I’m part of the Hearts and Swords ebook sale at Miranda Honfleur’s site May 11-13. Most books are either 99 cents or free on Kindle Unlimited. This is a great opportunity to buy romantic fantasy books and maybe find a new favorite. Check it out!
I’m part of the Hearts and Swords ebook sale at Miranda Honfleur’s site May 11-13. Most books are either 99 cents or free on Kindle Unlimited. This is a great opportunity to buy romantic fantasy books and maybe find a new favorite. Check it out!
Books on Tour
– TRITON’S CURSE by Sarra Cannon
– MASQUE by W.R. Gingell
– AURORA SKY: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Nikki Jefford
– A WHITE SO RED by K.D. Jones
– THE TALE OF MALLY BIDDLE by M.L. LeGette
– THE TWELFTH KEEPER by Belle Malory
– SERVANT OF THE CROWN by Melissa McShane
– THE XOE MEYERS TRILOGY by Sara C. Roethle
– TEMPEST by R.K. Ryals
– CRAVING BEAUTY be Jennifer Silverwood
– THE DESCENDANTS SERIES by Melissa Wright
– REAWAKENED by Morgan Wylie
My next book, THE BOOK OF SECRETS, is coming out in January. This first book in the new series The Last Oracle is the story of a young woman whose new job as clerk in a mysterious bookstore turns out to be more than she could have imagined. Here’s a look at the first chapter:
Bookstores were supposed to smell of old leather and dry paper. This one smelled of onion, of musty dry air trapped for centuries underground, smells that hung in the frigid air like invisible curtains. Aside from my own breath, the store was perfectly still, without even the whoosh of passing traffic to remind me of the world outside.
I took a few steps toward the bookcases, peering around them for some sign of Mr. Briggs. Should I wait for him, or did he expect me to follow while he answered the phone? I’d had exactly three job interviews in my life, not counting the one that had gotten me the job at McDonald’s the summer I was sixteen, and I had no idea what the protocol was. My shoes, sensible pumps, tapped quietly across the cracked yellow linoleum, spangled with silver stars that time had worn to gray blisters. Still no sign of life.
I straightened my skirt and took a seat on the folding chair next to the door. I stifled a shriek when my bare legs brushed the freezing metal. The chair wobbled when I shifted my weight, and I held still, afraid it might dump me off. I really didn’t want to touch the floor. It wobbled again, and I shot to my feet. Maybe standing was the better option.
The wooden counter to my left was curved plywood stained walnut-dark, topped with a sheet of glass cracked like the linoleum. A stack of remaindered pop psychology books declaring I could Master My Potential! weighed it down at one end, and the antique cash register took up the other. It looked more like an art piece than anything functional, with brass filigree decorating its sides and back, and a Victorian valentine complete with lace appliqued to the top. It was hard to believe it was anything more than a conversation piece, but I’d seen Mr. Briggs use it when handling a sale ten minutes ago, so it wasn’t a joke.
It had been a surprise when someone actually bought a book. I didn’t think anyone was brave enough to squeeze between the shelves. They were packed so tightly that if two people tried to negotiate the same aisle, one would have to back up to let the other pass. The highest shelves were well beyond the reach of an ordinary person, at least eight feet tall, and I hadn’t seen a stepladder. And the books… it made me shudder to look at them, crammed in any old way, flat on their faces or standing at attention, with more books piled on the tops of the bookcases. The idea of this going on for several hundred square feet gave me chills.
I went to the nearest bookcase and examined the titles. There was no theme to their organization: a cookbook sat next to a book on the Prussian military campaign in 1805, which was next to a novel titled Translations in Celadon. I removed a book and sniffed its spine. It smelled just as it ought, of dry paper and dust, and that reassured me. The store might be strange, the organization nonexistent, but at least the books were sound. I’d half-expected to smell mildew or cigarette smoke.
I heard a distant voice, barely more than a whisper. “Hello?” I said. “Mr. Briggs?” The whispering stopped. A draft of frigid air brushed my ear, making goose pimples rise up on my arms. The voice spoke again, but I still couldn’t understand it. I turned around fast, suddenly nervous that someone had managed to come in without my hearing them. No one. Either my imagination was piqued by my unusual surroundings, or the store was haunted. By the onion-scented ghost of a former owner, no doubt.
Heavy footsteps sounded, and I quickly put the book back and sat in the chair. “Sorry,” Mr. Briggs said. He was a short man with a paunch and a yellowish, jaundiced cast to his skin, wearing gray slacks and a blue and gray argyle sweater vest over a white button-down shirt. A pair of very old-fashioned half-moon glasses perched on his blond head, apparently forgotten. “A long-time customer. We try to keep them happy, of course.”
“Of course,” I said, wondering at “we.” Mr. Briggs, as far as I could tell, ran the shop alone. It was why I was there. “Do you do a lot of business online?”
“Not online,” Mr. Briggs said. He pulled a metal stool that looked like the distant cousin of my chair around from behind the counter and sat, drawing his feet up to rest on the lower rung. “We deal strictly in the catalogue trade. Most of our customers don’t use the internet at all.”
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t, really. “So… phone calls, order forms…?”
“Exactly. And walk-in customers. We don’t get as many of those these days. The neighborhood hasn’t exactly gone downhill, but much of the foot traffic has been diverted west. People have to make an effort to reach us, which is probably to the good.”
No organization. No customers. No desire for customers. And the place smelled strange. I clasped my hands in my lap, atop my purse. I ought to leave, thank him for his time and say I didn’t think I was a good fit. But that would be rude. “I wasn’t quite clear on the job description,” I said. “What would my—the duties be?”
“Cash register, of course,” Mr. Briggs said. “Stocking new inventory. Filling catalogue orders. Light cleaning. Then there’s the opportunity to move up to customer relations. It’s not very demanding work, but you’d start at fifteen dollars an hour and work your way up from there.”
Fifteen. That was almost half again what I could make at the Pick ‘n’ Pack, which was my only other job lead so far. “It sounds interesting,” I heard myself say.
“Then it’s settled. How do you feel about starting now?”
I gaped. “Ah… don’t you want to interview me?”
“No need. Your resume is exactly what we’re looking for.”
“But…” I felt, perversely, as if I should talk him out of it. “My resume is practically empty.”
“Which means you don’t have any bad habits to unlearn.”
“That can’t be a solid basis for hiring someone!”
“It isn’t.” Mr. Briggs took his glasses off his forehead and settled them firmly on his nose. “But our other criteria won’t matter to you.”
“I think I have a right to know what my qualifications are.”
“All right. You’re punctual, you’re quiet, and you know how to type. Do you want the job or not?”
I wobbled on the chair again. “I do.”
“Then I’ll show you where you can put your things, and you can get started.” Mr. Briggs stood and moved the stool back behind the counter. “Do you have any questions?”
I had so many questions I felt choked with them. Naturally, I came out with the most irrelevant one. “Abernathy’s. The store. Who’s Abernathy?”
Mr. Briggs smiled, making his cheeks puff up like a blond chipmunk’s. “An excellent question,” he said, and moved off into the stacks without saying anything more. I stood unmoving, confused, for a few seconds before remembering I was now an employee and shouldn’t stand around gaping.
Mr. Briggs showed me the tiny room, barely more than a closet, that in any other store I would have called a break room. It contained a small folding table and a couple of those freezing metal chairs, a wooden coatrack with two of the pegs sheared off, and a miniature refrigerator and microwave. I reluctantly hung my coat on one of the remaining pegs—the place was still bitterly cold—and followed Mr. Briggs to the room opposite, which turned out to be his office. Stacks of cardboard boxes full of glossy catalogues stood waist-high against the far wall, tilting haphazardly against one another.
Mr. Briggs sat in a rolling office chair and leaned over to open the bottom drawer of the tan melamine and chrome desk. “This is the employee agreement,” he said, coming up with a single sheet of paper. “We’ve never seen the point of a lot of paperwork. Read it first, if you want, but it’s fairly basic. Then you sign here and here.” He pushed the phone, putty-colored and older than I was, out of the way to lay the paper on the desk.
I read the document, which was handwritten in green ink. Abernathy’s wasn’t interested in my address, my Social Security number, my mother’s maiden name, or anything else. There were just a few paragraphs outlining the job description Mr. Briggs had given me, a few more paragraphs in which I asserted that I wasn’t a felon or a drug dealer, and then, bizarrely, a line that read I, _______ , swear to uphold the standards of Abernathy’s without fear or favor, and to seal its secrets in my heart, for as long as it remains in my charge.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“It means you won’t disclose confidential information about our patrons,” Mr. Briggs said. He had his eyes fixed on the document, not on me, and his fingers drummed restlessly on the melamine. I hesitated. “Is there a problem?”
“… No. No problem.” I signed with the leaky plastic ballpoint he handed me, then gave pen and paper back to him and watched him countersign on the line below my signature.
He folded the paper in thirds and rolled backward to put it away in the top drawer of the filing cabinet. Then he unlocked the desk’s middle drawer with a small brass key and opened it. “Mailing list,” he said, handing me a sheaf of paper. “We send out a catalogue three times a year. You’ll type the labels, address the catalogues, and have them ready for me to take to the post office tomorrow morning.”
“All right,” I said. The list was ten pages long and the addresses written in a cramped, faded hand. “Where’s the computer?”
“No computer. We don’t have any need for them.” Mr. Briggs indicated a smaller desk behind his own. On it was an electric typewriter in a pebbly beige case. I’d seen ones like it before. In a museum. “There are labels in a box in the filing cabinet. Let me know if you need anything else.”
When he was gone, I took a catalogue from the topmost box and flipped through it. The glossy, slick cover had a blurred photo of the storefront under the name ABERNATHY’S. Someone stood next to the front door, possibly Mr. Briggs, though the photo was blurry enough it was impossible to tell.
Inside, there was no table of contents; lines of tiny print spread neatly in two columns across gray recycled paper. I ran my finger down the columns, accidentally smearing the cheap ink. I didn’t recognize any of the titles, which weren’t in alphabetical order. Some catalogue. I dropped it back into the box and regarded the antique typewriter with a sigh. All right, it wasn’t all that antique, but forty years old was still old enough to qualify. I wasn’t even sure I knew how to use it.
I found the labels and some blank white paper in one of the drawers of the filing cabinet. I practiced for a bit with the paper until I had the hang of the thing, then inserted the labels and started typing. For all the handwriting was crabby and small, it was easy to read, and I soon fell into a rhythm that let my brain wander pleasantly, far away from this store that smelled of onion.
My parents would be thrilled I’d gotten the job, though they’d be just as thrilled if I was working at the Pick ‘n’ Pack. What they wanted was for me to be employed, period, so I’d move out of their basement and become a responsible adult. Not that they were as blunt about it as that. They’d been generous in letting me pay rent and some of the grocery bill, and never nagged me about my future. I was lucky, really.
I came to the end of a sheet of labels and inserted a fresh one. My mind wandered away again. I was twenty-one years old; you’d think I’d have some idea what I wanted to do with my life. But I’d graduated from high school without making much of an academic splash, had made it through a couple of years of community college before the money ran out, and now… Well, this wasn’t the best job in the world, but if I could stick it out, maybe get a raise—did Mr. Briggs offer benefits?—I might, at some point, come close to having a clue about my future.
I heard whispering again, and turned around fast, knocking the list to the floor. Nothing. I got up and opened the door. The hall outside was empty. I shut the door again and shook my head. I was being stupid. Just because the bookstore and Mr. Briggs were a little weird didn’t mean I had to let my imagination come up with more weirdness. I was level-headed and not superstitious, and I was wasting time.
The mailing list had fallen splayed-out on the floor. I leaned over to pick it up, and a wave of dizziness struck me. For a moment, the room was outlined in flickering blue light. Then it passed, and I sat clutching the list in both hands. That had been strange. I bent over and sat up again, but felt nothing but a brief pressure as the blood rushed to my head and away again. The room looked perfectly normal. Shrugging, I spread out the mailing list again and resumed typing. I could ask Mr. Briggs… and have him decide his new employee was mentally unstable. It could stay a mystery.
By the time I reached the end of the mailing list, I was starving. I checked my watch. 1:17. I hadn’t brought any food because I hadn’t expected to start work immediately. There was a market around the corner. Mr. Briggs had to give me some sort of lunch break, right?
Mr. Briggs was gone when I left his office. I checked the break room and knocked tentatively on the washroom door; both were empty. I quickly used the toilet, which was as ancient as the typewriter, probably had one of those 3.5 gallon tanks that weren’t legal anymore, washed my hands, and ventured into the bookstore proper. Most of the bookcases were knocked together out of plywood and lengths of unfinished yellow 2x8s, though there were a few proper cases of polished, chipped oak and two blackish-brown units that came from IKEA. I sidled between them, unwilling to call out Mr. Briggs’ name into the silence of the store. The hush was so profound I imagined the books were sleeping.
Just as I’d begun a reverie about putting books down for a nap and imagining what kind of lullabies they would prefer, I heard the door open, then slam shut with such force it rippled through my skin. That couldn’t possibly be Mr. Briggs. I hurried to the front of the store, feeling a sidelong sense of responsibility at being, as far as I could tell, the only Abernathy’s employee on site. Then I felt embarrassed at my reaction. It was a store. People were supposed to come in and browse, Mr. Briggs’ odd notions to the contrary. Even so, I probably shouldn’t give anyone ideas about shoplifting.
The man was standing next to the counter when I emerged from the maze of bookcases, as if he’d been waiting for me. In his three-piece pinstriped suit, handstitched leather shoes, and heavy gold watch, he looked as out of place in Abernathy’s as a computerized cash register would be. He was studying his watch, but looked up when I arrived, and I felt caught by his dark-eyed gaze, pinned to the nearest case like a captive butterfly. “Who are you?” he said, somewhat irritably.
“Helena Davies. I started work this morning.” I immediately wished I hadn’t sounded so defensive.
Irritation gave way to surprise. “Nathaniel hired you? Impossible.”
I swallowed a sharp response. The customer is always right, especially when he could probably buy this whole store twice over. “Can I help you with something?” I said, hoping he’d say no, because the only help I was capable of giving was directions to the toilet, which wasn’t for public use.
“I doubt it,” the man said. “Who are you?”
I regarded him more closely. He was good-looking, with fashionably styled dark hair, and no more than thirty, but he had an air about him that would have better suited an octogenarian with a Napoleon complex. “I don’t know why you’re so sure I don’t belong here, but I’m certain I signed an employment contract,” I said, trying not to think about how irregular the paperwork had seemed. “Maybe I should go get Mr. Briggs.”
“You do that,” the man said. “Nathaniel must be in the basement. Why don’t you bring him here, and I can convince him to be sensible.”
“I don’t know—” I shut my mouth. I felt I’d already told this man too much. “Please wait here,” I said, and backed away. Turning my back on him made me nervous.
I hadn’t realized there was a third door beyond the office and the break room. It was flat plywood, stained dark like the walls of the short hallway, with an iron knob that looked like a black knot against the wood. I opened it to find stairs descending into perfect blackness. A string swayed in the faint breeze of the opening door, and I tugged on it, lighting a single dim bulb that didn’t do much more than set shadows moving.
The steps were raw wood, splintered on the edges except where hundreds of feet had worn them smooth. They didn’t creak under my weight, to my surprise; I’d almost expected the cries of the damned with every step. At the bottom of the stairs, there was a light switch. I flipped it on, and a couple of fluorescent bulbs flickered into life. They cast a brilliant light over the small, cold basement with its dark concrete floor. I looked down, and screamed.
Mr. Briggs lay face down a few feet from the foot of the stairs. Dark blood spread across the back of his argyle sweater and pooled beneath his chest and head. I stumbled forward and knelt beside him, scraping one knee on the cold concrete. His eyes were closed, and I fumbled at his throat for a pulse. I didn’t know how to find a pulse. I didn’t know how to do any of the things you were supposed to do to see if someone was alive. I leaned far forward, holding my hair out of the way, and put my cheek near his mouth. No warmth, no breath.
Someone thundered down the stairs. “Move back,” the strange man said. I scooted back, tugging my skirt over my knees, and watched the stranger crouch over Mr. Briggs and repeat the same movements I’d made. Finally, he stood up and put his hands on his hips. “Nathaniel,” he said. It sounded like a reprimand. As if Mr. Briggs was in trouble for being killed.
“What are you—we have to call the police!” I reached for my phone and came up empty. I’d left it in my purse—no pockets in this skirt. I felt my breath coming in quick, ragged pants and forced myself to stay calm.
“That would be a serious error,” the stranger said. “Starting with the fact that you’d certainly be their first suspect.”
I gaped at him, panic welling up again. “Are you crazy? Look, I don’t have any blood on me, I hardly touched him! There’s no reason to suspect me!”
“You were alone in the store with him, you are a new employee—you might have killed him to get at the contents of the cash box.”
“Then why would I stay around to call for help?”
The man sighed. “I’m not saying they’d convict you. I’m saying they would make your life hell for a while. Is that what you want?”
I looked at him, at his height and the way he stood, and felt more chilled even than the basement could account for. “I… think I’ll risk it.” I took a few casual steps toward the stairs, never letting my eyes leave his face.
“I didn’t kill him,” he said, exasperated. “I don’t have any blood on me either, do I? And I think whoever stabbed Nathaniel in the back would be at least a little bloody.”
“How do you know that’s what happened?”
He pointed. “There’s a gash in the back of his sweater. You can see where the blood collected there first and made the fabric curl. Look, whoever you are, you can’t be stupid or Nathaniel wouldn’t have hired you. Somebody came into the store and killed Nathaniel, and you’re damned lucky whoever it was didn’t realize you were here, or you’d have joined him.”
I sat down heavily on the second stair from the bottom, my vision clouding over. “They had to know I was here,” I said. “That typewriter isn’t quiet.”
“It’s not important,” the man said. “What matters is we need to get someone to take care of Nathaniel’s body. Someone who isn’t the police.”
“That’s insane. We have to tell the police. People don’t just ‘take care of’ dead bodies.”
“The police will draw far too much attention to this store. No, we’ll handle this matter privately. I’ll need your permission to—”
“My permission? What do you mean, ‘privately’? I’m calling the police.”
The man focused on me then, his attention an uncomfortable knuckle digging into the base of my neck. “What’s your name again?”
“Helena. Helena Davies.”
“And you’re certain Nathaniel hired you today?”
“Well, Helena Davies,” the man said, his lips curving in a sardonic smile, “you’ve just inherited this bookstore.”
Here’s some updates on upcoming releases and ongoing projects:
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading!
I started writing Sesskia’s Diary as an experiment in epistolary form. It very soon grew out of control. While I was publishing one or maybe two entries twice a week, I was writing well ahead of schedule. The diary is now complete, and I’ve just been posting excerpts on that twice-weekly schedule. The plan has always been to publish the whole thing as a book, or several books, as soon as it was all up on the blog.
But I’ve run into a problem. I’m impatient, and I want everyone to be able to read the story. The slow pace of the blog schedule means if I keep to twice a week, I’ll finish in a couple of years. Even going to a daily schedule is going to take forever.
So I’ve made the hard decision to stop publishing Sesskia’s Diary on the blog and offer it for sale as the trilogy Convergence, with the individual books being The Summoned Mage, The Wandering Mage, and The Unconquered Mage. (Currently Sesskia’s Diary is in the middle of The Wandering Mage.)
I realize this may come as a disappointment, since I’m now going to be charging for what I was offering for free, so I’m making a special offer available for readers of Sesskia’s Diary. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line Sesskia’s Diary, and I will send you the ENTIRE Convergence trilogy, which contains bonus scenes from Cederic’s point of view. Convergence goes on sale in one week, so you’ll have it in advance of publication.
Thanks to those of you who’ve been reading along. I hope you enjoy the conclusion of Sesskia’s adventures!
Back to work. Cianan and Kerkessa both killed, Cianan by a lucky rifle shot, Kerkessa by a lightning bolt created by one of those battle mages. I don’t think it was on purpose, or rather I don’t think the mage knew what Kerkessa was, or we’d have had several more bolts to deal with.
Saemon collapsed—I wasn’t paying attention to how often he was using the mind-moving pouvra, maybe I didn’t care because he’s got the longest range of any of us and had the clever idea of targeting the mages themselves. So he was flinging one of the battle mages across the field and into the middle of the fighting, and then his eyes rolled up in his head and he just folded up on himself so fast no one even caught him. We took him back to his tent and Alessabeka’s sitting with him. She still feels guilty about Rutika, though I think she knows it’s inappropriate guilt, so whenever I can give her something to do that takes her away from the battlefield, I do.
We don’t really know how the battle’s going, though Mattiak doesn’t look grim, so I don’t think we’re losing. I hope. I’m writing this in between bites of bread and cheese, which is all we get for dinner because our “servants” are off fighting somewhere. Then I’m going back to try the fire-summoning pouvra again. There has to be a way to keep them from putting out the fires quickly. At least it keeps them from attacking our people, if not permanently.
Fighting’s stopped again for the night. They haven’t used the war wagons against us again, don’t know why. Had a talk with Mattiak about us changing tactics and attacking their officers. He approved. I told everyone the new plan. They are all so tired. I’ve never used so many pouvrin so often. It feels like the ground is pulling us down to meet it, the dead grass binding our feet so we can’t move. I think we need to be more careful.
Saemon’s still not totally recovered from his collapse and hasn’t been able to work any pouvrin since then. I had to reassure him that magic isn’t something that vanishes like water down a drain, but it’s true that I’m having more trouble bending my will to meet the pouvrin as the hours pass, so there might come a time when none of us can work magic. Trying not to dwell on that, as there’s nothing we can do about it.
Some kind of cease fire so the armies can collect the dead and wounded. I can’t tell how things are going and I don’t want to go to Mattiak for fear he’ll think I’m weakening toward him. No casualties among the mages. Dinner tasted like sand, not the fault of our cook.
I wonder if I should get a watch. I’m not usually in a position to care about the exact time, but if I’m going to make several entries a day, maybe I should be accurate.
That was a really stupid thought. I don’t care what time it is. I’m crossing that out. Fighting started again about an hour ago. This war is so stupid. We’re all too tired still to fight, so I sent everyone back to bed. Then I had a loud argument with Mattiak about it that ended with him shouting at me and me shouting at him, then me storming off to my tent. I know he’s the commander, but he needs to listen to me when I tell him we’ve reached our limit.
Mattiak came to apologize. I apologized too. Then he tried to embrace me and I had to shove him away and shout again. Then I started crying. I hate this war. He had the good sense to leave without saying anything else.
We’ve been fighting for seven hours now and we’re all exhausted. The battle mages were, as I predicted, prepared for our assault. They have defensive kathanas now, shimmering pale shields that protect them from missiles, and while they can’t defend against fire, they can dismiss it before it does too much damage. The shields don’t hold up against really big missiles thrown really fast, but there are fewer of us who can do that. The only good thing about them is they make it easy for us to see our targets through the nightmare furor that is the battlefield—people milling around, clustering so we can’t even tell our men from theirs.
Everyone is trying to come up with alternative forms of attack, even the pacifists, though their plans are more for how to sneak in and disable the remaining war wagons. I’m just grateful for the following things:
Number 4 can’t last long. I’ve had our people move occasionally and spread out into little groups so we’re not obvious, and of course I’ve forced them to abandon Norsselen’s gesturing, but at some point someone’s going to use logic, and then we’ll be in trouble.
I’m going to nap, and maybe this will all look better later.
We passed one of the other war wagons, and I saw an unconscious battle mage on the ground and another one perched on the seat, painting rapidly and swearing (I think; it was too loud to hear). The war wagon was silent. I stopped and circled around to where I could see what he was doing. The brass plate was a smeared mess of clay filling the grooves, and silver paint coated it above the engraved th’an. As I watched, the mage tried again to paint the activation th’an on the flat, gleaming surface; nothing happened.
“Have you lost your mind?” Nessan growled into my ear, grabbing my wrist and towing me along after him. After a few seconds, I regained my balance, and we began moving as if we were panicked soldiers and not ruthless spies. Even though we were still in the Castaviran camp and therefore still in danger, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved. I’d forgotten how difficult it is to scribe th’an without lots and lots of practice. Those mages might have the innate ability to scribe the magic that makes the war wagons work, but they still needed the pattern of the grooves to do it. Our raid wasn’t a waste of time, after all. Thank the true God. I don’t think I could have forgiven myself, otherwise.
We came out of the enemy camp on the southeast and circled around back to our camp. It was full dark at that point, and Nessan stumbled so often I eventually took his hand to lead him in the moonless, cloudy night. Neither of us said anything about it, me because I didn’t want to make him feel awkward and him, probably, because he didn’t like the route I’d chosen, not that it was a bad one—he just doesn’t like having to follow anyone.
Tobiak and Relania were at the picket line, our agreed-on meeting place, when we returned. “We only got four of our five,” Relania said. “There were more battle mages at the fifth, surrounding it, so we couldn’t get through. And I think one of them spotted us.”
“Fair enough,” Nessan said. “And it might be good they saw you, if they know you were concealed before that. Give them something to worry about.”
“Rutika and Alessabeka aren’t back, though,” Tobiak said. “Should we go after them?”
“Even if they aren’t concealed, you’d never find them in the dark,” Nessan said, “and as I told your fearless leader, you should give them credit for knowing what to do.”
“And they have farther to go, if they retreated north rather than trying to cross the entire camp to come out where we did,” I said, trying to make myself feel better. I don’t know how convincing I was.
We waited for a long time. Once or twice someone tried to start a conversation, but it never went anywhere. We were all too nervous, especially since after a while the pounding started up again, and we worked out there were three war wagons still active. If Rutika and Alessabeka hadn’t disabled two of theirs…
My stomach felt full of acid, and I realized none of us had eaten recently. I think I’d have thrown up anything I tried to eat at that point. Eventually, the pounding stopped with one last defiant blast, and then it was still and cold and black, thanks to the thick cloud cover that probably didn’t mean snow, which would have delayed the inevitable attack in the morning.
Then someone was approaching us, and I had just enough time to register it was only one person and think Why is she still concealed? when Alessabeka stumbled and caught herself on one of the picket ropes, and sobbed, “They killed her. They saw her breath, and she tried to get away but she tripped and hit her head and lost concealment, and we ran away but it was right into a couple of soldiers—I’m sorry I ran, I left her behind, I’m sorry I’m sorry—”
Relania put her arms around the weeping woman and said, “It would have been stupid for you to stay and be killed as well. Rutika would be the first to tell you that. Shh, shh.”
I was—I couldn’t even think. It had never occurred to me that Rutika might be the one to fall. She was so good at all of it, and—damn her, she relied too much on that damn pouvra and it got her killed. I’m so mad at her I can’t even s
I’m not mad. I’m grieving. What a waste. And they didn’t
I can’t believe I was about to blame a dead woman for failing to complete her job. The truth is, I’m irrationally blaming myself for not going after them the way I wanted to, the way Nessan told me not to. Irrational, because he was right, but I do this every time, think about what might have happened if I’d chosen differently.
All right. Suppose I’d gone north instead of south. We might all have been killed. I could have been drawn into a fight and been overwhelmed. Or worse, they could have captured me and dragged me to the God-Empress to be tortured to death. There’s no reason to believe a different choice might have been a better choice. So I’m not going to think like that anymore.
We made a difference. I wish we could have stopped them before they managed to fire any projectiles, because they did a lot of damage in the camp, just not as much as if they’d been allowed to attack unhindered. Mattiak finally looked at me the way he used to, as a friend and a respected colleague, and that helped. But mostly we’re all in mourning now.
It’s…I don’t know what time it is. Late. Or early. Nobody feels like sleeping, which is stupid because we’ll need to be fresh in the morning when the real battle begins. I wish I had Cederic’s th’an he used on me to help me sleep when I kept having those nightmares about everyone I love being killed by the God-Empress. We could all use it now.
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…