Sesskia’s Diary, part 147

7 Nevrine, continued (continued)

She looked skeptical. Worse than skeptical—she looked disdainful. I said, grasping at anything, “Master Liskesstis, I promise you in the Kilios’s name that we can free you, if that’s something you think will help. I know you can’t go back to your village, and I don’t know where else you can find shelter, but you will certainly start dying if you stay here. I bet some of you, the sickest and the smallest, have already succumbed. Please let us help you.”

She sneered. “I know the Kilios. Who are you to make promises in his name?”

“I’m his wife,” I said.

That changed her expression completely. She said, “Cederic Aleynten has no wife.”

“We were married two weeks before the convergence,” I said. “You know him? How?”

Her eyes narrowed. “What hand does he cut his meat with?”

“His left,” I said, “even though he’s right-handed, and before you ask, he cuts all his meat, even chicken legs, and it’s an impressive feat of agility.”

“Which of his ears is pierced?” she asked.

“Neither, though his right ear was pierced a long time ago. You can still see the mark,” I said, trying not to think about what we’d been doing when I made this observation.

“That only proves you’ve been close to him, not that you’re married,” she said.

I wished at that moment I could raise one eyebrow like Cederic does. “I could give you any number of corroborating details,” I said, “but then we’d have to have a very…intense…discussion about why you happen to know what he looks like naked.”

To my surprise, she laughed. “No need,” she said. “You’re exactly the sort of young woman Cederic would marry, if he had any sense, which he does.” I don’t know why I blushed at that. I’m putting it away somewhere to consider later.

Just then we heard footsteps outside, and hands grabbed me and Jeddan and pulled us into the crowd. Someone pounded on the tent pole in the door opening with what sounded like a big stick. “Shut up in there, damned traitors!” growled the guard, and everyone held very still until he went away. After a long, long time, Jeddan and I were released, and Liskesstis came to stand before me again. “We will not survive this,” she said in a low voice. “They have already begun rounding up victims to be raped. Some of them do not return. And our children…we will risk anything for a chance at survival.”

“We can’t free you unless you have somewhere safe to go,” I said.

“There’s a town about ten miles east of here, or was. No reason to believe it’s not still there,” Liskesstis said. “We can walk that far, or die trying, but at least we’d die on our own terms. And I don’t think we’ll die.”

“How many mages do you have?” I asked.

“Only one, in addition to me, and she is barely more than a child,” she said. “I am the only Darssan mage here. I thought my retirement would be peaceful,” she laughed.

“I think you should gather anyone the people will listen to, and begin planning your journey,” I said, “and Jeddan and I will work on helping you leave this place.”

“We can’t just walk into the snow! We’ll wander until the storm kills us!” a woman said.

“Have faith,” Liskesstis said. “We’ve kept you warm so far, haven’t we? Hidden the most vulnerable? These two have offered their help, and I think they can deliver on their promise. They will open the way, and we will walk out of here. Or would you rather wait here for that pretty daughter of yours to be snatched up? Twelve, isn’t she?”

The muttering subsided. I said, “Will you have any trouble bringing everyone together?”

“We’ve been moving secretly between the tents ever since arriving here,” she said. “You worry about your own problem. I imagine it’s more difficult than ours.”

I shrugged, then repeated the conversation to Jeddan, quickly. “I had an idea, but I was wondering what you’d thought of,” I said.

“Let’s see how many guards we’re dealing with, then plan,” he said. “I’ll go outside the camp, where the snow will help conceal me, and you can look around in here.”

It took us about half an hour to feel confident we knew what we were facing. There was a tent, well-lit and comfortably warm, where ten or twelve guards sat, clearly uninterested in going out into the cold, though one of them made a desultory loop between several of the prison tents while I watched.

Seven other men patrolled the outside of the camp, though none of them were very alert. It was clear they all were counting on their rifles and the weather and the barrenness of their surroundings to keep the prisoners penned in, because anyone could have knocked the “fence” over and walked away. We met back up in a corner between the prisoners’ tents to confer. Jeddan was grinning far too broadly for someone facing an impossible challenge.

“I was nearly caught,” he said, “and look what happened.” He wavered, flickered, and I suddenly had to look away, my eyes watering from trying to see past the concealment pouvra. “It’s the strangest experience.”

“Do you think you can use it on someone else?” I said.

“I don’t think so. I’ll try. But at least I can sneak up on those guards and overpower them. If we can clear them away, can the Castavirans walk out of here?” he said.

“There are far too many of them not to attract attention,” I said. “They’ll make too much noise. And we can’t get rid of all the guards I saw in that tent at once. But…I have an idea.”

“Can you set the tent on fire?” Jeddan said.

“I could, but that wouldn’t be a long-term solution,” I said. “I was thinking of doing it the old-fashioned way.”

Which is how I ended up sneaking into the storage tents and stealing about forty rifles, five at a time (I could carry three and use the mind-moving pouvra on two at a time, which means I’m getting stronger), and passing them out to some Castaviran volunteers who knew a little bit about shooting. It was extremely dangerous because the storage tents were adjacent to the guards’ main tent, so they could watch them, and the more trips I made, the more often I had a chance of being caught.

But the guards were all making a lot of noise playing some card game that involved penalty drinking—take a drink every time you lose a round, or play the wrong card—and were well on the road to inebriation. My Castaviran warriors were getting really impatient by the time I brought the last armful, but I told them, “There’s one more thing I need to do, or some of you might get hurt or killed. So be patient. Half of you need to go back to Master Liskesstis—quietly—and the other half wait here for your part of the plan.”

It was going so perfectly I should have known something was about to go wrong. Just as I’d sneaked inside the main tent, intending to start gathering the guards’ rifles (there were six or seven of them, all propped against the tent wall or lying next to camp stools) one of the men stood up, stretched, and said, “I’m gonna go take a piss,” and headed unstably for the door. I was on the wrong side of the tent and there was nothing I could do except watch in horror, because he was going to step outside and find himself facing two dozen armed Castavirans, and they would shoot him, and then everything really would go to hell.

But nothing happened. I had one gun clutched to my chest and my other hand resting on another rifle, preparing to turn the concealment pouvra on it, and felt as if the pouvra had turned me to stone. No shots, no screams, not even the thud of an unconscious body hitting the ground. I slowly concealed the rifle and picked it up—might as well finish the job, since I was there—and eased my way out of the tent. There was no way I was going back for the rest. It would have to be enough.

I went around the tent to where I’d left the prisoners, and found them huddled up, I thought against the cold. But no, they’d surrounded the guard and completely immobilized him, gagged him with somebody’s scarf. He looked furious and terrified all at once. “Take him somewhere, and bind him. Use the tent rope if you have to. You won’t be coming back here.”

Three of them dragged him away, and I told the rest, “Just a few more minutes. And remember, you can’t kill any of them.”

“We’ll do what we like to the bastards,” said one of the men. I recognized him as the one I’d spoken to first.

“I don’t care what you do to them, myself,” I said, though I quailed inside at the thought of them murdering even such vicious brutes as these guards no doubt were. “But if you kill them, Endolessar will have to hunt you down or risk looking weak. Then all of this will be pointless. Please. Leave your vengeance behind, at least for now.”

None of them looked very convinced, but they did as I asked. I don’t care that it’s skipping ahead in the story to say that. I was so worried, at the time, that their anger would get the better of them, and I honestly couldn’t blame them for wanting revenge. I have no idea what it’s like to have your homes destroyed and your families brutalized in that way and I couldn’t tell them they shouldn’t be angry. But I was risking my life for them, and if they were all killed because some of them let that anger overcome them, it would’ve been a pointless risk. So I was so relieved when everything else went as planned. More or less.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 146

7 Nevrine, continued (continued)

We retraced our steps and circled back along the walls toward the northeastern gate. The guard in Debressken had said the camp was to the northeast, and it seemed logical that anyone going to or from it would leave by that gate.

We had to conceal ourselves for longer than I liked, staying hidden from the guards at the gate, but eventually we were far enough along the road that we could walk openly. There weren’t a lot of travelers there, and if we’d been sane people, we wouldn’t have been on the road either, because the snow had started falling again, and now it was big wet clumps that stuck to everything and dampened the shoulders of my coat.

“I think this is it,” Jeddan said. He’d been watching the road carefully, and now he stood next to a smaller road, more of a large track, that branched away more northerly than the main road. “The snow is packed down the way you’d expect if a lot of people had used it, but there are only a few faint footprints. They set up the camp and then had just a couple of men traveling between it and the city, or several men but only a few at a time.”

“All right,” I said, and we took that side road and trudged on. It was getting dark, and I tried not to be resentful of the Castavirans, reminded myself we’d still be out in the wet and cold even if we weren’t heading into who knew what kind of trouble, shook like a dog to get the snow off me, kept trudging and watching the road ahead so we didn’t run into a patrol, or something.

Specks of light ahead grew into lanterns, barely visible in the snow, and I grabbed Jeddan’s arm to slow him down. We went more slowly now, watching dark shapes emerge—walls thrown together from boards and rope, poles where the lanterns were attached—and then one of the shapes moved, and I worked the concealment pouvra on both of us as a guard bearing a rifle walked past, circling the camp. The moment he was gone, I dismissed the pouvra, said “Wait here” in Jeddan’s ear, and ran to the wall, concealed myself again, and ducked through it.

It was pretty bare beyond. There were lots of tents, heavy dark army tents, and more lights, lots of lanterns with their tiny flames trying to hold back the dark. There were so many of them that if it hadn’t been snowing, everything would have been bright as midday. I saw no guards. I ran back to Jeddan and the two of us went back inside, then quickly ducked under the nearest tent flap.

It was as dark inside the tent as it was bright outside. A woman screamed, and then there was a lot of movement. “No, no, we’re friends!” I said, “stop or they’ll want to know what’s going on!” The scream was suddenly cut off, as if someone had muffled the woman. “Sorry to startle you,” I said, “but we saw your village, and heard you’d been taken away, and we came to see….” My voice trailed off because I wasn’t sure how to end that sentence without sounding like their suffering was nothing but entertainment for us along the road.

My eyes were becoming adjusted to the dark—I’d thought about using the see-in-dark pouvra, but I wasn’t sure if we’d need to pass quickly through the brightly-lit space between tents—and I could see people huddled together, most of them wrapped in blankets. A baby coughed, then wailed, and its mother started to shush it. “Who are you?” said someone in the darkness.

“My name is Sesskia,” I said. I felt so sorry for them it felt like an affront to distance myself by using my placename. “Is there anyone who speaks for all of you?”

More shuffling. “Carlen Liskesstis, I suppose,” said the same man.

“Is he here? Can you get him?”

Silence. “Carlen’s a girl’s name,” the person said. “You ought to know that.”

I cursed myself. “I didn’t know, because I’m Balaenic. One of the, um, foreigners. But I speak your language, and I want to help,” I said.

Nobody said anything for a long, long moment, in which I wondered if a week’s captivity was enough to weaken them all so they couldn’t attack us. “I’ll get her,” the man said. He came forward, glancing at me briefly—he had dark hair, and dark eyes, which was all I could see of him—then left the tent, keeping low to the ground.

Jeddan and I waited. I felt awkward. I don’t know what Jeddan was thinking. I couldn’t come up with anything to talk to these people about; polite small talk would have been ridiculous, and I started worrying we’d been really stupid to come here at all. There was nothing we could do for them but raise their hopes and then smash them.

The man came back through the door, making me step out of the way. He was followed by the shortest woman I’d ever seen, her hair silvery in the dim light. She, too, was wrapped in a blanket, and I realized I hadn’t seen a single coat on any of these people, and suddenly I was so furious I wanted to kill every guard in the place and burn my way through Hasskian until they learned to behave like human beings.

“Who are you?” the woman said. Her voice sounded like a flute, not at all creaky the way I’d expected, given her hair.

“Sesskia. This is Jeddan. We—” I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t make these people any promises. I couldn’t do anything useful except be angry, and that wasn’t useful at all.

“We saw what happened,” Jeddan said. “You’re in danger here. If we could get you out, is there somewhere you could go?”

“Jeddan, they don’t know what you’re saying,” I said.

“Then tell them,” he said.

I sighed inwardly, but repeated his words. Liskesstis’s expression didn’t change. Slowly, she raised a hand, twitched her fingers, and amber light outlined a th’an just before the same amber light coursed down the poles of the tent, filling it with a warm light. “You don’t look like a fool,” she said.

“We can get you out,” Jeddan said, and I started to protest, then shut my mouth because even as I’d been about to say “We can’t promise that” an idea had blossomed into life inside my head. I didn’t know what Jeddan had in mind, but I knew him well enough to believe he wouldn’t make that promise if he didn’t have some idea of how to do it. “Tell them, Sesskia.”

“You’re the enemy,” Liskesstis said. “He can’t even speak our language. You will only bring us death.”

“We’re mages, Balaenic mages,” I said, “and even though we do magic differently, it’s still magic.” I grabbed Jeddan’s scarf from around his neck, making him squawk, wadded it into a ball and tossed it in the air, and set it on fire. That got a lot more noise, and then shushing, and the burning scarf fell to the earth (bare earth, no rugs for the evil foreigners), where I stomped on it to put it out.

“No th’an,” Liskesstis said, staring at the remnants of the scarf.

“It’s how Balaenic mages work their magic,” I said. “I swear we mean you no harm. And I think we can get you out.”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 145

BOOK EIGHT

7 Nevrine, continued

This new book feels strange, probably because the cover is thick, stiff paper made of many layers pressed together and not beautiful blue leather. All that matters is that it’s a book, I know, but it’s hard to look at it and not think how much better a job I’d have done making it.

We ran, for a while, without paying attention to where we were going, just getting as far away from the Citadel as we could. Eventually, we were breathless and hot even in that weather, and I had a stitch in my side I kept trying to bend into, hoping that would make it go away, so we stopped and went to walking at a normal pace. “I don’t think they’ll find us,” said Jeddan.

“Two anonymous strangers who don’t look different from anyone else, in a city this size?” I said. “You’re right.”

“We do look a little different,” Jeddan said, pointing at our shadowy reflections in a shop window (dozens of little glass panes, very modern). Our images were crisscrossed with the black leading of the windows, but I could see his point: we looked very travel-worn, and our coats and hats looked incredibly provincial, and I was still wearing my Castaviran uniform boots, because they were warm and waterproof. In the window, I saw someone passing behind us give us a skeptical look.

“We can either get new clothes, or find somewhere to hide,” I said.

“We could do both,” Jeddan said. “My shirt is getting ripe.”

“We don’t have a lot of money,” I said, “and we should buy food. And we really ought to do it quickly, just in case somebody here has a locate-person pouvra.”

“We’d have to kidnap that person, if that’s true,” Jeddan said, making me laugh. I wish there were such a pouvra. I have so many friends I wish I could find. Even a prove-someone’s-alive pouvra would be nice.

“All right,” I said, “let’s walk,” and I linked my arm with his so we looked like a couple of sweethearts out for a stroll. I didn’t really know where to go; the only places I was ever familiar with in Hasskian were the noble manors (probably not a good idea to go back there), the slums (dangerous unless you were very familiar with them, which I wasn’t after seven years’ absence), and the industrial district (because nobody wants to pursue a thief through an abattoir). And none of those were exactly what I wanted. But the place we were in now was too upscale for our business. So I took us in the direction of the slums, and hoped we’d find something in between.

To sum up, because it was boring by comparison to what came next, we found a neighborhood in which we could not only purchase cheap, clean clothing, but they let us change in the back of the shop and gave us a discount in exchange for our old clothes. Then Jeddan bought food, and I stole this book—true, we had money enough for it, but I was feeling reckless and felt like giving myself a challenge. Then I felt guilty and left some money on the counter when the store owner wasn’t looking. I don’t think I’ve ever stolen anything except out of need, because I know what it’s like to have almost nothing and then have that snatched away from you. Anyway. I have it now, and it’s a nice fat one that should last me for a while, unless we keep having adventures like yesterday’s.

We were watching over our shoulders the whole time we were in Hasskian, but never saw a single guard. I’m a little worried that Endolessar didn’t take our warning seriously, given that we “betrayed” him and ran away. I hate to think of these people being crushed by the God-Empress’s army. But we’ve done what we can, and now it’s up to them.

Despite not being pursued by the guards, we decided to go through the northeast wall, between two of the gates where the industrial district is. It was every bit as smelly as I remembered, what with the tannery and the butchers and all the other unpleasant things no one wants to think about that civilization needs to move smoothly. We passed through—this was about mid-afternoon—and hugged the wall, circling the city until we could strike out toward the road.

We stayed concealed until we were about a mile from the city, then trudged on through the snow toward the Royal Road. The storm had passed, or rather the snow had stopped falling for the moment, but I could still smell the storm in the air, waiting for the right time to start dumping on us again. I felt pretty good in my fresh new clothes (used clothes, but cleanly laundered) and almost cheerful about getting on the road again.

Then Jeddan said, “It’s not right. We have to do something, Sesskia.”

“What’s not right?” I said.

“The villagers,” he said, “the ones they took from their homes. We can’t just leave them there.”

I stopped and turned to face him. “What do you propose we do?” I said. “Even if we could sneak them all away, they can’t go back to their homes. And we can’t go to Venetry trailing who knows how many Castaviran refugees.”

“You think those people give a damn about the comfort and safety of foreign invaders?” he said, hotly, which surprised me. “They’ve been penned up in some camp somewhere, probably without enough food and inadequate shelter, and that camp is going to be their home for months, and with winter coming on they’re going to start dying. That’s assuming someone in Hasskian doesn’t decide they’re too much trouble and orders them all killed.”

“They wouldn’t do that,” I said.

“They already think of them as dangerous outsiders,” Jeddan said. “Leave them there long enough, they’re going to start thinking of them as not human. And nobody thinks twice about squashing a spider that might be poisonous.”

I thought about it for a minute while he watched me, silent. We were both right, unfortunately. The Castavirans were in danger no matter how you looked at it. But there were too many of them—one, or two, or a dozen we might have been able to help escape, but a whole village? I cursed myself, but I could see we only had one choice.

“Let’s find the camp, and investigate,” I said, “and make a plan from there. We won’t abandon them unless there really is nothing we can do, all right?”

“Agreed,” Jeddan said.

to be continued…

BURNING BRIGHT audiobook!

Burning Bright front coverThat’s right, BURNING BRIGHT will be released as an audiobook! When? Not sure yet. But soon!

The exciting part is that my daughter, who has a reading disability and has never read one of my books, will now be able to without someone sitting and reading it to her. Since she does her reading late at night, this is impractical. I’m really looking forward to passing it on to her!

Sesskia’s Diary, part 144

7 Nevrine (continued)

We trailed along after him, giving him plenty of space so he wouldn’t feel intimidated by Jeddan’s muscular frame. “That was impressive,” Jeddan whispered.

“It was luck,” I said. “I much prefer—never mind.” I’d been about to say “sneaking in at night” but realized Messkala might be listening.

We went along some wide passages that were made of stone and freezing cold, then up a spiral staircase and into a narrower hall that was floored with planed wood and felt much warmer. Messkala opened a door on the right and entered without waiting for us. “My Lord Governor, two magickers to see you,” we heard him say just as we entered a room that was as brutally hot as the downstairs passages had been cold.

“Thank you, Messkala,” the Lord Governor said, “you may leave,” and Messkala retreated at a pace that wasn’t quite a run.

The heat was coming from a fireplace about half the size of the one downstairs, which meant it was still far too big for the room. Everything in the room was too big for it, the chairs built as if for mythical giants, a cupboard against the wall opposite the fireplace so tall it looked as if it had been wedged into the space between floor and ceiling. The windows, on the other hand, were tiny and square and let in very little light, though that could have been the snow, which was falling heavily now. I tried not to feel intimidated, since I was sure that was the intention. It took some effort.

“Welcome to Hasskian,” the Lord Governor said. If I’d seen this room before meeting the man, I’d have guessed he was as oversized as everything else. But no, he was no taller than average, neither fat nor thin, with longish blond hair the same color as mine and, of course, the same green-gray eyes. He approached us with his palm out, and we each saluted him; the skin of his palms was hot and dry, probably from his proximity to the fire. My own skin was starting to feel parched.

“Please, sit down. Thank you for joining me,” he said. We put our packs next to the door and sat down. My feet dangled. Jeddan looked as if he belonged in the oversized room. Endolessar looked beyond us, and shortly a pitcher and a couple of glasses came bobbing past, unsupported by anything but his pouvra. Impressive, if he’d only had it for the short time since the convergence. He poured water for us, again with the pouvra, which I tried not to gulp. “What are your surnames?”

“We don’t have surnames,” I said. “I’m Thalessi Scales, and this is my companion, Rokyar Axe.”

“Thalessi, Rokyar, welcome,” Endolessar said. “May I ask your magics?” He looked eager enough that I almost forgot why we were there in my shared enthusiasm.

“I can summon water, and Rokyar can walk through things,” I said, since Jeddan didn’t seem to mind me speaking for both of us.

“I have never heard of summoning water,” Endolessar said. “Would you show me?”

I summoned a little blob over the pitcher so it fell inside without splashing. Endolessar looked thrilled. “Wonderful,” he said. “I’m sure we will find a use for you.”

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“In the defense of Hasskian,” he said. He sounded as casual as if he’d just pointed out it was snowing.

“Then—you know about the invasion?” I said, which was stupid, because how could he possibly know? But I was so preoccupied with delivering our warning and getting back on the road I wasn’t thinking clearly.

“Of course,” he said. “We discover more of these excrescences every day, more foreigners intruding on our territory. We must eliminate them.”

“The village,” Jeddan said, because he was quicker on the uptake than I was.

“We are making this territory safe for Balaen,” Endolessar said.

“No,” I said, “the villages aren’t a threat. It’s the invading army you have to worry about.”

He frowned, and said, “What are you talking about?”

So I told him about the convergence, and about the God-Empress’s army, though I didn’t call it that because that would have revealed I have far too much knowledge about Castavir for someone who doesn’t speak the language, and ended with a plea for him to leave the Castaviran villages alone. “You need to put all your efforts into defending Hasskian’s lands, and the towns dependent on it,” I said. “That army has many, many battle mages who are far better trained at warfare than your mages—your magickers—are, and if your efforts are divided, who knows what might happen?”

“Interesting,” Endolessar said. He got up and walked toward the fire. I half expected to see his hair start to frizzle from the heat. “Then you will fight with us?”

“We have to go to Venetry,” I said.

“Surely their summons is irrelevant, with this news,” he said. “They couldn’t possibly expect us to give up our only advantage, though I’m not sure how much use dropping water on someone is.”

“What summons?” Jeddan said.

“You haven’t heard?” Endolessar said. “The King and Chamber have summoned all magickers to the capital city to help in its defense against the invaders. But as Hasskian is going to meet this army before it reaches Venetry, I’m certain the King will understand your refusing the summons.”

“We have to warn them of the threat from the south,” I said. “We’re only two mages. You don’t really need us, and as you said, I won’t be of much help.”

“I can send messengers,” Endolessar said. “You’ll stay here.” He took two steps and grabbed my arm, painfully tight. I tried to pull away with no success.

“You can’t keep us,” Jeddan said.

“I can’t keep you, certainly,” he said, “but I’m counting on you being unwilling to abandon your companion, and her I can most certainly confine.”

I glanced at Jeddan, who gave me the briefest nod, then I went insubstantial briefly and stepped out of Endolessar’s grasp. “No one said I had only one magic,” I said to Endolessar’s astonished face, then we ran for the door, awkwardly scooping up our packs on the way, and dashed through it, not bothering to open it first.

We went substantial and pounded down the corridor to the stairs. “Where now?” Jeddan said.

“Out,” I said, “then we need provisions, and then we get the hell away from Hasskian before anyone finds us.” Behind us, we heard Endolessar shouting for his guards, and a stirring below told us someone was responding to the call. “Be ready,” Jeddan said, and we came out of the stairwell into the cold stone hallway, and made it almost all the way back to the entry when half a dozen guards poured out of it and headed in our direction.

Now,” Jeddan said, and we worked the walk-through-walls pouvra and just kept running. I fell behind Jeddan, since I still can’t pass comfortably through flesh and had to dodge the guards, but it still didn’t take long for us to leave the screaming behind and tear across the moat and down the road back into the city.

There are still two pages left in this book, but this feels like a good place in the story to switch to the new one. I’m glad I thought to steal it before leaving Hasskian. Sort of steal it, that is. I’ll miss writing in this one; it’s all I have of Cederic right now.

Huh. It never occurred to me, in all this time, that he must have bought this for me because he loved me. That this was a gift of the heart. And it has so much of him in it, from the night he told me he loved me to his final goodbye, just before that kathana tore me from him. When we’re together again, I’ll read it to him. I think he’d like that.

 

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 143

7 Nevrine (continued)

We thanked him and set out. Hasskian is an old city, older than Venetry, and its age shows in the narrowness of its streets, which are worn slick from the passage of hundreds of thousands of feet over the last five hundred years, and the narrowness of its houses, built right up against one another, some of them sharing common walls. It was cleaner than I remembered; I think they finally put in modern plumbing sometime in the last seven years, because no one was dumping chamber pots out the windows. Another one of Endolessar’s plans to improve the lives of his citizens and make himself look good at the same time. I wonder how much it cost. Well, we weren’t in the slums, so maybe those were as smelly and dangerous as I remembered.

The people of Hasskian didn’t look as if they were afraid of whatever danger the foreign “invaders” might pose. They were as friendly as city-dwellers ever get, which is to say they’re happy to nod in greeting, but they have an air about them that says they won’t intrude on your business and they expect the same courtesy from you. I like that about cities. The streets were full of people going about their business, but not so full that we had trouble getting from the gate to the Citadel.

The grand-sounding building is actually just a manor in a part of Hasskian that was razed about a hundred years ago so the rich could build larger, nicer, more solitary houses than were available in Hasskian at the time. It looks like a tiny castle, with turrets that couldn’t possibly have full-sized rooms in them and whitewashed stone and a little front door that’s a replica of Hasskian’s gate and, unbelievably, a moat. Endolessar’s great-grandparents built it, and people actually travel great distances to see it. I guess some people are so bored they’ll do anything for entertainment.

There was a guard standing at attention outside the gate (standing open, tiny portcullis raised) but we showed him our papers and he waved us through without even examining them. Inside, the Citadel looked even more like a castle. Our footsteps echoed off the twenty-foot-high stone ceiling, ribbed with more stone, and tapestries hung on every wall.

Opposite the door was an arched opening through which I could see a long, long table and an equally long fireplace holding what appeared to be most of an oak tree, ashy with the residue of past fires. A stone staircase with no handrail ran up one wall to a gallery high above. It was hard to imagine anyone being brave enough to use it. Well, I would, but even I would think it was pointless.

A man emerged from the dining hall, straightening his over-robe. “Papers,” he said, extending a hand. He had dark gray hair swept back from his forehead and the pinched look of someone who’d smelled something unpleasant. We handed our papers over and he scrutinized them as the guard had not. “What magic have you?” he said.

“I can—” I began.

“Show me, woman, don’t talk me to death,” he said, which made me want to set his over-robe on fire. It was elaborate brocade shot with gold, and his fussiness about it made me want even more to set it on fire, but I controlled my impatience and again summoned water. I admit I could have chosen any pouvra to demonstrate, but I opted for the one that would be the most annoying, and it worked. He took some quick steps backward to avoid the splash and said, “How dare you!”

“You did tell me to do it,” I pointed out, and he subsided, growling. Jeddan was more circumspect and just put his hand through the nearest wall, which impressed the man more than my display had.

“Very well,” he said, and removed a little book from inside his robe, which reminded me I really needed to find a new book soon. He flipped through the pages, took a tiny pencil from a loop of fabric near the spine, and said, as he wrote, “Come back in two weeks and the Lord Governor will see you.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “We can’t wait that long! We have very urgent news for the Lord Governor.”

“Don’t they all,” the man said, snapping his book shut and returning it to his hidden pocket. “Two weeks.”

“I—all right,” I said, sizing the man up and liking the conclusion I came to. I’ve had to talk my way in and out of situations since I was twelve, and the first thing you learn, when you have to live that way, is to judge what kind of person you’re bluffing. Some people, it’s just a waste of time. Others will believe anything you say. This man was in the middle somewhere. I felt reasonably confident I could get him to bend my way so long as I kept a straight face and didn’t let up on the pressure. And, at worst, he’d kick us out.

“That’s a good policy,” I said, “since I’ve heard he’s a very efficient man who hates wasting time.”

“True,” the man said, though he looked wary at how reasonable I’d suddenly become.

“What’s your surname, please?” I said.

He analyzed this for traps. “Messkala,” he said.

“Good name. Easy to remember. Don’t you think it’s easy to remember?” I said to Jeddan.

“I know I won’t forget it,” Jeddan said.

“Me neither. All right, Messkala, we’ll come back in two weeks and give our news to the Lord Governor then. Which news, I promise you, is not only important but timely. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be furious when he finds out we waited so long to pass that news along to him.” I leaned right up into Messkala’s face. He was starting to look uncertain. “And at that point, he’s going to want to know why it took so long. And it’s going to be no trouble at all for me to tell him your name. I wonder what he’ll think of that?”

“You’re bluffing,” Messkala said. He didn’t look very certain of that.

“I could be,” I said, “that’s true. But you should consider whether it will be worse for you if I’m telling the truth and you don’t get me in to see the Lord Governor, or if I’m lying and you do.

“You’ll have no proof,” he said.

“He knows who arranges his appointments,” I said. “He’ll know you had something to do with it. And he’ll be angry enough that I doubt he’ll care about investigating very much.” I took a step back, easing up on the pressure just enough. “Look, Messkala, he must see, um, magickers every day. I imagine he counts on you to keep track of all that. So he won’t have any idea we were supposed to come in two weeks. Letting us in now won’t hurt anyone, least of all you. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.”

His look of pained superiority was gone, replaced by uncertainty. I gave him my most appealing smile. (I hope. Like I’ve said, I haven’t ever been in a position to look much at my own face.) Finally, he said, “Come with me.”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 142

7 Nevrine (continued)

Jeddan and I looked at each other, and he shrugged, which I took to mean “let’s try to avoid trouble, but we can overcome him if we have to.” We walked over to the guard, trying to look innocent, though if the man was as suspicious as he sounded, he probably thought Jeddan was a threat because of his size. Jeddan no doubt felt the same way, because he trailed behind me a bit so I could do the talking.

“What’s your business in Debressken?” he said. He wore a fur-lined cap and a heavy coat, and his nose was red and dripped. I could see smears on his gloves where he’d swiped the back of his hand across it. Lots of smears. It made me feel like my own nose needed wiping, though it really didn’t.

“None,” I said, going for politeness. “We’re on our way to Hasskian. Just passing through.”

“Fine,” he said. “We’ll give you an escort.”

“Why do we need an escort?” I said.

“We aren’t taking any chances, not after we been attacked,” he said. “You could be foreigners in disguise.”

“Do you think foreigners could possibly speak Balaenic this well?” I said.

He shrugged, and said, “Not taking any chances.”

“Looks like you took care of the foreigners well enough,” Jeddan said. “If that was their village we saw a ways back.”

The guard looked as if he wanted to find something suspicious in this statement, but couldn’t. “Brought it on themselves, trying to attack us,” he said. “Lord Governor sent out the troops and took them all away.”

“It’s not a small town,” I said. “Where did they take them? Far enough away to keep them from attacking honest Balaenic folk like you.”

He grinned. It wasn’t a nice grin. “Put them in a camp northeast of Hasskian,” he said. “Nobody’s sure what to do with them. Can’t let them attack us, but we won’t kill women and children no matter if they’re foreigners. Lord Governor’s still thinking about it. He’s a good ruler, even if he is touched.”

“Touched?” I said, because I’d never heard anything to suggest Endolessar wasn’t mentally stable.

“Touched by the magic,” the guard said. “One of those who rose up after the calamity to work magic. Lord Governor Endolessar can move things without touching them.”

“I’m surprised he wasn’t lynched,” Jeddan said.

“We’re not small-minded people,” the guard said, and I had to pretend I was coughing to cover my laughter. “Nothing wrong with magic if you use it for good. We had a bunch of people changed like that, all of them swearing to use their magic to benefit their city. I almost wish it was me.” He looked more closely at my face. “You’ve got the eyes,” he said. “Are you…” Despite his words, he looked afraid. A reasonable fear, since he’d been harassing us.

“We are,” I said, and on a whim did the water-summoning pouvra almost in his face. I’m most comfortable with fire, but I didn’t want to scare him further—that’s not true, I did want to scare him, but it was an ignoble desire that would have done nothing but satisfy me. Jeddan, for his part, passed his immaterial hand through the man’s arm, making him look as if he were going to be sick. I know Jeddan did that because it’s the only overt pouvra he has, but I’m sure he got as much satisfaction out of doing it to the man as I would have from fire.

“I’m sorry,” the guard said, “I didn’t—I wouldn’t—but you’re not going to Venetry, then?”

“After Hasskian,” I said, puzzled. If we’d (I was going to write “if we’d asked him more questions, we might not have gone to Hasskian at all” but that’s not true, we still would have needed to warn Endolessar even if we’d known about the king’s summons.)

“Well, safe journey, then,” the guard said. “If you stop at the sentry post just inside the Hasskian city gate, and tell them you’re magickers, they’ll take care of you. Sorry about the misunderstanding.”

“That’s…all right,” I said, and we went on down the road. Off to the left, another guard was turning away a traveler who presumably didn’t have a good reason to be there, and there was a line forming at the city gate.

Debressken grew up around us, made of stone hauled from the quarries to the west, cheaper than timber in this place, and the people were surprisingly friendly. Or maybe it wasn’t surprising, if they knew their guards were turning away “undesirables” before they could get this far. The snow was falling more heavily now, still tiny specks, but they drove into my eyes and nose, and I turned up my collar and pulled my hat down over my eyes.

“They took them northeast,” Jeddan said. “What’s northeast?”

“Nothing that I know of,” I said. “Nothing special, anyway, unless the convergence changed the terrain. More plains, more towns. A forest, not a big one. Maybe that’s why it’s special—they can round up hundreds of people and there’s no one to make a fuss about it.”

“What can we do?” he said.

“Us? Nothing. What do you think? We can’t walk into Venetry trailing a village’s worth of Castavirans and their cattle.” I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, then thought better of doing it again.

“It just doesn’t seem right,” he said, but he fell silent and we walked the rest of the way to Hasskian without saying anything. Not much point, when we were both thinking the same thing and neither of us had a solution to it.

For the last mile or so we shared the road with a dozen other travelers, all mounted, who came up from behind and then passed us. Apparently they met the stringent Debresskian code of acceptability. We watched as, one by one, they were stopped at the gate, a big iron-barred door a good ten feet tall that had a rusty portcullis drawn up above it.

Hasskian is a good distance from the Fensadderian border, and it’s been almost seventy years since Balaen came under attack from the west, but the last time, the enemy did get this far, and Hasskian held the defense for fifteen days before the army could arrive to repulse the invaders. So its gate, and the black stone walls circling it, are there for a reason.

I’m sure they don’t realize the irregularity of the stones make the walls easy for a determined person to scale, and the spacing of the three gates means there are places where said determined person can get inside the city without anyone noticing. I’ve been to Hasskian half a dozen times over the years, even though it’s been a while, but this was the first time I’ve gone in via the gate.

When it was our turn, the guard, who was better armed and armored than the Debresskian and had the hard look of a man accustomed to hurting people, said, “Name and business?”

“Rokyar Axe,” Jeddan said—I didn’t know the name of his village until that minute, and it was nice to see my surmise about his occupation proved correct.

“Thalessi Scales,” I said, “and we have been touched by magic and would like to see the Lord Governor on a private matter.”

“All magickers are to see the Lord Governor upon entry,” he said. “Follow me.”

That was easier than I’d expected. We went through the gate and into a tiny round room at the base of one of the towers flanking the portcullis. Most of it was taken up by a table on which lay a stack of official-looking papers, a shallow dish of ink, and a wooden stamp stained dark with use. The guard scribbled our names on two of the papers, stamped them, and handed them to Jeddan and me. “You know where the Citadel is?” he said. I nodded. He didn’t need to know how well I knew the Citadel, at least certain very well guarded rooms of it. “Show these to the majordomo. He’ll make sure you see the Lord Governor.”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 141

7 Nevrine

We camped early tonight because we found a place where this river—more of a stream, I guess—runs through a copse of trees near the road, and we were still so tired we decided it was better to stop here than to push on until nightfall and risk not finding anywhere good. The fire is so comfortable, and I’m full, and I wish all of that physical comfort meant emotional comfort too, but I’m still not sure we made the best choice last night, and that’s not a good feeling.

I wish I had Jeddan’s confidence. Once he’s made a decision and acted on it, he doesn’t keep revisiting it and worrying he did the wrong thing. When he frets, it’s about much more serious, life-altering things, like death. Me, I can’t stop thinking about possibilities—like, what would have happened if I’d chosen differently, or how can I analyze a situation to know whether this decision would be right in other circumstances. I have to live with the consequences of my actions, and I’m fine with that, but I’m always looking to a future in which I’ll have to choose again, and worrying I won’t learn from my mistakes. Especially when those mistakes hurt other people.

But I keep getting ahead of myself. I think it’s because, by the time I get to writing, since all the events are in the past it’s hard for me not to look over them and make conclusions and think about what it all means. And that’s interesting, but I wonder if it doesn’t color the “story” I’m telling in these pages.

So this begins early yesterday morning, when we started before the sun had fully risen so we’d have plenty of time to explore Hasskian and work out a real plan that wasn’t “let’s see what happens,” which is my least favorite kind of plan.

We passed a still-sleeping Balaenic village that lay right on the Royal Road, then made the turn that leads to Hasskian, which is about ten miles off the main road. There’s another town—small city, really—called Debressken near that junction, and we were nearing it when Jeddan said, “That’s a Castaviran town over there.” He pointed, and I saw the distinctive pointed roofs off to one side, maybe a mile away from Debressken to the south. It also looked very quiet.

“I think we should visit them,” I said. “See how they’ve fared. I don’t like how close they are to these towns.”

Jeddan nodded, and we set off across the fields—not cultivated fields but the untamed lands between towns, full of tall, dry grass and small animal burrows. It was going to snow soon, which made everything dim even though there was a small bright spot to the east where the sun was peeking over the horizon, showing Hasskian, even at that distance, as a black blob low to the ground. Our footsteps swishing through the dead grass were the only noises anywhere.

“Don’t you think we should hear people waking up now?” Jeddan said.

“Yes,” I said, and started walking more quickly. Jeddan sped up as well. We reached the first of the outbuildings, a barn, and looked inside. It was fully stocked with bales of hay, and fitted with the pails and other necessities of a dairy farm, but there were no cows, nothing living at all. It was eerie.

We turned around and went toward the farmhouse, where the back door hung ajar and swung slightly in the cold wind blowing a storm toward us. After exchanging glances, I pushed the door open and we went inside.

It had been ransacked. The kitchen we entered was strewn with pottery shards, drifts of flour and sugar lay across the floor, chairs were knocked over, and the tablecloth was puddled on the floor beneath the table. The fear choking me subsided when I realized there were no bodies, but there were so many other rooms… Jeddan and I spread out and searched the house. Everything had been torn apart. There were no bodies, and no living creatures anywhere.

“I wonder where they went,” Jeddan said, stopping just inside the front door, which had been smashed. He scanned the ground. “A lot of people came through here, not that that’s news. But I can’t see any indication of people being dragged away. And only two or three people other than us went out the back.”

“They had to go somewhere,” I said.

“I’m just saying I can’t tell where that is,” Jeddan said. He went through the door and stood for a moment, looking toward the rest of the town. “Do you want to look further?”

“I think we have to,” I said.

I wish we hadn’t. We found the first bodies, all men, about a hundred yards from the farmhouse. They’d been dead for a while—Jeddan said probably a week. I don’t want to know what he’s seen that he knows that so precisely. There weren’t many bodies, but we didn’t look very hard for them.

It didn’t take long for us to establish what had happened: the town had been raided, the villagers and their livestock rounded up and taken somewhere, those who fought back were killed. We both agreed it was likely soldiers had done this, Jeddan based on the nature of the dead people’s wounds, me because I’ve seen mobs and I’ve seen raids and I can tell what kind of damage is caused by which. I wish that weren’t true.

It sickens me that the Balaenics just left the bodies there to rot. They saw the Castavirans as enemies, true, but that was like they didn’t think they were human. I have to stop thinking about it if I want to keep my meal down.

After about an hour we’d had our fill of the destruction and decided to move on, since there was nothing we could do. We were both depressed, I think, and I felt nauseated by all the death, so we decided we’d move through Debressken as quickly as possible so we could finish our business in Hasskian and move on.

It only took a few minutes for that plan to go to hell. It was full light when we left that ransacked village, and we were no longer the only travelers on the Hasskian road. No one we passed seemed inclined to speak; most of them kept their heads down and ignored us. Or maybe they were just huddled up against the cold. Either way, it’s not that unusual for travelers to keep to themselves, because you never know if the person who wants to be friendly is actually looking for a victim. And we were just as happy not to talk to anyone.

So it was surprising when we were hailed in a very unfriendly voice and told to stop where we were. I hadn’t really been paying attention—was hunched into my coat like everyone else, blinking away the tiny cold motes of snow that were beginning to blow into my face—so when I looked up I was surprised to see an armed guard pointing in our direction. Another guard had accosted one of our fellow travelers and had a sword, not military issue, held in a way that suggested violence was definitely an option.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 140

5 Nevrine

Now that we have two pouvrin in common, it’s easier to find common points for discussion. We’re inventing a whole new vocabulary of “bends” and “flexion” and “beadery” and “star-rods” and other words meaningless except as they pertain to the pouvrin. After dark, I tried to give Jeddan the shape of the concealment pouvra, and while it didn’t work, he said he understands it and it’s just a matter of learning to bend his will. Based on what he’s said during all these conversations, I get the feeling bending his will is what Jeddan finds most difficult to do.

We should reach Hasskian tomorrow sometime. When we weren’t talking about pouvrin, we’ve been talking about how to warn the city. We certainly don’t look like anyone of importance, and least of all like Balaenic soldiers—too bad our uniforms are Castaviran, since that would get us attention of the wrong sort.

The last time I came through here, Falak Endolessar was Lord Governor of Hasskian, but that was several years ago, so it’s possible he’s been ousted. But I don’t think so. He’s a clever politician, good at keeping just enough of his promises to stay in power, and I think in a twisted way he really does care about Hasskian’s well-being, insomuch as that reflects well on him as their beneficent ruler.

Hasskian’s prosperous enough, and the nearby towns benefit from being part of its economy. I stayed here just long enough to pick up the trail of a book I needed, and I liked the city all right, though I wouldn’t want to live there—the walls are a little oppressive.

At any rate, I can’t think of anything we could do to draw Endolessar’s attention that wouldn’t also get us tossed in a cell. So my plan, if you can call it that, is to enter the city and see what happens. At least I’m confident they won’t arrest us just for walking through the gate.

6 Nevrine, late

Nothing went the way we expected. I was going to write about it all, but now that I’ve got pencil to paper I realize I’m just too exhausted to think. Tomorrow.