Authors: J.M. Sanford
Lamb & Castle
The Assassin Princes
Copyright © 2015 J.M. Sanford
All rights reserved.
Losing a battle may not equate to losing the war, but with the White Queen already crowned, Bessie Castle
all but lost the Queens’ contest. What could the would-be Black Queen do – steal the crown back from the girl who was its rightful owner? Adventure over, Master Greyfell had returned Bessie safely to her home City of Iletia, where he kept a close eye on her to make sure she resumed her studies at the Antwin Academy. No point in talent going to waste, so he’d said. Bessie had other ideas.
She crouched on the window ledge of the fourth floor dormitory, pausing a moment to scan the sharp angles of the roofscape around her. The moon shone bright and crisp in the chilly autumn night, illuminating the jumbled rooftops of the City in shades of grey, the shadows black as the void. She didn’t know the way well: during her first year at the Academy she’d had little patience for the kind of tomfoolery some of the more boisterous girls engaged in, and then she’d gone off chasing after the White Queen. With a deep breath as if preparing to dive into icy water, she slipped out of the window, just like so many girls before her, and dropped to the roof below. She kept her footing easily despite the loose tiles, and moved quickly to the shadows. She smirked: keeping teenaged spies-and assassins-in-training in check must be like spinning silk from clouds. Climbing out of windows and stalking cat-like across the City’s rooftops by moonlight practically counted as extra lessons for a girl like Bessie Castle, who’d been forced to master her natural fear of heights at the age of eleven, in her first year’s climbing lessons. The skirt of her simple but elegant grey uniform had been designed with the need to run or climb walls in mind.
Her heart thudded now as she made her way from shadow to shadow. Getting caught out of bed would lead to some awful punishment from the Headmistress, but the real shame and scandal of it would come from the fact that she hadn’t been sly enough to get away with it. She slowed, treading even more carefully. A little planning earlier in the day had shown that her path would take her directly under Master Greyfell’s window. Bad enough to be caught out after curfew by any of the Masters at the Academy, but Master Greyfell… He’d know what she was up to. There’d be no excusing it as youthful japes or even a tryst with a young gentleman. She wished she still had Greyfell at her side as Black Paladin, but he refused on the grounds that the White Queen had won by the rules of the contest. Bessie had pored over the rules again in her free time and found nothing expressly forbidding her from taking the crown from the White Queen, if she could, and as long as she could do it before the White Queen discovered her White King. Greyfell stubbornly insisted that trying to steal the crown from its rightful winner at this stage in the contest would be unsportsmanlike, at best. Bessie had rehearsed excuses in her head, and rejected each one as implausible, so that she breathed a sigh of relief when she dropped down off the roof and into the narrow passageway behind the girls’ lavatories. There in the outer wall was a hole just big enough for a small and determined girl to climb out through, and a smart grey cloak where she’d hidden it the night before. With some difficulty, she squeezed through the hole. It didn’t make for a glamorous story, but every once in a while one of the students found the hidden exit useful. She stood, brushed off her dress, and covered up her uniform with the cloak before walking out into the street.
She saw Bryn well before she reached her destination, the tall figure sitting hunched on a high wall, cat-like profile and huge ears silhouetted plainly against the glow of many streetlights blooming in the night sky.
Bessie hurried closer, less concerned with absolute silence now that she was outside the walls of the Academy. “Bryn, come down from there!” she hissed. She’d barely raised her voice above a breath, but his head whipped round suddenly.
Her Argean friend grinned that enormous white-fanged grin, pleased as ever to see her. “Miss Bessie!” He bounded down from the high wall, taking the long leaps effortlessly while Bessie could only look on in hopeless envy. He stopped himself just short of wrapping her up in a big furry hug. “I’m so glad to see you again, my good friend,” he said. “You’re growing tall and true, as I knew you would.”
Bessie raised her eyebrows. She’d always been small for her age, and even the decent meals provided to students of the Academy hadn’t been enough to help her in that regard. “You’re looking very well too, Bryn. I trust business is good for you?”
“Very good, very good,” Bryn nodded enthusiastically. “I’m glad to find Iletia a fine and thriving City, so that I will be quite happy to stay here as long as I can be of service to you.”
They walked down into a narrow covered alleyway, out of sight. So late in the evening, there weren’t many people about, and nobody who would interfere with the private business of an Argean. The few madmen who would even think of doing so were busy in taverns at such an hour.
“Thank you. I promise it won’t be long before I need to hire
again.” She only hoped she’d be able to keep her promise.
“Ah!” This obviously reminded Bryn of the real purpose of their meeting. “I have the items you requested.” With a flourish, he pulled a crystal ball from an inner pocket of his coat. Even in the shadows it glowed faintly from within, bright flecks and flaws in the stone catching its light and magnifying it.
“Thank you,” said Bessie, taking it from him carefully. She always felt anxious handling expensive items, and it had taken more than three months of her Academy allowance even to rent the crystal ball for the night. “Did you get the call spell, too?”
He hadn’t been happy about that, but he’d found a way to get hold of it anyway. He handed her the ceramic tablet, and she refrained from asking him how he’d been able to acquire it. Bad enough she was asking him to stop in Iletia, possibly indefinitely, when his livelihood depended on travel… But, as long as she had
at her disposal, she had a Warship, and that at least was a start.
The echoes of the alleyway seemed to chatter and gossip, and Bessie moved swiftly on, looking for somewhere quieter. Still, much as she wanted to find a place where she wouldn’t be disturbed or overheard, the busy City offered few such places, and she didn’t like carrying the expensive crystal ball around so late at night, either. She’d worn gloves to cover her conjuring rings, and kept to good neighbourhoods, where the streets were well lit and the people walked sedately. She forced herself to walk like a young lady of leisure too, idle and carefree.
Eventually they came to a subway where the paving stones were clean and unbroken, and the lamps bright – a safe but secluded place. She sat down on the steps, where she judged she was more or less out of sight, but could still see the feet and legs of people walking by through a grille. Raising the crystal ball, she stared at her reflection: her face childish but serious, her dark eyes in shadow. Then, with Bryn keeping watch, she spoke the call spell.
Presently the faint glow within the crystal ball brightened and a new face appeared within to replace her own image, distorted by the curve of the ball’s surface. The man in the crystal looked to be in his fifties or sixties, although everyone knew that an Archmage might be much older than he appeared. Despite his wrinkles and white hair, his features were strong, and his eyes piercingly blue even in the crystal ball’s haze.
“Good evening, Archmage,” said Bessie, with a smile and a deferential bow of her head. “I seek an audience with you. I am Elizabeth Castle of the Antwin Academy.” She thought she’d better get the Antwin name in quickly, if she was to have any credibility at all.
“Yes. A third year student, I see.” The man smirked. “Unless the pins have changed since I was of an age to dally with Academy girls. Of course, it wasn’t the
Academy in those days.”
Self-consciously, Bessie put her hand to the amethyst pin at her collar. She’d only received it a few weeks ago. “Quite right, Archmage: I’m a third year,” she admitted, quietly. She’d almost forgotten she was out after curfew, and guiltily she checked the street above her for any sign of legs that might belong to any of her Masters. They weren’t far from the Academy: from the top of the stairs she’d been able to see the rickety old clock tower.
“And you’ve acquired my personal call spell from somewhere, despite your tender years and the fact that I haven’t heard the name ‘Castle’ before. Most irregular. New money, are you, Miss Castle? The daughter of an upstart house in the grand City of Iletia?”
Bessie already knew Archmages didn’t put a lot of stock in material wealth. She’d have to interest him on some other level. She suspected somehow she already had, otherwise he would have ended the conversation by now. It surprised her that he’d apparently never heard of the Castles, though. He must not be that old after all…
“No, Archmage, the Castles are an old family. Very old, and fallen on hard times. You’re aware of the legendary contest to find the Dragon Queen, I assume?”
The Archmage snorted in derision. “You may assume that much safely enough, my dear. By any chance are you the girl claiming to be of the Black Queen’s bloodline? Your representative has already contacted me twice in his efforts to recruit your Black Mage.”
“Yes, and I apologise for disturbing you a third time, but the challenge is greater now than ever. The White Queen has the crown and is seeking her King even as we speak, accompanied by a powerful witch.”
She’d hoped that would be enough of a break with dull tradition to interest him, and she was right. His face loomed larger within the crystal as he leaned forward in his seat. “A witch, you say?” His blue eyes narrowed in a look of disapproval, but she thought she saw the glitter of intrigue in them too. Mages and witches had been bitter rivals since time immemorial: men and women practising mostly very different schools of magic. The idea of a
taking the place of the White Queen’s Mage was scandalous, or so Bessie gathered from Greyfell’s comments on the matter.
“I fought her once or twice,” said Bessie, nonchalant as she could. “I’m not ashamed to say she has me quite out-classed.”
“If she’s taken the role of White Mage, then of course she does, young lady: your studies at the Antwin Academy cover magic only tangentially, and the most mundane kind, at that. Poisons and potions and silly little charms… Hardly magic at all.”
Bessie could have kicked herself. Her skills in magic might be hard-earned, but they were nothing compared to those of even a low-ranking mage. She bowed her head, biting her lip in a shameless show of contrition. “That’s very true, Archmage,” she said, not looking up. “I’m in no position to judge truly powerful magic users.”
“Don’t blubber now,” said the Archmage impatiently. “I hate girls who cry. Tell me honestly – is the White Mage really a
? I can’t believe the Dragon Lords would ever stand for such a thing.”
“And yet, the White Queen has the crown,” she reminded him. She’d scarcely been able to think of anything else for weeks. “I’ve done my best to play by the rules, but I need a Mage, a Commander, and a Paladin.”
Damn Greyfell and his love of rules.
She looked up at a pair of legs going past the grille, but by the dandyish colours of the striped trousers she knew they didn’t belong to Master Greyfell, nor did they have his gait. A couple of ladies of the night passed the other way in high-heeled boots and frilled skirts that showed a daring amount of calf.
“The answer is still no, young lady. I have more important things to tend to, far beyond your capacity to understand. Nonetheless… I like your spirit. Does the White Queen know the whereabouts of the throne room yet? Do
Bessie shook her head. She and Greyfell had tracked the White Queen’s path all around the countryside before they’d finally come to the fabled jade temple that housed the Dragon Queen’s crown. Throughout the journey, she’d realised more and more that the White Queen had blundered along with blind luck on her side. “The legends say that the Dragon Lords hid the throne room so that only the rightful queen would ever be able to find it.”
“Then perhaps you are not the rightful queen.”
Bessie was rapidly losing her patience. “Perhaps legends exaggerate for the sake of a better story,” she snapped.
The Archmage laughed. “Oh my dear, you’ll have to learn to keep a better grip on your temper than that. But, you know, the legends
exaggerate on one or two points. As many theories as there have been on the location of the throne room, all
arguments point towards Ildorria.”