The Betrayer stands in the shadow of the Empty Throne. That is why it is empty.
The Casting of the Tiles Ceda Parudu Erridict
THE MASS OF REFUGEES HAD FORCED THEM FROM THE MAIN ROAD, but Seren Pedac was familiar with all the old tracks winding through the countryside, the herder paths, quarry and logging roads, the smugglers’ trails. They were skirting an overgrown limestone quarry four leagues north from Brous as the sun sank behind the trees on their right.
The Acquitor found herself riding alongside the mage, Corlo. ‘I have been wondering,’ she said. ‘The sorcery you use. I have never heard of magic that steals the will from its victims, that reaches into their minds.’
‘Not surprised,’ he said in a grunt. ‘Here in this backwater, all the sorcery is raw and ugly. No subtlety, no refinement of the powers. Yours is a land where most of the doors are closed. I doubt there’s been any innovation in the study of sorcery in the past ten thousand years.’
‘Thank you for those admiring sentiments, Corlo. Maybe you’d care to explain things for my ignorant self.’
He sighed. ‘Where to start?’
‘Manipulating people’s minds.’
‘Mockra. That’s the warren’s name.’
‘All right, bad idea. Go back further. What’s a warren?’
‘Well, even that’s not easy to answer, lass. It’s a path of magic. The forces that govern all existence are aspected. Which means-’
‘Aspected. In the way the Holds are aspected?’
‘The Holds.’ He shook his head. ‘Sitting in a wagon with square wheels and complimenting each other on the smooth ride. That’s the
Holds, Acquitor. They were created in a world long gone, a world where the forces were rougher, wilder, messier. The warrens, well, those are wheels without corners.’
‘You’re not helping much here, Corlo.’
He scratched at his beard. ‘Damned fleas. All right. Paths of aspected magic. Like forces and unlike forces. Right? Unlike forces repel, and like forces hold together, you see. Same as water in a river, all flowing the same way. Sure, there’s eddies, draws and such, but it all heads down eventually. I’ll talk about those eddies later. So, the warrens are those rivers, only you can’t see them. The current is invisible, and what you can see is only the effect. Watch a mob in a square, the way the minds of every person in it seem to melt into one. Riots and public executions, or battles, for that matter, they’re all hints of Mockra, they’re what you can see. But a mage who’s found a way into the warren of Mockra, well, that mage can reach deeper, down into that water. In fact, that mage can jump right in and swim with the current. Find an eddy and step back out, in a different place from where he started.’
‘So when you say “path” you mean it in a physical sense.’
‘Only if you choose to use it that way. Mockra’s not a good example; the eddies take you nowhere, mostly. Because it’s sorcery of the mind, and the mind’s a lot more limited than we’d care to think. Take Meanas – that’s another warren. It’s aspected to shadows and illusion, a child of Thyr, the warren of Light. Separate but related. Open the warren of Meanas, and you can travel through shadows. Unseen, and fast as thought itself, nearly. And illusions, well, that reveals the sisterhood to Mockra, for it is a kind of manipulation of the mind, or, at least, of perception, via the cunning reshaping of light and shadow and dark.’
‘Do the Tiste Edur employ this Meanas?’ Seren asked.
‘Uh, no. Not really. Theirs is a warren not normally accessible to humans. Kurald Emurlahn. It’s Shadow, but Shadow more as a Hold than a warren. Besides, Kurald Emurlahn is shattered. In pieces. The Tiste Edur can access but one fragment and that’s all.’
‘All right. Mockra and Meanas and Thyr. There are others?’
‘Plenty, lass. Rashan, Ruse, Tennes, Hood-’
‘Hood. You use that word when you curse, don’t you?’
‘Aye, it’s the warren of Death. It’s the name of the god himself. But that’s the other thing about warrens. They can be realms, entire worlds. Step through and you can find yourself in a land with ten moons overhead, and stars in constellations you’ve never seen before. Places with two suns. Or places filled with the spirits of the dead – although if you step through the gates in Hood’s Realm you don’t come back. Or, rather, you shouldn’t. Anyway, a mage finds a warren suited to his or her nature, a natural affinity if you like. And through enough study and discipline you find ways of reaching into it, making use of the forces within it. Some people, of course, are born with natural talent, meaning they don’t have to work as hard.’
‘So, you reach into this Mockra, and that gets you into the minds of other people.’
‘Sort of, lass. I make use of proclivities. I make the water cloudy, or fill it with frightening shadows. The victim’s body does the rest.’
‘Their body? What do you mean?’
‘Say you take two cows to slaughter. One of them you kill quick, without it even knowing what’s about to happen. The other, well, you push it down a track, in some place filled with the stench of death, with screams of other dying animals on all sides. Until, stupid as that cow is, it knows what’s coming. And is filled with terror. Then you kill it. Cut a haunch from each beast, do they taste identical?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘They don’t. Because the frightened cow’s blood was filled with bitter fluids. That’s what fear does. Bitter, noxious fluids. Makes the meat itself unhealthy to eat. My point is, you trick the mind to respond to invisible fears, unfounded beliefs, and the blood goes foul, and that foulness makes the fear worse, turns the belief into certainty.’
‘As if the slaughterhouse for the second cow was only an illusion, when in truth it was crossing pasture.’
Seren studied the back of Iron Bars where he rode ahead, and was silent.
‘All right,’ Corlo said after a time, ‘now tell me what you’re really on about, lass.’
She hesitated, then asked, ‘Corlo, can you do anything about memories?’ She looked across at him. ‘Can you take them away?’
In front of them, Iron Bars half turned in his saddle, regarded Seren a moment, then swung back round.
‘Ah,’ Corlo said under his breath. ‘You sure you want that?’
‘I can make you blind and senseless to them, but it’ll be in your nature to fret about that strange emptiness. As if you’re always on the edge of realization, but never able to reach it. It could drive you to distraction, Acquitor. Besides, the body remembers. You’ll react to things you see, smell, taste, and you won’t know why. It’ll gnaw away at you. Your whole personality will change.’
‘You’ve done it before, haven’t you?’
He nodded. Then hesitantly ventured, ‘There’s another option, lass.’
‘It’s not the memories that are hurting, Acquitor. It’s how you feel about them. It’s the you, now, warring with the you, then. Can’t explain it any better-’
‘No, I understand you.’
‘Well, I can make you feel, uh, differently about it.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘End the war, lass.’
‘What would I feel, Corlo?’
‘I could make you cry it out. All out, Seren.’ He met her eyes. ‘And when that was done, you’d feel better. Not much better, but some. You release it all, but only once, I promise. There’s a risk with crying it all out, mind you. Could be as traumatic as the rape itself. But you won’t fall into the trap of cycling through it over and over again. Release gets addictive, you see. It becomes a fixed behaviour, as destructive as any other. Keep repeating the exercise of grief and it loses meaning, it becomes rote, false, a game of self-delusion, self-indulgence. A way of never getting over anything, ever.’
‘This sounds complicated, Corlo.’
‘It is. You stop the war all in one shot, and afterwards the memory leaves you feeling… nothing. A little remorse, maybe. The same as you feel for all the mistakes you left behind you during your whole life. Regrets, but no self-recrimination, because that’s your real enemy. Isn’t it? A part of you feeling like you somehow deserved it.’
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
‘Making you want to punish yourself.’
Corlo raised his voice. ‘Avowed, we might-’
‘Aye,’ he said, lifting a gauntleted hand.
The troop halted.
Corlo’s hands were there, helping her down from the horse. She glared at him. ‘You’ve started, haven’t you?’
‘No, lass. You did. Remember what I said about natural talent? You’ve got it by the bucketful.’
‘I never cry,’ she said as he led her off the trail into the adjacent forest.
‘Of course not,’ he replied. ‘You’ve got the warren right there in your head, and you’ve spent most of your life manipulating it like a High Mage. Anything to keep going, right?’
She pulled up, looked behind them.
Iron Bars was just visible at the trail’s edge, watching.
Don’t mind him, he’s just worried, lass. He won’t be there when you-’
‘No,’ she said. ‘He comes with us.’
‘If I start beating on your chest, Corlo, I’m liable to break a rib or two. He’s tougher.’
The mage’s eyes widened, then he smiled. ‘Avowed! Stop hovering, if you please.’
Warrens. It occurred to Seren Pedac, much later, that they were a thing not easily defined, yet simply understood. Forces of nature, proclivities and patterns. Corlo’s explanations had worked to illuminate for her those mostly hidden forces, somewhat, but in the end it was the knowledge already within her that offered revelation.
In a simplistic world, four elements are commonly identified, and things are left at that. As if the universe could be confined to four observable, apposite manifestations. But Corlo had mentioned others, and once that notion was accepted, then it was as if the world opened out, as if new colours rose sudden and startling in their terrible beauty.
Time was such an element, she now believed. The stretch of existence between events, consisting of countless other events, all strung together in complex patterns of cause and effect, all laid out like images sewn onto a tapestry, creating a sequence of scenes that, once one stood back, was revealed to be co-existing. Present all at once.
She had been repeating scenes. A grim realization. Repeating scenes for most of her life. She had imposed her own pattern, bereft of nuance, and had viewed her despair as a legitimate response, perhaps the only legitimate response. A conceit of being intelligent, almost preter-naturally aware of the multitude of perspectives that was possible in all things. And that had been the trap, all along, the sorcerous incantation called grief, her invitation to the demons of self-recrimination, reappearing again and again on that tapestry – different scenes, the same leering faces.
Unravelling the ritual had proved frighteningly easy, like pulling a single thread. If it had been Corlo’s work, then he had been subtle beyond belief, for it had seemed that the effort was entirely her own. He had sat across from her, there in the glade they’d found thirty paces from the trail, his expression both relaxed and watchful, and, oddly enough, she had felt no shame weeping in front of him.
Iron Bars had begun by pacing restlessly, but his motion stilled when her first tears arrived, and eventually she found herself in the half-embrace of one of his arms, her face pressed against his neck.
It might have been sordid, under other circumstances. The critical part of herself could well have sneered at the contrivance, as if the only genuine gestures were the small ones, the ones devoid of an audience. As if true honesty belonged to solitude, since to be witnessed was to perform, and performance was inherently false since it invited expectation.
In the exhausted aftermath of a surprisingly short period of release, when it seemed in truth that she was empty inside, hollowed-out calm, she could explore what was left, without the fetters of emotion. She had chosen to have faith in Buruk the Pale, believed – because it was easy – that he would not give up on life. She never did, after all. She had refused the evidence of his sudden ease, the strange freedom in his words to her during those last few days. When he’d already made up his mind. He’d seen the war coming, after all, and wanted to excise his own role in its making. Cut himself from this particular tapestry. But there had been sorcery in her own self-deceit, the path to grief and guilt, and there had been a comforting familiarity to the ritual.
From her failure sprang the requirement to be punished.
She had not invited the rape. No sane person would do that. But she had woven the scene and all its potential horror.
Not all things about oneself were likeable.
So she had wept for her flaws, for her weaknesses and for her humanity. Before two witnesses who no doubt had their own stories, their own reasons to grieve.
But now it was done. There was no value in repeating this particular ritual. Exhaustion gave way to sleep, and when she awoke it was dawn. The squad had camped in the glade, and all were still asleep with the exception of Iron Bars, who was sitting before a small hearth, intent on stirring the flames to life once more.
A blanket had been thrown over her. The morning air was cool and damp. Seren sat up, drawing the wool about her shoulders, then rose and joined the Avowed at the smouldering fire.
He did not glance up. ‘Acquitor. You are rested?’
‘Yes, thank you. I don’t know if I should apologize-’
‘For what? I’ve been hearing horses, south of here.’
‘That would be Brous. There’s a garrison there, a small one.’
‘Brous is a city?’
‘A village, set in the midst of stone ruins. It was once a holy site for the Tarthenal, although they didn’t build it.’
‘How do you know?’
‘The scale is all wrong for Tarthenal.’
‘No, too big.’
He looked up, squinted, then rose. ‘Time to prepare a meal, I think.’
‘You’re a strange officer, Iron Bars,’ Seren said, smiling. ‘Cooking every breakfast for your soldiers.’
‘I always wake up first,’ he replied, dragging close a food pack.
She watched him working, wondering how often he had done this. How many glades like this one, how many mornings the first to rise among snoring soldiers. So far from anything resembling home. In a way, she understood him in that regard. There were two manifestations in the Empty Hold that spoke to that nature. Walker and Wanderer, the distinction between them a subtle one of motivation.
The Avowed, she realized, was an easy man to watch.
Coughing, the mage Corlo clawed free of his blanket and stumbled over. ‘Where’s that tea?’
‘Almost ready,’ Iron Bars replied.
‘Got a headache,’ Corlo said. ‘Something’s up.’
‘Heard horses earlier,’ the Avowed said. ‘Screaming.’
‘That’s brewed enough for me.’
The Avowed dipped a ladle into the pot, filled the tin cup Corlo held out.
Seren saw the mage’s hand trembling.
‘May need the diadem today, sir.’
‘Uh, rather not. Let’s try to avoid that if we can.’
‘The diadem?’ Seren asked. ‘The one you used to open that path in Trate?’
Corlo shot her a sharp look, then nodded. ‘But not for that. There’s other rituals woven into it. Forty of ’em, in fact. The one we might have to use speeds us up, makes us faster than normal. But we go that way as rarely as we can, since it leaves us with the shakes – and those shakes get worse the more we use it.’
‘Is that why you’re trembling now?’
He glanced down at his hand after taking a sip of the herbal brew. ‘No. That’s something else.’
‘Whatever’s happening right now at Brous.’
‘Wake up the others, Corlo,’ Iron Bars said. ‘Acquitor, should we be avoiding Brous?’
‘Hard to do. There’s a ridge of hills to the east of here. No tracks to speak of across them. We’d lose a day, maybe two, if we went that way.’
‘I’ll see to the horses,’ Seren said after a moment.
The Avowed nodded. ‘Then come back and eat.’
She was pleased at the answering smile, slight though it was.
They were among the ruins well before the village came into view. Most were half buried, rising in humps from the forest floor. Ancient roots gripped the stone, but had clearly failed in forcing cracks into the strange rock. Causeways that had once been raised now formed a crazed web of roads through the forest, littered in dead leaves but otherwise defying intrusion. Reaching the edge of the wood, they could see a scattering of domed buildings in the clearing ahead, and beyond it the palisade wall of Brous, over which woodsmoke hung in a sullen wreath of grey.
The ancient domed buildings possessed formal entrances, a projecting, arched corridor with doorways as wide as they were tall – three times the height of a man.
‘Hood’s breath,’ Corlo hissed, ‘these dwarf even K’Chain Che’Malle tombs.’
‘Can’t say I’ve ever seen those-’ Seren began.
But the mage interrupted. ‘Then I’m surprised, since there are plenty of remnants in these lands. They were something between lizards and dragons, walking on two legs. Lots of sharp teeth – Trate’s markets had the occasional stall selling the old teeth and bones. K’Chain Che’Malle, lass, ruled this entire continent, once. Long before humans arrived. Anyway, their tombs look something like these ones, only smaller.’
‘Oh. It’s been assumed that those were Tarthenal. Nothing was ever found inside them.’
‘The K’Chain Che’Malle never got the chance to use them, that’s why. Most of them, anyway.’
They fell silent as they rode past the first structure, and saw, on the near side of the village, a hundred or more soldiers and workers gathered. It appeared they were excavating into a small, longish hill. A barrow. Capstones had been dragged from the top of the barrow by teams of horses, and crowds of diggers were attacking the sides.
‘Don’t want to be a part of that, sir,’ Corlo said.
They reined in.
‘What’s in there?’ Iron Bars asked.
‘Nothing that has anything to do with these ruins, I don’t think.’
‘Picking up the dock-rat version of our language doesn’t serve you well, you know,’ Seren said.
‘Fine,’ Corlo rasped. ‘What I meant was, the low barrows belong to something else. And the interment was messy. Lots of wards. There’s a mage in that company, Avowed, who’s been busy dismantling them.’
‘All of them?’
‘Almost. Left a couple in place. I think he means to bind whatever’s in there.’
‘We’ve been noticed,’ Seren said.
A troop of mounted soldiers was riding towards them, an officer in the lead.
‘Recognize him?’ the Avowed asked her.
‘Finadd Arlidas Tullid,’ she replied. ‘He commands the Brous garrison.’
Iron Bars glanced at her. ‘And?’
‘He’s not a nice man.’
The Finadd’s troop comprised sixteen riders. They reined in, and Arlidas nodded at Seren. ‘Acquitor. Thought I recognized you. You come from where?’
‘That’s a long ride. I take it you left before it fell.’
She did not contradict him.
The Finadd scanned the Crimson Guardsmen, and apparently did not like what he saw. ‘Your arrival is well timed,’ he said. ‘We’re recruiting.’
‘They have already been recruited,’ Seren said, ‘as my escort. I am riding to Letheras, for an audience with the king.’
Arlidas scowled. ‘No point in that, Acquitor. The man just sits there, cowering on his throne. And the Ceda’s lost his mind. That is why I decided to declare our independence. And we intend to defend ourselves against these damned grey-skins.’
Seren’s laugh was sudden, instantly regretted. ‘Independence, Finadd? The village of Brous? With you in charge? As what, its emperor?’
‘You have entered our territory, Acquitor, meaning you and your escort are now subject to me. I am pleased to see you all armed, since I have few spare weapons.’
‘You are not recruiting us,’ Iron Bars said. ‘And I suggest you do not make an issue of it, Finadd, or in a short while you will find yourself with a much smaller army.’
Arlidas sneered. ‘The six of you and an Acquitor-’
‘Finadd.’ A rider nudged his horse from the troop to halt alongside Arlidas. Round, hairy, small-eyed and filthy from crawling tunnels of dirt. ‘That one’s a mage.’ He pointed at Corlo.
‘So are you, you damned Nerek halfling,’ the Finadd snapped. ‘Tell him,’ Corlo said to the other mage. ‘Your name’s Urger, isn’t it? Tell your Finadd, Urger.’
The half-Nerek licked his lips. ‘He’ll kill us all, sir. Every one of us. He won’t even break a sweat. And he’ll start with you, Finadd. He’ll pluck your brain out and drop it in a cauldron of boiling oil.’
Corlo said, ‘You’d best return to that barrow, Urger. Your demon’s trying to get out, and it just might succeed. You’ll lose your chance to bind it.’
The mage twisted round in his saddle. ‘Errant take me, he’s right! Finadd, I must go! No waiting!’ With that he wheeled his horse and drove heels into its flanks.
Arlidas glared at Seren, Iron Bars and Corlo in turn, then he snarled wordlessly and gestured to his soldiers. ‘Back to the barrow. Back, damn you!’
They rode off.
Seren looked over at Corlo. ‘You made yourself pretty scary, didn’t you?’
The mage smiled.
‘Let’s get going,’ the Avowed said, ‘before they gather their wits.’
‘I’d like to learn how you do that, Corlo.’
His smile broadened. ‘You would, would you?’
‘There is always something ominous in dust rising from a distant road, do you not think?’
Trull Sengar squinted eastward until he spied the telltale smear. ‘Nothing to worry about, Lilac,’ he said. ‘It’s a column from my father’s army, I suspect. A portion of it occupied the Manse not long ago.’
‘There was fighting there,’ the demon said, then sighed. ‘Two of my kin fell’
‘I am sorry for that,’ Trull said.
They were camped on the outskirts of Thetil, preparing for the fast, extended march down to First Reach, where their army would join up with the emperor’s before striking southeast to Letheras. Tomad’s army would march down Mappers’ Road to approach the capital city from the north. The Letherii forces were fleeing before them along every approach. Even so, one more battle lay ahead, probably outside the walls of Letheras.
Trull glanced over at his company. A dozen or so warriors were gathered round Sergeant Canarth, who was in the midst of a gesture-filled tirade of some sort. Trull’s captain, Ahlrada Ahn, stood nearby, apart yet listening.
Since Trull had acquired his demon bodyguard, the other warriors had kept their distance, the squad leaders reluctant to stand still even when Trull approached with orders. There was something wrong, clearly, with singling out a demon, with making it obvious that the creature was intelligent, an individual. Understandable, given the usual treatment of the KenylPrah by their Tiste Edur masters. But, he well knew, there was more to it than that.
During their march down from High Fort, Trull Sengar had found himself mostly shunned by his warrior kin and by the women. No official sanction had yet been pronounced, but silent judgement had already occurred, and it was these unspoken forms of punishment that maintained the necessary cohesion of the Edur tribes – rejection of aberrant behaviour must be seen, the punishment one of public participation, the lesson clear to all who might harbour similar dangerous impulses. Trull understood this well enough, and did not rail against it.
Without the demon at his side, it would have been far more painful, far more lonely, than it was. Yet even with Lilac, there was a truth that stung. The demon was not free, and had it been so it would not now be here, at his side. Thus, the premise of companionship was flawed, and Trull could not delude himself into believing otherwise.
Fear had not spoken to him once since High Fort. Orders were conveyed through B’nagga, who was indifferent to, or unaware of, the tensions swirling about Trull.
Nearby sat their two charges, the queen and her son, for whom Trull and his company had provided escort down from High Fort. They had been carried by ox-drawn wagon, the prince’s minor wounds tended to by a Letherii slave, the queen provided with a female slave of her own to cook meals and do other chores as required. An indulgence permitting the king’s wife to resume her haughty demeanour. Even so, the two prisoners had said little since their capture. Ahlrada Ahn made his way over.
Trull spoke first. ‘Captain. What has Sergeant Canarth so animated?’
The dark-skinned warrior frowned. ‘You, Trull Sengar.’
‘Ah, and you’ve come to warn me of insurrection?’ The suggestion clearly offended him. ‘I am not your ally,’ he said. ‘Not in this matter. Canarth intends to approach Fear and request a new commander.’
‘Well, that would be a relief,’ Trull said. ‘What is it you want, then?’
‘I want you to excuse yourself before Canarth delivers his request.’
Trull looked away. Southward, the sprawl of farms on the other side of Thetil. No livestock, no workers in the fields. The rains had been kind, and all was a luscious, deep green. ‘A Bluerose slave, wasn’t she?
Your mother. Which was why you were always apart from the rest of us.’
‘I am ashamed of nothing, Trull Sengar. If you are seeking to wound me-’
He met Ahlrada’s hard gaze. ‘No, the very opposite. I know you do not like me. Indeed, you never have – long before I struck… a woman. Oddly enough, I have always admired you. Your strength, your determination to rise above your birth-’
‘Rise above?’ Ahlrada’s grin was cold. ‘I suffered under no such compulsion, Trull Sengar. Before she died, my mother told me many secrets. The Bluerose are the survivors, from a war in which it was supposed there were no survivors. It was believed the Edur had killed them all, you see. It was necessary to believe that.’
‘You have lost me, Ahlrada Ahn,’ Trull said. ‘What war are you speaking of?’
‘I am speaking of the Betrayal. When the Edur and the Andii fought as allies against the K’Chain Che’Malle. The Betrayal, which was not as the Edur histories would have it. The Andii were the ones betrayed, not the Edur. Scabandari Bloodeye stabbed Silchas Ruin. In the back. All that you learned as a child and hold true to this day, Trull Sengar, was a lie.’ His smile grew colder. ‘And now you will accuse me of being the liar.’
‘The Bluerose are Tiste Andii?’
‘The blood is thinned, but it remains.’
Trull looked away once more. After a time, he slowly nodded to himself. ‘I see no reason, Ahlrada Ahn, to call you a liar. Indeed, your version makes more sense. After all, had we been the ones betrayed, then we should have been as the Andii today – mere remnants of a broken people-’
‘Not as broken as you think,’ Ahlrada said.
‘You do not think Bluerose will capitulate? Is it not already a protectorate of the Letherii? A nation of subjugated people?’
‘They have been waiting for this, Trull Sengar. After all, the truth cannot be hidden – once the Edur occupy Bluerose, it will be discovered that its ruling class possess Andii blood.’
They were silent for a time, then Ahlrada Ahn said, ‘I hold no particular hatred for you, Trull Sengar. My hatred is for all the Tiste Edur.’
‘Do you? Look upon the shadow wraiths. The ghosts who have been bound to the Edur, who are made to fight this war. To find oblivion beneath swords of Letherii steel, the fatal iron against which they have no defence. They are Tiste Andii, the shades of those who fell in that betrayal, long ago.’
The demon, Lilac, spoke, ‘It is true, Trull Sengar. The wraiths are compelled, as much as we KenylPrah. They are not your ancestors.’
‘To all of this,’ Trull said, ‘I can do nothing.’
Without another word, he strode away. Through the camp, deftly avoided by all, his path appearing before him devoid of any obstruction, as if by the hand of sorcery. Trull was not immune to regret. He would have liked to have taken back that moment when he’d lost control, when his outrage had broken through. The woman had been right, he supposed. The wounded Edur must be healed first and foremost. There was no time for demons. He should not have struck her.
No-one cared for his reasons. The act was inexcusable, as simple as that.
He approached the command tent.
And saw that the riders they’d seen earlier on the road had arrived. Among them, Uruth, his mother.
She was standing beside her horse.
Fear emerged from the tent and strode to her.
Uruth was speaking as Trull arrived. ‘… I can barely stand. Should we run low on food on our march south, allow me to be the first to suggest we slaughter the horses.’ She noted Trull and faced him. ‘You have made terrible mistakes, my son. None the less, this over-reaction on the part of the women in this camp will not be tolerated. It is for me to sanction you, not them.’ She returned her attention to Fear. ‘Are the warriors naught but children? Grubby hands on their mother’s skirts? Did your brother Trull reveal cowardice on the field of battle?’
‘No,’ Fear replied, ‘there was no question of his courage-’
‘For you and your warriors, Fear, nothing else obtains. I would have thought better of you, my eldest son. Your brother sought the healing of a fallen comrade-’
‘And did not demons fight at High Fort? Did not many of them give their lives to win victory? Healers are to accede to the wishes of the warriors after a battle. They are not to make judgements on who is worthy of healing. Had I been here, I myself might well have struck her for her impudence. Shall every Edur woman now assume the flaws of our Empress Mayen? Not if I have a say in the matter. Now, Fear, you will correct your warriors’ attitudes. You will remind them of Trull’s deeds during the journey to retrieve the emperor’s sword. You will tell them to recall his delivery of the news of the Letherii harvest of the tusked seals. Most importantly, Fear, you will not turn away from your brother. Do you challenge my words?’
It seemed a vast weight lifted from Fear, as he straightened with a wry smile. ‘I would not dare,’ he said.
Trull hesitated, then said, ‘Mother, Fear’s anger with me has been over my disagreement with the necessity of this war. I have been careless in voicing my objections-’
‘A crisis of loyalty to the emperor is a dangerous thing,’ Uruth said. ‘Fear was right to be angry, nor am I pleased by your words. Only the emperor has the power to halt this conquest, and he will not do that. Neither Fear nor I, nor anyone else, Trull, are capable of responding to your doubts. Do you not see that? Only Rhulad, and he is not here.’
‘I understand,’ Trull said. He looked to Fear. ‘Brother, I apologize. I shall save my words for Rhulad-’
‘He is not interested in hearing them,’ Fear said.
‘None the less.’
They studied each other.
Uruth sighed. ‘Enough of this. Trull, is that the demon in question?’
Trull swung round to where Lilac stood, five paces back. ‘Yes.’
His mother approached the demon. ‘KenylPrah, do your kin still rule over you in your home realm?’
A deferential nod. ‘The tyrants remain, mistress, for the war continues.’
‘Yet you were not a soldier.’
Lilac shrugged. ‘Even the Kenryll’ah must eat, mistress.’
‘We found few soldiers among those we summoned,’ Uruth said.
‘We are losing the war. Four of the Kenryll’ah towers have fallen. Korvalahrai ships were seen far up the Chirahd River.’
‘I must leave to join the emperor tomorrow morning,’ Uruth said. ‘Which leaves us this night.’
‘For what?’ Trull asked.
‘A conversation with a Kenryll’ah tyrant,’ she replied, her regard still on the demon. ‘Perhaps the time has come for a formal alliance.’
Lilac spoke. ‘They are not pleased with your thefts, Tiste Edur.’
Uruth turned away. ‘You are a peasant, demon. All I need from you is the path into your realm. Keep your opinions to yourself.’
Trull watched his mother stride into the command tent. He glanced at Fear and saw his brother staring at him.
‘Did you come here to speak to me about something?’
Trull hesitated, then said, ‘My warriors are about to come to you seeking a new commander. I thought to anticipate them by resigning.’
Fear smiled. ‘ “Resigning.” I suppose we are indeed an army now. In the Letherii fashion. Sergeants, lieutenants, captains.’
‘There will be no resignations, Trull.’
‘Very well. Expect Canarth to request an audience soon.’
‘And he shall have one, although he will not leave pleased.’ Fear stepped close. ‘We will soon be joining our brothers. I know you will have words you will want to say to Rhulad. Be careful, Trull. Nothing is at it once was. Our people have changed.’
‘I can see that, Fear.’
‘Perhaps, but you do not understand it.’
‘Do you?’ Trull challenged.
Fear shrugged, made no reply. A moment later, he walked back to his command tent.
‘Your mother,’ Lilac said, ‘would play a dangerous game.’
‘This is the emperor’s game, Lilac,’ Trull said. He faced the demon. ‘Your people are at war in your home realm?’
‘I am a caster of nets.’
‘Yet, should the need arise, your tyrant masters could call you into military service.’
‘The Kenryll’ah have ruled a long time, Trull Sengar. And have grown weak with complacency. They cannot see their own impending demise. It is always the way of things, such blindness. No matter how long and perfect the succession of fallen empires and civilizations so clearly writ into the past, the belief remains that one’s own shall live for ever, and is not subject to the indomitable rules of dissolution that bind all of nature.’ The small, calm eyes of the demon looked down steadily upon Trull. ‘I am a caster of nets. Tyrants and emperors rise and fall. Civilizations burgeon then die, but there are always casters of nets. And tillers of the soil, and herders in the pastures. We are where civilization begins, and when it ends, we are there to begin it again.’
A curious speech, Trull reflected. The wisdom of peasants was rarely articulated in such clear fashion. Even so, claims to truth were innumerable. ‘Unless, Lilac, all the casters and tillers and herders are dead.’
‘I spoke not of ourselves, Trull, but of our tasks. KenylPrah, Edur, Letherii, the selves are not eternal. Only the tasks.’
‘Unless everything is dead.’
‘Life will return, eventually. It always does. If the water is foul, it will find new water.’
‘My mother said she would make use of you, to fashion a path,’ Trull said. ‘How will this be done?’
‘I will be sacrificed. My blood shall be the path.’
‘I did not have you healed only to have you sacrificed, Lilac’
‘There is nothing you can do, Trull Sengar.’
‘There must be. Is there no way of setting you free?’
The demon was silent for a moment, then it said, ‘Your blood can create a new binding. Myself to you, in exclusion of all else. Then you could command me.’
‘To do what? Return to your realm?’
‘And could you then be summoned again?’
‘Only by you, Trull Sengar.’
‘You would have me as your master, Lilac?’
‘The alternative is death.’
‘Which you said earlier you’d prefer to slavery.’
‘Between the choices of fighting this war or dying, yes.’
‘But returning home…’
‘That is preferable to all else, Trull Sengar.’
The Tiste Edur drew out his knife. ‘What must I do?’
Trull entered the command tent a short while later. He found Fear and Uruth in the centre chamber. ‘Mother.’
She turned, frowned. ‘What have you done?’
‘I sent my demon away. You will have to find another.’
Her gaze dropped to his left hand, narrowed on the broad, still dripping cut across the palm. ‘I see. Tell me, son, will your defiance never end?’
‘I paid a high price to save that demon’s life.’
‘What of it?’
‘You intended to use him to create your path into his realm-’
‘To do that, you would have to sacrifice it-’
‘The demon told you that? It lied, Trull. In fact, killing it would have severed its link to its own world. It deceived you, son. But you are bound now, the two of you. You can summon it back, and deliver your punishment.’
Trull cocked his head, then smiled. ‘You know, Mother, I think I would have done the same, were I in its place. No, I have sent it home, and there it shall stay.’
‘Where it may well find itself fighting in another war.’
‘Not for me to decide,’ Trull said, shrugging.
‘You are difficult to understand,’ Uruth said, ‘and the effort wearies me.’
‘I am sorry,’ Trull said. ‘This alliance you will attempt with the demon tyrants – what is the emperor seeking from it? What does Rhulad plan to offer in return?’
‘Are you truly interested, son?’
Uruth shot Fear a glance, then sighed. ‘The Korvalahrai are seafarers. They are reaching into the Kenryll’ah lands via a vast river, and even now approach the heart in a fleet carrying all the Korvalahrai. Rhulad’s power is such that he can divert that river, for a time. The invading fleet will be destroyed in the conflagration. Achieving such a thing would in turn serve Edur needs, as well. In return, we are given more demons for our war, perhaps a minor Kenryll’ah or two, who are far better versed in the arts of battle than their subject KenylPrah.’ She turned to Fear. ‘I will need another demon.’
‘And then, a place of solitude.’
Fear nodded. ‘Trull, return to your company.’
As he was walking back to where his warriors were camped, Trull found himself smiling. Lilac’s pleasure, moments before it vanished, had been childlike. Yet the demon’s mind was not simple. It must have known there was a risk that, upon discovering the deception, Trull would summon it back in a fit of rage and inflict terrible punishment. For some reason, Lilac had concluded that such an event was unlikely.
Perhaps he was not a warrior after all. Not a follower of commands, capable of shutting out all unnecessary thoughts in service to the cause. Not a leader, either, to stride ahead, certainty a blinding fire drawing all with him.
Worse yet, he was suspicious of Rhulad’s transformation. Fear, in his youth, had displayed none of Rhulad’s strutting arrogance, his posing and posturing – all of which might well suit a leader of warriors, but not in the manner that Fear led warriors. Rhulad had been bluster, whilst Fear was quiet confidence, and Trull was not sure if that essential character trait had changed in Rhulad.
The realization shocked him, slowed his steps. He looked around, feeling suddenly lost. Here, in the midst of his own people.
South, across the region known as the Swath, a deforested scrubland which had once been part of Outcry Wood, past the burnt-out town of Siege Place, and onto the slowly climbing Lookout Track towards the hills of Lookout Climb. Three days crossing the old hills – a range thoroughly denuded by wild goats – onto Moss Road. Marching northeast along the banks of the Moss River to the ford town of Ribs.
Retreating Letherii forces had stripped the countryside ahead of the emperor and his army. The military food and materiel caches that Hull Beddict knew of were all emptied. If not for the shadow wraiths, supplying the Tiste Edur army would have been impossible – the invasion would have stalled. Unacceptable, Rhulad had decided. The enemy was reeling. It was necessary to keep it so.
Udinaas remembered eating smoked eel from Moss River, one time when the trader ship had docked in Dresh. Delicious, once one got used to the furry skin, which was to be chewed but not swallowed. He had since heard, from another slave, that the eels had been transplanted into Dresh Lake, producing a strain that was both bigger and nastier. It had turned out that those eels captured in Moss River were juveniles, and few ever reached adulthood since there was a razor-jawed species of predatory fish resident in the river. No such fish in Dresh Lake. Adolescent swimmers from Dresh started disappearing before anyone realized the adult eels were responsible. Razor-jawed fish were netted from the river and tossed into the lake, but their behaviour changed, turning them into frenzy feeders. Adult swimmers from Dresh started vanishing. The slave who had been relating all this then laughed and finished with, ‘So they poisoned the whole lake, killed everything. And now no-one can swim in it!’
From this, Udinaas surmised, various lessons could be drawn, should one be inclined to draw lessons from multiple acts of stupidity.
They had camped on the road, a day’s march west of Ribs. The emperor was suffering from some kind of fever. Healers were tending to him, and the last Udinaas had heard, Rhulad was sleeping. It was late afternoon, and the sun’s light was painting the river’s surface red and gold.
Udinaas walked along the stony strand, flinging rocks out onto the water every now and then, shattering the lurid hues. At the moment, he was not feeling anything like a slave, or an Indebted. He marched in the shadow of the emperor, for all to see, for all to wonder at.
He heard boots crunching on pebbles and turned to see Hull Beddict scrambling down onto the strand. A big man, on whom every oversized muscle seemed to brood, somehow. There was fever in his eyes as well, but unlike Rhulad this heat had nothing to do with illness. ‘Udinaas.’
The slave watched the man approach, fighting his instinctive urge towards deference. The time for that was past, after all. He just wasn’t sure what belonged in its stead.
‘I have been looking for you.’
‘The emperor’s condition…’
Udinaas shrugged. ‘A marsh fever, nothing more-’
‘I was not speaking of that, slave.’
‘I am not your slave, Hull Beddict.’
‘I am sorry. You are right.’
Udinaas collected another stone. He wiped the grit from its underside before throwing it out over the water. They watched it splash, then Udinaas said, ‘I understand your need to distinguish yourself from the other Letherii marching with this army. Even so, we are all bound to servitude, and the varying shades of that are not as relevant as they once were.’
‘Perhaps you have a point, Udinaas, but I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.’
He brushed the grit from his hands. ‘Who better to teach the newly conquered Letherii than the Edur’s original Letherii slaves?’
‘You anticipate a new status for you and your fellow slaves, then?’
‘Maybe. How are the Tiste Edur to rule? Much remains to be answered, Hull Beddict. I gather you intend to involve yourself in that particular reshaping, if you can.’
The man’s smile was sour. ‘It seems I am to have little or no role in much of anything, Udinaas.’
‘Then the Errant looks kindly upon you,’ Udinaas said.
‘I am not surprised you might see it that way.’
‘It is a waste of time, Hull Beddict, to fashion intricate plans for restitution. What you did before, all you did before – the mistakes, the bad decisions – they are dead, for everyone but you. None of it has purchased a future claim to glory, none of it has
‘Has not the emperor heeded my advice?’
‘In this war? When it suited him. But I trust you are not expecting any consideration in return.’ Udinaas turned, met Hull’s eyes. ‘Ah, I think you are.’
‘Reciprocity, Udinaas. Surely the Tiste Edur understand that, since it is so essential within their own culture.’
‘There is no reciprocity when you display expectation, Hull Beddict.
‘I am blood-bound to Binadas,’ Hull said, ‘yet you accuse me of insensitivity to the mores of the Tiste Edur.’ His expression was wry. ‘I am not often chastised in such things. You remind me of Seren Pedac.’
‘The Acquitor who escorted you? I saw her, in Trate.’
Hull stepped close, suddenly intent. ‘During the battle?’
Udinaas nodded. ‘She was in bad shape, but alive. She’d found a worthy escort of her own – I have no doubt she still lives.’
‘An escort of her own? Who?’
‘I’m not sure. Foreigners. One of them killed Rhulad and his chosen brothers.’ Udinaas collected another stone. ‘Look at that, Hull Beddict, a river of gold. Flowing into the sunset.’ He flung the stone, broke the mirrored perfection. Momentarily.
‘You witnessed that killing.’
‘I did. Whoever that foreigner was, he was terrifying.’
‘More terrifying than Rhulad’s return?’
Udinaas said nothing for a time, then he stepped away, down to the water’s edge. He stared into the shallows, saw the muddy bottom swarming with newborn eels. ‘Do you know what is coming, Hull Beddict?’
‘No. Do you?’
‘Dresh Lake. That’s what’s coming.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Don’t mind me, Hull Beddict. Well, I’d best return. The emperor is awake.’
Hull followed him up from the strand. ‘Things like that,’ he said. ‘He’s awake. How do you know?’
‘A stirring in the shadows,’ Udinaas said. ‘Rhulad sets the world to a tremble. Well,’ he amended, ‘a small part of it. But it’s growing. In any case, his fever has broken. He is weak, but alert.’
‘Tell me,’ Hull said as they walked into the vast camp, ‘about Feather Witch.’
Udinaas grimaced. ‘Why?’
‘She is no longer Mayen’s slave. She now serves the Edur healers. Was that your work?’
‘The emperor’s command, Hull Beddict.’
‘You claim no influence on him? Few would believe that now.’
‘And in return, you give Rhulad what?’
‘She affects to hold only hatred for you, Udinaas. But I am not convinced.’
‘Oh, I am.’
‘I think, perhaps, she has given her heart to you. Yet would fight it, for all the pointless prohibitions and prejudices of our people. What is the extent of your debt, Udinaas?’
‘My debt? My father’s debt. Seven hundred and twenty-two docks, from the day I was taken as a slave.’
Hull reached out and stopped him. ‘That’s it?’
‘A Beddict might well say that. For most Letherii, that is insurmountable. Especially given the interest.’ Udinaas resumed walking.
Hull came up alongside him. ‘Who holds it?’
‘A minor lender in Letheras. Why are you asking?’
‘The lender’s name?’
‘Huldo.’ After a moment, Hull snorted.
‘You find that amusing?’
‘I do. Udinaas, my brother Tehol
‘Maybe once. As I understand it, Tehol owns nothing these days.’
Let me tell you a story about my brother. He was, I guess, around ten years old, when a family debt was purchased by a particularly unscrupulous lender. The plan was to force us to relinquish a certain holding, and so the debt was called. We couldn’t pay, not all at once, and of course the lender knew it. Now, it was at the time assumed by all that Tehol was at school every day during this crisis, and indeed, that, young as he was, he had no idea of the trouble our parents were in. Only much later did certain facts come to light. The fact that Tehol had finessed a debt of his own, over his tutor. Nothing large, but he was able to coerce the tutor into saying nothing about his absences whilst he operated a business venture of his own down at a flow-out on the river. Two employees, both Nerek, sifting sewage. This particular out-flow issued from an estate district – extraordinary what treasures could be recovered. Jewellery, mostly. Rings, earrings, pearls. In any case, it seemed there was a windfall, a necklace, and the result was Tehol and his two Nerek employees found themselves suddenly flush-’
‘By selling the necklace?’
‘Oh no, from the reward. Their business was returning lost items. Shortly thereafter, the lender pressuring our family received payment in full on our debt, and was then subsequently financially gutted when a host of holdings on
Udinaas grunted. ‘Grateful patrons, indeed.’
‘Probably. We never found out. And Tehol never explained a damned thing. It took me over a year to piece some of it together. My point is, Udinaas, Tehol’s genius is of the diabolical kind. Destitute? Not a chance. Retired from business dealings? Impossible. I am now quite skilled at tracking my brother, you see. Huldo’s not the only lender Tehol owns.’
‘So,’ Udinaas said as they approached the emperor’s tent, ‘I am Indebted to the Beddicts.’
‘Not any more,’ Hull said. ‘I am clearing it. Right now. I am sure Tehol will forgive me, assuming I ever get a chance to corner him.’
Udinaas looked over at the man. Then he nodded. ‘I see. Reciprocity.’
‘I am without expectation, Udinaas.’
‘Good. I knew you were a fast learner.’
Hull Beddict halted outside the entrance. ‘I enjoyed speaking to you,’ he said.
Udinaas hesitated, then smiled.
Seated on his throne, sweat streaming down between and over the gold coins on his face, neck and chest, some horrible insight burning in his eyes, the emperor trembled as if rabid. ‘Udinaas,’ he croaked. ‘As you can see, we are well.’
‘These southlands, Emperor, hold strange diseases-’
‘We were not sick. We were… travelling.’
They were alone in the chamber. Hannan Mosag was overseeing the warriors, where some old feuds between tribes were threatening to breach the unity. Mayen was cloistered among the women, for it was said that Uruth Sengar was coming, summoned via the K’risnan. The air in the tent smelled of sour sweat.
‘A long and difficult journey, then,’ Udinaas said. ‘Do you wish some wine? Food?’
‘No. Not yet. We have… done something. A terrible thing. To achieve an alliance. When we strike the Letherii army outside Letheras, you shall see what has been won this day. We are… pleased. Yes, pleased.’
‘Yet frightened. By your own power.’
The eyes flickered, fixed on Udinaas. ‘We can hide little from you, it seems. Yes, frightened. We… I… have drowned an entire world. A fragment of Kurald Emurlahn, upon which our ships will soon travel. Seeking our lost kin. And… champions.’ He clawed at his face.
The subject needed deflection, Udinaas decided. ‘Champions? I do not understand, Emperor.’
A moment to recover, then a nod. ‘Worthy foes, Udinaas. Skilled fighters capable of killing us. They are needed.’
‘For your power to grow yet stronger.’
‘Yes. Stronger. It is necessary. So many things are necessary, now…’
Udinaas risked a glance away as he said, ‘It is right to fear, then, Emperor.’
‘It is? Explain.’
‘Fear bespeaks of wisdom. Recognition of responsibility.’
‘Wisdom. Yes, it must be so, mustn’t it? We had not considered that before. We fear, because we are becoming wise.’
Rhulad shivered, then raised the sword in his right hand. ‘Who among them will turn away from such a challenge? Those who do are not worth fighting. Or, if they are yet reluctant, they will be compelled. This world is vast, Udinaas, far vaster than you might think. There are other lands, other empires. There are formidable peoples, races. We will search far. We will find those useful to us. And then, one day, we will conquer. Every kingdom. Every continent.’
‘You will need to deceive those champions, Emperor. Into believing that killing you means their victory. You will have to make it seem that it is your ego that forces such challenges. They must know nothing of the sword’s power, of its demands upon you.’
Yes, you speak true, Udinaas. Together, we will shape the future. You will want for nothing.’
Emperor, I want for nothing now. I need no promises. Please, I did not mean to offend by that. What I meant was, there is no
Sudden pain in Rhulad’s dark eyes, a grief and sorrow that rent at Udinaas, somewhere deep inside. It was all he could do to continue meeting the emperor’s gaze.
‘We would have some wine, now, Udinaas.’ A tone of profound sorrow. ‘Two goblets, for you and me. We shall drink, and think of nothing. We shall talk, perhaps, of inconsequential matters.’
Udinaas strode to the table where sat a jug of Letherii wine. ‘I visited Dresh, once,’ he said as he poured out two cups full. ‘And ate smoked Moss River eel. Would you like me to tell about Moss River eels, Emperor?’ He carried the two goblets over to the Edur seated on the throne.
‘Is it inconsequential?’
Udinaas hesitated, then nodded. ‘It is.’
‘Then, yes, Udinaas. We would.’
Seren Pedac and the Crimson Guardsmen rode at a canter. Half a league ahead was the town of Dissent. It had once been walled, but local builders had dismantled most of the stonework long ago. The town had since grown outward in a mostly chaotic manner, swallowing commons and nearby farms. But now Dissent was barely visible, devoured in turn by at least three encamped armies.
‘Crimson Rampant Brigade,’ Seren said, scanning the distant banners. ‘Snakebelt Battalion, and the Riven Brigade.’
‘Can we ride straight through?’ Iron Bars asked.
She glanced across at him, then nodded. ‘I think so. My apologies. I’m a little shocked, that’s all. If this is all that’s left of the frontier armies…’
‘The ground ahead is not ideal for a battle,’ the Avowed judged. ‘I’d be surprised if the king intended to await the Edur here. Can you think of anywhere else close by that might be better suited?’
‘Brans Keep, in the hills a few leagues northeast of Dissent.’
‘And Dissent is the nearest major town?’
‘Apart from Letheras itself,’ Seren said.
‘Then this is temporary encampment. When the Tiste Edur draw closer, those three armies will march to Brans Keep. Assuming the warlord commanding them has any wits at all. In any case, Acquitor, other Letherii forces might already be waiting there, at Brans Keep. It’s a question of logistics, keeping these ones here.’
‘I hope you are right. Then again, I wonder if it will make any difference.’
‘We’re far from the sea, Seren,’ Iron Bars said. ‘That demon the Edur have chained can’t reach here, and that evens things some.’
‘Could we hasten that, Acquitor? These soldiers camped ahead, might they be prepared to exchange horses?’
‘If I insist, yes.’
‘Based on your desire to speak to the king.’
‘And will you? Speak to the king, that is.’
He said nothing for a time, whilst she waited. Then, ‘And in Letheras, what will you do once you’ve arrived?’
‘I expect I will have some dusting to do.’
‘My house is closed up. I’ve not had a chance to send a message to my staff – all two of them.’
‘That doesn’t sound very secure – no-one to guard your possessions.’
She smiled. ‘I have nothing of value, Iron Bars. Thieves are welcome to it. Well, I’d prefer if they left me my furniture – my neighbours are diligent enough, I suppose, to prevent anything like that.’
The Avowed stared ahead for a moment. ‘We must needs depart your company, then, Acquitor. To make contact with our new employer. Presumably, we’ll be shipping out soon after.’
‘There might be room aboard…’
‘I am Letherii, Iron Bars.’ She shook her head. ‘I am done with travelling for a time, I think.’
‘Understandable. Anyway, the offer’s open.’
‘Thank you.’ So
Corlo, riding behind them, called out, ‘Easy on that, lass. Mockra’s dangerous when you don’t control it.’
The Avowed turned his head, studied her.