Vadessa was a noble town, architecturally magnificent, with
clean, wide streets, beautifully styled statues, fountains. Canals drew off
the excess waters of the Rodya, saving the city from flooding with the swell
from the Svalan rains. It was mild, temperate, and gloriously sunny.
Roween had taken them to the lower artists' quarter. Davian
culture was colourful and flourishing; art and its creators aroused great
passion among the people, and Conley soon realised that, unlike in Murak,
the epithet `artist' was regarded as an honour, not as an insult.
She and Roween were strolling down one of the wide, tree-lined
boulevards. The buildings seemed in harmony with one another, tall
windows framed in intricate plaster-work, slate-tiled roofs, walls all the
same golden sandstone. She decided she liked the look of this place.
"Is it safe?" she ventured after a while.
"Sorry?" Roween had been thinking.
"Is it safe to walk around at dusk, two women on their own?"
"Safe enough, yes, safer than Cala. Worried you can't defend
yourself with me here?"
Conley reddened a little. "Well, ordinarily I'd be able to use..."
Her voice trailed off. "The gesture-hold trick wouldn't be worth trying,
either, no-one here has prosthetics."
"Well, you'd be surprised, we're close enough to Svala and
Galur to make cross-border surgical trips affordable, least for some. Zipped
objects are fairly common - many shops accept click-wells, for example."
Music drifted towards them, somewhere close by maybe.
Conley was distracted; it was strange - energetic, but uncannily beautiful.
She turned to Roween, face questioning.
"It's a drinks cellar, there'll be one someplace around here,
artists' quarter is full of them. This could be it over on the right."
They descended the steps. A handwritten flier, pinned to a
board in urgent need of paint, read, "Tonight: Anya Kryslod, keys."
The music was so much louder inside, confined by the low
ceiling and thick walls. Conley stared around, absorbing the atmosphere.
People were sitting in twos and threes about small, round tables, lights
were unintrusive, waiters weaved imperceptibly through the aromatic, hazy
smoke. A single light-set illuminated a makeshift stage, a figure hunched
over a keyboard, all eyes upon him. His hands, arms, his whole body was
playing the instrument, fingers flitting across the keys, hammering them,
caressing them, coaxing from them some of the most spirited music Conley
had ever heard.
Roween tapped her on the arm, unstrung her gaze from the
enigmatic musician. "We better sit down," she whispered, pulled her to an
empty table. A white-aproned waiter materialised, Roween gave a brief
series of hand signs, and he disappeared, returning a few moments later
with two large, frothing tankards. He lit a candle, placed a small bottle
labelled "Vaska" in front of Roween, and withdrew to the shadows.
Roween pushed the bottle over to Conley.
* * *
When the music stopped, the audience broke into sustained
applause. Some rose to their feet, Conley among them. The keysman turned
round, sweat dripping from his lank hair, green eyes searing with energy.
He raised his hands swiftly, and the applause stopped: expectancy. He
returned to his instrument, touched one note, then burst into an encore of
such stinging virtuosity it left Conley breathless.
She turned to Roween. "I didn't know the Davians could
produce music like that! It was so, so strong, forceful." She tried to find
words that could express her experience, could only fail, frustrated.
"I never heard of Kryslod before, but that was better than what
I've found hereabouts previous," Roween answered. "Most cellars, music's
either experimental or just background. This was like a concert."
A hat was passed to the table, already heavy with coins.
Roween dropped in a couple more, but as she made to pass it on, Conley
added another half dozen. She still didn't understand tipping?
"What do you think of the drink, Con?"
Conley looked like she'd forgotten the question.
"The drink, do you like it?
She took a sip. "Fizzy, a touch fruity, yes; what is it?"
"It's this sort of punch they do here in Vadessa, mainly juice
with some kind of soda. If you want to fortify it, there's some spirit in the
bottle." She pointed.
Conley eyed the bottle, picked it up, took a sniff. She quickly
moved it from her nose. "Strong..."
"Yes, there's enough there for two, but I'm not having any. If
you add half to the fizz, it's supposed to mix up real smooth. Vaska. Locals
Someone dragged a chair behind them, slid it to their table
backwards. A man swung onto it, rested his hands on the back, propped his
head on his fingers.
It was the key player. He was staring at Conley.
At that point, Roween felt she ceased to exist as far as Conley
was concerned. He said hellos, said she fascinated him, Conley stumbled a
reply, told him her name, that she couldn't believe his music, the effect it
had on her, so potent, so moving. He nodded inscrutably, described what
he was trying to achieve, showed her how he rippled an eighth, asked her
about herself. She outlined her modest skills with magic, he nodded,
intently, compared their arts, the techniques, the dexterity, the profundity.
Roween's embarrassment grew: she hated watching seductions.
"Conley," she interrupted, "I'll return to the hostel now, you
know where it is?"
"Yes, oh, sorry Ro, yes, I know, see you later, thanks." She
winked, and returned to her conversation, pouring the rest of the vaska into
* * *
Roween had smiled and waved as she left, but Conley hadn't
noticed. It was as well, it had felt so artificial. Conley was the tall,
graceful, attractive one, with the educated accent, tinkling laugh, expensive
clothes, academic title. She, Roween, was the short, clumsy, tongue-tied
nobody with clothes that didn't fit and eyes that didn't look in the same
direction. She hadn't fancied him anyway. Pseud.
It was mid-morning when Conley returned, glowing. Roween
smiled and waved, gave her best woman-of-the world look, and this time
Conley smiled back.
"You eaten, Con?" she asked, then sighed. Bye bye woman-of-
"Yes, I breakfasted with Anya. Ro, he's just, just different."
So am I, but where does that ever get me? "So you stayed the
Conley's reply was a wry grin.
"Seeing him again this evening?"
Conley extended her hand, looked at her nails, ruby-flecked
gold. "Perhaps, perhaps not. He's an artist, a performer, he may decide to
work if the muse takes him."
If only you knew how inane that sounded... "So what did you
"Oh, this and that. Music, magic, politics, aesthetics, life. Did
you know he left his parents when he was nine and ran away to study at the
No, I didn't, and I didn't want to, either. "Did he say what he
thought about Breska and Mitya?"
Conley seemed a little peeved that Roween wasn't much
enthusiastic. "No, he did not, he's a republican, he wants Davia to be a
democracy. What's that got to do with anything?"
When Justan takes over, quite a lot... "Nothing really, just
interested. So you went back to his place?"
* * *
That evening, Conley visited the cellar alone. She returned the
next morning. Roween was wondering whether she should switch to a
single room or not, cheaper.
"Do you feel anything for him, Con?"
"He's alright, bit bound up with his work, beautiful eyes
though. Intense lover. No, I'm fond of him I guess, but we'll be gone from
here soon, suppose that's part of the reason he approached me, knew I was
a stranger, that I'd be passing through. He doesn't like ties. Me neither."
"Back again tonight?"
"I said I would." She sensed Roween's agitation. "Sorry, is this
worrying you? I don't have to go, I could stay if you liked. Maybe you
want to come along too? He has lots of friends, one's sure to want to make
up a foursome."
Which friend would that be, the hunchback or the octogenarian?
"No, it's alright, Con, you have your fun; hot, you deserve it well
That night, Conley kept her tryst with Anya. Roween visited the
local Vadessan guard station.
* * *
Conley almost tore off the door of their room. "Ro! Have you
heard? Justan proposed to Mitya last night, Breska had a heart attack when
he heard the news! Everyone's talking about it, it's all over the streets!"
Roween didn't look up, was looking at a map of the city. "I
hadn't heard, no, but it doesn't surprise me. It was always clear Justan
would have to work through Mitya if he wanted Davia as an ally. Thought
he might have kept Breska around, though, husked up or something. Now
he'll have to delay the wedding."
"The funeral's in three days, and they're having a joint
wedding/coronation ceremony next week."
"Convenient he'd made all the arrangements in advance, isn't
it?" She wondered if he'd used magic on Mitya, or whether it was
unnecessary - Davian nobles had a tradition of marrying foreigners. Mitya
probably saw it as the only way to save her people. Wise woman.
Conley sat on the end of the bed, excitedly. "The heart attack,
that was probably a scaled wallshaker. He'd have had a mage start the
gestures sometime last week, wakers on all the time, arranged it so they'd
meet the Davian king just when it would be ready. Smuggled the mage in
with his entourage, told his brother-in-law-to-be the good news when he got
the nod, and seconds later it's so long Breska."
"With Breska, a remote binder would have been enough." She
sighed. "You don't think that's just maybe a misuse of magic?"
Conley laid back on the bed. "Misuse? I'd say it was the
opposite! One weak king replaced by a strong queen. Davia's citizens are
spared a civil war, an invasion, all the usual internal strife and upheaval.
One man dies instead of thousands. Did you think it was wrong when you
killed that innkeep by asking me to cast an illusion on you?"
"There'll be no war, that's true - not between our country and
Davia anyway. The Davians will suffer, though, believe that; they'll have
lost any shred of real independence before New Year. Breska was a feeble
ruler, slipped his grip, let his enemies get too powerful. While he reigned,
opposition could grow, ferment, and it did. Unless the new rulers act
quickly, some people could cause a lot of trouble - at best spreading unrest,
undermining their authority, and at worst galvanising the people into a
popular uprising. There'll be a purge, there always is. But this time, thanks
to magic, everything's happened too quick, the revolutionaries will have no
time to organise. Anyone subversive will be found before noon, some could
be dead already." She glanced to the window and back. "You realise that'll
include overt republicans, ones with a coterie of impressionable admirers."
Conley sat upright. "Anya," she said, "I left him about an hour
Roween beat her to the door. "Foreigners are going to have a
hard time of it, too. People will disappear, Davians will think we had
something to do with it. We have to move on, immediately."
Conley looked down at her. Roween suddenly felt very small,
slight; she could easily be pushed aside, had no way of stopping the taller
woman from seeking Kryslod, trying to help him escape.
She stood her ground. "No, Con, leave him. It'll be too late.
He'll know how things stand; if he's really in any danger he'll be gone by
now, soon as he heard. We must leave, too. You don't care for him, any
more than he cares for you, it was just a fling. Be practical!"
* * *
They rode out through the northern gate. Spiked on the
battlements were the usual heads of traitors, thieves, murderers. One looked
like Kryslod, might have been him, maybe someone else, hard to tell.
Conley shed a tear.
"Forget him, Con, you were just using each other."
"He's already forgotten. It's his music..."