The boatman who rowed him from the ship to the quay kept looking at him; first a stare, then a frown. Pretending he hadn’t noticed, he pulled the collar of his greatcoat up round his chin, a perfectly legitimate response to the spray and cold wind.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” the boatman asked.
“Wouldn’t have thought so,” he replied.
The boatman’s frown deepened. He pulled a dozen strokes, then lifted his oars out of the water, letting the back-current pull the boat the rest of the way. “I do know you,” the boatman said. “Were you in the war?”
He smiled. “Everybody was in the war.”
The boatman was studying his collar and the frayed remains of his cuffs, where the rank and unit insignia had been before he unpicked them. “Cavalry?” the boatman persisted. “I was in the cavalry.”
“Sappers,” he replied. It was the first lie he’d told for six weeks.
He felt the boat nuzzle up to the quay, grabbed his bags and stood up. “Thanks,” he said.
He paid three – two for the fare, one for the lie – and climbed the steps, not looking back. The smell was exactly as he remembered it; seaweed, rotting rope, cod drying on racks, sewage, tar. It would’ve been nice if just one thing had changed, but apparently not.
As he walked up the steep, cobbled hill, he saw a thick knot of people blocking his way. Never a good sign. It was just starting to rain.
It was as he’d feared. The short, fat man in the immaculate uniform was almost certainly the harbour master; next to him, two thin men who had to be his clerks; the old, bald man had the constipated look of a mayor or a portreeve. Add two guards and a tall, scared-looking youth who was presumably someone’s nephew. At least they hadn’t had time to call out the town band.
No chance of slipping past. He didn’t look at them directly. At ten yards, they stood at sort-of-attention. At five yards, the presumed harbour master cleared his throat. He was actually shaking with fear.
“General Kunessin,” he said, in a squeaky little voice. “This is a tremendous honour. If only we’d had a little more notice – “
”That’s perfectly all right,” he replied; his polite-to-nuisances voice. “Listen, is there somewhere I can hire a horse and two mules?”
Looking rather dazed, the harbour master gave him directions; through the Landgate, second on your left then sharp right –
“Coopers Row,” he interrupted. “Thanks, that’s fine.”
The harbour master’s eyes opened very wide. “You’ve been here before then, general?”
* * *
One thing that had changed in seventeen years was the cost of hiring a horse in Faralia. It had doubled. All the more surprising because, as far as he could tell, it was the same horse.
“Is this the best you’ve got?” he asked. “I’ve got a long way to go.”
“Take it or leave it.”
The horse shivered. It wasn’t a particularly cold day. “Thanks,” Kunessin said. “Forget the horse and make it three mules.”
The groom looked at him; cheapskates aren’t welcome here. Kunessin smiled back. “How’s your uncle, by the way?” he asked pleasantly. “Keeping well?”
Two things, then. “Not that one,” he said, “it’s lame.” He counted out two dollars and nine turners. “Thank you so much,” he said.
The groom handed him the leading reins. “Do I know you?”
“No,” he replied, because at six and a half turners per half-dead mule per day, he was entitled to a free lie. “I’m a perfect stranger.”
* * *
Climbing the hill eastwards out of town, his feet practically dragging on the ground as the mule panted mournfully under his weight, he thought; hell of a way for the local hero to travel. And that made him laugh out loud.
* * *
Because he took a long loop to avoid Big Moor, it took him two and a half hours to reach Ennepe, at which point he got off the mule and walked the rest of the way, to save time.
No change, he thought. Even the gap in the long wall was still there, a little bit bigger, a few more stones tumbled down and snug in the grass. Seventeen years and they still hadn’t got around to fixing it. Instead, they’d bundled cut gorse into the breach and let the brambles grow up through the dead, dry branches. He smiled as he pictured them, at breakfast round the long kitchen table; one of these days we’d better fix that gap in the wall, and the others all nodding. Seventeen years; seventeen years slipping by, and they’d never found the time. For some reason, that made him feel sad and rather angry.
Walking down the drove, Stoneacre on his left, he could see Big Moor clearly in the distance. Seventy-five acres of bleak, thin hilltop pasture, a green lump. It cost him a good deal of effort to avoid looking at it, but he managed.
At the point where the drove crossed the old cart road (now it was just a green trace in the bracken; by the look of it, the lumber carts didn’t come this way any more) he saw a boy sitting on a fallen tree, staring at him. He pushed his hat back a little, to show his face, and called out, “Hello.”
The boy’s head dipped about half an inch. Otherwise he didn’t move. He understood the look on the boy’s face all too well; the natural distrust of newcomers, at war with the furious curiosity about a stranger, in a place where strangers never came.
“There’s a stray ewe caught in the briars up at the top, just past the deer-track,” he said. “One of yours?”
The boy studied him for three heartbeats, then nodded a full inch. His lips moved, but “thanks” didn’t quite make it through. He stood up, but didn’t walk.
“You’ll be Nogei Gaeon’s boy,” Kunessin said.
“I’m on my way up to the house now. Is he likely to be in the yard, this time of day?”
Desperate hesitation; then the boy shook his head. “He’ll be up at the linhay,” he replied, “feeding the calves.”
“Over Long Ridge?”
The boy’s eyes widened; he couldn’t understand how a stranger would know the names of the fields. “Thanks,” Kunessin said, “How about your uncle Kudei? Where’d he be?”
The boy gave him a long, frightened look. “You from the government?”
Kunessin grinned. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” he said.
He left the boy and carried on down the hill until he reached the top gate of Castle Field, which led into Greystones, which led into Long Ridge. The hedges were high, neglected, and they shielded him from the sight of Big Moor.
(Well, he thought, I’m home, as near as makes no odds; the last place on earth I want to be)
Then, before he was ready, he was standing at the top of the yard, looking down the slope. Directly in front of him was the old cider house, which had finally collapsed. One wall had peeled away, and the unsupported roof had slumped sideways, the roof-tree and rafters gradually torn apart by the unsupportable weight of the slates; it put him in mind of the stripped carcass of a chicken, after the meal is over. A dense tangle of briars slopped out over the stub of the broken wall, and a young ash was growing aggressively between the stones. It must have happened so slowly, he thought; neglect, the danger dimly perceived but never quite scrambling high enough up the pyramid of priorities until it was too late, no longer worth the prodigious effort needed to put it right. There would have been a morning when they all came out of the house to find it lying there, having gently pulled itself apart in the night. They’d have sworn a bit, shaken their heads, accepted the inconvenience and carried on as before.
A man came out of the back door of the house; tall, bald, slightly stooped shoulders. He was carrying a large basket full of apples. Halfway across the yard he stopped and looked up. For a moment he stayed quite still; then he put the basket down. Kunessin walked down to meet him.
“Oh,” the man said. “It’s you.”
Kunessin smiled. “Hello, Euge,” he said. He noticed that the apples in the basket were all wrinkled, some of them marked with brown patches. Forgotten about, left too long in store, spoiled, now only fit for the pigs.
“What’re you doing here?”
“Visiting,” Kunessin replied. “Where’s Kudei?”
Euge Gaeon nodded in the direction of the foul, wet pasture beyond the house. “You still in the army?” he asked.
“No,” Kunessin said. “I retired. How’s the farm?”
Euge shrugged, as if the question didn’t make sense; might as well ask, how are the mountains? Just behind him, a rat scuttled across the yard and vanished into a crack in the feed store wall.
“You staying long?” Euge asked.
Kunessin shook his head. “Flying visit,” he said.
Well, at least he’d made somebody happy today. He left Euge to his melancholy task, rounded the back porch of the house (the midden was buried under the finest crop of nettles he’d ever seen in his life, but he could just see the remains of a dead sheep, and a large clot of sodden chicken feathers) climbed over the back rails and squelched across the small orchard to the beech-hedged bank that divided it from Little Moor. There was no gate in the gateway; instead, four or five broken willow hurdles had been wedged together and tied to each other with flax twine. He climbed over, grazing his ankle in the process, and saw a man in the distance.
Kudei Gaeon was standing a few yards from the single oak tree that grew in the top left corner of the field. He was watching a handsome heifer calf, which he’d clearly just tied to the tree with three feet of rope. The calf was tugging furiously, its feet dug in to the soft ground, leaning back with all its weight, its head turned sideways. Ten yards or so beyond, a thin cow was watching, angry but too apprehensive to get involved. Kudei took a piece of rag from his coat pocket and bound it round his left hand; rope burns, Kunessin supposed.
“Hello, farmer,” he said.
Kudei looked round and saw him. “Oh,” he said. “It’s you.” For a moment he hesitated, then he grinned; it was as though his face was splitting, like a log to the wedge. “You’re back, then.”
Kunessin realised he’d taken a step back, just as he’d always done when talking to Kudei. Too close and he had to look up to him, because Kudei happened to be a head taller than him. He’d always resented that, for some absurd reason.
“How’s the farm?” Kunessin asked.
“Could be worse,” Kudei replied with a scowl. “Short on hay this year because of the rain, but the grass is good and fat, so we won’t have to start feeding till late.” He must have realised he was scowling; he deliberately relaxed his face, then smiled. “You didn’t come all this way to ask about the farm.”
“Actually,” Kunessin said, then shrugged. “Hasn’t changed much in seventeen years.”
Kudei thought for a moment, then said; “It’s changed slowly.”
“The cider house.”
“You noticed.” Kudei laughed; a slight shudder in his massive chest. “Well, of course you did. Sorry about that. I guess we never got round to doing anything about it.”
“There’s always something,” Kunessin said.
“Not when you had the place.” Kudei frowned, then disposed of that expression, too. “You really came back just to see what we’ve done with it?”
“No, of course not.” The calf was twisting its neck against the rope. Quite soon, there’d be a sore patch. Dad would’ve padded the halter, Kunessin thought. “That’s a nice little heifer,” he said. “Going to show her in the spring?”
“We don’t show any more,” Kudei said. “No time.”
Kunessin nodded. “Are you done here? I could do with a drink.”
“Come up to the house. You’ll have to excuse my brothers,” he added sadly. “They haven’t exactly mellowed with age.”
“I met Euge just now,” Kunessin said. “Wasn’t he ever pleased to see me.”
“I can imagine,” Kudei said; he was pulling the rag tighter round his damaged hand.
“You should wear gloves when you’re roping cattle.”
“I would, if I had any.”
For some reason, Kunessin was shocked by that. “You’re kidding.”
Kudei laughed. “Sort of,” he said. “We’ve got seven pairs of gloves, actually, all of them with the palms worn through. And we’ve got three good cured sheepskins hanging up in the barn, going mouldy with the damp, but actually cutting a bit off and patching a glove – “ He smiled. “It’s a case of getting round to it, you see. Always tomorrow, always directly. Well, you know.”
Shocked; and, he realised, angry. “That’s no way to live, Kudei,” he said.
“We manage,” Kudei replied quietly. “Come inside, we’ll have that drink.”
“Forget it,” Kunessin said, more abruptly than he’d have liked. “I need to get back to town by nightfall,” he lied. “It was good to see you again.”
Kudei stopped dead in his tracks. “Is that it, then?” he said. “You came all this way to yell at me for not patching a pair of gloves?”
“You shouldn’t have let the cider house fall down,” Kunessin replied. “That was just idleness.”
(He could always tell when Kudei was starting to get angry. It was a long, slow process, and it always started the same way. He’d start to slow down, his movements gentler, his voice getting softer. Just before he got furious you could barely hear him)
“It hasn’t been easy,” Kudei said. “I was away for ten years.”
“I know.” Time for another lie. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“My brothers – “It was as though Kudei was searching the shelves and drawers of his mind for the right words. “They do their best,” he said.
Which was true, and of course that was what made it unforgivable. But he hadn’t come here to fight. “I’ll be at the Glory of Heroes for three days,” Kunessin said. “Drop in and I’ll buy you that drink.”
He started to walk away. Kudei didn’t move. A pity, Kunessin thought; but when did we ever say a dozen honest words to each other without falling out? “If I don’t see you, take care of yourself,” he said, not looking round.
He took five steps; then he heard Kudei say, “If you can hang on an extra day, I’ve got to take a load of grain to the mill.”
He had his back to Kudei, so it was safe to smile. “I’ll see you then,” he said, and walked away.
* * *
The sign didn’t hang straight, and the paint was starting to flake in the salt sea air. It read;
Founder & Propr Thouridos Alces
Late Master Sgt at Arms 5th Infantry
All schools, styles & techniques expertly taught
Vacancies usually available
Under the sign was a small door that looked as though it had been made for a larger doorway and cut down to fit. The latch didn’t quite line up with the keeper, so someone had bent it enthusiastically with a hammer. Beyond the door was a long, dark passageway leading to a flight of stairs; and at the head of the stairs, another door with another sign;
No Admittance While Class In Progress
Kunessin pushed it open, and saw a large square room, brightly lit by a great bay window that occupied most of the outward-facing wall. The polished floorboards reflected the light, which meant that the man standing in the centre of the floor was a backlit silhouette. Nevertheless –
“Hello, Fly,” Kunessin said.
There was a loud clatter as the man dropped the two-handed sword he’d been holding. “Teuche?” he said, in a bewildered voice, like someone woken up in the middle of a complicated dream.
“Yes,” Kunessin said.
The man started forward, trod on the blade of the dropped sword, stumbled, jumped a foot in the air, landed perfectly and ran towards him – all, apparently, in one concerted movement. Instinctively, Kunessin took a step back and sideways, but the man must have anticipated the move; he lunged, caught Kunessin round the waist and lifted him off the ground.
“For God’s sake,” Kunessin gasped. “You’re breaking my bloody ribs.”
Thouridos Alces laughed and let him go; he slid down the front of Alces’ canvas fencing coat until his heels jarred on the floor.
“Teuche, you complete bastard,” Alces said, gripping Kunessin’s shoulders and shaking him, “what the hell do you mean by it, sneaking up on me like that? You might at least’ve let me know you were coming.”
He’d forgotten, he realised, quite how short Fly Alces was; five feet four, five at the most. Hardly surprising; it was something you had to make a conscious effort to remember. For one thing, he never seemed to hold still for long enough to be quantifiable by any normal system of weights and measures; more like a wave than a solid object, someone had once said. For another, he had a knack of seeming to fill all the space available, regardless of whether he was standing in an empty barn or hiding in a flour barrel.
“You’re a strange man, Fly,” Kunessin said, pulling gently away. “First time I’ve ever come across someone who demotes himself when he leaves the army.”
Alces’ face became a total grin, from chin to eyebrows. “Professional licence,” he said. “No bugger’s going to pay money to be taught fencing by a captain. Got to call yourself a sergeant or they think you don’t know anything.” He didn’t actually see Alces move, but suddenly he was a full pace closer and clinging to his elbow. “Come in the back and have a drink,” he said. “My God, it’s good to see you again.”
(There was a scar, Kunessin noticed, running from the corner of his left eye to the lower edge of his cheekbone. He hadn’t got that in the army.)
“Tea,” he said, “or no deal.”
“Sure.” He was being towed along, like a cart, towards a green door in the far corner. “I’m a tea drinker myself these days. Haven’t touched a real drink in five years. Mind your head on the beam.”
Too late. He winced; for some reason, it was important to him not to yelp or swear. Alces opened the door, and he followed him into the back room.
It wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Instead of chaotic poverty, he saw good furniture, silverware on a polished walnut table, a velvet-curtained alcove where he assumed the bed would be; a worn but good quality imported rug on the floor, and (the last thing he’d been expecting) a wife.
“Enyo,” Alces said, “this is an old friend of mine, Teuche Kunessin.”
She wasn’t impressed, he could see that. There were, in his experience, two sorts of wives. There was the easy-going kind, usually stout, plain-faced and harassed-looking, who smiled at the unexpected visitor and immediately set out an extra plate and spoon; and there was the other kind, who regarded their husbands’ old army friends as marginally better than bailiffs but definitely worse than mice. They were the ones who kept tidy houses and cooked cheap, wholesome meals with plenty of fresh vegetables.
“My wife,” Alces said, and although he sounded properly embarrassed, there was also a deep, unmistakable pride.
(Well, he thought. This makes things awkward)
“You’ll stay to dinner,” Enyo said; not a question but a statement, a grim fact stoically accepted.
“Thanks, but no,” Kunessin said. “I’m meeting some people in half an hour.”
She made an unintelligible noise, turned her back on him and started peeling something; a dismissal, but also a withdrawal, just pretend I’m not here. Which, of course, he couldn’t do.
“How’s business?” he asked.
“Fine,” Alces said, sitting down in a fine chair (he makes the room look untidy, but presumably she’s learned to cope with that) “We’ve been running this place for – how long’s it been, five years?” No confirmation from the other end of the room. “And it’s turned out pretty well. Tradesmen’s sons, a couple of the local gentlemen farmers; Faralia’s changed quite a bit since our day, more money about since the war. No competition. We’ll never be rich, but I do three classes a day, all fully booked. It’s a living, and not particularly arduous.”
The back of Enyo’s head let him know exactly what she thought of her husband’s summary; but he fancied that her definition of a living was rather different. He managed to keep his face straight.
“What about you, though?” Alces went on. “General Kunessin. Only goes to show, if you stay in the service long enough – “
”I retired,” Kunessin said.
“I heard that,” Alces replied. “What did you want to go and do that for? You’d done all the hard work, I’d have thought you’d have stayed on and taken it easy.”
Kunessin forced a laugh. “Don’t you believe it,” he said. “I reached the point where I couldn’t stick the aggravation any more. Best decision I ever made, actually.”
Alces shrugged. “So, what’s the plan?” he said. “Buy some land and play at farming?”
He knew Alces didn’t mean anything by it, so he let it pass. “Sort of,” he said. “I’ll tell you about it some time. So,” he went on, turning away a little, “do you see much of the others these days?”
A slight frown, but no change in Alces’ tone of voice. “A bit,” he said, “not a great deal. I run into Kudei in the street from time to time, but he doesn’t come into town much. Muri – you know about Muri?”
Kunessin nodded. “I don’t get that,” he said. “I thought he had plans.”
“Apparently not,” Alces replied, “or else he changed them, or they fell through. He seems happy enough, which is what matters, I suppose.”
“What about Aidi? I heard he’s running a shop, for crying out loud.”
Alces grinned. “Very successful,” he said. “Got a real flair for it. Also, he got married about three years ago, but she died in the spring. Lost the kid, too, which must’ve been hard to bear.”
Kunessin nodded. “I suppose it’s something we never really considered,” he said, “bad stuff still happening even when the war’s over. It’s so much easier when you can pile it all onto the enemy. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what wars are really for.”
Maybe a barely perceptible shake of the head; he wasn’t sure. But he had the distinct impression that that wasn’t a subject to be discussed, even in the presence of the back of Enyo’s head. Fair enough, he thought. Any woman who married Thouridos Alces would have to be firm about what could and couldn’t be talked about.
(And then he noticed; or rather, he became aware of the lack of it. Not on the wall, or leaning in a corner of the room; not in a glass case or over the fireplace or hung by two nails from a rafter. He couldn’t have simply got rid of it, not even for her sake; but in a room so neat and orderly there were only so many places it could be, and it wasn’t there – a glaringly empty space, like a place laid at the dinner table where nobody sits down. Could it have been in the rack of blunts and foils in the schoolroom? He’d have noticed it there, and besides, it was unthinkable.)
He planted his feet squarely on the floor and pushed himself up. “I really have got to make a move,” he said (Alces started to say something, then thought better of it.) “I’m in town for the next few days, I’m staying at the Glory – “
Alces grinned. “Haven’t been in there for years,” he said, and the back of his wife’s head quite definitely twitched. “If you can afford to stay there, you can afford to buy me a cup of tea.”
“Just about,” Kunessin replied – it didn’t even sound like him talking. “Pleased to have met you,” he said to the room in general, and left quickly. Alces went with him as far as the green door.
(Outside in the street, he turned and looked up at the sign. Here lies Thouridos Alces, he thought, may he rest in peace. Not, he acknowledged with a faint grin, that there was much chance of that.)
* * *
After the visitor had left, she asked him, “Who was that?”
Inevitably. He marshalled his face and mustered his words. “Old army friend of mine,” he said, picking up an empty cup and taking it over to the washstand. It was a valiant effort but tactically unsound; he never washed up dirty crockery.
“General Kunessin, you called him,” she said, and he could feel her eyes on the back of his head.
“That’s right,” he said, upending the cup and swilling its rim in the washbasin. “He stayed on in the service after I quit. He’s from around here, originally.”
“He wanted something,” she said.
“You think so? I thought he was just calling in to say hello, since he’s in the neighbourhood. I haven’t set eyes on him for seven years.”
“He wanted something,” she repeated. “But he wasn’t about to tell you about it in front of me.”
Retreat to prepared positions. He half-turned and smiled at her. “What could a retired general possibly want from someone like me?” he said. “Besides, he’s retired. And so am I. You know that.”
One of those looks; uncomfortable, like gravel in your shoe. Never for one moment had he regretted marrying her, but she could break his defences the way he used to break the schiltrons. “You want me to tell you about him?”
Shrug. “If you like.”
He left the washstand and sat down in his favourite chair, where he could be besieged in comfort. “We were all at the Military College together, six of us; all from Faralia, which meant we had something in common; the city kids treated us like peasants, so we formed what you might call an offensive and defensive alliance, for mutual support. Then the war came, and amazingly enough the brass had the good sense not to split us up. They made us into a lance – “
”What does that mean?”
“Sorry? Oh, right. A lance is a military unit, an officer and ten men, only they were so short of manpower by then, most units were under strength. It was the six of us plus the officer, Lieutenant D’Eteleieto. Anyhow, we stayed together all through the war. One of us didn’t make it, but compared to most we got off lightly. Specially since we were linebreakers. That means we were the ones who – “
”Don’t tell me about that,” she said sharply.
“Fine,” he said, recognising the edge in her voice. “Anyway, that’s about it. The war ended, we all went our separate ways. I always thought that afterwards we’d stay in touch, specially since we were all Faralians and all of us except Teuche – that’s his name, Teuche Kunessin – came back here to settle down. But we didn’t. There wasn’t any grand falling-out or anything like that. I guess that once we split up – we’d been together twenty-four hours a day for ten years, just think about that – I guess we realised we didn’t really have anything in common worth holding on to.” He paused, just long enough to breathe. “And that’s all there is to it.”
A lie so monumental you could have dug a moat round it and called it a citadel; he offered it to her with a sort of honesty, her choice whether to attack and invest or withdraw and leave him in peace. But she was a better strategist than that. “Those other people you were talking about,” she said. “He seemed to know all about them.”
Which hadn’t escaped his attention, but he hadn’t had time to reflect on the implications. “Presumably someone’s been sending him news from home,” he said. “Like I said, he’s a local boy, grew up on a farm in the valley. Actually, there’s a bit of a story there,” he added, not sure whether it was a good idea to open another front but willing to take the risk. He paused, and she sort of nodded; yes, I’m waiting. “His family lost the farm just before we all went off to the College, and Kudei Gaeon’s dad – Kudei was one of us – he bought it cheap and took it over, and Kudei and his brothers are still there, as far as I know. Now, Teuche and Kudei were best friends practically from the cradle, but I think that once the Gaeon boys got the farm, there was always this little bit of edge between them, buried really deep. Maybe that’s why we’ve all lost touch, I don’t know; Teuche was very much in charge, if you see what I mean, the rest of us were more or less pulled in, like filings to a magnet.”
If he’d been hoping she’d lose interest, he was wrong. Her frown grew darker and deeper, and he wondered if something had snagged her attention that he hadn’t seen for himself. He couldn’t very well ask, though; might as well throw the key to the city gates down to the enemy. (Indeed, he thought; and what’s all love except constant siege warfare with the occasional sortie and skirmish?)
She was looking at him. “If he wants you to go off somewhere with him, will you go?”
“Of course not,” he replied too quickly. “My life’s here now, and besides, I’m through with all that.”
“You’d better get ready for afternoon class,” she said. “You were going to put new tips on the foils, remember.”
The glue had set hard in the bottom of the little kettle he kept in the cupboard in the corner of the school-room. He lit the spirit lamp to warm it up, and eased the bristles of the brush against the palm of his hand to soften them and make them supple. Everyone lies to their wives, he thought; it’s necessary, human beings couldn’t function otherwise. Curiously, though (he broke off one of the old, worn tips; it came away quite cleanly, without splintering) he’d never really lied to Enyo, not that he could remember. She had a way of coming out to meet him halfway, so that either he told the truth or the subject was suppressed before a lie could take place.
If he wants me to go off somewhere with him – well, of course. Immediately, without hesitation, if needs be, without stopping to put on his shoes. That went without saying. But the situation would never arise, since what could General Teuche Kunessin possibly want him for? Where the case is so hypothetical as to be absurd, normal criteria of truth and falsehood can’t be made to apply. He was sure she realised that. It was like asking him, if there was a fire and you could only save one of us, me or it, which would it be? To which the answer was, that’s why I don’t keep it here.
After he’d finished, he opened the window to get rid of the smell of the glue. From the window bay, he could see the corner of Lattengate, where the Glory of Heroes was, and he thought, yes, but what could be tamer, safer, than drinking tea out of a blue-and-white cup in the parlour of the Glory? What possible harm – ?
After class (at one point he allowed his attention to wander, and got rapped across the knuckles with a foil. The student actually apologised) he went down into the street, turned right instead of left, walked up to the Merchant Venturers’ Hall, through the great double doors, down the circular marble stairs to the vault. The guard on duty recognised him but asked for the password anyway. He gave it, and was let through into the long corridor. Once, before the war, the hall had been part of the duke’s palace, and the small, windowless rooms off the long corridor had been used for long-term storage of men. For some reason, he had difficulty turning his key in the lock.
It was, of course, much emptier than the rest of the cells in the row. The Venturers kept their valuable stock in them; quality fabrics, mostly, some bullion, luxury goods (tableware, artworks, presentation grade arms and armour), bonds, indentures, deeds, loan notes. In his cell, Alces kept the lease of the school, a thousand thalers in cash that Enyo didn’t know about, five hundred she did know about, a chest of old clothes, a sallet and brigandine on a home-made wooden stand and a cloth bundle, five feet long, slim, wrapped in two blankets, propped up in the corner. The blankets were soaked through with camellia oil, and the sweet smell stank the place out.
He unwrapped the bundle, just enough to see the white flare of the steel in the yellow glow of the lamp he’d brought with him, and to test the surface with his finger to make sure the oil hadn’t dried out. Then he wrapped it up again, put it back and left.
On the way out, he met the vault steward, and stopped him.
“I was wondering,” he said. “What precautions do you take in case of fire?”
The steward looked puzzled. “It’s all stone,” he said, “there’s nothing that could possibly burn.”
Alces nodded. “Fair enough,” he said. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, I think you’ll find you’re behind on the rent.”
He smiled. “My wife handles all that sort of thing,” he said, and left.
* * *
Even if he’d been a stranger in town, he’d have had no trouble at all finding the tanner’s yard, even with his eyes shut, even with a scarf wrapped double round his face. Something you got used to, he presumed, if you really had to.
The foreman pointed him in the right direction, and he saw a wooden vat, seven feet tall and about the same in diameter, standing in the middle of a high-roofed wooden shed. Two men were next to it; one at the top of a ladder, the other down below, handing up a large wooden bucket. The man at the top dipped it in the vat and handed it back, and as he came closer, Kunessin saw that the bucket was full of greyish-white jelly. He shuddered. Everybody knew they used the stuff in the tanning process, but knowing and actually seeing are two very different things.
(Seen worse, he reminded himself, but it didn’t really help.)
“Hello, Muri,” he said.
The man on the ground looked round, saw him and (regrettably) dropped the bucket. His colleague on the ladder asked him what the hell he’d done that for. A fair question.
The last seven years, Kunessin couldn’t help but notice, hadn’t been kind to Muri Achaiois. His cheeks had turned into jowls, and there were pads of soft, folded skin under his eyes; his hair was thinning on top, and he’d made the mistake of growing a beard, or trying to, on a less than fertile chin, with the result that the sides of his jaw looked like briar-patches, while his chin reminded Kunessin of downland pasture, sparse and closely cropped by rabbits. He’d put on weight, too.
“Teuche,” he said, apparently unaware that his shoes were covered in spilled brains. “Where the hell did you jump out from?”
“Who’s he?” the man up the ladder was saying. As far as Muri was concerned, he didn’t exist.
“Can you get away for five minutes?” Kunessin asked.
“Sure.” Immediately, Muri started to walk towards him; the first step he took put him on notice that something was wrong. He looked down at his feet, and sighed. “Carry on without me,” he said, to nobody in particular. The man up the ladder told him what he thought of that idea, but he didn’t seem to hear.
“How’d you find me?” Muri said.
“Your cousin Erys,” Kunessin replied, taking a step back as Muri came within arm’s length. “She told me what happened. I’m sorry.”
Muri shrugged. “Does everybody know? The others, I mean?”
“I don’t think so. I just saw Fly; he knows you’re working here, but that’s all. I don’t know about Kudei, we didn’t have a chance to talk about old times, and I haven’t seen Aidi yet.” He frowned. “Your friend over there looks like he’s a bit upset with you.”
“Fuck him,” Muri said succinctly.
“Fine,” Kunessin said. “I don’t want to be responsible for you losing your job, that’s all.”
Muri smiled broadly. “You know what,” he said, “I’m not too fussed. Hang on, there’s a trough out in the yard. I guess I’d better wash my boots off.”
“No, it’s all right.” Kunessin shook his head. “You get back to work. I’m staying at the Glory, drop by this evening and we can talk properly. All right?”
Muri scowled at him, like child who thinks he’s been cheated out of a promised treat. “At least tell me what’s going on, Teuche,” he said firmly. “You didn’t come all this way just to see me drop a bucket.”
“It’ll keep,” Kunessin replied. “See you tonight.”
By the time he’d gone, the other man had climbed down the ladder, and was sweeping the white, dusty mess into the gutter with a yard broom. Curiosity had pushed out anger, and he asked, “Who was that?”
Muri Achaiois looked at him. “You were in the war, weren’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“That,” Muri said, “was Teuche Kunessin.”
The other man stopped what he was doing. “Oh,” he said.
* * *
Aidi Proiapsen was easy enough to find. Left out of the tannery gates, down the hill until the narrow alley turned out into broad, well-paved Ropewalk, turn right and look for the biggest, bravest shopfront in town. Aidi was waiting for him in the doorway, leaning on a barrel of store apples; a tall, wide, curly-haired man behind a shield-like grin.
“Hello, Teuche,” he said. “I heard you’re back in town.”
Kunessin nodded. “This is all very splendid, Aidi,” he said. “You must be next best thing to respectable.”
Aidi laughed. “You could say that,” he said. “Vice-chairman of the Venturers’, deputy town clerk and justice of the fucking peace. Talking of which, I ought to have you run out of town for vagrancy. Unless you tell me what you’re here for, that is.”
Kunessin looked past him into the shop. He could see a boy unrolling a bolt of cloth on a long table, and a middle-aged woman weighing out rice from a big white jar. “Staff,” he said, with a grin. “Do they know who they’re working for?”
“God, no. They’d run home screaming.”
“Justice of the peace is a good joke,” Kunessin said.
“I looked them up in a dictionary,” Aidi replied. “Justice and peace. Strange idea, both of them. You’d better come inside; you’re scaring away the customers.”
He nodded, and followed Aidi through the shop into a store-room at the back. It was crammed with barrels, boxes, jars and cases, and there were rat droppings on the floor. Aidi pointed him at the only chair, and perched on the edge of a cider-barrel. “It’s good to see you again,” he said.
Kunessin shook his head. “You won’t think so in a moment or two, when I tell you what I’m here for.”
“I gathered you’ve called a sort of army reunion,” Aidi replied, “at the Glory. I can wait till then, if you’d rather.”
Kunessin smiled. “You’re going to say no,” he said, “and I don’t want you putting off the others. So I thought I’d get you over and done with first.”
“Fair enough,” Aidi said. “You’ve finally packed in the army, then.”
Aidi nodded. “About time, too. No kind of life for a grown man.”
“Quite,” Kunessin said. “No, what I’ve got in mind is something rather more worthwhile, for a change. But I can see, you’re settled, doing well for yourself. You won’t be interested.”
Aidi yawned. “Probably not,” he said. “But try me anyway.
There was no easy way to describe how Kunessin changed, but the difference was too extreme to overlook. He sat perfectly still, but he seemed almost impossibly tense, like a rope just about to snap. His voice was suddenly much softer; always a sign of trouble. “Did you ever hear of a place called Sphoe?” he asked.
Aidi thought for a moment. “It’s an island, isn’t it?” he said. “Somewhere off the northern peninsular. Didn’t their third fleet have a base there, late in the war?”
Kunessin nodded slowly. “I’ve been there,” he said. “Looting, basically. We went to see if they’d left any stores behind that we could use – masts, planking, that sort of thing.”
Kunessin wasn’t looking at him any more. “Nothing we could use,” he said. “They’d cleaned it all out before they abandoned it, but they left the buildings standing, and they’d done a lot of work there – wells, drains, storage pits, you name it. And it’s a wonderful place, Aidi. Nobody lives there, it’s twenty square miles of good deep soil sheltered by a mountain range, with a big fat river running straight through the middle. We found a furnace they’d built, so we think they’d found iron there, and the entire south side is one big oak forest. You should see some of those trees, Aidi, there’s nothing that size left on the mainland. There’s deer, and wild pigs, bloody great birds living in the woods that’d feed a family for a week, and it’s an island, so of course there’s all the fish you could ever want, and there’s a cove on the north shore where turtles come up twice a year – “
Aidi was looking at him, his head a little on one side, like a puzzled dog. “That’s wonderful, Teuche, and I’m very happy for you, but what’s this got to do with us?”
Kunessin could see in his face that he’d already guessed the answer. “I want us to go there,” he said. “You, me, Kudei, all of us. Just take it for our own and live there, like we used to talk about.”
The door opened, and a tall thin boy, fifteen or sixteen, appeared in the doorway. “Sorry,” he said immediately. “I didn’t – “
Aidi beckoned him in with a flick of his hand, like someone swatting at a vexatious insect. The boy took a jar off a shelf and scurried away.
“For crying out loud, Teuche,” Aidi said, and the edge to his voice was both annoyance and compassion. “You can’t seriously think – “
Kunessin felt the anger spurting up inside him; the special anger, the sort that comes when you’re explaining something to somebody who’s too stupid to understand. “We used to talk about it,” he repeated, “all the time. You all liked the idea. We had an agreement – “
Aidi laughed. In retrospect, he realised it was a serious error of judgement. “Oh, sure,” he said. “And when I was seven years old, the girl next door and me agreed we’d get married as soon as we were old enough. I even made her an engagement ring out of copper wire. We were young, Teuche, young and stupid and cold and wet and convinced we were going to die. I think you’d have an uphill struggle trying to hold us to it in a court of law. And that’s a justice of the peace talking,” he added, with a false grin. “Look,” he went on, lowering his voice a little, “That place we used to talk about finding. You know what it really was? It was being out of the army, where there wasn’t a war. And you know what? The rest of us found it, all of us except you. We don’t need any fucking island, Teuche. Really, all we needed was to get away. From the war.”
Kunessin shook his head. “No.”
“From the war,” Aidi repeated. “From each other. Oh come on,” he added, before Kunessin could interrupt. “You’re supposed to be clever, surely you can see it for yourself. We all came back here, after the war, after the service. We all live right on top of each other in this rat-arse little town, and we never see each other or talk to one another from one year’s end to the next. And you know why? It’s not because we all had some grand falling-out or hate each other, it’s just that there’s nothing left to say any more. And – well – I suppose it’s because we all remind each other of stuff we’d prefer not to remember. And you don’t need a chequerboard and a box of counters to figure that one out.”
Kunessin realised he was standing up, which meant he was about to leave, and his leaving would be a statement of disapproval, quite possibly a severance of relations. He was sorry about that. “Good to see you again, Aidi. You’ve done well for yourself, I’m really pleased about that.”
Aidi was shaking his head. “They’ll all tell you the same thing,” he said, “and then you’ll be pissed off with the lot of us and never speak to us again, and I don’t really think you want that. Why not just drop it? Tactical withdrawal to defensible positions? You always used to say, nine times out of ten, the best battle’s the one you don’t have to fight.”
“We’ll see,” was all he could find to say. “You never know, maybe the others are better friends than you give them credit for.”
Aidi’s face had frozen, as though he’d pulled down a visor. “So long, Teuche.”
He walked out of the shop, and found that the sun had come out, slanting down over the roofs of the north-side buildings like a shower of pitched-up arrows. He found the warmth and light annoying, almost offensive.
For a long time after he’d gone, Aidi Proiapsen sat still and quiet in the back room, staring at a corner of the ceiling. Then he got up, opened a drawer in the desk in the corner, took out a ledger and went through it, quickly and with purpose, jotting figures down on a scrap of paper. His lips moved as he did the mental arithmetic. They’d laughed at him for doing it at the military college, back when he was so young he actually cared what people thought about him. Now he did it as a deliberate affectation, because nobody would ever dare laugh at him again.
He found the total, added up again to make sure, and wrote the result down on the palm of his hand. Less than he’d thought; he sighed, and put the ledger away.
“Mind the shop,” he told the middle-aged woman behind the counter. “I’m going out for ten minutes.”
He crossed the road, turned left, headed up the Ropewalk as far as the corn exchange. On the corner there was a small, rather miserable tea-house, shutters down and almost bare of paint, a door that stuck in the damp weather. He went inside, waited a moment until his eyes adjusted to the gloom, found the man he was looking for and walked over to where he was sitting.
The man was drinking thin soup from a wooden bowl with an enormously wide spoon. At least a quarter of it was soaking into his shirt; his eyesight wasn’t good, but he denied the fact, like a king refusing to acknowledge the existence of a rebel government.
“Proiapsen,” he said.
Aidi scowled down at him. “You actually eat the muck they serve in here?”
“It’s cheap,” the man replied. “Food’s just fuel. What do you want?”
“You know perfectly well.”
The man grinned and laid his spoon down on the bare table. “It can’t be anything to do with the offer I made you,” he said, “because you told me you didn’t want to know. In fact, you were quite offensive about it, a smaller man would’ve borne a grudge. So it must be something else, mustn’t it?”
Aidi sighed and put the scrap of paper down in front of him. The man shook his head. “Can’t read that,” he said. “Your handwriting’s terrible.”
“You’re going blind, you mean,” Aidi replied. “Terrible thing that must be, blindness, it’s the one thing I’ve always been really scared of. I feel sorry for you.”
The man grunted. “The hell I am,” he said, picking up the paper and holding it a hair’s breadth from his nose. “The light’s so bad in here. What’s all these numbers?”
Aidi drew in the deep breath that’s supposed to help you stay calm. “Stock at cost,” he said, “fixtures, goodwill, accounts due less accounts owed. Take it or leave it.”
The man made a performance of staring at the paper, spinning it out for as long as he could. “What’s that,” he said. “Looks like a six.”
“It’s a nine.”
“Can’t do it,” the man said abruptly. “It’s not worth that to me. You know my offer. It’s that or nothing.”
If I kill him, Aidi thought, it’d count as a breach of the peace. “All right,” he said. “Split the difference.”
The man picked up his spoon. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“No.” Aidi lifted the bowl out from under the man’s nose and put it down on the floor. “This is your one and only chance, and I’ll need the money in three days. Otherwise, no deal.”
“Let me see those figures again.”
Aidi screwed the paper into a ball and dropped it carefully into the soup bowl. “Yes or no.”
Aidi closed his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Three days time, here, in silver money, and you can be absolutely fucking sure I’ll count it. All right?”
The man sighed. “Soldiers,” he said. “Why do you always have to be so aggressive about everything?”
Aidi turned to go, but just as he reached the door, the man called him back. “Just out of interest,” he said. “Why?”
“I’m leaving town.”
“Ah.” The man nodded. “Going somewhere nice?”
He had his back to the man, who didn’t see him smile. “You bet,” he said. “By all accounts, it’s the earthly fucking paradise.”
He slammed the door, presumably to make sure it shut properly. After he’d gone, the man picked his soup off the floor, fished out the scrap of paper, and finished his meal. Business and emotion, he fervently maintained, were all very well, but wasting food is a sin.
© 2008, K.J. Parker