"I'm stiff from all that riding," Roween declared, shuffling
along behind Conley. "Horses are too big, they ought to make them
different sizes." She stubbed her toe on one of the raised cobbles,
"They do, Ro: back in Cala, you can get prosthetically
enhanced ponies at Ridgeway Liveries. Same as a horse, only smaller."
Conley glanced back to her friend, waited. "You know, I never really
realised before quite how short you are." Roween caught her up. "Do I
often walk on ahead like that? I don't mean to."
"Not your fault, Con, me being silly, noseying through
windows. Have you spotted how even the shops here have those tiny panes?
Not like the big displays in Bridges. Part of the local character, more
provincial." She felt faintly embarrassed.
Conley's eyes scanned about her, lanterns beginning to burn
through the deepening dusk. "It does look markedly different, yes. I
noticed earlier that everything's made of wood. Same basic style as in
Bridges and Warnhem, but nothing's brick."
Roween pulled her jacket tighter, grieved for her old coat.
"This far south, I guess they can pillage the wilderness marches of timber.
Less danger of flooding, here, too, so no special reason to stay with heavier
materials. Wood needs a bit more maintenance, I suppose, it's why there
aren't temples around any more, they'll have fallen flat. There'll be a stone
fort somewhere, though."
Conley flicked back her hair, long, it needed cutting, tying back
perhaps. "Border town, yes. No wall, so it must have some other defence.
Seems a reasonable inference that there'll be a fort."
"I think it used to be moated, noticed a dip as we came in." She
rubbed her arm, muttered, "This wind is keen..."
"Moated? Oh, so, what makes you think there's a fort here
too?" She stared back down the curving street, seeking some outline, some
shadow with substance.
"The signpost said this place is Zoderdhua. As I remember,
there's a whole string of border towns with names ending in -dhua, they
date back from imperial times, maybe beyond."
"`Dhua' isn't a Lowlandic word, sounds out. Eletic?"
Roween nodded. "Means `tower'. The Estavians threw some up
to mark the westernmost limit of their empire, but the sites are ancient,
were fortified long before, way old, maybe trace back to prehistory."
The road straightened out. Conley recognised their inn, five
minutes down on the right, but then picked out something beyond it - a
raised blackness, swallowing the candle flickers of Zoderdhua's evening.
She stopped, pointed. "Is that the tower?"
Roween narrowed her eyes, was conscious of Conley watching
with interest, the way the faint, ambient light exaggerated her squint. "It's
a mound, I think, maybe had something up top once, ruined now,
"Feel like giving it a look-over? It's not late, and it can't be far
Roween glimpsed movement, someone crossing the street. "I
don't know, Con, it's dark, might be risky..." She moved her head, upper
body, from side to side. "Is it far?" Oh, what it must be, binocular vision!
Conley was scoffing. "Risky? Everyone here pops Bliss! The
worst that can happen is they'll smile us to death! Come on, we might find
a few remains, shards of pre-Estavian pottery, or maybe a handful of those
little lead spheres."
"It's getting late..." She jolted as she realised she sounded like
her father, grinned. "Well, I suppose, so long as we're back by ten thirty -
I don't want a late start tomorrow. We should be able to make Suadh Varl
Na before dusk, if we're lucky with the weather."
Conley slid her hands into her pockets. "Lucky? Chance doesn't
come into it! You know as well as I do what that cloud is - there's one just
like it that spends its time draining over Western Svala. It can move as far
in a day as we can travel in a week, and if Justan sends it our way we'll
mire up, there's no - "
"Justan? Don't you mean your father?"
Conley faltered, waved a hand. "My father, then." Back in the
pocket. "It doesn't matter who actually drops it on us, the point is that it'll
happen exactly when The King chooses, and once it hits we'll be slowed to
a stroll for the rest of our journey."
Roween looked to the east, saw nothing in the gloom. "What
worries me is that it's big enough to move now, but it's stationary. How
large does he want it? Is it just for show? Let the Elets see how strong he
is? Where's it going? Must be Elet, not the Lowlands, it would drown the
"He wants to impress someone. When's the emissary due to
Roween sucked her bottom lip, raised an eyebrow. "Don't
know, Con, soon, but we ought not let that make a difference to how fast
we travel; we have to hurry anyways, maybe not even wait for Medreph,
just get to Liagh Na Laerich before..." Her sentence drifted off.
A couple was walking towards them. Conley simply knew to
expect greetings, gritted her teeth to a smile.
"Good evening," said the man.
"Good evening," replied Conley, failing to move her arm in
time before the woman knocked into it. The couple walked on, hand in
hand. Conley glanced back. "Damn, I hate that!"
"They were just being polite."
Conley sneered after them. "Oh, I hate that too, yes, but what I
really loathe is the way they keep bumping into you. So the streets here
aren't as wide as in some places - they look even narrower with these gable
overhangs - but how much space do these people want? There's only four
of us on the entire footpath, yet she still nudged me! I feel I should check
my pouch all the time, in case someone's lifted it."
"Just the way they are," she inserted a half-skip into her walk,
kept alongside her companion. "Lowlanders stand closer to one another
than we do, they're more physical. They like touching, especially when on
Bliss, and I guess your looks have a lot to do with it, too. The Elets, now
they're much warier, they stand back. When I first got there, I kept moving
towards them to where it felt right, and they'd step away, so I'd follow,
like I was chasing them round the room." She fluttered a giggle, softly.
"Better that than having strangers handling you... I won't miss
the Lowlands, that's for sure." She sighed, morphed it to a laugh. "And I
never did see anyone at it in the open..."
Roween shivered. "Autumn. Too cold."
* * *
They'd passed the inn, but were still on the cobbled street,
when they heard the footsteps behind them. Roween was first to look back,
touched Conley's forearm, stopped. A band of youths was hurrying up to
them, five, no, six, late teens, men.
Seeing the two women halt, the group slowed. One, the tallest,
led them, the rest disorganised behind. Roween couldn't mark them out,
they were dressed smart, not flash, more poor-type stylish.
The tall one spoke. "Excuse me, ladies, bright ladies, are you
"We were going to the tower," Roween replied, drawing away.
"Ah, the tower, once so proud, it's fenced off, dangerous,
could come down, spoil your fun."
"Our fun?" Conley looked to Roween for guidance, found
"If you're not busy, then, we'd like intercourse." Cheerful.
What?! Roween felt her jaw muscles slacken, aborted reply.
Oh, a misapprehension!
"Was that a request or a demand?" asked Conley.
There was a mumble from the pack. "What's she mean,
`demand'?" "It was a statement, wasn't it?" "Request?"
Another of the youths piped out, a stockier one, fair moustache
downing his lip. "Young Ander back here," he pointed, "it'll be his first
time. Can you be patient with him?"
Roween was tightening up, reading their eyes. They weren't
riding Bliss, not yet, just buoyed by the residue of previous doses. She
gripped Conley's forearm.
"It won't be with any of you!" Conley scorned.
"There are six of them," murmured Roween. She felt so hot
Tall-one again. "I see, you're foreigners, you're afraid you'll
infect us with your burning ills."
"We have condoms," said a voice.
"So you won't fall pregnant, either!" another noted, laughing.
"But you're complete strangers!" Conley.
"We don't mind." "Whatever you want." "We'll make
Tall-one appeared concerned. "If you find us unattractive, we
can do it in the dark. Or if yon cloud is bothering you? Vill lives nearby,
he has a room."
The underchatter broke again. "Is it their month-time?" "What
if it is?" Sniggers. "Don't worry, Ander, you'll like it, truly!"
"I don't believe this," Conley hissed, low, staring at the leader.
Two had gone behind her.
"They want to rape us, Con..."
Tall-one looked puzzled. "Of course we do, wasn't I clear?" He
smiled. "Perhaps the distance separating our cultures distorted my words."
Conley nodded, deliberate, slow, calming herself. "We differ
in other ways, standards of behaviour, what we're used to..."
Babbling from the others. "We'll do it any way you like, miss."
"Where's she from?" "What's she want?"
Tall-one raised a hand, thin, slender, uncalloused. He addressed
Conley. "I've heard that in the east the men are unthinking, uncaring.
They'd use force, their greater strength, numbers, to take you."
"And you wouldn't?" Conley again; Roween was a statue.
He looked surprised. "If you prefer it that way, yes, of course."
He shrugged, looked at moustached-one; he shrugged, too.
"Don't hurt us," pleading, Roween, barely audible, immobile.
"We'll be as gentle as you please, we have Bliss, you know it?
It extends your awareness, touch, serene, sensual."
"We won't hurt you - " "Not if you don't want." " - we're not
animals!" "Charged, Bliss is charged." "Don't they use it?"
"Animals! Yes, you are animals!" Conley was suddenly fired.
"You may act polite, come over cool, but you're wolves, that's all,
wolves!" She moved her arm round Roween's shoulder, mother-like,
protective. "Can't you see she's frightened dead?" Anger welled,
overflowed. "She's a child, for love!"
The tall one looked to the darkened skies, dawning a smile. "A
virgin. So that's why she's like this..."
The moustached one reached for Roween's hand, she pulled it
back. "I have some balm, it won't hurt, don't fret, we'll show you what to
do, it's easy, natural, you'll enjoy it."
Someone behind him spoke, clear, like the street was waiting
for it to be said. "Are they lovers?"
Immediate answers. "Could be." "I think so, yes." "So what if
they are - " "It won't matter under Bliss." " - we're going to fuck them,
not marry them!"
Roween felt something in her belt, way over-heavy, like her
mind had been seeking a solution, was letting her know it had found one.
The dagger! She pulled it out, brandished it.
"A knife?" The tall one looked nonplussed.
"Not long ago," said Roween, bizarrely firm, "we two killed a
soldier between us, sliced open his neck." She ran a finger beneath her ear,
She looked at the blade, nodded, then back to the men. "First
one of you who tries to jam his pizzle in me gets it slashed to hell off."
They broke. "This isn't right!" "Is she threatening us?" "We
should call the guard." "She's mad - see her eyes!"
Tall-one had his hands on his hips, shook his head. "I think
we've been reasonable about this, ladies. We can meet all your conditions,
airy, strange that they are. How about if we give you the Bliss now? It'll
melt your remaining objections, stream them away."
Excited again. "Give them the Bliss!" "This is taking too long."
"Who wants the short one first?"
Conley's rage detonated. "Ro! I have to flick!" She turned, hit
the startled Roween hard on the back of the neck, side-handed, spiralled her
senseless to the floor.
In the next seven seconds, five light-primes flew from her
The youths were staggering back, half-blinded, arms shielding
their heads. All Conley saw were rollicking red discs wherever her eyes
"This is hassle!" "That one's out, and that one flashes!"
"Foreigners!" "Gods, I can't see!"
She heard tall-one's voice. "Lads, I think we have a dear wrong
one. Let's find somebody normal." To Conley: "Goodbye, bright, precious
lady, have a pleasant evening."
* * *
Roween awoke, felt a pillow beneath her head, saw walls.
Conley was humming something, anxious, one of Anya's tunes?
She stopped. "Awake, Ro?" Joy in her voice, then concern.
"Don't speak if it hurts."
The boys! Faltered. "Did they..?" She didn't feel sore, but life,
Conley was already beside the bed, easy in the small room. She
was trembling, nervous. "No, it's alright, I dazzled them, light-primes,
19s. Oh Ro - " she started choking tears, "I didn't think you'd ever -
you've been out almost an hour."
Slowly, Roween closed her eyes. "So the reflex does leave me
when I'm asleep." Gods! Of all the thoughts, why that one?
Conley wiped an eye. "I, but..? Yes, only for some spells, I
tested them in Bridges - even big light-primes work, but you can still punch
one-line charms, haven't tried anything else." She paused, concerned.
"You've confused me, are, are you hurting? Maybe you're still concussed?
Gods, I hit you awful hard."
Roween smiled, crooked, like her cheek was numb. "I never
even noticed your experiments." Why hasn't she told me about them
"Oh Ro," she was holding back sobs, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry I
hit you, I'm stupid, what I did was stupid, cruel, but, I just - I was so
angry, I felt so helpless. And then, when you didn't wake up - gods, I've
been worried, it was my fault, I thought maybe I'd put you in a coma, you
were so limp... Please - say you're alright?"
Roween squeezed her hand. "I'm fine, I know I am, the sleep
has fixed me. And I deserved all that happened; if I had have hacked at
them they'd have called the guard, execution - you did right."
"Right? But I didn't know they'd have had us arrested, I just
had to do something, if we'd - we'd have been killed." She reached for her
kerchief. "It wasn't like in Bay Town, I didn't take any pleasure, and I
didn't want to hurt you, it was all I could, I could..."
Roween groaned. "Sorry, Con, damn, I didn't, I shouldn't - I
let them frighten me." She clenched her fist, small, futile, looked away.
"No, no, it was me, I hit you - they'd probably have, I don't
know, have gone. Don't blame yourself!"
Roween said nothing.
Conley seemed to sense the root of her unease, lost her own
tears, leaned across. "It's over now, really, don't worry, the door's locked,
we're safe. We don't have to go anywhere tomorrow, we can stay, work
things out. If it's me you're frightened of - "
" - well I understand, I accept that, and I can only promise that
I won't hurt you ever again, ever; I didn't think yesterday, I acted,
foolishly, and I realise now I was as bad as the men."
"No, no you weren't, there's no call for guilt; if I don't fault
you, why fault yourself?"
"I was just so mad." She stroked Roween's still-short fringe,
tried to smile. "Would, would you really have done it?"
Roween let her continue, gazed at the bare walls. "To every last
"Gods..." She tweaked out a grey hair.
* * *
Conley was gazing out of the window. "I spoke to the
innkeeper earlier, nice man, jolly, uncly."
"While I was asleep?" No, she wouldn't have left me.
"Before lunch, when you were dressing." She was looking
through one of the small panes, framing her face.
"He say anything?"
"I asked him what the word `rape' meant. I felt, I don't know, I
needed to rationalise it. Worked my way round to the subject, didn't open
out straight away. I think I got away with it. He laughed, explained."
"Are you going to tell me?" She slumped on the bed, cupped
her knee in her hands; her boots were off already.
Conley turned round. "Their leader was right, in a way. Words
change meanings over time, can specialise within a society. In the
Lowlands, `rape' means nothing more than the man, rather than the
woman, originating the first move towards lovemaking." She smiled,
"What do they use when they mean what we do by the word?"
Conley dug for her pockets, sighed; they were only cosmetic on
this skirt. "I tried to explain, but he didn't seem to understand, couldn't see
a distinction. He was busy, it was getting embarrassing, I didn't pursue it."
She sat down next to Roween, brushed a feather from her calf.
"No distinction," Roween repeated, murmuring. "How'd they
arrive at that?"
"I don't know, Ro. Where do you see a difference?"
She pondered. "Rape is being forced. Against your will..." The
thought disturbed her.
Conley rubbed her arm, agitated. "Right, so if a man asks you
if you want sex, and you say no, is everything he does with that in mind
from then onwards tantamount to rape?"
"I don't follow. And I don't want to think about it." Ever.
She uncrossed her legs, sat up straight, freed both hands for
graphics. "Well say he started chatting, flattering, perhaps produced some
expensive wine, loosened you a little, and after a while you got to
rethinking his suggestion, and decided maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after
all." Her voice was shaking.
Roween rocked back, unenthusiastically. "Oh, I see where
you're going. He's made you change your mind, so you readily agree to let
him bed you now. However, looking at it from your original viewpoint,
he's disregarded your first answer, gone on to do you anyway." I just don't
want to think about it.
"Yes, that's it. If anyone had asked you, immediately after
you'd said no, whether it would be rape if the man were to take you that
evening, you'd say yes, it would be. Later, though, when he actually does
it, it isn't rape at all. Is it?"
"It's fair enough for a man to try and make you agree, I
suppose. It's not, well, I don't really know... I don't really care. You're
trying to rationalise something that's irrational. A woman knows when she's
been raped." Does the man?
Conley shook her head. "But I have to understand! At what
point does it become rape? If he makes you feel sorry for him? Or guilty?
If he bribes you? Pays you? Threatens you? Beats you? What if you won't
change your mind until he's actually in? Everything's rape! And I hate it!"
Roween averted her face. "Con... I know what you're saying.
In the Lowlands, they've extrapolated. If it's fine to talk a woman into a
mood change, then it's just as fine to drug her into it, or not even to bother.
Because everyone here is bubbling up on Bliss, the possibility that you
don't want to have your mood changed just doesn't enter into it." Does it
back home? Don't think about it...
Everything's rape. "That's why those guys were so persistent,
they just took everything we said as being mere conditions that we were
setting to enhance our pleasure. It never occurred to them that we just
didn't want anything to do with them." Everything's rape.
"I think we should drop this..."
Conley seemed to hear. "The thing is, if only they hadn't been
so damned polite. Near the end, I even got to thinking that maybe they had
a point." She paused, threw up her hands. "Can you believe that?"
"Leave it, Con, you're dwelling on it. It's bringing it back..."
"So why was I half-numb with fear? It was freakish, unreal...
"Let's go out, I feel a lot better now and we've lost today
anyway." She swung her legs over the bed, down to the floor.
Conley rose, sighing. "I should hate them. I do hate them. If
only they hadn't been so damned polite..."