Sharps [NOOK Book]

Overview

K.J. Parker's new novel is a perfectly executed tale of intrigue and deception.

For the first time in nearly forty years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighbouring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money...

Now, there is a chance for ...
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Sharps

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Overview

K.J. Parker's new novel is a perfectly executed tale of intrigue and deception.

For the first time in nearly forty years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighbouring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money...

Now, there is a chance for peace. Diplomatic talks have begun and with them, the games. Two teams of fencers represent their nations at this pivotal moment.

When the future of the world lies balanced on the point of a rapier, one misstep could mean ruin for all. Human nature being what it is, does peace really have a chance?
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On the surface, Parker’s newest stand-alone, like the earlier Fencer Trilogy, is a ripping good adventure yarn, laced with frequent barbed witticisms and ace sword fighting. Fencing champion Suidas Deutzel of the Republic of Scheria is caught up in the aftermath of a decades-long vicious war between Scheria and its mortal enemy, Permia. A fencing team of Suidas, unintentional murderer Giraut Bryennius, general’s son Addo Carnufex, and grouchy proto-feminist Iseutz Bringas reluctantly undertake a tour of Permia—a supposed goodwill trip that may start another war. Beneath the hilarious horrors of a trek that suffers every possible setback, Parker details the thrusts and parries of a game between the military aristocracies that want war and the banks that don’t. Parker’s settings and characterizations never miss a beat, and the intricate political interplay of intrigue is suspenseful almost to the last page. (July)
From the Publisher
"[Sharps] is a ripping good adventure yarn, laced with frequent barbed witticisms and ace sword fighting... Parker's settings and characterizations never miss a beat, and the intricate political interplay of intrigue is suspenseful almost to the last page."—Publishers Weekly

"This is another splendid offering from K.J. Parker, the (pseudonymous) British fantasist who seems incapable of writing in anything but top form."—Locus

Locus
"This is another splendid offering from K.J. Parker, the (pseudonymous) British fantasist who seems incapable of writing in anything but top form."
Library Journal
After 40 years of war, the nations of Permia and Scheria have finally arranged a truce and a celebratory fencing tournament to showcase a sport popular in both nations. The Scherian team consists of a former fencing champion, the youngest son of a famous Scherian general, an accidental murderer, a female fencing expert, and their coach, the head of the Fencers' Guild. As they cross into formerly enemy territory, bizarre events, near mishaps, logistical nightmares, and the last-minute addition of a "political" officer to handle diplomatic matters cause the fencers to question the real purpose of their tour. The author of the "Engineer Trilogy" (Devices and Desires: Evil for Evil; The Escapement) portrays a group of mismatched individuals, united only by their swordsmanship, as they grapple with the murky worlds of international politics, diplomatic intrigue, espionage, and potential betrayal. VERDICT Parker's skillful control of pacing, expert rendering of characters, and subtle sense of humor add depth and believability to this stand-alone fantasy that should appeal to fans of the quasi-Renaissance fantasies of Melissa Scott and Steven Brust.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316194105
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Publication date: 7/17/2012
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 416,947
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

K.J. Parker is a pseudonym.
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Read an Excerpt

Sharps


By Parker, K. J.

Orbit

Copyright © 2012 Parker, K. J.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316177757

Ever 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 Phocas 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 the 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.

Picture the scene. There’s me, stark naked, blood pumping down my leg, holding a sword that disappears into the side of a man’s head – perfect stranger, never seen him before in my life – and sticks out the other side. About thirty seconds earlier, I’d been making a disinterested sort of love to a girl whose main interest in the proceedings was seeing how hard she could yell. It happened so quickly, most of it was sheer comedy, and there’s my life changed for ever and, viewed with hindsight, nearly over.

And let’s not forget the other guy. I’ve always been a bit cynical about protestations of remorse, and the bastard had been trying to kill me. Even so, I promise you, a lot of what I felt was sheer dumb horror at what I’d just done. Partly because I knew without having to stop and reflect that there’d be consequences, but mostly at the rank obscenity of violent death. To stab a man through his ears, for crying out loud, how disgusting is that? There’s this technical term in law, an act of gross indecency. If what I’d just done didn’t fit that description, I have no idea what would.

Then he collapsed sideways, almost dislocated my wrist as he pulled off the sword; and I didn’t think, I ran. I think I trod on his face scrambling over him. I just wanted to get out of there, away from that appalling sight. I bolted through the door, found myself on a sort of landing. I could see the top of the stairs. There was some old man coming up them. I bumped into him and knocked him down, felt absurdly bad about that. Down the stairs; the front door was open. Out into the street.

What would you do if you saw a naked, bleeding man, trousers in one hand, unsheathed rapier in the other, sprinting up the sidewalk at you? No disrespect, Dad, but you can keep your answers, because they’ll be wrong. I’ll tell you. You’d stand perfectly still, staring, with your mouth open, while the naked man rushes past you. That’s what they did, my honest, decent fellow citizens, too stunned to move, not having had time to figure out whether what they were watching was comedy or tragedy. As for me, I’d never run in my bare feet before, or at least not since I was too young to remember. Actually, it’s surprising how much traction you get. I remember noticing how warm the pavement was. Anyhow, long story short, I caught sight of the Tower of Revisionary Martyrs, and next thing I knew, I was struggling up the stairs to the bell chamber. I’ll be safe there, I thought. Yes, quite. Really stupid thing to do. Good idea at the time.

Anyhow, Dad, that’s where I died. And I’m glad about that. Mainly because, when they tell you all about it, when they tell you your son committed rape and murder but died before he could be arrested, you’ll be able to not-believe. You won’t have to face me confessing, yes, I did those incredibly stupid things; and all right, it wasn’t actually rape and it wasn’t technically murder; but I think you could forgive those two misdemeanours rather more easily than the total, utter stupidity of which I’m really and truly guilty. You’ll be able to go to your grave convinced that there was more to it than met the eye, there was some perfectly plausible explanation proving my complete innocence, which nobody will ever know. So really, I don’t mind, Dad. Really, believe me, it’s better this way.

He lifted his head. He could hear boots on the stairs.

“You know the fantasy,” Phrantzes said cautiously, “where instead of going home down Cornmarket you take the short cut through the slave market, and you see this beautiful young girl for sale, and you immediately fall in love.”

Corbulo smiled. “That one.”

“Yes. And you buy her and set her free, and she says, I don’t want to be free, I think I’m in love with you, so you get married and spend the rest of your life introducing her to fine art, literature and classical music, for which she has an instinctive appreciation.”

Corbulo looked at him. “You marry yours, do you?”

“It’s just a fantasy.”

“Even so.”

“Actually.” Phrantzes opened the rosewood box and took out a handful of brass counters. “It’s not exactly like that,” he went on, sorting the counters into columns of five. “But there are similarities.”

Chess games aside, it was the first time he’d managed to reduce Corbulo to silence. Worth it, just for that. He laid out three lines of counters on the board; and then Corbulo said, “Go on.”

“Well, for one thing she’s not a slave.”

“Ah.”

Was a slave, once, but that was a long time ago. And I guess she’s not exactly a girl any more. She’s thirty-seven.”

Corbulo frowned. “That’s two things she isn’t. What is she?”

Phrantzes placed three more counters; two on the thousand line, one on the hundred. “She used to be a prostitute,” he said.

“Used to be.”

“Retired. Has been, for some time.”

“I see.”

“These days, she works in the office.”

Corbulo laid down his pen. “In a brothel.”

“Yes, but in the office. She keeps the books and looks after the housekeeping side of things. You know, wine, candles, sending out the laundry.”

“In a brothel.”

Phrantzes sighed. “I met her,” he said irritably, “at a concert.” Corbulo barked out a short, projectile laugh, but Phrantzes ignored him. “At the New Temple, in aid of the refugees. Lord Bringas’ house orchestra. They were playing the Orchomenus flute sonata.”

“The hell with that,” Corbulo said. “What was she doing at a concert?”

“Listening,” Phrantzes replied. “She’s very fond of music.”

“Really.”

“Yes, really.” Phrantzes rolled up his right sleeve, so as not to disturb the counters, and began to make his calculation. “I was late arriving. I trod on her foot getting to my seat.”

Corbulo sighed; a long sigh, the last third of it for effect. “I’m reminded,” he said, “of Paradaisus’ epigram concerning horticulture.”

“Remind me.”

“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Phrantzes clicked his tongue. “Anyway,” he said, “in the interval I apologised properly for standing on her foot, and she was terribly nice about it, and we got talking.”

“And?”

“And that was all,” Phrantzes said. “But then I ran into her again at the post-Mannerist exhibition at the Cyziceum.”

“Also an art lover.”

“Yes. We looked round the exhibition together. I must say, she had a very interesting perspective on Zeuxis’ use of light and shade.”

“Of course she did,” Corbulo said. “And then you went to bed together.”

“Certainly not.”

“Later, then.”

“Several weeks later, if you must know.”

“For free?”

Phrantzes sighed, and Corbulo pulled a face. “Sorry,” he said. “But you’ll forgive me if I reserve the right to be just a little bit sceptical. How old are you exactly?”

“Fifty-one,” Phrantzes snapped. “Two years younger than you.”

“Quite.”

“But in considerably better shape. I exercise three times a week at the baths, and I fence most days at the school in Coppergate. The instructor reckons I’m very well preserved.”

“That’s what they said about Tiberias the Third when they unwrapped the bandages.”

“She doesn’t think I’m too old.”

“She’s no spring chicken herself.”

“Age,” Phrantzes said, “is irrelevant where two people have deep, sincere feelings for each other.”

“Absolutely.”

“I didn’t expect you to understand,” Phrantzes said, jotting down the result of his calculation and sweeping the counters back into their box. “I think that at my age, after a long and frankly pretty tedious life, I deserve a little happiness.”

“Of course you do.” Corbulo looked away. “Maybe this isn’t the best way of achieving it.”

“How the hell would you know? You’ve always been miserable, for as long as I’ve known you.”

Corbulo shrugged, a big, wide manoeuvre that in no way rejected the assertion. “I’m your oldest friend,” he said, “not to mention your business partner. In circumstances like this, it’s my duty to be miserable.

Phrantzes turned his head and scowled at him. “You’re worried she might get hold of my share of the business.”

“Yes,” Corbulo replied. “Among other things.”

A frozen moment; then Phrantzes grinned. “It’ll be all right, I promise you,” he said. “She’s a lovely girl. You’ll like her.”

“I’ll do my best. But no promises.”

“Your best is all I can ask for.” Phrantzes opened the big blue ledger, and wrote in the date at the top of the page. “She’s making dinner for us tomorrow night. Bring Xanthe if you like.”

“At the brothel?”

“No, you idiot, at my house.” He took a pinch of sand from the pot and sprinkled it on the wet ink. “Will Xanthe come, do you think?”

“When I tell her about it?” Corbulo beamed like a sunrise. “No power on earth could conceivably stop her.”

“Well?”

Corbulo took off his coat and hung it on the hook behind the door. “If you must know,” he said, “I think you’ve made a wise choice.”

Phrantzes looked at him. “Wise,” he repeated. “Wise. Sensible, even.”

Sensible…

Corbulo nodded, and settled down on his stool. “I think she represents a sound medium-to-long-term investment, offering worthwhile returns with an acceptably low risk factor.”

Phrantzes rolled his eyes, while Corbulo took off his gloves, stacked them on the edge of the desk and unstoppered the ink bottle. “Really,” he said. “I was sceptical at first, but—”

Sensible, for crying out loud.”

Corbulo shrugged. “You’re a middle-aged bachelor, set in your ways, no experience of women. Quite suddenly you decide to fall in love. While I wouldn’t recommend such a course of action, if you feel you must do such a thing, you’ve chosen the right woman to fall in love with. I think,” he added.

“You think.”

Corbulo examined the nib of his pen, then reached in his pocket and found his penknife. “Yes,” he said. “And Xanthe agrees with me. In fact, she thinks you’re a very lucky man. She suggested,” he went on, reaching into his other pocket, “that you might find this useful.”

He produced a book; old, its binding cracked and starting to crumble at the edges, the middle of the spine carefully repaired with scrap parchment. Phrantzes picked it up, squinted at the title and raised his eyebrows.

“It belonged,” Corbulo said, “to my father.”

“Ah.”

“Quite. Even so,” Corbulo went on, “I gather it’s still pretty much the standard work on the subject. I haven’t read it myself, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Just dipped into it, here and there. It’s got pictures.”

Phrantzes was blushing. “I’m not a complete novice, you know. There have been—”

“I’m sure,” Corbulo said. “Didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But Xanthe said, and I agree with her – well, the disparity of experience could be a problem, if you see what I mean. It’s the same as any new venture. A little background reading is always helpful.”

Phrantzes looked at the book as though he expected it to bite him. Then he grabbed it and thrust it into a drawer. “Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t mention it.”

“I won’t,” Phrantzes replied earnestly. “Ever again. And neither will you.”

It was, everyone agreed, a charming wedding, in the circumstances. The bride disappointed nearly everybody by wearing a plain demure blue dress and a dark veil. She didn’t invite any guests. The four chairmen who carried her in the traditional covered litter from her lodgings to the Temple wore the livery of the Silversmiths & Clockmakers, but nobody could bring themselves to ask why.

Corbulo and Xanthe opened the dancing in an estampie, a small man and a large woman moving with practised, almost telepathic grace. For a while, nobody moved, they were too busy watching. Eventually Astyages from the assay office and his wife joined in, and not long after that there was shuffling room only on the floor. Phrantzes and his bride opened the second dance, a slow and formal quadrille; his part in it was mostly standing perfectly still, which made sense to all who knew him. She proved to be an exquisite dancer, which surprised nobody.

After the dancing there was music, from the Carchedonia Ensemble, and a calligraphy demonstration provided by Master Histamenus from the Lesser Studium. The main event, however, was an exhibition bout of single rapier between the two finalists in that year’s Golden Lily; Gace Erchomai-Bringas and Suidas Deutzel. It came as a complete surprise to the groom, who’d known nothing about it. Corbulo had arranged it all, and the Association had been pleased to declare it an official match, in honour of a former triple gold medallist. They fenced with sharps (a superb case of antique Mezentine cup-hilt rapiers, the bride’s gift to the groom). After six three-minute rounds in which both combatants performed magnificently, Deutzel eventually won in the seventh with a half-inch scratch to the back of Erchomai-Bringas’ right hand. The prize, a silk handkerchief embroidered with the Association crest, and fifty nomismata, was awarded by the outgoing chairman of the Association, who made a short but witty speech saying that if Phrantzes had been twenty years younger, nobody would ever have heard of either of these two pretenders, et cetera. There was polite applause, and the two fencers were given something to eat.

“Complete nonsense, of course,” Phrantzes said later, as he poured the chairman a drink. “Even at my best, either of those young thugs would’ve made mincemeat of me. It’s one of the few good things about getting old. I’ll never have to face one of the younger generation in a serious match.”

The chairman nodded sagely. “The game’s changed a lot since our day,” he said. “People moan about it, of course, but I believe it’s no bad thing. When you think how much footwork has improved since we did away with amateur status…”

“I agree,” Phrantzes said (and he noticed that his wife was looking sweetly patient, and realised he’d been talking to the chairman for far too long). “There’s no two ways about it, the standard of fencing is ten times better than it was twenty years ago. The only danger is, nowadays everybody’s watching, rather than fencing themselves. We’re turning into a nation of—”

“Darling,” his wife interrupted, “I think the Senator is about to leave.”

So Phrantzes had to go and say good night to the Senator, and once he’d gone the party cooled down quite quickly and people began to drift away. As they waited outside for their chair to be brought round, Corbulo said to Xanthe, “It’s a terrible admission to make, but I still don’t know the wretched woman’s name. I tried to catch it during the ceremony, but of course he mumbled, and obviously I can’t ask him now and I can’t spend the rest of my life referring to her as ‘your good lady’. Did you happen to…?”

“Sphagia,” Xanthe said.

“What?”

“Sphagia,” she repeated slowly. “ S-P—”

“Good grief.”

“It’s a Thelite name,” she said, “meaning ‘rose’. Or, if you pronounce it Sphagia, with the long a, ‘blood sausage’. I expect he’s got a nickname for her by now. You’d have to, wouldn’t you?”

Their chair appeared beside the mounting block. As they climbed in, Corbulo asked, “Was that one of the Carnufex boys I saw?”

“Yes. Addo, the youngest.”

“Good heavens. I never realised Phran knew those sorts of people.”

“From fencing,” Xanthe explained. “It’s a pity you never fenced. We might have got to meet some decent people, instead of all your dreary business contacts. Shit,” she added, as her foot slipped off the running board and landed in a puddle of icy water. “Now look what you’ve made me do.”

Suidas Deutzel left the wedding early and went straight home, passing the Sun in Splendour, the Beautiful Revelation of St Arcadius and the Charity and Chastity without even stopping to sniff at the door. He hadn’t drunk anything at the wedding either.

“Well,” she said, as he let himself in, “did you win?”

He nodded. “Fifty nomismata.”

“Thank God.”

He dropped into the one functional chair and closed his eyes. “Sharps,” he said. “They made us fight with bloody sharps. I really don’t see the need for that sort of thing. It’s barbaric.”

“The money,” she reminded him.

“What? Oh, right.” He reached in his pocket and produced first the handkerchief, which he frowned at and threw on the floor, and then the purse of coins, which he held out to her. She snapped it up, teased it open and started to count.

“It’s all there,” he said.

“You counted it?”

“They’re decent people.”

“No such thing.” The coins clicked together in the hollow of her hand. “Fifty.”

“See?”

“Now then.” She sat upright on the floor, forming short columns of coins with the practised touch of a banker. “Ten for the rent. Ten for Taducian – we owe fifteen, but he can go to hell. Three for the poll tax. Twelve to pay back last month’s housekeeping. Fourteen for your cousin Hammo – it’ll be worth it just to keep him off my back, I’m sick of him pouncing on me every time I put my head round the door.” She held up one coin. “And that’s for us to live on, till you can earn some more.”

He stared at her. “You’re kidding me.”

“One nomisma,” she confirmed grimly. “And if you so much as look at a bottle, I’ll kill you. Understood?”

He sighed. “I thought we’d be all right,” he said.

“Oh, we are,” she replied. “At least, by our standards. We’re bloody rich, with one nomisma. Of course we still owe for the coal, the water and the window tax, but I can stave them off for another week.”

“I’m sorry,” he said bitterly. She didn’t reply. Instead, she crawled across the floor and retrieved the handkerchief.

“You can have it if you like,” he said.

She was examining it. “I can get nine trachy on that,” she said.

“It’s worth—”

“Nine trachy,” she said, “to us, at Blemmyo’s.” She turned it over and picked at the hem with her fingernail. “Was the chairman there?”

He nodded.

“Did you ask him?”

“I sort of hinted,” he replied defensively.

“Did you ask him?”

“Not in so many words.” Her face hardened. “Look, it was a social occasion, all right? People lolling around drinking and enjoying themselves. It wasn’t exactly the time and the place for touting for work.”

“You didn’t ask him.”

“I’ll go round to the office tomorrow,” he said angrily. “All right?”

“Do what you like.”

He sighed melodramatically and lay back in the chair, surveying the room. There wasn’t a lot to see. Except for the chair and the mattress (the bailiff ’s men had taken the bed frame) there was nothing there apart from the range, which was built into the wall, and an empty fig crate, on which rested the three-foot-tall solid-gold triple-handed cup that you got lent for a year for being the fencing champion of the Republic of Scheria. She used it to store their arsewipe cabbage leaves in.

“You could go back to work,” he said.

She gave him a furious look. “Believe me, I’m tempted,” she said. “At least I’d be warm, instead of freezing to death in this icebox. But unfortunately they’re not hiring right now. Maybe in the spring.”

His eyes widened. “You asked.”

“Grow up, Suidas.”

“I didn’t mean that,” he said awkwardly. “I thought maybe a few days a week in a shop, something like that. Just till we’re all right again.”

“Suidas.” When she was really angry, she always spoke softly. “I was principal soubrette at the Palace Theatre. I’m damned if I’m going to work myself to death in a shop just because you’re completely useless with money.” She paused, to let him know she meant what was coming next. “If I go back to work, I’ll leave you. Up to you. Your choice.”

He looked at her. “For crying out loud, Sontha,” he said wearily. “Do you think we live like this because I want to? It’s just…”

He didn’t bother with the rest of it. No point. He had his ultimatum, and it was perfectly reasonable. He’d never been able to argue with her, because she had the infuriating knack of being in the right all the time; and Suidas had been a fencer so long that he’d become incapable of not acknowledging a clean hit.

“Well?”

“Fair enough,” he said (and her face changed to unreadable). “I’ll go and see the chairman tomorrow, I promise. And anything that’s going, I’ll take.”

It hadn’t been the right thing to say, and she slept with her back to him that night, while he lay awake and tried to think of something else he could possibly do, besides fencing. But he couldn’t; so just before dawn, he got up and shaved, using the cup as a mirror. His other shirt was being pressed under the mattress and he couldn’t very well retrieve it without waking her up; not a good idea at such an intemperately early hour. Luckily, the cold weather meant he hadn’t sweated too much the previous evening, so yesterday’s shirt was just about wearable. He buckled on his sword belt, thought for a moment and took it off again, in case he ran into the bailiff ’s men in the street.

In his sleep he heard someone repeating his name over and over again: Giraut, Giraut, Giraut Bryennius. He opened his eyes and saw light, which wasn’t what he’d been expecting.

“I’m alive,” he said.

“Indeed.” A woman’s voice, possibly the one he’d just heard, but he wasn’t sure. “There’s no justice.”

A moment of confusion; then the joy of discovering that he hadn’t bled to death in the bell tower after all; then the horrible recollection of what he’d done, and what was going to happen to him.

“Look at me,” the voice said.

He turned his head. His neck hurt.

She was middle-aged, with streaks of grey at the sides of her head; a stern, plain woman who immediately made him feel stupid. She was wearing black, and smelt very faintly of roses.

“You’re in the infirmary of the Lesser Studium,” she said. “You lost a great deal of blood and you’re still very weak, but the brothers tell me you’ll live.” She smiled at him, cold as an archaic statue. “Perhaps that’s not what you wanted to hear. If I was in your shoes, I’d rather have died before they found me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I know you.”

Her face went through the motions of laughter, though she made no sound. “Of course you don’t,” she said. “You’ve never seen me before. You killed my husband.”

Oh, he thought. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry,” she repeated. “Well then.” She picked up a jug and a cup from the table beside the bed, poured some water and handed it to him. “It’s all right,” she said, “I haven’t put poison in it. Go on.”

Now she mentioned it, he was painfully thirsty. He drank, spilling water down his chin.

“I really am sorry,” he said. “About your—”

“No you’re not.” She said it calmly, as if correcting a trivial error. “You’re sorry for yourself, and deeply embarrassed. You have no idea what the proper form of words is for apologising to the widow of your victim.” She put the jug down and settled herself in her straight-backed chair, her hands folded in her lap. “My husband,” she went on, “was a pig. He was a boor and a bully, forever making a fool of himself with the female servants, shamefully neglectful of his family and absolutely hopeless with money. I was married to him for twenty-seven years. The reason you’re here, rather than in a cell in the Watch house, is that I went to the Prefect and asked him for clemency. Theoretically, you’ve been remanded into my custody while the court decides what’s to be done with you. In practice, they’ve more or less left it up to me to decide.”

He stared at her. She was looking straight at him, frowning slightly, as if he was some rather unsatisfactory object she’d bought on a whim and paid too much for. He remembered something else, and said, “I’m really sorry about your daughter.”

“Oh, her.” She shrugged. “I got the truth out of her. She’s never been able to lie to me, though not for want of trying. I knew it was a mistake allowing her to go to college, but her father insisted.” She paused for a moment, as though taking time to ratify her own decision. “I’m in the interesting position,” she said, “of being able to decide what happened. Once I’ve chosen a version of events, it’ll be accepted as true and nobody will question it. I can decide it was rape and murder or a stupid misunderstanding and involuntary manslaughter. Usually only the Invincible Sun can retrospectively alter the course of history, but apparently on this occasion He’s delegated that power to me. As you can imagine, I’ve given it a certain amount of thought.”

She stopped again and looked at him; creating suspense, just for wickedness, because she could. Eventually she leaned forward just a little – there was something rather motherly about the way she sat, almost as if she was about to read him a story. “I was strongly tempted to allow my dislike for my late husband to influence me into letting you get away with it,” she went on. “He’d have been absolutely furious at the thought that his killer might walk free, and he was always so very pompous when he was angry. On the other hand, our family enjoys a certain position in this city. It really wouldn’t do if people got the idea that someone could kill the head of the Chrysostomas and not be punished for it. Also,” she went on, reaching down to a velvet bag on the floor and taking out a small embroidery frame, “there’s you to consider.”

She stopped talking long enough to thread a needle with red embroidery silk. His mother was the same. She’d been doing needlework so long she couldn’t think properly unless she was stitching at something.

“I spoke to your parents,” she went on. “Your mother was inclined to be hysterical, and your father… That reminds me.” From her bag she took a folded sheet of paper. “He asked me to give you this. Go on, read it.”

He took the paper and unfolded it. Not his father’s atrocious handwriting; he’d had it written out formally by a professional clerk.

WHEREAS my son Giraut Bryennius has by his wicked and unforgivable conduct disgraced himself and his family for ever and WHEREAS my said son Giraut stands by the will of my father Jilaum Bryennius and sundry other family trusts hereinafter specified to inherit certain properties more specifically described in the schedule hereto NOW THIS DEED WITNESSES that I Tancre Bryennius entirely disinherit and dispossess my said son Giraut of all properties real and personal in being or hereafter acquired that would otherwise—

“If you like,” she said gently, “I can talk to him for you when he’s had a chance to calm down. The fact remains,” she went on, “that even your own parents agree that you’re basically worthless. I think your father blames himself and your mother blames him, but really, that’s none of my business. The point is,” and she paused to pick exactly the right place to insert her needle into the cloth, “you may be entirely without value to society; my husband, for all his many faults, was not. I don’t suppose you follow current affairs, but he was a leading light of the Redemptionist faction; very much a radical, and remarkably, something of an idealist. It’s rather a pity he didn’t bring his enlightened thinking home with him in the evenings, but the fact remains, politically he was a good man, possibly even a great one, which is probably why I put up with him for so long. And you killed him.”

The silence that followed was so oppressive that he felt he had to say something, even though anything he said would undoubtedly make him feel worse. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

“Of course you didn’t. And even if you had, it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference, when my husband was lashing around with his sword trying to kill you. That’s men for you,” she added, “always looking for the easiest response instead of the best.” She lifted the embroidery frame to her mouth and bit through the last inch of thread; neat and efficient, like a hawk. “Because of you, the land reform bill, the slavery bill and quite probably the poor relief bill won’t go through this session, and maybe not at all. I don’t suppose you care very much, but I do. Which is why,” she went on, licking the end of a new length of thread, “you’re going to Permia.”

His eyes opened very wide. “Excuse me,” he said, “but you don’t mean—”

“Yes.” Her expression hadn’t changed, but suddenly he felt very cold. “Congratulations,” she went on. “You’ve been chosen to represent the Republic.”

He didn’t understand. “As a diplomat?”

She actually smiled. It didn’t help. Quite the reverse. “Good God, no.”

“It’ll be the first officially sanctioned tour of Permia since before the War,” the chairman said. “As you can imagine, it’s been an absolute nightmare setting it up, but now it really does look like it’s going ahead. According to Senator Glycerius, it’s the biggest diplomatic coup of our generation.” He unstoppered the wine jug. “Really, it’s the only thing we and the Permians have in common, apart from the War itself.”

“I never knew they even liked fencing.”

The chairman laughed. “They’re crazy about it, absolutely crazy. More so than we are, even. It’s all they ever talk about. Glycerius says that if you go into any bar in Luzir Beal, you can be sure they’ll be talking about the latest results in the Nationals. All sections of society, from the mine workers to the great nobles in the hill country. They’re obsessed with it. Every kid in Permia wants to be a fencer when he grows up.”

Suidas was watching the wine jug. He hadn’t been offered a drink yet, so he’d had no opportunity to refuse. “I didn’t realise,” he said. “I suppose we never thought about them as people, back then.”

“You were in the War? I’d have thought—”

“Boy soldier,” Suidas said, without expression. “I was with the Fifteenth.”

Without asking, the chairman poured two glasses. It looked very red, like the other red stuff; clear and rich and smooth. I’ll take the glass, he told himself, but I won’t drink it.

“Anyway,” the chairman went on, “you don’t need me to tell you what’s riding on this. If it’s a success – well, who knows? We could be in the history books, you and me. If it goes wrong, we might very well start another war. It matters that much.”

“Oh come on,” Suidas said. “It’s just fencing.”

The chairman turned round slowly, like a man carrying a log on his shoulder. “You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s really important you understand what’s at stake here. Half of the Senate wants another war. They still think we can win, God help us. They think Permia’s on its knees, and one final shove will have them down.”

“Maybe they’re right.”

The chairman winced. “My son was a captain in the Seventh,” he said. “He’d have been thirty-two, the first of last month. For pity’s sake, Deutzel, you were there. You know what it was like.”

Suidas shrugged. “I’m in no hurry to be back in uniform,” he said.

“It’s not just our side,” the chairman went on, placing one glass on the table next to Suidas’ chair. “The Permians are pretty desperate. The whole country’s in a mess, they really don’t know what to do next…”

Suidas frowned. He didn’t follow the news if he could avoid it. “This is that business with the new mines in Choris Androu.”

“Exactly.” The chairman nodded fiercely. “Of course, the real effects won’t start to bite for a while yet, not until the contracts expire. After that…” He shrugged. “What happens if you deprive an entire nation of its livelihood? We have no idea, it’s never happened before. You’ve got some people saying it’s the best possible thing, our oldest and most bitter enemy on their knees, starving in the streets. Or they’ll tell you it’s a disaster just waiting to happen, tens of thousands of angry Permians with absolutely nothing left to lose. The Bank wants peace, naturally. The nobility’s saying that now’s the best possible time to finish them off, like we should’ve done seven years ago.” He shivered a little, and spread his hands in a hopeless gesture. “It’s not like we’re exactly a model of political and social stability right now. I really don’t know what to make of it, and neither does anyone else. It’s a mess. But if there’s anything we can do to help, anything at all – well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

Suidas didn’t think anything was obvious, but he held his tongue. “I’m not sure,” he said. “If it’s as bad over there as you say…”

“The job pays twenty-five thousand nomismata.”

That shut him up like a slap across the face. The chairman looked at him and smiled. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said, “but I get the impression you could use the money.”

“Yes.”

The chairman nodded slowly. “You’ll do it, then.”

Twenty-five thousand nomismata. “Yes.”

“Splendid.” The chairman frowned and looked away. “I’m so glad you agreed. If you’d refused, I was authorised to use blackmail and entrapment, or in the last resort we’d have framed you for a murder or something of the sort. I know,” he added quickly, as Suidas opened his mouth and no words came out. “These people I’m dealing with, they’re – well, you wouldn’t think it was possible, not in a civilised society. God only knows what they’d be capable of, and I’m in absolutely no hurry to find out. But I guess, with so much at stake…” He shook his head. “I promise you’ll get the money. It’ll be paid into an account in your name at the Bank on the day you leave here for Permia. As soon as you get home, you’ll be authorised to draw on it. Or, if – well, if things don’t go so well, you can leave it as a bequest in your will. You have my personal guarantee it’ll be honoured.”

Suidas looked at him. “This is insane,” he said. “I’m a professional fencer, not a—”

“I know,” the chairman said.

The Bank’s decision to repossess the Golden Spire temple and convert it into their headquarters led, needless to say, to a furious response from both the Studium and the public at large. The Bank’s response was that the move was entirely reasonable and logical. They urgently needed larger premises; that wasn’t in dispute. Twelve years ago the Studium had borrowed the sum of seven million nomismata, to pay its war tax and fit out three privateer regiments. The privateers, far from returning a substantial profit from battlefield spoils and the plunder of captured enemy towns, had been wiped out in their first serious engagement. Furthermore, the war loan stock the Studium received from the Treasury in return for its tax payments had been downgraded to junk status following the Great Crash. There was, therefore, no realistic prospect of the Studium repaying its loan in the middle or long term. The Bank had tried to be realistic and had agreed to annual interest-only payments for twenty years. Five of these payments had not been made, which meant the compromise agreement was null and void. The only security available to the Bank was the Studium’s realty, and they held mortgages on nine of the great City temples. They’d had all nine independently valued. The Golden Spire was worth five million, but the Bank was prepared to accept it in full and final settlement. Since they needed offices rather than a very large chapel, they had no option but to convert the building. However, they were only too happy to undertake to do so in as sympathetic a manner as reasonably possible. The internal fabric would remain substantially unchanged except for the addition of new partitions. None of the frescoes, reliefs and mosaics for which the Golden Spire was famous throughout the civilised world would be damaged or altered in any way, and the public would be given access to them on five designated open days every year, which was rather more than the Fathers had ever been prepared to allow. Finally, if at any time during the next fifty years the Studium found itself in a position to be able to pay off the original loan plus the interest accumulated to the date of foreclosure, the Bank would transfer the Temple back to their ownership, having first restored it to its original state and condition. They couldn’t, they felt, say fairer than that.

The Studium didn’t agree; the public did. The transfer was ratified by plebiscite 4/23, a majority of seventeen wards to five. Since the Patriarch refused to sign the transfer documents, the Bank obtained a court order and instructed the Land Registrar to amend the register. On the day the Bank took formal possession, three monks tried to chain themselves to the Antelope Gate and set themselves on fire. Two of them had either faulty tinderboxes or insufficient strength of purpose; the third was severely burned, but was put out in time by Bank guards, carrying water from the Fountain of Symmachus in their helmets.

The architect’s plans designated the East Cloister as the site of the new boardroom, but it wouldn’t be ready for at least eighteen months. The Board therefore met in the chapter house, with its magnificent mosaic ceilings by Theophano the Elder and its notoriously poor acoustics. On the day in question it happened to be raining heavily. Forty-six buckets were brought in to the chamber to catch the drips and prevent further damage to the tesselated floor (attributed to Chrysophanes, third century AUC); together they sounded like a huge musical instrument played by a hesitant beginner.

The first hour was taken up with routine business; formal repossession of the estates of the Leucas and the Blemmyas, and the sealing of several hundred conveyances and mortgages in favour of the existing tenants. Then Mihel Tzimisces, chairman and chief executive officer, announced that the Carnufex family had paid off the last instalment of capital and interest on its loans, and its debt was therefore extinguished. He personally fixed the Bank’s seal to the deed of redemption, which was dispatched to General Carnufex by special messenger.

The courier entrusted with this mission rode directly to the Irrigator’s country house at Bluewater, pausing only to change horses at the Bank’s way station at Ridgeway Cross. He handed the deed, with Chairman Tzimisces’ covering letter, to the house steward, who signed the receipt. The courier returned to the city by way of Monsacer, where he stopped for a drink at the Blessed Annunciation in the abbey foregate. There he happened to meet the abbot’s cupbearer, who’d been in the same regiment as him during the War. The cupbearer reported back to the abbot, who immediately wrote to the Patriarch’s chaplain, who reported to evening Chapter.

“The only thing that surprises me,” one of the canons commented, “is that he left it so long to pay the damn thing off. Everybody knows the Irrigator did pretty well out of the War. He can’t have been short of money.”

“Tax reasons,” suggested one of his colleagues. “You get basic-rate relief on interest payments on war loans with private providers. I’d have thought you’d have known that.”

The canon shrugged. “Not that it matters. I’d have liked to have seen them try putting the old man out on the street. They’d have been lynched before they got five yards.”

The abbot, a third cousin of the General, frowned. “The Carnufex,” he said, “and the Phocas, and the elder branch of the Bardanes; they’re pretty much all that’s left now. And the Phocas aren’t what they were. I gather they had to sell a lot of land towards the end.”

“And guess who bought it,” said the prior.

“I hadn’t heard that,” the abbot said.

“Quite true. It was all perfectly proper and above board, but they might as well not have bothered. Who else was going to buy it anyway? Nobody’s got any money.”

Another canon, a huge man with a bald head and a long black beard, laughed. “The Bank hasn’t got any money,” he said. “Not of its own, at any rate. It’s all borrowed from the Western Empire, at stupid interest. It’s perfectly obvious what’s happening, but nobody’s prepared to recognise it for what it is. I guess they’re afraid they’d have to do something about it if they did.”

“Who would they be, in that context?” the abbot asked quietly. “For all practical purposes, the Bank is the government now. I don’t really see them prosecuting themselves for procedural irregularities.”

The big canon gestured helplessly. “If the people really understood what’s going on…”

The abbot smiled at him. “My dear fellow,” he said. “You’ve always had the gift of seeing complex issues in such delightfully simple terms. It’s a tremendous asset in matters of doctrine, but you’d be wise to avoid politics or finance. The people are better off than they’ve been for a hundred years.”

There was a brief, awkward silence. Then the prior said, “In the short term, maybe.”

“Nonsense.” The abbot closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. “We really mustn’t allow ourselves the luxury of belittling our enemy’s achievements. It’s an undisputed fact that the Bank is guided by the best of motives, and has achieved more for the public good than we or our friends in the nobility have managed to do in living memory.”

“The best of motives,” someone repeated. “All things considered, I’m inclined to doubt that.”

“Really?” The abbot gave him a puzzled look. “I believe their motives are simple and straightforward. Having lent tens of millions to the nobility so they could finance the War, the Bank realised that we were losing, and if we lost the War all those loans would default and they’d be ruined. What else could they possibly do except foreclose on the loans, bankrupt the nobility, take over effective political control and end the War as quickly as possible? Oh, it took a great deal of courage and a considerable leap of imagination; but looked at objectively, it was the only thing they could have done. Then, faced with the backlash from a dispossessed former ruling elite, they did the only sensible thing and bought the everlasting love of the common people. They sold them the freeholds of the land they’d hitherto been tenants of, and since there was never any question of the peasantry being able to pay for the land, they took two-hundred-year mortgages with capital repayment deferred for seventy years. In practical terms, the peasants pay their rent to the Bank, not the big house on the hilltop; everything stays the same, but everything’s changed for ever. It’s every politician’s dream, and they contrived to find a way of doing it quietly and without bloodshed. I really do have the greatest respect for Tzimisces and his people, and I wish they were on our side and not our sworn enemies. But there it is. And if you’re waiting for the Phocas and my cousin Herec to rise up and drive the Bankers out of the Golden Spire, I suspect you’ll be waiting for a very long time, during which you could’ve been doing something useful.”

In the exact centre of the iconostasis above his head, the single silver tear on the cheek of the Lady of the Moon reflected the glow of the twelve brass lamps on the pedestals surrounding the Low Stations. The lamps had been gold once, before the war tax was levied on monastic institutions. The abbot maintained that the brass ones gave a better light, because of the improved reflectors.

“The government’s weak,” the big canon broke in, “everybody knows that. They can’t command a majority in the House, so they’re doing everything by plebiscites. You can’t run a country that way. All it’d take would be one bad thing happening, and then they’d lose the people, there’d be a vote of no confidence in the House and they’d be out. That’s what happened to the Zonaras three hundred years ago, and it’ll happen again. The question is, how much damage will they do in the meantime?”

“Define damage,” the abbot said calmly. “Surely the point is, hamstrung politically as they are, they can’t do anything much, beyond what they’ve done already. They’ve made the mistake of thinking that once you’ve got power, you’ll live happily ever after, like princesses in fairy tales. But the essential nature of power is that it’s an ongoing process. And, as I just said, they can’t really do anything.”

“Which is how they’ll ruin everything,” the big canon maintained. “What we need most of all right now is strong government.” He paused, suddenly aware that he was almost shouting. “If they make a mistake and the City people turn against them…”

“There you go,” the abbot said sadly, “hoping for a miracle. Much as I recommend prayer in the ordinary course of business, I’m not inclined to rely on it in something as important as this. There’s also the small matter of who you intend to pray to. I can’t help but think that your mat’s pointed in the direction of my cousin Herec. And, as I think I made quite clear, that would be a vain hope. The army isn’t going to clean up this mess for us. It’s the only disaster in recent history that it’s not directly responsible for, and I can assure you, it has no interest whatsoever in getting involved.” He glanced down at his fingernails, which were dirty and ragged; he’d been working in the vineyard that morning, and hadn’t had time to make himself presentable. “I suggest you reserve your prayers for the Invincible Sun. After all, that’s what we’re here for, supposedly.”

An elderly canon, who hadn’t said anything yet, leaned forward and folded his hands neatly in his lap. “I agree that the condition we’re in is fairly dreadful,” he said. “The question is, surely, are they any better off? I suggest that, since we’ve come so far and lost so much, it’d be a terrible waste not to go the last mile, especially if it’s downhill.”

The abbot smiled at him. “That’s what so many people are saying, inside the House and outside. Even one or two in the Bank, so I’m told.” That got him their undivided attention, but he raised his hand. “I’m reminded of the story of King Atoches and the oracle.” Blank faces; he nodded. “King Atoches asked the prophetess whether he should risk everything on a final pitched battle with the Tant Fue. She replied that if he took the field, he’d overthrow a mighty kingdom. And so he did; his own. They say that his dying words were a homily on the ambivalence of prophecy, but since his body was never found, I imagine that was a later addition to the story. If we provoke a new war, I’m quite certain we’ll destroy a mighty kingdom, possibly two. That certainty isn’t enough to lead me to endorse a specific course of action.”

The prior made a show of gathering up his papers. “Someone is going to have to do something,” he said. “On balance, I think I’d rather it was us. I don’t really trust the nobility, I have nothing but contempt for the Bank, and that only leaves the enemy, who are in no fit state to make rational decisions about anything. It’s not an ideal state of affairs by any means, but it’s the one we’re stuck with. As Baventius says in the Rope, if you’re sinking in the sea and you can’t swim, you might as well try and catch a fish on your way down.”

“Actually, it’s the Two Brothers.” The abbot lifted a finger to signify the formal conclusion of the meeting. Nobody moved. “I propose we adjourn and meet again in two days’ time. I don’t suppose anything will have changed by then, but there’s always prayer.”

Still nobody moved, so the abbot gathered up his papers and walked out of the room. He crossed the yard, climbed the seventeen stairs to his cell, dropped into his chair and massaged his knees. Every day, a little bit harder, just to do ordinary things, like walk and climb stairs. In comparison, extraordinary things, like gently guiding the destiny of the nation, were child’s play. He reached across his desk for his ink bottle, hesitated, and instead picked up his copy of The Greater Devotions. It was the copy he’d made himself, when he was fourteen years old, and these days the letters were too small for him to read, but he knew the words by heart, so it hardly mattered. He recited the five secondary collects, the singular confession and two of the prayers for indecision. Then he flipped back the hinged lid of the ink pot, picked up his pen and began to write:

Symbatus, Abbot of Monsacer, confident in salvation, to Senator Brenart Trapezius, greetings.

He hesitated, lifted his head and craned his neck a little to see out of his window. It was high on the wall (to discourage idleness and distraction) and looked out over the roof of the stables; to see the hills beyond, you had to stand on a chair, something the abbot hadn’t dared try for the last five years. On either side of the window hung ancient icons, blackened by centuries of candle smoke. It would be wrong to clean them. It was enough to know that the holy images were there under the dust and grease; looking at them, a man might be misled by their beauty. The abbot sighed. He’d nagged his parents into letting him join the Order because he loved drawing and painting and looking at beautiful pictures. After nine years in the scriptorium, he’d produced what was still acknowledged to be the most perfect miniature illuminated missal in the world; whereupon he’d been transferred to the Chancery and taught accountancy, before his soul became irrevocably polluted with beauty. It was mere chance that he’d proved to be even better at accountancy than painting. Curiously, saving and making large sums of money for the Order hadn’t been regarded as a mortal temptation to vanity.

Doubtless you can explain why

He stopped writing. Senator Trapezius was notoriously devout, but he was still a senator, not likely to take kindly to being lectured, even by his Father in the Invincible Sun. He put the sheet of paper to one side – it would do for lining a binding in the scriptorium – and started again.

Delighted as I was to hear that my cousin Herec Carnufex has been able to repay his debt to the Bank in full and is now clear of his mortgages, I must confess that I was slightly puzzled by the news that he is not to be pursued for arrears of interest on late instalments and penalty charges. You know as well as I do – better, of course, since you are a distinguished statesman and I am just a monk, wholly separated from the world – that if we are to have peace, the hawk faction must be kept in check; and the only means at your disposal is control over the warrior nobility through debt and encumbrance. My cousin Herec is a wealthy man. He made a great deal of money out of the War, and spent it on improving his estates (scientific agriculture and all that sort of thing); accordingly, he’s rich in assets but poor in ready cash. He could, and should, be controlled through extended debt. You have now lost this hold over him.

Of course, I don’t regard my dear cousin as an inherently dangerous man. I am, in fact, rather fond of him. When we were boys together, I regularly used to beat him at fencing, single-stick, archery and wrestling, something which I have never failed to remind him of on the all too rare occasions on which we meet; he was better than me at boxing, but only because of his slightly longer reach. These days, as a conscientious servant of the Invincible Sun, I deplore in general terms his bloody profession, while applauding the role he played in the preservation of the state and true religion. I also beat him regularly at chess, something a tactician of his standing would not wish to be widely known.

What matters is the general principle. No doubt, when your committee comes to consider similar applications for discharge from other members of the nobility, you will bear what I have just said firmly in mind.

Now to other, more important matters. The rose you so kindly gave me last year has taken surprisingly well to our harsh and bitter soil, and at his most earnest request I have sent a cutting of it to the patriarch of En Chersin. He is a competent gardener, and I therefore confidently expect that within our lifetimes, the Trapezius rose will be propagated and appreciated throughout the length and breadth of the Western Empire.

He finished the letter, dusted it with sand, folded it and put it on the pile for sealing. He had other letters to write (there were always letters to write, reports to read, accounts to scrutinise, petitions to approve or dismiss) but he felt exhausted, after such a small effort. He wondered, in a general sort of way, if he was dying – slowly, in a discreet and dignified manner, of some perfectly acceptable condition. The man to ask would be Brother Physician, but of course he couldn’t do that. He could go to the library and consult medical texts, but he decided against it; he’d have to ask the librarians to find the appropriate books and bring them to him, and that would be as good as announcing to General Chapter that there was something wrong with him. The sensible thing, he decided, would be to assume that his time was limited, in the earnest hope of being pleasantly surprised. On balance, in spite of the evidence, he doubted it. The Invincible Sun (that lifelong-familiar but still largely incomprehensible entity) clearly had more work for him to do, but felt it necessary to make that difficult work harder still by burdening him with physical weakness. Blessed be the name, et cetera.

Although he tried to concentrate on the service, he was preoccupied throughout evening responses, and the prior had to tap him on the shoulder to let him know proceedings had ended. Instead of taking the evening meal in the refectory with the Brothers, he asked for bread, cheese and black tea in his cell. To clarify his mind, he let the fire go out, took off his robe and sat in his shirt, until he was so cold he couldn’t feel his feet. That didn’t help; so he shook the problem off like a wet dog and glanced over some of the routine reports. One item (minutes of the House foreign affairs subcommittee) caught his attention. He ate the bread and cheese, which he’d forgotten about. The tea was cold, so he drank water instead.

On the second shelf of his bookcase was an old, sad-looking Imitation of the Divine; a home-made wooden board and pigskin binding, repaired several times over the years by men whose principal business hadn’t been bookbinding; on the inside front cover, in peasant fashion, nine generations of his father’s family had recorded births, marriages and deaths. The earliest entries, written in lamp soot and oak gall, were a soft brown colour and barely legible. The most recent additions, far out on the right-hand side of the page, were in his own superb formal-cursive, in black with red capitals. The names were the four sons of Herec Carnufex:

Sphacterius (b. 1577 AUC)

Cortemanduus (b. 1579 d. 1598 AUC)

Stellecho (b. 1581 AUC)

Adulescentulus (b. 1590 AUC)

He counted on his fingers. Young Addo would be – what, twenty-four, already? Just about right, he decided, for what he had in mind. It had been twelve years, half Addo’s lifetime, since he’d last seen him. He remembered a thin, sad boy who felt the cold but refused to show it, a good chess player, would probably have been a reasonable musician if he’d been allowed to continue his education; just another aristocratic face, instantly forgettable, the epitome of the younger son.

Well, he thought; a pity, but it can’t be helped. That would still leave Sphacterius (about whom he knew nothing) and Stellecho (famous in cockfighting and dog-racing circles) to carry on the family name, for what that was worth. If I had a son of my own, he told himself, I’d send him instead; but I don’t, so young Addo will have to do. Besides, once Herec had made up his mind about something…

(He’d never mentioned it to anyone, naturally, but from time to time the abbot had nightmares about the drowning of Flos Verjan. The water had come down so fast, in such unspeakable volume, that there wouldn’t have been time to evacuate the city, even if it hadn’t been under siege and bottled up tight. Conservative estimates put the death toll at seventy thousand, but the method by which that figure had been calculated made no allowance for the very poor, the homeless, refugees from the surrounding countryside – everyone, basically, who wasn’t on the electoral roll or a member of a guild. In his dream he was standing in the market square – he’d never been to Flos Verjan, but for some reason he could picture it very clearly – and looking up into the mountains, watching clouds that weren’t clouds but great masses of water falling slowly towards him, like shapeless, distorted hands, both menacing and imploring. Whenever he had the dream, he would order a special mass for the dead, with candles and a full procession, both choirs and a double distribution of alms. What if anything that was supposed to achieve he wasn’t entirely sure. He could only hope that the Invincible Sun would find a way of translating so much retrospective effort into some positive outcome)

High time our family did its bit, the abbot decided, and wrote another letter.

After three weeks of treatment, Giraut Bryennius was certified as fully healed of his wounds and discharged from the infirmary of the Studium. As ordered, he presented himself at the Fencers’ Guild meeting house, where he was expected. A smartly dressed young man in Guild livery showed him to his room, a small space on the third storey with one long, narrow window, clean white walls and a mattress on the floor. Next to the mattress was a compact heap of clothes, which he recognised as his own. On top of the heap was a brand-new, expensive-looking rapier.

She meant it, he thought. Just for a moment, he contemplated using the rapier to force an exit, and running away. Wiser counsels prevailed. Only an idiot would consider fighting his way out of the Fencers’ Guild, and besides, where would he go?

He resisted the temptation, which in spite of everything was quite strong, to draw the blade and examine it. Instead, he picked up his clothes and folded them neatly, then sat on the mattress and waited for something to happen. Nothing did, for a very long time. He really wished he had something to read, even if it was only the Hymnal.

Quite some time later, a different young man in the same livery turned up and led him back the way he’d come, down two flights of stairs on to a broad marble landing. The young man held a tall panelled door open for him, and he went in.

The room he found himself in was probably the most beautiful interior he’d ever seen. He guessed it had once been a chapel; the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with religious frescoes – the usual subjects: the Sun in glory, the apotheosis of Man, the Reckoning, the Second Partitionist Council; he could probably have named the artists if he’d been able to concentrate, but at the time it didn’t seem to matter. The ceiling was mosaic on a gold background, the implacably perfect face of the Invincible Sun looking past him at something more interesting. There were five tall, wide windows, curtained in purple brocade embroidered with heraldic motifs. On the polished oak floor lay Mezentine and Eastern Empire carpets, which he couldn’t quite bring himself to step on; any one of them was worth a decent hill farm, including the stock and barn contents. There were also four chairs, with impossibly thin legs and rails, gilded and upholstered in red silk. One was empty. On the other three sat two men and a girl, none of whom he’d ever seen before.

There was a man of about thirty; a touch above average height, deep-chested, his fine fair hair touching his shoulders, just starting to thin on top, a square, good-looking face and a weak chin. A broad shiny scar stretched an inch inwards from the web between his thumb and forefinger. There was a tall, thin young man, about Giraut’s age, who sat looking down at his hands. He was dark, with a narrow face, a very long, straight nose and big ears. He looked up as Giraut came in, smiled, then looked away. The girl was probably the tallest of the three, long in the body, broad-shouldered, with a sharp, plain face and short sandy hair pulled back behind her ears. She was wearing a man’s riding jacket, a little too small for her; her thin wrists stuck out from the sleeves and her hands were big and long-fingered. She scowled at him as though a great many things were his fault, then folded her arms tightly and looked at a curtained window.

The older man stood up slowly, as though his legs were stiff from a long ride. “Presumably you’re Giraut Bryennius,” he said. He had a slight accent that came through on the long vowels, like copper shining through worn silver plating.

Giraut nodded. “Is this the fencing team?”

The older man grinned. “That’s us. I’m Suidas Deutzel, the lady is Iseutz Bringas, and that over there is the honourable Adulescentulus Carnufex.”

The tall young man mumbled, “Addo, please,” then looked away again. He was beautifully dressed in grey velvet, with a mark on the left lapel where he’d recently spilled something.

“Sit down,” Suidas said, and pointed to the empty chair; maybe he thought he was training a dog, Giraut thought. He sat down and waited. Suidas frowned, then went on, “Do you know about all this stuff?”

Not the easiest question to answer. “We’re a national fencing team, and we’re going to tour Permia,” he said. “That’s about it.”

Suidas nodded. “That’s more or less all we know,” he said. “Apart from, I don’t know about you, but we aren’t exactly volunteers. How about you?”

Giraut looked at him. He’d heard the name, of course, but had never seen him fence. Deutzel was a Western Empire name, but the accent was all City. He looked about as trustworthy as a rope bridge, though Giraut didn’t feel inclined to hold it against him, under the circumstances.

“I was encouraged to join,” he said.

“He killed a senator,” the girl said. She had a low but perfectly clear voice. “Isn’t that right?”

Giraut opened his mouth but couldn’t seem to make a noise.

“So presumably,” the girl went on, “it was this or the rope. Remains to be seen if you made the right choice.”

Suidas looked blank, then carried on as though he hadn’t heard her. “I’m team captain, for my sins. I don’t actually know what you’re fencing. Are you sword and buckler?”

Giraut shook his head. “Rapier.”

“Oh. That’s two rapiers, longsword and ladies’ smallsword.” He shrugged. “Any good?”

Giraut thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said. “Better than I thought I was, anyhow.”

“Else he wouldn’t be here,” the girl said.

She was getting on Suidas’ nerves, he could tell. “I don’t seem to remember seeing your name in competitions.”

“I’ve never entered,” Giraut replied. “My father wouldn’t let me, said it’d distract me from my studies.”

“So you haven’t got any real experience at competition level?”

“No.”

“Right.” Suidas nodded. “It just gets better and better. Never mind.” He noticed that he was standing up, seemed to realise there was no need for him to do so, and sat down. “Is what she said true?”

“Yes,” the girl called out.

Giraut nodded. “It was sort of self-defence,” he added.

“Sort of,” Suidas repeated. “Well, that’s none of my business. Our business,” he amended firmly. “Apparently someone’s going to come along at some point and tell us something. They can’t be in any desperate hurry, because we’ve been here for a very long time.” He looked up at the ceiling, frowned, and went on, “I guess, since we’re going to be teammates, we really ought to make some sort of effort to talk to each other.”

“Why?” the girl said loudly.

Suidas pulled a face. “I know she comes across as annoying to begin with,” he said. “But once you’ve got to know her a bit better, you’ll find it makes no difference whatsoever. I’ll start, then. I’m Suidas Deutzel, I’m thirty years old—”

“We all know who you are,” the girl snapped.

“Fine.” Suidas turned round slowly. “You next, then.”

“Go to hell,” the girl said.

“Thank you, that was really helpful. You?” He looked at the thin young man, and Giraut noticed that he was making an effort not to scowl. “Well, come on, then.”

The thin young man started to stand up, then thought better of it. “I’m Addo,” he said. “My father—”

“We know about him,” Suidas interrupted.

“Yes, of course. Well, I’m twenty-four, I’ve got two brothers, older than me, and there was another one who died in the War. Apparently I’m going to be fencing longsword, though I’m really not that good. My brother Stellecho—”

“Has it occurred to anybody to wonder,” the girl said, talking through him like a needle through cloth, “why they’re sending the Irrigator’s son to Permia on a goodwill mission? Either it’s some kind of a joke, or what they really want to do is start another war.”

Addo went bright red and turned away. Suidas scowled, and said nothing. There was a long, painful silence, which gave every indication of lasting for ever and ever. Then the girl said, “Well, I think it’s strange, anyhow. And the rest of you aren’t exactly the brightest and the best. A murderer and a drunk—”

“And you,” Suidas said. “Quite. I can tell we’re all going to get along just fine. Maybe we should just sit here quietly till someone comes.”

“You please yourself,” the girl snapped, and took out a book. Giraut noticed she held it almost at arm’s length. Suidas sighed, lay back in his chair and closed his eyes. Addo had his back to them all. Giraut placed his hands on his knees and tried hard to look at the artwork on the walls, but his mind slid off it like smooth-soled shoes on ice.

An infinite time later, the door opened. A bald, bearded man in some kind of robe or habit came in, looked at the four of them and (Giraut distinctly saw his face change) palpably wilted. But he was evidently a determined man. He cleared his throat, smiled and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Fencers’ Guild.”

Suidas clearly knew him. Addo probably knew him by sight. The Bringas girl ignored him completely. He took a couple of steps forward and realised there wasn’t a chair for him. At once, Addo jumped up and went and stood against the wall. The newcomer hesitated, then took the chair and moved it a little so he was a few feet away and facing them. One of nature’s lecturers, Giraut concluded.

“My name,” the newcomer said, “is Jifrez Bardanes, I’m the chairman of the Guild. Some of you know me already, of course.” He avoided Suidas’ eye as neatly as a dancer. “First, I’d like to thank you on behalf of the Guild and, indeed, the Republic for your participation in this project.” He kept a straight face as he said that; Giraut’s respect for him increased dramatically. “The importance of the job you’re about to do can’t be overemphasised. It’s really no exaggeration to say that the future of the peace rests in your hands. It matters that much.”

It was, of course, precisely the wrong thing to say. Suidas frowned terribly at the ceiling, Addo went ghastly white, and the Bringas girl turned a page. Giraut was doing his best to stay perfectly still.

“I’d hoped to be able to introduce you to your coach and team manager,” the chairman went on. “Unfortunately, that’s not possible right now, so for the time being you’ll have to make do with me. Now, I’m sure you have questions. I’ll do my best to answer them for you.”

He stopped and looked round. There could never have been such a silence since the beginning of the world.

Phrantzes came home from work to find a Watch captain sitting in his favourite chair, and two armed guardsmen standing behind it. The captain didn’t get up. Sphagia was nowhere to be seen.

“Jilem Phrantzes?”

“That’s me, yes.”

“You’re under arrest.” The captain lifted a finger, and the two guardsmen moved forward, like chess pieces, and stood level with Phrantzes’ shoulders.

“I beg your pardon?”

“As a citizen,” the captain recited, looking over Phrantzes’ shoulder, “you have the right to appeal to the Praetor. Should your appeal not be heard within thirty days, you have the right to apply to the City Prefect. You are obliged to answer any questions I may put to you truthfully, and failure to do so will lead to a prosecution for obstructing justice. Do you understand?”

Phrantzes stared at him. “What am I supposed to have done?”

The captain nodded, as if he’d just been given his cue. “Possession of obscene literature, contrary to the Sexual Offences and Blasphemy Act, AUC 1471.” He reached behind him and produced a book. It was the one Corbulo had given him as a wedding present.

“That?” Phrantzes said.

“A proscribed text, according to the seventh schedule to the Act.” The captain’s face was completely blank. If he hadn’t known better, Phrantzes would have sworn he was trying not to laugh.

“But everybody’s got a—” Phrantzes stopped short. “It’s not mine,” he said. “I’ve never seen it before. It must belong to one of the servants.”

The captain gave him a mildly disapproving look. “We have detained your domestic staff for questioning,” he said, “and also your wife.” He paused, to let that sink in, and went on, “I do hope you’ll co-operate fully with our investigations.”

It was a long time – not since the War, in fact – since Phrantzes had felt real fear. He recognised it straight away. He knew it would make his voice higher, and he’d probably start sweating; the symptoms were like a mild fever, only wildly accelerated. He’d have no chance of lying convincingly. “It’s mine,” he said.

The captain nodded again. “Of course it is,” he said. “Your business partner gave it to you as a wedding gift. He inscribed the flyleaf. I must ask you to accompany me to the Watch house, where you will be formally charged.”

They put him in a closed carriage, and nobody spoke. At the Watch house (he didn’t actually know where it was; ridiculous, he’d lived all his life in the City) he was politely but ruthlessly searched. They confiscated his tiny ivory-handled penknife and led him down a flight of stone stairs to a long corridor of cells. He could hear someone, presumably a prisoner, banging on a door. Nobody else seemed to have noticed. They put him in a tiny white box with a stone ledge and no window, and left him there.

It was bitterly cold in the cell. No doubt that was what made him shiver, though it was hard to see how it could have accounted for the sweating.

He was sitting on the ledge when a different captain opened the door and told him to follow. Back into the corridor, escorted by the captain and three guards; up four flights, along a lowceilinged passageway, and through a door.

The room was as white as his cell, no window, a table and two chairs. In one chair sat an old man in a monk’s habit. He was reading a book, using a powerful glass. He looked up, smiled, and thanked the captain politely, as though he was a waiter. The captain went out, closing the door behind him.

“Jilem Phrantzes,” the old man said. “Do please sit down. Forgive me for not getting up, but these days my knees don’t work terribly well. My name is Symbatus, I’m the Abbot of Monsacer.”

Phrantzes hesitated for a moment. The man was old and feeble and they were alone; for a split second he considered grabbing the old fool in a stranglehold and using him as a human shield as he made his escape. Too ridiculous for words. He sat down.

“You’ve got me rather than a secular magistrate because technically, sexual offences and blasphemy is an ecclesiastical jurisdiction,” the abbot said. “Of course, under ordinary circumstances we delegate our authority to the secular power. Did they keep you waiting long?”

“I don’t know,” Phrantzes said truthfully.

The abbot nodded. “My fault,” he said. “They sent a carriage for me, but I move frightfully slowly these days. All those stairs.” He pulled a face. “But I’m here now, and so are you. I expect you’re wondering what on earth is going on.”

“Yes.”

The abbot smiled, and closed the book. It was Phrantzes’ copy of Mysteries of the Bedchamber, the one Corbulo had given him. “It’s been years since I saw a copy of that,” the abbot said. “My late father had one. I remember walking in on him once when he was reading it. He went bright red in the face and yelled at me for entering a room without knocking first. It was ages before I figured out what that was all about.” He pushed the book into the middle of the table with his forefinger. “Actually, I’d forgotten what mild stuff it is, compared with what passes for literature these days. Half of it’s a closely reasoned debate about the indivisibility of the three aspects of the Invincible Sun – rather good, actually, I’ve got half a mind to quote it in a homily one of these days and not say where the text comes from. It’d be interesting to see how many of my learned brethren recognise it. Of course, they used to put great slabs of theology in everything in those days.”

He stopped talking. Phrantzes guessed he was doing a fairly realistic impression of a dithering old man. He kept quiet, and eventually the abbot looked at him.

“Unfortunately,” the abbot went on, “by some ridiculous oversight, it’s still on the forbidden publications list. Which is quite ludicrous,” he added with a smile, “because practically everybody in the City who can read has owned a copy at some point in their lives, though I imagine it comes as a bitter disappointment to most of them. We couldn’t possibly prosecute you just for having one, we’d be laughed out of court. It’d be a complete waste of time and an embarrassment for the Prefect’s office.”

Another silence. Phrantzes was sure he was supposed to say something at this point. He kept his mouth shut and waited.

“So really,” the abbot went on, “you’d have been all right if you hadn’t lied to the Watch captain, in front of two witnesses. Now that is a genuine offence, for which I believe the penalty is an unlimited fine, up to three years in prison, or both. Also, the prosecution doesn’t have to give details of the original investigation in open court. All they have to do is satisfy the judge, in camera. So you can be tried and found guilty of obstruction, and nobody need ever know that the original offence you were being questioned about was, well, a bit of a joke, really. If you ask me, it’s a bad law and wide open to abuse, but there, I’m not a legislator, so it’s not up to me. I’m dreadfully sorry,” he said, “but you would appear to be in a bit of a fix.”

Phrantzes looked at him. He felt a great surge of anger, which dissipated as quickly as it had come, followed by a deep, lingering terror. He couldn’t have said a word if he’d wanted to.

“Before you ask,” the abbot went on apologetically, “your wife, obviously, had nothing to do with it at all. I gather she’s being held at the convent of the Sublime Revelation. It’s a pretty dreary place but they’re quite decent women there, for nuns. She’ll be fine, though I imagine she’ll be most dreadfully worried about you. The main thing,” the abbot went on, as Phrantzes’ hands clenched on the arms of his chair, “is to get you out of this as quickly as possible. Don’t you agree?”

“What the hell,” Phrantzes said slowly, “could anybody possibly want from me?”

The abbot sat up a little straighter in his chair. “During the War,” he said, “I believe you served on the staff of General Carnufex. My cousin,” he added, and there was something; not pride, but a sort of warmth. “He speaks very highly of you, as an administrator.”

“I was a clerk.”

“Oh, a bit more than that. You don’t get to be a major if you’re just a clerk.”

“I organised supply convoys,” Phrantzes protested. “Itineraries, estimated travel times, that sort of thing. Just paperwork, that’s all.”

“And you did it very well, according to cousin Herec. And he’s not easily impressed, as I’m sure you know.”

“He always gave me the impression he thought I was an idiot.”

The abbot smiled. “That’s just his way. He was an extraordinarily pompous boy, I remember. He used to lecture the gardeners until they chased him away, and then he hid in the rose bushes. Don’t tell anyone that, by the way. He’d be furious, and he’d know it was me that told on him. Now then,” the abbot went on, “after the war, you won four gold medals in the national championships.”

“Three.”

“Sorry, three. Still, a remarkable achievement. I believe the record stood until quite recently, though I have to confess, I don’t follow fencing. We’re not supposed to, in an enclosed order, though that doesn’t seem to stop the younger men taking an interest. When I first took over as prior at Monsacer, there used to be a regular sweep on the winter League. I made myself very unpopular when I put a stop to it.”

Phrantzes stared at him. “What’s fencing got to do with anything?”

“Please bear with me,” the abbot said kindly, “I’m coming to that. The business you run with your friend Corbulo. How’s it doing?”

“Not too badly, I suppose.”

The abbot scratched his head. “You export raw wool to the Western Empire, and you import finished goods. You’ll have to excuse me,” he went on, “I’m just a priest, I really don’t know the first thing about international trade or any of that sort of thing. Am I right in thinking you inherited your share in the firm from your father?”

“Yes.” Phrantzes suddenly felt an urge to talk, as if that might somehow help, though he was fairly sure it wouldn’t. “He and Corbulo’s father founded the business, back before the War. My father died and Corbulo’s retired, and we took over. We’d worked in the business all our lives, of course, except when we were away at the War.”

“So you’ve known Corbulo…?”

“Since we were kids.”

“You’ve always got on with him?”

“He’s like a brother, I guess. Things changed a bit when he married Xanthe, naturally, but not all that much.”

“Ah yes.” The abbot nodded, as though they’d reached some fascinating crux in the argument. “She’s a Rhangabe, isn’t she? Benart Rhangabe’s youngest daughter.”

“That’s right.”

“Rather a good marriage for a merchant.”

Phrantzes shrugged. “They lost a lot of money in the War. I sort of got the impression that they were glad to get her off their hands. Of course, Corbulo and Xanthe are devoted to each other.”

“You know Rhangabe’s brother, the Senator, was killed recently.”

Phrantzes nodded. “It was quite a shock,” he said. “Not that Xanthe and her uncle were particularly close. But a man like that, getting stabbed to death in his own home…”

“Defending his daughter’s honour.” The abbot frowned. “What do you think should happen to the young man responsible?”

Phrantzes shrugged. “I really couldn’t say,” he said. “Hanging him wouldn’t bring the Senator back.”

“You surprise me. I’d have thought you’d want to see justice done.”

“Well, he’s been caught.” For some reason, Phrantzes felt he should choose his words carefully. “I’m sure he’ll get a fair trial, and the court will do what’s best.”

“You have a touching faith in our justice system.”

“Well, yes. Or I used to. Look, I’m sorry, but what’s all this got to do with me? Please, tell me what you want and I’ll do it. I just want to get out of here.”

But the abbot didn’t seem to be listening, or maybe he was a bit deaf. “Mihel Rhangabe was a radical,” he said. “Do you agree with what he was trying to do?”

Phrantzes pulled a confused face. How could he be expected to remember details of points of current affairs that didn’t really concern him very much, when he’d just been arrested on a spurious charge and interrogated by an elderly lunatic? “By and large, I suppose,” he said. “I mean, banning slavery, that makes sense.”

“Go on.”

Phrantzes considered for a moment, collecting his thoughts like a general rallying his surviving troops after a massacre. “You’ve got two dozen or so aristocrats owning huge factories producing high-volume, low-quality woollen cloth,” he said. “They’ve got a thousand or so slaves working hand looms; practically no overheads, they produce the raw material themselves, so they can trim their profit margin and make their money by selling in bulk to the Western Empire. But in the Empire, they don’t have slaves, instead they’ve got machines that’ll do the work of a hundred men and only need one man to work them. What we should be doing is buying in those machines. But we can’t, because there’s no money in it, because the big landlords have their slave factories. Get rid of slavery, you can take the woollen cloth trade away from the aristocrats, which is the only way you’ll be able to keep it in this country in the face of Imperial competition. Carry on the way things are now and we’ll be reduced to selling raw wool instead of finished cloth, and that won’t last long, believe me. We’ll be in exactly the same mess as Permia, or maybe even worse.”

“Interesting,” the abbot murmured. “Go on.”

Phrantzes wanted to stop and consider what the question really was, but by now he couldn’t help himself, just as a drowning man can’t help thrashing his arms. “Also,” he said, “you’ve got thousands, tens of thousands of slaves, all getting fed barley bread, which we’ve got to import from the West, which just makes the balance of payments problem worse. Free those men, put them on farms of their own in the Demilitarised Zone, where they can feed themselves and produce a saleable surplus, and you’re a big step closer to solving the foreign exchange deficit. Also, once we’ve got people living in the Demilitarised Zone, with a damn good reason for defending it, maybe the Permians won’t be so keen to invade it again. At the moment, it’s just empty, practically a desert. We can’t send our own people there, we lost so many men in the War we can’t farm our own country, let alone colonise the DMZ. Get rid of slavery, you solve two problems in one go, and it won’t cost the Exchequer a bent trachy.”



Continues...

Excerpted from Sharps by Parker, K. J. Copyright © 2012 by Parker, K. J.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2013

    Demi

    Next target, ZOR...

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