The Sign of Three Pears
17 Chalcedony 1223
My dearest brother,
I kiss you upon your left cheek, I kiss you upon your right. And with formality satisfied, I ask you, where is my money? You promised you would send enough to redeem me from this garlicky wasteland! I weep with desperation. We are Sarkoszkys, you and I; how is the world fallen, that one of our family should be reduced to—
Oh, I cannot put it to paper. I can barely say it, though I must hear it, five mornings a week. “Good morning, Your Grace. Your tutor is here.” That word, “tutor”. It is an iron spike, no, a pair of them, one hammered into each ear with the gusto of a tradesman. I swear in blood, each time I hear it, I am this close to throwing myself off the walls of Her so-called Grace’s so-called castle from shame.
And the girl herself—oh, brother, brother, put out of your mind the buxom Praczny maidens in those slim volumes we discovered beneath the account books in Father’s library, so soon and so creatively unmaidened. Her “Grace” has the physique of a lowland ox, and not half the wit. She can barely speak her own tongue; such decency as this place has left me forbids me from describing what she does to ours. Never have I loved Uwsian more than now, when I must listen—no, must collaborate, may all the unnamed saints forgive me—while my dullard pupil flays and quarters the language you and I cherish, then shits upon its wretched remains.
To paint salt on the burn, the hopes I was so foolish as to express in my last letter regarding her brother have been slaughtered most cruelly. (Did it reach you? If so, then where is my money!?) He has some wit, yes, but of a low and cunning sort, unilluminated by any real spark of enlightenment. I admit—I freely admit—that I mis-read him. Oh, I can hear your guffaws now, you churl. Me, mis-read a boy? Yes. That is how cloddish this crapulent wilderness has made me. Oh, brother, brother, you must rescue me. You must—
My apologies. The duke’s courier rose from his table then, as if to depart. As it is my plan to slip this letter unnoticed into the packet he carries (as I am too impoverished to pay him to carry it for me), I was about to pursue some stratagem, I know not what, to delay him until I could sign it, but on event, he sought merely to relieve himself, and has now returned. I think him no keener to be out in the rain this night than the innkeeper’s pigs, which are farting and snoring in front of the fire not three strides from me. You see what I am reduced to?
But the brother. It wasn’t the usual, not this time. This time it was about money. There, I’ve said it again. Money, money, money. I needed some, but had none, and thought to enlist the duke-in-waiting to remedy that, that—drought? Shortcoming? Bah. I cannot even find words any longer. I am become no more than the second pig from the left. In brief, in place of verb conjugations and well-rolled R’s, I filled the brother’s lessons with tales of derring-do, of swashes buckled and monsters slain, taking care always to point out the skills a true hero must have. Not just swordplay (here, I shake my head), not just the parrying of one’s enemy’s blows, and the hewing of his limbs. Why, the great heroes of old were also adept at climbing ropes and picking locks, at skulking and scurrying and all manner of thieverous what-not. Upon my blood, yes, they were!
And of course, from there it was but a carter’s nudge to persuade him (but never in so many words) that a hero-to-be like himself had a right, nay, a duty, to acquire said skills. And how better to do it than by filching a few odds and ends from his sister’s chambers? Oh, but his eyes lit up at that. His sister, whose impending marriage to our dung-sloth of a cousin would leave him a guest in his own home; his sister, who wore more gold on two fingers than he had to his name; his sister, who called him “darling Pupsy” in front of his friends on his fifteenth nameday. Oh yes, he—
Another false alarm. The courier stirred once again, but he only wished to scratch the ears of one of the innkeeper’s pigs in order to disguise his own release of flatulence. Pfah! Have I mentioned the garlic these people eat? Brother, dear brother, please, I will shave my head and swear my soul to the Balance if Father demands it, only send me fifty bezels for the carriage home and lodging on the way. Or sixty, should you love me, so that I may drink myself senseless each night so that memory of this place does not overburden my dreams.
So, again, the boy. I thought him caught, like a sparrow in a spider’s web. He would do the skulking and scurrying (his heart pitter-pat the while, I am sure, to be in the Women’s Yard uninvited, an ear worse taken if caught), and I would dispose of whatever filchings he brought me. Of course, I didn’t tell him that outright. No, my plan was that I would, with the aid of a rogue I met under circumstances I shall not trust to paper, transform Her Bovine Grace’s jewellery into more negotiable assets and away.
But speak not for the snake, eh? Speak not for the snake lest a tiger speak for thee. The boy—
8th day Sapphire, 1224th Year Since Their Departure
His Grace, Anton Usrachiakov Duke Berion
Respected Sir Anton,
I kiss you upon your left cheek, I kiss you upon your right.
I write with regard to the letter enclosed, which was included in a packet of correspondence My Lord was honored to receive from His Grace the Duke of Anyalcze-in-Praczedt, on or about 15th Amethyst past. As you will no doubt have noticed, while the letter is addressed to a member of your household, the seal upon it has been broken. What inspection alone may not reveal is that the letter has been read by myself.
For this, I offer my most sincere apology. I assure you, no Pelkoy would ever intentionally read the correspondence of any other gentleman, or of any he knew to be in the service, standing, or employ of a gentleman. How then came the seal to be broken and the letter to be read?
Thus: the packet was delivered by courier in mid-Malachite, on the day after the first great storm of this past winter. As I am sure you recall, the storm was fiercer than usual for its season—much fiercer than My Lord’s magician, the honored Urptenchauenchut, had foreseen. Our household was therefore less well prepared than it would have been in prior days, when less trust was put in such persons.
It was the work of several days for our serfs to bring in the last of their crops and cattle, re-roof such dwellings as had been damaged, &c., during which time the packet was neglected. If I recall correctly, I did not even bring it to My Lord’s attention at that time, believing it would be spring at the earliest before the courier would be able to return to Anyalcze-in-Praczedt with a reply.
At some point during those days, one of my servants placed some accounts I had requested atop the packet on my desk. I had him whipped for his error when it was discovered, but that does not change the fact that the packet was not then opened until three days past.
I trust you will therefore forgive that I took less care going through the packet than I otherwise would have. The bulk of it was simple commercial correspondence. The rest comprised revisions to a contract of marriage which My Lord and His Grace have been negotiating, and a dozen perfumed letters from His Grace’s daughter to My Lord’s son, which I gave immediately to My Lord’s sister for inspection.
It was then that I made the error for which I have offered my apology. My Lord’s sister chose to inspect the letters from His Grace’s daughter, and insisted upon reading aloud some passages whose tangled grammar she found particularly amusing. While distracted, I took the next letter from the packet and broke its seal. I then read the first page, and part of the second, without truly taking in what was before my eyes.
I ceased as soon as it was clear that the letter was not intended for My Lord or any of his household. However, My Lord’s sister noticed my discomfort, ceasing her recitation and asking what was wrong. Disregarding my demurrals, she drew from me a precis of what I had accidentally gleaned. I confess that I was not as loathe to confide in her as a gentleman in my position perhaps should have been, as I of course realized the identity of the letter’s author, and realized that I had inadvertently placed myself in the sort of delicate quandary which is most properly a lady’s province.
I beseech you not to take offense if I tell you, plainly, one gentleman to another, that your grandson’s hasty departure from Polgotseny these three summers past has been much discussed. My Lord’s sister informed me that the greater part of her circle believed the cause to be gambling debts, though some claimed (solely out of malice, I am sure) that one of your neighbors had sworn revenge against him for some unnatural act. On that basis, she suggested that the letter should be delivered to you, rather than to its intended his brother, in order to apprise you of its author’s whereabouts and current state.
I protested, of course, informing her that I felt it improper for one gentleman to traffic with another’s correspondence. At this, she rephrased her suggestion as instruction, stating that it was in fact our duty to put the interests of your family above those of your grandson. I was moved by her argument, imagining what My Lord would desire if any of his own should ever place the reputation of his family in such peril.
Thus, the letter. And also, at the request of My Lord’s sister, a suggestion, which she likens to turning this grain of sand into a pearl. As you know, His Majesty has long neglected the growing lawlessness on our mutual southern border, so much so that My Lord has been compelled to contemplate a marriage-alliance with
On the road southeast of Nevy Rav
The first week of Chrysoprase, 1224
Sweet’s words by Buckle’s hand
Excuse handwriting please. Master says, something still hunts us. I say, I do not see its shadow, I do not smell its breath. Master says, horses know more than hairless monkeys what it is to be hunted, so I darken my mouth and write what he tells me to.
The letters with this come to us in Nevy Rav. Master does not wish to winter there, but there is an early storm. I find work in the Graf’s stables to pay for master’s hay and barley. It would not be enough, but some coin is left from the business in Vnir. (I write for myself, I am only asked to sell master four times in five months. He says, this proves Uwsians know nothing of good horses.)
When I tell the stablemistress we will leave, she orders me to the postmaster. “There is a law,” she says, that every traveller must carry mail if there is mail to carry. She says there will be silver in it. Master and I want only to be over the mountains to Darp, but it will draw eyes, a penniless Darpani saying no to silver. And as you say many, many times, “There is no letter not worth reading.”
(Master asks, am I writing clearly? I say, I can write more clearly if you walk more slowly. Master says, if I walk slowly, we will not be hunted any longer. We will be dinner.)
The postmaster asks me what road we take. I say south to the Nettelin, then upriver to the Black Grass. He finds three letters that wish to go that way, then tells me to come back in the morning for more. I say, to be away now, today. He says no, there is a law, the postmaster must have the criers announce mail for the south, and I must wait one full day after their cry. I argue and plead, but he says, there is a law. He gives me a silver-heart penny for my trouble, though.
(Mistress, the postmaster of Nevy Rav is half-Darpani. He has the Five Hands on his left forearm, and the Arrow Eagle on his right, but no other tattoos we could see. He is fond of drink, but not a drunkard, and does not seem to gamble. Master says, he would probably not serve you knowingly, but someone in need could play on his feelings for clan and tribe. Also, he keeps mail in wooden boxes on a shelf in his office. Their locks are simple, and I do not smell any magic on them.)
We wait the rest of the day, then the next. I sleep in the stable with the master to save the penny. The stablemistress comes to me in the night, but I pretend not to understand her. On the dawn, we return to the postmaster. There are no more letters, so we take the three, and a note with the postmaster’s mark to say they are not stolen, and leave by the cattle gate.
A man waits for us there, horsed, in furs, with his hood pulled low. Master says I should write his name carefully: Sir Georgiy Chorichiakov Pelkoy, Knight Jurist in service of the Graf. Master says you will know this name from prior times.
He is one of those who asked to buy the master, so I think his aim is to steal what I will not sell. I put my hand to my bow, but he raises his empty to greet me. “Clean luck that I have not missed you,” he said, for he has a letter to carry south that the postmaster is not to see. He gives it to me with a half bezel of good silver, and a promise of a full bezel more upon its delivery in Polgotseny.
I take his letter and give him a horseback bow. “I will deliver it,” I say, but I do not say to who. Others approach on the road, so he leaves me.
(Mistress, master says to tell you the knight was skulking. He says to tell you Sir Georgiy seemed bursting to ask, “What is the secret password?”)
Master has me ride off the Great Coast Road onto an oxcart track that night to make camp, then open the letter and read it to him. The seal is easily lifted. There are two hairs inside the letter, by chance or so that the intended reader can know if it had been opened. (Master says, or as a signal, like hunters tie knots in grass. We are moving again now, more quickly than before. If master begins to trot, I will put this aside. May the First Woman and the Last Man shelter our souls.)
The writing in the first letter is that of a young man, Uwsian, well-schooled, and right-handed. It is good paper, but cheap ink and a poor pen. The paper smells of flowers.
The second letter is in a stronger hand, also on good paper, and blessedly unscented. Master says we will take them both to your woman in Burning Rock if we make it that far and have Sir Georgiy’s rewritten as in times past to strengthen its tone. (He says he hopes this is what you would want, then says other things about what magicians do and do not want. I will not write what he says after that.)
Something comes now on the wind. It smells of death and magic and hungry purpose, and the master says you are wrong, the thing you see in your dreams
His Highness, Thokmay Prince Gandan (renounced)
19th Malachite, 1251st Year Since
The Lady Kembe
Most honored lady,
Please excuse my audacity in approaching you, even at so great a distance, without prior introduction. I can only surmise how busy someone with your wide and varied interests must be; I trust you will forgive my intrusion once I make its matter plain.
I am writing to you at this time because I have recently come into possession of certain letters whose disposition I believe may be of substantial interest to you. It is my belief that public knowledge of these letters would be a stain upon Your Grace’s reputation; I am therefore hopeful that some mutually agreeable arrangement for their disposition or destruction can be found.
The matter is this: for the past year, I have been preparing an Argument to place before the governors of the Collegium in the hope that they will me worthy of elevation to the rank of Scholar Ordinary. At the advice the Balance Petcharatiriv, I selected as the subject of my Argument the causes of the rebellion in Uws in YS 1224-26. “Half of the survivors wound up here when it was all over,” (if I may quote the Balance directly), “And half of them are still alive, so why not ask them what they thought it was all about?”
Accordingly, I have spent these past months traipsing from one bastion of tattered grandeur to another in order to ask a succession of exiled landgrafs and faded knights-justiciar whether they had felt threatened by Yuriy II Barsadov’s administrative reforms, when they first learned that the Pelkoys and Berions had raised the old Sarkoszy banner, why they decided to put on rebel ribbons, &c.
It was on one of these visits that I came into possession of the letters to which I alluded earlier, the first pages of which I have faithfully copied and appended to this of mine. In between draughts of a particularly pungent home-brewed otrava, their owner informed me that in the years prior to the rebellion, it had been his honor to serve as a knight-warden in the Pelkoy domains in the south of Uws. Early in 1224, his patrol intercepted a badly wounded Darpani, in whose possession he discovered several letters. In the confusion of that spring, he claims, he set the letters aside, only thinking of them again these twenty-five years later when prompted by my questions.
The letters are, to wit:
Item, from a “Gentleman”, written in the style of that scurrilous travelogue, The Customs, Laws, and Language of Northern Praczedt: A Guide For Those So Fortunate As To Have Been Born Elsewhere. This appears to prove that the “Gentleman” was Sir Josep Antonikov Pelkoy, later husband of Her Grace the Duchess of Anyalcze.
Item, from Sir Georgiy Chorichiakov, conspirator and rebel, to Duke Anton Berion, the same, verifying the authenticity of the first letter, and in passing rehearsing the matter which formed the basis for the rebellion, to wit: that lawlessness had increased under the reign of the Barsadovs.
Item, and of most immediate interest, from a Gifted horse named Sweet, put to paper with interjections by someone named Buckle (most probably the Darpani courier mentioned above). The letter’s intended recipient is not named, but is addressed as “Mistress”, a title which, as all Cherne knows, agents in your employ often use for you.
This third letter is what has prompted mine to you. If you were in fact the one for whom the letter was written, it suggests that you did not simply observe the events of YS 1224. I have found it impossible not to speculate on how His Majesty’s heirs would react to this revelation. At the least,
Yellowsday, 3rd Tourmaline, 1252 YS
The Lady Kembe,
Please excuse my use of soldierly language this morning—I did not expect words to write themselves in the fog on my shaving mirror, and did myself a very minor injury with my razor when they appeared. By way of apology, I hope you will accept the apple brandy that accompanies this letter; it was laid down in the last year of His Majesty my grandfather’s time, and the Balance Petcharatiriv tells me that it may bring back fond memories for you.
Thank you also for the packet of letters which I found had appeared on my desk. I agree, the one purporting to be from me is a creditable forgery, and might well have fooled a reader without your special gifts. In answer to your questions:
Item, yes, someone did burst into flames a little after yesterday today, to wit, my tutor, a Scholar Stipendiary named Andrae Ghislaine é Marcque. He came to Gandan from Araña some eight or nine years ago and has been my occasional tutor these past two years. I have spoken to my father’s Minister of Rumors, who assures me that her agents never had any indication that Sra Andrae was criminally inclined.
Item, no, I do not recall Sra Andrae’s mood being particularly dark over the past few months. While I agree that Gandan’s winters may seem damp and gray to someone accustomed to southern skies, he had weathered the previous seven with no apparent ill effect. And if I may be so bold, I would also venture that if he did find our weather, food, or conversation unbearable, a man of his intelligence could undoubtedly have found a more reliable way of committing suicide than attempting to blackmail a magician.
Having answered your questions, I would now be grateful if you would be willing to entertain some of my own. From the scorch marks on the forged letter, the Balance infers that you used it to work this morning’s spell. (She wishes me to ask whether it was Idjfikan’s Long Reach, or the Bantangui variant of Moescher’s Immolation.) I myself am much more interested in the other pages, as they bear directly upon the Argument I am preparing. Do you believe them to be true copies of authentic originals? Fully a dozen of the Collegium have presented an Argument at one time or another regarding the identity of the “Gentleman”; if the first letter is trustworthy, it would put that matter to rest. The second letter would completely refute my Argument that the rebellion of 1224 was a spontaneous matter, while the third would, as Sra Andrae suggested, cast a certain light upon your
Greensday 22 Sapphire ‘52
His Highness, Thokmay Prince Gandan (renounced)
Received yours of 3 Tourm. 52 this morning. First page intact but stained, other pages missing entirely. Deduce from this that fifty-year-old brandy was too great a temptation for at least one courier on the road between Gandan and Ossisswe. Doubt anyone at this end would be brave enough to open something addressed to me; suggest inquiry at your end, followed by whipping.
Regarding questions in yours, I receive more inquiries regarding historical, legal, and genealogical matters with each passing year. Were I to answer even a tenth part of them, I would have no waking hours left to devote to the events of the present day.
Even were I to answer, would you actually know more than you do now? If I said a Gifted horse named Sweet was doing my bidding in Uws at the time of the rebellion, would you then know the truth? No—you would instead have to ask yourself whether I was misleading you for some further purpose own. (You would most certainly ask yourself that if I said I did not have an agent then and then, would you not?)
Once you enter this jungle, you are lost. Was the first letter a forgery? Some scoundrel could have impersonated Sra Josep Antonikov so as to wheedle money from his brother. Or someone closer to home could have forged the letter to embarrass the family.
Or perhaps the first letter is authentic, and the second is a forgery. Or perhaps the first two are authentic, but the third was a plant by that prissy toad Yuriy to convince Duke Anton (who was honest and brave, but a rather dull knife) that his kingdom’s troubles were my fault.
And what of your own letter? I do not need magic to tell me that Balance Petcharatiriv cast an eye over it: as your teacher, she has no doubt cautioned you that royal haughtiness is best set aside when speaking to me. That bottle of brandy—was the idea of sending it truly yours, or did it grow from a seed she planted in your mind? Perhaps it is a signal saying, “War with Lhabde seems certain,” or, “I have run out of pistachios, please send some more.” You cannot know.
And what of this letter? Was it even truly been written by Lady Kembe, or is the hand holding the pen that of some rival who wishes to lead you astray for reasons of their own? Are any of these letters authentic? As much as this one is: they are letters, and in the end, that is all we can know.
Kembe, by her own hand, or not