Sesskia’s Diary, part 204

10 Seresstine, too early (continued)

They all nodded or murmured assent, and we headed out through the camp and past the front lines, where we concealed ourselves and separated. I’ve never felt so anxious in my life. It was like when our warrior mages faced battle for the first time, except this was worse because stealth and cunning were the only weapons these mages had, and as good as they’d become, they had almost no experience. To distract myself, I said to Nessan, “You’d better not give me away with all your tramping around. You hardly look like a Cas—an enemy soldier.”

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “You want to distract, or sabotage?”

“I’d better distract, because you’re stronger than me and I think smashing the plate is the best solution,” I said.

“Weakling,” he said.

“Oaf,” I said. “Here, take the tools.”

“Good idea,” he said. “You clank when you walk.”

“I’m surprised you can hear that, what with you going deaf in your old age,” I said.

We kept up the insults for about half a minute more, then went silent as we neared the camp. We came wide around its flank, me following Nessan as he made a path among the tents. He’s really very good at using shadows and those gaps between places that no one uses because they’re not on a direct route to anywhere. He’s also good at looking like he belongs when he can’t avoid being hidden. I know I couldn’t have walked through the Castaviran camp without my stolen uniform, which by the way I was wearing, just in case.

The war wagons were still being maneuvered into place when we arrived at their position, which was a slightly higher piece of land that curved through the camp from north to south. It began sloping downward about two-thirds of the way into the camp, and since the war wagons were lined up along it, that meant Nessan and I, and Tobiak and Relania probably, were in the middle of the God-Empress’s camp, and Nessan and I, going for the middle of that line, were heading even deeper into it.

We walked along the low ridge and observed. Each war wagon had a white-coated mage behind it, drawing th’an in the grooves of the shining brass plates fastened to the rear. The th’an propelled the war wagons very slowly across the matted dead grass, which made me wonder why the war wagons weren’t collennas, to move by themselves. I hadn’t noticed those plates when I’d explored the chamber of death, but I’d been rattled, so I don’t blame myself too much. Each war wagon was accompanied by a wheeled bin filled with projectiles, pushed by a soldier. It was all happening so slowly that I chafed at the delay, but there was nothing we could do about it except wait for them to get into position.

Nessan kept walking past the war wagons, and I followed him to a spot near some of the command tents and looked around. The God-Empress’s standard was about fifty feet away, which made me wonder where she was. Directing their attack? Demanding some kind of irrational service that would slow or hamper that attack? I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I saw her. No, that’s not true, I knew what I’d do, I’d just stand there and let her walk past. Mattiak’s right, killing her wouldn’t solve anything. And it’s not my duty.

Eventually the battle mages found positions they liked, but then they spent another handful of eternities making their war wagons’ barrels tilt up and down, using th’an to make a glowing amber circle they kept consulting—I think it helped them aim at their target, and knowing that made me even more anxious about what would happen if we failed here.

Nessan whispered, “Stay here. I have to move or I’ll be conspicuous,” and then he was gone, leaving me with nothing to do but watch and plan ways to distract or overcome the mages. The mage operating the war wagon nearest me took her seat, and Nessan wasn’t back. The young man with the bin full of projectiles heaved one up and slid it into the funnel at the back of the war wagon. Nessan wasn’t back.

I leaned forward on the balls of my feet. I couldn’t do this alone, I didn’t even have the tools. The fire pouvra wasn’t hot enough to melt brass, damn it, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do short of killing both of them, which would ruin the whole plan.

Then a panicked, horrified thought struck me. Only the green-eyed mages could work magic. And mages wouldn’t need the grooves to scribe the correct th’an. Our plan was useless. I looked up and down the line and, of course, saw nothing out of the ordinary. I had no way of warning our mages that they were about to risk their lives for nothing. We were just going to have to go through with it and hope we all survived.

Nessan still wasn’t back. I had to watch, helpless, as the mage dipped her brush into the tankard fused to the barrel’s side and brought it out dripping with gleaming silver. Then, to my surprise, she swept the brush through the grooves, a tangle of graceful movements, and the wintry evening was ripped open by the loudest noise I’d ever heard, louder than the thunder that follows lightning striking just feet from where you stand. I thought the sound echoed, but it was really more of the explosions, farther away, and now I was fighting to control my panic. I had nearly resolved to attack the mage and to hell with the plan when suddenly Nessan was at my ear, saying, “Do it.”

The battle mage had a brushful of silver again, and I used the mind-moving pouvra to snap the brush in half, just in case. Then I pulled myself up on the back of the war wagon, kicking the boy in the face as he was about to load his projectile, looked inside the mage’s neck and found the same veins I’d used to subdue Norsselen. The mage toppled, and I heard a muted clang as Nessan wedged the chisel into one of the grooves and struck it hard with the hammer, making it peel up into an unrecognizable mess. “Move,” he said, and I leapt down and raced after him to the next wagon southward.

The noise was incredible. It felt like being inside a giant drum that wouldn’t stop beating. I didn’t even try to tell Nessan what I’d figured out; he couldn’t have heard me, and it wouldn’t have changed anything. We repeated our technique again, and again, before anyone realized the drumbeat was lessening. I couldn’t hear anything over the noise of the war wagons, but I saw soldiers running to find out why the war wagon mages were unconscious.

The fourth wagon was unoccupied, or rather the mage was off his seat and shouting something unintelligible over the noise. He was pacing back and forth, moving enough that I had to grab him to hold him still enough that I could knock him unconscious. His eyes went wide, and he swiftly took hold of me in a way that told me he saw past the concealment. “Who are you?” he said.

This time, I managed not to say “none of your business.” I kept my head even though my heart was pounding with fear, and without a word sent him unconscious. He fell, nearly taking me with him, and it took far too long for me to extricate myself from his grip. Nessan had to pull me to my feet, shouting, “One more, then we run!”

“We need to warn the others!” I shouted back.

“They know what to do! Give them a little credit!” Nessan said, and dragged me—this was when I realized I’d dropped concealment, and I decided it didn’t matter anymore. We disabled our fifth one and kept running.

to be continued…

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 203

10 Seresstine, too early

I’m so tired I can barely see to write, but I feel obligated to record everything that happened, for Rutika’s sake if nothing else. After I finished that last entry, I sat with the mages and talked tactics, and had dinner, and it was all boring and wonderful. Especially since Mattiak didn’t send for me.

But just as we were finishing our dinner, Nessan showed up and grabbed my arm and marched me away. I slid free and said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“You didn’t tell me you’d been in the enemy camp at Calassmir,” he said.

“Why would you care?” I said.

“Because we’ve found something we don’t understand,” he said, “and you might be able to explain it.”

I felt a moment’s irrational fear that I’d been discovered, then reminded myself he couldn’t be talking about my secret knowledge of the God-Empress. “What is it?” I said.

“Come with me,” he said, and walked away without either grabbing me again or waiting for me to follow. I had to jog to keep up with him.

We went to his tent—not his personal tent, the place from which he directs his spies. It’s dark and smells of mildew and the roof leaks, and it’s the most slovenly tent I’ve seen in the Balaenic Army camp, but he seems to like it. He’s got a table that’s as elderly as the tent that’s always covered with scraps of paper, some of it dirty, but what he showed me was a charcoal sketch on clean white paper. “Did you see any of these in Calassmir?” he demanded.

I nodded. It was a war wagon, if somewhat distorted and out of proportion. “I’ve heard they’re like giant rifles,” I said.

“Right. Some kind of projectile, anyway,” he said. “They shoot balls that fragment on impact and turn everything in a five-foot radius to paste. And their range is beyond even what your warrior mages can reach, which makes them safe from fire or mind-moving. The bastards have fifteen of these they’re going to turn on us just as soon as they get them into position. Looks like they weigh more than a ton, and they don’t have horses pulling them.”

“How do you know that?” I said.

Nessan crumpled the paper and tossed it at the wall, where it rebounded and fell into a dirty patch (no rugs for Nessan, he’d probably think them a sign of weakness). “That they’ll attack?” he said. “We can’t fight in the dark any more than their soldiers can, but those weapons are like a drunk man swinging a club—doesn’t have to be accurate, just has to be close. So they can mark a target spot before the sun goes down and just keep lobbing those projectiles into our camp. If they start pounding on us with those things, we either have to advance or retreat, and they’re counting on us not wanting to advance into true God knows what kind of nighttime combat. So they’re going to force us to retreat, which loses us our position, gives us no chance to rest, and puts us in a weakened position when morning comes and they can pursue us.”

“You want to know how to destroy them,” I said.

“You’re smarter than you look,” he said with the twist of his lips that passes for a wry smile with him. “Disable them, if we can’t outright destroy them. And soon.”

I didn’t even hesitate. “I got a good look at them, because I was curious,” I said, which was one hundred percent true. “You know their mages have to draw on those boards to work magic, right? Well, these things have a sort of plate with a, um, design or picture or something just like the ones they draw on their boards. I think they paint over the lines to make the magic work and fire the projectiles.” That was fifty percent guess, because those th’an might be to make it move, but they’re different enough from the ones on the collennas I’ve seen that it was a guess I felt comfortable with.

“Interesting, but not totally helpful,” Nessan said. “Didn’t you see any weaknesses we can exploit?”

“That is the weakness,” I said. “If we damage that plate, the, um, picture won’t be accurate anymore, and the thing won’t work. Smash it, gum up the lines with rocks or something, tear the whole thing off. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”

Nessan had begun looking into the distance past my shoulder as I spoke. He was silent for a few seconds when I finished, then said, “Get the wallowers (this is what he affectionately calls our spies) and meet me at the southern picket line in ten minutes. Tell them to dress for speed, not warmth. No flapping coats, understand?”

“Since this is not my first time doing this, of course I do,” I mock-snarled at him, and he returned the expression.

The spies were excited when I told them to get ready, and we reached the picket line two minutes early, about half an hour before sunset. Nessan was there exactly at the ten minute mark. He sneered at us, which is another way he shows approval, along with insults and sarcasm, though he’s not as good at the latter as Cederic is. He was lugging a big canvas sack that clanked when he dropped it on the frozen ground in front of us. He didn’t look winded, but his breath was coming more quickly, making little puffs of white when he exhaled. That should have warned me. I was stupid not to remember there are so many ways you can be detected that have nothing to do with sight.

But reproaches aren’t going to change the past. Nessan dug into his bag and began handing things out: claw hammers, sacks of sticky mud that on inspection turned out to actually be wet clay, big metal tent spikes, and chisels. He explained what I’d told him about the th’an plates on the war wagons, then added, “We don’t know what will work best to disable them, so you’ve got options. You’ll work in pairs.

“Alessabeka and Rutika, you’re going to circle around to the north, and Tobiak and Relania, to the south. Sesskia and I will drive up the middle. One of you distracts the operators—there’s only two to a weapon, one to load, one to work the magic—and the other disables it. Get as many of them as you can, then pull out before they get their mages involved.” He sighed, and a whole cloud of white mist blew from his lips. “This is what you trained for. Make me proud.”

to be continued…

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 202

9 Seresstine, noonish

We’ve found the God-Empress’s army. It’s not nearly as big as I remember it being from Calassmir. That could be because they’re bunched up along the highway and not spread out, and of course they’ve lost that division we scattered, and there might still be a division or two south of here, though the companies Mattiak sent that way have been reporting in regularly and haven’t seen any sign of enemy soldiers. Our soldiers seem confident of our chances, I hope not overconfident.

The mages are…not subdued, exactly, but they’re not as eager for battle as they were yesterday. Paddrek’s death hit us all hard. I didn’t realize he and Neomae were moving toward a relationship, not that I would have since I just don’t pick up on those things, and she’s been despondent over things she never had the chance to say. I know how she feels, a little, though at least I’ll have the chance to say them to Cederic someday.

They’re far enough away, and it’s late enough in the day, that we’re going to look for a good position and wait until morning. Though they don’t seem to be advancing either, so maybe we’ll move again tomorrow. I wish—no, I don’t really wish I understood military strategy, it’s just that I feel at sea, not knowing what’s best for us to do, or what Mattiak’s going to want from his mage spies. I haven’t seen him at all today, not that I was looking for him, but he generally finds a way to be near me, so it was a relief not to have his eyes on me all the time. I suppose there’s nothing to do now but wait.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 201

8 Seresstine, continued

A wall of fire sprang up just where the mages were, burning hot and yellow, and then there was a lot of screaming, not just from the mages—there weren’t enough of them for us to hear them over the noise of the battlefield—but from the several ranks of soldiers in front of them who turned to see where the heat came from, then stumbled in their haste to get away from it. The mages’ horses thrashed about, and burning bodies fell to the earth and out of our sight.

“Dismiss it, and let’s see what’s left,” I said, and the fire flickered out. Not a single mage was still mounted. Crazed horses bucked and ran, trampling more soldiers and making the rear of the enemy army look like a riptide had torn it apart. The effect was spreading forward as more soldiers turned to see what was going on, until it reached the place where our soldiers were fighting theirs, and even I could see the tide turning against the enemy.

More fires erupted, a little smaller this time. “Find your targets, and attack independently,” I shouted, and then rocks and even small trees were hurtling through the air toward the enemy mages. I couldn’t see much of anything except a glimpse, now and then, of a scorched white robe, but it seemed the other mages didn’t have the same problem. The fires went out. No new ones arose.

“Take a rest,” I said, and we all sat down for a minute. Still no new fires. “Time for new targets,” I said. “Remember what the General said—mages first, then the officers. Let’s see how well they do when they don’t have direction.” I felt a wicked pleasure at doing to them what they’d done to us, but didn’t have time to indulge it, because I had to follow my own orders.

That was when it got long and brutal. My instructions were to continue attacking until we were too exhausted to manifest pouvra or they started running, and neither of those things happened for a while. Paddrek was wounded somewhere in the middle there, and I had to force those soldiers back with fire because everyone else was either focused on their own attacks or waffling in a corner—no, that’s unfair, the spies weren’t trained for combat, and what could they have done that wouldn’t get them killed as well? They made sure we had plenty of water, and helped with the wounded, and took Paddrek to the surgeon’s tent, and I’m glad they were there.

Then the sound of the battle changed. I haven’t been in many battles—well, no battles, really, but I’ve been close enough that I could tell the moment when one side starts to flee. That was our signal to sit down and rest while the soldiers pursued the enemy. Not very far, I think, because we weren’t sure how far the main army had come and nobody wanted to run into them. I think I fell asleep, because it only seemed like seconds before I was being prodded to get up and return to camp.

The soldiers were making a lot of noise, shouting and cheering, with women’s voices rising above theirs. It felt like a celebration, but one I was on the outside of. Not that I wasn’t happy we’d won, I just felt worn out and empty. I think most of that was having used so many pouvrin in so relatively short a time, but it also felt a little like how I feel after I learn a new pouvra, kind of flat, as if nothing interesting will ever happen again.

But I smiled and accepted congratulations. All of us mages were heroes today, especially among those who’d seen the destruction outside Binna and those who’d been on the periphery of the enemy mages’ attacks. I didn’t tell them we’d been successful largely because they hadn’t known to expect us. Many of the enemy soldiers escaped to run back to the God-Empress and would certainly tell what they’d seen, and even if the Castaviran mages didn’t know what to expect from us, they’d definitely know to be prepared with defensive kathanas.

That makes me sound more discouraged than I am. The mages worked well together and independently, and didn’t panic when they saw they’d killed someone, and the spies had been useful, and much as I grieve over Paddrek, it’s true our casualties could have been far worse. Everyone else was just as cheerful over dinner, cheerful enough that I didn’t give them the “let’s not celebrate too soon” speech I’d been working on. Time enough for that tomorrow morning.

I just got back from talking to Mattiak, who behaved exactly as if nothing awkward had ever happened between us. He congratulated me and the mages, said something about how effective they’d been, and then said, “It’s going to be harder next time, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “When will that next time be? Soon?”

“We’ll encounter the main body of their army in a day or so,” Mattiak said. “But there may be conflict sooner than that if they have more divisions coming up from the southeast, flanking the army. We have four companies spread out in that direction with instructions to send runners back immediately if they encounter the enemy.”

“Will they attack if they do?” I said.

“Better for them to retreat and draw them out, away from the security of the other troops,” he said. “If we have to fight a battle on two fronts, which I think we won’t, we’ll want to crush one of those forces quickly and see if we can’t turn that attack back on them. If that happens, your mages are going to be key to that defeat.”

I said, “They’ll be ready. Even the spies.”

“I may have a different purpose for them this time,” he said, “depending on what news Nessan and his men bring back.”

“You could have sent us to spy on the G—the enemy’s forces,” I said.

“Time enough for that,” he said cryptically, and that seemed to be the end of the conversation. I wanted to hurry away before it became intimate, so naturally I tripped over my stool and fell. Mattiak helped me up with a smile that said he was thinking about flirting with me again, which flustered me, and I almost ran out of his tent and to my own.

I thought I was going to be able to handle him, but that was when I thought all I had to worry about was an attempt at physical intimacy, which I still don’t think he’s going to try. No, it’s those intimate glances, the meaningful smiles, everything he doesn’t say that nevertheless speaks volumes. It makes me feel so uncomfortable because he wants something from me he’s never going to get, and I wish he could understand that. I wish we’d never become friends. A professional relationship would be so much better for both of us.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 200!

8 Seresstine

I’ve just come back from the surgeon’s tent. He’d told me Paddrek wasn’t going to survive, but I hoped he was wrong. Why is there no pouvra for healing? I even tried the binding pouvra, but it did nothing. As usual. Though I suppose if that’s what it was for, the Castaviran mages would have known.

I’ve been trying to tell myself it could have been worse, that he’s the only mage who died and only three others were wounded, none of them seriously, but Paddrek wasn’t a number, he was a man, and a friend, and it was so stupid—he’d gotten out of formation, concentrating on maintaining fire, and our unit of defenders let some of the God-Empress’s soldiers through. They didn’t get any further than Paddrek, I saw to that, but that wasn’t much comfort with him screaming and clutching his stomach to keep his intestines from sliding out. I guess I should be glad he’s not in pain anymore, but I’d rather he was alive.

We struck camp early so we could reach a place Mattiak’s scouts, i.e. Nessan, had described as a good place for us to stage our attack from. There had been a lot of discussion about where to put the mages, mostly about whether it was better they stay on the ground where they didn’t look like anyone else, or be in the wagon where they could have a better view of the battlefield but also be more exposed.

In the end, we decided on the ground, mainly because of my repeated insistence that we have no shield pouvra (I still can’t work out what Cederic did, damn him for being so brilliant, he’s going to teach me that when we’re reunited) and are better off being slightly less effective at fighting if it means being better protected. So we were assigned a unit (as I mentioned above) to keep us from being overrun by the God-Empress’s army and sent to where we’d be out of our army’s way.

Then we waited. Not very long, though. We saw them approaching, of course, long before they reached us; one of the good features of our position was that it was just over a low rise, which gave Mattiak a view of the whole battlefield and put him in a position to dictate changes in strategy. Not that he does much of that. His officers are very bright and are good at understanding how they fit into the army, and altering their tactics accordingly. Not that I have any idea what those tactics are—that’s just something Mattiak told me over dinner. The memory of all those dinners is sour now.

Anyway, the mages didn’t have anything to do until we could see the army clearly. We could tell it was a lot smaller than ours, of course; I don’t know what we would have done if the entire army had come marching down the road. I was straining to see the mages, and half-listening to a conversation Rutika and Ryenn were having, and then there was a cry, and the sound of trumpets, and the front of our army surged forward and met theirs with an enormous clash of sound that rippled over our heads. Fire blossomed here and there along their line and arched from the battle mages to fly into our army, making spots of fire the soldiers shifted to avoid. I grinned because I knew they wouldn’t be able to do what we could.

“There, left of center—oh, and right, too,” Elleria said. “They’re spread out in a line like their range is limited.”

“They aren’t outside our range,” Ryenn said. “Shall we attack?” He’s one of our upper class mages and his language sounds elegant no matter what he’s saying.

“Let’s give them a surprise,” I said. “Count of three, and let’s see if we can hit all…yes, there’s ten of them.” I counted off three, and said, “NOW!”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 199

7 Seresstine

We struck camp and moved east this morning. The strategy, as I understand it, is to intercept that weakened division so it can’t rejoin the army; it should be easy to defeat and will give our mages practice before we face however many dozens of mages the God-Empress has in her camp. I’m just glad to be moving. Mattiak estimates we’ll encounter them sometime tomorrow morning, and after we defeat them, we’ll reevaluate our position with regard to the main army. “After we defeat them,” his exact words, which makes me wonder if he’s really that confident or just good at optimism.

He invited me to eat with him tonight and I declined, saying I was going to eat with the mages so we could talk about what they might be able to do. He just smiled, and said, “Another time,” and the look in his eyes told me he knew what I was doing, and he wasn’t offended. That made me angry, that he was so confident of winning my heart that he could humor my coldness toward him. Nothing I can do about it but endure. At least he won’t attack me—I’m certain he won’t be happy unless I come to him voluntarily.

We’re going into battle tomorrow. All the mages are nervous and excited, but none of them seem afraid, or worried about being able to perform. We’ve talked about tactics, and I’ve told them something of what the Castaviran mages can do, and how to recognize them—they’re usually mounted, to give them a better view of the battlefield, I think. And I’ve made it clear that disabling them is not enough; we can’t afford to have them coming back to attack our troops. They all say they understand, that they can kill if they have to, but it’s not the sort of thing you know until you’re at that point.

The spies are the most relaxed, probably because we’re not sure they’ll have anything to do in this battle. Nessan joined us just after dinner and said the same thing. He’s going to scout ahead tonight; I volunteered to help, but he shook his head and said, “This isn’t something I can hand off to you,” and then he was gone. I wonder what Mattiak told him.

Sleep, now, and we’ll see what the morning brings.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 198

6 Seresstine, continued

His grip on my hand had loosened, become something gentle, and his thumb stroked the back of my hand. I just stared at him. I still don’t know if I should have seen that coming. I just feel stupid and embarrassed. I liked him. I thought we were friends, but apparently that’s not how he felt. I don’t—I have to write the rest first.

I just stared at him. It didn’t even occur to me to pull my hand away. “Sesskia,” he said again, “I know you’re waiting for your husband, but even you have to admit he’s almost certainly dead. You know as well as I do what kind of chaos central Balaen is in right now. If he hasn’t found you by now, he’s not coming.”

“No,” I said, but came up once again against the fact that I couldn’t tell him my husband is a powerful Castaviran mage who is absolutely still alive, wherever he is. “I know he’s alive,” was what I came out with, but it sounded weak even to me.

He pressed my hand, gently again, and reached across the table to brush his fingers across my cheek, and this time I knew that touch for a lover’s caress, and it sent a shiver through me, though I had no idea what emotion had prompted it. “I understand,” he said. “It’s one of the things I love about you, your strength of spirit. But you should understand something, too. At some point, you’ll realize the truth, and when that happens, I will be here for you.”

I retrieved my hand from his and said, “I think I should go,” and walked away before he could say anything else. I went straight to my tent and curled up, fully clothed, on my bed. I lay like that for about ten minutes, then got up to write. Which brings me to now.

I’ll admit there was a fraction of a second in which I considered a reality where I returned his love. It didn’t last long, and I don’t feel guilty about it; it was as if I looked at a shirt that belonged to someone else and wondered how it might look on me, but never considered actually wearing it. I love Cederic, and that’s not going to change just because an attractive, interesting man told me he cares about me.

But—it’s like what happened when I learned Cederic had loved me for weeks before I knew it, and I thought back over that time and saw so many things I’d missed. In hindsight, Mattiak’s interest in me was obvious. Every time he brought up Cederic’s name, it was always accompanied with some comment about how dangerous things are in the east, or something reminding me we were separated and how it would be so long before he was found. He’s been trying to drive a wedge between me and my husband that would let him fit himself into the space between. And it makes me feel sick, because I thought we were friends. I thought I could trust him. But all he wanted was to steal my affections.

I feel stupid for not realizing. And I don’t know what to do or how to behave toward him. I have to be polite and friendly, and I can’t avoid him because I’m technically on his general staff, but I can’t have dinner alone with him anymore, knowing what he’s thinking when he’s looking at me.

There’s no one I can tell, either; I’m not close to the other mages in that way, and the only other person I have more than a casual relationship with is Nessan, and this isn’t something I can share with him. I wish Jeddan were here. I wish Cederic were here. Hah. I wouldn’t have this problem if he were, because much as I’m angry with Mattiak right now, I don’t think he’s the type to make a play for a man’s wife with the man actually standing there. Clearly he has no problem doing it when the man is absent.

It’s far too late now. I have to meet with the general staff in the morning, where we’ll learn what Mattiak has decided. I hope it’s that we’re moving east to attack the God-Empress’s army. I might not be a killer, but right now I could happily burn swathes through the enemy line.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 197

6 Seresstine, continued

Somebody put a blanket around my shoulders, which I appreciated, even though I hadn’t realized how cold I’d gotten, and someone else handed me a flask of something that burned all the way down and warmed me up beautifully. Mattiak said, “Thank the true God you’re back.”

“I was perfectly safe,” I said. Of course I wasn’t going to tell him about running into the God-Empress’s soldiers, and I definitely couldn’t tell him about how they’d recognized me, since Jeddan’s the only Balaenic who knows the truth about me and the Castavirans. “It just took longer than I anticipated. Let me tell you what I learned.”

“Rest first,” Mattiak said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

I shook my head. “You need to know this now,” I said, “because I’m not sure how much time you have.” Then I told them everything I’d discovered, and marked on the map the positions of the main army and the division that had routed ours, as well as the Castaviran city. “I don’t know how fast they’re going to travel,” I said, “but I think it’s safe to assume that that division sent messengers to tell the main army what happened, and I think—sorry, I know I’m not military, but I think that division is coming this way to investigate how large a force we have and then return to join the main army.”

General Kalanik said, “That’s likely. If they keep on that heading, they’ll join that highway far ahead of the main army. They’re probably the advance force.”

“Which we will overrun,” General Drussik said, “if they’re as reduced as you say.” He looked as if he questioned my veracity or, possibly, my intelligence.

“I think,” said Mattiak, tapping the place on the map where that smaller division was, “it’s possible they’ve underestimated the size of our army. There’s no other reason to sacrifice an entire division like that.” But he looked uncertain, as if he were weighing other possibilities. I thought it was possible the God-Empress had simply decided they should be sacrifices to her, but held my tongue.

“Very interesting,” Mattiak said. He tapped the spot again, then said, “We’ll move out in the morning, after our staff meeting. We’ll discuss strategy then.”

We all filed out, but Mattiak took my arm and said, “You look exhausted. I was about to eat dinner when you arrived; would you care to join me?”

I nodded. Food sounded so good just then. We went to his tent, where a meal was already set. It looked like it might have gone cold. “Don’t worry about it,” Mattiak said after calling a servant to bring another plate. “It’s not that cold, and I’ve eaten worse.”

We ate in silence, me because I was too hungry to spare any time for words, Mattiak because he seemed preoccupied with his thoughts. As I was mopping up the last of the gravy with a chunk of bread, he said, “You weren’t telling us everything, were you?”

“I didn’t risk myself,” I lied—well, it was only sort of a lie; it was an accident that I’d nearly been caught, not a result of my being reckless.

“I know,” Mattiak said, which made me feel guilty at abusing his trust in me. “But something happened that disturbed you. I was hoping you’d tell me what that was.”

I started to deny it, but instead found myself telling him what I’d thought as I looked over the God-Empress’s camp and wondered if I should kill her. “I’ve seen the way everyone behaves around her,” I said finally. “They’re afraid of her, and with good reason. I’ve seen her—” I hesitated only briefly before realizing he wouldn’t know when I’d seen this. “I’ve seen her have someone murdered just because she spoke to her on the wrong day. I can’t imagine what kind of a ruler she is to her own people, and she wants to rule Balaen too. Our government isn’t perfect, but it’s a hundred times better than that.”

“And you think her death would solve everything,” Mattiak said.

I shrugged. “Maybe not everything,” I said, “but it would have to have some effect.”

“Then I suppose the real question,” Mattiak said, “is if her death is your duty.”

“I seem to be ideally qualified to kill her,” I said, trying to keep my tone light.

“That’s not the same thing,” Mattiak said. “I know half a dozen men more qualified than you are, starting with Nessan, and that’s only if I thought this woman’s death would make a difference on the battlefield, which I don’t.”

“None of those men can slip through walls or walk invisibly across an enemy camp,” I said.

“But all of them have something you lack, Sesskia,” Mattiak said. “You’re not a killer. I think taking a human life is as far beyond your abilities as walking through walls is beyond mine.”

“That’s not true,” I blurted out, then realized my mistake and went silent. Mattiak leaned forward, and my eyes met his. “Tell me,” he said.

Maybe I should have realized what was happening at that point, or maybe not; I was preoccupied with my feelings of fear and guilt, and at that moment I needed…I don’t know what I needed. Comfort? Absolution? Whatever it was, I sat in that tent and told Mattiak about killing that bandit mage, about watching him go gray and rigid from what I’d done. I knew, somehow, that Mattiak wasn’t going to be horrified by my story, possibly because he’s a soldier and he’s seen and done things as bad or worse, but I wasn’t prepared for him to say, when I was finished, “You’re right. That would make you an ideal assassin.”

I felt like he’d slapped me. That was when I realized I’d wanted reassurance that I wasn’t evil, not more condemnation. I stood to go—I don’t know how I looked, but I felt numb—and he grabbed my hand and made me sit. “I’m not finished,” he said.

“I’m not sure I want to hear the rest,” I said.

He shook his head, and he had that serious look again, the one that made me uncomfortable. “Sesskia, you can do things I can barely comprehend,” he said, “but what I do know is that none of them force you to be anything you don’t choose to be. That fire-summoning pouvra doesn’t make you burn everything you see. And much as I joke about you being a thief—even though I know some of those aren’t jokes—you aren’t forced to use the mind-moving pouvra solely to pick locks, or the walk-through-walls pouvra only to secretly enter my tent at night.” He grinned at me, and I had to smile, though I was also trying not to redden with embarrassment.

“The truth is, you choose how to use what you’ve learned,” he went on, “and I don’t give a damn how many killing applications you come up with, because I maintain you aren’t a killer. And that makes me happy.” He took a deep breath. “Everything about you makes me happy, Sesskia.”

to be continued…