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Authors: K.J. Parker

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BOOK: Purple and Black
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His Majesty acknowledges Phormio's report and applauds his actions with regard to Saleia.

Please find herewith one (1) pound of purple ink. It's from my own personal stock. Life is too short to go through Supply.

The whole purple ink business is indicative (is that the word I want?) of what's wrong with this administration. You start off with a basically harmless, quite fun idea; purple ink is reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor and his officials. That way, you can tell at a glance if the warrant or summons or conveyance you've just been handed is genuine. Fine. What happens? First, one of my megalomaniac-psychotic predecessors takes it a bit too seriously, and misuse of purple ink is suddenly a capital offence. Second, the clerks at Supply figure out that they can exercise a remarkable level of control over the administration, particularly officials they don't like or approve of, simply by limiting their ink supply. Do something that gets up their collective nose; next time you need a refill, you're told that the last batch they had in from the contractors wasn't up to snuff quality-wise (not purple enough, presumably); or else the ship it was on sank, or a new and unknown disease has wiped out all the oyster-beds in Fragia. Result; no ink, no documents, nothing can be done. Marvellous. It means I'm having to stockpile the stuff while I can, in case they stop liking me. Meanwhile, I'm on the track of a forger (he's in jail somewhere out East) who was convicted of making a copy so close to the real thing, it's indistinguishable. Soon as I find him, I'm having him brought here and set to work. Seriously. It's the way you have to do things here.

Sorry. Rant over.

I don't know what to suggest. The rapid response idea's clearly a non-starter; all you'd be doing is tying up forces in one place, giving the baddies a licence to attack somewhere else. All I can think of is infiltration and intelligence, but you don't need to tell me you've thought of that already and it's not that simple. Do the best you can, that's all I ask. Your best will be about as good as it's possible to get. That's why you're there.

In other news. Progress, at last. I've contrived to get Menestheus in as Chancellor, Strato as Master of Ordinances and Aristaeus as Grand Domestic, which means that all the key Cabinet posts are now in the hands of the Class of'13. There is, of course, a fair chance that by the time you read this, we'll all have been murdered in our beds by the palace guard, or the Optimates, or maybe even the public at large; it's not exactly been a popular move, but I'm determined to see it through; and when you get home, I'd like you to be Commander in Chief. Please?


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 engaged the enemy, but without success.

Thank you for your astonishingly generous and flattering offer, which you can stuff where your second cousin doesn't shine. I am not, repeat not, a soldier; I'm an effete, slightly overweight dilettante scholar who just might one of these days, if I'm lucky and the right people die and some clown doesn't send me away to the frontier, secure a senior lectureship at a respectable university. I know, we agreed; give positions of power to people who'd rather die than have them. But there are limits. The point being, I'm no bloody good at this.

As witness the recent debacle referred to above. Quite by chance I happened to be in Choris Anthropou (don't bother looking it up; not on map) to interview some time-waster who reckoned he'd seen the bad guys up close. Literally just as I was about to pack up and go home, a rider comes thundering up the street and falls off practically at my feet. Poor bugger was a horrible mess, all cut up and bleeding, but he managed to tell us that the bad guys were six miles down the valley, breaking up the road.

Needless to say, I didn't stop to think. I'd got fifty dragoons with me as personal escort. I sent them off to do what they could, scribbled a note to the garrison commander at Gelos, nine miles back in the wrong direction, then got in my chaise and wobbled off after the dragoons, with an absolutely terrified village headman as guide and coachman.

I owe my life to that man. He got us lost; I can only assume on purpose, since he lives there and must know the mountains like the back of his singularly grubby hand. Result; we arrived on the scene when it was all over. Ten minutes earlier, and we'd have ended up like those poor bastards I sent to their deaths, because I acted without thinking, because I was desperate to do something but didn't know what to do, because I panicked.

There were two survivors when we got there, and by the time I'd finished throwing up and pulled myself together, there was one survivor. Amazing; he apologised. Sorry, general, but there were six hundred of them and only fifty of us and we rode straight into an ambush, and thirty of us got shot full of arrows before we knew what had hit us, and they carved up the rest of us with axes and swords; I failed you. That's what he said. I felt so ashamed, I wanted to die. But I told him he'd done really well and Vesania was proud of him and a bunch of other shit. He made it, I'm delighted to say; lost an eye, though, and his left hand's useless. He obeyed my order, presumably under the misapprehension that I knew what the hell I was doing. I didn't tell him I'd never even seen a dead body before.

The soldiers from Gelos got there amazingly quickly; two hundred heavy cavalry and two dozen horse-archers. Their commander seemed to know what to do, so I left him to it; my second mistake of the day. You see, I'd omitted to mention to him that the bad guys had been seen breaking up the road. If he'd known that (being a proper soldier, as opposed to me, an ignorant amateur), he'd have known that they were fixing up an ambush, and nothing on earth would have induced him to go galloping full-tilt along the main post road. Which (since I'd forgotten to pass on the one bit of information I had) is exactly what he did.

You know about this stuff, so I imagine you're way ahead of me. The bad guys had let themselves be seen. The rider who brought me the news was the only survivor of a regular six-man patrol (again, I should've thought to ask him who he was and what he was doing out there). They knew when the patrol would be passing, so they planned to attack it, kill five of them and let one go. The survivor would then rush straight to the nearest garrison and call out the cavalry, who'd zoom off up the road, straight into the ambush. To welcome them, the bad guys had undermined the road and set up rolling-log blocks to bottle them up in a cutting, where they could be quickly and efficiently slaughtered with minimum risk of any of them getting away. Smart, yes?

The only consolation I can see is that they're not completely infallible. They ballsed it up, slightly. They somehow missed the six-man patrol at the point where they'd planned to intercept it, which meant it blundered happily on until it ran straight into the main body of the raiding party, busily digging trenches under the road. Apart from that, it all went like clockwork. They killed five, let one go (turns out all that impressive blood was because he'd ridden so fast through the forest, he scrunched himself on a low branch and landed in a briar-patch). Instead of the garrison at Gelos, however, the survivor runs into me and my fifty dragoons, who shouldn't have been there at all. That, of course, cocks everything up further. The bad guys are expecting six hundred cavalry; instead they get fifty dragoons. They see them coming and are quite properly bewildered; this isn't how it was supposed to work out. So, instead of waiting patiently at the ambush site, they rush up the road to meet them, slaughter them, and then, presumably, panic. What if they're the ones who've just been lured into a trap? Because (I'm sure they argued) nobody in their right mind would send a piddling little detachment of fifty men in pursuit of a force of unknown size in that sort of terrain; therefore, something fishy must be going on, therefore it'd be sensible to cut their losses and get the hell out of there.

Which they were in the process of doing when the Gelos cavalry bumped into them. A stroke of luck, or what? As far as I can make out, our men ran slap into the undermined road and came horribly unstuck, as planned, but there weren't any bad guys on hand to complete the operation and slaughter them like sheep; they'd already buggered off, and were never seen again. Outcome; instead of six hundred dead, we lost one man killed (broken neck), seven badly injured, about twenty horses. Could've been far worse; but the fact remains, they did us good and proper. Correction; they did me. I was the idiot who turned our stroke of good luck—the original patrol getting sight of the undermining—into a narrowly and fortuitously avoided disaster.

Far be it from me to question the wisdom of your Imperial Majesty's proposed appointment, but do you honestly believe, after reading this, that I'm fit to command a sheep-dip, let alone the combined armed forces of the Empire?

I've written it all up in proper military language in despatches, copied herewith. I would also be enclosing herewith my formal resignation from the governorship, only my original supply of purple ink's been stolen and the stuff you sent me has dried up into a solid block, which has proved unbreakable even to strong men with sledgehammers. Please can I come home now, before I get any more of our people needlessly killed? Please?


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 advises Phormio to expect the arrival of reinforcements, namely two (2) divisions of dragoons and one (1) division of auxiliary cavalry.

Don't you fucking dare. Things are not going well for me here. The bureaucrats and the old money are dancing rings round us, because we don't know our way about in their precious systems, and I've been having to field questions in Senate about frontier security. Surely by now it's apparent to his Majesty that the situation requires the firm hand of a seasoned professional soldier. If you quit on me, they'll make me assign some steelneck from the Phocas or the Bringas, and you know what he'll do the moment he takes command? That's right. He'll march on the City and I'll be dead. You bloody well stay where you are, or we're all done for.

Sorry. Didn't mean to fly off the handle. I sympathise, I really do. But it's pretty desperate right now, and basically I'm hanging on by my fingernails. Yours is the only active military zone; therefore, the only place where they can legitimately post a fighting general. So; what I need most of all is you, my best friend, who I know I can unreservedly trust, to stay put, make it look like you're doing something, and hold things together until I can deal with Antilochus and the First Families and their huge entourage of subsidiary arseholes. All right?


Look, the troops I'm sending you are pretty damn good. They're my father's veterans; for some reason best known to themselves, they seem to like me, or at least they like me better than Eugenius Bringas. Also, they're hard as nails, the officers aren't just somebody's nephews, and so long as you let them know you're open to suggestions, if you're about to do something bloody stupid, they'll tell you. Also, the auxiliaries are Aram no Vei—a bunch of murdering savages, yes, but our murdering savages. Just pay them on time, and they'll kill anything that moves on this earth.

Talking of which; how are you off for money? It's a bit tight right now—the Treasury's playing silly buggers about collecting the property tax, to starve me of funds—but I've got Dad's reserve and uncle Zeno's reserve and a few other bits and pieces they don't know anything about. Sometimes it's good that all my family were basically a bunch of thieves and pirates. As the last man standing, I inherited their stashes.

Sorry about the ink. I can't prove it, but I'm convinced they put plaster in it, to stop me writing to anybody. Bastards. Anyway, the one (1) pound enclosed herewith is my unofficial homebrew, knocked up by my pal the forger. He's a treasure, that man. He's going to teach me how to lift seals next.

While I think of it, a few messages from the rest of the gang. Menestheus says to stop whining; you should try doing his job. Aristaeus asked me to remind you about that time in second year when we stole the Dean's post-chaise, dismantled it and put it back together again on the roof of the Old Library. He reckons that if we could do that and get away with it, running the Empire should be a piece of piss. Strato is looking about for a copy of The Bedchamber Dialogues for you (the seventh edition, with the full-page pictures) so at least you'll have something to read.

Having them here—and you there, of course—is the only thing that's keeping me going. I really do miss Gorgias, though. He'd know what to do.

I remember you saying to me once, when we were carrying that wardrobe up the back stairs at Chairmakers' Street; it's bloody hard work being your friend, Nico. Well, you were right about that. I hope I've never pretended otherwise. All I can say is, thanks; for the past, and for now.

You will stay, won't you?


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 reinforcements have arrived and are being deployed in accordance with standing orders pending new developments.

Tell you what, this moonshine purple ink of yours is a major improvement on the official rubbish. Whatever you're paying your pet crook, double it.

Tell Strato thanks ever so much for the book. Tell him I especially appreciate it because it's evidently his own personal copy. At least I assume it is. That would account for the curious stains.

All right, I'll stay. Actually, things are looking up, ever since you sent me those lunatics. I've always been scared stiff of soldiers, but these guys are real headcases. I mean that in a nice way, of course, and so far they've been behaving themselves, more or less. The main thing is to keep them away from garlic. It does funny things to them.

BOOK: Purple and Black
12.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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