Chapter 85 Hat

        He'd had to kill to get the horse. Of course, he had killed before - even before he'd started on this ruinous expedition - and it was the same thing, at a level of abstraction, definitely. Last time, he'd been the victim himself, been his own murderer. Yes, he had asked for his death, consented to it, but it made no real difference, he'd taken a life to ensure his own survival. So this time the principle had been the same, he'd merely removed an obstacle, hadn't had any alternative. Yes, it had been someone else, an innocent, but it wasn't as if the killing had been mere opportunism, unjustified laziness, anything like that.
        Porett stared out along the road. Travelling in the opposite direction was a multitude of people, determined, individual. He looked like one of them - even the right height now - but, wary of violating some unknown custom that might betray his foreignness, he was careful not to show any emotion other than mild boredom. Occasionally, if he had to stop and make way for oncoming riders, someone would address him in the flint-like Eletic tongue; he didn't understand, couldn't reply, just smiled and shook his head. Well, it had worked so far.
        The woman whose mare this had been hadn't even known what was happening. She'd been asleep when Porett had stumbled across her, outstretched on a leather sheet spread beneath a leafless beech. Her horse was roaming free, nosing and kicking at the snow in search of hidden grazing. Porett could have simply taken the beast and ridden off, but the maiden would have raised the alarm when she awoke. So he'd killed her, cast a quickbind that would hold her heart motionless for all eternity. It'd look like she'd had a seizure, like it was something natural. That was the beauty of quickbinds. That's why assassins favoured them.
        Would the me that I chose to eradicate have allowed my metamorphosis to monster?
        The signpost read "Liagh Na Laerich, 32". He had no knowledge of Eletic, but a lot of the time it seemed to be written using the same letters as Estavian, except it maybe missed a few of the newer ones. He took the integer to mean the distance he had yet to travel. Exactly how much it translated to in Estavian units of measure he wasn't sure, but the signposts appeared frequently, and he was able to calculate that at his present rate of movement he'd reach the middle of Liagh Na Laerich in around two days' time. Less, if there was no snow.
        Involuntarily, he felt inside his coat for the vial of plague. Well, the coat was his now, yes, but a day ago it had belonged to her, the woman he'd murdered. The clothes were hers, too, spares he'd found in her saddlebags. He'd kept his point armour underneath, but the rest of his own kit he'd burned. And that was how it had happened: the woman had been his size, and Eletic men were invariably taller, so he'd tinkered with his illusion a little. Now, he looked just like any other female Elet on her way to the capital.
        Was it only a couple of months ago that the version of himself in the com-3 had - ? No. No, not the same thing at all. Passing yourself off as a woman is hardly comparable to inhabiting an actual woman's body. But might it be just as corrupting, in time? Not in a country where everyone dressed, behaved identically, whatever their gender. And yet...
        Up ahead there was a junction, with buildings beyond. Some kind of signalling was in operation, a snow-powdered man standing on a dais, pointing and waving a flag. The road running across had two carriageways, both teeming with people, many of whom were leaving at the crossroads and joining the line that led eastwards, past Porett, on to the Lowlands.
        Getting through this lot, he decided, would call for caution. If he disobeyed a signal, or if the traffic officer shouted instructions, it might compromise his disguise. Huh. Almost amusing: traffic officers, in a land of supposed anarchists...
        He watched the flag-waving, tried to follow the man's intentions. Elets apparently kept to the left, and on the northbound section of road there was a short extension for people who wanted to turn right. The flag-waver waited until this was full, then stopped the southbound road and directed the assembled right-turn people across it, onto the highway that would take them to the Lowlands. No-one seemed to be going where Porett was headed, on towards Liagh Na Laerich. Should he cross the southbound carriageway when the flag-man signalled it to halt?
        He chanced. When he reached the middle, the traffic officer said something, short. Porett smiled, shook his head. The other man shrugged, waved his flag; people on the northbound carriageway stopped, and Porett rode across.
        The large-lettered sign read: "Ihll Liagh Na Laerich." It bore no accompanying number.

* * *

        Caltra looked less than happy when Porett called from the com-3.
        "More unrest?" he asked.
        She was calm, but obviously concerned, like it was all her fault. "Another three design houses switched to Magicorp last night."
        "That makes eight." He nodded. "Same method?"
        "Intimidation, yes. Another five in the vicinity are at serious risk. Can you not come back and take charge, Lord Porett?"
        He clicked his illusory teeth. "I'd like to, Caltra, but at present I'm detained here on business."
        "In a forest?" She didn't sound incredulous, just surprised.
        Where I last merged... He cocked his head to one side, like her question wasn't even worth an answer.
        She blushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
        "Never mind. What about other set-ups in the same territory? MedSpell run a couple of facs, don't they? And Tetra? And the smaller places?"
        "MedSpell haven't been touched, there's a report on your desk assessing the situation."
        "Have you read it?"
        She smiled, worriedly. "I will if you want me to, but it's marked confidential, and there's so much other information - it really all needs to be taken together. The rumours are that Magicorp will buy out the MedSpell establishments once they've driven out ours, but I don't know anything of what's happening to the smaller places."
        "Who's handling our defence? Bordoat? Firgues?"
        "I... I understand that Magicorp have been applying some pressure to their families..."
        "Threatening them, you mean?"
        She didn't answer.
        "And you, Caltra, have they been threatening you?"
        She glanced away. "No, no they haven't. Not yet."

* * *

        Porett knew that Justan was in for trouble: the city was truly vast, its buildings squeezed together like they were trying to make room for others yet to come. Rather than risk riding openly down the wider streets, he was taking the back roads that ran parallel to them; even here, though, there were edifices several storeys higher than any in central Cala. How much bigger would be the ones downtown?
        If the city had been planned, it didn't show it. Although the main boulevards were fairly straight, they were criss-crossed with innumerable narrow streets, running diagonally out of nowhere - maybe going off to nowhere, too. Other roads snaked around like you'd normally only see in corroded slums, but here the buildings were in fair order, constructed using the same, slate-grey stone. The uniform caking of snow made them all look incredibly clean.
        Porett wasn't oppressed any by the scale of the city, but he did begin to wonder just how far it extended. How many days could you travel in a straight line before you came to a field? And if you strayed to the side- streets? You could lose yourself in the zigzags forever!
        But Porett wasn't lost. Ten years or so ago, when he'd had the copies of his thesis printed, he'd tagged every single one. "Just to see who was interested, really," although now they were scattered all over Murak. Someone, however, had thoughtfully acquired one for Elet. It felt about a day away, straight ahead.
        Where else would it be kept but in the library?

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif85.htm