World Fantasy Award-winner K. J. Parker returns with a sweeping new epic fantasy
I was in Classis on business. I needed sixty miles of second-grade four- inch hemp rope – I build pontoon bridges – and all the military rope in the empire goes through Classis. What you’re supposed to do is put in a requisition to Divisional Supply, who send it on to Central Supply, who send it on to the Treasurer General, who approves it and sends it back to Divisional Supply, who send it on to Central Supply, who forward it to Classis, where the quartermaster says, sorry, we have no rope. Or you can hire a clever forger in Herennis to cut you an exact copy of the treasury seal, which you use to stamp your requisition, which you then take personally to the office of the deputy quartermaster in Classis, where there’s a senior clerk who’d have done time in the slate quarries if you hadn’t pulled certain documents out of the file a few years back. Of course, you burned the documents as soon as you took them, but he doesn’t know that. And that’s how you get sixty miles of rope in this man’s army.
I took the overland route from Traiecta to Cirte, across one of my bridges (a rush job I did fifteen years ago, only meant to last a month, still there and still the only way across the Lusen unless you go twenty-six miles out of your way to Pons Jovianis) then down through the pass onto the coastal plain. Fabulous view as you come through the pass, that huge flat green patchwork with the blue of the Bay beyond, and Classis as a geometrically perfect star, three arms on land, three jabbing out into the sea. Analyse the design and it becomes clear that it’s purely practical and utilitarian, straight out of the field operations manual. Furthermore, as soon as you drop down onto the plain you can’t see the shape, unless you happen to be God. The three seaward arms are tapered jetties, while their landward counterparts are defensive bastions, intended to cover the three main gates with enfilading fire on two sides. Even further more, when Classis was built ninety years ago, there was a dirty great forest in the way (felled for charcoal during the Social War, all stumps, marsh and bramble-fuzz now), so you wouldn’t have been able to see it from the pass, and that strikingly beautiful statement of Imperial power must therefore be mere chance and serendipity. By the time I reached the way station at Milestone 2776 I couldn’t see Classis at all, though of course it was dead easy to find. Just follow the arrow-straight military road on its six-foot embankment, and, next thing you know, you’re there.
Please note I didn’t come in on the military mail. As Colonel-in-Chief of the Engineers, I’m entitled; but, as a milkface (not supposed to call us that, everybody does, doesn’t bother me, I like milk) it’s accepted that I don’t, because of the distress I might cause to Imperials finding themselves banged up in a coach with me for sixteen hours a day. Not that they’d say anything, of course. The Robur pride themselves on their good manners, and, besides, calling a milkface a milkface is Conduct Prejudicial and can get you court- martialled. For the record, nobody’s ever faced charges on that score, which proves (doesn’t it) that Imperials aren’t biased or bigoted in any way. On the other hand, several dozen auxiliary officers have been tried and cashiered for calling an Imperial a blueskin, so you can see just how wicked and deserving of contempt my lot truly are.
No, I made the whole four- day trip on a civilian carrier’s cart. The military mail, running non- stop and changing horses at way stations every twenty miles, takes five days and a bit, but my cart was carrying fish; marvellous incentive to get a move on.
The cart rumbled up to the middle gate and I hopped off and hobbled up to the sentry, who scowled at me, then saw the scrambled egg on my collar. For a split second I thought he was going to arrest me for impersonating an officer (wouldn’t be the first time). I walked past him, then jumped sideways to avoid being run down by a cart the size of a cathedral. That’s Classis.
My pal the clerk’s office was in Block 374, Row 42, Street 7. They’ve heard of sequential numbering in Supply but clearly aren’t convinced that it’d work, so Block 374 is wedged in between Blocks 217 and 434. Street 7 leads from Street 4 into Street 32. But it must be all right, because I can find my way about there, and I’m just a bridge builder, nobody.
He wasn’t there. Sitting at his desk was a six- foot- six Robur in a milk- white monk’s habit. He was bald as an egg, and he looked at me as though I was something the dog had brought in. I mentioned my pal’s name. He smiled.
“Reassigned,” he said.
Oh. “He never mentioned it.”
“It wasn’t the sort of reassignment you’d want to talk about.” He looked me up and down; I half expected him to roll back my upper lip so he could inspect my teeth. “Can I help you?”
I gave him the big smile. “I need rope.”
“Sorry.” He looked so happy. “No rope.”
“I have a sealed requisition.”
He held out his hand. I showed him my piece of paper. I’m pretty sure he spotted the seal was a fake. “Unfortunately, we have no rope at present,” he said. “As soon as we get some—”
I nodded. I didn’t go to staff college so I know squat about strategy and tactics, but I know when I’ve lost and it’s time to withdraw in good order. “Thank you,” I said. “Sorry to have bothered you.”
“No bother.” His smile said he hadn’t finished with me yet. “You can leave that with me.”
I was still holding the phony requisition with the highly illegal seal. “Thanks,” I said, “but shouldn’t I resubmit it through channels? I wouldn’t want you thinking I was trying to jump the queue.”
“Oh, I think we can bend the rules once in a while.” He held out his hand again. Damn, I thought. And then the enemy saved me.
* * *
(Which is the story of my life, curiously enough. I’ve had an amazing number of lucky breaks in my life, far more than my fair share, which is why, when I got the citizenship, I chose Felix as my proper name. Good fortune has smiled on me at practically every crucial turning point in my remarkable career. But the crazy thing is, the agency of my good fortune has always – invariably – been the enemy. Thus: when I was seven years old, the Hus attacked our village, slaughtered my parents, dragged me away by the hair and sold me to a Sherden; who taught me the carpenter’s trade – thereby trebling my value – and sold me on to a shipyard. Three years after that, when I was nineteen, the Imperial army mounted a punitive expedition against the Sherden pirates; guess who was among the prisoners carted back to the empire. The Imperial navy is always desperately short of skilled shipwrights. They let me join up, which meant citizenship, and I was a foreman at age twenty-two. Then the Echmen invaded, captured the city where I was stationed; I was one of the survivors and transferred to the Engineers, of whom I now have the honour to be Colonel-in-Chief. I consider my point made. My meteoric rise, from illiterate barbarian serf to commander of an Imperial regiment, is due to the Hus, the Sherden, the Echmen and, last but not least, the Robur, who are proud of the fact that over the last hundred years they’ve slaughtered in excess of a million of my people. One of those here-today-gone-tomorrow freak cults you get in the City says that the way to virtue is loving your enemies. I have no problem with that. My enemies have always come through for me, and I owe them everything. My friends, on the other hand, have caused me nothing but aggravation and pain. Just as well I’ve had so very few of them.)
* * *
I noticed I no longer had his full attention. He was peering through his little window. After a moment, I shuffled closer and looked over his shoulder.
“Is that smoke?” I said.
He wasn’t looking at me. “Yes.”
Fire, in a place like Classis, is bad news. Curious how people react. He seemed frozen stiff. I felt jumpy as a cat. I elbowed myself a better view, as the long shed that had been leaking smoke from two windows suddenly went up in flames like a torch.
“What do you keep in there?” I asked.
“Rope,” he said. “Three thousand miles of it.”
I left him gawping and ran. Milspec rope is heavily tarred, and all the sheds at Classis are thatched. Time to be somewhere else.
I dashed out into the yard. There were people running in every direction. Some of them didn’t look like soldiers, or clerks. One of them raced toward me, then stopped.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know—?”
He stabbed me. I hadn’t seen the sword in his hand. I thought; what the devil are you playing at? He pulled the sword out and swung it at my head. I may not be the most perceptive man you’ll ever meet, but I can read between the lines; he didn’t like me. I sidestepped, tripped his heels and kicked his face in. That’s not in the drill manuals, but you pick up a sort of alternative education when you’re brought up by slavers—
Sequence of thoughts; I guess the tripping and kicking thing reminded me of the Sherden who taught it to me (by example), and that made me think of pirates, and then I understood. I trod on his ear for luck till something cracked – not that I hold grudges – and looked round for somewhere to hide.
Really bad things happening all around you take time to sink in. Sherden pirates running amok in Classis? Couldn’t be happening. So I found a shady doorway, held perfectly still and used my eyes. Yes, in fact, it was happening, and to judge from the small slice of the action I could see, they were having things very much their own way. The Imperial army didn’t seem to be troubling them at all; they were preoccupied with fighting the fire in the rope shed, and the Sherden cut them down and shot them as they dashed about with buckets and ladders and long hooks, and nobody seemed to realise what was going on except me, and I don’t count. Pretty soon there were no Imperials left in the yard, and the Sherden were backing up carts to the big sheds and pitching stuff in. Never any shortage of carts at Classis. They were hard workers, I’ll give them that. Try and get a gang of dockers or warehousemen to load two hundred size-four carts in forty minutes. I guess that’s the difference between hired men and self-employed.
I imagine the fire was an accident, because it rather spoiled things for the Sherden. It spread from one shed to a load of others before they had a chance to loot them, then burned up the main stable block and coach-houses, where most of the carts would have been, before the wind changed direction and sent it roaring through the barracks and the secondary admin blocks. That meant it was coming straight at me. By now, there were no soldiers or clerks to be seen, only the bad guys, and I’d stick out like a sore thumb in my regulation cloak and tunic. So I took off the cloak, noticed a big red stain down my front – oh yes, I’d been stabbed, worry about that later – pulled off the dead pirate’s smock and dragged it over my head. Then I pranced away across the yard, looking like I had a job to do.
I got about thirty yards and fell over. I was mildly surprised, then realised: not just a flesh wound. I felt ridiculously weak and terribly sleepy. Then someone was standing over me, a Sherden, with a spear in his hand. Hell, I thought, and then: not that it matters.
“Are you all right?” he said.
Me and good fortune. How lucky I was to have been born a milkface. “I’m fine,” I said. “Really.”
He grinned. “Bullshit,” he said, and hauled me to my feet. I saw him notice my boots – issue beetlecrushers, you can’t buy them in stores. Then I saw he was wearing them, too. Pirates. Dead men’s shoes. “Come on,” he said. “Lean on me, you’ll be fine.”
He put my arm round his neck, then grabbed me round the waist and walked me across to the nearest cart. The driver helped him haul me up, and they laid me down gently on a huge stack of rolled-up lamellar breastplates. My rescuer took off his smock, rolled it up and put it under my head. “Get him back to the ship, they’ll see to him there,” he said, and that was the last I saw of him.
Simple as that. The way the looters were going about their business, quickly and efficiently, it was pretty obvious that there were no Imperial personnel left for them to worry about – apart from me, lovingly whisked away from danger by my enemies. The cart rumbled through the camp to the middle jetty. There were a dozen ships tied up on either side. The driver wasn’t looking, so I was able to scramble off the cart and bury myself in a big coil of rope, where I stayed until the last ship set sail.
Some time later, a navy cutter showed up. Just in time, I remembered to struggle out of the Sherden smock that had saved my life. It’d have been the death of me if I’d been caught wearing it by our lot.
Which is the reason – one of the reasons – why I’ve decided to write this history. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have bothered, wouldn’t have presumed – who am I, to take upon myself the recording of the deeds and sufferings of great men, and so on. But I was there; not just all through the siege, but right at the very beginning. As I may already have mentioned, I’ve had far more good luck in my life than I could possibly have deserved, and when – time after time after time – some unseen hand scoops you up from under the wheels, so to speak, and puts you safely down on the roadside, you have to start wondering, why? And the only capacity in which I figure I’m fit to serve is that of witness. After all, anyone can testify in an Imperial court of law; even children, women, slaves, milkfaces, though of course it’s up to the judge to decide what weight to give to the evidence of the likes of me. So; if luck figures I’m good enough to command the Engineers, maybe she reckons I can be a historian, too. Think of that. Immortality. A turf-cutter’s son from north of the Bull’s Neck living for ever on the spine of a book. Wouldn’t that be something.