Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth—Matthew 5:5

 

“How much to write a letter?” I asked him.

He gave me a business smile. “That depends,” he said.

“On what?”

“On whether it’s a fairly ordinary, straightforward sort of thing, where I can use one of my standard precedents, or if I’ve got to make it all up out of my head. If all I’ve got to do is copy it out and fill in the blanks, four obols. If I’ve got to be creative, six to nine.”

“Right,” I said. “Well, it’s a letter to the parents of the girl I love with all my heart and soul, telling them how I’ve just watched their daughter being dragged away screaming by soldiers and loaded on a ship to be taken as a sacrifice to the Black Island and eaten by a monster.”

He looked at me. “That’ll be one drachma.”

Every morning, ever since I was a small kid, I wake up, turn my head just a little, and look out through the window. I see the light blue sky and the dark blue sea and the promontory, with the temple a blaze of white, and the white gold of the sand, and the red and white sails of ships. I see warmth and beauty and the joy of life. And then I remember and think, Oh.

You can’t see the Black Island from Castletown because the promontory is in the way, but it’s easily the most visible thing in the city. You can see it everywhere, in everything; in the frayed hems of worn-out clothes and the split seams of boots, in the bald heads and hunger rashes and sunken eyes of starving children, in the bull’s head insignia of the guards on every street corner. Lately I see it all the time, in my mirror.

He owns a mirror, you’re saying to yourself; a rich bastard. Well, quite. One death and I’d be the richest bastard in Castletown. But that death would be my father, so I’m in no hurry. And yes, my father is a rich man. He owns a ship, two fishing smacks, seven farms, six orchards, two vineyards, a lime kiln, a copper mine, a foundry, a wheelwright’s shop, an olive press, half a ton of bronze ingots, and the only mountain on the island, which just happens to be covered in valuable timber. So yes, I have a mirror while there are people out there who don’t have enough to eat. But the mirror belonged to my mother, so it’s not going anywhere. One of my earliest memories was watching her holding it while she combed her hair. So I keep the stupid mirror, because I look at the back of it and I see her. Then I turn it round and see myself, and in my eyes a reflection of the Black Island.

My father and I don’t work all those ships, farms, orchards, workshops and forests on our own. We employ about a hundred men and women and we pay good wages. I have nothing to feel guilty about.

The last thing she said to me was: I won’t have to go, will I? Promise me.

“I promise,” I said. “It’s all fine. We’ve fixed the lottery.”

She breathed out, as though she’d been holding her breath for ever. “How?” she asked. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

We were sitting under the crooked fig tree, looking out over the bay as the fishing boats came back in. “Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s all arranged. Lexias is this year’s lottery commissioner. He works for us at the mill, and he’s got a family, and debts. He guarantees he can fix it.”

She smiled. All her life, she’d been terrified that one day it would be her turn. “You have no idea,” she said, “how good that feels.”

I hate the fact that I’m stupid. Lexias worked for us, but Philopoemen swooped in and bought up the mortgages on his seven acres of scrub and gravel; Philopoemen has three daughters and two sons. If Philopoemen foreclosed, he could take Lexias’ wife and kids as part payment for the mortgage and sell them to the Sherden, and Lexias would never see them again. I like Philopoemen, he’s a good, kind man with a sense of humour, but when you’re scared out of your head, you do things that normally you wouldn’t countenance. Like extortion, or rigging the lottery, like I’d tried to do.

Afterwards, I went to see Lexias. I happened to have an axe-handle with me. He made no effort to defend himself. I wanted to keep hitting him till there was nothing left I could recognise, but when he just knelt there, not even shielding his head with his arms, I sort of ran out of enthusiasm. He kept saying how sorry he was. If he’d tried to argue the toss, I’d have smashed his head in. As it was, what was I supposed to do, for crying out loud? Philopoemen had done what I’d planned to do, only better. So I gave him three drachmas and came home.

“Could’ve been worse,” my father said. “Could’ve been you.”

That, of course, is what’s wrong with love. My father loves me as much as I loved her, so I couldn’t even put a rope round my neck or open a vein. I shot a hare once, and the arrow passed through its hind quarter and stuck in a tree stump, pinning the hare down until I could get to it and break its neck. Love is the arrow that pins us down so we can’t escape.

Once upon a time we were just us. Our great-great-great-you-name-it grandparents came here, found the island empty, and got stuck in. After a while, they found they could make a living and a little bit over. It’s not a bad place. There’s a river and seventeen wells, so water is rarely a problem. Apart from the mountain, whose slopes are covered in useful trees, the land is good for growing things; barley down on the flat, vines and olives in the hills, provided you don’t mind half-killing yourself piling up rocks to build terraces. Quite good soil in the river valley. The copper mine—call it a mine, it’s a bare patch on the north side of the mountain, like a scab you keep picking at so it never heals. But you can scrabble about for a day and fill six bushel baskets with ore, for which the Sherden will give you six drachmas. My great-grandfather built the lime kiln, and ever since we’ve been able to put a bit of heart back into the land. Most of what we don’t need for ourselves we sell to the Sherden, who rip us off savagely, but my father’s ships make four trips a year to Long Island, where they give us four times what the Sherden pay. Left to ourselves—

But we weren’t.

Once upon a time, they were just them. But monstrous creatures from the north, crook-backed savages who shot from the saddle and ate babies, drove them from their homes until they reached the sea and had nowhere else to go. So they built ships, and eventually after many cruel wanderings they reached the Black Island. It’s a fertile country, they say, deep-soiled, well-watered. Left to themselves they’d have been happy there.

But they didn’t get vacant possession. He was there before them, before everyone, left over from some earlier phase of existence, overlooked when the rest of the world was made safe for mortal men. They say he’s nine feet tall with the body of a man and the head of a bull, unimaginably strong, perpetually hungry. He ate the whole complement and crew of the first of their ships. They shot arrows and threw spears at him, but he barely noticed. Only when he’d quite finished cracking the bones for the marrow did he turn his head and look at the rest of them. The calculating expression on his face they put down to mental arithmetic.

So they made a deal. He would leave them to themselves, provided they fed him.

At first they gave him their own men, women, and children, but that obviously wasn’t sustainable. So they built more ships, sailed out into the open waters of the Friendly Sea, and started taking islands. To begin with they’d appear out of the darkness just before dawn and snatch five or a dozen from the houses nearest the harbour, but that was too uncertain. Why hunt when you can farm? So they made a deal.

First, because from now on they’d be too busy patrolling and guarding and keeping law and order to do their own farming, they took a sixth of every kind of produce. They didn’t just grab a percentage out of the air, they sat down and figured it out, with the aid of surveys, statistics, demographic theory, and differential calculus—oh, they’re a very advanced people, as they keep on reminding us; they were calculating the recurrence of comets and predicting eclipses when we were still chipping axes out of flint. They used this superior knowledge to work out exactly what we needed to keep ourselves fed and tolerably healthy, and they took the rest. Their revenue collection directorate has a motto: the good shepherd shears his sheep, he doesn’t skin them.

The other form of revenue was also calculated to a nicety, based on birth rates, infant mortality levels, labour requirements, the average useful working life of the average useful worker. They settled on twelve young men and twelve young women, once a year; the surplus. Remove the surplus, they told us, and you get stability. Stability brings security, security brings content. Do as you’re told and pay your taxes and leave everything else to us, and you’ll be happy as fleas on a dog.

Not an idle promise. The good shepherd doesn’t just shear. He clips feet, dags the caked shit off tails, wards off predators, and rotates grazing, because they are the sheep of his pasture; his to shear, his to kill and eat. So they gave us laws, which somehow we’d never needed before, and institutions, mostly to do with gathering census information and quantifying produce levels. They taught us how to improve crop yields and breed better strains of livestock, how to stop so many of our children dying in infancy, how to dam streams and dig irrigation channels. They stopped us killing each other in pointless ancestral feuds, because it was such a shocking waste. They even taught a handful of us to read, write, compile records, and conduct an entirely fair, democratic, and incorruptible lottery. We owe them so much.

Some of us did deals with them and were granted licenses and limited authority over our neighbours. My great-grandfather was one of them, which is why our family is so rich. We say that we look out for our own, do our best to soften the wolf’s bite; that you can’t fight them, but you can work with them to make everybody’s lives just that tiny bit less shitty. We say that, and people believe us. Just because everybody believes something, it doesn’t always follow that it’s true.

A whole drachma for one lousy letter. Just because it’s us, people think they can rob us blind.

He wrote it out on a nice square slab of clay, four inches by two, using a reed cut into a chisel point. Then it went in the kiln along with the rest of the day’s correspondence—tax returns, a couple of probate inventories, the garrison commander’s weekly report, three bills of sale and a charterparty. A day to bake, a day to cool off, and there it was. He read it back to me. A bit impersonal, I thought, but I don’t suppose I could’ve done any better myself. Then I gave it to one of the farm boys to deliver. I paid him two obols. I’m generous, sprinkling silver like rain wherever I go.

You sent them a letter, my father didn’t say because I didn’t tell him, how much did that cost? Followed by: a drachma two, for crying out loud, do you think we’re made of money? Couldn’t you just have walked over there and told them yourself?

No, I couldn’t. One drachma, two obols well spent.

So I went to see Anaxandron at the foundry. He was in a mood because he was short-handed, having just sent his son to the Black Island. I offered to work the bellows for him but he just looked at me.

“I need something made,” I said.

“What?”

“A sword.”

He rolled his eyes. “You know better than that.”

“I won’t tell the bulls if you don’t.”

“What do you want it for?”

“Trimming my fingernails, what do you think?”

He’d never made a sword before, understandably enough, but if you can make a sickle or a billhook, you can make a sword; the principle’s the same. I stood over him while he whittled the pattern. No, I kept saying, that’s a tad too long, and I want more of a curve there. What the hell do you know about swords, he asked. Nothing, I said, truthfully.

I watched him press the pattern into the two halves of the sandbox and left him cutting runners and ingates. Burn the pattern when you’re done, I told him, I won’t be wanting another one.

The bulls aren’t too bad, or so they tell you. They’re just people doing a job, like you and me.

I knew one of them to talk to. He was round at our place one time getting my father’s sealprint on a warrant (my father’s a civilian magistrate) and he stopped for a drink, then dinner. I was polite and friendly to him, because it costs nothing and doesn’t leave a visible mark. So when I called round at the station house, he gave me a big friendly grin and poured me a drink. I recognised the mark on the jar; one of ours, and he hadn’t paid for it. Sorry to hear about your girl, he said.

He was watching me the way a dog watches a stranger. It happened to me once. I was over the other side of the island and two huge dogs ran out at me, barking their heads off. I froze. So did they. They growled but didn’t move. If I’d so much as twitched they’d have ripped my throat out, but so long as I kept perfectly still, nothing could happen and I was completely safe. Odryas the bull was watching            me for the first move. I shrugged.

“The hell with it,” I said. “Plenty more fish in the sea.”

“You don’t mean that,” he said.

They don’t send them overseas unless they’re at least moderately smart. “No, but it’s not the end of the world,” I said. “We learn to live with stuff like that. You’d understand, if you were one of us.”

He laughed. “Glad I’m not, in that case. The day I learn to live with something like that, kill me, I don’t deserve to live.” He watched for a reaction. “You’re a smart kid, Lysidemus. You’re like your old man. We can do business with someone like you.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Talking of doing business...”

While I outlined my proposition, he was watching me like a hawk. But as well as being third in command of the garrison and a big wheel in military intelligence, he was also the trade attaché. Bulls sent here have to do a lot of different jobs, because it’s really difficult to get anyone even slightly more intelligent than a trowel to take a posting like this at all. “Sure,” he said when I’d finished, “why the hell not? Assuming the price is right, of course.”

I mentioned some figures. He barely haggled at all.

Either you go to the Black Island against your will, kicking and screaming, or you don’t go at all. It’s not somewhere you can just decide to visit, even if you own a ship that’ll take you there. Only authorised visitors clutching a clay slab sealed by a proper officer are allowed to land, and since there’s only one place you can land a ship, there’s no chance of sneaking ashore unobserved. If you jumped overboard and tried to swim, you’d be drowned by the currents or smashed up on the rocks; if by some miracle you survived, you’d die trying to scale the unscalable cliffs. I asked the scribe about forging a landing permit. As soon as he figured out what I was asking, he started to hum very loudly, so he wouldn’t be able to hear any more of what I was saying. Besides, why would anyone in his right mind want to go there?

But, as Odryas the bull had told me to my face, I’m a smart kid. People can’t go there; it’s different for things. Slaves of the monster they may be, but the bulls aren’t averse to making money, and a good way to do that is to buy something dirt cheap on one island in their dominion and sell it for an extortionate price on another. The only problem with that is that if the goods go direct from Island A to Island B, central government might easily miss out on customs, tariffs, purchase and sales taxes; also, things might get bought and sold and commodities moved around from place to place without them knowing about it, which might tend to screw up their economic models and distort their projections.

So, if you want to take a hundred jars of pickled walnuts from Aeschros to sell in Callirhoe, the shipment can’t just hop the three miles of clear, calm water across the straits. It’s got to go island-hopping from Aeschros to Deisidaemon to Pandateria to Seleuthoe to the Black Island, where it’s registered, invoiced, weighed, measured, ticketed, given a number, and stuck in a bonded warehouse for a month before setting off for the longer anticlockwise leg of its journey, only this time sailing into the prevailing winds. It’s not an ideal way to do business, but it ensures that the revenue gets its rightful two obols in the drachma. More to the point, it means that jar of pickled walnuts can go where a man can’t.

Pickles, then, have all the luck. Even so. Who in his right mind—?

“Since when,” my father asked me, “have we been in the lumber business?”

“There’s money in it,” I said.

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Sixty-four cedar logs, thirty feet long, three feet diameter, in a neat stack outside our door. I’d neglected to mention that they were coming. Simpler that way. If I’d asked him first he’d have said no. “Since that bull Odryas called me in and told me to do it,” I said.

My father knows me too well. “Told you.”

I shrugged. “I may have mentioned that I was looking around for a sideline of my own. You know, to take my mind off things.”

We hadn’t talked about the things I might want to take my mind off. Even a hint of that subject was enough to drive him off, like when you clap your hands and a whole flock of rooks rises up screaming at you out of the spring barley. “Still,” he said. “Lumber.”

“The bulls are crazy for it,” I said. “For construction.”

He looked at me. “That’s the thing about lumber,” he said, “it grows on trees. What makes you think it could possibly be worth anyone’s whole to shift these great big heavy logs all the way from here to—?”

“Not just logs,” I said. “Cedar logs.”

He paused, as though he’d just put his foot in something. “They’ve got cedar on Aeschros,” he said. “And Pandateria.”

“Not as good as what we’ve got,” I said.

“How would you know that?”

“The bull told me,” I said. “It’s something to do with growing higher up the mountain. You get a straighter grain or something like that.”

One of the many things my father and I have in common is complete ignorance about the technical aspects of forestry. “That figures,” he said, trying manfully to look as though he knew what he was talking about. “And there’s enough in it to make it worth our while?”

“Using our ship and crew, yes,” I said.

“You want to use the ship.”

It’s been a bone of contention between us for ages. He had the wretched thing built so he could haul grain and building stone from one side of the island to another without having to cart it overland. It was, he freely admitted, a good idea at the time. It cost him more than he thought it would; considerably more than he could afford. My mother, rest her soul, gave him a really hard time about it, every chance she got.

“Yes, the ship,” I said. “That’s where we’ve got the edge. It’s a slim margin, but if we can get a foot in the door, we can undercut the competition and start getting big orders. The bigger the scale in this business, the more money you make.” He was about to say something, so I went on quickly: “There’s thousands of good trees on the mountain just sitting there, no use to anybody. And we’ve got a ship, which just sits there most of the year doing nothing. And people. We could make a lot of money.”

He looked at me as though I’d suggested we start breeding peacocks so we could have the feathers. Why would we want to make more money, he didn’t ask; we’ve got plenty already. He was reassessing me in the light of new and unexpected evidence, and his conclusions surprised him. “I guess we could,” he said. “It’s a risk, though. You pull people off other work to do this, suppose it doesn’t work out? We lose what we’ve put into it and what we would’ve made from the other stuff that didn’t get done.”

I told him: “It’s about cold, hard numbers. If the arithmetic works out, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t. If you want to get ahead in the bulls’ world, dad, you’ve got to start thinking like them.”

He looked at me as though I’d just pissed on his shoes. “There’s an element of truth in that,” he said, and walked away.

Hesychius, my oldest and best friend, came to see me. “What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he asked me.

I picked myself up off the ground and wiped blood from the corner of my mouth. “You hit me,” I said.

He did it again. This time I was expecting it and managed to stay upright. He’s not a violent man. “You bastard!” he yelled at me. “I don’t know what’s got into you. You never used to be like this.”

“For crying out loud,” I mumbled, “get a grip and stop hitting me.”

They say that a bow at full draw is nine-tenths broken. He was at full draw. The slightest move on my part, or the wrong words, and he’d flatten me. He’s a tad shorter than I am but much stronger. “When they told me, I couldn’t believe it. You, of all people.”

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit?”

The wrong words, definitely. I tried to block with my forearm, but all I parried was the feint. It hurt and I couldn’t breathe. This time I landed on my arse, which wasn’t so bad. “No,” he said. “Get up.”

“Not likely.”

He took three or four deep breaths, and I watched the will to murder seep out of him, like wine from a cracked skin. “You really are a sorry piece of shit, Lysidemus,” he said. “I ought to smash your face in.”

“You just did.”

Normally he laughs at my jokes. Mind you, it wasn’t all that funny. “You could try explaining,” he said.

I got up. He didn’t knock me down again. I sat down on a log and explained.

His family are tenants of ours. What I’d done that had annoyed him so much was take them away from the haymaking, which has to be done when the weather’s right or there’s no point bothering, and order them up the mountain to brash and haul timber. Properly speaking he should have been up there with them, but I didn’t feel like rebuking him just then. He’d assumed that I’d done it because I was brown-nosing the bulls, or simply to make money. I was disappointed. I thought he knew me better than that.

“Think,” I said. “What’s the special thing about trees?”

“The what?”

“Trees,” I said. “What makes them different from everything else that gets carried on a ship?”

You could see the thoughts slowly crossing his mind through the windows of his eyes. When I can’t sleep, I imagine Hesychius thinking. Other people count sheep; same principle. “They’re heavy.”

“By volume, copper’s five times the weight. Try again.”

“I don’t know, do I? They’re—” He frowned. “Long?”

I touched the tip of my nose with my forefinger, then pointed at him. “They’re long,” I said. “Why is this significant?”

“I’m going to kick your head in a minute.”

“It’s significant,” I said, “because the bulls desperately want good cedar in lengths suitable for building, but they can’t carry them on their own ships. Their ships are galleys, designed for war.”

“So they pay more?”

I shook my head. “So wherever they’re shipping it, they’ve got to go via the Black Island, but they can’t go on a bull ship. They’ve got to go on one of our ships. Crewed by our people.” I paused. He hadn’t got it. “One of whom will be me.”

He looked at me as though after all these years I’d suddenly turned out to be somebody else. “You want to go to the—”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Three fucking guesses.”

I’d shocked him. “You’re out of your mind,” he said. “Does your father know?”

“Good God, no,” I said. “It’d kill him.”

All the anger melted out of him. “You’re a lunatic,” he said. “What do you think you could possibly achieve?”

“Remains to be seen,” I said. “And don’t you breathe a word of this to anybody, all right?”

He nodded wretchedly. “Everyone’s saying you’ve sold out to the bulls. They reckon all you’re interested in is money.”

“Good,” I said. “It’s really good they think that.”

“They hate you.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t talk stupid. You’ve got to live with these people.”

I grinned at him. “Chance would be a fine thing.”

He breathed in deep, then out through his nose. That means: I want to tell you how stupid you’re being, but you won’t listen. Some people are harder to read than one of the scribe’s clay bricks. Hesychius is practically a map. “I suppose you want me to come with you.”

“Absolutely not. What harm did you ever do to me?”

The look on his face was a sight to see; as though I was drowning and he’d just let my fingers slip through his hand. “You can’t fight the bulls,” he said. “You know that.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “That’s why I’m not even going to try.”

Because, you see, I had figured it out for myself. Actually it came to me in a flash, a blinding moment of pure insight.

There is no monster.

That’s not strictly true. There are lots of monsters, thousands of them. But human, just like you and me, and mortal, and capable of being reasoned with.

Think about it. Supposedly we’ve been sending our annual tribute for hundreds of years. Now, then; either this monster is mortal, in which case he must’ve died years ago, because nothing lives that long except oak trees, or else he’s a god, and gods don’t need food.

Think about it some more. The stories say he’d been there on the Black Island long before the bulls arrived, and when they got there it was uninhabited, apart from him. Therefore, no people for him to eat, for a long time. He hadn’t starved to death, but there was no food.

Think about it some more. The bulls rule five islands. We’re one of the bigger ones, with a larger human surplus. Assume for the sake of argument that each island sends an average of twenty victims. That’s a hundred bodies. The monster is supposed to be nine feet tall and incredibly strong; therefore it follows that he needs to eat a lot more food than you or I do. My grandfather told me about a king on the mainland who kept a lion as a pet, and it ate a whole ox every day. This monster would have the appetite of two lions. A hundred human bodies to last him a whole year; he’d starve. So, either he’s a god and doesn’t need food, or he isn’t real. And if he’s a god, he doesn’t exist, because gods don’t. Trust me on this. I prayed every day, every long, sleepless night, for them to let her go, but they didn’t. Therefore, they’re aren’t any. Logic.

So; no monster, but lots of monsters. And the twenty-four victims rounded up and herded onto ships every year don’t go to the Black Island to be eaten; they go there to work, because the bulls don’t work, they’re too busy being soldiers and overseers and revenue officers. They tell us the victims are dead so we won’t go over there and free them, and to terrify us, but it isn’t true. So she must still be alive, on the Black Island, existing there as property. And the thing about property is, you can buy it, even if you have to pay silly money for it.

Everybody cheats. For us, it’s more than simply a business practice; it’s the only form of cultural expression the bulls have left us with. And we take it seriously. It used to be that we only cheated the bulls, but now we cheat each other, to keep in practice, to perfect the art.

Take the drachma. Everybody knows that a drachma is the weight of a handful of barley grains. You owe someone a drachma, you get your bag of chop silver, your scales, and a jar of barley. A level handful of grain goes in one pan, and you drop bits of silver into the other pan until they balance. It’s absolutely fair, and everyone knows where they stand.

When my father and I do business with anybody, one of us does the buying, the other one looks after the selling. I have small hands, like a girl. He has hands like shovels. So he sells, I buy. Over the course of a year’s trading, it makes a substantial difference; enough to pay two men’s wages. Cheating isn’t just an art form, it provides employment.

The bulls drink wine, not beer, so they don’t know about malting. If you soak your grains so that they’re just about to sprout, then roast them enough to kill them, they weigh just a little bit more. Furthermore, all barley isn’t the same. We grow one variety down on the flat and another on the upland terraces. The upland variety has very slightly smaller, lighter grains. The bulls don’t know this. When they came round in my grandfather’s time, teaching us how to farm more efficiently and maximise our taxable yields, they gave—sorry, sold—us Black Island seed corn, which derives from a mainland variety and was much better than what we used to have. They assume that all the barley we grow is that variety. It was my father who figured out that the old strain might have its uses and searched till he found an old boy up in the back country who still grew the garbage variety. He’s smart, though maybe not as smart as me.

Everyone cheats, even when it isn’t really worth the effort. If you ask him nicely, Anaxandron at the foundry will melt down your silver, mix in an unnoticeably small proportion of copper, cast the resulting alloy into ingots, and draw it down into wire. You have to pay him for his time and trouble, of course. I generally give him half a jar of honey for making me two pounds of slightly polluted silver wire out of thirty ounces of good stuff. Half a jar of honey for a morning’s work is daylight robbery, and I’d be losing on the deal if I didn’t get the honey more or less for free from one of our tenants in exchange for letting him draw water from a well that I didn’t dig and which would be no use to me if he didn’t use it. Besides, you can water honey down a bit, if you’re careful not to overdo it. And when we weigh the wire, we use my scales.

Everyone cheats. I tried to fix the lottery, but Philopoemen got in ahead of me. He cheated me before I could cheat him. Both of us tried to cheat the bulls, but that doesn’t count.

I may have overdone the loading a little bit, because by the time we had the lumber on board and secured so it wouldn’t move about, the ship was a smidgeon too low in the water for comfort. Not to worry. We weren’t going far, and it’s plain sailing to the Black Island.

The crew were all men I’d sailed with before, but there was something slightly different in their manner, as if they were ready, willing, and anxious to forgive me just as soon as I apologised, though what for wasn’t at all clear. Maybe it was because the ship was full to bursting, so no room for personal stuff, and traditionally everyone brings along a few jars of this and that to sell on his own account. (That was how my great-great-grandfather got started, incidentally, trading top-quality almonds from half a dozen spindly trees in his father’s back yard, until he earned enough to buy his own ship.) Or maybe it was simply that nobody likes going anywhere near the Black Island, understandably enough. Anyway, it was a quiet trip, with nobody in the mood for talking. I didn’t mind that particularly, though usually I like to chat. I had things on my mind.

Obviously none of us had ever been to the Black Island before, so we had no idea how to get in to the harbour without ripping out our keel on some hidden peril we didn’t know was there. They’d thought of that, naturally. If you’re the hub of a major shipping enterprise, obviously you get ships coming in all the time who don’t know the waters. So there were plenty of nice, clear seamarks—buoys, flags, piles driven into the seabed and posts on the harbour wall to line up with. The main hazard wasn’t rocks, shoals, or reefs, it was keeping clear of other ships. When you think what a ship represents, in terms of materials, manpower, time, skill, and expense, it was amazing to see so many of them all together in one place: dozens of them, merchantmen and galleys, just lying about as if they didn’t matter. “Do you reckon it’s like this all the time?” one of the men said, with a look on his face like he’d accidentally gatecrashed the wedding of two gods. I knew how he felt. Not just the ships, but all the stuff they must be carrying; all that cargo, all that wealth of material goods, all that money.

Odryas the bull had given me a lump of baked clay the size and colour of a flattened turd, pecked all over with little wedge-marks, which was supposed to make everything all right with the harbour authorities. To my utter amazement, it did. The harbourmaster—actually, in a busy place like that I think it must’ve been the deputy harbourmaster’s acting deputy assistant—glanced at it, nodded, and told us to stay there, someone would be along in a minute. We stared at him. Here we were, perfect strangers from another island, he didn’t know our names or whose sons we were, but everything was fine because everything about us that anybody needed to know was somehow contained in a few squiggles poked in a wet tile. Extraordinary. And yet people live like that, apparently, all the time.

We hung about, not daring to get off the ship. Time passed. We began to wonder if they’d forgotten about us, or whether there was something we didn’t know about that we were supposed to have done.

It got dark. We were hungry, but all we had left was a few bits of stale crust and a few dried figs. “We could just leave,” Pythias the helmsman said. “They wouldn’t give a shit.”

“We can’t do that,” someone else said. “They know we’re here. We can’t leave without a departure permit. A bull told me that, back home.”

“Fine,” Pythias said. “What’s a departure permit?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know, do I? One of those baked brick things.”

“We’ve got one of them. Let’s go.”

“Doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “It’s got to have the right squiggles on it. Our brick’s only got coming-in squiggles, not going-out. Let’s all just hold our water and see what happens, shall we? These people must know what they’re doing, it’s their job.”

Sure enough. Shortly before first light, when we’d all finally managed to drop off to sleep, a gang of bulls turned up with huge carts and a crane and told us to wake up. They hadn’t got all day, they explained, and where was our bill of lading?

The bill of lading turned out to be the other side of the clay turd, and it told them everything they needed to know about everything. All we had to do was manhandle the logs so they could get the chains round them and hoist them onto the carts. While we were doing that, I had a good look at the men working the crane. They weren’t bulls. You can tell, quite easily. Bulls are tall and lean, apart from the short, fat ones, and these men were sort of square and stocky. Also they did what they were told without answering back. I’ve never worked with anyone who hasn’t known a better way of doing the job. It’s practically a point of honour.

They got the lumber onto the carts in no time flat, and the chief bull handed me a small clay tile with squiggles on it. Take this to the paymaster, he said, and then you can get your clearance and go home. Thank you, I said, and where would I find the paymaster? He looked at me as though I’d asked him what the big shiny white thing in the sky was, and he pointed in the direction of a row of brick buildings half a mile away. Then he yelled at the carters, and the carts rumbled away, taking our valuable lumber with them.

“You stay here,” I told the men. “I won’t be long.”

They scowled at me. I grinned at them, as though I had the faintest idea of what was going to happen next, and set off toward the brick buildings.

When eventually I found the paymaster, he glanced at my bit of tile and told me it was no good.

“Oh,” I said. “Why not?”

“Needs countersealing. You want the merchants’ association.”

“Of course I do. Where—?”

“Over there.”

Actually, the merchants’ association was exactly what I wanted, though I hadn’t realised it. At the merchants’ association, once they realised I was the man with all the sensibly priced three-foot cedar, they were delighted to meet me. Sit down, they said. Have a drink while we get your chit sealed.

Gradually, as I talked to them, I came to realise that not all bulls are the same. The ones we get at home are one sort, but these were different: easy-going, friendly, only too happy to know you if they thought there was a chance of making some money. They explained to me, very kindly and patiently, where I’d gone so disastrously wrong. I’d allowed Odryas to talk me into selling my valuable lumber to his friends in Consortium A, when what I should have done was sell it to Consortium B, who would treat me with respect and pay me very slightly more. Alternatively—and only because they liked me so much and felt guilty because I’d been treated so badly—Consortium B and I could get together and form Consortium C; in which case I wouldn’t actually get paid for my logs, but I’d be entitled to a full share of profits at some point further down the line, once Consortium K had sold them to Consortium L. I said I’d like to think about it. Of course, they said, and in the meantime, have another drink.

“All this money,” I said. We were drinking wine. We make a lot of wine at home, but we drink beer and sell the wine. The bulls mix it, three parts water to one part wine. I could drink that all day and hardly notice, so I had to pretend. “All this money,” I repeated, “what’s it for​?

They grinned at me. “You can buy stuff with it,” one of them said.

“Stuff,” I said scornfully.

“Stuff is good,” another one said.

“Nah,” I told him. “Takes up space and you’ve got to dust it. Who needs stuff? I don’t. All stuff is shit.”

One of them looked at me severely, to let me know that words of wisdom were on their way. “Stuff,” he said, “is what marks us out from them. We’ve got stuff, they haven’t. That’s what stuff’s for. It’s for having.”

“Bullshit,” said another one. “What you want is nice things. Pretty things, none of your rubbish. Why does everything in life have to be horrible? Why can’t you have something nice for a change, if you can afford it?”

Another bull said: “Sure. Nice things, not shit. And we’ve got it and you haven’t. No offence,” he added graciously. “That’s the point, isn’t it? Stuff is how you know who’s better than everybody else. Stuff is how you keep score.”

I was concerned they’d drink themselves incoherent before I could ask my questions. I’d been working towards my goal slowly and carefully, patiently stalking it through the long grass. But with the bulls in that state there didn’t seem to be much point. “So what happens to the slaves from the islands?” I asked.

“Slaves?”

“All the young kids who get brought here,” I said. “Back home, they tell us they get fed to a monster and eaten, but that’s all shit. Bullshit,” I couldn’t resist adding, but it was lost on them. “So what happens to them really? They’re sold as slaves, right? Only I’d really like to buy one, with all this money I’m going to be making. Expense no object,” I added. “Top dollar.”

They were all looking at me as though I’d exposed myself. “You what?” one of them said.

“The kids from the islands,” I repeated. “That’s what you do, right? You make them into slaves. You turn people into stuff. Fine. That’s fine by me.” I held up my hands, palms outwards. “We all do it, that’s fine, you’ve got to do it or nothing ever gets done. I’ve learned that, since I’ve been dealing with you gentlemen. It’s progress, it’s what builds cities, it’s what makes you better than us. That’s great. That’s the stuff I really want to buy. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Are you out of your mind?” one of the bulls said. “You can’t own people. That’s sick.”

I wasn’t having that. “Oh come on,” I said. “You do it all the time. Look what you do to us.”

He stared at me, then laughed. “You’re nuts,” he said. “Listen, my stupid provincial young friend, you’ve got us all wrong. Sure, we don’t treat you like we treat our own, of course not. We’re better than you, go figure. So we push you around a bit, we rip you off right, left, and centre, of course we do, that’s natural. That’s the point of being strong. So we cheat. Everybody cheats. Cheating’s as natural as the air we breathe, and the fact we can do it gives us the right. But owning a person. That’s horrible. If we did that, it wouldn’t make us better than you. It’d make us worse.”

“They do it in Assur,” one of the others pointed out. “On the mainland.”

“Yeah, well,” the first one said angrily, “that proves my point, doesn’t it? They’re animals over there. Anybody who could think that sort of thing is all right, got to be something wrong with them.” He looked at me. He was upset. “Look,” he said, “you want to sell us your fucking logs or not? If not, piss off. I don’t think I like you any more.”

I wasn’t really interested in whether he liked me or not. “Answer my question and I’ll give you the stupid logs,” I said. “What do you do with the kids from the islands? Where do they go? What happens to them?”

For a very long two seconds nobody spoke. Then one of them said; “They go to the citadel.”

“And?”

“They go to him. He eats them.”

“This man is starting to annoy me,” said the bull who didn’t like me. “I say the hell with him. Some cheap lumber is too fucking expensive.”

“Free lumber,” I corrected him. “You can have the whole cargo for free, if you’ll just tell me the truth. What really happens to the kids from the islands? Who buys them? Where do they end up? Who do they work for?”

They looked at each other. Then they threw me out.

All that trouble and unpleasantness, just to obtain one word. But it was worth it. That word was citadel. Cheap at twice the price.

Back outside in the bright sun, I lifted my head and looked around. I could see a ridiculous number of buildings, some stone, some brick, some with flat roofs, some with arched roofs sheathed in copper, would you believe. But there was one building that stood out from all the rest, because it was bigger and taller and it was built on top of a hill. The sort of building, in fact, for which the word citadel was invented.

I went back to the ship to get something. “Well?” they asked me.

“Deal’s off,” I said. “Go home.”

“You what?”

“Take the ship,” I said, “and go home. It’s all been a waste of time. You can dump the cargo in the sea if you want, it’s dangerous, the ship’s riding far too low. If you hit a squall on the way home you’ll go straight to the bottom. Fuck it.”

They were staring at me. “What about you?”

I was wrapping cloth round my leg.       “I’m not coming.”

“You what?”

“I’m staying,” I said. “There’s something I want to do. You go.”

“Don’t be stupid,” they told me. “How are you going to get home?”

“I’m staying,” I said. “I like it here.”

When I was a kid, my father told me about a pet notion of his. He called it the dominion of the weak. I don’t understand, I told him. Well, of course you don’t, he said, you’re just a kid. But it goes something like this:

I’m stronger than your mother, he said, so if I wanted to, I could beat her up real good. And sometimes I really feel like doing that, like when she gives me a hard time me or goes on and on about how much money I spent on that stupid ship. But I don’t, he went on, because I’m stronger than she is, so she can’t fight back. And your mother is stronger than you are. She could pick you up by the ankles and bash your head against the wall. And you make her so mad sometimes. But she doesn’t, because she’s stronger. And if I wanted to, I could burn down old Chares’s house and push him off his land and take it for myself, because he’s old and he’s got a gammy leg, he couldn’t stand up to me and six of the hired men. I could do with that land of his, it’s right between my top pasture and the river. But I don’t, because I’m stronger.

I don’t follow, I said. It’s not about who’s stronger. You don’t do that stuff because it wouldn’t be right.

He smiled at me. You’re just a kid, he said. What does right mean?

I didn’t understand.

Right and wrong, my father said, what do they mean? Tell me.

So I tried to tell him. Wrong is the stuff we aren’t supposed to do, I said, because it’s not right. Like beating up on people who can’t fight back, or taking stuff that isn’t ours.

Fine, he said. Why is it wrong?

I knew the answer but I couldn’t find words. Because it isn’t fair, I told him. You can’t go around beating up on people just because you can, because who made you the boss of them? I drivelled on like that for a bit, and then he stopped me.

It’s because you’re strong and they’re weak, he told me. That’s why you mustn’t do it. You mustn’t hit kids or take what doesn’t belong to you, because you’re strong and they’re weak. Is that right or isn’t it?

I guess so, I said.

Well then, said my father, let’s try something else. Give me your best shot.

So I hit him, right in the pit of the stomach, as hard as I could. He laughed. You see, he said, it’s fine if you hit me, because you’re weak. Do you understand now?

I shook my head; I was being particularly dumb that day. It’s the dominion of the weak, my father said. Try thinking about it. If you can hit me but I’m not allowed to hit you, who’s the boss? Or take me and your ma. Or me and old Chares. He drives his sheep over onto our pasture every spring, soon as the new grass comes, and what do we do about it? We shoo them back and don’t say anything, because he’s just a poor crippled old man. So he takes advantage and we do nothing. It’s like when we cheat the bulls. Who’s the boss, him or me?

That made no sense. My father was the richest man on the island and Chares was nobody. It’s the dominion of the weak, he repeated. Right and wrong, that’s all it is. It’s how the weak are the boss of the strong, and it’s not fair, and there’s absolutely nothing you or I can do about it.

On that day I decided I couldn’t make sense of what he’d told me because I was seven years old. Then, as I grew up and became aware of the bulls and the way they cast their shadow over everything, I decided that my father was just plain wrong. It’s all about strength. The weak are nothing, so all you can do in this life is try and make yourself a little bit stronger, to shift the balance a fraction in your favour, as regards the balance of who tramples on you and who you trample on. What he’d said stayed with me though, perhaps because dominion is how the bulls describe their operation in the islands. Meanwhile old Chares, frail and shaking, gradually shifted the boundary stones a few yards every spring. We did nothing about it, because he was just an old man in poor health, and when he died, he had seven acres more land than his father had left him, and we spent a lot of money buying it back from his nephew. It’s like the war between the ants and the elephant. The elephant started by trampling a million ants, but the other fifty million scurried away into cracks in the ground where he couldn’t get at them. Then, at night, when the elephant was asleep, the ants crept in through his ear and ate his brain. My father would say that the ants won because they were small and weak.

I prefer to think that they cheated.

A kindly bull stranger saw me hobbling up the street. “What happened to you?” he said.

“My own stupid fault,” I told him. “I fell out of a tree and tore my knee.”

He didn’t laugh. “Nasty things, knee injuries.”

“I’ve got it strapped up well,” I assured him. “Just makes walking a bit difficult.”

He hesitated for a split second, then gave me his walking stick. The handle was carved in the shape of a leaping dolphin. I thanked him. As soon as he was out of sight, I threw it away.

I’d anticipated that getting inside the citadel would be a major problem, quite possibly insuperable. Not so. There were two sentries at the gate, sleepy-looking bulls who snapped awake when they heard the sandal of my dragged foot on the cobbles. “Excuse me,” I said.

“What?”

“Can you tell me how to find the captain of the guard? Only I’ve got something for him.”

“What?”

I showed them the clay turd. It was too dark for them to read it, even if they could read. “He bought some stuff from us,” I said. “He needs to take this to the bonded warehouse, and then they’ll hand it over.”

One of the sentries peered at me. “Give it here,” he said. “I’ll see he gets it.”

I put on a scared look; who am I afraid of more, my master or this soldier? “Sorry,” I said, “but my boss said only to give it to the captain, in person. I don’t know why, that’s just what I was told.”

My luck was in. The sentries grinned at each other. “Figures,” one of them said. He leaned forward a little and lowered his voice. “He’s a fucking twister, he is. Mind he gives you a receipt.”

“What’s a receipt?”

They laughed and stood aside. Through there, they said, first left, second right, up two flights, first left, straight on, you can’t miss it. And what happened to your leg? Ah. They can be nasty, torn ligaments. Try plantain mixed with goose fat, or a hot stone wrapped in a bit of linen.

As soon as I was out of sight of the gate I stopped, slid down the wall into a crouch and closed my eyes. In my mind was the view of this citadel I’d been studying all afternoon until it got too dark to see. I’d been trying to figure it out, this stone and brick puzzle; how would you build something like that if you wanted to house a monster? Or a king? Gradually, the purpose grew into the shape: a secure container inside a bubble of security. Or, taken in reverse, high walls, guardhouses and the keep itself, a series of concentric circles so as to leave no one weak point. For the centre to be equidistant from all directions of hazard, the perimeter must be a circle. Therefore, if you have a circle, the thing secured must be in the—

I was standing in front of a door. It was pitch dark, apart from a moonbeam slanting in through an arrowslit, but I’ve always seen well at night. I could see that the door was massive, strong and old; ten feet high, five feet wide, and four bolts as thick as my forearm. Bolts on the outside.

Not a king, then.

I thought about the story. I tried to remember who I’d heard it from; was it my father or my mother or my nurse or one of the other kids or one of the hired hands? No idea. It had been a part of me all my life, like my hands and my feet, or a scar from an injury when you were very small. He was there before the bulls came, wasn’t he? That was how I’d always known it. The bulls came here in their long, low ships and thought they’d found the promised land, and then suddenly, in the night, they found out they weren’t the first here, or the strongest. In which case, surely, he was the boss of them. In which case, surely, the bolts would be on the—

They were stiff, and they made a horrible screeching noise as I pulled them back. So much for sneaking about quietly. Unless the guard were deaf or dead they must’ve heard it, and so must have whatever lived behind the door. I tried spitting on them and it helped a little bit, but too little and too late. The third bolt drew two thirds of the way back and then stuck solid. I bashed on the handle with the heel of my hand until I realized I was making a real mess of something I might need quite soon, so I tried kicking it instead. I think I broke my toe. Then I got wise. I drew the top bolt out all the way and used it as a hammer. It sounded twice as loud as Anaxandron at the foundry making horseshoes, but apparently nobody was interested. It worked. The fourth bolt came out easy as anything. Presumably it had been watching what I’d done to its brother and was terrified.

So there I was. The door would open if I pushed it. I knelt down and unwrapped the cloth from around my leg. The sword Anaxandron had so reluctantly made for me dropped into my hand, like a dog bringing you its lead in its mouth. I closed my hand around the grip. We’d had a long discussion about the shape and profile of the grip, Anaxandron and me. He said, you want a crossguard so your hand won’t slide forward, and something similar on the back end. I said, that’ll screw up the balance, balance is important. Neither of us knew the first thing about swords. In the moonlight it glowed the colour of honey, my last and best possession. I put my foot against the bottom of the door and pressed down. The door swung open, just a little.

Light came streaming out; golden light. I froze where I was, waiting for roaring and the onset of a monster. Maybe the room was empty after all. If I was a monster, would I crouch behind the door to gain a tactical advantage? I put the fingertips of my left hand against the door and flexed my fingers. The gap was now wide enough to let me through, just about.

It was the most amazingly beautiful room. On the walls, paintings: white background, with terracotta-red figures of men, slightly more than life size, carrying dishes and trays of fruit. The floor was black and white tiles. The ceiling was so high up I couldn’t see it, it sort of folded in on itself in a blaze of gold leaf, and I guessed I must be looking at the underside of a dome. There was a bed, made of what could only be ivory, and a table and a chair made of some sort of black wood I’d never seen or heard of before. In the chair, which was huge, sat a man with his back to me. He was huge too, and his head wasn’t human. He was looking into a mirror.

Ah, you’re saying to yourself, he’s got a mirror. Clearly a rich bastard.

Some mirror. The back was ivory, and from the way the face seemed to shine in the lamplight, I figured the mirror had to be gold. He was looking into the mirror, so what he saw was himself, and in the background, me.

He put the mirror down on the table, no great hurry, then slowly stood up and turned to face me. A very tall man, very broad, and instead of a man’s head, he had the head of a bull. Around his wrists were gold bracelets, and chains on his ankles, tethering him to the wall.

I took a step forward. The room was round, with his table and chair in the exact centre. Propped against the wall was a big sack, full of bones. I guess, just because you’re a monster doesn’t mean you’re untidy. The room smelled faintly of roses. The bulls pay good money for dried roses, for distilling into perfume. You can pack the bottom of the jar with cabbage leaves and they never seem to notice.

I wondered if he could speak, but I decided I wasn’t interested. Even if he could, what would he and I possibly have to say to each other? It was nine paces from the door to the centre of the room. He stood there, not moving, and I couldn’t understand the expression on his face, because his face wasn’t human.

I hadn’t killed a man before, but I’ve killed plenty of animals. When you kill a large animal, like a big old sow or a bullock, it makes it much easier if you stun it first, with a pollaxe or something like that. I only had the sword, so I figured quick and neat was the way to go. Normally you’d cut the big vein in the neck, but he was so tall I couldn’t reach and I didn’t fancy trying to do it standing on the chair. So I stuck the sword into the pit of his stomach, while he just stood there and let me. It went in quite easily. Anaxandron and I had been a bit concerned that the blade would just bend instead of going in. Anaxandron wanted to stiffen it with a central rib, but I didn’t want the extra weight. It turned out that Anaxandron was fussing about nothing, as usual.

He dropped to his knees and I took a quick step back, to keep away from the tips of his horns. He gave a great sigh and toppled over onto his side, and that was the end of him. I waited to see if he’d twitch or jerk about, but apparently not. I couldn’t get the sword out. The way he’d fallen meant that the blade was clinched in the wound by the full weight of his upper body. Shucks.

I sat down on the giant chair. My head was splitting and I felt sick, first-time-on-a-boat sick, only worse. I was trying to think—I had a lot to think about—but thoughts slipped away, like when you take live fish out of a net. I had those floating things in front of my eyes, the ones that you can see even with your eyes shut. If this is what murder does to you, I said to myself, I’m surprised people bother with it, because it’s no fun at all.

I started shivering. Something fell on the floor with a clatter. It was the clay turd. I must have shaken it loose from inside my shirt. I stared at it, because there was something very odd about it. It took me a moment to figure out what it was. I could read it.

Not that it was particularly interesting; it said, forty-eight logs, cedar, two obols per board foot, sixty-two drachmas two obols payable. I looked at it again and couldn’t understand how I hadn’t been able to read it before. It was perfectly clear, if a trifle mundane. Just business, that’s all.

The floating things had cleared away. I glanced down at the dead body. It was changing; it had changed. Not a bull’s head, not any more. It took me a moment before I realised that I recognised her—my own, my darling, the light of my life, my reason for living, the whole object of the exercise. I reached for the mirror. In it, I saw the monster, the one I’d just killed.

Ah, I thought. I asked for that.

I tried banging on the door, but nobody came. Someone had shot the bolts while I was looking in the mirror. I found a small jar of oil to top the lamp up with. I was starving hungry, so I ate her body. It’s an acquired taste.

I guess they spy on me through a gap in the wall somewhere, though I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find one. When I’m asleep they come in and dust, fill the lamp, sweep the floor, empty the bone sack. Sometimes they leave a block of wet clay, an unexpected kindness, and if I write something they take it away, bake it, and bring it back. I tried writing help, please let me out but they didn’t take that one, or the letter to my father. I tried kicking the door down. I broke another toe. The next night they put the chain on my ankle, and now I can’t get that far.

Sometimes I feel angry, sad, frightened, disappointed, even cheated, but mostly I just feel hungry. I’d never known what it feels like to be hungry all the time. You can’t think about anything else, no matter how you try.

Where I went wrong (it seems so obvious now) was assuming there was no monster; that a monster was unnecessary, therefore superfluous, therefore there wasn’t one—just good old human nature, grafting its bull’s head onto everyday human flesh and blood. No monster, just people; and people can be reasoned with, bargained with, exploited, bullied—and cheated, let’s not forget cheated, because everybody cheats. I was right about that, of course, but what I hadn’t taken into account was the true nature of the bull and how smoothly it grows on your shoulders when you’re least expecting it. Staring into a mirror is dangerous because after a while the mirror starts staring into you. As previously noted, you have to be a rich bastard in order to own a mirror. By the very process of being able to acquire one, you turn it into something no sane man would want to gaze into, for fear of seeing the bull. I think I started to grow the horns the moment I let the means enchant me away from the end. Now look at me: king of the bulls, the strongest of the strong, fixed to a wall by the strongest of all possible chains.

Even so, I reckon that my father was partly right. Not completely right, because of course he didn’t understand, not being able to see the whole picture, as I can now; like a drawing of a ship by a man who’s never seen the sea, and here I am, adrift in it. I still maintain that everybody cheats; the boss, the monster, the hero, the victim, the man in the street, and the starving beggar at his door.

By the same token, everybody gets cheated, and I think that’s only fair.

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K.J. Parker is the author of the best-selling 'Engineer' trilogy (Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, The Escapement) as well as the previous 'Fencer' (The Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, The Proof House) and 'Scavenger' (Shadow, Pattern, Memory) trilogies, and has twice won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. K.J. Parker also writes under the name Tom Holt.