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…