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.