It was growing dark when they reached the outskirts of Suadh
Varl Na, yet everywhere was alive with people. Some carried wood, others
pushed handcarts loaded with stone. Groups surrounded speakers,
dispersing in all directions at the communiqué's end. And in everyone's
actions, young or old, there was an urgency and single-mindedness that
Conley couldn't fail but notice.
Roween had warned her what to expect, explained earlier while
they were following the trade road round the feet of granite cliffs, prior to
the two-hour ascent into Elet. She still felt terribly unprepared, though,
uneasy. From somewhere came the smell of food cooking; she was
suddenly hungry, but knew to be patient, reined in alongside Roween,
A woman approached, young, tall, freckled, her red hair a
flame, kindled by the rays of the setting sun. She looked from Conley to
Roween, back. "Laegiala sov caigiala na."
"Yae. Laegiala laeRoa-iin, begiala laeConli."
"LaeGuenadhan," she replied, without enthusiasm. She turned,
began to walk towards the lights that were glowing in the centre of the
"Better dismount," Roween advised, sliding to the ground with
something of an effort. Conley obeyed, her action smooth, contrasting.
Roween nodded towards the Eletic woman. "Her name's Gwenathan, she
wants us to follow her."
"I know that," irritated. The woman was some way ahead of
them already, but hadn't once looked back. They strode quickly, caught her
"I put the `be' in `begiala' because the dialect down here still
uses it. Further north, around Liagh Na Laerich, it's omitted."
"Ihann told me."
People were looking at them now; not gawping, just registering
enough to satisfy their interest, perhaps their admiration, carrying on
immediately with whatever they were doing. Roween kept her eyes on
Gwenathan, but Conley was scanning around, her nerves growing tauter
each time she met someone's gaze.
"This is bizarre, Ro, I feel like everyone's hostile, spying on
us - acting like we're not here, but secretly marking us for later."
"I'd say you're probably right, Con."
She didn't know whether that was good or bad. "This teen
we're following, is she a gatewatch?"
"No, just someone who happened to be around. She's taking us
to the Strangers' Office, the `Margh dha na Raetron'."
"Yes, Strangers' Office, you mentioned it this morning when
we..." She scowled. "Hold on, I thought `raetron' meant `pain', not
"It means both."
* * *
Gwenathan led them to a two-storey building of the same, grey
stone that characterised the rest of the village. Inside, the walls were
whitewashed, the furnishings pleasant yet functional. An older man greeted
them, taller than Conley, but merely average among the Elets. He wore a
thick, ruddy beard, as if to compensate for the few straggling lengths of
strandy grey hair that lay miserably on his scalp. He smiled, friendly,
gestured to a comfy-looking bench upholstered in green twill. "I am
Maetharach, the Strangers' Officer of Suadh Varl Na. You would like to sit
Together, Roween and Conley collapsed on the inviting settle.
Without asking whether they were thirsty, he began to pour
beverages from an urn which was steaming in the corner. "You have
travelled far?" he asked, not glancing up.
"From Zoderdhua today, but originally Cala, Murak." It was
Roween who replied, not that Conley objected.
"A long journey," he handed her a silver cup. "You've visited
"I have, yes, but it's my friend's first time."
He passed Conley her drink, poured some for himself into a
sizeable, worn, pewter mug. "And what are your thoughts of Elet thus far,
Conley widened her eyes, caught unawares, sniffed at her drink
to buy time. Coffee? "Well," she fought for an answer. "I'm surprised how
clean it is, sir."
He flickered a frown, looked to Roween for explanation,
blushed. "We have a dust problem, the prevailing wind..."
Roween noticed, laughed. "No, Officer, she's never seen
anywhere else in Elet. She meant it as a complement, she really does think
the streets are tidy. They're far superior to those of Cala, Rhiev, Elbienau,
Bridges - even if they're poor by Eletic standards."
He smiled again, understood. Conley just looked at her in
"So if you've visited Elet before, dark one, you are acquainted
with our procedures?"
"I was chaperoned all the time," answered Roween, "but I
know this is a holding house, and we should wait here until our contacts
can be reached."
"That is correct," he sipped at his coffee. "You are
"Yes," said Roween. "You'll need our names..."
"I have them, Guenadhan signed you in. There's still time to
put you on the biograph:foreign list, tonight's net-coach is leaving late."
"Biograph? No, you'll be drowned. Ask a local taker for
details, put us instead on magic:technical and warfare:plans:progress."
He stared, like he was looking through her, thinking, assessing
the chances of her being a liar. He took another sip from his mug,
swallowed it after a pause. "By default now, the whole warfare:plans net, it
grants a raised profile. I should subdue your message?"
"Query it, let the moderators in Liagh Na Laerich decide."
He considered. "No, I'll subdue it. If I personally don't know
who you are, most of the other takers won't either. Who is your contact
"Maedregh, he may not be here yet. He's the father of Lauthil
and Chenii-Imor. If he has arrived, he'll be staying with them."
"I know of Maedregh. Lauthil's father? That I didn't know. I'll
send for him."