Conley was sitting at the desk, staring through the library walls
and out to infinity. She'd been memorising Eletic words for feelings -
always used as binary, directed relationships, `I am happy with you', never
in terms of personal absolutes. Something about it had set her mind
strolling, and when the door opened she was daydreaming about Rhiev.
"I'm back, Con."
She broke from her reverie in an instant, focused on the world.
"Ro? I didn't hear you arrive, I..." Words took too long, she kicked back
her chair and ran to her friend, hugged her, smiled widely, so pleased.
Roween held her tight.
"Oh Con, you're still here, I've been so worried..."
Conley felt her throat lumping, cleared it so she could say her
line. "Guahiu laegiala faa neeth caigiala."
Roween caught back her chuckle before it broke to a sob. "And
I'm happy that you're safe, too, Con."
She felt her own eyes misting.
* * *
She'd been thirsty after her ride, drank cold water, it'd helped.
By the time Ihann had finished with his patient her tears had dried, although
her face was left red, blotchy. Ihann embraced her, but he seemed to detect
a sadness that Conley, in her joy, had missed. He held her shoulders at
arms' length, looked into her crossy eyes, waited.
"He didn't show; Medreph, he wasn't there." Her voice was
shaky; she was trying to sound firm but it wasn't convincing.
"Do you know why?" asked Ihann.
"There was a note, he sent it by bird. He's still in the
wilderness, waiting for a messenger from Cala."
"Cala?" Conley was surprised. "But he's a month out of Cala at
"You think I don't know?" Roween lashed. "I've been gutting
myself over it for the past week." Her cheeks were flushed, eyes watery
Ihann brought her close. "Conley didn't mean anything,
Roween, she was just asking, of course you're upset."
Roween sniffled, rubbed her nose. "It was important, we
agreed, we had to meet. I tried so hard, I thought I wouldn't make it, I'd
not be there on time, but I was, after all Con and I went through. But I
never supposed Medreph wouldn't show, it didn't come to me, he'd just be
there, that's all, all I ever expected, but he wasn't."
Ihann stroked her hair, soothing. "Medreph is from Elet, he's a
free spirit, he isn't bound to keep to arrangements..."
Conley felt intrusive, stayed silent.
"No, it's not that, no, Ihann, his note, it changes everything.
The Lowlandic legation in Cala, they were given information, don't you
see?" She shook her head. "Oh, this is useless, I have to compose myself, I
can't just, blubbing is silly, I shouldn't have burned the note..." She pulled
away from Ihann, stumbled out of the room.
Conley moved, following, but Ihann took her wrist. "No, let
her deal with this herself. She's had it inside her all the way back, she just
wants a release. Half an hour, she'll be fine..."
* * *
It took an hour, but she'd bathed, tidied herself up, changed
from her travelling clothes. Ihann and Conley were still in the library,
"I'm ready, now," she announced. "Sorry about earlier."
"That's alright, Roween, we share. Take a seat, start from the
beginning." He laid his hand face-down, as if he and Conley would be
continuing their game later.
Roween slumped in a chair. Conley registered it as her normal
slump, not her distressed slump; so she was back to her self, sure enough.
"I arrived at the coaching inn to find a note waiting for me from
Medreph. It had been there for around three weeks. There's a Lowlandic
diplomatic mission in Cala, and someone - anonymous, but Medreph can
guess who - sent them an envelope found at Porett Technologies. The
contents were very interesting. It was written by Porett's secretary to
"To herself?" Conley didn't expect an answer, she just found it
"Apparently, Porett, the man, had husked her up, offered her
some kind of deal whereby he'd unhusk her, permanent, if she did
something for him - please don't ask me what, Con. His price was that her
memory of what he'd done to her would go. So, she wrote herself a note to
"And did she?" asked Ihann.
Roween shrugged. "Medreph didn't think so, wrote she's
locked away in an asylum somewhere, staring blank wherever you point
her. Someone else found what she'd written, gave it and some of her effects
to the Lowlanders, they comsphered Medreph about it. Thing is, this
secretary, Elidia, she knew a fair amount regarding Porett's plans. In
particular, she knew he killed Queen Mitya, and why, put it down on
Conley and Ihann glanced at each other, back to Roween.
"Mitya had this idea for a kind of magical plague. Elidia's
details are sketchy, but enough. Once released, it spreads by magic, kills
people. No non-magical defence. Medreph is waiting for the note itself to
reach him from Cala before continuing on his way. If he can get it to the
Eletic grand emissary, it might sway Justan, prevent his attacking the
"You really think it would?" Conley was puzzled.
Roween smiled, sadly. "No, I don't. Justan will reason like
you, that the Elets should be more likely to surrender, not less, with an
open threat of death looming over them. He won't understand - and
boasting of his power will only serve to heighten their resolve. There's a
chance he doesn't actually know about the viral spell, in which case he'll
have Porett strung up, but I doubt it, he's too shrewd, he'll have found out
somehow by now, taken control."
Ihann strummed on the desk, once. "This is grave news,
Roween. If Justan chooses to ignore the warnings, then there will be no
further discussion: the Elets will attack."
"I don't follow all this," announced Conley, suddenly.
"Because Justan may have access to some new weapon from Porett
Technologies, that makes the Elets even more likely to challenge him? But
he'll use it to wipe them out! He can easily obliterate them anyway, even
without any magical help."
Roween held up her hand, motioned to stop. She waited a
moment before speaking, too long, sensed it shallow, over-dramatic.
"Listen, Con. The Elets know that Justan will be unable to use magic,
because, well before they attack, we - you - will have banished it forever.
In their minds, the question is whether to leave the resulting mess to sort
itself out, or to help it by purging Justan's entire empire, stopping it from
reconstituting to cause even worse bloodshed later on."
"I know all that, Ihann explained..."
"Well that's good," Roween continued. "Then you must see
how this changes things. If Justan doesn't know about the plague, or
doesn't intend to use it, that adds weight to our case, that the Elets
shouldn't unseat him. If, however, he is fully appraised of it, and even has
every intention of unleashing it on the Lowlanders, that justifies the other
point of view: Justan is corrupted by power to such an extent that there will
not be an end to his menace until he, and all his supporters, are dead."
Conley paused. "But of course he'll still threaten to use it, he
doesn't know that he won't be able to!" She realised, after she'd said it,
what she'd implied.
"Therein," said Ihann, "lies the heart of the matter. It's a
beautiful irony, of the kind the Elets truly relish. His future has been placed
in his own hands; his actions judge him. Whatever he would do unprovoked
unto the Elets, they will do in kind unto him. It's perfect for them. They
know how he's most likely to behave, yes, but they can still give him an
opportunity to prove them wrong, escape his fate. They'll only condemn
him if he condemns himself."
"I don't know if Ihann has explained, Con, but if the Elets do
decide to attack, people are going to die in their hundreds of thousands.
Innocent people, not just the ringleaders, they'll be swatted like flies. Too
many, and unnecessarily. We have to stop it."
Conley frowned. "Yes, I agree, but how can we help? If Justan
ignores the Eletic emissary, there's nothing we can do to prevent the
subsequent invasion of his empire."
"But there is, Con. We can get rid of magic before he
implements his decision."
* * *
They left Ihann and Bridges behind, followed the main road
towards Warnhem, capital of the Lowlandic duchy of the same name.
Roween was quiet, kept her eyes ahead but didn't appear to take much
notice of anything. Finally, Conley felt she had to say something.
"So, where exactly is this village?"
Roween looked up. "Sorry, Con?"
She'd known she'd have to repeat her question. "This village
where we're meeting Medreph, where is it?"
"Suadh Varl Na? It's at the edge of the plateau, the first place
in Elet you reach from the wilderness."
"Suadh Varl Na - that's Tall Cliffs, right?"
Roween smiled. "You're good!"
She grinned. "I wasn't sure about `Suadh', but if it's at the edge
of a plateau..."
"Well, if you're interested I can teach you some more of the
language while we're waiting."
"It'll pass the time, yes. How long before Medreph joins us?"
Roween looked across to her, lopsidedly. "Hard to say. The
wilderness can be dangerous, it's a huge forest, few tracks, fewer roads.
Most people think it's just a haunt for renegades, bandits, but it's not, there
are whole tribes there, ancient, primitive."
"Like the Guels, you mean?"
She shook her head, emphatically. "The Guels were near-
civilised by the Estavian empire, but these forest dwellers were left alone,
little use to their overlords. I don't know much about them, they have no
writing, no literature, their lore and legend is passed down orally.
Medreph's knowledge is more extensive, he's heard a lot of their history,
experienced a little of their culture, he trades with them a bit, thinking of
writing a book..."
Conley understood. "You worry too much, Ro, he'll be fine,
you'll see. When did he say he'd arrive?"
"He'll be in the village any time about a week from now
onwards, at a guess." She nodded to herself. "I'm sorry, Con, you're right,
he'll be there." Smiled; she tried to look cheery.
"But if he isn't?"
"If he isn't, we'll travel to Liagh Na Laerich without him, I
know what to do there. Lauthil or Chenii-Imor will chaperone us."
Conley put up her hand. "Ah, now you're going too fast. First
of all, who are Lauthil and Chenii-Imor, and second, what do you mean by
"Of course, you were asleep when he talked about them.
They're two of his children, they live near Suadh Varl Na, we haven't met
but they'll help if Medreph himself can't. They may even be there already,
case he's early."
Roween looked skywards, at the clouds. "We'd never pass as
locals, and without someone obviously accompanying us we may have some
difficulty moving through Elet at all. In times of unrest, people will be very
suspicious, stop us, question us, all the time. Better we have someone along
who looks responsible, so folk know we're accounted for."
"You'll be saying that all the time, once we get there..."
Conley looked to her left, followed Roween's gaze. "It's a
"Too far north to catch Medreph, and we'll be safely in
Warnhem if it comes our way."
She waited a moment, wondered whether her question would set
Ro off again, chanced it. "Something I've been meaning to ask: why didn't
we just tag along with Medreph all the way? Why did we split up and take
Roween was still staring out to the east. "We couldn't go
through the wilderness because we're female. The forest people, they have
primitive customs... There are other reasons, too."
"But why couldn't he come with us?"
"He has some things he's bringing, magic. He couldn't take
wagons across warring countries, had to go some other way. Ships were an
option, or barges up the Leskina, but the ports are watched, too hard to
smuggle stuff that way."
Conley clicked her tongue, thinking. "He's bringing zip; that's
for our benefit."
"Sharp, Con. Binders, comspheres, roughwear, light sets,
they'll all go in the library with the books. If you don't pick up the reflex
from that lot, you never will..."
"Another reason you couldn't travel with him?"
She nodded, smiled. "I wouldn't want to wipe it clean. Even as
it is, we'll have to send it on ahead through Elet, I can't have it close in
case there's an accident." She patted the neck of her horse. "No, we had to
travel separately, didn't have any choice."
"So what determined our route? Why didn't we go by sea
Roween finally left the sky, looked towards her companion.
"We could have, some of the way, if you'd been well. I told you when we
set off, though, I wanted to educate you."
"Against magic, you mean?"
She shrugged a shoulder. "There's time, yet. You've come
along in other respects, so have I, I've learned a few things about myself,
grown up a bit more. Just wish I could poke you off spell worship."
"When we reach Warnhem, I'll let you have another try. It's
awkward conducting an argument on horseback."