Chapter 9

It was still a little jarring, less than a week into the new class cycle, to let her own students go, step out of the role of their teacher, and then immediately attend her own small tutoring sessions on politics. One moment all the exclamations of "But Tse!" and "I have a question!" and "I have to pee!" were all addressed to Meea. The next moment someone else was in charge. (And everyone in the politics class knew better than to arrive with a full bladder.)

This tutor, unusually, wasn't a mage, but one of the Temple-Guild's customers - Tseca Feric, one of her pa's clients, trading his services as a teacher for part of what he owed to visit Tsarian. Whether this was due to financial burden or just because he liked teaching, Meea was unsure. "Hello, Tseca," she said. She was the first one there.

"Hello, Meea. How's your father?"

"He's over his cold. He'll be so happy to see you after class."

Tseca smiled, just a little farway for a moment. Then another student arrived, and Tseca greeted him, too, and so on until all five of them in this group were there.

Once they were all seated - Meea and another goldmage, two greens, and a blue - Tseca opened with: "Can someone tell us the ranks of nobility?"

The blue volunteered first. "The King, regnant; the Queen, consort; the Princess, heiress apparent; the Archdukes and Archduchesses; the Counts and Countesses; the Lords and Ladies. As yourself, Lord Feric." (Meea made a face at the formality. He'd offered his first name to everyone, not just his redmage's daughter, but no one else had picked it up.)

"And - someone else, please - what does their status allow them to do, in general terms?"

A greenmage spoke. "Briefly? You could order us to do anything that wasn't against the law and as long as nobody who outranks you appeared to belay it we'd have to do it."

"Technically, yes. And why doesn't this happen all the time?"

"In general, or here?" asked the same green.

"Let's start with here."

"Because if you start ordering us to do anything we really don't like, we can defect and attack you and you can't do anything about it and you'd probably regret it. I'll stop short of giving details."

"And I thank you for it. Though I hope you know that isn't the only reason I don't attempt to abuse my lordship," said Tseca with a small smile and a glance at Meea. "But mages, while loyal to Cefax and the nobility that governs it, are overwhelmingly powerful."

"I couldn't do much," pointed out the blue.

"Well, not to me in particular, since I assure you I'm impossible to blackmail, but you're dangerous in your own right to some. Reds and whites less so. Golds most of all." He glanced at Meea and her colleague; Meea met his gaze with perfect calm. She had no quarrel with her political betters.

The other green said, "And for everybody else - we work for money, and someone could pay the Temple-Guild not to help you."

"That hasn't happened often, but it has happened - a group of commoners can raise enough money to cut off a noble from mage services. Since it is of course much less expensive to hire you not to work, and for good reason. The other reason nobles don't tend to bully non-mage commoners is that we have our upper echelons too. They don't work so directly. The Count of Mixan, for instance, can't directly command me to make my son marry his daughter no matter how much he'd like to. Who knows what he can do if he doesn't like how I'm handling myself?"

Meea answered this one. "Challenge you to a duel," she said wryly. It had kept bothering Pa till it was settled; the daughter in question was his client, too.

"Right. Which he has done, with his firstborn as champion, and I won, and that was that. This is not something that happens to commoners - most particularly not mages. But another noble could call me to personal account over any misdeeds, unless the king himself intervened."

"Is the only point of having different ranks of nobles the rule where you can only challenge downwards?" asked the bluemage.

"Higher-ranking nobles also rule larger territories and tend to be more closely related to and more involved with advising the royal family," said Tseca, "and have more involvement with politics overseas, which we'll begin to discuss the next time we meet. An Archduke or an Archduchess can even, with the support of enough key players, potentially override an order from the king, in the sense that the king can rule only with the support of those under him."

"But," said the other goldmage, "that would be a dangerous move, wouldn't it? Challenging the king."

"Often. But it's likewise a bit dangerous for royalty to contradict an Archduke," Tseca replied.

They didn't get as far as Tse Curin's chambers.

"Aunt Siava," Liatsi said to the Archduchess, not slowing down.

"Liatsi. What's your hurry?" She fell into step with them.

"I need to speak with Tse Curin. About the recent incident."

The Archduchess glanced at Meea. "What about it? You already decided not to spend him on it. For most of the window of opportunity it was probably too dark in the room for him to be of any use and you're so timid about dwindling..."

"The Minister of Intelligence was investigating the usual suspects for an attack on me via less costly methods. I now think I was never the target." They rounded a corner; Meea stumbled a bit to keep up. "Wiar was."

"Liatsi," said Siava reproachfully. "You know who might want to attack your redmage."

Liatsi stopped. Meea did too. Of course, it was obvious, it was -

"The Caplari," said the Archduchess. "They'd have had to hire someone, obviously, we know where the Prince and the Queen were the entire day, but - hmm -" She looked at Meea again. "Liatsi, a word alone...?"

Liatsi frowned, but went with her aunt into the nearest side room while Meea and the other goldmage waited.

Meea could hear their voices, rising louder and louder, until she made out an entire word, as upset as she'd ever heard Liatsi: "- isn't!"

There was a reply from the Archduchess, and the door opened at her hand, and she turned to the new goldmage. "Tse Tsimir," she began. "Incapacitate the -"

Meea was looking at Liatsi, instead. Liatsi, behind her aunt, mouthed silently and directly at Meea:

Pause. Run.

Meea didn't waste a moment wondering whether to trust the Princess. She paused. She ran.

For Tse Tsimir to have a hard time catching her, she had to get beyond doors - away from anything she had to physically open to get past. The open doors would form a trail unless she spent time on closing them. Then she had to unpause somewhere unobserved, so no one would spot her popping into existence - and she'd have to be less recognizable once she went anywhere under observation. Meea tore off her droplet and her sash and her robes as she ran and shed them in the front hall, leaving anonymous shirt and pants underneath.

She burst through the doors contemplating her more difficult problem of being obviously, unfortunately, Caplari. It was enough for the Archduchess to suspect her and risk a confrontation between goldmages to get her in custody on suspicion of harming Wiar in spite of the fact that she would never, could never - and it was certainly enough to put out a successful hunt for her if she didn't come up with some reasonable disguise or a place to blend in. Where would there be a lot of Caplari in Nacafi? Now that the contingent from overseas had gone, Meea didn't know.

She considered detouring long enough to grab something to use as a shawl, so she'd be less obvious from a distance, but someone could notice what was missing and then they'd know exactly what she was wearing. She left the grounds, heart panicking between gasping lungs. Where would there be a lot of Caplari, where would 'a Caplari girl around twenty' not be a stand-out description -?

She turned when the path down from the palace forked, choosing a route that didn't require her to shove anyone out of the way or slow down too much to slalom between them. At least there had been stairs and she hadn't had to take the meandering road cut into the slope for carriages, but she had to have been paused for almost two minutes now to get this far anyway. She could fall over dead at a moment's notice - well, maybe not quite, not given how long her jumped self had persisted, but it was costing. Tse Tsimir was almost undwindled and would think nothing of looking for that long if he could determine where she'd gone. If he obeyed the Archduchess and not the Princess, or if Liatsi didn't dare contradict her aunt, or - whatever had just happened.

She had to hide.

Where would there be -

Meea was fast on her feet, and she knew this, but she was still surprised to see how far she'd come when she went under the White Bridge and saw the Revel House ahead of her.

The Revel House... had all colors of people to suit all tastes, many around her age. If someone saw here there, well, she wasn't dressed like she was working there, but they could imagine she had the day off. Or that she was a tourist or a sailor on shoreleave and the Revel House was the signature attraction of Nacafi that had attracted her attention, which would not be guessed of any anonymous alleyway.

Cursing everything she could think of under her breath, she made directly for the brothel, dove between the decorative fence and a shrub so neither passers-by from the street nor anyone enjoying the view out of the House's windows would be able to see her pop into existence out of nowhere, and let the world start turning again.

She caught her breath, and drowned in the sudden cacophany of everything in the city given license to move, and tried to think of what to do next.

Or what had happened.

Deep breath. In, out, she was no longer doing magic but she could do more if she had to, she was safe for the moment. Liatsi didn't believe Meea had hurt Wiar but for whatever reason didn't want to risk a power struggle with the Archduchess -

So the thing to do would be to find Wiar, find him and evidence that she hadn't taken him.

If there was any.

Well, she wanted to find Wiar anyway, and he - would have to be alive, wouldn't he? Someone who wanted him dead could have simply killed him, once Meea had gone and fouled up any future attempts at jumping back. With her unconscious and coexisting right there, the infiltrator could just have slit Wiar's throat, in the dark where no bluemage could identify them. He had to have been kidnapped.

Unless she'd landed after he was dead - and with the fiasco the entire jump had been she wasn't prepared to rule it out - but then why would his body have been taken? It wouldn't be hard to get a kidnapped redmage to follow docilely; transporting a corpse would be harder.

Footsteps approached; Meea made sure she was absolutely still. She might be less of a standout around the Revel House than in any other part of the city, but she would still rather not be seen at all, not least because she had no legitimate reason to be hiding under a bush. The footsteps didn't go past. They turned, approaching the building. Customers, probably, hopefully; Meea would probably just throw up on top of everything else if it was a new batch of employees. Liatsi had mentioned once wanting to put a hard floor on the allowable age -

And she was trying to hold still, not vomit or cry, so she pushed that thought away and just watched through the leaves.

There was a group of six men, sort of racially indeterminate between sun and obscuring facial hair, with the kind of rough-cut look that suggested that if they met police on the street it wouldn't be a polite exchange of greetings. Maybe sailors. Maybe pirates; the Revel House didn't turn down real gold however illicitly gotten. Following them was a little, sunburned woman, looking around vacantly.

They paused before going inside. Meea could just barely hear them.

"She's still following us. Think they'd give us freebies if we sold her to 'em?"

"Rather not risk it unless they offer first. Might be offended. Nobody wants an offended madam."

"She that touchy?"

"Doesn't care where the gold comes from, but I never asked where she gets her girls. Or boys, for that matter."

"Well, what do we do with her, then? Can't get anything out of her anymore."

"I told you we should've left her servant alive."

"He wouldn't've helped. I think he was making things worse."

"Let's see what happens if we just tell her to wait and then ignore her on the way out."

This inspired consensus. "Stay here," said one of the - Meea was nearly certain now that they were pirates - to the woman.

She didn't move. Or otherwise acknowledge them, but Meea supposed that made perfect sense -

The men went in. The bluemage they'd kidnapped stayed put.

Meea waited for a minute, two, in case one of them was going to come back out, but they didn't.

"Luvi," she said as loud as she dared, and the bluemage turned.

Meea was terrible at talking to bluemages, but motivated like this - she called up memories of old bedtime stories. Direct commands about concrete things. "See" (and "now", as opposed to yesterday, last year, a century ago), not "look for", not "find", not "try". Only the bare minimum criteria of what she wanted Luvi to look for with no frills, because Luvi probably didn't know how to weigh wants any more. How had the Red Rabbit gotten the Blue Goose to find them somewhere safe to hide from the fox? Come here. See now an empty room with an unlocked door you could touch that is close to here. Walk there. Meea recited the dialogue, undeviating.

Luvi had heard the story, too, apparently. She closed her eyes and said the next line: "And then together we'll hide and eat this grass I picked until the fox has gone..."

Luvi had been underscheduled when last Meea had seen her, but now she was much too dwindled for her age. When Luvi had seen, plotted a course towards, and led Meea to a back room of some kind - Meea guessed from the paraphernalia that it belonged to an absentminded apothecary of the kind who did their best business at night and would still be asleep at this hour - they sat.

Luvi apparently recognized Meea well enough to follow her instructions, but she'd been obeying the pirates too, whether out of fear or because they'd been particularly good at handling her was unclear. Meea had no idea how to ask a dwindled bluemage do you know who I am? in language that they'd understand. Let alone why did you follow the pirates once you'd made landfall?

"Tell me what happened to you," she tried.

Luvi blinked at her.

"...Describe," said Meea slowly, "your assignments after you - left the palace."

This worked. "I was assigned to a fleet of trade ships to see storms and piracy. Cemnir fell ill and couldn't attend me. The sailors gave bad instructions. I dwindled quickly and also missed some pirates I was not instructed to see. They killed the sailors, took me and Cemnir and captured the cargo. Cemnir recovered from his illness and spoke with the pirates but the pirates killed him -" Here Luvi's voice started shaking and her eyes welled with tears and she rubbed them away; Meea couldn't tell if she noticed the connection between her dead attendant and the crying because she just went on talking. "And instructed me themselves. I dwindled faster. They sold the cargo and landed in Nacafi and I followed them and then you addressed me."

"Why did -" No, that wasn't going to get anywhere. Why did the original sailors try to give a bluemage instructions themselves when they were so bad at it and they could have asked for a refund if they'd left her alone? Why did the pirates kill her attendant?

But if Luvi still had concepts of why locked up in her head, Meea didn't know the right words to get at them.

Meea didn't know how to help Luvi do anything. The Temple-Guild wasn't necessarily safe for Meea, not until whatever the business with the Archduchess was got resolved - which she could only help with as far as she knew by -


Luvi looked at her. She'd mostly stopped crying. She was so heartbreakingly pretty and Meea had no idea if there were other servants back at the Temple-Guild who she recognized well enough to be effectively attended by and Meea didn't know how to help her.

"Luvi - see now Wiar. Describe the room he's in."

A redmage in the Revel House.

A redmage in the Revel House.

They'd been asking for decades if not longer. They were prepared to turn over the expected lifetime earnings of a redmage up front and regularly hire a white as necessary, with the expectation that they'd want a green, occasionally, too. They wanted to invest a staggering amount of money in having the commodity.

Redmage in the Revel House, and then they could really claim to sell love.

No Temple-Guild had turned one over. Had been that desperate, had considered a redmage that dispensible. The Peninsula site, after the disaster with their goldmages, had allowed a few healthy children the Revel House had already got custody of to dip in the godspring, with the understanding that the Temple-Guild would keep them if they were anything but red and the Revel House would pay for the upbringing of the lot regardless. But it had come out green blue gold gold white gold and then the Temple-Guild called it off, their supplies of goldmages bolstered as much as they were willing to risk.

Nearly every mage loved some redmage. You didn't love a redmage and then watch one of their ilk go to be wasted on the unrestricted clientele the Revel House wanted one for. Most everybody with a droplet on their forehead knew how precious redmages were, and if they often slept with their clients at least that wasn't the express point, at least there were fewer than fifty over most lifetimes and they could remember a few things, how to speak and open doors and identify food so they could ever do anything other than pleasing clients. No one would agree to turn over a redmage because everybody loved one. Parent or sibling or friend or -

Wiar in the Revel House. No doubt very discreetly advertised, but there, for customers who wanted to know if perhaps this was the year there was finally such a delight available for their money.

"- red sheets. There's labeled ceramic boxes of Potence and Smoothness and Caution on the bedside table. It's dim with only candles and no windows, but not too dark to read," Luvi was saying. "He's with a man and a woman and -"

"Stop seeing," Meea murmured to Luvi, because the description was unmistakable already.

Her lover. In the Revel House.