Chapter 72 Hat

        Roween had left her door open, recognised Conley's steps. She looked up.
        "Separate rooms, makes a change," Conley mused, flatly, her eyes scudding around, taking in the dimensions, features. "Same size as mine, the window's on the other wall though."
        "There'll be a family suite somewhere, but the remaining chambers will all be like this - self-contained, unpretentious."
        "You think there are other foreigners staying?"
        Roween sat on her bed. "Don't suppose so, the chappy downstairs would have said. It's only a small village, I guess there aren't many travellers these days, war makes it risky."
        "Never mind the dangers of war, it was the twisty steps up to the plateau this morning that nearly finished off me! How could a merchant bring a cart up there? In and out of rocks, dozens of about-turn corners, hard enough just leading a horse - two couldn't even pass at some points!" She entered, wandered to the curtain-pull.
        "If we'd followed the road further we'd have come to an easier ascent, but it's a day's ride beyond the one we took."
        Conley was looking behind the drapes, figuring out the pulley mechanism. "This is neat, come and have a look."
        "Just a few lengths of string, Con. Have you seen the amenities? There's a sink and a water closet behind the interior door."
        She forgot the curtain cord, looked around. "What interior door?" Her eyes rested on a wide, panelled recess running floor-to-ceiling. "That's a door? I thought it was a chimney shaft from downstairs!" She glanced about again. "Yes, now that's a point, where's the fireplace?"
        Roween smiled, crooked a leg up, held it two-armed. "It's old technology, but there's like a boiler in the cellar. When the weather gets cold, they stoke it up and cycle the smoke under the floor-slabs. There's vents you can close when your room gets hot enough, let the heat pass on to someone else."
        "They ought to use Porett Radblowers, quick and effective. And you don't need someone to sweep out the soot from between floors every few years."
        "Not everyone can afford Radblowers, Con. More modern places here use steam now, anyway, no danger of fumes that way. Trying to figure out the door?"
        Conley was pushing it, looking for a handle or some secret catch.
        "Try sliding it. Just put your hand in the middle and move it to the right."
        She followed the instructions, gasped as it glided silently aside. She peered behind. "It's on these metal runners, with little wheels." She stared closer. "Hey, this is smart tech for a supposedly backward country."
        "Gives more space, but I don't really know why they want to put the sanitation facilities off on their own anyway, leastwise not for single rooms. Maybe to keep out smells or something?" She raised a finger. "Ah, it's because of the rose attachment for the taps, you can shower in there."
        "Rose? Oh, this thing on the tube that's hanging on the back of the door, I see, it fixes on the... Well, I'm impressed!" She turned to the lavatory. "Hot, this is plush," flushed it. "Running water in a border-post hostel! How much is this costing us?"
        "I don't know, I expect it's free. If their system makes it difficult for aliens to travel chaperoneless, it's only fair they put us up while they contact our guides."
        Conley stepped back into the bedroom, slid the door back and forth another couple of times. "They go to some effort for their guests, then. Sort of at odds with the feelings projected outside."
        "Just the way they are, Con, wary of other cultures. Anyway, it's nothing special, the whole village is plumbed up."
        Conley sat beside Roween. "All of it? Hot!" she flopped backwards, legs bent, toes still touching the floor. "Why do you call it a village, anyway? More of a town, isn't it?"
        "Well, village, town, does it matter? By Eletic measure, it's a village, but then there are a lot of people in Elet. Wait until you see Liagh Na Laerich..."
        "So what are the folk here like? They're all good and tall, fair skinned, and I've seen more redheads today than in the rest of my life totalled."
        "Nearer the coast they're almost all blondes and light browns - you could probably pass for one at a distance. I've not been this south before, but here and west they're supposed to be 20% gingers."
        "That's about what I figured, yes. One thing, though: you told me they were a race of individuals."
        "They are, very."
        "So why do they all wear the same clothes?"
        Roween snorted. "Do they? Gwenathan was in like a lemon smock gathered at the elbows, with leather breeches. Metharaph in the office had a deep blue smock, sort of velvety, and his breeches were bleached linen."
        "But they were both wearing smocks and breeches. The people we passed in the street were wearing smocks and breeches. Everyone is wearing smocks and breeches! It's a uniform, you can't even tell man from woman, I don't know where to look!" She sat up.
        "But it's like that in our country, most of the time. Shirts, breeches, gowns..."
        "Not in identical styles, though, and they may be the same basic garment but they're cut different, you can make a distinction. You look at someone from the back here and you don't know what shape they are!"
        "So is that important?"
        Conley looked away. "Not really, no, I suppose." She clicked her fingernails. "I just, well, can't really eye someone if I don't know what I'm looking at, can I? Sort of distasteful..." She shuddered.
        Roween released her knee, fell back onto the pillow. "Goodbye Lowlands, hello Elet..."

* * *

        The bed was soft, wide, the mattress stuffed with cloth, not straw or nut-husks. Luxury! To Roween, it felt enormous, unrestricted, she could stretch out anywhere, turn, roll, pull at the blankets, indulge herself. On her own, wrapped up, snug! Better than those damp nights under starlight, better than sharing with Con. Clean, fresh sheets; crisp, smooth against her naked, newly-showered body.
        When had she last slept like this? Ihann's, yes, but it wasn't the same, Conley had been ill, things weren't going well. His spare bed sagged, too, pulled you towards the middle.
        She closed her eyes, nuzzled the downy pillow. Rhiev, in the hotel. She'd shared the room with Con, but there'd been two beds, classy, sprung with wire, quilted. She'd drifted asleep so easily that night, alone, Conley out dancing with Sennary. Cried, yes, maybe.
        Sennary had been so, oh, charming, witty, sheer delight, he'd never used his looks, his handsomeness, except maybe his eyes. Mmm! She knew his ploy, told herself: he was showing me his mind, showing Con his body, playing us both. Con liked his eyes, too, she'd said, so sparkling, so vulnerable. But she has eyes of her own, beautiful, not like mine, not so skewy that Sennary can't even tell when I'm looking at him. Damn it! Gods, if only he saw the inside, not the shell, how could he have fallen for a face?
        Perhaps he didn't? Maybe it's me he's been attracted to all along? I'm not so bad looking, apart from the eyes, maybe a little scrawny and I'm not very tall, but I'm intelligent, and I listen. Men like women who listen.
        But that's because I never know what to say. I just sit there entranced by his voice and smiling stupidly. Con, she has all the experience, she can read a situation, decide what to do next, not blurt out some clumsy remark that makes her look like an idiot. Oh, it's just not fair! What would I do if he ever wanted to kiss me? I don't even know how to kiss!
        Con's not exactly dim, she has a doctorate, even if it's rightly mine. If Sennary is attracted to brains, hers are the more obvious, and she knows how to show them off, not like me, too afraid to do anything in case I foul up. And when he does ask something I can talk about freely, I sort of cloak myself in serious sincerity, like I was explaining it to a stranger.
        That's it, really, isn't it? Sennary is just a stranger. We had a wonderful two hours together, but we both knew it was an interrogation. Although, thinking back, he didn't ask anything improper, did he? Next time we met, when we fixed him up with the white gel, he was different, more distant. Or was that me? Did he behave the same as before, but it was me who pulled back? I don't remember. Yes, he was the same, wasn't he... But I knew it was Con he really fancied, and - gods! Maybe he thinks I rejected him? Yes, of course, I suppose I did reject him! But I didn't know - how was I to know?
        I wish I could talk to my Da...

* * *

        "So how did you sleep, Ro?" Conley dunked a toast soldier into her second egg.
        "Very well, once I got off. Off to sleep, I mean. I guess I'm worried a bit about my father, he's old, he might have died for all I know."
        "Wait until Medreph arrives with his comsphere, you can call through and chat to him."
        Roween's cup was so wide it was almost a bowl, she had to pick it up with both hands. "If he knew where I was, what I was doing, it could be dangerous for him. He understands, he's patient. Just wish, well, you know..." She took a sip of her coffee, noisy.
        "There's a library here, you see it? Novels, I think, people must sometimes stay quite a while, waiting for their shaps."
        Roween looked up. "Anything by Nuagh Casii? When I was here last time, she had a book due out. Rumours were it's a thriller that's written like a biography."
        "I didn't look too hard, they were all written in Eletic."
        "Maybe if they don't have it, they'll let me go to the bookshop, find a copy there. Oh, I'd need some money, though."
        Conley reached for the salt. "It's busy out this morning, I had a look before you came down. People everywhere, even at this hour."
        "Readying for war. They're like swallows in the trees, preparing for migration. One day, the branches are drooping under their weight, the next they've all gone."
        "All of them?"
        "Unless they're too ill to travel, I expect so, yes."
        "They won't leave anyone behind on guard?"
        "No, probably not. No-one's going to steal anything."
        "Weird." She finished the egg, wiped her mouth.
        "From the level of activity, I think we can assume their emissary has already met Justan, and that the results weren't good. It seems to me like the Elets are going to rise." She sighed, aloud. "We're too late, Con, we can't pre-empt the issue now by zapping magic. Justan has challenged them, we can do nothing to affect their response."
        "So we wait for Medreph, then, if he's not in town yet?"
        "We don't have much choice, we wouldn't get far unaccompa- nied. I hope he didn't play emissary himself." She shook her head, nearly spilled her drink. "No, he wouldn't risk losing the caravan."
        "Well, it's nice enough here, I don't mind staying. Is the bulk of the Eletic army likely to come this way, do you think? Or will they mass further north?"
        "The Eletic army?" Roween's face looked empty. "They don't have an army, Con, they fight as individuals."
        It was Conley's turn to blank out. "Uh? But that's stupid! A well-organised army can always trash even the most highly-motivated of rabbles."
        Roween put down her cup, nodded. "Individuals, Con. See? They won't ever fight as a unit, not even a loose Guelish-like one, they'll just swarm. A lion can kill a man, but even lions are frightened of ant colonies. Justan's army will be continually sniped at by those Elets that happen across it, but the majority will leave it for others to bait, go for civilian targets."
        Conley was tapping the shells with her spoon, absently. "A strange scenario..." She was cut from continuing when Maetharach entered.
        "Lauthil and Chenii-Imor are coming," he announced. "You might want to pack."
        "Maedregh too?" asked Roween.
        He turned, didn't look at her, left.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif72.htm