The guesthouse was small, family-run, built on three floors just
inside the city wall. There was no dining room, but across the street stood a
friendly-looking restaurant, so Roween suggested they ate there.
Inside, it was panelled with dark wood, glowing in the light of
oil lamps. The air was rich with the smells of meat and sauces,
intermingling with a smoky sweetness. There were other people already
seated, locals eating out; the storm in the east had stayed there. Diners
noticed Conley as she entered, her tall, confident manner singling her from
the otherwise dim cosiness of their surroundings.
Roween chose a table beside the window because, paradoxi-
cally, it afforded more privacy than the other, more central position they
were offered. The blind was drawn, shutting out the darkness of the street,
but she could still peek behind it, steal ten-second segments from the lives
"Those men, they're looking at you," noted Conley, behind her
"They're looking at you, Con, not me," Roween answered,
knowing she was taking bait.
Conley quickly glanced to the wall-side table. "No, Ro, it's not
me, it's you, one of them is - no, don't turn round, he'll see you!"
She frowned. "What if he does? He'll get a better view of my
eyes, that's what he wants..." She faced him, glared her best glare. He
laughed, self-conscious, returned to his meal, his conversation.
"You shouldn't have done that," Conley reproached her, "he
probably had a fancy for you, you've put him off now."
Roween sighed, picked up her menu again. "When men look at
you, Con, it's because they're filled with desire. When they look at me, it's
"Don't be silly, Ro! Sometimes, I think you're as bad as I am,
always running yourself down. You're not unattractive; Lord Sennary liked
Ba-dumph. "Lord Sennary?" Oh, more bait, foolish girl. "No
he didn't, Con, you know he didn't. You're the one he has his," pause,
"eyes on. I'm just a convenience, a means by which he can wheedle
himself into your affections."
"You really think so?"
Yes, she's fishing alright. "Course I think so, he dropped me
like a child discards a boring toy, soon as you appeared. There's a fire in
him when you're around, don't say you haven't noticed, I know you have."
Conley pursed her lips, coyly. "Well, he is titled, and he's the
"To say nothing of his build, his smile, his voice, his," pause
again, she didn't mean to, "eyes."
"He hasn't really shown me any attention, though, too shy,
more so than I expected. He acts close, but he's distant. I'd like to meet
him again when all this is over, get to know him a bit better, find out what
he's really like."
"Maybe he has a girlfriend already? He knows how to use those
fine looks, that innocent air of boyish charm - he probably has several..."
Conley missed the sarcasm, pondered. "No, I don't think so,
he's too straight, he'd have said something when I, you know, when I,
"Yes, I know." Life, it's difficult enough having you drooling
over him at all, never mind harping on to me about it.
"I wonder, when I get back home, how I can just bump into
him again, see how he feels about me, maybe give him a little help." She
Make it sound unromantic. "He'll be at his farm, I expect,
helping out. They'll flood within days when their weather returns to
normal." Why isn't there ever a waiter when you want one?
"His farm? I thought he had a castle?"
She raised her menu, waved it a bit to summon attention.
"Castle Whiting, yes, in Davia, I think he lets it to pay off his father's
debts, some company or other that does weekend deer-hunts. I don't really
A short, dumpy-looking woman breezed out from behind a
door, her slightly grubby apron the only evidence that she was what the
menu referred to as "prompt, efficient service". Roween breathed deeply.
* * *
"Magic," said Roween, "is frightening. Can we agree on that?"
Conley waved her fork, swallowed. "No. Some of the uses to
which magic is put are frightening, but magic itself isn't."
Roween jerked back her head, closed her eyes. This is going to
be impossible! She leaned forward again. "Very well, Con, I'll argue
within your frame. Some of the uses to which magic is put are frightening.
Others are complete, undiluted evil."
"I wouldn't go as far as to say that."
"Porett is working on a magic-borne plague which will
completely eradicate the Lowlanders and the Elets. You tell me that isn't
She nodded. "I concede. If he really can cut it, it's evil."
"He can, I've figured out how. He sets a matrix on someone,
and propagates it to other people nearby. The original matrix decays,
feeding off matter, cancelling it with magic." Her voice felt hard. "It'll
throw off waves of heat, too, probably kill the victims long before mass
loss does. That won't stop the spell, though, it'll keep on going, it doesn't
care, eventually it'll gobble up the whole body, no mess, everything left
nice and tidy." She laughed, bitterly.
"He sets a matrix? You mean a focal matrix? But how can he
make it decay? Focal matrices are either not there, or everywhere for all
time, coexisting with matter harmlessly."
"That's the normal, everyday working view of things, yes, but
you can bind two matrices together in what the theoreticians call matrix-
space. Once you've done that, you can then bring them closer until they
resonate. When they do, you slowly move them apart again, thereby
adjusting the phase, so they have to pull something in just to keep stable.
With no other matrices bound to them, they'll take matter. I haven't yet
worked how he does the contagion, I'm not topside on meta-matrix
Conley laughed, stabbed at a carrot. "You sound it to me, Ro!"
"No," she sipped at her mineral water, "I didn't bother taking it
any further once I realised it was pointless. When you think deeply about
matrices, you begin to wonder where the foundations lie. Everything seems
to be built on top of everything else, with nothing at the bottom to prop it
all up. You have the real world, supposedly overlaid by matrices in the
matrix-space world, with that world in turn overlaid by meta-matrices, and
that one by meta-meta-matrices, so on forever. But there's nothing causal to
link them together, no real reason why it should be that way, it's just a
handy way of looking at things to explain how spells work."
Conley was staring at her intently, and it hit her she'd said too
"Go on, Ro, this is interesting."
More water. "No, Con, that's enough for now, let's get back to
magic use." Give her no time to interrupt. "The whole science is advancing
so quickly that new spells are coming up before people know how to deal
with them. Sooner or later, there's going to be an accident of gigantic
proportions. Porett will cook a counter-plague that will prevent his creation
from spreading indiscriminately, but who's to say that in twenty years time
some bored undergrad isn't going to stumble across the same idea and let
loose an epidemic before anyone has a matching cure? What about the
spells we haven't discovered yet, that turn the atmosphere to steam for
twenty minutes, or redirect the rays of the sun? Or the feedback explosions
that destroy entire cities? It's getting out of hand - no, it's got out of hand."
Conley was chewing, slowly.
"All this is possible within the theory that you believe describes
how magic works. From my standpoint, it's worse. I know you don't give
it any credit, but spells, gestures, they're just a structure imposed by us
from the outside to explain something much deeper. Magic doesn't function
that way at all. Someone - you, I hope - is going to have absolute power,
total. Do you understand what that means? Your every whim, every desire,
can be made true, whether it adheres to existing laws of the universe or not,
like in dreams." Conley flinched. "You'll be able to do anything, literally,
even if it's speculative, `make this creature behave in a way which will
interest me'. It sounds seductive, doesn't it? It's not, though, it's
meaningless, it makes everything meaningless. Unless you relinquish it, you
may as well sit under six happy shots for the rest of your life."
Conley spoke, quietly. "Magic can be used in despicable ways,
yes, but it can also be used for good. It could be modified, it could - "
"No, no Con, it has to go. The mechanism which drives it has
to be constrained, you can't turn some watered-down version of magic into
a physical law."
"You said I could do anything."
"You get what you will for."
"So if I will for spells to work only up to two K gestures in
"Can you be sure there aren't any offensive spells below that
"I could will there to be no offensive spells at all."
"But according to you, it's people who make magic good or
bad - almost any spell can be used for evil, given appropriate
"So I just say that no spell can be used for evil."
Roween shook her head. "Evil from whose point of view?
Porett might not think his plague is evil! Yet some religious types already
say that any interference with nature at all is completely wrong."
"From my point of view."
"But that will change, Con, unless you want to remain
invariant, never adapting, never having new experiences. What if someone
wants to do something for fun which is basically evil, like it maybe kills
someone, but overall it's for the greater good, saving the lives of
thousands? Evil at what level?"
"I'd have to think about it."
Roween dropped her shoulders, gripped her knife, outsized in
her small fist. "Con, that's the problem, you'll always have to think about
it. Whatever you want to do, there'll invariably be details you hadn't
considered, and when you look at those there'll arise yet more."
She frowned. "What if I wrapped that up as part of what I
willed for? If I said I wanted the details all handled too, as if I'd thought
"I don't know, it may be that you couldn't think them through,
they might be never ending, moving away as fast as you approach them.
Life knows what would happen then, probably magic would stop - I'd hope
that if you thought about it long enough, that's the conclusion you'd
eventually reach anyway."
"What if I decreed that I could think them through, and that
magic wouldn't stop?"
Roween looked upwards in despair. "How would I know, Con?
It sounds like it would mean you were willing a change in your thinking
processes. If you try and stop that from happening, there'll be some other
ambiguity you hadn't thought of, you're working from within an enclosed
system, you can't get out, it surrounds you whatever you do. The only way
to break free is to smash the whole edifice."
Conley smiled. "Why am I arguing? I know you're right. But
before I turn off magic for eternity, however I'm to do it, I may exercise
my omnipotent powers just a teensy little bit."
Roween breathed out, long, for the moment resigned. "How
teensy a little bit?"
"One immortality, two resurrections, and a small gift for
someone I care about." She picked up a glass tablepot, what looked like
grey pepper inside it. "Is this some kind of seasoning?"
"It's a mushroom taste-enhancer, makes you more sensitive to
flavouring, gives you a warm, tipsy-smiley feeling."
Conley put it down.