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SHARPS

Ever since she was a little girl, she’d had a recurring dream. She was on top of the stupid pillar, looking down into a deep, still green pool, where the blurred outlines of huge fish drifted lazily just under the surface. Then, quite suddenly, she was in the dried-up pool, looking up, as water poured out of a broad pipe twenty feet above. In no time at all the pool was full – with water, with fish, with dead bodies drifting like the fish; a dead man floated past on his back, and she knew he was her husband. But she neither sank nor drowned; the water lifted her up, right to the top of the pillar, where she’d come from.

She knew about the pillar, of course; it was her father’s one good story, and he told it on every possible occasion. The rest of the dream’s imagery bothered her, so much so that when she was fourteen, she sneaked out of the house and went to Temple, and asked the priest if he had any idea what it all meant. The priest listened gravely and carefully, and when she’d finished he wore a puzzled look, as though some of it made sense and some of it didn’t.

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m not a fortune-teller,” the priest replied, fabricating a smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’d been reading Saloninus’ Phocas and Leontia, and it’s given you nightmares. But that’s not exactly a suitable text for a well-brought-up young lady.”

“Never heard of it,” Iseutz replied.

“Quite.” The priest rubbed his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Well, there’s a scene in Phocas where the heroine’s in a shipwreck, and her husband’s corpse floats past her on the water. I suppose you might’ve overheard someone talking about it, and it stuck in the back of your mind. That’s all I can think of, sorry.”

She sighed. “Is there any way of stopping it? It’s getting so I’m afraid to go to sleep.”

“Prayer,” the priest replied; and although she didn’t actually believe in the divinity of the Invincible Sun, she gave it a try, and the dream stopped, and for ten years she thought no more about it.

***

General Carnufex became known as the Irrigator following the destruction of Flos Verjan, the second city of Permia, in the thirty-seventh year of the War. By the time Carnufex took command, the siege had already lasted two years. Three outbreaks of plague had taken a severe toll of the besieging army, and the near impossibility of securing regular supplies, given the city’s position in the valley formed by three mountain ranges, had prompted the chiefs of staff to order that what remained of the army should be recalled, with the loss of all the territorial gains made during the previous five years’ campaigns.

Carnufex spent a month rounding up as many of the local civilian population as he could catch, accumulating a workforce of some twenty thousand men, women and children. He set them to work diverting the courses of the four major rivers that flowed from the mountains into Lake Prescile. By employing innovative engineering techniques learned from the captive silver-miners, he contrived to cut deep channels through solid rock to lead the river water down into the Verjan valley. When the work was complete and the dams were finally breached, the ensuing torrent flooded the city so completely that it remains underwater to this day.

***

There are few more depressing sights than your own blood. The whole of his left trouser leg was drenched, the degree of saturation you get from one of those sudden, furious summer rainstorms that only last a minute or so but soak you to the skin. But it wasn’t rain, though; it was blood. There comes a point – he remembered being told about it by a medical student, but he hadn’t paid attention – when the loss is too great and there’s no way back. Shortly before, or was it shortly after you reach that point, you start to feel a bit drunk. You lose your focus, and you’d really quite like to close your eyes and take a nap, even though you’re well aware you probably won’t be waking up again. It’s not exactly a happy feeling, the medical student had said, but it’s not mortal terror and fear either. It doesn’t hurt much, and mostly you can’t be bothered.

Shortly before or shortly after. He relaxed, letting his head rest against the bell-chamber wall. If I die, he thought, at least I won’t have to face up to the consequences of my actions. I really wouldn’t want to have to go through all that; all the fuss, unpleasantness and embarrassment. The thought made him smile. They’ll come bustling up the bell-tower stairs, he thought, following the mile-wide blood trail; they’ll kick down the door and they’ll find me gone – almost as good as escaping. There’ll be no arrest, no miserable, humiliating night in the cells along with the drunks and the uncouth street people, no heartbreaking glimpse of his parents’ faces in the public gallery of the court while the prosecutor spells out in graphic detail the exact true account of all the incredibly stupid things he’d done; no unbearable waiting in the condemned cell, no bowel-loosening terror as the first rays of light came through the window on the appointed morning. Escaping from all that was very nearly the same as getting away with it completely. He grinned and looked down at his red, shiny-wet leg. Come on, he said, bleed faster.

It’d be nice, at the very least, if he could die before he had to explain to his father exactly what he thought he’d been playing at, what had possessed him. Well, Dad, it was like this. I went to the lecture hall, not to listen to the lecture I was supposed to be attending, but because it’s the best place for meeting girls. I meet a lot of girls. Not through random serendipity. I go looking for them. I meet girls the way cousin Huon and his aristocratic chums and their highly trained dogs meet wild boar in the woods. A good place – please don’t construe this as advice, Dad, I’d hate it if you ended up in a bell tower somewhere – is the lobby of the lecture halls. The girls you meet there are just about perfect: upper-class, smart, eager to defy convention. They’re allowed out on their own, and all you have to do is watch which lecture they come out of. If it’s literature, you can start up a conversation about the use of imagery in late Mannerist poetry. If it’s natural philosophy, go for a detailed critique of Saloninus’ theory of insubstantiality. Provided you’ve done your basic background reading, piece of cake.

Dad, I met this girl. Actually, she was quite interesting. She had a lot to say about social factors in Segimerus’ agrarian reforms, and I rather liked her take on the ten per cent land tax. But there’s a time for chat and a time for getting the job done, so I curtailed the academic discussion and we went back to her house, her father being guaranteed absent until the House rose. Thanks to you constantly badgering me about it, I take an interest in politics, so I knew they were debating the Law of Property Reform Bill, a topic guaranteed to generate more heat than a volcano. He’d be at it all night, and wouldn’t be home before dawn. Ideal.

I guess I’ll never know the outcome, Dad – maybe you could write it on a piece of paper for me and burn it, like prayers to the dead in Temple – but my guess is that the Optimates did a deal on Clause 16. Ironic, yes? As a hot-headed young radical, that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. But if my theory is correct, it led directly to my death. Does that make me a martyr to the cause of fair redistribution of public land? It’d be nice, but I don’t think so. Pity. In my more hopelessly romantic moments, I’d have said that it was a cause worth dying for. I guess it depends on how you construe the word cause. Cause meaning primary factor, yes. But that won’t get me a place in the pantheon of heroes of the revolution. Of course I’ve only ever been a hot-headed young radical because it goes down well with the sort of girls you meet at the lecture halls.

The point being, Dad, her father came home earlier than expected, while we were still hard at it. The sad part of it is, she was nothing special. She moaned and groaned a lot, but I could tell her mind was somewhere else entirely, and I thought, the hell with this, let’s get it over with and I can go home. So I turned her over and upped the tempo a bit; at which point the door opened.

I can see how it must’ve looked to her father. The yowling must’ve been audible all through the house. He hears the cries of someone apparently in great fear and pain. He sprints up the stairs. The noise is coming from his daughter’s room. He kicks open the door. I’m on top of her, holding her wrists and working like a stoker, she’s yelling like she’s being murdered. I ask you, Dad. What was the poor man to think?

Here’s what I saw. The door bursts open, and there’s this huge, tall, fat man. He’s staring at me as though I was some kind of unimaginable monster, horns, tail, fangs. There’s this split second when we’re looking straight at each other. Then I hear the silvery whisper of a rapier blade sliding against the chape of a scabbard.

You remember learning fencing in the schools, Dad? The first thing they teach you is the salute. You make a courteous bow to your opponent. You lift your hat, you do this flourish with your left hand – I’m hopeless at it, apparently – and then you straighten up and bring your sword slowly and decorously into the guard position. It wasn’t like that. As soon as I heard that hiss, I jumped off her – squatting jump, like a frog. He lunged while I was actually in the air, caught me about six inches above the left knee. I felt no pain as the blade went in; they tell you that, and you don’t believe it, but it’s true. I could feel the thing inside me; I felt it being pulled out as I hit the floor. I remember thinking, that’s it, I’m dead, like I’d given up. But my hands were grabbing in empty space, and my right hand found my trousers, where I’d dumped them on the floor.

You remember how you taught me Davianus’ parry with the cloak held in the left hand, where you gain a little time by tangling the other man’s blade. It works with trousers. He made a sort of roaring noise and withdrew, and my right hand found the hilt of my rapier. I’d hung it on its belt over a chair. I pulled it out of the scabbard, which tipped the chair over. It got in his way as he lunged the third time, and I was able to double-bunny-hop backwards, making myself a little room. He lunged a fourth time, and halfway through the lunge, he died. It was only when I saw the truly amazed look on his face, just as the light went out in his eyes, that I realised I’d performed a textbook demi-volte – you know, where you sidestep out of line while counter-thrusting – and the thrust had gone straight through the side of his head. In one ear and out the other, like Grandma used to say.

Picture the scene. There’s me, stark naked, blood pumping down my leg, holding a sword that disappears into the side of a man’s head – perfect stranger, never seen him before in my life – and sticks out the other side. About thirty seconds earlier, I’d been making a disinterested sort of love to a girl whose main interest in the proceedings was seeing how hard she could yell. It happened so quickly, most of it was sheer comedy, and there’s my life changed for ever and, viewed with hindsight, nearly over.

And let’s not forget the other guy. I’ve always been a bit cynical about protestations of remorse, and the bastard had been trying to kill me. Even so, I promise you, a lot of what I felt was sheer dumb horror at what I’d just done. Partly because I knew without having to stop and reflect that there’d be consequences, but mostly at the rank obscenity of violent death. To stab a man through his ears, for crying out loud, how disgusting is that? There’s this technical term in law, an act of gross indecency. If what I’d just done didn’t fit that description, I have no idea what would.

Then he collapsed sideways, almost dislocated my wrist as he pulled off the sword; and I didn’t think, I ran. I think I trod on his face scrambling over him. I just wanted to get out of there, away from that appalling sight. I bolted through the door, found myself on a sort of landing. I could see the top of the stairs. There was some old man coming up them. I bumped into him and knocked him down, felt absurdly bad about that. Down the stairs; the front door was open. Out into the street.

What would you do if you saw a naked, bleeding man, trousers in one hand, unsheathed rapier in the other, sprinting up the sidewalk at you? No disrespect, Dad, but you can keep your answers, because they’ll be wrong. I’ll tell you. You’d stand perfectly still, staring, with your mouth open, while the naked man rushes past you. That’s what they did, my honest, decent fellow citizens, too stunned to move, not having had time to figure out whether what they were watching was comedy or tragedy. As for me, I’d never run in my bare feet before, or at least not since I was too young to remember. Actually, it’s surprising how much traction you get. I remember noticing how warm the pavement was. Anyhow, long story short, I caught sight of the Tower of Revisionary Martyrs, and next thing I knew, I was struggling up the stairs to the bell chamber. I’ll be safe there, I thought. Yes, quite. Really stupid thing to do. Good idea at the time.

Anyhow, Dad, that’s where I died. And I’m glad about that. Mainly because, when they tell you all about it, when they tell you your son committed rape and murder but died before he could be arrested, you’ll be able to not-believe. You won’t have to face me confessing, yes, I did those incredibly stupid things; and all right, it wasn’t actually rape and it wasn’t technically murder; but I think you could forgive those two misdemeanours rather more easily than the total, utter stupidity of which I’m really and truly guilty. You’ll be able to go to your grave convinced that there was more to it than met the eye, there was some perfectly plausible explanation proving my complete innocence, which nobody will ever know. So really, I don’t mind, Dad. Really, believe me, it’s better this way.

He lifted his head. He could hear boots on the stairs.

***

“You know the fantasy,” Phrantzes said cautiously, “where instead of going home down Cornmarket you take the short cut through the slave market, and you see this beautiful young girl for sale, and you immediately fall in love.”

Corbulo smiled. “That one.”

“Yes. And you buy her and set her free, and she says, I don’t want to be free, I think I’m in love with you, so you get married and spend the rest of your life introducing her to fine art, literature and classical music, for which she has an instinctive appreciation.”

Corbulo looked at him. “You marry yours, do you?”

“It’s just a fantasy.”

“Even so.”

“Actually.” Phrantzes opened the rosewood box and took out a handful of brass counters. “It’s not exactly like that,” he went on, sorting the counters into columns of five. “But there are similarities.”

Chess games aside, it was the first time he’d managed to reduce Corbulo to silence. Worth it, just for that. He laid out three lines of counters on the board; and then Corbulo said, “Go on.”

“Well, for one thing she’s not a slave.”

“Ah.”

Was a slave, once, but that was a long time ago. And I guess she’s not exactly a girl any more. She’s thirty-seven.”

Corbulo frowned. “That’s two things she isn’t. What is she?”

Phrantzes placed three more counters; two on the thousand line, one on the hundred. “She used to be a prostitute,” he said.

“Used to be.”

“Retired. Has been, for some time.”

“I see.”

“These days, she works in the office.”

Corbulo laid down his pen. “In a brothel.”

“Yes, but in the office. She keeps the books and looks after the housekeeping side of things. You know, wine, candles, sending out the laundry.”

“In a brothel.”

Phrantzes sighed. “I met her,” he said irritably, “at a concert.” Corbulo barked out a short, projectile laugh, but Phrantzes ignored him. “At the New Temple, in aid of the refugees. Lord Bringas’ house orchestra. They were playing the Orchomenus flute sonata.”

“The hell with that,” Corbulo said. “What was she doing at a concert?”

“Listening,” Phrantzes replied. “She’s very fond of music.”

“Really.”

“Yes, really.” Phrantzes rolled up his right sleeve, so as not to disturb the counters, and began to make his calculation. “I was late arriving. I trod on her foot getting to my seat.”

Corbulo sighed; a long sigh, the last third of it for effect. “I’m reminded,” he said, “of Paradaisus’ epigram concerning horticulture.”

“Remind me.”

“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

Phrantzes clicked his tongue. “Anyway,” he said, “in the interval I apologised properly for standing on her foot, and she was terribly nice about it, and we got talking.”

“And?”

“And that was all,” Phrantzes said. “But then I ran into her again at the post-Mannerist exhibition at the Cyziceum.”

“Also an art lover.”

“Yes. We looked round the exhibition together. I must say, she had a very interesting perspective on Zeuxis’ use of light and shade.”

“Of course she did,” Corbulo said. “And then you went to bed together.”

“Certainly not.”

“Later, then.”

“Several weeks later, if you must know.”

“For free?”

Phrantzes sighed, and Corbulo pulled a face. “Sorry,” he said. “But you’ll forgive me if I reserve the right to be just a little bit sceptical. How old are you exactly?”

“Fifty-one,” Phrantzes snapped. “Two years younger than you.”

“Quite.”

“But in considerably better shape. I exercise three times a week at the baths, and I fence most days at the school in Coppergate. The instructor reckons I’m very well preserved.”

“That’s what they said about Tiberias the Third when they unwrapped the bandages.”

“She doesn’t think I’m too old.”

“She’s no spring chicken herself.”

“Age,” Phrantzes said, “is irrelevant where two people have deep, sincere feelings for each other.”

“Absolutely.”

“I didn’t expect you to understand,” Phrantzes said, jotting down the result of his calculation and sweeping the counters back into their box. “I think that at my age, after a long and frankly pretty tedious life, I deserve a little happiness.”

“Of course you do.” Corbulo looked away. “Maybe this isn’t the best way of achieving it.”

“How the hell would you know? You’ve always been miserable, for as long as I’ve known you.”

Corbulo shrugged, a big, wide manoeuvre that in no way rejected the assertion. “I’m your oldest friend,” he said, “not to mention your business partner. In circumstances like this, it’s my duty to be miserable.”

Phrantzes turned his head and scowled at him. “You’re worried she might get hold of my share of the business.”

“Yes,” Corbulo replied. “Among other things.”

A frozen moment; then Phrantzes grinned. “It’ll be all right, I promise you,” he said. “She’s a lovely girl. You’ll like her.”

“I’ll do my best. But no promises.”

“Your best is all I can ask for.” Phrantzes opened the big blue ledger, and wrote in the date at the top of the page. “She’s making dinner for us tomorrow night. Bring Xanthe if you like.”

“At the brothel?”

“No, you idiot, at my house.” He took a pinch of sand from the pot and sprinkled it on the wet ink. “Will Xanthe come, do you think?”

“When I tell her about it?” Corbulo beamed like a sunrise. “No power on earth could conceivably stop her.”

***

“Well?”

Corbulo took off his coat and hung it on the hook behind the door. “If you must know,” he said, “I think you’ve made a wise choice.”

Phrantzes looked at him. “Wise,” he repeated.

“Wise. Sensible, even.”

Sensible . . .

Corbulo nodded, and settled down on his stool. “I think she represents a sound medium-to-long-term investment, offering worthwhile returns with an acceptably low risk factor.”

Phrantzes rolled his eyes, while Corbulo took off his gloves, stacked them on the edge of the desk and unstoppered the ink bottle. “Really,” he said. “I was sceptical at first, but—”

Sensible, for crying out loud.”

Corbulo shrugged. “You’re a middle-aged bachelor, set in your ways, no experience of women. Quite suddenly you decide to fall in love. While I wouldn’t recommend such a course of action, if you feel you must do such a thing, you’ve chosen the right woman to fall in love with. I think,” he added.

“You think.”

Corbulo examined the nib of his pen, then reached in his pocket and found his penknife. “Yes,” he said. “And Xanthe agrees with me. In fact, she thinks you’re a very lucky man. She suggested,” he went on, reaching into his other pocket, “that you might find this useful.”

He produced a book; old, its binding cracked and starting to crumble at the edges, the middle of the spine carefully repaired with scrap parchment. Phrantzes picked it up, squinted at the title and raised his eyebrows.

“It belonged,” Corbulo said, “to my father.”

“Ah.”

“Quite. Even so,” Corbulo went on, “I gather it’s still pretty much the standard work on the subject. I haven’t read it myself, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Just dipped into it, here and there. It’s got pictures.”

Phrantzes was blushing. “I’m not a complete novice, you know. There have been—”

“I’m sure,” Corbulo said. “Didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But Xanthe said, and I agree with her – well, the disparity of experience could be a problem, if you see what I mean. It’s the same as any new venture. A little background reading is always helpful.”

Phrantzes looked at the book as though he expected it to bite him. Then he grabbed it and thrust it into a drawer. “Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t mention it.”

“I won’t,” Phrantzes replied earnestly. “Ever again. And neither will you.”

***

It was, everyone agreed, a charming wedding, in the circumstances. The bride disappointed nearly everybody by wearing a plain demure blue dress and a dark veil. She didn’t invite any guests. The four chairmen who carried her in the traditional covered litter from her lodgings to the Temple wore the livery of the Silversmiths & Clockmakers, but nobody could bring themselves to ask why.

Corbulo and Xanthe opened the dancing in an estampie, a small man and a large woman moving with practised, almost telepathic grace. For a while, nobody moved, they were too busy watching. Eventually Astyages from the assay office and his wife joined in, and not long after that there was shuffling room only on the floor. Phrantzes and his bride opened the second dance, a slow and formal quadrille; his part in it was mostly standing perfectly still, which made sense to all who knew him. She proved to be an exquisite dancer, which surprised nobody. After the dancing there was music, from the Carchedonia Ensemble, and a calligraphy demonstration provided by Master Histamenus from the Lesser Studium. The main event, however, was an exhibition bout of single rapier between the two finalists in that year’s Golden Lily; Gace Erchomai-Bringas and Suidas Deutzel. It came as a complete surprise to the groom, who’d known nothing about it. Corbulo had arranged it all, and the Association had been pleased to declare it an official match, in honour of a former triple gold medallist. They fenced with sharps (a superb case of antique Mezentine cup-hilt rapiers, the bride’s gift to the groom). After six three-minute rounds in which both combatants performed magnificently, Deutzel eventually won in the seventh with a half-inch scratch to the back of Erchomai-Bringas’ right hand. The prize, a silk handkerchief embroidered with the Association crest, and fifty nomismata, was awarded by the outgoing chairman of the Association, who made a short but witty speech saying that if Phrantzes had been twenty years younger, nobody would ever have heard of either of these two pretenders, et cetera. There was polite applause, and the two fencers were given something to eat.

“Complete nonsense, of course,” Phrantzes said later, as he poured the chairman a drink. “Even at my best, either of those young thugs would’ve made mincemeat of me. It’s one of the few good things about getting old. I’ll never have to face one of the younger generation in a serious match.”

The chairman nodded sagely. “The game’s changed a lot since our day,” he said. “People moan about it, of course, but I believe it’s no bad thing. When you think how much footwork has improved since we did away with amateur status . . . ”

“I agree,” Phrantzes said (and he noticed that his wife was looking sweetly patient, and realised he’d been talking to the chairman for far too long). “There’s no two ways about it, the standard of fencing is ten times better than it was twenty years ago. The only danger is, nowadays everybody’s watching, rather than fencing themselves. We’re turning into a nation of—”

“Darling,” his wife interrupted, “I think the Senator is about to leave.”

So Phrantzes had to go and say good night to the Senator, and once he’d gone the party cooled down quite quickly and people began to drift away. As they waited outside for their chair to be brought round, Corbulo said to Xanthe, “It’s a terrible admission to make, but I still don’t know the wretched woman’s name. I tried to catch it during the ceremony, but of course he mumbled, and obviously I can’t ask him now and I can’t spend the rest of my life referring to her as ‘your good lady’. Did you happen to . . .?”

“Sphagia,” Xanthe said.

“What?”

“Sphagia,” she repeated slowly. “ S-P—”

“Good grief.”

“It’s a Thelite name,” she said, “meaning ‘rose’. Or, if you pronounce it Sphagia, with the long a, ‘blood sausage’. I expect he’s got a nickname for her by now. You’d have to, wouldn’t you?”

Their chair appeared beside the mounting block. As they climbed in, Corbulo asked, “Was that one of the Carnufex boys I saw?”

“Yes. Addo, the youngest.”

“Good heavens. I never realised Phran knew those sorts of people.”

“From fencing,” Xanthe explained. “It’s a pity you never fenced. We might have got to meet some decent people, instead of all your dreary business contacts. Shit,” she added, as her foot slipped off the running board and landed in a puddle of icy water. “Now look what you’ve made me do.”

***

Suidas Deutzel left the wedding early and went straight home, passing the Sun in Splendour, the Beautiful Revelation of St Arcadius and the Charity and Chastity without even stopping to sniff at the door. He hadn’t drunk anything at the wedding either.

“Well,” she said, as he let himself in, “did you win?”

He nodded. “Fifty nomismata.”

“Thank God.”

He dropped into the one functional chair and closed his eyes. “Sharps,” he said. “They made us fight with bloody sharps. I really don’t see the need for that sort of thing. It’s barbaric.”

“The money,” she reminded him.

“What? Oh, right.” He reached in his pocket and produced first the handkerchief, which he frowned at and threw on the floor, and then the purse of coins, which he held out to her. She snapped it up, teased it open and started to count.

“It’s all there,” he said.

“You counted it?”

“They’re decent people.”

“No such thing.” The coins clicked together in the hollow of her hand. “Fifty.”

“See?”

“Now then.” She sat upright on the floor, forming short columns of coins with the practised touch of a banker. “Ten for the rent. Ten for Taducian – we owe fifteen, but he can go to hell. Three for the poll tax. Twelve to pay back last month’s housekeeping. Fourteen for your cousin Hammo – it’ll be worth it just to keep him off my back, I’m sick of him pouncing on me every time I put my head round the door.” She held up one coin. “And that’s for us to live on, till you can earn some more.”

He stared at her. “You’re kidding me.”

“One nomisma,” she confirmed grimly. “And if you so much as look at a bottle, I’ll kill you. Understood?”

He sighed. “I thought we’d be all right,” he said.

“Oh, we are,” she replied. “At least, by our standards. We’re bloody rich, with one nomisma. Of course we still owe for the coal, the water and the window tax, but I can stave them off for another week.”

“I’m sorry,” he said bitterly. She didn’t reply. Instead, she crawled across the floor and retrieved the handkerchief.

“You can have it if you like,” he said.

She was examining it. “I can get nine trachy on that,” she said.

“It’s worth—”

“Nine trachy,” she said, “to us, at Blemmyo’s.” She turned it over and picked at the hem with her fingernail. “Was the chairman there?”

He nodded.

“Did you ask him?”

“I sort of hinted,” he replied defensively.

“Did you ask him?”

“Not in so many words.” Her face hardened. “Look, it was a social occasion, all right? People lolling around drinking and enjoying themselves. It wasn’t exactly the time and the place for touting for work.”

“You didn’t ask him.”

“I’ll go round to the office tomorrow,” he said angrily. “All right?”

“Do what you like.”

He sighed melodramatically and lay back in the chair, surveying the room. There wasn’t a lot to see. Except for the chair and the mattress (the bailiff ’s men had taken the bed frame) there was nothing there apart from the range, which was built into the wall, and an empty fig crate, on which rested the threefoot-tall solid-gold triple-handed cup that you got lent for a year for being the fencing champion of the Republic of Scheria. She used it to store their arsewipe cabbage leaves in.

“You could go back to work,” he said.

She gave him a furious look. “Believe me, I’m tempted,” she said. “At least I’d be warm, instead of freezing to death in this icebox. But unfortunately they’re not hiring right now. Maybe in the spring.”

His eyes widened. “You asked.”

“Grow up, Suidas.”

“I didn’t mean that,” he said awkwardly. “I thought maybe a few days a week in a shop, something like that. Just till we’re all right again.”

“Suidas.” When she was really angry, she always spoke softly. “I was principal soubrette at the Palace Theatre. I’m damned if I’m going to work myself to death in a shop just because you’re completely useless with money.” She paused, to let him know she meant what was coming next. “If I go back to work, I’ll leave you. Up to you. Your choice.”

He looked at her. “For crying out loud, Sontha,” he said wearily. “Do you think we live like this because I want to? It’s just . . . ”

He didn’t bother with the rest of it. No point. He had his ultimatum, and it was perfectly reasonable. He’d never been able to argue with her, because she had the infuriating knack of being in the right all the time; and Suidas had been a fencer so long that he’d become incapable of not acknowledging a clean hit.

“Well?”

“Fair enough,” he said (and her face changed to unreadable). “I’ll go and see the chairman tomorrow, I promise. And anything that’s going, I’ll take.”

It hadn’t been the right thing to say, and she slept with her back to him that night, while he lay awake and tried to think of something else he could possibly do, besides fencing. But he couldn’t; so just before dawn, he got up and shaved, using the cup as a mirror. His other shirt was being pressed under the mattress and he couldn’t very well retrieve it without waking her up; not a good idea at such an intemperately early hour. Luckily, the cold weather meant he hadn’t sweated too much the previous evening, so yesterday’s shirt was just about wearable. He buckled on his sword belt, thought for a moment and took it off again, in case he ran into the bailiff ’s men in the street.