Authors: 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
The Folding Knife
The Two of Swords (e-novellas)
BY TOM HOLT
Expecting Someone Taller
Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Paint Your Dragon
Wish You Were Here
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don’t Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
Someone Like Me
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages
When It’s A Jar
The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice
The Good, the Bad and the Smug
Dead Funny: Omnibus 1
Mightier Than the Sword: Omnibus 2
The Divine Comedies: Omnibus 3
For Two Nights Only: Omnibus 4
Tall Stories: Omnibus 5
Saints and Sinners: Omnibus 6
Fishy Wishes: Omnibus 7
The Walled Orchard
Alexander at the World’s End
A Song for Nero
Lucia in Wartime
For David Barrett, with thanksCopyright
Published by Orbit
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by K. J. Parker
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
50 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DZ
By K. J. Parker
Eight of Swords
About the AuthorEight of Swords
A nice inconspicuous four-wheeled cart, chipped paintwork, the sort of thing nobody notices; an elderly, massive black mare, just the right side of dead, and a stocky piebald gelding. “You’ll be fine,” the groom had assured them both. “They know what to do, even if you don’t.”
“You’re not a horseman, then,” Musen said as they rolled slowly down Foregate towards the Land Gates.
“Me? God, no.” Pleda shifted uncomfortably on the driver’s bench. “My dad kept horses, but I never got to drive. Fuller, he was. Him and me, we used to go round the City first thing and empty all the piss-pots. Dad drove, I did all the running around. Filthy bloody job.” He looked at the boy, then added, “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
Pleda shrugged. “Don’t suppose they have fullers where you come from. How do you bleach your fine cloth, then?”
Pleda nodded. “Figures,” he said. “Anyway, it’s a foul job, that’s all you need to know about it.”
“We had horses on the farm,” Musen said. “I steered clear of them, as much as I could. Got kicked in the head when I was six. Been scared of them ever since.”
Not true, Pleda thought. At least, not true about being frightened of horses, he could tell by the way the horses had reacted to him, right from when they were led out of the stable. Horses know, and the black mare had recognised a horseman. Odd lie to tell, though he could think of half a dozen perfectly good reasons. “Still,” he said, “beats walking. I hate walking. Tires you out and makes your feet hurt.”
Foregate was busy today. Tomorrow was the first day of the Old and New Fair, and the country people had come to town. They were setting up stalls and pens for livestock – at one point the cart had to negotiate its way through a couple of hundred geese, waddling like a tired army, filling the street like floodwater. It was a long forced march from the poultry-keeping villages that straggled alongside the South road, so every single goose had been shod – wooden pattens with leather straps; Pleda remembered that job from his youth, struggles and feathers and goose shit everywhere, the smell got into your hair and stayed with you for days. The marching geese made him think of Senza’s army, herded efficiently along other roads to a slightly different kind of fair. And as well as geese there were escaped rams, too fast and nimble to catch, too terrified to bribe, and the sticking-out back ends of carts, and sudden unexpected lengths of scaffolding pole, thrust out into the carriageway like pikes by men not thinking about what they were doing. Busy, stupid, thoughtless people, with work to do and a small but entrancing possibility of getting their hands on some real money, just for once; five donkeys loaded till their legs buckled with rolls of good coarse hemp matting; an old, thin man carefully arranging two dozen blue duck eggs on a mat of straw in the middle of a very big trestle table; two cheerful women tipping the last of last year’s store apples out of buckets into a sawn-in-half barrel, not giving a damn if the apples got bruised; a splendidly dressed fat man and his splendidly dressed fat wife, laying out a huge stall of the shabbiest second-hand clothes Pleda had ever seen. Two men, so dark they might almost have been Imperials, dragging a long wooden crate overflowing with nails, that grey and purple colour that tells you they’re fire salvage, no good, soft, bend double at the gentlest tap. A very big stall of kettles and fire pots made out of soldiers’ helmets; and, a few yards further down, hundreds of faggots comprised of suspiciously straight, planed inch-and-a-half round poles, broken spear shafts, only the best five-year-seasoned cornel wood. They’ll sell quick, Pleda told himself, and plenty more where they came from; someone had got hold of a good thing there, assuming the carriage costs were manageable. Boots, of course, one thing the war had done for the common man was ensure a plentiful supply of good, cheap footwear. And gilded bronze finger-rings, the sort the Southerners wore, you couldn’t give those away; some optimist had set out two great big tar barrels full of them, at a stuiver each or six for a quarter, but mostly they went straight into the melt and came out as candlesticks or buttons for the military, and each ring represented a dead soldier’s hand; not so good if you had a tendency to mental arithmetic. All in all, it was a good day to leave the City. The noise would be intolerable, and the smell, for a man with a delicate palate—
The boy, he noticed, was fascinated by it all; first sight of the big City doing what it does best. So manythings, so much property – cities do things very well, never quite got the hang of people; where the boy came from, no doubt, a man could probably list all the man-made things in his village – an easily estimated quantity of ploughs, axes, spades, knives, spoons, ladles, pairs of boots, straw bonnets, work shirts and best shirts, you’d be able to compile a tolerably accurate inventory. He must think we’re rich, Pleda thought; stupidly rich, with all this stuff. Then he remembered the boy was a thief, a profession which gives you a slightly different perspective on material objects, especially the readily portable kind. Actually, more like a vocation; classified along with priest, artist, philosopher, actor, it’s something you do because you’re made that way, and, no matter how hard you try, that’s what you are, and always will be. A different way of seeing the world, he guessed. Add soldier to that list? Maybe. But thief, definitely.
A country thief, seeing his first City market. Definitely a spiritual experience. “Bit different from what you’re used to,” he said.
“What? Oh, God, yes. It’s amazing.”
Pleda tried straightening his back, stretching it a little. Didn’t help. “Can’t have been easy for you, back home.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Stands to reason,” Pleda said. “In a small place, something goes missing, people notice.”
The boy didn’t like that. “You learn to be careful,” he said.
“Must cramp your style, though. I mean, how do you get rid of the stuff? Nobody’s going to buy something off you if the moment the real owner sees it, he yells out, hey, that’s mine, what’re you doing with it?”
For a moment he was sure the boy was going to get angry with him. Then a sudden grin, and the boy relaxed. “Like I said,” he replied, “you learn to be careful. Like, if I stole your billhook, I’d knock the handle off and whittle a new one. Or, more likely, I’d wait a couple of weeks, then give it back to you and tell you I found it in a hedge somewhere. You’d be so pleased you’d give me something, or do something for me. That’s better than money, where I used to live.”
Pleda nodded. “And no harm done,” he said, “and everybody’s happy.”
Not just a liar, Pleda thought, a special kind of liar – like the actors who prepare for a role by pretending to be the man they’re going to portray on stage; don’t think, justbe. That’s why he lies all the time, even when he doesn’t need to. He likes to practise. That was why it was so hard to tell the boy’s lies from the truth. They were jumbled in together, like beans and peas in a casserole, and because he lied for no reason it was almost impossible to catch him out. Someone who lies with no immediate intent to deceive, who steals not for money or gain but because he wants to, needs to; oh yes, they’d been quite right about this one. A collector’s item, like the Sleeping Dog.
Even so. He waited until they’d passed through the Land Gate, and the traffic had evaporated, and they were to all intents and purposes alone on the road. Then, as casually as he could, he said, “Hold on a minute, I need to take a leak.” He slid off the bench and handed the boy the reins to hold. Under cover of a roadside thorn bush, he took the pack of cards from the inside pocket sewn into his robe, palmed the three top cards, put the rest away. Then, as he scrambled back up and took back the reins, he slipped the cards into Musen’s hand.
It was a moment or so before the boy realised what he’d done; he noticed something in his hand, looked down to see what it was. Pleda made a point of not looking at him. He got the horses moving. Not a word from the boy. All right, then.
“Four of Spears,” he said. “Victory. Ace of Arrows.”
The boy said, “What’s all this about?”
“Four of Spears,” Pleda repeated. “Victory. Ace of Arrows. Well?”
Just for a moment Pleda felt a little pang of apprehension. He had a padded jack under his topcoat, proof against a casual knife thrust but that was about all. The boy could quite easily have hidden a knife or a blade of some kind in the sling that supported his broken arm. Then: “Nine of Coins, the Angel, Ten of Spears.”
“What? Oh, God, sorry, Eight of Swords.”
“Eight of Swords.”
There is, of course, no suit of Swords. Not in a normal pack.
So that was all right, then. With a sigh, Pleda shifted the reins from his right hand to his left, then balled his right fist and, without looking, swung it sideways. He hit the boy on the elbow of his broken arm. As he’d expected, the boy howled with pain. Quickly, Pleda stuffed the reins under his left thigh and clamped both hands on the collar of the boy’s coat, twisting it, almost but not quite tight enough to throttle him. “You bloody fool,” he said.
The boy was staring at him; sheer terror, no lies there. Very hard to keep straight who you’re pretending to be when you’re in agony. He’ll have to learn better than that, Pleda thought, but that’s not my problem. He maintained the pressure while he counted to four under his breath, then slowly let go. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Clown. What the hell did they send you for, anyway? You’re not fit to be out without a nursemaid.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “What did I do wrong?”
“Acting up.” Pleda fought down the anger. “Bloody acting up, is what. Making up a lot of nonsense just for the hell of it, when you didn’t have to. Nine times you’ve contradicted yourself, did you know that? Nine times. If anyone with half a brain had been listening to you, they’d have been on to you like a weasel. Bloody acting up. And don’t say you can’t help it, of course you can. You just need to bloody well think what you’re doing.”
He’d got through to him all right; scared, guilty, resentful. “I’m sorry,” Musen said, “I didn’t realise I was doing it. It’s more a sort of a habit, really.”
“That’s no excuse. That just makes it worse. First rule is, concentrate. Think about what you’re doing. It’s not just your neck now, it’s mine. You want to remember that.”
He’d done enough. Any more and the boy would turn against him; padded jack or no padded jack, he’d rather that didn’t happen. “Anyway,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Pleda.”
Pause. “Are you—?”
Pleda took back the reins. “You know better than that. There you go again, overdoing it. I’m the Eight of Swords, that’s all.” He settled himself firmly against the bench; it was digging into the small of his back. Six hundred miles, he thought to himself. What I do for philosophy. “So,” he said, in a very slightly more conciliatory voice, “what exactly happened on the tower?”
“I don’t really know,” Musen admitted. “We heard footsteps. We froze. The old man came up. I’ll swear we didn’t move or make a sound, really. I couldn’t see a thing, it was so dark. Then I guess the old man moved. I heard this horrible yell. I guessed Par—”
“I guessed Six of Arrows had gone over the side, so I ran for it. Tripped over something, and then it felt like I was being trampled by horses or something, and then I was in a prison cell. That’s it.”
Pleda nodded slowly. “What was supposed to happen?”
“The old man was meant to come up on to the tower. Soon as we could, we’d slip past him and go back down the stairs and get caught by the guards. Or the guards would’ve come up first and caught us. But they told me that wasn’t so likely, because the old man likes to be on his own up the tower. Can’t concentrate on his star-gazing if there’s people with him.”
Pleda frowned. “That’s a bloody stupid plan.”
Musen grinned. “That’s what we thought. We said so, and they told us, yes, it is, so why don’t you think of a better one? So, we did as we were told.” He hesitated. “Nobody was meant to get killed.”
Quite. If they’d asked me first— But they couldn’t, of course, could they? “Things like that happen,” he said. “Play with knives, get cut. I don’t know. Whoever picked you for this job’s got a lot to answer for.”
“I don’t see what else I could’ve done,” Musen said. “And it worked, didn’t it?”
“More by luck than judgement.”
The boy could have argued the toss, but he didn’t. Time for a unilateral declaration of victory, Pleda decided, and then let’s move on. “When we get there,” he said. “It’s all laid on at that end, is it?”
“So they told me.”
God help us, Pleda thought. You go through life thinking the Wild Cards know it all; they’re wise and cunning, and their carefully distilled plans run the world. Then you actually get involved in one, and you find out the bastards are basically just making it up as they go along. His fault, he supposed; he’d let things get too lax in his own parish, too busy nursemaiding the old man – but if anything happened to him, God only knew what’d happen, so they couldn’t blame him for that. Trying to run half the world from a cubbyhole in the East Wing, no staff, no support, if he needed to write a letter it was a day’s work, and then all the misery of finding someone to carry it. It’s an honour, they’d told him; you must be very proud. Bastards.
“We’d better get one thing straight,” Pleda said. “We’re going to be months on this job, and it’s a lot of travelling and I hate travelling, and there’s so many things that could go wrong before we even get there, it makes me want to scream just thinking about it. If you make any difficulties, even one tiny step out of line, then so help me I’ll make you wish you’d got gangrene out on the moors and died. Is that clear?”
The boy gave him a wounded look. I didn’t ask to get caught up in this, it said; it’s not my fault, don’t blame me. Quite, he thought. It was time to crack a big, friendly grin. “We’ll be all right,” he said in his special everyone’s-favourite-uncle voice that always worked so well with young idiots. “You do as I tell you and we’ll be just fine.”
A long, long ride to the coast, where they sold the cart to pay for passage on a ship to Beloisa – they’d started making the run again, though there was nothing there but rain-soaked ash and a few blocks of black stone. “Don’t know why we bother,” the captain told them, “force of habit, mainly. We go out empty and bring back maybe five dozen bales of wool and a bit of firewood. The passenger business has gone right down the drain, not that that’s any surprise. What do you boys want to go there for, anyhow?”
Pleda told him they were going home, to visit family and friends. That seemed to be an acceptable answer, though Pleda was quite sure the captain didn’t believe it. Of course, as Pleda knew perfectly well, the government was subsiding the shipowners to keep the north–south crossings going, so the captain wasn’t quite as hard done by as he was pleased to suggest.
“Ten years since I was last in Beloisa,” Pleda observed as the ship dawdled through choppy water on the second day.
Musen didn’t feel much like chatting. He appeared to be working on the assumption (unfounded, as Pleda knew only too well) that if you keep perfectly still, eventually it gets better. “It’s all changed now, I expect.”
“Bound to be, since some bastard burned it to the ground. It wasn’t a bad old place when I knew it. A bit something-and-nothing, but I’ve seen worse.” He turned his back on the sea and rested his elbows on the rail. He’d forgotten, but actually he quite liked sailing. “I’m from Arad Sefny originally. Know it?”
Musen shook his head. A mistake. He closed his eyes and swallowed a couple of times.
“About a day and a half’s walk up from Burnt Chapel. Between Bray Downs and the Greenwater valley.”
“Sorry,” Musen said. “No idea where that is.”
Pleda shrugged. “We had a nice little farm, forty acres on the flat, grazed three dozen sheep on the downs. My mother bred geese, we used to drive them down into Burnt Chapel for the autumn fair. Three brothers, I was the youngest, and a sister; she married a man from Corroway. I used to go over there sometimes to help him with the peat-digging.”
Musen turned his head. “You said your father was a fuller.”
Pleda nodded. “Happy days,” he said. “Haven’t been home for, what, thirty years. Don’t suppose they’d recognise me if I walked through the door.”
“In a town.”
“Burnt Chapel. Smallish place. Used to be a chapel there, but it burned down.”
Musen was grinning. “One contradiction.”
“Good boy. I made it easy for you, mind.”
Musen turned back so that his mouth was directly above the sea. “Where are you really from?” he asked.
“Here and there. The lodge has always been my home. You go where you’re told. I like that.”
The boy thought for a while before he spoke again. “I can see where it saves you a lot of fretting,” he said. “Lots of choices you don’t have to make.”
Pleda frowned. “Oh, there’s choices,” he said. “All the bloody time, and the higher up you get, the more of them you’ve got to make. Don’t get any easier, either, and nobody thanks you for anything, nobody ever says well done, bloody good job.” He spread his elbows wider along the rail; it helped his back, a little. “I think that’s probably why the lodge works so well,” he said. “It’s not like anything else I know; not like governments or armies or Temple or any of that lot. Everywhere else, you always get people who want to get on, people with ambition. When the choices come along, they choose because they want to get to the top, because of the money and the power and all that rubbish. In the lodge, now, the higher up you get, the worse it is. No, don’t pull faces at me; it’s true. You don’t get paid, you live where you’re put, and if they send you to a tannery or a slaughterhouse, cleaning out the stalls, that’s where you go and that’s where you damn well stay. You don’t get fame and glory because there’s only a handful of people know who you are, and they’re lodge, not easily impressed. Just when you’ve got yourself settled in somewhere and your life feels like it’s starting to make sense, the bastardspromoteyou, and it’s off somewhere else and start all over again, whether you like it or not. You can be Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Dog’s Armpit, and if you get promoted and the job means digging ore fifteen hours a day down an iron mine, that’s that, off you go, you don’t argue. Take me, for instance. Before I was put on this food-tasting thing, I was a chief clerk in a treasury office in the home provinces. Big house, nice bit of garden, servants, a bunch of little clerks to do all my work for me. And before that I was an assistant harbour master, and you can take it from me, there’s no better dodge going if you want to make a bit on the side. I could’ve raked it in, if I’d been that way inclined. Now I’m here doing this, glorified footman, with a good chance of getting myself killed any day of the week. That’s promotion in the lodge, my boy, and don’t you forget it. Nothing but trouble and sorrow. Like I said, I guess that’s why it works so well.”
Musen was looking at him with a mildly startled expression. “I don’t want to be anything special,” he said. “I just want to serve the lodge, that’s all. It’s the only thing I ever wanted.”
“Sure. That, and a load of stuff that doesn’t belong to you. Just as well the lodge can use you, then, isn’t it? Mind, that’s the other reason the lodge is so successful. We can useeverybody.” And then the grin. “Even you.”
Maybe the grin wasn’t working today. He could tell Musen didn’t like what he’d said – not the stuff about promotion and all, the other thing. “Fact is,” he said, “we’re all the same. We wouldn’t do it otherwise. We serve the lodge because we believe in it. And if you’re a believer – well, the rest all sort of goes without saying. I don’t think it’s something you choose. It’s inside you, right from the start.” Like stealing, he didn’t say. “Some people are like that, they were born to be just the one thing. That’s us. That’s why we don’t need money and flash clothes and big houses.” He paused for a moment, then added: “You’re one of us, sunshine, I can tell. Don’t expect praise. After all, it’s none of your doing.”
He’d said the right thing, at last. “That’s it,” Musen said. “That’s exactly how I’ve always thought about it. It’s why – well, when I was growing up, in Merebarton. That’s my village. I was the only craftsman there.”
Pleda frowned. “Now that’s hard,” he said. “When you’re the only one. Different for me; there were always at least half a dozen of us, we always had someone to talk to. We felt special, you know, strong. Just you on your own, that must’ve been tough.”
Musen’s eyes were wide and bright. “It was,” he said eagerly. “You know, I think that’s why I started taking things. I always felt, you know, different, shut out. Actually, it was more than that. I felt like they were all blind and I was the only one that could see. But somehow that wasn’t an advantage, if you get what I mean.”
Sooner or later, Pleda thought, sooner or later. There’s always a certain combination of words that gets through, and then you’ve got them; like those amazing locks they have in Sond Amorcy, the ones with no keys, and you turn three little dials to line up the tumblers. Work people a click at a time, you’ll get there eventually. He let the boy talk. There was a whole lifetime waiting to come out, like a blocked drain.
Beloisa was just depressing. There was a structure calling itself an inn, on the quay, where the customs house used to be. It was mostly made of doors, charred on the outside, but military-spec crossply is too dense to burn right through; someone had been all round the site and gathered up about a hundred charred and scorched doors, nailed them to scaffold poles and lengths of rafter; oiled sailcloth for a roof, which sagged where rainwater had pooled – any day now, the cloth would give way and some poor devil would wake up drenched. Meanwhile, the weight of the rainwater had bowed the walls inwards. They’d tried to draw them straight again with guy ropes, but the pegs had already started to pull out. Sorry, the innkeeper said, we’re full up; try again next week, or the week after that.
The plan had been to buy a cart. No problem there; country people desperate to get across the sea had plenty of carts for sale, but horses to pull them were a different matter. The military paid cash – about three stuivers in the mark, but cash – for anything with four legs and a faint spark of life. So the country people had mostly turned their carts on their sides and added a lean-to of sooty planks, and there they sat, nothing to do but wait, observing the new arrivals off the boats, like sheep at market watching the butchers.
“Looks like we’re going to have to walk,” Pleda said. “I hate bloody walking.”
But Musen had other ideas. “I’ve got a letter,” he said.
“What sort of a letter?”
Musen reached inside his shirt and produced a thin tube. It looked like brass, but there are other yellow metals. “Put it away, for God’s sake,” Pleda hissed. “You want to get our throats cut?”
Musen hadn’t thought of that. “It’s signed by the emperor,” he said, pulling his shirt down so the tube wouldn’t show. “It says we can have anything we want. I don’t know if that actually means anything.”
Dear God, a plenipotentiary warrant. A real one, not a fake. “It means something,” Pleda muttered. “Means we don’t have to walk, for one thing. Right, we need the prefect’s office.”
The Beloisa prefecture was a genuine stone, brick and tile building, one of the five still standing. The prefect, a pale, thin man Pleda had never heard of, took the tube as though he’d just been handed a sleeping cobra. “What’s this?” he said.
“You might like to read it,” Pleda suggested.
The prefect had difficulty getting the parchment out of the tube. First he tried to pinch hold of the end with his fingernails, but they were too short. Then he tried prodding with his forefinger, but somehow he managed to get the base of the parchment crumpled so that it jammed. Then he got up, crossed the room to a big rosewood chest on a stand, opened the chest, rummaged around for a while until he found a foot-long piece of ebony dowel, the sort of thing people who need to draw lines on maps use as a ruler. He tried that, but it was too wide to fit in the tube.
“Let me,” Pleda said. He poked the uncrumpled end of the tube with his little finger, and the roll of parchment slid out on to the prefect’s desk. The prefect gave him a baffled look, unrolled the parchment and started to read. Then he lifted his head and stared. “Sorry,” he said. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
Not nearly as much, it turned out, as they’d hoped. Horses, yes, not a problem. They could go to the stables and help themselves from a wide selection of military-spec thoroughbreds. Only trouble was, they were cavalry horses – first class for charging the enemy, no good at all for pulling carts. All the draught horses in the place had been requisitioned, day before yesterday, and loaded on transports and whisked away over the sea. Not best pleased, as you gentlemen can imagine, since there was now no way of moving supply carts, hauling firewood or emptying the latrines. Sorry about that.
Pleda replied that that wasn’t good enough. He had a warrant in the emperor’s own handwriting promising him whatever he needed. It would not go well with the prefect, he suggested, if he was responsible for making the emperor break his promise. The prefect gave him a smile of pure hate and fear and said he’d see what he could do.
An hour later, by some miracle, two carthorses were suddenly available. Sheer coincidence, the prefect told them, some farmer just wandered in off the moor and offered to sell them. They weren’t bad animals, as it happened: shaggy, short-legged, nearly as broad as they were tall. Pleda gave the prefect a list of the emperor’s other promises, and the prefect assured him everything would be loaded on the cart in an hour. Until then, perhaps they would care for a bite to eat in the officers’ mess.
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me you’d got a warrant?” Pleda said, with his mouth full. Roast pork with chestnut stuffing.
“We didn’t need anything.”
Farm boy, he thought. No matter. “Well, it’s nice to know it’s there if we need it. Don’t suppose it’ll be much help once we’re out of here, not unless we run into soldiers. Still, you’d better let me keep it.”
Musen looked at him, then nodded. Pleda mopped up gravy with his bread. It would be interesting to find out, he told himself, just how good a thief the boy was. The first thing, of course, would be to remove the warrant from the tube; a fair bet that it was the tube he’d be after, since it was shiny and pretty. “You know the way, I take it.”
“Me? God, no.”
Oh joy, Pleda thought. “Fine,” he said. “They’re bound to have a map.”
“Their maps are all wrong.”
Naturally. “Well, in that case, what do you suggest?”
Musen thought about it for a while. “I may be able to remember enough,” he said. “But we didn’t come straight here, last time. We got lost and wandered about a lot.”
“Me and someone else from my village. Don’t know what happened to him.”
Pleda sighed. “Not to worry,” he said. “I’ll ask the prefect nicely for the good map. There’s always one.”
No, there wasn’t. Instead, there was the military survey, seventeenth edition, which still showed Norsuby as the regional capital, or the prefect’s own heavily revised and annotated version, copied for them in rather too much of a rush by a sullen clerk with questionable eyesight and poor handwriting. They chose the survey. After all, Pleda said, where they were going there weren’t any villages or other man-made features, not any more, and the hills and rivers were probably in the same place as they were a hundred years ago; and, anyway, who needs a map when you’ve got the stars to guide you?
“We just keep going north till we can see the Greenstock mountains, then we turn left along the Blackwater till we reach the Powder Hill pass, then due south and we’re there. Adds a couple of days to the journey, but we simply can’t go wrong.”
Musen looked at him. “If you say so.”
“Trust me,” Pleda said. “Geography’s a bit of a hobby of mine. Soon as I get my bearings, I won’t need any stupid maps.”
The main thing was, they still had plenty of food and water; not to mention beer, cider and tea, which Pleda took great pleasure in brewing up on the tiny portable charcoal stove the prefect had given them. “Charcoal,” he explained, as he fried pancakes in a dear little tinned-copper pan, “because there’s no smoke. No smoke, people can’t see you.”
“We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know how you can say that,” Pleda replied, wounded. “We’re going north, like I said we should. Any day now we’ll see the Greenstocks.” He paused to flip the pancake. It landed with a delicateplop. “True, I can’t actually point to a place on a map and say, this is where we are. Butlost—”
“Well,” Musen said, sitting down on the rock beside him. “I don’t know about you, but I’m lost. I have no idea where we are.”
“You can’t be lost,” Pleda said. “You’re with me.”
The important thing to bear in mind was, they still had plenty of water. The flour would last another two days, three if they were careful. By then, they were sure to reach the Greenstocks, at which point they would have the river dead ahead of them, and Pleda was an expert angler. “Used to spend hours on the riverbank when I was a boy,” he said, wiping grit out of his eyes. “Give me a bit of string and a bent pin, I can feed us indefinitely.”
“Have we got a bit of string and a bent pin?”
Secretly, however, Pleda was somewhat concerned. There should have been a road. He remembered it clearly from the last time he was here – a long time ago, admittedly, but roads don’t just vanish. Instead, they were creaking slowly over heather, stopping occasionally to lever, drag, lift, worry and prise the cart out of the boggy patches that you simply didn’t see till you were in them. They’d brought two changes of clothes each, but every garment they had was now caked with black, stinking bog mud, which never seemed to dry out and wouldn’t brush or wash off. It was ingrained so deep into their hands that they might as well be Imperials. Even the rain didn’t wash it off, even though it soaked right through to the skin and trickled down their bodies and legs, when the wind was behind it. Water, though; not a problem. Wring out a shirt, you had enough for a week.
“This moor’s so flat,” Musen was saying, “you must be able to see for, what, thirty miles?”
And the horizon was still flat. Quite. Pleda had been wondering about that. Was it possible that the mountains simply weren’t there any more – commandeered for the war effort, stolen by profiteers to make ballast for the fleet, demolished by the Belot brothers in a supreme moment of collateral damage? He doubted it. Even the war couldn’t level mountain ranges, or so he’d always been led to believe.
“It can’t be thirty miles,” he said firmly. “Here.” He reached down inside his shirt and pulled out the map. There wasn’t much left of it. Rain had washed off all the coloured ink, and a lot of the black had rubbed off against his chest; the parchment was soft and squishy, and smelt like newly boiled rawhide. “Look for yourself. There’s no open space three hundred and sixty square miles big. Too many hills and mountains. It must just be a trick of the contours.”
That was his latest phrase. He’d come to believe in it, the way a dying man believes in the gods. He wasn’t entirely sure it meant anything. Musen handed the map back without looking at it. “If you say so,” he said.
“Sod this,” Pleda said. “We might as well stop for the night, get under cover before that lot over there sets in.”
Musen glanced at the skyful of thick, black low cloud dead ahead of them. “It’s an hour away,” he said. “And there isn’t any cover.”
“Shut your face.”
They slept under the cart, their backs in pooled bog water. When he woke up, Pleda could see a brilliant blue sky, and three pairs of boots.
Oh, he thought.
One thing they hadn’t brought was weapons. Asking for trouble, he’d told the prefect. Anybody catches us with weapons in the middle of a war zone, they’ll think we’re spies or saboteurs. Ah well.
He nudged Musen in the ribs. The boy groaned. Not a morning person. “Wake up,” he said quietly. “We’re in trouble.”
Musen lifted his head, opened his eyes and saw the boots. To his credit – Pleda was genuinely impressed – he didn’t panic or anything like that. He rolled over on to his face and crawled out from under the cart. Pleda did the same.
Five men. Three of them were sitting on chairs, the other two standing behind them like footmen in a great house; they might have been sitting for a portrait. Certainly they were dressed for it. The left- and right-hand chairs were regulation military folding, but the middle one was a deluxe model, gilded, delicately curved and tapered legs, arm rests carved into lions’ heads. On it sat the most handsome man Pleda had ever seen in his life. Not particularly tall (it’s so hard to tell when someone’s sitting down); strongly built but perfectly proportioned; beautiful hands with long fingers; dark hair just shy of shoulder length; high cheek bones, quite a long face ending in a square chin, straight nose, clean-shaven, clear grey eyes, a strong mouth, a smile of mild amusement. He was wearing an ornate, heavily embroidered robe with a fur collar, the sort affected by merchants with three times as much money as taste, but on him it wasn’t the least bit flashy or vulgar; he had dark green boots, and a broad-brimmed leather travelling hat rested on his right knee. The men on either side and behind him wore armour, regulation, an eclectic and informed blend of the best of East and West. They sat and watched like the audience in a theatre, waiting for the actors to come on stage.
Pleda scrambled to his feet; Musen stayed kneeling, in the wet. Pleda felt sure he had a reason, though he couldn’t see what it might be. The handsome man smiled. “Good morning,” he said. His voice was soft, deep and accentless.
Five men, three chairs, no horses. “Hello,” Pleda said. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
He’d said something amusing. “You know, I can’t think of anything,” the handsome man said. “The cart’s loaded, and you’ll see we’ve already tacked up the horses. No, I don’t think we need you for anything at all.”
Well, hardly a surprise. “Are you going to kill us?”
The handsome man shrugged. “I haven’t decided,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I wouldn’t bother,” Pleda said.
The handsome man rested his chin on his beautiful right hand. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “My colleagues here reckon it’d be tidier to get rid of you. I took the view that with no food and no transport, it’s a moot point anyway.” He inclined his head just a little toward the cart. “Is that really all you’ve got in the way of supplies?”
“We’re lost,” Musen said. “We’ve been wandering about for days.”
“That’d explain it,” the handsome man said. “Well? Haven’t you got anything to say for yourselves?”
Pleda looked at him, and then at the four men in armour. The handsome man was clean, well-groomed, his gown untorn, his boots unscuffed; the other four looked like soldiers on active service with a good outfit, kit clearly well used but properly looked after. The standing man on the left held a strung longbow, though there was no arrow on the string. “Where’s your horses, then?”
“No horses,” the handsome man said, “we walked. We owe you our lives. I’m sorry we can’t be properly grateful.”
“You’re lost,” Pleda said.
The handsome man considered him for a moment, as if translating him from some abstruse dead language. “True,” he said. “So are you.”
“You don’t want to listen to the boy,” Pleda said. “We’re not lost. We’ve got a map.”
“Is that right?” The soldier on the left leaned across and muttered something in the handsome man’s ear. “I’d like to see it please.”
“I can take it from your dead body if you’d rather.”
“Fine.” Pleda reached slowly inside his shirt and took out the map. He lifted it so it could be plainly seen, then threw it on the ground. Nicely pitched; about halfway between him and the men. The soldier on the right sighed, got up, retrieved it and gave it to the handsome man.
“This is no good,” he said. “It’s ruined; I can’t read it.”
Pleda smiled. “No, you can’t,” he said. “But I can remember what was on it.”
The handsome man nodded slowly, as if in approval. “Of course you can,” he said. “And there’s only enough flour in your jar to last us a day or two, so if we kill you we’re killing ourselves. But you know where the nearest village is. You’re not the least bit lost, and your friend there’s talking nonsense. Well?”
Pleda was still smiling. “If you’re lost in the wilderness,” he said, “why bother lugging those chairs around with you? Why not dump them?”
“I like to sit down in a civilised manner. They carry them because I tell them to. Well?”
“I know where the nearest village is,” Pleda said. “He only said we’re lost because it’s his village. He doesn’t want to lead the likes of you there. He’d rather die than betray his family and friends. Me—” Pleda shrugged. “Screw them.”
The handsome man looked at Musen, who was still kneeling; he’s got a knife or something, Pleda realised, something he can throw; he’s doing mental geometry. The man on the handsome man’s left said, “We don’t need both of them, do we?”
“Yes,” Pleda said, “you do.”
“I don’t think so,” the handsome man said. “Gatho, shoot the boy.”
The archer took an arrow from the quiver at his waist. Musen stood up and threw. It was a knife – he’d had it hidden in the bandages of his sling, though Pleda had looked for it when the boy was asleep and hadn’t found it – and it didn’t fly true. Rather a lot to ask at that range. Instead, it hit the archer’s cheek side on, cutting him deeply and making him drop his bow. Oh for God’s sake, Pleda thought. Here we go.
As he bounded forward, Pleda cast his mind back to the course he’d been on, five years ago, at the Institute. The secret of the Belot brothers’ success, they’d told him, was their ability to see the battlefield as a schematic, a diagram. Senza Belot had once described it as superimposing an imaginary grid on to the battlefield, turning real life into a chess game. Now you try it, the instructor had said. And Pleda had tried, ever so hard, but he simply couldn’t do it. Wrong sort of mind, they’d told him. Not everyone can do it. Not to worry.
Maybe, back at the Institute, all he’d lacked was motivation. The lines of the grid formed instantly, each square representing a quantity of both space and time. Another thing they’d told him was that a fight is a fluid, rather than a collection of colliding solids; a fightflows, it has tides and currents, and it’s vital not to let yourself get swept away. That probably meant something too, but he still didn’t get it.
The handsome man was standing up; the soldier on his right hadn’t quite realised what was happening. The other standing man was out of it for now, and so was the archer. Pleda made for the soldier on the left, who was standing up and drawing his sword at the same time. He got to him just as the tip of the sword cleared the scabbard; he grabbed his wrist and continued the draw for him, sliding the cutting edge under the point of his chin. The soldier stumbled backward, tripped on his chair and went sprawling, leaving the sword in Pleda’s hand. The archer was so close he could have cut him straight away, but he wasn’t an immediate threat; Pleda swung round, but the handsome man wasn’t there. Instead, the right-hand soldier was on his feet, backing up to give himself a bit of room. He was dangerous. Pleda jabbed at his face, just enough to keep him at a distance, then pivoted on his back foot to bring himself face to face with the standing soldier on the right. He’d just drawn; his sword hand was raised at shoulder height, and he was wide open. All that bloody armour; Pleda tried a fast, light jab at his head and hit him in the mouth; the sword point jarred on his teeth, drifted up and sliced into his top lip.
That’ll do, Pleda decided; he had his back to the boy and couldn’t see what was happening to him, but the absence of the handsome man spoke for itself. He took three long steps back and made a half-turn. Sure enough, the handsome man was standing behind Musen, one arm round the boy’s throat, the other pressing a short knife to his neck.
“I think we’ve got off on the wrong foot,” the handsome man said, catching his breath. “Let’s start again. Allow me to introduce myself. My name’s Axeo. Who are you?”
Well, now. “Axeo,” Pleda said. “You’re—”
“Yes,” the handsome man snapped. “That’s me. And, no, I don’t look much like him. He takes after his father, and I’m the spit and image of our mother, or so people tell me. All right?”
Pleda grinned. “Actually, there is a resemblance, now I think of it. Same neck and shoulders. Of course, he’s that much taller.”
“Absolutely.” Axeo didn’t seem to like talking about it. “Now you know my name, let’s have yours.”
“I didn’t know you’d turned to crime.”
“It’s not something he wants people to know, oddly enough. But, yes, in the proclamations you see nailed up on doors I’m described as a robber and a thief. Not through choice. Personally, I prefer to think of myself as the last line of defence.”
Pleda wasn’t sure he understood that, but never mind. “I’m Pleda. He’s Musen.”
Axeo frowned. “Hang on, I know that name. Pleda Lanxifor. You’re the food-taster. Good Lord. Suddenly, everybody’s famous.”
“It’s a small world,” Pleda agreed. “Would you mind letting my friend go now, please?”
Axeo glanced at his companions, who were still preoccupied with trying to stop the bleeding. “Put that sword down.”
“Fine.” Axeo relaxed his grip and drew his hand away from Musen’s throat. Then he stopped. “Hello, what’s this?” he said, and pulled the gold tube out of Musen’s shirt. Musen took his chance and scrambled away. Axeo was entirely preoccupied with the tube.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, turning the tube round with the tips of his fingers. “The emperor’s food-taster, in a farm cart, with a load of government-issue camping gear and a gold despatch tube. Empty,” he added. Then he looked at Pleda. “A food-taster, but no food,” he said. “And a message tube with no message.”
Pleda sighed. “The boy steals things,” he said. “He can’t help it.”
“That makes two of us,” Axeo said, tucking the tube in the pocket of his robe. “Would you mind telling me what you two are doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Visiting family,” Pleda said. “His family, in the village.”
“Of course. You?”
“I’m going to marry his sister.”
Axeo raised an eyebrow. “Is that right?”
“I bloody well hope so. I paid twenty angels.”
Axeo nodded slowly. “I get you. Sight unseen?”
“Looks aren’t everything.”
Carefully, Axeo put the knife away in a fold of his robe. “In that case, let me be the first to congratulate you. I love weddings. Particularly,” he added, “weddings with lots and lots of food.”
Pleda glanced quickly at the soldiers. They were watching him, and he read them easily – we can take him, but we’ll get cut up some more, and one of us might not make it; do we really have to? The decision clearly rested with Axeo, which made Pleda think over what he knew about bandits and their tendency towards democracy.The last line of defence; curious way for a professional criminal to describe himself. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any food,” he said.
Axeo smiled. “Not enough to share.”
“Not if you’re walking,” Pleda said. “But if you were lucky enough to get a ride in a nice cart—”
All sorts of issues there, needless to say. From Pleda’s perspective, the essential question was, could Musen drive a team of horses? Inevitably, Axeo would be addressing the matter from a different angle. Not impossible, even so, that both parties could arrive at the same conclusion.
“Indeed,” Axeo said abruptly. “The hell with all this fighting, anyway. If I’d wanted to fight, I’d have stayed in the army. Isn’t that right, boys?”
They might be fiercely and unthinkingly loyal to Axeo; that didn’t mean they liked him. The looks on their faces suggested that, at that moment, they didn’t like him at all. That couldn’t have been lost on him, but he didn’t seem worried by it. Curious people, Pleda thought, can’t wait to be rid of them. But that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
The arrangements were fairly straightforward. The four soldiers, Axeo and Pleda rode in the back of the cart – they had to dump some of the gear, but no great loss; the soldiers and Axeo at the far end, Pleda with his back to the driver’s bench and the sword across his knees. Musen and the soldiers’ weapons sat on the driver’s bench. Axeo cheerfully handed over his knife, which Pleda took as definitive proof that he had another one. Still, wedged in between two of his friends in a cart that jolted horribly all the time, his capacity for sudden movement was somewhat diminished. Musen proved to be a competent driver, which was just as well.
“You’re sure you know the way,” Axeo asked, as they set off.
“Oh yes,” Pleda replied cheerfully. “I know this country like the back of my hand.”
Not long after midday, they saw the Greenstocks.
They’d been going steadily uphill for a long time; the gradient was so gentle they’d hardly noticed it until, quite suddenly, the ground seemed to fall away at their feet, and they were looking down a steep slope, on the other side of which was a river and, beyond that, mountains.
“We can’t get the cart down that,” said the archer.
“Don’t have to,” Pleda replied. “We follow the top of this ridge for a bit, parallel with the river until we see a gap in the hills on our right. Then we turn left. There’s a road,” Pleda added hopefully. “Takes us straight there.”
As a boy, Pleda had always loved the story about the boy who rescued an old woman from a lion, and the old woman turned out to be a witch, who gave him a magic something-or-other, whose special power was that everything he said thereafter turned out to be true. It was a ring, or a five-sided coin, or a walrus-ivory comb, or a pebble with a hole in it; something ordinary, anyway, something you might well pick up and forget about, and never realise you had. An hour before sunset, Pleda surreptitiously searched his pockets. He narrowed it down to the bit of old rag and the horn-handled penknife; could be either of those, or maybe, just possibly, it was luck or coincidence and not magic at all.
“There’s the road, look,” he said, pointing. “Bang opposite the Powder Hill pass, just like I said it would be.”
Axeo tried to stand up to get a better view, but a jolt sat him down again; he landed hard on the knee of the man next to him, who winced. “That’s all right, then,” he said. “Tell you what. Let’s stop here for the night and then carry on in the morning. Don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
They sat warily round a fire – Pleda wasn’t keen, because of the smoke, but Axeo insisted; they smashed up the cart’s tool box for firewood – and ate the last of the biscuits and some rock-hard dried sausage from the archer’s pack. Nobody seemed to be in any hurry to go to sleep. It was going to be a long night.
“Anybody fancy a game of cards?” Pleda said.
He’d got their attention. “Why not?” Axeo said, and reached in his pocket, from which he produced a beautiful ivory box with gilded hinges. “Should be enough light to see by for a little while.”
Pleda hadn’t expected that. Still, it wasn’t unreasonable for a thief to have a luxury item like a pack of cards, especially if it came in a valuable box. “Let’s play Bust,” he said. “Eastern rules?”
“Of course.” Axeo smiled. “We’re all patriots here, aren’t we?” He opened the box and took out the pack. “Here we go,” he said. “Three cards, face upwards.”
He dealt a card and suddenly Pleda couldn’t breathe. He clenched his hands very tight and concentrated all his efforts on keeping his face straight and not staring. Axeo dealt quickly and with the easy fluency of long practice. Even in broad daylight, it would’ve been next to impossible, for anybody else, to see how he cheated.
“And three covered,” Axeo went on, dealing the face-down cards. “All right, here we go. Stuiver in and a penny raise.”
“Oh,” Musen said. “Are we playing for money?”
“Bless the child,” Axeo said.
“I don’t have any.”
Pleda dug in his pocket, found his purse, picked at the tie, pinched out the knot, emptied the purse on the ground, picked out a dozen quarters and flung them at him. Then, trying really hard not to let his hand shake, he took up his cards.
Seven of Arrows. Two of Spears. Poverty. His mouth was dry as a bone. “I’m in,” muttered the soldier to his left, and Pleda heard a coin chink. His turn. “Just a second,” he said. Two crows in the tree, and a jug, broken in three pieces.
“Come on,” Axeo said. “Before it gets too dark to see.”
“I’m thinking,” Pleda snapped. He forced himself to consider the cards tactically. With the open three, he had a pride in Arrows, Poverty and the Angel. “In and up twopence,” he said.
“Your turn.” Axeo was talking to Musen.
“I’m in.” The boy was frowning. “And raise a penny.”
The Angel’s crown had four fleurets. No question about it. The archer shook his head and folded. “In and up a penny,” Axeo said. “Right, I dealt, so you start.”
The soldier to Pleda’s left bought a card, threw away the Five of Arrows. Pleda snapped it up, dumped his two and raised twopence. Musen passed. Axeo bought two and threw them away again. The soldier passed. “Buy one,” Pleda said. Axeo handed him the Star-Crossed Lovers, which he dumped. Musen passed. “Right,” Axeo said. “Here’s a quarter says it’s my lucky day. Let’s meld.”
Pleda scrabbled on the ground, located a quarter by feel and flipped it into the middle. They all laid out. Axeo won; a run in Spears and the Ship. He was grinning. “Go again?”
Two of the soldiers were scowling at him. “Yes, why not?” Pleda said. Musen nodded. The archer shrugged and said, “Go on, then.” Axeo gathered the cards. “I won, so I deal,” he said. “Let’s make it interesting. Stuiver in and raises are a quarter.”
Pleda didn’t watch him shuffle. For his open cards, he got the Three, Four and Five of Shields, an open run. Covered, Seven of Shields, Hope and the Ten of Swords.
There is no suit of Swords. Not in a normal pack.
“Tens are wild,” Axeo said. “Right, who’s in?”
The soldiers and Musen looked at Pleda’s open cards and decided not to bother. Axeo threw a stuiver into the middle, then another one. His open cards were rubbish. “Well?”
“Tens are wild, did you say?” Musen picked up three stuivers from the pile in the grass beside him. A week’s money where he came from. “I’m in.”
Axeo beamed at him. “Right,” he said. “Since it’s just you and me, your two stuivers and double it.”
Another week’s pay. “Meld,” he said. He turned over his cards. “Three to Seven of Shields, plus the trump.”
Axeo picked one card out of his hand and turned it face outwards. It was the Ace of Swords. “Sorry,” he said, and scooped up the money.
Musen frowned. “Just a second, that’s not—”
“Eastern rules,” Pleda said quickly. Musen stared at him, then shrugged.
“Aces high in the East, remember?” Axeo said. “You know what, I’m enjoying this. How about another? Or we could play Cats and Buckets.”
Pleda stayed awake all night – he couldn’t have slept if he’d wanted to – but Axeo made no attempt to talk to him privately; he rolled himself up in a thick blue blanket, with the archer’s pack for a pillow, and went straight to sleep. Pleda toyed with the idea of sending Musen to steal the ivory box from his pocket, but decided against it. He’d seen enough, anyway.
Ace of Swords. The Ace, for crying out loud.
Just before first light, he hauled himself up and shuffled a few yards the other side of the cart for a pee. When he got back, under his blanket, he found the ivory box. He covered it up and looked at Musen, who appeared to be fast asleep. He crawled under the blanket and opened the box by feel. It was empty.