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.