Sesskia’s Diary, part 47

Later

I just had a wonderful chat with Sovrin and Audryn, who came to my room to see if I was all right. I developed a bit of a headache during my session with the God-Empress, which is unusual since normally pouvrin don’t cause me physical pain, except for when I maintain the see-in-dark pouvra for too long. It was gone by dinnertime, but I think Sovrin and Audryn wanted an excuse for some girl time, and we ended up talking and giggling until I was so tired I couldn’t stop yawning. But I saw my first kathana! Even if it was just a little summoning Sovrin and Audryn did on my floor to snatch some hand-sized fruit pies out of one of the palace kitchens for us to snack on. They pushed aside the red bearskin rug and chalked a circle on the floor—they are both really good at drawing nearly perfect circles—with single th’an at the four cardinal points and the four ordinal points. Then they chalked runes on their right palms, sat across from each other with those palms pressed together, and slowly pulled their hands apart to reveal a sort of window in the air that looked into the kitchen. Sovrin used her left hand to take hold of the window so Audryn could let go, then Audryn began chalking what I can only call instructions on the floor that made the view shift until we could see the pies. Then it was my job to reach through the window and grab as many as I could before we heard someone shouting, and I rolled out of the window and it snapped shut. Then we laughed like loons, and then we stuffed our faces.

Sovrin’s cheerful enough, but it was clear she’s still miserable about being separated from Marleya. It wasn’t a serious relationship yet, but they’d been friends a long time before becoming lovers—had grown up together, even—and losing something like that is hard, I think. And Audryn confessed, with many blushes, that she’s in love with Terrael. That left me horribly conflicted, though in the end I stuck with my policy of not interfering in other people’s business. The furthest I was willing to go was to suggest she take a chance on telling him. Audryn blushed even harder at that and insisted it was impossible, which I thought was because in Castavir the men are expected to speak first, but that’s not it, it’s that he’s her superior. Not that he is, anymore, now that the Darssan has been disbanded and there are no more working groups, but she can’t stop thinking of him as such. And she’s older than he is by a couple of years, though I still don’t understand why that’s a problem. It was one of those everyone-knows things cultures have that it takes outsiders a while to understand. I almost wished I had a lover to gossip about, since I was the odd one out, and I almost confessed that I’m still a virgin, but as intimate as the conversation became, I still felt awkward about saying that. Especially since I still know almost nothing about Castaviran sexual customs and taboos. For all I know, being a twenty-seven-year-old virgin is shocking on the level of eating puppies. (Though Castavirans might do that too. See how little I know?)

Eventually we got to the point of laughing our heads off at really stupid things, like dust motes, and I made them leave so I could get some sleep. Tomorrow we begin combining aspects of the new kathana with my magic, and I have no idea what to expect, except that I’ll have to be polite to Vorantor, which means I can use all the sleep I can get.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 46

6 Lennitay

I’m every bit as tired tonight as I was last night, though this time it’s because I spent half my day being ordered around by Vorantor, who’s not very good at not sounding like he’s ordering you around, and I resent him because I don’t like him, so I feel like I’m being bossed. The other half I spent performing like a trained seal for the God-Empress, who remains endlessly fascinated by my pouvrin and has no concept of how wearying they can become over time. This happened in the official throne room, which was even gaudier and more ornate than I’d imagined snooping around in it last night; the lamps that hang above are made of crystals that send sparkling light over everything, and she has mages to refresh them constantly because the th’an that power them run out quickly. She showed no sign of insanity and was pleasant and friendly, even informal, as if I were her younger cousin (I think I am younger; closer observation puts her age nearer forty than thirty, and let me just say that I hope I age that well, though if I have to become mad to get that wish, never mind) visiting from a strange land. Some of my tiredness is probably due to how tense I was the whole time, worried that I’d say something wrong or respond too slowly to a demand, but this time, at least, my manners were acceptable.

This was also the first time I’d seen mages other than Vorantor’s and the Darssan mages. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be others, or that they would use magic for practical things. But I suppose the th’an on the collennas have to come from somewhere, and someone has to teach the masters how to draw them. And the God-Empress has to have an army to keep her empire intact, and since I know there are offensive and defensive kathanas, there must be mages attached to the army as well. I wonder how many mages there are in the Castaviran Empire. I wonder what the countries outside the empire are like. There are so many things I want to know, and no time to learn them all.

Speaking of wanting to know things, I caught Cederic early this morning (I doubt I’ve had more than three hours of sleep, so no exploring tonight) and told him what I’d heard. He didn’t even look a little surprised, though he did look sad, and he wouldn’t explain what the conversation meant even though he clearly understood it. He did tell me that based on my description, the stranger was probably Perce Aselfos, the God-Empress’s chief spy, and that he wouldn’t want to guess why Vorantor and Aselfos were meeting secretly, but I think he did have a guess that he didn’t want to share with me until he was certain.

On my other questions: Kilios is a title (thank you, Cederic, I figured that one out on my own) that identifies a mage who has mastered all known th’an and can perform all of a certain type of kathana without assistance. Cederic is the only living Kilios and has held that title for almost four years. (He sounded a little embarrassed at having to tell me this. He’s reluctant to talk about himself if it sounds at all like bragging.) It conveys all sorts of privileges, most of which Cederic doesn’t take advantage of, including one that says he takes precedence over every mage and Sai in Castavir, which is the reason for that odd ceremony I witnessed yesterday. Despite being “most high priest,” Vorantor has no authority over Cederic, wouldn’t have unless he were still Wrelan of the Darssan, but as the one with the most experience at preparing the kathana we’re here to do, he has to be in command. Ugh. So Cederic had to cede part of his rights, and Vorantor had to swear not to usurp any more of those rights than Cederic had given up. This all explains why Cederic was allowed to stay at the Darssan when the God-Empress put her support behind Vorantor’s theory; even the God-Empress can’t force the Kilios in matters magical, at least if she’s sane. I’m guessing Cederic has been using the distance between Colosse and the Darssan to keep well out of the God-Empress’s notice, because (as we learned) she only abides by this rule when she feels like it.

To my surprise, Cederic was telling the truth about the eye-color thing. It doesn’t mean you can instantly master any form of magic, or that you’re guaranteed to be better at magic than people who don’t have green-gray eyes (case in point: Terrael’s eyes are blue), but it means that you’re drawn to magic, that you have a desire to learn it. In Cederic’s case, he began practicing th’an when he was old enough to mimic other mages’ script, and in my case, once the magic woke up in me I couldn’t leave it alone. But Cederic’s being Kilios is due entirely to a lot of hard work, though I’m sure his being intelligent helped. I have no idea how I compare to the other mages of my world, assuming there are any—no, I have to believe I’m not the only one, if only because the alternative makes me feel a little ill. I almost hope the others are better than I am, because the idea of learning pouvrin directly from someone else…suppose it’s easier that way? Faster? It’s not really going to matter unless we can keep the worlds from coming back together, and then we have to find a way to send me home.

If I still want to return.

This is already far more of a home than I’ve ever had before, even in the years before Dad died and Mam became a drunk and Roda left and Bridie

It’s more a home than I’ve had in a long while. I have friends. I have value, even if only as a novelty. But if I stay here, the likelihood of me continuing my study as a mage is virtually nonexistent. Finding the concealment pouvra was sheer accident, and the madman who created it did so also by accident. I might be able to create my own, but that’s also a slim possibility I wouldn’t want to count on. And the idea of giving all that up makes me feel even more ill than the idea that I’m the only one of my kind in my own world the way I am here.

I’m not going to worry about that now. Retrieving the Codex Tiurindi is the most important thing now, as Cederic said, and even if my role in the kathana hasn’t been determined yet—that was most of why Vorantor was ordering me around this morning—I can already tell it will be important. And Vorantor’s mages have been tracking the process of the worlds coming together, and the news is not good. Cederic had predicted months; the mages are saying it might be more like eight weeks. So we all feel a sense of urgency that has everyone on edge. I think Vorantor doesn’t appreciate how lucky he is to have Cederic there; he keeps people calm just by being who he is, though he’s always perfectly deferential to Vorantor (ugh again) and redirects most requests to him.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 45

5 Lennitay, way too early in the morning (continued)

The alcove to the right of that one, the alcove between it and the mages’ alcove, leads to a warren of more personal sleeping and living quarters, and a big dining room and a kitchen. And it was completely empty. All those bedrooms, unoccupied. The kitchen hadn’t been used in months, at least. I couldn’t tell if this was meant as guest quarters, or as living space for the royal family, but either way it was eerie. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, my instinct is that it’s guest quarters. The royal family has to be protected, and it’s easier to have them all in one place rather than splitting the guards’ efforts—and this definitely didn’t belong to the God-Empress. I don’t know why the palace would have an entire wing for guests and then not have any, but it likely has something to do with the God-Empress’s insanity. I can’t imagine anyone staying here unless she was a hostage. That thought makes me queasy, because every one of the mages is a hostage if the God-Empress decides it’s so.

By this time, it was getting very late, and I was starting to feel tired, so I decided to leave exploring the rest of the alcoves until another time. I have a much better idea of what the palace looks like, even if I didn’t find anything interesting. I don’t know whether to hope that the God-Empress’s quarters are beyond one of the two remaining alcoves or not. Easier if it is, but if not, what a challenge to try to sneak into it!

So I went back to my room, but when I reached the hallway, I decided to take one last look at the…I’m still not sure what it is. An observatory? It’s certainly high enough, though I wonder what anyone could see through that smoked glass. In any case, I figured Vorantor wouldn’t still be there, and I really wanted to see the view for myself.

I was still cautious, approaching it—an overconfident thief is a dead thief, another one of my mottoes—even though I heard nothing, not even snoring from the adjoining chambers. Now that those holes are closed up, my room seems completely soundproof, and these stone walls are thick enough to keep most noises contained. I’m not going to experiment by standing in my room and screaming, certainly. I was almost to the entry when I heard voices—not even voices, just a low cadenced hum that I’ve learned to recognize as what voices sound like at the edge of hearing. I took a look into the observatory and saw that Vorantor was still standing there, at the other side of the room, only this time he wasn’t alone. With my eyes more perfectly adjusted to the dark this time, I could see immediately that the second person was male, shorter than Vorantor, light-haired, and dressed in clothing that looked drab next to Vorantor’s rich robes. Everything about him screamed “thief.” I didn’t even have to think about it; I did the concealment pouvra and began sidling along the circumference of the room, trying to get close enough to make out their words.

Years ago, when I first learned the basics of the see-in-dark pouvra, I tried adapting it to enhance my hearing, but I was never successful. I can’t believe there isn’t a pouvra for that, so I haven’t given up on finding it, but I don’t think I’ve ever wanted it more than I did just then. The trouble with sneaking up on a thief is that she’s, well, a thief—and if she’s any good, she’ll be constantly on the lookout for people doing to her what she’d do to them. The closer I got, the less convinced I was that the stranger was a thief, simply because he lacked the alertness I’d have in his position. But…well, whatever he is, stealth and cunning are definitely some of his tools of the trade, even if he’s never hung by his fingertips off a third-story window ledge while his bare toes grope for purchase on the irregular bricks of a castle wall.

I went as close as I dared and was frustrated to discover that the conversation was nearly over. I suppose it would have been too much for me to coincidentally enter just as they started talking about a key piece of information that only mattered to me. As it was, it left me with more questions instead. The stranger said, “An upset for you, I think.”

Vorantor said, “Cederic pledged his honor, so I’m not worried about him. And he’s never been interested in glory. Everything will go on as it has.”

The stranger said, “No matter what you have to do to ensure that.”

“Exactly,” Vorantor said. “Something I believe you understand.”

The stranger just nodded, then to my surprise walked past Vorantor to the edge of the observatory, where a low wall kept people from simply stepping off and falling, I assumed, to their deaths, slung his leg over the wall and dropped. Vorantor didn’t react, and I heard neither scream nor fatal thud, so I concluded that he was the kind of thief I’d originally thought, and I confirmed this later—well, I don’t want to put this out of order when I’m almost done. A minute after the stranger made his dramatic exit, Vorantor turned and left the observatory, passing very close to me without noticing anything amiss. This is why I don’t wear scent. People forget that there are all sorts of ways to notice a hidden someone that have nothing to do with eyes. I could smell Vorantor just fine; he uses a nice-smelling woody cologne, which is probably the only nice thing about him. I gave him plenty of time to reach his room, then went forward, still concealed, and leaned way out over the wall to see where the stranger had gone.

The observatory is at the top of a very fat tower about fifty feet tall, with narrow windows marking out the layout of the interior. Based on the way the windows are arranged, the tower has three stories, and its base is set in one corner of what I’ve come to think of as the “main” palace, which is itself another four stories from the ground. So the observatory is fairly high up, based on those stairs about half a story above the Sais’ wing, though not as high as the God-Empress’s pavilion. From my angle, dangling over the wall, it was immediately obvious that someone had built a staircase from the base of the observatory to the nearest window, which was about ten feet down and three feet to the right of where I was. I say “staircase,” but it was more a series of jutting blocks that offered hand- and footholds so you could reach the window without much—all right, not much effort for someone like me, and a crippling fear of heights would make it almost impossible, and the window wouldn’t admit anyone much larger than the stranger, who wasn’t much taller and broader than I am. But it would be a good way for someone to meet someone else in the observatory without walking past a lot of Sais, who might want to know what that someone was doing there. None of my exploration had led to that tower, which made it even more interesting; it was something somebody wanted kept secret.

I pulled myself back up and went to my room, not even pausing at Cederic’s door. I know he knows th’an he’s never showed me, and that there are all sorts of them that have offensive capabilities, and I’m certain he’d try to take the head off anyone who entered his room at night. And now I’ve written everything down, and I’m so tired I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to make a list of what I need to do in the morning:

  1. Tell Cederic about Vorantor’s well-after-midnight conversation.
  2. Ask him about Kilios. And the eye-color thing. And what happened between him and Vorantor in the God-Empress’s pavilion.
  3. Figure out what’s directly below us in this tower. Yes, I could take the staircase to the window, but allowing myself to be outlined against the sky for a possible enemy to take a swipe at seems like a bad idea. Besides, I don’t want to give away the fact that I know about the staircase if I can help it. It could turn out to be an escape route.
  4. Begin work on the kathana to summon the Codex Tiurindi. As much as I dislike Vorantor, and find working for him distasteful, I’m a little excited to finally witness a kathana that I’m not the focus of.

Sleep, finally.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 44

5 Lennitay, way too early in the morning (continued)

After dinner I dressed in comfortable clothes (my shirt from the Darssan and some trousers that fitted more closely than I would normally find comfortable, except they were perfect for sneaking around) and waited in the dark until I judged everyone had gone to sleep. Seeing in the dark is a matter of altering the shape of your eyes, more or less, and it can be…not dangerous, exactly, but if you walk into a well-lit room in that state, it blinds you for a while and it hurts like hell. So you have to be careful where you go. Fortunately, I was planning to go places that would be empty of people.

When the moon was finally hovering on the horizon, preparing to set, I slipped out of my room and headed down the hall toward Cederic’s room. I wanted to see where the hallway went. It turned out to end at another set of stairs, this one continuing up, so I followed it and found myself in a round room much like the God-Empress’s pavilion, but with a smoked glass dome for a roof and wind-blasted pillars supporting it, all of it overgrown by some kind of twining vine with fat, five-pointed leaves. The wind had died down somewhat from earlier and the night was cool and refreshing. I almost stepped out into the expanse when I saw that it was already occupied. I ducked back into the doorway—I wasn’t using the concealment pouvra because I didn’t want to get used to it and become careless—and watched for a bit. The person just stood looking out past the pillars, and it took me a while to discover that it was Vorantor. That made me intensely curious about what he was doing, because I was certain he wasn’t there just to admire the view, but I couldn’t exactly walk up to him and strike up a conversation. So after about ten minutes of watching him do nothing, I turned around and went back down the hallway to the other stairs.

I was tempted to stop in and talk to Audryn when I reached their hallway, but I realized in time that if I were caught wandering, and it got me in trouble, she would need to be able to say with conviction that she knew nothing about it. So I kept going. My first stop was the stairway leading to the God-Empress’s pavilion, with the landings that led to the upper levels of the mosaic chamber. As I wrote, there was too little contrast for me to see the design, and that was frustrating, having a failure right at the beginning of the night. I considered climbing back to the pavilion to look at the city from that height, but the memory of how long a climb that was deterred me. So I sat with my legs dangling over the edge of the highest balcony and thought about what to do next. Normally when I’m sneaking through a manor or a castle, I’m looking for the library, or maybe a secret room where the important books are kept, and after that I want to find the treasure room so I can buy the books I can’t steal, but I can’t read the books here, and the mages already have all of them. And I don’t have any need for the treasure, not to mention that if I’m caught with it, the God-Empress (I can’t call her Renatha in these pages, I just can’t) would probably do something fatal to me and everyone I know. Thinking about the God-Empress gave me an idea. It was still dangerous, but in a fun, let’s-see-what-I-can-get-away-with way, and if I was successful, it could benefit me in the long run. So I went to map the boundaries of the God-Empress’s territory.

A manor may belong to a person, but in practice, there are portions of that manor that are the personal rooms of the owner. Places that aren’t secret (though sometimes they’re that), but private. Those are the places a thief has to be especially careful of, because people take intrusions there as more of a violation. Though violating them can be effective, if you’re trying to frighten someone by, to take a hypothetical example, leaving notes in their bedroom that say (again hypothetically) THE WATCHER KNOWS WHAT YOU DID TO YOUR WIFE. Very effective.

I just wanted to know what the God-Empress called her own so I wouldn’t trespass accidentally. I knew some places where her territory wasn’t—the rooms where the Darssan mages were housed, and the Sais’ wing, and our dining hall and the two common areas we gathered in after dinner. Places like the mosaic chamber were probably outside that territory, since too many people use them—I could hear lots of noise coming from it when we passed it on the way to that audience with the God-Empress yesterday, like people passing through it, and I think it’s likely that when we arrived, it was cleared specifically so the Kilios didn’t have to encounter any of the unwashed masses. So I was imagining a map of the palace as I sneaked down to the ground floor. I may not have the most perfect memory for conversation, but I wouldn’t be much of a thief if I couldn’t keep the map of a building I’m infiltrating in my head. There were far too many blank spots, because the palace is huge, and having entered the way we did, I don’t have as good a sense of its footprint, but the whole point of exploring is to learn new things, isn’t it?

My first step was to learn where all the alcoves off the mosaic chamber led. I didn’t get very far last night/this morning because, as I said, the palace is huge, but what I discovered was still a lot. I already knew that one alcove leads to the loenerel’s stopping place, and one leads to all the mages’ living and working quarters and, less directly, to the God-Empress’s cloud-kissing pavilion. The one directly to the right of the loenerel alcove goes to the public areas of the palace, waiting rooms and audience chambers and finally to the God-Empress’s real throne room. The actual, official throne is strangely plain, unadorned except for elaborate carvings, and it’s built to a scale that would accommodate someone fifteen feet tall. The God-Empress probably looks like a child sitting in it, kicking her feet because they wouldn’t reach the ground. The throne room makes up for the throne’s plainness by being lined with mirrors, all of them three feet wide (I used my arm span to measure) and as tall as that imaginary giant, framed in what was probably gilded wood (can’t see colors with the see-in-dark pouvra) decorated with scallops at top and bottom. The floor is marble tiles in contrasting colors, dark and light, and I had to be especially careful not to make any sound walking on them.

I wandered around in these rooms for a bit, admiring their scale and the beauty of the furnishings, which is more refined than my world goes in for. I was going to write that they were more sophisticated, which is true but gives the wrong impression; my world lacks things this world has, mainly with regard to what magic can do, but its cultural development doesn’t lag that far behind Castavir’s. So in my world, the wealthy go in for big, sturdy, unadorned furniture and architecture, which compared to Castavir’s looks rough, but closer examination just shows that it’s different. I don’t think I’m trying to make excuses for my world, either. But I suppose this is another thing that’s irrelevant.

to be continued…

Tackle Your TBR Read-a-Thon update

So far, I’ve made little progress on my stack of books, but I’ve loved what I’ve read:

Welcome to Vietnam, Zack Emerson

Hill 568, Zack Emerson

and a draft of a good friend’s new novel, Desert Rains.

Total books read since 9/14: 3

Total pages read: 640

The first two are part of a wonderful YA series about the Vietnam War that, honestly, I’m surprised Scholastic was willing to publish–it’s as gritty and profane as you’d expect a war story for adults to be. I’m loving it.

Giveaway ending soon!

As part of Wishful Endings’ Tackle Your TBR read-a-thon, I’m giving away a signed copy of one of my books, winner’s choice, and the giveaway ends tomorrow, 9/23. Come on over and share your favorite comfort reads!

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 43

5 Lennitay, way too early in the morning (continued)

Fortunately, I remembered I was the otherworlder before she had to repeat her instruction. I copied Cederic’s gesture, but said nothing, because I didn’t think she’d actually spoken to me. “You may stand,” the God-Empress said, so I stood and waited. She stared at me, tapping her forefinger against those perfect lips. Eventually, she said, “You appear to be Viravonian.”

“I am not, God-Empress, though I’ve been told there are similarities,” I said.

“And why do you suppose that is?” the God-Empress said.

“I can only guess, God-Empress,” I said, “but I know our worlds were once one, and some of those who in your world are Viravonians are probably in mine as well.” Vorantor was almost in my line of sight, and I saw him close his eyes as if I’d said something wrong, but I had no idea what. Now I know he thought I’d made a mistake in mentioning that our worlds had once been one, but the God-Empress disagreed, because she didn’t lose her temper or order me executed.

What she said was: “And you will prevent the worlds from destroying each other when they are reunited.”

I realized at this point that she was in the habit of asking questions phrased as statements. That was clever, forcing the addressee to own statements she probably didn’t intend to make. “I will assist the mages who will perform this task,” I said.

The God-Empress stood up and came down the stairs. She was taller than me, not by much, but enough that she could grab my chin and tilt my head up to look directly into my eyes. She stared at me, and I tried not to blink, and eventually she released me and went to Cederic and repeated the procedure. “Your eyes are the same,” she said. (I forgot to mention that about a third of the mages at the Darssan have green-gray eyes. Nobody seems to think it’s unusual, so I never remembered to ask about it. I’ve seen a few other people with those eyes in my travels, just not so many in one place.)

“It is a color that indicates a predisposition for magic,” Cederic said, not flinching. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I forgot to ask him, just like I forgot to ask him what Kilios means. I suppose it could be true. It was an explanation the God-Empress liked, because she went back up to her throne and gracefully settled herself on it.

“We welcome the mages of the Darssan,” she said in a louder, carrying voice, “and bid them put themselves under the supervision of the most high priest Denril Vorantor. We will hear their oaths now.”

There was some shuffling behind me, and one by one my friends came forward, bent their knees briefly, and said something I couldn’t understand, they spoke so quietly. It made me furious on Cederic’s behalf. He’d already lost the Darssan, lost his research, and now he’d lost what little was left to him. Kilios or no, this couldn’t be anything but a slap in the face.

Or so I thought. When everyone had gone back to their places behind us, the God-Empress said, “Kilios, will you make common cause with Denril Vorantor and turn your skills to his needs?”

“I will, God-Empress,” Cederic said, his voice entirely neutral.

“Denril Vorantor, make your oath,” the God-Empress said, and damn if Vorantor didn’t cross the pavilion and prostrate himself in front of Cederic, and say, “I accept what you offer and swear to heed your words, Kilios,” and Cederic laid his right hand over Vorantor’s and said, “I give you my skills and will follow where you lead.” The whole thing sounded bizarre; who was making promises to whom? I still have to ask Cederic about that, that and the Kilios thing and about a million other questions, but I keep forgetting.

I wasn’t finished being confused by that when the God-Empress said, “Otherworlder, will you give me the freedom of your name?”

I didn’t have time to indulge my outrage at her asking such a personal thing of me, God-Empress or no. “I, uh…yes?” I said. “My name is Sesskia.”

“And you may call me Renatha,” said the God-Empress, which provoked a reaction from everyone except, naturally, Cederic.

Remembering what Cederic said about gifts, I said, “Thank you, God—Renatha, it is a generous gift I do not deserve,” and she smiled more widely. I think it was a test.

“You will join me presently, and we will learn more of your magic,” the God-Empress said, and that was some kind of signal that the audience was over. Cederic stood, and we all filed out of the pavilion and back down the stairs. Vorantor and his mages didn’t follow us, which was fortunate because as soon as we were back in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs, everyone started talking at once, and Cederic had to shush them.

“This changes nothing,” he said. “You will turn your efforts toward assisting Sai Vorantor, because now we have a common goal. Summoning the Codex Tiurindi is of paramount importance. It does not matter to whom you owe allegiance.”

“We owe our allegiance to you, Sai Aleynten,” Terrael said.

“That may be, but I have sworn to aid Sai Vorantor, and I instruct you to do as he says,” said Cederic. “That should satisfy the demands of honor.”

“I don’t like it,” said Jaemis. He’s short and wide and looks more like a wrestler than a mage, but his skill at transmutation kathanas is unmatched by any of his peers.

“Liking it is not the issue,” Cederic said. “And remember that you may be watched at any time. Say nothing that will draw unwanted attention. Now, dinner will be served in two hours, so I suggest you use this time to rest so you will be refreshed for the morning’s work.”

Everyone grumbled, but they all went to their rooms. Cederic and I went back to the Sais’ wing, but he followed me into my room and said, “That was unexpected. Sharing one’s name with the God-Empress means a sort of kinship. You may be unable to avoid being called often to her presence.”

That frightened me. “What can I do?” I said.

“What you always do. Listen. Speak carefully. Be honest when you can and lie well when you cannot. And at worst, you can slip away from her and we will find another solution,” Cederic said.

“Staying hidden from her forever seems impractical,” I said.

He smiled. “This palace has places no one but a ghost can enter,” he said, “and I daresay you can become a ghost when you want.”

“That’s less encouraging than you think it is,” I said.

“We will worry about it when we come to it,” he said. “I will see you at dinner. And please, Sesskia, if you must wander, do it when no one will be watching.”

Which I did. Dinner was uneventful; the God-Empress, naturally, didn’t dine with us, and the dining room seemed reserved for the use of the mages. I sat with Terrael, Audryn, and Sovrin, and Cederic ate with Vorantor and acted exactly as if they were friends. I don’t think I could be friends with anyone who behaved the way Vorantor had. Fortunately no one was asking me to be friends with him.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 42

5 Lennitay, way too early in the morning (continued)

I followed him back to where the rest of our mages were staying. They had either already received their instructions or knew how to behave without being told, because they fell silently into line behind us. Terrael gave me a look that said he wished he could tell me something, but there was no chance to exchange words. Our white-sheeted procession retraced our earlier steps, and even now it makes me shudder to think of how much we looked as if we were going to a funeral. This was when I memorized the route, which only deviated from our earlier path when we were near the mosaic chamber. Cederic made a sharp turn to the left and we ascended a very long staircase that had landings opening off it at intervals. I guessed (correctly) that these landings led to the upper levels of the mosaic chamber, and filed that information away for later use. I went back, last night, but even with the see-in-dark pouvra there wasn’t enough contrast for me to make out the pattern on the floor. That’s really starting to bother me, not knowing.

We kept going until I was panting and there was a horrible stabbing pain in my side. Even Cederic was breathing heavily. Just as I knew I was going to collapse on the stairs, we went through an arched doorway and into a round…pavilion, I think I should call it, because it was open to the sky on all sides, its domed roof held up by pillars of the same yellow stone as the passageway below. The underside of the dome was painted in an abstract pattern of green and black and orange that was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Hot wind blew across the pavilion, carrying with it the same smell of arid dryness and magic I’d smelled outside my room, and it made all our sheets ripple, revealing the hems of our colorful robes. It was much higher than the roofs of Colosse, so high that it felt as if we were floating above the city and that clouds might drift past my knees at any moment.

The pavilion was already occupied by Vorantor and his mages, though they wore brown sheets rather than white ones. I learned later that the brown sheets designated mages in direct service to the God-Empress, because ours were exchanged for brown ones after this meeting, though I don’t remember saying anything explicitly pledging my service to her. And I remember almost every detail of this conversation. It was too surreal to forget.

Again, Vorantor and his mages were already there, surrounding a dais with ten steps leading up to a golden throne. Tacky, but a standard display of wealth and power. The God-Empress Renatha Torenz sat on the tacky throne, and it seems the one thing no one had bothered to mention is that she’s stunningly beautiful. I have no idea why she’s worried about anyone, male or female, outshining her. She dyes her black hair gold—she was due for another treatment, I could see her roots—and it doesn’t look cheap on her, it looks like she’s wearing a crown of gold, because it was pinned up on top of her head in all these elaborate loops with emerald-tipped pins that were faceted to catch even the indirect light of the pavilion. She wore the same kinds of clothing I was wearing under my sheet, but they were all cloth-of-gold trimmed with emeralds, and around her neck was a choker of more emeralds set in gold bezels, and emerald bracelets—ten or twelve of them on each wrist—glittered like her hairpins. Her perfectly oval face is made more perfect by strong but feminine cheekbones and full lips that didn’t need artifice to be red. And her eyes…they’re dark with long lashes, and I’ve just re-read this and realized I sound as if I’ve fallen in love with her, or at least want to sleep with her, and that’s not it. She has the kind of beauty you just want to look at all day long. I’m not attracted to women, but even if I were I wouldn’t dare think of her in a sexual way. I am so glad I knew in advance that she’s insane, because I might have fallen at her feet and given her anything she wanted otherwise.

Cederic gestured at us to stay where we were and took a few steps forward. “Kilios,” the God-Empress said, and I swear I’m not exaggerating when I say that her voice sounded like a heavenly flute. Honestly, I’m not attracted to her! Just because she seems to be the embodiment of female perfection! And I don’t even feel jealous of her, probably because I know she’s madder than a barrel of ferrets, and who can be jealous of that?

Anyway, Cederic dropped to one knee, though he kept his eyes on the God-Empress, and said, “God-Empress, thank you for your welcome.” He stayed in that position for the whole time we met with her, never wobbling, though there were a few times I think he wanted to leap to his feet and argue with the woman. He really is the most self-controlled person I know.

“You choose to heed my summons now,” she said, and it was obviously both a question and a rebuke.

“The time is right, God-Empress, as I am certain you know, since you in your wisdom renewed your invitation at this exact time,” Cederic said.

“I did, didn’t I,” the God-Empress said with a trilling little laugh. “Come forward, otherworlder.”

to be continued…

Comfort Reading

It’s time to Tackle Your TBR Pile! http://www.wishfulendings.com/2015/09/tackle-your-tbr-read-thon-its-kick-off.html

I admit it—my TBR pile is enormous. I buy a lot of books I fully intend to read sometime, honestly, or at the very least loan out to people, or keep on hand in case someone needs a book for a school assignment. So why do I so often, when I’m in need of something to read, return to old favorites instead of making a dent in the teetering pile?

Some days, when I’m tired or feeling a little low, reading is the perfect activity. But it’s those days when I’m least capable of tackling something new—when I really need an old favorite that’s worn grooves in my brain over the years. Sometimes it’s books I loved as a teen: Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Sometimes it’s more recent favorites, like Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde (sequel coming out next year!), Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, Sylvester by Georgette Heyer. I can slip into those worlds easily, knowing what to expect and matching the book to my mood. Comforting, and restful.

But there’s more to it than that. I may be reaching for these old friends for comfort, but I’m not the same person I was when I read a book the first time, or even the fifth or the twentieth time. Every time, I see something new, and in that sense even an old favorite is a brand new book. Sometimes that backfires: I’ve gone back to a book only to discover I’ve changed enough that I no longer love it, and that’s a horrible feeling. But mostly I find my comfort reads don’t change much over the years, and I’m grateful for it.

So here’s my challenge: what are your comfort reads? What stories do you come back to even though you’ve got fresh, new, potentially wonderful books at your fingertips? Leave your comments below from now until September 23, and one random commenter will receive their choice of one of my books—Emissary, The Smoke-Scented Girl, or Servant of the Crown. I look forward to seeing your titles—and would love it if some of them are the same as mine.

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Sesskia’s Diary, part 41

5 Lennitay, way too early in the morning

I’ve only had a few hours of sleep, but I want to write everything that’s happened while it’s still fresh in my memory. Especially what I learned from exploring last night.

But first, the God-Empress. I almost don’t know where to begin. So I suppose I’ll start with the clothing, because that was strange. I had about half an hour to play with the jewelry before the men with the clothing came back, with friends, and then I felt as if I were at the center of a fuchsia-scented whirlwind of brocade. Two of the servants began hanging clothes in the wardrobe and putting away all sorts of garments I hadn’t seen before, including underclothing, and then the men left and the women stripped me naked and began dressing me as if I were an infant. I protested loudly, but stopped when they all became hugely apologetic and I learned that this was supposed to be an honor, and that it was a service normally performed only for God-Emperors, and if I rejected it they would all be punished.

So I mentally said some very rude things about the God-Empress, never mind what Cederic said, and let them wrap me in more layers than I’d ever worn in my life, including a breast band, which they don’t have in my country. I tried one back in the Darssan, but I’m not exactly well-endowed and I decided a good shirt is enough support for me. It felt awkward and strange and I hoped it wasn’t obvious from the way I held my arms that I was wearing it. Then there was a thin thigh-length robe that went over the wide-legged trousers, both of them a beautiful cerulean blue I’d only ever seen on pottery before. After that came a sleeveless tunic made of a multicolored brocade that had tassels hanging from the hem to my knees. If they were allowed to swing free, they would be annoying, but they’re constrained by the over-robe, which is gold velvet that matches the curtains so closely they might have come from the same bolt. It has shorter sleeves than the thin under-robe, so the blue shows, and it fastens only with a single button at the waist, so it’s open over the brocade tunic and some of the tassels are visible. And then they put a white thing like a sheet sewn up the sides over my head, so the whole thing is covered up. I asked what the point was (I was more polite than that) and the gist of their explanation was that the God-Empress expects everyone to dress in their finest court clothing when they wait upon her, but not to outshine her. Hence the white sheet. Insane. Though with a certain logic.

I had to wait a little longer for Cederic to come for me, when the women were done, and it was strange to see him wearing the sheet, which looked a little pink because of the red robe he wore under it. He still managed to look composed instead of ridiculous. I’m pretty sure I looked rumpled. I hadn’t dared look at myself in the mirror. Instead of just beckoning me to come, he entered my room and shut the door behind him, gesturing me to keep silent. He drew th’an on the air, and spots on the walls glowed with amber light. I went with him to look at the nearest one, which was on the left-hand wall, and he indicated I should put my eye up to it. When I did, and my eye focused properly, I realized I could see into the room next to mine! I bit back an outraged complaint, and Cederic smiled, but it was a sort of bitter, resigned smile. Every one of the amber lights indicated a peephole. It was infuriating. Suppose someone had been watching me dress!

Cederic went to my wardrobe and dug into the top drawer, and came up with, to my embarrassment, a pair of undershorts. He removed the drawstring and tore them down the back seam, then into smaller pieces that he rolled up tight and fitted deep into the holes. Then he scribed more th’an, and the amber light flared again, this time giving off the scent of cinnamon. When I looked again, I saw that the cloth was now fused with the stone, completely blocking the holes. Cederic tossed the mutilated undershorts at me, and I set them on fire in midair so they came down in front of the window as nothing but black ash.

“I doubt anyone here knows those holes exist,” Cederic said, “but I thought you might feel more comfortable not worrying that someone might be watching you. Or listening to us.”

“How did you know about them?” I said.

“I didn’t,” he said. “I hypothesized their existence and then proved it in my own chamber. It is, by the way, the fourth door down the hall from yours.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Before we go, what do I need to know about the God-Empress? What should I expect?”

He put his hands behind his back and walked toward the door. “She is predisposed to like you,” he said. “Show her whatever magic she asks for. Whatever she offers you, accept and say it is an honor you do not deserve, but never decline a gift, because she will take it as refusing God’s bounty. You will know when she is pleased with herself; at those moments, admire her without sounding sycophantic. I think you will find that less difficult than it sounds, because the God-Empress is capable of great things. And she is not stupid, whatever else she may be.” He very carefully never uses the word “insane,” not since his conversation with Vorantor. “Above all, do not go out of your way to have contact with her. Every encounter is a chance she might change her mind about your…novelty, and there is the rare possibility that Denril’s insistence that you are needed for the kathana may not be enough to protect you.”

“Is it all right that I’m a little afraid?” I said.

“That shows how sensible you are,” Cederic said. “Now, follow me, and say nothing until you are spoken to.”

to be continued…