An extract from THE FOLDING KNIFE by K.J. Parker
Forty Years Later
A man is sitting on the roof of a coach, crawling through a dusty plain. He wears an expensive coat, dirty and stained, and ruined good shoes. Next to him, avoiding conversation, sat a liveried porter, an armed man and a gloomy individual in a faintly comic footman’s outfit. In front of them there’s an impressive pile of luggage, trunks and cases and chests, secured to the rail with strong rope. The coach rolls over a stone and all four men sway precariously.
The man in the dirty coat looks down at his fingers, notices a hangnail, drops his right hand into his pocket and fishes out a beautiful gold-handled folding knife. He finds it awkward to open; there’s something wrong with his left hand, the fingers are stiff and it doesn’t work properly. He trims the nail, but then the coach hits another stone and lurches wildly. The fold-ing knife flips out of the man’s hand. He makes a wild attempt to catch it as it falls, gets two fingers on it, fumbles the catch. The knife slips out of his grasp, hits the rail, bounces off and flies over the edge of the roof.
The man stares for a moment at where the knife suddenly isn’t. Then he shouts, “Stop the coach.”
“I said, stop the damn coach,” the man shouts. Nobody reacts.
The man scrambles up, sways with the motion of the coach, forfeits his balance and lands ingloriously on his backside. The armed man, some kind of guard, grins at him.
The man looks over his shoulder. By now, the coach has moved on some thirty or forty yards; even if he hurls himself off the roof without breaking his leg or his neck, his chances of finding the knife are too slim. It’s gone, and that’s that. Also, he recognises and concedes that he’s not the man he once was. Until very recently, any order he chose to give would have been obeyed without question; now, nobody even hears him. The folding knife has gone, as quickly, suddenly and irrecoverably as someone dying.
The man – if any of his three companions on the roof had thought to ask him his name, he’d have lied to them – closes his eyes. As soon as he does so, a moment from the past fills his mind. It always does, the same image, the same moment, every time his eyes close. Twenty years.
He sees a bed, in a well-furnished room. On the floor beside it lies a naked man, face down, holding a fancy costume dagger. His throat has been cut. On the bed there’s the body of a woman, and her throat’s been cut too, but she lies face upwards; her lips are still moving, but her eyes are just taking on that cold, hard look. If a speck of dust were to land on them, or a fly, they wouldn’t blink. He sees her through a red blur, because the blood from her jugular vein spurted in his face. In his right hand he feels the handle of the folding knife.
(Always the same, always there. By now, surely, it should be familiar enough to be invisible. Once, when he was extremely rich, he’d bought a painting by one of the great masters. He’d hung it on the wall opposite his bed, so it’d be the first thing he saw when he woke up. A man could never get tired of looking at this picture, they reckoned. In its perfectly inclusive lines, its total sublimation of symmetry and asymmetry, it contained every possibility in the world. After a week, he stopped noticing it was there. A month later, he sold it, made a profit, and had a mirror put in its place, as a form of punishment.)
The woman’s lips stop moving, part-way through an unvoiced word, and then she just falls sideways, like a piece of furniture carelessly knocked over. Her head cracks against the leg of the bed, making a wooden sound, like a stick hitting a ball.
He hears his name spoken; not his name, a word equally familiar, amounting to the same thing. Oh, he thinks, and turns round. Twin boys, about seven years old, stand in the doorway, looking at him.
For some reason, he folds up the knife and puts it back in his pocket. “Go to your room,” he says. “Now.”
Neither of them moves. They stare at him, and it occurs to him that the look on their faces must be very much like the look on his own, when he’d first entered the room.
(Still there, he thinks, and still the same; interesting. Surely, by now, that should have been the least of my problems.)
He opens his eyes.
On the morning of the day when Basso (Bassianus Severus, the future First Citizen) was born, his mother woke up to find a strange woman sitting at the foot of her bed.
Her husband was away somewhere on business, and the ser-vants slept downstairs. The woman was dirty and shabby, and she was holding a small knife.
“Hello,” Basso’s mother said. “What do you want?”
Over the woman’s shoulder, Basso’s mother could see that the skylight had been forced. She was shocked. It had never occurred to her that a woman could climb a drainpipe.
“Money,” the woman said.
Basso’s mother assessed her. About her own age, though she looked much older; a foreigner, most likely a Mavortine (blonde hair, short, fat nose, blue eyes); there were always Mavortines in the city at that time of year, seasonal workers. She was wearing the remains of a man’s coat, several sizes too big.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Basso’s mother said, “but I don’t have any. My husband doesn’t let me have money. He does all the . . .”
The woman made a strange grunting noise; frustration and annoyance, all that work for nothing. “I’m sorry,” Basso’s mother repeated. “If I had any money, I’d give it to you.” She paused, then added, “You look like you could use it.”
The woman scowled at her. “What about downstairs?” Basso’s mother shook her head sadly. “All the money in the house is kept in my husband’s iron chest,” she said. “It’s got seven padlocks, and he carries the keys about with him. The servants might have a few coppers,” she added helpfully, “but it’s nearly the end of the month, so I doubt it.”
The woman was holding the knife rather than brandishing it. Basso’s mother guessed she’d used it to work open the skylight catch. It was a folding knife, an expensive item, with a slim blade and a gold handle; the sort of thing a prosperous clerk would own, for sharpening pens.
“If you’re that hard up,” Basso’s mother said, “you could sell your knife. It must be worth a bit.”
The woman looked at it, then back at her. “Can’t,” she said. “If I went in a shop, they’d know it was stolen. I’d be arrested.” She gasped, then burst into a noisy coughing fit that lasted sev-eral seconds.
Basso’s mother nodded. “So jewellery wouldn’t be much use to you either,” she said. She was feeling sick, but managed to keep her face straight and calm. “All I can suggest is that you help yourself to some decent clothes. The dressing room’s next door, just there, look.”
The woman was looking at her, considering the tactical implications. “Shoes,” she said.
Basso’s mother wasn’t able to see the woman’s feet. “Oh, I’ve got plenty of shoes,” she said. “I think a pair of good stout walking shoes would be the most useful thing, don’t you?”
The woman started to reply, then broke out coughing again. Basso’s mother waited till she’d finished, then said, “I’m sorry about the money, but at least let me get you something for that cough. How long have you had it?”
The woman didn’t answer, but there was an interested look in her eyes. Medicine clearly didn’t feature in her life. Basso’s mother pushed back the sheets and carefully levered herself out of bed and onto her feet. She didn’t bother putting her slippers on.
“Rosehip syrup, I think,” she said, waddling across the room to the table where her apothecary chest stood. She took the key from the little lacquered box and opened the chest. “There’s a jug of water on the stand beside the bed. Would you mind?”
The woman hesitated, then brought the jug. Her feet were bare, red, nearly purple; quite disgusting. “While I’m fixing this, have a look in the shoe closet. It’s just there, look, on your left.”
Not that the woman would be able to read the labels on the bottles. Basso’s mother poured a little dark brown syrup into a glass and added water. “Here,” she said, “drink this.”
The woman had already pulled out two pairs of boots; she was clutching them, pinched together, in her left hand. The knife was still in her right. She hesitated, then threw the boots on the bed and took the glass.
“When you’ve drunk that,” Basso’s mother said, “I’ll ring for some food. When did you last have anything to eat?”
The woman was staring at her, a stupid look on her face. Basso’s mother counted under her breath. On five, the woman staggered; on seven, she flopped down on the floor. Usually it was at least ten before it had any effect at all.
Later, Basso’s mother decided she must have given her too much (understandable, in the circumstances). Also, the woman may have had a weak heart or some similar condition. It was sad, of course, but just one of those things. Basso’s mother paid for a coffin and a plot in the public cemetery. It was, she felt, the least she could do.
Whether the shock induced early labour the doctors couldn’t say. In the event, there were no complications and the baby was perfectly healthy, though a little underweight. Basso’s father had bars fitted over the skylight. A better catch would have done just as well, but he was that sort of man. Basso’s mother tried not to notice the bars, but they were always there in her mind after that.
The woman must have dropped the folding knife when she fell over, and knocked it under the bed. A maid found it and put it away in a drawer. Basso’s mother came across it some time later and decided to keep it; not quite a trophy, but not something you just throw away. Besides, it was very good qual-ity. When Basso was ten years old she gave it to him. He knew the story that went with it, of course.
* * *
Back home his name was seven syllables long, but here, in the army of the Vesani Republic, he was Aelius of the Seventeenth Auxiliary, the youngest captain in the service, kicking his heels in barracks in the City when men with half his ability were shipping out to the war in charge of a battalion. He was check-ing supply requisitions in his office when a flustered-looking sergeant interrupted him.
“We’ve arrested a boy, captain,” the sergeant said. Aelius looked up. “And?” he said.
“He beat up a sentry.”
The culture of the service demanded that enlisted men addressed officers as rarely and as briefly as possible. Aelius thought it was a stupid rule, but he observed it rigorously. “You’d better bring him in,” he said.
A boy, sure enough. Fourteen rather than fifteen, Aelius decided, mostly on the evidence of the face; on the tall side for his age, but still only a kid. “And this child assaulted a sentry?” The sergeant nodded. “Broken arm, broken jaw, two cracked ribs and knocked out a couple of teeth, sir. Unprovoked attack. Two witnesses.”
The boy didn’t seem to have a mark on him. Correction: skinned knuckles on his left hand. “This boy attacked a grown man for no apparent reason and broke his jaw,” Aelius said. The boy was looking past him, at the far wall. “Well?” he barked. The boy said nothing. “I’m talking to you.”
The boy shrugged. “I hit that man, if that’s what you mean.” Aelius nodded slowly. “Why?”
“He spoke to my sister.” “And?”
The boy frowned. “He made a lewd suggestion.”
Aelius managed to keep a straight face. “So you beat him up.
Aelius looked sideways at the floor. Bringing charges was out of the question. A soldier of the Seventeenth beaten to a jelly by a child; they’d never live it down. The face was vaguely familiar. Not a pleasant sight: his nose was a little concave stub, and his enormous lower lip curled up over his upper lip, smothering it. “What’s your name?”
That made Aelius frown. The boy wasn’t dressed like a gen-tleman’s son, but he had a formal name. The voice was completely nondescript, and Aelius hadn’t been in the Republic long enough to distinguish the subtleties of class from a man’s accent. Harder still with a boy with a tendency to mumble. “That’s a big name for a kid,” he said. “Who’s your father?”
The boy felt in his pocket, produced a copper penny and held it out on his palm, heads upwards. “He is.”
No wonder the face was familiar. “Sergeant,” Aelius said, “get out.”
As the door closed, Aelius leaned forward across his desk. The boy was watching him, to see what would happen next. He wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t smug. That alone was enough to confirm that he was who he said he was. “What kind of lewd suggestion?” Aelius asked.
“None of your business.”
Aelius shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “All right, you can go.” The boy turned towards the door, and Aelius rose smoothly to his feet, snatched his swagger stick off the desk and slammed it against the side of the boy’s head, hitting him just above the left ear. He went down, started to get up, staggered, recovered and got to his feet.
“Can I go now?” the boy said.
Aelius nodded. “I think that makes us all square,” he said. “Do you agree?”
“Yes,” the boy said. “Yes, that’s fair.”
Fair, Aelius thought. Not the word he’d have chosen, but surprisingly appropriate. “Then go home,” he said. “And maybe you’d like to think about the relationship between the military and the civil authorities. Ask your dad; he’ll explain it to you.” Outside, the boy’s sister was waiting for him. She was flanked by two sentries; not physically restrained, but held in place like a chess piece that can’t move without being taken.
“It’s all right,” the boy said. “They let me go.”
She said something to him as they walked away. He couldn’t make out the words – his ears were still ringing from the blow on the head – but he didn’t really need to. His sister wasn’t happy at all.
“You won’t tell Father,” he said.
She scowled, then shook her head. “I ought to.”
“I settled it with the captain,” the boy replied. “You’ll only make trouble.”
She made a tutting noise, like a mother reproving an infant. “They’ll know something’s happened when they see you like that,” she said.
“I fell out of a tree.”
Scornful look. “Since when did you climb trees?”
He grinned at her. “That’s why I fell,” he said. “Lack of experience.”
“I’m sick of covering up for you,” she said, walking a little faster. It cost her disproportionate effort, because she would wear those ridiculous shoes. “I’m always having to lie for you, and I’ve had enough. Next time . . .”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the boy said. “It was all your fault anyway. If you hadn’t been making eyes at that soldier . . .”
(Which he knew was a lie; but a lie he could pretend to believe, thereby putting her on the defensive.)
“That’s just rubbish,” she snapped. “And you’re stupid. I’ve got a good mind to tell Father what happened. It’d serve you right if I did.”
She didn’t, of course. As it turned out, there was no need for anybody to say anything. The First Citizen and his wife were out for the evening at a reception, and off early the next morn-ing for the state opening of the Assembly. Undoubtedly the servants noticed his scabbed knuckles, and when the ringing in his ears didn’t go away, they quickly learned to talk to his right side or speak a little louder. He had no trouble hearing his father, because the First Citizen’s voice was plenty loud enough, even at home, and his mother never had anything much to say for herself at the best of times.
Six months later, the boy’s father lost the election and was replaced as First Citizen by Didius Vetranio, whose father had been a sausage-maker. That is to say, Didius Maesus had owned a twenty per cent stake in a slaughterhouse where they made the best-quality air-dried sausage for the export trade, along with a large number of other sound investments. As far as the boy’s father was concerned, that made him a sausage-maker. He sulked for a month, then bought a ship – ridiculously cheap, he told anybody who’d listen, the most incredible bargain – and cheered up again. His good mood lasted five weeks, until the ship sank in the Strait of Essedine with a full cargo of pepper and saffron.
“Fucking disaster,” the boy overheard his father telling one of his business associates (a small, dried man with hollow cheeks and a very sharp nose). “Eight hundred thousand, and that’s without what that bastard gouged me out of for the ship.”
The little man frowned. “Borrowed?”
“Six hundred thousand.” The boy’s father sighed. “Unsecured, which is a blessing, I suppose, but it puts me where I squelch when I walk. Bastard had no business selling a ship that wasn’t seaworthy.”
The little man thought for a moment. He was a study for a major sculpture, Man Thinking. “You need capital,” he said.
“Yes, thank you, that had in fact occurred to me already.” The boy’s father took a peach off the top of the fruit dish, bit off a third and discarded the rest. “You wouldn’t happen to . . .”
A slight shrug; no harm in trying. “Looks like marriage, then,” he said. “That or mortgage the vineyard, and I’d be reluctant to do that.”
The little man nodded. “Which one?”
“Oh, the boy,” the boy’s father said. “I’ve already done a deal for the girl, but it’s a long-term job, I’d hate to spoil it by rush-ing it along. The good thing about children,” he went on, “is that when you run out you can always make some more. Friend of mine used to say, a man of good family carries his pension between his legs. No, I had an offer for the boy only last month, but of course I was flush then and told them to stuff it.”
The boy’s father leaned back in his chair and let his head droop forward. “It’d be enough to see me out of this mess, and a bit left over, but that’s about it. On the other hand, it’d be cash up front on betrothal, with the real estate settled till he comes of age. I could borrow against the realty, invest it, pick a winner, clear off my debts with the profit and break off the betrothal. It’s a thought,” he added defensively, though the little man hadn’t said anything. “No, I suppose not. I have an idea my luck’s not at its best and brightest right now.”
The little man folded his hands in his lap. “None of this would’ve happened if you’d insured the ship,” he said.
But the little man was like a little dog that gets its teeth in something and won’t let go. “How much have you got left, Palo?”
A long sigh; and the boy saw that look on his father’s face, the one that meant he was about to answer quietly. “Not enough,” he said. “Oh, I’ve got assets to show for it, land and good securities, but either they’re tied up or they’re long-term. Like the brickyard,” he said, rubbing the sides of his nose with both forefingers, like a man just waking up. “I’ve put a lot of money into that. Fifteen years’ time it’ll be a gold mine, but if I sold it now I’d be screwed. Actual ready cash . . .” He shook his head. “Hence the short-term unsecured loans, which are eating me alive, of course. And I spent a lot of money on the election, of course, and that was a joke. Beaten by a sausage-maker, very funny, ha ha. Makes you wonder why you ever bother in the first place.”
The little man coughed, a strange noise, a bit like a bone breaking. “I never could see the point in running for office,” he said. “I’ve always had better things to do with my time. People talk about the contacts and the influence, but I don’t see it myself. Personally, I prefer to concentrate my energies on business.”
The boy’s father grinned. “With hindsight, I tend to agree with you. Still, your circumstances are a bit different. You could always afford the best senators money could buy.”
A very slight shrug, to concede an inconsequential point. “The offer for your son.”
“Quite.” (The boy shifted to ease the cramp in his leg and banged his foot against the leg of a table. Fortunately, neither man heard.) “Malo Sinvestri’s daughter. Could be worse.”
“The Licinii have done very well in bulk grain,” the little man said. “You have those warehouses down by the weir stand-ing empty. Presumably your intention—”
“Actually, I hadn’t thought of that.” A suddenly-cheering-up lilt in his father’s voice. “Thanks, Galba, that puts quite a nice edge on the deal. Of course, I’d have to use proxies.”
“Licinius doesn’t know?”
“Why should he?” A short laugh, like a hammer on an anvil, or a bell. “Not in my name, you see, so not on the register. It’d be worth it just to see the look on Malo’s face.”
On the day of the betrothal ceremony, he wasn’t well. He had an upset stomach, ferocious stabbing pains between his navel and his groin that made him twist like a dancer.
His mother didn’t appear to believe him. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “This is a serious occasion. It’s not something you can get out of by pretending you’re ill.”
He couldn’t answer immediately. When he’d got the use of his mouth back, he said, “Tell you what, you can come and inspect the contents of my chamber pot. Will that do you?”
“That’s evidence,” he said. “Solid proof. Well, maybe not solid. For pity’s sake, mother, I’m not well. I can hardly stand upright.”
His mother’s look held the unique alloy of pity and con-tempt she reserved just for him. “Well, you’ve nobody but yourself to blame,” she said, dipping her hand into the linen pocket she wore on her belt and taking out nine plum stones. “You don’t even like plums,” she said.
He nodded. His mistake had been throwing the stones out of the window, instead of burying them in the midden. Attention to detail. “Oh, I like them,” he said, “but they don’t like me.” A particularly sharp spasm put him out of action for a while, and then he said, “It doesn’t alter the fact that I’m not well enough to stand through a long formal ceremony. Unless you want me to make a spectacle of myself in front of all those people.”
His mother shook her head. “I haven’t told your father about these,” she said, moving the plum stones a little closer to his nose. “You don’t have to go to the ceremony, I’ll send a note to say you’re ill, but I’ll tell your father the truth. It’s entirely up to you.”
He breathed in deeply. “All right,” he said. “What do you suggest?”
She nodded briskly. “I’ll get you some medicine,” she said. Her words coincided with yet another spasm, so the face he pulled was submerged in a greater reaction. His mother col-lected medicines, rather in the way a boy collects coins or seals or arrowheads; one or two genuine pieces, along with a whole load of junk. “Thanks,” he said, “but I think I’ll be—”
“Stay there,” she said, and a few minutes later she came back with a little blue-glass cup. “Drink this,” she said, “it’ll get you through the ceremony.”
The last attack had left him gasping for air. “Does it work?” “I don’t know,” his mother replied, “I’ve never tried it myself. The man said it’s a miracle cure, but I’ve never dealt with him before. You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to.” He took the cup and stared into it; off-white sludge, like the scum on top of new cream. “What is it?”
“The man said it’s a special sort of clay dust,” his mother answered blandly. “Apparently there’s a magic mountain in Sigaea, which is the only place in the world this stuff ’s ever been found. It’s mined by an ancient order of monks exclusively for the Imperial court, but somehow this man managed to get hold of a jar.” She shrugged. “You never know,” she said. “Anyway, drink it if you like. It might do you good.”
Remarkably, it did. At least, it stopped up his bowels like a cork for three days. It didn’t do anything for the pain, but he handled that himself, and if any of the guests at the betrothal noticed anything, they didn’t mention it. In a way, he was almost glad of it, since it gave him something else to think about apart from the bride and her family. The latter would have scared the life out of him if he’d been in any fit state to care; several huge men, tall, broad and fat, with close-cropped beards that came up to the tops of their cheekbones, and tall thin women who looked at him and shuddered. His father was extremely subdued, which was unnerving, and sober, which was unprecedented. He couldn’t see his mother most of the time, because she had to sit on the far side of the temple with his sister and the other women, but he could feel her eyes on him like a bridle.
As for the bride, she was muffled up in veils like a beekeeper (what’s the matter, he thought, is she afraid I’m going to sting her to death or something?) so she registered with him as little more than a shape in a gauze mist and a small, sullen voice that mumbled the words after the priest. But when she first saw him, she stopped dead in her tracks, the way a horse stops when it sees something it doesn’t like, and no amount of booting and spurring will get it to shift. Her father and uncle whispered something to her, “what do you think you’re playing at?” or words to that effect; she whispered back, and then her father put his hand between her shoulder blades and shoved so hard she nearly fell over. An auspicious start, he couldn’t help thinking; not that he blamed her in the least. He owned a mirror. It was a small comfort to know there was someone who was even more wretched about the performance than he was, but the pain in his stomach was the only thing he could think about.
The priest got his name the wrong way round: Bassianus Severus Arcadius. On the way home, he asked if it was still legal. His father assured him that it was.
His cousin Renno came up from the country. On balance, he liked Renno. He was easy to talk to, usually had money and was handy in a fight. Since he’d last seen him, Renno had grown, and the dark fuzz on his top lip had pretensions of coherence.
“You got married, then,” Renno said.
He sighed. “Hardly,” he replied. “That doesn’t happen for another four years.”
“Something to look forward to, then.” Renno hopped up onto the gate and sat swinging his legs. His feet nearly touched the ground now. “You’re lucky,” he said.
“Are you kidding?”
The boy scowled. “I never actually got to see what she looks like.”
Renno laughed. “Is that right? Well, the first thing you notice is the moustache.”
He didn’t look round. “You know her, then?” “Met her, a couple of times.”
Renno yawned and stretched, wobbled a bit and sat up straight. “Let’s see,” he said. “Nice boobs, good arse, a bit top-heavy but she could still grow out of that. In four years, she could be all right.”
The boy shrugged. “What’s she like?” “I just told you.”
“Apart from that.”
“Let’s walk into town and get some fruit. No disrespect to your family, but the food around here’s a bit bloody sparse.”
The boy nodded. “You got any money?” “Sure.”
There was a wicket gate in the back wall of the kitchen garden, put there to make it easier for the gardeners to carry manure from the stables without having to go through the main
courtyard. From the stables you could climb out over the tack-room roof and drop down in the snicket that led to the alley that joined up with the public road, and nobody would know. “I don’t know anything about her,” the boy said, “or the family, come to that.”
“You haven’t missed much,” Renno replied. “Loaded, but quite new. I think they’re in bulk grain.”
“I know,” the boy replied. Renno said something, but he was on the boy’s wrong side and he didn’t quite catch it. “Say again?”
Renno frowned. “I said, the eldest son’s in the Navy, that’s all. Are you having trouble hearing me? That’s the fourth time.”
“Left side,” the boy said. “I got a bang on the head a while back and I can’t hear much with my left ear.”
“You should get that seen to.”
“It’ll clear up,” the boy replied. “You don’t go telling any-body if you’re not feeling so good in this house.”
Renno grinned. “Your mum still into the witchcraft stuff?” “It’s a pain,” the boy said sadly. “Of course, she never uses any of it herself, just tries it out on other people. One of the maids nearly died. You can see why I keep quiet about my ear.” “Better deaf than dead,” Renno agreed solemnly. “What happened?”
The boy looked past him. “Someone got me when I wasn’t looking. No big deal.”
“Bastard,” Renno sympathised. “It’ll probably just clear up. A friend of my dad’s went deaf for a year after he fell off his horse, but it sorted itself out eventually.”
They walked out of the alley gate into the street. The grain carts had made the early morning delivery and were heading back out of town, a long procession, like a funeral. “You didn’t answer my question,” the boy said.
“I don’t know, do I?” Renno sounded a bit edgy. “Like I told you, only met the girl twice, once at a wedding and once at some religious thing. Apart from the obvious, I didn’t pay much attention.”
“You lot know her lot, then.”
“Vaguely. Also, we’re sort of neighbours. They’ve got a place just over the hill from our place at Sesunto. They call it a hunt-ing lodge, but it’s just a shack, really. They don’t go there much.”
When Renno shrugged, there was a suggestion of trying to shake off an annoying entanglement. “And nothing,” he said. “I told you all I know.”
“No you didn’t,” the boy said.
“Fine.” Renno sighed. “Apparently, she can be a bit of a handful.”
The boy nodded. “What does that mean?”
“There was some bother with a young footman,” Renno said. “And a boy from the village. All taken care of, naturally, and no harm done. There, satisfied?”
“Marvellous,” the boy replied, and he thought of the ship his father had bought. For a man who’d been First Citizen, he didn’t have much sense. “You’ve really cheered me up, you know that?”
“You asked,” Renno replied. “And anyway, she’ll grow out of it. They usually do. Like Trusca.”
The boy smiled. Renno’s sister had given the family a lot to think about at one time, but now she was safely married and no bother to anyone. “How’s she doing, by the way?”
“Pregnant again,” Renno said. “Obviously he keeps her busy, which is presumably the answer in these cases. Won’t be long before they’ve got enough for their own hockey team.”
The boy nodded. “They could play the Sulpicii,” he said. “Or the Marciani.”
“They should form a league,” Renno said. “That’d be quite good, actually. Each year, the winners could play the army.”
Renno bought four apples; a waste of money, since it was the season, and there were better examples of a better variety hang-ing from the branches in the orchard. They sat down in the shade of the Bank portico. “Here,” Renno said.
“No thanks,” the boy replied. He was very fond of apples and it was three hours since breakfast.
“What?” Renno looked at him. “What did you let me buy this many for, then?”
“Have the rest later,” the boy replied.
“Suit yourself.” Renno bit deep, and the boy was briefly overwhelmed by the smell of the juice. “Sure you don’t want one?” Renno asked with his mouth full.
He ignored the question, and said: “What happened to the footman?”
“Got slung out,” Renno said. “Went back to his village, I suppose. Nothing too bad, I don’t think. Why?”
“You should definitely see a doctor about your ear,” Renno said. “You look pretty weird, twisting round like that so you can hear what I’m saying.”
“I’m not bothered,” the boy said. “And anyway, doctors need paying.”
“Would want to know what happened.” The boy shook his head. “I don’t think he’s noticed, and I’d rather keep it that way.” Renno looked like he wasn’t sure what to make of that. “Up to you,” he said. “I’d hate being deaf.”
“It’s no fun,” the boy conceded. “But there’s worse things.” Time, he decided, to change the subject. “Did you hear about Gal getting thrown out of the seminary?”
“I didn’t think it was possible to get thrown out of there. Not if you’re loaded like the Valerii.”
“It can’t have been easy,” the boy said. “But you know how resourceful Gal can be. He set fire to the day chapel.”
Renno nodded. “Actually, that’s not bad.”
“During morning confession.”
When Renno was really amused by something, he had this knack of silent laughing; his mouth opened in an enormous grin, but no sound came out. “Well,” he said. “That would probably do it, yes.”
The boy looked down at his hands. “Best part is, it was the day after his uncle Naso got made Patriarch.”
Renno breathed in deeply, the sign of great happiness. “There are times when I think there might still be hope for our family,” he said.
“I don’t,” the boy said sharply, and got to his feet. “Still, who cares about that? Let’s go down to the fencing school and see if we can steal someone’s coat.”
They succeeded, and in the pocket they found a purse con-taining twelve gold eagles and a considerable sum in provincial silver. They handed it in to the watch, and said they’d found it in the street.
“I bought a bank,” his father said.
The boy stared down into his porridge. He knew why his father had chosen family breakfast to make his announcement. With the children present, he’d be safe from the hellstorm of uncurbed opinion he’d have come in for if he’d confessed his misdeed in private. In front of the children, she could only say, “Oh.” Which she did.
“Best deal I ever made,” his father said, a little bit loud and a little bit fast. He paused, anticipating a request for further information, which didn’t come. Mother was keeping quiet, a truly ominous sign.
Father chewed some bread, and went on, “The Macer broth-ers. Perfectly sound business, only they came unstuck over a government loan. Well, they called it a loan but really it was state theft; it’s not like they had any choice. You will lend us this money or else. No security, obviously.”
Even Mother had her limits. “Really,” she said. “So you bought a failed bank.”
“It hasn’t failed yet,” Father replied, a little nervously.
“Won’t fail, either. All it needs is capital.”
“Ah.” Mother put down her spoon. “Really, that’s a bit like
saying all a dead horse needs is bringing back to life. But I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
Father frowned. Actually, he was winning. He’d goaded Mother into breaking silence in front of the children, which meant that she’d be fighting the battle with both arms tied behind her back. “The government won’t default,” he said. “It’ll just take its own sweet time about paying. In the mean time, the Macers are stuck for liquidity, and I made them an offer. Their bad luck, our opportunity.”
Mother sighed. “How much is the loan?” she said.
The boy and his sister exchanged swift glances. If Mother was prepared to allow actual numbers at the breakfast table, things were bad. “Six million,” Father said. “I gave the Macers a million for the business, so basically . . .”
Mother turned to her children. “Finish your breakfast and go upstairs,” she said.
For once – the one and only time – Mother was wrong. Father mortgaged everything and raised the money, and shortly afterwards the Treasury repaid the forced loan to the bank, with interest in full, out of the proceeds of the naval victory at Eupontis. Within eighteen months, the Charity & Social Justice Bank was in better shape than ever, and Severus Maurus, offi-cially listed as the fifth-richest man in the Republic, was thinking seriously about resuming his political career.
“You know what this means,” Basso’s sister said, as they picked figs from the tree behind the house.
He shrugged. “Enlighten me.” “Your marriage,” she said. “What about it?”
She stood on tiptoe, grabbed at a high branch, missed and staggered a little. “It’ll be off,” she said. “You just wait.”
He wasn’t quite sure he understood what she was trying to say. “Off?”
“As in cancelled.”
Still not making sense. “It can’t be,” he said. “It’s a legal contract.”
She laughed. “Oh, sure,” she said. “And if Father wants to get out of it, his lawyers’ll see to it in five minutes flat.”
He was curious. “Really? Could they do that?”
“Of course, stupid. Technicalities. Degrees of affiliation, for one thing.”
“Consanguinity.” She sighed. “It means you’re not allowed to marry your relations.”
“I know what it means. But we’re not—”
“Oh yes we are,” his sister said firmly. “Generations and generations ago, quite likely, but you can bet we’re related to the Licinii somehow or other, and the lawyers’ll use that to bust up the deal. Or there’s other stuff. Procedural defects. Time limits for registering the betrothal not complied with. It goes without saying they’ll have made some tiny cock-up or other in the for-malities. They always do, just in case either side needs to back out later.”
“Oh,” the boy said. A wasp was buzzing round his head. He kept perfectly still. “But why would he want to?”
“You’re kidding, of course,” his sister said. “If Father’s got his heart set on going into politics again, he’s not going to waste his only son on a bunch of nobodies. He’ll need both of us free and clear for sealing big political alliances. Not,” she added cheerfully, “that I’m complaining. I’m bound to do better as a political pawn than if I’d just been an heiress.”
“Right.” Clearly she didn’t know about her own betrothal (a long-term job, his father had called it). He supposed he ought to tell her, at some point. The wasp, meanwhile, was bobbing up and down in the air, two feet from his head. He stuck out his left hand, bracketed the wasp with his thumb and forefinger, allowed for the wasp’s escape attempt and snapped his fingers. He’d judged it well. He crushed the head and thorax without being stung.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” his sister said. “I think it’s pretty impressive.”
“Suit yourself,” he replied equably. “Next time I’ll let it go and it can sting you.”
“I don’t mind when it’s spiders,” his sister said. “But bees . . .”
“It was a wasp.” He wiped his fingers on his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t suppose it matters very much. It’s just, I’d got used to the idea.”
She laughed. “You’ve never even seen her. Not properly.” “That’s beside the point.” He jumped up, caught hold of a branch and swung himself astride it, then started to pick the upper branches. “It’s different for you,” he said. “It’s your one big chance. For me, really, it’s just something to deal with and get out of the way.”
His sister made a disgusted noise. “Whoever she turns out to be,” she said, “I feel really sorry for her. Your attitude stinks, you know that?”
“I can’t hear you,” he said. He was only six feet or so off the ground, but the perspective was different. He could see over the orchard wall, into the street. It looked different from there. “Look out,” he said, and started dropping figs for her to catch.
She put on a display of offence taken after that, and wouldn’t discuss the matter further; but it preyed on his mind for the rest of the day, and he slept badly. The next morning, he went to see his mother. He found her writing up the accounts in the east day room.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” she said. “Of course the marriage is going ahead. Your father went to see Licinius Strato only the other day, about the settlement trusts.”
He knew about that, as it happened. He’d overheard Father discussing the negotiations with one of his business friends – it was useful that everybody treated him as though he was stone-deaf, when his right ear was as good as anybody’s, maybe even better. At the time he’d wondered why Father was badgering the Licinii into increasing the cash settlement. Even so; for the chairman of the Charity & Social Justice, the sums in question were trivial. Best deal he ever made, he thought, and grinned.
“What’s the joke?” his mother said. “Nothing. Who’s Placidia betrothed to?”
He’d caught her off guard, for once. “Nobody. What a thing to say.”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “Only, I had an idea Father had arranged something, quite some time ago. A long-term job, he called it, and he said it needed careful planning.”
As he spoke he realised: she doesn’t know. Father hadn’t told her. He made a giant effort and kept his face perfectly straight. There’d be an interesting discussion later. He wondered if there’d be any chance of listening in.
“Nonsense,” his mother said, but already she’d practically forgotten about him. She was thinking of things to say to her husband. The boy made an excuse and left. On his way down the stairs, he wondered why his father would keep something like that a secret. He always told Mother everything, as soon as it happened, though from time to time he chose a tactically advantageous occasion. Placidia’s marriage, though; that made no sense. For one thing, he’d want her advice.
No matter. He crossed the inner courtyard, stopped by the fountain and peered into the bowl. Sometimes visitors threw small coins in there, for luck, and Father had had visitors that morning. Sure enough, there was a coin, right at the bottom, half buried in the silt. He rolled up his sleeve and grabbed it, but it was only a penny – his father’s issue, ironically enough, and sadly worn. Most of the detail had gone on the portrait: the eye, the ear, most of the hair. Cheapskates, he thought sadly, and stuffed it in his pocket.
It was, everybody agreed afterwards, an efficient wedding. The bride’s family delivered on time, the priest was competent, nobody was obviously drunk or screwed up their lines. Because it took place in the middle of the day – it had originally been scheduled for the evening, but it had to be moved forward to accommodate a crucial business meeting – there was no torch-lit procession through the streets. Instead, they did the whole thing in-house.
One minute he was standing in the temple, alone, nervous and troubled in his digestive organs (no need for plums this time). The next, a strange creature in a white cloud fell in beside him, and he realised, with the objectivity of a historian, that nothing would ever be the same again. He glanced side-ways, but there was nothing to see.
A small blunder, after all. They’d put him on the left, so he couldn’t make out what the old fool was saying. Fortunately, he’d taken the trouble to learn his lines, which were straight-forward enough in any case. He watched the priest’s lips. She was on his right, so he could hear her perfectly well. She mum-bled, and got her own name wrong.
During the priest’s address he allowed his attention to wander. He was standing directly in front of the altar, above which there was the usual small window, precisely placed so that the first light of dawn fell on the massive iron wheel sup-posedly inhabited by the divine presence. Across the window a spider had spun an almost perfectly symmetrical web, a work of great skill and diligence. The spider itself hung motionless in the centre, and as the gentle breeze ebbed and flowed it swayed backwards and forwards, moving like the chest of a man breathing slowly. He wasn’t the least bit superstitious, but it did occur to him to wonder whether so striking an image had been arranged somehow, put there on purpose for him to see, or whether it was the sheer wastefulness of coincidence. Such a perfect web, and the spider so exactly centred, felt more like art than nature.
Under any other circumstances, of course, he’d have squashed the spider immediately. It was second nature, because his mother and sister were both terrified of spiders, and he’d learned to take pre-emptive action as soon as he walked into a room. He’d been scared of them too, at one time, but once he’d mastered every aspect of the art of killing them, he found he wasn’t afraid any more. He’d moved smoothly from victim to aggressor, without being conscious of any change within himself, so he supposed that really there was no differ-ence between the two, apart from whether you happened to be the stronger or the weaker.
The actual wedding was, of course, only a small part of it, just as actual fighting is only a small part of a war. After that, they were whisked away into the formal garden. She was swept off to do something or other, while he had to stay still and be introduced to people: distant relatives, business associates, important people generally. Roughly half of them spoke to his deaf side, which was no bad thing. He’d been trained for that sort of thing, so he knew how to be cripplingly bored without giving offence.
As some fool of a woman twittered in his face, he thought for the first time in years about his grandfather, who’d died when he was ten. No big deal; he just remembered something the old man had said, which he hadn’t understood one bit at the time, but which for some reason had stuck with him, like a tune you don’t actually like but can’t help humming. Arranged marriages, he’d said, amortised loans and the Republican Navy are what keep this city from going under. He realised, in a moment of pure insight, that Grandfather and Father had never really liked each other very much. He examined his memories of the two of them together, things said, tones of voice, nuances of words, body language. It had never occurred to him before that the relationship between them had been anything but entirely orthodox, love and respect in the appropriate proportions.
Somehow he’d always assumed that love was something you didn’t really have any say in, like rules and the law and the times when meals were served. Parents loved their children, children love their parents, likewise with siblings; husbands and wives were different, he knew that, but it wasn’t the same, because marriage was a matter of human choice rather than natural inevitability. Even then, so he’d been informed, hus-bands and wives grew to love each other over time, through a combination of shared experience and force of habit. The one thing that had nothing to do with love was choice. But Father and Grandfather, it now appeared, hadn’t even liked each other. He wondered about that, and felt the assumptions that sup-ported his understanding of the world like the cables of a bridge suddenly go slack. Presumably I shall love my wife, he thought, in time, in due course. Or maybe not. It would be interesting, he decided, to find out.
They met up again briefly after the main reception but before the wedding dinner, by chance rather than design. Escaping from the crowd in the garden, he sneaked away into the little cloister, through the wicket gate at the end and into the courtyard. There was someone already there, standing beside the fountain; a girl in a big white dress that looked familiar. At her feet was a pile of white gauze, which could have been the veil. She looked up at him.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you . . .?” She nodded.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t recognise you without the . . .” He twirled his fingers round his head to signify the veil. She was looking straight at him, and he had no idea what that look was supposed to mean. “Which is ridiculous,” he added quickly. “I can see your face so I don’t know who you are. What’s your name?”
No reaction. “Otacilia Licinia Secunda,” she said. “That’s not what I meant.”
It was as though she was making up her mind. Then she said, “Cilia. At any rate, that’s what my parents call me.”
He nodded. “I’m Basso. Pleased to meet you.”
She laughed; rather cautiously, he felt, and because she assumed he’d want her to. “You escaped, then,” he said.
She nodded. “I couldn’t stand being cooped up in that thing a moment longer.”
Thing? His imagination raced. “Oh,” he said, “the veil.” She kicked it. “I’ll have to put it back on in a minute,” she said, “I’m not supposed to take it off till the meal. But it’s hor-rible and I hate it. It’s like when you walk through a spider’s web and you get the stuff all over your face and in your hair. Makes my skin crawl.”
Funny she should put it like that. “It sounds awful,” he said. “Yes, well, you’re not the one who’s got to wear it,” she replied. “Stop complaining, it’s only for one day.” She stabbed at it with her toe, and there was a faint tearing sound. “Shit,” she said.
He grinned. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Don’t you believe it,” she replied. “Mother’ll be livid. I think she’s planning to make it into curtains for the day room.” He moved a step closer. “The hell with it,” he said. “It’s your wedding day, the most special day of a young girl’s life. If you want to kick holes in your veil, you kick holes in your veil. Anybody’s got problems with that, they’ll have me to answer to.”
She smiled. Actually, she wasn’t bad-looking. And she smiled instead of laughing; for some reason, he liked that. “If it was up to me, I’d tear it into little bits and burn it. We’d better be getting back, or we’ll be in trouble.”
We, she’d said. Ah, he thought, now I understand. “Suppose so,” he replied.
“Definitely.” She started to bend down, to retrieve the veil, but stopped at approximately twenty degrees. “This dress,” she said, “is impossible. There’s half a whale’s jaw in there somewhere.” He stooped, rather self-consciously, grabbed the veil and straightened up. There was quite a large hole in it. “Give it here,” she said, and started winding it round her head, but even he could see it wasn’t going on right. “Sod it,” she said, “I can’t remember how it’s supposed to go.”
“Let me,” he said. “I think I can see . . .”
He was being rather optimistic, and nearly throttled her before eventually figuring it out. “That’ll have to do,” she said. “Where’s the hole?”
“Round the back,” he said. “Nobody’s going to see.” “Right.” She straightened up, pinched at the skirts of her dress. “You go first. Well, we can’t come out together, can we?” Oh, he thought. “All right,” he said. “See you later, then.” “You sure it looks all right? You can’t see the hole?”
“It’s fine,” he reassured her, and walked away.
Much later, he said, “Do you know what to do?”
She glared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Only,” he said quickly, “I don’t, so I was sort of hoping you’d—”
She looked at him, another unreadable face, then sighed deeply. “Oh for crying out loud,” she said, and explained in detail.
Some time after that, he said, “I’m sorry for being ugly.” “That’s all right,” she said, in a sleepy voice. “You can’t help it.”
He lay still, trying not to think about the darkness. All his life he’d slept with a lamp burning, but there was no lamp in this room and he hadn’t sent for one. “Was it . . .?”
“Yes,” she muttered. “You’ll get the hang of it. I need to go to sleep now.”
On two out of three counts he wasn’t sure he believed her. The third was clearly not negotiable. He lay back and tried not to disturb her by moving. He wasn’t used to being in bed this early and he didn’t feel the least bit tired. Later, when she started to snore, he carefully got out of bed, left the room, felt his way downstairs to the library, where he found a lamp and the book he’d been reading. Obviously he didn’t want anybody to find him there, under the circumstances, so he went back upstairs, hugging the lamp close to him to smother the light, and crept through the bedroom into the dressing room. He shut the door, sat down and started to read.
* * *