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Read a sample from THE TWO OF SWORDS: VOLUME TWO by K. J. Parker

The second volume of a sweeping and ingeniously plotted epic fantasy from the World Fantasy Award-winning author K. J. Parker and his most ambitious work to date. This is a story of a war on a grand scale, told through the eyes of soldiers, politicians, victims and heroes.

Declaration

When it comes to processing the dead, there is no more respected name than Siama Ocnisant. For thirty years, Ocnisant’s Emerald Caravan has followed closely in the wake of every major war, performing such vital services as burying the fallen, treating and repatriating the wounded, clearing up and making good the mess, liaising with and reassuring local farmers and landowners – all without costing the combatants’ hard-pressed taxpayers a single stuiver. Strictly neutral and impartial, the Emerald Caravan finances its entire operation (without compromising in any way on quality of service) by retrieving and selling abandoned military equipment, which would otherwise go to waste or fall into the hands of undesirables. By reselling war materiel at sensible prices, Ocnisant also helps keep military spending down and make war affordable – a vital consideration in an age of protracted multi-theatre conflicts. “I simply don’t know how he does it for the money,” the Eastern emperor is reported to have told his close advisers. “Without exaggeration, we simply couldn’t have kept the war going this long without him.”

Poverty

“The good news,” he said, “is that they found you not guilty of witchcraft.” He smiled. “All the evidence was circumstantial, no positive identification, therefore no case to answer.”

He paused.

“And?” she said.

“The bad news is,” he said, “they convicted you on three of the five counts of spying, and they’re going to hang you in the morning. I tried to lodge an appeal, but it appears there is no right of appeal in espionage cases, so there’s not a lot I can do.” He hesitated again. “I’ve asked the ambassador to petition the court for clemency, but—”

“He’s a busy man?”

“Very. And in any case, clemency would mean forty years minimum in the slate quarries, and nobody lasts more than three years down there, so it’s as broad as it’s long, really. I’m very sorry,” he said. “But there you are. Is there anything I can do for you?”

Outside it was raining again. She thought for a moment. Apparently not.”

He frowned slightly. “It goes without saying,” he said, “that the Department will look after your children and dependent relatives—”

“I haven’t got any.”

“No? Well, that’s something, isn’t it? Now, you can nominate who gets your back pay, death- in- service gratuity, any money you may have paid in to a funeral club, your share of plunder, spoil and prizes, if any—” He waited for a moment. “Or, if you don’t nominate, it all goes to the Benevolence. It’s a good cause; they do splendid work.”

“That’s all right, then.”

His frown deepened, but he persevered. “Now, if you haven’t made a will, you can dictate one to me now and I can get the dispensation from proper procedure. I strongly advise you to: you don’t want to leave your family a mess to clear up.”

She smiled at him. “I haven’t got anything to leave.”

“Really? Ah well.” From his sleeve he produced three rolls of parchment, a quill pen and a brass ink bottle. “In that case, I just need you to sign these forms, and that’s pretty much everything covered.”

He handed her the rolls of parchment. She unrolled them, glanced at them and tore them up. He sighed. “Any last message you’d like me to pass on?”

“Actually, yes.”

He nodded briskly. “Fire away.”

She told him. He looked at her. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said. “But, after all, you knew the risks when you—”

“Yes.”

“Well, then. I know this is a very difficult moment for you, but I would remind you that even in the final extremity, you still represent the Service, and what you say and do reflects on us all. It’d be a great shame to tarnish an otherwise exemplary record at the last moment, so to speak.” She looked at him, and he got up and banged on the cell door with his fist. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Why? It’s not your fault.”

“The duty chaplain—”

“Goodbye.”A key turned in the lock and the door swung open. He looked at her, opened his mouth, closed it again and left. The door closed and the lock turned. She breathed out slowly.

Five hours later, she started banging on the door. “Keep it down, will you?” she heard the jailer say on the other side. “You’ll start them all off.”

“I want to see the chaplain.”

A pause; then, “Yes, all right,” in a resigned voice. She sat down on the bed and waited. Some time later, the door opened and the chaplain came in. He was a tall man, thin, bald, somewhere between sixty and seventy; he wore nothing but a tunic, for security reasons.

“I want to confess,” she said.

He hadn’t shaved recently, and there were crumbs in the folds of his tunic. “Of course,” he said, and perched on the end of the bed.

She looked at him for a moment, then said, “I have committed murder, theft and arson. I have lied and carried false witness. I have wounded and practised torture, both physical and mental. I have forged documents, including sacred and liturgical records.”

His face didn’t change. He nodded.

“I have blasphemed and ridiculed the articles of the faith. I have preached heretical doctrines. I have neglected to assist fellow craftsmen in their time of trial.”

He closed his eyes, just for a moment. Then he opened them again. “I understand,” he said. “Your sins are forgiven.” He stood up and knocked three times. The door opened. The guard stood aside to let him pass; as he did so, he drew the sword from the guard’s scabbard and stabbed him in the throat, at the junction of the collarbones. The guard dropped to the floor; the chaplain stuck his head out of the door, then came back into the cell. “All clear,” he said.

She nodded. “Thanks,” she said.

He gave her a filthy look. “You’d better take me with you,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“That’s fine,” she assured him. “I do. Stick with me, you’ll be all right.” She took the sword from his hand. “Where does this corridor lead to?”

“How should I know? I only ever come down the stairs.”

She breathed out through her nose. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll go up the stairs.”

“You can’t. There’s a guard.”

“Of course there is.” She grabbed his ear with her left hand, pulled his head back and rested the edge of the sword against his neck. “Just in case anyone sees us,” she said.

The stairs he’d talked about proved to be a narrow spiral staircase, without even a rope to hold on to, so she let go of him while they climbed. As soon as they reached the top, she grabbed him again. There was no guard.

“I thought you said—”

“There should be. There is usually.”

They were in a long gallery, with arrow slits every five yards. She stopped and peered out through one of them, but it was pitch dark and she couldn’t see anything. After a while, they came to a small door – more of a hatch, really – in the wall. “What’s that?”

“It’s a garderobe. Where they empty the chamber pots.”

“Splendid.” She let go of him, dumped the sword on the floor and pulled open the door.

“You can’t go that way. It’s a hundred- foot drop.”

She smiled at him. “Thanks for everything,” she said. “I hope you don’t get in any trouble.”

“Don’t be bloody stupid. If you aren’t smashed to bits, you’ll drown.”

“My risk,” she said. “Now, go and tell them I got loose and took you hostage.”

The door slammed behind her before he could answer. He stood for a while staring at the closed door, then turned and headed back down the gallery. After about ten paces it occurred to him to break into a run and start shouting.

The guards who found him sent for the castellan, who ordered two men to go down the garderobe shaft on ropes. They came back up after a while, white- faced and foul- smelling; no sign of anyone down there, they said, but it’s got to be ten feet deep and no handholds; if she fell into that, she drowned, no question about it. Hell of a way to go, one of them added, though if she was lucky she hit her head on the wall on the way down. The castellan asked them: Are you sure? Oh yes, they told him. Positive.

She heard most of their conversation, since the tunnel amplified sound quite wonderfully. She was still climbing. It was desperate work, with her back arched against the opposite wall, her fingers and toes crammed into mortar cracks between the stones – fortunately the builders had lined the garderobe with undressed stone, which gave slightly more purchase. Halfway between floors she came to the conclusion that she’d made a dreadful mistake and she wasn’t going to make it, but she kept going nevertheless. She found the door on the upper storey by resting her back against it, thinking it was solid wall; it swung open, she lost her grip, actually slid down the best part of a yard before finding a crack with one wildly scrabbling foot. For a moment her weight was too much for four toes to bear, but she found a handhold just in time, and then another, and then got the tips of three fingers over the sill of the door. It was pure luck that the upper gallery was empty, at a time of day when there should have been a sentry there; but he’d gone down the stairs when the alarm was sounded on the floor below.

Well; she was officially dead and nobody was actively looking for her, but it still wasn’t wonderful. Fortunately, she had a resource that most escaping prisoners are denied: she was female and women carrying baskets of washing don’t attract attention in the inhabited parts of castles, particularly if they’re supposed to be dead. She searched until she found the cupboard where the dirty linen lived, grabbed a big armful that covered most of her face and staggered along the gallery looking for the backstairs. Three guards took no notice of her whatsoever, and then she was trotting down a proper square-section stairway, bare-walled and imperfectly whitewashed, which could only lead to the kitchens, laundry and other tactically negligible facilities where fighting men rarely go.

She came out eventually into a lantern-lit courtyard. A quick glance upwards told her that she was now in the very centre of the castle, surrounded on all four sides by impenetrably thick stone walls, at the junction of all routes of communication and access used by the garrison and the castle servants. Best-quality Mezentine armour wouldn’t have saved her, but the armful of washing made her invisible. The difficulty was that a laundry maid had no lawful excuse for leaving the castle, even by daylight; in the middle of the night, forget it. Nor could she spend the rest of her life wandering around with an armful of dirty sheets.

A castle is a fair-sized community, larger than many villages, almost the size of a small town. Even in a small town, of course, everybody knows everybody else, unless their faces are obscured by washing. But she was exhausted, bone- weary and finding it increasingly difficult to think about anything except finding somewhere to sit down and rest. It was only later, in hindsight, that she realised that the exhaustion and the indifference almost certainly saved her life – it made her impersonation of a laundry maid in the last quarter of the night shift far more convincing than mere acting could ever have done. If she’d had to walk past the sentry on the gate between the middle and outer courtyards, almost inevitably she’d have given herself away, if she’d been acting natural. Instead, she caught her foot on the lintel out of sheer weariness, stumbled into the guard, scraped the back of her hand on the stonework, squealed at the pain, mumbled an apology and trudged away, unchallenged, sworn at for clumsiness and completely accepted as genuine.

The outer courtyard was another world entirely, and as soon as she emerged into it she realised she’d made a mistake. A laundry maid could believably carry dirty washing from the outer yard to the middle, but not the other way round. She calculated that she had five, maybe ten seconds to deal with the error before someone noticed. She made her mind up in three. There were two sentries posted outside the doors to the Great Hall. She headed straight for them, well aware that they’d noticed her. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I’m new here and I’m lost. Which way to the laundry, please?” They laughed and told her. That posed another problem. The route she’d been given to the laundry meant going back the way she’d just come, past the guard she’d bumped into. Here the bone-weariness was unquestionably her salvation. She left the guard thinking she was mad or drunk or probably both, but that was fine. Even with her back to him as she walked away, she could tell he wasn’t looking at her.

Well, she thought; and what would a worn-out laundry maid do next, if she was as tired as me? The answer was perfectly obvious; she’d caught her own maid doing it once, about a thousand years ago in another life, and given her a tongue-lashing for being lazy. She found a dark corner under some stairs, crawled into it, pulled the shirts and sheets up round her until she looked from a distance like a pile of discarded laundry and closed her eyes. Just for two minutes, that’s all.

When she woke up, bright light was streaming in from a window high up on the stairs. She made herself stay perfectly still, and listened, and tried to think. At this time of day, in a well-run castle, where would everybody be? The chambermaids would be in the bedchambers; the kitchen staff would be fixing the midday meal; the laundry maids would be doing yesterday’s washing before the chambermaids brought down today’s. None of them would be using the backstairs. If anyone came and saw her, they’d know at once that she was an anomaly. But why would anyone come? They all had work to do somewhere else.

If there was an alternative, she couldn’t think of it. From the pile of washing she pulled out a plain off- white linen smock, property of some ladies’ maid from the third or fourth floor – now there was a group she hadn’t taken account of; too late now, she was naked on the stairs, one foot in the smock. She hauled it up round her and knotted the belt, then clawed at her hair in the vain hope of getting it into some sort of order; realised that she’d just made another serious mistake; caught sight of a white mob cap in the pile of discarded washing, thanked God for saving her from her own stupidity, pulled the cap on, settled it firmly and tucked stray hair under the headband. The rest of the laundry she kicked into the shadows under the stairs; didn’t matter if it was found and commented on; the laundry maid who’d left it there no longer existed. She noticed her filthy, grimy hands and skinned knuckles, tucked them into her sleeves. The hem of her smock covered her feet. Saved again.

The wonderful thing about ladies’ maids is that they can be strangers, in service to guests. They can also go almost anywhere, because their mistresses can order them to do all manner of improbable things at inappropriate times – get me a drink of water, an apple, six yards of fine green silk, scissors (no, you stupid girl, sharp scissors, the other scissors), sixteen cheese scones, a half-bottle of the ’06 Pirigouna, something to help me sleep, I want to see the doctor, my coachman, my dressmaker, the castellan, go and find where my useless lump of a husband’s got to, quickly, now. More freedom than any other category of servant; more freedom than the fine lady herself, come to that. Being a ladies’ maid is next best thing to being a man.

But not enough freedom to get her across the yard, through the gate and out the other side. For that she was going to have to spill blood, or be very clever, or athletic, or all three. She chose a doorway at random, climbed the stairs to the very top and barged open a long-closed door out on to the roof.

Having caught her breath, and making sure she kept her head down below the level of the parapet, she turned her mind to contemplation of the principles of military architecture. The aim of castle building is primarily to keep people out; but the same principles and functions do a very good job of keeping people in, which is why castles make such good prisons. Theoretically, she could spend the rest of the day getting hold of a rope and then, once night had fallen, lower herself down off the tower, swim the moat and run for it, if she still had the energy.

Alternatively— her mind went back to lectures at the Tactical Institute at Beal; fat, one- eyed General Tirza. The weakest part of any defensive structure is the man standing in front of it. There were two guards on the main gate: she could just see the tops of their helmets. The first one would be easy – walk up to him, say “Excuse me” in a little-girl voice, then stab him in the eye as he bent forward to listen to her. But the second one was stationed on the other side of the gateway (fifteen feet? There or thereabouts). Lesson one: space is time. Even if she was wonderfully quick about killing the first guard, she had no guarantee of getting to his colleague before he had time to realise what had just happened, lift his shield and level his spear. True, she didn’t actually want to fight him: she wanted to get past him and away, but— She did the mental geometry, and three times out of seven the numbers came out badly. And besides, stab the guard in the eye with what? She’d grown so used to having a knife up her sleeve that she’d forgotten it wasn’t there any more. No, too many conditions precedent. Think of something else.

Then, in the distance (no, be precise; in the Great Hall, on the other side of the yard) someone started to play the violin. Her eyes opened wide, and then she laughed.

About the Author

K. J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt. He was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines. These interests led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialised in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.