Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2012
Let Maps to Others by K. J. Parker
There is such a place. And I have been there.
They all say that, don’t they? They say; I met someone once who spent five years there, disguised as a holy man. Or; the village headman told me his people go there all the time, to trade timber and flour for spices. Or; the priest showed me things that had come from there—a statuette, a small, curiously-fashioned box, a pair of shoes, a book I couldn’t read. Or; from the top of the mountain we looked out across the valley and there it was, on the other side of the river, you could just make out the sun glinting off the spires of the temples. Or; I was taken there, I saw the Great Gate and the Forbidden Palace, I sat and drank goat-butter tea with the Grand Master, who was seven feet tall and had his eyes, nose and mouth set in the middle of his chest.
You hear them, read them. The first, second, third time, you believe. The fourth time, you want to believe. The fifth time, you notice a disturbing pattern beginning to emerge—how they were always so close they could hear the voices of the children and smell the woodsmoke, but for this reason or that reason they couldn’t go the last two hundred yards and had to turn back (but it was there, it is there, it’s real, it really exists). The sixth time breaks your heart. By the seventh time, you’re a scholar, investigating a myth.
I am a scholar. I have spent my entire life investigating what I now firmly believe to be a myth. But there is such a place. And I have been there.
“The duke,” she said, “is watching you.”
Bearing in mind where we were, who she was and what we’d been doing, I sincerely hoped she was talking figuratively. “You don’t say.”
“Oh yes.” She tugged at the sheet. Women feel the cold. “He’s very interested in you.”
Another thing women do is say things that aren’t entirely true. Men do this, of course; but usually for a reason, usually a reason you can perceive; a shape hidden under the lies, like a body under a blanket. You see a blanket, but you can trace where the arms, legs, chest are. Women, by contrast, say untrue things just to see where the path will lead. “I doubt it,” I said. “He won’t have heard of me.”
“Of course he’s heard of you.”
I yawned. I didn’t feel like conversation. “My father, possibly,” I said. “Maybe, just conceivably, my brother, because of the lawsuits. Me, no. Nobody’s heard of me.”
She cleared her throat.
“Outside of the Studium,” I amended. “And the scholarly fraternity at large. I confess, I’m reasonably well known among my brother scholars. That fool who believes, they call me. Outside of that, though—”
She nuzzled against me, purely for warmth. “The greatest living authority on Essecuivo,” she said.
“Exactly. That fool who believes. What on earth could that possibly have to do with the duke?”
“He’s bought the Company.”
I felt a shiver that had absolutely nothing to do with the temperature of the room. “Then he’s an idiot,” I said. “Even if he only paid a penny for it.”
“He doesn’t think so.”
“Well, he wouldn’t.”
“And it was rather more than a penny,” she went on, talking to the ceiling. “He’s mortgaged Sansify and Gard Hardy and sold his half share in the tin mines to raise the money. He’s serious about it.”
I frowned; it was dark, so she couldn’t see me. “I feel sorry for his sons,” I replied. “It’s miserable, being the poor son of a rich father. You never quite manage to get away from it. Mind you, there’s a substantial difference in scale. My father was well-off, but nothing at all like—”
“He thinks it’s a good investment.”
I really wasn’t in the mood for talking about the duke; especially since the conversation also appeared to involve Essecuivo, a subject I talk about incessantly among scholars and never to outsiders. In fact, I didn’t want to talk at all. I just wanted to go home; but you can’t, can you? Not straight away. “Well,” I said, “I hope his faith turns out to be justified, naturally. If so, I’ll be as pleased as I’ll be amazed.”
I felt her turn towards me. “It does exist, doesn’t it?” she said. “There is such a place.”
I sighed. “Yes,” I said. “I believe it exists. Aeneas Peregrinus went there, and he was real enough. But we don’t know where it is.”
“You don’t know?”
“And I’m the greatest living authority.” I sighed. “One of the greatest living authorities. Professor Strella, in Aerope, would dispute that last statement, but he’s a fraud. Carchedonius of Luseil—”
“You must have some idea.”
I stretched. Time to get up and go. “It exists,” I said. “Somewhere. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. I’d better go.”
“I’d better. He might come back early, you never know.”
“It’s the second reading of the Finance Bill,” she said irritably, “he won’t be back till the morning. You never want to stay.”
“I really should go.”
“Fine. That’s fine.” You see what I mean. They’re always saying things they don’t mean. “Tomorrow?”
“Not sure about tomorrow,” I said, “I may have to dine in Hall. And then I’ve got a lecture to prepare. The day after tomorrow would be better.”
I slid out of bed, felt for my trousers in the dark. I always find that sort of thing exquisitely distasteful. “Is the House sitting next week?”
“I don’t know.”
Of course she knew. But I could look it up in the gazette. I pulled on my shirt, then hesitated. “Is the duke really interested in me?”
I shrugged. “Maybe he’ll be good for a few marks toward the chancel fund,” I said. “It’s getting pretty desperate, the rain’s coming in under the eaves.”
I was born in the City. My father was a junior partner in the Eastern Sea Company, which at that time was a cross between a bank and a munitions factory. He was on the munitions side of things; he ran the ordnance yard where they cast the cannons and mortars that would be mounted on the ships that would make the journey to Essecuivo, to sell woollen cloth, tin plates, mirrors, shovels, whatever in return for cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, fine red pepper and the curious root that cures plague, syphilis and baldness. Because nobody had discovered Essecuivo yet, there wasn’t exactly a hurry; so, in order to keep the cash flow moving along, the Company sold the cannons and mortars my father made to the kings and dukes of neighbouring states, who always managed to find a use for them. Back then, money was still pouring in to the Company (because everybody knew it was only a matter of time before someone found Essecuivo), and the directors invested it sensibly in worthwhile projects, to build up the capital against the day when the crucial discovery was made and the Company could launch its first fleet. It was called the Eastern Sea Company because, on the balance of the evidence then available, it was generally held that Essecuivo was somewhere to the east. But if it had turned out to be in the west, they wouldn’t have minded. They were practical men, back then.
My father was a practical man. He wasn’t convinced that Essecuivo would simply fall into our laps like an overripe pear; it would need finding, so someone would have to find it. Ordinarily he’d have done it himself (he was a great believer in if-you-want-something-done-properly) but he was too busy with supervising the cannon-founders and doing deals with foreign princes to find the time, so it seemed logical to keep it in the family and give the job to his spare son (me). Accordingly, from the age of nine I was tutored in geography, history, languages and book-keeping (for when I’d found Essecuivo and established our first trading post there). When I was sixteen, I was sent to the Studium, which possesses a copy of every book ever written, to continue my studies. And there I stayed, becoming the youngest ever professor of Humanities at age thirty-two.
Every book, I discovered, except one.
I first encountered Aeneas Peregrinus when I was twelve. I read about him in Silvianus’ Discourses. Aeneas Peregrinus had been to Essecuivo, three hundred years ago. He set off from the City with a cargo of lemons, heading for Mesembrotia, but was blown off course by a freak storm. The storm lasted for nine days, and when the wind dropped, nobody had any idea where they were; even the stars were different, Aeneas wrote. For four weeks they drifted, until another storm, even more ferocious than the first, picked them up and carried them at terrifying speed for eight days, then died away as suddenly as it had arisen. On the skyline, they could see land. They sat becalmed for a further three days, until a gentle breeze carried them to what turned out to be Essecuivo, where the soil and climate are the best in the world, the people are gentle, sophisticated, wealthy beyond measure and wildly generous, and where they’d never seen a lemon.
Aeneas sold his cargo for its weight in gold, then spent a month or so travelling round the country talking to noblemen, priests and scholars, finding out everything he could about the wonderful country he’d stumbled across. Most of all, naturally, he wanted to find out where it was. That, apparently, was no problem; the Essecuivans are exceptionally learned in astronomy, geography and all related sciences, and taught him the principles of latitude and the techniques of advanced navigation using the astrolabe, compass and sextant (all previously unknown outside Essecuivo) which every ship’s captain uses to this day. With this knowledge, it was a simple matter for Aeneas to fix the relative positions of Essecuivo and the City and plot a course home. The return journey took him three weeks, partly because he was held up by contrary winds a third of the way over. He arrived home with his cargo of gold ingots, and immediately sat down to write his two great books. The first of these, A Discourse on Navigation, he presented to the Council, who made him a Knight of Equity and set up a ten-foot high statue in his honour in what is now Aeneas Square. The second book, a complete description of Essecuivo, including precise directions for finding it again, he kept to himself, although he occasionally showed selected passages to his close friends. After all, he reasoned, he was determined to go back there and make a second massive fortune, and quite possibly a third, fourth, fifth and sixth, for as long as the Essecuivans were prepared to pay ridiculous prices for lemons. Only an idiot would disclose the secret of unlimited wealth, and risk a flooding of the market.
Aeneas Peregrinus died suddenly, at the age of forty-six, three hundred and seven years ago. At the time of his death, the whereabouts of the manuscript of his second book were not known. It hasn’t been seen since.
I’m not sure if I’m a geographer or a historian, or whether geography’s a humanity or a science. What I do know is that, if I really am smart enough to deserve a chair at the Studium, I should’ve asked myself what a senator’s young trophy wife ever saw in me, long before that casual mention of the duke. Still, better late than too late.
I walked home slowly through the back alleys, and every turning and doorway was crawling with the duke’s men, watching me, taking notes, except that I couldn’t quite see them. By the time I reached the lodge I was exhausted. The porter got up from his nice warm fireside and handed me a note.
Must see you at once. My rooms.
That’s not his real name, of course. Before he came to the Studium he was Liutprand Thiostulfsen. It cost me twelve angels to find that out, and I never could think of a good way of using it against him. Just knowing it made me feel better, though.
I should explain about Carchedonius. He’s a fine scholar. He’s painstaking, insightful, clear-headed, occasionally brilliant, always worth listening to. His work on the manuscript tradition of Thraso’s Dialogues was what started me on the road to my finest hour, the deciphering of the Sunao Codex. Between us, we know everything there is to know about Aeneas, and Essecuivo. All in all, it’s a shame we hate each other the way we do.
But that can’t be helped, any more than you can get an injunction to stop the winter. The stupid thing is, neither of us can account for it. I’ve never done him any real harm, though not for want of trying, and all his wild schemes to encompass my downfall have failed or backfired on him. Apparently he has some kind of grudge based on some relative of his losing a lot of money when the Company went under. If that’s really the case, he must’ve nursed it like a shepherd’s wife with an orphan lamb. I think I hate him so much because he hates me, though I’m not sure I didn’t hate him first. In any case, it’s been going on since we were both seventeen-year-old freshmen. I guess it’s an interest for both of us; cheaper than collecting pre-Mannerist miniatures, slightly more exciting than watching the donkey-cart races.
Must see you in my rooms at once presumably meant the latest in a long line of laboured, over-elaborate stratagems; presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that I might simply decide not to turn up. He’d make a lousy spider; the patience and dedication to spin a good web, but not a clue about luring flies. His idea of subtlety would be a big notice; WEB THIS WAY. He’d starve.
I nearly didn’t go. Nearly. If I was a fly, I’d be dead by now.
Here I go, rattling on about myself and my own inconsequential history. I’m ashamed of myself, as a historian. My part in the sequence of events is significant but limited. I shouldn’t have talked about myself or even acknowledged my own existence for at least another ten pages.
The Company; the Eastern Ocean Company; actually, the correct name is the College of Merchant Adventurers for the Promotion and Regulation of Trade with the Nations of the Eastern Ocean. It was founded, coincidentally, in the year of my birth—here I am, intruding again—by three clockmakers and a goldsmith, affluent men with a taste for abstruse literature who’d been brought up on secondary accounts of Aeneas Peregrinus, and who could afford to indulge their scientific pretensions by chartering and outfitting a small ship (the Squirrel, 90 tons) to look for Essecuivo. That was all. But, being businessmen, they thought it would be common sense to spread the risk a little. Accordingly, they issued a prospectus, which they hired a couple of layabouts to give away free in the tea-houses around the Golden Carp.
The year I was born was also the year of the great gold strike in Eroine. For the first time in centuries, the City was awash with money; newly-coined gold angels, tumbling like raindrops, looking for channels, gutters and conduits to drain off the flood. Men who’d been wise enough to take an early stake at Eroine and then sell before the strike worked out were looking around for the next good thing; preferably something a bit more substantial than gold-mining, up and down like a peacock’s tail, as my father used to say. Essecuivo was exactly the sort of thing they were after; a solid, long-term venture yielding rich dividends for ever and ever. In a matter of days, copies of the free prospectus (the clockmakers had only printed two hundred) were changing hands for an angel each.
At this point, something strange and wonderful happened. The clockmakers, in order to keep track of who was investing what, had some more papers printed; not prospectuses this time, but shares. It wasn’t a brand new idea, but it had never really caught on before. That all changed. The first subscription, at one angel a share, sold out in a week. The second subscription, three angels, went in a single morning; meanwhile, in the tea-houses, the disappointed investors who’d missed out on the subscriptions were cheerfully paying six angels apiece for second-hand shares. Twelve subscriptions later, Company stock stood at a hundred and six, and only the clockmakers had any idea how many shares were in circulation. At this point, they quietly sold out their own interests and retired to vast country estates in the Naquite, leaving the Company in the hands of its newly-elected Board, one member of which was my poor father.
What nobody realised at that moment was that just under a third of the entire value of the Republic was now invested in the Company; whose assets, apart from money, consisted of a fine neo-Archaic mansion house in Widegate, a fair collection of maps and books put together by the clockmakers, four remaining years of a six-year charter of the Squirrel and some second-hand barrels. I think it was this that led my father to decide that someone really ought to find Essecuivo as quickly as possible.
I walked in and he didn’t look up. “Tea?” he asked.
“Yes, why not?” I looked around. I hadn’t been in his rooms for some time. Mind you, nothing had changed; the same heaps of junk everywhere. I decided to assume that the offer of tea implied an invitation to sit down, so I moved a stack of books and perched on a chair. He swung the kettle arm over the fire and peered back at me over his shoulder.
“I saw that thing you did in the Proceedings,” he said.
“Did you now.”
“Very good.” He pawed the lid off the tea caddy and measured out three spoonfuls. Black tea, the cheap sort. I could smell the bergamot oil they use to mask the poor flavour. “I think you’re right about Psammetichus. It makes sense of the western tradition, and it fits in with Hiero in the Summary.”
“Of course, you were wrong about Arcea,” he went on, with his back to me. “The foundation date is fixed by the Lelantine War.”
I frowned. He had a point. “That’s a terminus post quem.”
He shook his head. “Hiero lists Arceus among the dead at Limma,” he said. “If he died at Limma, he couldn’t have founded Arcea the year after, could he?”
Six months of agonisingly hard work gone up in smoke. I could have cried. Instead, I said, “If you’re prepared to follow Hiero.”
“You were,” he replied. “Can’t have it both ways.” He turned round, holding a teapot and two small wooden cups. He loves to make a show of poverty, although his family owns half the Neada valley. “Lemon?”
I shook my head. “That’s what you wanted to see me about.”
“No.” He sat down, not bothering to shift the books first; he sort of settled in beside and on top of them, like cement. “No, I’ve already written a note for the Review.” He smiled. “Sorry.”
I made a show of shrugging. “Just as well you spotted my careless oversight,” I said. “The human race should be properly grateful.”
He leaned forward to pour the tea. “Oh, the hell with that,” he said. “I never could be doing with slipshod scholarship, is all.” He frowned. “Did you say you wanted lemon?”
“Not for me, no.”
He sipped his tea and pulled a face. “No,” he went on (he starts most of his sentences with no), “it was something quite other. How are things with you, by the way? It’s been a while since we had a chance for a civilised conversation. How’s your father getting on?”
“He died,” I said. “Last spring.”
“That’s a shame, I’m sorry. He can’t have been out for long.”
He shook his head. “Well,” he said, “at least he didn’t die in prison. That must be a terrible thing, don’t you think?”
Sometimes, the best way of fighting is not to fight. I sat still and quiet. He drank his tea.
“No,” he said eventually, “what I wanted to see you about was—” He stopped, put his cup down and folded his hands neatly in his lap. “You heard that Count Dorcellus is dead.”
He nodded. “The family’s deep in debt, so they had to sell up. The whole place, including the library.”
In spite of myself, I was mildly interested. The Dorcelli are one of those old families who used to be everywhere a few hundred years ago, and haven’t done a damn thing since. Also, they were always notoriously mean-minded about allowing scholars to use their library. As a result, nobody had any idea what they’d got in there.
“It just so happens,” he went on, looking over my shoulder, “that my uncle bought a few cases of books at the sale.” He grinned, still not looking at me. “When I say cases, that’s quite accurate. He bought four large crates, sight unseen. He’s a clown, my uncle. Still.”
I had a feeling of being taken on a guided tour of the torture chamber. They do that, apparently, to make people confess. This is the wrack, that’s the iron maiden, and over here we have the thumbscrews. “Anything interesting?” I asked.
“Some bits and pieces.” He frowned again, then lifted his head and looked at me. “Oh, before I forget. They sent me your latest on Aeneas Peregrinus. They want to know if it’s any good.”
I felt cold all over. They, in this context, meant the faculty board, to whom I had submitted an outline of my researches in the hope of getting funding for another five years. Through ignorance or malice they’d given it to Carchedonius for peer review. I swallowed. “What did you think?”
Oh, but you can’t tell, really you can’t. He always says splendid or excellent, just before he wields the knife. I waited. He made the moment last.
“No,” he said, “I went through it all very carefully, and I’m forced to admit, I do believe you’re right. And I’ve been wrong all these years. You convinced me. Congratulations.”
Still I waited. These are the red-hot irons, that cage thing over there is for bending your arms backwards until your elbows burst. “And?”
“And nothing.” The smile faded. “You know I can’t stand you,” he went on. “You’re arrogant, sloppy, careless and full of shit, and the way you carry on with married women is a disgrace to the Studium. But, on this occasion, you’ve produced a piece of work of real quality. And put me in my place in the process.” He picked up his teacup and put it down again, his fingertips still surrounding the rim. “I know now that you were right about the latitude of Essecuivo, and I was wrong. I’m trying to be graceful about it, but I’m probably not succeeding. It’s not really in my nature.”
It suddenly occurred to me to be glad I hadn’t touched the tea he’d poured for me. Bergamot oil would mask any number of unusual flavours. “Well—” I said.
“Anyway.” He stood up, crossed to the fireplace and gave the logs a sharp poke. Little red stars got up, like flies off a turd. “I’ve written to the faculty recommending that you get your money. I had no choice,” he said. “After all, we’re scholars, aren’t we?”
I took a deep breath. “Is that what you—?”
I looked at him. People have mistaken us for each other. We’re both tall and skinny, with very similar long faces and straight noses. Two scholars. “Fine,” I said. “So?”
He sat down again, this time carefully moving the books, like miners clearing the fallen rocks behind which their friends are trapped, until he unearthed a long brass tube. He laid this across his knees and covered it with his forearms. “One small point in your work that I’d take issue with. Very small,” he added quickly. “It hadn’t occurred to me either until very recently. It’s about the manuscript of the Discovery.”
(The Discovery of Essecuivo, by Aeneas Peregrinus. Of course there was no manuscript.)
“You and I,” he went on, “have both spent a large part of our adult lives trying to figure out what became of the manuscript when Aeneas died. Both of us assumed that it would have been inherited by his son. We traced every living descendant, we sorted through indices and cartularies wherever there’s a library that might have received papers or books from Dives Peregrinus or his heirs. It’s all been—” He grinned. “A complete waste of time. Oh, we’ve found books and papers. Just not the one we were looking for. Agreed?”
“We assumed,” he went on, “that, because Dives inherited the land and the money and the house, he’d have had the papers too. After all, Aeneas was planning on going back. He died suddenly. The papers would have been with the rest of his property.”
He seemed to want me to say something. “Yes,” I said.
“Naturally enough. It was a fair assumption. But what—” He stopped, as though he’d walked into an invisible door. “What if Aeneas and his son quarrelled about something, and Aeneas gave the papers to somebody else? The land and the money; well, he didn’t really have a choice, people didn’t just disinherit their only sons back then, so Dives got them all. But the papers—”
A hot, bright light inside my head. “The niece,” I said.
He gave me a beautiful smile. “Precisely,” he said. “His sister’s daughter, whose name we don’t even know. What if she got the papers, while he was still alive?”
I was ashamed. I really, really should have thought of it before. But I was too excited to let that get in the way just then. “The niece—”
“Married into the Dorcelli family,” he said quietly. “Who, being at that time wealthy enough not to need to sully their hands with trade and commerce, filed the papers safely away in the archives of their beautiful library at Touchevre and forgot all about them. Probably never bothered to look to see what was in them. Meanwhile Dives, having ransacked his father’s house searching for the old fool’s last book and failed to find it, concluded that it must have been destroyed, and told people so. Naturally, they believed him. He was, after all, Aeneas’ son.”
Suddenly I could scarcely breathe. “Your uncle.”
He smiled. “Bought four large crates, sight unseen. Including—” He pointed the brass tube at me, like a weapon. “This.”
He held on to the tube. I unscrewed the cap. I could see the end of a roll of parchment. My hand was frozen solid. I couldn’t move.
“Allow me.” He pinched the parchment between forefinger and thumb and drew it out. It was stiff and brown. It looked like a stick. “Now, then,” he said. “You’re the greatest living expert on Essecuivo. You’ve just proved that, to my satisfaction. Would you care to take a look?”
My enemy, my one and only true enemy, holding in his hand the one and only manuscript. Would I care to take a look? I nodded. He leaned across, took my hand, opened the cramped fingers and pushed the scroll in between them. “Take your time,” he said. “I’m in no hurry.”
You know the story of Saint Aguellinus; how, every morning since he was nine years old, he climbed the mountain just before dawn and prayed to be allowed to look into the face of the Invincible Sun. For ninety years he prayed; then, one day, his prayer was granted. The Sun, rising above the Techenis mountains, burst upon him as he prayed and spoke to him, saying, Follow me. Whereupon Aguellinus, his prayers answered, was consumed by the fire that leaves no ash and ascended bodily into Heaven—
Me, I’m not religious. I can see the Sun any time I like. But this—
“Go on,” he said (I’ll never forget how he said it.) “It won’t bite you.”
I unrolled it. The parchment creaked; I was suddenly terrified in case it snapped or crumbled into dust before I could read it. But it rolled out, smooth and springy, the surface hard under my fingernails. It was hand-written, of course, and of course I recognised the handwriting. I’d spent hours poring over the nine authentic surviving letters written by Aeneas Peregrinus—to his land agent, his son, the sherriff of his shire concerning the window tax.
Concerning the True Discovery of Essecuivo, being a faithful account—
“Go on,” he said gently. “Read it.”
I thought; if only my father was still alive. He died, as Carchedonius so thoughtfully reminded me, only a short while ago, after ten years in prison. He’d done nothing wrong; at least, not the things he was accused of doing. But when the bubble burst and millions of angels were wiped out overnight, as suddenly and irrecoverably as snow melting, someone had to take the blame. My father, who’d done nothing wrong and therefore saw no need to leave the country with a small valise filled with precious stones, put up a strong case at his trial. He always was a good speaker, and he couldn’t resist arguing the toss, even when it was clearly not the smart thing to do. I can imagine (I wasn’t there) him arguing with Death, scoring five or six good solid debating points; the last thing he’d have seen before his eyes closed for ever was the panoramic view you get from the moral high ground.
But if he’d lived just a little longer, and seen this—
He’d have scolded me for not finding it earlier. The niece, he’d have said, shaking his head in that insufferable way of his, any idiot would’ve thought to investigate the niece. And he wouldn’t have said you failed me, you always were a bitter disappointment to me, because he wouldn’t have had to.
I read the manuscript. I could have written it myself.
That was the extraordinary thing. All my life I’d been speculating about Essecuivo, making educated guesses, extrapolating castles from grains of sand. From a tiny handful of dubious fragments of recollections in old age by men who’d heard their grandfathers talking when they were children; from observations based on ancient artefacts that may possibly have been copied more or less faithfully from things that may or may not have been smuggled back by Aeneas’ men in their sea-chests; half the time I was pretty much making it up, on the balance of probabilities, and the rest of the time I was working from evidence you wouldn’t rely on to convict a fox of killing chickens. The thing was, though, I was right. Uncannily so; even my wildest reaches and most vertiginous leaps to conclusions were borne out by the tall, thin, looped brown letters on the page. It was enough to make you weep. I hadn’t needed the manuscript, except as proof. I knew it all already.
- But proof; oh, there’s a world of difference, isn’t there? I felt like a man accused of murder who’s made up a wild and totally false alibi, only to have it corroborated by a perfect stranger of flawless integrity. I was right. About everything; the height of the mountains (which I’d calculated based on an almost certainly apocryphal story about how Aeneas had spilt a kettle of boiling water over his hand on a mountaintop, and not been scalded), the source of the great river that washes the gold dust out of the northern heights, which province the red-and-yellow parrots come from. Every damn thing.
“I expect you’re feeling pleased with yourself,” he said.
I’d forgotten all about him. I’d been gazing at the illuminated capital letters. Aeneas hadn’t done them himself, he’d have hired a local scrivener or law-writer. They were typical of the period, quickly but well executed, the letters shadowed in red and embellished with leaf-and-scroll; standard decoration for title deeds, leases and contracts. Every paragraph started with one. A small touch of vanity, from a man who could afford it. “Sorry?”
“I imagine,” he said, “that you’re feeling quite happy just now. I would be, in your shoes.”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course. And you too.”
He smiled. “Very much so. You know,” he went on, “I’ve never had much in the way of good luck in my life. When things have gone well for me, it’s because I made it happen. Not very often,” he added with a grin. “But this is something quite different. I feel—well, justified, if you know what I mean.”
I wasn’t quite sure that I did, but I didn’t want to spoil the mood. “Splendid,” I said. “What do you intend to do?”
He leaned across and took it gently from me. I didn’t want to let go, but I was afraid of tearing it, so I opened my fingers wide and let it slip through. “The only thing that’s missing,” he said, “is map references. Co-ordinates. But most people agree Aeneas must’ve known them, because he used them to plot his course home. Odd, don’t you think?”
I thought about it. “I guess that was the one secret he didn’t want to commit to writing,” I said. “After all, he was planning on going back, like you said.”
He nodded. “I’m glad we agree,” he said. Then he leaned back a little and put the manuscript into the fire.
Anyway. Back to the real history.
For about five years, the Company continued to thrive. True, no progress whatsoever had been made in finding Essecuivo. I don’t think anyone even tried. They were too busy.
To begin with, the money that poured in to the Company’s coffers came from the gold miners and bullion dealers, who had, essentially, too much money and nothing to spend it on. Before long, however, the old landowning families started to invest, and then the established City merchants; and then, as the stock price kept on going up, anyone who could find or borrow the cost of a share or two. Land was easy to raise money on; canny investors who’d already made a pile sold out and bought estates, farms, forests, only to mortgage or sell them again to reinvest when the temptation grew too great to bear. The Council started buying stock with public money—why not? Each share issue was bigger than the last, and the price kept on rising steadily.
My father’s side of the business—making artillery—was an early diversification. It came about because the Squirrel had twelve gun-ports but no guns. One of the original clockmakers knew a bell-founder who was going through a slow patch; he leased a space in his yard and had a dozen cannon made. They happened to turn out pretty well (cannon are notoriously hard to cast), and a friend of the clockmaker who was outfitting a ship of his own asked if he could buy eight pieces just like them. Before long, the Company had bought out the bell-founder and was turning out three dozen premium demi-culverins a week.
My father’s fellow directors, who were starting to worry, realised that there was a lesson to be learned from what was essentially a commercial accident. They had enormous sums of money at their disposal. One day, it would be needed for Essecuivo. In the meantime, however, there was no sense in it just sitting there. They looked around for good ideas, like my father’s cannon, to put money into.
At first, they didn’t have far to look. They invested in shipyards, lumber yards and forestry—all quite logical, since once Essecuivo turned up, they’d be needing ships; lots of ships, well-built, properly fitted out, the right size and tonnage, at a sensible price. Then they figured that once they got to Essecuivo, they’d need goods to trade with. So they invested in woollen mills, sheepwalks and hill-country grazing; they bought land on the Sieva river and planted a thousand acres of lemon trees; they put money into cutlery, tinware and mining; all so as to be as well prepared as possible once Essecuivo eventually rose out of the sea, shining and inviting as the Goddess of Love.
The lease on the Squirrel ran out and somebody forgot to renew it; but the Company’s investments were all doing quite well. So, quite accidentally, were the citizens of the Republic. Every month, hundreds of people left the farms and ranches where they’d been accustomed to scrape a meagre living, and headed for the City, to work in the new foundries and factories. With the money they earned, they were able to buy the cheap goods the Company’s trading partners produced; families who’d always eaten off wooden trenchers now had fine pewter plates, and wore good broadcloth instead of homespun. Thanks to the three per cent tax and its own investments in Company stock, the Council had funds for all sorts of magnificent projects; public buildings, paved roads, a dam on the Deneipha river to drain the marshes to provide more land for more lemon trees. They also commissioned the Republic’s first fleet of publicly-owned warships, built in the Company’s yards and armed with my father’s cannon. They were reckoned to be the most advanced warships in the world, and more than a match for anything they’d be likely to meet, in our own waters or beyond. They would even—people reckoned—give the antiquated galleys and galliots of the Empire a run for their money, if it ever came to it.
The war lasted three years. The immediate cause was the Evec peninsular. It seemed quite logical at the time. The Evec was notionally Imperial territory, but there was nothing there; just a few sheep ranches occupied by a handful of peasants, primitives (about as primitive as we’d been, before the Company came along). The Empire wouldn’t waste money and resources defending an obscure and distant outpost, it wouldn’t be cost-effective. We, on the other hand, could plant the whole lot out with lemon groves. It was the obvious thing to do.
The first action of the war took place off Cape Acuela. Two squadrons of antiquated Imperial galliots sent the Republic’s magnificent new fleet to the bottom in just over an hour.
When the news reached the City, it sparked off a reaction of incandescent rage. Addressing the huge crowd gathered in Aeneas Peregrinus Square, the First Citizen vowed that we would never yield, not if it took every penny, every man. The replacement fleet was ready to sail in three weeks; it was twice the size and twice as heavily armed. The third, fourth and fifth fleets were even better. But not, unfortunately, good enough.
Once the Articles of Surrender had been signed and the Imperial fleet raised its blockade of the City harbour, the newly-appointed provisional government sat down and looked to see what was left. There wasn’t much. I have figures somewhere for the total cost of the war, in men and money. I can’t recall them offhand. Some things are too uncomfortable to store in your head for any length of time. There was a debate about whether to dissolve the Company or to leave it as a sort of midden for the national debt. They couldn’t decide, so they referred the matter to committee. That was eleven years ago. They haven’t reported yet.
At first, I must have thought he was prodding the fire with the poker.
That’s what the brain does. It takes images and tries to interpret them in accordance with a sane, rational view of reality. I’d seen a man poking a sluggish fire back to life a thousand times. It was something that made sense. Burning the manuscript made no sense at all.
But I looked again and saw what he was really doing, and I froze. I’ve been over it in my mind time and time again. If I’d reacted at once, could I have pushed him out of the way and saved the manuscript? It’s almost like a game, a tennis match or something. Roughly four times out of ten, I win; I drag him back from the hearth, I wrestle the manuscript out of his hand and stamp out the fire, the damage is sometimes quite bad and sometimes minimal, but at least I save something. The other six times I don’t make it; he shoves me out of the way, or we’re struggling over it and the flames surge up and burn our hands, and I let go. It burnt surprisingly quickly, I remember that. Possibly something to do with how the parchment was originally cured, I think they may have used saltpetre back them.
Anyway, the parchment burned. I stared at him. I couldn’t speak. He looked at me. When the flames reached his fingers, he opened them and let go.
“Now look what you’ve made me do,” he said.
He explained. He told me that love and hate are as similar as brother and sister, both of them forms of the same obsessive fixation on another; love and hate both lead people to do extravagant acts, to make sacrifices, to subordinate themselves to the other. He told me that when the manuscript first came into his hands, he’d more or less made up his mind to kill me, because he couldn’t bear the thought that I continued to exist. He’d had his reservations, nonetheless. In killing me he’d be giving his own life, because he would inevitably have been found out, arrested and hung. This troubled him, because in a very real sense (he said) it would have meant that I’d have won. I would be remembered as an innocent victim, he’d be condemned as a criminal, therefore he’d have handed the moral victory to me on a plate. That, he said, struck him as a gross crime against natural justice and ultimately self-defeating.
Nevertheless (he said) he’d resolved to go through with it, to make the ultimate sacrifice—his reputation, his moral soul; to give his life and his honour, greater hate hath no man than this—when quite suddenly and out of a blue sky, the manuscript arrived, along with a load of other junk, from his uncle. It could only have been, he said, a sign, sent by the Invincible Sun, in Whom he’d never believed until then.
It was particularly significant because at that precise moment he had my dissertation open on his desk. He read the manuscript and my dissertation side by side. At first, he was crushed. The manuscript proved that I was right, had been all along—in which case, I was right, a better scholar, I was the more worthy, I had prevailed and beaten him. But then (he said) the Invincible Sun’s true design slowly revealed itself to him, and he understood why the manuscript had come to him at exactly that moment.
I was, after all, a scholar. Unsatisfactory and unworthy in every respect, but a scholar. Nothing mattered more to me than my work, science, the truth, to be proved right. What better punishment, therefore, than for me to know I was right, know beyond any shadow of a doubt, and never to be able to prove it. He and I would know; we two only, joined inseparably by our shared bond of mutual obsession. But the definitive proof, which I would have seen and read, would be lost for ever. When in due course, as was inevitable given the nature of scholarship, some other scholar came along with the mental strength and agility to cast doubt on my research and question my findings, I would have no defence. I would know the truth, but not be able to prove it.
And that, he said, was why he’d done it. It was, of course, entirely up to me what I did next. I could kill him in an acexcess of entirely justified rage. He wouldn’t mind that in the least; because then I’d be the one dragged through the streets on a hurdle and pushed off a stool with a rope round my neck, to die with the jeers of common people in my ears. No? Ah well. In that case, I could go to the faculty and denounce him, tell them exactly what he’d done. He hoped I’d do that. He would deny it strenuously, I’d have no proof, and (given the history between us) my accusations would be dismissed as a deranged attempt to blacken his name, I’d be disgraced, and all my work would be discredited with me. And if I did neither—well, then, I’d have to spend the rest of my life reflecting on how he’d beaten me, out-thought me, used his superior intellect to devise the perfect snare; which thought would gradually eat me up over the years, like a tapeworm, growing commensurately bigger and stronger as I faded and became weak.
I said nothing. There was nothing to say. I drank my tea, which had gone cold, and went home.
Once I met an old man who told me he reckoned he was happier in his eighties than he’d ever been in his youth. I told him that was hard to believe. He grinned at me. I’m free, he said, of my worst enemy. Myself. My past (he explained). All the stupid things I’ve done and said, all the lies I told, everything that makes me cringe or weep when I think of it. You see, everyone I ever knew is dead, so there’s no witnesses. Only I know the truth, and my memory’s so bad these days, I can’t rely on it worth a damn. So, all the bad things, for all I know, they may never have happened. And that (he said) is freedom.
History, science, scholarship; the art of extracting the truth from unreliable witnesses. Nine times out of ten, the best you can hope to do is make out a case that convinces on the balance of probabilities. Your jury—fellow-scholars, minded and motivated just like you—will be persuaded by the most plausible argument, the most probable version. Thus we create a model of the past governed by common sense, rational thought, considered actions, reasonable motives. Now think about the decisions you’ve made and some of the things you’ve done over the years.
History, therefore, will have every right to be sceptical about my account of the destruction of the Aeneas manuscript. No sane man, history would argue, would do something like that for such a reason. Logically, therefore, Carchedonius could only have done such a thing if he was insane. Indeed; and it’s proverbial among historians that if your argument depends on such and such a key player being insane, it’s probably untrue or at least deeply unsound. Go away and think of a more plausible explanation, we say. Insanity just isn’t that common.
We’ve now reached the point in this narrative at which I can justifiably start talking about myself. From now on, my actions and their consequences are significant enough to be worth recording. I am, of course, an unreliable witness, simply because most of what I’m about to assert can’t be proved by reference to external sources. You’ll have to form your own judgement of my professed motives and the credibility of my account. That doesn’t bother me unduly. I invite an appropriate degree of healthy scepticism. Besides, I’m presumably dead by now, and out of it, and so I couldn’t really give a damn.
As it happens, I don’t remember much about the week after Carchedonius burned the manuscript. People tell me I was wandering around in a sort of daze, either not answering or biting people’s heads off when they spoke to me. Everyone assumed there’d been a death in the family.
No such luck. For what it’s worth, I hadn’t spoken to my mother since my father’s trial. She seemed to think that I could’ve done something. I have no idea what she had in mind. Perhaps she thought I could pull Essecuivo out of my sleeve like a conjuror. The last I heard of my brother, he was in Mescarel, trying to sell diamonds and small, high-value works of art in a seriously flooded market. Either of them, or any of my relatives—I’d have shed a tear, of course, but life would have gone on. The True Discovery, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.
The eighth night after the burning, I was sitting in my rooms. I had a copy of Vabalathus’ Late Voyages open on my desk; I was chasing down an obscure reference that might be taken as evidence to support the view that Essecuivo’s climate was temperate enough to support olive trees. Ridiculous; I knew they had olives in Essecuivo, because Aeneas had written about them in the book. But the garbled fragment in Vabalathus was open to at least two other interpretations, which meant I couldn’t substantiate my hypothesis, which meant that I had no solid foundation for my assertion that Essecuivo must lie below 62 degrees, the upper limit of cultivation of the olive. I was tempted to throw Vabalathus on the fire, except that for some reason I hadn’t lit one for the past eight days. Stupid; it was just starting to get cold.
That made me realise that I couldn’t go on. It was as though I’d reached an impassable barrier; a river in spate, a ravine, the sea. I could see where I wanted to go all too clearly. I could smell the woodsmoke, and hear the voices of children playing. But, having come so very far, I couldn’t cross the last hundred yards. I didn’t have enough provisions to go back the way I’d come. I was stranded.
The hell with that. I poured myself a large dose of brandy and made myself think long and hard about the nature of truth.
Take, for example, the concept authenticity. It’s crucial, seminal, to the business of scholarship. However, like, say, brandy, it can tolerate a certain degree of dilution. A translation, for example; the words you read aren’t the words the author wrote, but a translation can be allowed to possess qualified authenticity. Quotation and reporting; a substantial part of what we do is picking out nuggets of lost texts from the works of later authors who’ve quoted from them. Source-hunting, a favourite academic pastime; read a historian and try and figure out which of his facts and assertions were copied out from the earlier authority A (held to be accurate and reliable) and which were taken from B, who’s generally believed to have made it up as he went along. Manuscript tradition; we have very few very old manuscripts. Most of the works of the great authors of classical antiquity exist only in the form of later editions, copies of copies of copies of copies of the original. As soon as a page is translated, quoted, edited, it ceases to be truly authentic. But the snippet of Archelaus I’d been looking for in my relatively modern edition of Rocais’ translation of Vabalathus’ New Voyages was, by all relevant criteria, authentic enough; and if only it had said what I wanted it to say, I’d have adduced it as proof of my assertions without a moment’s hesitation.
First, I needed something to write on. That wasn’t too hard. There’s plenty of three-hundred year old parchment around, if you know where to look. Fortuitously, I have a cousin who’s a lawyer. In the cool, dry cellar under his place of business there are thousands of packets of title deeds, many of them so old as to have lost any semblance of relevance years and years ago. I made up some story and he gave me a Deed of Rectification—something to do with sorting out a boundary dispute between two neighbours who subsequently both sold out to a third party, rendering the Deed entirely obsolete—which bore the countersignature of a Council official who’d been in office the year after Aeneas Peregrinus came back from Essecuivo. Perfect. How much more authentic can you get?
Back then, they used soot and oak-apple gall, ground fine, for ink. It comes off quite cleanly if you damp the parchment slightly and rub it down with a pumice stone. Naturally, you lose a tiny amount of thickness, but that’s not a problem; six out of ten old documents you come across have been written on pumiced-off parchment. The stuff cost money, after all, and people were thriftier back then. In fact, it was entirely in keeping with what we know about Aeneas that he’d have used second-hand parchment. He didn’t, in fact, but he could have. Should have, even.
Soot-and-oak-apple-gall ink is no trouble to make, if you happen to have read Theogenes’ On Various Arts; it’s two centuries earlier than Aeneas, but nothing much changed in the intervening time. There’s a fine old oak in the Studium grounds that’s been there for at least two hundred and fifty years. It still drops acorns. Attention to detail, you see. Authenticity. For soot, I climbed up onto the leaded roof of the Old Hall and scrabbled around inside the chimney-cowls. I mined deep and came up with a rich vein of soot that could well have been there since Aeneas was a lad. I’m not sure I needed to go that far, but if a thing’s worth doing—
Style and handwriting. No problem. After all, I’m the world’s leading authority. If someone wanted to authenticate a piece of writing attributed to Aeneas, they’d come to me. Also, I’ve always had a gift for copying other people’s handwriting. Because my father was less than generous with my living allowance when I was an undergraduate at the Studium, I was forced to make ends meet by reproducing his signature on Company bills of exchange. Now my father’s handwriting was so bad that occasionally his bills were questioned by the clerks, but all of mine were cleared without question.
I made a trip to Corytona, where they’ve got two of the surviving Aeneas letters, and studied them carefully. I knew for a fact that Aeneas had written his book using a pen with a new-fangled (at that time) steel nib. But most authorities agree that steel nibs didn’t come in to general use for another twenty years or so, so I used an ordinary goose-quill.
Carmine, for the red illuminated capitals, was a serious headache. Back then, they made it by crushing dried beetles—not just any beetle, but a special kind only found in Maracanto, which is why it was expensive, which is why it was so fashionable as a decoration in manuscripts. These days we get carmine from grinding up a sort of rock they find at certain levels in the mines. Everyone says you can’t tell the difference. I can’t. But by that stage I was in no mood to take chances. Also, I felt a sort of obligation. If what I was doing was justified and right, it had to be done properly. As luck would have it, in the chemistry stores in the East Building, where nobody goes any more, I found a tiny, dusty old bottle containing six shrivelled, desiccated carmine beetles. For all I know, they could well have been there for three hundred years. With Theogenes open in front of me on the bench, I pounded them very carefully in a pestle, added the other bits and pieces, and came up with a beautiful deep red paste. Genuine authentic carmine ink.
Unfortunately, authentic genuine carmine ink fades over time. The colour I’d seen in the manuscript that Carchedonius had burned was more a sort of reddish-pink. As far as I know, there’s no way of artificially fading the stuff. In the end, I had to mix in finely-ground barley flour and a few drops of aqua orientalis, which gave me precisely the colour I wanted. It wasn’t right, of course. It was an entirely authentic, genuine and period-correct reddish-pink (the recipe is in Theogenes) and therefore, inevitably, a lie. I felt very bad about that, but really, I had no alternative.
As for the words themselves; once again, I was in the invaluable position of being the acknowledged expert. I’ve read every surviving word Aeneas wrote, many times. I know his turns of phrase, his verbal eccentricities, the rhythms and cadences, the pet phrases. That, and I have a really good memory for the written word; if I read something through once, I can usually regurgitate large chunks of it weeks or even months later. From my reading of the True Discovery I guess I could remember about a third of it word-perfect. I got that down on paper straight away, then set about filling in the gaps. As far as content goes, I was on pretty firm ground, since so much of what I’d seen in the manuscript was little more than a pre-emptive paraphrase of my own various papers, essays and dissertations. There were one or two things in the original that I couldn’t recall clearly or accurately enough to feel safe about including them, so, reluctantly, I left them out. I resisted the temptation to put in stuff from my own research that Aeneas had somehow neglected to include. I was proud of myself for that. I can see how easy it must be for a diplomat, say, or a commercial agent to overstep his authority in the heat of negotiations. I’d have loved to have put in my pet theory about the little cedarwood box full of crumbly red dust preserved in the archives of the Serio-Beselli at Anax; the family tradition says it was brought back by Aeneas’ ship’s doctor, and I’m convinced it’s a sample of rottenstone (whose properties were unknown until shortly after Aeneas’ return). It’d have been so easy to drop a casual mention of rottenstone, and how my friend the surgeon brought some home with him in a small box. That’s just the sort of throwaway anecdote Aeneas goes in for. But no. That would’ve been wrong, I’d never have forgiven myself.
From start to finish, recreating the manuscript took me seven weeks. I then put it up in the rafters in the roofspace above the Great Hall kitchens; there’s a flaw in the chimney lining, and smoke gets in there. Also, the air up there is very slightly damp and greasy. I’ve noticed that old manuscripts are often a bit clammy to the touch; the True Discourse hadn’t been, but I needed a provenance. It had to be something to do with the niece—after all, that had been what actually happened, and the manuscript tradition is in itself a valid subject for scholarship—but I couldn’t think of a convincing way of explaining how I’d got hold of something from the Dorcelli auction. After all, the auctioneer’s clerk would have records of who’d bought what, and my name would be conspicuously absent from it. That meant I’d have to invent a fictitious middleman, or else suborn a dealer in old manuscripts as an accomplice, which I was very reluctant to do. Instead, I decided to work backwards from a passing reference in the Ancusi diaries, which I’d known about for years but never gone into properly; Ortygia Ancusa, about a hundred and seventy years ago, talked about visiting the Dorcelli and expressing interest in some old maps and charts, which Lollius Dorcellus gave her as a gift. Ortygia was an amateur Essecuivo scholar (not a very good one). My theory would therefore be that the bundle of old maps that Lollius gave her included the True Discourse. It works, because Ortygia died of pneumonia not long after the visit, so wouldn’t have had time to go through the papers she’d been given and recognise the True Discourse for what it was. The papers would’ve been bundled away in the house archive and forgotten about. I’d been given permission to go through the Ancusi papers several years ago, but never got around to it; I happen to know, however, that the bulk of the archive is stored in a loft directly above the main kitchens.
All right, answer me this. If the person you loved the most in the whole world died, and you somehow managed to catch that person’s soul in a bottle; and suppose you then went round all the graveyards, digging up the newly-buried bodies, carefully choosing a part here and a part there; and suppose you could stitch all the bits together so skilfully that it didn’t show; suppose you’d built a body that looked so exactly like the person you’d loved that even you couldn’t tell them apart; and you sucked the soul out of the bottle and blew it into the composite body’s mouth and brought it back to life—
I confess I was looking forward to meeting Carchedonius again, though I didn’t go out of my way. I didn’t have to wait too long. He was there as a guest when I was awarded the Imperial Medal. I wasn’t surprised to see him there. I’d insisted his name was on the guest list.
He was standing in a corner. That was what he did, at any kind of social gathering. I walked up to him and smiled. He gave me a long, grim look.
“Congratulations,” he said.
Not quite what I was expecting. “Thank you.”
I was prepared for anger (prepared? I was looking forward to it) but not to that degree of intensity. It took me a moment to decode it. He wasn’t angry with me. He was absolutely furious with the entire world.
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” he said. (He was wearing his green-with-age black Matriculation gown, over a shirt with frayed cuffs and flogged-out black boots that would’ve been very expensive twenty years ago. The rest of us were in frock-coats and lace ruffs. I think he was trying to look genuine.) “You’re lucky.”
I frowned. “Am I?”
It was rather frightening, watching him keep the anger down. I could see, it wanted to flow into his arms and hands, but he was keeping it bottled up in his head. “Oh, I grant you, it was a masterly piece of scholarship. You followed a clue the rest of us had overlooked, and it led you straight to the prize. I’m not for one moment suggesting you didn’t deserve the medal.”
I was puzzled by that. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, you did. You do. If you look at the nomination papers, I’m the fourth signature from the top.” He paused to take a very deep breath; I could see him exploding, if he wasn’t careful. “What I never anticipated was that there could possibly be a second manuscript.” He gave me a three-second glare. “Now that’s luck.”
I could’ve burst out laughing. Instead, I nodded my head towards the door. “Come outside,” I said. “I need to tell you something.”
He shrugged and followed me. Outside, it was dark and just starting to spot with fine rain. “Well?”
I told him.
For a moment, I was sure he was going to attack me. I was worried. As a boy I learned fencing—good at it, though I hated it—but that’s as close as I’ve ever got to anything in the way of physical violence. I’m taller than he is, but he’s got arms like a bear. No idea why, since he’s been a scholar all his adult life.
“You faked it.”
“I see.” I could almost hear him think. He was having trouble keeping his mind clear, because of the anger. “And of course I can’t tell anyone, because then I’d have to explain how I know.”
“That’s the general idea.”
Suddenly he went blank. “I examined it,” he said. “My first thought was, it’s a fake, he’s got someone to forge a copy for him.” Then he frowned; puzzled. “But it’s perfect,” he said.
“Who did you—?”
“I did. Myself.”
“Good God.” He raised both eyebrows. “Seriously?”
“Of course. You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to trust an accomplice.”
“The capitals,” he said. “You can’t fade red carmine.”
“I used Theogenes’ recipe for pink.”
I could tell from his face he’d never have thought of that. “Congratulations,” he said. “I’m impressed. I never imagined you had a creative streak.”
“Hardly that. That’s the point. I didn’t invent anything. I just copied.”
He shook his head. “I’ve always wanted to be able to draw and paint, that sort of thing. But I’m useless at it. You could be an artist.”
“I’ve never wanted to be anything else but what I am.”
I’ve never seen so much contempt on a human face. He moved his head so he didn’t have to look at me. I felt I had to defend myself, even though I’d so obviously beaten him. “It’s not so different from how all the classics survived,” I said. “The original is lost, but someone made a copy. If you look past the immediate deception, the end product is as authentic as the Gigliami Codex. In a thousand years it’d be just a footnote in the manuscript tradition, if anyone ever knew.”
The blank look was back. “Last month I was offered the chair at Euphrosyne,” he said. “It’s more money, and I’d be head of department. I think I’ll accept.”
I was stunned. Euphrosyne. I imagine there must be people up there who can read—a few of them, clerks and customs officials—but Euphrosyne, after the Studium. It’d be like starving yourself to death over the course of thirty years. “Why?”
“Because you’ve won,” he said. Then he turned and walked away, and I’ve never seen him since.
Who was it said that the only thing sadder than a battle lost is a battle won? Not my period, so I’m not going to bother checking the reference. Anyway, it’s garbage. Once you’ve got past the initial frisson of guilt, victory is wonderful.
I had every reason to be pleased with myself. Faced by a reverse which would’ve broken most men in my position, I’d rallied and struck back. I’d routed the enemy, and my cause had been just. As a result, I was feted and lionised; promoted to the vacant Gorgias chair of commercial history, elected to Chapter, honorary doctorates from a slew of provincial universities; rock-solid tenure, more money, better lodgings, reduced teaching duties leaving me more time for research. True, the victory I was being rewarded for wasn’t quite the victory I’d actually won, but you don’t have to go too far back to find precedents of the very highest quality. After all, everybody says it was Palaechorus who defeated the White Horde. Garbage. He was a thousand miles away at the time, busily breaking down the Sueno bridges so the Aram Chantat couldn’t get across. He saved the Republic, no possible doubt about that, but not in the way the man in the street thinks he did.
The only negative aspect to total victory is that once you’ve achieved it, the war is over. Having spent my adult life trying to recreate the lost manuscript of Aeneas Peregrinus, I was in the depressing situation of having succeeded, totally. The question now what? was written across the top of every new day, and I found it rather hard to answer. Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. That’s the point of being the Gorgias professor. You don’t have to teach or publish, all you’re called on to do is lounge around looking wise, maybe as a special favour explaining to selected admirers just how very clever you used to be. Gorgias professors are usually men in their mid seventies. At that time, I was thirty-seven.
“The duke,” she said, “would like to meet you.”
I bet he would, I thought. Who wouldn’t? “It’d be an honour,” I said. I didn’t specify who for.
“Fine,” she said briskly, “I’ll set something up. He wants to move quickly, so make sure you’re available.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “I’ll have finished the paper for the General Conclave by this time next week, and then I’d better get something down for the Alixes Lecture, but after that, I should be—”
“No,” she said. “This is important.”
I’d have engaged her in a discussion of the true meaning of the word important, but just then we heard her husband’s voice down below in the entrance hall. Her room has a balcony, and there’s a hundred-year-old grapevine on that wall. I hate climbing.
The duke came to see me. Appreciate the significance. He came to me. An honour. One I could have done without.
I was in my rooms, as usual. For some reason, I was spending a lot of time there, in the book room, at my desk, just sitting. I had one oil-lamp—the habits of a lifetime of frugality die hard—and Diodorus’ General Discourse open in front of me. In theory I was chasing down a reference, but really I think I was doing what the wild boar do in the woods; building a nest where I could curl up during the hours of daylight and not be seen.
There was a bang on the door, and before I could get up, it flew open and two kettlehats came bursting in. I assumed they were there to arrest me. Naturally I froze. But they stopped and took up position on either side of the doorframe, and the duke came in.
It wasn’t so long ago that everywhere you looked, there was a portrait. As a scholar, I can tell you that ninety per cent of them are copies of the Treblaeus portrait, which used to hang in the atrium of the House chapel. I could also be very interesting about the subtle changes in the iconography of the mass-circulation portraits—the significance of the white rose in the top left field, or the changes in the political undercurrents that led to the wren perched on the windowsill quietly metamorphosing into a robin. The duke himself was, of course, an artefact, a thing created, reinvented, adapted and updated, until by the time I met him there’s a plausible argument for saying that he was pretty much a forgery of himself. Bear in mind, this was just after the Secession debate but before the White Glove scandal. The duke had lost about a third of what he’d owned or controlled at the height of his ascendency, but he was still the second richest and third most powerful man in the Republic. People like that are generally too big to fit inside rooms like mine, even if they are only five feet tall.
No, you don’t see that in the portraits, but it’s true. What the Invincible Sun had in mind when he made him that way, I have no idea. In the paintings you see what’s essentially the perfect human being; classical proportions, perfect muscle tone if it happens to be a Classical or post-Mannerist portrait, and the face of an emperor off the old coinage, back when the die-cutters really knew what they were doing. Naturally people assume that in real life he looked nothing at all like that. Not true. The portraits are for the most part surprisingly accurate; authentic, genuine copies of the original. Except that he was five feet tall, which meant, when I rose to greet him, he just about came up to my shoulder.
“Please,” I said. “Sit down.”
He didn’t move, and I realised that the only other chair in the room was piled up with books. I grabbed them and spilled them on the floor. It was the gesture of an idiot. He sat down. I looked round for something to offer him, but both decanters were empty, which was probably just as well.
I sat down opposite him, with the desk between us, for all the world as though he was a student in a tutorial. Just like a student, he sat there still and quiet—I hate it when they do that; I’m not one of your natural showmen. I never really know where to start.
I cleared my throat. “What can I do for you?” I said.
He looked at me. His nose really was quite thin at the bridge, as in the Corolles portrait. Treblaeus, of course, got round that by painting him three-quarter face; how to lie and tell the truth at the same time. “Allow me to congratulate you,” he said.
What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “Thank you.”
He slid his elbows out onto the arms of the chair. It should have been a magnificent gesture denoting confidence and power, but the chair was my father’s, and he was a big man. Therefore, the arms were a bit too wide apart, and made the duke look like a chicken. Of course, there’s never a mirror when you need one. “As you may know,” he went on, “I’ve been a keen amateur student of the Essecuivo question for many years. I’ve read your work on the subject. I find it impressive.”
The Invincible Sun leans down out of the clouds, pats you on the head and says well done. That’s nice, and you hope he’ll go away quickly. But the duke had settled in my chair like a besieging army. I kept my face shut. He peered at the books on the shelf opposite, then looked back at me. “The manuscript,” he said. “A triumph.”
“I’ve taken the liberty of bringing it with me.”
Now that really did knock me sideways. When I discovered it in the Ancusi archives, quite naturally they went berserk. The thought that something like that, something worth such a very, very large sum of money, had been sitting in their damp loft for three hundred years drove them wild. They moved it to the jewellery safe, hired forty armed guards and immediately opened negotiations with the Treasury with a view to making sure this priceless treasure stayed in the Republic. I believe the discussions stalled at two hundred thousand angels. Meanwhile, apart from me and scholars with my personal accreditation, nobody was allowed near it.
Almost nobody. He wiggled a fingertip, and a third kettlehat I hadn’t even noticed sprang forward holding a silver-gilt tube. It was a real work of art, embossed with Essecuivo personified handing a cornucopia to the Spirit of the Republic. He must’ve had it made specially, probably overnight.
The kettlehat made a show of pulling on a pair of brand new white cotton gloves. Then he brushed all my books and papers off the desk onto the floor—the duke gave him a dirty look for that, but I don’t see what else the poor man could’ve done—opened the tube and laid my manuscript out on the desk.
Not the first time it had been there, of course. In fact, I’d grown used to seeing it there, while I was making it, and I had to tell myself, this is the first time it’s left the Ancusi, this is a special moment. It felt strange, though; like being formally introduced to your son and having to pretend you don’t know him.
“Now then.” The duke put his hand inside his coat and produced a pair of gold-framed pince-nez. I was stunned. As soon as he put them on, he changed out of all recognition. “Ah yes.” He’d thrust his hand out over the parchment; he was touching it, no white cotton gloves. I was appalled. How dare he. Not appalled enough, mind you, to say anything.
He looked up at me. “No map reference,” he said.
“Which I confess I found rather strange.” He took the pince-nez off and put them down on the manuscript. I twitched, but kept still. I could see the kettlehats watching me. In their line of work, of course, you have to be able to interpret the smallest warning signs. “Because in the Navigation, Aeneas explicitly states that he calculated the co-ordinates of Essecuivo in order to plot his course home.”
Not true, in fact. He implies, but doesn’t state. For some reason, I didn’t put him straight.
“Therefore,” he went on, “you would expect to find detailed map references in the manuscript.”
Pause. My cue. I nodded.
He leaned back in the chair. It made a sort of soft creaking noise. Like I said, my father was a big man and he used to tip it onto its back legs. There’s only so much abuse tenons and wood glue can stand. I prayed to the Invincible Sun without moving my lips. “I’ve been studying Aeneas—in an entirely amateur capacity, of course—for twenty years,” he went on, “during which time I evolved a theory of my own about the circumstances in which this book was written, and the reason why it wasn’t with the rest of Aeneas’ papers at his death. Would you care to hear it?”
He smiled. I’d said the right thing.
Shortly after his return from Essecuivo (the duke said), Aeneas quarrelled with his son Dives. The cause of the disagreement was Dives’ refusal to marry the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, a match desirable for dynastic and territorial reasons but not to Dives’ taste, since his affections were engaged elsewhere. This quarrel is evidenced by passing references in the letters of the neighbouring family, which had lain in obscurity for centuries until the duke, whose tenants the family were, recognised their importance. (He had brought along transcripts for me to see; he’d even had them notarised, so I’d know they were genuine) As a result of the quarrel, Aeneas took legal advice from the leading lawyer of the day (whose files the duke had been allowed to see, since the lawyer’s descendants acted for him in property transactions) and was told that although he couldn’t prevent his son from inheriting all his land and real property, because of a complex entail I didn’t really understand, he was at liberty to disinherit him with regard to movable goods, ready money and choses in action—
Choses in action (the duke seemed disappointed that I needed to ask) means valuable but insubstantial assets—debts, promises to pay, the benefit of contracts, that sort of thing. Aeneas’ principal chose in action was, of course, his knowledge of the whereabouts of Essecuivo. Not only was this knowledge valuable as a potential resource, it had immediate value in that Aeneas had entered into a partnership with six leading merchants (exhibit three; a notarised copy of the agreement) for the exploitation of Essecuivo and division of the profits. Aeneas was to get sixty-six per cent of the net, but he hadn’t put in any money. Instead, he’d agreed to disclose the map reference.
From what he knew of his partners, so he told his lawyer, he didn’t trust them to honour the agreement. They were perfectly capable, if they contrived to find the co-ordinates from some other source, of cutting him out and keeping all the profits themselves. Furthermore, they would have no scruples about suborning Aeneas’ clerks, servants or even family members in order to get the information they needed.
Therefore (the duke went on) Aeneas had a very good reason for not committing the co-ordinates to paper, or at least not in any document liable to be read by anyone he couldn’t absolutely trust—into which category his son no longer fell. On the other hand, it would have been the height of folly to rely on his memory alone. He had to write it down, but in such a form that only he would be able to read it. In other words, he’d have written it in code.
(I wanted to object at this point, but I got looked at and decided not to)
As I myself had proved (the duke went on) Aeneas gave the manuscript to his niece; a silly, frivolous girl, according to the traditions of the family she married into; just the sort of featherbrain who’d let her cousin Dives look at or even take away the manuscript if he asked her nicely enough. And yet, where else would the co-ordinates be but in the book itself? Aeneas had written it principally as an aide-memoire—not for publication, since the information it contained needed to be kept secret, because of his agreement with his partners. Therefore the coded information must be in the text somewhere.
And that, the duke said, was as far as he’d been able to go without the manuscript itself; except for one final fragment, which he’d come across two years ago in the library of the Connani.
(I couldn’t help myself. “The Connani let you look at their archives?”
He frowned. “Of course.”
“Scholars have been trying to get access for centuries.”
He looked at me down that long, thin nose. “Well,” he said. “They’re quite particular about that sort of thing.”)
He’d found a letter—notarised copy herewith—from Manius Connanus to a friend of his I’d never heard of, some long-forgotten country squire, in which he mentioned in passing that his cousin Orthosius had lent the services of one of his clerks, a specialist in illuminated lettering, to none other than the celebrated Aeneas Peregrinus—you know, the bounder who came back from abroad with all that money. For some unexplained reason, Peregrinus was obsessed with finding a clerk of unimpeachable integrity and discretion, bribe-, blackmail- and threat-proof; Orthosius’ man had been with the family for fifty years, and Orthosius owed Aeneas rather a lot of money. In exchange for a day of the clerk’s time, Aeneas forgave Orthosius the debt. What an odd thing to do, can you credit it &c.
“And that,” the duke said, his voice suddenly urgent, “was the clue I’d been looking for. Suddenly it all made sense.”
I was still reeling from all of that. Fury at the thought that there was all that wonderful Aeneas material out there, and the selfishness and arrogance of the aristocracy had kept me from knowing it even existed; pure unalloyed lust at the thought of the paper I could write, if only I could persuade the duke to leave those notarised copies with me. “Excuse me?” I said.
“The capitals,” the duke said impatiently—surely I’d figured it out for myself, a clever fellow like me. “The red illuminated capital letters at the start of each paragraph.” “ He scowled at me, the way my tutors used to do when I was being particularly slow on the uptake. “I don’t need to remind you of all people of the intense interest in numerology in educated circles at that time.”
He was quite right, of course. In Aeneas’ day, it was the latest fashion. Society necromancers would tell you your fortune by adding up the numerical value of your name—A is one, B is two and so on—adding it to your birthdate, subtracting your eldest child’s middle name, multiplying by the distance in miles between your birthplace and the Golden Temple—whatever it took, in fact, to arrive at an auspicious number which would enable the soothsayer to give you the fortune you wanted in the first place. I believe they still go in for it now in the country.
And yes, just the sort of thing Aeneas would’ve been interested in. He had a superstitious streak (black cats, magpies, all that nonsense) and just enough of the scientific mindset to make him an easy touch for all the astrologers, alchemists, metaphysicians and other chancers who passed for scientists in those days. Now I came to think of it, he owned Priscian’s True Mirror, Stellianus’ Many & Diverse Arts and a couple of other numerological texts; they’re mentioned in an inventory made just before he sailed. Of course, the duke must’ve known that.
Even so. “Excuse me?”
He sighed. “I believe,” he said, “that if you were to find the numerical values of the illuminated capitals in the manuscript, taken together they’d prove to be the co-ordinates of Essecuivo—hidden, you might say, in plain sight. Why else would he hire a scribe specialising in illuminated capitals, at extraordinary expense, insisting on a man of flawless integrity?” He paused, watching me like a terrier beside a hayrick. “Well?”
The true horror of my position broke in on me like the dawn. For one thing, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was right—in which case, he’d pulled off a coup of scholarship I’d have gladly sold my soul for a few weeks earlier. As a scholar, I could feel the excitement bubbling up inside me, in spite of everything. I was also acutely aware that the illuminated capitals in the manuscript, so painstakingly created using only the finest and most authentic materials, had been chosen by me—not exactly at random, but the effect was bound to be the same.
“Well?” he repeated.
At that moment I longed for a counterargument. All through my academic life, I’ve had a special knack of being able to come up with quibbles, objections, plausible doubts, even when I know the hypothesis I’m arguing against is rock-solid correct. It’s a gift to which I owe my rapid advancement, a weapon I’ve used unsparingly against better men who happen to be marginally less mentally agile than me. And now, at the moment when I needed it most, it deserted me.
I did my best. I called into question the reliability of the sources, the value of hearsay evidence, the timings, the prosopography, certain fine points of semantic interpretation. The duke fended off each attack with the calm patience of a master, supporting each refutation with arguments and citations that made me all the more convinced that he was perfectly correct. After half an hour of this sorry performance, he’d backed me into a corner and I could dodge and weave no longer. I surrendered as gracefully as I could, and he actually smiled at me.
“Thank you,” he said. “As you know, I place the highest possible value on your opinion. If, as you say, you feel that I have made out a case to answer—”
I nodded heavily. He nodded back. We understood each other.
“In that case.” He picked up his pince-nez and fitted them solidly to his nose. “I suggest we proceed. Would you happen to have a pen and something to write on?”
A voice, a calm and beautiful voice, spoke to me in the back of my head just then. It said; Have no fear, the numbers he comes up with will turn out to be a meaningless jumble, whereupon he’ll sadly conclude that his theory was wrong after all, he’ll go away and never bother you again. It was the sort of voice, speaking in the sort of quiet, calmly reassuring way, that you instinctively trust. I passed him a pen (I very nearly gave him the goose-quill I’d used for my forgery; it was nearer, in the drawer of my desk) and an inkwell and a whole half-sheet of brand new pressed-linen paper. He wrote very much in the manner of a time-served clerk or scrivener, not looking down at his hand as he moved the pen, peering down at the figures through the top half of his pince-nez. But he pressed too hard, and bent my best Capo Latto nib.
Then he did the calculations; first in his head, then by writing out the alphabet with a number next to each letter. He’d made one mistake the first time. He wrote the result at the bottom of the page. I have to admit, it did look remarkably like a map reference; the right number of digits, and the appropriate order of magnitude. That gave me a twinge in the pit of my stomach, but I thought, So what? So much the better. He’ll be happy, and go away, and when he gets home and looks at a map and sees there’s no such place, he’ll be in no hurry to advertise his failure. No more will be said about it, and everything will be fine.
“Would you have such a thing,” he asked, “as a map of the world?”
I stared at him. Of course, in the circles he was used to moving in, it was probably a perfectly reasonable request. I’ve been to great houses where they have such things painted on walls, with the stars and constellations on the ceiling to match. “I’m afraid not,” I said.
He frowned, then his eyebrows shot up. “The map room,” he said.
Oh, I thought. The Studium does, of course, have as fine a collection of maps as you’ll find anywhere. I floundered. “It’ll be locked up for the night,” I said. He didn’t need to remind me that I was a senior member of the faculty. He just looked at me briefly. “I’ll go and get the key from the porter,” I said.
You will never have seen the map room. I’d been in there maybe a dozen times, looking up various points to do with my researches. I always think it looks like a giant haberdashery, the walls covered in shelves filled with rolls and bolts of cloth. You take down your roll and spread it out on a twelve-foot table, with heavy ivory and ebony ornaments to keep it from curling back up again. They had a map of the world; in fact, they had sixty-six of them, all subtly different. That’s the thing about learning and scholarship. The more you learn, the less you actually know.
He chose Aurunculaeius’ Sixth Projection; a mildly unorthodox choice, but the one I’d have made myself, in his position. I didn’t ask him why, mostly because I was afraid he’d tell me that I’d argued strongly for it in a paper about three years earlier. For some reason, Aurunculeius chose to mark his latitude and longitude lines in red, and they’ve faded a bit over the years. It makes them a trifle hard to follow over the green and brown land, but against the blue sea they’re still reasonably clear.
“Here.” He was pressing a fingertip on the middle of the Southern Ocean.
There’s nothing there, I didn’t say; because he’d have pointed out that we were, after all, looking for an undiscovered country. So, naturally, it’d be an empty spot in the middle of the sea. I felt another of those twinges. Why couldn’t it have been slap-bang in the middle of the Cian mountains, or the Great Central Desert? But no, the voice told me, that’s perfect. He’s found himself a plausible spot on a map, he’ll go away now. He might even give you money. In any event, it’s over and you’ve survived.
“I wish,” he said suddenly, “your father could have lived to see this moment.”
I felt as though I’d been punched in the head. “You knew him?”
He shook his head. “Only very slightly,” he said. “I visited him twice, when he was in the Citadel.”
News to me. But of course he’d have been wonderfully discreet, money would’ve changed hands, the right people would’ve looked the other way. I didn’t say anything.
“I needed to ask him a few questions about the Company,” he went on, and suddenly I remembered. He’d bought it, hadn’t he? For a ridiculous amount of money. Presumably it hadn’t been a mere whim; he’d been planning it for years, meticulously researching every relevant issue. And so, reasonably enough, he’d been to see my father.
“I liked him,” he said. “I believe he was an honest man.”
He could have said it to make me like him; but why bother? I felt as though my heart had stopped. “Thank you,” I said.
He didn’t need my thanks, and he was too well-mannered to say so. “He would have been pleased to know that Essecuivo had been found at last,” he went on. “It mattered to him, even in that dreadful place.”
Had it? I’d never thought to ask him about it, or even wondered if he’d had an opinion. My father as idealist, dreamer, believer in wonderful lost lands beyond the sea. Not the man I knew, but—it occurred to me then for the first time—I didn’t really know him all that well. Only as someone performing the office Father; not as a person, not as a man. But the duke had met him twice, and probably understood him better than I did.
“I have a copy of the Sixth Projection at home.” (Well, he would) “First thing tomorrow, I’ll cross-reference with Carchedonius on tides and currents.”
That threw me for a moment, until I realised he was talking about Carchedonius the book, not the man. Actually, Carchedonius on tides and currents (properly, A Discourse On The Practicalities of Sailing To Essecuivo) is a fine piece of work; he’s taken every last scrap of evidence about Aeneas’ voyage and compared it to what’s known about tides, currents, prevailing winds and all that sort of thing in all the areas where Aeneas might possibly have gone. If I wanted to know whether the freak storm could conceivably have blown Aeneas to the spot on the map the duke’s finger was pressed against, Carchedonius is where I’d look.
All I could think of at that moment was how to get rid of him. “I’ll have a look at it myself,” I said, and realised that it didn’t sound right; however, I couldn’t face trying to rephrase, and he didn’t seem to be listening. I wondered if he’d notice if I simply backed quietly out of the room, and decided not to risk it.
Again, in my hour of greatest need, the little voice came to me. It said, There still isn’t a problem. The mad nobleman’s got what he wanted, and he’s pleased with you. In the morning, Carchedonius will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Aeneas’s ship couldn’t have reached this arbitrary intersection of lines, because of the prevailing nor’-easterly trades, or some such nautical gibberish. The duke will then conveniently forget that he ever did anything so undignified as make a mistake, and it’ll all be over, and you’ll still be Gorgias professor. For now, though, play along. Pretend to be enthusiastic. There’s still time for him to give you money.
“Of course,” said the duke, “you’ll have a copy of Carchedonius. We’ll go and look it up right now.”
So we did that; and, as was only to be expected, my enemy betrayed me. Not only was the arbitrary intersection a feasible destination, it was also, on the admittedly limited evidence available, a strong contender. If Aeneas, sailing on his original course, had been caught up in the prevailing south-westerly trade winds, which can reach gale force at that time of year, he’d have been blown at that spot on the map like an arrow from a bow.
The duke smiled, and closed the book. My input wasn’t required, so I sat still and quiet. I’d decided I didn’t want any money, even if he offered.
“Excellent,” he said at last. “Well, I think we have everything we need. Can you be ready to sail in, say, three days?”
I was not at home to the little voice for quite some time after that. I felt, not unreasonably, that it hadn’t advised me well. Indeed, I might have been forgiven for suspecting that it had deliberately led me on, encouraging me to make matters worse for myself. But it kept on whispering quietly, and on the second day I grudgingly allowed it to say its piece.
True, said the voice, you’ve let yourself in for a long sea voyage, which is never pleasant and can be extremely dangerous. But think; you’ll be sailing with the second richest man in the Republic; a man who, like you, has never previously set foot on a ship in his life. You can at least be moderately certain that all the proper preparations will have been made, that the ships and crew will be of the highest quality, and that for the passengers at least, the journey will be made in circumstances of comfort and quite possibly luxury. He’s agreed to pay you three hundred angels, which is nice, together with a pro rata share of the treasure (ah well, never mind). And, when you get there and there’s nothing to be seen except empty blue ocean, it won’t be your fault. It’s a nuisance and a dreadful waste of time, but the chances are you’ll survive and come home none the worse.
The preparations—oh, you should’ve been there.
Our fleet was to consist of five ships—five; this one man owned five ships. The lead ship, or admiral, was the Lion, 400 tons burden, three-masted galleon, seventy guns. Also; the Lion’s Whelp, 150 tons burden, two-masted ketch, twelve guns; the Attempt, 200 tons, frigate-built two-masted brigantine, twelve guns; the Heron, 90 tons, two-masted galliot, forty guns, previously the property of the Empire, one of the very few prizes taken by our side during the War; and the Squirrel, 90 tons, two-masted sloop, six guns; not the original Squirrel but named, for some reason that escaped me, in her honour.
The duke and I, needless to say, would be on the Lion, along with sixty men-at-arms, the military stores and most of the gunpowder. The Attempt was the supply, carrying nearly all the food and water. The Whelp had the tools, surveying equipment, spare masts, lumber, ironmongery and so on. The Heron and the Squirrel, as far as I could see, were basically just sea-going footmen, their only function being to look impressive and top-and-tail the convoy.
The military stores came first. There was a cart jam in Longacre. Presumably the idea was that, in the event that we were called upon to fight at any stage in the venture, every man in the expedition could be fitted out as an archer, or an arquebusier, or a pikeman, with full black-and-white armour and all the bits and pieces. We had a thousand muskets, best quality; three hundred wheel-lock pistols, at four angels each; eight hundred longbows, six hundred crossbows, something like 400,000 arrows (they’re sold by weight, so the precise number wasn’t available), twelve hundred pikes, a thousand swords, Type 18, six hundred swords, Type 15—After a while, I simply didn’t want to know. We had a hundred horses—a whole deck on the Lion—with hay, oats, rolled barley, all that sort of thing. My thought was that they definitely had horses in Essecuivo—Aeneas says so—and it’d have been much easier to take one small chest full of gold coins and buy horses when we got there, if we needed horses at all. But that, evidently, wasn’t the way the duke’s mind was working. If (I was beginning to think) it was working at all.
Rather more to my taste was the surveying equipment, though I didn’t get a chance to look at it as closely as I’d have liked. I watched them loading it, but mostly it was crated up, and one enormous pine box looks pretty much like another. All I could tell for sure was that there was a lot of it, though not nearly as much, by weight or volume, as the weapons. Another bulk item, which came as a surprise, though a relatively pleasant one, was the musical instruments. I was nearly pushed off the gangplank into the Bay by three strong men carrying between them the biggest spinet I’ve ever seen in my life, followed by other men with harpsichords, violas, cellos, two harps and a tuba. At least, if we were going to suffer, it wouldn’t be in silence.
Most of the food, as I said just now, went on the Attempt. But the duke’s personal rations travelled aboard the Lion, and it took half a day to get them on board and properly stowed. I can appreciate the difficulties the duke’s people must’ve faced. How on earth can you store two hundred bottles of exquisitely fine wine on a ship without running the intolerable risk of them getting shaken up, exposed to potentially lethal extremes of temperature, theft by unauthorised persons and spoilage by seawater? Nobody seems to have considered that until the last moment; so the whole operation had to be suspended while the carpenters converted the front half of the middle deck into an emergency wine cellar.
Don’t ask me about the voyage. I wasn’t there; at least, my body was, but the rest of me was somewhere else. My body—poor abused, long-suffering flesh—spent three weeks in a tiny box, curled up on a wooden shelf with nothing but a sack stuffed with mouldy feathers between my aching joints and the rough-planed planks. Occasionally someone remembered me and brought me food; rather better food than I’d have had back at High Table, but I didn’t want to eat it. Why bother? It wasn’t going to stay down very long, and when it came back up again, it just added to the misery.
I don’t suppose I missed very much. The sea is, after all, the sea. From time to time I asked the steward if we were nearly there yet, but he only smiled. Once, after a particularly violent episode in the course of which I was repeatedly hurled off the shelf against the side of the box, I asked him if the ship had taken much damage from the storm. “What storm?” he said. I’dve have told him about it, but he chose that moment to take the cover off a plate of scrambled eggs, so of course I was sick all over his shoes.
There came a day when the ship seemed to have been sitting still for rather a long time. I didn’t mind that in the least. The thing I’d been dreading most about the voyage was boredom; how naive I was, back then. When you’ve been subjected to twenty-one days of incessant torture, with your guts trying very hard to force their way up through your mouth, a prolonged interval of nothing at all strikes you as the sort of bliss reserved by the Invincible Sun for the blessed elect. In fact, for a while I wondered if I’d died. But no. No such luck.
I was just nerving myself to sit up when the door opened and the duke came in.
He, of course, had proved to be a natural sailor. He’d divided his time between standing on deck looking magnificent in gold braid and sitting in his cabin doing precise calculations with mathematical instruments. He looked at me and winced, and covered his nose with a linen handkerchief.
“You might care to come up on deck,” he said, and left the room.
The light hit me like a hammer as soon as I stuck my head through the hatch.
“Thank you for joining us.” I could hear the duke’s voice, but all I could see was blinding clouds of orange, yellow and red. “I thought you might like to be present at this extraordinary moment. After all, it’s your dream too, and your father’s.”
He wasn’t making any sense. I groped my way forward until my hand connected with something I could hang on to. It proved to be a man’s arm. I let go quickly, staggered, and slumped against what turned out to be the mast. The firework display was thinning out a little. I could see the deck of the ship, a clear blue sky, dark blue sea. Nothing extraordinary about that.
“Essecuivo,” the duke said.
Don’t be silly, I wanted to say, there’s nothing out there, just too much sky and water. But he was pointing—to be precise, he was posing for the statue that would presumably one day be cast to commemorate this moment; back straight, side on like an archer drawing, right arm outstretched at right-angles to his body, pointing. At what? I looked. There wasn’t anything, apart from a greyish blur of clouds on the horizon.
“Excuse me?” I said.
He didn’t reply. There were four or five other men, too clean and well-dressed to be sailors, and they were looking at the clouds too. Humouring the great man, who’d finally flipped. Maybe not.
They weren’t clouds. Instead, I was looking at a mountain range, a very long way away. Land.
“Captain,” the duke said. “Be so kind as to show our guest the chart.”
Meant nothing to me, of course. Lots of pale blue, with pencil lines; some zig-zags, with dates scribbled beside the angles in tiny neat handwriting. The longest line stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere. Something told me to look up and trace the latitude and longitude.
“Exactly where Aeneas said it would be.”
No, I thought. No, please. Not even the Invincible Sun, that incorrigible practical joker, who designed the human digestive and reproductive systems, gave Man the brain of a god and a half the lifespan of a beech tree, could be so cruel, so capricious. I stared, longing for the mountains to be clouds, but they weren’t. They were mountains, just like the mountains Aeneas had described, in words that had gone up in smoke on Carchedonius’ hearth, that you see as you approach Essecuivo from the north-west; the Aoidus mountains, at the foot of which sits the mighty city of Aos.
No good will come of this, said my little voice. Indeed. There are times when I wonder who’s side I’m on.
The wind had died away completely almost as soon as we came within sight of land. The sails were flat, dead, and the smoke from the galley fire went straight up into the air, like a pine tree.
We sat there for two days. We couldn’t quite hear the children’s voices or smell the woodsmoke, but we were that close; but not quite close enough to launch a boat and row over. So we sat. The duke managed to keep his composure, but he spent most of the time peering at the distant bump through a colossal brass telescope, which he didn’t offer to share. As far as I was concerned, the total stillness of the ocean more than made up for the frustration of being stuck. I was able to eat food, get up and walk about. I found a quiet place on deck not apparently required for seafaring purposes, snuggled down on a coil of rope, and read a book.
In the small hours of the morning of the third day, the wind got up. I began to suspect that something was wrong when I was thrown off my shelf and bounced off the ceiling. I didn’t land terribly well, and I was lying there wondering if I’d been killed—I honestly don’t know about all that stuff; how are you supposed to know the difference between a fractured skull and a nasty knock?—when someone barged in, dragged me off the floor and bundled me out through the door. I assumed I was being arrested and taken to be executed—it didn’t require much imagination to supply a possible reason—but it turned out that we’d been holed on submerged rocks and they needed everybody to work the pump.
Everybody. The duke was there, leaning all his weight on the lever. It didn’t seem to be working. It was a while before I noticed, but I remember looking down and not being able to see my knees because they were under water. That made me forget about my poor soft hands and pulled muscles, and I dragged on my allotted area of lever as though I was pulling myself up out of a snake pit. It was only when we stopped that I realised I was so blown I could scarcely breathe.
We pumped until well after dawn, at which point the wind suddenly died away, the ship stopped moving, and we all collapsed like empty clothes for a while. When eventually someone came down to tell us what was going on, the news wasn’t good.
The storm had blown us almost to shore. We weren’t quite there because the captain and the helmsman had fought like lunatics to keep us back, otherwise we’d have been crunched against the reefs like corn in a mill. The Lion’s Whelp and the Attempt hadn’t been so lucky. The lookout had seen them go down, and there wasn’t any point looking for survivors. Where the Squirrel had got to, nobody knew. The Heron, fifty years old and built in the Imperial yards, had bobbed about like a bit of stick on a fast stream and was more or less unharmed. The Lion, however, was looking pretty sick. All three masts had gone (all the spares were in the Whelp, remember), she was badly holed below the waterline, two ribs had cracked through and she was only holding together through ignorance and force of habit. There was a chance—say one in ten—of getting her onto the beach, in which case it might have been possible to fix her up if we still had the tools and materials that had gone down in the Whelp; but only if we ditched as much superfluous weight as possible. Superfluous weight, in this context, meant the guns, the powder, the horses and their fodder, the arms and armour, the duke’s wine, and all personnel not absolutely essential to the handling of the ship.
They had a devil of a job throwing the horses into the sea. They didn’t want to go. So we had to hood them, hamstring them and tip them off the side using spars as levers. It took a long time. I was still part of the emergency workforce, though all I was fit for was fetching and carrying spars. I was too tired to think, which was a blessing. We worked all day and well into the night, spurred on by the pleasant thought that the wind could get up again at any time. The duke stayed till early evening before transferring to the Heron, which stayed with us through the night. I think I fell asleep standing at the windlass. I woke up in a sort of sprawl on the deck, and every bit of me hurt.
Come dawn, we were stuck again. They’d taken a mast off the Heron and jury-rigged it so that, with any luck, it’d get the Lion to shore, assuming a very gentle wind in precisely the right direction. Which was what, about halfway through the morning, we got. The ship, what was left of it, sort of slid lazily across the water at more or less walking pace. Just as it got dark, they dropped anchor and lowered the boats. Wherever the hell we were, we’d arrived.
The duke had drawn a map while we’d been becalmed, before the storm. It was one of a handful of things he’d managed to take with him, stuffed down the side of his boot. It was based on Aeneas and the rest of the available material, and if I hadn’t known better, I’d have believed in it.
He stood on the beach with this thing in his hands, looking up at the mountains. They took me to him; I was, apparently, necessary. I’d come in on the Lion, which very nearly made it all the way, close enough that we were able to get nine-tenths of the passengers and crew off in longboats. The rest were picked up by boats from the Heron, which was shallow-bottomed enough to ride in close.
“That,” the duke was saying, looking up from his extrapolated map, “must be the Ieria bluffs.”
I knew all about them; the foothills of the Aoidus mountains, to which (in Aeneas’ day) the suburbs of Aos were just starting to extend. He was measuring distances with a pair of dividers, doing calculations; his lips were moving. I looked for myself, and felt obliged to point something out.
“If that’s the Ieria,” I said, “where’s the city?”
I maintain that it was a valid point. Aos was visible from the ocean; Aeneas saw it on his way in, sailed right up to the splendid granite quay, which stuck out a quarter of a mile into the bay. We’d landed on a sandy beach, and there was nothing man-made to be seen anywhere.
He ignored me. “In that case,” he went on, “the mouth of the river should be no more than six hundred yards to our left.” He lowered the map and turned his head. I looked with him, and saw, on the surface of the sea, the score-marks and ripples of an undertow. Exactly where he’d said it would be. But; no city.
“Follow me,” he said, and we all set off up the beach, the wet sand sucking at our heels. A few minutes later, we were standing beside a fast-flowing river at the point where it emptied out into the sea. The duke looked as though he’d just been personally awarded the Order of Merit by the Invincible Sun, in a gold-and-pearl tiara. “The river,” he said. “This is where the piazza used to be.”
Used to be—I stared at him. That thought hadn’t occurred to me.
“I imagine what happened,” the duke said, “is that over time the bay silted up and became useless, which is why it was abandoned.” He smiled gently. “The circumstances of our own arrival would tend to support that view, don’t you think?” He turned aside and poked at the ground with the tip of his sword. “I assume that the piazza is somewhere under the sand here. A pity. I was looking forward to seeing the great bronze statue of the Founder.” He shrugged. “Presumably they moved it when they left here, so we’ll see it in due course.”
I think, as a scholar, that the text of Holy Scripture has been corrupted during the course of manuscript tradition, in some places. For example, I think the famous line should read; Blessed are those that have seen, and still believe.
One of the others started whacking the undergrowth with his sword. I looked at him, and heard the clinking noise of steel on stone. He knelt down, yanking out handfuls of weed and stuff. The duke came and stood behind him. “There,” the man said. “Look.”
It was worked, finished stone, peeping out between the stubble of hacked-off green shoots.
We searched for an hour or so, but didn’t find anything else. Then the captains of the Lion and the Heron came looking for the duke and led him gently but firmly away. They had to talk, they insisted, about what was to be done.
Basically, we had nearly three hundred people on the beach, the crews of both ships plus the duke’s party and the soldiers. There was enough food left on the Heron to feed them all once, maybe twice if we all went a little hungry. A hundred and fifty people could probably crowd on board the Heron without sinking her, but it’d be a tight squeeze, and obviously she wouldn’t be able to go anywhere like that. Something had to be done about food and shelter. Instructions, please.
The duke wasn’t particularly interested. He told them to do whatever they thought fit. Then he left them to it and walked away up the beach, his nose in the map. I wanted to stay and eavesdrop on the captains, but they made it fairly clear that I wasn’t needed, so I left them and trotted back to the duke.
He’d found what he reckoned was the point where the main street—so wide, according to Aeneas, that four grand coaches could run side by side without scraping wheels—came down to the harbour. Follow it up—he pointed at the dense forest that swept down off the hills—and we’d come to the Great North Road, which ran from Aos to the capital, Eano, through a narrow pass in the mountains. If we set off straight away, he said, we could be in Eano by noon next day. At Eano, they’d give us all the food and shelter we could ask for, and we could open negotiations for shipping to take us home, or, at the very least, materials to build a ship to carry the rest of our people. I was the leading authority, he said, lifting his head from the map and looking straight at me. What did I think?
(What did I think? Let’s see. I thought; this isn’t Essecuivo, it can’t be. Through a combination of uncanny coincidence and extreme wishful thinking, we’ve all perceived a resemblance; but, please note, the map the duke is holding was drawn after we got here; after he’d spent a long time peering fixatedly at the coast through his monster telescope. The map is therefore not evidence. Discount the map, and we’re back to interpretations of the text. For all I know, there may be a thousand bays and natural harbours with rivers running down to them all over the world. Maybe it’s an abundant form in nature, something you always get wherever there’s a confluence of certain factors—estuary plus mountains plus prevailing winds and certain sorts of tides equals something more or less like this. Therefore, the professor regrets to inform you that your hypothesis has not been adequately proved and your paper cannot be accepted for publication.
And whether or not it’s Essecuivo, unless we find some food and somewhere to shelter, we’re going to die. If we go plunging into the forest, instead of digging for turtles’ eggs or whatever the hell it is people do, we’ll lose our little snippet of time, and we’ll starve.
If I explain, perhaps he’ll listen.
We followed the road. To be fair, there was a distinct line through the undergrowth and rubbish; a straight line, of the sort that rarely occurs in nature. And that man had found worked stone. It could once have been a road, at that.
Three hundred yards or so on, the straight line vanished into the trees. The duke had a compass, a beautifully dainty little thing in a silver gilt case, that hung around his neck on a blue silk cord. Eano, according to Aeneas, was thirty-two miles due north of Aos. I salved my conscience by telling myself that we were more likely to find edible animals and birds in the woods than on the beach. I had no basis for such an assertion. I’m not a true scholar.
I’m in no mood to tell you about that walk in the woods. On the first day, someone took a shot at something that could have been some kind of pig. He missed. The noise put up about a million small black birds, which flew off screaming. After that, the only living thing in the woods was us.
We spent the night in a bramble thicket. We chose it as a camp ground because it was too dense to hack a way through with what little energy we had left. I fell asleep as soon as my back hit its unsatisfactory mattress of crushed brambles, and didn’t wake up till somebody kicked me. I’d have let them leave me there, because I ached so much I’d rather have died than try to move, but they wouldn’t allow it. Tempers were getting short, and fools weren’t being suffered gladly. I did as I was told.
It’s usually cooler inside woods than outside them; in which case, I shudder to think what the temperature must’ve been outside, if there was an outside—for all I know, the forest covered the entire country. In any event, it was savagely hot, and we hadn’t brought any water, for the excellent reason that we didn’t have anything to carry it in. Around mid-afternoon we stumbled across, nearly fell into a river, of sorts. The duke immediately claimed it was the Aloura. I agreed. I was past caring.
That night was bitter cold. We lit fires, which didn’t really do anything. In the morning, about twenty of the men had fevers, stomach cramps, various symptoms. There was no food. We told the sick men we’d come back for them. By nightfall, another thirty-odd were reporting the same symptoms; we left them, too. A part of me, the part that wasn’t triple-checking my body temperature every minute or so for the slightest sign of incipient fever, was doing mental arithmetic; fifty from three hundred leaves two-fifty; the Heron could carry seventy of us, at a pinch, and still get home. By the next evening, we were down to one-eighty and I was still all right. Now (that little part of me said) if only the duke were to catch this unknown disease and die, we could all—
The duke took ill on the afternoon of the fourth day. We’d stopped because we’d found a huge spread of flat-topped green fungi, which none of us definitely knew to be poisonous. There was a bit of a free-for-all. I’m not big, strong and assertive. I didn’t get any. Some people have all the luck.
Over half the fungus-poisoning victims died during the night. By daylight, none of the survivors could move. They were sweating, twitching, bleeding from the nose. The duke somehow managed to haul himself up against the trunk of a tree, presumably so he wouldn’t die sprawled in the leaf-mould. I sat and watched him for about three hours. His breathing was slow and shallow, but he kept on and on doing it. After that I’d had enough. I got up and stumbled off, crashed around in the holly, brambles and brash until my foot caught in something and I fell over. When I opened my eyes, I found I’d landed on top of a big, fat creamy-white fungus, the sort they call Chicken-in-the-woods. You’re supposed to cook it first. The hell with that.
By the time I’d finished stuffing my face it was getting dark. I tried to retrace my steps, got completely lost, gave up, looked around for somewhere to sleep and caught sight of a man’s feet sticking out from behind a tree. It turned out I’d been going in circles, or a freak storm had blown me off course, or something like that. Anyway, I was back at the camp. I went to look at the duke.
Ninety-six men died from eating the poison mushrooms. The duke survived. By the time I got back he was sitting up straight, the map on his knees, though it was already too dark to read. He looked up at me as I trudged towards him and said, “If I’m right, those hills over there are Cata Ano.”
I stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“Cata Ano. Where Aeneas changed horses on the post road to Eano. In which case, Eano is twelve miles dead ahead.”
“I’ve been thinking,” I said. “I might head back to the ship.”
He smiled at me. “What, and miss all the fun? I don’t think so.”
“I think I’ll go back,” I said.
He shrugged. “You’ll sail the ship all by yourself back to the Republic,” he said. “What an exceptional fellow you are. And on an empty stomach, too.”
I didn’t tell him about the Chicken-in-the-woods. I said; “I don’t think Eano’s there any more. If it’s the capital, and it’s only twelve miles away—”
He raised a hand, and I shut up. “I think I’d like to be proved right before I die,” he said. “What about you? Aren’t you just a little bit curious?”
I thought; he’s going to die, and he’s talked himself into believing, so why not let him die happy? But, if we all turned round and went back, maybe we could catch fish or something. If he said go back, they’d go back, wouldn ‘‘t they? “There’s something I need to tell you,” I said.
“Yes.” And I told him.
I shall never forget the look on his face. Hard to describe. The nearest I can get is, he didn’t believe me, and he was deeply puzzled at why I should choose to make up such an improbable story. When I eventually ground to a halt, he gazed at me for a while, then looked down at the map. “From Eano,” he said, “we should be able to row down the Pelanaima, assuming we can hire boats, and follow the coast back to Aos. That’ll save us having to walk back the way we came.”
I shook my head. “You’re forgetting,” I said. “There’s a waterfall at Deudo. Aeneas said it was as high as the steeple of the New Year Temple.”
“There’ll be a portage,” the duke replied.
“Aeneas never mentioned one.”
“There’ll be one by now,” the duke said. “After all, that was three hundred years ago.”
So I went looking for someone else in authority. That proved to be difficult. The captains and first mates of both the Lion and the Heron were dead; three from mushrooms, one from fever. The helmsman of the Heron was still alive, but delirious and shouting at people who weren’t there. At least that explained why there’d been no mutiny; nobody left to lead it.
I wandered round the camp, counting heads. By now I was feeling considerably better, thanks to the chicken-fungus. I counted sixty-one, of whom probably fifty-eight would still be alive in the morning. Then I sat down under a tree with my head in my hands and burst into tears. Nobody objected, commented or seemed to notice.
While I was bawling my eyes out, it occurred to me that there was still one high-ranking officer still alive; me. I was, after all, the Gorgias professor of humanities at the Studium, which made me an ex officio member of the Lower Conclave and standing delegate to the College of Deacons. I wasn’t sure if my jurisdiction extended to the ends of the earth, however. Also, I didn’t want to be a leader. It’s bad enough dying; dying when it’s your fault must be so much worse.
Twice during the night I got up, with the intention of walking away, back down the trail we’d blundered through the forest. I didn’t, of course. Too scared. It had all happened so fast—the deaths, the disaster, the sudden falling-apart of everything. I tried to put my finger on the moment when we’d lurched from in control to doomed, but I couldn’t. The obvious truth, which I found I couldn’t hide from no matter what I did, was that by this point there really wasn’t anything I or anyone else could do. There was definitely no hope if I went back. We’d come too far. If we went on—well, who knows? We might just stumble to the edge of the forest, or meet with friendly savages, or kill a very large, stupid, slow-moving, half-witted animal.
In the morning, nobody was in any hurry to move on, not even the duke. We spent a while looking at the dead—we didn’t have the energy or the tools to bury them, so we left them where they lay, but we looked at them, as being the only sign of respect we could still afford. Gradually, in twos and threes, we hauled ourselves to our feet, hesitated; then, without orders or words of command, we silently turned to face due north and began picking our way.
I don’t know how long we’d been going—the canopy was high and dense, so we rarely saw the sun—when the man next to me, I never did find out his name, grabbed my shoulder and pointed. He wasn’t the only one to have noticed. On the skyline, in a fortuitous gap between the trees, was a human outline, standing straight and perfectly still.
Someone yelled out; we all joined in. The human outline didn’t move. We surged forward, howling, pleading. Actually, I’d sort of figured it out before anyone got close enough to see. Accordingly, I slowed down and walked while the others broke into a run.
Aeneas had liked most things he saw in Essecuivo, but he was mildly scathing about their works of art. Their paintings, he said, were simplistic and garishly-coloured, and their sculptures were stiff and unnaturalistic. But, he added, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer size of some of them. There was one, he said, a mile outside Eano on the main road to Aos, an advancing draped female in basalt, that had to be fifteen feet high—
Well, it was too badly weathered and worn to be sure what it was supposed to be, other than a human being, walking forward. We gathered under it, staring up. There was no face. But on the pedestal—too low to catch the wind and sheltered from the rain—was an inscription, in an alphabet I’d never seen before.
The duke crouched down to peer at it, then got up slowly and painfully. “Nearly there,” he said.
History demands absolutes. History would like to say that, at three minutes past the tenth hour of the seventeenth day of the sixth month, twelve hundred and seventy-one years after the foundation of the Republic, the duke entered Eano by the west gate. History, of course, is written by people like me.
As a historian, however, I’m at an overwhelming disadvantage. I was there. Accordingly, if I want to cling on to the few tattered scraps of intellectual honesty I have left, I’m forced to say, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you what time it was, because the forest canopy was so high and dense I couldn’t see the sun. I can guess at the date, but I suspect I’ve lost a day somewhere in my recollections; other survivors I’ve talked to remember another day before we reached the statue, which I have no memory of whatsoever. I can be reasonably sure of the year (but bear in mind Suavonius’ recent and highly persuasive paper arguing that the Republic wasn’t founded in Year One, but two years earlier) As to where we made our entrance, who knows? We walked between what looked like two ivy-smothered dead trees, which turned out to be the broken stubs of stone columns. The duke reckoned they were the remains of a gate, but for all I know they were the back door of a very large tannery. And as for the name of that city; well, ask someone else. Thanks to my lifetime of exhaustive study, I’m the least qualified man in the world to offer an opinion.
We spent the rest of that day and most of the next wandering round in a sort of daze, like country people on their first trip to town. We tripped over the fallen remains of walls, fell into gutters, cisterns, fountains and what may just possibly have been Aeneas’ great central open-air bath (but it was filled with a tangle of vines, briars and creepers, so there was non way of knowing how deep it once was). At one point, we definitely walked across the flat roof of a large building. My guess is that something like twelve feet of leaf-mould had built up over what used to be ground level, so we were at least two storeys high; in which case, we most likely marched straight over the suburbs without knowing they were there. We found about two dozen inscriptions in the same unknown script; the duke was desperate to copy them down, but nobody had a pen or a pencil; someone tried lighting a fire and charring the end of a stick, but it didn’t work.
I forget the name of the man who found the window. He was one of the soldiers, a short, cheerful man with the unusual ability to sleep standing up; I’d exchanged a few words with him from time to time, until his optimism got on my nerves. He was poking about in the undergrowth when he came up against what looked like a huge anthill, except that under all the forest-floor garbage there was stone. He poked some more, and was mildly shocked when his questing boot shattered a pane of glass. The noise brought the rest of us, and we crowded round; there was just a chance, after all, that a relatively intact building might have been used as a food store by people coming this way.
The window proved to be big and round, and when we looked inside, there was just enough light to see that what we’d stumbled across was a rose window in a tower. Someone found a stone and pitched it through. We listened for the sound of it hitting the floor, but there was nothing. Then, just as we’d given up, we heard a faint, distant plink. The soldier stuck his head through as far as it would go, then wriggled back out in a hurry. The stink, he explained, was unbearable. What was down there? No idea. But the window was a very, very long way off the ground, and it was a sheer drop all the way down. If we had a lot of strong rope—But we didn’t, and even if we had, we’d have lacked the strength to hold a man’s weight, all of us put together.
How much of the city we explored I really couldn’t say, because mid-afternoon on the second day we made a discovery that put everything else out of our minds, and accounts for me being here to tell you this story.
It was just as well we had a couple of farm boys with us. They recognised the yellowy-green turd-shaped things dangling from the trees as plantains; a cheap, low-grade animal fodder that we import by the flyboat-load from Scheria. You can eat plantains.
Later, we decided that they must have been the fifth- or sixth-generation descendants of a grove of ornamental plantains (the tree’s quite nice to look at, apparently) planted to decorate some public space or building. Mercifully, they’d bred more or less true, which most cultivated fruits don’t. What we ate was unripe and decidedly bitter, but somehow or other we rose above that and gorged ourselves till we could barely stand. Then, having learned at least a small part of our lesson in comissariat management, we crammed every pocket and aperture in our clothing with plantains, strung bunches of plantains together on creepers and slung them over our backs. There were still a few desolate survivors hanging from the trees when we left, but only because they were too high to reach.
Next morning, after we’d slept off the effects of the plantain orgy, we got up and started walking back the way we’d come. Nobody gave an order or made a decision; nobody objected. The feeling was a bit like a theatre at the end of a rather boring play; everybody stands up and slowly files out, not saying much. I’d expected the duke to make a scene; I imagined he’d want to stay and carry on exploring. Maybe he had more sense than I credit him for; if he’d tried to stop us from going back at that point, I don’t imagine he’d have lived very long. I don’t think so, though. I believe that he found still being alive after his apotheosis moment of entering the lost city came as such an anticlimax that he simply gave up and couldn’t be bothered any more. True, the next day he was showing signs of coming back to life. He put himself at the head of our pathetic little column and made a point of leading (which meant we got lost twice) He went round asking everybody who they were, an unfortunate thing to do in the circumstances, since it emerged that of the fifty-four of us still alive, only seven were sailors; and later, two of them died of a resurgence of the unknown fever, along with three others. That only seemed to energise the poor fellow. He started making plans for the five remaining sailors to train the rest of us in the maritime arts, so we’d be able to sail the Heron back home. Nobody paid him much attention.
We still had masses of plantains left over when we emerged from the forest into the light, to find ourselves on a shingle beach we’d never seen before. We weren’t unduly upset about that. Getting out from under those horrible trees more than made up for being somewhat lost. We spent a night on the beach in more or less total silence; then, at dawn, the duke pointed left up the beach and said, Follow me. We didn’t move. He said it again. We stayed put. Then he shrugged and walked right, down the beach, and we followed. We reached the bay a couple of hours later.
For some reason, I’d spent most of the walk back through the forest trying to prepare myself in advance for the shock of finding that the ship wasn’t there any more; that something had happened, it’d sunk or been burnt or carried off by passing buccaneers. Nice, just for once, to be wrong; because as we rounded a headland and saw the bay, there was the Heron, drawn up on the beach, exactly where we’d left it. More remarkable still, it wasn’t alone.
The crew of the Squirrel had had, they told us, a pretty miserable time. The storm that sank the Whelp and the Attempt and effectively did for the Lion had blown them past rather than into the bay, and shoved them into the path of a strong current that swept them two days’ sail down the coast. They’d lost their masts, so there wasn’t much they could do, until the current eventually petered out, leaving them stuck on a sand bar. The next tide floated them free, and they’d sent the longboat ashore to cut two tall trees to make into new masts. No sooner had these been shaped and fitted than another sudden wind picked them up and threw them back out to sea. They weathered the storm, just about, and slowly picked their way back to shore, only to find the Heron beached and deserted, and no sign of life to be seen anywhere. They spent the next day fishing, being fortunate enough to hit a monster shoal of a sort of dark blue sardine; and then we showed up, looking like death; and where the hell was everybody else?
The captain of the Squirrel was the son of one of the duke’s tenants in Rhiopa; he’d been in the duke’s service since he was twelve, and regarded him as a sort of middle-order god. When the duke put him in charge of the expedition and said he wanted no further part in it, the poor man was temporarily stunned. Once he’d come round, however, he set about sorting out the mess, and by and large he did a pretty good job.
On closer examination, the damage to the Squirrel from the various storms proved to be worse than originally thought. Given time and a shipyard, she’d have been fixable. As it was, our new leader decided to abandon her and transfer the lot of us onto the Heron. We were short of pretty much everything—sailors, food and worst of all, barrels for storing water—but there didn’t seem to be much we could do about it with the resources available. He therefore decided to make a run for home as quickly as possible. Accordingly, at first light the next day, we sailed out of the bay and almost immediately picked up a very useful wind blowing north-west, precisely the direction we wanted. I can’t remember seeing anybody look back as we left the coast behind us. The feeling was more one of sneaking away before the bastard woke up and had another go at killing us.
A word about plantains. Don’t let the frost get on them, or they spoil and start to rot. Therefore, don’t store them in nets on the deck of a ship.
We didn’t know that. Accordingly, we ran out of food with at least six days still to go. I remember thinking, how perfectly ridiculous, to have survived so much, only to be killed by a cold snap. The Squirrel people tried casting their net, but it kept coming up empty; we were in a sea with no fish, which struck me as entirely in keeping. I’m not sure what we’d have done if we hadn’t spotted a sail, far away on the horizon.
Odd, isn’t it, how things turn out. If we hadn’t lost the Lion and the rest of the fleet and all ended up squeezed together into the Heron, we wouldn’t have been able to sail up to within boarding distance of an Imperial carrack, bristling with heavy guns and loaded down with nutmeg, mace, pepper, walrus ivory and lapis lazulae. Reasonably enough, they assumed we were the relief escort they’d been told would be meeting them at precisely those co-ordinates to make sure they got home safe without being attacked by privateers from the Republic.
I have a note somewhere of how much the cargo of the Fortitude and Mercy made at auction when we got home. To give you a rough idea, the twenty per cent claimed by the Treasury in payment for a retrospective privateering licence amounted to slightly more than the government’s entire annual revenue from other sources. The remaining eighty per cent was topsliced to pay off the mortgages the duke had taken out, reimburse him for the entire cost of the expedition and pay the death-in-service benefits of everyone who didn’t make it back. The balance was divided pro rata between all the rest of us, the duke taking fifty per cent. I got four hundred and seven angels, which at that time was more money than I’d ever had at one time in my whole life.
I wondered about that. The ocean, after all, is a very big place, and the Fortitude and Mercy had made a point of staying well clear of the usual shipping lanes, for obvious reasons. Furthermore, what were the odds against us turning up, in an Imperial ship, at the exact place in all that sea where the carrack was expecting to rendezvous with an Imperial warship? I’m no mathematician, but they can’t be very much greater than the odds against finding a new continent or large island at a set of co-ordinates randomly generated by adding a bunch of letter-values together. The fact remains, however, that the Fortitude &and Mercy was only the fourth largest prize ever taken by Republican privateers; consider the Roebuck, the Flawless Rays of Orthodoxy, the White Swan, all chance encounters, and the biggest haul of all time, the King of Beasts, which Orlaeus stumbled into after both ships, following courses over two hundred miles apart, had been caught in a freak storm and carried to within a few hundred yards of each other in the exact centre of nowhere.
Not only was the Fortitude laden with treasure. They had salt beef, salt pork, biscuit, flour, fruit, water-casks, even six dozen live chickens (though not, after we’d caught up with them, for very long). Under other circumstances, we’d have been hard put to it to find enough men for a prize crew for a ship so much bigger than our own. As it was, we were able to secure the prize for the journey home and alleviate the overcrowding on the Heron at the same time.
From that moment on, things couldn’t have gone more smoothly. We had a mild following wind all the way home, the weather was warm, and two of the men who’d been at death’s door with the unknown fever quite suddenly snapped out of it and were fine, as soon as we crossed the 17th parallel. By the time we saw the Belltower, the duke was very nearly back to normal. He called me up on deck and gave me a lecture on how, all things considered, the expedition had been a success. We’d found Essecuivo. True, the two cities we’d visited had been abandoned at some point in the three centuries dividing us from Aeneas. There were all sorts of possible reasons for that, all of which he’d be analysing in the book he’d already started to write. But there was no earthly reason to suppose that the entire country was like that; and when we went back again, next year—
“The duke?” she said. “Oh, he’s out of it completely. Nobody even mentions him any more.”
I had a slight headache. “I thought—”
“The money?” She smiled at me, as if at a simple-minded child. “All gone. As soon as he got back, he took a massive gamble on wheat futures. But it was a record harvest, so he’s back home in the country licking his wounds. Meanwhile, the Viscount Eretraeus—” Her small black eyes lit up as she said the name. “Now there’s someone you should definitely get to know.”
Shortly after that, I stopped seeing her.
I am, above all, a scholar. Just because I’m a bad human being, it doesn’t necessarily follow that my scholarship is proportionately deficient. I can analyse evidence, draw conclusions and formulate plausible hypotheses.
So; as I think I mentioned, I have one of those see-it-once-and-it’s-there memories. What I must’ve done was remembered, deep in some remote part of my mind, which letters were illuminated red in the original manuscript. When I came to make my true-as-possible-in-the-circumstances copy, I remembered which letters to start the paragraphs with.
The duke’s theory about Aeneas’ cypher was correct. The place we went to was Essecuivo. A lot can happen in three hundred years. Think about it. Three hundred years ago, Macella was a mighty kingdom, as big and strong as the Republic. What’s there now? The bases of a few statues, what’s left of a handful of buildings, after the locals plundered the worked stone to build pigsties.
As for our incredible luck in running into the carrack; when we asked the captain where he’d come from with all that valuable stuff, at first he refused to tell us, quite properly. But then we explained how big and wet the sea was, and asked him if he was a really good swimmer; and he told us he was returning from the annual spice harvest at Mas Agiba, an Imperial outpost whence the Empire derived the bulk of its spices. It had been Imperial property for well over two hundred years, and no, he wasn’t going to tell us the map reference, not even if we threw him to the sharks.
Mas Agiba could just about be the same word as Essecuivo, phonetically speaking; or, more likely, they’re both corruptions of the real name. Now, if the Imperial carrack had started from a different point on the same land mass as we had, going in more or less the same direction, it’s rather more likely that we’d have run into each other in the way we did. It was still an exceptional piece of luck—good for us, bad for them—but at least it’s possible. Imperial occupation would, of course, be a good reason for the destruction and abandonment of Aos and Eano. When the Empire makes a new friend in the colonies, it likes to play rough games. I imagine the captain is still being interrogated, somewhere in the State House cellars, assuming he’s still alive. I am therefore quietly confident that additional data will become available in due course, and the matter will be cleared up to everyone’s satisfaction.
There was another expedition. Not the duke; he sold the Company to clear his debts from the wheat speculation, and a consortium of City merchants took over. They went to Essecuivo in an orderly, businesslike manner, with precisely one object in mind, and were more or less successful. They’d heard the story of the rose window and the appalling smell and taken a chance, which proved to be entirely justified. The smell, they guessed, was guano (bat-shit, as it turned out; the very best material for the manufacture of saltpetre, which as you know is the prime ingredient of gunpowder). They brought back a caravel filled with the stuff, and they plan on going back every year until it’s all gone.
That worked out well for me. Leafing through my copy of Emulaeus one day, I found a sheet of paper I’d folded to use as a bookmark, many years ago. It was my father’s certificate for ten shares in the Company, which he’d bought on a tumbling market as an act of solidarity shortly before the crash. I sold my shares to the consortium for two thousand angels. So I’m all right.
One piece of evidence I nearly suppressed; but I find I can’t. It wakes me up in the night sometimes, and I have to drink rather too much brandy to get rid of it.
I said that the carrack’s cargo included fruit. So it did. What I neglected to mention was that it was carrying three tons of premium, freshly-harvested lemons.