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Authors: K.J. Parker

Blue and Gold

BOOK: Blue and Gold
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Blue and Gold

K. J. Parker

 

Blue and Gold
Copyright © 2010 by K. J. Parker. All rights reserved.

Dust
jacket illustration Copyright © 2010 by Vincent Chong. All rights reserved.

Interior
design Copyright © 2010 by Desert Isle Design, LLC. All rights reserved.

First
Edition

ISBN

978-1-59606-327-3

Subterranean
Press PO Box 190106 Burton, MI 48519

www.subterraneanpress.com

“Well, let me see,” I said, as the
innkeeper poured me a beer. “In the morning I discovered the secret of changing
base metal into gold. In the afternoon, I murdered my wife.”

The innkeeper
looked at me. “That’ll be two bits,” he said.

I dug in my sleeve
for the coins. “You don’t believe me,” I said.

“I believe
everybody,” the innkeeper replied. “It’s my job. Will you be wanting dinner, or
just the room?”

Two bits from
seven leaves five. “Just the room.”

“Ah.” The barman
nodded and turned away. Alchemists, murderers and other cheapskates, the back
of his neck seemed to be saying. I picked up my beer and looked at it. Worse
things had happened, but not for a very long time. I drank it anyway. I was
thirsty.

*

Saloninus the philosopher
was born in
Elpis towards the end of the reign of Philopoemen VI (the exact date is not
recorded). He showed early promise during his time at the university, but was
prevented from completing his studies by the death of his uncle, on whom he was
financially dependent. The university authorities found him a job as a junior
porter, and he was allowed to sit in on lectures when his duties allowed. After
two years, however, he left Elpis under a cloud, and nothing is known about him
until 2763 AUC, when he was arrested in Paraprosdocia on charges of highway
robbery and violent assault. Condemned to the gallows, he was reprieved through
the intercession of the Prince Regent, Phocas, a former classmate of his at
Elpis, who employed him (much to the consternation of the court) as a
scientific adviser. It was around this time that Saloninus began the alchemical
experiments that were to culminate in his greatest achievement.

I’m Saloninus, by
the way. And I tell lies, from time to time. Which goes to prove the old rule;
never entirely trust a man who talks about himself in the third person.

*

It’s true, by
the way, about me
murdering my wife. At least, I count it as murder. Drink this, I said, it’s the
elixir of eternal youth. She gave me that look, but she always— well, her
opinion of me as a human being was always pretty low, and justifiably so.
Saloninus is not a nice man, and that’s Saloninus talking. But she never for
one moment doubted that I was—am—the finest alchemist the world has ever known.
Also true. But even the best of the best makes mistakes from time to time. My
mistake, I have since come to appreciate, was adding a quarter drachm of sal
draconis. Her second worst mistake was drinking it.

*

I
went up
to the room. It was a room.
There were four walls, a more or less level floor, and a forty-five-degree
ceiling, which is what you get for sleeping right under the eaves. For the
first time in a long time, I didn’t sleep alone (and, compared with some of the
characters I’ve shared a bed with, the fleas were no bother. At least they
didn’t keep pulling all the bedclothes off me).

But I slept, which
surprised me. I think the six scruples of vis somnis I mixed in with the dregs
of my beer helped a bit; but a man who’s just watched his wife die in
convulsions on the floor has no right to sleep, no matter what. Nor did I have
nightmares. If you must know, I dreamt about the sea (which definitely means
something, but I’ve never quite managed to figure out what).

I know I must’ve
slept like the proverbial log, because I distinctly remember being woken up.
There were soldiers, two of them, in those shiny coal-scuttle-on-backwards
helmets that only the Kitchen Knights are allowed to wear. They were looking at
me as though I was something they’d found in an apple.

“Saloninus,” one
of them said.

“No,” I replied.

“You’re with us.”

Actually, I’m not
sure if one of them wasn’t one of the men who arrested me the time before last,
when I tried stowing away aboard the avocado freighter. Soldiers in tall shiny
helmets all tend to merge together in my memory and besides, I’ve never been
that special with faces.

They let me dress,
which was nice of them. I hate being arrested in the nude. But while I was
dressing, one of them stood between me and the door, and the other one guarded
the window. Well done, boys, I thought. It always pays to read the file first.

“What time is it?”
I asked. They didn’t answer. Warning; do not allow the subject to engage you in
idle conversation. He has the ability to suck men’s souls out through their
ears. I wish.

All in all, I was
fairly relaxed about it. Being arrested by the scuttlehats was probably the
best thing that could’ve happened to me at that point. It meant prince Phocas
had been told, and had decided to have his goons arrest me before the real law
did. I had absolutely no interest in explaining my recent past to the Knights
of Equity, thank you very much. Phocas, bless him, would make sure that
wouldn’t happen.

Soon as I’d pulled
on my shirt and pants and laced up my boots and put my coat on, they herded me
to the door, like stockmen guiding a pig with a board. There was a third one outside
on the stairs, which I found impressive and almost flattering. I did that
palms-wide-open gesture that tells them you really don’t intend to give them
any grief, and allowed them to sandwich me down the stairs into the bar.

My friend the
innkeeper was there, next to the fire, moving grease around the plates with an
old rag. He gave me the look that means he’d known all along it was just a
matter of time. I grinned weakly at him. Then I stopped dead in my tracks. The
two guards behind me froze in time not to cannon into me. “It’s all right,” I
said. “I just need to pay the innkeeper for my room.”

There was a slight
worried edge in the guard’s voice when he said, “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, please,” I
said. “I hate owing money. Look, if you don’t trust me, I’ll give you the
coins, and you can give them to him. All right?”

He looked at the
innkeeper, who shrugged. “How much?” the guard said.

“Two bits.”

I smiled. “I’m
going to put my hand in my coat pocket,” I said. “Nice and slow.” Which was
what I did. Then I took it out again nice and fast, and threw the walnut-sized
nugget of compressed pulveus fulminans that I never leave home without straight
into the heart of the fire. What can I say? I have amazing hand-eye
co-ordination. One of the very few gifts I was born with.

People have the
wrong idea about pulveus fulminans, presumably because they believe what I
wrote about it when I discovered it. They think that when ignited it goes off
with a devastating roar, blowing out windows and cracking rafters. Not at all.
What you get is an enormous whoosh, rather like a giant drawing in breath and
sneezing, and a ball—often a perfect sphere, which intrigues me—of white smoke,
and sometimes a sort of core of condensed fire, depending on how much of the
stuff you use. Also depending on quantity, you can get a blast of hot air
that’ll knock you sideways and singe your eyebrows if you’re too close. My
standard getting-away-from-people nugget doesn’t do that. Last thing I want to
do is risk hurting someone and getting myself in even worse trouble. I use five
drachms of the stuff, pressed wet between two empty nutshells and allowed to
dry on a windowsill for a day. That’ll more or less guarantee you three seconds
when nobody’s looking at you, without trashing the place or setting light to
the thatch.

To their credit,
the three scuttlehats were after me pretty quickly. Running away from people,
however, happens to be another of the very few gifts I was born with.

It’s not the
quantity, I always maintain, it’s the quality.

*

YOU may think
, basing your opinion on
what I’ve told you so far, that escaping from prince Phocas’ guards at this
stage in my career was a stupid thing to do; shortsighted, also tinged with
ingratitude. There’s Phocas, you’re thinking, going out on a limb to rescue his
old college chum from the proper authorities—not for the first time, according
to the subtext. All right, I may not have deliberately killed my wife (an
unwarranted assumption on your part, I should point out) so maybe it wasn’t
murder, but didn’t I just say the last thing I wanted was to get myself
arrested by the civil authorities? Damn fool should’ve gone quietly, you’re
thinking, and I can’t fault your logic.

Instead, I ran
like hell for about five minutes, at which point I’d used up my emergency turn
of speed and had to stop for a bit. Fortunately, it looked like I’d done the
trick. Paraprosdocia’s the sort of town where people look the other way when
they see someone running like hell, and it’d never occur to anyone who lives
there to give a truthful answer to any question along the lines of
which way
did he go?
Just to be on the safe side, I sneaked in behind a big stack of
barrels, sat down and emptied my mind of harsh, stressful thoughts.

Free and clear,
then, for now. Net assets; what
I
’ve
got in my head and my pockets. Net liabilities; everything not listed under net
assets. First time
I
’ve been in
this position? No.

I was born with
all the advantages and had a good start in life. It was scrupulous honesty and
clarity of thought that made me end up in this mess. Really and truly.

I had five bits
cash and a stack of barrels to hide behind. On the other side of the barrels it
was daylight, which made moving about the city a dangerous indulgence. If I
could only make it to Choris Seautou, of course, everything would be different.
In Choris I had another name, twelve thousand angels in the Catholic &
Apostolic Bank and at least one business associate I could trust; also, there’s
no extradition treaty between Choris and the Empire, and the mayor of Choris
was an old college chum. But Choris is seventy-nine miles from Paraprosdocia,
any day of the week, no matter how you measure it, and the first thing the
Knights would’ve done would’ve been to put men who knew me on all five City
gates. Also, there were still things I had to do here before I could indulge in
the luxury of escape. Considering my situation dispassionately and in depth, I
was forced to the conclusion that I’d have to be brave, resourceful and
imaginative. Depressing. I hate situations that bring out the best in me.

In my mind, I drew
a map of the city. Luckily I had a rough idea of where I was, because over the
top of the barrels I could just make out the spire of the Early Day Temple,
with the sun more or less behind it. That put me in Coppergate; not a bad place
to be. For a start, it’s pretty much the centre of town, about as far from the
gates as you can get, so they wouldn’t expect me to be there. Also, it’s a maze
of yards, alleys, passages, roads that go nowhere. I’d probably hear a
methodical search coming well in advance, because of all the yelling and
swearing from the snarled-up traffic. Having reviewed all the data (scientific
method, you see), analysed it and considered the various inescapable
conclusions, I closed my eyes, stretched my legs out and went to sleep. It’s
what animals do, and when it comes to being hunted by predators, they’re the
professionals. Conserve energy, make yourself small and quiet in a dark, hidden
place.

*

When
I
woke
up, it was just starting to get dark. I could see the glow of
lanterns on the far side of my wall of barrels, and a middle-blue sky.

Generally
speaking, I don’t like sleep much. I tend to wake up with all the symptoms of a
hangover—fuzzy head, furry tongue, sometimes a sharp pain in the temples,
bitterly unfair when you consider that I very rarely drink strong liquor—and it
takes me several hours before I’m human again, let alone intelligent. But
sometimes, just occasionally, when I go to sleep with a really bad problem on
my mind, I wake up with the answer suddenly there, fully-formed and perfect,
like a chicken’s egg in the straw.

It says a lot
about me that the answer to my problems was the
first
thing that came to
me when I opened my eyes. There was an appreciable delay before the memory of
the other big thing I’d done the previous day caught up with me. Killed my
wife. Oh, that.

There are things
you carry around with you wherever you go, like a snail’s shell; they slow you
down and crush you, and you live in them. The image that came bounding to greet
me was of my hand holding the cup— glazed pottery, because the sort of
substances I work with do the most appalling things to metal, even gold and
silver—and her hand taking it; and she said, “Are you sure it’s safe?” and I
said, “Don’t be bloody stupid, of course it’s
safe.”
And she tilted the
cup and swallowed twice and said, “God, that tastes revolting,” and put it
down, and then there was a moment of dead silence, and then she said, “So now
what?” and I said, “You’ve got to let it work, it’ll take a moment,” and she
said, “Will I, you know, feel anything?” and I said, “Well,” and then she
screamed.

BOOK: Blue and Gold
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