Authors: Parker, K. J.
Copyright © 2005 by K. J. Parker
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced,distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior writtenpermission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: June 2009
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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental andnot intended by the author.
Meet the author
A Preview ofEvil For Evil
A Preview ofWinterbirth
As soon as Duke Orsea realized he’d lost the battle, the war, and his country’s only hope of survival, he ordered a generalretreat. It was the only sensible thing he’d done all day.
One hour had made all the difference. An hour ago, when he’d led the attack, the world had been a very different place. He’dhad an army of twenty-five thousand men, one-tenth of the population of the Duchy of Eremia. He had a commanding position,a fully loaded supplies-and-equipment train, a carefully prepared battle plan, the element of surprise, the love and trustof his people, and hope. Now, as the horns blared and the ragged lines crumpled and dissolved into swarms of running dots,he had the miserable job of getting as many as he could of the fourteen thousand stunned, bewildered, and resentful survivorsaway from the enemy cavalry and back to the relative safety of the mountains.
One hour to change the world; not many men could have done such a thorough job. It took a particular genius to destroy one’slife so comprehensively in so short a time.
Praise forK. J. Parker
“A richly textured and emotionally complex fantasy.… Highly recommended.”
— Library Journal(starred review)
“When so many fantasy sagas are tired, warmed-over affairs, a writer like K. J. Parker is more of a hurricane than a breathof fresh air.”
By K. J. Parker
THE FENCER TRILOGY
Colours in the Steel
The Belly of the Bow
The Proof House
THE SCAVENGER TRILOGY
THE ENGINEER TRILOGY
Devices and Desires
Evil for Evil
For Tim Holman, for letting me swim out of my depth,and for Kester, who I knew before he was infamous1
“The quickest way to a man’s heart,” said the instructor, “is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get intohis brain, I recommend the eye-socket.”
Like a whip cracking, he uncurled his languid slouch into the taut, straight lines of the lunge. His forearm launched fromthe elbow like an arrow as his front leg plunged forward, and the point of the long, slim sword darted, neat as a componentin a machine, through the exact center of the finger-ring that dangled from a cord tied to the beam.
It was typical of Valens’ father that he insisted on his son learning the new fencing; the stock, the tuck, the small-swordand the rapier. It was elegant, refined, difficult, endlessly time-consuming and, of course, useless. A brigandine or evena thick winter coat would turn one of those exquisite points; if you wanted to have any chance of doing useful work, you hadto aim for the holes in the face, targets no bigger than an eight-mark coin. Against a farm worker with a hedging tool, youstood no chance whatsoever. But, for ten years, Valens had flounced and stretched up and down a chalk line in a drafty shedthat hadn’t been cleaned out since it was still a stable. When he could hit the apple, the instructor had hung up a plum,and then a damson. Now he could get the damson nine times out of ten, and so the ring had taken its place. Once he’d masteredthat, he wondered what he’d be faced with next. The eye of a darning-needle, probably.
“Better,” the instructor said, as the point of Valens’ sword nicked the ring’s edge, making it tinkle like a cow-bell. “Again.”
It was typical of Valens that he suffered through his weekly lesson, face frozen and murder in his heart, always strivingto do better even though he knew the whole thing was an exercise in fatuity. Fencing was last lesson but one on a Monday;on Wednesday evening, when he actually had an hour free, he paid one of the guardsmen four marks an hour to teach him basicsword and shield, and another two marks to keep the secret from his father. He was actually quite good at proper fencing,or so the guardsman said; but the tuck had no cutting edge, only a point, so he couldn’t slice the grin off the instructor’sface with a smart backhand wrap, as he longed to do. Instead, he was tethered to this stupid chalk line, like a grazing goat.
“That’ll do,” the instructor said, two dozen lunges later. “For next week, I want you to practice the hanging guard and thevolte.”
Valens dipped his head in a perfunctory nod; the instructor scooped up his armful of swords, unhooked his ring and left theroom. It was still raining outside, and he had a quarter of an hour before he had to present himself in the west tower forlute and rebec. Awkwardly — it was too small for him at the best of times, and now his fingers were hot and swollen — he easedthe ring off his right index finger and cast around for a bit of string.
Usually, he did much better when the instructor wasn’t there, when he was on his own. That was fatuous too, since the wholeidea of a sword-fight is that there’s someone to fight with. Today, though, he was worse solo than he’d been during the lesson.He lunged again, missed, hit the string, which wrapped itself insultingly round the sword-point. Maybe it was simply too difficultfor him.
That thought didn’t sit comfortably, so he came at the problem from a different angle. Obviously, he told himself, the reasonI can’t do it is because it’s not difficultenough.
Having freed his sword, he stepped back to a length; then he leaned forward just a little and tapped the ring on its edge,setting it swinging. Then he lunged again.
Six times out of six; enough to prove his point. When the ring swung backward and forward, he didn’t just have a hole to aimat, he had a line. If he judged the forward allowance right, it was just a simple matter of pointing with the sword as thoughit was a finger. He steadied the ring until it stopped swinging, stepped back, lunged again and missed. Maybe I should havebeen a cat, he thought. Cats only lash out at moving objects; if it’s still, they can’t see it.
He cut the ring off the cord with his small knife and jammed it back on his finger, trapping a little fold of skin. Rebecnext; time to stop being a warrior and become an artist. When he was Duke, of course, the finest musicians in the world wouldbribe his chamberlains for a chance to play while he chatted to his guests or read the day’s intelligence reports, ignoringthem completely. The son of a powerful, uneducated man has a hard time of it, shouldering the burden of all the advantageshis father managed so well without.
An hour of the rebec left his fingertips numb and raw; and then it was time for dinner. That brought back into sharp focusthe question he’d been dodging and parrying all day; would she still be there, or had his father sent her back home? If she’dleft already — if, while he’d been scanning hexameters and hendecasyllables, stabbing at dangling jewelry and picking at wire,she’d packed up her bags and walked out of his life, possibly forever — at least he wouldn’t have to sit all night at thewrong end of the table, straining to catch a word or two of what she said to someone else. If she was still here.… He castup his mental accounts, trying to figure out if he was owed a miracle. On balance, he decided, probably not. According tothe holy friars, it took three hundred hours of prayer or five hundred of good works to buy a miracle, and he was at leastsixty short on either count. All he could afford out of his accrued merit was a revelatory vision of the Divinity, and hewasn’t too bothered about that.
If she was still here.
On the off chance, he went back to his room, pulled off his sweaty, dusty shirt and winnowed through his clothes-chest fora replacement. The black, with silver threads and two gold buttons at the neck, made him look like a jackdaw, so he went forthe red, with last year’s sleeves (but, duke’s son or not, he lived in the mountains; if it came in from outside, it cameslowly, on a mule), simply because it was relatively clean and free of holes. Shoes; his father chose his shoes for him, andpoulaines, with their ridiculously long pointy toes. He promised himself that she wouldn’t be able to see his feet under thetable (besides, she wouldn’t still be here), and pulled out his good mantle from the bottom of the chest. It was only civet,but it helped mask the disgraceful length of his neck. A glance in the mirror made him wince, but it was the best he coulddo.
Sixty hours, he told himself; sixty rotten hours I could’ve made up easily, if only I’d known.
Protocol demanded that he sit on his father’s left at dinner. Tonight, the important guest was someone he didn’t know, althoughthe man’s brown skin and high cheekbones made it easy enough to guess where he was from. An ambassador from Mezentia; no wonderhis father was preoccupied, waving his hands and smiling (two generations of courtiers had come to harm trying to point outto the Duke that his smile was infinitely more terrifying than his frown), while the little bald brown man nodded politelyand picked at his dinner like a starling. One quick look gave Valens all the information he needed about what was going onthere. On his own left, the Chancellor was discussing climbing roses with the controller of the mines. So that was all right;he was free to look round without having to talk to anybody.
She was still here. There was a tiny prickle of guilt mixed in with his relief. She was, after all, a hostage. If she hadn’tbeen sent home, it meant that there’d been some last-minute hitch in the treaty negotiations, and the war between the twodukedoms, two centuries old, was still clinging on to life by a thread. Sooner or later, though, the treaty would be signed:peace would end the fighting and the desperate waste of lives and money, heal the country’s wounds and bring the conscriptfarmers and miners back home; peace would take her away from him before he’d even had a chance to talk to her alone. For now,though, the war was still here and so was she.
(A small diplomatic incident, maybe; if he could contrive it that their ambassador bumped into him on the stairs and knockedhim down a flight or two. Would an act of clumsiness toward the heir apparent be enough to disrupt the negotiations for aweek or ten days? On the other hand, if he fell awkwardly and broke his neck, might that not constitute an act of war, leadingto summary execution of the hostages? And he’d be dead too, of course, for what that was worth.)
Something massive stirred on his right; his father was standing up to say something, and everybody had stopped talking. Therewas a chance it might be important (Father loved to annoy his advisers by making vital announcements out of the blue at dinner),so Valens tucked in his elbows, looked straight ahead and listened.
But it wasn’t anything. The little bald man from Mezentia turned out to be someone terribly important, grand secretary ofthe Foundrymen’s and Machinists’ Guild (in Father’s court, secretaries were fast-moving, worried-looking men who could write;but apparently they ruled Mezentia, and therefore, by implication, the world), and he was here as an observer to the treatynegotiations, and this was extremely good. Furthermore, as a token of the Republic’s respect and esteem, he’d brought an exampleof cutting-edge Mezentine technology, which they would all have the privilege of seeing demonstrated after dinner.
Distracted as he was by the distant view of the top of her head, Valens couldn’t help being slightly curious about that. EverydayMezentine technology was so all-pervasive you could scarcely turn round in the castle without knocking some of it over. Everylast cup and dish, from the best service reserved for state occasions down to the pewter they ate off when nobody was looking,had come from the Republic’s rolling mills; every candle stood in a Mezentine brass candlestick, its light doubled by a Mezentinemirror hanging from a Mezentine nail. But extra-special cutting-edge didn’t make it up the mountain passes very often, whichmeant they had to make do with rumors; the awestruck whispers of traders and commercial travelers, the panicky reports ofmilitary intelligence, and the occasional gross slander from a competitor, far from home and desperate. If the little baldman had brought a miracle with him (the ten-thousand-mark kind, rather than the three-hundred-hour variety), Valens reckonedhe could spare a little attention for it, though his heart might be broken beyond repair by even the masters of the Solderers’and Braziers’ Guild.
The miracle came in a plain wooden crate. It was no more than six feet long by three wide, but it took a man at each cornerto move it — a heavy miracle, then. Two Mezentines with grave faces and crowbars prised the crate open; out came a lot ofstraw, and some curly cedar shavings, and then something which Valens assumed was a suit of armor. It was man-high, man-shapedand shiny, and the four attendants lifted it up and set it down on some kind of stand. Fine, Valens thought. Father’ll behappy, he likes armor. But then the attendants did something odd. One of them reached into the bottom of the crate and fishedout a steel tube with a ring through one end; a key, but much larger than anything of the kind Valens had seen before. Itfitted into a slot in the back of the armor; some kind of specially secure, sword-proof fastening? Apparently not; one ofthe attendants began turning it over and over again, and each turn produced a clicking sound, like the skittering of mice’sfeet on a thin ceiling. Meanwhile, two more crates had come in. One of them held nothing more than an ordinary blacksmith’sanvil — polished, true, like a silver chalice, but otherwise no big deal. The other was full of tools; hammers, tongs, coldchisels, swages, boring stuff. The anvil came to rest at the suit of armor’s feet, and one of the Mezentines prised open thesuit’s steel fingers and closed them around the stem of a three-pound hammer.
“The operation of the machine…” Valens looked round to see who was talking. It was the short, bald man, the grand secretary.He had a low, rich voice with a fairly mild accent. “The operation of the machine is quite straightforward. A powerful spiralspring, similar to those used in clockwork, is put under tension by winding with a key. Once released, it bears on a flywheel,causing it to spin. A gear train and a series of cams and connecting rods transmits this motion to the machine’s main spindle,from which belt-driven takeoffs power the arms. Further cams and trips effect the reciprocating movement, simulating the workof the human arm.”
Whatever that was supposed to mean. It didn’t look like anybody else understood it either, to judge from the rows of perfectlyblank faces around the tables. But then the key-turner stopped turning, pulled out his key and pushed something; and the suitof armor’s arm lifted to head height, stopped and fell, and the hammer in its hand rang on the anvil like a silver bell.
Not armor after all; Valens could feel his father’s disappointment through the boards of the table. Of course Valens knewwhat it was, though he’d never seen anything like it. He’d read about it in some book; the citizens of the Perpetual Republichad a childish love of mechanical toys, metal gadgets that did things almost but not quite as well as people could. It wasa typically Mezentine touch to send a mechanical blacksmith. Here is a machine, they were saying, that could make anothermachine just like itself, the way you ordinary humans breed children. Well; it was their proud boast that they had a machinefor everything. Mechanizing reproduction, though, was surely cutting off their noses to spite their collective face.
The hammer rang twelve times, then stopped. Figures, Valens thought. You get a dozen hits at a bit of hot metal before itcools down and needs to go back in the fire. While you’re waiting for it to heat up again, you’ve got time to wind up yourmechanical slave. Query whether turning the key is harder work than swinging the hammer yourself would be. In any event, it’sjust a trip-hammer thinly disguised as a man. Now then; a man convincingly disguised as a trip-hammer, that’d be worth walkinga mile to see.
Stunned silence for a moment or so, followed by loud, nervous applause. The little grand secretary stood up, smiled vaguelyand sat down again; that concluded the demonstration.
Ten minutes after he got up from the table, Valens couldn’t remember what he’d just eaten, or the name of the trade attachéhe’d just been introduced to, or the date; as for the explanation of how the heavy miracle worked, it had vanished from hismind completely. That was unfortunate.
“I was wondering,” she repeated. “Did you understand what that man said, about how the metal blacksmith worked? I’m afraidI didn’t catch any of it, and my father’s sure to ask me when I get home.”
So she was going home, then. The irony; at last he was talking to her, and tomorrow she was going away. Further irony; ithad been his father himself who’d brought them together;Valens, come over here and talk to the Countess Sirupati.Father had been towering over her, the way the castle loomed over the village below, all turrets and battlements, and he’dbeen smiling, which accounted for the look of terror in her eyes. Valens had wanted to reassure her; it’s all right, he hasn’tactually eaten anybody for weeks. Instead, he’d stood and gawped, and then he’d looked down at his shoes (poulaines, withthe ridiculous pointy toes). And then she’d asked him about the mechanical blacksmith.
He pulled himself together, like a boy trying to draw his father’s bow. “I’m not really the right person to ask,” he said.“I don’t know a lot about machines and stuff.”
Her expression didn’t change, except that it glazed slightly. Of course she didn’t give a damn about how the stupid machineworked; she was making conversation. “I think,” he went on, “that there’s a sort of wheel thing in its chest going round andround, and it’s linked to cogs and gears and what have you. Oh, and there’s cams, to turn the round and round into up anddown.”
She blinked at him. “What’s a cam?” she asked.
“Ah.” What indeed? “Well, it’s sort of…” Three hours a week with a specially imported Doctor of Rhetoric, from whom he wassupposed to learn how to express himself with clarity, precision and grace. “It’s sort of like this,” he went on, miming withhis hands. “The wheel goes round, you see, and on the edge of the wheel there’s like a bit sticking out. Each time it goesround, it kind of bashes on a sort of lever arrangement, like a see-saw; and the lever thing pivots, like it goes down atthe bashed end and up at the other end — that’s how the arm lifts — and when it’s done that, it drops down again under itsown weight, nicely in time for the sticky-out bit on the wheel to bash it again. And so on.”
“I see,” she said. “Yes, I think I understand it now.”
“No,” she said. “But thank you for trying.”
He frowned. “Well, it was probably the worst explanation of anything I’ve ever heard in my life.”
She nodded. “Maybe,” she said. “But at least you didn’t say, oh, you’re only a girl, you wouldn’t understand.”
He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Tactically (four hours a week on the Art of War, with General Bozannes) he felthe probably had a slight advantage, a weak point in the line he could probably turn, if he could get his cavalry there intime. Somehow, though, he felt that the usages of the wars didn’t apply here, or if they did they shouldn’t. Odd; becauseeven before he’d started having formal lessons, he’d run his life like a military campaign, and the usages of war appliedtoeverything.
“Well,” he said, “I’m a boy and I haven’t got a clue. I suppose it’s different in Mezentia.”
“Oh, it is,” she said. “I’ve been there, actually.”
“Really? I mean, what’s it like?”
She withdrew into a shell of thought, shutting out him and all the world. “Strange,” she said. “Not like anywhere else, really.Oh, it’s very grand and big and the buildings are huge and all closely packed together, but that’s not what I meant. I can’tdescribe it, really.” She paused, and Valens realized he was holding his breath. “We all went there for some diplomatic thing,my father and my sisters and me; it was shortly before my eldest sister’s wedding, and I think it was something to do withthe negotiations. I was thirteen then, no, twelve. Anyway, I remember there was this enormous banquet in one of the Guildhalls. Enormous place, full of statues and tapestries, and there was this amazing painting on the ceiling, a sea-battle orsomething like that; and all these people were in their fanciest robes, with gold chains round their necks and silks and allkinds of stuff like that. But the food came on these crummy old wooden dishes, and there weren’t any knives or forks, justa plain wooden spoon.”
Fork? he wondered; what’s a farm tool got to do with eating? “Very odd,” he agreed. “What was the food like?”
“Horrible. It was very fancy and sort of fussy, the way it was put on the plate, with all sorts of leaves and frills and thingsto make it look pretty; but really it was just bits of meat and dumplings in slimy sauce.”
To the best of his recollection, Valens had never wanted anything in his entire life. Things had come his way, a lot of them;like the loathsome pointy-toed poulaines, the white thoroughbred mare that hated him and tried to bite his feet, the kestrelthat wouldn’t come back when it was called, the itchy damask pillows, the ivory-handled rapier, all the valuable junk hisfather kept giving him. He’d been brought up to take care of his possessions, so he treated them with respect until they woreout, broke or died; but he had no love for them, no pride in owning them. He knew that stuff like that mattered to most people;it was a fact about humanity that he accepted without understanding. Other boys his age had wanted a friend; but Valens hadalways known that the Duke’s son didn’t make friends; and besides, he preferred thinking to talking, just as he liked to walkon his own. He’d never wanted to be Duke, because that would only happen when his father died. Now, for the first time, hefelt what it was like to want something — but, he stopped to consider, is it actually possible to want a person? How? As apet; to keep in a mews or a stable, to feed twice a day when not in use. It would be possible, of course. You could keep aperson, a girl for instance, in a stable or a bower; you could walk her and feed her, dress her and go to bed with her, but.…He didn’t wantownership.He was the Duke’s son, as such he owned everything and nothing. There was a logical paradox here — Doctor Galeazza wouldbe proud of him — but it was so vague and unfamiliar that he didn’t know how to begin formulating an equation to solve it.All he could do was be aware of the feeling, which was disturbingly intense.
Not that it mattered. She was going home tomorrow.
“Slimy sauce,” he repeated. “Yetch. You had to eat it, I suppose, or risk starting a war.”
She smiled, and he looked away, but the smile followed him. “Not all of it,” she said. “You’ve got to leave some if you’rea girl, it’s ladylike. Not that I minded terribly much.”
Valens nodded. “When I was a kid I had to finish everything on my plate, or it’d be served up cold for breakfast and lunchuntil I ate it. Which was fine,” he went on, “I knew where I stood. But when I was nine, we had to go to a reception at theLorican embassy —”
She giggled. She was way ahead of him. “And they think that if you eat everything on your plate it’s a criticism, that theyhaven’t given you enough.”
She’d interrupted him and stolen his joke, but he didn’t mind. She’d shared his thought. That didn’t happen very often.
“Of course,” he went on, “nobody bothered telling me, I was just a kid; so I was grimly munching my way through my dinner—”
“Rice,” she said. “Plain boiled white rice, with noodles and stuff.”
He nodded. “And as soon as I got to the end, someone’d snatch my plate away and dump another heap of the muck on it and handit back; I thought I’d done something bad and I was being punished. I was so full I could hardly breathe. But Father was busytalking business, and nobody down my end of the table was going to say anything; I’d probably be there still, only —”
He stopped dead.
“I threw up,” he confessed; it wasn’t a good memory. “All over the tablecloth, and their Lord Chamberlain.”
She laughed. He expected to feel hurt, angry. Instead, he laughed too. He had no idea why he should think it was funny, butit was.
“And was there a war?” she asked.
“Nearly,” he replied. “God, that rice. I can still taste it if I shut my eyes.”
Now she was nodding. “I was there for a whole year,” she said. “Lorica, I mean. The rice is what sticks in my mind too. Nopun intended.”
He thought about that. “You sound like you’ve been to a lot of places,” he said.
“Oh yes.” She didn’t sound happy about it, which struck him as odd. He’d never been outside the dukedom in his life. “In fact,I’ve spent more time away than at home.”
Well, he had to ask. “Why?”
The question appeared to surprise her. “It’s what I’m for,” she said. “I guess you could say it’s my job.”
She nodded again. “Professional hostage. Comes of being the fifth of seven daughters. You see,” she went on, “we’ve got toget married in age order, it’s protocol or something, and there’s still two of them older than me left; I can’t get marriedtill they are. So, the only thing I’m useful for while I’m waiting my turn is being a hostage. Which means, when they’re doinga treaty or a settlement or something, off I go on my travels until it’s all sorted out.”
“That’s…” That’s barbaric, he was about to say, but he knew better than that. He knew the theory perfectly well (statecraft,two hours a week with Chancellor Vetuarius), but he’d never given it any thought before; like people getting killed in thewars, something that happened but was best not dwelt on. “It must be interesting,” he heard himself say. “I’ve never beenabroad.”
She paused, considering her reply. “Actually, it’s quite dull, mostly. It’s not like I get to go out and see things, and oneguest wing’s pretty like another.”
(And, she didn’t say, there’s always the thought of what might happen if things go wrong.)
“I guess so,” he said. “Well, I hope it hasn’t been too boring here.”
“Boring?” She looked at him. “I wouldn’t say that. Going hunting with your father was —”
“Quite.” Valens managed not to wince. “I didn’t know he’d dragged you out with him. Was it very horrible?”
She shook her head. “I’ve been before, so the blood and stuff doesn’t bother me. It was the standing about waiting for somethingto happen that got to me.”
Valens nodded. “Was it raining?”
“It always rains.” He pulled a face. “Whenever I hear about the terrible droughts in the south, and they’re asking is it becauseGod’s angry with them or something, I know it’s just because Dad doesn’t go hunting in the south. He could earn a good livingas a rainmaker.”
She smiled, but he knew his joke hadn’t really bitten home. That disconcerted him; usually it had them laughing like drains.Or perhaps they only laughed because he was the Duke’s son. “Well,” she said, “that was pretty boring. But the rest of itwas…” She shrugged. “It was fine.”
The shrug hurt. “Any rate,” he said briskly, “you’ll be home for harvest festival.”
“It’s not a big thing where I come from,” she replied; and then, like an eclipse of the sun that stops the battle while theissue’s still in the balance, the chamberlain came out to drive them all into the Great Hall for singing and a recital bythe greatest living exponent of the psaltery.
Valens watched her being bustled away with the other women, until an equerry whisked him off to take his place in the frontrow.
Ironically, the singer sang nothing but love-songs; aubades about young lovers parted by the dawn, razos between the piningyouth and the cynical go-between, the bitter complaints of the girl torn from her darling to marry a rich, elderly stranger.All through the endless performance he didn’t dare turn round, but the thought that she was somewhere in the rows behind waslike an unbearable itch. The greatest living psalterist seemed to linger spitefully over each note, as if heknew.The candles were guttering by the time he finally ground to a halt. There would be no more socializing that evening, andin the morning (early, to catch the coolest part of the day) she’d be going home.
(I could start a war, he thought, as he trudged up the stairs to bed. I could conspire with a disaffected faction or sendthe keys of a frontier post to the enemy; then we’d be at war again, and she could come back as a hostage. Or maybe we couldlose, and I could go there; all the same to me, so long as…)
He lay in bed with the lamp flickering, just enough light to see dim shapes by. On the opposite wall, the same boarhoundsthat had given him nightmares when he was six carried on their endless duel with the boar at bay, trapped in the fibers ofthe tapestry. He could see them just as well when his eyes were shut; two of them, all neck and almost no head, had theirteeth in the boar’s front leg, while a third had him by the ear and hung twisting in mid-air, while the enemy’s tusks rippedopen a fourth from shoulder to tail. Night after night he’d wondered as he lay there which he was, the dogs or the pig, thehunters or the quarry. It was one of the few questions in his life to which he had yet to resolve an answer. It was possiblethat he was both, a synthesis of the two, made possible by the shared act of ripping and tearing. His father had had the tapestryput there in the hope that it’d inspire him with a love of the chase; but it wasn’t a chase, it was a single still moment(perhaps he couldn’t see it because it didn’t move, like the ring hanging from the rafter); and therefore it represented nothing.Tonight, it made him think of her, standing in the rain while the lymers snuffled up and down false trails, his father bitchingat the harborers and the masters of the hounds, the courtiers silent and wet waiting for the violence to begin.
The peace won’t last, they said. They gave it three months, then six, then a year; just possibly three years, or five at thevery most. Meanwhile, Count Sirupat’s third daughter married the Prince of Boha (bad news for the shepherds, the lumber merchantsand the dealers in trained falcons, but good for the silver miners and refiners, who were the ones who mattered), and hisfourth daughter married her third cousin, Valens’ fourth cousin, the Elector of Spalado.
Father celebrated Valens’ nineteenth birthday with a hunt; a three-day battue, with the whole army marshaled in the mountainsto drive the combes and passes down to the valley, where the long nets were set up like lines of infantry waiting to receivea cavalry charge. On the morning of the third day, they flushed a magnificent mountain boar from the pine woods above theBlue Lake. One look at the monster’s tusks sent the master hurrying to find the Duke; it’d be nothing short of treason ifit fell to anybody else. But the Duke was right up the other end of the valley; he came as quickly as he could, but when hegot there the boar had broken through, slicing open two guardsmen and half a dozen hounds, and was making a run for it acrossthe water-meadows. If it made it to the birch forest on the other side of the water, they’d never find it again, so if theDuke didn’t want to miss out on the trophy of a lifetime, he was going to have to address the boar on horseback. As far asValens’ father was concerned, that wasn’t a problem; he galloped off after the boar, leaving his escort behind, and caughtup with it about three hundred yards from the edge of the forest, in a small dip littered with granite outcrops. The boardidn’t want to stop and turn at bay. It could see safety, and all it had to do was run faster than a horse. The Duke managedto slow it up with an arrow in the left shoulder, but the thought of bringing down such a spectacular animal with the bowdidn’t appeal to him in the least. Anybody could drain its strength with half a dozen snagging hits and then dispatch it tamely,like a farmer slaughtering the family pig. The Duke needed it to still be dangerous when he faced it down the shaft of a numberfour spear, or else it’d be a waste. So he urged on his horse and managed to overtake it with fifty yards or less to go. Theboar was slowing down, favoring its wounded side, as he surged past it and struck with his lance. The strike was good, catchingthe boar just behind the ear and killing it outright. But in order to get in close he’d pulled his horse in too tight; whenthe boar dropped, the horse couldn’t clear it in time and stumbled, throwing its rider. The Duke fell badly, landing in anest of granite boulders. His shoulder was smashed and so was his right eye-socket, and when he tried to get up, he foundhe couldn’t move. The dogs had caught up by then and swarmed over him to get to the boar; behind them came the front-riders,who saw what had happened and tried to lift him, until his roars of pain frightened them and they put him down again. It wasdark by the time a surgeon arrived from the castle, and the lamps wouldn’t stay lit in the rain and wind. Later, they saidthat if they’d got to him earlier, or if the huntsmen hadn’t tried to move him, or if the surgeon had been able to see thefull extent of the damage, it might have been different; as it was, there was very little they could do.
Valens wasn’t there when it happened. He’d stayed back from the main hunt, pretending he had a headache; then, just afterthey’d driven the square spinney, he’d been knocked down by an old fat sow nobody had realized was there. As it happened he’dsuffered nothing more than a bruised shin and a mild scat on the head; but by then he’d had about as much of his extendedbirthday as he could take, and lay groaning and clutching his knee until they’d loaded him on the game cart and driven himback to the castle. When they brought Father home, Valens had been lying on his bed reading a book (a twelve-thousand-linedidactic poem about beekeeping). Everyone was sure his father was going to die, so Valens was hustled down into the courtyard,where they’d rigged up a tent so they wouldn’t have to risk taking the Duke up the narrow spiral stairs of the gatehouse.
“It’s not good.” The Chancellor’s face was streaked with rain, drops of water running off the spikes of hair plastered tohis forehead. Like tears, Valens thought, but really only rainwater. “Truth is, the doctor can’t say how bad it is, not withouta proper examination; but I think we should assume the worst.” He looked harassed, like a man late for an appointment whohas to stop and chat with someone he daren’t offend. “Which means there’s a great deal to be done, and not much time. Themain thing, of course, is to secure the succession.”
It was as though he was talking a different language. “I don’t understand,” Valens said.
The Chancellor sighed. “No, I don’t suppose you do. Listen. You’re nineteen, so in law you’re still a minor. That means athree-year regency. So, who’ve we got? There’s rules about this sort of thing, obviously, but the fact is that they don’tcount for all that much when power’s at stake. All it takes is a little bit of panic, and all hell’s going to break loose.”
While he was still talking, Valens’ mind had jumped ahead. It wasn’t something he’d ever considered — because Father wouldlive forever, naturally — but now that the concept had been planted so violently in his mind, he was bright enough to seethe implications. If there was a free-for-all power struggle in the Duchy, there were three obvious contenders: his cousinCount Licinius, commander of the Guards; his step-uncle Vetranio, commissioner of the mines, generally acknowledged as themain representative of the mining lobby; his cousin Count Torquatus, after Father the biggest landowner in the Duchy. Liciniushad an army, but he was a cautious, unimaginative man, unlikely to take drastic action unless he felt himself threatened.Torquatus and Vetranio loathed each other, both on a personal level and as representatives of the wool trade and the mines;as such, either of them would be prepared to do whatever was necessary to stop the other getting power, and the easiest wayof doing that would of course be to assume it themselves. If Vetranio won the race, Valens wouldn’t give much for his chancesof seeing his twentieth birthday. Vetranio was third in line of succession after his own nephew Domenicus, a seven-year-oldboy that nobody would ever miss. With him and Valens out of the way, Vetranio would be Duke by right. He had thirty thousandsilver-miners at his disposal, as against Licinius’ six hundred Guards; Torquatus could maybe raise ten thousand men fromthe mountain pastures, but by the time they were mustered it’d be all over.
“What about you?” Valens asked. “Would you do it? Please?”
The Chancellor looked at him through a curtain of rain. “Me?”
“Yes, you.” Valens stepped forward. He was shorter by a head than the older man, and as he looked up the rain stung his eyes.“If Father appoints you as regent before he dies, you’ll be able to command the Guards. You can replace Licinius, arrest Vetranio,before they’ve even heard about this. With both of them out of the game, Torquatus will bide quiet and we’ll be home and dry.”
“I don’t know,” the Chancellor said. “I’d be taking a hell of a risk. And besides, what if he won’t do it? Appoint me, I mean.Or supposing he doesn’t wake up —”
“Listen.” Valens caught him by the arm; it was thin and flabby under the heavy wool robe. “You and I go in to see him, withthe doctor and a couple of your people you can trust. We come out a minute or so later and make the announcement.” I shouldn’thave to explain all this, he thought; he’s supposed to be the politician. “The doctor and your clerks will be the witnesses.It doesn’t matter a damn what actually happens, if we’re the only ones who know.”
The Chancellor looked away. Valens could see he was on the point of panic, like someone who’s afraid of heights stuck up aladder. Too frightened, he might well decide he’d be safer giving his support to someone with rather more power than a nineteen-year-oldkid. “It’s all right,” Valens said firmly. “This is something that’s just got to be done, that’s all. If we’re quick and firm,there won’t be any trouble. Go on; it’ll all be fine.”
There was a long moment. Valens could see the Chancellor was past thinking rationally; he was waiting to fall, or be pushed,into a decision. “Here’s the doctor coming out,” Valens said. “Get him, and two of your clerks. Go on now.”
The Chancellor nodded and did as he was told. Valens watched him talk to the doctor, saw him nod his agreement — and onlythen did it occur to Valens to wonder whether the doctor had any news, whether his father was alive, dead or dying. He pushedthe thought out of his mind (because there was nothing he could do about that particular issue, but the succession had tobe dealt with, and there wasn’t anybody else to do it) and watched the Chancellor beckon over a couple of men — Valens knewthem by sight, didn’t know their names — and whisper to them. One of them looked worried, the other showed nothing. He wentto join them.
“Ready?” he said.
The Chancellor nodded; the doctor tried to say something, but nobody was listening. Valens led the way into the tent.
His father was lying on a table; the clever folding table they took out for the after-hunt dinner, on which they laid outthe best joints of newly butchered meat. From the doorway he looked like he was asleep; a step or so closer and Valens couldsee blood, the splintered ends of bones sticking out through incredible red gashes. For just a moment he had to fight to stayin there, with that mess.
“Dad?” he said softly.
“He can’t hear you.” The doctor’s voice, very nervous and strained. “He passed out from the pain a few minutes ago. I don’tknow if he’ll wake up again.”
Valens closed his eyes for a moment. “What’s the damage?” he said.
The doctor came a little closer. “For a start,” he said, “broken skull, collarbone, three ribs, left forearm; but that’s notthe real problem. He’s bleeding heavily, inside, and he’s paralyzed, from the neck down. There’s several possible causes forthat, but I don’t yet know which it is.”
“You don’t know?” Valens repeated.
“I’m sorry.” The doctor was afraid, that was it. Understandable; but it would only get in the way. “Until I can do a properexamination…”
“I understand,” Valens said. “And I know you’re doing everything you can. Meanwhile, we need your help.” He turned to lookat the Chancellor. “Does he know what he’s got to do?”
The Chancellor dipped his head slightly. “They all do,” he said.
“Right.” Valens looked away from the body on the table. “Then let’s get on with it.”
In the event, there was no trouble at all. Count Licinius was in bed when a platoon of his own Guards brought him the letterand escorted him, gently but firmly, to a guest-room in the castle; it was perfectly pleasant, but it was on the sixth floorof the tower, and two men stood guard outside it all night. Vetranio made a bit of a fuss when the Guards came for him athis villa on the outskirts of the city. He had guards of his own, and there was an ugly moment when they started to intervene.A sword was drawn, there was a minor scuffle; Vetranio lost his nerve and came quietly, ending up in the room next to Licinius,though neither of them knew it until they were released a week later. By then, the doctors were pleased to be able to announcethat the Duke had come through the dangerous phase of his injuries and was conscious again.
For Valens, that week was the longest of his life. Once Licinius and Vetranio were safely locked up and everything was quiet,he forced himself to go back down to the courtyard and into the tent. He freely admitted to himself that he didn’t want togo. He had no wish to look at the horrible thing his father had turned into, the disgusting shambles of broken and damagedparts — if it was a cart or a plow, you wouldn’t bother trying to mend it, you’d dump it in the hedge and build a new one.
There were many times during his vigil in the tent when he wished his father would die and be done with it. It’d be betterfor everyone, now that the political situation had been sorted out. He knew, as he sat and stared at his father’s closed eyes,that the Duke didn’t want to live; somewhere, deep down in his mind, he’d know what had happened to him, the extent of thedamage. He’d never hunt again, never walk, never stand up, feed himself; for the rest of his life, he’d shit into a nappy,like a baby. He’d fought more than his share of wars, seen the terror in the eyes of men he’d reduced to nothing as they kneltbefore him; he’d far rather die than give them this satisfaction. In fact, Valens recognized, he could think of only one personin the world who wanted him not to die, and his reasons were just sentiment, nothing that would survive the brutal interrogationof logic. At some point in the first twenty-four hours he’d fallen asleep in his chair; he’d had a dream, in which he sawDeath standing over the table, asking his permission to take his father’s life away, like clearing away the dishes after dinner.It seemed such a reasonable request, and refusing it was a foolish, immature thing to do. You know I’m right, Death’s voicesaid softly inside his head, it’s the right thing to do and you’re being a nuisance. He’d felt guilty when he ordered Deathto go away, ashamed of his own petulance; and meanwhile, outside the door, he could hear Licinius and Vetranio and Torquatusand the Chancellor and everybody else in the Duchy muttering about him, how if he couldn’t even take a simple decision likethis without coming all to pieces, how on earth did he imagine he would ever be fit to govern a country? He felt the leashin his hand, the thin line of rope that tethered his father’s life to the tangled mess of bones and wounds on the table. Ifhe let go, it’d all be just fine, it’d be over. He was only hanging on to it out of perversity, contrariness; they shouldcome in, take it away from him and give it to a grown-up…
When he woke up, his father’s eyes were open; not looking at him, but out through the tent doorway, at the sunlight. Valenssat up, stifled a yawn; Father’s eyes moved and met his, and then he looked away.
I suppose I ought to say something, he thought; but he couldn’t think of anything.
(Instead, he thought about his prisoners, Licinius and Vetranio, locked up like dogs shut in on a rainy day. Were they pacingup and down, or lying resigned and still on the bed? Had anybody thought to bring them something to read?)
He was still trying to find some words when the doctor came in; and he carried on trying to find them for the next four years,until his father died, in the middle of the night, on the eve of Valens’ twenty-third birthday. But all that time Valens neversaid a word, so that the last thing he told his father was a lie:I won’t go up to the round wood with you this afternoon, I’ve got a splitting headache coming on.Not that it mattered; if he’d been there, his father would still have ridden ahead after the boar, the outcome would havebeen the same in all material respects.
Someone had thought to have the boar flayed and the hide made into a rug; they draped it over the coffin when they carriedit down to the chapel for burial. It was, Valens thought, a loathsome gesture, but Father would’ve appreciated it.
Valens was duly acclaimed Duke by the representatives of the district assemblies. There was a ceremony in the great hall,followed by a banquet. The Chancellor (Count Licinius, restored to favor; his predecessor had died of a sad combination ofambition and carelessness the previous spring) took him aside for a quiet word before they joined the guests. Now that Valenswas officially in charge of the Duchy, there were a few niceties of foreign policy to go through.
“Now,” Licinius replied emphatically. “Things are a bit complicated at the moment. There’s things you should be aware of,before you go in there and start talking to people.”
Badly phrased; Licinius was an intelligent man with a fool’s tongue. But Valens was used to that. “You didn’t want me to haveto bother my pretty little head about them yesterday, I suppose?”
Licinius shrugged. “The situation’s been building up gradually for a long time. When it all started, you were still — well,indisposed. By the time you started taking an interest again, it was too involved to explain. You know how it is.”
“Sure.” Valens nodded. “So now you’re going to have to explain it all in five minutes before I go down to dinner.”
Licinius waited for a moment, in case Valens wanted to develop this theme. The pause made Valens feel petty. “Go on,” he said.
So Licinius told him all about it. Count Sirupat, he said, had kept strictly to the letter of the peace treaty that had beensigned when Valens was sixteen. There hadn’t been any trouble on the borders, and there was no reason to suppose he wasn’tentirely sincere about wanting peace. But things weren’t all wine and honey-cakes; Sirupat had seven daughters —
“I know,” Valens interrupted, a little abruptly. “I met one of them once; it was when the treaty was signed, she was hereas a hostage.”
Licinius nodded. “That was the fifth daughter, Veatriz. Anyway, shortly after your father had his accident, my predecessormade a formal approach to Sirupat for a marriage alliance. In his reply, Sirupat —”
“Just a moment,” Valens interrupted. “Marriage alliance. Who was supposed to be marrying who?”
Licinius had the grace to look away. “One of Sirupat’s daughters. And you, obviously.”
“Fine.” Valens frowned. “Which one?”
“Which one of Sirupat’s daughters?”
Licinius frowned, as if this fascination with trivial details perplexed him. “The fifth or the sixth,” he said. “The olderfour had already been married off, and there’s some interesting implications there, because —”
“The fifthorthe sixth.”
“They’re both pleasant enough, so I’ve heard. Anyway, Sirupat gave his agreement in principle, as you’d expect, because it’sthe obvious logical move. Before anybody had made any definite proposals, I took over as Chancellor; which shouldn’t havemade the slightest bit of difference, obviously, but suddenly Sirupat wasn’t answering my letters. Next thing we hear, he’snegotiating a marriage with his sister’s eldest son, Orsea.”
“Orsea,” Valens repeated. “You don’t mean my cousin Orsea, from Scandea?”
“Him,” Licinius said. “Well, you can imagine, we were a bit stunned. We all assumed it was just tactical, trying to get usto up our offer, so we decided to take no notice. I mean —”
“I remember when he came to stay, when I was a kid,” Valens said. “I suppose he was a hostage too, come to think of it. Ijust assumed he was here because he’s an off-relation. But we got on really well together. I’ve often wondered what becameof him.”
“Not much,” Licinius said. “He may be related to our lot and their lot, but really he’s nothing more than a small-time countrysquire; spends his time counting his sheep and checking the boundary fences. But if he were to marry Sirupat’s daughter, that’dmake him the heir presumptive, when Sirupat goes on —”
“Would it? Why?”
Licinius pulled a face. “It’s complicated. Actually, I’m not entirely sure why; I think it’s because the first three weren’tborn in the purple, and the fourth came along while the marriage was still nominally morganatic. Anyhow, there’s a damn goodreason. So in practice, Sirupat was practically appointing him as his successor.”
“Assuming the marriage goes ahead,” Valens pointed out. “And if it’s just a bargaining ploy…”
“Which is what we’d assumed,” Licinius said. “But apparently we were wrong. They were married last week.”
For a moment, Valens felt as though he’d lost his memory. Where he was, what he was supposed to be doing, what he was talkingabout; all of them on the tip of his tongue but he couldn’t quite remember. “Last week,” he repeated.
“Bolt out of the blue, literally,” Licinius said. “No warning, no demands, nothing. Just a report from our ambassador, noteven formal notification from the Court — which we’re entitled to, incidentally, under the terms of the treaty.”
“Which daughter?” Valens said.
“What? Oh, right. I’m not absolutely sure. I think it was number five; which’d make sense, because they’ve got rules overthere about the order princesses get married in. But if it was number six, the effect’d still be the same. Now I’m not sayingit was meant as a deliberate provocation or an act of war, but —”
“Can you find out?” Valens said. “Which one it was, I mean.”
“Yes, all right. But like I said, it’s not really important. What matters is, Sirupat has effectively rejected our claim —some might say the treaty itself — in favor of some nobody who just happens to be a poor relation. In basic diplomatic terms—”
“Find out which one,” Valens cut him off. “Quickly as possible, please.”
He could see Licinius getting flustered, thinking he hadn’t got across the true magnitude of the political situation. “I will,yes. But if you’re thinking that’s all right, I’ll just marry number six, I’ve got to tell you that’d be a grave miscalculation.You see, under their constitution —”
“Find out,” Valens said, raising his voice just a little, “and as soon as you hear, let me know. All right?”
“I’ve already said yes.”
“That’s splendid.” Valens took a deep breath. “That’ll have to do as far as the briefing goes, we can’t keep all the guestswaiting.”
Licinius had his answer within the hour. Yes, it was the fifth daughter, Veatriz, who’d married Count Orsea. Licinius’ scribblednote reached Valens at the dinner-table, where he was sandwiched in between the Patriarchal legate (a serene old man who dribbledsoup) and a high-ranking Mezentine commercial attaché. Consequently, he read the note quickly, tucked it into his sleeve andcarried on talking to the legate about the best way to blanch chicory.
The next day, for the first time since his father’s accident, he announced a hunt. Since everybody was unprepared and outof practice, it would be a simple, perfunctory affair. They would draw the home coverts in the morning, and drive down themillstream in the afternoon. The announcement caused some surprise — people had got the impression from somewhere that thenew Duke wasn’t keen on hunting — and a great deal of anxious preparation and last-minute dashing about in stables, kennelsand tack rooms. Any annoyance, however, was easily outweighed by relief that things were getting back to normal.2
“The prisoner has suggested,” the advocate said, “that his offense is trivial. Let us examine his claim. Let us reflect onwhat is trivial and what is serious, and see if we can come to a better understanding of these concepts.”
He was a nondescript man, by any standards; a little under medium height, bald, with tufts of white hair over each ear; around man, sedentary, with bright brown eyes. Ziani had known him for years, from committees and receptions and factory visits,had met his wife twice and his daughter once. From those meetings he’d carried away a mental image of a loud, high voice,someone brisk and busy but polite enough, an important man who knew the strategic value of being pleasant to subordinate colleagues.He knew he was some kind of high Guild official, but today was the first time he’d found out what Lodoico Sphrantzes actuallydid.
“The prisoner, Ziani Vaatzes,” the advocate went on, “admits to having created an abomination. He admitted as much to theinvestigator who inspected it. He signed a deposition confessing that the thing was made by him, and agreeing in detail thedepartures from Specification. In this court, he has acknowledged his signature on that deposition, and conceded that he saidthose words to that investigator. But he stands to his defense. He pleads not guilty. His defense…” Advocate Sphrantzes pausedto shake his head. “His defense is that his admitted abomination was only a little one, a minor deviation. It was, he tellsus, a slight modification, an improvement.”
A little buzz of murmuring went round the semicircle of the public gallery, like half a ripple from a stone dropped in water.Sphrantzes let it run its course before he went on.
“Very well then,” he said. “Let us consider the details. As regards the construction of automata and mechanical toys, Specificationstates that the lifting mechanism for the arms shall be powered by a clock-spring seven feet six inches long, one quarterof an inch wide and fifteen thousandths of an inch thick, with a generous permitted tolerance of three percent for lengthand width, and fifteen percent for thickness. Furthermore, it states that the gear train conveying motive power from the springto the shoulder assemblies shall comprise five cogs of ratios forty, thirty, twenty-five, twelve and six to one. Furthermore,it lays down that the thickness of such cogs shall be three eighths of an inch, and that each cog shall ride on a brass bushing.I ask the clerk to verify that my summary of Specification is correct.”
The clerk stood up, nodded and sat down again.
“So much, then,” Phrantzes went on, “for Specification. Let us now turn to the investigator’s report concerning the abominationcreated by the prisoner. Investigator Manin, as you have heard for yourselves, discovered that the spring used by the prisonerwas nine feet three inches long, five sixteenths of an inch wide and ten thousandths of an inch thick; that the gear traincontained not five but six cogs, the sixth being in ratio of four to one; that the said cogs were seven sixteenths of an inchthick, and their bushings were not brass but bronze. In short, we have unequivocal proof of not one but three distinct anddeliberate deviations from Specification.”
Advocate Sphrantzes paused for a moment to stare ferociously at the dock; then he continued. “Three distinct deviations; somuch, I think we can safely say, for the argument that it was only a little abomination, a trivial departure. Now, if theprisoner had argued that he is an inept metalworker, incapable of observing a tolerance, that might be easier to accept —except, of course, that we know he is no such thing. On the contrary; we know that he holds the rank of supervisor in theFoundrymen’s and Machinists’ Guild, that he has passed all twelve of the prescribed trade tests and holds no fewer than elevencertificates for exemplary work, one of them for hand-filing a perfect circle to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch.But he makes no such claim in his defense. No; he admits the work, and accepts the report. He accepts that each deviationbears directly on the others; that the longer, thinner spring affords more power to the gears, in consequence of which a sixthgear is added and the width of the cogs is increased to augment bearing surface, with harder-wearing bushes to handle theadditional wear. All this, he claims, he did in order to make a mechanical toy that could raise its arms above its head; inorder, members of the committee, to improve on Specification.”
No murmurs this time. Absolute silence.
“To improve,” Sphrantzes repeated slowly, “on Specification. May I invite you to consider for a moment the implications ofthat intention.
“When our Guild was first established, fought for by our ancestors and paid for with their very blood, it was agreed thatin order to maintain the reputation for excellence enjoyed by our work throughout the world, it was essential that we drawup and rigidly adhere to an agreed specification for everything we make. That specification, represented by the Guild’s markstamped on each piece, has for three hundred years served as an unimpeachable guarantee of quality. It means that anybodywho buys Guild work can be categorically assured that the piece is made strictly in accordance with the best possible design,from the best possible materials, using the best possible practices and procedures by the finest craftsmen in the world. Itis that guarantee that has made our Guild and our fellow Guilds throughout Mezentia the unrivaled masters of industry andby default given us a monopoly of mass-produced manufactured goods throughout the known world. That, members of the committee,is not a trivial matter. On the contrary, it is the life blood of our city and our people, and any offense against it, anythingthat calls it into question, is an act of treason. There can be no exceptions. Even an unwitting slip of the hammer or thefile is an abomination and punishable under the law. How much worse, then, is a deliberate and premeditated assault on Specification,such as we have seen in this case? To claim, as the prisoner Vaatzes has done, that his abomination represents an improvementis to assert that Specification is susceptible to being improved upon; that it is fallible, imperfect; that the Guilds andthe Eternal Republic are capable of producing and offering for sale imperfect goods. Members of the committee, I tell youthat there can be no defense of such a wicked act.”
Again Sphrantzes paused; this time, Ziani could feel anger in the silence, and it made the muscles of his stomach bunch together.
“The prisoner has claimed,” Sphrantzes went on, “that the abomination was not intended for sale, or even to be taken outsidehis own house; that it was built as a present for his daughter, on her birthday. We can dispose of this plea very quickly.Surely it is self-evident that once an object leaves its maker’s hands, it passes out of his control. At some point in thefuture, when she is a grown woman perhaps, his daughter might give it away or sell it. At her death, if she retained it tillthen, it would be sold as an asset of her estate. Or if the prisoner were to default on his taxes or subscriptions, the contentsof his house would be seized and auctioned; or it might be stolen from his house by a thief. It takes very little imaginationto envisage a score of ways in which the abomination might come to be sold, and its maker’s intentions made clear by a cursoryexamination of its mechanism. The law is absolutely clear, and rightly so. There need be no intention to sell or dispose ofan abomination. The mere act of creating it is enough. Members of the committee, in the light of the facts and having in mindthe special circumstances of the case — the gross and aggravated nature of the deviation, the deliberate challenge to Specification,above all the prisoner’s rank inside the Guild and the high level of trust placed in him, which he has betrayed — I cannotin all conscience call for any lesser penalty than the extreme sanction of the law. It grieves me more than I can say to callfor the death of a fellow man, a fellow Guildsman, but I have no choice. Your verdict must be guilty, and your sentence death.”
The nondescript little man bowed respectfully to the bench, gathered the tails of his gown and sat down on his stool behindhis desk. Ziani noticed that his feet didn’t quite reach the floor, and dangled backward and forward, like a small child ina classroom. Somehow, that seemed an appropriate touch. Even now, here in the Guildhall with everybody staring at him, hecouldn’t help believing that it all had to be some kind of elaborate tease, like the jokes played on apprentices (go and fetchthe left-handed screwdriver); an initiation ritual, before he was allowed to eat his dinner at the chargehands’ table.
Also at the back of his mind was another question, one that buzzed and buzzed and wouldn’t go away: how had they known whathe’d done, where to find it, what to look for? As far as he could remember (and he’d thought of little else the past month,in the darkness of his cell) he hadn’t mentioned it to anybody, anybody at all. But the investigator had gone straight tohis bench, to the box under it where he kept the finished bits of Moritsa’s doll; he’d had his callipers and gauges ready,to take the necessary measurements. Ziani hadn’t said a word about it at work — even he wasn’t that stupid — or mentionedit to his friends or his family. Nobody had known; but here he was. It’d be annoying to die with a loose end like that nottidied away. Perhaps they’d tell him, before it was over.
The committee had stopped whispering; it hadn’t taken them long to make up their minds. Ziani didn’t know the man who stoodup, but that was hardly surprising. Even the foreman of the ordnance factory didn’t get to meet the great men of the Guild.The guard caught hold of Ziani’s arm and pulled him to his feet. He couldn’t look at the great man.
“Ziani Vaatzes,” he heard him say, “this tribunal finds you guilty of abomination. In light of the gravity of your offense,we hereby sentence you to be strangled with the bowstring, and we decree that your head shall be displayed above the gatesof the department of ordnance for thirty days, as a warning to others. These proceedings are concluded.”
As they led him back to the cells, he sensed something unusual in the way they reacted to him. It wasn’t fear, but they werekeeping their distance, touching him as little as possible. Disgust, maybe; but if that was what they were feeling, they hidit well. They’d been overtly hostile toward him before the trial, when they brought him his food and water. There wasn’t anyof that now. Compassion, possibly? No, definitely not.
He’d had his three guesses, it was annoying him, and a condemned man doesn’t have to worry about getting into trouble if heannoys his warders. He stopped.
“Look,” he said. “What is it? Have I just grown an extra head?”
They looked at each other. They weren’t sure what to do. The older man, a northshoreman by the name of Bollo Curiopalates,who’d made a habit of accidentally-on-purpose kicking Ziani on the shins when he brought him his evening meal, pulled a wryface and shrugged.
“No offense, right?” he said. “Just, we never met one of your lot before.”
“Abominators.” Bollo shrugged. “It’s not like murderers and thieves,” he went on, “it’s different. Can’t understand it, really;what’d make someone do a thing like that.”
Curiosity, then; and the diffidence that goes with it, when you’re staring at someone and they stare back. He could try andexplain, but what would be the point? A man with a cause, now, a true abominator, would seize this chance of converting onelast disciple, possibly lighting a candle that would never go out. Ziani had no cause, so he said, “Evil.”
The warders looked startled. “You what?”
“Evil,” Ziani replied, as blandly as he could. “I was in the market one day, years ago now, and there was this man sellinglamps. They were cheap and I needed one, so I bought one. Got it home, unscrewed the cap to fill it up with oil, and thisthing came out of it. Like a puff of white smoke, it was. Well, I must’ve passed out, because the next thing I remember waswaking up, and it was pitch dark outside the window; and ever since then I get these terrible uncontrollable urges to do reallybad, wicked things. Absolutely nothing I can do about it, can’t control it, just have to go with the flow. And look whereI’ve ended up.” He sighed. “My life ruined, just like that. Only goes to show, you can’t be too careful.”
The warders looked at him for rather a long time; then Bollo said, “All right, move along,” in a soft, strained voice. Atthe cell door, he said, “That was all just a joke, right? You were just being funny.”
Ziani frowned. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “I’m going to die in an hour or so, why the hell would I lie about a thing likethat?”
They closed the door on him, and he sat down on the floor. It had been a valid question: what on earth had possessed him todo such a reckless, stupid thing? Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of an answer, and he’d been searching for one ever sincethey arrested him. If they bothered marking the graves of abominators, his headstone would have to read:SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME
Wonderful epitaph for a wasted life.
In an hour or so, it wouldn’t matter anymore. He’d be out of it; the story would go on, but he wouldn’t be in it anymore.He’d be a sad memory in the minds of those who loved him, a wound for time to heal, and of course they’d never mention himto strangers, rarely to each other. A new man would take his place at work, and it’d be pretty uncomfortable there for a weekor so until he’d settled in and there was no longer any need for his replacement to ask how the other bloke had done thisor that, or where he kept his day-books, or what this funny little shorthand squiggle was supposed to mean. The world wouldget over him, the way we get over our first ever broken heart, or a bad stomach upset. Somehow, the idea didn’t scare himor fill him with rage. It would probably be worse to be remembered and mourned for a long time. There’d be sympathy and condolences,tearing the wound open every time it started to scab over. That was always Ziani’s chair; do you remember the time Ziani gothis sleeve caught in the lathe chuck; Ziani lent this to me and I never had a chance to give it back.
If it had been a sudden illness, say, or a freak accident; if he’d been stabbed in the street or killed in a war; you couldget angry about that, the stuff of tragedy. But to find yourself in the cells waiting to be strangled to death, all on accountof a few measurements; it was so bewildering, so impossible to understand, that he could only feel numb. He simply hadn’tseen it coming. It was like being beaten at chess by a four-year-old.
The door started to open, and immediately he thought, here it is. But when Bollo came in (still looking decidedly thoughtful),he didn’t usher in the man in the black hood, the ends of the bowstring doubled round his gloved hands. The man who was withhim was no stranger.
Ziani looked up. “Falier?” he said.
“Me,” Falier answered. Bollo glanced at him, nodded, left the cell and bolted the door behind him. “I came…”
“To say goodbye,” Ziani helped him out. “It’s all right, I’m being really calm about it. Sort of stunned, really. With anyluck, by the time the truth hits me I’ll have been dead for an hour. Sit down.”
His friend looked round. “What on?”
“All right.” Falier folded his long legs and rested his bottom tentatively on the flagstones. “It’s bloody cold in here, Ziani.You want to ask to see the manager.”
“It’ll be a damn sight colder where I’m going,” Ziani replied. “Isn’t that what they say? Abominators and traitors go to thegreat ice pool, stand up to their necks in freezing cold water for all eternity?”
Falier frowned. “You believe that?”
“Absolutely,” Ziani said. “A chaplain told me, so it must be true.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Gallows humor, you see,”he said. “It means I’m either incredibly brave in the face of death, or so hopelessly corrupt I don’t even take eternal damnationseriously.”
“Right,” Falier said, looking at him. “Sorry,” he said, “I haven’t got a clue what to say.”
“Don’t worry about it. After all, if you really piss me off and I hold a grudge for the rest of my life, that’s — what, three-quartersof an hour? You can handle it.”
Falier shook his head. “You always were a kidder, Ziani,” he said. “Always Laughing Boy. It was bloody annoying in a foreman,but you make a good martyr.”
“Martyr!” Ziani opened his eyes and laughed. “Fine. If someone’d do me a favor and let me know what I’m dying for, I’ll tryand do it justice.”
“Oh, they’ll come up with something,” Falier said. “Well, I guess this is the bit where I ask you if you’ve got any messages.For Ariessa, and Moritsa. Sorry,” he added.
Ziani shrugged. “Think of something for me, you’re good with words. Anything I could come up with would be way short of themark: I love you, I miss you, I wish this hadn’t happened. They deserve better than that.”
“Actually.” Falier sounded like he was the condemned man. “It’s Ariessa and Moritsa I wanted to talk to you about. I’m reallysorry to have to bring this up, but it’s got to be done. Ziani, you do realize what’s going to happen to them, don’t you?”
For the first time, a little worm of fear wriggled in Ziani’s stomach. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
Falier took a deep breath. “Your pension, Ziani, from the Guild. You’re a condemned man, an enemy of the state.”
“Yes, but they haven’t done anything wrong.” The worm was running up his spine now.
“Neither have you, but that doesn’t mean…” Falier dried up for a moment. “It’s the law, Ziani,” he said. “They don’t get thepension. Look, obviously I’ll do what I can, and the lads at the factory, I’m sure they’ll want to help. But —”
“What do you mean, it’s the law? I never heard of anything like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Falier replied, “but it’s true. I checked. It’s terrible, really wicked if you ask me. I don’t know how theycan be so cruel.”
“But hang on a moment.” Ziani tried to rally his scattered thoughts, but they wouldn’t come when he called. “Falier, whatare they going to do? What’re they going to live on, for God’s sake?”
Falier looked grave. “Ariessa says she’ll try and get work,” he said. “But that’s not going to be easy; not for the widowof —” He stopped. “I don’t think I ought to have told you,” he said. “Dying with something like this on your mind. But I wasthinking.”
Ziani looked up. He knew that tone of voice. “What? There’s something I can do, isn’t there?”
“You could make a deal,” he said.
That made no sense at all. “How? I don’t understand.”
“You could ask to see the investigator. There’s still time. You could say, if they let Ariessa keep your pension, you’ll tellthem who your accomplices are.”
Accomplices. He knew what the word meant, but it made no sense in this context. “No I can’t,” he said. “There weren’t any.I didn’t tell anybody about it, even, it was just me.”
“They don’t know that.” Falier paused for a moment, then went on: “It’s politics, you see, Ziani. People they don’t like,people they’d love an excuse to get rid of. And it wouldn’t take much imagination to figure out who they’d be likely to be.If you said the right names, they’d be prepared to listen. In return for a signed deposition —”
“I couldn’t do that,” Ziani said. “They’d be killed, it’d be murder.”
“I know.” Falier frowned a little. “But Ariessa, and Moritsa —”
Ziani was silent for a moment. It’d be murder; fine. He could regret it for the rest of his life. But if it meant his wifeand daughter would get his pension, what did a few murders matter? Besides, the men he’d be murdering would all be high officialsin the Guild.… The thought of revenge had never even crossed his mind before.
“You think they’d go for that?”
“It’s got to be worth a try,” Falier said. “Face it, Ziani, what else can you do for them, in here, in the time you’ve gotleft?”
He considered the idea. A few minutes ago, he’d been clinging to the thought that it didn’t matter, any of it. He’d practicallyerased himself, every trace, from the world. But leaving behind something like this — poverty, misery, destitution — was quitedifferent. The only thing that mattered was Ariessa and Moritsa; if it meant they’d be all right, he would cheerfully burndown the world.
“What’s the plan?” he said.
Falier smiled. “Leave it to me,” he said. “I can get in to see the secretary of the expediencies committee —”
“I got in here, didn’t I? Obviously there’s not a lot of time. I’d better go.”
Falier moved to the door, paused. “It’s the right thing to do, Ziani,” he said. “This whole thing’s a bloody mess, but atleast there’s still something you can do. That’s got to be good.”
“I’ll be back in an hour.” Falier knocked on the door; it opened and he left. Remarkable, Ziani thought; I’ve known Faliermost of my life and I never knew he had magic powers. Always thought he was just ordinary, like me. But he can walk throughdoors, and I can’t.
Hard to measure time in a cell, where you can’t see the sunlight. Pulse; each heartbeat is more or less a second. But counting— sixty sixties is three thousand six hundred — would be too much effort and a waste of his rapidly dwindling supply of life.Ziani looked round; he was an abominator, apparently, but still an engineer. He thought for a moment, then grinned and pulledoff his boot, then his sock. With his teeth, he nibbled a small hole; then he scooped a handful of the grimy gray sand offthe floor and persuaded it into the sock. That done, he hung the sock from a splinter of wood in the doorframe, with his emptydrinking-cup directly underneath. Then he found his pulse, and counted while the sand trickled through the hole in the sockinto the cup. When it had all run through, he stopped counting — two hundred and fifty-eight, near as made no odds four minutes.He drew a line in the dirt beside him, and refilled the sock. There; he’d made himself a clock.
Eight fours are thirty-two; half an hour later, the door opened again. Falier was back. He looked excited, and pleased withhimself.
“All set up,” he said. “The secretary wants to see you in his office.” He frowned. “For crying out loud, Ziani, put your bootson.”
Ziani smiled. “Are you coming too?” he said.
“No.” Falier knocked on the door. “Best of luck, Ziani; but it should be all right. He was definitely intrigued. Have yougot a list of good names?”
Ziani nodded. “I’m not too well up in politics, mind,” he said. “Any suggestions?”
Falier fired off a dozen or so names, all of whom Ziani had already thought of, as the sand dribbled through into the cup.“That’ll probably do,” he went on, “but have half a dozen more up your sleeve just in case.” The door opened; different wardersthis time. “Well, so long,” Falier said. “It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”
Not all, Ziani thought; but he didn’t want to sound ungrateful. “So long,” he repeated, and the warders led him out into thecorridor.
Three flights of winding stairs brought him to a narrow passage, with heavy oak doors at irregular intervals; quite like thecells, he thought. Outside one of these, the warders stopped and knocked. Someone called out, “Yes, come in.” A warder wentin first; Ziani followed, and the other warder came in behind him.
He didn’t know the secretary’s name, or his face; but he was looking at a broad, fat man with huge hands resting on top ofa wide, well-polished desk. “This him?” the man asked, and one of the warders nodded.
“Fine.” The warder pulled out a chair, and Ziani sat in it. “All right,” the man went on, “you two get out. Don’t go far,though.”
It wasn’t easy to make out the man’s face; he was sitting with his back to a window, and Ziani had been out of the light forsome time. He had a bushy mustache but no beard, and round his neck was a silver chain with a big Guild star hanging fromit. “Ziani Vaatzes,” he said. “I know all about you. Seventeen years in the ordnance factory, foreman for six of them. Commendationsfor exceptional work.” He yawned. “So, why does a solid type like you go to the bad?”
Ziani shrugged. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said.
“I do.” The man leaned forward a little. The sun edged his dark head with gold, like an icon that’s hung too long in the candlesmoke. “Thinking you’re better than everybody else, that’s what did it. Thinking you’re so bloody clever and good, the rulesdon’t apply to you. I’ve seen your kind before.”
“I admit I’m guilty,” Ziani said. “But that’s not what you want to talk to me about. You want to know who else was involved.”
Ziani said four names. The secretary, he noticed, had a wax writing-board next to him, but wasn’t taking any notes. He triedanother four. The secretary yawned.
“You’re wasting my time,” he said. “You don’t even know these people, and you’re asking me to believe they all came roundto your house, these important men you’ve never met, to see this mechanical doll you were making for your kid.”
“I’m telling you the truth,” Ziani said.
“Balls.” The man wriggled himself comfortable in his chair. “I don’t believe you.”
“You agreed to see me.”
“So I did. Know why?”
Ziani shrugged. “I’m prepared to sign a deposition,” he said. “Or I’ll testify in court, if you’d rather.”
“No chance. I know for a fact you wouldn’t know these people if you met them in the street. You didn’t have any accomplices,you were working alone. All I want from you is who put you up to this. Oh, your pal Falier Zenonis, sure; but he’s nobody.Who else is in on it?”
Ziani sighed. There was nothing left inside him. “Who would you like it to have been?”
“No.” The man shook his head. “If I want to play that sort of game, I decide when and how. You’re here because obviously somebugger’s been underestimating me.”
“All I wanted,” Ziani said, “was for my wife to get my pension. That’s all that matters to me. I’ll say whatever you like,so long as you give me that.”
“Not interested.” The man sounded bored, maybe a little bit annoyed. “I think you thought the idea up for yourself, all onyour own. Trying to be clever with men’s lives. You can forget that.”
“I see,” Ziani said. “So you won’t do what I asked, about the pension?”
“Fine.” Ziani jumped to his feet and threw his weight against the edge of the desk, forcing it back. The man tried to getup; the edge of the desk hit the front of his thighs before his legs were straight — a nicely judged piece of timing, thoughZiani said it himself — and he staggered. Ziani shoved again, then hopped back to give himself room and scrambled on to thedesktop. The man opened his mouth to yell, but Ziani reached out; not for the throat, as the man was expecting, and so Zianiwas able to avoid his hands as he lifted them to defend himself. Instead, he grabbed the man’s shoulders and pushed back sharply.It was more a folding maneuver than anything else. The man bent at the waist as he went down, and his head, thrown backward,smashed against the stone sill of the window. It worked just as Ziani had seen it in his mind, the angles and the hinges andthe moving parts. Seventeen years of looking at blueprints teaches you how to visualize.
He was only mildly stunned, of course, so there was still plenty to do. Ziani had been hoping for a weapon; a dagger slungfashionably at the waist, or something leaning handy in a corner. Nothing like that; but there was a solid-looking iron lampstand,five feet tall, with four branches and four legs at the base to keep it steady. Just the thing; he slid off the desk, caughthold of the lamp-stand more or less in the middle, and jabbed with it, as though it was a spear. One of the legs hit the manon the forehead, just above the junction of nose and eyebrows. It was the force behind it that got the job done.
The man slid onto the floor; dead or alive, didn’t matter, he was no longer relevant. Three flights of stairs, and Ziani hadcounted the steps, made a fairly accurate assessment of the depth of tread. It would be a long way down from the window andhe had no idea what he’d be dropping onto; but he was as good as dead anyway, so what the hell? At the moment when he jumped,entrusting himself to the air without looking at what was underneath, he couldn’t stop himself wondering about Falier, whowas supposed to be his friend.
It wasn’t pavement, which was good; but it was a long way down.
For a moment he couldn’t breathe and his legs were numb. I’ve broken my bloody neck, he thought; but then he felt pain, prettymuch everywhere, which suggested the damage was rather less radical. Somewhere, not far away (not far enough), he heard shouts,excitement. It was a fair bet that he was the cause of it. Without knowing how he got there, he found himself on his feetand running. It hurt, but that was the least of his problems.
Because he’d never expected to survive the drop, he hadn’t thought ahead any further than this. But here he was, running,in an unplanned and unspecified direction. That was no good. The pity of it was, he had no idea where he should be headingfor. He was somewhere in the grounds of the Guildhall; but the grounds, like the building itself, were circular. There wasa wall all the way round, he remembered, with two gates in it. The only way out was through a gate. If they were after him,which was pretty much inevitable, the first thing they’d do would be to send runners to the gatehouses.
Every breath and heartbeat is an act of prevarication, a prising open of options.It’d sounded good when the preacher had said it, but did it actually mean anything? Only one way to find out. The gardenswere infuriatingly formal, straight lines of foot-high box hedge enclosing neat geometric patterns of flowers, nothing wildand bushy a man could hide in long enough to catch his breath, but there was a sort of trellis arch overgrown with flowerycreeper, a bower or arbor or whatever the hell it was called. He headed for it, and collapsed inside just as his legs gaveout.
Fine. First place they’ll look.
Breathing in was like dragging his heart through brambles. He got to his knees and peered round the edge of the arch. Therewas the wall, a gray blur behind a curtain of silly little trees. He followed its line until he came to a square shape, almostcompletely obscured by a lopsided flowering cherry. That would be a gate-house. He didn’t know what time it was and he couldn’tsee the sun through the arbor roof, so he couldn’t tell if it was the north or the south gate. Not that it mattered. He wasn’tlikely to get that far, and if he did the gatekeepers would be on him like terriers.
He plotted a course. Arbor to the line of trees; using the trees as cover, along the wall to the gatehouse. He could hearshouting coming from several different directions, and he wondered whether they’d catch him and take him back to his cellto be strangled, or just kill him on the spot.
I’ll escape, though, if only to be annoying.He stood in the doorway of the arbor for a moment, until he saw two men running toward him. They were wearing helmets andcarrying halberds; there goes another option, snapping shut like a mousetrap. He lowered his head and charged in the directionof the trees. They’d get him soon enough, but at least he was making an effort, and he felt it was better to die running towardsomething, rather than just running away.
It was inevitable that sooner or later he’d trip over something and go sprawling. In the event, it was one of those ridiculousdwarf box hedges that did the damage. He landed on his face in a bed of small orange flowers, and the two warders were onhim before he had a chance to move.
“Right.” One of them had grabbed his arms and twisted them behind his back. “What’s the drill?”
He couldn’t see the other warder. “Captain said get him out of sight before we do him. Don’t want the Membership seeing aman having his head cut off, it looks bad.”
The warder he could see nodded. “Stable block’s the nearest,” he said.
Between them they hauled him to his feet and dragged him backward across the flowerbeds. He sagged against their arms, lettingthem do the work; buggered if he was going to walk to his death. He heard a door creak, and a doorframe boxed out the light.
“Block,” said the other warder. “Something we can use for a block.”
“Log of wood,” his colleague suggested.
“How about an upturned bucket?” the first man said.
“Might as well.” The unseen warder trod on the backs of Ziani’s knees, forcing him down; the other man came forward with astable bucket, shaking out dusty old grain. Ziani felt the wood under his chin. “Grab his hair,” the second warder said, “holdhim steady. Halberd’s not the right tool for this job.”
A simple matter of timing, then. Ziani felt the warder’s knuckles against his scalp, then the pain as his hair was pulled,forcing his cheek against the bucket. He heard the cutter’s feet crackle in the straw as he stepped up to his mark, in hismind’s eye he saw him take a grip on the halberd shaft and raise his arms. A good engineer has the knack of visualization,the ability to orchestrate the concerted action of the mechanism’s moving parts. At the moment when he reckoned the cutter’sswing had reached its apex and was coming down, he dug his knees into the straw and arched his back, jerking his shouldersand head backward. He felt a handful of his hair pull out, but he was moving, hauling the other warder toward him.
He heard the halberd strike; a flat, solid shearing noise, as its edge bit into the warder’s forearms, catching them justright against the base of the iron band that ran round the bottom of the bucket. By the time the warder screamed, he was loose;he hopped up like a frog, located the cutter (standing with a stupid expression on his face, looking at the shorn stub ofhis mate’s left hand) and stamped his foot into the poor fool’s kidneys. It wasn’t quite enough to put him down; but the otherman had obligingly left his halberd leaning up against a partition. All Ziani knew about weapons was how to make them, buthe did understand tools — leverage, mechanical advantage — and the principles were more or less the same. With the rear hornof the blade he hooked the cutter’s feet out from under him, and finished the job efficiently with the spike. The other manwas still kneeling beside the bucket, trying to clamp the gushing stump with his good hand. The hell with finesse, Ziani thought;he pulled the spike clear and shoved it at the wounded man’s face. It was more luck than judgment that he stuck him preciselywhere he’d aimed. In one ear and out the other, like listening to your mother.
His fingers went dead around the halberd shaft; it slipped through, and its weight dragged it down, though the spike was stilljammed in that poor bastard’s head. It had taken a matter of seconds; two lives ended, one life just possibly reprieved. Itwas a curious sort of equilibrium, one he wasn’t eager to dwell on. Instead he thought: this is a stable, wouldn’t it be wonderfulif it had horses in it?
Of course, he had no idea how you went about harnessing a horse. He found a saddle, there was a whole rack of the things;and bridles, and a bewildering selection of straps with buckles on, some or all of which you apparently needed in order tomake the horse go. He’d decided on the brown one; it wasn’t the biggest, but the other two looked tired (though he had noidea what a tired horse was supposed to look like). Pinching the corners of its mouth got the bit in. He fumbled hopelesslywith the bridle straps, sticking the ends in the wrong buckles until eventually he managed to get the proper layout straightin his mind. The saddle went on its back, that was obvious enough. There was some knack or rule of thumb about how tight thegirths needed to be. He didn’t know it, so he pulled the strap as tight as he could make it go. The horse didn’t seem to mind.
That just left getting on. Under better circumstances, he might well have been able to reach the stirrup. As it was, he hadto go back and fetch the bucket to stand on. It was slippery, and he nearly fell over.I wish I knew how to do this,he thought, and dug his heels into the horse’s ribs.
After that it was shamefully simple. The gatekeepers had seen him being caught and so weren’t looking for escaped prisonersanymore; besides, he was on a horse, and the prisoner had been on foot. The horse wanted to trot, so the saddle was poundinghis bum like a trip-hammer. He passed under the gate, and someone called out, but he couldn’t make out the words. Nobody followedhim. Two murders, possibly three if he’d killed the secretary of the expediencies committee when he hit him with the lampstand,and he was riding out of there like a prince going hawking. His head ached where the hair had been pulled out.
As soon as he was through the gate, he knew where he was. That tall square building was the bonded warehouse, where he deliveredfinished arrowheads for export. The superintendent was a friend of his, sometimes on slow days they drank tea and had a gameof chess (but today wasn’t a slow day). He was in Twenty-Fourth Street, junction with Ninth Avenue.
Three blocks down Ninth Avenue was an alley, leading to the back gate of a factory. It was quiet and the walls on either sidewere high; you could stop there for a piss if you were in a hurry. He contrived to get the horse to turn down it, let it amblehalfway down, pulled it up and slid awkwardly off its back. It stood there looking at him as he picked himself up. Nevertheless,he said. “Thanks,” as he walked away.
The factory gate was bolted on the inside, but he managed to jump up, get his stomach on the top of it and reach over to drawback the bolt. The gate swung open, with him on top of it. He slipped down — bad landing — and shut it behind him, tryingto remember what they made here. At any rate, he was back on industrial premises, where the rules were rather closer to whathe was used to.
He was in the back yard; and all the back yards of all the factories in the world are more or less identical. The pile ofrusting iron scrap might be a foot or so to the left or right; the old tar-barrel full of stagnant rainwater might be in thenortheast corner rather than the northwest; the chunky, derelict machine overgrown with brambles might be a brake, a punch,a roller or a shear. The important things, however, are always the same. The big shed with the double doors is always themain workshop. The long shed at right angles to it is always the materials store. The kennel wedged in the corner furthestfrom the gate is always the office. The tiny hutch in the opposite corner is always the latrine, and you can always be sureof finding it in the dark by the smell.
Ziani ducked behind the scrap pile and quickly took his bearings. Ninth Avenue ran due south, so the gate he’d just climbedover faced east. He glanced up at the sky; it was gray and overcast, but a faint glow seeping through the cloud betrayed thesun, told him it was mid-afternoon. In all factories everywhere, in mid-afternoon the materials store is always deserted.He looked round just in case; nobody to be seen. He scuttled across the yard as fast as he could go.
The geometry of stores is another absolute constant. On the racks that ran its length were the mandatory twenty-foot lengthsof various sizes and profiles of iron and brass bar, rod, strip, tube, plate and sheet. Above them was the timber, plankedand unplanked, rough and planed. Against the back wall stood the barrels and boxes, arranged in order of size; iron rivets(long, medium and short, fifteen different widths), copper rivets, long nails, medium nails, short nails, tacks, pins, splitpins, washers; drill bits, taps, dies; mills and reamers, long and short series, in increments of one sixty-fourth of an inch;jigs and forms, dogs and faceplates, punches, calipers, rules, squares, scribers, vee-blocks and belts, tool-boats and gauges,broaches and seventeen different weights of ball-peen hammers. At the far end, against the back wall, stood the big shear,bolted to a massive oak bench; three swage-blocks, a grinding-wheel in its bath, two freestanding leg-vices, a pail of grimywater and a three-hundredweight double-bick anvil on a stump. Every surface was slick with oil and filmed with a coating ofblack dust.
It was the familiarity of it all that cut into him; he’d worked all his life in places like this, but he’d never looked atthem; just as, after a while, a blind man can walk round his house without tripping, because he knows where everything is.All his life Ziani had worked hard, anxious to impress and be promoted, until he’d achieved what he most wanted — foremanof the machine room of the Mezentine state ordnance factory, the greatest honor a working engineer could ever attain thisside of heaven. Outside Mezentia there was nothing like this; the Guilds had seen to that. The Eternal Republic had an absolutemonopoly on precision engineering; which meant, in practice, that outside the city, in the vast, uncharted world that existedonly to buy the products of Mezentine industry, there were no foundries or machine shops, no lathes or mills or shapers orplaners or gang-drills or surface-grinders; the pinnacle of the metalworker’s art was a square stub of iron set in a bakedearth floor for an anvil, a goatskin bellows and three hammers. That was how the Republic wanted it to be; and, to keep itthat way, there was an absolute prohibition on skilled men leaving the city. Not that any Mezentine in his right mind wouldwant to; but wicked kings of distant, barbarous kingdoms had been known to addle men’s minds with vast bribes, luring themaway with their heads full of secrets. To deal with such contingencies, the Republic had the Travelers’ Company, whose jobit was to track down renegades and kill them, as quickly and efficiently as possible. By their efforts, all those clever headswere returned to the city, usually within the week, with their secrets still in place but without their bodies, to be exhibitedon pikes above Travelers’ Arch as a reassurance to all loyal citizens.
Ziani walked over to the anvil and sat down. The more he thought about it, of course, the worse it got. He couldn’t stay inthe city — this time tomorrow, they’d be singing out his description in every square, factory and exchange in town — but hecouldn’t leave and go somewhere else, because it simply wasn’t possible to leave unless you went out through one of the sevengates. Even supposing he managed it, by growing wings or perfecting an invisibility charm, there was nowhere he could go.Of course, he’d never get across the plains and the marshes alive; if he did, and made it as far as the mountains, and gotthrough one of the heavily guarded passes without being eaten by bears or shot by sentries, a brown-skinned, black-hairedMezentine couldn’t fail to be noticed among the tribes of pale-skinned, yellow-haired savages who lived there. The tribalchiefs knew what happened to anyone foolish enough to harbor renegades. Silly of him; he’d jumped out of check into checkmate,all the while thinking he was getting away.
On the bench beside him he saw a scrap of paper. It was a rough sketch of a mechanism — power source, transmission, crankshaft,flywheel; a few lines and squiggles with a charcoal stub, someone thinking on paper. One glance was enough for him to be ableto understand it, as easily as if the squiggles and lines had been letters forming words. Outside the city walls, of course,it’d be meaningless, just hieroglyphics. A mechanism, a machine someone was planning to build in order to achieve an objective.He thought about that. A waterwheel or a treadmill or a windlass turns; that motion is translated into other kinds of motion,circular into linear, horizontal into vertical, by means of artfully shaped components, and when the process is complete oneaction is turned into something completely different, as if by alchemy. The barbarians, believers in witchcraft and sorcery,never conceived of anything as magical as that.
He thought for a while, lining up components and processes in his mind. Then he slid off the bench, washed his hands and facein the slack-tub and headed across the yard to the office.
As he walked in, a clerk perched on a high stool turned to peer at him.
“Any work going?” Ziani asked.
The clerk looked at him. “Depends on what you can do,” he said.
“Not much. Well, I can fetch and carry, sweep floors and stuff.”
Ziani shook his head. “Left school when I was twelve,” he said.
The clerk grinned. “Good answer,” he said. “We’re all right for skilled men, but we can always use another porter.” He shookhis head. “Crazy, isn’t it? There’s Guildsmen sat at home idle for want of a place, and the likes of you can walk in off thestreet and start immediately.”
“Good,” Ziani said. “What’s the pay?”
The clerk frowned. “Don’t push your luck,” he said.
Nice clear directions brought Ziani to the shipping bay. The factory made farm machinery — plows, chain and disk harrows,seed drills — for export to the breadbasket countries in the far south. How they got there, very few people knew or cared;the Mezentines sold them to dealers, who took delivery at Lonazep, on the mouth of the estuary. Ziani had never been to Lonazep,but he knew it was outside the walls. After five hours lifting things onto carts, he was asked if he fancied volunteeringfor carriage duty.
The answer to this question, in every factory in the world, is always no. Carriage duty means sitting on the box of a cartbumping along rutted tracks in the savage wilderness outside the city. It pays time and a half, which isn’t nearly enoughfor the trauma of being Outside; you sleep in a ditch or under the cart, and there are rumored to be spiders whose bite makesyour leg swell up like a pumpkin.
“Sure,” Ziani said.
(Because the sentries at the gates would be looking for a Guildsman on his own, not a driver’s mate on a cart in the long,backed-up queue crawling out of town on the north road. When a particularly dangerous and resourceful fugitive — an abominator,say, or a guard-killer — was on the run, they’d been known to pull the covers off every cart and scrabble about in the packingstraw in case there was anyone hiding in there, but they never bothered to look at the unskilled men on the box. Guild thinking.)
God bless the city ordinance that kept annoying heavy traffic off the streets during the day. By its blessed virtue, it wasdark when the long line of carts rolled out of the factory gate and merged with the foul-tempered glacier inching its waytoward the north gate. Heavy rain was the perfect finishing touch. It turned the streets into glue, but as far as Ziani wasconcerned it was beautiful, because a sentry who has to stand at his post all night quite reasonably prefers to avoid gettingsoaked to the skin, and accordingly stays in the guardhouse and peers out through the window. As it turned out, they showedwilling and made some sort of effort; a cart six places ahead in the line was pulled over, while the sentries climbed abouton it and crawled under it with lanterns. They didn’t find anything, of course; and, their point proved, they went back insidein the dry. Ziani guessed the quota was one in ten. Sure enough, looking back over his shoulder once they were through thearch and out the other side, he saw the third cart behind them slow to a halt, and lanterns swinging through the rain.
“You’re new, then,” said the driver next to him. He hadn’t spoken since they left the factory.
“That’s right,” Ziani said. “Actually, this is my first time out of town.”
The driver nodded. “It sucks,” he said. “The people smell and the food’s shit.”
“So I heard,” Ziani said.
“So why’d you volunteer?”
“I don’t know, really,” Ziani replied. “Suppose I always wondered if it’s really as bad as they say.”
“Well, now I know.”
The driver grinned. “Maybe next time you’ll listen when people tell you things.”
A mile out from the north gate the road forked. Half the traffic would stay on the main road, the other half would take theturning that followed the river past the old quarries down to Lonazep. Ziani’s original plan had been to try and get himselfon a ship going south, maybe even all the way down to the Gulf, as far from the Eternal Republic as you could go without fallingoff the edge of the world. Seeing the scrap of paper on the bench in the storeroom had changed all that. If he went south,it’d mean he was never coming back. Instead, he waited till they stopped for the night at Seventh Milestone. The driver crawledunder the tarpaulin, pointing out that there was only room for one.
“No problem,” Ziani said. “I’ll be all right under the cart.”
As soon as he was satisfied the driver was asleep, Ziani emerged and started to walk. Geography wasn’t his strong suit, butas soon as the sun came up he’d be able to see the mountains across the plain, due west. Going west meant he’d be away fora while, maybe a very long time, but sooner or later he’d be back.3
As soon as Duke Orsea realized he’d lost the battle, the war and his country’s only hope of survival, he ordered a generalretreat. It was the only sensible thing he’d done all day.
One hour had made all the difference. An hour ago, when he’d led the attack, the world had been a very different place. He’dhad an army of twenty-five thousand men, one tenth of the population of the Duchy of Eremia. He had a commanding position,a fully loaded supplies and equipment train, a carefully prepared battle plan, the element of surprise, the love and trustof his people, and hope. Now, as the horns blared and the ragged lines crumpled and dissolved into swarms of running dots,he had the miserable job of getting as many as he could of the fourteen thousand stunned, bewildered and resentful survivorsaway from the enemy cavalry and back to the relative safety of the mountains. One hour to change the world; not many men couldhave done such a thorough job. It took a particular genius to destroy one’s life so comprehensively in so short a time.
A captain of archers, unrecognizable from a face-wound, ran past him, shouting something he didn’t catch. More bad news, orjust confirmation of what he already knew; or maybe simple abuse; it didn’t greatly matter, because now that he’d given theorder, there was precious little he could do about anything. If the soldiers got as far as the thorn-scrub on the edge ofthe marshes, and if they stopped there and re-formed instead of running blindly into the bog, and if they were still gullibleenough to obey his orders after everything he’d let them in for, he might still be relevant. Right now, he was nothing morethan a target, and a conspicuous one at that, perched on a stupid white horse and wearing stupid fancy armor.
It hurt him, worse than the blade of the broken-off arrow wedged in his thigh, to turn his back on the dead bodies of hismen, scattered on the flat moor like a spoiled child’s toys. Once he reined in his horse, turned and rode away, he acknowledged,he’d be breaking a link between himself and his people that he’d never be able to repair. But that was self-indulgence, heknew. He’d forgone the luxury of guilt when he bent his neck to the bait and tripped the snare. The uttermost mortification;his state of mind, his agonized feelings, didn’t matter anymore. It was his duty to save himself, and thereby reduce the casualtylist by one. He nudged the horse with his heels.
The quickest way to the thorn-hedge was across the place where the center of his line had been. His horse was a dainty stepper,neatly avoiding the tumbled bodies, the carelessly discarded weapons that could cut a delicate hoof to the quick. He saw woundedmen, some screaming, some dragging themselves along by their hands, some struggling to draw a few more breaths, as thoughthere was any point. He could get off the stupid white horse, load a wounded man into the saddle and take his chances on foot.Possibly, if there’d only been one, he’d have done it. But there wasn’t just one, there werethousands;and that made it impossible, for some reason.
Orsea had seen tragedy before, and death. He’d even seen mess, great open slashed wounds, clogged with mud and dust, wherea boar had caught a sluggish huntsman, or a careless forester had misjudged the fall of a tree. He’d been there once whena granary had collapsed with fifteen men inside; he’d been one of the first to scrabble through the smashed beams and fallenstone blocks, and he’d pulled two men out of there with his own hands, saved their lives. He’d done it because he couldn’tdo otherwise; he couldn’t turn his back on pain and injury, any more than he could stick his hand in a fire and keep it there.An hour ago, he’d been that kind of man.
A horseman came thundering up behind him. His first thought was that the enemy cavalry was on to him, but the rider slowedand called out his name; his name and his stupid title.
He recognized the voice. “Miel?” he yelled back.
Miel Ducas; he’d never have recognized him. Ten years ago he’d have traded everything he had for Miel Ducas’ face, which seemedto have such an irresistible effect on pretty young girls. Now, though, he couldn’t see Miel’s nose and mouth through a thicksplatter of dirt and blood.
“There’s another wing,” Miel was saying; it took Orsea a heartbeat or so to realize he was talking about the battle. “Anotherwing of fucking cavalry; reserve, like they need it. They’re looping out on the far left, I guess they’re planning on cuttingus off from the road. I’ve still got six companies of lancers, but even if we get there in time we won’t hold them long, andthey’ll chew us to buggery.”
Orsea sighed. He wanted to shrug his shoulders and ride on — he actually wanted to do that; his own callous indifference shockedhim. “Leave it,” he heard himself say. “Those lancers are worth more to us than a regiment of infantry. Keep them out of harm’sway, and get them off the field as quick as you can.”
Miel didn’t answer, just pulled his horse’s head round and stumbled away. Orsea watched him till he was out of sight overthe horizon. It’d be nice to think that over there somewhere, screened by the line of stunted thorns, was that other worldof an hour ago, and that Miel would arrive there to find the army, pristine and unbutchered, in time to turn them back.
Orsea still wasn’t quite sure what had happened. Last night, camped in the middle of the flat plain, he’d sent out his observers.They started to come back around midnight. The enemy, they said, was more or less where they were supposed to be. At mostthere were sixteen thousand of them; four thousand cavalry, perched on the wings; between them, ten thousand infantry, andthe artillery. The observers knew their trade, what to look for, how to assess numbers by counting camp fires, and as eachone reported in, Orsea made a note on his map. Gradually he built up the picture. The units he was most worried about, theCeftuines and the southern heavy infantry (the whole Mezentine army was made up of foreign mercenaries, apart from the artillery),were camped right in the middle, just as he’d hoped. His plan was to leave them till last; break up the negligible Maderiinfantry and light cavalry on either side of the center, forcing the Mezentines to commit their heavy cavalry to a long, gruelingcharge across the flat, right down the throats of his eight thousand archers. That’d be the end of them, the Bareng heavydragoons and the lancers. If a tenth of them made it through the arrow-storm, they’d be doing outstandingly well; and thenOrsea’s own lancers would take them in the flank, drive them back on their own lines as the wholesale roll-up started. Inwould come the horse-archers from the extreme ends of the line, shepherding the Mezentines in on their own center, where theCeftuines would’ve been standing helplessly, watching the world collapse all around them. By the time the fighting reachedthem, they’d be hemmed in on all sides by their own defeated, outflanked, surrounded comrades. The lancers would close thebox, and the grand finale would be a long, one-sided massacre.
It had been that, all right.
A deep, low hum far away to his left; Orsea stood up in his stirrups, trying to get a better view, but all he could see wasdust. He couldn’t even remember which of his units was over that way now. Every part of his meticulously composed line wasout of place. When the disaster struck, he’d tried to fight back, pulling men out of what he thought was the killing zone,only to find he’d sent them somewhere even worse. He didn’t understand; that was what made him want to sob with anger. Hestill didn’t know how they were doing it, how the bloody thingsworked;all he’d seen was the effects, the clouds and swarms of steel bolts, three feet long and half an inch thick, shot so fastthey flew flat, not looped like an ordinary arrow. He’d been there when a volley struck the seventh lancers. First, a lowwhistling, like a flock of starlings; next, a black cloud resolving itself into a skyful of tiny needles, hanging in the airfor a heartbeat before swooping, following a trajectory that made no sense, broke all the known rules of flight; then pitching,growing bigger so horribly fast (like the savage wild animals that chase you in dreams), then dropping like hailstones allaround him; and the shambles, the noise, the suddenness of it all. So many extraordinary images, like a vast painting crammedwith incredible detail: a man nailed to the ground by a bolt that hit him in the groin, drove straight through his horse andinto the ground, fixing them both so firmly they couldn’t even squirm; two men riveted together by the same bolt; a man hitby three bolts simultaneously, each one punched clean through his armor, and still incredibly alive; a great swath of menand horses stamped into the ground, like a careless footstep on a flowerbed full of young seedlings. Just enough time forhim to catch fleeting glimpses of these unbelievable sights, and then the next volley fell, two minutes of angle to the left,flattening another section of the line. He couldn’t even see where the bolts were coming from, they didn’t seem to rise fromthe surface of the earth, they just materialized or condensed in mid-air, like snow.
As he watched the bolts fall all around him, he couldn’t understand why he was the only one left alive, or how they couldaim so precisely to kill everybody else and leave him alone. But of course they could. They could do anything.
That was when he’d given his one sensible order, just over an hour ago. A few minutes later, the volleys stopped; there wereno coherent bodies of men left to shoot at, and the Mezentine cavalry was surging forward to begin the pursuit and mopping-up.So hard to judge time, when the world has just changed and all the rules are suddenly different, but his best guess was thatthe disaster had taken ten minutes, twelve at the very most. You couldn’t boil a pot of water in that time.
Just a simple steel rod, pointed at one end; he reached out and pulled one out of the ground as he rode. You could use itas a spit; or three of them, tied together at the top, would do to hang a pot from over the fire. They stood up out of theground, angled, like bristles on an unshaven chin, and there were far too many to count. It’d take weeks just to come roundwith carts and collect them all up — did the Mezentines do that, or did they leave them, as a monument of victory and a warningto others, till they flaked away into rust? He could imagine them doing that, in this dead, unused plain, which they’d shotfull of pins.
I’d have liked just to see one of their machines, he thought, as a sort of consolation prize; but I guess I haven’t done anythingto deserve that privilege.
He looked back over his shoulder, to see how close the Mezentine cavalry was; but they weren’t closing. Instead, they seemedto be pulling back. Well, he could understand that. Why risk the lives of men, even paid servants, when you’ve got machinesto do the work? They’d made their point, and now they were letting him go. So kind of them, so magnanimous. Instead of killinghim, they were leaving him to bring the survivors home, to try and find some way of explaining what had become of the dead.(Well, there was this huge cloud of steel pins that came down out of the sky; and the dog ate my homework.) They were toocruel to kill him.
At the thorn hedge, he found what was left of his general staff; twenty out of thirty-six. His first reaction was anger; howcould he be expected to organize a coherent retreat without a full staff? (So what are you going to do about it? Write a stronglyworded letter?) Then it occurred to him that he wasn’t ever going to see those missing faces again, and there was a momentof blind panic when he looked to see who was there and who wasn’t. Key personnel — four out of five of the inner circle, butthe missing man had to be Faledrin Botaniates; how thehellam I going to keep track of duty rosters without Faledrin? The others, the ones who weren’t there, were — The shame burnedhim, he’d just thoughtexpendable.He forced himself to go back and repeat the thought. It’d be difficult, a real pain in the bum, to have to cope without them,but a way could be found. Therefore, they were, they’d been, expendable.
There, he’d thought it; the concept he’d promised he’d never let creep into his mind, now that he was the Duke of Eremia.That coped off the day’s humiliations, and he was right down there with all the people he despised most. Fine. Now he’d gotthat over with, it might be an idea to do some work.
They were looking at him; some at his face, some at the blood trickling through the joints of his leg-armor. He’d forgottenall about it.
“What happened to you?” someone said.
The scope of the question appalled him for a moment; then he realized it was just his stupid wound they were talking about.“Friendly fire,” he said briskly. “I guess I’m the only man on the field who got hit by one of our arrows.” He started todismount, but something went wrong. His left leg couldn’t take any weight, and he ended up in a heap on the ground.
He yelled at them not to fuss as they pulled him to his feet; it was ridiculous, bothering with him when there were thousandsof men gradually dying on the other side of the brake. Before he could forbid it, someone sent a runner for the surgeon. Stupid.No time for that.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” someone was saying. “They don’t seem to be following up right now, but we’ve got to assumewe’ll have their cavalry after us any minute. Does anybody know where anybody is?”
Orsea had views of his own on the subject, but quite suddenly he wasn’t feeling too good. Dizziness, like he’d been drinking;and he couldn’t think of words. He opened his mouth to say something, but his mind had gone blank. His arms and head seemedto weigh far too much…
When he woke up, the sky had turned to canvas. He looked at it for a moment; he could see the weave, and the lines of stitchingat the seams. He realized he was lying on his back, on cushions piled on a heap of empty sacks. His throat was ridiculouslydry, and he felt so weak…
“He’s coming round,” someone said. (Fine; treat me like I’m not here.) “Go and fetch Ducas, and the doctor.”
He knew that voice, but while he’d been asleep, someone had burgled his mind and stolen all the names. He tried to lift hishead, but his muscles had wilted.
“Lie still,” someone else said. “You’ve lost a hell of a lot of blood.”
No I haven’t, he wanted to say. He let his head slip back onto the cushion. There were heavy springs bearing on his eyelids,and the light hurt. “Where is this?” he heard himself say, in a tiny little voice.
“God only knows,” someone said, just outside his limited circle of vision. “Just to the right of the middle of nowhere. We’verounded up what we can of the army and the Mezentines seem to have lost interest in us, so we’ve pitched camp. Miel Ducasis running things; I’ve sent someone to fetch him.”
He definitely knew that voice, but it didn’t belong here. It was absurdly out of context; it belonged in a garden, a littlesquare patch of green and brown boxed in by mud-brick walls. His father’s house. Now he knew who the speaker was; his secondoldest friend, after Miel Ducas. Fancy not recognizing someone you’d grown up with.
“Cordea?” he muttered.
“Right here.” There was something slightly brittle about Cordea’s voice, but that was only to be expected in the circumstances.“They got the arrow out,” he was saying, “they had a hell of a job with it. Apparently it was right up against the artery,nicked it but didn’t cut into it. The doctor didn’t dare draw it out, for fear of the barbs slicing right through. In theend he had to go in from the side, so you’re pretty badly cut up. Infection’s the biggest risk, of course —”
“Shut up about my stupid leg,” Orsea interrupted. “What about the battle? How many… ?”
He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question. Simple matter of pronouns; how many of our men did I kill?
“Nine thousand dead.” Cordea’s voice was completely flat. “Two thousand badly wounded, another three thousand cut up but ontheir feet.” Cordea paused. “Miel insisted on going back with his lancers and the wagons; he picked up about eight hundredbefore they started shooting at him. Of course the surgeons can’t cope with numbers like that, so we’ll lose another two,three hundred just getting home. Actually, it could’ve been a whole lot worse.”
Well, of course it could. But it was plenty bad enough. “Has anybody got any idea what those things were?” Orsea asked.
Cordea nodded. “Tell you about it later,” he said. “Look, it was me said that Miel should take charge; only I couldn’t thinkof anybody else. Are you all right with that?”
Orsea tried to laugh. Talk about your stupid questions. “Absolutely fine,” he said.
“Only, I know you and he don’t always get on…”
“Cordea, that was when we weretwelve.” He wanted to laugh, but apparently he couldn’t. “What about moving on?” he said. “We can’t just stay here, wherever thehell we are.”
“In the morning. They’re shattered, we’d lose people if we tried to move out tonight. We’ve got sentries, in case they attack.”
“How far… ?” Dizzy again. He gave in and closed his eyes. If he let himself drift back to sleep, maybe he’d wake up to findit had all been taken care of. He’d never wanted to be a duke anyway. “Ask Miel…” he began to say, but the sentence didn’tget finished.
“It’s a real stroke of luck, him getting wounded.”
He’d opened his eyes but it was still dark; there was just a glimmer of lighter blue. He lay still.
“There’s going to be hell to pay,” Miel’s voice went on, “but we’ll make out he’s at death’s door, it’ll go down well. Noneed to tell anybody it was one of our arrows.”
“Tell them he was a hero, fighting a desperate rearguard action so the army could escape,” someone else said. “I’d ratherwe were bringing home a victory, but a glorious defeat’s not so bad. Better than a bloody good hiding, anyway. How’s the waterholding out?”
“Not wonderful,” Miel answered. “Thank God we were able to save the barrels, or we’d be completely screwed. As it is, we’llprobably get to the foothills tomorrow night, and there’s plenty of springs coming down off the mountains. You’d better cutthe ration, though. The horses should come first, we can’t afford to lose any more.”
“All right.” The second voice was getting further away. “We were right, though, weren’t we? I mean, basically it was a goodidea.”
He heard Miel laugh. “No,” he said. “No, it was a bloody stupid idea. Maybe next time when he says, let’s not pick a fightwith the Mezentine Empire, somebody’ll listen.”
(But that’s wrong, Orsea wanted to say. I was against it to begin with, but then they explained and I realized they were right.It made good sense, it was the bigger, broader view, and the only reason I was against it at the start was fear…)
“Doctor’s here,” someone else called out. “Is he awake?”
“No,” Miel replied. “At least, I don’t think so. Tell him to wait, I’ll take a look.”
They lit a lamp so the doctor could see what he was doing. Not anyone Orsea had ever seen before; he looked drained, as wasonly to be expected. His eyes were red, and all he said when the examination was over was, “He’ll keep. Just don’t bouncehim up and down too much.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” Miel turned his head, knelt down beside him, and for the first time since the battle, Orsea sawhis face without the thick, obscuring smear of caked blood.
“Hello,” Miel said. “How are you doing?”
He was glad he hadn’t had to see it before they stitched it up; but Miel wouldn’t be getting the sort of stares he was usedto from the pretty girls in future. Orsea felt bad about that; he knew how much it meant to him, always being the best-looking,never having to try. Well, that was a thing of the past, too.
“Awful,” he replied. “How about you?”
Miel shrugged. “Things are pretty much under control,” he said. “One more march should see us off this fucking plain. I don’tsee them following us up the mountain. I’ve sent ahead for what we need most.”
Orsea closed his eyes. “I was lucky,” he said.
“You bet. Another sixteenth of an inch, the doctor said —”
“That’s not what I meant. I was lucky I got hurt. It meant I got to sleep through all the worst bits, and you’ve had to cope.I’m sorry about that.”
Miel clicked his tongue. “Forget about it,” he said.
“And your face…”
“Forget about that too.” Miel’s voice tensed up just a little, nonetheless. “It was pretty comical, actually. Ducked out ofthe way of one of those bolt things, tripped over my feet, laid myself open on a sharp edge. Of course I’ll tell all the girliesit was hand-to-hand combat with the Mezentine champion.”
“You were standing over the crumpled body of the Duke,” Orsea said. “Outnumbered five to one —”
“You’re quite right, seven to one; and they were all in full armor, and you’d lost your sword, so all you had was a tent-peg—”
“A broken tent-peg, please.”
“Naturally.” Orsea sighed. “Actually, that’s not so far from the truth. In fact, what you did was rather more important. Yousee, I wouldn’t have been able to —”
“Balls.” He heard Miel shift; he was standing up, presumably. A leader’s work is never done. “The doctor says you need torest. I said, it’s what he’s best at. Try not to die in the night.”
Orsea pulled a grim face. “Just to spite you, I will,” he said, “and then you’ll be left with all my messes to sort out onyour own.”
Miel frowned at him. “That joke’s still funny this time,” he said, “but next time it’ll just be self-indulgent. While you’rein here with nothing to do, you can think of a new one.”
“Seriously.” Orsea looked at his friend. “I feel really bad about it, you being landed with all of this.”
Miel shrugged. “It’s my job,” he said.
“At least get someone to help you. What about Cordea? He’s not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but he’s smarter than me—” He stopped. Miel had turned away, just for a moment.
“Oh,” Orsea said.
“Sorry,” Miel replied. “My fault, I’d assumed they’d have told you. Blood poisoning, apparently.”
“I see.” For a moment, Orsea couldn’t think; it was as though his mind was completely empty. He ought to say something, buthe couldn’t remember any suitable words. Miel shook his head.
“Get some sleep,” he said. “It’s the most useful thing you can do.”
“Sleep?” Orsea laughed. “Sorry, but I don’t think I can.”
But he could; and the next thing he saw was bright daylight through the open tent-flap, and the doctor prodding his leg withhis finger.
“You’re lucky,” the doctor said, “no infection, and it’s scarring up nicely. Mind you,” he added, with a kind of grim zest,“one wrong move and it’ll burst open again, and next time you may not be so fortunate. Try and keep your weight off it fornow.”
“Thanks,” Orsea replied through a mouthful of sleep, “but I’ve got an army to move up the mountain, so I don’t —”
“No you haven’t. Miel Ducas is handling all that.” He made it sound like the arrangements for a dance. “You can help bestby staying put and not causing any trouble.”
“Fine. Don’t let me keep you.”
The doctor grinned. “I was all finished anyway. I’ll look at it again this evening. Remember, nothing energetic. They’ve puttogether a litter to carry you.”
The doctor left before he could argue, which was annoying. He wanted to protest; how could he let himself be carried abouton a litter when there were wounded men —seriouslywounded men — who were going to have to hobble and crawl, and who might well not make it all the way? But, as the tent-flapdropped shut behind the doctor’s back, he realized it was pointless. They wouldn’t allow it, because he was the Duke and hewasn’t allowed to die of impatience and nobility of spirit. If he tried to dismiss the litter-bearers and walk up the mountain,it’d only lead to fuss and delay while Miel and the others told him not to be so bloody stupid; if he protested, he wouldn’timpress the doctor, and nobody else would be listening to him. With a sigh, he decided to reclassify himself as a cumbersomebut necessary piece of luggage. The galling thing, of course, was that they could manage perfectly well without him; better,probably. After all, he was the one who’d got them all into this appalling situation.
They came and dismantled the tent around him; brisk, efficient men in muddy clothes who seemed to have the knack of not seeinghim. They left him on his pile of cushions and sacks under a clear blue sky, in a landscape crowded with activity. He watchedthem loading the carts with folded tents, barrels, sacks, unused arrows still in their sheaves, boxes of boots, belts andspare side-plates for helmets, trestle tables and wounded men. Finally his litter came. Two Guards captains hauled him ontoit; the porters lifted it on their shoulders like a coffin, and joined the queue of slow-moving baggage threading its wayonto the narrow path. From his raised and lordly position he could see a long way over the heads of his people (wasn’t therean old saying about that, how we’re all dwarves on the shoulders of giants; we’re lesser men than our fathers, but becausewe inherit their wisdom and experience, we can see further). First he looked back in case there were any signs of pursuit.It was impossible to make out much on the featureless plain, but he convinced himself he could see the battlefield and thethorn hedge. The gray blur in the air; would that be a huge flock of crows picking at the dead, or smoke from fires wherethe tidy Mezentines were burning up the litter? He could see the heads of the army, flashes of light on helmets that werebeginning to rust, since nobody could be bothered with scouring them down with sand twice a day. On the way out they’d marchedin ranks and files, smart and neat as the hedges round formal gardens. Now they trudged in knots and bunches, and the gapsbetween each group looked like bald patches in a frayed coat.
(Invade Mezentia, they’d told him; clever men who’d chafed at the old Duke’s timid caution, because they knew that the longerthe job was left, the harder it would be. Attack them now, while there’s still time. It’s us or them; not aggression but simple,last-ditch self-defense. The old Duke had had the perfect excuse: the long, bitter, unwinnable war against their neighbors,which drained away every spare penny and every fit man. But that war was over now. They’d had to grin and bear painfully humiliatingterms — land and water-rights and grazing-rights on the eastern mountains given away instead of fought over to the death —but it had been worth it because it made possible the preemptive strike against the real enemy, and thanks to the last fiftyyears of relentless campaigning and slaughter they had an army of hardened veterans who’d drive the Mezentine mercenariesinto the sea. The alternative, biding still and quiet while the Republic strangled them to death at their leisure, was simplyunthinkable. Besides, with an army of twenty-five thousand, how could he possibly lose?)
They were taking the Butter Pass up the mountain. Not through choice. They’d come down into the plain, five days ago, by wayof the main cart-road, a relatively gentle gradient and firm going for the horses. But they were a whole day east, thanksto the fear of the Mezentine cavalry, and they didn’t have enough water left to go round the foot of the mountain. The ButterPass was a different proposition altogether. It was adequate for its purpose; once a month, hundreds of hill-farmers’ sonstrudged down it with yokes on their shoulders, each carrying a hundredweight of butter and cheese to the cluster of tentswhere the Mezentine buyers were waiting for them. Going back up the mountain, they had a much lighter load: a few copper penniesor a roll of cotton cloth (third or fourth quality), at most a keg of nails or a rake and a hoe. Taking an army up the ButterPass was the sort of stupid thing you only did if you had to. It was slow going. To get the carts up without smashing wheelsor shearing axles, they had to stop every fifty yards or so to shift boulders, fill in potholes, cut away the rock or improviseembankments to widen the path. Boulders too big to lever aside had to be split, with hammers and wedges or by lighting a fireto heat them up and then quenching them with buckets of precious, scarce water. It was a vast, thankless expenditure of effortand ingenuity — no praise or glory, just a sigh when the obstacle was circumvented and a grim shrug as the next one was addressed— and all Orsea could do was watch, as his bearers lowered him to the ground, glad of the excuse for a rest. It was all wrong;he should be paying off his debt by leading the way. In his mind’s eye he saw himself, dusty and bathed in sweat, leaningon a crowbar or swinging a big hammer, exhausted but cheerful, first man to the job and last man off it, and everyone feelingbetter for knowing he was there with them — instead, he watched, as if this was all a demonstration by the corps of engineers,and he was sitting in a grandstand, waiting to award prizes. Miel Ducas was doing his job for him, and doing it very well.He thought about that, and felt ashamed.
There was still an hour’s light left when they gave up for the night, but everybody was too exhausted to carry on. There hadalready been unnecessary accidents and injuries, and Miel had called a halt. Instead, men stumbled about on a sad excuse fora plateau, struggling to pitch tents on the slope, wedging cartwheels with stones to stop them rolling; the whole tiresomeroutine of unpacking and setting up, lighting fires without proper kindling, cooking too little food in too little water.They pitched his tent first (were they doing it on purpose to show him up? No, of course they weren’t); the doctor came, looked,prodded and failed to announce that the wound had miraculously healed and he’d be fit for duty in the morning. One by onethe survivors of his general staff dropped by. They were genuinely anxious about his health, but they didn’t want his ordersor even his advice. Finally, Miel Ducas came, slow and clumsy with fatigue, squatting on the floor rather than wait for someoneto fetch him a chair.
“Slow going,” he reported. “I’d sort of counted on making it to the hog’s back tonight, so we could get on the southwest roadby noon tomorrow. As it is, we might just get there by nightfall; depends on conditions. And if it decides to rain, of course,we’re screwed.”
Orsea hadn’t even considered that. “Who said anything about rain?” he said. “It’s been blue skies all day.”
Miel nodded. “Talked to a couple of men who make the Butter run,” he said. “According to them, it’s the time of year for flashstorms. Clear sky one minute, and the next you’re up to your ankles in muck. That’s if you’re lucky and you aren’t swept awayin a mudslide. Cheerful bastards.”
Orsea couldn’t think of anything to say. “Let’s hope it stays dry, then.”
“Let’s hope.” Miel yawned. “Once we reach the hog’s back, of course,” he went on, “it’s all nice and easy till we get to theriver; which, needless to say, is probably in spate. I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to get across, so I’m relyingon inspiration, probably in the form of a dream. My ancestors were always being helped out of pots of shit by obliging andinformative dreams, and I’m hoping it runs in the family. How about your lot?”
Orsea smiled. “We don’t dream much. Or if we do, it’s being chased by bears, or having to give a speech with no clothes on.”
“Fascinating.” Miel closed his eyes, then opened them again. “Sorry,” he said. “Not respectful in the presence of my sovereign.How’s the leg?”
“Oh, fine. It’s that miserable bloody doctor who’s making me lounge around like this.”
(Stupid thing to say, of course. The leg wasn’t fine; the doctor most likely hadn’t had more than a couple of hours’ sleepsince the battle; and of course the Ducas family received supernatural advice in their dreams, since they were genuine oldaristocracy, unlike the jumped-up parvenu Orseoli…)
“Do as he says,” Miel replied sternly. “Your trouble is, you don’t know a perfectly valid excuse when you see one. You werethe same when we were kids. You’d insist on dragging yourself into classes with a raging temperature, and then we’d all catchit off you and be sick as dogs just in time for the recess. You will insist…” He hesitated. “Just for once, stay still andmake the most of it. We’re all going to have a high old time of it soon as we get home.”
Orsea looked away.You will insist on doing the right thing, even if it’s guaranteed to result in misery and mayhem;or something to that effect. “All right,” he said. “It’s just so bloody stupid. Getting shot with one of our own arrows.”
“At least our side got to draw blood,” Miel replied. “Hello, what’s all that fuss they’re making outside?”
Orsea hadn’t noticed; now Miel mentioned it, he could hear shouting. “They’ve attacked,” he said.
“Don’t think so, or they’d be doing more than just yelling. Hold still, I’ll go and see.”
He came back again a moment later, grinning. “Would you believe it,” he said, “they caught a spy.”
“I’m not. I saw him. Genuine Mezentine spy, brown face and everything. I told them to string him up.”
Orsea frowned. “No, don’t do that,” he said. “I want to know why they’re so interested in us. Maybe they didn’t know aboutthis path before. If they’re looking for a back way up the mountain, that could be very bad.”
Miel shrugged. “It’s your treehouse. I’ll have him brought in, you can play with him.”
The prisoner was a Mezentine, no question about that; with his dark skin and high cheekbones, he couldn’t be anything else.But that raised a question in itself. Mezentine officers commanded the army, but the men they gave orders to were all mercenaries;southerners, usually, or people from overseas.
Besides, it was hard to see how a member of the victorious Mezentine expedition, which hadn’t come within bowshot or losta single man as far as Orsea was aware, could have got in such a deplorable state. He could barely stand; the two guards wereholding him up rather than restraining him. He had only one shoe; his hair was filthy and full of dust; he had several days’growth of beard (the Mezentines were obsessive about shaving their faces) and he smelled disgusting.
Orsea had never interrogated a prisoner before; of all things, he feltshy.“Name,” he snapped, because it was as good a starting-point as any.
The man lifted his head, as though his name was the last thing he’d been expecting to be asked. “Ziani Vaatzes,” he said,in a feeble whisper.
That didn’t need expert interpretation. “Get this man some water,” Orsea said, then realized that for once there weren’t anyattendants or professional bustlers-about on hand. Miel gave him a rather startled, what-me expression, then went outside,returning a little later with a jug and a horn cup, which the prisoner grabbed with both hands. He spilled most of it downhis front.
Orsea had thought of another question. “What unit are you with?”
The prisoner had to think about that one. “I’m not a soldier,” he said.
“No, you’re a spy.”
“No, I’m not.” The prisoner sounded almost amused. “Is that what you think?”
Miel shifted impatiently. “You sure you want to bother with him?” he asked.
Orsea didn’t reply, though he noticed the effect Miel’s words had on the prisoner. “Really,” the man said. “I’m not a soldier,or a spy or anything.” He stopped, looking very unhappy.
“Right,” Orsea said. “You’re a Mezentine, but you’re nothing to do with the army out there on the plain. Excuse me, but yourpeople aren’t known for going sightseeing.”
“I’m an escaped prisoner,” the man said; he made it sound like a profession. “I promise you, it’s true. They were going tokill me; I ran away.”
Miel laughed. “This one’s a comedian,” he said. “He’s broken out of jail, so naturally he tags along behind the army. Lastplace they’d look for you, I guess.”
The look on the man’s face; fear, and disbelief, and sheer fury at not being believed. Any moment now, Orsea thought, he’sgoing to demand to see the manager.
“You must be the enemy, then,” the man said.
This time, Miel burst out laughing. “You could say that,” he said.
“All right.” Orsea was having trouble keeping a straight face. “Yes, we’re the enemy. Do you know who we are?”
The man shook his head. “Not a clue, sorry. I don’t know where this is or what the hell’s going on. I didn’t even know there’sa war on.”
“The army,” Miel said softly. “Wasn’t that a pretty broad hint?”
Now the man looked embarrassed. “To be honest,” he said, “I assumed they were after me.”
Orsea looked at him. “Really.”
The man nodded. “I thought it was a bit over the top myself,” he said. “But we take renegades very seriously. I assumed —”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Miel interrupted. “But your army out there’s been fighting us.”
“Oh, right.” The man frowned. “Who won?”
“I’m sorry.” Now he looked more bewildered than ever. “Excuse me, but who are you?”
“The Grand Army of Eremia, what’s left of it,” Orsea replied. “So, if you’re not a soldier or a spy, and you didn’t know aboutthe war, why were you following the army?”
“I reckoned they must have water,” he said. “Or at least they’d lead me to a river or something. I’ve only been followingthem for a day. I tried to steal some food, but the sentries spotted me and I had to run. When I stopped running, I realizedI was lost. Then I saw your lot, and thought I’d try my luck. Nothing to lose. It was that or lie down and die somewhere.Just my luck I had to run into a war.”
Brief silence; then Miel said, “If he’s lying, he’s very good at it.”
“I’m not, I’m telling the truth.”
“Cocky with it,” Orsea said. “So, you’re an escaped convict. What did you do?”
“It’s a long story.”
The man looked at him. “I killed a couple of prison warders,” he said. “And maybe the secretary of the tribunal, I’m not sure.”
Miel leaned over the man’s shoulder. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be a spy?” he said. “I don’t know what they tell youabout us in the City, but murder’s against the law out here, too.”
“Leave him alone, Miel, this is interesting. So,” Orsea went on, “if you killed a couple of warders, you were in prison already,yes?”
The man nodded. “I’d just been tried. But I got away and the warders caught me.”
“So you’d done something else before you killed the warders?” “Yes.” The man hesitated.
Orsea raised an eyebrow. Whatever it was, this strange, scruffy man seemed to think it was worse than killing prison officers;he was afraid to say what it was. “I’m game if you are,” he said.
The man took a deep breath. “I was charged with mechanical innovation,” he said. “It’s very serious, in the City.”
“Worse than killing people?”
“I suppose so.”
“Were you guilty?”
The man nodded. “Apparently,” he said.
Miel stood up. “Now can we hang him?” he said. “I mean, he’s just confessed to murder.”
Orsea frowned. “You still reckon he’s a spy?”
“To be honest, I don’t care much.” Miel yawned. “What it boils down to is we can’t very well let him go if he’s really a convictedmurderer, and I really can’t be bothered making the arrangements to send him back. Also, he’s seen the Butter Pass, and maybehe’s thinking he could do a deal for the information. Either that, or I’m right and he’s a spy. No offense, Orsea, but he’srunning out of play value. Let’s pull his neck and get on with what we’re supposed to be doing.”
That didn’t sound much like Miel, Orsea thought; so this must be a ploy to get the prisoner scared and make him confess. Onthe other hand, the poor devil was unquestionably a Mezentine; lynching one would probably do wonders for the army’s morale.Maybe that was why Miel was making such uncharacteristically brutal noises.
He made up his mind, suddenly, without being aware of having thought it through. If Miel was reminding him of his duty towardthe army and the country, fine; he still wasn’t prepared to string up someone who looked so unspeakably sad. In spite of thebattle and the iron pins from the sky and his own unforgivable mistakes, Orsea still had faith in the world; he believed itmight still be possible to make it work, somehow or other. The Mezentine, on the other hand, clearly felt that the world wasa cruel, nasty place where bad things always happened. Lynching him would only serve to prove him right, and that would bea betrayal; and if Orsea believed in anything, it was loyalty.
“He’s not a spy,” he said. “And if he’s committed crimes in Mezentia, that’s really none of our business. I can’t go hangingcivilians without a trial, in any event. Find him a meal and somewhere to sleep, and in the morning give him three days’ rationsand a pair of shoes, and let him go. All right?”
Miel nodded. He didn’t seem at all put out about having his advice ignored. “I’ll get the duty officer to see to it,” he said,and went out.
Orsea was about to tell the guards to take the prisoner somewhere else when a thought struck him. He looked at the man andfrowned. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“In the battle today,” Orsea said, “we did really badly. Your lot slaughtered us, and we never got close enough to see theirfaces. One minute we were advancing in good order, and then the sky was full of sharp steel bolts, about so long and so thick,and that was that. I was wondering,” Orsea went on. “Can you tell me anything about that?”
The man looked at him. “You mean, what sort of weapon was it?”
Orsea nodded. “Obviously it must be a deadly secret; at any rate, it was a complete surprise to us. So I imagine you’d getin all sorts of trouble for disclosing restricted information to the enemy. On the other hand…”
The man smiled. “It’s a simple mechanical device. Well,” he added, “fairly simple. A powerful steel leaf-spring is drawn backby a ratchet. There’s a steel cable fastened to the ends of the spring, just like the string of a conventional bow. When thesear is tripped, the force of the spring acting on the cable shoots the bolt up a groove in the bed. It’s called a scorpion.”
Orsea raised an eyebrow. “You know a lot about it.”
“I should,” the man replied. “I used to make them.”
There was a long pause. “Is that right?” Orsea said.
“I was the foreman of the machine shop at the ordnance factory,” the man said. “I was in charge of production. We’ve got abuilding about a hundred yards long by thirty, just for the scorpions. On average we turn out a dozen a day; eighteen if wework three shifts.” He looked Orsea in the eye. “Are you going to have me killed now?”
“I’m not sure. Do you want me to?”
He smiled again. “No,” he said. “But it’s not up to me, and if you’re looking for someone to blame —”
“Already got someone, thanks,” Orsea said. “Now, there was no need for you to tell me that, and you don’t strike me as thesort who blurts things out without thinking.”
The man nodded. “Scorpions aren’t the only thing we make at the ordnance factory,” he said. “And besides, from what littleI know about the outside world, I get the impression that you’re a long way behind us as far as making things is concerned.”
“To put it mildly,” Orsea said. “As you very well know.”
The man’s dirty, battered face was closed, and his eyes were very bright. “I could teach you,” he said.
“Teach us what?”
“Everything.” His whole body was perfectly still, apart from the slight movements caused by his quick, shallow breathing.“Everything I know; and that’s a lot. Basic metallurgy; foundry and forge work; machining and toolmaking; mass production,interchangeable components, gauges and tolerances. It’d take a long time, you’d be starting from scratch and I’d have to traina lot of people. I don’t know how you’re fixed for raw materials, iron ore and charcoal and coal. We’d probably have to startoff by damming a river, to build a race for a decent-sized waterwheel. You’d be lucky to see so much as a nail or a lengthof wire for at least five years.” He shrugged. “And it’d mean a lot of changes, and maybe you’re perfectly happy as you are.After all,” he added, “I’m hardly the best advertisement for an industrial society.”
Orsea frowned. “Leave the bad side to me. You carry on telling me about the advantages.”
“You don’t need me to do that,” the man replied. “You know as well as I do. First, you wouldn’t depend on us for pretty wellevery damned thing you use. Second, you could trade. Undercut the Mezentines and take over their markets. That’s why our governmentwon’t let people like me leave the City. You could transform your whole society. You could be like us.”
“Really. And why would we want to?”
He raised one dust-caked eyebrow. “As I understand it, you just lost thousands of lives trying to wipe us out, and you nevereven got close enough to see the color of our eyes. You must’ve had some reason for wanting to annihilate us. I don’t knowwhat it is, but maybe that’s the reason why you should turn into us instead.”
Orsea tried to think. There was a great deal to think about, great issues of security, prosperity and progress that had tobe addressed before taking such a radical decision. Orsea knew what they were, but when he tried to apply his mind to themit was like trying to cut glass with a file. Really he wanted someone to decide for him; but that was a luxury he couldn’tafford. He knew it was the wrong approach, but he couldn’t help thinking about the battle, the field bristling with the steelpins. It’d be a greater victory than winning the battle; and it’d be the only way of making sure something like that neverhappened again. But if Miel was here, what would he say? Orsea knew that without having to ask. Of course the Ducas were anold family, you’d expect one of them to have an intuition for this kind of problem, so much more effective than mere intelligence.Miel would know, without having to think, and no amount of convincing arguments would make him change his mind. But Miel (whoalways got the girls) hadn’t married the old Duke’s daughter, and so it wasn’t up to him. The dreadful thing was, Orsea knew,that nobody could make this choice for him. It was more important thathechose than that he made the right decision.
“The men you killed,” he said. “Tell me about that.”
The man hadn’t been expecting that. “How do you mean?” he said. “Do you want to know how I did it?”
“That’s not important,” Orsea said. “And you did it because you had to escape, or they’d have executed you for whatever itis you did that’s too complicated for me to understand. No, what I’m asking is, did you have to kill them or else they’d havekilled you on the spot or dragged you off to the scaffold? Or did you have the option of just tying them up or something butyou killed them anyway?”
The man seemed to be thinking it over carefully. “The two guards had caught me trying to get out of the Guildhall grounds,”he said. “They took me to the stables to kill me. It was two to one, and I was lucky to get away with it. And I was clever,”he added, “it wasn’t just luck. But it was them or me. The other man, the tribunal secretary — he was the judge, really —I don’t know if I killed him or not. I hit him very hard with a lampstand, to get past him so I could jump out of the window.I hit him as hard as I could; but it was so I could escape, not to punish him or get my own back on him for wrecking my life.”He paused. “If he was here now, and you said to me, Go ahead, if you want to bash his head in I won’t stop you, I’m not surewhat I’d do. I mean, he did destroy my life, but killing him wouldn’t change anything; and as far as he was concerned, hewas doing the right thing.” He looked at Orsea. “Does that answer your question?”
“I think so. At any rate, it was what I thought I needed to know; assuming I believe you’re telling the truth.”
The man shrugged. “That’s up to you.”
“It’s all up to me,” Orsea replied. “I wish it wasn’t, but it is. There’s another thing, too. If I was in your shoes, I don’tknow how I’d feel about what you’re proposing to do. Really, it’s betraying your country.”
The man nodded, as though showing he understood the point Orsea was making. “Why would I do that,” he said, “except out ofspite, because of what they did to me? Which means, if I’m capable of spite, maybe I killed the guards and the judge for spitetoo.”
“That thought crossed my mind,” Orsea said.
“Naturally.” The man was quiet for a while. “I can’t be sure,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s the real reason. I thinkmaybe my reason is that if they can order me to be killed when I really didn’t do anything wrong, then perhaps the whole systemneeds to be got rid of, to stop them doing it again. And also,” he added, with a slight grin, “there’s the fact that I’vegot a living to make. I need a job, I’m an engineer. Not many openings for someone in my line outside the City, unless I makeone for myself. And we hadn’t discussed it, but I wasn’t really thinking of doing all that work for free.”
Orsea laughed. “There’s always that,” he said. “And I suppose, if you betray your people for money, that’s better than doingit for revenge. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever met an engineer before. Are they all like you?”
“Yes,” the man said. “It’s a state of mind more than anything. You can’t help thinking in mechanisms; always in three dimensions,and always five stages ahead. It takes a little while to learn.”
Orsea nodded. “And what about you? Are you married? Children?”
“One daughter,” the man replied. “I won’t see either of them again, I don’t suppose.”
“And will anything bad happen to them, if your people find out you’ve betrayed them?”
“It’ll happen anyway, because of what I’m supposed to have done.” The man was looking away, and his voice was perfectly flat.“If I was going to take revenge for anything, it’d be that.”
“At least you’re honest,” Orsea said. “Or you come across as honest.” He closed his eyes, rubbed them with his thumb and middlefinger. “Tell you what,” he said. “You come back home with me, stay with me as my guest till I’ve made my decision. I’m surewe can find something useful for you to do, if you decide you want to stay with us, of course.”
“Naturally.” The man’s face slumped into a long, narrow grin. “You do realize,” he said, “I haven’t got the faintest ideawhere your country is, or what it’s called, or what you do there, or anything. In the City we have this vague concept of theworld as being like a fried egg, with us as the yolk and everywhere else slopped out round the edges.”
“Interesting,” Orsea said. “Well, my country is called Eremia Montis, and it’s basically a big valley cradled by four enormousmountains; we raise sheep and goats and dairy cattle, grow a bit of corn; there’s a good-sized forest in the eastern corner,and four rivers run down the mountains and join up to make one big river in the bottom of the valley. There’s something likea quarter of a million of us — less now, of course, thanks to me — and till recently we had this ghastly long-standing feudwith the duchy on the other side of the northern mountain, but that was all patched up just before I became Duke. We’ve gotloads of fresh air and sky, but not much of anything else. That’s about it, really. And I’m Orsea Orseolus, in case you werewondering; and you did tell me your name, but I’ve forgotten it.”
The man nodded. “Ziani Vaatzes,” he said. “Just fancy, though; me talking to a real duke. My mother’d be so proud. Not thatshe’d have known what a duke is. Where I come from, dukes are people in fairy tales who fight dragons and climb pepper-vinesup to heaven.”
“Oh, I do that all the time,” Orsea said. “When I’m not losing battles. So,” he went on, “tell me a bit about all these wonderfulmachines you’re going to build for us. You said something just now about a waterwheel. What’s that?”
“You’re joking, aren’t you? You don’t know what a waterwheel is?”
Orsea shrugged. “Obviously some kind of wheel that can travel on water. Not much use to us, because the river flows down themountain, clearly, and there’s nowhere in that direction we want to go. Still, it must be terribly clever, so please tellme all about it.”
Ziani explained to him about waterwheels, and how the Mezentines used the power of the river Caudene to drive all their greatmachines. He told him about the vast artificial delta in the middle of the City; scores of deep, straight millraces governedby locks and weirs, lined with rows of giant wheels, undershot and overshot in turn, and the deafening roar of regulated,pent-up water exploited to perfection through the inspired foresight of the Guilds. He explained about the City’s seventeenrelief aqueducts, which drew off floodwater in the rainy season and circulated reserve current when the pressure was low insummer; about the political dominance of the hydraulic engineers’ Guild; about the great plan for building a second delta,worked out to the last detail two centuries ago, still running precisely to schedule and still only a third complete.
“Are you serious?” Orsea interrupted. “There’s thousands of your people working on a project that’ll never do anybody anygood for another four hundred years, but they’re happy to spend their whole lives slaving away at it.”
“What’s so strange about that?” Ziani replied. “When it’s finished, it’ll double our capacity. We’ll be able to build hundredsof new factories, providing tens of thousands of jobs for our people. That means a hundred percent increase in productivity;we’ll be able to supply goods to countries we haven’t even discovered yet. It’s an amazing concept, don’t you think?”
Orsea looked at him. “You could say that,” he said.
“You don’t sound all that impressed.”
“Oh, I’m impressed all right,” Orsea said. “Stunned would be nearer the mark, actually. You’re using up people’s lives sothat in four hundred years’ time you can make a whole lot of unspecified stuff to sell to people who don’t even know you existyet. How do you know they’ll want the things you’re planning to make for them?”
“Easy,” Ziani said. “We’ll find out what they need, or what they want, and then we’ll make it.”
“Supposing they’ve already got everything they want?”
“We’ll persuade them they want something else, or more of the same. We’re good at that.”
Orsea was quiet for a while. “Strange,” he said. “Where I come from, we organize the things to suit the people, or we tryto; it doesn’t usually work out as well as we’d like, but we do our best. You organize the people to suit the things. By thesound of it you do it very well, but surely it’s the wrong way round.”
Ziani looked at him. “I guess I’d be more inclined to agree with you,” he said, “if you’d won your battle. But you didn’t.”
There was a long silence. “You’re a brave man, Ziani Vaatzes,” Orsea said.
“Am I?” Ziani shrugged. “Yes, I suppose I am. I wonder when that happened? Didn’t used to be. I suppose it must’ve been whenthey took my life away from me. Anyway, that’s waterwheels for you. Did you say something a while ago about something to eat?”
That night, when his guest had been fed and clothed and found somewhere to sleep, Orsea expected he’d dream about the greatriver, squeezed into its man-made channels, turning all those thousands of wheels. Instead, he found himself back in thatsame old place again, the place he always seemed to end up when he was worried, or things were going on that he didn’t understand;and that same man was there waiting for him, the one who’d always been there and who seemed to know him so well. All his life,it seemed to him, the man had been ready for him, a patient listener, a willing provider of sympathy, always glad to givehim advice which never seemed to make sense. Tonight the man told him, when he’d finished explaining, that he had in factwon the battle; and he took him to the top of the mountain, to the place where you could see down into the valley on one side,and out as far as the sea on the other, and he’d shown him the city burning, and great clouds of smoke being carried out tosea on the wind. He reached out and caught one of the clouds (he could do that sort of thing; he was very clever); and whenhe opened his fist, Orsea could see that the cloud was made up of thousands and millions of half-inch steel rods, three feetlong and sharpened at one end. So you see, the man said, it turned out all right in the end, just as you designed it. I imagineyou’re feeling a certain degree of satisfaction, after six hundred years of planning and hard work.
Not really, Orsea replied. All I wanted to do was go home.
The man smiled. Well, of course you did, he said. That’s all any of us want; but it’s the hardest thing there is, that’s whywe had to work so hard and be so cunning and resourceful. And you mustn’t mind the way he talks to you. Where he comes from,they naturally assume they’re better than foreigners, even foreign dukes and princes. But you wanted to see the waterwheels,didn’t you? They’re just here.
He pointed, and Orsea could see them, but they didn’t look quite how he’d imagined them. They were crowded together up close,so that each one touched the one next to it, and the gear-teeth cut into them meshed, so that each one drove its neighbor.All down the riverbank, as far as he could see; but it was the wrong way round, like he’d tried to tell the stranger.
That’s not right, he said. The river should be driving the wheels, but it’s the other way round.4
“Orsea said you wanted to learn about the world,” Miel said. “Is that right?”
The path was too steep and uneven for horses; even the badly wounded were walking, or being carried. Miel was wearing hisriding-boots — he’d brought ordinary shoes, suitable for walking in, but they’d been in a trunk with the rest of his belongingsin the supply train, and he didn’t fancy going down the mountain and asking the Mezentines if he could have them back. Theboots were extremely good for their intended purpose, which wasn’t walking; close-fitting, thin-soled and armored with twelve-lamesteel sabatons, attached to the leather with rivets. The heads of those rivets were starting to wear through the pigskin liningand chafe his heels and the arches of his feet, and he could feel every pebble and flint through the soles as he walked. Asif that wasn’t enough to be going on with, he’d been given the job of being nice to the Mezentine he’d done his best to persuadeOrsea to lynch. It could be seen as a backhanded compliment, but Miel wasn’t in the mood.
“If it’s no trouble,” the Mezentine said. “I’m afraid I’m rather ignorant about everything outside the City. Most of us are;I think that’s a large part of the problem.”
Miel shrugged. “Same with us,” he said. “We know exactly as much about your people as we care to. Not the best basis on whichto start a war.”
“I guess not.” The Mezentine sounded faintly embarrassed to hear a high officer of state implying a criticism of policy. Quiteright, too; but it’s always galling to be taught good manners by an enemy.
The Ducas had rules about that sort of thing.Be specially polite to people who annoy you. True feelings are for true friends.Miel particularly liked that one because it meant you could convert trying situations into a kind of game; the more you dislikeda person, the politer you could be. You knew that each civility was really a rude gesture in disguise, and you could thereforeinsult the victim like mad without him ever knowing.
“I’m forgetting my manners,” Miel said. “You only know me as the bloodthirsty bugger who tried to have you killed. I’m MielDucas.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Miel thought for a moment, then frowned. “Do all Mezentine names have a z in them?”
The Mezentine — no, at least do him the courtesy of thinking of him by his name; Vaatzes grinned. “It does seem like it sometimes,”he said, “but it’s not like there’s a law or anything. Actually, I believe it’s a dialect thing. Back in the country we originallycame from, I’d be something like Tiani Badates. A singularly useless piece of information, but there you are.”
“Quite so. What was it Orsea said you did, back home? Some kind of blacksmith?”
Vaatzes laughed. “Not really,” he said. “I was a foreman at the ordnance factory.”
“Fine. What’s a foreman?”
“The answer to that,” Vaatzes said, “depends on who you ask, but basically, I walk up and down the place all day making surethe workers in each shop are doing the work they’re supposed to be doing, and making a proper job of it. A bit like a sergeantin an army, I suppose.”
“I see,” Miel said. “And have you been doing it long?”
“Six years. Before that, I was a toolmaker.”
“Like I said,” Miel put in. “A blacksmith.”
“If you like. Actually, my job was to make the jigs and fixtures for the machines that made the various products. It was allabout knowing how things work, and how to make them do what you want.”
“That sounds more like my job,” Miel said; and he realized that he wasn’t being nearly as polite as he’d intended. “But I’msupposed to be telling you things, not the other way round. What would you like to know?”
“Well.” Vaatzes paused. “We could start with geography and put in the history where it’s relevant, or the other way round.Whatever suits you.”
“Geography. All right, here goes.” Miel cast his mind back a long way, to vague recollections of maps he’d paid too littleattention to when he was a boy. “Your city stands at the mouth of a gulf, on the east coast of the continent. On the otherthree sides you’ve got plains and marshes, where the rivers drain down from these mountains we’re walking up. You’ll haveobserved that the eastern plain — where the battle was — separates two distinct mountain ranges, the north and the south.Eremia Montis is a plateau and a bunch of valleys in the heart of the northern mountains; in the southern range live our closestneighbors and traditional enemies, the Vadani. There’s not a lot of difference between us, except for one thing; they’re luckyenough to have a massive vein of silver running through the middle of their territory. All we’ve got is some rather thin grass,sheep and the best horses in the world. With me so far?”
“I think so,” Vaatzes said. “Go on.”
Miel paused for breath; the climb wasn’t getting any easier. “South of the Vadani,” he said, “is the desert; and it’s a wonderfulthing and a blessing, because it forms a natural barrier between us and the people who live in the south. If it wasn’t forthe desert we’d have to build a wall, and it’d have to be a very high one, with big spikes on top. The southerners aren’tnice people.”
“I see,” Vaatzes said. “In what way?”
“Any way you care to name,” Miel replied. “They’re nomadic, basically they live by stealing each other’s sheep; they’re barbaricand cruel and there’s entirely too many of them. If I tell you we prefer your lot to the southerners, you may get some idea.”
“Right,” Vaatzes said. “That bad.”
“Absolutely. But, like I said, there’s a hundred miles of desert between them and us, so that’s all right. Now then; aboveus, that’s to the north of Eremia Montis, you’ve got the Cure Doce. They’re no bother to anybody.”
“I know about them,” Vaatzes interrupted. “That’s where most of our food comes from.”
“That’s right. They trade wheat and beans and wine and God knows what else for your trinkets and stuff. We sell them wooland horses, and buy their barley and their disgusting beer. To the best of my knowledge, they just sort of go on and on intothe distance and fade out; the far north of their territory is all snow and ice and what’s the word for it, tundra, untilyou reach the ocean. I have an idea the better quality of falcons come from up there somewhere, but you’d have to ask my cousinJarnac about that sort of thing. Anyway, that’s geography for you.”
“Thank you,” Vaatzes said. “Can we stop and rest for a minute? We don’t have mountains where I come from, just stairs.”
“Of course,” Miel said; he’d been walking a little bit faster than he’d have liked, so as to wear out the effete City type,and his knees were starting to ache. “We can’t stay too long or we’ll get left behind, but a minute or two won’t hurt. History?”
“History,” Miel said, “is pretty straightforward. A thousand years ago, or something like that, the mountains were more orless empty, and the ancestors of the Eremians and the Vadani were all one people, living right down south, other side of thedesert. When the nomads arrived, they drove us out. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t like them very much. We crossed thedesert — there’s lots of good legends about that — and settled in the mountains. Nothing much happened for a while; then therewas the most terrific falling-out between us, meaning the Eremians, and the Vadani. Don’t ask me what it was all about, butpretty soon it turned into a civil war. We moved into the north mountains and started calling ourselves Eremians, and thecivil war stopped being civil and became just plain war. This was long before the silver was discovered, so both sides werepretty evenly matched, and we carried on fighting in a force-of-habit sort of way for generations.”
Vaatzes nodded. “Like you do,” he said.
“Quite. Then, about three hundred years ago, your lot turned up out of the blue; came over the sea in big ships, as you presumablyknow better than I do. To begin with, our lot and the Vadani were far too busy beating each other up to notice you were there.It was only when your traders started coming up the mountain and selling us things that we realized you were here to stay.No skin off our noses; we were happy to buy all the things you made, and there was always a chance we could drag you in onour side of the war, if the Vadani didn’t beat us to it. Really, it was only — no offense — only when you people started throwingyour weight about, trying to push us around and generally acting like you owned the place, that we noticed how big and strongyou’d grown. Too late to do anything about it by then, needless to say.”
“When you say throwing our weight about…”
Miel stood up. “We’d better be getting along, or they’ll be wondering where we’ve got to. Throwing your weight about; well,it started with little things, the way it always does. For instance: when your traders arrived — they came to us back then,we didn’t have to go traipsing down the mountain to get ripped off by middlemen — the first thing they had a big success withwas cloth. Beautiful stuff you people make, got to hand it to you; anyhow, we’d say, That’s nice, I’ll take twelve yards,and the bloke would measure it off with his stick, and we’d go home and find we hadn’t got twelve yards, only eleven and abit. Really screws it up when you’re making clothes and there’s not quite enough fabric. So we’d go storming back next dayin a fine old temper, and the trader would explain that the Mezentine yard is in fact two and a smidge inches shorter thanthe Eremian yard, on account of a yard being a man’s stride, and the Eremians have got longer legs. Put like that, you can’tobject, it’s entirely reasonable. Then the trader says, Tell you what, to avoid misunderstandings in the future, how’d itbe if you people started using our measurements? We’d say we weren’t sure about that, and the trader would explain that hebuys and sells all over the place, and it’d make life really tiresome if he had to keep adapting each time he came to a placethat had its own weights and measures; so, being completely practical, it’d be far easier for us to change than it’d be forhim; also, if he’s got to spend time consulting conversion charts or cutting a special stick for Eremian yards, that time’dhave to be paid for, meaning a five or ten percent rise in prices to cover additional costs and overheads. Naturally we said,Fine, we’ll use your yard instead of ours; and next it was weights, because there’s eighteen ounces in the Eremian pound,and then it was the gallon. Next it was the calendar, because a couple of our months are a few days shorter, so we’d arrangeto meet your people on such-and-such a day, and you wouldn’t show up. You get the idea, I’m sure.
“Didn’t take long before everything was being weighed and measured in Mezentine units, which meant a whole lot of us didn’thave a clue how much of anything we were buying, or how much it was really costing us, or even what day of the week it was.Sure, all just little things, one step at a time, like a man walking to the gallows. But the time came when we stopped makingour own cloth because yours was cheaper and better; same for all the things we got from you. Then out of the blue the pricehas shot right up; we complain, and then it’s take it or leave it, we’ve got plenty of customers but you’ve only got one supplier.So we gave in, started paying the new prices; but when we tried to even things up by asking more for what we had to sell,butter and wool and so forth, it’s a whole different story. Next step, your people are interfering in every damn thing. TheDuke appoints someone to do a job; your traders turn round and say, We can’t work with him, he doesn’t like us, choose someoneelse; and by the way, here’s a list of other things you do which we don’t approve of, if you want to carry on doing businesswith us, you’d better change your ways. We’re about to tell you where you can stick your manufactured goods when suddenlywe realize that your people have been quietly buying up chunks of our country; land, live and dead stock, water rights, youname it. Investment, I believe it’s called, and by a bizarre coincidence you use the same word for besieging a castle. Sothere we were, invested on all sides; we can’t tell you to go and screw yourselves without getting your permission first.Throwing your weight around.”
Vaatzes frowned. “I see,” he said. “Honestly, I had no idea. Come to that, before I ran away from the City, I didn’t evenknow you existed.”
“Oh, your lot know we exist all right.” Miel sighed. “Give you an example. My family, the Ducas, have been landowners andbig fish in little ponds and selfless servants of the commonwealth for longer than even we can remember. We’ve done our bitfor our fellow citizens, believe me. About a third of the men in the Ducas over the last five hundred years have died in war,either killed in a battle or gone down with dysentery or infected wounds. We pay more in tax than any other family. In ourcorner of the country we run the justice system, we’re the land and probate registry; we say the magic words at the weddingsof our tenants, we’re godfathers to their children, we run schools and pay for doctors. We take the view that a tenant deservesto get more for his rent than just a strip of land and a side to be on when there’s a feud. That’s what I was talking aboutwhen I said we do our bit for our fellow citizens; and that’s over and above stuff like fighting in wars and being chancellorsand ambassadors and commissioners. Do you see what I’m driving at?”
Vaatzes nodded. “You’re the government,” he said. “But it’s different in the City, of course. The big men who do all the topjobs in the Guilds are our government; but they get to make policy, not just carry it out. They can decide what’s going tobe done, and of course that means they have loads of opportunities to look out for their own Guilds, or their neighbors andfamilies, or themselves. You can only do what the Duke tells you. You’ve got all the work, but without the privileges andperks.”
“That’s right,” Miel said. “You’ve certainly got a grasp of politics.”
“Like I said, I know how things work. A city or a country is just a kind of machine. It’s got a mechanism. I can see mechanismsat a glance, like people who can dowse for water.”
“That’s quite a gift,” Miel said, frowning slightly. “Anyway, the way we’ve always done things is for the landowning familiesto be the government, as you call it. But then along come your City people, investors, buying up land and flocks and slicesof our lives; and of course, they don’t take responsibility, the way we’ve been brought up to do. They don’t think, how willsuch and such a decision affect the tenants and their shepherds, or the people of the village? They don’t live here, and whenthey make a decision they’re guided by what’s best for their investment, what’ll produce the best profit, or whatever it isthat motivates them. So, when two tenants fall out over a boundary or grazing rights on a common or anything like that, theycan’t do what they’ve always done, go and see the boss up at the big house and make him sort it out for them. The boss isn’tthere; and even if they were to go all the way to Mezentia and ask to see the directors of the company, or whatever such peoplecall themselves, and even if those directors could be bothered to see them and listen to them, it wouldn’t do any good, becausethey wouldn’t understand a thing about the situation. Not like we would, the Ducas or the Orphanotrophi or the Phocas. See,we’re their boss, but we’re also their neighbor. They can go out of their front door and look up the mountain and see ourhouses. You can’t see Mezentia’s Guildhall from anywhere in Eremia.”
Vaatzes nodded. He seemed to be an intelligent man, and quite reasonable. Perhaps that was why they’d put him in prison, Mieldecided. “I guess it’s a question of attitude,” he said. “Perspective. We’re concerned mostly with things — making them, sellingthem. You’re concerned with people.”
Miel smiled. “That puts it very well,” he said. “And maybe you can see why I don’t like your City.”
“I’ve gone off it rather myself,” Vaatzes said.
“Fine.” Miel nodded. “So perhaps you’d care to explain to me why you think it’d be a good idea to turn my country into a copyof it.”
It was a neat piece of strategy, Miel couldn’t help thinking. He’d have derived more satisfaction from it if he found it easierto dislike the Mezentine; but that was hard going, like running uphill, and the further he went, the harder it got. But he’dlaid his trap and sprung it — there was one mechanism the Mezentine hadn’t figured out at a glance — and sure enough, fora while Vaatzes seemed to be lost for words.
“It’s not quite like that,” he said eventually. “Like I told you, I’m an engineer. I know about machines, things.” He frownedthoughtfully. “Let’s see,” he said. “Suppose you come to me and ask me to build you a machine — a loom, say, so you can weaveyour wool into cloth instead of sending it down the mountain.”
“Right,” Miel said.
“So I build the machine,” Vaatzes went on, “and I deliver it and I get paid. That’s my side of the bargain. What you do withit, how you use it and how the use you put it to affects your life and your neighbors’; that’s your business. Not my business,and not my fault. It’d be the same if you asked me to build you a scorpion, an arrow-thrower. Once you’ve taken it from me,it’s up to you who you point it at. You can use it to defend your country and your way of life against your worst enemy, oryou can set it up on the turret of your castle and shoot your neighbors. All I want to do,” he went on, “is make a new lifefor myself, now the old one’s been taken away from me. Now I’m lucky, because I know a secret. It’s like I can turn lead intogold. If I can do that, it’d be pretty silly of me to get a job mucking out pigs. From your point of view, I can give youthe secrets that make the Mezentines stronger than you are. With that power, you’ve got a chance of making sure you don’thave to go through another horrible disaster, like the one you’ve just suffered. Now,” he went on, stopping for a moment tocatch his breath, “if I were to sell you a scorpion without telling you how it works, or how to use it safely without hurtingyourself, that’d be no good. But that’s not the case. You seem to understand just fine what’s wrong with the City and howit works. I can give you the secret, and you know enough not to hurt yourself with it, or spoil all the good things aboutyour way of life. Does that make any sense to you?”
It was a long time before Miel answered. “Yes, actually, it does,” he said. “And that’s why I’m glad it’s not my decisionwhether we take you up on your offer. If it was up to me, I’d probably say yes, now we’ve had this conversation, and I havea feeling that’d be a bad thing.”
“Oh,” Vaatzes said. “Why?”
“Ah, now, if I knew that I’d be all right.” Miel smiled suddenly. “I’d be safe, see. But it’s all academic, since it’s notup to me.”
Vaatzes scratched his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “You’re a senior officer of state, if you went to the Duke and said,for God’s sake don’t let that Mezentine start teaching us his diabolical tricks, he’d listen to you, wouldn’t he?”
“You were there when I told him to have you hanged,” Miel replied cheerfully. “And here you still are.”
“Yes, but you didn’t press the point. I was there, remember. It’s not like you made any effort to use your influence; andwhen he said no, let’s not, you didn’t argue.” He lifted his eyes and looked at Miel. “Are you sorry you didn’t?”
“Like I said, it wasn’t my decision. It never is.”
“Would you like it to be?”
Miel shivered, as though he’d just touched a plate he hadn’t realized was hot. “We’re falling behind,” he said. “Come on,don’t dawdle.”
They walked quickly, past men supporting their wounded friends on their shoulders, others hauling ropes or pushing the wheelsof carts over the rims of potholes. “Of course,” Miel said abruptly, “if he decides to let you teach us, common courtesy requiresthat we teach you something in return.”
“Oh yes. Reciprocity is courtesy, that’s an old family rule of the Ducas. We pay our debts in kind.”
“Really. We’ve got money for that.”
Miel shook his head. “That’s wages,” he said. “And wages are a political statement. If I pay you, that makes you my servant,it’s a different sort of relationship. Between gentlemen, it’s a gift for a gift and a favor for a favor.”
“I see,” Vaatzes said. “So if you teach me something in return, that’s instead of money.”
“Of course not, you’re missing the point. I’m a nobleman and you’re a whatever you said, foreman. Therefore, courtesy demandsthat I give more than I get.”
Vaatzes thought about that. “To show you’re better than me.”
“That’s it. That’s what nobility’s all about. If you want to be better than someone socially, you’ve got to be better thanthem in real terms too; more generous, more forbearing, whatever. Otherwise all the transaction between us proves is thatI’m more powerful than you, and that wouldn’t say anything about me. Hence the need for me to give more than I get. Simple,really.”
There was a pause while Vaatzes thought that one through. “So I get the money and something else?”
“In that case, fine. You have to teach me something.”
“Thanks,” Vaatzes said. “Thanks very much. So, what do you know that you could teach me?”
“Ah.” Miel grinned. “That’s a slight problem. Let’s see, what do I know? Another thing about nobility,” he continued, “isthat you don’t actually know many things, you just know a few things very well indeed. I could teach you statesmanship.”
“How to debate in High Council,” Miel said. “How to budget, and cost a project, how to forecast future revenues. Negotiationwith foreign ambassadors. Court protocol. That sort of thing.”
Vaatzes frowned. “Not a lot of use to me, really.”
“I suppose not. So what does that leave? Estate management; no, not particularly relevant. I think we’re just left with horsemanship,falconry and fencing.”
“Right,” Vaatzes said. “All three of which I know nothing about. Which would you say is easiest?”
“None of them.”
“In that case, falconry or fencing. Horses give me a rash.”
Miel laughed. “Maybe I’ll teach you both,” he said. “But it’ll all depend on what Orsea decides.”
Vaatzes nodded. “You’ve known him a long time, I think.”
“All my life. We grew up together, twenty or so of us, hanging round the court. Back then, of course, he was just the Orseoliand I was the Ducas, but we always got on well nonetheless — surprising, since my father was right up the top of the treeand the Orseoli were sort of clinging frantically to the lower branches. But then Orsea married the Countess Sirupati, andshe’s got no brothers and her sisters aren’t eligible for some technical reason, so they got married off outside the duchy;as a result, Orsea was suddenly the heir apparent. Count Sirupat dies, Orsea becomes Duke. Couldn’t have happened to a nicerfellow, either.”
“So you didn’t mind?”
“Mind? Of course not. Oh, I see, you’re thinking I might’ve been resentful because he got to be the Duke. Not a bit of it.The Sirupati would never marry the Ducas.”
Vaatzes looked puzzled. “But I thought your family were high-ranking aristocrats.”
“We are. Which is the reason. Quite simple, really. The great houses aren’t allowed to marry into the ruling family. Otherwisethere’d be no end of God-awful power struggles, with all of us trying to get the throne. So we’re all excluded; stops us gettingdangerous ideas. If the Duke’s only got daughters, he has to find his heir from the lesser nobility, people like the Orseoli.It’s a good system. But you should’ve figured that out for yourself, if you’ve got a special intuition for how things work.”
“Well, I know now,” Vaatzes said. “ I guess I didn’t figure it out for myself because it’s a good idea, and those don’t seemto happen much in politics. Who made the rule, anyhow?”
That struck Miel as a strange question. “We all did,” he said. “Gradually, over time. I don’t think anybody ever sat downwith a piece of paper and wrote the rules out, just so. They grew because everybody could see it made sense.”
“An intuitive feel for how things work,” Vaatzes said. “Maybe there’s hope for you people after all.”
That night, they camped in a small valley under a false peak. They didn’t start pitching tents until sunset, and most of thework was done by torchlight; tired men doing things they knew by heart, cooperating smoothly and without thinking, like thecomponents of a properly run-in machine. It was probably a good sign that Ziani was given a guest tent all to himself; a smallone, with a plain camp bed, a lamp and an old iron brazier, but he didn’t have to share and they put it up for him ratherthan telling him where it was and leaving him to do it. When he was alone, he sat on the bed — he ached all over from theexhaustion of walking uphill all day; his heels and soles were covered in torn blisters and his new shoes were smudged insidewith blood — and stared at the boundary where the circle of yellow light touched the white canvas background. Having thatsort of mind, he drew up a schedule of resources, a list of materials and components.
First, he had his life. In the Guildhall, and after that on the road, in the plain, on the terrifying outskirts of the battle,he’d recognized the inevitability of his own death without finding any way to reconcile himself to it. For many reasons (butone primarily) he couldn’t accept it; death was a part that didn’t fit, something that had no place in the scheme of thingsas they should be; an abomination. He had no illusions about his escape. He didn’t believe in destiny, any more than he believedin goblins; if the iron ore was destined to end up as finished products, there’d be no need for an engineer. There had beena certain amount of resourcefulness and clever thinking involved, but mostly it was luck, particularly once he was away frompeople and under the impersonal, inhuman sky (he’d always hated Nature; it was a machine too big for him to take in, too specializedfor him to repair). But he had his life, the essential starting-point. Can’t get anything done if you’re dead.
Next, he had his knowledge and his trade. Many years ago, he’d come to accept the fact that he was completely and exclusivelydefined by what he did. Other men were tall or short, strong or weak, kind or cruel, clever or stupid; they were funny, popular,reliable, feckless, miserable; they were lovers or runners or storytellers, bores, growers of prize roses, readers, collectorsof antique candlesticks; they were friends, neighbors, enemies, evil bastards, compassionate, selfish, generous. Ziani Vaatzeswas an engineer; everything he was, all he was. When he came home in the evening…
Ah yes. Finally, he had his motivation. He had, of course, lied to the Duke and the Duke’s pleasant, slow-witted courtier.If it hadn’t been for his motivation, he’d have stayed in the prison cell, or curled up in a ball on the moors and died; hecertainly wouldn’t have killed two men, and he certainly wouldn’t be getting ready to betray his City’s most precious secretsto the barbarians. He’d considered setting the motivation down in the list of problems and obstacles, since it was such anincredible burden, limiting his actions in so many ways. But in spite of that, it was an asset, and the best facility at hisdisposal. He saw it, in the blueprint in his mind, as the engine that would power his machine. Certainly nothing else could.
As for that list of problems and obstacles; in the end, it did him a service by putting him to sleep, because it stretchedon endlessly, like the sheep you’re supposed to count jumping over the gap in the wall. There were so many of them it wasalmost a relief; so many he didn’t have to bother listing them, it couldn’t be done. The way to cross a vast, flat plain whenyou’re aching, starving and exhausted is not to resolve to get to the other side, because that’s out of the question. Youdon’t look to the mountains, a little gray blip on the bottom edge of the sky. You look ahead and make a bet with yourself:I bet you I’ll get as far as that little outcrop of boulders, or that single thorn tree, before I fall over and die. If youwin that bet, you double up on the next one, and so on until at last you can’t trick yourself into taking another step; atwhich point, a defeated enemy army which just happens to be passing picks you up and rescues you. Piece of cake, really.
Similarly, he made a point of not looking at the end result he needed to achieve. It was too far away, and there were toomany obstacles, he’d never live to reach it. But he might just make it as far as the first step in his design, the second,possibly even the third. Same as a big project in the factory; you know you’ll never get it all done in one day, so you planit out: today we’ll cut the material, tomorrow we’ll face off and mark out, the next day we’ll turn the diameter, cut thethreads, and so on. It complicated things a little that his motivation and his objective were so closely linked, because theywere so simple (but it’s good design to make one part carry out two functions); if he couldn’t let himself believe in it,he couldn’t very well rely on it to drive him forward across the heather and the tussocks of couch-grass. Fortunately, hefound he could turn a blind eye to the inconsistency. The motivation was strong enough to keep him going, even though theobjective was so ridiculously far-fetched. All he had to do — it was so simple, to a man who lived by and for complexities— all he had to do was close his eyes and think of her, and he was like the flywheel driven by the belt, whether it likesit or not.
The next day was all uphill, and Miel was needed to supervise the carts, and the wounded, and various other things that hadgot slightly worse overnight. It didn’t help that Orsea was insisting he was strong enough to ride; it wasn’t fair on thedoctor, for one thing. The wretched man had enough to do with several hundred critical cases (who weren’t dukes, but who didwhat they were told) without having to stay within earshot of His Highness in case the partially healed wound burst and theidiot needed to be seen to straight away before he bled to death.
“I can manage, really,” Miel told his oldest friend.
“I know that,” Orsea replied, shifting painfully in his saddle, “but you shouldn’t have to. This is my responsibility. Youlook like death warmed up.”
“Thank you so much.” Miel winced, as though he wanted to ride away in a huff but knew he wasn’t allowed to, because it wouldbe discourteous. “Look, it’s no big deal. If I can just get a few tangles straightened out, we can be on our way and it’llbe fine. It’ll be much quicker for me to deal with the problems myself than explain what they are so you can handle them.And,” he added, with the air of a general committing his last reserves in a final reckless charge, “the doctor says you won’tbe fit to ride for another three days.”
Orsea made a remark about the doctor that was both vulgar and inaccurate. “Besides,” he went on, “if it’s my health you’reall worried about, you ought to realize that if I’ve got to spend another day alone in a cart brooding about what a fuck-upI’ve made of everything, it’s absolutely guaranteed I’ll die of guilt and frustration. So telling me what the doctor saidisn’t just annoying and high treason, it’s counterproductive.”
Miel sighed melodramatically. “Not up to me,” he said. “If you want to risk a massive hematoma —”
“You mean hemorrhage,” Orsea pointed out. “Hematoma is bruises. Trust me, all right? Now let’s talk about something else.How’s that cousin of yours getting on, Jarnac —” He stopped himself abruptly; Miel smiled.
“It’s all right,” he said, “Jarnac wasn’t killed in the battle. In fact, he didn’t join the army at all. Stayed at home.”
Miel frowned. “No, actually. Cousin Jarnac doesn’t approve of the war. He thinks it’s wrong. And I don’t mean wrong as inliable to end up a complete fiasco; wrong as in morally bad. All wars, not just this one.”
Orsea nodded. “There’s a word for that, isn’t there?”
“I can think of several.”
“No, I mean it’s a known-about thing, an ism. Pacifism.”
“Is that right?” Miel yawned. “There’s times when my cousin gets so far up my nose he’s practically poking out of my ear.Why did you mention him, all of a sudden?”
“Don’t know,” Orsea said. “Or rather, yes I do. I was lying there awake in the early hours, and for some reason I was rememberingthat sparrowhawk he had when we were kids. Mad keen on falconry he was, back then.”
“Still is. Why, do you fancy going hawking when we get home? I’m sure he’d be glad of the excuse to show off.”
“It might be fun,” Orsea said. “Though God knows, I shouldn’t even be thinking of swanning about enjoying myself when there’sso much work to be done. Besides, what would people think?”
“There goes the Duke, having a day off,” Miel replied. “You aren’t the first man in history who’s lost a battle. And it wasn’tyour fault. No, really. You weren’t to know about those scorpion things. If it hadn’t been for them —”
“Which is like saying if it wasn’t for the rain, it’d be a dry day.” Orsea scowled. “Sooner or later, you’ll have to admitit, Miel. I screwed up. I led thousands of our people to their death.”
Miel sighed loudly. “All right, yes. It’s very bad. And it’s going to be very tense for a while back home, until people cometo terms with it. But these things happen; and you know what? It’s not you they’re going to hate, it’s the Mezentines, becausethey’re the ones who killed our people. Now, do you want me to organize a day with the birds when we get home, or not?”
Orsea shook his head. “Best not,” he said. “At least, not for a while. Now, what can I do to help?”
Eventually, Miel let him organize the reconnaissance parties. That was all right, he was happy with that. They were, he knew,in sensitive territory. Not far away (nobody was entirely sure where; that was the problem) was the border between the twomountain dukedoms. He felt confident that the Vadani wouldn’t make trouble unless they felt they were provoked. Straying inadvertentlyonto their land with an army, however, even if that army was a chewed-up remnant, would probably constitute provocation, particularlyto some of the old-school Vadani commanders who were still having trouble coming to terms with the peace. Vital, therefore,to keep a sharp eye open for routine border patrols, and to keep well out of their way. The scout captains duly set off, andhe settled down in the vanguard to wait for the first reports.
The Vadani, he thought; that’s probably what made me think about falcons, and Jarnac Ducas. It had been years since he’d seenhis cousin Valens; the last time, come to think of it, was before he — before either of them — had come to the throne; beforehis wedding, even. He tried to picture Valens in his mind, and saw a thin, sharp-nosed, sullen boy who never spoke first.He remembered feeling sorry for him, watching him riding to the hunt with his outrageous father. It had been a cold, miserableoccasion; a state visit, reception and grand battue to celebrate a truce in the unending, insoluble war. It was obvious thatnobody on either side believed in the truce — they were all proved right a few months later, when it collapsed into bloodyshambles — and hardly anybody made any effort to mask his skepticism; but they’d attended the reception, watched the dancers,listened to the musicians, gone through the motions with fixed smiles, and then that dreadful day’s hunting, in the cold mist,everybody getting muddled about the directions, not hearing the horns, getting to their pegs too early or too late; the oldDuke in a raging temper because the beaters had gone in before they were supposed to, and the deer had been flushed and hadgone on long before the guests were in position. Not that any of the Eremian contingent cared a damn; but the Duke did, becausehe actually cared whether they caught anything or not — some of the Eremians reckoned the visit and the whole truce businesswas just a pretext he’d cooked up for a full-scale battue at the beginning of the season. As a result, the Duke spent theday charging backward and forward across the field yelling at huntsmen and line-captains, and young Valens had charged withhim, grimly wretched but keeping up, so as not to get lost and add to the day’s problems. It was painfully obvious that hedidn’t want to be there; obvious that his father knew it, and didn’t care. He took his son with him the way you’d wear a broochor a belt you hated, but which a relative had given you, so you had to wear it so as not to hurt their feelings. That day,he’d felt very sorry for Valens, and it was still the mental image his mind defaulted to, when his advisers debated the Vadaniquestion in council, or when his wife talked about Valens to him. It’s hard to hate someone who, in your mind, is forevera sad twelve-year-old, soaking wet on a horse far too big for him. Orsea, of course, made a point of never hating anybodyunless it was absolutely unavoidable.
The first party of scouts hadn’t seen anything. The second party reported a body of horsemen, apparently shadowing the armyon the other side of a hog’s back; somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred and twenty of them, a third- or half-squadron,therefore quite possibly a routine patrol. The third party were late, and when they came in they had a shamefaced look aboutthem; they’d been intercepted by Vadani cavalry who’d apparently materialized out of thin air in front of them on the road,and given them a message to take back. Duke Valens sent his greetings and sympathy on their unfortunate experience. It occurredto him that the army might be short of food, clothes, doctors, whatever. If there was anything they needed, anything the Vadanicould do to help (except, of course, military action of any kind), all they had to do was ask.
Orsea’s first instinct was to refuse. While he was trying to come up with a sufficiently polite form of words, he found himselfwondering why; true, it would be galling to be in Valens’ debt, but food, at least a dozen more doctors, best of all a guideor two to show them the easiest way — that could be enough to save lives. He sent a reply thanking Valens very much indeed,and listing everything he could think of. The offer wasn’t kindly meant, he had no illusions on that score, but he was inno position to take account of intentions.
The Vadani doctors came with the supply-wagons, perched among sacks and barrels and wearing bemused, scared expressions, likehelpless peasants abducted by the fairies. Maybe the Vadani told the same sort of stories about the Eremians as Orsea hadheard about them, during the war — they can’t be trusted, don’t take prisoners, they string you up by the ankles and use youfor javelin practice; at any rate, they seemed anxious to help and please, and the Vadani had always had a good reputationfor medicine. Orsea amused himself by wondering where they’d been press-ganged from; they’d arrived so fast, they could hardlyhave been given time to grab their boots and their bags. They asked permission to take some of the worst cases away with them(these men need proper care in a hospital, and so forth), but he couldn’t allow that. If there was one thing the Vadani werebetter at than curing people, it was taking hostages.
Once or twice as the day wore on, he caught himself thinking about the Mezentine fugitive, and his extraordinary offer. Butthat would have to wait until he got home; the decision would have to be taken in the proper way, with the opinions of thecouncil guiding him. Better, therefore, that he kept his mind open and didn’t think about it at all until then.
They stopped for the night an hour before sunset, a long way short of where they’d hoped they’d reach. This journey was takingforever. Orsea was tired but not exhausted, and his wound hadn’t burst like everybody had said it would; there was a littleblood showing through the bandage, but nothing spectacular. A Vadani doctor came to examine and dress it; a short, stout manwith a fringe of straight white hair round a glowing bald head, very quiet, as though each word was costing him thirty shillings.Orsea guessed that it was the first time he’d had anything to do with the effects of a battle. Some people reacted like that,shutting the doors and windows of their minds to keep the intrusive information out. He said the wound was knitting very well,tutted to himself at the cack-handed Eremian way of winding a bandage, and left quickly. When he’d gone, Orsea poured himselfa small drink and opened the book he’d brought along to read, and hadn’t yet looked at — Pescennia Alastro’s sonnets, thelatest rescension, an anniversary present from his wife. He opened it at the first page, laid it carefully face down on hisknee, and burst into tears.5
Unlike his father, the young Duke hunted three days a week, always following the same pattern. On Tuesdays he rode parforce,with the full pack, drawing the upland coverts for roe (in season), boar, bear and wolf. On Thursdays the hunt was bow-and-stable,the hunters on foot and stationary while the pack flushed the valley plantations and the moors on the forest perimeter. Saturdaywas for hawking, unless the weather was too wet and cold, in which case they’d work the warrens with terriers, or try theirluck walking up rabbits around the orchards. The great battues were a thing of the past now; the young Duke didn’t hold withthe disturbance they caused, or the scattering of game from their regular beats.
Duke Valens took the hunt very seriously. The rule was, no business on a hunt day unless it’s a genuine emergency; and eventhen, the court knew better than to expect him to be good-tempered about it. Accordingly, Chancellor Delmatius was in twominds, possibly three, about passing on the message from the northeastern frontier. He spent a couple of tormented hours contemplatingthe true meaning of the wordsgenuine emergency,evaluated the risks to a hair’s weight, and was just in time to intercept Valens before he left for the stables.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said, pausing to catch his breath. “I thought I’d mention it, but I don’t think we need do anythingabout it.”
Valens wasn’t looking at him; he was scowling at a square of blue sky beyond the window. “Shit,” he said (Valens very rarelyswore). “And I was hoping we’d work through the long drive this morning. Pranno reckons there’s a twelve-pointer just movedin there.”
Delmatius didn’t sigh with relief, but only because he’d learned how not to. “Do you want to see the messengers first, orshould I call the council?”
“I suppose I’d better see the messengers,” Valens answered, looking thoughtfully at the gloves in his hand. “I don’t needyou to sit in, I’ll get Strepho to take notes for you. You get on and call the meeting. We’ll use the side-chamber off theeast hall.”
Delmatius scuttled away like a mouse who’s left half his tail in the cat’s mouth; as soon as he’d gone, Valens relaxed hisscowl and perched on the edge of the table. It was a pity; if there really was a twelve-pointer in the narrow wood, it’d belong gone by next week, most likely heading downhill toward the lusher grass. Either the Natho clan would get it, or somepoacher who’d take the meat and bury the rest, and that superb trophy would go to waste.
Even a twelve-pointer, however, didn’t justify spitting in the face of opportunity. He’d already heard about the battle itself,of course. The scouts (his personal unit, not the regulars who reported to the chiefs of staff) had brought him the news afraction less than twenty-four hours after the last scorpion-bolt pitched. By the time the joint chiefs and the council knewabout it, Valens had already read the casualty reports (both sides’ versions, naturally). Predictably, they were split intotwo irreconcilable factions: attack now, kill them all, worry about the treaty later; or leave well alone and hope the wolvestidy up the stragglers.
Instead, Valens had given orders for a modest relief column: food, blankets, doctors of course. The council were used to himadopting the one course of action they were sure he wouldn’t take, and listened meekly to their assignments. As usual whenhe gave an incomprehensible order, Valens didn’t stop to explain the rationale behind it. The most favored theory was thathe wanted the doctors to bring him back extremely detailed reports of what state the Eremians were in, the exact strengthof the vanguard and rearguard, so he could make the attack, when it came, as effective as possible. Other theories includedan unannounced illness, a sudden conversion to some new religion that preached non-violence, or that old catch-all, lullingthe enemy into a false sense of se curity.
In fact, he was allowing himself the luxury of savoring the moment. It had been a long time coming; but now, at last, hisproper enemy and natural prey had made the mistake of bolting from cover at the first horn-call, so to speak. It’d be fatallyeasy to take the obvious course of action and lay into them, kill as many as possible and scatter the rest. Any fool coulddo that. Valens, on the other hand, knew the value of waiting just a little longer and doing a proper job. He’d heard a sayingonce; maybe it was from a Mezentine diplomat, boasting insufferably about how wonderful his people were at making things.The easiest way to do something is properly.When he’d heard it first, he’d been unable to make up his mind whether it was terribly profound or utterly banal. The momentof revelation had been when he realized it was both.
He knew what the people said about him, of course; he was the best Duke in living memory, he was a bastard but a clever bastard,he was ten times the ruler his father had been. Well, he knew the third one was lies. The second one he was prepared to acknowledge,if put to it. The first one he dismissed as unlikely. It was good that they said it, however. If they admired him, they werelikely to do as they were told, just so long as he stayed successful. But there was no reason why he shouldn’t. If the hunthad taught him anything, it was the inestimable value of thinking in three dimensions. To hunt successfully, you must knowyour ground, your pack and your quarry. You must learn, by fieldwork and reconnaissance, where the quarry is likely to beand what it’s liable to do once disturbed. You must know the capacities and weaknesses of the resources — men, dogs, equipment— at your disposal. You must be able to visualize at all times where everybody is, once you’ve sent them to their stationsto do their assigned tasks. You must be aware of the interplay of time and distance, so you can be sure that the stops andthe beaters are in position when you loose the pack. You must be able to judge allowances — the angle to offset a drive soas to head off the quarry from its customary line of escape, how far ahead of a running stag to shoot so as to pitch yourarrow where it’s going, not where it’s just been. Above all, at all times you must be in perfect control, regardless of whetherthings are going well or badly. A brilliant mind is not required; nor is genius, intuition, inspiration. Clarity and concentrationare helpful; but the main thing is vision, the ability to draw invisible lines with the mind’s eye, to see round corners andthrough walls. It’s a knack that can be learned fairly readily; slightly harder than swimming, rather easier than jugglingor playing the flute.
Well; if he wasn’t going to hunt today, he’d better go to the council meeting. Nothing useful would be achieved there — hewould do all the work himself, it’d take him just under half an hour — but it was necessary in order to keep his leading men,his pack, alert and obedient. He’d been at pains to train them over the last few years, encouraging, rewarding, culling asneeded, and they were shaping well; but time had to be spent with them, or they’d grow restive and willful. He swung his legsoff the table onto the ground, a brisk, almost boyish movement that he certainly wouldn’t have made had anybody been watching,and walked quickly across the yard, composing the agenda for the meeting as he went. On the stairs he met the master cutler,who told him the new case of rapiers had finally arrived from the City. He thanked the man and told him to bring them alongto his study an hour after dinner.
The meeting lived down to his expectations. The council had wanted to debate whether or not to launch an attack on the Eremianswhile they were vulnerable and desperate. When he told them he’d already sent food and doctors, they had nothing left to say;they hadn’t thought ahead, and so the buck had slipped through the cordon and left them standing. As it should be; it waseasier to tell people what to do if they didn’t interrupt. He delegated to them the simple, unimportant matters that he hadn’talready provided for, and sent them away with a sense of bewildered purpose.
To his study next, where he had a map of the mountains. It was big, covering the whole of the north wall (there was a holefor the window in the middle of the Horsehead Ridge, but that didn’t matter; the ridge was sheer rock capped with snow, andyou needed ropes and winches to get there); it was a tapestry, so that he could mark positions with pins and tapes if he choseto, but that was rarely necessary. He fixed his eye on the place where Orsea’s army had last been seen, and calculated wherethey were likely to be now.
An attack would be feasible — not straight away, there were two possible escape routes and he couldn’t get his forces in placeto block both of them before the Eremians moved on; tomorrow evening or the morning of the next day would be the right time.He could bottle them up in the long pass between Horn Cross and Finis Montium, and it ought to be possible to wipe them outto the last man without incurring unacceptable losses. It could be done; now he had to decide whether he wanted to do it.
That was a much bigger question, involving a complex interplay of imperatives. His father, or his grandfather, great-grandfatherand so back four degrees, wouldn’t have thought twice: kill the men, absorb the women and children, annex the land. They’dbeen trying to do just that, through war, for two hundred years. The hunt had, however, moved on; thanks to the long war,and the recent short interval of peace, Valens knew he didn’t have the resources, human or material, to control the aftermathof victory to his satisfaction. He’d be occupying a bitterly hostile country, through which his lines of communication wouldbe stretched and brittle. Facts duly faced, there wasn’t actually anything in Eremia that he hadn’t already got an adequatesufficiency of. Get rid of the Eremians and take their land, and he’d find himself with two frontiers abutting the desertinstead of just one; two doors the nomad tribes might one day be able to prise open. A preemptive massacre would cause moreproblems than it solved.
He considered a few peripheral options. He could secure Orsea himself and keep him as a hostage. The advantages of that wereobvious enough, but they didn’t convince him. Sooner or later he’d either have to kill his cousin or let him go; at whichpoint he could expect reprisals, and the Eremians had just proved themselves capable of gross overreaction. They would sendan army; which he could defeat, of course, but then he’d be left with heavy casualties and the same undesirable situationhe’d have faced if he’d taken this opportunity to wipe the Eremians out in the Butter Pass. Forget that, then; forget alsobottling them up in the pass and extorting concessions. A republic or a democracy might do that, trading a vote-winning triumphin the short term against a nasty mess at some time in the future (hopefully when the other lot were in government). Valenswas grateful he didn’t have to do that sort of thing.
Decided, then; if he wasn’t going to slaughter them, he must either ignore them or help them. Ignoring them would be a neutralact, and Valens found neutrality frustrating. Helping them would create an obligation, along with gratitude and goodwill.He who has his enemy’s love and trust is in a far better position to attack, later, when the time is right. The cost wouldbe negligible, and in any event he could make it a loan. It would send the right signals to the Mezentines (mountain solidarity,the truce is working); if he made a show of siding with the Eremians against them, it’d incline them to make a better offerwhen they came to buy his allegiance.
He sat down and wrote seven letters. As anticipated, it took him just under half an hour — admirably efficient, but not quickenough. It was far too late for hunting today, and the twelve-pointer would be three quarters of the way to the river valleyby now. Best not to dwell on wasted chances.
(And then there was the real reason. If he sent food and blankets and doctors, she’d be pleased. If he sent cavalry, she’dhate him. So; he had no choice in the matter, none whatsoever.)
He spent the rest of the day in the small, windowless room at the top of the north tower, reading reports and petitions, checkingaccounts, writing obstreperous notes to exchequer clerks and procurement officers. Then there was a thick stack of pleadingsfor a substantial mercantile lawsuit that he’d been putting off reading for weeks; but today, having been cheated of his dayin the fresh air, he was resigned and miserable enough to face anything, even that. After the snakelike meanderings of thelegal documents, the diplomatic mail was positively refreshing in its clarity and brevity: a letter of introduction for thenew ambassador from the Cure Doce, and a brusque note from a Mezentine government department he’d never heard of requiringhim (arrogant bastards!) to arrest and extradite a criminal fugitive with a difficult name, should he attempt to cross theborder. Neither of them needed a reply, so he marked each of them with a cross in the left-hand corner, to tell his clerkto send a formal acknowledgment. Dinner came up on a tray while he was making notes for a meeting with the merchant adventurers(tariffs, again); when at last he’d dealt with that, it was time to see the new rapiers. Not much of a reward for a long,tedious day, but better than nothing at all.
The rapiers had come in their own dear little case, oak with brass hinges and catches. They were superb examples of Mezentinecraftsmanship — the finest steel, beautifully finished and polished, not a filemark or an uncrowned edge — but the balancewas hopeless and the side-rings chafed his forefinger. He told the armorer to pay for them and hang them on a wall somewherewhere he wouldn’t have to look at them. Then he went to bed.
The next day was better; in fact, it was as good as a day could be, because, after the servants had taken away his bath andhe was drying his hair, a page came to tell him that a woman was waiting to see him; a middle-aged woman in a huge red dresswith sleeves, the page said, and pearls in her hair. Valens didn’t smile, but it cost him an effort. “Show her into the study,”he said.
He hadn’t met this one before, but it didn’t matter; the huge red dress was practically a uniform with the Merchant Adventurersthese days, and the delicate, obscenely expensive pearl headdress told him all he needed to know about her status within thecompany. He gave her a pleasant smile.
“You’ve brought a letter,” he said.
She started to apologize; it was late, because she’d been held up at the Duty & Diligence waiting for a consignment of fivegross of sheep’s grease that hadn’t arrived, and by the time it finally showed up it was too late to go on that night so shecut her losses and took her twenty-six barrels of white butter to Lonazep instead, because in this heat they wouldn’t keepas far as the Compassion & Grace, and of course that meant it was just as quick to go on up the mountain to Pericordia whereshe’d made an appointment to see some bone needles, two hundred gross at a good price but the quality wasn’t there, so ratherthan go back down the mountain empty-handed she nipped across to Mandiritto to buy more of that nine-point lace, and thatwas when it decided to rain —
“That’s quite all right,” Valens said. “You’re here now. Can I have the letter, please?”
She looked blank for a moment, then nodded briskly. “Of course, yes.” From her satchel (particularly magnificent; tapestry,with golden lions sitting under a flat-looking tree) she took out a stiff packet of parchment about the size of her hand,and laid it down on the table.
“Thank you,” Valens said, and waited.
She smiled at him. “My pleasure, of course,” she said. “Now, I don’t suppose you’ve got a moment, I know how terribly busyyou must be…”
He wanted to say yes straight away and save having to listen, but that wouldn’t do at all; his hands were itching to get holdof the letter — not open it, not straight away, just hold it and know it was there — but he folded them in a dignified manneron the table and listened for a very long time, until she finally got to what she wanted. It turned out to be nothing much,a license to import Eremian rawhide single bends, theoretically still restricted by the embargo but nobody took any noticeanymore; he got the feeling she was only asking so as to have a favor for him to grant. He said yes, had to repeat it fivetimes before she finally accepted it, and once more to get her out of the door without physical violence. He managed not toshout, and kept smiling until she’d finally gone. Then he sat down and looked at the letter.
It had started eighteen months ago, pretty much by accident. A trader had been caught at the frontier with contraband (trivialstuff; silver earrings and a set of fine decorated jesses for a sparrowhawk); instead of paying the fine, however, she’d claimedEremian diplomatic immunity and pleaded the peace treaty, claiming she was a special envoy of the Duchess, and the trinketswere privileged diplomatic mail. Probably, it was her ingenuity that impressed the excise inspector. Instead of smiling anddropping hints for the usual bribe, he decided to call her bluff; he impounded the goods and sent to the Duke for verificationthrough the proper diplomatic channels. Valens’ clerk wrote to the proper officer in Eremia Montis, and in due course receiveda reply from the keeper of the wardrobe, enclosing a notarized set of diplomatic credentials and a promise that it wouldn’thappen again. It wasn’t the sort of thing Valens would normally expect to see, even though the original request had been writtenin his name, and he supposed he must have signed the thing, along with a batch of other stuff. But the reply was brought forhim to see by a nervous-looking clerk, because there was something written in at the bottom, just under the seal.
The handwriting was different; it was, in fact, practically illegible, all spikes and cramped squiggles, not the fluent, gracefulhand of a clerk. It was a brief note, an unaccountable impulse frozen in ink, like a fly trapped in amber; are you, it asked,that boy who used to stare at me every evening when I was a hostage in Civitas Vadanis? I’ve often wondered what became ofyou; please write to me. And then her name; or he assumed it was her name, rather than two superimposed clawmarks.
It had taken him a long time to reply, during which he considered a wide range of issues: the possibility of a trap designedto create a diplomatic incident, the real reason he’d never married, the paradox of the atrocious handwriting. Mostly, however,he hesitated because he didn’t know the answer to the question. He remembered the boy she’d referred to, but the memory broughthim little except embarrassment. He thought of the boy’s strange, willful isolation, his refusal to do what was expected ofhim, his reluctance to ride to the hunt with his father; he resented all the opportunities the boy had wasted, which wouldnever come again.
So; the correct answer would be no, and the proper course of action would be to ignore the scribbled note and the breach ofprotocol it represented, and forget the whole matter. That would have been the right thing to do. Luckily, he had the senseto do the wrong thing. The only problem now was to decide what he was going to say.
He could think of a lot of things, enough for a book; he could write for a week and only set out the general headings. Curiously,the things he wanted to write about weren’t anything to do with her. They were about him; things he’d never told anybody,because there was nobody qualified to listen. None of those things, he knew, would be suitable for a letter from one duketo another duke’s wife. So instead he sat down one morning in the upper room with no windows, and tried to picture the viewfrom the battlement above the gatehouse, looking west over the water-meadows toward the long covert and the river. Once he’dcaught the picture, flushed it from his mind and driven it into the nets of his mind’s eye, he thought carefully about thebest way to turn it into words. The task took him all morning. In the afternoon he had meetings, a lawsuit to hear, a sessionof the greater council postponed from the previous month. That evening he tore up what he’d written and started again. Hehad no possible reason to believe that she’d be interested in what he could see from his front door, but he worked throughfour or five drafts until he had something he was satisfied with, made a fair copy, folded it and sent for the president ofthe Company of Merchant Adventurers. To make his point, he entrusted the request for a meeting to six guards, suggesting theydeliver it some time around midnight.
The wretched woman came, fully expecting to die, and he asked her, as sweetly as he could manage, to do him a favor. Membersof her company were forever popping (good choice of word) to and fro across the border — yes, of course there was an embargo,but there wasn’t any need to dwell on it; would it be possible, did she think, for one of them to pass on a letter to oneof her Eremian colleagues? It was no big deal (he said, looking over her head toward the door, outside which the armed guardswere waiting) but on balance it’d probably be just as well if the whole business could be treated with a certain amount ofthe businesslike discretion for which the company was so justly famous. And so on.
The woman went away again, white with fear and secretly hugging herself with joy at securing a royal mandate to smuggle atwill across the border; a month later, she came back with a letter. She was, she stressed, only too pleased to be able tohelp; while she was there, however, there were one or two silly little things she’d like to mention, if he could spare thetime. Luckily, she had the sense not to push her luck too far. He agreed; the mechanism was set up.
He never knew when she was going to write. He always replied at once, the same day, canceling or forgetting about all othercommitments. Letter days were long and busy. First, he would read it, six or seven times, methodically; the first readingtook in the general tone and impression, each subsequent reading going deeper. Next, he would think carefully about everythingshe’d said, with a view to planning the outline of his reply. The actual writing of it generally took the afternoon and mostof the evening, with two pauses in which he’d read her letter again, to make sure he’d got the facts and issues straight.Last thing at night, he’d read the letter and his reply over once more, and make the fair copy. From start to finish, sixteenhours. It was just as well he was used to long periods of intense concentration.
Valens reached out slowly toward the letter on the table, like the fencer in First advancing on an opponent of unknown capacity.This might, after all, be the letter that said there would be no more letters, and until he’d looked and seen that it wasn’t,he daren’t lower his guard to Third and engage with the actual text. His fingers made contact, gentle as the first pressureof blade on blade as the fencers gauge each other by feel at the narrow distance. Applying a minute amount of force throughthe pad of his middle finger, he drew it toward him until his hand could close around it. Then he paused, because the nextmovement would draw him into an irrevocable moment. He was a brave man (he wasn’t proud of his courage; he simply acknowledgedit) and he was afraid. Gentle and progressive as the clean loose of an arrow, he slid his finger under the fold and prisedupward against the seal until the brittle wax burst. The parchment slowly relaxed, the way a body does the moment after death.He unfolded the letter.
Veatriz Longamen Sirupati to Valens Valentinianus, greetings.
You were right, of course. It was Meruina; fifty-third sonnet, line six. I was so sure I was right, so I looked it up, andnow you can gloat if you want to. It’s simply infuriating; you’re supposed to know all about hounds and tiercels and tracking,and how to tell a stag’s age from his footprints; how was I meant to guess you’d be an expert on early Mannerist poetry aswell? I’m sure there must be something you haven’t got the first idea about, but I don’t suppose you’ll ever tell me. I’llfind out by pure chance one of these days, and then we’ll see.
I sat at my window yesterday watching two of the men saw a big log into planks. They’d dug a hole so one of them could beunderneath the log (you know all this); and the man on top couldn’t see the other one, because the log was in the way. Butthey pulled the saw backward and forward between them so smoothly, without talking to each other (I wonder if they’d had aquarrel); it was like the pendulum of a clock, each movement exactly the same as the last; I timed them by my pulse, and theywere perfect. I suppose it was just practice, they were so used to each other that they didn’t have to think or anything,one would pull and then the other. How strange, to know someone so well, over something so mundane as sawing wood. I don’tthink I know anybody that well over anything.
Coridan — he’s one of Orsea’s friends from school — came to stay. After dinner one evening, he was telling us about a machinehe’d seen once; either it was in Mezentia itself, or it was made there, it doesn’t really matter which. Apparently, you lighta fire under an enormous brass kettle; and the steam rises from the spout up a complicated series of pipes and tubes intoa sort of brass barrel, where it blows on a thing like a wheel with paddles attached, sort of like a water-mill; and the wheeldrives something else round and round and it all gets horribly complicated; and at the end, what actually happens is thata little brass model of a nightingale pops up out of a little box and twirls slowly round and round on a little table, makinga sound just like a real nightingale singing. At least, that’s the idea, according to Coridan, and if you listen closely youcan hear it tweeting and warbling away; but you need to be right up close, or else its singing is drowned out by all the whirringsand clankings of the machine.
Talking of birds; we had to go somewhere recently, and we rode down the side of an enormous field, Orsea said it was beansand I’m sure he was right. As we rode by a big flock of pigeons got up and flew off; when we were safely out of the way, theystarted coming back in ones and twos and landing to carry on feeding; and I noticed how they come swooping in with their wingstight to their bodies, like swimmers; then they glide for a bit, and turn; and what they’re doing is turning into the wind,and their wings are like sails, and it slows them down so they can come in gently to land. As they curled down, it made methink of dead leaves in autumn, the way they drift and spin. Odd, isn’t it, how many quite different things move in similarways; as if nature’s lazy and can’t be bothered to think up something different for each one.
Another curious thing: they always fly up to perch, instead of dropping down. I suppose it’s easier for them to stop thatway. It reminds me of a man running to get on a moving cart.
I know we promised each other we wouldn’t talk about work and things in these letters; but Orsea has to go away quite soon,with the army, and I think there’s going to be a war. I hate it when he goes away, but usually he’s quite cheerful about it;this time he was very quiet, like a small boy who knows he’s done something wrong. That’s so unlike him. If there really isto be a war, I know he’ll worry about whether he’ll know the right things to do — he’s so frightened of making mistakes, Ithink it’s because he never expected to be made Duke or anything like that. I don’t know about such things, but I should thinkit’s like what they say about riding a horse; if you let it see you’re afraid of it, you can guarantee it’ll play you up.
Ladence has been much better lately; whether it’s anything to do with the new doctor I don’t know, he’s tried to explain whathe’s doing but none of it makes any sense to me. It starts off sounding perfectly reasonable — the human body is like a clock,or a newly sown field, or some such thing — but after a bit he says things that sound like they’re perfectly logical and reasonable,but when you stop and think it’s like a couple of steps have been missed out, so you can’t see the connection between whathe says the problem is, and what he’s proposing to do about it. At any rate, it seems to be working, or else Ladence is gettingbetter in spite of it. I don’t care, so long as it carries on like this. I really don’t think I could stand another winterlike the last one.
When you reply, be sure to tell me some more about the sparrowhawks; did the new one fit in like you hoped, or did the othersgang up on her and peck her on the roosting-perch? They remind me of my eldest sister and her friends — Maiaut sends her bestwishes, by the way; I suppose that means they want something else, from one of us, or both. I do hope it won’t cause you anyproblems (I feel very guilty about it all). I suppose I’m lucky; there’s not really very much I can do for them, so they don’tusually ask anything of me. I know it must be different for you; are they an awful nuisance? Sometimes I wonder if all thisis necessary. After all, you’re Orsea’s cousin, so you’re family, why shouldn’t we write to each other? But it’s better notto risk it, just in case Orsea did get upset. I don’t imagine for one moment that he would, but you never know.
That’s about all I can get on this silly bit of parchment. I have to beg bits of offcut from the clerks (I pretend I wantthem for household accounts, or patching windows). I wish I could write very small, like the men who draw maps and write inthe place-names.
Please tell me something interesting when you write. I love the way you explain things. It seems to me that you must see thewhole world as a fascinating puzzle, you’re dying to observe it and take it apart to see how it works; you always seem toknow the details of everything. When we saw the pigeons I had this picture of you in my mind; you stood there for hours watchingthem, trying to figure out if there was a pattern to the way they landed and walked about. You seem to have the knack of noticingthings the rest of us miss (how do you ever find time to rule a country?). So please, think of something fascinating, andtell me what I should be looking out for. Must stop now — no more room.
True enough; the last seven words tapered away into the edge of the parchment, using up all the remaining space; a top-flightcalligrapher might just have been able to squeeze in two more letters, but no more.
This isn’t love, Valens told himself. He knew about love, having seen it at work among his friends and people around him.Love was altogether more predatory. It was concerned with pursuit, capture, enjoyment; it was caused by beauty, the way rawred skin is caused by the sun; it was an appetite, like hunger or thirst, a physical discomfort that tortured you until itwas satisfied. That, he knew from her letters, was how she felt about Orsea — how they felt about each other — and so thiscouldn’t be love, in which case it could only be friendship; shared interests, an instructive comparison of perspectives,a meeting of minds, a pooling of resources. (She’d said in a letter that he seemed to go through life like one of the agentssent by the trading companies to observe foreign countries and report back, with details of manners and customs, geographyand society, that might come in handy for future operations; who did he report to? she wondered. He’d been surprised at that.Surely she would have guessed.) Not love, obviously. Different. Better…
He read the letter through three more times; on the second and third readings he made notes on a piece of paper. That in itselfwas more evidence, because who makes notes for a love letter? He’d seen plenty of them and they were all the same, all earth,air, fire and water; was it his imagination, or could nobody, no matter how clever, write a love letter without coming acrossas slightly ridiculous? No, you made notes for a meeting, a lecture, an essay, a sermon, a dissertation. That was more likeit; he and she were the only two members of a learned society, a college of philosophers and scientists observing the world,publishing their results to each other, occasionally discussing a disputed conclusion in the interests of pure truth. He’dmet people like that; they wrote letters to colleagues they’d never met, or once only for a few minutes at some function,and often their shared correspondence would last for years, a lifetime, until one day some acquaintance mentioned that so-and-sohad died (in his sleep, advanced old age), thereby explaining a longer than usual interval between letter and reply. If itwas love, he’d long ago have sent for his marshals and generals, invaded Eremia, stuck Orsea’s head up on a pike and broughther back home as a great and marvelous prize; or he’d have climbed the castle wall in the middle of the night and stolen heraway with rope ladders and relays of horses ready and waiting at carefully planned stages; or, having considered the strategicposition and reached the conclusion that the venture was impractical, he’d have given it up and fallen in love with someoneelse.
He stood up, crossed the room, pulled a book off the shelf and opened it. The book was rather a shameful possession, becauseit was only a collection of drawings of various animals and birds, with a rather unreliable commentary under each one, andit had cost as much as eight good horses or a small farm. He’d had it made after he received the third letter; he’d sent histhree best clerks over the mountain to the Cure Doce, whose holy men collected books of all kinds; they’d gone from monasteryto monastery looking for the sort of thing he wanted; found this one and copied the whole thing in a week, working three shiftsround the clock (and, because the Cure Doce didn’t share their scriptures, they’d had to smuggle the copied pages out of thecountry packed in a crate between layers of dried apricots; the smell still lingered, and he was sick of it). He turned thepages slowly, searching for a half-remembered paragraph about the feeding patterns of geese. This wasn’t, he told himself,something a lover would do.
He found what he was after (geese turn their heads into the wind to feed; was that right? He didn’t think so, and he’d beprepared to bet he’d seen more geese than whoever wrote the book), put the book away and made his note. He was thinking abouthis cousin, that clown Orsea. If he was in love, he’d know precisely what he ought to do right now. He’d sit down at the deskand write an order to the chiefs of staff. They’d be ready in six hours; by the time they reached the Butter Pass, they’dbe in perfect position to bottle Orsea’s convoy of stragglers up in Horn Canyon. Losses would be five percent, seven at most;there would be no enemy survivors. He would then write an official complaint to the Mezentines, chiding them for pursuingthe Eremians into his territory and massacring them there; the Mezentines would deny responsibility, nobody would believethem; she would never know, or even suspect (he’d have to sacrifice the chiefs of staff, some of the senior officers too,so that if word ever did leak out, it could be their crime, excessive zeal in the pursuit of duty). That was what a true loverwould do. Instead, he took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote to the officer commanding the relief column he’d already sent,increasing his authority to indent for food, clothing, blankets, transport, personnel, medical supplies. His first priority,Valens wrote, was to put the Eremians in a position to get home without further loss of life. Also (added as an afterthought,under the seal) would he please convey to Duke Orsea Duke Valens’ personal sympathy and good wishes at this most difficulttime.
How stupid could Orsea be, anyway? (He took down another book, Patellus’Concerning Animals;nothing in the index under geese, so he checked under waterfowl.) If his advisers came to him suggesting he launch a preemptivestrike against Mezentia, the first thing he’d do would be put them under house arrest until he’d figured out how many of themwere in on the conspiracy; if it turned out there wasn’t one, he’d sack the whole lot of them for gross incompetence; he’dhave them paraded through the streets of the capital sitting back-to-front on donkeys, with IDIOT branded on their foreheads.Needless to say, the contingency would never arise. He opened the door and called for a page to take the letter to the commanderof the relief column.
It was just as well he and the Eremian Duchess were just good friends, when you thought of all the damage a lover could doin the world.
When at last the letter was finished (written, written out and fit to send; Valens had beautiful handwriting, learned on hisfather’s insistence at the rod’s end), he sent for the president of the Merchant Adventurers, with instructions to show herinto the smaller audience room and keep her waiting twenty minutes. The commission cost him two small but annoying concessionson revenue procedure; he’d been expecting worse, and perhaps gave in a little too easily. Just as she was about to leave,he stopped her.
“Writing paper,” he said.
She looked at him. “Yes?”
“I want some.” He frowned. “First-quality parchment; sheepskin, not goat. Say twenty sheets, about so big.” He indicated withhis hands. “Can you get some for me?”
“Of course.” Behind her smile he could see a web of future transactions being frantically woven; a maze, with a ream of writingpaper at the center. “When would you be —?”
“Straight away,” Valens said. “To go with the letter.”
“Ah.” The web dissolved and a new one formed in its place. “That oughtn’t to be a problem. Yes, I think we can —”
“Let me see.” She could do long multiplication in her head without moving her lips. In spite of himself, Valens was impressed.“Of course, if it’s for immediate delivery…”
“That’s right. How much?”
She quoted a figure which would have outfitted a squadron of cavalry, including horses and harness. She was good at her joband put it over well; unfortunately for her, Valens could do mental long multiplication too. They agreed on a third of theoriginal quote — still way over the odds, but he wasn’t just buying parchment. “Would you like to see a sample first?” sheasked.
“I’ll have it sent over in an hour.”
“Bring it yourself,” Valens replied. He noticed she was wearing a new diamond on the third finger of her right hand;I paid for that,he thought resentfully. Of course it should have been a ruby, to match her dress, but diamonds were worth twice as much,scruple for scruple, and she had appearances to think of. Thank God for the silver mines, he thought.
“Certainly,” she said. “Now, while I’m here, there was just one other tiny thing…”
They were a force of nature, these traders. Even his father had had to give them best, more than once. This time he put upa bit more of a fight (the hunter likes quarry with a bit of devil in it) and she met him halfway; most likely she was onlytrying it on for wickedness’ sake, and never expected to get anything. Of course, he told himself, it’s good business allround for them to have a way of manipulating me; otherwise they’d push me too far and I’d have to slap them down, and that’dbe bad for the economy. He was delighted to see the blood-red back of her.
Once she’d gone, however, the world changed. The brief flurry of activity, the tremendous draining effort of concentration,the feeling of being alive, all faded away so quickly that he wondered if it had been a dream. But he knew the feeling toowell for that. It was the same at bow-and-stable, or the lowly off-season hunts, where you sit and wait, and nothing happens;where you perch in your high-seat or cower in your hide, waiting for the wild and elusive quarry that is under no obligationto come to you, until it’s too dark or too wet, and you go home. While you wait there, impatient and resigned as a lover waitingfor a letter, your mind detaches, you can for a little while be someone completely different, and believe that the strangeris really you. It’s only when you see the flicker of movement or hear the muffled, inhuman cough that the real you comes skitteringback, panicked and eager and suddenly wide awake, and at once the bow is back in your hands, the arrow is notched, cockfeatherout, and the world is small and sharp once again.
(Hunters will tell you that patience is their greatest virtue, but it’s the other way about. If they were capable of truepatience, they could never be hunters, because the desire for the capture wouldn’t be enough to motivate them through theboredom, the suffering and the cramp. They would be content without the capture, and so would stay at home. The hunter’s virtuelies in being able to endure the desperate, agonizing impatience for the sake of the moment when it comes, if it comes, likean unreliable letter smuggled by a greedy trader in a crate of nectarines.)
One of the doctors, his tour of duty completed, reported in on his return. The Eremians, he said, were a mess. It was a miraclethey’d lost as few people as they had, what with exhaustion and exposure and neglect of the wounded, and starvation. For awhile the second-in-command, Miel Ducas, had managed to hold things together by sheer tenacity, but he was shattered, on hisknees with fatigue and worry, and with him out of action there wasn’t anybody else fit to be trusted with a pony-chaise, letalone an army. Duke Orsea? The doctor smiled grimly. It had been a real stroke of luck for the Eremians, he said, Orsea gettingcarved up in the battle and put out of action during the crisis that followed. If he’d been in command on the way up the ButterPass… The doctor remembered who he was talking to and apologized. No disrespect intended; but since Ducas’ collapse, DukeOrsea had taken back command; one had to make allowances for a sick man, but even so.
Now, though; now, the doctor was pleased to report, things were practically under control. The Eremians had been fed, theyhad tents and blankets and firewood. As for the wounded, they were safe in an improvised mobile hospital (twenty huge tentsrequisitioned from markets, the military, and traveling actors) and nine-tenths of them would probably make some sort of recovery.It was all, of course, thanks to Valens; if he hadn’t intervened, if he’d been content to let the Eremians stumble by on theirside of the border, it was more than likely that they’d all be dead by now. It had been, the doctor said in bewildered admiration,a magnificent humanitarian act.
“Is that right?” Valens interrupted. “They’d really have died? All of them?”
The doctor shrugged. “Maybe a few dozen might’ve made it home, no more than that,” he said. “Duke Orsea would’ve been deadfor sure. One of my colleagues got to him just in time, before blood-poisoning set in.” The doctor frowned. “Excuse me forasking,” he went on, “but they’re saying that they didn’t even ask us for help. You authorized the relief entirely off yourown bat. Is that really true?”
“I see,” the doctor said. “Because there’s terms in the treaty that mean we’ve got to go to each other’s assistance if formallyasked to do so; I’d sort of assumed they’d sent an official request, and so we had no choice. I didn’t realize…”
Valens shrugged. “To start with, all I was concerned about was the frontier. I thought that if they were in a bad way forfood, they might start raiding our territory, which would’ve meant war whether we wanted it or not. I didn’t want to riskthat, obviously.”
“Ah,” the doctor said. “Because I was wondering. After all, it’s not so long ago we were fighting them, and if they hadn’tmade a request and we’d just let well alone…” He sighed. “My son fought in the war, you know. He was killed. But if it wasto safeguard our border, of course, that’s a different matter entirely.”
Valens shook his head. “Just, what’s the phrase, enlightened self-interest. I haven’t gone soft in my old age, or anythinglike that.”
The doctor smiled weakly. “That’s all right, then,” he said.
Other reports came in. The Eremians were on the move again; Valens’ scouts had put them back on the right road, and they werewell clear of the border. The mobile hospital had been disbanded, the serious cases taken down the mountain to a good Vadanihospital, the rest judged fit to rejoin the column and go home. Miel Ducas was back in charge; the Vadani doctors had warnedDuke Orsea in the strongest possible terms of the ghastly consequences that would follow if he stirred from his litter atall before they reached the capital — not strictly true, but essential to keep him out of mischief. Details of what had actuallyhappened in the battle were proving hard to come by. Some of the Eremians were tight-lipped in the company of their old enemy;the vast majority would’ve told the Vadani anything they wanted but simply didn’t have any idea what had hit them out of aclear blue sky. They hadn’t known about the scorpions, still didn’t; but (said a few of them) that’ll all change soon enough,now that we’ve got the defector.
Well, it was supposed to be a dark and deadly secret; still, obviously we’re all friends together now, so it can’t do anyharm. The defector was a Mezentine — some said he was an important government official, others said he was just a blacksmith— and he was going to teach them all the Mezentines’ diabolical tricks, especially the scorpions, because he used to be somethingto do with making them. He was either a prisoner taken during the battle or a refugee claiming political asylum, or both;the main thing was, he was why the whole expedition had been worthwhile after all; getting their hands on him was as goodas if they’d won the battle, or at least that was what they were going to tell the people back home, to keep from gettinglynched.
Valens, meticulous with details and blessed with a good memory, turned up the relevant letter in the files and deduced thatthe defector was the Ziani Vaaztes whom he was required to send to Mezentia. The old resentment flared up again when he sawthat fatal word; but he thought about it and saw the slight potential advantage. He wrote to the Mezentine authorities, tellingthem that the man they were looking for was now a guest of their new best enemy, should they wish to take the matter further;he wished to remain, and so forth.
And then there were the hunt days; days when he drove the woods and covers, reading the subtle verses written on the woodlandfloor by the feet of his quarry better than any paid huntsman, always diligent, always searching for the buck, the doe, theboar, the bear, the wolf that for an hour or two suddenly became the most important thing in the world. Once it was caughtand killed it was meat for the larder or one less hazard to agriculture, no more or less — but there; the fact that he’d caughtit proved that it couldn’t have been the one he was really looking for. He’d been brought up on the folk tales; a prince outhunting comes across a milk-white doe with silver hoofs, and a gold collar around its neck, which leads him to the castlehidden in the depths of the greenwood, where the princess is held captive; or he flies his peregrine at a white dove thatcarries in its beak a golden flower, and follows it to the seashore, where the enchanted, crewless ship waits to carry himto the Beautiful Island. He’d been in no doubt at all when he was a boy; the white doe and the white dove were somewhere closeat hand, in the long covert or the rough moor between the big wood and the hog’s back, and it was just a matter of findingthem. But his father had never found them and neither had he, yet. Each time the lymers put up a doe or the spaniels foundin the reeds he raised his head to look, and many times he’d been quite certain he’d seen it, the flash of white, the glowof the gold. Sometimes he wondered if it was all a vast conspiracy of willing martyrs; each time he came close to the onetrue quarry, some humble volunteer would dart out across the ride to run interference, while the genuine article slipped awayunobserved.6
Duke Valens’ letter rode with an official courier as far as Forza; there it was transferred to a pack-train carrying silveringots and mountain-goat skins (half-tanned, for the luxury footwear trade), as far as Lonazep. It waited there a day or sountil a shipment of copper and tin ore came in from the Cure Doce, and hitched a ride with the wagons to Mezentia. There itlay forgotten in a canvas satchel, along with reports from the Foundrymen’s Guild’s commercial resident in Doria-Voce andone side of a fractious correspondence about delivery dates and penalty clauses in the wholesale rope trade, until someonewoke it up and carried it to the Guildhall, where it was opened in error by a clerk from the wrong department, sent on a longtour of the building, and finally washed up on the desk of the proper official like a beached whale.
The proper official immediately convened an emergency meeting. This should have been held in the grand chamber; but the Social& Benevolent Association had booked the chamber for the day and it was too short notice to cancel, so the committee was forcedto cram itself into the smaller of the two chapter-houses, on the seventh floor.
It was a beautiful room, needless to say. Perfectly circular, with a vaulted roof and gilded traces supported by twelve impossiblyslender gray stone columns, it was decorated with frescos in the grand manner, briefly popular a hundred and twenty yearsearlier, when allegory was regarded as the height of sophisticated taste. Accordingly, the committee huddled, three men toa two-man bench, between the feet and in the shadows of vast, plump nude giants and giantesses, all delicately poised in attitudesof refined emotion — Authority, in a monstrous gold helmet like a cooper’s bucket, accepted the world’s scepter from the handsof Wisdom and Obedience, while a flight of stocky angels, their heads all turned full-face in accordance with the prevailingconvention, floated serenely by on dumplings of white cloud.
At ground level, they were way past serenity. Lucao Psellus, chairman of the compliance directorate, had just read out theVadanis’ letter. For once, nobody appreciated the exquisite acoustics of the chapter-house; the wretched words rang out clearas bells and chased each other round and round the cupped belly of the dome, when they should have been whispered and quicklyhushed away.
“In fact,” Psellus concluded, “it’s hard to see how things could possibly be any worse. We take a man, a hard-working, loyalGuild officer who happens to have made one stupid mistake, and in trying to make an example of him, we coerce him into violenceand murder, and drive him into the arms of our current worst enemy; a man whose technical knowledge and practical abilitygives him the capability of betraying at least thirty-seven restricted techniques and scores of other trade secrets. Result:it’s imperative that he’s caught and disposed of as quickly as possible, but now he’s in pretty much the hardest place inthe world for us to winkle him out of. I’m not saying it can’t be done —”
“I don’t see a problem,” someone interrupted. “We know the Eremians’ve got him, surely that’s more than half the battle. It’swhen you don’t have a clue where to start looking that it’s difficult to process a job. Meanwhile, I’m prepared to bet, afterwhat’s just happened I don’t see this Duke Orsea giving us much trouble, provided we put the wind up him forcefully enough.He’s just had a crash course in what happens to people who mess with us. And besides, what actual harm can he do? The Eremiansare primitives; if Vaatzes was minded to betray Guild secrets, how’s he going to go about it? They’re in no position to exploitanything he tells them, they’ve got no manufacturing capacity, no infrastructure. They can barely make a horseshoe up therein the mountains; Vaatzes would have to teach them to start from scratch.”
Psellus scowled in the direction the voice had come from; because of the annoying echo he couldn’t quite place the voice,and the speaker’s face had been lost against a background of primary colors and pale apricot. “For a start,” he said, “that’sentirely beside the point. If we don’t deal with this Vaatzes straight away, it sets a dangerous precedent. Troublemakersand malcontents will see that here’s a man who broke the rules and got away with it. Furthermore, you know as well as I do,a trade secret is a negotiable commodity. The Eremians may not be able to use it, but there’s nothing to stop them sellingit on to someone who can. No, we have to face facts, this is a crisis and we’ve got to take it seriously. This is exactlythe sort of situation we were put here for. The question is, how do we go about it?”
There was a brief silence, just long enough for his words to come to rest in the vaulting, like bees settling in a tree fullof blossom.
“Well,” someone said, “it’s obviously not a job we can tackle ourselves, not directly. Any one of our people’d stick out amile among the tribesmen. I say we put a tender out to the traders. It wouldn’t be the first time, and they’ll do anythingfor money.”
That was simply stating the obvious, but at least they were getting somewhere; no small achievement, in a committee of politicalappointees. Psellus nodded. “The Merchant Adventurers are clearly the place to start,” he said. “We’ve got a reasonable networkof contacts in place now; at the very least they can do the fieldwork and gather the necessary intelligence: where he is exactly,the sort of security measures we’ll have to face, his daily routine, the attitude of the Duke and his people. As regards theactual capture, I’m not sure we can rely on people like that; but let’s take it one step at a time. Now, who’s in charge ofrunning our contacts in the company?”
Manuo Crisestem stood up; six feet of idiot in a purple brocaded gown. Psellus managed not to groan. “I have the file here,”Crisestem said, brandishing a parchment folder. “Anticipating this discussion, I took the trouble to read it through beforewe convened. There is a problem.”
There was a grin behind his words. Crisestem (Tailors’ and Clothiers’) had only joined the committee a few months ago, replacingone of Psellus’ fellow Foundrymen as controller of intelligence. If there was a problem, it’d be the Foundrymen’s fault, andCrisestem would be only too delighted to make a full confession and abject apology on their behalf. “I regret to have to informthis committee,” he said, “that our resources in Eremia Montis are unsatisfactory. We have agents in the cheese, butter andleather trades and among the horse-breeders, but at relatively low levels. Furthermore, our resources are such that, afterthe recent incursion, they can no longer be relied on. It won’t take the Duke long to figure out who gave us advance warningof his adventure; those agents will be exposed and presumably dealt with, and it will be exceedingly difficult to recruitreplacements as a result. The fact is that all our people in Eremia have been used up — in a good cause, needless to say;but now that they’re gone, we have nothing worth mentioning in reserve.”
Muttering, slightly exaggerated, from the Stonemasons’ and Wainwrights’ delegates. Political committees. Psellus ground on:“I take it you have something positive to propose.”
“As a matter of fact, I have.” Crisestem smiled amiably. “It seems to me that, since we cannot handle this matter directly,we must take a more oblique approach.” He opened his folder and took out a piece of paper, holding it close to his body, asif it was a candle in a stiff breeze. “This came in today, from one of my observers in Forza. Apparently, Duke Valens hastaken a hand in the Eremian crisis; he’s sent significant aid to the survivors of Orsea’s army — food, doctors, transport.It would appear that the alliance between Eremia and the Vadani is by no means as brittle as we had assumed.”
Eyebrows were raised at that; typical of the Tailors to keep back genuinely important news just to gain a brief tactical advantage.
“That’s an interesting development,” Psellus said.
“Certainly. Let’s confine ouselves, however, to its relevance to the matter in hand. A closer relationship between the twoduchies will inevitably lead to closer commercial ties. We have excellent resources inside the Vadani mercantile. I suggestwe use them. We won’t be needing them for anything else; the Vadani will never be a threat to us, they have too much sense.Furthermore, we can place our own people in the Vadani court, to supervise and coordinate operations. No doubt the foreignaffairs directorate will be sending diplomats to Duke Valens to find out what lies behind this remarkable display of neighborlyfeeling. The actual transaction can be managed very well from Civitas Vadanis; if we manage to get Vaatzes out alive, it willbe much simpler to bring him home from there. I imagine Valens will be eager to propitiate us, if he’s up to something withhis cousin, so we can be confident we won’t be unduly hampered by interference from that quarter. It would appear to be thelogical approach.”
Psellus had, of course, hated the Tailors and Clothiers from birth; they were Consolidationists, the Foundrymen were Didactics,there could be no common ground, no compromise on anything, ever. Even if Manuo Crisestem had been a Foundryman, however,Psellus would still have loathed him with every cell, hair and drop of moisture in his body. “Agreed,” he said. “Do we needto take a formal vote on this? Objections from the floor? Very well, I propose that we minute that and move on to appropriations.”He gazed into Crisestem’s unspeakably smug face and continued: “When do you think you can let us have a draft budget for approval?”
Crisestem hesitated; he was apprehensive, but didn’t know why. Confused, presumably, by his easy victory — which was understandable,since the Foundrymen had beaten the Tailors to a pulp in every major confrontation that century. “Depends on how much detailyou want me to go into at this stage,” he replied. “Obviously, since we’ve only just agreed this, I haven’t done any propercostings; haven’t got a plan I can cost yet, not till I sit down and work it all out.”
“I think we can all appreciate that,” Psellus said — he knew Crisestem was floundering —“but it goes without saying, timeis of the essence. If we reconvened here at, say, this time tomorrow, do you think you could have an outline plan of actionwith an appropriations schedule for us by then?”
“I should think so,” Crisestem replied, at the very moment when both he and Psellus realized what had happened. It hadn’tbeen intentional (if it had been, Crisestem told himself, I’d have seen it coming, read it in his weaselly little face), butit was a good, bold counterattack, what the fencers would call a riposte in straight time. Without formal proposal or debate,Manuo Crisestem had been put in charge of the whole wretched business. If he succeeded, nobody outside this room would everknow who deserved the credit. If he failed, he’d be finished in Guild politics.
It took a little longer, maybe the time it takes to eat an apple, for the rest of the committee to realize what had just happened.Nobody said anything, of course. It wasn’t the sort of thing you discussed, except in private, two or three close colleaguestalking together behind locked doors. In politics, it’s what isn’t said that matters. The fencers say that you never see themove that kills you; in politics also. It appears out of nowhere, like goblins in a fairy tale, but once it’s happened youstart to smell of failure. People who used to look at you and see the next director of finance or foreign affairs start turningtheir speculations elsewhere, and the brief hush when you enter a room has a different, rather more bitter flavor. Of course,Crisestem might succeed. It was more likely than not that he would. But until the job was done and the file was closed, hewas a man marked by the possibility of failure, someone who might not be there anymore in six months’ time. In a game playedso many moves ahead, someone like that was at best on suspension. He might succeed, at which time he’d be eligible to startagain at the foot of the ladder. Meanwhile, he had to face life as a liability in waiting.
Not such a bad day after all, Psellus thought.
Any other business; no other business. He confirmed tomorrow’s meeting — they’d be back in the great hall, where they belonged— and closed. The committee stood up slowly, like the audience at the end of a particularly powerful and moving play, takingtime to adjust to being back in the real world. Crisestem indulged in the luxury of one swift, ferocious stare. Psellus returnedit with a gentle smile, and returned to his chambers.
Back in his favorite chair, facing the wall with the tarnished but glorious mosaic (Mezentine Destiny as a knight in armorriding down the twin evils of Chaos and Doubt), he reflected on the changed state of play. A fool would still be able to turnthis fortuitous victory into a total defeat. A fool would try and take advantage by sabotaging the operation, in the hopeof guaranteeing Crisestem’s downfall. It was a sore temptation — he was almost certain it could be done, efficiently and discreetly,one hundred percent success — but it was also the only way he could lose, and losing in this instance would mean disaster.The obvious alternative was to be as helpful and supportive as possible and trust Crisestem to destroy himself. Psellus thoughtabout that. If he had true faith, in the Foundrymen, in the Didactic movement itself, he wouldn’t doubt for a moment thatCrisestem would fail (because Didacticism was right, Consolidation was wrong, and good always triumphs over evil). It’d beeasy to glide down into that belief; Crisestem was an idiot, no question about that. But he was cunning; his clever encirclingmaneuver had demonstrated that, even if he had turned his victory into a desperate wire for his own feet.
Psellus yawned. So what if Crisestem did succeed? He’d get no thanks for it outside the committee because nobody would knowit had been him. Inside — well, you never could tell. Psellus was more inclined to believe that they’d remember him walkingblithely into the pitfall long after he’d dug his way out clutching a fistful of rubies, but you couldn’t build a policy ona vague intuition. Instead, he considered the worst likely outcome. Crisestem succeeded, thereby increasing his personal prestigeinside the committee out of all recognition. So what? Just so long as Psellus kept his nerve and played his moves on the meritsrather than through anger or fear, the position at the end would still be pretty much the same as it was right now. Pselluswould still have the actual, procedural authority; he’d still see the minutes in draft before each meeting, and be able tomake subtle, deft changes to key words under the pretext of proofreading. As for Crisestem, the higher he rose, the furtherhe had to come down when finally he did make a mistake. Tranquility, serenity and patience.
To take his mind off the problem, Psellus reached for his copy of Vaatzes’ dossier. Age: thirty-four. Guild: Foundrymen’sand Machinists’ (Psellus sighed; one in every barrel). Physical description: he read the details, tried to compile a mentalimage, but failed. Nondescript, then (except for his height; a tall man, six feet three inches, so among the hill-tribes he’dbe a giant). Family: neither parent living — father had been a convener at the bloom mills for thirty years; a wife, Ariessa,age twenty-four, and a daughter, Moritsa, age six — so assuming she was seventeen when they married, he’d have been, what,ten years older. Psellus frowned. Was there a story behind that? He turned back to the wife’s details. Father, Taudor Connenus,a toolmaker in the ordnance factory. Psellus compared his works number with Vaatzes’ service history. Connenus had workedon Vaatzes’ floor at the time of the marriage, therefore had been his subordinate. And Connenus was no longer a toolmakerbut a junior supervisor; likewise Zan Connenus, the wife’s brother, promoted at the same time as his father.
Psellus closed his eyes and thought about that. A hundred and fifty years ago, yes; it had been quite common back then formen to marry girls much younger than themselves, particularly where the marriage was part of some greater chain of transactions.There had been trouble — he struggled to remember his ancient history — there had been trouble in the Tinsmiths’ Guild overa marriage and the practice had been disapproved (not denounced; it was still perfectly legal, but you weren’t supposed todo it). There had been thirty years or so of compliance, a reaction, a counter-reaction, and then it had ceased to be an issue.At best, then, it was an eccentricity. He made a note to interview the two Conneni, and returned to the dossier.
Details of the offense: he read the technical data — straightforward enough — and the investigating officer’s notes. The backgroundwas pathetic, really; a man wanted to make a nice present for his daughter and allowed his own cleverness to tempt him intodisaster. The rest of the section was unremarkable enough, except for one thing that made Psellus raise his eyebrows in surprise.
Next in the dossier were copies of supervisors’ annual assessment reports, going back twenty years. Psellus sighed, pouredhimself a small glass of brandy, and made himself concentrate. The picture that began to emerge was of a willing, seriousapprentice, a reliable and careful machinist, a good supervisor; resourceful (and look where that had got him), intelligent,a planner; content to do his work to the best of his ability; a quiet man, a family man — rarely took part in social activitiesexcept where his status required it; a man who worked late when it was necessary, but preferred to go home on time. Therehad been no petty thefts of offcuts of material or discarded tools, no reports of private work done on the side; respectedby his equals and his subordinates, few friends but no enemies — all those years as a supervisor and nobody hated him; nowthat was really rather remarkable. A mild man, but he’d married a subordinate’s daughter when she was little more than a child,and promotions had followed. Query: do quiet and mild always necessarily mean the same thing?
Several pages of details, headedrestricted,of his work on ordnance development projects. Psellus nodded to himself; a question which had been nagging him like mildtoothache would appear to have answered itself. There were, of course, no Guild specifications for military equipment. Itwas the only area not covered by specifications, the only area in which innovation and improvement were permitted. Vaatzes,apparently, had been responsible for no fewer than three amendments to approved designs, all to do with the scorpions: animproved ratchet stop, upgrading of the thread on the sear nut axle pin from five eighths coarse to three quarters fine, additionof an oil nipple to the slider housing to facilitate lubrication of the slider on active service. That wasn’t all; he’d proposeda further four amendments which had been rejected by the standing committee on ordnance design. Psellus sighed. Allow a manto get the taste for innovation and you put his very soul at risk. The compliance directorate had considered the issue onseveral occasions and had recommended a program of advanced doctrinal training to make sure that workers exposed to the dangerhad a proper understanding of the issues involved; the recommendation had been approved years ago but was still held up incommittee. A tragedy. A small voice inside his head reminded him that the training idea had been a Foundrymen’s proposal,and that the subcommittee obstructing it was dominated by the Tailors and the Joiners. He stowed the fact carefully away inhis mental quiver for future use.
Three approved amendments; he thought some more about that. Three amendments by a serving officer. Usually an amendment washeld to be the glorious culmination of a long and distinguished career; it was something you held back until it was time foryou to retire, and there’d be a little ceremony, the chief inspector of ordnance would shake you by the hand in front of theassembled workforce and present you with your letter of patent at the same time as your long-service certificate. It wasn’ta perfect system, because a man might have to wait fifteen years before submitting his amendment, all that time churning outa product he knew could be improved; but it was worthwhile because it limited exposure to the innovation bug. Only a veryfew men proposed amendments while they were still working, and nearly all such applications were rejected on principle, regardlessof merit.Three,for God’s sake. Why hadn’t he heard about this man years ago? And why, when the facts were here in the file for anyone tosee, hadn’t he been put under level six supervision after the first proposal?
In a sense, Psellus thought, we failed him. He was reminded of the old story about the man who kept a baby manticore for theeggs, until at last one day the manticore, fully grown and reverting to its basic nature, killed him. We let Vaatzes walkthis highly dangerous path alone because the amendments were all good, sound engineering, allowing us to improve the performanceof the product. Credit for that improvement would’ve gone primarily to the chief inspector of ordnance, and from him to themembers of the departmental steering committee. Manticore eggs.
One last page caught his eye: schedule of items seized by investigators from the prisoner’s house, after his arrest. It wasa short list. Usually, when a man came to no good, there’d be pages of this sort of thing — tools and equipment stolen fromthe factory; the usual depressing catalog of pornographic or subversive literature (always the same titles; the circulatingrepertoire of both categories was reassuringly small in Mezentia); forbidden articles of clothing, proscribed food and drink,religious fetishes. In this case, however, there were only a handful of items, and none of them was strictly illegal, thoughthey were all disapproved. A portfolio of drawings of yet more amendments to the scorpion (a note in the margin pointing outthat the drawings numbered seven, twenty-six and forty-one should be forwarded to the standing committee for assessment, sincethey appeared to have considerable merit); a book,The True Mirror of Defense— a fencing manual, copied in Civitas Vadanis (private ownership of weapons was, of course, strictly forbidden; whether itwas also illegal to read books about them was something of a gray area); another book,The Art of Venery,about hunting and falconry. Psellus smiled; he was prepared to bet that Vaatzes had thought the wordvenerymeant something quite different. Another book:A General Discourse of Bodily Ailments and the Complete Herbal,together with some pots of dried leaves and a pestle and mortar. Psellus frowned. He’d have to check, but he had an ideathat theGeneral Discoursewas still a permitted text in the Physicians’, so it was against the law for a Foundryman to have a copy. How had he comeby it? Did that mean that somewhere there was a doctor with a complete set of engineer’s thread and drilling tables? If so,why?
He closed the file, feeling vaguely uncomfortable, as though he’d been handling something dirty. A case like this was, ofcourse, an effective remedy for incipient complacency. It was easy to forget how perilously fine was the line between normalityand aberration. How simple and straightforward life would be if all the deviants were wild-eyed, unkempt and slobbering, andall the honest men upright and clean-shaven. There wasn’t really anything disturbing about a thoroughgoing deviant; it wasinevitable that, from time to time, nature would throw up the occasional monster, easy to identify and quickly disposed of.Far more disquieting the man who’s almost normal but not quite; he looks and sounds rational, you can work beside him foryears and never hear anything to give you cause for concern, until one day he’s not at his post, and investigators are interviewingthe whole department. Truly disquieting, because there’s always the possibility (orthodox doctrine denies it categorically,but you can’t help wondering) that anybody, everybody, might be capable of just one small aberration, if circumstances conspiredto put an opportunity in their path.If the temptation was strong enough, perhaps even me— Psellus shuddered at the thought, and dismissed it from his mind as moral hypochondria (look at the list of symptoms longenough, you can convince yourself you’ve goteverything). It was just as well, he decided, that he wasn’t an investigator working in the field. You’d need to have nerves of steelor no imagination whatsoever to survive in that job.
He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and waited to see if an image of Vaatzes would form in his mind — he thoughtof the process as something like what happens to an egg when it’s broken into the frying pan — but all he got was a vagueshape, a cutout in a black backcloth through which you could catch glimpses of what lay behind. His best hope of understandingthe man, he decided, lay in interviewing the wife. If there was a key to the mystery, either she’d be it or have an idea ofwhere it was to be found. Strictly speaking, of course, none of this was necessary. They weren’t being asked to understandthe man, just hunt him down and kill him. Probably just as well. Even so; the pathology of aberration was worth studying,in spite of the obvious danger to the student, or else how could further outbreaks be prevented in the future? Definitelythe wife, Psellus decided. She was the anomaly he kept coming back to.
He stood up, shook himself like a wet dog to get rid of unwelcome burrs of thought. A man could lose himself in work likethis, and in his case that would be a sad waste. There were other letters waiting for him; he’d seen them when he came inbut forgotten about them while his mind was full of Vaatzes and that dreadful man Crisestem. As was his custom, he broke theseals of all of them before he started to read.
Two circular memoranda about dead issues; minutes of meetings of committees he wasn’t a member of, for information only; aletter from his cousin, attached to the diplomatic mission to the Cure Doce, asking him to look something up in theAbsolute Concordance— some nonsense about the structure of leaves and the diseases of oak-trees; notice of a lecture on early Mannerist poetry;an invitation to speak, from a learned society he no longer belonged to. The sad thing was, if he didn’t get letters likethese he’d feel left out, worried that he might be slipping gradually out of favor. He made a note to tell his clerk to checkthe oak-disease reference; he’d take the speaking engagement; standard acknowledgments to all the rest. So much for the day’smail — the world bringing him new challenges to revel in, like a cat that will insist on presenting you with its freshly slainmice. Another glass of brandy was a virtual necessity, if he didn’t want to lie awake all night thinking about Vaatzes, anddeviance in general. One last note to his clerk: set up meetings with Vaatzes’ wife, father- and brother-in-law. Yes, thatwas where the answer lay, he was almost certain of that. It would help him make sense of it all if she turned out to be pretty,but he wasn’t inclined to hold his breath.
In the event he slept soundly, dreaming of Manuo Crisestem being eaten alive by monkeys, so that he woke early with a smileon his face, ready for his breakfast. His clerk had already come and gone, so he took his time shaving and dressing — it wasalways pleasant not to have to rush in the mornings; he even had time to trim his nails and pumice yesterday’s ink stainsfrom his fingertips. That made him smile — subconsciously, was he preening himself just in case the deviant’s wife did turnout to be pretty? — and he back-combed his hair in gentle self-mockery; then he thought about his wife, spending the off seasonat the lodge, out at Blachen with the rest of the committee wives, and that took the feather off his clean, sharp mood. Still,he wouldn’t have to join her for a month at least, which was something.
The first three hours of every working day were eaten up by letters; from the morals and ethics directorate, the assessmentboard, the treasurer’s office, the performance standards commission (twenty years in the service and he still didn’t knowwhat they actually did), the general auditors of requisitions, the foreign affairs committee. Three of them he answered himself;two he left for his clerk to deal with; one went to one side for filing in the box he privately thought of as the Coal Seam.The process left him feeling drained and irritable, as though he’d been cooped up in a small room with a lot of people alltalking at once. To restore his equilibrium he spent half an hour tinkering with the third draft of his address to the apprentices’conference, at which he would be the keynote speaker for the fourth year running (“Doctrine: A Living Legacy”). He was contemplatingthe best way to give a Didactic spin to the proceedings of the Third Rescensionist Council when his clerk arrived to tellhim that the abominator’s wife would be arriving at a quarter past noon.
He’d forgotten all about her, and his first reaction was irritation — he had a deskful of more important things to do thantalk to criminals’ wives — but as the day wore on he found himself looking forward to the break in his routine. His clerk,he suspected, was getting to know him a little too well; the hour between noon and resumption was his least productive time,the part of the day when he was most likely to make mistakes. Far better to use it for something restful and quiet, wherea momentary lapse in concentration wasn’t likely to involve the state in embarrassment and ruin.
There were five interrogation rooms on the seventh floor of the Guildhall. He chose the smallest, and left instructions thathe wasn’t to be disturbed. The woman was punctual; she turned up half an hour early. Psellus left her to wait, on the benchin the front corridor. A little apprehension, forced on like chicory by solitude and confinement, would do no harm at all,and he’d have time to read another couple of letters.
He’d been right; she was pretty enough, in a small, wide-eyed sort of a way. He had the dossier’s conclusive evidence thatshe was twenty-four; without it, he’d have put her at somewhere between nineteen and twenty-one, so what she must have lookedlike when she was seventeen and the subject of negotiations between her father and the abominator, he wouldn’t have likedto say. She sat on the low, backless chair in the corner of the room quite still, reminding him of something he couldn’t placefor a long time, until it suddenly dawned on him; he’d seen a mewed falcon once, jessed and hooded, standing motionless ona perch shaped like a bent bow. An incongruous comparison, he told himself; she certainly didn’t come across as a predator,quite the opposite. You couldn’t imagine such a delicate creature eating anything, let alone prey that had once been alive.
He sat down in the big, high-backed chair and rested his hands on the armrests, wrists upward (he’d seen judges do that, andit had stuck in his mind). “Your name,” he said.
Her voice was surprisingly deep. “Ariessa Vaatzes Connena,” she said. There was no bashful hesitation, but her eyes were bigand round and deep (so are a hawk’s, he thought). “Why am I here?”
“There are some questions,” he said, and left it at that. “You were married young, I gather.”
She frowned. “Not really,” she said. “At least, I was seventeen. But five of the fifteen girls in my class got married beforeI did.”
She was right, of course; he’d misplaced the emphasis. It wasn’t her youth that was unusual, but her husband’s age. “You marrieda man ten years older than yourself,” he said.
She nodded. “That’s right.”
What a curious question, her eyes said. “My father thought it was a good match,” she said.
“Well, clearly not.”
“You were unhappy with the idea?”
“Not at the time,” she said firmly.
“Of course,” Psellus said gravely, “you weren’t to know how things would turn out.”
“At the time,” he said, “did you find the marriage agreeable?”
A faint trace of a smile. There are some faces that light up in smiling; this wasn’t one. “That’s a curious word to use,”she said. “I loved my husband, from the first time I saw him.”
“Do you still love him?”
She said the word crisply, like someone breaking a stick. He thought for a moment. Another comparison was lurking in the backof his mind, but he couldn’t place it. “You’re aware of the law regarding the wives of abominators.”
She nodded, said nothing. She didn’t seem unduly frightened.
“There is, of course, a discretion in such cases,” he said slowly.
She was watching him, the way one animal watches another: wary, cautious, but no fear beyond the permanent, all-encompassingfear of creatures who live all the time surrounded by predators, and prey. “The discretion,” he went on, “vests in the propercompliance officer of the offender’s Guild.”
“That would be you, then.”
“I imagine,” she said, “there’s something I can help you with.”
(In her dossier, which he’d glanced through before the interview, there was a certificate from the investigators; the wife,they said, had not been party to the offense and was not to be proceeded against; her father and brother were Guildsmen ofgood standing and had cooperated unreservedly in the investigation on the understanding that she should be spared. It was,of course, a condition of this arrangement that she should not know of it; nor had she been made aware of the fact that clemencyhad been extended in her case.)
“Yes,” Psellus said. “There are a few questions, as I think I mentioned.”
“You want me to betray him, don’t you?”
Psellus moved a little in his chair; the back and arms seemed to be restricting him, like guards holding a prisoner. “I shallexpect you to cooperate with my inquiries,” he said. “You know who I am, what I do.”
She nodded. “There’s nothing I can tell you,” she said. “I don’t know where he’s gone, or anything like that.”
“I do,” Psellus said.
Her eyes opened wide; no other movement, and no sound.
“We have reports,” he went on, “that place him in the company of Duke Orsea of Eremia Montis. Do you know who he is?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “How did he —?”
Psellus ignored her. “Clearly,” he said, “this raises new questions. For example: do you think it possible that your husbandhad been in contact with the Eremians at any time before his arrest?”
“You mean, spying for them or something?” She raised an eyebrow. “Well, if he was, he can’t have done a very good job.”
He’d seen a fencing-match once; an exhibition bout between two foreigners, Vadani or Cure Doce or something of the sort. Heremembered the look on the face of one of them, when he’d lunged forward ferociously to run his enemy through; but when hereached forward full stretch the other man wasn’t there anymore. He’d sidestepped, and as his opponent surged past him, he’dgiven him a neat little prod in the ribs, and down he’d gone. Psellus had an uncomfortable feeling that the expression onhis face wasn’t so different to the look he’d seen on the dying fencer’s.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think he was spying for Eremia. I don’t think he’d have known where Eremia is. I didn’t,” she added,“not until the other day. A lot of people don’t.”
“You sound very certain,” he said quietly.
“Yes,” she said. A pause, then: “I know that what my husband did was wrong. One of your colleagues explained it all to me,and I understand. But that was all he did, I’m absolutely positive. He just did it for our little girl, for her birthday.I suppose he thought nobody’d ever find out.”
Psellus looked at her for a while. She ought to be frightened, he thought. At the very least, she ought to be frightened.Maybe her father or her brother broke the terms of the deal and told her; but then she’d know that if we found out, the dealwould be off, and she ought to be frightened about that. I don’t think she likes me very much.
He thought about that. I don’t like her very much either, he thought.
“So,” he went on, “you don’t think your husband took any interest in politics, foreign affairs, things like that.”
“Good Lord, no. He couldn’t care less.”
He nodded. “What did he care about?”
“Us,” she said, quick as a parry. “Me and our daughter. Our family.”
Psellus nodded. “His work?”
“Yes,” she said — it was a concession. “But he didn’t talk about it much at home. He tried to keep it separate, home and work.I could never understand about machinery and things.”
“But he did work at home sometimes?”
She shrugged. “In the evenings,” she said, “sometimes he’d be in the back room or the cellar, making things. He liked doingit. But I don’t know if it was work or things he made for himself, or us.”
Psellus nodded again. “It’s customary for an engineer to make some of his own tools — specialized tools, not the sort of thingyou’d find hanging on the rack — in his own time. Do you think it’s likely that that’s what he was doing?”
She shrugged; no words.
“We found quite a few such tools,” he went on, “in the house, and at his bench in the factory. The quality of the work wasvery high.”
She looked at him. “He was a clever man,” she said.
“Too clever,” Psellus said; but it wasn’t like the fencer’s ambush. Leaden-footed, and a blind man could have seen it coming.Nevertheless, she must parry it or else be hit. He waited to see what form her defense would take; he anticipated a good defense,from a fencer of such skill and mettle. Not a mere block; he was hoping for a maneuver combining defense and counterattackin the same move, what Vaatzes’ illegal fencing manual would call a riposte in narrow time. He made a mental note to requisitionthe book and read it, when he had a moment.
“Yes,” she said.
Oh, Psellus thought. (Well, it was a riposte, of a sort; stand still and let your opponent skewer you, and die, leaving theenemy to feel wretched and guilty ever after. Probably the most damaging riposte of all, if all you cared about was hurtingthe opponent.)
I had a point once, he told himself. I was making it. But I can’t remember what it was.
“So that’s the picture, is it?” he said. “In the evenings, after dinner, while you wash the dishes, he retreats to his privatebench with his files and hacksaws and bow-drills, and makes things for the pure pleasure of it. Is that how it was?”
She frowned. “Well, sometimes,” she said.
“Sometimes,” Psellus repeated. “You’d have thought he’d had enough of it at work, measuring and marking out and cutting metaland finishing and burnishing and polishing and so on.”
“He liked that sort of thing,” she said, and her voice was almost bored. “It was what he did when we were first married, butthen he got promoted, supervisor and then foreman, and he was telling other people what to do, instead of doing it himself.”She shrugged. “He was glad of the promotion, obviously, but I think he missed actually making things, with his hands. Or maybehe wanted to keep himself in practice. I don’t know about that kind of stuff, but maybe if you stop doing it for a while youforget how to do it. You’d know more about that than me.”
Psellus nodded. “You think he wanted to keep his hand in?”
She shrugged again. Her slim shoulders were perfectly suited to the gesture, which was probably why she favored it so much.
“Do you think he’ll want to keep his hand in now he’s with Duke Orsea?”
To his surprise, she nodded; as though she was a colleague rather than a subject brought in for interrogation. “I know,” shesaid, “they explained it to me before. You’re afraid he’ll teach all sorts of trade secrets to the enemy.”
“Do you think he’s liable to do that?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You don’t know,” he repeated.
“That’s right,” she said. “I suppose it’d depend on what he’s got to do to stay alive. I mean, the people you say he’s with,they’re our enemies. We just wiped out their army, isn’t that right? Well, maybe they caught him, wandering about on the moors,and thought he was a spy or something.”
Psellus frowned. “Possibly.”
“Well then. If you were him and that’s what’d happened to you, what would you do?”
Psellus leaned back a little in his chair; he felt a need to increase the distance between them. “I hope,” he said, “thatI would die rather than betray my country.”
It sounded completely ridiculous, of course, and she didn’t bother to react. She didn’t need to; she didn’t have to pointout what Vaatzes’ country had done to him in the first place. This wasn’t getting anywhere, Psellus decided. He was here toget information, not defend himself.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m glad to hear it.”
(She was letting him off lightly, though; she was past his guard, controlling the bind, in a strong position to shrug offhis defense and strike home. Which is what you’d do, surely, if your husband had just been driven into exile; you’d beangry.But she was no more angry than frightened. Curious hawk; doesn’t strike or bate. It dawned on him suddenly why he felt soconfused. It was as though he didn’t matter.) “I take it,” he persevered, though he knew he was achieving nothing by it, “thatyou feel the same about treachery.”
She looked at him. “You mean, about betraying the Republic? Well, of course.”
He frowned at her, trying to be intimidating, failing. I’m not concentrating, he realized; there’s something wrong, like oneof those tiny splinters that get right in under your skin, too small to see but you can feel them. “The circumstances,” hesaid slowly, “of your marriage. Let’s go back to that, shall we?”
“If you want.”
He made a show of making himself comfortable in his chair. “When was the first time he became aware of you? How did you meet?”
She was looking at him as though he was standing in front of something she wanted to see, blocking her view. “Which one doyou want me to answer first?” she said.
“Why did he want to marry you?”
Another beautiful shrug. “I think he wanted to get married,” she said. “Men do. And my dad wanted to find me a husband.”
“At seventeen? A bit quick off the mark.”
“We never got on,” she said. “I wasn’t happy at home.”
“He wanted you off his hands?”
Psellus winced. She’s good, he noted ruefully, at that defense. Probably one hell of a cardplayer, if women play cards. Dothey? He had to admit he didn’t know. “So your father became aware that his supervisor was looking for a wife, and thought,here’s a fine opportunity, two birds with one stone. Is that how it was?”
He hesitated. It was like when he’d been a boy, fighting in the playground. He’d been a good fighter; he had the reach, andgood reflexes, and he was older than most of the other boys. He threw a good punch, to the nose, chin or mouth. But he wastoo scared to fight, because he hated the pain — jarring his elbow as he bashed in their faces, skinning his knuckles as hebroke their teeth — until the pleasure of inflicting pain ceased to outweigh the discomfort of receiving it. Even hittingthem with sticks hurt his hands more than he was prepared to accept. “Was it a deal, then?” he persevered. “Your father andyour brother’s promotions, in exchange for you?”
“I see. And how about the terms of the transaction? Was he buying sight unseen?”
“What does that mean?”
“Did he come and inspect you first, before the deal was finalized? Or wasn’t he bothered?”
She frowned, as though she was having trouble understanding. “He came to dinner at our house,” she said.
“He sat next to me. We talked about birds.”
She nodded. “I don’t know how we got on to the subject. I wasn’t particularly interested in birds, nor was he.”
“But you’d already fallen in love at first sight.”
More gashed knuckles. “And presumably he decided you would fit the bill.”
“So everybody was happy.”
“Yes. We were all happy.”
The hell with this, Psellus thought; there was a time, long ago, when I used to be a decent human being. “I see,” he said.“Well, I don’t think I need detain you further. You may go.”
She stood up; no hurry, no delay. “Your discretion,” she said. She made it sound like an illness or something.
“Provided you undertake to let us know immediately if you hear anything from him, if he tries to get in touch with you inany way. Do you understand?”
She nodded. “Hardly likely, though, is it?”
“Nonetheless.” He made his face stern and fierce. “Make no mistake,” he said. “You’re being discharged under license, whichwe can revoke at any time. The obligation is on you to come to us with any information which might be of use to us. If youfail to do so…”
“Very well, then. You may leave.” He thought of something; too little too late, but it would be a small victory, he’d at leasthave drawn blood, even if it was just a scratch. “You may return to the matrimonial home for the time being,” he said. “Longenough to collect your possessions, the things that belong to you exclusively — clothing and the like. After that, you’llbe returned to your father’s house.”
She rode the strike well, but he’d touched home. There was a degree of satisfaction in the hit, rather less than he’d anticipated.“I see,” she said.
“An offender’s property,” he went on, “reverts to his Guild. An official confiscator will be appointed shortly; until he’smade his inspection and compiled an inventory, you may not remove anything from the house.”
“Fine. Can I empty the chamber-pot?”
(Interesting; that’s the first sign of anger she’s shown.)
“The confiscator,” he went on, “will issue a certificate specifying which items are your exclusive property; that means thethings you’ll be allowed to take away with you. If you disagree with his decision, you may make representations to him inwriting. Is that clear?”
She nodded. “How about my daughter’s things?” she said. “Can she keep them, or does the Guild want them too?”
“The same rules apply,” Psellus said. “The confiscator will decide what she can keep. The adjudication process usually takesabout six weeks.”
“I see,” she said. “Can I leave now, please?”
Psellus raised his hand in a vague gesture of manumission. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “And remember, if you hearanything at all from your husband…”
After she’d gone, Psellus sat for a while, watching the lamp burn down. Had he achieved what he’d set out to do, or anythingat all? He had no idea. The objective was to catch Ziani Vaatzes and bring him home to die, or kill him wherever he happenedto be; that job had been given to Manuo Crisestem, and was therefore effectively out of Psellus’ hands, for the time being.The purpose of this interview — he tried to remember what it was. Something about motivation, trying to understand; he’d beenintrigued by the marriage, the difference in ages. Well, he had an explanation, of sorts: Vaatzes had wanted a wife, the manConnenus had wanted to get his stroppy daughter off his hands, and apparently the daughter had been obliging enough to fallin love with Vaatzes, who was in a position to square the deal with promotions for his new in-laws. There; everything accountedfor neat and tidy; and he, Lucao Psellus, was sitting in the dark as the point flew high over his head like a skein of geesegoing home for the winter.
No. He’d learned something important today, and he had no idea what it was.
When the lamp finally failed, he stood up and tracked his way to the door by feel. Outside it was still broad daylight; ashe stood in the corridor facing the open window, the light stunned him, like an unexpected punch. It’d be vexing, he toldhimself, if Crisestem succeeded; as for Vaatzes, Psellus found it very hard to recapture the cold, pure burn of anger againsthim for his however-many-it-was offenses against Specification. But he stood facing the light and made a wish, like he usedto do on the first of the month when he was a boy, that Crisestem would bring Vaatzes’ head home in a bag, soon, and thatthis case would very quickly be over.7
The road to Civitas Eremiae, capital and only city of Eremia Montis, encircles the stony peg of mountain on which it sitsin long, slow, regular loops, like a screw-thread. From the river valley, it looks as if the city can be reached in two hoursat the very most; but it’s a long day’s climb, assuming you start at dawn; if not, you face the unattractive choice of campingovernight on the narrow ledge of road or walking up it in the dark. At the crown of the mountain, the road funnels througha low, narrow gate in the curtain-wall; three more turns of the thread brings it to the city wall proper, where it ducks througha gateway under two high, thin towers built on massive spurs of rock. From the city gate to the citadel is another eight turns,through streets wide enough for a donkey or an economically fed horse. Chastra Eremiae, the Duke’s castle, was chiseled andscooped out of the yellow stone four hundred years ago, and is protected by an encircling ditch twenty-six feet deep and athirty-foot wall studded with squat round towers; a third of the interior is derelict through neglect. The Eremians proudlyboast that nobody has ever taken the citadel by storm. It’s hard to imagine why anybody should want to.
Most of the population of the city turned out in the morning to see the remains of the army come home; by nightfall, however,when Orsea rode his weary horse through the gate, the crowd had long since given up and drifted away. That in itself was encouraging;maybe they weren’t going to lynch him after all.
Miel Ducas was looking after all the important stuff; accommodation for the wounded and so forth. There was no good reasonwhy Orsea shouldn’t just go home and go to bed. It was what he wanted to do, more than anything else in the world. Tomorrow,of course, he’d have to do the things he’d been dreading all the way up the Butter Pass. At the very least, he’d have to convenethe general council, tell them about the battle and everything that had happened — the extraordinary kindness of the Vadani;the Mezentine defector and his offer. Probably he ought to stand out on the balcony that overlooked the market square andaddress the people. That was only reasonable, and he knew he had to do it. Tomorrow.
He clattered through the citadel gate, and there was a group of people waiting for him: a doctor whom he recognized, somepeople whose names he knew, some strangers. The doctor pounced on him as soon as his feet hit the cobbles. He’d had a detailedletter from one of the Vadani medics, he explained, full details of the injury, description of treatment to date, prognosis,recommendations. It was imperative that the Duke get some rest as soon as possible. For once, Orsea didn’t argue.
Remarkably soon he was in his bedroom on the fourth floor of the South Tower. He sat on the bed and tugged at his boots (ifthey were this tight, how had he ever managed to get them on?), gave up and flopped on his back with his hands behind hishead. He was home; that made him one of the lucky ones. Tomorrow…
Tomorrow, he told himself, I’ll deal with everything. First I’ll have a meeting with Miel, he’ll brief me on everything he’sdone, getting the army home, and everything that happened on the way. Then I’ll have to go to the council, and make my speechon the balcony (he made a mental note: think of something to say). Right; I’ll do that, and the rest of the day’s your own.
Veatriz, he thought. I’ll see her tomorrow. She’s not here tonight because she knows I need to be alone, but tomorrow I’llsee them both again, and that’ll make things better. It occurred to him that he hadn’t thought much about her over the lastfew days; he felt ashamed, because really she was everything, the whole world. But there’d be time for her tomorrow, and thingscould slowly start to get back to normal.
Things would never be normal again, he knew that really. But he was tired, and there wasn’t anything he could do tonight;and besides, the doctor had told him, rest…
He fell asleep. Below in the castle yard, Miel Ducas was still trying to find billets for wounded men, water and fuel forcooking, hay and oats for horses, somewhere for the carts to turn so the road wouldn’t get jammed, somewhere to put the Mezentineuntil he had time to deal with him. He didn’t resent the fact that Orsea had left him with all the arrangements; he was toobusy, standing out of the way by the stable door so that the stretcher-bearers could get in and out, and women with bedding.He was trying to carry on four conversations at once — the garrison captain, the chief steward, Orsea’s doctor and a representativeof the Merchant Adventurers, who was trying to gouge him over the price of twenty gross of plain wool bandages. He kept goingbecause there wasn’t anybody else. It would, of course, be just as bad tomorrow.
Ziani Vaatzes sat in a stationary cart for an hour, and then some men came. They didn’t seem to know whether they were welcominga guest or guarding a prisoner, but they made a fair job of hedging their bets. They took him up a long spiral staircase withno handrail — it was dark and the steps were worn smooth — to a landing with a thick black door. If there was anything hewanted, they said, all he had to do was ask. Then they opened the door for him and vanished, leaving him completely alone.
There was a candle burning in the room — one candle — and a jug of water and a plate of bread and cheese on a table. It wasa large room, though the darkness around the candle-flame made it look bigger than it really was. He found the fireplace;a basket of logs, some twigs and moss for kindling. He laid a fire, lit a spill (very carefully, so as not to snuff the candleout), found a small hand-bellows hanging on a nail in the wall. It hadn’t occurred to him that the mountains would be so cold.The bed was huge, musty, slightly damp. He took his boots off but kept his clothes on. He couldn’t sleep, needless to say;so he lay on his back staring at the extraordinarily high ceiling (he could just make out shapes of vaulting on the extremeedge of the disk of candlelight), and soon his mind was full of details as he worked on the mechanism that was gradually beginningto take shape. Somewhere below, a dog was barking, and he could hear heavily shod cartwheels grinding the cobbles, like amill crushing wheat. For some reason it comforted him, like rain on the roof or the soft swish of the sea.
Zanferenc Iraclido (Orsea had always felt overawed by him; not by his intellect or his commanding presence or his strengthof purpose, but by the sonorous beauty of his name) reached across the table and took the last honey-cake from the plate.He’d had six already. None of the other members of the council appeared to have noticed.
“His name’s Vaatzes,” Miel Ducas said. “I had a long talk with him on the way home, and I’m fairly sure he’s genuine — nota spy or anything. But that’s just my intuition.”
Iraclido made a gesture, a quick opening and closing of the hand. “Let’s say for the sake of argument that he is. Let’s alsoassume he can actually deliver on this promise to teach us all the stuff he claims he knows. The question is, would it actuallydo us any good?”
Heads nodded, turned to look down the table. “I think so,” Orsea said. “But it’d be a huge step. What do you reckon, Ferenc?”
“Me?” Iraclido raised his eyebrows. “Not up to me.”
“Yes, but suppose it was. What would you do?”
Iraclido paused before answering. “On balance,” he said, “I think I’d have his head cut off and stuck up on a pike in themarket square, and I’ll tell you why. Yes, it’d be just grand if we could learn how to build these spear-throwing machines— though I don’t suppose you’d approve of the direction I’d be inclined to point them in once they were finished. But we won’tgo into that.”
“Good,” someone else said; mild ripple of laughter.
“It’d be just grand,” Iraclido repeated. “And when this Mezentine says he knows how to build them, I believe him. But it’sno good giving a shepherd a box of tools and a drawing and telling him to build you a clock, or a threshing machine. My pointis, we can’t make use of this knowledge, we aren’t…” He waved his hands again. “We aren’t set up to start building machines.Might as well give a ninety-pound bow to a kid. It works, it’s a bloody good weapon, but he’s simply not strong enough todraw it. And you know what happens next. The kid can’t use it so he puts it somewhere; then along comes his big brother, picksit up and shoots you with it. Not smart.”
“Slow down,” someone said. “You just lost me.”
“Then use your brain,” Iraclido said. “I said I’d have the Mezentine executed. Here’s why. We can’t afford to let him live,not with all that stuff in his head; because we can’t use it, we aren’t strong enough. But we all know who is.”
Brief silence; then Miel said, “Let me translate, since Ferenc here’s decided to be all elliptical. He’s afraid the Mezentine’sknowledge would fall into the hands of the Vadani. They’re no smarter than us, but they’ve got pots more money; they mightbe able to use the knowledge, presumably against us. Right?”
“More or less,” Iraclido said. “So the only safe thing to do is get rid of the information. Now, while it’s still in the box,so to speak.”
“It’s a point of view,” Orsea said after a moment. “Anyone like to comment?”
“Under normal circumstances,” (the voice came from the other end of the table; a thin elderly man Orsea didn’t know particularlywell; Simbulo or some name like that) “I’d agree with the senator; we can’t easily use this knowledge, and there’s times whena head on a pike is worth two in the bush; we could make out he’s a spy — which could be true, for all we know — and it’dgo down well with the market crowd. But we have a problem. We’ve just had our guts ripped out by the Republic, like a caton a fence; people need to see a miracle cure, or they’re going to get nervous. Basically, we need a secret weapon.”
Iraclido leaned forward and glared down the table. “So you want to build these machines?”
The thin man shook his head. “I want to tell the people we’re going to build these machines,” he said, “and I want to paradethis Mezentine in front of them and say, here, look what we’ve found, here’s a Mezentine traitor who’s going to show us howto build them, and a whole lot of other stuff too. Now,” he went on with a shrug, “whether we actually build any machines,now or at some indeterminate point in the future, is a subject for another day. What concerns me is what we’re going to dotomorrow.” He paused, as though inviting interruptions. There were none, so he went on: “Same goes for our friends and alliesover the mountain. We won’t get started on all that now; but I don’t suppose I’m the only one who’d love to know what allthat loving-kindness stuff was really in aid of. I’d also like to know who the genius was who thought it’d be a good ideato take the army home over the Butter Pass, right under Valens’ nose. The fact we got away with it doesn’t mean it wasn’ta bloody stupid thing to do.”
Orsea saw Miel take a deep breath and say nothing. He was proud of his friend.
“But anyway,” the thin man went on. “Valens has made his point; he had us in the palm of his hand, and for reasons best knownto himself he let us go. Fact remains, we’ve just lost a big slice of our military capability; if Valens wants to break thetreaty, as things stand we can’t give him a good game. In other words, we’re at his mercy; and I don’t know about you gentlemen,but that makes my teeth ache. I’d feel a whole lot happier if Valens was under the impression we had the secret of the spear-throwingmachines.”
“It’d give him something to think about,” someone said.
“Too right,” Iraclido said. “And if I was in his shoes and I heard that we were planning on arming ourselves with those things,I know what I’d do. I’d invade straight away, before we had a chance to build them.”
“What about that, though?” A short, round man with curly hair; Bassamontis, from the west valleys. “What do you think he’splaying at?”
“Good question,” Miel said. “And I don’t think we can reasonably make any decisions about this or anything else until we knowthe answer.”
“You were there,” the thin man said. “What did you make of it?”
“Beats me,” Miel admitted. “They just appeared out of nowhere and started helping. No explanations, they weren’t even patronizingabout it. Just got on with it, and a bloody good job they made of it too.” He frowned. “One thing that did strike me,” hesaid, “was how very well prepared they were: food, blankets, medical stuff, it all just sort of materialized, like it wasmagic. Either Valens has got them very well organized indeed, or they had some idea what’d be needed well in advance.” Heshook his head. “Which still doesn’t make any sense,” he added. “It’s a puzzle all right.”
“Like the Ducas says,” said the thin man, “it’s a puzzle. And, like he says, I don’t think we can make a decision until we’vegot some idea what actually happened there. The problem is, how do we find out?”
Silence. Then Miel said: “We could ask them.”
Puzzled frowns. “I don’t follow,” someone said.
“I suggest we send a delegation,” Miel said. “To say thank you very much for helping us. Only polite, after all. While they’rethere, if they keep their ears open and their mouths shut —”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Bassamontis said. “The Ducas is right, we owe them a bread-and-butter letter; we might as well combineit with a fishing trip.”
“And what do we tell them,” Iraclido interrupted, “about the Mezentine? We’ve got to assume they know about him already.”
“Nothing,” the thin man said firmly. “Let them fret about it for a while, it’ll do them good.”
“If Valens wanted to attack us,” someone else said, “he had his chance. I can’t see how it benefits him, lulling us into atrue sense of security.”
“We don’t know what kind of issues he’s involved with,” Bassamontis said. “We’re not the only ones with borders, or neighbors.Which is why I’d like to get some sort of idea of what’s going on over there; and the best way to find out is to go and seefor ourselves.”
“Well?” Miel turned to look at Iraclido. “Are you still in favor of putting the Mezentine’s head up on a pike?”
Iraclido smiled. “I never expected you’d go along with that,” he said. “I was just telling you my opinion. By all means goahead, send the delegation. As you say, it’s simple good manners. And on balance, I’m inclined to agree with Simbulo here;we can’t really do anything until we’ve got some idea of what’s going on next door. So, for the time being, we’ll just haveto keep the Mezentine on a short leash and see what happens.”
“Wouldn’t do any harm,” someone suggested, “to start finding out what he can do for us; assuming we decide to go down thatroad, I mean. So far, we’ve had some big promises. I propose we see the Mezentine for ourselves.”
“Orsea?” Miel said.
Orsea nodded. “By all means,” he said. “I’ve told you the gist of what he told me, but I’m no engineer, I don’t know if whathe said’s possible, or what it’d involve. The trouble is, there’s not many of us who do. We need some experts of our own tolisten to this man.”
There was a short silence, as if he’d said something embarrassing. Then Iraclido said: “All due respect, but isn’t that thepoint? We don’t have any experts of our own. If we’d got anybody who could understand what the hell the Mezentine’s talkingabout, we wouldn’t need the Mezentine.”
Miel lifted his head sharply. “I don’t think it’s as black and white as all that,” he said; and Orsea thought: actually, Iraclido’sright and Miel knows it, but he’s upset with him for being clever at my expense, and he’s too well-mannered to say so. “Myfather used to say,” Miel went on, “that so long as you’ve got ears and a tongue, you can learn anything. What’d be helpfulis if we had someone who’s halfway there.”
Iraclido looked at him. “You mean like a blacksmith, or a wheelwright?”
“Yes, why not?” Orsea winced; he knew how much Miel disliked being wrong, and how stubborn he could be when circumstanceshad betrayed him into being wrong in public. “A bright man with an inquiring mind, that’s what we need. That can’t be impossible,surely.”
“Maybe they were all killed in the war,” someone muttered, down the far end of the table. Orsea was glad he hadn’t seen whosaid it.
“Well.” Iraclido was enjoying himself, in a languid sort of way. “If the Ducas can find someone who fits the bill, I supposeit can’t do any harm. As for bringing the Mezentine before this council, I’m afraid I can’t see what useful purpose that wouldserve. But if anyone else has strong feelings on the subject —”
“Boca Cantacusene,” Orsea said briskly. Several heads turned to stare blankly at him; under other circumstances, he’d havefound the looks on their faces amusing. “The armorer,” he explained. “Come on, some of you must have heard of him, he’s thewarrant-holder. I gather he runs the best-equipped workshop in town. I don’t suppose it’s a patch on anything they’ve gotin Mezentia, but at least he ought to be able to tell us if the Mezentine’s genuine, or whether he’s just making stuff upout of his head to con us out of money.”
Iraclido shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “By all means have your blacksmith interview the Mezentine, I’d be interested to hearwhat he thinks. Meanwhile, we need to agree a course of action in respect of Duke Valens.”
“With respect…” (Orsea looked round; Miel was only this polite and soft-spoken when he was furiously angry.) “With respect,I suggest we need rather more to go on before we decide anything in that regard. All we have to go on is a magnificent, thoughpossibly uncharacteristic, act of generosity. I say a little research —”
“Absolutely,” Orsea broke in, mainly to head off his friend before he lost his temper. “We need some reliable informationabout what’s going on, what Valens and the Vadani are up to.”
Someone down the table stifled a yawn. “In that case,” whoever it was said, “how about the Merchant Adventurers? They’re goodat intuition, picking up trends; got to be able to sense which way the wind’s blowing in business.”
Mumbled approval all round the table; predictably, Orsea decided, since it was precisely the sort of compromise that satisfiedcommittees and nobody else: if you can’t reach a decision, find a pretext for postponing it. “You can never have too muchinformation,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely we’d get a straight answer through normal diplomatic channels. Who’s got a tamemerchant who owes him a favor?”
Two ducal summonses, neatly written on crisp new parchment (the first of the new batch, from the slaughter of the winter sheep)in oak-apple ink. One to Boca Cantacusene at his workshop in the lower town, requiring him to call on Count Ducas at his earliestconvenience; one in similar terms to Belha Severina of the Weavers’ Company.
Of course, Miel Ducas had met Boca Cantacusene before; had been measured by him — across the shoulders, under the armpits,from armpit to thighbone, thigh to knee, knee to ankle, an anatomy so complete that you could have built a perfect replicaof the Ducas with nothing to go on except the armorer’s notes and drawings. Miel tried to remember if he’d paid the man’slatest bill.
Cantacusene arrived in his best clothes, stiffer and more unnatural-looking on him than any suit of armor. He was a shortman of around fifty, with massive forearms tapering down into thin wrists and small, short-fingered hands. He was nervousand bumped into furniture.
“Do you think you could help?” Miel said, after he’d explained the situation and extracted a dreadful oath of discretion.“I mean, I wouldn’t understand a word he said, it’d be like a foreign language.”
Cantacusene frowned, as if trying to picture a thirty-second of an inch in abstract. “It’d take a long time,” he said. “I’dhave to get him to explain a whole lot of things before I started understanding, if you see what I mean.”
“Of course,” Miel said. “But you’d at least be able to understand the explanations.”
Another frown; a nod. “Yes, I think I could do that.” “Splendid.” Miel was fidgeting with his hands, something he didn’t usuallydo. “At this stage,” he said, “all we really need to know is whether he’s really a high-class Mezentine engineer, or whetherhe’s just pretending to be one — because he’s a spy, or just a vagrant looking to cheat us out of money. You could ask himquestions, I suppose; like a quiz. Metalworking stuff.”
Cantacusene shook his head. “I don’t think that would help a lot,” he said. “Me testing him, it’d be like testing a doctoron surgery by asking him how to cut toenails. But I think I can see my way, if you know what I mean.”
“Of course,” Miel said. “You’re the expert, I’ll leave it up to you how to proceed.” He paused, looked away. “One other thing,”he said. “I haven’t discussed this with the Duke, but I thought I’d sound you out first. It was him who suggested you, bythe way.”
“Honored,” Cantacusene said.
“Well.” Miel stopped, as if he’d forgotten what he was going to say. “If we do decide to go along with this, try and set upfactories and such, like they’ve got in Mezentia, obviously we’re going to need skilled men for the Mezentine to teach hisstuff to; and then they’ll go away and run the factories.”
“Like foremen,” Cantacusene said.
“Exactly, that’s right. Well, since the Duke himself suggested you, I guess you’re at the top of my list of candidates.”
“I see.” Cantacusene had a knack of saying things with no perceptible intonation; completely neutral, like clean water.
“Would you want to do that?”
Another pause for thought. “Yes,” Cantacusene replied.
“Good. I mean,” Miel went on, “it’s all hypothetical, assuming we decide to go ahead — and obviously, to a certain extentthat’ll depend on what you make of the man when you see him. But I thought I’d mention it.”
This time, Miel stood up. “Excellent,” he said, in a slightly strained voice. “Well, in that case we’ll send for you whenwe’re ready for the interview with the Mezentine, and we’ll take it from there. Meanwhile, thank you for your time.”
Cantacusene nodded politely, got up and left. Why was that so difficult? Miel asked himself; then he rang the bell and toldthe usher he was ready for the merchant.
She was younger than he’d expected; a year or so either side of forty, thin-faced, sharp-chinned, dressed in a tent of redvelvet with seed-pearl trim, her hair short and staked down with combs and gold filigree pins. He had an idea she was somesort of off-relation — the Severinus was distantly connected to the Philargyrus, who trailed in and out of the Ducas familytree like ivy.
(He’d seen a remarkable thing once; an oak sapling had tried to grow next to a vigorous, bushy willow, on the warm southernslopes of the Ducas winter grazing; but the willow grew quicker, and it had twined its withies through the young oak’s branchesfor ten years or so, and then put on a spurt in its trunk, gradually ripping it out of the ground, until its dead roots droopedin midair like a hung man’s feet. He’d come back with men and axes, because the Ducas had always stood for justice on theirlands, but he hadn’t been able to find the place again.)
She’d listened carefully as he explained, rather awkwardly, what he wanted her to do. She didn’t seem surprised at all. “Doyou think you can help us?” he’d asked.
“It should be possible,” she replied. “My sister Teano’s just joined a consortium with a contract for green sand —”
“I’m sorry,” Miel interrupted. “Green sand?”
“Casting sand.” She almost smiled. “For making molds,” she said. “You know, melting metal and casting. You need a specialkind of sand, very fine and even. The Vadani used to get it from the Lonazep cartels, who got it from the Cure Hardy; so obviously,it wasn’t cheap. But Teano’s consortium have found a deposit of the stuff in the Red River valley. They can undercut Lonazepby a third and still clear three hundred percent.”
“Good heavens,” said Miel, assuming it was expected of him. “So, your sister’s likely to be going back and forth across themountains quite a bit from now on?”
She nodded; actually it was more of a peck, like a woodpecker in a dead tree. “The contract is with the Vadani silver board.That’ll put Teano right in the center of the Vadani government. It oughtn’t to be impossible to get the information you want.”
“But it won’t be cheap,” Miel said. “Will it?”
There was a trace of disapproval in her expression. “No,” she said. “At least, Teano will want a lot of money — if they figureout what she’s up to, the very best she can hope for is losing a very lucrative deal. She’ll want an indemnity in case thathappens, and a substantial retainer; and then there’s my fee, of course.”
Miel pursed his lips. “I see.”
“Ten percent,” she went on. “Paid by the customer.”
“You make it sound like, I don’t know, a lawyer’s bill or something. Broken down into items, and each one with a fancy name.”
“Quite,” she said, unmoved. “Professional expenses. If you’re in business, you have to be businesslike.”
“Fine. So what does an indemnity plus a retainer plus a fee come to? In round numbers?”
“Does it matter?” She was frowning slightly. “You need this information. I don’t imagine Duke Orsea has given you a specificbudget.”
“No. He leaves things like that to me.” Miel shrugged. “We won’t quibble about it now.”
“I should think not.” She was scolding him, he thought. “The security of the Duchy is at stake. And, as I hope I’ve made clear,my sister will be running a substantial risk.”
The Ducas charm didn’t seem to be working as well as it usually did — the scar, Miel thought, maybe it’s as simple as that.If so, it’s a damned nuisance. You get used to having your own way on the strength of a smile and a softly spoken word. Ifthe charm’s gone, I suppose I’ll have to learn some new skills; eloquence, or maybe even sincerity. “Quite,” he said. “Well,I think we’ve covered everything. I’ll look forward to getting your first report in due course. Thank you very much for yourtime.”
As he showed her out and closed the door behind her, Miel was left with the depressing feeling of having done a bad job. Notthat it mattered; he was paying money for a service to a professional specialist, there was no requirement that she shouldlike him. Even so —I guess I’ve got used to being able to make people like me; it makes things easier, and they try harder. I’ll have to thinkabout that.
He yawned. What he wanted to do most in all the world was to go home to his fine house on the east face, send down to thecellars for a few bottles of something better than usual, and spend an hour or two after dinner relaxing; a few games of chess,some music. Instead, he had reports to read, letters to write, meetings to prepare for. There was a big marble pillar in themiddle cloister of the Ducas house, on which were inscribed the various public offices held by members of the family overthe past two and a half centuries. His father had four inches, narrowly beating his grandfather (three and two thirds). Asa boy, when Father had been away from home so often, he’d sat on the neatly trimmed grass and stared up at the pillar, wonderingwhat the unfamiliar words meant:six times elected Excubitor of the Chamber.Was that a good thing to be? What did an Excubitor do? Was Dad never at home because he was away somewhere Excubiting? Foryears he’d played secret, violent games in which he’d been Orphanotrophus Ducas, Grand Excubitor, fighting two dragons simultaneouslyor facing down a hundred Cure Hardy armed only with a garden rake. Six months ago, when Heleret Phocas had died and Orseahad given him his old job, he’d not been able to keep from bursting out laughing when he heard what the job title was. (Nodragons so far, and no Cure Hardy; the Excubitor of the Chamber, Grand or just plain ordinary, was nominally in charge ofthe castle laundry.) Now he already had two inches of his own on the pillar; gradually, day by day and step by painful step,he was turning into somebody else.
Reports, letters, minutes, agendas; he left the South Tower, where the interview rooms were, and headed across the middlecloister to the north wing and his office. The quickest route took him past the mews, and he noticed that the door was open.He paused; at this time of day, there’d be hawks loose, the door should be kept shut. He frowned, and went to close it, butthere was a woman sitting in the outer list. He didn’t recognize her till she turned her head and smiled at him.
“Hello, Miel,” she said.
“Veatriz.” He relaxed slightly. “You left the door open.”
“It’s all right,” she replied, “Hanno’s put the birds away early. I’ve been watching him fly the new tiercel.”
“Ah, right. What new tiercel?”
She laughed. “The one you gave Orsea, silly. The peregrine.”
“Yes, of course.” She was right, of course; it had been Orsea’s birthday present. His cousin had chosen it, since Miel didn’treally know about hawks; it had been expensive, a passager from the Cure Doce country. It’d been that wordnewthat had thrown him, because Orsea’s birthday had been a month ago, just before they set off for the war, and anything thathad happened back then belonged to a time so remote as to be practically legendary. “Is it any good?” he asked.
“Hanno thinks so,” she said. “He says it’ll be ready for the start of the season, whenever that is. It’ll do Orsea good toget out and enjoy himself, after everything that’s happened.”
“We were talking about going out with the hawks just the other day. Is that a new brooch you’re wearing?”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes,” he lied. “Lonazep?”
She shook her head. “Vadani. I got it from a merchant. Fancy you noticing, though. Men aren’t supposed to notice jewelry andthings.”
She had a box on the bench beside her; a small, flat rosewood case. He recognized it as something he’d given her; a writingset. Her wedding present from the Ducas. “I know,” he said. “That’s why I’ve trained myself in observation. Women think I’msensitive and considerate.”
She was looking at his face. “You look tired,” she said.
“Too many late nights,” he said. “And tomorrow I’ve got to take the Mezentine to see a blacksmith.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He yawned again. “Do excuse me,” he said. “I’d better be getting on. Would you tell Orsea I’ve seen theSeverina woman? He knows what it’s about.”
“Severina. Do you mean the trader? I think I’ve met her.” She nodded. “Yes, all right. What did you need to see her about,then?”
Miel grinned. “Sand.”
He nodded. “Green sand, to be precise.”
“Serves me right for asking.”
As he climbed the stairs to the North Tower, he wondered why Veatriz would take her writing set with her when she went tosee the falcons. Not that it mattered. That was the trouble with noticing things; you got cluttered up, like a hedgehog indry leaves.
Meetings. He made a note in his day-book about Belha Severina, not that there was a great deal to say;agreed to arrange inquiries through her sister; terms unspecified.Was that all? He pondered for a while, but couldn’t think of anything else to add.
It was close; the shape, the structure. He could almost see it, but not quite.
Once, not long after he married Ariessa, he’d designed a clock. He had no idea why he’d done it; it was something he wantedto do, because a clock is a challenge. There’s the problem of turning linear into rotary movement. There are issues of gearing,timing, calibration. Anything that diverts or dissipates the energy transmitted from the power source to the components isan open wound. Those in themselves were vast issues; but they’d been settled long ago by the Clockmakers’ Guild, and theirtriumph was frozen forever in the Seventy-Third Specification. There’d be no point torturing himself, two hundred componentsmoving in his mind like maggots, unless he could add something, unless he could improve on the perfection the Specificationrepresented. He’d done it in the end; he’d redefined the concept of the escapement, leaping over perfection like a chessboardknight; he’d reduced the friction on the bearing surfaces by a quarter, using lines and angles that only he could see. Slowlyand with infinite care, he’d drawn out his design, working late at night when there was no risk of being discovered, untilhe had a complete set of working drawings, perfectly to scale and annotated with all the relevant data, from the gauge ofthe brass plate from which the parts were to be cut, to the pitch and major and minor diameters of the screw-threads. Whenit was complete, perfect, he’d laid the sheets of crisp, hard drawing paper out on the cellar floor and checked them throughthoroughly, just in case he’d missed something. Then he’d set light to them and watched them shrivel up into light-gray ash,curled like the petals of a rose.
Now he was designing without pens, dividers, straight edge, square, calipers or books of tables. It would be his finest work,even though the objective, the job this machine would be built to do, was so simple as to be utterly mundane. It was likedamming a river to run a flywheel to drive a gear-train to operate a camshaft to move a piston to power a reciprocating bladeto sharpen a pencil. Ridiculous, to go to such absurd lengths, needing such ingenuity, such a desperate and destructive useof resources, for something he ought to be able to do empty-handed with his eyes shut. But he couldn’t. Misguided but powerfulmen wouldn’t let him do it the easy way, and so he was forced to this ludicrously elaborate expedient. It was like havingto move the earth in order to slide the table close enough to reach a hairbrush, because he was forbidden to stand up andwalk across the room.
I didn’t start it,he reminded himself.They did that. All I can do is finish it.
He had no idea, even with the shape coming into existence in his mind, how many components the machine would have, in theend: thousands, hundreds of thousands — someone probably had the resources to calculate the exact figure; he didn’t, but itwasn’t necessary.
He stood up. It was taking him a long time to come to terms with this room. If it was a prison, it was pointlessly elegant.Looking at the fit of the paneling, the depth of relief of the carved friezes, all he could see was the infinity of work andcare that had gone into making them. You wouldn’t waste that sort of time and effort on a prison cell. If it was a guest roomin a fine house, on the other hand, the door would open when he tried the handle, and there wouldn’t be guards on the otherside of it. The room chafed him like a tight shoe; every moment he spent in it was uncomfortable, because it wasn’t right.It wasn’t suited to the purpose for which it was being used. That, surely, was an abomination.
I hate these people,he thought.They work by eye and feel, there’s no precision here.
Decisively, as though closing a big folio of drawings, he put the design away in the back of his mind, and turned his attentionto domestic trivia. There was water in the jug; it tasted odd, probably because it was pure, not like the partly filteredsewage they drank at home. Not long ago they’d brought him food on a tray. He’d eaten it because he was hungry and he neededto keep his strength up, but he missed the taste of grit. With every second that passed, it became more and more likely thatthey’d let him live. At least he had that.
His elbow twinged. He rubbed it with the palm of his other hand until both patches of skin were warm. The elbow, the wholearm were excellent machines, and so wickedly versatile; you could brush a cheek or swing a hammer or push in a knife, usinga wide redundancy of different approaches and techniques. So many different things a man can do…
I could stay here and make myself useful. I could teach these people, who are no better than children, how to improve themselves.A man could be happy doing that. Instead…
There’s so many things I could have done, if I’d been allowed.
The door opened, and the man he’d started to get to know — names, names; Miel Ducas — came in. Ziani noticed he was lookingtired. Here’s someone who’s a great lord among these people, he thought, but he chases around running errands for his masterlike a servant. Using the wrong tool for the job, he thought; they don’t know anything.
“How are you settling in?” Ducas said.
It was, of course, an absurd question.Fine, except I’m not allowed to leave this horrible room.“Fine,” Ziani said. “The room’s very comfortable.”
“Good.” Ducas looked guilty; he was thinking, we don’t know yet if this man’s a prisoner or a guest, so we’re hedging ourbets. No wonder the poor man was embarrassed. “I thought I’d better drop in, see how you’re getting on.”
Ziani nodded. “Has the Duke decided yet if he wants to accept my offer?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” Ducas hesitated before he sat down; maybe he’s wondering whether he ought toask me first, since if I’m a guest that would be the polite thing to do. “The thing is,” he went on, “we can’t really makethat decision, because none of us really understands what it’d mean. So we’d like you to explain a bit more, to one of ourexperts. He’d be better placed to advise than me, for instance.”
“That’s fine by me,” Ziani replied. “I’m happy to cooperate, any way I can.”
“Thank you,” Ducas said. “That’ll be a great help. You see, this expert knows what we’re capable of, from a technical pointof view. He can tell me if we’d actually be able to make use of what you’ve got to offer, how much it’d cost, how long it’dtake; that sort of thing. You must appreciate, things are difficult for us right now, because of the war and everything. Andit’d be a huge step for us, obviously.”
“I quite understand,” Ziani said. “Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about what would have to be done. It’d be a long haul,no doubt about that, but I’m absolutely certain it’d be worth it in the end.”
Ducas looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible; clearly he didn’t want to get caught up in a discussion. He’sa simple man, Ziani thought, and he’s had to learn to be versatile. Like using the back of a wrench as a hammer.
“Sorry we’ve had to leave you cooped up like this,” Ducas went on. “Only we’ve all been very busy, as you’ll appreciate. Iexpect you could do with a bit of fresh air and exercise.”
No, not really. “Yes, that’d be good,” Ziani said. “But I don’t want to put you to any trouble on my account.”
“That’s all right,” Ducas said. “Anyway, I’d better be going. I’ll call for you tomorrow morning, and we’ll go and see theexpert.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Ziani said gravely, though he wanted to laugh. “Thank you for stopping by.”
Ducas went away, and Ziani sat down on the bed, frowning. This man Ducas; how versatile could he be? What was he exactly:a spring, a gearwheel, a lever, a cam, a sear? It would be delightfully efficient if he could be made to be all of them, butas yet he couldn’t be sure of the qualities of his material — tensile strength, shearing point, ductility, brittleness. Howmuch load could he bear, and how far could he distort before he broke? (But all these people are so fragile, he thought; evenI can’t do good work with rubbish.)
In the event, he slept reasonably well. Happiness, beauty, love, the usual bad dreams came to visit him, like dutiful childrenpaying their respects, but on this occasion there was no development, merely the same again — he was back home, it had allbeen a dreadful mistake, he’d committed no crimes, killed nobody. After his favorite dinner and an hour beside the lamp withan interesting book, he’d gone to bed, to sleep, and woken up to find his wife lying next to him, dead, shrunken, her skinlike coarse parchment, her hair white cobwebs, her fingernails curled and brittle, her body as light as rotten wood, her eyesdried up into pebbles, her lips shriveled away from her teeth, one hand (the bones standing out through the skin like theveins of a leaf) closed tenderly on his arm.8
To his surprise, Valens was curious. He’d expected to feel scared, horrified or revolted, as though he was getting ready tomeet an embassy of goblins. Maybe I don’t scare so easily these days, he thought; but he knew he was missing the point.
“Well,” he said, “we’d better not keep them waiting.”
He nudged his horse forward; it started to move, its head still down, its mouth full of fat green spring grass. It was a singularlygraceless, slovenly animal, but it had a wonderful turn of speed.
“I’ve never met one before, what are they like?” Young Gabbaeus on his left, trying to look calm; Valens noticed that he waswearing a heavy wool cloak over his armor, and the sleeves of a double-weight gambeson poked out from under the steel vambraceson his forearms. Curious, since Gabbaeus had always insisted he despised the heat; then Valens realized he’d dressed up extrawarm to make sure he wouldn’t shiver.
“I don’t know,” Valens replied, “it’s hard to say, really. I guess the key word is different.”
“Different,” Gabbaeus repeated. “Different in what way?”
“Pretty much every way, I suppose,” Valens replied. “They don’t look anything like us. Their clothes are nothing like ours.Their horses — either bloody great big things you’d happily plow with, or little thin ponies. Like everything; you expectone thing, you get another. The difficulty is, there’s so many of them — different tribes and sects and splinter-groups andall — you can’t generalize till you know exactly which lot you’re dealing with.”
“I see,” Gabbaeus said nervously. “So you can’t really know what to expect when they come at you.”
Valens grinned. “Trouble,” he said. “That’s a constant. It’s the details that vary.”
According to the herald, Skeddanlothi and his raiding party were waiting for them on the edge of the wood, where the rivervanished into the trees. Valens knew very little about the enemy leader; little more than what he’d learned from a coupleof stragglers his scouts had brought in the day before. According to them, Skeddanlothi was the second or third son of theHigh King’s elder brother. He’d brought a raiding party into Vadani territory in order to get plunder; he wanted to marry,apparently, and his half of the takings was to be the dowry. The men with him presumably had similar motives. If they wereoffered enough money, they’d probably go away without the need for bloodshed.
“Beats me,” Gabbaeus went on, “how they got here at all. I thought it was impossible to get across the desert. No water.”
Valens nodded. “That’s the story,” he said. “And fortunately for us, most of the Cure Hardy believe it; with good reason,because raiding parties go out every few years, and none of them ever come back. They assume, naturally enough, that the raidersdie in the desert.” He yawned; it was a habit of his when he was nervous. “But there is a way. Some clown of a trader foundit a few years ago. Being a trader, of course, she didn’t tell anybody, apart from the people in her company; then one oftheir caravans got itself intercepted by one of the Cure Hardy sects.”
“Wonderful,” Gabbaeus said.
“Actually, not as bad as all that.” Valens yawned again. It was a mannerism he made no effort to rid himself of, since itmade him look fearless. “The Cure Hardy are worse than the traders for keeping secrets from each other. I think it was theLauzeta who first got hold of it; they’d rather be buried alive in anthills than share a good thing with the Auzeil or theFlos Glaia. Even within a particular sect, they don’t talk to each other. Something like a safe way across the desert is anopportunity for one faction to get rich and powerful at the expense of the others. Sooner or later, of course, the High Kingor one of his loathsome relations will get hold of it, and then we’ll be in real trouble. Meanwhile, we have to deal withminor infestations, like this one. It’s never much fun, but it could be worse; sort of like the difference between a wasps’nest in the roof and a plague of locusts.”