Sesskia’s Diary, part 172

22 Nevrine

List of what I still need to do:

  1. Work out who knows which pouvrin to make our training more efficient. The goal is for every mage to learn the fire and mind-moving pouvrin. They’ll have to be the foundation of our defense (offense?) even though it means we lack flexibility. I just don’t know any other pouvrin we can turn against the enemy, and there’s no time to discover more.
  2. Start teaching the concealment pouvra. If we can be hidden as we work pouvrin, the enemy mages won’t be able to find us to strike back. I hope. This assumes we can also teach these mages to maintain concentration on that pouvra while working others.
  3. Practice Tarallan’s tactics. It’s easier to understand the theory than I’d imagined. Not so easy to put it into practice. He wants a lot of simultaneous attacks, which means teaching the mages more of the organized movements Norsselen taught them, and that takes time. Like everything else.
  4. Learn the flitting pouvra. This may be selfishness on my part, but I can’t help thinking it could be useful to us. It’s still not coming together, though.

Not only the King, but the entire Chamber and Tarallan showed up at the manor around mid-morning without having bothered to give us any warning of their arrival. Fortunately, we knew he’d be here sometime, so nobody was too flustered, or at least not flustered enough to be unable to perform. They all went through their rehearsed demonstration while Jeddan and I stood near King and Chamber, then Jeddan and I showed off the walk-through-walls and concealment pouvrin.

The King was delighted by all of it. I think he hasn’t realized our magic has anything to do with the war and thinks it’s all for his personal amusement. Batekessar looked sour, more sour than usual I mean, and Lenssar looked bored, but I think he was covering fear. Jakssar just watched everything carefully, as did Crossar, but where Jakssar seemed to be formulating questions to ask, Crossar seemed to be analyzing our strengths and weaknesses. Which makes sense, if he’s Chamber Lord of Defense, but it felt uncomfortable, like he was doing it so he’d know how to defeat us if that became necessary.

And when he turns his attention on me, I feel as if he’s doing the same thing, as if he’s trying to figure out what use he can make of me. I don’t like it, but what can I do, other than try to stay out of his way and remind myself that if he ever physically attacked me, which I don’t think he’d do, I can easily defend myself.

After we’d shown off everything we could, Tarallan said, “Do you have any questions, your Majesty, my lords and lady?” I felt as if that was something I should have asked, but he’s our commanding officer, so I guess we’re his responsibility.

“Sesskia, how is it you know so many magics?” Jakssar asked, overriding whatever the King had been about to say. “You seem so young to be so formidable.”

“I did almost nothing but study magic for ten years,” I said. “It’s something that matters to me. And the better I understood how it worked, the more magics I was able to learn.”

“Magic was illegal all that time,” Batekessar said. “You brag about breaking the law openly to your King?”

“Magic has never been illegal, Batekessar,” Crossar said, “just feared. Thalessi was brave to risk death for the sake of magic. I’m not sure I would have done that.”

“I’ve seen enough,” said Lenssar. “We should leave them to their training.”

“I have more questions,” the King said, whining. He whines a lot. “Most of these magics seem useless in our defense. Why do you even have them?”

“Honored, each of us developed a pouvra when we became mages,” I said. His tone of voice really gets under my skin and makes it hard for me to be patient with him, sovereign or no. “We didn’t choose which one. So even though we’re all learning pouvrin we can attack the enemy with, some of us still have other magics we need to practice. And studying one pouvra makes it easier for us to learn others.”

“It’s good that you can all produce fire,” the King said, proving that he once again hadn’t been paying attention. “That was impressive.”

“Thank you, Honored,” I said. “Would you like to know anything else?”

“I want to know if you can take over someone else’s body with that going incorporeal magic,” the King said. “Make them do what you want.”

The idea made me sick. “No, Honored, and it’s extremely dangerous to pass through living flesh, for both of you,” I said. “We don’t do that.”

“Implying that you can,” Crossar said.

“And we don’t,” Jeddan said. “We can’t ‘take over’ anyone else, either. Honored.” He sounded dangerous, and the King looked nervous.

I said, “But General Tarallan has some ideas for how it can be useful in other ways, Honored.”

“Intelligence gathering, mostly, your Majesty,” Tarallan said. “Combined with the concealment pouvra, we could have spies capable of entering enemy strongholds and retrieving valuable information without being noticed.”

“Or men and women capable of stealing anything they wanted,” Crossar said, again turning that needle-sharp gaze on me. “Am I right, Thalessi?”

“I suppose that’s true, Honored,” I said, “though I don’t think a mage is any more likely to be a criminal than anyone else.” Which was a non-answer to the question he was really asking, but if he wasn’t willing to come right out and ask Are you a thief? I didn’t feel obligated to give him an open answer.

“Well, keep up the good work, everyone,” the King said, addressing the room. “I’ll probably come back and watch you work sometimes. I think it’s important for a King to be aware of what his subjects are capable of.” Without noticing how all our faces blanched at the idea of being under royal scrutiny, he turned and left the room, followed immediately by Batekessar and Lenssar.

Jakssar said, “You’re setting a remarkable example, Sesskia,” before following them herself. I think she might see me as some kind of figurehead for female empowerment. She certainly seemed to be scrutinizing the women mages carefully. (I don’t think I’ve said that we have more female mages than male, though not by much. With fewer than fifty mages in all, it’s impossible to say if that means anything about the mage population in general.)

to be continued

Sesskia’s Diary, part 171

21 Nevrine, continued

We talked some more about what he needed, and I told him something of what Castaviran mages are capable of, pretending I’d learned it in my exploration of the enemy camp, though I’m still not sure what battle mages can do that’s different from ordinary mages. Lightning, I suppose, and the fog Tarallan referred to, and fire.

I felt guilty about doing this, because there’s no guarantee the “good” Castaviran forces won’t come into conflict with Balaen’s, and then I’d sort of be a traitor. Not that I know for sure that there are any “good” Castaviran forces; even if Aselfos was able to control the army, he might be as bent on conquering Balaen as the God-Empress is. But I have so many friends among the mages that I can’t help feeling as if I’m betraying them. Even so, right now the threat is the God-Empress, and we’re going to need every advantage I can give us.

Tarallan was impressed at how much I’d learned and that I’d used the concealment pouvra to such good advantage. I could almost see him generating plans for espionage missions behind enemy lines. We’ll see if I decide to go along with them.

After he left, I explained what he’d told me to the mages and we yet again rearranged how we’re doing things. Jeddan’s dividing his time between teaching his group to understand the structure of pouvrin and helping those who’ve passed that stage learn to work the mind-moving pouvra. I was right that that’s taking them longer than did understanding how pouvrin work, but we have at least two mages achieve it every day.

I’m doing the same with my group, except we’re learning to manifest fire; I have a couple who are ready to learn the fire rope as well. Relania, who still isn’t a good teacher, is at least experienced enough with the see-in-dark pouvra to help those who have that one use it more efficiently. A couple of the more experienced mages volunteered to help those who’ve mastered the mind-moving pouvra improve their strength and dexterity with it.

I feel protective of our little army, which is trying so hard even though I doubt any of them has any idea what war is like, or what they’ll be doing. It worries me that I have no way of knowing if any of the fire mages will be able to burn flesh, or if the mind-movers could crush someone’s skull, and I won’t know until we’re in a position where it’s their lives or the other man’s at stake.

Just before dinner I got Jerussa to work with me on the flitting pouvra. She’s not good at describing what she sees, and I think it’s going to take forever before I learn it, but I’ve gotten glimpses—it’s very fluid, constantly in motion, unlike most pouvrin, and smells like lilac or possibly wine grapes, which I realize aren’t at all the same kind of smells.

After dinner, Jeddan and I conferred about the war. Jeddan said, yawning, “I feel like things are coming together, don’t you?”

“I feel less like I’m scrambling all the time,” I agreed. “I just wish we knew when the God-Empress’s army will be here. I have all these plans, but I don’t know if there will even be time for them. Imagine, for example, someone being able to flit next to a key officer and stab him through the heart, then flit away?”

“I can’t imagine any of these people stabbing anyone in the heart,” Jeddan said.

“I know. But it’s an interesting tactic, don’t you think?” I said.

“I think you’re bloodthirsty,” Jeddan said. “Good night.”

That brings me to now. I’m so tired, but I’m having trouble sleeping. I’d go explore the house, but I’ve already been all through it, and sneaking places is less fun if there’s no chance of being caught. Derria’s shop is too far from Fianna Manor, and it would be after curfew by the time I got there even if I left now, and she’d be closed. I think I’ll go sit on the patio rail and look out at the city. It looks different now that I’ll be defending it instead of stealing from it.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 170

21 Nevrine, continued

“Enough,” the King said. “Commander General, Sesskia has my full confidence. You will work together to make our army stronger so it can defend this city. Sesskia, how are the mages coming along?”

“Well enough, Honored,” I said. “They’re all learning offensive magics to turn against the enemy.”

“Good, good,” the King said. “I’m confident you’re all doing your best. We will come to observe your progress tomorrow morning.”

My throat tried to close up. “Tomorrow morning, Honored?” I said.

“Unless that’s a problem,” the King said, with an expression that told me it had better not be a problem.

“Of course not,” I said. “We’ll be looking forward to your visit.” I’m still not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow morning. After I met with King and Chamber, and had that long conversation with Tarallan, I went back and got everyone working on flashy pouvrin that would satisfy the King’s need to see something that would convince him he would be safe. But that was later. At that moment, I just stood there, wondering what else they wanted of me and why they’d needed to call a special meeting just for a status report. I still don’t know the answer to that.

Crossar said, “General Tarallan, I’ll speak with you and your chiefs of staff at one o’clock this afternoon. Right now we’ll leave you to confer with Thalessi on the role her mages will play in the war. Thank you both for coming.” He stood, followed quickly by the King, who glared at him for once again usurping his role, and he and the rest of the Chamber filed out of the room, leaving me alone with Tarallan.

He’d stood when King and Chamber did, and now was leaning against the table, his palms spread flat in a gesture I’d seen Cederic use a dozen times before. When Cederic does it, it means he’s thinking hard about something. I don’t know what it means to Tarallan. Possibly that he’s trying not to lose his temper, because after several seconds of silence in which I tried to think of ways this conversation might go, he said, “No offense to you, but I really don’t think this is going to work out.”

I pulled out a chair and sat down. “Now, how could that possibly be offensive to me?” I said lightly. “Other than implying I’m too incompetent to be of any use to the military?”

He stood upright and his light-colored eyes came to rest on me. “I don’t know you, I don’t know your capabilities, and I don’t think the army is a place for women,” he said. “I’m telling you this because I think we should be honest with each other.”

“I don’t know if the army is a place for women,” I said, “but you didn’t know Norsselen once, and you grew to trust him. Though I don’t know why, since he’s an incompetent braggart who’s more interested in personal power than in serving his country.”

Tarallan’s eyes widened. “Bold words,” he said. “I trusted him because I saw his magics and they were powerful. I’m not a fool.”

“I don’t think a fool would have the reputation you do,” I said. “And it’s true Norsselen’s magics are powerful. He just didn’t understand how they worked.” I was also thinking If powerful magics are all it takes to gain your trust, General, you and I are going to become best friends.

Tarallan’s eyes narrowed. “And I suppose you do,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Norsselen developed magic a month ago, during the con—the Event. I developed it over ten years ago.”

“Impossible,” Tarallan said. “Magic was a thing of children’s tales until the Event.”

“No, General, mages were just very good at staying hidden,” I said, “and that makes sense, don’t you think, if they risked death if their power became known?”

“Impossible,” he repeated, but without the vehemence of his earlier statement.

I stood. “General Tarallan, why don’t you come meet your mage auxiliaries?” I said.

It turned out Tarallan had never seen the mages perform, since he’d been in the field almost the whole time since the convergence and Norsselen had told him it would “interfere with their training” if he did. The mages were able to do their performance without Norsselen’s guidance, and looked as impressive as ever. Tarallan watched silently until everyone was finished, then said to me, “I didn’t see anyone make lightning, or create black fog.”

“We don’t know those pouvrin,” I said. “I take it you’ve seen the enemy mages do those magics? They’ll be capable of things we aren’t, but there are things we can do they can’t.” I worked the concealment pouvra and grinned as he struggled to keep me in sight. Astonishingly, he wasn’t fooled for long. I get the feeling he doesn’t miss much in general.

“Now that would be useful,” he said. “How many of you can do it?”

“Just Jeddan and me,” I said. Tarallan eyed Jeddan speculatively.

“You might be too big for infiltration,” he said. “Concealment from sight is one thing, but if you’re too noisy…” He looked at me, and I could see conflicting emotions battling across his face.

“That’s right, General,” I said. “I’d be perfect for whatever it is you have in mind. Especially since it’s not the first time I’ve had to sneak into places. And I’m a woman.”

He shook his head, and smiled. “I’m going to have to adjust my thinking,” he said. “But I don’t need concealment nearly so much as I need something that will remove those enemy mages from combat. Fire is good. Raining stones down on them is good. What range do you have?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You ought to know. That’s important to our strategy, Thalessi,” he said.

“I know, General. Can we walk out here?” I said. We went onto the patio, I shut the door, and said, “I admit I know nothing about military strategy. All I can do is train these mages. If you can tell me what you need them to do, and how you’ll use them, I can—I hope—produce those results for you. But we’ll have to work together.”

Tarallan nodded once, slowly. “You’re not what I expected,” he said, “but I think we can do that.” He extended his hand to me, and I pressed my palm against it. His skin is warm and dry, but not unpleasantly so.

to be continued

Happy Wintersmeet!

It’s the winter solstice today, and in my world of Tremontane, solstice is celebrated as Wintersmeet–a time for gathering with family and friends and feeling your family bond come alive. Whether dancing the night away in the palace or sharing a quiet meal, Wintersmeet is a joyous time. Here’s an excerpt from Agent of the Crown in which Telaine North Hunter, disguised as an ordinary Deviser in the mountain village of Longbourne, learns about Wintersmeet from her Aunt Weaver.

Aunt Weaver sent the apprentices home early on the day before Wintersmeet Eve. “Happen you don’t know our Wintersmeet customs,” she said.

“Don’t see how I could know, Aunt Weaver,” Telaine said, rolling her eyes.

“No need to be disrespectful. Thought you wanted to be told things now ’stead of working ’em out for yourself.”

“I’m sorry, Aunt Weaver. Please continue.”

“Uppity girl. Well. Tomorrow we clean house. Gets us ready to start a new year, see.”

“I do. That’s…interesting. I like it.”

“Well, I don’t so much like cleaning, but it’s good and symbolic. Wintersmeet Eve is for families. We eat together and think about the ones who ain’t with us.”

Telaine thought of Ben, alone in his house. “That would be sad if you didn’t have any other family around.”

“That’s up to you. Then Wintersmeet day you visit with all your friends and exchange gifts. I take it you have gifts?” Aunt Weaver sounded as if she questioned Telaine’s Wintersmeet spirit.

“I’ve made gifts for everyone. Aunt Weaver, what if someone gives me a gift and I don’t have one for them?”

“They won’t take offense. Wintersmeet gifts is like a thank you for doing something that mattered to the person giving the gift. Sometimes you do more for a person than they do for you. Sometimes it’s the other way around. But mostly you know who’s giving to you.”

“That’s good.”

“Wintersmeet night is for big gatherings. Your young man leads the chorals down at the tavern. Figure you’ll want to be there. Lots of parties and people goin’ from one to the other.”

***

The next day they cleaned more thoroughly than Telaine had thought possible. Sweeping and mopping the weaving room, dusting the sitting room and creating great pale clouds that merely settled back on the furniture. Aunt Weaver made Telaine go outside and wave the broom around the rafters of the outhouse, sweeping out cobwebs that drifted around her like strands of gray, sticky clouds.

It left Telaine feeling exhausted, but Aunt Weaver seemed unaffected as she moved around the kitchen making supper. The smell of hot pork roast and buttery mashed potatoes filled the air. “Happen you’d like to get that candle off the high shelf,” Aunt Weaver said, and Telaine climbed the step stool and reached up for a fat silver candle in an iron casing. It had been lit many times before, the wax melting down the sides and over the metal holder, smooth and shiny.

Aunt Weaver produced fine china place settings and silverware and a couple of wine glasses, then, even more surprisingly, a bottle of good wine. She served them both, sat down, poured the wine, and picked up her knife and fork. “Happy Wintersmeet, niece,” she said.

“Happy Wintersmeet, aunt,” Telaine replied.

They ate in silence, and then Telaine cleared the dishes while Aunt Weaver lit the candle. “Family joins us,” she said when Telaine sat down again. It sounded like ritual, one Telaine didn’t know. “Family binds us. We leave one family to join another. However far we go, family draws us back.” She put her hand around the candle, below the dripping wax. “You put your hand over mine,” Aunt Weaver said. Telaine did so.

Aunt Weaver closed her eyes. “You never knew your grandpapa,” she said in a quiet voice. “He died before you were born, died too young. I’d grieved for him already when I left, because Zara North died and left him behind, but I didn’t know I still had it in me to miss my little brother when he died.”

She smiled, her eyes still closed. “He was a brilliant, joyful man. When he was young he cared too much for what other people thought and didn’t have the sense to know whose opinions he ought care for. But brilliant and joyful. No question what your grandmama saw in him, though they had a rocky road to travel. Wish I’d been there to see them reach the end.”

She fell silent, and Telaine sensed it was her turn. “I never knew my mother,” she said. She gazed at the candle flame, trying to see images from the past. “She died of lung fever when I was not quite three. But my father was my whole world when I was a child. When she died, he took me to live in the forest he loved so much. I grew up wild and unschooled, without knowing anything but surviving through winter and summer.

“He taught me a lot of things I forgot, later, growing up in the palace. It was like losing a piece of him every time I tried to remember how to tickle fish, or find my way by the stars—I was so young to learn any of that, and maybe he was denying me my mother’s heritage, but I think he loved her so much he couldn’t bear the places where she’d been. And then he got sick, and I think he knew he was dying, because he brought me back to the palace before the end. I…” She broke off, cleared her throat. “I’ve never quite forgiven him for leaving me.”

They sat in silence, hand over hand, watching the warm silver wax slide and drip over their fingers to the table, waiting for midnight. There was no clock in the kitchen, but there was no mistaking the moment when the lines of power shifted their alignment in response to the solstice, filling Telaine with a rush of energy.

She could feel her connections to Aunt Weaver and Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Imogen and her cousins for three seconds, and she knew they could feel her presence too. This was how Uncle Jeffrey felt, all the time. She tightened her hand over Aunt Weaver’s. She must have been so lonely, all those years…

Aunt Weaver moved her hand away and Telaine pulled back as well. “That’s for our dead,” she said. “Now for our living.”

“I don’t understand.”

Aunt Weaver sat back in her chair. “Been gone a long time,” she said. “Young Jeffrey was no more than two when I left. I resent this magic that keeps me young because I ain’t seen you all grow up. Same magic makes it so I can’t have children of my own. Certain sure I couldn’t have stayed, but if I could… I want to know my family. Tell me.”

Here’s wishing you a happy holiday, however you celebrate this time of year!

Sesskia’s Diary, part 169

21 Nevrine

I think I like General Tarallan. He’s not what I expected, after meeting Crossar. For one thing, he’s young to be Commander General of the entire Balaenic Army—I don’t think he’s more than forty. He’s got the fair coloring of a northwesterner, light blond hair and pale eyes that I think are gray rather than blue, and is sort of ruggedly handsome. He’s not noble, but he behaves to King and Chamber as if he’s their equal, and they treat him with respect. I can see why. He’s got the same air of competence about him Cederic has, the charisma of a born leader. I’ve heard he came up through the ranks and has earned the respect not only of King and Chamber, but of all the men under his command. And he’s kept the army strong even though Balaen is at peace, which is pretty remarkable. He’s interesting, and I think we might be able to become friends.

Though I wouldn’t have said that earlier this morning, when we first met. I was escorted back to Janeka Manor, grateful for the first time that the King had pressed these fancy clothes on me, and brought to a different meeting room than the one I’d been in before. This one had a long table, and ornately carved armchairs with heavily stuffed seat cushions, and was hung with portraits of famous Kings of Balaen, all of whom looked the same despite not being contemporaries. I wondered if they’d been painted from life, and concluded not, since they all seemed to be by the same hand. So who knows if that’s how those men actually looked?

Anyway, the room was empty when I arrived, and I wasn’t ushered to a seat, so I wandered the room and looked at the portraits, and peeked out the windows, which faced north and therefore showed nothing of interest. I waited for several minutes, trying not to become bored or angry at how my time was being wasted, until a different door opened and a black-robed servant came in, a steward I think. He stood like he had a rod shoved up his ass and announced, “His Majesty Garran Clendessar, King of Balaen. Lord Jarlak Batekessar, Lord Caelan Crossar, Lord Merdel Lenssar, Lady Debarra Jakssar.”

The King and Chamber filed in in the order they were announced and took seats around the table. I still wasn’t invited to sit, but I hadn’t expected to be, so I didn’t mind. Lenssar said, “Tarallan should be here already.”

“He has many duties,” Crossar said. “We may excuse him some tardiness, I think.”

“And who’s the woman?” Lenssar said, jabbing his thumb at me.

“Lenssar, pay attention,” Jakssar said. “We met Sesskia the other day. She entered the invading army’s camp and brought us information about their forces.”

“I knew that,” Lenssar said, flushing. “I meant, why is she here?”

“Yes,” Crossar said, “why are you here? I summoned Corrmek Norsselen. Did he think a summons from the Chamber is something lightly ignored?”

“Um, Norsselen isn’t with us anymore,” I said. Norsselen was gone this morning, as were three of his minions. I was surprised it was so few, but I didn’t have time to do more than ask Jeddan to reorganize Norsselen’s former group before I had to attend this meeting. “He became incapable of performing his duties. I’ve, um, taken his place.”

“I don’t think a woman ought to hold a military position, even one as irregular as organizing those magickers,” Batekessar said querulously.

“Why not?” Jakssar said. “I’d think it was more important that a leader of mages should have magical ability. Sesskia, I assume you’re qualified.”

“I have the most pou—magics of all the mages,” I said, “and the most experience in using them. I don’t know that I have any knowledge of military matters, but I understand we’ll be directed by someone who does.” I was relieved none of them seemed inclined to pursue the issue of why Norsselen was gone. Despite what I’d said to him, it wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with the rulers of Balaen.

The door I’d entered by opened, and a man said, “My apologies, your Majesty, lords and lady, there was an unexpected issue I had to deal with.” He sat down near me, several seats away from King and Chamber, without being invited. He didn’t even look at me, which annoyed me, but again, it didn’t really matter.

“General Tarallan, welcome back,” the King said. “Are you prepared to defend this city?”

“We will be, your Majesty,” Tarallan said. “I’ve sent scouts to investigate the enemy position and we’re evaluating a strategy now.”

“What happened at the foreign city?” Crossar said.

“You know we had to abandon the siege,” Tarallan said. He sounded angry. “I don’t think they’ll send their troops after us, but I left a couple of battalions concealed near Brekner Pass to ambush them if they do. It’s a risk, leaving an enemy force where it can come upon our flank, but more risky not to try to meet the main army on our own terms.”

“It’s far more important that you protect Venetry,” the King said, once again sounding petulant. “We can’t afford to have the capital overrun by foreign invaders.”

“I don’t think it will come to that, your Majesty,” Tarallan said, a little too smoothly, I thought, like cosseting a child. But then I’m not sure anyone who knows him respects the King, poor man. Though I don’t know why I pity him. He’s responsible for protecting every Balaenic, which is a big responsibility, and I don’t think he takes it seriously. So I guess I don’t respect him either.

“Well, you’re going to have help,” the King said. “We’re training…Sesskia, you call yourselves mages, correct? We’re training mages to counter the magics of the foreign invaders.”

“I know that, your Majesty,” Tarallan said. “I intend to speak to Corrmek Norsselen this morning to learn how their training is proceeding.”

The King looked confused. “I thought you were in charge of the mages, Sesskia,” he said. “Isn’t that what you just said?”

Tarallan turned in his seat to look at me. “You?” he said. He sounded incredulous, as if there were something innately wrong with me that made my appointment to that position too strange to believe.

“Yes, General,” I said. I refrained from adding and yes, I’m a woman.

Tarallan looked at the King. “I’m not comfortable with this,” he said. “Norsselen and I had a good working relationship, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to change that when we are so close to conflict. I’m afraid I’ll have to insist he be reinstated.”

“Excuse me, but I don’t think you understand the situation,” I said, not caring that it might be out of line for me to address Tarallan directly without being invited. “Norsselen wasn’t removed from his position. He chose to leave. Reinstatement isn’t an option.”

“I’m the one who decides how my army runs,” Tarallan said, once again sounding angry. “You don’t get to tell me what I can’t do.”

…to be continued

Sesskia’s Diary, part 168

20 Nevrine (continued)

Again, I didn’t even stop to think about the potential dangers. I just went insubstantial and let him run right through me, which made him stumble and go to his knees. Then I was terrified I’d killed him, and that fear turned into anger. Fury. Here was this man who had so much magic potential, had learned so much in a way I’d never thought possible, and all he could do was cling to his so-called power and bully others and tell them, essentially, that they’d never be as good as he was. And that infuriated me. It was a good feeling, a clean feeling, and I knew what to do with it.

“Jeddan, get him up,” I said. Jeddan hooked his hands under Norsselen’s arms, hauled him to his feet, and turned him to face me. Norsselen fought him, and shouted obscenities at me, until I got right up into his face and looped fire around his neck. That made him shut up fast, though he was still furious. I didn’t care anymore about what he felt.

“Listen to me, you idiot,” I said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. “I am sick of your posturing and your insistence that everyone defer to you because of some fantasy of power you dreamed up. I think you got lucky in developing several pouvrin and you don’t want anyone else to match you. How you manage to reconcile that fact with Jeddan and me working far more pouvrin than you all day long is a mystery I don’t care to unravel. But I’m not putting up with you any longer.

“If you can humble yourself, you’re welcome to learn with the rest of us. I’ll be happy to teach you. But if you persist in behaving as if the true God dropped you on the throne of Balaen to rule over the rest of us, I will turn every pouvra in my power on you until you are nothing but a puddle of weeping flesh. This is not a threat. This is a promise of the future. Drop him, Jeddan.”

Jeddan did so as I released the noose of fire. Norsselen looked up at me, and it makes me sick, now, to remember how much his expression of fear satisfied me. “If you can’t subordinate your pride to learning magic,” I continued, “get out. I’ll take responsibility for it to King and Chamber. I think they’ll understand when I tell them you were undermining our ability to defend Balaen. Now, which is it going to be?”

I thought about relenting a bit, telling him how much we needed his unique abilities, which was true as far as it went. But it didn’t go past an idle thought. I can’t believe how much pleasure I took in bullying him.

Norsselen got to his feet. He was shaking. Then he turned and left the room without saying a word. I realized I was shaking a bit myself. I said, “I think we’re done for today. I don’t know what you do for entertainment, but we all need to relax. I’ll be here in the morning, and anyone who wants to learn—” I glanced at Norsselen’s mages—“can join me and Jeddan.” Then I went to my room and sat unthinking for a while. And then, as I always do, I wrote.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can think about the consequences of what I did. I don’t know where Norsselen went. I think he’s probably gone. I guess I’ll find out come the morning. He might try to strike back at me, but right now I can’t think about that. I can’t think about anything except how afraid he looked at the end, and how much it satisfied me. It was wrong, and yet

There. I took about ten minutes to think it through, to calm myself. Because I don’t know that I was wrong in what I did. I’ve known a lot of people like Norsselen, and most of them don’t respond to anything but violence. I just never thought I’d be that person, the one facing them down. I feel like a stranger to myself today. Me, Sesskia, who’s spent a lifetime staying out of the way and not making waves, giving orders and facing down bullies and making speeches, true God help me. That’s not who I am. Except that now it is.

I never wanted to be this person. I was happy with who I was. But it seems this is what these mages need, and I don’t see how I can abandon them. I just wish I hadn’t taken such joy in tearing Norsselen down. I wish I had someone to talk to about it.

I tried telling Jeddan, but he just said, “The bastard had it coming to him, and everyone in that room knew it. The worst I can say is they probably shouldn’t have been so relieved it wasn’t them doing it, which is cowardly, but maybe none of them could. I think you’ve been their leader since we came through the door, Sesskia.” And that wasn’t helpful. I don’t want to

Oh, hell. I’ve just received a letter—it was directed to Norsselen, but nobody could find him, so they brought it to me. The army’s back. And it seems I’ve just nominated myself as the mages’ official liaison to Mattiak Tarallan, Commander General of the Balaenic Army.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 167

20 Nevrine

I could have killed Norsselen today. That’s not metaphor. It still makes me sick when I think about it. And the thing is, I had that same feeling of rightness I did facing down those Castaviran villagers who were attacking Nanissa’s village, as if I could see the right thing and make everyone else see it too. I won’t know until tomorrow what Norsselen’s reaction will be, but what makes me ashamed is I couldn’t find a better solution than being a bigger bully than he is, just like in that village. I never thought I’d use these pouvrin to frighten people into submission. I’m afraid of who I’m becoming.

It was in all other ways a typical day. Jeddan and I decided not to start teaching the new pouvrin until we have more “students” ready to learn. That left us with a handful of people who had nothing to do, until it occurred to me to have them start helping with instructing the rest. That was only mostly a good idea, since they kept coming to me for guidance anyway, but it still mean faster progress, and I like the camaraderie it builds when they’re communicating with each other instead of just listening to me talk. But it meant I was too busy with my group to realize something was going on with Norsselen’s until one of the mages in that group stood up and said, loudly but not quite shouting, “I think you’re wasting everyone’s time, Norsselen.”

Norsselen looked up at him and said, “If you’re not capable of learning this, Kesse, I don’t think it’s my fault.”

“It is if you’re not teaching,” Fanion (that’s Kesse’s praenoma) shot back. “Telling us to embrace our inner magic is useless. I don’t think you have any idea of how magic works. I’m going to join Sesskia’s group—at least they’re making progress.”

“Sit down, Kesse, you’re just making a fool of yourself,” Norsselen said. Fanion turned on his heel and walked away. And Norsselen circled him with fire. Fanion cried out and stood motionless.

“Stop it, Norsselen,” I said, taking a few steps in his direction, and to my shock Norsselen repeated the trick on me. I was so surprised I just stood there in my ring of fire. It was tall enough that I couldn’t step over it, and I couldn’t dismiss it so long as he was controlling it, so I had no choice but to stand there and listen to him.

“I’m tired of playing this game, Thalessi,” he said. “You’ve tried to usurp my authority for long enough. I don’t care how many magics you have, I’m in charge here and I say what we do. And what we do is stop wasting our time trying to find structure in something that just arises naturally out of who we are. So why don’t you go back to playing with your magic, and let me teach these people how to fight, which is what we’re all here for.”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d had no idea he’d so insulated himself in his own group he didn’t realize the mages were actually accomplishing anything. “Norsselen,” I said, and then I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make a dent in his self-centered ignorance.

“Norsselen!” shouted a mage on the far side of the room. She was one of those who could work the see-in-dark pouvra and nothing else, a mage in Jeddan’s group. She came forward until she stood next to me, showing no fear of the fire. “You think we’re not learning anything?” she said, and pointed at the far wall. Two bricks and a handful of rubber balls came floating jerkily off their respective piles.

Norsselen and I both goggled at her. “I can do this because I understand the shape of the magic,” she said, “not because I gained some kind of…of mystical insight, or because I practiced really, really hard with my first pouvra. And I think you should shut up and start listening to Sesskia.”

Norsselen’s face went livid. He raised his hand (I don’t think I’ve said he’s taught all these people to use big gestures when they work pouvrin, the idiot) and pointed at the woman, and Jeddan started moving forward, and I shouted, “Everyone stop!” And everyone froze in place except Norsselen, who grinned evilly at me. “You have no power here,” he said, and actually set that woman on fire.

Everyone screamed. And I did something I don’t think I could repeat if it weren’t a matter of life and death—I turned my fire pouvra inside out and used it to dismiss Norsselen’s fire before it could do more than frighten the woman. Then I worked the same pouvra on myself and Fanion. And then I took several running steps and used all my weight to knock Norsselen to the floor.

Before his goons could react, I’d looked inside his neck and found a couple of key veins, held them closed just long enough to knock him unconscious, and between working those pouvrin I surrounded his followers with fire. It was exhausting, and I was breathing heavily both from exertion and from fury. I panted for a bit, hands on knees, then straightened and walked with very slow, very deliberate steps toward the corner where I’d pinned Norsselen’s men.

“I don’t want to fight you,” I said, and I put the fire out. It was harder that time. I’m going to have to figure out how I did that, but later. Much later, probably. “You’ve been listening to Norsselen because—I don’t know, I could be wrong about this, but I think he’s saying things you want to hear. Things that make you feel special. But you don’t realize that being able to work magic already makes you special. Not better than other people, of course, not more worthy of respect, but you’ve got something only a handful of people have. And you have the chance to learn more, and be more, and I don’t understand why you don’t want to take that chance. Think about it. If you don’t believe what I’ve been saying, fine. But please don’t interfere with all these other people who do.”

They were sort of huddled into their corner, just staring at me, not exactly afraid—more stunned, I think. None of them said anything. They kept casting glances at Norsselen; I realize now they thought I’d killed him, which probably worked in my favor as far as keeping them under control went. Then Norsselen groaned, and shook his head, and looked up at me as if he didn’t remember who either of us was. It took him a while to come to his senses. Then he got to his feet, shook his head again to clear it, and ran at me with his fists raised.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 166

19 Nevrine

Norsselen is becoming a problem. I’ve had more and more of his mages (the ones in his group, not the ones who follow him) come to me asking me to take over their group. It’s about to come to a confrontation, and I don’t see any way around it. I wish I could use what I learned seeing Cederic keep Vorantor in check, but at least in that case they both had a common goal, even if Vorantor’s main motivation in achieving that goal was to bring himself glory. Norsselen doesn’t want the same things I do; from what I’m hearing, he doesn’t actually want these mages to learn new pouvrin because he’s maintaining his authority by virtue of having so many, and having tied gaining pouvrin to purity of character, he’s made it seem like he’s intrinsically a better person than they are.

Wonderful. Now confrontation is not only inevitable, I’m starting to think I should be the instigator. I have to make it clear that Norsselen’s approach is wrong on every level. But he’s got maybe twelve mages who look to him for guidance, and if it comes to physical conflict, that’s a lot of people to fight. And even if that fight goes my way, what am I going to do with thirteen belligerent, bitter mages who are required by royal fiat to be here? I need some way to get them on my side. Damn it. I really wish Cederic were here, because he understands these things. I can only fumble along and hope I don’t screw up too badly.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 165

18 Nevrine

Another new mage showed up today. Jeddan and I amuse ourselves by trying to predict which faction the new people will attach themselves to. Most of the factions are just groups of like-minded people, the kind you get in any large group where you’re looking for people who share your interests so you don’t feel lost in the crowd, and therefore aren’t a problem. But there’s still Norsselen’s people, some of whom are causing trouble in Jeddan’s group (I try not to feel too grateful that none of them are in mine), and to my surprise there’s a small contingent who think we’re doing the wrong thing by turning our magic to the service of war. I’m sure if the King hadn’t made this a royal decree, backed up by threat of force, they wouldn’t be here. Relania heads this group, and while none of them resist the lessons they’re receiving, they’re all quick to point out the non-military applications of their pouvrin. (None of them have fire pouvrin. I don’t know if that’s relevant.)

We’ve got a few people in each group who are ready to move on to learning pouvrin. I feel stretched out, I have so many things to do—teach the pouvra vocabulary, teach pouvrin, wrangle Norsselen, suppress Relania’s tendency to give orders in my name, corner Jerussa (the mage who can flit from place to place) to get her to teach me her pouvra. It’s limited to range of sight, which is still impressive, but imagine a bunch of mages who can flit from Venetry to Thalessa in less time than it takes to say “Venetry to Thalessa.” That’s a three and a half week journey! I’m not giving up on that possibility, but I have to learn Jerussa’s pouvra first.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 164

17 Nevrine

Bad news. A couple of mages from Norsselen’s group approached me to complain. He’s been “teaching” by way of spouting meaningless but inspirational-sounding platitudes that boil down to “if you practice magic hard enough, you’ll be given more of it.” Basically what he was telling them before, only now (according to the mages) he’s backing it up by explicitly referring to his greater skill with magic. And those mages have been talking to friends in other groups who really are learning to understand magic, and they realized they’re being cheated.

So we went out on the patio with our lunches, and I had them do their best to explain how they perceive magic. I didn’t understand fully, but it took a while for Jeddan and me to come up with a shared vocabulary, so I wasn’t expecting to. It seems where Jeddan and I see pouvrin as existing shapes, me observing them from the outside and Jeddan feeling as if he’s on the inside, this third group sees magic in pieces that shift until they reach the right configuration. Their explanation was more detailed than this, and “right configuration” isn’t accurate, but at least it makes a kind of sense.

I told them I would talk to Norsselen and that his approach wasn’t necessarily wrong, since it had worked for him. I felt bad about lying to them, but I’m still working out how best to handle Norsselen, and challenging his authority isn’t the way. Yet.

More progress. The new mages are surprisingly quick to learn, or maybe it’s just that Jeddan and I know which paths are dead ends and just avoid those in our teaching. Jeddan managed the mind-moving pouvra this morning and turns out to be just as weak at it as I am. Hope that’s not a result of my teaching. He doesn’t seem to mind—asked me how hard it is to learn to pick locks. I said with the see-inside pouvra it’s not even a challenge. Neither of our doors has a lock, so we’ll have to search around for one so I can show him.

I miss the days when it was just the two of us on the road, though not the cold ground and the bad food and the small-minded, bitter, xenophobic people. Jeddan says he’s also working variations on the see-inside pouvra at night. He’s more dedicated than I am. At night I barely have enough energy to keep my record up to date before I fall into bed.

Dreamed of Cederic again last night. That was the first time in a long time. I’m embarrassed to admit that, having some privacy now, I didn’t try to wake myself up when things got really good. I miss him. I hope he’s safe and well, and that he and the mages are making progress in bringing our cultures together, because I know that’s what would matter most to him. That, and finding me.