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."