It must be taken as given that a man who happens to be the world’s most powerful, most terrible, most deadly sorceror, must have a woman at his side.
But it does not follow, my children, that a woman of similar proportions requires a man at hers.
Now then, who wants to be a tyrant?
Malaz City School of Waifs and Urchins 1152 Burn’s Sleep Insubstantial, fading in and out of sight, smoky and wisp-threaded, Ammanas fidgeted on the ancient Throne of Shadow. Eyes like polished haematite were fixed on the scrawny figure standing before it. A figure whose head was hairless except for a wild curly grey and black tangle over the ears and round the back of the subtly misshapen skull.
And twin eyebrows that rivalled the fringe in chaotic waywardness, beetling and knotting to match the baffling and disquieting melee of emotions on the wrinkled face beneath them.
The subject was muttering, not quite under his breath, ‘He’s not so frightening, is he? In and out, off and on, here and elsewhere, a wavering apparition of wavering intent and perhaps wavering intellect – best not let him read my thoughts – look stern, no, attentive, no, pleased! No, wait. Cowed. Terrified. No, in awe. Yes, in awe. But not for long, that’s tiring. Look bored. Gods, what am I thinking?
Anything but bored, no matter how boring this might be, what with him looking down on me and me looking up at him and Cotillion over there with his arms crossed, leaning against that wall and smirking – what kind of audience is he? The worst kind, I say. What was I thinking?
Well, at least I was thinking. I am thinking, in fact, and one might presume that Shadowthrone is doing the same, assuming of course that his brain hasn’t leaked away, since he’s nothing but shadows so what holds it in? The point is, I am well advised to remind myself, as I am now doing, the point is, he summoned me. And so here I am. Rightful servant. Loyal. Well, more or less loyal. Trustworthy. Most of the time. Modest and respectful, always. To all outward appearances, and what is outward in appearance is all that matters in this and every other world. Isn’t it? Smile! Grimace. Look helpful. Hopeful. Harried, hirsute, happenstance. Wait, how does one look happenstance? What kind of expression must that one be? I must think on that. But not now, because this isn’t happenstance, it’s circumstance-‘
‘My lord? I said nothing. Oh, best glance away now, and think on this.
I said nothing. Silence. Perhaps he’s making an observation? Yes, that must be it. Look back, now, deferentially, and say aloud: Indeed, my lord. Silence. There. How does he react? Is that growing apoplexy? How can one tell, with all those shadows? Now, if I sat on that throne-‘
‘Yes, my lord?’
‘I have decided.’
‘Yes, my lord? Well, if he’s decided something, why doesn’t he just say it?’
‘I have decided, Iskaral Pust-‘
‘He’s doing some more! Yes, my lord?’
‘That you…’ Shadowthrone paused and seemed to pass a hand over his eyes. ‘Oh my…’ he added in a murmur, then straightened. ‘I have decided that you will have to do.’
‘My lord? Flick eyes away! This god is insane. I serve an insane god!
What kind of expression does that warrant?’
‘Go! Get out of here!’
Iskaral Pust bowed. ‘Of course, my lord. Immediately!’ Then he stood, waiting. Looking around, one pleading glance to Cotillion. ‘I was summoned! I can’t leave until this foaming idiot on the throne releases me! Cotillion understands – that might be amusement in those horribly cold eyes – oh, why doesn’t he say something? Why doesn’t he remind this blathering smudge on this throne-‘
A snarl from Ammanas, and the High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust, vanished.
Shadowthrone then sat motionless for a time, before slowly turning his head to regard Cotillion. ‘What are you looking at?’ he demanded.
‘Not much,’ Cotillion replied. ‘You have become rather insubstantial of late.’
‘I like it this way.’ They studied each other for a moment. ‘All right, I’m a little stretched!’ The shriek echoed away, and the god subsided. ‘Do you think he’ll get there in time?’
‘Do you think, if he does, he’ll be sufficient?’
‘Who asked you!?’
Cotillion watched as Ammanas seethed, fidgeted and squirmed on the throne. Then the Lord of Shadow fell still, and slowly raised a single, spindly finger. ‘I have an idea.’
‘And I shall leave you to it,’ Cotillion said, pushing himself from the wall. ‘I am going for a walk.’
Shadowthrone did not reply.
Glancing over, Cotillion saw that he had vanished. ‘Oh,’ he murmured, ‘that was a good idea.’
Emerging from Shadowkeep, he paused to study the landscape beyond. It was in the habit of changing at a moment’s notice, although not when one was actually looking, which, he supposed, was a saving grace. A line of forested hills to the right, gullies and ravines directly ahead, and a ghostly lake to the left, on which rode a half-dozen grey-sailed ships in the distance. Artorallah demons, off to raid the Aptorian coastal villages, he suspected. It was rare to find the lake region appearing so close to the keep, and Cotillion felt a moment of unease. The demons of this realm seemed to do little more than bide their time, paying scant attention to Shadowthrone, and more or less doing as they pleased. Which generally involved feuds, lightning attacks on neighbours and pillaging.
Ammanas could well command them, if he so chose. But he hardly ever did, perhaps not wanting to test the limits of their loyalty. Or perhaps just preoccupied with some other concern. With his schemes.
Things were not well. A little stretched, are you, Ammanas? I am not surprised. Cotillion could sympathize, and almost did. Momentarily, before reminding himself that Ammanas had invited most of the risks upon himself. And, by extension, upon me as well.
The paths ahead were narrow, twisted and treacherous. Requiring utmost caution with every measured step.
So be it. After all, we have done this before. And succeeded. Of course, far more was at stake this time. Too much, perhaps.
Cotillion set off for the broken grounds opposite him. Two thousand paces, and before him was a trail leading into a gully. Shadows roiled between the rough rock walls. Reluctant to part as he walked the track, they slid like seaweed in shallows around his legs.
So much in this realm had lost its rightful… place. Confusion triggered a seething tumult in pockets where shadows gathered. Faint cries whispered against his ears, as if from a great distance, the voice of multitudes drowning. Sweat beaded Cotillion’s brow, and he quickened his pace until he was past the sinkhole.
The path sloped upward and eventually opened out onto a broad plateau.
As he strode into the clear, eyes fixed on a distant ring of standing stones, he felt a presence at his side, and turned to see a tall, skeletal creature, bedecked in rags, walking to match his pace. Not close enough to reach out and touch, but too close for Cotillion’s comfort nonetheless. ‘Edgewalker. It has been some time since I last saw you.’
‘I cannot say the same of you, Cotillion. I walk-‘
‘Yes, I know,’ Cotillion cut in, ‘you walk paths unseen.’
‘By you. The Hounds do not share your failing.’
Cotillion frowned at the creature, then glanced back, to see Baran thirty paces back, keeping its distance. Massive head low to the ground, eyes glowing bruised crimson. ‘You are being stalked.’
‘It amuses them, I imagine,’ Edgewalker said.
They continued on for a time, then Cotillion sighed. ‘You have sought me out?’ he asked. ‘What do you want?’
‘From you? Nothing. But I see your destination, and so would witness.’
‘Your impending conversation.’
Cotillion scowled. ‘And if I’d rather you did not witness?’
The skeletal face held a permanent grin, but in some way it seemed to broaden slightly. ‘There is no privacy in Shadow, Usurper.’
Usurper. I’d have long since killed this bastard if he wasn’t already dead. Long since.
‘I am not your enemy,’ Edgewalker said, as if guessing Cotillion’s thoughts. ‘Not yet.’
‘We have more than enough enemies as it is. Accordingly,’ Cotillion continued, ‘we have no wish for more. Unfortunately, since we have no knowledge as to your purpose, or your motivations, we cannot predict what might offend you. So, in the interests of peace between us, enlighten me.’
‘That I cannot do.’
‘Cannot, or will not?’
‘The failing is yours, Cotillion, not mine. Yours, and Shadowthrone’ s.’
‘Well, that is convenient.’
Edgewalker seemed to consider Cotillion’s sardonic observation for a moment, then he nodded. ‘Yes, it is.’
They approached the standing stones. Not a single lintel left to bridge the ring, just rubble scattered about down the slopes, as if some ancient detonation at the heart of the circle had blasted the massive structure – even the upright stones were all tilted outward, like the petals of a flower.
‘This is an unpleasant place,’ Edgewalker said as they swung right to take the formal approach, an avenue lined with low, rotted trees, each standing upended with the remnant roots clutching the air.
Cotillion shrugged. ‘About as unpleasant as virtually anywhere else in this realm.’
‘You might believe that, given you have none of the memories I possess. Terrible events, long, long ago, yet the echoes remain.’
‘There is little residual power left here,’ Cotillion said as they neared the two largest stones, and walked between them.
‘That is true. Of course, that is not the case on the surface.’
‘The surface? What do you mean?’
‘Standing stones are always half-buried, Cotillion. And the makers were rarely ignorant of the significance of that. Overworld and underworld.’
Cotillion halted and glanced back, studying the upended trees lining the avenue. ‘And this manifestation we see here is given to the underworld?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘Is the overworld manifestation to be found in some other realm? Where one might see an inward-tilting ring of stones, and right-side-up trees?’
‘Assuming they are not entirely buried or eroded to nothing by now.
This circle is very old.’
Cotillion swung round again and observed the three dragons opposite them, each at the base of a standing stone, although their massive chains reached down into the rough soil, rather than into the weathered rock. Shackled at the neck and at the four limbs, with another chain wrapped taut behind the shoulders and wings of each dragon. Every chain drawn so tight as to prevent any movement, not even a lifting of the head. ‘This,’ Cotillion said in a murmur, ‘is as you said, Edgewalker. An unpleasant place. I’d forgotten.’
‘You forget every time,’ Edgewalker said. ‘Overcome by your fascination. Such is the residual power in this circle.’
Cotillion shot him a quick look. ‘I am ensorcelled?’
The gaunt creature shrugged in a faint clatter of bones. ‘It is a magic without purpose beyond what it achieves. Fascination… and forgetfulness.’
‘I have trouble accepting that. All sorcery has a desired goal.’
Another shrug. ‘They are hungry, yet unable to feed.’
After a moment, Cotillion nodded. ‘The sorcery belongs to the dragons, then. Well, I can accept that. Yet, what of the circle itself? Has its power died? If so, why are these dragons still bound?’
‘Not dead, simply not acting in any manner upon you, Cotillion. You are not its intent.’
‘Well enough.’ He turned as Baran padded into view, swinging wide to avoid Edgewalker’s reach, then fixing its attention on the dragons.
Cotillion saw its hackles stiffen. ‘Can you answer me this,’ he said to Edgewalker, ‘why will they not speak with me?’
‘Perhaps you have yet to say anything worth a reply.’
‘Possibly. What do you think the response will be, then, if I speak of freedom?’
‘I am here,’ said Edgewalker, ‘to discover that for myself.’
‘You can read my thoughts?’ Cotillion asked in a low voice.
Baran’s huge head slowly swung round to regard Edgewalker. The Hound took a single step closer to the creature.
‘I possess no such omniscience,’ Edgewalker calmly replied, seeming to take no notice of Baran’s attention. ‘Although to one such as you, it might appear so. But I have existed ages beyond your reckoning, Cotillion. All patterns are known to me, for they have been played out countless times before. Given what approaches us all, it was not hard to predict. Especially given your uncanny prescience.’ The dead pits that were Edgewalker’s eyes seemed to study Cotillion. ‘You suspect, do you not, that dragons are at the heart of all that will come?’
Cotillion gestured at the chains. ‘They reach through to the overworld presumably? And that warren is what?’
‘What do you think?’ Edgewalker countered.
‘Try reading my mind.’
‘So, you are here because you are desperate to know what I know, or even what I suspect.’
Edgewalker’s silence was answer enough to that question. Cotillion smiled. ‘I think I will make no effort to communicate with these dragons after all.’
‘But you will, eventually,’ Edgewalker replied. ‘And when you do, I will be here. Thus, what does it avail you to remain silent now?’
‘Well, in order to irritate you, I suppose.’
‘I have existed ages beyond your-‘
‘So you have been irritated before, yes, I know. And will be again, without question.’
‘Make your effort, Cotillion. Soon if not now. If you wish to survive what is to come.’
‘All right. Provided you tell me the names of these dragons.’
A clearly grudging reply: ‘As you wish-‘
‘And why they have been imprisoned here, and by whom.’
‘That I cannot do.’
They studied each other, then Edgewalker cocked its head, and observed, ‘It seems we are at an impasse, Cotillion. What is your decision?’
‘Very well. I will take what I can get.’
Edgewalker faced the three dragons. ‘These are of the pure blood.
Eleint. Ampelas, Kalse and Eloth. Their crime was… ambition. It is a common enough crime.’ The creature turned back to Cotillion. ‘Perhaps endemic’
In answer to that veiled judgement, Cotillion shrugged. He walked closer to the imprisoned beasts. ‘I shall assume you can hear me,’ he said in a low voice. ‘A war is coming. Only a few years away. And it will, I suspect, draw into its fray virtually every ascendant from all the realms. I need to know, should you be freed, upon which side shall you fight.’
There was silence for a half-dozen heartbeats, then a voice rasped in Cotillion’s mind. ‘You come here, Usurper, in a quest for allies.’
A second voice cut through, this one distinctly female, ‘Bound by gratitude for freeing us. Were I to bargain from your position, I would be foolish to hope for loyalty, for trust.’
‘I agree,’ said Cotillion, ‘that that is a problem. Presumably, you will suggest I free you before we bargain.’
‘It is only fair,’ the first voice said.
‘Alas, I am not that interested in being fair.’
‘You fear we will devour you?’
‘In the interest of brevity,’ Cotillion said, ‘and I understand that your kind delight in brevity.’
The third dragon spoke then, a heavy, deep voice: ‘Freeing us first would indeed spare us the effort of then negotiating. Besides, we are hungry.’
‘What brought you to this realm?’ Cotillion asked.
There was no reply.
Cotillion sighed. ‘I shall be more inclined to free you – assuming I am able – if I have reason to believe your imprisonment was unjust.’
The female dragon asked, ‘And you presume to make that decision?’
‘This hardly seems the right moment to be cantankerous,’ he replied in exasperation. ‘The last person who made that judgement clearly did not find in favour of you, and was able to do something about it. I would have thought that all these centuries in chains might have led you three to reevaluate your motivations. But it seems your only regret is that you were unequal to the last entity that presumed to judge you.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is a regret. But it is not our only one.’
‘All right. Let’s hear some of the others.’
‘That the Tiste Andii who invaded this realm were so thorough in their destruction,’ the third dragon said, ‘and so absolute in their insistence that the throne remain unclaimed.’
Cotillion drew a slow, long breath. He glanced back at Edgewalker, but the apparition said nothing. ‘And what,’ he asked the dragons, ‘so spurred their zeal?’
‘Vengeance, of course. And Anomandaris.’
‘Ah, I think I can now assume I know who imprisoned the three of you.’
‘He very nearly killed us,’ said the female dragon. ‘An over-reaction on his part. After all, better Eleint on the Throne of Shadow than another Tiste Edur, or worse, a usurper.’
‘And how would Eleint not be usurpers?’
‘Your pedantry does not impress us.’
‘Was all this before or after the Sundering of the Realm?’
‘Such distinctions are meaningless. The Sundering continues to this day, and as for the forces that conspired to trigger the dread event, those were many and varied. Like a pack of enkar’al closing on a wounded drypthara. What is vulnerable attracts… feeders.’
‘Thus,’ said Cotillion, ‘if freed, you would once again seek the Shadow Throne. Only this time, someone occupies that throne.’
‘The veracity of that claim is subject to debate,’ the female dragon said.
‘A matter,’ added the first dragon, ‘of semantics. Shadows cast by shadows.’
‘You believe that Ammanas is sitting on the wrong Shadow Throne.’
‘The true throne is not even in this fragment of Emurlahn.’
Cotillion crossed his arms and smiled. ‘And is Ammanas?’
The dragons said nothing, and he sensed, with great satisfaction, their sudden disquiet.
‘That, Cotillion,’ said Edgewalker behind him, ‘is a curious distinction. Or are you simply being disingenuous?’
‘That I cannot tell you,’ Cotillion said, with a faint smile.
The female dragon spoke, ‘I am Eloth, Mistress of Illusions – Meanas to you – and Mockra and Thyr. A Shaper of the Blood. All that K’rul asked of me, I have done. And now you presume to question my loyalty?’
‘Ah,’ Cotillion said, nodding, ‘then I take it you are aware of the impending war. Are you also aware of the rumours of K’rul’s return?’
‘His blood is growing sickly,’ said the third dragon. ‘I am Ampelas, who shaped the Blood in the paths of Emurlahn. The sorcery wielded by the Tiste Edur was born of my will – do you now understand, Usurper?’
‘That dragons are prone to grandiose claims and sententiousness? Yes, I do indeed understand, Ampelas. And I should now presume that for each of the warrens, Elder and new, there is a corresponding dragon?
You are the flavours of K’rul’s blood? What of the Soletaken dragons, such as Anomandaris and, more relevantly, Scabandari Bloodeye?’
‘We are surprised,’ said the first dragon after a moment, ‘that you know that name.’
‘Because you killed him so long ago?’
‘A poor guess, Usurper, poorer for that you have revealed the extent of your ignorance. No, we did not kill him. In any case, his soul remains alive, although tormented. The one whose fist shattered his skull and so destroyed his body holds no allegiance to us, nor, we suspect, to anyone but herself.’
‘You are Kalse, then,’ Cotillion said. ‘And what path do you claim?’
‘I leave the grandiose claims to my kin. I have no need to impress you, Usurper. Furthermore, I delight in discovering how little you comprehend.’
Cotillion shrugged. ‘I was asking about the Soletaken. Scabandari, Anomandaris, Osserc, Olar Ethil, Draconus-‘
Edgewalker spoke behind him: ‘Cotillion, surely you have surmised by now that these three dragons sought the Shadow Throne for honourable reasons?’
‘To heal Emurlahn, yes, Edgewalker, I understand that.’
‘And is that not what you seek as well?’
Cotillion turned to regard the creature. ‘Is it?’
Edgewalker seemed taken aback for a moment, then, head cocking slightly, it said, ‘It is not the healing that concerns you, it is who will be sitting on the Throne afterwards.’
‘As I understand things,’ Cotillion replied, ‘once these dragons did what K’rul asked of them, they were compelled to return to Starvald Demelain. As the sources of sorcery, they could not be permitted to interfere or remain active across the realms, lest sorcery cease to be predictable, which in turn would feed Chaos – the eternal enemy in this grand scheme. But the Soletaken proved a problem. They possessed the blood of Tiam, and with it the vast power of the Eleint. Yet, they could travel as they pleased. They could interfere, and they did. For obvious reasons. Scabandari was originally Edur, and so he became their champion-‘
‘After murdering the royal line of the Edur!’ Eloth said in a hiss. ‘
After spilling draconean blood in the heart of Kurald Emurlahn! After opening the first, fatal wound upon that warren! What did he think gates were?’
‘The Tiste Andii for Anomandaris,’ Cotillion continued. ‘Tiste Liosan for Osserc. The T’lan Imass for Olar Ethil. These connections and the loyalties born of them are obvious. Draconus is more of a mystery, of course, since he has been gone a long time-‘
‘The most reviled of them all!’ Eloth shrieked, the voice filling Cotillion’s skull so that he winced.
Stepping back, he raised a hand. ‘Spare me, please. I am not really interested in all that, to be honest. Apart from discovering if there was enmity between Eleint and Soletaken. It seems there is, with the possible exception of Silanah-‘
‘Seduced by Anomandaris’s charms,’ snapped Eloth. ‘And Olar Ethil’s endless pleadings…’
‘To bring fire to the world of the Imass,’ Cotillion said. ‘For that is her aspect, is it not? Thyr?’
Ampelas observed, ‘He is not so uncomprehending as you believed, Kalse.’
‘Then again,’ Cotillion continued, ‘you too claim Thyr, Eloth. Ah, that was clever of K’rul, forcing you to share power.’
‘Unlike Tiam,’ Ampelas said, ‘when we’re killed we stay dead.’
‘Which brings me to what I truly need to understand. The Elder Gods.
They are not simply of one world, are they?’
‘Of course not.’
‘And how long have they been around?’
‘Even when Darkness ruled alone,’ Ampelas replied, ‘there were elemental forces. Moving unseen until the coming of Light. Bound only to their own laws. It is the nature of Darkness that it but rules itself.’
‘And is the Crippled God an Elder?’
Cotillion found he was holding his breath. He had taken a twisted path to this question, and had made discoveries along the way – so much to think about, in fact, that his mind was numb, besieged by all that he had learned. ‘I need to know,’ he said in a slow release of his breath.
‘Why?’ Edgewalker asked.
‘If he is,’ Cotillion said, ‘then another question follows. How does one kill an elemental force?’
‘You would shatter the balance?’
‘It’s already been shattered, Edgewalker! That god was brought down to the surface of a world. And chained. His power torn apart and secreted in minuscule, virtually lifeless warrens, but all of them linked to the world I came from-‘
‘Too bad for that world,’ Ampelas said.
The smug disregard in that reply stung Cotillion. He breathed deep and remained silent, until the anger passed, then he faced the dragons again. ‘And from that world, Ampelas, he is poisoning the warrens.
Every warren. Are you capable of fighting that?’
‘Were we freed-‘
‘Were you freed,’ Cotillion said, with a hard smile, ‘you would resume your original purpose, and there would be more draconean blood spilled in the Realm of Shadow.’
‘And you and your fellow usurper believe you are capable of that?’
‘You as much as admitted it,’ Cotillion said. ‘You can be killed, and when you have been killed, you stay dead. It is no wonder Anomandaris chained the three of you. In obstinate stupidity you have no equals-‘
‘A sundered realm is the weakest realm of all! Why do you think the Crippled God is working through it?’
‘Thank you,’ said Cotillion to Ampelas in a quiet tone. ‘That is what I needed to know.’ He turned away and began walking back down the approach.
‘We will speak again, Ampelas,’ he said over a shoulder, ‘before it all goes to the Abyss.’
As soon as they were clear of the ring of stones, the creature spoke: ‘I must chide myself. I have underestimated you, Cotillion.’
‘It’s a common enough mistake.’
‘What will you do now?’
‘Why should I tell you?’
Edgewalker did not immediately reply. They continued down the slope, strode out onto the plain. ‘You should tell me,’ the apparition finally said, ‘because I might be inclined to give you assistance.’
‘That would mean more to me if I knew who – what – you are.’
‘You may consider me… an elemental force.’
A dull chill seeped through Cotillion. ‘I see. All right, Edgewalker.
It appears that the Crippled God has launched an offensive on multiple fronts. The First Throne of the T’lan Imass and the Throne of Shadow are the ones that concern us the most, for obvious reasons. In these two, we feel we are fighting alone – we cannot even rely upon the Hounds, given the mastery the Tiste Edur seem to hold over them. We need allies, Edgewalker, and we need them now.’
‘You have just walked away from three such allies-‘
‘Allies who won’t rip our heads off once the threat’s been negated.’
‘Ah, there is that. Very well, Cotillion, I will give the matter some consideration.’
‘Take your time.’
‘That seems a contrary notion.’
‘If one is lacking a grasp of sarcasm, I imagine it does at that.’
‘You do interest me, Cotillion. And that is a rare thing.’
‘I know. You have existed longer…’ Cotillion’s words died away. An elemental force. I guess he has at that. Dammit.
There were so many ways of seeing this dreadful need, the vast conspiracy of motivations from which all shades and casts of morality could be culled, that Mappo Runt was left feeling overwhelmed, from which only sorrow streamed down, pure and chilled, into his thoughts.
Beneath the coarse skin of his hands, he could feel the night’s memory slowly fading from the stone, and soon this rock would know the assault of the sun’s heat – this pitted, root-tracked underbelly that had not faced the sun in countless millennia.
He had been turning over stones. Six since dawn. Roughly chiselled dolomite slabs, and beneath each one he had found a scatter of broken bones. Small bones, fossilized, and though in countless pieces after the interminable crushing weight of the stone, the skeleton’s were, as far as Mappo could determine, complete.
There were, had been, and would always be, all manner of wars. He knew that, in all the seared, scar-hardened places in his soul, so there was no shock in his discovery of these long-dead Jaghut children. And horror had run a mercifully swift passage through his thoughts, leaving at the last his old friend, sorrow.
Streaming down, pure and chilled.
Wars in which soldier fought soldier, sorceror clashed with sorceror.
Assassins squared off, knife-blades flickering in the night. Wars in which the lawful battled the wilfully unlawful; in which the sane stood against the sociopath. He had seen crystals growing up in a single night from the desert floor, facet after facet revealed like the petals of an opening flower, and it seemed to him that brutality behaved in a like manner. One incident leading to another, until a conflagration burgeoned, swallowing everyone in its path.
Mappo lifted his hands from the slab’s exposed underside and slowly straightened. To look over at his companion, still wading the warm shallows of the Raraku Sea. Like a child unfolding to a new, unexpected pleasure. Splashing about, running his hands through the reeds that had appeared as if remembered into existence by the sea itself.
When the conflagration consumed children, then the distinction between the sane and the sociopath ceased to exist. It was his flaw, he well knew, to yearn to seek the truth of every side, to comprehend the myriad justifications for committing the most brutal crimes. Imass had been enslaved by deceitful Jaghut tyrants, led down paths of false worship, made to do unspeakable things. Until they had uncovered the deceivers. Unleashing vengeance, first against the tyrants, then against all Jaghut. And so the crystal grew, facet after facet…
Until this… He glanced down once more upon the child’s bones. Pinned beneath dolomite slabs. Not limestone, for dolomite provided a good surface for carving glyphs, and though soft, it absorbed power, making it slower to erode than raw limestone, and so it held those glyphs, faded and soft-edged after all these thousands of years to be sure, but discernible still.
The power of those wards persisted, long after the creature imprisoned by them had died.
Dolomite was said to hold memories. A belief among Mappo’s own people, at least, who in their wanderings had encountered such Imass edifices, the impromptu tombs, the sacred circles, the sight-stones on hill summits – encountered, and then studiously avoided. For the hauntings in these places was a palpable thing.
Or so we managed to convince ourselves.
He sat here, on the edge of Raraku Sea, in the place of an ancient crime, and beyond what his own thoughts conjured, there was nothing.
The stone he had set his hands upon seemed possessed of the shortest of memories. The cold of darkness, the heat of the sun. That, and nothing more.
The shortest of memories.
Splashing, and Icarium was striding up onto the shoreline, his eyes bright with pleasure. ‘Such a worthy boon, yes, Mappo? I am enlivened by these waters. Oh, why will you not swim and so be blessed by Raraku’s gift?’
Mappo smiled. ‘Said blessing would quickly wash off this old hide, my friend. I fear the gift would be wasted, and so will not risk disappointing the awakened spirits.’
‘I feel,’ Icarium said, ‘as if the quest begins anew. I will finally discover the truth. Who I am. All that I have done. I will discover, too,’ he added as he approached, ‘the reason for your friendship – that you should always be found at my side, though I lose myself again and again. Ah, I fear I have offended you – no, please, do not look so glum. It is only that I cannot understand why you have sacrificed yourself so. As far as friendships go, this must be a most frustrating one for you.’
‘No, Icarium, there is no sacrifice involved. Nor frustration. This is what we are, and this is what we do. That is all.’
Icarium sighed and turned to look out over the new sea. ‘If only I could be as restful of thought as you, Mappo…’
‘Children have died here.’
The Jhag swung round, his green eyes studying the ground behind the Trell. ‘I saw you pitching rocks. Yes, I see them. Who were they?’
Some nightmare the night before had scoured away Icarium’s memories.
This had been happening more often of late. Troubling. And… crushing. ‘Jaghut. From the wars with the T’lan Imass.’
‘A terrible thing to have done,’ Icarium said. The sun was fast drying the water beaded on his hairless, green-grey skin. ‘How is it that mortals can be so cavalier with life? Look at this freshwater sea, Mappo. The new shoreline burgeons with sudden life. Birds, and insects, and all the new plants, there is so much joy revealed, my friend, that my heart feels moments from bursting.’
‘Infinite wars,’ Mappo said. ‘Life’s struggles, each trying to push the other aside, and so win out.’
‘You are grim company this morning, Mappo.’
‘Aye, I am at that. I am sorry, Icarium.’
‘Shall we remain here for a time?’
Mappo studied his friend. Bereft of his upper garments, he looked more savage, more barbaric than usual. The dye with which he had disguised the colour of his skin had mostly faded away. ‘As you like. This journey is yours, after all.’
‘Knowledge is returning,’ Icarium said, eyes still on the sea. ‘
Raraku’s gift. We were witness to the rise of the waters, here on this west shore. Further west, then, there will be a river, and many cities-‘
Mappo’s gaze narrowed. ‘Only one, now, to speak of,’ he said.
‘The others died thousands of years ago, Icarium.’
‘N’karaphal? Trebur? Inath’an Merusin? Gone?’
‘Inath’an Merusin is now called Mersin. It is the last of the great cities lining the river.’
‘But there were so many, Mappo. I recall all their names. Vinith, Hedori Kwil, Tramara…’
‘All practising intensive irrigation, drawing the river’s waters out onto the plains. All clearing forests to build their ships. Those cities are dead now, my friend. And the river, its waters once so clear and sweet, is now heavy with silts and much diminished. The plains have lost their top-soil, becoming the Lato Odhan to the east of the Mersin River, and Ugarat Odhan to the west.’
Icarium slowly raised his hands, set them against his temples, and closed his eyes. ‘That long, Mappo?’ he asked in a frail whisper.
‘Perhaps the sea has triggered such memories. For it was indeed a sea back then, freshwater for the most part, although there was seepage through the limestone escarpment from Longshan Bay – that vast barrier was rotting through, as it will do again, I imagine, assuming this sea reaches as far north as it once did.’
‘The First Empire?’
‘It was falling even then. There was no recovery.’ Mappo hesitated, seeing how his words had wounded his friend. ‘But the people returned to this land, Icarium. Seven Cities – yes, the name derives from old remembrances. New cities have grown from the ancient rubble. We are only forty leagues from one right now. Lato Revae. It is on the coast-‘
Icarium turned away suddenly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not yet ready to leave, to cross any oceans. This land holds secrets – my secrets, Mappo. Perhaps the antiquity of my memories will prove advantageous.
The lands of my mindscape are the lands of my own past, after all, and they might well yield truths. We shall walk those ancient roads.’
The Trell nodded. ‘I will break camp, then.’
Mappo turned, waited with growing dread.
Icarium’s eyes were fixed on him now, the vertical pupils narrowed to black slivers by the bright sunlight. ‘I have memories of Trebur. I spent time there, in the City of Domes. I did something. An important thing.’ He frowned. ‘I did… something.’
‘It is an arduous journey ahead of us, then,’ Mappo said. ‘Three, maybe four days to the edge of the Thalas Mountains. Ten more at the least to reach the Mersin River’s Wend. The channel has moved from the site of ancient Trebur. A day’s travel west of the river, then, and we will find those ruins.’
‘Will there be villages and such on our route?’
Mappo shook his head. ‘These Odhans are virtually lifeless now, Icarium. Occasionally, Vedanik tribes venture down from the Thalas Mountains, but not at this time of year. Keep your bow at the ready – there are antelope and hares and drolig.’
‘I know them,’ Mappo said.
Icarium walked over to his gear. ‘We have done this before, haven’t we?’
Yes. ‘Not for a long while, my friend.’ Almost eighty years, in fact.
But the last time, we stumbled onto it – you remembered nothing. This time, I fear, it will be different.
Icarium paused, the horn-rimmed bow in his hands, and looked over at Mappo. ‘You are so patient with me,’ he said, with a faint, sad smile, ‘whilst I wander, ever lost.’
Mappo shrugged. ‘It is what we do.’
The Path’Apur Mountains rimmed the far horizon to the south. It had been almost a week since they had left the city of Pan’potsun, and with each day the number of villages they passed through had dwindled, whilst the distance between them lengthened. Their pace was torturously slow, but that was to be expected, travelling on foot as they did, and with a man in their company who had seemingly lost his mind.
Sun-darkened skin almost olive beneath the dust, the demon Greyfrog clambered onto the boulder and squatted at Cutter’s side.
‘Declaration. It is said that the wasps of the desert guard gems and such. Query. Has Cutter heard such tales? Anticipatory pause.’
‘Sounds more like someone’s bad idea of a joke,’ Cutter replied. Below them was a flat clearing surrounded by massive rock outcroppings. It was the place of their camp. Scillara and Felisin Younger sat in view, tending the makeshift hearth. The madman was nowhere to be seen. Off wandering again, Cutter surmised. Holding conversations with ghosts, or, perhaps more likely, the voices in his head. Oh, Heboric carried curses, the barbs of a tiger on his skin, the benediction of a god of war, and those voices in his head might well be real. Even so, break a man’s spirit enough times…
‘Belated observation. Grubs, there in the dark reaches of the nest.
Nest? Bemused. Hive? Nest.’
Frowning, Cutter glanced over at the demon. Its flat, hairless head and broad, four-eyed face were lumpy and swollen with wasp stings. ‘
You didn’t. You did.’
‘Irate is their common state, I now believe. Breaking open their cave made them more so. We clashed in buzzing disagreement. I fared the worse, I think.’
‘Tilt head, query. Black? Dreaded reply, why yes, they were. Black.
Rhetorical, was that significant?’
‘Be glad you’re a demon,’ Cutter said. ‘Two or three stings from those will kill a grown man. Ten will kill a horse.’
‘A horse – we had those – you had them. I was forced to run. Horse.
Large four-legged animal. Succulent meat.’
‘People tend to ride them,’ Cutter said. ‘Until they drop, then we eat them.’
‘Multiple uses, excellent and unwasteful. Did we eat yours? Where can we find more such creatures?’
‘We have not the money to purchase them, Greyfrog. And we sold ours for food and supplies in Pan’potsun.’
‘Obstinate reasonableness. No money. Then we should take, my young friend. And so hasten this journey to its much-awaited conclusion.
Latter tone indicating mild despair.’
‘Still no word from L’oric?’
‘Worriedly. No. My brother is silent.’
Neither spoke for a time. The demon was picking the serrated edges of its lips, where, Cutter saw upon a closer look, grey flecks and crushed wasps were snagged. Greyfrog had eaten the wasp nest. No wonder the wasps had been irate. Cutter rubbed at his face. He needed a shave. And a bath. And clean, new clothes.
And a purpose in life. Once, long ago, when he had been Crokus Younghand of Darujhistan, his uncle had begun preparing the way for a reformed Crokus. A youth of the noble courts, a figure of promise, a figure inviting to the young, wealthy, pampered women of the city. A shortlived ambition, in every way. His uncle dead, and dead, too, Crokus Younghand. No heap of ashes left to stir.
What I was is not what I am. Two men, identical faces, but different eyes. In what they have seen, in what they reflect upon the world.
‘Bitter taste,’ Greyfrog said in his mind, long tongue slithering out to collect the last fragments. A heavy, gusty sigh. ‘Yet oh so filling. Query. Can one burst from what one has inside?’
I hope not. ‘We’d best find Heboric, if we are to make use of this day.’
‘Noted earlier. Ghost Hands was exploring the rocks above. The scent of a trail led him onward and upward.’
‘Water. He sought the source of the spring we see pooling below near the fleshy women who, said jealously, so adore you.’
Cutter straightened. ‘They don’t seem so fleshy to me, Greyfrog.’
‘Curious. Mounds of flesh, water storage vessels, there on the hips and behind. On the chest-‘
‘All right. That kind of fleshy. You are too much the carnivore, demon.’
‘Yes. Fullest delicious agreement. Shall I go find Ghost Hands?’
‘No, I will. I think those riders who passed us yesterday on the track are not as far away as they should be, and I would be relieved to know you are guarding Scillara and Felisin.’
‘None shall take them away,’ Greyfrog said.
Cutter looked down at the squatting demon. ‘Scillara and Felisin are not horses.’
Greyfrog’s large eyes blinked slowly, first the two side-by-side, then the pair above and below. Tongue darted. ‘Blithe. Of course not.
Insufficient number of legs, worthily observed.’
Cutter edged to the back of the boulder, then leapt across to another one tucked deeper into the talus-heaped cliff-side. He grasped a ledge and pulled himself up. Little different from climbing a balcony, or an estate wall. Adore me, do they? He had trouble believing that. Easier to rest eyes upon, he imagined, than an old man and a demon, but that was not adoration. He could make no sense of those two women.
Bickering like sisters, competing over everything in sight, and over things Cutter couldn’t see or comprehend. At other times, unaccountably close, as if sharing a secret. Both fussed over Heboric Ghost Hands, Destriant of Treach.
Maybe war needs nurturers. Maybe the god is happy with this. The priest needs acolytes, after all. That might have been expected with Scillara, since Heboric had drawn her out of a nightmarish existence, and indeed had healed her in some as-yet unspecified way – if Cutter had surmised correctly from the meagre comments overheard now and then. Scillara had a lot to be grateful for. And for Felisin, there had been something about revenge, delivered to her satisfaction against someone who had done her a terrible wrong. It was complicated.
So, a moment’s thought, and it’s obvious they do possess secrets. Too many of them. Oh, what do I care? Women are nothing but a mass of contradictions surrounded by deadly pitfalls. Approach at your own risk… Better yet, approach not at all.
He reached a chimney in the cliff-side and began working his way up it. Water trickled down vertical cracks in the rock. Flies and other winged insects swarmed him; the corners of the chimney were thickly webbed by opportunistic spiders. By the time he climbed free of it, he had been thoroughly bitten and was covered in thick, dusty strands. He paused to brush himself off, then looked around. A rough trail continued upward, winding between collapsed shelves of stone. He headed up the path.
At their meandering, desultory pace, they were months from the coast, as far as he could determine. Once there, they would have to find a boat to take them across to Otataral Island. A forbidden journey, and Malazan ships patrolled those waters diligently – or at least they did before the uprising. It might be that they were yet to fully reorganize such things.
They would begin the passage at night, in any case.
Heboric had to return something. Something found on the island. It was all very vague. And for some reason Cotillion had wanted Cutter to accompany the Destriant. Or, rather, to protect Felisin Younger. A path to take, when before there had been none. Even so, it was not the best of motivations. A flight from despair was pathetic, especially since it could not succeed.
Adore me, do they? What is here to adore?
A voice ahead: ‘All that is mysterious is as a lure to the curious. I hear your steps, Cutter. Come, see this spider.’
Cutter stepped round an outcrop and saw Heboric, kneeling beside a stunted scrub oak.
‘And where there is pain and vulnerability bound into the lure, it becomes all the more attractive. See this spider? Below this branch, yes? Trembling on its web, one leg dismembered, thrashing about as if in pain. Its quarry, you see, is not flies, or moths. Oh no, what she hunts is fellow spiders.’
‘Who care nothing for pain or mystery, Heboric,’ Cutter said, crouching down to study the creature. The size of a child’s hand. ‘
That’s not one of its legs. It’s a prop.’
‘You are assuming other spiders can count. She knows better.’
‘All very interesting,’ Cutter said, straightening, ‘but we must get going.’
‘We’re all watching this play out,’ Heboric said, leaning back and studying the strangely pulsing, taloned hands that flitted in and out of existence at the ends of his wrists.
We? Oh, yes, you and your invisible friends. ‘I wouldn’t think there’d be many ghosts in these hills.’
‘Then you would be wrong. Hill tribes. Endless warfare – it’s those who fall in battle that I see, only those who fall in battle.’ The hands flexed. ‘The mouth of the spring is just ahead. They fought over control of it.’ His toad-like features twisted. ‘There’s always a reason, or reasons. Always.’
Cutter sighed, studied the sky. ‘I know, Heboric.’
‘Knowing means nothing.’
‘I know that, too.’
Heboric rose. ‘Treach’s greatest comfort, understanding that there are infinite reasons for waging war.’
‘And are you comforted by that, too?’
The Destriant smiled. ‘Come. That demon who speaks in our heads is obsessing about flesh at the moment, with watering mouth.’
They made their way down the trail. ‘He won’t eat them.’
‘I am not convinced that is the nature of his appetite.’
Cutter snorted. ‘Heboric, Greyfrog is a four-handed, four-eyed, oversized toad.’
‘With a surprisingly boundless imagination. Tell me, how much do you know of him?’
‘Less than you.’
‘It has not occurred to me, until now,’ Heboric said, as he led Cutter onto a path offering a less precarious climb – but more roundabout – than the one the Daru had used, ‘that we know virtually nothing of who Greyfrog was, and what he did, back in his home realm.’
This was proving an unusually long lucid episode for Heboric. Cutter wondered if something had changed – he hoped it would stay this way. ‘
Then we could ask him.’
In the camp, Scillara kicked sand over the few remaining coals of the cookfire. She walked over to her pack and sat down, settling her back against it as she pushed more rustleaf into her pipe and drew hard until smoke streamed from it. Across from her, Greyfrog squatted in front of Felisin, making strange whimpering sounds.
She had seen so little for so long. Drugged insensate by durhang, filled with infantile thoughts by her old master, Bidithal. And now she was free, and still wide-eyed with the complexities of the world.
The demon lusted after Felisin, she believed. Either to mate with or to devour – it was hard to tell. While Felisin regarded Greyfrog as if it was a dog better to stroke than kick. Which might in turn be giving the demon the wrong notions.
It spoke with the others in their minds, but had yet to do so with Scillara. Out of courtesy to her, the ones the demon addressed replied out loud, although of course they did not have to – and perhaps didn’t more often than not. There was no way for Scillara to tell. She wondered why she had been set apart – what did Greyfrog see within her that so affected its apparent loquaciousness?
Well, poisons do linger. I may be… unpalatable. In her old life, she might have felt some resentment, or suspicion, assuming she felt anything at all. But now, it appeared to her that she didn’t much care. Something had taken shape within her, and it was self-contained and, oddly enough, self-assured.
Perhaps that came with being pregnant. Just beginning to show, and that would only get worse. And this time there would be no alchemies to scour the seed out of her. Although other means were possible, of course. She was undecided on whether to keep the child, whose father was probably Korbolo Dom but could have been one of his officers, or someone else. Not that that mattered, since whoever he had been he was probably dead now, a thought that pleased her.
The constant nausea was wearying, although the rustleaf helped. There was the ache in her breasts, and the weight of them made her back ache, and that was unpleasant. Her appetite had burgeoned, and she was getting heavier, especially on the hips. The others had simply assumed that such changes were coming with her returning health – she hadn’t coughed in over a week, and all this walking had strengthened her legs – and she did not disabuse them of their assumptions.
A child. What would she do with it? What would it expect of her? What was it mothers did anyway? Sell their babies, mostly. To temples, to slavers, to the harem merchants if it’s a girl. Or keep it and teach it to beg. Steal. Sell its body. This, born of sketchy observations and the stories told by the waifs of Sha’ik’s encampment. Meaning, a child was an investment of sorts, which made sense. A return on nine months of misery and discomfort.
She supposed she could do something like that. Sell it. Assuming she let it live that long.
It was a dilemma indeed, but she had plenty of time to think on it. To make her decision.
Greyfrog’s head twisted round, looking past Scillara’s position. She turned to see four men emerge and halt at the edge of the clearing.
The fourth one was leading horses. The riders who had passed them yesterday. One was carrying a loaded crossbow, the weapon trained on the demon.
‘Be sure,’ the man said in a growl to Felisin, ‘that you keep that damned thing away from us.’
The man on his right laughed. ‘A four-eyed dog. Yes, woman, get a leash on it… now. We don’t want any blood spilled. Well,’ he added, ‘not much.’
‘Where are the two men you were with?’ the man with the crossbow asked.
Scillara set down her pipe. ‘Not here,’ she said, rising and tugging at her tunic. ‘Just do what you’ve come here to do and then leave.’
‘Now that’s accommodating. You, with the dog, are you going to be as nice as your friend here?’
Felisin said nothing. She had gone white.
‘Never mind her,’ Scillara said. ‘I’m enough for all of you.’
‘But maybe you ain’t enough, as far as we’re concerned,’ the man said, smiling.
It wasn’t even an ugly smile, she decided. She could do this. ‘I plan on surprising you, then.’
The man handed the crossbow over to one of his comrades and unclasped the belt of his telaba. ‘We’ll see about that. Guthrim, if that dogthing moves, kill it.’
‘It’s a lot bigger than most dogs I’ve seen,’ Guthrim replied.
‘Quarrel’s poisoned, remember? Black wasp.’
‘Maybe I should just kill it now.’
The other man hesitated, then nodded. ‘Go ahead.’
The crossbow thudded.
Greyfrog’s right hand intercepted the quarrel, plucking it out of the air, then the demon studied it, and slithered out its tongue to lick the poison.
‘The Seven take me!’ Guthrim whispered in disbelief.
‘Oh,’ Scillara said to Greyfrog, ‘don’t make a mess of this. There’s no problem here-‘
‘He disagrees,’ Felisin said, her voice thin with fear.
‘Well, convince him otherwise.’ I can do this. Just like it was before. Doesn’t matter, they’re just men.
‘I can’t, Scillara.’
Guthrim was reloading the crossbow, whilst the first man and the one not holding the reins of the horses both drew scimitars.
Greyfrog bounded forward, appallingly fast, and leapt upward, mouth opening wide. That mouth clamped onto Guthrim’s head. The demon’s lower jaw slipped out from its hinges and the man’s head disappeared.
Greyfrog’s momentum and weight toppled him. Horrific crunching sounds, Guthrim’s body spasming, spraying fluids, then sagging limp.
Greyfrog’s jaws closed with a scraping, then snapping sound, then the demon clambered away, leaving behind a headless corpse.
The remaining three men had stared in shock during this demonstration.
But now they acted. The first one cried out, a strangled, terrorfilled sound, and rushed forward, raising his scimitar.
Spitting out a mangled, crushed mess of hair and bone, Greyfrog jumped to meet him. One hand caught the man’s sword-arm, twisted hard until the elbow popped, flesh tore, and blood spurted. Another hand closed on his throat and squeezed, crushing cartilage. The man’s scream never reached the air. Eyes bulging, face rushing to a shade of dark grey, tongue jutting like some macabre creature trying to climb free, he collapsed beneath the demon. A third hand held the other arm. Greyfrog used the fourth one to reach back and scratch itself.
The remaining swordsman fled to where the fourth man was already scrabbling onto his horse.
Greyfrog leapt again. A fist cracked against the back of the swordsman’s head, punching the bone inward. He sprawled, weapon flying. The demon’s charge caught the last man with one leg in the stirrup.
The horse shied away with a squeal, and Greyfrog dragged the man down, then bit his face.
A moment later this man’s head vanished into the demon’s maw as had the first one. More crunching sounds, more twitching kicks, grasping hands. Then, merciful death.
The demon spat out shattered bone still held in place by the scalp. It fell in such a way that Scillara found herself looking at the man’s face – no flesh, no eyes, just the skin, puckered and bruised. She stared at it a moment longer, then forced herself to look away.
At Felisin, who had backed up as far as she could against the stone wall, knees drawn up, hands covering her eyes.
‘It’s done,’ Scillara said. ‘Felisin, it’s over.’
The hands lowered, revealing an expression of terror and revulsion.
Greyfrog was dragging bodies away, round behind a mass of boulders, moving with haste. Ignoring the demon for the moment, Scillara walked over to crouch in front of Felisin. ‘It would have been easier my way,’ she said. ‘At least a lot less messy.’
Felisin stared at her. ‘He sucked out their brains.’
‘I could see that.’
‘Delicious, he said.’
‘He’s a demon, Felisin. Not a dog, not a pet. A demon.’
‘Yes.’ The word was whispered.
‘And now we know what he can do.’
A mute nod.
‘So,’ Scillara said quietly, ‘don’t get too friendly.’ She straightened, and saw Cutter and Heboric clambering down from the ridge.
‘Triumph and pride! We have horses!’
Cutter slowed. ‘We heard a scream-‘
‘Horses,’ Heboric said as he walked towards the skittish animals. ‘
That’s a bit of luck.’
‘Innocent. Scream? No, friend Cutter. Was Greyfrog… breaking wind.’
‘Really. And did these horses just wander up to you?’
‘Bold. Yes! Most curious!’
Cutter headed over to study some odd stains in the scuffled dust.
Greyfrog’s palm-prints were evident in the effort to clean up the mess. ‘Some blood here…’
‘Shock, dismay… remorse.’
‘Remorse. At what happened here, or at being found out?’
‘Sly. Why, the former, of course, friend Cutter.’
Grimacing, Cutter glanced over at Scillara and Felisin, studied their expressions. ‘I think,’ he said slowly, ‘that I am glad I was not here to see what you two saw.’
‘Yes,’ Scillara replied. ‘You should be.’
‘Best keep your distance from these beasts, Greyfrog,’ Heboric called out. ‘They may not like me, much, but they really don’t like you.’
‘Confident. They just don’t know me yet.’
‘I wouldn’t feed this to a rat,’ Smiles said, picking desultorily at the fragments of meat on the tin plate resting in her lap. ‘Look, even the flies are avoiding it.’
‘It’s not the food they’re avoiding,’ Koryk said. ‘It’s you.’
She sneered across at him. ‘That’s called respect. A foreign word to you, I know. Seti are just failed Wickans. Everybody knows that. And you, you’re a failed Seti.’ She took her plate and sent it skidding across the sand towards Koryk. ‘Here, stick it in your half-blood ears and save it for later.’
‘She’s so sweet after a day’s hard riding,’ Koryk said to Tarr, with a broad, white smile.
‘Keep baiting her,’ the corporal replied, ‘and you’ll probably regret it.’ He too was eyeing what passed for supper on his plate, his normally placid expression wrinkling into a slight scowl. ‘It’s horse, I’m sure of it.’
‘Dug up from some horse cemetery,’ Smiles said, stretching out her legs. ‘I’d kill for some grease-fish, baked in clay over coals down on the beach. Yellow-spiced, weed-wrapped. A jug of Meskeri wine and some worthy lad from the inland village. A farm-boy, big-‘
‘Hood’s litany, enough!’ Koryk leaned forward and spat into the fire.
‘You rounding up some pig-swiller with fluff on his chin is the only story you know, that much is obvious. Dammit, Smiles, we’ve heard it all a thousand times. You crawling out of Father’s estate at night to get your hands and knees wet down on the beach. Where was all this again? Oh, right, little-girl dream-land, I’d forgotten-‘
A knife thudded into Koryk’s right calf. Bellowing, he scrambled back, then sank down to clutch at his leg.
Soldiers from nearby squads looked over, squinting through the dust that suffused the entire camp. A moment’s curiosity, quickly fading.
As Koryk loosed a stream of indignant curses, both hands trying to stem the bleeding, Bottle sighed and rose from where he sat. ‘See what happens when the old men leave us to play on our own? Hold still, Koryk,’ he said as he approached. ‘I’ll get you mended – won’t take long-‘
‘Make it soon,’ the half-blood Seti said in a growl, ‘so I can slit that bitch’s throat.’
Bottle glanced over at the woman, then leaned in close to Koryk. ‘
Easy. She’s looking a little pale. A bad throw-‘
‘Oh, and what was she aiming at?’
Corporal Tarr climbed to his feet. ‘Strings won’t be happy with you, Smiles,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘He moved his leg-‘
‘And you threw a knife at him.’
‘It was that little-girl thing. I was provoked.’
‘Never mind how it started. You might try apologizing – maybe Koryk will leave it at that-‘
‘Sure,’ Koryk said. ‘The day Hood climbs into his own grave.’
‘Bottle, you stopped the bleeding yet?’
‘Pretty much, Corporal.’ Bottle tossed the knife over towards Smiles.
It landed at her feet, the blade slick.
‘Thanks, Bottle,’ Koryk said. ‘Now she can try again.’
The knife thudded into the ground between the half-blood’s boots.
All eyes snapped to stare at Smiles.
Bottle licked his lips. That damned thing had come all too close to his left hand.
‘That’s where I was aiming,’ Smiles said.
‘What did I tell you?’ Koryk asked, his voice strangely high.
Bottle drew a deep breath to slow his pounding heart.
Tarr walked over and pulled the knife from the ground. ‘I’ll keep this for a while, I think.’
‘I don’t care,’ Smiles said. ‘I got plenty more.’
‘And you will keep them sheathed.’
‘Aye, Corporal. So long as no-one provokes me.’
‘She’s insane,’ Koryk muttered.
‘She’s not insane,’ Bottle replied. ‘Just lonely for…’
‘Some farm-boy from the inland village,’ Koryk finished, grinning.
‘Probably a cousin,’ Bottle added, low so that only Koryk heard.
The man laughed.
There. Bottle sighed. Another hairy moment on this endless march passed by, with only a little blood spilled. The Fourteenth Army was tired. Miserable. It didn’t like itself, much. Deprived of delivering fullest vengeance upon Sha’ik and the murderers, rapists and cutthroats who followed her, and now in slow pursuit of the last remnant of that rebel army, along crumbling, dusty roads in a parched land, through sandstorms and worse, the Fourteenth still waited for a resolution. It wanted blood, but so far most of the blood spilled had been its own, as altercations turned into feuds and things got ugly.
The Fists were doing their best to keep things under control, but they were as worn down as everyone else. It didn’t help that there were very few captains worthy of the rank in the companies.
And we don’t have one at all, now that Keneb got moved. There was the rumour of a new contingent of recruits and officers disembarking at Lato Revae and now somewhere behind them, hurrying to catch up, but that rumour had begun ten days ago. The fools should have caught them by now.
Messengers had been coming and going in the last two days, pelting along the track from their wake, then back again. Dujek Onearm and the Adjunct were doing a lot of talking, that much was clear. What wasn’t was what they were talking about. Bottle had thought about eavesdropping on the command tent and its occupants, as he had done many times before, between Aren and Raraku, but the presence of Quick Ben made him nervous. A High Mage. If Quick turned over a rock and found Bottle under it, there’d be Hood to pay.
The damned bastards fleeing ahead of them could run for ever, and probably would if their commander had any brains. He could have chosen a last stand at any time. Heroic and inspiring in its pointlessness.
But it seemed he was too clever for that. Westward, ever westward, out into the wastes.
Bottle returned to where he had been sitting, collecting handfuls of sand to scrub Koryk’s blood from his fingers and palms. We’re just getting on each other’s nerves. That’s all. His grandmother would know what to do about this situation, but she was long dead and her spirit was anchored to the old farm outside Jakata, a thousand leagues from here. He could almost see her, shaking her head and squinting in that half-crazed genius way she’d had. Wise in the ways of mortals, seeing through to every weakness, every flaw, reading unconscious gestures and momentary expressions, cutting through the confused surface to lay bare the bones of truth. Nothing was hidden from her.
He could not talk with her, however.
But there’s another woman… isn’t there? Despite the heat, Bottle shivered. She still haunted his dreams, that Eres’al witch. Still showed him the ancient hand-axes spread out over this land like the stone leaves of a world-encompassing tree, scattered by the winds of countless passing ages. He knew, in fact, that fifty or so paces south of this track, there was a basin cluttered with the damned things. Out there, a short walk, waiting for him.
I see them, but I do not yet understand their significance. That’s the problem. I’m not equal to this.
His eyes caught movement down by his boots and he saw a locust, swollen with eggs and crawling slowly. Bottle leaned forward and picked it up by pinching together its folded wings. With his other hand he reached into his pack, and removed a small black wooden box, its lid and sides pierced through with small holes. He flicked open the clasp and lifted the lid.
Joyful Union, their prized Birdshit scorpion. In the sudden light, the creature’s tail lifted as it backed into a corner.
Bottle tossed the locust into the box.
The scorpion had known what was coming, and it darted forward, and moments later was feeding on the still-kicking insect.
‘Simple for you, isn’t it?’ Bottle said under his breath.
Something thumped into the sand beside him – a karybral fruit, round and dusty-lime-coloured. Bottle looked up to find Cuttle standing over him.
The sapper had an armful of the fruit. ‘A treat,’ he said.
Grimacing, Bottle closed the lid on Joyful Union. ‘Thanks. Where did you get them?’
‘Went for a walk.’ Cuttle nodded southward. ‘A basin, karybral vines everywhere.’ He started tossing them to the others in the squad.
A basin. ‘Plenty of hand-axes, too, right?’
Cuttle squinted. ‘Didn’t notice. Is that dried blood on your hands?’
‘That would be mine,’ Koryk said in a growl, already husking the fruit.
The sapper paused, studied the rough circle of soldiers around him, finishing on Corporal Tarr, who shrugged. This seemed sufficient, as Cuttle flung the last karybral globe over to Smiles.
Who caught it on a knife.
The others, Cuttle included, watched as she proceeded to slice the skin away with deft strokes.
The sapper sighed. ‘Think I’ll go find the sergeant.’
‘Good idea,’ Bottle said.
‘You should let Joyful out for the occasional walk,’ Cuttle said. ‘
Stretch the old legs. Maybe and Lutes have found a new scorpion – never seen its like before. They’re talking re-match.’
‘Scorpions can’t stretch their legs,’ Bottle replied.
‘A figure of speech.’
‘Anyway,’ Cuttle said, then ambled off.
Smiles had managed to remove the entire husk in one strip, which she lobbed in Koryk’s direction. He had been looking down, and he jumped at the motion in the edge of his vision.
She snorted. ‘There you go. Add it to your collection of charms.’
The half-Seti set down his karybral and slowly stood, then winced and threw Bottle a glare. ‘I thought you healed this damned thing.’
‘I did. It’s still going to be sore, though.’
‘Sore? I can barely stand.’
‘It’ll get better.’
‘She’s liable to run,’ Tarr observed. ‘It should be amusing, Koryk, seeing you hobbling after her.’
The big man subsided. ‘I’m patient enough,’ he said, sitting back down.
‘Ooh,’ Smiles said, ‘I’m all in a sweat.’
Bottle climbed to his feet. ‘I’m going for a walk,’ he said. ‘Nobody kill anybody until I get back.’
‘If someone gets killed,’ Tarr pointed out, ‘your healing skills won’t be much help.’
‘I wasn’t thinking about healing, just watching.’
They had ridden north, out of sight of the encamped column, over a low ridge and onto a flat, dusty plain. Three guldindha trees rose from a low knoll two hundred paces distant, and they had reined in beneath the shade of the leathery, broad leaves, unpacking food and a jug of Gredfalan ale Fiddler had procured from somewhere, and there they awaited the High Mage’s arrival.
Something of Fiddler’s old spirit had been dampened, Kalam could see.
More grey in the russet beard, a certain far-off look in his pale blue eyes. True, the Fourteenth was an army filled with resentful, bitter soldiers, the glory of an empire’s vengeance stolen from them the very night before battle; and this march wasn’t helping. These things alone could suffice to explain Fiddler’s condition, but Kalam knew better.
Tanno song or no, Hedge and the others were dead. Ghosts on the other side. Then again, Quick Ben had explained that the official reports were slightly inaccurate. Mallet, Picker, Antsy, Blend, Spindle, Bluepearl… there were survivors, retired and living soft in Darujhistan. Along with Captain Ganoes Paran. So, some good news, and it had helped. A little.
Fiddler and Hedge had been as close as brothers. When together, they had been mayhem. A conjoined mindset more dangerous than amusing most of the time. As legendary as the Bridgeburners themselves. It had been a fateful decision back there on the shoreline of Lake Azur, their parting. Fateful for all of us, it turns out.
Kalam could make little sense of the ascendancy. This Spiritwalker’s blessing on a company of soldiers, the parting of the fabric at Raraku. He was both comforted and uneasy with the notion of unseen guardians – Fiddler’s life had been saved by Hedge’s ghost… but where was Whiskeyjack? Had he been there as well?
That night in the camp of Sha’ik had been nightmarish. Too many knives to count had been unsheathed in those dark hours. And he had seen some of those ghosts with his own eyes. Bridgeburners long dead, come back grim as a hangover and as ugly as they had been in life. If he ever met that Tanno Spiritwalker Fid had talked to…
The sapper was pacing in the shade of the trees.
Crouching, Kalam Mekhar studied his old friend. ‘All right, Fid, out with it.’
‘Bad things,’ the sapper muttered. ‘Too many to count. Like stormclouds, gathering on every horizon.’
‘No wonder you’ve been miserable company.’
Fiddler squinted over at him. ‘You ain’t been much better.’
The assassin grimaced. ‘Pearl. He’s keeping out of my sight, but he’s hovering nonetheless. You’d think that Pardu woman – what’s her name?’
‘Her. You’d think she’d have unhorsed him by now.’
‘The game those two play is all their own,’ Fiddler said, ‘and they’re welcome to it. Anyway, it’s clear he’s still here because the Empress wants someone close to Tavore.’
‘That was always her problem,’ Kalam said, sighing.
Kalam regarded the sapper. ‘You’ve marched with Tavore since Aren. Any sense of her? Any at all?’
‘I’m a sergeant, Kalam.’
‘Exactly.’ The assassin waited.
Fiddler scratched his beard, tugged at the strap of his battered helm, then unclasped it and tossed it to one side. He continued pacing, kicking at the leaves and nutshells in the sand. He waved at an errant bloodfly hovering in front of his face. ‘She’s cold iron, Kalam. But it’s untested. Can she think in battle? Can she command on the run?
Hood knows, her favoured Fist, that old man Gamet, he couldn’t. Which doesn’t bode well for her judgement.’
‘She knew him from before, didn’t she?’
‘Someone she trusted, aye, there’s that. He was worn out, that’s all.
I ain’t as generous as I used to be.’
Kalam grinned, looking away. ‘Oh yes, generous, that’s Fid all right.’
He gestured at the finger bones hanging from the sapper’s belt. ‘What about those?’
‘She walked straight with that, it’s true. Oponn’s shove, maybe.’
‘Or maybe not.’
Fiddler shrugged. His hand snapped out and closed on the bloodfly. He smeared it to death between his palms with evident satisfaction.
Looking older, true enough, but fast and mean as ever. A wash of gritty, dead air sent the leaves scrabbling over the sand, the air audibly splitting a few paces away, and Quick Ben emerged from a warren. Coughing.
Kalam collected the jug of ale and walked over. ‘Here.’
The wizard drank, coughed once more, then spat. ‘Gods below, that imperial warren is awful.’ He swallowed another mouthful.
‘Send me in there,’ Fiddler said, striding over, ‘then I can drink some of that, too.’
‘Glad to see your mood’s improved,’ Quick Ben said, handing the jug over. ‘We will be having some company in a short while… after we eat, that is,’ he added, spying the wrapped foodstuffs and heading over. ‘I’m so hungry I could eat bloodflies.’
‘Lick my palm,’ Fiddler said.
The wizard halted, looked over. ‘You’ve lost your mind. I’d sooner lick the hand of a camel-dung hawker.’ He began unwrapping the leaves protecting the food.
‘How was your meeting with Tavore?’ Kalam asked, joining him.
‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ Quick Ben replied. ‘I’ve seen people under siege before, but she’s raised walls so thick and so high I doubt a dozen irate dragons would get through… and not an enemy in sight, either.’
‘You might be wrong there,’ the assassin said. ‘Was Pearl around?’
‘Well, one curtain moved a bit.’
Fiddler snorted. ‘He ain’t that obvious. Was probably T’amber.’
‘I wasn’t being literal, Fid. Somebody in a warren, close and watchful.’
‘Tavore wasn’t wearing her sword, then,’ Kalam said.
‘No, she never does when talking with me, thank the gods.’
‘Ah, considerate, then!’
The wizard shot a dark glare at Kalam. ‘Doesn’t want to suck everything out of her High Mage, you mean.’
‘Stop,’ Fiddler said. ‘I don’t like the images popping into my head.
Hand me a chunk of that sepah bread – no, not the one you’ve taken a bite out of, Quick, thanks anyway. There – oh, never mind.’ He reached across.
‘Hey, you’re raining sand on my food!’
Kalam settled back on his haunches. Fiddler was looking younger by the minute. Especially with that scowl. This break away from the army and all that went with it was long overdue.
‘What?’ Fiddler demanded. ‘Worried you’ll wear your teeth down? Better stop chewing on that bread, then.’
‘It’s not that hard,’ the wizard replied in a mouth-full muffle.
‘No, but it’s full of grit, Quick Ben. From the millstones. Anyway, I’ m always raining sand these days. I got sand in places you wouldn’t imagine-‘
‘Stop, images popping into my head and all that.’
‘After this,’ Fiddler continued remorselessly, ‘a year’s worth of sitting sweet in Darujhistan and I’ll still be shitting gritty bricks-‘
‘Stop, I said!’
Kalam’s eyes narrowed on the sapper. ‘Darujhistan? Planning on joining the others, then?’
The sapper’s gaze shied away. ‘Some day…’
‘Some day soon?’
‘I ain’t planning on running, Kalam.’
The assassin met Quick Ben’s eyes, just a flicker of contact, and Kalam cleared his throat. ‘Well… maybe you should, Fid. If I was giving advice-‘
‘If you’re giving advice then I know we’re all doomed. Thanks for ruining my day. Here, Quick, some more of that ale, please, I’m parched.’
Kalam subsided. All right, at least that’s cleared up.
Quick Ben brushed crumbs from his long-fingered hands and sat back. ‘
She has ideas about you, Kalam…’
‘I’ve got one wife too many as it is.’
‘Maybe she wants you to put together a squad of assassins?’
‘A what? From this lot?’
‘Hey,’ Fiddler growled, ‘I know this lot.’
‘And you’re right, is all. They’re a mess.’
‘Even so,’ the wizard said, shrugging. ‘And she probably wants you to do it on the sly-‘
‘With Pearl listening in on your conversation, right.’
‘No, that was later. The second half of our meetings is for our audience. The first half, before Pearl and whoever else arrives, is when we talk privately. She makes these meetings as impromptu as possible. Uses Grub as a messenger.’ The wizard made a warding gesture.
‘Just a foundling,’ Fiddler said.
But Quick Ben simply shook his head.
‘So she wants her own cadre of assassins,’ Kalam said. ‘Unknown to the Claw. Oh, I don’t like where this is going, Quick.’
‘Whoever is hiding behind those walls might be scared, Kal, but stupid it ain’t.’
‘This whole thing is stupid,’ Fiddler pronounced.
‘She crushed the rebellion – what more does Laseen want?’
‘Strong, when it comes to dealing with our enemies,’ Kalam said. ‘And weak when it comes to popularity.’
‘Tavore ain’t the popular sort of person, so what’s the problem?’
‘She might get popular. A few more successes – ones where it’s clear it’s not dumb luck. Come on, Fid, you know how fast an army can turn round.’
‘Not this army,’ the sapper said. ‘It barely got up off the ground to start with. We’re a damned shaky bunch – Quick Ben, does she have any idea of that?’
The wizard considered for a time, then he nodded. ‘I think so. But she doesn’t know what to do about it, beyond catching Leoman of the Flails and obliterating him and his army. Thoroughly.’
Fiddler grunted. ‘That’s what Cuttle is afraid of. He’s convinced we’ re all going to end up wearing Ranal before this is done.’
‘Ranal? Oh, right.’
‘He’s being a right pain about it, too,’ Fiddler went on. ‘Keeps talking about the cusser he’s holding back, the one he’ll sit on when the doom descends on us all. You should see the look on the recruits’ faces when he goes on like that.’
‘Sounds like Cuttle needs a talking to.’
‘He needs a fist in the face, Kal. Believe me, I’ve been tempted…’
‘But sappers don’t do that to each other.’
‘I’m a sergeant, too.’
‘But you need him still on your side.’
‘All right,’ Kalam said, ‘I’ll put him right.’
‘Careful, he might toss a sharper at your feet. He don’t like assassins.’
‘Who does?’ Quick Ben commented.
Kalam frowned. ‘And here I thought I was popular… at least with my friends.’
‘We’re only playing it safe, Kalam.’
‘Thanks, Quick, I’ll remember that.’
The wizard rose suddenly. ‘Our guests are about to arrive…’
Fiddler and Kalam stood as well, turning to see the imperial warren open once more. Four figures strode out.
The assassin recognized two of them, and felt both tension and pleasure rising within him; the sudden hackles for High Mage Tayschrenn, and the genuine pleasure at seeing Dujek Onearm. Flanking Tayschrenn were two bodyguards, one an aged Seti with a waxed moustache – vaguely familiar in some distant way, as if Kalam had perhaps seen him once before, long ago. The other was a woman somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, lithe and athletic beneath tight silks. The eyes were soft and dark brown, watchful; her hair was cut short in the imperial fashion around her heart-shaped face.
‘Relax,’ Quick Ben murmured low beside Kalam. ‘Like I said before, Tayschrenn’s role in… things past… was misunderstood.’
‘So you say.’
‘And he did try to protect Whiskeyjack.’
‘But was too late.’
‘All right, I’ll be civil. Is that Seti his old bodyguard – from the days of the Emperor?’
‘Miserable bastard? Never said anything?’
‘Looks like he’s mellowed some.’
Quick Ben snorted.
‘Something amusing you, High Mage?’ Dujek asked as the group approached.
‘Welcome, High Fist,’ Quick Ben said, straightening, adding a slightly deferential bow to Tayschrenn. ‘Colleague…’
Tayschrenn’s thin, almost hairless brows rose. ‘A field promotion, wasn’t it? Well, perhaps long overdue. Nonetheless, I do not believe the Empress has sanctioned that title as yet.’
Quick Ben offered him a broad, white smile. ‘Do you recall, High Mage, a certain other High Mage, sent by the Emperor, early on in the Blackdog Campaign? Kribalah Rule?’
‘Rule the Rude? Yes, he died after a month or so-‘
‘In a horrible conflagration, aye. Well, that was me. Thus, I’ve been a High Mage before, colleague…’
Tayschrenn was frowning, clearly thinking back, then the frown became a scowl. ‘And the Emperor knew this? He must have, having sent you – unless, of course, he didn’t send you at all.’
‘Well, granted, there were some improprieties involved, and had one set out on that particular trail they might well have been noted. But you did not feel the need to do so, evidently, since, although briefly, I more than held my own – pulling you out of trouble once, I seem to recall… something about Tiste Andii assassin-mages-‘
‘When I lost a certain object containing a demon lord…’
‘You did? Sorry to hear that.’
‘The same demon that later died by Rake’s sword in Darujhistan.’
‘Oh, how unfortunate.’
Kalam leaned close to Quick Ben. ‘I thought,’ he said in a whisper, ‘ you told me to relax.’
‘Long ago and far away,’ Dujek Onearm said gruffly, ‘and I’d slap my hands together if I had more than one. Tayschrenn, rein in that Seti before he does something stupid. We have things to discuss here. Let’s get on with it.’
Kalam glanced across at Fiddler and winked. Just like old times…
Lying flat at the crest of the ridge, Pearl grunted. ‘That’s Dujek Onearm out there,’ he said. ‘He’s supposed to be in G’danisban right now.’
Beside him, Lostara Yil hissed and began slapping about her body. ‘
Chigger fleas, damn you. They’re swarming this ridge. I hate chigger fleas-‘
‘Why not jump up and dance about, Captain?’ Pearl asked. ‘Just to make certain they know we’re here.’
‘Spying is stupid. I hate this, and I am rediscovering my hatred for you, too, Claw.’
‘You say the sweetest things. Anyway, the bald one’s Tayschrenn, with Hattar and Kiska this time, meaning he’s serious about the risks. Oh, why did they have to do this, now?’
‘Do what now?’
‘Whatever it is they’re doing, of course.’
‘So run back to Laseen like the eager puppy you are, Pearl, and tell her all about it.’
He edged back down the side of the ridge, twisted round and sat up. ‘
No need for haste. I have to think.’
Lostara clambered down the slope until she could stand. She began scratching under her armour. ‘Well, I’m not waiting around for that. I need a milk bath, with escura leaves, and I need it now.’
He watched her stalk away, back towards the encampment. A nice walk, apart from the sudden twitches.
A simple cantrip, keeping the fleas away from his body. Perhaps he should have extended the courtesy to her.
No. This is much better.
Gods, we’re made for each other.