Sesskia’s Diary, part 139

4 Nevrine (continued)

The mage shook like a dog, and fire flew off him like water. “Bitch,” he screamed, and fire wrapped me again. This time I went insubstantial and jumped away from it, which made his eyes and mouth go wide. He flung fire at me again, and again, and I let it pass through me, or dodged it when I had to breathe, and lashed out at him with my own fire, which he dodged in turn.

The other man, the one Jeddan wasn’t wrestling, turned and ran from the clearing, shouting to people I couldn’t see. I didn’t have much attention to spare either for him or for Jeddan, because I was trying to come up with a way to end the little dance I was having with the increasingly maddened mage. He didn’t seem to be tiring at all, but I was becoming light-headed, and at some point I would have to stop going insubstantial, and that would be it for me.

Maybe it was the light-headedness. Maybe it was the hours of practice finally coming together. But as I went insubstantial one final time, I could see the shape of the pouvra as if it were rods and curves spun from spider’s silk, as insubstantial as I was, and then it shifted and I saw a new shape that emerged from the old one. Without stopping to think, because I could never have done it if I analyzed it, I bent my will to the new shape.

It was as if—I’ve thought about this a lot since then, thought about it to avoid thinking about other things, and it felt as if the world blinked, and when its eye opened, I could see everything differently. It was so strange I forgot I was fighting for my life. I was about five feet from the mage at that point, keeping my eyes on his chest because its movements told me where he was going to fling fire next, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to turn the pouvra on him.

Thinking back on it, I don’t know why the pouvra’s revealing his innards didn’t disgust me. I must have been more light-headed than I thought. Mostly I was fascinated by what I saw, heart and lungs pulsing, arteries and veins quivering as blood flowed through them.

I was too distracted, I suppose, because he was able to grab me in a moment of solidity and shake me so hard I couldn’t summon fire. “I am going to enjoy raping you, over and over again,” he snarled, and that woke me up. I tried going insubstantial, but I was too tired and breathless, and I couldn’t burn him without burning myself, and his innards were pulsing queasily just inches from my face.

I could see his heart throbbing, rapidly because he’d exerted himself as much as I had. I remember thinking how strange it was that all the blood went in and out through those few slender vessels, and again in that dreamlike state I reached out with the mind-moving pouvra and crushed all of them until they twisted and broke.

Nothing happened for a moment. Then the mage released me and clutched at his chest. His expression was so surprised, so normal, that it was hard to believe he’d been trying to kill me seconds before. I stepped away and watched him collapse. He didn’t move much, just twitched as his face went ashen, and then he was dead, and I just stood over him, breathing quietly. It still didn’t seem real. Even the memory, as I look back on it now, seems unreal, like I’m remembering someone else’s life.

Jeddan must have said my name several times before I heard him, but what I remember next is him putting his arms around me and holding me close, his chin resting on the top of my head. “What did you do?” he whispered.

“I killed him,” I said. “It was easy.”

Jeddan didn’t push me away, or make sounds of fear or disgust. “He would have killed us both,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “But it was easy.”

Then he let go of me to hold me at arm’s length, and I was startled at the intensity of his gaze. “You’re not a killer,” he said. “I’ve never known anyone less callous about human life than you are.”

“Okay,” I said, which was so inadequate, but was there anything I could have said that would have made things better? Then I turned away and went rummaging through the mage’s clothes. I remember thinking if I was going to kill someone, it should at least be worthwhile, and if he had money on him, we could use that. Jeddan didn’t say anything else, and I was grateful more than ever that he has a gift for silence. I know he doesn’t understand how I feel, but I know he realizes talking about it now will only make me feel worse, and he won’t push. So grateful for such a friend.

The bandit had a little purse with fifteen crowns and a handful of smaller change, and a fire opal pendant that looked too feminine to be his, and wore a gold ring on his left hand. I left the jewelry, but Jeddan collected it, along with the other bandit’s purse; Jeddan hadn’t killed his man, but he wasn’t going to wake up any time soon.

Then we struck camp and moved on down the road, though it was so dark we almost couldn’t see to find another campsite, even with the see-in-dark pouvra. There weren’t any horses when we emerged onto the road, so I think the bandit who escaped probably warned the others the mage had referred to. I almost wish we’d been able to take a couple of horses, even if we can’t ride; how hard can it be to point a horse’s nose in the right direction and hang on to the saddle? But there’s no sense worrying about it now.

It started snowing as we put up the tent, then Jeddan guided me inside and told me, “Lie back to back,” so I did. I waited for him to fall asleep before I started writing, just in case I was going to cry, but I don’t feel tearful. I don’t feel much of anything except overwhelmed.

I used a pouvra to kill a man—not by accident, the way I did when I worked the fire pouvra for the first time, but deliberately, consciously choosing that man’s death. It’s fitting, in a way; I’m already a thief, and it seems I’m now an assassin, because what else can you call that kind of pinpoint, fatally accurate attack? I know my mind-moving pouvra is never going to be as powerful as Cederic’s, but then he can’t manage the kind of delicate movements I can. The kind that can crush blood vessels and—true God help me, I can’t stop thinking of the possibilities now.

It scares me that I can so coldly consider ways I might turn this combination of pouvrin to my benefit. And the worst thing is I don’t dare swear never to do it again. What if using the pouvra that way meant saving someone I love? Meant bringing Balaen and Castavir together in peace? I wouldn’t even think twice about it.

I can’t write anymore, and I don’t think I can sleep. I’m glad Jeddan’s here. I wish he were Cederic.

4 or 5 Nevrine, don’t know

Dreamed again, dragged myself out of it before it was embarrassing. Finally cried.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 138

4 Nevrine

I’m snuggled up against Jeddan’s back right now, too overwhelmed by the events of the evening to feel self-conscious about it. He’s a good friend, but he’s also a man, and…I don’t know why that makes me feel awkward, because it’s not as if I expect him to attack me, and he doesn’t behave as if he’s attracted to me.

Not that I’m all that good at picking up on those cues. I had no idea Cederic loved me until he told me, but I know now he’d felt that way for weeks without giving any hint of it. (He said he was waiting to tell me until the convergence was over, when things would be stable, so I’m almost glad he lost his temper at me because it gave us those two weeks of happiness together.) He’s so self-controlled it makes sense that I wouldn’t have observed anything, but there were moments that in retrospect were obvious, like the day he made me tell him about the collenna master’s murder. He used those th’an on me to make me sleep, but when he was done he brushed my cheek with his fingers, so lightly, and I knew it wasn’t a th’an but I was just too ignorant to know a lover’s touch when I felt it.

I’m so glad I remembered that just now. It makes me feel so much less awful about myself. It’s snowing heavily now, which makes everything feel quiet and distant, and I’m sure it’s insulating the tent, so even though the ground is cold, I think I’ll be able to sleep. Just as soon as I write all of this down.

Most of today was uneventful. More walking, more discussion, more me almost but not quite managing the see-inside pouvra. We passed a few more Balaenic villages (this is a Balaenic road, so that makes sense) and saw a Castaviran one in the distance. There’s a marked visual difference between the two that gives us a warning as to what kind of behavior we should exhibit.

One of the Balaenic towns sat astride the road, and the people there acted as if nothing were wrong, with kids waving at us and women chatting with their neighbors with barely a glance our way. It was unsettling, and Jeddan and I talked about whether we should warn them to be on their guard, but we didn’t know who we would tell, or what we’d warn them against, and maybe they knew about the Castavirans and were open and welcoming. But we were both relieved to leave that town behind.

By the time the sun set, we’d entered another forest, not heavily overgrown, and with the trees mostly bare it didn’t feel confining at all. We found a place off the road to camp, a little natural clearing, and lit a fire and had something to eat. Jeddan talked about setting a few snares, so I said I would write while he did that. But after he left, I didn’t quite feel like getting my book out. Some of that was because I can see the pages diminishing, and there’s really no chance of me finding a new blank book out here. Some of it was just tiredness. So I sat next to the fire and let my mind go blank.

I don’t know when I realized the thrumming sound wasn’t the blood rushing through my ears, but something external—hooves, and a lot of them. I jumped up and put the fire between myself and the road, not thinking, then I woke out of my stupor and concealed myself. I knew whoever the approaching riders were, they’d already seen the fire, because the bare trees weren’t very good concealment, so there was no point trying to hide the camp. It was possible the riders wouldn’t want to harm me, but that wasn’t a chance I was willing to take. I hoped Jeddan, wherever he was, was safe.

The noise of the hooves grew louder, then stopped nearby. I heard people dismounting, the sound of harness jingling and the whiffle of a horse at rest. Then three men came into the clearing. They were roughly dressed, unshaven, with heavy coats and broad-brimmed hats, and their boots struck the frozen ground with loud clumping sounds. One of them approached the fire and kicked dirt at it, desultorily, not trying to put it out. Another ducked into our tent and started making noises like he was going through our things.

The third circled the little clearing, peering past it as if he were looking for someone. I had to move silently out of his way, praying he wouldn’t look in my direction, because he had the air of someone who didn’t miss much.

“They can’t have gone far,” the first man said.

The second man emerged from the tent carrying our rucksack of food. “They’ve got bugger-all worth taking,” he said.

“Gather it up,” the third man said. “Elssan and Nattas are searching the woods for them. Might have their goods on them.”

He turned to walk back the way he’d come. I took another step away, silently, I thought, and his eyes came around and met mine, and saw me. I tried to run, nearly fell into the fire, and his hand went around my wrist and jerked me back. “What’s this?” he said, and shook me so hard I lost my concentration. “A woman.” He said it as if there were something inherently wrong with being female.

“Let go,” I said, which was stupid, because why would he let me go just because I told him to? I almost used the walk-through-walls pouvra on him, but realized in time that escaping his grip wouldn’t get me past the other two men, and I could only dodge them for so long before running out of breath. And I didn’t know where Jeddan was, and the only place he would know to look for me was by the fire. So I held still and examined my other options.

But to my complete surprise, he let me go! Before I could react to that, I was stunned again when a long, fat rope of fire rose up from nowhere and wrapped around me, just close enough that it started to singe my clothes, but not enough to actually burn me. I gaped at him, then said, “You’re a mage.”

“Don’t know that word,” he said. “My people always called it witchcraft. Or did before I burned the town to ash.”

That shut my mouth. I’d been about to say something excited, something about us having so much in common, but it was starting to be clear we didn’t. Then he smiled, and it was a nasty, leering smile that made me feel cold and afraid. “Didn’t expect to find a woman traveling the roads,” he said. “Where’s your friend?”

“Who says I have a friend?” I retorted. The fire was starting to hurt. I wish I knew how to dismiss someone else’s fire pouvra, not that that would have made a difference.

“Two bedrolls says you have a friend,” the second man said.

“So where is he? Or are we twice-blessed, and it’s a she?” the mage said.

“Gone where you won’t find him,” I said.

“Oh, I don’t think he’ll leave you to us,” the mage said. “Especially if he guesses what I have in mind for you.”

That made me mad. Even if I hadn’t been nearly raped once, I’d still be furious at any man who thought he had a right to take what wasn’t willingly given. “How sweet,” I said, and lashed out with my own fire, turning him into a greasy pyre. He screamed, and the rope of fire disappeared, and that was when Jeddan burst out of the forest and bore the second man, the one with his hands full of our things, to the ground.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 137

3 Nevrine

So much warmer tonight, even if it is just a shed. We came to a little town, a Balaenic town, well off the main road just at sunset. They were fortified as if they expected an attack and had an elderly rifle they pointed at us when we approached. It took both of us talking in our most reasonable voices to convince them we weren’t Castavirans scouting their town in preparation for a raid, which apparently happened a few days ago. The town’s mayor was on edge; I think the townspeople blamed him for letting it happen, though that’s probably irrational fear rather than any failing on his part.

We tried to explain about the convergence, but it only confused them, so I settled for saying the Castavirans didn’t speak our language and were as confused as anyone. They didn’t believe me. I wish I knew why the Castavirans attacked. Fear, probably, but fear of what? Just the unknown? I know I wrote this before, but I have trouble believing everyone’s first reaction in this situation is going to be violence. Yet that seems to be true.

We bought food and a tent—it took way too much of our money, and I know I’ll have to steal before we reach Venetry—and the mayor let us sleep in a shed, which sounds callous, but it’s more of an outdoor porch for sitting in on summer evenings, very pretty even though it was inadequate for winter weather. I think they were all still suspicious of us. I think they also thought Jeddan and I were a couple, since there was no offer of separate quarters. Just as well, because Jeddan gives off plenty of body heat and the shed is quite comfortable.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 136

1 Nevrine

I’m frustrated because I felt so close to understanding the see-inside pouvra today, and just couldn’t make it work. Jeddan’s more patient than I am, because when we sat down to eat, and I complained, he just shrugged and said, “tomorrow, then.”

Tomorrow, unfortunately, we have to do something about food. We’ve got enough left for one meal tomorrow, and the terrain here is all plains, no more forest to shelter delicious edible animals. I think Hasskian is another five days north of here, but it’s been about seven years since I took this road, so I’m not sure. We’ll have to find a town before then.

2 Nevrine

Snowed today, just a little, but enough that I wished I had a heavier coat. We shared a hunk of dried meat I found at the bottom of my rucksack. Still very hungry.

Release day–Burning Bright!

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Sesskia’s Diary, part 135

30 Coloine

It’s been an awful day. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything less; 30 Coloine has been a terrible day for me every year for the last six years. Fortunately, it ended well—quite a surprise, actually. I think I might be able to sleep tonight.

We’re making good time now we’re on the Royal Road. Balaen’s King is erratic and hedonistic, and our government is sometimes guided more by vanity and greed than by good sense, and the nobles play vicious games with lives, part of why my family lost its status I guess, but we’ve got an excellent road system. I don’t know if that’s down to the current Chamber Lord who has jurisdiction over transportation (lady, actually, Debarra Jakssar, the only woman in the Chamber) or if it’s something she inherited, but the major roads are well-kept and smooth. Of course, that’s going to benefit the God-Empress too, but there’s no point worrying about that.

That wasn’t the awful part. The Balaenic village hadn’t had much food to spare, and we forgot to ask at the Castaviran village, so we’re running low on supplies. Jeddan’s good at setting snares, but now that we’re out of The Forest—there are still trees surrounding the road, but it’s not heavily overgrown—there aren’t as many places for animals to shelter, and I think the convergence’s upsetting of the landscape has caused many of the animals to flee. So when we saw signs that we were approaching another village, I cheered up.

It makes me sick when I remember that now, because as the road curved out from beneath the trees, we saw smoke, a lot of smoke, and heard screaming, and there was far too much movement in the streets. Jeddan and I looked at each other, then I took his hand and concealed us, and we ran toward the village.

It was carnage. Men and women were fighting in the streets, some with blades, others with whatever weapons they could find. Bodies lay fallen everywhere, some of them crumpled where they’d managed to crawl away a bit before they died. As we watched, a handful of men burst through a door with their arms full of—I don’t know what, boxes and piles of cloth, whatever they thought was valuable. Half of the main street was on fire, and I saw a woman climbing out of a second story window and dropping to the ground; by the way she landed, it looked like she broke her leg. The tingling numbness of the concealment pouvra seemed to spread through my body, making everything around me seem unreal.

Jeddan tugged at my hand and we turned around and left. There wasn’t anything we could do. I know, I have all this magic, I should have been able to think of something, but I was just too numb to think. No, even now that we’re well away from it, I still don’t know how I could have made a difference. I wonder what started it. Not that it—

I was going to write “not that it matters,” but it does, because if we can understand what made Balaenic clash with Castaviran, and Castaviran with Balaenic (and I can’t imagine it was anything else that caused that horror) maybe we can stop it next time. Maybe. I’m depressed enough right now that all I can picture is that now-familiar image of both worlds going up in an epic conflagration, and the survivors clawing their way out of the wreckage and still being unable to create a new, common world.

We made camp and ate a scanty meal, then sat staring at the fire. Jeddan said, “We probably…”

“I thought of that too,” I said. “But I couldn’t bear the idea of taking advantage of that calamity to stock up on food like some looter.”

“Me neither,” Jeddan said, and we both went silent again. I know I’ve said I like being alone, and silence doesn’t bother me, but right then I thought I might scream if I had to listen to the emptiness one minute longer. So I said, “How old are you?” Then I wished I’d thought of something else, it sounded so inane, but he said, “Twenty-four.”

“I’m twenty-seven.” And that was when I understood what had been niggling at me all day. “It’s my birthday today,” I said. “I’m twenty-eight.”

He smiled. “I wish I had a candle for you to light,” he said.

“I wish I had a gift for you,” I said. It’s been years since I had anyone I cared enough about to gift on my birthday. It was a surprise to discover I like Jeddan that much—he’s just comfortable to be around, and we have so much in common. I definitely think of him as a friend, almost as good a friend as Sovrin or Audryn, but in a different way.

“You could tell me a little about yourself,” he said. “That’s like a gift.”

So I did. Not much—he may be a friend, but we’re not close enough yet for me to tell him all my secrets. I told him about Dad and Mam and growing up in Thalessa, but not about Bridie or Roda, told him about traveling and learning pouvrin, but not about how the magic woke up inside me, told him about Castavir and how we’d come up with the kathana to save the worlds.

I couldn’t talk about Cederic—I’m trying not to think of him at all, it hurts too much—but I did tell him about the God-Empress, and made him laugh at the story of my failed wedding to Aselfos, which in hindsight is pretty funny. Jeddan is a good listener, and when I wound down, he said, “Thank you for the gift, Sesskia. And good fortune on your day.”

“Thanks, though that seems a wish that didn’t get fulfilled, given the day we’ve had,” I said.

“We didn’t get caught up in the disaster,” he pointed out. “We still have food and shelter. We’re only ten days from Venetry—fourteen at worst. By my standards this has been an excellent day.”

“Your standards seem a little low,” I joked.

He shrugged and bowed his head. “I’ve been outcast for a long time,” he said in a low voice. “I did a good job looking like I fit in, but I knew I was different, and so did they, and the strain of pretending—you know what I mean. I should have gone traveling like you did, but I was too afraid to leave the village. But it was getting harder, all the time, to be normal, especially when I discovered the second pouvra and started thinking about learning more. Being with someone else like me…it’s like there was a rock pressing down on me, all these years, and now it’s just gone. I hope that doesn’t sound too…I don’t know. Too sentimental.”

It did feel a little sentimental, but I was so moved at his willingness to share something so personal I didn’t feel embarrassed. “I feel the same way,” I said. “The Castaviran mages are friends, and it was good to be around other mages, but there was always a gap I didn’t know how to fill because we couldn’t really understand each other’s magic.”

“You and I can’t understand each other’s magic either,” Jeddan said, smiling.

“But we’re getting there,” I said. “Tomorrow I want to work on learning the see-inside pouvra. And then I’ll teach you how to see in the dark. It occurred to me today that that pouvra alters the body, which is what you said happens to you when you work magic. Maybe that will make it easier for you to learn.”

“Then don’t stay up all night writing in that book,” he said, and went into the tent. So I’m finishing this, and then I’m going to sleep, and tomorrow will look better.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 134

29 Coloine (continued)

“Listen to me, you idiot,” I said in a low voice that didn’t carry any farther than the three of us, “you can either be a hero in this, or I can make you look so foolish no one will obey you ever again. This is the new world. That village is not a threat to you. They are allies. Now, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to…open diplomatic relations with them. You’re going to start learning their language, or teach them yours—doesn’t matter which way that goes. You’re going to trade with each other.

“And in a while, I don’t know how long, an army is going to march down that road, and you are going to help keep that village from being overrun. You’re going to do all of this because what you want, more than anything in the world, is respect. Up until now you’ve been getting it because you’re a bully, but I think you’ve just learned that that only works until a bigger bully comes along. If you want respect for a lifetime, help people get what they need. Right now, they need direction. It’s a new world and everything’s different. You get to choose what happens next.”

(I cleaned all that up and made myself sound more eloquent than I actually was. A lot more eloquent, actually. I was getting angry again, which makes me stammer, and when I tried to regain some self-control, I stammered more.)

“What are you?” he said.

“I’m a mage of the shadow world,” I said, “and I’m the wife of a Castaviran mage, and I don’t want both my worlds destroyed. Please see sense.”

I knew the moment he decided to disregard what I said by the way his lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. “Hold him,” I told Jeddan, and while the mayor thrashed around trying to get away from someone a foot taller than he was, I walked slowly toward the watching villagers. I felt so weary then, all the anger gone, leaving nothing but cold sorrow. “Hi,” I said. “Sorry about the fire. I really was just trying to get your attention. Can I ask you just one question? Who struck first, you or the, um, invaders?”

They looked at each other, mute. “Just tell me,” I said.

“We did,” said one of the men. He looked ashamed, and that lifted my spirits just a tiny bit.

“And you all thought that was okay? Because they were strangers, and didn’t speak your language, and were mysterious, and that frightened you?” I said. I looked at the man who’d spoken, and said, “What’s your name?”

“Aiden,” he said.

“Aiden, was it right, what you all did?” I said.

He raised his head to look at me directly. “No,” he said in a loud, carrying voice. “It wasn’t right. And I knew that, and went along with it anyway, because I was afraid. And I’m ashamed of that.”

“Thanks, Aiden,” I said. “What do you think you all should have done, instead?”

He shrugged. “Try to talk to them. Find out why they’re here.”

“Did you all hear that?” I said. A lot of nodding happened. “Do you agree with Aiden?” Murmuring, all of it agreement. I felt even more relieved. “Then this is what you’re going to do,” I said. I repeated what I’d told their mayor, but since I was calmer it came out more reasonable-sounding and I’m sure it was more effective. “It’s going to be hard,” I said. “But winter’s coming and I think you can both use all the help you can get.”

“We’re experienced at fading into the hills,” Aiden said, “and we’ll help the newcomers do the same.”

“You’re both newcomers,” I said, “and you shouldn’t forget that.” I glanced back over my shoulder, where the mayor hung unresisting in Jeddan’s hands. He didn’t look unconscious, just like he’d given up. “But I think this town needs new leadership,” I said. “Aiden, I’m appointing you mayor. I think you’ll do a good job for the immediate crisis. Then you can have an election, or however it is you choose your town leadership, and maybe they’ll keep you, or maybe it will be someone else, but it had better not be him.” I jabbed my thumb over my shoulder.

“You don’t have the right to do that,” someone said.

“Really? How would you like to go about it?” I said. “Because I’m interested in your suggestions.”

The voice subsided. No one else seemed inclined to speak. “Then that’s settled,” I said. “We’ll go back and tell the Balaenics what you’ve decided, so they won’t attack you when you visit them. Make peace. Make friends. You might even make marriages. I did.”

That was all there was to say. Jeddan let go of the ex-mayor and gave him a kick to the seat of his pants to propel him on his way. I pretended not to notice. We went back to the Balaenic village and explained the situation, which took far too much time because they had all these irrelevant questions they wanted to ask, but eventually we were back on the road and, coincidentally, ended up camping in the exact same spot we did last night.

Huh. I was done writing, but I want to put this in too. I was about to curl up in my bedroll when Jeddan said, “I wish I’d been able to understand what you were saying back there.”

“Maybe I should teach you Castaviran,” I said. “It’s less difficult than Balaenic.”

“Not so I could follow along,” he said, “because I could guess the content. But I’ve never seen anyone control a crowd just with words before.”

“I did nearly set all of them on fire, you know,” I said.

“That just got their attention. Whatever you were saying…they knew you meant it. If you’d told them to follow you to Hasskian, they’d have done it.”

I thought about that for a while until I had to get up and write it down because it was keeping me from sleeping. I’ve never been a leader. Haven’t had anyone to lead, for one thing, and leaders stand out, which I’ve tried not to do my whole life. I think Jeddan must have been wrong.

And yet…talking to those people, even talking to that idiot mayor, I felt…I’m not sure what. Rightness, maybe. As if I’d touched on something true and had the power to show that truth to everyone around me.

I wonder if that’s how Cederic feels. I only know a little of what leadership means, from watching him, and it seems more a burden than a blessing, all that responsibility. But it comes so naturally to him, how he listens so carefully to what people say, and sees solutions where other people see only problems. How he can command a room without saying a word. It reminds me of the day Vorantor was killed, just before the convergence, and he held everyone together even though I’m certain he was just as afraid as anyone because we still didn’t have the right kathana. I miss him so much.

I hope I dream of him tonight.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 133

29 Coloine

I’m so sick of talking to people. I’m no diplomat and I’m sure as hell no leader, and I’ve done more talking in the last two days than any human being should be expected to do. And we’ve delayed our journey by a day, which has made me tense and irritable, but what else could we do?

It actually wasn’t as hard as I’d feared to convince the three mages that the God-Empress was an imminent threat. And once I did, they started coming up with plans on their own—setting up a semi-permanent camp in the nearby hills, sending people to observe the siege of Calassmir who would return when they saw the army move in their direction so they could evacuate—and they seemed confident, like this was something they could handle.

What I wasn’t sure they could handle was a possible attack by Castaviran villagers while they were in their camp, which was meant to be secluded rather than defensible, given that there’s no way they can keep the army from overrunning them if they’re found. So once we were sure they understood the situation, we bade them goodbye and headed straight for that Castaviran town.

Like I wrote, I’m really sick of talking to people. And I’m even sicker of the unrelenting fear and suspicion both countries are displaying toward each other. I realize it’s a normal human reaction, but really, is everyone’s first reaction to encountering the strange and unknown going to be violence? People can’t just take a moment to learn what kind of strange and unknown thing they’re facing? This is the way the world is now, Balaen and Castavir lying cheek-by-jowl with one another, and it’s not going away, damn those long-ago mages and their arrogant belief that they had the right to make decisions for everyone around them.

Last night I lay awake, sleepless, not thinking of Cederic for once but of the possibility that our civilizations are going to destroy each other and the survivors are going to claw their way out of the wreckage and still go on fighting each other. It made me so angry I finally had to go for half an hour’s walk before I could calm down enough to sleep.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that Jeddan and I marched across the fields (there’s no road to the Castaviran village, not yet, maybe not ever) out where anyone could see us, no trying to hide. It’s a walled town, so a little bigger than…I don’t know what Baltan’s village is called. I can’t believe it never came up. Anyway, the farms outside the walls were all deserted the way they’d been in that village, and when we were close enough we could see the defenders huddled up at the gate, not sure what to make of us.

The minute I could see the boards two of them were clutching, I let loose with a huge sweep of fire, bigger than anything I’ve ever managed before, made it circle them without burning (yet) and shouted “Drop your weapons!”

It took them a second or two, but drop them they did. “Boards too!” I shouted, and the two mages were much quicker to respond. One of the boards cracked in half when it hit the frozen ground. I kept the fire going until we were about twenty feet away, then dismissed it and stood facing them with my arms crossed over my chest.

“Who speaks for this town?” I said. I scared even myself at how angry I sounded, but I was tired and frustrated and heartsick and afraid we wouldn’t reach Hasskian in time, and I didn’t much care if I frightened anyone, because we didn’t have time to waste.

“Our mayor,” said one of the women.

“Get him,” I said, and waited for the woman to duck past the growing crowd and run for the mayor. Why he wasn’t with the defenders—no, I know why he wasn’t with the defenders, he’s a coward and a bully. But it doesn’t matter now. We stood there, waiting, watching each other. The mages looked like they might go for their boards if I gave them a chance, so I sent a couple of fierce glares their way. We waited some more. I started to feel the anger wearing off, replaced by anxiety. They would only stay cowed by my display of magic for so long. If that mayor didn’t return quickly…I didn’t know what I would do next.

But the woman came back in less than five minutes, bringing with her a tall man who moved more slowly than she did, trying to exert control over the situation and, by extension, over me. “How dare you threaten us?” he called out when he reached the front of the crowd. “We haven’t done anything to you. Leave now before we kill you.”

The men and women around him looked nervous at that. Well, he hadn’t seen the fire-summoning pouvra. “That was just to get your attention,” I said. “I want to talk to you about the village about two miles down the road.”

“The invaders?” he said. “What about them?”

“You need to stop attacking them,” I said, trying to be reasonable even though his tone of voice irritated me. “They haven’t done anything to you and they’re only interested in living in peace.” That was mostly true.

“They are foreign invaders and represent a threat to the Castaviran Empire,” he said. “It’s our duty to eliminate them.”

“They are inhabitants of the shadow world, joined to ours again,” I said. There was no point explaining the convergence to this fool. “The world belongs to both of us. You don’t need to conquer them any more than they need to conquer you.”

He examined me and sneered. “I know what you are,” he said. “They’ve played a clever trick, choosing someone who looks Viravonian and somehow teaching you our language. But you’re one of them. Kill her.”

No one moved. “Kill her!” he screamed, and one of the mages bent to pick up his board, so I set it on fire and he flinched away. The crowd muttered and backed up. “Cowards!” the mayor shouted, and snatched a sword from the nearest bystander and ran at me. That was unexpected, and I had barely begun to respond when Jeddan stepped in front of me, grabbed the mayor’s sword-wielding arm, and used the man’s own momentum to wrench it behind him so painfully he gasped and dropped the weapon.

“Thanks,” I said to Jeddan. He nodded, and gripped the mayor by the back of his neck, holding him tightly. He flailed at Jeddan with his free hand, and I grabbed it and worked the walk-through-walls pouvra to slide my hand through his, making his face go white and the rest of him go limp.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 132

28 Coloine (continued)

Lost track—okay, I told them the reason each of them only had one pouvra is that when the magic wakes up inside you, it has to take shape somehow, and that shape is a pouvra that meets your need. After that you have to learn to bend your will to the magic if you want to gain more pouvrin.

I hope that wasn’t a lie. It was just something I realized after remembering my own experience, and hearing Jeddan’s story, and watching Cederic sweep the God-Empress’s soldiers across the room, and knowing each of these “new” mages only had one pouvra…anyway, it feels right, but I’ll keep looking for more proof. And we showed them our pouvrin, as many as we could. Baltan and Gismara both have the mind-moving pouvra, and Nanissa has the walk-through-walls pouvra.

By the time I was finished (I probably told them more than that, little things I’ve forgotten now) they were all staring at me like they’d been slapped in the face by a slab of rock. Jeddan said, in a low voice, “I think you overwhelmed them.”

“They deserved to know,” I said, feeling stung.

“True,” he said, “but it’s a lot to take in, all at once like that.”

I nodded. Baltan said, no longer antagonistically, “How many more of us do you think there are?”

It was such a logical question coming from someone I’d pegged as hopelessly irrational that it caught me off guard. “I don’t know,” I said. “Your town doesn’t have more than a thousand people, does it? And there were three of you.”

“Nanissa and I came here from other towns,” Gismara said. “I frightened so many people in my home town that I had to leave or risk being torn apart by a mob. I feel lucky to have found this place.”

“So one out of a thousand,” I said. “Though that might not be normal.”

“Are there any other people with those eyes in this town who didn’t develop magic?” Jeddan said.

“No,” said Baltan. “I’m the only one.”

“And I found maybe ten people in my journeys with those eyes,” I said. “Ten people in ten years. Granted, I wasn’t interacting much with others, but that’s not very many.”

“We’re just guessing at this point,” Jeddan said.

“True,” I said. But I was thinking of Venetry, which has a population of over a million people, and wondering how many of those were green-eyed mages now. Even a tenth of a percent of that population was an unbelievably high number. The city might not care about an invasion; it might already have torn itself apart. But Jeddan’s right, and that’s all guessing. It’s not like we can do anything about it.

“It sounded like you’ve had attacks by strangers who don’t speak our language,” Jeddan said. I think he was intentionally changing the subject.

“Yes,” Nanissa said. “There’s a town about two miles from here that wasn’t there before the convergence. They’ve sent fighters against us, and some of their scribbling mages, four times now. The first time they hurt a lot of people before we drove them off. We’re better prepared now. We don’t know what they want. It’s not as if we’ve done anything to hurt them. They came after us.”

“Remember from their perspective, you’re the ones who appeared out of nowhere,” I said. “Not that I’m excusing their behavior, but they might just be afraid of what you might do to them.”

“Or they have someone in charge who’s aggressive. Or thinks he or she is justified in defeating you on the God-Empress’s behalf,” said Jeddan.

“Who’s the God-Empress?” Baltan said. So I had to explain something about Castaviran politics, and the coup, though I didn’t say that my husband is a Castaviran mage—no sense giving them more questions to ask—and I didn’t go into any detail

Oh no. I’m such an idiot. That town is right on the Royal Road the God-Empress’s army is going to take once they’ve conquered Calassmir. They’re all going to be slaughtered.

We have to go back.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 131

28 Coloine (continued)

There were actually three of them, two women and the man Baltan. One of the women, short and with gray-streaked hair, had her hand stretched out toward Jeddan, as if she needed the gesture to work her pouvra. The other woman, who was young and very pretty, was standing a little ways back and hadn’t done or said anything, so I didn’t know if she was a mage or not, but she, like the other woman, had green-gray eyes, so I figured the odds were good.

I realized Baltan was still screaming on the ground, so I dismissed the pouvra and, after a second’s thought, extended a hand to help him rise. He ignored it and scrambled to his feet. “What did you do?” he said in a hoarse, terrified voice. “That wasn’t scribbling.”

“Let Jeddan go,” I repeated, and flicked fire at the woman, not to burn her, just to nip at her feet, and she squeaked and Jeddan fell. “I told you. We’re Balaenic and we can work magic the way you do.” Then I realized what he’d said about scribbling, and I added, “Did some strangers come this way? People who don’t speak our language, and work magic by writing?”

“They’re with them, Baltan, how could they know that?” the woman said.

“No, Gismara,” the other woman, the one who’d been silent, said. She came forward and laid a hand on Gismara’s arm. “Didn’t you see? They’re like us.” She took a few more steps forward, extended her hand palm out, and said, “I grant you the freedom of my name, which is Nanissa. Be welcome here.”

I placed my palm against hers in greeting and said, with no hesitation, “Sesskia. And this is—” I caught myself before I usurped Jeddan’s right to privacy. I’ve decided that, for good or ill, we mages have something very personal in common, and I want the connection that sharing praenomi gives, but that doesn’t mean I can make that decision for Jeddan. But I think he reasoned the same way I did, because he said, “I’m Jeddan,” he said. “Thank you for the welcome, Nanissa.” Then I had so many questions I didn’t know how to begin, but Nanissa began for me.

“You’ve got a lot of control, for only having a couple of weeks to learn,” she said. “Fire…that’s frightening.”

I exchanged glances with Jeddan. “Maybe we should have the rest of this conversation indoors,” I said, and not because the wind was picking up and I was feeling cold. If they assumed we’d only been mages for a few weeks…I started going over possibilities in my head, all of them tangled and confusing.

Nanissa gestured down the street toward the rest of the town, and now I realized we had an audience. Men and women and children peered out from practically every doorway, some brave souls even venturing onto doorsteps. Nanissa called out, “It’s all right, they’re not dangerous.”

“That’s not a given,” Baltan said, glaring at me. (He was so antagonistic he almost made me regret my decision about praenomi.)

“I’m sorry I burned you, but I didn’t feel like hanging there all day until you realized we’re not a threat,” I said. He just glared harder.

The other woman, Gismara (poor woman, I bet she’s been teased all her life—or maybe that story isn’t as widely known as I think) said “We can’t trust them on the basis of all of us having the same kind of magic.”

“You’re right,” Jeddan said, surprising her. “We could still be enemies. But isn’t it worth that risk to learn more about yourselves?” Gismara tightened her lips and said nothing more. It was so frustrating they were so suspicious—I know, Jeddan was right that even if we were the same kind of mages, we might still want to do them harm, but with Balaen in general being so fearful of magic, don’t we have a…maybe an obligation?…to band together? Or is that me indulging in a rare fit of optimism? I don’t know.

Nanissa took us to a tavern and asked the woman behind the bar if we could use the private room. She looked at us skeptically, but nodded, and we all went into this dark, low-ceilinged room that probably would be more cheerful in summer, when the small windows let in a brighter sunlight. Just then it seemed dreary. But Nanissa just sat down and said, “What can you do?” to Jeddan even before he’d taken a seat.

He blinked at her abruptness. “I can pass through things,” he said, “and see inside things.”

Nanissa’s mouth fell open. “You have two magics,” she said. “How is that possible?”

I put my hand on Jeddan’s wrist to keep him from speaking. “First I have to ask you a couple of questions,” I said.

“We get to do the talking,” Baltan growled.

“All of this will make more sense if you just answer two questions,” I said. “Please. Then we’ll tell you anything you like.”

Nanissa hesitated, then nodded. Baltan rolled his eyes and sat back in his chair. Gismara, to my surprise, looked like she was actually listening instead of stubbornly resisting anything we might say.

“First question,” I said. “There was an…event…about two weeks ago, 15 Coloine or so. Felt like being pulled hard in different directions. Did you develop magic when that happened? Or right afterward?”

Nanissa looked puzzled, but nodded. “We all did. But you already know that, if it happened to you, so I don’t see the point of that question.”

“You will,” I said. “Second question. Did something else happen to each of you, something other than the con—the pulling? Something traumatic, like being trapped in a burning house, or almost drowning?”

Nanissa looked at the others. “No,” she said. “Why?”

“So it was the convergence that did it,” Jeddan said to me. “How? Or is it ‘why’?”

“Time for you to talk,” Baltan said. “No more stalling.”

“All right,” I said. And before Nanissa could start asking questions, I told them everything.

I explained how Jeddan and I had become mages well before the convergence and that we’d been studying pouvrin for years, which is why we had several. I explained about the worlds coming together and how the convergence had triggered something in them that woke up the magic—something related to the color of their eyes.

(It’s getting harder to deny that the eye color is related to magical ability, even though it sounds so stupid. Such an insignificant thing on which to hang such power. And poor Terrael. If he’s lost his magic…it makes me want to shout and scream at whoever or whatever set up this stupid rule—one of the four false Gods, maybe? Or is it just the way the world is? I still hope I’m wrong.)

to be continued…