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Authors: K.J. Parker

Purple and Black

BOOK: Purple and Black
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Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, to His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, greetings.

Phormio begs to inform His Majesty that he has safely arrived at Tremissis City and has assumed control of the civil and military administration.

You are, of course, an unmitigated bastard. Not content with dragging me away from my chair at Anassus, which I worked bloody hard to earn and which will now go to that pinhead Atho, you made me waste three months of my life in a military academy, of all places, and now you've dumped me here, in the last place on earth, surrounded by snow, soldiers and savages. What the hell did I ever do to you?

Well, I'm here now. Absolutely ghastly journey, being thrown around in a post-cart along with mail-sacks and boxes of biscuits and cages of shitty chickens. There was this fat woman sitting opposite, and every time the cart went over a pothole or a rock, she got shot across the cart straight into my lap. I guess she must've been used to travelling post, because she just carried on reading; even when she ended up sitting on my head with one leg sticking out over the side, I don't think she ever lost her place. Oh, and a wheel came off, slap bang on the top of the mountain, just before noon. That was no fun. Thanks, friend.

Governor Philoctenus wasn't pleased to see me. Really, when you sack a man, it's only polite to tell him about it, rather than leaving that particular chore to his supplanter. He didn't believe me (and why should he?). He assumed I was some kind of loon, nearly had me slung in jail, except quite by chance I had my commission with me in my pocket rather than packed away in my document-case at the bottom of my trunk. It took me quite some time to convince him it wasn't a forgery. Then he lost his temper.

Anyhow, I'm here, and everything seems to be in order, more or less; I say that, but I haven't got a clue what a properly-functioning provincial government looks like. There's about ten thousand clerks in grubby shirts and worn-out sandals who dart in and out of offices and don't seem to hear you when you ask them something, and miles and miles of shelves of dossiers, files, records, ledgers, you name it, and everybody's extremely busy, so I guess something must be getting done. Whether it's anything useful, I simply don't know. By the way, it's perishing cold here; they have five enormous sheds full of charcoal, but it's against regulations to issue any before the Ides, and apparently I haven't got the authority to override the rules. The least you can do, in my opinion, is send me a woolly scarf.

You haven't got a book on governing you could lend me, have you? Seriously.

As for the insurgency, it can't be all that bad, because nobody around here seems to know anything about it. Of course, I haven't met the military yet. That particular joy still awaits me.

*

His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, to Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, greetings.

His Majesty acknowledges Phormio's report and hereby authorises the early release of restricted stores, namely charcoal, at the governor's discretion.

Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. Please find herewith;

Item; three (3) scarves, woollen, long, thick

Item; six (6) pairs mittens, woollen, extra thick

Item; six (6) pairs socks, woollen, double ply

Item; twelve (12) blankets, civil/diplomatic grade

Item; one (1) jar oysters, Bethusian, first quality, in brine

(Are you all right for footwear? Hats? How about a portable stove?)

Look, I'm sorry, all right? It is, as they say, a lousy rotten job but someone's got to do it. A bit like being emperor, yes?

Anything you need, you write to me, it'll be with you as soon as possibleā€”not Civil Service as soon as possible, but as fast as a cart can get up the mountain. The thought of you freezing to death, huddled in a blanket, warming your tiny pink fingers over a guttering candle, is more than I can bear. I've been losing sleep over it. The administration of the empire is on hold until I hear from you that you're warmer. All right?

Moving on, how are things out there? Have you found the war yet? Everything's always somewhere, as my mother used to say when I couldn't find my hymn-book. Maybe it's fallen down the back of something, or it got put away somewhere safe. A great big noisy thing like a war is bound to turn up sooner or later. Please advise.

*

Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, to His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun., father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, greetings.

Phormio begs to inform His Majesty that he has sought out the enemy, but as yet has been unable to identify them.

You're still a bastard, but thanks for the socks. Not my colour, but at least I'm getting some feeling back in my toes. They still won't let me have any charcoal. Apparently, you need to write separately to the quartermaster's office, charcoal being a military commodity (why?) and specify the quantity to be released and the date of release. You should know that, dammit. Why should I have to teach you your job?

I blame myself, of course. I remember it clearly; in third year, in the back bar of the Poverty and Justice. Political power, I said, should under no circumstances be allowed to vest in the hands of anybody who wants it, and all the important offices of state should be filled by men who'd much rather be doing something else. Well, quite.

Now then, the war. There definitely is one, but I'm damned if I can find it. I've been through all the reports, and the impression I get is that there's been a lot of skirmishing, hit-and-run raids, a good deal of general nastiness that's borderline criminal banditry but probably relates. Mostly, by the time we get there they've gone, whoever they are. That's the big mystery. There's theories, of course, hundreds of them, but when you look at it properly, nobody has the faintest idea who the enemy arc, where they come from, where they go back to, what they want, how many of them there are. Apparently they go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve their dead, so there aren't any corpses to examine. The few bits of kit we've recovered are either nondescript generic commercial stuff, like you can buy from any reputable arms dealer, or Imperial issue. Witnesses say they look a bit like Imperial regulars, only scruffier, less organised. I went and interviewed a bunch of survivors (me, on a horse; if that's not devotion above and beyond the call, I don't know what is) but they just looked scared and clammed up. I think they're terrified of what might happen to them if they help us in any way. Not a nice business. Anyway, my investigations are continuing (good, meaningless civil service phrase) and as soon as I know anything, I'll let you know.

A thought has just occurred to me. If you're really the brother of the invincible Sun, maybe you could persuade Him to pay us a visit, just long enough to thaw the ice in the latrine.

*

His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, to Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, greetings.

His Majesty acknowledges Phormio's report.

The point you raise is an interesting one, which has vexed the finest minds in Temple for generations. As far as I can make out, the invincible Sun isn't actually my brother, as such; more like a second cousin. As you can imagine, this came as a relief to me. Last thing I need to worry about is one more birthday to remember. Besides, what do you give the Sun? Socks? A nice book? I'm fairly sure He's not a great reader (the pages would get scorched, for one thing).

I've written about the charcoal. I made the Adjutant General look up the rules (he's got a book with all the procedural rules in it, the lucky sod. I asked him if he could let me have a copy, but he went all coy on me) and he copied out the proper form of mandate for me to use. So, fingers crossed, and let me know what happens.

In case I didn't make my meaning clear in my last letter, I really am dreadfully sorry about all this. Of course, it wasn't my fault that all my obnoxious relatives chose to massacre each other and land me with this job, but even so, I'm sorry, and I'm really grateful to all of you for rallying round like this and helping out. The plain fact is, I can't trust anybody here. Either they're completely useless, or they're robbing the Treasury blind, or they're plotting a coup, or their nephew's boyfriend's uncle's plotting a coup, and it's all so horrible and dreary I could scream. I'm convinced they're deliberately keeping me working all hours on meaningless trivia so I won't find out what's really going on; a clever enough idea, but it's going to backfire on them, trust me. As soon as the rest of the gang's come in and taken charge, we'll have those wankers out and then we can start doing things properly. And then, my dear old friend, you can come home. Promise.

Excuse me if I'm sounding a bit more bewildered than usual, but I've been trying to picture you on a horse, and the image has taken root in my mind and smothered practically everything else. Here's a tip you find useful. Once you've mounted, if you can sec the horse's tail, you're on back to front.

*

Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, to His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, greetings.

Phormio begs to inform His Majesty that the enemy have burnt Saleia. Imperial forces were unable to engage.

No kidding. Remind me; which end is the tail?

The Saleia business isn't quite as bad as it sounds. One useful thing I've done (sorry, forgot to mention it in my last letter) is organise a sentry network. What that means is, each village headman is responsible for posting a watch, round the clock, to look out for trouble. This idea hadn't actually occurred to anybody, which I find quite remarkable. Anyhow, the Saleia watch saw the bad guys coming well in advance, and they evacuated with time to spare. Nobody thought to send a runner to the garrison at Limes Regni, so the first the military knew about it was when they saw the column of smoke, but you can't have everything. The village got burned to the ground, but nobody died, the bad guys didn't find or couldn't be bothered with the cattle, and I've got carpenters and masons up there right now rebuilding the place. By all accounts it was the armpit of the North, so I imagine they'll do quite well out of it in the end. Even so; can't have been fun for them, and of course we're still none the .wiser about who these buggers are. I sent out scouts, naturally, but the trail petered out after a couple of miles (new snowfall covered the tracks; you might care to raise that with your second cousin. He's been no help at all.). All the village watchmen could tell us was that there were a lot of them; not much help, since people in these parts tend to count one-two-three-four-five-loads. Anywhere between a hundred and a million, in other words.

I looked up insurgency in my Art of War, and it says I should set up a rapid response unit, stationed in the epicentre of the attack sites, comprising two divisions of heavy cavalry supported by horse-archers and scouts. I'd do this like a shot, except;

1. Cavalry don't do so well in steep mountains

2. I haven't got two divisions of heavy cavalry

3. The attacks have been so widely spaced that there's no chance in hell of getting to where we're needed before the bad guys melt away into the hills.

I'm working, mind you, from the 9'h edition. Maybe they've updated since then. Failing which, I confess to being baffled, at a loss and screwed.

One last thing. Could you send me some more purple ink? The bonehead at Supply would only let me have an ounce; can't have more than that without a signed warrant from His Majesty personally. I tried asking the clerks to mix red and blue ink together, but they nearly had a fit. Apparently, unauthorised manufacture of purple ink carries the death penalty. What kind of a law is that, for crying out loud?

*

His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, to Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, greetings.

BOOK: Purple and Black
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