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."