Roween limped down the corridor, endured the persistent
poking of a spear-tip between her shoulder blades, wished she hadn't slept
on her leg. Someone had taken her out of the cart, cleaned her up, even
trimmed her hair with scissors - neater than her own clumsy dagger cuts.
She didn't like the clothes, though. The skirt was far too short, the leggings felt itchy, and the high boots had clearly been designed to follow some esoteric fashion, not for comfort or utility. As for the blouse, well, it was better than just a halter, though a pity the arms were the wrong length. Then there was the colour, all black...
She was lucky to be wearing anything at all. The Lonicon contained a bizarre passage describing how non-believers must be prepared prior to Final Delivery (a ceremony which amounted to being given a choice between embracing the Message, or being embraced by the flames of a bonfire). So as to make the alternatives abundantly clear, there was a lot of indelible scarlet dye involved, applied to the entire body in powder form, and fixed in place by liberal quantities of a suitably inflammable oil.
Her thoughts were just turning to Conley, how she'd manage to look good even like that, when she was stopped before a door. The guard knocked, admitted her to Giqus's office.
She gazed around, momentarily surprised at the huge space concealed behind the innocuous entrance. Giqus noticed.
"You think my room is large? It is small compared to many others here. The High Temple is enormous. It is fortified, houses five thousand people, and yet is everywhere beautiful - alabaster windows, doors adorned with statuary, walls clad in the finest marble. Can you believe that it took but five years to complete? Such is the power of the Message."
"Such is the power of any dominant religion, Giqus. The gods may change, but the fervour is always the same."
Giqus laughed, stroked his beard. "I have brought you here to explain how you might survive tomorrow. You do want to live, don't you?"
Roween nodded, sharp, suspicious.
"The Holy Army has suffered a rout. It is in disarray. Justan will march on Lon's Grace - Elbienau as it was formerly known - and attempt to kill the Messenger; or, failing that, will try to drive him into exile. Our garrison here is large, and already peasants are leaving their fields to swell our numbers. Soon, we will have a new Holy Army, but for the moment we cannot hope to hold out against magic. The Messenger is planning to enlist the aid of Taloss, the effect of which will be to protect the city from spelled assault. We can then thwart Justan until we grow strong again. For Taloss to help, though, she must have a certain kind of sacrifice: someone known to the enemy must renounce magic before them. The higher this person's status, the more Taloss will assist us."
Roween's eyes were flickering across the room, as her mind raced through explanations. "Conley," she said, intending to buy herself more time; it wasn't needed, she deduced the mechanism almost immediately thereafter.
"Yes, dear little Conny. If she doesn't agree, we kill her, and then we kill you."
"So you want me to talk her into doing as you wish?" Coldly.
Giqus smiled. "No, Roween, because if I were to let you converse with her you'd make her even more intransigent. Consider this: she must be very fond of anyone who would travel this far into danger with her; by our putting your continued well-being into her hands, we trust she will see the benefit of performing the small task we require of her. After all, it's not as if deep inside she's really rejecting magic, is it? By agreeing to our little charade, she isn't really compromising her ideals. It's just a token, she won't actually mean it. And of course, we haven't told her what will occur once she obeys, she thinks it's just some pre-battle ritual to please non-existent gods."
Roween rubbed her thigh. "Once, you could perhaps have manipulated her in that manner, yes, but she's more principled these days. You may be surprised."
"So might you be. That said, it would greatly damage our attempts to sway her were you to be prematurely dead. I doubt she'd fall for an illusion: she'll need to know you really are alive, that you remain unsullied, before she consents to do our bidding; she will probably wish to question you, so as to be sure. It is therefore imperative that you are not condemned to death tomorrow when you meet the Messenger."
She flashed an ironic smile. "From my point of view, it may be better if I am." She wished she could sit down, but Giqus would probably set a guard onto her if she tried, make her stand.
Giqus scowled. "Do you believe in an afterlife, Roween?"
"Then if there is nothing for you when you die, even a few extra hours of life must be worth more than an eternity of oblivion."
She said nothing. Sometimes, she cursed herself for resorting to reason in matters best left to superstition.
"Come now, Roween, be seated." She hesitated, but found his offer irresistible. "That's better. Now, when you meet the Messenger tomorrow, he will be expecting you to claim you are Loneskh. If you do so, I'm afraid that you will die. I can't predict exactly how he'll react, especially since the news of his army's defeat has," a pause, "affected him. However, die you will, there is no question of it. Alternatively, if you do not claim to be Loneskh, you will live, provided that you have an acceptable explanation for your earlier behaviour. I adjudge that feigning madness would do it. The Messenger will berate me for not recognising your condition beforehand, but I feel that I'll be able to deal with his admonishment. Do you think you can pretend to be deranged?"
Roween nodded. "I know exactly what to do."
"Very well, but make sure you're convincing. Oh, and one last thing: don't look at or into his eyes. He doesn't like it."
21st January 1999: isif43.htm