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.