“I don’t want to see him,” said Celeste, afraid.
Lady Yidran shook her head, her thin mouth, narrow eyes and pronounced cheekbones the most recent style of masq. “You must,” she said sternly, her hawk-like features accentuating her stern instruction.
“After what he did!” Celeste said. “No!” she barked adamantly and turned her back to Yidran. Celeste took in a deep breath and raised her head to look out through the window. Yidran had done nothing. None of them had. She had been violated in front of her people, and not one had stepped forward in her defence. She did not fear Yidran’s rebuke, or any of them.
The door opened and Celeste whirled round suddenly afraid. A tall, thin man walked solemnly into her chambers, tidy white beard and white short hair, wearing the usual grey garb of the Magestry. Celeste had several personal lessons from the mage Xala over the years, a kindly man deliberate in speech and thought. He was the first to draw her attention to the very fact that she thought at all, then how to arrange her thinking, and the primary exercises to control her attention. Teachers would drill her in grammar, logic and rhetoric but Xala’s visits were always to introduce a whole new area she hadn’t been aware of. It was Xala who introduced the distinction between rax and real, what commoners understood as magic. He occupied a fond place in her heart, but she felt nothing for him. She felt nothing but relief it wasn’t that dispicable fiend, her Mage. She spat the thought out of her mind: her Mage.
The old man bowed to Celeste who turned around indignantly and then to Lady Yidran in turn.
“She is being obstinant. Persuade her of her best course,” remarked Lady Yidran who swept out of the chamber leaving only Celeste and the old man.
What did he have to say? What could he possibly say to make up for his passivity during the ritual? Nothing. He could say nothing. Nobody could.
“The ways of the Magestry are inscrutible,” remarked the old man.
Platitudes, she thought. Where was the wisdom of old men now? The old maid Yidran was no longer required. Celeste was no longer a child to be instructed or corrected. Neither was she an innocent to fall for the old man’s magic.
“You did nothing,” she said coldly. “You stood and watched and did nothing.”
She seethed within. It was not a burning heat, it was not anger. It was cold, void of emotion, where her love had been. Yet the feeling had form, something she could shape. She directed it at him, like the point of a knife. Even with her back to him, she felt it piercing him. Whatever he had wanted to say was transfixed and he stood silently.
After a time she turned to face him. He withered in her cold stare, seemed to age. What he had worn well before, now sagged, his shoulders drooped, his face lined, his eyes which once sparkled, darkened. “Well?” she asked.
“You are learning,” he said calmly. “It is a hard lesson to bear. For all of us.”
He paused as she drew a quick breath through her nose, a reminder of the sharpness of the horrid experience. Xala’s spirit had in fact wavered when he witnessed the Mage’s assault. It had not manifested as movement, not because of fear of retribution nor the paralysis of confusion. It was awe, awe at the action of this young man to have done such a thing. It was beyond the old man’s conception, beyond anything anyone could have thought. Xala now stood before her, witnessing its effect on his student, no longer the girl Celeste he had known. Now, imperious in her demeanour, the Princess-Elect, how she looked down upon him with such disdain. But he knew this transformation was temporary, and born from weakness. It was not a thing to last.
“It is only half the lesson,” he continued. “You must complete it. And before seeing others, else you do them harm.”
“Did you know what he was going to do?” demanded Celeste. “Was it arranged? Was it a thing staged by the Magestry?”
The old man looked down apologetically. He lifted up his eyes and the Princess-Elect was ice. There was a danger that the intervention had caused more harm than good. That it had excised the best part of her, her sensitivity, her love for those around her.
“No,” he said.
She whirled away unsatisfied with his simple answer.
“If you choose not to see him, you shall experience his unwanted presence as another violation. As Princess-Elect, remain resolute in your new-found poise.”
She snorted. Advice. Words. That is all the old man had for her. “Will you remain here in the room with us?”
“He has asked for a private audience,” replied Xala.
What power did her Mage possess to have this effect on Xala? He was respected in court, the highest standing Mage in the province, reduced to a messenger: an old, wrinkled messenger boy.
“Send him in,” she commanded before reason or fear could take over. Fear followed quickly, but at the time she uttered it, the coldness was directed at Xala, dismissing him. As she heard the door close behind him, she felt alone once again. She began the silencing technique, ironically taught to her by Xala himself. She closed here eyes and breathed out, halfing her feelings. She held the moment of silence at the bottom of her third outbreath, the emptiness of her lungs, resisting the willingness to breath. It had a different quality now, colder, at the hard edge of death. No thought whisped her away to the concern of others, no warmth. Only tight, cold, emptiness.
The door opened and though her heart rate increased, the blood thumped in her ear, she breathed in slowly before halving halving halving and retaining her empty state, nothing but cold isolation once again.
The Mage stood behind her, just as he had when she was on stage. She could not remember anything that had happened between that moment and being here in this chamber. The faces of all her people before her, frozen as if in glass. It was as if nothing had happened in the intervening period.
“Why did you do it?” she said. Her wording broke the emptiness and cold feelings rose suddenly, hatred. After a while, she calmed herself and awaited the answer.
It did not happen. None of it did.
Celeste spun around and glared at the Mage, his thin-lidded eyes and bone-dry skin, he was abhorrent to her. She collected herself and with steel in her voice, pressed the question: “Why did you do it!”
The Mage deflected her hard intent with a respectful nod and proceeded, apparently without any sense of the turmoil she was going through. “I am a tool in your hands. What you do with me, will determine the fate of all worlds.”
Celeste shook her head. He didn’t make sense. Who was he even talking to? Certainly not her! He had violated her! In front of everyone! What kind of tool does that?
“The learning of the knife,” said the Mage. “Before the cut, a child. After the cut, an adult.”
Celeste stood motionless, midbreath. Her mind still.
“Explanation serves little purpose, before the fact. Return to what happened to you when I bowed and you touched the back of my head. Before my action.”
Celeste felt through the cloud of shame, the horror of her exposure in front of court, the violence of his act. It was so unexpected. What had happened? She had felt alone, isolated. And she vaguely recollected her response to Mbolo, her embarrassment of her costume, had felt the urge to tear it off herself… was the Mage referring to this…?
“I am a tool. I reflect the moment of your mind. It was made real through me. It was not my action. It was my re-action. I am a tool, for your presence. You in turn must learn to be a tool, a channel, a mirror for a presence greater than ourselves. The effect will continue to ring out, like the reverberations of a bell struck. Where others hear noise, we hear music. Where others make hate, we make love.”
Celeste coughed, felt released suddenly, taking a step back she swallowed hard then laughed in disbelief. “It’s not…” she couldn’t speak. “Love!” She could not believe what she was hearing. She was incredulous. What was this man thinking…?
“In my action is reflected their inaction. Was it my reaction which hit you, or their inaction? Relive the experience fully, or others like it in your life. The answer you derive determines your suitability for the task ahead of us.”
Celeste stepped forward and controlled herself. She wanted none of his magicks. He was serious. What task was he referring to? Her role as Princess-Elect? It was all happening too quickly, the experience, this wording…
“We will have this conversation only once. Never again for the first time. Even when you return here, relive what is said, never the same the first time. Never with this future-intention.”
Celeste felt her state of presence intensifying. However many times she returned to this moment, it could not be repeated. She imagined herself that night pondering over the day’s events, tomorrow, years ahead, all of her selves stacked in the future looking back at today’s events, yet never like now. She would never forget the events of the reception, but would she recall this conversation as easily? Celeste returned to the sallow-skinned man before her. What was he?
“We experienced an intervention,” said the Mage. “The natural flow of things was interrupted, as I sense it is even now.”
“What do you mean, intervention?” Celeste asked. “By what?”
Her question had a peculiar effect on the Mage. He closed his eyes and remained standing there, without breath. She recognised it as part of a technique, she had just performed it: halven. It was strange to observe it in another. Celeste realised she should have used the technique at the reception, to control her feelings. That was exactly the time to use it, when she was overwhelmed, or before the stress had mounted. It had happened so quickly, unexpectedly. However, what was the Mage feeling now that he was invoking the halven practice?
“You may think of it as angels,” was his considered reply, wording accurately. “They are assembling from the future to be with us now.”
Angels! Could Celestsel really know about the old ways? She stared at him in disbelief: that a servant of the God-Emperor would say such a thing, and yet something within her sang as if a chime struck. The private prayers only she and her mother shared — could they be heard? She involuntarily brought her hands together, felt the pendent beneath the chemise and within her breast, her spirit alight.
“There is much intervention at this time.” He paused, aware of things unsaid, unthought. “Three ordeals will follow,” he warned, “not of my hand. Far more dangerous than a broken costume, a social death before your subjects.”
What dangers lied ahead? She had dreaded the evening’s event, feared the shame she would re-experience before all the important people of state. They had seen her defiled earlier that day, how could she face them again? Is this what the Mage meant?
“By accepting me at your side, you overcome your fear. That is how people will fear you. Like a sword at the Guard’s side, sheathed, so I shall be at your side. Use me well.”
For all their ceremony and declarations of loyalty, they had done nothing. How dare they face her? The Mage was right: there had been an intervention. Something had touched her that day just as she touched the Mage’s self-seal. A fearful thing. And though her fearful shrunken state had ebbed, she was left with an unsettled feeling, an object within a field of vision far greater than herself, and yet equal to. It was as if her life, everything that led up to that moment, was a shadow. A brightness infused her that was not her own.
You are not your costume. You are not the Princess-Elect.
She felt that she was missing so much. She felt the moment slipping past her, like she was running on water. Between the past and the future, the enquickening presence of her Mage. What could be mistaken as fear, was alertness. The presence of an angel perhaps? Had she been courageous, perhaps its presence would reveal something different? An insight…? What was clear was that she was not to be afraid of the Mage, nor his reactions to her. In fact, in the coolness of her mind’s eye, she could see that he had made her a weapon, just as the Guard was made a weapon by carrying a sword.
“In the interest of efficiency,” the Mage Celestsel continued, “in order to accelerate our trust, it is imperative that you share the threads unseen which are being sewn together in today’s events. The social fabric between us strengthens as a result.”
Celeste shook her head, closing her eyes and trying to retain a sense of what she had just felt. Her fear was gone, but an anger towards the Mage remained. Resentment: it just wasn’t fair.
“You do not have my trust yet!” she said, glaring suddenly at him. Whatever magic the Mage had caste upon her, on all of them, she would not so easily let it pass. He had not even apologised!
“You and your brother are kept like pets by the Adukwe,” began the Mage. Celeste was taken aback. She could not help but be drawn into the Mage’s wording. He put words to thoughts unspoken. That they were pets to the Adukwe was true, it matched her experience of being a manequin to be dressed up and paraded, instructed on how to walk, talk, which hand to use when eating, when to look down and appear demure and when to stand one’s ground. She was loved, but as any well trained pet was. Her blood was Gal, after all, not Solozo. She was not one of the Adukwe. And to hear this… so bluntly put… almost as an aside… she should have taken offence, but now she felt there was nothing the Mage could say that could cause her more offence than she had already experienced at his hand. She cupped her ears; not as effective as the halven procedure, but effective in its own way.
“…however spurious the claim that your lineage extends to the Gal bloodline Adrienne of old.”
The Mage had stopped talking and was quietly waiting for her.
“I can not repeat myself, my Princess-Elect,” said the mage.
There was no admonishment, no reprimand. Just flatly said, as everything was. Clean of any emotion. Did he ever feel anything…?
“I understand,” said Celeste, collecting herself in a deep breath. “I am not a child. I am well aware of the politics around my position.” The mage waited. He was paying attention to her, actually listening to what she was saying, as if interested in what she was thinking, where she wanted to take them.
“Tell me,” instructed Celeste in Solozo, “while travelling with him, what have you learned about Lord Mbolo?” She was exploring how to be with him, how to engage him. The Mage was like a servant she could instruct, but he was different to most servants because he was powerful. As servant, as advisor, she couldn’t tell. He seemed boundaryless.
“Mbolo is not what he seems. Since the death of his Lady, he remains awkwardly unpaired in the Toloese Ring. No Inner Ring Lord has ever visited the mines this far to the west. Why now? I suspect his intention is not aligned to the Father of the Toloese. I suspect he plans to compromise the relationship between Rings Toloese and Adukwe for the benefit of the Beredin. Subverting the role of Princess-Elect may be part of his plans.”
Celeste was aware of politic, described to her by Shef Aclimas and Lady Yidran as pieces in a game of xadres. To think of politic within the Toloese Ring was like thinking of competition amongst pieces of the same side. The Mage had just enlarged the board and suddenly she felt part of it, a piece moved by others. There were moves being played she didn’t understand, and glimpses of moves she hadn’t known existed. Was this the life she was to enter? The life her child would be born into? He would not even have the eight years of innocence she had experienced. She promised herself she would redoubled her efforts in her lessons with Aclimas, to learn the game and play it well.
“Whatever the long-distant future holds, it is determined by our present actions,” continued the Mage. “There are levels of current play which significantly impact the outcome of the Princes-Elect’s lineage to be and the future of Urb itself.”
It was unsettling how the Mage verbalised what she had been thinking, answering questions she had barely begun. Here was the test, she thought. What harm could it do? If the Mage’s information and advice proved actionable, and it effected positive outcomes, then they would have a basis for a real relationship, not his erratic actions and inhuman manner. It was a risk to trust him this early, against the persistent advice of Lady Yidran and her Adukwe family, given she didn’t know the Mage or his motives. The Magestry were mysterious indeed, in this world and all the worlds in which their magic penetrated.
“And it does not bother you that I don’t like you?” asked Celeste pointedly.
“I am my Princes-Elect’s tool,” replied the mage selflessly. “I am as sharp or blunt as my use.”
“And you prefer sharp?” queried Celeste.
“The Solozo are familiar with Mage allocations. I understand the challenge this represents to your race, my Princes-Elect. When doubt rises in you, ask that I may assure you. There are many risks around this evening’s encounter. The future presses close. We must work quickly, my Princes-Elect, that you make courageous decisions which run against both your nature and your trusted counsel.”
“So the fact it does not feel right for me, is part of it?” said Celeste.
“Feelings pass. You have been misguided by inferior minds operating with limited perception of the truth.”
“And you know better, is that it?” Celeste gouded him to see if her rudeness would unsettle his confidence and reveal it as arrogance. It didn’t.
“I operate with more unknowns. And what I do know is accurate. Your sense of like or dislike is coloured by your misappreciation of the truth. This will fade as you enter into the truth of our place in the world, and the place of this world in all the worlds magicked by the minds of men.”
Celeste’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “That I must ignore my own feelings, my intuition…?”
“You must inhibit some of them, yes, especially those regarding me and my role. I am no mere conjurer or court magician. I will introduce you to a world which you are barely aware. I am Meherim, and I am your Advisor.”
The Mage watched Celeste flute air from her mouth, a soft whistle, a gesture he already understood. She wanted to make a decision. She didn’t feel right, she didn’t like him, but in order to play this bigger game she needed to make a conscious decision. He saw this quality in her and bowed, the blue triangular tattoo glistening like snakeskin. It was why he had chosen to become her advisor: she had the ability to decide her own fate.
Celeste nodded. It was done.
Seeing her decide, there and then before his very eyes, brought a rise to his spirit, like a note that had never before been played in his soul. He immediately acknowledged the vitality of it, which redoubled his rise of spirit. He noticed its formal similarity to the mathix of blessing, and lodged intent to teach her after the day’s events; it would help her during her tests. He made a decision too. “You have witnessed my self-seal, my Princess-Elect. My word and deed match.” He brought his hands together before him and spoke calmly, factually. “And I say, my life is in your hands.”
Despite how she had felt at the start of their conversation, she felt empowered now. That he had so much power over her in such a short time. Through his actions, he had distilled all the social capital amassed at today’s reception, something she had felt as a thickening mist throughout her life, and handed it to her like a glass of water. She felt a strain within her relieved. “Let us continue when I am rested,” she said, suddenly tired.
“There is much to prepare before this evening’s events,” said the Mage Celestsel, bowing. “Factors beyond our vision to contemplate,” he added enigmatically before taking his leave.
As the door closed, she collapsed upon a padded bench. How could she consider things she did not even know? She rubbed her eyes. It was already impossible to keep track of what had been done and said to her. The day was half done and she was exhausted.
Slowly she began to cry. Softly, for the girl she no longer was, and the woman she was to be.