K Parker: The Belly of the Bow

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K Parker The Belly of the Bow
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    The Belly of the Bow
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She smiled again. Her face reminded him of a cooking apple. ‘You mean,’ she said, ‘why did I have you dragged halfway round the world to a place you’ve probably only heard of two or three times, and then dump you in the waiting room for hours? It’s a fair question. The answer to the second part is, I was busy. You will tell me when you want something to eat, won’t you?’

Alexius nodded and took a deep breath. He had no idea whether he was frightened of her or not. She was thirty years younger than he was, but she reminded him of his grandmother. ‘And the first part?’ he asked.

‘Oh, I’d assumed you’d already guessed,’ she replied. Without taking her eyes off him, she reached out and helped herself to a handful of raisins from a shallow unglazed pottery dish. ‘I want you to do some magic for me, please.’

Alexius took a deep breath. Not so long ago, he’d had a set speech for these occasions, one that neatly and concisely explained the difference between an abstract philosopher and a conjurer. It had been composed for the benefit of students and the wives of civic dignitaries making small talk at official receptions. Since the Director fitted neither category, he decided to improvise.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but I’m not a magician. I couldn’t do magic even if I wanted to. I don’t think anybody can. What I do is study a half-scientific, half-metaphysical concept which we call the Principle, which is all about the structure of Time. Over the years, our studies have occasionally had bizarre and uncontrollable side-effects which could be confused with magic, but since none of us really knows the first thing about these phenomena-’

‘Of course,’ Niessa Loredan said, with a touch of impatience. ‘That’s the aggravating thing. You don’t know much about it.’ She laced her plump fingers together, and in that gesture Alexius could see the woman who’d founded and built up a highly successful bank. ‘You don’t understand magic, but you can do it. I understand it all right, but I can’t do it – well, not as much as I want to. So here’s the deal: I teach you, and you help me. Fair?’

A long time ago, Alexius had had an uncle who ran a sawmill. Now his uncle was very good at sawing wood, and not much else; but his wife (his second wife, fifteen years his junior) had a positive genius for business, and she’d taught the young Alexius a trick or two about negotiation. One: if they talk a lot, summarise and simplify. Two: as soon as possible, get to the deal. Three: let them know some of your weaknesses. Four: make them think you know all about them. Five: never try and strike a deal that doesn’t have at least some small benefit for the other side. Coincidentally, his aunt-by-marriage had been short and substantial.

‘You know about magic,’ he said. ‘That’s very interesting. We – the scholars of my Foundation – recognise the kind of person who has a natural ability to understand and even manipulate the workings of the Principle; we call them “naturals”, in fact. Usually they don’t seem to realise what they can do. You’re saying you’re one of them?’

Niessa Loredan clicked her tongue. ‘You haven’t been listening, have you?’ she scolded. Your “naturals” don’t understand, but they can do it. I’m the opposite. I’m not the natural in this room, Master Patriarch; you are.’

Alexius had already opened his mouth to reply when what she’d said sunk in. He sat quite still for two or three seconds without speaking.

‘And like you said,’ Niessa Loredan went on, ‘you’ve never realised what you can do. Come on, think about it. That business with my daughter and my brother Bardas; you did some fairly strong magic there, and I’ll bet you couldn’t tell me how you did it. Well?’

Again Alexius opened his mouth, then hesitated. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I can’t. Well, in very general terms, yes; but a step-by-step description of the procedure, no.’ He narrowed his eyebrows. ‘You’re telling me that you can?’

Niessa stifled a yawn. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘It’s what you might call simple but difficult. Like it’s a fairly simple operation to lift a huge boulder, but impossible to do unless you’re very strong. I know how to lift things, but I’m not strong enough to go humping boulders around. It’s the same with magic.’ She looked him in the eye for a moment, then continued, ‘I can see you’re uncomfortable with that word, but I can’t think of a better one. I suppose you’d call it “anomalous physical phenomena associated with manipulation of the Principle”, but that’s too much of a mouthful for me. Well? Do you want to learn, or don’t you?’

Alexius thought of his uncle’s wife. ‘You’re asking me to buy goods I haven’t seen,’ he said.

‘No,’ Niessa replied. ‘The deal is this. We agree the terms, then you get the goods, then you pay for them. After all, you can’t do what I want you to until you’ve learnt what I’ve got to teach you.’

‘All right,’ Alexius said cautiously. ‘Tell me what you want me to do first.’

Again, Niessa looked him in the eyes before answering. It was meant to be unnerving, and it worked. ‘It’s no more than you did for my daughter,’ she said.

Alexius shook his head. ‘I can’t be certain because I don’t know enough about it,’ he replied, ‘but I have an idea that what I did at the very least contributed to the fall of the City. It certainly caused an awful lot of trouble, and also made me very ill. I don’t think I want to get involved in anything like that, even if it means not learning what you know about magic. After all,’ he added, with a slight shrug that his aunt-by-marriage would have approved of, ‘it isn’t actually what I’m interested in.’

‘Very well,’ Niessa said. ‘Now let me tell you a little bit about my family. As you know, when we were younger and still living in the Mesoge, my brother Gorgas set me up to be raped by two rich young men from the City, and then murdered my father and my husband and tried to kill me and our brother Bardas, in an attempt to cover up what he’d done. When he got away, my brothers all blamed me for what happened – and yes, I’d been making eyes at the two City boys, hoping they’d take me with them to Perimadeia. Gorgas killed them too, which means he killed the father of my daughter. In spite of that,’ she went on, with a little shake of her head, ‘Gorgas and I are quite good friends; at least, we’re all the family each of us has got, since Bardas and Clefas and Zonaras all refuse to have anything to do with us.

‘Now Gorgas really believes in family; I’m not so bothered, I can take it or leave it alone. I’ve had to lock my daughter up in the guard house, because she’s not right in the head and keeps making threats and saying all sorts of dreadful things. Gorgas thinks I’m horrible for doing that, but since most of the threats are against Bardas – he dotes on Bardas, always has – he agrees it’s the right thing to do. But you see, Gorgas and I are business people; we know when to cut our losses, when to put the past behind us, we knew that together we could make a future for ourselves, and we did.’

Niessa paused for a moment, letting Alexius digest what she’d told him. ‘I suppose you could say that above all else, we’re single-minded, and practical. We’re practical about life and death, love and hate, right and wrong; and we’re practical about this thing you call lots of long, difficult words and we call magic. And that’s the sort of people we are. And if you think you have any choice about whether or not you help us,’ she added, with a slight smile, ‘then all I can say is, for an old man you’re pretty naive.’

Alexius nodded. ‘You want me to kill someone,’ he said. ‘Lots of people, because one man wouldn’t need magic.’

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