/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Engineer

Devices and Desires

K Parker


K J Parker

Devices and Desires

Chapter One

'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 centre 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 draughty 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 practise the hanging guard and the volte.'

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 for him.

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 enough.

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 backwards and forwards, 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 jewellery and picking at wire, she'd packed up her bags and walked out of his life, possibly for ever-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 the fashion was still for 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 do.

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 towards 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.

Distracted as he was by the distant view of the top of her head, Valens couldn't help being slightly curious about that. Everyday Mezentine technology was so all-pervasive you could scarcely turn round in the castle without knocking some of it over. Every last cup and dish, from the best service reserved for state occasions down to the pewter they ate off when nobody was looking, had come from the Republic's rolling mills; every candle stood in a Mezentine brass candlestick, its light doubled by a Mezentine mirror hanging from a Mezentine nail. But extra-special cutting-edge didn't make it up the mountain passes very often, which meant they had to make do with rumours; the awestruck whispers of traders and commercial travellers, the panicky reports of military intelligence, and the occasional gross slander from a competitor, far from home and desperate. If the little bald man had brought a miracle with him (the ten-thousand-mark kind, rather than the three-hundred-hour variety), Valens reckoned he could spare a little attention for it, though his heart might be broken beyond repair by even the masters of the Soldefers' and Braziers' Guild.

The miracle came in a plain wooden crate. It was no more than six feet long by three wide, but it took a man at each corner to move it-a heavy miracle, then. Two Mezentines with grave faces and crowbars prised the crate open; out came a lot of straw, and some curly cedar shavings, and then something which Valens assumed was a suit of armour. It was man-high, man-shaped and shiny, and the four attendants lifted it up and set it down on some kind of stand. Fine, Valens thought. Father'll be happy, he likes armour. But then the attendants did something odd. One of them reached into the bottom of the crate and fished out a steel tube with a ring through one end; a key, but much larger than anything of the kind Valens had seen before. It fitted into a slot in the back of the armour; some kind of specially secure, sword-proof fastening? Apparently not; one of the attendants began turning it over and over again, and each turn produced a clicking sound, like the skittering of mice's feet on a thin ceiling. Meanwhile, two more crates had come in. One of them held nothing more than an ordinary blacksmith's anvil-polished, true, like a silver chalice, but otherwise no big deal. The other was full of tools; hammers, tongs, cold chisels, swages, boring stuff. The anvil came to rest at the suit of armour's feet, and one of the Mezentines prised open the suit's steel fingers and closed them around the stem of a three-pound hammer.

'The operation of the machine…' Valens looked round to see who was talking. It was the short, bald man, the grand secretary. He had a low, rich voice with a fairly mild accent. 'The operation of the machine is quite straightforward. A powerful spiral spring, similar to those used in clockwork, is put under tension by winding with a key. Once released, it bears on a flywheel, causing it to spin. A gear train and a series of cams and connecting rods transmits this motion to the machine's main spindle, from which belt-driven takeoffs power the arms. Further cams and trips effect the reciprocating movement, simulating the work of the human arm.'

Whatever that was supposed to mean. It didn't look like anybody else understood it either, to judge from the rows of perfectly blank faces around the tables. But then the key-turner stopped turning, pulled out his key and pushed something; and the suit of armour's arm lifted to head height, stopped and fell, and the hammer in its hand rang on the anvil like a silver bell.

Not armour after all; Valens could feel his father's disappointment through the boards of the table. Of course Valens knew what it was, though he'd never seen anything like it. He'd read about it in some book; the citizens of the Perpetual Republic had a childish love of mechanical toys, metal gadgets that did things almost but not quite as well as people could. It was a typically Mezentine touch to send a mechanical blacksmith. Here is a machine, they were saying, that could make another machine just like itself, the way you ordinary humans breed children. Well; it was their proud boast that they had a machine for everything. Mechanising reproduction, though, was surely cutting off their noses to spite their collective face.

The hammer rang twelve times, then stopped. Figures, Valens thought. You get a dozen hits at a bit of hot metal before it cools down and needs to go back in the fire. While you're waiting for it to heat up again, you've got time to wind up your mechanical slave. Query whether turning the key is harder work than swinging the hammer yourself would be. In any event, it's just a triphammer thinly disguised as a man. Now then; a man convincingly disguised as a triphammer, that'd be worth walking a mile to see.

Stunned silence for a moment or so, followed by loud, nervous applause. The little grand secretary stood up, smiled vaguely and sat down again; that concluded the demonstration.

Ten minutes after he got up from the table, Valens couldn't remember what he'd just eaten, or the name of the trade attache he'd just been introduced to, or the date; as for the explanation of how the heavy miracle worked, it had vanished from his mind completely. That was unfortunate.

'I was wondering,' she repeated. 'Did you understand what that man said, about how the metal blacksmith worked? I'm afraid I didn't catch any of it, and my father's sure to ask me when I get home.'

So she was going home, then. The irony; at last he was talking to her, and tomorrow she was going away. Further irony; it had been his father himself who'd brought them together; Valens, come over here and talk to the Countess Sirupati. Father had been towering over her, the way the castle loomed over the village below, all turrets and battlements, and he'd been smiling, which accounted for the look of terror in her eyes. Valens had wanted to reassure her; it's all right, he hasn't actually eaten anybody for weeks. Instead, he'd stood and gawped, and then he'd looked down at his shoes (poulaines, with the ridiculous pointy toes). And then she'd asked him about the mechanical blacksmith.

He pulled himself together, like a boy trying to draw his father's bow. 'I'm not really the right person to ask,' he said. 'I don't know a lot about machines and stuff.'

Her expression didn't change, except that it glazed slightly. Of course she didn't give a damn about how the stupid machine worked; she was making conversation. 'I think,' he went on, 'that there's a sort of wheel thing in its chest going round and round, and it's linked to cogs and gears and what have you. Oh, and there's cams, to turn the round and round into up and down.'

She blinked at him. 'What's a cam?' she asked.

'Ah.' What indeed? 'Well, it's sort of…' Three hours a week with a specially imported Doctor of Rhetoric, from whom he was supposed to learn how to express himself with clarity, precision and grace. 'It's sort of like this,' he went on, miming with his hands. 'The wheel goes round, you see, and on the edge of the wheel there's like a bit sticking out. Each time it goes round, it kind of bashes on a sort of lever arrangement, like a see-saw; and the lever thing pivots, like it goes down at the bashed end and up at the other end-that's how the arm lifts-and when it's done that, it drops down again under its own weight, nicely in time for the sticky-out bit on the wheel to bash it again. And so on.'

'I see,' she said. 'Yes, I think I understand it now.'

'Really?'

'No,' she said. 'But thank you for trying.'

He frowned. 'Well, it was probably the worst explanation of anything I've ever heard in my life.'

She nodded. 'Maybe,' she said. 'But at least you didn't say, oh, you're only a girl, you wouldn't understand.'

He wasn't quite sure what to make of that. Tactically (four hours a week on the Art of War, with General Bozannes) he felt he probably had a slight advantage, a weak point in the line he could probably turn, if he could get his cavalry there in time. Somehow, though, he felt that the usages of the wars didn't apply here, or if they did they shouldn't. Odd; because even before he'd started having formal lessons, he'd run his life like a military campaign, and the usages of war applied to everything.

'Well,' he said, 'I'm a boy and I haven't got a clue. I suppose it's different in Mezentia.'

'Oh, it is,' she said. 'I've been there, actually.'

'Really? I mean, what's it like?'

She withdrew into a shell of thought, shutting out him and all the world. 'Strange,' she said. 'Not like anywhere else, really. Oh, it's very grand and big and the buildings are huge and all closely packed together, but that's not what I meant. I can't describe it, really.' She paused, and Valens realised he was holding his breath. 'We all went there for some diplomatic thing, my father and my sisters and me; it was shortly before my eldest sister's wedding, and I think it was something to do with the negotiations. I was thirteen then, no, twelve. Anyway, I remember there was this enormous banquet in one of the Guild halls. Enormous place, full of statues and tapestries, and there was this amazing painting on the ceiling, a sea-battle or something like that; and all these people were in their fanciest robes, with gold chains round their necks and silks and all kinds of stuff like that. But the food came on these crummy old wooden dishes, and there weren't any knives or forks, just a plain wooden spoon.'

Fork? he wondered; what's a farm tool got to do with eating? 'Very odd,' he agreed. 'What was the food like?'

'Horrible. It was very fancy and sort of fussy, the way it was put on the plate, with all sorts of leaves and frills and things to make it look pretty; but really it was just bits of meat and dumplings in slimy sauce.'

To the best of his recollection, Valens had never wanted anything in his entire life. Things had come his way, a lot of them; like the loathsome pointy-toed poulaines, the white thoroughbred mare that hated him and tried to bite his feet, the kestrel that wouldn't come back when it was called, the itchy damask pillows, the ivory-handled rapier, all the valuable junk his father kept giving him. He'd been brought up to take care of his possessions, so he treated them with respect until they wore out, broke or died; but he had no love for them, no pride in owning them. He knew that stuff like that mattered to most people; it was a fact about humanity that he accepted without understanding. Other boys his age had wanted a friend; but Valens had always known that the Duke's son didn't make friends; and besides, he preferred thinking to talking, just as he liked to walk on his own. He'd never wanted to be Duke, because that would only happen when his father died. Now, for the first time, he felt what it was like to want something-but, he stopped to consider, is it actually possible to want a person? How? As a pet; to keep in a mews or a stable, to feed twice a day when not in use. It would be possible, of course. You could keep a person, a girl for instance, in a stable or a bower; you could walk her and feed her, dress her and go to bed with her, but… He didn't want ownership. He was the Duke's son, as such he owned everything and nothing. There was a logical paradox here-Doctor Galeazza would be proud of him-but it was so vague and unfamiliar that he didn't know how to begin formulating an equation to solve it. All he could do was be aware of the feeling, which was disturbingly intense.

Not that it mattered. She was going home tomorrow.

'Slimy sauce,' he repeated. 'Yetch. You had to eat it, I suppose, or risk starting a war.'

She smiled, and he looked away, but the smile followed him. 'Not all of it,' she said. 'You've got to leave some if you're a girl, it's ladylike. Not that I minded terribly much.'

Valens nodded. 'When I was a kid I had to finish everything on my plate, or it'd be served up cold for breakfast and lunch until I ate it. Which was fine,' he went on, 'I knew where I stood. But when I was nine, we had to go to a reception at the Lorican embassy-'

She giggled. She was way ahead of him. 'And they think that if you eat everything on your plate it's a criticism, that they haven't given you enough.'

She'd interrupted him and stolen his joke, but he didn't mind. She'd shared his thought. That didn't happen very often.

'Of course,' he went on, 'nobody bothered telling me, I was just a kid; so I was grimly munching my way through my dinner-'

'Rice,' she said. 'Plain boiled white rice, with noodles and stuff.'

He nodded. 'And as soon as I got to the end, someone'd snatch my plate away and dump another heap of the muck on it and hand it back; I thought I'd done something bad and I was being punished. I was so full I could hardly breathe. But Father was busy talking business, and nobody down my end of the table was going to say anything; I'd probably be there still, only-'

He stopped dead.

'Only?'

'I threw up,' he confessed; it wasn't a good memory. 'All over the tablecloth, and their Lord Chamberlain.'

She laughed. He expected to feel hurt, angry. Instead, he laughed too. He had no idea why he should think it was funny, but it was.

'And was there a war?' she asked.

'Nearly,' he replied. 'God, that rice. I can still taste it if I shut my eyes.'

Now she was nodding. 'I was there for a whole year,' she said. 'Lorica, I mean. The rice is what sticks in my mind too. No pun intended.'

He thought about that. 'You sound like you've been to a lot of places,' he said.

'Oh yes.' She didn't sound happy about it, which struck him as odd. He'd never been outside the dukedom in his life. 'In fact, I've spent more time away than at home.'

Well, he had to ask. 'Why?'

The question appeared to surprise her. 'It's what I'm for,' she said. 'I guess you could say it's my job.'

'Job?'

She nodded again. 'Professional hostage. Comes of being the fifth of seven daughters. You see,' she went on, 'we've got to get married in age order, it's protocol or something, and there's still two of them older than me left; I can't get married till they are. So, the only thing I'm useful for while I'm waiting my turn is being a hostage. Which means, when they're doing a treaty or a settlement or something, off I go on my travels until it's all sorted out.'

'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 rain-maker.'

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 socialising 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 fibres 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 harbourers 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 marshalled 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, favouring 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 realised 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 bee-keeping). 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 for ever, 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.

'Dad?' he said softly.

'He can't hear you.' The doctor's voice, very nervous and strained. 'He passed out from the pain a few minutes ago. I don't know if he'll wake up again.'

Valens closed his eyes for a moment. 'What's the damage?' he said.

The doctor came a little closer. 'For a start,' he said, 'broken skull, collar-bone, three ribs, left forearm; but that's not the real problem. He's bleeding heavily, inside, and he's paralysed, from the neck down. There's several possible causes for that, but I don't yet know which it is.'

'You don't know?' Valens repeated.

'I'm sorry.' The doctor was afraid, that was it. Understandable; but it would only get in the way. 'Until I can do a proper examination.'

'I understand,' Valens said. 'And I know you're doing everything you can. Meanwhile, we need your help.' He turned to look at the Chancellor. 'Does he know what he's got to do?'

The Chancellor dipped his head slightly. 'They all do,' he said.

'Right.' Valens looked away from the body on the table. 'Then let's get on with it.'

In the event, there was no trouble at all. Count Licinius was in bed when a platoon of his own Guards brought him the letter and escorted him, gently but firmly, to a guestroom in the castle; it was perfectly pleasant, but it was on the sixth floor of the tower, and two men stood guard outside it all night. Vetranio made a bit of a fuss when the Guards came for him at his villa on the outskirts of the city. He had guards of his own, and there was an ugly moment when they started to intervene. A sword was drawn, there was a minor scuffle; Vetranio lost his nerve and came quietly, ending up in the room next to Licinius, though neither of them knew it until they were released a week later. By then, the doctors were pleased to be able to announce that the Duke had come through the dangerous phase of his injuries and was conscious again.

For Valens, that week was the longest of his life. Once Licinius and Vetranio were safely locked up and everything was quiet, he forced himself to go back down to the courtyard and into the tent. He freely admitted to himself that he didn't want to go. He had no wish to look at the horrible thing his father had turned into, the disgusting shambles of broken and damaged parts-if it was a cart or a plough, you wouldn't bother trying to mend it, you'd dump it in the hedge and build a new one.

There were many times during his vigil in the tent when he wished his father would die and be done with it. It'd be better for everyone, now that the political situation had been sorted out. He knew, as he sat and stared at his father's closed eyes, that the Duke didn't want to live; somewhere, deep down in his mind, he'd know what had happened to him, the extent of the damage. He'd never hunt again, never walk, never stand up, feed himself; for the rest of his life, he'd shit into a nappy, like a baby. He'd fought more than his share of wars, seen the terror in the eyes of men he'd reduced to nothing as they knelt before him; he'd far rather die than give them this satisfaction. In fact, Valens recognised, he could think of only one person in the world who wanted him not to die, and his reasons were just sentiment, nothing that would survive the brutal interrogation of logic. At some point in the first twenty-four hours he'd fallen asleep in his chair; he'd had a dream, in which he saw Death standing over the table, asking his permission to take his father's life away, like clearing away the dishes after dinner. It seemed such a reasonable request, and refusing it was a foolish, immature thing to do. You know I'm right, Death's voice said softly inside his head, it's the right thing to do and you're being a nuisance. He'd felt guilty when he ordered Death to go away, ashamed of his own petulance; and meanwhile, outside the door, he could near Licinius and Vetranio and Torquatus and the Chancellor and everybody else in the Duchy muttering about him, how if he couldn't even take a simple decision like this without coming all to pieces, how on earth did he imagine he would ever be fit to govern a country? He felt the leash in his hand, the thin line of rope that tethered his father's life to the tangled mess of bones and wounds on the table. If he let go, it'd all be just fine, it'd be over. He was only hanging on to it out of perversity, contrariness; they should come in, take it away from him and give it to a grown-up…

When he woke up, his father's eyes were open; not looking at him, but out through the tent doorway, at the sunlight. Valens sat up, stifled a yawn; Father's eyes moved and met his, and then he looked away.

I suppose I ought to say something, he thought; but he couldn't think of anything.

(Instead, he thought about his prisoners, Licinius and Vetranio, locked up like dogs shut in on a rainy day. Were they pacing up and down, or lying resigned and still on the bed? Had anybody thought to bring them something to read?)

He was still trying to find some words when the doctor came in; and he carried on trying to find them for the next four years, until his father died, in the middle of the night, on the eve of Valens' twenty-third birthday. But all that time Valens never said a word, so that the last thing he told his father was a lie: I won't go up to the round wood with you this afternoon, I've got a splitting headache coming on. Not that it mattered; if he'd been there, his father would still have ridden ahead after the boar, the outcome would have been the same in all material respects.

Someone had thought to have the boar flayed and the hide made into a rug; they draped it over the coffin when they carried it down to the chapel for burial. It was, Valens thought, a loathsome gesture, but Father would've appreciated it.

Valens was duly acclaimed Duke by the representatives of the district assemblies. There was a ceremony in the great hall, followed by a banquet. The Chancellor (Count Licinius, restored to favour; his predecessor had died of a sad combination of ambition and carelessness the previous spring) took him aside for a quiet word before they joined the guests. Now that Valens was officially in charge of the Duchy, there were a few niceties of foreign policy to go through.

'Now?'

'Now,' Licinius replied emphatically. 'Things are a bit complicated at the moment. There's things you should be aware of, before you go in there and start talking to people.'

Badly phrased; Licinius was an intelligent man with a fool's tongue. But Valens was used to that. 'You didn't want me to have to bother my pretty little head about them yesterday, I suppose?'

Licinius shrugged. 'The situation's been building up gradually for a long time. When it all started, you were still-well, indisposed. By the time you started taking an interest again, it was too involved to explain. You know how it is.'

'Sure.' Valens nodded. 'So now you're going to have to explain it all in five minutes before I go down to dinner.'

Licinius waited for a moment, in case Valens wanted to develop this theme. The pause made Valens feel petty. 'Go on,' he said.

So Licinius told him all about it. Count Sirupat, he said, had kept strictly to the letter of the peace treaty that had been signed when Valens was sixteen. There hadn't been any trouble on the borders, and there was no reason to suppose he wasn't entirely sincere about wanting peace. But things weren't all wine and honey-cakes; Sirupat had seven daughters-

'I know,' Valens interrupted, a little abruptly. 'I met one of them once; it was when the treaty was signed, she was here as a hostage.'

Licinius nodded. 'That was the fifth daughter, Veatriz. Anyway, shortly after your father had his accident, my predecessor made a formal approach to Sirupat for a marriage alliance. In his reply, Sirupat-'

'Just a moment,' Valens interrupted. 'Marriage alliance. Who was supposed to be marrying who?'

Licinius had the grace to look away. 'One of Sirupat's daughters. And you, obviously.'

'Fine.' Valens frowned. 'Which one?'

'I'm sorry?'

'Which one of Sirupat's daughters?'

Licinius frowned, as if this fascination with trivial details perplexed him. 'The fifth or the sixth,' he said. 'The older four had already been married off, and there's some interesting implications there, because-'

'The fifth or the sixth.'

'They're both pleasant enough, so I've heard. Anyway, Sirupat gave his agreement in principle, as you'd expect, because it's the obvious logical move. Before anybody had made any definite proposals, I took over as Chancellor; which shouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference, obviously, but suddenly Sirupat wasn't answering my letters. Next thing we hear, he's negotiating a marriage with his sister's eldest son, Orsea.'

'Orsea,' Valens repeated. 'You don't mean my cousin Orsea, from Scandea?'

'Him,' Licinius said. 'Well, you can imagine, we were a bit stunned. We all assumed it was just tactical, trying to get us to up our offer, so we decided to take no notice. I mean-'

'I remember when he came to stay, when I was a kid,' Valens said. 'I suppose he was a hostage too, come to think of it. I just assumed he was here because he's an off-relation. But we got on really well together. I've often wondered what became of him.'

'Not much,' Licinius said. 'He may be related to our lot and their lot, but really he's nothing more than a small-time country squire; spends his time counting his sheep and checking the boundary fences. But if he were to marry Sirupat's daughter, that'd make him the heir presumptive, when Sirupat goes on-'

'Would it? Why?'

Licinius pulled a face. 'It's complicated. Actually, I'm not entirely sure why; I think it's because the first three weren't born in the purple, and the fourth came along while the marriage was still nominally morganatic. Anyhow, there's a damn good reason. So in practice, Sirupat was practically appointing him as his successor.'

'Assuming the marriage goes ahead,' Valens pointed out. And if it's just a bargaining ploy…'

'Which is what we'd assumed,' Licinius said. 'But apparently we were wrong. They were married last week.'

For a moment, Valens felt as though he'd lost his memory. Where he was, what he was supposed to be doing, what he was talking about; all of them on the tip of his tongue but he couldn't quite remember. 'Last week,' he repeated.

'Bolt out of the blue, literally,' Licinius said. 'No warning, no demands, nothing. Just a report from our ambassador, not even formal notification from the Court-which we're entitled to, incidentally, under the terms of the treaty.'

'Which daughter?' Valens said.

'What? Oh, right. I'm not absolutely sure. I think it was number five; which'd make sense, because they've got rules over there about the order princesses get married in. But if it was number six, the effect'd still be the same. Now I'm not saying it was meant as a deliberate provocation or an act of war, but-'

'Can you find out?' Valens said. 'Which one it was, I mean.'

'Yes, all right. But like I said, it's not really important. What matters is, Sirupat has effectively rejected our claim-some might say the treaty itself-in favour of some nobody who just happens to be a poor relation. In basic diplomatic terms-'

'Find out which one,' Valens cut him off. 'Quickly as possible, please.'

He could see Licinius getting flustered, thinking he hadn't got across the true magnitude of the political situation. 'I will, yes. But if you're thinking that's all right, I'll just marry number six, I've got to tell you that'd be a grave miscalculation. You see, under their constitution-'

'Find out,' Valens said, raising his voice just a little, 'and as soon as you hear, let me know. All right?'

'I've already said yes.'

'That's splendid.' Valens took a deep breath. 'That'll have to do as far as the briefing goes, we can't keep all the guests waiting.'

Licinius had his answer within the hour. Yes, it was the fifth daughter, Veatriz, who'd married Count Orsea. Licinius' scribbled note reached Valens at the dinner-table, where he was sandwiched in between the Patriarchal legate (a serene old man who dribbled soup) and a high-ranking Mezentine commercial attache. Consequently, he read the note quickly, tucked it into his sleeve and carried on talking to the legate about the best way to blanch chicory.

The next day, for the first time since his father's accident, he announced a hunt. Since everybody was unprepared and out of practice, it would be a simple, perfunctory affair. They would draw the home coverts in the morning, and drive down the mill-stream in the afternoon. The announcement caused some surprise-people had got the impression from somewhere that the new Duke wasn't keen on hunting-and a great deal of anxious preparation and last-minute dashing about in stables, kennels and tack rooms. Any annoyance, however, was easily outweighed by relief that things were getting back to normal.

Chapter Two

'The prisoner has suggested,' the advocate said, 'that his offence is trivial. Let us examine his claim. Let us reflect on what is trivial and what is serious, and see if we can come to a better understanding of these concepts.'

He was a nondescript man, by any standards; a little under medium height, bald, with tufts of white hair over each ear; a round man, sedentary, with bright brown eyes. Ziani had known him for years, from committees and receptions and factory visits, had met his wife twice and his daughter once. From those meetings he'd carried away a mental image of a loud, high voice, someone brisk and busy but polite enough, an important man who knew the strategic value of being pleasant to subordinate colleagues. He knew he was some kind of high Guild official, but today was the first time he'd found out what Lodoico Sphrantzes actually did.

'The prisoner, Ziani Vaatzes,' the advocate went on, 'admits to having created an abomination. He admitted as much to the investigator who inspected it. He signed a deposition confessing that the thing was made by him, and agreeing in detail the departures from Specification. In this court, he has acknowledged his signature on that deposition, and conceded that he said those words to that investigator. But he stands to his defence. He pleads not guilty. His defence…' Advocate Sphrantzes paused to shake his head. 'His defence is that his admitted abomination was only a little one, a minor deviation. It was, he tells us, a slight modification, an improvement.'

A little buzz of murmuring went round the semicircle of the public gallery, like half a ripple from a stone dropped in water. Sphrantzes let it run its course before he went-on.

'Very well then,' he said. 'Let us consider the details. As regards the construction of automata and mechanical toys, Specification states that the lifting mechanism for the. arms shall be powered by a clock-spring seven feet six inches long, one quarter of an inch wide and fifteen thousandths of an inch thick, with a generous permitted tolerance of three per cent for length and width, and fifteen per cent for thickness. Furthermore, it states that the gear train conveying motive power from the spring to the shoulder assemblies shall comprise five cogs of ratios forty, thirty, twenty-five, twelve and six to one. Furthermore, it lays down that the thickness of such cogs shall be three eighths of an inch, and that each cog shall ride on a brass bushing. I ask the clerk to verify that my summary of Specification is correct.'

The clerk stood up, nodded and sat down again.

'So much, then,' Sphrantzes went on, 'for Specification. Let us now turn to the investigator's report concerning the abomination created by the prisoner. Investigator Manin, as you have heard for yourselves, discovered that the spring used by the prisoner was nine feet three inches long, five sixteenths of an inch wide and ten thousandths of an inch thick; that the gear train contained not five but six cogs, the sixth being in ratio of four to one; that the said cogs were seven sixteenths of an inch thick, and their bushings were not brass but bronze. In short, we have unequivocal proof of not one but three distinct and deliberate deviations from Specification.'

Advocate Sphrantzes paused for a moment to stare ferociously at the dock; then he continued. 'Three distinct deviations; so much, I think we can safely say, for the argument that it was only a little abomination, a trivial departure. Now, if the prisoner had argued that he is an inept metalworker, incapable of observing a tolerance, that might be easier to accept-except, of course, that we know he is no such thing. On the contrary; we know that he holds the rank of supervisor in the Foundrymen's and Machinists' Guild, that he has passed all twelve of the prescribed trade tests and holds no fewer than eleven certificates for exemplary work, one of them for hand-filing a perfect circle to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch. But he makes no such claim in his defence. No; he admits the work, and accepts the report. He accepts that each deviation bears directly on the others; that the longer, thinner spring affords more power to the gears, in consequence of which a sixth gear is added and the width of the cogs is increased to augment bearing surface, with harder-wearing bushes to handle the additional wear. All this, he claims, he did in order to make a mechanical toy that could raise its arms above its head; in order, members of the committee, to improve on Specification.'

No murmurs this time. Absolute silence.

'To improve,' Sphrantzes repeated slowly, 'on Specification. May I invite you to consider for a moment the implications of that intention.

'When our Guild was first established, fought for by our ancestors and paid for with their very blood, it was agreed that in order to maintain the reputation for excellence enjoyed by our work throughout the world, it was essential that we draw up and rigidly adhere to an agreed specification for every thing we make.' That specification, represented by the Guild's mark stamped on each piece, has for three hundred years served as an unimpeachable guarantee of quality. It means that anybody who buys Guild work can be categorically assured that the piece is made strictly in accordance with the best possible design, from the best possible materials, using the best possible practices and procedures by the finest craftsmen in the world. It is that guarantee that has made our Guild and our fellow Guilds throughout Mezentia the unrivalled masters of industry and by default given us a monopoly of mass-produced manufactured goods throughout the known world. That, members of the committee, is not a trivial matter. On the contrary, it is the life blood of our city and our people, and any offence against it, anything that calls it into question, is an act of treason. There can be no exceptions. Even an unwitting slip of the hammer or the file is an abomination and punishable under the law. How much worse, then, is a deliberate and premeditated assault on Specification, such as we have seen in this case? To claim, as the prisoner Vaatzes has done, that his abomination represents an improvement is to assert that Specification is susceptible to being improved upon; that it is fallible, imperfect; that the Guilds and the Eternal Republic are capable of producing and offering for sale imperfect goods. Members of the committee, I tell you that there can be no defence of such a wicked act.'

Again Sphrantzes paused; this time, Ziani could feel anger in the silence, and it made the muscles of his stomach bunch together.

'The prisoner has claimed,' Sphrantzes went on, 'that the abomination was not intended for sale, or even to be taken outside his own house; that it was built as a present for his daughter, on her birthday. We can dispose of this plea very quickly. Surely it is self-evident that once an object leaves its maker's hands, it passes out of his control. At some point in the future, when she is a grown woman perhaps, his daughter might give it away or sell it. At her death, if she retained it till then, it would be sold as an asset of her estate. Or if the prisoner were to default on his taxes or subscriptions, the contents of his house would be seized and auctioned; or it might be stolen from his house by a thief. It takes very little imagination to envisage a score of ways in which the abomination might come to be sold, and its maker's intentions made clear by a cursory examination of its mechanism. The law is absolutely clear, and rightly so. There need be no intention to sell or dispose of an abomination. The mere act of creating it is enough. Members of the committee, in the light of the facts and having in mind the special circumstances of the case-the gross and aggravated nature of the deviation, the deliberate challenge to Specification, above all the prisoner's rank inside the Guild and the high level of trust placed in him, which he has betrayed-I cannot in all conscience call for any lesser penalty than the extreme sanction of the law. It grieves me more than I can say to call for the death of a fellow man, a fellow Guildsman, but I have no choice. Your verdict must be guilty, and your sentence death.' The nondescript little man bowed respectfully to the bench, gathered the tails of his gown and sat down on his stool behind his desk. Ziani noticed that his feet didn't quite reach the floor, and dangled backwards and forwards, like a small child in a classroom. Somehow, that seemed an appropriate touch. Even now, here in the Guildhall with everybody staring at him, he couldn't help believing that it all had to be some kind of elaborate tease, like the jokes played on apprentices (go and fetch the left-handed screwdriver); an initiation ritual, before he was allowed to eat his dinner at the charge-hands' table.

Also at the back of his mind was another question, one that buzzed and buzzed and wouldn't go away: how had they known what he'd done, where to find it, what to look for? As far as he could remember (and he'd thought of little else the past month, in the darkness of his cell) he hadn't mentioned it to anybody, anybody at all. But the investigator had gone straight to his bench, to the box under it where he kept the finished bits of Moritsa's doll; he'd had his callipers and gauges ready, to take the necessary measurements. Ziani hadn't said a word about it at work-even he wasn't that stupid-or mentioned it to his friends or his family. Nobody had known; but here he was. It'd be annoying to die with a loose end like that not tidied away. Perhaps they'd tell him, before it was over.

The committee had stopped whispering; it hadn't taken them long to make up their minds. Ziani didn't know the man who stood up, but that was hardly surprising. Even the foreman of the ordnance factory didn't get to meet the great men of the Guild. The guard caught hold of Ziani's arm and pulled him to his feet. He couldn't look at the great man.

'Ziani Vaatzes,' he heard him say, 'this tribunal finds you guilty of abomination. In light of the gravity of your offence, we hereby sentence you to be strangled with the bowstring, and we decree that your head shall be displayed above the gates of the department of ordnance for thirty days, as a warning to others. These proceedings are concluded.'

As they led him back to the cells, he sensed something unusual in the way they reacted to him. It wasn't fear, but they were keeping their distance, touching him as little as possible. Disgust, maybe; but if that was what they were feeling, they hid it well. They'd been overtly hostile toward him before the trial, when they brought him his food and water. There wasn't any of that now. Compassion, possibly? No, definitely not.

He'd had his three guesses, it was annoying him, and a condemned man doesn't have to worry about getting into trouble if he annoys his warders. He stopped.

'Look,' he said. 'What is it? Have I just grown an extra head?'

They looked at each other. They weren't sure what to do. The older man, a northshoreman by the name of Bollo Curiopalates, who'd made a habit of accidentally-on-purpose kicking Ziani on the shins when he brought him his evening meal, pulled a wry face and shrugged.

'No offence, right?' he said. 'Just, we never met one of your lot before.'

'My lot?'

'Abominators.' Bollo shrugged. 'It's not like murderers and thieves,' he went on, 'it's different. Can't understand it, really; what'd make someone do a thing like that.'

Curiosity, then; and the diffidence that goes with it, when you're staring at someone and they stare back. He could try and explain, but what would be the point? A man with a cause, now, a true abominator, would seize this chance of converting one last disciple, possibly lighting a candle that would never go out. Ziani had no cause, so he said, 'Evil.'

The warders looked startled. 'You what?'

'Evil,' Ziani replied, as blandly as he could. 'I was in the market one day, years ago now, and there was this man selling lamps. They were cheap and I needed one, so I bought one. Got it home, unscrewed the cap to fill it up with oil, and this thing came out of it. Like a puff of white smoke, it was. Well, I must've passed out, because the next thing I remember was waking up, and it was pitch dark outside the window; and ever since then I get these terrible uncontrollable urges to do really bad, wicked things. Absolutely nothing I can do about it, can't control it, just have to go with the flow. And look where I've ended up.' He sighed. 'My life ruined, just like that. Only goes to show, you can't be too careful.'

The warders looked at him for rather a long time; then Bollo said, 'All right, move along,' in a soft, strained voice. At the cell door, he said, 'That was all just a joke, right? You were just being funny.'

Ziani frowned. 'Don't be stupid,' he said. 'I'm going to die in an hour or so, why the hell would I lie about a thing like that?'

They closed the door on him, and he sat down on the floor. It had been a valid question: what on earth had possessed him to do such a reckless, stupid thing? Unfortunately, he couldn't think of an answer, and he'd been searching for one ever since they arrested him. If they bothered marking the graves of abominators, his headstone would have to read:

SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME

Wonderful epitaph for a wasted life.

In an hour or so, it wouldn't matter any more. He'd be out of it; the story would go on, but he wouldn't be in it any more. He'd be a sad memory in the minds of those who loved him, a wound for time to heal, and of course they'd never mention him to strangers, rarely to each other. A new man would take his place at work, and it'd be pretty uncomfortable there for a week or so until he'd settled in and there was no longer any need for his replacement to ask how the other bloke had done this or that, or where he kept his day-books, or what this funny little shorthand squiggle was supposed to mean. The world would get over him, the way we get over our first ever broken heart, or a bad stomach upset. Somehow, the idea didn't scare him or fill him with rage. It would probably be worse to be remembered and mourned for a long time. There'd be sympathy and condolences, tearing the wound open every time it started to scab over. That was always Ziani's chair; do you remember the time Ziani got his sleeve caught in the lathe chuck; Ziani lent this to me and I never had a chance to give it back.

If it had been a sudden illness, say, or a freak accident; if he'd been stabbed in the street or killed in a war; you could get angry about that, the stuff of tragedy. But to find yourself in the cells waiting to be strangled to death, all on account of a few measurements; it was so bewildering, so impossible to understand, that he could only feel numb. He simply hadn't seen it coming. It was like being beaten at chess by a four-year-old.

The door started to open, and immediately he thought, here it is. But when Bollo came in (still looking decidedly thoughtful), he didn't usher in the man in the black hood, the ends of the bowstring doubled round his gloved hands. The man who was with him was no stranger.

Ziani looked up. 'Falier?' he said.

'Me,' Falier answered. Bollo glanced at him, nodded, left the cell and bolted the door behind him. 'I came…'

'To say goodbye,' Ziani helped him out. 'It's all right, I'm being really calm about it. Sort of stunned, really. With any luck, by the time the truth hits me I'll have been dead for an hour. Sit down.'

His friend looked round. 'What on?'

'The floor.'

'All right.' Falier folded his long legs and rested his bottom tentatively on the flagstones. 'It's bloody cold in here, Ziani. You want to ask to see the manager.'

'It'll be a damn sight colder where I'm going,' Ziani replied. 'Isn't that what they say? Abominators and traitors go to the great ice pool, stand up to their necks in freezing cold water for all eternity?'

Falier frowned. 'You believe that?'

'Absolutely,' Ziani said. 'A chaplain told me, so it must be true.' He closed his eyes for a moment. 'Gallows humour, you see,' he said. 'It means I'm either incredibly brave in the face of death, or so hopelessly corrupt I don't even take eternal damnation seriously.'

'Right,' Falier said, looking at him. 'Sorry,' he said, 'I haven't got a clue what to say.'

'Don't worry about it. After all, if you really piss me off and I hold a grudge for the rest of my life, that's-what, three-quarters of an hour? You can handle it.'

Falier shook his head. 'You always were a kidder, Ziani,' he said. 'Always Laughing Boy. It was bloody annoying in a foreman, but you make a good martyr.'

'Martyr!' Ziani opened his eyes and laughed. 'Fine. If someone'd do me a favour and let me know what I'm dying for, I'll try and do it justice.'

'Oh, they'll come up with something,' Falier said. 'Well, I guess this is the bit where I ask you if you've got any messages. For Ariessa, and Moritsa. Sorry,' he added.

Ziani shrugged. 'Think of something for me, you're good with words. Anything I could come up with would be way short of the mark: I love you, I miss you, I wish this hadn't happened. They deserve better than that.'

Actually' Falier sounded like he was the condemned man. 'It's Ariessa and Moritsa I wanted to talk to you about. I'm really sorry to have to bring this up, but it's got to be done. Ziani, you do realise what's going to happen to them, don't you?'

For the first time, a little worm of fear wriggled in Ziani's stomach. 'I don't know what you mean,' he said.

Falier took a deep breath. 'Your pension, Ziani, from the Guild. You're a condemned man, an enemy of the state.'

'Yes, but they haven't done anything wrong.' The worm was running up his spine now.

'Neither have you, but that doesn't mean…' Falier dried up for a moment. 'It's the law, Ziani,' he said. 'They don't get the pension. Look, obviously I'll do what I can, and the lads at the factory, I'm sure they'll want to help. But-'

'What do you mean, it's the law? I never heard of anything like that.'

'I'm sorry,' Falier replied, 'but it's true. I checked. It's terrible, really wicked if you ask me. I don't know how they can be so cruel.'

'But hang on a moment.' Ziani tried to rally his scattered thoughts, but they wouldn't come when he called. 'Falier, what are they going to do? What're they going to live on, for God's sake?'

Falier looked grave. 'Ariessa says she'll try and get work,' he said. 'But that's not going to be easy; not for the widow of-' He stopped. 'I don't think I ought to have told you,' he said. 'Dying with something like this on your mind. But I was thinking.'

Ziani looked up. He knew that tone of voice. 'What? There's something I can do, isn't there?'

'You could make a deal,' he said.

That made no sense at all. 'How? I don't understand.'

'You could ask to see the investigator. There's still time. You could say, if they let Ariessa keep your pension, you'll tell them who your accomplices are.'

Accomplices. He knew what the word meant, but it made no sense in this context. 'No I can't,' he said. 'There weren't any. I didn't tell anybody about it, even, it was just me.'

'They don't know that.' Falier paused for a moment, then went on: 'It's politics, you see, Ziani. People they don't like, people they'd love an excuse to get rid of. And it wouldn't take much imagination to figure out who they'd be likely to be. If you said the right names, they'd be prepared to listen. In return for a signed deposition-'

'I couldn't do that,' Ziani said. 'They'd be killed, it'd be murder.'

'I know.' Falier frowned a little. 'But Ariessa, and Moritsa-'

Ziani was silent for a moment. It'd be murder; fine. He could regret it for the rest of his life. But if it meant his wife and daughter would get his pension, what did a few murders matter? Besides, the men he'd be murdering would all be high officials in the Guild… The thought of revenge had never even crossed his mind before.

'You think they'd go for that?'

'It's got to be worth a try,' Falier said. 'Face it, Ziani, what else can you do for them, in here, in the time you've got left?'

He considered the idea. A few minutes ago, he'd been clinging to the thought that it didn't matter, any of it. He'd practically erased himself, every trace, from the world. But leaving behind something like this-poverty, misery, destitution-was quite different. The only thing that mattered was Ariessa and Moritsa; if it meant they'd be all right, he would cheerfully burn down the world.

'What's the plan?' he said.

Falier smiled. 'Leave it to me,' he said. 'I can get in to see the secretary of the expediencies committee-'

'How?'

'I got in here, didn't I? Obviously there's not a lot of time. I'd better go.'

All right.'

Falier moved to the door, paused. 'It's the right thing to do, Ziani,' he said. 'This whole thing's a bloody mess, but at least there's still something you can do. That's got to be good.'

'I suppose.'

'I'll be back in an hour.' Falier knocked on the door; it opened and he left. Remarkable, Ziani thought; I've known Falier most of my life and I never knew he had magic powers. Always thought he was just ordinary, like me. But he can walk through doors, and I can't.

Hard to measure time in a cell, where you can't see the sunlight. Pulse; each heartbeat is more or less a second. But counting-sixty sixties is three thousand six hundred-would be too much effort and a waste of his rapidly dwindling supply of life. Ziani looked round; he was an abominator, apparently, but still an engineer. He thought for a moment, then grinned and pulled off his boot, then his sock. With his teeth, he nibbled a small hole; then he scooped a handful of the grimy grey sand off the floor and persuaded it into the sock. That done, he hung the sock from a splinter of wood in the doorframe, with his empty drinking-cup directly underneath. Then he found his pulse, and counted while the sand trickled through the hole in the sock into the cup. When it had all run through, he stopped counting-two hundred and fifty-eight, near as made no odds four minutes. He drew a line in the dirt beside him, and refilled the sock. There; he'd made himself a clock.

Eight fours are thirty-two; half an hour later, the door opened again. Falier was back. He looked excited, and pleased with himself.

'All set up,' he said. 'The secretary wants to see you in his office.' He frowned. 'For crying out loud, Ziani, put your boots on.'

Ziani smiled. 'Are you coming too?' he said.

'No.' Falier knocked on the door. 'Best of luck, Ziani; but it should be all right. He was definitely intrigued. Have you got a list of good names?'

Ziani nodded. 'I'm not too well up in politics, mind,' he said. Any suggestions?'

Falier fired off a dozen or so names, all of whom Ziani had already thought of, as the sand dribbled through into the cup. 'That'll probably do,' he went on, 'but have half a dozen more up your sleeve just in case.' The door opened; different warders this time. 'Well, so long,' Falier said. 'It'll be all right, you'll see.'

Not all, Ziani thought; but he didn't want to sound ungrateful. 'So long,' he repeated, and the warders led him out into the corridor.

Three flights of winding stairs brought him to a narrow passage, with heavy oak doors at irregular intervals; quite like the cells, he thought. Outside one of these, the warders stopped and knocked. Someone called out, 'Yes, come in.' A warder went in first; Ziani followed, and the other warder came in behind him.

He didn't know the secretary's name, or his face; but he was looking at a broad, fat man with huge hands resting on top of a wide, well-polished desk. 'This him?' the man asked, and one of the warders nodded.

'Fine.' The warder pulled out a chair, and Ziani sat in it. 'All right,' the man went on, 'you two get out. Don't go far, though.'

It wasn't easy to make out the man's face; he was sitting with his back to a window, and Ziani had been out of the light for some time. He had a bushy moustache but no beard, and round his neck was a silver chain with a big Guild star hanging from it. 'Ziani Vaatzes,' he said. 'I know all about you. Seventeen years in the ordnance factory, foreman for six of them. Commendations for exceptional work.' He yawned. 'So, why does a solid type like you go to the bad?'

Ziani shrugged. 'I don't know what came over me,' he said.

'I do.' The man leaned forward a little. The sun edged his dark head with gold, like an icon that's hung too long in the candle smoke. 'Thinking you're better than everybody else, that's what did it. Thinking you're so bloody clever and good, the rules don't apply to you. I've seen your kind before.'

'I admit I'm guilty,' Ziani said. 'But that's not what you want to talk to me about. You want to know who else was involved.'

'Go on.'

Ziani said four names. The secretary, he noticed, had a wax writing-board next to him, but wasn't taking any notes. He tried another four. The secretary yawned.

'You're wasting my time,' he said. 'You don't even know these people, and you're asking me to believe they all came round to your house, these important men you've never met, to see this mechanical doll you were making for your kid.'

'I'm telling you the truth,' Ziani said.

'Balls.' The man wriggled himself comfortable in his chair. 'I don't believe you.'

'You agreed to see me.'

'So I did. Know why?'

Ziani shrugged. 'I'm prepared to sign a deposition,' he said. 'Or I'll testify in court, if you'd rather.'

'No chance. I know for a fact you wouldn't know these people if you met them in the street. You didn't have any accomplices, you were working alone. All I want from you is who put you up to this. Oh, your pal Falier Zenonis, sure; but he's nobody. Who else is in on it?'

Ziani sighed. There was nothing left inside him. 'Who would you like it to have been?'

'No.' The man shook his head. 'If I want to play that sort of game, I decide when and how. You're here because obviously some bugger's been underestimating me.'

'All I wanted,' Ziani said, 'was for my wife to get my pension. That's all that matters to me. I'll say whatever you like, so long as you give me that.'

'Not interested.' The man sounded bored, maybe a little bit annoyed. 'I think you thought the idea up for yourself, all on your own. Trying to be clever with men's lives. You can forget that.'

'I see,' Ziani said. 'So you won't do what I asked, about the pension?'

'No.'

'Fine.' Ziani jumped to his feet and threw his weight against the edge of the desk, forcing it back. The man tried to get up; the edge of the desk hit the front of his thighs before his legs were straight-a nicely judged piece of timing, though Ziani said it himself-and he staggered. Ziani shoved again, then hopped back to give himself room and scrambled on to the desktop. The man opened his mouth to yell, but Ziani reached out; not for the throat, as the man was expecting, and so Ziani was able to avoid his hands as he lifted them to defend himself. Instead, he grabbed the man's shoulders and pushed back sharply. It was more a folding manoeuvre than anything else. The man bent at the waist as he went down, and his head, thrown backwards, smashed against the stone sill of the window. It worked just as Ziani had seen it in his mind, the angles and the hinges and the moving parts. Seventeen years of looking at blueprints teaches you how to visualise.

He was only mildly stunned, of course, so there was still plenty to do. Ziani had been hoping for a weapon; a dagger slung fashionably at the waist, or something leaning handy in a corner. Nothing like that; but there was a solid-looking iron lampstand, five feet tall, with four branches and four legs at the base to keep it steady. Just the thing; he slid off the desk, caught hold of the lampstand more or less in the middle, and jabbed with it, as though it was a spear. One of the legs hit the man on the forehead, just above the junction of nose and eyebrows. It was the force behind it that got the job done.

The man slid on to the floor; dead or alive, didn't matter, he was no longer relevant. Three flights of stairs, and Ziani had counted the steps, made a fairly accurate assessment of the depth of tread. It would be a long way down from the window and he had no idea what he'd be dropping on to; but he was as good as dead anyway, so what the hell? At the moment when he jumped, entrusting himself to the air without looking at what was underneath, he couldn't stop himself wondering about Falier, who was supposed to be his friend.

It wasn't pavement, which was good; but it was a long way down.

For a moment he couldn't breathe and his legs were numb. I've broken my bloody neck, he thought; but then he felt pain, pretty much everywhere, which suggested the damage was rather less radical. Somewhere, not far away (not far enough), he heard shouts, excitement. It was a fair bet that he was the cause of it. Without knowing how he got there, he found himself on his feet and running. It hurt, but that was the least of his problems.

Because he'd never expected to survive the drop, he hadn't thought ahead any further than this. But here he was, running, in an unplanned and unspecified direction. That was no good. The pity of it was, he had no idea where he should be heading for. He was somewhere in the grounds of the Guildhall; but the grounds, like the building itself, were circular. There was a wall all the way round, he remembered, with two gates in it. The only way out was through a gate. If they were after him, which was pretty much inevitable, the first thing they'd do would be to send runners to the gatehouses.

Every breath and heartbeat is an act of prevarication, a prising open of options. It'd sounded good when the preacher had said it, but did it actually mean anything? Only one way to find out. The gardens were infuriatingly formal, straight lines of foot-high box hedge enclosing neat geometric patterns of flowers, nothing wild and bushy a man could hide in long enough to catch his breath, but there was a sort of trellis arch overgrown with flowery creeper, a bower or arbour or whatever the hell it was called. He headed for it, and collapsed inside just as his legs gave out.

Fine. First place they'll look.

Breathing in was like dragging his heart through brambles. He got to his knees and peered round the edge of the arch. There was the wall, a grey blur behind a curtain of silly little trees. He followed its line until he came to a square shape, almost completely obscured by a lopsided flowering cherry. That would be a gatehouse. He didn't know what time it was and he couldn't see the sun through the arbour roof, so he couldn't tell if it was the north or the south gate. Not that it mattered. He wasn't likely to get that far, and if he did the gatekeepers would be on him like terriers.

He plotted a course. Arbour to the line of trees; using the trees as cover, along the wall to the gatehouse. He could hear shouting coming from several different directions, and he wondered whether they'd catch him and take him back to his cell to be strangled, or just kill him on the spot.

I'll escape, though, if only to he annoying. He stood in the doorway of the arbour for a moment, until he saw two men running towards him. They were wearing helmets and carrying halberds; there goes another option, snapping shut like a mousetrap. He lowered his head and charged in the direction of the trees. They'd get him soon enough, but at least he was making an effort, and he felt it was better to die running towards something, rather than just running away.

It was inevitable that sooner or later he'd trip over something and go sprawling. In the event, it was one of those ridiculous dwarf box hedges that did the damage. He landed on his face in a bed of small orange flowers, and the two warders were on him before he had a chance to move.

'Right.' One of them had grabbed his arms and twisted them behind his back. 'What's the drill?'

He couldn't see the other warder. 'Captain said get him out of sight before we do him. Don't want the Membership seeing a man having his head cut off, it looks bad.'

The warder he could see nodded. 'Stable block's the nearest,' he said.

Between them they hauled him to his feet and dragged him backwards across the flowerbeds. He sagged against their arms, letting them do the work; buggered if he was going to walk to his death. He heard a door creak, and a doorframe boxed out the light.

'Block,' said the other warder. 'Something we can use for a block.'

'Log of wood,' his colleague suggested.

'How about an upturned bucket?' the first man said.

'Might as well.' The unseen warder trod on the backs of Ziani's knees, forcing him down; the other man came forward with a stable bucket, shaking out dusty old grain. Ziani felt the wood under his chin. 'Grab his hair,' the second warder said, 'hold him steady. Halberd's not the right tool for this job.'

A simple matter of timing, then. Ziani felt the warder's knuckles against his scalp, then the pain as his hair was pulled, forcing his cheek against the bucket. He heard the cutter's feet crackle in the straw as he stepped up to his mark, in his mind's eye he saw him take a grip on the halberd shaft and raise his arms. A good engineer has the knack of visualisation, the ability to orchestrate the concerted action of the mechanism's moving parts. At the moment when he reckoned the cutter's swing had reached its apex and was coming down, he dug his knees into the straw and arched his back, jerking his shoulders and head backwards. He felt a handful of his hair pull out, but he was moving, hauling the other warder toward him.

He heard the halberd strike; a flat, solid shearing noise, as its edge bit into the warder's forearms, catching them just right against the base of the iron band that ran round the bottom of the bucket. By the time the warder screamed, he was loose; he hopped up like a frog, located the cutter (standing with a stupid expression on his face, looking at the shorn stub of his mate's left hand) and stamped his foot into the poor fool's kidneys. It wasn't quite enough to put him down; but the other man had obligingly left his halberd leaning up against a partition. All Ziani knew about weapons was how to make them, but he did understand tools-leverage, mechanical advantage-and the principles were more or less the same. With the rear horn of the blade he hooked the cutter's feet out from under him, and finished the job efficiently with the spike. The other man was still kneeling beside the bucket, trying to clamp the gushing stump with his good hand. The hell with finesse, Ziani thought; he pulled the spike clear and shoved it at the wounded man's face. It was more luck than judgement that he stuck him precisely where he'd aimed. In one ear and out the other, like listening to your mother.

His fingers went dead around the halberd shaft; it slipped through, and its weight dragged it down, though the spike was still jammed in that poor bastard's head. It had taken a matter of seconds; two lives ended, one life just possibly reprieved. It was a curious sort of equilibrium, one he wasn't eager to dwell on. Instead he thought: this is a stable, wouldn't it be wonderful if it had horses in it?

Of course, he had no idea how you went about harnessing a horse. He found a saddle, there was a whole rack of the things; and bridles, and a bewildering selection of straps with buckles on, some or all of. which you apparently needed in order to make the horse go. He'd decided on the brown one; it wasn't the biggest, but the other two looked tired (though he had no idea what a tired horse was supposed to look like).

Pinching the corners of its mouth got the bit in. He fumbled hopelessly with the bridle straps, sticking the ends in the wrong buckles until eventually he managed to get the proper layout straight in his mind. The saddle went on its back, that was obvious enough. There was some knack or rule of thumb about how tight the girths needed to be. He didn't know it, so he pulled the strap as tight as he could make it go. The horse didn't seem to mind.

That just left getting on. Under better circumstances, he might well have been able to reach the stirrup. As it was, he had to go back and fetch the bucket to stand on. It was slippery, and he nearly fell over. I wish I knew how to do this, he thought, and dug his heels into the horse's ribs.

After that it was shamefully simple. The gatekeepers had seen him being caught and so weren't looking for escaped prisoners any more; besides, he was on a horse, and the prisoner had been on foot. The horse wanted to trot, so the saddle was pounding his bum like a triphammer. He passed under the gate, and someone called out, but he couldn't make out the words. Nobody followed him. Two murders, possibly three if he'd killed the secretary of the expediencies committee when he hit him with the lampstand, and he was riding out of there like a prince going hawking. His head ached where the hair had been pulled out.

As soon as he was through the gate, he knew where he was. That tall square building was the bonded warehouse, where he delivered finished arrowheads for export. The superintendent was a friend of his, sometimes on slow days they drank tea and had a game of chess (but today wasn't a slow day). He was in Twenty-Fourth Street, junction with Ninth Avenue.

Three blocks down Ninth Avenue was an alley, leading to the back gate of a factory. It was quiet and the walls on either side were high; you could stop there for a piss if you were in a hurry. He contrived to get the horse to turn down it, let it amble halfway down, pulled it up and slid awkwardly off its back. It stood there looking at him as he picked himself up. Nevertheless, he said. 'Thanks,' as he walked away.

The factory gate was bolted on the inside, but he managed to jump up, get his stomach on the top of it and reach over to draw back the bolt. The gate swung open, with him on top of it. He slipped down-bad landing-and shut it behind him, trying to remember what they made here. At any rate, he was back on industrial premises, where the rules were rather closer to what he was used to.

He was in the back yard; and all the back yards of all the factories in the world are more or less identical. The pile of rusting iron scrap might be a foot or so to the left or right; the old tar-barrel full of stagnant rainwater might be in the north-east corner rather than the north-west; the chunky, derelict machine overgrown with brambles might be a brake, a punch, a roller or a shear. The important things, however, are always the same. The big shed with the double doors is always the main workshop. The long shed at right angles to it is always the materials store. The kennel wedged in the corner furthest from the gate is always the office. The tiny hutch in the opposite corner is always the latrine, and you can always be sure of finding it in the dark by the smell.

Ziani ducked behind the scrap pile and quickly took his bearings. Ninth Avenue ran due south, so the gate he'd just climbed over faced east. He glanced up at the sky; it was grey and overcast, but a faint glow seeping through the cloud betrayed the sun, told him it was mid-afternoon. In all factories everywhere, in mid-afternoon the materials store is always deserted. He looked round just in case; nobody to be seen. He scuttled across the yard as fast as he could go.

The geometry of stores is another absolute constant. On the racks that ran its length were the mandatory twenty-foot lengths of various sizes and profiles of iron and brass bar, rod, strip, tube, plate and sheet. Above them was the timber, planked and unplanked, rough and planed. Against the back wall stood the barrels and boxes, arranged in order of size; iron rivets (long, medium and short, fifteen different widths), copper rivets, long nails, medium nails, short nails, tacks, pins, split pins, washers; drill bits, taps, dies; mills and reamers, long and short series, in increments of one sixty-fourth of an inch; jigs and forms, dogs and faceplates, punches, callipers, rules, squares, scribers, vee-blocks and belts, tool-boats and gauges, broaches and seventeen different weights of ball-peen hammers. At the far end, against the back wall, stood the big shear, bolted to a massive oak bench; three swage-blocks, a grinding-wheel in its bath, two freestanding leg-vices, a pail of grimy water and a three-hundredweight double-bick anvil on a stump. Every surface was slick with oil and filmed with a coating of black dust.

It was the familiarity of it all that cut into him; he'd worked all his life in places like this, but he'd never looked at them; just as, after a while, a blind man can walk round his house without tripping, because he knows where everything is. All his life Ziani had worked hard, anxious to impress and be promoted, until he'd achieved what he most wanted-foreman of the machine room of the Mezentine state ordnance factory, the greatest honour a working engineer could ever attain this side of heaven. Outside Mezentia there was nothing like this; the Guilds had seen to that. The Eternal Republic had an absolute monopoly on precision engineering; which meant, in practice, that outside the city, in the vast, uncharted world that existed only to buy the products of Mezentine industry, there were no foundries or machine-shops, no lathes or mills or shapers or planers or gang-drills or surface-grinders; the pinnacle of the metalworker's art was a square stub of iron set in a baked earth floor for an anvil, a goatskin bellows and three hammers. That was how the Republic wanted it to be; and, to keep it that way, there was an absolute prohibition on skilled men leaving the city. Not that any Mezentine in his right mind would want to; but wicked kings of distant, barbarous kingdoms had been known to addle men's minds with vast bribes, luring them away with their heads full of secrets. To deal with such contingencies, the Republic had the Travellers' Company, whose job it was to track down renegades and kill them, as quickly and efficiently as possible. By their efforts, all those clever heads were returned to the city, usually within the week, with their secrets still in place but without their bodies, to be exhibited on pikes above Travellers' Arch as a reassurance to all loyal citizens.

Ziani walked over to the anvil and sat down. The more he thought about it, of course, the worse it got. He couldn't stay in the city-this time tomorrow, they'd be singing out his description in every square, factory and exchange in town-but he couldn't leave and go somewhere else, because it simply wasn't possible to leave unless you went out through one of the seven gates. Even supposing he managed it, by growing wings or perfecting an invisibility charm, there was nowhere he could go. Of course, he'd never get across the plains and the marshes alive; if he did, and made it as far as the mountains, and got through one of the heavily guarded passes without being eaten by bears or shot by sentries, a brown-skinned, black-haired Mezentine couldn't fail to be noticed among the tribes of pale-skinned, yellow-haired savages who lived there. The tribal chiefs knew what happened to anyone foolish enough to harbour renegades. Silly of him; he'd jumped out of check into checkmate, all the while thinking he was getting away.

On the bench beside him he saw a scrap of paper. It was a rough sketch of a mechanism-power source, transmission, crankshaft, flywheel; a few lines and squiggles with a charcoal stub, someone thinking on paper. One glance was enough for him to be able to understand it, as easily as if the squiggles and lines had been letters forming words. Outside the city walls, of course, it'd be meaningless, just hieroglyphics. A mechanism, a machine someone was planning to build in order to achieve an objective. He thought about that. A waterwheel or a treadmill or a windlass turns; that motion is translated into other kinds of motion, circular into linear, horizontal into vertical, by means of artfully shaped components, and when the process is complete one action is turned into something completely different, as if by alchemy. The barbarians, believers in witchcraft and sorcery, never conceived of anything as magical as that.

He thought for a while, lining up components and processes in his mind. Then he slid off the bench, washed his hands and face in the slack-tub and headed across the yard to the office.

As he walked in, a clerk perched on a high stool turned to peer at him.

'Any work going?' Ziani asked.

The clerk looked at him. 'Depends on what you can do,' he said.

'Not much. Well, I can fetch and carry, sweep floors and stuff.'

'Guild member?'

Ziani shook his head. 'Left school when I was twelve,' he said.

The clerk grinned. 'Good answer,' he said. 'We're all right for skilled men, but we can always use another porter.' He shook his head. 'Crazy, isn't it? There's Guildsmen sat at home idle for want of a place, and the likes of you can walk in off the street and start immediately.'

'Good,' Ziani said. 'What's the pay?'

The clerk frowned. 'Don't push your luck,' he said.

Nice clear directions brought Ziani to the shipping bay. The factory made farm machinery-ploughs, chain and disc harrows, seed drills-for export to the breadbasket countries in the far south. How they got there, very few people knew or cared; the Mezentines sold them to dealers, who took delivery at Lonazep, on the mouth of the estuary. Ziani had never been to Lonazep, but he knew it was outside the walls. After five hours lifting things on to carts, he was asked if he fancied volunteering for carriage duty.

The answer to this question, in every factory in the world, is always no. Carriage duty means sitting on the box of a cart bumping along rutted tracks in the savage wilderness outside the city. It pays time and a half, which isn't nearly enough for the trauma of being Outside; you sleep in a ditch or under the cart, and there are rumoured to be spiders whose bite makes your leg swell up like a pumpkin.

'Sure,' Ziani said.

(Because the sentries at the gates would be looking for a Guildsman on his own, not a driver's mate on a cart in the long, backed-up queue crawling out of town on the north road. When a particularly dangerous and resourceful fugitive-an abominator, say, or a guard-killer-was on the run, they'd been known to pull the covers off every cart and scrabble about in the packing straw in case there was anyone hiding in there, but they never bothered to look at the unskilled men on the box. Guild thinking.)

God bless the city ordinance that kept annoying heavy traffic off the streets during the day. By its blessed virtue, it was dark when the long line of carts rolled out of the factory gate and merged with the foul-tempered glacier inching its way towards the north gate. Heavy rain was the perfect finishing touch. It turned the streets into glue, but as far as Ziani was concerned it was beautiful, because a sentry who has to stand at his post all night quite reasonably prefers to avoid getting soaked to the skin, and accordingly stays in the guardhouse and peers out through the window. As it turned out, they showed willing and made some sort of effort; a cart six places ahead in the line was pulled over, while the sentries climbed about on it and crawled under it with lanterns. They didn't find anything, of course; and, their point proved, they went back inside in the dry. Ziani guessed the quota was one in ten. Sure enough, looking back over his shoulder once they were through the arch and out the other side, he saw the third cart behind them slow to a halt, and lanterns swinging through the rain.

'You're new, then,' said the driver next to him. He hadn't spoken since they left the factory.

'That's right,' Ziani said. 'Actually, this is my first time out of town.'

The driver nodded. 'It sucks,' he said. 'The people smell and the food's shit.'

'So I heard,' Ziani said.

'So why'd you volunteer?'

'I don't know, really,' Ziani replied. 'Suppose I always wondered if it's really as bad as they say'

'It is.'

'Well, now I know.'

The driver grinned. 'Maybe next time you'll listen when people tell you things.'

A mile out from the north gate the road forked. Half the traffic would stay on the main road, the other half would take the turning that followed the river past the old quarries down to Lonazep. Ziani's original plan had been to try and get himself on a ship going south, maybe even all the way down to the Gulf, as far from the Eternal Republic as you could go without falling off the edge of the world. Seeing the scrap of paper on the bench in the storeroom had changed all that. If he went south, it'd mean he was never coming back. Instead, he waited till they stopped for the night at Seventh Milestone. The driver crawled under the tarpaulin, pointing out that there was only room for one.

'No problem,' Ziani said. 'I'll be all right under the cart.' As soon as he was satisfied the driver was asleep, Ziani emerged and started to walk. Geography wasn't his strong suit, but as soon as the sun came up he'd be able to see the mountains across the plain, due west. Going west meant he'd be away for a while, maybe a very long time, but sooner or later he'd be back.

Chapter Three

As soon as Duke Orsea realised 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.

A captain of archers, unrecognisable from a face-wound, ran past him, shouting something he didn't catch. More bad news, or just confirmation of what he already knew; or maybe simple abuse; it didn't greatly matter, because now that he'd given the order, there was precious little he could do about anything. If the soldiers got as far as the thorn-scrub on the edge of the marshes, and if they stopped there and re-formed instead of running blindly into the bog, and if they were still gullible enough to obey his orders after everything he'd let them in for, he might still be relevant. Right now, he was nothing more than a target, and a conspicuous one at that, perched on a stupid white horse and wearing stupid fancy armour.

It hurt him, worse than the blade of the broken-off arrow wedged in his thigh, to turn his back on the dead bodies of his men, scattered on the flat moor like a spoilt child's toys. Once he reined in his horse, turned and rode away, he acknowledged, he'd be breaking a link between himself and his people that he'd never be able to repair. But that was self-indulgence, he knew. He'd forgone the luxury of guilt when he bent his neck to the bait and tripped the snare. The uttermost mortification; his state of mind, his agonised feelings, didn't matter any more. It was his duty to save himself, and thereby reduce the casualty list by one. He nudged the horse with his heels.

The quickest way to the thorn-hedge was across the place where the centre of his line had been. His horse was a dainty stepper, neatly avoiding the tumbled bodies, the carelessly discarded weapons that could cut a delicate hoof to the quick. He saw wounded men, some screaming, some dragging themselves along by their hands, some struggling to draw a few more breaths, as though there was any point. He could get off the stupid white horse, load a wounded man into the saddle and take his chances on foot. Possibly, if there'd only been one, he'd have done it. But there wasn't just one, there were thousands; and that made it impossible, for some reason.

Orsea had seen tragedy before, and death. He'd even seen mess, great open slashed wounds, clogged with mud and dust, where a boar had caught a sluggish huntsman, or a careless forester had misjudged the fall of a tree. He'd been there once when a granary had collapsed with fifteen men inside; he'd been one of the first to scrabble through the smashed beams and fallen stone blocks, and he'd pulled two men out of there with his own hands, saved their lives. He'd done it because he couldn't do otherwise; he couldn't turn his back on pain and injury, any more than he could stick his hand in a fire and keep it there. An hour ago, he'd been that kind of man.

A horseman came thundering up behind him. His first thought was that the enemy cavalry was on to him, but the rider slowed and called out his name; his name and his stupid title.

He recognised the voice. 'Miel?' he yelled back.

Miel Ducas; he'd never have recognised him. Ten years ago he'd have traded everything he had for Miel Ducas' face, which seemed to have such an irresistible effect on pretty young girls. Now, though, he couldn't see Miel's nose and mouth through a thick splatter of dirt and blood.

'There's another wing,' Miel was saying; it took Orsea a heartbeat or so to realise he was talking about the battle. 'Another wing of fucking cavalry; reserve, like they need it. They're looping out on the far left, I guess they're planning on cutting us off from the road. I've still got six companies of lancers, but even if we get there in time we won't hold them long, and they'll chew us to buggery.'

Orsea sighed. He wanted to shrug his shoulders and ride on-he actually wanted to do that; his own callous indifference shocked him. 'Leave it,' he heard himself say. 'Those lancers are worth more to us than a regiment of infantry. Keep them out of harm's way, and get them off the field as quick as you can.'

Miel didn't answer, just pulled his horse's head round and stumbled away. Orsea watched him till he was out of sight over the horizon. It'd be nice to think that over there somewhere, screened by the line of stunted thorns, was that other world of an hour ago, and that Miel would arrive there to find the army, pristine and unbutchered, in time to turn them back.

Orsea still wasn't quite sure what had happened. Last night, camped in the middle of the flat plain, he'd sent out his observers. They started to come back around midnight. The enemy, they said, was more or less where they were supposed to be. At most there were sixteen thousand of them; four thousand cavalry, perched on the wings; between them, ten thousand infantry, and the artillery. The observers knew their trade, what to look for, how to assess numbers by counting camp fires, and as each one reported in, Orsea made a note on his map. Gradually he built up the picture. The units he was most worried about, the Ceftuines and the southern heavy infantry (the whole Mezentine army was made up of foreign mercenaries, apart from the artillery), were camped right in the middle, just as he'd hoped. His plan was to leave them till last; break up the negligible Maderi infantry and light cavalry on either side of the centre, forcing the Mezentines to commit their heavy cavalry to a long, gruelling charge across the flat, right down the throats of his eight thousand archers. That'd be the end of them, the Bareng heavy dragoons and the lancers. If a tenth of them made it through the arrow-storm, they'd be doing outstandingly well; and then Orsea's own lancers would take them in the flank, drive them back on their own lines as the wholesale roll-up started. In would come the horse-archers from the extreme ends of the line, shepherding the Mezentines in on their own centre, where the Ceftuines would've been standing helplessly, watching the world collapse all around them. By the time the fighting reached them, they'd be hemmed in on all sides by their own defeated, outflanked, surrounded comrades. The lancers would close the box, and the grand finale would be a long, one-sided massacre.

It had been that, all right.

A deep, low hum far away to his left; Orsea stood up in his stirrups, trying to get a better view, but all he could see was dust. He couldn't even remember which of his units was over that way now. Every part of his meticulously composed line was out of place. When the disaster struck, he'd tried to fight back, pulling men out of what he thought was the killing zone, only to find he'd sent them somewhere even worse. He didn't understand; that was what made him want to sob with anger. He still didn't know how they were doing it, how the bloody things worked; all he'd seen was the effects, the clouds and swarms of steel bolts, three feet long and half an inch thick, shot so fast they flew flat, not looped like an ordinary arrow. He'd been there when a volley struck the seventh lancers. First, a low whistling, like a flock of starlings; next, a black cloud resolving itself into a skyful of tiny needles, hanging in the air for a heartbeat before swooping, following a trajectory that made no sense, broke all the known rules of flight; then pitching, growing bigger so horribly fast (like the savage wild animals that chase you in dreams), then dropping like hailstones all around him; and the shambles, the noise, the suddenness of it all. So many extraordinary images, like a vast painting crammed with incredible detail: a man nailed to the ground by a bolt that hit him in the groin, drove straight through his horse and into the ground, fixing them both so firmly they couldn't even squirm; two men riveted together by the same bolt; a man hit by three bolts simultaneously, each one punched clean through his armour, and still incredibly alive; a great swathe of men and horses stamped into the ground, like a careless footstep on a flowerbed full of young seedlings. Just enough time for him to catch fleeting glimpses of these unbelievable sights, and then the next volley fell, two minutes of angle to the left, flattening another section of the line. He couldn't even see where the bolts were coming from, they didn't seem to rise from the surface of the earth, they just materialised or condensed in mid-air, like snow.

As he watched the bolts fall all around him, he couldn't understand why he was the only one left alive, or how they could aim so precisely to kill everybody else and leave him alone. But of course they could. They could do anything.

That was when he'd given his one sensible order, just over an hour ago. A few minutes later, the volleys stopped; there were no coherent bodies of men left to shoot at, and the Mezentine cavalry was surging forward to begin the pursuit and mopping-up. So hard to judge time, when the world has just changed and all the rules are suddenly different, but his best guess was that the disaster had taken ten minutes, twelve at the very most. You couldn't boil a pot of water in that time.

Just a simple steel rod, pointed at one end; he reached out and pulled one out of the ground as he rode. You could use it as a spit; or three of them, tied together at the top, would do to hang a pot from over the fire. They stood up out of the ground, angled, like bristles on an unshaven chin, and there were far too many to count. It'd take weeks just to come round with carts and collect them all up-did the Mezentines do that, or did they leave them, as a monument of victory and a warning to others, till they flaked away into rust? He could imagine them doing that, in this dead, unused plain, which they'd shot full of pins.

I'd have liked just to see one of their machines, he thought, as a sort of consolation prize; but I guess I haven't done anything to deserve that privilege.

He looked back over his shoulder, to see how close the Mezentine cavalry was; but they weren't closing. Instead, they seemed to be pulling back. Well, he could understand that. Why risk the lives of men, even paid servants, when you've got machines to do the work? They'd made their point, and now they were letting him go. So kind of them, so magnanimous. Instead of killing him, they were leaving him to bring the survivors home, to try and find some way of explaining what had become of the dead. (Well, there was this huge cloud of steel pins that came down out of the sky; and the dog ate my homework.) They were too cruel to kill him.

At the thorn hedge, he found what was left of his general staff; twenty out of thirty-six. His first reaction was anger; how could he be expected to organise a coherent retreat without a full staff? (So what are you going to do about it? Write a strongly worded letter?) Then it occurred to him that he wasn't ever going to see those missing faces again, and there was a moment of blind panic when he looked to see who was there and who wasn't. Key personnel-four out of five of the inner circle, but the missing man had to be Faledrin Botaniates; how the hell am I going to keep track of duty rosters without Faledrin? The others, the ones who weren't there, were-The shame burned him, he'd just thought expendable. He forced himself to go back and repeat the thought. It'd be difficult, a real pain in the bum, to have to cope without them, but a way could be found. Therefore, they were, they'd been, expendable.

There, he'd thought it; the concept he'd promised he'd never let creep into his mind, now that he was the Duke of Eremia. That coped off the day's humiliations, and he was right down there with all the people he despised most. Fine. Now he'd got that over with, it might be an idea to do some work.

They were looking at him; some at his face, some at the blood trickling through the joints of his leg-armour. He'd forgotten all about it.

'What happened to you?' someone said.

The scope of the question appalled him for a moment; then he realised it was just his stupid wound they were talking about. 'Friendly fire,' he said briskly. 'I guess I'm the only man on the field who got hit by one of our arrows.' He started to dismount, but something went wrong. His left leg couldn't take any weight, and he ended up in a heap on the ground.

He yelled at them not to fuss as they pulled him to his feet; it was ridiculous, bothering with him when there were thousands of men gradually dying on the other side of the brake. Before he could forbid it, someone sent a runner for the surgeon. Stupid. No time for that.

'We've got to get out of here,' someone was saying. 'They don't seem to be following up right now, but we've got to assume we'll have their cavalry after us any minute. Does anybody know where anybody is?'

Orsea had views of his own on the subject, but quite suddenly he wasn't feeling too good. Dizziness, like he'd been drinking; and he couldn't think of words. He opened his mouth to say something, but his mind had gone blank. His arms and head seemed to weigh far too much…

When he woke up, the sky had turned to canvas. He looked at it for a moment; he could see the weave, and the lines of stitching at the seams. He realised he was lying on his back, on cushions piled on a heap of empty sacks. His throat was ridiculously dry, and he felt so weak…

'He's coming round,' someone said. (Fine; treat me like I'm not here.) 'Go and fetch Ducas, and the doctor.'

He knew that voice, but while he'd been asleep, someone had burgled his mind and stolen all the names. He tried to lift his head, but his muscles had wilted.

'Lie still,' someone else said. 'You've lost a hell of a lot of blood.'

No I haven't, he wanted to say. He let his head slip back on to the cushion. There were heavy springs bearing on his eyelids, and the light hurt. 'Where is this?' he heard himself say, in a tiny little voice.

'God only knows,' someone said, just outside his limited circle of vision. 'Just to the right of the middle of nowhere. We've rounded up what we can of the army and the Mezentines seem to have lost interest in us, so we've pitched camp. Miel Ducas is running things; I've sent someone to fetch him.'

He definitely knew that voice, but it didn't belong here. It was absurdly out of context; it belonged in a garden, a little square patch of green and brown boxed in by mud-brick walls. His father's house. Now he knew who the speaker was; his second oldest friend, after Miel Ducas. Fancy not recognising someone you'd grown up with.

'Cordea?' he muttered.

'Right here.' There was something slightly brittle about Cordea's voice, but that was only to be expected in the circumstances. 'They got the arrow out,' he was saying, 'they had a hell of a job with it. Apparently it was right up against the artery, nicked it but didn't cut into it. The doctor didn't dare draw it out, for fear of the barbs slicing right through. In the end he had to go in from the side, so you're pretty badly cut up. Infection's the biggest risk, of course-'

'Shut up about my stupid leg,' Orsea interrupted. 'What about the battle? How many…?'

He couldn't bring himself to finish the question. Simple matter of pronouns; how many of our men did I kill?

'Nine thousand dead.' Cordea's voice was completely flat. 'Two thousand badly wounded, another three thousand cut up but on their feet.' Cordea paused. 'Miel insisted on going back with his lancers and the wagons; he picked up about eight hundred before they started shooting at him. Of course the surgeons can't cope with numbers like that, so we'll lose another two, three hundred just getting home. Actually, it could've been a whole lot worse.'

Well, of course it could. But it was plenty bad enough. 'Has anybody got any idea what those things were?' Orsea asked.

Cordea nodded. 'Tell you about it later,' he said. 'Look, it was me said that Miel should take charge; only I couldn't think of anybody else. Are you all right with that?'

Orsea tried to laugh. Talk about your stupid questions. 'Absolutely fine,' he said.

'Only, I know you and he don't always get on…'

'Cordea, that was when we were twelve.' He wanted to laugh, but apparently he couldn't. 'What about moving on?' he said. 'We can't just stay here, wherever the hell we are.'

'In the morning. They're shattered, we'd lose people if we tried to move out tonight. We've got sentries, in case they attack.'

'How far…?' Dizzy again. He gave in and closed his eyes. If he let himself drift back to sleep, maybe he'd wake up to find it had all been taken care of. He'd never wanted to be a duke anyway. 'Ask Miel…' he began to say, but the sentence didn't get finished.

'It's a real stroke of luck, him getting wounded.'

He'd opened his eyes but it was still dark; there was just a glimmer of lighter blue. He lay still.

'There's going to be hell to pay,' Miel's voice went on, 'but we'll make out he's at death's door, it'll go down well. No need to tell anybody it was one of our arrows.'

'Tell them he was a hero, fighting a desperate rearguard action so the army could escape,' someone else said. 'I'd rather we were bringing home a victory, but a glorious defeat's not so bad. Better than a bloody good hiding, anyway. How's the water holding out?'

'Not wonderful,' Miel answered. 'Thank God we were able to save the barrels, or we'd be completely screwed. As it is, we'll probably get to the foothills tomorrow night, and there's plenty of springs coming down off the mountains. You'd better cut the ration, though. The horses should come first, we can't afford to lose any more.'

'All right.' The second voice was getting further away. 'We were right, though, weren't we? I mean, basically it was a good idea.'

He heard Miel laugh. 'No,' he said. 'No, it was a bloody stupid idea. Maybe next time when he says, let's not pick a fight with the Mezentine Empire, somebody'll listen.'

(But that's wrong, Orsea wanted to say. I was against it to begin with, but then they explained and I realised they were right. It made good sense, it was the bigger, broader view, and the only reason I was against it at the start was fear…)

'Doctor's here,' someone else called out. 'Is he awake?'

'No,' Miel replied. 'At least, I don't think so. Tell him to wait, I'll take a look.'

They lit a lamp so the doctor could see what he was doing. Not anyone Orsea had ever seen before; he looked drained, as was only to be expected. His eyes were red, and all he said when the examination was over was, 'He'll keep. Just don't bounce him up and down too much.'

'I'll bear that in mind.' Miel turned his head, knelt down beside him, and for the first time since the battle, Orsea saw his face without the thick, obscuring smear of caked blood.

'Hello,' Miel said. 'How are you doing?'

He was glad he hadn't had to see it before they stitched it up; but Miel wouldn't be getting the sort of stares he was used to from the pretty girls in future. Orsea felt bad about that; he knew how much it meant to him, always being the best-looking, never having to try. Well, that was a thing of the past, too.

'Awful,' he replied. 'How about you?'

Miel shrugged. 'Things are pretty much under control,' he said. 'One more march should see us off this fucking plain. I don't see them following us up the mountain. I've sent ahead for what we need most.'

Orsea closed his eyes. 'I was lucky,' he said.

'You bet. Another sixteenth of an inch, the doctor said-'

'That's not what I meant. I was lucky I got hurt. It meant I got to sleep through all the worst bits, and you've had to cope. I'm sorry about that.'

Miel clicked his tongue. 'Forget about it,' he said.

'And your face.'

'Forget about that too.' Miel's voice tensed up just a little, nonetheless. 'It was pretty comical, actually. Ducked out of the way of one of those bolt things, tripped over my feet, laid myself open on a sharp edge. Of course I'll tell all the girlies it was hand-to-hand combat with the Mezentine champion.'

'You were standing over the crumpled body of the Duke,' Orsea said. 'Outnumbered five to one-'

'Seven.'

'You're quite right, seven to one; and they were all in full armour, and you'd lost your sword, so all you had was a tent-peg-'

'A broken tent-peg, please.'

'Naturally' Orsea sighed. Actually, that's not so far from the truth. In fact, what you did was rather more important. You see, I wouldn't have been able to-'

'Balls.' He heard Miel shift; he was standing up, presumably. A leader's work is never done. 'The doctor says you need to rest. I said, it's what he's best at. Try not to die in the night.'

Orsea pulled a grim face. 'Just to spite you, I will,' he said, 'and then you'll be left with all my messes to sort out on your own.'

Miel frowned at him. 'That joke's still funny this time,' he said, 'but next time it'll just be self-indulgent. While you're in here with nothing to do, you can think of a new one.'

'Seriously.' Orsea looked at his friend. 'I feel really bad about it, you being landed with all of this.'

Miel shrugged. 'It's my job,' he said.

'At least get someone to help you. What about Cordea? He's not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but he's smarter than me-'He stopped. Miel had turned away, just for a moment.

'Oh,' Orsea said.

'Sorry,' Miel replied. 'My fault, I'd assumed they'd have told you. Blood poisoning, apparently.'

'I see.' For a moment, Orsea couldn't think; it was as though his mind was completely empty. He ought to say something, but he couldn't remember any suitable words. Miel shook his head.

'Get some sleep,' he said. 'It's the most useful thing you can do.'

'Sleep?' Orsea laughed. 'Sorry, but I don't think I can.'

But he could; and the next thing he saw was bright daylight through the open tent-flap, and the doctor prodding his leg with his finger.

'You're lucky,' the doctor said, 'no infection, and it's scarring up nicely. Mind you,' he added, with a kind of grim zest, 'one wrong move and it'll burst open again, and next time you may not be so fortunate. Try and keep your weight off it for now.'

'Thanks,' Orsea replied through a mouthful of sleep, 'but I've got an army to move up the mountain, so I don't-'

'No you haven't. Miel Ducas is handling all that.' He made it sound like the arrangements for a dance. 'You can help best by staying put and not causing any trouble.'

'Fine. Don't let me keep you.'

The doctor grinned. 'I was all finished anyway. I'll look at it again this evening. Remember, nothing energetic. They've put together a litter to carry you.'

The doctor left before he could argue, which was annoying. He wanted to protest; how could he let himself be carried about on a litter when there were wounded men-seriously wounded men-who were going to have to hobble and crawl, and who might well not make it all the way? But, as the tent-flap dropped shut behind the doctor's back, he realised it was pointless. They wouldn't allow it, because he was the Duke and he wasn't allowed to die of impatience and nobility of spirit. If he tried to dismiss the litter-bearers and walk up the mountain, it'd only lead to fuss and delay while Miel and the others told him not to be so bloody stupid; if he protested, he wouldn't impress the doctor, and nobody else would be listening to him. With a sigh, he decided to reclassify himself as a cumbersome but necessary piece of luggage. The galling thing, of course, was that they could manage perfectly well without him; better, probably. After all, he was the one who'd got them all into this appalling situation.

They came and dismantled the tent around him; brisk, efficient men in muddy clothes who seemed to have the knack of not seeing him. They left him on his pile of cushions and sacks under a clear blue sky, in a landscape crowded with activity. He watched them loading the carts with folded tents, barrels, sacks, unused arrows still in their sheaves, boxes of boots, belts and spare side-plates for helmets, trestle tables and wounded men. Finally his litter came. Two Guards captains hauled him on to it; the porters lifted it on their shoulders like a coffin, and joined the queue of slow-moving baggage threading its way on to the narrow path. From his raised and lordly position he could see a long way over the heads of his people (wasn't there an old saying about that, how we're all dwarves on the shoulders of giants; we're lesser men than our fathers, but because we inherit their wisdom and experience, we can see further). First he looked back in case there were any signs of pursuit. It was impossible to make out much on the featureless plain, but he convinced himself he could see the battlefield and the thorn hedge. The grey blur in the air; would that be a huge flock of crows picking at the dead, or smoke from fires where the tidy Mezentines were burning up the litter? He could see the heads of the army, flashes of light on helmets that were beginning to rust, since nobody could be bothered with scouring them down with sand twice a day. On the way out they'd marched in ranks and files, smart and neat as the hedges round formal gardens. Now they trudged in knots and bunches, and the gaps between each group looked like bald patches in a frayed coat.

(Invade Mezentia, they'd told him; clever men who'd chafed at the old Duke's timid caution, because they knew that the longer the job was left, the harder it would be. Attack them now, while there's still time. It's us or them; not aggression but simple, last-ditch self-defence. The old Duke had had the perfect excuse: the long, bitter, unwinnable war against their neighbours, which drained away every spare penny and every fit man. But that war was over now. They'd had to grin and bear painfully humiliating terms-land and water-rights and grazing-rights on the eastern mountains given away instead of fought over to the death-but it had been worth it because it made possible the pre-emptive strike against the real enemy, and thanks to the last fifty years of relentless campaigning and slaughter they had an army of hardened veterans who'd drive the Mezentine mercenaries into the sea. The alternative, biding still and quiet while the Republic strangled them to death at their leisure, was simply unthinkable. Besides, with an army of twenty-five thousand, how could he possibly lose?)

They were taking the Butter Pass up the mountain. Not through choice. They'd come down into the plain, five days ago, by way of the main cart-road, a relatively gentle gradient and firm going for the horses. But they were a whole day east, thanks to the fear of the Mezentine cavalry, and they didn't have enough water left to go round the foot of the mountain. The Butter Pass was a different proposition altogether. It was adequate for its purpose; once a month, hundreds of hill-farmers' sons trudged down it with yokes on their shoulders, each carrying a hundredweight of butter and cheese to the cluster of tents where the Mezentine buyers were waiting for them. Going back up the mountain, they had a much lighter load: a few copper pennies or a roll of cotton cloth (third or fourth quality), at most a keg of nails or a rake and a hoe. Taking an army up the Butter Pass was the sort of stupid thing you only did if you had to. It was slow going. To get the carts up without smashing wheels or shearing axles, they had to stop every fifty yards or so to shift boulders, fill in potholes, cut away the rock or improvise embankments to widen the path. Boulders too big to lever aside had to be split, with hammers and wedges or by lighting a fire to heat them up and then quenching them with buckets of precious, scarce water. It was a vast, thankless expenditure of effort and ingenuity-no praise or glory, just a sigh when the obstacle was circumvented and a grim shrug as the next one was addressed-and all Orsea could do was watch, as his bearers lowered him to the ground, glad of the excuse for a rest. It was all wrong; he should be paying off his debt by leading the way. In his mind's eye he saw himself, dusty and bathed in sweat, leaning on a crowbar or swinging a big hammer, exhausted but cheerful, first man to the job and last man off it, and everyone feeling better for knowing he was there with them-instead, he watched, as if this was all a demonstration by the corps of engineers, and he was sitting in a grandstand, waiting to award prizes. Miel Ducas was doing his job for him, and doing it very well. He thought about that, and felt ashamed.

There was still an hour's light left when they gave up for the night, but everybody was too exhausted to carry on. There had already been unnecessary accidents and injuries, and Miel had called a halt. Instead, men stumbled about on a sad excuse for a plateau, struggling to pitch tents on the slope, wedging cartwheels with stones to stop them rolling; the whole tiresome routine of unpacking and setting up, lighting fires without proper kindling, cooking too little food in too little water. They pitched his tent first (were they doing it on purpose to show him up? No, of course they weren't); the doctor came, looked, prodded and failed to announce that the wound had miraculously healed and he'd be fit for duty in the morning. One by one the survivors of his general staff dropped by. They were genuinely anxious about his health, but they didn't want his orders or even his advice. Finally, Miel Ducas came, slow and clumsy with fatigue, squatting on the floor rather than wait for someone to fetch him a chair.

'Slow going,' he reported. 'I'd sort of counted on making it to the hog's back tonight, so we could get on the south-west road by noon tomorrow. As it is, we might just get there by nightfall; depends on conditions. And if it decides to rain, of course, we're screwed.'

Orsea hadn't even considered that. 'Who said anything about rain?' he said. 'It's been blue skies all day.'

Miel nodded. 'Talked to a couple of men who make the butter run,' he said. 'According to them, it's the time of year for flash storms. Clear sky one minute, and the next you're up to your ankles in muck. That's if you're lucky and you aren't swept away in a mudslide. Cheerful bastards.'

Orsea couldn't think of anything to say. 'Let's hope it stays dry, then.'

'Let's hope.' Miel yawned. 'Once we reach the hog's back, of course,' he went on, 'it's all nice and easy till we get to the river; which, needless to say, is probably in spate. I have absolutely no idea how we're going to get across, so I'm relying on inspiration, probably in the form of a dream. My ancestors were always being helped out of pots of shit by obliging and informative dreams, and I'm hoping it runs in the family. How about your lot?'

Orsea smiled. 'We don't dream much. Or if we do, it's being chased by bears, or having to give a speech with no clothes on.'

'Fascinating.' Miel closed his eyes, then opened them again. 'Sorry,' he said. 'Not respectful in the presence of my sovereign. How's the leg?'

'Oh, fine. It's that miserable bloody doctor who's making me lounge around like this.'

(Stupid thing to say, of course. The leg wasn't fine; the doctor most likely hadn't had more than a couple of hours' sleep since the battle; and of course the Ducas family received supernatural advice in their dreams, since they were genuine old aristocracy, unlike the jumped-up parvenu Orseoli…)

'Do as he says,' Miel replied sternly. 'Your trouble is, you don't know a perfectly valid excuse when you see one. You were the same when we were kids. You'd insist on dragging yourself into classes with a raging temperature, and then we'd all catch it off you and be sick as dogs just in time for the recess. You will insist…' He hesitated. 'Just for once, stay still and make the most of it. We're all going to have a high old time of it soon as we get home.'

Orsea looked away. You will insist on doing the right thing, even if it's guaranteed to result in misery and mayhem; or something to that effect. 'All right,' he said. 'It's just so bloody stupid. Getting shot with one of our own arrows.'

'At least our side got to draw blood,' Miel replied. 'Hello, what's all that fuss they're making outside?'

Orsea hadn't noticed; now Miel mentioned it, he could hear shouting. 'They've attacked,' he said.

'Don't think so, or they'd be doing more than just yelling. Hold still, I'll go and see.'

He came back again a moment later, grinning. 'Would you believe it,' he said, 'they caught a spy.'

'You're joking.'

'I'm not. I saw him. Genuine Mezentine spy, brown face and everything. I told them to string him up.'

Orsea frowned. 'No, don't do that,' he said. 'I want to know why they're so interested in us. Maybe they didn't know about this path before. If they're looking for a back way up the mountain, that could be very bad.'

Miel shrugged. 'It's your treehouse. I'll have him brought in, you can play with him.'

The prisoner was a Mezentine, no question about that; with his dark skin and high cheekbones, he couldn't be anything else. But that raised a question in itself. Mezentine officers commanded the army, but the men they gave orders to were all mercenaries; southerners, usually, or people from overseas.

Besides, it was hard to see how a member of the victorious Mezentine expedition, which hadn't come within bowshot or lost a single man as far as Orsea was aware, could have got in such a deplorable state. He could barely stand; the two guards were holding him up rather than restraining him. He had only one shoe; his hair was filthy and full of dust; he had several days' growth of beard (the Mezentines were obsessive about shaving their faces) and he smelt disgusting.

Orsea had never interrogated a prisoner before; of all things, he felt shy. 'Name,' he snapped, because it was as good a starting-point as any.

The man lifted his head, as though his name was the last thing he'd been expecting to be asked. 'Ziani Vaatzes,' he said, in a feeble whisper.

That didn't need expert interpretation. 'Get this man some water,' Orsea said, then realised that for once there weren't any attendants or professional bustlers-about on hand. Miel gave him a rather startled, what-me expression, then went outside, returning a little later with a jug and a horn cup, which the prisoner grabbed with both hands. He spilt most of it down his front.

Orsea had thought of another question. 'What unit are you with?'

The prisoner had to think about that one. 'I'm not a soldier,' he said.

'No, you're a spy.'

'No, I'm not.' The prisoner sounded almost amused. 'Is that what you think?'

Miel shifted impatiently. 'You sure you want to bother with him?' he asked.

Orsea didn't reply, though he noticed the effect Miel's words had on the prisoner. 'Really,' the man said. 'I'm not a soldier, or a spy or anything.' He stopped, looking very unhappy.

'Right,' Orsea said. 'You're a Mezentine, but you're nothing to do with the army out there on the plain. Excuse me, but your people aren't known for going sightseeing.'

'I'm an escaped prisoner,' the man said; he made it sound like a profession. "I promise you, it's true. They were going to kill me; I ran away."

Miel laughed. 'This one's a comedian,' he said. 'He's broken out of jail, so naturally he tags along behind the army. Last place they'd look for you, I guess.'

The look on the man's face; fear, and disbelief, and sheer fury at not being believed. Any moment now, Orsea thought, he's going to demand to see the manager.

'You must be the enemy, then,' the man said.

This time. Miel burst out laughing. 'You could say that,' he said.

'All right.' Orsea was having trouble keeping a straight face. 'Yes, we're the enemy. Do you know who we are?'

The man shook his head. 'Not a clue, sorry. I don't know where this is or what the hell's going on. I didn't even know there's a war on.'

'The army,' Miel said softly. 'Wasn't that a pretty broad hint?'

Now the man looked embarrassed. 'To be honest,' he said, 'I assumed they were after me.'

Orsea looked at him. 'Really'

The man nodded. 'I thought it was a bit over the top myself,' he said. 'But we take renegades very seriously. I assumed-'

'Sorry to disappoint you,' Miel interrupted. 'But your army out there's been fighting us.'

'Oh, right.' The man frowned. 'Who won?'

'You did.'

'I'm sorry.' Now he looked more bewildered than ever. 'Excuse me, but who are you?'

'The Grand Army of Eremia, what's left of it,' Orsea replied. 'So, if you're not a soldier or a spy, and you didn't know about the war, why were you following the army?'

'I reckoned they must have water,' he said. 'Or at least they'd lead me to a river or something. I've only been following them for a day. I tried to steal some food, but the sentries spotted me and I had to run. When I stopped running, I realised I was lost. Then I saw your lot, and thought I'd try my luck. Nothing to lose. It was that or lie down and die somewhere. Just my luck I had to run into a war.'

Brief silence; then Miel said, 'If he's lying, he's very good at it.'

'I'm not, I'm telling the truth.'

'Cocky with it,' Orsea said. 'So, you're an escaped convict. What did you do?'

'It's along story.'

'Indulge me.'

The man looked at him. 'I killed a couple of prison warders,' he said. 'And maybe the secretary of the tribunal, I'm not sure.'

Miel leaned over the man's shoulder. 'Are you sure you wouldn't rather be a spy?' he said. 'I don't know what they tell you about us in the City, but murder's against the law out here, too.'

'Leave him alone, Miel, this is interesting. So,' Orsea went on, 'if you killed a couple of warders, you were in prison already, yes?'

The man nodded. 'I'd just been tried. But I got away and the warders caught me.'

'So you'd done something else before you killed the warders?'

'Yes.' The man hesitated.

'What?'

'It's complicated.'

Orsea raised an eyebrow. Whatever it was, this strange, scruffy man seemed to think it was worse than killing prison officers; he was afraid to say what it was. 'I'm game if you are,' he said.

The man took a deep breath. 'I was charged with mechanical innovation,' he said. 'It's very serious, in the City.'

'Worse than killing people?'

'I suppose so.'

'Were you guilty?'

The man nodded. 'Apparently,' he said.

Miel stood up. 'Now can we hang him?' he said. 'I mean, he's just confessed to murder.'

Orsea frowned. 'You still reckon he's a spy.'

'To be honest, I don't care much.' Miel yawned. 'What it boils down to is we can't very well let him go if he's really a convicted murderer, and I really can't be bothered making the arrangements to send him back. Also, he's seen the Butter Pass, and maybe he's thinking he could do a deal for the information. Either that, or I'm right and he's a spy. No offence, Orsea, but he's running out of play value. Let's pull his neck and get on with what we're supposed to be doing.'

That didn't sound much like Miel, Orsea thought; so this must be a ploy to get the prisoner scared and make him confess. On the other hand, the poor devil was unquestionably a Mezentine; lynching one would probably do wonders for the army's morale. Maybe that was why Miel was making such uncharacteristically brutal noises.

He made up his mind, suddenly, without being aware of having thought it through. If Miel was reminding him of his duty toward the army and the country, fine; he still wasn't prepared to string up someone who looked so unspeakably sad. In spite of the battle and the iron pins from the sky and his own unforgivable mistakes, Orsea still had faith in the world; he believed it might still be possible to make it work, somehow or other. The Mezentine, on the other hand, clearly felt that the world was a cruel, nasty place where bad things always happened. Lynching him would only serve to prove him right, and that would be a betrayal; and if Orsea believed in anything, it was loyalty.

'He's not a spy,' he said. 'And if he's committed crimes in Mezentia, that's really none of our business. I can't go hanging civilians without a trial, in any event. Find him a meal and somewhere to sleep, and in the morning give him three days' rations and a pair of shoes, and let him go. All right?'

'Miel nodded. He didn't seem at all put out about having his advice ignored. 'I'll get the duty officer to see to it,' he said, and went out.

Orsea was about to tell the guards to take the prisoner somewhere else when a thought struck him. He looked at the man and frowned. 'Mind if I ask you a question?'

'Go ahead.'

'In the battle today,' Orsea said, 'we did really badly. Your lot slaughtered us, and we never got close enough to see their faces. One minute we were advancing in good order, and then the sky was full of sharp steel bolts, about so long and so thick, and that was that. I was wondering,' Orsea went on. 'Can you tell me anything about that?'

The man looked at him. 'You mean, what sort of weapon was it?'

Orsea nodded. 'Obviously it must be a deadly secret; at any rate, it was a complete surprise to us. So I imagine you'd get in all sorts of trouble for disclosing restricted information to the enemy. On the other hand.'

The man smiled. 'It's a simple mechanical device. Well,' he added, 'fairly simple. A powerful steel leaf-spring is drawn back by a ratchet. There's a steel cable fastened to the ends of the spring, just like the string of a conventional bow. When the sear is tripped, the force of the spring acting on the cable shoots the bolt up a groove in the bed. It's called a scorpion.'

Orsea raised an eyebrow. 'You know a lot about it.'

'I should do,' the man replied. 'I used to make them.'

There was a long pause. 'Is that right?' Orsea said.

'I was the foreman of the machine shop at the ordnance factory,' the man said. 'I was in charge of production. We've got a building about a hundred yards long by thirty, just for the scorpions. On average we turn out a dozen a day; eighteen if we work three shifts.' He looked Orsea in the eye. 'Are you going to have me killed now?'

'I'm not sure. Do you want me to?'

He smiled again. 'No,' he said. 'But it's not up to me, and if you're looking for someone to blame-'

'Already got someone, thanks,' Orsea said. 'Now, there was no need for you to tell me that, and you don't strike me as the sort who blurts things out without thinking.'

The man nodded. 'Scorpions aren't the only thing we make at the ordnance factory,' he said. 'And besides, from what little I know about the outside world, I get the impression that you're a long way behind us as far as making things is concerned.'

'To put it mildly,' Orsea said. 'As you very well know.'

The man's dirty, battered face was closed, and his eyes were very bright. 'I could teach you,' he said.

'Teach us what?'

'Everything.' His whole body was perfectly still, apart from the slight movements caused by his quick, shallow breathing. 'Everything I know; and that's a lot. Basic metallurgy; foundry and forge work; machining and toolmaking; mass production, interchangeable components, gauges and tolerances. It'd take a long time, you'd be starting from scratch and I'd have to train a lot of people. I don't know how you're fixed for raw materials, iron ore and charcoal and coal. We'd probably have to start off by damming a river, to build a race for a decent-sized waterwheel. You'd be lucky to see so much as a nail or a length of wire for at least five years.' He shrugged. And it'd mean a lot of changes, and maybe you're perfectly happy as you are. After all,' he added, 'I'm hardly the best advertisement for an industrial society.'

Orsea frowned. 'Leave the bad side to me. You carry on telling me about the advantages.'

'You don't need me to do that,' the man replied. 'You know as well as I do. First, you wouldn't depend on us for pretty well every damned thing you use. Second, you could trade. Undercut the Mezentines and take over their markets. That's why our government won't let people like me leave the City. You could transform your whole society. You could be like us.'

'Really. And why would we want to?'

He raised one dust-caked eyebrow. 'As I understand it, you just lost thousands of lives trying to wipe us out, and you never even got close enough to see the colour of our eyes. You must've had some reason for wanting to annihilate us. I don't know what it is, but maybe that's the reason why you should turn into us instead.'

Orsea tried to think. There was a great deal to think about, great issues of security, prosperity and progress that had to be addressed before taking such a radical decision. Orsea knew what they were, but when he tried to apply his mind to them it was like trying to cut glass with a file. Really he wanted someone to decide for him; but that was a luxury he couldn't afford. He knew it was the wrong approach, but he couldn't help thinking about the battle, the field bristling with the steel pins. It'd be a greater victory than winning the battle; and it'd be the only, way of making sure something like that never happened again. But if Miel was here, what would he say? Orsea knew that without having to ask. Of course the Ducas were an old family, you'd expect one of them to have an intuition for this kind of problem, so much more effective than mere intelligence. Miel would know, without having to think, and no amount of convincing arguments would make him change his mind. But Miel (who always got the girls) hadn't married the old Duke's daughter, and so it wasn't up to him. The dreadful thing was, Orsea knew, that nobody could make this choice for him. It was more important that he chose than that he made the right decision.

'The men you killed,' he said. 'Tell me about that.'

The man hadn't been expecting that. 'How do you mean?' he said. 'Do you want to know how I did it?'

'That's not important,' Orsea said. 'And you did it because you had to escape, or they'd have executed you for whatever it is you did that's too complicated for me to understand. No, what I'm asking is, did you have to kill them or else they'd have killed you on the spot or dragged you off to the scaffold? Or did you have the option of just tying them up or something but you killed them anyway?'

The man seemed to be thinking it over carefully. 'The two guards had caught me trying to get out of the Guildhall grounds,' he said. 'They took me to the stables to kill me. It was two to one, and I was lucky to get away with it. And I was clever,' he added, 'it wasn't just luck. But it was them or me. The other man, the tribunal secretary-he was the judge, really-I don't know if I killed him or not. I hit him very hard with a lampstand, to get past him so I could jump out of the window. I hit him as hard as I could; but it was so I could escape, not to punish him or get my own back on him for wrecking my life.' He paused. 'If he was here now, and you said to me, Go ahead, if you want to bash his head in I won't stop you, I'm not sure what I'd do. I mean, he did destroy my life, but killing him wouldn't change anything; and as far as he was concerned, he was doing the right thing.' He looked at Orsea. 'Does that answer your question?'

'I think so. At any rate, it was what I thought I needed to know; assuming I believe you're telling the truth.'

The man shrugged. 'That's up to you.'

'It's all up to me,' Orsea replied. 'I wish it wasn't, but it is. There's another thing, too. If I was in your shoes, I don't know how I'd feel about what you're proposing to do. Really, it's betraying your country.'

The man nodded, as though showing he understood the point Orsea was making. 'Why would I do that,' he said, 'except out of spite, because of what they did to me? Which means, if I'm capable of spite, maybe I killed the guards and the judge for spite too.'

'That thought crossed my mind,' Orsea said.

'Naturally.' The man was quiet for a while. 'I can't be sure,' he said, 'but I don't think that's the real reason. I think maybe my reason is that if they can order me to be killed when I really didn't do anything wrong, then perhaps the whole system needs to be got rid of, to stop them doing it again. And also,' he added, with a slight grin, 'there's the fact that I've got a living to make. I need a job, I'm an engineer. Not many openings for someone in my line outside the City, unless I make one for myself. And we hadn't discussed it, but I wasn't really thinking of doing all that work for free.'

Orsea laughed. 'There's always that,' he said. 'And I suppose, if you betray your people for money, that's better than doing it for revenge. Actually, I don't think I've ever met an engineer before. Are they all like you?'

'Yes,' the man said. 'It's a state of mind more than anything. You can't help thinking in mechanisms; always in three dimensions, and always five stages ahead. It takes a little while to learn.'

Orsea nodded. 'And what about you? Are you married? Children?'

'One daughter,' the man replied. 'I won't see either of them again, I don't suppose.'

'And will anything bad happen to them, if your people find out you've betrayed them?'

'It'll happen anyway, because of what I'm supposed to have done.' The man was looking away, and his voice was perfectly flat. 'If I was going to take revenge for anything, it'd be that.'

'At least you're honest,' Orsea said. 'Or you come across as honest.' He closed his eyes, rubbed them with his thumb and middle finger. 'Tell you what,' he said. 'You come back home with me, stay with me as my guest till I've made my decision. I'm sure we can find something useful for you to do, if you decide you want to stay with us, of course.'

'Naturally.' The man's face slumped into a long, narrow grin. 'You do realise,' he said, 'I haven't got the faintest idea where your country is, or what it's called, or what you do there, or anything. In the City we have this vague concept of the world as being like a fried egg, with us as the yolk and everywhere else slopped out round the edges.'

'Interesting,' Orsea said. 'Well, my country is called Eremia Montis, and it's basically a big valley cradled by four enormous mountains; we raise sheep and goats and dairy cattle, grow a bit of corn; there's a good-sized forest in the eastern corner, and four rivers run down the mountains and join up to make one big river in the bottom of the valley. There's something like a quarter of a million of us-less now, of course, thanks to me-and till recently we had this ghastly long-standing feud with the duchy on the other side of the northern mountain, but that was all patched up just before I became Duke. We've got loads of fresh air and sky, but not much of anything else. That's about it, really. And I'm Orsea Orseolus, in case you were wondering; and you did tell me your name, but I've forgotten it.'

The man nodded. 'Ziani Vaatzes,' he said. 'Just fancy, though; me talking to a real duke. My mother'd be so proud. Not that she'd have known what a duke is. Where I come from, dukes are people in fairy-tales who fight dragons and climb pepper-vines up to heaven.'

'Oh, I do that all the time,' Orsea said. 'When I'm not losing battles. So,' he went on, 'tell me a bit about all these wonderful machines you're going to build for us. You said something just now about a waterwheel. What's that?'

'You're joking, aren't you? You don't know what a water-wheel is?'

Orsea shrugged. 'Obviously some kind of wheel that can travel on water. Not much use to us, because the river flows down the mountain, clearly, and there's nowhere in that direction we want to go. Still, it must be terribly clever, so please tell me all about it.'

Ziani explained to him about waterwheels, and how the Mezentines used the power of the river Caudene to drive all their great machines. He told him about the vast artificial delta in the middle of the City; scores of deep, straight mill-races governed by locks and weirs, lined with rows of giant wheels, undershot and overshot in turn, and the deafening roar of regulated, pent-up water exploited to perfection through the inspired foresight of the Guilds. He explained about the City's seventeen relief aqueducts, which drew off flood-water in the rainy season and circulated reserve current when the pressure was low in summer; about the political dominance of the hydraulic engineers' Guild; about the great plan for building a second delta, worked out to the last detail two centuries ago, still running precisely to schedule and still only a third complete.

'Are you serious?' Orsea interrupted. 'There's thousands of your people working on a project that'll never do anybody any good for another four hundred years, but they're happy to spend their whole lives slaving away at it.'

'What's so strange about that?' Ziani replied. 'When it's finished, it'll double our capacity. We'll be able to build hundreds of new factories, providing tens of thousands of jobs for our people. That means a hundred per cent increase in productivity; we'll be able to supply goods to countries we haven't even discovered yet. It's an amazing concept, don't you think?'

Orsea looked at him. 'You could say that,' he said.

'You don't sound all that impressed.'

'Oh, I'm impressed all right,' Orsea said. 'Stunned would be nearer the mark, actually. You're using up people's lives so that in four hundred years' time you can make a whole lot of unspecified stuff to sell to people who don't even know you exist yet. How do you know they'll want the things you're planning to make for them?'

'Easy,' Ziani said. 'We'll find out what they need, or what they want, and then we'll make it.'

'Supposing they've already got everything they want?'

'We'll persuade them they want something else, or more of the same. We're good at that.'

Orsea was quiet for a while. 'Strange,' he said. 'Where I come from, we organise the things to suit the people, or we try to; it doesn't usually work out as well as we'd like, but we do our best. You organise the people to suit the things. By the sound of it you do it very well, but surely it's the wrong way round.'

Ziani looked at him. 'I guess I'd be more inclined to agree with you,' he said, 'if you'd won your battle. But you didn't.'

There was a long silence. 'You're a brave man, Ziani Vaatzes,' Orsea said.

'Am I?' Ziani shrugged. 'Yes, I suppose I am. I wonder when that happened? Didn't used to be. I suppose it must've been when they took my life away from me. Anyway, that's waterwheels for you. Did you say something a while ago about something to eat?'

That night, when his guest had been fed and clothed and found somewhere to sleep, Orsea expected he'd dream about the great river, squeezed into its man-made channels, turning all those thousands of wheels. Instead, he found himself back in that same old place again, the place he always seemed to end up when he was worried, or things were going on that he didn't understand; and that same man was there waiting for him, the one who'd always been there and who seemed to know him so well. All his life, it seemed to him, the man had been ready for him, a patient listener, a willing provider of sympathy, always glad to give him advice which never seemed to make sense. Tonight the man told him, when he'd finished explaining, that he had in fact won the battle; and he took him to the top of the mountain, to the place where you could see down into the valley on one side, and out as far as the sea on the other, and he'd shown him the city burning, and great clouds of smoke being carried out to sea on the wind. He reached out and caught one of the clouds (he could do that sort of thing; he was very clever); and when he opened his fist, Orsea could see that the cloud was made up of thousands and millions of half-inch steel rods, three feet long and sharpened at one end. So you see, the man said, it turned out all right in the end, just as you designed it. I imagine you're feeling a certain degree of satisfaction, after six hundred years of planning and hard work.

Not really, Orsea replied. All I wanted to do was go home.

The man smiled. Well, of course you did, he said. That's all any of us want; but it's the hardest thing there is, that's why we had to work so hard and be so cunning and resourceful. And you mustn't mind the way he talks to you. Where he comes from, they naturally assume they're better than foreigners, even foreign dukes and princes. But you wanted to see the waterwheels, didn't you? They're just here.

He pointed, and Orsea could see them, but they didn't look quite how he'd imagined them. They were crowded together up close, so that each one touched the one next to it, and the gear-teeth cut into them meshed, so that each one drove its neighbour. All down the river-bank, as far as he could see; but it was the wrong way round, like he'd tried to tell the stranger.

That's not right, he said. The river should be driving the wheels, but it's the other way round.

Chapter Four

'Orsea said you wanted to learn about the world,' Miel said. 'Is that right?'

The path was too steep and uneven for horses; even the badly wounded were walking, or being carried. Miel was wearing his riding-boots-he'd brought ordinary shoes, suitable for walking in, but they'd been in a trunk with the rest of his belongings in the supply train, and he didn't fancy going down the mountain and asking the Mezentines if he could have them back. The boots were extremely good for their intended purpose, which wasn't walking; close-fitting, thin-soled and armoured with twelve-lame steel sabatons, attached to the leather with rivets. The heads of those rivets were starting to wear through the pigskin lining and chafe his heels and the arches of his feet, and he could feel every pebble and flint through the soles as he walked. As if that wasn't enough to be going on with, he'd been given the job of being nice to the Mezentine he'd done his best to persuade Orsea to lynch. It could be seen as a backhanded compliment, but Miel wasn't in the mood.

'If it's no trouble,' the Mezentine said. 'I'm afraid I'm rather ignorant about everything outside the City. Most of us are; I think that's a large part of the problem.'

Miel shrugged. 'Same with us,' he said. 'We know exactly as much about your people as we care. Not the best basis on which to start a war.'

'I guess not.' The Mezentine sounded faintly embarrassed to hear a high officer of state implying a criticism of policy. Quite right, too; but it's always galling to be taught good manners by an enemy.

The Ducas had rules about that sort of thing. Be specially polite to people who annoy you. True feelings are for true friends. Miel particularly liked that one because it meant you could convert trying situations into a kind of game; the more you disliked a person, the politer you could be. You knew that each civility was really a rude gesture in disguise, and you could therefore insult the victim like mad without him ever knowing.

'I'm forgetting my manners,' Miel said. 'You only know me as the bloodthirsty bugger who tried to have you killed. I'm Miel Ducas.'

'Ziani Vaatzes.'

'Pleased to meet you.' Miel thought for a moment, then frowned. 'Do all Mezentine names have a z in them?'

The Mezentine-no, at least do him the courtesy of thinking of him by his name; Vaatzes grinned. 'It does seem like it sometimes,' he said, 'but it's not like there's a law or anything. Actually, I believe it's a dialect thing. Back in the country we originally came from, I'd be something like Tiani Badates. A singularly useless piece of information, but there you are.'

'Quite so. What was it Orsea said you did, back home? Some kind of blacksmith?'

Vaatzes laughed. 'Not really,' he said. 'I was a foreman at the ordnance factory.'

'Fine. What's a foreman?'

'The answer to that,' Vaatzes said, 'depends on who you ask, but basically, I walk up and down the place all day making sure the workers in each shop are doing the work they're supposed to be doing, and making a proper job of it. A bit like a sergeant in an army, I suppose.'

'I see,' Miel said. 'And have you been doing it long?'

'Six years. Before that, I was a toolmaker.'

'Like I said, 'Miel put in. 'A blacksmith.'

'If you like. Actually, my job was to make the jigs and fixtures for the machines that made the various products. It was all about knowing how things work, and how to make them do what you want.'

'That sounds more like my job,' Miel said; and he realised that he wasn't being nearly as polite as he'd intended. 'But I'm supposed to be telling you things, not the other way round. What would you like to know?'

'Well.' Vaatzes paused. 'We could start with geography and put in the history where it's relevant, or the other way round. Whatever suits you.'

'Geography. All right, here goes.' Miel cast his mind back a long way, to vague recollections of maps he'd paid too little attention to when he was a boy. 'Your city stands at the mouth of a gulf, on the east coast of the continent. On the other three sides you've got plains and marshes, where the rivers drain down from these mountains we're walking up. You'll have observed that the eastern plain-where the battle was-separates two distinct mountain ranges, the north and the south. Eremia Montis is a plateau and a bunch of valleys in the heart of the northern mountains; in the southern range live our closest neighbours and traditional enemies, the Vadani. There's not a lot of difference between us, except for one thing; they're lucky enough to have a massive vein of silver running through the middle of their territory. All we've got is some rather thin grass, sheep and the best horses in the world. With me so far?'

'I think so,' Vaatzes said. 'Go on.'

Miel paused for breath; the climb wasn't getting any easier. 'South of the Vadani,' he said, 'is the desert; and it's a wonderful thing and a blessing, because it forms a natural barrier between us and the people who live in the south. If it wasn't for the desert we'd have to build a wall, and it'd have to be a very high one, with big spikes on top. The southerners aren't nice people.'

'I see,' Vaatzes said. 'In what way?'

'Any way you care to name,' Miel replied. 'They're nomadic, basically they live by stealing each other's sheep; they're barbaric and cruel and there's entirely too many of them. If I tell you we prefer your lot to the southerners, you may get some idea.'

'Right,' Vaatzes said. 'That bad.'

'Absolutely. But, like I said, there's a hundred miles of desert between them and us, so that's all right. Now then; above us, that's to the north of Eremia Montis, you've got the Cure Doce. They're no bother to anybody.'

'I know about them,' Vaatzes interrupted. 'That's where most of our food comes from.'

'That's right. They trade wheat and beans and wine and God knows what else for your trinkets and stuff. We sell them wool and horses, and buy their barley-and their disgusting beer. To the best of my knowledge, they just sort of go on and on into the distance and fade out; the far north of their territory is all snow and ice and what's the word for it, tundra, until you reach the ocean. I have an idea the better quality of falcons come from up there somewhere, but you'd have to ask my cousin Jarnac about that sort of thing. Anyway, that's geography for you.'

'Thank you,' Vaatzes said. 'Can we stop and rest for a minute? We don't have mountains where I come from, just stairs.'

'Of course,' Miel said; he'd been walking a little bit faster than he'd have liked, so as to wear out the effete City type, and his knees were starting to ache. 'We can't stay too long or we'll get left behind, but a minute or two won't hurt. History?'

'Please.'

'History,' Miel said, 'is pretty straightforward. A thousand years ago, or something like that, the mountains were more or less empty, and the ancestors of the Eremians and the Vadani were all one people, living right down south, other side of the desert. When the nomads arrived, they drove us out. It's one of the reasons why we don't like them very much. We crossed the desert-there's lots of good legends about that-and settled in the mountains. Nothing much happened for a while; then there was the most terrific falling-out between us, meaning the Eremians, and the Vadani. Don't ask me what it was all about, but pretty soon it turned into a civil war. We moved into the north mountains and started calling ourselves Eremians, and the civil war stopped being civil and became just plain war. This was long before the silver was discovered, so both sides were pretty evenly matched, and we carried on fighting in a force-of-habit sort of way for generations.'

Vaatzes nodded. 'Like you do,' he said.

'Quite. Then, about three hundred years ago, your lot turned up out of the blue; came over the sea in big ships, as you presumably know better than I do. To begin with, our lot and the Vadani were far too busy beating each other up to notice you were there. It was only when your traders started coming up the mountain and selling us things that we realised you were here to stay. No skin off our noses; we were happy to buy all the things you made, and there was always a chance we could drag you in on our side of the war, if the Vadani didn't beat us to it. Really, it was only-no offence-only when you people started throwing your weight about, trying to push us around and generally acting like you owned the place, that we noticed how big and strong you'd grown. Too late to do anything about it by then, needless to say.'

'When you say throwing our weight about…'

Miel stood up. 'We'd better be getting along, or they'll be wondering where we've got to. Throwing your weight about; well, it started with little things, the way it always does. For instance: when your traders arrived-they came to us back then, we didn't have to go traipsing down the mountain to get ripped off by middlemen-the first thing they had a big success with was cloth. Beautiful stuff you people make, got to hand it to you; anyhow, we'd say, That's nice, I'll take twelve yards, and the bloke would measure it off with his stick, and we'd go home and find we hadn't got twelve yards, only eleven and a bit. Really screws it up when you're making clothes and there's not quite enough fabric. So we'd go storming back next day in a fine old temper, and the trader would explain that the Mezentine yard is in fact two and a smidge inches shorter than the Eremian yard, on account of a yard being a man's stride, and the Eremians have got longer legs. Put like that, you can't object, it's entirely reasonable. Then the trader says, Tell you what, to avoid misunderstandings in the future, how'd it be if you people started using our measurements? We'd say we weren't sure about that, and the trader would explain that he buys and sells all over the place, and it'd make life really tiresome if he had to keep adapting each time he came to a place that had its own weights and measures; so, being completely practical, it'd be far easier for us to change than it'd be for him; also, if he's got to spend time consulting conversion charts or cutting a special stick for Eremian yards, that time'd have to be paid for, meaning a five or ten per cent rise in prices to cover additional costs and overheads. Naturally we said, Fine, we'll use your yard instead of ours; and next it was weights, because there's eighteen ounces in the Eremian pound, and then it was the gallon. Next it was the calendar, because a couple of our months are a few days shorter, so we'd arrange to meet your people on such-and-such a day, and you wouldn't show up. You get the idea, I'm sure.

'Didn't take long before everything was being weighed and measured in Mezentine units, which meant a whole lot of us didn't have a clue how much of anything we were buying, or how much it was really costing us, or even what day of the week it was. Sure, all just little things, one step at a time, like a man walking to the gallows. But the time came when we stopped making our own cloth because yours was cheaper and better; same for all the things we got from you. Then out of the blue the price has shot right up; we complain, and then it's take it or leave it, we've got plenty of customers but you've only got one supplier. So we gave in, started paying the new prices; but when we tried to even things up by asking more for what we had to sell, butter and wool and so forth, it's a whole different story. Next step, your people are interfering in every damn thing. The Duke appoints someone to do a job; your traders turn round and say, We can't work with him, he doesn't like us, choose someone else; and by the way, here's a list of other things you do which we don't approve of, if you want to carry on doing business with us, you'd better change your ways. We're about to tell you where you can stick your manufactured goods when suddenly we realise that your people have been quietly buying up chunks of our country; land, live and dead stock, water rights, you name it. Investment, I believe it's called, and by a bizarre coincidence you use the same word for besieging a castle. So there we were, invested on all sides; we can't tell you to go and screw yourselves without getting your permission first. Throwing your weight around.'

Vaatzes frowned. 'I see,' he said. 'Honestly, I had no idea. Come to that, before I ran away from the City, I didn't even know you existed.'

'Oh, your lot know we exist all right.' Miel sighed. 'Give you an example. My family, the Ducas, have been landowners and big fish in little ponds and selfless servants of the commonwealth for longer than even we can remember. We've done our bit for our fellow citizens, believe me. About a third of the men in the Ducas over the last five hundred years have died in war, either killed in a battle or gone down with dysentery or infected wounds. We pay more in tax than any other family. In our corner of the country we run the justice system, we're the land and probate registry; we say the magic words at the weddings of our tenants, we're godfathers to their children, we run schools and pay for doctors. We take the view that a tenant deserves to get more for his rent than just a strip of land and a side to be on when there's a feud. That's what I was talking about when I said we do our bit for our fellow citizens; and that's over and above stuff like fighting in wars and being chancellors and ambassadors and commissioners. Do you see what I'm driving at?'

Vaatzes nodded. 'You're the government,' he said. 'But it's different in the City, of course. The big men who do all the top jobs in the Guilds are our government; but they get to make policy, not just carry it out. They can decide what's going to be done, and of course that means they have loads of opportunities to look out for their own Guilds, or their neighbours and families, or themselves. You can only do what the Duke tells you. You've got all the work, but without the privileges and perks.'

'That's right,' Miel said. 'You've certainly got a grasp of politics.'

'Like I said, I know how things work. A city or a country is just a kind of machine. It's got a mechanism. I can see mechanisms at a glance, like people who can dowse for water.'

'That's quite a gift,' Miel said, frowning slightly. 'Anyway, the way we've always done things is for the landowning families to be the government, as you call it. But then along come your City people, investors, buying up land and flocks and slices of our lives; and of course, they don't take responsibility, the way we've been brought up to do. They don't think, how will such and such a decision affect the tenants and their shepherds, or the people of the village? They don't live here, and when they make a decision they're guided by what's best for their investment, what'll produce the best profit, or whatever it is that motivates them. So, when two tenants fall out over a boundary or grazing rights on a common or anything like that, they can't do what they've always done, go and see the boss up at the big house and make him sort it out for them. The boss isn't there; and even if they were to go all the way to Mezentia and ask to see the directors of the company, or whatever such people call themselves, and even if those directors could be bothered to see them and listen to them, it wouldn't do any good, because they wouldn't understand a thing about the situation. Not like we would, the Ducas or the Orphanotrophi or the Phocas. See, we're their boss, but we're also their neighbour. They can go out of their front door and look up the mountain and see our houses. You can't see Mezentia's Guildhall from anywhere in Eremia.'

Vaatzes nodded. He seemed to be an intelligent man, and quite reasonable. Perhaps that was why they'd put him in prison, Miel decided. 'I guess it's a question of attitude,' he said. 'Perspective. We're concerned mostly with things-making them, selling them. You're concerned with people.'

Miel smiled. 'That puts it very well,' he said. 'And maybe you can see why I don't like your City.'

'I've gone off it rather myself,' Vaatzes said.

'Fine.' Miel nodded. 'So perhaps you'd care to explain to me why you think it'd be a good idea to turn my country into a copy of it.'

It was a neat piece of strategy, Miel couldn't help thinking. He'd have derived more satisfaction from it if he found it easier to dislike the Mezentine; but that was hard going, like running uphill, and the further he went, the harder it got. But he'd laid his trap and sprung it-there was one mechanism the Mezentine hadn't figured out at a glance-and sure enough, for a while Vaatzes seemed to be lost for words.

'It's not quite like that,' he said eventually. 'Like I told you, I'm an engineer. I know about machines, things.' He frowned thoughtfully. 'Let's see,' he said. 'Suppose you come to me and ask me to build you a machine-a loom, say, so you can weave your wool into cloth instead of sending it down the mountain.'

'Right,' Miel said.

'So I build the machine,' Vaatzes went on, 'and I deliver it and I get paid. That's my side of the bargain. What you do with it, how you use it and how the use you put it to affects your life and your neighbours'; that's your business. Not my business, and not my fault. It'd be the same if you asked me to build you a scorpion, an arrow-thrower. Once you've taken it from me, it's up to you who you point it at. You can use it to defend your country and your way of life against your worst enemy, or you can set it up on the turret of your castle and shoot your neighbours. All I want to do,' he went on, 'is make a new life for myself, now the old one's been taken away from me. Now I'm lucky, because I know a secret. It's like I can turn lead into gold. If I can do that, it'd be pretty silly of me to get a job mucking out pigs. From your point of view, I can give you the secrets that make the Mezentines stronger than you are. With that power, you've got a chance of making sure you don't have to go through another horrible disaster, like the one you've just suffered. Now,' he went on, stopping for a moment to catch his breath, 'if I were to sell you a scorpion without telling you how it works, or how to use it safely without hurting yourself, that'd be no good. But that's not the case. You seem to understand just fine what's wrong with the City and how it works. I can give you the secret, and you know enough not to hurt yourself with it, or spoil all the good things about your way of life. Does that make any sense to you?'

It was a long time before Miel answered. 'Yes, actually, it does,' he said. 'And that's why I'm glad it's not my decision whether we take you up on your offer. If it was up to me, I'd probably say yes, now we've had this conversation, and I have a feeling that'd be a bad thing.'

'Oh,' Vaatzes said. 'Why?'

'Ah, now, if I knew that I'd be all right.' Miel smiled suddenly. 'I'd be safe, see. But it's all academic, since it's not up to me.'

Vaatzes scratched his head. 'I don't know,' he said. 'You're a senior officer of state, if you went to the Duke and said, for God's sake don't let that Mezentine start teaching us his diabolical tricks, he'd listen to you, wouldn't he?'

'You were there when I told him to have you hanged,' Miel replied cheerfully. And here you still are.'

'Yes, but you didn't press the point. I was there, remember. It's not like you made any effort to use your influence; and when he said no, let's not, you didn't argue.' He lifted his eyes and looked at Miel. 'Are you sorry you didn't?'

'Like I said, it wasn't my decision. It never is.'

'Would you like it to be?'

Miel shivered, as though he'd just touched a plate he hadn't realised was hot. 'We're falling behind,' he said. 'Come on, don't dawdle.'

They walked quickly, past men supporting their wounded friends on their shoulders, others hauling ropes or pushing the wheels of carts over the rims of potholes. 'Of course,' Miel said abruptly, 'if he decides to let you teach us, common courtesy requires that we teach you something in return.'

'Does it?'

'Oh yes. Reciprocity is courtesy, that's an old family rule of the Ducas. We pay our debts in kind.'

'Really. We've got money for that.'

Miel shook his head. 'That's wages,' he said. 'And wages are a political statement. If I pay you, that makes you my servant, it's a different sort of relationship. Between gentlemen, it's a gift for a gift and a favour for a favour.'

'I see,' Vaatzes said. 'So if you teach me something in return, that's instead of money.'

'Of course not, you're missing the point. I'm a nobleman and you're a whatever you said, foreman. Therefore, courtesy demands that I give more than I get.'

Vaatzes thought about that. 'To show you're better than me.'

'That's it. That's what nobility's all about. If you want to be better than someone socially, you've got to be better than them in real terms too; more generous, more forbearing, whatever. Otherwise all the transaction between us proves is that I'm more powerful than you, and that wouldn't say anything about me. Hence the need for me to give more than I get. Simple, really.'

There was a pause while Vaatzes thought that one through. 'So I get the money and something else?'

'Yes.'

'In that case, fine. You have to teach me something.'

'That's right.'

'Thanks,' Vaatzes said. 'Thanks very much. So, what do you know that you could teach me?'

'Ah.' Miel grinned. 'That's a slight problem. Let's see, what do I know? Another thing about nobility,' he continued, 'is that you don't actually know many things, you just know a few things very well indeed. I could teach you statesmanship.'

'Meaning what?'

'How to debate in High Council,' Miel said. 'How to budget, and cost a project, how to forecast future revenues. Negotiation with foreign ambassadors. Court protocol. That sort of thing.'

Vaatzes frowned. 'Not a lot of use to me, really'

'I suppose not. So what does that leave? Estate management; no, not particularly relevant. I think we're just left with horsemanship, falconry and fencing.'

'Right,' Vaatzes said. 'All three of which I know nothing about. Which would you say is easiest?'

'None of them.'

'In that case, falconry or fencing. Horses give me a rash.'

Miel laughed. 'Maybe I'll teach you both,' he said. 'But it'll all depend on what Orsea decides.'

Vaatzes nodded. 'You've known him a long time, I think.'

'All my life. We grew up together, twenty or so of us, hanging round the court. Back then, of course, he was just the Orseoli and I was the Ducas, but we always got on well nonetheless-surprising, since my father was right up the top of the tree and the Orseoli were sort of clinging frantically to the lower branches. But then Orsea married the Countess Sirupati, and she's got no brothers and her sisters aren't eligible for some technical reason, so they got married off outside the duchy; as a result, Orsea was suddenly the heir apparent. Count Sirupat dies, Orsea becomes Duke. Couldn't have happened to a nicer fellow, either.'

'So you didn't mind?'

'Mind? Of course not. Oh, I see, you're thinking I might've been resentful because he got to be the Duke. Not a bit of it. The Sirupati would never marry the Ducas.'

Vaatzes looked puzzled. 'But I thought your family were high-ranking aristocrats.'

'We are. Which is the reason. Quite simple, really. The great houses aren't allowed to marry into the ruling family. Otherwise there'd be no end of God-awful power struggles, with all of us trying to get the throne. So we're all excluded; stops us getting dangerous ideas. If the Duke's only got daughters, he has to find his heir from the lesser nobility, people like the Orseoli. It's a good system. But you should've figured that out for yourself, if you've got a special intuition for how things work.'

'Well, I know now,' Vaatzes said. 'I guess I didn't figure it out for myself because it's a good idea, and those don't seem to happen much in politics. Who made the rule, anyhow?'

That struck Miel as a strange question. 'We all did,' he said. 'Gradually, over time. I don't think anybody ever sat down with a piece of paper and wrote the rules out, just so. They grew because everybody could see it made sense.'

'An intuitive feel for how things work,' Vaatzes said. 'Maybe there's hope for you people after all.'

That night, they camped in a small valley under a false peak. They didn't start pitching tents until sunset, and most of the work was done by torchlight; tired men doing things they knew by heart, co-operating smoothly and without thinking, like the components of a properly run-in machine. It was probably a good sign that Ziani was given a guest tent all to himself; a small one, with a plain camp bed, a lamp and an old iron brazier, but he didn't have to share and they put it up for him rather than telling him where it was and leaving him to do it. When he was alone, he sat on the bed-he ached all over from the exhaustion of walking uphill all day; his heels and soles were covered in torn blisters and his new shoes were smudged inside with blood-and stared at the boundary where the circle of yellow light touched the white canvas background. Having that sort of mind, he drew up a schedule of resources, a list of materials and components.

First, he had his life. In the Guildhall, and after that on the road, in the plain, on the terrifying outskirts of the battle, he'd recognised the inevitability of his own death without finding any way to reconcile himself to it. For many reasons (but one primarily) he couldn't accept it; death was a part that didn't fit, something that had no place in the scheme of things as they should be; an abomination. He had no illusions about his escape. He didn't believe in destiny, any more than he believed in goblins; if the iron ore was destined to end up as finished products, there'd be no need for an engineer. There had been a certain amount of resourcefulness and clever thinking involved, but mostly it was luck, particularly once he was away from people and under the impersonal, inhuman sky (he'd always hated Nature; it was a machine too big for him to take in, too specialised for him to repair). But he had his life, the essential starting-point. Can't get anything done if you're dead.

Next, he had his knowledge and his trade. Many years ago, he'd come to accept the fact that he was completely and exclusively defined by what he did. Other men were tall or short, strong or weak, kind or cruel, clever or stupid; they were funny, popular, reliable, feckless, miserable; they were lovers or runners or storytellers, bores, growers of prize roses, readers, collectors of antique candlesticks; they were friends, neighbours, enemies, evil bastards, compassionate, selfish, generous. Ziani Vaatzes was an engineer; everything he was, all he was. When he came home in the evening…

Ah yes. Finally, he had his motivation. He had, of course, lied to the Duke and the Duke's pleasant, slow-witted courtier. If it hadn't been for his motivation, he'd have stayed in the prison cell, or curled up in a ball on the moors and died; he certainly wouldn't have killed two men, and he certainly wouldn't be getting ready to betray his City's most precious secrets to the barbarians. He'd considered setting the motivation down in the list of problems and obstacles, since it was such an incredible burden, limiting his actions in so many ways. But in spite of that, it was an asset, and the best facility at his disposal. He saw it, in the blueprint in his mind, as the engine that would power his machine. Certainly nothing else could.

As for that list of problems and obstacles; in the end, it did him a service by putting him to sleep, because it stretched on endlessly, like the sheep you're supposed to count jumping over the gap in the wall. There were so many of them it was almost a relief; so many he didn't have to bother listing them, it couldn't be done. The way to cross a vast, flat plain when you're aching, starving and exhausted is not to resolve to get to the other side, because that's out of the question. You don't look to the mountains, a little grey blip on the bottom edge of the sky. You look ahead and make a bet with yourself: I bet you I'll get as far as that little outcrop of boulders, or that single thorn tree, before I fall over and die. If you win that bet, you double up on the next one, and so on until at last you can't trick yourself into taking another step; at which point, a defeated enemy army which just happens to be passing picks you up and rescues you. Piece of cake, really.

Similarly, he made a point of not looking at the end result he needed to achieve. It was too far away, and there were too many obstacles, he'd never live to reach it. But he might just make it as far as the first step in his design, the second, possibly even the third. Same as a big project in the factory; you know you'll never get it all done in one day, so you plan it out: today we'll cut the material, tomorrow we'll face off and mark out, the next day we'll turn the diameter, cut the threads, and so on. It complicated things a little that his motivation and his objective were so closely linked, because they were so simple (but it's good design to make one part carry out two functions); if he couldn't let himself believe in it, he couldn't very well rely on it to drive him forward across the heather and the tussocks of couch-grass. Fortunately, he found he could turn a blind eye to the inconsistency. The motivation was strong enough to keep him going, even though the objective was so ridiculously far-fetched. All he had to do-it was so simple, to a man who lived by and for complexities-all he had to do was close his eyes and think of her, and he was like the flywheel driven by the belt, whether it likes it or not.

The next day was all uphill, and Miel was needed to supervise the carts, and the wounded, and various other things that had got slightly worse overnight. It didn't help that Orsea was insisting he was strong enough to ride; it wasn't fair on the doctor, for one thing. The wretched man had enough to do with several hundred critical cases (who weren't dukes, but who did what they were told) without having to stay within earshot of His. Highness in case the partially healed wound burst and the idiot needed to be seen to straight away before he bled to death.

'I can manage, really,' Miel told his oldest friend.

'I know that,' Orsea replied, shifting painfully in his saddle, 'but you shouldn't have to. This is my responsibility. You look like death warmed up.'

'Thank you so much.' Miel winced, as though he wanted to ride away in a huff but knew he wasn't allowed to, because it would be discourteous. 'Look, it's no big deal. If I can just get a few tangles straightened out, we can be on our way and it'll be fine. It'll be much quicker for me to deal with the problems myself than explain what they are so you can handle them. And,' he added, with the air of a general committing his last reserves in a final reckless charge, 'the doctor says you won't be fit to ride for another three days.'

Orsea made a remark about the doctor that was both vulgar and inaccurate. 'Besides,' he went on, 'if it's my health you're all worried about, you ought to realise that if I've got to spend another day alone in a cart brooding about what a fuck-up I've made of everything, it's absolutely guaranteed I'll die of guilt and frustration. So telling me what the doctor said isn't just annoying and high treason, it's counterproductive.'

Miel sighed melodramatically. 'Not up to me,' he said. 'If you want to risk a massive haematoma-'

'You mean haemorrhage,' Orsea pointed out. 'Haematoma is bruises. Trust me, all right? Now let's talk about something else. How's that cousin of yours getting on, Jarnac-'He stopped himself abruptly; Miel smiled.

'It's all right,' he said, 'Jarnac wasn't killed in the battle. In fact, he didn't join the army at all. Stayed at home.'

'Sensible chap.'

Miel frowned. 'No, actually. Cousin Jarnac doesn't approve of the war. He thinks it's wrong. And I don't mean wrong as in liable to end up a complete fiasco; wrong as in morally bad. All wars, not just this one.'

Orsea nodded. 'There's a word for that, isn't there?'

'I can think of several.'

'No, I mean it's a known-about thing, an ism. Pacifism.'

'Is that right?' Miel yawned. 'There's times when my cousin gets so far up my nose he's practically poking out of my ear. Why did you mention him, all of a sudden?'

'Don't know,' Orsea said. 'Or rather, yes I do. I was lying there awake in the early hours, and for some reason I was remembering that sparrowhawk he had when we were kids. Mad keen on falconry he was, back then.'

'Still is. Why, do you fancy going hawking when we get home? I'm sure he'd be glad of the excuse to show off.'

'It might be fun,' Orsea said. 'Though God knows, I shouldn't even be thinking of swanning about enjoying myself when there's so much work to be done. Besides, what would people think?'

'There goes the Duke, having a day off,' Miel replied: 'You aren't the first man in history who's lost a battle. And it wasn't your fault. No, really. You weren't to know about those scorpion things. If it hadn't been for them-'

'Which is like saying if it wasn't for the rain, it'd be a dry day' Orsea scowled. 'Sooner or later, you'll have to admit it, Miel. I screwed up. I led thousands of our people to their death.'

Miel sighed loudly. 'All right, yes. It's-very bad. And it's going to be very tense for a while back home, until people come to terms with it. But these things happen; and you know what? It's not you they're going to hate, it's the Mezentines, because they're the ones who killed our people. Now, do you want me to organise a day with the birds when we get home, or not?'

Orsea shook his head. 'Best not,' he said. 'At least, not for a while. Now, what can I do to help?'

Eventually, Miel let him organise the reconnaissance parties. That was all right, he was happy with that. They were, he knew, in sensitive territory. Not far away (nobody was entirely sure where; that was the problem) was the border between the two mountain dukedoms. He felt confident that the Vadani wouldn't make trouble unless they felt they were provoked. Straying inadvertently on to their land with an army, however, even if that army was a chewed-up remnant, would probably constitute provocation, particularly to some of the old-school Vadani commanders who were still having trouble coming to terms with the peace. Vital, therefore, to keep a sharp eye open for routine border patrols, and to keep well out of their way. The scout captains duly set off, and he settled down in the vanguard to wait for the first reports.

The Vadani, he thought; that's probably what made me think about falcons, and Jarnac Ducas. It had been years since he'd seen his cousin Valens; the last time, come to think of it, was before he-before either of them-had come to the throne; before his wedding, even. He tried to picture Valens in his mind, and saw a thin, sharp-nosed, sullen boy who never spoke first. He remembered feeling sorry for him, watching him riding to the hunt with his outrageous father. It had been a cold, miserable occasion; a state visit, reception and grand battue to celebrate a truce in the unending, insoluble war. It was obvious that nobody on either side believed in the truce-they were all proved right a few months later, when it collapsed into bloody shambles-and hardly anybody made any effort to mask his scepticism; but they'd attended the reception, watched the dancers, listened to the musicians, gone through the motions with fixed smiles, and then that dreadful day's hunting, in the cold mist, everybody getting muddled about the directions, not hearing the horns, getting to their pegs too early or too late; the old Duke in a raging temper because the beaters had gone in before they were supposed to, and the deer had been flushed and had gone on long before the guests were in position. Not that any of the Eremian contingent cared a damn; but the Duke did, because he actually cared whether they caught anything or not-some of the Eremians reckoned the visit and the whole truce business was just a pretext he'd cooked up for a full-scale battue at the beginning of the season. As a result, the Duke spent the day charging backwards and forwards across the field yelling at huntsmen and line-captains, and young Valens had charged with him, grimly wretched but keeping up, so as not to get lost and add to the day's problems. It was painfully obvious that he didn't want to be there; obvious that his father knew it, and didn't care. He took his son with him the way you'd wear a brooch or a belt you hated, but which a relative had given you, so you had to wear it so as not to hurt their feelings. That day, he'd felt very sorry for Valens, and it was still the mental image his mind defaulted to, when his, advisers debated the Vadani question in council, or when his wife talked about Valens to him. It's hard to hate someone who, in your mind, is forever a sad twelve-year-old, soaking wet on a horse far too big for him. Orsea, of course, made a point of never hating anybody unless it was absolutely unavoidable.

The first party of scouts hadn't seen anything. The second party reported a body of horsemen, apparently shadowing the army on the other side of a hog's back; somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred and twenty of them, a third- or half-squadron, therefore quite possibly a routine patrol. The third party were late, and when they came in they had a shamefaced look about them; they'd been intercepted by Vadani cavalry who'd apparently materialised out of thin air in front of them on the road, and given them a message to take back. Duke Valens sent his greetings and sympathy on their unfortunate experience. It occurred to him that the army might be short of food, clothes, doctors, whatever. If there was anything they needed, anything the Vadani could do to help (except, of course, military action of any kind), all they had to do was ask.

Orsea's first instinct was to refuse. While he was trying to come up with a sufficiently polite form of words, he found himself wondering why; true, it would be galling to be in Valens' debt, but food, at least a dozen more doctors, best of all a guide or two to show them the easiest way-that could be enough to save lives. He sent a reply thanking Valens very much indeed, and listing everything he could think of. The offer wasn't kindly meant, he had no illusions on that score, but he was in no position to take account of intentions.

The Vadani doctors came with the supply-wagons, perched among sacks and barrels and wearing bemused, scared expressions, like helpless peasants abducted by the fairies. Maybe the Vadani told the same sort of stories about the Eremians as Orsea had heard about them, during the war-they can't be trusted, don't take prisoners, they string you up by the ankles and use you for javelin practice; at any rate, they seemed anxious to help and please, and the Vadani had always had a good reputation for medicine. Orsea amused himself by wondering where they'd been press-ganged from; they'd arrived so fast, they could hardly have been given time to grab their boots and their bags. They asked permission to take some of the worst cases away with them (these men need proper care in a hospital, and so forth), but he couldn't allow that. If there was one thing the Vadani were better at than curing people, it was taking hostages.

Once or twice as the day wore on, he caught himself thinking about the Mezentine fugitive, and his extraordinary offer. But that would have to wait until he got home; the decision would have to be taken in the proper way, with the opinions of the council guiding him. Better, therefore, that he kept his mind open and didn't think about it at all until then.

They stopped for the night an hour before sunset, a long way short of where they'd hoped they'd reach. This journey was taking for ever. Orsea was tired but not exhausted, and his wound hadn't burst like everybody had said it would; there was a little blood showing through the bandage, but nothing spectacular. A Vadani doctor came to examine and dress it; a short, stout man with a fringe of straight white hair round a glowing bald head, very quiet, as though each word was costing him thirty shillings. Orsea guessed that it was the first time he'd had anything to do with the effects of a battle. Some people reacted like that, shutting the doors and windows of their minds to keep the intrusive information out. He said the wound was knitting very well, tutted to himself at the cack-handed Eremian way of winding a bandage, and left quickly. When he'd gone, Orsea poured himself a small drink and opened the book he'd brought along to read, and hadn't yet looked at-Pescennia Alastro's sonnets, the latest rescension, an anniversary present from his wife. He opened it at the first page, laid it carefully face down on his knee, and burst into tears.

Chapter Five

Unlike his father, the young Duke hunted three days a week, always following the same pattern. On Tuesdays he rode parforce, with the full pack, drawing the upland coverts for roe (in season), boar, bear and wolf. On Thursdays the hunt was bow-and-stable, the hunters on foot and stationary while the pack flushed the valley plantations and the moors on the forest perimeter. Saturday was for hawking, unless the weather was too wet and cold, in which case they'd work the warrens with terriers, or try their luck walking up rabbits around the orchards. The great battues were a thing of the past now; the young Duke didn't hold with the disturbance they caused, or the scattering of game from their regular beats.

Duke Valens took the hunt very seriously. The rule was, no business on a hunt day unless it's a genuine emergency; and even then, the court knew better than to expect him to be good-tempered about it. Accordingly, Chancellor Delmatius was in two minds, possibly three, about passing on the message from the north-eastern frontier. He spent a couple of tormented hours contemplating the true meaning of the words genuine emergency, evaluated the risks to a hair's weight, and was just in time to intercept Valens before he left for the stables.

'It's probably nothing,' he said, pausing to catch his breath. 'I thought I'd mention it, but I don't think we need do anything about it.'

Valens wasn't looking at him; he was scowling at a square of blue sky beyond the window. 'Shit,' he said (Valens very rarely swore). 'And I was hoping we'd work through the long drive this morning. Pranno reckons there's a twelve-pointer just moved in there.'

Delmatius didn't sigh with relief, but only because he'd learned how not to. 'Do you want to see the messengers first, or should I call the council?'

'I suppose I'd better see the messengers,' Valens answered, looking thoughtfully at the gloves in his hand. 'I don't need you to sit in, I'll get Strepho to take notes for you. You get on and call the meeting. We'll use the side-chamber off the east hall'

Delmatius scuttled away like a mouse who's left half his tail in the cat's mouth; as soon as he'd gone, Valens relaxed his scowl and perched on the edge of the table. It was a pity; if there really was a twelve-pointer in the narrow wood, it'd be long gone by next week, most likely heading downhill towards the lusher grass. Either the Natho clan would get it, or some poacher who'd take the meat and bury the rest, and that superb trophy would go to waste.

Even a twelve-pointer, however, didn't justify spitting in the face of opportunity. He'd already heard about the battle itself, of course. The scouts (his personal unit, not the regulars who reported to the chiefs of staff) had brought him the news a fraction less than twenty-four hours after the last scorpion-bolt pitched. By the time the joint chiefs and the council knew about it, Valens had already read the casualty reports (both sides' versions, naturally). Predictably, they were split into two irreconcilable factions: attack now, kill them all, worry about the treaty later; or leave well alone and hope the wolves tidy up the stragglers.

Instead, Valens had given orders for a modest relief column: food, blankets, doctors of course. The council were used to him adopting the one course of action they were sure he wouldn't take, and listened meekly to their assignments. As usual when he gave an incomprehensible order, Valens didn't stop to explain the rationale behind it. The most favoured theory was that he wanted the doctors to bring him back extremely detailed reports of what state the Eremians were in, the exact strength of the vanguard and rearguard, so he could make the attack, when it came, as effective as possible. Other theories included an unannounced illness, a sudden conversion to some new religion that preached nonviolence, or that old catch-all, lulling the enemy into a false sense of security.

In fact, he was allowing himself the luxury of savouring the moment. It had been a long time coming; but now, at last, his proper enemy and natural prey had made the mistake of bolting from cover at the first horn-call, so to speak. It'd be fatally easy to take the obvious course of action and lay into them, kill as many as possible and scatter the rest. Any fool could do that. Valens, on the other hand, knew the value of waiting just a little longer and doing a proper job. He'd heard a saying once; maybe it was from a Mezentine diplomat, boasting insufferably about how wonderful his people were at making things. The easiest way to do something is properly. When he'd heard it first, he'd been unable to make up his mind whether it was terribly profound or utterly banal. The moment of revelation had been when he realised it was both.

He knew what the people said about him, of course; he was the best Duke in living memory, he was a bastard but a clever bastard, he was ten times the ruler his father had been.

Well, he knew the third one was lies. The second one he was prepared to acknowledge, if put to it. The first one he dismissed as unlikely. It was good that they said it, however. If they admired him, they were likely to do as they were told,' just so long as he stayed successful. But there was no reason why he shouldn't. If the hunt had taught him anything, it was the inestimable value of thinking in three dimensions. To hunt successfully, you must know your ground, your pack and your quarry. You must learn, by fieldwork and reconnaissance, where the quarry is likely to be and what it's liable to do once disturbed. You must know the capacities and weaknesses of the resources-men, dogs, equipment-at your disposal. You must be able to visualise at all times where everybody is, once you've sent them to their stations to do their assigned tasks. You must be aware of the interplay of time and distance, so you can be sure that the stops and the beaters are in position when you loose the pack. You must be able to judge allowances-the angle to offset a drive so as to head off the quarry from its customary line of escape, how far ahead of a running stag to shoot so as to pitch your arrow where it's going, not where it's just been. Above all, at all times you must be in perfect control, regardless of whether things are going well or badly. A brilliant mind is not required; nor is genius, intuition, inspiration. Clarity and concentration are helpful; but the main thing is vision, the ability to draw invisible lines with the mind's eye, to see round corners and through walls. It's a knack that can be learned fairly readily; slightly harder than swimming, rather easier than juggling or playing the flute.

Well; if he wasn't going to hunt today, he'd better go to the council meeting. Nothing useful would be achieved there-he would do all the work himself, it'd take him just under half an hour-but it was necessary in order to keep his leading men, his pack, alert and obedient. He'd been at pains to train them over the last few years, encouraging, rewarding, culling as needed, and they were shaping well; but time had to be spent with them, or they'd grow restive and wilful. He swung his legs off the table on to the ground, a brisk, almost boyish movement that he certainly wouldn't have made had anybody been watching, and walked quickly across the yard, composing the agenda for the meeting as he went. On the stairs he met the master cutler, who told him the new case of rapiers had finally arrived from the City. He thanked the man and told him to bring them along to his study an hour after dinner.

The meeting lived down to his expectations. The council had wanted to debate whether or not to launch an attack on the Eremians while they were vulnerable and desperate. When he told them he'd already sent food and doctors, they had nothing left to say; they hadn't thought ahead, and so the buck had slipped through the cordon and left them standing. As it should be; it was easier to tell people what to do if they didn't interrupt. He delegated to them the simple, unimportant matters that he hadn't already provided for, and sent them away with a sense of bewildered purpose.

To his study next, where he had a map of the mountains. It was big, covering the whole of the north wall (there was a hole for the window in the middle of the Horsehead Ridge, but that didn't matter; the ridge was sheer rock capped with snow, and you needed ropes and winches to get there); it was a tapestry, so that he could mark positions with pins and tapes if he chose to, but that was rarely necessary. He fixed his eye on the place where Orsea's army had last been seen, and calculated where they were likely to be now.

An attack would be feasible-not straight away, there were two possible escape routes and he couldn't get his forces in place to block both of them before the Eremians moved on; tomorrow evening or the morning of the next day would be the right time. He could bottle them up in the long pass between Horn Cross and Finis Montium, and it ought to be possible to wipe them out to the last man without incurring unacceptable losses. It could be done; now he had to decide whether he wanted to do it.

That was a much bigger question, involving a complex interplay of imperatives. His father, or his grandfather, greatgrandfather and so back four degrees, wouldn't have thought twice: kill the men, absorb the women and children, annex the land. They'd been trying to do just that, through war, for two hundred years. The hunt had, however, moved on; thanks to the long war, and the recent short interval of peace, Valens knew he didn't have the resources, human or material, to control the aftermath of victory to his satisfaction. He'd be occupying a bitterly hostile country, through which his lines of communication would be stretched and brittle. Facts duly faced, there wasn't actually anything in Eremia that he hadn't already got an adequate sufficiency of. Get rid of the Eremians and take their land, and he'd find himself with two frontiers abutting the desert instead of just one; two doors the nomad tribes might one day be able to prise open. A preemptive massacre would cause more problems than it solved.

He considered a few peripheral options. He could secure Orsea himself and keep him as a hostage. The advantages of that were obvious enough, but they didn't convince him. Sooner or later he'd either have to kill his cousin or let him go; at which point he could expect reprisals, and the Eremians had just proved themselves capable of gross overreaction. They would send an army; which he could defeat, of course, but then he'd be left with heavy casualties and the same undesirable situation he'd have faced if he'd taken this opportunity to wipe the Eremians out in the Butter Pass. Forget that, then; forget also bottling them up in the pass and extorting concessions. A republic or a democracy might do that, trading a vote-winning triumph in the short term against a nasty mess at some time in the future (hopefully when the other lot were in government). Valens was grateful he didn't have to do that sort of thing.

Decided, then; if he wasn't going to slaughter them, he must either ignore them or help them. Ignoring them would be a neutral act, and Valens found neutrality frustrating. Helping them would create an obligation, along with gratitude and goodwill. He who has his enemy's love and trust is in a far better position to attack, later, when the time is right. The cost would be negligible, and in any event he could make it a loan. It would send the right signals to the Mezentines (mountain solidarity, the truce is working); if he made a show of siding with the Eremians against them, it'd incline them to make a better offer when they came to buy his allegiance.

He sat down and wrote seven letters. As anticipated, it took him just under half an hour-admirably efficient, but not quick enough. It was far too late for hunting today, and the twelve-pointer would be three quarters of the way to the river valley by now. Best not to dwell on wasted chances.

(And then there was the real reason. If he sent food and blankets and doctors, she'd be pleased. If he sent cavalry, she'd hate him. So; he had no choice in the matter, none whatsoever.)

He spent the rest of the day in the small, windowless room at the top of the north tower, reading reports and petitions, checking accounts, writing obstreperous notes to exchequer clerks and procurement officers. Then there was a thick stack of pleadings for a substantial mercantile lawsuit that he'd been putting off reading for weeks; but today, having been cheated of his day in the fresh air, he was resigned and miserable enough to face anything, even that. After the snakelike meanderings of the legal documents, the diplomatic mail was positively refreshing in its clarity and brevity: a letter of introduction for the new ambassador from the Cure Doce, and a brusque note from a Mezentine government department he'd never heard of requiring him (arrogant bastards!) to arrest and extradite a criminal fugitive with a difficult name, should he attempt to cross the border. Neither of them needed a reply, so he marked each of them with a cross in the left-hand corner, to tell his clerk to send a formal acknowledgement. Dinner came up on a tray while he was making notes for a meeting with the merchant adventurers (tariffs, again); when at last he'd dealt with that, it was time to see the new rapiers. Not much of a reward for a long, tedious day, but better than nothing at all.

The rapiers had come in their own dear little case, oak with brass hinges and catches. They were superb examples of Mezentine craftsmanship-the finest steel, beautifully finished and polished, not a filemark or an uncrowned edge-but the balance was hopeless and the side-rings chafed his forefinger. He told the armourer to pay for them and hang them on a wall somewhere where he wouldn't have to look at them. Then he went to bed.

The next day was better; in fact, it was as good as a day could be, because, after the servants had taken away his bath and he was drying his hair, a page came to tell him that a woman was waiting to see him; a middle-aged woman in a huge red dress with sleeves, the page said, and pearls in her hair. Valens didn't smile, but it cost him an effort. 'Show her into the study,' he said.

He hadn't met this one before, but it didn't matter; the huge red dress was practically a uniform with the Merchant Adventurers these days, and the delicate, obscenely expensive pearl headdress told him all he needed to know about her status within the company. He gave her a pleasant smile.

'You've brought a letter,' he said.

She started to apologise; it was late, because she'd been held up at the Duty Diligence waiting for a consignment of five gross of sheep's grease that hadn't arrived, and by the time it finally showed up it was too late to go on that night so she cut her losses and took her twenty-six barrels of white butter to Lonazep instead, because in this heat they wouldn't keep as far as the Compassion Grace, and of course that meant it was just as quick to go on up the mountain to Pericordia where she'd made an appointment to see some bone needles, two hundred gross at a good price but the quality wasn't there, so rather than go back down the mountain empty-handed she nipped across to Mandiritto to buy more of that nine-point lace, and that was when it decided to rain-

'That's quite all right,' Valens said. 'You're here now. Can I have the letter, please?'

She looked blank for a moment, then nodded briskly. 'Of course, yes.' From her satchel (particularly magnificent; tapestry, with golden lions sitting under a flat-looking tree) she took out a stiff packet of parchment about the size of her hand, and laid it down on the table.

'Thank you,' Valens said, and waited.

She smiled at him. 'My pleasure, of course,' she said. 'Now, I don't suppose you've got a moment, I know how terribly busy you must be…'

He wanted to say yes straight away and save having to listen, but that wouldn't do at all; his hands were itching to get hold of the letter-not open it, not straight away, just hold it and know it was there-but he folded them in a dignified manner on the table and listened for a very long time, until she finally got to what she wanted. It turned out to be nothing much, a licence to import Eremian rawhide single bends, theoretically still restricted by the embargo but nobody took any notice any more; he got the feeling she was only asking so as to have a favour for him to grant. He said yes, had to repeat it five times before she finally accepted it, and once more to get her out of the door without physical violence. He managed not to shout, and kept smiling until she'd finally gone. Then he sat down and looked at the letter.

It had started eighteen months ago, pretty much by accident. A trader had been caught at the frontier with contraband (trivial stuff; silver earrings and a set of fine decorated jesses for a sparrowhawk); instead of paying the fine, however, she'd claimed Eremian diplomatic immunity and pleaded the peace treaty, claiming she was a special envoy of the Duchess, and the trinkets were privileged diplomatic mail. Probably, it was her ingenuity that impressed the excise inspector. Instead of smiling and dropping hints for the usual bribe, he decided to call her bluff; he impounded the goods and sent to the Duke for verification through the proper diplomatic channels. Valens' clerk wrote to the proper officer in Eremia Montis, and in due course received a reply from the keeper of the wardrobe, enclosing a notarised set of diplomatic credentials and a promise that it wouldn't happen again. It wasn't the sort of thing Valens would normally expect to see, even though the original request had been written in his name, and he supposed he must have signed the thing, along with a batch of other stuff. But the reply was brought for him to see by a nervous-looking clerk, because there was something written in at the bottom, just under the seal.

The handwriting was different; it was, in fact, practically illegible, all spikes and cramped squiggles, not the fluent, graceful hand of a clerk. It was a brief note, an unaccountable impulse frozen in ink, like a fly trapped in amber; are you, it asked, that boy who used to stare at me every evening when I was a hostage in Civitas Vadanis? I've often wondered what became of you; please write to me. And then her name; or he assumed it was her name, rather than two superimposed clawmarks.

It had taken him a long time to reply, during which he considered a wide range of issues: the possibility of a trap designed to create a diplomatic incident, the real reason he'd never married, the paradox of the atrocious handwriting. Mostly, however, he hesitated because he didn't know the answer to the question. He remembered the boy she'd referred to, but the memory brought him little except embarrassment. He thought of the boy's strange, wilful isolation, his refusal to do what was expected of him, his reluctance to ride to the hunt with his father; he resented all the opportunities the boy had wasted, which would never come again.

So; the correct answer would be no, and the proper course of action would be to ignore the scribbled note and the breach of protocol it represented, and forget the whole matter. That would have been the right thing to do. Luckily, he had the sense to do the wrong thing. The only problem now was to decide what he was going to say.

He could think of a lot of things, enough for a book; he could write for a week and only set out the general headings. Curiously, the things he wanted to write about weren't anything to do with her. They were about him; things he'd never told anybody, because there was nobody qualified to listen. None of those things, he knew, would be suitable for a letter from one duke to another duke's wife. So instead he sat down one morning in the upper room with no windows, and tried to picture the view from the battlement above the gatehouse, looking west over the water-meadows toward the long covert and the river. Once he'd caught the picture, flushed it from his mind and driven it into the nets of his mind's eye, he thought carefully about the best way to turn it into words. The task took him all morning. In the afternoon he had meetings, a lawsuit to hear, a session of the greater council postponed from the previous month. That evening he tore up what he'd written and started again. He had no possible reason to believe that she'd be interested in what he could see from his front door, but he worked through four or five drafts until he had something he was satisfied with, made a fair copy, folded it and sent for the president of the Company of Merchant Adventurers. To make his point, he entrusted the request for a meeting to six guards, suggesting they deliver it some time around midnight.

The wretched woman came, fully expecting to die, and he asked her, as sweetly as he could manage, to do him a favour. Members of her company were forever popping (good choice of word) to and fro across the border-yes, of course there was an embargo, but there wasn't any need to dwell on it; would it be possible, did she think, for one of them to pass on a letter to one of her Eremian colleagues? It was no big deal (he said, looking over her head towards the door, outside which the armed guards were waiting) but on balance it'd probably be just as well if the whole business could be treated with a certain amount of the businesslike discretion for which the company was so justly famous. And so on.

The woman went away again, white with fear and secretly hugging herself with joy at securing a royal mandate to smuggle at will across the border; a month later, she came back with a letter. She was, she stressed, only too pleased to be able to help; while she was there, however, there were one or two silly little things she'd like to mention, if he could spare the time. Luckily, she had the sense not to push her luck too far. He agreed; the mechanism was set up.

He never knew when she was going to write. He always replied at once, the same day, cancelling or forgetting about all other commitments. Letter days were long and busy. First, he would read it, six or seven times, methodically; the first reading took in the general tone and impression, each subsequent reading going deeper. Next, he would think carefully about everything she'd said, with a view to planning the outline of his reply. The actual writing of it generally took the afternoon and most of the evening, with two pauses in which he'd read her letter again, to make sure he'd got the facts and issues straight. Last thing at night, he'd read the letter and his reply over once more, and make the fair copy. From start to finish, sixteen hours. It was just as well he was used to long periods of intense concentration.

Valens reached out slowly towards the letter on the table, like the fencer in First advancing on an opponent of unknown capacity. This might, after all, be the letter that said there would be no more letters, and until he'd looked and seen that it wasn't, he daren't lower his guard to Third and engage with the actual text. His fingers made contact, gentle as the first pressure of blade on blade as the fencers gauge each other by feel at the narrow distance. Applying a minute amount of force through the pad of his middle finger, he drew it towards him until his hand could close around it. Then he paused, because the next movement would draw him into an irrevocable moment. He was a brave man (he wasn't proud of his courage; he simply acknowledged it) and he was afraid. Gentle and progressive as the clean loose of an arrow, he slid his finger under the fold and prised upwards against the seal until the brittle wax burst. The parchment slowly relaxed, the way a body does the moment after death. He unfolded the letter. Veatriz Longamen Sirupati to Valens Valentinianus, greetings.

You were right, of course. It was Meruina; fifty-third sonnet, line six. I was so sure I was right, so I looked it up, and now you can gloat if you want to. It's simply infuriating; you're supposed to know all about hounds and tiercels and tracking, and how to tell a stag's age from his footprints; how was I meant to guess you'd be an expert on early Mannerist poetry as well? I'm sure there must be something you haven't got the first idea about, but I don't suppose you'll ever tell me. I'll find out by pure chance one of these days, and then we'll see.

I sat at my window yesterday watching two of the men saw a big log into planks. They'd dug a hole so one of them could be underneath the log (you know all this); and the man on top couldn't see the other one, because the log was in the way. But they pulled the saw backwards and forwards between them so smoothly, without talking to each other (I wonder if they'd had a quarrel); it was like the pendulum of a clock, each movement exactly the same as the last; I timed them by my pulse, and they were perfect. I suppose it was just practice, they were so used to each other that they didn't have to think or anything, one would pull and then the other. How strange, to know someone so well, over something so mundane as sawing wood. I don't think I know anybody that well over anything.

Coridan-he's one of Orsea's friends from school-came to stay. After dinner one evening, he was telling us about a machine he'd seen once; either it was in Mezentia itself, or it was made there, it doesn't really matter which. Apparently, you light afire under an enormous brass kettle; and the steam rises from the spout up a complicated series of pipes and tubes into a sort of brass barrel, where it blows on a thing like a wheel with paddles attached, sort of like a water-mill; and the wheel drives something else round and round and it all gets horribly complicated; and at the end, what actually happens is that a little brass model of a nightingale pops up out of a little box and twirls slowly round and round on a little table, making a sound just like a real nightingale singing. At least, that's the idea, according to Coridan, and if you listen closely you can hear it tweeting and warbling away; but you need to be right up close, or else its singing is drowned out by all the whirrings and clankings of the machine.

Talking of birds; we had to go somewhere recently, and we rode down the side of an enormous field, Orsea said it was beans and I'm sure he was right. As we rode by a big flock of pigeons got up and flew off; when we were safely out of the way, they started coming back in ones and twos and landing to carry on feeding; and I noticed how they come swooping in with their wings tight to their bodies, like swimmers; then they glide for a bit, and turn; and what they're doing is turning into the wind, and their wings are like sails, and it slows them down so they can come in gently to land. As they curled down, it made me think of dead leaves in autumn, the way they drift and spin. Odd, isn't it, how many quite different things move in similar ways; as if nature's lazy and can't be bothered to think up something different for each one.

Another curious thing: they always fly up to perch, instead of dropping down. I suppose it's easier for them to stop that way. It reminds me of a man running to get on a moving cart.

I know we promised each other we wouldn't talk about work and things in these letters; but Orsea has to go away quite soon, with the army, and I think there's going to be a war. I hate it when he goes away, but usually he's quite cheerful about it; this time he was very quiet, like a small boy who knows he's done something wrong. That's so unlike him. If there really is to be a war, I know he'll worry about whether he'll know the right things to do-he's so frightened of making mistakes, I think it's because he never expected to be made Duke or anything like that. I don't know about such things, but I should think it's like what they say about riding a horse; if you let it see you're afraid of it, you can guarantee it'll play you up.

Ladence has been much better lately; whether it's anything to do with the new doctor I don't know, he's tried to explain what he's doing but none of it makes any sense to me. It starts off sounding perfectly reasonable-the human body is like a clock, or a newly sown field, or some such thing-but after a bit he says things that sound like they're perfectly logical and reasonable, but when you stop and think it's like a couple of steps have been missed out, so you can't see the connection between what he says the problem is, and what he's proposing to do about it. At any rate, it seems to be working, or else Ladence is getting better in spite of it. I don't care, so long as it carries on like this. I really don't think I could stand another winter like the last one.

When you reply, be sure to tell me some more about the sparrowhawks; did the new one fit in like you hoped, or did the others gang up on her and peck her on the roosting-perch? They remind me of my eldest sister and her friends-Maiaut sends her best wishes, by the way; I suppose that means they want something else, from one of us, or both. I do hope it won't cause you any problems (I feel very guilty about it all). I suppose I'm lucky; there's not really very much I can do for them, so they don't usually ask anything of me. I know it must be different for you; are they an awful nuisance? Sometimes I wonder if all this is necessary. After all, you're Orsea's cousin, so you're family, why shouldn't we write to each other? But it's better not to risk it, just in case Orsea did get upset. I don't imagine for one moment that he would, but you never know.

That's about all I can get on this silly bit of parchment. I have to beg bits of off cut from the clerks (I pretend I want them for household accounts, or patching windows). I wish I could write very small, like the men who draw maps and write in the place-names.

Please tell me something interesting when you write. I love the way you explain things. It seems to me that you must see the whole world as a fascinating puzzle, you're dying to observe it and take it apart to see how it works; you always seem to know the details of everything. When we saw the pigeons I had this picture of you in my mind; you stood therefor hours watching them, trying to figure out if there was a pattern to the way they landed and walked about. You seem to have the knack of noticing things the rest of us miss (how do you ever find time to rule a country?). So please, think of something fascinating, and tell me what I should be looking out for. Must stop now-no more room.

True enough; the last seven words tapered away into the edge of the parchment, using up all the remaining space; a top-flight calligrapher might just have been able to squeeze in two more letters, but no more.

This isn't love, Valens told himself. He knew about love, having seen it at work among his friends and people around him. Love was altogether more predatory. It was concerned with pursuit, capture, enjoyment; it was caused by beauty, the way raw red skin is caused by the sun; it was an appetite, like hunger or thirst, a physical discomfort that tortured you until it was satisfied. That, he knew from her letters, was how she felt about Orsea-how they felt about each other-and so this couldn't be love, in which case it could only be friendship; shared interests, an instructive comparison of perspectives, a meeting of minds, a pooling of resources.

(She'd said in a letter that he seemed to go through life like one of the agents sent by the trading.companies to observe foreign countries and report back, with details of manners and customs, geography and society, that might come in handy for future operations; who did he report to? she wondered. He'd been surprised at that. Surely she would have guessed.) Not love, obviously. Different. Better…

He read the letter through three more times; on the second and third readings he made notes on a piece of paper. That in itself was more evidence, because who makes notes for a love letter? He'd seen plenty of them and they were all the same, all earth, air, fire and water; was it his imagination, or could nobody, no matter how clever, write a love letter without coming across as slightly ridiculous? No, you made notes for a meeting, a lecture, an essay, a sermon, a dissertation. That was more like it; he and she were the only two members of a learned society, a college of philosophers and scientists observing the world, publishing their results to each other, occasionally discussing a disputed conclusion in the interests of pure truth. He'd met people like that; they wrote letters to colleagues they'd never met, or once only for a few minutes at some function, and often their shared correspondence would last for years, a lifetime, until one day some acquaintance mentioned that so-and-so had died (in his sleep, advanced old age), thereby explaining a longer than usual interval between letter and reply. If it was love, he'd long ago have sent for his marshals and generals, invaded Eremia, stuck Orsea's head up on a pike and brought her back home as a great and marvellous prize; or he'd have climbed the castle wall in the middle of the night and stolen her away with rope, ladders and relays of horses ready and waiting at carefully planned stages; or, having considered the strategic position and reached the conclusion that the venture was impractical, he'd have given it up and fallen in love with someone else.

He stood up, crossed the room, pulled a book off the shelf and opened it. The book was rather a shameful possession, because it was only a collection of drawings of various animals and birds, with a rather unreliable commentary under each one, and it had cost as much as eight good horses or a small farm. He'd had it made after he received the third letter; he'd sent his three best clerks over the mountain to the Cure Doce, whose holy men collected books of all kinds; they'd gone from monastery to monastery looking for the sort of thing he wanted; found this one and copied the whole thing in a week, working three shifts round the clock (and, because the Cure Doce didn't share their scriptures, they'd had to smuggle the copied pages out of the country packed in a crate between layers of dried apricots; the smell still lingered, and he was sick of it). He turned the pages slowly, searching for a half-remembered paragraph about the feeding patterns of geese. This wasn't, he told himself, something a lover would do.

He found what he was after (geese turn their heads into the wind to feed; was that right? He didn't think so, and he'd be prepared to bet he'd seen more geese than whoever wrote the book), put the book away and made his note. He was thinking about his cousin, that clown Orsea. If he was in love, he'd know precisely what he ought to do right now. He'd sit down at the desk and write an order to the chiefs of staff. They'd be ready in six hours; by the time they reached the Butter Pass, they'd be in perfect position to bottle Orsea's convoy of stragglers up in Horn Canyon. Losses would be five per cent, seven at most; there would be no enemy survivors. He would then write an official complaint to the Mezentines, chiding them for pursuing the Eremians into his territory and massacring them there; the Mezentines would deny responsibility, nobody would believe them; she would never know, or even suspect (he'd have to sacrifice the chiefs of staff, some of the senior officers too, so that if word ever did leak out, it could be their crime, excessive zeal in the pursuit of duty). That was what a true lover would do. Instead, he took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote to the officer commanding the relief column he'd already sent, increasing his authority to indent for food, clothing, blankets, transport, personnel, medical supplies. His first priority, Valens wrote, was to put the Eremians in a position to get home without further loss of life. Also (added as an afterthought, under the seal) would he please convey to Duke Orsea Duke Valens' personal sympathy and good wishes at this most difficult time.

How stupid could Orsea be, anyway? (He took down another book, Patellus' Concerning Animals; nothing in the index under geese, so he checked under waterfowl.) If his advisers came to him suggesting he launch a pre-emptive strike against Mezentia, the first thing he'd do would be put them under house arrest until he'd figured out how many of them were in on the conspiracy; if it turned out there wasn't one, he'd sack the whole lot of them for gross incompetence; he'd have them paraded through the streets of the capital sitting back-to-front on donkeys, with IDIOT branded on their foreheads. Needless to say, the contingency would never arise. He opened the door and called for a page to take the letter to the commander of the relief column.

It was just as well he and the Eremian Duchess were just good friends, when you thought of all the damage a lover could do in the world.

When at last the letter was finished (written, written out and fit to send; Valens had beautiful handwriting, learnt on his father's insistence at the rod's end), he sent for the president of the Merchant Adventurers, with instructions to show her into the smaller audience room and keep her waiting twenty minutes. The commission cost him two small but annoying concessions on revenue procedure; he'd been expecting worse, and perhaps gave in a little too easily. Just as she was about to leave, he stopped her.

'Writing paper,' he said.

She looked at him.' Yes?'

'I want some.' He frowned. 'First-quality parchment; sheepskin, not goat. Say twenty sheets, about so big.' He indicated with his hands. 'Can you get some for me?'

'Of course.' Behind her smile he could see a web of future transactions being frantically woven; a maze, with a ream of writing paper at the centre. 'When would you be-?'

'Straight away,' Valens said. 'To go with the letter.'

'Ah.' The web dissolved and a new one formed in its place. 'That oughtn't to be a problem. Yes, I think we can-'

'How much?'

'Let me see.' She could do long multiplication in her head without moving her lips. In spite of himself, Valens was impressed. 'Of course, if it's for immediate delivery…'

'That's right. How much?'

She quoted a figure which would have outfitted a squadron of cavalry, including horses and harness. She was good at her job and put it over well; unfortunately for her, Valens could do mental long multiplication too. They agreed on a third of the original quote-still way over the odds, but he wasn't just buying parchment. 'Would you like to see a sample first?' she asked.

'Yes.'

'I'll have it sent over in an hour.'

'Bring it yourself,' Valens replied. He noticed she was wearing a new diamond on the third finger of her right hand; I paid for that, he thought resentfully. Of course it should have been a ruby, to match her dress, but diamonds were worth twice as much, scruple for scruple, and she had appearances to think of. Thank God for the silver mines, he thought.

'Certainly,' she said. 'Now, while I'm here, there was just one other tiny thing.'

They were a force of nature, these traders. Even his father had had to give them best, more than once. This time he put up a bit more of a fight (the hunter likes quarry with a bit of devil in it) and she met him halfway; most likely she was only trying it on for wickedness' sake, and never expected to get anything. Of course, he told himself, it's good business all round for them to have a way of manipulating me; otherwise they'd push me too far and I'd have to slap them down, and that'd be bad for the economy. He was delighted to see the blood-red back of her.

Once she'd gone, however, the world changed. The brief flurry of activity, the tremendous draining effort of concentration, the feeling of being alive, all faded away so quickly that he wondered if it had been a dream. But he knew the feeling too well for that. It was the same at bow-and-stable, or the lowly off-season hunts, where you sit and wait, and nothing happens; where you perch in your high-seat or cower in your hide, waiting for the wild and elusive quarry that is under no obligation to come to you, until it's too dark or too wet, and you go home. While you wait there, impatient and resigned as a lover waiting for a letter, your mind detaches, you can for a little while be someone completely different, and believe that the stranger is really you. It's only when you see the flicker of movement or hear the muffled, inhuman cough that the real you comes skittering back, panicked and eager and suddenly wide awake, and at once the bow is back in your hands, the arrow is notched, cockfeather out, and the world is small and sharp once again.

(Hunters will tell you that patience is their greatest virtue, but it's the other way about. If they were capable of true patience, they could never be hunters, because the desire for the capture wouldn't be enough to motivate them through the boredom, the suffering and the cramp. They would be content without the capture, and so would stay at home. The hunter's virtue lies in being able to endure the desperate, agonising impatience for the sake of the moment when it comes, if it comes, like an unreliable letter smuggled by a greedy trader in a crate of nectarines.)

One of the doctors, his tour of duty completed, reported in on his return. The Eremians, he said, were a mess. It was a miracle they'd lost as few people as they had, what with exhaustion and exposure and neglect of the wounded, and starvation. For a while the second-in-command, Miel Ducas, had managed to hold things together by sheer tenacity, but he was shattered, on his knees with fatigue and worry, and with him out of action there wasn't anybody else fit to be trusted with a pony-chaise, let alone an army. Duke Orsea? The doctor smiled grimly. It had been a real stroke of luck for the Eremians, he said, Orsea getting carved up in the battle and put out of action during the crisis that followed. If he'd been in command on the way up the Butter Pass… The doctor remembered who he was talking to and apologised. No disrespect intended; but since Ducas' collapse, Duke Orsea had taken back command; one had to make allowances for a sick man, but even so.

Now, though; now, the doctor was pleased to report, things were practically under control. The Eremians had been fed, they had tents and blankets and firewood. As for the wounded, they were safe in an improvised mobile hospital (twenty huge tents requisitioned from markets, the military, and travelling actors) and nine-tenths of them would probably make some sort of recovery. It was all, of course, thanks to Valens; if he hadn't intervened, if he'd been content to let the Eremians stumble by on their side of the border, it was more than likely that they'd all be dead by now. It had been, the doctor said in bewildered admiration, a magnificent humanitarian act.

'Is that right?' Valens interrupted. 'They'd really have died? All of them?'

The doctor shrugged. 'Maybe a few dozen might've made it home, no more than that,' he said. 'Duke Orsea would've been dead for sure. One of my colleagues got to him just in time, before blood-poisoning set in.' The doctor frowned. 'Excuse me for asking,' he went on, 'but they're saying that they didn't even ask us for help. You authorised the relief entirely off your own bat. Is that really true?'

Valens nodded.

'I see,' the doctor said. 'Because there's terms in the treaty that mean we've got to go to each other's assistance if formally asked to do so; I'd sort of assumed they'd sent an official request, and so we had no choice. I didn't realise…'

Valens shrugged. 'To start with, all I was concerned about was the frontier. I thought that if they were in a bad way for food, they might start raiding our territory, which, would've meant war whether we wanted it or not. I didn't want to risk that, obviously'

'Ah,' the doctor said. 'Because I was wondering. After all, it's not so long ago we were fighting them, and if they hadn't made a request and we'd just let well alone…' He sighed. 'My son fought in the war, you know. He was killed. But if it was to safeguard our border, of course, that's a different matter entirely.'

Valens shook his head. 'Just, what's the phrase, enlightened self-interest. I haven't gone soft in my old age, or anything like that.'

The doctor smiled weakly. 'That's all right, then,' he said.

Other reports came in. The Eremians were on the move again; Valens' scouts had put them back on the right road, and they were well clear of the border. The mobile hospital had been disbanded, the serious cases taken down the mountain to a good Vadani hospital, the rest judged fit to rejoin the column and go home. Miel Ducas was back in charge; the Vadani doctors had warned Duke Orsea in the strongest possible terms of the ghastly consequences that would follow if he stirred from his litter at all before they reached the capital-not strictly true, but essential to keep him out of mischief. Details of what had actually happened in the battle were proving hard to come by. Some of the Eremians were tight-lipped in the company of their old enemy; the vast majority would've told the Vadani anything they wanted but simply didn't have any idea what had hit them out of a clear blue sky. They hadn't known about the scorpions, still didn't; but (said a few of them) that'll all change soon enough, now that we've got the defector.

The what?

Well, it was supposed to be a dark and deadly secret; still, obviously we're all friends together now, so it can't do any harm. The defector was a Mezentine-some said he was an important government official, others said he was just a blacksmith-and he was going to teach them all the Mezentines' diabolical tricks, especially the scorpions, because he used to be something to do with making them. He was either a prisoner taken during the battle or a refugee claiming political asylum, or both; the main thing was, he was why the whole expedition had been worthwhile after all; getting their hands on him was as good as if they'd won the battle, or at least that was what they were going to tell the people back home, to keep from getting lynched.

Valens, meticulous with details and blessed with a good memory, turned up the relevant letter in the files and deduced that the defector was the Ziani Vaatzes whom he was required to send to Mezentia. The old resentment flared up again when he saw that fatal word; but he thought about it and saw the slight potential advantage. He wrote to the Mezentine authorities, telling them that the man they were looking for was now a guest of their new best enemy, should they wish to take the matter further; he wished to remain, and so forth.

And then there were the hunt days; days when he drove the woods and coverts, reading the subtle verses written on the woodland floor by the feet of his quarry better than any paid huntsman, always diligent, always searching for the buck, the doe, the boar, the bear, the wolf that for an hour or two suddenly became the most important thing in the world. Once it was caught and killed it was meat for the larder or one less hazard to agriculture, no more or less-but there; the fact that he'd caught it proved that it couldn't have been the one he was really looking for. He'd been brought up on the folk tales; a prince out hunting comes across a milk-white doe with silver hoofs, and a gold collar around its neck, which leads him to the castle hidden in the depths of the greenwood, where the princess is held captive; or he flies his peregrine at a white dove that carries in its beak a golden flower, and follows it to the seashore, where the enchanted, crewless ship waits to carry him to the Beautiful Island. He'd been in no doubt at all when he was a boy; the white doe and the white dove were somewhere close at hand, in the long covert or the rough moor between the big wood and the hog's back, and it was just a matter of finding them. But his father had never found them and neither had he, yet. Each time the lymers put up a doe or the spaniels found in the reeds he raised his head to look, and many times he'd been quite certain he'd seen it, the flash of white, the glow of the gold. Sometimes he wondered if it was all a vast conspiracy of willing martyrs; each time he came close to the one true quarry, some humble volunteer would dart out across the ride to run interference, while the genuine article slipped away unobserved.

Chapter Six

Duke Valens' letter rode with an official courier as far as Forza; there it was transferred to a pack-train carrying silver ingots and mountain-goat skins (half-tanned, for the luxury footwear trade), as far as Lonazep. It waited there a day or so until a shipment of copper and tin ore came in from the Cure Doce, and hitched a ride with the wagons to Mezentia. There it lay forgotten in a canvas satchel, along with reports from the Foundrymen's Guild's commercial resident in Doria-Voce and one side of a fractious correspondence about delivery dates and penalty clauses in the wholesale rope trade, until someone woke it up and carried it to the Guildhall, where it was opened in error by a clerk from the wrong department, sent on a long tour of the building, and finally washed up on the desk of the proper official like a beached whale.

The proper official immediately convened an emergency meeting. This should have been held in the grand chamber; but the Social Benevolent Association had booked the chamber for the day and it was too short notice to cancel, so the committee was forced to cram itself into the smaller of the two chapter-houses, on the seventh floor.

It was a beautiful room, needless to say. Perfectly circular, with a vaulted roof and gilded traces supported by twelve impossibly slender grey stone columns, it was decorated with frescos in the grand manner, briefly popular a hundred and twenty years earlier, when allegory was regarded as the height of sophisticated taste. Accordingly, the committee huddled, three men to a two-man bench, between the feet and in the shadows of vast, plump nude giants and giantesses, all delicately poised in attitudes of refined emotion-Authority, in a monstrous gold helmet like a cooper's bucket, accepted the world's sceptre from the hands of Wisdom and Obedience, while a flight of stocky angels, their heads all turned full-face in accordance with the prevailing convention, floated serenely by on dumplings of white cloud.

At ground level, they were way past serenity. Lucao Psellus, chairman of the compliance directorate, had just read out the Vadanis' letter. For once, nobody appreciated the exquisite acoustics of the chapter-house; the wretched words rang out clear as bells and chased each other round and round the cupped belly of the dome, when they should have been whispered and quickly hushed away.

'In fact,' Psellus concluded, 'it's hard to see how things could possibly be any worse. We take a man, a hard-working, loyal Guild officer who happens to have made one stupid mistake, and in trying to make an example of him, we coerce him into violence and murder, and drive him into the arms of our current worst enemy; a man whose technical knowledge and practical ability gives him the capability of betraying at least thirty-seven restricted techniques and scores of other trade secrets. Result: it's imperative that he's caught and disposed of as quickly as possible, but now he's in pretty much the hardest place in the world for us to winkle him out of. I'm not saying it can't be done-'

'I don't see a problem,' someone interrupted. 'We know the Eremians've got him, surely that's more than half the battle. It's when you don't have a clue where to start looking that it's difficult to process a job. Meanwhile, I'm prepared to bet, after what's just happened I don't see this Duke Orsea giving us much trouble, provided we put the wind up him forcefully enough. He's just had a crash course in what happens to people who mess with us. And besides, what actual harm can he do? The Eremians are primitives; if Vaatzes was minded to betray Guild secrets, how's he going to go about it? They're in no position to exploit anything he tells them, they've got no manufacturing capacity, no infrastructure. They can barely make a horseshoe up there in the mountains; Vaatzes would have to teach them to start from scratch.'

Psellus scowled in the direction the voice had come from; because of the annoying echo he couldn't quite place the voice, and the speaker's face had been lost against a background of primary colours and pale apricot. 'For a start,' he said, 'that's entirely beside the point. If we don't deal with this Vaatzes straight away, it sets a dangerous precedent. Troublemakers and malcontents will see that here's a man who broke the rules and got away with it. Furthermore, you know as well as I do, a trade secret is a negotiable commodity. The Eremians may not be able to use it, but there's nothing to stop them selling it on to someone who can. No, we have to face facts, this is a crisis and we've got to take it seriously. This is exactly the sort of situation we were put here for. The question is, how do we go about it?'

There was a brief silence, just long enough for his words to come to rest in the vaulting, like bees settling in a tree full of blossom.

'Well,' someone said, 'it's obviously not a job we can tackle ourselves, not directly. Any one of our people'd stick out a mile among the tribesmen. I say we put a tender out to the traders. It wouldn't be the first time, and they'll do anything for money.'

That was simply stating the obvious, but at least they were getting somewhere; no small achievement, in a committee of political appointees. Psellus nodded. 'The Merchant Adventurers are clearly the place to start,' he said. 'We've got a reasonable network of contacts in place now; at the very least they can do the fieldwork and gather the necessary intelligence: where he is exactly, the sort of security measures we'll have to face, his daily routine, the attitude of the Duke and his people. As regards the actual capture, I'm not sure we can rely on people like that; but let's take it one step at a time. Now, who's in charge of running our contacts in the company?'

Manuo Crisestem stood up; six feet of idiot in a purple brocaded gown. Psellus managed not to groan. 'I have the file here,' Crisestem said, brandishing a parchment folder. 'Anticipating this discussion,. I took the trouble to read it through before we convened. There is a problem.'

There was a grin behind his words. Crisestem (Tailors' and Clothiers') had only joined the committee a few months ago, replacing one of Psellus' fellow Foundrymen as controller of intelligence. If there was a problem, it'd be the Foundrymen's fault, and Crisestem would be only too delighted to make a full confession and abject apology on their behalf. 'I regret to have to inform this committee,' he said, 'that our resources in Eremia Montis are unsatisfactory. We have agents in the cheese, butter and leather trades and among the horse-breeders, but at relatively low levels. Furthermore, our resources are such that, after the recent incursion, they can no longer be relied on. It won't take the Duke long to figure out who gave us advance warning of his adventure; those agents will be exposed and presumably dealt with, and it will be exceedingly difficult to recruit replacements as a result. The fact is that all our people in Eremia have been used up-in a good cause, needless to say; but now that they're gone, we have nothing worth mentioning in reserve.'

Muttering, slightly exaggerated, from the Stonemasons' and Wainwrights' delegates. Political committees. Psellus ground on: 'I take it you have something positive to propose.'

'As a matter of fact, I have.' Crisestem smiled amiably. 'It seems to me that, since we cannot handle this matter directly, we must take a more oblique approach.' He opened his folder and took out a piece of paper, holding it close to his body, as if it was a candle in a stiff breeze. 'This came in today, from one of my observers in Forza. Apparently, Duke Valens has taken a hand in the Eremian crisis; he's sent significant aid to the survivors of Orsea's army-food, doctors, transport. It would appear that the alliance between Eremia and the Vadani is by no means as brittle as we had assumed.'

Eyebrows were raised at that; typical of the Tailors to keep back genuinely important news just to gain a brief tactical advantage.

'That's an interesting development,' Psellus said.

'Certainly. Let's confine ourselves, however, to its relevance to the matter in hand. A closer relationship between the two duchies will inevitably lead to closer commercial ties. We have excellent resources inside the Vadani mercantile. I suggest we use them. We won't be needing them for anything else; the Vadani will never be a threat to us, they have too much sense. Furthermore, we can place our own people in the Vadani court, to supervise and co-ordinate operations. No doubt the foreign affairs directorate will be sending diplomats to Duke Valens to find out what lies behind this remarkable display of neighbourly feeling. The actual transaction can be managed very well from Civitas Vadanis; if we manage to get Vaatzes out alive, it will be much simpler to bring him home from there. I imagine Valens will be eager to propitiate us, if he's up to something with his cousin, so we can be confident we won't be unduly hampered by interference from that quarter. It would appear to be the logical approach.'

Psellus had, of course, hated the Tailors and Clothiers from birth; they were Consolidationists, the Foundrymen were Didactics, there could be no common ground, no compromise on anything, ever. Even if Manuo Crisestem had been a Foundryman, however, Psellus would still have loathed him with every cell, hair and drop of moisture in his body. 'Agreed,' he said. 'Do we need to take a formal vote on this? Objections from the floor? Very well, I propose that we minute that and move on to appropriations.' He gazed into Crisestem's unspeakably smug face and continued: 'When do you think you can let us have a draft budget for approval?'

Crisestem hesitated; he was apprehensive, but didn't know why. Confused, presumably, by his easy victory-which was understandable, since the Foundrymen had beaten the Tailors to a pulp in every major confrontation that century. 'Depends on how much detail you want me to go into at this stage,' he replied. 'Obviously, since we've only just agreed this, I haven't done any proper costings; haven't got a plan I can cost yet, not till I sit down and work it all out.'

'I think we can all appreciate that,' Psellus said-he knew Crisestem was floundering-'but it goes without saying, time is of the essence. If we reconvened here at, say, this time tomorrow, do you think you could have an outline plan of action with an appropriations schedule for us by then?'

'I should think so,' Crisestem replied, at the very moment when both he and Psellus realised what had happened. It hadn't been intentional (if it had been, Crisestem told himself, I'd have seen it coming, read it in his weaselly little face), but it was a good, bold counterattack, what the fencers would call a riposte in straight time. Without formal proposal or debate, Manuo Crisestem had been put in charge of the whole wretched business. If he succeeded, nobody outside this room would ever know who deserved the credit. If he failed, he'd be finished in Guild politics.

It took a little longer, maybe the time it takes to eat an apple, for the rest of the committee to realise what had just happened. Nobody said anything, of course. It wasn't the sort of thing you discussed, except in private, two or three close colleagues talking together behind locked doors. In politics, it's what isn't said that matters. The fencers say that you never see the move that kills you; in politics also. It appears out of nowhere, like goblins in a fairy-tale, but once it's happened you start to smell of failure. People who used to look at you and see the next director of finance or foreign affairs start turning their speculations elsewhere, and the brief hush when you enter a room has a different, rather more bitter flavour. Of course, Crisestem might succeed. It was more likely than not that he would. But until the job was done and the file was closed, he was a man marked by the possibility of failure, someone who might not be there any more in six months' time. In a game played so many moves ahead, someone like that was at best on suspension. He might succeed, at which time he'd be eligible to start again at the foot of the ladder. Meanwhile, he had to face life as a liability in waiting.

Not such a bad day after all, Psellus thought.

Any other business; no other business. He confirmed tomorrow's meeting-they'd be back in the great hall, where they belonged-and closed. The committee stood up slowly, like the audience at the end of a particularly powerful and moving play, taking time to adjust to being back in the real world. Crisestem indulged in the luxury of one swift, ferocious stare. Psellus returned it with a gentle smile, and returned to his chambers.

Back in his favourite chair, facing the wall with the tarnished but glorious mosaic (Mezentine Destiny as a knight in armour riding down the twin evils of Chaos and Doubt), he reflected on the changed state of play. A fool would still be able to turn this fortuitous victory into a total defeat. A fool would try and take advantage by sabotaging the operation, in the hope of guaranteeing Crisestem's downfall. It was a sore temptation-he was almost certain it could be done, efficiently and dicreetly, one hundred per cent success-but it was also the only way he could lose, and losing in this instance would mean disaster. The obvious alternative was to be as helpful and supportive as possible and trust Crisestem to destroy himself. Psellus thought about that. If he had true faith, in the Foundrymen, in the Didactic movement itself, he wouldn't doubt for a moment that Crisestem would fail (because Didacticism was right, Consolidation was wrong, and good always triumphs over evil). It'd be easy to glide down into that belief; Crisestem was an idiot, no question about that. But he was cunning; his clever encircling manoeuvre had demonstrated that, even if he had turned his victory into a desperate wire for his own feet.

Psellus yawned. So what if Crisestem did succeed? He'd get no thanks for it outside the committee because nobody would know it had been him. Inside-well, you never could tell. Psellus was more inclined to believe that they'd remember him walking blithely into the pitfall long after he'd dug his way out clutching a fistful of rubies, but you couldn't build a policy on a vague intuition. Instead, he considered the worst likely outcome. Crisestem succeeded, thereby increasing his personal prestige inside the committee out of all recognition. So what? Just so long as Psellus kept his nerve and played his moves on the merits rather than through anger or fear, the position at the end would still be pretty much the same as it was right now. Psellus would still have the actual, procedural authority; he'd still see the minutes in draft before each meeting, and be able to make subtle, deft changes to key words under the pretext of proof-reading. As for Crisestem, the higher he rose, the further he had to come down when finally he did make a mistake. Tranquillity, serenity and patience.

To take his mind off the problem, Psellus reached for his copy of Vaatzes' dossier. Age: thirty-four. Guild: Foundrymen's and Machinists' (Psellus sighed; one in every barrel). Physical description: he read the details, tried to compile a mental image, but failed. Nondescript, then (except for his height; a tall man, six feet three inches, so among the hill-tribes he'd be a giant). Family: neither parent living-father had been a convener at the bloom mills for thirty years; a wife, Ariessa, age twenty-four, and a daughter, Moritsa, age six-so assuming she was seventeen when they married, he'd have been, what, ten years older. Psellus frowned. Was there a story behind that? He turned back to the wife's details. Father, Taudor Connenus, a toolmaker in the ordnance factory. Psellus compared his works number with Vaatzes' service history. Connenus had worked on Vaatzes' floor at the time of the marriage, therefore had been his subordinate. And Connenus was no longer a toolmaker but a junior supervisor; likewise Zan Connenus, the wife's brother, promoted at the same time as his father.

Psellus closed his eyes and thought about that. A hundred and fifty years ago, yes; it had been quite common back then for men to marry girls much younger than themselves, particularly where the marriage was part of some greater chain of transactions. There had been trouble-he struggled to remember his ancient history-there had been trouble in the Tinsmiths' Guild over a marriage and the practice had been disapproved (not denounced; it was still perfectly legal, but you weren't supposed to do it). There had been thirty years or so of compliance, a reaction, a counter-reaction, and then it had ceased to be an issue. At best, then, it was an eccentricity. He made a note to interview the two Conneni, and returned to the dossier.

Details of the offence: he read the technical data-straightforward enough-and the investigating officer's notes. The background was pathetic, really; a man wanted to make a nice present for his daughter and allowed his own cleverness to tempt him into disaster. The rest of the section was unremarkable enough, except for one thing that made Psellus raise his eyebrows in surprise.

Next in the dossier were copies of supervisors' annual assessment reports, going back twenty years. Psellus sighed, poured himself a small glass of brandy, and made himself concentrate. The picture that began to emerge was of a willing, serious apprentice, a reliable and careful machinist, a good supervisor; resourceful (and look where that had got him), intelligent, a planner; content to do his work to the best of his ability; a quiet man, a family man-rarely took part in social activities except where his status required it; a man who worked late when it was necessary, but preferred to go home on time. There had been no petty thefts of offcuts of material or discarded tools, no reports of private work done on the side; respected by his equals and his subordinates, few friends but no enemies-all those years as a supervisor and nobody hated him; now that was really rather remarkable. A mild man, but he'd married a subordinate's daughter when she was little more than a child, and promotions had followed. Query: do quiet and mild always necessarily mean the same thing?

Several pages of details, headed restricted, of his work on ordnance development projects. Psellus nodded to himself; a question which had been nagging him like mild toothache would appear to have answered itself. There were, of course, no Guild specifications for military equipment. It was the only area not covered by specifications, the only area in which innovation and improvement were permitted. Vaatzes, apparently, had been responsible for no fewer than three amendments to approved designs, all to do with the scorpions: an improved ratchet stop, upgrading of the thread on the sear nut axle pin from five eighths coarse to three quarters fine, addition of an oil nipple to the slider housing to facilitate lubrication of the slider on active service. That wasn't all; he'd proposed a further four amendments which had been rejected by the standing committee on ordnance design. Psellus sighed. Allow a man to get the taste for innovation and you put his very soul at risk. The compliance directorate had considered the issue on several occasions and had recommended a programme of advanced doctrinal training to make sure that workers exposed to the danger had a proper understanding of the issues involved; the recommendation had been approved years ago but was still held up in committee. A tragedy. A small voice inside his head reminded him that the training idea had been a Foundrymen's proposal, and that the subcommittee obstructing it was dominated by the Tailors and the Joiners. He stowed the fact carefully away in his mental quiver for future use.

Three approved amendments; he thought some more about that. Three amendments by a serving officer. Usually an amendment was held to be the glorious culmination of a long and distinguished career; it was something you held back until it was time for you to retire, and there'd be a little ceremony, the chief inspector of ordnance would shake you by the hand in front of the assembled workforce and present you with your letter of patent at the same time as your long-service certificate. It wasn't a perfect system, because a man might have to wait fifteen years before submitting his amendment, all that time churning out a product he knew could be improved; but it was worthwhile because it limited exposure to the innovation bug. Only a very few men proposed amendments while they were still working, and nearly all such applications were rejected on principle, regardless of merit. Three, for God's sake. Why hadn't he heard about this man years ago? And why, when the facts were here in the file for anyone to see, hadn't he been put under level six supervision after the first proposal?

In a sense, Psellus thought, we failed him. He was reminded of the old story about the man who kept a baby manticore for the eggs, until at last one day the manticore, fully grown and reverting to its basic nature, killed him. We let Vaatzes walk this highly dangerous path alone because the amendments were all good, sound engineering, allowing us to improve the performance of the product. Credit for that improvement would've gone primarily to the chief inspector of ordnance, and from him to the members of the departmental steering committee. Manticore eggs.

One last page caught his eye: schedule of items seized by investigators from the prisoner's house, after his arrest. It was a short list. Usually, when a man came to no good, there'd be pages of this sort of thing-tools and equipment stolen from the factory; the usual depressing catalogue of pornographic or subversive literature (always the same titles; the circulating repertoire of both categories was reassuringly small in Mezentia); forbidden articles of clothing, proscribed food and drink, religious fetishes. In this case, however, there were only a handful of items, and none of them was strictly illegal, though they were all disapproved. A portfolio of drawings of yet more amendments to the scorpion (a note in the margin pointing out that the drawings numbered seven, twenty-six and forty-one should be forwarded to the standing committee for assessment, since they appeared to have considerable merit); a book, The True Mirror of Defence-a fencing manual, copied in Civitas Vadanis (private ownership of weapons was, of course, strictly forbidden; whether it was also illegal to read books about them was something of a grey area); another book, The Art of Venery, about hunting and falconry. Psellus smiled; he was prepared to bet that Vaatzes had thought the word venery meant something quite different. Another book: A General Discourse of Bodily Ailments and the Complete Herbal, together with some pots of dried leaves and a pestle and mortar. Psellus frowned. He'd have to check, but he had an idea that the General Discourse was still a permitted text in the Physicians', so it was against the law for a Foundryman to have a copy. How had he come by it? Did that mean that somewhere there was a doctor with a complete set of engineer's thread and drilling tables? If so, why?

He closed the file, feeling vaguely uncomfortable, as though he'd been handling something dirty. A case like this was, of course, an effective remedy for incipient complacency. It was easy to forget how perilously fine was the line between normality and aberration. How simple and straightforward life would be if all the deviants were wild-eyed, unkempt and slobbering, and all the honest men upright and clean-shaven. There wasn't really anything disturbing about a thoroughgoing deviant; it was inevitable that, from time to time, nature would throw up the occasional monster, easy to identify and quickly disposed of. Far more disquieting the man who's almost normal but not quite; he looks and sounds rational, you can work beside him for years and never hear anything to give you cause for concern, until one day he's not at his post, and investigators are interviewing the whole department. Truly disquieting, because there's always the possibility (orthodox doctrine denies it categorically, but you can't help wondering) that anybody, everybody, might be capable of just one small aberration, if circumstances conspired to put an opportunity in their path. If the temptation was strong enough, perhaps even me-Psellus shuddered at the thought, and dismissed it from his mind as moral hypochondria (look at the list of symptoms long enough, you can convince yourself you've got everything). It was just as well, he decided, that he wasn't an investigator working in the field. You'd need to have nerves of steel or no imagination whatsoever to survive in that job.

He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and waited to see if an image of Vaatzes would form in his mind-he thought of the process as something like what happens to an egg when it's broken into the frying-pan-but all he got was a vague shape, a cut-out in a black backcloth through which you could catch glimpses of what lay behind. His best hope of understanding the man, he decided, lay in interviewing the wife. If there was a key to the mystery, either she'd be it or have an idea of where it was to be found. Strictly speaking, of course, none of this was necessary. They weren't being asked to understand the man, just hunt him down and kill him. Probably just as well. Even so; the pathology of aberration was worth studying, in spite of the obvious danger to the student, or else how could further outbreaks be prevented in the future? Definitely the wife, Psellus decided. She was the anomaly he kept coming back to.

He stood up, shook himself like a wet dog to get rid of unwelcome burrs of thought. A man could lose himself in work like this, and in his case that would be a sad waste. There were other letters waiting for him; he'd seen them when he came in but forgotten about them while his mind was full of Vaatzes and that dreadful man Crisestem. As was his custom, he broke the seals of all of them before he started to read.

Two circular memoranda about dead issues; minutes of meetings of committees he wasn't a member of, for information only; a letter from his cousin, attached to the diplomatic mission to the Cure Doce, asking him to look something up in the Absolute Concordance-some nonsense about the structure of leaves and the diseases of oak-trees; notice of a lecture on early Mannerist poetry; an invitation to speak, from a learned society he no longer belonged to. The sad thing was, if he didn't get letters like these he'd feel left out, worried that he might be slipping gradually out of favour. He made a note to tell his clerk to check the oak-disease reference; he'd take the speaking engagement; standard acknowledgements to all the rest. So much for the day's mail-the world bringing him new challenges to revel in, like a cat that will insist on presenting you with its freshly slain mice. Another glass of brandy was a virtual necessity, if he didn't want to lie awake all night thinking about Vaatzes, and deviance in general. One last note to his clerk: set up meetings with Vaatzes' wife, father- and brother-in-law. Yes, that was where the answer lay, he was almost certain of that. It would help him make sense of it all if she turned out to be pretty, but he wasn't inclined to hold his breath.

In the event he slept soundly, dreaming of Manuo Crisestem being eaten alive by monkeys, so that he woke early with a smile on his face, ready for his breakfast. His clerk had already come and gone, so he took his time shaving and dressing-it was always pleasant not to have to rush in the mornings; he even had time to trim his nails and pumice yesterday's ink stains from his fingertips. That made him smile-subconsciously, was he preening himself just in case the deviant's wife did turn out to be pretty?-and he backcombed his hair in gentle self-mockery; then he thought about his wife, spending the off season at the lodge, out at Blachen with the rest of the committee wives, and that took the feather off his clean, sharp mood. Still, he wouldn't have to join her for a month at least, which was something.

The first three hours of every working day were eaten up by letters; from the morals and ethics directorate, the assessment board, the treasurer's office, the performance standards commission (twenty years in the service and he still didn't know what they actually did), the general auditors of requisitions, the foreign affairs committee. Three of them he answered himself; two he left for his clerk to deal with; one went to one side for filing in the box he privately thought of as the Coal Seam. The process left him feeling drained and irritable, as though he'd been cooped up in a small room with a lot of people all talking at once. To restore his equilibrium he spent half an hour tinkering with the third draft of his address to the apprentices' conference, at which he would be the keynote speaker for the fourth year running ('Doctrine: a Living Legacy'). He was contemplating the best way to give a Didactic spin to the proceedings of the Third Rescensionist Council when his clerk arrived to tell him that the abominator's wife would be arriving at a quarter past noon.

He'd forgotten all about her, and his first reaction was irritation-he had a deskful of more important things to do than talk to criminals' wives-but as the day wore on he found himself looking forward to the break in his routine. His clerk, he suspected, was getting to know him a little too well; the hour between noon and resumption was his least productive time, the part of the day when he was most likely to make mistakes. Far better to use it for something restful and quiet, where a momentary lapse in concentration wasn't likely to involve the state in embarrassment and ruin.

There were five interrogation rooms on the seventh floor of the Guildhall. He chose the smallest, and left instructions that he wasn't to be disturbed. The woman was punctual; she turned up half an hour early. Psellus left her to wait, on the bench in the front corridor. A little apprehension, forced on like chicory by solitude and confinement, would do no harm at all, and he'd have time to read another couple of letters.

He'd been right; she was pretty enough, in a small, wide-eyed sort of a way. He had the dossier's conclusive evidence that she was twenty-four; without it, he'd have put her at somewhere between nineteen and twenty-one, so what she must have looked like when she was seventeen and the subject of negotiations between her father and the abominator, he wouldn't have liked to say. She sat on the low, backless chair in the corner of the room quite still, reminding him of something he couldn't place for a long time, until it suddenly dawned on him; he'd seen a mewed falcon once, jessed and hooded, standing motionless on a perch shaped like a bent bow. An incongruous comparison, he told himself; she certainly didn't come across as a predator, quite the opposite. You couldn't imagine such a delicate creature eating anything, let alone prey that had once been alive.

He sat down in the big, high-backed chair and rested his hands on the arm-rests, wrists upwards (he'd seen judges do that, and it had stuck in his mind). 'Your name,' he said.

Her voice was surprisingly deep. 'Ariessa Vaatzes Connena,' she said. There was no bashful hesitation, but her eyes were big and round and deep (so are a hawk's, he thought). 'Why am I here?'

'There are some questions,' he said, and left it at that. 'You were married young, I gather.'

She frowned. 'Not really,' she said. 'At least, I was seventeen. But five of the fifteen girls in my class got married before I did.'

She was right, of course; he'd misplaced the emphasis. It wasn't her youth that was unusual, but her husband's age. 'You married a man ten years older than yourself,' he said.

She nodded. 'That's right.'

'Why?'

What a curious question, her eyes said. 'My father thought it was a good match,' she said.

'Was it?'

'Well, clearly not.'

'You were unhappy with the idea?'

'Not at the time,' she said firmly.

'Of course,' Psellus said gravely, 'you weren't to know how things would turn out.'

'No.'

'At the time,' he said, 'did you find the marriage agreeable?'

A faint trace of a smile. There are some faces that light up in smiling; this wasn't one. 'That's a curious word to use,' she said. 'I loved my husband, from the first time I saw him.'

'Do you still love him?'

'Yes.'

She said the word crisply, like someone breaking a stick. He thought for a moment. Another comparison was lurking in the back of his mind, but he couldn't place it. 'You're aware of the law regarding the wives of abominators.'

She nodded, said nothing. She didn't seem unduly frightened.

'There is, of course, a discretion in such cases,' he said slowly.

'I see.'

She was watching him, the way one' animal watches another: wary, cautious, but no fear beyond the permanent, all-encompassing fear of creatures who live all the time surrounded by predators, and prey. 'The discretion,' he went on, 'vests in the proper compliance officer of the offender's Guild.'

'That would be you, then.'

'That's right.'

'I imagine,' she said, 'there's something I can help you with.'

(In her dossier, which he'd glanced through before the interview, there was a certificate from the investigators; the wife, they said, had not been party to the offence and was not to be proceeded against; her father and brother were Guildsmen of good standing and had co-operated unreservedly in the investigation on the understanding that she should be spared. It was, of course, a condition of this arrangement that she should not know of it; nor had she been made aware of the fact that clemency had been extended in her case.)

'Yes,' Psellus said. 'There are a few questions, as I think I mentioned.'

'You want me to betray him, don't you?'

Psellus moved a little in his chair; the back and arms seemed to be restricting him, like guards holding a prisoner. 'I shall expect you to co-operate with my enquiries,' he said. 'You know who I am, what I do.'

She nodded. 'There's nothing I can tell you,' she said. 'I don't know where he's gone, or anything like that.'

'I do,' Psellus said.

Her eyes opened wide; no other movement, and no sound.

'We have reports,' he went on, 'that place him in the company of Duke Orsea of Eremia Montis. Do you know who he is?'

'Of course I do,' she said. 'How did he-?'

Psellus ignored her. 'Clearly,' he said, 'this raises new questions. For example: do you think it possible that your husband had been in contact with the Eremians at any time before his arrest?'

'You mean, spying for them or something?' She raised an eyebrow. 'Well, if he was, he can't have done a very good job.'

He'd seen a fencing-match once; an exhibition bout between two foreigners, Vadani or Cure Doce or something of the sort. He remembered the look on the face of one of them, when he'd lunged forward ferociously to run his enemy through; but when he reached forward full stretch the other man wasn't there any more. He'd sidestepped, and as his opponent surged past him, he'd given him a neat little prod in the ribs, and down he'd gone. Psellus had an uncomfortable feeling that the expression on his face wasn't so different to the look he'd seen on the dying fencer's.

'You didn't answer my question,' he said.

'No,' she said. 'I don't think he was spying for Eremia. I don't think he'd have known where Eremia is. I didn't,' she added, 'not until the other day. A lot of people don't.'

'You sound very certain,' he said quietly.

'Yes,' she said. A pause, then: 'I know that what my husband did was wrong. One of your colleagues explained it all to me, and I understand. But that was all he did, I'm absolutely positive. He just did it for our little girl, for her birthday. I suppose he thought nobody'd ever find out.'

Psellus looked at her for a while. She ought to be frightened, he thought. At the very least, she ought to be frightened. Maybe her father or her brother broke the terms of the deal and told her; but then she'd know that if we found out, the deal would be off, and she ought to be frightened about that. I don't think she likes me very much.

He thought about that. I don't like her very much either, he thought.

'So,' he went on, 'you don't think your husband took any interest in politics, foreign affairs, things like that.'

'Good Lord, no. He couldn't care less.'

He nodded. 'What did he care about?'

'Us,' she said, quick as a parry. 'Me and our daughter. Our family'

Psellus nodded. 'His work?'

'Yes,' she said-it was a concession. 'But he didn't talk about it much at home. He tried to keep it separate, home and work. I could never understand about machinery and things.'

'But he did work at home sometimes?'

She shrugged. 'In the evenings,' she said, 'sometimes he'd be in the back room or the cellar, making things. He liked doing it. But I don't know if it was work or things he made for himself, or us.'

Psellus nodded again. 'It's customary for an engineer to make some of his own tools-specialised tools, not the sort of thing you'd find hanging on the rack-in his own time. Do you think it's likely that that's what he was doing?'

She shrugged; no words.

'We found quite a few such tools,' he went on, 'in the house, and at his bench in the factory. The quality of the work was very high.'

She looked at him. 'He was a clever man,' she said.

'Too clever,' Psellus said; but it wasn't like the fencer's ambush. Leaden-footed, and a blind man could have seen it coming. Nevertheless, she must parry it or else be hit. He waited to see what form her defence would take; he anticipated a good defence, from a fencer of such skill and mettle. Not a mere block; he was hoping for a manoeuvre combining defence and counterattack in the same move, what Vaatzes' illegal fencing manual would call a riposte in narrow time. He made a mental note to requisition the book and read it, when he had a moment.

'Yes,' she said.

Oh, Psellus thought. (Well, it was a riposte, of a sort; stand still and let your opponent skewer you, and die, leaving the enemy to feel wretched and guilty ever after. Probably the most damaging riposte of all, if all you cared about was hurting the opponent.)

I had a point once, he told himself. I was making it. But I can't remember what it was.

'So that's the picture, is it?' he said. 'In the evenings, after dinner, while you wash the dishes, he retreats to his private bench with his files and hacksaws and bow-drills, and makes things for the pure pleasure of it. Is that how it was?'

She frowned. 'Well, sometimes,' she said.

'Sometimes,' Psellus repeated. 'You'd have thought he'd had enough of it at work, measuring and marking out and cutting metal and finishing and burnishing and polishing and so on.'

'He liked that sort of thing,' she said, and her voice was almost bored. 'It was what he did when we were first married, but then he got promoted, supervisor and then foreman, and he was telling other people what to do, instead of doing it himself.' She shrugged. 'He was glad of the promotion, obviously, but I think he missed actually making things, with his hands. Or maybe he wanted to keep himself in practice. I don't know about that kind of stuff, but maybe if you stop doing it for a while you forget how to do it. You'd know more about that than me.'

Psellus nodded. 'You think he wanted to keep his hand in?'

She shrugged again. Her slim shoulders were perfectly suited to the gesture, which was probably why she favoured it so much.

'Do you think he'll want to keep his hand in now he's with Duke Orsea?'

To his surprise, she nodded; as though she was a colleague rather than a subject brought in for interrogation. 'I know,' she said, 'they explained it to me before. You're afraid he'll teach all sorts of trade secrets to the enemy.'

'Do you think he's liable to do that?'

'I don't know,' she said.

'You don't know,' he repeated.

'That's right,' she said. 'I suppose it'd depend on what he's got to do to stay alive. I mean, the people you say he's with, they're our enemies. We just wiped out their army, isn't that right? Well, maybe they caught him, wandering about on the moors, and thought he was a spy or something.'

Psellus frowned. 'Possibly.'

'Well then. If you were him and that's what'd happened to you, what would you do?'

Psellus leaned back a little in his chair; he felt a need to increase the distance between them. 'I hope,' he said, 'that I would die rather than betray my country'

It sounded completely ridiculous, of course, and she didn't bother to react. She didn't need to; she didn't have to point out what Vaatzes' country had done to him in the first place. This wasn't getting anywhere, Psellus decided. He was here to get information, not defend himself.

'Fine,' she said. 'I'm glad to hear it.

(She was letting him off lightly, though; she was past his guard, controlling the bind, in a strong position to shrug off his defence and strike home. Which is what you'd do, surely, if your husband had just been driven into exile; you'd be angry. But she was no more angry than frightened. Curious hawk; doesn't strike or bate. It dawned on him suddenly why he felt so confused. It was as though he didn't matter.) 'I take it,' he persevered, though he knew he was achieving nothing by it, 'that you feel the same about treachery'

She looked at him. 'You mean, about betraying the Republic? Well, of course.'

He frowned at her, trying to be intimidating, failing. I'm not concentrating, he realised; there's something wrong, like one of those tiny splinters that get right in under your skin, too small to see but you can feel them. 'The circumstances,' he said slowly, 'of your marriage. Let's go back to that, shall we?'

'If you want.'

He made a show of making himself comfortable in his chair. 'When was the first time he became aware of you? How did you meet?'

She was looking at him as though he was standing in front of something she wanted to see, blocking her view. 'Which one do you want me to answer first?' she said.

'Why did he want to marry you?'

Another beautiful shrug. 'I think he wanted to get married,' she said. 'Men do. And my dad wanted to find me a husband.'

'At seventeen? A bit quick off the mark.'

'We never got on,' she said. 'I wasn't happy at home.'

'He wanted you off his hands?'

'Yes.'

Psellus winced. She's good, he noted ruefully, at that defence. Probably one hell of a card-player, if women play cards. Do they? He had to admit he didn't know. 'So your father became aware that his supervisor was looking for a wife, and thought, here's a fine opportunity, two birds with one stone. Is that how it was?'

'Pretty much.'

He hesitated. It was like when he'd been a boy, fighting in the playground. He'd been a good fighter; he had the reach, and good reflexes, and he was older than most of the other boys. He threw a good punch, to the nose, chin or mouth. But he was too scared to fight, because he hated the pain-jarring his elbow as he bashed in their faces, skinning his knuckles as he broke their teeth-until the pleasure of inflicting pain ceased to outweigh the discomfort of receiving it. Even hitting them with sticks hurt his hands more than he was prepared to accept. 'Was it a deal, then?' he persevered. 'Your father and your brother's promotions, in exchange for you?'

'Yes.'

'I see. And how about the terms of the transaction? Was he buying sight unseen?'

'What does that mean?'

'Did he come and inspect you first, before the deal was finalised? Or wasn't he bothered?'

She frowned, as though she was having trouble understanding. 'He came to dinner at our house,' she said.

'And?'

'He sat next to me. We talked about birds.'

'Birds.'

She nodded. 'I don't know how we got on to the subject. I wasn't particularly interested in birds, nor was he.'

'But you'd already fallen in love at first sight.'

'Yes.'

More gashed knuckles. 'And presumably he decided you would fit the bill.'

'Yes.'

'So everybody was happy.'

'Yes. We were all happy'

The hell with this, Psellus thought; there was a time, long ago, when I used to be a decent human being. 'I see,' he said. 'Well, I don't think I need detain you further. You may go.'

She stood up; no hurry, no delay. 'Your discretion,' she said. She made it sound like an illness or something.

'Provided you undertake to let us know immediately if you hear anything from him, if he tries to get in touch with you in any way. Do you understand?'

She nodded. 'Hardly likely, though, is it?'

'Nonetheless.' He made his face stern and fierce, 'Make no mistake,' he said. 'You're being discharged under licence, which we can revoke at any time. The obligation is on you to come to us with any information which might be of use to us. If you fail to do so…'

'I understand.'

'Very well, then. You may leave.' He thought of something; too little too late, but it would be a small victory, he'd at least have drawn blood, even if it was just a scratch. 'You may return to the matrimonial home for the time being,' he said. 'Long enough to collect your possessions, the things that belong to you exclusively-clothing and the like. After that, you'll be returned to your father's house.'

She rode the strike well, but he'd touched home. There was a degree of satisfaction in the hit, rather less than he'd anticipated. 'I see,' she said.

'An offender's property' he went on, 'reverts to his Guild. An official confiscator will be appointed shortly; until he's made his inspection and compiled an inventory, you may not remove anything from the house.'

'Fine. Can I empty the chamber-pot?'

(Interesting; that's the first sign of anger she's shown.)

'The confiscator,' he went on, 'will issue a certificate specifying which items are your exclusive property; that means the things you'll be allowed to take away with you. If you disagree with his decision, you may make representations to him in writing. Is that clear?'

She nodded. 'How about my daughter's things?' she said. 'Can she keep them, or does the Guild want them too?'

'The same rules apply,' Psellus said. 'The confiscator will decide what she can keep. The adjudication process usually takes about six weeks.'

'I see,' she said. 'Can I leave now, please?'

Psellus raised his hand in a vague gesture of manumission. 'Thank you for your time,' he said. 'And remember, if you hear anything at all from your husband.'

After she'd gone, Psellus sat for a while, watching the lamp burn down. Had he achieved what he'd set out to do, or anything at all? He had no idea. The objective was to catch Ziani Vaatzes and bring him home to die, or kill him wherever he happened to be; that job had been given to Manuo Crisestem, and was' therefore effectively out of Psellus' hands, for the time being. The purpose of this interview-he tried to remember what it was. Something about motivation, trying to understand; he'd been intrigued by the marriage, the difference in ages. Well, he had an explanation, of sorts: Vaatzes had wanted a wife, the man Connenus had wanted to get his stroppy daughter off his hands, and apparently the daughter had been obliging enough to fall in love with Vaatzes, who was in a position to square the deal with promotions for his new in-laws. There; everything accounted for neat and tidy; and he, Lucao Psellus, was sitting in the dark as the point flew high over his head like a skein of geese going home for the winter.

No. He'd learned something important today, and he had no idea what it was.

When the lamp finally failed, he stood up and tracked his way to the door by feel. Outside it was still broad daylight; as he stood in the corridor facing the open window, the light stunned him, like an unexpected punch. It'd be vexing, he told himself, if Crisestem succeeded; as for Vaatzes, Psellus found it very hard to recapture the cold, pure burn of anger against him for his however-many-it-was offences against Specification. But he stood facing the light and made a wish, like he used to do on the first of the month when he was a boy, that Crisestem would bring Vaatzes' head home in a bag, soon, and that this case would very quickly be over.

Chapter Seven

The road to Civitas Eremiae, capital and only city of Eremia Montis, encircles the stony peg of mountain on which it sits in long, slow, regular loops, like a screw-thread. From the river valley, it looks as if the city can be reached in two hours at the very most; but it's a long day's climb, assuming you start at dawn; if not, you face the unattractive choice of camping overnight on the narrow ledge of road or walking up it in the dark. At the crown of the mountain, the road funnels through a low, narrow gate in the curtain-wall; three more turns of the thread brings it to the city wall proper, where it ducks through a gateway under two high, thin towers built on massive spurs of rock. From the city gate to the citadel is another eight turns, through streets wide enough for a donkey or an economically fed horse. Chastra Eremiae, the Duke's castle, was chiselled and scooped out of the yellow stone four hundred years ago, and is protected by an encircling ditch twenty-six feet deep and a thirty-foot wall studded with squat round towers; a third of the interior is derelict through neglect. The Eremians proudly boast that nobody has ever taken the citadel by storm. It's hard to imagine why anybody should want to.

Most of the population of the city turned out in the morning to see the remains of the army come home; by nightfall, however, when Orsea rode his weary horse through the gate, the crowd had long since given up and drifted away. That in itself was encouraging; maybe they weren't going to lynch him after all.

Miel Ducas was looking after all the important stuff; accommodation for the wounded and so forth. There was no good reason why Orsea shouldn't just go home and go to bed. It was what he wanted to do, more than anything else in the world. Tomorrow, of course, he'd have to do the things he'd been dreading all the way up the Butter Pass. At the very least, he'd have to convene the general council, tell them about the battle and everything that had happened-the extraordinary kindness of the Vadani; the Mezentine defector and his offer. Probably he ought to stand out on the balcony that overlooked the market square and address the people. That was only reasonable, and he knew he had to do it. Tomorrow.

He clattered through the citadel gate, and there was a group of people waiting for him: a doctor whom he recognised, some people whose names he knew, some strangers. The doctor pounced on him as soon as his feet hit the cobbles. He'd had a detailed letter from one of the Vadani medics, he explained, full details of the injury, description of treatment to date, prognosis, recommendations. It was imperative that the Duke get some rest as soon as possible. For once, Orsea didn't argue.

Remarkably soon he was in his bedroom on the fourth floor of the South Tower. He sat on the bed and tugged at his boots (if they were this tight, how had he ever managed to get them on?), gave up and flopped on his back with his hands behind his head. He was home; that made him one of the lucky ones. Tomorrow…

Tomorrow, he told himself, I'll deal with everything. First I'll have a meeting with Miel, he'll brief me on everything he's done, getting the army home, and everything that happened on the way. Then I'll have to go to the council, and make my speech on the balcony (he made a mental note: think of something to say). Right; I'll do that, and the rest of the day's your own.

Veatriz, he thought. I'll see her tomorrow. She's not here tonight because she knows I need to be alone, but tomorrow I'll see them both again, and that'll make things better. It occurred to him that he hadn't thought much about her over the last few days; he felt ashamed, because really she was everything, the whole world. But there'd be time for her tomorrow, and things could slowly start to get back to normal.

Things would never be normal again, he knew that really. But he was tired, and there wasn't anything he could do tonight; and besides, the doctor had told him, rest…

He fell asleep. Below in the castle yard, Miel Ducas was still trying to find billets for wounded men, water and fuel for cooking, hay and oats for horses, somewhere for the carts to turn so the road wouldn't get jammed, somewhere to put the Mezentine until he had time to deal with him. He didn't resent the fact that Orsea had left him with all the arrangements; he was too busy, standing out of the way by the stable door so that the stretcher-bearers could get in and out, and women with bedding. He was trying to carry on four conversations at once-the garrison captain, the chief steward, Orsea's doctor and a representative of the Merchant Adventurers, who was trying to gouge him over the price of twenty gross of plain wool bandages. He kept going because there wasn't anybody else. It would, of course, be just as bad tomorrow.

Ziani Vaatzes sat in a stationary cart for an hour, and then some men came. They didn't seem to know whether they were welcoming a guest or guarding a prisoner, but they made a fair job of hedging their bets. They took him up a long spiral staircase with no handrail-it was dark and the steps were worn smooth-to a landing with a thick black door. If there was anything he wanted, they said, all he had to do was ask. Then they opened the door for him and vanished, leaving him completely alone.

There was a candle burning in the room-one candle-and a jug of water and a plate of bread and cheese on a table. It was a large room, though the darkness around the candle-flame made it look bigger than it really was. He found the fireplace; a basket of logs, some twigs and moss for kindling. He laid a fire, lit a spill (very carefully, so as not to snuff the candle out), found a small hand-bellows hanging on a nail in the wall. It hadn't occurred to him that the mountains would be so cold. The bed was huge, musty, slightly damp. He took his boots off but kept his clothes on. He couldn't sleep, needless to say; so he lay on his back staring at the extraordinarily high ceiling (he could just make out shapes of vaulting on the extreme edge of the disc of candlelight), and soon his mind was full of details as he worked on the mechanism that was gradually beginning to take shape. Somewhere below, a dog was barking, and he could hear heavily shod cartwheels grinding the cobbles, like a mill crushing wheat. For some reason it comforted him, like rain on the roof or the soft swish of the sea.

'This Mezentine.'

Zanferenc Iraclido (Orsea had always felt overawed by him; not by his intellect or his commanding presence or his strength of purpose, but by the sonorous beauty of his name) reached across the table and took the last honey-cake from the plate. He'd had six already. None of the other members of the council appeared to have noticed.

'His name's Vaatzes,' Miel Ducas said. 'I had a long talk with him on the way home, and I'm fairly sure he's genuine-not a spy or anything. But that's just my intuition.'

Iraclido made a gesture, a quick opening and closing of the hand. 'Let's say for the sake of argument that he is. Let's also assume he can actually deliver on this promise to teach us all the stuff he claims he knows. The question is, would it actually do us any good?'

Heads nodded, turned to look down the table. 'I think so,' Orsea said. 'But it'd be a huge step. What do you reckon, Ferenc?'

'Me?' Iraclido raised his eyebrows. 'Not up to me.'

'Yes, but suppose it was. What would you do?'

Iraclido paused before answering. 'On balance,' he said, 'I think I'd have his head cut off and stuck up on a pike in the market square, and I'll tell you why. Yes, it'd be just grand if we could learn how to build these spear-throwing machines-though I don't suppose you'd approve of the direction I'd be inclined to point them in once they were finished. But we won't go into that.'

'Good,' someone else said; mild ripple of laughter.

'It'd be just grand,' Iraclido repeated. 'And when this Mezentine says he knows how to build them, I believe him. But it's no good giving a shepherd a box of tools and a drawing and telling him to build you a clock, or a threshing machine. My point is, we can't make use of this knowledge, we aren't…' He waved his hands again. 'We aren't set up to start building machines. Might as well give a ninety-pound bow to a kid. It works, it's a bloody good weapon, but he's simply not strong enough to draw it. And you know what happens next. The kid can't use it so he puts it somewhere; then along comes his big brother, picks it up and shoots you with it. Not smart.'

'Slow down,' someone said. 'You just lost me.'

'Then use your brain,' Iraclido said. 'I said I'd have the Mezentine executed. Here's why We can't afford to let him live, not with all that stuff in his head; because we can't use it, we aren't strong enough. But we all know who is.'

Brief silence; then Miel said, 'Let me translate, since Ferenc here's decided to be all elliptical. He's afraid the Mezentine's knowledge would fall into the hands of the Vadani. They're no smarter than us, but they've got pots more money; they might be able to use the knowledge, presumably against us. Right?'

'More or less,' Iraclido said. 'So the only safe thing to do is get rid of the information. Now, while it's still in the box, so to speak.'

'It's a point of view,' Orsea said after a moment. 'Anyone like to comment?'

'Under normal circumstances,' (the voice came from the other end of the table; a thin elderly man Orsea didn't know particularly well; Simbulo or some name like that) 'I'd agree with the senator; we can't easily use this knowledge, and there's times when a head on a pike is worth two in the bush; we could make out he's a spy-which could be true, for all we know-and it'd go down well with the market crowd. But we have a problem. We've just had our guts ripped out by the Republic, like a cat on a fence; people need to see a miracle cure, or they're going to get nervous. Basically, we need a secret weapon.'

Iraclido leaned forward and glared down the table. 'So you want to build these machines?'

The thin man shook his head. 'I want to tell the people we're going to build these machines,' he said, 'and I want to parade this Mezentine in front of them and say, here, look what we've found, here's a Mezentine traitor who's going to show us how to build them, and a whole lot of other Stuff too. Now,' he went on with a shrug, 'whether we actually build any machines, now or at some indeterminate point in the future, is a subject fox another day. What concerns me is what we're going to do tomorrow.' He paused, as though inviting interruptions. There were none, so he went on: 'Same goes for our friends and allies over the mountain. We won't get started on all that now; but I don't suppose I'm the only one who'd love to know what all that loving-kindness stuff was really in aid of. I'd also like to know who the genius was who thought it'd be a good idea to take the army home over the Butter Pass, right under Valens' nose. The fact we got away with it doesn't mean it wasn't a bloody stupid thing to do.'

Orsea saw Miel take a deep breath and say nothing. He was proud of his friend.

'But anyway,' the thin man went on. 'Valens has made his point; he had us in the palm of his hand, and for reasons best known to himself he let us go. Fact remains, we've just lost a big slice of our military capability; if Valens wants to break the treaty, as things stand we can't give him a good game. In other words, we're at his mercy; and I don't know about you gentlemen, but that makes my teeth ache. I'd feel a whole lot happier if Valens was under the impression we had the secret of the spear-throwing machines.'

'It'd give him something to think about,' someone said.

'Too right,' Iraclido said. 'And if I was in his shoes and I heard that we were planning on arming ourselves with those things, I know what I'd do. I'd invade straight away, before we had a chance to build them.'

'What about that, though?' A short, round man with curly hair; Bassamontis, from the west valleys. 'What do you think he's playing at?'

'Good question,' Miel said. 'And I don't think we can reasonably make any decisions about this or anything else until we know the answer.'

'You were there,' the thin man said. 'What did you make of it?'

'Beats me,' Miel admitted. 'They just appeared out of nowhere and started helping. No explanations, they weren't even patronising about it. Just got on with it, and a bloody good job they made of it too.' He frowned. 'One thing that did strike me,' he said, 'was how very well prepared they were: food, blankets, medical stuff, it all just sort of materialised, like it was magic. Either Valens has got them very well organised indeed, or they had some idea what'd be needed well in advance.' He shook his head. 'Which still doesn't make any sense,' he added. 'It's a puzzle all right.'

'Like the Ducas says,' said the thin man, 'it's a puzzle. And, like he says, I don't think we can make a decision until we've got some idea what actually happened there. The problem is, how do we find out?'

Silence. Then Miel said: 'We could ask them.'

Puzzled frowns. 'I don't follow,' someone said.

'I suggest we send a delegation,' Miel said. 'To say thank you very much for helping us. Only polite, after all. While they're there, if they keep their ears open and their mouths shut-'

'That's not a bad idea,' Bassamontis said. 'The Ducas is right, we owe them a bread-and-butter letter; we might as well combine it with a fishing trip.'

'And what do we tell them,' Iraclido interrupted, 'about the Mezentine? We've got to assume they know about him already.'

'Nothing,' the thin man said firmly. 'Let them fret about it for a while, it'll do them good.'

'If Valens wanted to attack us,' someone else said, 'he had his chance. I can't see how it benefits him, lulling us into a true sense of security.'

'We don't know what kind of issues he's involved with,'

Bassamontis said. 'We're not the only ones with borders, or neighbours. Which is why I'd like to get some sort of idea of what's going on over there; and the best way to find out is to go and see for ourselves.'

'Well?' Miel turned to look at Iraclido. 'Are you still in favour of putting the Mezentine's head up on a pike?'

Iraclido smiled. 'I never expected you'd go along with that,' he said. 'I was just telling you my opinion. By all means go ahead, send the delegation. As you say, it's simple good manners. And on balance, I'm inclined to agree with Simbulo here; we can't really do anything until we've got some idea of what's going on next door. So, for the time being, we'll just have to keep the Mezentine on a short leash and see what happens.'

'Wouldn't do any harm,' someone suggested, 'to start finding out what he can do for us; assuming we decide to go down that road, I mean. So far, we've had some big promises. I propose we see the Mezentine for ourselves.'

'Orsea?' Miel said.

Orsea nodded. 'By all means,' he said. 'I've told you the gist of what he told me, but I'm no engineer, I don't know if what he said's possible, or what it'd involve. The trouble is, there's not many of us who do. We need some experts of our own to listen to this man.'

There was a short silence, as if he'd said something embarrassing. Then Iraclido said: 'All due respect, but isn't that the point? We don't have any experts of our own. If we'd got anybody who could understand what the hell the Mezentine's talking about, we wouldn't need the Mezentine.'

Miel lifted his head sharply. 'I don't think it's as black and white as all that,' he said; and Orsea thought: actually, Iraclido's right and Miel knows it, but he's upset with him for being clever at my expense, and he's too well-mannered to say so. 'My father used to say,' Miel went on, 'that so long as you've got ears and a tongue, you can learn anything. What'd be helpful is if we had someone who's halfway there.'

Iraclido looked at him. 'You mean like a blacksmith, or a wheelwright?'

'Yes, why not?' Orsea winced; he knew how much Miel disliked being wrong, and how stubborn he could be when circumstances had betrayed him into being wrong in public. 'A bright man with an enquiring mind, that's what we need. That can't be impossible, surely.'

'Maybe they were all killed in the war,' someone muttered, down the far end of the table. Orsea was glad he hadn't seen who said it.

'Well.' Iraclido was enjoying himself, in a languid sort of way. 'If the Ducas can find someone who fits the bill, I suppose it can't do any harm. As for bringing the Mezentine before this council, I'm afraid I can't see what useful purpose that would serve. But if anyone else has strong feelings on the subject-'

'Boca Cantacusene,' Orsea said briskly. Several heads turned to stare blankly at him; under other circumstances, he'd have found the looks on their faces amusing. 'The armourer,' he explained. 'Come on, some of you must have heard of him, he's the warrant-holder. I gather he runs the best-equipped workshop in town. I don't suppose it's a patch on anything they've got in Mezentia, but at least he ought to be able to tell us if the Mezentine's genuine, or whether he's just making stuff up out of his head to con us out of money.'

Iraclido shrugged. 'Fine,' he said. 'By all means have your blacksmith interview the Mezentine, I'd be interested to hear what he thinks. Meanwhile, we need to agree a course of action in respect of Duke Valens.'

'With respect…' (Orsea looked round; Miel was only this polite and soft-spoken when he was furiously angry.) 'With respect, I suggest we need rather more to go on before we decide anything in that regard. All we have to go on is a magnificent, though possibly uncharacteristic, act of generosity. I say a little research-'

'Absolutely,' Orsea broke in, mainly to head off his friend before he lost his temper. 'We need some reliable information about what's going on, what Valens and the Vadani are up to.'

Someone down the table stifled a yawn. 'In that case,' whoever it was said, 'how about the Merchant Adventurers? They're good at intuition, picking up trends; got to be able to sense which way the wind's blowing in business.'

Mumbled approval all round the table; predictably, Orsea decided, since it was precisely the sort of compromise that satisfied committees and nobody else: if you can't reach a decision, find a pretext for postponing it. 'You can never have too much information,' he said. 'It's highly unlikely we'd get a straight answer through normal diplomatic channels. Who's got a tame merchant who owes him a favour?'

Two ducal summonses, neatly written on crisp new parchment (the first of the new batch, from the slaughter of the winter sheep) in oak-apple ink. One to Boca Cantacusene at his workshop in the lower town, requiring him to call on Count Ducas at his earliest convenience; one in similar terms to Belha Severina of the Weavers' Company.

Of course, Miel Ducas had met Boca Cantacusene before; had been measured by him-across the shoulders, under the armpits, from armpit to thigh-bone, thigh to knee, knee to ankle, an anatomy so complete that you could have built a perfect replica of the Ducas with nothing to go on except the armourer's notes and drawings. Miel tried to remember if he'd paid the man's latest bill.

Cantacusene arrived in his best clothes, stiffer and more unnatural-looking on him than any suit of armour. He was a short man of around fifty, with massive forearms tapering down into thin wrists and small, short-fingered hands. He was nervous and bumped into furniture.

'Do you think you could help?' Miel said, after he'd explained the situation and extracted a dreadful oath of discretion. 'I mean, I. wouldn't understand a word he said, it'd be like a foreign language.'

Cantacusene frowned, as if trying to picture a thirty-second of an inch in abstract. 'It'd take a long time,' he said. 'I'd have to get him to explain a whole lot of things before I started understanding, if you see what I mean.'

'Of course,' Miel said. 'But you'd at least be able to understand the explanations.'

Another frown; a nod. 'Yes, I think I could do that.'

'Splendid.' Miel was fidgeting with his hands, something he didn't usually do. 'At this stage,' he said, 'all we really need to know is whether he's really a high-class Mezentine engineer, or whether he's just pretending to be one-because he's a spy, or just a vagrant looking to cheat us out of money. You could ask him questions, I suppose; like a quiz. Metalworking stuff.'

Cantacusene shook his head. 'I don't think that would help a lot,' he said. 'Me testing him, it'd be like testing a doctor on surgery by asking him how to cut toenails. But I think I can see my way, if you know what I mean.'

'Of course,' Miel said. 'You're the expert, I'll leave it up to you how to proceed.' He paused, looked away. 'One other thing,' he said. 'I haven't discussed this with the Duke, but I thought I'd sound you out first. It was him who suggested you, by the way.'

'Honoured,' Cantacusene said.

'Well.' Miel stopped, as if he'd forgotten what he was going to say. 'If we do decide to go along with this, try and set up factories and such, like they've got in Mezentia, obviously we're going to need skilled men for the Mezentine to teach his stuff to; and then they'll go away and run the factories.'

'Like foremen,' Gantacusene said.

'Exactly, that's right. Well, since the Duke himself suggested you, I guess you're at the top of my list of candidates.'

'I see.' Cantacusene had a knack of saying things with no perceptible intonation; completely neutral, like clean water.

'Would you want to do that?'

Another pause for thought. 'Yes,' Cantacusene replied.

'Good. I mean,' Miel went on, 'it's all hypothetical, assuming we decide to go ahead-and obviously, to a certain extent that'll depend on what you make of the man when you see him. But I thought I'd mention it.'

'I see.'

This time, Miel stood up. 'Excellent,' he said, in a slightly strained voice. 'Well, in that case we'll send for you when we're ready for the interview with the Mezentine, and we'll take it from there. Meanwhile, thank you for your time.'

Cantacusene nodded politely, got up and left. Why was that so difficult? Miel asked himself; then he rang the bell and told the usher he was ready for the merchant.

She was younger than he'd expected; a year or so either side of forty, thin-faced, sharp-chinned, dressed in a tent of red velvet with seed-pearl trim, her hair short and staked down with combs and gold filigree pins. He had an idea she was some sort of off-relation-the Severinus was distantly connected to the Philargyrus, who trailed in and out of the Ducas family tree like ivy.

(He'd seen a remarkable thing once; an oak sapling had tried to grow next to a vigorous, bushy willow, on the warm southern slopes of the Ducas winter grazing; but the willow grew quicker, and it had twined its withies through the young oak's branches for ten years or so, and then put on a spurt in its trunk, gradually ripping it out of the ground, until its dead roots drooped in mid-air like a hung man's feet. He'd come back with men and axes, because the Ducas had always stood for justice on their lands, but he hadn't been able to find the place again.)

She'd listened carefully as he explained, rather awkwardly, what he wanted her to do. She didn't seem surprised at all. 'Do you think you can help us?' he'd asked.

'It should be possible,' she replied. 'My sister Teano's just joined a consortium with a contract for green sand-'

'I'm sorry,' Miel interrupted. 'Green sand?'

'Casting sand.' She almost smiled. 'For making moulds,' she said. 'You know, melting metal and casting. You need a special kind of sand, very fine and even. The Vadani used to get it from the Lonazep cartels, who got it from the Cure Hardy; so obviously, it wasn't cheap. But Teano's consortium have found a deposit of the stuff in the Red River valley. They can undercut Lonazep by a third and still clear three hundred per cent.'

'Good heavens,' said Miel, assuming it was expected of him. 'So, your sister's likely to be going back and forth across the mountains quite a bit from now on?'

She nodded; actually it was more of a peck, like a woodpecker in a dead tree. 'The contract is with the Vadani silver board. That'll put Teano right in the centre of the Vadani government. It oughtn't to be impossible to get the information you want.'

'But it won't be cheap,' Miel said. 'Will it?'

There was a trace of disapproval in her expression. 'No,' she said. 'At least, Teano will want a lot of money-if they figure out what she's up to, the very best she can hope for is losing a very lucrative deal. She'll want an indemnity in case that happens, and a substantial retainer; and then there's my fee, of course.'

Miel pursed his lips. 'I see.'

'Ten per cent,' she went on. 'Paid by the customer.'

'You make it sound like, I don't know, a lawyer's bill or something. Broken down into items, and each one with a fancy name.'

'Quite,' she said, unmoved. 'Professional expenses. If you're in business, you have to be businesslike.'

'Fine. So what does an indemnity plus a retainer plus a fee come to? In round numbers?'

'Does it matter?' She was frowning slightly. 'You need this information. I don't imagine Duke Orsea has given you a specific budget.'

'No. He leaves things like that to me.' Miel shrugged. 'We won't quibble about it now.'

'I should think not.' She was scolding him, he thought. 'The security of the Duchy is at stake. And, as I hope I've made clear, my sister will be running a substantial risk.'

The Ducas charm didn't seem to be working as well as it usually did-the scar, Miel thought, maybe it's as simple as that. If so, it's a damned nuisance. You get used to having your own way on the strength of a smile and a softly spoken word. If the charm's gone, I suppose I'll have to learn some new skills; eloquence, or maybe even sincerity. 'Quite,' he said. 'Well, I think we've covered everything. I'll look forward to getting your first report in due course. Thank you very much for your time.'

As he showed her out and closed the door behind her, Miel was left with the depressing feeling of having done a bad job. Not that it mattered; he was paying money for a service to a professional specialist, there was no requirement that she should like him. Even so-I guess I've got used to being able to make people like me; it makes things easier, and they try harder. I'll have to think about that.

He yawned. What he wanted to do most in all the world was to go home to his fine house on the east face, send down to the cellars for a few bottles of something better than usual, and spend an hour or two after dinner relaxing; a few games of chess, some music. Instead, he had reports to read, letters to write, meetings to prepare for. There was a big marble pillar in the middle cloister of the Ducas house, on which were inscribed the various public offices held by members of the family over the past two and a half centuries. His father had four inches, narrowly beating his grandfather (three and two thirds). As a boy, when Father had been away from home so often, he'd sat on the neatly trimmed grass and stared up at the pillar, wondering what the unfamiliar words meant: six times elected Excubitor of the Chamber. Was that a good thing to be? What did an Excubitor do? Was Dad never at home because he was away somewhere Excubiting? For years he'd played secret, violent games in which he'd been Orphanotrophus Ducas, Grand Excubitor, fighting two dragons simultaneously or facing down a hundred Cure Hardy armed only with a garden rake. Six months ago, when Heleret Phocas had died and Orsea had given him his old job, he'd not been able to keep from bursting out laughing when he heard what the job title was. (No dragons so far, and no Cure Hardy; the Excubitor of the Chamber, Grand or just plain ordinary, was nominally in charge of the castle laundry.) Now he already had two inches of his own on the pillar; gradually, day by day and step by painful step, he was turning into somebody else.

Reports, letters, minutes, agendas; he left the South Tower, where the interview rooms were, and headed across the middle cloister to the north wing and his office. The quickest route took him past the mews, and he noticed that the door was open. He paused; at this time of day, there'd be hawks loose, the door should be kept shut. He frowned, and went to close it, but there was a woman sitting in the outer list. He didn't recognise her till she turned her head and smiled at him.

'Hello, Miel,' she said.

'Veatriz.' He relaxed slightly. 'You left the door open.'

'It's all right,' she replied, 'Hanno's put the birds away early. I've been watching him fly the new tiercel.'

'Ah, right. What new tiercel?'

She laughed. 'The one you gave Orsea, silly. The peregrine.'

'Yes, of course.' She was right, of course; it had been Orsea's birthday present. His cousin had chosen it, since Miel didn't really know about hawks; it had been expensive, a passager from the Cure Doce country. It'd been that word new that had thrown him, because Orsea's birthday had been a month ago, just before they set off for the war, and anything that had happened back then belonged to a time so remote as to be practically legendary. 'Is it any good?' he asked.

'Hanno thinks so,' she said. 'He says it'll be ready for the start of the season, whenever that is. It'll do Orsea good to get out and enjoy himself, after everything that's happened.'

'We were talking about going out with the hawks just the other day. Is that a new brooch you're wearing?'

'Do you like it?'

'Yes,' he lied. 'Lonazep?'

She shook her head. 'Vadani. I got it from a merchant. Fancy you noticing, though. Men aren't supposed to notice jewellery and things.'

She had a box on the bench beside her; a small, flat rosewood case. He recognised it as something he'd given her; a writing set. Her wedding present from the Ducas. 'I know,' he said. 'That's why I've trained myself in observation. Women think I'm sensitive and considerate.'

She was looking at his face. 'You look tired,' she said.

'Too many late nights,' he said. 'And tomorrow I've got to take the Mezentine to see a blacksmith.'

'What?'

'Doesn't matter.' He yawned again. 'Do excuse me,' he said. 'I'd better be getting on. Would you tell Orsea I've seen the Severina woman? He knows what it's about.'

'Severina. Do you mean the trader? I think I've met her.' She nodded. 'Yes, all right. What did you need to see her about, then?'

Miel grinned. 'Sand.'

'Sand?'

He nodded. 'Green sand, to be precise.'

'Serves me right for asking.'

As he climbed the stairs to the North Tower, he wondered why Veatriz would take her writing set with her when she went to see the falcons. Not that it mattered. That was the trouble with noticing things; you got cluttered up, like a hedgehog in dry leaves.

Meetings. He made a note in his day-book about Belha Severina, not that there was a great deal to say; agreed to arrange enquiries through her sister; terms unspecified. Was that all? He pondered for a while, but couldn't think of anything else to add.

It was close; the shape, the structure. He could almost see it, but not quite.

Once, not long after he married Ariessa, he'd designed a clock. He had no idea why he'd done it; it was something he wanted to do, because a clock is a challenge. There's the problem of turning linear into rotary movement. There are issues of gearing, timing, calibration. Anything that diverts or dissipates the energy transmitted from the power source to the components is an open wound. Those in themselves were vast issues; but they'd been settled long ago by the Clockmakers'

Guild, and their triumph was frozen for ever in the Seventy-Third Specification. There'd be no point torturing himself, two hundred components moving in his mind like maggots, unless he could add something, unless he could improve on the perfection the Specification represented. He'd done it in the end; he'd redefined the concept of the escapement, leaping over perfection like a chessboard knight; he'd reduced the friction on the bearing surfaces by a quarter, using lines and angles that only he could see. Slowly and with infinite care, he'd drawn out his design, working late at night when there was no risk of being discovered, until he had a complete set of working drawings, perfectly to scale and annotated with all the relevant data, from the gauge of the brass plate from which the parts were to be cut, to the pitch and major and minor diameters of the screw-threads. When it was complete, perfect, he'd laid the sheets of crisp, hard drawing paper out on the cellar floor and checked them through thoroughly, just in case he'd missed something. Then he'd set light to them and watched them shrivel up into light-grey ash, curled like the petals of a rose.

Now he was designing without pens, dividers, straight edge, square, callipers or books of tables. It would be his finest work, even though the objective, the job this machine would be built to do, was so simple as to be utterly mundane. It was like damming a river to run a flywheel to drive a gear-train to operate a camshaft to move a piston to power a reciprocating blade to sharpen a pencil. Ridiculous, to go to such absurd lengths, needing such ingenuity, such a desperate and destructive use of resources, for something he ought to be able to do empty-handed with his eyes shut. But he couldn't. Misguided but powerful men wouldn't let him do it the easy way, and so he was forced to this ludicrously elaborate expedient. It was like having to move the earth in order to slide the table close enough to reach a hairbrush, because he was forbidden to stand up and walk across the room.

I didn't start it, he reminded himself They did that. All I can do is finish it.

He had no idea, even with the shape coming into existence in his mind, how many components the machine would have, in the end: thousands, hundreds of thousands-someone probably had the resources to calculate the exact figure; he didn't, but it wasn't necessary.

He stood up. It was taking him a long time to come to terms with this room. If it was a prison, it was pointlessly elegant. Looking at the fit of the panelling, the depth of relief of the carved friezes, all he could see was the infinity of work and care that had gone into making them. You wouldn't waste that sort of time and effort on a prison cell. If it was a guest room in a fine house, on the other hand, the door would open when he tried the handle, and there wouldn't be guards on the other side of it. The room chafed him like a tight shoe; every moment he spent in it was uncomfortable, because it wasn't right. It wasn't suited to the purpose for which it was being used. That, surely, was an abomination.

I hate these people, he thought. They work by eye and feel, there's no precision here.

Decisively, as though closing a big folio of drawings, he put the design away in the back of his mind, and turned his attention to domestic trivia. There was water in the jug; it tasted odd, probably because it was pure, not like the partly filtered sewage they drank at home. Not long ago they'd brought him food on a tray. He'd eaten it because he was hungry and he needed to keep his strength up, but he missed the taste of grit. With every second that passed, it became more and more likely that they'd let him live. At least he had that.

His elbow twinged. He rubbed it with the palm of his other hand until both patches of skin were warm. The elbow, the whole arm were excellent machines, and so wickedly versatile; you could brush a cheek or swing a hammer or push in a knife, using a wide redundancy of different approaches and techniques. So many different things a man can do…

I could stay here and make myself useful. I could teach these people, who are no better than children, how to improve themselves. A man could be happy doing that. Instead…

There's so many things I could have done, if I'd been allowed.

The door opened, and the man he'd started to get to know-names, names; Miel Ducas-came in. Ziani noticed he was looking tired. Here's someone who's a great lord among these people, he thought, but he chases around running errands for his master like a servant. Using the wrong tool for the job, he thought; they don't know anything.

'How are you settling in?' Ducas said.

It was, of course, an absurd question. Fine, except I'm not allowed to leave this horrible room. 'Fine,' Ziani said. 'The room's very comfortable.'

'Good.' Ducas looked guilty; he was thinking, we don't know yet if this man's a prisoner or a guest, so we're hedging our bets. No wonder the poor man was embarrassed. 'I thought I'd better drop in, see how you're getting on.'

Ziani nodded. 'Has the Duke decided yet if he wants to accept my offer?'

'That's what I wanted to talk to you about.' Ducas hesitated before he sat down; maybe he's wondering whether he ought to ask me first, since if I'm a guest that would be the polite thing to do. 'The thing is,' he went on, 'we can't really make that decision, because none of us really understands what it'd mean. So we'd like you to explain a bit more, to one of our experts. He'd be better placed to advise than me, for instance.'

'That's fine by me,' Ziani replied. 'I'm happy to co-operate, any way I can.'

'Thank you,' Ducas said. 'That'll be a great help. You see, this expert knows what we're capable of, from a technical point of view. He can tell me if we'd actually be able to make use of what you've got to offer, how much it'd cost, how long it'd take; that sort of thing. You must appreciate, things are difficult for us right now, because of the war and everything. And it'd be a huge step for us, obviously'

'I quite understand,' Ziani said. 'Actually, I've been thinking a lot about what would have to be done. It'd be a long haul, no doubt about that, but I'm absolutely certain it'd be worth it in the end.'

Ducas looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible; clearly he didn't want to get caught up in a discussion. He's a simple man, Ziani thought, and he's had to learn to be versatile. Like using the back of a wrench as a hammer.

'Sorry we've had to leave you cooped up like this,' Ducas went on. 'Only we've all been very busy, as you'll appreciate. I expect you could do with a bit of fresh air and exercise.'

No, not really. 'Yes, that'd be good,' Ziani said. 'But I don't want to put you to any trouble on my account.'

'That's all right,' Ducas said. 'Anyway, I'd better be going. I'll call for you tomorrow morning, and we'll go and see the expert.'

'I'll look forward to it,' Ziani said gravely, though he wanted to laugh. 'Thank you for stopping by.'

Ducas went away, and Ziani sat down on the bed, frowning. This man Ducas; how versatile could he be? What was he exactly: a spring, a gearwheel, a lever, a cam, a sear? It would be delightfully efficient if he could be made to be all of them, but as yet he couldn't be sure of the qualities of his material-tensile strength, shearing point, ductility, brittleness. How much load could he bear, and how far could he distort before he broke? (But all these people are so fragile, he thought; even I can't do good work with rubbish.)

In the event, he slept reasonably well. Happiness, beauty, love, the usual bad dreams came to visit him, like dutiful children paying their respects, but on this occasion there was no development, merely the same again-he was back home, it had all been a dreadful mistake, he'd committed no crimes, killed nobody. After his favourite dinner and an hour beside the lamp with an interesting book, he'd gone to bed, to sleep, and woken up to find his wife lying next to him, dead, shrunken, her skin like coarse parchment, her hair white cobwebs, her fingernails curled and brittle, her body as light as rotten wood, her eyes dried up into pebbles, her lips shrivelled away from her teeth, one hand (the bones standing out through the skin like the veins of a leaf) closed tenderly on his arm.

Chapter Eight

To his surprise, Valens was curious. He'd expected to feel scared, horrified or revolted, as though he was getting ready to meet an embassy of goblins. Maybe I don't scare so easily these days, he thought; but he knew he was missing the point.

'Well,' he said, 'we'd better not keep them waiting.'

He nudged his horse forward; it started to move, its head still down, its mouth full of fat green spring grass. It was a singularly graceless, slovenly animal, but it had a wonderful turn of speed.

'I've never met one before, what are they like?' Young Gabbaeus on his left, trying to look calm; Valens noticed that he was wearing a heavy wool cloak over his armour, and the sleeves of a double-weight gambeson poked out from under the steel vambraces on his forearms. Curious, since Gabbaeus had always insisted he despised the heat; then Valens realised he'd dressed up extra warm to make sure he wouldn't shiver.

'I don't know,' Valens replied, 'it's hard to say, really. I guess the key word is different.'

'Different,' Gabbaeus repeated. 'Different in what way?'

'Pretty much every way, I suppose,' Valens replied. 'They don't look anything like us. Their clothes are nothing like ours. Their horses-either bloody great big things you'd happily plough with, or little thin ponies. Like everything; you expect one thing, you get another. The difficulty is, there's so many of them-different tribes and sects and splinter-groups and all-you can't generalise till you know exactly which lot you're dealing with.'

'I see,' Gabbaeus said nervously. 'So you can't really know what to expect when they come at you.'

Valens grinned. 'Trouble,' he said. 'That's a constant. It's the details that vary.'

According to the herald, Skeddanlothi and his raiding party were waiting for them on the edge of the wood, where the river vanished into the trees. Valens knew very little about the enemy leader; little more than what he'd learned from a couple of stragglers his scouts had brought in the day before. According to them, Skeddanlothi was the second or third son of the High King's elder brother. He'd brought a raiding-party into Vadani territory in order to get plunder; he wanted to marry, apparently, and his half of the takings was to be the dowry. The men with him presumably had similar motives. If they were offered enough money, they'd probably go away without the need for bloodshed.

'Beats me,' Gabbaeus went on, 'how they got here at all. I thought it was impossible to get across the desert. No water.'

Valens nodded. 'That's the story,' he said. 'And fortunately for us, most of the Cure Hardy believe it; with good reason, because raiding parties go out every few years, and none of them ever come back. They assume, naturally enough, that the raiders die in the desert.' He yawned; it was a habit of his when he was nervous. 'But there is a way. Some clown of a trader found it a few years ago. Being a trader, of course, she didn't tell anybody, apart from the people in her company; then one of their caravans got itself intercepted by one of the Cure Hardy sects.'

'Wonderful,' Gabbaeus said.

'Actually, not as bad as all that.' Valens yawned again. It was a mannerism he made no effort to rid himself of, since it made him look fearless. 'The Cure Hardy are worse than the traders for keeping secrets from each other. I think it was the Lauzeta who first got hold of it; they'd rather be buried alive in ant-hills than share a good thing with the Auzeil or the Flos Glaia. Even within a particular sect, they don't talk to each other. Something like a safe way across the desert is an opportunity for one faction to get rich and powerful at the expense of the others. Sooner or later, of course, the High King or one of his loathsome relations will get hold of it, and then we'll be in real trouble. Meanwhile, we have to deal with minor infestations, like this one. It's never much fun, but it could be worse; sort of like the difference between a wasps' nest in the roof and a plague of locusts.'

Gabbaeus had gone quiet. Valens made an effort not to smile. A first encounter with the Cure Hardy was rather like your first time after boar on foot in the woods. Most people survived it, but some didn't.

Valens had done it before, six or seven times; so he wasn't too disconcerted when their escort turned up. How they did it he had no idea; they seemed to materialise out of thin air. One moment the Vadani had been alone on a flat moor; the next, they were surrounded by armoured horsemen. Valens made no effort to stifle a third yawn. He knew from experience that it impressed the Cure Hardy, too.

Not Lauzeta, he decided. Maybe that was a good thing, maybe not. The Lauzeta, who wore long coats of hardened leather scale and conical helmets with nasals and aventails, were clever, imaginative fighters; tremendous speed and flexibility based on innate horsemanship and constant practice.

This lot, on the other hand, wore coats of plates over fine mail, and their rounded helmets had cheek-pieces and articulated neck-guards. At a guess, that made them Partetz or Aram Chantat; he knew nothing about either sect beyond the basics of fashions in armour, and he didn't want to think about how the secret of the safe passage had penetrated right down to the far south. At least they'd be one or the other, rather than both. The Partetz and the Aram Chantat hated each other even more than the Auzeil, the Cler Votz, the Rosinholet or the Flos Glaia. On balance, he decided, he'd rather they were the Partetz.

They were, of course, the Aram Chantat. Their demands were simple: four hundred thousand gold thalers, or two million in silver, and five hundred horses, at least half of them brood mares. Delivery (their interpreter spoke tolerably clear Mezentine, with a firm grasp of the specialist vocabulary of the extortion business) within three days, during which time the raiding party would be left to forage at will; once payment had been made, they undertook to leave Vadani territory within a week, causing no further damage (provided that they were kept supplied with food, wine and fodder for the horses). Nobody said anything about what would happen if the demands weren't met. No need to go into all that.

Valens replied that he'd think it over and send his answer before daybreak. The horsemen watched him go, then vanished.

'So,' Gabbaeus asked, after they'd ridden halfway back to the camp, 'what are you going to do?'

'I'm not sure yet,' Valens answered.

Back at his camp, he sent for the people he wanted to see, and put guards on the tent door so he wouldn't be disturbed. Just after midnight, most of the staff officers left. Two riders were sent back on the road to Civitas Vadanis. Their departure wasn't lost on the Aram Chantat scouts, who reported back to their leaders. Around three in the morning, they saw a great number of watch-fires being lit on the far side of the camp, where the horse-pens were, and sent word back to Skeddanlothi to prepare for a sneak attack at first light.

The messengers never got there. They were intercepted by the Vadani light cavalry, dismounted and covering the left flank, and efficiently disposed of. An hour later, the scouts sent another message to say that the heavy cavalry had mounted up and ridden due west, which they took to mean a wide encircling movement. Valens let them through. They reached Skeddanlothi an hour and a half before dawn. He drew up his forces in dead ground below his camp, facing west, to surprise the heavy cavalry when they arrived.

They never did, of course. What the scouts had seen was the horses being led away by their grooms. The heavy cavalry, also dismounted, came up on the east side of the camp and launched a sudden, noisy attack that took the Aram Chantat reserves completely by surprise. Someone had the presence of mind to send riders to the main army on the west side, who came scrambling back just in time to be taken in flank and rear by the light cavalry and the infantry.

It was still a tricky business. The Cure Hardy were on horseback, Valens' men were on foot; it was still too dark for accurate shooting, and the coats of plates and mail took some piercing. Valens told his archers to aim for the horses rather than the men, and sent up his infantry to engage Skeddanlothi's personal guard.

If the Cure Hardy had been huntsmen, they'd have understood what Valens was up to; let the dogs face the boar, while the hunters come at it from the side. Valens led the infantry himself, because they were going to have to face the boar's tusks. As always on these occasions, as soon as he'd given the word to move up he found he was almost paralysed with fear; his stomach muscles twisted like ropes and he wet himself. But it was his job to stay three paces ahead of the line; if you don't keep your place, nobody knows where you are, and you're liable to come to harm. At the same time as he was forcing his legs to move, he was struggling to hold the full picture in his mind: movements of men and horses, timings, closures and avoidances. Forty yards across open ground in the pale, thick light, and then someone stood out in front of him, a man who wanted to kill him. He let go of the grand design and concentrated on the job in hand.

Fighting six hundred enemies in four dimensions over thirty-five acres is one thing; fighting one man within arm's length is something else entirely. Someone had told him once, the first thing to do is always look at the other man's face, see who you're up against; once you've done that, keep your eyes glued to his hands. Whether it was good advice or not Valens wasn't sure, but he followed it anyway, because it was the only method he knew. On this occasion, the other man was big and broad, but the look on his face and the puckering of his eyes told Valens that he'd been asleep and wasn't quite awake yet. He had a spear in his right hand and a round shield on his left arm; he was maybe inclined to hide behind the shield, conceding distance and therefore time. It was therefore essential that the other man should attack first; this, however, he was annoyingly reluctant to do, and a whole second passed while the two of them stood and looked at each other. That wasn't right; so Valens took a half-step forward, just inside the other man's reach; he recognised the mistake, but he wasn't watching where Valens put his feet. He lunged, spear and shield thrust forward together in a semi-ferocious hedging of bets. Valens stepped forward and to the right with his back foot-a fencing move he'd learned from the tiresome instructor when he was a boy-grabbed the back rim of the shield with his left hand and twisted as hard as he could from the waist. His enemy was a stronger man but he hadn't been expecting anything like that; he stumbled forward, and Valens stabbed him in the hollow just below the ear, where the ear-flap of the helmet left a half-finger-width of gap. The whole performance took less time than sneezing, and not much more effort. The dead man's forward momentum pulled him obligingly off Valens' sword, so that a half-turn brought him neatly back on guard.

That would've been a good place to finish; a well-planned, controlled encounter, practically textbook. Instead, he found himself facing two men with spears, at precisely the moment when someone else way off to his right shot him in the shoulder with an arrow.

It skidded off, needless to say, without piercing the steel of the pauldron. But he wasn't expecting the impact-about the same as being kicked by a bullock-and it made him drop his sword. His first thought was to get his feet out of the way of the falling sharp thing; he skipped, found he was off balance from the impact of the arrow, and staggered like a drunk. One of the two Cure Hardy stabbed him in the pit of the stomach with his spear. Again the armour held good, but he lost his footing altogether and fell over backwards, landing badly. All the breath jarred out of his lungs, like air from a bellows, and he saw his enemy take a step forward; he could visualise the next stage, the foot planted on his chest and the spearpoint driven down through the eyeslot of his helmet, but instead the other man stepped over him and went away. Some time later, thinking it through for the hundred-and-somethingth time, he realised that his opponent had assumed the spear-thrust had killed him.

He lay still and quiet while men, enemies and friends, walked and ran around and over him; someone trod on his elbow, someone else stepped on his cheek, but his helmet took the weight. He knew he was too terrified to move. He'd seen animals behave in exactly the same way: a hare surrounded by four hounds, crouching absolutely still; a partridge with a broken wing, dropped by the hawk after an awkward swoop, lying in the snow with its eye two perfect concentric circles. Someone had told him once that predatory animals can only see movement; if the quarry stays still, they lose sight of it. He hoped it was true, because he had no other option.

Some time later, a hand reached down and pulled him up. His legs weren't working and he slumped, but someone caught him and asked if he was all right. The voice was Vadani, not the intonation of someone addressing his Duke; he muttered, 'Thanks, I'm fine,' and whoever it was let go of him and went away.

He shook his head like a wet dog and looked up. Directly in front of him the sun was rising; in front of it he could see a smaller, thinner fire rising from a Cure Hardy tent. There were many men in front of him, only a few behind, and most of the bodies on the ground, still or moving slightly, were Cure Hardy. Valens wasn't a man who jumped to conclusions, but the first indications were hopeful. Probably, they'd won.

In which case-he scrabbled in his memory for the shape of the battle-in that case, the dismounted cavalry should by now have stove in the enemy flank, allowing his infantry to roll them up on to their camp, where the heavy cavalry should have been waiting to take them in rear. That would be satisfactory, on the higher level. More immediately relevant, the enemy survivors and stragglers would tend to be squeezed out at either end, and once they were clear of the slaughter they'd turn east, which was the direction he was facing. He turned round, but he couldn't see anybody coming toward him. That was all right, then.

Someone-a Vadani infantryman in a hurry-shouted at him, but he didn't catch what the man had said. Immediate dangers; mostly from Cure Hardy knocked down or wounded, if he got in their way. His people would, of course, notice sooner or later that he wasn't where he was supposed to be. Battles had been lost at the last moment because a general had been killed, or was believed to be dead. Wearily, and worried about the pain and weakness in his ankle (he'd turned it over when he fell), he started to run after the main body of his men. He went about five yards, then slowed to an energetic hobble.

It was just as well that someone recognised him. There was shouting, men turning round and running toward him, like the surge of well-wishers who greet an athlete as he crosses the finishing line; as though he'd done something wonderful, just by still being alive. 'What happened to you?' someone roared in his ear, as overprotective hands grabbed and mauled him. 'Are you all right? We thought-'

'I'm not. What's happening?'

'Like a bloody charm. Rolled them up like a carpet.'

Suddenly, Valens found that he no longer cared terribly much. 'That's good,' he said. 'What's the full picture? I've been out of it.'

Someone made a proper report; someone else kept interrupting, with conflicting but mostly trivial information. Valens tried to summon the clear diagram back into his mind, but it was crumpled and torn, he couldn't put it all together. For some reason, that ruined any feeling of accomplishment he might have had. Not like a hunt, where you have the tangible proof of success, dead meat stretched out on the grass. There were plenty of dead bodies, but in war they aren't the point. Success is vaguer, more metaphysical. Perhaps for the first time, Valens admitted to himself that he found the whole business revolting, even a relatively clean victory, as this appeared to be. His mind slipped on the idea, because war was his trade, as the Duke of the Vadani; but he felt a phrase coalesce in his mind: given the choice between killing animals and killing people, I'd rather kill animals.

The fighting was still going on, bits and pieces, scraps of unfinished business; but that could all be left to sergeants and captains. He allowed information to slide off him, like water off feathers. Then someone said: 'And we got the chief, Skeddanwhatsit.'

Valens looked up; he was being escorted back to the camp by half a dozen men whose names he ought to know but couldn't remember offhand. 'Fine,' he said.

'He's back at the camp.'

It took Valens a moment to realise that they meant the man was still alive. Now that was interesting. 'Good,' he said. 'I'll see him in an hour. Find an interpreter.'

'He speaks Mezentine,' someone said. 'Quite well, actually.'

Catching them alive; that was an interesting idea. Worth the effort, because you could talk to them, and learn from them. He remembered the conversation he'd had the previous day, riding to the parley. 'Find that young clown Gabbaeus and fetch him along,' he said. 'He was dead keen to meet a real Cure Hardy.'

Nobody said anything for long enough to make words unnecessary. Pity; the boy was a second cousin, and he remembered him from years back (from before It happened, before Father died and everything changed; why is it, Valens wondered, that I tend to think of that time as real life, and everything that's happened since I became Duke as some sort of dream or pretence?). He made a resolution to have Skeddanlothi's throat cut, after he'd finished chatting with him. Barbaric and unfair, but so was his second cousin getting killed in a stupid little show like this.

Once they'd brought him to his tent, they left him alone for a while (he had to shout at them a bit, but they got the message). Slowly, taking his time over each buckle and tightly knotted point, he took off his armour. It was a ritual; he had no idea what it meant or why he found it useful. As usual, it had taken a degree of abuse. The middle lame on the pauldron that had turned the arrow was bent, so that the unit no longer flexed smoothly; if he'd tried to strike a blow, it'd probably have jammed up. The armourer would fix it, of course, and he'd have a word or two to say about the fit. There was a small dent in the placket of the breastplate where that man had stuck him with his spear. A couple of rivets had torn through on the left cuisse. It pleased him to be able to shed his bruised steel skin, like a snake, and have his smooth, soft, unmarked skin underneath. The simple act of taking off forty pounds of steel is as refreshing as a good night's sleep, inevitably makes you feel livelier; each limb weighs less, takes less effort to move; it's like being in water, or suddenly being much younger, fitter and stronger. Each shedding of the skin marks a stage in growth, even if it's only death avoided one more time; each time I get away with it, he thought, I really ought to come out of it a deeper, wiser, better person. Shame about that.

A page came in, properly diffident, and left behind a plate of bread and cheese and a big jug of water. He'd forgotten the cup, but Valens grinned and drank from the jug, putting the spout in his mouth and swallowing. He ate the cheese and most of the bread, instinctively moved his hand to sweep the leftovers on to the floor for the dogs-but there weren't any, not here-and put the plate down on the bed. His ankle was throbbing, but he knew it was just a minor wrench, something that'd sort itself out in a day or so. His shoulder and arm would be painful tomorrow, but they hadn't stiffened up yet. He got to his feet and went to find the prisoner.

They had him in a small tent in the middle of the camp; he was sitting on a big log, which Valens thought was odd until he saw the chain; a steel collar round the poor bastard's neck, and the end of the chain attached to the log by a big staple. Someone brought him one of those folding chairs; he gauged the length of the chain and added to it the fullest extent of the prisoner's reach, put the chair down and sat on it. Two guards stood behind him.

'Hello,' he said. 'I'm Valens.'

Skeddanlothi looked at him.

'My people tell me,' Valens went on, 'that I won the battle, and that your lot have been wiped out to the last man.' He paused. The other man was looking at him as though he was the ugliest thing in the world. 'I don't suppose that's strictly true, there'll be one or two stragglers who'll have slipped outside the net, but they won't get far, I don't suppose. If it'd help, we've counted'-he took out a slip of paper he'd been given-'let's see, five hundred and twenty-three dead, seventy-two captured; if you're fond of round numbers, I make that five unaccounted for. If you like, you could tell me how many you started the day with, and then I'd know for sure.'

Skeddanlothi didn't like, apparently. Valens hadn't expected him to.

'We rounded up a few of your scouts the other day,' he went on, 'and they said you came out here to steal enough to get married on. Is that right?'

No reply; so he leaned back a little in his chair and gave one of the guards some instructions. The guard moved forward; Skeddanlothi jumped up, but the guard knelt smoothly down, grabbed a handful of the chain and yanked hard. Skeddanlothi went down on his face, and the guard pressed his boot on his neck.

'Keep going till he says something,' Valens called out. 'He's no bloody use if he just sits there staring.'

It was quite some time before Skeddanlothi screamed. Valens had the guard apply a few extra pounds of pressure, just to convince him that he couldn't stand pain. Then he asked the guard to help him back on to his log, and repeated the question.

'Yes,' Skeddanlothi said; he was rubbing his neck, not surprisingly. 'It's the custom of our people.'

'To win honour and respect, I suppose,' Valens said.

'Yes.'

'Presumably,' Valens went on, 'most of the time you raid each other-the Aram Chantat against the Partetz, the Doce Votz against the Rosinholet, and so forth.'

This time, Skeddanlothi nodded.

'That's interesting,' Valens said. 'To most of us, you're all just Cure Hardy. We don't think of you as a lot of little tribes beating each other up. To us, you're hundreds of thousands of savages, penned in by a desert.' He paused. 'Why do you fight each other like that?'

Skeddanlothi frowned, as though the question didn't make sense. 'They are our enemies,' he said.

'Why?'

It took Skeddanlothi a moment to answer. 'They always have been. We fight over grazing, water, cattle. Everything.'

Valens raised his eyebrows. 'Why?' he said. 'By all accounts, it's a huge country south of the desert. Can't you just move out of each other's way or something?'

Skeddanlothi shook his head. 'Most of the land is bad,' he said. 'The cattle graze a valley for three years, the grass stops growing. So we have to move away until it comes right.'

'On to somebody else's land,' Valens said.

'Land doesn't belong to anybody,' Skeddanlothi said, 'it's just there. We drive them off it, they have to go somewhere else. When it's all eaten up, we have to move again. Everybody moves.'

Valens thought for a moment. 'You all move round, like the chair dance.'

Skeddanlothi scowled. 'Dance?'

'We have this children's game,' Valens explained. 'The dancers dance round in a ring, and in the middle there's a row of chairs, one for each dancer. When the music stops, everyone grabs a chair. Then one chair gets taken out, and the dance starts again. Next-time the music stops, everyone dives for a chair, but obviously one of them doesn't get one, so he's out. And so on, till there's just one chair left, and two dancers.'

Skeddanlothi shrugged. 'We move around,' he said. 'If we win, we get good grazing for two years, three maybe. If we lose, we have to go into the bad land, where the grass is thin and there's very little water. But that makes us fight harder the next time we go to war.'

Valens stood up. He was disappointed. 'These people are stupid,' he said. 'Make him tell you where this secret way across the desert is. Do what it takes; I don't want him for anything else.'

He made a point of not looking back as he left the tent; he didn't want to see terror in the prisoner's eyes, if it was there, and if there was something else there instead he knew it wouldn't interest him. He went back to his tent, drank some more water and called a staff meeting in two hours.

My own fault, he thought. I wanted them to be more than just savages. I wanted him to tell me that the girl's father had sent him on a quest for something-her weight in gold, or five hundred milk-white horses, or even the head of the Vadani Duke in a silver casket; I could have forgiven him for that. But instead they're just barbarians, and they killed my poor cousin. I can't put that in a letter, it's just crude and ugly. He put his feet up on the bed, closed his eyes. Useful information: a map, or the nearest thing to it that could be wrung out of the savage on the log; a map marked with the name and territory of each sect-no, that wouldn't be any use, not if they moved round all the time. All right; a list, then, the names of all the sects; he was sure there wasn't a definitive list anywhere, just a collation from various scrappy and unreliable sources. What else; what else, for pity's sake? He had a specimen, for study; if he had a talking roebuck or boar or partridge he could interrogate for information likely to be useful to the hunter-he could think of a great many things he'd like to ask a roebuck: why do you lie up in the upland woods at night and come down the hill to feed just before dawn? When do you leave the winter grazing and head up to the outer woods for the first sweet buds? But torturing data out of a savage was a chore he was pleased to leave to others, even though he knew they wouldn't get the best, choicest facts, because they didn't have the understanding. The truth is, Valens realised, you can only hunt what you love. Chasing and killing what bores or disgusts you is just slaughter, because you don't want to understand it, get into its mind.

(My father never understood that, he thought; he hunted, and made war, because he liked to win. I'm better at both than he ever was.)

He sent orders, hustling out the intrusive thoughts. Soon he'd be on duty again, holding the full picture in his mind. Wasn't there some tribe or sect somewhere who believed that the world was an image in the mind of God; that He thought, or dreamed, the whole world, and things only existed so long as He held them in mind? There were, of course, no gods; but you could see how a busy man might like to believe in something like that.

An hour later a doctor came bothering him about his ankle. He managed to be polite, because the man was only doing his job; besides, there was something on his mind that wouldn't go away. It took him a long time to realise what it was; the problem buzzed quietly like a trapped fly in his mind all through the staff meeting, disrupting the pattern he was trying to build there like a bored dog in a room full of ornaments. In fact, it was the constant barrage of names (people, places) that finally showed him where it was.

After the staff had dispersed, he called for two guards and went to the tent where the prisoner was being held. Skeddanlothi was in a sorry state. He lay on his face on the ground, his back messy with lash-cuts, his hair slicked with blood. He didn't look up when Valens came in.

'We got the list,' said one of the guards. 'At least, we got a list, if you see what I mean. Could be a load of shit he thought up out of his head, just to be ornery'

Valens had forgotten about the list; which seemed rather reprehensible, since so much pain and effort had gone into procuring it.

'Difficult bastard,' the guard went on-was he making conversation, like someone at a diplomatic reception? 'He really doesn't like it when it hurts, but each time you've got to start all over again, if you follow me. We've had to bust him up quite a bit.'

'That's all right,' Valens said. 'You cut along and get some rest, write up your report.'

They left; changing shifts, quite usual. Valens went over and sat on the log. The prisoner didn't move, so he tugged on the chain once or twice.

'I wanted to ask you,' he said. 'What does your name mean?'

He hadn't expected a reply straight away, so a guard had to apply a little pressure. He repeated the question. It took three tries before the prisoner spoke.

'What the hell do you want to know that for?'

'Curious,' Valens said. 'I'm looking for-I don't know, some little glimmer of light. A chink in the wall I can peep in through. What does your name mean? Come on, it can't hurt you to tell me.'

'I can't.'

Valens sighed. 'There's some taboo on saying your name to outsiders. Once they know your name, they can steal your soul or something.'

The other man laughed. 'No, that's stupid,' he said. 'But there's no word for it.'

'Ah.' Valens nodded to a guard. 'You know,' he said, 'I believe this man hasn't had anything to drink for several hours. Get him some water.'

He took the cup, which was nearly full; he emptied a third on to the ground. 'Paraphrase,' he said.

'What?'

'Well,' Valens said, 'what's the closest you can get, in our language?'

Skeddanlothi was looking at the dark brown dust, where the water had soaked away. 'It's a kind of bird,' he said. 'But they don't live north of the desert.'

'Describe it.'

Hesitation. Valens poured away a little more water.

'It's small,' the man said. 'Bigger than a thrush but smaller than a partridge.'

'You mean a pigeon.'

'No, not a pigeon.' The prisoner, as well as being in agony and despair, was also annoyed. 'It's a wading bird, with a long beak. Brown. It feeds in the mud.'

'I see,' Valens said. 'Pardon me saying so, but it sounds an odd creature to name a great warrior after. I assume your parents wanted you to grow up to be a great warrior.'

'It's the bird of our family,' Skeddanlothi said. 'All the families have a bird.'

'I see. Like heraldry.'

'No.' Almost petulant. 'We follow a bird. Each family follows a different one.'

'Follow,' Valens repeated. 'You mean, you choose one as a favourite.'

'No, follow.' Petulant to angry now. 'When the grazing is used up and goes bad, we follow our family's bird, the first one we see. We follow it for a day, from dawn to sunset, and where it stops to roost is where we move to.'

'Good heavens,' Valens said. 'But supposing it just flies round in circles.'

'If it stops, we drive it on.'

'Makes sense,' Valens said. 'And a wader would always fly to water, of course. Do all the families follow water-birds?'

But that was all; even pouring away the last of the water and the guard's best efforts earned him nothing more, which was frustrating, and by then there wasn't enough left to justify further expense of time and energy. It was the glimmer of light he'd been looking for, but it had gone out. He drew his finger across his throat; the guard nodded. Valens went back to his tent and gave orders to break camp and move out.

'It's not an interrogation,' Miel Ducas said, 'or anything like that.'

The Mezentine still looked apprehensive. 'But you want him to ask me questions?'

'Let's say we want you to talk to someone who speaks your own language.' They'd reached the gate. Like all forge gates everywhere, it was almost derelict; the latch had long since gone, replaced by a length of frayed rope, and the pintles of the hinges on one side had come halfway out of the wood. There was probably a knack to opening it without pulling several muscles, but Miel wasn't a regular visitor. 'Basically, so you can see how much we know about, well, metalworking and things; and the other way about.'

The Mezentine shrugged. 'If you think it'll help,' he said.

'The key is always to establish'-Miel grunted as he heaved at the gate-'communication. No point talking if you can't understand.'

All forge gates open on to identical yards. There must have been a time, two or three hundred years ago, when all the blacksmiths in the world decided it would be a splendid thing to pave their yards with handsome, square-cut flagstones. Once this had been done, a great decline of resources and enthusiasm must have set in-you'll search in vain in the history books for any reference to the cause of it, but the evidence is there, plain as day; those proud, confident flags are all cracked up now. Grass and young trees push up through the fissures, kept in check only by the seepage of tempering oil and a very occasional, resented assault with the hook. Ivy and various creepers grow up through the scrap pile, their hairy tendrils taking an uncertain grip in the rust. Worn-out and broken tools and equipment wait patiently through the generations for someone to find time to fix them. There's always a tall water-butt with moss on one side, close to the smithy door, which has scraped a permanent furrow where it drags. There's always a mound of perfectly good coal, inexplicably left out in the wet to spoil.

Cantacusene came out when he heard the yard gate scritch. He was almost unnaturally clean (blacksmiths aren't called that for nothing) and he looked painfully nervous, as if he'd been chosen to be a human sacrifice. His greeting was splendidly formal, and he was wearing his best apron.

'This is the man I was telling you about,' Miel said. 'I hope you've thought up some good questions.'

Cantacusene looked as though someone had just walked up to him and yanked out one of his teeth. 'I'll do my best,' he said. 'Please, come in. There's wine and cakes.'

Indeed there were, and Miel tried to be polite about fishing a flake of dark grey scale out of his cup before drinking from it. It tasted like eggs beaten in vinegar.

The place looked pretty much the same as it had the last time he'd been there; as though it had been burgled by someone with a grudge against the owner. There were tools lying about on the benches and the floor, a hopeless jumble of hammers, stakes, tongs, setts, fullers. On the floor were chalked patterns for various pieces of armour, their meticulously drawn details scuffed by feet passing in a hurry. Every surface was thick with black grime; everything glistened with spilt drops of water and new rust. Here, Miel said to himself, our guest will feel at home.

But he didn't, by the looks of it. He had the air of a man who is trying hard not to give offence by showing disapproval. Cantacusene picked up on that straight away; the poor man was in pain, obviously. Miel felt bad about torturing him like this, but it had to be done, apparently.

'What I thought,' Cantacusene said, mumbling, 'was that we could start off…' His words dwindled away as he looked at the expression on Vaatzes' face. 'Sort of like a trade test,' he said. 'If you think that'd be in order.'

Miel waited for a response from the Mezentine, who just stood registering distaste. 'That sounds like a good idea,' he said. 'What did you have in mind?'

Cantacusene's test would be to make a perfect circle, precisely one foot in diameter, out of quarter-inch plate. 'Feel free to use whatever you like,' he added nervously. 'If you think that'd be-'

'Fine,' Vaatzes said. 'Material?'

Cantacusene picked up a three-foot square of steel and offered it to him. It didn't mean anything to Miel, of course (except he noticed that someone had recently made a job of scrubbing the rust off it with a wire brush; like a woman being visited by her mother-in-law, he thought), but Vaatzes studied it for some time, turning it over in his hands and pinching at the edges with his fingers.

'Have you got callipers?' he asked.

'Callipers,' Cantacusene repeated. 'Yes, of course.'

He dug a pair of callipers out of a pile of junk and handed them over. Vaatzes took three or four measurements and handed them back. 'Dividers,' he said, 'or a bit of string and a nail, if you haven't got any.'

Cantacusene had some dividers; also files, a chest-drill and bits, a rule (Vaatzes stared at it in horror for a couple of seconds) and various other things Miel had never heard of. Vaatzes took them and laid them out on the floor, like a huntsman displaying the day's bag; the files in order of length, and so on. With the dividers he measured a foot off the rule, then knelt on the floor and scribed his circle on the plate-he did it three times, but Miel could only see one scribed mark. Next he stood up, clamped the plate upright in the leg-vice, and started to drill holes all round the circle with the chest-drill. This took a very long time. Miel soon lost interest and sat down to read the book he'd had the wit to bring with him. Each time he looked up, he saw Cantacusene rooted to the spot, watching like a dog at a rabbit-hole.

When Vaatzes had finished drilling the ring of holes, he laid the plate on the bed of the anvil and cut through the web between the holes with a small cold chisel. This freed something that looked like a gear-wheel. Next he wiped his finger through the nearest accumulation of soot, rubbing black into the thin graven line left by the dividers; then he fixed the gear-wheel thing in the vice and picked up a file. Miel went back to his book.

He'd almost finished it when he heard Vaatzes say: 'I'm sorry' He looked up. Vaatzes was holding up what looked to him like a steel platter. He handed it to Cantacusene as if it was something revolting and dead.

'I did the best I could,' he said. 'But the drill-bits are blunt, the files are soft as butter, there's no light in here and the plate isn't an even thickness. And,' he went on, 'I made a botch of it. It's twenty years since I did any serious hand-filing, so I guess I'm out of practice.'

'It's perfect,' Cantacusene said.

Miel looked at him. He had the expression of someone who's just seen a miracle, a revelation of the divine.

'It bloody well isn't,' Vaatzes said. 'I can't measure it, of course, but I'd say the tolerance is no better than two thousandths, if that. And if you call that a square edge, I don't.'

Miel saw Cantacusene staring at him; he looked utterly miserable. 'It's better than I could do, anyway' Cantacusene said. 'Look, I'll show you.'

He took the drill and made a hole in the middle of the platter, passed a length of steel rod through it and clamped the rod in the vice; then he laid his fingers on the edge and set it spinning. 'Perfect,' he repeated. Miel looked at it; it was as though the spinning disc was absolutely still.

'I'll try again if you like,' Vaatzes said. 'Maybe if I took it outside, where I could see better.'

Miel had seen more than enough pain in his life, but rarely such suffering as Cantacusene went through as the day wore on. Next he asked Vaatzes to make a square; then to draw out a round bar on the forge into a triangular section; then to make six identical square pegs, to fit perfectly into the square hole on the back of the anvil. Each time, the outstanding quality of the result seemed to hurt him like a stab-wound, and Vaatzes' escalating self-reproaches were even worse. Miel excused himself at one point, went up the hill to a friend's house and borrowed another book; it was going to be a long day. He got the impression that Cantacusene had set himself the task of finding something the foreigner couldn't do better than he could, and that he knew he was going to fail, and that his whole world was coming apart. Miel enjoyed reading and listening to tragedy, but only when it came with the author's guarantee that it wasn't real.

An hour before sunset he decided to call a halt to the butchery. By that point, Cantacusene had the Mezentine doing sheet-work, which was, of course, Cantacusene's speciality in his capacity as Armourer Royal. There had been a note of desperation close to hysteria in his voice when he gave Vaatzes the specifications: a left-hand shell gauntlet, fluted in the Mezentine style, with four articulated lames over the fingers, the cuff moving on sliding rivets. Here at least Miel could understand some of the technical language; he had a pair of gauntlets to exactly that specification, for which Cantacusene had charged him nine silver thalers. He remembered thinking what a bargain they were at that price, when he took delivery. Accordingly, he marked his place, closed the book and shuffled discreetly close to watch.

Vaatzes started with a sheet of steel plate-not the one Cantacusene provided him with, because he looked at it and said it wasn't even; too thick at the top, too thin in the middle. So instead he scrabbled about in the scrap pile like a terrier, until he found a rusty offcut he reckoned would just about do, at a pinch. He traced the pattern on to it with chalk, cut it out on the shear, stopped cutting to take the shear to bits, make and fit a new pivot pin, clout the frame with a hammer, walk round it several times, stooping down and squinting, clout it a few more times, put it back together again (because he couldn't be expected to do accurate work on a shear that was completely out of line); next he formed the component parts on the anvil and the swage block (it was impossible, he declared, to do anything at all with either of them; if only he had a lathe, he could at least make a decent ball stake. Cantacusene went white as a sheet and stood opening and closing his hands) and punched the holes, having first stripped down and reworked the punch; then he did the fluting, half an hour of tiny woodpecker taps, quick as the patter of falling rain, his left hand constantly moving the work while his right hand fluttered like a hummingbird's wing (it was worthless, he declared as he held up the finished shell, because the flutes were uneven in depth and spacing, and the ridges weren't sharply defined); he cut the slots for the sliding rivets with the blunt drill and the butter-soft files; finally, more in sorrow than anger, he adjusted the fit of the moving parts, peened the rivets so that everything glided perfectly, declared it was hopeless, cut the rivets off with a chisel and did them again. Then he handed the gauntlet to Cantacusene, who took it as though it was his own heart, torn out with tongs through his smashed ribs.

'I'll polish it if you want,' Vaatzes said, 'but it'd be a waste of soap. Useless.'

Cantacusene turned it over a few times, slipped it on to his left hand, flexed his fingers, turned his wrist; the five wood-louse sections moved up and down like the skin of a breathing animal. He took it off and gave it to Miel, who could hardly bear to touch it. He'd seen more than enough for one day.

'Well,' he said. The gauntlet was still on his hand; somehow he didn't want to take it off. He could hardly feel it. Part of him was thinking, nine thalers; he had the grace, catching sight of Cantacusene's face, to feel ashamed of himself for that.

Getting out of the forge wasn't something that could be achieved gracefully; he thanked Cantacusene as best he could and walked away, leaving the gate open because he couldn't face fussing with it. All he wanted to do was leave behind the worst embarrassment he'd ever had to endure.

They'd been walking for ten minutes, up through the winding alleys, before he felt safe to say anything to the Mezentine.

'Was that necessary?' he said.

'How do you mean?'

Perhaps the man simply didn't understand; but that wasn't very likely. He might be all sorts of things, but he wasn't a fool. The whole thing had been deliberate, from start to finish. 'You might as well have cut his throat or bashed his head in.'

'What?' Vaatzes frowned. 'Did I do something wrong?'

More than anything he'd ever wanted in his life, Miel wanted to hit the Mezentine. Nothing else would do but to smash his face until the cheekbones and jaws and teeth were beyond recognition as human. But if he did that, he'd have lost.

'You had to make your point,' he said. 'But did you have to be so bloody cruel about it?'

'You wanted to see some metalwork.'

Miel looked at him. 'Were you getting your own back?' he asked.

Slowly, Vaatzes shook his head. 'You needed to be convinced,' he said. 'That I'm what I claim to be, and I can do what I say I can. Now you are. I'm sorry if your blacksmith got caught up in the machinery, but I didn't start it. Besides,' he went on, 'his whole setup was a joke.'

'Not to him,' Miel said.

Vaatzes waved the objection away. 'It's not a subjective issue,' he said. 'There's a right way to do things and a wrong way, and his was wrong. Everything was wrong about it. Tools useless and jumbled up all over the place; no decent workspace; nothing calibrated or even straight, every single thing out of true.' He shook his head. 'If I hurt him, he deserved it. It was his shop, so it must be his fault. It's an abomination.'

Miel was silent for a moment. Then he said, 'Oh.'

Vaatzes laughed. 'You think that word's a bit odd, coming from me.'

'I wouldn't have imagined you'd think in those terms.'

Vaatzes stopped walking and looked at him. 'The thing you need to understand,' he said, 'if you want to understand what I have to offer-if you want to understand me, even; the one thing that matters is the principle of tolerance.'

The word didn't fit at all. Miel repeated it. 'Tolerance.'

Vaatzes nodded. 'That's right. Do you know what it means, to an engineer?'

Miel shrugged. 'I thought I did, but maybe I don't.'

'Tolerance,' Vaatzes said, 'is the degree something can differ from perfection and still be acceptable. It's not always the same. For one job, it could be three thousandths of an inch, and for something else it could be half a thousandth. The point is, if you want to make something that's good, you need your tolerance to be as small as possible. That's the key, to everything. It's what the Guilds are built on, it's everything Mezentia stands for. Precision; tolerance. We try and get as close to perfection as we possibly can, and we don't tolerate anything less than that.' He smiled. 'Your man back there,' he said, 'I don't suppose he even thinks in those terms. If it just about works and it sort of fits, it's good enough.' Miel thought about his gauntlets, which had saved his hands in half a dozen battles. 'We don't tolerate the word enough,' Vaatzes went on. 'Either it's good or it isn't. Either a line is straight and a right angle's a right angle, or it's not; it's true, or out of true. True or false, no grey areas. Do you see what I mean?'

'Fine,' Miel said. 'Which are you?'

Vaatzes laughed. 'Oh, I'm all right,' he said. 'I've never had any doubts on that score. You mean, if I believe so strongly in the Mezentine way, how come they were going to kill me for abomination?'

Miel didn't say anything.

'The trouble is,' Vaatzes went on, 'the Guilds have lost their way. They've become…' He made a vague gesture. 'I'm not quite sure how to put it. I suppose you could say they've become too tolerant.'

'What did you say?'

'They tolerate a lie,' Vaatzes said. 'The lie is that their specifications, which are written down in the books and can't be changed, ever, are perfect and can't be improved on. And that's wrong. Obviously it's wrong. We can do better, if only we're allowed to. That's what I mean; their tolerances are too great. They make it an article of faith that you can't cut this line closer than one thousandth, when it's actually possible to shave that by half. That's the real abomination, don't you think?'

Miel didn't say anything for a while. 'And that makes it all right for you to humiliate perfect strangers.'

Vaatzes shrugged. 'Either he'll learn from it and be a better craftsman, now he's seen there's a better way; or else he won't, in which case he isn't fit to be in the trade. I remember my trade test, when I was an apprentice. Actually, it was the same as your man back there set me, to file a perfect circle. But it had to be right. The tolerance was one thousandth of an inch, which is the thickness of a line scribed with a Guild specification dogleg calliper. The material was half-inch plate, and the edge had to be chamfered to exactly forty-five degrees, in accordance with a Guild half-corner square. If you got it right, you passed and got your Guild membership.'

Miel nodded. 'What happened if you got it wrong? Did they burn you at the stake or something?'

Vaatzes shook his head. 'The finished piece is measured with the Guild's prescribed gauges; basically, a hole the right size cut into a big half-inch sheet. It has to be an exact fit-they test it with a candle. If light shows through, or if a speck of soot finds its way into the join, you fail. If that happens, there's a sort of ceremony. They put you in a cart, with your work hung round your neck on a bit of string, and on Guild meeting day, when everybody goes to the Guildhall to hear the speeches, they drive you round and round the town square from noon to sunset. People don't jeer or throw things at you, it's worse than that. It's dead quiet. Nobody says anything, they just stare. For that half a day, you're completely-I don't know what the right word is. You're completely separate, apart; you're up there and they're down below looking at you, like you're everything that's wrong in the world, captured and brought out so they can all have a good look at you and see what evil looks like, so they'll know it if they meet it again. Then, at sunset, they get you down off the cart in front of everybody, and Guild officers take your piece of work and they kill it; they bash it with hammers, they bend it and fold it over stakes, and finally they heat it up white hot in a furnace until it melts, and they pour the melted metal into sand, so it can't ever be made into anything else ever again.'

It took Miel a moment to find his voice. 'And that happened to you?'

'Good God, no,' Vaatzes said. 'I passed. It's incredibly rare, someone not passing; I think it's happened two or three times in my lifetime. Which goes to show, the system works. It's a bit harsh, but it makes for good workmanship.'

'And what happens to people who fail? Do they get thrown out of the City?'

'Of course not. They learn their lesson, and the next year, they take the test again. Nobody's ever failed twice.'

'Fine,' Miel said. 'I wouldn't recommend you trying to introduce that system here. I don't think that sort of thing would go down well.'

'Of course not. You've got a long way to go, I can see that.'

Miel took Vaatzes back to his room. He had to make his report to the Duke, he said, and then the decision would be made about whether to accept his offer. 'We'll try not to keep you in suspense any longer than necessary,' he told him. Then he went to find Orsea, thinking long thoughts about the nature of perfection.

The Duke in council considered his report, together with a written submission from the Armourer Royal, who gave his opinion that the Mezentine possessed skills far in advance of anything known to the Vadani, and recommended in the strongest possible terms that his offer should be accepted. Further submissions were heard from the exchequer, the trade commissioners, the Merchant Adventurers and other concerned parties, after which the meeting debated the issue, with special reference to the effects of the aftermath of the recent war, the manpower position, the need to remodel the Duchy's defences and other pertinent factors. At the conclusion of the debate, the Duke and his special adviser Miel Ducas retired to consider their decision. After a brief recess, the Duke announced that the Mezentine's offer was rejected.

Chapter Nine

Commissioner Lucao Psellus had seen many strange sights in his time, and it was a tribute to his flawless orthodoxy that he had survived each disturbing experience without allowing a single one of them to damage him in any way. He had, reluctantly, read heresy and listened to abomination, both the forced confessions of the man broken up by torture and the proud ranting of the unrepentant martyr. He had seen things that nobody ought to have to seen, every imaginable permutation of the aberrant and the false. He had endured.

The spectacle he was presented with on this occasion was different, if no less taxing, and he found it extremely difficult to cope with. It took the form of a very large foreign woman, dressed in painfully bright patterned red velvet, with pearls in her hair and rings on all ten fingers. Even her boots were red, he noticed. Compared to the woman herself, the news she brought was trivial.

'Of course,' she was saying, 'they haven't made a formal decision yet. It'll have to go before the council. They'll call for reports and evidence and what have you, and then there'll be a meeting, and then the Duke will finally make up what he pleases to call his mind. They're like that in Eremia, since that young Orsea took over. He's the worst thing that ever happened to the Duchy; can't take a decision on his own, always terrified he'll do the wrong thing, no confidence in his own judgement.'

Psellus made an effort to pull himself together. 'You're not Eremian, are you?'

She laughed. It was an extraordinary noise. 'I suppose we all look alike to you,' she said. 'No, I'm Vadani, I'm delighted to say.'

'No offence,' Psellus said weakly.

'None taken.' She laughed again. 'I know that you people in the City don't get to see foreigners very often. Besides, it's actually quite an easy mistake to make. The Adventurers are pretty much a breed apart on both sides of the border; we're more merchant than Vadani or Eremian. I suppose I've got more in common with my colleagues in Eremia than with the silver-miners or the horse-breeders back home. It comes with travel, I always think; you can't be parochial if you're constantly moving about. And you don't get more parochial than back-country Vadani.'

Psellus frowned. 'Since we're talking about that sort of thing,' he said, 'I might as well ask you now. Why is it that all you merchants are women?'

She raised both eyebrows. 'Blunt, aren't you?' she said. 'But it's a fair question, I suppose, and if you don't ask, you won't ever know. It's a social thing, I suppose you could say. You see, where I come from-I know it's different here, but so's everything-we don't like waste. Mountains, you see; you don't waste anything if you live in the mountains, because anything you can't actually grow up there, or catch, or dig out of the ground, has got to come all the way up the mountain, usually on someone's back. So we have this mindset, I guess you could say: make best use of everything you've got, and don't squander your resources. And if there's something you can't use, you apply your mind and find a use for it.'

'That makes sense,' Psellus conceded.

'Well,' she continued, 'people are a resource, just like everything else. And mostly, it's obvious what use most people should be put to. Men work outside, in the pastures or mining; men of good family run things, naturally. Women work inside, running the home, bringing up children. But there's one group of people who don't immediately seem to be much good for anything. People like me.'

She paused, clearly waiting for a rebuttal or at least a protest. Psellus wasn't minded to indulge her, so she went on: 'Unmarried middle-aged women of good family. Completely useless, wouldn't you say? No homes to run or families to look after; obviously we can't go out herding goats or spinning wool. All we've got is a bit of capital of our own and a bit of education. So, when you think about it, it's obvious, isn't it?'

'I suppose so,' Psellus replied. That made her laugh again.

'You don't see it, I can tell. And that's understandable, you don't have the problem. You've got people at the top-all men, of course-and people at the bottom, and nothing in between. I imagine you think it's perfect, like everything else here.'

Psellus tried not to frown. He wished he hadn't raised the subject. Some of his colleagues claimed that they actually enjoyed foreigners, their appallingly quaint lack of civilisation, but he couldn't see it himself. 'As you say,' he replied, 'we don't have the problem. Please forgive me if the question was offensive.'

She shook her head. 'It's pretty hard to offend an Adventurer,' she said. 'You get to learn quite quickly, people are different wherever you go. Wouldn't do if we were all the same.'

'Ziani Vaatzes,' Psellus said.

'Ah yes. Him. Well, I think I've told you everything I know. Seems to me,' she added cheerfully, like all your nightmares have come true. One of your top people has got away and taken all your secrets with him, and he's offered to give the whole lot to your deadly enemies, who you just stomped on hard in a war. Couldn't really be any worse, from your point of view. Of course,' she added, 'there's not a lot to worry about really. The Eremians are poor as dirt, it'd take them a hundred years to get to the point where they could be a threat to you, even if you left them alone and let them get on with it. It'd be different if this Vaatzes of yours had gone to the Vadani, of course, because we may be ignorant hill folk just like the Eremians, but we've got all that lovely silver, not to mention a duke who knows his own mind and gets things done. And I wouldn't be surprised if this Vaatzes isn't wishing he'd gone the other way up the mountain, if you follow me.'

It took him another quarter of an hour and a certain sum of money to get rid of her; then he crawled away to his office at the top of the Foundrymen's tower, to pick the meat off what he'd just heard. A cup of strong willowbark tea helped him clear his head, and as the fog dispersed and he was able to give his full mind to the facts, he started to worry.

No doubt the woman was right. The Perpetual Republic wasn't scared of Eremia Montis. The whole Eremian army, hellbent on razing the city to the ground, hadn't constituted enough of a threat to warrant a meeting of the full executive council; and where was that army now? If you took the broad view, there really wasn't anything to worry about.

But he didn't have that luxury. Another thing the wretched woman had been right about: from the point of view of the commissioner of the compliance directorate, this was the worst day in the history of the world. A convicted abominator had escaped justice, killed two jailers, seriously injured an officer of the tribunal, walked out of the Guildhall in broad daylight, fled the country and run straight to the court of an actively hostile enemy, begging them to accept all the most closely guarded secrets of the Foundrymen's and Machinists' Guild. Yes, Eremia was negligible. So, come to that, were the Vadani, for all their wealth. But that wasn't the point. Once the secrets were outside the Guild's control, there was no way of knowing who would get hold of them, or where they'd end up. Geography wasn't his strong suit, but he knew there was an inhabited world beyond the Cure Doce and the Cure Hardy, not to mention beyond the sea (his colleagues in the Cartographers' Guild would know about that; except, of course, he daren't ask them, because they'd want to know the reason for his unusual curiosity). And besides; even if there was no risk at all, that was entirely beside the point. His directorate had been created on the assumption that there was a risk, and the sole justification for his existence was that that risk had to be guarded against at any expense. In those terms, which were all that mattered, he'd failed.

He thought about it for a while, just in case he'd overlooked something, but he knew there was nothing to overlook. It was perfectly clear and perfectly simple. Crisestem and his assassination squad weren't relevant any more. Killing Vaatzes would be a desirable end in itself, of course, but it would no longer be enough. The whole of Eremia-

He wanted to laugh, because it was absurd. Here he sat, one man, chairman of a committee, in a tower above a small formal garden, and he'd just taken the decision to wipe out an entire nation. Ludicrous; because even if Vaatzes had already betrayed the secrets; even if he'd written them all out in a book, with notes and explanatory diagrams and a glossary and index in the back, there wasn't a single soul in Eremia, or Vadanis, or among the Cure Doce or (God help us all) the Cure Hardy who could understand a word of it. But he was going to have to go down the stairs, through the cloister, across the small formal garden into the Great Hall and recommend that the army of the Perpetual Republic be mobilised and sent to kill every man, woman and child in a place he knew virtually nothing about, just in case; better safe than sorry, after all. It was stupid; and of course his recommendation would be accepted, and once the resolution had been passed in Guild chapter and the order had been given to the military, it would happen, and nothing on earth could stop it. Even if, by some extraordinary freak of chance, the army was resisted, defeated, massacred in a narrow mountain pass or drowned by a river in spate, another army would be raised and dispatched, and another, and another after that (because the Republic daren't ever say it was going to do something and then back down; gods must be seen to be omnipotent, or the sky will fall). Even if the world was emptied of expendable people and the Mezentines themselves had to be conscripted, they'd keep sending armies, until the job was done. As soon as he left this room, the machine would be set in motion and the outcome would inevitably follow.

Not that he cared about savages; not that it mattered particularly if the whole lot of them were wiped out-there was a body of opinion among the more radical Consolidationist factions that held that the Eremians and the Vadani formed a necessary buffer between the Republic and the human ocean of the Cure Hardy, but that was fatuous. The real barrier was the desert, and there was no way an army could cross it. Therefore the Eremians and the Vadani were irrelevant, and it wouldn't matter if they all died tomorrow.

But for hundreds of thousands of people, even savages, to die simply because he got up out of this chair and walked across that stretch of floor to that door and opened it… The reluctance was like a weight on his shoulders, pinning him to his seat. It was simply too big an act for one man. It was (he grinned as the thought crossed his mind; why? It wasn't funny) an abomination.

But if it was that, how could it be happening? This act, this extraordinary thing, was nothing more than the Republic conducting business in the prescribed manner. It wasn't as though he was some king or duke among the savages, acting on a whim. He was a component, an operation of a machine. That was more like it, he thought. The Republic is a vast and complex machine, powered by constitution and specification, with hundreds of thousands of human cogs, gears, cams, spindles, shafts, beams, arms, pawls, hands, keys, axles, cotters, manifolds, bearings, sears, pins, latches, flies, pistons, links, quills, leads, screws, drums and escapements, each performing in turn its specific operation. He was the last operation before the army was engaged, but he was a component of the whole; ordinances and directives drove him, his office and his duties were the keyway he travelled in. It wasn't as though he had any choice in the matter.

But if he stood up, he would walk to the door and open it, and the Eremians would all be killed. It occurred to him that although sooner or later he would have to stand up, he didn't have to do it quite yet. He could pour himself another cup of the willowbark tea (it was cold now, but there), pick up a letter or a memorandum, answer some correspondence, sharpen his pen. If he really tried, using every trick of prevarication he could think of, maybe he could buy the Eremians a whole half-hour-

He stood up.

'I'm sorry,' Ducas said.

Ziani lifted his head and looked at him. 'That's all right,' he said. 'It was just a suggestion.' He waited for the Eremian to leave, but he didn't 'seem to be in any hurry. Ziani wondered if he was going to apologise; maybe he'd confess he was the one who talked the Duke out of accepting his offer-he was sure that was what had happened. A strange man, Ducas. But that made him complex, and a complex component can be made to perform several operations at once. Over the last few days, Ziani had come to value him.

'So,' he said, 'have they decided what's going to happen to me?'

Ducas left the doorway, came in; he stood over the chair but hesitated before sitting down. The instinctive good manners of the aristocrat (it's more important to be polite to your inferiors than your equals). Ziani nodded, and Ducas sat down.

'That's pretty much up to you,' he said. 'Well, strictly speaking it's up to me, since you've been bailed into my charge; but that's just a formality, since in theory you're an enemy alien and all that.'

'I see.'

Ducas shook his head. 'Don't worry about that,' he said. 'You're free to go, if that's what you want. You can go wherever you like. Or,' he added with a slight frown; probably he didn't realise he was betraying himself with that frown, 'you can stay here, whichever you like. You don't need me to tell you, you could set up shop as a smith or an armourer or pretty much anything you like, and you'd be guaranteed a damn good living.'

Ziani raised an eyebrow. 'People would be prepared to have dealings with a Mezentine?'

'Of course.' Ducas grinned. 'Even if you were no good, they'd flock to you for the novelty value. But according to Gantacusene, you're the best craftsman who ever set foot in the Duchy, so…'

Ziani nodded. 'I'd need capital,' he said. 'A workshop, tools, materials…'

'That wouldn't be a problem, I'm sure. You'll have no trouble finding a backer.The whole city's talking about you, you know.'

'I'd have thought they'd have other things on their minds right now.'

'Yes,' Ducas admitted. 'But life goes on. We're a resilient lot. A great many people died in the Vadani war; it's not the first time we've had to cope with a national disaster. And as far as you're concerned, they won't blame you just because of where you're from or the colour of your skin. We aren't like that here. And everybody knows you've suffered just as much at the hands of the Republic as they have.'

Everybody knows that, do they? What exactly do they know, Ziani wondered, about anything? He kept his face blank. 'Well,' he said, 'at first sight that'd seem like the logical thing to do. At least until I find my feet and decide what's the best use I can put my life to. It's a strange feeling, you know,' he went on, watching Ducas out of the corner of his eye. 'Suddenly finding yourself in a new place, with nothing at all except yourself. I mean, from what you've just told me, it could be the making of me.'

'Perfectly true,' Ducas said. 'A man like you, with your skills and talents. How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?'

'Thirty-four.'

'Well, there you are, then.' Ducas was smiling. 'You've got plenty of time to start again. Settle down, build up a business, start a family. You can do anything you like.'

I could so easily hate you for saying that, Ziani thought; but you're too valuable to hate. 'Clouds and silver linings,' he said. 'Or I could move on. If I were to do that, where could I go?'

Ducas shrugged. 'Well,' he said, 'if you're dead set on this business of teaching people the Mezentine way, you'd probably be better off across the border, in Vadanis. They'd be more likely to listen to you there. Of course,' he added quickly, 'there's no hurry, you can take your time and decide. Really, in spite of everything, I guess you're in a good position-I know that's hard to believe, seeing what you've been through, but…' He paused, rebuking himself for crassness. Really, it would be easy to like this man. 'What I mean is, you're a free agent; no ties, no responsibilities. You can make a fresh start, wherever you want.'

Ducas went away shortly after that. There was, he'd stressed again before he left, no hurry at all. Vaatzes could stay here in the castle for a bit, it was entirely up to him. No pressure. Everything very relaxed, very tranquil. Quite.

Ziani looked round the room to see if there was anything that might come in handy, but there wasn't. They'd given him clothes, respectable, what passed for good quality among these tribesmen; clothes and shoes were all he'd take when he left in the morning, and that would do fine. He'd got over the sudden spurt of violent anger that had made him want to grab Ducas by the throat and dig his thumbs into the hollow between the collar-bones, thus quickly and efficiently stopping the mechanism. He thought about that impulse for a moment, and wondered what was happening to him. He'd been alive for thirty-four blameless years, he could remember, and count on the fingers of one hand, all the times when he'd lost his temper and committed or even contemplated violence. It was, he'd always prided himself, completely foreign to his nature. He'd seen fights at the factory, once or twice in the street (drunks, of course), and he'd acknowledged the existence of the violent impulse without being able or wanting to understand it. There were bad things in the world, and that was one of them. Since then, he'd killed two men, possibly three, but he'd been forced to it. The acts had been neutral, since they'd been imposed on him by forces outside his control. This time, though…

He analysed the moment. Ducas had said something unbearable, and it had provoked him; he couldn't stand the idea that the words would go unanswered, as though unless they were challenged and avenged, they'd be minuted for ever in some sort of metaphysical transcript, the proceedings of his life. But he knew perfectly well that Ducas hadn't meant to torture him, or even give offence. He'd been trying to be helpful. True, he had his own clumsy motivations. Ducas, he knew, was afraid of him, which was understandable. He wanted him to go away. Because of his breeding and upbringing and the mess of jumbled principles and ethics his poor brain was stuffed with, he'd found himself urging this foreigner whose presence disturbed him so much to do the opposite of what he wanted him to; because he was ashamed of his fear, presumably, and because he felt he was offending his duty of hospitality. Accordingly, because he wanted Ziani to go away, he'd made a great song and dance about how easy and profitable it'd be for him to stay. It would be dangerously easy to like these people.

That was beside the point. There had been a moment when he'd wanted to kill Ducas, or at least hurt him very badly, just for a tactless word. He wondered: have I been quiet and harmless all my life because that's who I am, or just because I've never before run into anything more than trivial provocation? It was, he recognised, an important issue. It was essential that he should know his own properties, tensile strength and breaking strain, before he started work.

A little later they brought him up some food (it was a depressing thought that the garbage on his plate probably counted as the best this country could offer); he ate it, lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling until he fell asleep. Veatriz Sirupati to Valens Valentinianus; greetings.

Trying to understand people is like trying to catch flies in a net; just when you think you've got them and you pounce, they flit out through the holes in the mesh and leave you feeling baffled and stupid.

When Orsea got back from the war, I thought everything was going to be dreadful; and so it has been, but not in anything like the way I thought. I was sure everybody would be angry and bitter and hysterical, there'd be riots and mobs throwing stones and ferocious speeches in the streets, everybody blaming Orsea and the court, everything out in the open. But it hasn't been like that at all. It's been quiet; and I think that's much, much worse. It's like a married couple, I suppose. If they quarrel and shout at each other and throw things, obviously it's pretty bad; but when they just don't talk at all, you know it's hopeless. That's the sort of quiet there's been here, ever since the news broke about the disaster; except I don't get the feeling anybody blames us for what happened (which is ridiculous, isn't it? Surely it was all our fault, when you come right down to it). They don't hate us; I don't even think they particularly hate the Mezentines, either. It's like there's no point getting angry with what's happened, the way you don't get angry with death. It's something that happens and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. All I can think of is that people here are so used to war and slaughter and armies not coming back that they don't get angry any more. Do you know that, over the last two hundred years, among men over the age of twenty-five, one in three has been killed in wars? No wonder they all marry young here. I can't understand how people can live like this.

(I'm not thinking, of course. Since most of that time we've been at war with you, presumably it's pretty much the same with your people; so you understand it better than I can. I hate the fact that I spent so much time living away from here when I was young. This might as well be a foreign country, for all I understand it.)

The biggest thing that's been happening lately is the business with the Mezentine exile. It's all been a complete mystery to me, I'm afraid. As far as I was concerned, there simply wasn't an issue. He was offering to teach us how to be just like the Republic: all working in factories, making things to sell abroad with those amazing Mezentine machines and so forth. But it would've been completely impossible; we're nothing like the Mezentines-by their standards, I suppose we're unspeakably primitive; and besides, if we were to start making all these things to sell, who on earth are we supposed to sell them to? But Orsea and the court had a long debate about it. I think Orsea really liked the idea; it would've been a new future for the Duchy, he thought, at a time when he'd just brought about a total disaster; it would've been a way of putting things right, and he's so completely heartbroken and torn up with guilt. But Miel Ducas talked him out of it, and of course he listened to Miel. He listens to everybody except himself. It's stupid, really; it's not just that Orsea's his own worst enemy, he's his only enemy. But he puts so much work into it, to make up the shortfall.

This is turning into a very bad letter. It's full of politics and news and personal stuff and all the things we agreed we wouldn't write to each other about; I'm being very boring and no fun. I really don't mean to dump all my problems on you like this. Let's talk about something interesting instead.

I've left some lines blank to indicate me sitting here trying to think of something interesting to say. If I could draw, I'd put in a little sketch of me, baffled (but I can't, as you know; all my faces end up long and thin and pointy, like goblins). The truth is, I'm so worried about Orsea and there's absolutely nothing I can do to help him. He's wandering about the place all numb-it's the way he is first thing in the morning, when he blunders about still asleep for an hour, except that it lasts all day. He's not trying to be horrible or anything like that. I think he's trying so hard not to think about the disaster and everything, and the only way he can manage it is not to think about anything. It's like when you've got a little scrap of a tune going round and round in your head, and the only way you can make it shut up is to think a kind of low, monotonous hum.

I've left some more lines blank, because I really am trying to think of something cheerful and interesting, because I imagine you need cheering up, too. Your last letter-here I go again-it was so intensely bright and clever and full of fascinating things that I got the distinct feeling you've got an annoying tune in your head as well; but you don't hum, you sing something else to get rid of it. Which is not to say that it wasn't a wonderful letter, and it kept me going for ages; I rationed it, a paragraph a day for a week, like a besieged city. Look, I can't leave any more lines, because this is all the paper I've got, and it's got to fit inside a little carved soapstone box that that dreadful Adventurer woman is taking to sell in Avadoce, so I can't waste any more space; but I've got to tell you something interesting, or you won't want to bother with me any more.

Here's something I've just thought of. It's not new, I'm afraid. I've been saving it up. Apparently-this is from one of the merchant women, so believe it or not as you like-somewhere in the desert there's an underground river. It's a long way down under the sand, and the only way they know it's there is because there's a certain kind of flower that puts down incredibly long roots, and it can tap into the river and that's how it survives. Apparently there was this man lost in the desert one time, and he was wandering around convinced he was going to die, and suddenly he saw the most amazing thing: a long, straight line of bright red flowers, like a fence beside a road. At first he thought it was some kind of vision, and if he followed the flowers it'd lead him to Paradise; so, he thought, I might as well, just in case; and he followed the line, and just when he couldn't go a step further, he literally stepped into a pool of water and very nearly drowned. Anyway, he was all right after that; the thing is (according to this merchant woman) that these flowers only bloom for one week a year, and then they die off completely and shrink back into their roots, and you could tread on them and never know they were there.

Thinking about it, I'm pretty much positive it isn't true; but it's a bit more cheerful than me moaning on about how sad everything is. You never know; tomorrow Orsea might tread on an unexpected flower, and we'll find our way out of here.

Write soon. Walking out of the castle felt strangely familiar. It took Ziani a moment or so to work out what it reminded him of; passing under the gateway arch and into the narrow street, he remembered leaving the Guildhall in Mezentia. He tried to think how long ago that had been, but he couldn't. It was a notable failure in calibration. Perhaps he was losing his fine judgement.

There was one distinct difference from the last time. Then, he'd walked out alone and nobody had seen him. This time, there was someone waiting for him.

A tall man in a long cloak had been leaning against the gatepost; he straightened up and hurried after Ziani. 'Excuse me,' he called out. Obviously Ziani didn't recognise him, but the voice was easily classified; another feature of the nobility is how similar they all sound. Since it was unlikely that an Eremian aristocrat would be acting as a paid assassin for the Republic, Ziani allowed himself to breathe again.

Ziani stopped and waited for him.

'You're the Mezentine,' the man said.

No point trying to deny it, even if he wanted to. 'That's right,' he said.

'Vaatzes,' the man said. He pronounced it slightly wrong; one long A instead of two short ones. 'The Ducas told me about you. My name is Sorit Calaphates.'

He paused, as if waiting for some reaction; then he realised he was talking to someone who couldn't be expected to know who he was. 'Pleased to meet you,' Ziani said.

Calaphates seemed a little nervous, but most likely only because he was talking to someone he hadn't been formally introduced to. 'I understand from the Ducas,' he went on, 'that you may be considering setting up in business here in the city. Would that be correct?'

'I'm not sure,' Ziani said. 'I haven't made up my mind, to be honest with you.'

Calaphates shifted a little; he didn't seem happy standing still in public. 'If you've got nothing better to do,' he said, 'I wonder if you'd care to come and share a glass of wine with me, and perhaps we could talk about that.'

Ziani considered him, as a commodity. He was somewhere between forty and sixty; a long man, thin arms and legs, a slight pot belly and the makings of a spare chin under a patchy beard. He had very small hands, Ziani noticed, with short fingers. He didn't look like he was any use for anything, but Ziani knew you couldn't judge the nobility by appearances. His shoes were badly blocked and stitched, but they had heavy silver buckles.

'Thank you,' Ziani said.

Calaphates led him across the square to a small doorway in a bare, crumbling wall; he produced a large key and opened it. 'Follow me,' he said quietly (there was something rather comic about the way he said it).

The door opened into a garden. Apart from the Guildhall grounds and a few similar spaces in the cloisters of other Guild buildings, there were no gardens in Mezentia. Ziani certainly hadn't expected to find one here, not in a city perched on top of a mountain. His knowledge of the subject was more or less exactly matched by his interest in it, but he knew gardens needed a lot of water, and he still hadn't quite figured out how the city's water supply worked. It stood to reason that, however it got there, water wasn't something that could be wasted. But here was this garden; a lush green lawn, beautifully even, edged with terraced beds blazing with extremes of colour. There were green and brown and silver and purple trees, cut and restrained into unnaturally symmetrical shapes. The beds were edged with low hedges of green and blue-grey shrubs-he recognised lavender by its smell, though he'd never seen it growing; the whole place stank of flowers, like the soap factory in Mezentia. There were tall, smooth stone pillars with flowering vines trained up them, and huge stone urns with still more flowers spilling over the edges, like overfilled tankards. Ziani looked round but he couldn't see anything he recognised as edible; the obvious conclusion was that all this effort and ingenuity and expense was simply to look nice. Strange people, Ziani thought.

In the middle of the lawn was a round stone table, with two small throne-like chairs. Calaphates gestured to him to sit in one of them, and took the other for himself. By the time he'd lowered himself into the thing (it was designed for appearance rather than comfort) a woman had appeared from nowhere holding a silver tray with a jug and two silver cups. She poured him a drink. It tasted horrible.

'Your good health,' Calaphates said.

Ziani smiled awkwardly at him. 'What can I do for you?' he said.

Calaphates took a moment before answering. (Is he afraid of me in some way, Ziani wondered; or is it just diffidence, or embarrassment?) 'I should tell you,' he said, 'that I'm a member of the Duke's council. Yesterday we debated your offer-'

'Turned me down, yes,' Ziani interrupted.

'That was the Duke's decision,' Calaphates said. 'It's not what I'd have chosen to do myself. However, the decision has been taken, and, to put it bluntly, that leaves you at rather a loose end.'

Ziani nodded.

'If you intend to stay here and set up in business'-Ziani could feel the effort it was costing Calaphates to talk to him; is it because I'm Mezentine, Ziani wondered, or just because he doesn't know what to make of me?-'you will obviously need capital; a workshop, tools, supplies. I won't pretend I understand the technical aspects. But I flatter myself I know a good investment when I see one.'

Ziani allowed himself to smile. 'You want to invest in me?'

'Exactly.'

'Doing what?'

Calaphates shrugged. 'That's not for me to say,' he said. 'All I know is that the Armourer Royal has given you the most extraordinary endorsement. According to him-and I know the man well, of course-there's practically nothing you can't do, in the way of making things. I wouldn't presume to tell you what to make, because I don't know the first thing about such matters. What I've got in mind is a partnership. Quite straightforward.'

Ziani nodded. 'Equal shares.'

Calaphates looked at him, and Ziani realised he'd have settled for rather less. Not that it mattered. 'Quite,' he said. 'All profits split straight down the middle, and that way we both know exactly where we stand.'

'Fine,' Ziani said. 'I'll be quite happy with that.'

'Excellent.' He could feel a distinct release of tension; for some reason, Calaphates hadn't been expecting things to go so smoothly. No doubt he assumed all Mezentines were ruthless chisellers, cunning and subtle in matters of business. 'Now, it's entirely up to you, of course, but as it happens I own a site here in the city that might suit you; it used to be a tanner's yard, but the man who used to rent it from me died-actually, he was killed in the war-and since he was relatively young, he had no children or apprentices to carry on the business, so the place is standing empty, apart from his vats and some stock in hand, which of course belongs to his family. Naturally, it'll be up to you entirely, how you want the place done up. You must do it properly, of course: forges and furnaces and sheds and anything else in the way of permanent fixtures.'

'It'll be expensive,' Ziani said.

He caught a faint flicker in Calaphates' eyes. 'Well, I'm sure it'll be worth it. The main thing is to get started as soon as possible. The sooner we start, the sooner we'll be ready'

'It'll take some time, I'm afraid,' Ziani replied. 'Mostly I'm thinking about housing for the heavy machinery'

'I…' Now the poor man was looking worried. 'That's your side of things,' he said.

'Yes,' Ziani went on, 'but the point is, there are some pieces of equipment that I'll have to build first before we can raise the sheds to house them. A proper cupola foundry, for instance, for casting in iron; a machine shop, for the lathe and the mill'

Calaphates was being terribly brave. 'Whatever it takes,' he said. 'If you think the premises will be suitable-we'll go there right now so you can see for yourself-I'll tell my overseer to take his orders direct from you, and you can get on with it exactly as you wish. Don't worry,' he added with a very slight effort, 'about the money side. I'll handle that.'

Ziani shrugged. 'Good,' he said. 'It'd be difficult for me to cost the whole thing out from scratch, because I don't know how much things cost here, or what'll need to be brought in from outside and what I'll have to build for myself. Also,' he added, 'I'll need men. Otherwise, if I've got to do everything myself, it'll take a lot longer.'

Calaphates looked at him. 'Certainly,' he said. 'Of course, there may be difficulty finding enough sufficiently skilled labour-'

'I was thinking of your friend Cantacusene,' Ziani said. 'I expect he could be persuaded. Really, what I need is people who'll do as they're told and don't need to be supervised all the time. And teaching apprentices the basics wouldn't leave me much time to do the more complicated work.'

(He's wondering what the hell he's got himself into, Ziani thought; but it'll be all right. He's strong enough to take the load. I think I've got my second component.)

The tannery was in the lower city, out on the east side, where the prevailing wind could be relied on to carry the stench away from the houses. 'Handy for the gate,' Calaphates pointed out. 'You won't have so much trouble getting carts in and out through the streets.'

Ziani had been wondering about that. In Mezentia, all the streets were the same width, everywhere; wide enough for two standard wagons to pass axle to axle without touching. Civitas Eremiae wasn't like that at all. A wide boulevard would pass under an arch and suddenly dwindle into a narrow snicket, where the eaves of the houses on either side almost touched. A hundred yards further down, there'd be a flight of narrow stairs, leading to a street as broad as a rope-walk; two hundred yards further on, a wall and a sharp right-hand turn, and a maze of little winding alleys culminating in a dead end. Because of the gradient, the buildings were often five storeys high on one side and two on the other, and most of them sported a turret or a tower; it was like being in an old, neglected forest where the trees are too close together and have grown up tall and spindly, fighting to get at the light. In places, the thoroughfares jumped over the tangle of buildings on narrow, high-arched bridges, like a deer leaping in dense cover. Every hundred yards or so there was an arch, a gateway, a covered portico, a cloister. The people he saw in the streets had a knack of scuttling sideways like crabs, so as not to crash into each other with their shoulders in the bottlenecks. It took a long time to get anywhere, what with steps up and steps down, waiting to let other people pass (good manners would be essential in a place like this, if you didn't want to spend your whole life fighting impromptu duels); even when the way was relatively straight and flat, it wound backwards and forwards up the steep incline, so that a hundred yards up the slope cost you a mile in actual distance covered. It would be a nightmare to get a steel-cart from the gate to the' castle square. You'd probably have to have a system of portages, like carrying barges round waterfalls-stop, unload the cart, carry the stuff through the obstruction, load it on to another cart on the other side. No wonder these people had rejected his offer. It amazed him that humans could live under such conditions.

'Something that's been puzzling me,' he said to Calaphates, as they passed through a tunnel. 'I'm sure you can tell me the answer. What on earth do you do for water here?'

Calaphates smiled. 'We manage,' he said. 'In fact, we manage quite well. We're rather proud of our arrangement, actually. We have a network of underground cisterns, a long way down inside the mountain. Originally, I believe, they were natural caves. Every roof and gutter and downpipe feeds into them, so basically not a single drop of rain that falls here is wasted. We get quite ferocious storms in the late winter and early spring; it rains for days at a time, sometimes weeks. The cisterns fill up, and we have our year's supply. To draw it up again we have a large number of public wells-there's one, look.' He pointed at a door on the opposite side of the street. As far as Ziani could tell, it was just a small door in a long, blank wall; you had to know where they were, presumably. 'Anyone can go in, let down the bucket, take as much as he can carry home. We don't waste the stuff, obviously; it costs too much effort to carry it about. But there's more than enough for everyone. In fact, once every ten years or so the cisterns get so full we have to drain off the surplus.'

'Impressive,' Ziani said. 'Has anyone ever done a proper survey of these cisterns?'

'How do you mean?' Calaphates asked.

'A survey,' Ziani repeated. 'Like a map.'

'I don't think so.'

Ziani nodded. 'Well,' he said, 'thank you. I was wondering how you coped.'

'The project was begun by the fourth Duke, about two hundred years ago,' Calaphates said; and he talked about history for a quarter of an hour, while Ziani pretended to listen. A survey would've been too much to hope for, he realised, but it shouldn't present too much of a problem to make one of his own. Simply plotting the well-houses on a map would be a good start.

'Here we are.' Calaphates sounded relieved. They'd stopped outside another plain door in another blank wall. 'Now, so you can get your bearings; the city gate is about three hundred yards over there, behind that tower. The castle is north-west, straight up the slope. The yard has its own well, of course.'

The door opened into a wide, bare, sloping yard with five rows of big, low-sided stone tanks. Beyond them was a long two-storey stone shed. The yard walls were high, with a catwalk running round the top, and two watchtowers. It felt more like a military camp than a factory.

'What are those for?' Ziani asked.

'The towers?' Calaphates smiled. 'It's an eccentricity of Eremian architecture. We like towers. Most of the buildings have them. I suppose it comes from being on top of the mountain; we like a good view. I think the tanner used one as his office and counting-house, and the men liked to go up into the other for their meals, to get away from the smell.'

Ziani frowned. 'I'd have thought they'd be used to it after a few months.'

'Possibly. Now, through this arch here, we've got another yard.'

The same as the first one, but a bit smaller. No shed.

'These tanks,' Ziani said. 'Is there any reason we can't use them as footings for buildings?'

Calaphates shrugged. 'Don't ask me,' he said. 'I'm not a builder. My overseer would be able to tell you about how they were built. He's been with me a long time.'

'Show me the well-house,' Ziani said.

As he'd hoped, it was on the higher side of the slope; not much of a gradient to work with, but anything would be better than nothing. 'You said you're allowed to draw as much water as you want from these wells,' he said. 'Is that right, or are there limits?'

The question seemed to puzzle Calaphates. 'Not that I'm aware of,' he said. 'It's not a problem that's ever arisen, if you see what I mean.'

'Fine.' Ziani looked round; shapes were starting to form in his mind. 'Is that it?'

Calaphates nodded. 'There are cellars, of course, under the main shed. Another feature of Civitas Eremiae. Because we're short on space for building sideways, we've become very inventive about going up and down. Hence, towers and cellars.'

The toolmarks on the cellar walls showed that it had been excavated the hard way, chip by chip with straight drills and hammers. 'There'd be no objection to extending this?' Ziani asked.

'I don't see why not,' Calaphates said. 'If necessary.'

'And we can use the spoil for building above ground,' Ziani went on, 'instead of having to lug blocks of stone through the streets.'

For the first time, Calaphates allowed his anxiety to show in his face. 'You've got something quite extensive in mind, then.'

Ziani turned and looked at him. 'There's an old saying in the Guild,' he said. 'The quickest, easiest and cheapest way to do a thing is properly the first time. If you're having second thoughts about this…'

Calaphates assured him that he wasn't. He was almost convincing.

'I'll have to spend a few days here,' Ziani said, as they climbed the cellar steps into the light, 'drawing up plans, taking measurements. I'll need a few things for that, but I'm sure your overseer can deal with it. I might as well camp out in the shed for the time being.'

Calaphates looked at him. 'It'll do, then?'

'It'll do fine,' Ziani replied. 'I feel at home here already.' When Calaphates had gone and he had the place to himself, Ziani made a proper inspection, pacing out distances, getting a feel for the space and how it worked. The biggest problem, water, might not be such an insurmountable obstacle after all (but if he sidestepped the water issue, it would make the fuel problem worse; if only you could burn stone…). Time would be difficult, because this Calaphates would have to be managed carefully; he was flexible and fairly resilient, like a good spring, but if bent too far he'd probably prove brittle. He would need to be allowed for, but such allowance wouldn't necessarily compromise the tolerances Ziani was hoping to achieve.

He was concentrating so intensely on the shape of the mechanism slowly consolidating in his mind that he didn't notice the passing of the day, until the sun set and it was too dark to see. He lay down on a pile of half-tanned hides in the long shed, but he couldn't settle; so, after one final tour of the site (he found his way in the dark mostly by memory, like a blind man; already he knew most of it by heart, not by what was there already but by what would be there, when the work was done) he climbed up one of the towers and looked down over the city. There were few lights to be seen, because of the angle, but lamps burned in some of the towers that perked up over the rooftops like the heads of fledgling birds in a nest, enough of them that he could make out a pattern, a first rough working sketch for a city. He felt-he paused to analyse what he felt, since the properties of materials change according to the stresses imposed on them by each operation. There was guilt, inevitably, and generic sorrow, the unavoidable compassion of one human for others. There was a place for such feelings. In an ideal world, a machine running smoothly, they were the coolants and lubricants that stopped the components from jamming and seizing under load; it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for a functional society to work without them. At this stage, however, they were swarf and waste, and he needed to control them. The top of a tower was a good place for perspectives, particularly at night, when you're spared the sight of the greater context. He didn't need to see it, since its outline was drawn out clearly in his mind. The detail, yet to be resolved, could wait until the time was right.

Chapter Ten

A satisfactory meeting, in many respects; no significant disagreements between factions, for once, no disruptive intrusion of party agendas. How pleasant, to be able to get useful work done without anything getting in the way.

Commissioner Psellus' report was well received, and the debate on his recommendations was perfunctory, since nobody really disagreed. Commissioner Crisestem, whose nose might have been put out of joint now that his own role had been largely superseded, was one of the first to welcome the initiative, while Psellus made a point of stressing that Crisestem's contribution was still entirely relevant, and should be carried through as a matter of priority. Crisestem in turn advised the committee that he'd made substantial progress in recruiting and briefing agents, and was confident that he'd be in a position to report a successful outcome at the next meeting.

The motion was put to a formal vote and carried unanimously. In view of the possible leakage of restricted Guild secrets, it stated, the Eremians posed an unacceptable threat to the security of the Perpetual Republic, and should be wiped out. A memorandum was composed by the appropriate subcommittee and dispatched to the Commissioners of War, with copies to the General Council, the Guild Assemblies, the Finance Department, the foreign and manpower directorates and the managing councils of the individual Guilds. No further business arising, the meeting was adjourned.

Psellus went back to his office. The chair was still there, and the desk, and the empty cup and plate. It made no sense, but he didn't want to sit in that chair again just yet; he perched in the window-seat instead, and looked out at his view (the back end of the glass factory; a blank brick wall with three doors in it). About an hour later, a clerk came to tell him that he was wanted at the War Commission.

I should have prepared better for this meeting, he rebuked himself, as he followed the clerk across the quadrangle to the west cloister, where the commission's offices were. They'll want all the specifics about Vaatzes, and I haven't brought the file. He considered going back for it, but decided not to bother. Most of it he had by heart, and they'd all be getting copies of the relevant documents in due course.

The War Commission liked to refer to themselves as the Department of Necessary Evil (there were other names for them around the Guildhall, none of which were used to their faces). As befitted an anomaly in an otherwise standardised world, they cultivated a slightly eccentric manner; accordingly, it was their custom when the weather permitted to meet in the open air, in the cloister garden. It was an undeniably pleasant spot: a square garden enclosed by the cloister walls, with a fountain in the centre of the lawn, and raised flowerbeds at the edges. Grapevines and wisteria were trained on the walls, and a quincunx of elderly fig trees provided shade in the middle. According to people who knew about such things, the garden was one of the oldest parts of the Guildhall complex, dating back to before the Reformation. That made sense; it had a distinctly effete feel about it. You could picture the nobles and scribes of the old Republic strutting on the lawn, waited on by obsequious footmen in extravagant livery.

Necessary Evil didn't indulge itself to quite that extent; there were no brocade coats or powdered wigs, no string quartet scratching out incidental music in the background. Instead, the fourteen commissioners sat in a semicircle of ornately carved chairs facing the fountain. Secretaries and clerks hovered around them, setting up folding desks, topping up inkwells, sharpening pens. Two flustered-looking men were trying to stand up an easel for a large framed map; two more were struggling with a huge brass lectern that must have weighed four hundredweight. There was a pleasant hum of chatter, like distant bees.

The only member of Necessary Evil that Psellus knew by sight was the assistant secretary, who was also vice-chairman of the Foundrymen's standing committee on doctrine and specifications. He was easy to spot from a distance by his perfectly bald, slightly pointed head. In the event, he saw Psellus first and beckoned him over. His name was Zanipulo Staurachus, and Psellus had disliked him for thirty years.

'Well,' Staurachus said, in a loud whisper, 'a fine state of affairs you've landed us in.'

Ever since they were apprentices together, Psellus had been trying to figure out a way of coping with Staurachus. Being an optimist at heart, he still hadn't given up hope.

'Presumably I've got to brief you about Vaatzes,' he said.

'Formality, really. We need to be able to minute having interviewed you. But tell me, why did the bloody fool do it? I've read his assessments, and I'm pretty sure I met him once. Wouldn't have thought he was the type.'

Psellus thought for a moment. 'I'm not entirely sure there is a type,' he replied. 'I think that what people do depends a lot on what's done to them first.'

'I'm not talking about the defection,' Staurachus said. 'Really, that's our fault for letting him get away. But what possessed him to go fooling about building stupid mechanical toys in the first place? If he was that way inclined, someone should've picked up on it years ago, and we could've done something about it, and all this nonsense would've been avoided. You realise this war business is playing right into the Consolidationists' hands, just when there's three seats on General Council up for grabs.'

Psellus frowned. 'I didn't know that,' he said.

'Of course you didn't. It's not the sort of thing someone like you ought to know. But I'm telling you now, because obviously this stupid war is going to change everything, and I need all our people to focus on the issues. I mean, Eremia doesn't matter, in the long run, but if Consolidation manages to get an overall majority on General Council, that's a disaster.'

Psellus hated having to agree with Staurachus; insult to injury. 'But assuming we win the war-' he said.

'Of course we'll win,' Staurachus interrupted. 'It's how we win that matters. Frankly, it couldn't have come at a worse time, with me being the only Foundryman on this commission. Which,' he added, scowling, 'is where you come in.'

'Me?'

Staurachus nodded. 'I know you won't have figured it out for yourself, because you've only got ten fingers for counting on; but the rules say there should be sixteen commissioners in time of war, and we're two short. I'm proposing we co-opt you for the duration.'

'Me?' Psellus repeated. 'Why?'

'Well, because you're Foundry, obviously. And you know the background, you've researched the Eremians, specialised local knowledge and so forth. That's what I'll tell the others, anyhow. There shouldn't be any bother. The other co-optee will probably be either Ropemakers' or Linen Armourers', and we've got to be seen to be even-handed in appointments.'

'It's a great honour,' Psellus said flatly. 'But I don't think… What about Curiatzes? Or Crisestem,' he added, in a burst of happy inspiration. 'He's got the background, and he's ambitious.'

'Exactly. So I chose you instead. Because,' Staurachus explained, 'you're not bright enough to be a nuisance, and you generally do as you're told. Now get over there and make your presentation. Try and make it good; I want something decent from you, if I'm going to get them to accept you.'

Up to that point, Psellus hadn't really hated Ziani Vaatzes, except in an objective way. The abominator had inspired in him more curiosity than hatred. Now, though…

Mostly through force of habit, he made the best job he could of presenting the facts to the commission and fielding their awkward questions. There wasn't anything he couldn't handle, and the only overt hostility came from a Ropemaker and was therefore to be expected. He disarmed the annoying man by admitting that Compliance had indeed made several reprehensible errors of judgement in their handling of the case. Since this wasn't true and everybody knew it, the Ropemaker wasn't in any position to make capital out of it; he accepted the admission with a grunt and sat down again. As soon as Psellus had been dismissed and had sat down in the chair set out for him next to the fountain (a fine spray, deflected off the marble rim, fell on his collar, but he managed to ignore it), Staurachus got up and proposed that he be co-opted. The motion was seconded by a Carpenter and passed, twelve to one with a Shipwright abstaining. Duly elected, Psellus was led by a clerk across the lawn to a fortuitously empty chair next to Staurachus, on the left wing of the semicircle. The chief commissioner got up and recited a formal welcome. It was all as smooth and quick as slipping on ice.

Psellus spent his evening clearing out his old office and moving to his new one, which was just off the main gallery of the cloister, and about a third smaller than the one he'd just vacated. That meant there wasn't room for his old desk and chair, but somehow he wasn't heartbroken about that. It was a ghastly mess, of course; inevitably, Crisestem would get his old job at Compliance, at least until this ridiculous war was over. He tried to focus on the fact that his promotion was good for the Foundrymen and for Didacticism in general; somewhat marginal, once you'd balanced a seat gained on Necessary Evil against control of Compliance lost to the Tailors and Consolidation. If the war went wrong, needless to say, he'd be finished (which was rather like saying that if the sun failed to rise one morning, the world would be very dark. The Republic's wars never went wrong. Hadn't ever gone wrong yet.).

It was just after midnight by the time he'd finished arranging his books and sorting his files, and it occurred to him that he hadn't had anything to eat for a very long time not since he was in Compliance, in fact, and that was easily a lifetime ago. He wasn't in the least hungry, but he knew what missing meals did to his digestion. The dining room would be closed by now, but the buttery over in Foundrymen's Hall stayed open all night; stale bread, thick, slightly translucent yellow cheese and a small soft apple if he was lucky. Probably Necessary Evil had its own private, secret canteen where you could get plovers' eggs and mashed artichoke at three in the morning, but nobody had mentioned it at the meeting. Presumably you had to serve a probationary period before you were trusted with a map reference and a key.

Foundrymen's Hall was two quadrangles down and one across. It was twenty-five years since he'd first walked under its modest arch, knees weak and guts twisted into a knot. He'd got used to it since then; now it was just a building, ever so slightly shabby if you knew where to look. He didn't get lost in the corridors any more, and when nervous young men asked him the way, he answered clearly and immediately without having to think, the way you move your hand. A day would come when his name would be written up on one of the honours boards in the downstairs lobby-he'd never see it, of course, because he'd be dead-and some terrified youth waiting to be collected and shown to his new desk would stare up at it and wonder without really caring who the hell he'd been, and what he'd done. When that day came, he'd be the sixth Psellus on the boards, and of course the last. There were no annotations beside those gilded names, so nobody would ever know, unless they had occasion to delve back through ancient minute-books and cross-reference with the archives of memoranda, that he was the man who destroyed Eremia Montis by getting up out of a chair; a neat trick, though he wasn't quite sure how he'd come to achieve it. It's something to ensure that your name will live for ever, even if the reason why gets lost along the way.

There were half a dozen men in the buttery when he got there; he recognised the faces of two sessions clerks but couldn't remember their names, and the other four were strangers. He declined the vegetable soup (twenty-five years, and he'd never seen or heard of anybody having the vegetable soup; it was universally shunned, like leprosy, but all day every day there was a black cauldron full of it, simmering like a dormant volcano over the fire) and risked a pear instead of an apple.

'Congratulations,' someone said in his ear. He looked round.

'Thank you,' he said gravely. 'You're having the salt pork.'

'I always do when I come in here. It's disgusting, but I'm too set in my ways to change.'

They sat down at a table in the corner furthest from the hatch. 'What are you doing up at this hour, Stall?' Psellus asked. 'You're never up late.'

'It's all your fault,' replied Stali Maniacis, his oldest and only friend. 'You get it into your head to declare war on some tribe nobody knows anything about, so naturally they send for the treasurer, and he sends for me. I've spent the last eight hours shuffling jetons around, trying to find some money for you to hire your soldiers with.'

'Ah,' Psellus replied. 'Any luck?'

Maniacis nodded. 'Pots of money,' he said. 'It's there, you can go down the cellars with a lamp and look at it, all heaped up on the floor. The problem's finding it on paper. Backdated appropriations and contingency reserves and five-year retentions and God only knows what. Your best bet, if you really want this war of yours, is to hire a bunch of pirates to break in and steal it. Cut through all the formalities, and we can write it off as hostile action, make our lives a whole lot easier. So,' he went on, 'rank and power at last. How did you manage it?'

Psellus shrugged. 'I didn't get out of the way quick enough, I suppose.'

'Balls. The lightness of the foot deceives the eye. One moment you were the failure responsible for a fuck-up in Compliance, next thing you're magically transfigured into a god of war, and nothing will be your fault ever again. Don't tell me you haven't been cooking this up for months.'

'If only,' Psellus said. 'It was nothing to do with me.'

'All right. So who, then?'

'Staurachus.'

'Oh.' Maniacis pulled a face. 'Him. Fine. So presumably this is all part of some magnificently intricate manoeuvre on behalf of the greater glory of Didacticism.' He shook his head. 'Don't see it myself, but then I wouldn't expect to. What's your new office like?'

'Small.'

'View?'

'You can just about see a corner of the cloister garden, if you lean out and crane your neck a bit.'

'Better than the glassworks, though.'

'True.'

Maniacis frowned. 'You really aren't very happy about this, are you? What's the problem? Feeling out of your depth?'

'I'm used to that,' Psellus said. 'I've been a politician now for fifteen years, I wouldn't know my depth if I fell in it. But I'm sure there's something I've missed, and I don't know where.'

'You always were a worrier.'

'Yes,' Psellus said. 'But it probably doesn't matter. That's what's so good about war, it papers over all the cracks. If we scrape Eremia Montis off the map, none of the fiddling little details will matter any more.' He yawned. 'I think I'll go to bed,' he said. 'I expect tomorrow is going to be a long and interesting day'

'Going home?'

Psellus shook his head. 'I'll sleep in the lodge,' he said. 'I can't face all those flights of stairs at this time of night.'

'Count yourself lucky,' Maniacis grumbled. 'I've still got three projections to do. I don't imagine I'll be finished much before dawn. Next time you declare war, do you think you could do it around nine in the morning? Some of us have to work for a living, you know.'

'If you call shuffling brass discs round a chequerboard work,' Psellus replied. It was, of course, an old debate between them, as thoroughly rehearsed as a wedding dance. It could be started with a word, or stopped immediately and put on one side, bookmarked, to be continued later at some more opportune time. 'Now I suppose you're going to say it's all my fault that you've got to go scrabbling about trying to find the money to pay for all of this.'

Maniacis frowned. 'All of what?'

'The war, of course.'

'Oh.' Somehow Psellus felt he'd said something unexpected. 'No, we're used to that,' Maniacis went on. 'You politicals say the word, all we've got to do is click our fingers and the money appears out of thin air. I mean, it's not like we've got anything else to do.'

It was synthetic, because it was always synthetic between them, like an exhibition bout between prizefighters; this time, though, he noticed a certain edge in his friend's voice, a slight reluctance to look him in the eye. But that was strange, since Stali wouldn't ever be genuinely upset with him because of work. Something he'd said was rattling about in his mind loose, but he couldn't place it. Because he was so tired, probably.

'Bed for me,' he said, standing up. 'Have fun with your projections.'

Maniacis said something vulgar, and he left. All the way down the stairs and across the back courtyard he tried to work out what it was that didn't fit. Something was wrong; something small and trivial, of course.

The lodge porter opened up a guest room for him; slightly smaller than a prison cell, with a plain unaired bed, a wash-stand, an empty water jug, one elderly shoe left behind by a previous visitor. He undressed, snuffed the lamp and lay down on top of the threadbare coverlet, his hands folded on his chest like a corpse laid out for embalming. Directly overhead was the old dorter, a survival from the days when the Guildhall was still a religious house; in consequence, the ceilings of these rooms were all vaulted, though of course you couldn't see anything in the dark. One of the rooms still had traces of the old painted stucco, devotional scenes from a religion nobody remembered any more. Probably not this one; Psellus had seen them once, years ago, but they were just people standing about in the flat, stylised poses of pre-Reformation religious painting. Authentic but entirely lacking in artistic merit; it'd probably be kinder to chip them off and whitewash over the top. It'd be miserable, he reckoned, to be the ghost of a god, pinned to the mortal world by one crumbling and indistinct fresco.

(And in Eremia shortly… Did the Eremians have any gods? He had an idea they'd believed in something once, but they'd grown out of it. Just as well, probably. If you eradicated a religious people, would their gods survive even with nobody to pray to them? And if so, what would they find to do all day?)

He closed his eyes, like a fencer moving from First guard to Third.

'Civitas Eremiae,' said the expert, 'is the highest city in the known world. It's built on the peak of a mountain; the walls are founded on solid rock, so you can forget about sapping, undermining or tunnelling your way in. They have an excellent system of underground cisterns, with never less than six months' supply of water. There's also a substantial communal granary, likewise underground. That means a siege would present us with enormous difficulties as regards supply. They have plenty of water and food in store at all times; if we wanted to lay siege to them and starve or parch them out, we'd have to carry water and food for our men up the mountain. There's just the one road, narrow and winding back and forth. Even if we kept up a continual relay, we couldn't shift enough supplies in one day along that road for more than seven thousand men, way too few to maintain an effective blockade. To be blunt: we'd be dead of hunger and thirst long before them, and we'd also be outnumbered two to one. Unless someone can think of a way round those problems, a siege is out of the question. If you want to take Givitas Eremiae, it'll have to be by way of direct assault; and the longest an army capable of doing that could last up there would be forty-eight hours. Talking of which; the very least number of defenders we'd be likely to come up against would be fifteen thousand infantry on the walls. The city has never been taken, either by siege or storm. If you contrived somehow to get through the gate or over the wall, that's where the fun would start. The whole place is a tangle of poxy little alleys and snickets; from our point of view, one bottleneck and ambush after another. There are some thatched roofs, a handful of wooden buildings; not enough for a decent fire to get a foothold on. Artillery isn't going to be much help to you. In order to get it up the approach road, you'd have to break it down completely and rebuild it once you're in position, but you'd be wasting a lot of sweat and effort for nothing. The slope's so aggressive, you'd be hard put to it to find a level footprint for anything bigger than a series five scorpion; but nothing less than a full-size torsion catapult's going to make any kind of a mark on those walls. The same goes for battering rams and siege towers-and maybe this is an appropriate moment to point out that the main strength of the Eremian military is archers. Put the picture together and I think you'll agree, you've set yourself a difficult job.'

Thoughtful silence. After a nicely judged pause, the expert went on: 'Maybe you're wondering why a poor and relatively primitive bunch like the Eremians have gone to such extraordinary lengths to fortify their city. It's worth dwelling on that for a moment. Consider the drain on national resources, both material and manpower, involved in building something like that. The Eremians keep a few slaves, true. Not many, though; all that work was mostly done by free Eremian citizens, in between their daily chores and the seasonal demands of the sheep and goats. Why bother? you're asking yourselves. They must've been afraid of somebody, but it wasn't us.'

Another pause, and everything so quiet you could hear the patter of water-drops from the fountain. 'The answer,' the expert said, 'is of course their neighbours, the Vadani. Eremia Montis has just emerged from a long and particularly nasty border war with the Vadani; and that's the direction I'm asking you to look in for help in cracking this nut. There may be peace right now, but the Eremians and the Vadani hate each other to bits, always have and always will. If you want the Eremians, you're going to have to get the Vadani on your side first. At the very least, they've got generations of experience of fighting the Eremians. They also have money, from the silver mines. The first stage, therefore, will have to be diplomacy rather than straightforward military action. Everything will depend on the Vadani; and the only way you can do business with them is through their chief, Duke Valens. He's your first objective.' The expert relaxed slightly, aware that he'd done his job and not left anything out. 'To brief you on him, I'd like to call Maris Boioannes of the diplomatic service.'

Psellus sat up a little straighter. He knew Boioannes, or had known him a long time ago. A man stood up in the front row of seats, but he could only see his back; he had to wait until he'd made his way up to the lectern before he could get a look at his face.

Curious, how the changes of age surprise us. The Maris Boioannes he remembered had mostly been objectionable on account of his appearance: a tall man, with a perfect profile, a strong chin and thick black hair, a revoltingly charming smile, deep and flashing brown eyes. You knew you never stood a chance when Boioannes was around. This man oddly enough, the smile was still there, although the chin had melted and the hair was thin, palpably flicked sideways to cover a bald summit as prominent as Civitas Eremia as described by the previous speaker. Deprived of its natural setting, however, the smile was weak and silly. You could easily despise this man, which would make you tend to underestimate him. Probably why he'd done well in the diplomatic service.

'Duke Valens Valentinianus,' Boioannes said (his voice was the same; still rich and warm. He looked different once he'd started to speak), 'is almost certainly the most capable duke to rule the Vadani in two centuries. He's intelligent, he's firm, decisive; he's a good leader, highly respected; still very young, only in his early twenties, but that's not so uncommon among the mountain tribes, where life expectancy is short and prominent men tend to die young. He's well educated, by Vadani standards, with a firm grasp of practical economics; he reads books for pleasure-we know what he reads, of course, because his books all come from the Republic; we've compiled a list from the ledgers of his bookseller, and it'll be worth your while to take a look at it. He has an enquiring mind, maybe even a soul. He's not, however, an effete intellectual. We're still working on a complete schedule of all the men he's had executed or assassinated since he came to power, but I can tell you now, he's quite ruthless in that way. Not a storybook bloodthirsty tyrant, shouting "off with his head" every five minutes; there are several well-authenticated instances where he spared someone he really ought to have disposed of, gave him a second and even a third chance. It's notable, however, that in each of these cases he took full precautions to make sure that the offender couldn't do any serious harm while on licence, so to speak. He's an excellent judge of character, and he has great confidence in his own judgement. He believes in himself, and the people believe in him too. All in all, a most efficient and practical ruler for a nation like the Vadani.'

Boioannes paused and drank a little water. He still had that mannerism of using only his index and middle fingers to grip the cup. 'As far as weaknesses go,' he went on, 'we haven't found any yet, though of course we're working on it. He's depressingly temperate as far as wine and women are concerned; his only indulgence appears to be hunting, which is a big thing among both of the mountain nations. Buying him isn't really an option, since the revenue from the silver mines is more than a tribal chief would know what to do with; also, he doesn't seem to show any interest in conspicuous expenditure-no solid gold dinner services, priceless tapestries, jewel-encrusted sword-hilts. He draws only a very moderate sum from the profits of the silver mines, and lives well within his means. Currently, therefore, the most productive line of approach would seem to be intimidation; but we have an uncomfortable feeling that it could go badly wrong, and force him into a genuine alliance with his neighbour. What we need to find, therefore, is a crack in the armour. We're confident that there is one-there always is-and given time we know we can find it. Much depends, therefore, on how much time we have available. That's for you to tell us. What we're fairly certain we can't do is simply rely on his instinctive hatred for the Eremians. Common sense would seem to be the keynote of this man's character, and an ability to ignore or override emotional impulses that conflict with what his brain tells him is the sensible thing to do. He'll know straight away that if we come to him and propose an alliance against Eremia, the whole balance of power in the region will be irrevocably changed. Remember, his father started the peace process with Eremia and he saw it through; not through fear, or because he doesn't hold with war on principle, but because he realised that peace was the sensible thing, in the circumstances.'

Psellus' attention started to wander; he wasn't really interested in the Vadani Duke. Instead, he opened his mind to a picture of a mountaintop (he'd never seen a mountain, except as a vague fringe at the edge of a landscape, hardly distinguishable from banks of cloud) with all those impossible defences-the walls, the narrow spaces, above all the desperate gradient. He knew that Civitas Eremia would fall, because the Republic had promised that it would, but as an engineer he could only see the problems, not the solution to them. He felt as if he'd heard the beginning of a story, and the end, but not the middle. Not by assault; not by siege; if they wanted to get inside the gates, they'd have to persuade someone in the city to open them for them.

He allowed himself a little smile. Of course, how silly of him not to see it earlier. The old saying: no city, however massively fortified, is impregnable to a mule carrying chests of gold coins. Treachery, that old faithful, would see them through.

Boioannes had stopped talking; people were standing up and chatting, so the meeting must be over. He wished he knew a bit more about Necessary Evil protocols; at the end of a meeting, were you supposed to hurry straight back to work, or did you linger, mix and network? He wished he was back somewhere where he knew the rules.

'Good briefing, don't you think?' Staurachus had materialised next to him, like a genie in a fairy-tale popping up out of a bottle.

He nodded. 'I've certainly learned quite a bit,' he said.

Staurachus rubbed his eyes. Of course, he wasn't getting any younger, and all this extra work would be tiring to a man of his age. Somehow you don't expect frailty in your enemies, only your friends; you imagine that their malice makes them immune. 'So how do you think we should proceed?'

'Get hold of someone inside the city and pay them a lot of money'

Staurachus smiled. 'Very good,' he said. 'And who do you think would be a good prospect?'

Psellus shrugged. 'I don't know a lot about them,' he said, 'but from what I've heard, I'd say the Merchant Adventurers. Mind you,' he added quickly, 'that's just off the top of my head. I'd need to know a bit more in the way of background. I mean, do the Eremians allow their women to go wandering about the place at night on their own?'

'Who knows?' Staurachus raised his hands in a vague, all-purpose gesture of dismissal. 'We have people working on that side of things, cultural issues and what have you. It's standard operating procedure to compile a complete profile in these cases.'

Reassuring, Psellus thought; we'll wipe them out, but the file will be preserved for ever somewhere in the archives. A kind of immortality for them, every aspect of their culture scientifically recorded in the specified manner. 'That's good,' he heard himself say. 'At any rate, we've got to try it before we risk an assault against those defences.'

Staurachus shrugged. 'If it comes to that, I don't think it'll prove to be beyond our resources. We're blessed with advantages that few other nations have in war; we have the best engineers in the world, and our armies are made up of well-paid foreigners. Arguably, the harder the assault proves to be, the better the demonstration to the rest of the world.'

'I suppose so,' Psellus said. 'But it'd probably be better to try treachery first. For one thing, we could forget all that business about having to get the Vadani on our side.'

'Ah yes.' Staurachus smiled a little. 'You knew Boioannes at school, didn't you? Or was it later, in vocational training?'

'Both.'

'The diplomatic service see things from a slightly different angle,' Staurachus said tolerantly. 'They have their pride, same as the rest of us. They like to believe they're useful. We listen to what they can tell us, but we don't usually tend to follow their recommendations.'

At the end of his first day in Necessary Evil, Psellus felt an overwhelming need for a bath. As a Guild officer of senior executive rank, he was entitled to use the private bath in the main cistern house, instead of having to pitch in at the public bathhouse on the other side of the square. It was a privilege he valued more than any other, since he'd always been diffident about taking his clothes off in front of other people (I have so much, he often told himself, to be diffident about: so much, and a little more each year); and besides, the water in the cistern house was always pleasantly warm, instead of ice-cold or scaldingly hot.

His luck was in; nobody else was using it, and quite soon he was lying on his back lapped in soothing warmth, gazing up at the severely geometrical pattern of the ceiling tiles. As he relaxed, he mused on treachery. Staurachus had sounded as though he already had a plan for the betrayal of Civitas Eremiae; probably involving the Merchant Adventurers, either directly or indirectly. His question, therefore, had been by way of a test; fair enough, since Staurachus was his sponsor, and one likes to reassure oneself that one's protege is worth putting one's name to. But there'd been something about his old enemy's manner that raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and it referred back, he was sure, to the big question: why had Staurachus chosen him, of all people?

There was a saying-Cure Hardy, he rather thought-that when making a sacrifice to the gods, you should offer the best animal in the herd, preferably someone else's. He paused his train of thought, and tried to work out which herds he belonged to. Foundrymen's; Didactics; no enlightenment there. Compliance; yes, but he wasn't Compliance any more. What else? Who would his failure and disgrace reflect badly on? When he failed-

But how could he possibly fail? He couldn't, because the Republic couldn't lose a war. It might just conceivably lose a battle. It might even, under circumstances too far-fetched to be readily imagined, lose an army. The war might drag on for a year, or twenty years. The Republic would, however, inevitably win. Furthermore, as Staurachus had said himself, a military disaster wasn't necessarily a failure. A nation that wins a great victory frightens its neighbours; a nation that suffers a devastating defeat and then goes on to win the war, hardly noticing its losses, terrifies them to the point where both aggression and resistance are unthinkable. It wouldn't matter to the Republic if it lost fifty thousand men in one engagement, since all its armies were made up of hired foreigners. Indeed, the simple fact that dead men don't need to be paid had helped the Republic on several occasions in the past to regard bloody defeats with a measure of equanimity. No, failure wasn't possible. No matter how hard one tried, it simply couldn't be done.

After he'd finished his bath, Psellus went to his room. He slumped on the bed (his calves and knees ached pitifully, because of all the unaccustomed standing and walking) and put his hands behind his head. Normally he'd read a little before going to sleep; a few pages of early Mannerist poetry, perhaps, or Pogonas' On Details; something wholesome, orthodox, approved and gently soothing in its familiarity. Tonight, anything like that would be too bland to have any effect. He sat up again, scanned the titles on the shelf that stood against the wall and, on a whim, pulled down a very old, fat, squat book he hadn't looked at in years.

He made up for that now with a brief inspection. The covers, bound in plain off-white vellum gradually losing its translucence with age, were about the size of his palm; width, the length of his thumb. On the spine a previous owner had written, in ink now brown and faded with light and age, Orphanotrophus, concerning the measurement of small things, between the first and second backstraps of the binding. It was, he reflected, an accurate but misleading description. He let the book sit in his palm. The binding, still tight after four hundred years, nevertheless allowed a slight gap between the pages about a third of the way in. He opened it at that point, and stared for a moment at the tiny, precise handwriting. He'd forgotten that the book was written in what he believed was called copy minuscule-perfect, but very, very small, so that although he could read it without difficulty it made him feel dizzy, as if gazing too long at something a very long way away. He read: In considering this same virtue which we call tolerance, namely the virtue that seeks ever to diminish and make small its own substance, we should most diligently consider wherein lies the true end of an endeavour: whether it be the perfection of the act of making, or of the thing made. For to value and cherish fine small work in the making of a worthless thing were folly, and but little to be regarded against the making of an useful thing, though basely and roughly done, save that in such act of making there is an effect of making fine worked upon the maker: so that each thing made small and fine by such making refines the hand that wrought it. Thus a man of great arts continually exercising his skill upon the perfection of fine things, though they be but idle and nothing worth, gains therefrom, besides material trash, a prize of great value, namely that same art of making small and fine, or rather the augmentation thereof by practice and perfection. Let a man therefore turn his hand to all manner of vain and foolish toys, so that thereby he shall make good his skill for when he shall require of it to serve a nobler purpose.

Psellus lifted his head and rubbed his eyes. Thirty-five years ago, he remembered, he'd sat in a badly lit room the size of an apple-crate, staring dumbly at this very same page on the eve of his Theory of Doctrine exam. Addled with too much concentration and too little sleep, he'd read it over three or four times before he finally got a toehold in a crevice between its slabs of verbiage, and hauled himself painfully into understanding. Not long afterwards he'd dozed off, woken to see the sun in the sky, and run like a madman to the examination halls just in time to take his place… But the great force of providence that looks after idle students in the hour of their trial had been with him that day. Out of the whole of that fat, dense book, which he'd been meaning to get around to reading for two years and opened for the first time the previous evening, the learned examiners had seen fit to set for construction and comment the one and only paragraph he'd managed to look at before sleep ambushed him. Accordingly, he scored ninety marks out of a hundred, thereby earning his degree and with it the chance of a career in Guild politics.

Maybe that was why the book had fallen open at that page. He frowned, as a tiny spark flared in his memory. Vaatzes the abominator had owned a copy of this book, and had, apparently, misunderstood it. In spite of everything, he leaned his head back and grinned like a dog. Let a man therefore turn his hand to all manner of vain and foolish toys, the book said, and the poor literal-minded fool, striving to improve his mind to the level of his betters by reading the classics, had gone away and done as he'd been told, and got caught at it into the bargain. As a result, he'd earn himself a footnote in history as the man who brought about the eradication of an entire tribe by his failure to construe an archaic usage in a set text. It'd make a good joke, if it wasn't for all the deaths it would cause.

He put the book back in its place and took down Azotes' Flowers of Didacticism instead.

The next morning there was another meeting in the cloister garden. It wasn't on the schedule, which was posted every week on the chapterhouse door; half a dozen pages had spent a nervous hour just after dawn scurrying through the Guildhall rounding up Necessary Evil and shepherding them here, puzzled and irritable and speculating about the nature of this urgent new development.

When the stipulated quorum had gathered, Maris Boioannes of the diplomatic service asked leave to address the meeting. Before he started to speak, however, he picked a sack up off the ground, balanced it on the ledge of the rostrum while he opened it, and took out of it something the size and shape of a large melon, wrapped in dark brown sailcloth. It wasn't a melon.

'This,' he said, letting the thing dangle from his hand by the hair, 'used to be Auzida Razo, our chief of section among the Merchant Adventurers in Eremia.' He paused. The thing was dripping on to the neat, short grass. 'I have reason to believe,' he went on, 'that the covert stage of this operation is over.'

Chapter Eleven

'Auzida Razo,' Orsea repeated. 'I know the name.'

One of the drawbacks to sending your enemy a head by way of a gesture is that you're left with the rest of the body. Orsea had insisted on seeing it. Miel wasn't sure why; he believed it was because Orsea had always had a tendency to be squeamish. Since he'd ordered the wretched woman's execution, he felt he should punish himself by viewing her decapitated trunk. If that was the reason, it was confused, irrational, hard for anyone else to understand and quite in character.

'You've met her,' Miel said. 'Several times. You'd remember her if-' He stopped.

Orsea grinned; he was white as milk and shaking a bit. 'Of course,' he said. 'That's me all over. Not so good with names, but an excellent memory for faces. In this case, however…'

Miel frowned. 'Can we go now?' he said.

'Yes, why not?' Orsea turned away abruptly. He'd seen worse, to Miel's certain knowledge, but the fact that he was directly responsible, having given the order, presumably made it more immediate. Of course Orsea would argue that he'd also given the order to attack Mezentia. 'I've never had anybody put to death before,' he said, all false-casual. 'What's the procedure? Can it just be buried quietly somewhere, or does it have to be nailed to a door or strung up off a gateway somewhere?'

Miel nearly said, Well, that's up to you, but stopped himself just in time. 'I'd leave it to the guard commander if I were you,' he said. 'There's no set protocol, if that's what you mean.'

They walked through the arch into the main courtyard of the guardhouse. 'So,' Orsea said, 'I met her a couple of times. When and where?'

'She used to call at the palace,' Miel said, carefully looking ahead.

'Call,' Orsea repeated, as though it was an abtruse foreign loan-word. 'What, on business, you mean?'

'That's right,' Miel said. 'She mostly dealt in luxury stationery-ivory writing sets, antique Mezentine ink bottles, signet rings, that kind of stuff. Come to think of it, I bought a silver sand-shaker from her myself last spring.'

'She did a lot of business with the court, then?'

'Like I said, luxury goods. Not the sort of thing most people can afford.'

'Yes,' Orsea said, as though Miel was being obtuse, 'but what I mean is, she knew people here in the palace, and she was spying for the Republic. Aren't you worried about that?'

Only Orsea could ask such a question. 'Of course I'm worried,' Miel said. Just not surprised, like you, he didn't add. 'Obviously there's a serious problem.'

'Glad you can see that,' Orsea snapped. 'What are you proposing to do about it?'

Miel stopped, frowning. 'Thank you,' he said.

'What are you thanking me for?'

'The promotion. Apparently I'm head of security now, or captain of the palace guard, or something. I'm honoured, but you might have told me earlier.'

'I'm sorry.' And he was, too; sincerely sorry for being nasty to his friend. That was why Miel loved him, and why he was such a bad duke. 'It's because I've come to rely on you so much since-well, since the battle. I got wounded and you had to get us all out of that ghastly mess; and since then I've turned to you first for everything, loaded it all on your shoulders without even asking if you minded, and now I automatically assume you're dealing with it all, like a one-man cabinet.' He sighed. Miel felt embarrassed. 'You should be doing this job, Miel, not me. I just can't manage it.'

Miel forced a laugh. 'Only if you wanted a civil war on your hands,' he said. 'A Ducas on the throne; think about it. Half the people in this country would rather see Duke Valens get the crown than me.'

Orsea turned his head slightly, looked him in the eye. 'You wouldn't have invaded Mezentia, though.'

'You don't know that.' Miel shrugged. 'This isn't getting us anywhere. In answer to your question-'

'What question? Oh, yes. Slipped my mind.'

'What do we do about the spy,' Miel said. They started walking again. 'Well,' he said, 'you don't need to be a doctor of logic to figure out that the likeliest place to find spies is the Merchant Adventurers. They go everywhere, know people here and abroad, they haven't got the same loyalties as us. Nobody else has the opportunities or the motive like they have.'

Orsea frowned. 'So what are you saying?' he said. 'Round them all up and have them all killed?'

Miel clicked his tongue. 'No, of course not,' he said. 'But we're looking at this the wrong way. Asking ourselves the wrong questions.'

'Such as?'

'Such as why,' Miel said. 'Think about it for a moment. Why is Mezentia spying on us, after they've just beaten us so hard we won't be a threat to them again for a hundred years? Before, now, that'd make sense. But after?'

Orsea was quiet for a moment. 'I don't know,' he said.

'Nor me,' Miel said. 'I mean, there could be several reasons.'

'Such as?'

'Well.' Miel ordered his thoughts. 'It could be that this Razo woman had been spying for them for years, and we only just found out. Like, she was a fixture, permanently stationed here as part of a standing intelligence network.'

'You think that's what she was doing?'

'It's a possibility. There's others. For instance, they could've been alarmed because they didn't have as much advance notice of the invasion as they'd have liked-'

'Didn't seem to trouble them much.'

'Yes, but they're a nation of perfectionists,' Miel said, slightly wearily. 'So they decided to set up a long-term spy ring here, to give them more warning next time.'

Orsea looked worried. 'So that's what you reckon…'

Miel succeeded in keeping the irritation out of his face. No point in setting up a string of straw men if Orsea took them all seriously. 'Another possibility,' he said, 'is that they're planning to invade us.'

This time Orsea just looked bewildered. 'Why would they want to do that?' he said.

Miel shrugged. 'To save face,' he said. 'To punish us for daring to attack them. To make sure we never pose a threat again. There's all sorts of possible reasons. Most likely, it'd be internal politics inside the Republic-'

'Do they have politics?' Orsea interrupted. 'I thought they were above all that sort of thing.'

Miel actually laughed. 'Do they have politics?' he said. 'Yes, they do. Quite apart from ordinary backstabbing and dead-mens'-shoes-filling and in-fighting for who gets the top jobs, they have a number of factions; started as ideological differences over doctrine, nowadays it's just force of habit and an excuse for taking sides. It's not politics about anything; just politics.'

'Oh.' Orsea looked mildly shocked. 'Is that good or bad?'

'For us?' Miel made a vague gesture with his hands. 'Depends on the circumstances. Bad for us if someone wants a quick, easy war to gain popular support; good for us if the opposing faction outplays them. It'd be really nice if we could find a way of influencing them, playing off one faction against another. But we can't.'

'Why not?'

'We haven't got anything any of them could conceivably want,' Miel replied. 'Except,' he added, 'if the Didactics or the Consolidationists want a war for the approval ratings, we're a handy target.'

Orsea pulled a face. 'Bad, then.'

'Probably'

'You know all this stuff.' There was bitterness in Orsea's voice, and guilt, and other things too complex to bother with. 'I feel so stupid.'

'I'm an adviser,' Miel said, trying not to sound awkward. 'It's an adviser's job to know stuff, so you don't have to.'

Orsea laughed. 'Yes, but look at me. Clueless. What did I ever do to deserve to be a duke, except marry someone's daughter?'

Miel frowned, ever so slightly. 'Orsea, this isn't helping. You wanted to know the implications of this Razo woman being a spy.'

'I'm sorry,' Orsea said. 'Go on, you were saying.'

'That's right.' Miel pulled a face. 'Forgotten where I'd got to. Right; we know she was spying for the Republic, because she admitted it. We can guess why, but that's about all. To go back to your original question: what are we going to do about it?'

'Yes?'

Miel rubbed his eyes. He'd been up all night, and he felt suddenly tired. 'I don't know what to suggest, right now,' he said. 'That was all we managed to get out of her, that she was spying for the Mezentines. We tried to get names of other spies, contacts, the usual stuff, but she died on us. Weak heart, apparently.'

Orsea nodded. 'So really,' he said, 'we need to find out some more background before we make any decisions.'

'I think so. I mean, we've sent a pretty clear message to the Republic that we know what they were up to and there won't be any more reports from that particular source; so that's probably the immediate problem taken care of. Next priority, I would suggest, is finding out who else was in on the spy ring, and making our peace with the Merchant Adventurers. After that, it depends on what we come up with.'

Orsea was satisfied with that, and they parted at the lodge gate. Miel went away with mixed feelings; a large part of them guilt, for having misled his friend. It wasn't a significant act of deception. All he'd done was steer the conversation away from one particular topic, and the amount of effort he'd had to put into it, given Orsea's naivety, was practically nil. Still, he felt uneasy, guilty. Must be catching, he thought.

He went back to the turret room in the west court that he'd appropriated for an office (me, he thought, needing an office. If cousin Jarnac ever finds out I've got an office, he'll wet himself laughing). He shut the door and bolted it, then pulled out a key on a chain from under his shirt. The key opened a strong oak chest bound with heavy iron straps and hasps. All it contained was one very small piece of paper, folded many times to make it small. He unfolded it, for the tenth or eleventh time since it had come into his possession. As he did so, he read the words, tiny but superbly elegant, on the outside fold:

Valens Valentinianus to Veatriz Sirupati, greetings. 'Shouldn't we wait,' Ziani said, 'until your husband gets here?'

The woman in the red dress looked at him. 'You'll be waiting a long time,' she said. 'I'm not married.'

'You're…' Ziani could feel the brick fall. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'Only it's different where I come from.'

'Oh yes.' There was a grim ring to her voice. 'But you're not in the Republic any more.'

'I'm beginning to see that,' Ziani said. 'Look, I didn't mean anything by it. Can we forget-?'

'Sure,' the woman replied, her tone making it clear that she had no intention of doing so. 'So, you're the new great white hope-well, you know what I mean-of Eremian trade. Everybody's talking about you.'

'Are they?' Ziani said. 'Well, there's not much to see yet, but I can take you round and give you an idea of what we're going to be doing here, once we're up and running.'

She looked at him again. She seemed to find him fascinating; he wondered, has she ever seen a Mezentine before? He'd have expected her to, being a merchant and an Adventurer, but it was possible she hadn't. Not that it mattered.

'Fine,' she said. 'I'll try and use my imagination.'

'Right,' Ziani said. He put her out of his mind-not easy to ignore something quite so large and so very red; it was like failing to notice a battle in your wardrobe-and engaged the plan. It had grown inside his head to the point where he could see it, quite clearly, with his eyes open, superimposed over the dusty, weed-grown yard like a cutter's template.

'Well, where we're stood now, this is where the foundry's going to be.'

'I see.'

'The plan is to do all our own casting,' Ziani went on. 'Mostly it'll be just small components, but I'm going to build a fair-sized drop-bottom cupola so we can pour substantial lost-wax castings as well as the usual sandbox stuff. It sounds like a big undertaking, but really it's just four walls, a hearth, ventilation and a clay-lined pit. Next to it, so we can share some of the pipework, I want to have the puddling mill-'

'Excuse me?'

Ziani smiled. 'For smelting direct from ore,' he said. 'Back home we can get sufficient heat to melt iron into a pourable liquid, but it'll be a while before I'm ready to do that here. Until then, we'll have to do it the old-fashioned labour-intensive way. The best we'll be able to do is get the iron out of the ore and into a soft, malleable lump-that's called puddling. Then it's got to be bashed on with big hammers to draw it out into the sections we want: sheet, plate, square bar, round bar and so on. Quite high on the list of priorities is a big triphammer, so we won't actually have to do the bashing by hand, but we can't do that until we've got the water to drive it. Three months, maybe, assuming everything runs to schedule.'

'Water?' the woman said.

'That's right. Like a water-mill for grinding flour. The first big mechanical project will need to be a pump-wind-driven, God help us-to get water up in a tower to a sufficient height. Once we've done that, life will be a lot easier.'

She stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. 'Right,' she said. 'Go on.'

'Over here,' Ziani continued, 'I want the main machine shop-it makes sense to have the shop right next to the foundry and the smelting area, it saves on time and labour hauling big, heavy chunks of material about the place. So basically we'll have a big open square area, for fabrication and assembly; the machine shop on the north side, foundry and smelter on the south side, main forge on the east, I thought, because we don't need the light there so much…'

He knew it was all passing her by, soaring over her head like the white-fronted geese in spring. He was a little surprised by that; a trader ought to be able to understand technical matters, well enough at least to grasp the implications: that this was an enterprise on an unprecedented scale, never seen outside the Republic; an astounding opportunity, therefore, for anybody with an instinct for business. She didn't seem to have picked up on that. She was bored. She looked as if she was being introduced to his large, tiresome family, none of whom she'd ever meet again, not if she could help it. Annoying, he thought; can she really be the person in charge, or had they just sent down a junior?

But he didn't mind giving her the tour of his hidden realm (wasn't there a fairy-tale about a magical land that only the pure in heart could see?); saying it out loud helped him make it ever more solid in his own mind, gave him another chance to pick up any flaws or omissions that had slipped past him. He was, as usual, talking to himself for the benefit of an eavesdropper.

'And that,' he concluded, 'is all there is to it, more or less. So, what do you think?'

She was silent, frowning. Then she said, 'Fine. Just one thing.'

'What's that?'

'You haven't actually said what you're planning on making here.'

'But-' Stupid woman, hadn't she been listening? No, he realised, she hadn't. He'd assumed she'd be able to work that out for herself. Apparently not. 'Pretty much anything, really,' he said. 'If it's made of metal, of course. Anything from a siege catapult to an earring back.'

'Really.' The look in her eyes said, You still haven't answered my question.

'Furthermore,' Ziani went on, 'and this is the real point of it, we can make machines that'll make anything at all: pottery, cloth, furniture, glass, you name it. What's more, it'll be made to Mezentine standards, faster and cheaper than anywhere else in the world, and every single item will be exactly the same as all the others. Can you begin to understand what that'll mean?'

He had an idea that she was struggling to keep her temper. 'That's fine,' she said. 'I'm impressed, truly I am. But you haven't told me what you're planning to make. I need something I can load in the back of a cart and sell. All you've shown me is a derelict yard with thistles growing in it.'

Ziani took a deep breath. 'You don't quite understand,' he said. 'Here's the idea. You tell me what you want; what you think you can sell a thousand of, at a good profit. Anything you like. Then you go away and come back a bit later, and there it'll be. Anything you like.'

The look she was giving him now was quite different. She'd stopped thinking he was boring. Now she thought he was mad. If only, he thought, I had something I could actually show her, some little piece of Mezentine magic like a lathe or a drill, so she could see for herself. But it didn't work like that.

She was saying something; he pulled himself together and paid attention.

'When you were back in Mezentia,' she said. 'That place where you used to work. What did you make there?'

Ziani grinned. 'Weapons,' he said.

She looked at him. The final straw, obviously. 'Like those machines they killed our army with?'

He nodded. 'The scorpion,' he said. 'Lightweight, mobile field artillery. We built twelve hundred units while I was at the ordnance factory. They used to leave the production line at the rate of a dozen a day.' He couldn't read the expression on her face, which was unusual. 'Quite a straightforward item, in engineering terms,' he went on, filling time. 'Tempering the spring was the only tricky bit, and we figured out a quick, easy way of doing that. Machining the winding mechanism-'

'Why don't you make them?' she asked, and he thought she was probably thinking aloud. 'Orsea'd buy them from you, no doubt about that.'

Ziani shrugged. 'If he could afford them,' he said. 'It's a question of setting up. It'd take a long time before the first one was finished, and in the meantime there'd be workers and material to pay for. I was thinking of something nice and simple to begin with. Spoons, maybe, or dungforks. We'd have to start off doing a lot of the operations by hand, till we'd made enough money to pay for building the more advanced machines.'

She shook her head. 'Orsea doesn't want spoons,' she said. 'And nobody else in this country's got any money-not the sort of money you're thinking of. These are poor people, by your standards.'

'I know,' Ziani said. 'That's-' He stopped. She wasn't invited into that part of the plan; it wasn't in a fit state to receive visitors yet. 'What would you suggest?' he said.

'Make weapons,' she told him, without hesitation. 'Orsea would buy them, he'd give you the money, if you could show him a finished-what's the word?'

'Prototype.'

'That's it. If you had one he could see. He'd feel he had to buy them, to make up for losing the war and putting us all in danger.' She hesitated, then went on. 'We'd put up the money to make the first one, in return for a share in the profits.'

'You're forgetting,' Ziani said. 'I offered to work for him. He turned me down.'

She shook her head. 'I know all about that,' she said. 'You just went at it from the wrong angle; head on, bull-at-a-gate. You've got to be more like twiddling a bit of string under a cat's nose. You get Orsea up here and show him one of these scorpion machines, tell him, this is what wiped out your army, how many of them do you want; he wouldn't be able to refuse.' She frowned thoughtfully. 'Then you could give him your speech, the one you gave me: furnaces and trip hammers and piddling mills-'

'Puddling.'

'Whatever. He wouldn't be listening, of course. He'd be looking at the war machine. And then he'd say yes.'

Ziani nodded slowly. 'And you, your Merchant Adventurers, would put up the money'

'Yes. Within reason,' she added quickly. 'For just one. You can make just one without all the machinery and everything?'

'I could,' Ziani said. 'Hand forging and filing, it'd be a bit of a bodge-up. But I don't suppose your Duke Orsea would know what he was looking at.'

'So long as it worked,' she replied. She took a deep breath. 'So,' she went on, 'roughly how much are we talking about?'

She couldn't hear it, of course, the soft click of the component dropping into place. Ziani kept the smile off his face, and answered her question. As he'd expected, she looked rather unwell for a moment; then she said, 'All right.' After that, they talked about timescales and materials and money for a while; then she went away. She was looking tired, Ziani reckoned, as though she was carrying a heavy weight.

He went back to the tower after she'd gone. There was something about it that appealed to him; the view, perhaps, or the confined nature of the space, maybe just the fact that it was a comfortable temperature in the fierce midday heat. In an hour or so, when it was cool enough for work, the builders would be arriving to start work on the footings for the foundry house. Something tangible, even if it was only a hole in the flagstones, a pile of sand, a stack of bricks: something he could see with his eyes rather than just his mind, to confirm that the design was starting to take shape.

Starting; there was still a long way to go. The factory, the Duke's involvement, making scorpions, all the individual components that were also intricate mechanisms in themselves; if only, he couldn't help thinking, all this inventiveness and ingenuity could be spent on something truly worthwhile, such as a modified dividing head for the vertical mills at the ordnance factory in Mezentia; if only his talent could be used for something other than abomination.

He'd heard a story once; about the old days, the very early days of the Guilds, before the Specifications were drawn up and the world was made fixed. Once, according to the story, there lived in the City a great engineer, who worked in the first of the new-style factories as a toolmaker. One day there was a terrible accident with one of the machines, and he lost both his hands. It happened that he was much afflicted by an itch in the middle of his back, something he'd lived with for years. Without hands, he couldn't scratch; so he summoned his two ablest assistants and with their help designed and built a machine, operated by the feet, which would scratch his back for him. It was frighteningly complicated, and in the process of getting it to work he thought up. and perfected a number of mechanical innovations (the universal joint, according to some versions of the story; or the ratchet and escapement). When it was finished, all the cleverest designers in the Guild came to look at it. They were filled with admiration, and praised him for his skill and cunning. 'Yes,' he replied sadly, 'that's all very well; but I'd much rather use my hand, like I did before.'

All that invention and application, to make a machine to do a task a small child could do without thinking; there was undoubtedly a lesson there (all stories from the old days had morals, it was practically a legal requirement) but he'd never been sure till quite recently what it was. Now of course he knew, but that wasn't really much comfort to him.

When the men eventually showed up-the Eremian nation had many virtues, of which punctuality wasn't one-he went down to show them what to do and where to do it, then escaped back to his tower, the shade and the coolness of the massive stone blocks it was built from. He should have been down below-he had work to do, a machine to build, he ought by rights to be alive again, not a ghost haunting himself-but there were issues to be resolved before he could apply an uncluttered mind to the serious business of cutting and bending steel. He summoned a general parliament of his thoughts, and put the motion to be debated.

It could be argued (he opened, for the prosecution) that he'd come a long way-away from the ordnance factory, the City, his home. Now he was in a place that was in many respects unsatisfactory, but which he could survive in, more or less. It might be hard to live here, but he could work, which was what really mattered. So long as he could work, he could exist. In a tenuous sort of a way (but the only one that mattered) he could be happy. A proverb says that the beating of the heart and the action of the lungs are a useful prevarication, keeping all options open. He'd lost everything he'd ever had, but he was still on his feet, able to move, able to scribe a line and hold a file. The world hadn't ended, the day they came for him-Compliance, with their writ and their investigating officer and the armed men from the Guildhall. Now he was here, and there wasn't any real need (was there?) to build and set in motion the enormous machine that so far existed only in his mind. He was here; he could stay here, settle down, start a business. A lot of people did that, lesser men than himself. So could he.

But (replied the defence) he could only do this if he was still, at heart, the man he'd been the day before they came for him. If leaving there and coming here had changed him, damaged him (that was what he was getting at, surely), then the absolute priority must be to put the damage right; and only the machine could do that.

Query (the prosecution rejoined) the motivation behind the machine. Consider the man in the story; did he build his machine just to scratch his back, or because he was an engineer, because he could? Consider himself; was the purpose of the machine as simple, small and pure as he wanted this court to believe, or was it something darker and vaguer? An inevitable result of engaging the machine would be the end of the world; he'd admitted and regretted it as an unavoidable piece of collateral damage, but what if it was really his principal motive? What if he was building the machine out of a desire to punish them, or (punishment sublimated) to destroy an evil? What if the real reason for the machine was just revenge?

What nonsense (the defence replied). He could only desire revenge against the Republic if he hated it, and he didn't; nor did he want to change it, except in one very small way. He had no quarrel with the Guilds, or Specification, or anything big and important; the constitution, operating procedures and internal structures were as near perfect as they could be, given that the Republic was built from fallible human flesh rather than reliable materials like stone and steel. One small adjustment was all he was after; a little thing, a trifle, something a fourth-level clerk in Central Office could grant with a pen-stroke. It was only because he was out here, outside, unable to follow the ordained procedure, that he had need to resort to the machine. Since his exclusion wasn't his fault, the damage the machine would do wouldn't be his fault either. It was a shame that it had to be done this way, but that one little adjustment wasn't negotiable. He had to have it; and if it meant the end of the world, that wasn't his problem.

I've changed, he recognised. Something has happened to me. I never used to be like this. On the other hand, I was never in this situation before. Maybe I've simply grown to fit, rather than changed.

Nevertheless; the machine, the overthrow of nations, the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, just so I can scratch my itching back; I have to ask myself whether it's justified.

He thought about it, and the little thing he wanted to achieve; and he realised that the debate was irrelevant. He had no choice, as far as the little thing was concerned. He could no more turn his back on it than a stone dropped from a tower could refrain from falling. Most men, desiring this thing, wouldn't build the machine, but only because they wouldn't know how to. He knew; so he had to build it. He couldn't pretend it was beyond him, because he knew it wasn't. The little thing-the most powerful, destructive force in the world, the cause of all true suffering, the one thing everybody wants most of all-was pulling on him like the force that pulls the falling stone, and there was nothing he could do to resist it.

Debate adjourned.

He stood up; his back was slightly stiff, from leaning up against the wall as he squatted on the tower floor. He narrowed the focus of his mind, crowding out the bigger picture until all he could see was the frame, cycle parts and mechanism of a scorpion. First, he said to himself, I'll need thirty-two feet of half-inch square section steel bar… Valens Valentinianus to Veatriz Sirupati, greetings.

I have read your letter.

I know what you want; you want me to tell you how sympathetic I feel, how I know how difficult it must be for you, how brave you're being, how awful it is, you poor thing. I'd really like to be able to oblige, but that's not how my mind works, unfortunately. I read your letter, and at once I start thinking about ways and means; things you could do, things I could do, things to be taken account of in deciding what's the best thing to be done. Only a few lines in, and already I have a mind full of things.

Which is the difference between you and me. You live in a world of people, I live in a world of things. To you, what matters is thoughts, feelings, love and hurt and pain and distress, with joy squeezing in wherever it can, in little cracks, like light; in small observations, which you are kind enough to share with me. I, on the other hand, was brought up by my vicious bastard of a father to play chess with my life; a piece, a thing, manipulated here and there to bring about a desired result; an action taken, a move made, and I get what I want-the wolf driven into the net, the boar enfiladed by archers in covert, the enemy driven off with heavy losses, the famine averted, the nation saved. When I was a boy-when all men were boys, they lived from one toy to the next, their lives were charted out by a relay of things longed for (a new bow, a new horse, a new doublet, a new girl, an education, enlightenment, a crown), laid out alongside the desert road like way-stations to get you home at last to wherever it is you're supposed to be going.

I've always lived for things; some of them I can touch, some of them are abstracts (glory, honour, justice, prosperity, peace); all of them are beads on a wire with which to tally the score. I have, of course, never married; and it's a very long time now since I was last in love. Accordingly, I've never brutalised myself by turning love into another thing-to-be-acquired (I've brutalised myself in lots of other ways, mind you, but not that one); so there's a sort of virginal innocence about me when I read your letter, and instantly start translating your feelings into my list-of-things-to-be-done, the way bankers convert one currency into another.

Put it another way. Having read your letter, I'm bursting like a cracked dam with suggestions about how to make things better. But, because I am more than the sum of my upbringing and environment, I am managing, just about, not to. Congratulate me.

You poor thing. It sounds absolutely awful. I feel for you.

The trouble is, when I write that, I mean it; buggered if I know how to say it so it sounds sincere. When I was a boy I learned hunting, fencing and how to rule a small country. Self-expression was optional, and I took self-pity instead. It was more boring, but I liked the teacher better.

Poor Orsea. I wish he and I weren't enemies; in fact, I have an idea that we'd have got on well together, if we'd met many years ago, and all the things had been different. He and I are very different; opposites, in most respects. I think I would have liked him. I believe he can see beyond things to people; it's a blessing to him, and a curse. If he plays chess and sacrifices a knight to gain a winning advantage, I expect he can hear the knight scream as it dies. There are many wonderful uses in this world for a man like him; it's a pity he was forced into the wrong one.

We took out the new lymers today; we found in the long cover, ran the boar out on to the downs, finally killed in a little spinney, where he turned at bay. I ran in as soon as he stopped running and turned his head; I was so concerned about the dogs not getting hurt (because I've only just got them; they're my newest things, you see) that I went at the boar front-on, just me; staring into his eyes, with nothing between us except eight feet of ash pole with a spike on the end. As he charged, he hated me; because he hated me, he charged; because he charged, he lost. I'm not strong enough to drive a spearblade through all that hide, muscle and bone, but he is. His hate was his undoing, so it served him right. The hunter never hates his quarry; it's a thing which he wants to get, to reduce into possession, so how could he hate it? The boar only hated me because he recognised he'd been manipulated into an impossible situation, where he couldn't win or survive. I can understand that. I made him hate me; but hate is unforgivable, so it served him right. It was my fault that he was brought to bay, but he was responsible for his own undoing. I think. It's hard to be sure. I think it's the grey areas that I find most satisfying.

(Molyttus, too, used the hunt as an allegory for human passions and feelings. Strictly speaking, he was more a neo-Mannerist than a Romantic, I feel, but that's a largely subjective judgement.)

Poor Orsea. I feel for him, too. If there's anything you'd like me to do, just say. That made the tenth time he'd read it, and it still said the same.

Miel folded the letter up again and put it back in the chest; he turned the key, took it out, put it away. There, now; nobody but he knew where it was, or even that it existed (but he could feel it, through an inch of oak, as though it was watching him and grinning).

A sensible man would burn it, he told himself. Get rid of it, pretend he'd never seen it, wipe it out of his life and hope it'd go away for ever. That was what a sensible man would do.

He went down the stairs and walked briskly to the long solar, where Orsea would be waiting for him. His clothes felt clammy against his skin, and his hands itched where he'd touched the parchment.

'Miel.' Orsea was sitting in a big chair with broad, flat arms; he had his feet up on a table, and he was reading a book.

'Sorry I'm late.'

'You aren't.' Orsea put the book face down on his knee. 'Against an unarmoured opponent, the common pitchfork is a more effective weapon than a conventional spear; discuss.'

Miel raised both eyebrows. 'Good heavens,' he said, 'let me think. Well, you've got the advantage of the bit in the middle, I suppose, where the two arms of the fork join; you can use it for blocking against a sword or an axe, or binding and jamming a spear or a halberd. Or you could use it to trap the other man by the neck without injuring him.' He paused; Orsea was still looking at him. 'You can't overpenetrate, because the fork stops you going too far in, so you can disengage quicker. How'm I doing?'

Orsea nodded. 'This man here,' he said, waggling the book, 'reckons the pitchfork is the ideal weapon for hastily levied troops in time of emergency. Actually, he's full of bright ideas; for instance, there's the triple-armed man.'

'A man with three arms?'

'No.' Orsea shook his head. 'It's like this. You've got your bow and arrow, right? Strapped to your left wrist-which is extended holding the bow-you've got your pike. Finally, you've got your sword at your side, if all else fails. Or there's a really good one here; you've got your heavy siege catapults drawn up behind your infantry line, and instead of rocks you load them with poisonous snakes. As soon as the enemy charge, you let go, and down come the snakes like a heavy shower.'

Miel frowned. 'Who is this clown?'

Orsea lifted the book so Miel could see the spine. 'His name,' Orsea said, 'isn't actually recorded; it just says, A Treatise On The National Defence, By a Patriot.' He held the book out at arm's length and let it fall to the floor. 'The snake idea is particularly silly,' he said. 'I can see it now; you spend a year poking round under rocks to find all these snakes, you pack them up in jars or wicker baskets or whatever you keep snakes in; you've got special snake-wardens, hired at fabulous expense, and a separate wagon train to carry them, plus all their food and fresh water and God knows what else; somehow or other you get them to the battle, along with two dozen huge great catapults, which you've somehow contrived to lug through the mountain passes without smashing them to splinters; you wind back the catapults and you're all ready, the enemy's about to charge, so you give the order, break out the snakes; so they open up the jars, and find all the snakes have died in the night, just to spite you.' He sighed. 'I won't tell you what he said about the military uses of honey. It's one of those things that gets inside your head and lies dormant for a while, and then you go mad.'

Miel shrugged. 'Why are you wasting your time with this stuff?' he said.

'Desperation, I think,' Orsea replied. 'I asked the librarian to look out anything he could find that looked like a military manual or textbook. So far, that was the pick of the bunch.'

Miel frowned. 'The spy business,' he said. 'You're worried they're planning to invade.'

'Yes,' Orsea said. 'It's the only explanation that makes any sense. Say what you like about the Republic, they don't waste money. If they're spying on us, it must mean they're planning an attack. And when it comes, we don't stand a chance.'

Miel shifted slightly. 'There are other explanations,' he said. 'We've been through all this.'

Orsea slid his face between his hands. 'There ought to be something we could do,' he said. 'I know this sounds really stupid, but I've got this horrible picture in my mind; one of those fancy illuminated histories, where you get charts of kings and queens; and there's one that says, "The Dukes of Eremia", and there's all the names, with dates and who they married, and right at the bottom, there's me: Orsea Orseolus, and nothing to follow. I hate the thought that it's all going to end with me, and all because-'

'Pull yourself together, for God's sake,' Miel said. He hadn't meant to say it so loud. Orsea looked up at him. 'I'm sorry,' he said.

'Don't worry about it,' Orsea said wearily. 'Maybe you're right. Maybe we can still get out of this in one piece. But if we don't, whose fault will it be? I can't seem to get past that, somehow.'

Miel took a deep breath, and let it go slowly. 'Think about it, will you?' he said. 'Like you said yourself, the Mezentines don't waste money. We aren't a threat to them, not now; it'd take a fortune in money and God knows how many lives to take the city. They aren't going to do it. What would it achieve for them, apart from wiping out thousands of customers for all that useless junk they churn out?'

But Orsea shook his head. 'This isn't what we were going to talk about,' he said.

'No, it isn't.' Miel tried to recall what the meeting was supposed to deal with. 'Ambassadors from the Cure Hardy,' he remembered. 'Arriving some time next week.'

'Yes,' Orsea replied. 'Well, they're early. Turned up this morning. Suddenly appeared out of nowhere, according to Cerba.'

'Who?'

Slight frown. 'Cerba Phocas, the warden of the southern zone. Your second cousin.'

Miel shrugged. Practically everybody above the rank of captain was his second cousin. 'Right,' he said. 'Sorry, you were saying. Hang on, though-'

'In fact,' Orsea continued, 'one of his patrols took them for bandits and arrested them, which is a great way to start a diplomatic relationship.'

Don't laugh, Miel ordered himself. 'Well, at least it shows our border security's up to scratch,' he said. 'But what were they doing on Cerba's patch? I thought they'd be coming up the Lonazep road.'

'Don't ask me,' Orsea said, standing up. 'I suppose they must've wandered off the road and got lost. I don't think it'd be tactful to ask them. Anyhow, I've rescheduled the meeting for just after early vespers; we can go straight in to dinner as soon as it's over. God knows what we're going to give them to eat.'

They discussed the agenda for the meeting for a while. Miel did his best without being too obvious about it, but Orsea refused to cheer up. A pity; establishing proper grownup diplomatic relations with the Cure Hardy was easily the biggest success of Orsea's reign so far, and he'd mostly brought it about by his own efforts; choosing and sending presents, writing letters, refusing to be put off by the lack of a reply or even the disappearance of his messengers. Also, Miel couldn't help thinking (though he'd made himself promise not to entertain such thoughts), if the Republic actually was considering an invasion of Eremia, a rapprochement with their barbarous southern neighbours couldn't come at a better time. Given the Mezentines' paranoia about the Cure Hardy, it wouldn't take much in the way of dark hints and artful suggestion to persuade them that Orsea had concluded an offensive and defensive alliance with the savages, and that war with Eremia would open the door to limitless hordes of Cure Hardy tribesmen, poised to flood down out of the mountains like volcanic lava. That alone might be enough to avert an invasion, provided that the Mezentines didn't think too long or too hard about how such hordes might be expected to cross the uncrossable desert.

As soon as he could get away without being rude, Miel left the long solar and crossed the quadrangle to the east apartments. At least, he thought, the Cure Hardy had taken his mind off the letter for a while.

'It's all right,' Miel whispered to Orsea, as they took their seats in the lesser day-chamber, behind a table the size of a castle door. 'I sent the kitchen steward to the market, and he bought up all the game he could find: venison, boar, hare, mountain goat, you name it. Also, he's doing roast mutton, guinea fowl, peahen and rabbit in cider. There's got to be something in that lot they'll eat.'

'Marvellous,' Orsea said. 'And plenty of booze too, I hope.'

Miel shuddered slightly. 'Enough to float a coal barge. Wine, beer, porter, mead, cider…'

'Then we should be all right,' Orsea said, with a faint sigh of relief. 'At least something'll go right. Are you nervous?'

'Petrified.'

'Same here. Right, we'd better have them in and take a look at them.'

Miel nodded to the chamberlain, who slid noiselessly away and returned with the fascinating, exotic guests. Miel and Orsea stood up; Miel bowed slightly, Orsea nodded.

There were five of them. Miel's first impression was simple surprise. He'd been expecting-what, savages in animal skins with rings through their eyebrows, something like that. Instead, he saw five old men in identical plain brown robes, loose at the neck and full in the sleeve, some kind of coarse wool; they had sandals on their feet, and rather splendid silk sashes round their waists. Their faces reminded him irresistibly of hawks, on the bow-perch in a mews; the same bright, round eyes, the stillness of the head, the set expression. All five of their faces were tanned and deeply lined; they all wore short white beards, and their hair was cropped close; one of them was bald, with a slightly pointed head. They bowed too; if pressed, Miel would have said they were trying to copy their hosts' manner of greeting.

Translator, he thought. We need a translator, or how the hell are we going to understand each other?

While he was cursing himself for overlooking this vital point, the bald man cleared his throat with a soft cough and said, 'Thank you for agreeing to see us.' His pronunciation was excellent received Mezentine; his voice deep, his accent noticeable but not in the least intrusive. He had a little stub of a nose and small, almost translucent ears. 'We apologise,' he went on, 'for arriving early; we had already embarked on our journey when our guide pointed out to us a more direct road, which we followed. We hope we have not inconvenienced you.'

'Not at all.' Orsea was sounding nervously cheerful; at least, Miel could construe nerves in his tone of voice. He'd known Orsea too long to be able to judge whether anybody else would pick up on it. The savages didn't seem at all apprehensive, as though they did this sort of thing every day before breakfast. 'We're delighted to meet you, and thank you for coming. My name is Orsea Orseolus, and this is my adviser Miel Ducas.'

The bald man dipped his head, and recited his name and those of his colleagues. They slipped through Miel's mind like eels, but he'd never been good with names; he fancied the bald man was called something like Garlaregion; he didn't have a clue what it'd look like written down.

Orsea bowed again; they bowed back. Orsea tried some vague gestures to get them to sit down, which eventually they did. Something about the chairs bothered them, but they didn't say anything.

'Perhaps,' the bald man said, 'we should get down to business. You would like to establish a formal diplomatic mission to the Biau Votz.'

Miel blinked. Surely they hadn't got the wrong savages, after all? Or was Biau whatsit the name of their capital city; except nomads don't have cities. In that case, what was the whatever he'd just said? Some name they called their leader?

Orsea said, 'Yes, absolutely' Miel knew he was confused too, and trying hard not to show it. Was one of the savages smiling?

'We would, of course, be happy to forge this historic link,' the bald man went on. 'However, there are various issues that we should perhaps address at this stage; matters you may not be aware of, which might influence your decision. If you have already considered these points, please forgive us.'

He paused. Really, Miel thought, they're far more polite than I expected. 'Please go on,' Orsea said. The bald man nodded, then looked at the man on his left, who said: 'We must confess, we are a little puzzled why you should have chosen us, rather than, say, the Flos Glaia or the Lauzeta. Not that we do not appreciate the honour of being the first sect of the Cure Hardy to open a dialogue with your people; but our circuit brings us to the edge of the desert only once every twenty years, and in the interim we spend most of our time in the Culomb and Rosinholet valleys-by our calculations, some eight hundred miles from the nearest point on your border. With the best will in the world, communications between us and yourselves would be difficult. We should point out that the sects through whose circuits your envoys would need to pass are nearly all hostile to us, and accordingly we would not be able to guarantee their safety outside our own circuit. Furthermore,' the man went on, frowning slightly, 'although naturally we have only a sketchy and incomplete knowledge of your economic position, we have to ask whether any regular trade between yourselves and us would be worth the effort. The cost of transporting bulk foodstuffs, for example, would be prohibitive; likewise heavy goods such as metal ores or timber. As for luxury goods…'

Sects, Miel thought; he must mean tribes, something like that. We thought the Cure Hardy were all one tribe, but maybe there's loads of them, all different; and we've picked the wrong one.

'Your points are well made,' Orsea was saying; the savage had stopped talking, there had been a brief, brittle silence. 'However, I must confess, we hadn't really thought as far ahead as trade and so on. Really, all we're trying to do at this stage is, well, get to know each other. One step at a time is what I'm getting at.'

'Of course.' The savage nodded very slightly. 'Forgive us if we were unduly forward. Naturally, we welcome any overtures of friendship, and of course our two nations have much to offer each other above and beyond mere material commerce. In any event, we have clarified the position as far as we are concerned.'

As the afternoon wore on, Miel found it increasingly hard to concentrate. Reading between the lines, he was fairly certain that his earlier guess had been right; there were any number of different tribes of Cure Hardy, and they'd somehow managed to get in touch with the wrong one. That was annoying, to say the least, but the thing needn't be a complete disaster. If they were tactful and managed not to give too much away, they ought at the very least to be able to get some useful background information, enough to help them figure out which tribe they really wanted to talk to. From what he'd managed to glean so far, Miel thought either the Lauzeta or the Aram Chantat-although, confusingly, the Lauzeta were apparently mortal enemies of the Biau Votz, the Aram Chantat hated the Lauzeta like poison (not, as far as he could make out, vice versa), and both the Biau Votz and the Aram Chantat were best friends with the Rosinholet, who hated everybody else in the whole world. It might, Miel decided, be a good idea to find out a whole lot more before venturing on any serious diplomatic initiatives.

At least the invitation to dinner went down well. At the mention of food, the savages became quite animated, and one of them even smiled. A good feed and a few drinks might liven them up a bit, Miel thought, loosen their tongues and get them to relax a little. So far they'd been so stiff and formal that he wondered if they were really savages at all.

'May we venture to ask,' one of them was saying as they made their way to the great hall, 'how matters stand between yourselves and the Republic of Mezentia? Our own relations with the Mezentines have been few and perfunctory, but cordial nonetheless.'

Miel didn't manage to hear Orsea's reply to that, because at that moment the bald man asked him something about Eremian horse-breeding. Apparently, the horses he'd seen since he crossed the border were quite like the ones back home, which were different from the horses raised by most of the other sects. Miel answered as best he could, but he didn't know the technical stuff the bald man seemed to be after. He tried to remember if his cousin Jarnac had been invited to the dinner; he'd know all about it, if he was there. Meanwhile, the bald man was telling him a lot of stuff he didn't really want to know about horse-breeding back home; he let his attention wander as they crossed the front courtyard, until the bald man said, 'Of course, we are only a small sect, we muster barely nine hundred thousand men-at-arms, and so our pool of brood mares is far smaller than that of the larger sects, such as the Lauzeta or the Doce Votz-'

'Excuse me,' Miel said. 'Did you say nine hundred thousand?'

The bald man nodded. 'It is our small size that enables us to follow such a wide circuit. The larger sects are confined to more circumscribed areas, since they need to graze eight, even ten times that number. We can subsist, therefore, where they cannot, and they are not tempted to appropriate our grazing, since it would be of no use to them. Accordingly-'

'This is the great hall,' Orsea interrupted. 'If you'd like to follow me.'

There was something vaguely comic about the savages' reaction to being inside it; from time to time, when they thought no one was looking, they'd crane their necks and snatch a quick look at the roof-beams, as if they were worried it was all about to come crashing down on their heads. Fair enough, Miel reckoned, if they lived their entire lives in tents. If anything else about their surroundings impressed them, they gave no sign of it, and that made Miel wonder if their ingenuous remarks about their few but cordial contacts with the Republic were the truth and the whole truth. They'd be forgiven for regarding the great hall of the castle as no big deal if they were familiar with the interior of the Guildhall…

Before Miel took his place at the table, he made a show of beckoning to the hall steward. When the man came over to him, he leaned in close and whispered, 'Get me something to write on.' Luckily, the steward knew him well enough not to argue; he disappeared and came back a moment later with a dripping pen and a scrap of parchment, hastily cut from the wrapping of a Lowland cheese. Resting against the wall, Miel scribbled, Orsea, there are millions of them. 'Give this to the Duke when the guests aren't looking,' he muttered to the steward; then he sat down next to the bald man.

'This is a most impressive building,' the bald man said, without much sincerity. 'Are the cross-pieces of the roof each made from a single tree, or are they spliced together in some way?'

Miel had no idea, but he said, 'A single tree, they were brought in specially from the north,' because he reckoned that was what the man would want to hear. Maybe it was; he didn't pursue the subject further. Instead, he asked what sort of timber the table was made out of. Miel didn't know that either, so he said it was oak; at which point, the servers started bringing in the food.

'We have a serious shortage of timber,' the bald man said. 'Traditionally, we cut lumber from the forests of the Culomb valley in the seventh year of our circuit. Recently, however, the Doce Votz have laid claim to that part of the valley and forbidden us to fell any standing timber. This leaves us in an unfortunate position. Dogwood, hazel and ash, in particular…'

Miel nodded politely, while scanning the incoming dishes. The steward had done a good job at short notice. As well as the venison, boar, hare, mountain goat, roast mutton, guinea fowl, peahen and rabbit in cider, there was partridge, rock grouse (just coming into season), collar dove and whole roast goose. He nodded to the steward, who nodded to the servers.

'Excuse me,' said the bald man. He looked embarrassed. So did his colleagues. 'Excuse me,' he repeated, 'but we do not eat meat.'

'But-' Orsea said; then he checked himself, and went on: 'What can we get for you?'

'Some cheese', perhaps.' The bald man stressed the word, as if he wasn't sure his hosts had ever heard of it. 'And some plain bread and fruit, if possible.'

'Of course.' Credit where it was due, Orsea was taking it in his stride. 'What would you like to drink? We've got wine, beer-'

Just a trace of a frown. 'We do not drink intoxicants,' the bald man said. 'Plain water would suit us very well.'

'Plain water,' Orsea repeated. 'Fine.' He waved to the steward, and said, 'Take all this away, fetch us some bread and cheese, apples and some jugs of water.'

'Certainly, sir,' the steward said, and handed him the scrap of parchment. Miel wasn't sure, because the bald man partly obstructed his view, but he had an idea that Orsea flinched when he read it. He dropped it beside his plate. Some time later, Miel noticed, while Orsea was talking to the man on his other side, the savage quietly picked it up, glanced at it and tucked it into his sleeve.

The dinner didn't last long, since there wasn't much to eat and the visitors didn't care for music or dancing, either. Orsea himself took them to their quarters, allowing Miel to escape from the great hall and beat a hasty retreat to the security of his office, the main attraction of which was a tall stone bottle of the distilled liquor the Vadani made from mountain oats. It went by the curious name of Living Death, and Miel reckoned it was probably the only thing in the world that might do some good.

He'd swallowed three fingers of the stuff and was nerving himself for another dose when Orsea came in, without knocking; he crossed to the empty chair, dropped into it like a headshot doe, and groaned.

'Come in,' Miel said. 'Take a seat.'

'Thanks,' Orsea replied. 'Miel, have you still got any of that disgusting Vadani stuff that tastes like etching acid?'

Miel pushed the small horn cup across the table; he was a loyal subject, and could drink straight from the bottle when he had to.

'I'm fairly sure,' Orsea said slowly, after he'd taken his medicine, 'that there wasn't anything else we could've got wrong; I mean, as far as I can see, we've got the complete set. If I missed anything, though, we could have a stab at it tomorrow morning early, before they set off.'

Miel thought for a moment. 'We didn't actually kill any of them,' he said, 'or set fire to their hair.'

'True.' Orsea leaned forward and reached for the bottle. 'But that'd just be gilding the lily. We did enough, I reckon.'

'It didn't go well.'

'Not really' Orsea passed the bottle back, and they sat in silence for a while.

'What bugs me, though,' Miel said, 'is why they came up from the south, instead of down the Lonazep road.' He had a certain amount of trouble with the word Lonazep. 'It's all very well saying they got lost, but they were early. If they'd got lost, they should've been late.'

'Wish they had got lost,' Orsea said. 'Permanently'

Another silence; then Miel said: 'Well, now we know what the Cure Hardy look like.'

'Miserable lot,' Orsea said. 'Always complaining. Didn't like their rooms much, either. Oh, they didn't say anything, but I could tell.'

Miel suggested various things they could do. 'And besides,' he went on, 'it doesn't actually matter, does it? You heard them. Won't be back this way for another twenty years. By which time,' he added brightly, 'we'll all've been massacred by the Mezentines.'

'There's that,' Orsea conceded. 'No, I won't, thanks,' he said, as Miel threatened him with the bottle. 'Got to be up early tomorrow to see 'em off, don't forget, and I'd hate for us to give a bad impression.'

'One thing,' Miel remembered. 'That bald man. He asked me if we could sell them some wood.'

Orsea frowned, as if the concept was unfamiliar to him. 'Wood.'

'That's right. For immediate delivery, before they move out of range. Dogwood, cornel wood, ash, hazel. Willing to pay top thaler for quality merchandise.'

'Well, he's out of luck,' Orsea said. 'Besides, after the way they behaved, I wouldn't sell them wood if they were the last men on earth. Screw them, in fact.'

'Absolutely.' Miel thought for a bit, but all the edges were getting blurred. 'What's dogwood?' he asked.

'No idea.'

'Doesn't matter.' Miel waved away dogwood in perpetuity. 'Sure you won't have another?'

'Revolting stuff. Just a taste, then.'

Just a taste was all that was left in the bottle; odd, Miel thought, because it was nearly full a moment ago. Evaporation, maybe. 'I'll say this for them,' he said, 'if I hadn't known they were savages, I'd never have guessed.'

Orsea concentrated. 'Insidious,' he said. 'Get under your guard pretending to be not savage.' He looked at the tips of his fingers for a long minute, then said: 'So let's get this straight. Nearest to our border are the Doce Votz. Next to them are the Rosinholet.'

Miel shook his head; an interesting experience. 'No, you're wrong,' he said. 'Next to the Doce Votz you've got the Lauzeta. Next to them's the Aram Chantat.'

'The Aram Chantat? You sure?'

Miel shrugged. 'Something like that. Anyhow, now we know what they're like, these barbarians-'

'No meat. And no drink.'

'Exactly. Now we know what they're like, we can talk to them. Bloody useful initiative. Good men to have on your side in a fight, I bet.'

For some reason, Orsea thought that was terribly funny. So, after a moment, did Miel. 'No, but seriously,' Miel went on. 'If only we knew why they didn't come up the Lonzanep road-'

'Lonazep.'

'That too. Can't figure that out. Bloody great big desert in the way if you're coming from that direction. Should've starved and parched ten times over before they got here.'

'Oh, I don't know,' Orsea objected. 'I mean, they don't eat a lot, or drink.' He reached for the bottle, just in case there was a drop lurking inside it somewhere, and knocked it off the table on to the floor. 'Bloody Vadani,' he said. 'Can't even make a bottle that stands upright.'

Not long after that he fell asleep. Miel, who knew about protocol, struggled to his feet, called a page and had him carried back to his apartments; then he flopped back into his chair and closed his eyes. That was one of the good things about not being a duke: he could grab forty winks in his chair without having to be carried home like a drunk.

Someone he didn't know woke him up in his chair the next morning with a message from Orsea. The Cure Hardy had gone home, the message said (Miel asked the stranger what time it was; just after noon, the man replied); the Duke's compliments, and it would've been nice if Miel could have been there to see them on their way. A little later, he found Orsea in the small rose garden and apologised. His head hurt and his digestion wasn't quite right-that was what came of eating bread and cheese for dinner, Orsea said-which probably explained why he forgot to tell Orsea about the letter. He considered mentioning it then and there, but decided not to.

Since he wasn't feeling his best, he reckoned he might as well go home. On his way, he ran into Sorit Calaphates, who thanked him for inviting him to meet the Cure Hardy at dinner. It was news to Miel that he'd done so, but he accepted the thanks in the spirit in which they were given.

'So,' Miel said, 'haven't seen you around much lately. Been busy?'

Calaphates nodded. 'My new business venture,' he said with a slight roll of the eyes. 'I'm starting to wonder what I've got myself into.'

'Remind me,' Miel said.

'The Mezentine,' Calaphates said. 'You suggested it, remember.'

'Oh yes,' Miel said. 'Him. Going well?'

'You could say that,' Calaphates muttered. 'Going to cost me an absolute fortune by the time he's done. Still, clever man, can't deny that. This morning he was on about some new way of smelting iron ore; reckons it'll be better than how it's done in Mezentia, even. Anyway, that's what I need to talk to you about sometime. Not now,' he added, because he was a reasonably perceptive man. 'Later, when you've got a moment. I'll send my clerk, and he can fix up a time.'

'Splendid,' Miel said. 'I'll look forward to that. So, what did you think of the savages?'

'Not what I'd been expecting,' Calaphates admitted. 'Quiet. Can't say I took to them.'

'They've gone now,' Miel said. 'Still, we had some useful discussions.'

Calaphates nodded. 'Wonder what they'll make of the Merchant Adventurers,' he said. 'Don't suppose they've got anything like them back where they come from.'

'Merchant Adventurers?' Miel repeated. 'What've they got to do with anything?'

'The man I was talking to last night said they were meeting them this morning, on their way home. Didn't they mention it?'

'Possibly,' Miel said. 'Can't think why, though, they live too far away.' He shrugged. He'd had enough of the Cure Hardy. 'Can't do any harm,' he said.

'Probably want to sell them something,' Calaphates said, reasonably enough. 'In which case, bloody good luck. Strange people, though. All those different tribes.'

'Sects,' Miel corrected.

'As you say, sects. The man I was talking to did try and explain, but I'm afraid I lost the thread. Apparently they're all descended from one tribe, but they split up hundreds of years ago over religious differences; they stopped believing in the religion long since, but they still keep up the differences. Charming, though, about the names.'

'What about the names?' Miel asked.

'The names of the sects. Let's see.' Calaphates' narrow forehead crinkled in thought. 'Their lot, the Biau Votz; that means Beautiful Voice in their language. The Rosinholet are the Nightingales, the Aram Chantat are the Voices Raised in Song, the Flos Glaia are the Meadow Flowers or something of the sort, and so on. Apparently they believe that when they die, they're reborn as songbirds.'

'Good heavens,' Miel said, mildly stunned.

Calaphates nodded. 'People are curious, aren't they? Well, I won't keep you.' He dipped his head in formal salutation and scuttled away.

The Beautiful Voice and the Meadow Flowers… Miel gave that a great deal of thought on the way home, but in spite of his best endeavours he was unable to arrive at any meaningful conclusion.

Chapter Twelve

'This,' the foreman said, 'is the main transmission house. Power for the whole machine shop comes from this one flywheel, which is driven by direct gearing from the big overshot waterwheel out back. This here is the main takeoff-he pointed with his stick-'and that's the gear train that supplies the overhead shafts in the long gallery, where all the heavy lathes and mills are.'

Falier Zenonis nodded and muttered, 'Ah' for the twentieth time that morning. He knew it all already, of course, though he'd never actually seen it. But he'd spent a week laboriously working through the notes poor Ziani had made; notes, drawings, sketches, detail sketches, you couldn't fault Ziani on his thoroughness when it came to mechanisms. As a result, he knew his way round the machine shop better than his guide; like a blind man who's lived in the same house all his life. But even if Ziani's notes were strictly legal (which he doubted) he didn't want to draw attention to the fact that he'd read them, or known Ziani at all. So, 'What does that thing there do?' he asked, though he knew perfectly well.

'That?' The foreman pointed. 'That's clever. You just knock back the handle-there, look-and that disengages the main drive. It's a safety thing, mostly; someone gets his arm caught in a belt, you call up to the transmission house and they throw this lever, and the whole lot stops dead.'

'I see,' Falier replied, remembering to sound suitably impressed. 'Do we get a lot of accidents?'

'Not really,' the foreman replied. 'Not when you consider how many people work here, and how much machinery we've got running. Obviously, from time to time someone's going to get careless, there's nothing anybody can do to stop it happening. But you can cut down the risk with the right shift rotations, so nobody's working the dangerous machines long enough to get tired, and only properly trained men use the really big, heavy stuff. That sort of thing's going to be a large part of your job: duty rosters, choosing the right men for each machine, all that stuff.'

Before his disgrace, Ziani had written out frameworks for duty rosters for the next eighteen months; all Falier would need to do would be to fill in the names and copy them out in his own handwriting. Involuntarily, he wondered where Ziani was at that precise moment, and what he was doing.

'Tell me about the man who used to do this,' he said, as casually as he could. 'Didn't he get into some kind of trouble?'

'You could say that,' the foreman replied with a grin. 'You must've heard, it was really big news, just before the Eremian invasion.'

'Hold on,' Falier said. 'That's right, I-remember now. Abomination, wasn't it?'

The foreman scowled as he nodded. 'We were stunned, I can tell you. Gutted. I mean, he always came across as, you know, an ordinary kind of bloke. A bit keen, maybe, inclined to shave the rules a bit to get on top of a schedule; but sometimes you've got to be like that to get things done around here. Within reason,' he added quickly. 'I mean, what he did, there's no excuse for that.'

No excuse. Well. A picture of Ziani as he'd last seen him flooded uninvited into Falier's mind; dazed, he'd seemed, wondering what was going on, in the prison cell in the Guildhall basement, clutching trustingly to the tiny fragment of hope Falier had given him-not for himself, but for his wife and daughter. No excuse; reading the notes and the rosters, page after page covered in neat, ugly, small writing-Ziani always wrote quickly, but he'd never mastered the art of joined-up letters, so he'd invented a method all his own (which was also an abomination, strictly speaking), he remembered the times he'd borrowed Ziani's notes for revision in school, because he'd lost his own, or he'd been playing truant that day. You looked at the page and you thought it was illegible scrawl, but when you looked closer it was as easy to follow as the best clerk's copy-hand.

'It's always the quiet ones,' he heard himself say.

The foreman nodded briskly. 'He was that all right,' he said. 'Always kept himself to himself. I mean, he talked to the lads, but he was never one of them, if you see what I mean. Standoffish, I guess you could call it-not like he thought he was better than us, just sort of like he didn't want to join in. Like his mind was always somewhere else. And now,' he added grimly, 'we know all about it, don't we?'

'Well, I'm not like that,' Falier said, and he gave him one of his trust-me smiles. 'I expect I'm going to have to rely on all of you quite a lot, till I'm up to speed.'

The foreman shrugged his concerns away. 'Place more or less runs itself,' he said, thereby damning himself for ever in Falier's judgement. 'Let the lads get on with it, they know what to do. I mean, you've got the Specifications, what else do you need?'

Down the iron spiral stairs into the main shop; a huge place, bare walls like horizons enclosing a vast stone-flagged plain, on which stood rows and rows of machines. Falier had never seen an orchard, though he'd seen pictures and heard descriptions, and had imagined the straight, bare rides between the rows of trees. There was something like that about the shop floor, the same sense of order firmly imposed. There was far more than he could take in; the noise, an amalgam of dozens of different sounds forming a buzzing, intrusive composite; the smell of cutting oil, sheep's grease, steel filings, sweat and hot metal; the crunch of swarf under his feet, the taste in his mouth of thick, wet air and carborundum powder. He knew that Ziani had loved it here, that there was only one place on earth he'd rather be. Himself, he found it too hot, too noisy and too crowded. It had cost him a great deal of effort to get here, but he wasn't planning on staying any longer than he had to.

'This,' the foreman was saying, 'is your standard production centre lathe; it's what we use for general turning, dressing up castings, turning down diameters, facing off, all that. Driven off the overhead shaft by a two-inch leather belt; four speeds on the box plus two sizes of flywheel, so you've got eight running speeds straight away, before you need to start adding changewheels. Spindle bore diameter one and a half inches; centre height above the bed twelve inches; length between centres…'

Falier smiled appreciatively. It was just a machine. He'd seen loads of them, spent hours standing beside them turning the little wheels, reading off the scribed lines of the dials, dodging the vicious, sharp, hot blue spirals of swarf flying out from the axis of rotation like poisoned arrows. Ziani, now, he'd loved the big machines, the way a rider loves his horse or a falconer his falcons. To him, backlash in the lead-screw was a tragedy, like a child with a terminal illness; a snapped tap or a badly ground parting tool was the remorseless savagery of the world directed at him personally. There was a certain manic quality about the way Ziani had loved his work which Falier had always found vaguely disturbing. A Guildsman should be a part of his machine-the bit on the end of the handle that turned it a specified number of turns. Passion had no part in it. Looking back, you could see he was likely to come to a bad end.

'And over here,' the foreman went on, 'you've got your millers; verticals that side, horizontals this side. Tool racks here; you can see they're all arranged in size order, slot drills on the top row, end-mills next row down, bull-noses and dovetail cutters, flycutters, side-and-face, gang-mills, slotting saws. Collets and tee-nuts here, look, vee-blocks, couple of rotary tables…' Falier kept himself from yawning; a lesser man would've given in, because the foreman wasn't looking at him. He felt like a prospective son-in-law meeting the whole family, right down to the last seven-year-old third cousin.

'Anyhow,' the foreman said, 'that's about it, the grand tour. If there's anything I can help you with, anything you want to know, just ask.'

'Thanks,' Falier said-his mouth had almost forgotten how to shape words during the long, slow circuit. 'It's going to be a pleasure working here.'

The foreman smirked. Falier decided he loathed him, and that he'd need to be got rid of, sooner rather than later. No big deal. 'That just leaves your office,' the foreman said. 'This way, up the stairs.'

The ordnance factory was an old building-ever since Falier could remember they'd been on the point of pulling it down and rebuilding it from scratch, but the moment never quite came. Before the Reformation it had been a religious building of some kind, a temple or a monastery. It had been gutted two centuries earlier, all the internal walls demolished to make the long, high halls and galleries for the rows of machines, but four towers still remained, one at each corner.

Bell-towers, Falier had heard them called. Three of them housed cranes and winches, for lifting oversized sections of material. The fourth one was the senior foreman's office. Falier had been here once, to see Ziani. It was empty now, apart from a single chair and a bare table (not the ones that had been there the last time he'd seen it; every last trace of Ziani had been purged). There was no door; you looked out and down on to the factory floor, spread out in front of you like a vast, complex mechanism.

The foreman went away, leaving Falier sitting in the chair looking at the table. He was wondering what he was supposed to do next when a boy, about twelve years old, appeared in the archway and asked if there was anything he wanted.

Falier frowned. 'Who are you?'

'Bosc,' the boy replied.

'Right. What do you do around here?'

The boy thought for a moment. 'What I'm told.'

'Good. In that case, get me fifty sheets of writing paper, a bottle of ink and a pen.'

That was all it took, apparently; Bosc came back in a surprisingly short time with everything he'd asked for. 'Thanks,' Falier said. 'How do I find you when I need you for something?'

'Yell,' said Bosc, and went away.

Fine, Falier thought. He spread out a sheet of paper, and began writing down the things he knew he'd need to remember, before they slipped his mind. He'd covered three sheets and was crowding the foot of a fourth when a shadow cut out his light. He looked up. Bosc was back.

'Letter for you,' he said, and he brandished a small, folded square of parchment, presumably in case Falier wasn't inclined to believe him without tangible proof.

'Thanks,' Falier said. 'You can go.'

Bosc went. There was nothing written on the outside, so he unfolded it. He saw writing, and folded it back up again. He yelled.

Bosc came back, almost instantaneously. Presumably he sat on the stairs when not in use, like an end-mill on its rack.

'Who brought this?' Falier asked.

'Woman,' Bosc replied. 'Odd-looking.'

Falier felt muscles tighten in his stomach and chest. 'Odd-looking how?'

'She was big and old and fat, her face was sort of pale pink, and she was wearing a big red dress like a tent,' Bosc said. 'She talked funny.'

'Thanks,' Falier said. 'Go away.'

He counted up to twenty before unfolding the letter again. That handwriting; at first sight, you thought you'd never be able to read it. Falier-

The woman I've given this to reckons she can get it to you discreetly. Apparently, they're good at it, years of practice. For your sake, I hope it's true.

In case she's lying or overconfident: to whom it may concern. Be it known that I, Ziani Vaatzes, am writing to Falier Zenonis for the first time since my escape from the Guildhall. He has not been in touch with me since he visited me in prison, and he had nothing to do with my escape or subsequent defection. I'm writing to him because he's my oldest friend in the world, and about the only person in Mezentia who might just read this, rather than throw it straight on the nearest fire. I have information that will prove of great value to the Republic, but what good is it if nobody'll listen to me?

There; I hope that'll help, if they intercept this. If not, I'm very sorry for getting you into trouble. I don't suppose you'll be able to forgive me if that's happened, but you're the only one I could think of If you've read this far, thanks, Falier.

I'm a realist. I know I can't buy my way back home, not after what's happened. I know that even if what I've found out turns out to be as useful as I know it is, and the Republic's saved huge quantities of money and lives, it won't do me any good. But just because I'm here and I did what I did to stay alive, that doesn't change everything about me. I still believe in the important things: the Republic, the Guild, all the really big stuff. Also, I'm hoping there's still a chance that if I can do something for the Republic, it might make things easier for Ariessa and Moritsa. If there's anything I can do, that way, it's worth it, no matter what. And if that's out of the question, Falier, maybe you could use it to do yourself a bit of good; you couldn't let on you'd got it from me, of course, but I'm sure you can think of something. You always were a smart lad.

Falier, I don't know how much you know about diplomacy and foreign affairs and stuff, but it looks like there's going to be a war soon between Eremia Montis (that's where I am now) and the Republic. Naturally, the Republic will win. But the problem will be storming the capital city. City; it's more like a gigantic castle right on top of a mountain, really hard to get to at-the best of times. Trying to attack this place head on would cost millions of thalers and thousands of lives, and it'd take years; but I know a better way, quick, easy and cheap. Piece of cake. It's like this…

Falier read the rest of the letter slowly, trying to visualise what Ziani was talking about. He wasn't very good at that sort of thing; he preferred it all down on paper, diagrams and charts and plans, with someone to talk him through them and explain what he couldn't understand. The general principle was simple enough, though, and someone who knew about this sort of thing would be able to follow it. His instincts told him that Ziani's system would work, considered as a piece of engineering; assuming, of course, that the whole thing wasn't false-a trap, a mechanism designed to inflict harm at long range, a weapon. He was, of course, the only man in Mezentia who knew Ziani well enough to form an opinion about that.

There was no fireplace in the office. To burn the letter, he'd have to go down the stairs (past Bosc, presumably) and walk into the west gallery, where the forges were. He'd have to go up close to one of the forge hearths-only authorised personnel allowed within ten feet-and lean across and drop it into the flames, with the smith and his hammermen watching. Or he could take it home with him (that'd mean either hiding it somewhere, or carrying it around in his pocket all the rest of the day) and burn it there. Or he could keep it.

He looked down at the folded paper in his hands, just in case it had all been a hallucination; but it was still there.

The woman; big and old and fat, her face was sort of pale pink. He knew enough to guess that she must've been a merchant, Eremian or Vadani. If she'd opened the letter and read it (no seal, of course, to tell if she had or not; that'd have been too much to hope for)-even if she was discreet, suppose she was caught and questioned. It'd all come out, and if he burned the letter it'd probably be worse, because he'd have disposed of Ziani's pathetic attempt to protect him-pretty well worthless, of course, but better than nothing, perhaps. Or Bosc; had he read it? Could he read? Fucking Ziani, might as well have stuck a knife in his neck. Or maybe, just maybe, this wodge of paper was a magic carpet that could carry him to places he'd never even dreamed of reaching.

That was the cruellest part; not the despair, but the hope.

No door on his office. Cursing, he sat down and pulled off his left boot, trying to keep his movements slow and casual. In this place, people must be forever getting swarf and filings in their boots, having to take them off and put them on again. He slipped the letter into it and replaced it, lacing it up a little tighter than usual. If ever I see Ziani again, he promised himself, I'll make him wish Compliance had caught up with him first; even if it's power and wealth and glory, I'll skin him alive.

He stood up. He would have to spend the rest of the day walking round with the sharp corners of the letter digging into the sole of his foot, not daring to limp or wince. He felt like a dead man; heir to an incredible fortune, maybe, but too dead to enjoy it. Screw Ziani for trying to do the right thing. No surer recipe for a killer of men and sacker of cities than a subtle blend of altruism and stupidity.

All day, he felt as if people were staring at him. Which of course they were, since he was the new boss, and he was stalking round the place as though his knee-joints had been soldered up.

The first dozen ships docked at Lonazep early on a cold, grey morning, before the sea-frets had cleared. Nobody was expecting them; they were early, or the memo had got lost on someone's desk. They slid into existence out of the wet mist and cast anchor. Only a few old-timers had seen anything like them before.

For one thing, they weren't built of wood, like the honest fishing boats and merchantmen of Lonazep. Instead, they looked to have been contrived out of long strips of thick yellow rope, twisted out of straw and stitched together. They shifted, stretched and sagged like living things with every movement of the water. It was hard to see how they stayed afloat at all.

Furthermore, they were enormous. An ordinary trading coaster could have sailed under the prow of any one of them without fouling its mast-head. They were so tall that nobody on the quay could see beyond the chunky rope rails, and this gave the impression that there might not be anybody on board them at all; that they were ghost ships, or curious sea-monsters pretending to be ships in order to get close enough to attack.

After an unusually long time, they started lowering boats, which were crammed dangerously full of men. They were all wearing round steel helmets painted black, with tall horsehair plumes that nodded and swayed, grossly exaggerating the movements of the heads inside them. The boats were twice the size of the Lonazep herring and tuna boats, not much shorter than the whalers, and substantially broader in the beam; they too were made of rope, but they were powered by oars rather than sails, and they moved across the water alarmingly fast, like spiders climbing a wall.

A group of men bustled out of the customs house, trotting down the cob so as to get there before the first boat landed. In front was the harbourmaster, followed by his inspectors and clerks, with four anxious-looking guards in no great hurry to keep up. As he scuttled, the harbourmaster kept glancing down at a sheet of paper in his hand, as if he was on his way to an exam. He made it to the top of the steps with seconds to spare, as the first horsehair plume came up to meet him.

The face under the helmet was the same brown colour as the Mezentines', but it was bearded, long and thin. The top of the harbourmaster's head came up to its chin.

The harbourmaster was apologising (communications breakdown, wasn't expecting you for another fortnight, please forgive the apparent lack of respect) but the man in the plumed helmet didn't seem to be paying much attention. He was looking about him, at the square stone buildings and the beached ships, as if to say that this wasn't up to the standard he'd come to expect.

'We're the advance party,' he said, in good Mezentine. 'We caught the morning breeze. The rest'll be along later today'

The rest… The harbourmaster's face sagged, as though his jaw had just melted. The dozen rope ships all but filled the available space. 'The rest,' he repeated. 'Excuse me, how many would that-'

'Fifty-two,' the plumed man replied. 'That's the first squadron. We staggered it, so you'd be able to cope. The remaining squadron will be arriving over the next six days.'

The harbourmaster's clerk was counting on his fingers; sixty-four times six. Nobody else was bothered about the exact number.

'I think there may have been a misunderstanding,' the harbourmaster said. 'All those ships-and your men, too. I mean, arrangements will have to be made…'

The plumed man dipped his head very slightly. 'You'd better go away and make them,' he said.

Shortly after noon, when the rope boats had made their last crossing, and the town square was crammed to bursting with plumed men, the wagons started to arrive.The road was solid with them, the horses' noses snuffling in the back of the cart in front, and none of them could turn until they got off the causeway through the marshes. It was impossible to imagine how the mess would ever be sorted out; the town stuffed with men, the road paved with carts, and the men's food was in the carts, and the men were getting hungry. The harbourmaster, who hadn't known anything about it but whose fault it all apparently was, made an excuse and vanished into the customs house, where he proved impossible to find. Responsibility accordingly devolved on the clerk.

The remaining fifty-two ships arrived in mid-afternoon.

Their arrival prompted the leader of the plumed men to take charge. He sent the clerk scuttling away in fear of his life, then started shouting orders in a language the townspeople couldn't understand. The effect was remarkable. Carts were picked up, ten men a side, lifted up and carried off the road, plundered of their loads and turned round to face the other way; human chains passed the jars of flour and barrels of salt pork and cheese back down the road into the town square, where men formed orderly queues. Meanwhile, the strangers chased away the Lonazep pilots and brought the fifty-two ships in themselves. There was room, just about. A line of boats roped together formed floating gangplanks linking each ship to the shore, and thousands more plumed men swarmed along them; officers and NCOs formed them up and marched them off, fitting each company neatly into the available space in the square, like pieces in a wooden puzzle. Carts were still arriving, but plumed men had laid a makeshift causeway of uprooted fenceposts and joists from dismantled roofs across the salt flats, so that the emptied, departing carts bypassed the start of the jam, and the lifting-plundering-turning-around details worked in precisely timed shifts to process each new arrival. The plumed men's leader organised the whole operation from the little watch-tower on the roof of the customs house, with relays of runners pounding up and down the narrow spiral stone staircase, taking turns to go up and down since there wasn't room for two people to pass.

At dawn, the harbourmaster emerged from his hiding place, in time to see the empty ships sailing out of the harbour to make room for the next squadron. The carts were all gone; instead, the road was solid with an unbroken column of marching men, each one with his heavy pack covered by his grey wool cloak, his two spears sloped over his shoulder, his helmet-plume nodding in time to the quick march, so that from a distance the whole line of plumes, as far as the eye could see, all swayed together, forward and back.

Since everything seemed to be under control, the harbourmaster risked climbing the tower. There was something he needed to know, and his curiosity had finally got the better of his bewilderment and terror.

'Excuse me,' he said to the plumed leader, who turned his head and looked at him. 'But who are you?'

The plumed man looked at him some more and turned back to the battlement without answering, and the harbourmaster went away again without repeating the question.

At noon on the fourth day, the advance guard marched into the City, having made better time than anticipated. In Mezentia itself, however, arrangements had been made. Barracks were waiting for them-the Foundrymen and Machinists, the Clothiers, the Carpenters and Joiners, and the Stonemasons had each emptied a warehouse, so there was plenty of room; the staff officers, of course, were directed to the Guildhall, where Necessary Evil had laid on private quarters, hot baths and a reception with a buffet lunch and musicians in the Old Cloister; they'd taken a gamble that it wouldn't rain, but in all other respects nothing had been left to chance.

'Allow me to present Colonel Dezenansa,' Staurachus said. 'Colonel, this is my colleague Lucao Psellus, formerly of the compliance directorate.'

The foreigner had taken off his plumed helmet but he was still wearing his grey cloak and under it his fish-scale armour, steel plates the size of beech leaves and painted black. They clinked slightly every time he moved; if I had to wear something like that and it made that noise all the time, Psellus thought, I'd go mad. 'Pleased to meet you,' he said; he started to extend his hand but the foreigner didn't move. 'Commissioner Psellus,' the foreigner said.

'The Colonel is in charge of the first six squadrons,' Staurachus went on, 'comprising sixteen thousand men. Their job will be to enter Eremian territory and secure the road known as the Butter Pass. This will enable the main army, under General Dejauzida-'

'The Butter Pass,' Psellus interrupted. 'But surely that's the long way round. And it leads you very close to the Vadani border. Surely-'

'Quite right,' Staurachus said, with a little scowl. 'Apparently Boioannes believes that there's a risk the Vadani may misinterpret our intentions and get drawn into the war, unless we neutralise them at the outset with a suitable show of strength. Accordingly, the Colonel will position a thousand men at the Silvergate crossroads, thereby effectively blocking the road the Vadani would have to take if they wanted to reach Civitas Eremiae before our army. There will, of course, be a slight loss of time in reaching Civitas, but that hardly matters, we'll be setting a siege when we get there, and the hold-up won't be long enough for the Eremians to bring in any appreciable quantities of supplies. After all,' he added with a smile, 'where would they bring them in from?'

It took Psellus an hour to get away from the reception without being too obvious about it. He went straight to the Clock Court, where Maniacis' office was.

'Who the hell are all these men in armour,' he demanded, 'and what are they doing here?'

His friend looked up from his counting frame and grinned. 'You should know,' he said. 'You're the warrior, I'm just an accountant.'

Psellus breathed in sharply; Maniacis raised his hands in supplication.

'They're your new army,' he said. 'From the old country, across the water. Jazyges, mostly, with some Bretavians and a couple of divisions of Solatz sappers and engineers. They cost twice as much as Cure Doce, that's without transport costs, but apparently your old friend Boioannes reckons they're worth it. We, of course, have to find the extra money without appearing to break into Contingency funds. We thought we might announce a little pretend earthquake somewhere, and siphon it out through Disaster Relief.'

'Boioannes,' Psellus repeated. 'What's he got to do with it? He's a diplomat.'

Maniacis raised both eyebrows. 'Either you've been cutting briefings or they're keeping things from you,' he said. 'Boioannes is now Necessary Evil. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he's running the show. Don't ask me why,' he pre-empted, 'there's some things even I don't know. In fact,' he added with a smirk, 'I was going to ask you.'

Psellus sat down. 'I give up,' he said. 'Ever since I joined this ludicrous department I've been kicking my heels waiting to be given something to do, and meanwhile they've imported an army from the old country and they're planning to take it up the Butter Pass. I might as well go home and stay there till it's all over.'

'The Butter Pass,' Maniacis said. 'You're kidding.'

Psellus shrugged. 'That's what Staurachus just told me, him and the colonel-in-chief or whatever he was. I didn't catch his name-'

'Colonel Dezenansa,' Maniacis said promptly. 'Quite a distinguished service record, we were lucky to get him. More an administrator than a front-line fighter, but-I'm sorry, you were saying.'

'Perhaps,' Psellus said wearily, 'you could fill me in on what you know about all this.'

Maniacis laughed. 'I just did,' he said. 'That's about it. Boioannes has been manoeuvring and pulling strings for months to get his hands on Necessary Evil; all these arrangements were made for the invasion-you know, when the Eremians were invading us, rather than the other way round-but some fool of a soldier went and cut him out by sending the scorpions. They massacred the Eremians in about ten minutes flat, leaving Boioannes without a war to fight. He was livid, naturally; and then this abominator of yours conveniently escapes, and the war's back on again. Fortuitous, wouldn't you say? Hardly interfered with the original timetable at all.'

Psellus thought about that a lot over the next few days. He had little else to do; he'd retreated into his office (like the Eremians, he told himself, taking refuge behind the walls of their fortified mountaintop) and was waiting for the war to come to him. The war, however, was busy with other things and couldn't be bothered with him. Two or three times a day, a memo came round. It was always the same memo, very slightly amended: Owing to unforeseen operational and administrative factors, the initial advance into Eremian territory has been rescheduled. There will be a delay. You will be informed as soon as a new schedule has been agreed.

Sometimes the memo said 'further delay' or 'once again been rescheduled'; sometimes not. The name at the top was usually Boioannes, though sometimes it was Staurachus, just occasionally Ostin Tropaeas (Psellus had never heard of him). Once it started off, 'By order of Colonel Dezenansa', but the variation wasn't repeated. Psellus wondered if such a divergence from the approved text constituted an abomination.

His duty as a member of Necessary Evil was to stay in his office till called for, so that was what he did, with all his might. To help pass the time, he read; and since there were only two books on his shelf (Approved Specifications of the Guild of Foundrymen and Machinists and Collected Poetical Works of Arnaut Pegilannes) he went back over his files on the Vaatzes case; in particular the documents in the abominator's own handwriting, recovered by the investigating officers from his desk in the ordnance factory. There was no point in doing this, but he did it anyway, because he was bored.

Mostly they were technical stuff: tables of screw thread pitches, tapping drill sizes, major and minor diameters of the standard ordnance coarse and fine threads, material codes, tables of feeds and speeds for each class of lathe and mill. Every qualified Guildsman was expected to have his own copy, taken with infinite care from the master copy on the wall of the Guild chapterhouse. Just for fun, Psellus dug out his own copy and compared it with Ziani's; there were only two differences, and when he went down to chapter he checked them and found that he was the one who'd made the mistakes, twenty-odd years ago.

There was also a small book; home-made out of offcuts of paper (crate lining, possibly) stitched together with thick waxed thread and glued down the spine to a leather hinge that joined two covers, cut out of scrap wooden veneer. It was a neat job, but why bother; why go to the trouble of making such a thing when you could buy a proper one from a stationer's stall in the market for a quarter thaler? Psellus checked himself; quite possibly, Ziani hadn't had a quarter thaler to spare.

He opened it. The same handwriting, precisely laid out on the unruled page-on a whim he measured the spaces between the lines with a pair of callipers, and was impressed to find that they never varied by more than thirty thousandths of an inch; close tolerances, for a man writing freehand; writing poetry…

Psellus frowned. Poetry.

He read a few lines, to see if it was just something Ziani had copied out. He didn't recognise it, and he was fairly sure it was as home-made as the book it was written in. It was bad poetry. It scanned pretty well, as you'd expect from an engineer, and the rhymes were close enough for export, as the saying went, but it was unmistakably drivel. Psellus smiled. Her cheek is as soft as a rose's petal Her eyes are as dark as night Her smile is as bright as polished metal She is a lovely sight.

Which explained, he thought, why Ziani never quit the day job. He imagined him, sitting in his office in the old bell-tower (he'd been to see it during the initial investigation; he'd taken this book from the desk drawer himself, and slipped it into his pocket) on a slow day, nothing much happening; he saw him slide open the drawer and take out the book; a quick glance round to make sure he's alone, a dip in the ink, a furrowing of the brow; then he starts writing, beautifully even lines through invincible force of habit; secretly, deep down, everybody on earth believes they can write poetry, apart from the members of the Poets' Guild, who know they can't. He hesitates, running down the alphabet for a rhyme for night (blight, cite, fight, height), and when he reaches S a smile spreads over his face, as the finished line forms in his mind like an egg inside a chicken.

Psellus rested the book on his desk. So what? Right across the known world, in every country with some degree of literacy, there are millions of otherwise sane, normal, harmless people who are guilty of poetry. Maybe Vaatzes thought he was good at it (if those long-haired layabouts can do it, it can't be so very hard), maybe he thought he could make money at it, easier than cutting and measuring metal all day; maybe there was a voice in his head, bees making honey in his throat, and he had no choice but to write it down before he burst. Maybe it was a code, and really it was all secret messages from Eremian intelligence.

He opened the book again and read on. It didn't get better; if anything, Ziani had put his best stuff at the front, like a woman running a fruit stall. It ran in loops; the same rhymes repeated over and over (he'd been particularly taken with cold/gold and heart/apart; sometimes he stacked them in a different order-apart/heart-but that was the limit of his avant-garde tendencies), the same bland sentiments stuffed into the same trite conceits, like sliced meat into flat bread; if original thinking had been Ziani's besetting sin, there wasn't much sign of it in his poetry: My love is like the nightingale Who sings her soft and tender tale My love is like the hyacinth That blossoms on its marble plinth

He frowned again. Would it be useful, he wondered, if he knew who this terrible stuff was addressed to? Anybody in particular? A sort of picture emerged from internal evidence; she had a soft face and wavy hair, and Ziani seemed to think she was nice-looking. That wasn't much help in narrowing down the list of candidates. Maybe her name didn't rhyme with anything. Maybe-anything's possible-the lady in question was his wife.

(What was her name again? Ariessa. Ariessa, confessor, dresser, guesser…)

Well, Psellus thought, the world is full of strange things, and an engineer who writes bad poetry isn't the strangest. He closed the book again, tagging it in his mind as a piquant and mildly amusing curiosity. On a spurt of inspiration, he opened it again and read down the first letters of each line. Gibberish; no acrostics. What you see is all there is. Sad, in a way. Certainly, there was a bittersweet irony in the fact that the man who would soon be bringing annihilation on the Eremian people was someone who thought prove was a legitimate rhyme for love.

Query: was there any more of this stuff among the papers found at the house, or was this a vice he only indulged while he was at work? Further query: now that Eremia was going to be destroyed and the whole question of Ziani Vaatzes' crime was thus redundant, could he really be bothered to go down to the file archive and look? Answer to both: probably not.

With an effort, he evicted Ziani's poetry from his mind and turned his thoughts to Boioannes, and various issues to do with timing. It did rather look as though Boioannes had contrived the war, just so that he could sidestep the ladder of dead men's shoes (he paused at that particular image; Ziani, he felt, would've reckoned it was really good) and gratify his ambition to join and lead Necessary Evil. Sure, Boioannes would be capable of it, but was that what had actually happened? He could probably ascertain the truth by working out timetables, cross-referencing, looking in the files, assuming he was allowed access at that security level. Did it matter? No. It mattered even less than Ziani Vaatzes' poetry. The simple fact was that the Eremian Duke (Orseus? Orseo? Whatever) had been right-them or us-but the scorpions had done for him. The strongest always wins, and who on earth was stronger than the Perpetual Republic?

Going round in little circles, like a mouse in a box. Psellus yawned, and put the Vaatzes papers away where he wouldn't have to look at them. If Boioannes was responsible for the wiping out of Eremia, Vaatzes was only a pretext, of little importance; if Vaatzes wasn't really to blame, neither was Lucao Psellus. He didn't smile at that thought, because things had moved beyond smiling, but he felt a little happier with himself; like a drunk carter who runs someone over in the dark, and then finds he was already dead.

He stood up. True, he was supposed to wait there until he was sent for. On the other hand, he was bored stiff and his back hurt from too much sitting. He wanted to get out of his office and go somewhere. He left the tower, and the Guildhall campus.

Psellus had lived in the City all his life, but there were huge parts of it he'd never been to (like a good archer, who only uses a very small part of the target). He didn't even know where Sixty-Seventh Street was, so he stopped at the Guildhall lodge and asked the duty porter, who explained that Sixty-Seventh Street was between Sixty-Sixth Street and Sixty-Eighth Street. Psellus thanked him and started to walk.

It took him the best part of an hour to find the building; a seven-storey block, what the people who lived in this part of town called an island. According to the file, the Vaatzes family lived on the sixth floor, west side. They had four rooms, as befitted their status as supervisory grade. As an act of extreme clemency, Ariessa Vaatzes had been allowed to stay there after her husband's disgrace, at least until' the child came of age; her rent was paid out of the Benevolent Fund, and she received half the standard widow's pension.

Psellus climbed the stairs. Islands weren't like the Guildhall, which was a pre-Reformation building, beautiful and impractical. Island Seventeen, Sixty-Seventh Street, was built of yellow mud brick; it was ugly but the stairs were straight and wide, and hadn't yet been worn glass-smooth by generations of boot-soles. The stairwell was lit by tall, thin, unglazed windows blocked in by iron bars. There was a smell of damp, and various other smells he couldn't quite identify.

Apartment Twenty-Seven had a plain plank door with external flat hinges. He knocked and waited. Nothing. He knocked again. Across the landing, the door of number twenty-nine opened a crack and a head poked out; an old man with deep eye-sockets and a big, round-ended nose.

'Excuse me,' Psellus said. 'I'm looking for the Vaatzes family. Have I got the right place?'

The man looked at him. 'Gone away,' he said.

Psellus frowned. 'Are you sure?' he said. 'The Guild register says they're still here.'

The man shook his head. 'Been gone three weeks now,' he said. 'Her and the little girl. He went on before them, of course.'

'I see,' Psellus said. 'Would you happen to know where they went? The wife and the daughter, I mean.'

'Couldn't say,' the old man said. 'Men came by to shift the furniture-wasn't a lot of it left, mind, the soldiers took on most of it when they came for Him. Wasn't anything good, anyhow,' the man added sourly, 'just a few chairs and tables, and some boxes, and the beds. She had her clothes, in a bag. Place is empty now. Don't reckon they're in any hurry to move a new lot in. People don't like living where something bad happened.'

Psellus hesitated; then he said, 'Do you think it'd be all right if I went in and had a look? I'm from the Guild, there were some things-'

'Nothing to do with me,' the old man said. 'You do what you like.'

Psellus tried the door, pressing down the plain tongue latch. Of course, he noticed, there's no outside lock; just bolts on the inside, probably. 'Thanks,' he said. The old man stepped back and closed the door, then opened it again, just a crack.

He'd been right; someone had stripped the place bare, even wrenched out the nails where pictures had hung on the wall. The windows were shuttered but the shutters had been left open; a few stray leaves had been blown in by the wind, and in places the floor was spattered with white bird droppings. In the main room a floorboard had been levered up and not replaced. Maybe that's where Vaatzes used to hide his poetry, Psellus thought.

Plain walls, washed with off-white pipeclay distemper; clean and unmarked, which would've been impossible if people had been living there. Someone had seen the need to whitewash the place since the family left. From the bedroom window you could see the roof of the ordnance factory.

So, Psellus thought, why would Ariessa Vaatzes move out, after so much mercy had been expended to let her stay here? Several possibilities. Unhappy memories, that'd do it; hostility from the neighbours; she'd gone back to live with her father now she was on her own. Fine; but regardless of what'd happened to her, she was obliged to register her address with the Guild, same as everybody else, and the address in the file was this one. Another possibility: she was dead, and the old man across the way was lying about having seen her take her clothes away in a bag. But if she'd died lawfully, that'd be registered on her file; and who would want to murder her?

Not that it mattered. Sheer idle curiosity was all that had brought him here; he'd wanted to look at her again, to see if she was the sort of woman who'd inspire a-man to rhyme love and prove in a home-made book. What if an important memo arrived while he was out of the office?

He shut the apartment door behind him. The old man wasn't the Vaatzes' only neighbour. There was bound to be a perfectly simple explanation for her absence, and once he'd found it out he could go back and stare at his wall some more.

Nobody at home at number twenty-eight, but the woman at number thirty seemed positively delighted to talk to him.

No, he wouldn't come in, thanks all the same; she was short, almost circular, with long hair and a bald patch on top, neatly dressed in a faded, carefully pressed blue dress and sandals that looked like they'd belonged to her mother. Ariessa Vaatzes; yes, she went on three weeks ago, took all her things. Three men came to help her, they took all the furniture that was left. A youngish man, and two middle-aged ones; the young man gave orders and the other two did as they were told. They were quick about it, like they were in a hurry. No, no idea where she'd gone. Always kept themselves to themselves, and the little girl was such a sweetheart, it's always the kids that suffer most when bad things happen.

'Did you see the little girl leave?' Psellus asked.

'Oh yes,' she told him. 'Went on with her mother. She didn't seem upset or anything, of course they don't realise at that age, bless them.'

'Did Ariessa Vaatzes seem upset at all?'

'Not really' she replied. 'A bit on edge, that's all. Didn't say anything to the men, but she left with them. But she never did say much. Quiet little thing, she was. Must've been dreadful for her, him turning out like he did.'

Psellus thought for a moment. 'Did you talk to him much?' he asked.

'Him?' She looked at him as though he'd insulted her. 'No, hardly at all. Oh, he wasn't rude or anything, just never had anything to say. Always the quiet ones, isn't it?'

'Did they have any friends in the island? Anybody they got on particularly well with?'

Apparently not. 'They did have a few callers, though,' she added, 'from time to time. Friends of his from work, I think, and her family, once or twice. Never met any of them to talk to, though, so I can't tell you much about them. There was a very tall man with grey hair, and a young woman with a baby who came round in the daytime.'

He thanked her and left, walking fast to get back to the office, just in case. No memo; apparently, the war didn't need him just yet. When was it, he asked himself, that I stopped doing work that was actually of any use to anybody? Was it round about the time I was given a degree of power and authority over my fellow citizens? In the filtered light of his office he wasn't even sure what time of day it was; time passed unevenly there, dragging or flying depending on how close he was able to come to a state of mental detachment. Had he only just got back from his trip to the outside world, or had he been sitting staring at the wall for hours? Not that it mattered. Like all good Guildsmen, he lived only to serve the Republic. If it could afford to leave him idle for a while, it wasn't his place to complain, just as he would have no right to object if it required him to work three days and nights without food or sleep. When was it that I stopped believing that?

Some time later, a memo arrived. A tall, thin boy brought it; he knocked at the door, pushed it at him and walked away. Psellus scraped the seal off with his thumbnail. From Maris Boioannes:

In consequence of various matters, it has been decided to postpone the proposed military action against Eremia Montis for the time being. A document will be issued in due course. Personnel should resume their ordinary duties until further notice. You are required to refrain from discussing any aspect of the proposed military action with unauthorised personnel. Members of the Viability Effects subcommittee will meet in the lesser chapterhouse at noon tomorrow to consider various issues arising from the above. None of the above affects the status of the mercenary troops currently billeted in the Crescent district of the city, who will be remaining until further notice. Commissioner Lucao Psellus is required to consult with the compliance directorate as soon as possible regarding the detention or elimination of the abominator Ziani Vaatzes, who is still at large.

By order c.

Chapter Thirteen

Abominations, Ziani thought, looking down at his work. If I wasn't an abominator before, I'm definitely one now.

It was horrible; no other word for it. Instead of square-section steel the frame was built out of wood. The lockwork wasn't machined but pressed and bashed out of plate. The slider was no more than a square of thin steel sheet hammered into a folded box over a square mandrel. The spring had been wound by hand and eye out of junk-scrap pitchfork tines, of all things, drawn down and forge-welded together. Just looking at it made Ziani feel sick.

But it had taken him just three days to put together, and it worked: the first functional scorpion ever built outside the Mezentine ordnance factory. And he could make more of them, very quickly, which was all that mattered.

True, the timber frame would shake itself to bits under the savage force of the recoiling spring. The lock clunked and twanged into battery rather than purring and softly clicking. The slider rattled about in its slot, wasting precious energy. The spring wouldn't last, but that hardly mattered, since the frame would unquestionably disintegrate first. Without destruct-testing it he couldn't be sure, but his best guess was that it would last two thousand shots. Which would be enough.

(Enough; it was a word in Mezentine, but people tried not to use it if they could help it. It stood for the admission of defeat, the recognition of the inevitability of inaccuracy, breakdown and failure. Enough was an abomination. In the perfect world to which Specification was a gateway, there would be no more enough. Eremia, however, was about as far as you could get from the perfect world without supernatural help, and the prototype scorpion would be enough for Eremia.)

He sighed. When he shut his eyes, he could see the ratchet mechanism-a blank cut with a shear, teeth filed by eye to lines scribed with a nail, pivot-holes punched on an anvil, sear bent over a stake; it haunted his conscience like a murder. He hated it. But an Eremian blacksmith could make twenty of them in a day, during which time two Eremian carpenters could make a frame out of a log, an Eremian armourer could make ten sliders or a dozen locks, any bloody fool with another bloody fool to do the striking could make ten springs, and the garrison of Civitas Eremiae could drive the Mezentine army away from the walls with horrendous losses. That would be enough.

Someone called his name; that fool Calaphates, whose money had made all this possible. He looked up and there was the fool himself, leading a gaggle of suspicious-looking men across the yard. Ziani found a smile somewhere in his mental lumber-room.

'Gentlemen,' Calaphates was saying, 'allow me to present Ziani Vaatzes, until recently the foreman of the Mezentine state armoury. Ziani, I'd like to introduce you to…'

(The names slipped in and out of his mind like elvers through a coarse net. That level of detail-being able to tell one Eremian nobleman from another-was not required at this stage. All that mattered was that these six worried-looking men were here to see the scorpion; if they liked it, they would go to Duke Orsea and tell him he ought to buy as many of them as Ziani could make. A smile was a lot to ask of him, but on balance it was worth it.)

One of the men cleared his throat. He was trying to look sceptical, but he just looked nervous. 'So,' he said, 'this is it, is it?'

Ziani could have smiled at that free of charge, but he refrained. 'We call them scorpions,' he said. 'Of course, this is a very crude copy of the ones they make in the Republic, but it works just as well. I'll give you a demonstration in a moment.'

The man recoiled slightly. Probably he wasn't used to being spoken to so freely by someone whose grandfather hadn't known his grandfather. Unimportant; the machine would speak for itself. 'So this is what they used against us…' The man's nerves got the better of him and he fell silent. Ziani nodded.

'More or less,' he said. 'The Mezentine ordnance factory makes these at the rate of twenty a day when they're running flat out. I think we can match that, if we really want to. It'll cost a lot of money, but I think you'll agree it's worth it.'

One of the others was frowning, as though the subject was somehow obscene. 'You said you'd show us how it works,' he said.

'Of course.' Ziani took a breath, then pointed. 'Over there, see that lump of steel sheet set up on a stand? The distance is fifty yards, and the sheet is sixteen gauge, roughly one sixteenth of an inch; it's what the Mezentines use to make armour. Now,' he went on, 'if you'd all care to stand behind me.'

They were happy to do that; eager, even. He took the ratchet handle, fitted it into the square slot, and began to wind the winch. To show off, he used one finger to turn it; a mistake, because the ratchet wasn't beautifully engineered like the ones he was used to, and he had to use rather more pressure than he'd have liked, but it was too late to stop without losing the effect. The winch cable drew back the slider, compressing the spring, until the catch dropped into its detent. Ziani picked up the three-foot-long, half-inch-diameter steel pin that was leaning against the side of the frame and laid it in the loading groove, its butt end resting on the nose of the slider. He'd already set up the sights (if you could call them that; a small rectangular plate with a hole in it, mounted on two crude set screws for windage and elevation; a post on a bent-nail gate at the front end to line it up by). He paused, to check they were all watching, and flipped the catch that released the sear. The spring shot the slider forward until it slammed into the stop, the noise coinciding with the hollow clang of the pin against the target.

'My God,' someone said.

'Let's go and have a look, shall we?' Calaphates said in a rather embarrassed voice, as though he wanted everybody to know that this really wasn't his fault.

As Ziani had known it would, the steel spike had gone clean through the steel sheet; and the one behind it, and the two behind that; it was buried deep in the brickwork of the wall. He asked if anybody wanted to try and pull it out; no takers.

'Anyhow,' he said, 'that's what it does. The differences between this one and the ones they make in the Republic are mostly about durability; this one won't last nearly as long, it's more likely to break apart or get out of true, you can't aim it as precisely; it's heavier, too, and because it jumps about rather more when you let it off, you'll need to check the alignment after every fourth or fifth shot. On the other hand, it's a bloody sight better than what you've got at the moment, which is nothing at all.'

Galaphates looked like he wanted to crawl down a hole and die, but Ziani couldn't help that. His job was to create a strong impression, and he was doing just fine. 'You can make twenty of these a day?' one of them asked. Ziani nodded.

'I don't see why not,' he said, 'provided I can hire the workers I need. I've got a list of suitably skilled men who've agreed to join me. All I need now is a firm order and some money.'

'Money,' one of them repeated. 'How much are we talking about?'

Ziani looked at him, and then at the plate, with the steel pin stuck in it. 'Does it matter?' he said.

They didn't have anything to say to that. 'Of course,' Ziani went on, 'as and when I've got the time and the resources, I can make a far better machine. I can make pretty much anything you like, as cheaply or as well as you want. For now, though, what you need is a lot of these things mounted on the city wall and pointed down the road. As soon as you tell me I can get started, I'll have the first batch of twenty for you inside a week; twenty a day after that until you tell me to stop. How does that sound?'

They were looking at him again, their eyes bright and feverish with an uneasy blend of hope and fear. On one level, he could understand why. Here was a Mezentine, by his own admission the man who'd made the machines that had butchered their army only a very short time ago; a Mezentine, offering to build them machines with which to massacre his fellow citizens in return for an unspecified but presumably vast sum of money. They wanted the weapons, but having them would change everything and they weren't the sort of men who held with huge, irrevocable changes, particularly ones involving slaughter. Paying out money bothered them, too. They were simple but weak components and he wished he didn't have to rely on them, on his estimate of their tensile strength. But they would do what he wanted, because they had no choice, not even if he spat in their faces or cut off their beards with a sharp knife.

He felt mildly guilty when he saw the look on Calaphates' face; after all, Calaphates had done nothing except give him money and support, and now Ziani was dragging him into the world-changing business, which wasn't quite what he'd believed he was putting his money into. But he hardened his heart. Calaphates would get his money back, along with an enormous profit-it'd do him no good, but it was what he wanted, and Ziani would get it for him, no question about that. As to the larger scope of the mechanism; already been into that, not his fault. It'd be like feeling guilty about an earthquake or a tidal wave.

They went away eventually, and Ziani got back to some proper work. The angle of the ratchet sear, the diameter of the spring link retaining bolt, the depth of engagement of the slider lock pin; real issues, soluble and precise. Every step away from chaos towards perfection accrues merit, no matter what the context, and the line between them is straight. When you can devote yourself to one problem, with everything else subsidiary to it, you begin to understand.

'There you are,' she said, walking in across the polished threshold. 'I've been looking for you.'

Miel caught his breath; it was a sensation remarkably like fear in its symptoms and effects. He turned round slowly and smiled.

'What can I do for you?' he asked.

'Well.' She sat down on the window-seat, right next to the chest in which he'd imprisoned her letter. 'This is a bit awkward,' she said.

'Go on.'

'It's Orsea,' she said. 'I don't know. Ever since he came back from the war. It's like…' She frowned. She had the most precise face he'd ever seen; not sharp or pointy, but perfectly defined, as though it had been carefully designed by an architect. He knew it by heart, of course; it was there when he closed his eyes, it ambushed him when his mind wandered. He had learned it years ago, when they were both little more than children; he'd learned it the way a schoolboy prepares his lesson, because it was virtually inevitable that, sooner or later, they'd get married, thereby linking the Sirupat to the Ducas, with a view to breeding a superlative strain of nobleman. It hadn't turned out that way in the end. By a highly unlikely freak of chance, the Sirupat had suddenly been elevated from minor royalty to heirs to the Duchy; infelicity of timing had made her the carrier of the succession (as though it was some painful disease, passed down the female line to afflict the male) and the banalities of political expediency had made Orsea the only possible husband for her-Orsea his best friend, from back when they were safely outside the golden circle, married to the girl he'd never felt the need to fall in love with, because she'd been his practically from the cradle…

'It's like,' she said, 'that old fairy story, where the prince is kidnapped by goblins, and the goblin king turns himself into an identical copy and goes away to rule the kingdom, and everybody's fooled except the girl the prince is going to marry. It's like he hasn't come home yet, I don't know. It's awkward.'

Awkward, Miel thought; and he could almost see the letter, through an inch of oak board. 'I know,' he heard himself say. 'He's going through a rough patch. What happened in the war really smashed him up.'

She was looking at him; he knew, though he was looking the other way. He always knew when she was watching him. 'He seems quite his old self when he's with you,' she said.

Miel shrugged. 'Well,' he said, 'that's different. For one thing, I was there with him; also, we only ever talk about work-you know, affairs of state, all that.' He grinned; had he really said affairs of state? She was grinning too. She knew him too well. 'Boys' stuff,' he said. 'Things you can talk about on the surface without having to go to the bad places. I know he's tearing himself into little bits inside, but that's not…' He hesitated. She couldn't understand how his oldest friend could talk to him and not to her; it was, of course, because Orsea loved her. That single fact made everything different. Love, Miel had known for some time, is the most destructive force in the world, doing more harm than war and famine put together. 'Look,' he said. 'Have you actually talked to him about it? About what happened?'

She shook her head. 'I've hardly said two words to him about anything,' she said. 'And that's not how it used to be.' He could feel her come to the stop, the point beyond which she couldn't go with someone else. It was murderously frustrating; the two most important people in Orsea's life, and they couldn't talk about him beyond that point. 'I was wondering,' she said, 'if there's something we could do to-I don't know, snap him out of it. Which is why I thought of you.'

'Like?'

'He needs-I don't know, he needs to do something fun for a change, so he can forget about this terrible thing that's smothering him for a while; something frivolous and outdoors and energetic, nothing to do with the war or politics or-'

'Affairs of state.'

'Absolutely' She'd slipped into that mock scowl, with the furrowed eyebrows and the exaggerated pout. No matter how much her face changed as time passed, that expression always stayed the same, and when she wore it she was fourteen again, and so was he. 'So I thought, your cousin Jarec-'

'You mean Jarnac. Jarec was my uncle.'

'As though it mattered,' she said pleasantly. 'Your cousin, the great big tall one with the big shoulders and the impossible manners. Him. I think you should get him to take Orsea out hunting. Or hawking. Orsea used to love hawking, a few years ago, and your cousin whatever-his-name-is has got lots and lots of hawks. He showed them to me once,' she added. 'I've never been so bored in my life. But Orsea was sick with jealousy for a week.'

Miel frowned. 'It's not the season yet,' he said. 'Hawking doesn't start till the middle of next month.'

'Oh for heaven's sake.' She waved away a thousand years of immutable law with a wave of the fingers. 'Nobody's going to mind, and it'd do him so much good, I'm sure of it.'

'Will you come?' Miel said. 'If I can arrange it?'

She nodded. 'And I'll make it look like I'm enjoying myself,' she said. 'Just so long as I don't have to give bits of dead animal to anybody. There are limits.'

He smiled. 'That's boar-hunting,' he said, 'not hawking. And besides, it's a great honour to preside over the unmaking. You should be thrilled to be asked.'

'Should I really? I'll try to bear that in mind. Meanwhile, will you do it? Ask your cousin, I mean. I'm convinced it'd help.'

Miel shook his head. 'Jarnac won't fly his precious hawks out of season,' he said. 'Not for anybody. If I asked him, he'd just look down his nose at me and quote bits out of King Fashion and Queen Reason.'

She stared at him. 'Out of what?'

'The Venerable Dialogue of King Fashion and Queen Reason, Concerning the Proper Exercise of Huntsmanship,' Miel said. 'Good God, you mean you weren't made to read it as a child?'

'Never heard of it.'

'You lucky-' Miel shook his head. 'I had to learn the whole thing off by heart when I was nine.'

'Is it ghastly?'

'It's long,' Miel replied, with feeling. 'And the bit about how to tell the age of a roebuck by the shape and texture of its droppings is just a bit too graphic for my taste. Jarnac lives by it, you'd never get him to break the rules.'

'How about if I-?'

'But,' Miel went on briskly, 'Jarnac also keeps an excellent kennel, and it's still boar season, so we can go boar-hunting instead, and that'll do just as well, if you really think it'd help.'

'You aren't sure about that, are you?'

Miel shrugged. 'I don't think Orsea'd let himself have a good time, not the mood he's in at the moment. The trouble is, he's torturing himself because he believes the disaster was his fault, and to a certain extent he's right. Someone like him can't get round something like that.'

'I know.' She stood up, kicking at the hem of her dress. 'And it's so stupid, because nobody else would carry on like that, and people really don't blame him. They're so used to things like that happening, it's just a fact of life to them. That's something I don't understand,' she went on. 'I guess it's because I spent most of my childhood abroad, being a hostage. I can't see how you'd get to a state where thousands of people suddenly aren't there any more, and yet you carry on like nothing's happened. How can people live like that?'

Miel sighed. 'It was very bad in the war-the proper war, I mean, between us and the Vadani. We were within an inch of bleeding each other to death. That's why your father and Valentinian had to patch it up at all costs.' That, he didn't add, is why you had to marry Orsea instead of me. 'Anyhow,' he went on, 'back in those days-you weren't here-it was one hideous massacre after another, except when we were butchering them, and that wasn't often. Or often enough, anyhow.' He shook his head. 'That's where the trouble lay with this war,' he went on. 'We simply hadn't realised how weak we'd become, not till we'd committed to the invasion and it was too late to go back. We knew before we left the city, deep down, that the whole thing was a complete joke-us, fighting the Mezentines-but we didn't dare face up to it. Orsea should've, but everybody wanted to go, so we could feel good about ourselves, and he went along with it because he always does. It's remarkable the truly stupid things people can do just because it's expected of them, or they think it's expected of them.'

She gave him a look he didn't like. It said, You could have stopped him. He shook his head to say, no, I couldn't. He believed that was true, as an article of faith.

'I'll go and see Cousin Jarnac,' he said. 'There won't be any trouble about getting up a boar-hunt; any excuse, as far as he's concerned.' Miel clicked his tongue. 'And who knows,' he said. 'Maybe someone can get into a tight spot and Orsea can be terribly brave and save his life. That'd do him the world of good; it's a sort of blind spot with him, he's got no sense of perspective. So long as he does well and helps someone and does the right thing, it doesn't really matter whether it's something big and important, like saving the city, or something small and trivial, like rescuing an old woman's dog from drowning.' He paused. 'Did he ever tell you about that?'

'About what?'

Miel smiled broadly. 'You should get him to tell you, it's glorious.'

'You tell me. He's not talking to me, remember.'

Miel frowned, then went on: 'We were out walking once, when we were kids playing rovers, I think, or something like that. Anyway, there's this river, and there's this old woman kneeling on the bank, and two or three puppies splashing about in the water. Orsea immediately assumes they've fallen in by accident, so he hurls himself into the water to save them, forgetting in the excitement of the moment that he can't swim-well he can, but only a sort of feeble frogs'-legs-and-otters'-paws swimming, which is no good at all in a fast-flowing river. Luckily we've got a couple of my father's men along with us-thinking about it, I think we were shooting wild duck, not playing rovers; anyhow, they jump in and fish him out, and he makes them go back and rescue the puppies; they get two of them but not the third. He takes them to the old woman, and she looks at him like he's gone off his head: what did you want to go and do that for? she says. Turns out, of course, that they were the leftovers from the litter and she was drowning them on purpose. I'd figured that out pretty early on, of course, but Orsea had real trouble with the whole idea, he couldn't believe someone'd actually do that. Anyway, he caught one hell of a cold, and his father gave him a dreadful shouting-at for nearly getting drowned making a fool of himself. And he hasn't changed. I think he'd still do exactly the same thing if we walked in on some old woman and a dog in the water; just in case, if you see what I mean.'

She looked at him, and he wondered what she could see. 'Tell you what,' she said. 'Go somewhere where there's no rivers. For my sake.'

'No rivers,' he said solemnly. 'Right. I'll tell Jarnac.' A thought flitted across his mind, like a woodcock crossing a ride. 'It'll be good practice for him, hosting a ducal function and all that.'

'Will it?'

He nodded. 'Sooner or later the Vadani are going to want to celebrate the peace with a state visit, something grand with all the trimmings. We'll have to lay on a hunt for them, and Jarnac's our resident expert on all that stuff-the right way of doing things, you know. Their Duke's mad keen on hunting, I gather.'

'That's right,' she said. 'Which surprises me. I met him once, years ago when I was living there, and practically the first thing he said to me was how much he hated it. Hunting, I mean.'

'Oh,' Miel said. 'You've met him. What's he like?'

She shrugged. 'What he's like now I have no idea. Back then he was just a boy, of course. Shy, quiet, a bit introverted. Hardly surprising; his father was the big, noisy type. I suppose he was quite sweet, in a dozy sort of way'

Miel raised an eyebrow. 'He's not quite so sweet these days, by all accounts.'

'People change,' she said. 'And I suppose he's gone through a lot in a short time, losing his father and having to take control of the government and everything. That'd be enough to change anyone.'

'I don't know,' Miel said. 'Look at Orsea. He was made Duke at an early age, and he seems pretty much the same now as he was back when we were kids. A bit gilded round the edges, of course, but under the surface he hasn't changed a lot.'

'Well, I don't know,' she said. 'Like I said, I only met Valens once, and we were both very young.'

'Anyway.' Miel moved away abruptly. 'I'll certainly talk to Jarnac if you think it'll help.'

'Thanks,' she said, and smiled. The smile hit him unexpectedly, like a drunk in a tavern, and for a moment he was unable to think. Does she know? he wondered. All this time he'd assumed she didn't; he clung to that belief as an article of faith. It'd be too hard to bear if she knew and still treated him as though nothing had changed since they were children. (But of course, faith comes in different tempers: there's the hard, brittle faith that shatters when it meets an obstacle it can't cut through, and the tough, springy faith that bounces off unchipped.)

Just for once, Miel didn't go to his office, or a meeting, or Orsea's apartments; just for once, he went home. Not proper home, of course; proper home was a castle on top of a mountain in the Sabens, seventy miles away along narrow cliffside roads. Home in Civitas Eremiae meant the Ducas house down by the Essenhatz gate; a tall, thin house cut into the rock, with the finest Mannerist fresco ceilings in the city and virtually no windows. All there was to see from the street was a small, very old double gate, grainy grey wood worn smooth and shiny, studded with heavy nails, in a solid slab wall. Beyond the gate was the famous Ducas knot garden; a square courtyard with a formal garden in the middle, divided into twelve segments by low box and lavender hedges radiating out from a central fountain like wheel-spokes. Each segment was planted out with seventeen different types of white and yellow rose, all of them unique to this one garden (for centuries, kings, emperors and Mezentine Guild masters had pleaded and plotted in vain for cuttings; the Ducas gardeners were better paid than most goldsmiths and entirely incorruptible). Around the courtyard was the equally famous painted cloister, on whose ceiling the finest artists had recorded the glorious deeds of the thirty-seven Ducas, from Amadea I down to Garsio IV, Miel's father; there was still the underside of an arch and a portico left bare for Miel, as and when he ever got around to achieving anything. If he did well, and one day married and had a son who lived up to the family's glorious traditions, they'd either have to scrape off Amadea I's wedding for him, or build a covered walkway to the fountain.

At the left-hand corner of the north side of the cloister was the family door (as opposed to the visitors' door, which was twelve feet high, bronze-embossed with scenes of warfare and the chase), which opened directly on to the back stair, which in turn led up to the first-floor back landing. Only the Ducas and their inner servants ever permeated through the various filters to this part of the house, which was plain black oak floorboards and panelling, with not so much as a painted architrave in sight. Fifth door off the landing was the writing room (according to family tradition, the first sixteen Ducas hadn't known how to write and hadn't wanted to), where the head of the family could finally turn at bay like a hunted boar and be safe for a while from his guests, his dependants and his responsibilities. It wasn't a spectacular interior-the fireplace was plain and unadorned, apart from the monogram of the ninth Ducas cut into the upper panel, and the plasterwork on the ceiling was positively restrained by the standards of the time-but it had become sanctified over the centuries by its function, as the only place on earth where the Ducas could be sure of being alone.

Miel dropped into the chair-there was only one in the writing room-and stretched out his legs toward the cold fireplace. What had possessed him, he wondered, to raise the subject? He'd not so much dropped a hint as bombarded her with it, like the Mezentines with their scorpions; she must have guessed that he'd intercepted the letter and read it, and that could only make everything worse. He supposed he'd wanted to know how she felt about the man she was writing to, and he'd hoped she'd betray her emotions to his mercilessly perceptive eye. That'd be in character; he'd always been prone to doing stupid things on the spur of the moment. Now, of course, the next time he encountered her, the gates would be shut and the walls lined with archers; he'd never get past her calm stare again, or her smile. It had been a double betrayal too, because he should have gone to Orsea as soon as he saw her name on the little folded-up parchment square. All in all, he reckoned, he'd just reached a new pinnacle of achievement in a lifetime of making bad situations worse by getting involved.

He sat until it was too dark to see; then he crossed the landing to the lesser hall. He found a footman there, messing about with the flower arrangement on the long table.

'I need to send a letter to my cousin Jarnac,' he said.

The footman bowed and left, came back a few minutes later with a writing-slope, a pen (in its ivory box, with spare nibs), a sand-shaker, a penknife (blued Mezentine steel blade, silver handle in the shape of a heron), a small square gold ink-pot with lid, the Ducas private seal, sealing-wax, candle in a silver holder and twelve sheets of the finest newly scraped parchment. The Ducas did not scribble notes on scraps with feathers. Miel to Jarnac

I need you to do me a favour. The Duke-

The Duke? Orsea? No; Jarnac was third in succession to the minor title in the collateral line. The Duke would like to go hunting; he's been working very hard, as you can imagine, and he wants a day off. Could you organise something'? Nothing too formal, please; bow-and-stable, maybe, rather than a full parforce day. I expect you know where there's a nice, gentle, slow-witted boar who's tired of life. Obviously we'll have to liaise with the chamberlain's office as regards dates. There's no tearing hurry, any time in the next ten days ought to do.

He waggled the sand-shaker over the page, blew, folded the sheet twice and sealed it. The footman, who didn't seem to have moved at all while he'd been writing, put all the bits and pieces back into the slope, took the letter and glided away, swift and silent as a cloud riding a strong wind.

An hour later, Miel was in the small library, painfully refreshing his childhood memories of King Fashion and Queen Reason, when the reply came. Cousin Jarnac's handwriting had always annoyed Miel intensely; Jarnac was a great big tall, broad man with fingers like peasant sausages, but he had the most elegant, almost dainty handwriting. Jarnac to Miel Delighted.

Leave everything to me. Will sort dates out direct with chamberlain. Can offer trophy four-year-old abnormal in the Farthings, or possible record six-year-old feral cross in the Collamel valley; advise. Could do both in same day, but would involve early start and long ride in between; up to you.

Miel sighed. King Fashion had just reminded him that abnormal meant a boar with unusual-shaped tusks, but he had no idea what a feral cross was. PS What's the name of that Mezentine character who's just set up shop in town? I seem to remember you had something to do with him. If we're hosting the Duke, better get the kit overhauled, don't you think?

The footman brought back the writing-slope, the pen, the sand-shaker and all the rest of the panoply. Miel wrote: Miel to Jarnac

Leave it all to your discretion. The Mezentine is called Ziani Vaatzes; care of Sorit Calaphates ought to find him-they're in partnership. Don't know if he's actually trading yet, but you can try. Say I sent you if you think it'll help.

On second thoughts, not the one in the Collamel valley. I'm under strict orders: no rivers.

Sealed, handed over to the footman; done. That should have been that, but Miel found he couldn't keep still. It was like an insect-bite or nettle-rash, the letter, a speck of grit lodged in his mind's eye. All of his illustrious line had been fretters, prone to waking up in the early hours of the morning and scaring themselves to death with perilous thoughts. What if someone else got hold of it? Unlikely (his better self, fighting a doomed rearguard action), because it was locked up in his trunk in his office, and the trunk had a genuine Mezentine three-lever lock-his great-grandfather had brought it back from the City sixty-two years ago, the first Mezentine lock ever seen in Eremia-not to mention sides of inch-thick oak board and massive steel bands, hardened and tempered like a sword-blade. Yes, but three men with axes would take a quarter of an hour to get through that, and there the letter would be, nestling inside like a scorpion in a bouquet of roses. Suppose she'd realised he'd got it-how couldn't she, since he'd been so stupid?-and was feeling desperate; what would she do, she'd get her secretary or her maid's lover to hire some thugs from the marketplace to go and get it (she'd know where he'd keep it; she knew him too well); they'd make a botch of the job and get caught, be searched, the letter would be in Orsea's hands by morning, with full details of where it had been found. Leaving it there was next thing to pinning it up on the castle gate. Or maybe she'd already decided to cut her losses by going to Orsea, telling him about it-an innocent letter, I knew him years ago when we were just children, but Miel got hold of it and I think he means to make trouble, I thought you ought to know; and Orsea would know about the trunk-they'd tried to pick the lock together when they were kids, failed, of course; the world-famous Ducas chest with its legendary lock; he'd send his men with axes and big hammers, and God only knew what the upshot would be.

I've got to get rid of it, he thought, it's the only way out of this. No letter, no proof, no risk. But he knew he couldn't do that-because it was important, because he wasn't at all sure why it was important; because it was something of hers, and he had so very little of her, it'd be murder to kill something that had been made for her. So, can't burn it or bury it; he'd have to find a better place to keep it, which shouldn't be hard, surely. The Ducas house was full of places where a letter could be kept hidden. He'd spent enough weary, frustrating hours looking for things he'd put in a safe place over the years to know that the house guarded its secrets with grim efficiency. There were all sorts of places that only he knew about: the crack where the panelling was lifting away from the wall in the old chapel, the false front over the boarded-up fireplace in the flower still. At least it'd be here, under his eye. It'd be far more awkward for Orsea, or a bunch of hired muscle, to come looking for it here than in his office in the castle; there'd have to be explanations, scenes, offence given and umbrage taken, writs and warrants, enough delay that he'd have time to nip in, recover it and put it on the fire while the search party was still outside in the courtyard arguing the toss with the porters.

It was getting late, but the household was used to him slipping out to the castle at all hours. He let himself out through the postern, a small, secret door that led directly into the Essenhatz watch-tower. The duty sergeant knew him by sight, of course, and nodded respectfully as he hurried past, down the smooth spiral staircase into Essenhatz Street; across the Blind Bridge into Lepers' Court, down the twenty-seven steps of Cutlers' Stair into Desirat, across the open square with its seven orange trees into Farriers' Path and then Miraval, leading to the Ducas' private sally-port into the castle yard; across four quadrangles and down the west cloister to the foot of the stairs that led to his office, on whose floor rested the Ducas trunk with its famous but ultimately unreliable imported lock.

He'd remembered to bring the key with him, which was a blessing.

It was still there, where he'd left it, tucked into a report on waste and inefficiency in charcoal procurement. For a moment he weakened; wasn't he worrying unnecessarily, wouldn't it be safer to leave it where it was, the strongest box in Eremia Montis (apart from the other Ducas trunk in the treasury of Sabens Guard; it had not one but three Mezentine locks, and the head keeper's wolfhound liked to sleep on top of it; but of course that'd be the first place anybody'd think of looking)? His fingertips were slick with damp as he picked it up. Not for the first time, he wished he'd been born to a simpler life.

After a long and painful bout of indecision, he stuffed it into his left sleeve and buttoned the cuff down tight around it. There was nobody about-nobody he could see, at any rate-in the cloister, he heard no footsteps echoing his own across the quadrangles and the yard. He fumbled with the key to the sally-port, nearly dropped it as he locked up behind him. He went back home a different way, just in case.

Ziani was tempering a spring in the lead bath when the odd-job boy found him; he opened the door at precisely the wrong moment, when Ziani's concentration was fixed on the faint bloom of colour in the hot metal, visible only in the concentrated beam of light slanting through the narrow window into the darkened gallery. When the door opened, light flooded in like the sea overrunning the polder at Lonazep.

'Get out,' Ziani snapped.

But by then it was too late; the job would have to be done all over again (reheat to bright orange, quench in salt water, dry thoroughly, dip in molten lead till the blue smudge shows) and yelling at the workforce wouldn't help. It wasn't as if the boy had done it on purpose.

'Sorry,' he said, straightening up and lifting the tongs clear of the tank. 'Not your fault. What is it?'

The boy looked at him nervously. 'Man here to see you,' he replied. 'Said it's dead urgent. I told him you're busy but it's life and death, he said.'

Ziani frowned. 'Did he say his name?'

'Ducas.'

'Oh.' Ziani shrugged. 'Better show him in, then.' He banked the fire up with fresh coal to keep it alight, in case the emergency took more than a few minutes.

The man who pushed past the boy and strode in (not many people can genuinely stride; it's part breeding, part knack) was easily the biggest human being Ziani had ever seen. It was hard to gauge his height with any precision, because the breadth of his shoulders and the thickness of his neck skewed the proportions; at a guess, Ziani reckoned six and a half feet, a foot taller than the average Mezentine. It was only his size that made his head seem small; he had a clean-cut face, strong chin, high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, hair cropped very short; if he carried enough fat to fry a pigeon's egg, Ziani would've been most surprised. His fingers were huge but his hands were long, his forearms widening from a slim wrist to a massive swell of muscle above the elbow. He was smiling.

'You're Ziani Vaatzes,' the man said.

Well-informed, too. 'That's right,' Ziani said, letting the bad pronunciation go by. 'The boy said there's an emergency.'

'You can say that again,' the man said. 'I'm Jarnac Ducas, by the way. You know my cousin Miel.'

Ziani nodded. 'The emergency?' he said.

Jarnac Ducas sat on the table of the big anvil, his knee hooked over the horn. He looked like a hero on his day off. 'Pretty desperate,' he said, and his eyes actually twinkled as he smiled. 'I've been told to organise a hunt for the Duke and party in ten days' time and you should see the state the gear's in. Spear-blades blunt, rusty and bent, loose on the stem, hanging by their langets, some of them. Question is, will it be quicker to fettle the old ones or make, say, a dozen from scratch? You tell me,' he added, before Ziani could say anything, 'you're the expert.'

'Spear-blades,' Ziani repeated.

'That's right,' said Jarnac. 'You know the pattern, of course: broad leaf shape with a strong middle rib, flowing into a square shank with a slot for the stem, crossbar, langets on two sides. Don't get me wrong, the old ones are good bits of kit, been in the family since God knows when, but it's the look of the thing more than anything. I don't want any fancy engraving or anything, just a really good, strong tool that'll get the job done. Actually,' he added, 'better make it fourteen. Couple of spares won't hurt, and I'm not absolutely sure yet who'll be coming.'

Ziani looked at him for a moment before answering. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'but I'm rather busy at the moment, and it's not really the sort of thing I do. I'm sure there's plenty of other smiths who'll do a much better job than I could.'

The wrong answer, evidently; Jarnac Ducas gave him a well-bred look and went on: 'Obviously, since it's a rush job, that'll have to be reflected in the price. I don't mind paying over the odds for the best. The main thing is to have them ready in time without skimping on quality. I'm sure you understand.'

Then Ziani realised he was being stupid, allowing his irritation to cloud his perception. He looked at Jarnac Ducas again and this time saw him for what he was. 'Of course,' he said. 'I think the best thing would be if you could have the old spears brought here, so I can have a look at them and decide whether they can be spruced up, or whether we'll need to make new ones. Would that be all right?'

'Of course. I'll see to it straight away.'

'That would be most helpful,' Ziani said.

Jarnac beamed at him; he'd forgiven and forgotten the earlier misunderstanding, where Ziani had misinterpreted his request as something capable of being refused, and now they understood each other. 'Oh, and another thing,' he said.

Half an hour later, Ziani crossed the yard to the materials store, where Cantacusene was marking out timber for scorpion frames. Cantacusene had joined him straight away, as soon as he asked; he'd left his workshop, locking the door behind him, and vowing never to return. It was like a religious conversion, a disciple following the master.

'What do you know,' Ziani asked him, 'about boiled leatherwork?'

'Ah.' Cantacusene nodded. 'You don't do that in Mezentia, then.'

Ziani shook his head. 'Not that I ever heard. But it'd presumably come under the Shoemakers', or maybe the Saddlers'. You know about it, then.'

Cantacusene nodded again. 'You take your leather,' he said, 'sole bends are best but it depends on what you're making. You cut it out a third bigger than you want it to be, nail it to a wooden former, and dip it in boiling water for as long as it takes to count fifty. Pull it out, it'll have shrunk to size and gone hard as oak. They use it for armour mostly. Why?'

Ziani frowned. 'Why not use steel?' he said.

'Steel's dear, leather's cheap. Also, for hunting armour, it doesn't clank or rattle. If you want to be really fancy, you can dip it in melted beeswax instead of boiling water; makes it even harder, but you got to be careful on a hot day.'

'You've done it, then?'

'Loads of times,' Cantacusene said. 'Very popular line with the gentry, specially those who can't run to a full set of steel. I got all the formers back at my place.'

'Fine,' Ziani said. 'Some clown called Jarnac Ducas wants a dozen sets of hunting armour in ten days: vambraces, couters, rerebraces, pauldrons, gorgets, plackets, cuirasses, taces, cuisses, cops and greaves. Plain, he said, not fancy, whatever that means.'

Cantacusene was staring at him. 'Ten days?'

'That's right. Problem?'

'I can't do all that. Not on my own.'

Ziani smiled; at least his lips parted, like a crack in an old post. 'Well of course not,' he said. 'You show me what to do and I'll help you. Doesn't sound like it'd be too hard, not if you've already got the formers.'

Cantacusene had that worried look; there was something doglike about it, Ziani thought. 'Me teach you?' he said.

'That's right. Now, presumably you know where we can get the material from, and you've got all the tools and stuff. The material won't be a problem, will it?'

Cantacusene shook his head. 'Sole bends,' he said. 'Got to be a quarter inch thick, good clean hides without scars or fly-bites. I always used to get them from-'

'I'll leave all that to you, then,' Ziani said. 'Let me know when you're ready to start. And, I nearly forgot, we'll need a thirteenth set, but I'll be making that one all myself.'

'For his lordship, is it?'

'No,' Ziani said. 'For me.' He smiled again; private joke. 'I'm going on this hunt as well.'

Cantacusene couldn't have been more surprised if Ziani had pushed him down a well. 'You're going hunting with the Ducas?'

'That's right. Jarnac invited me.'

'Invited you?'

'After I asked him, yes. I said I'd never done it, nothing like it where I come from. He was very pleasant about it; of course I could come along, he said. I suppose he's hoping for a good deal on the armour. Oh yes, and a dozen boar-spears as well, but I'll see to them.'

That was obviously as much as Cantacusene could take. He mumbled something about going to see the leather merchant, and stumbled away as though he'd been in a fight.

Ziani shrugged, and went back to tempering his spring. It came out well enough in the end; half as much power again as the Mezentine standard for a scorpion spring, with a modified hook linkage that should help with the awkward problem of stress fracture that the Guild had given up on two hundred years ago. It would increase the strain on the wooden frame, of course, reducing the machine's working life still further, but that hardly mattered. No point building anything to last, given who his customers would be.

Cantacusene came back two hours later; the material would be delivered early in the morning (he started to tell Ziani the price, but Ziani wasn't interested), and the carrier would pick up the tools and formers from his workshop later that evening; they could start work tomorrow, if that suited. Ziani thanked him and went back to his bench, where he was clearing up a few minor problems with a redesigned ratchet axis. He would have liked to have given it more thought, made a few more changes, but there wouldn't be time now. His mind drifted; he was contemplating a two-piece fabricated spear-blade socket, square section box drawn down so the tang of the blade could simply slot in (interference fit) and be retained by the crossbar-

'Are you busy? Could you spare a moment?'

It was the Ducas voice, but not Jarnac this time; quieter, politer. Which meant it had to be the more important one, Miel Ducas. Ziani put down his callipers, looked up and smiled.

'Of course,' he said. 'What can I do for you?'

Miel Ducas looked different; tired, that would account for some of it, but he'd also been worrying about something recently. His face wasn't exactly hard to read. 'I've got a message for you, from the Duke's council. They'll be writing, but I thought I'd come and tell you myself.'

There could be no doubt as to what the message would be; even so, Ziani found that his lungs were locked and he couldn't breathe. 'That was very kind of you,' he said. 'This is about the scorpions.'

Miel nodded. 'The council would like to place an order,' he said, in a guarded, level voice. 'Basically, as many as you can make, as soon as possible.'

Ziani nodded. He was afraid it'd look offhand, but he wasn't able to speak. Miel Ducas was having difficulties, too; he started to say something, hesitated, and started again.

'About the price-' he said.

'That's all right,' Ziani interrupted. 'I've decided I'll do it at cost-materials and what I'll have to pay my men. Calaphates doesn't know yet, but I'll talk to him.'

'That's-' Miel stopped; he reminded Ziani of someone searching for a word in a foreign language. 'That's very generous of you,' he said.

'Least I can do,' Ziani replied. 'After all, I owe you people my life. My way of saying thank you.'

A long moment, with neither of them knowing quite how to say what was in their minds. Then Ziani went on: 'We'll start straight away. I've been doing some preliminary work, a few improvements to the design. Nothing you'd notice, unless you knew what you were looking for. I've taken on twenty men so far, and there's fifteen more I'm waiting to hear from.'

'That's a lot,' Miel said, though he knew he was wrong as soon as he said it. 'I thought you were on your own here, actually'

Ziani smiled. 'That wouldn't be any good, not for a job like this. Actually, I won't be involved at all, once everything's up and running. In fact, I'll be busy with a job for your cousin.'

'Jarnac?' Miel scowled. 'Look, no offence, but this is far more important. I'll talk to Jarnac, tell him he'll have to find someone else.'

'It's all right,' Ziani said. 'Once everything's set up, I'm just another pair of hands. Besides, your cousin's job'll only take a week, and then I'll be free to muck in with the rest of the men. You'll have the first half-dozen scorpions finished and ready in three days, you've got my word on that.'

When the Ducas had gone and he was alone, Ziani allowed his knees to buckle, as they'd been wanting to do ever since he'd heard the words he knew he'd hear. He leaned against the wall and slid down it, until he was sitting on the floor. Strange; it was simply the moving into engagement of a component of known qualities, sliding along its keyway and coming to rest against its stop. Perhaps it was the scale of what this development meant that affected him so powerfully: the expenditure of lives and resources, the men killed (they were alive, presumably walking about, eating, talking somewhere, but they were already as good as dead, and Ziani had seen to all that); the destruction, the laying waste, the burning and breaking of well-made goods, the sheer effort he'd unleashed; like the man in the story who was given all the four winds tied up in a sack, and some fool untied it and let them go. There would be so much noise, and movement, and pain. A man with a keen imagination would have trouble with the thought of it.

But not yet. Before all that, he had a lot of work to do, a great deal to think about; and he had the hunt to look forward to. As yet, that was still a separate piece, little more than an unfinished casting waiting to be fettled, machined, drilled to accept moving parts. He would have to design a mechanism for it, once he knew what it was going to be for. A pity; the man was a clown, but he'd quite liked Jarnac Ducas. There was a straightforwardness about him that he shared with his cousin. Ziani had arrived in Eremia expecting to find the aristocracy difficult to work with-brittle like cast iron, or soft and sticky to cut, like copper-but so far at least they'd proved to be quality material, a pleasure to use. It had all come together very sweetly, though of course it was the easy bit; and making the parts was one thing, assembling them was something else entirely.

This is no time to be sitting on floors, he told himself, and stood up. As he put the finishing touches to the axis pin, he called Miel Ducas back into his mind, considering and analysing his manner, his appearance. Tired, a little nervous, and worried about something beyond the awkwardness of his mission; what would worry the Ducas, the second most important man in Eremia, to the point that it showed in his face to a stranger?

Of course he couldn't answer that, or even know where to begin speculating. You can't take the back off a man's head and examine the works for signs of damage and wear. The most you can do is make a note of where the visible flaws run, the line along which the material will eventually break once it's been flexed a few times too often.

Chapter Fourteen

The unmaking [he read] is the crown, the very flower of the hunt; therefore it follows that it must be conducted solemnly, seriously and with respect. There are two parts thereof, namely the abay and the undoing. First, let the carcass be turned on its back and the skin of the throat cut open most carefully up the length of the neck, and let cuts be made through the flesh to the bone. Let the master of the hunt approach then, with his sleeves rolled to the elbow, and let the huntsmen sound the death on their horns; thereafter let the hounds first and then the lymers be loosed so that they might tear at the neck before they are coupled up, that the taste thereof might quicken them to the chase thereafter. Then let a forked stick with one arm longer than the other be set up in the earth beside the carcass, and let the master with his garniture split the skin from throat to vent…

Valens frowned. The book, with its brightly coloured pictures and carefully pumiced margins, had cost him the price of a small farm; but all they'd done was loosely paraphrase Cadentius, leaving a few bits out and dressing up other bits in fancy prose. For a start, the lengthwise cut was part of the undoing, not the abay; and whoever wrote this had no idea what a garniture was.

He sighed, closed the book and stood up. The woman in the red dress had sworn blind that it was the last known surviving copy of a rare early text attributed to Polinus Rex, but Polinus was three hundred years earlier than Cadentius, who'd been the first to have the master roll up his sleeves. He'd been had; twenty good-weight thalers he'd never see again, and still the woman in the red dress hadn't brought a letter…

Through the window he could see the raindrops dripping from the pine-branches. It was a hunting day, but there wasn't any point going out in this; there'd be no scent in the wet, the mud would make the going treacherous, the deer would be holding in the high wood where there'd be precious little chance of finding them. The sharpness of his disappointment surprised him; the rain would stop soon, there would be other days, the deer would still be there next week, but every day lost was a precious thing stolen from him, a treat held just out of reach to tease him. Instead, he'd have to read letters, convene the council, do work. He smiled; he could hear his eight-year-old self saying it, not fair. To which one of many voices replies: life isn't fair, the sooner you learn that, the better.

It wasn't fair that she hadn't written back; it had never been this long before, and it was no good saying there hadn't been a suitable courier, because five women in red dresses had been and gone (a velvet cloak, a set of rosewood and whalebone chessmen, a pair of pointy-toed shoes, very latest style, a marquetry box to keep things in, and finally the bloody useless book), all from Eremia, all without a letter. And on top of that, it was raining.

On a table beside the window lay a pile of documents; routine reports, mostly, from his prefects, agents and observers, making sure he knew the facts before anybody else did. He sat down and picked one off the top of the heap. The handwriting was steep and cramped, and he recognised it-his man in Lonazep, with a full account of the landing of the Mezentine mercenary army. He'd had the gist already, but there would be a great deal to be gleaned from the details, from the descriptions of the staff officers to the number of barrels of arrows. He read it, then read it again; the information was good and solid, but he couldn't get his mind to bite on it. He smiled, because he could picture his father sitting at this very table (back then, of course, it was downstairs in the small anteroom off the great solar; but the daylight lasted longer here in the West Tower), wading through his paperwork with palpable growing impatience, until he jumped up from his chair and stormed out of the room to go and look at the horses or the dogs. Somehow he'd always managed to absorb just enough from his reports to stay sharp, but he'd always lived in and for the present, content or resigned to react to each development as it came. He'd been the same when playing chess, too; he'd never quite come to terms with the idea that the point of the game was to trap the enemy king, rather than slaughter the opponent's pieces like sheep. That thought brought back the first time Valens had ever beaten him. It was an ambiguous memory, because even now he couldn't call it to mind without an automatic smirk of pride; he'd used his father's aggression against him, lured him into checkmate with the offer of a gaggle of defenceless pawns, pinned him in a corner with his only two surviving capital pieces, while his father's queen, bishops and knights stood by, unused and impotent. But he also remembered the disbelief, followed by the hurt, followed by the anger. They hadn't spoken to each other for two days afterwards.

A report from Boton about a meeting between Duke Orsea and representatives of the Cure Hardy. Well; he knew about that. Orsea had picked the wrong sect to make eyes at, and the whole thing had been a waste of time. A report from Civitas Eremiae about the Mezentine defector, Vaatzes; what he was up to was still unclear, but he'd got money from somewhere to set up a factory, and was buying up bloom iron, old horseshoes, farm scrap iron of all kinds; also, he'd hired half the blacksmiths and carpenters in the city. Valens raised an eyebrow at that. If he'd heard about it, he was pretty sure the Mezentines had too, and surely such reports would confirm their worst fears about defectors betraying their precious trade secrets. If this Vaatzes had deliberately set out to antagonise the Republic, he couldn't have gone about it better. Valens went back a line: broken scythe blades, rakes, pitchfork tines, hooks, hammers, any kind of scrap made of hardening steel; also charcoal in enormous quantities, planed and unplaned lumber. The steel suggested weapons; the lumber sounded more like building works. He folded down a corner of the dispatch and moved on.

Petitions; he groaned aloud, allowing himself the indulgence of a little melodrama, since there was nobody else there to see. Not just petitions; appeals, from the general assizes and the marches assizes and the levy sessions; appeals on points of law and points of fact, procedural irregularities (the original summons recited in the presence of eight witnesses rather than the prescribed seven; how that could possibly invalidate a man's case he had no idea, but that was the law), limitations and claims out of time. He could just about have endured a morning in court, with a couple of clever speakers to entertain him, but the thought of sitting at a table and fighting his way through a two-inch wedge of the stuff made him wince.

Nevertheless, he told himself; I am the Duke, and therefore duty's slave. Never mind. He broke the seal on the first one and tried to concentrate. Alleged: that Marcianus Lolliotes of Ascra in the Dalmatic ward beginning in the time of Duke Valentinius on occasions too numerous to particularise entered upon the demesne land of Aetius Cassinus with the intention of cutting hay, the property of the said Cassinus. Defended: that the said land was not the demesne land of the said Cassinus, having been charged by the said Cassinus' grandfather in the time of Duke Valentius with payment to the great-grandfather of the said Lolliotes of heriot and customary mortmain, which payments were duly made but without the interest thereto pertaining; accordingly, the said Lolliotes having an interest in the said land, there was no trespass; further or in the alternative…

It took him a long time, and he had to check many cross-references in many books before he managed to get it all straight in his mind, but he got there in the end. As usual, it was nobody's fault, both of them were sort of right and slightly wrong, and there wasn't a clear-cut or obvious solution, because the law was outdated, contradictory and sloppily drawn, made up on the spot by his great-greatgrandfather, probably because he was bored and wanted to go outside in the fresh air and kill something rather than sitting indoors. Wearily, Valens uncapped his ink-well, dipped the nib and started to write. It didn't have to be fair copy; he had secretaries to do the bland, beautiful, cursive law-hand that needed to stay legible for centuries. But the sheer effort of writing made his wrist and forearm ache, and although he knew what he wanted to say, it was hard to keep everything in order; the points, facts and conclusions strayed like wilful sheep and had to be chased back into the fold. He lost his way twice, had to cross out and go back; the pen dropped a big fat blot and he'd swept his sleeve across it before he noticed. When finally it was done he read it through twice (once silently, once aloud) for errors and ambiguities; made three corrections; read it through again and realised one correction was actually a mistake; corrected the correction, read it through one more time, sprinkled and blew off sand, put it on the corner of the desk for the copyist to deal with later. Last step: he made a note in the margin of the relevant page of his copy of the Consolidated Digest, in his smallest writing (can't charge for heriot in 3d generation, statute barred after 2d, but reliefs apply in equity), to save himself the effort of doing all the research if the point happened to come up ever again. It was a good practice, recommended by several authors on jurisprudence, and he'd wasted more time looking for notes he'd made eighteen months ago but forgotten exactly where or under what than he'd have spent looking it all up from scratch.

(Just think, he told himself; men scheme and betray and murder so as to get to be kings and dukes, and this is what they end up doing all day long. Serves them right, really.)

Mercifully, the next three petitions weren't nearly so bad. Two of them were points he knew, and there was already an annotation on the relevant page of the book for the third-not his writing, or his father's; his grandfather, maybe, or his great-uncle, during his father's short but disastrous regency. Possibly on a better day he'd have checked for himself rather than take the unknown writer's word for it; possibly not. The fifth petition made up for the three easy ones; it was something to do with uses on lives in being and the perpetuity rules, which he'd never been able to understand, and there was a barred entail, a claim of adverse possession and the hedge-and-ditch rule thrown in for good measure. He could have been outside in the fresh air killing something (wry smile for his earlier self-righteousness) but he fought his way through to the end, realised he still couldn't make head or tail of it, and decided to split the difference: farmer Mazaninus could have the north end of the field and farmer Ischinus could have the south end, and they could share the bloody water and like it. Enough justice for one day. Too much fun is bad for the soul.

Perhaps, he thought (the ink-bottle was still uncapped, he had plenty of paper left), he should write to her again-no mention of the fact that she hadn't replied to his last letter, just something bright and witty and entertaining, the sort of thing he could do well, for some reason he'd never been able to grasp. If what he'd said the last time had offended her, maybe it'd be the right thing to pretend that letter had never been written; they could start again, talking about Mannerist poetry, observations on birds and flowers, the weather. But if he knew her (he'd only talked to her once, but how could there be anybody in the world he knew better?) she wouldn't sulk if he'd offended her, or break off entirely; she'd tell him he was wrong, stupid, insensitive, horrible, but she'd write back, if she possibly could. So maybe she couldn't.

The hell with this, he thought. He frowned, took a new sheet of paper, and started to write: to Lelius Lelianus, alias Nustea Cordatzes, timber merchant in Civitas Eremiae and his best spy in Eremia. Query: any rumours circulating anywhere about the Duchess, ructions in the Duke's household, society scandals, unexplained disappearances of Merchant Adventurers. Urgent. That one he wrote out himself, rather than adding it to the pile for copying.

Outside, the rain had slowed to a fine drizzle. He went down two flights to his wardrobe, quickly put on an oilskin cloak, big hat and waxed boots, collected a bow and quiver from the ascham (an old self-bow that wouldn't come apart in the wet) and left the castle by the north-end postern, heading for the dew-ponds. There might be duck there, though strictly speaking ducks didn't start for a month (but what's the point in being supreme and final judge of appeals if you can't bend the rules in an emergency?), and he hadn't shot for weeks.

The air smelt wet. It had been an unusually dry summer, so the rain hadn't sunk in to what passed for soil in the high marches. Water trick