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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K J Parker

The Belly of the Bow


The sergeant was pulling at his sleeve. ‘Get out of here, Father,’ he said urgently, only just audible over the shouting and the nearby clatter of weapons. ‘They’re coming. You’ll be killed if you don’t get out now.’

Doctor Gannadius stared at him and grabbed his wrist. It felt solid enough. ‘This is wrong,’ he mumbled. ‘I can’t be here.’

‘Get out!’ the sergeant screamed; then he pulled his wrist free and set off at a clumsy skidding run down the corridor, crashing into a book-case as he went and scattering book-rolls on the floor. In the other direction, far away but getting nearer, Gannadius could hear more shouting – orders, by the sound of it, yelled by an officer at the end of his tether, but he couldn’t make out the words or tell whether it was the enemy or his own side.

‘This is wrong,’ Gannadius repeated softly. ‘I was never here. I left before this happened.’

A few yards away from him, a shutter flew open and a man’s head appeared through the window, backlit in orange. It was a nightmare face, foreign and dangerous, and Gannadius instinctively shrank away. Logically, he should be running. Very far back in second place was the notion of grabbing one of the discarded weapons that lay on the floor and trying to kill this intrusive stranger before he got through the window. Gannadius couldn’t do either. In the back of his mind, he was making a note on the effect of blind terror on the unwarlike, sedentary individual: paralysis, involuntary bladder activity, an apparent extension of the moment, as if time was frozen or no longer applied.

‘But this is wrong,’ he insisted loudly, except that his voice didn’t work. ‘I escaped from the City before it fell. I was never here.’

‘Tell it to the judge,’ grunted the enemy soldier as he wriggled his left shoulder through the window frame. ‘I expect you’ve got a note from your mother, too.’

An enemy soldier shouldn’t be talking with a strong City accent, using City phrases. But on the other hand, Doctor Gannadius, Perimadeian refugee currently domiciled in Shastel, shouldn’t be here talking with him. Someone was breaking the rules, he thought, how horribly unfair; but once he’d been killed, who would ever know?

The sordid and uncomfortable feeling of piss running down his leg, and the smell of burning bone filtering through the window – how much more real can it be? I’m here. Damn.

‘Please,’ he said. The enemy soldier grunted again, swung one leg through the window and put his foot to the ground. ‘Go on,’ he said, ‘run. Well?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Gannadius replied. ‘I can’t. I don’t seem able to move.’

The enemy soldier shrugged and reached behind his back for an arrow. I’m not really bothered, his eyes said, one way or the other. You can run if you like, or I can kill you now. You’re dead anyway. Gannadius closed his eyes: it would be too horrible to watch the arrow actually coming towards him, and with time running slow like this he was sure he’d be able to see it in the air, observe for himself the operation of the phenomenon known as the Archer’s Paradox, whereby the arrow actually bends round the bow at the moment of loose. A true scientist would want to see that. Not me, he said aloud, but the words didn’t work any more. I don’t understand. Unless this is some horrible mess-up in the operation of the Principle, which means that instead of going forward, I’ve been hauled back, maybe to where I should have been all along. Is that the way it works? We think we can spot the flaws in the Principle, prise open cracks in the points in the future where momentous things happen and slide in our acts of intervention. But what if it works both ways, and the flaw’s closing up on me? In which case it’s all Alexius’ fault, and mine for getting involved. Perhaps-

Something prompted him to open his eyes; and he saw the enemy soldier staring at him, his face suddenly contorted with a fear that mirrored Gannadius’ own. There was an arrow in the man’s chest that hadn’t been there before.

‘Loredan,’ he said, then turned round. A man stood in the archway, a short black bow in his hand, his face frustratingly in shadow. Loredan, yes; but which one? Not that it mattered if he was safe now, but there were two Loredan brothers, and one was good and one was bad, and the elder of them was taller and bald-headed (but he still didn’t know which one he was looking at).

Whichever Loredan it was took a step forward, then called out, presumably some warning. It came too late, because Gannadius could see the arrow coming, spinning elegantly around the axis of the shaft-

So I died here, after all. How ironic.

Someone touched his arm, and he jerked round. It was a girl, one of his students, not the most promising of them but terribly enthusiastic. She was smiling, amused to see an old man fallen asleep in his chair, so peaceful.

‘Doctor Gannadius,’ she said. ‘I’m here for my tutorial. It was today, wasn’t it?’

His mind was still fuzzy with sleep, because he replied with something like, ‘I thought so too, but it turned into then, and now it’s now again.’

‘Doctor Gannadius?’ She was staring at him, eyes puzzled and worried; very sweet she looked, too.

‘I’m sorry,’ he sighed, stretching his legs and finding them afflicted with pins and needles (maybe they explained the arrow). ‘It’s this hatefully comfortable chair. The moment I sit in it I’m fast asleep, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.’ He had a splitting headache, too.

‘If you like, I can come back later.’ Oh, how disappointed she looked, and how brave she was trying to be – was he ever that enthusiastic about anything, ever in his life?

‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘No, stay. I’m awake now. Please, sit down.’

She was one of those awkward perchers, the sort who balance on the very edge of a chair as if they’re afraid they’ll break it or that the person who’s really entitled to it might show up at any minute. Her name – absolutely no chance, he admitted to himself, of remembering her name this soon after waking up. Machaera.

Fancy remembering that.

‘Remind me,’ he said. ‘What were you doing for me this week?’

She straightened her back even more until she looked like a human plumb-bob. ‘Projection exercises,’ she said. ‘Like you showed us.’

(Hah! Savage irony, if you like. You want to stay well clear of projection exercises, my girl. They’re not safe. In fact, they could be the death of you.)

‘I see,’ he said, steepling his fingers and trying to look as if he had a clue about anything. The truth was that these famous secret Perimadeian projection exercises, which were basically what had got him this superb job, were little more than his garbled attempts to duplicate the techniques by which Alexius and he had (accidentally) managed to achieve a number of projections (with disastrous effects) shortly before the City fell. About the only thing that could be said in favour of these exercises he was now teaching was that they didn’t work. At least, he devoutly hoped they didn’t, or they were all due to be in ever such a lot of trouble.

‘Shall I…?’ she mumbled. She was embarrassed, like a patient taking off her clothes in front of a doctor. Gannadius nodded. ‘When you’re ready,’ he said.

‘All right.’ She huddled up in her chair, as if she was out in the rain without a coat, her eyes squeezed painfully tight. He could almost feel the gigantic effort of will she was making – counter-productive, of course. Which was all to the good.

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