Sesskia’s Diary, part 156

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…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 155

13 Nevrine, after curfew (hah!) (continued)

I don’t know how long we waited, but it was a lot longer than an hour before some signal imperceptible to me led one of the soldiers to throw open half of the chamber door and say, “My Lords, your Majesty, these messengers beg five minutes of your time.” No one said anything in reply, but he advanced into the room, out of sight, and Jeddan and I looked at each other, wondering if we were supposed to follow.

I’d almost decided to stop hesitating when the soldier came back and said, in a low voice, “Approach to the edge of the carpet, go to one knee, and keep your head lowered until you’re told to rise. Address them all as “Honored” and don’t say anything until you’re spoken to. Say your piece and wait to be dismissed.” He gave Jeddan a little shove. “You first,” he said.

So Jeddan went through the door, and I followed him, which means that my first view of King and Chamber was obscured by his massive shoulders. I knew what the room looked like, of course: it’s not very big, and windowless, I’ve heard for security reasons.

The walls are covered by the Lessareki tapestries, which are so valuable no one could put a price on them, because their value comes not from their materials or their subject matter (the life of a minor Queen of Balaen from maybe two and a half centuries ago) but because they were created by Balaen’s most famous artist, whose placename is still one of the most popular girls’ praenomi in the country. I’ve never had time to admire them properly, and of course today wasn’t the right moment. But it was exciting to be in their presence.

There’s a square black rug in the center of the room, and five chairs are set in a circle on it, all of them identical as a reminder that in this place, King and Chamber are equal in the service of Balaen.

Hahahaha.

Anyway, I didn’t actually see any of this until Jeddan stopped and knelt, and I took a quick step to the side and knelt next to him and bowed my head. That only gave me a quick glimpse of four men and one woman, all of them looking at us. Then the King said, “Deliver your message.” (He has a distinctive voice that sounds like it’s coming from the back of his head and gets pinched a little on the way out. It’s not a voice you forget, even if you’ve only ever heard it while you’re hiding in a cupboard listening to him grouse at his valet for not ironing his nightshirt properly.)

Jeddan didn’t raise his head, which was probably the right decision. “Honored,” he said, “we come from Calassmir, where an enemy army has attacked the city as its first move in invading Balaen.” I really hated saying it this way, because it wasn’t going to make the King more friendly toward the Castavirans who weren’t the God-Empress’s pawns, but explaining the Castaviran sociopolitical situation and the consequences of the convergence would just have confused everything.

There was silence. I’d expected a least a couple of gasps, but no. Then, “Rise,” said the King, “just you, young man,” and I had to keep kneeling, which annoyed me. “You’re not a soldier,” he said.

“No, Honored, we’re both just loyal Balaenics who were in the right place when it mattered,” he said. “We were traveling here to look for other mages like us, and meant to stop in Calassmir for provisions, and nearly got caught by the foreign army. It looked impossible for our soldiers to get a message out, so we figured we ought to take it ourselves, just in case.”

“Foreign army meaning these invaders who have appeared among us in the last month?” said another man. He had a rich, strong voice, and if I hadn’t known who the King was I’d have thought this man was him.

“I think so, Honored,” Jeddan said.

“Then this puts a new light on their tactics in the north,” he said, half to himself. “How long before they arrive?”

“I don’t know, Honored, I’m no soldier,” Jeddan said. “We were there 24 or 25 Coloine and based on what the surrounding villages said, the attack had only just started a couple of days before that.”

“You took too long about it,” said a woman. Debarra Jakssar, Chamber Lord of Transportation. Her voice was nearly as deep as the other man’s, but more gravelly even though it was still clearly a woman’s voice.

“We’re truly sorry, Honored, we came as quick as we could, but we were on foot,” Jeddan said.

“You should have requisitioned horses,” said a third man, this one sounding very old, so I guessed he was Jarlak Batekessar, Chamber Lord of Agriculture. I’ve worked enough harvests to know he’s disliked by farmers, particularly the ones with the big estates, because of the demands he puts on them. “This is far more important than anything else you could do.”

“We can’t ride, Honored, and we didn’t have any proof that we were what we said we were,” Jeddan said. “The soldier Nessan at the gate showed great insight when he passed us through.”

“That’s his job,” the rich-voiced man said. “How many insurrections did you pass on your way here?”

“I beg your pardon, Honored, but I don’t know what you mean,” Jeddan said. My knees were starting to ache. I have no idea how Cederic manages to hold that position indefinitely.

“The other invaders. They were causing disruption in preparation for their army to attack our cities, hoping to weaken us?” he said.

“Ah, no, Honored, we didn’t see anything like that,” Jeddan said. “Most of those invader towns kept to themselves. And a lot of our people were, um, subduing them themselves.”

“Good initiative,” said the last man, whose voice had a bit of a whine to it, a whistling sound like he was speaking through a blocked nostril. “We ought to send another decree, commending their patriotism and encouraging them to stand strong against invasion.”

“I don’t want civilians interfering in military affairs, Lenssar,” the rich voice said. “Self-defense is one thing, but vigilante action is dishonorable.”

“I didn’t mean we should tell them to take up arms,” Lenssar said. Lenssar is Chamber Lord of Commerce and I don’t remember his first name. I don’t know much about him at all.

“Any encouragement could be seen as just that,” the rich voice said, and I realized he had to be Caelan Crossar, Chamber Lord of Defense. He’s got a reputation for cleverness and has maintained the army at full strength even though Balaen hasn’t been at war since forever, which says a lot about his influence over King and Chamber. I don’t know if he genuinely believes Balaen is in danger of invasion, or if a strong army just increases his political power, but either way it’s due to him that Balaen could repel such an invasion if it came.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 154

13 Nevrine, after curfew (hah!) (continued)

I was impressed. And terrified. Nessan hadn’t struck me as the sort of man who can be bluffed, but Jeddan wasn’t really bluffing. I’m sure he meant it when he said they’d have to haul us away. And Nessan knew it too.

He tapped his finger against his lips for a few seconds, then opened one of the drawers, took out paper and pen and ink, scrawled something on the paper, blew on it and folded it. Then he walked around us to lean out of the guard room and call to someone passing nearby. “They’re to see the King,” he told the young soldier who answered the summons, and handed him the paper. “Urgent military business. Five minutes.”

That made me nervous; he might have written our execution sentence on that paper, and I wished he’d had better penmanship so I could have read it while he wrote. But there was nothing we could do about it except follow along.

The soldier saluted, and we trotted after him through the wide streets of Venetry. In the late afternoon, everything looked dismal, what with the slushy, filthy snow peppered with frozen horse turds shoved to both sides of the road, making a kind of frozen barricade between the passing horses and the pedestrians. I made note of landmarks as we went, updating my mental map of the city.

Not much had changed in the thirteen months since I’d been here last. All the traffic from the main gate funnels through the center of the city, where everything is new and modern and enticing to the eye of the visitor to Venetry. But that’s just the center. As you spread outward from that wide main avenue, you enter much older, dirtier places, some of which aren’t safe for anyone after dark, even their own denizens. I’ll have to see about renewing some old acquaintances there. Derria’s shop is probably still open, and she might give us a good price on that opal pendant. But that will have to wait.

We trotted along for a good while, through the city center and into the wide spiral that leads up to the top of Venetry where the rich manors are. One of those manors used to belong to my family, according to Mam, but I’ve never cared enough to find out which one. No point mooning over the past. I don’t even know what our surname used to be. I guess I’d be more interested if I didn’t feel like it was betraying my Dad to care about our past, when he set out to make a new life after he’d been ejected from his old one instead of clinging to what was. If I ever think about it, I mostly just get mad over the injustice of it all, though I don’t even know if it was injustice. I just know my Dad was a wonderful man, so he couldn’t possibly have deserved to lose all that.

But I’m getting off course. We went all the way to the top of the city, which does have an amazing view, maybe not as nice as Colosse, with all those white walls and colored roofs, but still amazing. You can see the whole city laid out in tiers below, and beyond that, the plains, but the best part, the part that actually brought tears to my eyes, was a distant lumpy smudge off to the west I recognized as mountains. Mountains that hadn’t been there before. The Arabel Mountains, in fact, under which lay the Darssan.

It struck me then as it hadn’t before that the land really had changed; the desert we’d traveled through to reach Colosse was gone, but the mountains remained. I wonder if Cederic will want to reopen the Darssan, when things have settled down and the God-Empress’s threat has been eliminated. Thirty years from now, probably. No sense worrying about it at this point. We still haven’t even met our fellow mages. Magickers. There’s no way I’m calling us that. I’ll just have to change everyone’s minds about that.

The royal manor—one of them, there are several throughout Balaen—anyway, the one in Venetry is called Janeka Manor. (I’ve never understood why so many of the wealthy manors are named after women, especially since women haven’t had much of a role in government until the last fifty years. It does give the impression of a bunch of hard-eyed matrons with their arms folded across their capacious chests, glaring at the rest of us.)

It’s a beautiful old house, built in the style of 150 years ago, with lots of windows made up of grids filled with thick glass bricks you can barely see out of and steep, shingled roofs that meet each other at odd angles. The gardeners had put the beds to sleep for the winter, which gave the manor a bare look, its harsh stone walls unsoftened by the hedges that bloomed in the spring. The ivy that used to grow on the walls all around the front door was gone, adding to the harsh look.

Two more soldiers stood at attention at the front door, and our guide saluted them, told them his errand, and they let us pass. I thought that was lax behavior until we came through the narrow hall, almost a tunnel, that led into the main hall of the manor, and came face to face with ten more soldiers, all of them standing where they could easily attack an intruder, all of them with the kind of humorless faces that characterize the really good warriors. I tried not to let them make me nervous. This time, at least, I was here legitimately.

Our guide took us the wrong way at first, and I had to remind myself I was a newcomer and a country girl and of course had no way of knowing where King and Chamber meet. He corrected himself without any slips that might suggest he’d made a mistake, which I approved of, and soon we were in the southwestern wing of the manor and stopping in front of a large double door banded in red-painted iron. Two soldiers stood there. They didn’t look as awe-inspiring as their brothers in the entry hall, but they clearly took their job of standing and staring into space seriously.

“Messengers to speak to the King. Five minutes,” our guide said, handing over the note.

“They’re in session. No one goes in,” the soldier on the left said.

“How soon?” our guide said.

“No idea,” the soldier said. “They can wait if they want.”

Our guide turned to us and said, “You can see the King when the session’s up. It shouldn’t be more than an hour or so.” He nodded at us and went back the way he’d come.

I glanced at Jeddan, who shrugged. We were both thinking another hour’s delay wasn’t going to matter, and it wasn’t as if we could do anything about it. So we waited. I leaned against the wall and surreptitiously examined my surroundings and plotted a way to draw the guards away so I could enter the chamber. Then I remembered I was now capable of assassinating the King with magic, which would be the only reason for me to sneak into that chamber, and it made me feel sick.

So instead I counted stones, and made lists, and daydreamed about what it would be like when I found Cederic, and went over the see-in-dark pouvra for possibilities of companion pouvrin. I didn’t have any success on that last one, but I haven’t given up. It does make me impatient to rejoin the Darssan mages and practice turning th’an into pouvrin. Which reminds me I haven’t practiced the binding pouvra for a while. No sense, when it doesn’t do anything, and we’ve got so many other interesting things to pursue.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 153

13 Nevrine, after curfew (hah!)

I’ve decided to keep these books hidden now we’re among the mages. Not that we’ve met any of them yet; it was very late when they brought us here. So they might all be friendly and intelligent and committed to learning—in short, like the Darssan mages. But I’m not counting on that. No telling what someone might make of these records…all right, that’s a lie, I have a very good idea of what someone might make of these records, which is that I’m a traitor to my country on any number of grounds, not least of which is being married to a high-ranking mage from the “invading” world. The fact that I’ve done all of this to save both worlds would be lost on anyone who was stupid or fearful or had some kind of grudge against me, though I hope there isn’t anyone here who falls into the latter category. Making enemies is the worst kind of being noticed, and I’ve spent my life trying to avoid that.

It had stopped snowing early this morning, but it was still gray and depressing and Jeddan and I were impatient to get to our goal, so we didn’t stop except once to relieve ourselves, ate on the way, and spoke little. When we approached Venetry sometime late this afternoon, there was a crowd milling about on the road outside the gate, not aimlessly, but with the erratic movements of a lot of people in one place, all wanting to be somewhere else.

We hung back, observing, and realized that rather than being an incipient mob, which has a much tenser, higher note to it, these were all people waiting their turn to get into the city, which was strange. I’ve been to Venetry often, and yes, I did use the gate, and nobody stops travelers unless they’re carrying trade goods. But we could see a lot of armed soldiers stopping people and having long conversations with them before letting them inside. It made me nervous, and I suggested we enter the city by another way.

“We’re mages. The King wants us here. It’s not like we’ll be turned away,” Jeddan said.

“They’re making people put their names on lists,” I said. “I don’t like that.”

“But we have to get the King’s attention somehow,” Jeddan said. “Being on an official list will help with that. And these soldiers will send us to wherever the mages are supposed to go, and that’s got to give us better access to King and Chamber than going through the wall will.”

I scowled, and said, “All right, but if this goes wrong I’m blaming you.”

“If this goes wrong, neither of us might be around to do any blaming,” he said cheerfully.

We fitted ourselves into the loose line of travelers and inched forward with everyone else. It was boring, and cold, and I really wished we’d gone through the wall. Jeddan had the glazed-eyed expression that said he was working on the mind-moving pouvra. I’m not sure he’d thought about what might happen if he succeeded in the middle of this crowd and knocked someone over. At least it would be exciting. The whole thing made me realize I haven’t stood in line for anything in at least five years. I vowed it would be another fifteen before it happened again.

“Name?” said a soldier, and I realized we’d reached the front of the line while I was daydreaming.

“Thalessi Scales and Rokyar Axe,” I said.

The soldier wrote our names in a little book, along with the date and time (there are about fifty big clocks in Venetry, none of them in agreement with each other, and one of them is just above the main city gate where we were. No one knows why some long dead ruler, or Chamber, thought people entering the city ought to know what the time was. At least that one doesn’t toll the hour) and had us initial the entry. “Purpose?” he said.

“We’re mages,” I said.

“What’s that?” he said.

I rolled my eyes. “Magickers? People touched by magic? With the eyes?” I pointed at my eyes in emphasis.

He peered closely at me, then at Jeddan, and I realized he was very nearsighted. “Papers?” he said.

“We don’t have papers,” I said. “We heard about the summons in Hasskian, but no one said anything about papers.”

“Then you’ll have to prove yourselves,” he said, and pointed at another soldier, standing just inside the gate. “Talk to Nessan there about that. Curfew is nine p.m., no carrying weapons in the streets, no loitering, watch for the off limits signs, and if a soldier tells you to do something, you do it without question.”

“Curfew?” I said. “I’ve never known Venetry to have a curfew.”

“Martial law,” he said. “City nearly tore itself apart after the calamity, what with magic happening and the earth shifting. Things still aren’t back to normal. Move along.”

There wasn’t anything to say to that, so Jeddan and I went to where the soldier Nessan was standing. He was older than the first, his hair graying and his eyes deeply lined at the corners as if he’d spent thirty years staring at the sun. He also wore a different uniform I didn’t recognize as either regular army or city guard. “Magickers?” he said when we approached.

“We’re called mages,” I said, which was pointless, but I was feeling edgy and annoyed and wanted to get the whole thing over with.

“You can call yourself nasturtiums for all I care,” he said. “Over here, and let’s see what you can do.”

We stepped out of the way of traffic into a little guard room that was empty of everything except a couple of chairs, a chest with a couple of warped drawers, and some smoked-glass lanterns, lit against the dimness of the windowless room. Jeddan put his hand through the wall and didn’t seem afraid or upset or anything but calm, so I hope that means he’s coming to terms with what happened in the camp. I settled on the fire pouvra, the ropy version. Nessan wasn’t impressed by either of us. “You’re to go to Fianna Manor for instructions,” he said. “You know where that is?”

“I’ve been to Venetry before,” I said, which was kind of a non-answer, but he understood the way I meant it.

“But we have to deliver a message first,” Jeddan said. “An urgent message from the army at Calassmir.”

“Go ahead,” Nessan said.

“It’s for the King and Chamber,” Jeddan said. We’d worked out that he should bring the message, in case anyone wondered why a woman had been entrusted with military intelligence.

“Of course it is,” Nessan said sarcastically. “And I’m supposed to take you to the King on no more proof than the say-so of some backwoods lumberjack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Jeddan cut across me with, “What exactly do you think I’m going to do? You think I’ve traveled all the way from Calassmir just because I feel like wasting the King’s time? I’m tired and I’m hungry and if I could deliver this message to just anyone, I’d tell you and my work would be done. But this message is for the King himself, because he’s the only one who can decide how to act on it. So find someone to take us to him, or we’ll just wait here until you change your mind or carry us off to jail.”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 152

11 Nevrine

I’d completely forgotten that Jeddan took the mage bandit’s pendant and ring. We found someone this morning willing to take the ring in exchange for five days’ worth of food, more than enough to get us to Venetry, which is only two more days away. It was worth a good deal more than what we got for it, and part of me wishes we’d waited until I could sell it in Venetry, but the rest of me, the part that doesn’t like going hungry, shouted that little part down.

Our learning technique works, and it doesn’t. That is—and I shouldn’t have done this—I had this unreasonable expectation I’d be able to pour the structure into Jeddan’s head, so to speak, and he’d get it immediately and then it would be just a matter of his flexibility of will. And that didn’t happen. But we’re making a lot more progress, more quickly, than I did, so in that sense, it works. Jeddan’s enthusiastic about it. Still won’t talk about what happened to that guard, and I’m starting to worry that maybe I need to bring it up, and I just don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to make things worse. So I’m going to leave it alone, and hope, if he needs someone to talk to, he’ll feel comfortable turning to me.

We came across the strongest evidence of the convergence’s destruction this afternoon. There was a place on the Royal Road where a Castaviran highway intersected with it, or would have if the convergence didn’t destroy every structure that overlapped with another. So the Royal Road comes to a crumbling halt, and then there’s a big roundish space where everything’s been obliterated, and then it starts up again. It was eerie, and we detoured around it even though we assured each other it was harmless. Castavir’s roads aren’t as well-kept as ours, and they don’t have the new procedure that keeps ruts from forming, but then we don’t have self-cleaning chamber pots, so I think they win.

12 Nevrine

Nothing important happened today. Jeddan’s still working on the pouvra, but we’re both distracted wondering what’s going to happen in Venetry tomorrow. Some of our food turned out to be rotten. Wish I could steal that ring back.

The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Seven

The mighty Mississippi, looking downstream.
The mighty Mississippi, looking downstream.

By Sunday morning, the French Quarter returns to its usual lazy self, devoid of most of its tourists (except the ones on the cemetery tour), and we felt more relaxed. We ambled across to the Toulouse St. Wharf, where we would board the steamboat “Natchez” for a brunch jazz cruise. It was a hot day, or at least it felt like a hot day; I missed the cloud cover we’d gotten yesterday and the day before. Still, there was plenty of shade in the waiting area, and shortly we were herded aboard. They have a streamlined operation, checking tickets and bags and then tickets again with a speed that kept the line moving. We settled in to our table with a view of the river–the wrong view, we soon discovered. We were on the “right” side (they don’t mess around with port and starboard for the tourists), which when you’re going downriver is on the wrong side of the boat to see all the things the tour guide talks about. But because we were aboard early, we ate our brunch quickly and found seats outside on the correct side. It was also the shady side. Good times all around.

The French Quarter as seen from the Natchez deck.
The French Quarter as seen from the Natchez deck.

The Mississippi is a big, sprawling river, and we saw quite a few cargo ships going both directions. I don’t remember half of what the tour guide said, I was so preoccupied with watching for what might be coming up next. We went about seven and a half miles downriver, turned around, came back and turned around again, and I never got tired of watching the shoreline. We probably should have switched seats when the steamboat turned around to return, since we were now in the sun, but I wanted to see the other side of the river. So we sat, and sweltered a bit, and marveled at what it must have felt like to those early explorers, coming across the river in their journeys.

The paddle wheel of the steamboat.
The paddle wheel of the steamboat.

One thing we noticed that we never did remember to ask about was the lack of pleasure vessels on the river. The last time we were in Portland, we drove along the banks of the Columbia and saw fleets of yachts and houseboats, and that river is open to commercial traffic too. It was odd.

The Battle of New Orleans monument. It's buried way back in there.
The Battle of New Orleans monument. It’s buried way back in there.

We passed the site of the Battle of New Orleans, which has a bitty version of the Washington Monument, only it’s to Andrew Jackson and his troops.

The tour guide also pointed out the Natchez’ “rival,” the Creole Queen. “It’s not a real steamboat,” he said, and proceeded to explain that it’s powered by a diesel engine where the Natchez has actual steam engines. We were glad we hadn’t been taken in by any phony steamboats.

After the cruise, we walked upriver as far as the Riverwalk outlet stores, where we went inside briefly for some cool air, then walked back to our rooms by way of Canal St. Being the geniuses we are, we didn’t think to look for pedometer apps until two days ago, and it’s been amusing to see how they disagree with each other as to distance covered even though we walked the same route. They turn out to be sensitive to whether you’ve got the phone on your person or just tucked into your purse, and despite the unreliability, it’s been fun tracking how far we go.

The "fake" steamboat, the Creole Queen.
The “fake” steamboat, the Creole Queen.

We read for a few hours until it was time to eat dinner, and the Plot Whisperer wanted to go to the first place he’d ever voluntarily eaten seafood. Seafood is a new thing for him, and still not a favorite, so when offered the seafood-free gumbo he leaped on it. I had shrimp etouffee and it was delicious, though now I’m craving red beans and rice.

Tomorrow, we head home. It’s been a real adventure.

The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Six

Another gorgeous house.
Another gorgeous house.
These are some of the skeletons on the lawn. There were a lot of them.

Today dawned overcast and sticky, enough to make me grateful we didn’t come here a month earlier. Humidity is draining. This, on the other hand, was a perfect day for riding the St. Charles streetcar through the Garden District, looking at the marvelous houses. Of course, most of New Orleans had the same idea, and we were fortunate not to have to wait long for a streetcar. We paid for a day pass and got a nice seat with a window and a strong breeze, comfortable even though the day wasn’t very hot.

Some of them are more like mansions. I scoped out the ones I would like to live in, though there were surprisingly few I’d want to settle down in. One mansion had hordes of people lined up along the sidewalk, looking at its elaborate pun-riddled skeletal Halloween display (“Marrow-lyn Monroe,” for example) There were also a ton of churches and a couple of synagogues. At a Jewish temple, a man was setting up greenery on a booth for Sukkot, which begins tomorrow. Many of the houses had been turned into apartment buildings, and a lot of those had women’s names, like Antonia, printed above the doors or in the front garden. It was a nice touch.

I like the stairs. Very different.
I like the stairs. Very different.

Our driver was some kind of speed demon, because we were chasing another streetcar the whole way up St. Charles until a supervisor told him to stop and turn around. This meant we all had to get off and go to the one ahead of us if we wanted to ride to the end, which we did. At the end of the line, we all got off again and waited for the driver to flip all the seat backs and start up the controls at the “rear” of the car, effectively turning it around without moving an inch. The driver was a little scary in her efficiency.

This was one of my favorites.
This was one of my favorites.

I felt guilty about having a nice comfortable seat when I saw how many people were using the streetcar as actual transportation and not as a tourist vehicle. Most of them had to stand, and at one point the car was over-full of people. I wonder if they resented the tourists. I certainly resented the tourists, once we left the streetcar at Canal St. and headed back into the French Quarter.

You’d pretty much have to decorate if you had a big house on St. Charles–even just a token couple of pumpkins.

I don’t ever think of myself as a tourist when I’m here, though I do plenty of touristy things–I also shop at the local markets and avoid Bourbon St. So the flood of daytrippers that hit the streets on Saturday gets on my nerves. They clog the streets and fill up the restaurants and make walking around miserable. We ended up at Bubba Gump’s for lunch, one of the more expensive meals we’ve had, though it was delicious. The plan was to have lunch, get beignets for dessert, and finish our shopping for gifts.

Unfortunately, the tourists had descended on the Café du Monde like a horde of poorly-dressed locusts. Café du Monde has a number of features that make it ideal for tourists: it’s famous, the food is good, and it’s the cheapest thing you can get in the French Quarter, with a plate of three beignets costing an even $3 (cash only). There was a line stretching from the entrance all the way back to the little amphitheater across from Jackson Square. We decided we didn’t love beignets that much and went to do our shopping. Having finished this, the Plot Whisperer suggested seeing what the line looked like now, just in case. And for a miracle, the line had completely disappeared. We hurried across the street and were immediately shown to a table that hadn’t even been bussed yet. We didn’t care.

Full of seafood and beignets, we headed back to the hotel for a restful afternoon. I had enough of a headache I didn’t feel like facing the tourists again. We didn’t venture out again until 7, when we went to the Mona Lisa Restaurant for pizza and lasagna. On the way, we fell in behind a wedding party, complete with brass section and a bunch of guests waving little handkerchiefs. The bride was dancing. We left them at Royal St.; they turned right, we went left, and that was all we saw of them. Only in New Orleans, I suppose.

On the way home from dinner, a pack of bicycles playing very loud music overtook us, and we had to weave through them as they waited at the intersection we were crossing. Their wheels were all woven with lights, an excellent precaution when riding at night, but here it just looked like a party. We’d also seen a Segway tour and a couple of walking tours, making me feel slightly guilty at not making the most of our New Orleans experience by doing as many tours as possible. Then I remembered I’m here because I love the city, not because of the tours. We stopped at the market for more Coke and ambled along to the hotel. Tomorrow, we have a jazz cruise and a quiet Sunday planned. I’m looking forward to it.

The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Five

The Arcadian bookstore. This does not begin to capture the horror.
The Arcadian bookstore. This does not begin to capture the horror.

We got off to a leisurely start, sleeping in until nearly 10. The idea of going out for breakfast yet again made me cringe; I don’t normally eat breakfast because my stomach wakes up sometime around 11. So I had the bright idea of running over to the corner market and getting juice and granola bars, which I thought I could just about bear to face. It turned out to be a really good idea, and we snacked our way across the French Quarter to the first of the bookstores on my list.

The French Quarter’s new and used bookstores are an interesting mix of eclectic and mundane, but they all have such character it’s hard to regret visiting them, even if you don’t buy anything. Unfortunately, we hit a snag almost immediately. Dauphine Street Books was closed–not just closed, but with a little handwritten yellow sign saying it wouldn’t re-open until October 20. We’d passed it just the previous night, and it had been open then (it has the longest hours of any of the shops, I think), and we both felt really stupid at not having stopped in earlier. Me, especially, because there was a chance this was the store that had inspired my new series The Last Oracle, and I wanted to take pictures of it. We trudged away, hoping I was wrong.

The crates are full of books in multiple layers, and there are multiple crates. "Multiple" is a good word for this place.
The crates are full of books in multiple layers, and there are multiple crates. “Multiple” is a good word for this place.

And I was. The store I wanted is Arcadian Books & Art Prints, and I assure you that while I might have forgotten the name, there is no way I could have forgotten the place. Books are piled on other books and stacked on shelves in ways that ensure you can’t see more than a fraction of the titles. They stretch high above the reach of the casual shopper (these buildings have extremely high ceilings) and are packed into plastic flats originally intended to hold milk jugs. It is impossible for more than one person to pass along the “aisles” between the bookcases, all of which stand at odd angles to each other. It is a store that makes the inner librarian in all of us scream, and then run for a dolly to start rearranging the poor books.

And yet it’s organized. Once you look past the seeming disorder, you see that books on a particular subject are all grouped together. Books by an author are grouped within the subject categories. I found entire trilogies stacked neatly in one place, waiting to be purchased. If you’re willing to shift books, and have an hour or more handy, Arcadian is a real treasure trove. I found three books, none of which I’d gone in looking for. The theory behind The Last Oracle is that disorder increases the possibility of finding what you want when you’re not looking for it; nobody knows what’s there, therefore anything could be there. I have no idea what the owner of this store has in mind, keeping the store in this condition, but it’s worth noticing that it’s been there for at least the five years since the first time I went to New Orleans. Somehow, it’s staying alive. Maybe it really is magic.

A bridge of books over the other books. The fan isn't supported by anything but wishful thinking.
A bridge of books over the other books. The fan isn’t supported by anything but wishful thinking.

We hit Faulkner House Books next. It’s not a used book store, specializing in the classics and contemporary literary fiction, mostly high-end limited edition stuff. The real draw is it’s where William Faulkner lived and wrote when he was in New Orleans at the beginning of his career. I almost bought Slaughterhouse-Five, mainly because I was thinking about Vonnegut after the WWII museum, but it was one of those fairly expensive hardcover editions and I just wanted something sloppy. Total books purchased there: none. Total in the journey so far: three.

Believe it or not, there's a path there.
Believe it or not, there’s a path there.

After this, we went to lunch with an old friend and I had a catfish po’boy that made me happy to be a fish-eating mammal. For what’s really a garbage fish, catfish is incredibly delicious. We had a brief tussle over who would pay and I lost.

Returning to the quest, we headed for Librairie Book Shop on Chartres St. This is a more typical bookstore, like one you might see anywhere, but it’s in one of the narrow little buildings off Chartres and that gives it charm. I dithered over several books, but ended up buying only one. Curse you, baggage weight limit! We went on to another store mapped out on my phone, but it turned out to just be a magick shoppe with a row of occult books, and not very interesting ones. That cost us about twenty minutes, but I did get to listen to one of the shopkeepers lecture a ten-year-old girl on why they don’t do readings for minors. Poor kid.

We were starting to come up against our five o’clock closing time (many shops in the French Quarter close at 5) and had to hurry, because Beckham’s Books is all the way at the other end of the French Quarter from the magick shoppe. It was about 3:30 p.m., and the place was starting to fill up with weekend partiers crowding the sidewalks and stepping out in front of traffic. We were on the wrong side of Decatur and it was hot and I was sweaty and tired. But I remembered getting a lot of books from Beckham’s the last time I was here, so I didn’t want to miss it. Beckham’s is probably the largest of the French Quarter stores (Crescent City may be larger, but they’re on the wrong side of Canal St. so we didn’t go there) and is laid out like a proper bookstore, with two floors and maps to each one. It even has a store cat. I find Beckham’s comforting.

Unfortunately, my bookfinding mojo was turned off today, and I only found one book I wanted to take home. There were a lot of old favorites on the shelves, but I already owned all of them. Including Mollie Hunter’s The Third Eye, which I went to a great deal of trouble to find and probably paid too much for, just sitting on the YA shelf. The Plot Whisperer picked up some books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, a new-to-him author that looked interesting. So it wasn’t a total loss, and yes, I couldn’t have got all the books home if I’d found them, but still. Total purchases for the trip: seven, plus a free book on yoga pressed on us by someone on Bourbon St. hawking hats for a good cause. This is why we don’t go down Bourbon St.

We finished up the day with an early dinner at the House of Blues–probably too early for me, as I was still full of catfish. And the key lime pie wasn’t nearly as perfect as we remembered. But they always do a good meal, and the music is lovely. On the way home I had my second brilliant idea, which was to stop at the market and buy juice and granola bars enough for breakfasts for the rest of our stay. Now we can sleep in as long as we like!

Tomorrow, the streetcar (probably) and the Garden District.

The Great New Orleans Adventure, Day Four

A Halloween "crèche" complete with audio of a demented doctor.
A Halloween “crèche” complete with audio of a demented doctor.

This was a less-busy day for us. We saw a couple of small museum exhibits–very small ones. One was on currency, specifically antebellum, Civil War, and post-war currency of the South. What drew me to this one was their display of counterfeit currency and a digital copy of a booklet handed out to bankers of the period on how to identify counterfeit money. I wrote about counterfeiting in my upcoming book, Wondering Sight, and while this exhibit wouldn’t have made the book more accurate, it was fun to see the practical results of the counterfeiter’s art. Some of the bills were really realistic.

The Cornstalk Hotel. We almost stayed here. The fence has corn cobs on the posts, in case that's not visible in the picture.
The Cornstalk Hotel. We almost stayed here. The fence has corn cobs on the posts, in case that’s not visible in the picture.

After the museums, it was time for the real purpose of this day: shopping for souvenirs. Except we did our shopping on Royal St., which is known not only for its many art galleries, but also for its many shops. There’s a huge variety, with some of them being typical gift shops and others featuring local artists and artisans. I managed to leave the street with only a new pair of sandals and a blouse purchased from an Egypt-themed store that was tiny and adorable. I managed this feat by not going into any jewelry stores, though I’m regretting not buying the earrings at the Egypt store. We had lunch at Belle’s, which is a ’50s themed diner that also serves things like red beans and rice. The jambalaya had a great flavor, but was maybe a little too dry; I still call it a win.

One of the many lovely buildings in the French Quarter. I like the ironwork on this one.
One of the many lovely buildings in the French Quarter. I like the ironwork on this one.

After lunch, we had to hit the open-air market. This is a true tourist trap, not that we cared, and among the stalls that sold variations on the same thing we found a couple of unique items. I like shopping at places like this because the sellers are usually outgoing and dynamic in their efforts to sell you things. I don’t know why that isn’t annoying, since I hate the hard sell and will generally refuse to buy from someone who’s pushy unless it’s a deal I’d have taken regardless of their salesmanship. But it isn’t annoying.

These guys had the right idea: keep the angel locked up.
These guys had the right idea: keep the angel locked up.

All of this meant a lot of walking, so we called it an early day and came back to do some work, then went out for dinner to a dive bar/diner that advertised Steak Thursdays–$6.99 for a steak dinner. I have this theory that some of the best food comes out of hole-in-the-wall eateries, so I had the steak dinner. I was half right; the mashed potatoes came from a mix and were flavorless, but the steak was tender and juicy and cooked exactly as I’d specified. The Plot Whisperer made the waiter/bartender get the weirdest look on his face when he asked if they had any lemonade. We might as well have had UTAH tattooed on our foreheads.

Tomorrow, lunch with an old friend, and the much-anticipated bookstore crawl. I intend to locate the store that was the inspiration for the bookstore in my new series The Last Oracle. It has to be seen to be believed.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 151

10 Nevrine

We’ve decided I should try to teach Jeddan the mind-moving pouvra. I actually suggested teaching him the other walk-through-walls pouvrin, but he went very stiff and very silent, so I didn’t say anything else. I hope he doesn’t give up on using the pouvra entirely. It was his first, the one that made him a mage, and…maybe it’s not the same for him, but even though I don’t use fire very often in comparison with some of the others, I know I’d feel like part of me was missing if I stopped using it. But it’s not my right to tell him how to use his magic, so we’re concentrating on the other pouvra, and it’s true that the mind-moving pouvra is the most generally useful, at least to people who don’t have to sneak around on a regular basis.

It’s been not quite three months since I learned that pouvra, but it took me more than twice that long to understand it. I’ve written before about how I learn a pouvra, how it’s about learning the figurative language the mage who created it used to describe it, then understanding the shape that arises from that language, and finally bending your will to meet the pouvra so it manifests through you.

Since I’ve already done all that work of interpretation, Jeddan and I will use our new vocabulary to give him the shape of the pouvra, and the rest is up to him. That’s the idea, anyway. We’ve never done this before; it’s possible no one’s ever done this before, given how solitary mages have to be thanks to society. So I hope it will take less time, but we both know there’s no use making assumptions where magic is concerned. I would have sworn the mind-moving pouvra was for small, finicky movements, and then I saw Cederic knock half a dozen soldiers across the room with it. I wonder if he uses it often, or if he’s so used to th’an it never occurs to him. I wonder if he’s figured out any more pouvrin.

Anyway, today we mostly just refined our vocabulary, made sure we meant the same thing when we used a word or image, and I practiced making things insubstantial. I have no idea what use that might be. Hah. I felt the same way about being able to turn the concealment pouvra on another person, but using it on the God-Empress saved the lives of my friends. So maybe there will be a crucial moment that depends on someone dropping their weapon, or something like that. It’s fun to speculate about.

We’re going to need food soon, and we’ve almost used the last of the bandits’ money. There aren’t any large cities between here and Venetry, and I really, really don’t want to steal from people whose lives depend on the food they have stored for the winter. But I also don’t want to starve. We’ll have to think of a better way.