The instant Sennary's com-2 glowed, he tapped in; kings do not
like having to wait, especially if you've inconvenienced them already.
Justan's face was impassive. "You'll appreciate, Lord Sennary, that although the Lowlands are now secured, and the leading traitors in my kingdom dead, neither matter is ended, and there remain significant demands upon my time. I trust, therefore, that what you have to tell me is important." He folded his arms.
Sennary grunted. "It's certainly that, sir, but I doubt whether the careerists who've been listening to my reports have had the wit to recognise the fact. Do they believe all your agents to be five-year-olds?"
He sighed. "Recently, I have been uncommonly busy, Lord Sennary, as I'm sure you are aware, and yet nevertheless you demanded to speak to me whatever I was doing. Despite your inexplicably acquired beliefs to the contrary, you do have my trust, and hence here I am. Now, presumably you didn't summon me merely to complain about my com-ops, so perhaps you would be kind enough to make your point?"
He flickered a cheek, inhaled, slowly, organised his thoughts. "I'm in Liagh Na Laerich, sir, and I have to tell you, it's huge." Voice calm, measured. "Not just big, I mean it's a really phenomenal size. Its area must be twenty times that of Cala, at the very least, and the buildings, they're so tall, so crowded together - I've never before seen anything like this density of housing, anywhere."
Justan's expression hadn't changed. "What you say confirms reports I have received from other sources: we may have underestimated the population of Elet."
"Not just `may', sir, we're definitely out - and by a more-than- considerable factor. There are ten million people live in this one city; as I told your com-ops, I've seen lines of people, thousand upon thousand, heading towards the border. They're armed, all of them, and, well, there's something about them, their attitude, I don't know what it is, they seem so..." he struggled, searching for the word. Edgy? No, they knew the fate that awaited them. Purposeful? No, no, there was something more... "So dangerous, sir."
"Dangerous." He nodded. "And yet they haven't harmed you..."
Sennary flinched, flushed. "There's something strange going on, yes - I feel like I've been allowed to get this far, to move unhindered as if under someone's protection. There are Elets around, but they keep away, distant, like maybe I'm carrying a plague."
"Perhaps they think you're Lord Porett... Tell me: where exactly are you?"
Sennary curled his lip, glanced to the side. "Well, I'm quite some way into the city, but it's like being in a forest. Every building is different, yet after a while they all look the same, and you can't see where to go because they're all so high, packed so close."
"Is there any chance that you can find Conley of Malith and Roween Sage before they..." He deliberately ended the sentence short.
Sennary shook his head. "I'm lost. There's a hill I sometimes catch a glimpse of, I've been making for that, might get a better view from the top. Thing is, I don't know what I'm looking for; all the direction signs are in Eletic and none are pictorial."
"You're still able to travel at night?"
"Well, yes, but without a city map... There's been snow here, and although it's melted at ground-level the rooftops are still coated; if the moon gets up, there should be light around, in which case I can make further progress. If it clouds over, though, well, I don't want to risk losing my only landmark."
"I'll ensure the skies remain clear." Justan rubbed his chin. "In view of what you've told me, Lord Sennary, I think it's imperative that you find the two women as soon as possible. I know it may be compared to seeking a single stalk of barley growing in a wheatfield, but I've had other reports of the size of the Eletic army and it may be that if our magics were knocked out then we could be in for a hideously long, protracted war."
"If we lost magic, sir, I fear any war would be very short indeed." He became conscious of the grimness in his voice.
"Then, Lord Sennary, it would be better if you succeeded in your mission." He moved to tap out.
"A moment, sir! My cousin - how is she?"
Justan smiled. "She isn't aware that she's a hostage. She was seconded to the magical support regiment, and appears to be enjoying her new position immensely. Of course, if magic was inoperative, she might not be quite so happy..."
"Has she figured out the gestures that operate the - "
"No, Sennary, she has not." He stretched. "Look, if you find Dr Conley before Lord Porett does, you won't have to worry that he might try to kill her, will you? And then, you won't feel that you have to kill him. Of course, if he's currently listening in on our conversation then he might think it wise to use his undoubted tag on your equipment to keep well ahead of your position... Now you must excuse me, I have a meeting." The image of his finger grew large as it approached, then Sennary's comsphere blanked out.
Justan, Ansle, Porett; Roween, Conley, Roenna; his loyalty, his honour, his honesty.
So many winds blowing from so many directions; if he didn't bend one way soon, he'd snap. But which way to go?
Sennary realised that he'd decided long ago.
21st January 1999: isif87.htm