Authors: K. J. Parker
Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #Epic, #Steampunk, #Clockpunk
Copyright © 2005 by K. J. Parker
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written
permission of the publisher.
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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and
not intended by the author.
As soon as Duke Orsea realized he’d lost the battle, the war, and his country’s only hope of survival, he ordered a general
retreat. It was the only sensible thing he’d done all day.
One hour had made all the difference. An hour ago, when he’d led the attack, the world had been a very different place. He’d
had an army of twenty-five thousand men, one-tenth of the population of the Duchy of Eremia. He had a commanding position,
a fully loaded supplies-and-equipment train, a carefully prepared battle plan, the element of surprise, the love and trust
of his people, and hope. Now, as the horns blared and the ragged lines crumpled and dissolved into swarms of running dots,
he had the miserable job of getting as many as he could of the fourteen thousand stunned, bewildered, and resentful survivors
away from the enemy cavalry and back to the relative safety of the mountains.
One hour to change the world; not many men could have done such a thorough job. It took a particular genius to destroy one’s
life so comprehensively in so short a time.
K. J. Parker
“A richly textured and emotionally complex fantasy.… Highly recommended.”
— Library Journal
“When so many fantasy sagas are tired, warmed-over affairs, a writer like K. J. Parker is more of a hurricane than a breath
of fresh air.”
By K. J. Parker
THE FENCER TRILOGY
Colours in the Steel
The Belly of the Bow
The Proof House
THE SCAVENGER TRILOGY
THE ENGINEER TRILOGY
Devices and Desires
Evil for Evil
For Tim Holman, for letting me swim out of my depth,
and for Kester, who I knew before he was infamous
“The quickest way to a man’s heart,” said the instructor, “is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into
his brain, I recommend the eye-socket.”
Like a whip cracking, he uncurled his languid slouch into the taut, straight lines of the lunge. His forearm launched from
the elbow like an arrow as his front leg plunged forward, and the point of the long, slim sword darted, neat as a component
in a machine, through the exact center of the finger-ring that dangled from a cord tied to the beam.
It was typical of Valens’ father that he insisted on his son learning the new fencing; the stock, the tuck, the small-sword
and the rapier. It was elegant, refined, difficult, endlessly time-consuming and, of course, useless. A brigandine or even
a thick winter coat would turn one of those exquisite points; if you wanted to have any chance of doing useful work, you had
to aim for the holes in the face, targets no bigger than an eight-mark coin. Against a farm worker with a hedging tool, you
stood no chance whatsoever. But, for ten years, Valens had flounced and stretched up and down a chalk line in a drafty shed
that hadn’t been cleaned out since it was still a stable. When he could hit the apple, the instructor had hung up a plum,
and then a damson. Now he could get the damson nine times out of ten, and so the ring had taken its place. Once he’d mastered
that, he wondered what he’d be faced with next. The eye of a darning-needle, probably.
“Better,” the instructor said, as the point of Valens’ sword nicked the ring’s edge, making it tinkle like a cow-bell. “Again.”
It was typical of Valens that he suffered through his weekly lesson, face frozen and murder in his heart, always striving
to do better even though he knew the whole thing was an exercise in fatuity. Fencing was last lesson but one on a Monday;
on Wednesday evening, when he actually had an hour free, he paid one of the guardsmen four marks an hour to teach him basic
sword and shield, and another two marks to keep the secret from his father. He was actually quite good at proper fencing,
or so the guardsman said; but the tuck had no cutting edge, only a point, so he couldn’t slice the grin off the instructor’s
face with a smart backhand wrap, as he longed to do. Instead, he was tethered to this stupid chalk line, like a grazing goat.
“That’ll do,” the instructor said, two dozen lunges later. “For next week, I want you to practice the hanging guard and the
Valens dipped his head in a perfunctory nod; the instructor scooped up his armful of swords, unhooked his ring and left the
room. It was still raining outside, and he had a quarter of an hour before he had to present himself in the west tower for
lute and rebec. Awkwardly — it was too small for him at the best of times, and now his fingers were hot and swollen — he eased
the ring off his right index finger and cast around for a bit of string.
Usually, he did much better when the instructor wasn’t there, when he was on his own. That was fatuous too, since the whole
idea of a sword-fight is that there’s someone to fight with. Today, though, he was worse solo than he’d been during the lesson.
He lunged again, missed, hit the string, which wrapped itself insultingly round the sword-point. Maybe it was simply too difficult
That thought didn’t sit comfortably, so he came at the problem from a different angle. Obviously, he told himself, the reason
I can’t do it is because it’s not difficult
Having freed his sword, he stepped back to a length; then he leaned forward just a little and tapped the ring on its edge,
setting it swinging. Then he lunged again.
Six times out of six; enough to prove his point. When the ring swung backward and forward, he didn’t just have a hole to aim
at, he had a line. If he judged the forward allowance right, it was just a simple matter of pointing with the sword as though
it was a finger. He steadied the ring until it stopped swinging, stepped back, lunged again and missed. Maybe I should have
been a cat, he thought. Cats only lash out at moving objects; if it’s still, they can’t see it.
He cut the ring off the cord with his small knife and jammed it back on his finger, trapping a little fold of skin. Rebec
next; time to stop being a warrior and become an artist. When he was Duke, of course, the finest musicians in the world would
bribe his chamberlains for a chance to play while he chatted to his guests or read the day’s intelligence reports, ignoring
them completely. The son of a powerful, uneducated man has a hard time of it, shouldering the burden of all the advantages
his father managed so well without.
An hour of the rebec left his fingertips numb and raw; and then it was time for dinner. That brought back into sharp focus
the question he’d been dodging and parrying all day; would she still be there, or had his father sent her back home? If she’d
left already — if, while he’d been scanning hexameters and hendecasyllables, stabbing at dangling jewelry and picking at wire,
she’d packed up her bags and walked out of his life, possibly forever — at least he wouldn’t have to sit all night at the
wrong end of the table, straining to catch a word or two of what she said to someone else. If she was still here.… He cast
up his mental accounts, trying to figure out if he was owed a miracle. On balance, he decided, probably not. According to
the holy friars, it took three hundred hours of prayer or five hundred of good works to buy a miracle, and he was at least
sixty short on either count. All he could afford out of his accrued merit was a revelatory vision of the Divinity, and he
wasn’t too bothered about that.
If she was still here.
On the off chance, he went back to his room, pulled off his sweaty, dusty shirt and winnowed through his clothes-chest for
a replacement. The black, with silver threads and two gold buttons at the neck, made him look like a jackdaw, so he went for
the red, with last year’s sleeves (but, duke’s son or not, he lived in the mountains; if it came in from outside, it came
slowly, on a mule), simply because it was relatively clean and free of holes. Shoes; his father chose his shoes for him, and
poulaines, with their ridiculously long pointy toes. He promised himself that she wouldn’t be able to see his feet under the
table (besides, she wouldn’t still be here), and pulled out his good mantle from the bottom of the chest. It was only civet,
but it helped mask the disgraceful length of his neck. A glance in the mirror made him wince, but it was the best he could
Sixty hours, he told himself; sixty rotten hours I could’ve made up easily, if only I’d known.
Protocol demanded that he sit on his father’s left at dinner. Tonight, the important guest was someone he didn’t know, although
the man’s brown skin and high cheekbones made it easy enough to guess where he was from. An ambassador from Mezentia; no wonder
his father was preoccupied, waving his hands and smiling (two generations of courtiers had come to harm trying to point out
to the Duke that his smile was infinitely more terrifying than his frown), while the little bald brown man nodded politely
and picked at his dinner like a starling. One quick look gave Valens all the information he needed about what was going on
there. On his own left, the Chancellor was discussing climbing roses with the controller of the mines. So that was all right;
he was free to look round without having to talk to anybody.
She was still here. There was a tiny prickle of guilt mixed in with his relief. She was, after all, a hostage. If she hadn’t
been sent home, it meant that there’d been some last-minute hitch in the treaty negotiations, and the war between the two
dukedoms, two centuries old, was still clinging on to life by a thread. Sooner or later, though, the treaty would be signed:
peace would end the fighting and the desperate waste of lives and money, heal the country’s wounds and bring the conscript
farmers and miners back home; peace would take her away from him before he’d even had a chance to talk to her alone. For now,
though, the war was still here and so was she.
(A small diplomatic incident, maybe; if he could contrive it that their ambassador bumped into him on the stairs and knocked
him down a flight or two. Would an act of clumsiness toward the heir apparent be enough to disrupt the negotiations for a
week or ten days? On the other hand, if he fell awkwardly and broke his neck, might that not constitute an act of war, leading
to summary execution of the hostages? And he’d be dead too, of course, for what that was worth.)
Something massive stirred on his right; his father was standing up to say something, and everybody had stopped talking. There
was a chance it might be important (Father loved to annoy his advisers by making vital announcements out of the blue at dinner),
so Valens tucked in his elbows, looked straight ahead and listened.
But it wasn’t anything. The little bald man from Mezentia turned out to be someone terribly important, grand secretary of
the Foundrymen’s and Machinists’ Guild (in Father’s court, secretaries were fast-moving, worried-looking men who could write;
but apparently they ruled Mezentia, and therefore, by implication, the world), and he was here as an observer to the treaty
negotiations, and this was extremely good. Furthermore, as a token of the Republic’s respect and esteem, he’d brought an example
of cutting-edge Mezentine technology, which they would all have the privilege of seeing demonstrated after dinner.