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Evil for Evil

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Evil for Evil

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Author: K. J. Parker
Publisher: Orbit, 2006
Series: Engineer Trilogy: Book 2

1. Devices and Desires
2. Evil for Evil
3. The Escapement

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Civitas Vadanis is in trouble. The Mezentines have declared war; and the Mezentines are very focused on their goals when it comes to killing.

Duke Valens, of Civitas Vadanis, has a dilemma. He knows that his city cannot withstand the invading army; yet its walls are his only defence against the Mezentines. Perhaps the only way to save his people is to flee, but that will not be easy either.

Ziani Vaatzes, an engineer exiled by the Mezentines for his abominable creations, has already proven that he can defend a city. But Ziani Vaatzes has his own concerns, and the fate of Civitas Vadanis may not be one of them.


Excerpt

Chapter One

'The way to a man's heart,' Valens quoted, drawing the rapier from its scabbard, 'is proverbially through his stomach, but if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye-socket.'

He moved his right arm into the third guard, concentrated for a moment on the small gold ring that hung by a thread from the centre rafter of the stable, frowned and relaxed. Lifting the sword again, he tapped the ring gently on its side, setting it swinging like a pendulum. As it reached the upper limit of its swing and hung for a fraction of a second in the air, he moved fluently into the lunge. The tip of the rapier passed exactly through the middle of the ring without touching the sides. Valens grinned and stepped back. Not bad, he congratulated himself, after seven years of not practising; and his poor ignorant student wasn't to know that he'd cheated.

'There you go,' he said, handing Vaatzes the rapier. 'Now you try.'

Vaatzes wasn't to know it was cheating; but Valens knew. The exercise he'd just demonstrated wasn't the one he'd so grudgingly learned, in this same stable, as a boy of fifteen. The correct form was piercing the stationary ring, passing the sword through the middle without making it move. He'd never been able to get it right, for all the sullen effort he'd lavished on it, so he'd cheated by turning it into a moving target, and he was cheating again now. The fact that he'd subverted the exercise by making it harder was beside the point.

'You made it look easy,' Vaatzes said mildly. 'It's not, is it?'

Valens smiled. 'No,' he said.

Vaatzes wrapped his hand around the sword-hilt, precisely as he'd been shown; a quick study, evidently. It had taken Valens a month to master the grip when he was learning. The difference was, he reflected, that Vaatzes wanted to learn. That, he realised, was what was so very strange about the Mezentine. He wanted to learn everything.

'Is that right?'

'More or less,' Valens replied. 'Go on.'

Vaatzes lifted the rapier and tapped the ring to set it swinging. He watched as it swung backwards and forwards, then made his lunge. He only missed by a hair, and the ring tinkled as the sword-point grazed it on the outside.

'Not bad,' Valens said. 'And again.'

Even closer this time; the point hit the edge of the ring, making it jump wildly on its thread. Vaatzes was scowling, though. 'What'm I doing wrong?' he asked.

'Nothing, really. It's just a matter of practice,' Valens replied. 'Try again.'

But Vaatzes didn't move; he was thinking. He looked stupid when he thought, like a peasant trying to do mental arithmetic. It was fortunate that Valens knew better than to go by appearances.

'Mind if I try something?' Vaatzes said.

Valens shrugged. 'Go ahead.'

Vaatzes stepped forward, reached up with his left hand and steadied the ring until it was completely motionless. He stepped back, slipped into third guard like a man putting on his favourite jacket, and lunged. The rapier-point passed exactly through the middle of the ring, which didn't move.

'Very good,' Valens said.

'Yes.'

Vaatzes shrugged. 'But it's not what you told me to do.'

'No.'

'I was thinking,' Vaatzes said, 'if I practise that for a bit, I can gradually work up to the moving target. Would that be all right?'

Valens had stopped smiling. 'You do what you like,' he said, 'if you think it'd help.'

For six days now it had rained; a heavy shower just before dawn, followed by weak sunshine mixed with drizzle, followed by a downpour at mid-morning and usually another at noon. No earthly point trying to fly the hawks in this weather, even though it was the start of the season, and Valens had spent all winter looking forward to it. Today was supposed to be a hunting day; he'd cleared his schedule for it weeks in advance, spent hours deciding which drives to work, considering the countless variables likely to affect the outcome - the wind direction, the falcons' fitness at the start of the season, the quality of the grass in the upland meadows, which would draw the hares up out of the newly mown valley. Carefully and logically, he'd worked through all the facts and possibilities and reached a decision; and it was raining. Bored and frustrated to the point of cold fury, Valens had remembered his offhand promise to the funny little Mezentine refugee who, for reasons Valens couldn't begin to fathom, seemed to want to learn how to fence.

'I think that's enough for today,' Vaatzes said, laying the rapier carefully down on the bench, stopping it with his hands before it rolled off. 'The meeting's in an hour, isn't it? I don't want to make you late.'

Valens nodded. 'Same time tomorrow,' he said, 'if it's still raining.'

'Thank you,' Vaatzes said. 'It's very kind of you. Really, I never expected that you--'

Valens shrugged. 'I offered,' he said. 'I don't say things unless I mean them.' He yawned, and slid the rapier back into its scabbard. 'See you at the meeting, then. You know where it is?'

Vaatzes grinned. 'No,' he said. 'You did tell me, but...'

'I know,' Valens said, 'this place is a bugger to find your way around unless you've lived here twenty years. Just ask someone, they'll show you.'

After Vaatzes had gone, Valens drew the rapier once again and studied the ring for a long time. Then he lunged, and the soft jangle it made as the sword grazed it made him wince. He caught it in his left hand, pulled gently until the thread snapped, and put it back on his finger. All my life, he thought, I've cheated by making things harder. It's a habit I need to get out of, before I do some real damage.

He glanced out of the window; still raining. He could see pockmarks of rain in the flat puddles in the stable yard, and slanting two-dimensional lines of motion made visible against the dark backdrop of the yard gate. He'd loved rain in late spring when he was a boy; partly because he'd loathed hunting when he was young and rain meant his father wouldn't force him to go out with the hounds or the hawks, partly because the smell of it was so clean and sweet. Now, seven years after his father's death, he was probably the most ardent and skilful huntsman in the world, but the smell of rain was still a wonderful thing, almost too beautiful to bear. He put on his coat and pulled the collar up round his ears.

From the stable yard to the side door of the long hall; hardly any distance at all, but he was soaked to the skin by the time he shut the door behind him, and the smell was now the rich, heavy stench of wet cloth. Well; it was his meeting so they'd have to wait for him. He climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the middle tower.

Clothes. Not something that interested him particularly. Perhaps that explained why he was so good at them. Slipping off the wet coat, shirt and trousers, he swung open the chest and chose a dark blue brocade gown suitable for formal occasions. He took a minute or so to towel the worst of the damp out of his hair, couldn't be bothered to look in a mirror. One more glance through the window. Still raining. But he'd be dry, and everybody else at the meeting would be wet and uncomfortable, which would be to his advantage. That thought made him frown. Why was he allowing himself to think of his own advisers as the enemy?

He sighed. Today should have been a hunting day; or, if it was raining, it should've been a day for writing her a letter, or revising a first or second draft, or doing research for the reply to the next letter he received from her. But there weren't any letters any more; she was here now, under the same roof as him, with her husband. On a whim he changed his shoes, substituting courtly long-toed poulaines for comfortable but sodden riding shoes. He hesitated, then looked in the mirror after all. It showed him a pale, thin young man expertly disguised as the Duke of the Vadani; a disguise so perfect, in fact, that only his father would've been able to see through it. Oh well, he thought, and went downstairs to face his loyal councillors.

As he ran down the stairs, he put words together in his mind; the question he'd have asked her in a letter, if they'd still been able to write letters to each other. Force of habit; but it was a habit he'd been dependent on for a very long time, until he'd reached the point where it was hard to think without it. Suppose there was a conjuror, a professional sleight-of-hand artist, who hurt his wrist and couldn't do tricks any more. Suppose he learned how to make things disappear and pull rabbits out of hats by using real magic. Would that be cheating?

As he'd anticipated, the councillors were all wet, and acting ashamed, as though getting rained on was a wicked and deliberate act. They stood up as he came in. Even now, it still surprised him rather when people did that.

He gave them a moment or so to settle down, looking round to see if anybody was missing. They looked nervous, which he found faintly amusing. He counted to five under his breath and stood up.

'First,' he said, 'my apologies for dragging you all up here in this foul weather. I'll try not to keep you any longer than necessary. We all know what the issues are, and I dare say we've all got our own opinions about what we should do. 'However,' he went on, shifting his weight on to both feet like a fencer taking up a middle guard, 'I've already reached my decision; so, really, it's not a case of what we're going to do so much as how we're going to do it.'

He paused, looking for reactions, but they knew him well enough not to give anything away. He took a little breath and continued.

'I've decided,' he said, 'to evacuate Civitas Vadanis. For what they're worth, you may as well hear my reasons. First, the war isn't going well. The latest reports I've seen - Varro, you may have better figures than me on this - put the Mezentine army at not far off thirty thousand men, not counting engineers, sappers and the baggage train. Now, we can match them for numbers, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we said we stood any sort of a chance in a pitched battle. So far we've avoided anything more than a few skirmishes; basically, we've been able to annoy them with cavalry raids and routine harassment, and that's all. It's fair to say we've got the better of them in cavalry and archers, but when it comes to the quality of heavy infantry needed to win a pitched battle, we're not in the same league; and that's not taking any account of their field artillery, which we all know is their greatest asset.'

He paused to glance down at Orsea, and saw that he was looking down at his feet, too ashamed to lift his head. As well he might be. Someone else who had trouble thinking straight. He wondered; before they were married, had Orsea ever written her a letter? He doubted it.

'That rules out a decisive battle in the open field,' Valens went on. 'By the same token, I don't like the idea of staying here and trying to sit out either an assault or a siege. We still don't really know what happened at Civitas Eremiae' - here he looked quickly across at Vaatzes, but as usual there was nothing to see in his face - 'and I know some of you reckon it must have been treachery rather than any stroke of tactical or engineering genius on the Mezentines' part. The fact remains that the Mezentines won that round, and Eremiae was supposed to be the best-defended city in the world. We haven't got anything like the position or the defences that Orsea's people had, so the only way we could hope to win would be through overwhelming superiority in artillery. At Eremiae, Vaatzes here had to work miracles just to give Orsea parity. I imagine I'm right in assuming you couldn't do the same for us.'

Vaatzes considered for a moment before answering.

'I don't think so,' he said. 'With respect, there's nothing here for me to work with. There were just about enough smiths and armourers and carpenters at Eremiae to give me a pool of competent skilled workers to draw on; all I had to do was train them, improvise the plant and machinery and teach them how to build the existing designs. You simply don't have enough skilled men here; you don't have the materials or the tools. You've got plenty of money to buy them with, of course, but there's not enough time. Also, it's a safe bet that the Mezentines have been busy improving all their artillery designs since the siege of Eremiae. I'm a clever man, but I can't hope to match the joint expertise of the Mezentine ordnance factory. Anything I could build for you would already be obsolete before the first bolt was loosed.' He shook his head. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'but I don't think I can be much help to you.'

Valens nodded. He knew all that already. 'In that case,' he said, 'if we can't chase them away before they get here, and we can't hold them off when they come here, I believe our only option is to leave here and go somewhere else. In which case, the only question we're left with is, where do we go?'

He paused and looked round, but he knew that nobody was going to say anything; which was what he wanted, of course.

'As I see it,' he went on, 'the Mezentines are maintaining a large and very expensive mercenary army in hostile territory. Thanks to the efforts of Orsea's people, their lines of supply are painfully long and brittle, and living off the land isn't a realistic option. They need to finish this war quickly, before their own political situation gets out of hand. We know we can't fight them and win. Seems to me, then, that our best chance lies in not fighting; and the best way of doing that, I think, would be to keep moving. They can have the city and do what they like with it. We evacuate to the mountains, where we know the terrain and where their artillery train can't go. We dodge about, making them follow us until they get careless and give us a chance to bottle them up in a pass or a river valley. Meanwhile, our cavalry stays on the plains and makes life difficult for their supply wagons. Possibly we could also make trouble for the army of occupation in Eremia, just to give them something else to think about. It comes down to this. We can't beat the Mezentines; neither can Orsea's people or anybody else. The only people who can beat the Mezentines are the Mezentines themselves, by losing the will to carry on with this war. For them, it's a balance sheet. The point will come where the certain losses will outweigh the potential gains, and the political opposition will have gained enough strength to overthrow the current government. Our only hope is to hang on till that point is reached. I think evacuating, avoiding them, making life difficult and costing them money is the best and safest way of going about it. Furthermore, I don't think we have an alternative strategy worth serious consideration. If I'm wrong and I've missed something obvious, though, I'd love to hear about it. Anybody?'

He sat down and waited. He had a pretty shrewd idea who'd be first. Sure enough, Orsea got to his feet. As usual, he looked nervous, as though he wasn't quite sure whether he was allowed to speak, or whether he needed to ask for permission.

'For what it's worth,' he said, 'I agree with Valens. I think I can honestly say I know the Mezentines better than any of you. I ought to, after all. It was my stupidity that got us all into this situation in the first place, and as a direct result of what I did, I've had to watch them invade my country, burn my city and massacre my people. If it wasn't for Valens here, I'd be dead. Now, because Valens rescued us, you're facing the same danger. It's my fault that you've got to make this decision, and all I can say is, I'm sorry. That's no help, obviously.' He hesitated, and Valens looked away. It pained him to see a grown man making a fool of himself, particularly someone who was his responsibility. 'The point is,' Orsea went on, 'we mustn't let what happened at Civitas Eremiae happen again here. It's bad enough having to live with the destruction of my own people. If it happened to you as well--'

'Orsea,' Valens said quietly, 'it's all right. Sit down.'

Orsea hesitated, then did as he was told. The room was suddenly, completely quiet. I'd better do something, Valens thought. He looked round the room and picked a face at random.

'Carausius,' he said, 'how soon do you think we could be ready?'

Was Carausius smirking slightly? Probably not. He stood up. 'It depends on what we want to take with us, obviously,' he replied. 'Assuming you only want the bare minimum - food, clothes, essential military supplies - we could be on the road inside a week.'

Valens smiled. 'I don't think the situation's as desperate as all that,' he replied. 'Let's say a fortnight.'

Carausius nodded. 'In that case,' he said, 'the real limitation on what we can take is transport. I had a quick inventory made of all the available carts, wagons and horses, I'll see to it you get a copy before the end of today. In a nutshell, a fortnight's plenty of time to load up all our available transport capacity. Tell me when you want to leave, and what the priorities are.'

Valens nodded. 'Another thing,' he said, and he fixed his eyes on the back wall, just above head height. 'We're agreed that one of the best ways of stopping the Mezentines is by being as expensive to kill as we possibly can. We aren't going to get very far with that strategy if we let them get their hands on the silver mines.' He felt it as he spoke; a faint shiver, as though he'd brushed an open cut with his fingertips. 'I'm prepared to bet that the war faction in the Guild assembly is selling this war to the sceptics on the basis that getting control of the mines will not only pay for slaughtering us, it'll go a long way towards wiping out the losses incurred in conquering and occupying Eremia. As long as the mines are there and capable of being worked, they've got an incentive. Take that away...' He shrugged. 'We need to give the opposition in the Assembly as much help as we can. So really, we haven't got any choice in the matter. We've got to put the mines out of action, and we've got to do it in such a way that, if they finish the job on us, it won't be worth their while financially to stick around and get them up and running again.'

He paused, to give them time to be suitably horrified and angry. To their credit, they hid it well. What he needed now, of course, was someone to stand up and disagree with him. He waited, but nobody obliged. He had them too well trained.

'Let's think about it for a moment,' he went on. 'It's a question of the degree of sabotage, and the fundamental difference between them and us. They're businessmen. They can only afford to do a thing if it makes money. If the cost of repairing the damage to the mines is too high, they won't bother. We don't have to live by those rules. The silver's all we've got. And if we wreck the mines, the silver will still be there, until such time as we can rebuild and start mining again. If it takes us ten years and all our available manpower, so what? We can afford the time and effort, because our time and our work come cheap. They can't. But if we leave the mines there for them to take - and let's face it, we couldn't defend them against an assault or a siege, any more than we could defend the city - it's giving them a reason to keep going, even if we do manage to hurt them. It's harsh, I know, but...' He paused again, shook his head and sat down.

This time he got what he'd been hoping for. Licinius, senior partner of the Blue Crown mine, and the nephew of the first man Valens had ever had put to death. He was frowning as he stood up, as though he was in two minds about raising a matter of marginal interest.

'I take your point,' he said. 'And in principle, I agree. What I'm a bit concerned about is the practicalities. With respect; it's all very well to say we should sabotage the mines to the point where the Mezentines can't get them running again. The fact is, though, I don't think it'd be physically possible - not in the time available, with the men and resources we could spare. We build our mines to last, after all.'

Valens relaxed a little. He couldn't have asked for a better objection. 'You're the expert, Licinius,' he said, 'so obviously I'm happy to listen to what you've got to say. But I think you may be worrying unduly. I've read up on this a bit, and I've talked to some engineers who know far more about this stuff than I do.' He noticed Vaatzes out of the corner of his eye, completely expressionless, like a stone goblin. 'As I understand it, what you do is fill the ventilation chambers at the ends of the primary access tunnels - am I getting the technical terms right? I'm sure you know what I mean - you fill them with nice dry logs soaked in lamp oil, set a fuse, light it and run. The fire draws its own draught down the ventilation shafts, so you get a really good heat very quickly; more than enough, at any rate, to burn out all the props in the gallery and cave in not just the chamber but the tunnels as well. Once that lot's come down, it'd be quicker to start all over again with new shafts rather than trying to dig out the mess in the old ones. Which, of course, is what we'll have to do, when the war's over and the Mezentines have all gone home. But we've already been into that. As far as what you were saying goes, Licinius, I don't see that there's an insuperable problem.'

All Licinius could do was nod politely to concede the point. Valens nodded back, to show that all was forgiven. He'd been bluffing, of course. All he knew about the subject was what he'd read in a standard textbook on siege techniques, and the method he'd described was how they undermined the walls of cities, not the roofs of silver mines. Licinius had just confirmed that the method would work equally well in the mines, which was good of him, even if he didn't know he'd done it. Valens made a mental note to look into the matter in proper detail, when he had the time.

'Right,' he said, 'I think we're all agreed, then. I'm going to have to ask all of you to help out with the planning; I'll let you know what I need from you over the next couple of days. Orsea, if you could spare me a moment.'

That was the cue for the rest of them to leave. He could feel their relief, and also their resignation. But it was his job to make decisions; and if he didn't, who would?

Orsea stood up. The rest of them left without looking at him, as though he was some kind of monstrosity. Years ago, hadn't people believed that if you looked a leper in the eyes, you could catch the disease that way? Maybe they still had the same belief about humiliation.

'I'm sorry,' Orsea said. 'That didn't come out the way I meant it to.'

Valens shrugged, and perched on the edge of the table. 'It's all right,' he said, 'you didn't do anybody else any harm.'

He could feel the jab go home. It had only been slight, but Orsea felt the least touch these days. Understandably. He had a lot to feel vulnerable about. 'I wanted to explain,' Valens said, in as gentle a voice as he could manage, 'why I don't want you to come to the council meetings any more.'

Orsea turned his head and looked at him. The expression on his face was familiar: the deer at bay, with nowhere left to run to. The difference was, Valens hunted deer because he wanted them; the meat, the hide, the trophy. Hunting was about reducing a wild thing into possession. He'd never wanted Orsea for anything at all.

'Because I make a fool of myself,' Orsea said. 'Understood.'

'No.' Valens sighed. 'I was thinking of you, actually. And Veatriz.' He paused. He hadn't meant to come so close to the truth. 'Look, it's obvious. It's tearing you apart, even hearing news about the war. There's no need for you to put yourself through that. I'll see to it you're kept in the loop, and anything you've got to say, about policy, you can say to me direct.' He stood up and walked across, until he was within arm's length. 'If you want to keep coming to the meetings, then fine. I just thought you'd prefer not to.'

Orsea stayed where he was. The hunted animal runs away. The fencer steps back as his opponent advances, to maintain the safe distance between them. 'Thanks,' he said. 'To be honest, there's nothing useful I could contribute anyway. I mean, it's not like I made a particularly good job of defending my country against the Mezentines, so I'm hardly likely to do any better with yours.'

Valens looked away. 'You can believe that if you want to,' he said. 'It's not true, of course. You beat off a direct assault, which nobody's ever done before--'

'That was Vaatzes,' Orsea interrupted, 'not me.'

'Yes, but you chose him. That's what leaders do, they choose the right people.'

'Like Miel Ducas.' Orsea laughed. 'He was very good indeed. But of course, I relieved him of command and had him locked up, just when we needed him most.'

Valens froze, as though he'd just put his foot in a snare. 'That's beside the point.'

'Yes, I suppose it is.' Orsea sat down. 'None of it's important. What matters is that I started the war in the first place. Nobody else but me. And now it's come here. You know what? I think the war follows me around, like a butcher's dog.'

Valens stifled a yawn. This was mere pointless activity, but it was his duty as a good host to carry on to the end. 'You didn't start my war, Orsea,' he said. 'I did that.'

'Because of me.'

'It seemed like a good idea at the time.'

(In his mind, he was phrasing another question for a letter: Suppose you were fencing with a man who wanted to get killed, but if you kill him, you lose the match. How would you go about it?)

'Valens.' Orsea was looking at him. 'Can I ask you something?'

'Of course.'

Orsea turned his head. Valens had seen people do something similar before; squeamish men who had to put a wounded animal out of its misery. 'You know why I had Miel Ducas arrested?'

'I heard something about it.'

'What happened was,' Orsea said slowly, 'I found out that he had a letter. It was something he shouldn't have had. What I mean is, as soon as it came into his possession he should've brought it to me, but he didn't.' He lifted his head; he was looking into the corner of the room. 'Apparently that's treason,' he said. 'I looked it up.'

'You couldn't trust him any more. Well, that's fair enough.'

'Trust,' Orsea repeated. 'That old thing. You know,' he went on, 'I've been thinking a lot about trust recently.'

'Understandably,' Valens murmured. 'Someone betrayed your city to the enemy.'

'Several people, actually,' Orsea replied briskly, 'including me. But that's not what's been bothering me. I've been thinking - look, can you spare the time for all this? Listening to me rambling on, I mean. It's really self-indulgent of me, and you're a busy man.'

'It's raining,' Valens said. 'I've got plenty of time.'

'Trust.' Orsea jumped up, still looking away. 'Trust's important, because if you can't trust someone, there's a risk he'll do something to hurt you. So you take steps, if you're a prudent man. You take steps to make sure he can't hurt you, assuming he wants to. Isn't that right?'

'Yes.'

'Well, there you go. But it's not as simple as that.' He seemed to be nerving himself to do something, and failing. 'It's not something you can predict, like the workings of a machine. I mean, it's not simple cause and effect. Sometimes, someone you thought was your friend does something to breach your trust, but he's still your friend really, in things that matter. And sometimes your enemy, the man you've never trusted, pops up out of nowhere and saves your life.' Now he turned, and looked Valens in the eye. 'Stuff like that,' he said, 'it sort of makes nonsense out of it all, doesn't it?'

Valens found that he'd taken a step back. Force of habit again. 'I've always found,' he said quietly, 'that if I can't understand something, it's because I don't know all the facts.'

Ah well.' Orsea suddenly smiled. 'That's the difference between us, I guess. When I can't understand something, it's generally because I'm too stupid to get my head round it.'

'You can believe that,' Valens replied, 'if you want to.'

Orsea nodded. 'Did you know?' he said. 'About Miel Ducas, and the letter?'

'I knew there was a letter involved in it,' Valens said. 'But not the details.'

'Not all the facts, then.'

Valens shrugged. 'It was none of my business,' he said, 'so I didn't bother finding out.'

(Valens thought: my father always told me that what's wrong with lying is that it's an admission of weakness. If you're the strongest, you can afford to tell the truth.)

'Good attitude,' Orsea said. 'Wouldn't you like to hear the inside story?'

'Not particularly.'

'Well.' Orsea relaxed a little, as if a fight he'd been expecting had been called off. 'Like I said, you're a busy man. No time for things that don't concern you.'

'Quite.'

Orsea sighed. 'And you're right, of course,' he said. 'There's no point in me coming to meetings any more, and you're right, they do upset me. I felt I ought to keep coming along, just in case I could be useful. But since I can't, there's no point.'

'No.'

'Thanks.' Orsea took a few steps toward the door. 'For what it's worth,' he said, 'I really am very grateful for everything you've done for me.'

Valens let him go without saying anything else. When he'd gone, he sat down, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. nearned gratitude, he thought, just what I always wanted. More cheating, of course. I wonder: do I like the hunt so much because it's the one thing I do where it isn't possible to cheat?

He went back to the tower, changed out of his pretty clothes and put on something comfortable. Another thing his father had always told him: If you cheat, sooner or later you'll be punished for it. That was no lie. Of course, to begin with they were just letters. It was only when he'd become dependent on them that the dishonesty began. It was perfectly simple. She was married - to Orsea, of all people, Duke of Eremia, his people's traditional enemy. But because he knew they could never be together, there could never be anything except letters between them, he'd carried on writing and reading them, until he'd reached the point where he was little more than a foreign correspondent reporting back on his own life to a readership living far away, in a country he could never go to. And - of course - now she was here, never more than a hundred yards away from him, and he couldn't write to her any more, let alone speak to her. He'd taken his country to war in order to rescue her, and thereby lost her for ever.

He grinned. And Orsea thought he was stupid.

She'd be at dinner tonight. By way of exquisitely honed masochism, Valens had ordered the seating plan so that she always sat in the same place she'd been in the first time he'd seen her, seven years ago, when she'd come here as a hostage during the final peace negotiations. That reminded him of something Orsea had said about the war. Orsea had been wrong about that, but the phrase he'd used was nicely appropriate. Irony, Valens thought; irony follows me everywhere. When I was seventeen and she was here the first time, I wanted the negotiations to fail and the war to carry on, because as soon as there was peace I knew she'd go away and I'd never see her again. Now, war has brought her back to me again, like a cynical go-between. Pleasant thought: war wants us to be together so much, it'll do anything to make it happen. I never knew war and love were so close.

If my mind were a falcon, he thought, this is the point where there'd be the biggest risk of it not coming back to the lure. He pulled his shoes on and went back down the stairs to the library. It was time for the day's reports; at least he still got some letters, but these days they were all from spies and traitors.

Anser, reporting on the Eremian resistance. He frowned as he broke the seal. He'd sent Anser out of guilt, mostly. The purpose of the mission was to infiltrate the resistance and report back on its activities, but while he was there he'd undoubtedly be making himself useful, if only to help pass the time, and when it came to violence, Anser could be very useful indeed.

Anser to Duke Valens, greetings.
Things aren't going well, but they could be worse. Yesterday we attacked the
supply convoy for the main expeditionary force. We did a good job. It was
the fifth convoy in a row that we stopped from getting through,which by my
calculations means that fairly soon they'll have to turn around and go back
to the city or starve.Unfortunately, we got beaten up pretty badly in the
process; over a hundred killed, half as many driven off and scattered, quite
possibly caught by the cavalry patrols. The Mezentines have hired some new
light cavalry; I haven't a clue who they are or where they're from, but
they're obviously used to operating in the mountains, and they're proving to
be a real nuisance. The bad news is, Miel Ducas is missing. If he was dead
and they'd found the body, I think we'd have heard about it by now, it'd be
the break the Mezentines have been waiting for. We've been trying to keep
the fact that he's missing quiet, but it won't be long before it gets out.
When that happens, it'll probably be the end of effectiveresistance. It's
annoying, because we were holding our own, if not making any real progress.
Meanwhile, I'm not sure who's in charge here, though I have an unpleasant
feeling it's probably me. This is only a suggestion; but I understand you've
got another Ducas there with you in the city, Jarac or Jarnac or some such.
If it turns out we really have lost Miel,would you consider sending him here?
The Ducas name means a lot to these people, and I guess your specimen's now
the head of the family.

Things we need: food, of course, and boots and blankets; a few barrels of
arrows would be nice, but I imagine you'd rather keep them for yourself. A
good surveyor would have made a hell of a difference a week ago. If you can
spare a couple of field surgeons, we could probably find something for them
to do.

According to some people who came in last week, the Mezentine seventh infan-
try have left the city, headed north. If it's true I can't account for it.
I don't trust the people who told me this, but I have no reason to believe
they're lying.

Trust again. As Orsea had said, that old thing. Valens reached across the table for the ink bottle and wrote a requisition for food, boots, blankets; he hesitated, then added ten barrels of arrows and two surgeons. Wasteful, because if Miel Ducas really was dead, quite soon there'd be no resistance to feed or arm, Anser was quite right about that. Even so; he sealed the requisition and put it on the pile for the clerks to collect. He wondered if he ought to have Anser's letter copied to Orsea, but decided against it.

He picked up another sheet of paper, and wrote on it:

Valens to Anser, greetings.
Make finding out about the Ducas your first priority.I can't send you Jarnac
Ducas, he's too useful to me here; at last I've found an Eremian who's good
for something other than causing me problems. I'm sending you what you asked
for, but there won't be any more. I think it's time to cut our losses, even
if the Ducas is still alive. Once you've found out about that, disentangle
yourself and come home; we've had a change of plans here, and I need you to
do something for me. I'm sorry for wasting your time...

Valens hesitated, then picked up the pumice and rubbed out the last line. He wrote instead:

I hope you've enjoyed your holiday (I know how much you like travel and meet-
ing new people). One last thing; if any of your people there have heard any
rumours - anything at all - about who sold out Civitas Eremiae to the Mezentines,
I want to know about it. Until I know the answer to that question, I'm wasting
my time here trying to plan any kind of strategy.

He lifted his head and looked out of the window. It had stopped raining. Too late now, of course. As far as he was
concerned, the day was a dead loss.

Well, he was in the library, he might as well read a book. There were plenty to choose from. His father (his father used to say that reading was like taking a bath; sometimes you had to do it) had bought a hundredweight of books (various) from a trader. He had had the books unpacked, and shelves put up in the old game larder to store them on. When Valens was fifteen, he'd told him he could choose five books for his own; the rest would be burned. Valens had read them all, desperately, in a hurry, and made his choice. Varro's On Statecraft, Yonec's Art of War, the Suda Encyclopedia, Statianus on revenues and currency, and the Standard Digest of Laws & Statutes; five books, Valens reckoned, that between them contained the bare minimum of knowledge and wisdom a prince needed in order to do his job properly. When he announced that he'd made his choice, his father had had the five books burned and spared the rest; books should be a man's servant, he declared, not his master. Valens wasn't quite sure he saw the point, but he'd learned the lesson, though not perhaps the one his father had intended to convey: that to value anything is to give it an unacceptable degree of power over you, and to choose a thing is to lose it.

Most of what survived the bonfire was garbage: inaccurate books with pretty pictures, elegant and insipid belles-lettres, genteel pornography. When his father died, Valens sold most of them back to the same trader and started building a real library. There were three sections: technical and reference, literature, and the finest collection of hunting manuals in the world.

He stood up, faced the shelves like a general addressing his troops on the eve of battle, and made a choice.

Regentius' Calendar of Hawks and Ladies had been one of the original hundredweight. It was a big, fat book with lurid pictures of birds of prey and couples having sex, apparently drawn by a scribe who'd never seen either, but there was one chapter that justified keeping it. The woman is a heron who feeds alone on the marshes; the man is the wild falcon who hunts her and is himself hunted by the austringers, who wish to break him and sell him to the king. To catch the hawk, the austringers first snare the heron with lime and stake her out under a cage-trap. The falcon knows something is wrong, because no heron ever stood still for so long under a tree; but although he knows it's a trap, he can't deny his nature and eventually he swoops to the kill and triggers the snare; the cage drops down around him and he is caught. An allegory, the sort of thing that was considered the height of sophistication two hundred years ago; just in case the reader fails to make the obvious interpretation, there are brightly coloured vignettes of men and women in the margin to point him in the right direction.

The point being: the falcon cannot deny its nature, even though it can see the cage hanging from the branches on a rope. The poet is too busy with his stylish double entendres to develop the theme properly, but it's there nevertheless, like a large rock in the middle of a road.

Valens read it (he knew it by heart already), and found that he'd picked up a sheet of paper and his pen without knowing it. He frowned, then began to write.

Suppose that, as the cage fell, it broke the falcon's wing.It'd be worthless
then, and if the austringers were humane men, they'd break its neck. The
heron is of value because it can be eaten, but a dead falcon is just bones and
feathers. The hunters want to catch it so that it can hunt; it needs to hunt
(and therefore destroys itself in their trap, and becomes worthless) because
that is its nature. Since the heron is the only element in the story that is
valuable in itself, wouldn't it have been more sensible to catch and eat the
heron and leave the falcon in peace?
Besides, the falcon wouldn't stoop to a tethered bird. It'd be invisible. A
falcon can't strike a stationary target,they can only see movement.

He closed the book, folded the paper and dropped it in the pile of spills beside the fireplace (because when you come to rely on the written word, it's time to light the fire with it). He glanced out of the window again, and pulled his collar up round his ears before leaving the room. It had started raining again.

Copyright © 2006 by K. J. Parker


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