Chenii-Imor was Conley's height, and her hair was a similar
shade of near-bleached fair. It was coarser, however, and although she
wore it long, she braided two intricate plaits beside each temple. Freckles
flecked her nose, which turned up slightly at the end, and her wide mouth
looked designed for smiling.
She wasn't smiling as she entered Conley's room, but she didn't
look exactly worried, either. Just nodded politely as Conley closed the door
behind her, and looked for somewhere to sit. The bed was covered in
Conley's travelling gear, so she leaned against the table.
"So what's this about, Chenii-Imor? Why have you come to me
first instead of Roween?"
"My father, Maedregh, he is dead." Her accent was more
melodious than Maetharach's - or Medreph's, come to that. "Probably. His
comsphere, it's not responding, and he was carrying several hundred more
in his wagons." She rotated the plain, silver ring that she wore on her little
Conley felt she ought to say something consoling, yet Chenii-
Imor didn't seem to be asking for it. What did she want, then? "I'm sorry
to hear that, Chenii-Imor."
"His death, it will make your task in Liagh Na Laerich more
difficult, that's true, but Lauthil or I will accompany you instead."
"That's, well, if you say so..." Strange priorities. "But why are
you telling me on my own? Does Roween already know? Is Lauthil
speaking to her at the moment?"
"How will Roween react to this news?" She stood straight a
moment, tugged down on her smock so it didn't dig where she was stand-
"Well, she'll be upset, naturally. Medreph was a good friend of
hers, he pretty well saved her life four or five years ago."
"And she's relying heavily on his being here, it's an important
point in her plans?"
"Yes, of course, that too, but it'll cut her up bad anyway."
She rose. "You tell her. I will wait downstairs." She walked
back towards the door before Conley could put words to protestations.
* * *
Roween took longer to calm than Conley had foreseen.
Although Maetharach's behaviour had hinted at what was to come, it didn't
seem to lessen the impact to any evident extent. At first, it was like she'd
been chopped with a hatchet: an instant of stunned, disbelieving confusion,
followed by the enormity, the pain pouring in. Later, she'd become
coherent, still broken though, shaking all the time. Conley wondered if,
had someone offered Ro a sprinkle of Bliss right then, maybe she'd have
All the while, nobody came to give help. Roween cried her
little eyes empty, and yet there was no-one Conley could even call on for a
glass of water, let alone for support or kindness. She was on her own here,
alien in a hostile land, her best friend distraught and in some need of
comfort, companionship, yet only she was willing to provide it, no-one else
was interested, not even slightly. Elet was a callous place.
After an hour or so, a thin guy with a droopy moustache
introduced himself in Eletic as Lauthil, and bade them follow him down to
* * *
"You see how the houses are different from in Suadh Varl Na,"
Roween said, trying to sound informative. "They use that same greystone
all over Elet, but they put it together different. Sometimes the blocks are
assorted sizes, or rounded, or flat, and in the capital they have chisel marks
so you can tell which district you're in." Her face was still red.
Lauthil was doing the driving, sat outside, on top. Conley
looked out of the window, her eyes following the meander of the road
down through the fields to the town that ran lengthways along the valley
floor. "I thought Elet was a plateau."
"It is, yes, but it's not table-flat, it's just raised above the
surrounding lands." She sighed. Chenii-Imor squirmed.
"She's still a bit upset," Conley offered, Roween staring
resolutely out across the hillside, knuckles to her mouth.
"So I see. I'm ... sorry." The words came awkwardly to
Chenii-Imor. The language?
Conley chastised herself. Of course, she'll be real cut through
inside, too, and with a pair of her father's foreign friends dumped on her it
wouldn't make kicking her own grief any easier. She must think we're total
stroppies. "That's nice of you, Chenii-Imor," she said. Chummy her up.
"Do people call you `Chenii' for short?"
Puzzled. "Do people call you `Con'?" A shrug.
"Yes, Roween does. I call her `Ro'."
"Oh," surprised. "No, people don't call me `Chenii', not for
* * *
Lauthil had stopped their vehicle at a sign reading `Buagh Suth
Na', and had attached a strange, leather contraption to the back of the
horses. Conley couldn't see it fully, guessed it was to catch the dung.
While they'd been waiting as he did it, she'd watched a shepherd leave the
city along a muck-road parallel to the flagstoned one she expected Lauthil
to take. So that's how come Eletic thoroughfares were so damn clean...
That had been, what, five minutes ago? And no-one had spoken
since. Chenii-Imor had sunk back in the seat, withdrawn in private
thoughts; Roween stared vacantly out of the window, watching the people
watching her. After a period of looking from one to the other, and getting
no response, Conley capitulated and let her eyes drift to the townscape.
She could read some of the signs on the shops. Bread, books,
brooms, feed. She fingered the pieces of printed paper in her pocket, given
her by Maetharach in payment for their horses. Whether he'd bought them
for himself or for someone else, she didn't know, and neither had she any
idea of the value the notes represented. Roween would tell her, when she
came out of her shock. She wallows too long in her emotions sometimes,
Oh that's what was wrong with the shopsigns! No pictures!
They just had words, describing the products. Maybe what the owners are
called, too. Everywhere else in the world, shops have big, swinging boards
with drawings on them, depicting their wares. Must be everyone in Elet can
"Chenii-Imor," it was Roween who suddenly spoke, "these
people are readying themselves for war."
"Justan, he means well." She wrapped one of her braids round
a finger. "He has long understood the problems of your technology-driven
society, and has taken the only path he could see that might keep it from
flipping into either lawless anarchy or lawful repression."
"But he's finally stepped too far for the Elets, I know... So
what are they going to do?"
Conley expected Chenii-Imor to avert her eyes, but she didn't,
she left them trained on Roween. "Kill."
"Even if we can put out magic forever?"
"There was support for your argument, but insufficient. When
Justan attacks the Lowlands, the Elets, they will slaughter. We expect it
will start within the week."
Roween returned to the window. "Your father lost the
argument, then... How many will die as a consequence?"
"Do the numbers matter? Anyone who opposes us; anyone who
might oppose us."
"And if we do succeed, if we do destroy magic, you'll still
"We will eliminate the threat. If there is a cheaper way to do
so, we will consider it. Sane people, they do not want to die."
There were tears in Roween's eyes. "None of this was supposed
* * *
"You know, Ro, in a way I can see why they're doing it. The
Elets, I mean. The situation will only get worse, and over the years many
more people could be put to death if no-one intervenes now to set
everything to rights."
"Over the centuries... If only Medreph hadn't - " She sighed,
wandered to the window. "Well, perhaps things would have worked out
otherwise. We'll have to make the best of it. I've said to Chenii-Imor that
we'll wait here for her father until Justan attacks. If he's not arrived by
then, we'll go on to Liagh Na Laerich without him."
"When did you tell her that?"
"While we were getting out of the carriage. She'll speak to
Lauthil about it."
"They seem sure Medreph's dead. I heard them downstairs, I
couldn't make out much but they kept saying `dead' and `death' - I picked
those words up from Ihann's medical writings."
"Yes, Medreph's gone I guess, and even if he's alive he's lost
the caravan." She looked outside.
"So why do we wait for him? There's still time to get to Liagh
Na Laerich and try douse magic before Justan invades Seesel."
"It won't make any difference, he'll attack whether he has
magic or not. He's even expecting to lose it on a local scale, probably
would like it to pack up completely just as much as I do. It's the source of
all his woes."
"How can you be sure of that?"
"I read yesterday's warfare:predictions summary. Take a look
later, it's in my bag somewhere. Doesn't matter anyway, the Elets will
attack eventually even if Justan keeps off the Lowlands, I told you. He's
threatened them, and his empire can only grow stronger unless something is
done about it. I just wish it wasn't going to be so bloody."
"I still don't see why we have to stay here. So what if it won't
make any difference? I'd rather get it over with as soon as possible, we've
come all this way. Life, if we leave it too long I might not remember
enough magic to cast that `last spell' - I had trouble recalling Chewt-Farmer
"We're staying because, even if it's not so likely, Medreph
might yet appear. I don't want to leave him behind, I'm his friend."
"Chenii-Imor doesn't mind, and she's his daughter!"
Roween sat on the sill, looked back at Conley. "Medreph has
eight children, but only one friend."
* * *
`Downstairs' was a bookshop, Chenii-Imor's. She'd had to
close it today, of course, but had let Roween and Conley look around while
she and Lauthil went off to see some people.
Roween became absorbed as soon as she saw the long, ceiling-
high shelves, bowed under the weight of hundreds of old tomes. The smell
seemed to calm her, too, like it reminded her of youthful days in the
Academy library, struggling to turn enormous, dusty pages, eager to read
the exotic stream of words from fabulous, faraway lands.
Conley was less awed, but she was nonetheless impressed that
there was enough interest, even in a town the apparent size of this one, to
support a shop that only sold second-hand and antique books. She sauntered
between the gloomy shelves, lit dimly by a small spell she'd thrown on her
hair. Seeing a name she recognised, she pulled out the volume that bore it,
looked to the inside cover.
Now that was odd... "Roween?" she shouted, unsure of her
"What is it, Con?"
"There's a book here by Nuagh Casii, she's signed it."
"Signed it? Wait a moment, let me have a look." She appeared
at the end of the row of shelves.
"She also dated it. That's something I've noticed before, none
of these books ever have a publication date on them."
"True, I don't know why it's so, just is. Let me see..." She
held her candle to the side, used Conley's glow. "That's real neat, I've
never seen her signature before, the Elets don't go for autographs. What's
it say?" She translated, "You, Reelf, and a person, Casii, and makes first
"What's that in plain Estavian?"
"Er, Reelf makes Casii a person? What is this book, anyway?"
She looked at the front cover. "`The Past of an Imaginary Land', yes,
that's one of her early ones, I've read it."
"No, look at the date, Ro." Conley re-opened it, pointed to the
fading ink. "When's now in Elet?"
"I don't know exactly, let me think, they're 340 ahead of us,
and they start their year on Mid-Summer's Day, so it'll be 2136. Oh."
Conley closed the book, held it cross-armed to her chest.
"That's what I thought, there was something about dates in that guide you
gave me in Bridges. So, Nuagh Casii wrote these words," she peeked
again, "a hundred and seventy-six years ago?"
* * *
"Lauthil, he won't be coming," Chenii-Imor announced. "You
only need one of us, and he doesn't speak your language."
"He'd rather be out killing Muraks," Roween muttered. Chenii-
Imor looked at her, deadpan, said nothing.
"Roween wants to wait until Justan attacks before we leave,"
Conley hurried. "I'd personally rather we went as soon as possible."
"The roads, they will be busy soon. I, too, think we should
"Or wait even longer," Roween added, "when the whole of the
country is empty."
Conley was about to chide her, but Chenii-Imor shot her a
warning glance. "Every moment's delay in destroying magic, it means
more Elets will die," said slowly. "Besides, you are in danger here. There
is word that Justan is sending someone to apprehend you. There is proof
that Lord Porett is also organising a mercenary unit."
"Lord Porett? Since when has he been a - "
"Who is Justan sending?" interrupted Roween, suddenly
"The biograph:foreign:Justan net suggested perhaps an ac-
quaintance of yours..." She twiddled with her ring, almost nervously.
"Sennary." She bit her bottom lip. "He'll be stopped - "
Chenii-Imor's steady gaze told her the truth of it. "Killed, then. Unless, of
course, we were to do away with magic before he was captured, then he'd
abort his mission. That's cute, Chenii-Imor. Nice pressure."
"Don't let what they'll do to Sennary get to you, Ro, not on my
account." Why's she glaring at me like that?
"It wasn't meant that way, Roween, I assure you. It's just that
the longer you wait here, the greater the risk that someone undesirable will
find you, that is all. We weren't twisting you." She smiled, wide,
encouragingly, her nose wrinkling involuntarily, freckles frolicking."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't snick me up, would you? Where were
you last night?"
"Nnn? Last night? I told you: Lauthil and I went to hear the
bulletin in Rhudhan Peltheach - Rhudhan Square, I mean."
"Both of you? Leaving us here alone?"
"You were safe, you knew not to go outside."
"Safe, yes, but bored. Thoughtful of you to let us wander
around your shop, where I was certain to find, eventually, a certain book
by my favourite writer."
"You did? You can have it if you like. I don't see why you're
so, er..." She looked to Conley, confused; what was the word she wanted?
"Well this book by Nuagh Casii bears a written dedication from
her to some Lowlander type, and it's dated like she'd have to be two
hundred years old."
Chenii-Imor's brows lowered, disbelief. "What? Two, but, one
of my books? Which one? Can I see it?" "It's a good act, Chenii-Imor;
indeed, your surprise might even be genuine. It doesn't matter. Some Elet,
aware of where we'd look if left unattended in your shop, decided to plant
an old book faked up to hint like there's some kind of longevity out in Elet.
Hot, it was a good forgery, too; I know the look of centuried texts, the way
the paper goes, and that pen ink fitted the aging perfect."
Chenii-Imor wasn't flustered exactly, but she was strugglingly
baffled by something. "I'm not sure, let me see the book. Why would
"There are hundreds of thousands of books and writings in the
library at Liagh Na Laerich. If people in Elet can live to age two hundred,
there'll be something about it there. Wanting to find that information might
be a powerful incentive to visit the place. If you can't bribe someone with
money, longevity is a fair alternative."
"Sounds tenuous to me," Conley scorned. "You're young,
anyway, you have plenty of time to search. Why the haste at your time of
Roween closed her eyes. "I'd want it for my Da, Con..."
Chenii-Imor shook her head, in a sad kind of way. "You're set
on this, Sage Roween. If I'd wanted to push you to Liagh Na Laerich, then
I'd have told you that Maedregh was definitely dead, not merely probably
so. Why the need for an elaborate plot? However, it is obvious that nothing
I can say will convince you that this isn't an intrigue, so I shall go now,
and find a way to satisfy myself that this dating, it has a non-conspiratorial
explanation. Do as you wish while I am absent." She took a pencil from
her desk, wrote a line in Estavian, left.
Conley reached over, picked up the paper, passed it to Roween.
It read: "If the spring of emotion overflows, channel it into the sea of
trust." A popular quote from `The Past of an Imaginary Land'.
* * *
The crystal of Chenii-Imor's comsphere was tinted a pale, rose
pink. It was a special edition, then, and therefore a Porett Technologies
original rather than a black-fac copy. That meant it had been tapped against
the spheres in the Cala exchange.
Roween looked up from the desk, furtive. Life, this was taking
some time! Conley was stuck in a picture-book she'd found, but she'd tire
of it eventually. Why didn't he answer?
She saw a huge hand part-enclose the com-1 she'd called, and
another bringing close a second sphere. In it was imaged Sennary's face.
The two glass balls touched.
"Roween! Why in hell are you calling?"
Gods, she got this rush when he said her name! "Lord Sennary,
I don't have much time," half-whispered, "look, I have to warn you, the
Elets know you're coming after us. Please, please don't do it, they'll kill
"There's a risk, yes, but - "
"No!" Too loud! Quiet, stupid woman! "Go away, a long way
away, take a boat to Panavia. If they find you, the Elets, you're dead."
"They won't find me."
"You don't understand!" How could he be so brainless? "There
are millions of them, they'll swat Justan, anyone with any authority.
They'll be all over the Empire. Sennary, please! I don't want you to die!
Not you too." She felt her tears beginning.
"Are you feeling alright, Roween?" Is he concerned? "Look,
no-one is going to kill me, don't worry. I'm giving up on Justan, Ansle,
everybody, going back to my farm. I was supposed to leave for Elet
yesterday, but this war has got too dirty for me, too ignoble. The King's
loss of trust, that's hardest to stomach. So I'm heading east instead, opting
civilian while my dignity is still intact. I'll probably be gaoled for it,
although the anguish ought to be plenty punishment." He grimaced.
"You're the first to know."
Her eyes opened wide. "Really? Oh Sennary, that's, that's
marvellous! If you came into Elet, they'd just..." She smiled, so happy,
cheeks salty-wet, then remembered something. "Don't let Porett wheedle
you into joining him!"
He frowned. "Porett is in Trilith, he isn't going anywhere near
"No, he is, the Elets have found out. He's set up a force of
mercenaries in the Lowlands, good ones. He might try recruit you."
"Are you sure about that? Ansle said something about a pair of
transporters, but I thought he was lying; claimed he'd called a comsphere
on one of them, but it would have been engaged, permanently opened to the
sphere on the other one, like those hidden, low-light security globes they
use to monitor places."
She dawdled, could have spent hours listening to that voice...
"I'm certain Porett will try and reach us, yes. But he'll be prevented, the
Elets will - "
"Are you in Elet now?" She nodded, looked up to the door
again. "This changes things. Do they know you're talking to me?"
"No, and I know I shouldn't, but I had to call you, I'm just so
sc-scared, damn Sennary, I'm - " She glanced back to the door. "Listen,
I'm going to have to tap out, I think I can hear Conley..."
"She doesn't know either? Quick, give me something on your
sphere, so I can call you back. They'll need a key to identify it at the
She tapped out. Conley opened the door, hands in pockets, saw
the comsphere. "Who've you been calling?"
"Do you want to speak to your father?"
"Of course not." She approached the desk, lazily. "So, who did
you call?" leaned over, looming, using her height.
Roween gulped. "Sennary."
A moment of silence. Then, near yelled, "Sennary?! What? Did
you tell him where we are?"
"Yes, well, not in detail, I - "
"He's coming after us!" She banged on the desk. "Hot, Ro,
he's going to try kill us and you told him, you actually told him where we
"I didn't, he's not, I, stop it, you're confusing me!" She held
her head. "He isn't coming, he's going back to his farm, he told me."
"And you believed him? What happened to all that paranoia?"
"I believed him, well, I don't know, he might have changed his
mind, I said about Porett and... Oh damn no..." She covered her face with
Conley controlled her anger, just. "You mean if you hadn't
mentioned Porett, Sennary would have left us alone, but now you have
done, he's coming?"
"Gods, Con, what have I done? Why am I such an idiot?" He
doesn't even like me...
* * *
When she returned, Chenii-Imor was beaming a grin of melon-
slice proportions. How old would she be, Conley mused. Early twenties?
Late teens? She noted the ring on her little finger. Roween had told her the
Elets wore rings to advertise for mates, whereas the eastern custom was the
exact opposite - wear a ring when you're married. So Chenii-Imor was
single. Early twenties...
"Well," she announced, "I found out what happened. I have no
evidence, so you wouldn't believe me were I to explain it to you, but at
least my own curiosity, it is patched."
"Let's hear anyway," Roween sighed.
She took off her jacket, didn't sit down. "I spoke to Nuagh
Casii, got a priority through to her. She's really clear, direct, a fine mind.
She certainly remembers signing the book for Reelf, and would like to own
it. I'll send it her."
"And the date?" Conley's interest was sufficiently awakened.
"It's not a date, it's a temperature. Reelf was an artist with
whom Nuagh Casii had an encounter, and - "
She hesitated, then smiled. "That's a better word, yes. 1,960
thermals is the temperature at which diamonds turn into graphite."
"Diamonds turn into what? I don't know what you mean."
Roween answered, wearily. "Apparently, if you heat up a
diamond in an oven, it'll turn into like charcoal. Apparently, 1,960 Eletic
thermals is when it happens. Apparently..."
"1,960 thermals - what's that in degrees? I know water freezes
at 0 like for us, but what's blood temperature? It's not 100."
"Oh 1,960 will be right, near enough. They're very
"So why would Nuagh Casii write that to her lover?"
Chenii-Imor tipped her head forward, still looked at Conley.
"Artists use graphite as the base to mix up black oils for painting. Nuagh
Casii, Black Cassie, do you follow?"
Conley groaned. "That's so convoluted..."
Roween sneered to herself.