Chapter One

Few wished to breach the Temple-Guild's border unauthorized. Nearly anything an intruder could want would lead to their capture soon enough regardless, so it was guarded, but not well; patrolled, but not carefully. Someone sufficiently desperate could get in, without magic.

On a certain night, someone did, and she stole through the Garden, between classrooms, and around clusters of housekeeps until she found her way to the Godspring.

It was here that she encountered someone who might prove to be an obstacle.

"You are not one of ours," said a man's voice in the dark.

The interloper froze. "I could be," she said.

"Oh? Would you care to prove it?" asked the other. "We are sworn to admit mages. Let the water support your claim." The water would make a mage out of a child, but it would only show existing magic, in this or any adult, if she touched it.

And apparently the visitor would care to prove it, because she thrust her arm under the stream of the Godspring -

And it ran gold -

Gold and clear, together.

"What -" hissed the man who belonged there, and the warm light pouring off the water showed the stranger's face, triumphant.

And the baby she held in that arm.

"You have to take us in now. You can't turn us away, my Meea's a mage now," said the woman with quiet triumph.

"We cannot turn her away," said the man.

Gold-shining water splashed, as the baby fell a few inches to land in the shallow pool, and her revealed magic illuminated a knife.

"And that has nothing to do with you," said the man to the woman's corpse.

Meea clipped her gold chain so the droplet sat neatly on her forehead and the rest of it wouldn't slide around and tangle in her hair. She knotted her gold sash over her neutral grey robes as fast as she could, and leaned out her bedroom door. "Ma? Are they leaving yet?"

"They're still waiting for Tse Celac," called back Artenna Witwex, as Meea stepped into her slippers. "Don't worry, girl, they're not going anywhere without you."

Meea trotted down the stairs. Her mother looked tired. "Did you remember to sleep last night?" Meea asked suspiciously.

Artenna smiled. "Sovar isn't going to start neglecting to send me to bed anytime soon, Meea."

"Did you eat breakfast?"

"No - and quite deliberately, don't give me that look, I'm meeting Lutsane for lunch and want room - but you should. There are some of Sovar's pearcakes left, in the cupboard."

"Ooh." Meea went for a cake and ate half of it in one bite. "Where's Pa?" she asked around the mouthful.

"He is with a client. He left last night after you went to bed."

Meea froze. She knew most of her father's usual clients and Artenna would usually say who. "Not a new one, is it -"

"No, no, goodness, girl, what must you think of me? An old one, but he's been off ferrying spices to Caplare for years, you've never met him."

"Good. Who's taking Pa home from that?"

"I am. It'll be well after you're back from your trip if it's anything like last year's."

Meea grabbed another pearcake. "I wasn't with last year's."

"You were home when they left and when they came back, yes? Go. You can talk to your father afterwards."

Meea nodded and, cake in hand, left the Witwex housekeep to join up with the party of mages who were going to the orphanage.

She stuck out, in the group, or even just in her family. The Witwexes were not her natural parents, and everyone in the Temple-Guild except Meea was natively Cefaxi. Meea's skin was two shades darker than Cefaxi parchment-beige, her eyes were huge and round compared to theirs with no corresponding benefit to her eyesight, and she had an unfashionably large nose, though that last wasn't unheard of among Cefaxi either. Her most recent growth spurt had seen her turn tall, for a girl, though she thought she might be through growing.

But the mages were used to her; she'd lived in the Temple-Guild all her life, wore their clothes, spoke their language, did their work, went home to a housekeep at night. No one looked funny at her within the walls.

Tse Celac, the greenmage representative for their party, appeared at last. Three people simultaneously asked him if he'd had breakfast, and he told them that he had, and it was finally possible for them to be on their way. They divided into two carriages, driven by Temple-Guild servants, and headed down the switchback path that led from the slope on which their home was built down to the town in the valley.

Meea shared her carriage with Tse Celac, and also the bluemage and whitemage. There was no particular reason that every type had to be represented on the annual excursion to the orphan asylum, but it was traditional, and it meant there were enough people along to divide up the job of interviewing candidate children.

"Have you done this before?" Meea asked the bluemage to her left. Meea had seen her before, but she was from another housekeep and they didn't interact much; she couldn't remember her name. She was pretty, though, petite and made up with enough paint that she looked like a figurine of enameled glass.

The bluemage shook her head and the blue agate droplet on her forehead bounced. If she was going on a trip like this, her schedulers had to be keeping her from overextension; a dwindled bluemage could barely carry on a conversation, let alone conduct interviews with cast-off children. "It's my first one. You?"

"Same here. I'm going to forget some key criterion and wind up with children who are sick already, or slow already -"

"Or who don't remember the gods' names already, or -" the bluemage chuckled self-deprecatingly - "don't understand that other people have thoughts, yet."

Meea nodded. "I don't remember your name."

"Luvi. You're Mia, right?"

"Mee-yay-ah," Meea corrected. "It's Caplari. My parents didn't change it when they got me."

"Did you come from a trip like this, then? I've always sort of wondered why there was a Caplari in a Cefaxi Temple-Guild. They have their own, I think. I never knew who to ask," said Luvi.

"When I was a baby my birth mother broke in and dunked me in the Godspring," Meea said. She'd told this story before. A hundred times. "Tse Alsar meted justice for the crime, but I was already maged, so he gave me to my parents."

"That's awful," murmured Luvi.

"I don't know what her other choices were," Meea said. "But there's a reason we have to interview the kids - why we can't just empty the orphanages - and why my birth mother shouldn't have done that. It's just lucky I'm able to pull my weight."

"What do you mostly do?"

"I'm underscheduled on clients, for now," Meea said. "I teach kids classes -"

"Magic classes?" Luvi asked.

"Some, and also knife-fighting, and reading, and once I did theology for a season but no one's asked me to try that again," laughed Meea ruefully. "I do a little attendant work for both parents, too, though Ma can do a lot of it for Pa, and one of Ma's boyfriends can do most of what she needs. What about you?"

"Underscheduled," agreed Luvi, "or by now I wouldn't even know you're a person -"

"Some bluemages last till they're twenty, twenty-five even," objected Meea.

"Do I not look twenty to you?"

Meea squinted. "Maybe. Are you?"

"Twenty-one. You're eighteen, I remember where your funny Caplari name is on the sacrifice wall. But they're going to put me on a normal schedule soon, I think."

Meea mentally withdrew from her attraction to Luvi. Twenty-one. Twenty-one and about to start taking jobs as often as once or twice a year. A bluemage at twenty on a usual schedule could still talk to people, but acted like those people were books, not living things with minds of their own. An overscheduled one could even stop thinking of him or herself as a person, and it took greenmagery and lots of attending to look after them then. There was a trick to talking to dwindled bluemages that Meea didn't have the hang of. Even if Luvi thought that Meea was pretty too, they'd have no time; it would only hurt.

The whitemage, sitting behind them next to Tse Celac, chose this moment to indulge a coughing fit. Whitemages had perpetual colds by the time they were ten; this one was either underscheduled too, or patched for the trip, by the fact that he was at least sixteen and able to get out of his sickbed.

"This is better," Luvi said. "For the children, I mean. Than whatever else they'd be doing."

"I'm not sure what else they'd be doing," Meea murmured. She wasn't the only mage in the Temple-Guild who hadn't been extracted from someplace similar, but most of them had, most of them knew it if they could remember anything.

Tse Celac spoke up. "The orphanages keep them as long as they can afford, but without our funneling away some of their charges each year, they have more mouths to feed, and they must make up the difference between their donations and their expenses somehow. I believe mines and mills are frequent purchasers. And occasionally, the Revel House."

"This is better than the Revel House," sneezed the whitemage. "Rather be feverish because I helped someone than feverish because the wrong patron gave me whorepox."

"I believe the incidence of disease is lower at the Revel House than at comparable smaller establishments," said Tse Celac idly. "And of course they take more girl-children than boys, when they take any, Tse Morin."

"Besides," Luvi said. "Some of the children will turn out to be goldmages, won't they? Goldmages are lucky - you're healthy all your lives. As much as anyone can be, I mean."

Meea swallowed. She had a speech about that, but she mostly saved it for other goldmages, younger ones, stupid little goldmages who used magic like it was a toy. "There is that," she said. She'd probably live longer and better than the whitemage - Tse Morin - and maybe even compared to Luvi; it would be repulsive to complain.

"All of the colors of magic have their own blessings exchanged for their own prices," said Tse Celac.

It would also be rude to snap at Tse Celac that he hadn't lost anything that couldn't be compensated for with a dedicated attendant. The Temple-Guild was well calibrated enough on greenmagic that they could always stop short of making their greenmages neglect to breathe. Tse Celac probably needed to be reminded to eat and sleep and eliminate and flinch away from too-hot food, but as long as there was someone to remind him - and there was - he'd sacrificed almost nothing.

No amount of attending or patching would get back what goldmages traded in.

"We're here," called the carriage driver.

Meea stepped out.

The orphanage contained three times as many people as the Temple-Guild, packed into half the space. Children who'd lost their parents, or whose slavemasters had died intestate, or who had run away from particularly bad keepers of either kind, accumulated there from all over the province. The older ones were farmed out as cheap labor for neighboring farms and other employers whenever possible, for revenue and to entice people to take them in; even the Temple-Guild would hire a few - as long as they were too old to get anywhere by touching the Godspring's water. The Temple-Guild took new would-be mages only through these visits.

Orphans slept in shifts, to stretch the space allotted for beds, but when the carriages stopped outside the building they were all awake.

Apparently, they didn't want to miss the chance to ride up the hill and fritter away their minds or their health or their lives on power and a life of regimented luxury.

Most likely better than the Revel House, Meea told herself as she stepped out of the carriage.

"Tse! Tse!" called some of the children. Mercifully none of them seemed to be addressing Meea in particular. "Tse, take me, I want to go -"

And then one of the children broke away from the throng of peers and caretakers and ran toward the redmage.

Meea waited until it was clear that the girl really did mean to touch the redmage - that no one else was going to be able to stop her before she touched him - and that she did value a day or so of her life less highly than a good fiftieth of the redmage's client capacity if that was really the choice.


Quick quick quick she did not have all the time in the world, she had to run, every second she spent with the world held still cost her at least an hour, likely more. She launched herself between the redmage and the child - well away from the redmage, it wouldn't do for him to touch Meea either - and unpause.

She landed in realtime, caught the little girl by the collar, and forced her to the ground. "You do not touch a redmage!" she shouted, loud enough to hurt her throat. "Do you have seven hundred thousand riaxi? Do you? Are you going to make that much money in your life, after we leave you here today? That is what it costs to lay hands on a redmage! Do you know what you were about to steal?"

The little girl - and a handful of smaller children nearby - burst into tears.

Meea didn't regret shouting, not for an instant. Everyone knew - even uneducated children knew - that you did not run up to anyone with a carnelian droplet on their forehead, a red sash around Temple-Guild robes, and try to touch them. Not unless you paid upfront, and sat with the redmage of your choice for a consultation beforehand, and coughed up the more modest per-sitting fee ever after.

Meea thought of the possibility that anyone could have done that to her pa and shuddered. He'd been pushed past advisable limits just by picking up Meea when he and Artenna had adopted her. He forgot his wife's name. He couldn't remember the contents of his childhood. He occasionally showed worrying signs of forgetting vocabulary, which didn't usually go until a redmage's entire personal history had been wiped away and replaced with clientele. Meea's father could never be allowed to touch another new person as long as he lived, and if some careless idiot like this child had seen him instead of this other redmage... It didn't bear thinking about.

"I have gloves," the redmage murmured, barely audible over the tears. "She most likely couldn't have gotten me." On inspection - he did have gloves, off-white ones, easy to miss, why weren't they bright red? The child probably wouldn't have gone for an ankle, right away, and couldn't reach his face. Oh, he was tall. Meea craned her neck. He had gloves.

"Nevertheless," said Tse Celac, coming up behind Meea, "Tse Witwex's action was commendable. Your gloves do not reach far enough into your sleeves to protect you from all possible rashness."

Meea hadn't even checked for gloves. She felt ridiculous, nauseated - what if that hour or day or who knew how long stood between her and the birth of a grandchild, a chance to save a life, the most beautiful piece of music she'd ever hear? - but it was done. Going back and undoing it would only make the cost worse, and leave a corpse for the orphanage keepers to clean up too.

"Thank you," said the redmage.

Meea knew this fellow about as well as she knew Luvi - recognized him but had no history with him - but in his case she knew his name. She was pretty sure. "Wiar Simfane?"

"Yes. Meea Witwex?"

He got it right on the first try; she smiled. "Yes."

"Now that this has been cleared up," said Tse Celac, "perhaps we should continue."

Meea nodded respectfully and walked the little girl over to the nearest orphanage worker, who took hold of the child's coat and hustled her inside.

"Form orderly groups, please," said Tse Celac in a loud, clear voice. "Remember, we can take four and five year olds only. The punishment for sneaking in an older child is simply that the Godspring will fail to change them and they will be sent back; the punishment for sneaking in a younger child to weigh overlong on the support of the Temple-Guild is death. Present us only with children four and five years old."

Meea went where she was directed and sat to wait for the first interviewee.

"Can you read yet?" Meea asked the little boy.

"A little," he said cagily. "I know my letters."

Meea picked up one of the test cards she'd brought with her. "Can you sound out this word?"

The boy stared at it with a terrifying intensity. "Magic," he finally guessed. Meea shook her head, and he looked stricken. "Does that mean you won't take me?" he asked. "Don't wanna go to the mines or wherever..."

"I can still maybe take you if you fail the reading test." Although it was a mark against him. "Why don't you want to go to the mines?" Meea asked. If he told her that he was weak, had a bad foot, didn't like to work - she had to turn him away. Anything that could shorten his span as a useful mage if he turned the water an inconvenient color, or that could make him a liability to the Temple-Guild - she had to turn away.

The boy looked at her like she was stupid. "That's where people go to die."

Meea closed her eyes. "Most kinds of magic can kill you, too."

"Not all of 'em."

"Not all miners die of it, either. And you may go somewhere else."

"I want to go to the Temple-Guild."

"I know. Now, I'm going to say some numbers, and I want you to repeat them all back to me."

Meea interviewed fifteen children and found six who passed all the tests she'd been told to administer - not including that first little boy, who failed. She was allowed discretion after that - she was supposed to submit four for Tse Celac's consideration, and he'd pick three or four of each mage's candidates, aiming for gender balance and pleasant dispositions. She struck from the list one who'd seemed afraid of her, and one who seemed suspiciously young-looking though she claimed to be four years old.

She called the remaining two boys and two girls by name, from the cluster they formed around the door to the room she'd been given to use, and led them to where Tse Celac waited in the front. He'd conducted his own interviews much more quickly.

Finally everyone was finished. Luvi and Wiar both chose mostly girls, so Meea expected one of hers to be sent back, but as it turned out Tse Celac approved all of her suggestions and managed gender balance by shooing other girls. Luvi didn't look at all happy when one of hers was dismissed. Wiar shed a tear, for one of his picks who Tse Celac rejected as being too spindly and weak-looking.

Wiar was almost generic-looking with a neutral expression on his face. Sorrowful, he was beautiful.

With the pool pruned, they loaded the children into one of the carriages and crowded into the other, doubled up as they hadn't needed to be on the way down. Wiar sat on the edge of a bench next to Meea, fussing with his gloves and sitting half-sideways to keep bare ankles away from her sandals.

"I won't touch you," she promised in a low voice. "If someone did that to my pa, I'd never forgive them. I'd never do that to any redmage."

"I know you won't try. And you'd feel terrible if the carriage jolted and I was close enough for there to be an accident," Wiar murmured back.

This was true. "Thanks."

"Thank you. Tse Celac was right, the girl could have gotten my wrist. I need longer gloves. And socks."

"Is this your first time out of the Temple-Guild?" Meea asked. She'd never been on an orphanage trip before, but she'd been into town for other things - shopping and festivals and mere changes of scenery. Then again, if someone tapped her on the arm, she wouldn't lose random snatches of childhood for the privilege of instantly knowing that stranger better than their dearest friends ever could, ideally positioned to serve as comforter and therapist to someone with no ability to support her.

"Yes. My parents have touched me, and the serving girl who's supposed to be my attendant when I need one - that's it," Wiar said.

"You're way underscheduled," Meea said. "You're seventeen, eighteen? Don't they fill you up with clients as fast as they can, with redmages, so you can pull per-sitting fees for longer periods?"

"Eighteen. I'm supposed to be presented to the royal court," Wiar explained. "They don't want me saturated."

Meea blinked. "I'm supposed to be presented, too. Next month."

"Oh," said Wiar.

"But so are four other gold mages. Her Highness probably won't pick me."

Wiar nodded. "They'll catch us up to schedule if we aren't picked, I guess."

"You have a journal, right?" Meea asked him suddenly. "It won't help forever. My pa can't remember anything he reads longer than two minutes -"

"What's his count?" Wiar asked anxiously.

"Fifty-four. He was already pushing it and then he and Ma adopted me," said Meea ruefully, "he couldn't not hold me, you know? But until you get all the way up there, you'll want a journal."

"I do have one. I don't always remember to write in it," Wiar said.

"You should. You really should," Meea urged.

"All right," said Wiar, smiling softly. "Today I'll write that I met a pretty goldmage girl, and she saved me from Knowing a little orphan I can't afford to love, and that maybe I wish the carriage had bumped us around a little bit so it wouldn't be my fault if I did touch her."

Meea was still blinking as the carriage came to a stop, and Wiar smiled at her and hopped out of it.

Meea's ma brought her pa home not long after Meea finished teaching her knife class. Meea was just taking the droplet chain off her head when she heard the door open and ran downstairs to hug him.

And Tsarian Witwex had already touched Meea, so it was fine for him to reach up and pat her on the neck.

That was what was worth seven hundred thousand riaxi. Redmages Knew the people they touched - and could not help but love them, knowing them so deeply - and those they loved could feel it.

Meea curled up in her pa's arms as Artenna maneuvered them both to the cushion and sat them down, and she was loved.

Chapter Two

"We have some time left," Meea said to her class. "Are there any questions?"

"Tse Witwex," said one of the boys, a whitemage, ten years old. "Why aren't we allowed to do charity? This morning there was a beggar outside the gate and he was sick -" He snuffled, whether because he was sad or ill Meea didn't know. "My auntie schedules me, and she said I mustn't go near him."

"Why does your auntie schedule you?" Meea asked carefully. "Why not one of your parents?"

He blinked like an owl and rubbed a streaming eye. "They can't. They're too dwindled now. Auntie is a goldmage like you, though, she still can."

"Well," said Meea. "Your auntie doesn't want you dwindled too, before you have a chance to grow up. It's chancey with whitemages, you know. It's not like greenmages where we know enough to stop just short of letting them forget to breathe, or redmages who can't die of using their magic at all - you could get too sick and die now, if you're not lucky. But you'll have the best chances if you stick to a limited schedule like your auntie tells you."

"But I asked if I could do a personal discretion healing. And she still told me no."

"Your personal discretion healings are for people within the Temple-Guild only," Meea said firmly. "You can help your parents or your aunts and uncles or your friends, or even your favorite servants and attendants. You can do a short-term clearing on yourself, if you want to be healthy for a very special occasion. Never beggars. If you heal other people here, you make us all stronger - if you heal people outside, without their paying the fee, you make us weaker."

"Weaker how?" asked another student, a little bluemage boy.

"When your scheduler takes in a fee for work you do," Meea says, "he or she puts a little of it in your fund, so you can send the servants out to buy nice things, or go yourself when you're old enough - but some of it goes to pay those servants, who make our lives easier. Some of it goes to maintain your housekeep. Some of it goes to make sure we can take care of new mages who don't know how to earn their keep yet, and you needed that money to be there when you were little. And some of it goes to look after dwindled older mages who can't earn new fees anymore, and you'll need that money to be there when you're older. We use Temple-Guild money for normal medicines, so we don't need to hurt our own whitemages just to keep from dying of cuts and chills. We use Temple-Guild money for almanacs and messengers and news bulletins, so we don't have to sap our bluemages to get good ideas of what's happening and what will happen."

"But it's his own health!" objected a redmage girl. "He should be able to do whatever he wants with it."

"It is not just his own health," Meea said sternly. "Tell me - if he healed a beggar today, what do you think would happen tomorrow?"

The children started guessing. "The gods would punish him for wasting magic and he'd get his last fever?" "His auntie wouldn't let him have any supper." "They'd have to get one less kid next year from the orphanage?"

And then someone guessed: "The beggar would tell all his friends."

"Right," said Meea. "The beggar would tell all his friends, and tomorrow there'd be ten of them, and they'd harrass the servants and they'd shout at us through the gate. The beggar's friends would tell their friends. People who could afford to pay for what they want to take from a whitemage might dress up like beggars in case they could get it for free. People who used to know that it's rare and special to get to buy magic might start expecting it to be cheap and common, because anything beggars can get must be."

The redmage girl piped up again. "They should just get more kids every year, and then we could be cheaper, and get the same amount of money for the Temple-Guild."

Meea shook her head. "We don't want magic to be cheaper! We still have to pay our prices. This is what we have to charge, per person, to live the way we do, to be able to take care of dwindled ones. We take as many children as we do because this is how many mages we need to serve the people who can afford us at those prices. If the world outside gets richer, there can be more mages - if it gets poorer there will be fewer - the schedulers know what they're doing."

"But he looked so sad," murmured the whitemage boy.

"Tse. There are so many sick people in the world," murmured Meea. She wasn't unsympathetic, but the rules had reasons, and unless he understood them as deeply as he understood the desire to help everyone he saw, he'd make terrible mistakes. "You'd disintegrate of a thousand ills before you could heal every sick person just in the nearest town, let alone a city, or the entire country of Cefax. You will do as much healing as you have in you. That much is for sure. Let your auntie screen them for you so that you can do other good too."

"Okay," he whispered. "Thank you for answering me, Tse Witwex."

"That's what I'm here to do," Meea said.

Meea's mother coordinated with other schedulers - mostly greenmages and older goldmages, some lucky whitemages and particularly clever bluemages - to make sure Meea would be ready to go with the contingent that the royal court would see. Meea's teaching duties were handed off to others and she instead attended protocol lessons with everyone who was supposed to be presented to the royal court. Wiar was there, and Luvi too, and others Meea knew more or less.

The class was taught by Tse Alsar, a bluemage. He was as dwindled as bluemages got, but by some quirk of his personal psychology and a modest amount of greenmagery, he could still function reasonably well. He worked from notes his attendant and his wife or girlfriend or eldest son made, and he was still gullible and tricky to talk to and could be thrown into confusion by anything from storytelling to philosophical speculation. But he seemed to be fine in many areas of ordinary life, even without the skills that bluemages lost.

Tse Alsar shuffled his notes and began giving his speech.

"Serving at court is one of the most prestigious positions you can acquire above and beyond merely being a mage at all," intoned Tse Alsar. He didn't read fluently; he wasn't sounding words out, exactly, but it was like he'd been saying "prestigious" all afternoon and it had lost all meaning and he found it bewildering. "New mage-aides for the court are chosen only rarely, and full sets only once a generation, barring premature dwindling or death." The word "chosen" got the same treatment.

He continued. "Our Temple-Guild is one of six that will supply candidates. If even one of you is selected..." At that one he outright frowned. "We will receive a stipend sufficient to allow every currently working mage in the Temple-Guild a mere half schedule for three years. If more of you are sent then the benefit is commensurate. You've all been underscheduled because you have the poise and the intelligence that might let you earn that reward for us - for yourselves, of course, the palace is a finer place to live. The amount of work depends on the mage - but it is by far the gentlest possibility for a redmage, and likely to be less intensive for anyone than a full schedule here. Who can tell me what qualities you must display to have the best chances?"

This wasn't a class of eight-year-olds; even the whitemage was already fifteen. They produced better answers.

"Loyalty to the throne -"

"Specifically the Princess. Not just any claimant. Doesn't she make the choices herself?"

"Discipline, calmness, piety, clear thinking."

"Resilience and caution. Even if we're only there for the Princess and not every pursedragger who comes along she'll want us to last as long as possible. No excess personal discretion use."


"We have to get along personally with the Princess, and with other major players at court."

Meea finally thought of something no one else had said yet. "We need to know or be able to learn about politics - at least some of us. The whitemages probably don't."

"Good, good," said Tse Alsar mechanically. Meea wasn't sure if he'd actually had criteria for what had to be covered or if his notes just said to wait a while before saying "good, good" at that point. She wasn't even sure why Tse Alsar was delivering the lecture in person. His wife, a goldmage, had probably written all the notes anyway. Perhaps she hated public speaking. "People skills. Royalism. Good individual traits. Important things. You have been underscheduled because you have the -" He started to repeat the first page of his notes before one of the greenmages tiptoed up and took it away from him. He moved on.

"This course taught by myself and several other esteemed mages will be our attempt at making sure that you can conduct yourself in a suitable manner at court. The protocols are different in the wider world than within Temple-Guilds, and more so in the capital, and more still in the palace. In my youth I served the now departed King." He blinked at the paper. "Now departed..." He shrugged. "Departed King." Apparently no one had told him when the king died.

So that was why he was teaching. Insofar as anyone could talk to him, they could talk to him about his experiences at court. Meea didn't know what to do with dwindled bluemages; she'd try to lean on whoever else would be working with the group.

"His daughter the Princess will be formally crowned in one month's time. Her father's remaining mage staff will be retired and she will... choose... her own. Tse Vioko, who served the king until last year, will talk about what he... knows... about Princess Liatsi... personally. Tse Anithar will talk about court protocol, which he has studied. Tse Alsar -" He did recognize his name, in the sense that it got his attention. It didn't seem that he recognized that he'd said it himself. He looked around a little bit, confused, turned back to his notes, started the page over, got to his name, repeated the process, and then started over, saved by the same greenmage pulling out an inkbottle and quill and blotting out the name.

"Court protocol," said Tse Alsar, and he skipped over the smudge. "Will talk about his experiences serving the king; his wife, or Tse Nimica, or someone else will be available to make communicating with him easier. Tse Celac will talk about developing and displaying personal virtue. That is the conclusion of today's meeting but you are encouraged to find these mages and tell them about areas of weakness you wish to have addressed before your presentation to the royal court." He got to the end of the page and repeated the first sentence and a half from the top before the greenmage took it away, stacked it with the other page, and looked around for Tse Alsar's wife or girlfriend or similar to give it to.

Tse Nimica was along presently; she took the papers, and conferred briefly with the greenmage about what had gotten her lover confused. "I'll tell Tse Lica to see if she can't think of something better to have him do when he's puzzled," she said. "Backing up and trying again works surprisingly often and it was the simplest thing to have her condition in... but I suppose it doesn't go well with notes..." Tse Alsar was nuzzling the back of her neck; she laughed. "Well. I'm here if any of you want help asking him questions. The others who are assigned to help with these lessons are in their housekeeps if you want to find them."

The class scattered.

Meea went up and down the stairs and curved paths that led from building to building on the slope of the mountain. Tse Vioko was the one she was looking for, although she'd need to learn about protocol too, soon enough. She wanted to hear the other goldmage's information about the woman she'd be expected to spend all her time around if she won the bid, and about bodyguarding at court.

In principle, goldmages could do many things. In practice, they were guards, except a handful who turned out unable to stomach violence and competed for the available work supervising industry, preventing accidents. Meea had heard whispers in town that goldmages were also assassins, sometimes - who else could get around a goldmage defender? - but Meea had never been sent on such an assignment. Though underscheduled, she'd had typical tasks when she had any: she'd ridden along on trips from city to city with rich travelers who had cargo to protect, or who had people out to get them. They paid extra sometimes, if she'd go in plainclothes and draw out their enemies. People wouldn't usually attack a goldmage who advertised the status. She didn't usually have to pause, let alone do any jumping, on a guarding job.

Which was good, because she hated doing magic more than anything else in the world.

Meea wondered if that was going to be a problem, at court.

Tse Vioko knew distressingly little about Princess Liatsi, when Meea found him to ask. He'd met her, certainly. He'd been her father's bodyguard for fifteen years, since the previous one had done enough jumping to risk dropping dead on the spot if he were called upon to do any more and was retired to his Temple-Guild. Tse Vioko wasn't comparably worn out, but Princess Liatsi would pick her own, fresh set of mages, not the half-dwindled ones her father had still been using at the time of his death.

"Of course I met her," Tse Vioko said. "Doesn't mean I knew her. She wasn't friendly with - well, anyone I could see, maybe she had some friends I didn't see her with. She wasn't so close to her father as all that. Stuck with the queen more. Till the queen died anyway."

"What did the queen die of?" Meea asked. "I heard about the king, I know you couldn't have saved him, but -"

"Queen died of old age. They used up their whitemage, trying to keep up with everything she had, the next one was never asked. She was older than the king, you know, almost a decade older."

"I know," Meea said. She listened to clients talking, and the rich ones loved to talk about royalty.

"So I can't tell you much about Liatsi, though I guess it's better than trying to ask Tse Alsar," shrugged Tse Vioko.

"Where's the king's redmage?" Meea asked.

"Tse Casia? Northpoint Temple-Guild, not one of ours. They used her up as soon as she went home anyway; even if you could talk to her she wouldn't be helpful. Standard for retired royal redmages. They hear things they mustn't spread, but they can forget 'em after." Tse Vioko shrugged again.

Meea thought of Wiar. But if he got picked he'd have until the princess died, tending only to a handful of people, before he'd dwindle. If he didn't get picked they'd slap him with fifteen to twenty clients right away, more next year, more the year after, until he couldn't remember five minutes into the past or that he lived in Cefax.

"Tse Casia didn't Know the princess, anyway," said Tse Vioko.

"What? Why not?" Meea asked.

"Princess didn't want it. Didn't get along with Tse Casia. There was a nasty moment in Princess Liatsi's childhood when she realized the king didn't restrict himself to his wife. Tse Casia was his only girlfriend, but outside Temple-Guilds people are more used to stifling, strict pairing relationships, redmages are usually an exception but Liatsi didn't see it that way. Redmages are half glorified prostitutes anyway -"

"They are not," Meea snapped. Her pa loved every single one of his clients, the sitting fee was the same if they wanted sex or not, he was nothing like the... employees... at the Revel House or anywhere comparable. He loved them and wanted them to have what they wanted. He wasn't doing anything he did because he wanted money; the money all went to others to handle anyway, now he was too dwindled to track his share himself.

Tse Vioko shrugged, again. "Well, regardless, Princess Liatsi didn't like that her father let Tse Casia love him that way, even though the queen didn't mind as long as it was only Tse Casia - Tse Casia Knew the queen too, though far as I know they didn't sleep together."

"Okay. So Tse Casia wouldn't be any help even if I could talk to her," said Meea.

"Sorry I can't be more helpful," said Tse Vioko. "I just stuck by the king, day in and day out."

Meea sat through an hour of protocol lesson before her stomach rumbled and she went home to dinner. Sovar was there, cooking while Artenna read, and Meea wondered if she'd have to keep mum about her parents' outside lovers to avoid offending Princess Liatsi. Would she have to restrict herself, if she won the bid, to avoid offending Princess Liatsi? Tse Vioko had a wife and a boyfriend, didn't he, he must have had them during his stay at court too.

Meea was allowed to bring up to three "companions and servants" if she wanted, if she got picked, though they'd have to stay in the residence wing and couldn't involve themselves in court life much (or the class would have been talking to Tse Alsar's much more coherent wife and girlfriend). Meea wasn't married, wasn't seriously seeing anyone, just occasionally met up with Sovar's non-mage daughter Mixi when one of them felt like it but Mixi had a proper girlfriend too and would barely miss Meea. Would not filling up her "companions and servants" be a positive mark in Liatsi's eyes?

She thought she might be reading too much into one tidbit of speculation from a man who admitted that he barely knew the princess.

She'd get to meet the princess herself, soon enough.

"Ma," said Meea, after dinner.

"Your pa's with Cecesi." This was a fair enough response; one of Meea's most frequent interactions with her mother involved asking after Tsarian.

"I know, I saw it marked on your calendar, it's you I wanted to talk to."


"I wonder if it would be a bad idea, for me to go to court... hating magic."

"You don't hate magic," Artenna said, lecturing. "Could you teach classes on it so easily if you did? You find performing magic aversive."

"Yes, well, I think it might be bad for me to keep finding it aversive, there. It probably saved me - oh, years, I dont know how many - when I was a kid. I didn't do the stupid things that I have to shout at my students for doing. But Ma, I'm not a stupid kid anymore."

Artenna thought about this. She really did, for several minutes, while Sovar picked up the dishes around them and took them out to the basin in the backyard to clean. Meea was gratified by the time taken; often Artenna just issued decisions with the same automatic habit as she used to sign her name.

"No," Artenna finally said anyway. "You're demonstrably capable of using enough magic to do anything you need to do, I didn't do a poor enough job to leave you jittery or otherwise less than functional after you do have to, and you're still noticeably more conservative even than other goldmages your age. The conditioning stays."

"What if I get accepted, and Princess Liatsi wants it taken out?" Meea asked.

"I have no sort of authority over whoever Princess Liatsi may choose as her own greenmage, and I'll even give that greenmage my notes so they can reverse your conditioning in the best possible way if that's the decision the Princess makes," said Artenna. "I simply don't think it's necessary and I decline to do it myself, with my limited personal discretion magic - most of which, Meea, I use to find ways to help your father compensate for lost memory."

"I know," muttered Meea.

"You'll be fine," asserted Artenna. "You can do all the magic you need to. You'll live into old age, if you're lucky."

Meea listened to the available teachers. She was terrible at protocol. It was ridiculous and layered - all lists of things that made a difference, which took precedence over which, but the rules weren't consistent. You called a mage "Tse", but in the unlikely event that a mage had married a count or a countess, you called them "Axi" instead, which title had no other use except to refer to foreign secondborn princes. That was the only irregularity Meea could consistently remember, and it had to be the least useful one.

Maybe magic was just aversive. Protocol was hateful.

Meea probably wouldn't be required to talk directly to any of these people. Her job would be to follow Liatsi around and make sure she stayed alive, and if she couldn't do that, go back and try again until she could.

On the scheduled day, royal functionaries arrived with a train of carriages, to ferry the candidates to the capital.

Artenna packed Meea some of Sovar's pearcakes and sentiment-related items, and gave her a hug, and then stood aside to let Tsarian embrace her.

Meea's pa would not remember her, in her absence. Not exactly. Even Knowing her, he was dwindled enough to be unable to call to mind exactly who he Knew when they weren't present. But he was going to miss her, and she thought that was nearly as good.

Meea sat next to Luvi and her attendant-to-be, and in front of Wiar and his. Wiar's future minder and guide, and current girlfriend, was called Iamica. Iamica could touch him, and she did - she kissed the inside of his wrist, and leaned on him sleeping by the time they'd been on the road for an hour.

And after three days and eight changes of horses and all the games of Ingredients and Scenery-Watching they could stomach, they arrived at Nacafi, the capital of Cefax.

Meea had been near Nacafi once, on the longest job of her life, but she hadn't gotten all the way there.

Nacafi was built in a valley, but it was tall for all that. There was a temple - not a Temple-Guild; it would be staffed by non-mage clerics - that had to be eighty feet high at the tip of the facade. There were tall buildings, towers, of eight or ten floors that looked like they might hold apartments or inns or businesses. And looming over everything, from its vantage point up on a slope at the far edge of the valley, was the royal palace.

The palace didn't have much height, beyond its positioning on the hill - the tallest points were three stories - but it had sprawl and opulence. It was gray stone, but all different shades, dark at the base and lighter with each row of blocks up to white marble crenelations along the tops of the walls. Gold leaf was caked onto statues of past kings that sat in alcoves to either side of the gates.

Their carriages slowed as they climbed the switchback path to the palace, and stopped entirely while they waited for the gates to open.

The horses drew them inside, into the path through the flat-cut courtyard with its spiral sections of flowers and sculpted drooping trees, and stopped again at the door to the palace.

Meea followed Luvi out, and dropped into a deep bow, the way the protocol instructor had told her. She waited, feeling a growing strain on her back as she held the position.

"Rise," said a voice like a violin.

Meea straightened up and looked into the eyes of the princess.

Chapter Three

"Now that you all know how to pause, we're going to cover jumping back," Meea told her students. "But first, just like with pausing, we are going to cover when you jump back - and what you have to do, if you do it."

There were several audible swallows from his audience.

"You're not going to show us, are you...?"

"Absolutely not," said Meea.

"Have you ever, you know," asked a different student, "done it?"

Meea closed her eyes. "Once."

"What happened?" came an eager whisper.

Meea had planned to teach this lesson via standard example, but her own case was good enough and seemed to have their attention. "I don't remember this from my original perspective, but," she began, "I was escorting a client to Miwan, and a version of me appeared in front of us, stark naked of course, with 'ambush at the far end of the pass, fifteen men, pause first' carved into her arm. She'd knifed herself in the gut before jumping. I guess in case I turned out to be squeamish. A gut wound will kill you, but you'll have time to jump first. But I cut her throat anyway, as soon as I saw her, because every second -"

"Every second you spend with more than one of you costs all of you," chorused the students.

"Right. So I cut her throat, she died, I read her arm, and when we got to the pass I went ahead, paused, and killed the men in the ambush."

"Couldn't you have just tied them up?" asked a girl's squeaky voice. That one was going to wind up making sure alchemists and engineers ended their careers with all their fingers, if Meea didn't miss her guess. Some people could take all the knife classes in the world and still freeze, paused, staring at an attacker, unable to move.

"That would have taken longer," snapped Meea. "On my first try, they obviously managed to kill my client even with me there, in my robes. They were dangerous. It's reasonably likely one of them was a goldmage himself, gone rogue from another Temple-Guild, or they wouldn't have been able to make any progress against a goldmage-defended target. Pausing first and killing them all as fast as I could was the only option."

"Does it always have to be the one from the future who dies?" asked a boy.

"No," Meea said. "You stop paying for coexistence as soon as either of you dies. But it's usually the better idea to kill the future one. The one from the future paid the cost of the jump - the one from the present didn't, and will live longer. As long as you can get the information to your past self without using an object besides you - cutting your hair or your nails in patterns for simple things, carving it in your skin, maybe talking if it's too complicated for that and you go intact because you are sure you'll be able to knife one of you when the time comes - then it's better for the past self to go on and the future one to die after passing on the message."

"D-do we have to cut our arms," stammered the squeamish girl.

"You can't bring a note," said Meea. "You'll learn a code system so you can trim notches in your nails, and cut bits of your hair, but those only work for simple things. You do not want to ever have do this twice for the same situation. You don't want to cut 'stay awake' into your nails because you need to be ready for a bandit at midnight, and then get attacked at eleven and figure that must have been it and go to sleep. You don't want to cut the left half of your hair down to an inch to signal pause when you find me and then leave your past self wandering around the vicinity of your corpse, paused, for half an hour, because they don't know where to look."

Meea gave the trembling girl a severe look. "Even if you get an industrial job, you may have to jump back, and you will need to communicate with yourself if you do, and you will wind up losing years to get out of a few cuts if you insist on talking to yourself to do that. Some years, if we happen to have whitemagery to spare, there is a test on this part -"

The girl sniffed deeply and started crying.

"But thanks to the brightfever outbreak last spring this is not one of those times. If you are constitutionally unable to cut yourself you can get some information out of pressure marks - tying a string around your arm or leg at particular intervals tight enough to leave an indentation - but those don't reliably last and they do still hurt."

"Was it hard to kill yourself?" asked another, less weepy girl.

Meea thought of staring herself in the face and knowing that as long as that other-Meea breathed, she was doing magic, her life was seeping away week by week, and the ingrained revulsion her mother had given her to keep her safe.

"No," she said.

The Princess Liatsi looked like a painting of the concept of princesshood. She wasn't crowned, yet, but it was a glaring omission: the Spiral Crown of Cefax belonged on that exactingly rolled hair, over those calm black eyes and that painted red mouth. She was soft with luxury, but not in the indolent, inefficacious way some of Meea's past clients were. Liatsi exuded competence and stood with a paradoxical comfort in formal stiffness.

Liatsi had a goldmage with her - a temporary bodyguard until she picked from Meea and the other dozen goldmages sent from the various Temple-Guilds. She also had other servants, in mosaic-dyed silk uniforms that matched the palace walls and complemented Liatsi's own white dress.

Meea tried to hold still and meet the princess's gaze as it swept down the line of mages. It was very difficult; she felt rather like she was being peeled out of her robes and about half her skin for inspection.

"You're Caplari?" Liatsi asked, pausing at Meea after looking over Luvi.

"Raised in Cefax, Princess," said Meea. "If I've been to Caplare I don't remember it. I don't think I've ever met another Caplari."

"Mm." Liatsi looked over Wiar, and Iamica hiding behind him, without comment, and proceeded down the line. "The Northpoint contingent is already in the guest quarters, but you've arrived ahead of the other four, so I can't begin my selection process in earnest just yet. Kindly follow Werac to the east wing."

Meea watched Liatsi until Werac had led them into the building and the doors swung shut behind them.

The temporary quarters were not intended to hold quite as many people as the Temple-Guilds sent for royal successions. Meea wound up sharing a room with Luvi, Luvi's attendant-to-be, another goldmage and his boyfriend and girlfriend, and a whitemage and her attendant. The room was huge, and the bed was also huge but only by enough to accommodate the other goldmage and his companions (most willing of everyone to share); everyone else was on mats on the floor.

The last batch of mages arrived the following morning, and then there were brief interviews scheduled. Liatsi sent half the mages home on the results of that first pass, and then Meea and Luvi didn't have to split the room with anyone else but Luvi's attendant. They wound up all three sharing the bed after Luvi made it painfully clear that she did not want to roll around on it together. Meea hadn't been going to try, but she supposed it was better to know than to consider guessing in the middle of the night.

Meea's interview had been very brief. Liatsi wanted an estimate of how many years she had left, and then she had a list of sample situations - assassin shooting at her from a crowd, falling down the stairs, snakebite - and wanted to know how Meea would handle them.

Assuming Meea saw the assassin shoot or the princess fall or the snake strike before anything made deadly contact, these were the kinds of things she could fix by pausing. Catch the arrow, catch the princess, kill the snake.

"Suppose the snake bit me before you saw it," Liatsi said.

Meea swallowed. "I'd have to jump back, to warn myself," she said.

"Yes, but how precisely is that done?" Liatsi asked.

"I - are you looking for a mechanical explanation, of how magic works? Or the instructions we give young goldmages when they learn how? I don't know anything about the first and I don't know if the second would make sense to anyone who isn't a goldmage, Princess."

"What would I see?" Liatsi clarified.

"You would see an extra one of me, appearing, bleeding probably - a message carved into her skin, maybe with a gut wound." Meea knew now it was easy to kill her double. If she jumped back again she might skip the cut to the belly. "I'd read the message, kill her if she was alive, and then kill the snake before it bit you the first time that you'd see."

"Suppose I asked you to show me this," Liatsi says. "It seems rather incredible - I have seen pausing but never jumping."

"No, not just to show you," Meea said, without thinking.

"Mm," said Liatsi, and Meea felt her face get hot. "You may go."

The next day, Meea was the only goldmage candidate left in the palace.

Luvi was sent home. "I don't know what I did," she said softly, as Meea helped her pack. "She asked me to tell her about the weather over the Channel. I told her. I followed all the protocol and everything..."

Meea didn't speculate aloud. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Well, there's you left, you were picked outright, and one of our whitemages still in the running, and two of our redmages," said Luvi. "So that's good."

Luvi finished putting her things into her bag. She patted Meea on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way, bade her goodbye, and left.

Liatsi had eliminated only a third of the redmage candidates by the time she'd made final selections for everyone else. Wiar was still there along with another redmage from their Temple-Guild, and there were eight of them left from the others.

The temporary bodyguard went home, and Meea took up her duties, following Liatsi everywhere. She slept in a suite between the hallway and Liatsi's chambers, and sat next to the princess while she read petitions and spoke to her advisors and the Regency Council who - on paper - ruled until she attained majority and received her crown. In practice, they listened to her; Meea would be surprised if they so much as adjusted tax rates on temples without consulting Liatsi.

There was a tiny temple inside the palace, staffed by one non-mage cleric who let Meea stand in front of the Shrine to Hours and hold the bowl of sand whenever Liatsi was there to pray. When Liatsi chose a redmage, they'd have a little dedication ceremony, each mage in front of the relevant shrine - Shrine to Love, Shrine to Sight, Shrine to Breath, Shrine to Life.

The princess still hadn't picked a redmage by the time she was obliged to take her pre-coronation tour of Cefax to receive endorsements from nobles and representatives of the people. Meea went along on this tour, naturally, but all the other mages - chosen white, green, and blue, and reds of uncertain fate - stayed behind.

With the two of them alone in the cab of the carriage and definitely inaudible to the driver over the roar of rain, Liatsi said, "I'm having trouble choosing among the redmages."

"I noticed," said Meea.

"Have you met them?" Liatsi asked.

"Only the ones from my Temple-Guild. And I don't know either of them very well, although I've talked to Wiar some."

"I've met them all several times now. They don't seem to know what to do with me, any of them. I'm not going to touch a redmage who I have no preexisting relationship with, but they seem to think that's the prerequisite for them even attempting to serve as confidantes or counselors. I'm not asking them to handle sensitive information, but I'd like to know that I can become comfortable talking to a person before I attempt to employ them that way for the rest of our lives."

"They don't have special confidante or counselor skills for people they don't Know," Meea said. "Redmages don't get any training. Their magic is automatic and the other stuff falls out of that naturally."

"I suppose," frowned Liatsi, her eyes lingering on the droplet on Meea's forehead and then the sash around her robes. "How do other... clients... of redmages select among them?"

"They don't get terribly much choice. They go on a waiting list, and they can take the next redmage that opens up for a new client, or wait. Although I think most of them express a gender preference. You sent home all the women," she pointed out. "They sent more men than women redmages in the first place for just that reason."

Liatsi smiled a thin smile. "They got it backwards, if that's what they were thinking."

Meea blinked. "But you sent the women redmages home."

"Yes. I know. I am not planning to do anything but receive counselor and confidante services from my redmage, when I manage to choose one."

Oh. Well, of course Liatsi couldn't marry a redmage; she'd have to marry some noble or a foreign prince or similar, whether princes were her preference or not. If she were all about strict pairwise relationships like Tse Vioko thought then this made sense. Sort of. Not a great deal of sense, Meea thought, if Liatsi didn't even like men, but some.

"Oh," said Meea.

"Are they supposed to be interchangeable apart from that?" asked Liatsi helplessly.

"No, of course not. Especially not ones who're barely dwindled at all," Meea said. "They've got personalities."

Liatsi looked out the window, frowning. Little wisps had escaped from the rolls of her hair and were twitching in the wind. She was all broad sleek curves, especially in profile, and when she had her eyes pointed at the scenery Meea could look at them just a little. "They don't seem particularly interested in displaying any personality traits."

"Redmages are more... sheltered than a lot of others," Meea said. "My pa's a redmage. He interacts with his clients, and my ma, and me, and that's just about it. I don't think he knows how to talk to people he's not touching anymore. I know Wiar's only ever touched his parents and Iamica -"

"That's his servant?"

"Yeah, his attendant-to-be," Meea said. "And they're together, if that matters." Should she have mentioned that? She didn't know. "He had a normal conversation with me once, but I'd just saved him from getting grabbed by a kid from the orphanage, so that might be a special case." And he'd said she was pretty. But that was probably irrelevant.

Liatsi's mouth formed a thin line. "Do you happen to know how that happened?"

"How what happened?"

"How he and his attendant-to-be came to be 'together'. I don't suppose they had a romance at arm's length first."

"I don't know about their specific case," Meea said. "But what usually happens is that the redmages pick a servant they like when they're fourteen or fifteen, before they get loaded up on clients, and get that servant assigned to them specifically, and then Know them, and some of them wind up together and some don't."

Liatsi relaxed visibly. "So he picked her out."

"Probably, yes. Why?"

Liatsi didn't chew on her lip or display any similar makeup-ruining habits, but she did look pensive. "I'm not entirely sure if I should say."

Meea shrugged. "Your call. But until you pick a redmage you don't have anyone around with a special advantage at confidante-ing."

"That's true," mused Liatsi. "And he's dead."

"Who's dead?" Meea asked.

"My father is dead."

"Yes," Meea agreed slowly. "I was very sorry when I heard."

Liatsi shook her head distantly. "Everyone was. I was never close to him personally, but yes, Cefax lost a good king."

There was a silence. "What about him?" Meea prompted.

"Well, he had a redmage, Tse Casia." At Meea's nod, Liatsi went on: "And when I was very young, I found her journal, and I read it. I didn't read the entire thing, I didn't have the attention span when I was six, but I found the entries leading up to her coming to the palace. She was a terrified fifteen-year-old girl, she didn't want to be there, she was only worried she'd upset her scheduler and her parents and disappoint her attendant who wanted to live in the palace - and so she stayed put and tried to look pretty, and my father took advantage of her."

Meea swallowed. "Wouldn't she have been fine as soon as he touched her? She'd have been happy later on..."

Liatsi shrugged minutely. "I didn't know her well. I didn't read the rest of her journal or seek her out; I certainly never touched her myself. I suppose she didn't seem unhappy as far as I could tell. But he could have been more careful, he could have picked someone who wanted to be there, or left her alone except for her actual job description the way my mother did. But you say redmages have personalities; surely they don't evaporate on contact? Not immediately, not if one is only on the fourth or fifth client?"

"They don't," Meea said. "No."

"So, I sent the women home, I'm not liable to be tempted to misuse any of those who remain," Liatsi said, businesslike. "But they're not at all forthcoming about whether they want to be here at all - and I haven't quite managed to work a conversation around to the fact that I don't plan to take them to bed."

Meea's mouth felt quite dry. She nodded.

"Will they talk to you?" Liatsi asked. "Could you do me the kindness of finding out, when we've gone back to the palace?"

Meea nodded again.

The tour took fifteen days; they didn't visit every corner of Cefax, or even leave the main island. They just stopped in three of the largest cities and at one count's country estate, where everyone Liatsi needed to see clustered. Meea got to watch Liatsi give speeches on everything from spice exports to Cefax's musical heritage to the condition of the standing army. Liatsi was a good speechwriter - though she collaborated with a specialist - but not a good speaker; her violin-voice worked better in small rooms than over lawns or auditoriums, and she'd skip half-sentences by way of overcompensating for a tendency to repeat herself if she went more slowly. She commanded respect anyway, and she got the endorsements she needed without overmuch fuss. Her parents had never managed to conceive another child and her nearest cousins weren't mounting challenges to her claim.

There were long stretches of time when it was just Meea and Liatsi in the carriage, on their way from one stop to the next, and with the ice broken, they talked. Mostly about the same topics as the speeches - Liatsi went over them on the trips, and Meea was a convenient audience. Meea asked questions. She was tentative at first, but then less so, when Liatsi proved willing to answer them and sometimes edited the speeches for clarity in response.

They also discussed future trips on which Meea would accompany the princess: after the tour of Cefax, there was nothing scheduled until Liatsi's coronation where she officially took leadership of the country, but after there would be a whirlwind of international travel. Liatsi would only be a princess, not a queen, until she was married and had an heir. She described this process with a kind of removed distaste; she couldn't just decline to marry out of her lack of attraction to men, the way a comparable mage or even a commoner might. Not with the succession on the line.

It was during a lull in a conversation on this subject that the topic unexpectedly turned to Meea instead.

"You didn't bring any companions with you," Liatsi observed.

"No, Princess."

"Nearly everyone else did. I had been under the impression that mages collected so many lovers that the limit of three to a person would be oppressive, especially as it included personal servants."

Meea swallowed. "Most of us have two or three, but not necessarily at my age. Redmages tend to settle in with theirs earlier because it's easier for them. Bluemages try to find people early on because when they're dwindled it's much better if they're already accustomed to, and have good ingrained reactions to, the people they'll need to trust to attend them. There's not that much hurry for anyone else. I had a - friend, not really a girlfriend, and she's not a personal servant, she works in the kitchens. We weren't serious enough for me to ask her to leave with me. I might have asked my parents to come, if I thought they would, but my ma doesn't like to leave the Temple-Guild and my pa would miss his clients."

"He's the redmage," recalled Liatsi.


"What is that like?" Liatsi inquired.

"Redmages make the best parents," Meea said. "If they have help. They can't do the practical stuff all by themselves for long. I mean, they certainly Know what a baby wants when it's crying, they can tell when no one else has any idea, but they don't necessarily remember where the milk-mix is kept or how to change a diaper, so they might not be able to do anything about it. But there's nothing better for making sure a child feels loved and safe than a redmage father or mother. About two-thirds of the married couples in the Temple-Guild who adopt kids include a redmage."

"You have brothers and sisters, then?"

"Not that I ever met," Meea said. "I mean, yes, I had them - I had six, I have nieces and nephews even but I'm not close to them - but my brothers and sisters were all dead before I was born. My parents were all done raising kids, they're in their sixties now, but then I came along and I was a baby, not a five year old, so my ma said it would be okay."

"Why did that matter?" asked Liatsi.

"One of my sisters was a goldmage prodigy - of sorts - who duplicated herself when she was six, and didn't kill the duplicate or even ask someone else to do it," Meea said quietly. "No one found out for a day and a half; they took turns hiding in the granary. My ma killed one when she caught them together, but the other only lasted four more years. Ma didn't want to lose another kid that way. And I had a goldmage brother who was a year younger than that sister, and Ma tried conditioning him -"

"She's a greenmage."

"Yes. But she overshot, and he was timid about magic, too timid. He got along for years anyway, because he could pause when he really needed to, but then he had a job that wound up with him needing to jump back, and he couldn't stand to do it. He went back to the Temple-Guild fast as he could to get the conditioning undone so he could make the jump, but the trip took almost a week, and I guess he didn't start out with that many years to work with - everyone's different. He didn't make it back, it was too far to go."

"But then your mother took in another goldmage child," Liatsi said curiously.

"Becuase I was a baby," said Meea. "When she tried conditioning my brother she'd only had him for half a year, they got him from the orphanage like most of us, he was five. By the time I was going to learn any magic, she'd known me all my life and she could be much more exact about how much aversion would get me exactly the right amount of reluctant to use magic. I've had to jump back once, and I did. I don't think she was sure that I was okay until I told her about that."

"Is this related to what a Caplari is doing in a Cefaxi Temple-Guild?"

Meea sighed. "I'm not really Caplari, am I? Importantly? I know I look it, but I don't speak the language or know anything about the place beyond the name of the capital city, which I don't think I pronounce right anyway. My parents are Cefaxi. I -"

"My apologies. My mother was occasionally paranoid about foreign infiltration, and some of it seems to have rubbed off on me," Liatsi murmured.

"Anyway. My birth mother - or at least we think that's who she was, but I suppose she could have been anyone - broke into the Temple-Guild with me and dunked me in the Godspring. I couldn't have been more than a few months old at the time," Meea explained. "Tse Alsar killed her, but I was already the Temple-Guild's responsibility. My parents took me in."

"And no one knows why she was there?" Liatsi asked, frowning. "He didn't even stop to interrogate her?"

"Tse Alsar's a bluemage," Meea explained. "He wasn't too dwindled then, but he'd been working long enough that wondering why someone did something wouldn't occur to him naturally. It would have been better if someone else had caught her but not many are out of their housekeeps at night."

"Ah. You seem very calm about this," observed the princess.

"I didn't know her," Meea said. "My parents are wonderful. There have to be punishments for people who try to ruin the Temple-Guild's equilibrium or the entire thing would fall apart; she wasn't special."

Liatsi nodded. "Why is it that children are raised by couples, anyway, in Temple-Guilds - when the couples have so many branches and mages can't have their own children?"

"What? We can," said Meea, confused. "We just shouldn't, most of the time - one of my nephews isn't adopted, though."

"Oh? I was misinformed, I suppose."

"We're not sterile. We just make sure everyone above the age of eleven has enough powdered Seedlessness to leave an entire city barren for a decade," Meea said. "Whitemages shouldn't be pregnant, they'll only get sick and miscarry - goldmages can miscarry too, if we pause or jump during a pregnancy, but it's otherwise safe - bluemages tend not to like being pregnant, they can't really look forward to making a person any more than they can think about people who've been born already so they just find the side effects annoying, and they'll wind up swallowing a dose of Emptiness if no one stops them. Redmages and greenmages are fine as long as they're attended well enough, they just usually don't. There are plenty of orphans, and then we don't have to take any higher risk than necessary of their being drains on the Temple-Guild."

"That makes sense," said Liatsi. "And the married couples part?"

"Well, they have help," Meea said. "My ma has two boyfriends who helped out - not mages, they just work there. But as for why I was adopted by two people and not one or a bunch - I don't know, just tradition I suppose."

"It would be so convenient," said Liatsi quietly, "if I could adopt a child and have everyone accept him or her as my heir. I don't overwhelmingly wish to be addressed as Queen instead of Princess. I am not enthusiastic about marrying. But I need an heir."

"I don't think I can help you," said Meea.

"I know," Liatsi said. "But you can listen."

Chapter Four

"Tse Witwex," said Nicixa. It was halfway through Meea's class on pausing. Nicixa had the basics down ahead of the rest of the cohort; she was a bright girl. And so she asked Meea questions while the other children went over their mnemonics in preparation for their coming written efficiency tests.

"What is it, Nicixa?" Meea asked, keeping her voice down so she wouldn't disturb the children chanting "Pause Only When In Danger" and "Two Cannot Pause Together".

"Yesterday I knocked over an ornament. And I paused, to catch it, and I did! And my pa slapped me and then he cried! But if I'd broke the glass he would've made me pay for it! I would've had to work in the stables or the kitchens or given all my aunts' and uncles' attendants days off and it would've taken me weeks! Pausing for a second doesn't cost weeks, best we can tell, right, Tse Witwex? It was better to pause!"

"Oh," sighed Meea. "Oh, Nicixa. There's two reasons your pa did that. One's that it's a bad habit. You will always want to use magic for things just a little smaller than the last thing you used it for. We build a big solid wall around only using magic when it's part of a scheduled job so you won't slide into patterns that will hurt you."

Nicixa nodded slowly. "What's the other reason?"

"The other reason is that pausing isn't just spending time. It's killing time."

Nicixa didn't understand, by the look on her face. This was a phrase Meea's own teachers had used with her, but just because it sounded plain to her apparently didn't mean it could go unexplained.

"If you'd broken the vase," Meea said, "you would have spent two or three weeks working in the stables or the kitchens, or attending your aunts and uncles, right?"

"Right, which is why -"

"And do you think that time you'd have spent doing that would be worthless to you?" Meea said sharply.

Nicixa blinked at her.

"You hate your aunts and uncles - you'd rather someone knock you out and leave you unconscious in bed, not even dreaming, than spend an afternoon going over checklists and talking to lonely dwindled mages? You can't stand horses - you'd rather sleepwalk your way through combing them and pouring oats into their bins and arguing with the servants about what you should name the new foal, than experience a minute of it? You despise cooking - you'd be happiest if you had no sense of smell so you never had to endure inhaling the scents of soup and fruit and spices again, it's so detestable to you?"

The girl opened her mouth, but didn't say anything, even when Meea paused to look expectantly at her.

"Do you find it so unendurable to be alive, Nicixa?" Meea asked.

"I - I -"

"Just because you would have gotten money to pay for the vase by working servant jobs for a few weeks doesn't mean that is all you would have gotten for those few weeks," said Meea, picking her way slowly and distinctly through the sentences. The other students were listening in too, their exercises forgotten. "You would have gotten to live them. Time you lose pausing is not time you get to spend living, not even living through your least favorite chores. At the end of those weeks of work, however wasted you think they might have been, you would have learned new things and gotten closer to your friends and family and accomplished something valuable enough for the Temple-Guild that they'd have traded money for the work. Instead you destroyed a few hours, maybe a couple of days, of your life, and during those lost hours or days you will do nothing, not even cook or care for horses or attend your relatives."

"Oh," whispered Nicixa.

"Instead of a vase you ruined something more valuable and your pa cannot buy it back for you, no matter how much he wishes you still had it." Meea was belaboring the point, but it was an important one, and she had no idea how thick-skulled Nicixa had to be to have missed it in the first place. Wasn't she clever? Didn't she know all the lessons?

"I don't hate my aunts and uncles," Nicixa said softly.

"Then don't die younger than you have to just to keep away from them," Meea replied, brisk and tart, "or they might become confused on that point." And she turned to direct the other students back to what they were doing.

There were plenty of non-magical guards in the palace. Meea would still be ultimately responsible if someone got through them and hurt Liatsi, but the risk of her needing to jump for that reason was low: everyone knew she'd do it, so they'd be unlikely to render it necessary. She could wander away from her charge within the walls.

Meea talked to redmages. It would be too easy to start with Wiar and, on hearing a "yes, I want to be here", report that and only that to Liatsi; but that wasn't what Liatsi wanted her to do. So she started with everyone else.

It might have been too optimistic to assume they'd talk to her, Meea decided, after the first one shied away from the door upon seeing her and asked if it was an emergency. The second one had his attendant-to-be answering the door, and she wouldn't let Meea in "just to chat". Meea understood as well as anyone that redmages had to be careful - it was, after all, much easier to accidentally touch someone in the room with you than someone who was farther away - but this seemed excessive to her.

The third one she tried wore gloves, and a hood-and-mask that left only his eyes uncovered. He let her in. "What did you want to talk about?" he asked, and Meea suddenly had very little idea what to say. Explaining that she was supposed to report to Liatsi would not be more effective at getting honest information to Liatsi.

"I just haven't met many mages from other Temple-Guilds before," she settled on. "Most of them left before I had a chance to settle in here, but there are still redmages to talk to."

The redmage nodded slowly. "So... what do you want to know?"

"Did you like it, at home? Or do you like it here better?"

"What do you mean?"

It occurred to Meea that he was responding to her attempts at conversation exclusively with questions. She was talking to a person who had the ability to understand others so deeply that he could only barely not read their minds, and she was not one of those others, and he found her bewildering.

"I mean - if you had your way would you stay here and work for the Princess, or would you go home?"

He blinked. "I was a volunteer," he said tentatively, like he wasn't sure if that answered her question. "I don't know how they do things at your temple-guild, but they asked at ours, who wanted to go."

That sufficed for Meea's purposes and she found she didn't want to prolong the conversation. "Oh, that's good." And she got up. "I've got to go."

He didn't ask where or why. "Oh."

None of the other redmages would talk to her when she tried them. Except, she suspected, Wiar.

Iamica answered the door, but she smiled at Meea. "Wiar's taking a nap," she said. "But he'll see you when he wakes up, if you'll wait."

Meea nodded, and wondered why Wiar had picked Iamica out of however many servants he'd had to choose from. She was overwhelmingly average - didn't have Luvi's distinctly pointy chin, or Liatsi's sleek, regal convexity, or Wiar's sparkling, expressive eyes. But of course not everyone agreed with Meea about who was and who was not pretty, and of course Wiar could have had other criteria in mind. "I'd like to talk to him, yes."

"I might be able to answer your question, if it's a question," Iamica pointed out.

She might, but Meea wanted to talk to Wiar again directly. "I'll just wait."

Iamica nodded. "He'll be awake at noon - I'll get him up then if the chime doesn't do it."

There was a bench in the hall, three slabs of marble with room for two. Meea sat and waited, and Iamica hesitated before slipping out and joining her. The door closed quietly behind her. "Do you want Wiar?" Iamica asked with a small smile.

Meea had not expected to be asked that question. "Wha?"

"He likes you," Iamica said matter-of-factly. "If he stays at court do you want him? He has personal discretion left, he's never used any, he isn't close to his brothers and sister or anything."

"I - don't know?" Meea tried. If she was going to have this conversation, Iamica wasn't the person she wanted to have it with.

"Oh. He didn't ask me to ask you," Iamica said. "He obviously likes you, so if he hasn't talked to you himself yet maybe he thinks he should just plot to fall on you coincidentally or something. But I think that would be a bad idea."

"That would be a really bad idea," agreed Meea, feeling her heartbeat speed up. What would that be like, if out of nowhere she was knocked over and Wiar's hand brushed against her cheek and there was a rush of love...? "If he's the sort of person who plots to fall on people - then how has he not used any of his personal discretion yet?"

"He doesn't generally contemplate falling on people," said Iamica chattily. "He probably isn't now either, he's probably just hanging back because he hasn't been picked so far. But he was so moved when you stopped that little girl at the orphanage. Thank you for that, by the way."

"You're welcome," Meea said automatically.

"Do you think the princess will pick him?" Iamica asked. She didn't seem to expect Meea to have the answer. "She's waiting to make a choice an awfully long time. She keeps calling them all in for interviews."

"I don't know," Meea said. "Maybe." Probably. She could most likely get a straight answer out of Wiar, it might very well be "I want to stay here and fall on you", she could relay that to Liatsi, and it would compare favorably with the non-answers from all the other redmages.

"It's nice here," sighed Iamica. "I like the weather, it's nice and warm."

Meea nodded agreeably. When the chime for noon pealed, she let out a breath.

Iamica slipped back into Wiar's room. He came to the door presently, still adjusting the chain with the carnelian droplet around his head while Iamica picked a bit of lint off the shoulder of his robes. "Hi, Meea," he said, smiling and giving no indication that he intended to pitch forward and wind up with his nose against her forehead or anything of that nature.

"I was just wondering if you like it here," Meea said. "Um, Liatsi's keeping all the redmages around a lot longer than anyone expected."

"If she picks me I'll be here my whole life," Wiar said, looking amused. "I'm not going to complain about being kept around a few weeks while she makes sure."

"Do you want to get picked, though?"

Wiar nodded. "I might not Know Liatsi, now, but I have a good impression of her. And the limited client list would mean I'd get to keep - not my long-term memories, so much, those would be gone by the time she got married and had a couple of children, but I could keep enough short-term to be basically functional. I'm not looking forward to burdening Iamica."

Iamica nuzzled his upper arm; he was considerably taller than she was. "I won't mind when the time comes."

"I know," he said, beaming at Iamica. "But I'd like to put off forgetting your name as long as I can, even though I'll always Know you."

Meea felt suddenly intrusive. "That's good then," she says. "No one asked me if I wanted to be presented. I didn't mind, but - no one asked."

"No one asked me either," said Wiar. "But I think my father would have listened to me if I'd asked him to interfere. I just... why would I?" He shrugged, and smiled at Meea. "Why wouldn't I want to live in the capital with Iamica and have only the royal family as my clients for at least much of my life?"

Meea supposed that Tse Casia, the king's redmage, could have been just as terrified of the far larger number of people she'd have been asked to handle if he'd sent her home.

"That makes sense," she said.

Some motion of Wiar's hand or Iamica's, hidden behind their backs, brought them into contact - Meea could only tell because Wiar smiled more intensely and Iamica's eyelashes fluttered, but she decided she needed to excuse herself anyway. "I'm going to find Liatsi," she said, because at her client's side was still an appropriate place for her to be even if it was optional inside the palace.

"Bye," said Wiar. Iamica was obviously too distracted to say anything.

Meea hurried out, closed the door, and took a few deep breaths before she went looking for the princess.

Liatsi did not find the limited information Meea had been able to gather satisfactory. "It sounds as though Wiar only spoke to you because you already know each other. That doesn't necessarily mean he's more willing to be here than anyone else," she said.

"I'm sorry," Meea said. "The only redmages I've talked to before were from my own Temple-Guild. I guess even if they didn't know me personally they knew I'd been raised with rules they were familiar with and that I was safe. I didn't know it would be so different with redmages from other places."

The princess nodded, but frowned. "I can't make a decision on this basis. I suppose I'll continue interviewing them; perhaps they will eventually be comfortable enough that they'll be willing to talk to me directly. If there is some kind of emergency such that I need a redmage immediately, I can select your friend without feeling too exploitative, I suppose."

"Emergency?" Meea asked.

Liatsi smiled, not happily. "I'll be meeting possible husbands, shortly after my coronation. It's not impossible I'll abruptly require comfort during that time. I don't yet know."

Meea wanted to hug her. She didn't, but she wanted to very keenly.

Meea didn't have to follow Liatsi around while they were in the palace. She often did anyway. She watched Liatsi answer letters from the nobility. She stood outside the chambers while Liatsi interviewed redmages, again, trying to distinguish between them without going on their faces or shapes. She sat at Liatsi's left hand at meals, looking across the table at the spot where the chosen redmage would sit when the princess picked one. She lurked in the background while Liatsi met with advisors. There was a bewildering array of stuff for Liatsi to do, and even more that she couldn't yet do, that the Mandate of Cefax tied Liatsi's hands about until she was queen rather than princess.

"It seems likely to be efficacious in resolving the trade disputes with Mocorne if you were to marry from among their princes - or even a lesser Mocorni noble," said the Minister of Commerce. "They have strongly insinuated that they would be amenable in such a case to a mutual abolishment of tariffs, and the gains from increased marginal exchange would be a buoy to the middle class which would generate even more royal revenue than the trade fees do, over the long run."

Meea felt half-asleep, but Liatsi took in every word. "Improving trade with the Mocorni would be valuable, but I am unsure it is the most important goal I could accomplish with my marriage," Liatsi said quietly. "The Pexarin States -"

"The Pexarin States don't have a nobility, let alone princes," snorted the Minister of Diplomats. She was not herself an ambassador; they simply reported to her. "Even if marrying a commoner of any political status were appropriate... Wedding their consul nets you nothing. The senators will just vote him out if they decide they don't like you, or don't like him favoring Cefax."

There was a murmur of agreement, and Liatsi gracefully accepted the correction and redirected the meeting towards what could be done about the fractious Pexarin States and their insistence that their neighbors all ought to adopt their system of government. There was nothing further said about who Liatsi would marry.

Until later that evening, when Liatsi retired to her chambers and had not yet dismissed Meea.

"What do your choices look like?" Meea asked idly.

Liatsi tugged a bellpull for the servant who looked after her hair and knew how to get it out of all the pins without snarling it. She didn't ask what Meea meant. "A Mocorni prince. There are several. And they are tightly knit enough with the rest of the nobility that I could gain almost as much by marrying a duke, who would be less likely to expect much power to come with the match. A Caplari prince - there are two, but one is elsewhere promised. The king of Niohain is unmarried, and there is the complication - or advantage, depending on how one looks at it - that he would need to spend much of his time in Niohain while I would need to spend much of my time here. So that would involve a fair amount of overseas travel, but also considerable time spent without him." She shrugged. "I have, regrettably, met none of these individuals in person more than a handful of times."

The servant arrived, took Liatsi's hair out of its rolls and tucked it into a loose braid, and then bowed and backed out of the room.

Liatsi asked Meea, "Have you generally expected that you'd marry one day?"

"I suppose," Meea said. "I didn't have anyone in mind though. I haven't any knack for talking to dwindled bluemages, so it would have to be some other kind. My friend - I mentioned her - I couldn't marry her, obviously, she wasn't a mage or a man, and I wasn't seeing anyone else." Meea shrugged. She wished she had a better idea for what to do with her hands.

"Why is it that mages only marry each other?" Liatsi asked, moving towards her wardrobe for her nightclothes. Meea turned around, warm-faced, and looked at the molding around the base of the wall.

"I'm not sure, Princess," said Meea. "That is - I suppose I could say it's because clerics and mages won't marry a mage to a non-mage, but I don't know why they won't."

"They? You could perform a marriage, couldn't you?"

"I guess I could," Meea agreed. "I never have."

"Would you marry a mage to a non-mage? If your friend - Wiar - wanted to marry his attendant-to-be?" Liatsi inquired.

Meea shook her head, assuming Liatsi was looking in her direction. "I don't know why we don't, but the fact is that we don't. Besides - Wiar could marry them, if they wanted it badly enough. He's a mage too."

"Mm, that's true."

"You're not thinking you'd marry a mage, are you?" Meea asked. "Princess?" she added, to temper the impertinence.

Liatsi laughed. "No. There's too much - politics, and given my way in a world without politics I wouldn't marry at all. No. But I am given a little to curiosity. You may turn around now if you like."

Meea turned. Liatsi's dress was hung up in the wardrobe, and she was in a loose nightgown instead.

Liatsi was gazing at the ceiling. "I have given up the hope of being able to learn anything about the redmages without being among their clients, and it is unfair to continue to use you as a variety of mage you are not. Tomorrow morning, will you bring me Wiar?"

"Yes, Princess," Meea said. And she didn't say if you were using me like a redmage, you'd touch me.

Meea didn't supervise anything about Wiar's introduction to Liatsi. Sessions with redmages were normally very private things, and this was not among the exceptions.

Wiar left the chamber after a full three hours, which Meea spent sitting on a bench in the hallway near the door. He drifted out of the room, adjusting his gloves, incandescently happy. "Hi, Meea," he sighed.

"Hi," Meea replied.

"It looks like I'm going to be here for good," he said, sitting beside her.

"That's good," said Meea.

"And I - I'm sorry, I don't know how to ask this question," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "It's not often asked this way around, in an - an unstructured way. It's not like when I asked Iamica and I had what amounted to a job offer for her."

"You can still remember asking Iamica?" Meea asked.

Wiar nodded. "If my guess is right I'll keep that for the next - three or four people I add, maybe longer. And I have my journal, of course. But - you know what I asked Iamica?"

Meea could say 'you asked her to be your attendant', and be deliberately unhelpful. She didn't. "Yes," she said instead.

"I'm asking you," he said, smile retreating shyly until it was just a dip at each corner of his mouth.

Meea wondered what it was like, with someone who wasn't her pa, someone who'd love her not as their child, someone beautiful like Wiar. Someone who liked her, and wanted to love her, because of something she'd done and not because she'd fallen into his life.

"My room?" she murmured.

Wiar grinned at her and nodded.

Chapter Five

"Tse Witwex," said a small bluemage. "Why can't I see the gods?"

Meea was developing a headache. She was a decent teacher and she knew the standard course of theology material, but these facts were not combining as expected. "We're learning about the sacrifice wall today, not about seeing gods," she said. "Now, contrary to what some confused new mages think, it is not a list of people who are going to be sacrificed the way you might sacrifice a bird or -"

"But Tse Witwex," said the bluemage child insistently. "I can't see them. I tried! I asked to be allowed and my grandma laughed and said I could look for gods all I want and nothing happens!"

"I'm not an expert on bluemagery," Meea said.

"But you're supposed to teach us gods," said the child stubbornly.

Meea tried again. "The carvings on the sacrifice wall are our record of who has been turned into a mage, because all mages make sacrifices of themselves, piece by piece -"

"Why can't I see the gods, Tse Witwex?"

"Bluemages can't see them," Meea snapped finally. "That's not how gods work. You can't see air with bluemagery either. Your farsight and pastsight work differently from your eyes, since they'll show you things from all directions and distances at once, but they don't show you things that are invisible like the wind or the gods."

And just as Meea knew it would, this prompted a torrent of questions from all of the children at once. "But the Collected Poems says the gods have colors!" "Can you touch them?" "Do the gods stop too, when a goldmage pauses?" "If a greenmage found a god -"

"Enough!" exclaimed Meea. "The gods have colors the way mages have colors. I'm not gold, I'm brown, but if I touch Godspring water it turns gold. That's because Ua of Hours chose me, instead of one of the other gods of the spring. Gold is its color. You can't touch the gods any more than you can see them. Gods can do as they like, regardless of what any goldmage does, especially Ua. Certainly a greenmage can't affect one, don't be ridiculous. Gods are not like people."

Apparently she'd said all this sharply enough to quiet the class.

"The sacrifice wall -" Meea began.

The quiet proved temporary. "If the gods aren't like people then why does my uncle say Tsi of Love loves everyone like it's a redmage?" a boy blurted.

Meea rubbed the bridge of her nose. "We covered this in the first few lessons. Mages double as clerics because using magic makes us more like gods. That doesn't mean we're remotely similar to them even when we're as dwindled as we can get."

"So Tsi -"

"Tsi of Love Knows and loves everyone and remembers nothing, but it's a god, not a person, so it doesn't need memories: it's a god, so it can remind itself of anything it wants to know instantly. A redmage is more like Tsi of Love than a non-mage is, in the way a fish is more like a human than a worm is."

"What about Ua?" a small goldmage asked.

"And the others, what about Ci and Mu and Ial?" demanded a whitemage.

Meea scrunched her eyes shut with frustration and decided that answering would be faster than trying to force them back to the planned lesson. "Ua of Hours is immortal, so it can change time as it pleases and lose nothing, because forever minus a day or a year or a million years is still forever. Ci of Life is responsible for all the growing and healing that happens in nature, which is so vastly greater than what any whitemage can do in the course of their career even with godlike luck - but gods can't get sick or hurt, because they have no bodies to weaken. Mu of Breath gives people and animals all the instincts that let us live at all, and it doesn't matter that it doesn't have any of its own because it has no body to take care of. Ial of Sight can see everything, always, and it's a god, not a person, so it doesn't have to be able to think about people to think about itself."

The next half minute passed without further questions. Meea resumed the planned lesson. "The sacrifice wall has been in place in its current form for nearly three hundred years..."

A small voice interrupted her again. "If Tsi loves everyone, and doesn't need its memories, why do bad things happen?"

"No one knows," said Meea. "Let's get back to our lesson now."

Meea only took Seedlessness once a week - enough that an extra dose on top of that regimen would leave her body largely hostile to pregnancy, if taken after she unexpectedly tumbled into bed with someone who could cause such a thing. But not enough to be certain. And she needed to be able to pause, or jump, without causing a medical emergency, if she had to protect Liatsi. If this ended the way it was obviously going to end, she needed to be sure - "Wiar, you take your powder, right?" she asked, awkwardly, fumbling with the door to her room until it swung open.

"Iamica puts it in my tea. Every morning," Wiar assured her, following her in and closing the door after them. He nudged his gloves off bit by bit. He was looking at her, eyes sweeping up and down like he wanted to be able to read her secrets from across the room, like he wasn't patient enough to wait a moment and learn her by magic.

She looked right back, because she could only learn things by observing them - and because he was so lovely, such eyes, such long legs and delicate hands. And any moment those hands would reach out and brush against her skin.

The gloves were off. Wiar dropped them on the rug.

"Is there some - I don't know how this is normally done, I was a baby when my pa first picked me up," Meea said, flustered.

"You're really going to need to stop comparing me to your pa," Wiar said, raising his eyebrow. "Unless I was very far wrong about how you're looking me over."

Meea bit her lip. "Well, you know what I mean."

"Nothing special beforehand," Wiar assured her. "Special part's all after. And there isn't a script for either one." He held his hand out, like one would if one were helping someone up from a low chair. Meea could just reach out and take it.

So she did.

A series of fascinated expressions passed over Wiar's face, and he paused in breathing and clasped her hand with his other one like he feared she'd flinch away.

"Oh," she murmured, "oh."

For some reason she'd imagined the sensation would appear all at once even the first time, but it didn't, it poured over her like hot honey and clung, a tactile love-song that sank through her soul while he processed what he Knew. Wiar stepped towards her, mesmerized joy all over his face, and he pressed her knuckles to his lips.

He didn't need to say he loved her. That would only be a distraction. But what next - Wiar was not Mixi, Wiar was not even slightly shaped like Mixi, how was he supposed to magically know what to do when Meea had nothing for him to go on?

He moved his kiss up her hand without lifting his head, and then he rolled up her sleeve and continued as far as it would let him. When he reached the interfering sleeve, he straightened up, wove her fingers with his, and touched their foreheads together so his face blurred before her eyes.

"Hi," he said, and she could hear the grin in his voice.

Meea burst out laughing. "Hi?"

"You were nervous," he said, "and now you're not." He twirled her, like they were dancing; Meea couldn't dance, but he tugged on her arm in just the right way and she wound up tucked under his chin with his arm around her middle. He ran his thumb along the back of her hand, up and down.

The warm beloved feeling had spread everywhere, and - Meea really did have to stop comparing him to her pa. This was not a fatherly affection Wiar had created for her. This was charged, keening, alive. Solicitous, yes. But not protective or providerly, not authoritatively benevolent.

Not chaste.

Wiar half-turned, folding himself around her, and leaned down to kiss her mouth. He kissed her like she was delicious. Meea did know how to kiss, although their heights meant it was easiest to let him do much of the maneuvering, and he seemed quite willing. Whenever Meea's lips drifted past the edges of his there was a scratch-burn from thin stubble. Whenever her teeth touched the back of his lip he made a high sound in the back of his throat.

Meea felt delicious.

After some unknown span Wiar tilted his head up, breaking the kiss and pulling in air. She kept noticing how tall he was and distracting herself with confused speculation about mechanics, and the loss of kisses to keep her occupied didn't help.

"New territory?" he asked against her cheekbone. Feet shuffled slowly; they were facing each other again.

"C-can't you tell?" Meea said, trying to laugh the words.

He ducked his head and nuzzled the inch of shoulder that her neckline left exposed; breath wisped across her skin. So loved, hummed the magic emanating from all their points of contact. "I can tell how to interpret your tone, your face, how you're standing -" His hand skimmed down her ribcage, over her waist, settled on her hip just below the sash of her robes. "I can make very good guesses. I can't read your mind outright. Can't learn anything you're not telling me one way or another."

"Oh." She swallowed. "There was a girl. Just - the one girl."

"Aren't we lucky I can still remember how everything works, then?" Wiar said, and she could feel him smile against her neck.

"Yes," Meea agreed, closing her eyes. She didn't want to let him go. Certainly not soon. It could happen by accident, and the abrupt loss of redmagic proof that he loved her would ruin the mood even if it was only momentary. "It'll - it'll be easier for you to keep hold of me if -"

"Mm-hm." His hand crept towards the knot in her sash. "If. With sufficient if, keeping hold of you will be quite effortless."

Meea laughed, and the knot came free with minimal resistance. She found it unexpectedly challenging to get her arms out of her sleeves when Wiar insisted on holding at least one of her hands at all times. He had no such trouble with his own robes; both sets landed in crumples near the foot of her ridiculously large bed at the same time despite her head start.

Meea had a sleeveless blouse on under her robes, but Wiar was apparently less prone to chills, and when he pulled her in towards him, her cheek pressed against a warm expanse of chest. She felt brief kisses speckle the top of her head, and she arched backwards to shake off the chain that was still resting on her hair.

He plucked the corresponding jewelry from his forehead and tossed it towards the robes, and peered down at her face. "You know," he remarked, "not everyone who eventually sleeps with a redmage does it the first time they touch."

"Am I freaking out that much, really?" Meea asked, hiding her face against his chest again. "I guess you'd know."

"You'd know, too," he pointed out. "I'm only watching your face. When I can see it."

"How do I figure out when to let you go?" Meea whispered, muffled.

"When Liatsi needs one of us?" he suggested. And Meea must have moved, or made a sound, without realizing it, because then he said: "Hmm."


"...Nothing. C'mere, my feet hurt." He picked her up with effort, just long enough to turn and sit on the edge of the bed, setting her sideways on his lap. "There's no hurry. She's not going anywhere and I doubt she'll need me tomorrow, let alone today."

"Your feet hurt?"

"Not badly. I don't usually stand up for that long." He shrugged; his skin slid past Meea's face where she was resting her head. Toeing off his shoes, he said, "I love you."

"I know," she murmured. It was undoubtable.

He shook his head. "Not the way I mean it. I don't love you because of magic. I Know you because of magic, and I love you because I Know you. I don't want you because of magic, either, because that is not how it works. I want you because you're beautiful and lovable. I just get -" He shrugged again. "I get a chance to understand that. And you're not sure why I'm here, however much you like it, and I want you to get it so you're not wondering why I would really like to take your shirt off."

Meea blinked.

And she smiled.

And she lifted her arms to let him do exactly that.

Iamica kept winking at her.

Meea did not wink back - she issued increasingly withering looks across the banquet table. Most servants were not even allowed at official feasts like the one on the eve of Liatsi's coronation. Iamica was only an exception because Wiar would eventually need her at his side near-constantly, even if that time wasn't soon.

Meea really ought to try to get along with Iamica, under the circumstances. Meea had never taught a class on how mages ought to amicably live together, but she'd attended them, recently enough to remember that Iamica was the sort of person who ought to be her friend. Perhaps it would develop later.

Meea sat next to Liatsi, and looked at her instead.

Liatsi ate sparingly - nerves? distraction? had she not been consulted on the menu for her own celebratory dinner by her own cooks, and found the selection unappetizing? - and looked steadily at her plate. "Kindly don't slip off with Wiar after dinner," Liatsi said, after the squab course and before the berry paste on biscuits. "I would like to see him this evening. Before the dedication ceremony."

Meea swallowed. She hadn't known Liatsi had noticed that slipping off might be a thing they'd do. "Yes, Princess."

It was a tight squeeze to have the mages all formally pledging their services to the Princess the night before the coronation, but Liatsi had waited long enough to choose a redmage that the only alternative was prolonged delay. Meea directed Wiar to leave the dinner hall with Liatsi, after the zucchini tarts were cleared away, and then made herself useful by locating the other three mages so they wouldn't have to keep the Princess waiting. They all ostensibly knew when they were expected, but while the greenmage and whitemage did indeed seem irritated at being reminded, the bluemage had apparently decided he didn't want to go, and Meea's prompt was the only thing that alerted his attendant to the need for coaxing.

Meea hung around uncomfortably while the attendant cooed instructions piecemeal - "up, now, get up, go out the door there, turn left". She knew how to talk to bluemages; if Meea had tried this one would just stare at her. Meea wasn't sure if he'd been this dwindled to begin with - surely he wouldn't have been submitted as a candidate then? - or if Liatsi had been leaning on him heavily for some reason she wasn't privy to. Or he was having a bad day; there was some variation even between use of Sight, she'd heard.

Gold and blue and white and green all took their places at the temple, and shortly a more relaxed Liatsi and Wiar joined them. Wiar stood in front of the Shrine to Love and Liatsi sat in the middle of the semicircle, crosslegged on the floor, eyes closed.

"Mages," said Liatsi.

"Princess," replied everyone else in near-unison. The bluemage wasn't throwing them off; Meea supposed he'd recovered enough presence of mind to participate normally. Wiar was speaking a beat behind everyone else, probably having trouble remembering his lines. "Behold the Shrines; we, mortal shadows of gods, welcome you to the Temple."

"Whitemage," said the Princess, addressing her choice of physician where she stood on the far right.

"Princess," the whitemage said. She didn't sound stuffy at all; she must have cleared herself for the ritual. "I have the gift of Ci of Life, and while I am with you, you will never lack for health. I will empty you of sickness and fill you with life."


"Princess. I have the gift of Mu of Breath, and while I am with you, you will never lack for ease. I will turn you from that which you name distraction, and render your duties as natural as breath."


Meea swallowed. "Princess," she said. "I have the gift of Ua of Hours, and while I am with you, you will never lack for safety. I will snatch moments from the air to protect you, and undo time itself to erase harmful hours."

"Bluemage," said Liatsi. Her eyes were still closed.

"Princess, I have the gift of Ial of Sight, and while I am with you, you will never lack for knowledge. I will peer into the past at your command, and the shapes of faraway places will be yours through my sight," said the bluemage tonelessly.

"Redmage," Liatsi said at last.

"Princess," Wiar said warmly. His voice made Meea want to squirm; he'd said her name like that earlier. He could say Liatsi's name, like that, and no one thought it noteworthy. "I have the gift of Tsi of Love. And while I am with you, you will never lack for company. I will Know your soul's needs, and I will shower you with love."

Liasti rose to her feet and opened her eyes. "I value your services. I accept your sacrifices. I will be cautious and judicious in my use of your powers. When the time comes that your gifts have dwindled and you need rest, I will provide for your care."

"Until then, I love you, Princess," Wiar said softly.

"Until then, I am your eyes, Princess," said the bluemage.

Meea said, "Until then, I am by your side, Princess."

"Until then, I will smooth your way, Princess," the greenmage put in.

"Until then, I will keep you whole, Princess," finished the whitemage.

Liatsi nodded politely to each one in turn and left, and that was the end of the ceremony. The bluemage looked around and wandered out of the room, the whitemage and the greenmage began an unrelated conversation, Wiar stole up to Meea's side and said, "I think you should follow her."

"What? Why?" Meea asked him. It was almost Liatsi's usual bedtime; she wasn't going anywhere.

He shrugged, grinning. "Go on."

If he wanted to spend this particular night with Iamica, then shooing her in Liatsi's direction would make sense. Meea gave him a puzzled look, but went out of the little temple after Liatsi and fell into step behind the princess.

"Oh," said Liatsi. "Hello."

"It was a lovely ceremony," Meea said.

"I was worried Wiar would forget his lines. Or that Tse Curin would forget the point," Liatsi admitted. Redmages did not call for any honorific from their clients. Liatsi in particular could get away with names alone for nearly anyone, but apparently she was polite enough to extend the title to her bluemage anyway.

"Have you been asking Tse Curin a lot of questions?" she inquired. "Or is he just having an off-day?"

"Not many questions," Liatsi said, lips pursed. "I'm not using him lightly. But one that was more complicated than anyone expected, and I needed him to stay in that vision for several minutes to find more information."

If Meea were entitled to details, Liatsi would have provided them. "Oh dear," she said instead.

"It's not a disaster. But it informs the question of who I will marry, somewhat."

"Oh. Is that decided, then?" Meea asked.

"I still have to ask him," said Liatsi.

"Ask who? If I may?"

"You may. It's the king of Niohain," Liatsi said quietly.

There was a silence, and Meea said, "You know, the greenmage - Tse Faix? - could help with that. Not completely - it's been tried and it can only do so much - but if you ask him he could make men, or the king of Niohain in particular if you'd rather, less unappealing."

"I'll consider asking Tse Faix about that," said Liatsi neutrally. "I am not quite clear on whether it would be an improvement. And His Majesty Annon may decline to entertain the proposal, in any case."

"Of course," Meea said.

"I'm sending the courier with the message tomorrow, after the coronation," Liatsi went on conversationally. They'd reached her chambers; Meea held the door for her, and turned towards the wall when Liatsi's hand went to the buttons on her dress.

"So you can sign it 'Princess Sovereign'," Meea guessed.

"Yes. At this point it's only a technicality, but it would be - ideal, if he agreed, and it can only help."

"Have you ever met him?"

Liatsi nodded. "At international functions. When I was eleven and again when I was fourteen. We didn't become closely acquainted, though. You may turn around."

Meea pivoted. Liatsi was sitting on the edge of her bed, scrutinizing her hands where they were folded on her knees.

"Should I go?" Meea asked. Liatsi looked tired.

Liatsi's mouth compressed in thought, and then she said, "You may."

"Goodnight, Princess," Meea murmured with a quick half-bow, and she let herself out.

Chapter Six

"Tse -"

Meea turned around before Nicixa finished calling for her attention. "What is it?" Nicixa wasn't in any of her current classes; Meea didn't even have a guess. If she hadn't been sitting alone in an empty room, double-checking Sovar's notes about her ma, she wouldn't have guessed Nicixa was calling for her.

"They're putting me on a job," Nicixa said.

Nicixa was a little young for it; usually no one was sent out before they were eleven or twelve, and Nicixa was scarcely ten if Meea was remembering the sacrifice wall correctly. But the girl knew how to pause and jump backwards and forwards, and there was only a tiny chance that the sort of job she'd be on before age fourteen would require any at all. "Oh?"

"Yeah. I'm supposed to escort Lady Calafi's daughter during the harvest festival."

"No one's likely to try to hurt Lady Calafi's daughter with you right there in goldmage robes," Meea said. "Just stick close by her and keep your wits about you."

"But I met her, because she wanted to pick her bodyguard and there are enough of us open that she had choices, and I don't like her, Tse Witwex, if I have to hang around with her for the entire festival I'm going to scream."

Meea laughed. "Is that all?"

"It's not funny! She's just odious. She only picked me because I'm her age, and that means she's going to insist on talking to me, and she said the nastiest things to the servants, I heard her, and -"

"Nicixa, why would it matter if you liked her? This is work, not a day out with a friend."

Nicixa scowled. "I'm going to have to spend four days with her. She's going to the whole thing, not just a day or two."

"You aren't there to be company. If she tries to talk to you more than you want, you can just tell her that you need to focus on keeping a lookout," Meea suggested. "You're there to knife anyone who tries to hurt her. You can do that whether you're fond of her personally or not. I certainly hope you don't want her dead."

"No," said Nicixa grudgingly. "I'd rather if I liked her, though. Four days!"

"That could be worse, liking her," Meea said. "You don't want to be too quick to think she's under attack because you're afraid for her and wind up hurting someone innocent. Or so distracted talking to her that you can't notice someone sneaking up. But even if you liked her - and even though you don't like her - you can be professional about this. Your schedulers think you're grown-up enough to do a job."

"I guess. I don't want her dead or anything," mumbled Nicixa.

"Remember, focus. You can jump back to save a client - you can't -"

"Jump back to save myself, I know, someone else would have to do it. I'll focus. I won't just think about hating her the entire festival."

"You'll be fine. You can do it," said Meea.

"Did you ever have a hard time paying attention to your job because you liked your client?" Nicixa asked skeptically. "I bet that doesn't happen, I bet you made it up."

"It hasn't happened to me," Meea admitted.

The Spiral Crown was a long strip of gold set with rubies, twisted into an open cone shape but wide enough at the base to be worn. A similar spiral appeared on Cefax's flag, stamped on the ten-riaxi coin, and on the badges of all kinds of royal agents.

Nowhere did it look more appropriate than resting on Princess Sovereign Liatsi's head, matching a gown of scarlet and sunshine.

The ceremony was called a coronation, but the crown was put in place, and the accompanying oaths of sovereignity sworn, as the first event of the day. The remainder was given to speeches, shouted over the palace's crowded courtyard by members of the Regency Council and Liatsi herself, and to music and food and dancing and celebratory chaos.

Meea clung to Liatsi like a burr throughout, trying to look in all directions at once. There were so many people. There hadn't been this many at any of the stops on the tour - at any of the minor holidays and occasions that brought guests to the palace for this feast or that commemorative event. There certainly hadn't been this many unscreened people. The Minister of Intelligence would have notified Meea if there were any rumor of a plot from any of the usual antiroyalist suspects or political factions, but attempts had been made in the past, by individuals out of nowhere or groups sufficiently good at concealing themselves...

"Do you have some reason to believe an attempt will be made on my life today?" Liatsi asked Meea in a low voice, as they stepped down from the speech platform. "While I make empty assertions about Cefax's glorious history in fishing?"

Meea wasn't aware of having been particularly tense during the part of the speech about maritime resources, but she took Liatsi's word for it. "What you're asserting has nothing to do with it. An assassin won't care about whether you're talking about fish or their pet political cause or what, only if they can catch me off guard enough to get me out of the way and you assassinated."

"Surely any remotely competent assassin knows that the Regency Council would call in another goldmage at that point. The nearest Temple-Guild is more than close enough to make that practical even including travel time for a messenger."

"And if there's enough of them, they can make a dent in your treasury - actually, if there's enough they can make a dent in the goldmage population," Meea muttered.

"I suppose. It would be nice if you could enjoy the party, though," Liatsi said.

"I'm watching everything. I can - enjoy it retroactively, when you're safe inside, with lots of guards between you and every person who decided they wanted to spend the day here."

Liatsi nodded. The crown gave the gesture more weight; Meea's eyes stilled on the princess's face, shimmery red paint on her lips, inky kohl around inky eyes. And the crown. Meea's gaze lingered for a moment longer than she wanted it to, before she went back to scanning the crowd before them and the suspicious-looking shrubbery behind.

"The makeup today isn't your usual kind. How do they make it sparkle like that?" Meea said, for lack of anything else to say. Everyone except Liatsi was pretending to listen to the Minister of Commerce; no one was jostling for the sovereign's attention while she sat in the roped-off rectangle next to the platform.

"Ground fish scales, I believe," Liatsi said. "Cefax has a glorious history of fishing, you may have heard."

Meea snorted with restrained laughter.

She checked the bushes for motion or out-of-place colors, again.

The day of the coronation passed without anyone trying to murder the Princess, and Liatsi spent the evening in the council room, composing a proposal to His Majesty Annon the Fourth of Niohain with the help of her de-Regentified Council.

"His Majesty will be unimpressed by an offer from a position of arrogance," cautioned the Minister of Diplomats, shaking her head. "I told you that you ought to have composed this yesterday at the latest - that he will not be as impressed as you imagine by the word sovereign, the reminder that he cannot impress you by making you queen consort."

"He did not marry Kaleen of Caplare, and he had the chance," Liatsi said. "He has not married any of the doubtless available young noblewomen from his own country. Something other than the fantasy of becoming a consort queen must be required for a prospective wife to gain his attention. I asked you where your information regarding the king's dispositions came from and you could not tell me."

"It's obvious! Niohain does not allow queens regnant, let alone princesses; he will find it alien -"

Liatsi closed her eyes. She was still wearing the heavy makeup that she'd put on for the coronation; with eyelashes brushing her cheeks she looked like a painting. She'd probably sit for a portrait, soon enough. "There has not been a queen regnant in Cefax for three generations. It is not alien to us even so. His Majesty of Niohain has not been brought up ignorant of other nations. Regardless - I am now crowned. Have you advice on the composition of the letter apart from what point in the past I ought to have written it?"

"It should be in your own hand," advised the Minster of Culture. "With a translation supplied, of course. And in your own words."

"I'll fetch a translator from my staff," said the Minister of Diplomats, standing.

"Don't be too specific about why you're asking him," inserted the Minister of Intelligence. "But do mention that you're asking him first, that he's your first choice."

Meea lurked in the corner of the room and watched Liatsi peel a sheet of paper from the top of the stack in front of her, and a pen.

The princess began to write her proposal. "My first choice," she repeated in a murmur. "Of course. He'll be gratified to hear it."

Meea paced and Liatsi wrote. It would have looked odd to hover over the princess long enough to read the entire thing, but she glimpsed snatches of it as she passed. "The history of friendship between our nations". "Primogeniture for your heir, in accordance with your traditions, and mine to be our firstborn daughter or second son". "A pact of mutual aid and exchange". "An even divide of the year, part of it spent with us each on our own capitals, part with I in yours, and part with you in mine". "A ceremony performed by a mage, one of the types shared between our Godsprings".

"My first choice".

The message went out, rolled up in a courier's scrollcase and due to arrive in the capital of Niohain within two weeks' time.

Meea excused herself and fled the council chamber, looking for Wiar.

The door to the room he shared with Iamica was locked.

Meea went back to her own room, lit a candle, and picked up a book she'd borrowed from the palace library and tried to start three times. She got six pages into the collected letters of the Seventh High Theologian, and put it down again in the middle of an impenetrable paragraph about whether Ua of Hours perceived time as being linear. She went to bed and blew out the light.

A palace servant woke Meea the next morning, and could not explain her presence beyond saying that Meea was required at a meeting in the council chamber.

There were no meetings scheduled which involved anyone Meea might have to protect Liatsi from, so this was bewildering, but Meea shooed the servant and shrugged into her robes anyway.

In the council chamber were Liatsi, Wiar, and Iamica - the last fidgeting nervously. This was an assembly which did little to alleviate Meea's puzzlement.

"Hello, Meea," said Liatsi. Meea took a moment to notice that this surprised her, and then realized: Liatsi had never addressed her by name, first or last. She'd have been less surprised if she'd been called "Tse Witwex" only because that was the format by which Liatsi referred to the other mages, apart from Wiar.

"The servant didn't say what the meeting was about..." Meea said, drawing up a chair.

"We have been discussing the diplomatic applications of redmagery," Liatsi said.

"The diplomatic applications?" asked Meea slowly. "I'm... sorry, Princess, I don't think I understand."

"It's been done before," Liatsi said. "Although not recently. If a redmage Knows both ambassadors - or better yet, both of the people on whose behalf the ambassadors act - then they can immensely streamline negotiations. Maintain everyone's emotional equilibrium, ensure that everyone acts in good faith, reassure the participants that their goals in the interaction are being taken seriously, guarantee a high level of honesty and straightforwardness."

"It's..." Iamica didn't look at all comfortable.

"You would not be present at this meeting if I did not want your input," Liatsi told her. "Please say whatever it is you have to say."

"I'm only worried about the scale, Princess," said Iamica in a small voice. "One person, or two, or even five, won't make that much difference to his memory. I'll only have to be more careful about looking after his schedule and not letting him wander off by himself. But there are dozens of countries you might have to negotiate with. They won't all keep the same ambassadors or kings forever. If they get accustomed to redmage-aided meetings... Cefax is the only country that gets redmages from our godsprings. They've got other kinds overseas. They can't pitch in any of their own."

Liatsi nodded. "At this time I have only three countries in mind for which the stakes are high enough to warrant the tradeoff, but it may not be a stable number, and any may experience turnover. However..." She tapped the table with long lacquered nails. "If it works as well as it may, well enough that I would want to scale it up, it will have financial as well as other benefits. And while other nations do not have redmages, they do have money. They could contribute to the cost of a dedicated diplomatic redmage, with that as his or her primary task. Suppose I were to agree to a hard limit of five diplomatic Knowings for Wiar - beyond that, if the procedure is useful enough, we will be able to retain another redmage, and if it is not, that will be the end of it. Would that be comfortable?"

"I - I think so," Iamica said. "But whether I'm comfortable isn't the point, is it?"

"I imagine it matters to Wiar," Liatsi said. "You've been quiet, Wiar. What do you think about this?"

"I'll do it if you'd like me to," he said. "I'm not as concerned about client volume as Iamica is - I know she can keep up with the work; she just won't believe it herself till she's been doing it for a year. I won't forget how to read, I have my journals -"

"They're not the same," Iamica murmured.

Wiar ruffled Iamica's hair. It was cut short and stuck up over her ears. "I've been signed up for it sooner or later since I was - four or five."

"Four," Iamica said swiftly.

"Four," he said agreeably. "And it could be useful. If I'm at all cut out for it. It might require more of a skillset than the usual job."

"I believe you could be useful in this capacity," Liatsi said. "A single test would suffice to find out for certain."

"Why am I here?" Meea blurted. "Is it just because Wiar Knows me? Iamica's the expert on the idea's effects on Wiar's... personal life."

"No, it's not because Wiar Knows you," Liatsi said, turning her head in Meea's direction. "It's because excess clientele - foreign ones - could be a security risk, and you are my bodyguard. You are also the person in the palace who is in the best position to serve as an expert on mages in general, because redmages receive no training, even on their own powers, and Iamica only knows how to take care of Wiar, not the details of how his magic works. Your father is a redmage with a full client roster, yes? What can you tell me about how he - or other busy redmages of your acquaintance - manage conflicts between people they Know?"

"Usually they don't," Meea said, blinking rapidly. "No one's tried to involve my pa in anything like that -"

"Ever?" Liatsi pressed.

Meea closed her eyes. "No, I forgot - once Cecesi and Tseca -"

"Countess Mixan? Lord Feric?" inquired Liatsi.

"Yes. I've never gotten used to calling anyone Pa talks about so affectionately by titles, but that's them, though this was before Cecesi became Countess. Anyway, they had a duel six years ago and they've settled down since that. There was a long buildup to it beforehand. They tried to drag Pa into it for a while. He - he kept throwing up, and following me or Ma around all the time holding our hands."

Iamica made a squeaking noise.

"Ma finally double-booked Tseca with Cecesi and sat through the appointment with all three of them, and I don't know if she did magic or what, but they both stopped seeing Pa until after they'd gotten around to dueling and when they came back it was over with and he was fine. But I wouldn't call any of that Pa managing it."

"What about the security risk component?" Liatsi asked. "Could Wiar, if he Knew foreign diplomats or rulers, be induced to distribute Cefaxi secrets or allow infiltrators into the palace or help with the falsification of any part of the diplomatic interactions he'd be facilitating?"

"I don't think so," Meea said slowly. "I think he'd be paralyzed if anyone tried to get him to do that, unless you piled on way more than five people and he was really confused. It wouldn't be fun for him to be stuck like that, but I don't think he could be made to act in a way that would hurt someone he loves, he'd just get less useful."

Liatsi nodded. "Wiar, are you still open to this idea? I don't plan to put you between me and anyone with whom I'm liable to go to war - but I cannot guarantee it impossible."

"You won't try to involve me in a war," Wiar said with serene confidence. "You won't give anyone else a chance to try."

"The history does suggest that redmages are useful for negotiations only during peacetime, to say nothing of my personal concern for your welfare," agreed Liatsi.

"Wiar will miss anyone he doesn't get to see after touching them, though," Iamica put in.

"Pa's got four dead clients, and more dead children," Meea said. "And clients who go on long trips or can't reliably afford to see him. He doesn't remember them; if it upsets him, it's not enough that anyone can tell."

"Wiar won't have that client load anytime soon unless the Princess has scores of children," Iamica returned. "He'll be able to remember all his clients, at least bits and pieces."

"Wiar?" Liatsi asked mildly.

He looked at his hands and shrugged. "I miss my parents," he pointed out. "As long as I have you three - any one of you, really - I can live with that. It'll be the same with an ambassador or a foreign king or anyone else I can't see often." Iamica kissed his temple.

"We'll try it with the queen of Caplare, when she comes for the renewal of the Channel Pact, should she agree," Liatsi said.

"Is there some reason to think that wouldn't go smoothly all by itself?" Meea asked.

"No strong reason," Liatsi said, lips thinning. "But some. It's a safer trial than other possibilities in large part because I do not expect Her Majesty to abruptly elect to antagonize Cefax, but that does not mean that there are no gains to be made from facilitated discussions."

Wiar pulled the glove off one hand and reached for Liatsi's hand; she closed her eyes. Then he bit his lip thoughtfully, pulled the other glove from the other hand and reached across the table towards Meea.

Meea put her palm over his fingers, puzzled.

There was a silence, with Iamica looking at the scene quizzically.

"Is that all the meeting was for?" Wiar asked presently.

"Yes," said Liatsi.

Wiar nodded. "Do you need me for anything else now?"

Liatsi shook her head.

"Me and Iamica will go, then. Meanwhile - will you kiss her already?" He withdrew his hands and got up, sweeping his gloves into his robe sleeve and leading Iamica away.

The door swung closed behind him.

"Who was he talking to?" Meea asked, not really intending to direct the question to Liatsi except by default.

"Does it matter very much?" Liatsi asked, looking away.

"I - well - not if," Meea said, and she stopped without completing any candidate sentence.

"He's only guessing," Liatsi said heavily. "He explained to me what it is that he Knows, when he Knows someone. He's not a mind-reader."

"Right," Meea said.

Plausible deniability, if she wanted it.

"And you're going to get married soon, and outside of Temple-Guilds people are all pairwise anyway, and," Meea said, stopping short again. Her hands felt like they'd shake if she lifted them from the table.

"And you're in my employ."

"And I shouldn't be distracted from my job."

"And the least breath of publicity would have dozens of people fretting about political implications."

"And you could kiss me anyway," whispered Meea.

Liatsi held utterly still for a moment, and then she leaned over the table like she was falling, and Meea tasted sugar and smoothed satiny hair under her fingers.

"He's a good guesser," Meea breathed when she could breathe again.

Liatsi's eyes filled Meea's whole field of vision, black and shining and blurred with closeness. "Very," she agreed, her voice low and sliding.

Meea wanted to do nothing but kiss Liatsi all day, and then fall asleep on her at the end of it, cushioned and warm.

Liatsi seemed partly on board with this plan - she briskly relocated them to her chambers, as the council room was open to any councilor and publicity would be problematic - but after what had to be less than an hour, she said against Meea's forehead, "I have to meet my aunt when she arrives."

"Your aunt?" Meea blinked, rubbing a smear of lipstick from the corner of her mouth.

"Father's sister, the Archduchess of the Peninsular Coast. She's visiting. Only for a few days."


"Of course there is no reason you can't come with me," Liatsi said. "But - only as my bodyguard, in front of - anyone but Wiar. Even Iamica. It would be better to let her think he guessed wrong."

"I understand," said Meea swiftly. "It's fine."

Liatsi put Meea's droplet-chain back over her hair, smiling slowly. She took a moment to fix her makeup before sweeping out of the chamber with Meea trailing her cheerfully.

Meea was Liatsi's bodyguard. She could follow her everywhere.

Chapter Seven

"Today," Meea told her class, "we're going to do a little math."

"Math?" said a boy, confused.

"You said last week," said a girl, "we don't know exactly how much all the kinds of magic cost."

Meea nodded. "In fact, we don't even know for sure if they're the same for everyone. Mostly, you should focus on using as little as possible, and mostly, that's enough. But we have enough of an idea to know how you should trade off the four prices against each other."

"There's only three," objected another boy.

"There are three manipulations you can do, but jumping backwards has two different prices - the jump costs, and the coexistence costs," Meea said. "You can ignore the backwards jump cost to a point - as long as you can make the jump at all, then the jumping self can die and the self that continues never has to worry about that. But there are sometimes cases where it's better for the jumping self to be the one to live, for short jumps when what you need to carry back is hard to explain in words. And then you need to know more about what you're costing."

Meea paced in front of the children where they sat on their cushions with their necks craned. "Pausing is cheapest. If you can get through your entire career - fully scheduled - and only ever have to pause - that is to say, if you never make a mistake - you'll probably live to be at least fifty, maybe older. This is what we know the most about, because some people do make it their whole lives only ever pausing."

"We won't have to do anything else unless we make a mistake?" asked a boy.

"Well - no. Not quite," Meea amended. "Even if you do everything right, you could still be keeping watch in the other direction when something goes wrong. And you may be asked to go back and save someone who gets themselves killed, just the same as you'd be saved. There's a complicated formula, but approximately - we'll send a goldmage back one day to warn another goldmage under thirty who can be saved. Two days for one under fifteen."

"But jump length doesn't matter," a girl complained. "Why not go back as far as you have to, for anyone you could save?"

"It doesn't matter if you make it," Meea said, thinking of the brother she never met. "But jumping backward is very expensive. Jumping selves who've gone on don't usually make it past thirty even if they do scarcely any pausing, even if the jump was only a minute - this is why the jumping self should usually not be the one to go on. And if your jump spends more lifespan than you have left to offer, you don't go anywhere. You keel over dead on the spot. Since we don't know how long anyone has left, a jump always risks that. We take small risks for people with the most to salvage - not any size risk for anyone at all."

"You could just send someone else to stop them both," the girl objected.

"If someone tries a one-day jump and it kills them, we do exactly that," Meea said. "If it's a longer jump we can't always do that. In all likelihood, no one in the entire Temple-Guild except maybe some little children without the stomach to do themselves in could make it a week into the past. We can't just keep making the stakes for each leap higher and higher. The schedulers decide when we can make the try and when we can't."

"What about jumps forward?" asked a quiet boy.

"No one does those," said his neighbor derisively.

"Jumps forward aren't the most often useful, but they're not pointless under the right circumstances," Meea said. "If you're trapped - in a burning building, tied up with ropes that'll fall away if you disappear for a moment, underground without much air and your rescue team an hour away - then it can be worth doing, and pausing won't help in those cases. Jumping back could help with the burning building, but it's messier than a hop forward - and more expensive. Jumps forward are only a little more expensive than pausing. But you won't often have to trade them off against the others, since they're good for such limited cases. Go forward if you need to; don't go farther than you need to."

"Coexistence," prompted the girl who'd said jump length didn't matter.

"Coexistence," agreed Meea. She'd lost a sister that way. Failed to ever have her, really. "As near as we can tell - which isn't very near - a moment of coexistence is ten or twenty times as bad as a moment of pausing. It is expensive. Avoid it."

"You cannot use Tse Simfane for diplomatic Knowledge of Queen Palar," said Liatsi's aunt, the Archduchess of the Peninsular Coast. "She's Caplari. Am I the only person here who's been there? Goldmage, have you?" Meea shook her head. "Where is your ambassador?"

"The ambassador to Caplare is unwell - there was no risk we were going to proceed without his recovery and confirmation, of course, - but Archduchess," said the Minster of Diplomats, "Caplari royalty are permitted contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex. It is only commoners who must be particularly careful to avoid it."

"Yes, I believe Queen Palar in particular was once observed to dance - without gloves - with my father," Liatsi said, frowning.

The Archduchess waved a hand. "Oh, yes, royalty can get away with it as long as they're popular, they're assumed to have the moral fortitude not to go fornicating willy-nilly, but that doesn't mean you can suggest that the Her Majesty hold hands with your redmage. They don't have redmages in Caplare, unless there's a transplant who slipped out of their Temple-Guild; they don't have customs around them. A Caplari - the Caplari public - will look at our redmages and think whores, and they will be distressed if their Queen touches a male one. As though redmages can't be bent to match anyone they meet..."

"Ah," Liatsi said, and Meea tried not to squirm where she stood at Liatsi's shoulder. "Thank you, Aunt. Another occasion will suit for the test of the possibility, I imagine, and if I acquire a dedicated diplomatic redmage I could request a -"

"Have your redmage meet the prince instead," the Archduchess interrupted. "The Crown Prince is going to inherit, and soon; he'll be along on the trip to watch his mother at work; you'd get more mileage out of it anyway."

Liatsi was quiet for a moment, then said, "Very well, I'll suggest that when they arrive."

"Good, good," said the Archduchess. "My, it's lucky I was here today. You know you must be even more careful about insulting Caplari than anyone else. So concerned about saving face. You know," she said, gesturing at Meea.

Meea shook her head again.

"Tse Witwex grew up in a Cefaxi Temple-Guild and has never been to Caplare, Aunt," said Liatsi.

"Hmm," said the Archduchess. "Well. Now that I've averted diplomatic disaster and we've been through the agenda, tell me about your marriage proposal."

"The rest of the Council is already familiar with what progress has been made there," Liatsi said. "Perhaps the Minister of Records would like to fetch you our copy to read?"

"Very well," the Archduchess said, and the meeting concluded there, with the Ministers and the visiting Archduchess dispersing in assorted directions.

Liatsi and Meea departed too. Liatsi's chambers were being cleaned, and disappearing into Meea's would be harder to explain. They went to the Princess's office, but heard sounds from inside - "Ministers' staff," Liatsi said. "Always in there looking for files - they knock, if I'm in, but if they're already there..." And they looked a bit farther and ultimately found themselves in the garden, inside a maze of trellises and quite invisble to anyone else who might wander by.

Then Liatsi pulled Meea into her lap and stole a kiss, and another, and a long chain of them.

Meea could get used to this.

Meea didn't mind being secret. In public, she could be with Wiar, maybe marry him one day. In private she could drown in Princessly kisses. If she was kept secret enough, Liatsi might carry on with her even past wedding the king of Niohain. If Liatsi never had to explain her, they might go on forever.

Queen Palar of Caplare and her elder son Prince Jehade arrived a day late, complaining of unfavorable winds. The ambassador was well enough to be out of bed by that time without the whitemage's services having proven necessary. He confirmed the Archduchess's advice regarding diplomatic redmagery, and he and his staff followed the visitors and their own retainers to supply translations and guidance.

Both prince and queen spoke passable Cefaxi, but their servants mostly didn't, and liased with the supplied assistants. Meea spotted no mages accompanying the party, at least not robed as such (or whatever Caplare's equivalent to robes was, but no one seemed to wear a color-coded uniform). They didn't have goldmages, overseas, and the bodyguards present were only ordinary warriors; they had bluemages and whitemages and greenmages, but there was little reason to bring those on a trip. Meea didn't know much about what else they might pull from foreign Godsprings, although she half-remembered hearing that some water could yield black, or orange-copper, or other shades of green than Mu of Breath's dark leaf.

They looked strange to Meea. She did not stare in mirrors so often that she'd added herself as an example of what people looked like and she never saw other Caplari for more than a moment at a time in crowds of natives. She expected seed-shaped eyes and shallow-rooted noses and sleek hair, which the Caplari did not have; the Caplari wore sheer veils and their cosmetics were dots of color over their foreheads and cheekbones instead of highlights of their natural features. She saw enough of her own hands to find the brown skin sensible, at least. She kept her attention on Liatsi to avoid gawping at the foreigners.

The Queen was well past sixty, and looked sharp and pinched all over, like she ate only lemons and didn't like them. Jehade, approaching thirty-five, wasn't quite as spindly, but Liatsi had at least eighty pounds on him though he was half a foot the taller. They all three bowed to each other in unison and Palar said, "We have brought gifts for our kind hostess."

The Caplari servants unwrapped bright bouquets of feathers, candied fruit in riotous colors, a chain carved from a single piece of wood. There was a cask each of a dozen powders and elixirs, made with plants that needed hotter weather than the ones for Seedlessness or Quietness or Emptiness or Numbness. They gave them different styles of names than the pattern Cefaxi alchemists preferred: "This, Princess, is Midnight; this is Orchid's Essence; this is Dewpolish; this is Antbane; this is Feversoft..." Each was named and shown from all angles and then ferried away to be stored or to wait for a decision about where it would be displayed.

Liatsi gave no presents; those would be transferred when the Caplari delegation departed. "My sincerest thanks, Your Majesty," she said.

It would apparently be rude to get to business immediately; there was a walk around the grounds of the palace, and considerable small talk asking after one another's relatives and nations, and then they played three games of three-person glasspegs (Palar won them all), and everyone sat down to lunch, and then, after dessert had been cleared away, Liatsi could bring up her idea.

Explaining redmages, and the idea, and the carefully balanced justifications for why it was worth doing versus why of course Liatsi trusted the Caplari delegation enough to consider it a safe test case, and having Wiar brought in and formally introducing him, all took nearly two hours.

Prince and queen finally agreed, and Jehade offered his hand across the table. Wiar smiled and -

The next thing Meea knew she had her arms full of bawling redmage and automatic love engulfed her, needy and small. He seemed unable to support his weight, to speak, to do anything but sob into her chest and try to drive her to take him farther away from the table at which the royals sat.

"What is the meaning of this treachery?" hissed the prince. He was clutching his hand like he'd been burned, or like he'd thrust it into a pit of scorpions.

"What have you done?" Palar shrieked, standing from her chair.

"I - Meea?" Liatsi said, wrongfooted. "What's happened?"

Wiar was obviously in no position to explain himself. He was a shivering pile of "no, no, no, no, no" and didn't seem likely to stop. Meea held him - he'd probably fall onto the floor if she didn't - and racked her brain. "There are - but this doesn't happen. There are fairy tales about -" She eyed the prince.

"Yes?" Liatsi asked, glancing at the prince as well.

"P-princess, if I could speak to you in private - and perhaps if Wiar could be escorted somewhere else -"

"Send him away," snapped Jehade, "but I want to hear the explanation, and if this girl knows I don't want her out of my sight, and it had better be good."

Meea scrutinized the prince again. The room was cleared of servants; she wasn't sure how they were going to fetch Iamica to conduct Wiar away if she wasn't allowed to leave. "Princess?"

"Your Highness," Liatsi said carefully, "if you will permit us a moment's conference in -"

"No. Absolutely not. He did something to me. I want to know what it was and why, at once, without whatever excuses you'd concoct behind the scenes," hissed Jehade.

Liatsi regarded him for a moment, absolutely still, and then, without moving her eyes, said, "Please tell us what you know, Meea."

Meea stumbled over her words. "These are fairy tales. They might be about something else entirely. They might be all wrong even if they're about this -"

"Do you always permit your staff this sort of liberty, Your Highness?" murmured the queen coldly.

"Meea," said Liatsi.

Gulping and closing her eyes, Meea said, "The stories say that redmages don't just - automatically - love everyone they Know, it's not unconditional, they are only overwhelmingly likely to. And I - suppose that someone that happened to would feel it like anyone else feels the love."

"What are you insinuating, mage?" demanded the prince.

"I - I don't know - it doesn't necessarily mean anything about you! It could be on his end! Bad luck," Meea said, squinting tentatively and spying terror in Liatsi's statue-still posture and staring eyes.

"No no no no no no," Wiar whimpered into Meea's shoulder. She wasn't sure she dared pat his back or card her fingers through his hair - Jehade seemed likely to explode if anyone took Wiar's part in the matter.

"His end," murmured Palar. "Treachery after all? Deliberate -"

"The - the stories are very clear that it's not that," Meea said hastily. "Someone would have weaponized it by now -"

"I'm not so sure," said the prince. He wasn't clutching his hand, anymore, but he was looking venomously at Wiar. "After all, goldmages are also a weapon, or could be, but we do not see your like on battlefields."

"Though only one nation commands them, yes," Liatsi said, her carefully plucked words as lightly spoken as though no incident had occurred at all. "Meea, thank you for your help. Please take Wiar to his attendant."

Meea didn't go at once. "Princess?"

"I will send for you when we are done here." Liatsi glanced out the window. "Before sundown."

"You don't want me to -"

"That can wait a few hours to no harm, yes?" Liatsi asked.

"Yes." She could jump a minute, an hour, a day, it didn't matter as long as the jumping self was the one who died, and if they waited she'd have more information to bring back. If she didn't hear from Liatsi by sundown and couldn't find her then, she would go back either way. But Liatsi was brilliant and maybe, maybe, she could salvage the situation without needing any goldmagic.

"I insist on knowing what you are talking about," Jehade inserted.

"Go, Meea," Liatsi said, and Meea managed as much bow as she could with Wiar and dragged him out.

Iamica was a verbal tornado when she caught sight of Wiar, but her movements were precise while she ushered him into bed and made him a mug of Calmness without once being out of skin-to-skin contact with him. He wouldn't let go of Meea in the first place until he had Iamica's hand on his, and he didn't stop muttering "no" to himself until Iamica held his nose and poured the potion down his throat.

"Those are stories," Iamica muttered while she started a second batch of potion, standing on one foot so she could put her toes on his ankle. "Children's stories about villains so terrible that their parents couldn't love them, puppies couldn't love them, redmages couldn't love them. The prince of Caplare? The one who'll be king? He's dead-souled?"

"We do not know if the stories are any part of them reliable," said Meea. "For all we know, Jehade -"

Wiar flinched like he'd been struck by lightning. Iamica spilled the second batch of potion into her medicine kit, soaking half her powders.

"Well, don't say his name, then," Iamica said, scrunching her eyes closed. She patted Wiar's cheek and said, "Can you go get a maid - and can I have some of your Calmness, he needs another dose - and a pinch of Drowsiness -"

"Of course," Meea said. "Of course." She bent to kiss Wiar quickly on the forehead, and ran from the room.

Liatsi sent for Meea at sundown precisely, when Wiar had been wheedled and medicated to sleep, Meea had paced so much that Iamica had shooed her away, and the goldmage was beginning to contemplate which of her knives would make the most legible lines in her arm.

"You do not have to go back," was the first thing Liatsi said.

Meea could have collapsed to the floor. Tension had been all that held her up. "I don't? Princess?"

Liatsi gritted her teeth. "No. Diplomacy has been accomplished without any kind of magic in the past, it will be again, and - it was today. The prince is insulted beyond belief, but his mother's words of restraint and a strictly symbolic concession in the Channel Pact - now renewed otherwise intact - sufficed to save him face. They do not want to go to war any more than we do. It can profit them nothing. How is Wiar?"

"Asleep," Meea said. "Iamica's taking care of him. She knows better what to do than I do."

Liatsi nodded. "I'll give him a few days off. I want you to stick close by me. I believe Her Majesty and His Highness are placated, but other elements may be... destabilized."

"Yes, Princess."

The princess glanced around. "You don't need to call me that, when we're alone. It wouldn't be a bad misstep even in company."

"Liatsi," said Meea. Although she liked the taste of the word princess on her tongue. Well. Eventually Liatsi would be married and that would have to go for good.

"It's time for dinner, and we had best think of something to talk about with the Caplari other than today's ordeal for the remainder of their visit," Liatsi said, smiling at Meea. "Come along."

Meea didn't think she'd be able to eat anything, but she followed.

Meea followed Liatsi from dawn to candlelit evening. She could jump back to undo a successful assassin even given late notice, but a poorly-conceived crime of passion was best intercepted on the spot with pausing alone. She slept in Liatsi's bed, lightly, waking up to false alarms of owl shrieks or her own dreams.

The Caplari seemed very smoothed over by whatever miracle Liatsi had worked to spare Meea a jump. The Queen mostly wanted to talk about dog breeding and forms of poetry Meea had never heard of. The Prince was prickly and self-absorbed but gave no signs of being "dead-souled", that Meea could determine by watching. He spoke with some affection of his fiancée, and his younger brother, when anyone prompted him to mention either. Further proof they were not occupants of a fairy tale, that Meea shouldn't have leapt forward and slain him as soon as Wiar had caught him out.

It was probably just Wiar, anyway. Certainly the experiment would not be retried - with Wiar, with the Prince, with any other participants - it was too potentially catastrophic, they now knew. But it was probably just Wiar. Probably any other redmage could have happily Known and loved the prince - Meea's pa, maybe -

Meea dismissed that image, because the one that came to mind was one of her pa recoiling, wishing unmade the world that could contain something that terrible.

But the prince did not seem like a monster, and Liatsi had not told Meea to be particularly suspicious of him. So Meea was not.

Until seven days after the original fiasco, when the Caplari were due to return home.

A servant raced into the hall where they were being formally dismissed, in complete disregard of propriety, screaming at the top of her lungs. "Princess! Tse Goldmage! Come at once, you must -"

"What is it?" Liatsi asked, only a little testy. Meea could have spat fire on her behalf; this was the conclusion of a fraught diplomatic visit and a servant took it upon herself to interrupt? "Quickly, tell us," Liatsi went on when the servant's mouth opened soundlessly.

"You must come and see," she wailed. "It's about Tse Goldmage -"

"We cannot come and see anything now," Liatsi said, gritting her teeth. "We are otherwise occupied. If something is on fire you must tell the water carriers." She turned back to Palar and Jehade. "I am so sorry for the interruption."

The servant didn't shout again, but she stayed right where she was, fidgeting distractingly while Liatsi resumed ritual farewells and saw her guests out with their set of gifts.

Finally the door closed.

"You will want to see!" wailed the servant brokenly. "About Tse Goldmage -"

"It's Tse Witwex," corrected Meea, irritated. "You can't interrupt things like that!"

The servant sobbed. "You - have - to -"

"Where do we need to go?" Liatsi asked tiredly.

"In the Red Room," sniffed the servant, "on the floor..."

"Carefully," Liatsi said in Meea's ear, and they went through the palace, weepy servant at their heels.

"You'll want to hurry -"

"You'll want to give Her Highness less reason to sack you," Meea hissed over her shoulder.

That finally shut up the servant until they made their way to the Red Room. It was high up, intended for discreet music practice, rarely used.

Iamica was there, sitting on the floor, bright red chafe marks around her mouth and wrists, and she was trying to wake Meea.

Meea on the floor, concealed under a torn curtain.

Meea naked in a splatter of blood.

"Wake up," Iamica was croaking in a parched voice. "Wake- Meea?"

"She won't wake. She'll be dead," Meea whispered. "Move - let me -"

Iamica slumped away, and Meea approached, to read her arm.

And -

The jumped self breathed.

Meea screamed like she was dying - she was dying - found her knife at her calf faster than thought, thrust it out over the throat, killed. She didn't breathe until her jumped self had gone long enough without. Until there was no more force behind the pouring blood.

Meea went for the jumped self's arm, left first, she was right-handed, and moved the curtain aside.

The arm was ruined. Not written on, shredded, over or instead of any lettering. The right was destroyed the same way. Illegible. There were no clues cut into hair or nails: it had all been in the skin, and it had all been taken away.

"Gods," Liatsi murmured. "How long was she there?"

Meea stared into her own dead eyes.

"I have no idea."

Chapter Eight

"Tse Witwex, I had the best idea."

Meea wondered vaguely which best idea it would be this time. Swallowing a written note before a jump? Making all of the goldmages keep diaries, to do statistics on their work and their longevity? Some genuinely useful improvement on the ciphering, maybe.


"What if you jump back," Nicixa said, grinning from ear to ear, "and tell your past self they should jump back?"

Ah. The best best idea. Out of all the ideas that wouldn't work.

"You don't look excited," frowned Nicixa.

"You can't do that, Nicixa."

"Sure you could, just cut on your arm -"

Meea shook her head. "You can't jump earlier than any point that contains anyone's coexistence. If I jumped back even just a second, right now, no one would be able to go to yesterday. Jumping is so rare, goldmages are so rare, that we almost never interfere with each other like this - though it's happened - but certainly we can't do any backwards chaining. I'm sorry. It really is very clever, but it doesn't work that way."

"But then why is everyone so - so tentative about how far they jump back? Shouldn't they go back as far as they can, to fix the point earlier, in case they have to try again or get someone else's help?"

"And how far is as far as they can?" inquired Meea.


"We can't just pile up body after body until we find someone who can go back a whole week and save the day for everyone who tried and failed. It could be that no one can do it, and then all of the goldmages are dead. We don't just keep raising the stakes, because sometimes we lose. We have to cut our losses or they'd strangle us. Short of royal command we are very, very conservative about jumping - the Peninsula Temple-Guild lost all of its goldmages above the age of eight, a hundred and fifty years ago, and that was at royal command and they still are being repaid in the form of tax relief."

"Why didn't they keep back one - to go back just to before they started trying this and warn them it wouldn't work -?"

"They did. He defected at the last moment, ran away, no one knows where. By the time they could get word to another Temple-Guild, the jump was dangerously long again."

"Oh," shuddered Nicixa.

"Which is part of why we emphasize duty so much, more with little golds than with the others. Lives will depend on you."

Nicixa nodded, solemn. "And I guess this means my other idea won't work either."

"Shall I guess?" asked Meea.

"Instead of cutting your throat, or whatever, the self that's to die could just jump back really far - or try. And it wouldn't hurt. But it wouldn't work, would it."

"No," said Meea. "But a cut throat is almost as quick."

"Iamica," said Liatsi sharply. "What happened?"

Iamica sobbed into her hands once and collected herself just enough to respond. "I can't remember anything useful! There was a strange smell in my room when I went back after lunch and I think I passed out, and when I woke up I was here, tied up and gagged, and she - the other Meea - she was there, and it took me an hour to get to the door and open it with my chin -"

"At least an hour," whispered Meea. Her hands had crept up to her face, as though searching for wrinkles to give her a timeline, but that was nonsense, she'd drop dead without any such notice. Maybe now she'd never wrinkle at all. "Probably more. Probably she passed out at the same time. After lunch."

"- and get a servant's attention, and she untied me and put the curtain over the other Meea and went to get you, and I was trying to wake her up, to find out what happened -"

"And now we don't know," Meea said into the back of her wrist. She was still holding her knife.

"- and - and I don't know what happened, except I think the other Meea was passed out too, from the smell or from the blood loss I don't know but she wasn't in the room with me when I -"

"What smell?" interrupted Liatsi.

Iamica blinked. "It was sort of... sour? But not really like anything I'm familiar with, not anything the apothecary usually has."

"Would you recognize it?" Liatsi asked.

"Yes," said Iamica, after a moment's hesitation.

"Come with me," Liatsi said, pivoting to leave the Red Room.

"Princess?" said Meea hoarsely. She sounded like she'd been crying for hours, though no tears had escaped her eyes yet.

"We need to have a look at the gifts our friends from Caplare brought."

The Midnight powder had been unsealed. In small doses, inhaled, it was a sleep aid - if one took it at midnight one wouldn't wake till dawn. In larger doses, it could knock out every occupant of a room.

Such a dose was missing from the barrel.

Iamica sniffed the fumes, carefully, enough to be woozy but not enough to collapse, and said yes, that was the sour smell.

Liatsi led them all to the Minister of Intelligence's office and brought him up to speed. He turned at once to Meea.

"Under what circumstances would you have jumped back?" he asked. "Surely not solely to try to spare a servant inconvenience."

"No," Meea said. "Not for that."

"Well, then. What would have happened, had you not jumped?"

"For the Princess," Meea said. "If someone killed her. I'd jump. And stop them."

"Then it seems most likely," said the Minister of Intelligence, "that, without your jump, the Princess would be dead, and that somehow even though you were caught in an area fogged with Midnight, your jump averted this."

Meea nodded. That did seem likely. Liatsi was alive. She had probably kept Liatsi alive. That was good.

The Minister of Intelligence produced the largest sheet of paper Meea had ever seen and spread it over his desk. He began drawing labeled boxes with arrows between them, narrating as he went. "Some attempt on the Princess's life succeeds. Tse Witwex, not aware of earlier Midnight use, determines the otherwise correct vantage point from which to jump so that she will be found - would you have been found in the servant's room?"

"Iamica and Wiar share a room," Meea corrected automatically. "The Princess and I went there - not long after lunch - and knocked, to see if Wiar was there. But there was no answer. If I didn't know about the Midnight I would have expected my jumped self to be able to catch me then and there."

"And does not lethally injure herself prior to the jump - why would that be?"

"Because last time I had no trouble slitting her throat," Meea whispered. "Because if I'd found her like I was supposed to she wouldn't have needed to."

The Minister drew more boxes. "So she arrives with cut arms - shallow cuts?"

"Yes. Scratches. Just enough to be legible, some bleeding from clumsiness maybe," Meea said to the floor.

"- but not any injuries that would kill her. She is immediately knocked unconscious by the Midnight that was in the room at that time. Someone wearing a mask or breathing from an airskin or similarly protected is present, to tie the servant and to destroy the writing on her arms and relocate both to the Red Room. This person must, in addition to knowing about the presence of Midnight in the palace and having the ability to obtain the dose, be part of the conspiracy to assassinate the Princess, or at least motivated to help it succeed - or there is no reason to intercept the communication. However, they are not motivated to create excess collateral damage. If they are familiar with goldmagic, then leaving the jumped Tse Witwex alive could be interpreted as malice -"

Meea made some sort of noise she didn't know how to describe.

"- but leaving the servant alive cannot be so explained. So, this agent or these agents prefer to minimize casualties. Or, they wished to leave some clues, to mislead or taunt us. Or, the servant is working for them."

"What?" sputtered Iamica. "No!"

The Minister of Intelligence ignored her. "There remains the question of what they were originally planning to do. The Princess is still alive despite the fact that the jumping Tse Witwex was knocked out and her message destroyed."

"It could have been about an attempt that's still in our future," Meea murmured. "It could have been a fairly long jump. If I had been going to live a long time, even a long jump would have let her survive... hours... of coexistence."

"So perhaps this agent or these agents were laying groundwork for a later event. Tse Witwex's jump and her failure to accomplish anything with it could both be part of such a plan. It will take a few days to send for a replacement."

Meea felt very cold all over.

"A replacement," echoed Liatsi.

"Well," sniffed the Minister. "Of course. You cannot have as your bodyguard a goldmage who has expended some large, unknown fraction of her available lifespan. Perhaps she can pause, even still, but certainly she will be of no use if someone gets past her."

"He's right," Meea breathed.

Liatsi said, "Meea."

"He's right. I'm useless to you. I have to go into retirement. I can teach. Maybe. If I have enough time to even get all the way home and see the new class cycle start. But that's all I can do anymore."

"But -" Liatsi stopped. "Oh."

"Regardless," said the Minister, "Princess, Tse Witwex is not negligible protection even now, and you should keep her with you until a replacement can be selected, paid for, and brought here. I can easily make the arrangements over the course of my other duties if you had a second choice from among those who were sent as candidates recently. The available pool won't have changed significantly in such a short time."

There was a silence. Liatsi named another goldmage and the Temple-Guild he was from. He wasn't from the nearest one, but the coexistence was a fixed point; Meea couldn't be saved even if another goldmage could be fetched within the scope of rescue protocol.

The Minister of Intelligence nodded smartly, and said, "I advise that, in addition to Tse Witwex, you keep several of the ordinary guards close by. No good can come from relaxing protections around you when we expect that you may be under threat."

"Of course," said Liatsi.

"I'm not working for assassins!" exclaimed Iamica. "You believe me, right - Princess - Meea?"

"Minister, please treat Iamica as gently as possible," said Liatsi.

"Of course," said the Minster of Intelligence over Iamica's wordless shriek. "Miss, I'm afraid I will have to restrain you for the time being. The more cooperative you are, the briefer and less uncomfortable this can be..."

"Meea," said Liatsi, and Meea looked away from the Minister and Iamica to stare into the Princess's eyes. "Let's go... collect extra guards."

Meea swallowed the lump in her throat. "Yes, Princess."

They collected extra guards, and they were not alone, and they could speak of nothing that mattered. The new goldmage arrived, and they were not alone, and Meea no longer had any public excuse to linger at Liatsi's side at all. Meea was not party to any of the Minster of Intelligence's investigation or findings. She was not invited to meetings or asked further questions. Everything she could offer to anyone in the castle was spent.

She was packing - slowly, mechanically moving belongings into luggage - when a servant brought her a note.

You could stay in the palace as one of Wiar's companions. He's allowed more than one.

It wasn't signed. The servant had only found it in the palace notebox, identified for delivery to Meea. But it had to be Liatsi's idea. Liatsi wanted Meea to stay for the remaining years (months? Meea was older than her erstwhile sister had been) of her life. Wiar was an excuse, but a sincere one, an established one, an explanation that wouldn't hurt Liatsi, he wouldn't mind. Meea hadn't thought of Wiar at all since seeing her jumped body, but she thought of him now with a fierce gratitude. She could love him forever just for this, even if there were nothing else to him, for putting her and Liatsi together and being a way for them to stay in proximity.

However long forever turned out to be.

She burned the note and turned the thought aside and hurried to his room to ask.

It was empty.

She looked for Liatsi, as that would be the only duty that would call him away from his room, and Liatsi was shut up in her meeting room with Ministers and Meea was no longer allowed inside to stand at her shoulder in permanent readiness. But she wouldn't be in the meeting room with Wiar; they met in her quarters.

Meea checked the gardens, the palace temple, the kitchens - odd time for a snack, not impossible - and Wiar was not there.

Iamica was still in custody. If Liatsi hadn't happened to want Wiar's services, or hadn't had a moment to seek them in all the flurry of security arrangements and political theorizing about motives, who would have noticed?

(Meea should have noticed, Meea should have taken over as his attendant when Iamica was taken away, now that she was useless as a mage, now that he was otherwise unsupported, she should have done that instantly.)

She went back to Wiar's room.

This was also Iamica's room.

This was where Meea had jumped to, where she'd meant to intercept something.

Would she have gone back for Wiar, too?

If Liatsi had asked her, yes. She would have gone back for him without hesitation.

Liatsi might be in no danger at all.

But something had happened to the Princess's redmage.

Meea could not get in to see Liatsi. Notes to the Princess were not delivered by the notebox servants, either, that would be too easy a privilege to abuse. If Meea could not see Liatsi, who could she tell? She was no longer employed as part of the security force. She was technically overstaying her welcome, as Wiar was not present and had not added her to his companions. The fiasco of the other day had demonstrated perfectly that servants did not have adequate channels to communicate with their superiors. If Meea fell into some class of person who did have such channels, she didn't know about them. She'd only ever followed Liatsi and spoken directly into her ears.

Meea tried the palace bluemage, Tse Curin. She should have done this first anyway. The bluemage would be able to see what had happened. They'd been assuming that the attempt had been on the Princess, that it had failed due to some consequence of Meea's jump, that there would be no informative stamp on the past in Iamica's room for the bluemage to look at - or at least Meea thought they'd been assuming this; no one told her. But if the assassins or kidnappers had gone after Wiar instead and Wiar was in fact gone, a bluemage would be able to help.

Liatsi had been busy with her bluemage. Tse Curin was completely uninterested in Meea and treated her like a moving obstacle even once he'd let her into the room as an apparently automatic response to the knock.

"Where's your attendant?" Meea tried. She didn't know the attendant's name. She should've learned it, that would produce a more informative response. (Maybe. If she knew enough about how bluemages worked she wouldn't have to talk through the attendant in the first place.) "Tse Curin - Tse - I need to talk to your attendant. Where's -"

Tse Curin ignored her. He was doing some sort of weaving on a lap loom, humming.

"Tse Curin, it's an emergency -"

But he paid her no mind and the attendant wasn't there, because why would one be, bluemages were generally perfectly safe to leave alone in familiar surroundings for arbitrary lengths of time.

Meea had to talk to Liatsi.

She tried the greenmage, who would at least be lucid. (The whitemage had been in bed with fever for the last four days and would not clear herself of it just to hear Meea out and demand Liatsi's attention.)

But greenmage services were so rarely urgent.

Tse Faix had apparently, on this basis, been allowed a vacation to visit his mother, who was on her deathbed. There was a note to this effect pinned to his door.

Meea actually threw herself to the floor outside of Tse Faix's room and struck at the floor until her hands stung. She felt like she was three again, inconsolable, demanding by way of tantrum that her ma go fetch her pa so he'd pick her up and love her, but this time it was Wiar she wanted and Liatsi she needed to help her fetch him. Liatsi would be able to summon the bluemage's attendant and ask him a question. And Liatsi was not here to witness Meea as she fell apart.

Slowly Meea picked herself up again.

She had to think of something else, and soon, because there was so little time and her dearly bought control over the stuff was less certain than ever.

In the end Meea did not think of anything better than sitting outside Liatsi's quarters until the Princess retired for the night, and even this required talking her way into the good graces of a guard who questioned the necessity.

She sat, and she waited, and then there was Liatsi with the new goldmage, a man from another temple, one of the ones Meea had beaten by demonstrating conservatism with her magic.

"Princess," said Meea. "I can't find Wiar. Anywhere."

Liatsi froze.

And then she was in motion again, breaking into a run down the hall.

Meea leapt up and followed, and the new goldmage didn't tell her to back off, only kept pace with the princess.

Liatsi was headed for Tse Curin, Meea realized after they'd turned and gone down a flight of stairs. The princess would be much better able to demand the presence of the bluemage's attendant than Meea had been, and the bluemage would find what had happened to Wiar, and -

And then what, Meea didn't know. She couldn't try again to do whatever she'd been trying to do when she jumped. Even the new goldmage with his barely-tapped reserves of lifespan couldn't do that. The past up until the moment when she'd stabbed her jumped self in the throat was locked away. The bluemage wouldn't be able to tell them the future and steer them to whatever would be best...

It'd be Liatsi's decision. Liatsi would know what to do.

Chapter Nine

It was still a little jarring, less than a week into the new class cycle, to let her own students go, step out of the role of their teacher, and then immediately attend her own small tutoring sessions on politics. One moment all the exclamations of "But Tse!" and "I have a question!" and "I have to pee!" were all addressed to Meea. The next moment someone else was in charge. (And everyone in the politics class knew better than to arrive with a full bladder.)

This tutor, unusually, wasn't a mage, but one of the Temple-Guild's customers - Tseca Feric, one of her pa's clients, trading his services as a teacher for part of what he owed to visit Tsarian. Whether this was due to financial burden or just because he liked teaching, Meea was unsure. "Hello, Tseca," she said. She was the first one there.

"Hello, Meea. How's your father?"

"He's over his cold. He'll be so happy to see you after class."

Tseca smiled, just a little farway for a moment. Then another student arrived, and Tseca greeted him, too, and so on until all five of them in this group were there.

Once they were all seated - Meea and another goldmage, two greens, and a blue - Tseca opened with: "Can someone tell us the ranks of nobility?"

The blue volunteered first. "The King, regnant; the Queen, consort; the Princess, heiress apparent; the Archdukes and Archduchesses; the Counts and Countesses; the Lords and Ladies. As yourself, Lord Feric." (Meea made a face at the formality. He'd offered his first name to everyone, not just his redmage's daughter, but no one else had picked it up.)

"And - someone else, please - what does their status allow them to do, in general terms?"

A greenmage spoke. "Briefly? You could order us to do anything that wasn't against the law and as long as nobody who outranks you appeared to belay it we'd have to do it."

"Technically, yes. And why doesn't this happen all the time?"

"In general, or here?" asked the same green.

"Let's start with here."

"Because if you start ordering us to do anything we really don't like, we can defect and attack you and you can't do anything about it and you'd probably regret it. I'll stop short of giving details."

"And I thank you for it. Though I hope you know that isn't the only reason I don't attempt to abuse my lordship," said Tseca with a small smile and a glance at Meea. "But mages, while loyal to Cefax and the nobility that governs it, are overwhelmingly powerful."

"I couldn't do much," pointed out the blue.

"Well, not to me in particular, since I assure you I'm impossible to blackmail, but you're dangerous in your own right to some. Reds and whites less so. Golds most of all." He glanced at Meea and her colleague; Meea met his gaze with perfect calm. She had no quarrel with her political betters.

The other green said, "And for everybody else - we work for money, and someone could pay the Temple-Guild not to help you."

"That hasn't happened often, but it has happened - a group of commoners can raise enough money to cut off a noble from mage services. Since it is of course much less expensive to hire you not to work, and for good reason. The other reason nobles don't tend to bully non-mage commoners is that we have our upper echelons too. They don't work so directly. The Count of Mixan, for instance, can't directly command me to make my son marry his daughter no matter how much he'd like to. Who knows what he can do if he doesn't like how I'm handling myself?"

Meea answered this one. "Challenge you to a duel," she said wryly. It had kept bothering Pa till it was settled; the daughter in question was his client, too.

"Right. Which he has done, with his firstborn as champion, and I won, and that was that. This is not something that happens to commoners - most particularly not mages. But another noble could call me to personal account over any misdeeds, unless the king himself intervened."

"Is the only point of having different ranks of nobles the rule where you can only challenge downwards?" asked the bluemage.

"Higher-ranking nobles also rule larger territories and tend to be more closely related to and more involved with advising the royal family," said Tseca, "and have more involvement with politics overseas, which we'll begin to discuss the next time we meet. An Archduke or an Archduchess can even, with the support of enough key players, potentially override an order from the king, in the sense that the king can rule only with the support of those under him."

"But," said the other goldmage, "that would be a dangerous move, wouldn't it? Challenging the king."

"Often. But it's likewise a bit dangerous for royalty to contradict an Archduke," Tseca replied.

They didn't get as far as Tse Curin's chambers.

"Aunt Siava," Liatsi said to the Archduchess, not slowing down.

"Liatsi. What's your hurry?" She fell into step with them.

"I need to speak with Tse Curin. About the recent incident."

The Archduchess glanced at Meea. "What about it? You already decided not to spend him on it. For most of the window of opportunity it was probably too dark in the room for him to be of any use and you're so timid about dwindling..."

"The Minister of Intelligence was investigating the usual suspects for an attack on me via less costly methods. I now think I was never the target." They rounded a corner; Meea stumbled a bit to keep up. "Wiar was."

"Liatsi," said Siava reproachfully. "You know who might want to attack your redmage."

Liatsi stopped. Meea did too. Of course, it was obvious, it was -

"The Caplari," said the Archduchess. "They'd have had to hire someone, obviously, we know where the Prince and the Queen were the entire day, but - hmm -" She looked at Meea again. "Liatsi, a word alone...?"

Liatsi frowned, but went with her aunt into the nearest side room while Meea and the other goldmage waited.

Meea could hear their voices, rising louder and louder, until she made out an entire word, as upset as she'd ever heard Liatsi: "- isn't!"

There was a reply from the Archduchess, and the door opened at her hand, and she turned to the new goldmage. "Tse Tsimir," she began. "Incapacitate the -"

Meea was looking at Liatsi, instead. Liatsi, behind her aunt, mouthed silently and directly at Meea:

Pause. Run.

Meea didn't waste a moment wondering whether to trust the Princess. She paused. She ran.

For Tse Tsimir to have a hard time catching her, she had to get beyond doors - away from anything she had to physically open to get past. The open doors would form a trail unless she spent time on closing them. Then she had to unpause somewhere unobserved, so no one would spot her popping into existence - and she'd have to be less recognizable once she went anywhere under observation. Meea tore off her droplet and her sash and her robes as she ran and shed them in the front hall, leaving anonymous shirt and pants underneath.

She burst through the doors contemplating her more difficult problem of being obviously, unfortunately, Caplari. It was enough for the Archduchess to suspect her and risk a confrontation between goldmages to get her in custody on suspicion of harming Wiar in spite of the fact that she would never, could never - and it was certainly enough to put out a successful hunt for her if she didn't come up with some reasonable disguise or a place to blend in. Where would there be a lot of Caplari in Nacafi? Now that the contingent from overseas had gone, Meea didn't know.

She considered detouring long enough to grab something to use as a shawl, so she'd be less obvious from a distance, but someone could notice what was missing and then they'd know exactly what she was wearing. She left the grounds, heart panicking between gasping lungs. Where would there be a lot of Caplari, where would 'a Caplari girl around twenty' not be a stand-out description -?

She turned when the path down from the palace forked, choosing a route that didn't require her to shove anyone out of the way or slow down too much to slalom between them. At least there had been stairs and she hadn't had to take the meandering road cut into the slope for carriages, but she had to have been paused for almost two minutes now to get this far anyway. She could fall over dead at a moment's notice - well, maybe not quite, not given how long her jumped self had persisted, but it was costing. Tse Tsimir was almost undwindled and would think nothing of looking for that long if he could determine where she'd gone. If he obeyed the Archduchess and not the Princess, or if Liatsi didn't dare contradict her aunt, or - whatever had just happened.

She had to hide.

Where would there be -

Meea was fast on her feet, and she knew this, but she was still surprised to see how far she'd come when she went under the White Bridge and saw the Revel House ahead of her.

The Revel House... had all colors of people to suit all tastes, many around her age. If someone saw here there, well, she wasn't dressed like she was working there, but they could imagine she had the day off. Or that she was a tourist or a sailor on shoreleave and the Revel House was the signature attraction of Nacafi that had attracted her attention, which would not be guessed of any anonymous alleyway.

Cursing everything she could think of under her breath, she made directly for the brothel, dove between the decorative fence and a shrub so neither passers-by from the street nor anyone enjoying the view out of the House's windows would be able to see her pop into existence out of nowhere, and let the world start turning again.

She caught her breath, and drowned in the sudden cacophany of everything in the city given license to move, and tried to think of what to do next.

Or what had happened.

Deep breath. In, out, she was no longer doing magic but she could do more if she had to, she was safe for the moment. Liatsi didn't believe Meea had hurt Wiar but for whatever reason didn't want to risk a power struggle with the Archduchess -

So the thing to do would be to find Wiar, find him and evidence that she hadn't taken him.

If there was any.

Well, she wanted to find Wiar anyway, and he - would have to be alive, wouldn't he? Someone who wanted him dead could have simply killed him, once Meea had gone and fouled up any future attempts at jumping back. With her unconscious and coexisting right there, the infiltrator could just have slit Wiar's throat, in the dark where no bluemage could identify them. He had to have been kidnapped.

Unless she'd landed after he was dead - and with the fiasco the entire jump had been she wasn't prepared to rule it out - but then why would his body have been taken? It wouldn't be hard to get a kidnapped redmage to follow docilely; transporting a corpse would be harder.

Footsteps approached; Meea made sure she was absolutely still. She might be less of a standout around the Revel House than in any other part of the city, but she would still rather not be seen at all, not least because she had no legitimate reason to be hiding under a bush. The footsteps didn't go past. They turned, approaching the building. Customers, probably, hopefully; Meea would probably just throw up on top of everything else if it was a new batch of employees. Liatsi had mentioned once wanting to put a hard floor on the allowable age -

And she was trying to hold still, not vomit or cry, so she pushed that thought away and just watched through the leaves.

There was a group of six men, sort of racially indeterminate between sun and obscuring facial hair, with the kind of rough-cut look that suggested that if they met police on the street it wouldn't be a polite exchange of greetings. Maybe sailors. Maybe pirates; the Revel House didn't turn down real gold however illicitly gotten. Following them was a little, sunburned woman, looking around vacantly.

They paused before going inside. Meea could just barely hear them.

"She's still following us. Think they'd give us freebies if we sold her to 'em?"

"Rather not risk it unless they offer first. Might be offended. Nobody wants an offended madam."

"She that touchy?"

"Doesn't care where the gold comes from, but I never asked where she gets her girls. Or boys, for that matter."

"Well, what do we do with her, then? Can't get anything out of her anymore."

"I told you we should've left her servant alive."

"He wouldn't've helped. I think he was making things worse."

"Let's see what happens if we just tell her to wait and then ignore her on the way out."

This inspired consensus. "Stay here," said one of the - Meea was nearly certain now that they were pirates - to the woman.

She didn't move. Or otherwise acknowledge them, but Meea supposed that made perfect sense -

The men went in. The bluemage they'd kidnapped stayed put.

Meea waited for a minute, two, in case one of them was going to come back out, but they didn't.

"Luvi," she said as loud as she dared, and the bluemage turned.

Meea was terrible at talking to bluemages, but motivated like this - she called up memories of old bedtime stories. Direct commands about concrete things. "See" (and "now", as opposed to yesterday, last year, a century ago), not "look for", not "find", not "try". Only the bare minimum criteria of what she wanted Luvi to look for with no frills, because Luvi probably didn't know how to weigh wants any more. How had the Red Rabbit gotten the Blue Goose to find them somewhere safe to hide from the fox? Come here. See now an empty room with an unlocked door you could touch that is close to here. Walk there. Meea recited the dialogue, undeviating.

Luvi had heard the story, too, apparently. She closed her eyes and said the next line: "And then together we'll hide and eat this grass I picked until the fox has gone..."

Luvi had been underscheduled when last Meea had seen her, but now she was much too dwindled for her age. When Luvi had seen, plotted a course towards, and led Meea to a back room of some kind - Meea guessed from the paraphernalia that it belonged to an absentminded apothecary of the kind who did their best business at night and would still be asleep at this hour - they sat.

Luvi apparently recognized Meea well enough to follow her instructions, but she'd been obeying the pirates too, whether out of fear or because they'd been particularly good at handling her was unclear. Meea had no idea how to ask a dwindled bluemage do you know who I am? in language that they'd understand. Let alone why did you follow the pirates once you'd made landfall?

"Tell me what happened to you," she tried.

Luvi blinked at her.

"...Describe," said Meea slowly, "your assignments after you - left the palace."

This worked. "I was assigned to a fleet of trade ships to see storms and piracy. Cemnir fell ill and couldn't attend me. The sailors gave bad instructions. I dwindled quickly and also missed some pirates I was not instructed to see. They killed the sailors, took me and Cemnir and captured the cargo. Cemnir recovered from his illness and spoke with the pirates but the pirates killed him -" Here Luvi's voice started shaking and her eyes welled with tears and she rubbed them away; Meea couldn't tell if she noticed the connection between her dead attendant and the crying because she just went on talking. "And instructed me themselves. I dwindled faster. They sold the cargo and landed in Nacafi and I followed them and then you addressed me."

"Why did -" No, that wasn't going to get anywhere. Why did the original sailors try to give a bluemage instructions themselves when they were so bad at it and they could have asked for a refund if they'd left her alone? Why did the pirates kill her attendant?

But if Luvi still had concepts of why locked up in her head, Meea didn't know the right words to get at them.

Meea didn't know how to help Luvi do anything. The Temple-Guild wasn't necessarily safe for Meea, not until whatever the business with the Archduchess was got resolved - which she could only help with as far as she knew by -


Luvi looked at her. She'd mostly stopped crying. She was so heartbreakingly pretty and Meea had no idea if there were other servants back at the Temple-Guild who she recognized well enough to be effectively attended by and Meea didn't know how to help her.

"Luvi - see now Wiar. Describe the room he's in."

A redmage in the Revel House.

A redmage in the Revel House.

They'd been asking for decades if not longer. They were prepared to turn over the expected lifetime earnings of a redmage up front and regularly hire a white as necessary, with the expectation that they'd want a green, occasionally, too. They wanted to invest a staggering amount of money in having the commodity.

Redmage in the Revel House, and then they could really claim to sell love.

No Temple-Guild had turned one over. Had been that desperate, had considered a redmage that dispensible. The Peninsula site, after the disaster with their goldmages, had allowed a few healthy children the Revel House had already got custody of to dip in the godspring, with the understanding that the Temple-Guild would keep them if they were anything but red and the Revel House would pay for the upbringing of the lot regardless. But it had come out green blue gold gold white gold and then the Temple-Guild called it off, their supplies of goldmages bolstered as much as they were willing to risk.

Nearly every mage loved some redmage. You didn't love a redmage and then watch one of their ilk go to be wasted on the unrestricted clientele the Revel House wanted one for. Most everybody with a droplet on their forehead knew how precious redmages were, and if they often slept with their clients at least that wasn't the express point, at least there were fewer than fifty over most lifetimes and they could remember a few things, how to speak and open doors and identify food so they could ever do anything other than pleasing clients. No one would agree to turn over a redmage because everybody loved one. Parent or sibling or friend or -

Wiar in the Revel House. No doubt very discreetly advertised, but there, for customers who wanted to know if perhaps this was the year there was finally such a delight available for their money.

"- red sheets. There's labeled ceramic boxes of Potence and Smoothness and Caution on the bedside table. It's dim with only candles and no windows, but not too dark to read," Luvi was saying. "He's with a man and a woman and -"

"Stop seeing," Meea murmured to Luvi, because the description was unmistakable already.

Her lover. In the Revel House.

Chapter Ten

Once upon a time there were five animals who were friends: the Red Rabbit, the Gold Squirrel, the Blue Goose, the Green Monkey, and the White Lizard.

They had picnics together and they practiced magic.

"See," said the White Lizard, "I have had a cough all day long, but I can make it go away if I want, just so." And her cough was gone! She was healthy. "But I musn't do it too often. Today, it was so I wouldn't get my friends sick too, because then I'd heal all of us instead of just me. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Green Monkey, "I did not like cooking before today, but I can start to like things if I want, just so." And he made all the food for the picnic. "Now I will like cooking forever, it's easy! But I mustn't do it too often. Today, it was because it will often be very useful if I don't have to fight myself to get my chores done. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Blue Goose, "I made sure there were no foxes near where we are going to have our picnic without having to look up close, just so." And there were none, he saw! "We will be safe! But I mustn't do it too often. Today, it was to keep us all safe, because it would be no good if a fox ate us. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Gold Squirrel, twitching his tail, "I can make everything but me stop, or turn back, or skip ahead! I haven't done it today but I'm ready in case something bad happens. But I mustn't do it too often. Today, if I do, it will be to protect us from those foxes that want to eat us. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Red Rabbit, and she snuggled up to each of her friends in turn, "my only power is love, but sometimes that's the most important thing. I love all my friends and I can do it as much as I want for those friends, but I mustn't make new friends too often. Today, I'll just stay with you and love you. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

And they all brought their picnic food to their picnic place, and they spread out their picnic blanket and they all shared the food the Green Monkey made and took turns snuggling with the Red Rabbit and listened to the Blue Goose tell stories about things he had seen and watched the Gold Squirrel dance and listened to the White Lizard play her harp.

But in this field were burrows, and in the burrows it was dark dark dark. The Blue Goose could see the bright parts of the world, even if they were far away or long ago, but not the shadowy places. And in one of those burrows - was a fox!

The fox was only ordinary fox color, and she loved to eat tasty animals. She crept out of her burrow while they finished their salads, and she got closer while they started their fruit, and right as they were passing out the strawberry preserves, she pounced!

She was fast, but not too fast for the Gold Squirrel. The Gold Squirrel made her stop right in midair, and then he thwacked the fox good with his sword. But the fox was so much bigger than him that all this did was stun her. When the world moved again, the fox landed on the picnic blanket and tried to shake the hurt out of her head, and the animals all ran!

The White Lizard and the Green Monkey went as fast as they could go to the south, into the trees, where they could climb up high. The Red Rabbit and the Blue Goose ran and flew to the north, to the city, to find places to hide. And the Gold Squirrel ran as fast as he could to the east, into the deep grass, to find someplace to lie in wait to ambush the fox and try again.

The fox first chased the White Lizard and the Green Monkey. She sniffed and prowled through the trees until she found the one where they were hiding, up in the branches, and she said, "Come down, come down. I will only take a little bit. Only one foot! The White Lizard can heal that! I am hungry!"

And the White Lizard said, "No! I am very careful. You cannot have a paw to eat, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox said, "Come down, come down. I will not take anything you need. Only your tails. It will hurt, but the Green Monkey could make it so you don't mind! I am hungry!"

And the Green Monkey said, "No! I am very careful. You cannot have our tails to eat, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox replied, "I am hungry and I will take what I want anyway!" and began to scrabble up the side of the tree!

The Green Monkey and the White Lizard were both very afraid, but because being eaten would be no good at all, the Green Monkey concentrated very hard and did a very little bit of magic to make the fox afraid of heights. She yelped and went back down the tree and decided to look for different animals to eat.

The next place the fox went was into the city. The Blue Goose was flying in the air and could see her coming even without doing magic, and he flew down to warn the Red Rabbit. And the Red Rabbit said, "You and I can't fight a fox. We'll have to hide."

"But there are no open stores this time of day, and none of our friends live in this city!" said the Blue Goose.

"Yes. I think you'll have to do a little bit of magic," said the Red Rabbit. "Come here. See now an empty room with an unlocked door you could touch that is close to here. Walk there," said the Red Rabbit. "And together we'll hide and eat this grass I picked until the fox has gone." Because while the Green Monkey was a very good cook, rabbits still like to eat plain grass sometimes, and they hadn't finished their picnic.

So the Blue Goose saw a door like that, and they went into the empty storeroom that it led to, and then they barred the door and hid there.

But the fox had a very keen sense of smell and she followed them right to the door, and she knocked and said, "Come out, come out. I can eat just the Red Rabbit. She cannot hate me for it, she will love me as soon as my teeth go in. She cannot be angry at me when she will understand how hungry I am."

And the Red Rabbit said, "No! I am very careful. I could forgive you but I don't want to, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox said, "Come out, come out. I can eat just the Blue Goose. He needn't pay attention to me, he can put his eyes somewhere else and forget there is even a Blue Goose to want alive. I am so hungry."

And the Blue Goose said, "No! I am very careful. I could look away but I don't want to, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox beat her paws on the door, but it wouldn't budge, and so she slunk away. "Perhaps," she said to herself, "the Gold Squirrel will go back in time only a moment, and then there will be two of him, and he will not want them both alive anyway. I am so hungry."

The Gold Squirrel was waiting for the fox when she followed his scent to the plains, and this time, when he thwacked the fox good with his sword, he made sure that the fox was done for before letting the universe move again. And then, the fox was never hungry again.

Wiar. Wiar. Wiar Wiar Wiar -

Meea didn't realize she was making a high agonized sound till Luvi winced and put her hands over her ears.

"Sorry," Meea whispered.

Luvi just looked at her blankly. Right. "Sorrow" had gone the way of everything else. Did Luvi even have more in her to dwindle away? She was still taking instructions, which suggested yes, but there were oddities like Tse Alsar, who could still sometimes produce information even with nowhere left to go. Meea didn't know how to tell. She had no idea if she'd be making Luvi worse than she already was by asking questions.

But Meea had no idea where in the Revel House Wiar was, and if she had to pause to evade guards during a comprehensive search of the enormous wretched place she might die before she found him. And his door was probably locked, too.

"Is there a key you could touch that can open Wiar's door?" Meea asked Luvi carefully.

"Yes," said Luvi.

"Stop seeing," Meea told her hastily as soon as this answer had been rendered. The "could touch" parameter was useful for determining that there were no physically impassable obstacles between them and the key, but didn't guarantee it was unguarded.

Meea would have to handle that part, if someone tried to stop her. Without her Temple-Guild garb on her she'd probably have to actually pause and do violence if someone were so inclined. She should have held onto the droplet, put it in her pocket. Damn.

Even without the droplet, though, she thought she'd be able to get past the Revel House's security - they never hired goldmages of their own - and get to Wiar. But how was she going to get him out again? How dwindled was he already? Would he recognize her? She could touch him without making him worse, and then he'd know a lot about what she wanted, but if she was competing with Revel House staff or whoever she walked in on him with she wasn't sure how she'd rate unless he also could call to mind who she was in particular.

Maybe she ought to - no, she was pretty sure the Nacafi police wouldn't touch the Revel House. They didn't have anything but her word to go on that there was a redmage there, wouldn't know even as much as Meea with her fairytales knew about how to get corroboration from Luvi, would certainly take hours if not days to get confirmation from the palace that the Princess's redmage in particular was missing.

The Temple-Guilds were all too far away to petition for help before Wiar would encounter another ten, twenty, gods only knew how many, clients. She couldn't wait that long.

The Palace was not safe, apparently, or Liatsi wouldn't have told her to run... the Archduchess thought Meea was working with the Caplari. She'd never even been to Caplare -

Meea took a deep breath.

The last thing she'd asked Luvi about was the key.

"Walk there," she said. "...Run there."

Meea chased Luvi, who was much faster than Meea might have expected, back to the Revel house, past the fence, through the front door, and, before the receptionist could draw breath to greet them, down a side hallway and into a little room that was full of keys on hooks on the wall. There was a staffperson there, probably a retired whore, not much of a threat.

"Take the key you saw," Meea told Luvi.

Luvi unerringly picked out one from among the hundreds, and Meea took it out of her hand and said, "Run to Wiar."

She was getting the hang of talking to bluemages, she thought, as Luvi sprinted back out of the keyroom and up a flight of stairs.

There were plenty of security guards, and while they managed to streak past one, by the time they spotted a second the shout had gone up all around the House that there were intruders.

Alone, Meea could have gotten past security with mere seconds of pausing, abhorrent but not impossible; Luvi had no such advantage, and Meea needed her along to find where she was going. Meea was completely unclear on how to knock a guard unconscious. But she could hamstring them, rather than slitting their throats, and that prevented much in the way of chasing.

There were so many stairs and Meea's knife was dripping blood by the time Luvi turned onto a landing from the stairwell. The guards had started shouting that the intruder was a a goldmage, and were no longer actively hunting her and courting more crippling injuries, so there was that. It sounded like they were telling each other to check in on the whores and see if they were all right.

Luvi stopped at a door.

Meea skidded to a halt behind her, nudged the tiny bluemage out of the way, and turned the key in the handle.

The door swung open on red sheets and a man and a woman and Wiar.

Meea brandished the knife at the customers.

"I'd rather," she hissed, "not hurt you in front of him. Off the bed, into the corner, now."

The woman, less thoroughly entangled at the moment, obeyed with alacrity; the man stared at her knife like a startled deer for a moment until she jabbed it threateningly in his direction and he followed.

Then Meea advanced on Wiar, tucking her knife away. "Wiar. Wiar honey -"

He looked at her.

There was no trace of recognition.

She'd been afraid of that.

"Wiar, it's me." She touched his face.

Instantly he leaned into her hand, he smiled at her, and love filled her up, automatic and warm and lustful and obviously situationally inappropriate for a rescue. He was reaching for the hem of her shirt; she grabbed his hand. "Wiar, sweetie, we have to go." There was a robe, not a mage robe but sufficient to cover up, draped over the headboard; she grabbed it and started putting his arms through the sleeves. He didn't resist her.

When Wiar's robe was tied on she tried to usher him out the door. He went with her pliantly as far as the threshold and then stopped, suddenly tense and shaking.


He buried his face in her shoulder.

"Wiar, what's - we have to go." He didn't move. She still had his hand in hers; he couldn't be misreading her tone even if he'd forgotten what all of the words meant. She looked at the couple huddling in the corner. "When you got here - what's going on - what did they tell you about how they were keeping a redmage?"

The man stuttered; the woman manged, "They said they had a greenmage."

Of course. That's how you keep a redmage in a room with an ensuite bath that you never want him to leave: when he can't, however much he loves you, remember you telling him to stay; when he will love people with every interest in smuggling him home for themselves just as much.

You make him deathly afraid of the hallway.


There was a square of lacy fabric under the medicines on the side table. Smoothness and Caution and Potence all neatly labeled so that infinite bought and paid for encounters would be lubed up and disease-free and - Meea shoved the jars aside and folded the square into a blindfold and tied it around Wiar's head and if she was lucky the greenmage was sloppy. She spun him around three times just to be safe and then tried again leading him out.

He was nervous but not balky, unable to see the hall. "Luvi, follow us." Meea got them all the way to the stairs, and then it turned out Wiar couldn't remember how to descend stairs and couldn't figure it out brand-new without looking. How had they packed so many clients into such a short period of time? There would be a waiting list, for a redmage in the Revel House - but on such short notice? - had they been actively seeking to dwindle him, did they make every whore and laundress in the building pat him on the hand just to keep him docile? Why bother, if they had a greenmage?

Where had they gotten a greenmage who'd help them with this?

Meea sat him down on the edge of the stairs and managed to get him to scoot down a step at a time, with lots of encouraging murmurs.

The guards didn't try to stop her, and that was to their benefit, because she was feeling very much inclined to murder at this moment.

She got Wiar down all of the stairs and out the front door.

She took off his blindfold, gritting her teeth against the possibility that he was afraid of the outdoors too.

He didn't flinch, just gazed down at her with an adoring smile. She was still flooded head to toe with love, love, love, and if she could have she'd have pulled him down for a kiss right there, but she had to figure out how to get him safely to the palace and clear her name. And then - bring him and Iamica back to the Temple-Guild with her and retire, she supposed.

Would bringing Wiar to the palace clear her name?

Suddenly doubting this, she led him briskly away from the Revel House grounds, Luvi at their heels, into the city. Where else could she go, except "away from where police might converge any moment"? With passengers, moreover; she couldn't put herself and Wiar and Luvi all on one stolen horse or expect either dwindled mage to be able to steer a second sensibly. So it would have to be the palace. Luvi could see the other goldmage if Meea asked her to; if he never caught wind of their arrival before Meea had a moment to throw herself on Liatsi's mercy with Wiar to cover her story, he wouldn't be able to slaughter them, Archduchess or no Archduchess.

Toward the palace it was, then, for lack of better options.

At least Wiar and Luvi would probably be all right even if the other goldmage killed Meea. Or she keeled over en route when her magic caught up to her.

Except she still didn't know who had taken Wiar in the first place or if they'd gotten what they wanted. The payoff would be enormous, yes, and he was probably paradoxically the most vulnerable redmage in the world, protected by only the Princess's own set of mages (incompetent, useless mages, Meea raged at herself) and not by an entire Temple-Guild full. But this had never led to a monarch's redmage being kidnapped before. Was it just the opportunism afforded by the Midnight the Caplari had brought?

(Damn the Caplari and whatever they'd done to leave the Archduchess so hateful of Meea -)

Meea headed toward the palace.

Wiar loved her. Luvi followed her.

Before they started up the road that led to the palace, Meea told Luvi, "See now Tse Tsimir -"

Luvi shook her head.

Right, Luvi didn't know the man, he wasn't from their Temple-Guild. There might be many mages named Tsimir and Luvi had no way to distinguish them. "See now Princess Liatsi's goldmage."

Luvi stared directly at Meea.

"Her new goldmage," growled Meea.

Luvi's eyes glazed over. "He is standing outside the door to the office of the Minister of Intelligence. The door is closed -"

"Stop seeing." If he was standing there, it wasn't for recreational purposes, it was because Liatsi was in the room; that meant he wasn't chasing Meea, but also meant that they couldn't approach the Princess until Tsimir was somewhere else. They'd have to wait until later.

There was a ravine at the bottom of the hill next to the switchback road up the slope. Meea pulled the other two mages into it in time to avoid the notice of a dairy truck headed downhill.

Neither Luvi nor Wiar was likely to become bored sitting and waiting in a ditch by the side of the road until spot-checking led Meea to believe that it was safe to move on. Meea herself was too upset to be bored. Wiar snuggled his beloved. Luvi yawned.

Wiar snuggled closer.

Wiar snuck his hand under Meea's shirt.

"Wiar, sweetie - this isn't the time -"

She looked up at his face. He didn't even look interested and heedless of the situation so much as -

She was going to find that fucking greenmage and gut them.


"Stop me," he murmured. "Stop me. Stop me -"

Meea grabbed his wrist and pinned it to the side of the ravine. He didn't struggle, he just hadn't been able to interrupt himself. He could tell she didn't want it, just -

The Revel House wanted to be able to claim to sell love, but if someone who thought they wanted sex too was contradicted by a redmage who knew them better than they knew themselves -

Then the Revel House could not have them asking for refunds.

Meea was going to burn that place to the ground and find that greenmage and hurt them in so many ways that they'd dwindle to suffocation just trying to render themselves immune to all the different kinds of pain.

Wiar didn't try to move his pinned hand. He nuzzled the side of her neck and she couldn't tell why; it could have been for his own comfort. She let him.

The next time she had Luvi check the location of Tse Tsimir, he was in his own room, not with Liatsi.

And Liatsi, Luvi said, was with her aunt the Archduchess Siava, in the first floor parlor.

Meea got Wiar and Luvi both to climb out of the ravine and start up to the palace.

Chapter Eleven

"Today," Meea told her class, "we're going to talk about the other kinds of mages and what we all need to do to help and accommodate them. You probably already know the basics, from your families; it shouldn't take long just to brush up on everything. Let's start with redmages. Who's closely related to a redmage?"

A little boy raised his hand first. "My sisters and my ma," he said.

"Oh, lucky you, and what do you do to look after them the way redmages need to be looked after?"

"We run errands for them, in town, so they don't have to go out and be around people who don't know very much. And we remind them of things, and my sisters still keep diaries and we help them remember what to write. And my ma can't remember how to read anymore so we help her go to her appointments and remember what foods she likes for her and stuff."

"Good. Redmages have two basic needs: not to be touched except by designated personal-discretion loved ones and their scheduled clients, and to be helped to remember things. Who's closely related to a whitemage?"

"My pa," said another boy.

"And what do you do?"

"We make sure everything he's going to eat or touch is really clean and well-cooked. If we're sick we don't go near him unless he's going to heal it right away. We make sure we don't get hurt so he doesn't have to heal us when we could have just been careful instead, and if there's anything dangerous like going up to wash the high windows he doesn't do it because if he got hurt he would take so long to get better. When he's sick, we make sure he can rest and doesn't have to do anything."

"Good. Whitemages need help to make sure they stay as healthy as they can, and when that fails and they get ill they need to focus on getting better and not on other things. Who's related to a bluemage...?"

"My brothers," said a girl. "All of them."

"Oh, that must be an interesting family," said Meea. "And what do you do?"

"When I'm around them I act like I used to so they know how to react," said the girl. "Even though I'm older now, I don't try to make them understand that... I use their prompts when I need them to do things. And even when they aren't very interesting to be around I spend time with them, since just because they won't know what they're feeling if they get lonely doesn't mean they can't."

"Very good. Bluemages don't lose their memories, exactly, not like redmages, they lose something much more complicated, so it can be hard to deal with them. Their attendants and families are more able to meet their needs than anyone else because bluemages have trouble with new people, but if you meet one it's good to have a general idea of why they act like they do. And lastly -"

"My parents and my ma's boyfriend are all greenmages," said a boy.

"And what do they need?"

"Reminders to eat, but not too much, and drink enough water, and pee and go to bed, and change position when they're sitting or standing for a long time," he said. "And checking for little injuries like if they bite their tongues."

"Right. Greenmages don't instinctively know how to react to things like being hungry or thirsty or tired, anymore, so they need reminders in words, or writing. Pain is the last thing to go now that we know enough about how they work, and it can get them in real trouble if they get hurt and don't notice."

"And, um..." added the boy.


"Pa said, sometimes, greenmages lose things out of order? Same as how it's not always the same order for redmages or bluemages -?"

"It's pretty regular. Breathing is always last, so we know enough now never to dwindle a greenmage to death. Breathing comes after reacting to pain," said Meea.

"Yes, but, before that. He said sometimes there's a thing that usually would come after breathing that... doesn't always."

"Well - there are rumors about that," Meea acknowledged. "But if it happens it does so only rarely -"

"What's the thing?" asked Nicixa.

"This is just a rumor," says Meea. "You don't need to worry about it."

"What is it?" Nicixa demanded.

"Well," Meea sighed. "You know how if someone near you is upset, you feel a little upset, too?"

Everyone nodded.

"Some people say that that's an instinct too, and that greenmages could lose it. But if this ever, ever happens, all it means is that there would need to be reminders just like everything else. Greenmages still want to eat and drink - they just might not remember. They still want to be kind to people, even if they don't feel it instinctively. And this would happen late. And in most everyone, it wouldn't happen until they'd already lost breathing. You don't need to worry about greenmages you know."

"But," said Nicixa.

"And greenmages can still have their feelings hurt like anyone else," said Meea firmly. "Don't spread nasty rumors. If you're attending a greenmage you can ask them what they need reminders for but there's no call to talk about it beyond that."

The students nodded solemnly.

They were stopped, on the way in. Meea didn't want to kill Liatsi's guards, and would have had to in order to get Wiar and Luvi in, since she couldn't pause them along with herself. She told herself she was glad there weren't such obvious holes in her Princess's security. Not that this had helped when Wiar had been taken.

But the guard recognized Wiar, and Meea too, and had no standing orders to make life awkward for them. It was Luvi he wanted explained.

"She's from our Temple-Guild," Meea said, still squeezing Wiar's hand. "I - Wiar, do you want to claim Luvi as your third - companion?" Say yes, she pleaded silently, along a channel the guard wouldn't be able to intercept.

Wiar nodded, smiling.

"With that servant of his and you as the first two?" said the guard.

"Yes," said Meea.

The guard looked at Wiar.

Meea nodded firmly. Wiar nodded along with her, biddable.

"All right," said the guard.

Why are you letting me in? I ran from here and I'm not even dressed like a mage anymore and the Archduchess thinks I colluded with the Caplari! Meea thought, but she didn't say it, because how could that possibly help. She smiled and led Wiar in by the hand and made sure Luvi was following them.

First floor parlor.

Meea knew where that was.

If Liatsi's goldmage were under orders to kill her on sight...

He would have chased Meea, wouldn't he?

Ugh, she wasn't good at this sort of tactics. She had Wiar with her. He was not in any condition to testify that she hadn't kidnapped him or contributed thereto, but she also had this spare bluemage who could verify where Meea had been at any given time. Unless it was dark. Meea was pretty sure she had not been in total darkness except with Liatsi, Wiar liked the lights up to read body language... But Liatsi wasn't the one who needed to be convinced. Liatsi trusted her. The Archduchess needed to be convinced, and if Liatsi needed to keep her secrets about being in the dark together and buy that secret with Meea's life -


Meea's life wasn't very expensive anymore.

She'd let her do it.

First floor parlor it was, then.

There were of course hallways in the palace. Wiar seemed to have been mostly greenmaged about the specific corridor in the Revel House, but he was not thrilled about walking through these, either. They hugged the wall. Meea put a hand over his eyes, but he shook her off, trembling but looking around.

She wondered if he could remember the place at all.

He seemed to find it at least loosely familiar, because when they got to the corner with the spiral stairs and Meea tried to steer Wiar and Luvi left, Wiar leaned right, to where the steps led up to his room.

...His and Iamica's room.

Forgetting about Iamica had gotten them into this mess. Well, farther into it. Iamica would not have failed to notice that Wiar was missing.

Iamica deserved to know that he was alive, and in what condition, and if they went straight to Liatsi then even in the best case scenario Iamica would wait hours more not knowing while other matters were sorted out.

Would she still be locked up or might someone have realized by now that she was harmless? The Minister of Intelligence had seemed paranoid enough to leave her behind bars until the entire thing was behind them. Guarded? Probably. But Meea had been let in. Liatsi was still in talks with her aunt; they had not completely resolved the situation, and the door guard had not been under any special instructions about Meea.

So Meea steered the other mages to the stairs that led down.

This guard didn't recognize Meea but he did recognize Wiar. They went again through the rigmarole of Wiar claiming Meea and Luvi as attendants and confirming that Iamica was one too. Meea didn't think he remembered Iamica existed, but he nodded when Meea squeezed his hand.

And when the guard let them by -

There was only one occupied cell. Iamica was pressing herself to the bars, having overheard the conversation, which had included Wiar's name. "Wiar? Wiar -"

Wiar looked at Iamica and his mouth fell open in wordless, uncomprehended recognition. He could forget her name, her face, her existence, but he couldn't forget her; she was stamped indelibly into his soul. He could read her like a book.

Better. He probably couldn't read books any longer.

Iamica reached through the bars and Wiar took her hand and Meea tried to think how to describe what had happened. In the end she crouched down and just said: "Someone took him. He's very dwindled now. But I got him back and Liatsi will find out what happened."

Iamica sniffled, but she smiled for Wiar, who kissed her knuckles and brushed the tears off her cheeks through the bars, and Meea said, "You deserved to know but I need to find Liatsi and I had better not leave him -"

"Don't leave him," echoed Iamica. "With someone he loves who loves him, all the time, if he's this bad, and I can't follow if he wanders off from here - don't leave him. Go with Meea, Wiar."

Meea pulled, and Wiar let Iamica's fingers fall from his and followed. "I love you," he said helplessly to Iamica, when his skin could no longer sing it to hers, "I love you, I love you -"

Luvi, silent, obedient, went after them.

The door to the parlor was closed, but not guarded.

Meea opened it, holding Wiar by the hand.

And there were Liatsi and the Archduchess. Luvi hesitated at the door, curtsied automatically, backed away.

"You," said Siava.

"Wiar," said Liatsi, getting to her feet. "Where was he?"

Meea fell to her knees, bowed her head. "I found him in the Revel House, Princess, with the help of that bluemage, Luvi, who I encountered misused and abandoned near it. Wiar is very dwindled, Princess, he can't confirm what I say, but Luvi can still take instructions and will take mine, if you want something seen and don't wish to spend Tse Curin on it. Wiar's been greenmaged. I don't know how the Revel House convinced any greenmage to do it to him, but I got him out anyway."

Liatsi reached for Wiar's face, cupped it in her hands. He smiled faintly, eyes closed. When she sat he knelt next to Meea at Liatsi's feet.

"The Caplari have greenmages," Siava mentioned. "It's only golds and reds they don't."

"I'm increasingly unsure it was the Caplari," Liatsi says. "I hope you're sufficiently reassured by now that it was not Meea."

Siava shrugged. "So you say. I suppose if she could not be trusted near you, you would not have gone unharmed for the duration of her employment, and the redmage certainly cannot be convinced not to trust her. I remain suspicious of Palar and Jehade."

Wiar flinched, falling from his knees to a sprawl on the floor, when Jehade's name was spoken; Meea took his hand.

"The timing, the target," Siava continued, ignoring Wiar.

"The damage is done," said Liatsi. "If it was malice it was on a miniscule scale relative to the movement of nations however personally affected I may be, and it was neither subtle nor strategic. This was not the first volley in a war, and replying as though it were would be insanity."

"You plan to simply take the slap? Your redmage is destroyed, look at him," said Siava.

"You upset him," murmured Meea. "He doesn't like to hear the prince's name."

"Because he saw the prince for what he is," scoffed Siava. "Which ought to be more than enough to convince you to send a covert goldmage to assassinate Jehade so his little brother will inherit in his place, Liatsi, even if you don't want to send the navy."

"We saw no evidence that Wiar detected anything more than a basic incompatibility which does not reflect on the Caplari heir's ability to rule Caplare," said Liatsi.

"Which you heard from Tse Witwex."

"Aunt, you had just agreed that she is not under suspicion."

"I agreed she wasn't likely to harm you, that the redmage will go on finding her harmless regardless of what she does, but she is still Caplari and still -"

"- still not the culprit. What do you have against her?"

"Nothing personally," Siava said. "It is merely very convenient that the Caplari delegation came while you had a Caplari bodyguard ready to explain away your redmage's distress."

Meea ached to defend herself, but Liatsi was better with words, and knew her own aunt, surely. Meea kept stroking the back of Wiar's hand while he shook on the ground.

"I chose Meea for reasons of my own," Liatsi said. "There is no plausible way for her to have communicated with the Caplari royalty beforehand."

"Jehade, though," said Siava. (Wiar sobbed. Meea gathered him up in her arms and was loved loved loved despairing and loved.)

"Aunt, please," exclaimed Liatsi.

"He will hardly remember it!"

"He is unhappy now and you could easily avoid it."

"The Caplari heir. You have your evidence that there is no good there, you have an obvious reason for him to target your redmage. I met him myself some years ago and he was wicked then too. And you will do nothing?"

"I will," said Liatsi firmly.

"Madness," said Siava. "You were not ready to take the crown, after all -"

Meea wanted to scream. She settled for looking into Liatsi's eyes.

Liatsi's pupils, contracting to pinpoints.

Wiar tracked Meea's gaze, then suddenly shrieked and tossed in her arms until she couldn't hold him -

- and threw himself at Siava.

They toppled together out of her chair, his hands clenched in her hair against her scalp, and they both howled like they were burning.

"Wiar," said Liatsi. "Wiar, stop -"

"Kill her!" Wiar screamed. "Kill her kill her if you love her kill her I can't hold I can't I can't kill her kill her -"

That couldn't all be the same 'her'. He couldn't remember anyone's names, and Meea didn't know who he meant -

Siava was out of breath.

Siava did not inhale again after her scream had faded to a thin keen.

Meea flicked her knife out and plunged it into Siava's eye, and Wiar quieted for the space of a gasp, and then he wept.

"Meea," said Liatsi. "Meea, explain, now."

Meea let her knife go where it was lodged. "I think - I think -"

"At once."

"I think she was a greenmage. Somehow. I think she was conditioning you. I think Wiar noticed you were changing while she did it. He knew it wasn't me because he Knows me so he figured it had to be her and she was dead-souled too, he distracted her so she couldn't hurt you more but he couldn't keep it up, it hurt him -"


"Luvi - I'll get -" Meea opened the door and tugged Luvi in and closed up the room again. "Luvi see in the past Siava at a Godspring describe it -" (Wiar sobbed in the background when he heard the Archduchess's name but Meea knew no other way to uniquely specify her for Luvi.)

"She was close to four years old," said Luvi. "She was touching the water. It went green."

"Where was she immediately before that?" Meea pressed.

"A whitemage's office."

"Where did she go after she went to the Godspring?"

"The whitemage's office."

"What was the whitemage doing?"

"Before, he healed her and then fell asleep. After, he was sleeping."

"Stop seeing." Meea scratched at a drying spot of blood on her arm. She looked at Liatsi.

Liatsi was frozen on the spot.

"I'm sorry," murmured Meea.

Liatsi shook her head. "How did she hide it?"

"If she used it sparingly it would be the easiest to hide." Meea swallowed. "She may have done Wiar herself, though. And I do think she was working on you. She didn't breathe right -"

"She had a couple of - very trusted servants," murmured Liatsi. "Always whispering in her ear."

"Did you ever see her with her tongue bitten, other injuries -"

"No. But I didn't see her very often, not until recently." Liatsi sat down heavily. She looked at the body. "I could send Tse Tsimir."

"You could," Meea said, kneeling at Liatsi's feet again.

"I have to explain her death. I suppose I can have other bluemages verify the story that she was a greenmage. But her supporters - she had so many -"

"What did she want," Meea said. "That's what I can't figure out."

"She went to Caplare, before. She hated the prince," murmured Liatsi. "Maybe she changed him. Maybe she did it badly. Could a greenmage do that? Dead-souling?"

"Maybe. She didn't have time to do very much to you. Not unless she'd been planning it for days at least, and it seemed spur-of-the-moment."

"Not very much. Well. That would be a comfort if I knew what it was and could make Tse Faix turn it back for me." Liatsi was tearing up, just slightly. A smudge of eyeliner drew a curve down her cheek.

"You could send Tse Tsimir and kill her earlier," whispered Meea. "In front of witnesses who could see the message written on his arm -"

Liatsi shook her head. "She didn't have time to do much. We can't go back far enough to save Wiar, either. What about the bluemage?"

"Dwindled out at sea. Pirates."

"I won't see another mage wasted on this fiasco. She didn't have time to do much. I will - I will think of something and I will salvage what I can. Oh, gods. Meea. My Meea, I'm so sorry."

Meea swallowed. "It's all right."

"It isn't. It isn't, but come here."

Meea collapsed into her lap, and Liatsi held her, and they cried just like Wiar, while Luvi stared into space.

Chapter Twelve

Meea, Wiar, Luvi, and Iamica all sat in the carriage. Luvi on one bench, Wiar sandwiched between his loved ones on the opposite.

They were going home. None of them could be any use in arresting the Archduchess's servants and her Revel House collaborators, none of them could explain anything Liatsi didn't already know to the various ministers and nobles, none of them had enough self left to spend that they'd be useful to keep around for magical purposes.

"I've been assuming," Iamica said, after what had to have been an hour of unbroken silence. "Only assuming, I guess I should ask. You'll marry him, won't you?"

"Yes," murmured Meea.

"And then when you're gone I'll still - I'll look after him and - he wanted kids, he said, if the Princess didn't take him, and this is very like."

"We can adopt some kids," Meea said. "There's always kids who haven't been put into families yet. Two or three, if you think you can handle them with him dwindled and me liable to go any moment. Ma and Pa will help as they can, of course, but - you know. I'd rather not adopt in two rounds and leave some of them with fewer years - months, whatever - with me than the others."

"I can do three, I think, if they're five or six and not babies - let me help pick them?"

"Of course. It'll only be a formality that they'll refer to me as Ma, anyway," Meea said, looking out the window. "Unless I'm fantastically lucky. They'll be basically like your own. That even happens when the parents are both alive, Ma's boyfriend Sovar is practically -" Meea trailed off.

Wiar stroked Meea's hair.

"The Princess said," Iamica began.

Meea's jaw clenched. Wiar's arm went around her shoulders and he squeezed her.

"Sorry," murmured Iamica.

"I know what she said."

"But the part I was talking about was that she's going to shake down the Revel House to find out who saw him, and they may want to see him again."

"That'll be up to his scheduler."

"Meea. If you marry him you'll be his scheduler, by default."

"...I'll think about it," said Meea.

"I think you should let him see them. If they can pay per sitting. He loves them. It won't hurt anything."

"They destroyed him."

"He's right here. They only wanted to be loved. It was the Archduchess, the Revel House -"

"I'll think about it."

Iamica nodded. "And the other thing she said -"

"I know what she said, Iamica. I was there."

"You know she'll be visiting you, not just Wiar, don't you?"

"If I'm still there when she manages to get away. If she can convince the king of Niohain that she isn't sleeping with her redmage."

"Does that look more or less likely when she doesn't replace him? She said she wasn't going to... Anyway, she isn't sleeping with her redmage," said Iamica reasonably.

"I know that, and you know that, and Wiar knows that whenever he's in the room with her, but the question is does the king of Niohain know that."

"And I doubt the king of Niohain would even think to suspect that she's sleeping with -"

"Discretion. Please. I know Wiar and Luvi aren't going to repeat your words, but please."

"I'm sorry."

Meea leaned her head on Wiar's shoulder. She didn't say anything.

Meea's wedding was a summary business. Thrown together as soon as they got home, attended by family and immediately local friends. Lost in a flurry of activity after the fact, as they figured out revised living arrangements, as Wiar's vile programming was mitigated as much as possible by his greenmage sister. As they then adopted two boys and the last girl, blue white red, from the pool of unclaimed Temple-Guild children (now now now before Meea got a moment closer to death).

The royal wedding, months later, was a massive, public affair.

The bride invited her former redmage, who she had yet to replace. He was invited to bring his wife and attendant. Their children were left behind with their grandparents.

They went in a carriage with another, not yet retired goldmage who was being employed as extra security for the affair. Just in case. So that if something happened, help for the usual bodyguard was not days away. Meea could not hope to serve this purpose.

It meant they arrived a little early, and they might have had a little time.

But the groom, too, was there early. He couldn't be late to his wedding if the winds didn't cooperate with his ship; but they had, so he had already been in Cefax for a week. And, busy planning to wed the king of Niohain, there were only a few moments Liatsi was able to set aside, and those moments for only Wiar.

Wiar came back to Meea with a note in his hand, for whom he couldn't remember; Meea took it on a guess. It didn't have her name on it, but Wiar struggled to read these days, for the children's sake; it couldn't well be for him. Iamica didn't think it was hers. So Meea read it.

But there was nothing in it she didn't already know, carefully anonymized: Liatsi loved her. Liatsi missed her. They could not be caught; and on this of all occasions there was no space between doing nothing and being seen to do nothing.

Liatsi might be able to visit the Temple-Guild come next spring.

Meea read it twice, folded it, kissed it, put it in her pocket - and went to sleep on Wiar's right, Iamica on his left, in their guest room. In the morning Liatsi would be married and in the evening they would start home to the Temple-Guild and they'd kiss their children and move on with their lives, what was left of them, and Meea didn't have time to cry about this.

She snuggled up to her husband. What was there to even cry about? She loved, she was loved, she was still alive.

And the morning came.

Liatsi wore red, for love, and Meea tried not to cry. If she cried, anyone but Wiar might think it was from happiness, but Wiar would know and he might not recall the reasons to pretend differently. As it was he knew she was unhappy and kept throwing her looks of concern, and this with Iamica pulling him to lean on her instead of Meea.

The groom wore copper, for strength.

Tse Faix, the royal greenmage, performed the ceremony, and Meea did not know if Liatsi had gone to him in secret and taken the advice about making her prospective marriage less repellent, and did not know if she hoped one way or the other.

Maybe she had. Maybe Tse Faix had performed some gentle, voluntary magic, and Liatsi's smile was real, and the ceremony's words about a life of happiness were true.

Meea could not even be too upset about that. She wanted Liatsi happy, could no more reasonably feel jealous regarding the King than she did about Iamica, or Wiar's clients, or Mixi's girlfriend.

But that Liatsi might have needed to do that to be happy meant something was deeply broken. Something about politics, something about people, something about Meea.

The King of Niohain and Cefax clasped hands with the Queen of Cefax and Niohain. Liatsi's lips (red, for love) pressed to his in a kiss. Meea was sitting eight rows back and could not see if it was formal or meant or well-acted. Wiar would know, but by the time she could ask him he would have forgotten (the nature of the kiss, that he saw it at all, that Liatsi existed -)

Meea should have been a redmage. To live forever, to be an acceptable affair, to be -

But then Liatsi would have sent her home on the first day, for being tempting, for being vulnerable. What redmages were at home in their Temple-Guilds now who could have loved the Queen as much as Meea did and never got a chance? Did she envy them?

Meea applauded with everyone else.

Wiar put his arms around her and squeezed her, hard.

She pretended she wept for joy. He wasn't fooled.

Meea's daughter Tsira loved her.

The boys liked their ma fine, but it was known to everyone in the household that Meea wouldn't last, that while they should call her Ma they'd do best to focus their affection on Pa and Iamica. (That Meea was not worth healing if she got sick, was also impressed upon the little whitemage.)

But Tsira loved her. Tsira, afraid of the dark, had a vial of Godspring water to function as a nightlight whenever she needed one; and if she and Meea were both up late, a little red mote of light would creep to sit beside her on the sofa.

Meea would read to her, on those nights, snuggled up against the winter.

"If I'm very careful," she read, and then she stopped.

"Ma," whispered Tsira.

Meea didn't answer her.

"Ma," Tsira said.

The book slid to the floor.

Tsira put her hand on her ma's cheek but there was no updated burst of understanding, no little incommunicable tidbits of how this personality had changed in the last few moments.

Tsira looked at the peacefully still face.

Tsira knew she wasn't sleeping.

Tsira went to write her diary, quickly, before she forgot something.

The Queen visited her ex-redmage in the springtime.

And she met his children.

Tsira, gloves on, stockings rolled up high, curtsied shyly to her, and said, "I remember how Ma talked about you."

Liatsi's smile changed, just a little. "Do you?"

"Pa doesn't remember and Grandpa doesn't remember and no one else knows, but did you? Know?"

"I knew," said Liatsi.

"Somebody has to," Tsira said. "I'll forget. You won't, though."

"I won't," said the Queen.

And Tsira nodded and ran off to hide behind Iamica.

"Tse," said a little bluemage, newly dunked in the spring, to Nicixa as she toweled glowing blue water off of his hair. Some of it turned gold on her hands. "Why don't they get more kids? Then there would be more mages, and they could go get my friends too, I miss my friends, and then magic wouldn't have to be so expensive."

"We want it to be expensive," said Nicixa. "We need it to be as expensive as we can get people to pay for. Or how will we make sure, when we're all dwindled, that there will be anyone to look after us? How can we be sure that we won't be used up for silly, cheap things and then thrown away?"

"But if there were more mages..."

"Then," Nicixa said, "it would be worse to be a mage, and you wouldn't want it for your friends. Imagine if one of your friends were a poor dwindled greenmage, neglecting to drink water for a week - or a poor dwindled redmage, forgetting why they went into the kitchen - and there was nobody there to help them?"

"But people need magic help."

"And mages need money. Money and loving care and the understanding that they aren't being spent on silly waste. It would be one thing if we could be sure of getting all gold."

"Like you."

"Like me. I can live on my own, and if there were more like me, even if there were so many that my magic were worth barely any money, I could do something else. That would be all right, if there were a lot of goldmages."

"But you die."

"We die, yes. Sometimes very young. But only when we have to do magic, and we do magic only when what we're doing it for is more important than what we give up. At least, as long as we've been taught to be responsible."

"I have to be responsible too," said the little bluemage, "don't I."

"Yes. But eventually we all dwindle. And the Temple-Guild will be here to look after you, even once you can't work."

The little bluemage nodded.

"Now go meet the people who are looking for children to adopt, hm?"

Nod, nod, and off he ran.

Nicixa directed the next child into the spring, and the water ran gold.