unknown, could be 15 Coloine still (continued)
I only intended to give the mages a few more seconds by keeping the God-Empress from commanding her soldiers to attack. They’d probably act on their own initiative if she didn’t give the order. Instead, all the soldiers suddenly looked confused, as if they didn’t know what they were doing or even why they were in the room.
That was all I had time to observe before I had to use all my strength to subdue the God-Empress. I was able to make out the outline of her face before the pouvra’s compulsion for me to look elsewhere took effect, and I jammed my arm into her mouth so she couldn’t shout. She ground down with her teeth, but my sleeve protected me enough that it was just a dull pain, though not an insignificant one. I pressed harder and tried to ignore it.
Gagging her with my arm left me with only one hand to fend off her attacks, but her greater height didn’t give her any advantages while we were on the floor, and I both outweigh her and have experience with fighting dirty. I learned a long time ago that the only technique that matters, for someone my size, is the one that gets you away from your assailant.
So we punched and clawed and elbowed, neither of us able to see the other, and I was able to smash my forehead against her chin, which stunned her for a moment, but not as long as if I’d hit her nose, which is what I was aiming for.
She rocked, trying to roll me off her, and I got my knee up to give myself a stronger position, and that’s when I realized Cederic was standing nearby, shouting my name in a way that told me he had no idea where I was. So I released the pouvra while still keeping a grip on the God-Empress, and then hands were taking her from me, and I pushed myself to my knees and let Cederic help me stand.
My eyes were watering because she’d managed to claw my face, just at the end, but I looked around the room and was stunned to see no soldiers left standing. Some of them had blood running from their eyes and noses and ears, and others had faces tinged blue from asphyxiation, and some lay in heaps next to the walls as if they’d been flung into them, hard. I still haven’t seen mages use th’an in a fight, and I know they’re useless if someone has a sword to their throats, but give them enough space and they’re deadly.
“Are you all right?” Cederic said, touching my cheek; I winced away from how his touch made the wounds sting. I’m glad I didn’t think, at the time, that they might have been poisoned, since the God-Empress is the kind of person who might paint her nails with poison just to have that extra weapon. I was already on edge and that would have been more strain than I needed.
“I’m fine,” I said, wiping my eyes. The God-Empress stood a few feet away from me. No one was holding her—I figure a lifetime’s habit of revering her as God couldn’t be broken easily—but there were at least five people between her and the door, so it’s not like she could go anywhere. (I thought. We all thought.) She looked awful. Her golden crown of hair was completely disordered, she had bruises forming on her chin and at the corner of her mouth where I’d gotten in a lucky punch, but she looked as self-possessed as if we were all in her pavilion and she were about to pronounce judgment on us.
“You’ve disappointed me, Sesskia,” she said. “You were God’s choice and you rebelled against her. You will have to die.”
“We’re all probably going to die thanks to you ruining the kathana,” I said.
She shrugged. “I told you God won’t allow that to happen,” she said. She looked at Cederic, then back at me. “You don’t appreciate your gift,” she said. “You will watch as I peel the skin from his body, and then you will die, screaming.”
She raised her hand as if to point at me, but instead she began doing that complicated salute she’d done at the honey day ceremony, only rapidly, and I could see amber light outlining her fingers just as Cederic said, “Th’an!” and lunged at her. It was too late. She…sort of flattened, like dough being rolled out, going thinner and thinner until she was a mist that dissipated and was gone.
“What was that?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Cederic said. “It’s not—”
That was when the biggest tremor we’d ever felt struck. I was in five places at once, only one of them in that room, and it hurt when I pulled back together, enough that I had to stand and breathe deeply so I wouldn’t faint. Everyone around me was doing the same, leaning on each other, and I saw Terrael supporting Audryn, whose robe was bloody along the front.
Then an actual tremor sent shockwaves through the room, staggering everyone. Cederic reached out to grab my hand, and I held onto him until the room stopped trembling. Then he let me go, and said, “Clear the circle. And move quickly.”
I don’t think anyone needed to hear that last part. We all began dragging bodies to the sides of the room, mostly soldiers, a few robed mages we didn’t have time to mourn. The circle, which had been drawn in ink, was intact, but the th’an scribed in and around it were ruined. Mages dropped to their knees and began scrubbing what was left of them away, while others began writing new ones, these more permanent. I stood to one side, watching, but then Terrael grabbed me and tore off my shirt before I could protest.
He began drawing on my chest and shoulders with his fat writing tool, and then I squeaked and began batting at his hand. “Stop it,” he said, and slapped my hands away. “I don’t have time to explain, Sesskia, just hold still,” and he kept on scribing.
I obeyed him, praying that he wasn’t about to remove my breast band too, but he secured my hair messily on top of my head using the clips I’d last seen Audryn wearing, then turned me around and began drawing on my back, th’an after th’an. The ink was cold and felt wet, as if it were trickling across my skin.
Another tremor struck, and I was in the throne room and my bedroom and the observatory and somewhere down in Colosse, where I saw people screaming, and then I was back in my body, aching everywhere as if I’d been beaten. Terrael was crouched on the floor, one hand holding himself up, the other still clutching his writing tool. I reached down and helped him stand while the earth shook. “Thanks,” he said, and made a few more marks on my cheeks. “Sai Aleynten will tell you what to do, when it’s time,” he said. “I think it will hurt. I’m sorry.”
“If it will help save the world, I think I can endure a little pain,” I said, but I was starting to feel afraid, because I don’t like not knowing things. I wished he’d been able to explain—though I think, now, if I’d known what was coming, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
to be continued…