“It’s perfectly true, gentlemen of the jury,” I said. “I murdered my wife. I put hemlock in her milk, she drank it, she died. It was no accident. I did it on purpose.”
I glanced nervously over their heads at the sundial on the far wall. Time was getting on. How long does it take to find a self-confessed murderer guilty and string him up, for crying out loud? But the jurors were gazing at me solemnly, still and quiet as little mice, expecting more. What? Did they think the confession, the cut-and-dried, open-and-shut admission of guilt I’d just so thoughtfully given them was some sort of rhetorical trick? Yes, probably. In any event, they weren’t convinced. I blame the lawyers.
“Just to clarify,” I said. “I did it. The mandatory sentence for murder is, I believe, death.” I lowered my head. “I rest my case.”
Awkward silence. The prosecutor was staring at me. For God’s sake, man,I could hear him thinking, pull yourself together. I gave him a polite nod; carry on. Please. We’re on the clock here.
Slowly he rose to his feet. He was probably a decent enough fellow, with a sense of fair play that I’d have admired in other circumstances. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we have a clear confession. I therefore move that—”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something scuttle across the floor. Hell, I thought.
The prosecutor was still banging on about something. “…Evidence we have heard from the investigating magistrate, I feel we ought to consider the issue of the accused man’s mental capacity. If, as would seem to be the case, this man is not in his right mind, it is open to you to substitute a sentence of detention for life at the monastery of the Golden Heart—”
I jumped up. The kettlehat made a grab for my arm, but I elbowed him in the eye. “Don’t listen to him,” I shouted. “I’m not mad, I’m as sane as you are. I killed her for her money, that’s all there is to it.”
I noticed a man in the front row of the jury benches pulling a frown. I got the impression he didn’t approve of killing rich wives for their money. Excellent. But the shadow on the sundial was almost touching the ornately gilded Six. I turned and faced the prosecutor. “Please,” I said. “I know you’re doing what you think is best, but really, I’m not worth it. I killed that poor, loving, trusting girl so I could get her money and marry a prostitute from the Velvet Shadow. My conscience—”
The prosecutor shrugged and sat down. The usher stood up and cleared his throat. I held my breath. Nearly there.
“Gentlemen of the jury—”
But they weren’t looking at him. They weren’t looking at me, either. Slowly, with an aching heart, I turned and looked over my shoulder at the crowd in the public seats. A beautiful young woman with light brown hair and a sweet and simple smile was standing up, about two rows from the front. “Excuse me,” she said.
“Silence in court,” the usher mumbled, but you could tell he didn’t mean it.
“I’m sorry,” the lovely girl said, “but I must speak. You see, I’m this man’s wife. And I’m not dead.”
Ah well. I sat down again.
It took the prosecutor a moment to pull himself together. He stood up. “Please approach the bench,” he said.
I could hear the murmur of voices behind me. As she passed me, she turned her head and smiled. Don’t worry, the smile said, it’s going to be all right. I closed my eyes. Why is there never a brick around when you need one?
With a little gentle prompting from the prosecutor, the lovely girl gave her evidence. Her name was Onofria; here was a copy of the register of births, sealed by the City Prefect, and here was a copy of the Temple register, recording her marriage to me on the 17th Feralia, AUC 667, and here were twelve affidavits sworn by leading citizens confirming that she was who she claimed to be. The prosecutor was happy to confirm that all the seals and signatures were in order. It had all been, she went on, a silly, silly misunderstanding. Because of an illness she’d had from childhood, she had to take special medicine, which contained a small amount of hemlock. To take the taste away, she drank it mixed with honey and milk. Usually, her husband poured it for her at bed-time; on this occasion, she’d mistakenly thought he’d be out for the evening, so she took a dose herself. Later, her husband had mixed another dose for her, as usual; absent-mindedly, entirely her own silly fault, she’d drunk the second dose out of force of habit. The two doses had made her very ill. The doctor came. They took her to the Priory hospital. Her poor husband, thinking she was dead and out of his mind with grief and guilt, had gone to the Prefecture and told them he’d just poisoned his wife. But it was all a silly mistake; she’d made a full recovery, only to discover that her poor darling was on trial for murder. So, of course, she’s rushed over straight away and, well, here she was—
“You cow,” I muttered.
We were walking arm in arm through the arch that leads from the law courts into the Market Square. She was still smiling. She has a lovely smile, when she’s human.
“I’m not talking to you,” she said.
“Honestly.” Someone I knew vaguely stopped to stare. She beamed at him and he walked on. “If you ever kill me again, I shall be seriously annoyed.”
I first met her during my brief tenure as governor-general of the Leuga Islands.
It was a very brief tenure, and when we met it was rapidly drawing to an end, mostly because the real governor had showed up unexpectedly early. I was packing to leave. I like to travel light when running for my life; a few gold bars and a handful of uncut gemstones thrown into an old satchel, and I’m good to go. I’m always extremely careful about what I take around with me. In my line of work, you have to be; you never know when you’re going to be stopped and searched. Ironically, I distinctly remember going through my bag just to make sure I wasn’t carrying anything that could possibly cause me problems later. Of course, she wasn’t in the damn bag.
I remember walking briskly down the steps of the governor’s palace, across the square and out to the private jetty, where a boat was waiting to take me to Sezanza. It was one of those dazzlingly clear blue-sky days you get in the Leugas, when everything is crisp and sharp and you feel like you could do anything. I remember feeling a nip and an itch on the back of my neck as I climbed into the boat. I thought; shame it didn’t work out, but who wants to be in a place where even the governor’s palace has got bedbugs? All in all, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I was happy.
I felt something on the back of my neck, light but definitely perceptible. I slapped the area vaguely with the flat of my hand. The warmth of the sun and the gentler rocking of the boat were wonderfully soothing, and the excitement and stress of the last few days were starting to slip away. I lay down with my back to the rail and closed my eyes.
When I woke up I was in shadow. “Hello,” I said.
She really does have a nice smile. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Onofria. Who are you?”
Good question. For the last few days I’d been the honourable Leucas Metellas. I hadn’t quite made up my mind who I was going to be in Sezanza. “I’m Buto,” I said.
She sat down beside me. She was wearing a long yellow silk dress and yellow silk slippers, embroidered with red roses. “Where are you going?”
“Sezanza,” I said. “How about you?”
“Sezanza. I’m going to stay with my aunt and uncle. They live in a little village in the hills. Parecoina.”
“What an amazing coincidence,” I said.
We never got to Parecoina. Instead, we spent three days in a grubby little inn on the outskirts of the Tanners’ Quarter in Ap’Coele, which is what passes for civilisation in Sezanza. We didn’t go out much, but there’s precious little to see in Ap’Coele.
On the morning of the fourth day I woke up early, and she wasn’t in the bed with me. I got dressed and went to look for her, and found her in the stable yard. She’d got a clay cup from somewhere. It was half filled with woodlice, crawling and scrambling over each other. She put it down on the mounting block and smiled at me.
“You’re up and about early,” I said.
She leaned forward and kissed me on the nose. “It’s such a beautiful day,” she replied. “Let’s go for a walk.”
We went down to the harbour, where the fishing boats were just setting out. “Your uncle and aunt,” I said. “They’ll be wondering where you’ve got to.”
She frowned, for some reason. “Don’t worry about them,” she said. Then she stopped. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
It seemed such an odd thing to say. “No, of course not.”
“That’s all right, then. I’ll write to them,” she said, and the smile came back. “They’re used to me,” she added.
“I see. You do this sort of thing all the time, then?”
I’d meant it as a silly joke. “Yes,” she said. “Oh look, a cormorant.”
You know how young men are when they’re showing off; mines of useless information. “That’s a trained cormorant,” I said. “If you look closely, you can see the collar.”
“What’s that for?”
“It’s to stop them swallowing the fish. They catch them, but they can’t eat them, so they fly back home again. The fish are stuck in their throats until the fishermen pull them out.”
She gave me an odd sort of a look, one which I’ve always remembered. “Sensible arrangement,” she said.
I shrugged. “For the fisherman. I can’t really see what the bird gets out of it.”
“It’s just a bird. And anyway, the fisherman looks after it.”
“Does a bird need looking after?”
“Let’s go and paddle in the sea.”
We didn’t stay out long. A bit later, she asked me, “What are you? I mean, what do you do?”
I was sleepy, the way you are afterwards. “Oh, not much.”
“Ah. A gentleman.”
Usually I’d have said yes, that’s right, because why bother with the truth when I’d be gone in a day or so? But I said, “How about you?”
She shrugged. “I’m not anything, really.”
I’d formed my own assessment some time earlier. You have to be able to sight-read people in my line; you don’t have the luxury of finding out slowly and possibly getting it wrong. I’d figured she was a merchant’s daughter—well-dressed, not gentry, but she’d never have to work for a living; she wouldn’t be marrying some farmer, or a tradesman or craftsman. I guessed she was what’s usually termed ‘difficult’; awkward, hard to control, the sort who won’t stay home and behave nicely. Not allowed in the best families, and down the other end of the social scale they don’t have the option, too busy helping put food on the table. But a merchant’s daughter can have a few years of gadding about if she wants to, and generally no harm done. “I find that hard to believe,” I said.
“No you don’t,” she replied. “But you haven’t answered my question. What do you do?”
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t love or anything. But I was beginning to think that maybe three or four days wasn’t quite enough. Besides, I was in no hurry. I had a bit of money for a change, and as far as I was aware, nobody was uncomfortably hot on my trail. The truth is, I liked her. A kindred spirit, perhaps; no ties, no commitments, a leaf in the wind. And there was something else, a hint of mischief, devilment. I like that in a person. Just possibly, I thought, she might understand. And wouldn’t that be fun? Someone I could be honest with, tell the truth to. A whole new experience for me. So I took a deep breath.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m a thief.”
She nodded. “Thought so.”
I really wasn’t expecting that. “You did?”
“Mphm. Well, you’re not a merchant, or where’s your stock in trade? Not a courier, because I looked in your bag while you were asleep.” She smiled. “That’s when I thought, thief.”
“Did you really.”
Two thoughts collided in my head. First, it takes one to know one; but I dismissed that, because the contents of my bag were still there; I’d checked. I check about once an hour, on average. The other thought was; she doesn’t seem to mind, particularly.
“What sort of a thief?” she said. “Do you climb in through windows, or hit people over the head, or what?”
I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. But it was intoxicating. “Nothing so vulgar,” I said.
“You’re a con man,” she said, and there was a sort of girlish delight in her voice.
I sort of shrugged. “That’s overstating it a bit,” I said. “What I actually do is pretend to be people. Usually government officials. I read the government gazette when they post up the new appointments, to see who’s been posted where. Then I get there first.”
“I see.” Her eyes were laughing at me. “Sort of a shape-changer.”
“That would be a very useful skill,” I said. “It’s a shame it’s not actually possible. But I manage without it.”
She nodded. “Do you wear disguises? Wigs and false beards and stuff like that?”
“No need,” I said. “All I do is ask myself, what would it be like to be so-and-so? Like an actor, I guess. I thought of being an actor once, but there’s no money in it.” I smiled. “I like money.”
“Me too,” she said.
“A shared interest,” I said, “that’s good.” Well, I thought, we’re being honest with each other, asking the sort of questions you usually don’t, so why not? I asked, “Have you got any?”
“What? Oh, money. Yes, from time to time. It’s never been a problem.”
I’d previously arrived at the conclusion that she wasn’t any of the innumerable finely-distinguished subspecies of prostitute; you can tell, almost immediately, once you get to that stage in the proceedings. Not a thief, either. Of the three vocations open to women in our enlightened society, that was two ruled out. “Are you a musician?”
“Singer,” I said. “Do you sing? Professionally?”
She laughed. “People might well give me money to stop,” she said.
I leaned across and kissed her mouth. “This money you get from time to time,” I said. “How do you get it? Come on,” I added, with my best smile. “You can’t say I haven’t been straight with me.”
“Oh all right, then,” she said. “I’m a witch.”
Properly speaking, since I’d been acquitted, I’d have been within my rights to go to the prefecture and demand the return of all the stuff they’d taken off me when I was arrested; my entire inventory of worldly goods, as it happened—one heavy wool travelling coat, one bag containing five hundred angels in gold and a copy of Vicentius’ Garden of Entrancing Images (with pictures), not to mention the nine hundred angels’ worth of uncut rubies sewn into the lining. Somehow, though, I figured that that would be pushing my luck, something I’ve always been hesitant to do. Now there’s irony.
She was talking to me again. “It’s humiliating,” she said. “Having to go to court to reclaim you, like a lost dog or something. I wish you wouldn’t do it.”
“You can’t blame a man for trying.”
Actually, she could. “Not to mention,” she went on, “drawing attention to us. You do realise, we’re going to have to clear out again. Everybody knows who we are.”
That made me laugh out loud.
“You know what I mean,” she said irritably. “And you know what I think about being conspicuous. How much money have you got?”
She sighed. “How do you fancy Mezentia?”
“I don’t even know where it is.”
“It’s about as far south as you can go without getting your feet wet. About twelve hundred miles.”
She’d have been there, of course, a long time ago. She’s been everywhere. I remember we were in this ruined temple in Prochoris; circumstances had dictated that we should live rough for a while, and the locals were afraid to go inside. There was this painting on the wall—it was sheltered, and only a little bit had survived, the rest had all crumbled away centuries ago—and I looked at it and thought, I know that face. Quite a good likeness, in fact. She told me it was supposed to be Aedoea the Bringer of Death. Well, yes, I thought.
“I’m sick of traipsing around all the time,” I said.
“Whose fault is that?”
“And I hate the south. It’s so hot. Why can’t we go somewhere nice, for a change?”
I don’t like myself when I whine. I never used to do it. Play the cards you’re dealt, was always my motto; when it’s time to fold, then fold, and if you lose, well, that’s how it goes. I’m not like that now, of course.
“Fine,” she said. “We’ll go to Thuria.”
“No way in hell,” I said. A woman passing by stopped and looked at me. I lowered my voice. “It’s freezing cold and the people smell. And what could there possibly be for us in Thuria?”
“You don’t know anything about it. Actually, it’s quite nice there.” Pause. “And there’s silver mines.”
“I don’t give a shit. I refuse to spend six weeks rattling around in a coach to get to some godforsaken ice floe in the middle of nowhere.”
She sighed. “All right,” she said. “What do you want?”
The silly part of it is, I really am a gentleman. More than that, I’m your actual nobility; first cousin to a Duke, my name (the real one, I mean) cut into the stonework of the arch in the front courtyard of a great house. Or at least it was. I expect it was chiselled out long since. What I mean to say is, I’m actually a lot more than I pretend to be. When I used to go around impersonating the nobility, I was invariably demoting myself by at least five grades; because if you show up out of the blue somewhere and announce that you’re a what-I-really-am, nobody’s going to believe you. Also, the minor public officials I used to pass myself off as were by definition men who had to make at least some show of working for a living. When I was twelve, I wouldn’t have deigned to notice the sort of people I chose to become, when I was still working.
I guess I officially went to the bad when I was nineteen. My mother, bless her, really didn’t want me to go to the University; she knew me too well, I guess. But father insisted; that was where young men of quality went when they were my age, and he could no more dream of interfering than of stopping the sun from rising. So, to the University I went, and a very congenial place I found it. Under other circumstances—if we’d been poor, for example, and I’d gone there to be educated rather than to get me out of the house for a bit—I might well have knuckled down and learned something. I genuinely enjoyed reading some of the books, though of course I daren’t let on to the crowd I was in with, they’d have ragged me unmercifully, and I often think about them to this day; Saloninus’ Precepts(my special favourite; what a genius that man was) and Eutropius’ Moral and Political Dialogues, all that. Mostly, though, I drank and played cards and dice and chased skirts and got through money, which was what I was supposed to be doing, according to my father’s view of the world; I was nothing if not a dutiful son.
Every letter home begging for money was answered by return, enclosing a draft drawn on the Stamen Brothers. I was surrounded on all sides by wild, eager young men desperate for money, hounded by creditors, terrified that their fathers and uncles would find out what they’d been up to and how much trouble they were in, but as far as I was concerned I had a bottomless purse and all my sins were not only condoned but encouraged. Enjoy yourself while you’re young, my boy, the old fool used to say, plenty of time for the other stuff later; and what’s the use of being who you are if you don’t make use of it?
Quite; but it made me wretched. I didn’t fit in. Everyone I knew was either mortally jealous or desperate to ingratiate themselves in the hope of scoring a loan. My personal appearance didn’t help, either. Truth is, I’ve never enjoyed being outstandingly handsome. It’s like the money, something I never had to earn, which made everything too easy. In my second year I even grew a beard; and then everyone said how much it suited me, so I shaved it off again, before I started a fashion.
So that’s why I went to the bad; out of altruism. It started when the nearest thing I had to a friend (won’t tell you his name because he’s a Chief Magistrate now, a real one) came whining round begging for money, or else some tailor or other was going to write to his father and cause the most almighty row.
“How much do you need?” I asked him.
“Forty angels,” he said. “Go on, be a sport. Forty angels is nothing to you. I’ve seen you spend that in an evening down at the Golden Feather.”
Perfectly true. As it happened, I had forty angels in my coat pocket at that very moment. We were walking down Westgate together, just south of the New temple. “Nothing doing,” I replied.
“Oh go on, please. Really, I’m at my wit’s end. If I don’t get that money, I might as well jump off a bridge.”
I sighed. “You’re pathetic,” I said. Then I looked round for a brick.
As I said earlier, there’s never a brick when you need one. So we had to go down to the river-bank and fumble about in the dark until I found a stone about the right size and weight. “What the hell do you want that for?” he asked.
I stuffed it under the lapels of my greatcoat. “You’ll see,” I said.
It was around third watch; middle of the night, when all the drunks have finally wandered off, but before the first early-bird tradesmen begin to stir. We didn’t encounter a living soul between Holy Bridge and the New temple. Looking back, of course, I realise that that was the most colossal stroke of beginner’s luck. I led the way down the little winding alley that goes round the back of the New temple and comes out on Foregate, just shy of the old Tolerance & Mercy.
You never really know how your mind works, do you? I guess I must’ve noticed that window at the back of the chancel, subconsciously, and figured that it would be an ideal place if ever anyone wanted to break in. Yet if you’d asked me, twenty-four hours earlier, I’d have told you in all sincerity that breaking into a temple and stealing the silver was the last thing I could ever see myself doing. Well, there you go. I took off my coat and he held it over the glass while I stoved it in with the stone. Practically silent. I’d like it noted that I’ve always been entirely self-taught, and have figured out all the basics of the profession from first principles, which is rather clever of me, you’ve got to admit.
“What the hell are we doing?” he asked in a hoarse, horrified whisper.
“Robbing a temple,” I told him. “Wait there. If anyone comes, let me know. All right?”
He stared at me. I remember the look on his face, serendipitousdly illuminated in red and blue by a shaft of moonlight through the remains of the stained glass. He looked like he’d been horribly burned in a fire. “You’re mad,” he said. “We can’t do this.”
And it was so easy. I climbed in, carefully not cutting my legs to ribbons on the broken window, strolled down the aisle, stopped at the altar, reached for the first piece of silverware I came to; stopped, engaged my brain. I’d been about to steal the Three Angels Chalice, a masterpiece of post-Mannerist art that’d be instantly recognisable anywhere in the Empire. No bloody good at all. Instead, I fumbled about until I came across a rather ugly silver paten, about seventy years old, quite plain; I traced all over it with my fingertips and I couldn’t feel any kind of inscription. About forty angels’ worth of silver, intrinsic value. I bowed to the altar and said thank you politely, then went back to where he was waiting for me.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with that” he said.
Pathetic. “I don’t know, do I? Sell it. Melt it down.”
“Put it back, for crying out loud, and let’s get out of here. If I get caught, my dad’ll kill me.”
I put the paten down on the ground. Then I punched him in the mouth, as hard as I could. “Pull yourself together, will you?” I said quietly. Then I picked up the paten, and we went home.
I spent the rest of the night thinking about it. Then, as soon as it was light, I went out and bought a pair of tinsmith’s shears. I cut the paten up into little squares, about the size of a two-angel piece. Then I went for a walk down Silversmiths’ Row. I knew instinctively who I could do business with. You just had to look at their faces.
“Do you want it or not?” I remember saying.
The man sort of leered at me. “Sure it won’t be missed?” he said.
I shrugged. “One of our footmen steals things,” I said.
He shrugged. “Thirty angels.”
“Don’t make me laugh.”
I’ve always done well in my dealings with fences. I guess I trust men who are more interested in things than people. I’ve often wished I could be like that. I gouged him for forty-six angels; forty for my friend, six for the poor box outside the New temple. The idea that I should profit in any way from the transaction never crossed my mind, and besides, I didn’t need the money.
The operation was successful, in that my friend never tried to borrow money from me again. He stopped being my friend, of course, but I wasn’t too bothered. Plenty more where he came from. And came they did—twenty angels here, thirty there, and though I say it myself, I was the soul of generosity. I spent my evenings strolling through the streets looking for vulnerable windows, convenient water-pipes, back doors not overlooked by neighbouring houses. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on one of those rolls you occasionally get in the profession, when it seems like you can’t go wrong and the dice always fall your way, even when you’re incredibly careless and overconfident. All that came to a shuddering halt, of course, one night when I carefully prised open a goldsmith’s shutters to find the goldsmith and his son sitting in the dark with drawn swords across their knees.
To this day I wish I knew what possessed me. If I’d held still, acted drunk, pretended it was all a lark or a dare or something, I’m a hundred per cent sure my father would’ve bought them off, and no harm done to anyone. Instead, I pulled out this stupid knife I’d got into the habit of carrying, and there was this farcical sort of a scrimmage, and I stabbed the goldsmith’s son in the eye. I’d like to say it was an accident, the result of three large men blundering about in the dark being careless with sharp objects. That’d be entirely plausible, and nobody could prove it wasn’t true. But no. The boy had tripped over his father’s feet; he latched on to my ankles and I couldn’t get him off me. So I killed him.
Why did I do that? As you’d expect, I’ve given it a degree of thought over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I did it because that’s who I am. Let me explain. I was born a nobleman’s son, but that must’ve been a mistake. Really, I’m a thief. A nobleman’s son, caught red-handed committing a crime, treats the whole thing as a joke and pays the price for his fun with his father’s money. A thief, caught by the ankle in a dark shop, kills someone. I must have known that, or I wouldn’t have taken the knife with me in the first place.
I’m telling you this so as to kill any misplaced sympathy you might be inclined to have for me. As I’ve told a long succession of judges in most of the jurisdictions right across the known world, I’m guilty. I suppose I always have been. Born like it.
We went to Thuria.
I remembered it when we got there. We’d been there ten years or so earlier. It was where I’d thrown myself out of a twelfth storey window. She gave me hell over that. You think I’ve got nothing better to do, and so on and so forth. I’ve heard it so often I can say the words along with her.
“Well,” I said, as we clambered out of the coach and stretched our backs. There was snow on the ground, needless to say. “Here we are. Now what?”
She stooped and flipped over a stone. No dice. Insects can’t live in such a cold place. “I told you,” she said. “They have silver mines.”
I yawned. “Big deal.”
“I don’t want you getting bored,” she said. “You always do stupid things when you’re bored.”
“We should go to Shansard,” I said, not that I meant it. “There’s a temple there with the best collection of Resolutionist icons in the world, and all they’ve got guarding it is six old priests and a lock I could pick with a blade of grass.”
She looked at me and sighed. “All right,” she said, and she dropped the bag she was carrying. “If that’s what you want.”
“No, we’re here now,” I said. “Come on, we’d better find an inn or something. Assuming they’ve got inns in this armpit.”
Kuvass City is actually not bad at all. The centre was completely rebuilt by the Imperials about thirty years ago; a bit generic, but the streets are paved and there’s a few quite good buildings. The best inn in town is the Flawless Diamonds of Orthodoxy; rather grand, very expensive, heavily based on the Silver Star in the City—a bit like a page of manuscript copied out by a careful but illiterate copyist. So, to the Doxy we went. They looked at us a bit sideways, but we had money. They gave us a room on the third floor, with an impressive view out over the saw mills. Lumber is the big business in Kuvass City. I stood in front of the window for a while and drank in the scene. “I might like it here,” I said.
“Come to bed,” she said.
“In the middle of the afternoon.”
That’s the ridiculous thing. She really does love me. After all I’ve done to her, all I’ve tried to do. For crying out loud, I’ve killed her sixteen times.
The first time was in Podarga. We’d been together for about three months. The first month hadn’t been bad at all. Imagine; you pick up a really attractive girl, nice manners and sexually adventurous, apparently besotted with you, not in the least adverse to a bit of criminal activity, and who happens to be a witch with genuine and wide-ranging magic powers. We’d had a lot of fun together, I freely admit. I’d reverted from the con game to straightforward breaking and entering, not that you need to do much breaking when your accomplice can turn herself into a cockroach, crawl in under the door and turn the key from the inside. We did the Stamen brothers, for old times’ sake. I’ll never forgive them for how they treated my father, after the big crash. That was the first time we did the cockroach thing. I filled two big grain sacks with gold coin, then found they were—surprise, surprise—far too heavy to lift. Silly, she said, with a tender smile, and did this weightlessness spell. It was like carrying pillows.
That night I was really worried about her. She collapsed about an hour after we got back to the inn; she was pale as death, could hardly breathe, severe bouts of fever and vomiting. It’s all right, she told me, it’s perfectly normal, I’m used to it. I wanted to call a doctor, but she just grinned weakly. It was the transformation, she explained. You’re all right if you transform for under a minute. Longer than that, you get the shakes and so forth. I was horrified. Why didn’t you tell me, I said, I’d have thought of something else? No, that’s fine, really, she said. I’m used to it. She was sweating like a block of ice melting. The things I do for love, she said. At the time, I thought that was really sweet.
After the Stamen brothers, we did the Charitable Bank, the Sword Blade Bank, the Merchant Adventurers; so much money, so very easy. It made me nervous. We ought to quit while we’re ahead, I said to her, at the very least we ought to cool it for a while. That made her laugh. Why stop when we’re having so much fun, she said.
“Because we don’t need to do any more,” I told her. “We’ve got enough.”
She looked at me. “Enough,” she repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean? Enough for what?”
“Enough money,” I said. I pointed to the big trunk I’d bought to keep the money in. “There’s over five thousand angels in there.”
She shrugged. “How much money did your father have?” she said.
“What? I don’t know.”
“More than five thousand angels?”
“Six thousand? Sixty thousand? Six hundred thousand?”
She was starting to annoy me. “No idea,” I said.
“All right,” I said. “If you put everything together, the land and the houses and the ships he owned and everything, something to the tune of half a million. But that’s different.”
“Is it?” She smiled at me. “That’s what you should’ve had,” she said. “That should’ve been yours by right. So, five thousand angels isn’t enough. Is it?”
“Now you’re being stupid,” I said. “We can’t steal half a million angels. It’d take us the rest of our lives.”
She just grinned at me.
So we carried on, cleaning out goldsmiths and silversmiths, merchants, on one occasion the army payroll. Needless to say, people were beginning to notice. They set up a watch committee, hired guards; poor fools weren’t looking out for fleas and cockroaches. We filled our fourth trunk. The prefect issued a statement flatly denying that there was a critical shortage of gold currency in Podarga, which was as good as an outright admission. There were runs on the banks, which only served to highlight the fact that they had no money, because some bastard had taken it. I told her, this isn’t fun any more, it’s got to stop. We’re causing an economic crisis here, and people will get hurt. All she ever did was grin at me and haul me into bed. We were spending practically nothing, maybe three thalers a week, and we had most of the money in the city sitting in huge boxes on the floor of our room. I got a pair of scales and did some rough calculations. Then I told her; there’s over a million angels here, that’s twice what you reckon the world owes me, can we stop now, please? She started laughing at me. I put my hands round her throat and squeezed.
I remember how her face turned blue, just before she died. It was the most extraordinary thing. Her eyes glazed over, in that moment of transition when she stopped being a person and turned into a thing, that special sort of reverse alchemy. I knew she was dead when I felt her entire weight on my wrists. It was only then, I think, that I realised what I was doing. No, make that what I’d done.
Nobody could’ve been more surprised, I think, than I was. After I killed the goldsmith’s son, I think I told you, I gave up the burglary side of things; I never wanted to put myself in that position again, where I’d be in danger of killing someone. It’s a question of knowing what you’re capable of. Ever since then, I’d made a point of playing safe. No weapons, no situations where that sort of conflict could arise. With her on the team, so to speak, there’d been no risk of that. It was so easy, so safe. She could see through doors and walls, so we always knew if there was a guard in there waiting for us. So; I was stunned. I’d done it again.
If there’d been something sharp handy, I swear I’d have killed myself. I actually tried smashing a pottery dish, to make a sharp edge; stupid thing wouldn’t break, even when I stamped on it with my boot. Not fit to livewas the only thought running through my mind. On balance—I was clear-headed enough to make the distinction—I preferred to kill myself, in my own time and with dignity, than wait for the watch to show up—public trial, public execution, I still had my finer feelings at that point. But it wasn’t what you’d call a deal-breaker. The rope would do just fine, if I couldn’t manage anything better. People will tell you that capital punishment is barbaric. Me, I’m all for it.
(Except, I don’t think they should’ve hung my poor father. He was guilty, all right—high treason, no less, conspiracy to overthrow the Republic. We’re always guilty in my family. But what actually happened was, he got sucked into this stupid idea of cornering the grain market by the Stamen brothers, and needless to say it all went yellow, and my father was cleaned out, everything, and it turned out the Stamen boys hadn’t actually put in any of their own money, so they were all right; so my poor, stupid father went in with a bunch of lunatic idealists from the Phocas and the Tmiscas—cousins of ours, about a thousand times removed; everybody is, at that level—who wanted to get shot of the government and go back to the old days; they fondly believed they had the army on their side, but it was all nonsense really. I don’t suppose anything would’ve come of it, if the Coalition hadn’t been tearing itself apart over the Agrarian Reform Bill, and they desperately needed a crisis, to take everyone’s mind off things. My father and his idiot friends were a gift from heaven, as far as they were concerned. Two of the conspirators managed to worm their way out by turning state’s evidence (we dealt with them later, I’m proud to say) but the rest went to the gallows, including my poor father. I wasn’t there, of course, didn’t dare show my face; but I gather he made a wild, rather incoherent speech about how he could die proud, having for once in his life stood up for something worthwhile, even though it had come to nothing—Well. He was a clown. But they shouldn’t hang clowns. Not when there’s really bad people walking free, like me.)
So there I was, trying frantically to smash a clay dish that wouldn’t break, with the dead body of my beautiful girl lying at my feet. Running through my head, so loud that I couldn’t think, as the phrase the consequences of his actions; fair enough, I told myself. You do something really bad, you pay for it. Note the word pay. There’s a deeply-rooted commercial streak deeply embedded in our notion of morality. You buy a crime with punishment; you do a bad thing, and you pay for it—but not with a good thing, please note, but with another bad thing, a death for a death. Not sure of the logic there, because surely it ought to be, you pay for a bad thing with a good thing; murder someone, pay for it by giving all your money to the poor and spending the rest of your life in a monastery. But apparently not. Anyway, back then I was profoundly conventional in my ethical outlook. I’d killed two people, and so I deserved to die. Only I couldn’t break the stupid dish.
The hell with it, I thought. I’ll turn myself in to the watch, and they can deal with me. After all, that’s what we pay our taxes for. I knelt down and put my fingers on her neck, just in case I’d got it wrong and there was a faint pulse. Nothing. She was getting cold, and her face was as white as really good quality wax. I closed the door behind me and went out into the street.
Turn myself in to the watch. Did I know where the watch house is in Podarga? Did I hell. I thought I knew; I thought it was the big white building in Constitution Square, but that turned out to be the Provincial Legislature. There was a kettlehat on duty at the gate and I tried to surrender myself to him, but he looked at me and told me he wasn’t allowed to leave his post until the end of his shift. I’ll wait, I said, I don’t mind waiting. Piss off, he told me. All right, I said, could you please give me direction to the watch house? Out of the square and take a left, he said, then down North Parade till you’ve got the Golden Flea on your left, there’s a courtyard on your right, you can’t miss it.
I found it, eventually (I’m hopeless with directions). They’ve got this really impressive set of wrought iron gates; and standing in front of them, there she was.
I stared at her. “There you are,” she said. “I thought this is where you’d come.”
“You’re alive,” I said.
“No thanks to you.”
“Oh thank God,” I said. “I thought I’d killed you.”
She frowned at me. “You did,” she said.
Things you never knew about witches.
She explained it to me. Apparently, the universe is sort of like a house. There are different rooms. What you and I think of as the world is just one of them; we live in it, and when we die, we go upstairs to another one, and there we stop. But witches have keys to a lot of other rooms where we can’t go, and where things don’t work the same. That’s how they do magic. They just pop next door, to where the impossible is a piece of cake, and then (I never followed this bit) they sort of walk back in as something else. So, when she was on the point of death, with my hands clamped tight round her neck, she slipped away into another room until her body was stone dead, then came back again. It’s not pleasant, she said, climbing back into your dead body. It’s freezing cold and you have to get everything working again, it’s a bit like putting on a suit of dripping wet clothes. But death, she told me, is no big deal. The least of her problems.
As you can imagine, things were a bit strained between us for a while after that. She kept telling me she’d forgiven me and I wasn’t to think about it any more. I kept telling her I was no good, I was evil, a murderer. She told me not to be so self-indulgent. You lost your temper, she said, that’s all. No harm done. No, I said, but the intention—She have me a funny look. Intention doesn’t matter, she said. Nothing matters, really. I told her I was going away. Fine, she said, I’m coming with you.
So one night, when she was fast asleep, I left her. I didn’t dare fumble around in the dark for my coat, because she was a light sleeper and the slightest sound woke her up. I walked out in just my shirt and trousers. For the first time in my life, my pockets were empty, not a coin to my name. Strange feeling, that. I remember, as I emerged from the inn doorway into the street, this weird sort of freedom, as if for the first time I was really myself, shorn of all the inherited and acquired junk; just me, my strengths, weaknesses, qualities, flaws, character. I scratched the back of my neck and walked down to the harbour.
Stowing away on board a ship is easier than you think. It’s staying stowed that’s the problem. I swam out and climbed the hawser; there was nobody about, and I scrambled up on top of a big stack of barrels and lay down. I guess I fell asleep, because I remember opening my eyes and seeing a broad blue sky, and feeling hair brushing my cheek.
She kissed me. “Hello,” she said.
I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I was frozen.
“This is fun,” she said. “Where are we going?”
Later we climbed down and gave ourselves up to the captain, who was delighted to accept five angels and take us on as passengers. He didn’t ask why we’d come aboard without telling anyone, sort of got the impression it wasn’t the first time. He lent us his cabin, for an extra two angels, and they did their best to make us comfortable. The ship was going to Laerna, with a cargo of vinegar.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes. Kuvass City.
When I first met her, I was twenty-three. That was thirty-five years ago. How old am I? I simply don’t know. When I see myself in a mirror, I look about nineteen, though I learned not to trust mirrors a long time ago. But people assume I’m—well, the same age as she is, and she looks about twenty. What a charming couple, people say; him so handsome and her so very beautiful.
Did I mention the saw mills? Big business is Kuvass City. They float lumber down the river in huge rafts. It’s only softwood, pines and firs, so nearly all of it gets sawn into planks. The mills are powered by waterwheels driven by the Kuvass river. They can handle any size of tree you care to name. The circular saw blades are the size of a cartwheel, and they have five or six running in parallel—you feed in a tree at one end, it comes out all planked out at the other, about a minute later. Quite an impressive sight.
I made a special point of not looking too closely at the saw mills. Instead, we went to see the silver mines. Foul place. They’d torn a mountain in half, so that one side was an artificial cliff-face, with ridiculous rickety wooden galleries scrambling up it like ivy. God help the poor devils who work there. They scoop away the mountain with picks, winch down the ore in buckets, and then the stuff goes into the separation process, which is a real mess. I don’t know how it actually works, but there’s this delta of open sewers, to wash the mud off the ore, and huge furnaces belching out thick, stinking smoke. You can tell where the idea of Hell came from; noise and ooze and stench and smoke, from time to time great jets of flame as they open and close the ports and vents. The soot gets in your eyes and your hair, the fumes get up your nose and you choke, and every footstep in the ankle-deep mud is a horrible effort. Sort of a metaphor, really, because that’s where money comes from, that’s how money is made.
We were rich investors thinking about buying into the mine. We’d come to see for ourselves, my sister and I. The mine captain was shocked that nobody had told him to expect distinguished visitors. He kept apologising and yelling for duckboards for us to walk on.
We were terribly impressed with what we saw. It was all quite fascinating, and clearly the mine was wonderfully productive. Just one thing, though. All that valuable silver bullion—what was it? Three tons a day? What was there to prevent it from getting, well, you know, stolen?
“Easy,” she said, as we squelched back to town in our ruined footwear. “The guards aren’t a problem, obviously. You wait round the back, where there’s that blind spot beside the water-chute, did you notice it? I can crawl in through the gap under the eaves, make an invisible hole in the back wall and just pass the ingots out to you. Then I come out again and we make the ingots weightless and float them over to the road and onto the cart. By the time they open up in the morning, we’ll be in Scheria. Piece of cake.”
Indeed. It always was a piece of cake. That was the point.
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll do that, then.” I was trying to sound bored and sullen. It was getting harder and harder. She was so quick to suspect, and I’m not that good an actor. “Tonight?”
“Might as well. No point in hanging around for the sake of it.”
She always argues; I’m a thief, it’s my nature. Stealing is what I want to do. Not for the money, because money’s never interested me, the same way fish aren’t interested in water. It’s the stealing that I enjoy. Therefore, that’s what we’ll do, one robbery after another, for the rest of our indefinitely prolonged lives. Happy ever after.
Just so long as you’re happy, she says, that’s all I want. Isn’t that what love means?
“Tonight, then,” I said. “I’ll need to see about a cart.”
She nodded. “That’s fine, then,” she said. “I’ll see you back at the inn.”
Thought I was being really clever. I left her at the corner of Coppergate and went on down North Reach as far as the livery, then doubled back up Old Side, through the lanes and out onto the wharf, then up the towpath until I reached the ingates of the mill sluice. I picked my way along the top of the narrow wall and climbed down into the sawpit yard. The noise of the sawblades was deafening, and the air was full of coarse shreds of sawdust, like a snowstorm. The man working the saw benches saw me and yelled, get away, you fool. I felt sorry for him. Believe it or not, I don’t like to make trouble for people, but sometimes it just can’t be helped.
Did I mention I was in the army? Oh yes. I was a captain. Not a proper one, of course. I’d have been a major, only I look too young, even with this ludicrous system they have in the Empire of buying commissions. Still, a captain’s pretty hot stuff, particularly a captain in the House Guards. I’d set my heart on them, because I happened to know they were about to be sent off to the Southern front, where the fighting was pretty grim.
I don’t suppose you’ve heard of that war. It was never anything much. Either the Sashan launched a sneak attack on one of our outposts, or we launched one on one of theirs; can’t remember, don’t particularly care. But at one point it got a bit out of hand; we slaughtered their expeditionary force, they ambushed our relief column, there was going to have to be a full-scale pitched battle to sort things out, or the whole thing would degenerate into hit-and-run all along the frontier, and that kind of thing can drag on for years.
Nothing to do with me, of course. I was dead set on getting in on it because I figured, the army, forced marches across the desert, all that; there was no way she could follow me there, not as a girl, at any rate. And I reckoned she’d quickly get tired of being a flea all the time. She’d lose interest, maybe find someone else to pick on; she’d be gone and I could get on with my life.
How naïve. I turned up one evening at the camp gate, introduced myself, handed over my commission to the CO—a nice piece of work, that; I use a forger in Seuma Eris, extremely reliable and really quite reasonable. He gave it a cursory glance and poured me a drink, and that was that.
I knew absolutely nothing about soldiering, needless to say. That was just right, because most of the young officers sent out to the front in that war were straight up from their country estates, never seen a parade-ground in their lives. I took the colour-sergeant on one side, gave him ten angels. “What do I have to do?” I asked him.
He grinned at me. “That’s all right, sir,” he said. “You ride at the front and try not to run away when the fighting starts, and you leave the rest to me and the other sergeants. We’ll look after you, sir, we know the score.”
Fine by me. Actually, that sergeant was a fine fellow. He told me to dump all the shiny new armour I’d bought at the outfitters’ (he had a sideline, selling it back to them) and got me fitted out in the proper stuff, worn in and comfortable. He got me a pair of boots that actually fitted. They were Sashan, needless to say; they make the best army boots anywhere. Every day I’d get on my beautiful white horse and ride out, and when it was time to stop he’d tell me well in advance. There were papers to sign after dinner, but that was all. I could’ve done without the searing heat, needless to say, and it had been a few years since I spent quite so long in the saddle. But I’d had my share of living rough before she came along, very rough indeed at times, so all in all it wasn’t too bad. Best of all, no sign of her whatsoever. Not even a bite on my neck or an itch anywhere. They do say it’s too hot for fleas in the desert. Flies are another matter, of course. But I’d never known her be a fly.
Then, one night, I was sitting outside my tent watching the men gathered round the fire, and I saw this dog. It was great big thing, pure white. The men were throwing bones for it. I called my friend the sergeant. “What’s that in aid of?” I asked.
He grinned. “Oh, that,” he said. “Don’t know where she came from, sir, just showed up one day. The men like her, reckon she’s good luck. Funny thing, coming across a dog in the middle of the desert. Tame as anything, though.”
“Maybe she was with a salt caravan and wandered off,” I said.
“Something like that, sir,” he said.
The next day, and the day after that, I tried to spot her as we marched, but she was too smart for that. I guess she stayed at the rear; I was stuck at the front, of course, the shiny figurehead, and I couldn’t desert my post and go looking for her. I thought of giving orders for her to be shot or driven off, but I knew I couldn’t do that; so popular with the men, mascot, good luck. I tried to bribe my sergeant to poison her, discreetly, when no-one was watching; he looked shocked and pretended he hadn’t heard me. That was when I knew she’d outsmarted me good and proper.
Which left me with Plan B; unfortunate, but there it was.
The sergeant must have known we were walking into a trap. If I could figure it out, so could he. I remember him pointing out the dangers, gently reminding me of our orders, which didn’t include riding straight into a narrow, high-sided ravine. At one point he told the trumpeters to sound the general halt, without a word from me. I had to be quite sharp with him. I knew exactly what I was doing, of course; because I knew how my opposite number’s mind worked, because he’d be just like me, a rich man’s son. So, when they blocked both ends of the ravine and displayed their archers and slingers, leering down at us, I was ready. I told the trumpeters to blow to parlay. Sure enough, down came their heralds. Surrender, they said, you’re trapped, we’ll slaughter you. I smiled. I challenge your leader to single combat, I said. Him or his duly appointed champion.
The herald looked at me and grinned, and rode away without a word. That was too much for my sergeant. He grabbed me by the shoulder. Have you gone mad, he said. Are you out of your tiny little mind? I shook my head. We were screwed anyway, I said. We were at the very furthest extent of our supply line—I, a mere civilian, could see that clearly, whereas the general and his staff appeared not to have noticed. But what the hell. Any day now, they were going to launch a big attack, and we’d all be killed. This way, however, we stood a chance; not me, naturally, because they would choose the best fighter they’d got as their champion, and he’d go right through me in three seconds flat. Everyone else, however, would be allowed to surrender calmly and peacefully, and then it’d be up to the Sashan to provide food and water for three hundred men in the middle of the desert, something which our own side seemed incapable of doing.
Just for once, my sergeant didn’t have anything to say. I enjoyed that moment, almost as much as if the heroism and altruism had been genuine. All phoney, of course. I had my own agenda, and they were just accessories, props. I, however, was wallowing in a confluence of two streams of joy. One; I’d saved my men, they’d live when they should’ve died. Two; the enemy champion would kill me, and then at last, I’d finally be rid of her and free.
They chose their man well. A lot of commanders would’ve gone for mere size and bulk, not realising that in a duel, a big man’s at a disadvantage. There’s more of him to move about, so he’s slow, and he’s a bigger target. Instead, they went for a short, lean chap, quick as a snake. I knew as I watched him walk towards me that he knew exactly what he was doing. And so it proved. I came out swinging. He did this delicate little sideways-and-back step, and I looked down and saw that I’d walked straight into his sword point and skewered myself on it.
Didn’t hurt all that much. The world suddenly went quiet, and the edges of my vision began to darken, as though I was falling down a hole. I knew at that point that he’d got me; but he was a professional, the sort who does a thorough, workmanlike job. He took a further half-step back, lifted his arm and cut my head off.
Everything went dark. Then I opened my eyes.
She smiled at me. “It’s all right,” she said. “You’re going to be just fine.”
Over her shoulder I could see the sun. It was directly overhead, whereas when I’d faced the enemy champion, it was considerably further over to the east. So; three, maybe four hours later. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the sand I was lying on was caked brown—my blood, presumably.
“You clown,” she said.
I opened my mouth. No sound came.
“Typical of you,” she went on, “the big, noble gesture. Did you really think you’d be able to win a duel? Anyway, it’s fine. They took your men away in a column. The Sashan look after their prisoners, they’re known for it. They’re going to be all right.”
She honestly believed I gave a damn. That’s love for you.
Things you never knew about witches.
Coming back to life, she explained to me once, isn’t that big a deal. Bringing someone else back, by contrast, is a total pain; which explains, she said, why it’s done so rarely. There’s two stages, apparently. You have to go Upstairs (we’re reverting to our metaphor of the house) and into the Very Bad Room, and you have to find who you’re looking for and persuade them to come back, which they’re always extremely reluctant to do. It can only be done, she told me, if the person really and truly wants to come back—try explaining that to a crowd of grieving relatives; actually, he’d far rather be dead and rid of the lot of you—which only happens when the person has unfinished business here; and that unfinished business, she told me, is always, invariably, love.
Shows how much she knows.
The other part, which you have to do first, is putting the damaged body back together again, to the point where it can once again sustain life. That, she said, is sheer miserable hard work. To do it, you make yourself small—really, really small, so you can crawl down inside veins and arteries and patch them up from the inside, or sew them back together when they’ve been severed; same with the nerves and the skin. It’s days, or weeks, of gruelling hard work, in conditions a coal-miner would find unbearable; time passes in a different way when you’re that size, she said, which is why a month of hard labour inside someone’s veins can be accomplished in an hour of our time, before the body gets too cold to restart. Leave it too long, and nothing can be done, which is why you’ve got to be there, on the spot, and get in as soon as you can after the death.
You wouldn’t do it for any money, she said. You wouldn’t do it for a dear friend, or the man you admire the most, or an uncle or an aunt. Only for love, she said. Only for love.
I scrambled up onto the low wall. The man who’d spotted me left what he was doing and headed for me, yelling, though I couldn’t hear anything for the noise of the saw-blades. I picked my spot and jumped like a diver.
For a moment I thought id’ got it all wrong. I landed on my knee on the nearest blade, and I was sure I’d slide off and be kicked free. But then I felt the saw-blade slice through my leg, and I fell forward, belly-flopped onto three saw-blades running in parallel—
After she brought me back to life on the battlefield, I confess, I loved her; more, I have to say, than I’d have thought possible. To owe someone your life; to know that you left her, and she followed you, and she was there when you needed her most, because she loves you—I realised just how wrong I’d been, running away from the most wonderful thing life could possibly give me. To think, I told her, to think I could’ve died, and never realised. There, she said, it’s all right now. It’s going to be all right for ever.
We robbed the State treasury in Mnasthe; or at least, I did. Let me do this one by myself, I said to her, just to see if I can. I explained that maybe what had gone wrong and made me feel so depressed was this idea that she’d taken over my life—she did everything, provided everything, so long as she was with me I need fear no evil, and that, I conjectured, left me feeling trapped and helpless; so, if I did the robbery myself (with her help, because it’d be impossible to do it alone, but me making the plans and deciding how we’d do it), I’d reassure myself that I was still me, an independent free agent, not just an extension of her. What a good idea, she said, we’ll do that.
I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Hours of quiet observation, miles trudged round and round the city, pages and pages of scrupulous notes, timings, calculations, extrapolated measurements. I went to the library and read books on geometry and trigonometry, so I could figure out the precise height and thickness of the walls, the exact amount of rope I’d need, the weight of the sacks of gold coins I’d have to haul up out of there with my cunningly-modified block and tackle. No magic, I’d insisted; just unaided human effort. We spend two whole days trudging up and down the mountains looking for archers’ root, to make the knockout potion we were going to dribble, drop by drop, down a piece of string dangled from the skylight into the nightwatchman’s beer. The closer we got to the big day, the more improbable contingencies I came up with for us to take into account and guard against. What if there’s a dog? We’d seen no sign of one, but I went out and bought an oilskin bag to put the slab of raw liver spiked with archers’ root in. I kept telling myself how much I was enjoying it all; the challenge, the uncertainty, the pleasure of the two of us working side by side, not witch and familiar but two equal human beings. I might be a mere mortal, I told her, but I’m smart; who else would have thought to cut the soles off a perfectly good pair of boots and sew them back on the wrong way round, so that any footprints I left in the mud would appear to be going the other way?
It goes without saying, I made a total pig’s ear of it. I climbed up onto the roof, dribbled the sleepy stuff into the guard’s beer, waited till he fell asleep, climbed down, got the keys off his belt, opened the vault door, started filling sacks; what I hadn’t taken into account was that the open skylight funneled in a draught that blew the vault door shut. I’d left the key in the lock, on the outside. I was shut in.
I didn’t have to wait till morning. Three or four hours later, the door opened and in came a half-platoon of kettlehats, with drawn swords. I gave them a big, sheepish grin.
She got me out, of course. She made an invisible hole in the prison wall, and another in the outside wall of my cell. I remember staggering out into the corridor and looking all round for her, until I felt a nip on the back of my neck. “Which way?” I said. A slight delay, then something bit my left ear. I went left. Out of there in two minutes flat, stepping over the bodies of five stunned guards. I’m not fit to be let out without a nanny.
I said to her, “I think I’ve had enough of the stealing business. Let’s do something else.”
“Fine,” she said, and poured me a drink. “Let’s do something else.”
“Fine,” I said. “What?”
So we tried philanthropy.
We had this enormous stash of money. Previously we’d cleaned out most of the banks, major mecantiles and revenue offices in Carmandua, North Piria, Molossene and the Espide Confederacy. It was far too much to take around with us—a dozen big iron-ore carts, each drawn by six horses—so we sank it into the side of a mountain in Rhouna Penaul, quite safe, you’d have had to chip away twenty feet of granite to get to it. She just closed her eyes and muttered something. It’s so easy for some people; like being born rich, I guess.
“There’s two ways we can go about doing this,” I remember telling her. “We can just stand on a street corner and hand out money, or we can use this lot to change the way things are done, make a real difference.”
She looked at me, shrugged. “All right,” she said. “What do you want to do?”
I started explaining to her about the Republic. Once upon a time, I told her, there was a small city, ruled by kings. But the city grew strong and came to dominate its neighbours, tribute and taxes flowed in to the Exchequer, and the kings took that money and spent it on stupid luxuries, gorgeous palaces, pensions and monopolies for their favourites, while the poor starved. Then came along a man called Victorinus, a nobleman from an ancient family. He started saying that the way things were done was all wrong. The wealth that the hard-working people created and the brave soldiers took from the conquered provinces should be shared equally among the citizens, and hereditary monarchy was idiotic, the king should be elected by the people. The king tried to have him strung up, but the people wouldn’t allow it; instead, they chased out the king and made Victorinus their leader. The king raised an army of mercenaries, but the people’s army slaughtered them like sheep. The Republic was born. And then (I told her) it changed. Slowly, gradually, without anyone noticing; and anyway, most of the time the people were looking the other way, watching the invincible armies of the Republic conquering the known world—mercy to those who submit, but grind down the warlike with war,as the poet so charmingly puts it. There was always plenty to watch and feel good about, but meanwhile—well, you know the saying, how all women eventually end up turning into their own mothers. Same with the Republic. Instead of the king there was the Council of Ten; once you’d said that, you’d said everything.
She heard me out, then nodded. “Right,” she said. “What’s that got to do with us?”
“We can change all that,” I said. “We can put it all right again. With the money, and your powers, we can be Victorinus all over again. Overthrow the Republic. Stick the heads of the Ten up on pikes and set the people free. I understand now,” I said, “it’s actually starting to make some sense, that’s why I met you.”
She had this odd sort of smile on her face. “Any minute now,” she said, “you’re going to use the word Destiny.”
I glowered at her. “And why not?” I said. “I mean, just ask yourself; why was I born into the upper crust, when all my instincts are straight in off the street? But that’s just what Victorinus was like, the greatest man who ever lived. Now, God knows I’m not like him, brave and noble and wise, but that’s why I’ve got you. There’s a purpose to it, there has to be. And I’m so stupid, it’s taken me all this time to realise.”
She was quiet for a while, thinking. Then; “All right,” she said.
I gave her a huge smile. “I love you,” I said.
“I love you too,” she said. But my mind was on other things.
So; a boy and a girl, very much in love, decide to overthrow the State. How do they go about it?
“We’ve got to think this through carefully,” I said. We were in bed, looking out through an open window over Beloisa Bay. The sun was rising; the sea was purple and the sky was dark blue and red.
“Of course,” she said. I got the impression she wasn’t really interested.
“The people,” I went on, “are stupid. The trouble with them is, they don’t know when they’re unhappy. You can bully them and starve them and cheat them out of their land and send their sons off to die in the desert, and they just sit there and take it.” I leaned across her and picked a grape off the bunch. “That’s where all the revolutions of the past have come unstuck,” I went on, “that’s where my father went wrong. He thought it was just a case of bribing a few senior officers in the palace guard. Never occurred to him that the Council of Ten had far more money than he did and could match any offer he could make out of petty cash. No, you’ve got to start with the people.”
She nodded. “You’ve got to make them unhappy,” she said.
She was being a bit dim. “They are unhappy,” I said. “You’ve got to make them realise it.”
“Oh I see.” She yawned. “Would you like to go for a swim later?”
“I don’t know, I’ll see. And then,” I went on, “it’s not enough for them to know they’re unhappy, there’s got to be a catalyst, a spark, a moment of no return. There’s got to be one specific thing. Like the arrest of the four priests in Semnia Brevis, or the simony scandal in Beal Defoir. Something to bring them out on the streets. Otherwise, they’ll just stay at home and moan to each other.”
“All right,” she said. “That shouldn’t be too difficult.”
I took another grape. Very good grapes; imported. “And of course you do need the army on your side, no question about it,” I went on. “Not just a hatful of colonels, you need the captains and the junior officers as well. And you’ll only get them if they’re really angry about something.”
I thought about the precedents. “In Joiceau it was a massacre of civilians,” I said. “When the Sashan threw out the Third Dynasty, it was because the emperor had ordered the army to kill all the women and children in Ap’ Ereme. It’s always a sort of gut feeling of revulsion, like, we can’t possibly do this; otherwise, they just knuckle under and obey orders, even when they know it’s wrong.”
“I get you,” she said. “You really do have to think of everything, don’t you?”
I nodded. “You’ve got to have a sort of vicious spiral,” I said, “where everything the government does to stay in power turns against them. They try appeasement, it just makes the people demand more. They try force, that pisses off the junior officers. That’s what I mean about the point of no return. Some really terrible thing.That’s when it becomes inevitable, and nothing anyone does can stop it.”
“And that’s what we need to think up,” she said. “I see.”
At that point there was a knock on the door, the maid with breakfast. Then we went for a swim, the sea was calm and warm, and then we went back to the inn and made love. I was still thinking things over, trying to create the shape of a successful rebellion in my subconscious mind. She didn’t bring the subject up again, so I assumed she was happy to leave the strategic planning to me.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “It’ll be something we can do together.”
Now I have to confess, I’m not a morning person as a rule. Qualify that; dawn is fine by me so long as I’ve been up all night. But waking to see Her rosy fingers spreading across a dark blue sky is my idea of a total drag.
So, when she shook me awake and through the open window I saw blue and pink, I mumbled, “Leave me alone. Go back to sleep.”
She stabbed me in the ribs with two fingers. That got the job done. “What?” I whined.
“Get up,” she said, “quickly. We’ve got to go.”
Now that was a sentiment I could relate to. A lot of people, many of them early-morning women, have said that to me, invariably with good reason—bailiffs, law enforcement officers, husbands. A heartbeat later, I was out of bed and fumbling for my shoes. “What?” I said. “What’s the matter?”
Even so; I was wondering what it could be. We hadn’t robbed anyone since we’d been in Beloisa, we weren’t known to the authorities, and she didn’t have a husband. She threw me my coat and I dragged it on. She was holding the door open for me.
“What?” I insisted. She pointed. At the window.
For a moment I couldn’t see anything. Then it hit me, and my heart stopped. The sea was in the wrong place. Instead of being down where it usually was, it was right up high. It wasn’t the sea, it was a huge, enormous wave, and it was heading straight at us.
I turned to her. I think what I wanted to say was, it’s no good, we can’t outrun that. But no words came out, just a pathetic sort of a squeal; pig-language, in which during moments of stress I am remarkably fluent. She didn’t speak either; she grabbed me by the arm and said something I didn’t quite catch, and suddenly we were somewhere else.
Historians have a lot to say about the freak tidal wave that overwhelmed Beloisa on the 15th Aulularia AUC 667. It was that, they claim, that triggered the extraordinary events that were to follow. The destruction of the third largest city in the Empire—50,000 dead, a quarter of a million homeless and destitute—was significant enough; more momentous still was the fact that with Beloisa ruined and out of commission, the vast quantities of grain and other commodities required to feed the citizens of the capital had to travel an additional six hundred miles, a hundred of those by road. Quite simply, it couldn’t be done. Prices in Cornmarket doubled, quadrupled in a week; angry crowds were driven out of Victorinus Square by the palace guards, fell on the six State granaries and broke into them, only to find them empty, because the Grain Commissioners—so the rumour quickly spread—had been using the funds to play the commodities markets instead of maintaining the emergency supply, as they were legally mandated to do. The rumour was not, in fact, true; the granaries were empty because the Commissioners were playing brinkmanship with the grain cartels over a proposed price increase; explaining this to the people only made them angrier, if anything. Questions were asked about the huge sums of money that should’ve been spent on building the new road from Helmyra to the City, along which the rerouted grain shipments should’ve been travelling, thereby cutting three days off the transit time. Where had the money gone? The government hedged. The fact was, it didn’t have the money, because of the overspend on the Pancorian war, and had refused to countenance increased taxes because of the brittle state of the general economy. But they daren’t say that, and so said nothing, and their silence led the people to draw their own conclusions.
Just when the Council of Ten reckoned things couldn’t get any worse, a remarkable thing happened, an event for which no credible explanation has been advanced to this day. One Favorian, a distant descendant of Victorinus, had a dream; his ancestor appeared to him and told him to go to a cave in the mountains near Plesi, where he would find a great treasure; this is my legacy, the ghost told him, put aside by me against the day when my people will need it the most; use it well. So strong was the impression that the dream made on him that Favorian went to the cave; he found a floor-to-roof stack of wooden chests, each one crammed with gold and silver coins. He managed to drag a small chest onto his chaise all by himself and drove back to the City. In Victorinus Square, which had been reoccupied by the mob, he announced his discovery, told them about his dream and produced the chest; the effect can easily be imagined. Amid unprecedented scenes, the hapless Favorian was carried shoulder-high to the Council Chamber (the Ten had sensible evacuated it a few days earlier) and enthroned on Victorinus’ throne, where he was hailed as a reincarnation of his glorious forebear. The Ten, meanwhile, had sent well over half of the palace guard to the cave to secure the treasure. Surviving records indicate that they had only the best of motives and fully intended to use the windfall to relieve the crisis. To the people in the Square, however, there could only be one interpretation. Victorinus had sent them his legacy to save them from starvation, and the Ten were trying to steal it for themselves.
Had the Ten not sent quite so many of their few remaining loyal soldiers out of the City at that particular moment, the situation might possibly have been contained. As it was, a mere five thousand soldiers, no matter how dedicated and well-trained, stood no chance against the fury of the urban mob. They fought to the last man, in the very best traditions of their regiment, and took an estimated thirty thousand citizens with them, but it was all over within the hour. The Ten were caught trying to sneak out of the City through the sewers; within minutes, their heads were on pikes above the triumphal arch in the Square, and the wretched Favorian, officially renamed Victorinus II, was installed as First Citizen in a makeshift but hugely emotional coronation in the Blue Spire temple.
Piece of cake.
You’re mad, I told her, you’re completely insane; it’s the only possible explanation. You just slaughtered a quarter of a million people—
She gazed at me blankly. “You said. You wanted.”
“Me?” I wanted to hit her. “Don’t you dare blame any of this on me. I wanted to help people.”
“Yes,” she said patiently. “But you said. People are too stupid. You’ve got to make them angry.”
Later, I thought about that. Too stupid. Got to be angry. Yes, that was me, all right.
By that point, we’d lapsed into bitter silence. I realise now how deeply hurt she must’ve felt, after all she’d done, to make my dream come true. You should have told me first, was one of the things I’d hurled at her, and when she said, “But I wanted it to be a surprise,” I actually thought she was trying to be funny.
At that time we were still at Sulimbesia, which is where she’d magicked us to on our way out of Beloisa. It was relatively safe there in the mountains; as soon as the news broke, the canton authorities quite sensibly closed the passes so nobody could enter or leave, though of course that wouldn’t have hindered us for a moment. But I didn’t want to go. Right then, it didn’t really matter to me where I was. So many deaths, on my conscience; I did the maths, which disproved my original belief that I was the worst person in history—that honour goes to Philocarpus, responsible for over a million deaths in the Great Social War, with Eusippa a close runner-up at nine hundred thousand (you’ll recall that he deliberately introduced the plague into Meseura); I was way back, about twelfth or thirteenth, but in distinguished company nevertheless. I’d have killed myself, if I thought she’d have let me. I’d have killed her, but what would’ve been the point?
Hence the clever idea about killing her and then getting hung for it. A lovely plan. I knew it took her about forty-eight hours to come back from the dead. So; kill her, then immediately confess and get myself hung (in Breunis, where summary justice is very summary indeed); by the time she came to life again and realised what I was up to, my body would’ve been cold for so long, even she wouldn’t be able to revive me. It nearly worked. Ah well.
The revised plan, entirely based on the saw-mills of Kuvass City, was rather more hopeful. Those saw-blades wouldn’t just kill me, they’d shred me into little scraps of mincemeat. There was no way, I felt sure, that she’d be able to put me back together again after that.
I underestimated her. I always do
One of the first things I deduced about her is that she’s not exactly a reliable source. However, there are some things she has no reason to lie about, though I suspect she doesn’t always need a reason. This, then, for what it’s worth, is what she told me.
Her father worked in a tannery—you see? Why would anyone make that up?—in the city of Aracho. Don’t bother looking for it on a map. There’s a low hill there now, and from time to time, when they plough, they turn up bits of pottery and fragments of bone. At one stage, the Arachenes had a small empire in the southern region of what’s now the Vesani Republic; but they came off a bad second in some war, and that was the end of them. There aren’t any written records because (she says) writing hadn’t been invented then. Well. All women lie about their age, but usually the other way around.
They couldn’t read and write, but they could cure leather, and the tannery was quite a substantial concern; a dozen men worked there, and fresh hides came in on carts from miles around. Apparently the Arachenes went in for large families. She told me she had four brothers and two sisters, and that none of them died in childhood. She was the second youngest. When she was born, her eldest brother was already out to work, in the slate quarries. They weren’t well off, but she says she can’t remember them ever going short of anything. She loved all her family, but her absolute favourite was the second eldest son. His name was Taraxin, and he was a head taller than any of the others. At fourteen, he could lift and carry as much as his father, and he was wonderfully clever with his hands. His father reckoned there’d be no trouble getting him apprenticed, to a carpenter or maybe even a bronzesmith; a real step up in the world for all of them. All in all, the impression she gave was of a loving, happy home and a future full of promise and hope.
All that changed when her mother murdered her father.
He died quite suddenly, when she was seven years old. She remembered her mother in tears and her brothers being unusually quiet; and then a neighbour came in and went away, and some time later the magistrate arrived, with a dozen soldiers. The neighbour, she learned later, had come to see if there was anything she could do to help; she happened to notice flecks of dried white foam at the corners of the dead man’s mouth, and a few crumbs of dried blood in his ears. As luck would have it, the neighbour’s brother had died from eating poison mushrooms many years earlier, so she knew the signs. That worried her, because it wasn’t mushroom season, so how could he have eaten the things by accident? The magistrate searched the house and found dried mushrooms in a small pottery jar, hidden behind the water-butt in the yard behind the house. The jar had been carefully sealed with wax, and the seal was broken.
Her mother admitted what she’d done almost immediately. It had all been for the children, she said. Her husband had been a good man, in his way, but he was never going to amount to anything, he had no ambition, he was perfectly content to go on working in the tannery all his life—which wouldn’t be very long, because tanners die young, and then she’d have been left a widow, and how would she have coped then? But she was still fairly young; if her husband died now, she’d have a good chance of marrying again, someone with prospects, who could give the children a better life; the tannery foreman admired her, she could tell, but he was far too honourable to do anything about it while her husband was alive. She’d collected the mushrooms in the autumn, meaning to kill him then, but not long after he’d gone down with a bad fever. It seemed quite likely that he’d die of it, which would save her the risk and worry of killing him. She’d dried the mushrooms, just in case he got better, and hid them. In time he recovered from the fever; in the meantime, she confessed, she rather lost her nerve, and several times came close to throwing the mushrooms away and forgetting the whole idea. But then her eldest boy started work in the slate quarries, and it upset her to see him come home each night dirty and exhausted, coughing from the dust; if she married the tannery foreman, or the factor at the corn chandlery, who seemed quite taken with her, there was every chance that either of them would be able to find good positions for all her sons, and suitable husbands for the girls as well. So she cooked up about half the mushrooms into soup, on a day when all the children were out of the house; she only pretended to eat her portion, and then threw it away.
In due course the case came up before the Prince, who had recently succeeded his father. The Prince was a fine, idealistic young man, much given to the society of philosophers and priests. Above all, he had a passion for truth and justice—the twin sisters of God, he called them, without whom nothing good could survive in this world. He made a point of hearing all the evidence and interviewing everybody involved, including the dead man’s only surviving relative, a sister. She, of course, was heartbroken, having been devoted to her brother. He asked the accused several times if she had anything to say in her defence; all she came up with was the same basic facts, and her insistence that she’d done it for the children, not herself. The prince, visibly distressed, found her guilty and sentenced her to death.
After that, things got very bad. The house they all lived in belonged to the tannery, so they had to leave. Her eldest brother lost his job in the slate-mines, because nobody wanted to work with a murderer’s son. They ended up wandering the streets, sleeping where they could and begging, until they were arrested for vagrancy. The Prince had strong views on begging, which he maintained was damaging to the moral health of the nation. He sympathised (he told them), particularly since they were orphans, and their misfortunes were patently not their fault; the law, however, was the law, and every misguided act of mercy served to undermine the principles of law and justice that elevated humanity above the level of wild animals. Accordingly, he had no option but to commit them to the care of the superintendent of public works, who would find work for them on some project conducive to the general welfare of the community.
What that meant in practice was working on the aqueduct. It’s all gone now, of course, she told me, not a trace remaining, but in its day it was a wonderful sight to behold, a slender arch spanning an impossible gap between two mountains, a days’ walk from the city. It had been the special dream of the Prince’s father to bring clean water to the city, where hundreds died every year from drinking the foul water from the wells. He had started the work, and his son devoted all his energy and resources to completing it. When it was eventually finished, thirty years later, there was free running water in fountains on every street corner, and the dry, sandy plain to the south-east of the city was turned into a wide expanse of market gardens, supplying the citizens with cheap fresh vegetables.
Building the aqueduct was a daunting task. To get the inclines right, so that water would flow, the whole of the top of the nearer of the two mountains had to be cut away. The stone for the aqueduct itself had to be cut in quarries fifty miles away, since the local material was too soft for the purpose. It proved impossible to build carts strong enough to carry the blocks from the quarry to the site, so the Prince’s engineers built a road, perfectly flat and smooth, along which the blocks could be dragged on rollers. To get the blocks to move at all, the road had to be greased with tallow, but this meant that oxen couldn’t get a foothold; the blocks had therefore to be dragged by men and women, with children walking in front of them smearing tallow on the compressed clay. Once the stone had reached the site, it had to be lifted into position on giant cranes, then eased precisely into place with levers. At any one time there were at least fifty thousand people working on the project, often more. About half of these were prisoners of war, captured by the Prince’s armies in his wars with his neighbours. The rest were poor citizens. In the inscription that the Prince had cut into the lintel of his tomb, he made a point of mentioning that during his reign, there was no unemployment, no beggars, no hungry children in the streets; there was work for everyone, regardless of age or infirmity. To pay for the aqueduct, the Prince was forced to conquer the other smaller cities on the edge of the western plain; the tribute and the prisoners taken in battle made the whole thing possible, and the Prince was at pains to acknowledge the contribution they’d made in his inscription; it was, he said, only fair that their sacrifice should be properly recognised.
To begin with, she told me, she and her family worked in the quarry. This was mostly because the eldest boy had had experience of quarry work, and experienced men were at a premium; most of the workers didn’t know what to do, which made things very inefficient and dangerous. Because iron hadn’t been discovered back then, they had to cut and shape the blocks with stone tools. It was miserable work, and they were forever cutting themselves with the sharp splinters of rock that flew off as they pounded away the waste, flake by flake. Her elder sister lost an eye, and the middle brother had a cut that turned bad, and he died of blood poisoning. They always had enough to eat—the Prince was particular about that—and at night they slept in tents, with watchmen to keep away the wolves.
They’d been in the quarries for just over a year when the eldest son was conscripted into the army. The war with the Clastanes wasn’t going all that well, so the call-up age was lowered to seventeen. He was quite happy to go, figuring that soldiering had to be better than quarry work; in the event he did quite well, being promoted to corporal and then sergeant, before he died of camp fever at the siege of Clasta City, shortly before it finally fell. Since he had been the experienced quarryman in the family, the rest of them were no longer eligible for quarry work and were reassigned to the transportation division.
The transfer had its benefits. For the two girls, smearing tallow was a good deal less arduous than chipping stone. The brother, her beloved Taraxin, was assigned to a dragging team mostly made up of women and old men. He was big and strong, and although the work was exhausting, he was glad to be away from the dust and the flying splinters, and the terrible dull ache in the hands and shoulders that comes from hammering rock all day long. The food wasn’t quite as plentiful or good, but there was plenty of fresh water when they stopped to ford a river—the water at the quarry was always full of dust; it was like drinking mud, she told me. They worked on transportation for about six months. Then her sister, the half-blind girl, slipped on the greasy track and fell down just as a stone broke loose on a steep slope. She was crushed flat, every bone in her body broken, and died instantly.
A few days later, she had a long talk with her brother, when everyone else was asleep. As far as he was concerned, their sister’s death was the last straw. So far, he said, they’d done exactly what they’d been told, gone along with the decisions of their elders and betters, and where had it left them? Two brothers and a sister dead, their mother hanged, their father murdered. If they stayed on the aqueduct, he was sure they wouldn’t last much longer either. It struck him as odd, he said, how all this could have happened. Their parents, after all, had been good people and had loved them; their mother had loved them too much, as it turned out, but she’d only been thinking of them, which is what mothers do. He supposed the Prince had been right to hang her, since she’d admitted killing their father, and for all he knew, if they hadn’t been sent to work on the aqueduct they might well all have starved to death a long time ago. All along, he didn’t deny it, everyone had been trying to do right by them, obeying the law and doing what was fair and just. Maybe it was simply bad luck that things had turned out so badly; he didn’t know, he wasn’t one of the Prince’s wise men, who knew all about that sort of thing. But from now on, Taraxin said, he wasn’t going to concern himself too much with what was right, just or fair. All he was interested in was keeping the two of them alive for as long as possible. If they stayed on the aqueduct, he had an idea that wouldn’t be very long. So, he said, he thought they should leave, go somewhere else, try something different. He had no idea where or what. Probably they’d have to make it up as they went along, just the two of them against the whole world. But, the way he saw it, they didn’t exactly have a lot to lose. So; how about it?
She was nine years old. Taraxin was fifteen. They had what was left of the clothes the Supervisors of the poor had issued them with, and Taraxin had a small hammer he’d found beside the road and never got around to handing in to the overseers. She remembered him looking at her oddly and saying; Now, what can we do to feed ourselves with just a hammer?
She remembered their first victim very clearly, she told me. After they left the transportation camp, they walked for two days across the desert until they came to a small group of houses built where the road crossed a small stream running down out of the mountains. There was an inn—not what we’d think of as an inn nowadays, she said, it was a place where caravans of travelling merchants bartered a little of what they were carrying in return for food, shelter and fodder for their animals. Most of the traffic was big parties of men and oxen, but there were a few small-time traders, men on their own, staggering along under a huge bale of flax or a big jar of wine or butter, and the occasional hunter, walking to and from the city with furs, skins and feathers. The man they killed—they didn’t mean to, but it was Taraxin’s maiden effort and he didn’t know how hard to hit—was a bird-catcher. He’d been snaring finches with limed sticks in the foothills of the mountain, and had a bale stuffed full of blue and yellow feathers, the sort that fine ladies in town liked to decorate their hats with. They hadn’t realised that, of course. They’d been hiding in the ditch beside the road for most of the day, and only big caravans had gone past, no single men on their own. The bird-catcher had been the first, and they’d assumed that the huge fat bag he was carrying on his head was flour or something like that. When they pulled it open and found nothing but feathers, they were heartbroken.
Still; you learn from your mistakes, as their mother used to say, and they made sure the next man was carrying something they could eat. Butter, as it turned out. He had a jar almost as tall as he was, sort of carrot-shaped, with ropes rigged through the handles to make it easier to carry. Taraxin didn’t hit quite so hard this time, and the butter-man was still breathing when they left him, carrying the jar between them, since it was too heavy for Taraxin to lift on his own. They didn’t stop till they found a cave in the mountainside. Then they gorged themselves on white salted butter until they couldn’t bear to eat another handful.
There was still quite a lot left, and they didn’t want to waste it, that would be sinful. Taraxin said they should carry it to the nearest town and sell it. She was afraid; someone might recognise the jar, she thought, or what if the man had recovered and made it to the town, and told everyone there that he’d been robbed on the road? Taraxin laughed at her. One jar of butter’s very much like another, he said. If they were stopped and questioned, all they’d have to say was that they’d found it abandoned beside the road.
Where they’d gone wrong, the jailer explained to her later, was in not killing the man they robbed. The jailer was a kind man at heart; he had a daughter about the same age as her, and he thought it was a shame that she was to be hung in the morning, even if she was guilty of robbery and murder. It was, he told her, a mistake so many novices made. Just silly sentimentality, he said. After all, the penalties for murder and robbery with violence were the same; dead men tell no tales, whereas merely wounded ones make excellent witnesses for the prosecution. Never say die, though, he urged her. There was always the chance of a last-minute reprieve, though the new Prince didn’t go in for them much, not like his father. Still, the jailer said, that’s progress for you.
I don’t know how she managed to sleep that night; I don’t usually get much sleep in condemned cells, believe me. But I guess if it’s your first time, and you’re worn out with fear and worry, I can see how it’s possible. Anyway, she fell asleep, and she had a dream.
She remembers asking; Are you my mother?
Not in the sense you mean, the dream said. I look like her because you want me to. But your mother was a stupid woman. I can be your new mother. I’m not stupid.
She said; what would be the point? They’re going to hang me in the morning.
The dream smiled. Once upon a time, she said, there was a blind girl. One day her true mother came to her and said, look at the pretty flowers. I can’t, the girl said, I’m blind. No, said her true mother, your eyes are shut. Open them. And the girl did, and she saw the flowers. They can only hang you if you let them, and even if they do, it won’t matter. They can’t kill you.
She remembered thinking; that doesn’t make sense. But she asked the dream; so she wasn’t blind after all?
No, said the dream, because her true mother taught her to open her eyes. I’m your true mother. I can teach you lots of things.
But the dream shook her head. That’s not important, she said. You’ll come to understand that. When you can do anything, details don’t matter. What matters is that you accept me as your true mother.
All right, she remembers saying. I accept you. Now what?
The dream laughed. Say it again.
I accept you, she said.
And again. You have to say it three times.
I accept you, she said. All right?
The dream sighed happily. Yes, she said, everything is now all right. I bestow upon you, and you agree to accept, the power of the witches, to have and to use, for ever and ever. Now, the dream went on briskly, do you know what that means?
I assumed you didn’t, said the dream. But that doesn’t matter, it’s done now. Think about your life.
I’d rather not, she remembers saying. What’s this power you keep talking about?
Think, said the dream, about your life. All your life, you and everyone around you, have tried to do the right thing, from your mother to the Prince. Is that right?
She shrugged. I guess so.
All your family’s dead. They killed your whole family. In the morning, they’re going to kill you. Now, would you say that was fair, or just? Was it the right thing?
She thought about that. I don’t know, she said. No, I don’t think it was.
I don’t either, said the dream. So, good intentions made bad things happen. Now then, what happened when you stole the butter? What was the first thing you did?
We ate it.
The dream nodded. You were hungry. You ate the butter. Was that good?
She remembers saying; I suppose so, yes. We were hungry, then we weren’t. That was good.
Ah, said the dream, and she remembers thinking; I said the right thing. Now then, said the dream, did you intend to steal the butter? Did you intend to hit the butter-man and hurt him?
So, said the dream, from a bad intention a good thing came about. You ate the butter. If you hadn’t, you’d probably have died. From an evil intention came forth good.
Yes, but—She stopped. She was confused. What does all that mean?
It means, said the dream, that you don’t have to die tomorrow. Name me a good thing. Name me the best thing.
She remembers thinking. She remembers remembering what she’d been taught, when she was a little girl. Love, she said. Love is the best thing.
I see, said the dream. Have you ever loved anyone?
Of course, she said. My family. My mother and father, my sister, my brothers. Taraxin. Of course.
Yes, said the dream. And how did you feel when they all died?
Very bad, she said. Very, very bad.
Of course, said the dream. Love, the best thing, made you feel very, very bad. It always has. Love is in fact the worst thing, the very worst thing, because it can hurt us more than anything else; more than fire or a broken arm or childbirth. Love is worse than death, because it carries on hurting the living. Love is the worst thing of all, because we always lose the people we love, and it hurts so very much. Is that true?
Yes, she said. Yes, that’s true.
But the dream smiled at her. I have given you, the dream said, the power of the witches. No-one you love need ever die again. Now then, she went on, isn’t that a good thing?
If it’s true.
It’s true, the dream said. I wouldn’t lie to you, I’m your true mother. You have the power of the witches. The power is the only good thing. The only good thing is being able to do whatever you want. Everything else is bad, everything else is hurtful and evil. Only the power of the witches is good. Good is being able to do everything you want. Do you understand me?
If it’s true.
Oh, you’re hopeless, said the dream; and then she woke up.
She remembers thinking; it was only a dream. That made her feel sad. She thought, I wish it hadn’t just been a dream. I wish I could make that door fly open, so I could walk out of here and be free.
The door flew open.
She remembers staring at it for a while, then thinking; I must still be asleep. But she got up and went to the door, peered round it. The corridor outside was empty. She thought; I can’t just walk out, I’m not supposed to, it’s not allowed. Then she remembered what the dream had told her. She walked out of the cell and down the corridor until she came to another door. She smiled at it, and it opened.
On the other side of the door was a jailer. He swung round and stared at her. She thought; I hate the jailers, they keep people locked up and take them to be hanged. I wish this man’s head would burst, like a big white spot when you squeeze it. And the jailer’s head burst, and his brains splashed on the wall, and she walked on past him.
I must find Taraxin, she thought. At first she didn’t know where to look; then a picture formed in her mind, and suddenly she wasn’t in the corridor any more, she was outside, in the square. She looked up at the great arch that led out into the main street of the city, and saw Taraxin’s head, stuck on a rusty iron spike. His mouth and eyes were open and he looked terrified. She stared at it for a while, then walked under the arch and out into the street.
That night she slept in a warm bed in an inn. The dream came to her. Well? said the dream.
You lied to me, she remembers saying. Taraxin’s dead. I loved him best of all. You said nobody I loved would ever die.
He was dead already, the dream said. But from now on, it’ll be different. You have the power of the witches, which is the only good thing. From now on, nobody you love will ever die.
She smiled at the dream. I’m still asleep, aren’t I, she said. Soon I’ll wake up and be back in prison.
The dream said; maybe. But if so, the trick is not to wake up.
She frowned. That sounds very clever, she said, but I’m not sure if it means anything.
The dream looked at her. Let’s assume, she said, that the power of the witches is only a dream. In dreams, things happen that can’t possibly happen, like magic. In dreams, the people we love who have died can come back to us. In dreams, we can do whatever we want. But the power of the witches is no dream, it’s real.
Is it? Is it really?
Oh yes. Provided you don’t wake up.
And then (she told me) she woke up. And, to make absolutely sure, she made the bed lift off the floor and fly around the room.
One thing, while I think of it. After the revolution, when the Republic was overthrown and Victorinus II established the Directorate, they set up a Truth & Justice Commission to grant posthumous pardons to all the so-called traitors who’d been executed over the last 300 years or so. My poor father, God rest him, was pardoned and declared a Hero of the People, and there’s a small statue tucked away in the north-eastern corner of the Shambles. It doesn’t look a bit like him, needless to say.
I remember one night, back when we were still talking to each other. We’d just stolen HS320,000 from the Sashan provincial treasury in Ormiget. There was so much gold bullion in our tiny room next to the stables in the inn that we were having to perch on the edge of the washstand.
“She was wrong,” I told her. “It can’t just be a dream, because I’m in it, and I know I’m awake.”
She shrugged. “Maybe it’s a shared dream.”
“There’s no such thing.”
“True,” she conceded. “But there’s no such thing as magic, either.”
I wasn’t having that. “If it’s a dream,” I said, “then it’s my dream, and you’re not really real. And that would make you the girl of my dreams. Which you are,” I added politely. “But I think you’re real.”
“Thank you so much.”
“In which case,” I concluded triumphantly, “it’s not a dream. In which case,” I went on, “she was wrong. She was misleading you.”
She shook her head. “She wouldn’t do that,” she said. “She’s my true mother.”
Circular argument. “Have you seen her since?” I asked.
She sighed. “No,” she said. “Well, once. At least, I’m not sure. I did see her, but I think I was dreaming. A real dream,” she explained, “rather than a—well, a vision.”
I ate a honey-cake. Sashan cuisine isn’t really my thing, but I do love their honey-cakes. “She’s still wrong,” I said.
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”
“She’s wrong,” I maintained, “when she says there’s no good or evil, just doing what you want. That’s been comprehensively disproved, loads of times. The third book of Saloninus’ Contradictions—”
She yawned. “It’s not doing what you want,” she said, “it’s being able to do what you want, there’s a difference. And it can’t be disproved, because it’s true. And I met Saloninus once, and he was an idiot.”
I stared at her. “You met Saloninus?”
“The way I see it,” she said, “is, the power of the witches is the—what’s the expression? It’s the exception that proves the rule. The rule applies to everybody except us. The fact that we’re the only exceptions proves that the rule is valid. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“You never told me you met Saloninus.”
I remember opening my eyes. The light hurt, really badly. I thought, ohhell.
She was looking down at me. She looked so terribly sad. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I can’t remember her ever looking more beautiful, even though her eyes were red from crying. “I’m alive,” I said. “Am I all here?”
She nodded. “I really am so sorry,” she said. “I guess I never realised you were so unhappy. I thought—”
“I thought it was just—well, because you weren’t getting what you wanted. I thought, I must not be understanding him right. I’d assumed that what you wanted to do was rob people. You did always say that deep down, you’re a thief.”
I did say that, as it happens.
“So,” she went on, “I thought, if we go around stealing lots of money from the biggest treasuries and banks and places in the whole world, that’ll make him happy. I thought that was what you wanted, that and being young and a beautiful girl and never having to worry about getting caught or getting hurt or dying. I thought that was all you wanted.”
“Did you now.”
She wiped away a tear with her knuckle. I’d never seen her cry before. “Because being able to do anything you want is the only good thing. She said so.”
“What I want,” I said, slowly and gently, “is to be rid of you.”
Then I went out into the street. She didn’t try and stop me. About twenty yards from the inn door, I paused and concentrated on the back of my neck. No bite. Not even an itch.
I walked around for a while, found myself in a wine-shop. I’d had a drink or two, not enough to signify, when I realised someone was staring at me; a fat man with curly white hair, about sixty years old, in an expensive red gown with a fur collar. He couldn’t take his eyes off me.
That rang warning bells, obviously. But I was in the sort of mood where you simply don’t care. I had another drink, then got up and went and joined the fat man. He didn’t lower his eyes or look away.
“Something I can do for you?” I asked.
He was still gazing at me. “Sure,” he said. “Sit down, let me buy you a drink.”
“Got one, thanks,” I said. “Do I know you, or something?”
That made him laugh. “Now that,” he said, “is a bloody good question. On balance, I’m guessing no, you don’t. Question is, do I know you?”
“And I can’t. It’s impossible. Still, it’s the damnedest thing.” He poured himself a small drink of the house white and nibbled at it. As far as I could tell, he was perfectly sober. “You look just like someone I met once,” he said.
“Just like.” He grinned. “So you can’t be him,” he went on, “because that was nearly forty years ago. You’re, what, nineteen?”
I shrugged. “I’m a fairly common type,” I said.
“Like hell.” He narrowed his eyes, as if I was small print on a contract. “Look, since you’re quite obviously not him, I’ll tell you why it matters to me. You see, nearly forty years ago, a kid looking exactly like you nearly killed me.”
“Is that right.”
He nodded. “Oh yes,” he said. “I’m a goldsmith, see, like my dad before me. There’d been a lot of break-ins, so dad and I sat up with swords in cased the thief tried it on at our place. Sure enough, he did. What’s more, the little bastard stuck a knife in me. I nearly died.”
“Nearly,” I said.
“Well, yes. I didn’t die, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here.” He paused. “Take after your father, do you?”
Big shrug. “I wouldn’t know,” I said. “Never met him. My mother only met him once. Strictly a cash transaction.”
“Ah.” The fat man grinned. “Well, then, maybe that explains it,” he said. “No offence. After all, not your fault”
“I suppose not,” I said. “Actually, I’ve always led an entirely blameless life, devoted to helping those less fortunate than myself.”
“Of course you have,” the fat man said. “Anyway, it’s all a long time ago now, and no harm done, as it turned out.” He leaned forward and gave me what I guess he thought was a conspiratorial look. “In actual fact,” he said, “quite the reverse.”
“Damnedest thing,” he said. “I only found out about it many years later,” he went on. “Dad told me a few years before he passed away. Damnedest thing you ever heard, actually.”
“Well.” He paused to sip his wine. “Like I told you, this thief—who may or may not have been your old man, that’s something we’ll never know, I guess—stabbed me. So, they called for the doctors, and they swabbed me out, made sure the wound was clean and all that. Anyhow, while they were prodding and poking about inside my gut with their bits of lambswool on tiny twigs, what did they find? I’ll tell you. A damned great tumour, is what. They’d have said it was totally inoperable, except that the thief’s knife had sliced right through it, cut it out neater than any surgeon could ever have done. And I healed up just fine. If that bugger hadn’t stabbed me, I’d have been dead in a month. Sure as I’m sat here. Now, isn’t that the weirdest thing you ever heard?”
I looked at him for a very long time. “Actually, no,” I said. “But it does come quite close.”
So of course I had to go back to the inn. She was sitting where I’d left her. I don’t think she’d moved at all.
“Can you alter the past?” I said.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried. I don’t think I can. Why, do you want me to?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I sat down beside her on the bed. “Why me?” I asked.
She gave me a blank stare. “I have absolutely no idea,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
I considered my reply. “I’ve just found out,” I said, “that I’ve led an entirely blameless life, devoted to helping those less fortunate than myself.” I grinned weakly. “It came as a surprise, believe me.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
I explained. “So,” I concluded, “I’m not a murderer. I actually saved that man. True, I stole a lot of stuff when I was a student, but I always gave the money to other people, my friends, who reckoned they needed it desperately. Then we stole—actually, you did all the stealing, I was just there most of the time—we stole a lot of stuff, but that was just redistribution of wealth.”
She looked at me. “Really.”
I shrugged. “We haven’t got any of it any more, have we? No, we dumped it or gave it away or spent it; we took it off governments and rich people, and nearly all of it ended up in the hands of the poor. Well,” I amended, “the relatively poor. And yes, I prompted you to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people, but the upshot was that the Ten were overthrown; I don’t know how many deaths Victorinus was responsible for when he established the Republic, but I expect it was a comparable number. And it’s not my fault that the bastards who’re in now are just as bad, might as well blame Victorinus for chucking out the kings. All my life,” I said, “I’ve benefited others, never myself. Now, isn’t that a curious thing?”
She looked away. “It’s like she said,” she told me. “Intentions don’t matter, there’s just the thing itself.”
“You believe that.”
“I’m not that bothered, really. It’s men who think about stuff like that.” Then she looked at me. “I do things for love.”
“Like your mother.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
I took a long, deep breath. “If I wanted to go away without you,” I said, “if that was what I really wanted, would you let me? For love,” I added. “Because you love me.”
She shivered. “She told me I’d never lose anyone I loved, ever again.”
“She lied,” I told her. “You lost me a very long time ago.”
I didn’t leave. For one thing, I didn’t trust her to let me. How would I know if the flea in my hair wasn’t her, or the dog following me in the street, or the bird a thousand feet overhead? At least, while she was human, I knew where she was and had some idea of what she was up to. That’s the point; I’d never know, and everything I ever did could be her, guiding, manipulating. Woudn’t put it past her to land me back in the condemned cell, just so she could get me out again; and I didn’t fancy the thought of what she might do to get me there. When you suddenly discover that you’re blameless and pure as the driven snow, it really cramps your style. Another reason for staying; after all, I had no resources and absolutely no way of earning a living, apart from theft, which no longer appealed to me. I had my own exalted example to live up to now, God help me.
So; I stayed with her out of mere expediency. No, not really. Nothing had changed since I tried to kill myself—try; I succeeded—by throwing myself into the blades of the Kuvass City sawmill; the act, I would suggest of a man who wanted to get rid of his life at all costs rather than make it a bit easier. On balance, I believe it was the apology that did it, those first words when I came round after being resurrected; I’m sorry.
Over the next couple of days, I took stock. I thought a lot about love. I realised, I had no idea what the word stood for. I considered what I understood to be the standard definition, as set out in Saloninus’ Ethics; the state of mind in which the other person is more valuable to you than you are yourself. I tried applying it to her, and I wasn’t sure it fitted. She said she loved me, and happiness was never losing someone you love. By that criterion, the miser loves his gold, to the point where he can’t bring himself to spend it, even when he’s freezing cold and the coal-scuttle’s empty. That’s not love. Tweak the definition; the state of mind in which the other person’s happiness is your paramount concern. Well, that would explain the apology, and thirty-odd years spent robbing provincial State treasuries, in the misguided belief that that was what I liked doing. Taken all in all, I felt that she wasn’t terribly good at love, though that didn’t mean she didn’t love me. Sincere but completely ineffectual. Nobody’s perfect.
Still not a good enough definition. All right, then; love is the state of mind in which the other person is more valuable to you than you are yourself,and their happiness is your paramount concern. I couldn’t help feeling that that was a bit of a compromise, the sort of thing that gets hammered out in committee and passed by a slender majority after a lot of behind-the-scenes horsetrading. Never mind. It would have to do.
Now the hard part, to apply it to myself. It’d be reaching quite a lot to say that I regarded her as more valuable than myself; except that, since I’d done my best to reduce my body to mince in an attempt to frustrate all efforts at bringing me back to life, it seemed fair to assess my value to myself at nil, assuming negative values aren’t allowed. She meant more to me than nought, or minus one. As for the other part; well, I thought, why not? Thirty years of being together is no trivial thing; good, bad or utterly miserable, it has substance, it exists, it can’t just be dissolved by a quick so-long-then and a turning of the back. I thought of some of the arranged marriages I’d observed over the years; they didn’t like each other much to start with and things never got much better after that, but even so, better than being alone. No, bad model. The simple fact was, I hadn’t left her simply because she was unleavable. No matter where I ran to, how I disguised myself, she’d always be there with me. A bit like—Old saying; no matter where you go, you take yourself with you. One mind, one heart, one flesh.
I thought; I’m stuck with her. Even death will not part us. If I devote my life to making her happy, maybe that will resolve the issue in some way, assuming it’s capable of any kind of resolution. Just listen to yourself, I thought, this is crazy. But—
Leave aside the motivations and it was true; I’d lived my life helping others, blameless, keeping nothing for myself, a man to all intents and appearances in love with the human race. Bad intentions and good outcomes, the mirror image of her life before we met; perhaps love is something that has to be worked out cold, like sheet metal, beaten and persuaded into an acceptable shape by countless pecks of the hammer. It’s not bar stock, to be made white-hot in the fire, until it bends, flows, upsets, takes a perfect form, even picks up the marks on the hammer-head. It’s too thin for that, too flimsy and slight to heat red without burning. Or take the other obvious analogy. Wars start in furious, passionate anger, but peace is made slowly and painfully, one concession at a time, each party agreeing to give away things it wants to keep, to do things it doesn’t want to do, the objective being to reach an arrangement of which both parties can eventually, reluctantly say; I can live with that.
And, when you aren’t allowed to die, I can live with that is the most you can hope for.
“So,” she said. “What do you want to do now?”
I sighed. “You haven’t been listening,” I said.
“No, it’s fine, I heard you.” She was frowning. “It’s just—If you don’t like stealing stuff, what do you like?”
That made me smile. “You know what,” I said. “It’s been so long, I really can’t remember. But you’re missing the point. And it’s really quite simple. I want to make you happy.”
“Oh,” she said.
She took me to the top of Mount Carysion.
It’s the highest point in the world, so they say. We used to believe the gods lived there, in vast golden mansions, shrouded in mist. As far as anyone knows, nobody’s ever been there—except her and me, of course. Somehow, I don’t think we count.
I could scarcely breath; I thought I was having some kind of seizure, but she explained (as she conjured up a bubble all round us) that the air on mountaintops is too thin to be any use. All I could see was the tops of clouds. I didn’t say anything, but I guess she figured out what I was thinking from the look on my face. She mumbled something, the sun came out and the clouds melted away, and I could see the whole world.
What does the whole world look like, when you’re so high up that you can see it all in one, as a single thing? Well, to me it looked like a patchwork quilt, of the sort you get in low-class houses. I associate such things with visiting retired servants and poor relations.
“Well?” she said.
“That can all be yours,” she said. “If you want it.”
I looked out over the kingdoms of the Earth. I could see the blue curve of Beloisa Bay, with the mountains behind; beyond them, Selvatia, the steppes of the Mesoge, the Dancing Floor sloping gently down into the Panosaic Sea. I could clearly make out the curved spine of the Avelro peninsular; a little flash of light could easily have been the golden dome of the Archer temple. I turned slowly round and searched until I saw the Needles, towering over Kuvass City. I could see everywhere I’d ever been, everywhere I could ever possibly go. “What would be the point?” I said.
She sighed, and the clouds came swirling back. It was bitter cold. “I think I’d like to go back down now,” I said.
“You told me once,” I said, “you actually met Saloninus once. Is that true?”
She shrugged. “Yes.”
“I think I’d like to meet him.”
She gave me a long, weary look. “Do you really?”
Sigh. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I had every confidence in her; rather more, I suspect, than she had. But, fair play to her, she figured out how to do it. To go back into the past, apparently, you have to fly round the world, west to east, faster than the arrows of the Invincible Sun. I don’t actually believe in the Invincible Sun, but luckily that didn’t seem to be a barrier. I was curious as to what we were going to fly in, but when the time came, she just muttered something and suddenly we were in mid-air. I closed my eyes and started screaming. It didn’t feel like we were moving at all. I’m ashamed to say I wet myself, something I hadn’t done for a very long time.
She was yelling something. I couldn’t make out what it was. She yelled louder. It was “QUIET!”
I opened my eyes. We were exactly where we’d been a moment ago. It hadn’t worked.
“Well,” she said. “Here we are.”
No we aren’t, I started to say; then it occurred to me that we were in Victorinus Square, which hasn’t changed much in four hundred years. The only significant difference is the Senate House, which got burned down and rebuilt. I looked for it. It had a flat roof, not a dome. Oh, I thought.
“Getting here,” she was saying, “was the easy bit. Getting back could be awkward. We may have to go the long way round.”
“What are we doing here?” I asked her. I’d forgotten.
She looked at me. “You wanted to see Saloninus,” she said.
Oh yes, so I did. I couldn’t for the life of me remember why. “Right,” I said. “Let’s do that.”
We started to walk towards the prefecture. “Why are we going this way?” I asked.
She smiled at me. “Because,” she said, “I can absolutely guarantee I know where to find him. Come on.”
The prefecture. I tried to remember. Had there been a ceremony of some sort, the conferring of an honorary degree, investiture as a Knight of the Golden Horseshoe? But they did that sort of thing at the Palace or the Blue Spire. Four hundred years ago, as far as I could recall my history lessons, the prefecture was just the law courts.
“This is fun,” I said. “Are we really going to meet Saloninus? He’s my absolute hero.” She was walking very fast. It was hard to talk and keep up with her at the same time. “I always think, if the God put the human race on trial and said, Show me one man whose life was perfect, or else I’ll send a flood and drown the whole lot of you, we wouldn’t need to worry, we’d just point to Saloninus and the God would be, like, sorry to have bothered you. He must’ve had the most amazing mind.”
“This way,” she said.
She led me down an alleyway. I knew it well; there was a tavern I used to go to, frequented by gamblers and young political types. The back wall of the tavern garden was also the back wall of the old prison. When we got there, I realised the tavern hadn’t been built yet, and the prison was still the new prison, and the walled-up doorway where they used to have a big copper for mulling wine in the winter hadn’t been walled up yet. There were two guards on duty in front of it. For some reason, they fell asleep.
“Oh come on,” I said.
I think it was when Jarnicus was First Aedile, they knocked through all the internal walls in the Old Prison and turned it into this one enormous room, for diplomatic receptions. I went there with my father, when I was about twelve. I remember meeting some old, bald, fat man who was someone important, though I can’t recall his name. Remarkable, the difference a few walls can make.
Prisons, I have to tell you, are no treat to me. “I don’t like this,” I told her, “let’s go back now.” She didn’t seem to hear me. She was muttering directions under her breath; third left, second right, first right, third left. I’m hopeless at that sort of thing. I let her concentrate.
“Three,” she said, “four, five, six.” She stopped. We were standing in front of a solid oak door, in a very dark stone-floored corridor lined with about a hundred identical doors. The smell, rather familiar, turned my stomach; stale piss, boiled cabbage, rust. There was a sort of tidemark of crusted white saltpetre running along the wall about three inches off the ground. Some things never change.
“Surely not,” I said.
She nodded. “Seventeenth Paralia, AUC 277,” she said. “He’s in there, one hundred percent guaranteed. Ready?”
“What’s he in for?”
“Stealing a chicken,” she said, and rested the flat of her hand on the door. There was a plucked-string noise and a loud crack, and the door swung open.
I followed her in. There was a man lying on the stone ledge. He had one hand down the front of his trousers, which he quickly pulled out. He was about sixty years old, short, thin on top, with a straggly pepper-and-salt beard. He stared at her.
“Oh God,” he said. “It’s you.”
“Hello,” she said.
He turned his face to the wall. “Go away,” he said.
I didn’t need to ask. I knew. Saloninus.
“Don’t be like that,” she said. “I’ve come to get you out of here.”
“Please,” Saloninus said to the wall, “don’t bother. Really.”
“If you stay here,” she said, “they’re going to hang you.”
“What?” I said. “For stealing a chicken?”
She glared at me. Saloninus didn’t seem to have heard me. It occurred to me that, as far as he was concerned, I wasn’t there. “So what?” he said. “I don’t care.”
I remembered that four hundred years ago, they still had the death penalty for theft. “Don’t be silly,” she was pleading. “You know I’ll look after you, one way or another. Come on, before the guards do their rounds. Please.”
I vaguely remembered; at the age of fifty-four, Saloninus published his last great alchemical treatise. Nothing more is known for certain, and the rest of his life was supposed to have passed in tranquil retirement. “I wish,” he said, “I wish you’d just leave me alone.”
She turned her head and looked at me. The choice, apparently, was mine. “For God’s sake,” I said, “you can’t just leave him here to die. He’s—”
She nodded very slightly. Then the back wall of the cell collapsed in a cloud of dust.
“Well,” she said, four hundred years and five minutes later, “that’s another wonderful thing you’ve done. You saved Saloninus.”
I was still dizzy from the motionless flight. “He was a chicken-thief.”
“Yes. And you saved him. He’d have died otherwise.”
I couldn’t stand. I had to sit down, on the wet paving-stones. “He was a thief,” I repeated.
“Exactly.” I gave her a baleful stare. “Was that you?”
She shrugged. “It was his nature,” she said. “A lot of it got hushed up, but yes, he was always getting in trouble. He never had very much money, you see.”
“But he wrote the Principia.”
She sat down beside me. “Oh yes,” she said. “In prison, actually. A lot of his books were written in prison. He had nothing else to do.”
She smiled at me. “If you like,” she said, “we can go forward four hundred years. We could go and see your statue.”
I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Probably just as well.
“It’ll be,” she said, and pointed. “Right there,” she said, “where the mail office is. Gilded bronze, by Peracchia. You’ll like his work, he’ll be very good.”
“Statue,” I said.
“Of course. The man who overthrew the Republic.”
I took a long, deep breath. “That was Favorian,” I said. “Victorinus the Second.”
“No,” she said, “it was you. They’ll find out what really happened about ninety years from now, when the Directorate falls and they found the Second Republic. The statue gets built about twenty years after that. I’m afraid they spell your name wrong, but that can’t be helped.”
I looked at her. “Did you love him?” I asked her.
“Who? Oh, you mean Saloninus. Yes,” she said, “very much.”
She turned and looked at me. “I met someone else,” she said.
From that moment on, I realised that I was—what’s the expression? On notice? Sooner or later, I knew, she would find someone else, and that would be that. The thought appalled and terrified me. I was going to lose her. I loved her.
Maybe that’s what love really is, the anticipation of loss. I do know that, quite suddenly, as soon as I’d made that connection, I loved her as never before.
It was, in many ways, an idyllic time. It lasted seventeen years, though they seemed to pass in an instant, as if we were flying, east to west, faster than the arrows of the Invincible Sun; we stayed still, the earth spun furiously around us, like the chuck of a drill. I know for an indisputable fact that I was never happier—knowing that one day I’d lose her, that it would end, and that afterwards I’d be more wretched than I could possibly imagine. I guess you could say it was a good outcome from a bad situation, or good generated by the certainty of misery. The truth is, I neither know nor care about that sort of thing any more. If you’re interested in the finer points of ethical theory, I suggest you read the appropriate passages in Saloninus; that is, if you give a damn about the opinions of a chicken-thief.
Remember the trained cormorants? They catch fish they can never eat; the difference is, their collars are visible. We were watching them, as it happens, leaning against the sea wall at Choris Malestin as the small boats bobbed back in on the evening tide. I don’t think there’s any more beautiful place on earth than Choris, though of course it’s not what it was, not since they built the new jetty. I remember thinking; if only this moment could last for ever. A pretty trite thought, but in my experience, there’s nothing remotely original about love. I distinctly remember that she was eating an apple. I had a book with me—Antigonus of Mezentia on moral imperatives, I think it was; I was supposed to have read it in my first year at the university, but I’d never got round to it—but I hadn’t looked at it fir about half an hour. I was too busy watching the boats, and the cormorants.
“We should go to Baryns,” she said. “Sunrise over the estuary is the most wonderful sight. You’d like it.”
“Love to,” I said. “When?”
“Whenever you like.”
And that, I think, is when she saw him. He was standing up in the stern of a small boat, his head turned back, shouting cheerfully at an old man in the boat behind. He was no more than a boy, eighteen or nineteen. I don’t know; maybe he’d just caught a lot of fish or something. He seemed to radiate happiness, sheer joy. I only caught a glimpse, but it was enough to freeze the image in my mind—I’d have remembered him even if nothing had come of it and I’d never seen him again. I guess he struck me as worthy of note because I no longer believed there could be that much joy in the world.
“You know what I’d like,” she said. I wasn’t looking at her, so I can’t vouch for the expression on her face.
“What?” I said.
“Freshly grilled mackerel in a honey and mustard sauce,” she said.
I laughed. Years since I’d actually tasted anything I ate, and I wasn’t sure whether she needed to eat at all. Bit why not, I thought, if that’s what she wants. “Then we’re definitely in the right place at the right time,” I said.
It was starting to get chilly, and I’d come out in just a tunic. We went and chose our mackerel. I don’t think she made an obvious beeline for the cheerful boy’s boat, but when we arrived at it, she started examining the fish in detail, asking learned questions. See you back at the house, I said to her, and walked away. All I remember thinking about, as I headed back down the promenade, was faint memories of the taste of mackerel.
Two days later, she said, “It’s over.”
I didn’t get what she meant. “What?”
“You and me,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t love you any more. I’ve met someone else, and I’m in love with him.”
Which made no sense, at the time. I knew she wasn’t making a joke, because of the way she’d said it. I think I said something like, you can’t be, you love me, for ever and always. Something really stupid, anyway. She just looked at me and shook her head. “Sorry,” she repeated; and then, “You’d better go away now.”
I had two angels fourteen in the pocket of my light summer coat. I turned and walked out of the house, into the most beautiful sunrise. That was forty-one years ago.
Five nights after she left me, I had a dream. It looked like her, but then again, they all do. But this one said; How would it be if you never had to lose someone you love, ever again?
I said; I’ll need to think about it.
I think I saw her again, about six years ago, but I’m not sure. I was just coming off shift at the cooper’s yard where I work—I fetch and carry, sharpen the tools, load the carts, try and make myself useful—and I saw a girl with a young man, walking up Crossgate towards the sea front. I could only see the back of the girl’s head, but I remembered the man’s face. They had their arms around each others’ waists, and I heard him laugh. If it was him, I don’t think he was a fisherman any more; smart, expensive clothes, the sort I could afford when I was his age. If it was them, they seemed very happy together.
I said; I’ll need to think about it.
I’m still thinking.