Sneak peek at THE BOOK OF SECRETS

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:

The Book of Secrets, Chapter One

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?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Helena Davies,” the man said, his lips curving in a sardonic smile, “you’ve just inherited this bookstore.”

 

News, news, and more news

Here’s some updates on upcoming releases and ongoing projects:

  • I’m no longer offering the Convergence trilogy for free, but the first book, The Summoned Mage, is available for FREE at all major online retailers. Links are on the page here.
  • The next Crown of Tremontane novel is the first book in the Willow North trilogy, Pretender to the Crown. It will be published September 19 and is now available for preorder at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, the Apple store, and others.
  • The next Extraordinaries novel, Abounding Might, will be published October 3. This one will be available through Amazon only (this is something my publisher does, sorry!).
  • The first book in my new series The Last Oracle, The Book of Secrets, will be out in mid-January. This is a contemporary fantasy about a young woman who takes a job at a bookstore and discovers it’s hiding a world of secrets.
  • I’ve started writing a new series! The book, titled Company of Strangers, is old-fashioned adventure fantasy with wizards, warriors, thieves, and strange magic. 400 years after wars both magical and mundane devastated the world, men and women called scrappers take jobs to locate ancient relics and explore lost ruins. The young wizard Sienne, trying to escape her past, takes a job with a team that is anything but unified. But what they find is far more than an ordinary ruin, and forces them to work together or face death. I’m afraid I’m the only one who will like this, but I’m having fun writing it!
  • And in other news, Burning Bright is a semifinalist in the 2017 Kindle Book Awards!

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading!

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT about Sesskia’s Diary

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 writer@melissamcshanewrites.com 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!

Sesskia’s Diary, part 57

14 Lennitay (continued)

Surrounded by a detachment of ten armored and helmeted guards, we left the palace grounds through an unattended stone arch tall enough that we passed through with a good five feet of headroom to spare. I immediately began to sweat. I don’t know if I stayed comfortable until that point because the cooling kathana extends to the palace grounds, or if it was all in my head, but Colosse was hot and the dress I was wearing, while comfortable enough, was still too heavy to be the right kind of clothing for this climate. I’m sure it was just me and my acclimation to a much more temperate climate, because it was still morning and could not possibly be as hot as I remember, and if I think about it, that was true. Once we were some distance from the palace, and people began filling the streets, I could see that everyone else dressed sensibly in short trousers and sleeveless tunics, or loose-fitting dresses, and wore the same kind of sandals everyone wore at the Darssan. Of course, looking at how comfortable they all seemed made me sweat more. I discovered when I returned to my room, much later, that my nose was burned red, which makes me look ridiculous. The God-Empress looked as if she were still in her cool, breezy chambers, despite her wearing many more layers than I was. All right, now I’m a little jealous of her. Just a little.

Our collenna took up most of the street, but no one paid any attention to us. Everyone from pedestrians to those people pulling the wheeled carts simply stepped out of our way, as if the collenna was shrouded in a concealment pouvra. The God-Empress just stared straight ahead, her hand raised and moving in a strange, complicated wave at the unseeing passersby, thinking who knows what. It seemed so out of character that I finally said, “Do they always ignore you like this?” and then cursed myself for using the word “ignore,” which made them sound disrespectful.

The God-Empress said, “It is a rose day. I am invisible. It would be disrespectful if they acknowledged me when I don’t choose them to.”

Rose day. Rose-colored collenna. “May I ask what other kinds of days there are?” I said.

The God-Empress never once turned her head to look at me during this conversation. When she spoke, her voice sounded as if it were coming from far away. “Honey days, when I am accompanied by the mages and all must bow before God’s presence and that of her priests.” (Mages as priests. I keep having more questions for Cederic.) “Moss days, in which all must present God with tokens of faith. Sky days, in which the streets are cleared entirely and those found outside are punished.”

“I see,” I said, and then couldn’t think of anything else to say. And tried not to imagine what punishment that might be.

The collenna lurched to a halt. “My God, I am sorry—please accept—I will be more diligent—” the master babbled, turning around in her seat, and this time I could see the th’an. It was far more complex than the ones on the loenerel and the war wagon had been, and I was struck so hard by the feeling that I ought to recognize it that I felt a little dizzy in addition to my fear for the collenna master’s life. But the God-Empress said nothing, still staring off into the distance, and soon the collenna moved on. I breathed more easily; I’d been afraid I was about to witness some of that punishment first-hand. I relaxed too soon, but that’s a different part of the story.

The God-Empress seemed completely sane all morning. She lost her distant look after a while and began pointing out landmarks, and I began enjoying myself. Colosse is almost as old as the disaster, and has grown up in much the same way as the palace, if less haphazardly; the palace has the disadvantage of being seen by its possessors as an outward representation of their divine power, and being frequently rebuilt accordingly. Colosse is just a big city that’s adapted to the needs and desires of its residents over the centuries. And it’s nothing like anything I’ve seen in my travels, but then I don’t think anything in my world is as old as Colosse. There are tall domed buildings where mages perform kathanas for those who can pay (and sometimes for those who can’t, depending on the mage) and buildings containing nothing but swimming pools and facilities for exercising, as if people don’t get enough exercise walking around and doing manual labor, but I suppose if you have magic readily available a lot of the manual labor is done for you.

There are three buildings that look like that giant’s building blocks dropped out of the sky, completely unadorned, that the God-Empress said contain books, and if you pay money you can go in and look at any of them you want. I don’t know if I believe her. They’re bigger than the biggest libraries we have in Balaen—the size of even one of those buildings would be enough to contain thousands, tens of thousands, of books, and that there are three of them…! Though that was another thing I learned; buildings that perform a particular function all look alike. So the libraries look like rectangular blocks, and the mage buildings are all domed, and some of them are smaller than the others but they all have the same shapes. So there are almost no signs anywhere, even marking the streets. It’s expected that you’ll know what services are offered based on the shape of the building. I don’t know if this is laid down by law, or if it’s just tradition, and I really couldn’t begin to guess. But since there are only so many types of building, even this otherworlder woman felt familiar with the city after only a short time. I saw a few shadowy people, but only three or four, and all of them were dressed and laden like travelers. I suppose if nothing occupies this space in my world, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be many things to be shadows in this one.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 56

14 Lennitay (continued)

I walked around after a bit, admiring the courtyard. It was open to the outside on two sides, and the sunlight even at seven o’clock in the morning was blinding thanks to the white stone paving the paths that led away from the courtyard to some other part of the palace. Ahead of me, with respect to where I’d entered, was another archway that led to a short hallway identical to the one we’d come in by, but I couldn’t see very far thanks to the sunlight. I went to stand at its entrance, glancing at the guards for some hint, but they ignored me. That was when I became angry. I was so afraid of what the God-Empress might do that I’d forgotten how far I’ve come, how many dangers I’ve faced, and I was ashamed of my cowardice. The God-Empress might decide to have me killed no matter what I did, so I decided to hell with her, and set off down the hallway. When I think back on how defiant I was, it makes me feel sick.

This area, too, was completely empty of people. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought the palace was abandoned, and I wondered how its population could disappear so thoroughly. I suppose the servants, not being otherworlder women with strange powers that fascinated the God-Empress, would take every opportunity to stay out of their mistress’s sight. I wandered the broad, frescoed halls, mentally keeping track of my route, until I reached an actual door. It was unlocked, so I pushed it open and found what I can only call a boudoir. The walls were invisible thanks to all the filmy draperies that shrouded the room, most of them moving lightly in an intangible breeze; the floor was so soft it was like walking on a pillow, every step throwing me a little off balance. Cushioned, backless chairs stood at random throughout the room, some of them canted due to the pillowy nature of the floor. Everything was in shades of red, from deepest maroon to lightest pink, and the God-Empress, who was reclining on a divan at the center of the room, was dressed in a thin shift of pale red—not pink, but pale red, there’s a difference—so sheer I could see her nipples. Not that I was looking. They were impossible to miss.

“You are late,” the God-Empress said, and here I should probably admit that I’m making up almost everything I write her saying in this conversation. Not the intent or meaning, and I’m not doing it to make myself sound impressive and clever. When we were in her pavilion, she spoke in very straightforward language, but every time I’ve met her privately, she’s used what sounds to me like formal or archaic words. Understanding her put a strain on my aeden-acquired language skills, and I found I couldn’t remember her exact words most of the time. So this conversation is more extrapolated even than most of what I write. I really do think there’s a pouvra for memory. If I ever have time, maybe that’s the one I’ll try to invent.

Anyway, she said, “You are late,” but she didn’t sound angry. I said, “I apologize, but your palace is too beautiful for me to rush through it. And I didn’t realize how constraining this dress would be.”

“You dislike my gift,” the God-Empress said.

“It’s beautiful. I meant only to indicate my ignorance of Castaviran clothing,” I said, trying not to panic. Insulting her before half a minute had passed was not a good beginning to this day.

“You chose well. It is an old-fashioned cut that shows you appreciate tradition,” she said. “I would have been displeased if you had appeared in the other.”

Already I was navigating the twisty maze that was her mind. Even my wardrobe was a test. “Thank you for the honor of the gift, which I do not deserve,” I said.

“Sit,” the God-Empress said, and I found a slightly canted chair and settled into it. “Drink,” she said, and a servant emerged from a door hidden by the draperies and handed me a squat golden cup with two handles; I drank, and discovered that it was lukewarm water, tasting slightly of minerals but welcome after the rapid walk I’d had. The room itself was comfortably cool, and I think I’ve mentioned that the palace has some kind of cooling kathana that I’ve been grateful for. Balaen is quite a bit more temperate than Castavir despite occupying much of the same territory. I wonder if Cederic knows why the same places in each world can have vastly different climates.

And yes, it did occur to me that the water might be poisoned, but there was nothing I could do about that. There’s only so much I can protect myself from, and refusing to drink on the slight chance that the water might kill me would only be trading the possibility of danger for the near-certainty that the God-Empress would have me executed for insulting her.

We sat and drank in silence, me mindful of the instruction not to speak unless spoken to. The God-Empress had a cup matching mine and drank with both hands on the handles, which gesture I mimicked. Eventually she set the cup down and said, “I will show you my city. You should know what it is you are going to defend.”

“Thank you, Renatha,” I said, only barely remembering to use her name, and she stood up, which was a sign for servants to come rushing out of hidden doorways to dress her in tunic and robe and another tunic and a sash that went around her waist three times, all of it in shades of red and decorated with rubies, and a matching ruby-studded silver choker. The God-Empress is unusual in preferring faceted stones to cabochons, which is probably the only thing we have in common. That and being female. She was gloriously beautiful, and I felt dowdy next to her, which was probably the idea.

Once she was dressed, and her golden hair (which was freshly dyed) was piled on her head with ruby-studded hair clips, we left the room and went by a completely different route back to the courtyard, where the God-Empress went down one of the brightly-paved paths to where a strange-looking collenna waited, its thumping higher and more rapid than that of the loenerel. It was…I can’t even think of anything to compare it to. It reminded me a little of a tortoise’s shell, if tortoises were dusky rose; its base was circular, and two seats surrounded by a silver rail were perched in a depression on its back, which was about five feet high. The seats were shaded by a canopy of rose velvet fringed with silver, and the seats themselves were upholstered in the same colors. At the front (what I guessed was the front, which guess was later proven correct) was another seat, this one black lacquered wood, with a smallish bucket to the right of where the master would sit and a tray of brushes above it. The plate containing the th’an engraving was silver rather than brass, or it might have been steel, and I couldn’t see the th’an because a woman dressed in a master’s uniform, but in rose pink, was standing at attention near the collenna, blocking my view.

“Lift me,” the God-Empress said, and a pair of tall and muscular men actually put their hands on her and raised her to where she could step into the collenna. I was watching her settle herself when I felt those hands on me, and I squeaked, but managed not to fight them. My ascent was considerably less graceful than hers, but I eventually got my dress arranged around me and gripped the rail of the seat as the collenna lurched forward. I’m not afraid of heights, but there was something about the movement of the collenna, and being just far enough off the ground that falling would hurt, that made me nervous. Then again, it might have been the company.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 55

BOOK SEVEN

14 Lennitay

My first entry in my beautiful new book, and I feel like I’m defiling it from what I have to write. I’m tired, but not from physical exertion, and I wish I were back in the Darssan, where I could sink into a hot pool and let the water soak away the tension that’s making my back and neck hurt. Of course, if I were back in the Darssan I wouldn’t have spent the day with the God-Empress, which is the reason for the tension. Having to constantly monitor my words and actions put me on edge, especially since for the first part of the day it didn’t seem I needed to. It wasn’t until later that I was reminded of the kind of person she is.

One of the wardrobe servants came for me in the dining hall, before I was half finished with my breakfast. He used a lot of polite words, but the gist of it was that it was going to take some time to attire me properly, and if I was late, he and his fellows would be punished. The God-Empress definitely enjoys manipulating people by threatening others. I think it gives her pleasure to know that it’s a form of persuasion that would never work on her, because she doesn’t give a damn what happens to other people. It works all too well on me, and I abandoned my half-eaten meal, exchanged despairing glances with Sovrin, and went back to my room. They didn’t strip me this time, but allowed me to take off my own clothes down to my undergarments (still wearing the breast band; I’ve become accustomed to it, and thank the true God for that) before presenting me with an actual choice between two of my dresses, one full-skirted with short sleeves and a fitted waist, the other tight through the hips and knees but flaring out a little below that, so my stride would be seriously constrained. Neither of them would be good for running in, and I had to leave both books behind, hidden more or less in plain sight (wrapped loosely in my discarded clothes), but I noted the loose seams of the second dress and decided I could tear them open if running did become necessary. Paranoid, remember? The servants seemed pleased by my choice, which in addition to being impractical was a shade of brown that wasn’t particularly flattering to me, and I remembered how the God-Empress didn’t like being outshined by anyone. And I certainly wouldn’t be doing any shining in that thing.

They piled my hair on my head and secured it with far too many pins, which is to say that it’s heavy enough it needed almost all the hairpins I’d been given to keep it up, and even then if I did end up running, it would probably fall down anyway. Then I was allowed to wear some of my new jewelry, so I chose a very nice necklace of gold filigree with dark red rubies and had to struggle not to laugh at the servants’ consternation at discovering my ears aren’t pierced. No need, when I would never wear earrings that might catch the light at the wrong time, but they were so upset I think if we hadn’t been pressed for time they’d have pierced my ears right then. They settled for bracelets of amber and gold I could quickly shed and shoes that pinched my toes but would come off as easily.

As I read over this, I realize that I do sound paranoid, but given my experiences today, I think everything I did and planned for was reasonable. If anything, I might have underestimated the correct level of paranoia. But everything in its time, and at this time in my account I was dressed properly and ready to be escorted to the God-Empress’s chambers.

The last time, I was taken through the palace by the woman who’d met us when we first arrived, and handed off to some kind of steward when we reached the public wing of the palace. This time, four soldiers dressed in the uniform I’d seen beneath the tower, complete with chicken falcon helmets, were standing outside my door when I left my room. Their appearance was so unexpected I nearly shut the door in their faces, which were as impassive as Cederic’s ever is, but I recovered in time and just waited for them to indicate what I should do. They turned to face the stairwell, spreading out a little, and I realized they wanted me to stand in their center, so I did. Then I had to hobble rapidly to keep up with their longer, unconstrained strides as they marched away. It felt exactly as if I were being marched to the gallows, assuming they have those here, and that was when I first began feeling tense. The shoes became uncomfortable after only a few flights of stairs, the dress made me feel as if I were going to trip and fall and tumble to the bottom, hopefully carrying some of those soldiers with me, and my mind insisted on coming up with scenarios in which this was a death march and I was cooperating far too readily. The soldiers didn’t speak, and I didn’t have anything to say, and we saw no one at any of the landings and halls we passed, and I think now that maybe they’d cleared the halls so no one could see us. I’m glad I didn’t think of that at the time, because that would have bolstered my death march theory, and while I like to think I’m disciplined enough not to panic in stressful situations, I can’t say that I might not have made excuses and tried to run. Which would likely have been fatal.

The route they took me by was different from the first; it went through the mosaic chamber, which was every bit as impressive now as it was when we first arrived, and that reminds me that I still haven’t gone to look at the floor in daylight. We went through one of the archways I’d never been able to explore, the one between the God-Empress subduing a dragon and the God-Empress laying the foundations for a vast city—funny, she’s giant-sized in that one, maybe my fantasy about Colosse being built by a giant wasn’t so absurd—and into a very different part of the palace. The mages’ wing is all narrow passages with low ceilings that seem more suited to catacombs than a palace (everywhere except the hall in the Sais’ wing) and old, pitted stone. This place had wide halls with arched ceilings painted blue and walls plastered with abstract frescos in cool colors, and arched doorways instead of doors. The hall we entered by terminated in a courtyard with a glass roof very high above, revealing a circle of cool blue sky that looked as if it hung above some temperate landscape not blasted by the heat of the sun, which heat I could feel coming off the breeze that swept through the courtyard from both sides. A fountain fifteen feet tall at the center of the courtyard kept it from being too hot, and the breeze carried a faint mist toward me that was beautifully cooling. My awkward dress was surprisingly comfortable; court brocades would have been awful in this heat.

My honor guard, or whatever they were, separated and went to stand at the four corners of the courtyard, still silent and impassive, leaving me clueless as to what to do next. So I went forward to the fountain and inhaled the cool, damp air coming off it. I thought about taking a drink, but decided it might be taboo, or poisoned, or something. Of course that only made me thirsty, but I clasped my hands together in front of me to keep them from being stupid and waited.

And waited.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 53

Afterward

I can’t believe how much that nap helped. I slept for two hours, woke when Audryn came to call me to dinner, ate heartily, and felt completely refreshed. And then I wasn’t sleepy. Thank you, Cederic, for insisting that I rest, because what I found later—well, I’m still not sure what it means, but it’s all down to you that I found it.

So when full dark came, and all the sensible people were in bed, I sneaked back down to the bottom of the tower. This time I was dressed in my own dark gray trousers, a close-fitting dark shirt, and a pair of soft-soled boots the wardrobe servants had brought me, and I felt prepared to do a little proper sneaking about.

The see-through pouvra confirmed that the door was still guarded by one man standing next to it and two others standing a short distance away. I took a few deep breaths, released them slowly, then filled my lungs, held my breath, and slid through the brass door as far from the guard as I could manage without inserting myself into the corridor wall.

The guard didn’t notice me; as I entered, he shifted his weight and looked off into the distance down the dark corridor. I didn’t stop moving or let out my breath; the last thing I needed was to give my position away by exhalation. My shoes made hardly any noise on the uncarpeted stone of the hallway, just a couple of scuffs no louder than the guards’ breathing. I slipped on between the two other guards and kept on walking, slowly, and didn’t breathe out until the shadows surrounded me. Behind me, one of the guards sneezed, and the other said something in response. I stopped to do the see-in-dark pouvra, then moved on down the hall.

It went on for several minutes. I think the passage goes the full length of the palace and beyond; there’s no exit on the far side, and I wasn’t certain how thick the walls were, so I didn’t dare go insubstantial and try to find a way out that way. But it was straight, and lightless, and boring, or would have been if I hadn’t been keenly aware of being somewhere I wasn’t allowed. Eventually I saw a light ahead, at enough of a distance that I could drop the see-in-dark pouvra before I was blinded. I concealed myself again and moved forward more cautiously.

That turned out to be unnecessary. There were no guards at this end of the passage, and the lights were th’an-powered, not torches as they’d been at the other end. I don’t know why the lights were there at all, since there was no one to take advantage of them. There were also no doors; the passage simply ended at a room maybe half the size of the mosaic chamber, and that comparison occurred to me because like that room, the walls were covered with mosaics. But that was all I had time for observation before my attention was drawn to the things filling the room.

They looked like metal wagons, really heavy iron wagons that could not possibly move despite each being mounted on four wheeled axles. None of them had yokes for horses or oxen, either. Each one carried a tapered cylinder I could barely wrap my arms around (that’s a guess, because of course I went up and hugged the mysterious metal things, I’m not insane) with a hole the size of my doubled fists at the narrow end and a funnel the same diameter at the fat end, with a blank brass plate fastened to the cylinder below it. I circled the nearest one and found it became more complicated at the rear: there was a metal stool permanently attached to the wagon behind the cylinder, and a metal tankard of some kind that looked as if it had been melted to the side of the cylinder, just below the funnel, and another brass plate whose shining gold surface looked incongruous next to the rough, blackened iron the rest of the wagon was made of, fastened where it would be at waist level to whoever sat on the stool. Engraved into the brass plate were several complicated-looking th’an, and this time I was certain I’d seen them before, or something. Something about the shape, maybe. It’s been bothering me since I returned from snooping around. I’ll have to remember to tell Cederic, see if he has any ideas. Or—I don’t know. I feel as though I take all my problems to him. Maybe he finds that annoying. I’ll have to think about it.

But first, the wagon. I thought about climbing onto the seat, decided against it—if anything were going to have a silent alarm attached to it, this thing would—and circled it again. Some kind of collenna, then, but what? A th’an could make the thing go, might make up for the heaviness of its construction, but to what end? The stool couldn’t be comfortable for long-distance travel, and I couldn’t see the point of the cylinder. It baffled me, so I stepped back and examined my surroundings more closely.

The mosaics were pale where the ones in the main chamber are robust, and it took me some time to work out what they depicted. It was immediately obvious that the craftsmanship here wasn’t nearly as fine as that of the mosaic chamber, more at the level of the person who’d put the God-Empress’s face on all the heroes. A closer look suggested that this artist was the same person who’d defaced (is that some kind of word play? Probably) those mosaics. Then the pictures came into focus, and I almost walked backwards into one of the wagons. They were pictures of Death.

I shouldn’t sound so certain about that. It’s just that I’ve traveled in so many countries where Death is given a shape—not like Balaen, where we symbolize it by absences, things missing from places where they should be, like a gap in a hedge, or a hole in a sleeve, things like that. In fact, Balaen’s in the minority on that, because in most places the grieving want something on which to focus their grief, and it’s astonishing to me how often Death is given human form. To me that feels like bad luck, like drawing Death’s attention to the fact that humans are vulnerable to it. Anyway, I suppose the mosaics of dancing figures robed in white might have been anything. But my instincts tell me the chamber was a celebration of death, and it made me feel as if I’d entered my own grave.

I walked the perimeter of the room, growing increasingly afraid and counting wagons to stave off that fear. I reached three hundred before I couldn’t bear it anymore and bolted. Safely down the dark passage, out of sight of the lights in both directions, I squatted and put my head between my knees until my breathing returned to normal. Then I sneaked back through the guard post, still without any trouble—I’m afraid I’m going to grow too dependent on that pouvra—and went back to my room, where I curled up on my bed with all my clothes still on and shivered. Then I wrote all of this down, in very tiny writing because there are now only a couple of pages left in this book.

I’ll have to tell Cederic about this in the morning. He might understand what I saw. Whatever it was, the God-Empress thinks it’s important, and I would bet the hard money I don’t have that it’s dangerous to someone. That someone might even be me.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 52

12 Lennitay

I haven’t had time to write for days, which considering how few pages are left in this book might be a good thing, if it keeps me from wasting space writing “same as before” all the time. I come back from dinner so exhausted that I fall into my bed unconscious and sleep for ten hours until it’s time to start again. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that Vorantor is not an advocate of the leisurely Darssan morning; he has an obnoxious belief that early rising is a virtue nigh unto Godliness, something I believe he learned from her actual Godliness, the God-Empress Renatha Torenz. So it’s up at 6 a.m. and off to work again, every morning, and even if I weren’t exhausted from practicing th’an and pouvrin, I still wouldn’t have the energy to poke around.

It’s afternoon now, and I got a reprieve in the form of Cederic, who stopped to look at my th’an (I still haven’t achieved the requisite twelve successes, two more and I’m ready to move on to fire), then looked at my face, then took the writing tool out of my hand and said, “Go take a nap. You’re exhausted.”

I started to protest, realized I wanted a nap, and thanked him. But when I was leaving, Vorantor appeared in front of me and said, “You’re not leaving us, are you?”

“I’m going to take a nap,” I said.

He said, “But that’s not fair to everyone else, is it? Should everyone be allowed to take a nap? You’re so close to success, Thalessi, you don’t want to give up now, do you?”

“Sesskia has been working harder than anyone else, Denril,” Cederic said, appearing as suddenly as Vorantor had, “and she will have no success if she pushes herself past breaking. I instructed her to rest.”

“Did you,” Vorantor said, and then the two of them faced each other in silence. Vorantor was glaring. Cederic was impassive as usual. They were fighting, but on no battleground I could see. Then Cederic raised an eyebrow at Vorantor, whose face flushed. Without looking at me, Cederic said, “Go and rest, Sesskia.”

“Yes, of course, you need rest,” Vorantor said, but it came out as a kind of stammer and his face went redder than before. I fled before their battle could go further. It’s comforting to know that Cederic can trounce Vorantor without a word, but it’s only just occurred to me to worry about what might happen if Vorantor ever pushed his authority to a point that Cederic might have to disobey. I don’t understand the details of the oath Cederic swore, but I’m certain he won’t let it stop him fighting Vorantor if Vorantor ordered me, or anyone, to do something evil or dangerous.

I’m going to nap now, and see how I feel afterward.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 51

9 Lennitay, very early, maybe just past midnight (continued)

Light came through the open door, blinding me, forcing my eyes shut. “Up there,” a deep voice said, and two people jingled past me, the second coming close enough that the wind of his passing ruffled my shirt. It took me a minute to recover from the see-in-dark pouvra to see who’d opened the door. At first, I thought I hadn’t recovered enough, because the man who stood in the doorway looked as if he was wearing a chicken on his head. I blinked a little harder and realized it was a helmet made to resemble a falcon, with wings folded to either side and head thrust forward, beak slightly open as if crying out. He was looking past me up the passage toward two other men wearing matching helmets, who were carefully searching in all directions for invisible thieves. Fortunately for me, they used their eyes and not their hands, and I pressed back so far into the wall that I might not have needed a pouvra to go through it.

“Nothing,” said one of the two men, and they both came back down to join their comrade at the door. All three wore, in addition to the chicken falcon helmets, short-sleeved shirts made of a fine steel mesh over long-sleeved black linen tunics, snugly-fitting black leather pants, hard black boots I would not like to be kicked with, and sword belts with sheaths for a longsword and a seven-inch-long knife.

“I told Prenz these hinges needed work,” the first man said, and all three went back inside and shut the door, and locked it. I stood there breathing peacefully for a while. Nothing guarding the treasure, but three men, possibly more, standing a very careful watch over whatever was beyond these doors? I retreated up the passage a long, long way, maybe two stories, then dropped the concealment pouvra and rubbed feeling back into my fingers and toes. Getting past those men would be difficult, because there was no way in hell I was going to try passing through living flesh. All my instincts told me it was a bad idea. Hard enough maintaining my identity against a stone wall; how much harder against another creature, whose instinct to remain complete was just as strong as mine? And if two of those men stood in front of those doors at all times…more reconnaissance was needed.

I went back down, feeling my way in the blackness because I didn’t want to be blinded again when I did the see-through pouvra, and carefully patted the wall with the tips of my fingers until I was certain I was facing the door. Then I did the see-through pouvra and took a look around. Only one man stood in front of the door; the other two were in position a little ways off down a long corridor the door opened onto. I couldn’t see where the light was coming from, but the corridor became dark just past where the other two men stood. They were all three of them very alert despite the hour, and after giving it some thought, I turned and went back up the sloping passage, finding my way in the dark to make it a bit of a challenge, until I reached the door I’d come in by, then I went silently back to my room. Which brings me to now.

I’ve been trying to think of what might be beyond that passage. The most logical explanation is that it leads to the God-Empress’s personal chambers. The only thing a ruler wants to guard more closely than her treasure is herself. And she might want to maintain a direct route to her treasure rooms, even if she doesn’t care enough about them to protect them more fully. But logic only applies if you assume the ruler is sane, which the God-Empress is not, in which case, who knows what’s beyond those doors? There could be any number of things she might want closely guarded, intrinsically valuable or not.

I really should just leave it alone. I’m in enough danger as it is. I certainly can’t tell Cederic what I’ve learned, because he would definitely tell me to leave it alone, and I’d feel bad about disregarding his wishes. The thing is, I’ve never regretted gaining knowledge, even when that knowledge has been personally painful. I have, on the other hand, regretted not knowing enough. The God-Empress has an unhealthy interest in me, and the more I know about her, the safer I’ll be. And that includes discovering as many of her secrets as I can.

I’m running out of pages in this book, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to make another. Maybe Cederic will let me scrounge paper out of the books, but that still leaves me with no leather for the cover and no thread and needle for the binding. I’ll have to find an alternative, I suppose.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 50

9 Lennitay, very early, maybe just past midnight (continued)

I climbed up on the sill and reached for the brick, tugged on it a little to satisfy myself that it was solid, then sat on the sill with my back to the open air and thought about what to do next. The spymaster had come in this way, but was it just a convenient passthrough, or was there something important about it? It hadn’t exactly been easy to find. I went all the way to the top of the tower, where the passage just went right up to the roof (the underside of the observatory) as if it had once been open to the air and some giant, possibly the same one that had built Colosse, had slapped the observatory over it like capping it off. Then I came back down until I passed “my” window and reached the first of the single brass doors. It was unlocked. I opened it cautiously, then slipped inside.

It hadn’t occurred to me, because I am occasionally stupid, that none of these tower rooms would have windows because they were all on the inside. I had to stop to do the see-in-dark pouvra, and then I was stunned at what I saw: shelves and chests and wardrobes piled high with every imaginable type of fur, all tanned and clean and ready to be turned into clothing. I’ve said before that my expert appraiser’s eye is hampered by my not knowing the value of things in Castavir, so I’ll put everything (and there was much, much more) in my own terms, and to the right buyer, this room would be worth a fortune. Furs aren’t as popular as they once were in Balaen, at least they aren’t as much a symbol of nobility as they used to be, but they’re still the province of the wealthy, and though they’re not as portable a form of wealth as you might like, they’re still valuable. I petted a mink and took a better look around. Definitely a fortune. There were five other exits from the room, all of which led to smaller rooms, all of those rooms filled with ingots of precious metals like bricks for a mad God-Empress’s palace. I released the concealment pouvra and wandered through them in a daze, because I’d never seen that much wealth accumulated in one place. Eventually I had to shut the doors and move on, before my twitching fingers could collect a souvenir.

The part of me that is a master thief would like to describe, in loving detail, the contents of the God-Empress Renatha’s treasury—because that’s what the tower was, seventeen rooms of jewels and precious metals and art and things I couldn’t even put a value on because we don’t care about them in my world. There were coffers of jewels (I love jewels, they’re so portable and everyone wants them) and strings of silver and gold chains and paintings whose frames alone were probably worth a coffer of jewels, and it was so damn hard not to take something, especially now that I know I like jewelry for myself and not just for what it can buy me. But aside from the practicalities, which is that someone like me isn’t likely to have a lot of personal wealth in any form, I wouldn’t put it past the God-Empress to know down to the last two-carat diamond exactly how much treasure she has, and to be able to figure out who walked off with whatever’s missing. Really, this place was not well protected and it wasn’t guarded at all. Unless….

It was at that point that my imagination started running wild about the possibility of th’an that sounded a silent alarm and soldiers with large swords and muskets and mages who could do who knew what kind of martial kathanas, and my heart pounded a little faster for a few beats before I reminded myself that I’d been there for a while, and I’d handled some of the treasure, and if there were silent alarms and martial kathanas, I’d have found out about them by now. Even so, I didn’t linger in any more of the treasure rooms.

I looked through, but did not enter, those brass double doors I’d passed before, and saw only a short hall that made a sharp right turn about five feet from the door. I was planning to come back up and see where it led after I reached the base of the tower, but I changed my mind when I found what was there. More exploration for another time.

But now, the base of the tower. Actually, it wasn’t the base of the tower but the base of the palace below the tower, all seven stories to the ground instead of just the three of the round tower below the observatory. At the end of the curving, descending passage was another brass double door, but this one looked beaten, as if someone had tried to break it down once. It was also locked, as I learned when I pushed on it a little, and then I very nearly became a dead thief for my carelessness, because the person on the other side of the door immediately unlocked it and flung it open. I’d skipped backward a few steps when the door began to open, and I worked the concealment pouvra and pressed myself against the wall, grateful for the pouvra’s protection even though it made it hard for me to feel my fingertips and my toes.

to be continued…