CHAPTER FOUR

There are tides beneath every tide And the surface of water Holds no weight

Tiste Edur saying

THE NEREK BELIEVED THE TISTE EDUR WERE CHILDREN OF DEMONS. There was ash in their blood, staining their skin. To look into an Edur’s eyes was to see the greying of the world, the smearing of the sun and the rough skin of night itself.

As the Hiroth warrior named Binadas strode towards the group, the Nerek began keening. Fists beating their own faces and chests, they fell to their knees.

Buruk the Pale marched among them, screaming curses and shrieking demands, but they were deaf to him. The merchant finally turned to where stood Seren Pedac and Hull Beddict, and began laughing.

Hull frowned. ‘This will pass, Buruk,’ he said.

‘Oh, will it now? And the world itself, will that too pass? Like a deathly wind, our lives swirling like dust amidst its headlong rush? Only to settle in its wake, dead and senseless – and all that frenzied cavorting empty of meaning? Hah! Would that I had hired Faraed!’

Seren Pedac’s attention remained on the approaching Tiste Edur. A hunter. A killer. One who probably also possessed the trait of long silences. She could imagine this Binadas, sharing a fire in the wilderness with Hull Beddict. In the course of an evening, a night and the following morning, perhaps a half-dozen words exchanged between them. And, she suspected, the forging of a vast, depthless friendship. These were the mysteries of men, so baffling to women. Where silences could become a conjoining of paths. Where a handful of inconsequential words could bind spirits in an ineffable understanding. Forces at play that she could sense, indeed witness, yet ever remaining outside them. Baffled and frustrated and half disbelieving.

Words knit the skein between and among women. And the language of gesture and expression, all merging to fashion a tapestry that, as every woman understood, could tear in but one direction, by deliberate vicious effort. A friendship among women knew but one enemy, and that was malice.

Thus, the more words, the tighter the weave.

Seren Pedac had lived most of her life in the company of men, and now, on her rare visits to her home in Letheras, she was viewed by women who knew her with unease. As if her choice had made her loyalty uncertain, cause for suspicion. And she had found an unwelcome awkwardness in herself when in their company. They wove from different threads, on different frames, discordant with her own rhythms. She felt clumsy and coarse among them, trapped by her own silences.

To which she answered with flight, away from the city, from her past. From women.

Yet, in the briefest of moments, in a meeting of two men with their almost indifferent exchange of greetings, she was knocked a step back – almost physically – and shut out. Here, sharing this ground, this trail with its rocks and trees, yet in another world.

Too easy to conclude, with a private sneer, that men were simple. Granted, had they been strangers, they might well be circling and sniffing each other’s anuses right now. Inviting conclusions that swept aside all notions of complexity, in their place a host of comforting generalizations. But the meeting of two men who were friends destroyed such generalizations and challenged the contempt that went with them, invariably leading a woman to anger.

And the strange, malicious desire to step between them.

On a cobbled beach, a man looks down and sees one rock, then another and another. A woman looks down and sees… rocks. But perhaps even this is simplistic. Man as singular and women as plural. More likely we are bits of both, some of one in the other.

We just don’t like admitting it.

He was taller than Hull, shoulders level with the Letherii’s eyes. His hair was brown and bound in finger-length braids. Eyes the colour wet sand. Skin like smeared ash. Youthful features, long and narrow barring the broad mouth.

Seren Pedac knew the Sengar name. It was likely she had seen this man’s kin, among the delegations she had treated with in her three official visits to Hannan Mosag’s tribe.

‘Hiroth warrior,’ Buruk the Pale said, shouting to be heard above the wailing Nerek, ‘I welcome you as guest. I am-’

‘I know who you are,’ Binadas replied.

At his words the Nerek voices trailed off, leaving only the wind moaning its way up the trail, and the constant trickling flow of melt water from the higher reaches.

‘I bring to the Hiroth,’ Buruk was saying, ‘ingots of iron-’

‘And would test,’ Hull Beddict interrupted, ‘the thickness of the ice.’

‘The season has turned,’ Binadas replied to Hull. ‘The ice is riven with cracks. There has been an illegal harvest of tusked seals. Hannan Mosag will have given answer.’

Seren Pedac swung to the merchant. Studied Buruk the Pale’s face. Alcohol, white nectar and the bitter wind had lifted the blood vessels to just beneath the pallid skin on his nose and cheeks. The man’s eyes were bleary and shot with red. He conveyed no reaction at the Edur’s words. ‘Regrettable. It is unfortunate that, among my merchant brethren, there are those who choose to disregard the agreements. The lure of gold. A tide none can withstand.’

‘The same can be said of vengeance,’ Binadas pointed out.

Buruk nodded. ‘Aye, all debts must be repaid.’

Hull Beddict snorted. ‘Gold and blood are not the same.’

‘Aren’t they?’ Buruk challenged. ‘Hiroth warrior, the interests I represent would adhere now and evermore to the bound agreements. Alas, Lether is a many-headed beast. The surest control of the more voracious elements will be found in an alliance – between the Edur and those Letherii who hold to the words binding our two peoples.’

Binadas turned away. ‘Save your speeches for the Warlock King,’ he said. ‘I will escort you to the village. That is all that need be understood between us.‘

Shrugging, Buruk the Pale walked back to his wagon. ‘On your feet, Nerek! The trail is downhill from here on, isn’t it just!’

Seren watched the merchant climb into the covered back, vanishing from sight, as the Nerek began scurrying about. A glance showed Hull and Binadas facing each other once more. The wind carried their words to her.

‘I will speak against Buruk’s lies,’ Hull Beddict said. ‘He will seek to ensnare you with smooth assurances and promises, none of which will be worth a dock.’

Binadas shrugged. ‘We have seen the traps you laid out before the Nerek and the Tarthenal. Each word is a knot in an invisible net. Against it, the Nerek’s swords were too blunt. The Tarthenal too slow to anger. The Faraed could only smile in their confusion. We are not as those tribes.’

‘I know,’ Hull said. ‘Friend, my people believe in the stacking of coins. One atop another, climbing, ever climbing to glorious heights. The climb signifies progress, and progress is the natural proclivity of civilization. Progress, Binadas, is the belief from which emerge notions of destiny. The Letherii believe in destiny – their own. They are deserving of all things, born of their avowed virtues. The empty throne is ever there for the taking.’

Binadas was smiling at Hull’s words, but it was a wry smile. He turned suddenly to Seren Pedac. ‘Acquitor. Join us, please. Do old wounds mar Hull Beddict’s view of Lether?’

‘Destiny wounds us all,’ she replied, ‘and we Letherii wear the scars with pride. Most of us,’ she added with an apologetic look at Hull.

‘One of your virtues?’

‘Yes, if you could call it that. We have a talent for disguising greed under the cloak of freedom. As for past acts of depravity, we prefer to ignore those. Progress, after all, means to look ever forward, and whatever we have trampled in our wake is best forgotten.’

‘Progress, then,’ Binadas said, still smiling, ‘sees no end.’

‘Our wagons ever roll down the hill, Hiroth. Faster and faster.’

‘Until they strike a wall.’

‘We crash through most of those.’

The smile faded, and Seren thought she detected a look of sadness in the Edur’s eyes before he turned away. ‘We live in different worlds.’

‘And I would choose yours,’ Hull Beddict said.

Binadas shot the man a glance, his expression quizzical. ‘Would you, friend?’

Something in the Hiroth’s tone made the hairs rise on the back of Seren Pedac’s neck.

Hull frowned, suggesting that he too had detected something awry in that question.

No more words were exchanged then, and Seren Pedac permitted Hull and Binadas to take the lead on the trail, allowing them such distance that their privacy was assured. Even so, they seemed disinclined to speak. She watched them, their matching strides, the way they walked. And wondered.

Hull was so clearly lost. Seeking to make the Tiste Edur the hand of his own vengeance. He would drive them to war, if he could. But destruction yielded only strife, and his dream of finding peace within his soul in the blood and ashes of slaughter filled her with pity for the man. She could not, however, let that blind her to the danger he presented.

Seren Pedac held no love for her own people. The Letherii’s rapacious hunger and inability to shift to any perspective that did not serve them virtually assured a host of bloody clashes with every foreign power they met. And, one day, they would meet their match. The wagons will shatter against a wall more solid than any we have seen. Will it be the Tiste Edur? It did not seem likely. True, they possessed formidable sorcery, and the Letherii had yet to encounter fiercer fighters. But the combined tribes amounted to less than a quarter-million. King Diskanar’s capital alone was home to over a hundred thousand, and there were a half-dozen cities nearly as large in Lether. With the protectorates across Dracons Sea and to the east, the hegemony could amass and field six hundred thousand soldiers, maybe more. Attached to each legion there would be a master of sorcery, trained by the Ceda, Kuru Qan himself. The Edur would be crushed. Annihilated.

And Hull Beddict…

She turned her thoughts from him with an effort. The choices were his to make, after all. Nor, she suspected, would he listen to her warnings.

Seren Pedac acknowledged her own uncertainty and confusion. Would she advocate peace at any price? What were the rewards of capitulation? Letherii access to the resources now claimed by the Edur. The harvest from the sea. And the Blackwood

Of course. It’s the living wood that we hunger for, the source of ships that can heal themselves, that cut the waves faster than our sleekest galleys, that resist magic unleashed upon them. That is at the heart of this game.

But King Diskanar was not a fool – he was not the one harbouring such aspirations. Kuru Qan would have seen to that. No, this gambit was the queen’s. Such conceit, to believe the Letherii could master the living wood. That the Edur would so easily surrender their secrets, their arcane arts in coaxing the will of the Blackwood, in binding its power to their own.

Harvesting the tusked seals was a feint. The monetary loss was part of a much larger scheme, an investment with the aim of generating political dividends, which in turn would recoup the losses a hundredfold. And only someone as wealthy as the queen or Chancellor Triban Gnol could absorb such losses. Ships crewed by the Indebted, with the provision of clearing those debts upon the event of their deaths. Lives given up for the sake of children and grandchildren. They would have had no trouble manning those ships. Blood and gold, then.

She could not be certain of her suspicions, but they seemed to fit, and were as bitterly unpalatable to her as they probably were to Buruk the Pale. The Tiste Edur would not surrender the Blackwood. The conclusion was foregone. There was to be war. And Hull Beddict will make of himself its fiercest proponent. The queen’s own unwitting agent. No wonder Buruk tolerates his presence.

And the part she would play? I am the escort of this snarled madness. Nothing more than that. Keep your distance, Seren Pedac. She was Acquitor. She would do as she had been charged to do. Deliver Buruk the Pale.

Nothing will be decided. Not by us. The game’s end awaits the Great Meeting.

If only she could find comfort in that thought.

Twenty paces ahead, the forest swallowed Hull Beddict and Binadas Sengar. Darkness and shadows, drawing closer with every step she took.

Any criminal who could swim across the canal with a sack of docks strapped to his back won freedom. The amount of coin was dependent upon the nature of the transgression. Theft, kidnapping, failure to pay a debt, damage to property and murder yielded the maximum fine of five hundred docks. Embezzlement, assault without cause, cursing in public upon the names of the Empty Throne, the king or the queen, demanded three hundred docks in reparation. The least of the fines, one hundred docks, were levied upon loitering, voiding in public and disrespect.

These were the fines for men. Women so charged were accorded half-weights.

If someone could pay the fine, he did so, thus expunging his criminal record.

The canal awaited those who could not.

The Drownings were more than public spectacle, they were the primary event among a host of activities upon which fortunes were gambled every day in Letheras. Since few criminals ever managed to make it across the canal with their burden, distance and number of strokes provided the measure for wagering bets. As did Risings, Flailings, Flounderings and Vanishings.

The criminals had ropes tied to them, allowing for retrieval of the coins once the drowning was confirmed. The corpse was dumped back into the river. Guilty as sludge.

Brys Beddict found Finadd Gerun Eberict on the Second Tier overlooking the canal, amidst a crowd of similarly privileged onlookers to the morning’s Drownings. Bookmakers swarmed through the press, handing out payment tiles and collecting wagers. Voices rang in the air above the buzz of excited conversation. Nearby, a woman squealed, then laughed. Male voices rose in response.

‘Finadd.’

The flat, scarred face known to virtually every citizen swung to Brys, thin eyebrows lifting in recognition. ‘King’s Champion. You’re just in time. Ublala Pung is about to take a swim. I’ve eight hundred docks on the bastard.’

Brys Beddict leaned on the railing. He scanned the guards and officials on the launch below. ‘I’ve heard the name,’ he said, ‘but cannot recall his crime. Is that Ublala?’ He pointed down to a cloaked figure towering above the others.

‘That’s him. Tarthenal half-blood. So they’ve added two hundred docks to his fine.’

‘What did he do?’

‘What didn’t he do? Murder times three, destruction of property, assault, kidnapping times two, cursing, fraud, failure to pay debt and voiding in public. All in one afternoon.’

‘The ruckus at Urum’s Lenders?’ The criminal had flung off his cloak. He was wearing naught but a loincloth. His burnished skin was lined with whip scars. The muscles beneath it were enormous.

‘That’s the one.’

‘So what’s he carrying?’

‘Forty-three hundred.’

And Brys now saw the enormous double-lined sack being manhandled onto the huge man’s back. ‘Errant’s blessing, he’ll not manage a stroke.’

‘That’s the consensus,’ Gerun said. ‘Every call’s on Flailing, Floundering and Vanishing. No strokes, no Risings.’

‘And your call?’

‘Seventy to one.’

Brys frowned. Odds like that meant but one thing. ‘You believe he’ll make it!’

Heads turned at his exclamation, the buzz around them grew louder.

Gerun leaned on the railing, drawing a long breath through his teeth, making that now infamous whistling sound. ‘Most half-blood Tarthenal get the worst traits,’ he muttered in a low voice, then grinned. ‘But not Ublala Pung.’

A roar from the crowds lining the walkway and tiers, and from the opposite side. The guards were leading the criminal down the launch. Ublala walked hunched over, straining with the weight of the sack. At the water’s edge he pushed the guards away and turned.

Pulling down his loincloth. And urinating in an arcing stream.

Somewhere, a woman screamed.

‘They’ll collect that body,’ one merchant said, awed, ‘down at the Eddies. I’ve heard there’re surgeons who can-’

‘And wouldn’t you pay a peak for that, Inchers!’ his companion cut in.

‘I’m not lacking, Hulbat – watch yourself! I was just saying-’

‘And ten thousand women are dreaming!’

A sudden hush, as Ublala Pung turned to face the canal.

Then strode forward. Hips. Chest. Shoulders.

A moment later his head disappeared beneath the thick, foul water.

Not a flounder, not a flail. Those who had bet on Vanishing crowed. Crowds pulled apart, figures closing on bookmakers.

‘Brys Beddict, what’s the distance across?’

‘A hundred paces.’

‘Aye.’

They remained leaning on the railing. After a moment, Brys shot the Finadd a quizzical look. Gerun nodded towards the launch below. ‘Look at the line, lad.’

There was some commotion around the retrieval line, and Brys saw – at about the same time as, by the rising voices, did others – that the rope was still playing out. ‘He’s walking the bottom!’

Brys found he could not pull his eyes from that uncoiling rope. A dozen heartbeats. Two dozen. A half-hundred. And still that rope snaked its way into the water.

The cries and shouts had risen to deafening pitch. Pigeons burst into the air from nearby rooftops, scattering in panic. Bettors were fighting with bookmakers for payment tiles. Someone fell from the Third Tier and, haplessly, missed the canal by a scant two paces. He struck flagstones and did not move, a circle of witnesses closing round his body.

‘That’s it,’ Gerun Eberict sighed.

A figure was emerging on the far-side launch. Streaming mud.

‘Four lungs, lad.’

Eight hundred docks. At seventy to one. ‘You’re a rich man who’s just got richer, Finadd.’

‘And Ublala Pung’s a free one. Hey, I saw your brother earlier. Tehol. Other side of the canal. He was wearing a skirt.’

‘Don’t stand so close – no, closer, so you can hear me, Shand, but not too close. Not like we know each other.’

‘You’ve lost your mind,’ she replied.

‘Maybe. Anyway, see that man?’

‘Who?’

‘That criminal, of course. The half-blood who tore apart Urum’s – the extortionist deserved it by the way-’

‘Tarthenal have four lungs.’

‘And so does he. I take it you didn’t wager?’

‘I despise gambling.’

‘Very droll, lass.’

‘What about him?’

‘Hire him.’

‘With pleasure.’

‘Then buy him some clothes.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘He’s not being employed because of his physical attributes – well, not those ones, anyway. You three need a bodyguard.’

‘He can guard my body any time.’

‘That’s it, Shand. I’m done talking with you today.’

‘No you’re not, Tehol. Tonight. The workshop. And bring Bugg.’

‘Everything is going as planned. There’s no need-’

‘Be there.’

Four years ago, Finadd Gerun Eberict single-handedly foiled an assassination attempt on King Diskanar. Returning to the palace late one night, he came upon the bodies of two guards outside the door to the king’s private chambers. A sorcerous attack had filled their lungs with sand, resulting in asphyxiation. Their flesh was still warm. The door was ajar.

The palace Finadd had drawn his sword. He burst into the king’s bedchamber to find three figures leaning over Ezgara Diskanar’s sleeping form. A mage and two assassins. Gerun killed the sorceror first, with a chop to the back of the man’s neck, severing his spinal cord. He had then stop-thrust the nearest assassin’s attack, the point of his sword burying itself in the man’s chest, just beneath the left collarbone. It would prove to be a mortal wound. The second assassin thrust his dagger at the Finadd’s face. Probably he had been aiming for one of Gerun’s eyes, but the Finadd threw his head back and the point entered his mouth, slicing through both lips, then driving hard between his front teeth. Pushing them apart, upon which the blade jammed.

The sword in Gerun’s hand chopped down, shattering the outstretched arm. Three more wild hacks killed the assassin.

This last engagement was witnessed by a wide-eyed king.

Two weeks later, Finadd Gerun Eberict, his breath whistling through the new gap in his front teeth, knelt before Ezgara Diskanar in the throne room, and before the assembled masses was granted the King’s Leave. For the remainder of the soldier’s life, he was immune to criminal conviction. He was, in short, free to do as he pleased, to whomever he pleased, barring the king’s own line.

The identity of the person behind the assassination attempt was never discovered.

Since then, Gerun Eberict had been on a private crusade. A lone, implacable vigilante. He was known to have personally murdered thirty-one citizens, including two wealthy, highly respected and politically powerful merchants, and at least a dozen other mysterious deaths were commonly attributed to him. He had, in short, become the most feared man in Letheras.

He had also, in that time, made himself rich.

Yet, for all that, he remained a Finadd in the King’s Guard, and so was bound to the usual responsibilities. Brys Beddict suspected the decision to send Gerun Eberict with the delegation was as much to relieve the city of the pressure of his presence as it was a statement to the queen and the prince. And Brys wondered if the king had come to regret his sanction.

The two palace guards walked side by side across Soulan Bridge and into the Pursers’ District. The day was hot, the sky white with thin, high clouds. They entered Rild’s, an establishment known for its fish cuisine, as well as an alcoholic drink made from orange rinds, honey and Tusked Seal sperm. They sat in the inner courtyard, at Gerun’s private table.

As soon as drinks and lunch were ordered, Gerun Eberict leaned back in his chair and regarded Brys with curiosity. ‘Is my guest this day the King’s Champion?’

‘In a manner of speaking,’ Brys admitted. ‘My brother, Hull, is accompanying Buruk the Pale. It is believed that Buruk will remain with the Edur until the Great Meeting. There is concern about Hull.’

‘What kind of concern?’

‘Well, you knew him years ago.’

‘I did. Rather well, in fact. He was my Finadd back then. And upon my promotion, he and I got roaring drunk at Porul’s and likely sired a dozen bastards each with a visiting troupe of flower dancers from Trate. In any case, the company folded about ten months later, or so we heard.’

‘Yes, well. He’s not the same man, you know.’

‘Isn’t he?’

The drinks arrived, an amber wine for Brys, the Tusked Milk for Gerun.

‘No,’ Brys said in answer to the Finadd’s question, ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Hull believes in one thing, and that is loyalty. The only gift he feels is worth giving. Granted, it was sorely abused, and the legacy of that is a new list in your brother’s head, with the names of every man and woman who betrayed him.’ Gerun tossed back his drink and gestured for another one. ‘The only difference between him and me is that I’m able to cross names off my list.’

‘And what if,’ Brys said quietly, ‘the king’s name is on Hull’s list?’ Gerun’s eyes went flat. ‘As I said, I’m the only one crossing off names.’

‘Then why is Hull with Buruk the Pale?’

‘Buruk is not the king’s man, Brys. The very opposite, in fact. I look forward to finally meeting him.’

A cold chill ran through Brys.

‘In any case,’ Gerun went on, ‘it’s your other brother who interests me.’

‘Tehol? Don’t tell me he’s on your list.’

Gerun smiled, revealing the sideways tilt of his upper and lower teeth. ‘And I’d tell you if he was? Relax, he isn’t. Not yet, in any case. But he’s up to something.’

‘I find that hard to believe. Tehol stopped being up to anything a long time ago.’

‘That’s what you think.’

‘I know nothing to suggest otherwise, but it seems that you do.’

Gerun’s second drink arrived. ‘Were you aware,’ the Finadd said, dipping a finger into the thick, viscid liquid, ‘that Tehol still possesses myriad interests, in property, licences, mercantile investments and transportation? He’s raised pretty solid fronts, enough to be fairly sure that no-one else knows that he’s remained active.’

‘Not solid enough, it seems.’

Gerun shrugged. ‘In many ways, Tehol walked the path of the King’s Leave long before me, and without the actual sanction.’

‘Tehol’s never killed anyone-’

Gerun’s smile grew feral. ‘The day the Tolls collapsed, Brys, an even dozen financiers committed suicide. And that collapse was solely and exclusively by Tehol’s hand. Perfectly, indeed brilliantly timed. He had his own list, only he didn’t stick a knife in their throats; instead, he made them all his business partners. And took every one of them down-’

‘But he went down, too.’

‘He didn’t kill himself over it, though, did he? Didn’t that tell you something? It should have.’

‘Only that he didn’t care.’

‘Precisely. Brys, tell me, who is Tehol’s greatest admirer?’

‘You?’

‘No. Oh, I’m suitably impressed. Enough to be suspicious as the Errant’s Pit now that he’s stirring the pot once more. No. Someone else.’

Brys looked away. Trying to decide if he liked this man sitting opposite him. Liked him enough for this conversation. He knew he hated the subject matter.

Their lunches arrived.

Gerun Eberict focused his attention on the grilled fillet on the silver plate in front of him, after ordering a third Tusked Milk.

It occurred to Brys that he had never seen a woman drink that Particular concoction.

‘I don’t speak to Tehol,’ he said after a time, his gaze on his own serving as he slowly picked the white flesh apart, revealing the row of vertebrae and the dorsal spines.

‘You despise what he did?’

Brys frowned, then shook his head. ‘No. What he did after.’

‘Which was?’

‘Nothing.’

‘The water had to clear, lad. So he could look around once more and see what remained.’

‘You’re suggesting diabolical genius, Gerun.’

‘I am. Tehol possesses what Hull does not. Knowledge is not enough. It never is. It’s the capacity to do something with that knowledge. To do it perfectly. Absolute timing. With devastating consequences. That’s what Tehol has. Hull, Errant protect him, does not.’

Brys looked up and met the Finadd’s pale eyes. ‘Are you suggesting that Hull is Tehol’s greatest admirer?’

‘Hull’s very own inspiration. And that is why he is with Buruk the Pale.’

‘Do you intend to stand in his way at the Great Meeting?’

‘It might well be too late by that time, Brys. Assuming that is my intention.’

‘It isn’t?’

‘I haven’t decided.’

‘You want war?’

Gerun’s gaze remained level. ‘That particular tide stirs the deepest silts. Blinding everyone. A man with a goal can get a lot done in that cloud. And, eventually, it settles.’

‘And lo,’ Brys said, unable to hide his bitterness, ‘the world has changed.’

‘Possibly.’

‘War as the means-’

‘To a peaceful end-’

‘That you will find pleasing to your eye.’

Gerun pushed his plate away and sat back once more. ‘What is life without ambition, Brys?’

Brys rose, his meal pried apart into a chaotic mass on the plate before him. ‘Tehol would be better at answering that than am I, Finadd.’

Gerun smiled up at him. ‘Inform Nifadas and Kuru Qan that I am not unaware of the complexities wrought through the impending Great Meeting. Nor am I blind to the need to usher me out of the city for a time. I have, of course, compensated for my own absence, in anticipation of my triumphant return.’

‘I will convey your words, Finadd.’

‘I regret your loss of appetite, Brys. The fish was excellent. Next time, we will speak of inconsequential things. I both respect and admire you, Champion.’

‘Ah, so I am not on your list.’

‘Not yet. A joke, Brys,’ he added upon seeing the Champion’s expression. ‘Besides, you’d cut me to pieces. How can I not admire that? I see it this way – the history of this decade, for our dear Letheras, can be most succinctly understood by a faithful recounting of the three Beddict brothers. And, as is clear, the tale’s not yet done.’

So it would seem. ‘I thank you, Finadd, for the company and the invitation.’

Gerun leaned forward and picked up the Champion’s plate. ‘Take the back exit, if you please,’ he said, offering Brys the plate. ‘There’s a starveling lad living in the alley. Mind, he’s to return the silver – make sure he understands that. Tell him you were my guest.’

‘Very well, Finadd.’

‘Try these on.’

Tehol stared at the woollen trousers, then reached for them. ‘Tell me, Bugg, is there any point in you continuing?’

‘Do you mean these leggings, or with my sorry existence?’

‘Have you hired your crew?’ He stripped off his skirt and began donning the trousers.

‘Twenty of the most miserable malcontents I could find.’

‘Grievances?’

‘Every one of them, and I’m pretty certain they are all legitimate. Granted, a few probably deserved their banishment from the trade.’

‘Most de-certifications are political, Bugg. Just be sure none of them are incompetent. All we need is for them to keep a secret, and for that, spite against the guilds is the best motivation.’

‘I’m not entirely convinced. Besides, we’ve had some warnings from the guilds.’

‘In person?’

‘Delivered missives. So far. Your left knee will stay warm.’

‘Warm? It’s hot out there, Bugg, despite what your old rheumy bones tell you.’

‘Well, they’re trousers for every season.’

‘Really? Assure the guilds we’re not out to underbid. In fact, the very opposite. Nor do we pay our crew higher rates. No benefits, either-’

‘Barring a stake in the enterprise.’

‘Say nothing of that, Bugg. Look at the hairs on my right thigh. They’re standing on end.’

‘It’s the contrast they don’t like.’

‘The guilds?’

‘No, your hairs. The guilds just want to know where by the Errant I came from. And how dare I register a company.’

‘Don’t worry about that, Bugg. Once they find out what you’re claiming to be able to do, they’ll be sure you’ll fail and so ignore you thereafter. Until you succeed, that is.’

‘I’m having second thoughts.’

‘About what?’

‘Put the skirt back on.’

‘I’m inclined to agree with you. Find some more wool. Preferably the same colour, although that is not essential, I suppose. In any case, we have a meeting with the three darlings this evening.’

‘Risky.’

‘We must be circumspect.’

‘That goes both ways. I stole that wool.’

Tehol wrapped the sheet once more about his waist. ‘I’ll be back down later to collect you. Clean up around here, will you?’

‘If I’ve the time.’

Tehol climbed the ladder to the roof.

The sun’s light was deepening, as it edged towards the horizon, bathing the surrounding buildings in a warm glow. Two artists had set up easels on the Third Tier, competing to immortalize Tehol and his bed. He gave them a wave that seemed to trigger a loud argument, then settled down on the sun-warmed mattress. Stared up at the darkening sky.

He had seen his brother Brys at the Drownings. On the other side of the canal, in conversation with Gerun Eberict. Rumour had it that Gerun was accompanying the delegation to the Tiste Edur. Hardly surprising. The King needed that wild man out of the city.

The problem with gold was the way it crawled. Where nothing else could. It seeped out from secrets, flowered in what should have been lifeless cracks. It strutted when it should have remained hidden, beneath notice. Brazen as any weed between the cobbles, and, if one was so inclined, one could track those roots all the way down. Sudden spending, from kin of dead hirelings, followed quickly – but not quickly enough – by sudden, inexplicable demises. A strange severing that left the king’s inquisitors with no-one to question, no-one to torture to find the source of the conspiracy. Assassination attempts were no small thing, after all, especially when the king himself was the target. Extraordinary, almost unbelievable success – to have reached Diskanar’s own bedchamber, to stand poised above the man, mere heartbeats from delivering death. That particular sorceror had never before shown such skill in the relevant arts. To conjure sand to fill the chests of two men was highest sorcery.

Natural curiosity and possible advantage, these had been Tehol’s motives, and he’d been much quicker than the royal inquisitors. A fortune, he had discovered, had been spent on the conspiracy, a life’s savings.

Clearly, only Gerun Eberict had known the full extent of the scheme. His hirelings would not have anticipated their employer’s attacking them. Killing them. They’d fought back, and one had come close to succeeding. And the Finadd carried the scars still, lips and crooked teeth, to show the nearness of the thing.

Immunity from conviction. So that Gerun Eberict could set out and do what he wanted to do. Judge and executioner, for crimes real and imagined, for offences both major and minor.

In a way, Tehol admired the man. For his determination, if not his methods. And for devising and gambling all on a scheme that took one’s breath away with its bold… extremity.

No doubt Brys had official business with the man. As King’s Champion.

Even so, worrying. It wouldn’t do to have his young brother so close to Gerun Eberict.

For if Tehol possessed a true enemy, a foe to match his own cleverness who – it would appear – surpassed Tehol himself in viciousness – it was Finadd Gerun Eberict, possessor of the King’s Leave.

And he’d been sniffing around, twisting arms. Safer, then, to assume Gerun knew that Tehol was not as destitute as most would believe. Nor entirely… inactive.

Thus, a new fold to consider in this rumpled, tangled tapestry.

Gerun was immune. But not without enemies. Granted, deadly with a sword, and known to have a dozen sworn, blood-bound bodyguards to protect him when he slept. His estate was rumoured to be impregnable, and possessed of its own armoury, apothecary with resident alchemist well versed in poisons and their antidotes, voluminous store-houses, and independent source of water. All in all, Gerun had planned for virtually every contingency.

Barring the singular focus of the mind of one Tehol Beddict.

Sometimes the only solution was also the simplest, most obvious. See a weed between the cobblespull it out.

‘Bugg!’

A faint voice from below. ‘What?’

‘Who was holding Gerun’s tiles on that bet this afternoon?’

His servant’s grizzled head appeared in the hatch. ‘You already know, since you own the bastard. Turble. Assuming he’s not dead of a heart attack… or suicide.’

‘Turble? Not a chance. My guess is, the man’s packing. A sudden trip to the Outer Isles.’

‘He’ll never make it to the city gates.’

‘Meaning Gerun is on the poor bastard.’

‘Wouldn’t you be? With that payoff?’

Tehol frowned. ‘Suicide, I’m now thinking, might well be Turble’s conclusion to his sorry state of affairs. Unexpected, true, and all the more shocking for it. He’s got no kin, as I recall. So the debt dies with him.’

‘And Gerun is out eight hundred docks.’

‘He might wince at that, but not so much as you’d notice. The man’s worth a peak, maybe more.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘All right, so I was generalizing. Of course I know, down to the last dock. Nay, the last stripling. In any case, I was saying, or, rather, suggesting, that the loss of eight hundred docks is not what would make Gerun sting. It’s the escape. The one trail even Gerun can’t doggedly follow – not willingly, anyway. Thus, Turble has to commit suicide.’

‘I doubt he’ll agree to it.’

‘No, probably not. But set it in motion, Bugg. Down to the Eddies. Find us a suitable corpse. Fresh, and not yet drained. Get a bottle or two of Turble’s blood from him in exchange-’

‘What’ll it be? Fire? Who commits suicide using fire?’

‘The fire will be an unfortunate consequence of an unattended oil lamp. Unattended because of the suicide. Burnt beyond recognition, alas, but the scrivers will swear by the blood’s owner. That’s how they work, isn’t it?’

‘A man’s veins never lie.’

‘Right. Only, they can.’

‘Right, if you’re insane enough to drain a corpse and pump new blood into it.’

‘A ghastly exercise, Bugg. Glad you’re up to it.’

The wizened face at the hatch was scowling. ‘And Turble?’

‘We smuggle him out the usual way. He’s always wanted to take up fishing. Put someone in the tunnel, in case he bolts sooner than we expect. Gerun’s watchers will be our finest witnesses. Oh, and won’t the Finadd spit.’

‘Is this wise?’ Bugg asked.

‘No choice. He’s the only man who can stop me. So I’m getting him first.’

‘If he catches a whiff that it’s you-’

‘Then I’m a dead man.’

‘And I’m out of work.’

‘Nonsense. The lasses will carry on. Besides, you are my beneficiary – unofficially, of course.’

‘Should you have told me that?’

‘Why not? I’m lying.’

Bugg’s head sank back down.

Tehol settled back onto the bed. Now, I need to find me a thief. A good one.

Ah! I know the very one. Poor lass

‘Bugg!’

Shurq Elalle’s fate had taken a turn for the worse. Nothing to do with her profession, for her skills in the art of thievery were legendary among the lawless class. An argument with her landlord, sadly escalating to attempted murder on his part, to which she of course – in all legality – responded by flinging him out the window. The hapless man’s fall had, unfortunately, been broken by a waddling merchant on the street below. The landlord’s neck broke. So did the merchant’s.

Careless self-defence leading to the death of an innocent had been the charge. Four hundred docks, halved. Normally, Shurq could have paid the fine and that would have been that. Alas, her argument with the landlord had been over a certain hoard of gold that had inexplicably vanished from Shurq’s cache. Without a dock to her name, she had been marched down to the canal.

Even then, she was a fit woman. Two hundred docks were probably manageable – had not the retrieval rope snagged on the spines of a forty-stone lupe-fish that had surfaced for a look at the swimmer, only to dive back down to the bottom, taking Shurq with it.

Lupe fish, while rare in the canal, ate only men. Never women. No-one knew why this was the case.

Shurq Elalle drowned.

But, as it turned out, there was dead and then there was dead. Unbeknownst to her, Shurq had been cursed by one of her past victims. A curse fully paid for and sanctified by the Empty Temple. So, though her lungs filled with foul water, though her heart stopped, as did all other discernible functions of the body and mind, there she stood when finally retrieved from the canal, sheathed in mud, eyes dull and the whites browned by burst vessels and lifeless blood, all in all most miserable and sadly bemused.

Even the lawless and the homeless shunned her thereafter. All the living, in fact. Walking past as if she was in truth a ghost, a dead memory.

Her flesh did not decay, although its pallor was noticeably unhealthy. Nor were her reactions and deft abilities in any way diminished. She could speak. See. Hear. Think. None of which improved her mood, much.

Bugg found her where Tehol had said she’d be found. In an alley behind a bordello. Listening, as she did every night, to the moans of pleasure – real and improvised – issuing from the windows above.

‘Shurq Elalle.’

Listless, murky eyes fixed on him. ‘I give no pleasure,’ she said.

‘Alas, neither do I, these days. I am here to deliver to you an indefinite contract from my master.’

‘And who would that be?’

‘Not yet, I’m afraid. Thieving work, Shurq.’

‘What need have I for riches?’

‘Well, that would depend on their substance, I’d imagine.’

She stepped out from the shadowed alcove where she’d been standing. ‘And what does your master imagine I desire?’

‘Negotiable.’

‘Does he know I’m dead?’

‘Of course. And sends his regrets.’

‘Does he?’

‘No, I made that up.’

‘No-one hires me any more.’

‘That is why he knew you would be available.’

‘No-one likes my company.’

‘Well, a bath wouldn’t hurt, but he’s prepared to make allowances.’

‘I will speak to him.’

‘Very good. He has anticipated your wishes. Midnight.’

‘Where?’

‘A rooftop. With a bed.’

‘Him?’

‘Yes.’

‘In his bed?’

‘Um, I’m not sure if that was in his mind-’

‘Glad to hear it. I may be dead, but I’m not easy. I’ll be there. Midnight, until a quarter past. No more. If he can convince me in that time, all and well. If not, too bad.’

‘A quarter should be more than enough, Shurq.’

‘You are foolish to be so confident of that.’

Bugg smiled. ‘Am I?’

‘Where’s Bugg?’

‘He’ll be meeting us here.’ Tehol walked over to the couch and settled down on it, drawing his legs up until he was in a reclining position. He eyed the three women. ‘Now, what is so important that I must risk discovery via this reckless meeting?’

Shand ran a calloused palm over her shaved head. ‘We want to know what you’ve been up to, Tehol.’

‘That’s right,’ Rissarh said.

Hejun’s arms were crossed, and there was a scowl on her face as she added, ‘We don’t need a bodyguard.’

‘Oh, forgot about him. Where is he?’

‘Said he had some belongings to collect,’ Shand said. ‘He should be here any time now. No, the others haven’t met him yet.’

‘Ah, so they are sceptical of your enthusiasm.’

‘She’s been known to exaggerate,’ Rissarh said.

‘Besides,’ Hejun snapped, ‘what’s all that got to do with being a bodyguard? I don’t care how big his-’

The warehouse door creaked, and everyone looked over.

Ublala Pung’s round face peered timidly inside, from just under the overhang.

‘Dear sir!’ Tehol called out. ‘Please, come in!’

The half-blood hesitated. His pale eyes flitted among Shand, Rissarh and Hejun. ‘There’s… three of them,’ he said.

‘Three of what?’

‘Women.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ said Tehol. ‘And…?’

Ublala frowned, lips drawing together into something much resembling a pout.

‘Don’t worry,’ Tehol invited with a wave of a hand, ‘I promise to protect you from them.’

‘Really?’

‘Absolutely. Come in, Ublala Pung, and be welcome.’

The huge man pushed the door back further and edged inside.

Ublala’s belongings did not, it was clear, include trousers or loincloth. He was as naked as he had been down at the canal. Not that clothing would have much disguised his attributes, Tehol concluded after a moment of despondent reflection. Well, never mind that. ‘Hungry? Thirsty? Relax, friend. Set your bag down… yes, there is just fine. Sit down – no, the bench, not the chair – you’d end up wearing it, which, now that I think on it… no, probably not. Ublala, these women require a bodyguard. I assume you accepted the offer from Shand-’

‘I thought it was just her.’

‘And that makes a difference?’

‘Makes it harder.’

‘Granted. But, most of the time you’ll be here…’ Tehol’s voice trailed away, as he finally noticed that Shand, Rissarh and Hejun had neither moved since Ublala’s arrival, nor said a word. Oh, now really…

Nisall had been the King’s First Concubine for three years. No official power was accorded the title, barring what the personality of the woman in question could achieve. There had been considerable variation throughout history, often dependent upon the fortitude of the king at the time, as well as that of the queen and the chancellor.

At present, there were six concubines in all, the others young, minor daughters of powerful families. Potential investments in the future there as much to capture the prince’s attention as the king’s. Like the queen’s four consorts, they were housed in a private, isolated quarter of the palace. Only the First Consort, Turudal Brizad, and the First Concubine were permitted contact with anyone other than the royal personages themselves.

Brys Beddict bowed to Nisall, then saluted Preda Unnutal Hebaz. He was not surprised to find the First Concubine in the Preda’s office. Nisall had decided her loyalties long ago.

‘Champion,’ the young woman smiled. ‘Unnutal and I were just discussing you.’

‘More precisely,’ the Preda said, ‘we were conjecturing on the content of your conversation with Finadd Gerun Eberict earlier today.’

‘Preda, I regret my delay in reporting to you.’

‘A well-rehearsed report by now,’ Nisall said, ‘given that you have already been required to provide it to the First Eunuch and Ceda Kur Qan. Thus, we will allow you a certain lack of animation in your telling.’

Brys frowned, his eyes on his commander. ‘Preda, it occurs to me that Gerun Eberict remains one of your officers, regardless of the King’s Leave. I am surprised he has not already reported to you the details of today’s conversation.’

‘And who is to say he hasn’t?’ Unnutal enquired. Then she waved a hand. ‘An uncharitable response on my part. I apologize, Brys. It has been a long day indeed.’

‘No apology required, Preda. I spoke out of turn-’

‘Brys,’ Nisall interrupted. ‘You are the King’s Champion now. There is no place where you can speak out of turn. Even unto Ezgara himself. Forgive the Preda her brusque manner. Conversations with Gerun tend to make one exasperated.’

‘He has a certain hauteur about him,’ Brys said.

‘Arrogance,’ Unnutal snapped. ‘He did not give you cause to call him out?’

‘No.’

‘How unfortunate,’ Nisall sighed.

‘Although I believe I was warned.’

Both women fixed their eyes on him.

Brys shrugged. ‘I was reminded that his list is an ongoing project.’

‘He considers killing Buruk the Pale.’

‘I believe so. The First Eunuch has been made aware of that possibility.’

‘Now,’ Nisall said, beginning to pace in the room, ‘should the king be informed of this development, he might be inclined to withdraw Gerun from the delegation. Which will be perceived as a victory by the queen and the Chancellor.’

‘Perceptions can be made integral to strategy,’ Brys said.

‘Spoken as a duellist,’ Nisall said. ‘But the advantages to the queen granted by Gerun’s absence perhaps outweigh any advantage we might fashion. Besides, we know Buruk the Pale proceeds under directions from her camp, so his loss will not hurt us.’

Brys considered this, uneasy at such a cavalier dismissal of a man’s life. ‘How well does Buruk sit with his burdens?’

‘We have a spy close to him, of course,’ the Preda said. ‘The man is tortured by his conscience. He escapes with white nectar and drink, and dissolute sexual indulgences.’

‘The queen…’

‘Wants war,’ Nisall finished with a sharp nod. ‘The irresponsible, greedy, short-sighted sea-cow. A fine partner to the stupidest chancellor in the history of Letheras. And a thick, easily led prince waiting impatiently to take the throne.’

Brys shifted uncomfortably. ‘Perhaps, if Buruk’s conscience is haunting him, he can be swayed to another course.’

‘Beneath the hawk gaze of Moroch Nevath? Not likely.’

The Champion’s eyes narrowed on Nisall. This was all leading to something. He just wasn’t sure what.

The Preda sighed. ‘Gerun needs to add a name to his list.’

‘Moroch Nevath?’

‘And that will be difficult.’

‘It will. The man is singular. In every way imaginable. Incorruptible, with a history to match.’

‘And to whom is the man sworn?’

‘Why, the prince, of course. But the King’s Leave does not include killing royalty.’

‘Yet his history is far less pure.’

Nisall added, ‘Gerun would not be able to act directly against the Prince. He would need to attack obliquely.’

‘First Concubine, I have little understanding of Gerun Eberict’s motivations. I do not comprehend the nature of his cause.’

‘I do,’ the Preda said. ‘I know precisely what he’s up to. And I believe we can see that he adds to his list.’

‘The concern is,’ Nisall said, ‘what role will his old Finadd, Hull Beddict, have during the playing out of all this.’

Brys looked away. He was beginning to feel under siege. If not one brother, then the other. ‘I will give it some thought.’

‘Not too long, Finadd,’ Unnutal Hebaz said.

‘A day or two, perhaps.’

‘Agreed. Until then, Brys.’

‘Goodnight Preda, First Concubine.’

He made his way out of the office.

In the corridor, five paces from the two guards standing vigil at the door through which he had just exited, his steps slowed to a halt. Unmindful of the curious eyes on his back, the King’s Champion stood motionless.

In the minds of the two guards, three titles. Master of the Sword, Finadd and King’s Champion – all were cause for envy and admiration. They might have wondered at him at that moment, however. The way he stood, as if entirely alone in a large, overwhelming world. Eyes clearly fixed on some inner landscape. Weariness in his shoulders. They might have wondered, but if so it was a brief, ephemeral empathy, quickly replaced by those harder sentiments, envy and admiration. And the gruff assertion that supreme ability purchased many things, including isolation. And the man could damn well live with it.

‘There’s no place for sentiment here,’ Tehol said, ‘sad to say. Letheras is unforgiving. We can’t afford to make mistakes. For Errant’s sake, Ublala, relax. You’re turning blue. Anyway, as I was saying, Shand, it’s careless being careless. In other words, we can’t keep meeting like this.’

‘Do you practise?’ Rissarh asked.

‘At what?’

Bugg cleared his throat. ‘I have a meeting tomorrow with the royal architects.’

‘Finally!’ Shand sighed from where she sat at the table, knuckling her eyes before continuing, ‘As far as we could tell nothing was happening about anything.’

‘Well,’ Tehol said, ‘that’s precisely the impression we want.’

‘Fine, but that’s the outside impression. It’s not supposed to apply to us, you idiot. If we aren’t in on the scheme then no-one is.’

‘Preparation, Shand. The groundwork. This can’t be rushed. Now, I’ve got to go.’

‘What?’

‘It’s late. My bed beckons. Fix up a room for Ublala. Get him some clothes. Maybe even a weapon he knows how to use.’

‘Don’t leave me here!’ Ublala moaned.

‘This is all business,’ Tehol assured him. ‘You’re safe here. Isn’t he, Shand?’

‘Of course,’ she murmured.

‘Cut that out. Or I’ll hire a bodyguard for our bodyguard.’

‘Maybe Ublala has a brother.’

Tehol gestured for Bugg to follow as he headed for the door. ‘I suppose meetings like this are useful. Every now and then.’

‘No doubt,’ Bugg replied.

They emerged onto the street. The night crowd was bustling. Shops stayed open late in the summer, to take advantage of the season’s frenzy. Heat made for restlessness, which made for a certain insatiability. Later in the season, when the temperatures became unbearable, there would be enervation, and debt.

Tehol and Bugg left the high street fronting the canal and made their way down various alleys, gradually leaving the spending crowds behind and finding themselves among the destitute. Voices called out from shadows. Dishevelled children followed the two men, a few reaching out grubby hands to pluck at Tehol’s skirt before running away laughing. Before long, they too were gone, and the way ahead was empty.

‘Ah, the welcoming silence of our neighbourhood,’ Tehol said as they walked towards their house. ‘It’s the headlong rush that always troubles me. As if the present is unending.’

‘Is this your contemplative moment?’ Bugg asked.

‘It was. Now over, thankfully.’

They entered and Tehol strode straight for the ladder. ‘Clean the place up tomorrow morning.’

‘Remember, you’ll have a visitor tonight.’

‘Not just in my dreams?’

Tehol clambered onto the roof. He closed the hatch then stood and studied the stars overhead until she emerged from the darkness to one side and spoke. ‘You’re late.’

‘No, I’m not. Midnight. Still a quarter off.’

‘Is it? Oh.’

‘And how’s life, Shurq? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.’

‘And I’ve never heard that particular quip before. It’s a miserable existence. Day after day, night after night. One step in front of the other, on and on to nowhere in particular.’

‘And being dead has changed all that?’

‘Don’t make me laugh, Tehol Beddict. I cough up stuff when I laugh. You want to offer me a contract. To do what?’

‘Well, a retainer, actually.’

‘Ongoing employment. I refused all retainers when I was alive; why should I do anything else now?’

‘Job security, of course. You’re not young any more.’ He walked over to his bed and sat down, facing her. ‘All right. Consider the challenges I offer. I have targets in mind that not a thief alive today would touch. In fact, only a high mage or someone who’s dead could defeat the wards and leave no trail. I don’t trust high mages, leaving only you.’

‘There are others.’

‘Two others, to be precise. And neither one a professional thief.’

‘How did you know there were two others?’

‘I know lots of things, Shurq. One is a woman who cheated on her husband, who in turn spent his life savings on the curse against her. The other is a child, origin of curse unknown, who dwells in the grounds of the old tower behind the palace.’

‘Yes. I visit her on occasion. She doesn’t know who cursed her. In fact, the child has no memory of her life at all.’

‘Probably an addition to the original curse,’ Tehol mused. ‘But that is curious indeed.’

‘It is. Half a peak was the going price. How much for sorcery to steal her memories?’

‘Half as much again, I’d think. That’s a lot to do to a ten-year-old child. Why not just kill her and bury her in some out of the way place, or dump her in the canal?’ He sat forward. ‘Tell you what, Shurq, we’ll include the pursuit of that mystery – I suspect it interests you in spite of yourself.’

‘I would not mind sticking a knife in the eye of whoever cursed the child. But I have no leads.’

‘Ah, so you’ve not been entirely apathetic, then.’

‘Never said I was, Tehol. But, finding no trail at all, I admit to a diminishment in motivation.’

‘I’ll see what I can do.’

The dead woman cocked her head and regarded him in silence for a moment. ‘You were a genius once.’

‘Very true.’

‘Then you lost everything.’

‘That’s right.’

‘And with that, presumably, a similar loss in confidence.’

‘Oh, hardly, Shurq Elalle.’

‘All part of your diabolical plan.’

‘Every worthwhile plan is diabolical.’

‘Don’t make me laugh.’

‘I’m trying not to, Shurq. Do we have a deal?’

‘The secret of the curse upon the child was not your intended payment for my services, Tehol. What else?’

‘I’m open to suggestions. Do you want the curse undone? Do you long for eternal night? The final stealthy departure of your slinking soul? Do you want to be resurrected in truth? Gifted life once more? Revenge against the one who cursed you?’

‘I already did that.’

‘All right. I admit I’m not surprised. Who was blamed for it?’

‘Gerun Eberict.’

‘Oh, that’s clever. Speaking of him…’

‘Is he one of your targets?’

‘Very much so.’

‘I don’t like assassination, in principle. Besides, he’s killed more than one knave.’

‘I don’t want you to kill him, Shurq. Just steal his fortune.’

‘Gerun Eberict has been getting more brazen, it’s true.’

‘An actual liability.’

‘Assuming maintaining the status quo is a worthwhile endeavour.’

‘Make no assumptions, Shurq. It’s more a matter of who’s controlling the dissolution of said status quo. The Finadd is losing control of his own appetites.’

‘Are you one of his targets, Tehol?’

‘Not that I’m aware of, not yet, anyway. Preferably not at all.’

‘It would be quite a challenge defeating his estate’s defensive measures.’

‘I’m sure it would.’

‘As for my retainer, I’m not interested in living again. Nor in dying with finality. No, what I want is to be granted the semblance of life.’

Tehol’s brows rose.

‘I want my skin glowing with palpable vigour. I want a certain dark allure to my eyes. My hair needs styling. New clothes, a flowery scent lingering in my wake. And I want to feel pleasure again.’

‘Pleasure?’

‘Sexual.’

‘Maybe it’s just the company you’ve been keeping.’

‘Don’t make me laugh.’

‘You’ll cough up stuff.’

‘You don’t want to know, Tehol Beddict. Maybe we can do something about that, too. That river water is three years old.’

‘I’m curious. How do you manage to speak without breath?’

‘I don’t know. I can draw air into my throat. It starts drying out after a while.’

‘I’ve noticed. All right, some of those things can be achieved easily enough, although we’ll have to be circumspect. Others, for example the reawakening of pleasure, will obviously be more problematic. But I’m sure something can be managed-’

‘It won’t be cheap.’

‘I’m sure Gerun Eberict will be happy to pay for it.’

‘What if it takes all he has?’

Tehol shrugged. ‘My dear, the money is not the point of the exercise. I was planning on dumping it in the river.’

She studied him in silence for a moment longer, then said, ‘I could take it with me.’

‘Don’t make me laugh, Shurq. Seriously.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s a very infectious laugh.’

‘Ah. Point taken.’

‘And the retainer?’ Tehol asked.

‘Taken, as well. Presumably, you don’t want me hanging around you.’

‘Midnight meetings like this one should suffice. Come by tomorrow night, and we’ll make of you a new woman.’

‘So long as I smell new.’

‘Don’t worry. I know just the people for the task at hand.’

The thief left by climbing down the outside wall of the building. Tehol stood at the roof’s edge and watched her progress, then, when she had reached the alley below, he permitted himself a roll of the eyes. He turned away and approached his bed.

Only to hear voices down below. Surprised tones from Bugg, but not alarm. And loud enough to warn Tehol in case Shurq had lingered.

Tehol sighed. Life had been better – simpler – only a few weeks ago. When he’d been without plans, schemes, goals. Without, in short, purpose. A modest stir, and now everyone wanted to see him.

Creaks from the ladder, then a dark figure climbed into view.

It was a moment before Tehol recognized him, and his brows rose a moment before he stepped forward. ‘Well, this is unexpected.’

‘Your manservant seemed sure that you’d be awake. Why is that?’

‘Dear brother, Bugg’s talents are veritably preternatural.’

Brys walked over to the bed and studied it for a moment. ‘What happens when it rains?’

‘Alas, I am forced to retire to the room below. There to suffer Bugg’s incessant snoring.’

‘Is that what’s driven you to sleeping on the roof?’

Tehol smiled, then realized it was not likely Brys could see that smile in the darkness. Then decided it was all for the best. ‘King’s Champion. I have been remiss in congratulating you. Thus, congratulations.’

Brys was motionless. ‘How often do you visit the crypt? Or do you ever visit?’

Crossing his arms, Tehol swung his gaze to the canal below. A smeared gleam of reflected stars, crawling through the city. ‘It’s been years, Brys.’

‘Since you last visited?’

‘Since they died. We all have different ways of honouring their memory. The family crypt?’ He shrugged. ‘A stone-walled sunken room containing nothing of consequence.’

‘I see. I’m curious, Tehol, how precisely do you honour their memory these days?’

‘You have no idea.’

‘No, I don’t.’

Tehol rubbed at his eyes, only now realizing how tired he was. Thinking was proving a voracious feeder on his energies, leading him to admit he’d been out of practice. Not just thinking, of course. The brain did other things, as well, even more exhausting. The revisiting of siblings, of long-estranged relationships, saw old, burnished armour donned once more, weapons reached for, old stances once believed abandoned proving to have simply been lying dormant. ‘Is this a festive holiday, Brys? Have I missed something? Had we cousins, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, we could gather to walk the familiar ruts. Round and round the empty chairs where our mother and father once sat. And we could make our language unspoken in a manner to mimic another truth – that the dead speak in silences and so never leave us in peace-’

‘I need your help, Tehol.’

He glanced up, but could make nothing of his brother’s expression in the gloom.

‘It’s Hull,’ Brys went on. ‘He’s going to get himself killed.’

‘Tell me,’ Tehol said, ‘have you ever wondered why not one of us has found a wife?’

‘I was talking about-’

‘It’s simple, really. Blame our mother, Brys. She was too smart. Errant take us, what an understatement. It wasn’t Father who managed the investments.’

‘And you are her son, Tehol. More than me and Hull, by far. Every time I look at you, every time I listen to you, struggle to follow your lines of thought. But I don’t see how that-’

‘Our expectations reside in the clouds, Brys. Oh, we try. All of us have tried, haven’t we?’

‘Damn it, Tehol, what’s your point?’

‘Hull, of course. That’s who you came here to talk about, isn’t it? Well. He met a woman. As smart as our mother, in her own way. Or, rather, she found him. Hull’s greatest gift, but he didn’t even recognize it for what it was, when it was right there in his hands.’

Brys stepped closer, hands lifting as if about to grasp his brother by the throat. ‘You don’t understand,’ he said, his voice cracking with emotion. After a moment his hands fell away. ‘The prince will see him killed. Or, if not the prince, then the First Eunuch – should Hull speak out against the king. But wait!’ He laughed without humour. ‘There’s also Gerun Eberict! Who’ll also be there! Have I left anyone out? I’m not sure. Does it matter? Hull will be at the parley. The only one whose motives are unknown – to anyone. You can’t play your game if a stranger wades in at the last moment, can you?’

‘Calm yourself, brother,’ Tehol said. ‘I was getting to my point.’

‘Well, I can’t see it!’

‘Quietly, please. Hull found her, then lost her. But she’s still there – that much is clear. Seren Pedac, Brys. She’ll protect him-’

Brys snarled and turned away. ‘Like Mother did Father?’

Tehol winced, then sighed. ‘Mitigating circumstances-’

‘And Hull is our father’s son!’

‘You asked, a moment ago, how I honour the memory of our parents. I can tell you this, Brys. When I see you. How you stand. The deadly grace – your skill, taught you by his hand – well, I have no need for memory. He stands before me, right now. More than with Hull. Far more. And, I’d hazard, I am much as you say – like her. Thus,’ he spread his hands helplessly, ‘you ask for help, but will not hear what I tell you. Need there be reminders of the fates of our parents? Need there be memory, Brys? We stand here, you and I, and play out once more the old familial tortures.’

‘You describe, then,’ he said hoarsely, ‘our doom.’

‘She could have saved him, Brys. If not for us. Her fear for us. The whole game of debt, so deftly contrived to snare Father – she would have torn it apart, except that, like me, she could see nothing of the world that would rise from the ashes. And, seeing nothing, she feared.’

‘Without us, then, she would have saved him – kept him from that moment of supreme cowardice?’

Brys was facing him now, his eyes glittering.

‘I think so,’ Tehol answered. ‘And from them, we have drawn our lessons of life. You chose the protection of the King’s Guard, and now the role of Champion. Where debt will never find you. As for Hull, he walked away – from gold, from its deadly traps – and sought honour in saving people. And even when that failed… do you honestly imagine Hull would ever consider killing himself? Our father’s cowardice was betrayal, Brys. Of the worst sort.’

‘And what of you, Tehol? What lesson are you living out right now?’

‘The difference between me and our mother is that I carry no burden. No children. So, brother, I think I will end up achieving the very thing she could not do, despite her love for Father.’

‘By dressing in rags and sleeping on your roof?’

‘Perception enforces expectation, Brys.’ And thought he saw a wry smile from his brother.

‘Even so, Tehol, Gerun Eberict is not as deceived as you might believe. As, I admit, I was.’

‘Until tonight?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Go home, Brys,’ Tehol said. ‘Seren Pedac stands at Hull’s back, and will continue to do so no matter how much she might disagree with whatever he seeks to do. She cannot help herself. Even genius has its flaws.’

Another grin. ‘Even with you, Tehol?’

‘Well, I was generalizing to put you at ease. I never include myself in my own generalizations. I am ever the exception to the rule.’

‘And how do you manage that?’

‘Well, I define the rules, of course. That’s my particular game, brother.’

‘By the Errant, I hate you sometimes, Tehol. Listen. Do not underestimate Gerun Eberict-’

‘I’ll take care of Gerun. Now, presumably you were followed here?’

‘I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, probably I was. Do you think our voices carried?’

‘Not through the wards Bugg raises every night before he goes to sleep.’

‘Bugg?’

Tehol clapped his brother on the shoulder and guided him towards the hatch. ‘He’s only mostly worthless. We ever seek out hidden talents, an exercise assuring endless amusement. For me, at least.’

‘Did he not embalm our parents? The name-’

‘That was Bugg. That’s where I first met him, and saw immediately his lack of potential. The entrance can be viewed in secret from one place and no other, Brys. Normally, you could make no approach without being detected. And then there’d be a chase, which is messy and likely to fail on your part. You will have to kill the man – Gerun’s, I suspect. And not in a duel. Outright execution, Brys. Are you up to it?’

‘Of course. But you said there was no approach that could not-’

‘Ah, well, I forgot to mention our tunnel.’

Brys paused at the hatch. ‘You have a tunnel.’

‘Keeping Bugg busy is an eternal chore.’

Still five paces from the shadowed section of the warehouse wall that offered the only hiding place with a clear line of sight to the doorway of Tehol’s house, Brys Beddict halted. His eyes were well adjusted, and he could see that no-one was there.

But he could smell blood. Metallic and thick.

Sword drawn, he approached.

No man could have survived such a loss. It was a black pool on the cobbles, reluctant to seep into the cracks between the set stones. A throat opened wide, the wound left to drain before the corpse had been dragged away. And the trail was plain, twin heel tracks alongside the warehouse wall, round a corner and out of sight.

The Finadd considered following it.

Then, upon seeing a single footprint, traced in dried dust on the dust, he changed his mind.

The footprint left by a child. Bared. As it dragged the dead man away.

Every city had its darkness, its denizens who prowled only at night in their own game of predator and prey. Brys knew it was not his world, nor did he wish to hunt down its secrets. These hours belonged to the white crow, and it was welcome to them.

He turned the other way, began his walk back to the palace.

His brother’s formidable mind had not been idle, it seemed. His indifference no more than a feint. Which made Tehol a very dangerous man. Thank the Errant he’s on my side

He is on my side, isn’t he?

The old palace, soon to be entirely abandoned in favour of the Eternal Domicile, sat on a sunken hill, the building proper a hundred paces in from the river’s seasonally uncertain banks. Sections of a high wall indicated that there had been an enclosure once, extending from the palace to the river, in which an assortment of structures had been effectively isolated from the rest of the city.

Not so much in a proprietary claim to ownership, for the structures in question predated even the founding First Empire. Perhaps, for those original builders, there had been a recognition, of sorts, of something verging on the sacred about these grounds, although, of course, not holy to the colonizers. Another possibility was that the first Letherii were possessors of a more complete arcane knowledge – secrets long since lost – that inspired them to do honour to the Jaghut dwellings and the single, oddly different tower in their midst.

The truth had crumbled along with the enclosure walls, and no answers could be found sifting the dust of crumbled mortar and flakes of exfoliated schist. The area, while no longer sealed, was by habit avoided. The land itself was worthless, by virtue of a royal proclamation six centuries old that prohibited demolition of the ancient structures, and subsequent resettlement. Every legal challenge or, indeed, enquiry regarding that proclamation was summarily dismissed without even so much as recourse to the courts.

All very well. Skilled practitioners of the tiles of the Holds well knew the significance of that squat, square, leaning tower with its rumpled, overgrown grounds. And indeed of the Jaghut dwellings, representative as they were of the Ice Hold. Many held that the Azath tower was the very first true structure of the Azath on this world.

From her new perspective, Shurq Elalle was less sceptical than she might have once been. The grounds surrounding the battered grey stone tower exerted an ominous pull on the dead thief. There were kin there, but not of blood. No, this was the family of the undead, of those unable or unwilling to surrender to oblivion. In the case of those interred in the lumpy, clay-shot earth around the tower, their graves were prisons. The Azath did not give up its children.

She sensed as well that there were living creatures buried there, most of them driven mad by centuries upon centuries snared in ancient roots that held them fast. Others remained ominously silent and motionless, as if awaiting eternity’s end.

The thief approached the forbidden grounds behind the palace. She could see the Azath tower, its third and uppermost storey edging above the curved walls of the Jaghut dwellings. Not one of the structures stood fully upright. All were tilted in some fashion, the subsurface clay squeezing out from beneath their immense weight or lenses of sand washed away by underground runoff. Vines had climbed the sides in chaotic webs, although those that had reached out to the Azath died there, withered against the foundation stones amidst yellowed grasses.

She did not need to see the blood trail in order to follow it. The smell was heavy in the sultry night air, invisible streaks riding the currents, and she pursued its wake until she came to the low, crooked wall surrounding the Azath tower.

Just beyond, at the base of a twisted tree, sat the child Kettle. Nine or ten years old… for ever. Naked, her pale skin smeared, her long hair clotted with coagulating blood. The corpse before her was already half under the earth, being dragged down into the darkness.

To feed the Azath? Or some ravenous denizen? Shurq had no idea. Nor did she care. The grounds swallowed bodies, and that was useful.

Kettle looked up, black eyes dully reflecting starlight. There were moulds that, if left unattended, could blind, and the film was thick over the girl’s dead eyes. She slowly rose and walked over.

‘Why won’t you be my mother?’

‘I’ve already told you, Kettle. I am no-one’s mother.’

‘I followed you tonight.’

‘You’re always following me,’ Shurq said.

‘Just after you left that roof, another man came to the house, soldier. And he was followed.’

‘And which of the two did you kill?’

‘Why, the one who followed, of course. I’m a good girl. I take care of you. Just as you take care of me-’

‘I take care of no-one, Kettle. You were dead long before I was. Living here in these grounds. I used to bring you bodies.’

‘Never enough.’

‘I don’t like killing. Only when I have no choice. Besides, I wasn’t the only one employing your services.’

‘Yes you were.’

Shurq stared at the girl for a long moment. ‘I was?’

‘Yes. And you wanted to know my story. Everyone else runs from me, just like they run from you now. Except that man on the roof. Is he another one not like everyone else?’

‘I don’t know, Kettle. But I am working for him now.’

‘I am glad. Grown-ups should work. It helps fill their minds. Empty minds are bad. Dangerous. They fill themselves up. With bad things. Nobody’s happy.’

Shurq cocked her head. ‘Who’s not happy?’

Kettle waved one grubby hand at the rumpled yard. ‘Restless. All of them. I don’t know why. The tower sweats all the time now.’

‘I will bring you some salt water,’ Shurq said, ‘for your eyes. You need to wash them out.’

‘I can see easily enough. With more than my eyes now. My skin sees. And tastes. And dreams of light.’

‘What do you mean?’

Kettle pushed bloody strands of hair from her heart-shaped face. ‘Five of them are trying to get out. I don’t like those five – I don’t like most of them, but especially those five. The roots are dying. I don’t know what to do. They whisper how they’ll tear me to pieces. Soon. I don’t want to be torn to pieces. What should I do?’

Shurq was silent. Then she asked, ‘How much do you sense of the Buried Ones, Kettle?’

‘Most don’t talk to me. They have lost their minds. Others hate me for not helping them. Some beg and plead. They talk through the roots.’

‘Are there any who ask nothing of you?’

‘Some are ever silent.’

‘Talk to them. Find someone else to speak to, Kettle. Someone who might be able to help you.’ Someone else to be your mother… or father. ‘Ask for opinions, on any and all matters. If one remains then who does not seek to please you, who does not attempt to twist your desires so that you free it, and who holds no loyalty to the others, then you will tell me of that one. All that you know. And I will advise you as best I can – not as a mother, but as a comrade.’

‘All right.’

‘Good. Now, I came here for another reason, Kettle. I want to know, how did you kill that spy?’

‘I bit through his throat. It’s the quickest, and I like the blood.’

‘Why do you like the blood?’

‘In my hair, to keep it from my face. And it smells alive, doesn’t it? I like that smell.’

‘How many do you kill?’

‘Lots. The ground needs them.’

‘Why does the ground need them?’

‘Because it’s dying.’

‘Dying? And what would happen if it does die, Kettle?’

‘Everything will get out.’

‘Oh.’

‘I like it here.’

‘Kettle, from now on,’ Shurq said, ‘I will tell you who to kill – don’t worry, there should be plenty.’

‘All right. That’s nice of you.’

Among the hundreds of creatures buried in the grounds of the Azath, only one was capable of listening to the conversation between the two undead on the surface above. The Azath was relinquishing its hold on this denizen, not out of weakness, but out of necessity. The Guardian was anything but ready. Indeed, might never be ready. The choice itself had been flawed, yet another sign of faltering power, of age crawling forward to claim the oldest stone structure in the realm.

The Azath tower was indeed dying. And desperation forced a straying onto unprecedented paths.

Among all the prisoners, a choice had been made. And preparations were under way, slow as the track of roots through stone, but equally inexorable. But there was so little time.

The urgency was a silent scream that squeezed blood from the Azath tower. Five kin creatures, taken and held since the time of the K’Chain Che’Malle, were almost within reach of the surface.

And this was not good, for they were Toblakai.

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