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…