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An Extract from DEVICES AND DESIRES

‘The quickest way to a man’s heart,’ said the instructor, ‘is proverbially through his stomach. But if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eyesocket.’

Like a whip cracking, he uncurled his languid slouch into the taut, straight lines of the lunge. His forearm launched from the elbow like an arrow as his front leg plunged forward, and the point of the long, slim sword darted, neat as a component in a machine, through the exact centre of the finger-ring that dangled from a cord tied to the beam.

It was typical of Valens’ father that he insisted on his son learning the new fencing; the stock, the tuck, the small-sword and the rapier. It was elegant, refined, difficult, endlessly time-consuming and, of course, useless. A brigandine or even a thick winter coat would turn one of those exquisite points; if you wanted to have any chance of doing useful work, you had to aim for the holes in the face, targets no bigger than an eight-mark coin. Against a farm worker with a hedging tool, you stood no chance whatsoever. But, for ten years, Valens had flounced and stretched up and down a chalk line in a draughty shed that hadn’t been cleaned out since it was still a stable. When he could hit the apple, the instructor had hung up a plum, and then a damson. Now he could get the damson nine times out of ten, and so the ring had taken its place. Once he’d mastered that, he wondered what he’d be faced with next. The eye of a darning-needle, probably.

‘Better,’ the instructor said, as the point of Valens’ sword nicked the ring’s edge, making it tinkle like a cow-bell. ‘Again.’

It was typical of Valens that he suffered through his weekly lesson, face frozen and murder in his heart, always striving to do better even though he knew the whole thing was an exercise in fatuity. Fencing was last lesson but one on a Monday; on Wednesday evening, when he actually had an hour free, he paid one of the guardsmen four marks an hour to teach him basic sword and shield, and another two marks to keep the secret from his father. He was actually quite good at proper fencing, or so the guardsman said; but the tuck had no cutting edge, only a point, so he couldn’t slice the grin off the instructor’s face with a smart backhand wrap, as he longed to do. Instead, he was tethered to this stupid chalk line, like a grazing goat.

‘That’ll do,’ the instructor said, two dozen lunges later. ‘For next week, I want you to practise the hanging guard and the volte.’

Valens dipped his head in a perfunctory nod; the instructor scooped up his armful of swords, unhooked his ring and left the room. It was still raining outside, and he had a quarter of an hour before he had to present himself in the west tower for lute and rebec. Awkwardly – it was too small for him at the best of times, and now his fingers were hot and swollen – he eased the ring off his right index finger and cast around for a bit of string.

Usually, he did much better when the instructor wasn’t there, when he was on his own. That was fatuous too, since the whole idea of a sword-fight is that there’s someone to fight with. Today, though, he was worse solo than he’d been during the lesson. He lunged again, missed, hit the string, which wrapped itself insultingly round the sword-point. Maybe it was simply too difficult for him.

That thought didn’t sit comfortably, so he came at the problem from a different angle. Obviously, he told himself, the reason I can’t do it is because it’s not difficult enough.

Having freed his sword, he stepped back to a length; then he leaned forward just a little and tapped the ring on its edge, setting it swinging. Then he lunged again.

Six times out of six; enough to prove his point. When the ring swung backwards and forwards, he didn’t just have a hole to aim at, he had a line. If he judged the forward allowance right, it was just a simple matter of pointing with the sword as though it was a finger. He steadied the ring until it stopped swinging, stepped back, lunged again and missed. Maybe I should have been a cat, he thought. Cats only lash out at moving objects; if it’s still, they can’t see it.

He cut the ring off the cord with his small knife and jammed it back on his finger, trapping a little fold of skin. Rebec next; time to stop being a warrior and become an artist. When he was Duke, of course, the finest musicians in the world would bribe his chamberlains for a chance to play while he chatted to his guests or read the day’s intelligence reports, ignoring them completely. The son of a powerful, uneducated man has a hard time of it, shouldering the burden of all the advantages his father managed so well without.

An hour of the rebec left his fingertips numb and raw; and then it was time for dinner. That brought back into sharp focus the question he’d been dodging and parrying all day; would she still be there, or had his father sent her back home? If she’d left already – if, while he’d been scanning hexameters and hendecasyllables, stabbing at dangling jewellery and picking at wire, she’d packed up her bags and walked out of his life, possibly for ever – at least he wouldn’t have to sit all night at the wrong end of the table, straining to catch a word or two of what she said to someone else. If she was still here . . . He cast up his mental accounts, trying to figure out if he was owed a miracle. On balance, he decided, probably not. According to the holy friars, it took three hundred hours of prayer or five hundred of good works to buy a miracle, and he was at least sixty short on either count. All he could afford out of his accrued merit was a revelatory vision of the Divinity, and he wasn’t too bothered about that.

If she was still here.

On the off chance, he went back to his room, pulled off his sweaty, dusty shirt and winnowed through his clothes-chest for a replacement. The black, with silver threads and two gold buttons at the neck, made him look like a jackdaw, so he went for the red, with last year’s sleeves (but, duke’s son or not, he lived in the mountains; if it came in from outside, it came slowly, on a mule), simply because it was relatively clean and free of holes. Shoes; his father chose his shoes for him, and the fashion was still for poulaines, with their ridiculously long pointy toes. He promised himself that she wouldn’t be able to see his feet under the table (besides, she wouldn’t still be here), and pulled out his good mantle from the bottom of the chest. It was only civet, but it helped mask the disgraceful length of his neck. A glance in the mirror made him wince, but it was the best he could do.

Sixty hours, he told himself; sixty rotten hours I could’ve made up easily, if only I’d known.

Protocol demanded that he sit on his father’s left at dinner. Tonight, the important guest was someone he didn’t know, although the man’s brown skin and high cheekbones made it easy enough to guess where he was from. An ambassador from Mezentia; no wonder his father was preoccupied, waving his hands and smiling (two generations of courtiers had come to harm trying to point out to the Duke that his smile was infinitely more terrifying than his frown), while the little bald brown man nodded politely and picked at his dinner like a starling. One quick look gave Valens all the information he needed about what was going on there. On his own left, the Chancellor was discussing climbing roses with the controller of the mines. So that was all right; he was free to look round without having to talk to anybody.

She was still here. There was a tiny prickle of guilt mixed in with his relief. She was, after all, a hostage. If she hadn’t been sent home, it meant that there’d been some last-minute hitch in the treaty negotiations, and the war between the two dukedoms, two centuries old, was still clinging on to life by a thread. Sooner or later, though, the treaty would be signed: peace would end the fighting and the desperate waste of lives and money, heal the country’s wounds and bring the conscript farmers and miners back home; peace would take her away from him before he’d even had a chance to talk to her alone. For now, though, the war was still here and so was she.

(A small diplomatic incident, maybe; if he could contrive it that their ambassador bumped into him on the stairs and knocked him down a flight or two. Would an act of clumsiness towards the heir apparent be enough to disrupt the negotiations for a week or ten days? On the other hand, if he fell awkwardly and broke his neck, might that not constitute an act of war, leading to summary execution of the hostages? And he’d be dead too, of course, for what that was worth.)

Something massive stirred on his right; his father was standing up to say something, and everybody had stopped talking. There was a chance it might be important (Father loved to annoy his advisers by making vital announcements out of the blue at dinner), so Valens tucked in his elbows, looked straight ahead and listened. 

But it wasn’t anything. The little bald man from Mezentia turned out to be someone terribly important, grand secretary of the Foundrymen’s and Machinists’ Guild (in Father’s court, secretaries were fast-moving, worried-looking men who could write; but apparently they ruled Mezentia, and therefore, by implication, the world), and he was here as an observer to the treaty negotiations, and this was extremely good. Furthermore, as a token of the Republic’s respect and esteem, he’d brought an example of cutting-edge Mezentine technology, which they would all have the privilege of seeing demonstrated after dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I see,’ she said. ‘Yes, I think I understand it now.’

‘Really?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘But thank you for trying.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Really? I mean, what’s it like?’

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

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

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

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

Not that it mattered. She was going home tomorrow. ‘Slimy sauce,’ he repeated. ‘Yetch. You had to eat it, I suppose, or risk starting a war.’

She smiled, and he looked away, but the smile followed him.  ‘Not  all  of  it,’  she  said.  ‘You’ve  got  to  leave  some  if you’re a girl, it’s ladylike. Not that I minded terribly much.’ Valens nodded. ‘When I was a kid I had to finish everything on my plate, or it’d be served up cold for breakfast and lunch until I ate it. Which was fine,’ he went on, ‘I knew where I stood. But when I was nine, we had to go to a reception at the Lorican embassy—’

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped dead.

‘Only?’

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

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

‘And was there a war?’ she asked.

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

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

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

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

Well, he had to ask. ‘Why?’

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

‘Job?’

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

‘That’s . . .’ That’s barbaric, he was about to say, but he knew better than that. He knew the theory perfectly well (statecraft, two hours a week with Chancellor Vetuarius), but he’d never given it any thought before; like people getting killed in the wars, something that happened but was best not dwelt on. ‘It must be interesting,’ he heard himself say. ‘I’ve never been abroad.’

She paused, considering her reply. ‘Actually, it’s quite dull, mostly. It’s not like I get to go out and see things, and one guest wing’s pretty like another.’

(And, she didn’t say, there’s always the thought of what might happen if things go wrong.)

‘I guess so,’ he said. ‘Well, I hope it hasn’t been too boring here.’

‘Boring?’ She looked at him. ‘I wouldn’t say that. Going hunting with your father was—’

‘Quite.’ Valens managed not to wince. ‘I didn’t know he’d dragged you out with him. Was it very horrible?’

She shook her head. ‘I’ve been before, so the blood and stuff doesn’t bother me. It was the standing about waiting for something to happen that got to me.’

Valens nodded. ‘Was it raining?’

‘Yes.’

‘It always rains.’ He pulled a face. ‘Whenever I hear about the terrible droughts in the south, and they’re asking is it because God’s angry with them or something, I know it’s just because Dad doesn’t go hunting in the south. He could earn a good living as a rain-maker.’

She smiled, but he knew his joke hadn’t really bitten home. That disconcerted him; usually it had them laughing like drains. Or perhaps they only laughed because he was the Duke’s son. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘that was pretty boring. But the rest of it was . . .’ She shrugged. ‘It was fine.’

The shrug hurt. ‘Any rate,’ he said briskly, ‘you’ll be home for harvest festival.’

‘It’s not a big thing where I come from,’ she replied; and then, like an eclipse of the sun that stops the battle while the issue’s still in the balance, the chamberlain came out to drive them all into the Great Hall for singing and a recital by the greatest living exponent of the psaltery.

Valens watched her being bustled away with the other women, until an equerry whisked him off to take his place in the front row.

Ironically, the singer sang nothing but love-songs; aubades about young lovers parted by the dawn, razos between the pining youth and the cynical go-between, the bitter complaints of the girl torn from her darling to marry a rich, elderly stranger. All through the endless performance he didn’t dare turn round, but the thought that she was somewhere in the rows behind was like an unbearable itch. The greatest living psalterist seemed to linger spitefully over each note, as if he knew. The candles were guttering by the time he finally ground to a halt. There would be no more socialising that evening, and in the morning (early, to catch the coolest part of the day) she’d be going home.

(I could start a war, he thought, as he trudged up the stairs to bed. I could conspire with a disaffected faction or send the keys of a frontier post to the enemy; then we’d be at war again, and she could come back as a hostage. Or maybe we could lose, and I could go there; all the same to me, so long as . . .)

He lay in bed with the lamp flickering, just enough light to see dim shapes by. On the opposite wall, the same boarhounds that had given him nightmares when he was six carried on their endless duel with the boar at bay, trapped in the fibres of the tapestry. He could see them just as well when his eyes were shut; two of them, all neck and almost no head, had their teeth in the boar’s front leg, while a third had him by the ear and hung twisting in mid-air, while the enemy’s tusks ripped open a fourth from shoulder to tail. Night after night he’d wondered as he lay there which he was, the dogs or the pig, the hunters or the quarry. It was one of the few questions in his life to which he had yet to resolve an answer. It was possible that he was both, a synthesis of the two, made possible by the shared act of ripping and tearing. His father had had the tapestry put there in the hope that it’d inspire him with a love of the chase; but it wasn’t a chase, it was a single still moment (perhaps he couldn’t see it because it didn’t move, like the ring hanging from the rafter); and therefore it represented nothing. Tonight, it made him think of her, standing in the rain while the lymers snuffled up and down false trails, his father bitching at the harbourers and the masters of the hounds, the courtiers silent and wet waiting for the violence to begin.

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