Cure or Cause
by Ellen Million
sponsored by Melissa Nelson and Michelle Goldberg
previously published at Torn World
"You cure time madness with it?"
"This very rare cactus bulb is the only thing that works," Draiden insisted. "It's only available at the very edges of the crystal desert, and the Purists there guarantee that it is the only thing to fix the time madness. Not only does it cure time madness, but completely prevents it. Only virgin Purists are permitted to remove the spines - it's a very time consuming process."
Oranaan was juggling one of the de-spined globules between his hands. "This is madpot," he said. "I thought it made you crazy."
Draiden's grin only spread. "If you eat it, yes. Of a certainty! But if you make a mash out of it and paint it over your eyelids, you'll prevent time madness entirely. If you know someone already afflicted, just spread it on their chest; it will completely cure them. The Purists on the Rim swear to it, and that area has recorded more of the anomalies than any other in the Empire. Its value well exceeds your own stake in this."
"The only thing that will cure you of is the weight of the money in your wallet."
Oranaan's grin matched Draiden's momentarily, but by the time he'd turned, he had smoothed it away to an expression of surprise. "Citizen Emeroma!" he said in tones of innocence. "What are you doing here?"
"What your classmates apparently don't have the good sense to do," the tall, silver-haired Science Leader said sharply. "One of them said you had taken research funds to the circus."
"It was that tattle-tale little goody-goody Denel, wasn't it!" Oranaan guessed without ire. "These are my own funds," he insisted.
"It wasn't Denel," Emeroma said with a frown. "And where did you get your own funds? I thought you weren't accepting those any more."
Draiden, perhaps recognizing the threat to his game, and definitely recognizing the distinct, high-rank robes of a Science Leader, moved as if to take the cactus lump back from Oranaan. "Heh. Students always think they know everything at this stage, don't they?" He gave her a measuring look, which she returned with a withering stare.
Oranaan held the cactus piece just out of range, just shy of looking like he was doing so deliberately, inspecting it with theatrical care.
"There could be truth to the concept," the wild-haired Scientist said encouragingly. "We know the crystal desert does odd temporal things, and these do grow really close to it. A lot of old folk cures have their basis in fact, afterall. It's worth further study, like you always say."
Draiden leapt on the idea. "That's true!" he agreed energetically. "We thought the Upheaval itself was just folklore for centuries, but now we know it really happened. Take border chicory, for example. It was just folklore for years that the locals used it to detect poisons in the soil, but we know that it really does, now!"
Emeroma's lips went to thin lines. "Perhaps you two should test it on yourselves right now and save me the trouble of having to call an audit on Oranaan's research funding and an inspection of your caravan. You two are clearly candidates for needing these mental restorative powers."
Oranaan scowled. "I haven't been spending any of the research funds," he insisted. "I promise! I only--" he abruptly seemed to reconsider.
"Gambling it is not better than spending it, Oranaan," Emeroma said firmly.
"I haven't lost any!" Oranaan insisted. "Not a coin of it!"
"Not yet, you haven't," Emeroma retorted. "But it's not yours to try with, is it."
Draiden watched their exchange with interest, and then alarm when Emeroma turned to him. "And you, don't think that your little, un-licensed side-gambles won't go without notice. You men are all alike, convinced that you are subtle and sneaky when you are neither." She snapped fingers at Oranaan, who sheepishly handed the cactus piece to her. She placed it back in Draiden's palm.
"I expect to see you back in the research laboratories gambling with the electroscope before evening meal, Oranaan," she said without looking at him.
"And perhaps you could spend that evening meal at a fine establishment I know of, with me?" Draiden invited smoothly.
Emeroma's eyebrows shot up on her forehead. "Are you inviting me out?" she asked incredulously.
"A fine, observant lady like you would be a marvelous addition to a meal," Draiden confirmed. "And perhaps some drinks afterwards?"
The Science Leader turned an unexpected beet red, and Oranaan crowed with laughter, abruptly silenced by unappreciative looks from both Emeroma and Draiden.
"I think not--"
"I would be--"
"You don't have to--"
Science Leader, caravan manager and student all spoke at once. Emeroma broke the stalemate by declaring loudly, "Idiots!" and stalking away.
Oranaan doubled over with laughter again. "You wouldn't have a chance with her," he told Draiden. "Not a sugar grain's chance in a pig breeder's farm."
Draiden grinned. "Care to wager on that?"