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Evil for Evil
By K. J. Parker
OrbitCopyright © 2006 K. J. Parker
All right reserved.
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 center 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 practicing; 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 realized, 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 backward and forward, 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 favorite 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."
"I was thinking," Vaatzes said, "if I practice 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 skillful 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 anymore; 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 anymore. 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.
"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 onto 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 defenses 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 armorers 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."
Excerpted from Evil for Evil by K. J. Parker Copyright © 2006 by K. J. Parker. Excerpted by permission.
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