Authors: K. J. Parker
“Do you like fencing?”
“Yes, actually. At least, I like it when I win. How about you?”
He frowned. It wasn’t a question he’d ever been asked, or expected ever to have to answer. It was a bit like
Do you enjoy breathing
? “Yes,” he replied, surprising himself slightly. “I enjoy it the same way I like chess.”
“You like winning.”
He shook his head very slightly. “When you’re fencing, you’ve got to concentrate, you can’t let yourself think about anything else. You’ve got to be alone in your mind. I think that’s what I like about it.”
She frowned, as though she hadn’t entirely understood him but was nevertheless intrigued by what he’d said. He felt strangely pleased by that. “Me too,” she said. “Also, I like being able to jab at people as hard as possible and not get into trouble for it later.”
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
Published by Hachette Digital
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 © 2012 by K. J. Parker
Copyright © 2011 by K. J. Parker
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.
Hachette Digital Little
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
To Maddie Field, for feeding and clothing me
and my family at a truly awful time
ver since she was a little girl, she’d had a recurring dream. She was on top of the stupid pillar, looking down into a deep, still green pool, where the blurred outlines of huge fish drifted lazily just under the surface. Then, quite suddenly, she was in the dried-up pool, looking up, as water poured out of a broad pipe twenty feet above. In no time at all the pool was full – with water, with fish, with dead bodies drifting like the fish; a dead man floated past on his back, and she knew he was her husband. But she neither sank nor drowned; the water lifted her up, right to the top of the pillar, where she’d come from.
She knew about the pillar, of course; it was her father’s one good story, and he told it on every possible occasion. The rest of the dream’s imagery bothered her, so much so that when she was fourteen, she sneaked out of the house and went to Temple, and asked the priest if he had any idea what it all meant. The priest listened gravely and carefully, and when she’d finished he wore a puzzled look, as though some of it made sense and some of it didn’t.
“Well?” she asked.
“I’m not a fortune-teller,” the priest replied, fabricating a smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’d been reading Saloninus’
Phocas and Leontia
, and it’s given you nightmares. But that’s not exactly a suitable text for a well-brought-up young lady.”
“Never heard of it,” Iseutz replied.
“Quite.” The priest rubbed his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Well, there’s a scene in
where the heroine’s in a shipwreck, and her husband’s corpse floats past her on the water. I suppose you might’ve overheard someone talking about it, and it stuck in the back of your mind. That’s all I can think of, sorry.”
She sighed. “Is there any way of stopping it? It’s getting so I’m afraid to go to sleep.”
“Prayer,” the priest replied; and although she didn’t actually believe in the divinity of the Invincible Sun, she gave it a try, and the dream stopped, and for ten years she thought no more about it.
General Carnufex became known as the Irrigator following the destruction of Flos Verjan, the second city of Permia, in the thirty-seventh year of the War. By the time Carnufex took command, the siege had already lasted two years. Three outbreaks of plague had taken a severe toll of the besieging army, and the near impossibility of securing regular supplies, given the city’s position in the valley formed by three mountain ranges, had prompted the chiefs of staff to order that what remained of the army should be recalled, with the loss of all the territorial gains made during the previous five years’ campaigns.
Carnufex spent a month rounding up as many of the local civilian population as he could catch, accumulating a workforce of some twenty thousand men, women and children. He set them to work diverting the courses of the four major rivers that flowed from the mountains into Lake Prescile. By employing innovative engineering techniques learned from the captive silver-miners, he contrived to cut deep channels through solid rock to lead the river water down into the Verjan valley. When the work was complete and the dams were finally breached, the ensuing torrent flooded the city so completely that it remains underwater to this day.
There are few more depressing sights than your own blood. The whole of his left trouser leg was drenched, the degree of saturation you get from one of those sudden, furious summer rainstorms that only last a minute or so but soak you to the skin. But it wasn’t rain, though; it was blood. There comes a point – he remembered being told about it by a medical student, but he hadn’t paid attention – when the loss is too great and there’s no way back. Shortly before, or was it shortly after you reach that point, you start to feel a bit drunk. You lose your focus, and you’d really quite like to close your eyes and take a nap, even though you’re well aware you probably won’t be waking up again. It’s not exactly a happy feeling, the medical student had said, but it’s not mortal terror and fear either. It doesn’t hurt much, and mostly you can’t be bothered.
Shortly before or shortly after. He relaxed, letting his head rest against the bell-chamber wall. If I die, he thought, at least I won’t have to face up to the consequences of my actions. I really wouldn’t want to have to go through all that; all the fuss, unpleasantness and embarrassment. The thought made him smile. They’ll come bustling up the bell-tower stairs, he thought, following the mile-wide blood trail; they’ll kick down the door and they’ll find me gone – almost as good as escaping. There’ll be no arrest, no miserable, humiliating night in the cells along with the drunks and the uncouth street people, no heartbreaking glimpse of his parents’ faces in the public gallery of the court while the prosecutor spells out in graphic detail the exact true account of all the incredibly stupid things he’d done; no unbearable waiting in the condemned cell, no bowel-loosening terror as the first rays of light came through the window on the appointed morning. Escaping from all that was very nearly the same as getting away with it completely. He grinned and looked down at his red, shiny-wet leg. Come on, he said, bleed faster.
It’d be nice, at the very least, if he could die before he had to explain to his father exactly what he thought he’d been playing at, what had possessed him. Well, Dad, it was like this. I went to the lecture hall, not to listen to the lecture I was supposed to be attending, but because it’s
best place for meeting girls. I meet a lot of girls. Not through random serendipity. I go looking for them. I meet girls the way cousin Huon and his aristocratic chums and their highly trained dogs meet wild boar in the woods. A good place – please don’t construe this as advice, Dad, I’d hate it if you ended up in a bell tower somewhere – is the lobby of the lecture halls. The girls you meet there are just about perfect: upper-class, smart, eager to defy convention. They’re allowed out on their own, and all you have to do is watch which lecture they come out of. If it’s literature, you can start up a conversation about the use of imagery in late Mannerist poetry. If it’s natural philosophy, go for a detailed critique of Saloninus’ theory of insubstantiality. Provided you’ve done your basic background reading, piece of cake.
Dad, I met this girl. Actually, she was quite interesting. She had a lot to say about social factors in Segimerus’ agrarian reforms, and I rather liked her take on the ten per cent land tax. But there’s a time for chat and a time for getting the job done, so I curtailed the academic discussion and we went back to her house, her father being guaranteed absent until the House rose. Thanks to you constantly badgering me about it, I take an interest in politics, so I knew they were debating the Law of Property Reform Bill, a topic guaranteed to generate more heat than a volcano. He’d be at it all night, and wouldn’t be home before dawn. Ideal.
I guess I’ll never know the outcome, Dad – maybe you could write it on a piece of paper for me and burn it, like prayers to the dead in Temple – but my guess is that the Optimates did a deal on Clause 16. Ironic, yes? As a hot-headed young radical, that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. But if my theory is correct, it led directly to my death. Does that make me a martyr to the cause of fair redistribution of public land? It’d be nice, but I don’t think so. Pity. In my more hopelessly romantic moments, I’d have said that it was a cause worth dying for. I guess it depends on how you construe the word cause. Cause meaning primary factor, yes. But that won’t get me a place in the pantheon of heroes of the revolution. Of course I’ve only ever been a hot-headed young radical because it goes down well with the sort of girls you meet at the lecture halls.
The point being, Dad, her father came home earlier than expected, while we were still hard at it. The sad part of it is, she was nothing special. She moaned and groaned a lot, but I could tell her mind was somewhere else entirely, and I thought, the hell with this, let’s get it over with and I can go home. So I turned her over and upped the tempo a bit; at which point the door opened.
I can see how it must’ve looked to her father. The yowling must’ve been audible all through the house. He hears the cries of someone apparently in great fear and pain. He sprints up the stairs. The noise is coming from his daughter’s room. He kicks open the door. I’m on top of her, holding her wrists and working like a stoker, she’s yelling like she’s being murdered. I ask you, Dad. What was the poor man to think?
Here’s what I saw. The door bursts open, and there’s this huge, tall, fat man. He’s staring at me as though I was some kind of unimaginable monster, horns, tail, fangs. There’s this split second when we’re looking straight at each other. Then I hear the silvery whisper of a rapier blade sliding against the chape of a scabbard.
You remember learning fencing in the schools, Dad? The first thing they teach you is the salute. You make a courteous bow to your opponent. You lift your hat, you do this flourish with your left hand – I’m hopeless at it, apparently – and then you straighten up and bring your sword slowly and decorously into the guard position. It wasn’t like that. As soon as I heard that hiss, I jumped off her – squatting jump, like a frog. He lunged while I was actually in the air, caught me about six inches above the left knee. I felt no pain as the blade went in; they tell you that, and you don’t believe it, but it’s true. I could feel the thing inside me; I felt it being pulled out as I hit the floor. I remember thinking, that’s it, I’m dead, like I’d given up. But my hands were grabbing in empty space, and my right hand found my trousers, where I’d dumped them on the floor.
You remember how you taught me Davianus’ parry with the cloak held in the left hand, where you gain a little time by tangling the other man’s blade. It works with trousers. He made a sort of roaring noise and withdrew, and my right hand found the hilt of my rapier. I’d hung it on its belt over a chair. I pulled it out of the scabbard, which tipped the chair over. It got in his way as he lunged the third time, and I was able to double-bunny-hop backwards, making myself a little room. He lunged a fourth time, and halfway through the lunge, he died. It was only when I saw the truly amazed look on his face, just as the light went out in his eyes, that I realised I’d performed a textbook demi-volte – you know, where you sidestep out of line while counter-thrusting – and the thrust had gone straight through the side of his head. In one ear and out the other, like Grandma used to say.