Sesskia’s Diary, part 92

8 Coloine, very early

I was right to be suspicious of Vorantor, though I still don’t know exactly what he’s up to. I’ve decided to write all this down before taking it to Cederic, since there’s nothing he can do about it now, but there were things that happened before I found Vorantor in what I’m sure are illicit activities, so I have to make a quick list before I forget the details:

  1. snake, arch, fork
  2. pictures (he’s a good artist, maybe that’s something all mages in this world learn)
  3. why did he spit?
  4. rhythm tap tap taptaptap thump

Before that: last night Cederic finally came to bed before I fell asleep, and though we were both too tired for sex, we cuddled together and I poured out my fears to him. I love how he listens like what you’re saying is the most important thing in the world.

When I was finished, he wiped away the few stupid, self-indulgent tears I’d cried and said, “It doesn’t matter if our mages succeed. The kathana Denril has invented has no room for your magic, and it is bound to fail.”

“So why aren’t you doing something about it?” I said, sitting up in outrage.

He pulled me back down to lie close beside him. “Because he is not listening to me,” he said, “and there is a smugness about him that I do not understand. I may have the allegiance of the mages, but Denril still has control of the kathana, and he is relying far too heavily on the th’an Master Peressten extrapolated. He is clearly building the kathana to his glory without regard for whether or not it will work.”

“I don’t understand how he can do that!” I said. “He’ll suffer as much as anyone if we can’t bring the worlds together safely.”

“I think he intends to make the failure look like my fault, to make me look like a fool, and then he will reveal another kathana, this one effective. This is my fault. I should not have humiliated him so thoroughly,” Cederic said.

“If you hadn’t, he would have found another way to strike at you,” I said.

“Probably true,” he said. “At any rate, I have asked Master Peressten to observe him; he can get closer to Denril than I. And I am studying the false kathana when Denril is not present, to see if there is any way to salvage it. If we make corrections…and don’t worry that your efforts don’t seem to be successful. Just keep working at what you’ve been doing. If it doesn’t affect the kathana, it will almost certainly matter after the worlds come back together.”

He kissed me, then said, “I apologize, but I have to leave you now. I have very little opportunity to study the kathana without Denril hovering behind me.”

“But—” I began, then realized I was being selfish. “I understand,” I said. “Just as you will understand that I intend to go exploring now.”

His face went impassive in the way it does when he’s trying to control a strong emotion, then he said, “Where do you intend to go?”

“Somewhere you’re happier not knowing about,” I said, then, when he began to protest, I said, “I’m going to snoop around in Vorantor’s room. If he’s trying to get you out of the way somehow, I want to know about it.”

“You are correct, I was happier not knowing that,” Cederic said. “Though I was afraid you were going back to examine those war wagons again. I admit to being curious about them myself, though I think it is less safe for you to pass those guards than any of the other places you have gone wandering.”

“I agree, and I’m not going there tonight,” I said.

“Which implies that you will do so some other night,” Cederic said.

“I knew you were brilliant,” I said, and he laughed and held me tight for a moment, then released me to rise and dress. I did the same, then concealed myself and watched him move silently down the hall to the stairs before going, equally silently, to Vorantor’s door. No light came from beneath it, so I sneaked to the end of the hall and checked the observatory.

Sure enough, Vorantor was there, sitting where he always did. It was too dark for me to make out any details, so I don’t know if he had a note or not, but that wasn’t important. I crept back to his room and passed through the wall, then used the see-in-dark pouvra and took a look around.

Vorantor—this wasn’t new, I’d learned it the last time I’d been in his room—is very neat and has almost no personal belongings aside from his clothing. I went through his wardrobe and found several ceremonial robes of different levels of splendor, though I’m sure I’d have been more impressed with them if I could have seen colors.

He also had a lot of shoes; I think he could wear a different pair of shoes every day for a week. He uses only one drawer of his dresser, for underclothing, and I poked through that in case he was a fool and kept important things there. Nothing.

There were no rugs on his floor, which is one of the places I look first when I’m searching for hidden documents. The lack of rugs almost got me caught, later, and I still wonder why Vorantor doesn’t have such basic amenities. Though I suppose, based on what I witnessed in his room, he might have had them removed on purpose.

I checked under his pillows (he has more than I do), between his mattresses and in the frame of the bed, felt along the top of the canopy frame, and found nothing. Since I didn’t know what I was looking for, I wasn’t terribly disappointed. I slipped behind his bed, which had been shoved nearly all the way against the wall (that made no sense at the time, but I get it now), and checked underneath it and along the wall.

There was a niche very like the one in my room, the one that’s practically an invitation to hide things, and I was about to feel around inside it, just to be thorough, when the door opened and Vorantor came in. I closed my eyes in time to avoid being blinded by his lamp. I was crouched behind the bed, so between that and the concealment pouvra I wasn’t worried about him seeing me, but I went very still anyway until the effects of the see-in-dark pouvra wore off.

When I opened my eyes again, he was removing his gold and brown “working” robe; fortunately for my peace of mind, he wore a sleeveless tunic under it, because what I do not need to see again is Vorantor’s very pale, slightly flabby skin. Just one more reason for him to be jealous of Cederic, who is wonderfully handsome and has not a bit of flab anywhere.

I closed my eyes again, in case he was undressing for the night, but I heard him taking things out of his wardrobe, so I opened my eyes again and saw him pulling a richly embroidered red robe around himself, and despite my well-trained self-control I nearly made an indignant noise, because he is not entitled to the robe of a Kilios! I don’t even know how he got one!

I managed to stay quiet despite my outrage. Vorantor dressed himself with great care, unfastened his hair and brushed it and secured it again with a wide gold band. Then he knelt on the floor, took out a piece of black chalk, and began drawing. I couldn’t see a thing with the bed in the way, so I carefully slid out from that narrow space and went to stand behind him. It was insane, I know, but I had to know what he was doing.

This is what it looked like: He drew a circle—the mages are all very good at drawing nearly perfect circles—and then a much smaller circle inside it, centered on it. (I’m having to check my list from the beginning of this entry, because I’m already forgetting things. I feel very smart for having made it.)

In the space between the circles, he began drawing th’an, some of which I recognized from the Codex Tiurindi summoning, others which were unfamiliar to me. Inside the small circle, he drew a tiny picture, and he is a very good artist, because it was obviously a war wagon.

Then he sat back on his heels, breathing hard as if he’d been running, then with his left hand began tapping out a rhythm, tap tap taptaptap THUMP, over and over again. He did it for long enough that I almost started tapping myself. Then, at the top of the pattern, he leaned over and with his right hand began making new th’an, following the beat.

I didn’t know these th’an, but they looked so much like real things that it was easy to remember them: one like a snake, or an S with two extra curves, one like an arch that curled outward at the ends, and one like a Castaviran fork, with four tines. He drew these in several places around the outside of the circle, and then totally surprised me by spitting a great gob of saliva at the war wagon at the center of it all.

All the chalk lines went from matte black to shining gold, as if inlaid with metal, and the spaces inside the circle that didn’t have lines drawn on them glowed with white light, not bright or painful, just a soft white glow.

And then I did something stupid. I inadvertently took a step back because the glow caught me off-guard, and I wasn’t as balanced as I thought. My boot scraped across the bare floor (no rug!) and made a small but distinct sound. Vorantor’s head whipped up and around, and he stood up and scanned the room, his eyes slowly passing over the walls and the floors.

I closed my eyes, which was terrifying, but I had a feeling if our eyes met, the concealment pouvra wouldn’t protect me. So I had to stand there, motionless, blind, waiting for him to grab me and unable to do anything about it.

Nothing happened. Finally Vorantor took a few steps in the direction of the window, and I opened my eyes and tried not to breathe loudly. The chalk marks on the floor, and the light, were gone as if they’d never been. Vorantor had the curtains open and was looking out at Colosse (my room is on the other side and looks over the palace roofs).

I dared take a silent step backward; he didn’t react. Slowly, one cautious step at a time, I moved toward the door—and then I stopped. I should have left, but I really wanted to know if he kept anything in that niche behind the bed. So I leaned against the wall next to the door and waited. Eventually he got undressed (I kept my eyes closed for this too) and I waited for him to finish reading, then he turned off the light and settled in for the night.

I waited a little longer until his breathing slowed. I hoped he’d start snoring, but unfortunately that’s one annoying trait he doesn’t have. So I did the see-in-dark pouvra again, crept up to his bed, slid between it and the wall, then crouched low and felt along the base of the wall, wishing there were enough room for me to wiggle under the bed. Instead I knelt there with my face pressed against the cold wall, telling myself I was being stupid and there was nothing to find, and then my fingers reached the crack and I reached inside.

Something moved beneath my hand and made a rustling sound that in the dark seemed louder than an explosion. Vorantor shifted his weight, and I held my breath, but he didn’t wake. The wall niche seemed full of dry leaves, or small papers—I teased one out and brought it to where I could look at it. Meaningless writing, but I was certain it was one of the notes Aselfos had sent Vorantor.

And now I had a dilemma. I really wanted to know what was in those notes, but I was equally desirous that Vorantor not know someone had been snooping in his room. There was a chance he’d notice if one of them were missing. I crouched there with the note in my hand, weighing the possibilities.

Then I tucked the note inside the waistband of my trousers and began to retrace my slow, silent steps. Vorantor hadn’t checked the niche when he came in, which meant he likely only looked inside when he put a new note there. I could show the note to Cederic, then return it during the day tomorrow when Vorantor was at the circle chamber, before evening when he might receive a new one.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ve been waiting for Cederic for nearly an hour now and I have no idea when he’ll return. He can’t go forever without sleep, though he doesn’t seem to need as much of it as normal, sane people do, so eventually he’ll have to come back, and then he can read the note and we can decide what, if anything, we should do about it.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 91

7 Coloine

Vorantor came into the circle chamber this morning looking far more smug than usual. No idea why, because he enlisted Cederic’s help on the kathana, to confirm Terrael’s guesses about the missing th’an. Cederic acted as if this were nothing out of the ordinary, but I’m suspicious. I hate that I have nothing concrete to attach my suspicions to.

The possibility of me learning to use pouvrin to manifest th’an is looking less likely every day. Cederic told us to focus our efforts on creating th’an that are based on the structures of pouvrin. I feel useless. Our discussion on the topic went nowhere, and I think some of the other mages were laughing at us, which made me feel worse. I don’t know why I can’t explain things better. This kathana is going to fail, and it will be my fault.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 90

6 Coloine

I still have no idea what’s going on between Cederic and Vorantor. Cederic’s climbing into bed woke me briefly, very late last night, but he was up and dressing himself when I woke and we barely had time for a kiss before he was gone again.

It’s frustrating, because I gave up exploring last night so we could talk, but I can’t blame him for being preoccupied with the kathana. The mages have stopped trying to predict how long it’s going to be until it all happens, because their kathanas give conflicting predictions, including some that say the convergence has already happened, which we know isn’t true.

Vorantor and several mages, none of them from the Darssan, started reconstructing the first kathana today. Cederic didn’t volunteer to help and told us to go on as we have been. Everyone was tense, and there were two or three discussions that nearly turned into arguments that Cederic had to break up, since Vorantor was ignoring everything except the kathana. The only good news is that Alessa and Sovrin had an interesting idea for teaching me th’an that might work. No idea if it will work in time.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 89

5 Coloine

Terrael has almost worked out all the details about the kathana that separated the worlds, though he told Audryn he had to guess at about a tenth of the th’an, since Veris and Barklan weren’t mages and assumed there would be people around after the “success” to write it all down more fully. Or maybe some of those mages did keep records, and we just don’t know about them.

Even though Terrael is uncertain, Vorantor’s plan is to reconstruct the kathana, then invert it to describe the world as it used to be. I think of it as “reminding” the worlds how they’re supposed to be united, something I won’t tell Terrael in case he calls me a savage again. He ought to thank me for being so considerate of him, not forcing me to soak his head. It’s so undignified.

We’re having no success blending the two worlds’ magics, and I’m starting to wonder if Vorantor is more clever than we thought, setting Cederic to work on research that’s a dead end. Cederic behaves as if our work is important, and I know he’s determined not to waste his time again, so I have to believe he knows what he’s doing. He was collaborating with Vorantor again today, and then after dinner, and if he comes to bed before I fall asleep, I’ll ask him whether Vorantor is actually accepting his input. Because I think if Vorantor can get away with it, he won’t.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 88

4 Coloine (continued)

“You should begin,” the God-Empress said, frowning, “or God will believe you have brought her here frivolously.”

Aselfos dropped my hand and took two steps away. “I will not,” he began, and one of the soldiers stepped up behind him and put one of those very sharp knives against his throat. He stopped speaking. The God-Empress screamed, “You will do as God says or your blood will water this floor!

“Don’t worry, Renatha, um, Perce and I want to be married,” I said, reaching out to take Aselfos’s hand. In the instant before I clasped it, the beginnings of an idea struck me. Just as our fingertips brushed, I worked the walk-through-walls pouvra and let my hand slip through his.

It felt awful. I could feel the blood flowing through his hand, felt bone grate on bone even though we were both insubstantial, and Aselfos cried out and jerked his hand up, making the soldier with the knife take half a step back and a thin line of blood bead up along Aselfos’s neck. “Our vows are rejected!” I screamed. “God will not allow me to take his hand!”

The God-Empress stared at my hand, then grabbed it and pinched the skin between my thumb and forefinger, hard, making me cry out. “I have done no such thing,” she said. “Your love is meant to be. I would never reject your vows.”

“It must have been an accident,” I said. “We should try again. Renatha, please ask that man to release my love. There should be no violence on such a…a sacred day.”

The God-Empress nodded, the soldier moved back, and Aselfos raised his hand to wipe the blood away. He was breathing a little too heavily and looked as if he were even more afraid of me than of the God-Empress.

I held out my hand to him, and he reached out to take it, and I did the pouvra again. It was still awful, though at least this time I was ready for it. Aselfos looked as if he were going to be sick. “Renatha, why is this happening?” I exclaimed, making a big show of examining my hand. “It surely means we are not meant to be married!”

“But I have decreed it!” the God-Empress wailed. She pushed me aside, ran down the dais, and snatched a longsword from one of the soldiers, who made as if to stop her before coming to his senses. The God-Empress raised the sword and swung hard at the dais; it made a strange sound somewhere between a clang and a thunk. “I am God and I will not be thwarted!” she screamed.

I felt lightheaded, like I was spinning, or maybe that was the room turning around me, as if the God-Empress’s madness were infectious and I had caught the disease. “But it is marriage that would thwart your will, Renatha!” I shouted. “Our desire to be married is wrong!”

The God-Empress turned on me and dropped the sword, which landed with a clunk. “It is,” she agreed, her voice low and vicious now, her eyes narrowed. “Why would you waste my time like this, Sesskia?”

Now I was terrified. There were at least twenty soldiers, and I was certain I couldn’t keep all of them at bay with fire, and concealing myself and running was a very short-term solution. “I…made a mistake,” I said. “God is forgiving of mistakes.”

“God dislikes waste,” the God-Empress said, “but she is understanding of human frailty. And you are my sister, Sesskia.” She turned toward Aselfos. “But he…he is nothing to me. Destroy him.”

Aselfos had recovered from the shock of feeling my incorporeal hand pass through his, but now he went ashen. “I can’t,” I began, and the God-Empress said, “You will do as God commands, Sesskia, or I will be forced to watch these men kill you. God must be obeyed.”

Aselfos’s eyes met mine. He was pleading with me. I closed my eyes, willed him to hold still, and said, “God’s command, then,” and wreathed Aselfos in fire. He screamed, and I put the fire out before he could truly panic and flee.

“Renatha!” I shouted. “How dare you use your sister that way!”

The God-Empress took a step back. “What?” she said.

I drew myself to my full height and glared at her. “You dare command me to do something God has forbidden? This man is protected by God. Is this some sort of test?”

I had her thoroughly confused now. The God-Empress looked at Aselfos, who stood in the same place, shuddering, then at me. “But I—” she began.

I cut her off. “I only have power because God gives it to me,” I said. “My magic has no power to harm that which God has protected. God must not be mocked. You are trying to trick me into betraying God.”

“No,” the God-Empress said, sounding once again like a child, but afraid rather than cheerful.

“I understand now,” I said. “It was a test, wasn’t it? A test of my loyalty? Did I pass?”

Confusion cleared from the God-Empress’s face. “Oh, Sesskia, it was a test!” she said, and embraced me. “You are truly God’s choice.” She released me, went to Aselfos, and embraced him as well. “And you have been marked by God’s power,” she said, fingering the charred neck of his formal tunic. “I am sorry about the marriage. I know Sesskia is your heart’s desire.”

“My God, I will turn my heart elsewhere,” Aselfos said, his voice barely trembling, his eyes fixed on me. When the God-Empress turned away, he nodded to me, slowly, as if acknowledging a debt.

“Oh, Sesskia, I do love you more than my other sisters. They never visit me,” the God-Empress said, hooking her arm through mine once more. “We will eat together, and then you will return to Denril Vorantor and tell him that God smiles on his work. I’m sure he’ll find ways to make use of you.”

“I think you’re right, Renatha,” I said, but my heart continued to beat like a rabbit’s until we were seated in one of the formal dining rooms at opposite ends of the table, too far apart to converse, and I could concentrate on chewing and swallowing tasteless food. It probably was very good, but I was too keyed up to appreciate it.

I matched her madness for madness, and now I wonder if I’ve finally exhausted my stores of luck. The only good thing that’s come of this morning is that I saved Aselfos’s life, and he knows it. But I have no idea how that might benefit me. Maybe if Aselfos really is planning to kill all the mages, he’ll spare my life. Or maybe he’ll think twice before attacking the mages, if he thinks my magic is representative of what they can do. I don’t know. I’m still jittery.

The God-Empress was back to being her usual cold, distant self by the time the meal was over, and dismissed me without any friendliness. She also didn’t suggest that I return to change into my own clothes. When I said, “I think you should have someone put this away for me,” attempting to remove the diamond necklace, she said, with some anger, “Mother always liked you better,” and walked away.

I don’t know what to make of that. Either she’s going to forget I have it, or she’s going to send soldiers to retrieve it from me some day when I’ve forgotten I have it. So I walked back to the mages’ wing, holding my head high and pretending no one was staring at me. That was hard, because everyone was staring.

I got as far as my own room before I realized it was impossible for me to get out of the dress without help. Everyone had already finished their lunch, so I had to go into the circle chamber dressed like the God-Empress’s life-sized doll and submit to the exclamations of the women and the teasing of the men. Cederic went totally impassive when he saw me, and Vorantor said something about the God-Empress’s favor; I think he was jealous of me, because I’m sure the God-Empress has never given him a fortune in diamonds.

Sovrin came back to my room with me to help me change. “I was watching Sai Aleynten,” she said with a grin, “and he had a look in his eye that nearly made me melt, and you know he’s not my type.”

“I couldn’t look at him and keep my composure,” I said, and at that point I realized I’d left some of my favorite clothes back in the God-Empress’s dressing room. I shook my hair out and put the silver combs on the dressing table next to the necklace. They’re beautiful, and I wish I had some reason to wear them more often. Then I remember who gave them to me, and I wish I dared throw them away.

“So why are you dressed up?” Sovrin asked.

“I…we can talk about it later, so I don’t have to repeat the story for Audryn,” I said. That was only partly my reason; I was starting to feel panicky about how close I’d come to being married to the wrong man.

“Oh, if you have to be sensible,” Sovrin said, pretending to pout, and we went back to the circle chamber, where we both went back to work as if nothing had happened. Cederic treated me as he always did, with respectful indifference, and we made no more progress than before, partly because I simply could not stay focused. When I wasn’t remembering the God-Empress’s mad, confused expression when I challenged her, I was seeing Aselfos’s eyes when the fire surrounded him. Th’an couldn’t keep my attention.

Sovrin and Audryn came with me to my room right after dinner to hear my story. I felt guilty about telling them before telling Cederic, but I didn’t even make eye contact with him at dinner before he and Vorantor went back to their research, and by that time I really needed to talk. We sat on the red bearskin rug, Sovrin wearing the necklace, Audryn with her hair pinned up with the combs, and they were perfectly silent as I told the story. When I was finished, Audryn said, “You are brilliant.”

“I think I’m lucky,” I said.

“That too,” Sovrin said. “Saying marriage vows to one man when you’re already married to another…even if neither of you mean it….”

“I was afraid of that,” I said. “But I couldn’t exactly tell the God-Empress that.”

“At least you got something nice out of it,” Sovrin said, running her fingers across the rows of diamonds. “And the dress is beautiful. You looked stunning.”

“I doubt I’ll get to wear it again,” I said.

Audryn and Sovrin exchanged meaningful glances. “I think Sai Aleynten will figure something out,” Sovrin said with a wink.

That’s probably true. I almost asked them to help me put it back on, so I’d be wearing it when Cederic comes to bed, but as I wrote, I don’t know how late that will be, so it will have to wait for another time.

It’s nearly midnight now. Still no Cederic. I’m going to sleep now, and hope the God-Empress doesn’t decide she needs her “sister’s” company again anytime soon.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 87

4 Coloine (continued)

“I—it’s my pleasure, and your company is an honor I don’t deserve,” I said, and she beamed more widely at me and squeezed my hand so hard parts of it went numb.

“Now we should go, and don’t worry, everything’s been arranged,” she said, so of course I really started to worry. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve concluded that there’s really no way I could have guessed what she had in mind, since our cultures are so different, but I should definitely have been more on my guard than I was. Especially since everything she said suggested that she was deep in some delusion. If I’d tried harder to work out what that delusion was, things would have gone differently—but, then, I’m alive, and so is Aselfos, so I’m not going to reproach myself too much.

The God-Empress linked her arm with mine and skipped—yes, actually skipped—out of the room, forcing me to skip along with her in those stupid silver heels. It’s a miracle I didn’t fall and take her down with me. When we came to the checkerboard floor, she went from skipping to hopping, always landing on the black marble. “It’s not a moss day, can’t touch the moss!” she said happily, and I stumbled along after her. Even so, I was thinking this was far from the worst thing she could do to me. And that was true, right up until we came to our destination.

The room was almost identical to the throne room, with the black and white patterned floor and the crystal lamps, though the walls were painted dove gray instead of mirrored, and of course there was no throne. Instead, there was a dais of black marble at the far end of the room, surrounded by men wearing chicken helmets and knee-length black tunics all standing with their backs to it.

The God-Empress slowed from her manic hopping to a slow, measured walk with an erratic beat: step-slide, step, step, slide-step, over and over again, and after a few missteps, I was able to follow her. It took several minutes for us to reach the dais this way, which gave me plenty of time to speculate on what would happen when we got there.

When we were within fifteen feet of it, I was able to look more closely at the men and realized that they were wearing full armor under their poorly-fitting black tunics, which were thin linen stretched taut over the metal plates at their shoulders and chests. All of them were focused straight ahead, not on us, which was probably safer for them and for me; I was just as happy not to be noticed by them.

The God-Empress brought me up the three steps to the top of the dais and gently pushed me one way and then the other until I stood exactly where she wanted me, which was to my eyes a random spot left of center. She took my hand again and stood next to me, and we waited. My feet became sore, but I was afraid to shift my weight, because my mad companion was motionless, but poised as if listening for something.

“Don’t worry, he won’t forget,” she whispered, and I was trying to decide whether I should ask her for clarification when a concealed door in the dove-gray walls opened, and more soldiers in black tunics came through single-file and marched toward the dais. Three men dressed in the costumes I’d seen courtiers wear when they attended the God-Empress in her throne room, but entirely in black, walked in the center of the line. I didn’t recognize two of them, but the man in the middle was Perce Aselfos.

He has a handsome face, with a strong nose and deep-set brown eyes, but his appearance was marred by the beginnings of a large bruise on his right cheekbone and a split lower lip. He looked furious. The other two men watched him warily, exactly as if they expected him to bolt, or hit one or both of them.

“Oh, Perce, you look wonderful,” the God-Empress said in a breathless, happy voice. “Come up here and stand next to Sesskia.”

Aselfos glowered, but came up the steps and stood where the God-Empress pointed. The God-Empress took my hand, then Aselfos’s hand, and to my surprise put them together. I clasped his hand automatically. It was dry, and limp in mine. The God-Empress beamed, and took a few steps back. “What a perfect day!” she said. “Don’t you think it’s a perfect day, Sesskia? I’m so pleased for you both.”

I realized what she had in mind, and jerked my hand away, or tried to; Aselfos’s grip became suddenly firm, and he gave me a warning look. “You want us to be married?” I said.

I might have sounded the tiniest bit shrill, because the God-Empress’s eyes narrowed, and she said, “No, Sesskia, you want to be married. I only agreed to witness your marriage vows. You’re not having second thoughts, are you? Because I really am so happy for you, and I would hate for this perfect day to be ruined.”

I glanced at Aselfos again, and he shook his head, almost imperceptibly. My hand was starting to sweat. “I don’t—” I began, then words deserted me.

“Marriage is a sacred act, Sesskia,” the God-Empress said, waggling a perfect finger with a rose-enameled nail in front of my eyes. “You don’t want to spurn God’s blessing, do you?”

“I—” A delaying possibility suggested itself. “I am an otherworlder, Renatha, and I know nothing of your marriage customs. Would you explain them to me? Because I think making those vows without understanding them would be disrespectful to God.”

Aselfos looked at me as if I were as mad as the God-Empress. “Of course, Sesskia, I should have realized!” the God-Empress said. “It’s really very simple. You and your beloved come before God—actually, most people come before a priest, but naturally I’m happy to perform the service for you, because you are God’s choice—and declare your names, so that God knows who stands before Her.

“Then each of you announces your intent to marry, and God asks you to name the man or woman of your choosing. And of course you say each other’s names, because it would be silly to want to marry someone who didn’t want you, yes?

“Then God asks some questions to be sure you understand how serious it is and tells you what the law settles on you as a married couple. And then you promise loyalty and love to each other, though you’re free to say it however you like. And then you’re married! Isn’t that beautiful?”

It would be if Cederic were here, I thought. I was starting to panic. Obviously Aselfos had no interest in marrying me, and this was all some sick fantasy the God-Empress had dreamed up to “reward” one or both of us. I had no idea how binding this ceremony was, if neither of us meant it—and what happened if I swore marriage vows to someone when I was already married to someone else?

to be continued…

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Sesskia’s Diary, part 86

4 Coloine (continued)

No one came to dress me, so I dithered for a bit over what might offend the God-Empress least, then realized I can’t begin to guess what her twisted mind might find offensive, and put on my nicest clothing that wasn’t a dress. It turned out I didn’t need to run away from her, but I still think it was a good precaution.

When I stepped out of my room, four soldiers in chicken helmets were once again standing there, waiting for me, and I stepped into their protective square and marched away. This time, no one had cleared the corridors, and people had to jump out of our way because the soldiers moved as if they had a walk-through-walls pouvra and didn’t care who they used it on.

Most of the people we passed gaped at us, making me wonder if they knew who I was, or if they were just curious about anyone who rated such a guard. Or (this has only just occurred to me) they thought I was a prisoner being marched off for execution. I was too busy being nervous to pay much attention to them.

We went to the alcove leading to the public areas of the palace, and I thought we might be going to the throne room again, but the soldiers took me through a series of arched hallways, wide and tall enough to admit the loenerel but paved in a checkerboard pattern of black marble and green travertine, and into a breezy, light chamber whose windows all stood open.

Gauzy pale blue drapes billowed as warm air flowed into the room, fighting with the cooling kathana for dominance. Seven identical cedar wardrobes—I like the smell of cedar, but this was like being hit in the face by a warm, pillowy brick of the stuff—lined the blue walls. I don’t have to describe the rest; the God-Empress likes monochromatic decorating schemes.

The God-Empress herself stood at one of the windows, letting the air blow her filmy white dress (more of a long, loose shift) around her. Her golden hair was loose and hung to her knees, and I had the beginnings of a pang of jealousy at how smooth it was that was suppressed by a memory of Cederic winding his fingers through my hair and telling me how much he loved its color and thickness.

And then, to my shock, I actually felt sorry for the God-Empress, who has no one to love her. It didn’t last long, thanks to what happened next, but it’s true, she’s more to be pitied than envied. And more to be feared than either of those things.

The soldiers left me at the door, and I walked forward, not sure whether I should draw attention to myself or in what way I’d do so. But the sound of my footsteps on the smooth, caramel-colored wood floor alerted her, and she turned, shrieked in delight, and flung herself at me. I very nearly went over beneath her weight. “Sesskia!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t this the most beautiful, perfect day? I’m so happy to see you! And I know you must be so excited, but everything in its time, yes?”

She clapped three times, and a file of servant women emerged from a hidden door near the windows. “Clothing for my dear sister,” the God-Empress commanded, and women flung open the wardrobes to reveal gowns in every shade of the rainbow and a few never found in nature, all of them made from silks or brocades or velvets, some richly embroidered, others studded with gems, every gown fit for a queen.

I stood, unable to speak, as women began bringing gowns to the God-Empress for her approval. The God-Empress said, “You must tell me which ones you like! Isn’t this fun, dressing up, when there are all these beautiful gowns? And then you can help me choose mine!” She began holding dresses up to my body, flinging some away, handing others back to the servants with a “Sesskia will want to try this on” or “Oh, this is divine, I simply must see if it fits me!”

Despite her words, I didn’t ever have time to express an opinion, not that it mattered to me which of these many gowns I ended up wearing. They were all exquisite, but completely impractical, and I spent my time while the God-Empress debated which was more my color, lilac or lavender (Note: they are EXACTLY THE SAME COLOR) wondering what she had in mind. Were we going to tour the city again, this time dressed like royalty? Or was all this simply for the sake of some elaborate tea party? Of course, the truth was far worse, but at the time I was innocently curious and wary.

The gown the God-Empress eventually chose for me was beautiful and, surprisingly, suited me well. It was silk, fitted through the bodice and waist to leave my shoulders bare, flowing softly to my ankles. It was pale blue at the top and became increasingly dark until it was midnight blue at the hem, as if the color had all bled from the top of my gown and pooled at the bottom.

I was admiring myself in the full-length mirror and thinking that I should find a way to wear this back to the mages’ wing, where Cederic could see me, when the God-Empress reached around my neck and said, “I know Mother would want you to wear these,” and I nearly fell over because she had clasped several fortunes’ worth of diamonds, not one of them smaller than ten carats, around my neck as carelessly as if they were a child’s shell necklace.

For about five seconds I really wanted to keep those diamonds. Then common sense asserted itself and reminded me that there was a good chance the God-Empress would look at me ten minutes from now, accuse me of stealing her mother’s diamonds, and take them off by way of removing my head.

I was also trying not to think about what it meant that she clearly believed we were sisters today. The God-Empress has no family, having had all her siblings executed when she came to the throne, so my being her “sister” was no guarantee of safety.

The servants found me a pair of silver shoes with an impractically high heel that the God-Empress rhapsodized over and that I could therefore not refuse, then I stood in the corner (“Don’t muss yourself!” the God-Empress had shrieked when I tried to sit down) and watched her choose a gown. “You must be the most beautiful today, of course, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be lovely, too!” the God-Empress exclaimed, and proceeded to choose a sleeveless gown of dazzling white, crusted with pearls in sizes ranging from as small as pinheads to more than an inch in diameter, that made her look more beautiful than ever.

Then the servants arranged our hair, brushing mine until it shone and then winding it around my head and pinning it fiercely in place with silver combs sparkling with more diamonds. I stood in front of the mirror again, admiring myself, and the God-Empress came to stand beside me, took my hand, and squeezed it. “I’m so happy for you,” she whispered. “Thank you for allowing me to join you for this perfect day.”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 85

4 Coloine

It’s been the strangest day. I don’t know what to make of it. Especially the part where I felt I played a vicious game with the God-Empress, and may have won—it’s hard for me to tell when I don’t understand Castaviran culture well. Or, possibly, at all. I really don’t want to think about it, but I can’t leave things out of this record just because they’re unpleasant and uncomfortable and frightening.

But I have to get to the question of the worlds coming together first. After our lovemaking last night, which felt a little desperate, me wanting something good to hold onto and Cederic showing more than he probably intended of how afraid he was for me, we lay together and talked for a very short time about the question of what the worlds would look like when they were reunited.

Cederic, surprisingly, said, “I don’t know,” and then went silent for about a minute. Then he said, “You said the place where Thalessa is in our world has never been successfully settled, correct?”

“That’s what the mages from Helviran said,” I said.

He was silent for a bit longer. “And the ruins all overlap,” he said, but it sounded like he was talking to himself, so I didn’t respond. Then he rolled out of bed and began dressing.

“What are you doing?” I said. I felt miffed at his abruptness.

“I am going to get some maps,” he said. Then he saw my face, and closed his eyes briefly—he looked like he was wrestling with himself. “I am sorry,” he said, “but I am not used to having to explain myself to anyone. Let alone to the wife I am about to leave alone in our bed for the sake of an academic pursuit.”

“I think there are a lot of things we’re going to have to learn to understand about each other,” I said. “I’ve been alone for a long time, and I’m used to doing things without consulting anyone, too.”

He smiled at me—a real smile, not that thin little twist of the lips, a smile he saves for me—and said, “I intend to retrieve some maps that may help me answer your question. I further intend to bring them here rather than examine them in the circle chamber, so I can make use of your perceptions. Will you pardon my abruptness?”

“Of course,” I said, and got out of bed and began to dress. “I’ll be waiting.”

I didn’t have to wait long. Cederic returned with what turned out to be small versions of the large maps we’d used the day he figured out I was from the “shadow world.” He spread the Castaviran map out, then overlaid it with the Balaen map. “Where did you get this?” I said.

“I had Master Serelssor make copies of the large ones. She has a very accurate eye,” Cederic said. “Look at this. None of the major cities overlap any others. In your world, what exists where Colosse lies?”

“Nothing,” I said, starting to feel excited but not sure why. “There are a lot of smaller towns along the river, but none of them have ever grown very large. Except Garwin, and that’s much farther south.”

“Unusual, since river traffic usually encourages settlement,” Cederic said. “Can you think of any other cities located where Castaviran cities are?”

“None,” I said. “What does it mean?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, and I—”

“Don’t want to guess,” I said, grinning at him.

He smiled back. “I am rather predictable in some ways, aren’t I?” He turned his attention back to the map and touched it, right at the center of Colosse. “Though it seems as if each world has left space for its counterpart. And the ruins overlap exactly—that is the greater mystery.” He touched three of the X’s, one after the other, then let the maps roll up and stared off into the distance for long enough that I became impatient, and said, “What will you do?”

He looked at me, and his smile became teasing. “I will remove every scrap of clothing you are wearing,” he said, “and explore your body until you forget everything except the feel of my skin against yours, and then I will make you cry my name—” at which point I pulled his shirt off over his head and kissed him, and then he did exactly as he’d promised.

Just remembering that makes my body respond as if he were still touching me, which I wish he were. But he and Vorantor are working late, and while I still intend to spend the night here in his room, I don’t know when he’ll join me. And now I have no more excuses; I have to write what happened with the God-Empress today.

to be continued…

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 84

3 Coloine, after dinner

Audryn, with Sovrin in tow (I’m not sure how she managed to extricate her from the other mages), had many words for me when she returned, starting with, “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“Or me?” Sovrin said. “And how long has this been going on? Sesskia, if you’re carrying on a secret affair with Sai Aleynten, we deserve to know!”

“We’re married,” I blurted out. That left them both speechless. I took advantage of the silence to explain when that had happened, and some of the details surrounding the event—not many, this wasn’t the kind of conversation where you talk about your sex life—and they stared at me a little while longer, while I felt an intense desire to sink through the floor.

Then they both squealed and hugged me, and said things like “it’s so wonderful!” and (Audryn) “both of us married on the same night!” and then they wanted more details, so I explained why it had to remain a secret, which they both completely understood and swore never to reveal the truth.

So then I ended up telling them about the secret pouvrin, which meant I had to demonstrate, and Audryn said, “I wish I could do that. Terrael is old-fashioned and doesn’t want us to move in together until we’ve said our public vows, and he feels like that means we have to sneak around to be together. But he looks so incredibly guilty every time he comes to my room, no one could have any doubt what he’s doing. He’d be thrilled with those pouvrin.”

“I’m still shocked,” Sovrin said. “No offense, Sesskia, but it’s hard to imagine Sai Aleynten unbending enough to have any kind of romantic relationship, never mind being married.”

“Oh,” I said, “he unbends,” and then it was the kind of conversation where you talk about your sex life, and both of them were shocked that I’d been a virgin, but not in a bad way, and now I feel guilty about sharing that sort of thing with two women who don’t need to look at their leader and imagine him having sex. But I couldn’t help myself, it was so good not to have to keep it a secret. And when we finally went back to the circle chamber, neither of them gave any hint that they knew anything about Cederic and me that they shouldn’t. I should have given Audryn more credit.

Now it’s after dinner, and I can go to Cederic soon, and we’ll talk about what might happen tomorrow, and what I might need to do. And I’m finally going to ask him what it will look like when the two worlds come together, if only to give myself something to think about other than the God-Empress.

I feel as if we’re all fumbling around, probably because we are. Vorantor is desperately trying to cling to his authority, a task made more difficult by the fact that Cederic is still acting humble and deferring to him in ways that make it sound like Vorantor is even more incompetent than he is, without giving Vorantor any excuse to challenge him. Even Vorantor’s mages go to Cederic now for advice. I’m afraid that Vorantor’s pride is going to drive him past the point of reason, but Cederic seems not to worry, and he knows the man far better than I do, so I’m not going to worry about it either.