Conley had asked for her bed to be moved closer to the window
so she could watch the street-life below. At the time, Roween had joked
that she might ask to be moved back once she saw some of the things that
went on, but so far there'd been nothing to shock her, just ordinary people
doing ordinary things. This was one of the better-off parts of town.
Her room was on the first floor, the windows tall and narrow.
Outside, one of the landways ran past; like the others, it ceased to be a
waterway when the Lowlanders closed the sluice gates fifty years ago and
pumped it dry. Water was no longer a friend, and there were other ways to
move produce between closely-packed rows of houses. Now, the landways
numbered among Bridges' best defences against flooding from the Cold
Further out, poorer people actually lived in them, keeping
smallholdings, so Roween said. They bred animals, mainly pigs, because
the clay of the old canal beds was still too salty for most vegetables. Nearer
the centre of the city topsoil had been laid, and the landways turned into
parks. The one Conley could see was called the Womansway; it used to join
the parallel Mansway and form the Docksway, but both the latter had long
been filled in with rubble and were now paved, used as roads.
Conley found the Womansway an amusing sight at first, half-
hidden trees poking up between the incongruous bridges that gave the city
its name. After a while, though, it seemed natural as magic, with its own
attractive charm in the bronze Autumn sun.
She saw Roween on the path that followed the opposite bank,
talking to someone Conley had never seen before) while taking those quick
steps of hers so as to keep up with the other woman's longer strides. At the
bridge, she bade her escort farewell, crossed, looked up, waved to Conley.
Conley waved back.
* * *
"So who was that you were talking to, Ro?"
"Oh, no-one really, I met her in the market, she's a teacher at a
nearby school." She was out of breath, she'd walked a long way. "Here, I
bought these for you while I was pining for a read at the bookshop."
Conley took them eagerly. One was an atlas, beautifully drawn
but patently second-hand. Another was entitled "The Customs of Elet",
printed in a rather ancient-looking font with a ragged right-hand edge to the
text. The third was a novel, "Piydra's Gate", by Cassie Black. She opened
"The first two are homework, so you can find out where we're
going and what it's like there. The third is one of the few translations of an
Eletic storybook into Estavian. It's - well, read it, you might like it."
"Eletic?" Conley smiled. "Yes, I thought the author had an odd
clan name, it didn't sound Lowlandic." She started on the preface.
"All the Eletic words in the book have been translated, even the
writer's family name. In her homeland, she's Nuagh Casii. Colours are
quite common epithets there: black, white, grey, brown, green, red..."
She didn't answer, she was reading. Roween sat on the end of
the bed, Conley looked up. "Sorry, Ro, what did you say?"
She smiled. "Never mind Con. Listen, I'll have to leave
tomorrow if I'm to meet Maedregh, and - "
Her eyes flitted from side to side for a moment. "Did I say
`Maedregh'?" She looked sheepish. "Sorry, that's his name in Eletic, he
Estavianises it when he's away because we find `Medreph' easier to say.
That's beside the point, anyway. I wanted to have a word with you in
private before I go, and Ihann will be back from the hospital at lunchtime
so it'll have to be now."
Conley put down the novel. "Sounds important."
Roween leant over, moved the books to the bedside table. "It
might be, it's about something that isn't. Remember when I told you about
Bliss, I said that Lowlanders take their pleasures whenever they can?"
"Yes, something about their not having a guaranteed future, the
Cold Sea could flood them at any moment."
"That's right." She hesitated, nervously. She'd make a rotten
mother. "Does that situation remind you of anything?"
Conley considered a moment, shrugged. "Should it?"
"When you were young, why did you use happy shots?"
A pause, a smile, ironic. "I see. I lived from day to day, yes,
because if I looked ahead I saw nothing for me. Happy shots were a way to
bring a brief flicker of light into otherwise perpetual darkness." She
laughed, bitterly. "I should have been a poet."
"I know you're pretty much over that now, Con, but you still
have a bit of it lingering inside, an appetite for anything that might be a
boost, cheer you up. It's not as ravenous as it was before, but it's still
there, still drives your impulsiveness, especially when you're under
Conley looked out of the window. "I don't know, I've changed,
Ro. That spark I once had, it's gone. Time was, I'd have taken that whole
box of Bliss, but now, well it seems so false, that's all. Like I've seen
beyond it, and it'll never look the same again."
Roween sighed a little; she knew the feeling well. "Thing is,
Con, it's why you came with me to start with. Sudden thoughts of
adventure, visits to strange lands. Now, now we're nearly in Elet, you've
grown more reflective, look on things objectively. Reality, time, they have
a way of dulling the gloss on expectations."
Conley was watching a man pushing a trolley loaded with boxes
of fish. "What are you trying to say, Ro?"
She looked down at her hand, resting on the bed. Small, weak.
"Well, Con, will you stay here, wait for me while I'm away? Or will you
catch a boat to Estavia and go home?"
Turning towards her, Conley smiled, kindly. "I've come all this
way, Ro, I'll see it through to the end. Stubborn, that's me. Truth is, I
don't know what I'll do when it's all over. There's nothing for me in Cala
She looked outside again. "Yes, my father. He knows more
than he says, he'll understand, help. I'll resign from Porett Technologies,
get a job teaching or something, whatever. No more stardom, that's for
"Ha!" Roween laughed. "You know, I couldn't prove you out
at first, Con; I used to think you maybe enjoyed feeling sorry for yourself.
After a while, though, I figured it was something deeper. Last week, I
finally realised what it was."
She had Conley's gaze now.
"When you were young, neither of your parents cared much for
you. Since all your friends' parents fussed their children, yet yours didn't
fuss you, in your youthful innocence you thought it must be your fault,
something you were doing wrong. What else could have caused them to be
indifferent? You blamed yourself. Everything came down to your
inadequacy. You still react in the same sort of way now, whenever you
make the slightest mistake, anything that shows you're less than perfect.
You build it up into something big, say you're worthless, moan about how
you're such a failure; well you're not! You're just making the same basic
assumption you did when you were a tot. It has no real foundation at all!
Don't you see?"
Conley was red, but spoke calmly. "You've read one too many
books, Ro. Laying my personality on what I thought when I was young -
you don't know what went through my mind then, you can only speculate.
This is pointless." She looked out onto the Womansway again. It was
"If I'm wrong, how do you explain your dream? I can explain
it, can you?"
"No, Con, you'd get more than just a dream from that. It's
trying to tell you something."
"It's telling me I went to hell." The man with the trolley passed
by again, it was empty now, he must have made a delivery.
"It's telling you something you won't accept, and it won't go
away until you do accept it. In hospital, you were delirious, said a few
things, I - "
"What? What things?" She snapped. "Ro, you had no right, no
right to listen! A person's thoughts are private! You've trespassed on my
"You said you didn't love your father."
"I what?" Her voice was raised. "But I do! Roween, how could
you - I thought you were my friend!"
"That's why I was there, Con! Listen, please, just, just listen.
Your mother was beating you, right, why?"
"She was jealous of me because I had my father's love and she
didn't. She resented not having such feelings for me herself."
"But no, he didn't have those feelings either. Don't you see?
Your belief in his love for you is a fabrication, you cooked it as a way of
explaining things to yourself. He never really cared for you ever, or he'd
have been the one who murdered your mother, not you. To her, you were
the symbol of everything that was wrong with her marriage and her life. To
him, you were a performing doll to be displayed to his colleagues at the
Academy, a convenient instrument to show them what a family man he
was, stable, dependable, mature."
Conley didn't say anything. Her face was an explosion of rage,
but something held her back, intangible but there, restraining, nagging.
"Look at it rationally, Con. Remember I said my name meant
`inspiration' in Old Davian? I was wrong, Giqus told me. It means
something else entirely, and it isn't even in the feminine form - I ought to
be called Roweena! All these years, I was so proud to have an exotic name
that my father had picked out of history, and he'd made a novice's error!
My entire image of him, nurtured throughout my life, came tumbling
down. Yes, I had a good cry about it, but in the end, what does it matter?
He's still the same man. If I ever see him again, he won't be any different,
I'll just understand him better. So he's a second-rater, well, I'm
disillusioned. But now I know the truth, I can love him as he is, not as I
imagined him to be."
She wasn't angry any more, calm, really. "How can I love my
father if he isn't how I imagined him?"
Roween shook her head. "I can't answer that, Con. Just accept
that your parents were only ordinary people, not gods, and they didn't ever
care for each other or for you. It wasn't your fault, it's just the way they
Conley was breathing slowly, felt like you do when you've just
realised that no matter how hard you try, you're not going to arrive in time
for a crucial appointment. "So why the nightmare?"
"You're punishing yourself for clinging on to a belief you
know, deep down, is unfounded. Your mother beats you because your
father loves you. She'll stop when he doesn't."
They heard the front door open downstairs. Ihann, home from
work with a bunch of white roses he'd bought on the way back.
* * *
She was racing up scarlet-hued stairs, the scrawny girl just
keeping ahead of her. "Come back here, come back!" she shrieked, clumsy
in her drunken fury.
"You're evil, I despise you, I want to kill you," the girl
shouted, tearful, whining. She lashed out at her, missed, struck the wall.
The breaking rod crackled, her hand didn't hurt. Had she made the noise
The scene folded, they were in another room. Both were
visible, the woman snarling, the wretched girl defiant, face stained with
tears. They looked so similar, the one an older version of the other. She
picked up a figurine from the table, hurled it. It clipped the girl's arm,
shattered against the wall.
"You can't hurt me any more, mother, I'm past hurting. I don't
love you, I never have, you're a monster, I'd be better off dead."
She screamed, advanced, her quarry didn't move. Things folded
again, there was just her and the girl, nothing else, nothing except the stick,
the inescapable stick raised above her head. But it wasn't the girl, now, it
was Conley, adult, tall. It was like looking into a mirror. Why hadn't she
ever noticed the likeness before?
"It's me," said Conley, knowingly.
She woke in a sweat, sat up straight, gasped for breath. She
* * *
Later that night, Conley visited Roween as she slept,
experimented. Partial success, but she couldn't thank her as she'd wished.
* * *
Ihann had let Conley come down to bid farewell. Roween had a
long ride ahead of her, but looked cheerful, smiled. She'd bought new
boots, shorter, but the rest of her clothes were the ones she'd worn from
Elbienau. Memories she needs? The horse was different, hired, more her
"I'll be back as soon as possible," she said.
"I'll be here, Ro," Conley answered, "and thanks."
Roween grinned, set off.
Conley watched her to the end of Womansway. She felt cold,
Ihann took her back inside.