Sesskia’s Diary, part 130

28 Coloine

I don’t know how I’d make sense of things if I didn’t have these books to lay it all out on paper. Would I remember everything differently? Or start misremembering? On days like today, though, what I’m most grateful for is how writing forces me to look at events…not dispassionately, or critically, but at enough of a distance that I can learn from them and not simply be overwhelmed by whatever emotion is attached to them. I don’t know if that’s good or not. Maybe it makes me too distant from my own life. But I don’t think so. This is me putting it all down in a way I hope will still make sense to me when I come back to it, months or even years from now.

We came upon a village just as we’d eaten the last of our stores, as if we’d timed it that way. It was the town I remembered, the one on the Royal Road that caters to hunters and trappers who ply their trades in The Forest. We were cautious in approaching it, since we had no idea if they’d had contact with their new Castaviran neighbors or what that contact might have been like. At the time, my fear was that they’d react the way the people in Jeddan’s village did. I had no way of guessing what we’d actually find.

It’s a sprawling little town, with farms on the outskirts, and we passed a lot of stubbly, harvested fields without seeing anyone. That wasn’t so odd, since no one would be working the fields at this time of year. What was odd was how the place continued empty even as we came nearer to the town proper. There were houses with tiny yards and thatched roofs with their doors hanging ajar or completely open, and not a single person in sight. It was as if everyone had simply walked away. We were the only living things on the road.

I moved closer to Jeddan and said, “I don’t like this.”

“Me either,” he said. “But we need food. If the whole town really is empty, maybe they’ve left supplies behind. It wouldn’t be looting.”

“Not exactly looting,” I said. Then I saw movement up ahead, and I grabbed Jeddan’s arm and pointed. “There.”

“I don’t see—wait.” We both stopped and stared at the corner of a house where we’d seen something run past and behind the building. I scanned our surroundings—tidy little houses, and a widening street, and up ahead there were buildings that didn’t look like houses, despite being as low to the ground, maybe shops. Still no other movement.

“Let’s see what it is,” Jeddan said.

“It could be dangerous,” I said.

“An even better reason not to leave it at our backs,” he said, and I had to agree with his logic.

We went slowly toward the house, wary, trying to look in all directions at once. The house was, like the others, a single-story building with white plastered walls and a thatched roof and two windows flanking the door that made the house appear startled, as if we’d succeeded in sneaking up on it. Still no movement.

We went around the side, turned the corner, and something growled at us, making us both take a few steps backward. It was just a dog, crouched against a shed; it looked like it was favoring its front paw, and it continued to snarl at us even though we’d stopped advancing on it.

Jeddan began to hold out his hand, and I said, “Don’t. It’s in pain; who knows what it might do?”

“You’re right,” Jeddan said, but he looked regretful as we turned and left the animal to its solitude. We came out from between the house and its neighbor, and suddenly I was picked up off my feet and thrown against the side of the house, pinned there by some unseen force. I couldn’t even turn my head to see what had happened to Jeddan, but I could hear him cursing nearby, and I guessed he was in the same predicament as me.

“There’s no point in fighting,” a man said, and then he came to stand where I could see him. He was younger than me, maybe twenty, and he had a lean face that looked as if it had gotten that way through malnutrition rather than nature and, not at all to my surprise, green-gray eyes set deep in his face. “We’re prepared this time.”

“No point talking, Baltan, she don’t speak our language,” said a woman.

“I do speak Balaenic,” I said, or tried to say; my jaw was as fast held as the rest of me. Jeddan said, in a somewhat muffled voice, “We’re Balaenic, you idiots. Let us go.”

“Could be those bandits,” Baltan said, “sending people in to suss out what we got.”

“We’re not bandits either,” Jeddan said, sounding more annoyed by the minute. I was fairly irritated myself at that point, and not thinking very clearly, because it hadn’t connected that these were mages like us (I realize that makes me sound stupid, but it all happened much faster than it takes me to write it). So I retaliated with fire, looping it around his body in a thick rope the size of my wrist. He screamed, and I fell as his mind-moving pouvra released me. I got up quickly and said—this was when it all fell into place—“We’re Balaenic, and we’re mages like you, so let Jeddan go so we can talk!”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 129

27 Coloine

We came out of the forest mid-afternoon and turned north to follow the foothills. That was a shock. This part of Balaen is, or was, all forest—it doesn’t even have a name, just The Forest. But now there are low hills covered in scrub interspersed with the trees, and the weird thing is it doesn’t look torn up the way you’d expect if the worlds were mashed together. It looks as if the landscape has been this way forever, thick forest growing right up to where the hills begin, then clumps of trees here and there between the hills and none growing on them.

I’m starting to worry about my ability to recognize landmarks. I know there’s a town near here, right where the Royal Road enters the forest, but with the hills, I’m not sure exactly where it is anymore. I hope it wasn’t destroyed by the landscape changing, though Cederic did

Just writing his name struck me with the most awful heartsickness. It’s not like I want those dreams to persist—I’ve never had sex dreams before, and I feel so embarrassed to think Jeddan might see and know what’s happening—but they feel like a connection to him I don’t want to give up.

We’re traveling farther from Colosse every day, every step, and that breaks my heart more. If he knew where I was, he’d have come after me, done some kathana to bring me back, which means he doesn’t know where I am and is suffering as much as I am—more, because he has no reason not to believe the convergence kathana killed me. I wonder what he does to keep his mind off it. I at least have Jeddan to talk to and pouvrin to think about, and when we stop for the night I’m so weary I don’t have the energy to worry about Cederic. And then I dream.

No. I’m writing this down so I don’t fall into despair. Pouvrin. Today I tried to isolate the similarities between the walk-through-walls pouvra and the concealment pouvra. Though I’m not sure what good it will do. I need a third companion pouvra to those two for more points of comparison. Possibly it’s time to get Jeddan to teach me the see-inside pouvra. And I need to apply more logic to our studies. I’m used to learning from books, so this is new and uncertain, but I see no reason Jeddan and I can’t learn from each other.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 128

26 Coloine

Less cheerful today as the aftereffects of our infiltration of the God-Empress’s camp sank in. We did a lot of walking, and talked about pouvrin on the way, but mostly went in silence. I’m starting to see relations between pouvrin—not between his and mine, but between my own, specifically the concealment pouvra and the walk-through-walls pouvra. That was unexpected, since the concealment pouvra was developed by a Castaviran madman, and I’ve always thought of it as more angular than the others. But the more I look at them both, the more I can see similarities.

I asked Jeddan to experiment with the pouvra for seeing inside things, since he said it was a variation on the walk-through-walls pouvra. If there are categories of pouvrin, if some of them are related, then it could be possible to learn, or even create, new pouvrin based on your familiarity with one of its companions.

Burning Bright available for preorder!

Burning Bright front coverYou can get it here. For now, BURNING BRIGHT will only be available through Amazon, but if you’re interested in getting it for a different format, contact me and I’ll see what I can do. No preorders for print, alas, but it should be available on release day, August 15.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 127

25 Coloine

It shouldn’t have worked. I think the true God is watching over us, because there were so many places where the plan should have failed, and luck saved us.

The first part of the plan involved stealing uniforms. This was harder than it should have been because Jeddan is just so damned big. By the time we entered the camp, almost everyone was gone to the front, and we almost didn’t need to conceal ourselves to avoid being noticed. We searched tents and found a uniform for me almost immediately, minus the chain shirt, but I’d seen soldiers without them and judged I wouldn’t look too wrong. Those leather pants are really uncomfortable and stiff, and they make me walk funny, but I’m keeping them just in case we need to impersonate soldiers again.

I was more worried that I didn’t have the sword and knife, but we didn’t see a practical way of getting them, and in the end it was just another risk we had to take. I hate that kind of risk. Normally, if I were doing something like this, I’d spend a couple of days mapping out the camp, stealing pieces of the uniform until I looked right, then walk all over the camp making sure I’d fool people before making my theft. But we don’t have time for that.

It took us nearly an hour to find something to fit Jeddan, during which time I became increasingly anxious. We were nearly spotted twice—I love the concealment pouvra, but it’s not perfect, and all it takes is for one very observant person to look in the right direction and then you have to run for your life. But finally we were properly outfitted and could come out of concealment and walk openly.

I’d instructed Jeddan in some of the basics of sneaking around in plain sight:

  1. Move confidently.
  2. Don’t keep looking around to see if someone’s watching you.
  3. Meet people’s eyes and nod when you pass.
  4. Be prepared with a believable response if someone wants to know where you’re going.

That last had me worried, since Jeddan doesn’t speak Castaviran. We decided I’d speak for both of us and hope no one addressed him directly. But no one did. We passed any number of people and none of them wanted to talk to us or tell us to do something. It was so easy I became even more tense and had to calm myself. Bad to become complacent when it’s easy, but worse to be so on edge to overcompensate that you make mistakes.

Then we nearly did get caught. Someone called out, “You there!” I didn’t think he was addressing us until he repeated himself and added, “Don’t ignore me, soldier!” So we stopped and turned around, and I subtly positioned myself so the officer would direct his attention at me.

“Yes, sir?” I said. The man was probably in his fifties and had the kind of florid complexion that comes from a too-rich diet with too little exercise. My heart was pounding as I thought of all the possible mistakes I could make, starting with not knowing how to salute him. I went back over what I’d observed earlier that day and settled for what seemed to be the all-purpose gesture, right arm crossed over chest, right fist pressed to shoulder, sharp nod. It was acceptable and he didn’t draw his weapon and attack us right there.

“Where are you going, soldier?” he said.

“The front, sir, to join our unit,” I said.

“Why aren’t you there already? Malingering?” he said.

“No, sir, Weylan here was vomiting this morning and I was told off to wait with him until he recovered,” I said, bluffing with all my heart, “then escort him, just in case he wasn’t as well as they thought.”

The officer looked at us narrowly. “I want you to take a message to General Burris,” he said. “He’s to send a squad to wait on God at the pavilion.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“And move it along,” he said, then turned to Jeddan and said, “Big man like you, it’s shameful you should let illness interfere with the performance of your duties.”

“Yes, sir,” Jeddan managed in Castaviran, and I was impressed at his lack of accent—though it’s not hard to pronounce just a few words properly. Even so, it was good. This time, he joined me in saluting the officer, who (fortunately for us) turned and walked away without waiting to see where we went. Since he hadn’t told us how to find whoever it was, we were clearly expected to know, and walking off in the wrong direction could have been disastrous. We waited for him to move out of sight, then proceeded toward the command tent.

It was a lot busier than it had been that morning. Jeddan and I separated; he walked casually around to the rear of the command tent, and I turned and made a wide loop that took me to the far side of the God-Empress’s luxury abode. As I walked past, not looking at the tent, I set it on fire.

It was just a little fire, since I didn’t want it to look suspicious, but that meant I risked having someone see it when it was still small enough to be easily extinguished. So I set a few more fires at different places, and then I started screaming, “Fire! God’s tent is on fire!”

That caught everyone’s attention. People came pouring out of the command tent, soldiers came running from every direction, and everyone was squawking and calling out conflicting orders. Someone brought a swath of canvas and began beating at the nearest fire, so I started another one above her reach, all the time shouting and pointing.

I’d half hoped the God-Empress would be in her tent, just to add to the panic, but she didn’t appear. Probably a good thing, because she would certainly recognized me if she’d seen me. More people arrived with buckets of water, which helped—would have helped more if some crafty person hadn’t kept starting new fires in place of the old. Hahahaha.

“I’ve found it,” Jeddan said in my ear, startling me. “Let’s go.”

“Wait,” I said. “There’s one more thing we’re going to do.”

We strolled away from the fire—easy enough, everyone was no doubt preoccupied with terror over what insanities the God-Empress might rain down upon them for letting her things be ruined—then went directly to the quartermaster’s tent. Tents, I should say. It takes a lot of food and supplies to run an army, and I’d seen (from a distance) supplies being brought in by a long train of wagons, supplies probably looted from Viravonian and Balaenic villages.

We went through the back of one of the supply tents that was divided in half, and though we could hear someone moving around in front, the back was unoccupied. We discovered it contained food, so I left Jeddan there to fill our rucksacks and I hunted around until I found a tent where I could get bedrolls, blankets, a pot and some utensils, and a heavy ground cloth I had trouble fitting into yet another pack, but it makes winter outdoors so much more comfortable. No tent, unfortunately, but I was heavily laden at that point anyway.

I concealed myself and sneaked back to find Jeddan, we distributed the load better, and hand in hand we walked off, practically invisible and ready for a long trip. We came out on the southern side of the camp, the far side from both our potential destinations. Jeddan said, “I found a map of the area. I didn’t recognize any landmarks except the river, but the marks on it say they’re heading north next.”

“Hasskian,” I said. “And then Venetry. Well.”

“I think she knows where the capital is,” Jeddan said. “I saw what I think was a map of Balaen. She must have taken it from one of these towns. Even if she can’t read Balaenic, the way it was marked, even I could tell which were the big cities. And there was one up in the northwest with a triple star over it, just like on the flag.”

“She has to eliminate Calassmir as a threat, or have them dogging her heels all the way north,” I said. “And they can probably hold out for a while. If we can get to Venetry quickly enough, they can send out the army to meet her, and from what little I saw, they outnumber her even without the forces at Calassmir.”

“Then let’s go,” Jeddan said, and shouldered his pack. He can carry about twice what I can, and I hate to think how rough I’d be living if I didn’t have him along. Plus, I like him, and not just because he’s the first mage like me I’ve ever met. He’s good company.

We took a very long route around the camp, then struck out northeast, following the Arinz River even though it took us in the wrong direction; the ground next to it was clearer, so we made good time, and having a source of water helped us stretch our provisions further. Though we’ll still need to find food long before we reach Hasskian—it’s about nine days’ travel from Calassmir if you take the direct overland route, so even longer for us, but I don’t think we’d make it through The Forest on the provisions we have.

We walked a good ways before camping for the night, and I feel that buzzing, elated feeling you get when you’ve pulled off a good theft without dying. I think we both also feel more confident: we have direction, we have a plan, and we had a hot meal tonight. Nice not to have to rely on matchlighters to start a fire.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 126

24 Coloine, noonish

I didn’t get very far scouting the army this morning. For one, Jeddan wasn’t happy about being left behind, even though he had to agree I’d move faster if I didn’t have to hold his hand to conceal him. For another, there are still a lot of people in the camp even though the siege was going strong, and I had to depend as much on my stealthiness as the pouvra to keep from being detected.

It looks just like any other military camp, lots of dull canvas tents, lots of cookfires where people were having breakfast, lots of people grousing about the bad food and the bad weather (it was drizzling a bit, typical southern winter weather). I guess there are really only so many ways you can organize an army and still have it be effective. The only unusual thing, to my eyes, was the presence of female soldiers as well as male. The Balaenic Army is entirely male. I don’t know what goes into that kind of decision, and I don’t really care.

But the point is that despite those problems, I was able to infiltrate the camp deeply enough to find their command center, and that’s where I ran into different problems, which is why I’m back here and writing while Jeddan is hunting for our lunch (we ran out of food this morning, and decided he should try to gather more while I was gone, just in case).

It was easy enough to identify the command center, since it flew the falcon flag from its highest peak, and just as easy to sneak into the tent with the walk-through-walls pouvra, and easy to stay concealed, though at that point my fingertips were pretty numb. It’s really big, though not the biggest tent in the camp—that honor, naturally, goes to Her Godliness Renatha Torenz—but bigger than any I’ve ever seen before. It has several tent poles holding up the roof and they actually put rugs down to cover the ground so it doesn’t get muddy.

Even so, military tents are all the same no matter the size: lots of uncomfortable-looking stools, the smell of whatever greasy meat was for dinner, and the dim wavering light of camp lanterns, always lit no matter the hour, so it wasn’t as if it was luxurious. The God-Empress’s tent, on the other hand—well, I should tell this in order, so more on that later.

So it was easy to get inside undetected. The problem was the tent is almost always occupied, and I couldn’t see any of the information we needed lying out in the open. And there’s no way I can rifle through the papers spread out over the tables without someone noticing. There were always three or four officers there, going over paperwork and writing out orders, and it seemed just as one left, someone else came in.

I wandered around the tent for a bit, just in case something changed, but the officers just talked about how the siege was going and a lot of technical stuff about strategy and tactics that didn’t mean anything to me, given that I don’t know much about besieging a city. Nothing useful. So after about half an hour, I gave up and left.

Only I didn’t return to Jeddan immediately. There was, as I said, an even bigger tent nearby, also flying the falcon flag, but with a difference: there were angular symbols printed beneath its beak, the God-Empress’s personal sigil. There was no way I’d leave the camp without investigating her tent. I circled around to the back and went through the wall.

This was luxurious. It also had rugs on the ground, but they were plush and soft and looked as though they’d come from a palace guest room. The lamps hanging at intervals from the tent poles shed a warm, bright light over the space. And she’d brought actual furniture, a four-poster bed and dresser and a little table next to a deeply upholstered armchair, and even now I can’t imagine how she managed that. I suppose if you have enough manpower, you can do almost anything. The place smelled not of greasy, stale food, but of her sweet-citrus scent that made me gag because I associate it so strongly with the deaths she’s caused.

The God-Empress wasn’t there, and I was confident no one would enter the tent without her permission, so I dismissed the concealment pouvra and poked around for a bit. She’d even brought useless knickknacks to decorate her dresser. I thought about stealing one, not because I’m desperate to own an abstract pink marble sculpture of (I think) a woman giving birth, but because it might have been a disruption for the God-Empress to believe one of her soldiers had stolen from her. But I realized she wouldn’t hunt down the perpetrator; she’d just pick some random person to blame and have them executed immediately, not slowing down the attack at all. And even though it could probably be justified as an act of war, I couldn’t bring myself to cause some innocent person’s death. So in the end, I just reflected on how insane the God-Empress is and left the tent. Then I came straight back here to our “camp,” such as it is.

I told Jeddan what I’d learned and we discussed options:

  1. I go back alone after dark and look for more information. I was in favor of this, but Jeddan is increasingly worried that we’ll get permanently separated. This is reasonable, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk of going in together. The real problem with this is that military camps never entirely sleep, and there’s a chance the tent will never be unoccupied. So I’d risk being caught again for nothing.
  2. We go back together now and try to distract the officers so we can get what we need. Jeddan’s plan. If we can get the officers out of the tent, we can quickly search for their plans. The problem here is creating the right distraction when we don’t know what would be effective.
  3. We capture an officer and interrogate him or her to learn where the army’s going next. The most effective plan, but dependent on too many variables, and what would we do with the officer afterward that wouldn’t reveal our presence?
  4. We give up on learning anything, wait for the siege to end, then see which way the army goes and try to beat them to their destination. I really hate this plan, but it’s our last resort, because even though we can move a lot more quickly than the army, we need the best head start we can get.

So it looks like 2 is our best bet. Jeddan just came back with an armful of apples, only a little worm-eaten, and we’ll have lunch and then make a more detailed plan.