Conley knew the answer before she asked. "What's that behind
your back, Roween?"
Her eyes were wide, her mouth open. "Nothing, Con,"
attempted smile, "you found some hay, then?"
"There's a salt dump just down the road, we can cadge some
from there. What are you hiding?"
"Hiding?" She held out her hands, hopeful. "Empty, see?"
Conley looked down for a moment, then back to Roween. "If
you want to act like a child, then I'll have to treat you like I would a
child." She clambered into the caravan, glaring.
"No, I'll show you!" She reached into the folded blankets
behind, rummaged for the comsphere.
Conley stood over her, hands on hips, sighed. "What are we
going to do with you, Ro? Sennary again?"
She nodded. "I didn't get through, Con, I swear it, but - "
She was shaking her head. "I don't understand you, Roween.
You set up this whole elaborate scam, trick me into traipsing across half the
continent with you, you have a whole nation relying on the outcome of
your plans, and yet you jeopardise it all by secretly speaking to the enemy!"
"Sennary's not the enemy, he's..."
Smiled, sarcastic. "He's what, Roween?"
Her face was red. "I just don't want him killed, that's all."
Conley laughed. "He's making a fool of you, Ro! He's flashing
you fake signals, and you're reading them as true!" Can't she see?
"He's not, he's, I need to believe - "
Oh damn... "Ro, look; you've not had much experience with
men, have you?" She crouched down, next to her. "You've got a crush on
Sennary, and he's playing you along because it suits his purposes. He's far
too mature to - "
She shook her head. "No, no, it's not like that, I know he
doesn't love me or anything, but... oh I don't know, I just feel I have to
see him, I..." She looked so small.
Conley put an arm around her shoulders. "Why's that, Ro?"
She felt so awkward doing this kind of mothering stuff.
"I need... I need to feel wanted, Con. Not just wanted, wanted,
if you see. Those," she swallowed, hard, "bastards in Zoderdhua, they
were everything I always dreaded, they were just, if they'd, oh Con!" She
buried her head in Conley's shoulder, sudden, wept.
Conley let her sob awhile. She recalled her own feelings
vividly, the outrage, the anger, the strange need to understand. Roween had
seemed indifferent the next morning, even to her having been hit, like it
was all a not-particularly-interesting story she'd read in a fortnight-old
newspaper. Conley, though, was driven by a desire to know: why they'd
acted that way, what had caused it, what they'd wanted. If she hadn't been
able to rationalise it all, she'd have unhinged.
Roween bore scars that weren't so quickly healed.
* * *
"You feeling better now, Ro?"
"Lots, thanks Con." She nibbled her bottom lip. "What did
Chenii-Imor say? She must think I'm..." She let her words die.
"I tried to explain, but she wasn't bothered, said your emotions
were your own affair, and that if you'd decided to surface them then you
must have had your own good reasons."
Roween looked over to the Elet girl's back, long hair
disappearing behind the scarf around her neck. "She's never travelled,
doesn't quite appreciate the extent to which we're different. She's not a
"She speaks Estavian..." Conley lowered her voice further.
"How do you think she'd have handled Zoderdhua? Could something like
that happen in Elet?"
Roween shrugged. "Same as me, killed the lot of them, one
way or another. When they attacked, most likely - or maybe she'd have
switched herself off during it, got them individually later."
"Switched herself off..? You make emotions sound like tap
"We all do it at times, Con, just with the Elets the pressure
never seems to get so high that it ever forces open a valve. Take me, for
example: I've lived with the fact I'm unattractive for years, would probably
have stood it forever if it hadn't been for those Lowlanders. It wouldn't
have come out in an Elet, though, whatever the provocation."
Conley raised an eyebrow, slowly. "Now come on, Ro, you
know you're not bad looking. You may like to use those eyes of yours as
an excuse, but - "
"Oh I'm not bothered about my eyes. Well, I guess I am, but I
know there are men out there who aren't - my grandmother had a lazy eye,
and she had suitors, some. It's just, well, I'm boring, Con. Uninteresting.
Men like women who listen, not ones who argue; women with a sense of
fun, not drab introverts; they want a woman who knows about life, not a
self-taught academic who lives in books. No man would want me for who I
am, just for what I am - a woman: a human being with certain basic
physical characteristics that a man can find entertaining for fifteen minutes.
That's my lot. I see it, now, those Lowlanders made it so explicit." She
grimaced. "I'm a book with coffee spilled on the cover that you might use
if all you wanted to do was show a friend what print looked like, but that
no-one would ever read more than a few pages of before looking for one
that's more interesting. Prior to Zoderdhua, I still had hope. Now, I realise
the truth of it: any man who wanted me would be equally satisfied by any
other convenient woman."
Conley was nodding. Roween was wrong, she felt sure of that,
but she was also stable now, had found her own way to explain what had
happened that evening. Although... "Yet you see Sennary as the exception
here? The one man who is attracted to the real Roween, not the generic
"Saw, Con. I was trying to recapture some of my hope, I guess,
but not any more. I'm wasting my time."
* * *
"That junction ahead," called back Chenii-Imor, "it's where we
meet the coast road of Liagh Na Laerich."
Conley scrambled forward. "Coast road?"
Roween joined her. "She means like the belt road that circles
Rhiev. If Liagh Na Laerich is metaphorically an island in the lake that is
Elet, this road is its coast. Inside, Liagh Na Laerich; outside, the rest of
"I see. So this is where we have to give up the caravan?"
"They won't have cleared the roads in the city, Con, we'll
make better progress on horseback."
Conley was shading her eyes from the glare of the sun
reflecting off snow-covered rooftops in the distance. "And someone else
could make better use of the wagon, yes..." She frowned. "Tell me,
Roween, is what we're doing important?"
Roween spluttered. "What a question! Of course it is! Millions
of lives depend on our success! The Elets are relying on us!"
"So why haven't they organised things better? We weren't
expected at Suadh Varl Na, poor old Chenii-Imor here was coerced into
taking us to the capital, there's no official escort, we plod along in a little
cart, we have to stop at nights, and there isn't a snow-free road between
here and the library. We could have been there days ago if we'd been given
more help, and this business of swapping a caravan for three horses
wouldn't then even have arisen."
"I know what you mean, Con, but it's just the way they do
things here, it's hard to make a group of Elets work on a task because
they're all independents, they - "
"Not so," interrupted Chenii-Imor. "All Elets, they know that
magic is going to be destroyed. Anyone with an interest in the subject will
also know that you two are the ones who will bring about its destruction,
but they don't know how it will happen, nor where, nor exactly when."
"Ordinarily, I could have asked for the details, but there's a
block on them. That's serious: it means that the information is so sensitive
that no risk can be taken of its being acquired by the wrong people. I have
to take it on trust."
Conley rubbed her temple. "You're saying that you don't know
anything specific about what we plan to do?"
"All I have been told that Elets in general have not is that you
need to reach the library in Liagh Na Laerich. I guessed as much anyway -
I think most magic:technical takers have. When we arrive there, I'll leave.
I'll go westward, to avoid capture - I don't want to violate the block
Conley looked at her in amazement.
"Chenii-Imor," said Roween, "I've never heard of such
information blocks before. How often are they imposed?"
"This is the first one I've ever known."
* * *
Conley was staggered by the size of Liagh Na Laerich. They'd
ridden for two hours before stopping; not at great speed, of course, but at a
trot nevertheless, and in all that time there hadn't been more than just a
small park that didn't have something built on it. Everywhere were houses,
shops, small factories, all huggled together close, most several storeys high,
and always built from uniformally-carved two-brick sized blocks of granite.
They'd passed a huge stadium at one point, and further along there was a
tall, domed structure that Chenii-Imor said probably had a pool in it.
Further along there'd been a maze of a construction, set in the middle of a
square, with greybrick, bookcase-like shelves covered in small, snow-
covered terracotta jars that Roween told her contained the ashes of the dead.
It occurred to Conley then that she hadn't noticed anything yet that might
have been a church or a temple.
They'd met few people, but the city wasn't entirely depopu-
lated. They'd been stopped a couple of times by locals asking if they knew
that this was a walking road, and that the horse and livestock road was
through there. Chenii-Imor had replied that they were looking for
somewhere safe to stay, and that seemed to be an acceptable response.
And such a place was where they were now. When it had grown
dark, they'd pulled up outside a big house, Chenii-Imor had just opened the
door, shouted to find out if anyone was home, and then simply walked in
when satisfied that the place was empty. They took the horses round the
back to the stable block shared with adjacent houses, and returned to choose
their rooms. Conley's was on the first floor.
Roween entered. "Settled, Con?"
She gave an exaggerated shiver. "I'd have preferred it if
Chenii-Imor had lit the boiler, I'm going to have to flick a bodywarmer
"She said that there's no fuel. I imagine they need it for the
"We could chop up a chair or something... Anyway, why do
they need logs for fighting?"
Roween shrugged. "I think it's so they can attack walled cities.
They build these catapults; they light big fires in the pans, then lob them
over the ramparts and onto the houses."
Conley frowned, disbelieving. "Incendiaries are no way to take
a town, Ro. You have to make sure that the folk inside can put out the
flames, because if they can't then there's not going to be anything left to
capture after the resulting conflagration."
"I know that, I told you myself!" She began a grin, dropped it.
"But remember, the Elets don't want to conquer, Con, just to kill. It
doesn't matter to them if they raze a city flat, so long as the occupants are
Conley snorted in incredulity. "Are you sure we're on the right
side in this war, Ro?"
I made a deal... "It's not important at this stage, Con. All we
need concern ourselves with is the permanent removal of magic, as quickly
as possible. If there's an information block in force, that means the
moderators are real worried; we ought to waste no time."
Conley sat on the bed; it felt slightly damp. "See if I understand
this: Elet has like hundreds of magazines, all covering different topics.
Anyone can send something to whatever magazine they like, and the
moderators are the editors who decide what goes in and what stays out.
"Well, there's a lot of overlap between topics, and they can be
divided indefinitely into subtopics as well, and the moderators are also the
owners of their networks, and the magazines mostly come out daily, but the
analogy is otherwise accurate, yes."
"And there's a block on the details of what we're going to do
because the moderators feel that if copies of their magazines were to be
read by the `wrong' people, there could be nasty repercussions?"
Roween flustered. "Well I don't know exactly why there's a
block, but you can be sure there's a very good reason." Hot, what if she
guesses who counts as `wrong'?
Conley folded her arms, thought a moment. "Maybe someone
else is close to figuring true magic. Porett, Magicorp, my father... Could
be there's even an Elet who wants to be a god."
Missed! "Well you could be right there, Con. `God' is the
wrong word, though - it's too weak. When the time comes, when you can
use true magic, what you'll have is nothing short of absolute, complete
power. Gods can't strip people of free will, but to you that would require
little more than fleeting fancy. And it's yours until you relinquish it, no-one
else can touch it. I can well understand why the moderators don't want that
kind of information known." Or the rest.
"So almost all Elets have no idea what happens next. I assume
you'll eventually get round to telling me, though?"
Roween tugged at her ear. "Well, there's not much to say,
really. We get to the library, Chenii-Imor leaves us, and we make for the
collection of magically-bound books. We take a couple of them for
practising with, and start to awaken your dormant sense of magic detection.
That might take a few days, but I can help you, I went through the process
myself. When you can smell magic strongly, you enter the bound-book
room alone, wait until you pulse your reflex, and then - well, then you
have the power to do anything."
"Something's going to go wrong, I just know it..."
* * *
Breakfast, scrambled eggs on bread. Roween was still asleep, or
if she wasn't then it didn't matter, Conley had the comsphere.
"Thanks, Chenii," she said, accepting her plate.
The Elet hesitated, studied her face. "I am called Chenii-Imor,
Conley. Why did refer to me as Chenii?"
Conley opened a hand. "It's a strange culture that doesn't have
Chenii-Imor smiled, widely. "Names! Now I understand! But I
thought that your philosophy judged them important? Yet you halved
"It's something we do sometimes; it means we like someone."
She nodded. "A custom. Is it true that in your lands there are
separate names for men and women?"
If Conley hadn't had a mouth full of egg, her surprise might
have been more apparent. As it was, she managed to swallow; when she
spoke she sounded almost casual. "So there are men in Elet called Chenii-
"There aren't men in Murak called Conley?"
She merely shook her head; nobody with a brain gets into
cultural debates this early in the morning. "Well then, you're heading west
when we arrive at the library? Have you been in those parts before?"
Chenii-Imor was suddenly animated, her voice even more up-
and-down than usual. "Oh, no Conley, it'll be my first time out of Elet,
I'm really looking forward to it. There's a ruined Nayal city on the shore of
one of the blue lakes, and tribes of Nachatee roam the plains with their
herds. It'll be wonderfully exciting!"
She grunted, swallowed again. "So it's not all bad, your having
to chaperone Roween and I, then. At least it gives you the excuse to
explore some of the world after you're rid of us."
She wrinkled her nose. "I didn't have to come with you, that's
true - I don't have to do anything. If I'd mainly wanted to go east, I could
have risked just putting a notice on you like I did for Lord Sennary, but I
decided that since you didn't know the way - ". She stopped, frowned.
"Are you alright, Conley?"
She was half choking, eyes watering, took a drink, recovered.
"You did what to Sennary?" creaky.
Chenii-Imor was instantly wary. "Roween, she asked me to. I
put a safety notice on him, he won't be bothered by Elets for the next five
days. She said it was vital."
Stupid girl! She was about to thump the table, stayed herself.
No, calm yourself, Conley, she has an excuse. "She did this two days ago,
Chenii-Imor nodded, once. "Early morning. I should have
referred it to biograph:foreign for assessment?"
"Is the notice reversible?"
"Under normal circumstances, yes, but to do so now would be
difficult; the moderators, they left Liagh Na Laerich yesterday. Until this is
all over, communication over distance will be slow and patchy. If we knew
roughly where he was, we could - "
"No, forget it. We'll just have to be on our guard, that's all.
And hope he doesn't have a map."