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