Read Devices and Desires Online

Authors: K. J. Parker

Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #Epic, #Steampunk, #Clockpunk

Devices and Desires (3 page)

“That’s…” That’s barbaric, he was about to say, but he knew better than that. He knew the theory perfectly well (statecraft,
two hours a week with Chancellor Vetuarius), but he’d never given it any thought before; like people getting killed in the
wars, something that happened but was best not dwelt on. “It must be interesting,” he heard himself say. “I’ve never been
abroad.”

She paused, considering her reply. “Actually, it’s quite dull, mostly. It’s not like I get to go out and see things, and one
guest wing’s pretty like another.”

(And, she didn’t say, there’s always the thought of what might happen if things go wrong.)

“I guess so,” he said. “Well, I hope it hasn’t been too boring here.”

“Boring?” She looked at him. “I wouldn’t say that. Going hunting with your father was —”

“Quite.” Valens managed not to wince. “I didn’t know he’d dragged you out with him. Was it very horrible?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been before, so the blood and stuff doesn’t bother me. It was the standing about waiting for something
to happen that got to me.”

Valens nodded. “Was it raining?”

“Yes.”

“It always rains.” He pulled a face. “Whenever I hear about the terrible droughts in the south, and they’re asking is it because
God’s angry with them or something, I know it’s just because Dad doesn’t go hunting in the south. He could earn a good living
as a rainmaker.”

She smiled, but he knew his joke hadn’t really bitten home. That disconcerted him; usually it had them laughing like drains.
Or perhaps they only laughed because he was the Duke’s son. “Well,” she said, “that was pretty boring. But the rest of it
was…” She shrugged. “It was fine.”

The shrug hurt. “Any rate,” he said briskly, “you’ll be home for harvest festival.”

“It’s not a big thing where I come from,” she replied; and then, like an eclipse of the sun that stops the battle while the
issue’s still in the balance, the chamberlain came out to drive them all into the Great Hall for singing and a recital by
the greatest living exponent of the psaltery.

Valens watched her being bustled away with the other women, until an equerry whisked him off to take his place in the front
row.

Ironically, the singer sang nothing but love-songs; aubades about young lovers parted by the dawn, razos between the pining
youth and the cynical go-between, the bitter complaints of the girl torn from her darling to marry a rich, elderly stranger.
All through the endless performance he didn’t dare turn round, but the thought that she was somewhere in the rows behind was
like an unbearable itch. The greatest living psalterist seemed to linger spitefully over each note, as if he
knew.
The candles were guttering by the time he finally ground to a halt. There would be no more socializing that evening, and
in the morning (early, to catch the coolest part of the day) she’d be going home.

(I could start a war, he thought, as he trudged up the stairs to bed. I could conspire with a disaffected faction or send
the keys of a frontier post to the enemy; then we’d be at war again, and she could come back as a hostage. Or maybe we could
lose, and I could go there; all the same to me, so long as…)

He lay in bed with the lamp flickering, just enough light to see dim shapes by. On the opposite wall, the same boarhounds
that had given him nightmares when he was six carried on their endless duel with the boar at bay, trapped in the fibers of
the tapestry. He could see them just as well when his eyes were shut; two of them, all neck and almost no head, had their
teeth in the boar’s front leg, while a third had him by the ear and hung twisting in mid-air, while the enemy’s tusks ripped
open a fourth from shoulder to tail. Night after night he’d wondered as he lay there which he was, the dogs or the pig, the
hunters or the quarry. It was one of the few questions in his life to which he had yet to resolve an answer. It was possible
that he was both, a synthesis of the two, made possible by the shared act of ripping and tearing. His father had had the tapestry
put there in the hope that it’d inspire him with a love of the chase; but it wasn’t a chase, it was a single still moment
(perhaps he couldn’t see it because it didn’t move, like the ring hanging from the rafter); and therefore it represented nothing.
Tonight, it made him think of her, standing in the rain while the lymers snuffled up and down false trails, his father bitching
at the harborers and the masters of the hounds, the courtiers silent and wet waiting for the violence to begin.

The peace won’t last, they said. They gave it three months, then six, then a year; just possibly three years, or five at the
very most. Meanwhile, Count Sirupat’s third daughter married the Prince of Boha (bad news for the shepherds, the lumber merchants
and the dealers in trained falcons, but good for the silver miners and refiners, who were the ones who mattered), and his
fourth daughter married her third cousin, Valens’ fourth cousin, the Elector of Spalado.

Father celebrated Valens’ nineteenth birthday with a hunt; a three-day battue, with the whole army marshaled in the mountains
to drive the combes and passes down to the valley, where the long nets were set up like lines of infantry waiting to receive
a cavalry charge. On the morning of the third day, they flushed a magnificent mountain boar from the pine woods above the
Blue Lake. One look at the monster’s tusks sent the master hurrying to find the Duke; it’d be nothing short of treason if
it fell to anybody else. But the Duke was right up the other end of the valley; he came as quickly as he could, but when he
got there the boar had broken through, slicing open two guardsmen and half a dozen hounds, and was making a run for it across
the water-meadows. If it made it to the birch forest on the other side of the water, they’d never find it again, so if the
Duke didn’t want to miss out on the trophy of a lifetime, he was going to have to address the boar on horseback. As far as
Valens’ father was concerned, that wasn’t a problem; he galloped off after the boar, leaving his escort behind, and caught
up with it about three hundred yards from the edge of the forest, in a small dip littered with granite outcrops. The boar
didn’t want to stop and turn at bay. It could see safety, and all it had to do was run faster than a horse. The Duke managed
to slow it up with an arrow in the left shoulder, but the thought of bringing down such a spectacular animal with the bow
didn’t appeal to him in the least. Anybody could drain its strength with half a dozen snagging hits and then dispatch it tamely,
like a farmer slaughtering the family pig. The Duke needed it to still be dangerous when he faced it down the shaft of a number
four spear, or else it’d be a waste. So he urged on his horse and managed to overtake it with fifty yards or less to go. The
boar was slowing down, favoring its wounded side, as he surged past it and struck with his lance. The strike was good, catching
the boar just behind the ear and killing it outright. But in order to get in close he’d pulled his horse in too tight; when
the boar dropped, the horse couldn’t clear it in time and stumbled, throwing its rider. The Duke fell badly, landing in a
nest of granite boulders. His shoulder was smashed and so was his right eye-socket, and when he tried to get up, he found
he couldn’t move. The dogs had caught up by then and swarmed over him to get to the boar; behind them came the front-riders,
who saw what had happened and tried to lift him, until his roars of pain frightened them and they put him down again. It was
dark by the time a surgeon arrived from the castle, and the lamps wouldn’t stay lit in the rain and wind. Later, they said
that if they’d got to him earlier, or if the huntsmen hadn’t tried to move him, or if the surgeon had been able to see the
full extent of the damage, it might have been different; as it was, there was very little they could do.

Valens wasn’t there when it happened. He’d stayed back from the main hunt, pretending he had a headache; then, just after
they’d driven the square spinney, he’d been knocked down by an old fat sow nobody had realized was there. As it happened he’d
suffered nothing more than a bruised shin and a mild scat on the head; but by then he’d had about as much of his extended
birthday as he could take, and lay groaning and clutching his knee until they’d loaded him on the game cart and driven him
back to the castle. When they brought Father home, Valens had been lying on his bed reading a book (a twelve-thousand-line
didactic poem about beekeeping). Everyone was sure his father was going to die, so Valens was hustled down into the courtyard,
where they’d rigged up a tent so they wouldn’t have to risk taking the Duke up the narrow spiral stairs of the gatehouse.

“It’s not good.” The Chancellor’s face was streaked with rain, drops of water running off the spikes of hair plastered to
his forehead. Like tears, Valens thought, but really only rainwater. “Truth is, the doctor can’t say how bad it is, not without
a proper examination; but I think we should assume the worst.” He looked harassed, like a man late for an appointment who
has to stop and chat with someone he daren’t offend. “Which means there’s a great deal to be done, and not much time. The
main thing, of course, is to secure the succession.”

It was as though he was talking a different language. “I don’t understand,” Valens said.

The Chancellor sighed. “No, I don’t suppose you do. Listen. You’re nineteen, so in law you’re still a minor. That means a
three-year regency. So, who’ve we got? There’s rules about this sort of thing, obviously, but the fact is that they don’t
count for all that much when power’s at stake. All it takes is a little bit of panic, and all hell’s going to break loose.”

While he was still talking, Valens’ mind had jumped ahead. It wasn’t something he’d ever considered — because Father would
live forever, naturally — but now that the concept had been planted so violently in his mind, he was bright enough to see
the implications. If there was a free-for-all power struggle in the Duchy, there were three obvious contenders: his cousin
Count Licinius, commander of the Guards; his step-uncle Vetranio, commissioner of the mines, generally acknowledged as the
main representative of the mining lobby; his cousin Count Torquatus, after Father the biggest landowner in the Duchy. Licinius
had an army, but he was a cautious, unimaginative man, unlikely to take drastic action unless he felt himself threatened.
Torquatus and Vetranio loathed each other, both on a personal level and as representatives of the wool trade and the mines;
as such, either of them would be prepared to do whatever was necessary to stop the other getting power, and the easiest way
of doing that would of course be to assume it themselves. If Vetranio won the race, Valens wouldn’t give much for his chances
of seeing his twentieth birthday. Vetranio was third in line of succession after his own nephew Domenicus, a seven-year-old
boy that nobody would ever miss. With him and Valens out of the way, Vetranio would be Duke by right. He had thirty thousand
silver-miners at his disposal, as against Licinius’ six hundred Guards; Torquatus could maybe raise ten thousand men from
the mountain pastures, but by the time they were mustered it’d be all over.

“What about you?” Valens asked. “Would you do it? Please?”

The Chancellor looked at him through a curtain of rain. “Me?”

“Yes, you.” Valens stepped forward. He was shorter by a head than the older man, and as he looked up the rain stung his eyes.
“If Father appoints you as regent before he dies, you’ll be able to command the Guards. You can replace Licinius, arrest Vetranio,
before they’ve even heard about this. With both of them out of the game, Torquatus will bide quiet and we’ll be home and dry.”

“I don’t know,” the Chancellor said. “I’d be taking a hell of a risk. And besides, what if he won’t do it? Appoint me, I mean.
Or supposing he doesn’t wake up —”

“Listen.” Valens caught him by the arm; it was thin and flabby under the heavy wool robe. “You and I go in to see him, with
the doctor and a couple of your people you can trust. We come out a minute or so later and make the announcement.” I shouldn’t
have to explain all this, he thought; he’s supposed to be the politician. “The doctor and your clerks will be the witnesses.
It doesn’t matter a damn what actually happens, if we’re the only ones who know.”

The Chancellor looked away. Valens could see he was on the point of panic, like someone who’s afraid of heights stuck up a
ladder. Too frightened, he might well decide he’d be safer giving his support to someone with rather more power than a nineteen-year-old
kid. “It’s all right,” Valens said firmly. “This is something that’s just got to be done, that’s all. If we’re quick and firm,
there won’t be any trouble. Go on; it’ll all be fine.”

There was a long moment. Valens could see the Chancellor was past thinking rationally; he was waiting to fall, or be pushed,
into a decision. “Here’s the doctor coming out,” Valens said. “Get him, and two of your clerks. Go on now.”

The Chancellor nodded and did as he was told. Valens watched him talk to the doctor, saw him nod his agreement — and only
then did it occur to Valens to wonder whether the doctor had any news, whether his father was alive, dead or dying. He pushed
the thought out of his mind (because there was nothing he could do about that particular issue, but the succession had to
be dealt with, and there wasn’t anybody else to do it) and watched the Chancellor beckon over a couple of men — Valens knew
them by sight, didn’t know their names — and whisper to them. One of them looked worried, the other showed nothing. He went
to join them.

“Ready?” he said.

The Chancellor nodded; the doctor tried to say something, but nobody was listening. Valens led the way into the tent.

His father was lying on a table; the clever folding table they took out for the after-hunt dinner, on which they laid out
the best joints of newly butchered meat. From the doorway he looked like he was asleep; a step or so closer and Valens could
see blood, the splintered ends of bones sticking out through incredible red gashes. For just a moment he had to fight to stay
in there, with that mess.

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