Chapter 8

"Tse Witwex, I had the best idea."

Meea wondered vaguely which best idea it would be this time. Swallowing a written note before a jump? Making all of the goldmages keep diaries, to do statistics on their work and their longevity? Some genuinely useful improvement on the ciphering, maybe.


"What if you jump back," Nicixa said, grinning from ear to ear, "and tell your past self they should jump back?"

Ah. The best best idea. Out of all the ideas that wouldn't work.

"You don't look excited," frowned Nicixa.

"You can't do that, Nicixa."

"Sure you could, just cut on your arm -"

Meea shook her head. "You can't jump earlier than any point that contains anyone's coexistence. If I jumped back even just a second, right now, no one would be able to go to yesterday. Jumping is so rare, goldmages are so rare, that we almost never interfere with each other like this - though it's happened - but certainly we can't do any backwards chaining. I'm sorry. It really is very clever, but it doesn't work that way."

"But then why is everyone so - so tentative about how far they jump back? Shouldn't they go back as far as they can, to fix the point earlier, in case they have to try again or get someone else's help?"

"And how far is as far as they can?" inquired Meea.


"We can't just pile up body after body until we find someone who can go back a whole week and save the day for everyone who tried and failed. It could be that no one can do it, and then all of the goldmages are dead. We don't just keep raising the stakes, because sometimes we lose. We have to cut our losses or they'd strangle us. Short of royal command we are very, very conservative about jumping - the Peninsula Temple-Guild lost all of its goldmages above the age of eight, a hundred and fifty years ago, and that was at royal command and they still are being repaid in the form of tax relief."

"Why didn't they keep back one - to go back just to before they started trying this and warn them it wouldn't work -?"

"They did. He defected at the last moment, ran away, no one knows where. By the time they could get word to another Temple-Guild, the jump was dangerously long again."

"Oh," shuddered Nicixa.

"Which is part of why we emphasize duty so much, more with little golds than with the others. Lives will depend on you."

Nicixa nodded, solemn. "And I guess this means my other idea won't work either."

"Shall I guess?" asked Meea.

"Instead of cutting your throat, or whatever, the self that's to die could just jump back really far - or try. And it wouldn't hurt. But it wouldn't work, would it."

"No," said Meea. "But a cut throat is almost as quick."

"Iamica," said Liatsi sharply. "What happened?"

Iamica sobbed into her hands once and collected herself just enough to respond. "I can't remember anything useful! There was a strange smell in my room when I went back after lunch and I think I passed out, and when I woke up I was here, tied up and gagged, and she - the other Meea - she was there, and it took me an hour to get to the door and open it with my chin -"

"At least an hour," whispered Meea. Her hands had crept up to her face, as though searching for wrinkles to give her a timeline, but that was nonsense, she'd drop dead without any such notice. Maybe now she'd never wrinkle at all. "Probably more. Probably she passed out at the same time. After lunch."

"- and get a servant's attention, and she untied me and put the curtain over the other Meea and went to get you, and I was trying to wake her up, to find out what happened -"

"And now we don't know," Meea said into the back of her wrist. She was still holding her knife.

"- and - and I don't know what happened, except I think the other Meea was passed out too, from the smell or from the blood loss I don't know but she wasn't in the room with me when I -"

"What smell?" interrupted Liatsi.

Iamica blinked. "It was sort of... sour? But not really like anything I'm familiar with, not anything the apothecary usually has."

"Would you recognize it?" Liatsi asked.

"Yes," said Iamica, after a moment's hesitation.

"Come with me," Liatsi said, pivoting to leave the Red Room.

"Princess?" said Meea hoarsely. She sounded like she'd been crying for hours, though no tears had escaped her eyes yet.

"We need to have a look at the gifts our friends from Caplare brought."

The Midnight powder had been unsealed. In small doses, inhaled, it was a sleep aid - if one took it at midnight one wouldn't wake till dawn. In larger doses, it could knock out every occupant of a room.

Such a dose was missing from the barrel.

Iamica sniffed the fumes, carefully, enough to be woozy but not enough to collapse, and said yes, that was the sour smell.

Liatsi led them all to the Minister of Intelligence's office and brought him up to speed. He turned at once to Meea.

"Under what circumstances would you have jumped back?" he asked. "Surely not solely to try to spare a servant inconvenience."

"No," Meea said. "Not for that."

"Well, then. What would have happened, had you not jumped?"

"For the Princess," Meea said. "If someone killed her. I'd jump. And stop them."

"Then it seems most likely," said the Minister of Intelligence, "that, without your jump, the Princess would be dead, and that somehow even though you were caught in an area fogged with Midnight, your jump averted this."

Meea nodded. That did seem likely. Liatsi was alive. She had probably kept Liatsi alive. That was good.

The Minister of Intelligence produced the largest sheet of paper Meea had ever seen and spread it over his desk. He began drawing labeled boxes with arrows between them, narrating as he went. "Some attempt on the Princess's life succeeds. Tse Witwex, not aware of earlier Midnight use, determines the otherwise correct vantage point from which to jump so that she will be found - would you have been found in the servant's room?"

"Iamica and Wiar share a room," Meea corrected automatically. "The Princess and I went there - not long after lunch - and knocked, to see if Wiar was there. But there was no answer. If I didn't know about the Midnight I would have expected my jumped self to be able to catch me then and there."

"And does not lethally injure herself prior to the jump - why would that be?"

"Because last time I had no trouble slitting her throat," Meea whispered. "Because if I'd found her like I was supposed to she wouldn't have needed to."

The Minister drew more boxes. "So she arrives with cut arms - shallow cuts?"

"Yes. Scratches. Just enough to be legible, some bleeding from clumsiness maybe," Meea said to the floor.

"- but not any injuries that would kill her. She is immediately knocked unconscious by the Midnight that was in the room at that time. Someone wearing a mask or breathing from an airskin or similarly protected is present, to tie the servant and to destroy the writing on her arms and relocate both to the Red Room. This person must, in addition to knowing about the presence of Midnight in the palace and having the ability to obtain the dose, be part of the conspiracy to assassinate the Princess, or at least motivated to help it succeed - or there is no reason to intercept the communication. However, they are not motivated to create excess collateral damage. If they are familiar with goldmagic, then leaving the jumped Tse Witwex alive could be interpreted as malice -"

Meea made some sort of noise she didn't know how to describe.

"- but leaving the servant alive cannot be so explained. So, this agent or these agents prefer to minimize casualties. Or, they wished to leave some clues, to mislead or taunt us. Or, the servant is working for them."

"What?" sputtered Iamica. "No!"

The Minister of Intelligence ignored her. "There remains the question of what they were originally planning to do. The Princess is still alive despite the fact that the jumping Tse Witwex was knocked out and her message destroyed."

"It could have been about an attempt that's still in our future," Meea murmured. "It could have been a fairly long jump. If I had been going to live a long time, even a long jump would have let her survive... hours... of coexistence."

"So perhaps this agent or these agents were laying groundwork for a later event. Tse Witwex's jump and her failure to accomplish anything with it could both be part of such a plan. It will take a few days to send for a replacement."

Meea felt very cold all over.

"A replacement," echoed Liatsi.

"Well," sniffed the Minister. "Of course. You cannot have as your bodyguard a goldmage who has expended some large, unknown fraction of her available lifespan. Perhaps she can pause, even still, but certainly she will be of no use if someone gets past her."

"He's right," Meea breathed.

Liatsi said, "Meea."

"He's right. I'm useless to you. I have to go into retirement. I can teach. Maybe. If I have enough time to even get all the way home and see the new class cycle start. But that's all I can do anymore."

"But -" Liatsi stopped. "Oh."

"Regardless," said the Minister, "Princess, Tse Witwex is not negligible protection even now, and you should keep her with you until a replacement can be selected, paid for, and brought here. I can easily make the arrangements over the course of my other duties if you had a second choice from among those who were sent as candidates recently. The available pool won't have changed significantly in such a short time."

There was a silence. Liatsi named another goldmage and the Temple-Guild he was from. He wasn't from the nearest one, but the coexistence was a fixed point; Meea couldn't be saved even if another goldmage could be fetched within the scope of rescue protocol.

The Minister of Intelligence nodded smartly, and said, "I advise that, in addition to Tse Witwex, you keep several of the ordinary guards close by. No good can come from relaxing protections around you when we expect that you may be under threat."

"Of course," said Liatsi.

"I'm not working for assassins!" exclaimed Iamica. "You believe me, right - Princess - Meea?"

"Minister, please treat Iamica as gently as possible," said Liatsi.

"Of course," said the Minster of Intelligence over Iamica's wordless shriek. "Miss, I'm afraid I will have to restrain you for the time being. The more cooperative you are, the briefer and less uncomfortable this can be..."

"Meea," said Liatsi, and Meea looked away from the Minister and Iamica to stare into the Princess's eyes. "Let's go... collect extra guards."

Meea swallowed the lump in her throat. "Yes, Princess."

They collected extra guards, and they were not alone, and they could speak of nothing that mattered. The new goldmage arrived, and they were not alone, and Meea no longer had any public excuse to linger at Liatsi's side at all. Meea was not party to any of the Minster of Intelligence's investigation or findings. She was not invited to meetings or asked further questions. Everything she could offer to anyone in the castle was spent.

She was packing - slowly, mechanically moving belongings into luggage - when a servant brought her a note.

You could stay in the palace as one of Wiar's companions. He's allowed more than one.

It wasn't signed. The servant had only found it in the palace notebox, identified for delivery to Meea. But it had to be Liatsi's idea. Liatsi wanted Meea to stay for the remaining years (months? Meea was older than her erstwhile sister had been) of her life. Wiar was an excuse, but a sincere one, an established one, an explanation that wouldn't hurt Liatsi, he wouldn't mind. Meea hadn't thought of Wiar at all since seeing her jumped body, but she thought of him now with a fierce gratitude. She could love him forever just for this, even if there were nothing else to him, for putting her and Liatsi together and being a way for them to stay in proximity.

However long forever turned out to be.

She burned the note and turned the thought aside and hurried to his room to ask.

It was empty.

She looked for Liatsi, as that would be the only duty that would call him away from his room, and Liatsi was shut up in her meeting room with Ministers and Meea was no longer allowed inside to stand at her shoulder in permanent readiness. But she wouldn't be in the meeting room with Wiar; they met in her quarters.

Meea checked the gardens, the palace temple, the kitchens - odd time for a snack, not impossible - and Wiar was not there.

Iamica was still in custody. If Liatsi hadn't happened to want Wiar's services, or hadn't had a moment to seek them in all the flurry of security arrangements and political theorizing about motives, who would have noticed?

(Meea should have noticed, Meea should have taken over as his attendant when Iamica was taken away, now that she was useless as a mage, now that he was otherwise unsupported, she should have done that instantly.)

She went back to Wiar's room.

This was also Iamica's room.

This was where Meea had jumped to, where she'd meant to intercept something.

Would she have gone back for Wiar, too?

If Liatsi had asked her, yes. She would have gone back for him without hesitation.

Liatsi might be in no danger at all.

But something had happened to the Princess's redmage.

Meea could not get in to see Liatsi. Notes to the Princess were not delivered by the notebox servants, either, that would be too easy a privilege to abuse. If Meea could not see Liatsi, who could she tell? She was no longer employed as part of the security force. She was technically overstaying her welcome, as Wiar was not present and had not added her to his companions. The fiasco of the other day had demonstrated perfectly that servants did not have adequate channels to communicate with their superiors. If Meea fell into some class of person who did have such channels, she didn't know about them. She'd only ever followed Liatsi and spoken directly into her ears.

Meea tried the palace bluemage, Tse Curin. She should have done this first anyway. The bluemage would be able to see what had happened. They'd been assuming that the attempt had been on the Princess, that it had failed due to some consequence of Meea's jump, that there would be no informative stamp on the past in Iamica's room for the bluemage to look at - or at least Meea thought they'd been assuming this; no one told her. But if the assassins or kidnappers had gone after Wiar instead and Wiar was in fact gone, a bluemage would be able to help.

Liatsi had been busy with her bluemage. Tse Curin was completely uninterested in Meea and treated her like a moving obstacle even once he'd let her into the room as an apparently automatic response to the knock.

"Where's your attendant?" Meea tried. She didn't know the attendant's name. She should've learned it, that would produce a more informative response. (Maybe. If she knew enough about how bluemages worked she wouldn't have to talk through the attendant in the first place.) "Tse Curin - Tse - I need to talk to your attendant. Where's -"

Tse Curin ignored her. He was doing some sort of weaving on a lap loom, humming.

"Tse Curin, it's an emergency -"

But he paid her no mind and the attendant wasn't there, because why would one be, bluemages were generally perfectly safe to leave alone in familiar surroundings for arbitrary lengths of time.

Meea had to talk to Liatsi.

She tried the greenmage, who would at least be lucid. (The whitemage had been in bed with fever for the last four days and would not clear herself of it just to hear Meea out and demand Liatsi's attention.)

But greenmage services were so rarely urgent.

Tse Faix had apparently, on this basis, been allowed a vacation to visit his mother, who was on her deathbed. There was a note to this effect pinned to his door.

Meea actually threw herself to the floor outside of Tse Faix's room and struck at the floor until her hands stung. She felt like she was three again, inconsolable, demanding by way of tantrum that her ma go fetch her pa so he'd pick her up and love her, but this time it was Wiar she wanted and Liatsi she needed to help her fetch him. Liatsi would be able to summon the bluemage's attendant and ask him a question. And Liatsi was not here to witness Meea as she fell apart.

Slowly Meea picked herself up again.

She had to think of something else, and soon, because there was so little time and her dearly bought control over the stuff was less certain than ever.

In the end Meea did not think of anything better than sitting outside Liatsi's quarters until the Princess retired for the night, and even this required talking her way into the good graces of a guard who questioned the necessity.

She sat, and she waited, and then there was Liatsi with the new goldmage, a man from another temple, one of the ones Meea had beaten by demonstrating conservatism with her magic.

"Princess," said Meea. "I can't find Wiar. Anywhere."

Liatsi froze.

And then she was in motion again, breaking into a run down the hall.

Meea leapt up and followed, and the new goldmage didn't tell her to back off, only kept pace with the princess.

Liatsi was headed for Tse Curin, Meea realized after they'd turned and gone down a flight of stairs. The princess would be much better able to demand the presence of the bluemage's attendant than Meea had been, and the bluemage would find what had happened to Wiar, and -

And then what, Meea didn't know. She couldn't try again to do whatever she'd been trying to do when she jumped. Even the new goldmage with his barely-tapped reserves of lifespan couldn't do that. The past up until the moment when she'd stabbed her jumped self in the throat was locked away. The bluemage wouldn't be able to tell them the future and steer them to whatever would be best...

It'd be Liatsi's decision. Liatsi would know what to do.