13 Nevrine, after curfew (hah!) (continued)
“I’m more concerned about us being overrun,” said the King. “Shouldn’t we draw the army back to protect the city?”
“I’ll send word to General Tarallan for his analysis,” Crossar said. “He knows the tactical situation better than we do.”
“I don’t want the army wasting time pacifying an enemy city just to have this one captured,” the King said, whining.
“Your Majesty, we will make the decision that will best keep Balaen safe, and that includes this city,” Crossar said. “How many magickers do they have?”
It took us both a second to realize he was talking to us. “Um,” Jeddan said.
“Seven squads of ten each,” I said, thinking fast. The only thing I really knew was that battle mages were, in fact, organized into squads of ten, and that each squad had its own standard, with a unique emblem and a red and black border. In reconnoitering the camp, I’d seen at least seven battle standards. What I didn’t know was how many of those battle mages had retained their powers. I’d been told once that the green-eyed mages tended toward academia and private service, so I’d guess the military would have fewer than their counterparts from the Darssan, a third of whom had green-gray eyes. But that didn’t really tell me anything. So I gambled that they’d have more squads than I’d observed, but fewer functional mages within those squads, and it would come out to roughly the same number either way.
“You were not addressed,” Crossar said.
“I’m sorry, Honored, but I’m the one who went into the enemy camp to learn where the army was going next,” I said. I was getting tired of being ignored.
“Were you?” Crossar said. “Rise.”
I stood, feeling wobbly, and got my first look at King and Chamber. The King I’ve seen before; he’s an average-looking man, not someone you’d peg as a leader, and has the slightly flushed cheeks and pouchy expression of someone whose diet is too rich.
Batekessar looks as old as he sounds—I think he’s in his seventies—with unpleasantly pale skin and deep grooves carved into his face, dragging his mouth into a permanent frown.
Jakssar is a lovely woman with a very matronly, comfortable figure, but she has a very mannish haircut and wears robes and trousers like the men instead of a formal gown, which makes me wonder about her position on the Chamber, if she feels she has to act like a man to get respect. I felt sympathy for her, if that was the case.
Lenssar gave me a bit of a shock, because he looks so much like Cederic—long dark hair, high cheekbones, crooked eyebrows. He’s about ten years older than Cederic, though, and shows it, and he’s got dark, deep-set eyes that are nothing like my husband’s. Even so, it threw me off balance enough that Crossar had to repeat himself. “I said, you were in the enemy camp?” he said, rising and coming to face me.
“I was, Honored,” I said. Crossar doesn’t look anything like his voice. Not that he’s ugly; he has silvery-dark hair, and a short beard, the kind that only goes around his mouth and chin, but he’s incredibly thin, and his nose is sharply pointed, and his lips are narrow, and between that and the hair he reminded me of a needle. I won’t deny he made me nervous, because I couldn’t read him at all.
“Daring work, for a woman,” he said.
“I’ve always been good at not being noticed, Honored,” I said. I put that “for a woman” remark aside to be angry about later.
“How were you able to identify the enemy magickers?” he said.
I was really glad he’d asked that question, because I’d forgotten for the moment I wasn’t supposed to be able to speak Castaviran and thus couldn’t have learned anything by reading or overhearing it. Crossar is clever enough that if I slipped up, he’d know it.
“I saw some of them working pouvrin, Honored,” I lied, “and the ones I saw wore special uniforms. I was there long enough to observe that they were organized into groups, and I counted those to learn how many they had. Though it’s possible there were more squads somewhere closer to the city, because I wasn’t able to explore the whole camp.”
“Did you see their leader?” he asked.
“I…think so, Honored,” I said, concluding rapidly it might be good for them to know who their most important target was. “There was a very finely dressed woman who seemed to be giving orders. All the officers bowed very low to her, and it looked as if they were explaining the strategy to her and waiting for her instructions.”
“A woman at the head of an army,” Lenssar said with a frown.
“Something to keep in mind, at least,” Crossar said. “You have served Balaen well, both of you. What are your names?”
“Thalessi Scales and Rokyar Axe. Honored,” I said, almost forgetting the politeness ritual in my worry that I’d done wrong in speaking for Jeddan, since they clearly thought him more important because he was male. Bastards.
“I ask the honor of your praenomi, for Balaen to honor you,” the King said. He sounded peeved that Crossar had taken the role that should have been his.
I looked past Crossar, and said, “Honored, my name is Sesskia.”
“And mine is Jeddan,” Jeddan said.
“And you are both magickers,” the King said, coming forward and having to push past Crossar, who paused the tiniest fraction of a second before moving away. Crossar’s eyes, which are nearly as light as his hair, stayed fixed on me, and I wished I dared hide behind Jeddan again. I dislike being the focus of attention of anyone who has the power to make me disappear in the night. Which is probably all wrong, and Crossar is actually a good man who’s committed to the defense of Balaen.
Hah. Unlikely. People in power don’t get to be that way by being nice to others. He might have Balaen’s good at heart, but there’s no way he cares anything for me, or for Jeddan, except for how useful we might be to his plans. I wish I believed being a known mage was somehow a protection.
The King came to stand right in front of us, examining our eyes. I let mine go unfocused so I wouldn’t go cross-eyed at how close the tip of his nose was. “Those with your peculiar green eyes are magickers,” he observed, inanely as far as I was concerned.
“Yes, Honored,” Jeddan said.
“And will you demonstrate your magics for us?” he said.
We did our usual tricks—it really was starting to feel as if we were performing animals—and received the usual reaction, which was to say, nothing at all. They’ve probably seen any number of mages in the last month. What I don’t understand is why everyone in Venetry seems to have adjusted so quickly to the idea of magic, when it’s always been feared and hated before. Something else must have happened to change everyone’s mind.
I guess it’s possible that seeing the Castavirans work magic might have convinced a few key people that maybe Balaen should encourage mages of their own, but it would have been days after the convergence before anyone encountered a Castaviran mage to learn about magic at all, and some of these pouvrin aren’t exactly subtle in their manifestation. I’d think a lot of mages would have been killed in those early days, so to go from executing people to being blasé about magic just seems unlikely. One more thing I want to ask about. It’s frustrating, really, because I keep finding reasons to delay leaving Venetry, which means it’s all my fault that I’m still here.
I’m getting off course again. We did our pouvrin, and then we were standing there wondering if we could leave, and was there some kind of politeness ritual we had to follow, when the King said, “I invite you to dine with me, Jeddan and Sesskia. I feel it is my duty to understand the plight of my southern subjects, and you will tell me of your journey and of magic. We have magickers who have become conversant with two or even three magics, you know!”
I gave him the wide-eyed stare of amazement he was angling for, and his smile broadened. “Come, you will be provided with the wherewithal to bathe, and new clothes, and you needn’t be overawed, I’m just a man, after all!” He clapped his hands together delightedly and left the room by a tiny door to our left.
to be continued…