Conley just had to smile when she saw Roween. She'd really
done it rather well, but not because she'd planned it that way, it was all
through sheer naïveté. Her hair was perfect, she'd bleached it first then
washed in a golden tint; it was now roughly the same shade as Conley's
natural ash. Her face was a gem of teenage exuberance, colours too strong,
too richly applied, no blending, no subtlety whatsoever, just a block.
Conley reminisced: she'd been the same herself, ten years ago,
experimenting with twinky illusions, trying to forge a vision of herself as
she wished to be understood. Roween looked the consummate fifteen year-
She was also clearly embarrassed at her ineptitude. "I think
maybe you should have put it on for me, I'm not really used to this..."
"No, no Roween, it's just right, I wouldn't change a thing."
She paused a moment, raised a fingertip to her lips. "Except I think I might
be able to..." She reached for one of the paintboxes, selected a pale near-
white that contrasted with the greeny-brown Roween had used on her
eyelids. "Close your eyes, I'll just dab some highlight here and here - yes,
there, that's an improvement."
Roween picked up the handmirror, looked. Conley had placed
the lighter tinge slightly off-centre, closer to her nose; the effect was to
lessen the impact of her squint. She half-laughed, nodded. "That is better."
Conley replaced the applicator. "So you haven't used cosmetics
much before? You've always been immune to magic?"
Roween slumped in a chair, gazed around the room. "No, not
always, only the past four or five years. But before then, I scorned
makeover spells anyway."
"Now that's interesting." Conley perched on the edge of the
bedside table. "If you could have used illusion to uncross your eyes, why
Roween stared out of the window, over the rooftops of Rhiev.
"Why should I? I am who I am, I don't want to be someone else. People
who wear masks all the time do so for one of two reasons: they yearn to be
something they're not, or they want to manipulate others."
Conley was about to argue, stopped herself. Roween looked the
part of a moody, immature girl, but she was actually her senior. "I didn't
mean to offend you, Ro, it's just that, well, you have this obsession with
"And I have every right!" She turned, burning. "People with
straight eyes pretty them up, aim for some superior `perfect' look, then
assume for themselves that superiority. But the more they do that, the more
they lower the likes of me; folk who are different become folk who are
flawed. It's not fair - and it's not honest! Why do you wear grey lenses?
Why do you lighten your hair?"
"I - I've never thought", confused. "Because I like being
attractive? I suppose I have a mild sense of power, in a way - what you
implied by `manipulate'? But I could do more, really it's minimal. I'm not
Roween sensed her own anger, relaxed, smiled. "Oh sorry,
Con, my fault, it just fires me sometimes. I must've spent too long in
Elet!" She stood, laughed. "Come on, let's go out, it's gloomy in here and
the world is a safe place today."
* * *
It was warm, summery, and to Conley's delight Roween had at
last eschewed her greatcoat in favour of an Akrean smock. Conley had sent
her out for it alone the previous evening, as the best way of ensuring she'd
get something that made her look like she was still growing. The ploy had
certainly worked: the chosen garment finished off Roween's disguise to
Now, of course, Conley wished she'd gone along too, bought
something for herself. It wasn't that her clothes didn't fit in - Cala fashions
owed more to Rhiev than to Taltu - it was just that she'd never seen such
glittering shops before, could only marvel. Each was like one of Hease and
Eller's specialist departments, dealing in one, narrow product line - only
here they carried every variety imaginable. Small boutiques were crammed
with exotic goods: Ca-Atlan coffee, leather riding boots, old coins and
military insignia, savouries, fabrics, silk shirts, hats, floral perfumes,
Davian sheet music, local lace, porcelain, jade, Berean bronzes four
hundred years old, wines from Chaien, silver thimbles - if you can afford
silver for a thimble, why sew? - Panavian quilts, beadwork, carved wooden
figurines, old-time dolls... Some of the windows had the glass curved
away, like it was cut from a cylinder, no reflections. And these weren't
even the fanciest streets, there were arcades with beadles who wouldn't let
you in unless you were formally dressed.
"What do you think of Porett?" Roween asked.
"Porett?" She'd been watching the pastry-seller on the other
side of the street. "In what way?"
"Oh, just general. Do you like him?"
She clicked her tongue. "Well he's no great looker, not a total
disaster I suppose, but he wears his hair back like this," she demonstrated,
"and he has the mangliest beard I ever saw." She nodded. "He's just being
individual, though, old-fashioned in an eccentric kind of way. Yes, I'd say
I like our Porett."
"I remember him from when he was a student; he was much the
same then. Does he have a girlfriend?"
"A girlfriend?" She frowned, smiled. "You know, I haven't
ever thought... No, I can't see it, he doesn't have the time. Besides, he's
guarded by his secretary, and she's so stuffy I doubt anyone could even get
her to a dinner table, let alone a bed."
Roween nodded. "That's what I'd have expected. What about
his personality? Does he really like what he does?"
Conley wagged her finger. "Now come on, Roween, not more
of this `magic corrupts' stuff! Porett lost both parents young, and that's
enough to turn anyone peculiar. Besides, I think he'd have succeeded at
whatever he did, he's got that kind of mentality. He would certainly have
excelled at anything rule-based - law, medicine, navigation - and his single-
mindedness would have propelled him into a position of power whatever
career he chose. Magic was just the horse, not the rider."
"But law and the rest have formal, written, ethical codes.
Where's the equivalent for magic? The only morality Porett knows is what
he acquired when he was cutting convoluted, prickly gesture segs as a year
3 undergrad: selfishness, and the supremacy of knowledge."
"He's a damn more ethical than - " She broke off. "What's
going on ahead?"
A man was standing on a box outside a light set shop,
addressing a crowd assembled before him.
"Just some religious crazy, let's cross the - "
"No, wait, I want to hear what he's saying." She touched
Roween's arm, stopped.
He was speaking in a rich baritone, trained, charged with
charisma. "And so I say to you: let the Messenger into your heart, as I did!
Feel the joy, the euphoric joy, when he takes your troubles as his own. For
the Messenger is the well of living water from which this rapture flows."
"Rapture! The rapture!" sang out a voice.
He snatched on it. "Aye, the rapture! The rapture of change,
for I am a changed man, a man full of love where once I was empty of all
but hatred. I have changed, changed from a wasted soul to a man complete.
All things exist to change!"
"They do, they do!"
"Pray to the Messenger, that he may gain from your strength as
you do from his! Meet the gods, here," he pounded his left breast, "know
them, choose one to be your special! Develop your relationship, let it grow,
as your faith will grow, that you too may be born anew!"
"Ast, of the sun!"
"Ried, the sky lord!"
He held out his arms, calmed them, pastorally. "The Party of
the Message has three candidates at the forthcoming - "
Conley sneered, crossed the street to where Roween was
"Well, Con, you believe any of that stuff?" She took her hands
out of her pockets.
"Incoherent, disconnected tosh! I'd have to have a brain of
A sigh. "Unfortunately for us, lots of people do..."
* * *
They'd stopped at a pavement café, bought two frothy coffees
and a mid-morning roll.
"I've been watching the other waiter," Conley announced
between sips. "He seems a real soury."
"What do you mean?" She was waiting for her own drink to
"Well, he never smiles, but he has this sort of permanent
smirking attitude, like he knows something we don't."
"Probably does, or at least thinks he does. I've noticed there are
two types of Akreans: menacingly polite ones like him - they're the
Message lot - and ones like our waiter, doom-aware but sad, ultimately
"I don't know which is worse."
She stirred the coffee. "And all because of magic..."
Conley suddenly snapped. "I've had enough of this, Roween!
Look, you have to tell me more, it's only fair! I know practically nothing!"
The outburst caught her unprepared. "I, but there's so much, I
have to think, I can't simply - "
"Well just give me the beginning then! What was it happened
four years ago that gave you your magic-deadening skills?"
Roween leaned forward, almost covered her eyes with her hand,
remembered the artificial face, drummed on the table instead. "Can't put it
off forever, I suppose. We'll go to the park, less ears there." She picked up
the cup, drained it in one continued swig.
* * *
They were walking along the edge of an ornamental lake heat-
hazed in the noonday sun. Carp swam lazily in the clear, clean waters,
couples in rowboats heedless of their presence, eyes only for one another.
Roses grew by the side of the path: neatly pruned bushes, heavy with heads
of pale pink, scarlet, soft orange. It was a scene deliberately calculated to
inure serenity, yet too weak to influence Conley: she was edgy, impatient,
waiting for answers...
"How many clicks we have left?" asked Roween.
She fingered the well in her pocket. "Just under six hundred,
although I could have spent the lot this morning!"
"When we leave here, we'll have to convert it, gold and gems.
They don't have them further west."
"Click-wells? Or gold and gems?"
"Either... I got some stuff of Medreph's stashed in a pouch,
should see us through if there's anything unforeseen comes up; it's quite a
They skirted the lake a little further. There were other people
around, sparing them glances, looking them up and down, but no more than
Conley was used to. She hid a secret glee that they could wander through a
park in the heart of Rhiev, momentous religious and political upheaval in
the air, and yet pass for Akreans, no-one even suspecting. Had Roween
done it before? Perhaps that was why she bobbed her hair? She'd maybe
scythed off the bleached ends from the last time she was here?
"What do you know about spell-proving, Con?"
"What do I know?" She was surprised. "All there is to know!
Spell-proving was the subject of my thesis! It was me who worked out the
length-formulation test that everyone uses, so you can prove all those multi-
K spells without their blowing up in your face."
Roween nodded, assenting. "The general rule is that each of the
five principal gestures is assigned one of three types. They usually use
colours - red, green and blue. Fist and wrist are green, palm is blue,
fingers and point are red. For a spell to be safe to use, the total number of
gestures credited to one of the three colours mustn't be less than half the
overall number of gestures. If they're all below, then the spell may still be
safe, but it'll more likely explode - taking with it your hand, maybe your
whole body, your mind, anything else close by."
"Very good. The specific rule I developed is that it's not the
total number that matters, it's the lengths of sequences. You count
consecutive gestures of the same colour, subtracting one from the length of
each series, and total those decremented lengths rather than the individual
gestures. If it comes to half or more, the spell is still safe. It means many
big spells, with a lot of gestures, can still be proved reliable. Before, they
could be very close to having the right balance, but the large number of
gestures would tend to normalise the distribution, so no single colour would
dominate. My work chops away the spurious figures you get for individual,
isolated colours, and brings the computation more into line with reality."
"There are still working spells that are not provable within that
Conley rocked her hand. "Yes, it's a necessary condition for
success, but not alone sufficient. Tighter than the old way, nonetheless. For
example, prosthetic-oriented spells used to be unproven, as were ones that
altered living body tissue. People took big risks doing augmentations. Now,
replacements on dead meat are provably safe, so if you want stronger
muscles then you swap your existing ones for thetics. No-one bothers
chancing death by souping up actual attached limbs any more; it's likely
they'd have no problems if they did, but no-one can ever quite be sure
unless it's proven..."
"And you designed this new proof system all yourself? No help
Conley was about to reply with indignance, but something about
Roween's demeanour told her it wasn't worth it. She drooped her
shoulders. "I don't think so, no. It didn't seem like it at the time, but
afterwards I realised that I might have been fed a lot of the leads, guided
towards the solution. I thought maybe my father had really discovered the
technique, though he denies it." She sighed. "But I guess I'm - no, I know
it: I'm a fraud, Ro."
They meandered beneath the leafy shade of silver birches, the
light breeze rustling their branches, carrying away the sound of hoof on
cobblestone from the streets ringing the park.
"So do you know whose original work it was, then?"
"No, I don't - I wish I did. I just want to tell them I'm sorry."
There was a sadness in her voice that wrenched at Roween, more strongly
even than had her tale of childhood despair.
"You were used, Con, don't reproach yourself." She reached
for where her pocket should have been, snapped her fingers in annoyance
when she remembered her coat was back in the hotel. "I'm going to tell
you something, but first I have to present my credentials. We better sit
There was a bench beneath one of the trees at the edge of the
copse, positioned to unveil a grand vista down a lime-outlined avenue,
statuesque fountain at the end.
"The best segments, the ones in the libraries, they're the
colourless ones, like Chewt-Farmer, right?"
Conley looked across to her, trying to pay attention, still
downcast by her admission, not understanding fully why she'd made it. She
felt so shabby. "Yes, er, they have roughly the same count in all colours,
so there's a minimal effect on overall totals. Some have variants, biased a
little to favour a particular colour."
"Well, what about sequences that are monochrome? Fist, wrist,
fist, wrist, fist, wrist?"
Conley puffed her cheeks, let out the air. "They might do
something on their own, but most would be pretty useless except for fine-
tuning spells of that colour, or ones so far over to another they'd make no
"What if they were provably useless? What if you could
guarantee that they didn't do anything at all, ever, no matter what other
gestures surrounded them?"
Conley was curious. "What do you mean?"
"If you look at blue spells, ones dominated by palms, the main
work is done by short groups of five or six gestures, glued together. You
rarely see blue segments more than about twenty long because they don't do
anything, they're inert."
"Yes, that's true, I'd noticed that."
"Now there are many gluing triplets, all genuinely colourless.
They take the form RGB, RBG, BRG, BGR, GRB and GBR. So, what if
you had RGB, then a thousand blues, then BGR to bring it back to red."
"Well if the RGB came at a glue point, so the earlier gestures
didn't affect it, you'd get a binding sequence a thousand and six long that
did life all."
"And what if you spliced that into a spell that was five-hundred
long and not provably safe?"
Conley was stunned. You'd get a fifteen-hundred spell that was
way over half blue, but with the active parts unchanged. The same trick
could bring any sequence into safety, colourless, multi-coloured, whatever.
She felt her jaw drop, couldn't stop it. She realised she looked a complete
idiot gaping like that, but her mind was reeling with the implications.
Maybe she really was an idiot? "Hot, Ro," she gasped, "why haven't you
told anyone this before?"
"Because the last time I told anybody anything like that, they
ripped me off."
* * *
Conley wasn't as devastated as she thought she should have
been; she was quite calm, really. It was a relief to know, at last. It was also
very humbling. Roween was in a different league as far as magical research
went; she could never hope to match her. All the searching, the travelling,
well, at least it had taught her a lesson. She'd have harsh words to say to
her father when she arrived back home.
Roween was slumped in a corner, watching her pack. She was
tearful, but had made no attempt to stop her. A green-brown streak traced
her cheek. Conley couldn't help but pity her, she looked so defenceless.
How does she always manage to do that? She tried a smile. Roween opened
her mouth, couldn't seem to say anything.
"It's for the best, Ro. You're in the clouds compared to me. I'll
stay with Porett Technologies, take up some managerial post, sink into
well-deserved oblivion." She felt upset herself, now. "Don't worry, I won't
tell anyone about your latest discovery."
"Please don't go, Con." Roween looked away, biting at her
bottom lip, innocent of the gloss that coated it.
"I must, Ro." She realised she'd stopped putting her kit into the
saddlebags. "I've stolen from you once, I won't do it again, don't let it
"You didn't steal, it's not your fault, you didn't know. And I
don't care if you take anything else, it won't matter a damn soon as
someone else figures gestures are worth toss."
"That story you told me in the cave, you still stick by it?"
"It's true, Con. Come to Liagh Na Laerich: if I'm right, we
save everything; if I'm wrong, shows I'm not as infallible as you think."
Conley gazed down at her pack, started to fill it again. "Find
someone else, Ro, not me. I'm broken." She pulled at a strap. "Just one
thing, though, before I go, you have to tell me, would it have worked?"
"Would what have worked, Con?"
"If I'd discovered how you killed spells, could I have inverted
it, found a way to extend them?"
She waited for a reply. None came. So, Roween would deny
her even that? She tarried awhile longer. No, time to leave. She turned:
Roween was scribbling frantically on a scrap of paper. Her eyes were dry,
wide. She looked up at Conley.
"Hot, Con, you could! I never thought of that."