Sesskia’s Diary, part 83

3 Coloine

She’s called me to attend on her tomorrow. I came back here to change my shirt, since Jaemis managed to spill soup on me at lunch. Small comfort that I drenched him in retaliation, but we both ended up laughing, and I was still laughing when I reached my room and found the note pinned to my locked door.

I panicked, and that’s how Audryn found me about an hour later, sitting on my bed clutching the note in my hands, once again seeing the dead collenna master’s face and unable to convince myself that it wasn’t going to happen to me or, true God forbid, someone I love. Cederic’s assurance that mages are not easy to kill was no comfort, because I still haven’t seen a mage perform a single martial th’an or kathana, except for Cederic’s experimental shield that he’s only taught to the God-Empress’s battle mages.

She—Audryn—tried to talk to me, and I don’t remember what I said, but she left about twenty minutes ago and I had to write something or go mad with fear. I shouldn’t be this frightened. I can defend myself against the God-Empress’s soldiers, and she never has those battle mages with her, who knows why, but I’m stronger than this, I know I am.

It’s been a while since I wrote the last, and I feel better, probably because Audryn came back with Cederic, and he knelt in front of me and drew me into his arms, completely disregarding Audryn’s presence, and whispered comforting things to me until I could unclench my hands from the note and put my arms around his neck.

I could tell from how tense his muscles were that he was not nearly so calm about this as he wanted me to think, but that, strangely, made me feel better—that he doesn’t want his worry to overwhelm me, to suggest that this is something I can’t endure. And I can. I’ve faced things beside which the God-Empress is nothing. All she can do is kill me; she can’t destroy who I am.

Finally, when I was rational again, Cederic kissed me, stood up, and told me to rest for half an hour before returning to the circle chamber, and that Audryn would come for me when that time was up. Then he left without glancing at Audryn, whose very expressive face as she watched him leave was utterly stunned, but she went away without saying a word. I’m sure she’ll have plenty of words for me when she comes back.

And now I’m going to lie down, and practice breathing quietly in between working the concealment pouvra and improving the speed with which I can do it. I doubt that’s what Cederic had in mind when he told me to rest, but it will calm me more than napping would, because it makes me feel as if I’m learning to defend myself. He was right when he said once I could become a ghost if I had to, and I’m not going to be afraid of the God-Empress anymore. My friends can defend themselves, and I can too.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 82

2 Coloine

We didn’t do anything but sleep. In fact, Cederic was asleep when I came to his room, still fully dressed and lying on his back, mouth slightly open, snoring. I managed to wake him enough that I could help him take his clothes off, but I don’t think he was conscious. He’d had a very full thirty-seven hours.

I made sure the door was locked, undressed and hid my clothes in his wardrobe—if someone came in on us unexpectedly, I could conceal myself quickly, but women’s clothing on Cederic’s floor would be bound to draw attention—turned out the light, and snuggled up next to him. It’s nice, sleeping with someone you love, and I lay awake enjoying the feeling for a while before falling asleep myself.

He woke me in the morning, not on purpose, but by making a sudden movement that jostled me awake. I think he was surprised to find me there. “Sesskia,” he said, “this is far too dangerous. If you’re seen—”

I worked the concealment pouvra, then went insubstantial and sat up, dramatically sweeping my hand through the pillow, not that he could see it. “I’m sorry, did you say ‘isn’t it fortunate you can be virtually invisible and walk through walls so we can spend every night together and not get caught’?”

He rolled onto his back, threw one arm over his eyes, and laughed. “Of course. I should have remembered that. I wasn’t thinking very clearly yesterday, was I?”

“You were not, but I think you had a good excuse, what with everything that happened,” I said, lying down next to him so he could put his arms around me, “but you should feel ashamed of yourself, taking advantage of an ignorant otherworlder who had to find out she was married from someone else.”

He groaned and held me tighter. “I truly was not thinking clearly,” he said. “I assume you decided to forgive me, since you are here now.”

“I decided you were worth being married to,” I said, and then he kissed me, and we forgot about talking for a while. That left us with no time for anything else before we had to be at the breakfast table, not that I’m complaining, but it means that I still don’t know what will happen when our worlds come together.

It’s hard during the day, him treating me with the same polite, self-controlled attitude he’s always demonstrated toward me, me doing my best to respond in the same vein. I’m so eager, as I’m writing this, for the rest of the Sais to return to their rooms for bed so I can go to him, and not because of the sex, which is admittedly wonderful; when we’re together, I can forget that we have a deadline and very little idea of how to bring two worlds together safely. Vorantor discovered today that there will still be destruction, even if we’re successful, and while I was moderately amused that no one took him seriously until Cederic confirmed his conclusions, it fills me with dread.

Still no idea how I might manifest th’an the way I do pouvrin, though I don’t know why I thought we’d figure that out quickly. I’m impatient, and worried that even if I do learn how, it won’t have any effect on the final kathana. I refuse to fall into despair, though. That will do no one any good.

Time for me to join Cederic. If I’m filled with dread, I can only imagine how he feels, bearing not only this burden but the need to keep Vorantor in check and the fear of what demands the God-Empress might make on us, though I share that last fear. She hasn’t called me into her presence since the disastrous tour of Colosse, and I know it has to come soon; I wish it would, so I could stop feeling as if a tidal wave were somewhere on the horizon, unstoppably approaching. I am so grateful to have the comfort of Cederic’s support, grateful too that I can do the same for him.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 81

1 Coloine, evening

That was the strangest fight I’ve ever witnessed. Cederic won, but in a way Vorantor can’t use to accuse him of insubordination. And that is because my husband—yes, I’m calling him that, and it makes me tingle all over when I do—my husband is brilliant, and frankly, Vorantor never stood a chance once Cederic decided to stop pretending he was anyone’s subordinate. The situation is too serious for that.

But, back to the beginning: not only didn’t I see Terrael at breakfast, I didn’t see Cederic either. I didn’t think that might mean they were together until Audryn and Sovrin and I arrived at the circle chamber and they weren’t there either.

Vorantor was, and he looked so smug I think I could have popped him if I had a long enough pin. He was standing at one of the walls, writing something and holding forth to a couple of the Sais, and he caught my eye and smiled at me. It was a nasty little smile, though it didn’t last long, and I didn’t need the hypothetical mind-reading pouvra to know what he was thinking: otherworlder, your side has lost.

So I started doing pouvrin, fire and water at the same time to make great clouds of steam, which definitely caught his attention, though he pretended not to notice me. The other mages didn’t have any problem coming to admire my work, and for about half an hour I demonstrated what I could do (not the secret pouvrin, but the other things) and we discussed possibilities for other pouvrin.

I need to give Vorantor’s mages credit, and remind myself that about two-thirds of them used to be Darssan mages; they’re all bright, and talented, and every one of them takes the coming disaster seriously. And it was fun to have an excuse not to work, since we didn’t have Terrael to explain what he was learning from the Codex. Regan, one of the Sais, had some clever ideas about adapting the see-in-dark pouvra to enhance hearing, and I think he might be on the right track, so we arranged to work together during the rest periods Cederic made Vorantor believe were his idea.

So, as I said, we did this for about half an hour, and then Cederic came in alone and went straight to Vorantor, who pretended not to see him at first, then greeted him cheerfully, saying, “I was afraid you might not return, old friend.”

“Why would I not return?” Cederic said, raising an eyebrow as if this were a completely absurd question.

“Well, you did seem upset about learning what a mistake you’d made,” Vorantor said, smiling even more broadly. “I’m glad you didn’t let your pride lead you to make another.”

“No, Denril, I can admit I was wrong,” Cederic said, very pleasantly. “I should have listened to you from the beginning. I hope you won’t hold it against me.”

“No, of course not,” Vorantor said, clapping Cederic on the shoulder. “As I said, I have some ideas for your research. I’m grateful you were willing to follow the God-Empress’s suggestion and put yourself under my supervision. I think that’s better for everyone, don’t you? Given as how you’re two years behind the rest of us.”

“Of course, Denril,” Cederic said. “Tell me what you’d like me to do.”

At this point I was becoming suspicious. Cederic sounded far too affable, and I couldn’t believe Vorantor didn’t suspect something. But I couldn’t figure out what Cederic’s plan was.

Then Terrael came in, holding the Codex, and since he’s even worse about controlling his face than Audryn is—really, I don’t know how the two of them managed not to reveal their mutual feelings to each other—I could see immediately that Terrael and Cederic were in collusion. Vorantor still didn’t suspect anything. My estimation of his intelligence dropped by a lot today.

“Sai Vorantor,” Terrael said, “I’ve translated a bit more, and I think it’s important.”

I glanced at Audryn, who had the tiniest wrinkle to her brow. “When did he have time to translate more?” I whispered.

“He didn’t,” Audryn said. “I can guarantee that.”

“Master Peressten, thank you for joining us,” Vorantor said in that patronizing tone he takes with the Darssan mages and especially with Terrael; Vorantor doesn’t take him seriously because he’s so young, despite Terrael’s brilliance. “What have you learned?”

“Well, you know about Nialak’s Conjecture, yes?” Terrael said with such wide-eyed eagerness I was certain Vorantor would realize Terrael was playing him. Vorantor looked mystified.

“He theorized that mages have inherent abilities that allow them to manipulate th’an,” Cederic said in a low voice, sounding as if he were prompting Vorantor.

“Of course,” Vorantor said. “He…naturally, he was wrong.”

“Only for this world,” Terrael said. “The Codex reveals that in the time before the disaster, it was true. And it remained true for mages in Sesskia’s world. Just not in ours.”

“Oh, of course,” Cederic said. “You are correct, Master Peressten, that is important.”

“Yes,” Vorantor said, but he sounded uncertain.

Cederic looked at him in surprise. Really, someone had to notice how unusually animated he was. “Denril, you see the implications, don’t you?”

“I—well, of course,” Vorantor said. “It’s an example of how the magic reformed in each world.”

“No,” Cederic said, “no, it gives us part of the structure of the original kathana, of how they intended to reshape magic. Obviously they wanted to remove the requirement that someone have inherent ability to use magic. To make it more widely available. Sesskia’s world is made of the things they thought interfered with magic as it should be. I mean no slight on your world, Sesskia,” he said, and I had to admire how he could speak to me without a trace of the love that had been in his voice last night, even as his seeming indifference left me feeling a little hollow. I nodded in acknowledgement.

“So we’re justified in allowing that world’s destruction,” one of the Sais said, and I felt like slapping him with five gallons of water in the face, which is a lot more painful than you’d think. “Since it’s essentially spare parts.”

“I am sorry to contradict you, but I think perhaps you have not seen the implications of this. Our Codex-summoning kathana only worked because of Sesskia’s magic,” Cederic said, his tone of voice not at all humble. “Two kinds of magic in tandem. Magic calls to magic, didn’t you say, Master Peressten?” Terrael nodded eagerly. “The worlds are not trying to obliterate each other. They’re trying to meld.”

Vorantor gaped. “Cederic,” he managed, then cleared his throat and regained his smirk. “Old friend, I think you haven’t quite learned your lesson,” he said in a low, confidential voice. “Are you so unable to swallow your pride that you insist on challenging me? Again?”

“I’m surprised that you could accuse me of that, Denril,” Cederic said, “since it is your research that proves my assertion. At least in part.”

He went to one of the boards—I forgot to mention this, because I can’t read their language and that means most of what’s on the walls is a mystery to me, but about a third of the wall space is taken up by Vorantor’s explanation of what will happen when the worlds come together and notes for the kathana that will protect as much of this world as possible.

Anyway, Cederic went to the wall and used his sleeve to scrub out some of the writing, which made Vorantor begin to protest. “No, I am sure you will agree when you see this,” Cederic said, and then he began writing, and I won’t even try to reproduce what he said, it was so far beyond my comprehension. But Vorantor stopped in mid-rant, and the other mages were nodding, and Terrael, who’d come to stand beside us, couldn’t stop grinning.

“Did you plan this?” I whispered in his ear.

“Sai Aleynten found me this morning,” he said, blushing, which told me Cederic had found him while he was sneaking back to his own room from Audryn’s, “and told me what I needed to say. None of it came from the Codex. There’s no such person as Nialak. I think Sai Aleynten was down here studying Sai Vorantor’s research early this morning.”

“So he didn’t get any sleep last night,” I said, unthinking, and then wished the floor would swallow me up, but my gaffe didn’t register with them, probably because they were paying closer attention to Cederic’s explanation than I was. I really want to tell them. I’d like to tell everyone. Damn the God-Empress.

“I am sure you would have gotten there in the end,” Cederic said when he wound down, “but as long as I have agreed to assist you, I should no doubt do my utmost to aid this endeavor. Of course my skills are at your service.”

Vorantor walked to Cederic’s side in a daze. “Melding,” he said.

“No shame in being wrong, is there?” Cederic said cheerfully, but his eyes were cold, and Vorantor flinched away from him before he could gain control of himself.

“Of course not,” he said. “How fortunate that you were here to aid me.”

“As I swore,” Cederic said. “Now, if you’ll direct me, I’m certain you understand exactly what the implications of this new development are, and we’re all eager to hear what you want us to do.”

Vorantor glared at him, but what could he say? Cederic had behaved with perfect adherence to the letter of his vow. “If I could make a request,” Cederic added, “I would be interested in working on the problem of how our magic can work with Sesskia’s to encourage melding rather than destruction, but of course the decision is entirely yours.”

“I—certainly, since you seem familiar with the concept,” Vorantor said, and began handing out assignments. He was desperately trying to regain control, but it was too late—every person in that room knew who was really in charge.

We spent the rest of the morning laying the groundwork for our new research, the Darssan mages and Cederic and I, talking about what we already knew about the similarities and differences between our magics. Except for Terrael, who followed Vorantor around, reading things out of the Codex to him in a cheeky voice just this side of insubordination, but Terrael is the one person Vorantor can’t afford to alienate, not and still have the information in the Codex. Vorantor, of course, is designing (redesigning) the kathana, because that’s where the glory is, but no one in our group cares about that.

This afternoon I wanted to ask Cederic what it meant, in practical terms, that the worlds were going to meld—does that mean Thalessa will join this world, or Colosse join mine? What will this single world look like? But there was never time, because after lunch he immediately began directing us in practical matters, setting half our mages to creating th’an that would perform pouvrin and the other half, with me, trying to teach me to manifest th’an without going through the exhausting process I did for the summoning kathana, which would simply take too long.

Cederic asked Vorantor’s mages, the ones timing the coming catastrophe, how much time we have left, and it’s much shorter than it should be. Cederic looked grim about that and said (to me, privately) that he believes our using magic is not just causing the convergence, but accelerating it. But there’s no help for that. Without magic, the worlds will simply collide and annihilate each other. So what we’re doing is both saving and destroying us.

So I’ll have to ask him tonight, right after I pounce on him for deciding we should be married without consulting me first. I love him, and I think he’s brilliant, but it hasn’t occurred to him that one of us is capable of passing between our rooms without anyone being the wiser. Even so, I’m waiting until well after everyone’s retired before going to him. But we’re spending the whole night together. We might even sleep for some of it.

AGENT OF THE CROWN cover reveal!

Agent of the Crown

Here’s the cover for the new Crown of Tremontane novel, AGENT OF THE CROWN, to be released February 25, 2016! Clarissa Yeo has again done some fantastic work, and the three books are going to look great lined up on my shelf.

The e-book is available for pre-order on Amazon.com now, and will be available in print on 2/25. You can also read the first five chapters as a PDF at Goodreads.

Also, in response to your requests, I’ve added the Tremontane Encyclopedia to the links on my website. This is a collection of posts about Tremontanan religion, culture, and magic. Click here to access it, or use the link on the main menu at www.melissamcshanewrites.com .

The cover blurb for AGENT:

Telaine North Hunter, Princess of Tremontane, is beautiful, spoiled, flirtatious, and the center of fashionable society throughout Tremontane.

She’s also a spy.

As an agent of the Crown, Telaine uses her high society connections to gather information for her uncle, King Jeffrey. But when an overheard conversation reveals a sinister plot centered on the Baron of Steepridge, Telaine must pose as a common Deviser in the distant frontier town of Longbourne to uncover the truth.

Fresh from her glittering world of the palace, Telaine is completely unprepared for rural life. She must conceal her identity not only from the townspeople, but from the suspicious, corrupt Baron as well. Her only assistance comes from Mistress Weaver, a local woman with an agenda of her own, and Ben, the handsome young blacksmith who reaches out a hand of friendship when others turn away.

As the days pass with no success in sight, Telaine’s pretense becomes real, and her growing attachment to Longbourne and its people comes into conflict with her mission. She can’t keep up the lie forever, but when the truth comes out, will she face it as the Princess—or as an agent of the Crown?

 

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 80

After breakfast

I had another shock just now, and I’m still working out what to do about it.

Terrael was not at breakfast. Audryn and Sovrin were at our usual spot when I arrived. Audryn looked radiantly happy. I hoped I didn’t. I hadn’t decided if I should tell them what had passed between me and Cederic. Sovrin I could trust not to give me away, but Audryn has a very expressive face, and while she would carry my secret to her grave as far as telling anyone went, I wasn’t sure she could keep her face under control.

So I decided first to tackle Audryn, who at least knew that I knew something had happened. “Well?” I said.

Audryn grinned and hugged me. “Thank you for interfering in our business,” she said. “I can’t believe neither of us knew what the other was feeling. Who knows how long that might have gone on?”

“And they spent the night together. The whole night,” Sovrin said with a meaningful smirk.

“I don’t know what that means in your culture,” I said, trying not to blush.

“It means they’re married,” Sovrin said, and Audryn blushed harder than I was trying not to. “Married, but without the public vowing, of course.”

“Married,” I said.

“It’s symbolic of the commitment you make to each other,” Audryn said. “Because you’re most vulnerable when you’re sleeping, and sharing a bed with someone means you trust that person with your safety, physical and spiritual.”

“I see,” I said.

“And every day is a new beginning,” Sovrin said, “so waking together is like a promise to meet the future as one.”

“That’s…beautiful,” I said. “So what are the public vows for, if you’re already married?”

“That’s the legal commitment,” Audryn said. “You speak them in front of a priest during a special ceremony and they grant certain legal and social rights. Who knows if that will even be possible for us any time soon, what with everything that’s happening! But we didn’t think we should wait, given how uncertain the future is. Like you said, Sesskia, we don’t want to waste any more time.”

“That makes sense,” I said, but my voice sounded distant to me, because I felt as if I might fall over if someone breathed on me the wrong way. He sees us as married. He’s pledged himself to me, as we’d say in Balaen.

And the shock isn’t that he took that step without explaining it to me first, which bothers me a little—the shock is that it doesn’t bother me more. That the idea of being married to Cederic, even so soon, fills me with joy. Maybe it’s like Audryn said, that we don’t know how much time we have, but I want nothing more than to be with him for the rest of my life, even if that’s only a few more weeks. I am his foundation, and he is mine.

I don’t have more time before I have to be in the circle chamber, or I would write about re-reading my early entries in the other book and laughing over how much Cederic annoyed me. I’m nervous on his behalf right now, wondering how he’s going to behave to Vorantor, how he’s going to reclaim his reputation. But Cederic is the greatest mage living—I don’t think it’s just my love for him saying that—and he won’t let Vorantor’s pride and jealousy stop him from saving as much of this world as he can. He might even manage to save some of mine as well.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 79

1 Coloine (continued)

When he was calmer, he said, without releasing me, “Tell me you love me.” It sounded more like a plea than an order, which made my heart ache for him again.

“I love you,” I said. “And not because you told me to say it. I love you.”

“Tell me I am not useless and a failure.”

“You could never be useless, and you are not a failure.”

“Tell me I still have something to offer this world.”

“Vorantor’s an ass. You may have to save the world over his objections.”

He actually laughed. I had never heard him laugh before. I don’t know if anyone ever has. “Denril hates me,” he said. “I wanted to believe otherwise, but the summoning kathana nearly failed because he tried to take too great a role, thinking it would make him look important in the God-Empress’s eyes, hoping it would lessen me. I had to fight him to keep it under control. And then I made him look like a fool, inventing that shield kathana as easily as breathing, something he knows he could never do.”

“Inventing a kathana on the fly, or breathing?” I said. “Because I know he used to be your friend, but I personally would be just as happy if he forgot how to breathe.”

He laughed again. He’s laughed a lot since that moment, enough that I’ll have to stop emphasizing it. His laugh is deep, and unconstrained, and maybe that’s how he releases emotion and he’d forgotten how, under the stress of the last two years. I love his laugh. I love everything about him. And he loves me.

He loosened his grip enough that we could look at each other. “I cannot wish Denril dead, though I do wish I did not have to walk back into that chamber today and submit to his patronizing scorn,” he said. “I have been too proud, Sesskia, and now I will have to pay for it.”

“You still understand magic better than he does,” I said, “and everyone knows it, and this will pass, and you’ll make Vorantor’s kathana work better than he ever could. And we’ll save the world.”

“Part of it, anyway,” he said, and the bitterness was back in his voice, and I couldn’t think what to say to make it go away. So I took his face in my hands and I kissed him.

I’d never kissed a man before, just my sisters, and my Dad when he was alive, and Cederic’s lips were warm and shaped themselves to mine, and it was the most wonderful feeling I’d ever had. We kissed some more, long, slow kisses that made me forget that I didn’t know what I was doing. Then they were harder, more urgent, and then we were trying to take each other’s clothes off without breaking that delicious, heart-pounding contact, and that’s a lot more difficult than I would have imagined, supposing I’d ever imagined anything like it.

Finally, Cederic removed my breast band, and we stood before each other naked, and I had a moment of intense, self-conscious embarrassment, because my breasts are too small and my hips are too wide, and in general I’ve never been happy with the way my body looks. Then I saw how he looked at me, saw myself through his eyes, and I felt like the most beautiful woman in the world, because to him, I was. And his was the only opinion I cared about.

So, naturally, that’s the moment I chose to blurt out, “I’ve never done this before.”

Both his eyebrows climbed nearly to his hairline. “Never?” he said.

I know there’s nothing wrong with being a twenty-seven-year-old virgin, and really, when have I ever had the chance to develop that degree of closeness with someone, but I felt like running away from his astonished gaze. “No,” I said.

He slid his fingers through my hair to cup the back of my head and kissed me, gently. “Are you ashamed of that?” he said.

“Afraid I’ll be awkward and terrible,” I said.

He smiled, a real, tender smile, and kissed me again, and said, “You could never be awkward and terrible, and I promise to show you the truth of that.”

I won’t write the rest. I could never do it justice, and really, I don’t think I’ll need this book’s help in remembering. It’s enough to say that Cederic was right, and if I thought kissing was wonderful, making love with him was so far beyond that I have no words for it. I cried a little at the end, which worried him, and I had trouble explaining how overwhelmed and happy I was, and how this was the only way I knew to express that emotion. So he kissed those tears away, and then he began kissing the rest of me, and we did it all over again, and it was even better the second time.

Afterward, I lay in the curve of his arm and played with the little dark hairs on his chest. There didn’t seem to be anything to say, and I felt cocooned in the safe space that was our bed, as if there were no oncoming disaster and no Vorantor and no mad God-Empress and no—

“I wonder what Aselfos has planned,” I said.

Cederic craned his head to look down at me. “I would ask where that came from,” he said, “but I have learned that it is better for me not to know the paths your mind takes at times.”

“It was a tortuous road,” I said. “It’s only that I don’t like not knowing what’s coming. And I don’t know how to find out more.”

He held me more tightly. “Your safety has been uppermost in my thoughts since we arrived here,” he said. “The God-Empress’s interest in you is dangerous, and your nighttime wanderings put you at risk of drawing her wrath, should she learn where you have been and what you have seen.”

“I’m at risk every time she summons me,” I said. “And it also bothers me to know that Vorantor has a secret plan that we don’t know about. I think I should investigate it.”

He sighed. “Is there any point to me forbidding it?” he said.

“None. And don’t think you can get away with threatening to withhold sexual favors, because I know you won’t be able to stick to that threat,” I said, poking him in the stomach.

He captured my hand and brought it to his lips. “I would never dream of doing that,” he said, “when I could entice you to do what I want by promising sexual favors instead.” So that was the end of that conversation.

Later, when I lay atop him trying to remember how to breathe properly, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “I had no idea, when I woke this morning, that this is how my day would end, humiliated by my former friend and then lying with you in your bed. It seems unreal, except that you are so wonderfully tangible.”

“As are you,” I said, and I rolled over to nestle against him once more. He turned out the light, and we lay like that for a while, not speaking, and I was drifting off to sleep when he said, “I dream about you, you know. About this. I have dreamed of you so many times. You have been my foundation, even though you did not know it. My foundation, and my surety in the dark times.”

It sent a chill through me, not of fear but of joy, that I might mean so much to anyone when I have been alone and disregarded for so long. And because he had opened himself to me, I wanted to do the same for him. So I told him what I swore I would never tell anyone, though as I write this it occurs to me that this was inevitable, because from the beginning, even when I hated him, I have always told Cederic Aleynten everything.

I told him about the man at the fishery who never stopped watching me.

About the day he forced me into an alley in the warren behind the docks and knocked me to the ground, and tore my trousers and my undershorts down while he choked me with his other hand.

How he forced my legs apart, and I flailed at him and tried to scream, not that anyone would have come to my rescue.

How knowing that sparked something deep inside me, and I worked my first pouvra without knowing what I was doing and he burned from the inside out, burned to ash that filled my mouth and splintered bone that rattled down around me.

I was sixteen, and I had killed a man in a way that could mean my death if anyone knew about it. And even with the horror and the disgust at myself and the terror at what he had almost done, I knew I could not stop learning magic, because it was all I had in the world.

I told him all of this, and he held me and listened in the intent way he does, and said nothing for several seconds after I finished. Finally, he said, “If that is what it takes to make a mage in your world, I am surprised that there are any of you.”

“There have to be others,” I said, “and I doubt most of them have been nearly raped. But there are other terrors that can make you fight for your life, or for your identity.”

“True,” he said, and held me closer. “My instinct is to protect you from all harm,” he said. “But that instinct is wrong. You would not be who you are if you were not willing to risk yourself. Even so—allow me a little fear on your behalf, please.”

“It makes me feel loved, that you want to protect me, and even more loved that you know you can’t,” I said.

We lay together, not speaking, until I finally did fall asleep. When I woke about two hours ago, he was gone.

I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was fear, followed closely by embarrassment that I’d misunderstood, that he’d only said those things because they were what I wanted to hear, that he didn’t love me. I have no idea why I was so insecure. It was completely ridiculous.

I hadn’t quite convinced myself to stop being stupid when he knocked, and entered without an invitation. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it isn’t safe for me to be seen loitering outside your door.” Then he looked at my face, and smiled at me with wry amusement. “You thought I’d left,” he said.

“Because you left,” I said.

He came to take my hand and squeeze it. “No one can know what we are to each other,” he said. “If the God-Empress discovers it, she will use one of us to threaten or manipulate the other. So I could not be seen coming out of your room this morning. I shouldn’t even be here now, but after you fell asleep, I went back to my room and lay awake in my cold bed cursing the God-Empress for keeping me from you, when you should have woken to find me next to you. And I had to risk coming now, so you would not misunderstand me. I would have stayed, if not for that danger, you understand?”

He sounded so urgent that I nodded, even though I didn’t understand why it was so important to him. He kissed me, then left as soundlessly as he’d arrived. So I’ve been writing for two hours, and it’s time for breakfast now, and I’m trying to work out a way to ask Audryn if there’s some significance to waking up with someone I should know about. But mostly, I still feel like I’m flying.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 78

1 Coloine

It’s amazing the difference a new day makes. A new month, a new day, new beginnings all around. I feel as if I could leap from the observatory and fly to skim the ground below.

After I finished my last record, I dismissed the see-in-dark pouvra and lay there in my pile of furs worth more, probably, than the Darssan and every mage in it, at least according to the twisted mathematics of the God-Empress’s mind. I let my eyes go unfocused and my thoughts wander to more pleasant things, like how far Audryn and Terrael’s conversation had gotten, and had they moved on to more physical activities yet—I still don’t know the answer to that, because I haven’t even had breakfast yet, but I feel too invigorated to sleep any longer.

At some point I realized I’d dozed off, and decided I should probably return to my bed. A pile of furs is nice to sleep on in theory, but in practice it shifts too much to be comfortable, and there are very few furs it’s actually nice to rub your face against.

I went through the wall into the spiraling passage running around the tower, and decided to use Aselfos’s route to leave it. I was feeling reckless, and there was still a part of me that felt hurt and humiliated and wanted to feel powerful again, and I’ve found that dangling off the face of a high wall with gravity trying to wrap its fingers around me gives me a feeling of power that’s like nothing else in the world.

I was halfway up the wall before it occurred to me that Cederic might still be in the observatory, even though it was full night, probably just after midnight. I clung there for a minute, wavering between continuing and going back, and decided I wasn’t going to be deterred by the possibility that he might have more cruel words to hurl at me. But the observatory was empty.

I sat on a window ledge and looked out at Colosse in the darkness and thought about what it might look like when the disaster comes, whether Vorantor would be able to save anyone. My thoughts were still bleak at that point, but I wasn’t feeling nearly so much in despair as I had an hour earlier.

The wide passage was clear, with moonlight making the diamond pattern on the floor faint and blue-gray, and I amused myself by tiptoeing through the lighter patches until I reached my room, where I stopped, because there was light coming from under my door, and I hadn’t left anything burning, flame or th’an.

I used the see-through pouvra and discovered that Cederic was standing by my window, directly in the pouvra’s line of sight. It irritated me that he knew exactly where to stand, as if he knew I’d use that pouvra, as if he were approaching me with his empty hands spread wide to show he wasn’t a threat.

I thought about returning to the fur room for the night, but I was fairly certain that would only delay whatever it was Cederic had in mind. So I went in and closed the door behind me. “What are you doing here?” I said.

“Wondering if there is any point to asking your forgiveness,” he said. The drapes were drawn, but he was standing at the window as if he could still see outside, with his hands clasped loosely behind his back.

“You think you deserve forgiveness?” I said. Once I was speaking to him, I no longer felt grief and embarrassment, I felt anger. I’d reached out to him in love and he’d struck at me. If he hadn’t meant what he’d said, he had certainly known the exact words that would hurt me most, and how could he have done that if he truly was my friend?

“I think we need forgiveness most when we do not deserve it,” he said. “I said things I deeply regret and I am—I cannot express how sorry I am.”

He didn’t sound sorry. He sounded dispassionate, the way he always sounded, and it made me want to strike him in some way, physically, verbally, anything that would break through that composure and make him feel pain the way I had.

“Sorry because you hate making mistakes?” I said. “Or sorry that you haven’t had a chance to correct this one?” He bowed his head, but said nothing. “I don’t know why you care about my forgiveness,” I went on, “since nothing I say means anything to—”

“Sesskia, no,” he said, turning around. He looked anguished, he who never showed anything of his emotions on his face, and it startled me so much I lost track of what I intended to say.

“You mean everything to me,” he said, “and I beg you to forgive my hasty words, because I cannot forgive myself for saying them.”

There was so much pain in his voice that I forgot I was angry with him. I forgot the pain he’d inflicted on me. I just crossed the room to put my arms around him and hold him, resting my head on his shoulder, and felt him embrace me, first tentatively, then with a fierce grip as if he intended never to let me go.

His whole body was trembling with the effort to control whatever emotion threatened to overwhelm him, and out of nowhere I said, “I won’t let you fall,” and this time I knew the right thing to say. I held him as he shuddered, knowing he would never let himself cry. I don’t know why he can’t, or won’t, or what happened to make him the kind of man he is, but I wept for him, my heart aching with sorrow even as it was filled to bursting with joy because he loved me, because he trusted me enough to let me see him in his weakness and despair.

I held him, and waited for the storm to pass, and every shred of bitterness I’d felt toward him vanished. It was impossible for me to hate him when he needed so badly for me to love him instead.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 77

30 Lennitay (continued)

Cederic was there, standing where Vorantor had the first night I’d seen the room, looking over the edge at what lay far below. I had another moment of fear, but pushed it aside and walked toward him. He always knows it’s me, though I don’t know how. This time he probably heard me shouting. He said, “There are stones in a strange pattern here.”

“It’s a way into the God-Empress’s treasure tower,” I said.

“I suppose I should expect you to know these things,” he said, not turning around. I didn’t like the sound of his voice. It was empty, and bitter, and sounded nothing like him.

“I’m a thief,” I said, trying to make a joke, but it hung in the air between us and then fell to the ground, disregarded.

He didn’t say anything. I swear I thought all I wanted was to help him. To show him that no one who mattered thought less of him for having been wrong. I cast about for something that would adequately express that feeling, and came up with, “Terrael feels terrible for having been the one to reveal that.”

“Master Peressten is an honest man. He would not have concealed it, even for me,” Cederic said.

More silence. I felt as if everything I wanted to say was running up against the brick wall that was Cederic’s humiliation. “What will you do now?” I said.

“You mean, now that it is clear to everyone that I am a fool, and that I have wasted two years of my time and that of Castavir’s finest minds?” he said.

“You’re not a fool,” I said. “Don’t say that.”

“The evidence was clear enough for Denril and the other Sais to see the truth,” Cederic said. “I let my pride in my rank convince me that I could find success where they could not. That makes me a fool. An arrogant, selfish fool.”

“Don’t say that,” I said. “You are better than they are, and you made a mistake—”

“What do you know of it?” he shouted, turning on me so quickly I took a step back in surprise. “You, another of my many mistakes, snatched out of your world because of my carelessness! You simply cannot leave things alone, can you? I did not ask you to follow me. I did not ask for your patronizing sympathy, your cautious tiptoeing around the truth, and I cannot understand why you believe anything you have to say means anything to me!”

I remember every word of it. His face, no longer expressionless, his voice, raging at me, I remember it all. It hurt so badly that for one confused moment I thought he’d stabbed me, and I put my hand up to my chest and felt nothing but cloth. The fury faded from Cederic’s face. “Sesskia,” he said, “I didn’t…”

I turned and ran for the door. He shouted my name, and I heard him coming after me, but I was already leaping down the steps and plunging through the floor as into the ocean’s depths, into blackness, from one open space to another, anything to get away from him.

I ran through long galleries where the servants flung themselves out of my way—I have no idea what they thought, I probably looked like a madwoman—and through rows of tiny, sealed-off cubicles; across the floor of the mosaic chamber, where I lost one of my shoes; then into one of the God-Empress’s kitchens, where I kicked off the other to be a mystery for one of the servants to find.

I wasn’t thinking at all, just running, and passing through walls, and at some point I became lightheaded from all the insubstantiality, and I stopped, and I was here in the fur room. I tore all the furs off the walls and the counters and piled them in a corner, and I flung myself down on them, and I cried as I haven’t for years.

Because I didn’t know I loved him until he told me how worthless he thinks I am.

I swear it’s true. How stupid does that make me? How incredibly stupid was I not to realize that my longing to ease his pain had nothing to do with friendship? I realize, now, that I’ve loved him for a long time. Of course I go to him for every little thing, because I feel better when I’m with him, happier and more comfortable than when I’m alone.

I trust him more than anyone, even more than Audryn and Sovrin—I don’t know why that is, because in most ways I’m closer to them than I am to Cederic. It’s just—I think it’s because he makes such an effort to be…not truthful, exactly, but he never says anything without being certain that he’s not misleading you, because truth and honesty and accuracy matter so much to him, and that goes so far beyond truth and lies that it’s like a bedrock foundation I know I can always count on.

I love it when I can make him smile or joke, and I thought that was because it’s a challenge, like it was a game I was playing, but the truth is that even though his smile is tiny and thin, his eyes get this amused gleam to them that warms my heart. And I love the way his lips quirk just a little bit when he’s intent on a problem; I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know he does that, and the thought of it makes my heart ache more because it reminds me of how confident and powerful he is, or was before that bastard Vorantor took such joy in tearing him down.

Did I write once that his face was smooth and arrogant? I don’t know why I ever thought that, why I never realized how handsome he is, with those crooked eyebrows and high, strong cheekbones and those eyes I have trouble looking away from.

I love him, and he despises me. He’s right, I don’t belong here, and if I had something to offer him, I wouldn’t have fumbled around like that in the observatory, I would have known exactly the right thing to say. And I didn’t.

This isn’t the worst day of my life. Not even close. The day I came back with the medicine for Bridie, and she was lying sprawled on the bed, dried foam at the corners of her lips from her final seizure, with Mam passed out in a gin-soaked stupor in the corner so Bridie hadn’t even had someone who loved her to hold her when she died, and I picked up her little body and carried it into the street to find someone who would help me bury her—nothing’s ever going to be worse than that day.

So I don’t know why this hurts so much more. Probably because I’m a fool, and I need to stop lying here mopping tears out of my eyes. The world is still ending. There might still be something I can do to—not stop it, obviously, but make it less terrible. Even if that means working with Vorantor. Even if it means giving the God-Empress the chance to expand her empire.

It’s been about fifteen minutes since I wrote that last sentence, and I feel calmer now. I can think about this more rationally. Cederic was hurt, and angry, and I probably looked like an easy target, fumbling around and hurting him more with my awkward words. So I doubt he meant any of what he said. But how much worse is that, that he knew exactly what to say that would hurt me and didn’t even try to hold it back?

Remembering makes me feel small and worthless again, because I’m just as bad as the Darssan mages, I want him to respect me and think I matter. I want him to love me. And I think this all proves he doesn’t.

I’m going to wait here until I’m sure my face looks normal again, then I’m going back to my room, I’m going to sleep, and in the morning I’m going to go to Vorantor and ask him what he wants from me. And I’m never speaking to Cederic again.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 76

30 Lennitay (continued)

Cederic was completely motionless. He didn’t even blink. “I see,” he said.

Vorantor said, “Oh, Cederic. You still held out hope, didn’t you? Are you convinced now?”

“No way to prevent it,” Cederic said, his lips barely moving. “You were right.”

Vorantor put his hand on Cederic’s unmoving shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, a little too cheerfully. “No harm done, in the long run, and there’s no shame in being wrong, is there?”

“Of course not,” Cederic said.

“Pity all that work was wasted,” Vorantor said. “More than two years, wasn’t it? Still, there’s time—”

“I think I should begin…evaluating a new approach,” Cederic said. He sounded so distant that I wanted to cry for him.

“You should do that,” Vorantor said, clapping him on the back again. “I’ll have some suggestions for you later, how does that sound?”

“Very good,” Cederic said, and left the room, his face completely expressionless, his head held high. Vorantor’s mages were whispering to one another and I saw one of them smirk at a comment his friend made. Somebody laughed. The Darssan mages stood frozen in place. Audryn was crying. I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her, though I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t crying myself—probably because I was so furious with Vorantor I wanted to hurt him more than I wanted to weep.

Terrael stood in the center of the room, book held loosely in his hand, head bowed. I steered Audryn toward him, took the book from his hand, and walked over to slap it hard against Vorantor’s chest. He reached up automatically to take it, but I whisked it out of his reach and put it into my pocket.

“Master Peressten is exhausted from his labors,” I said, “and he’s going to rest. Master Engilles will do the same. I’m going to take them to their rooms now. That’s all right, isn’t it.” I stared him down, willing him to see my readiness to hurt him in my eyes, and he flinched and did a poor job of hiding it. He muttered something about “overwrought, time for everyone to rest” and I took Audryn and Terrael by the hands and dragged them out of the circle chamber and through the palace to the Darssan mages’ wing.

Once there, I opened Audryn’s door and dragged them both inside with me. I’d made a decision along the way that violated one of my principles, but I was tired and heartsick and it was a principle that didn’t matter much anymore.

“Sit,” I said, shoving them both gently at Audryn’s bed. “Audryn, Terrael is hopelessly in love with you,” I said, causing Terrael to go red and Audryn to gasp. “He goes out of his way to be near you because he doesn’t know how to tell you how he feels, because you’re older and never become clumsy or awkward or any of the things he’s sure he’s doing anytime you’re near.

“Terrael, Audryn is completely in love with you.” It was Terrael’s turn to gasp. “And she’s afraid to tell you because you’re her superior, sort of, and she’s in awe of how brilliant you are and thinks you think she’s not smart enough for you. And I was going to let this go on until you were both brave enough to tell each other the truth, but it sounds as if the world’s ending and I think neither of you should waste any more time. And now I’m leaving.”

I took the Codex out of my pocket and tossed it at Terrael, who caught it, his eyes still wide. Then I turned and walked out the door, and shut it before I could hear more than Terrael saying, “Audryn—”

I ran the rest of the way up the stairs to the Sais’ wing. I can’t believe I didn’t see any of this coming. My later self is probably reading this and laughing herself sick at how stupid I was. All I wanted was to help. That’s what I thought, anyway. That helping Cederic was all that motivated me.

I stopped at the top of the steps and waited for my breathing to slow, then I walked the rest of the way to Cederic’s room and knocked. There was no answer. I remembered that a Castaviran wouldn’t expect someone to wait for an invitation, so I pushed on the door and found it locked. So I pounded on the door and shouted his name, and when that didn’t work, I unlocked the door and went in. The room was empty.

That made me afraid, though I’m not sure why. I think there was a part of me that wondered if Cederic might not do something stupid, if losing his life’s work and being humiliated by his “old friend” might not push him past breaking. But I couldn’t quite believe it of him. Mostly I worried that it was a large palace, and I didn’t know where to begin looking for him. And then I did. I left his room and went all the way down the hall and up the steps to the observatory.

to be continued…