"So how are you feeling, Con?" Roween was sitting side-saddle
on the bed.
"Better than for a long time, there's still some soreness but
Ihann said that's to be expected." She smiled. "He's nice, kindly - very
proper, though, I think he's mildly embarrassed when he's treating me."
"Yes, he probably is, he doesn't want to give you any wrong
ideas. He's had problems with women patients in the past."
"Really?" Conley gave a small cough. "I'm not surprised, he is
rather a looker. His hair is so gorgeously fair, and his eyes, his smooooth
Roween blushed. "He, er..." flustered, "I don't know how best
to say this, Con, but he, well," just say it. "He doesn't like women."
Conley frowned a moment. "But he was pleasant enough to
"No, no," she was feeling awkward about this, shouldn't, "I
mean he prefers other men."
Short silence. "Ah. I see. Does he have a," slight pause,
"Not at the moment, no, doctoring takes up too much of his
time." Conley looked a little disoriented. "You don't mind, do you Con?
Some people do."
"No, just a surprise, I've never met... oh no matter, at least
now I know I'm safe. It's illegal back home, isn't it?"
"No, it's not illegal in itself. There's a spell, maybe twenty
years old, they found it when they were first working on aphrodisiacs. It
can, well, change your instincts in certain respects. People who are like
Ihann, they have to take the `cure'. Refusing, that's illegal."
"I've never heard of such a spell," she tried to raise herself in
bed, make talking easier, didn't succeed.
"It's not really common knowledge, I suppose they might catch
more couples that way. If folk suspected what was to befall them, they'd
flee to Chaien, or to here."
Conley's nose crinkled a moment. "I don't see why they would,
it seems..." She didn't finish.
"If you were in love with someone, and people threatened to
take away that love, would you let them?" Perhaps. She would herself,
Conley was nodding. "I understand. There's no law against it in
the Lowlands, then?"
"Well, you'll find most countries allow it to some extent, it's
just they all have low types who hate it, throw stones, start fires, so on. In
Chaien, no-one thinks it bad, there's a strong tradition of it, all open,
institutionalised. Leading artists, actors, orators, they're all of Ihann's
inclination. And in the Lowlands, people just don't care what you do. You
can sleep with a dolphin and they won't blink. Gods, half the women you
see in the street are probably men made up!"
"Do they have many immigrants from elsewhere, then?
Chaienish city states, Lowlandic principalities - they're only small."
"A good few, I imagine, but it's not as if the newcomers cause
an increase in the population, is it? They just replace ones who have died,
they contribute no offspring. When I took Ihann to you, at first he thought
that you and I were, well..."
"I hope you told him he was mistaken."
"He said perhaps I was!"
* * *
"I told her, Ihann."
He looked relieved. "Did it cause her distress?"
Roween chuckled. "No, she was more curious than anything, I
don't think she's ever really thought about it."
"There are many things regarding my country that she probably
hasn't encountered before."
Roween smiled. "She's seen similar to some. I'll talk to her
about them later."
"If you have the time. You realise you must leave soon if
you're to meet Medreph?"
She nodded. "Yes, I know. How long will Conley be unable to
"Too long, Roween: you'll have to go alone. She can stay here
until your return." Roween looked away. "To take her with you would be
risking permanent damage."
"There are spellbooks in Liagh Na Laerich, with cures. She
could..." He was shaking his head. "She wouldn't make it there, I guess?"
"Sorry, Roween. Three weeks at least."
Roween slumped on the couch. "Maybe I should stay, too?"
Her voice was fracturing.
He smiled, sat down beside her. "You're having doubts, sweet?
Be strong - you've come all this way."
Roween set her face, stone. "I still haven't told her, she isn't
ready - she may never be ready. So much depends on her, on me, I don't
know if I can carry it through." She sniffed back a tear.
He put an arm around her. "Yours is a heavy responsibility,
Roween Sage, but one you've borne well these past years. It's natural,
when you're so close to your goal, that you should have second thoughts;
they give you the strength to chase it to the end."
She wiped her eyes with the back of her too-long sleeve. "I
don't know if it's the right thing; Con, she's my friend, I didn't know this
would happen, I don't think I can do it to her."
"She seems a bright one, she'll accept it. All is for the best,
believe me." He squeezed her a short hug.
"Thousands will die within moments, many more in the chaos
after. There'll be war, famine... Countless people - innocents - will lose
their homes, their livestock. Their children..."
"But the alternative, if you fail, it's infinitely worse. You know
that - you were the one who convinced me. You must carry on, Roween,
it's imperative." He passed her his kerchief.
"I know," she whispered, "but I can still weep, can't I, for
those I'll murder?" She sobbed.
* * *
"The Lowlands really are low lands, Con. The people hold the
sea back with dykes, dunes, walls. The waves are patient, though. One day,
they'll break through the barriers and swallow the countries whole; the
Cold Sea will lap at the edges of the Eletic plateau. It might not happen for
a hundred, a thousand years. But it could just be tomorrow."
"You think Justan will raise a storm for such a purpose?"
Roween grinned. "No, Con, he won't flood them out - he
doesn't want to rule water - but it's not what I meant to suggest anyway. I
wanted to give you some background on the Lowlanders themselves, so you
can better understand them. Because they live in the constant knowledge
that they could be swept to oblivion at any time, they've developed a few
attitudes to life which you may find strange."
"Alien, perhaps, but not strange."
She smiled. "Perhaps. They're very easy-going, they live day to
day, not worrying what the future brings. They may seem lazy, but they're
not, they just don't think on quite such long-term lines as we do. Since they
could be dead any time, they take their pleasures whenever they can, enjoy
themselves, respect others' rights to do so."
"I see. So what does that mean in practice?"
"Well, you might see couples..." She paused, uncertain.
"Yes? I might see them what?"
Try not to blush. "Copulating in the street."
Conley's face took on a look like someone who's just realised
they've wet the bed.
"Well, you did ask, Con."
"Just, just couples?"
Roween winced. "There are sometimes more, yes. They never
involve children directly, but you do occasionally see..."
"Stop, Ro, I don't want to know... Call me a prude, but, well,
"It's not everyone - Ihann would never do it, for example - just
some of them. They have few inhibitions."
"You really think so?" She bounced her palm off her forehead.
"Are these people tolerant, or what?"
Roween cleared her throat. "The general relaxed atmosphere is
conducive to other forms of entertainment, too. There's one which may
appeal to you." She reached into her belt-pouch, pulled out a small wooden
Conley peered over. "What's in there?"
"It's called `Bliss', something they would've given you in
hospital if you'd stayed, just to make your time there more pleasant, help
you recover. I told them not to, not without your consent, but you might
want it now. It isn't addictive, doesn't have any nasty side-effects, slight
weight-loss maybe, it just, well, makes you enjoy life."
She nodded, knowingly. "Like happy shots."
"Not so crude. The initial effect lasts two to five hours. It
doesn't add unnatural feelings that shouldn't be there, it more like releases
the good ones that were there all along, repressed. Users feel peaceful,
tranquil, beautifully serene. There's also an intense empathy for others, a
sense of caring, a joyous well-being that can last for days, weeks, after the
first rush has passed. You'll feel confident, appreciate others, experience a
bonding with them that's tender, exquisitely rewarding."
"Stops you thinking, then?" Cynically.
"Far from it. It's not like Cala in pre-plumbing days when
everyone drank ale instead of water and went around with their heads at
half speed; many people claim Bliss enhances their creativity - all of the
great Lowlandic artists use it frequently. You can have unguarded thoughts
that allow you to explore yourself in ways you'd never do if you were your
normal, anxiety-wound mess. May even help you see through those bad
dreams of yours."
"How's it taken?"
"You eat it, sprinkled on food, can't easily overdose. It even
"Have you ever tried it?"
Roween hesitated. "Whether I have personally used it or not
shouldn't make any difference, should it? It's just another drug, like
alcohol, but far more refined, sensitive. You'll enjoy it."
Conley smiled, sadly. "I know you mean well, Ro, but no
thanks, really. I don't want to be a marionette any more, even if I can
choose how my strings are pulled."
The flood of happiness that washed across Roween was far
more genuine than anything Bliss could ever have induced.