CHAPTER TEN

White petals spin and curl on their way down to the depthless sea. The woman and her basket, her hand flashing red in quick soft motion scattering these pure wings, to ride a moment on the wind. She stands, a forlorn goddess birthing flight that fails and falls on the river’s broad breast. A basket of birds destined to drown. See her weep in the city’s drawn shadow her hand a thing disembodied, carrion-clawed and ceaseless in repetition, she delivers death and in her eyes is seen the horror of living.

Lady Elassara of Trate Cormor Fural

THE ROLL OF THUNDER, THE HEAVY TRAMMELLING OF RAIN ON THE roof. The storm was following the course of the river, drawn northward and dragging one edge of its heaving clouds across Letheras. Unseasonal, unwelcome, making the single room of Tehol’s abode close and steamy. There were two more stools than there had been, retrieved by Bugg from a rubbish heap. On one of them, in the far corner, sat Ublala Pung, weeping.

As he had been without pause for over a bell, his huge frame racked with a shuddering that made the stool creak alarmingly. In the centre of the small room, Tehol paced.

A splashing of feet outside, then the curtain in the doorway was tugged to one side and Bugg stamped in, water streaming from him. He coughed. ‘What’s burning in the hearth?’

Tehol shrugged. ‘Whatever was piled up beside it, of course.’

‘But that was your rain hat. I wove it myself, with my own two hands.’

‘A rain hat? Those reeds had wrapped rotting fish-’

‘That’s the stink, all right.’ Bugg nodded, wiping at his eyes. ‘Anyway, rotting is a relative term, master.’

‘It is?’

‘The Faraed consider it a delicacy.’

‘You just wanted me to smell like fish.’

‘Better you than the whole house,’ Bugg said, glancing over at Ublala. ‘What’s wrong with him?’

‘I haven’t a clue,’ Tehol said. ‘So, what’s the news?’

‘I found her.’

‘Great.’

‘But we’ll have to go and get her.’

‘Go outside?’

‘Yes.’

‘Into the rain?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well,’ Tehol said, resuming his pacing, ‘I don’t like that at all. Too risky.’

‘Risky?’

‘Why, yes. Risky. I might get wet. Especially now that I don’t have a rain hat.’

‘And whose fault is that, I wonder?’

‘It was already smouldering, sitting so close to the hearth. I barely nudged it with my toe and up it went.’

‘I was drying it out.’

Tehol paused in mid-step, studied Bugg for a moment, then resumed pacing. ‘It’s a storm,’ he said after a moment. ‘Storms pass. I need a reason to procrastinate.’

‘Yes, master.’

Tehol swung round and approached Ublala Pung. ‘Most beloved bodyguard, whatever is wrong?’

Red-rimmed eyes stared up at him. ‘You’re not interested. Not really. Nobody is.’

‘Of course I’m interested. Bugg, I’m interested, aren’t I? It’s my nature, isn’t it?’

‘Absolutely, master. Most of the time.’

‘It’s the women, isn’t it, Ublala? I can tell.’

The huge man nodded miserably.

‘Are they fighting over you?’

He shook his head.

‘Have you fallen for one of them?’

‘That’s just it. I haven’t had a chance to.’

Tehol glanced over at Bugg, then back to Ublala. ‘You haven’t had a chance to. What a strange statement. Can you elaborate?’

‘It’s not fair, that’s what it is. Not fair. You won’t understand. It’s not a problem you have. I mean, what am I? Am I to be nothing but a toy? Just because I have a big-’

‘Hold on a moment,’ Tehol cut in. ‘Let’s see if I fully understand you, Ublala. You feel they’re just using you. Interested only in your, uh, attributes. All they want from you is sex. No commitment, no loyalty even. They’re happy taking turns with you, taking no account of your feelings, your sensitive nature. They probably don’t even want to cuddle afterwards or make small talk, right?’

Ublala nodded.

‘And all that is making you miserable?’

He nodded again, snuffling, his lower lip protruding, his broad mouth downturned at the corners, a muscle twitching in his right cheek.

Tehol stared for a moment longer, then he tossed up his hands. ‘Ublala! Don’t you understand? You’re in a man’s paradise! What all the rest of us can only dream about!’

‘But I want something more!’

‘No! You don’t! Trust me! Bugg, don’t you agree? Tell him!’

Bugg frowned, then said, ‘It is as Tehol says, Ublala. Granted, a tragic truth, and granted, Master’s nature is to revel in tragic truths, which to many might seem unusual, unhealthy even-’

‘Thanks for the affirmation, Bugg,’ Tehol interrupted with a scowl. ‘Go clean up, will you?’ He faced Ublala again. ‘You are at the pinnacle of male achievement, my friend – wait! Did you say it’s not a problem I have? What did you mean by that?’

Ublala blinked. ‘What? Uh, are you at that pinnacle, or whatever you called it – are you at it too?’

Bugg snorted. ‘He hasn’t been at it in months.’

‘Well, that’s it!’ Tehol stormed to the hearth and plucked out what was left of the matted reeds. He stamped out the flames, then picked the charred object up and set it on his head. ‘All right, Bugg, let’s go and get her. As for this brainless giant here, he can mope around all alone in here, for all I care. How many insults can a sensitive man like me endure, anyway?’

Wisps of smoke drifted from the reeds on Tehol’s head.

‘That’s about to take flame again, master.’

‘Well, that’s what’s good about rain, then, isn’t it? Let’s go.’

Outside in the narrow aisle, water streamed ankle-deep towards the clogged drain at the far end, where a small lake was forming. Bugg a half-step in the lead, they sloshed their way across its swirling, rain-pocked expanse.

‘You should be more sympathetic to Ublala, master,’ Bugg said over a shoulder. ‘He’s a very unhappy man.’

‘Sympathy belongs to the small-membered, Bugg. Ublala has three women drooling all over him, or have you forgotten?’

‘That’s a rather disgusting image.’

‘You’ve been too old too long, dear servant. There’s nothing inherently disgusting about drool.’ He paused, then said, ‘All right, maybe there is. However, do we have to talk about sex? That subject makes me nostalgic’

‘Errant forbid.’

‘So, where is she?’

‘In a brothel.’

‘Oh, now that’s really pathetic.’

‘More like a newly acquired raging addiction, master. The more she feeds it, the hungrier it gets.’

They crossed Turol Avenue and made their way into the Prostitutes’ District. The downpour was diminishing, the tail ends of the storm front streaming overhead. ‘Well,’ Tehol commented, ‘that is not a desirable condition for one of my most valued employees. Especially since her addiction doesn’t include her handsome, elegant boss. Something tells me it should have been me weeping in a corner back there, not Ublala.’

‘It may simply be a case of Shurq not wanting to mix business with pleasure.’

‘Bugg, you told me she’s in a brothel.’

‘Oh. Right. Sorry.’

‘Now I’m truly miserable. I wasn’t miserable this morning. If the trend continues, by dusk I’ll be swimming the canal with bags of coins around my neck.’

‘Here we are.’

They stood before a narrow, three-storey tenement, set slightly in from the adjoining buildings and looking a few centuries older than anything else on the street. The front facing held a carved facade around two square, inset columns of dusty blue marble. Decidedly female demons in bas-relief, contorted and writhing in a mass orgy, crowded the panels, and atop the columns crouched stone gargoyles with enormous breasts held high and inviting.

Tehol turned to Bugg. ‘This is the Temple. She’s in the Temple?’

‘Does that surprise you?’

‘I can’t even afford to step across the threshold. Even Queen Janall frequents this place but a few times a year. Annual membership dues are a thousand docks… I’ve heard… it rumoured. From someone, once.’

‘Matron Delisp is probably very pleased with her newest property.’

‘I’d wager she is at that. So, how do we extract Shurq Elalle, especially since it’s obvious she is where she wants to be, and the Matron has at least thirty thugs in her employ who’re likely to try and stop us? Should we simply consider this a lost cause and be on our way?’

Bugg shrugged. ‘That is up to you to decide, master.’

‘Well.’ He considered. ‘I’d like at least a word with her.’

‘Probably all you can afford.’

‘Don’t be absurd, Bugg. She doesn’t charge by the word… does she?’

‘She might well charge by the glance, master. Our dear dead thief has blossomed-’

‘Thanks to me! Who arranged for her overhaul? Her dry-dock repairs, the new coat of paint? We had a deal-’

‘Tell it to her, master, not me. I am well aware of the lengths you go to in appeasing your own peculiar appetites.’

‘I’m not even going to ask what you mean by that, Bugg. It sounds sordid, and my sordid self is my own affair.’

‘So it is, master, so it is. Good thing you’re not the nostalgic type.’

Tehol glared at Bugg for a moment, then swung his attention once more to the Temple. The oldest brothel in all the land. Some said it was standing here long before the city rose up around it, and indeed the city rose up around it because of the brothel itself. That didn’t make much sense, but then few things did when it came to love and its many false but alluring shades. He tilted his head back to study the gargoyles, and the scorched reed hat slid off to splash on the cobbles behind him. ‘Well, that settles it. Either I stand here getting my hair wet, or I go inside.’

‘As far as I can tell, master, my rain hat was a tragic failure in any case.’

‘It’s your over-critical nature, Bugg, what’s done you in. Follow me!’

Tehol ascended the steps with proprietary determination. As he reached the landing the front door swung open and the frame was filled by a huge, hooded man wearing a black surcoat, a massive double-bladed axe in his gauntleted hands.

Appalled, Tehol halted, Bugg stumbling into him from behind on the lower step.

‘Excuse me,’ Tehol managed, stepping to one side and pulling Bugg along with him. ‘Off to a beheading, then?’ He gestured for the man to pass.

Small eyes glittered from the hood’s shadows. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said in a raspy voice. ‘You are most courteous.’ He strode forward onto the landing, then paused. ‘It’s raining.’

‘Indeed, almost finished, I’d wager. See the blue overhead?’

The axe-carrying giant faced Tehol. ‘If anyone asks, sir, you never saw me here.’

‘You have my word.’

‘Most kind.’ He faced the street again, then cautiously descended the steps.

‘Ooh,’ he said as he set off, ‘it’s wet! Ooh!’

Tehol and Bugg watched him scurry away, hunched over and weaving to avoid the deeper puddles.

Bugg sighed. ‘I admit to being greatly affrighted by his sudden appearance.’

Brows raised, Tehol regarded his servant. ‘Really? Poor Bugg, you need to do something about those nerves of yours. Come on, then, and fear nothing whilst you are with me.’

They entered the Temple.

And Tehol halted once more, as suddenly as the first time, as the point of a knife settled on his cheek beneath his right eye, which blinked rapidly. Bugg managed to draw up in time to avoid bumping into his master, for which Tehol’s gratitude was sufficient to weaken his knees.

A sweet feminine voice murmured close to his ear, ‘You’re not in disguise, sir. Which means, well, we both know what that means, don’t we?’

‘I’ve come for my daughter-’

‘Now that’s in very poor taste. We can’t abide such twisted, sick desires in here-’

‘You misunderstand – understandably, of course, that is. I meant to say, I’ve come to retrieve her, before it’s too late.’

‘Her name?’

‘Shurq Elalle.’

‘Well, it’s too late.’

‘You mean she being dead? I’m aware of that. It’s her ancestors, you see, they want her to come home to the crypt. They miss her terribly, and a few of them are getting alarmingly angry. Ghosts can be a lot of trouble – not just for you and this establishment, but for me as well. You see my predicament?’

The knife point withdrew, and a short, lithe woman stepped round to stand before him. Close-fitting silks in rusty hues, a broad silk belt wrapped about her tiny waist, upturned slippers on her minuscule feet. A sweet, heart-shaped face, strangely overlarge eyes, now narrowing. ‘Are you done?’

Tehol smiled sheepishly. ‘You must get that a lot. Sorry. Are you, perchance, Matron Delisp?’

She spun about. ‘Follow me. I hate this room.’

He glanced about for the first time. Two paces wide, four deep, a door at the far end, the walls hidden behind lush tapestries depicting countless couplings of all sorts. ‘Seems inviting enough,’ he said, following the woman to the door.

‘It’s the spent smell.’

‘Spent? Oh, yes.’

‘Smells of… regret. I hate that smell. I hate everything about it.’ She opened the door and slipped through.

Tehol and Bugg hastened to follow.

The chamber beyond was dominated by a steep staircase, which began a single pace beyond the doorway. The woman led them round it to a plush waiting room, thick-padded sofas along the side walls, a single high-backed chair occupying the far wall. She walked directly to that chair and sat down. ‘Sit. Now, what’s all this about ghosts? Oh, never mind that. You were, what, ten years old when you fathered Shurq Elalle? No wonder she never mentioned you. Even when she was alive. Tell me, were you disappointed when she decided on a career of thievery?’

‘From your tone,’ Tehol said, ‘I gather you are challenging the veracity of my claims.’

‘Which question gave me away?’

‘But, you see, I am not so ignorant as you think. Hence my disguise.’

She blinked. ‘Your disguise is to appear as a man in his early thirties, wearing sodden, badly made wool-’

Bugg sat straighter, ‘Badly made? Now, hold on-’

Tehol nudged his servant with an elbow, hard in the ribs. Bugg grunted, then subsided.

‘That is correct,’ Tehol said.

‘A vast investment in sorcery, then. How old are you in truth?’

‘Sixty-nine… my dear.’

‘I’m impressed. Now, you mentioned ghosts?’

‘Afraid so, Matron. Terrible ones. Vengeful, disinclined to discourse. Thus far I have managed to keep them penned up in the family crypt, but they’ll get out sooner or later. And proceed on a rampage through the streets – a night of terror for all Letheras’s citizens, I fear – until they arrive here. And then, well, I shudder at the thought.’

‘As I am shuddering right now, although for entirely different reasons. But yes, we certainly have a dilemma. My particular dilemma, however, is one I admit to having been struggling with for some time now.’

‘Oh?’

‘Fortunately, you appear to have provided me with a solution.’

‘I am pleased.’

The woman leaned forward. ‘Top floor – there’s only one room. Talk that damned demoness out of here! Before my other lasses flay me alive!’

The stairs were steep but well padded, the wooden railing beneath their hands an unbroken undulation of lovingly carved breasts polished and oiled by countless sweaty palms. They met no-one on the way and reached the top floor breathless – due to the ascent, of course, Tehol told himself as he paused at the door and wiped his hands on his soaked leggings.

Head lowered and panting, Bugg was at his side, ‘Errant take me, what have they rubbed into that wood?’

‘I’m not sure,’ Tehol admitted, ‘but I can barely walk.’

‘Perhaps we should take a moment,’ Bugg suggested, wiping the sweat from his face.

‘Good idea. Let’s.’

A short time later Tehol straightened, with a wince, and nodded at Bugg, who grimaced in reply. Tehol raised a hand and thumped on the heavy wooden door.

‘Enter,’ came the muffled command.

Tehol opened the door and stepped into the room. Behind him, Bugg hissed, ‘Errant take me, look at all the breasts!’

The wall panels and ceiling continued the theme begun on the wooden railing, a riotous proliferation of mammary excess. Even the floor beneath the thick rugs was lumpy.

‘A singular obsession-’ Tehol began, and was interrupted.

‘Oh,’ said a voice from the huge bed before them, ‘it’s you.’

Tehol cleared his throat. ‘Shurq Elalle.’

‘If you’ve come for services,’ she said, ‘you might be relieved to know the executioner’s big axe was pathetic compensation.’

‘He got wet in the rain,’ Bugg said.

Tehol glanced back at him. ‘What is the relevance of that?’

‘I don’t know, but I thought you might.’

‘I’m not leaving,’ Shurq said, ‘if that’s why you’re here.’

‘You have to,’ Tehol countered. ‘The Matron insists.’

She sat straighter in the bed. ‘It’s those damned cows downstairs, isn’t it? I’ve stolen all their clients and they want me out!’

‘I imagine so.’ Tehol shrugged. ‘But that’s hardly surprising, is it? Listen, Shurq, we had a deal, didn’t we?’

Her expression darkened. ‘So I should do the honourable thing? All right, but I have a problem regarding certain appetites…’

‘I wish I could help.’

Her brows rose.

‘Uh, I meant – I mean – oh, I don’t know what I mean.’ He paused, then brightened. ‘But I’ll introduce you to Ublala, an unhappy bodyguard longing for commitment.’

Her brows rose higher.

‘Well, why not? You don’t have to tell him you’re dead! He’ll never notice, of that I’m certain! And as for your appetites, I doubt there’ll be a problem there, although there’s a trio of women who might be very upset, but I’ll handle that. Look, it’s a brilliant solution, Shurq.’

‘I’ll give it a try, I suppose, but I’m not making any promises. Now, step outside, please, so I can get dressed.’

Tehol and Bugg exchanged glances and then complied, softly shutting the door behind them.

Bugg studied his master. ‘I am very impressed,’ he said after a moment. ‘I’d thought this a situation without a solution. Master, my admiration for you grows like a-’

‘Stop staring at that railing, Bugg.’

‘Uh, yes. You’re right.’

Matron Delisp was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Seeing Shurq Elalle following a step behind Bugg, her face twisted with distaste. ‘Errant bless you, Tehol Beddict. I owe you one.’

Tehol sighed. ‘I had a feeling you were sceptical of my story.’

‘The woollen leggings,’ she replied. ‘I hear virtually everyone’s put in orders for them.’

Tehol shot Bugg a look, but the servant’s brows rose and he said, ‘Not with me, master. That would be disloyal. Rest assured that everyone else’s version will prove but pathetic imitations.’

‘Perhaps, Matron Delisp,’ Tehol said, ‘I am merely disguised as Tehol Beddict. That would be clever, wouldn’t it?’

‘Too clever for you.’

‘Well, you have a point there.’

‘Anyway, do you want me in your debt or not?’

Shurq Elalle pushed past Bugg. ‘I don’t like being ignored. You’re all ignoring me as if I was-’

‘Dead?’ Delisp asked.

‘I just wanted to point out my reason for vacating this house, which is that I, too, owe Tehol Beddict. I may be dead, but I am not without honour. In any case, Delisp, I believe you owe me a rather substantial payment right now. Sixty per cent, I seem to recall-’

‘What do you need all that money for?’ the Matron demanded. ‘How many variations of sex-assassin attire exist out there? How many bundles of raw spices do you need to keep fresh? No, wait, I don’t want to know the answer. Sixty per cent. Fine, but it’ll take me a day or two – I don’t keep that kind of coin around here. Where should I have it delivered?’

‘Tehol Beddict’s residence will suffice.’

‘Hold on,’ Tehol objected. ‘I can’t secure-’

‘I intend,’ Shurq cut in, ‘to spend it quickly.’

‘Oh. All right, but I’m not happy. Too many comings and goings there. Suspicions will be insatiably aroused-’

‘Stop staring at the railing, master.’

‘Errant’s dreams! Let’s get out of here.’

The storm had passed. Rainwater still flowed down the streets, but people were venturing out once more. It was late afternoon. Shurq Elalle halted at the foot of the Temple’s steps. ‘I will rejoin you tonight, on your roof, Tehol Beddict. Midnight.’

‘What about Ublala Pung?’

‘I admit to having second thoughts.’

‘Shurq Elalle. Ublala Pung survived a Drowning. He walked across the bottom of the canal. You two have a lot in common, if you think about it.’

‘He’s also massively endowed,’ Bugg added.

Tehol made a face at him. ‘You are being crude-’

‘Bring him to the roof tonight,’ Shurq said.

‘This is a conspiracy to make me miserable, isn’t it? Both of you, leave me. I’m going for a walk. Bugg, when you get back home, give it a tidy. No doubt Shand will be storming in before too long. Tell her I’ll drop by tomorrow on some important business-’

‘What important business?’

‘I don’t know. I’ll invent something. You have other things to worry about – how’s the foundation work coming along, anyway?’

‘It’s piling up.’

‘Then sort it out.’

‘You misunderstand, master. We’re on schedule.’

‘I didn’t misunderstand. I was being obdurate. Now, I’m off to find a more reasonable conversation, somewhere.’ He swung round for a final word with Shurq, but she was gone. ‘Damned thief. Go on, Bugg. Wait, what’s for supper?’

‘Banana leaves.’

‘Not fishy ones, I trust.’

‘Of course not, master.’

‘Then what?’

‘The material they were wrapped around was unidentifiable, which, if you think about it, is probably a good thing.’

‘How do we live on this stuff?’

‘A good question, master. It is indeed baffling.’

Tehol studied his servant for a long moment, then he gestured the man away.

Bugg turned right, so Tehol went left. The air was warming, yet still fresh after the rain. Wet dogs nosed the rubbish in the settling puddles. Cats chased the cockroaches that had swarmed up from the drains. A beggar had found a sliver of soap and stood naked beneath a stream of water coming from a cracked eaves trough, working up a murky lather while he sang a lament that had been popular a hundred years ago. Residents had taken advantage of the unexpected downpour, emptying chamber pots from their windows rather than carrying them a few dozen paces to the nearest communal dump-hole. As a result, some of the pools held floating things and the streams in the gutters carried small flyblown islands that collected here and there in buzzing rafts that bled yellowy brown slime.

It was a fine evening in the city of Letheras, Tehol reflected, testing the air a moment before taking a deep breath and releasing it in a contented sigh. He went on down the street until he reached Quillas Canal, then walked along it towards the river. To his right rose a forest of masts from fisherboats moored to wait out the storm. Tarps were being pulled aside, water splashing as the crews bailed feverishly so they could make for open water before the day’s light failed. Near one jetty a half-dozen city guardsmen were fishing a corpse from the murky water, a crowd of onlookers shouting advice as the squad struggled with hook-poles. Above them flapped seagulls.

Tehol came within sight of the old palace, then took a side street away from the canal, proceeding on a winding, confused route until he came to the grounds of the towers. Gathering dusk made the air grainy as Tehol reached the low crumbling wall and stared across the short expanse of broken, uneven yard to the one, battered tower that was clearly different in construction from all the others, being square instead of round.

The strange triangular windows were dark, crowded with dead vines. The inset, black-stained wooden door was shrouded in shadow. Tehol wondered how such a door could have survived – normal wood would have rotted to dust centuries ago.

He could see no-one in the yard. ‘Kettle! Child, are you in there?’

A small bedraggled figure stepped out from behind a tree.

Startled, Tehol said, ‘That was a good trick, lass.’

She approached. ‘There’s an artist. A painter. He comes to paint the tower. He wants to paint me too, but I stay behind trees. It makes him very angry. You are the man who sleeps on the roof of your house. Lots of people try spying on you.’

‘Yes, I know. Shurq tells me you, uh, take care of them.’

‘She said maybe you could help find out who I was.’

He studied her. ‘Have you seen Shurq lately?’

‘Only once. She was all fixed. I barely recognized her.’

‘Well, lass, we could see the same done for you, if you like.’

The grubby, mould-patched face wrinkled into a frown. ‘Why?’

‘Why? To make you less noticeable, I suppose. Wouldn’t you enjoy looking the way Shurq does now?’

‘Enjoy?’

‘Think about it at least?’

‘All right. You look friendly. You look like I could like you. I don’t like many people, but I could like you. Can I call you Father? Shurq is my mother. She isn’t, really, but that’s what I call her. I’m looking for brothers and sisters, too.’ She paused, then asked, ‘Can you help me?’

‘I’ll try, Kettle. Shurq tells me the tower talks to you.’

‘Not words. Just thoughts. Feelings. It’s afraid. There’s someone in the ground who is going to help. Once he gets free, he’ll help us. He’s my uncle. But the bad ones scare me.’

‘The bad ones? Who are they? Are they in the ground, too?’

She nodded.

‘Is there a chance they will get out of the ground before your uncle does?’

‘If they do, they’ll destroy us all. Me, Uncle and the tower. They’ve said so. And that will free all the others.’

‘And are the others bad, too?’

She shrugged. ‘They don’t talk much. Except one. She says she’ll make me an empress. I’d like to be an empress.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t trust that one. Just my opinion, Kettle, but promises like that are suspect.’

‘That’s what Shurq says, too. But she sounds very nice. She wants to give me lots of treats and stuff.’

‘Be careful, lass.’

‘Do you ever dream of dragons, Father?’

‘Dragons?’

Shrugging again, she turned away. ‘It’s getting dark,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘I need to kill someone… maybe that artist…’

Turudal Brizad, the consort to Queen Janall, stood leaning against the wall whilst Brys Beddict led his students through the last of the counterattack exercises.

Audiences were not uncommon during his training regime with the king’s own guard, although Brys had been mildly surprised that Turudal was among the various onlookers, most of whom were practitioners with the weapons he used in his instruction. The consort was well known for his indolent ways, a privilege that, in the days of Brys’s grandfather, would not have been tolerated in a young, fit Letherii. Four years of military service beginning in the seventeenth year had been mandatory. In those days there had been external threats aplenty. Bluerose to the north, the independent, unruly city-states of the archipelago in Dracons Sea, and the various tribes on the eastern plain had been pressuring Lether, driven against the outposts by one of the cyclical expansionist regimes of far Kolanse.

Bluerose now paid tribute to King Ezgara Diskanar, the city-states had been crushed, leaving little more than a handful of goat-herders and fisherfolk on the islands, and Kolanse had subsided into isolation following some sort of civil war a few decades past.

It was difficult for Brys to imagine a life possessing virtually no ability to defend itself, at least upon the attainment of adulthood, but Turudal Brizad was such a creature. Indeed, the consort had expressed the opinion that he was but a forerunner, a pioneer of a state of human life wherein soldiering was left to the Indebted and the mentally inadequate. Although Brys had initially scoffed at hearing a recounting of Brizad’s words, his disbelief had begun to waver. The Letherii military was still strong, yet increasingly it was bound to economics. Every campaign was an opportunity for wealth. And, among the civilian population of traders, merchants and all those who served the innumerable needs of civilization, few were bothering with martial training any more. An undercurrent of contempt now coloured their regard of soldiers.

Until they need us, of course. Or they discover a means to profit by our actions.

He completed the exercise, then lingered to see who left the chamber and who remained to practise on their own. Most remained, and Brys was pleased. The two who had left were, he knew, the queen’s spies in the bodyguard. Ironically, everyone else knew that detail as well.

Brys sheathed his sword and strode over to Turudal Brizad. ‘Consort?’

A casual tilt of the head, ‘Finadd.’

‘Have you found yourself at a loose end? I don’t recall ever seeing you here before.’

‘The palace seems strangely empty, don’t you think?’

‘Well,’ Brys ventured, ‘there’s certainly less shouting.’

Turudal Brizad smiled. ‘The prince is young, Finadd. Some exuberance is to be expected. The Chancellor would have a word with you, at your convenience. I understand you are fully recovered from your mysterious ordeal?’

‘The King’s healers were their usual proficient selves, Consort. Thank you for asking. Why does the Chancellor wish to speak with me?’

The man shrugged. ‘I am not the one to ask. I am but a messenger in this, Finadd.’

Brys studied him for a moment, then simply nodded. ‘I accept Triban Gnol’s invitation. A bell from now?’

‘That should suffice. Let us hope for all our sakes that this will not mark an expansion of the present feud between the Chancellor and the Ceda.’

Brys was surprised. ‘There is a feud? I hadn’t heard. I mean, apart from the, well, the usual clash of opinions.’ He considered, then said, ‘I share your concern, Consort.’

‘Does it ever strike you, Finadd, that peace leads to an indulgence in strife?’

‘No, since your statement is nonsensical. The opposite of peace is war, while war is an extreme expression of strife. By your argument, life is characterized as an oscillation between strife during peace and strife during war.’

‘Not entirely nonsensical, then,’ Turudal Brizad said. ‘We exist in a state of perpetual stress. Both within ourselves and in the world beyond.’ He shrugged. ‘We may speak of a longing for balance, but in our soul burns a lust for discord.’

‘If your soul is troubled, Consort,’ Brys said, ‘you hide it well.’

‘None of us here lack that skill, Finadd.’

Brys cocked his head. ‘I have no inclination to indulge in strife. I find I still disagree with your premise. In any case, I must take my leave of you now, Consort.’

On his way back to his chambers, Brys reflected on Turudal Brizad’s words. There might well have been a warning hidden in there, but apart from the obvious suggestion that all was not as it seemed – and in the palace this was taken as given – he could not pierce the subtlety of the consort’s intentions.

Stress lay in the cast of the mind, as far as Brys was concerned. Born of perspective and the hue through which one saw the world, and such things were shaped by both nature and nurture. Perhaps on some most basic level the struggle to live yielded a certain stress, but that was not the same as the strife conjured by an active mind, its myriad storms of desires, emotions, worries and terrors, its relentless dialogue with death.

Brys had realized long ago what had drawn him into the arts of fighting. The martial world, from duelling to warfare, was inherently reductionist, the dialogue made simple and straightforward. Threats, bargains and compromises were proscribed by the length of Letherii steel. Self-discipline imposed a measure of control over one’s own fate, which in turn served to diminish the damaging effects of stress, more so when it became clear to the practitioner that death fought using blind chance when all else failed, and so one had no choice but to accept the consequences, however brutal they may be. Simple notions that one could reflect upon at leisure, should one choose – but never when face to face with an enemy with blades unsheathed and dancing.

Physical laws imposed specific limitations, and Brys was satisfied with that clear imposition of predictability – sufficient to provide the structure around which he built his life.

Turudal Brizad’s life was far less certain. His physicality and its attractiveness to others was his singular quality, and no amount of diligence could hold back the years that threatened it. Granted, there were alchemies and sorceries that could be mustered to stand in the breach, but the dark tide was reluctant to bargain, for it abided by its own laws and those laws were immutable. Worse yet, Brizad’s efficacy was defined by the whims of others. As professional as he might be, his every partner was, potentially, a fathomless well of raw emotions, yearning to grasp hold of Brizad and ensnare him. Outwardly, of course, there were rules in place. He was a consort, after all. The queen already had a husband. The Chancellor was bound to ancient laws denying him formal relationships with man or woman. Turudal Brizad possessed virtually no rights; the children he might sire would be without name or political power – indeed, the queen was required to ensure such pregnancies did not occur, and thus far she had held to that prohibition.

But it was rumoured that Janall had given her heart to Brizad. And that Triban Gnol might well have done the very same, with the potential consequence of tearing apart the old alliance between queen and Chancellor. If so, then Turudal Brizad had become the unhappy fulcrum. No wonder the man was plagued with stress.

Yet what were the consort’s own ambitions? Had he too surrendered his heart, and if so, to which lover?

Brys entered his room. He divested himself of his belt and armour, then drew off his sweat-damp undergarments. He layered himself in scented oil which he then scraped off with a wooden comb. Dressing in clean clothes, he set to donning his formal armour. He replaced the heavier practice sword with his regular longsword in the scabbard at his waist. A final moment scanning the contents of his modest residence, noticing the misplaced brace of knives on the shelf above his bed, indicating that yet another spy had gone through his room. Not one careless enough to leave the knives in the wrong position – that had been done by whoever had been spying on the spy, to let Brys know that yet another search for who knew what had taken place, a weekly occurrence of late.

He moved the knives back into their usual position, then left.

‘Enter.’

Brys stepped inside, then paused to search through the crowded, cluttered chamber.

‘Over here, King’s Champion.’

He followed the sound of the voice and finally caught sight of the Ceda, who was suspended in a leather-strap harness depending from the ceiling. Face-down and close to a man’s height above the floor, Kuru Qan was wearing a strange metal helmet with multiple lenses fixed in a slotted frame in front of his eyes. On the floor was an archaic, yellowed map.

‘I have little time, Ceda,’ Brys said. ‘The Chancellor has requested that I attend him in a short while. What are you doing?’

‘Is it important, lad?’

‘That I know? I suppose not. I was just curious.’

‘No, the Chancellor’s summons.’

‘I’m not sure. It seems I am to be increasingly viewed as some kind of pivotal player in a game of which I have no comprehension. After all, the king rarely asks for my advice on matters of state, for which I am eternally grateful, since I make it a point not to involve myself with such considerations. Thus, I have no opportunity to influence our Sire’s opinion, nor would I wish to.’

‘By this means,’ Kuru Qan said, ‘I am proving that the world is round.’

‘Indeed? Did not the early colonizers from the First Empire make that evident? They circumnavigated the globe, after all.’

‘Ah, but that was physical proof rather than theoretical. I wished to determine the same truth via hypothesis and theory.’

‘In order to test the veracity of the methods?’

‘Oh, no. Said veracity is already a given. No, lad, I seek to prove the veracity of physical evidence. Who can trust what the eyes witness, after all? Now, if mathematical evidence supports such practical observation, then we’re getting somewhere.’

Brys looked round. ‘Where are your helpers?’

‘I sent them to the Royal Lens-maker for more lenses.’

‘When was that?’

‘Sometime this morning, I believe. Yes, just after breakfast.’

‘You have therefore been hanging there all day.’

‘And turning this way and that, without my own volition. There are forces, lad, unseen forces, that pull upon us every moment of our existence. Forces, I now believe, in conflict.’

‘Conflict? In what way?’

‘The ground beneath us exerts an imperative, evidenced by the blood settling in my face, the lightness in the back of my skull, the unseen hands seeking to drag me down – I have had the most exquisite hallucinations. Yet there is a contrary, weaker force seeking to drag me – another world, one which travels the sky around this one-’

‘The moon?’

‘There are actually at least four moons, lad, but the others are not only distant, but perpetually occluded from reflecting the sun’s light. Very difficult to see, although early texts suggest that this was not always so. Reasons for their fading as yet unknown, although I suspect our world’s own bulk has something to do with it. Then again, it may be that they are not farther away at all, but indeed closer, only very small. Relatively speaking.’

Brys studied the map on the floor. ‘That’s the original, isn’t it? What new perspective have you achieved with all those lenses?’

‘An important question? Probably, but in an indirect fashion. I had the map in my hands, lad, but then it fell. None the less, I have been rewarded with an insight. The continents were once all joined. What forces, one must therefore ask, have pulled them apart? Who forwarded the Chancellor’s request?’

‘What? Oh, Turudal Brizad.’

‘Ah, yes. Such an errant, troubled lad. One sees such sorrow in his eyes, or at least in his demeanour.’

‘One does?’

‘And he said?’

‘He spoke of a feud between you and the Chancellor. A, uh, new one.’

‘There is? First I’ve heard of it.’

‘Oh. So there isn’t one.’

‘No, no, lad, I’m sure there is. Be good enough to find out about it for me, will you?’

Brys nodded. ‘Of course, Ceda. If I can. Is that the extent of your advice?’

‘So it is.’

‘Well, can I at least help you down?’

‘Not at all, lad. Who knows how many more insights I will experience?’

‘You may also lose your limbs, or pass out.’

‘I still have my limbs?’

Brys moved directly beneath the Ceda, positioning his left shoulder below Kuru Qan’s hips. ‘I’m unstrapping you.’

‘Be assured I will take your word for it, lad.’

‘And I intend to have a word or two with your assistants once I’m done with the Chancellor.’

‘Go easy on them, please. They’re woefully forgetful.’

‘Well, they won’t forget me after today.’

Hands clasped behind his back, Triban Gnol paced. ‘What is the readiness of the military, Finadd?’

Brys frowned. ‘Preda Unnutal Hebaz would be better equipped to give you answer to that, Chancellor.’

‘She is presently indisposed, and so I would ask you.’

They were alone in the Chancellor’s office. Two guards waited outside. Votive candles exuded a scent of rare Kolanse spices, giving the chamber an atmosphere vaguely religious. A temple of gold coins, and this man is the high priest… ‘It is a mandate that the army and navy be maintained at a level of preparedness, Chancellor. Supplies and stores sufficient for a full season’s campaign. As you know, contracts with suppliers stipulate that, in times of conflict, the needs of the military are to take precedence over all other clients. These contracts are of course maintained and will be rigorously enforced.’

‘Yes yes, Finadd. But I am seeking a soldier’s opinion. Are the king’s soldiers ready and capable of war?’

‘I believe so, Chancellor.’

Triban Gnol halted and fixed Brys with his glittering eyes. ‘I will hold you to that, Finadd.’

‘I would not have ventured an opinion were I not prepared to stand by it, Chancellor.’

A sudden smile. ‘Excellent. Tell me, have you taken a wife yet? I thought not, although I doubt there’s a maiden among the nobility who would hesitate in such a coup. There are many legacies one must live with, Finadd, and the means in which they are answered are the defining features of a man’s or a woman’s life.’

‘I’m sorry, Chancellor. What are you getting at?’

‘Your family history is well known, Finadd, and I hold deep sympathy for you and indeed, for your hapless brothers. In particular Hull, for whom I feel sincere worry, given his predilection for involving himself in crucial matters which are, strictly, not of his concern. I admit to fretting on his behalf, for I would not wish sorrow upon you and your kin.’

‘It strikes me, Chancellor, that you are too generous in assembling your list of concerns. As for legacies, well, they are my own affair, as you no doubt appreciate. For what it is worth, I suggest that you are according Hull too much power in these matters-’

‘Do you imagine I am here delivering a veiled warning?’ Gnol waved a hand dismissively and resumed pacing. ‘It insults me that you believe I am as crass as that. Does a seal-hunter warn the seal of the net closing round it? Hardly. No, Finadd, I am done with you. Rest assured I will waste no more sympathy upon you and your brothers.’

‘I am relieved to hear that,’ Brys said.

A venomous look. ‘Please close the door on your way out, Finadd.’

‘Of course, Chancellor.’

Outside, walking alone down the corridor, Brys sighed. He had failed to learn anything of the purported feud between Gnol and Kuru Qan. It seemed he had achieved little more than adding himself to the Chancellor’s list of enemies.

A second, deeper sigh.

He had nothing of Hull’s stolid determination. Nothing of Tehol’s cunning. He had but some skill with a sword. And what value that, when his attackers employed insinuation and threat in some verbal knife-game? Seeking to deliver wounds that time did not heal?

Reluctantly, he realized he needed advice.

Which meant another duel, this time with his own brother.

At least Tehol had no desire to wound. Errant bless him, he seems to have no desires at all.

‘What I desire,’ Tehol said, scowling, ‘is a meal that actually began with real food. Sort of a founding premise that what one is to eat is actually sustaining at its most basic level.’ He lifted one of the dark, limp leaves, studied it for a moment, then forced it into his mouth. Chewing, he glowered at Bugg.

‘There are apes, master, for whom banana leaves constitute an essential source of nutrition.’

‘Indeed? And are they extinct yet?’

‘I don’t know. I am only recounting a sailor’s story I heard once at a bar.’

‘He was a drunkard and a liar.’

‘Oh, you know him, then.’

Tehol looked round. ‘Where’s Ublala? I need him here, so Shurq Elalle can gauge his…’

‘Length?’

‘Worth. Where is he?’

‘On the roof. Pining.’

‘Oh. The roof is good. Pining is not. Does he need yet another talking to, do you think?’

‘From you, master? No.’

‘Some more leaves, please. Don’t skimp on the sauce or whatever it is.’

‘Right the second time.’

‘Whatever it is? You don’t know?’

‘No, master. It just leaked out. Maybe from the leaves, maybe from something else. It reminds one of-’

‘Tanneries?’

‘Yes, that’s it exactly. Well done.’

Tehol paled and slowly set down his bowl. ‘I just had a thought.’

Bugg’s eyes widened and he too put his bowl down. ‘Please, master, do not pursue that thought.’

‘It keeps coming back.’

‘The thought?’

‘No, the supper.’ He rose suddenly. ‘Time for some air.’

‘Mind if I join you?’

‘Not at all, Bugg. Clearly, during the course of preparing this meal, you worked hard at ignoring whatever impressions you may have had. I understand that you might well be exhausted by that effort. And if not, you should be.’

They turned at a sound from the alley, then the curtain across the entrance was swept aside.

‘Ah, Shand, we were wondering when you would arrive!’

‘You’re a liar and a thief, Tehol Beddict.’

‘It’s the company I keep,’ Bugg muttered.

Rissarh and Hejun followed behind Shand as she stormed into the small room.

Tehol backed to the far wall, which wasn’t nearly far enough. ‘Needless to say,’ he said, ‘I’m impressed.’

Shand halted. ‘With what?’

He saw that her fists were clenched. ‘Well, your vigour, of course. At the same time, I realize I have been remiss in directing your admirable energies, Shand. It’s now clear to me that you – all three of you, in fact – require a more direct involvement in our nefarious undertaking.’

‘He’s doing it again,’ Rissarh growled.

‘We’re supposed to be beating him up right now,’ Hejun added. ‘Look what he’s done. Shand, less than a bell ago you were saying-’

‘Be quiet about what I was saying,’ Shand cut in. ‘Direct involvement, you said, Tehol. Finally. It’s about time, and no games, you slippery bastard. Talk to save your life.’

‘Of course,’ Tehol said, smiling. ‘Please, make yourselves comfortable-’

‘We’re comfortable enough. Talk.’

‘Well, you don’t look comfortable-’

‘Tehol.’

‘As you like. Now, I’m going to give you a list of names, which you will have to memorize. Horul Esterrict, of Cargo Olives. Mirrik the Blunt, eldest of the Blunts, owner of Blunt’s Letherii Steel and Blunt Weaponry. Stoople Rott, the grain magnate of Fort Shake. His brother, Puryst, the ale brewer. Erudinaas, queen of the rustleaf plantations at Dissent. The financiers, Bruck Stiffen, Horul Rinnesict, Grate Chizev of Letheras, Hepar the Pleaser, of Trate. Debt-holders Druz Thennict, Pralit Peff, Barrakta Ilk, Uster Taran, Lystry Maullict, all of Letheras. Tharav the Hidden, of room eleven, Chobor’s Manse on Seal Street, Trate. Got those?’

Shand was glassy-eyed. ‘There’s more?’

‘A dozen or so.’

‘You want them killed?’ Hejun asked.

‘Errant no! I want you to begin purchasing shares in their enterprises. Under a variety of names, of course. Strive for forty-nine per cent. Once there, we’ll be poised to force a coup. The goal, of course, is controlling interest, but to gain that will only be achieved with sudden ambush, and for that the timing has to be perfect. In any case, once you have done all that – the purchasing, that is – make no further move, just get back to me.’

‘And how are we going to afford all that?’ Shand demanded.

‘Oh,’ Tehol waved a hand, ‘we’re flush. The coin I invested for you is making a sizeable return. Time’s come to make use of it.’

‘How much of a return?’

‘More than enough-’

‘How much?’

‘Well, I haven’t actually counted it-’

Bugg spoke. ‘About a peak.’

‘Errant’s blessing!’ Shand stared at Tehol. ‘But I haven’t seen you do a thing!’

‘If you had, Shand, then I wouldn’t have been careful enough. Now, best we start with just the names I’ve given you. The next list can come later. Now, I have meetings scheduled this night-’

‘What kind of meetings?’

‘Oh, this and that. Now, please, I beg you – no more charging in through my front door. It’s bound to get noticed sooner or later, and that could be bad.’

‘What have you two been eating?’ Rissarh suddenly asked, her nose wrinkling.

‘This and that,’ Bugg replied.

‘Come on,’ Shand said to her companions, ‘let’s go home. Maybe Ublala will turn up.’

‘I’m sure he will,’ Tehol said, smiling as he escorted the three women to the doorway. ‘Now, get some sleep. You’ve busy times ahead.’

Hejun half turned. ‘Cargo Olives – Horul who?’

Shand reached out and dragged Hejun into the alley.

Still smiling, Tehol adjusted the curtain until it once more covered the entrance. Then he spun round. ‘That went well.’

‘Rissarh had a knife,’ Bugg said, ‘tucked up along her wrist.’

‘She did? Tucked up?’

‘Yes, master.’

Tehol walked to the ladder. ‘I trust you had your own knives close to hand.’

‘I don’t have any knives.’

Tehol paused, one hand on the nearest rung. ‘What? Well, where are all our weapons?’

‘We don’t have any weapons, master.’

‘None? Did we ever?’

‘No. Some wooden spoons…’

‘And are you adept with them?’

‘Very.’

‘Well, that’s all right, then. You coming?’

‘In a moment, master.’

‘Right, and be sure to clean up. This place is a dreadful mess.’

‘If I find the time.’

Ublala Pung was lying face-down on the roof, near the bed.

‘Ublala,’ Tehol said, approaching, ‘is something wrong?’

‘No.’ The word was muffled.

‘What are you doing down there?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Well, we’re about to have a guest who wants to meet you.’

‘That’s fine.’

‘It might be worth your while to endeavour to make a good impression,’ Tehol said.

‘All right.’

‘That might prove a little difficult, Ublala, with you lying there like that. When I first came up, I admit to thinking that you were dead.’ He paused, then, considering, and brightened. ‘Mind you, that might be a good thing-’

A scuff of boots to one side, then Shurq Elalle stepped from the shadows. ‘Is this him?’

‘You’re early,’ Tehol said.

‘I am? Oh. Well, are you waiting for a necromancer to animate him or something?’

‘I would be, were he dead. Ublala, if you will, stand up. I would like to introduce you to Shurq Elalle-’

‘Is she the dead one?’ he asked, not yet moving. ‘The thief who drowned?’

‘Already you’re holding something against me,’ Shurq replied, her tone despondent.

‘We haven’t got to that yet,’ Tehol said. ‘Ublala, get up. Shurq has needs. You can meet them, and in return you get Shand, Rissarh and Hejun to leave off-

‘Why would they?’ Ublala demanded.

‘Because Shurq will tell them to.’

‘I will?’

‘Look,’ Tehol said, exasperated, ‘neither of you are co-operating here. On your feet, Ublala.’

‘That won’t be necessary,’ Shurq cut in. ‘Just roll him over.’

‘Oh, fine, that’s very nice. Crass, but nice.’ Tehol crouched down alongside Ublala, pushed his hands beneath the huge man, then lifted. Tehol’s feet skidded. He grunted, gasped, heaved again and again, to little effect.

‘Stop it,’ Shurq said in a strange voice. ‘You’re going to make me laugh. And laughing right now would be expensive.’

Sprawled across Ublala, Tehol stared up at her. ‘Expensive?’

‘All those spices, of course. Tell me, Ublala, what did you see when you walked across the bottom of the canal?’

‘Mud.’

‘What else?’

‘Junk.’

‘What else? What were you walking on?’

‘Bodies. Bones. Crayfish, crabs. Old nets. Broken pots, furniture-’

‘Furniture?’ Tehol asked. ‘Serviceable furniture?’

‘Well, there was a chair. But I didn’t sit in it.’

‘Bodies,’ Shurq said. ‘Yes. Lots of bodies. How deep was the canal originally?’

Bugg had arrived, and with this question Tehol looked over at his manservant. ‘Well? You must know, being an engineer and all that.’

‘But I’m only pretending to be an engineer,’ Bugg pointed out.

‘So pretend to know the answer to Shurq’s question!’

‘It was said seven tall men could stand, foot to shoulder, and the last would be able to reach up with his hands and find the surface. Used to be big trader ships could make their way the entire length.’

‘I wasn’t far from the surface,’ Ublala said, rolling over, unmindful of Tehol who yelped as he was tumbled to one side with a thump. ‘I could almost reach,’ he added as he stood, brushing himself off.

‘That’s a lot of rubbish,’ Bugg commented.

‘I’m not lying,’ Ublala said.

‘I didn’t say you were,’ Bugg said.

‘So,’ Shurq asked, ‘who is killing all those people?’

‘Never mind all that,’ Tehol said as he clambered to his feet. ‘Shurq Elalle, permit me to introduce Ublala Pung. The canal walk is very lovely at night, yes? Not in it, I mean. Alongside it, just for a change. Perfect for a promenade-’

‘I intend to rob Gerun Eberict’s estate,’ Shurq said to Ublala. ‘But there are outlying watchers that need taking care of. Can you create a diversion, Ublala Pung?’

The huge man scratched his jaw. ‘I don’t know. I got nothing against them-’

‘They don’t like you.’

‘They don’t? Why?’

‘No reason. They just don’t.’

‘Then I don’t like them either.’

‘So you say, but I haven’t seen any proof.’

‘You want proof? Good. Let’s go.’

Shurq hooked one arm in Ublala’s and led him towards the far edge of the roof. ‘We have to jump to that other roof,’ she said. ‘I don’t think you can do it, Ublala. Not quietly, anyway.’

‘Yes I can. I’ll show you I can.’

‘We’ll see…’

Tehol stared after them, then he swung to Bugg.

The manservant shrugged. ‘It’s the complexities of the male mind, master.’

The rain earlier that day had made the night air blessedly cool. Brys Beddict left the palace by a side postern and proceeded on a circuitous route towards his brother’s residence. Although it was close to midnight, there were plenty of people on the streets.

He had never felt entirely comfortable in the crowded, sordid maze that was Letheras. The face of wealth stayed mostly hidden, leaving only the ravaged mien of poverty, and that was at times almost overwhelming. Beyond the Indebted were the lost, those who had given up entirely, and among them could be seen not just refugees from annexed tribes, but Letherii as well – more than he would have imagined. For all the explosive growth driving the kingdom, it seemed an ever greater proportion of the population was being left behind, and that was troubling.

At what point in the history of Letheras, he wondered, did rampant greed become a virtue? The level of self-justification required was staggering in its tautological complexity, and it seemed language itself was its greatest armour against common sense.

You can’t leave all these people behind. They’re outside the endless excitement and lust, the frenzied accumulation. They’re outside and can only look on with growing despair and envy. What happens when rage supplants helplessness?

Increasingly, the ranks of the military were filling with the lowest classes. Training, acceptable income and a full belly provided the incentives, yet these soldiers were not enamoured of the civilization they were sworn to defend. True, many of them joined with dreams of booty, of wealth stolen and glory gained. But such riches came only with aggression, and successful aggression at that. What would happen if the military found itself on the defensive? They’ll fight to defend their homes, their loved ones. Of course they will. There’s no cause for worry, is there?

He swung into the alley leading to Tehol’s home, and heard, somewhere beyond the squalid tenement, the sounds of a fierce argument. Things came crashing down in a cacophony that ended with a shriek.

Brys hesitated. He could not reach the source of the sounds from this alley, but Tehol’s rooftop might permit him a view down on the opposite street. He went on.

With the pommel of his knife Brys tapped on the doorframe. There was no reply. He pulled aside the curtain and peered in. A single wavering oil lamp, the faint glow from the hearth, and voices coming down from above.

Brys entered and climbed the rickety ladder.

He emerged onto the roof to see Tehol and his manservant standing at the far edge, looking down – presumably on the argument that was still under way.

‘Tehol,’ Brys called, approaching. ‘Is this a matter for the city guard?’

His brother swung about, then shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, brother. A resolution is but moments away. Wouldn’t you agree, Bugg?’

‘I think so, since he’s almost out and that old woman’s run out of things to throw.’

Brys came alongside and looked down. A huge man was busy extricating himself from a pile of dusty rubble, ducking when objects were flung at him by a old woman in the tenement doorway.

‘What happened?’ Brys asked.

‘An associate of mine,’ Tehol said, ‘jumped onto the roof over there from this one. He landed quietly enough, I suppose. Then the roof gave out, alas. As you can see, he’s a big man.’

The hapless associate had climbed free at last. It appeared that he had taken most of the wall with him in his descent. It was a miracle that he seemed uninjured. ‘Why was he jumping from your roof, Tehol?’

‘It was a dare.’

‘Yours?’

‘Oh no, I’d never do that.’

‘Then who? Surely not your manservant?’

Bugg sputtered, ‘Me? Most assuredly not, Finadd!’

‘Another guest,’ Tehol explained. ‘Who has since gone, although not far, I imagine. Somewhere in the shadows, waiting for dear Ublala.’

‘Ublala? Ublala Pung? Oh, yes, I recognize him now. An associate? Tehol, the man’s a criminal-’

‘Who proved his innocence in the canal-’

‘That’s not innocence,’ Brys retorted, ‘that’s stubborn will.’

‘A will that the Errant would surely have weakened were Ublala truly guilty of the crimes of which he had been accused.’

‘Tehol, really-’

His brother faced him, brows raised. ‘Are you, a soldier of the king, casting aspersions on our justice system?’

‘Tehol, the king casts aspersions on the justice system!’

‘None the less, Brys – oh, what are you doing here, by the way?’

‘I have come seeking your advice.’

‘Oh. Well, shall we retire to a more private section of my rooftop? Here, follow me – that far corner is ideal.’

‘Wouldn’t down below be better?’

‘Well, it would, if Bugg had bothered cleaning up. As it is, my abode is an unacceptable mess. I can’t concentrate down there, not for a moment. My stomach turns at the thought-’

‘That would be supper,’ Bugg said behind them.

The brothers turned to look back at him.

Bugg gave a sheepish wave. ‘I’ll be down below, then.’

They watched him leave.

Brys cleared his throat. ‘There are factions in the palace. Intrigues. And it seems certain people would force me into involvement, when all I wish is to remain loyal to my king.’

‘Ah, and some of those factions are less than loyal to the king?’

‘Not in any manner that could be proved. Rather, it’s simply a matter of reinterpretation of what would best serve the king and the kingdom’s interests.’

‘Ah, but those are two entirely different things. The king’s interests versus the kingdom’s interests. At least, I assume that’s how they see it, and who knows, they might be right.’

‘They might, Tehol, but I have doubts.’

Tehol folded his arms and stared out on the city. ‘So,’ he said, ‘there’s the queen’s faction, which includes Prince Quillas, Chancellor Triban Gnol, and the First Consort, Turudal Brizad. Have I missed anyone?’

Brys was staring at his brother. He shook his head. ‘Officers and guards, various spies.’

‘And the king’s own faction. Ceda Kuru Qan, First Eunuch Nifadas, Preda Unnutal Hebaz and perhaps First Concubine Nisall. And, of course, you.’

‘But I have no desire to be in any faction-’

‘You’re the King’s Champion, brother. As I see it, you have little choice.’

‘Tehol, I am hopeless at such games of intrigue.’

‘So say nothing. Ever.’

‘What good will that do?’

‘You’ll convince them you’re smarter than they are. Even scarier, that you know everything. You can see through all their facades-’

‘But I can’t see through all that, Tehol. Therefore, I’m not smarter.’

‘Of course you are. You just need to treat it like a duel. In fact, treat everything like a duel. Feint, parry, disengage, all that complicated stuff.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ Brys muttered.

They fell silent, staring out over the dark city. Oil lamps lit the canal walks, but the water itself was black as ink, winding like ribbons of oblivion between the squat, hulking buildings. Other lights swung in motion down the streets, carried by people going about their tasks. For all that, darkness dominated the scene.

Brys stared up at the nearest tier, watched a few lanterns slide along the span like minuscule moons. ‘I have been thinking about Hull,’ he said after a time.

‘I would hold out little hope,’ Tehol said. ‘Our brother’s desires have nothing to do with self-preservation. It is in his mind, I believe, that he is going to die soon.’

Brys nodded.

‘And,’ Tehol continued, ‘if he can, in so doing he will also take down as much of Lether as possible. For that reason alone, someone will stop him. With finality.’

‘And vengeance against those murderers will be expected of me,’ Brys said.

‘Not necessarily,’ Tehol said. ‘After all, your foremost loyalty is to your king.’

‘Superseding even that to my family?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘To do nothing would be seen as cowardice. Worse yet, I do not think I could face Hull’s killers without reaching for my sword.’

‘You may have to, Brys. Of course,’ Tehol added, ‘I am not so bound by such prohibitions.’

Brys studied his brother for a long moment. ‘You would avenge Hull?’

‘Count on it.’

Eventually, Brys smiled.

Tehol glanced over and nodded. ‘That’s perfect, brother. When you come face to face with them, show that smile. It will put terror in their hearts.’

Brys sighed and returned his gaze to the city. ‘Outwardly, we seem so different, the three of us.’

‘And so we are,’ Tehol replied. ‘It comes down to methods, and we each walk unique paths. At the same time, alas, we must all live with an identical legacy, a particularly unpleasant inheritance.’ He shrugged, then pulled up his sagging trousers. ‘Three stones in a stream. All subjected to the same rushing water, yet each shaped differently, depending upon its nature.’

‘And which of us is sandstone?’

‘Hull. He’s been worn down the most, brother, by far. You, you’re basalt.’

‘And you, Tehol?’

‘Maybe a mix of the two, yielding a sadly misshapen result. But I can live with it.’

‘Perhaps you can,’ Brys observed, ‘but what about the rest of us?’

‘There’s a matter on which you can help me, brother.’

‘Oh?’

‘Presumably, there are recorders of obscure information in the palace. People who tally various events, trends and such.’

‘A veritable army of them, Tehol.’

‘Indeed. Now, might you make some discreet inquiries for me?’

‘Regarding what?’

‘People going missing in Letheras. Annual numbers, that sort of thing.’

‘If you like. Why?’

‘At the moment, I’m just curious.’

‘What are you up to, Tehol?’

‘This and that.’

Brys grimaced. ‘Be careful.’

‘I shall. Do you smell that? Bugg is brewing tea.’

‘That doesn’t smell like tea.’

‘Yes, he’s full of surprises. Let’s go down. I for one am very thirsty.’

Shurq Elalle watched Ublala Pung close in on the pair of guards who had just come round the corner of the estate’s outer wall. They had time to look up in alarm before he threw his punch. Crunching into one jaw, then following through to crack against the other man’s temple. Both collapsed. Ublala paused, looking down on them, then headed off in search of more.

Shurq stepped from the shadows and approached the wall. Wards had been etched into the ochre stone, but she knew they were linked to intrusions by someone living. The heat of a body, the moist breaths, the thump of a heart. Those relating to motion were far more expensive to maintain, and would be reserved for the main house.

She reached the wall, paused to take a final look round, then quickly scaled it.

The top was studded with shards of razor-sharp iron that cut deep into the reinforced padding on her gloves. As she drew herself up, the shards cut through the layers of leather and sank into her palms, improving her grip. She would get the lacerations sewn up later, to keep out lint and insects and other creatures that might seek to take up residence in the punctures.

Her upper body perched above her arms, she studied the compound below. Seeing no-one, she lifted herself over, pivoting on her hands, then edged down onto the other side. She pried her left hand loose of the spikes and gripped the ledge with her fingers, then tugged her right hand loose as well. Freed of the shards, she quickly descended to crouch in the shadows beneath the wall.

Dozens of guards somewhere ahead, between her and her goal. Men – but no, she couldn’t think about that, not right now. Later, with Ublala. Unfortunately, the mindless guest within her understood nothing of the value of anticipation. It knew hunger, and hunger must be appeased. The nature of things alive, she mused, as opposed to things dead. Urgency, dissatisfaction, the burden of appetites. She’d forgotten.

Four guards standing at the estate entrance, one to either side of the double doors, the remaining two flanking the broad steps. They looked bored. There were windows on the main floor, but these were shuttered. Balconies on the next level – the small doors there would be warded. The uppermost floor consisted of three A-frame rooms facing front, their peaked roofs steep and tiled in slate. Inward of these projections, the estate roof was flat and low-walled, a veritable forest of potted plants and stunted trees. And hidden watchers.

All in all, seemingly impregnable.

Just the kind she liked.

She set out towards the nearest outbuilding, a maintenance shed with a sloped roof that faced onto the compound. Careful, silent steps, then settling alongside the nearest wall of the shed. Where she waited.

A loud thumping on the front gates.

The four guards at the estate entrance straightened, exchanged glances. There were at least eight of their comrades patrolling the street and alley beyond the wall. It was too late for a guest, and besides, Master Gerun Eberict was not at home. Alternatively, perhaps he had sent a messenger. But then there would have been a signal from the patrol. No, she could see them conclude, this was unusual.

The two guards at the base of the steps set off towards the gate, hands on the grips of their swords.

The thumping stopped when the two men were halfway to the gate. They slowed, drawing weapons.

Two steps from the gate.

The twin massive portals exploded inward, taking both guards down beneath the battered wood and bronze. Ublala’s forward momentum carried him over the flattened doors and the men trapped beneath them.

At the top of the stairs, shouts of alarm, and the last two guards were rushing towards the giant.

‘I never done nothing to any of you!’ Ublala bellowed, or at least that is what Shurq thought he said – the words were made indistinct by his bristling indignation as he charged the two guards.

A brief moment of concern for Shurq, since her man was unarmed.

Swords slashed out. Ublala seemed to slap at them along the flat, and one of the swords cartwheeled through the air. The other ploughed into the pavestones at the giant’s feet. A backhand slap spun the nearest man round and off his feet. The remaining guard was screaming, stumbling back. Ublala reached out, caught him by the right arm, and tugged him close.

‘I’m not meat I’m a new body!’

Or ‘I’m not mean to nobody!’

The guard was dragged off his feet and shaken about in a clatter of armour to accompany the incoherent assertion. The hapless man went limp, his limbs flailing about. Ublala dropped him and looked up.

Guards were streaming towards him from either side of the estate.

He grunted in alarm, turned about and ran back through the gaping gateway.

Shurq glanced up at the roof. Four figures up there, looking down at the fleeing giant, two of them readying javelins.

But he was already through the archway.

Shurq slipped round the back of the shed and darted across the narrow gap to come alongside the estate wall. She padded towards the stairs, onto the platform and through the unwarded entrance. Outside, she heard someone shout orders for a rearguard to hold the compound, but clearly no-one had turned round to keep an eye on the front doors.

Shurq found herself in a reception hall, the walls covered in frescos illustrating Gerun’s desperate defence of King Ezgara Diskanar. She paused, drew out a knife to scratch a moustache on Gerun’s manly, grimacing, triumphant face, then continued on through an archway leading to a large chamber modelled in the fashion of a throne room, although the throne – an ornate, high-backed monstrosity – was simply positioned at the head of a long table instead of surmounting a raised dais.

Doors at every corner of the chamber, each one elaborately framed. A fifth one, narrow and inset at the back, probably with a servants’ passage beyond.

No doubt the inhabitants were awake by now. Yet, being servants – Indebted one and all – they’d be hiding under their cots during this terrifying tumult.

She set off towards that last door. The passageway beyond was narrow and poorly lit. Curtained cells lined it, the pathetic residences of the staff. No light showed from beneath any of the hangings, but Shurq caught the sound of scuffing from one room halfway down, and a stifled gasp from one closer, on her left.

She closed her gloved hand on the grip of the fighting knife strapped beneath her left arm, and ran the back of the blade hard against the scabbard edge as she drew it forth. More gasps. A terrified squeal.

Slow steps down the narrow passage, pausing every now and then, but never long enough to elicit a scream from anyone, until she came to a T-intersection. To the right the aisle opened out onto the kitchen. To the left, a staircase leading both up and to cellars below ground. Shurq swung round and faced the passageway she had just quitted. Pitching her voice low, she hissed, ‘Go to sleep. Was jus’ doin’ a circuit. No-one here, sweeties. Relax.’

‘Who’s that?’ a voice asked.

‘Who cares?’ another replied. ‘Like he said, Prist, go back’t’sleep.’

But Prist continued, ‘It’s jus’ that I don’ recognize ’im-’

‘Yeah,’ the other countered, ‘an’ you ain’t a gardener but a real live hero, right, Prist?’

‘All I’m sayin’ is-’

Shurq walked back to halt in front of Prist’s curtain.

She heard movement beyond, but the man was silent.

She drew the dirty linen to one side and slipped into the cramped room. It stank of mud and manure. In the darkness she could just make out a large, crouching figure at the back wall, a blanket drawn up under its chin.

‘Ah, Prist,’ Shurq murmured in a voice little more than a whisper and taking another step closer, ‘are you any good at keeping quiet? I hope so, because I intend to spend some time with you. Don’t worry,’ she added as she unbuckled her belt, ‘it’ll be fun.’

Two bells later, Shurq lifted her head from the gardener’s muscled arm concentrating to listen beyond his loud snores. Poor bastard had been worn right out – she hoped Ublala could manage better – and all his subsequent whimpering and mewling was disgusting. As the bell’s low echoes faded, a solid silence replaced it.

The guards had returned shortly after Shurq had slipped into Prist’s cubicle. Loud with speculation and bitter argument, indicating that Ublala had made good his escape, although a call for the services of the house healer suggested there’d been a clash or two. Since that time, things had settled down. There had been a cursory search of the estate, but not the servants’ quarters, suggesting that no suspicion of diversion and infiltration had occurred to the house guards. Careless. Indicative of a sad lack of imagination. All in all, as she had expected. An overbearing master had that effect. Initiative was dangerous, lest it clash with Gerun’s formidable ego.

Shurq pulled herself loose from Prist’s exhausted, child-like embrace, and rose silently to don her clothes and gear. Gerun would have an office, adjoining his private rooms. Men like Gerun always had offices. It served their need for legitimacy.

Its defences would be elaborate, the magic expensive and thorough. But not so complicated as to leave a Finadd confused. Accordingly, the mechanisms of deactivation would be straightforward. Another thing to consider, of course, was the fact that Gerun was absent. It was likely there were additional wards in place that could not be negated. She suspected they would be life-aspected, since other kinds could more easily be accidentally triggered.

She quietly stepped back into the passageway. Sounds of sleep and naught else. Satisfied, Shurq returned to the T-intersection and turned left. Ascending the staircase, she was careful to place each foot along alternating edges where the joins reduced the likelihood of a telltale creak.

Reaching the first landing, Shurq stepped close to the door, then paused. Motionless. A tripwire was set along the seam of the door, locked in place by the last servant to use the passage. Sometimes the simplest alarms succeeded where more elaborate ones failed, if only because the thief was over-anticipating the complication. She released the mechanism and turned the latch.

Into another servants’ passage, running parallel to the formal hallway, assuming a typical layout for Gerun’s estate. She found the lone door where she expected, on the right at the far end. Another tripwire to release, then she stepped through. The hallway was unlit, which was clever. Three doors along the opposite wall, the rooms beyond showing no light.

She was fairly certain she had found Gerun Eberict’s private quarters. Barely detectable in the gloom were a host of arcane sigils painted on the nearest door.

Shurq edged closer to study those symbols.

And froze as a dull voice spoke from down the corridor. ‘It was incompetence. Or so he says. And now I’m supposed to make it up to him.’

She slowly turned. A seated figure, sprawled back with legs stretched out, head tilted to one side.

‘You’re dead,’ the man said.

‘Is that a promise or an observation?’

‘Just something we have in common,’ he answered. ‘That doesn’t happen to me much, any more.’

‘I know just how you feel. So, Gerun has you here guarding his rooms.’

‘It’s my penance.’

‘For incompetence.’

‘Yes. Gerun doesn’t fire people, you know. He kills them and then, depending on how angry he is, either buries them or keeps them on for a time. I suppose he’ll bury me eventually.’

‘Without releasing your soul?’

‘He often forgets about that part.’

‘I’m here to steal everything he has.’

‘If you were living I would of course kill you in some monstrous, terrifying way. I would get up from this chair, feet dragging, arms out with my hands clawing the air. I’d make bestial sounds and moans and hisses as if I was hungry to sink my teeth into your throat.’

‘That would certainly prove sufficient to deter a thief. A living one, that is.’

‘It would, and I’d probably enjoy it, too.’

‘But I’m not living, am I?’

‘No. But I have one question for you and it’s an important one.’

‘All right. Ask it.’

‘Why, since you’re dead, do you look so good? Who cut your hair? Why aren’t you rotting away like me? Are you stuffed with herbs or something? Are you wearing make-up? Why are the whites of your eyes so white? Your lips so glossy?’

Shurq was silent a moment, then asked, ‘Is that your one question?’

‘Yes.’

‘If you like, I can introduce you to the people responsible for the new me. I am sure they can do the same for you.’

‘Really? Including a manicure?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘What about filing my teeth? You know, to make them sharp and scary.’

‘Well, I don’t know how scary you will be with styled hair, make-up, perfect nails and glossy lips.’

‘But sharp teeth? Don’t you think the sharp teeth will terrify people?’

‘Why not just settle for those? Most people are frightened of rotting things, of things crawling with vermin and stinking like a freshly turned grave. Fangs and fingernails clipped into talons.’

‘I like it. I like how you think.’

‘My pleasure. Now, do I have to worry about these wards?’

‘No. In fact, I can show you where all the mechanisms are for the alarms.’

‘Won’t that give you away?’

‘Give me away? Why, I am coming with you, of course. Assuming you can get us both out of here.’

‘Oh, I see. I’m sure we’ll manage. What is your name, by the way?’

‘Harlest Eberict.’

Shurq cocked her head, then said, ‘Oh. But you died ten years ago, according to your brother.’

‘Ten years? Is that all?’

‘He said you fell down the stairs, I believe. Or something like that.’

‘Stairs. Or pitched off the balcony. Maybe both.’

‘And what did you do or fail to do that earned such punishment?’

‘I don’t remember. Only that I was incompetent.’

‘That was long before Gerun saved the king’s life. How could he have afforded the sorcery needed to bind your soul to your body?’

‘I believe he called in a favour.’

Shurq swung back to the door. ‘Does this lead to his office?’

‘No, that one goes to his love-making room. You want the one over here.’

‘Any chance of anyone hearing us talking right now, Harlest?’

‘No, the walls are thick.’

‘One last thing,’ Shurq said, eyeing Harlest. ‘Why didn’t Gerun bind your loyalty with magic?’

The pale, patchy face displayed surprise. ‘Well, we’re brothers!’

Alarms negated, the two undead stood in Finadd Gerun Eberict’s office.

‘He doesn’t keep much actual coin here,’ Harlest said. ‘Mostly writs of holding. He spreads his wealth around to protect it.’

‘Very wise. Where is his seal?’

‘On the desk.’

‘Very unwise. Do me a favour and start collecting those writs.’ She walked over to the desk and gathered up the heavy, ornate seal and the thick sheets of wax piled beside it. ‘This wax is an exclusive colour?’

‘Oh yes. He paid plenty for that.’ Harlest had gone to a wall and was removing a large tapestry behind which was an inset cabinet. He disengaged a number of tripwires, then swung open the small door. Within were stacks of scrolls and a small jewelled box.

‘What’s in the box?’ Shurq asked.

Harlest lifted it out and tossed it to Shurq. ‘His cash. Like I said, he never keeps much around.’

She examined the clasp. Satisfied that it wasn’t booby-trapped, she slid it to one side and tipped back the lid. ‘Not much? Harlest, this is full of diamonds.’

The man, his arms loaded with scrolls, walked over. ‘It is?’

‘He’s called in a few of his holdings, I think.’

‘He must have. I wonder why?’

‘To use it,’ she replied, ‘for something very expensive. Oh well, he’ll just have to go without.’

‘Gerun will be so angry,’ Harlest said, shaking his head. ‘He will go mad. He’ll start hunting us down, and he won’t stop until he finds us.’

‘And then what? Torture? We don’t feel pain. Kill us? We’re already dead-’

‘He’ll take his money back-’

‘He can’t if it doesn’t exist any more.’

Harlest frowned.

Smiling, Shurq closed the box and reset the clasp. ‘It’s not like you and I have any use for it, is it? No, this is the equivalent of tossing Gerun off the balcony or down the stairs, only financially rather than physically.’

‘Well, he is my brother.’

‘Who murdered you and wouldn’t even leave it at that.’

‘That’s true.’

‘So, we’re heading out via the balcony. I have a companion who is about to begin another diversion. Are you with me, Harlest?’

‘Can I still get the fangs?’

‘I promise.’

‘Okay, let’s go.’

It was nearing dawn, and the ground steamed. Kettle sat on a humped root and watched a single trailing leg slowly edge its way into the mulch. The man had lost a boot in the struggle, and she watched his toes twitch a moment before they were swallowed up in the dark earth.

He’d fought hard, but with his lower jaw torn off and his throat filling with blood, it hadn’t lasted long. Kettle licked her fingers.

It was good that the tree was still hungry.

The bad ones had begun a hunt beneath the ground, clawing and slithering and killing whatever was weak. Soon there would be a handful left, but these would be the worst ones. And then they would come out.

She was not looking forward to that. And this night, she’d had a hard time finding a victim in the streets, someone with unpleasant thoughts who was where he didn’t belong for reasons that weren’t nice.

It had been getting harder, she realized. She leaned back and pushed her stained fingers through her filthy hair, wondering where all the criminals and spies had disappeared to. It was strange, and troubling.

And her friend, the one buried beneath the oldest tree, he’d told her he was trapped. He couldn’t go any further, even with her assistance. But help was on the way, although he wasn’t certain it would arrive in time.

She thought about that man, Tehol, who had come by last night to talk. He seemed nice enough. She hoped he would visit again. Maybe he’d know what to do – she swung round on the root and stared up at the square tower – yes, maybe he’d know what to do, now that the tower was dead.

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