Cruel misapprehension, you choose the shape and cast of this wet clay in your hands, as the wheel ever spins Tempered in granite, this fired shell hardens into the scarred shield of your deeds, and the dark decisions within Settle hidden in suspension, unseen in banded strata awaiting death’s weary arrival, the journey’s repast to close you out We blind grievers raise you high, honouring all you never were and what rots sealed inside follows you to the grave I stand now among the mourners, displeased by my suspicions as the vessel’s dust drifts oh how I despise funerals.
The Secrets of Clay
His eyes opened in the darkness. Lying motionless, he waited until his mind separated the sounds that had awakened him. Two sources, Barathol decided. One distant, one close at hand. Caution dictated he concentrate on the latter.
Bedclothes rustling, pulled and tugged by adjusting hands, a faint scrape of sandy gravel, then a muted murmur. A long exhaled breath, then some more shifting of positions, until the sounds became rhythmic, and two sets of breathing conjoined.
It was well. Hood knew, Barathol wasn’t the one with a chance of easing the haunted look in the Daru’s eyes. He then added another silent prayer, that Scillara not damage the man with some future betrayal. If that happened, he suspected Cutter would retreat so far from life there would be no return.
In any case, such matters were out of his hands, and that, too, was well.
And so… the other, more distant sound. A susurration, more patient in its rhythm than the now quickening lovemaking on the opposite side of the smouldering firepit. Like wind stroking treetops… but there were no trees. And no wind.
It is the sea.
Dawn was approaching, paling the eastern sky. Barathol heard Scillara roll to one side, her gasps low but long in settling down. From Cutter, a drawing up of coverings, and he then turned onto one side and moments later fell into sleep once more.
Scillara sat up. Flint and iron, a patter of sparks, as she awakened her pipe. She had used the last of her coins to resupply herself with rustleaf the day before, when they passed a modest caravan working its way inland. The meeting had been sudden, as the parties virtually collided on a bend in the rocky trail. An exchange of wary looks, and something like relief arriving in the faces of the traders.
The plague was broken. Tanno Spiritwalkers had so pronounced it, lifting the self-imposed isolation of the island of Otataral.
But Barathol and his companions were the first living people this troop had encountered since leaving the small, empty village on the coast where their ship had delivered them. The merchants, transporting basic staples from Rutu Jelba, had begun to fear they were entering a ghost land.
Two days of withdrawal for Scillara had had Barathol regretting ever leaving his smithy. Rustleaf and now lovemaking – the woman is at peace once more, thank Hood.
Scillara spoke: ‘You want I should prepare breakfast, Barathol?’
He rolled onto his back and sat up, studied her in the faint light.
She shrugged. ‘A woman knows. Are you upset?’
‘Why would I be?’ he replied in a rumble. He looked over at the still motionless form of Cutter. ‘Is he truly asleep once more?’
Scillara nodded. ‘Most nights he hardly sleeps at all – nightmares, and his fear of them. An added benefit to a roll with him – breaks loose his exhaustion afterwards.’
‘I applaud your altruism,’ Barathol said, moving closer to the firepit and prodding at the dim coals with the point of his cook-knife. From the gloom to his right, Chaur appeared, smiling.
‘You should at that,’ Scillara said in reply to Barathol’s comment.
He glanced up. ‘And is that all there is? For you?’
She looked away, drew hard on her pipe.
‘Don’t hurt him, Scillara.’
‘Fool, don’t you see? I’m doing the opposite.’
‘That’s what I concluded. But what if he falls in love with you?’
‘He won’t. He can’t.’
She rose and walked over to the packs. ‘Get that fire going, Barathol.
Some hot tea should rake away the chill in our bones.’
Unless that’s all you have in them, woman.
Chaur went to Scillara’s side, crouching to stroke her hair as, ignoring him, she drew out wrapped foodstuffs.
Chaur watched, with avid fascination, every stream of smoke Scillara exhaled.
Aye, lad, like the legends say, some demons breathe fire.
They let Cutter sleep, and he did not awaken until mid-morning – bolting into a sitting position with a confused, then guilty expression on his face. The sun was finally warm, tempered by a pleasantly cool breeze coming in from the east.
Barathol watched as Cutter’s scanning gaze found Scillara, who sat with her back to a boulder, and the Daru flinched slightly at her greeting wink and blown kiss.
Chaur was circling the camp like an excited dog – the roar of surf was much louder now, carried on the wind, and he could not contain his eagerness to discover the source of that sound.
Cutter pulled his attention from Scillara and watched Chaur for a time. ‘What’s with him?’
‘The sea,’ Barathol said. ‘He’s never seen it. He probably doesn’t even know what it is. There’s still some tea, Cutter, and those packets in front of Scillara are your breakfast.’
‘It’s late,’ he said, rising. ‘You should’ve woken me.’ Then he halted. ‘The sea? Beru fend, we’re that close?’
‘Can’t you smell it? Hear it?’
Cutter suddenly smiled – and it was a true smile – the first Barathol had seen on the young man.
‘Did anyone see the moon last night?’ Scillara asked. ‘It was mottled.
Strange, like holes had been poked through it.’
‘Some of those holes,’ Barathol observed, ‘seem to be getting bigger.’
She looked over, nodding. ‘Good, I thought so, too, but I couldn’t be sure. What do you think it means?’
Barathol shrugged. ‘It’s said the moon is another realm, like ours, with people on its surface. Sometimes things fall from our sky. Rocks.
Balls of fire. The Fall of the Crippled God was said to be like that.
Whole mountains plunging down, obliterating most of a continent and filling half the sky with smoke and ash.’ He glanced across at Scillara, then over at Cutter. ‘I was thinking, maybe, that something hit the moon in the same way.’
‘Like a god being pulled down?’
‘Yes, like that.’
‘So what are those dark blotches?’
‘I don’t know. Could be smoke and ash. Could be pieces of the world that broke away.’
‘Yes.’ Barathol shrugged again. ‘Smoke and ash spreads. It stands to reason, then, doesn’t it?’
Cutter was quickly breaking his fast. ‘Sorry to make you all wait. We should get going. I want to see what’s in that abandoned village.’
‘Anything seaworthy is all we need,’ Barathol said.
‘That is what I’m hoping we’ll find.’ Cutter brushed crumbs from his hands, tossed one last dried fig into his mouth, then rose. ‘I’m ready,’ he said around a mouthful.
All right, Scillara, you did well.
There were sun-bleached, dog-gnawed bones in the back street of the fisher village. Doors to the residences within sight, the inn and the Malazan assessor’s building were all open, drifts of fine sand heaped in the entranceways. Moored on both sides of the stone jetty were half-submerged fisher craft, the ropes holding them fast stretched to unravelling, while in the shallow bay beyond, two slightly larger carracks waited at anchor next to mooring poles.
Chaur still stood on the spot where he had first come in sight of the sea and its rolling, white-edged waves. His smile was unchanged, but tears streamed unchecked and unabating from his eyes, and it seemed he was trying to sing, without opening his mouth: strange mewling sounds emerged. What had run down from his nose was now caked with wind-blown sand.
Scillara wandered through the village, looking for whatever might prove useful on the voyage they now planned. Rope, baskets, casks, dried foodstuffs, nets, gaffs, salt for storing fish – anything.
Mostly what she found were the remnants of villagers – all worried by dogs. Two squat storage buildings flanked the avenue that ran inward from the jetty, and these were both locked. With Barathol’s help, both buildings were broken into, and in these structures they found more supplies than they could ever use.
Cutter swam out to examine the carracks, returning after a time to report that both remained sound and neither was particularly more seaworthy than the other. Of matching length and beam, the craft were like twins.
‘Made by the same hands,’ Cutter said. ‘I think. You could judge that better than me, Barathol, if you’re at all interested.’
‘I will take your word for it, Cutter. So, we can choose either one, then.’
‘Yes. Of course, maybe they belong to the traders we met.’
‘No, they’re not Jelban. What are their names?’
‘Dhenrabi’s Tail is the one on the left. The other’s called Sanal’s Grief. I wonder who Sanal was?’
‘We’ll take Grief,’ Barathol said, ‘and before you ask, don’t.’
Cutter waded alongside one of the swamped sculls beside the jetty. ‘We should bail one of these, to move our supplies out to her.’
Barathol rose. ‘I’ll start bringing those supplies down from the warehouse.’
Scillara watched the huge man make his way up the avenue, then turned her attention to the Daru, who had found a half-gourd bailer and was scooping water from one of the sculls. ‘Want me to help?’ she asked.
‘It’s all right. Finally, I’ve got something to do.’
‘Day and night now.’
The glance he threw her was shy. ‘I’ve never tasted milk before.’
Laughing, she repacked her pipe. ‘Yes you have. You just don’t remember it.’
‘Ah. I suppose you’re right.’
‘Anyway, you’re a lot gentler than that little sweet-faced bloodfly was.’
‘You’ve not given her a name?’
‘No. Leave that to her new mothers to fight over.’
‘Not even in your own mind? I mean, apart from blood-fly and leech and horse tick.’
‘Cutter,’ she said, ‘you don’t understand. I give her a real name I’ll end up having to turn round and head back. I’ll have to take her, then.’
‘Oh. I am sorry, Scillara. You’re right. There’s not much I understand about anything.’
‘You need to trust yourself more.’
‘No.’ He paused, eyes on the sea to the east. ‘There’s nothing I’ve done to make that… possible. Look at what happened when Felisin Younger trusted me – to protect her. Even Heboric – he said I was showing leadership, he said that was good. So, he too trusted me.’
‘You damned idiot. We were ambushed by T’lan Imass. What do you think you could have done?’
‘I don’t know, and that’s my point.’
‘Heboric was the Destriant of Treach. They killed him as if he was nothing more than a lame dog. They lopped limbs off Greyfrog like they were getting ready to cook a feast. Cutter, people like you and me, we can’t stop creatures like that. They cut us down then step over us and that’s that as far as they’re concerned. Yes, it’s a hard thing to take, for anyone. The fact that we’re insignificant, irrelevant.
Nothing is expected of us, so better we just hunch down and stay out of sight, stay beneath the notice of things like T’lan Imass, things like gods and goddesses. You and me, Cutter, and Barathol there. And Chaur. We’re the ones who, if we’re lucky, stay alive long enough to clean up the mess, put things back together. To reassert the normal world. That’s what we do, when we can – look at you, you’ve just resurrected a dead boat – you gave it its function again – look at it, Cutter, it finally looks the way it should, and that’s satisfying, isn’t it?’
‘For Hood’s sake,’ Cutter said, shaking his head, ‘Scillara, we’re not just worker termites clearing a tunnel after a god’s careless footfall. That’s not enough.’
‘I’m not suggesting it’s enough,’ she said. ‘I’m telling you it’s what we have to start with, when we’re rebuilding – rebuilding villages and rebuilding our lives.’
Barathol had been trudging back and forth during this conversation, and now Chaur had come down, timidly, closer to the water. The mute had unpacked the supplies from the horses, including Heboric’s wrapped corpse, and the beasts – unsaddled, their bits removed – now wandered along the grassy fringe beyond the tideline, tails swishing.
Cutter began loading the scull.
He paused at one point and grinned wryly. ‘Lighting a pipe’s a good way of getting out of work, isn’t it?’
‘You said you didn’t need any help.’
‘With the bailing, yes.’
‘What you don’t understand, Cutter, is the spiritual necessity for reward, not to mention the clarity that comes to one’s mind during such repasts. And in not understanding, you instead feel resentment, which sours the blood in your heart and makes you bitter. It’s that bitterness that kills people, you know, it eats them up inside.’
He studied her. ‘Meaning, I’m actually jealous?’
‘Of course you are, but because I can empathize with you I am comfortable withholding judgement. Tell me, can you say the same for yourself?’
Barathol arrived with a pair of casks under his arms. ‘Get off your ass, woman. We’ve got a good wind and the sooner we’re on our way the better.’
She threw him a salute as she rose. ‘There you go, Cutter, a man who takes charge. Watch him, listen, and learn.’
The Daru stared at her, bemused.
She read his face: But you just said…
So I did, my young lover. We are contrary creatures, us humans, but that isn’t something we need be afraid of, or even much troubled by.
And if you make a list of those people who worship consistency, you’ll find they’re one and all tyrants or would’be tyrants. Ruling over thousands, or over a husband or a wife, or some cowering child. Never fear contradiction, Cutter, it is the very heart of diversity.
Chaur held on to the steering oar whilst Cutter and Barathol worked the sails. The day was bright, the wind fresh and the carrack rode the swells as if its very wood was alive. Every now and then the bow pitched down, raising spray, and Chaur would laugh, the sound childlike, a thing of pure joy.
Scillara settled down amidships, the sun on her face warm, not hot, and stretched out.
We sail a carrack named Grief, with a corpse on board. That Cutter means to deliver to its final place of rest. Heboric, did you know such loyalty could exist, there in your shadow?
Barathol moved past her at one point, and, as Chaur laughed once more, she saw an answering smile on his battered, scarified face.
Oh yes, it is indeed blessed music. So unexpected, and in its innocence, so needed…
The return of certain mortal traits, Onrack the Broken realized, reminded one that life was far from perfect. Not that he had held many illusions in that regard. In truth, he held no illusions at all. About anything. Even so, some time passed – in something like a state of fugue – before Onrack recognized that what he was feeling was… impatience.
The enemy would come again. These caverns would echo with screams, with the clangour of weapons, with voices raised in rage. And Onrack would stand at Trull Sengar’s side, and with him witness, in helpless fury, the death of still more of Minala’s children.
Of course, children was a term that no longer fit. Had they been Imass, they would have survived the ordeal of the passage into adulthood by now. They would be taking mates, leading hunting parties, and joining their voices to the night songs of the clan, when the darkness returned to remind them all that death waited, there at the end of life’s path.
Lying with lovers also belonged to night, and that made sense, for it was in the midst of true darkness that the first fire of life was born, flickering awake to drive back the unchanging absence of light.
To lie with a lover was to celebrate the creation of fire. From this in the flesh to the world beyond.
Here, in the chasm, night reigned eternal, and there was no fire in the soul, no heat of lovemaking. There was only the promise of death.
And Onrack was impatient with that. There was no glory in waiting for oblivion. No, in an existence bound with true meaning and purpose, oblivion should ever arrive unexpected, unanticipated and unseen. One moment racing full tilt, the next, gone.
As a T’lan Imass of Logros, Onrack had known the terrible cost borne in wars of attrition. The spirit exhausted beyond reason, with no salvation awaiting it, only more of the same. The kin falling to the wayside, shattered and motionless, eyes fixed on some skewed vista – a scene to be watched for eternity, the minute changes measuring the centuries of indifference. Some timid creature scampering through, a plant’s exuberant green pushing up from the earth after a rain, birds pecking at seeds, insects building empires…
Trull Sengar came to his side where Onrack stood guarding the chokepoint. ‘Monok Ochem says the Edur’s presence has… contracted, away from us. For now. As if something made my kin retreat. I feel, my friend, that we have been granted a reprieve – one that is not welcome. I don’t know how much longer I can fight.’
‘When you can no longer fight in truth, Trull Sengar, the failure will cease to matter.’
‘I did not think they would defy her, you know, but now, I see that it makes sense. She expected them to just abandon this, leaving the handful remaining here to their fate. Our fate, I mean.’ He shrugged.
‘Panek was not surprised.’
‘The other children look to him,’ Onrack said. ‘They would not abandon him. Nor their mothers.’
‘And, in staying, they will break the hearts of us all.’
The Tiste Edur looked over. ‘Have you come to regret the awakening of emotions within you, Onrack?’
‘This awakening serves to remind me, Trull Sengar.’
‘Of why I am called “The Broken”.’
‘As broken as the rest of us.’
‘Not Monok Ochem, nor Ibra Gholan.’
‘No, not them.’
‘Trull Sengar, when the attackers come, I would you know – I intend to leave your side.’
‘Yes. I intend to challenge their leader. To slay him or be destroyed in the attempt. Perhaps, if I can deliver a truly frightful cost, they will reconsider their alliance with the Crippled God. At the very least, they may withdraw and not return for a long time.’
‘I understand.’ Trull then smiled in the gloom. ‘I will miss your presence at my side in those final moments, my friend.’
‘Should I succeed in what I intend, Trull Sengar, I shall return to your side.’
‘Then you had better be quick killing that leader.’
‘Such is my intention.’
‘Onrack, I hear something new in your voice.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘It means, Trull Sengar, that Onrack the Broken, in discovering impatience, has discovered something else.’
‘This: I am done with defending the indefensible. I am done with witnessing the fall of friends. In the battle to come, you shall see in me something terrible. Something neither Ibra Gholan nor Monok Ochem can achieve. Trull Sengar, you shall see a T’lan Imass, awakened to anger.’
Banaschar opened the door, wavered for a moment, leaning with one hand against the frame, then staggered into his decrepit room. The rank smell of sweat and unclean bedding, stale food left on the small table beneath the barred window. He paused, considering whether or not to light the lantern – but the oil was low and he’d forgotten to buy more. He rubbed at the bristle on his chin, more vigorously than normal since it seemed his face had gone numb.
A creak from the chair against the far wall, six paces distant.
Banaschar froze in place, seeking to pierce the darkness. ‘Who’s there?’ he demanded.
‘There are few things in this world,’ said the figure seated in the chair, ‘more pathetic than a once-Demidrek fallen into such disrepair, Banaschar. Stumbling drunk into this vermin-filled hovel every night – why are you here?’
Banaschar stepped to his right and sank heavily onto the cot. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ he said, ‘so I see no reason to answer you.’
A sigh, then, ‘You send, one after another for a while there, cryptic messages. Pleading, with increasing desperation, to meet with the Imperial High Mage.’
‘Then you must realize,’ Banaschar said, struggling to force sobriety into his thoughts – the terror was helping – ‘that the matter concerns only devotees of D’rek-‘
‘A description that no longer fits either you or Tayschrenn.’
‘There are things,’ Banaschar said, ‘that cannot be left behind.
Tayschrenn knows this, as much as I-‘
‘Actually, the Imperial High Mage knows nothing.’ A pause, accompanying a gesture that Banaschar interpreted as the man studying his fingernails, and something in his tone changed. ‘Not yet, that is.
Perhaps not at all. You see, Banaschar, the decision is mine.’
‘Who are you?’
‘You are not ready yet to know that.’
‘Why are you intercepting my missives to Tayschrenn?’
‘Well, to be precise, I have said no such thing.’
Banaschar frowned. ‘You just said the decision was yours.’
‘Yes I did. That decision centres on whether I remain inactive in this matter, as I have been thus far, or – given sufficient cause – I elect to, um, intervene.’
‘Then who is blocking my efforts?’
‘You must understand, Banaschar, Tayschrenn is the Imperial High Mage first and foremost. Whatever else he once was is now irrelevant-‘
‘No, it isn’t. Not given what I have discovered-‘
‘Better yet, Banaschar, convince me.’
‘I cannot,’ he replied, hands clutching the grimy bedding to either side.
‘An imperial matter?’
‘Well, that is a start. As you said, then, the subject pertains to once-followers of D’rek. A subject, one presumes, related to the succession of mysterious deaths within the cult of the Worm.
Succession? More like slaughter, yes? Tell me, is there anyone left?
Anyone at all?’
Banaschar said nothing.
‘Except, of course,’ the stranger added, ‘those few who have, at some time in the past and for whatever reasons, fallen away from the cult.
‘You know too much of this,’ Banaschar said. He should never have stayed in this room. He should have been finding different hovels every night. He hadn’t thought there’d be anyone, anyone left, who’d remember him. After all, those who might have were now all dead. And I know why. Gods below, how I wish I didn’t.
‘Tayschrenn,’ said the man after a moment, ‘is being isolated.
Thoroughly and most efficiently. In my professional standing, I admit to considerable admiration, in fact. Alas, in that same capacity, I am also experiencing considerable alarm.’
‘You are a Claw.’
‘Very good – at least some intelligence is sifting through that drunken haze, Banaschar. Yes, my name is Pearl.’
‘How did you find me?’
‘Does that make a difference?’
‘It does. To me, it does, Pearl.’
Another sigh and a wave of one hand. ‘Oh, I was bored. I followed someone, who, it turned out, was keeping track of you – with whom you spoke, where you went, you know, the usual things required.’
‘Required? For what?’
‘Why, preparatory, I imagine, to assassination, when that killer’s master deems it expedient.’
Banaschar was suddenly shivering, the sweat cold and clammy beneath his clothes. ‘There is nothing political,’ he whispered, ‘nothing that has anything to do with the empire. There is no reason-‘
‘Oh, but you have made it so, Banaschar. Do you forget? Tayschrenn is being isolated. You are seeking to break that, to awaken the Imperial High Mage-‘
‘Why is he permitting it?’ Banaschar demanded. ‘He’s no fool-‘
A soft laugh. ‘Oh no, Tayschrenn is no fool. And in that, you may well have your answer.’
Banaschar blinked in the gloom. ‘I must meet with him, Pearl.’
‘You have not yet convinced me.’
A long silence, in which Banaschar closed his eyes, then placed his hands over them, as if that would achieve some kind of absolution. But only words could do that. Words, uttered now, to this man. Oh, how he wanted to believe it would… suffice. A Claw, who would be my ally.
Why? Because the Claw has… rivals. A new organization that has deemed it expedient to raise impenetrable walls around the Imperial High Mage. What does that reveal of that new organization? They see Tayschrenn as an enemy, or they would so exclude him as to make his inaction desirable, even to himself. They know he knows, and wait to see if he finally objects. But he has not yet done so, leading them to believe that he might not – during whatever is coming. Abyss take me, what are we dealing with here?
Banaschar spoke from behind his hands. ‘I would ask you something, Pearl.’
‘Consider the most grand of schemes,’ he said. ‘Consider time measured in millennia. Consider the ageing faces of gods, goddesses, beliefs and civilizations…’
‘Go on. What is it you would ask?’
Still he hesitated. Then he slowly lowered his hands, and looked across, to that grey, ghostly face opposite him. ‘Which is the greater crime, Pearl, a god betraying its followers, or its followers betraying their god? Followers who then choose to commit atrocities in that god’s name. Which, Pearl? Tell me, please.’
The Claw was silent for a dozen heartbeats, then he shrugged. ‘You ask a man without faith, Banaschar.’
‘Who better to judge?’
‘Gods betray their followers all the time, as far as I can tell. Every unanswered prayer, every unmet plea for salvation. The very things that define faith, I might add.’
‘Failure, silence and indifference? These are the definitions of faith, Pearl?’
‘As I said, I am not the man for this discussion.’
‘But are those things true betrayal?’
‘That depends, I suppose. On whether the god worshipped is, by virtue of being worshipped, in turn beholden to the worshipper. If that god isn’t – if there is no moral compact – then your answer is “no”, it’s not betrayal.’
‘To whom – for whom – does a god act?’ Banaschar asked.
‘If we proceed on the aforementioned assertion, the god acts and answers only to him or herself.’
‘After all,’ Banaschar said, his voice rasping as he leaned forward, ‘ who are we to judge?’
‘As you say.’
‘If,’ Pearl said, ‘on the other hand, a moral compact does exist between god and worshipper, then each and every denial represents a betrayal-‘
‘Assuming that which is asked of that god is in itself bound to a certain morality.’
‘True. A husband praying his wife dies in some terrible accident so that he can marry his mistress, for example, is hardly something any self-respecting god would acquiesce to, or assist in.’
Banaschar heard the mockery in the man’s voice, but chose to ignore it. ‘And if the wife is a tyrant who beats their children?’
‘Then a truly just god would act without the necessity for prayer.’
‘Meaning the prayer itself, voiced by that husband, is also implicitly evil, regardless of his motive?’
‘Well, Banaschar, in my scenario, his motive is made suspect by the presence of the mistress.’
‘And if that mistress would be a most loving and adoring stepmother?’
Pearl snarled, chopping with one hand. ‘Enough of this, damn you – you can wallow in this moral quandary all you want. I don’t see the relevance…’ His voice fell away.
His heart smothered in a bed of ashes, Banaschar waited, willing himself not to sob aloud, not to cry out.
‘They prayed but did not ask, nor beseech, nor plead,’ Pearl said. ‘
Their prayers were a demand. The betrayal… was theirs, wasn’t it?’
The Claw sat forward. ‘Banaschar. Are you telling me that D’rek killed them all? Her entire priesthood? They betrayed her! In what way? What did they demand?’
‘There is war,’ he said in a dull voice.
‘Yes. War among the gods, yes – gods below – those worshippers chose the wrong side!’
‘She heard them,’ Banaschar said, forcing the words out. ‘She heard them choose. The Crippled God. And the power they demanded was the power of blood. Well, she decided, if they so lusted for blood… she would give them all they wanted.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘All they wanted.’
‘Banaschar… hold on a moment… why would D’rek’s followers choose blood, the power of blood? That is an Elder way. What you are saying makes no sense.’
‘The Cult of the Worm is ancient, Pearl. Even we cannot determine just how old. There is mention of a goddess, the Matron of Decay, the Mistress of Worms – a half-dozen titles – in Gothos’s Folly – in the fragments possessed by the temple. Or at least, once in the temple’s possession – those scrolls disappeared-‘
Banaschar managed a bitter smile. ‘On the night of Tayschrenn’s flight from the Grand Temple in Kartool. He has them. He must have them. Don’ t you see? Something is wrong! With all of this! The knowledge that I hold, and the knowledge that Tayschrenn must possess – with his access to Gothos’s Folly – we must speak, we must make sense of what has happened, and what it means. This goes beyond the Imperium – yet this war among the gods – tell me, whose blood do you think will be spilled? What happened in the cult of D’rek, that is but the beginning!’
‘The gods will betray us?’ Pearl asked, leaning back. ‘Us… mortals.
Whether we worship or not, it is mortal blood that will soak the earth.’ He paused, then said, ‘Perhaps, given the opportunity, you will be able to persuade Tayschrenn. But what of the other priesthoods – do you truly believe you can convince them – and what will you say to them? Will you plead for some kind of reformation, Banaschar? Some revolution among believers? They will laugh in your face.’
Banaschar looked away. ‘In my face, perhaps. But… Tayschrenn…’
The man opposite him said nothing for a time. A graininess filled the gloom – dawn was coming, and with it a dull chill. Finally, Pearl rose, the motion fluid and silent. ‘This is a matter for the Empress-‘
‘Her? Don’t be a fool-‘
‘Careful,’ the Claw warned in a soft voice.
Banaschar thought quickly, in desperation. ‘She only comes into play with regard to releasing Tayschrenn from his position as High Mage, in freeing him to act. And besides, if the rumours are true about the Grey Mistress stalking Seven Cities, then it is clear that the pantheonic war has already begun in its myriad manipulations of the mortal realm. She would be wise to heed that threat.’
‘Banaschar,’ Pearl said, ‘the rumours do not even come close to the truth. Hundreds of thousands have died. Perhaps millions.’
Millions? ‘I shall speak with the Empress,’ Pearl repeated.
‘When do you leave?’ Banaschar asked. And what of those who are isolating Tayschrenn? What of those who contemplate killing me? ‘There will be no need for that,’ the Claw said, walking to the door.
‘She is coming here.’
Why? But he did not voice that question, for the man had gone.
Saying it needed the exercise, Iskaral Pust was sitting atop his mule, struggling to guide it in circles on the mid deck. From the looks of it, he was working far harder than the strange beast as it was cajoled into a step every fifty heartbeats or so.
Red-eyed and sickly, Mappo sat with his back to the cabin wall. Each night, in his dreams, he wept, and would awaken to find that what had plagued his dreams had pushed through the barrier of sleep, and he would lie beneath the furs, shivering with something like a fever. A sickness in truth, born of dread, guilt and shame. Too many failures, too many bad judgements; he had been stumbling, blind, for so long.
Out of friendship he had betrayed his only friend.
I will make amends for all of this. So I vow, before all the Trell spirits.
Standing at the prow, the woman named Spite was barely visible within the gritty, mud-brown haze that engulfed her. Not one of the bhok’ arala, scrambling about in the rigging or back and forth on the decks, would come near her.
She was in conversation. So Iskaral Pust had claimed. With a spirit that didn’t belong. Not here in the sea, and that wavering haze, like dust skirling through yellow grasses – even to Mappo’s dull eyes, blatantly out of place.
An intruder, but one of power, and that power seemed to be growing.
‘Mael,’ Iskaral Pust had said with a manic laugh, ‘he’s resisting, and getting his nose bloodied. Do you sense his fury, Trell? His spitting outrage? Hee. Hee hee. But she’s not afraid of him, oh no, she’s not afraid of anyone!’
Mappo had no idea who that ‘she’ was, and had not the energy to ask.
At first, he had thought the High Priest had been referring to Spite, but no, it became increasingly apparent that the power manifesting itself over the bow of the ship was nothing like Spite’s. No draconean stink, no cold brutality. No, the sighs of wind reaching the Trell were warm, dry, smelling of grasslands.
The conversation had begun at dawn, and now the sun was directly overhead. It seemed there was much to discuss… about something.
Mappo saw two spiders scuttle past his moccasined feet. You damned witch, I don’t think you’re fooling anyone.
Was there a connection? Here, on this nameless ship, two shamans from Dal Hon, a land of yellow grasses, acacias, huge herds and big cats – savannah – and now, this… visitor, striding across foreign seas.
‘Outraged, yes,’ Iskaral Pust had said. ‘Yet, do you sense his reluctance? Oh, he struggles, but he knows too that she, who chooses to be in one place and not many, she is more than his match. Dare he focus? He doesn’t even want this stupid war, hah! But oh, it is that very ambivalence that so frees his followers to do as they please!’
A snarling cry as the High Priest of Shadow fell from the back of the mule. The animal brayed, dancing away and wheeling round to stare down at the thrashing old man. It brayed again, and in that sound Mappo imagined he could hear laughter.
Iskaral Pust ceased moving, then lifted his head. ‘She’s gone.’
The wind that had been driving them steady and hard, ever on course, grew fitful.
Mappo saw Spite making her way down the forecastle steps, looking weary and somewhat dismayed. ‘Well?’ Iskaral demanded.
Spite’s gaze dropped to regard the High Priest where he lay on the deck. ‘She must leave us for a time. I sought to dissuade her, and, alas, I failed. This places us… at risk.’
‘From what?’ Mappo asked.
She glanced over at him. ‘Why, the vagaries of the natural world, Trell. Which can, at times, prove alarming and most random.’ Her attention returned to Iskaral Pust. ‘High Priest, please, assert some control over your bhok’arala. They keep undoing knots that should remain fast, not to mention leaving those unsightly offerings to you everywhere underfoot.’
‘Assert some control?’ Iskaral asked, sitting up with a bewildered look on his face. ‘But they’re crewing this ship!’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Spite said. ‘This ship is being crewed by ghosts.
Tiste Andii ghosts, specifically. True, it was amusing to think otherwise, but now your little small-brained worshippers are becoming troublesome.’
‘Troublesome? You have no idea, Spite! Hah!’ He cocked his head. ‘Yes, let her think on that for a while. That tiny frown wrinkling her brow is so endearing. More than that, admit it, it inspires lust – oh yes, I’m not as shrivelled up as they no doubt think and in so thinking perforce nearly convince me! Besides, she wants me. I can tell. After all, I had a wife, didn’t I? Not like Mappo there, with his bestial no doubt burgeoning traits, no, he has no-one! Indeed, am I not experienced? Am I not capable of delicious, enticing subtlety? Am I not favoured by my idiotic, endlessly miscalculating god?’
Shaking her head, Spite walked past him, and halted before Mappo. ‘
Would that I could convince you, Trell, of the necessity for patience, and faith. We have stumbled upon a most extraordinary ally.’
Allies. They ever fail you in the end. Motives clash, divisive violence follows, and friend betrays friend.
‘Will you devour your own soul, Mappo Runt?’
‘I do not understand you,’ he said. ‘Why do you involve yourself with my purpose, my quest?’
‘Because,’ she said, ‘I know where it shall lead.’
‘The future unfolds before you, does it?’
‘Never clearly, never completely. But I can well sense the convergence ahead – it shall be vast, Mappo, more terrible than this or any other realm has ever seen before. The Fall of the Crippled God, the Rage of Kallor, the Wounding at Morn, the Chainings – they all shall be dwarfed by what is coming. And you shall be there, for you are part of that convergence. As is Icarium. Just as I will come face to face with my evil sister at the very end, a meeting from which but one of us will walk away when all is done between us.’
Mappo stared at her. ‘Will I,’ he whispered, ‘will I stop him? In the end? Or, is he the end – of everything?’
‘I do not know. Perhaps the possibilities, Mappo Runt, depend entirely on how prepared you are at that moment, at your readiness, your faith, if you will.’
He slowly sighed, closed his eyes, then nodded. ‘I understand.’
And, not seeing, he did not witness her flinch, and was himself unaware of the pathos filling the tone of that admission.
When he looked upon her once more, he saw naught but a calm, patient expression. Cool, gauging. Mappo nodded. ‘As you say. I shall… try.’
‘I would expect no less, Trell.’
‘Quiet!’ Iskaral Pust hissed, still lying on the deck, but now on his belly. He was sniffing the air. ‘Smell her? I do. I smell her! On this ship! That udder-knotted cow! Where is she!?’
The mule brayed once more.
Taralack Veed crouched before Icarium. The Jhag was paler than he had ever seen him before, the consequence of day after day in this hold, giving his skin a ghoulish green cast. The soft hiss of iron blade against whetstone was the only sound between them for a moment, then the Gral cleared his throat and said, ‘A week away at the least – these Edur take their time. Like you, Icarium, they have already begun their preparations.’
‘Why do they force an enemy upon me, Taralack Veed?’
The question was so lifeless that for a moment the Grail wondered if it had been rhetorical. He sighed, reaching up to ensure that his hair was as it should be – the winds upside were fierce – then said, ‘My friend, they must be shown the extent of your… martial prowess. The enemy with which they have clashed – a number of times, apparently – has proved both resilient and ferocious. The Edur have lost warriors.’
Icarium continued working the sword’s single, notched edge. Then he paused, his eyes fixed on the weapon in his hands. ‘I feel,’ he said, ‘I feel… they are making a mistake. This notion… of testing me – if what you have told me is true. Those tales of my anger… unleashed.’ He shook his head. ‘Who are those I will face, do you know?’
Taralack Veed shrugged. ‘No, I know very little – they do not trust me, and why should they? I am not an ally – indeed, we are not allies-‘
‘And yet we shall soon fight for them. Do you not see the contradictions, Taralack Veed?’
‘There is no good side in the battle to come, my friend. They fight each other endlessly, for both sides lack the capacity, or the will, to do anything else. Both thirst for the blood of their enemies. You and I, we have seen all of this before, the manner in which two opposing forces – no matter how disparate their origins, no matter how righteously one begins the conflict – end up becoming virtually identical to each other. Brutality matches brutality, stupidity matches stupidity. You would have me ask the Tiste Edur? About their terrible, evil enemies? What is the point? This, my friend, is a matter of killing. That and nothing more, now. Do you see that?’
‘A matter of killing,’ Icarium repeated, his words a whisper. After a moment, he resumed honing the edge of his sword.
‘And such a matter,’ Taralack Veed said, ‘belongs to you.’
‘You must show them that. By ending the battle. Utterly.’
‘Ending it. All the killing. Ending it, for ever.’
‘Yes, my friend. It is your purpose.’
‘With my sword, I can deliver peace.’
‘Oh yes, Icarium, you can and you will.’ Mappo Runt, you were a fool.
How you might have made use of this Jhag. For the good of all. Icarium is the sword, after all. Forged to be used, as all weapons are.
The weapon, then, that promises peace. Why, you foolish Trell, did you ever flee from this?
North of the Olphara Peninsula, the winds freshened, filling the sails, and the ships seemed to surge like migrating dhenrabi across the midnight blue of the seas. Despite her shallow draught, the Silanda struggled to keep pace with the dromons and enormous transports.
Almost as bored as the other marines, Bottle walked up and down the deck, trying to ignore their bickering, trying to nail down this sense of unease growing within him. Something… in this wind… something…
‘Bone monger,’ Smiles said, pointing her knife at Koryk. ‘That’s what you remind me of, with all those bones hanging from you. I remember one who used to come through the village – the village outside our estate, I mean. Collecting from kitchen middens. Grinding up all kinds and sticking them in flasks. With labels. Dog jaws for toothaches, horse hips for making babies, bird skulls for failing eyes-‘
‘Penis bones for homely little girls,’ Koryk cut in.
In a blur, the knife in Smiles’s hand reversed grip and she held the point between thumb and fingers.
‘Don’t even think it,’ Cuttle said in a growl.
‘Besides,’ Tarr observed, ‘Koryk ain’t the only one wearing lots of bones – Hood’s breath, Smiles, you’re wearing your own-‘
‘Tastefully,’ she retorted, still holding the knife by its point. ‘It’ s the excess that makes it crass.’
‘Latest court fashion in Unta, you mean?’ Cuttle asked, one brow lifting.
Tarr laughed. ‘Subtle and understated, that modest tiny finger bone, dangling just so – the ladies swooned with envy.’
In all of this, Bottle noted in passing, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas simply stared, from one soldier to the next as they bantered. On the man’s face baffled incomprehension.
From the cabin house, voices rising in argument. Again. Gesler, Balm, Stormy and Fiddler.
One of Y’Ghatan’s pups was listening, but Bottle paid little attention, since the clash was an old one, as both Stormy and Balm sought to convince Fiddler to play games with the Deck of Dragons.
Besides, what was important was out here, a whisper in the air, in this steady, unceasing near-gale, a scent mostly obscured by the salty seaspray…
Pausing at the port rail, Bottle looked out at that distant ridge of land to the south. Hazy, strangely blurred, it seemed to be visibly sweeping by, although at this distance such a perception should have been impossible. The wind itself was brown-tinged, as if it had skirled out from some desert.
We have left Seven Cities. Thank the gods. He never wanted to set foot on that land again. Its sand was a gritty patina on his soul, fused by heat, storms, and uncounted people whose bodies had been incinerated – remnants of them were in him now, and would never be fully expunged from his flesh, his lungs. He could taste their death, hear the echo of their screams.
Shortnose and Flashwit were wrestling over the deck, growling and biting like a pair of dogs. Some festering argument – Bottle wondered what part of Shortnose would get bitten off this time – and there were shouts and curses as the two rolled into soldiers of Balm’s squad who had been throwing bones, scattering the cast. Moments later fights were erupting everywhere.
As Bottle turned, Mayfly had picked up Lobe and he saw the hapless soldier flung through the air – to crash up against the mound of severed heads.
Screams, as the ghastly things rolled about, eyes blinking in the sudden lightAnd the fight was over, soldiers hurrying to return the trophies to their pile beneath the tarpaulin.
Fiddler emerged from the cabin, looking harried. He paused, scanning the scene, then, shaking his head, he walked over to where Bottle leaned on the rail.
‘Corabb should’ve left me in the tunnel,’ the sergeant said, scratching at his beard. ‘At least then I’d get some peace.’
‘It’s just Balm,’ Bottle said, then snapped his mouth shut – but too late.
‘I knew it, you damned bastard. Fine, it stays between you and me, but in exchange want to hear your thoughts. What about Balm?’
‘He’s Dal Honese.’
‘I know that, idiot.’
‘Well, his skin’s crawling, is my guess.’
‘So’s mine, Bottle.’
Ah, that explains it, then. ‘She’s with us, now. Again, I mean.’
‘You know who.’
‘The one who plays with your-‘
‘The one who also healed you, Sergeant.’
‘What’s she got to do with Balm?’
‘I’m not sure. More like where his people live, I think.’
‘Why is she helping us?’
‘Is she, Sergeant?’ Bottle turned to study Fiddler. ‘Helping us, I mean. True, the last time… Quick Ben’s illusion that chased off that enemy fleet. But so what? Now we’ve got this gale at our backs, and it’s driving us west, fast, maybe faster than should be possible – look at that coast – our lead ships must be due south of Monkan by now. At this pace, we’ll reach Sepik before night falls. We’re being pushed, and that makes me very nervous – what’s the damned hurry?’
‘Maybe just putting distance between us and those grey skinned barbarians.’
‘Tiste Edur. Hardly barbarians, Sergeant.’
Fiddler grunted. ‘I’ve clashed with the Tiste Andii and they used Elder magic – Kurald Galain – and it was nothing like what we saw a week ago.’
‘No, that wasn’t warrens. It was Holds – older, raw, way too close to chaos.’
‘What it was,’ Fiddler said, ‘doesn’t belong in war.’
Bottle laughed. He could not help it. ‘You mean, a little bit of wholesale slaughter is all right, Sergeant? Like what we do on the battlefield? Chasing down fleeing soldiers and caving their skulls in from behind, that’s all right?’
‘Never said I was making sense, Bottle,’ Fiddler retorted. ‘It’s just what my gut tells me. I’ve been in battles where sorcery was let loose – really let loose – and it was nothing like what those Edur were up to. They want to win wars without drawing a sword.’
‘And that makes a difference?’
‘It makes victory unearned, is what it does.’
‘And does the Empress earn her victories, Sergeant?’
‘Well,’ he persisted, ‘she’s just sitting there on her throne, while we’re out here-‘
‘You think I fight for her, Bottle?’
‘If that’s what you think, you wasn’t taught a damned thing at Y’
Ghatan.’ He turned and strode off.
Bottle stared after him a moment, then returned his attention to the distant horizon. Fine, he’s right. But still, what we’re earning is her currency and that’s that.
‘What in Hood’s name are you doing down here?’
‘Hiding, what’s it look like? That’s always been your problem, Kal, your lack of subtlety. Sooner or later it’s going to get you into trouble. Is it dark yet?’
‘No. Listen, what’s with this damned gale up top? It’s all wrong-‘
‘You just noticed?’
Kalam scowled in the gloom. Well, at least he’d found the wizard. The High Mage of the Fourteenth, hiding between crates and casks and bales. Oh, how bloody encouraging is that? ‘The Adjunct wants to talk to you.’
‘Of course she does. I would too if I was her. But I’m not her, am I?
No, she’s a mystery – you notice how she almost never wears that sword? Now, I’ll grant you, I’m glad, now that I’ve been chained to this damned army. Remember those sky keeps? We’re in the midst of something, Kal. And the Adjunct knows more than she’s letting on. A lot more. Somehow. The Empress has recalled us. Why? What now?’
‘You’re babbling, Quick. It’s embarrassing.’
‘You want babbling, try this. Has it not occurred to you that we lost this one?’
‘Dryjhna, the Apocalyptic, the whole prophecy – we didn’t get it, we never did – and you and me, Kal, we should have, you know. The Uprising, what did it achieve? How about slaughter, anarchy, rotting corpses everywhere. And what arrived in the wake of that? Plague. The apocalypse, Kalam, wasn’t the war, it was the plague. So maybe we won and maybe we lost. Both, do you see?’
‘Dryjhna never belonged to the Crippled God. Nor Poliel-‘
‘Hardly matters. It’s ended up serving them both, hasn’t it?’
‘We can’t fight all that, Quick,’ Kalam said. ‘We had a rebellion. We put it down. What these damned gods and goddesses are up to – it’s not our fight. Not the empire’s fight, and that includes Laseen. She’s not going to see all this as some kind of failure. Tavore did what she had to do and now we’re going back, and then we’ll get sent elsewhere.
That’s the way it is.’
‘Tavore sent us into the Imperial Warren, Kal. Why?’
The assassin shrugged. ‘All right, like you said, she’s a mystery.’
Quick Ben moved further into the narrow space between cargo. ‘Here, there’s room.’
After a moment, Kalam joined him. ‘You got anything to eat? Drink?’
As the lookouts cried out the sighting of Sepik, Apsalar made her way forward. The Adjunct, Nil, Keneb and Nether were already on the forecastle. The sun, low on the horizon to the west, lit the rising mass of land two pegs to starboard with a golden glow. Ahead, the lead ships of the fleet, two dromons, were drawing near.
Reaching the rail, Apsalar found she could now make out the harbour city tucked in its halfmoon bay. No smoke rose from the tiers, and in the harbour itself, a mere handful of ships rode at anchor; the nearest one had clearly lost its bow anchor – some snag had hung the trader craft up, heeling it to one side so that its starboard rail was very nearly under water.
Keneb was speaking, ‘Sighting Sepik,’ he said in a tone that suggested he was repeating himself, ‘should have been four, maybe five days away.’
Apsalar watched the two dromons work into the city’s bay. One of them was Nok’s own flagship.
‘Something is wrong,’ Nether said.
‘Fist Keneb,’ the Adjunct said quietly, ‘stand down the marines.’
‘We shall be making no landfall-‘
At that moment, Apsalar saw the foremost dromon suddenly balk, as if it had inexplicably lost headway – and its crew raced like frenzied ants, sails buckling overhead. A moment later the same activity struck Nok’s ship, and a signal flag began working its way upward.
Beyond the two warcraft, the city of Sepik exploded into life.
Gulls. Tens of thousands, rising from the streets, the buildings. In their midst, the black tatters of crows, island vultures, lifting like flakes of ash amidst the swirling smoke of the white gulls. Rising, billowing, casting a chaotic shadow over the city.
Nether whispered, ‘They’re all dead.’
‘The Tiste Edur have visited,’ Apsalar said.
Tavore faced her. ‘Is slaughter their answer to everything?’
‘They found their own kind, Adjunct, a remnant population. Subject, little more than slaves. They are not reluctant to unleash their fury, these Edur.’
‘How do you know this, Bridgeburner?’
She eyed the woman. ‘How did you know, Adjunct?’
At that, Tavore turned away.
Keneb stood looking at the two women, one to the other, then back again.
Apsalar fixed her gaze back upon the harbour, the gulls settling again to their feast as the two lead dromons worked clear of the bay, sails filling once more. The ships in their immediate wake also began changing course.
‘We shall seek resupply with Nemil,’ the Adjunct said. As she turned away, she paused. ‘Apsalar, find Quick Ben. Use your skeletal servants if you must.’
‘The High Mage hides among the cargo below,’ she replied.
Tavore’s brows lifted. ‘Nothing sorcerous, then?’
As the sound of the Adjunct’s boots receded, Fist Keneb stepped closer to Apsalar. ‘The Edur fleet – do you think it pursues us even now, Apsalar?’
‘No. They’re going home.’
‘And how do you come by this knowledge?’
Nether spoke: ‘Because a god visits her, Fist. He comes to break her heart. Again and again.’
Apsalar felt as if she had been punched in the chest, the impact reverberating through her bones, the beat inside suddenly erratic, tightening as heat flooded through her veins. Yet, outwardly, she revealed nothing.
Keneb’s voice was taut with fury. ‘Was that necessary, Nether?’
‘Don’t mind my sister,’ Nil said. ‘She lusts after someone-‘
The young Wickan woman rushed off. Nil watched her for a moment, then he looked over at Keneb and Apsalar, and shrugged.
A moment later he too left.
‘My apologies,’ Keneb said to Apsalar. ‘I would never have invited such a cruel answer – had I known what Nether would say-‘
‘No matter, Fist. You need not apologize.’
‘Even so, I shall not pry again.’
She studied him for a moment.
Looking uncomfortable, he managed a nod, then walked away.
The island was now on the ship’s starboard, almost five pegs along. ‘
He comes to break her heart. Again and again.’ Oh, there could be so few secrets on a ship such as this one. And yet, it seemed, the Adjunct was defying that notion.
No wonder Quick Ben is hiding.
‘They killed everyone,’ Bottle said, shivering. ‘A whole damned island’s worth of people. And Monkan Isle, too – it’s in the wind, now, the truth of that.’
‘Be glad for that wind,’ Koryk said. ‘We’ve left that nightmare behind fast, damned fast, and that’s good, isn’t it?’
Cuttle sat straighter and looked at Fiddler. ‘Sergeant, wasn’t Sepik an Imperial principality?’
‘So, what these Tiste Edur did, it’s an act of war, isn’t it?’
Bottle and the others looked over at the sergeant, who was scowling – and clearly chewing over Cuttle’s words. Then he said, ‘Technically, aye. Is the Empress going to see it that way? Or even care? We got us enough enemies as it is.’
‘The Adjunct,’ Tarr said, ‘she’ll have to report it even so. And the fact that we already clashed once with that damned fleet of theirs.’
‘It’s probably tracking us right now,’ Cuttle said, grimacing. ‘And we’re going to lead it straight back to the heart of the empire.’
‘Good,’ Tarr said. ‘Then we can crush the bastards.’
‘That,’ Bottle muttered, ‘or they crush us. What Quick Ben did, it wasn’t real-‘
‘To start,’ Fiddler said.
Bottle said nothing. Then, ‘Some allies you’re better off without.’
‘Why?’ the sergeant demanded.
‘Well,’ Bottle elaborated, ‘the allies that can’t be figured out, the ones with motives and goals that stay forever outside our comprehension – that’s what we’re talking about here, Sergeant. And believe me, we don’t want a war fought with the sorcery of the Holds.
The others were staring at him.
Bottle looked away.
‘Drag ‘im round the hull,’ Cuttle said. ‘That’ll get him to cough it all up.’
‘Tempting,’ Fiddler said, ‘but we got time. Lots of time.’
You fools. Time is the last thing we got. That’s what she’s trying to tell us. With this eerie wind, thrusting like a fist through Mael’s realm – and there’s not a thing he can do about it. Take that, Mael, you crusty barnacle!
Time? Forget it. She’s driving us into the heart of a storm.