33

THE CUTTER

When Berren woke up, the pain was gone and so was his sword. His hands were bound together. He was still in the hold exactly where he’d fallen. Fasha lay on the floor beside him, murmuring softly in her sleep.

‘Look!’ said Gelisya.

Berren craned his head to see her. She was sitting as he remembered, but now there was someone else inside the circle of candles with her. Syannis. Lying curled up with his head on her lap while she stroked his hair. Berren stared, struggling to believe what he was seeing. ‘Sun and moon! What have you done to him?’ He looked terrible. Gaunt and ragged and utterly, utterly lost.

‘Look,’ said Gelisya again, ‘look, my little puppy. I woke the murderer up again. What a long sleep! We all went up on deck to see what was happening at the castle and we only just came back. Imagine, you might have woken all alone. Oh!’ She put on a mock frown. ‘Wait! But the knife wouldn’t let you. Not until I say so. Syannis, why don’t you help him to his knees?’

As though in great pain, Syannis rose. He stepped out of the circle and hauled Berren up. The candles, Berren realised, had nearly burned out.

‘You shouldn’t have hurt my beloved,’ he said. ‘We shouldn’t have hurt her. Either of us.’

Berren stared at him, filled with fury and fear and bloody-minded disbelief. ‘I didn’t touch her!’ he spat. He didn’t recognise this man at all. The thief-taker he’d loved and hated and feared and admired and envied, that man was gone. What was left was a shell.

‘We took her father away.’ His face was a mask of anguish.

Berren tore his eyes away from the thief-taker’s empty face. ‘What have you done to him?’

Gelisya smiled and showed her teeth. She pointed the knife and Berren felt a slight tingle inside his skull, enough to make him flinch. ‘I told you. A little cut here, a little cut there. Poor Syannis, you so nearly understood, but all the time you thought that Saffran was going to make your little brother better for you, and it was always a lie. Wasn’t it, Saffran?’

An old familiar shape pushed out from the darkness behind her. Not the soap-maker this time, but Saffran Kuy. ‘You!’ Berren was shaking.

‘Hello, little Berren-piece. Do you still wear my crystal nice and tight and close?’

Berren pulled at the ties around his wrists. ‘I will kill you, warlock. I will.’

Kuy let out a little cackle. ‘I’ve already seen who will kill me, little Berren-piece. I told you, years ago. Not you.’

For a moment Gelisya glared. ‘Saffran knows how to make the knives work properly.’ She bared her teeth at Berren. ‘Stupid Aimes sent him away before he showed me, so I had to work it all out for myself.’ She shrugged. ‘It would have been the easiest thing in the world to get rid of you when you were in my Pit, but he just wouldn’t do it, even though he was so, so in love with me!’

She clapped her hands together and made a face. ‘But now Saffran is back and so are you, and it’s all the way it was supposed to be, and Syannis is my little puppy again, aren’t you, my love? You do what I say. We’ll get it done right this time. No need to be rid of you after all. But we will need to deal with that other brother. I’m afraid you’ll have to do that. He’s going to come here.’

A coldness spread through Berren’s gut. The anger he’d nursed all these years thinking Syannis had betrayed him, and it hadn’t been Syannis at all. .

‘You do love me, don’t you? Of course you do.’ Gelisya smiled again, then her face hardened. ‘Now kill my servant woman! I don’t like her any more.’

Berren’s heart nearly stopped. Syannis looked up at Gelisya. ‘Why, my love? What is her crime?’

‘Does it matter? Do you have to question everything? I said kill her!’ she snapped. ‘Make it bloody. She told him her name and let him have her. I don’t want her any more and I want him to see her die. Have Vallas weigh her down and throw her into the sea and her little bastard too. Make him watch. But send the guards below decks. I don’t want them to see you do that — they won’t like it. And then. . No, wait!’

Her eyes widened and she waved the gold-hafted knife so that it made patterns in the air, then squealed with delight. ‘No, not the bastard. Let Vallas make him into soap! And you, Crown-Taker, you get to watch and then you can be Saffran’s little plaything. He has plans for you, don’t you, Saffy? Had them for a long time. You’re going to be someone that matters. Or what’s left of you, once the Black Moon is inside you. And we all know what you did, murderer.’

Syannis turned to Berren. He looked desolate. ‘You killed Aimes,’ he said.

Berren nodded. Syannis’s hands were quivering above his swords and Berren knew how fast he could be. Behind his back, Berren’s hands strained at the ropes that bound them.

‘I thought you were him,’ Syannis said. His voice was slurred. ‘Back at the start, when I found you in Deephaven, I thought you were him. Saffran said he’d put him inside you to keep him safe, and that’s why you looked so alike. But you weren’t. You were a nothing, a nobody whose face simply looked the same.’ Instead of a sword he drew out another golden knife, exactly the one Berren remembered, the exact twin of the knife Gelisya still held.

Syannis looked at his knife. His face was an abyss. ‘I thought I needed this to put Aimes back together. That’s all I ever wanted. To make up for wanting him dead.’ He shoved Berren back, knocking him to the floor, and then he turned away and faced Gelisya again. ‘And now, finally, he is,’ he said.

‘I know,’ she cooed. ‘And I know how much Aimes meant to you. I know your pain.’ She gripped her knife. ‘I feel it, beloved.’

‘Dead and gone.’

Gelisya’s face turned petulant. She waved her knife at Berren. ‘Yes, and he killed him! And you were there, right there, and you didn’t stop it. You failed! Now make him suffer for it!’

‘He killed Aimes. And you told him to.’ He took a step forward and then shuddered to a halt as Gelisya shifted the point of the knife and squeezed.

‘Kill my slave!’ she hissed. ‘Kill her or you will never touch me again!’

‘No.’ Syannis breathed a little sigh and stepped forward again. ‘I love you more than life,’ he whispered, ‘but not more than my brother.’

One hand still held the knife. The other suddenly held a sword, swinging in a blur towards Gelisya’s face. He struck downwards, but before he could finish the blow, every muscle in his arms and back froze solid. His left hand went limp and the gold-handled knife dropped to the floor.

Berren scrabbled back into the shadows. Gelisya lunged. She didn’t dive away, as she might have done; instead she stabbed forward. The knife in her hand ripped into Syannis’s belly. He staggered. His sword faltered. For seconds it seemed they simply stood there, Syannis with his sword in the air, Gelisya on one knee with her knife in his guts.

Gelisya pulled away and stabbed him again and then again. He began to sway. Then she was on her feet, stabbing and shrieking, but there was no blood, none. For this is no knife that you would understand, Berren. This blade cuts souls and now I will show you how. .

For a moment it seemed that everyone had forgotten Berren. He curled up into a ball and struggled and strained at the ropes around his hands until he wriggled his wrists around his feet and had his arms in front of him. He looked for the knot so he could work on it with his teeth.

‘You stupid, stupid thing!’ Gelisya was screaming. ‘You do what I say!

‘Princess!’ Saffran Kuy took a step towards her; she waved the knife at him and he shrank hastily back.

Syannis slowly crumpled. Gelisya watched him fall and stood over him, her chest heaving. Then she dropped to all fours and very slowly pushed the knife up under Syannis’s chin, up, up inside his head, until his eyes rolled back and closed and each twitching finger fell still. She turned to look at Berren. Her eyes were black with rage. She raised the knife again, but Berren leaped at her, lashing out with a foot. He felt his head split open with the same pain as before, but then they crashed together and the knife flew from her hand. As it did, the pain in Berren’s head vanished like the light from a snuffed-out candle. He sprawled to the floor on top of her, rolling through the circle of flickering flames and then away, dazed by the fading sense of an iron spike smashed through his skull.

‘Saffran!’ Gelisya squealed. ‘Make him stop!’

Saffran Kuy smiled. Berren rolled, scrabbling to get to his feet. There was nowhere for him to go, and all the warlock had to do was open his mouth just as he had in Deephaven on the night Tasahre had died. You. Obey. Me.

Gelisya’s knife! Still with a piece of him inside, she’d said! Berren snatched it up. For a moment he and Saffran Kuy stood still, their eyes locked together.

‘Put the knife down, little Berren-piece,’ said Saffran Kuy, still smiling. The force of his words roared in Berren’s head, but this time there was something new. Something that kept them at bay. The knife. This time it was his.

The warlock’s eyes changed and grew wide. The air around him began to shimmer, a swirling of something that had yet to take form. Berren saw Gelisya rising, saw her glance towards Fasha. He sprang and lunged at Saffran Kuy before either of them could act. The knife buried itself up to the hilt in the warlock’s chest, as though Kuy was made of nothing more than smoke. A look of horror and dismay stretched across his face, while a pulse of fire swept down Berren’s arm. For a moment he was blinded, his vision filled with ghostly faces. He could see one Kuy before him, and he could see another: one made of skin and bone, the other a shimmering spirit made of something else. He could see two Gelisyas too, two Fashas. And someone else, standing next to Syannis’s corpse. Other faces and forms swarmed around his head, ones he’d never seen before. They filled the room, swirling shadows howling in his ears. And inside the ghostly second shape of Saffran Kuy he could see the web of the warlock’s soul, an endless tangle of threads. The knife could do almost anything, almost anything at all. It had the power of a god inside it, lurking just out of reach; not yet his to command but there was one thing he remembered, one thing he knew he could make it do.

Tell the knife! Make it your promise. And then cut, Berren, cut! Three little slices. You! Obey! Me!

With each stroke the knife sliced a little piece of Saffran Kuy away. As Berren cut, he could see it working, see how each thread mattered. The knife showed him all of it, exactly as it was and would be, exactly as he’d seen it before.

He withdrew the knife when he was done. The second Kuy shrank and collapsed into nothing, sucked into the shimmering blade. The ghostly forms faded and he saw clearly again, and what he saw was the Saffran Kuy of flesh and bone staring at him in horror, and Gelisya crouching over Fasha, looking at him with a mad glee. In her hand she held the other knife. She pointed it at him. A terrible smile spread across her face. But then nothing happened. No pain. Nothing at all. For a moment they glared at each other as Gelisya’s grimace of victory crumbled to ash. She had the wrong knife.

‘What did you do?’ Berren hissed. ‘What did you do to her?’

Gelisya shrieked, ‘Saffran!’ but Kuy was already running, wailing, towards the steps from the hold as fast as he could go. Berren snatched up Syannis’s sword. He hurled himself after the warlock and bore him down.

‘You. Obey. Me!’

‘No!’ The warlock’s scream was silent. ‘You cannot! I have seen my end and it is not you!’

‘Then you saw wrong. Now do as you’re told and die.’ He drove Syannis’s sword through the warlock’s heart, and now the warlock’s scream was real. He writhed and arched, every part of him. Black blood ran out of his mouth and became black smoke.

‘Not. Good. Enough,’ he hissed. His fingers and feet were starting to dissolve. Berren watched, transfixed. Tasahre had done the same with swords made of sun-steel, driven both of them right through him, and the same thing had happened. And he was right: it hadn’t been enough.

Gelisya bolted. She ran like a deer chased by a leopard, jinking back and forth, careening off crates and stacks of boxes. Berren chased after her but his hands were still tied. They slowed him and she jumped up the steps, a moment too quick for him, and was gone. On the floor Kuy was a writhing black mass.

The knife. Without thinking, Berren plunged the golden knife into what was left of the warlock, ripping open his soul for a second time. He cut and cut and cut again, and slowly he shredded the warlock into ribbons until there was nothing left at all, and the last black smoke wafted and thinned and vanished.

‘Good enough now, warlock?’ But Saffran Kuy was gone. Ended, and now the hold was dark and still.

Without haste, Berren cut the bindings that held his wrists. He gathered his sword — the one Talon had given him — and the one gold-handled knife that was left, and then his eyes turned to Fasha and to his son, lying still and peaceful on the floor. He almost didn’t dare to look. Were they dead or quietly dreaming? How could they be made to sleep through all this? Would they wake up again and if they did, who would they be? Gelisya had done something, he knew, in the moment when he’d first struck Kuy. He’d seen it in her eyes as she crouched over her bonds-maid. He lifted Fasha’s veil. She was still breathing. Something, at least. They were all alike now, every one of them. When he’d cut Saffran Kuy and the air had filled with spirits, he’d seen the hole in Gelisya’s soul. A tiny one, but still a hole. Someone had cut her too, once, and now Fasha would be the same. Each one of them with a piece missing.

He looked at her face and almost wept. She was a stranger, a woman who had given herself to him for one night so that he would kill for her, and finally, after all this time and far, far too late, he’d honoured that promise. All these years he’d thought of her, and yet he knew almost nothing about her. He stroked her cheek and her hair. She could have been anyone. Maybe that was the point.

He let her down gently to lie on the wooden deck and squatted for a moment beside Syannis instead. The thief-taker was dead. More than dead, if such a thing was possible. He was slumped against a crate, tipped over sideways. It looked an ungainly way to lie. Awkward and uncomfortable, even if you were dead. Berren shook his head. Stupid, after everything else, but he had tears in his eyes. He dragged the thief-taker away from his crate and laid him flat. Closed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. There was no blood anywhere. Now he looked almost as though he’d died in his sleep.

‘You were a right selfish arrogant prick.’ The tears were rolling down his face now. He knelt beside Syannis and took the dead thief-taker’s hand and pressed it to his cheek. ‘She got away, but I’ll not go after her. I’ve seen what that’s like. That’s a lesson you taught me well.’

He looked away and shook his head, trying to clear his eyes, trying to clear his thoughts. Two deep breaths, one after the other, and he replaced the thief-taker’s hand on his chest. Berren turned and rose and went to look at the face of his son for the very first time. He’d be another dark-skin, but he’d be handsome and strong, that was what mattered. The boy looked peaceful, sleeping in whatever stupor Gelisya had put him. They would wake up. He suddenly had no fear of that.

Above him, on the deck of the sloop, the dozen guards were still there, and he couldn’t fight that many at once. So, in the gloom of the hold, he clung on to Fasha and her warmth, cradling the son he’d never seen until today and listened to the creaking of the wooden hull. He waited as the candles, one by one, flickered and guttered and died. Sooner or later, someone would come. And then they would see.

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