CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

None had seen the like. Chorum’s Mill was a Marvel of invention. Wheels upon wheels, Granite and interlocking gears, axles and Spokes and rims of iron, a machine that climbed From that fast river three full levels and ground The finest flour Lether had ever seen – Some say it was the rain, the deluge that filled The water’s course through the mill’s stony toes. Some say it was the sheer complexity that was The cause of it all, the conceit of a mortal man’s Vision. Some say it was the Errant’s nudge, fickle And wayward that voiced the sudden roar that dawn, The explosions of stone and the shrieks of iron, And the vast wheels breaking free and bursting Through the thick walls, and the washing women Downstream the foam at their thighs looked up To see their granite doom rolling down – Not a wrinkle left, not a stain survived, and old Misker, perched on Ribble the Mule, well the mule Knew its place as it bolted and leapt head-first Down the well, but poor old Misker hugged the Draw pail on its rope and so swung clear, to Skin his knees on the round’s cobbles and swear Loud, the boisterous breath preceding the fateful Descent of toothy death the gear wheel, tall as any Man but far taller than Misker (even perched on His mule) and that would not be hard once it was Done with him, why the rat – oh, did I forget to Mention the rat?

Excerpt from The Rat’s Tail (the cause of it all) Chant Prip

STUMBLING IN THE GLOOM, THE DRUNK HAD FALLEN INTO THE CANAL. Tehol had mostly lost sight of him from his position at the edge of the roof, but he could hear splashing and curses, and the scrabbling against the rings set in the stone wall.

Sighing, Tehol glanced over at the nameless guard Brys had sent. Or one of them, at least. The three brothers looked pretty much identical, and none had given their names. Nothing outward or obvious to impress or inspire fear. And, by the unwavering cast of their lipless, eye-slitted expressions, sadly unqualified as welcome company.

‘Can your friends tell you apart?’ Tehol enquired, then frowned. ‘What a strange question to ask of a man. But you must be used to strange questions, since people will assume you were somewhere when you weren’t, or, rather, not you, but the other yous, each of whom could be anywhere. It now occurs to me that saying nothing is a fine method for dealing with such confusion, to which each of you have agreed to as the proper response, unless you are the same amongst yourselves, in which case it was a silent agreement. Always the best kind.’

The drunk, far below, was climbing from the canal, swearing in more languages than Tehol believed existed. ‘Will you listen to that? Atrocious. To hear such no doubt foul words uttered with such vehemence – hold on, that’s no drunk, that my manservant!’ Tehol waved and shouted, ‘Bugg! What are you doing down there? Is this what I pay you for?’

The sodden manservant was looking upward, and he yelled something back that Tehol could not make out. ‘What? What did you say?’

‘You – don’t – pay – me!’

‘Oh, tell everyone, why don’t you!’

Tehol watched as Bugg made his way to the bridge and crossed, then disappeared from view behind the nearby buildings. ‘How embarrassing. Time’s come for a serious talk with dear old Bugg.’

Sounds from below, more cursing. Then creaking from the ladder.

Bugg’s mud-smeared head and face rose into view.

‘Now,’ Tehol said, hands on hips, ‘I’m sure I sent you off to do something important, and what do you do? Go falling into the canal. Was that on the list of tasks? I think not.’

‘Are you berating me, master?’

‘Yes. What did you think?’

‘More effective, I believe, had you indeed sent me off to do something important. As it was, I was on a stroll, mesmerized by moonlight-’

‘Don’t step there! Back! Back!’

Alarmed, Bugg froze, then edged away.

‘You nearly crushed Ezgara! And could he have got out of the way? I think not!’ Tehol moved closer and knelt beside the insect making its slow way across the roof’s uneven surface. ‘Oh, look, you startled it!’

‘How can you tell?’ Bugg asked.

‘Well, it’s reversed direction, hasn’t it? That must be startling, I would imagine.’

‘You know, master, it was a curio – I didn’t think you would make it a pet.’

‘That’s because you’re devoid of sentiment, Bugg. Whereas Ezgara here is doubly-’

‘Ovoid?’

‘Charmingly so.’ Tehol glanced over at the guard, who was staring back at him as was his wont. ‘And this man agrees. Or, if not him, then his brothers. Why, one let Ezgara crawl all over his face, and he didn’t even blink!’

‘How did Ezgara manage to get onto his face, master?’

‘And down the other’s jerkin, not a flinch. These are warm-hearted men, Bugg, look well upon them and learn.’

‘I shall, master.’

‘Now, did you enjoy your swim?’

‘Not particularly.’

‘A misstep, you say?’

‘I thought I heard someone whisper my name-’

‘Shurq Elalle?’

‘No.’

‘Harlest Eberict? Kettle? Chief Investigator Rucket? Champion Ormly?’

‘No.’

‘Might you have been imagining things?’

‘Quite possibly. For example, I believe I am being followed by rats.’

‘You probably are, Bugg. Maybe one of them whispered your name.’

‘An unpleasant notion, master.’

‘Yes it is. Do you think it pleases me that my manservant consorts with rats?’

‘Would you rather go hungry?’ Bugg reached under his shirt.

‘You haven’t!’

‘No, it’s cat,’ he said, withdrawing a small, skinned, headless and pawless carcass. ‘Canal flavoured, alas.’

‘Another gift from Rucket?’

‘No, oddly enough. The canal.’

‘Ugh.’

‘Smells fresh enough-’

‘What’s that wire trailing from it?’

The manservant lifted the carcass higher, then took the dangling wire between two fingers and followed it back until it vanished in the flesh. He tugged, then grunted.

‘What?’ Tehol asked.

‘The wire leads to a large, barbed hook.’

‘Oh.’

‘And the wire’s snapped at this end – I thought something broke my fall.’ He tore a small sliver of meat from one of the cat’s legs, broke it in two, then placed one piece at each end of the insect named Ezgara. It settled to feed. ‘Anyway, a quick rinse and we’re ahead by two, if not three meals. Quite a run of fortune, master, of late.’

‘Yes,’ Tehol mused. ‘Now I’m nervous. So, have you any news to tell me?’

‘Do you realize, master, that Gerun Eberict would have had to kill on average between ten and fifteen people a day in order to achieve his annual dividend? How does he find the time to do anything else?’

‘Perhaps he’s recruited thugs sharing his insane appetites.’

‘Indeed. Anyway, Shurq has disappeared – both Harlest and Ublala are distraught-’

‘Why Harlest?’

‘He had only Ublala to whom he could show off his new fangs and talons, and Ublala was less than impressed, so much so that he pushed Harlest into the sarcophagus and sealed him in.’

‘Poor Harlest.’

‘He adjusted quickly enough,’ said Bugg, ‘and now contemplates his dramatic resurrection – whenever it occurs.’

‘Disturbing news about Shurq Elalle.’

‘Why?’

‘It means she didn’t change her mind. It means she’s going to break into the Tolls Repository. Perhaps even this very night.’

Bugg glanced over at the guard. ‘Master…’

‘Oops, that was careless, wasn’t it?’ He rose and walked over. ‘He hears all, it’s true. My friend, we can at least agree on one thing, can’t we?’

The eyes flickered as the man stared at Tehol.

‘Any thief attempting the Repository is as good as dead, right?’ He smiled, then swung back to face his manservant.

Bugg began removing his wet clothes. ‘I believe I’ve caught a chill.’

‘The canal is notoriously noxious-’

‘No, from earlier, master. The Fifth Wing. I’ve managed to successfully shore up the foundations-’

‘Already? Why, that’s extraordinary.’

‘It is, isn’t it? In any case, it’s chilly in those tunnels… now.’

‘Dare I ask?’

Bugg stood naked, eyes on the faint stars overhead. ‘Best not, master.’

‘And what of the Fourth Wing?’

‘Well, that’s where my crews are working at the moment. A week, perhaps ten days. There’s an old drainage course beneath it. Rather than fight it, we’re installing a fired-clay conduit-’

‘A sewage pipe.’

‘In the trade, it’s a fired-clay conduit.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Which we’ll then pack with gravel. I don’t know why Grum didn’t do that in the first place, but it’s his loss and our gain.’

‘Are you dry yet, Bugg? Please say you’re dry. Look at our guard here, he’s horrified. Speechless.’

‘I can tell, and I apologize.’

‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many scars on one person,’ Tehol said. ‘What do you do in your spare time, Bugg, wrestle angry cacti?’

‘I don’t understand. Why would they have to be angry?’

‘Wouldn’t you be if you attacked you for no reason? Hey, that’s a question I could ask our guard here, isn’t it?’

‘Only if he – or they – were similarly afflicted, master.’

‘Good point. And he’d have to take his clothes off for us to find out.’

‘Not likely.’

‘No. Now, Bugg, here’s my shirt. Put it on, and be thankful for the sacrifices I make on your behalf.’

‘Thank you, master.’

‘Good. Ready? It’s time to go.’

‘Where?’

‘Familiar territory for you, or so I was surprised to discover. You are a man of many mysteries, Bugg. Occasional priest, healer, the Waiting Man, consorter with demons and worse. Were I not so self-centred, I’d be intrigued.’

‘I am ever grateful for your self-centredness, master.’

‘That’s only right, Bugg. Now, presumably, our silent bodyguard will be accompanying us. Thus, we three. Marching purposefully off into the night. Shall we?’

Into the maze of shanties on the east side of Letheras. The night air was hot, redolent and turgid. Things skittered through the heaps of rotting rubbish, wild dogs slunk through shadows in ill-tempered packs looking for trouble – threatening enough to cause the bodyguard to draw his sword. Sight of the bared blade was enough to send the beasts scampering.

Those few homeless indigents brave or desperate enough to risk the dangers of the alleys and streets had used rubbish to build barricades and hovels. Others had begged for space on the sagging roofs of creaky huts and slept fitfully or not at all. Tehol could feel countless pairs of eyes looking down upon them, tracking their passage deeper into the heart of the ghetto.

As they walked, Tehol spoke. ‘… the assumption is the foundation stone of Letherii society, perhaps all societies the world over. The notion of inequity, my friends. For from inequity derives the concept of value, whether measured by money or the countless other means of gauging human worth. Simply put, there resides in all of us the unchallenged belief that the poor and the starving are in some way deserving of their fate. In other words, there will always be poor people. A truism to grant structure to the continual task of comparison, the establishment through observation of not our mutual similarities, but our essential differences.

‘I know what you’re thinking, to which I have no choice but to challenge you both. Like this. Imagine walking down this street, doling out coins by the thousands. Until everyone here is in possession of vast wealth. A solution? No, you say, because among these suddenly rich folk there will be perhaps a majority who will prove wasteful, profligate and foolish, and before long they will be poor once again. Besides, if wealth were distributed in such a fashion, the coins themselves would lose all value – they would cease being useful. And without such utility, the entire social structure we love so dearly would collapse.

‘Ah, but to that I say, so what? There are other ways of measuring self-worth. To which you both heatedly reply: with no value applicable to labour, all sense of worth vanishes! And in answer to that I simply smile and shake my head. Labour and its product become the negotiable commodities. But wait, you object, then value sneaks in after all! Because a man who makes bricks cannot be equated with, say, a man who paints portraits. Material is inherently value-laden, on the basis of our need to assert comparison – but ah, was I not challenging the very assumption that one must proceed with such intricate structures of value?

‘And so you ask, what’s your point, Tehol? To which I reply with a shrug. Did I say my discourse was a valuable means of using this time? I did not. No, you assumed it was. Thus proving my point!’

‘I’m sorry, master,’ Bugg said, ‘but what was that point again?’

‘I forget. But we’ve arrived. Behold, gentlemen, the poor.’

They stood at the edge of an old market round, now a mass of squalid shelters seething with humanity. A few communal hearths smouldered. The area was ringed in rubbish – mostly dog and cat bones – which was crawling with rats. Children wandered in the dazed, lost fashion of the malnourished. Newborns lay swaddled and virtually unattended. Voices rose in arguments and somewhere on the opposite side was a fight of some sort. Mixed-bloods, Nerek, Faraed, Tarthenal, even the odd Fent. A few Letherii as well, escapees from Indebtedness.

Bugg looked on in silence for a half-dozen heartbeats, then said, ‘Master, transporting them out to the Isles won’t solve anything.’

‘No?’

‘These are broken spirits.’

‘Beyond hope of recovery?’

‘Well, that depends on how paternalistic you intend to be, master. The rigours of past lifestyles are beyond these people. We’re a generation or more too late. They’ve not old skills to fall back on, and as a community this one is intrinsically flawed. It breeds violence and neglect and little else.’

‘I know what you’re saying, Bugg. You’re saying you’ve had better nights and the timing wasn’t good, not good at all. You’re miserable, you’ve got a chill, you should be in bed.’

‘Thank you, master. I was wondering myself.’

‘Your issue of paternalism has some merit, I admit,’ Tehol said, hands on hips as he studied the grubby shanty-town. ‘That is to say, you have a point. In any case, doom is about to sweep through this sad place. Lether is at war, Bugg. There will be… recruitment drives.’

‘Press-ganging,’ the manservant said, nodding morosely.

‘Yes, all that malignant violence put to good use. Of course, such poor soldiers will be employed as fodder. A harsh solution to this perennial problem, admittedly, but one with long precedent.’

‘So, what have you planned, master?’

‘The challenge facing myself and the sharp minds of the Rat Catchers’ Guild, was, as you have observed, how does one reshape an entire society? How does one convert this impressive example of the instinct to survive into a communally positive force? Clearly, we needed to follow a well-established, highly successful social structure as our inspiration-’

‘Rats.’

‘Well done, Bugg. I knew I could count on you. Thus, we began with recognizing the need for a leader. Powerful, dynamic, charismatic, dangerous.’

‘A criminal mastermind with plenty of thugs to enforce his or her will.’

Tehol frowned. ‘Your choice of words disappoints me, Bugg.’

‘You?’

‘Me? Of course not. Well, not directly, that is. A truly successful leader is a reluctant leader. Not one whose every word is greeted with frenzied cheering either – after all, what happens to the mind of such a leader, after such scenes are repeated again and again? A growing certainty, a belief in one’s own infallibility, and onward goes the march into disaster. No, Bugg, I won’t have anyone kissing my feet-’

‘I’m relieved to hear that, master, since those feet have not known soap in a long, long time.’

‘The body eventually resumes its own natural cleansing mechanisms, Bugg.’

‘Like shedding?’

‘Exactly. In any case, I was speaking of leadership in a general sort of way-’

‘Who, master?’

‘Why, the Waiting Man, of course. Occasional priest, healer, consorter with demons…’

‘That’s probably not such a good idea, master,’ Bugg said, rubbing his bristled jaw. ‘I am rather… busy at the moment.’

‘A leader should be busy. Distracted. Preoccupied. Prepared to delegate.’

‘Master, I really don’t think this is a good idea. Really.’

‘Perfectly reluctant, perfect! And look! You’ve been noticed! See those hopeful faces-’

‘That’s hunger, master.’

‘For salvation! Word’s gone out, you see. They’re ready for you, Bugg. They’ve been waiting…’

‘This is very bad, master.’

‘Your expression is perfect, Bugg. Sickly and wan with dismay, deeply troubled and nervous, yes indeed. I couldn’t have managed better myself.’

‘Master-’

‘Go out among your flock, Bugg. Tell them – they’re leaving. Tomorrow night. All of them. A better place, a better life awaits them. Go on, Bugg.’

‘As long as no-one worships me,’ the manservant replied. ‘I don’t like being worshipped.’

‘Just stay fallible,’ Tehol said.

Bugg cast him a strange look, then he walked into the shanty-town.

‘Thank you for coming, Brys.’

Kuru Qan was sitting in the thickly padded chair near the wall opposite the library’s entrance. Polished lenses and cloth in his hands, cleaning one lens then the other, then repeating the gesture, again and again. His eyes were fixed on nothing visible to Brys.

‘More news from Trate, Ceda?’

‘Something, yes, but we will discuss that later. In any case, we must consider the city lost.’

‘Occupied.’

‘Yes. Another battle is imminent, at High Fort.’

‘The queen and the prince have withdrawn their forces, then? I understood they were seeking the pass.’

‘Too late. The Edur had already made crossing.’

‘Will you contribute to the defence?’ Brys asked, striding into the small room and settling down on the bench to the Ceda’s left.

‘No.’

Surprised, Brys said nothing. He had been in the company of the king and Unnutal Hebaz for most of the evening, studying the detected movements of the enemy armies, immersed in the painful exercise of trying to predict the nature of his brother Hull’s advice to the Edur emperor. Clearly, Hull had anticipated the pre-emptive attack on the villages. To Brys’s mind, the rabid display of greed from the camps of the queen and the prince had tipped their hand. Janall, Quillas and their investors had already begun dividing up the potential spoils, which made clear their desire for a quick war, one that devastated the Tiste Edur, and that meant catching them unawares. Janall’s march for the pass had indicated no change in her thinking. Yet now she had retreated.

The Tiste Edur had stolen the initiative. The appearance above High Fort, the surrender of Fent Reach and the fall of Trate indicated at least two enemy armies, as well as two fleets, all moving fast.

‘Ceda, have you learned anything more of the demon that entered

Trate harbour?’

‘The danger is not singular, but plural,’ Kuru Qan said. ‘I see before me the Cedance, and have learned, to my horror, that it is… incomplete.’

‘Incomplete? What do you mean?’

The Ceda continued cleaning the lenses in his hands. ‘I must needs conserve my power, until the appropriate time. The seas must be freed. It is as simple as that.’

Brys waited, then, when Kuru Qan said no more, he ventured, ‘Do you have a task for me, Ceda?’

‘I would counsel a withdrawal from High Fort, but the king would not agree to that, would he?’

Brys shook his head. ‘Your assessment is accurate. Even a disaster would be seen to have… benefits.’

‘The elimination of his wife and son, yes. A tragic state of affairs, wouldn’t you say, my young friend? The heart of the Cedance, I have come to realize, can be found in a systemic denial. And from that heart, all else is derived. Our very way of life and of seeing the world. We send soldiers to their deaths and how do we see those deaths? As glorious sacrifices. The enemy dead? As the victims of our honourable righteousness. Whilst in our cities, in the narrow, foul alleys, a life that ends is but tragic failure. What, then, is the denial whereof I speak?’

‘Death.’

Kuru Qan placed the lenses once more before his eyes and peered at Brys. ‘You see, then. I knew you would. Brys, there is no Hold of Death. Your task? Naught but keeping an old man company on this night.’

The King’s Champion rubbed at his face. His eyes felt full of grit, and he was unaccountably chilled. He was, he realized, exhausted.

‘Our manic accumulation of wealth,’ Kuru Qan went on. ‘Our headlong progress, as if motion was purpose and purpose inherently virtuous. Our lack of compassion, which we called being realistic. The extremity of our judgements, our self-righteousness – all a flight from death, Brys. All a vast denial smothered in semantics and euphemisms. Bravery and sacrifice, pathos and failure, as if life is a contest to be won or lost. As if death is the arbiter of meaning, the moment of final judgement, and above all else judgement is a thing to be delivered, not delivered unto.’

‘Would you rather we worship death, Ceda?’

‘Equally pointless. One needs no faith to die, one dies none the less. I spoke of systemic denial, and it is indeed and in every way systemic. The very fabric of our world, here in Lether and perhaps elsewhere, has been twisted round that… absence. There should be a Hold of Death, do you understand? Relevant? The only relevance. It must have existed, once. Perhaps even a god, some ghastly skeleton on a throne of bones, a spin and dance of cold-legged flies for a crown. Yet here we are, and we have given it no face, no shape, no position in our elaborate scheme of existence.’

‘Perhaps because it is the very opposite of existence-’

‘But it isn’t, Brys, it isn’t. Errant take us, death is all around us. We stride over it, we breathe it, we soak its essence into our lungs, our blood. We feed upon it daily. We thrive in the midst of decay and dissolution.’

Brys studied the Ceda. ‘It occurs to me,’ he said slowly, ‘that life itself is a celebration of denial. The denial of which you speak, Kuru Qan. Our flight – well, to flee is to lift oneself clear of the bones, the ashes, the fallen away.’

‘Flee – to where?’

‘Granted. Nowhere but elsewhere. I wonder if what you’ve said is being manifested, in creatures such as Kettle and that thief, Shurq Elalle-’

The Ceda’s head snapped up, eyes suddenly alert behind the thick lenses. ‘I’m sorry? What did you say?’

‘Well, I was speaking of those who are denied death in truth, Ceda. The child, Kettle-’

‘The guardian of the Azath? She is undead?’

‘Yes. I’m sure I mentioned-’

Kuru Qan was on his feet. ‘Are you certain of this? Brys Beddict, she is an undead?’

‘She is. But I don’t understand-’

‘Stand up, Brys. We’re going. Now.’

‘It’s all the fallen people,’ Kettle said. ‘They want answers. They won’t go until they get answers.’

Shurq Elalle kicked away an insect that had crawled onto her boot. ‘Answers about what?’

‘Why they died.’

‘There are no answers,’ Shurq replied. ‘It’s what people do. Die. They die. They always die.’

‘We didn’t.’

‘Yes we did.’

‘Well, we didn’t go away.’

‘From the sound of it, Kettle, neither did they.’

‘That’s true. I wonder why I didn’t think of that.’

‘Because you were about ten years old when you died.’

‘Well, what do I do now?’

Shurq studied the overgrown, ground-heaved yard. ‘You gave me the idea, and that’s why I am here. You said the dead were gathering. Gathering round this place, hovering just outside the walls. Can you talk to them?’

‘Why would I want to? They never say anything interesting.’

‘But you could if you had to.’ Kettle shrugged. ‘I guess.’

‘Good. Ask for volunteers.’

‘For what?’

‘I want them to come with me. On an outing. Tonight and again tomorrow night.’

‘Why would they want to, Mother?’

‘Tell them they will see more gold than they can imagine. They will learn secrets few in this kingdom possess. Tell them I am going to lead them on a tour of the Tolls Repository and the royal vaults. Tell them, the time’s come to have fun. Terrifying the living.’

‘Why would ghosts want to scare the living?’

‘I know, it’s a strange notion, but I predict they will discover they’re very good at it. Further, I predict they will enjoy the endeavour.’

‘But, how will they do that? They’re ghosts. The living can’t even see them.’

Shurq Elalle swung about and stared out on the milling crowds. ‘Kettle, they look pretty solid to us, don’t they?’

‘But we’re dead-’

‘Then why couldn’t we see them a week ago? They were just flits, on the edge of our vision back then, weren’t they? If that, even. So what has changed? Where has their power come from? Why is it growing?’

‘I don’t know.’

Shurq smiled. ‘I do.’

Kettle walked over to one of the low walls.

The thief watched her speaking to the ghosts. I wonder if she realizes. I wonder if she knows she’s more alive now than dead. I wonder if she knows she’s coming back to life.

After a moment the child returned, pulling her fingers through her hair to loosen the snarls. ‘You are smart, Mother,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you’re my mother and that’s why.’

‘I have some volunteers?’

‘They’ll all go. They want to see the gold. They want to scare people.’

‘I need some who can read and some who can count.’

‘That’s okay. So tell me, Mother, why are they growing more powerful? What’s changed?’

Shurq looked back at the square, squalid tower of stone. ‘That, Kettle.’

‘The Azath?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh,’ the child said. ‘I understand now. It died.’

‘Yes,’ Shurq said, nodding. ‘It died.’

After Mother had left, thousands of ghosts following, Kettle walked to the tower’s entrance. She studied the flagstones set before the door, then selected one and knelt before it. Her fingernails broke prying it loose, and she was surprised at the sting of pain and the welling of blood.

She had not told Shurq how hard it had been speaking to those ghosts. Their endless voices had been fading the last day or two, as if she was becoming deaf. Although other sounds – the wind, the dead leaves scurrying about, the crunch and munch of the insects in the yard, and the sounds of the city itself – all were as clear as ever. Something was happening to her. That beating vibration in her chest had quickened. Five, six eights a day, now. The places where her skin had broken long ago were closing up with new, pink skin, and earlier today she had been thirsty. It had taken some time to realize – to remember, perhaps – what thirst was, what it signified, but the stagnant water she had found at the base of one of the pits in the yard had tasted wonderful. So many things were changing, it seemed, confusing her.

She dragged the flagstone to one side, then sat beside it. She wiped the dust from its blank, polished surface. There were funny patterns in it. Shells, the imprint of plants – reeds with their onion-like root-balls – and the pebbled impressions of coral. Tiny bones. Someone had done a lot of carving to make such a pretty scene of dead things.

She looked down the path, through the gate and onto the street. Strange, to see it so empty now. But, she knew, it wouldn’t be for long.

And so she waited.

The bleeding from her fingertips had stopped by the time she heard the footfalls approaching. She looked up, then smiled upon seeing Uncle Brys and the old man with the glass eyes – the one she had never seen before yet knew anyway.

They saw her, and Brys strode through the gate, the old man following behind with nervous, tentative steps.

‘Hello, Uncle,’ Kettle said.

‘Kettle. You are looking… better. I have brought a guest, Ceda Kuru

Qan.’

‘Yes, the one who’s always looking at me but not seeing me, but looking anyway.’

‘I wasn’t aware of that,’ the Ceda said.

‘Not like you’re doing now,’ Kettle said. ‘Not when you have those things in front of your eyes.’

‘You mean, when I look upon the Cedance? Is that when I see you without seeing you?’

She nodded.

‘The Hold of the Azath is gone, child, yet here you remain. You were its guardian when it was alive – when you were not. And now, you are its guardian still? When it is dead and you are not?’

‘I’m not dead?’

‘Not quite. The heart placed within you. Once frozen… now… thawing. I do not understand its power, and, I admit, it frightens me.’

‘I have a friend who said he’ll destroy me if he has to,’ Kettle said, smiling. ‘But he says he probably won’t have to.’

‘Why not?’

‘He says the heart won’t wake up. Not completely. That’s why the Nameless One took my body.’

She watched the old man’s mouth moving, but no words came forth. At his side, Uncle Brys stepped closer, concern on his face.

‘Ceda? Are you all right?’

‘Nameless One?’ The old man was shivering. ‘This place – this is the Hold of Death, isn’t it? It’s become the Hold of Death.’

Kettle reached over and picked up the flagstone. It was as heavy as a corpse, so she was used to the weight. ‘This is for your Cedance, for where you look when you don’t see me.’

‘A tile.’ Kuru Qan looked away as she set it down in front of him.

‘Ceda,’ Uncle Brys said, ‘I do not understand. What has happened here?’

‘Our history… so much is proving untrue. The Nameless Ones were of the First Empire. A cult. It was expunged. Eliminated. It cannot have survived, but it seems to have done just that. It seems to have outlived the First Empire itself.’

‘Are they some sort of death cult?’

‘No. They were servants of the Azath.’

‘Then why,’ Brys asked, ‘do they appear to have been overseeing the death of this Azath tower?’

Kuru Qan shook his head. ‘Unless they saw it as inevitable. And so they acted in order to counter those within the barrows who would escape once the tower died. The manifestation of a Hold of Death may turn out to have nothing to do with them.’

‘Then why is she still the guardian?’

‘She may not be, Brys. She waits in order to deal with those who are about to escape the grounds.’ The Ceda’s gaze returned to Kettle. ‘Child, is that why you remain?’

She shrugged. ‘It won’t be long now.’

‘And the one the Azath chose to help you, Kettle, will he emerge in time?’

‘I don’t know. I hope so.’

‘So do I,’ Kuru Qan said. ‘Thank you, child, for the tile. Still, I wonder at your knowledge of this new Hold.’

Kettle pulled an insect from her hair and tossed it aside. ‘The pretty man told me all about it,’ she said.

‘Another visitor?’

‘Only once. Mostly he just stands in the shadows, across the street. Sometimes he followed me when I went hunting, but he never said anything. Not until today, when he came over and we talked.’

‘Did he tell you his name?’ the Ceda asked.

‘No. But he was very handsome. Only he said he had a girlfriend. Lots. Boyfriends, too. Besides, I shouldn’t give my heart away. That’s what he said. He never does. Never ever.’

‘And this man told you all about the Hold of Death?’

‘Yes, Grandfather. He knew all about it. He said it doesn’t need a new guardian, because the throne is already occupied, at least everywhere else. Here too, soon. I’m tired of talking now.’

‘Of course, Kettle,’ Kuru Qan said. ‘We shall take our leave of you, then.’

‘Goodbye. Oh, don’t forget the tile!’

‘We will send some people to collect it, child.’

‘All right.’

She watched them walk away. When they were gone from sight she headed over to her friend’s barrow, and felt him close. ‘Where are you taking me this time?’

Her hand in his, she found herself standing on a low hill, and before them was a vast, shallow valley, filled with corpses.

It was dusk, a layer of smoke hanging over the vista. Just above the horizon opposite, a suspended mountain of black stone was burning, columns of smoke billowing from its gashed flanks. Below, the bodies were mostly of some kind of huge, reptilian creature wearing strange armour. Grey-skinned and long-snouted, their forms were contorted and ribboned with slashes, lying in tangled heaps. Here and there in their midst lay other figures. Tall, some with grey skins, some with black.

Standing beside her, he spoke, ‘Over four hundred thousand, Kettle. Here in this valley alone. There are other… valleys. Like this one.’

A score of leathery-winged beasts were crossing the valley at one end, far to their right.

‘Ooh, are those dragons?’

‘Spawn. Locqui Wyval, searching for their master. But he is gone. Once they realize that, they will know to wait. It will prove a long wait.’

‘Are they waiting still?’

‘Yes.’

‘When did this battle happen?’

‘Many thousands of years ago, Kettle. But the damage remains. In a short while, the ice will arrive, sealing all you see. Holding all in stasis, a sorcery of impressive power, so powerful it will prove a barrier to the dead themselves – to the path their spirits would take. I wonder if that was what the Jaghut had intended. In any case, the land was twisted by the magic. The dead… lingered. Here, in the north, and far to the south, as far as Letheras itself. To my mind, an Elder god meddled. But none could have foreseen the consequences, not even an Elder god.’

‘Is that why the tower has become the Hold of Death?’

‘It has? I was not aware of that. This, then, is what comes, when the sorcery finally dies and the world thaws. Balance is reasserted.’

‘Shurq Elalle says we are at war. The Tiste Edur, she says, are invading Lether.’

‘Let us hope they do not arrive before I am free.’

‘Why?’

‘Because they will endeavour to kill me, Kettle.’

‘Why?’

‘For fear that I will seek to kill them.’

‘Will you?’

‘On many levels,’ he replied, ‘there is no reason why I shouldn’t. But no, not unless they get in my way. You and I know, after all, that the true threat waits in the barrows of the Azath grounds.’

‘I don’t think the Edur will win the war,’ she said.

‘Yes, failure on their part would be ideal.’

‘So what else did you want to show me?’

A pale white hand gestured towards the valley. ‘There is something odd to all this. Do you see? Or, rather, what don’t you see?’

‘I don’t see any ghosts.’

‘Yes. The spirits are gone. The question is, where are they?’

Terrified screams echoed as Shurq Elalle walked down the wide, high-ceilinged corridor to the Master Chamber of the Tolls Repository. Guards, servants, clerks and cleaning staff had one and all succumbed to perfectly understandable panic. There was nothing worse, she reflected, than the unexpected visitations of dead relatives.

Ahead, the double doors were wide open, and the lanterns in the huge room beyond were swinging wildly to immanent gusts of spirited haste.

The thief strode into the chamber.

A squalid ghost rushed up to her, rotted face grinning wildly. ‘I touched it! My last coin! I found it in the stacks! And touched it!’

‘I am happy for you,’ Shurq said. ‘Now, where are the counters and readers?’

‘Eh?’

Shurq moved past the ghost. The chamber was seething, spirits hurrying this way and that, others hunched over tumbled scrolls, still others squirming along the shelves. Chests of coins had been knocked over, the glittering gold coins stirring about on the marble floor as gibbering wraiths pawed them.

‘I worked here!’

Shurq eyed the ghost drifting her way. ‘You did?’

‘Oh yes. They put in more shelves, and look at those lantern nooks – what idiot decided on those dust-traps? Dust is a fire hazard. Terrible fire hazard. Why, I was always telling them that. And now I could prove my point – a nudge, a simple nudge of that lantern there, yes…’

‘Come back here! Nothing burns. Understand?’

‘If you say so. Fine. I was just kidding, anyway.’

‘Have you looked at the ledgers?’

‘Yes, yes, and counted. And memorized. I was always good at memorizing; that’s why they hired me. I could count and count and never lose my place. But the dust! Those nooks! Everything might burn, burn terribly-’

‘Enough of that. We have what we need. Time for everyone to leave.’ A chorus of wavering voices answered her. ‘We don’t want to!’

‘There’ll be priests coming. Probably already on their way. And mages, eager to collect wraiths to enslave as their servants for eternity.’

‘We’re leaving!’

‘You,’ said Shurq to the ghost before her, ‘come with me. Talk. Give me details.’

‘Yes, yes. Of course.’

‘Leave that lantern alone, damn you!’

‘Sorry. Terrible fire hazard, oh, the flames there’d be. Such flames, all those inks, the colours!’

‘Everyone!’ the thief shouted. ‘We’re going now! And you, stop rolling that coin – it stays here!’

‘The Seventh Closure,’ Kuru Qan muttered as they made their way back to the palace. ‘It is all spiralling inward. Troubling, this concatenation of details. The Azath dies, a Hold of Death comes into being. A Nameless One appears and somehow possesses the corpse of a child, then fashions an alliance with a denizen of a barrow. A usurper proclaims himself emperor of the Tiste Edur, and now leads an invasion. Among his allies, a demon from the sea, one of sufficient power to destroy two of my best mages. And now, if other rumours are true, it may be the emperor is himself a man of many lives…’ Brys glanced over. ‘What rumours?’

‘Citizens witnessed his death in Trate. The Edur emperor was cut down in battle. Yet he… returned. Probably an exaggeration, but I am nervous none the less at my own assumptions in this matter, Brys. Still, the Tiste Edur have superb healers. Perhaps a binding spell of some sort, cleaving the soul to the flesh until they can arrive… I must give this more thought.’

‘And you believe, Ceda, that all this is somehow linked to the Seventh Closure?’

‘The rebirth of our empire. That is my fear, Champion. That we have in some fatal way misread our ancient prophecy. Perhaps the empire has already appeared.’

‘The Tiste Edur? Why would a Letherii prophecy have anything to do with them?’

Kuru Qan shook his head. ‘It is a prophecy that arose in the last days of the First Empire. Brys, there is so much we have lost. Knowledge, the world of that time. Sorcery gone awry, birthing horrific beasts, the armies of undead who delivered such slaughter among our people, then simply left. Mysterious tales of a strange realm of magic that was torn apart. Could the role of an entire people fit in any of the gaps in our knowing? Yes. And what of other people who are named, yet nothing more than the names survives – no descriptions? Barghast, Jhag, Trell. Neighbouring tribes? We’ll never know.’

They came to the gates. Sleepy guards identified them and opened the lesser postern door. The palace grounds were empty, silent. The Ceda paused and stared up at the hazy stars overhead.

Brys said nothing. He waited, standing at the old man’s side, seeing the night sky reflected in the twin lenses in front of Kuru Qan’s eyes. Wondering what the Ceda was thinking.

Tehol Beddict smiled as she threaded her way through the crowd towards him. ‘Chief Investigator Rucket, I am delighted to see you again.’

‘No you’re not,’ she replied. ‘You’re just trying to put me on the defensive.’

‘How does my delight make you defensive?’

‘Because I get suspicious, that’s why. You’re not fooling me, with those absurd trousers and that idiotic insect on your shoulder.’

Tehol looked down in surprise. ‘Ezgara! I thought I left you on the roof.’

‘You’ve named him Ezgara? He doesn’t look a thing like our king. Oh, maybe if our king had two heads, then I might see the resemblance, but as it stands, that’s a stupid name.’

‘The three of us are deeply offended, as is my bodyguard here and, one must assume, his two brothers wherever they are. Thus, the six of us. Deeply offended.’

‘Where is Bugg?’

‘Somewhere in that crowd behind you, I suppose.’

‘Well, no. They’re all looking.’

‘Oh, he was there a moment ago.’

‘But he isn’t any longer, and the people are clamouring.’

‘No they aren’t, Rucket. They’re milling.’

‘Now you’re challenging my assessment. Concluding, no doubt, that contrariness is sexually attractive. Maybe for some women it is, the kind you prefer, I’d wager. But I take exception to your taking exception to everything I say.’

‘Now who’s being contrary?’

She scowled. ‘I was intending to invite you to a late night bite. There is a courtyard restaurant not far from here-’

‘The Trampled Peacock.’

‘Why, yes. I am dismayed that you are familiar with it. Suggesting to me, for obvious reasons, that clandestine trysts are common with you, further suggesting a certain cheapness and slatternly behaviour on your part. I don’t know why I am surprised that you’re so loose, actually. I should have expected it. Accordingly, I want nothing to do with you.’

‘I’ve never been there.’

‘You haven’t? Then how do you know of it?’

I own it. ‘Reputation, I imagine. I wish I could be more precise. Who said what and when and all that, but it’s late and even if it wasn’t I’d probably not recall such details.’

‘So, are you hungry?’

‘Always. Oh, here’s my manservant. Did you hear, Bugg? Chief Investigator Rucket has invited us to supper.’

‘Well, the cat can wait.’

Rucket glared at Tehol. ‘Who said anything about him?’

‘I go everywhere with my manservant, Rucket. And my bodyguard.’

‘Everywhere? Even on dates?’

‘Bugg,’ Tehol said, ‘have you done all you can here? Is it time to let these poor people sleep?’

‘Well past time, master.’

‘We’re off to the Trampled Peacock!’

‘Is that such a good idea, master?’

‘Well, it wasn’t mine, Bugg, but there it is. Please, Rucket, lead the way.’

‘Oh, wonderful. I look forward to a night of weathering attacks on my vanity. Come now, all of you, we’re wasting time.’

Tehol threw up his hands as soon as they entered the courtyard. ‘Extraordinary! Bugg, look who’s here! Why, it’s Shand and Rissarh and Hejun! Come, let us put two tables together and so make of this a festive gathering of co-conspirators!’

‘The coincidence leaves me awed,’ the manservant said.

‘Who in the Errant’s name are those women?’ Rucket demanded. ‘And why are they all so angry?’

‘That’s not anger,’ Tehol said, approaching, ‘that’s recognition. Dear women, how are you all? Faring well, I see. We’ve decided to join you.’

‘Who is this absurd creature at your side?’ Shand asked. ‘And what’s with the cape?’

‘Watch who you’re calling a creature, cobble-head,’ Rucket hissed.

‘Tehol’s found a woman,’ Rissarh said in a snarl. ‘Typical. He steals our man then gets himself a woman-’

Hejun grunted. ‘I was beginning to suspect him and the dead bitch.’

‘Dead bitch?’ Rucket’s eyes were wild as she looked round. ‘He makes love to a dead bitch?’

‘One freak accident-’ Tehol began.

‘If you shaved your head,’ Shand said to Rucket, sputtering with rage, ‘we’d all see how truly ugly you are!’

The guard was looking alarmed. People at other tables gestured madly at the serving staff.

‘Worked hard on that one, did you?’ Rucket asked. ‘Tehol, what’s all this about stealing their man? They were sharing one man? Is he still alive? Still sane? Did he volunteer at the Drownings?’

‘You want to see me work hard?’ Shand rose to her feet, reaching for the knife at her side.

‘Oh, how pathetic,’ Rucket said. ‘Here, compare that with my rapier here.’

‘Get her!’ This from Rissarh, as she launched herself across the table. It collapsed beneath her a moment later, but she had managed to wrap her arms about Rucket’s thighs. The Chief Investigator made a strange squealing sound as she was pulled over. The rapier sprang free and slapped hard against Shand’s out-thrust wrist, sending the knife spinning. Hejun then snagged Rucket’s sword-arm and twisted the weapon loose. A finely polished boot shot up to strike Hejun in the belly. She groaned and sagged.

Tehol pulled Bugg back a step. ‘I think you were right about this not being a good idea.’

Grunts, meaty thuds and flying fists. Fleeing patrons, the yowl of a cat in the kitchen.

Tehol sighed. ‘We should go. But first, arrange with the manager four bottles of fine wine, for when they’re finished beating on each other. I predict that by dawn they will all be fast friends.’

‘I’m not sure of that-’

‘Nonsense, Bugg, it’s the way of things. Come on, before they turn on us.’

Not surprisingly, the bodyguard led the way out of the courtyard.

Outside, Tehol brushed imaginary dust from his hands. ‘All in all, a fine evening, wouldn’t you say? Now, we should see if we can scrounge some firewood – or at least something that burns – on our way home. Roast cat beckons.’

The crashing sounds from the restaurant courtyard suddenly increased.

Tehol hesitated. ‘I’m tempted by the sounds of firewood production in there.’

‘Don’t be a fool, master.’

‘Perhaps you’re right. Lead us on, Bugg. Home.’

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