by Frej Wasastjerna


     "Keep your hands off the girls," Radeyann said. "In particular, keep the other parts of your anatomy to yourselves. That goes for you soldiers too."

     "But we don't have any magical abilities that sex could weaken," Khadevar objected.

     "You might inadvertently violate some local taboo and get us all in trouble."

     "Taboo? It seems that today there are no taboos here."

     "True, that's the way it looks. But we don't really know, we're strangers here. Besides, if I can remain celibate for twenty more years, you can do it until we get back to Miann‑Shadalni or somewhere where we know what we're doing."

     That earned Radeyann a black look from some of the soldiers.

     "Anyway," he went on, "Count Yithazub warned us that agents of the central government in Kestrala might try to make trouble for us."

     "You'd better explain that," Medor, the commander of the soldiers in the expedition said. "They weren't present when we talked with the count."

     "Well, it's like this: We've landed in the middle of something that might soon boil over into a rebellion. The locals resent being part of the empire of Halann. In addition to the usual distaste for taking orders from foreigners, they regard the Halanni as a bunch of puritanical killjoys.

     "They are just about ready to revolt, and the government in Kestrala knows that. Their agents are trying to prevent anything that might strengthen the rebels. And, according to the count, they're afraid we might support the rebels."

     "Three half‑trained wizards and nineteen soldiers?" Beredan, one of the apprentice wizards, asked. "What do they think they have to fear from us?"

     "I suppose they're worried that we might have some foreign magic against which they have no defenses."

     Nobody else seemed to have any questions, so Radeyann turned and began lead the expedition from Count Yithazub's palace to the inn where it was housed. The count had plainly not exaggerated when he had described the festival as "sexually uninhibited". As he had explained it, it was a feast intended to make the gods make their fields fertile during the coming rainy season, using sympathetic magic.

     As enthusiastically as these folks went at it, the gods would undoubtedly bless their fields with stupendous fertility.

     At each street corner, there was a fire scented with incense, so that the smell made his head swim. Around each fire, to the sound of drums and flutes played mostly by young girls and old crones, danced young women who, every now and then, would take off some garment and fling it to somebody in the attentively watching male audience. That really struck Radeyann as singularly unnecessary, since their clothing concealed very little anyway.

     When one of them threw away her last piece of clothing, she would choose some man and go indoors with him. And, every now and then, a woman, sometimes accompanied by an exhausted‑looking man, sometimes not, would emerge from some house and join the dancers, dressed in not very much.

     As Radeyann threaded his way among the clumps of people, he tried, not quite successfully, to keep his eyes away from the women. He was supposed to observe the cultures the expedition encountered and report his observations back to Miann‑Shadalni daily. Usually he did that willingly enough, but for somebody who had to remain celibate this festival was just too painful.

     Twice on the way to the inn some woman threw her arms around Radeyann's neck, and he had to detach her gently but firmly, with a regretful headshake. Fortunately they didn't know how regretful that headshake was. More than once Medor had to order some reluctant soldier to do the same, pointing out that they weren't there to enjoy themselves.

     When they finally reached the inn, Radeyann drew a sigh of relief. He checked that nobody was missing, and Medor took care of the guard duty assignments, making it emphatically clear that any guard who let himself be distracted would be in deep shit. Then Radeyann went to his own room and threw himself down on the bed to rest, not physically exhausted but emotionally. He was glad he had decided to let each wizard have his own room, though that cost more. Sometimes he needed privacy. Besides, one room for each wizard and one for each two or three soldiers meant that the expedition had filled up the inn, which, though expensive, had its advantages in terms of security and avoiding misunderstanding that might lead to conflicts with the local population.


     After he had rested, he decided to report the day's events back to the White Order's base at Miann‑Shadalni. He took the scrying bowl out of his pack and put it on the heavy wooden table in the middle of his room, then poured the dark scrying oil into it.

     The first stage of the communications spell, as of any other, was to pull in as much uruop as he could from his surroundings to power the spell. He would need it all at this distance, especially as he was poorly trained in this spell.

     He closed his eyes, emptying his mind of other thoughts than the memory of the communications room in Miann‑Shadalni, the white, bare room where somebody would be watching a bowl just like his.  He stood on tiptoe, stretching his fingers as high as he could, feeling the uruop flow into him. Then he slowly swept his arms sideways and down, lowering himself into a crouch at the same time. He straightened his legs, speaking an incantation to focus his mind still more and made some passes with his hands above the bowl to channel the uruop. Then he opened his eyes.

     In the dark surface of the oil, he could faintly see a face. He couldn't see it clearly enough to be sure who it was, though he thought he recognized the pug nose of his friend Tuzuk. No matter. The main thing was that whoever it was could see his hands. He began signing over the bowl...

     After he had finished reporting, he poured the oil back into the bottle and put that and the bowl back in the pack. Then he went out on the balcony.


     The towers and spires of Shanlidarra stood black athwart the golden sunset. Outside the town walls, the shadows lengthened on the Miyegeng plain. The air wasn't quite so thick with incense up here on the second floor, and a soft breeze caressed his face. How lucky he had been when he chose to lodge the expedition in an inn with such a view...

     Somebody knocked on the door of his room. Muttering in annoyance, Radeyann went to the door and opened it.

     There stood a woman. She had the racial features of the people living hereabouts: skin slightly darker than Radeyann's light brown; dark, straight hair; a narrow, high‑bridged nose and deep brown eyes. In her, these features formed a face of exquisite beauty.

     She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, bolting it shut. Radeyann was too surprised to stop her. He wasn't sure he wanted to.

     She unfastened a clasp at her throat and threw her dark blue cloak on the floor. Apart from her jeweled sandals, she now wore nothing but a diaphanous gown that called attention to, rather than concealing, a stunning figure.

     Then she threw her hands around Radeyann's neck and kissed him.

     He wanted to let her continue. More than he had ever wanted anything, he wanted to embrace her, to tear off that gown and his own clothes...

     Unfortunately he had to resist.

     His hands were already on her hips before he could persuade them to stop. With an immense effort of will, he brought them up to detach her hands from his neck. Somehow he also managed to shake his head.

     In a questioning, disappointed voice the woman said something Radeyann didn't understand. He shook his head again. Then he picked up her cloak and put it on her shoulders. With his left hand, he grasped her right elbow while the other hand unbolted and opened the door. She didn't resist when he led her out the door, though her disappointed expression almost broke his resolve. They went down the stairs and out the front door of the inn.

     When the woman had left, Radeyann turned with his hands on his hips to face Horekt and Hedral, the two soldiers guarding the door.

     "Did you let her in?" he snapped.

     The expression on their faces was too innocent to be genuine. Was there a slight smirk on Horekt's face? Well, he couldn't punish anyone based on a mere suspicion.

     "They said they had an important message for you. Said it in Tshezz, too."


     At that moment Beredan came leading another woman down the stairs.

     "Yes, there were three of them," Hedral said.

     Squeezing past the woman, Radeyann went up the stairs. Fast. Then he opened Garak's door without bothering to knock.

     It was as he had feared. There was Garak, the other apprentice wizard, lying on top of a woman, both quite naked.

     "Stop that!" he barked.

     Shamefacedly, Garak complied. "Thanks for saving me," he muttered, apparently not sure whether he really was grateful. "You arrived just in time."

     After the third woman had been escorted out, Radeyann asked what had happened to Beredan. He had resisted the seduction attempt just like Radeyann had. Then Radeyann gave the guards strict orders not to let anyone in. If anyone claimed to have a message, they had to tell him so he could come to the door.

     Then he went back to his room and tried to go to sleep. He spent a long time pounding his bed and biting his pillow in frustration.

     His last waking thought was that he wished his character were as weak as Garak's.


     Next morning he thought differently. OK, it was possible that the women in the street yesterday might simply have thought him attractive. As far as he could estimate, his tall and slender body, brown hair and narrow face might be considered reasonably good‑looking, at least by local women with a taste for the exotic. But what had happened in the evening had to be something else.

     To begin with, there had been three women. And these three had chosen precisely those men who had to avoid sex: the three wizards. If anyone of them had completed sexual intercourse with a woman, his magical powers would have been greatly weakened for months and slightly weakened for the rest of his life.

     At least, that was what the master wizards at Miann‑Shadalni said. Sometimes, when in a skeptical mood, Radeyann wondered whether that really was true. Maybe it was something the older wizards had cooked up to get all the young women for themselves, once they were old enough to leave most of the active wizardry to their younger colleagues?

     What he had seen of the magical powers of those wizards, in their late forties and older, who had abandoned celibacy did suggest that the story was true. Still, it could have been an act.

     All right, most likely it was either true or believed by his colleagues here in the west as well as back on the east coast of the continent of Tshenglo. What had happened yesterday evening had to be an attempt to weaken the magic of this expedition. It couldn't have been a coincidence.

     Moreover, as if it weren't clear enough already, hadn't the guards said yesterday that those women had spoken Tshezz? He hadn't paid much attention at the time, having too much else to think about, but it was highly suspicious. So far as he knew, this expedition was the first direct contact between the empires of Fuvan in the east and Halann in the west, so it seemed unlikely that anyone in Halann knew any Fuvanian language, whether Tshezz or any other. Somebody must have cast a language spell on those women. That they knew which rooms to go to also suggested magic.

     Ergo, some wizard wanted this expedition weak. Who and why?

     Considering what Yithazub had said yesterday, it was probably a Halanni agent.

     Next question: what to do about it? The attempt yesterday had been foiled, but there might be other ones ‑‑ and maybe more drastic ones. Somebody might even get killed. Having Halanni agents hostile to the expedition was not a situation he liked.

     At breakfast he was curt and absent‑minded, pondering the problem. The natural thing to do would be to get out of Halann and head for home, but that would mean that the expedition would return with its mission less than half accomplished. They were supposed to learn as much as they could, and here was an entire civilization known in Fuvan only as distant rumors. There was an awful lot they should learn instead of running home with their tails between their legs.


     By the time he had finished breakfast he had made up his mind. He wasn't happy with his plan, but he couldn't think of anything better.

     At his orders, the expedition checked out of the inn. Then they went to the count's palace, where Radeyann and Medor discussed the situation with Yithazub. He agreed with Radeyann's assessment of yesterday's events and also agreed that it might be unsafe for the expedition to stay in Shanlidarra.

     When he asked whether the expedition might be willing to support the rebellion that would probably soon break out, Radeyann politely declined. Grateful as he was for all the information the count had provided, he didn't want to get involved in an uprising that was really none of his business, so he said goodbye with many protestations of goodwill on both sides.


     In the courtyard of the count's palace, Radeyann then explained his analysis of the situation to the other members of the expedition. Finally he put his hands on his hips and said, "So, the question is, what do we do? As I see it, the Halanni are worried about us because here, among the southerners, we may come under their influence and decide to join the rebellion. Thus we head north, removing ourselves from this purportedly dangerous influence, going to Kestrala itself. There, if we'll be influenced by anybody, it will be by the Halanni themselves. Hopefully they'll be less nervous that way."

     He carefully avoided saying a word about what might happen if the plan failed to reassure the Halanni. Talk about sticking one's head into the mouth of a hungry renya wouldn't do the expedition's morale any good.

     On the other hand, maybe his fears were exaggerated. What happened last evening must have been planned by somebody with hostile intentions, but it was a gentle, civilized way of neutralizing any danger the expedition could have posed to Halanni interests. Were the Halanni ruthless enough to do worse things just on the basis of a suspicion? Maybe it wouldn't even have been necessary to leave Shanlidarra?


     On the way out of town, they passed the inn where they had stayed. Having already checked out, they just kept on going. Radeyann threw a somewhat rueful glance at the inn. He would always have ambivalent memories of it, thinking of it as a place of lost opportunity.

     When they reached a crossing where they would turn right and lose sight of the inn, Radeyann stopped for a moment to look back at it one last time ‑‑ and stiffened in shock. Flames were pouring out of every window in the inn.

     That was that, he thought. Forget any ideas about staying in Shanlidarra. It was just good luck that somebody's ruthlessness wasn't matched by up‑to‑date knowledge of the expedition's movements.