Two years before the Siege of Rasenna, the Year of our Lady, 1367
‘You’re pretty slow for an engineer if you can’t see he’s lying.’
‘Signora, you can see there are others waiting. Step aside.’
‘I want something!’
‘Course you do. But even if your son wasn’t too young – how old are you?’
‘Eight,’ the boy said.
‘Even if he were old enough, the Guild only pays for children smart enough to be engineers, and if he were even half as clever as you say, the examiners would have spotted him years ago – and he’d have got further in the al-Buni test today. I’m sorry, but I need you to step aside.’
‘But I told you what a great liar he is. Torbidda, do it properly, or I swear—’
‘I want to go home.’
The examiner shared the boy’s sentiment. He had been sitting in a fine mist of drizzle all morning. His clothes and papers were sodden and his nose dripping, and the dark clouds circling the Molè presaged a squall. He’d seen it a hundred times: destitute parents trying to pawn off mouths they couldn’t feed, never mind that their children were every bit as dull as they were. The Apprentices ought to trust the examiners and stop the annual open testing; they were nothing more than an invitation for fraud. The boy was obviously no Bernoulli – he had a stubborn, ox-like brow and a grim, set jaw. The examiner didn’t blame him for being angry – his mother was trying to sell him, after all.
‘Test him again!’ She struck the boy, an open-handed slap. He didn’t cry, but the examiner could see a scene developing. She turned back, smiling sweetly. ‘This time he’ll do it right.’
‘Problem here?’ A tall man stopped beside the inspection desk. He was in his late forties, but still fit and strong. He wore a streamlined toga that fell open across his barrel chest as if to advertise his strength. The youthful body was belied by white dartings in his neat beard and the faded ink of the Etruscan numerals beneath the stubble of his shaved head. His bitter mouth pulled down his sharp features.
‘No problem, Grand Selector Flaccus; just a slight delay.’
The woman, recognising in the examiner’s voice that Flaccus had the authority to give her what she wanted, turned to him. ‘I insist that my son be tested again. He’s only acting dumb.’ On the sheet she held up there were a dozen grids, each with five squares filled in, the rest blank. The pattern had to be recognised, replicated and, in later stages, elaborated. ‘He makes things like this out of his head. Tell him, Torbidda.’
Flaccus snapped the test from the woman’s hand and studied it for a moment. ‘You obviously understood the sequence up to the second line, so why did you put a five here?’
The boy looked down at the grids in bewilderment. ‘Was that wrong?’
Flaccus abruptly dropped into a crouch and grabbed the boy’s chin. As the Grand Selector looked at him – into him – Torbidda noticed his missing finger. It was an old wound, the stump worn rough.
‘You’ll have to do better to fool me, boy. I deal with liars every day, the best Concord has. Take the test again, and do it right, or your mother will end her days in the belly of the Beast. Don’t doubt my word.’
The woman began to cry and Torbidda shook his head as if deeply confused, as if there had been some terrible mistake. He looked at the man again, searching for sympathy. Finding none, he acknowledged defeat with a stoic sigh and leaned down on the examiner’s desk. He filled in the grid without pausing and handed it to Flaccus.
The Grand Selector scanned it and said quietly, ‘Give me the last sheet.’
Hiding his scepticism – no child ever got that far – the examiner fumbled for the form.
Flaccus pointed in the final box on the final row. ‘What goes here?’
Torbidda scanned the first row and paused a moment. Then he said, ‘Don’t you know, Grand Selector?’
‘I am asking the question,’ he growled ominously.
‘Sixty,’ Torbidda said.
‘Pay the woman,’ said Flaccus as he pulled Torbidda away. The boy turned to call to his mother, but her attention was rapt on the money the examiner was counting out, her grief and her son, the object sold, already forgotten.
Flaccus steered him uphill, his grip firm on Torbidda’s shoulder. For want of anything pleasant to consider, Torbidda pondered the Grand Selector’s absent finger. Amputation was a severe punishment, marking engineers with the stamp of civilian incompetence. The first lesson of Concord’s assembly line was that its blades were always thirsty; his generation needed only to examine their parents to see the savage surgery the engines could inflict.
They were soon in the highest part of Old Town, where the little wooden houses of civilians were replaced by tall stone buildings with taller stacks belching smoke and steam, all surrounding the base of Monte Nero, the rock upon which Bernoulli had planted his great triple-domed cathedral.
Flaccus stopped and looked down at the boy. ‘What’s your game?’ he asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. ‘Most Old Towners would kill to join the Guild. There’s third-year Cadets who couldn’t get to page four of the al-Buni, but I believe you found it easy. You really don’t want to be an engineer?’
‘I’d prefer to be free.’
Flaccus chuckled heartily at this and relaxed. ‘Not even the Apprentices are free, boy. Only the dead. But let me make this clear: if you give less than your best from here on, then I’ll make sure you get what you wish for.’
He left Torbidda in a pen with a dozen other children – despite what Flaccus had said, none of them looked happier than Torbidda about being selected.
As Torbidda took his place in the queue, the tall boy in front turned around to examine him. ‘Hello,’ he said cheerily. ‘How did you do in your al-Buni? Bloody hard, wasn’t it?’ His simple, well-cut clothes spoke of wealth as eloquently as his New City accent. His dark complexion was not uncommon amongst the aristocracy; most likely one of his ancestors had been in Oltremare long enough to take a native wife – many Crusaders had returned with their bloodline spiced with some of that Ebionite warrior prowess.
When Torbidda kept silent, his eyes fixed on the ground, the boy shrugged and turned back.
Torbidda looked up slowly and studied the back of the boy’s head. Then he examined the tall girl holding a clipboard at the head of the queue. A weeping blond boy entered the pen and she directed him to wait behind Torbidda. She was older than the other children, perhaps ten or eleven, and had the composure of an adult. She wore a Cadet’s white gown, with its distinctive wide neck and shapeless cut. Her hair was dark like his mother’s, but very short, almost patchy. She dealt with the inductees with a brusque confidence he found impressive.
After some time Flaccus reappeared and pushed another boy, heavyset and scruffy, into the pen, then walked swiftly back towards the examination desks. This new boy stared furiously after the Grand Selector, as if debating whether to hurl an insult or a stone, before finally looking around at the girl, who pointed to the end of the queue. He walked with the lumbering shuffle of a pit-dog, and Torbidda realised he was a real city boy, the type who made the New City stairwells so dangerous; he probably ran along the partition walls and dropped down on unsuspecting ferrymen. He was probably an orphan who’d volunteered himself.
The city boy looked disdainfully at the sniffling blond child and barked, ‘Move!’ When the blond boy stood aside, he pushed ahead of Torbidda, growling, ‘You too.’
The Cadet calmly set down her clipboard and walked over to them. The city boy tensed, but she sounded quite relaxed as she spoke. ‘This will take all day unless everyone waits their turn.’
‘I don’t take orders—’ he started defiantly, but she stepped forward, planted one leg behind his and pushed his shoulders, hard. The boy went onto his back.
Before he could rise, her foot was on his neck. ‘You’ve all year to prove how hard you are – all you have to do today is wait in line. Do yourself a kindness.’
Without waiting for assent she released him and returned to her station. The city boy silently took his place at the end of the queue.
‘Best give second-years a wide berth,’ said the tall boy in front, as if Torbidda had asked his advice. His expression was sympathetic. ‘Sad about leaving your family?’
Torbidda saw he wasn’t going to give up. ‘Not really.’
The tall boy looked surprised, then said, ‘Yes, quite right, we’ll see them in a year. What’s to be scared about? Plenty of children have been through it all before.’
Torbidda eyed his inquisitor with suspicion. ‘So what happens next?’
‘We’ll get our numbers soon. We’re supposed to forget names – mine’s Leto, by the way.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Leto Spinther,’ he said in an undertone, as if he didn’t want to sound boastful.
Torbidda had heard of the Spinthers, of course. He didn’t offer his own name, but Leto dispelled any awkwardness by ignoring it and carrying on with his cheerful patter. ‘They’ll tell you engineers don’t have names – don’t you believe it. A third of the students here are from good families, even though most probably didn’t get to the second page of the test. The First Apprentice is an Argenti. That hardly slowed his climb up the mountain.’
‘I’m not from a good family.’
Leto had the tact not to laugh. ‘Don’t worry, there’s still perfect equality in the Guild. “No number greater than another”, as they say.’
Torbidda was bemused by such an innumerate statement from a prospective engineer; he didn’t get Leto’s courtly sarcasm. But he listened carefully, picking up the rhythms in Leto’s speech, cataloguing his words, sifting meaningless gossip from information that might prove useful, just as every other child in the pen was doing: working out the rules. Caution dictated that becoming friendly with any Cadet this early on would be premature – better to wait and size things up properly before committing; a bad alliance was worse than none – but this boy’s friendly, relaxed manner was obviously unfeigned, and with his family background . . .
‘I’m Torbidda,’ he said with a shy smile.
Leto beamed and shook his hand. ‘I got to the fourth page – mind you, this wasn’t my first attempt. My parents paid for tuition.’
The older girl made no small-talk as she processed the Cadets. ‘Take nothing that will slow you down,’ she instructed, and they obeyed, leaving behind bags and purses, even emptying their pockets. As Torbidda drew closer, he could see that a set of keys hung round her long neck instead of a Herod’s Sword. She had shadowed Grecian hair and olive skin that was more common further south of Concord; her robust features suggested she might even have some Rasenneisi blood.
After taking their details she pointed to the narrow stairway clinging to the side of the mountain and the children proceeded under a rusted arch that read Labor Vincit Omnia.
A few steps up and out of her sight, the city boy pushed in front of Torbidda, pausing only to give him a murderous look. Clearly he needed someone to blame for his humiliation and the girl was obviously not an option. Torbidda made a fist, but Leto said, ‘Not here. You’re liable to get yourself killed too.’
Torbidda ignored him and yanked on the city boy’s hood. The boy turned with it and pushed him, making Torbidda fall back, jolting down several slippery steps until he caught himself. Leto stood aside as the city boy climbed back down to where Torbidda was looking about in vain for a weapon, a loose rock, anything.
The city boy was about to pounce when he abruptly froze. ‘Catch you later,’ he said, then pushed by Leto.
Torbidda looked around for the reason for the boy’s retreat. The second-year girl was coming up the steps towards them. He held his arm out, but she walked over him. A few steps up she looked back and called, ‘Get up, Cadet! You’re on your own – haven’t you figured that out yet?’
Leto waited until she’d gone before helping Torbidda up. ‘I did warn you.’
‘You don’t believe in fighting?’
‘Not at the wrong moment. It’s an especially bad idea on terrain this bad, when the other fellow has the high ground and more experience in combat – well, street brawls anyhow.’
‘What should you do?’
‘Manoeuvre – make him surrender those advantages. Then attack.’
They climbed through rain that fell like whips, clinging to the slippery stone. Far below, Torbidda could see the factories of Old Town, wreathed in a perennial yellowed fog. The sheer number of factories wasn’t appreciable from below, but they worked night and day, engines churning out war engines just as the Guild Halls manufactured engineers.
The Guild might be brutally logical, but the buildings it inhabited were a monument of improvisation, hastily supplemented whenever needed. Though Monte Nero’s gradient afforded little level ground to build upon, there were extensions, and extra towers and outhouses perched wherever space could be found upon the great rock. The towers that originally housed the Molè’s builders were connected by iron bridges and narrow passages cut through the mountain itself. They were never meant to be permanent – they formed a strangely chaotic venue for training ordered minds – but proximity to the Molè trumped all other considerations. Now, the higher the building, the greater its importance.
A third of the way up, a particularly stout tower sat isolated on a little summit: the Selectors’ Tower, a hub to the surrounding minarets. As well as bridges and stairways, Torbidda could see a tangle of wires connecting each tower, like a web. He couldn’t begin to guess their purpose.
At the end of their climb the children dragged themselves, panting and perspiring despite the cold, under a second arch that read Homo Homini Lupus, where a long rectangular building dominated the space: the Cadets’ quarters. The baths were in a bunker below the building.
Following orders, the children hurriedly stripped and ran the gauntlet of pressured water jets that struck their skin like hail. Torbidda emerged from the dousing to discover his clothes gone. In their place was a ticket. Leto quickly whispered what was coming, and Torbidda tried to compose himself.
He listened to the gleeful jeering as he waited in line; it made him shiver more than the bitter wind on his wet, naked skin. As he entered the refectory he felt his face redden and his eyes water. Leto had a distant, small smile on his face, but he kept his head bowed. The city boy, still angry after his humiliation at the hands of a girl, was like a trapped animal, constantly looking about for a means of escape. Torbidda thought he was just making it worse for himself – this need only be endured. To distract himself, he studied the lectern at the top of the hall, a great silver eagle. Leto said edifying Bernoullian maxims were read out from here as Cadets took their meals, but today the new second-years were to be edified with a different spectacle.
The refectory echoed with the mocking calls. Torbidda caught the eye of the dark-haired girl for a moment. Although she wasn’t joining in with the taunting, she was watching proceedings with interest as she ate.
Three at a time, the new inmates were summoned to the top of the hall, where an ancient trio of bored-looking legionary barbers waited, grizzled antiques who probably fought at Montaperti.
‘Ticket. Sit.’ A mechanical exchange and a rough shearing. The message was clear: A bad job is good enough for you. Torbidda had always been able to distinguish between what adults said and what they meant; the two were generally at odds. This here – this methodically orchestrated spectacle with all the nakedness, the jeering, the renaming – it was an induction into a new family. If they were lambs, they were lambs without a shepherd, for this was an abattoir where children were efficiently ground up and recomposed as engineers.
When his hair was scattered on the ground, the wheezing old sot pressed a waxy piece of paper against his skull and braced his head with that hand as he took the hot knife in the other. Torbidda didn’t flinch, but he couldn’t stop the tears rolling down his cheek. Unfair, he thought, to pry out this evidence of weakness.
Pulling off the stencil, his shearer told him flatly, ‘Your name is’ – rippp! – ‘Sixty.’ He poured a foul-smelling orange oil onto to Torbidda’s head which burned as he rubbed it in. Cold drips streaked Torbidda’s neck and back. ‘Let the scabs heal by themselves. Stand and dress yourself, Cadet.’
He was finished just before the other two. The side of Leto’s head read LVIII and the stupefied city boy’s read LIX. Torbidda was walking away when he turned and glanced back as three new naked children took their place. Already he felt different. They were civilians. He was a Cadet, Cadet Number LX. His name was Sixty.
Excerpted from The Warring States by Aiden Harte. Copyright © 2013 by Aiden Harte.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
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