Sesskia’s Diary, part 200!

8 Seresstine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 199

7 Seresstine

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

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

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

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

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

Sesskia’s Diary, part 198

6 Seresstine, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sesskia’s Diary, part 197

6 Seresstine, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 196

6 Seresstine, continued

But I’m getting sidetracked. I got as close as I dared to the front of the division and took a look at it. It wasn’t a very big division, and I think I miscalculated the number of feet that had made that path. But it was still big enough that, along with those mages, it could take a large chunk out of our forces. Those soldiers had been fortunate that division didn’t have any war wagons, assuming that’s what destroyed the walls at Hasskian. Or maybe they only use them against cities and not people. I don’t know. I decided to assume they weren’t going to change course and flitted forward along their line of travel. Clouds were coming up, covering the sun, and it was starting to get cold—colder, anyway. I had to remind myself not to rush even though I was starting to feel a desire for a fire and a hot drink.

Three flits later I took a look around and saw I’d gone about five hundred feet past a wide, unfamiliar road. I went back to look at it and realized it was that mystery Castaviran highway. It made sense that they’d want the nice wide road to travel along, and since they were cutting west instead of east, it also made sense that they were planning to continue westward. The question was, as before, where was the main army? Because even though I hadn’t gotten that close, I’d only seen two battle mage pennants (interesting, two pennants but only ten mages?) and not the big battle standard or the God-Empress’s personal banner. So this was not the main army.

I looked westward down the road, then eastward. I still don’t think I was breaking my promise to Mattiak by continuing to explore even though I’d found the “invading army” I’d been sent to locate. So I started flitting east. There was no reason to believe I’d find the God-Empress’s army along that road, but as I wrote, it’s a good way to move an army, and I was certain we’d have found it if it were farther west than where I stood.

And my—not even a guess, more like a whim—was right. I found the God-Empress’s army not thirty miles away, camped outside a sizeable Castaviran city. They didn’t seem like they were planning to move any time soon, but I don’t know much about armies except what I’ve observed over the last ten days. But there were the banners, and the big tents, and I stood some distance away, concealed, just in case, and watched them for about an hour, wrestling with myself. Because I was seriously considering breaking my promise to Mattiak, going into the camp, and killing the God-Empress.

I think I could have done it this time.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the world would just be a better place without her in it. Maybe I’m right that her generals would go on fighting even without her leadership, so maybe her death wouldn’t stop the war. But it would have to have some effect. No more focus for worship. No more insane demands.

What stopped me, in the end, was the realization that I didn’t know who would take over after her death. She’s got no heirs, which was why Aselfos could be so confident about being able to rule Castavir in her place. But it would almost certainly mean civil war in Castavir, and that would leave them open to conquest by Balaen. And much as I feel loyalty toward my country—though not much, mostly loyalty to Jeddan and the mages—I don’t want either of these countries subjugating the other.

So I realized it was a bad idea, then felt guilty that deciding this made me feel relieved. I have pouvrin that would make killing the God-Empress easy, not only easy but safer for me than for anyone else. So if I’m the only Balaenic who knows why she’s dangerous, and I have the capability of ridding the world of her, shouldn’t I do it? Even if the idea makes me sick? That’s what I was thinking at the time, at least. After my talk with Mattiak, I changed my mind. About a lot of things.

Anyway.

I eventually worked through all of that and turned around to leave, flitted once—and landed squarely in the middle of a group of Castaviran soldiers. I can’t believe I was so careless. I was also startled, so startled that I waited too long and one of them grabbed me and said, “What the hell are you?”

“None of your business,” I gasped, which sounded stupid then and still sounds stupid now. I wonder if there’s ever a time when that sentence sounds strong and defiant rather than like a whine.

“It’s God’s otherworlder, the one who was going to marry Aselfos!” one of them shouted, which disoriented me further. Not that I expected to be able to identify any of the anonymous soldiers who’d stood guard during that bizarre ceremony, but that anyone in this mass of people could identify me was preposterous.

I went insubstantial and stepped away from my captor, went substantial long enough to say, “Tell your mistress I said hello,” and flitted away. Not very far, because I was breathless from the walk-through-walls pouvra, but far enough that none of those soldiers could reach me before I flitted again. And again. I was thirty miles down the road, back to where I’d started, before stopping to catch my breath. It might have been stupid to let the God-Empress know I was somewhere nearby, but—well, I hadn’t done it on purpose, and being defiant was something she’d expect from me.

I flitted back to our camp, slowly, because I was starting to feel achy—I don’t know if that’s just from the flitting, or from the walking I did, but I figured I had time—and reached the Balaenic Army camp about an hour before sunset. I walked into the command tent without announcing myself and dropped onto a stool, and said, “I could use a drink. Not of water.”

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 195

6 Seresstine

I feel so stupid. And I don’t know what to do. So I’m just going to write this all out and hope by the time I get to the end, I’ll have figured everything out. Unlikely, but with war bearing down on us, I’m trying to remain optimistic.

Just after dawn this morning, I took my first bearing, then flitted off before Mattiak could change his mind. I can now go about three miles at a time, and despite what Mattiak thought, I only experience about two seconds of disorientation between flits and it takes another second to take my next heading. I know that doesn’t sound like much time, but a lot can happen in three seconds, and I had no intention of flitting into the middle of a division of Castaviran soldiers. I wish I’d been able to take the Castaviran highway, but the God-Empress’s forces, the one our people had run into, had been ten or fifteen miles north of it, so that’s where I went.

I managed to go about fifty miles before I ran into a forest that hadn’t been there the last time I came this way. I think it’s the same forest that runs north-south near Hasskian, the one the Castaviran refugees were going to lose themselves in—not lose themselves, of course, but disappear into. It’s not that thick, but thick enough that flitting was a bad idea; I’d get less tired if I just walked between the trees. Flitting isn’t exhausting really, but it seems related to the walk-through-walls pouvra because it’s not instantaneous (takes maybe two seconds) and you can’t breathe during that time. So flitting rapidly leaves you light-headed and breathless. Even so, it took me less than two minutes to get that far, and I felt smug. Just a little. Not enough to become overconfident.

I walked east for a while, took a rest to eat something, wished I’d brought something more interesting than trail bread and jerky, then walked some more. I made a lot of plans about flitting for when everything was over, calculated how quickly someone could flit from one side of Balaen to another and how much of a load someone might carry. Or—carrying another person? There are just so many non-military possibilities.

It was just about noon when I came out of the trees onto the plains that make up much of Balaen’s heartland. These, at least, looked the same, but they’re wide enough there might be any number of changes outside my visual range. I stopped at the tree line and took a look around. Snow had fallen heavily here, but the wind had blown it around so it was deeper in some places than others. I saw animal tracks, but no evidence of an army passing and nothing on the horizon.

I took a bearing and flitted away. Ankle-deep snow falling into my boots, melting uncomfortably, more animal tracks (I don’t know how to recognize anything but the difference between a bear and a deer. Jeddan could probably have told me what sex they were) and still no army. So I flitted again—and this time found myself in the middle of snow trampled by thousands of boots.

I checked my location by the sun’s position and figured they were either going southwest or northeast. I guessed it was the former, based on what the soldiers had said, but realized I shouldn’t make assumptions. So I flitted back the way I’d come in short steps until I came to the edge of where the army had passed and looked for outliers. It took me about half an hour to be certain they were going southwest—more south than west, actually.

This was where I had to be careful. I didn’t think it was breaking my promise to Mattiak to follow the army’s path until I found them, because we needed as accurate a position as we could get. But I didn’t want to flit into the middle of a bunch of the God-Empress’s soldiers. So I looked as far ahead as I could see, determined there was no army on the horizon, and flitted away. Then I did it again, and again, still finding nothing. It was almost twenty miles on before I saw the black smudge of a body of marching soldiers, two miles beyond where I stood. That was when I realized I had no idea where I was.

Well, I had some idea. I knew if I went west far enough, I’d run into the Royal Road, and from there I could find the Balaenic Army. But it would be hard for me to give a position for the God-Empress’s troops without finding some landmark or other. It’s a good thing Mattiak isn’t here, I thought, concealed myself, and set about flitting my way to the front of the God-Empress’s army.

It was definitely the division that had routed our soldiers, and those soldiers hadn’t exaggerated when they said they’d done them some damage. They marched raggedly, as if they were a fishing net with holes torn into it. Missing soldiers. A lot of missing soldiers. Not very many mounted officers, either. I counted ten white-coated battle mages but didn’t know if that represented all the ones they’d started with. They make themselves conspicuous twice over, between the uniform and the horses; I don’t think we’ll have any trouble targeting them. And there’s no way in hell I’m making my mages wear the King’s uniform. He’s not likely to find out, and if he does, he’s unlikely to do anything to me if I come back with a big enough victory, which I intend to do.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 194

5 Seresstine, continued

All four of them looked at me. Drussik looked annoyed. He’s about eight hundred years old and is suspicious of me because I’m both female and a mage. Kalanik and Bronnok, both reluctant supporters of the mage auxiliaries, looked skeptical. And Mattiak just frowned at me. “Sneaking is one thing,” he said, “but we need a messenger who can move quickly.”

I shrugged, and flitted from one side of the tent to the other. “Is that quick enough for you?” I said.

Everyone but Mattiak recoiled when I did it. Mattiak’s frown deepened. “Gentlemen,” he said, “leave us.” They glanced at each other, then at me, and filed out. “Sit,” he told me. I sat.

He sat down opposite me. “You can’t go farther than you can see,” he said. It wasn’t a question. I nodded, wondering where he was going with this. “You get disoriented when you…I don’t know what you call it. Arrive. Yes?”

“True,” I said, “but—”

“We don’t know how far ahead the invaders are,” he added. “So we don’t know how long it will take.”

“I’m still going to be faster than any of your runners,” I said.

He put his hands on his knees and gripped hard, like he was trying to keep himself from standing and pacing again. “So, to sum up,” he said, “you can’t go straight there, you’re defenseless at the end of each of these leaps, you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know how long it will take.”

“That sounds right,” I said.

He shook his head. “I can’t allow you to risk yourself like that,” he said.

“I’m a soldier, aren’t I?” I said.

“You are not a soldier, and I don’t give a damn what the King thinks about it,” he shouted, startling me. “Who else is going to direct those mages if you don’t come back? You think those invaders are going to be gentle with you if they catch you? This is not a risk worth taking!”

“So the alternative is waiting to see if we run into them the way that division did, unprepared?” I said. I managed not to shout at him in return. “Or send a runner who might be captured and killed because he can’t escape the way I can? We’re not—”

“Out of the question,” Mattiak said. “You want to be a soldier? I’m making that an order.”

“I misspoke,” I said, still remaining, if not calm, at least outwardly so. “I’m not a soldier. I’m a spy. And this is what spies do.”

“Not you,” Mattiak said. “You—” He stood and turned away. “You’re not replaceable,” he said.

“Elleria and Ryenn are both capable of directing the mages, and Rutika is almost as good a spy as I am,” I said. “I’d be a poor general if I were actually irreplaceable.”

He shook his head, but said nothing. I went on, “This isn’t as dangerous as you think, Mattiak. I haven’t told you even a third of the things I’ve done over the years that were more dangerous than this. Mostly because you might think you should hand me over to the authorities.” I smiled so he’d know I was joking, but that was wasted because he still had his back to me. “I’ll be careful. Remember, I can’t flit farther than I can see, and I’m sure I’ll see the enemy long before I get that close. Then I’ll come back. I won’t go into the camp or anything like that.”

“I wonder if you’ll be able to help yourself,” Mattiak said.

“Of course I will. As if I’d risk myself like that when the point is to tell you where the army is,” I said.

His shoulders slumped, then he turned around to face me. “I hope I never meet your husband,” he said. “There’s no telling what he might say to me for letting you do this.”

I remembered all the times Cederic had told me not to go wandering, but with that look on his face that said he knew I couldn’t help myself. My instinct is to protect you, but that instinct is wrong. You would not be who you are if you were not willing to risk yourself, he’d said, and the memory made me smile, because everything he felt for me had been in his eyes at that moment. “He knew what I am when he married me,” I said, “though he’d sympathize with you having to deal with my recalcitrance.”

“I know exactly how your husband feels about you,” he said, turning around to smile ruefully at me. “You go, you come back, and if you spend one more second than you have to in the field, I’ll devise a whole new set of punishments just for recalcitrant mages.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, saluting him. “I’ll need to explain what’s happening to the mages, and then I can leave immediately.”

“In the morning,” Mattiak said. “You might be able to see in the dark, but not as well as you can see in the daytime, and I don’t want you missing any evidence if they’ve turned well aside from where our men met them. And you should be rested if you’re going to do this. I’ll speak to those soldiers again and see if I can get you at least an initial direction.” He took my arm as I was about to leave the tent. “Be careful,” he said, and he looked so serious it made me shiver. I just nodded.

So I’ve had time to pack some essentials, food and water and a blanket in case this takes longer than a day, and I’m doing what I always do to calm myself, which is write this record. I really am more excited than afraid. I’m sure I can keep away from I’m not going to write that. Too superstitious. Let’s just say I feel confident in my abilities, and I’m going to be careful, just as I promised Mattiak.

Though I feel…it’s probably nothing, but—something about the way Mattiak looked at me suggested he was concerned about me as something more than a friend. But he wouldn’t, would he? He knows I’m in love with my husband—I talk more about Cederic with him than anyone else, and he even encourages it, so would he do that if he had a romantic interest in me? I suppose attraction doesn’t care if the object of your interest isn’t interested in you, but why would he…

No, I’m just being stupid. He’s far too old for me, and he’s not the sort of person who would let himself fall in love with someone who’s unavailable. And he certainly wouldn’t use a friendship to build that kind of connection when there’s no chance of it going anywhere.

Besides, I’m really bad at picking up on those kind of cues, so I’m almost certainly mistaken. There was a night—the last night before the convergence—where Cederic and I lay in his bed and made each other laugh at how we’d misunderstood each other so often. I’d told him how I’d thought of him as Smug Git even before I could understand his language, and he’d said that every time he’d come to my room in the palace to say goodnight, he’d thought about sweeping me into his arms and kissing me and couldn’t believe I had no idea how he felt. I teased him about being as blank-faced and unemotional as a statue, and he started tickling me, then kissing me, and that led to more interesting activities no statue ever dreamed of doing.

I have this fantasy—well, lots of fantasies—but this one is that I’ll flit all the way to the army, and it won’t be the God-Empress’s, it will be the army from Colosse, with Cederic at its head, and we’ll be able to clear up all the misunderstanding and bring peace to two countries so we can go off and live our lives somewhere far away from anything remotely political. I’d settle for just finding Cederic again.

Sesskia’s Diary, part 193

5 Seresstine

We’re camped near the destroyed crossroads where the Royal Road intersects with that Castaviran highway, and you can feel the excitement, because we picked up the God-Empress’s trail. It’s excitement tempered with anger, though, because the news came from men who escaped the slaughter near Binna, and Mattiak looked grim when he found out about it.

I wasn’t there when the soldiers arrived, but Mattiak sent for me to come to the command tent before he let the soldiers tell more of their story than the basics: their division, the one that went east, encountered part of the God-Empress’s army, there was a vicious battle, and our division was routed, though not without inflicting terrible casualties on the enemy. The soldier who repeated all this for me looked terrible. His head and left leg were bloody, and he and his two companions were filthy and exhausted. All three of them were sitting on camp stools looking like men who’d been defeated, which they had been, but it was more than that—they looked completely demoralized.

“Start at the beginning now, Corporal,” Mattiak said. “When did you first see the enemy, and where?”

“We’d just passed Binna—Major only stopped long enough to talk to the elders and see if they’d seen anything of the invading army. Which they hadn’t,” the corporal said. “Then our outriders found theirs. They ran, and we followed, came over a rise and saw them. The invading army.”

“So they were headed west when you encountered them?” said Mattiak.

The corporal nodded. “Captain said we were in a good position and we outnumbered them, and our company was going to move around to the north to attack their flank, try to circle them.” He coughed, hard, looked like he wanted to spit but swallowed instead.

“Our front line crashed into theirs—they don’t fight like we do, got strange swords and knives ‘stead of fighting with sword and shield—but we were doing all right. And then…” He shuddered. “That was when the fire started. Lots of big fires, actually, all over the place, but mostly in a line that cut our front lines off from the rear. Then the officers’ horses started screaming and rearing up like they was being stung all over by horseflies the size of a man’s head. Lot of officers just fell. Some of ‘em were crushed underfoot. Signalman sounded the advance for us, and I swear, General, we didn’t back down.”

“I believe you,” Mattiak said. “Go on.”

He coughed again, and I reached around for a flask of water and gave it to him. He was so miserable he didn’t even react to my having used the mind-moving pouvra to do it. He swallowed, passed the flask to his comrade, and said, “We cut into their flank pretty deep. They’re fierce fighters, but they depend on that knife to do the killing while the sword keeps the other man busy, and they didn’t know what to do with our shields. So we were thinking their evil magic wasn’t enough to save them…

“I heard Captain start to shout something that was cut off in the middle, and I looked up because he was right near and saw his face was gray and he had his hand to his throat, like he couldn’t breathe. Then he just fell. And more of our officers fell. Then a man next to me…I couldn’t do anything for him. We were still fighting, but now they had the advantage, and there wasn’t anyone to tell us what to do. It was down to my sergeant, and he told us to fall back toward the main army just before he went down too.”

“Did you see what happened to the rest of the army?” General Kalanik said.

The soldier shook his head. “Not until they were running too. We didn’t know what else to do. Can’t fight magic. The fire, and the choking, and big rocks flying through the air to sweep a line of men and smash them to bloody pulp. We couldn’t do anything else.” He was pleading, and I wondered if he was afraid he’d be in trouble for escaping what sounded like an impossible situation. But Mattiak didn’t look like he was in a mood to blame anyone but the Castavirans.

“You did right, Corporal,” he said. “No sense all of you getting killed and leaving no one to pass the word. Thank you all for your service. Go see the camp surgeon now.”

The three men saluted (the Balaenic salute is two fingers to the forehead and a shallow bow at the waist, deeper the higher the rank of the man you’re saluting) and left the tent. Mattiak sighed and said, “That’s not the way I hoped to find our enemy.”

“They’re headed this way, sounds like,” General Drussik said. He waved his pipe around, gesturing the way he did when he was feeling some strong emotion. “But where’s the rest of their army?”

“Could be that division was coming here to slow us down while the main army rips eastward through Balaen,” General Kalanik said.

“But there’s nothing there,” General Bronnok said, sounding frustrated. “Garwin’s much farther south and Barrekel is four weeks east across nothing but plains. And they’d have to cross the Myrnala.”

“What if they’re going to one of their own cities?” I said, unable to be more specific, but thinking If they overrun Colosse and then being unable to finish that thought.

That made them all look thoughtful. “Could be anything there,” Kalanik said. “And we haven’t gotten news from the heartland for six weeks. If they’ve got more troops out there….”

Mattiak stood to pace. “We have to pursue,” he said. “If they have more forces out east, we might not be able to defeat their combined army. We have to catch them before they get too far.”

“We need more information,” Drussik said. “We might be running into a trap.”

“We can’t afford to wait that long,” Kalanik said.

“I can find out,” I said.

to be continued…

Sesskia’s Diary, part 192

4 Seresstine, continued

Mattiak doesn’t snore, but I can tell the difference between someone who’s actually sleeping and someone who’s faking it, so I kept crawling until I was right next to the trunk, where I stopped to take a few deep breaths. I worked the see-inside pouvra and took a look at its contents. A note read BRING THIS BACK WHEN YOU’RE DONE.

It amused me so much I let out an incautious snort, and Mattiak stirred in his sleep, rolled over, and then sat up. I sat perfectly still as he looked around, then went to light the lamp and looked around again. I was running out of time. With the pocket watch in my left hand, I carefully slid my arm inside the trunk, not looking at Mattiak—I’ve written before that I think if I meet someone’s eyes, the pouvra won’t be able to conceal me against them. So I had no idea whether Mattiak had seen me or not, except if he had, he probably would have grabbed me.

Insubstantial, I couldn’t burrow between Mattiak’s neatly folded clothes to hide the watch, so the best I could do was open my hand and let the watch fall out of it, becoming substantial as it did. Whatever noise it made was muffled by the wood of the trunk and the clothing inside, and I carefully turned Nessan’s note insubstantial so it wouldn’t rustle and withdrew, a little too rapidly because I was starting to feel lightheaded.

Mattiak moved then, walking toward the tent flap, and I could only kneel there and pray he wouldn’t try to open the trunk, because he’d walk right into me. But he just stood there, so I quietly shifted toward the wall—and he swiftly turned and reached to grab me as I threw myself backward.

I scrambled to my feet and sidled along the edge of the tent where the snow hadn’t fallen so I wouldn’t leave footprints for him to follow. Seconds later he burst out of the tent and rounded the corner, scanning the ground for those footprints I wasn’t leaving, but I’d already reached the far end and was bolting through the camp back to where Nessan waited. I slapped the note into his hand with three minutes to spare.

“You weren’t spotted?” he said.

“Almost,” I said, “but what matters is I wasn’t caught.”

“You plan to tell the General it was you in his tent?” he said.

“I plan to make him believe it was his imagination,” I said. “I take it the spies are all safely asleep in their tents?”

“With plenty of witnesses to say they were there all night,” he said. “Nice work.”

“You don’t even know I put everything back correctly,” I said.

“Don’t have to,” he said. “If you’d failed, you’d have told me.” He started to walk away, then stopped. “Could you kill a man in cold blood?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Think about it,” he said. “You may have to.”

It felt as if he knew my secret ability, even though I know he doesn’t, no one does except Jeddan. I think Nessan isn’t training me to be a spy. I think he’s training me to be like him, and I’m certain Nessan wouldn’t think twice about assassinating someone. I feel even more of a stranger to myself than ever.

I couldn’t convince Mattiak it was his imagination, because he said, “My watch was missing, and now it’s back. Did you decide you couldn’t sell it easily, all the way out here?” He was smiling so I’d know it was a joke.

“Why would I steal from you?” I said, with calculated innocence.

“I’m sure you’d have some reason,” he said. “And someone was in my tent last night, I’d swear to it. Is that a habit your husband knows about?”

“What, sneaking into men’s tents? Which I would never do,” I said.

“I hope not,” he said. “You might give someone the wrong impression.”

That flustered me, and I had to change the subject, which he let me do with a look that said he knew I was doing it on purpose. I hope Mattiak doesn’t think I’m the kind of woman who’d go looking for male companionship just because she was missing her husband. Damn Nessan and his training exercises.

It was, in fact, a very long day of travel. By dinner time, Mattiak seemed to have forgotten last night’s incident and we talked as usual about our progress and where the invading army was. One of the army’s divisions has headed almost directly east and we’re getting messengers back, reporting on forests that weren’t there before and a lake they had to skirt, but no sign of an army passing. We’re continuing south tomorrow.

 

Sesskia’s Diary, part 191

4 Seresstine

I’d meant to write about Nessan’s exercise when I finished it, but it was nearly dawn when I did and I barely got back without being spotted. I met him well after midnight, and we ran the perimeter of the camp, dodging our sentries a little too easily—Nessan was annoyed about it, and when we were finished, he said, “I’m going to do something about that. Here.” He handed me a knobby sack and said, “You have three hours to put these back in the exact places where they belong. Same rules as before—insubstantial only to walk in and out of things, bonus points if you don’t use the pouvra at all. If you’re seen, you fail.”

“What’s the penalty if I fail?” I said.

“I mock you for the rest of the week,” Nessan said. “Your three hours started one minute ago. Move.”

The sack contained five objects I’d noticed many times before around the camp and one I couldn’t remember seeing before. I considered not using the walk-through-walls pouvra just to show off, but realized as I was about to return my first item (General Drussik’s pipe with the enormous carved bowl) that I should use every advantage I had, and the extra challenge was one of Nessan’s tricks to distract me from my goal. I set the pipe on Drussik’s table and was off with the second item.

It took me about half my allotted time to place the five objects I recognized. Then I had to find a hiding place so I could examine the sixth. It was a pocket watch on a silver chain, complete with fob that wasn’t much more than a lump of silver; expensive materials, not very good workmanship. I examined it more closely. No, it was made to look plain, but a lot of effort had gone into achieving that effect. There were no initials on the case or inside it, no engraved sentiment. The owner had had it for a long time, judging by the fine scratches on the case that indicated ordinary wear over the years—I opened it and looked at the innards again. Very old work. No, this was a family heirloom.

Something about it was familiar, and Nessan wouldn’t have given me anything I hadn’t seen before, though his definition of “seen before” might encompass a wide range of observations. I thought about what I could surmise about the owner. Male. Someone who had enough wealth to use this daily as opposed to keeping it safely out of harm’s way, as a poorer man would. Someone not interested in drawing attention to that wealth. This was narrowing down the possibilities quickly. Probably not noble, because almost all noblemen marked their jewelry with their names or personal sigils as an anti-theft measure. Hahahaha.

That left me with about seven members of the general staff, plus Colonel Ivalys, but he and two of those staffers were off with other Army regiments. Five men, all of whom I’d seen regularly since we started training with the army, none of whom wore pocket watches. So which of those men would bring along a valuable watch and then not wear it?

It took me ten minutes to reach Mattiak’s tent and then stop in dismay, because a tiny light was burning inside. Sneaking past him would be almost impossible; he was observant enough that he’d seen through the concealment pouvra, something even Cederic had trouble doing. And he was awake. And I wasn’t sure where he normally kept his watch. I checked that watch and discovered I had less than an hour before I’d have to endure Nessan’s taunts for the rest of the week. Then I concealed myself again and went as quietly as I could over the snow to the side of Mattiak’s tent, and peeked inside.

Mattiak was seated at his table with his sleeves rolled up, writing something in a book. I think it might have been a personal record, like this one, and I was seized with a tremendous desire to read it. Then I felt ashamed. I would hate it if he read this book, so was it fair to read his private thoughts?

I set the desire well to one side and surveyed the room. He has a bed and table and chair that aren’t more ornate than mine, so either he’s a humble man or our furnishings reflect the highest standard of living the army can provide. There’s a trunk at the foot of the bed and a totally incongruous skinny coatrack next to it that holds his uniform jacket. The light came from a small lantern that swung above his head.

As I watched, he laid the pen down, stretched, and began unbuttoning his shirt. I withdrew quickly and moved around to the front of the tent, near the trunk, and waited for the light to go out. Then I waited some more, hoping he was quick to fall asleep. I had half an hour left when I finally poked my head back into the tent, then dropped to my knees and crawled, so slowly, toward the trunk.

to be continued…