The hotel restaurant charged fifteen clicks a head at the carvery,
but this evening the pair had decided to blow some, to celebrate their
fellowship. Roween was once more playing her youthful rôle to perfection,
enthusiastically living the life that had been denied her ten years ago.
Conley felt free. Two men, dining with whom she assumed
were their wives, were giving her the eye. She sent back all the right signs,
teasing, provocative. Her self-esteem was restored, she could forget her
past. The future was now, existence meaningful again.
There was a strained atmosphere in here, though, she felt it.
She'd noticed the same feeling in the park, earlier. Anxiety, people
worrying, knowing that things were about to be thrown into chaos any day,
unable to influence events; just waiting, trying to behave normally until the
inevitable finally happened.
A tall figure approached their table. All Akreans are tall; this
one isn't the right kind of fair-haired. He pulled up a chair, sat down.
Sennary of Castle Whiting?
"Good evening, Conley, Roween. Small world."
"Well, you found us." Conley tried to sound like she'd been
expecting him. "What are you going to do?" She eyed Roween. Her
companion was staring at him in a most un-Roween fashion.
"Talk. Perhaps, a little later, dance."
Conley threw back her head. This was her father's doing: he'd
sent out Sennary to find her, bring her back; Sennary would be good at
Roween was looking almost bashful, timid. She obviously
recognised the man, and he knew her, too, he'd used her name. Yet he
wasn't paying her the slightest attention.
"So have you been following us for long?"
He laughed, loud, strong. He smiled; Conley liked his smile, it
was bold. "Picked you out this morning," he said. "Ansle directed me here
four days ago, took me three horses to catch you up."
Roween swallowed, nervously. "Must be important," she
ventured. Sennary did nothing to indicate he'd heard.
"You two know each other?" asked Conley. Roween replied
with a short nod. Sennary turned and faced Roween; she instantly looked at
Conley as if in panic.
"Oh yes, we've met - haven't we, my dear? Of course, your
hair was darker then, and longer, and you weren't wearing any of this
fanciful face-paint," he waved his hand, palm uppermost, "but your eyes
are the same."
Roween, put down her knife and fork, dabbed at her mouth
with a serviette. "I'll be in our room, Conley, if you need me." Hesitant,
she stood up. Sennary grasped her wrist, tight. She pulled, hard; his arm
didn't even leave the table.
"Don't go too far, Sage, I may wish to pay you a visit myself."
"Is that..." she started, but cut off as he released her.
Involuntarily, she rubbed her wrist. If he'd wanted, he could have squeezed
it to crack as easily as she could an egg. She gave Conley a muddled sort of
wave, headed quickly for the exit. Sennary watched her leave.
"Well you did a good job of fazing Roween, Sennary. And
she's sensitive about her eyes."
He looked back at Conley. "I think she frightened herself." He
popped one of Roween's uneaten peas into his mouth.
"So why are you here?"
"Progress report," he shrugged, "your Daddy wants to make
sure you're safe."
"My `Daddy' is wondering why whatever tag he had on me has
disappeared," she replied.
"Perhaps," Sennary conceded, "but he does worry. What father
wouldn't when his daughter is so far from home?"
"Mine wouldn't, the scheming..." She didn't finish the
Sennary popped another pea, swallowed it. "So why did his tag
She snarled a grin. "That is why he sent you. Well I can't say I
know, and I wouldn't tell you if I did."
"Oh, but you do know." Sennary frowned, his eyes suddenly
boring into hers. She breathed in, sharply; she was soft for eyes. "Young
Roween up there has a way of negating magic: some spell or other that
cleaned off your ring, your lenses, and some poor bastard's arm." He
leaned back. "Maybe you can do it, too..."
Conley relaxed, chuckled. "No, Sennary, I can't, although I
dearly wish I could. She won't tell me how she does it." A pause. "Tell
father I'm working on it." She cut another piece of lamb.
He rose. Despite his size, he was lithe, moved easily. Conley
could sense the hard muscle beneath his awkwardly formal shirt, silky
fresh, no unkempt creases. He crouched down, low, whispered in her ear,
"I'll see how well I can do on my own, then."
"Room 620," Conley mumbled after him as he turned for the
* * *
It was a while later when Conley decided she'd better rescue
Roween. Sennary wasn't likely to be violent, but Roween only came up to
his chest, he could be physically intimidating. Besides, Conley felt sure that
Sennary had some other way to work on Roween. Blackmail, maybe?
Bribery? Not monetary, perhaps positional? Maybe father wanted Roween's
services, was ready to acknowledge her abilities, offer her a post at the
Academy? She'd certainly reacted uncharacteristically earlier, so Sennary
must have some kind of leverage on her. Come to that, how did the two
know each other anyway?
She opened the door, walked in to the sound of laughter.
Roween glanced over to her, guiltily. She was sitting on the bed, one leg
folded under her, facing Sennary; he was lounging in a padded armchair
which seemed to look much smaller than it used to. Conley appraised the
situation immediately: Mister Smoothy was playing on Roween's
vulnerability - telling her how young she looked, how she attracted him,
her slender figure, tender lips, not to mention her crossed eyes (if he could
Sennary didn't seem to welcome the interruption, but Conley
noted the way he lit up when he looked over to her.
She acted. Slowly, alluringly, she slinked across to him, draped
herself on his lap, arm loose around his neck. He raised an eyebrow, but
took the bait. He didn't seem to notice Roween staring open-mouthed, first
at Conley, then at him.
"You said something about dancing," murmured Conley, softly,
investing her s's with the slight slur of someone who's tipsy with wine,
"Yes, loosen up a bit, been in the saddle too long." He stood,
lifting Conley with graceful ease, setting her on her feet. He looked over to
Roween. "We'll finish our conversation tomorrow."
The pair left. Roween didn't say anything, but later she went in
secret to watch them dance, peering over the balcony; Conley saw her.
* * *
Roween was awake first, of course. She'd been asleep when
Conley had returned, but had heard her close the door. She donned her
smock, went into the bathroom.
She didn't straight away recognise herself in the mirror. Her
face was a mess, smudged silly with the eye-shadow she should have taken
off the night before. Her new-blonde hair was awry, and stiffer than it used
to be, like the tint she'd used had coated it in a thick, rough resin. She took
the face cloth, dampened it. How could she ever have believed that Sennary
might find something of virtue in a visage such as hers? Even with normal
eyes she'd be plain - these made her plain ugly. Don't kid yourself: dying
your hair and painting your face isn't going to change anything. You
always knew that - your inside's as unattractive as your outside.
She began to rub at her cheeks. It wasn't coming off, just
blotching. She was supposed to use some of that turquoise stuff. She went
back into the bedroom to look for it in the bag on the dresser. Conley was
still asleep. How easily she took Sennary, just when it suited her. She out-
guns me completely.
Back in the bathroom, removing the colours in greasy smears.
Maybe she'd try a paler brown today, she still needed a disguise. Conley
had done her a favour, really, shown her what a fool she could be at times.
He'd seemed interested, though, he'd listened, laughed, told stories of his
own, he'd touched her, inoffensively. She was staring into her eyes.
Reflecting. She couldn't read signals, was too eager to misinterpret them,
or missed them altogether.
Hastily, she reached for the soap, started to wash her face.
Forget him, he was just leading you along, plying you for information, he
wasn't really bothered about how you felt, your fears, your hopes, he was
just looking for a way to reach you, find out what you knew. Talking to him
had been so easy, natural, he must've had some training in making people
She picked up the foundation, it was in like a mini wrap-pouch,
she hadn't noticed that before, East/Trad must make them special for Khrov
and the other cosmetics firms.
* * *
The was a knock at the door. Another knock before she could
answer it. Sennary entered, shut it behind him. Hadn't Conley locked it?
"I have to leave. Three hundred top Akreans died last night,
magic - only remote binders by the sound of it, but none of the victims
knew how to break them. Now the whole place is in turmoil, the guards are
arresting all foreigners, and it's only a matter of time before they'll be here
for you. Ansle's told me to rendezvous with an MSR squad, head west, you
want - "
"What's that?" Conley had woken up.
"Quiet, Con," Roween, snapped, "he's in a hurry."
"There are gangs of Message followers on the streets too,
attacking people, flaying, raping, shouting for Lon to save them, blaming
us - whipping up fear, frenzy. It's not safe any more, the whole country is
heating up under pressure: it'll burst, blow through Davia, destroy us. You
want to come with me? You might stand a chance of getting out
"Yes," answered Conley, "No," Roween.
"Which is it to be? I can't wait much longer."
"We'll stay," said Conley. "You go ahead. Catch you
Sennary looked at her, kissed Roween on the cheek, left.