Chapter 74 Hat

        The temples in Bridges were still recognisable, but they had long since ceased to be used for their original purpose. Shops, schools, hospitals, even private houses, but rarely places of worship.
        Porett had chosen such a converted church as his hotel while he was in Bridges. He'd rented the whole of the tower, partly for reasons of privacy, but also because he was wary of flooding if Justan loosed the climatology mages over Seesel. Freak tides, of course, had been the primary reason that Lowlandic ecclesiastical buildings were all equipped with such tall, sturdy turrets anyway. Practical, these old-time religions.
        As the whitewashed, moulded-plaster ceiling appeared before his eyes, Porett let out the breath he'd held. He hadn't been sure of that last fingers gesture, it'd felt like it had locked but he'd lost concentration. Well, he was here, anyway. He sat up in the Trans/Disc device, looked to the door. The binder was still there, good, plus the booby-trapped bolt in case anyone took an axe to it.
        He'd have to hurry if he was to keep his appointment with Malva. The old woman from this morning still bothered him, her and her damned painting. It was a fake, of course, and even if it wasn't there was no way she had been the model. Clever, though, gave him just enough doubt to hook him on a second tack, promise of longevity.
        Closing the door behind him, he muttered a bindword, then strode quickly for the spiral staircase. The ornate interior of the old temple had been preserved, and if he hadn't been so late he'd have maybe paused to check out the curvy carvings beneath the handrail. No time, though. He fumbled for the key to the outer door, spoke the word for its binder. Malva should be in the lobby.
        Yes, she was there, waiting, staring absently at a baby asleep in its mother's basket. She smiled when she saw Porett, politely, pleasantly. He nodded back, mildly unnerved. It felt odd to be smiled at by someone with her leanings, sort of belied all the smiles that women had ever given him. Maybe he'd just been misinterpreting, all his life? Perhaps women smiled at each other that way? He didn't know, he'd never merged back.
        "How's Trilith today?" she asked.
        He frowned, motioned towards the door as she rose. "Not so loud..." She'd done it deliberately, of course; a mild admonishment for his keeping her waiting ten minutes. "Trilith was fine. I made my appearances, handled my business, and spoke to The King."
        "Told him you were headed this way?"
        She always made the effort to appear unimpressed by name- dropping. "Yes, and he sanctioned it. He has his own plans, sending one of his field commanders in on a solo run. Wants me to contact the chap, thinks he may need more persuasion."
        They stepped out into the street. Cold, but sunny. "Would I know this man?"
        "Perhaps, he's an ex-merc, name of Sennary."
        "Sennary?" Approving, "Good, heard of him, Svalan I think?"
        "Half Davian, but yes; his loyalties are with Justan anyway. Hold, a moment..." He gazed up towards his room, lenses flashing out the anger from the blushing, late afternoon sun.
        "Seen something?"
        "Yes, well, no. There was a flagpole out there, I asked them to remove it, security. Just checking they hadn't put it back."
        "A prayer mast." They continued their walk. "A lot of former temples still have those, they were used to call people to prayer in the old days. Different coloured flags for different times of day, you could use them like clocks."
        "Nice idea. I can't help noticing there are many of these buildings around, sort of leads me to conclude that the religion here was once quite strong - stronger than anything we ever had in Murak. Do you know why it suddenly broke?"
        She shrugged. "The drugs, I guess. People didn't feel they needed an afterlife of promises when they could have their own paradise right here. There's still a Church, of sorts, and a few creakies probably attend its services, but I don't think I've ever seen a priest in all the time I've been here - nor do I ever want to."
        "You're of a faith yourself?" He glanced back, after a passer-by who'd knocked against his hand.
        She laughed, resentfully. "No god has ever believed in me, why should I believe in any of them?"
        "There's a cure, you know, for your condition..."
        She wasn't looking in his direction, stared out ahead, distantly. "Thanks for the offer, but I'll skip on it." She half-pointed. "Here's another one of those temples, see? The builders were monotheistic. Some people maintain that the tower stood for the figure one, meaning the one God, Jaarla or whatever his name was. More likely, it represented a damning great phallus." She wrinkled the corner of her mouth into a smile, satisfied. "I think I'll stay the way I am..."
        He'd encountered that attitude before, at the Academy, knew the thing to do was keep quiet, patronise her by not saying anything patronising...
        They were on their way to the gym he'd rented as a warming-up arena for her team, where they could mettle-test the people they'd bought in from Akrea. No-one had failed, of course, Malva's instincts having proven sound at the selection interviews. Just as well, he couldn't really zip anyone back to Estavia via the Trans/Disc boxes, not without husking their heads empty first...
        "Seems kind of strange," he ventured, "that the Lowlanders would have a use for gyms. I'd have thought, since they dose their bodies with whiz-weeds every day, they'd be unconcerned with matters of health?"
        "Perhaps, yes, but some like to do a little maintenance work. Besides, gyms are tactile places, you can get a lot of stimulus there. Especially if your skin nerves are fired on Bliss to dancing point."
        "So maybe the Lowlanders aren't all the pushovers Justan expects."
        They had to cross the street here, waited for the carts and carriages to clear. "It'll be interesting to find out. There's certainly more to them than you'd know to look. Sure, most are so laid back they're the horizon, but there's this order-keeping force they have, and it's hot-like efficient."
        There was a gap, they took it. "Seems uncharacteristic. The princes run it?"
        "It's way secret, I haven't been able to find out certain, but it must be them. Hard to tell it even exists, it's just, well, soft evidence really. A troublesome foreigner disappears, a corrupt official overdoses on sparkies, a nascent criminal gang is wiped in a flash flood. All points to someone keeping the country safe and stable. And I've had experience myself..."
        The gymnasium was over a couple more small bridges, and once they'd arrived she'd go into commander mode. He slowed, let her spill her story. "So, what happened?"
        "I received a note telling me to keep the size of my band to thirty or below. Caught me by surprise, I wasn't sure how many people even knew I ran an outfit. I ignored it as a crank, kept hiring. One day, I took on a couple of new guys, numbers thirty-one and thirty-two. Four days later, a house fell on them. Since then, I've kept to the limit and had no trouble."
        "Wild... I'll see if Justan's folk know anything about this."
        "Don't take long. With the Akrean recruits and the people I have on other jobs, roll-call this morning numbered forty-three..."

* * *

        It was harder to contact Sennary than he'd expected. He kept reaching some Purasan woman who said Lord Sennary was unavailable and then tapped out, without even taking a message. Eventually, though, he snatched at her attention for long enough to learn when her employer was due to return, and so was first in line with a call when he did.
        "You're a busy man, Sennary, difficult to reach. Preparing for a journey, perhaps?"
        Sennary was about to scowl, but switched to a grin. "You've been speaking to His Majesty."
        Porett's image shrugged. "You're going to intercept a pair of mages who do a sideline in antimagic."
        "So what if I am?"
        "Do you really expect to succeed? You're no great spellcaster yourself, the sword's your weapon. Conley's a dazzler, she could cut you down and bury you before you got within thirty paces. You don't stand a chance."
        "I won't need my sword, not once I've reached them: I have another way of arresting their progress."
        Cocky, cocky. "Justan mentioned that, yes, but romance is only going to pull you one of them, you couldn't bring them both back that way." He paused. "Maybe you don't intend to - maybe you're not even going to seek them at all..."
        "What do you want, Porett?" Firm.
        "Information: the information Justan has asked you to obtain, the secret of dispelling magic."
        "Well I don't have that information, do I?"
        Playing games? "So, I want to make sure that you get it. Furthermore, I want to ensure that Justan doesn't. Whatever he's paying you, I'll double it - he's using my money anyway."
        "He's not paying, I want to go after them."
        "Doesn't sound that way to me." He adopted a softer tone. "Look, Sennary, I've had your affairs investigated, and you're not too well off, are you? Your farm is ticking over, but it needs a shot of capital if it's ever to be a commercial success. Your castle is a hotel, leased to the company that owns all the surrounding land, and, after you've paid the costs of maintaining the fabric of the building, the money left over is barely sufficient to cover the interest on your inherited liabilities. Your only source of disposable income is your army salary, and that's hardly more than a token. You did better when you were a mercenary."
        "So what's your point, Porett?"
        Playing dumb! "I want to know how Roween Sage wipes zip. If you can tell me that, I'll make you a wealthy man. I can settle your debts, pump cash into your beloved farm, even buy you the company that's paying you toss for the use of Castle Whiting. All you have to do is tell me how she does it."
        Sennary nodded, once, sharply. "So you're saying I'm to disobey my king, pass everything I find out on to you. Presumably that means Roween and Conley both have to die?"
        "There are some things that must inevitably happen, whichever way you choose solve a problem. Look, I can help you, kit you out with the latest tech."
        "Like you did before, yes, well your tags will tell you I still have most of that: all but the sword and armour was practically useless in the field." He rubbed his chin, looked down at the table top where his comsphere rested. "Justan's put you up to this, hasn't he? He wouldn't have told you I was going anyplace unless he expected you to try something."
        Porett hesitated. "Very well, yes, he knows what I'm doing. He's concerned that this influence you claim to have over Conley and Roween might be two-way; one or both could have strings on you, and start to tweak them. All that binds you to Justan is loyalty, and it's an incontestable fact that when loyalty comes up against love, it's loyalty that loses out. Economics, though, is another matter entirely. People can be paid to do absolutely anything."
        "I see. Well, I thank you for your frankness. It's gratifying to learn how highly The King values my services, but at least now I know I have no conflict of interests: I would lose nothing by accepting your offer, except, perhaps, what little remains of my integrity." There was bitterness in his voice. "Before I do, though, I've two questions."
        It was working. "Go ahead."
        "First, why aren't you organising your own squad to chase Conley?"
        Good, Justan hasn't told him. "I'm stuck here in Trilith. How am I going to recruit people and ship them off to Elet in time?"
        He debated a moment, "Point taken." Leaning forward, "Second, does Justan know you haven't destroyed your com-3?"
        He faltered. A trap? Could he blush in here? "What do you mean?"
        "You called me directly, you didn't go through the exchange."
        "So? My com-1 has touched your com-2, a boxful of spheres from the mercenary's guild did the rounds to all major companies. What's the glitch?"
        "My old com-2 split when I took a fall, I had to get a new one. Try indexing on it by class, rather than by owner, you'll see I'm truthing."
        Oh, this just isn't fair!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif74.htm