When Ihann entered, Conley was staring out of the window, the
atlas resting on her lap.
"Has anyone ever told you that you have the most beautiful
hair?" he asked.
She looked at him, blankly.
"Just now, in the sunlight, it was almost glowing. It's not a
trick, is it? A spell?"
"No," she answered, slightly confused. "You like my hair?"
She fingered a lock, "But I thought you, well..."
He smiled. "But should that stop me from admiring your looks?
I don't have to be attracted to something to find it pleasing - a flower, a
butterfly, a sunset. Are you saying you never notice pretty women?"
"I don't go up to them and say so."
"Different societies, different customs," he chuckled, neatly.
"Do you have anyone special back home in Cala?"
She almost said "who'd want me?", shook her head.
"A pity," he sighed, "you frighten suitors, I think. Too good
looking, too intelligent, they suppose you're already taken, or, if you
aren't, that you'll eat them whole and spit them out in the morning. If you
ever marry, your husband will rank among the bravest men in Murak!"
She felt herself offended, somehow. "That isn't true, Ihann, I
don't throw up barriers. I receive lots of attention, men aren't afraid of
"The nice ones are. Tigers fear nothing, but they live alone.
With other tigers, they're intense, ferocious, but only for a short time, then
She smiled. Anya had been a tiger, yes. What other animals
were men? Sennary?
"I can see I've upset you; I'm sorry. Let us change the subject.
I came to ask if you would like a walk this afternoon, down to the royal
palace and back. Some fresh air today should help your convalescence."
A release from her prison? "Yes please!"
"Perhaps, on the way back, we can visit some shops, buy you
some new clothes. Roween did choose you an outfit yesterday, but it was,
well, a little plain..."
"I can imagine," she grinned, "Ro tries hard, but she doesn't
have the eye."
"She has a lot on her mind." He pulled a chair up next to the
bed. "How much of it has she told you?"
Conley thought back, realised it was very little. "She detects the
use of nearby magic, and kills it if it's offensive, a conditioned reaction she
can't control. She's unable to cast spells herself, but won't tell me why.
She says she knows how to get unlimited power, but that because she can't
use magic she needs someone else to take it. For some reason, she picked
on me - I haven't yet proved out her motive. Maybe because I came along
at the right time, maybe because I unwittingly stole her spell-proof ideas,
who knows? She doesn't want to tell me until I'm `ready', but hasn't
mentioned the subject for weeks; she's probably given up on me. Maybe
she's satisfied to leave things as they are?"
"No, don't think that way, Conley, she's very proud of you, the
way you've come on recently. I think she'll explain her all when she
returns. She's worried, though, that you still don't consider magic as a bad
thing, because in that case you may decide merely to modify the way it
works when you have full control over it, rather than completely destroying
it as she intends." He sounded mildly insincere.
Conley nodded. "She may be right; I won't know until she tells
me everything, and the longer she leaves it then the less time I'll have to
come round to her way of thinking."
"I'll have a word with her in private, see if I can ease her
mind." He leaned on the bed.
"Why is she meeting Medreph anyway? What does he have to
do with all this?"
Ihann looked surprised. "She hasn't told you?"
"She mentioned something a long time ago about `stating a
case', but that's all, vague. Not a word recently."
"Didn't want to cause any stress, I imagine, she gets anxious
about you. Well, as your physician, I think you'll be able to take it, it isn't
going to induce respiratory problems or anything." He smiled, paternally.
"Well she's been fussing about meeting Medreph for some time
now, so it must be important."
"Oh, without a doubt it's that, and for two reasons. Firstly, it
was Medreph who awakened in her the confidence to embark on this entire
adventure. Initially after her discovery she felt helpless, doomed, unable to
influence events; someone - Ansle? Giqus? - would sooner or later
appropriate magic, and thereby would end reality. How could she, a
worthless bookfetch, ever hope to prevent it? Well she knew how, of
course, but it seemed so futile, so skinny a chance; she couldn't believe that
she'd ever succeed. Medreph talked her into realising that, whatever the
odds, she nevertheless had to try, because no-one else could even do that."
"So he's the rock who supports her." She nodded. "And
"This is more real-worldly. We knew when she left Svala that
by the time she arrived here there'd be a single empire stretching northeast
of a Schaaldt-Leskina frontier. We didn't know whether Justan or the
Messenger would be emperor, but we were certain it would be one of them,
and that whoever it was would have magic to command. Let me ask: do
you know why the Messenger never attacked the Lowlands?"
Conley looked down at the atlas, its pages open on Seesel.
"Hmm, Elbienau is much closer to here than to the Purasan plains. Yes, I'd
have expected him to invade what was nearest to home first, rather than
stretch his supply and communication lines so far east."
"You see? If you've learned nothing else from this trip, at least
you know a little about military logistics now!" She raised an eyebrow,
chastisingly; Ihann hurried to his answer. "The reason the Messenger left
the Lowlands alone was because - and this is the sum of it - the Elets told
"Told him?" Her eyes widened. "The Elets told the Messenger
not to invade the Lowlands? And he complied?" She sank back into the
pillow. "Very likely..."
"Don't scorn me, please, Conley. What I'm telling you, few
people outside Elet know. My fellow Lowlanders believe the Messenger
was fearful of our army and its battle drugs. They think that Justan will
respect us, too. They are wrong. Perhaps, in some ways, your king is not
as wise as the Messenger, although I suppose it could have been that with
access to magic the Messenger would also have turned his attention to us at
this point. Now is no time for complacency, anyway. Roween is meeting
Medreph to find out what the Elets are going to do about it."
She stared at him, open-mouthed for a moment, then she
laughed, once. "Justan has his own armies, plus those of Akrea, Estavia,
and Davia, with Voths and probably Purasans too by now. He also has
magic on his side, and neither you nor the Elets have anything close to that
in power. You're seriously suggesting that he'll stop his advance west just
because the Elets tell him to?"
"I didn't say that." His hand twitched, nervously, he wiped it
on his leg. "The Messenger obeyed because he knew what would happen if
he didn't. He may have been tempted to try his luck once he had magic to
wield, but even then he might still have kept east of the plateau. Justan
won't lend the Elets' threat any more credence than you do, he'll attack the
Lowlands despite any Eletic warnings. We must pray that you can dismiss
magic from the world before he does."
She fingered her hair again, not really aware she was doing so.
"I can see that if magic ceased to function as expected, Justan would have
terrible problems. Militarily, yes, but economically, too, it's such a part of
modern life that without it there'd be an almost immediate social collapse.
Manufacture, agriculture, exports, they all depend on magic - even our
currency, although based on gold, uses magic for day-to-day transactions."
"But only the wealth of Murak and the others of your home
countries truly depend on it. Justan rules an empire, now. Akrea and
Estavia are powerful trading forces, and the destruction of magic would
harm them little. Justan could soon continue his war: a lack of magic would
only delay him, perhaps even enrage him enough to commit genocidal
atrocities against us. Don't you agree with that analysis?"
She thought, carefully, then answered. "No. Losing magic
would pretty well knock his empire to pieces, he couldn't hold it."
Ihann slapped the bed, laughed. "Then we share beliefs! Oh,
I'm so relieved! Medreph has been putting our case to the Elets. If they
concur, then after you have performed your task they'll leave Justan and his
empire alone. Roween has travelled to learn from Medreph the outcome of
Conley narrowed her eyes, raised her upper lip. "I still don't
understand. What could the Elets do anyway? They're just barbarians
really, aren't they?" Why were his eyes suddenly wide?
He spoke slowly, his demeanour now purposeful, grave.
"`Barbarian' isn't the word. You clearly don't know what they're capable
of. They held back the might of the Estavian empire for a thousand years,
and Justan's little jaunt will be as nothing to them." He picked up "Piydra's
Gate" from her bedside table. "Have you read this?"
"Sorry? The book, yes, I read it, finished it this morning. It's
"What did you think of it?"
"I thought, well, that it was strange, but very compelling. A
whole novel with only the one character, alone in that house, with all those
"It's common in Nuagh Casii's books to have a narrative
describing the thoughts and actions of a single individual. There were other
"But only in flashback, and as she remembered them, their
words, her feelings for them, and how they had died that night."
"Flashback, ah, then it's as I suspected, you haven't fully
understood the tale yet. What do you think of the heroine, Piydra?"
"I like her. She's vulnerable in a way, intelligent, but she cares
too much for others, and that's her weakness. She tolerated Benedth's
eccentricity beyond the bounds of sense because she didn't want to offend
him. That's what led to the murders, and very nearly to her own death.
When she looked into the flames and recalled the fight, I almost lived it,
wrestling against his superior strength, partially stunning him on the shelf
for just long enough to seize his dagger. Gripping stuff, very well written,
it really had me tied."
He coughed, almost apologetically. "She made it all up. She
wasn't remembering the events, she was inventing them, getting her story
straight before she called anyone in. She murdered them, every one, in cold
blood. At the beginning, when she's worrying what people will say, that
she did it: well she did."
Conley's face was empty amazement.
"Benedth wouldn't have killed Laphrey, because she was his
lover. Piydra, in her single-mindedness, doesn't realise that, but from her
descriptions of the two we can easily deduce it. If Benedth didn't do it, then
no-one saw him do it, and that removes his motive for the rest of the
murders. Piydra killed the lot of them."
"But ... why?"
"Did she like any of them?"
"She didn't seem to, no, they all had their faults, but as I said,
she was put-upon, didn't want to offend anybody. She's a mouse, really.
She wanted reconciliation, that's why she held the party."
"She murdered them because she found their liberty-taking
annoying, and thought of a tidy way to rid herself of them all without being
lynched for it."
Conley looked down at the atlas, then the bedsheets. "Oh my ...
"Of the three books Roween gave you, this is the only one
which truly gives an insight into the Elets. They're tolerant in the extreme,
will allow anyone to do whatever they wish; individuality is all important to
them, it's their life. But if you push them too far, if you press them too
hard, they'll react. Barbarians?" He laughed.
Conley felt terribly cold. "If Medreph doesn't talk them round,
what will they do?"
"They'll rise, not just a few, but every last one of them. They'll
leave their fields, their homes, and they'll swarm through the Lowlands and
over the Schaaldt. There, they'll kill that which offends them, whatever
threatens their freedom. Your bravery shots, our battle drugs, the berserk
fury of the Guels, they pale alongside the Elets when they're doing what
they believe is right. They have full control, you see, both of their minds
and their emotions. They know exactly why they're killing, what they have
to do. Complete ruthlessness, no mercy, no fear of death. I wouldn't want
to be Justan, no matter how big his army..."
"I think I'm in shock."
* * *
Large, iron railings surrounded the palace, black with gilded
points. Guards paraded outside, wearing the golden tunics of the Seesel
princes. Conley was impressed by the spectacle, the close-order marching,
all in step; slow, long strides designed to catch the eyes of the admiring
public watching from the gates. Ihann was looking at the soldiers, too,
Conley suspected for reasons similar to her own. Life, but I could do with a
"Ihann," she asked, quickly, "why are there no women in the
He grinned, winked. "The display is for aesthetic purposes as
much as security. Only soldiers of the same height are selected for duty
here. There may be a tall woman among them, as there may be shorter men
in the parade tomorrow. You, for example, were you in the Prince's guard,
would be in today's march rather than tomorrow's or the day after's."
"I see. They're very good - it's considered glamourous to be in
"Here as elsewhere, yes. Recruits enjoy a certain status in the
community, but it's not without its drawbacks."
"Drawbacks?" She turned, took his arm as he led her away
through the crowd.
"They're not allowed recreational drugs, only those meant for
battlefield or medicinal purposes. It wouldn't do to have the army floating
around on a cloud of good feeling."
"That's understandable, but I think that back home in Murak
our soldiers are allowed to use happy shots when they're off duty, except
maybe in some barons' armies the rules are different, I don't know."
"Oh, not every drug is proscribed here, only the ones with
lingering after-effects. Alcohol is permitted at all times, and its use is even
encouraged in the navy. Bliss is out completely, which can be a little
upsetting at first, when you've been used to feeling all smiles for so long."
They crossed the square and walked towards a wide street
opposite. There looked to be a scaffold at its end, she'd get a better view
from the hump of a bridge.
"Ihann," she asked, "have you ever taken Bliss?"
He half-smiled. "Conley, all Lowlandic parents give small
doses of Bliss to their offspring. They do it as a matter of course, it makes
discipline much easier if children all feel good about the world."
She did little to hide her surprise. "But that's terrible!"
"No more terrible than giving wine to a child in Cala?" Devil's
"Nonsense! It's of a far more serious nature. It distorts their
entire outlook on life, on other people. Surely there's a price to be paid for
such wholesale manipulation of an individual's emotions?"
He dropped his head. "When the children become grown-up,
they may stop, yes, but then they'll begin to have feelings that they've
never really experienced before. Anger, discontent, frustration, passions
that people in your country will have learned to deal with at an early age.
The fear usually gets them in the end, it takes a particular kind of strength
not to return to the drug as soon as its emotional cushion disappears. They
have counsellors in the army, to help recruits come to terms with
themselves, but for most people it's straight back to blissfulness."
"So you still use it?" Why did she find that repellent?
"I studied medicine in Elet for two years. Nobody can hope to
do that without the respect of the people. I haven't taken Bliss since 1788."
Now she felt foolish. "I - I had a problem with happies, I feel
I'm over it now, but I'm scared, in a way, that I might go back on them
"I've never been tempted. Emotions only have meaning when
they arise themselves. Unlike Roween, I do believe that mood-altering
drugs can be useful as a way of temporarily influencing behaviour to
achieve some immediate goal - the army's battle-drugs, for example; on a
more constructive level, there are many people who have difficulty in
talking to others, and would be unable to find a partner if they didn't have
some help in overcoming their early inhibitions. These Bliss-like longer-
term effects, though, I feel they just cheapen lives, not enrich them."
The street was busy, noisy with the clacking of wooden heels
and the shouts of vendors.
"Bliss is supposed only to enhance feelings that you already
have, so how can you say that using it devalues them?"
He stared into the distance, towards the scaffold. "How can
there be true pleasure without knowledge of pain?"
She noticed a man gazing at her, taking in her figure.
"Sometimes, you can make the pain yourself."
* * *
The rocking of the cab was gentle, smoothing out the
unevenness of the cobblestones, swirling Conley's stomach as they crossed
"It's been a wonderful day, Ihann, thank you. All these outfits,
you're very kind, I wish I could repay you somehow."
"The pleasure is all mine, I haven't enjoyed myself so much in
years! It's rare I'm able to shop with someone of such excellent tastes, but
who is yet prepared to listen to my suggestions - and even to heed them.
You're very beautiful, Conley, and a magnificent frame for clothes. Even
the dullest of gowns would seem special if worn by you, but the latest Taltu
imports, accentuating the waist, well! Just seeing you in them was a thrill!
There's no need to thank me, and certainly no need to pay me back; I
consider your company reward enough."
She looked away in embarrassment. "I can't get used to these
"What you are not used to is a man giving them so freely. You
feel I should have some hidden (yet perhaps not-so-hidden) motive. I
assume you have no brothers?"
"None." She didn't know if his assessment was right, but she
did feel muddled, yes.
"Prepare yourself for more such comments in Elet. Few people
there will have seen your like before, and they will be genuinely taken by
your looks. When Elets say they admire your beauty, it will always be
without improper intent. They don't approach anyone for courtship
unless... Oh, forgive me, but you don't speak Eletic anyway, do you?"
She smiled. "No, I'm sad to say that I don't, it wasn't until
Roween told me that I even knew they didn't speak Estavian. I think she
does - speak Eletic, I mean."
"Roween?" He laughed, put a hand in a pocket. "Roween
speaks many languages, or at least she understands them, some are dead.
She learned Eletic from Medreph, but even before then she was fluent in
Inquan, and from books in the Academy library she's taught herself the old
languages of Chaien and Ilathica. Oh, and also Old Ca-Atlan - I remember
her telling me that it's quite similar to modern Inquan. Our Roween is quite
"That's impressive, I never knew; I wonder why she's not
mentioned it to me herself? I would have, in her position."
He rapped the roof of the cab with his knuckles. "Perhaps she
thought it would be conceited of her?"
The driver slowed his horse to a halt, climbed to the ground,
opened the door. Conley jumped out, much to Ihann's amusement and the
other man's dismay. He pulled a small set of steps from underneath the
bodywork. Conley felt somewhat silly for not having noticed them when
she boarded the cab, but at the time she'd been worried that her boxes
weren't properly secured on the roof.
"I think," said Ihann, "that tomorrow afternoon I'll teach you a
little Eletic. Is that fine with you?"
Conley watched the coachman untie the string holding her
purchases to the baggage rack. "Yes, it sounds fun. We can surprise
Roween when she returns." If she ever does.
* * *
"I'm not sure this is a good idea." She was wearing one of her
new outfits, cotton but with a silk-like trim, practical yet smart. "If what
you told me yesterday is true, the Elets are utter brutes. I don't know if I
want to learn their language; I don't know if I even want to visit their
country, I might offend one and have him go berserk on me."
Ihann grinned. "It's not like that at all. I know I must have
sounded as if I despised them, but I don't, not really. You see, the Elets
are an uncommon people, yes, but it's because they're highly principled.
They never lose their tempers, ever; everything is thought through, calmly
and rationally. They may take their feelings into consideration as valid
contributing factors in determining their eventual actions, but they never let
their hearts drive their minds. They are the noblest nation I know."
"I don't understand, Roween has that same attitude of
reverence - they must dope the food there or something! To me, they sound
a bunch of crazy people, suppressing their feelings for most of their lives
before finally releasing them in a frenzy of bloodlust to stop their brains
They were in Ihann's library, the walls half-concealed behind
endless shelves of medical books from countries near and far. Neatly-bound
handwritten notes stood in a glass cabinet close to a desk.
"The Elets haven't risen for over a thousand years, Conley.
When they next do, it will be because there is some threat to their
homeland, or to their way of life; it won't be as a valve to relieve some
periodic build-up of collective emotional pressure. They are not savages:
they're intelligent human beings who know themselves and have an
unbreakable sense of right. It's that which makes them so formidable, so
frightening. Step on them too willingly, ignore all reasoned argument to
desist, and they'll accept your decision calmly, coolly, without anger. Then
they'll hit you so hard you won't ever get up."
"You talk as if you have experience..."
He nodded, stared straight ahead. "Indirectly, yes. In the Eletic
medical archives I found cures, treatments, ways to deal with conditions
that are often fatal in the Lowlands. Not just the big killers like smallpox,
cholera, but the smaller things that most people fall to in the end -
abscesses, swollen prostates, different forms of dementia, heart rot... There
were so many cures, volume after volume, covering everything from
childbirth complications to, well, to others so obscure I could barely make
sense of them. Yet of all these marvellous procedures and remedies, the
Elets will let me use but a handful."
Conley gaped surprise. "But - but why? Why train you, and
then..?" Her words seeped away.
He shrugged. "They don't say. Oh, they're very nice about it:
upon my return, when I set up my surgery here, the first time I placed an
order with a herbalist for some of the plants I'd need the Elets informed me
by letter that they would prefer it if I didn't obtain further supplies without
Ihann's cheek twitched. "It may have been a test, but if so then
I failed it: I didn't risk finding out. People are therefore coming into my
surgery every day with ailments I could cure within a week, but of which
they are going to die, and just because the Elets don't want for-some-
reason-secret medical techniques disseminated." There was sadness in his
voice. He glanced at her. "You think I'm weak?"
"No, it's..." She stumbled for the words. "I can't conceive
their point of view, and I don't fully comprehend their actions. How, then,
can I censure you for what I don't even understand?"
He smiled. "You don't always need to think the way that they
do to know how they'll react to circumstances. At times, they can be all too
predictable, especially when it suits them. I don't know that they ever bluff:
if they pledge to do something, then they will do it - no matter how bad the
consequences might appear to us. Were they to threaten Justan with the
conquest of his entire empire unless he met certain trivial conditions, you
can be quite assured that if he didn't then they would follow through with
an all-out invasion. As I said, though, they prefer reason over force; they
don't want to die any more than we do. It's only when all other methods
fail, and they are compelled to act, that they'll resort to confronting a
problem on its own terms."
"Or so you're hoping..."
He sat at the desk. "They may see as their best option the
destruction of Justan's empire before he can fully stabilise it, rather than let
him be until he can attack them at leisure. Some believe that even without
magic, he, or perhaps the Estavians, could achieve the necessary level of
restructuring within a decade; these pessimists might win the argument.
Roween and I, and to some extent Medreph (although for different
reasons), consider the loss of life that would follow a preventative attack to
be too great, especially as it might well be completely needless, and coming
as it will on top of all the deaths occurring from when magic cuts out.
Unfortunately, that's irrelevant to the argument." He smiled. "Perhaps I
just don't have the stomach for it. You still want to learn their language?"
"In the book, it said it was the best way to understand their
culture, the way they think."
He passed her a quill and some paper. "You'll probably want to
* * *
"We'll start with some grammar. In Estavian, every sentence
has a verb. So it is in Eletic. Most sentences have a subject, and they can
also have objects. Now whereas a basic Estavian sentence is of the form
subject-verb-object, as in `Conley eats carrots', in Eletic the verb comes
first, `eats Conley carrots'. Fine so far?"
"If it wasn't, there'd be something awfully wrong with me!"
Ihann smiled, but looked a little wounded. "Adjectives are
treated like verbs in applying them to nouns. If I wanted to say `Conley is
rude', in Eletic the word order would be `rude Conley'."
She knew he was right. "I'm sorry, Ihann, I didn't mean to be,
I know this isn't going to be easy."
He smiled. "Let's use `hungry Conley' instead. Now, joining
the sentences together, the obvious thing to us would be to say `hungry
Conley and eats Conley carrots', but the Elets don't do that. Instead, they
have a special pronoun, `na', which they use to mean `the subject'. So
they'd start off by naming the subject, then follow it by the descriptive part,
thus: `Conley, hungry na, eats na carrots'. Got that?"
"I think so, yes."
He nodded. "Now there's one other thing that's important.
Whenever they say a noun, the Elets mean it indefinitely - `a' rather than
`the'. So `eats Conley carrot' means `a Conley eats a carrot'. If you want to
refer to a specific carrot, then you can use a word that means `this' - the
same rule formally applies for a specific Conley, too, but with common
proper names they usually drop it."
"Can you give me some examples in the actual language? How
would I say `my name is Conley'?"
"Right, well you don't phrase it `my name is Conley', it's more
like `I am Conley'. I'll go through the stages: the word for `person' is
`giala', so `giala Conli' would mean `a Conley is a person'. The word for
`this', well, it's not really a word, it's the prefix `lae'. So `laegiala Conli'
means `this person is a Conley', or `I am a Conley'. `Giala laeConli' means
`Conley is a person', or literally `a person, is this Conley'. `Laegiala
laeConli' means `this person is this Conley', or `I am Conley'.
"Right. Laegiala laeConli, Laegiala laeConli, got it. So how
would I ask someone their name?"
He sighed. "You wouldn't ask them their name, you'd ask them
who they are. Well, let me see, it's a question, I think some of this may be
hard to explain. The easy part is the prefix for `that', which is `cai', so
`caigiala' is `that person' - or simply `you' in Estavian. Now, you want to
know a noun for which caigiala of it applies, so that's `hua caigiala na?'.
The `hua' is the interrogative, and the `na' shows where the answer you
want is to go. So `who are you' translates literally into `for what thing is it
the case that you are that thing?' If you ask a question in which there isn't
any missing information, you just need to know whether a statement is true
or not, the form is `va' followed by the ordinary sentence. So since `you
are Conley' is `caigiala caiConli', `are you Conley' is `va caigiala
She was writing this down.
"If someone asks you a question, `yes' is `yae', `no' is `nae',
and `don't know' is `hae'. Easy to remember. Oh, but `not' is `nae', too,
so `I am not Conley' would be `nae laegiala laeConli'."
"I think I'm getting the idea. What does `Liagh Na Laerich'
mean, then? The `Lae' part is `this'-something, I guess, but why is there a
`Na' in the middle?"
"Well I'm afraid that sometimes the Elets take things as
understood implicitly, and so they don't always say everything in full. The
city's ceremonial name is `Ihll liagh na laerich'. `Ihll' is island, `liagh' is
lake, `rich' is country. So it means `an island, a lake of which is this
country', which to them is Elet. They're likening the city to an island, with
Elet as the lake surrounding it. Quite poetic, really."
"Why don't they call it `Liagh Ihll Laerich'?"
"Because that would be a statement, `a lake for an island is this
country'. By taking out the Ihll and putting it first, it lets you know what
the coming phrase refers to. If I wanted to say `Medreph is in Liagh Na
Laerich', for example, it would properly be `Ihll, liagh na laerich, eshal
beMaedregh na', although I'd usually drop the `Ihll' - and the `be' in front
of `Maedregh' that makes the noun third-person. See?"
She grinned. "It's all very logical, but I can envisage its getting
"It's better than Estavian, there are no irregular verbs or
anything, but the Elets tend to omit a lot, especially when using different
tenses. Sometimes, too, you have to listen to their tone of voice to know
whether what they're saying is indicative, like `I am thirsty and I want a
drink' or subjunctive, `if I am thirsty I want a drink'."
"What about the spelling? I've been assuming it's phonetic?"
"And so it is - very! In different parts of Elet they spell words
according to the local accent, which means vowels are sometimes shifted.
That's why they don't always transcribe them when they use their horoform
script. They do adopt a formal convention when rendering their words in
Estavian letters, though."
"Wait..." Conley looked down at her notes. "You're telling me
they have two alphabets?"
"For different purposes. They use Estavian characters for the
printed word, because their own clock-shaped ones don't stamp very
clearly. The rest of the time, though, they resort to their original, more
thought-out system. Numerals are the only things common to both schemes,
because the Estavian ones are actually based on ancient Eletic archetypes
* * *
The study door opened, her host peered round it. "How are you
"Fine, fine - is there a word for a hundred, or do they use `ain-
"`Ainaichaich'," he replied, "but a thousand is `ainaiches'.
Sorry to disturb you, I just came for a book..." He emerged fully, crossed
over to a shelf.
"These notes of yours are very good, Ihann, they're helping me
"When you can read them," blushed.
She smiled at his shyness. "Some words are hard to make out,
yes, but as I have to struggle reading my own hand sometimes I can hardly
complain about yours!"
"The medical bias isn't distracting?" He turned his head
sideways, read titles.
"Oh I haven't got into vocabulary yet, I'm focusing on the
grammar. I've developed this notation for bracketing pieces of a sentence
together so I can track what the whole thing means."
"Really?" He removed a hefty volume from a leather-bound set
standing near the window, put it on the desk, positioned himself behind
Conley. He read a little of her work, nodded. "I see, yes, that's very smart,
it looks like a real help. I wish I'd thought of something similar when I was
beginning." He picked up the book again, headed for the door. "You're
quite a theoretician!"
"Not really, Ihann - Roween beats me cold. You know, I still
haven't fathomed how she purges magic, and I've been trying for months.
It doesn't fit into the framework at all - spells just don't work that way.
What she does ought to be impossible."
He paused, half out of the room. "I congratulate you on the
speed of that forced link, but I nevertheless won't compromise Roween's
plans; regretfully, you'll still have to await her return."
"No hints at all?" sweetly.
He smiled. "Perhaps you should consider how magic would
have to operate to support the observable evidence of what she does?"
Before she could answer, he hurried to his consulting room.
* * *
They were washing up after their evening meal, fish, Ihann had
"I was wondering," said Conley, "why the Elets don't have an
explicit concept of name. They can say that an object is called something,
but they can't say that something is its name."
"They can," he began to dry a plate, "but they don't; it's not
part of their philosophy. Their whole way of seeing things is founded on
ideas of referents - what things are called - rather than identifiers - what
their names are; indeed, if you think about it, it's even built in to their
grammar. This all stems from their conviction that names are separate from
an object's intrinsic being, mere vehicles for conveying labelling
information between interlocutors. When an Elet says `chair', that properly
translates into `what I call a chair', which could be different to what
someone else calls it."
"But that's a little pedantic, isn't it? If they can agree on a
common, very precise meaning for verbs and adjectives, why can't they for
nouns?" She placed a second plate in the rack.
"I trained in medicine, not linguistics - Roween could perhaps
tell you the theory, but not me; I do know, though, that to an Elet, saying
that this object is a plate," he held up the one in his hands, "is on a par
with saying that this action is putting it away." He placed it in the
cupboard. "Naming an object is as meaningful - or as meaningless - as
naming an action. It's really just a question of perspective."
She smiled. "I don't pretend to understand, but I do know that
whatever system it is they employ, it'll be totally self-consistent; I've
learned that much already..." She reached for more soap flakes.
"`The Customs of Elet' is correct when it states that learning
their language gives an insight into their minds. But do you like what you
"I like the language itself as a mathematical formalism, but to
have to speak it all the time? Is it an aid to creative thought, or a
hindrance? It must certainly raise some odd questions of identity: not to
have a name, only a marker by which others refer to you."
"Yet is that such a bad thing?" He shrugged. "It gives you a
privacy, an isolation; no-one can really know you. You can be who or what
you like, you can be several people, experiment until you find a persona
with which you're comfortable. Who cares if you used to be someone else?
What's it to them?" He realised he was holding an empty cloth, picked up a
"You can't be anything, though, can you? There are physical
factors that curb your choice. Without magic, for example, Roween will
always have goggly eyes, irrespective of whatever identity she might brew
in Elet. And you yourself, you can never be - " hand to mouth, "oh I'm
sorry Ihann! I shouldn't have - "
"I can never be the same as other men?"
She flustered. "I - no, I was going to say, you can never be
He stopped. "Female? Why would I want..?"
"Well, because..." She was rubbing at some cutlery, a fish
knife. "The social advantage of being male outweighs it all, I expect."
"Outweighs what all? I could still be a doctor, whatever my
gender. This is Bridges, not some pokey little stop-over in sunny Svala."
He bowed his head, held his breath a moment. "I apologise. I know there
are still ways that men - "
"So that's not it? Then why - " She bit her lower lip, looked up
a memory. "I ought not really to tell you this," edgily, "it's company
confidential, but at Porett Technologies I read a paper from the internal
library which proposed a method for consciousness projection. It was way
horizon for its time, but I do know that more work was done in the area,
classified. Now just suppose someone there figured how to cut a proper job
of it, offered a service where people could exchange bodies. Would you
swap with, say, a female who wanted to be male?"
"Would I? Well I might try it, but, I don't know, if it was
permanent." He was frowning, had his cheeks raised.
"Well think of it: at the moment, you're attracted to men, but
on the whole they're not attracted to you. If you were female, they would
be, and you'd be properly equipped to respond."
"But I wouldn't find myself attractive." He started to dry the
Conley didn't reply immediately, washed the forks and spoons.
"So you fancy yourself?" Another pause. "It makes sense that you should, I
hadn't given that thought, but - "
"No, no I don't, but that's precisely my point. To attract,
people need to feel attractive, there's a vanity about it that..." He smiled at
her. "I'm talking rubbish, I fear."
"No, not entirely," she grinned, "but I know Roween would
disagree rather forcefully!"
"And yet there's something," the cutlery, absently, "some
unease I have... I wish I could pin what it was. I know there are people
who'd give all they had for a body swap, even if they got one twenty years
older than the one they left. Personally, though..." He looked up. "This
must sound like an awful slight to womankind?"
"Is it the practical side, having periods, babies?"
"No, not that, I'm a physician, I..." He grunted. "It's
"You can voice it?"
"Well, yes I can, but it's - "
"Now, now," laughing, "don't be bashful! I won't tell anyone -
"No, but I know you'll think badly of me, it's selfish,
"You can't help the way you are, I won't mind, but I'm
curious: what is it that you find so deterring about becoming female?"
"It's just..." He sighed. "Very well: if I can't have, I don't
want to be had."
She paused, digested. "I concede - you're far too male."