Thursday, 29 December 2011
A Reluctant Betrothal - The Last Free City
My latest novel, The Last Free City, returns us to the political intrigues and grand machinations of The Dog of the North. Such schemes invariably play out at the level of individual relationships. In the excerpt below, the perennially dissatisfied second son Malvazan arrives at the day of his betrothal in a less than constructive frame of mind...
Malvazan, who had been watching from a place of concealment on the upstairs landing, felt a pang run through him. Poor Sanoutë, he had never seen her so pale or subdued. Could he really reject her in front of all the houses of the Specchio? She had wanted to see him, it seemed. No doubt he could contrive a brief meeting, and Hissen take any bad luck!
He slipped down the stairs, whispered a message to one of the under-servants and made his way to the kitchen garden, a place so lacking in glamour as to be wholly deserted on this most auspicious of days. There he set himself to wait among the cabbages and tomatoes until Sanoutë should appear.
A caterpillar caught his eye, munching its way determinedly through a thick leaf. What were the goals of such a creature, he wondered. It was probably absurd to imagine it having goals at all. And yet, a transformation awaited it, far beyond anything it could conceive. It need do nothing to achieve such transcendence: simply keep chewing away at its leaf. With a snort of sardonic amusement he thought of Dravadan, one day to be elevated to the head of the house—the Dignified Dravadan—with a beautiful and well-bred wife, heirs to follow. And like the caterpillar, he had done nothing to merit his elevation, and probably lacked the wit fully to understand it. He pursed his lips, lifted the caterpillar from its leaf: it squirmed, looked around to find meaning for its fate. Malvazan dropped it on the ground and crushed it under his boot. Would that Dravadan could be dealt with so easily.
From behind him came a soft voice. “You wanted to see me?”
Malvazan turned. Sanoutë’s hair was curled in an elaborate confection, swept back off her face on one side, draping across her eye on the other.
“I was upstairs,” he said. “I heard you looking for me, and thought to oblige you.”
For a brief second her face twitched into a smile. “You cannot imagine how long I have yearned for this day. But you know that.”
He reached out, put a hand on her arm. “Then why are you not happy?”
Her blue eyes were large and moist. “Because you have not yearned for it. You are accepting me because your father told you to.”
“Do you think I listen to him any more? I am my own man.”
She pushed a hair back out of her eye. “They say you killed someone,” she said, looking away.
Malvazan shrugged. “You make it sound so sordid. It was a duel, a question of honour. It is regrettable that Flarijo died, but that is the risk of the duel. Quietus Est, as they say.”
There was a catch in her voice. “Malvazan, I remember us as children. Once we went on a picnic to Sang Saraille, do you remember? There were fish in the stream, and it seemed we sat and watched them all afternoon.”
Malvazan nodded. “I remember,” he said.
“That was four years ago, Malvazan, four years. It seems as if it was another lifetime. Now you are talking about killing someone as if it was nothing.”
“It is something that men do,” he said. “I was a child then; I am a man now.”
She turned and walked slowly towards the wall marking the edge of the garden. “When we were children, everyone knew that we would be betrothed. Neither of us seemed to mind.”
“No,” said Malvazan. “Of course not.”
“But we were different people: children. Yet we are bound by those conversations.”
Malvazan followed her, put a hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him. “Are you saying you no longer want us to marry?”
Her eyes welled with tears. “Don’t you understand anything!” she sobbed. “It is what I want. It what I have always wanted! It is you who have changed, from the dear sweet boy who sat by the stream with me; changed into a man who fights duels, who proposes to Monichoë. I do not know you, Malvazan: you who were my dearest friend!”
“This is the day set for our betrothal, Malvazan.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Can you say to me, from your heart, that you would marry me above all other women in the world?”
Malvazan looked into her face. The clear answer to the question was ‘no’, but the question she should have asked: Will you put aside any reservations you have, and marry me nonetheless, was more difficult to answer. But an answer was needed, and immediately. Cursing himself for his weakness and vacillation, he said: “Yes.”
He kissed her on the cheek, turned and walked from the garden with a heavy step, never looking back once at the woman he left behind him.