Sesskia’s Diary, part 187

1 Seresstine (continued)

I wish we had some way to communicate. The Castaviran mages do, or did, so I’m sure we could too if we had time and space to figure it out. I don’t like not knowing what’s happening back in Venetry. And I’m used to being able to go over the day’s events with Jeddan. I can talk to Mattiak, and do, but it’s not the same because he doesn’t understand magic, just as I’m sure he feels I’m not the best conversational partner when it comes to warfare. These days we mostly talk about other things, like our childhoods—his childhood—and my travels.

I wish I hadn’t lost those other books. I feel as if I kept my memory in them, as if by writing them down I’ve made it impossible to call those events to mind. I wonder if I will ever find them again. Do location kathanas work on objects, or just people? Cederic might be able to help me find them, unless they were destroyed in the convergence; the Arabel Mountains did more or less appear on top of that barn where I left them.

Having Cederic here would make things so much better, if only because if he were here, the war would be over, since I can’t imagine even Mattiak being open-minded enough to let the most powerful mage of Castavir roam freely through a Balaenic military camp if we were still enemies. If I miss having Jeddan to talk to, I can’t express what I feel at not being able to tell Cederic everything that’s happening, or get his opinion on training the mages or creating new pouvrin.

I try not to talk about him very much to Mattiak, because I don’t want to bore him, but sometimes Mattiak brings him up, I think to try to cheer me even though we still don’t have word from the east. He assures me that as soon as things are more settled, he’ll send messengers specifically to hunt for Cederic. It’s a sweet gesture, and I feel bad about not being able to tell him why they aren’t likely to do much good. I don’t know what he’d think if he knew my husband is a Castaviran mage. Still, he’s a good friend, and it makes me feel warm inside to know he cares.

I wonder why Mattiak isn’t married. Maybe he thinks he has too many responsibilities in the army to be a good, attentive husband. I don’t think he’s attracted to men, and he doesn’t have a woman in the camp, but whatever his reason, it’s a mystery I won’t pry into.

Time to put the light out. Tomorrow the army separates into divisions, I don’t know why and it doesn’t really matter to me, because the mages stay with the main army instead of being dispersed. We ride in wagons because walking all day would exhaust us, and only a handful of us can ride horses. I don’t think I’ve said that a couple of our mages are upper class, though not noble, and they’ve been as quick to follow orders as anyone, but they did bring their own horses and like to tease those of us being carried.

I suggested that maybe I should learn to ride, that it might be more dignified since I’m the leader of my own “division” and all the division commanders ride, but Mattiak said riding for seven hours every day is not the best way to begin. So I sit in the wagon and we practice pouvrin, or I work on flitting to improve my recovery time between flits.

It really is the most amazing feeling. It’s like the walk-through-walls pouvra, except there’s no uncomfortable sensation of bones and muscles sliding through matter, more like becoming air shifting through air. I think I’ll start teaching it to the other mages; Jerussa stayed behind, and she’s teaching Jeddan. I don’t think the Castavirans can do it any more than they can become immaterial, which means it’s one more weapon we

I can’t believe I just thought that. I’m turning my pouvrin against the God-Empress’s army, yes, but this is the first time I’ve thought of a pouvra as a weapon first and magic second. I wish this war were over already. I want to get back to studying magic for its own sake instead of figuring out how I can use it to kill.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 186

1 Seresstine

A new start to a new month. I’d like to think it’s auspicious, but the King came to Fianna Manor first thing this morning, and he’s not an early riser so I was afraid he was going to tell everyone he’d changed his mind. But no, he wanted to see the mages who were staying behind perform their pouvrin and prove that I’d chosen the best for his the city’s defense. Since he has no way of knowing what “the best” would look like, it didn’t matter how good they were, but the truth is Jeddan and I divided the mages so each group had a balance of more- and less-experienced mages.

So the King watched the performance, and then he wanted to know why they didn’t have uniforms. He wanted them to wear special armor and surcoats with a distinctive emblem. We explained this was so they wouldn’t stand out for the enemy to target, at which point he got this petulant look on his face and said, “We’re not ashamed to use magic in this fight, Sesskia.”

“No, Honored, but the whole point of this strategy is to protect the mages,” I said.

“Soldiers wear uniforms. The mages are soldiers. I want everyone to know they’re unique,” the King said. “I’ve had uniforms designed for them and they will wear them.”

“All right, Honored,” I said. It’s too bad you can’t beat sense into royalty. I feel sorry for the King, as much as I can when I don’t have any idea what it’s like to rule a kingdom. Probably his fears are grounded in fact. But he doesn’t seem to trust his advisors, which tells me he’s alone, and that makes it hard to make good decisions. I wonder if he knows how everyone around him feels that he hasn’t ever married, or had children, or named an heir. Well, he’s the King, and the truth is that despite my feelings about him, I’ll still fight to protect him and Balaen.

We didn’t get far today, but Mattiak says he didn’t expect us to. It takes time to get an army moving, and striking camp took longer than usual because it had become semi-permanent and therefore had things that had to be packed up and left behind. That gave Jeddan and me time to shop for some more suitable clothes than the fine garb the King had presented us with. Even though Jeddan wasn’t leaving with the army, he was just as tired as I was of looking like some palace functionary’s idea of a mage, especially the silk shirts; they’re pretty and soft, but easily damaged, and Jeddan’s was scorched from where a mage’s fire whip had gotten out of control.

I’m not sure where the money came from, but since it’s ultimately from the kingdom’s treasury, I had no trouble accepting it. I bought nice, well-made shirts and trousers that were completely nondescript, as well as a gray wool coat with a hood lined with the fur of some animal I’d never seen before that even Jeddan couldn’t identify, and managed to pack it all up so I could carry it with me easily if it turned out I needed to run away. We said our goodbyes at the store so we didn’t have to do it with all those mages watching. I’m really going to miss him.

I didn’t realize how much like a small town an army camp is. Balaen may not have women soldiers, but there are women who follow the army, even a few wives, and they’re all as accustomed to the life as the men are. They have their own society and didn’t look as if they welcomed us, not because they’re afraid of mages (which many of them are, surprisingly) but because we’re of such different classes as far as the army is concerned. Not that we were looking to fraternize. The soldiers were willing to train with us, but now we’re on the road it’s clear they consider us somewhere between the non-commissioned officers and Mattiak’s general staff, and therefore off limits.

(This doesn’t stop some of the soldiers leering at our women, which is hard because I’ve told everyone not to use magic against our own men unless defending themselves against physical threat. I don’t want soldiers to start thinking of mages as evil or dangerous again.)

We have tents near the center of camp, and (to my surprise) servants to care for our belongings and make our meals. I told Mattiak we didn’t need to be waited on, and he said, “You’re expected to focus your efforts on being ready to fight, and that means not wasting time cooking or cleaning up. Just tell them not to take advantage of the service. These are soldiers, and they see this as contributing to the cause—don’t insult them.”

I have my own tent, which feels strange since the last tent I slept in was a two-man shelter little more than canvas draped over a couple of poles, and I was sharing it with Jeddan. It doesn’t have much more than a bed and a folding table and camp stool, where I’m writing this before lights-out.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 185

31 Nevrine, continued

I bowed to each person there, then left the manor and flitted to where everyone was practicing to talk to Jeddan. Then we cancelled practice and gathered everyone in the ballroom to explain what was happening. They knew how long the army had been waiting to march out, so they were all relieved it was finally happening, but when I got to the part about half of them staying behind, there was an uproar.

I let it go on for a minute or two—let them relieve their feelings—then said, “This is going to be hard, I know, but you need to remember the point is the defense of Balaen, and it doesn’t matter where you personally make that defense. Those of you who are staying behind have what I think is the more difficult task, because you have to stay ready to fight at all times, and that’s wearying and dangerous because you risk losing your edge. And those of you who are going will face bloodshed and possibly death. But I believe every one of you is ready for those challenges. So Jeddan and I are going to discuss it, and we’ll tell you our decision in the morning. The rest of the day is yours.”

The discussion about who to take and who to leave was intense, especially when we realized Jeddan was going to have to stay in Venetry to command those mages. He was not happy about that, but we both knew my extra pouvrin might become necessary, and that there was a chance I’d have to sneak into the God-Empress’s camp again—the spies are coming along more quickly than I’d anticipated, but they’re still amateurs. I’m not happy about it. I trust Jeddan with my life, and throughout all this we haven’t been separated, so it feels strange to know he won’t be there when the fight begins. So I’m even more furious with the King than I was this morning.

The rest of the discussion was just as difficult, because neither of us knew what criteria we should use for dividing our forces. Jeddan didn’t want me to take both Saemon and Hasseka, which might leave the defenders underpowered as far as the mind-moving pouvra went, but I argued that if the God-Empress’s mages were as experienced at the mind-moving th’an as Cederic’s abilities suggested, having that extra edge was worth the risk.

I showed Mattiak our decision at dinner and he suggested a few changes, but otherwise approved. He also wasn’t angry about the King’s decree, saying he was just glad the army was finally moving and at least would have some mages. “And you’ll be coming along, which relieves my mind,” he said with a smile. “I’d miss our conversations, and I think the mages need someone they trust to give them orders.”

“I think they trust you,” I said.

“They hardly know me,” he said. “You’re the one they look to. You’re a natural leader.”

I felt horribly uncomfortable. “I don’t think so,” I said.

“You only feel that way because staying in the shadows has kept you alive all these years,” he said. “You have a knack for getting people to listen to you and you can back that up with experience and talent. Use it. Don’t be afraid of it.”

I remembered threatening Norsselen and enjoying it. “I think it’s a dangerous ability,” I said.

Mattiak shrugged. “That’s up to you,” he said. Now, let’s talk about something else.” And he turned the conversation to the latest news from the east, which distracted me enough that I could finish eating. But I’m still thinking about what he said.

I don’t know if I’m a natural leader—I think he’s wrong about that. Even so, he’s right that the mages look to me, and I don’t feel awkward about that. Afraid, sometimes, that I’ll make the wrong decision—more afraid now that the wrong decision could get people killed—and worried I’ll use intimidation to achieve results that could be better reached through other means, but the idea of leading people doesn’t seem so unlikely anymore. It’s unexpected, and a little unnerving, because this is nothing like who I was before. And yet I can’t say that it isn’t me.

Enough introspection. I’m going to ask Nessan what he thinks we should do about the spies. Leaving any of them behind is pointless, because there won’t be an enemy to practice their skills on, unlike the others who can drill with the soldiers, but if I take them, I have to leave several of my warrior mages—ooh, I like that phrase, I think I’ll start calling them that—behind, which could weaken our attacks. He’ll have a better idea than I do of how necessary their skills will be to Balaen’s army.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 184

31 Nevrine

I met with King and Chamber this morning in what I think of as the audience room, the room Jeddan and I saw them in first. This time, I was escorted by a pair of armed soldiers, which would have reminded me uncomfortably of being taken to see the God-Empress all those times if I hadn’t known both of them from our drills. So we made conversation the whole way there, quietly so no one would think they were being unprofessional, and they handed me off to the guards outside the audience room with unsmiling faces.

After a few minutes of mutual silence, the guards outside the door escorted me into the room and all the way to the black rug. One of them had whispered, just before we entered, “Go to the center of the rug and face the King. If you’re addressed by someone else, turn and bow your head briefly before answering. Don’t forget to address them as Honored.” I’m grateful for that guard. In fact, all of the ones I’ve met, even Nessan, have been polite and respectful to me, and I don’t think it’s because they believe I can kill them with a thought. I’m sure there are venal and corrupt soldiers in the army and the city guard, I just haven’t met them, thank the true God.

I did as I was instructed and went to face the King. He didn’t have the slightly vacuous smile I’d always seen him wear. Today he looked tense and restless, with his leg crossed over his knee and his fingers thrumming on the arm of his chair. “Sesskia,” he said, “are the mages prepared to fight?”

I was about to give him an honest answer—they’re never going to be fully prepared, there’s a lot they can still learn—but I realized in time he wanted reassurance, not facts. “They’re ready, Honored,” I said.

“As I assured you, your Majesty,” Crossar said, sounding faintly exasperated, nothing the King could take offense at, but still a clear statement of disapproval.

“They’re a slender thread to hang a strategy on,” Batekessar said. He was more querulous than usual. Even Crossar, beneath his exasperation, had sounded on edge.

“You’ve opposed that strategy from the start,” Jakssar said. “Reactionary measures aren’t going to defeat this enemy.”

“Don’t you call me a reactionary, woman,” Batekessar said. “Not placing our fates in the hands of magickers who’ll turn on us when it suits them is a sound strategy. Balaen’s survived worse than this without the help of magic.” He said “magic” like he might have said “filth.”

“This is much worse,” Crossar said, now audibly exasperated. “Their mages are powerful and experienced. We need magic to counter magic.”

“How well do you think our mages will stand up to the invaders’ magic?” Lenssar said, sounding almost as querulous as Batekessar. “They’ve been training less than a month. They’ll be destroyed, and we’ll be where we started. Might as well not bother.”

“Sesskia, you’ve seen the enemy’s mages fight,” Crossar said. “What is your assessment?”

I turned, bowed slightly, and said, “Honored, the Chamber Lord of Commerce is correct that our mages are inexperienced. However, they have some advantages over the enemy mages. One is that our pouvrin can be worked anywhere, without the need for the boards our enemies use, which means we are as fast or faster at responding to attacks than they are. Another is that we know pouvrin they don’t, that they can’t defend against easily. And we’ve been training to act in concert, something the enemy mages don’t do. Most importantly, they believe we don’t have any mages, and will be unprepared for our attack.”

“You see?” Crossar said. “We will be able to stop the invading army, but we need to strike soon, to prevent them ever reaching Venetry at all. It is time to send the troops out.”

“I think I agree with Crossar,” Jakssar said. “If we wait for them to reach the city, who knows what kind of advantage they’ll gain?”

The King said nothing. I didn’t dare turn to look at him. Finally, he said, “Sesskia, what is your opinion?”

I turned to face him and tried not to show how alarmed I was at his question. “Honored, I’m not qualified to speak on military strategy,” I said. “You should ask General Tarallan.”

“Tarallan has his own motives,” the King said darkly, which made me a little afraid for Mattiak. “I want to know what you think.”

I swallowed to moisten my suddenly dry mouth. “I think taking the fight to the G—the enemy is a good idea, Honored,” I said. “Like Lady Jakssar says, they could gain some advantage if we give them time to advance. And it might also give them time to learn of our mages’ existence.”

The King was expressionless now, and I feared I’d just said something offensive that might earn me death. But he said, “The army goes. The mages stay here.”

“Your Majesty!” Crossar said, and I almost joined him in that expostulation. “The mages have been training to enter battle! This will cost the army its greatest advantage!”

“We can’t leave Venetry completely unguarded,” the King said, still expressionless, but with that whine in his voice that made me itch to slap him.

“Then we will leave a detachment of the army here,” Crossar said.

“Not good enough,” the King said.

“Honored, excuse me for speaking out of turn, but could you not do both?” I exclaimed. “Keep some soldiers and some of the mages here for the city’s defense. Then the army will have that advantage, and you—I mean the city will be protected.”

“I make the decisions, Sesskia, and if you speak out of turn again I’ll have you imprisoned,” the King said, and I almost went insubstantial right there to remind him he didn’t have the power to keep me locked up. In the next second I realized I might need that advantage, so I just kept quiet.

“It’s a good idea, your Majesty,” Jakssar said. “With the mage auxiliaries, the army might be able to stop the invaders before they reach Venetry at all. And if they don’t, we have defenses in place.”

The King looked past me, I think at Crossar, then back at me. “Very well,” he said. “Sesskia, choose half your mages to remain here. The best mages, you understand.”

Crossar made a choking sound. I said, “Of course, your Majesty,” wishing I dared slap him. I think he’d be the better for regular slappings.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 183

30 Nevrine

Nothing happened yesterday. I slept for a while, then practiced the flitting pouvra to go to the practice field and back. It’s very disorienting. I can flit a few hundred yards, but then I have to pause to find a new point to aim at. Jerussa says it gets easier with practice, but for now I won’t be doing any flitting into enemy territory.

Today we drilled with the army, though not for very long, all together, because the soldiers were all so fascinated with our magic they kept stopping to ask questions. I had some questions of my own for Mattiak, first of which was “why isn’t everyone terrified of us?” It’s starting to be common for me to have dinner with him, partly because I always report just at the right time and also, I think, because Mattiak likes having someone to talk to who isn’t a subordinate or interested only in military matters. The story he told me was so long, I’ve only just now gotten back—it’s nearly nine-thirty in the evening, half an hour or so before Nessan arrives, so I’ll have to sum it up:

The convergence hit Venetry hard, about as hard as Colosse was hit—physical shocks as well as the pulling everyone felt, and a lot of people thought the world was ending. Then the mages started appearing, and the manifestation of their pouvrin was taken by many to be a sign confirming the apocalypse. A few illogical people concluded if they killed the mages, the destruction would end, and others were just afraid of magic, and still others were victims of the pouvrin (don’t know if those were intentional attacks or not), and that’s how the slaughter began.

Three hundred mages were killed that first day. Some mages were sheltered by their families, and others fought their way to safety outside the walls, and the killing became more indiscriminate as society fell apart. It took three days for the city guard to pacify the mob, during which time any other mages who manifested did their best to hide. There weren’t any more mage killings, at any rate.

It was several days later that the reports from the north, where the Castaviran city had appeared, started to arrive. The news that the invaders also had mages threatened to send Venetry into another cataclysm of violence against anyone suspected of being a mage. The explanation for what happened next was Mattiak’s supposition, because no one knew how it started, but the rumor went around Venetry that Balaen’s mages had been sent by the true God to defend the country against the enemy’s mages.

Mattiak thinks the rumor was started by a group of people, maybe several mages, because it spread too quickly to have started in only one place, and it reached King and Chamber faster than could be explained even by the speed of gossip. The King latched onto the rumor and decreed that mages were to be protected, and that all mages were to come to Venetry to assist in Balaen’s defense.

That was when the second rumor started, which was that the new mages had magic that was different from what everyone had feared, good magic that couldn’t harm anyone who didn’t have evil in their hearts. Not as many people believed that one, but between them, and families who couldn’t believe evil of their own relatives just because they were now mages, and the pragmatists in government who saw mages as a weapon, the majority of Venetrians either aren’t afraid of mages or hide their fear well. And the soldiers we trained with today have seen Castaviran mages in battle, so they see us and our magic as allies.

I still think it’s odd. Maybe I’m just having trouble forgetting ten years of fear and secrecy, but I think that kind of change of heart is unlikely. Or maybe the city guard is cracking down on anti-mage sentiment harder than I realize, and the people are all still afraid of mages but more afraid of what the military can do under martial law. Or maybe I’ve been wrong about the level of fear of mages in the country at large. I don’t know. What I do know is this doesn’t change anything as far as I’m concerned; I’m still not going to flaunt my magic in the city if I can help it. The soldiers do seem genuinely unafraid of us, though, so I could be wrong.

Anyway, Mattiak set up a drill that was a lot of fun in addition to being a good new challenge. He handed out marked helmets to a bunch of soldiers, then set everyone to practicing swordplay outside the walls. Then he put our mind-movers on the wall and had them fling sponges soaked in paint at the marked targets. The idea is to learn to target specific individuals in a crowd and knock them out without hitting any of our soldiers who might be nearby.

It was almost too fun, as the soldiers ducked and ran in ways they wouldn’t on the battlefield, and the mages were laughing so hard they sometimes couldn’t control the sponges at all. I wish we had enough colors of paint that we could assign one to each mage, to more clearly see how each individual does, but I don’t think there are thirty-nine colors of paint in the world. We have enough to divide the mages into teams tomorrow. I still have reservations about treating this like a game, but Mattiak says there’ll be time enough for them to realize how serious it is.

Nessan’s divided the spies into two groups; he does stealth training with one while I teach the concealment pouvra to the other, then we switch. He hasn’t had me go through the full course since the first time, which I hope means he doesn’t think I need it. He has had me demonstrate a few techniques, like memorizing the contents of a room to be recalled later, and doing that made me realize how much better my memory has gotten since I started writing all those conversations I had with Terrael and Audryn and Cederic and the others. Though I still think a memory pouvra would be useful.

Time to join Nessan. I think Relania is close to mastering the concealment pouvra; she’s got the mental flexibility I think all the “old” mages have, or at least that Jeddan and I have as well. Rutika’s not as close, but she’s coming along so quickly in Nessan’s training it almost doesn’t matter. I wonder if I should give them all a talk about not using their new skills to steal things, but it’s possible I’d just be giving them ideas.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 182

28 Nevrine, night

Mages doing very well. I wish the army would move out, because we’re getting to the point where they’re going to lose their edge if they don’t have some new challenges. Jeddan and I have been trying to figure something out. Asked Mattiak for suggestions, and he said maybe it was time for them to train with the regular army. Maybe not tomorrow, but the day after; tomorrow I have to get some sleep, even if it means staying behind while they all go practice.

Dinner was tense. Mattiak still fighting with King and Chamber. Says Crossar is speaking in favor of Mattiak’s strategy, but Jakssar doesn’t want to interfere and the other two are as scared as the King. Hasskian fell on 25 Nevrine and the God-Empress’s army is on the move. I asked (obliquely) what would happen if Mattiak just ordered the army to move out, and he said, “If I survived the conflict, I’d be executed for treason.”

“That seems unfair, if you saved the country,” I said.

“An army more loyal to its general than its King is Garran Clendessar’s worst nightmare,” he said. “With the control I have over the army, I could easily take the throne, and if I went against the King’s express command, it would be a sign that that’s exactly what I had in mind. It wouldn’t matter that I have no interest in ruling Balaen. The King would have to send a message to anyone else who might think to do the same thing.”

“But he’s in more danger if we wait until the invading army is at our door,” I said. “Why doesn’t he see that?”

“He doesn’t understand how warfare is conducted, and he is afraid,” Mattiak said. “And that’s all I can say on the subject, Sesskia.” I knew his abruptness covered his frustration at not being able to speak freely words that would also be considered treason, so I didn’t take offense, but it made everything awkward between us, and I was glad to escape early, with Nessan’s grueling instruction as my excuse.

I have about twenty minutes before I have to join the others, so I’m going to talk to Jeddan for a few minutes about tomorrow’s training schedule, which I won’t be attending because I need to sleep eventually. I almost wish I had Cederic’s ability to survive on four hours a night, though I doubt he does that when the fate of the world isn’t in the balance. I hope not, anyway. I don’t think I’ll enjoy sleeping cold for half the night, once we’re finally reunited.