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…