats within the various parliaments, but a more underground movement – the Sons of Liberty – started to demand attention. Their demands – equal voting rights, an end to the slave trade and a united American Parliament – were outrageous, as far as the American Tories were concerned. The Sons of Liberty were forced even further underground by a government crackdown as the threatened war grew closer.


Written for publication in The Times, London, 1831. Article suppressed at the request of His Majesty’s Government.

It has just been reported that the French, having somehow escaped our doughty sailors in the Grand Fleet, have landed a major army on the shores of our beloved country! French soldiers have been reported at Dover, Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton! French ships have been reported ravaging the south coast and trading fire with the batteries defending Southampton and Portsmouth! French airships have reportedly attacked defensive positions in Tunbridge Wells! The treachery of the French Tyrant-King in launching such an invasion will not go unpunished!

Addressing the Members of Parliament in joint session with the Lords, LORD LIVERPOOL, HIS MAJESTY’S PRIME MINISTER, informed them that British troops are already being dispatched to Surrey, where they will push the dastardly French back through Sussex and Kent into the sea! The DUKE OF INDIA has resigned his former post and taken command of the army! Our sailors are already moving the Channel Fleet to block all lines of retreat, despite shifty and cowardly attacks mounted by French submarines! And the Royal Sorcerers Corps, Britain’s great strength, is moving to support the counter-attack, led by the formidable LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON!

His Majesty asks that every true Englishman do his duty to keep the French from crushing our troops, invading our cities and ravishing our women!

The Lord Mayor and Governor-General of London has issued a proclamation to the citizens of his city.

Martial Law is now in effect! All members of the regulars, the militias and the trained bands are to report for duty immediately, where they will be issued with weapons. All able-bodied men who are not already serving or in vital positions are to make themselves known to the Area Wardens, who will assign them to positions building up the defences. All women and children are to remain in their homes, unless ordered to do otherwise by the Area Wardens. Anyone found on the streets without permission risks arrest and possible detention.

Martial Law is now in effect! Do not share rumours, lies or other stories that might cause panic and upset. Do not discuss your work, or your husband’s work, with anyone. The person you talk to might be a French spy! Something you consider to be harmless might be very dangerous indeed, if told to the wrong person. All citizens are warned to keep their eyes open for signs of French spies or sympathisers! Call the Area Warden AT ONCE if you suspect someone is aiding the French!

Martial Law is now in effect! All members of the London Police Force have been armed and ordered to enforce the curfew. Members of the lower classes are warned that anyone caught looting, rioting or otherwise taking advantage of the invasion will be shot on the spot.

Do not panic! Do not despair! Do not listen to false rumourmongers! The French will be repelled from our walls and shoved back into the waters, where they will drown!

God Save The King!

Chapter One

“The French are coming,” Major Carrington Shaw whispered, hoarsely. “I can smell them.”

Gwen gave him a sharp look. Shaw had been assigned to her – and Merlin, the sorcerous combat team – at very short notice, too short notice. He was handsome enough, she supposed, but his bombastic attitude made her suspect that he’d bought his commission, rather than earning it through talent. And the looks he gave her, from time to time, suggested that he was one of the men who thought women shouldn’t be anywhere near battlefields, no matter how much magic they had.

“Stay down,” she hissed. She could feel the French presence too, tiny sparks of magic from the south-east that flickered through the ether. The French had to have committed most of their combat sorcerers to the invasion, despite the risk of setting their sorcerous research back fifty years and opening themselves to a counter-invasion. If they took Great Britain, they’d practically win the war outright. “We need to take them by surprise.”

She felt sweat running down her back as the sound of distant gunfire grew louder. The French had successfully occupied a line running from Dover to Brighton, she’d been told as the Royal Sorcerers Corps hurried to join the defence line, but they wouldn’t stay there for long. Landing on British soil, after decoying the Channel Fleet out of position, had been a daring stroke, yet the Royal Navy was already moving to block both their reinforcements and their line of retreat. The French had no choice but to advance on London as quickly as they could, living off the land.

And good luck with that, she thought nastily. The government had worked hard to move as much as it could out of the threatened area, although countless small farmers had refused to uproot themselves to an uncertain fate. There aren’t enough stables between here and London to keep even a small army going for more than a few days.

Her lips twitched, then she sobered, recalling the horrific scenes as the sorcerers had disembarked from the trains at Dorking. Hundreds of women and children, the former terrified; the latter crying, had been herded onto trains heading north. No one knew if they could be fed, when they reached their destination, or even where their final destination was going to be. It was quite likely that most of them would never see their homes again, not if the rumours from the occupied zone were true. And most of the menfolk had been pressed into helping to dig trenches and build barricades …

“They’ll be coming to Dorking,” Major Shaw breathed. “There’s nowhere else they can go.”

Gwen felt another flicker of irritation, which she swiftly suppressed. If Major Shaw had been in combat before, she would have eaten her hat. There was no shortage of officers with experience in India, Africa and North America, but they were needed elsewhere. Shaw might have been assigned to her because the Duke of India, an experienced military man, thought it would keep him out of the way. There was no room for an inexperienced officer when Britain herself was at stake.

“They have to,” she agreed, glancing at him. His long fingers were playing with his goatee, nervously. “Capturing the rail lines into London will allow them to block us from moving our forces back to defend the city.”

She smiled at his astonished look – she might as well have been speaking French – and turned back to watch for advancing enemies, feeling his eyes boring into her back. Major Shaw wouldn’t expect a woman to understand the basics of logistics, let alone military operations … but Gwen had been studying them ever since Master Thomas had died, leaving her as the Royal Sorceress. She’d always feared this moment would come, the day she had to lead the Royal Sorcerers Corps into battle. And the hell of it was that no one would blame her – publicly – if she backed off and allowed Sir James Braddock to take command.

But they’d whisper about it privately, she reminded herself, firmly. A man who turned his back on the enemy would be called a coward, loudly and clearly, but women weren’t expected to be brave. There were no women in the red-coated infantry readying their defensive positions, no female sailors manning the decks as the Royal Navy advanced into the channel … just her, the lone sorceress on the battlefield. No one would ever take me seriously again.

She ran her hand through her sweaty blonde hair, silently grateful she’d cut it so short. Long hair might be a mark of distinction among the quality – she knew girls who had hair so long it dragged on the floor – but it would have got in her way, if she’d had to fight. The outfit she’d inherited from Master Thomas was hot and stuffy, yet she knew she couldn’t change it for anything, not now. At least she wasn’t trying to fight in a dress. She had a sudden mental image of herself crouching in the woods, wearing a long green dress, and snickered at the thought. She’d look thoroughly absurd.

Major Shaw coughed. “Something funny, My Lady?”

“Just a stray thought,” Gwen said. She closed her eyes for a long moment, reaching out with her other senses. The flickers of magic were growing stronger. “They’re nearly here.”

A cavalryman rode up from behind, his red uniform glinting in the sunlight. “Message from His Grace, the Duke of India,” he barked. “The French are advancing towards your position! The hussars are moving up to support you!”

“Thank you,” Gwen said, curtly. She almost laughed at the cavalryman’s double-take when he realised she was a woman. “Tell the hussars to remain behind the trenches until we scatter the magicians.”

Major Shaw glanced at her, sharply. “They’ll lose the chance to hit the Frenchmen before they scatter.”

Gwen glared back, allowing her anger to show. “They’ll be slaughtered if they have to face magicians,” she snapped. She looked up at the cavalryman. “Take my orders to their commander!”

“Yes, My Lady,” the cavalryman boomed. He’d clearly realised who she was, who she had to be. “It shall be done!”

He cantered away, just as the French magicians came into view. Four men, flying through the skies like birds. No, not quite; two of them were Movers, providing the motive power, while the other two were Blazers, watching for targets on the ground. One of them sent a pulse of magic crackling downwards as she watched, although she was unsure what he’d seen as there was no one further southeast than her force. Maybe he’d just spotted a rabbit and blasted the poor animal, just to be on the safe side. Or to add to their rations. Gwen was sure the French magicians ate well – they needed to be well-fed to use their magic – but even they had to be feeling the pinch. The French Navy couldn’t hope to keep them supplied.

“I see them,” Major Shaw breathed. He snapped his rifle into firing position. “I can take them.”

“Don’t shoot,” Gwen snapped. She had no doubt Major Shaw could hit the Frenchmen – he was an aristocrat, probably used to going shooting every Sunday – but she had a feeling it would be useless. The enemy magicians were protected by their magic. “Let them get closer.”

“They’re coming too close,” Major Shaw hissed. “They’ll see us.”

He pulled the trigger. The gun barked. It was a good shot, part of Gwen’s mind noted; he would have hit his target if the enemy magician hadn’t been protected. But all it had done was reveal their position to the enemy. Gwen swore, using words she’d picked up from some of the soldiers, and launched herself into the air. The French Blazers targeted her, streams of magic crackling over her shields; she smiled, then reached out with her own magic, yanking the Blazer away from his comrade. He plummeted towards the ground, screaming in terror.

The Mover hurled himself forward, his magic grappling with Gwen’s and trying to crush her in her own shields. He was powerful, she noted, as she hit the ground and bounced; certainly more powerful with his single talent than she was with her multiple talents. But he wasn’t prepared for her. She used her own magic to create a blinding flash of light, disorienting him long enough for her to charge the ground below him with magic. Seconds later, it exploded inside his protective shields. They snapped out of existence, allowing her to burn his head to ash. There was no point in taking chances with a magician.

Strong man, she thought. She wasn’t sure she could have held her shields in place, if she’d been blinded. The shock alone would have weakened her. A shame he was on the wrong side.

She glanced up as she felt another spike of magic, then slammed her shields into place as a pair of French Movers charged her, their magic picking up trees, rocks and soil, hurling them towards her. The instinctive response was to hurl herself upwards, out of the way, but she knew that would be a mistake. One Mover would be enough to pull her out of the sky; two would be enough to rip her apart, if they caught her between them. Gritting her teeth, she summoned a wave of fire and threw it back at them, trusting in her power to shield herself from their makeshift weapons. Her head began to ache as … things … pounded into her shields, but she held firm. The torrent of projectiles disintegrated into dust, then came to a halt. One of the Frenchmen was starting to choke.

Idiot, she thought, coldly. Breathing smoke isn’t wise.

Bracing herself, she ran forward, magic spilling out in front of her. She caught hold of one of the Frenchmen and hurled him into the air as hard as she could. It wouldn’t kill him, not when he could fly under his own power, but it would make him a target for the other British magicians. The other turned to face her, slamming a punch of force right into her shields. If she hadn’t been protected, it would have shattered her. As it was, it picked her up and hurled her right across the battlefield. She landed hard and bounced …

Cursing, she stumbled to her feet as the Frenchman approached, his face twisted with bitter anger. She wondered, dully, if he recognised her, then decided it hardly mattered. Save perhaps for Lord Mycroft, there was no one whom the French wanted dead more. Her ears were ringing – she thought she might have damaged them, somehow – but she gathered all the magic she could to her, gritting her teeth in anger as she realised it was pitifully low. She could taste blood in her mouth, feel it trickling down her neck … The Frenchman lifted his arm, ready to slam her one final time …

… And was sent careening into the air as Sir James slammed into him, his magic smashing right into the Frenchman’s protections. He caught himself and hung in midair, glaring down at his new foe. Gwen forced herself to summon another spark of magic, then nodded to Sir James. The Mover yanked on the Frenchman’s shields, pulling them open long enough for Gwen to hit the Frenchman with a pulse of magic. His body and power disintegrated in the same instant, leaving pieces of blood and gore to fall over the battlefield. Gwen stumbled to her knees almost as soon as the enemy died. Darkness flickered at the corner of her eyes, threatening to pull her down. She hadn’t pushed herself so hard since the Swing.

Where I nearly died, she reminded herself, as she heard the sound of running footsteps. And I would have died, if Jack hadn’t saved me from Master Thomas.

“Drink this,” Sir James said. He pushed a canteen against her lips. Gwen sipped, tasting water and a hint of whiskey. “Do you want to withdraw?”

Gwen scowled at him. Sir James didn’t have to worry about being thought a weak and feeble woman, even if she did have the heart and stomach of a man. She couldn’t leave, not without undermining her position so badly she knew she’d never recover. Besides, if the French took London, she’d be doomed anyway. They’d hardly take the risk of letting her live. Indeed, given what she’d heard from Jack and the treacherous Sir Charles Bellingham, she was privately resolved to kill herself rather than allow the French to take her prisoner. She had a very good idea what they’d do to her.

“No,” she said, forcing herself to stand upright. The water helped, although she knew she was badly drained. “Where are the others?”

“Holding the line,” Sir James said. There was a hint of amused reproof in his tone. “You did well, but you are part of a team.”

Gwen felt her cheeks heat. Merlin was a team, but she wasn’t part of it. Sir James took magicians with different talents and worked them into a whole; she had all the talents, yet preferred to work on her own. But she couldn’t afford to work on her own in wartime. She needed to learn to fit into a team.

“I know,” she said, finally. If only there had been more time to practice! But it had been scant days between her return from Russia and the outbreak of war. “And …”

She broke off as she felt another spike of magic. A trio of Frenchmen were running towards them, surrounded by hideous monsters. Gwen had to admire their skill, but not their common sense. The illusions were striking, too striking, to be real. It would have been more effective, she noted as Sir James wrapped them both in a protective shield, if they’d created a vision of French soldiers charging their position. A soldier on the battlefield might well have thought that illusion was reality.

“Blazers,” Sir James said, as the illusions snapped out of existence. His shield began to glow as the Frenchmen bombarded it with magic. “And not particularly well-trained ones either.”

Gwen nodded, then reached out with her magic and caught hold of all three Frenchmen, hurling them up and into the air. Unlike the Movers, Blazers couldn’t fly under their own power. They’d fall to the ground and die, when gravity reasserted itself. She let go of them, wondering absently just where they’d land. Maybe they’d come down right on top of the Frenchman in command.

“I need to link up with the others,” Sir James said. “Do you want to come with me?”

Gwen shook her head. “I need to find out what’s going on,” she said. In all the excitement, she’d lost track of the overall battle. Now there was no immediate threat, she might have to find Major Shaw and get an overall report. “I’ll catch up with you.”

She half-expected Sir James to insist she come with him, but he said nothing and merely marched off to the southeast. Gwen felt an odd stab of envy, then reached for her magic and tested it, gingerly. She still had enough to be dangerous, she reassured herself, if she needed to fight. Bracing herself, she pulled her magic around her and rose off the ground and into the air. Her ears were still muffled – she made a mental note to check with a Healer, after the fighting was done – but she could hear the sound of artillery fire. There was no way to be sure, but it seemed to be growing closer.

It was hard to see anything clearly. The battlefield was swathed in smoke. Flames were rising from the nearby woodland, suggesting that someone was trying to burn out the defenders. Explosions flickered and flared where shells landed. A burning airship drifted into view, her crew fighting desperately to keep her in the air even though it was futile; she hit the ground and exploded into a massive fireball. Gwen couldn’t help feeling a flicker of contempt. Both sides had plenty of reason to know, by now, that airships just couldn’t survive anywhere near Blazers …

And the Hussars were mounting a charge against the French lines.

She felt her heart drop into her boots as the charge picked up speed. The French were battered, yes, but they weren’t broken. As she watched, they formed a square and greeted the hussars with canisters of grapeshot. Gwen tried to think of something – anything – she could do, but there was nothing. The Hussars were brave men. They didn’t break, they didn’t run, but it hardly mattered. The last of them fell from his horse and died well before reaching the French lines.

I gave them no orders, Gwen thought, as she dropped down towards her command tent. Who sent them out to die?

“Lady Gwen,” Major Shaw said. He sounded impossibly cheerful. Beside him, a pair of staff officers, wearing fancy uniforms, were smoking. “I …”

Gwen cut him off. “The hussars are dead,” she snapped. The urge to tear him apart rose up within her. Two hundred men, most of them aristocrats, were dead. “What have you done?”

“I saw an opportunity and I took it,” Major Shaw said. He didn’t sound apologetic. “I did what I thought needed to be done.”

“Tell me,” Gwen ordered, lacing her voice with Charm. “What were you thinking?”

“I did what you would have done, if you were not hampered by your sex,” Major Shaw said, sounding rather perplexed. He didn’t seem bright enough, Gwen noted, to realise he was being Charmed. His cronies made no attempt to hide their amusement. “One must take decisive action on the battlefield …”

The disobedient fool, Gwen thought. Her temper snapped. The hussars had been thrown into battle and slaughtered, pointlessly. There was nothing wrong with taking decisive action, but the moment had been wrong. And he had felt he could disobey her because she was a woman …?

She reached out with her magic, with the talent she’d discovered in Russia, and caught hold of his mind. “Stay here,” she snarled. He let out an odd little gasp, as if she’d pricked him with a pin. “Sit down. Issue no further orders. Keep your mouth shut!”

Major Shaw sat down, his entire body shaking with … something. Gwen barely noticed, just as she barely noticed the two cronies who were backing away from her. She had to fight to keep from ripping his mind to shreds. It would have been so easy …

Instead, she turned and walked back to the war.

Chapter Two

London felt … eerie.

Raechel Slater-Standish walked slowly down Pall Mall, feeling alone in the middle of a teeming city. The streets, normally full to bursting with cabs, carts and thousands upon thousands of hawkers, traders and pedestrians, were deserted. She couldn’t help feeling as if the entire population had just vanished, stolen away in the middle of the night, even though she knew it was absurd. The Lord Mayor had warned the population to stay indoors and keep out of the way, particularly if the French laid siege to the city. She sensed, more than saw, hidden eyes peeking at her as she picked up speed. They had to be wondering who she was and why she was out on the streets. No young woman should be out and about with the French breathing down their necks.

I have a pass, she thought, feeling the sheaf of papers in her bag. And somewhere to go.

She shivered, despite herself. Her aunt had never really grasped just how many times Raechel had slipped out of the house. She’d ordered the maids to keep a sharp eye on the young mistress, after all, and the maids were everywhere. And yet, Raechel knew she’d never really gone into Greater London, beyond the bright lights and safety of the richest part of the city. There were footpads out there, men who would steal from a young woman – or do worse, if they thought the girl had no one who would avenge her. But she’d seen worse in Russia, she reminded herself. The undead had almost killed her …

A horse cantered up beside her, the mounted policeman looking down at her with cold suspicious eyes. Raechel felt a flicker of surprise, then told herself not to be stupid. She looked respectable – the dress she wore marked her out as middle-class, rather than the finery she normally wore – but she shouldn’t be on the streets at all. The policeman had no reason to believe she wasn’t anything more than a merchant’s daughter.

“Your papers, Miss,” he said.

Raechel produced one of the pieces of paper she’d been given, after her brief interview with a government official, and held it out to the policeman. His eyes went very wide – the permit authorised her to go anywhere, save for the red zones surrounding the city – and he passed it back hastily, as if he feared it would burn him. Raechel gave him a cheeky smile, then folded the paper up and put it back in her bag. He doffed his hat to her and cantered off.

It could have been worse, she thought, as she watched the policeman ride off into the distance. He could have tried to insist on escorting me to my destination.

She shook her head as she turned the corner and headed down, past a long line of houses she knew to be both expensive and exclusive, even though they were relatively small. Her uncle had often bemoaned the simple fact that even he couldn’t afford more than one, despite his great wealth and political standing. Raechel had pointed out, rather dryly, that there weren’t enough of them to go around, driving the price upwards sharply. Her uncle hadn’t been impressed. He’d merely ordered her to go back to learning ladylike arts while waiting for a suitable husband.

Her lips quirked at the thought. Her uncle’s idea of what made a suitable husband would be nothing like hers. And if he’d known just how far she’d gone, in some of the hidden clubs for younger members of the aristocracy, he’d have disowned her on the spot … unless, of course, keeping the money from her father’s legacy was more important to him. It probably was. Ambassador Standish needed money and connections to promote himself in the corridors of power.

She stopped outside a simple black door and hesitated, feeling – again – unseen eyes peering at her. Lady Gwen had told her that she’d put Raechel’s name forward for training, but warned her that it was going to be hard, very hard. Being a secret government agent was always hard, particularly if one happened to have spent the first eighteen years of one’s life as a spoilt brat. Raechel hadn’t liked the implication, but she had to admit that Lady Gwen had a point. Sneaking out for furtive kisses – and more – wasn’t anything like as dangerous as fighting the undead in Russia.

And you wanted to make something of yourself, she told herself. It would be easy to wait until her father’s legacy passed to her, then spend the rest of her life partying, but she wanted something more. This is the way forward.

Taking a breath, she stepped forward and tapped on the door.

There was a long pause, then the door swung open of its own accord. The corridor beyond, illuminated by gaslights hanging from the walls, was empty. A chill ran down her spine as she recalled all the stories of haunted houses, where vengeful ghosts lay in wait for their prey … and then she shook her head, firmly. A magician could easily have opened the door for her, even from a distance. Moments later, she felt a gentle force tugging at her, inviting her inside. She could have turned and run, but instead she walked forward, into the house. The door closed behind her as soon as she was inside. Ahead of her, another door gaped open invitingly. Raechel scowled – did they really need all the theatrics – and then walked onwards, through the door. The room was empty, save for a young woman standing against the far wall. Raechel felt an odd tingle at the back of her mind as the young woman looked up at her.

They studied each other in silence for a long moment. The woman was older than Raechel, she thought, probably at least twenty-five. Her face was very pale, a natural paleness Raechel knew she’d never be able to emulate, no matter how much cream and dust she piled on her face. It was framed by short dark hair that gave her an impish look, although the way she held herself suggested she was used to much longer hair. And while she wore a simple white dress, Raechel had no doubt the woman was from the aristocracy. No commoner could hope to maintain that sort of poise.

“You are wrong, I’m afraid,” the woman said. She spoke in the genteel tones of the aristocracy, just like Lady Standish, but there was a hint of amusement in her voice that Raechel’s aunt would never have allowed herself. “I was not born to the aristocracy.”

Raechel stared at her in shock. How the hell had she …?

Understanding clicked. “Get out of my mind!”

The woman – the Talker – smiled. “Learn how to stop me,” she challenged. “Anyone can, with enough effort.”

Raechel glared at her, then tried to recall Gwen’s lessons. She wasn’t given to contemplation, not like her aunt. It was hard to organise her thoughts, then shield them against questing probes from a Talker. Every time she thought she had it, she felt that accursed tingle at the back of her mind …

“We will need to work on that,” the Talker said. “Tell me about yourself.”

“I have a better idea,” Raechel said, sullenly. The damned woman could at least have told Raechel her name. “Why don’t you tell me about myself?”

“As you wish,” the Talker said. “My name is Irene, by the way.”

She paused, closing her eyes thoughtfully. “Your name is Raechel Slater, or so you think of yourself. Officially, as the ward of Lord Standish, you are Raechel Slater-Standish. You are eighteen pushing eighty” – her lips curved into a thin smile – “and have been rebelling against your aunt for the last two years, mainly by going to dubious parties and having sexual relationships with junior scions of the aristocracy. The danger of finding yourself pregnant never really occurred to you, as your paramours promised to pull out before it was too late and they lost control. Which, incidentally, is not a reliable method of birth control.”

Raechel blushed, furiously. Memories rose unbidden to the forefront of her mind. Young men, handsome enough to make her heart flutter, rakish enough that she knew her aunt would never approve of them … some good at giving her pleasure, some only interested in themselves. And Irene, if that was her real name, had seen everything in her mind …

She cringed in embarrassment, but Irene went on.

“You went to Russia because your guardians feared to leave you in London alone,” she continued. “There you met the Royal Sorceress, who was posing as your maid at the time; Lady Gwen set you straight and convinced you that you could be something more than just another brainless beauty. You requested a post at the Royal College. Lady Gwen promised to ensure an introduction, instead, to the covert branch of British Intelligence. After a brief interview, you were given an address and told to come here. To me.”

Raechel nodded, shortly.

“You are impulsive,” Irene concluded. “There is no doubt that you are smart, but you are often driven forward by your emotions rather than common sense. You were very lucky indeed not to wind up pregnant, which would have been hard to explain to your guardians, not least because you wouldn’t be sure just who’d fathered the brat. Lady Gwen was capable of playing your maid long enough to get to Russia and carry out her mission. Can you do the same?”

“Yes,” Raechel said.

Irene gave her a long look. “Very well,” she said, finally. “You will be trained. I will train you. If at any moment you want to leave you may do so, but there will be no second chance to shine. You can stay in London with your money and look for a suitable husband.”

“I’d rather die,” Raechel said, surprising herself.

“That may be an option,” Irene warned. “Covert work is never played by the rules. An agent who gets into deep trouble may wind up dead, or worse. And very few people will know how you died and why.”

“I understand,” Raechel said.

Irene nodded. “You will do everything, and I mean everything, I tell you to do,” she added, sternly. “Again, if you want to leave you may leave …”

“But there will be no second chance,” Raechel said, irritated. She was no maid who needed the same orders repeated time and time again before she understood, no rake who needed to be told no twice before he backed off. “I understand.”

“Good,” Irene said. She reached around the back of her neck and undid her dress. It fell to the ground, pooling around her feet. Raechel stared, then looked away, hastily, from her naked body. “Undress.”


“Undress,” Irene repeated. There was no give in her voice. “Undress or leave.”

Raechel hesitated. She had never been naked in front of anyone, save for her maids, since she was a very young girl. Even her liaisons at the club had involved nothing more than hauling up her dress to allow her paramours entry. To be naked in front of someone on the same social level as herself was wrong, against everything she’d been taught. Even her husband shouldn’t be allowed to look at her naked body. And yet …

Gritting her teeth, she unbuttoned the dress and allowed it to fall to the ground. The undershirt followed, allowing her breasts to bobble free. They were larger than Irene’s, she noted with a flicker of vindictive glee. The older women who talked about thinness clearly hadn’t realised just how much men enjoyed large breasts, although that was wanton behaviour and not ladylike. She hesitated before removing her drawers, but Irene was relentless. Slowly, she pushed the underclothes down to her feet and stepped out of them, leaving her clothes on the floor. She found it hard to repress a giggle. She was naked!

Irene studied her carefully, her eyes examining every trace of Raechel’s body. Raechel looked back, noting with some amusement that Irene shaved everywhere. It was a sign of wanton behaviour, she recalled being told by one of the maids. Only lower-class women shaved everywhere. And yet, she’d considered doing it for herself in pursuit of pleasure. If she hadn’t been sure the maids would have told her aunt …

“Men like it that way,” Irene said, shortly.

Raechel coloured, again. “Stop reading my mind.”

“Learn how to keep me out,” Irene repeated. “You think I’m the only mind-reader you’re likely to encounter?”

“No,” Raechel said. Gwen had been worried about a French Talker, hadn’t she? “But it’s hard …”

“Try being an opera singer sometime,” Irene said. “You’ll find it much harder than you think.”

“I can’t sing to save my life,” Raechel said. Was Irene an opera singer? It would make excellent cover for her activities, wouldn’t it? “Do I have to learn?”

“If you have the talent, you might as well make use of it,” Irene pointed out. She reached out and poked at Raechel’s arms, then gently turned her around. “Do you know how to fire a gun? Fight to defend yourself?”

Raechel snorted. “I fought in Russia,” she said, “but no one ever taught me how to fight.”

“I will,” Irene said. “Come with me.”

She turned and walked out of the door. Raechel followed, feeling cool air drifting against her naked skin. Downwards, deeper into the house, a man was standing, watching both women with cold eyes. Raechel yelped and covered herself hastily, stumbling backwards in shock and horror. No man had entered her bedchamber, not even her father or the butler. The thought of them seeing her naked …

“Come on,” Irene said. She seemed unbothered by the man’s presence. “And keep your hands by your side.”

Raechel glared at her, seriously considering simply recovering her dress and running for her life. To expose herself so blatantly to a man’s gaze … it just wasn’t done. And yet, Irene seemed completely unconcerned. Had she exposed herself – or worse – in the course of her duties? She might well have done …

Stubbornly, Raechel forced her legs to move and follow Irene down the corridor, even though the man was staring at her. Irene gave her a mischievous smile as they reached another door, then led the way inside. Raechel sagged in relief as soon as the door was closed behind her. She was shaking, either in embarrassment or rage. Angrily, she banished the feeling and looked around. The room was crammed with wardrobes, just like the ones she used at home.

“You’ll go through worse,” Irene said, bluntly. “Trust me on this. The sooner you abandon society’s conventions, the better.”

“Oh,” Raechel said. She found it hard not to snap at the older woman. “And have you done that yourself?”

“The rules are different, depending on where you go and what role you play,” Irene said, wryly. Her lips crinkled with amusement. “A French noblewoman, for example, has far more freedom than a British noblewoman. She will often have affairs with other noblemen, although she will be careful not to fall pregnant. Her husband, of course, will feel the same way. But a British noblewoman who is caught having an affair will be disgraced and banished to the country, if she’s lucky. You have heard of the marriage of Lady Seymour Dorothy Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley?”

“Yes,” Raechel said. Her aunt had been a young girl during the whole affair and spoke of it often, normally when rebuking Raechel for not being perfectly ladylike. “It’s one of the great cautionary tales.”

“And so it is,” Irene said. She cleared her throat. “The average British nobleman will have no hesitation in setting up a mistress, but he will react badly to any thought his wife is enjoying the same liberty. Learn the rules of any given place before you break them.”

Raechel swallowed. Did her uncle have a mistress? She found it hard to imagine her stuffed shirt of an uncle doing anything of the sort, but she had to admit it was possible. And her aunt wouldn’t say a word, even if she knew … she’d probably be glad that her husband was slaking his lusts somewhere else. A proper woman was not supposed to admit the existence of sexual pleasure, let alone feel it for herself …

“Quite right,” Irene agreed.

I’m going to learn how to block you if it’s the last damned thing I do, Raechel thought, grimly.

“Good,” Irene said. “Work on it. You’ll have plenty of time to practice.”

She opened a large wardrobe, revealing dozens of different outfits. Raechel stared; there was a dress that wouldn’t be out of place in the palace, a milkmaid’s outfit, a working class dress that had been patched several times … and, beyond them, a handful of masculine outfits ranging from a military uniform to an elegant suit and jacket.

“Tell me,” Irene said. “Why did I order you to undress?”

Raechel felt her cheeks burning, yet again. “To show me what I would have to do.”

“Partly,” Irene said. She tapped her finger on her chest, between her breasts. “And partly to strip you of your identity. What you wear” – she waved a hand at the outfits – “will give you a new identity. Wearing a disguise is not just about putting on a silly outfit, but assuming a whole new identity. You must not act out of character or you will be discovered.”

She produced a maid’s outfit and held it up. “A maid is always respectful to her employers,” she added. “She is never cheeky, never rude; whatever happens, she never raises her eyes or fights back. A maid may be slapped – or worse – by her mistress and she has to take it. She cannot fight back.”

Raechel swallowed. She was no stranger to her aunt’s hand, but the thought of allowing someone else to strike her …

“Precisely,” Irene said. “You have to play the role convincingly, if you want to succeed.”

She smiled. “Still want to play?”

Raechel hesitated, then nodded.

Chapter Three

“What I would like to know,” Lord Mycroft said coolly, “is just what happened to Major Shaw.”

Gwen groaned, inwardly. It felt like only bare hours had passed since the French offensive had been broken, since the French had been forced back to enclaves surrounding Dover and Brighton, since she had been recalled to London. At least Sir James could handle matters, if the RSC needed to get involved. The vast majority of the French magicians had been killed in the Battle of Dorking.

“He got a number of good men killed,” she said. Her tired mind hadn’t quite processed why she’d been called to the Diogenes Club, rather than Lord Mycroft’s office. Clearly, she was in trouble for something. “I told him to sit down and shut up.”

“You broke him,” Lord Mycroft said. “Rumours are already spreading.”

His voice hardened. “I ask again, Lady Gwen,” he said. “What did you do to him?”

Gwen gritted her teeth as she turned to stare out of the window, towards the spires of the Britannic School. It was hard, so hard, to keep her temper in check. Lord Mycroft had been one of her strongest supporters, right from the start. He didn’t deserve to have her screaming at him, as if he was in the wrong. And yet, the nasty part of her mind wondered if he was in the wrong.

“I have a report here from the doctors,” Lord Mycroft added. “Major Shaw has been crying and shaking uncontrollably for the last five hours. The entire command staff saw him blubbering like a little boy. I dare say that rumours have already reached his family, having grown vastly out of proportion. It will not be long before they start demanding punishment.”

“I am no daughter to be slapped, nor wife to be rebuked,” Gwen snarled. She fought hard to control herself. Life would be so much simpler if she’d been born a man. “That … oaf disobeyed orders in the middle of a battle and got a great many good men killed!”

“You are a servant of the Crown,” Lord Mycroft said, sternly. “And I ask again, for the final time, what did you do to him?”

Gwen sagged. “I discovered that I could … influence … someone if I combined Charm and Talking,” she said, slowly. Master Thomas had controlled her, back during the Swing. The memory of no longer being in control of her own body was terrifying. “I didn’t realise just how bad an effect it would have on Major Shaw.”

Lord Mycroft looked up. “And you were going to mention this when?”

“I first managed to get it to work in Russia,” Gwen said. “There was a Russian soldier I managed to … to redirect. I was going to discuss it privately with you when I had the opportunity.”

And that, she knew, was a lie. She’d left quite a few details out of her report, fearing what would happen if the truth emerged. Charmers were already feared and hated for their power, yet a strong-minded man could avoid being Charmed. Her power – her new power – was much harder to defeat. If people were scared of Charm, what would they make of a power that could control someone? And a power possessed by only one person.

“I see,” Lord Mycroft said. “And you had no idea of the side effects?”

Gwen shook her head. She hadn’t noticed any when Master Thomas had controlled her, although she’d been too busy trying to fight to survive. And the Russian soldier … she felt a sudden stab of guilt. Had he been in trouble because of her? He’d only been doing his duty, not getting in her way …

“No, My Lord,” she said. “I didn’t expect him to do more than obey me.”

She clenched her fists in helpless rage. Major Shaw would have thought, right up until the moment Gwen returned from Russia, that he’d be working with Sir James. He would never have dared to disobey Sir James, let alone take matters into his own hands. Maybe he did have reason to question the competence of a woman on the battlefield, but she’d fought during the Swing and in Russia …

“He disobeyed orders,” she added. “And he got a number of men killed.”

“So you said,” Lord Mycroft said. “And you would be right. The Duke of India is not happy with him.”

Gwen felt a flicker of vindictive glee. The Duke of India was not known for tolerating incompetents, no matter their connections. Shaw would probably have been summarily removed from his post, perhaps even shot for incompetence in the face of the enemy. And no one would have dared quibble with his opinion. Britain’s most famous professional soldier brooked no interference with his command.

“But your actions have caused this government a political problem,” Lord Mycroft added, grimly. “Quite apart from the fact you kept this new … talent … a secret” – Gwen winced at his tone – “you also broke the mind of a well-connected young man. Even if he recovers, Lady Gwen, it is going to cause a great many problems.”

Gwen sighed, looking back at the school. She’d wanted to go there, once upon a time, despite the horror stories she’d heard from her elder brother. There were even women at the school, the daughters of Indian or African rulers mingling with the British aristocrats who would one day rule their countries. She could have gone …

… But her mother had refused to even consider the possibility.

“I was the commanding officer,” she said, tiredly. She looked back at Lord Mycroft, willing him to understand. “He shouldn’t have disobeyed.”

“That is not in dispute,” Lord Mycroft said. His tone softened, slightly. “I understand precisely how you feel, Lady Gwen, but his family will be furious. And it will tie in to the concerns about having a woman – a young woman – in command of the Royal Sorcerers Corps. There was a strong feeling that you shouldn’t serve as the tactical commanding officer, whatever post you held.”

“Master Thomas didn’t have such problems,” Gwen snarled.

“Master Thomas was nearly ninety years old, with experience that stretched all the way back to the Seven Years War,” Lord Mycroft pointed out. “He fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1800 and various conflicts in India. There was never any doubt about his ability to do the job.”

Gwen nodded, conceding the point. Even in his last year of life, when he’d taken her on as an apprentice, Master Thomas had been a very dangerous man. He’d been in his position for so long that he’d known where all the bodies were buried. It was unlikely that anyone could have dislodged him, if anyone had dared to try. Even the King had known better than to push the old man.

“You are nineteen years old, more or less,” Lord Mycroft added. “You have been in your post for less than a year and your experience of military command in the field is non-existent. And you had almost no experience of anything before you were pushed into the role of Royal Sorceress. Sir James says good things about your skills as a lone warrior, but questions your ability to fight as part of a team.”

I was kept at home, Gwen thought, bitterly. Mother hated the thought of letting me go into the great outdoors.

“There are plenty of good reasons for people to question you, Lady Gwen,” Lord Mycroft added. “And while some of them have to do with your sex, which is beyond your control, there are plenty that don’t.”

Gwen took a breath. “How exactly am I supposed to gain experience,” she asked, “when I am denied the only way to gain experience?”

“I believe Major Shaw might have asked himself the same question,” Lord Mycroft said, sardonically. “And you know how that turned out.”

He cleared his throat. “It has been decided, by myself and the Prime Minister, that your talents would serve us better elsewhere,” he added. “And it so happens we have a task that may well allow you to gain the experience you need.”

Gwen scowled. “You’re sending me into exile.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Lord Mycroft said. “But the task is quite genuine.”

He paused. “Do you recall Sir Simon Muybridge?”

“Yes,” Gwen said, surprised. She forced herself to recall the middle-aged sorcerer. He’d missed the Swing – he’d been in Ireland at the time – and she hadn’t really had time to form an impression of him. But Master Thomas wouldn’t have promoted him if he hadn’t felt the Blazer could handle the job. “We met briefly, two weeks after the Swing. He was on his way to America to take over as Sorcerer Commanding.”

“He’s dead,” Lord Mycroft said, shortly. “And so is all but one of the trained sorcerers assigned to America.”

Gwen stared at him. “Dead?”

“Poisoned,” Lord Mycroft said. “Sir Simon made the mistake of hosting a dinner for the sorcerers under his command, before they were deployed to Amherst to meet the expected French invasion. A cook poisoned the soup, according to the reports; Sir Simon and the other sorcerers died in quite considerable pain. The lone Healer assigned to New York was apparently at the Viceregal Palace, unable to make it back in time. Only one sorcerer survived the poisoning.”

“Oh,” Gwen said. She bit down the urge to say a very unladylike word. “We have no sorcerers in the Americas at all, save for him?”

“There are a handful of untrained sorcerers,” Lord Mycroft said. “Thomas Rochester, His Majesty’s Viceroy, has used emergency powers to conscript them. However, they are untrained. They need a training officer, now.”

He scowled, his jowls wobbling angrily. “I warned the Viceroy of the dangers!”

Gwen blinked. “Dangers?”

“The cook was a black slave,” Lord Mycroft said. “A fine cook, by all accounts; he belonged to Sir Simon personally. And one fine day, with every combat sorcerer in America sitting down to dine, he dumps poison in the soup and runs for his life. He might even make it to French territory before he gets caught!”

“I see,” Gwen said.

She gritted her teeth in understanding. The French had abolished slavery in their territory years ago, after the War of 1800. They’d even started treating coloured men and women as equals, realising the dangers of trying to build an empire in lands where the white man was outnumbered fifty to one. And they’d been using their treatment of coloured people as a recruiting tool for years. How could she blame a slave for snatching at the golden ring of freedom, despite the risks …?

Her blood ran cold. “There are thousands of slaves in the Americas.”

“More like hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million,” Lord Mycroft said, curtly. “And a large number of them will be men of military age. The plantations are watched closely, but it would be very hard to stop a slave rebellion in the south before it spread out of control – or the French arrived to arm the slaves and add them to their forces. A rebellion that erupted under our nose would make it much harder to hold on to the south, let alone push the French back into Mexico.”

He sighed. “That isn’t the only problem,” he added. “The American Tories have been making enemies, while the American Whigs are largely powerless. Poor Americans are wondering if the slaves will take their work, such as it is, while wealthier Americans chafe against the industrial restrictions. Oh, it was a mistake to condone slavery, even if it did win us the support of powerful men. I fear we will wind up paying for that sin in due course.

“The Viceroy has inherited a snake pit, Lady Gwen, and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Any proposals for reform get shot down by the Tories before they can reach London, which adds strength to more radical groups who want to make another bid for independence, using the war as a distraction. And any plans to cut the import of slaves or bring the slave-owners to heel run into other problems. The last thing the government needs, right now, is a power struggle in New York.”

Gwen frowned. “The slave-owners aren’t going to join the French, are they?”

“I do not know,” Lord Mycroft said. “On the face of it, they would have to be insane to join the French, knowing that the French would probably free the slaves. But on the other hand, they might believe that the French would betray the slaves, just like Lord Dunmore did after the war came to an end. They may feel they can hang on to their power despite abandoning the crown.

“But the radical groups are likely to cause trouble too,” he added. “They are no friends to slavery, Lady Gwen, but they will have interests in common.”

“I see,” Gwen said. “What do they actually want?”

Lord Mycroft smiled. “Depends who you ask,” he said. “There are a number of different demands, ranging from universal suffrage and a united American Parliament to outright independence from the British Crown. General Howe may have intended to keep the Americans divided, when he arranged the post-war government, but it has caused a number of unintended problems. In particular, the Tories are organised at a level the Whigs simply cannot hope to match.”

“Which causes frustration,” Gwen said.

“And frustration leads to violence,” Lord Mycroft agreed. “His Majesty has agreed, secretly, to back a bill granting the Americans a Parliament of their own. Certain powers will still be reserved to the Crown, naturally, but the Americans will be in a much better position to sort themselves out.”

“That will not please the Tories,” Gwen predicted.

“No, it won’t,” Lord Mycroft said. “The timing will be particularly poor. These concessions will be made as a last resort, which will make us look weak. I’m having to leave the exact moment this bill is announced to the Viceroy too. He’s surrounded by Tories, so his timing may be very poor indeed.”

He shook his head. “But the prospect of a French invasion may get a few heads focused on important matters,” he added. “And now we come to your task.”

“Training sorcerers,” Gwen said.

“As far as anyone else knows, that’s precisely what you will be doing,” Lord Mycroft said, simply. “You’d hardly be the first officer sent to the Americas while matters cooled down here. Major Shaw’s family can be soothed, if necessary. Unofficially, I want you and Irene to monitor the situation in America and advise the Viceroy. You’ll have several sets of orders when you depart, Lady Gwen. Use whichever one seems best for you and burn the others.”

“I understand,” Gwen said. A thought struck her and she paused. “Irene … has taken on an apprentice.”

“Then that apprentice will have to go to America too,” Lord Mycroft said.

He sighed. “You know it won’t be long before the French footholds in Britain are crushed, if they’re fool enough to fight to the last,” he said. “But overall, losing America could cause us a great many problems. The French embarrassed us when they managed to land on our soil, Lady Gwen; they made us look weak. Their raiding squadrons are already hammering our shipping too. We cannot afford many more such embarrassments.”

“I won’t let you down,” Gwen assured him. “When do you want me to leave?”

“We’re organising a convoy of ships to depart in seven days, depending on how the naval war goes,” Lord Mycroft said. “That should include a number of troopships, providing reinforcements to General Paget. Yes, that Paget.”

Gwen hid her amusement. General Henry Paget had run off with his second wife while married to his first. The whole affair had been a major scandal at the time, she recalled; her mother had chatted about it constantly. General Paget’s first wife’s family had not only demanded a divorce, they’d clawed back the dowry and a major payment from General Paget’s family in exchange for not chasing him through the courts. If the General hadn’t been competent, he would probably have been dismissed from the army. As it was, with polite society unwilling to tolerate his presence, he and the second wife had been dispatched to America.

“You should have enough time to organise matters so the RSC can cope with your absence,” Lord Mycroft added. “I suggest you leave Sir James in command, again.”

“Understood,” Gwen said. “Can I take other sorcerers with me?”

“I advise against it,” Lord Mycroft said. “We may well need them here, to cope with future French raids – and raiding the French ourselves. I understand you need more experienced sorcerers in America” – he held up a hand before she could say a word – “but we don’t have many to spare. Losing Britain would be the end of the world.”

Gwen nodded. The Royal Navy could retreat to America or India, but what would it find when it arrived? A colony willing to fight to recover the motherland, or a rebellious society intent on shaping a future for itself, free of any obligation to a distant government? And the French would not be gentle, either. The terms they imposed to end the war would cripple Britain, once and for all.

“I know,” she said, finally. “I won’t let you down.”

“I suggest you have a long rest, then see to your daughter,” Lord Mycroft added. “I’ll have papers sent to you at Cavendish Hall. You’ll have a chance to read them before you depart.”

His voice hardened, again. “You may be asked precisely what happened to Major Shaw,” he warned. “Just tell them that he had an unusually bad reaction to Charm.”

Gwen nodded, once. “I understand what is at stake,” she said. “I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
Chapter Four

“A tragic business, simply tragic,” Lady Mary Crichton said. “I would have considered young Carrington to be a potential husband for you.”

Gwen fought hard not to roll her eyes. She might get along better with her mother these days, but she never ceased to be amazed at her mother’s ability to dismiss unwanted or unwelcome facts. There was no way Gwen would have considered marrying Carrington Shaw, even if he hadn’t tried to usurp her authority. They would not have made a suitable couple.

“Men are hardly interested in courting me, mother,” she said, sipping her tea. “I have not received any proposals, let alone expressions of interest.”

“You did have Sir Charles,” Lady Mary pointed out. “He was interested in you.”

Gwen felt her cheeks heat. “Sir Charles murdered his best friend and was planning to betray Britain to the French,” she said, tartly. She’d allowed him to distract her during the investigation, she recalled. It could have ended very badly. “I don’t think it would have made for a happy marriage.”

“Marriages are not meant to be happy,” Lady Mary said. “They’re meant for linking families and wealth together and for producing children.”

“I want something more, mother,” Gwen said. She hated to admit it, but she knew it was unlikely she’d ever marry. What sort of man would want to marry a sorceress? The only men likely to be interested were ones who thought that marrying her would be their ticket to wealth and power. They’d be very disappointed if they tried. “And I already have a child.”

She looked around. “Where is Olivia?”

“The maids are currently bathing her,” Lady Mary said. “I was planning to take her to the Windsor Ball tonight.”

Gwen frowned. “I trust you will not let them make fun of her,” she said. “It would be a shame if I had to do something about it.”

“Fear not, they know she has close kin,” Lady Mary said, briskly. “And this ball might be her best chance at making a good match.”

“You are not to push her into anything,” Gwen said. “To all intents and purposes, she is my daughter.”

“She’s adopted,” Lady Mary pointed out. “Do you not want a child of your own?”

Gwen hesitated. In truth, she wasn’t sure. If she’d been born without magic, she would probably have been married off as soon as she turned sixteen, married to someone her parents chose. They wouldn’t have sold her to a monster, she thought, but they wouldn’t have put her happiness at the top of the agenda. By now, she might well have had a child or two, maybe more. She knew girls who were her age, perhaps even younger, who’d already given birth to two or three children. And others who had died in childbirth.

“I don’t know, mother,” she confessed. “But I have no husband. I believe a husband should come first.”

“I will keep an eye out for you,” Lady Mary said. “But Master Thomas’s will has confused the issue.”

Gwen felt a hot flash of triumph. Master Thomas hadn’t just apprenticed her; he’d practically adopted her. It had been a formality, just to ensure he could be alone with Gwen without causing scandal, but it had separated her from her biological family. And when he’d died, she’d inherited his wealth as a free woman, rather than a daughter. Whatever happened, that wealth was hers.

“I am sure no one would mind if you were to say you were acting as my representative,” Gwen said. “But I don’t think you would find many suitors.”

“Lord Mycroft is unmarried,” Lady Mary mused. “And he would appreciate you …”

Gwen giggled. “He’s a danger to shipping!”

“Regardless, he comes from a good family,” Lady Mary said. “I could approach him on your behalf.”

“No, thank you,” Gwen said, quickly. The thought of copulating with a man who was not only forty years her senior, but fat enough to pass for a beached whale was alarming. And he’d never look her in the eyes again if her mother went to him to open negotiations. “I would prefer someone closer to my age.”

She shook her head. There was no way she could handle the duties of a housewife, particularly one of her social class, and those of the Royal Sorceress. And she couldn’t step down, either. Master Thomas had made sure a Master Magician had to lead the Royal Sorcerers Corps, if only to keep the bickering among lesser magicians to a dull roar. Gwen was, quite literally, the only one for the job. Even Sir James, as resourceful and talented as he was, couldn’t handle it indefinitely.

“Most young men of your age are already married or betrothed,” Lady Mary pointed out. “I could find a widower, but the youngest I can think of right now is ten years older than you.”

“Perhaps I’ll meet someone in America,” Gwen offered.

Lady Mary looked horrified. Gwen didn’t bother to conceal her amusement. American peers – and merchants who had yet to be ennobled – had been marrying British peers, buying their way into the aristocracy. It hadn’t been an entirely successful arrangement, from what she’d heard, but it had given a number of older families a new lease on life. And she couldn’t deny that strengthening ties between Britain and America was hardly a bad idea.

“One would hope not,” Lady Mary said. “How could anyone be sure of his breeding?”

Gwen opened her mouth to say something else, but closed it when she heard the door opening behind her. Turning, she saw Olivia being escorted into the room by one of the maids. Her adopted daughter looked uncomfortable in a long green dress that suited her blonde hair; indeed, Gwen couldn’t help thinking that Olivia simply didn’t look natural in such a dress, no matter what the maids did. But then, Olivia had been on the streets for most of her life …

Being a captive in Russia probably didn’t help, Gwen thought, as she rose. There were dull shadows in Olivia’s blue eyes, recollections of horrors that no girl should have to see. But, as Jack had pointed out so long ago, many of the horrors deemed too horrific for girls to see were happening to girls. And she wanted to kill herself not too long ago.

“Olivia,” she said. She gave her adopted daughter a tight hug. “How are you feeling?”

“Clean,” Olivia said. Her accent held traces of the streets, despite the best elocution teachers money could buy. “They scrubbed every last inch of me.”

“And make sure you don’t get that dress dirty before tonight,” Lady Mary said, aiming a pointed gaze at the grandfather clock. “We have to be on our way in less than three hours.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine, mother,” Gwen said. She had horrific memories of being forced to dress herself time and time again, just to please her mother. Lady Mary was practically a force of nature in the dressing room. “And she might have to leave in a hurry, anyway.”

Olivia looked up, alarmed. “They might need me?”

“I don’t think so,” Gwen said, reassuringly. Lord Mycroft had talked about keeping Olivia’s necromantic talents in reserve, just in case the battle went badly, but Gwen doubted she’d be needed. The last report she’d read had stated that the French enclaves were under constant attack, wearing the French down piece by piece. “But you might need an excuse to slip out.”

“Gwen,” Lady Mary said.

She rose, stiffly. “I shall be in my rooms, readying myself,” she added. “It is imperative she does not dirty her clothes. A number of young men are coming to the ball.”

Gwen watched her go, then looked at Olivia. “You do look nice in that dress.”

“I feel like a mark,” Olivia grunted. She snorted in a very unladylike manner. “Do you know how much the jewellery alone is worth? And how easy it would be for me to lose it?”

“Watch yourself,” Gwen advised. The exact truth behind Olivia’s family roots – or lack of them – had been carefully buried, but it didn’t take much to start tongues wagging in polite society. “You don’t want a bad reputation now.”

Olivia snorted, ruder this time. “Do you think any of the toffs will want to marry me?”

Gwen shrugged. “Do you want to marry them?”

“No,” Olivia said. “But your mother insists that I need a good match.”

“There’s no need for you to have any sort of match,” Gwen said. She pushed Olivia towards one of the chairs, then sat down facing her. “But if you want to get married, this is the way to go about it.”

Olivia’s face darkened. She rarely spoke of her time on the streets, but Gwen had heard enough – from Jack, from Lucy, from Irene – to make a number of guesses about what life must have been like for Olivia, even if she had spent most of her time wearing male clothes and pretending to be a boy. It was quite possible that Olivia would never want to marry, or would have to have a very awkward conversation with her partner before they tied the knot.

“Leave it for the moment,” she said, sitting back. “There’s a more important matter to discuss.”

“You’re leaving,” Olivia said.

Gwen blinked in surprise. “How …?”

“Your mother was saying that you did something bad,” Olivia said. “And that you would have to leave the country for a time.”

“I’m afraid so,” Gwen said. Now she’d had a wash and a long sleep, she couldn’t help feeling a little ashamed of what she’d done. There had been other options. “And I can’t take you with me.”

Olivia looked down at the wooden flooring. “You’re going to leave me here with her?”

“She won’t harm you,” Gwen reassured her. Lady Mary had to be very daunting, particularly to someone of no aristocratic blood. “And … and you might be needed.”

“I won’t raise the dead again,” Olivia said. She looked up, meeting Gwen’s eyes. “Whatever happens, I won’t raise the dead. You didn’t hear the whispers.”

“I heard enough,” Gwen said. “And I won’t force you to do anything.”

She shook her head. The people who had argued, a year ago, that Olivia should be put to death might have had a point, given what had happened in Russia. Reports from St Petersburg were vague, and the French weren’t sharing what they knew, but British Intelligence believed there was a civil war underway. There was no way to know how many Russians had joined the ranks of the undead, or how many had survived the destruction of Moscow. Russia was cold enough to preserve undead bodies for years.

“They will,” Olivia whispered. “And I’ll kill myself before I let a Charmer get his hooks into me again.”

“You won’t have to,” Gwen said. She hoped devoutly that she was right. “The French have been beaten, I think.”

Olivia nodded, slowly. “When will you be home?”

“I don’t know,” Gwen admitted. Training a group of sorcerers could take months, if not years. But she doubted she’d have that long. The French armies in North America presumably knew that the invasion of Britain had failed. “At least a year, perhaps longer.”

Olivia’s face fell. “Are you sure?”

“I can send for you, once I know the lie of the land,” Gwen offered. She had no idea if Lord Mycroft would let Olivia go, but she could convince him that Olivia was unlikely to raise the dead on command. “Or I could try to get you into the Britannic School.”

“No, thank you,” Olivia said. “It’s hard enough trying to cipher on my own.”

Gwen smiled. Young women were normally educated at home, at least among the aristocracy. She’d certainly been home-schooled. For Olivia, who had never learnt to read and write until she’d come to Cavendish Hall, trying to learn with a pack of aristocratic girls would be torture. It would be hard to blame her for trying to escape the school.

“As you wish,” she said. She sighed, looking at Olivia’s dress. “I would take you for a walk, but mother does carry on so.”

Olivia smirked. “We could go anyway.”

Gwen shook her head. “I have to head back to Cavendish Hall,” she said. “I just wanted to see you again, before I leave. There may be no time once the preparations start in earnest.”

“I understand,” Olivia said, reluctantly. “Just … just ask your mother to stop nagging me about the dreams.”

“I will,” Gwen said. Olivia had started to have nightmares almost as soon as she’d been rescued, nightmares which had rapidly worsened to the point where she either tried hard not to sleep or woke up screaming. “And I love you.”

She gave the younger girl another hug, then spoke briefly to Lady Mary before hurrying back out to the carriage. Traffic in and out of London had dropped off sharply over the past few days, save for carts bringing food and drink into the city in case of a siege. Gwen had no doubt that it would pick up soon, once the last of the French enclaves were crushed, but for the moment it only took thirty minutes to drive from her father’s mansion to Cavendish Hall.

“Lady Gwen,” the guard said. He tipped his hat to her as she stepped through the gates and started the walk up to the mansion. “Doctor Norwell asked you to speak with him as soon as you returned.”

“I see,” Gwen said.

She walked up the driveway and through the main doors. Cavendish Hall was almost empty; the sorcerers had been sent to the war, the researchers and support staff had been moved north to Oxford … she was mildly surprised that Doctor Norwell hadn’t gone too. But he had always insisted on making sure proper records were kept. He’d claimed to have served the RSC since before Master Thomas had become the Royal Sorcerer and, judging from his looks, Gwen was inclined to believe him. He was definitely old enough to be her grandfather.

“Lady Gwen,” Doctor Norwell said, as she stepped into the library. “I trust your daughter is well?”

“Well enough,” Gwen said, glancing around before sitting down in one of the comfortable armchairs. “They made a terrible mess in here, doctor.”

Her lips thinned. The library was one of her favourite rooms, but it no longer looked like a library. The books had been stripped from the shelves and transported out of the city, even though she knew that ninety percent of them were nothing more than nonsense. Writing down magic spells was pointless – magic simply didn’t work like that – but hardly anyone outside the RSC or the government knew it. Conmen had been selling books of ‘magic’ to gullible idiots for years, then pocketing the cash and vanishing before the buyers realised that none of the spells actually worked.

“The books needed to be safeguarded,” Doctor Norwell said. He had a fussily precise voice, one that practically reeked of the aristocracy. “Lady Gwen, I received the final report from Healer Lucy.”

Gwen took the sheet of paper and scanned it, rapidly. Lucy was blunt, as always; Major Shaw’s condition had yet to improve, no matter what she did. He verged between bawling like a child to shouting at his sister, almost managing to hit her twice before he’d been tied to the bed. His self-control was completely gone. It was impossible, Lucy had concluded, to get any sense out of him. Or to put any sort of timetable on his recovery.

“My fault,” Gwen said.

“I’m afraid so,” Doctor Norwell said. “Do you have anything you want to add to the report?”

“No,” Gwen said, reluctantly. She didn’t know what he thought of the whole affair. Doctor Norwell was no magician, but he’d been around magic long enough to know how it worked. And he’d been close to Master Thomas. He might well deduce the truth, no matter what she did. “We’ll keep an eye on him, won’t we?”

“He’ll end up in one of the bedlams, if he doesn’t get locked away in the attic,” Doctor Norwell said, levelly. “There is no sign of improvement.”

Gwen shuddered. She’d seen the bedlams – and she’d practically been locked away herself, although she’d had much more freedom than any madwoman. If there was something she could do … but there wasn’t. She doubted going to see him would make things any better … his family would probably want more than exile for her, when it sank in. They’d want her dead.

And there’s no way to fix the damage, she thought. I didn’t even mean to hurt him!

“Pay for his treatment,” Gwen ordered, finally. It was the least she could do. And she’d never notice the loss. “I’ll arrange for a bank draft to cover the costs.”

“As you wish, My Lady,” Doctor Norwell said.

“Send a message to Merlin,” Gwen added, standing. “Once he’s no longer needed at the front, Sir James is to make his way back here. I need to speak to him.”

“I believe Merlin is tasked to support the final assault on Dover,” Doctor Norwell said, thoughtfully. “The assault is planned for dawn tomorrow.”

“That will give me time to prepare,” Gwen said. She doubted the French would hold out for long; they had literally nowhere to go. And with farmers sniping at any Frenchman who got separated from his unit, they had good reason to consider surrender to the regulars. “Let me know when he’s on his way here.”

“Of course, My Lady,” Doctor Norwell said. “But I would be surprised if he were here in less than a couple of days.”

“It’s all right,” Gwen assured him. She needed time to read the remainder of the files before she made any plans, although she knew better than to stick to them. Everything in the files might well be out of date. “I can wait.”
Chapter Five

“You’re still walking like a girl,” Irene said, sharply. “Stand upright, damn you.”

Raechel obeyed, gritting her teeth. As daring as she’d considered herself, male clothing had always been verboten. Wearing trousers had been unthinkable, even after the Trouser Brigade had made a habit of wearing trousers in public places. But they were still openly feminine, merely wearing male clothing. She was pretending to be a man.

“I’m not used to walking like this,” she snapped. Three days of being an apprentice had taught her more than she’d ever imagined, but she knew she had a very long way to go. “I’ve never worn male clothing in my life!”

“Having your breasts bound probably doesn’t help,” Irene said. She gave Raechel a considering look as the younger girl stood upright, holding her head in the air. “A pity your face is so pretty, really. It’s quite noticeable.”

“Thank you,” Raechel said, sourly. “Is there anything I can do about that?”

“Wear a cap and look sullen,” Irene said. She smirked as she produced a dirty cloth cap and placed it neatly on Raechel’s head. It barely fitted over her hair. Irene had made her tie it up into a tight bun, when Raechel had refused to cut it. “You’ll be taken for a young boy.”

Raechel scowled as she stared into the mirror. Loose brown trousers and a grey shirt – both looking as though they’d seen better days – made her look odd, although she didn’t think she could really pass for a man. Even with the truss pushing her breasts against her skin, she could still see where they should be. The cap might give her face a masculine cast – and a hint of makeup added flecks of stubble – but she didn’t feel convincing. She looked like a little girl dressed in her father’s clothes.

“You already know what you are,” Irene said, artfully. “Another woman might spot you, but the male mind will take its cues from your clothing. They’ll see you as a young lad on the streets.”

“Oh,” Raechel muttered.

She glared at the mind-reader. She’d spent at least two hours a day learning to meditate, the first step in blocking Irene out of her mind, but her defences tended to lapse as soon as she stopped concentrating on them. Mastering the art of keeping her mind closed while doing something else was taking forever. And then, Irene had warned, she would have to learn the art of lying with her mind. A probing Talker might be suspicious if he or she encountered a mental shield.

“You’re not doing badly,” Irene assured her. “But you have to keep walking like a man.”

Raechel sighed, but did as she was told. It wasn’t easy to walk straight upright – swaying her hips would make her look unnatural, Irene had warned – let alone look Irene straight in the eye. Young women weren’t supposed to make eye contact with men, particularly young unmarried men; they were meant to keep their eyes lowered demurely, while sneaking peeks when they thought they weren’t being watched. She hadn’t realised just how many habits had been hammered into her, from the moment of her birth, until Irene had pointed them out, one by one. They’d become second nature very quickly.

“The trick is to remember to think like a man,” Irene added, as she donned her own clothing and posed in front of the mirror. “Men recognise a pecking order, a hierarchy; they will cling to their place in the hierarchy even when it no longer suits them. That’s why you get wealthy merchants deferring to lords, even though the merchants could buy and sell the lords out of pocket change. They still think of themselves as inferior.”

Raechel blinked. “Why?”

Irene shrugged. “Men like knowing where they stand,” she said. She smirked. “And there are quite a few men who are very good at sending dominant signals to other men. They’re the ones you have to watch, when you meet them. They can be quite dangerous.

“At the same time, men can be possessive of far more than their wives,” she added. “A man will be possessive of his job, so he’ll bitterly resent a superior coming in and telling him what to do, even if the superior is right. Men stake out their territory and guard it very carefully, even if it costs them dearly. I recall one opera director who lost his job because he wouldn’t give his patrons any say in what actually happened.”

“He sounds like an idiot,” Raechel observed.

“Oh no,” Irene said. “He was very good at his job. But he also thought of the job as his.”

She shrugged, again. “Given our clothing,” she said, “what do you think we are?”

Raechel looked back in the mirror. “Newsboys,” she said, finally. It was the only thing she could think of. “Is that right?”

“Workers,” Irene said. “We look like workers released from the defences.”

She turned to the door. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go outside.”

Raechel’s mouth dropped open. “We’re going out?”

“It’s the only way to test your progress,” Irene said, briskly. “Just recall all the rules and pitch your voice low. But don’t try to overdo it.”

Because that just sounds unnatural, Raechel thought. The trick to acting, Irene had explained, was not to overact. Her first attempts to talk in a male voice had been laughable; she’d tried to talk like her uncle, an upper-class twit if ever there was one. I can’t afford to sound like I’m acting.

She felt … oddly exposed the minute they walked out the door. The streets were no longer empty; hundreds of men and women were milling about, drinking toasts and cheering the gallant soldiers who’d returned from the war. Irene had told her, earlier, that the king had addressed the crowds personally, telling them that the first and greatest battle had already been won. But the war itself was far from over. The French had been knocked back, yet they hadn’t been knocked out.

It seemed impossible to believe that the crowds surrounding her couldn’t see through her clothing, couldn’t pick out her femininity … and yet, no one seemed to notice. Irene led the way through the streets, buying a newspaper from one of the running newsboys as she passed before picking up a bag of apples from one of the stores. Raechel started to relax into her clothing, concentrating on putting forward the right image even as she studied the men as they walked up and down the streets.

“They don’t seem to be paying any attention to us,” she murmured, as they turned down a side street. She wrinkled her nose at the foul smell that suddenly surrounded them. “Why not?”

“Why should they?” Irene asked. “You’re a man, as far as they’re concerned.”

She was right, Raechel realised. The next street held dozens of women, wearing dresses that left absolutely nothing to the imagination, and calling out to passers-by. Raechel felt herself blush at some of their cruder suggestions, even though she doubted they were physically possible. How could anyone do that for a living? She tried to imagine what it must be like to work as a prostitute and shuddered. It had to be an horrific life.

A young woman, only a year or two older than Raechel herself, jumped in front of her. “Wet your whistle for you, governor? And then dip your wick?”

Raechel couldn’t help herself. She recoiled in shock. The woman’s dress was torn, revealing the tops of her breasts; her face was covered in so much paint that it looked profoundly unnatural. She swayed forward, her lips clearly ready for a kiss …

“No, thank you,” Raechel managed. She barely remembered to deepen her voice before it was too late. “I have a wife.”

“Ah, your wife won’t know,” the woman said. Her lips gaped open. Raechel noticed that some of her teeth were missing. “And I do things no wife would do.”

Raechel forced herself to walk around the woman and onwards, to where Irene was waiting patiently. The whore called something rude after Raechel – she was grateful she didn’t know what the words meant – but didn’t make any attempt to follow her. Irene gave her a sidelong look when Raechel caught up with her, then led her onwards. Raechel didn’t dare turn to look behind her. She was sure the entire crowd was staring at her.

“You handled that well,” Irene said, once they were safely out of earshot. “There was no way you could let her take you into an alley, of course.”

“Of course not,” Raechel agreed, casting a sidelong glance into one of the alleyways. There were dark shapes there, half-hidden in the darkness. “She would have done it in there?”

“She’ll be an expert,” Irene said, flatly. “A young man your age? It wouldn’t take her long to satisfy him with her mouth. Or if he’d wanted something more, her pimp would have been happy to escort the happy couple into a room.”

Raechel swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. Her mouth?

Irene shot her a concerned look, then led her through a handful of streets and back to Pall Mall. A line of policemen were walking past, keeping a sharp eye on the revellers as they started to dance and sing. Raechel held herself steady as one of the policemen gave her a sharp look, then walked on without saying a word. Had he seen through the disguise? Or had he merely thought she didn’t look wealthy enough to be on the street? She had no way to tell.

“You didn’t do badly,” she said, as they stepped into the house and closed the door. “That whore could have broken your guise, but you handled her well.”

Raechel swallowed, again. “How can anyone live like that?”

“They rarely have a choice,” Irene said, flatly. She turned to look at Raechel, who cringed back under her stare. “That woman was probably born into a poor family, too poor to afford a dowry to attract a good husband. They might have sold her to a pimp or married her off to someone who expected her to turn tricks for him on the streets. Whatever she earns, she’ll give to the pimp or he’ll beat her. And, when she’s too old to attract customers, she’ll be left to die on the streets or sold to one of the darker brothels. No one will care if she dies there, as long as the customers are satisfied.”

“But there are charities,” Raechel protested. “Aren’t there? My aunt is proud of her good works …”

Irene lifted her eyebrows. “How pleased were you when your aunt judged you?”

“I wasn’t,” Raechel said. “But whores …”

“People like your aunt expect everyone to behave in a certain manner,” Irene said. There was a hint of anger in her tone, although it didn’t seem to be aimed at Raechel. “Young girls are expected to be seen and not heard, to marry decent men and bring up decent children. Those who trespass against those unspoken rules are treated as though they deserve everything they get, even though they may have had no choice. I imagine your aunt makes it clear to those she helps that they are fallen women, that they are forever tainted, that they deserve nothing from her. And I have no doubt she expects them to fall to their knees in gratitude in front of her.”

Raechel could believe it. Her aunt had been given to maddening lectures, particularly when some young girl had done something – anything – that had made eyebrows rise in cool disapproval. She knew plenty of girls who had been married off quickly – too quickly – and others who had been sent to the country, where they were effectively isolated from polite society. And they’d been aristocrats.

“The charities do very little effective to help,” Irene added. “They simply don’t understand the problems facing someone – anyone – born into such conditions. How can they? It is completely alien to their experience.”

She shook her head. “Get into your poor-woman’s dress,” she added. “We’re going out again.”

Raechel stared. “Can’t we …?”

“No, we can’t,” Irene said, cutting her off. “Get your dress on. I need to have a word or two with Ivan.”

There was no point in arguing, Raechel realised. Gritting her teeth, she walked back into the dressing room, dropped the male outfit on the floor and pulled the poor woman’s dress over her head. It wasn’t bad, really; it made her look like a shopkeeper’s daughter. She gathered herself, trying to imagine how such a girl would think. Irene definitely had a major advantage, she had to admit. She didn’t have to guess how someone thought about their life.

She would be poor but honest, Raechel thought. Her mother would work too, just to keep the shop running; Raechel the Shop Girl would have inherited that attitude, even as she hoped for a decent match. Her mother had hammered numbers into her head until she was a better accountant than her father or brother. She might smile shyly at the boys, but she’d never dream of disgracing her family by going further. And she wouldn’t be a fainting flower from the aristocracy. She wouldn’t even see an aristocrat.

“Very good,” Irene said, stepping into the room. “You look just about right.”

Raechel frowned. “Just about?”

“Let your hair down,” Irene said. “Really, a wig would be far more practical.”

“I would prefer to keep my hair long,” Raechel said, stiffly. She understood Irene’s point, but she rather liked her red locks. “And besides, what happens if someone pulls on it?”

“That’s why you secure it in place,” Irene said. She undressed rapidly, then donned her own dress. “Have you defined yourself?”

“Raechel the Shop Girl,” Raechel said, and ran through a brief description as she let her hair down. “Good enough?”

“Good enough,” Irene said. She checked her appearance in the mirror, then inspected Raechel minutely. “Let’s go.”

“We could practice with pistols, instead,” Raechel said. “Or you could show me some more tricks with the knife …”

“You’ll have plenty of time for both onboard ship,” Irene said. “You do remember we’re going to America, right?”

Raechel shuddered. She’d never been on a ship, but she’d heard stories. “We can’t take an airship? We took an airship to Russia.”

“That was over land,” Irene pointed out, tartly. She led the way out of the room. “Travelling to America would be over the cold grey Atlantic Ocean. An accident would dump us in the water and we’d drown.”

“If we survived the fall,” Raechel pointed out.

“Better not to take chances,” Irene said. “Even with Lady Gwen along, survival would become rather doubtful.”

She smiled, then opened the door and walked onto the streets. Raechel followed, feeling slightly more natural in the simple dress. The crowds were growing larger as the day wore on, hundreds of thousands of men and women celebrating the defeat of the French. But, this time, she could sense eyes glancing in her direction. Countless young men were looking at them as they walked past.

I’m decently dressed, she thought, shocked. No one had stared at her so blatantly when she’d been on the streets before, even when she’d been heading to the club. They shouldn’t be looking at me.

But they were. She forced herself to keep walking, remembering that she was nothing more than a shop girl out for an evening stroll with her friend. This time, Irene kept them well away from the alleyways, perhaps fearing what would happen if they walked into the darkness. Raechel couldn’t help feeling relieved as the day slowly turned into evening and the crowds got louder and louder. It wasn’t the sort of place Raechel the Shop Girl would go, she was sure. She’d have headed back home long ago.

The crowd drew apart, suddenly. Raechel blinked in surprise as she recognised Lady Gotham, striding up the road as if she owned the city. She was followed by a tired-looking maid, who was carrying so many boxes that she looked to be on the verge of falling over and dropping everything. The maid stopped for a moment, just to catch her breath and Lady Gotham whirled around, beginning a long tirade on the subject of lazy servants who didn’t know what was good for them. Raechel felt a flicker of sympathy for the poor girl. The crowds were staring as she was berated in public.

“Come on,” Irene hissed.

They were midway down the next street when she heard a handful of men behind them, laughing and joking together. She tensed as they were suddenly surrounded, then gasped in shock as she felt a hand squeezing her buttock. Before she could stop herself, she whirled round and slapped the man right across the face. His comrades laughed loudly and hurried onwards, a couple of them waving cheerfully as they passed. Even the man she’d slapped was laughing.

Raechel glared at them, suddenly understanding just how the whores felt. She was practically alone, without the protection of clothes that marked her as a member of the aristocracy … if they’d wanted to do worse to her, she couldn’t have stopped them. She felt naked, yet soiled, her skin itching where he’d touched her. Raechel the Shop Girl wouldn’t have dared tell anyone, either. Her father might have blamed her for her fall from grace.

“You’ll have to learn to cope with worse,” Irene muttered. “Trust me on this.”

“I want a bath,” Raechel muttered back.

“Once we get home,” Irene told her. “Do you want to back out now?”

“No,” Raechel said, firmly. What was left for her in London? Her aunt would be back in her home soon enough, bullying the servants and trying to run Raechel’s life. “I’ll keep going.”

“Very good,” Irene said. “But believe me, you will encounter worse.”

Chapter Six

“Sir James Braddock, My Lady,” Doctor Norwell said.

Gwen looked up from her desk as Sir James was shown into the room. He wore his combat tunic, rather than his normal suit and tie; she wondered, absently, just who he was trying to impress. Sir James was a married man, she knew, but he and his wife had surprisingly little contact, even for members of the aristocracy. It was quite possible he had a mistress or two on the side.

Or he just wanted to see what would happen in London, she thought, rising. She’d heard stories of giant street parties, where all the normal rules seemed to have gone out the window and men and women had danced together without supervision. All the nice girls love a uniform.

“Welcome back,” she said, holding out a hand. “And congratulations on your victory.”

“It was the Duke’s victory, not mine,” Sir James assured her. He shook her hand with none of the hesitation most men would show. “Dover surrendered, once we had the enclave sealed off and under constant shellfire. The frogs preferred to march into camps rather than face our people.”

Gwen nodded as she waved him to a chair, then sat back down behind her desk. The stories of what farmers had done to lone Frenchmen had only grown more bloodcurdling in the last couple of days, ranging from Frenchmen being brutally murdered to Frenchmen being castrated and crucified. Not that she blamed them, not really. The stories of what had happened to British men and women, caught behind the lines, were equally unpleasant, while the French had inflicted vast damage on the farmland. It was going to be a nightmare for the refugees, she knew. The government was unlikely to commit much money to help rebuild after the war.

That would smack too much of bloody socialism, she thought. Lord Liverpool was one of the most tight-fisted Prime Ministers in recent history, a man who begrudged every last penny in the budget. Who wants to help farmers?

“There were nine deaths in all, among the corps,” Sir James added. “Their bodies have already been shipped back to their families for burial.”

“We’ll have to hold a service for them, afterwards,” Gwen said. She wondered, absently, if she’d be in Britain for the end of the war. America might consume her attention for the next few years. “Their families have been compensated?”

“They’ll have the payments sent to them, I believe,” Sir James assured her. “I don’t think they’ll lack for anything.”

“Very good,” Gwen said. She cleared her throat as she sat upright. “I’m going to America for the next few months, perhaps longer.”

Sir James nodded. He didn’t look surprised. It had been meant to be a secret, but someone in the government must have blabbed, either to impress his family or to make connections with Major Shaw’s family. Or maybe Lord Mycroft had quietly authorised the release of the information, just to make it clear that Gwen was facing some punishment. It would help keep Major Shaw’s family quiet.

And he probably got a lot of blue bloods killed when the Hussars attacked, she thought, darkly. Would their families not have something to say about that?

“You will hold the position of Royal Sorcerer, in my absence,” Gwen continued. Sir James hadn’t done a bad job, while she’d been in Russia, although there had been relatively little to do. Everyone had been preparing for the war. “I’m not sure what use the government will make of the sorcerers, but I imagine you’ll make yourself useful.”

“I’m sure we’ll find something to do,” Sir James agreed. “A descent on their coastlines would definitely give the French something to worry about.”

Gwen scowled. The French had a far more powerful army than Britain; indeed, their build-up of ironclads, merchant shipping, airships and submarines had been a major concern over the last few years. Britain’s navy was far stronger, but two-thirds of it were scattered all over the globe. If the French managed to gain even a limited superiority in the English Channel for a week, their army would almost certainly crush Britain’s defences and take London.

But they gave it their best shot, she thought. And we won.

“Landing on their coastline would mean facing their army on its territory,” she said. “Is that something we dare to risk?”

“If we don’t, the war stalemates, like every other war we’ve fought with the French since the Seven Years War,” Sir James countered. “And neither side will be closer to total victory.”

“True,” Gwen said. Lord Mycroft and the Duke of Iron would decide Britain’s future steps, once the American situation was stabilised. “Are you willing to take on the role?”

“I don’t anticipate immediate problems,” Sir James said. “Do you?”

“Not while there’s a war on,” Gwen said. She met his eyes. “Afterwards … try to be diplomatic.”

Sir James nodded, curtly. “Thank you,” he said. “When do I actually take command?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Gwen said. She’d been tempted to lumber him with all the paperwork, but it was her job. “I should have everything straightened out by then, I think.”

“Very good,” Sir James said.

“There isn’t anything new,” Gwen added. Sir James was already familiar with the duties of a Royal Sorcerer. “The new recruits for training should be arriving next week, unless they get diverted because of the war; make sure they’re trained as quickly as possible. They’re going to be needed.”

“Understood,” Sir James said.

He paused. “And Major Shaw?”

“Has not recovered,” Gwen said, flatly. She felt another stab of guilt, mingled with bitter frustration. If the idiot had had the sense to follow orders … “He’s under observation in the ward.”

“I thought he could be kept under control,” Sir James said. “But he saw the war as a chance to win glory.”

Gwen scowled, remembering the battle. Crawling in the mud was hardly ladylike, but it had kept her alive. If a French sniper had managed to catch sight of her, she might have died before she knew she was under attack. She had tried to keep her magic around her in a protective shroud, but she knew it wasn’t easy … she shook her head. If that was glory, Major Shaw was welcome to it.

“I’m sure there would have been plenty of opportunities to get himself heroically killed elsewhere,” she said. She had to fight down a sneer. “All he did was get a great many other men killed, for nothing.”

“I know,” Sir James said. “But he didn’t have the experience to know better.”

“And he thought I didn’t know what to do,” Gwen added. She sighed. Major Shaw had wanted to believe it was time to send in the Hussars. “Idiot.”

She looked back down at her papers, no longer feeling in the right frame of mind to read them. She did have a secretary, thankfully, but there were just too many matters that had to be handled by the Royal Sorceress personally. Sir James would have to cope with them, while she was gone … in the certain knowledge that the various departmental heads would feel free to ask Gwen to reverse any decisions after she returned. No doubt she’d have a whole pile of petitions to read and answer when she came back.

“I’ll formally transfer authority tomorrow morning,” she said, rising. “Thank you for coming.”

Sir James looked surprised at her sudden dismissal, but merely rose to his feet and strode out of the room. Gwen watched him go, torn between envy and a bitterness that had grown increasingly common over the last year. She could catch a murderer, a murderer who had also been a traitor and a spy; she could face a maddened undead monster in Russia and win … and yet, she wasn’t considered a suitable replacement for Master Thomas. It wasn’t just that she was a girl too, although that was a convenient excuse. Ideally, she would have had years with Master Thomas, learning the ropes as well as where the skeletons were buried, before she took the job.

Jack would have had those years, she thought, sourly. Master Thomas had thought highly of his young protégée. Hell, if he’d stayed loyal, Gwen doubted she would ever have been called to the colours herself. He could have stayed in the corps and made changes from the inside.

She shook her head as she opened the hidden door and made her way down the secret staircase. A year of butting heads with the bureaucracy – and the various vested interests that made up the Royal College – had taught her that change, true change, came slowly. And if she hadn’t managed to find two new talents, the Royal College wouldn’t have changed anything like as much as it had. The old men – and they were old men – in charge hated the thought of anything changing.

And Master Thomas could keep them in line, she thought, as she reached the hidden exit in the lower basement. They don’t take me so seriously.

Leaning against the wall, she reached out with her mind, testing to make sure no one was there to see her when she opened the door. She had no idea why Master Thomas had converted the servant corridors into secret passages, but she had to admit they made it easy to get around the vast building without being detected. Only Doctor Norwell and Lord Mycroft knew they even existed, although she suspected that some of the aristocratic magicians had guessed. Servant passages were meant to keep the servants out of sight, away from their betters. She opened the door, stepped through into the corridor, and closed it hastily behind her. The Healer Ward was just down the corridor.

“Lady Gwen,” Lucy said, as Gwen stepped through the door. “You are well?”

“Well enough,” Gwen said. Lucy might be used to irritating men, but Gwen doubted the Healer could do anything to cure her real problem. “Is he still in the ward?”

“I’m afraid so,” Lucy said. “Even feeding him has been a bit of a problem.”

Gwen nodded, then walked down the corridor. There weren’t many patients in the ward, not when it normally took only a few minutes for the Healers to work their magic. Indeed, the only real problem was the shortage of Healers. They were a rare breed, apparently, and every Healer they’d found had been female. Luckily, the prospect of being healed was enough to convince men to visit a female Healer. Male doctors might as well have been butchers for all the good they could do.

Major Shaw was sleeping in a metal chair, straps wrapped around his wrists and ankles. He looked normal at first, Gwen thought, until she saw his eyes. They were twitching backwards and forwards under the eyelids, as if they were on the verge of popping out of his head. She took a step forward, unsure what – if anything – she should do. If there was a way to cure his mind through magic, Lucy would have found it by now.

“You inflicted a great deal of harm,” Lucy said, quietly. “Did you know …?”

“No,” Gwen said. “I …”

Major Shaw jerked awake, his blue eyes flickering from side to side before focusing on Gwen. He opened his mouth and screamed, a high-pitched sound that was so loud Gwen stumbled backwards, covering her ears. Lucy pointed a finger towards the door; Gwen nodded and hurried back out of the ward. Behind her, the screams continued to echo until one of the orderlies slammed the heavy door closed.

Gwen cursed under her breath, feeling yet another stab of guilt. Charmers had been known to cause mental breakdowns, when their victim was unable to hide from reality any longer, but such breakdowns rarely lasted long. Even a weak-willed man could come to terms with what had happened to him, if he tried. But Major Shaw seemed to have been completely broken, perhaps for the rest of his life. He had been an arrogant bastard who’d got over a hundred good men killed …

… And yet he doesn’t deserve to be broken, Gwen thought, bitterly. It was her fault. In hindsight, there were plenty of other options she could have used. But in her frustration and anger she’d made a mistake. And now he has to pay the price.

She wandered slowly back up to her office, glancing into the empty training rooms as she passed. The training cadre had done a good job of stripping the building of everything necessary to train young magicians, although most of the equipment would be easy to replace. Her lips quirked; no one on the outside would believe it, if they saw the room. It was commonly believed that magicians needed staffs, wands and potions made from fancy ingredients to do their work …

A thought struck her and she scowled. Jack, no doubt, had taught the French precisely how to construct their own training facility.

Not that it would have been that hard, once they stopped thinking of magicians as demons, she thought, coldly. The basic principles of magic aren’t hard to deduce, even without a teacher.

“Lady Gwen,” Doctor Norwell called, when she walked past his office. It was right next to hers, one of Master Thomas’s arrangements she’d never bothered to change. “There are two of Lord Mycroft’s men here to see you. They’re waiting in the visitors’ room.”

Gwen frowned in puzzlement. Lord Mycroft had sent her an immense stack of files to read, but nothing else. She hadn’t been expecting to see him until shortly before her departure, still three days away. But something might have come up. Shaking her head, she walked down the corridor and peered into the visitors’ room. Two young men were seated on the sofa, wearing the bland suit and ties of government servants. There was something odd about their faces.

“Lady Gwen,” the first man said, rising to his feet. “May I say what a great pleasure it is to meet the Royal Sorceress face to face?”

Gwen felt her eyes narrow. That was hardly a common form of address. She looked at both men, puzzled. There was definitely something odd about them …

Understanding clicked. “Irene?”

The young man smirked. “Got you that time,” he – she – said. There was a hint of cockney in her voice. “How do we look?”

“Raechel,” Gwen said, looking at the other figure. Now she knew who she was looking at, it was easy to see the subtle clues that the person wasn’t remotely masculine. “You look … different.”

“I wasn’t expecting to fool you for long,” Irene said, as she sat back on the sofa. “But you wouldn’t have looked twice at us if you’d met us on the streets.”

“Probably not,” Gwen conceded. She knew better than to dismiss civil servants as unimportant, but they were still very much part of the background. “How is Raechel coming along?”

“I’m right here,” Raechel said.

“She is doing better than I expected when playing a female role,” Irene said, ignoring her in favour of Gwen. “She’s still having some problems playing a male role, I’m afraid. That generally takes longer to learn.”

Gwen nodded. It had taken her time to learn to walk and act like a man, even though too many people knew she was a woman for her to try to pretend otherwise. But then, men did tend to react better to people they thought were other men. The more masculine she looked, the better the reception.

“She’s also quite intelligent, if unfocused and untrained,” Irene added. “She definitely has the right attitude for this sort of work, although she might have done better if she’d been raised in a lower-class household. Her tolerance for the simple brutalities of life is alarmingly low.”

“Noted,” Gwen said. She would have to sit down with Raechel, once they were on the ship, and talk about her progress. Right now, there were other matters to worry about. “Do you have her covered?”

Irene nodded. “Officially, Lady Standish is still in a madhouse,” she said. “Russia certainly did a great deal of damage to her mind, I’m afraid. Raechel Slater-Standish will therefore have the distinct honour of accompanying Lady Irene Darlington” – she waved a lazy hand at her chest – “to the Americas. Lady Irene will serve as chaperone during this long affair, as she is a distant relation of Lady Standish.”

“Very good,” Gwen said. “And Lord Standish?”

“Has given his approval,” Irene said. “He does not want the burden of a young ward when he has no shortage of work in the Foreign Office.”

Gwen smiled in approval. If a young lady could not be chaperoned by her mother, for whatever reason, it was not uncommon for a more distant female relative to take on the burden of escorting and protecting the girl. She had no doubt there was a Lady Irene Darlington somewhere in the tangled web of families that made up polite society, although she might be surprised by what was being done in her name. Lord Mycroft had quite a few false identities floating around, just waiting for the moment to use them.

“I could just have stayed in London,” Raechel pointed out. “It’s going to look as though I’m in trouble, isn’t it?”

“Hardly anyone in America will care,” Irene assured her. “And besides, who could possibly blame Lord Standish for wanting to keep you out of danger?”

“He took me to Russia,” Raechel snapped.

“It wasn’t meant to be dangerous,” Gwen reminded her. In truth, she doubted Lord Standish had been offered a choice. “Still, if you don’t want to go …”

“I do,” Raechel said.

“Then meet us at the ship, as planned,” Gwen ordered. “And make sure you have enough to occupy yourself for three weeks. It’s going to be a long voyage.”

“Don’t worry,” Irene said. She smiled, rather unpleasantly. “I’ll keep her occupied.”

Chapter Seven

“I hope you have a pleasant voyage, Lady Gwen,” Lord Mycroft said, as the carriage rolled to a halt. “And that you reach New York safely.”

Gwen nodded, unable to keep from feeling a little nervous. She’d been on boats before, but she’d never sailed on the ocean. An airship would have been nicer, she was sure, yet she understood why they couldn’t take the risk. The chances of surviving an accident at sea were far greater than surviving an airship crash.

“I won’t let you down,” she promised him. “And thank you for driving me down to the docks.”

Lord Mycroft gave her a flicker of a smile. “I can’t stay,” he said. He held out a hand, which she shook firmly. “But I do wish you every success.”

Gwen reached out and drew back the curtains. The driver had taken them through the two checkpoints, right up to the docks themselves. HMS Duke of India rose up in front of her, her masts towering up towards the sky. Steam rose from her smoke stack, reminding Gwen that the ship was both a sailing ship and a steamship. Beyond her, four other troopships floated, the troops having been loaded aboard last night. She shuddered, thinking of the cramped conditions the common soldiers would have to endure. Their horses wouldn’t have a good time of it either.

“Thank you,” she said, as she opened the door. “I’ll see you soon.”

She dropped neatly to the ground and walked towards the gangplank. The docks were far up the river, just in case the French tried a repeat of the Dutch raid on the Medway, but the ship was rising up and down slowly anyway. She nodded to the soldier on guard at the bottom of the gangplank, then forced herself to walk up onto the ship. It felt odd beneath her feet, even though she was used to flying through the air. She hoped, desperately, that she wouldn’t fall seasick. The last thing she wanted was to spend the voyage in her cabin, praying desperately for calm seas.

“Lady Gwen, I believe,” a voice said, as she reached the top of the gangplank. “I am Captain Bligh. Welcome aboard.”

Gwen nodded. She’d read his file. Captain Archibald Bligh had a reputation for being a harsh taskmaster – his hard face, scarred and pitted by years in the service, certainly supported it – but there were few seamen more competent. No wonder the Royal Navy had given him command of one of the largest hybrid vessels in the fleet. Behind him, a pair of men stood, both wearing army uniforms. She couldn’t help thinking that they could easily have passed for Major Shaw’s twins, although the leader was supposed to be more experienced and competent. She’d read his file too.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”

“We will be sailing with the evening tide,” Bligh informed her. “Colonel Jackson will escort you to your cabin, if you don’t mind. Once we are underway, I will be hosting a small dinner in the officers’ mess. I trust you will be attending?”

“Of course,” Gwen said. She might find herself seasick, but she could wait to make her excuses until she knew she was unable to attend. “Where do you want me?”

“I would prefer that you stayed in your cabin until we are firmly underway, My Lady,” Captain Bligh said. He sounded firm, but there was a faint undercurrent of concern in his words. “The crew have much work to do.”

“I understand,” Gwen said. She doubted she’d be happy with a handful of inexperienced landlubbers running around too. “I’ll wait until I’m called.”

Captain Bligh looked relieved. “Your luggage has already been stowed away,” he informed her. “Colonel?”

Gwen studied Colonel Jackson as he stepped forward, his comrade saluting sharply and then strolling away. Up close, she had to admit that Jackson didn’t look that much like Major Shaw, although they did have some features in common. Jackson definitely had more experience, she noted, judging from the campaign ribbons on his chest. And he wouldn’t have been put in command of the reinforcements if there had been doubts about his competence.

“It’s a great pleasure to meet you, My Lady,” Colonel Jackson said. He didn’t offer to shake hands, but Gwen wasn’t surprised or offended. Men weren’t supposed to shake hands with women, after all. “I was hoping to hear about your time in Russia personally.”

“It was an adventure,” Gwen agreed. She wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about it, but she doubted she had a choice. Jackson hadn’t been in London during the Swing. If he encountered the undead, he was likely to underestimate them badly. “The Tsar went mad.”

She allowed Jackson to lead her down a ladder and along a long wood-panelled corridor until they reached her cabin. Inside, there was no light, save for a single oil lantern hanging from the ceiling. Gwen hesitated, then generated a light globe of her own, wondering just how Jackson would respond to it. His eyes went wide in surprise, but otherwise he showed no reaction at all. He’d probably seen a great deal of magic during his time in the army.

“It’s one of the largest cabins on the ship,” Jackson said, apologetically. “But I’m afraid there are no portholes …”

“It doesn’t matter,” Gwen assured him. The semi-ironclad’s designers hadn’t dared include windows, knowing they would be nothing more than cracks in the ship’s armour. “There’s enough room for me.”

“Captain Bligh says we can probably go up on deck once the ship is underway,” Jackson assured her. “I’d go mad if I had to stay in this pokey cabin for more than a few hours.”

Gwen looked around. The cabin wasn’t particularly large, but it was clean, although a faint smell she didn’t care to identify hung in the air. A chamberpot hung from one of the bulkheads, beside a bucket of clean water. Bathing was going to be difficult, even though she could use magic to heat the water. One of her trunks sat on the deck, the others – as Captain Bligh had said – would be stowed away in the hold. She hoped she wouldn’t need anything from them. Three weeks, perhaps longer … she could endure. She’d endured worse.

“I should be fine,” she said. She cocked her head, wondering if he was flirting with her. It showed incredible nerve, if he was. Even if she hadn’t had magic, she was several rungs higher up the social ladder than him. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“Anything you want washed can be put outside your cabin, where it will be cleaned by the crew,” Jackson said. “You didn’t bring a maid?”

“No,” Gwen said. Martha had been reluctant to risk setting foot onboard ship, so Gwen hadn’t pushed the matter. It wasn’t as if she needed assistance to get dressed during the voyage. Besides, space was limited on the vessel. “I don’t need one.”

“Lady Olivier has two maids with her,” Jackson said. “I’m sure she would let you borrow one, if you changed your mind.”

Gwen shrugged. “Who else is onboard ship?”

“So far? Forty-odd passengers, ranging from you to a handful of traders heading to the Americas,” Jackson said. “The remainder should be onboard before the tide.”

“One would hope so,” Gwen said. She looked at the bed, meaningfully. “I’ll get a nap now, if you don’t mind. I’d like to be awake when we leave harbour.”

“I’ll knock on your door to wake you,” Jackson assured her. “Until then, goodbye.”

He bowed, then hurried out the door. Gwen smiled ruefully to herself – she had a feeling she was going to be seeing a great deal of Jackson, even before they reached New York – and then turned to her trunk. The lock had been carefully designed to be impossible to open without magic; carefully, she unlocked the trunk and opened it. A handful of files rested on top of a mound of books and clothes. She couldn’t help thinking that, by the end of the voyage, she and the other passengers were going to be very smelly.

Maybe I should have brought a maid after all, she thought. It had really been nothing but stubborn pride that had kept her from ordering Martha to accompany her or simply finding another maid. Officers might have batmen, servants who attended to their needs on campaign … there was no reason why she couldn’t have a maid. But it would have added yet another complication to my life.

Sighing, she took one of the files, sat down on the bed and began to read it. Lord Mycroft’s agent, whoever he was, had done his best to unpick the complex relationships that made up the Viceregal Court, despite a social scene that made London look simple. America was clearly a very odd place. Some of the most powerful men and women in the colonies wouldn’t be considered high on the social ladder in London, even though some of them possessed more land than any Duke in Britain. The networks of patronage, she was starting to suspect, worked differently. Matters weren’t helped by a number of American aristocrats giving themselves titles to which they had no right.

It felt like hours before a dull quiver ran through the ship. Jackson banged on the door seconds later, although he didn’t come into her cabin. Gwen wished, suddenly, that she could go up on deck, but Captain Bligh’s word was law when his ship was at sea. Putting down the file, she lay on the bed and felt the sensations running through the ship, trying to understand just what was happening. Distant voices shouted out unintelligible commands, followed by more odd movements. A steady thumping noise echoed through the ship. The vessel was clearly leaving harbour.

“Lady Gwen,” Jackson called, tapping the door again. “Do you want to come up to the deck?”

Gwen sat upright, swung her legs over the bed and walked to the door. The deck felt odd under her feet, but she didn’t feel sick. Jackson was waiting on the other side of the door, beaming from ear to ear. It struck her, suddenly, that he’d been nervous that someone higher-ranking would be appointed to the convoy. He’d have lost his first chance at an independent command.

“Keep one hand on the railing until you have your sea legs,” Jackson advised. “The motions will get worse when we get out into the open sea.”

“Thank you,” Gwen said. She could fly, if necessary, although she knew there was no way she could make it from Britain to America. Getting from Oxford to London during the Swing had almost killed her. “How do we get onto the deck?”

“This way,” Jackson said. “We have to stay out of the way.”

They clambered up a wooden staircase and onto a battlement-like structure. A handful of other passengers were already there – Gwen smiled as she recognised Irene and Raechel – watched by a couple of sailors. They didn’t seem happy to be near the passengers, Gwen noted, even though Raechel wasn’t the only beautiful girl among them. But then, if she recalled correctly, sailors thought that a woman onboard ship was bad luck. She snorted at the thought – how could colonies be established without women? – and then turned her attention to London. The remainder of the city was slipping into the distance at incredible speed.

“The Duke of India is one of the fastest ships in the fleet,” Jackson commented. He stood next to her, just a little closer than was companionable. “The voyage to America will be completed in record time.”

Gwen nodded, unwilling to look away from the city as it shrank in the distance. The deck was beginning to heave under her feet now, the ship rising and falling as she cleaved her way through increasingly choppy water. She turned her attention to the forts lining the river banks – the French would be in for a nasty surprise, if they ever dared to raid the Thames – and smiled coldly as she saw a pair of sorcerers hanging in the air above them. London – and England – would be safe while she was gone.

“Tell me something,” Jackson said. The air was growing colder, even though it was midsummer. A number of passengers were already heading back below decks, as if it would be warmer under cover. “What do you do when you’re not the Royal Sorceress?”

“I’m always the Royal Sorceress,” Gwen said. She’d had no end of invitations to balls of one kind or another, but she’d declined most of them. The only one she’d gone to had been with Sir Charles and that had ended badly. “I don’t get time off.”

Jackson gave her an odd look. “There’s no one you can leave in charge, even for a few short hours?”

Gwen shook her head, wordlessly. A man could take time off without it being held against him, but a woman taking time off was considered a sign of weakness. A holiday? There was no way she could take leave without creating the impression that the Royal Sorcerers Corps could get along just fine without her. Who knew what the departmental heads would get up to, if she wasn’t keeping a sharp eye on them? It was hard enough leaving Sir James in command while she headed to America …

“That’s not right,” Jackson said. “You need time to relax.”

“Duty comes first,” Gwen said. “And magic problems can be disastrous if they’re allowed to blossom out of control.”

“Then take the opportunity to enjoy this voyage and relax,” Jackson said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”

Gwen nodded. The last report from America had made it clear that Franco-Spanish forces were mustering in New Orleans, their northernmost outpost. It wouldn’t be long before the enemy advanced north, into territory dominated by slave plantations … plantations worked by slaves who would no doubt turn on their masters the moment the French made their appearance. And without magical support, the defenders would be badly hampered. She had very little time to relax …

… But, at the same time, there was nothing she could do until she reached New York.

“I will,” she said. He’d moved a step or two closer to her while she’d been thinking. “And maybe I’ll find something else to do.”

“Take up chess,” Jackson advised. “It’s good for the mind.”

They stood together until a sailor appeared and informed them that Captain Bligh was waiting for them in the officers’ mess. Jackson grinned at her, then led the way down to the giant compartment, which was illuminated by dozens of brightly burning lanterns. Irene and Raechel were already there, wearing simple clothes, but quite a few of the other passengers were missing. Seasickness had caught up with them already.

“Make sure you eat at least one piece of fruit a day,” Jackson muttered, claiming the seat next to her. “You’ll need it to stay healthy.”

Gwen nodded, then looked at the Captain. He was carving a large piece of beef personally, while another officer in military uniform ladled out potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Gwen wondered, absently, just how it had been cooked so quickly. Magic? It was possible, she supposed, although she doubted a Blazer would waste his time cooking when there were far more important tasks to be done. Pushing the thought aside, she made a mental note to eat as much as she could. Later meals were unlikely to be anything like as good.

“Please, start eating,” Captain Bligh said, once everyone had been served. “I’m afraid the others will not be joining us for dinner.”

“Seasickness,” Jackson muttered.

“Quite,” Captain Bligh agreed. He raised his voice, slightly, as his passengers began to tuck in. “We will be rounding Dover this evening and hopefully linking up with the remainder of the convoy off the Lizard tomorrow morning, then setting sail for New York. As you are no doubt aware, that will be the last certain chance to mail a letter back to Britain. We may – I say again, we may – meet up with a mail packet during the voyage, but that is not guaranteed.”

Gwen nodded. The Royal Navy wanted to put Talkers on all of its ships, but there simply weren’t enough to go round. She was surprised, though, that this convoy had no Talker … unless they expected her to play that role. But Lord Mycroft knew she couldn’t push a message very far. Nor could Irene, for that matter. Her talents lent themselves to mind-reading, not sending messages.

“If you want to send a message, please give it to the purser before we meet the remainder of the convoy,” Captain Bligh added. He paused. “There are also some other matters we need to discuss.”

And he wants us to eat and listen, Gwen thought. His own food is growing cold.

“The sailors have jobs to do,” Captain Bligh warned. “Please do not interrupt them while they are working, or enter their quarters without permission. I will not hesitate to put anyone – and I mean anyone – caught bothering the sailors in irons until we arrive in New York.”

Gwen wondered, inwardly, if he was bluffing. The passengers included aristocrats and senior military officers. Captain Bligh might have boundless authority during the voyage, but there would be consequences if he mistreated any of his passengers. Who knew which way the Admiralty would jump?

Particularly with Lord Nelson so keen to curry favour, she thought, grimly. It might have been better for him if he’d died as a young man, rather than remain in his post until he had become a national embarrassment. He might overrule Bligh even though he understands the importance of discipline at sea.

“We will get you to New York safely,” Bligh concluded. “Until then, please enjoy your dinner.”

Chapter Eight

Raechel sat on the deck, in the cabin she shared with Irene, meditating.

It was hard, very hard, to keep her thoughts from wandering. She was not a naturally contemplative person – she wanted to be doing something – and focusing her mind didn’t come easily to her. And the harder she tried, the harder it became to keep her thoughts under strict control. Forming a mental shield was one thing, but holding it in place was quite another.

Gwen had an unfair advantage, she thought, feeling a flicker of envy. She had to learn to keep her magic under control from a very early age.

She felt a tingle at the back of her mind and hardened her shield, holding it firmly in place as Irene probed her thoughts. Constant practice had made it easier for her to sense when her thoughts were being read, but it was still hard to keep Irene out. Raechel’s emotions leaked from behind the shield, bringing memories with them. Irene, in a reflective mood, had compared mind-reading to looking up items in an encyclopaedia. One thought led rapidly to another, which led to a whole string of memories. And false memories, she’d insisted, rarely had the taste of real memories.

“You’re doing better,” Irene said. “What were you doing with Captain Parker?”

Raechel clamped down on her thoughts, hard. The question had unleashed a flurry of memories – the airship captain kissing her, his hands stroking her breasts, Gwen bursting in on them – all of which would be read by Irene if she didn’t keep them under control. She felt the tingle grow stronger, but somehow managed to keep her thoughts behind the shield. A second later, the tingle receded.

“That’s a dirty trick,” she muttered.

“It’s amazing what an innocent question can do,” Irene pointed out, tartly. “And this is the perfect opportunity to work on your shields.”

Raechel nodded, reluctantly. After the brief excitement of rounding the Lizard and meeting up with the rest of the convoy, the days had started to blur together as soon as dry land was over the horizon. It was easy to believe that the convoy was all that remained of the world, that there was nothing beyond the horizon. How had Columbus managed it, she asked herself, as he’d cruised further and further into the unknown? There had been no way to know there was a great continent on the other side of the ocean.

“They knew the world was round,” Irene said. “They just thought they’d run into India if they kept going west.”

Raechel flushed. “Do you have to keep reading my thoughts?”

“You need to keep a shield in place at all times,” Irene told her. “There’s no way you can learn to master lying with your thoughts until you can keep an intruder out of your mind.”

“I know,” Raechel said. She rubbed her temple, wondering why she felt so tired. It wasn’t as if she’d done much, apart from a daily walk around the deck. “But it doesn’t seem to work for long.”

“You haven’t mastered the art of keeping the shield in place,” Irene said. “It’s a matter of schooling your thoughts to keep moving in the same direction. Right now, even a minor Talker would be able to tell if you were lying, even if he couldn’t read your thoughts.”

Raechel sighed. “How do we even know there will be a Talker watching me?”

Irene pointed a long finger at her. “Imagine yourself a government minister – or an underground mastermind,” she said. “Would you pass on the opportunity to watch your people for disloyalty?”

“But people will be nervous if they know their minds are going to be read,” Raechel pointed out. “Wouldn’t that skew the results?”

“Not really,” Irene said. “A person might be nervous about having his thoughts read, but it wouldn’t read out as disloyalty.”

Raechel shuddered. She didn’t think she wanted to work anywhere there was a prospect of having her thoughts read, but she had a feeling it was already too late. Did her uncle have his thoughts read regularly? Or were mental probes reserved for the lower-ranking officials in his department? Irene had told her, time and time again, that the best secret agents weren’t the ones who strolled around as though they owned the place, but the ones who passed unnoticed. But Raechel had already learnt that lesson from Gwen. Who would have imagined that the Royal Sorceress would pretend to be a maid?

The thought cheered her up, slightly. Practicing meditation was boring, but dressing up was fun, once she’d got over her first reaction. The trick, Irene had said, was never to lose sight of who you were pretending to be. It was hard, particularly when she posed as a lower-class woman, but she thought she was getting the hang of it. Passing as a man was far harder.

“Back to work,” Irene said, briskly. “We’ve got another three hours before dinner, so we may as well make the most of them.”

Raechel groaned. “You don’t have more to tell me?”

“I have plenty to tell you,” Irene said. She smirked. “Consider it an incentive to learn how to hold a shield in place.”

The next two hours passed slowly, too slowly. Irene’s probes grew stronger as Raechel learnt how to make a tougher shield, her questions becoming more intrusive in the hopes of provoking an emotional reaction. Raechel couldn’t help wondering just what Irene had done, in the service of the British Crown, that had inspired some of the nastier questions. Raechel knew full well that she was hardly the ideal aristocratic daughter, let alone ward, but there were some lines she had never even considered crossing.

“You’re doing better,” Irene said. This time, Raechel kept the shield in place until she felt the questing probe. “It’s a pity you didn’t start earlier, but your family has no history of magic.”

Raechel nodded, curtly. Aristocratic women – with a single exception – were expected to suppress their magic. As far as the outside world was concerned, Gwen was the sole female aristocrat with magic. In truth, Irene had pointed out, quite a few families quietly encouraged their daughters to develop their talents, intending to use them to enhance the family’s position. It was always an interesting guessing game, Raechel had learnt from her aunt, to try and deduce which particular daughter might have a hint of magic.

Irene cleared her throat. “We may as well get ready for dinner,” she added. Raechel knew, perfectly well, that she didn’t mean getting dressed. “What do you make of young Fredrick?”

“He’s a nice young man,” Raechel protested, careful to keep her mental shields firmly in place. Fredrick Hauser, the First Mate, had sat next to her at dinner every night for the last ten days. His conversation wasn’t that interesting, she had to admit, but he was easy on the eye. “What about him?”

“He’s interested in you,” Irene said.

Raechel snorted. She’d known that without needing to read his mind. She just wasn’t sure what to make of it. Fredrick was too young, really, to understand the thrill of a quick affair, unlike Captain Parker. Her cheeks heated at the memory. Captain Parker would have understood that the affair would have to come to an end, almost as soon as it had begun. Fredrick might not grasp that until it was too late to avoid a scandal.

“He is of aristocratic blood,” she said, dryly. The Hauser Family wasn’t anything like as powerful as the Slater or Standish Families, but they were very definitely blue bloods with ties to the House of Hanover. “Aren’t you supposed to be chaperoning me?”

“This squadron has secret orders,” Irene said, ignoring the question. “Orders that were not revealed to me, during my briefing. I want you to convince him to tell you what those orders are.”

Raechel gave her a sharp look. “Should we be trying to find out?”

“Anything someone feels like keeping a secret is worth knowing,” Irene said. She smiled, rather sardonically. “And besides, it’s a good test of your talents.”

“Oh,” Raechel said. “Is that all?”

Irene shrugged. “Anything we do here, onboard ship, can be contained, if something goes badly wrong,” she said. “Lady Gwen will help, if necessary. Her orders would supersede Bligh’s if magic was involved. Later, when we are in New York, it will be much harder to prevent disaster. Your cover might be blown completely.”

“I don’t have a cover,” Raechel protested.

“Yes, you do,” Irene said. She pointed a long finger at Raechel’s face. “You are the daughter of Lord Slater and the ward of Lord Standish, a pretty young heiress with nothing but wool between her ears. You have no experience of the ways of the world, no awareness of life outside your home and no understanding of men. That is what they expect you to be, Raechel, and that is the impression you are going to cultivate. People always talk much more openly when they think they can’t be understood.”

Raechel scowled. “Is there no way I can be like Lady Gwen?”

“If you want to dominate the social scene by sheer force of personality, backed up by money, I suppose you could,” Irene snapped. “But if you want to get something useful done, it’s better to be underestimated. A naïve young ingénue is so much more attractive to a man than a foul-mouthed woman who shows off her intelligence to all and sundry.”

“Fine,” Raechel said. “I’ll do what I can.”

She was almost relieved, an hour later, when the dinner bell rang and they made their way up to the officers’ mess. Gwen was already there, chatting to a young military officer about Russia and the Mad Tsar; she nodded politely to Raechel and Irene, then returned to her conversion. Raechel couldn’t help wondering if Colonel Jackson was flirting with Gwen, even though she was the Royal Sorceress. They had certainly spent a great deal of time playing chess in the passengers’ lounge.

“Lady Raechel,” Fredrick said. He rose to pull a chair out for her. “I trust the day has gone well?”

“I have been sewing,” Raechel lied. Her mother – and then her aunt – had tried to insist that she learnt how to sew, on the grounds it was a ladylike skill, but she hadn’t had the patience to master it. “My chaperone has been feeling a little under the weather.”

She didn’t miss the flicker of interest in Fredrick’s eyes; she’d been careful to look for it. He was really too young to mask his emotions well, even though he had been a serving naval officer since he’d turned thirteen. The Royal Navy might allow aristocrats to purchase commissions, but even the scions of the richest and most powerful families had to start out as midshipmen. Lord Nelson had insisted on it, when he’d become First Lord of the Admiralty, and no one had the power to overrule him. The young men had to learn the basics before climbing to higher ranks.

And Fredrick wants a ship of his own, Raechel thought. He was young, but a good recommendation from his commander – and aristocratic backers – would put him in an excellent position to win command of one of the new ironclads. Or even a sailing ship, although she wouldn’t last five minutes against an ironclad. Maybe that’s why he’s interested in me.

Dinner was a quiet affair, as she’d expected; Captain Bligh led prayers, then chatted quietly to one of the military officers while eating. The food had grown progressively duller over the last few days, although Irene had insisted that Raechel had to eat properly just so she could do her exercises in her cabin. Raechel doubted she would ever be a strong woman – Irene had told her that there were farmers’ wives who were stronger than artillerymen – but she would have a surprise or two for anyone who tried to grab her. Concealing a knife in a dress was easier than it seemed.

“I need to go back to the cabin,” Irene said, when the main course was finished. “Take care to hurry back as soon as you can.”

Or don’t, Raechel thought. Technically, Irene was meant to be with her every time she set foot out of the cabin. There was no hope of a private conversation with Fredrick as long as Irene was nearby. But now … Irene had left, just as she’d promised. I’m on my own.

She chatted to Fredrick, feeling her heart starting to pound in her chest. It had been easy enough to signal interest to Captain Parker, but Fredrick? She had no idea what he would make of any signals she sent, particularly while they were in the dining compartment. And he might want to go too far … it was funny, part of her mind reflected, just how easy it had been to allow Parker to seduce her, back when there had been nothing at stake. Or she’d thought there was nothing. Gwen had snapped her out of it in more ways than one.

“I need to take a walk,” she said, as the dinner came to an end. “Would you care to accompany me?”

“It would be my pleasure,” Fredrick said. He held out a hand and Raechel took it, feeling oddly guilty. “Shall we walk the deck?”

Darkness was falling over the convoy as they walked onto the deck, broken only by lights mounted at each end of the vessel. Overhead, the stars were starting to come out, twinkling merrily in the dark sky. Fredrick had told her that sailors could navigate by the stars, but Raechel found it hard to believe. She’d never been encouraged to study astronomy when she’d been a little girl.

She looked at Fredrick, standing next to her, and felt another pang of guilt. But she knew what she had to do. “I’m not looking forward to New York,” she said, as a conversational opener. “It’s nothing like London, is it?”

“It’s very different in many ways,” Fredrick said. He hadn’t let go of her hand. “What do you want to do when you’re there?”

“I’ll probably be kept in the house,” Raechel said. “Lady Irene took me as a favour to my family, but she doesn’t have any obligations beyond escorting me to New York. I don’t know anyone there.”

“You know me,” Fredrick said. “I should be around.”

Raechel looked at him. “I thought the convoy was going back to Britain,” she said. “Isn’t it?”

“The freighters will be, once the next set of escorts is assembled,” Fredrick said. They reached the railing and stared into the darkness. Faint lights bobbled in the distance, marking the position of the other ships. “I’m not so sure about the warships, or the troopships. We were told to assume that we would be spending a year on station.”

Raechel glanced at him. “Is that normal?”

“I spent two years in the West Indies, once I was commissioned,” Fredrick said. “There weren’t any steamships on station, not back then. We sailed around the Caribbean, chasing pirates and smugglers while keeping a sharp eye on the French. One of my commanding officers even insisted on surveying the waters around Cuba, in preparation for the war.”

“That must have been grim,” Raechel said.

“It was,” Fredrick said. “The weather was hot and moist, disease spread rapidly … going on shore leave was a good way to wind up on medical leave. And most of the planters wouldn’t give us the time of day. I think they were deeply involved with the smuggling trade.”

Raechel frowned, unsure how to proceed. “What do you think will happen in New York?”

Fredrick smiled. “I don’t know for sure,” he said. He wrapped an arm around her, very gently. “We could die tomorrow, you know.”

“I hope not,” Raechel said. She leant into his arm as cold air blew across the water. “What do you think will happen?”

“The real problem with moving troops and supplies around America is the sheer size of the territory,” Fredrick said. “There’s a railway between New York and Amherst, but it isn’t large enough to cope with military supplies. I think we’ll be moving the troopships south, after we’ve had a chance to rest and exercise the horses. Amherst isn’t the closest place to the French, but it has the best seaport.”

He paused, his arm tightening slightly. “Unless Colonel Jackson wants to try to land near New Orleans,” he added. “The French must have similar problems of their own.”

“I see,” Raechel said.

She looked up at him and found him looking back at her. He was learning forward, very slightly … it would have been easy to draw back, but instead she allowed him to bring his lips to hers and kiss her. Irene had been right, she realised, as the kiss deepened. Once she’d grown used to male company, it was easy to let herself kiss other men. His breathing quickened, deep in his throat, as he pulled her into a tight embrace, his hands running down her back. He was inexperienced, part of her mind noted. His touch was rougher than it needed to be.

And how far, she asked herself, does he expect to go?

She felt … cold. There was none of the thrill of doing something she knew would horrify her aunt, there was none of the delight of doing something that would upset society … even the prospect of being caught by a wandering sailor didn’t excite her. She could feel his excitement, pressed against her body, but …

Fredrick let go of her and jumped backwards. “My Lady …”

Raechel turned sharply, then felt a wave of Déjà Vu. Gwen was standing there, looking … shocked.

“Return to your duties,” Gwen ordered, coolly. It wasn’t her job to issue orders onboard ship, but Fredrick didn’t look as though he wanted to dispute it with her. “Raechel, come with me.”

Chapter Nine

Gwen fought hard to keep her anger under control, but it was difficult. She’d expected better, somehow, after Raechel had matured in Russia. She wasn’t the girl Gwen had plucked from the arms of Captain Parker, her dress around her waist and his hands on her breasts, not any longer. And yet, Gwen had caught her with the First Mate! Didn’t Raechel have a lick of sense?

“Tell me,” she said, once they were in her cabin with the door firmly closed. “What were you thinking?”

Raechel met her eyes. “I was thinking that I was doing as I was told!”

Gwen blinked. “By Irene?”

“Yes,” Raechel said. “She wanted me to see what I could coax Fredrick into telling me.”

“I see,” Gwen said, finally. Unfortunately, she believed Raechel. Seducing someone to learn his secrets was precisely what Irene did, among other things. “And did she tell you the dangers?”

“I’m not going to get pregnant,” Raechel protested. “You warned me about that, didn’t you?”

“Your reputation will also be dented,” Gwen pointed out. “And that could harm you in the future.”

Raechel glared at her. “And what if I decide I don’t care?”

“You do not have the luxury of putting your reputation aside,” Gwen said. She could do it, if she had any ladylike reputation left after dressing as a man and doing a man’s job. Raechel, without magic and the ward of a powerful family, had far less freedom. “And what would it do to him?”

She sighed, feeling her head start to pound. “What will you say to him when he asks you to marry him? Or when his family goes to your uncle and asks for your hand in marriage?”

“I will say no,” Raechel said. “Does it matter what we do together?”

“It might,” Gwen said. “What happens if he tells everyone what you did together?”

She ground her teeth in irritation. A man could have a dozen lovers, if he wished; he could go to a brothel, lure the maid into bed or even keep a mistress. No one would care, even if he had a whole secret family of bastard children. But a woman? A woman had to guard her chastity – and then her virtue – with care, knowing that one slip would mean disgrace and utter ruination. Fredrick Hauser would be believed, she was sure, because Lord Standish’s enemies would want to believe him. And Raechel’s life would come to an end.

“I don’t think he would,” Raechel said.

“Men have done stupid things before,” Gwen pointed out. How many problems had she had to solve, as Royal Sorceress, that started with one of her magicians doing something stupid that involved a woman? “If he wound up so angry, so hurt, he might lash out at you without thinking about the consequences to himself.”

If indeed there were any consequences, she added, silently.

“Captain Parker understood,” Raechel said, sullenly.

“Captain Parker was at least a decade older than you,” Gwen said, remembering the airship captain. She had no idea what had happened to him, after they returned from Russia. “I don’t think the First Mate is more than a year or two older than you.”

She shook her head. “It’s madness.”

“Irene told me to do it,” Raechel said. “And I did learn something useful …”

Gwen snorted. “Useful to whom?”

Raechel glared. “And you have been talking to Colonel Jackson!”

It took all of the mental discipline Gwen had mastered, over a year of dealing with men who thought she was too young or too female for her job, to keep from slapping Raechel as hard as she could. How dare she? She liked talking to Jackson, but she wasn’t inclined to see him as a potential husband.

“Colonel Jackson and I,” she said with icy calm, “have not been alone together. I have not been to his cabin and he has not been to mine. We have never put ourselves in a compromising position. You, on the other hand, were seen leaving with Fredrick by everyone at the dinner table! They will believe, I am sure, that you and he did compromise yourselves.”

“I’m going to have a word with Irene,” she added, before Raechel could think of a cutting response. “And you are going to stay here until I do.”

Raechel nodded, shortly. Gwen eyed her for a long moment, hoping that Raechel would have the common sense to do as she was told, then turned and stalked out of the cabin. It wasn’t a long walk to the cabin Irene and Raechel shared, but Gwen dawdled, deliberately, to get her temper under control. Irene could probably sense her anger from the other side of the ship, if she happened to be letting her talent run wild. She’d probably want to keep an eye on Raechel and Fredrick from a distance.

She tapped sharply on the door, then opened it. Irene was sitting at her desk, reading one of the innumerable files Gwen had passed to her. She looked up as Gwen entered, her eyebrows rising in silent inquiry. Gwen felt a touch on the outskirts of her mental defences, a questing tendril trying to sneak into her mind. She pushed back, tightening her defences, as she closed the door. Irene should know better than to try to read her mind.

“She was kissing Fredrick when I found her,” she said, without preamble. Irene would know what she was talking about. “Did you put her up to it?”

“She needed to practice,” Irene said, flatly. There was no hint of guilt in her voice. “Did you have a few words with the young man?”

“I told him to go back to his duties,” Gwen said. She kept her anger firmly under control, knowing that it would damage her shields if she allowed it to run free. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that Raechel needed to practice,” Irene said. She rose, slowly. “Or did you imagine that she would be able to remain … unsoiled by the gritty realities of the job?”

Gwen glared at her. “And her reputation?”

“Doomed,” Irene said. “I imagine it won’t be long before her reputation is tainted, no matter what happens. She can either marry and live a blameless life or work for the Crown. If the latter, people will start to question her sooner rather than later.”

“You were tainted from the start,” Gwen snapped. It wasn’t fair, but she was past caring. “I don’t think she’s tainted …”

“She surrendered her virginity two years ago, shortly after she entered the care of her aunt and uncle,” Irene said, coolly. “Since then, she has had sex with five other men, all members of her outlandish club. She has also gone very close to crossing the line with a number of other men and two women. Her reputation has only survived, I suspect, because of her uncle’s power. Very few people would dare to whisper about his family without real proof.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Or do you feel that lower-class women are tainted from birth?”

Gwen recoiled, honestly shocked. She’d known that Raechel had a taste for male company – it had been obvious from the first day they’d met – but she hadn’t realised just how far Raechel had gone. She had to have been mad. A pregnancy would have been utterly disastrous, proof that she’d jumped well over the line. Even if she’d been raped, after being beaten into submission, she would have been blamed. Far too many men believed it was impossible to rape a virtuous woman.

“I didn’t know,” she stammered, finally.

“Of course not,” Irene said. “You didn’t want to know.”

She cleared her throat. “I repeat my earlier question,” she said. “Do you feel that lower-class women are tainted from birth?”

“No,” Gwen said. She wasn’t entirely sure where Irene came from, but she rather doubted Irene had been born an aristocrat. Singing on the stage was a profession that was firmly closed to anyone above the middle classes. “But Raechel …”

“Needs to understand just what she’s getting into before it’s too late,” Irene said, firmly. “Or what’s getting into her, for that matter.”

Gwen blushed. “You are not to order her to have sex with anyone. Or to use her wiles to manipulate people.”

Irene quirked her eyebrows. “You mean, not to do what women have been doing since time out of mind?”

“Explain,” Gwen ordered.

“You know as well as I do that men have all the power in the family,” Irene said. She shrugged, meaningfully. “Raechel needs to learn this too. What little power women have is only theirs as long as the men are prepared to allow it. There are very few legal protections for women – and if they don’t have powerful families who are prepared to back them up, they’re in trouble. Women have been learning to manipulate men since Adam and Eve. It’s the only way to protect themselves.”

“Perhaps, if women weren’t so vindictive to their fellow women, they would find it easier,” Gwen snarled.

“But a woman who stands outside convention is a threat to her fellow women,” Irene said, tartly. Her face shadowed for a long moment. “You know what happened in Bohemia, Lady Gwen.”

“You were lucky to escape with your life,” Gwen said, quietly. “Raechel isn’t like you, Irene.”

“She is,” Irene said. “She’s inexperienced, true. She hasn’t learnt the calculated ruthlessness of a woman born to the lower classes. And, until now, she didn’t have a cause to play for. But she is very much like me as a young girl.”

She looked down at the deck. “You have to learn to use whatever assets you have to best advantage,” she added. “And you stop feeling guilty after you comprehend, deep inside, just how quickly you can be discarded.”

Gwen closed her eyes for a long moment, then sighed. “Do you expect her to give up her identity?”

“She may have to, eventually,” Irene said. “Lady Raechel Slater-Standish isn’t exactly a public figure, but if she’s always present when something interesting happens …”

“I see,” Gwen said.

“I told her that she could leave at any moment, if she wanted to back out,” Irene added. “And so far she’s stayed, despite learning some uncomfortable truths. I think that says something about her, doesn’t it? You and Raechel have quite a bit in common.”

That, Gwen knew, was true. She’d wanted to use her talents, truly use them; Raechel, too, wanted to do something meaningful with her life. And there were very few options available to a woman, particularly one without magic. Raechel would find herself nothing more than a high-ranking wife, just like her aunt, if she married and stayed in London. Hell, she might not even be allowed to accompany her husband overseas, if she married a diplomat or a soldier. Lady Standish hadn’t accompanied her husband until the final fatal trip.

And I bet she regrets that now, Gwen thought. Lady Standish had been a harsh mistress to her maids, including Gwen. It had been a taste of life as a servant and Gwen hadn’t liked it at all. She’s still in that bloody bedlam.

“Very well,” she said, finally. “But you are not to push her into anything.”

“I understand,” Irene said. “Please send her back here when you can.”


Raechel made sure to tighten her mental shields as she stepped into her cabin, although she was too conflicted for them to do much good. Part of her was embarrassed beyond words at being interrupted by Gwen, part of her was silently relieved that they’d been caught before they went too far. How bad would things have been, she asked herself, if they’d gone further before they’d been caught? And would the entire ship know before breakfast?

“I owe you an apology,” Irene said, once the door was closed and locked. “And something of an explanation.”

She took a breath. “My parents were lower middle-class merchants; my father a refugee who fled Germany as a young man, my mother the youngest daughter of a poor family in Glasgow. Father was a talented singer and taught me how to sing, although we were too poor to hire tutors. I was a good singer, so good that I often sang solos outside church for Christmas and Easter. A passing impresario noticed me, followed me home and extended an invitation to join the opera.”

Raechel frowned. She had the odd feeling that Irene had deliberately left something out.

“I was excited, very excited, when I first entered the theatre,” Irene continued. “There was little hope for me elsewhere, you see. Father had insisted that I learn to read, write and do sums, which put me ahead of most of the young men who might otherwise have asked for my hand. Young girls weren’t meant to be educated. I’m still not sure how father managed to pay for the lessons. But it was enough that I wanted more from life. The glamour and glitter of the stage sounded better than life managing a tiny shop.”

“Like me,” Raechel said.

Irene nodded. “It didn’t take me long to realise that I had to … work … for my roles,” she said, bitterly. “A casting agent wouldn’t take me on unless I … worked … for him. I felt filthy, afterwards, even though it led directly to my first major role. It was a great success, yet I still had to … work … to be sure of constantly remaining in the limelight. I was both a star and a prisoner. The only way for me to maintain some shred of independence and dignity was to learn to manipulate the men who controlled the stage. I rapidly learnt the value of information, particularly information that no one else had. It didn’t take me long to add blackmail to my skills.

“In hindsight, my talents were already starting to develop. But I didn’t know that at the time.

“Five years after I started, I gained enough independence and wealth that I was being noticed on a wider stage,” she added. “We were travelling Europe at the time, you see. There I met a … nobleman who flattered me, promising that he would make me his lady. It was enough to convince me to live with him for several months.”

Raechel’s eyes narrowed. “You couldn’t read his thoughts?”

“Only emotions, at the time,” Irene said. “And I think he genuinely believed what he was saying, to be honest. His father wasn’t expected to die soon. He thought he had time to convince his family to accept me. It wasn’t as though I wasn’t qualified for the post. But his father died and his sisters, who had never liked me, convinced him that he needed a wife from a better family. He wanted to keep me as a mistress, but I decided it would be better to flee his territory before I suffered a small accident.”

She snorted. “The stress pushed my talents up a notch,” she added. “I fled to London, half-mad, and found a place to hide. The bastard hired detectives to follow me, one of whom was alarmingly good. Luckily, I had a few allies of my own by then. I faked a marriage and vanished, leaving a mocking note for the nobleman. He thought I had good reason to keep everything a secret too now, so he called off his dogs.”

“But you didn’t get married,” Raechel said. “How did you fake it?”

“I had some help,” Irene said. “Suffice it to say that, shortly afterwards, I was recruited by British Intelligence.”

She smirked. “And the nobleman in question was killed by the French, a few years later,” she added. “I believe his wife was killed too.”

Raechel frowned, unsure what to say. How much of the story was actually true?

“All of it,” Irene said. Raechel flushed and slammed her shields back into place. “I’ve left out a few details, but the basic outline is accurate.”

She looked up, meeting Raechel’s eyes. “I have done a great many things I’m not proud of,” she added. “And they were necessary. You’ll have to … lower yourself to do the same, if you want to survive in this world. Trying to sweet talk Fredrick is barely the icing on the cake.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Raechel said. “And we were interrupted …”

“Maybe you can pick it up again later,” Irene said. “If you still want to, that is …”

Raechel flushed. Irene’s advice had covered a multitude of subjects that her aunt would have flatly denied existed, if Raechel had had the nerve to ask. She hadn’t even thought about some of the different ways to please a man, or herself, until Irene had mentioned them. Now, it was clear that Irene had done them herself. It had been the only way to survive and prosper in her world.

“There’s something else I should tell you,” Irene warned. She held up a dainty hand. “Do you know Geoffrey Norton, Barrister-at-law?”

“No,” Raechel said. The name was unfamiliar. Besides, she’d never been encouraged to have any dealings with lawyers. “Who is he?”

“A friend,” Irene said. “A stout, sturdy Englishman. Works for the Royal College. He loves me, more deeply and truly than he knows. I like him too, more than I care to admit. But if he knew what I’d done, even after I came to work for the Crown, he’d be revolted.”

“Men have married widows before,” Raechel pointed out.

“Everyone knows that widows are respectable,” Irene said. “Men can be quite funny about certain matters.”

“I know,” Raechel said.

“If you want to keep learning, you may find yourself cut off from polite society forever,” Irene warned. “Really, you need a whole new identity, one you can discard at will.”

“Polite society isn’t polite,” Raechel said, automatically. The thought of being permanently separated from her aunt and uncle wasn’t a bad one. “And I’m not going to stop now.”

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