Authors: 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
The Folding Knife
The Two of Swords (e-novellas)
BY TOM HOLT
Expecting Someone Taller
Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Paint Your Dragon
Wish You Were Here
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don’t Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
Someone Like Me
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages
When It’s A Jar
The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice
The Good, the Bad and the Smug
Dead Funny: Omnibus 1
Mightier Than the Sword: Omnibus 2
The Divine Comedies: Omnibus 3
For Two Nights Only: Omnibus 4
Tall Stories: Omnibus 5
Saints and Sinners: Omnibus 6
Fishy Wishes: Omnibus 7
The Walled Orchard
Alexander at the World’s End
A Song for Nero
Lucia in Wartime
For David Barrett, with thanks
Published by Orbit
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by K. J. Parker
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
He was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, bald, in a plain grey academic gown and expensive bespoke sandals, two angels a pair. He sat down on the stone ledge that ran along the cloister wall and folded his hands. “My name’s Carrhasian,” he said.
“No,” Forza said gently. “It isn’t.”
“Quite right.” A small, annoyed smile. “But for the purposes of this meeting, I am Director Carrhasian. Thank you for coming here, General Belot.”
Forza leaned forward a little. “Purely out of interest—”
Forza guessed he hadn’t meant to snap like that; raw nerve. He made a note of it, for later. “Not to worry,” he said. “You’ll do, I’m sure. It’s a shame, though, I’d liked to have met Carrhasian. He was a remarkable man.”
“Yes.” A little bit more tension; excellent. A bow is only useful when it’s fully drawn. “Can we talk about the war now, please? We’ve got a lot to discuss.”
“Of course.” Forza spread his hands wide and pressed them palms down on his knees. “Though really I’m not sure why you want to talk to me about your war. It’s none of my business. The Eastern empire’s always had a good relationship with the desert nomads, thank God. They’re not our problem.”
“Quite,” the man said, “but the fall of Blemya would be.” He smiled; he had a mobile reserve. “Yours and your brother’s, of course.”
A position fortified in depth. “That goes without saying,” Forza replied calmly. “You think it might come to that.”
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have asked you here.”
“All right,” Forza said. “So why me, and not Senza? Or have you got him in a side room somewhere, waiting his turn?”
You can learn so much just by watching people. He saw the corner of the man’s mouth move just a little, and remembered Fail Cross, where he’d seen an enemy cavalryman suddenly race away from his unit and gallop across the battlefield to the extreme left wing; from that he’d deduced Senza’s entire battle plan, and had been able to turn a horrific defeat into a bloody stalemate in the nick of time. The recollection made him smile.
He’s talked to Senza already
, he thought; and either Senza’s agreed to the plan or he hasn’t. Very well. Onwards.
“Anyway,” he said briskly, “yes, I take your point. The question is, which would my lord the emperor prefer as a strategically crucial buffer state, Blemya or two million nomads with their heads full of holy war?” He grinned. “You’ve got me,” he said. “I give in.” He pausedto let the last three words sink in, then added, “So what did Senza say? Is he on board too?”
A faint hiss of escaping breath, as though he’d trodden on a nail or something. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, come on,” Forza said wearily. “Do you really think I’d be here if I didn’t know you’ve already put the same offer to my darling brother? Here’s the deal. If he’s in, so am I. If not, it was a pleasure meeting you.”
The man swallowed. He was breaking up. “He’s in.”
“Excellent.” Forza clapped his hands. “The Belot boys, united at last for the good of humanity. Did he happen to mention whether he’s cleared this escapade with his lords and masters, by the way, or doesn’t he bother with things like that?”
“He has full discretion,” the man said bitterly. “As do you.”
“Indeed.” In victory the essential thing to remember is not to follow up too far. “Well, in that case, we have a deal. Now then.” He sat up straight, puppy-dog eager. If he’d had a tail, he’d have wagged it. “What’s the position? Tell me all about it.”
Three days’ hard ride to get home; on a bloody schedule, as always.
He got rid of his escort at the Joy in Repentance; they stumbled into the taproom, too weary to argue when he said he was going on without them for a day or so. He left them drinking in grim silence, took out a fresh horse and followed the road, the last leg of the intolerable journey. Against regulations for the commander-in-chief to go wandering off without a half-company of cavalry at the very least, but he was sick to death of soldiers. Besides, if he brought them home with him, he’d have to feed them and find them beds, and that sort of thing quickly ran into money. He could picture her face as he told her that she had thirty men and thirty-six horses to cater for. He grinned. Screw regulations.
From the Joy to Chastel, four hours, or three if you thrash it. He made it in just over two. That was, after all, the Belot way – get there fast and unexpected, get in and do the job. Well, quite.
Just starting to get dark as he rode through the main gate. The hedges were badly overgrown, and there were clumps of shoulder-high nettles on either side of the drive. A few sheep in the park; the grass had been grazed away to nothing, but he wasn’t sure if that was all right with sheep. He smiled. She wanted him to be a farmer when he was at home, and he’d tried, but it was no good, it just wouldn’t stick. The rails beside the track needed patching up, he noticed. You turn your back for five minutes and the place goes all to hell.
There was a lamp in the stables, so he called out as he dismounted. The door opened and a groom he knew by sight came out and stared at him. “Flying visit,” he said, handing over the reins. The groom looked at him as though God had manifested Himself in the stable yard and was expecting him to work overtime. He turned and walked across the yard to the back door, three days of ridiculously fast riding catching up with him in a matter of seconds. Damn, he thought, I’m going to creak about like an old man. How attractive is that?
The back door was unlocked, which annoyed him. He lifted the latch, taking care not to make any noise, swung the door slowly open and slid inside. Just the one oil lamp glowing in the kitchen passage, bless her economical heart. He walked on the sides of his feet, as if he was stalking deer in a forest. At this time of day, where would she be?
“Hello, Forza,” she said. “Had a good time at the war?”
He spun round. She must’ve come out of the small pantry (but the door had been closed and there was no light showing under it). She was wearing one of those godawful tent-like nightdresses and carrying a candle in a plain pottery holder. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m home.”
One brief, crisp kiss; that was the rule. She swept past him, down the passage and into the small parlour, where four of the sixteen candles were lit and a fire was burning in the hearth. He sat down in the larger of the two chairs, the ornate monstrosity his father had given them as a wedding present. It looked awful, but it was profoundly comfortable. She poured water from the kettle simmering on the hearth into a blue porcelain teapot, then turned to look at him. Her eyes were shining. “Well?” she said.
He allowed himself a pause, then a slow grin. “You’ll never guess,” he said.
With an incredibly swift movement – that knack she had of sort of flowing, like a liquid – she sat on his knees and kissed him till his head began to swim. Then she said, “
“Meet the new commander-in-chief of the Blemyan army,” he said. “Well,” he added, “one of them, anyway.”
It was worth all of it just to see the look on her face. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not.” He darted a kiss at her, but she was too quick for him. “It’s all official,” he said. “Me and one other.”
He was looking at her mouth. Usually when he did that, she’d say “Stop it” with a mock scowl. “Not—”
“Oh yes.” He loved it when he was able to surprise her. “It’s going to be interesting,” he said.
She slipped out of his lap, stood up, crossed to the fireplace and threw on another log. He didn’t mind that; it gave him a chance to look at her properly. He loved that she was as tall as him and almost as strong. She’d distanced herself from him so she could think. “So it’s that bad,” she said.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s true, they’ve taken a major city. Grabbed hold of all the people and marched them off into the desert. Some clown of a politician went after them but never got anywhere near. If they want Blemya, as far as I can see, all they’ve got to do is take it.”
She shivered. He was almost hot enough to sweat, but her idea of comfortably warm was somewhere just below the melting point of copper. “So it’s the Belot brothers to the rescue,” she said. “What does
think about that?”
Forza shrugged. “He’s all right with it, presumably. I’d have heard if he wasn’t.”
“Don’t you think you ought to make sure?”
Well, he’d been in two minds. “All right,” he said. “I’ll write to him in the morning. Is there any food?”
She frowned. “Probably,” she said. “I’ve already had dinner. When do you go?”
“Day after tomorrow.” He hesitated. “Can you come?”
She made him wait. “Oh, I think so,” she said. “It might be warm there. I’m sick of being cold.”
He tried not to grin, but failed miserably. “That’s all right, then,” he said. “It’s a pretty godforsaken place, mind.”
“Worse than Choris Seautou?”
He thought about that. “No.”
“Then that’s all right.” She poured tea into two tiny bowls, handed him one. Jasmine and black pepper; delicious. “I’ll pack a few things tonight.”