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.