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Favorite Part of The Emperor's Companion

The Emperor's Companion is the sequel to The General's Mistress, which will be out in October. I have my fingers crossed that the second book will follow the first into print!

I had such a hard time picking a passage from this one because I know hands down what my favorite bit is -- the last chapter. I think the last chapter of The Emperor's Companion may be the best thing I've ever written! But it would spoil the entire book to post it! Argh! So this is earlier in the book and it's also a piece I'm quite proud of -- in which Elza uses her oracular talents within the framework of 19th century lodge magic. It's a very cool bit, and I'd love to hear what you think!



"Asclepius, Healer of Bodies and of Hearts, Wisdom old as time and ever-revealed, harken to our call and grant us the benison of your grace this night."

I sat in the middle of the circle, a little table with a blackened mirror in front of me and Noirtier beyond that. There were no lights besides a taper on the table, and one fat white candle in the stand beyond Noirtier that a young man was lighting, his invocation hanging in the air.

He turned, the censer in his hand, and slowly began to walk around the outside of the circle. The heady scents of frankincense and myrrh filled the room. He passed each of the other seven men in turn, their heads bowed, hands clasped before them. Noirtier sat opposite me, likewise still, his eyes closed. The man with the censer passed behind me and around, returning it to its place hanging from a tripod beside the candle.

"Athena, Quickener of Minds and of Spirits, Guardian of the worthy, harken to our call and grant us the benison of your grace this night." Reille, off to my right, took his cue and lit another white candle from the passed taper. It flared into life as though it were a lamp, not a candle. I saw his face for a moment in profile, solemn and reverent, as a man who hears music only he can hear.

He was always the pious one, I thought, though I did not know where the thought came from. Doors opening, opened by the words, by the scent of the smoke.

From the scabbard tucked into his sash he drew forth his sword, gleaming and bright. It was pretty, but it was not a dress sword, not a toy. It was a saber with a curved blade, hilt with only a bar guard. He lifted it before him like a crusader, point uppermost, light reflecting off the steel, and in its gleam I almost saw the talons of an owl, the bright flash of its stoop. Then, sword before him, he passed behind me, going around the circle.

I closed my eyes. Now it was Lannes behind me, the sound of water pouring from a pitcher into a basin. "Aphrodite, Measurer of All Who Love, Lady of the oceans of the world, harken to our call and grant us the benison of your grace this night."

Pelagia, something whispered within me. Lady of the Sea who belongs to no man…. I felt it like a breath, like a whisper over my bowed head, as though someone had opened a window and let in the salt air.

But of course it was only the rustle of Lannes' robe as he passed about, a sprig of rosemary in his hands with which he sprinkled sea water. I wondered irrelevantly whose job it was to procure rosemary and sea water. Probably Subervie's.

"Serapis, Harvester of Lands and of Souls, vine and vinestock, harken to our call and grant us the benison of your grace this night." Michel was off to my left, lighting the last of the four candles. I opened my eyes to see him straighten, a bowl of salt in his hands which he sprinkled before him, passing in front of me and around.

A frisson ran down my spine. They are real, I thought. All the old gods and spirits, all the ancient names read in dusty books. They are real. They awaken.

Noirtier stood, his hands before him. "Selah. So may it be. We stand here, my friends, one in purpose and one in heart, that the fortunes of our nation may prosper, and so the cause of liberty on Earth. To that end, we have with us a Dove, who will, with our aid and protection, attempt to penetrate the defenses of the enemy." He glanced around the circle. "Your job is to protect her, and to grant these mighty patrons whose aid we have requested whatever they may need. Pray be seated, gentlemen."

With a sigh, they all sat down on the ground, a ring about us, the four white candles on their stands gleaming like pillars of light behind them. I would have looked at Lannes for a cue, but now he was directly behind me. It was Michel who put the taper back on the table beside the blackened mirror, carefully not looking at me as he placed it.

A moment of terror gripped me. I did not know what to do. Beside Michel, Subervie gave me an encouraging smile, and I remembered what he had said about nothing happening. If I produced nothing, it was no different than what they had already done. I would be no worse at least.

"Look into the mirror," Noirtier said. "Don't try to focus your eyes on it. Just let them play over the surface. Look, and dream."

I tried. We sat in silence what seemed a long time. My hands sweated, and I saw nothing but a mirror before me, Noirtier's lap and the eastward candle beyond him, the young man with glasses who had lit the flame for Asclepius. I am doing nothing, I thought.

The flames were better. I started to raise my head to tell Noirtier nothing was happening, but the reflection of the fire off the brass candlestick stopped me. It played on the brass, flickering and dancing.

You do not need this mirror, something whispered inside me. You only need the fire.

Fire, and the memory of fire. I let it grow in my mind, my eyes watering and closing when it grew too bright. Fire, and the memory of fire. Sparks of light flickering off water, coals coiled in matching darkness in a brazier. The memory of fire. Light on a pool, sun streaming through a window of stained glass, fire leaping on an altar. Fire.
Light played on the back of my closed eyelids.

"A hanging lantern," I whispered. I could see it in the darkness, swaying with each movement of the ship. "A lantern, the kind with shutters." It swung back and forth gently over the head of the man at the desk, his dark blue coat off, white shirt and waistcoat pale in the dark. Beyond him the stern windows of the ship showed nothing but darkness, sea and night beyond. There were papers beneath his fingers, pages in neat writing, one with a row of words and numbers. I saw his face a moment as he glanced up, fair haired, young, with the broad homely face that should belong to a farmer, nothing keen and bright about him but his eyes.

"Captain Arnold," I whispered. "Captain Edmund Arnold, of the HMS Lion." Captain Arnold sat at his desk a few miles away, a cipher key in his hands. "He has a message from his spy," I said. "A new one. He just got it a few minutes ago and has gone below to decipher it."

Somewhere, far away from this cabin on Lion, I heard a rustle and a stir, some low muttered words, but they were much less real than Captain Arnold, turning numbers into words. "No…something …." I could not read much, though I could see the words plainly, as I did not read English.

A different voice, this one at my elbow. "Can you tell where Lion is?" Lannes, I thought.

"South," I whispered. "She's tacking against the wind, going down the coast, close hauled to the port bow. " I did not even know the meaning of what I said, but it was there in Arnold's mind, on the very surface, where his ship was, what it was doing. A moderate wind and high seas, tacking and tacking across her course southward. Even now, above, they were passing the word to come about, Mr. Walker's voice clear and strong.

"Can you look further?" Lannes asked. "Go further out to sea? It is only a few miles to England. Dover should be visible from Lion's topmast."

It was like uncoiling, like movement swift and sure, rising up from Captain Arnold, up the length of the ship's mast, sails taut in the wind. She was tacking out to sea, her wake a zig-zag down the coast. And behind her and northward, lights on the horizon, lights along the shore spread like a crescent, brighter and then dimmer as they curved westward, the southern coast of England laid out before me like a map

I stood on the wind like a gull in the night, white wings spread over Lion below. Fifty feet above her decks I hovered, watching sailors running about, the complicated and graceful business of changing her course again.

There was England. A few beats of my wings and I soared toward it, low and fast as a gull, not even leaving a shadow on the water. There was Dover, port marked by so many masts, Dover Castle above all. There was the curve of coastline, chalk cliffs glimmering white in the darkness. They were almost beneath me.

And then something rose out of the darkness, vast and strange as a great wind. It hovered, impenetrable, a shape of cloud and trouble.

I veered off, and it tore at me, gull's wings wildly beating. Time to go, I thought. This is what Lannes means by superior force. I darted, diving low, and for a moment beneath its rolling clouds I saw something different, a garden enclosed by hedges, an old woman looking up, a swan's feather in her hand.

Then the winds hit me, tumbling and shaking, buffeting at me with unearthly force. The sea came up like a wall beneath me, flat and hard and cold. I righted myself at the last second, almost beneath Lion's prow, streaking like a shadow over the waves. The winds tore at me one last time, and then it was beach and marshland beneath me, the coast south of Boulogne sleeping under a quiet moon.

I turned and looked back.

There was nothing to see, except perhaps far out to sea a shape of cloud that momentarily obscured the waxing moon.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
lesleysmith
Feb. 15th, 2012 06:59 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, oh wow, OH WOW! This is amazing... it's so profound and beautiful. Any chance of another passage?
jo_graham
Feb. 15th, 2012 09:42 pm (UTC)
Ok! A little piece of a scene later on, and this is one of the key parts of the whole series. In which Elza believes.



I opened my mouth and shut it again, and for the first time sober and waking really, truly believed. "He is Alexander."

Michel nodded, a rueful smile on his face. "Yes."

I bent my forehead against his shoulder, cool and yielding like marble half made flesh. "This is all real."

"Yes."

I could count every freckle on his skin, redhead fair where the sun did not touch it. "The witches of England, the rituals, the angels, the gods…." My voice caught in my throat. "It's all real."

"This is one of the Great Stories, the Emperor's Tale," Michel said, shifting onto his back so that I lay against him, his arm beneath me. "Again and again this wandering Prometheus passes through the world with fire that burns and lights, as much punishment as reward. And we are his Companions, bound by our own wills, by our oaths and our desires, to journey in his train."

"We?"

"Lannes and Noirtier and Subervie and Reille, Corbineau and Duplessis and the others. You saw some of us tonight. You know what we are."

"The Knights of the Round Table. Charlemagne's Paladins…." My voice failed me. I looked up at him, but his blue eyes were perfectly serious, light touched and clear. "You really believe."

"I know," he said.

"Not a metaphor. Not a joke."

"No." He stroked my hair with one hand. "I know. And so do you."

It was as though the world had turned on its axis, as though vast tides had shifted, as though at last everything fell into place with a great and perfect stillness. It was as though at last I looked at it whole, not fractured pieces in a blackened mirror, a thing so perfect and impenetrable that understanding it was almost beyond me, like looking for one moment into the mind of God, or seeing the world as an angel must see it.

"If I dare to believe it I will be mad," I whispered.

"If you dare to believe it you will be whole," Michel said, and cupped my face in his hand. "The world is a numinous place, Elza, for people who dare to see it. There is magic in every tree and stone and angels walk beside us. We are spirits given flesh, and we are older than the stories they tell about us."
cadenzamuse
Feb. 20th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
God, I love Michel.
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
So do I. Oh, so do I! :)

This may be my favorite bit of Michel ever.
cadenzamuse
Feb. 21st, 2012 06:56 pm (UTC)
Clearly you should give us more bits of Michel so we can more accurately come to a readerly consensus about our favorite bits of Michel! :-P
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 10:14 pm (UTC)
*g* "We are spirits given flesh, and we are older than the stories they tell about us." That may be my favorite line ever.
linneasr
Feb. 15th, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
Oooo! Wonderful, and what an interesting situation she's in, with the circle to support her.
jo_graham
Feb. 15th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)
A different kind of oracular work than Gull, but in the framework of belief, in the support of other people. It's definitely interesting!
cadenzamuse
Feb. 20th, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
This is horribly irrelevant (my comments really do boil down to "God, I love Michel"), but I CANNOT WAIT until you can have an icon of the covers for this trilogy, as well as your more ancient Numinous World books. :D
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 07:40 pm (UTC)
I'm absolutely dying to see the cover art for The General's Mistress. We don't have it yet. I can't wait!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )