As Floodtide approaches the events that form the climax of Mother of Souls, I can't escape the need to fill the reader in on a bunch of activities that my protagonist Roz is not only unaware of, but is mostly uninterested in. Roz knows, in theory, that her employer is the royal thaumaturgist and that means she makes up mysteries for Princess Anna. But the details? Not something that touches her directly. And the part being played by Luzie Valorin's magical opera is entirely outside her everyday experience. And yet, for the climax of Floodtide to make sense, the reader needs to know at least the general shape of the magical weather system and what's being done to combat it.
There are two points of contact that Roz has with those larger doings that the story can use as a door for the reader. One is a fairly minor part of the big story: Iulien's contributions to shaping the Tanfrit libretto. It is regularly established that Iulien "has a way with words"--whether it's writing of entertaining fiction, composing evocative poetry, or simply being persuasive. It isn't technically a "magical" ability, but the efficacy of magic is built up from a lot of non-mystical building blocks: logic, symbolism, structural repetition, and above all, careful choice of vocabulary. Roz knows that Iulien is contributing her writing talents to some Great Work because Iulien will inevitably chatter about it incessantly.
But for an efficient sketch of the larger shape of events, there's no substitute for Serafina Talarico's role. She has unexpectedly returned to Rotenek specifically because of those larger events, and Celeste is deeply invested in the fact of that return and what it might mean for Serafina's future plans. And on the other side, Serafina's role as mentor gives her a natural reason for explaining the whole to Celeste at a higher technical level than ordinary conversation would require. Roz may not understand the details, but we're allowed to eavesdrop through her.
All together, we have the perfect context for a concentrated info-dump.
When that summer was past, people remembered it as feeling strange and out of balance. For me, the real strangeness started the night we heard about the baroness, and it became worse after Maisetra Talarico came.
She was as good as her word and came down to the dress shop the next afternoon. From the moment I said Maisetra Talarico was back, Celeste was hanging in the front door of the shop looking up the street, even though we didn’t know when she might come.
Mefro Dominique made tea and I fetched some sweet buns from the baker’s and we even closed the shop—though that wasn’t a hardship in high summer—so we could hear about her adventures and why she came back.
“I was traveling through the mountains,” she began, “and I had a vision. I knew I must return to tell Maisetra Sovitre about it.”
She didn’t tell us everything that first day, but as the summer went by I learned more about the doings at Tiporsel House from Maisetra Talarico than I did from household gossip. There were comings and goings all the time: important people coming in the door or sometimes landing from the river. At first they’d gather in the baroness’s bedchamber when she wasn’t allowed to come downstairs yet, and later in the parlor, with the doors closed and all the staff shut out. We knew it was important because for anything less the maisetra would have bitten your head off if you worried the baroness about it. But it was Maisetra Talarico who told us what it meant.
“There is a curse on the land,” she began, and we all gasped like you would for a ghost story. “We knew the curse lived up in the mountains. The snows of three winters are locked up on the peaks. That’s why your river hasn’t flooded. It isn’t only the snow. The curse is spreading. Not only here in Alpennia but everywhere.”
She waved her arms and I tried to imagine what might be happening in other lands. People talked about the land feeling cursed, but what did that mean? If someone cursed your chickens, they stopped laying. But what happened if the whole land was cursed?
“What can we do?” Celeste asked, like she was ready to put her hand in.
I scoffed. “We can’t do anything!”
I meant people like her and me, but Maisetra Talarico told us a little about what they were trying to do to lift the curse.
“We’re making the tutela of Saint Mauriz into a stronger shield. And Maisetra Sovitre is building her new mystery to be even better. The mystery guilds are all working to put their strength together. Every little piece we can think of.”
“Like the songs that Maisetra Iulien is writing?” I asked. She was proud of doing her part, but I wasn’t sure how it fit into the mysteries.
Maisetra Talarico nodded but she looked worried. “I think the songs will be important. We’re building a mystery into an opera—a story that tells what we want the magic to do. There’s a woman who can set mysteries in music. The right words make the mystery even stronger.”
It made sense they’d asked Maisetra Iulien to help with that, because she had that knack of putting words together to make you feel what she wanted you to feel. It was a kind of charm. I’m not talking about just coaxing and sweet-talking people to do what she wanted, but her stories and poems had that way of making you see what she was talking about and feel what the people in the story felt. The words stuck with you. I still had bits from the Lautencourt book stuck in my head, as solidly as my nightly prayers.