Chapter Twenty-Three

The Twins stood on their tower as the slaughter began below and the knuckles bouncing wild to their delight, now turned sudden sudden and sour and this game they played – the mortals bleeding and crying in the dark – they saw it turn and the game they played tossed to a new wind, a gale not their own – and so the Twins were played, oh how they were played.

Slayer’s Moon
Vatan Urot

Within sight of Rampart Way – the stairs leading up to Mock’s Hold – Kalam Mekhar glanced behind them yet again. Furtive crowds were closing in, moving one and all, it seemed, back towards the harbourfront. Who was behind all of this? What possible reason could there be?

The Fourteenth would not be dragged down into slaughter. In fact, the only realistic outcome was the very opposite. Hundreds of citizens could well die tonight, before the rest broke and fled. True, there were but a handful of marines at the jetty, but, Kalam well knew, they had Moranth munitions. And then, of course, there was Quick Ben.

Just don’t use yourself up, friend. I think… The assassin reached beneath the folds of his cloak, reassured himself once again that he still carried the acorn the High Mage had prepared for him. My shaved knuckle in the hole. If it came to it, he could summon Quick. And I’m thinking…

The Adjunct did not hesitate, beginning her ascent of Rampart Way. The others followed.

A long climb ahead, a tiring one, rows upon rows of steps that had seen more than their share of spilled blood. Kalam had few pleasant memories of Rampart Way. She’s up there, and so it flows down, ever down. They were above the level of the Upper Estates now, passing through a roiling updraught of mists bitter with woodsmoke.

Condensation clung to the stone wall on their left, as if the promontory itself had begun to sweat.

There was torchlight weaving through the streets below. City Watch alarms sounded here and there, and suddenly an estate was in flames, black smoke rising, eerily lit from beneath. Faint screams reached them.

And they climbed without pause, not a single word shared among them.

Naught but the muted clunk and rustle of armour, the scrape of boots, heavier breaths drawn with each step. The blurred moon emerged to throw a sickly light upon the city below and the bay, illuminating Old Lookout Island at the very outside edge of the harbour, the silvery reeds of Mud Island and, further south, opposite the mouth of Redcave River, Worm Island, where stood the ruins of a long abandoned temple of D’rek. The clear water this side of Mud Island was crowded with the transports, while Nok’s escorts were positioned between those transports and the four Quon dromons of Empress Laseen’s entourage, the latter still moored alongside the Imperial Docks directly beneath Mock’s Hold.

The world suddenly seemed etched small to Kalam’s eyes, an elaborate arrangement of some child’s toys. If not for the masses of torchlight closing in on the Centre Docks, the faintly seen running figures in various streets and avenues, and the distant cries of a city convulsing upon itself, the panorama would look almost picturesque.

Was he seeing the Malazan Empire’s death-throes? On the island where it began, so too, perhaps, would its fall be announced, here, this night, in a chaotic, senseless maelstrom of violence. The Adjunct crushed the rebellion in Seven Cities. This should be a triumphal return. Laseen, what have you done? Is this mad beast now broken free of your control?

Civilization’s veil was so very thin, he well knew. Casting it aside required little effort, and even less instigation. There were enough thugs in the world – and those thugs could well be wearing the raiment of a noble, or a Fist, or indeed a priest’s robes or a scholar’s vestments – enough of them, without question, who lusted for chaos and the opportunities it provided. For senseless cruelty, for the unleashing of hatred, for killing and rape. Any excuse would suffice, or even none at all.

Ahead of him, the Adjunct ascended without hesitation, as though she was climbing a scaffold, at peace with what the fates had decreed. Was he reading her true? Kalam did not know.

But the time was coming, very soon now, when he would need to decide.

And he hoped. He prayed. That the moment, when it arrived, would make his choice obvious, indeed, inevitable. Yet, a suspicion lurked that the choice would prove far harsher than he now dared admit.

Do I choose to live, or do I choose to die?

He looked down to his right, at those four ships directly below.

She brought a lot of people with her, didn’t she?

****

Halfway to Raven Hill Park, Bottle drew up against a door, his heart pounding, sweat dripping from his face. Sorcery was roiling through every street. Mockra. Twisting the thoughts of the unsuspecting and the gullible, filling skulls with the hunger for violence. And lone figures making their way against the tide were victims in the waiting – he had been forced to take a roundabout route to this door, along narrow choking alleys, down beneath North Riverwalk, buried up to his ankles in the filthy mud of Malaz River, where insects rose in voracious swarms. But at last, he had arrived.

He drew a knife and, fearful of making a louder noise, scratched against the door. At the moment the street behind him was empty, but he could hear riots beginning, the splintering of wood, the shrill cry of a dying horse, and everywhere throughout the city, dogs were now barking, as if some ancient wolf memory had been awakened. He scratched again.

The door suddenly swung open. A tall, grey-haired woman stared down at him, expressionless.

‘Agayla,’ Bottle said. ‘My uncle married your aunt’s husband’s sister.

We’re family!’

She stepped back. ‘Get in here, unless you’re of a mind to get torn to pieces!’

‘I’m Bottle,’ he said, following her into an apothecary thick with the scents of herbs, ‘that’s not my real name, but-‘

‘Oh, never mind all that. Your boots are filthy. Where have you come from and why did you choose this night of all nights to visit Malaz City? Tea?’

Blinking, Bottle nodded. ‘I’m from the Fourteenth Army, Agayla-‘

‘Well, that was silly of you, wasn’t it?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘You should be hiding in the boats with all the rest, dear boy.’

‘I can’t. I mean, the Adjunct sent me-‘

She turned. ‘To see me? Whatever for?’

‘No, it’s not that. It was my idea to find you. I’m looking for someone. It’s important – I need your help.’

Her back to him once more, she poured the herbal brew into two cups. ‘

Come get your tea, Bottle.’

As he stepped forward, Agayla quickly faced him again, reached into the folds of his cloak and snatched free the doll. She studied it for a moment, then, with a scowl, shook the doll in front of Bottle’s face. ‘And what is this? Have you any idea what you are dabbling in, child?’

‘Child? Hold on-‘

‘Is this the man you need to find?’

‘Well, yes-‘

‘Then you leave me no choice, do you?’

‘Sorry?’

She stuffed the doll back into the folds of his cloak and turned away once more. ‘Drink your tea. Then we’ll talk.’

‘You can help me?’

‘Save the world? Well, yes, of course.’

Save the world? Now, Adjunct, you never mentioned that part.

****

Koryk rolled his shoulders to adjust the weight of the heavy chain armour. Longsword and shield were positioned on the damp stones behind him. In his gauntleted hands he held his crossbow. Three paces to his left stood Smiles, a sharper in her right hand, her bared teeth gleaming in the dull moonlight. To his right was Cuttle, crouched down over a collection of munitions laid out on a rain-cape. Among them was a cusser.

‘Hold on, Cuttle,’ Koryk said upon seeing that oversized grenado. ‘

Pass that cusser right back down, will you? Unless you’re planning on blowing up everyone here, not to mention the Silanda and the Froth Wolf.’

The sapper squinted up at him. ‘If it takes a hundred of ’em with us, I’m happy, Koryk. Don’t mind that one – it’s for the last thing left – you’ll probably be all down by then, anyway’

‘But maybe still alive-‘

‘Try and avoid that, soldier. Unless you’re happy with the mob having fun with what’s left of you.’

Scowling, Koryk returned his attention to the massing crowd opposite.

Twenty paces away, milling, shouting threats and ugly promises. Plenty of serious weapons among them. The City Guard had vanished, and all that seemed to be holding the fools back for the moment was the solid line of shield-locked soldiers facing them. Tarr, Corabb Bhilan Thenu’ alas, Uru Hela, Mayfly, Shortnose and Flashwit. A few rocks and brick fragments had been thrown across the killing ground, and those that came close were met by shields lifting almost languidly to fend them off.

Burning arrows were being readied along the flanks of the mob.

They’ll try to fire the ships here first, and that is not good. He didn’t think the Silanda would burn, not after what Gesler had told them. But the Froth Wolf was another matter. He glanced over to see Corporal Deadsmell cross the gangplank back to the jetty, and behind him was Fist Keneb, who then spoke.

‘Sergeant Balm.’

‘Aye, Fist?’

Keneb looked around. ‘Where’re Gesler and Fiddler?’

‘Scouting, sir.’

‘Scouting. I see. So, you’re it, are you?’

‘Those arrows, sir-‘

‘Destriant Run’thurvian assures me our moored craft will be safe. The transports, alas, are another matter. We have signalled the nearest ones, with the command that they withdraw until out of range. What this means, Sergeant, is that you and your soldiers are on your own.

The bow ballista on Froth Wolf will provide support.’

‘Appreciate that, sir,’ Balm said, a strangely bewildered look in his eyes. ‘Where’s the siege?’

‘Excuse me?’

Deadsmell cleared his throat and said to Keneb, ‘Don’t mind him, sir.

Once the fighting starts he’ll be fine. Fist, you’re saying those arrows won’t light up the ships – once they see that they’ll turn ’em on us.’

Nodding, Keneb looked over at Cuttle. ‘Sapper, I want you to hit those archers on the flanks. Don’t wait for their first move. Sharpers, assuming they’re within range.’

Straightening, Cuttle looked over. ‘Easy, sir. Galt, Lobe, get over here and collect yourselves a couple sharpers – not the cusser, Galt, you idiot – those small round ones, right? Two, damn you, no more than that. Come back if you need more-‘

‘Maybe three-‘

‘No! Think on it, Lobe. How many hands you got? Where you gonna hold the third one – between your cheeks? Two, and don’t drop ’em or this whole jetty will vanish and us with it.’ He turned. ‘Fist, you want us to hit ’em now?’

‘Might as well,’ Keneb replied. ‘With luck, the rest will scatter.’

Flaming arrows hissed out, seeking the rigging of the Froth Wolf. The sizzling arcs suddenly disappeared.

Koryk grunted. ‘Cute. Better get to it, Cuttle. The next salvo’s coming our way, I’d wager.’

Cuttle on the right, Galt and Lobe on the left. Hefting sharpers, then at Cuttle’s command they threw the clay grenados.

Detonations, snapping like cracks in brittle stone, and bodies were down, writhing, screamingThe centre mob, with a guttural roar, charged.

‘Shit,’ from one of the heavies up front.

Smiles launched her sharper into that onrushing midst.

Another explosion, this one ten paces in front of the shield-wall, which instinctively flinched back, heads ducking beneath raised shields. Shrieks, tumbling figures, blood and bits of meat, bodies underfoot tripping the attackers – the front of that charge had become a chaotic mess, but those behind it pushed on.

Koryk moved along to the right – he could hear someone shouting orders, a heavy voice, authoritarian – the cadence of a Malazan officer – and Koryk wanted the bastard.

The ballista mounted on the prow of the Froth Wolf bucked, the oversized missile speeding out, ripping through the crowd in a streak of spraying blood. A quarrel designed to knock holes in hulls punched through flesh and bone effortlessly, one body after another.

A few arrows raced towards the soldiers on the jetty, and then the mob reached the front line.

Undisciplined, convinced that the weight of impetus alone would suffice in shattering the shield-wall, they were not prepared for the perfectly timed answering push from the heavies, the large shields hammering into them, blades lashing out.

The only soldier untrained in holding a wall was Corabb Bhilan Thenu’ alas, and Koryk saw Smiles move up behind the man as he chopped away at a foe with his cutlass. The man before him was huge, wielding shortswords, one thrusting the other slashing, and Corabb dropped into a sustained defence with his round shield and his weapon – even as Smiles, seeing an opening, threw a knife that took the attacker in the throat. As the man crumpled, Corabb swung and the cutlass crunched down into the unprotected head.

‘Back into the gap!’ Smiles screamed, pushing Corabb forward.

Koryk caught sight of a figure off to one side – not the commander – gods, that’s a mage, and he’s readying a warren – he raised his crossbow, depressed the trigger.

The quarrel sent the man spinning.

Three more sharpers detonated further back in the pressing mob. All at once the attack crumpled, and the shield-wall advanced a step, then another, weapons slashing down to finish off the wounded. Figures raced away, and Koryk heard someone in the distance shouting, calling out a rallying point – for the moment, he saw, few were listening.

One down.

On the broad loading platform and to either side, scores of bodies littered the cobbles, faint voices crying with sorrow and pain.

Gods below, we’re killing our own here.

****

On the foredeck of the Froth Wolf, Keneb turned to Captain Rynag. He struggled to contain his fury as he said, ‘Captain, there were soldiers in that mob. Out of uniform.’

The man was pale. ‘I know nothing of that, Fist.’

‘What is the point of this? They won’t get their hands on the Fourteenth.’

‘I – I don’t know. It’s the Wickans – they want them. A pogrom’s begun and there’s no way of stopping it. A crusade’s been launched, there’s an army marching onto the Wickan Plains-‘

‘An army? What kind of army?’

‘Well, a rabble, but they say it’s ten thousand strong, and there’s veterans among them.’

‘The Empress approves? Never mind.’ Keneb turned once more and regarded the city. The bastards were regrouping. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘if this goes on long enough I may defy the orders given me by the Adjunct. And land the whole damned army-‘

‘Fist, you cannot do that-‘

Keneb spun round. ‘Not long ago you were insisting on it!’

‘Plague, Fist! You would unleash devastation-‘

‘So what? I’d rather give than receive, under the circumstances. Now, unless the Empress has a whole army hidden here in the city, the Fourteenth can put an end to this uprising – the gods know, we’ve got enough experience when it comes to those. And I admit, I am now of a mind to do just that.’

‘Fist-‘

‘Get off this ship, Captain. Now.’

The man stared. ‘You are threatening me?’

‘Threatening? Coltaine was pinned spreadeagled to a cross outside Aren. While Pormqual’s army hid behind the city’s walls. I am sorely tempted, Captain, to nail you to something similar, right here and now. A gift for the unbelievers out there, just to remind them that some of us remember the truth. I am going to draw three breaths and if you’re still here when I’m done-‘ The captain scrambled.

****

Koryk watched the officer rush down the gangplank, then edge round the heavies in their line. He seemed to be making for the nearest crowd that was rallying at the mouth of a broad street.

Had Koryk considered, he would have found that array of dark thoughts in his mind – each and every one ready to find voice – to give him the excuses he needed. But he did not consider, and as for excuses, there was, for him, no need, no need at all.

He raised his crossbow.

Loosed the quarrel.

Watched it strike the captain between the shoulder-blades, watched the man sprawl forward, arms flung out to the sides.

Tarr and others in that front line turned to study him, silent, expressions blank beneath the rims of helms.

Smiles voiced a disbelieving laugh.

Heavy boots on the gangplank, then Keneb’s harsh demand: ‘Who was responsible for that?’

Koryk faced the Fist. ‘I was, sir.’

‘You just murdered a captain of the Untan Palace Guard, soldier.’

‘Yes, sir.’

From Tarr: ‘They’re coming back for another try! Looks like you got ‘ em mad, Koryk.’

‘Proof enough for me,’ the half-blood Seti said in a growl, as he began reloading his crossbow. As he waited for Keneb to speak. Waited for the command to Balm to arrest him.

Instead, the Fist said nothing. He turned about and walked back to the Froth Wolf.

A hiss from Smiles. ‘Look out, Koryk. Wait till Fid hears about this.’

‘Fid?’ snapped Sergeant Balm. ‘What about the Adjunct? You’re gonna get strung up, Koryk.’

‘If I am then I am. But I’d do it all over again. Bastard wanted us to hand them the Wickans.’

****

Numbed, Keneb stepped back onto the mid deck. ‘… wanted us to hand them the Wickans…’ Marines and sailors were all looking at him, and the Destriant Run’thurvian had appeared from below and now approached.

‘Fist Keneb, this night is not proceeding well, is it?’

Keneb blinked. ‘Destriant?’

‘A most grievous breach of discipline-‘

‘I am sorry,’ Keneb cut in, ‘it’s clear you misunderstand. Some time ago, the Adjunct proclaimed the birth of the Bonehunters. What did she see then? I had but a sense of it – barely a sense. More like a suspicion. But now…’ he shook his head. ‘Three squads on the jetty standing their ground, and why?’

‘Fist, the threat is perceived, and must be answered.’

‘We could cast lines and sail out. Instead, here we are. Here they are, ready to bloody the noses of anyone who dares come close. Ready to answer blood with blood. Betrayal, Destriant, stalks this night like a god, right, here in Malaz City.’ He strode past the others, back to the forecastle. ‘That ballista loaded?’ he demanded.

One of the crew nodded. ‘Aye, Fist.’

‘Good. They’re closing fast.’

The Destriant moved up beside Keneb. ‘Fist, I do not understand.’

Keneb pulled his attention from the hundreds edging ever closer. ‘But I do. I’ve seen. We’re holding the jetty, and not one damned soldier down there gives a damn about anything else! Why?’ He thumped the rail. ‘Because we’re waiting. We’re waiting for the Adjunct.

Destriant, we’re hers, now. It’s done, and the damned empire can rot!’

The other man’s eyes slowly widened at this outburst, and then, with a faint smile, he bowed. ‘As you say, Fist. As you say.’

****

Last door down the tenement hall, uppermost floor. Typical. The knifeedge slipped easily between the door and the frame, lifted the latch.

A slow, even push moved the door back with but the faintest moan from the leather hinges.

Fiddler slipped inside, looked round in the gloom.

Loud animal snoring and grunts from the cot, a smell of stale beer pervading the turgid air.

Moving in the tiniest increments, Fiddler lowered his collection of crossbows to the floor, a procedure taking nearly thirty heartbeats, yet not once did the stentorian notes of slumber pause from the figure on the cot.

Unburdened now, Fiddler crept closer, breathing nice and slow, until he hovered right above his unsuspecting victim’s shaggy head.

Then he began whispering in a singsong voice, ‘Your ghosts – we’re back – never to leave you alone, never to give you a moment’s rest – oh yes, dear Braven Tooth, it’s me, Fiddler, dead but not gone – a ghost, returning to haunt you until your last-‘

The fist came out of nowhere, connecting solidly with Fiddler’s midriff. All air driven from him, the sergeant collapsed backward, onto the floor, where he curled up round the agonyAs Braven Tooth climbed upright. ‘That wasn’t funny, Fiddler,’ he said, looking down. ‘But you, squirming round down there on the floor, now that’s funny.’

‘Shut that mouth,’ gasped Fiddler, ‘and find me a chair.’

The Master Sergeant helped him to his feet. Leaning heavily, Fiddler carefully straightened, the effort punctuated with winces and the hiss of breath between his teeth.

‘You’ll live?’

A nod, and Fiddler managed to step back. ‘All right, I deserved that-‘

‘Goes without saying,’ Braven Tooth replied.

They faced each other in the darkness for a moment, and then they embraced. And said nothing.

A moment later the door swung open behind them. They parted to see Gesler and Stormy, the former carrying two bottles of wine and the latter three loaves of bread.

‘Hood’s breath!’ Braven Tooth laughed. ‘The old bastards one and all come home!’

As Gesler and Stormy set their victuals down on a small table, Fiddler examined the fiddle that had been strapped to his back. No damage beyond the old damage, he was pleased to see. He drew out the bow, looked round as Braven Tooth ignited a lantern, then walked over to a chair and sat down.

A moment, then all three men were staring across at him.

‘I know,’ Fiddler said. ‘Braven Tooth, you remember the last time I played-‘

‘That was the last time?’

‘It was, and there’s been a lot who’ve fallen since then. Friends.

People we grew to love, and now miss, like holes in the heart.’ He drew a deep breath, then continued, ‘It’s been waiting, inside, for a long time. So, my old, old friends, let’s hear some names.’

Braven Tooth sat down on the cot, scratching at his beard. ‘Got a new one for you. A soldier I sent off this very night who got himself killed. Name of Gentur. His friend Mudslinger nearly died himself but it looks like the Lady pulled. And we found him in time to help things along.’

Fiddler nodded. ‘Gentur. All right. Gesler?’

‘Kulp. Baudin. And, I think, Felisin Paran – she had no luck at all, and when good things showed up, rare as that was, well, she didn’t know what to do or say.’ He shrugged. ‘A person hurts enough inside, all they can do is hurt back. So, her as well.’ He paused, then added, ‘Pella, Truth.’

‘And Coltaine,’ Stormy said. ‘And Duiker, and the Seventh.’

Fiddler began tuning the instrument. ‘Good names, one and all. I’ll add a few more. Whiskeyjack. Hedge. Trotts. And one more – no name yet, and it’s not so bad as that. One more…’ He grimaced. ‘Could sound a little rough, no matter how much rosin I use. No matter. Got a sad dirge in my head that needs to come out-‘

‘All sad, Fid?’

‘No, not all. I leave the good memories to you – but I’ll give you a whisper every now and then, to tell you I know what you’re feeling.

Now, settle down – pour them cups full, Gesler – this’ll take a while, I expect.’

And he began to play.

****

The heavy door at the top of Rampart Way opened with a squeal, revealing a massive, humped form silhouetted on the threshold. As the Adjunct reached the level, the figure stepped back. She strode into the gatehouse, followed by T’amber, then Fist Tene Baralta. Kalam entered the musty room. The air was sweet with the cloying fumes of rum.

The assassin paused opposite the keeper. ‘Lubben.’

A heavy, rumbling reply, ‘Kalam Mekhar.’

‘Busy night?’

‘Not everybody uses the door,’ Lubben replied.

Kalam nodded, and said nothing more. He continued on, emerging out into the keep’s courtyard, tilted flagstones underfoot, the old tower off to the left, the hold itself slightly to his right. The Adjunct had already traversed half the length of the concourse. Behind Kalam the escort of Untan Guard now separated themselves from the group, making for the barracks near the north wall.

Kalam squinted up at the murky moon. A faint wind brushed across his face, warm, sultry and dry, plucking at the sweat on his brow.

Somewhere overhead, a weather vane squealed momentarily. The assassin set off after the others.

Two Claws flanked the keep entrance – not the usual guard. Kalam wondered where the resident Fist and his garrison were this night.

Probably in the storehouse cellars, blind drunk. Hood knows, it’s where I would be in their boots. Not old Lubben, of course. That hoary hunchback was as old as the Rampart Gate itself – he’d always been there, as far back as the Emperor’s time and even, if rumours were true, back to Mock’s rule of the island.

As Kalam passed between the two assassins, both tilted their hooded heads in his direction. A mocking acknowledgement, he concluded, or something worse. He made no response, continuing on into the broad hallway.

Another Claw had been awaiting them, and this cowled figure now led them towards the staircase.

Ascending two levels, then down a corridor, into an antechamber, where Tene Baralta ordered his Red Blades to remain, barring his captain, Lostara Yil. The Fist then sent off two of his soldiers after a brief whispered set of instructions. The Adjunct watched all of this without expression, although Kalam was tempted to call Baralta out on what was obviously an act of pointed independence – as if Tene Baralta was divesting himself and his Red Blades of any association with the Adjunct and the Fourteenth Army.

After a moment, the Claw led them onward, through another portal, into another corridor, then down its length to a set of double doors. Not the usual room for official meetings, Kalam knew. This one was smaller – if the approach was any indication – and situated in a quarter of the keep rarely frequented. Two more Claws stood guard at the entrance, and both turned to open the doors.

Kalam watched the Adjunct stride in, then halt. As did T’amber and Tene Baralta. Beside the assassin, Lostara Yil’s breath caught.

A tribunal awaited them, and seated opposite them were Empress Laseen, Korbolo Dom – attired as a High Fist – and another person Kalam did not recognize. Round-faced and full-featured, corpulent, wearing blue silks. His hair was colourless, cut short and oiled. Sleepy eyes regarded the Adjunct with an executioner’s avarice.

The tables were arranged in an inverted T, and three chairs waited, their high backs to the newcomers.

After a long moment, the Adjunct stepped forward, drew out the centre chair, and sat, her back straight. T’amber took the chair to Tavore’s left. Tene Baralta gestured Lostara Yil to accompany him and moved off to the far right side, where he stood at attention, facing the Empress.

Kalam slowly sighed, then walked to the remaining chair. Sitting down, he settled both gloved hands on the scarred tabletop before him.

The oily fat man fixed his gaze on the assassin and leaned forward slightly. ‘Kalam Mekhar, yes? Great pleasure,’ he murmured, ‘in meeting you at last.’

‘Is it? I’m happy for you… whoever you are.’

‘Mallick Rel.’

‘Here in what capacity?’ Kalam asked. ‘Chief snake?’

‘That will be enough from you,’ the Empress said. ‘Sit if you must, Kalam, but be silent. And understand, I did not request your presence here this night.’

Kalam sensed a hidden question in that statement, to which he but shrugged. No, Laseen, I’m not ready to give you anything.

Laseen shifted her attention to the commander of the Red Blades. ‘Tene Baralta, I understand you assisted in escorting the Adjunct and her retinue through the city. Noble of you. I assume the Adjunct did not invite you, nor compel you in any manner. Accordingly, it seems clear that you wish to speak to me on behalf of the Red Blades.’

The man with the ravaged face bowed, then said, ‘Yes, Empress.’

‘Go on.’

‘The Red Blades were conscripted by the Adjunct in Aren, Empress, whereupon I was made a Fist in the Fourteenth Army. I respectfully request that you countermand that order. The Red Blades have ever served the Malazan Empire in an independent capacity, as befitting our unique status the first and foremost Imperial Guardians in Seven Cities.’

The Empress nodded. ‘I see no reason not to grant your request, Commander. Does the Adjunct wish to make comment?’

‘No.’

‘Very well. Commander Tene Baralta, the Red Blades can be quartered here in Mock’s Hold for the time being. You may leave.’

The man bowed again, then, turning about, he marched from the chamber.

His captain followed.

The doors closed once more behind them.

Laseen fixed her attention on the Adjunct. ‘Welcome home, Tavore,’ she said.

‘Thank you, Empress.’

‘The transports in the harbour display the flag of plague – you and I both know that no plague is present among the soldiers of your army.’

She tilted her head. ‘What am I to make of this attempt at deception?’

‘Empress, Fist Keneb has evidently concluded that, regardless of Captain Rynag’s views, Malaz City is in a state of civil unrest, sufficient to make Keneb fear for the well-being of the Fourteenth, should the army disembark. After all, I have with me Wickans – whose loyalty to the Empire, I might add, is beyond reproach. In addition, we have a substantial force of Khundryl Burned Tears, who have also served with distinction. To land such troops could invite a bloodbath.’

‘A bloodbath, Adjunct?’ Laseen’s brows rose. ‘Captain Rynag was given specific orders to ensure that the soldiers of the Fourteenth disarm prior to disembarking.’

‘Thus leaving them at the mercy of an enflamed mob, Empress.’

Laseen waved dismissively.

‘Empress,’ the Adjunct continued, ‘I believe there is now the misapprehension, here in the heart of the empire, that the events commonly known as the Chain of Dogs – and those that followed at Aren – are somehow suspect.’ She paused, then resumed, ‘I see that Korbolo Dom, who commanded the renegade Dogslayers, and who was captured and arrested in Raraku, is once more a free man, and, indeed, a High Fist.

Furthermore, the Jhistal priest and likely instigator in the slaughter of the Aren Army, Mallick Rel, now sits as your adviser in these proceedings. Needless to say, I am confused by this. Unless, of course, the Seven Cities Rebellion has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, regardless of my own successes in Seven Cities.’

‘My dear Tavore,’ Laseen said, ‘I admit to some embarrassment on your behalf. You appear to hold to the childish notion that some truths are intransigent and undeniable. Alas, the adult world is never so simple.

All truths are malleable. Subject, by necessity, to revision. Have you not yet observed, Tavore, that in the minds of the people in this empire, truth is without relevance? It has lost its power. It no longer effects change and indeed, the very will of the people – born of fear and ignorance, granted – the very will, as I said, can in turn revise those truths, can transform, if you like, the lies of convenience into faith, and that faith in turn is not open to challenge.’

‘In challenging,’ the Adjunct said after a moment, ‘one commits treason.’

The Empress smiled. ‘I see you grow older with every heartbeat, Tavore. Perhaps we might mourn the loss of innocence, but not for long, I’m afraid. The Malazan Empire is at its most precarious moment, and all is uncertain, hovering on the cusp. We have lost Dujek Onearm to plague – and his army appears to have vanished entirely, likely also victims of that plague. Events have taken a turn for the worse in Korel. The decimation of Seven Cities has struck us a near-mortal blow with respect to our economy and, specifically, the harvests. We may find ourselves facing starvation before the subcontinent can recover.

It becomes imperative, Tavore, to force a new shape upon our empire.’

‘And what, Empress, does this new shape entail?’

Mallick Rel spoke: ‘Victims, alas. Spilled blood, to slacken the thirst, the need. Unfortunate, but no other path presents. All are saddened here.’

Tavore slowly blinked. ‘You wish me to hand over the Wickans.’

‘And,’ Mallick Rel said, ‘the Khundryl.’

Korbolo Dom suddenly leaned forward. ‘One other matter, Tavore Paran.

Who in Hood’s name are on those catamarans?’

‘Soldiers of a people known as the Perish.’

‘Why are they here?’ the Napan demanded, baring his teeth.

‘They have pledged allegiance, High Fist.’

‘To the Malazan Empire?’

The Adjunct hesitated, then fixed her gaze once more upon Laseen. ‘

Empress, I must speak with you. In private. There are matters that belong exclusively to the Empress and her Adjunct.’

Mallick Rel hissed, then said, ‘Matters unleashed by an otataral sword, you mean! It is as I feared, Empress! She serves another, now, and would draw cold iron across the throat of the Malazan Empire!’

Tavore’s expression twisted, unveiling disgust as she looked upon the Jhistal priest. ‘The empire has ever refused an immortal patron, Mallick Rel. For this reason more than any other, we have survived and, indeed, grown ever stronger. What are you doing here, priest?’

‘Who do you now serve, woman?’ Mallick Rel demanded.

‘I am the Adjunct to the Empress.’

‘Then you must do as she commands! Give us the Wickans!’

‘Us? Ah, now I see. You were cheated of some of your glory outside Aren. Tell me, how long before an arrest writ is issued for Fist Blistig, the once-commander of the Aren Guard who defied the order to leave the city? Because of him, and him alone, Aren did not fall.’

Laseen asked, ‘Were not the Red Blades in Aren arrested by Blistig, Tavore?’

‘At Pormqual’s command. Please, Empress, we must speak, you and I, alone.’

And Kalam saw then, in Laseen’s eyes, something he thought he would never see. A flicker of fear.

But it was Korbolo Dom who spoke. ‘Adjunct Tavore, I am now High Fist.

And, with Dujek’s death, I am ranking High Fist. Furthermore, I have assumed the title and responsibilities of First Sword of the Empire, a post sadly vacant since Dassem Ultor’s untimely death. Accordingly, I now assume command of the Fourteenth Army.’

‘Tavore,’ Laseen said quietly, ‘it was never the function of an Adjunct to command armies. Necessity forced my hand with the rebellion in Seven Cities, but that is now over. You have completed all that I asked of you, and I am not blind to your loyalty. It grieves me that this meeting has become so overtly hostile – you are the extension of my will, Tavore, and I do not regret my choice. No, not even now. It seems I must make the details of my will clear to you. I want you at my side once more, in Unta. Mallick Rel may well possess talents in many areas of administration, but he lacks in others – I need you for those, Tavore, I need you at my side to complement the Jhistal priest.

You see before you the restructuring of the imperial high command. A new First Sword now assumes overall command of the Malazan Armies. The time has come, Tavore, to set aside your own sword.’

Silence. From Tavore, no movement, not a single twitch of emotion. ‘As you command, Empress.’

Beneath his clothes, Kalam felt his skin grow hot, as if close to blistering flames. Sweat ran down his body; he could feel it beading on his face and neck. He stared down at his leather-clad hands, motionless on the worn wood of the tabletop.

‘I am pleased,’ Laseen said.

‘It will be necessary,’ Tavore said, ‘for me to return, briefly, to the docks. I believe Fist Keneb will doubt the veracity of the change of command if informed by anyone but me.’

‘A most loyal man,’ Mallick Rel murmured.

‘Yes, he is that.’

‘And these Perish?’ Korbolo Dom demanded. ‘Are they worth the trouble?

Will they submit to my authority?’

‘I cannot speak for them in that matter,’ Tavore said tonelessly. ‘But they will not reject any overtures out of hand. As for their prowess, I believe it will suffice, at least in an auxiliary function to our regulars.’

‘There is nothing more to them?’

The Adjunct’s shrug was careless. ‘They are foreigners, First Sword.

Barbarians.’

Barbarians sailing the finest warships on the damned ocean, aye.

But Korbolo Dom, in all his percipience and razor-honed judgement, simply nodded.

Another moment of silence, in which so many things could have been said, in which the course of the Malazan Empire could have found firmer footing. Silence, and yet to Kalam it seemed he could hear the slamming of doors, the clatter and crunch of portcullis dropping, and he saw hallways, avenues, where the flickering light dimmed, then, vanished.

If the Empress were to speak then, with words for the Adjunct alone – anything, any overture that did not ring falseMallick Rel said, ‘Adjunct, there is the matter of two Wickans, a warlock and a witch.’

Tavore’s eyes remained on Laseen. ‘Of course. Fortunately, they are ineffectual, a consequence of the trauma they experienced with Coltaine’s death.’

‘Nonetheless, the Claw will effect their arrest.’

The Empress said, ‘It cannot be helped, Tavore. Even with a remnant of their old power, they could unleash slaughter upon the citizens of Malaz City, and that we cannot have.’

‘The blood this night belongs to the Wickans and the Khundryl.’ A statement from the Adjunct, devoid of all emotion.

‘It must be so,’ the Jhistal priest murmured, as if struck anew by grief.

‘Tavore,’ Laseen said, ‘will the Khundryl prove recalcitrant in yielding their arms and armour? Do they not number two thousand, or more?’

‘A word from me will suffice,’ the Adjunct said.

‘I am greatly relieved,’ the Empress said, with a faint smile, ‘that you now comprehend the necessity of what will occur this night. In the broader scheme of things, Tavore, the sacrifice is modest. It is also clear that the Wickans have outlived their usefulness – the old covenants with the tribes must be dispensed with, now that Seven Cities and its harvest have become so thoroughly disrupted. In other words, we need the Wickan Plains. The herds must be slaughtered and the earth broken, crops planted. Seven Cities has provided us a harsh lesson when it comes to relying upon distant lands for the resources the empire consumes.’

‘In this way,’ Mallick Rel said, spreading his hands, ‘necessity is an economic matter, yes? That an ignorant and backward people must be eradicated is sad, indeed, but alas, inevitable.’

‘You would well know of that,’ Tavore said to him. ‘The Gedorian Falari cult of the Jhistal was eradicated in a similar manner by Emperor Kellanved, after all. Presumably you are among the very few survivors from that time.’

Mallick Rel’s round, oiled face slowly drained of what little colour it had possessed.

The Adjunct continued, ‘A very minor note in the imperial histories, difficult to find. I believe, however, should you peruse the works of Duiker, you will find suitable references. Of course, “minor” is a relative term, just as, I suppose, this Wickan Pogrom will be seen in later histories. For the Wickans themselves, of course, it will be anything but minor.’

‘Your point, woman?’ Mallick Rel asked.

‘It is useful, on occasion, to halt upon a path, and to turn and walk back some distance.’

‘Achieving what?’

‘An understanding of motivations, Jhistal. It seems that this is a night of unravelling, after all. Covenants, treaties, and memories-‘

‘This debate,’ the Empress cut in, ‘can be conducted another time. The mob in the city below will soon turn upon itself if the proper victims are not delivered. Are you ready, Adjunct?’

Kalam found he was holding his breath. He could not see Tavore’s eyes, but something in Laseen’s told him that the Adjunct had locked gazes with the Empress, and in that moment something passed between them, and slowly, in increments, the eyes of Laseen went flat, strangely colourless.

The Adjunct rose. ‘I am, Empress.’

T’amber also stood, and, before anyone could shift their attention to Kalam, the assassin climbed to his feet.

‘Adjunct,’ he said in a weary rumble, ‘I will see you out.’

‘When you are done that courtesy,’ the Empress said, ‘please return here. I have never accepted your resignation from the Claw, Kalam Mekhar, and indeed, it is in my mind that worthy promotions are long overdue. The apparent loss of Topper in the Imperial Warren has left vacant the command of the Claw. I can think of no-one more deserving of that position.’

Kalam’s brows lifted. ‘And do you imagine, Empress, that I would assume that mantle and just settle back in Unta’s West Tower, surrounding myself with whores and sycophants? Do you expect another Topper?’

Now it was Laseen’s turn to speak without inflection. ‘Most certainly not, Kalam Mekhar.’

The entire Claw, under my control. Gods, who would fall first? Mallick Rel. Korboto Dom…

And she knows that. She offers that. I can cut the cancers out of the flesh… but first, some Wickans need to die. And… not just Wickans.

Not trusting himself to speak, and not knowing what he might say if he did, Kalam simply bowed to the Empress, then followed Tavore and T’ amber as they strode from the chamber.

Into the corridor.

Twenty-three paces to the antechamber – no Red Blades remained – where Tavore paused, gesturing to T’amber who moved past and positioned herself at the far door. The Adjunct then shut the one behind them.

And faced Kalam.

But it was T’amber who spoke. ‘Kalam Mekhar. How many Hands await us?’

He looked away. ‘Each Hand is trained to work as a unit. Both a strength and a flaw.’

‘How many?’

‘Four ships moored below. Could be as many as eighty.’

‘Eighty?’

The assassin nodded. You are dead, Adjunct. So are you, T’amber. ‘She will not let you get back to the ships,’ he said, still not meeting their gazes. ‘To do so invites a civil war-‘

‘No,’ Tavore said.

Kalam frowned, glanced at her.

‘We are leaving the Malazan Empire. And in all likelihood, we will never return.’

He walked to a wall, leaned his back against it, and closed his eyes.

Sweat streamed down his face. ‘Don’t you understand what she just offered me? I can walk right back into that room and do precisely what she wants me to do – what she needs me to do. She and I will then walk out of there, leaving two corpses their heads sawed off and planted on that damned table. Damn this, Tavore. Eighty Hands!’

‘I understand,’ the Adjunct said. ‘Go then. I will not think less of you, Kalam Mekhar. You are of the Malazan Empire. Now serve it.’

Still he did not move, nor open his eyes. ‘So it means nothing to you, now, Tavore?’

‘I have other concerns.’

‘Explain them.’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

T’amber said, ‘There is a convergence this night, Kalam, here in Malaz City. The game is in a frenzy of move and countermove, and yes, Mallick Rel is a participant, although the hand that guides him remains remote, unseen. Removing him, as you intend to do, will prove a deadly blow and may well shift the entire balance. It may well save not just the Malazan Empire, but the world itself. How can we object to your desire?’

‘And yet…’

‘Yes,’ T’amber said. ‘We are asking you. Kalam, without you we stand no chance at all-‘

‘Six hundred assassins, damn you!’ He set his head against the wall, unwilling, unable to look upon these two women, to see the need in their eyes. ‘I’m not enough. You have to see that. We all go down, and Mallick Rel lives.’

‘As you say,’ Tavore replied.

He waited for her to add something more, a final plea. He waited for a new tack from T’amber. But there was only silence.

‘Is it worth it, Adjunct?’

‘Win this battle, Kalam, or win the war.’

‘I’m just one man.’

‘Yes.’

With a shaved knuckle in the hole.

His palms itched against the damp leather of his gloves. ‘That Jhistal priest holds a grudge.’

‘A prolonged one, yes,’ said T’amber. ‘That, and a lust for power.’

‘Laseen is desperate.’

‘Yes, Kalam, she is.’

‘Why not stay right here, the both of you? Wait for me to kill them.

Wait, and I will convince the Empress that this pogrom needs to be stopped. Right now. No more blood spilled. There’s six hundred assassins in the city below – we can crush this madness, scour away this fever-‘

‘No more blood, Kalam Mekhar?’

T’amber’s question stung him, then he shook his head. ‘Ringleaders, nothing more will be required.’

‘It is clear that something has not occurred to you,’ T’amber said.

‘What hasn’t?’

‘The Claw. They are infiltrated. Extensively. The Jhistal priest has not been idle.’

‘How do you know this?’

Silence once more.

Kalam rubbed at his face with both hands. ‘Gods below…’

‘May I ask you a question?’

He snorted. ‘Go ahead, T’amber.’

‘You once railed at the purging of the Old Guard. In fact, you came to this very city not so long ago, intending to assassinate the Empress.’

How does she know this? How could she know any of this? Who is she? ‘

Go on.’

‘You were driven by outrage, by indignation. Your own memories had been proclaimed nothing but lies, and you wanted to defy those revisionists who so sullied all that you valued. You wanted to look into the eyes of the one who decided the Bridgeburners had to die – you needed to see the truth there, and, if you found it, you would act. But she talked you out of it-‘

‘She wasn’t even here.’

‘Ah, you knew that, then. Well, no matter. Would that alone have stopped you from crossing to Unta? From chasing her down?’

He shook his head.

‘In any case, where now is your indignation, Kalam Mekhar? Coltaine of the Crow Clan. The Imperial Historian Duiker. The Seventh Army. And now, the Wickans of the Fourteenth. Fist Temul. Nil, Nether. Gall of the Khundryl Burned Tears, who threw back Korbolo Dom at Sanimon – cheating Korbolo’s victory long before Aren. The betrayers are in the throne room-‘

‘I can make that stay shortlived.’

‘You can. And if you so choose, the Adjunct and I will die possessing at least that measure of satisfaction. But in dying, so too will many, many others. More than any of us can comprehend.’

‘You ask where is my indignation, but you have the answer before you.

It lives. Within me. And it is ready to kill. Right now.’

‘Killing Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom this night,’ T’amber said, ‘will not save the Wickans, nor the Khundryl. Will not prevent war with the Perish. Or the destruction of the Wickan Plains. The Empress is indeed desperate, so desperate that she will sacrifice her Adjunct in exchange for the slaying of the two betrayers in her midst. But tell me, do you not think Mallick Rel understood the essence of Laseen’s offer to you?’

‘Is that your question?’

‘Yes.’

‘Korbolo Dom is a fool. Likely he comprehends nothing. The Jhistal priest is, unfortunately, not a fool. So, he is prepared.’ Kalam fell silent, although his thoughts continued, following countless tracks.

Potentials, possibilities. ‘He may not know I possess an otataral weapon-‘

‘The power he can draw upon is Elder,’ T’amber said.

‘So, after all we’ve said here, I may fail.’

‘You may.’

‘And if I do, then we all lose.’

‘Yes.’

Kalam opened his eyes, and found that the Adjunct had turned away. T’ amber alone faced him, her gold-hued eyes unwavering in their uncanny regard.

Six hundred. ‘Tell me this, T’amber: between you and the Adjunct, whose life matters more?’

The reply was immediate. ‘The Adjunct’s.’

It seemed that Tavore flinched then, but would not face them.

‘And,’ Kalam asked, ‘between you and me?’

‘Yours.’

Ah. ‘Adjunct. Choose, if you will, between yourself and the Fourteenth.’

‘What is the purpose of all this?’ Tavore demanded, her voice ragged.

‘Choose.’

‘Fist Keneb has his orders,’ she said.

Kalam slowly closed his eyes once more. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, a faint, ever faint sound. Music. Filled with sorrow. ‘Warrens in the city,’ he said in a soft voice. ‘Many, seething with power – Quick Ben will be hard-pressed even if I can get through to him, and there’s no chance of using gates. Adjunct, you will need your sword.

Otataral out front… and to the rear.’

Strange music, the tune unfamiliar and yet… he knew it.

Kalam opened his eyes, even as the Adjunct slowly turned.

The pain in her gaze was like a blow against his heart.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

The assassin drew a deep breath, then rolled his shoulders. All right, no point in keeping them waiting.’

****

Pearl stepped into the chamber. Mallick Rel was pacing, and Korbolo Dom had uncorked a bottle of wine and was pouring himself a goblet.

The Empress remained in her chair.

She wasted no time on small talk. ‘The three are nearing the Gate.’

‘I see. So, Kalam Mekhar made his choice, then,’ A flicker of something like disappointment. ‘Yes, he is out of your way now, Pearl.’

You bitch. Offered him the Claw, did you? And where would that have left me? ‘He and I have unfinished business, Empress.’

‘Do not let that interfere with what must be done, Kalam is the least relevant target, do you understand me? Get him out of the way, of course, but then complete what is commanded of you.’

‘Of course, Empress.’

‘When you return,’ Laseen said, with a small smile on her plain features, ‘I have a surprise for you. A pleasant one.’

‘I doubt I shall be gone long-‘

‘It is that overconfidence that I find most irritating in you, Pearl.’

‘Empress, he is one man!’

‘Do you imagine the Adjunct helpless? She wields an otataral sword, Pearl – the sorcery by which the Claw conduct their ambushes will not work. This will be brutal. Furthermore, there is T’amber, and she remains – to all of us – a mystery. I do not want you to return to me at dawn to inform me that success has left two hundred dead Claws in the streets and alleys below.’

Pearl bowed.

‘Go, then.’

Mallick Rel turned at that moment, ‘Clawmaster,’ he said, ‘when the task is done, be sure to dispatch two Hands to the ship, Froth Wolf, with instructions to kill Nil and Nether. If opportunity arrives thereafter, they are to kill Fist Keneb as well.’

Pearl frowned. ‘Quick Ben is on that ship.’

‘Leave him be,’ the Empress said.

‘He will not act to defend the targets?’

‘His power is an illusion,’ Mallik Rel said dismissively. ‘His title as High Mage is unearned, yet I suspect he enjoys the status, and so will do nothing to reveal the paucity of his talents.’

Pearl slowly cocked his head. Really, Mallick Rel? ‘Send out the commands,’ Laseen said.

The Clawmaster bowed again, then left the chamber.

Kalam Mekhar. Finally, we can end this. For that, Empress, thank you.

****

They entered the gatehouse at the top of Rampart Way. Lubben was a shadow hunched over a small table off to one side. The keeper glanced up, then down again. A large bronze tankard was nestled in his huge, battered hands.

Kalam paused. ‘Tilt that back once for us, will you?’

A nod. ‘Count on it.’

They moved to the opposite gate.

Behind them, Lubben said, ‘Mind that last step down there.’

‘We will.’

And thanks for that, Lubben.

They stepped out onto the landing.

Below, buildings were burning here and there across the city. Torches scurried back and forth like glow-worms in rotted flesh. Faint shouts, screams. Centre Docks was a mass of humanity.

‘Marines on the jetty,’ the Adjunct said.

‘They’re holding,’ T’amber noted, as if to reassure Tavore.

Gods below, there must be a thousand or more in that mob. ‘There’s barely three squads there, Adjunct.’

She said nothing, and began the descent. T’amber followed, and finally, with a last glance at the seething battle at Centre Docks, Kalam set off in their wake.

****

Tene Baralta strode into the well-furnished room, paused to look around for a moment, then made his way to a plush high-backed chair. ‘

By the Seven,’ he said with a loud sigh, ‘at last we are done with the cold-eyed bitch.’ He sat down, stretched out his legs. ‘Pour us some wine, Captain.’

Lostara Yil approached her commander. ‘That can wait. Allow me to help you out of your armour, sir.’

‘Good idea. The ghost of my arm pains me so – my neck muscles are like twisted bars of iron.’

She drew the lone gauntlet off his remaining hand and set it on the table. Then moved – to behind the chair, reached over and unclasped the man’s cloak. He half-rose, allowing her to pull it away. She folded it carefully and set it on top of a wooden chest near the large, cushion-piled bed. Returning to Tene Baralta she said, ‘Stand for a moment, sir, if you will. We will remove the chain.’

Nodding, he straightened. It was awkward, but they finally managed to draw the heavy armour away. She placed it in a heap at the foot of the bed. Baralta’s under-quilting was damp with sweat, pungent and stained under the arms. She pulled it away, leaving the man bare above the hips. The scars of old burns were livid weals. His muscles had softened with disuse beneath a layer of fat.

‘High Denul,’ Lostara said, ‘the Empress will not hesitate in seeing you properly mended.’

‘That she will,’ he said, settling back into the chair. ‘And then, Lostara Yil, you will not flinch when looking upon me. I have had many thoughts, of you and me.’

‘Indeed.’ She moved up behind him yet again, and began kneading the rock-hard tension gripping the muscles to either side of his neck.

‘Yes. It is, I believe now, meant to be.’

‘Do you recall, sir,’ she said, ‘a visit I made, long ago now, when on Kalam Mekhar’s trail. A visit to a garrison keep. I sat at the very same table as the assassin. A Deck was unveiled, rather unexpectedly.

Death and Shadow predominated the field, if my memory serves – and that, I admit, I cannot guarantee. In any case, following your instructions precisely, I later conducted a thorough slaughter of everyone present – after Kalam’s departure, of course.’

‘You have always followed orders with impressive precision, Lostara Yil.’

She brought her left hand up along his jaw-line, stroking softly. ‘

That morning of murder, Commander, remains my greatest regret. They were innocents, one and all.’

‘Do not let such errors weigh on you, my love.’

‘That is a difficult task, sir. Achieving the necessary coldness.’

‘You have singular talents in such matters.’

‘I suppose I have,’ she said, as her palm brushed his mangled lips, then settled there, against his mouth. And the knife in her other hand slid into the side of his neck, behind the windpipe, then slashed out and down.

Blood flooded against the palm of her hand, along with gurgling sounds and bubbles of escaping air. The body in the chair twitched a few times, then slumped down.

Lostara Yil stepped away. She wiped the knife and her hands on the silk bedding. Sheathing the weapon once more, she collected her gloves, and walked to the door.

She opened it only wide enough to permit her passage through, and to the two Red Blades standing guard outside, she said, ‘The commander sleeps now. Do not disturb him.’

The soldiers saluted.

Lostara closed the door, then strode down the corridor.

Very well, Cotillion, you were right about him after all.

And once again, the necessary coldness was achieved.

****

Uru Hela was down, screaming and curling up round the spear transfixing her torso. Swearing, Koryk pushed hard with his shield, driving the attackers back until he could step over her. Smiles edged in behind him, grasped the downed soldier by the belt and pulled Uru Hela back.

Another sharper exploded, bodies whirling away in sheets of blood, the spray striking Koryk’s face beneath the helm. He blinked stinging heat from his eyes, took a mace blow against his shield, then thrust upward from beneath it, the sword-point ripping into a groin. The shriek that exploded from the crippled attacker nearly deafened him. He tugged the sword loose.

There were shouts behind him, but he could make little sense of them.

With Uru Hela out of the fight, and Shortnose getting crippled by a sword through a thigh in the last rush, the front line was desperately thin. Both Galt and Lobe had joined it now. Deadsmell worked on Shortnose’s bleeder, and Widdershins was frantically trying to deflect assaults of Mockra – the sorcerous attacks seeking to incite confusion and panic – and the squad mage was fast weakening.

What in Hood’s name was Quick Ben up to? Where was he? Why hadn’t he emerged onto the deck of the Froth Wolf?

Koryk found himself swearing in every language he knew. They couldn’t hold.

And who was playing that damned music, anyway?

He fought on.

And saw nothing of what was happening behind him, the sliding out of darkness of the enormous wolf-headed catamaran, closing on the end of the jetty. The broad platforms scraping outward, thumping down on the solid stone. Units of heavily armoured soldiers marching across those platforms, archers among them, long arrows nocked to bowstrings.

Koryk slashed with his sword, saw some poor Malazan citizen’s face split in half, the jaw torn away, a torrent of blood – the white gleam of exposed bone beneath each ear – then, reeling away, eyes filled with disbelief, horrorKilling our own – gods below – our ownA sudden ringing command from Sergeant Balm behind him. ‘Disengage!

Marines disengage!’

And discipline took hold – that command, echoing a hairy Master Sergeant’s bawled orders on a drill field years ago – Koryk, snarling, lurched back, bringing up his shield to fend off an out-thrust spearAll at once, soldiers were moving past him on either side, a new shield-wall clashing closed in front of him.

A chorus of screams as arrows whispered into the heaving mob, thudding into flesh.

Wheeling away, sword’s point dragging then skipping across the uneven cobbles, Koryk staggered back.

The Perish.

They’re here.

And that’s that.

Galt was laughing. ‘Our first real scrap, Sergeant. And it’s against Malazans!’

‘Well,’ Balm said, ‘laughing’s better’n crying. But shut that mouth anyway.’

As the fighting intensified at the foot of the jetty, the marines sagged down onto the cobbles or staggered off in search of water.

Wiping spattered blood from his eyes, Koryk looked round, bewildered, numbed. He saw two cloaked figures standing near the plank to the Froth Wolf. The Wickan witch and her warlock brother.

‘Koryk of the Seti,’ Nether said. ‘Where is Bottle?’

‘No idea,’ he replied, squinting at the young woman. ‘Somewhere’ – he nodded towards the city behind him – ‘in there.’

Nil said, ‘He cannot get back. Not through that horde.’

Koryk spat onto the cobbles. ‘He’ll find a way,’ he said.

‘No worries about that,’ Smiles added, walking up to the half-blood with a waterskin in her hands.

Nether spoke: ‘You are all very confident.’

As Smiles handed Koryk the waterskin she said, ‘Your heart’s desire will be fine, is what I’m saying, Nether. He took his rat with him, didn’t he?’

‘His what?’

‘Keeps it tucked in most of the time, it’s true, but I seen it out more than once-‘

‘Enough,’ Koryk growled under his breath.

Smile made a face at him. ‘Spoilsport.’

‘You two should get back onto the ship,’ Koryk said to Nil and Nether.

‘It’s safer there – any stray arrow-‘

‘Soldier,’ Nil cut in. ‘You fight for the Wickans and for the Khundryl Burned Tears this night. We choose to witness.’

‘Fine, just do it from the deck. What’s the point of all this if you drop with an arrow through the throat?’

After a moment, the brother and sister both bowed – to Koryk and the other marines – then they turned about and made their way back up the plank.

Gods below, I’ve never seen them bow before. To anyone.

****

‘Mind that last step…’

Kalam moved up directly behind the Adjunct. Twenty steps remained. ‘

With six left,’ the assassin murmured, ‘slow down and move to your left.’

She nodded.

The four moored dromons were off to one side, no guards present on the jetties. Directly ahead, at the foot of Rampart Way, stretched out a concourse. Opposite the clearing stood three imperial buildings, one a blockhouse and gaol, another a customs and tithes building and the third a solid, heavily fortified armoury for the City Watch. None of the usual guards were present, and the blockhouse was unlit.

Seven steps from the bottom. Kalam unsheathed his long-knives beneath his rain-cape.

The Adjunct edged to her left and hesitated.

In a blur Kalam swept past her, leading with his otataral weapon, and launched himself into the air, down, sailing over the last six steps.

Five figures seemed to materialize from nothing at the base of Rampart Way. One was crouched in Kalam’s path, but twisted away to avoid a crushing collision. The otataral long-knife slashed out, the edge biting deep into the Claws neck, dragging free to loose a jet of arterial blood.

Landing in a crouch, Kalam parried an attack from his left twice, as the Claw closed with a dagger in each hand. Blackened iron flickered between them, the snick of blade catching blade as, pivoting on his inside leg, Kalam dropped lower, lashing out with his other leg to sweep the Claw from his feet. The killer landed hard on his left hip.

Kalam locked both dagger blades hard against the hilts of his longknives, pushed them to either side, then drove his knee down into the centre of the Claw’s chest. The sternum was punched inward with a sickening crunch, ribs to either side bowing outward. Even as he landed, Kalam threw his weight forward, over the downed man, the tip of one of his long-knives sinking deep into the Claw’s right eye socket as he passed.

He felt a dagger-blade cut through the rain-cape on his back, then skitter along the chain beneath, and then he was out of range, shoulder dipping, rolling back into a crouch and spinning round.

The attacker had followed, almost as quick, and Kalam grunted as the Claw slammed into him. A dagger-point plunged through chain links above his left hip and, twisting hard, he felt a shallow opening of his flesh, then the point struck more chain, and was suddenly snagged.

In the midst of this movement, and as the attacker seemed to bounce back from the impact – Kalam far outweighing him, or her – another dagger descended from overhead. An upward stop-thrust impaled that arm. The dagger spilled from a spasming hand. Leaving his long-knife there, Kalam slashed down against the other arm, severing tendons below the elbow. He then dropped that weapon as well, left hand inverting as it snapped up to grasp the front of the Claw’s jerkin; his other hand closing on a handful down at me killers crotch – male – and Kalam heaved the figure upward, over his left shoulder, then, spinning round, he hammered the Claw headfirst onto the pavestones.

Skull and entire head seemed to vanish within folds of hood and cloak.

White matter spattered out.

Releasing the flopping body, Kalam collected both long-knives, then turned to face the last two of the Hand.

Both were already down. The Adjunct stood above one, her sword out and slick with blood. T’amber appeared to have closed to hand-to-hand with the other Claw, somehow breaking the man’s neck even as he plunged both daggers into her. Kalam stared as she tugged the weapons free – lower right shoulder, just beneath a clavicle, and her right waist – and flung them aside as if they were mere slivers.

He met the young woman’s eyes, and it seemed the gold flared for a moment, before she casually turned away. ‘Stuff those holes,’ Kalam said, ‘or you’ll bleed out.’

‘Never mind me,’ she replied. ‘Where to, now?’

There was anguish on the Adjunct’s face as she looked upon her lover, and it seemed she was struggling not to reach out.

Kalam collected his other long-knife. ‘Where to now, T’amber? Ambushes set for every direct approach to Centre Docks. Let’s force them to pull up and move to intercept us. West, Adjunct, deeper into the city.

We then swing south and keep going, right through Centre District, then take one of the inland bridges across to the Mouse – I know that area well – and, if we get that far, we head to the shoreline and back up north again. If necessary we can steal a fisher boat and scull our way over to the Froth Wolf.’

‘Presumably we are being observed right now,’ the Adjunct said.

Kalam nodded.

‘And they understand that their sorcery will fail them.’

‘Aye.’

‘Forcing them to be more… direct.’

‘Before too long,’ Kalam said, ‘more than one Hand will have to come at us at once. That’s when we’re in real trouble.’

A faint smile.

Kalam faced T’amber again. ‘We have to move fast-‘

‘I can keep up.’

‘Why didn’t you use your sword on that fool?’

‘He was too close to the Adjunct. I got him from behind but he was skilled enough to strike anyway.’

Damn, talk about a bad start. ‘Well, neither wound looks like much of a bleeder. We should get going.’

As they set out, westward, the cliff-face of the promontory to their right, the Adjunct said, ‘Do most grown men bounce off when they run into you, Kalam Mekhar?’

‘Quick always said I was the densest man he ever knew.’

‘A Hand has broken cover,’ T’amber said. ‘They’re moving parallel to us.’

Kalam glanced to his left. Seeing nothing, no-one. How does she know that? Do I doubt her? Not for a moment. ‘Are they converging on our path?’

‘Not yet.’

More official buildings, and then the first of the major estates of the Lightings District. No marauding riots up here. Naurally. ‘At least we’ve got the streets to ourselves,’ he muttered. More or less.

‘There are but three gates leading down to Old Upper Estates,’ the Adjunct said after a moment, ‘and we are fast coming opposite the last of them.’

‘Aye, any further west and it’s all wall, an ever higher drop the farther we go. But there’s an old estate, abandoned for years and hopefully still empty. There’s a way down, and if we’re lucky the Claw don’t know about it.’

‘Another Hand’s just come up through the last gate,’ T’amber said. ‘

They’re linking up with the other one.’

‘Just the two here in Lightings?’

‘So far.’

‘Are you sure?’

She glanced across at him. ‘I have a keen sense of smell, Kalam Mekhar.’

Smell? ‘I didn’t know Claw assassins have stopped bathing.’

‘Not that kind of smell. Aggression, and fear.’

‘Fear? There’s only the three of us, for Hood’s sake!’

And one of them is you, Kalam. Even so, they all want to be the Hand that takes you down. They will compete for that honour.’

‘Idiots.’ He gestured ahead. ‘That one, with the high walls. I see no lights-‘

‘The gate is ajar,’ the Adjunct said as they drew closer.

‘Never mind that,’ T’amber said. ‘Here they come.’

All three spun round.

The deadening effect of the Adjunct’s unsheathed sword was far more efficacious than that of Kalam’s long-knife, and its range was revealed as, thirty paces up the street, ten cloaked figures shimmered into existence. ‘Take cover!’ Kalam hissed, ducking down.

Silvery quarrels flashed, barbed heads flickering in the faint moonlight as they corkscrewed in flight. Multiple impacts on the mossstained wall behind them. Straightening, Kalam cursed to see T’amber rushing the killers.

There’s ten of them, you fool!

He raced forward.

Five paces from the fast-closing Claws, T’amber drew her sword.

There was an old saying, that for all the terror waiting in the gloved hands of an assassin, it was as nothing against a professional soldier. T’amber did not even slow down, her blade weaving to either side in a blur. Bodies sprawled in her wake, blood splashing out, knives clattering on the cobbles. A dagger hissed through the air, caught the woman on the right side of her chest, sinking deep. She ignored it – Kalam’s eyes widened as he saw a severed head tumble away from what seemed the lightest slash of T’amber s longsword, and then he joined the fight.

Two Claws had darted past, out of T’amber’s reach, and set off towards the Adjunct. Kalam shifted to come at them from their left. The nearer one leapt into his path, seeking to hold Kalam long enough for the other killer to close on Tavore.

A dancing flurry of parries from the Claw had begun even before Kalam engaged with his own weapons – and he recognized that form – the Web – ‘Gods below, you fool,’ he said in a snarl as he reached both longknives into the skein of parries, feinted with minute jabs then, breaking his timing, evaded the knife-blades as they snapped across, and neatly impaled both hands.

The man screamed as Kalam closed in, pushing both stuck hands out to the sides, and head-butted him. Hooded head snapped back – and met the point of Kalam’s right-hand long-knife as it completed its disengage to come up behind the Claw. A grating crunch as the point drove up into the base of his brain. Even as he crumpled Kalam was stepping over him, into the wake of the last killer.

The Adjunct watched calmly as the Claw launched himself at her. Her stop-thrust took him in the cup of his throat, between the breastbones, the heavy blade punching through windpipe, then spine, and out the back, stretching but not cutting the cloak.

The Claw had thrown both daggers a heartbeat before spitting himself on the sword, and the Adjunct had lithely evaded both as she turned her body sideways in extending the stop-thrust.

Kalam slowed down, turned round, to see T’amber walking back towards them.

Eight dead Claws. Damned impressive. Even if it took a knife in the lung to do it.

There was frothy blood trickling onto T’amber’s chin. She had pulled out the knife and more blood soaked her tunic. Yet her strides were steady.

‘Through the gate, then,’ Kalam said.

They entered the courtyard. Overgrown, filled with rubbish. A fountain commanded the centre, the pool entirely sheathed in gleaming algae.

Insects rose from it in a cloud that spun and whirled towards them.

Kalam pointed with one weapon to the far wall. ‘That old well. There was once a natural cistern in the limestone under all of this. Some enterprising thief broke into it from below, stole an entire fortune from the family living here. Left them destitute. This was long ago – that hoard of wealth bankrolled Kellanved’s early ventures in piracy on the lanes between here and the Napan Isles.’

The Adjunct glanced over. ‘Kellanved was the enterprising thief?’

‘More likely Dancer. The estate was Mock’s family, and, accordingly, the hoard was takings from twenty years of piracy. Not long after, Kellanved usurped Mock and annexed the whole island. Birth of the Malazan Empire. Among the few who know about it, this is called the Well of Plenty.’

A cough from T’amber, and she spat out a gout of blood.

Kalam eyed her in the gloom. That perfect face had grown very pale. He faced the well once more. ‘I’ll go first. The drop is about two and half man-heights – if you can, use the side walls to work your way down as far as possible. Adjunct, do you hear music?’

‘Yes. Faint.’

Nodding, Kalam vaulted onto the lip of the well, then worked his way down. Not just me, then. Fiddler, you’re breaking my heart.

****

Four Hands, weapons out, hooded eyes scanning in every direction.

Pearl stood above a body. The poor man’s head had been driven into the street, hard enough to turn it into pulp, to push the jaw and the base of the skull into the column of the neck between the shoulders, turing the spine into a coiled, splintered mess.

That was the one thing about Kalam Mekhar that one tended to forget, or even more erroneously, disregard. The bastard’s animal strength.

‘Westward,’ one of his lieutenants said in a whisper. ‘Along Lightings, likely to the last gate. They will seek to circle round, pulling loose our established ambushes-‘

‘Not all of them,’ Pearl murmured. ‘I did not for a moment believe he would attempt the direct route. In fact, he’s about to run into the bulk of my small army.’

The lieutenant actually chuckled – Pearl faced him, stared for a long moment, then said, ‘Take two Hands and trail him. Don’t close, just get in sight every now and then. Push them onward.’

‘They’ll turn and ambush us, Clawmaster-‘

‘Probably. Enjoy your evening. Now go.’

An evil snicker would have been worse, but the chuckle was bad enough.

Pearl drew back the left sleeve of his loose silk shirt. The head of the quarrel set in the wrist-strapped crossbow was sheathed in thick wax. Easily pulled off when the time was propitious. In the meantime, he would not risk any possible contact with the paralt smeared on the head’s edges. No, this taste is for you, Kalam.

You’ve eliminated sorcery, after all. So, you leave me little choice, and no, I do not care about the Code.

He rolled the sleeve back down, looked over at his two chosen Hands, his favoured, elite assassins. Not one of them a mage. Theirs was the most direct kind of talent. Tall, well-muscled, a match for Kalam’s brawn. ‘We position ourselves south of Admiral Bridge, at the edge of the Mouse.’

One spoke: ‘You believe they will get that far, Clawmaster?’

Pearl simply turned away. ‘Let’s go.’

****

Kalam edged down the low, narrow tunnel. He could see the brush of the garden disguising the cave mouth ahead. There were broken branches among it, and the air stank of bile and blood. What’s this, then?

Weapons out, he drew closer, came to the threshold.

There had been a Hand, positioned around the tunnel entrance. Five corpses, limbs sprawled. Kalam pushed through the brush.

They had been cut to pieces. Arms broken. Legs snapped. Blood everywhere, still dripping from some low branches on the tree commanding the abandoned orchard. Two had been cleanly eviscerated, their intestines tumbled out, trailing across the leaf-littered ground like bloated worms.

Movement behind him and he turned. The Adjunct and T’amber pushed their way into the clearing.

‘That was fast,’ Tavore said in a whisper.

‘Not me, Adjunct.’

‘I’m sorry. I realized that. We have friends, it seems.’

‘Don’t count on it,’ Kalam said. ‘This has the look of vendetta – someone or ones took out a whole lot of anger on these poor bastards.

I don’t think it has anything to do with us. As you said, the Claw is a compromised organization.’

‘Have they turned on themselves?’

‘Certainly looks that way.’

‘Still in our favour, Kalam.’

‘Well,’ he muttered after a moment, ‘that’s not as important as the revelation that taking the long way round was anticipated. We’ve real trouble ahead, Adjunct.’

‘There are sounds,’ T’amber said, ‘from the top of the well, I think.

Hands. Two.’

‘Fast,’ said Kalam, baring his teeth. ‘They want to flush us forward.

To Hood with that. Stay here, you two.’ He set off back into the tunnel. Top of the well. Meaning you’ve got to come down… one at a time. You were impatient, fools. And now it’s going to cost you.

Reaching the cistern, he saw the first set of moccasined feet appear, dangling from the hole in the ceiling. Kalam moved closer.

The Claw dropped, landed lightly, and died with a knife-blade through an eye socket. Kalam tugged his weapon free and pulled the slumping corpse to one side. Looking up, he waited for the next one.

Then he heard, echoing down, a voice.

****

Gathered round the well, the two Hands hesitated, looking down into the darkness. ‘Lieutenant said he’d call up,’ one of them hissed. ‘I don’t hear a thing down there.’

There then came a faint call, three fast clicks. A recognized signal.

The assassins relaxed. ‘Was checking out the entrance, I guess – Kalam must have got past the ambush in the orchard.’

‘They say he’s the meanest Claw there ever was. Not even Dancer wanted to mess with him.’

‘Enough of that. Go on, Sturtho, get down there and give the lieutenant company and be sure to wipe up the puddle around his feet while you’re at it – wouldn’t want any of us to slip.’

The one named Sturtho clambered onto the well.

****

A short time later, Kalam emerged from the tunnel mouth. T’amber, sitting with her back to a tree, looked up, then nodded and began to rise. Blood had pooled in her lap and now streaked down onto her thighs.

‘Which way ahead?’ the Adjunct asked Kalam.

‘We follow the old orchard wall, west, until we hit Raven Hill Road, then straight south to the hill itself – it’s a wide track, with plenty of barred or barricaded alleys. We’ll skirt the hill on the east side, along the Old City Wall, and then across Admiral Bridge.’

Kalam hesitated, then said, ‘We’ve got to move fast, at a run, never straight but never stopping either. Now, there’s mobs out there, thugs looking for trouble – we need to avoid getting snagged up by those. So when I say we move fast and keep moving that’s exactly what I mean. T’ amber-‘

‘I can keep up.’

‘Listen-‘

‘I said I can keep up.’

‘You shouldn’t even be conscious, damn you!’

She hefted her sword. ‘Let’s go find the next ambush, shall we?’

****

Tears glistened beneath Stormy’s eyes as the sorrow-filled music born of strings filled the small room, and names and faces slowly resolved, one after another, in the minds of the four soldiers as the candles guttered down. Muted, from the streets of the city outside, there rose and fell the sounds of fighting, of dying, a chorus like the accumulated voices of history, of human failure and its echoes reaching them from every place in this world. Fiddler’s struggle to evade the grim monotony of a dirge forced hesitation into the music, a seeking of hope and faith and the solid meaning of friendship – not just with those who had fallen, but with the three other men in the room – but it was a struggle he knew he was losing.

It seemed so easy for so many people to divide war from peace, to confine their definitions to the unambivalent. Marching soldiers, pitched battles and slaughter. Locked armouries, treaties, fetes and city gates opened wide. But Fiddler knew that suffering thrived in both realms of existence – he’d witnessed too many faces of the poor, ancient crones and babes in a mother’s arms, figures lying motionless on the roadside or in the gutters of streets – where the sewage flowed unceasing like rivers gathering their spent souls. And he had come to a conviction, lodged like an iron nail in his heart, and with its burning, searing realization, he could no longer look upon things the way he used to, he could no longer walk and see what he saw with a neatly partitioned mind, replete with its host of judgements – that critical act of moral relativity – this is less, that is more. The truth in his heart was this: he no longer believed in peace.

It did not exist except as an ideal to which endless lofty words paid service, a litany offering up the delusion that the absence of overt violence was sufficient in itself, was proof that one was better than the other. There was no dichotomy between war and peace – no true opposition except in their particular expressions of a ubiquitous inequity. Suffering was all-pervasive. Children starved at the feet of wealthy lords no matter how secure and unchallenged their rule.

There was too much compassion within him – he knew that, for he could feel the pain, the helplessness, the invitation to despair, and from that despair came the desire – the need – to disengage, to throw up his hands and simply walk, away, turn his back on all that he saw, all that he knew. If he could do nothing, then, dammit, he would see nothing. What other choice was there?

And so we weep for the fallen. We weep for those yet to fall, and in war the screams are loud and harsh and in peace the wail is so drawnout we tell ourselves we hear nothing.

And so this music is a lament, and I am doomed to hear its bittersweet notes for a lifetime.

Show me a god that does not demand mortal suffering.

Show me a god that celebrates diversity, a celebration that embraces even non-believers and is not threatened by them.

Show me a god who understands the meaning of peace. In life, not in death.

Show’Stop,’ Gesler said in a grating voice.

Blinking, Fiddler lowered the instrument. ‘What?’

‘You cannot end with such anger, Fid. Please.’

Anger? I am sorry. He would have spoken that aloud, but suddenly he could not. His gaze lowered, and he found himself studying the littered floor at his feet. Someone, in passing – perhaps Fiddler himself – had inadvertently stepped on a cockroach. Half-crushed, smeared into the warped wood, its legs kicked feebly. He stared at it in fascination.

Dear creature, do you now curse an indifferent god? ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘I can’t end it there.’ He raised the fiddle again. ‘Here’s a different song for you, one of the few I’ve actually learned. From Kartool. It’s called “The Paralt’s Dance”.’ He rested the bow on the strings, then began.

Wild, frantic, amusing. Its final notes recounted the triumphant female eating her lover. And even without words, the details of that closing flourish could not be mistaken.

The four men laughed.

Then fell silent once more.

****

It could have been worse, Bottle reflected as he hurried along the dark alley. Agayla could have reached in to the left instead of to the right, there under his shirt, pulling out not a doll but a live rat – who would probably have bitten her, since that was what it seemed Y’

Ghatan liked to do most. Would their subsequent conversation have taken another track? he wondered. Probably.

The alleys of the Mouse twisted and turned, narrow and choking and unlit, and stumbling over a body in the gloom was not nearly as uncommon as one would like… but not five bodies. Heart pounding, Bottle halted in his tracks. The stench of death engulfed him. Bile and blood.

Five corpses, all clothed in black, hooded, they appeared to have been cut to pieces. Perhaps only moments earlier.

He heard screams erupt from a street nearby, cries filled with terror.

Gods, what’s out there? He contemplated releasing Y’Ghatan, then decided against it – he would need the rat’s eyes later, he was certain of it, and risking the creature now invited potential disaster. Besides, I’m not far from my destination. I think. I hope.

He picked his way gingerly past the bodies, approached the alley mouth beyond.

Whatever had elicited the shrieks had gone another way, although Bottle saw a few running figures flash past, heading towards the docks. Reaching the street he turned right and set off in the same direction.

Until he came opposite the entrance to a tavern. Saddle-backed stairs, leading down. The prickle of sweat stole over his body. In here. Thank you, Agayla.

Bottle made his way down the steps, pushed through the doorway, and entered Coop’s Hanged Man Inn.

The cramped, low-ceilinged den was crowded, yet strangely quiet. Pale faces turned in his direction, hard eyes fixing on him as he paused just inside the threshold, looking round.

Damned veterans. Well, at least you’re not all out there, trying to kill marines.

Bottle made his way to the bar. Beneath the folds of his cloak he felt the doll move slightly, a limb twitching – the right arm – and then he saw a figure before him, facing in the other direction. Broad back and shoulders, lifting a tankard with his right hand as he leaned on the counter. The ragged sleeve on that arm slipped down, revealing a skein of scars.

Bottle reached the man. Tapped him on the shoulder.

A slow turn, eyes dark as cold forges.

‘You’re the one called Foreigner?’

The man frowned. ‘Not many call me that, and you’re not one of them.’

‘I have a message to deliver,’ Bottle said.

‘From who?’

‘I can’t say. Not here, anyway.’

‘What’s the message?’

‘Your long wait is at an end.’

The faintest gleam in those eyes, as of embers fanned to life once more. ‘Is that it?’

Bottle nodded. ‘If there’s things you need to gather up, I can wait here for you. But not for long. We need to move, fast.’

Foreigner turned his head, called out to a huge figure behind the bar who had just driven a spigot into a cask. ‘Temper!’

The older man looked over.

‘Keep an eye on this one,’ Foreigner said, ‘until I’m back.’

‘You want me to tie him up? Knock him senseless?’

‘No, just make sure he stays breathing.’

‘He’s safe enough in here,’ Temper replied, stepping closer, his eyes on Bottle. ‘We know the Fourteenth did well, soldier. That’s why we’re all in here and not out there.’

Foreigner’s regard seemed to undergo some subtle alteration as he looked upon Bottle once more. ‘Ah,’ he said under his breath, ‘now it’ s making more sense. Wait, I won’t be long.’

Bottle watched the man push his way through the crowd, then he glanced back at Temper. ‘He got a real name?’

‘I’m sure of it,’ Temper replied, turning away.

****

Three shadows huddled round a table in the far corner. They hadn’t been there a moment earlier, Sergeant Hellian was sure of that. Maybe.

They didn’t look to be drinking anything, which was suspicious enough, and those black murky heads drawn together whispered of conspiracy, nefarious plans, malicious intentions, but if they were speaking she could hear nothing of it and the gloom was such that she could not see their mouths move. Assuming they had mouths.

The whore at the other table was playing a game of Troughs. With noone.

Hellian leaned closer to her prisoner. ‘This place is strange, if you ask me.’

Brows lifted marginally. ‘Really? Wraiths and ghosts, one haggardly whore and a demon behind the bar-‘

‘Watch who you’re callin’ haggardly,’ the woman growled as black round stones bounced in the trough of their own accord. She scowled at the result and muttered, ‘You’re cheatin’, aren’t ya? I swear it and I meant what I said – if I catch you at it, Hormul, I’m buying a candle wi’ your name on it.’

Hellian looked over at the bar. The demonic owner, back into his scrawny, puny shape, was moving back and forth behind the counter, only his head visible. He seemed to be eating wedges of some kind of yellow fruit, his face twisting as he sucked all the juice from each wedge, then flung the rind over a shoulder. Back and forth, wedge after wedge. ‘So who let him loose?’ she demanded. ‘Ain’t there supposed to be some master nearby? Don’t they get summoned and then bound? You’re a priest, you’re supposed to know about this stuff.’

‘It so happens that I do,’ Banaschar replied. ‘And yes, normally it’s how you d’scribed.’ He rubbed at his face, then continued, ‘Here’s my guess, Sergeant. Was Kellanved ‘imself conjured this demon, probbly as a bodyguard, or e’en a bouncer. Then he left, and the demon took over the business.’

‘Ridiculous. What do demons know ’bout running a business? You’re lying. Now drink up, suspect, an’ then we’ll have one more an’ then we leave this madhouse.’

‘How can I c’nvince you, Sergeant? I need to get to Mock’s Hold. The fate of the world depends on it-‘

‘Ha, that’s a good one. Let me tell you ’bout the fate o’ the world.

Hey, barkeep! You, head, more ale, damn you! Look at them shadows, suspect, they’re what it’s all about. Hidin’ behind every scene, behind every throne, behind every bath-tub. Making plans and nothing but plans and plans while the rest of us, we go down the drain, chokin’ along leaking lead pipes and out into the swill, where we drown. Countin’ coin, that’s what they do. Coin we can’t e’en see, but it’s how they measure us, the scales, I mean, a sliver in the dish a soul in the other one, evened out, you see. What’s the fate o’ the world, suspect?’ She made a gesture with her hand, index finger corkscrewing, spiralling round and round, then downward. ‘Wi’ them in charge, it’s all goin’ down. An’ the joke on ’em is this – they’re goin’ with it.’

‘Listen, woman. Those are wraiths. Creatures of shadow. They’re not making plans. They’re not counting coins. They’re just hanging around-‘

As if on cue, the three shadows rose, chairs audibly scraping back, drew cloaks tight, hooded faces hidden in darkness, then filed out the door.

Hellian snorted.

The barkeep arrived with another pitcher.

‘All right,’ sighed Banaschar, closing his eyes. ‘Arrest me. Throw me in some dungeon. Let me rot with the worms and rats. You’re abs’lutely right, Sergeant. Headfirst down the drain – here, lemme top you up.’

‘Now you’re talkin’, suspect.’

****

Kalam’s forearm hammered into the Claw’s veiled face, shattering the nose and driving the head against the wall. Bone collapsed with a crunch and the attacker slumped. Spinning round, Kalam made his way quickly along the wall of the building, tracked by a half-dozen crossbow quarrels that struck the bricks with snaps and sounds of splintering. He could hear weapons clashing in the alley ahead and to his right – where the Adjunct and T’amber had retreated under a fusillade of missiles from across the street – they had been shepherded into an ambush.

Three Hands were rushing to close the trap. Swearing, Kalam reached the mouth of the alley. A quick glance revealed the two women locked in a vicious close-in battle with four assassins – and in that momentary glance one of those four fell to T’amber’s sword. Kalam turned his back on that fight, preparing to meet the Hands approaching from the street.

Daggers flickered through the air towards him. He threw himself down and to the right, regaining his feet in time to meet the first four Claws. A flurry of parries as Kalam worked his way further right, pulling himself beyond the range of two of the attackers. Long-knife lashed out, opening one man’s face, and as the man reeled back, Kalam stepped close, impaling the man’s left thigh whilst blocking a frenzied attack from the other Claw. Pivoting on the first Claw’s pinned thigh, he twisted behind the man and thrust with his free weapon over his victim’s right shoulder, the point tearing into the second attacker’s neck.

Tugging free the blade impaling the thigh, Kalam brought that arm up to lock beneath the first Claw’s chin, where he flexed hard and, with a single, savage wrenching motion, snapped the man’s neck.

The one stabbed in the throat had stumbled, his jugular severed and blood spraying through the fingers grasping futilely at the wound. The last two of the four assassins were coming up fast. Beyond them, Kalam saw, the other Hands were racing for the Adjunct and T’amber.

Snarling his rage, Kalam launched himself past the two Claws, taking their attacks on his long-knives, slamming his foot into the nearer one’s right leg, midway between knee and ankle, breaking bones. As the assassin shrieked her pain, the second attacker, seeking to move past her, collided with the falling woman, then lost balance entirely as both feet slid out on spilled blood.

Kalam’s wild sprint struck the first group of Claws charging the Adjunct and Tavore. Coming from their left and slightly behind them, his sudden arrival forced a half-dozen attackers to swing round to meet him. Taking counterattacks with parries, he threw his shoulder into the chest of the nearest Claw. The crack of ribs, a whoosh of breath driven from the lungs, and the attacker left his feet, flung backward to foul two Claws directly behind him. One of these stumbled too close to Kalam as he surged past, within reach of his left longknife, and the cut he delivered into the victim’s neck nearly severed the head.

Only two of the remaining four were close enough to spring at him. One came low from the left, the other high from the right. Kalam slashed across the path of the first attacker, felt his blade scrape along both knives in the Claw’s hands. He followed that with a knee between the figure’s eyes. The second attacker he forced back with a fully extended arm and long-knife, and the Claw, leaning back in desperation, left both feet planted – Kalam dropped the high feint and cut vertically down through the attacker’s stomach to the crotch.

The Claw squealed as intestines tumbled out between his knees. Tearing his long-knife loose, Kalam continued his charge – and heard someone closing on him from behind. Dropping into a crouch, Kalam skidded to a halt, then threw himself backward. A dagger sank into his left waist, just beneath the ribcage, the point angled upward – seeking his heart – and then the two assassins collided, Kalam flinging his head back, connecting with the Claw’s forehead. A second dagger skidded along mail beneath his right arm. Twisting away from the knife impaling him, he spun round and punched his elbow into the side of the Claw’s head, crushing the cheekbone. The attacker sprawled, losing his grip on the knife in Kalam’s side.

Gasping, Kalam forced himself forward once more. Every motion sent the fierce fire of agony through his chest, but he had no time to pull out the knife, as the last two Claws who had turned to meet him now rushed him.

But too close together, almost side by side – Kalam leapt to his right to take himself beyond the range of one of them. He ducked a horizontal slash seeking his throat, caught the second knife with an edge-on-bone parry of the Claw’s forearm, then back-hand thrust into the attacker’s throat. Even as that victim began pitching forward, Kalam settled his left shoulder against the chest – and pushed hard, following the body as it slammed into the other assassin. All three went down, with Kalam on top. The corpse between him and the live Claw snagged one of his long-knives – pulling that hand free, Kalam stabbed thumb and index finger into the assassin’s eyes, hooking with the thumb and pushing ever deeper with the finger, until the body ceased spasming.

Hearing more fighting from the alley, Kalam pushed himself to his feet, paused to ease free the knife in his side, cursing at the blood that gushed in the wake of the blade. He collected the snagged longknife, then staggered into the alley.

Only three Claws remained, and T’amber had engaged two of them, driving both back, step by step, into Kalam’s path.

He moved up, thrust once, then twice, and two bodies writhed at his feet. T’amber had already turned and rushed to take the last assassin from behind, crushing the skull with the edge of her sword.

One of the Claws below heaved to one side, lifting a weapon – Kalam stamped his heel into the assassin’s neck.

Sudden silence beyond the gasping of breaths.

He stared at the two women. T’amber was a mass of wounds – frothy blood was streaming from her nose and mouth and he saw the shuddering, frantic rise and fall of her chest. Grimacing against his own pain, Kalam turned to study the street he had just left.

Bodies moving here and there, but none seemed inclined to renew the fight.

The Adjunct moved up beside him. Blood had splashed her face, mingling with grimy sweat. ‘Kalam Mekhar. I watch you. It seems…’ She shook her head. ‘It seems you move faster than them. And for all their training, their skills, they cannot keep up with you.’

He wiped stinging sweat from his eyes. His hands, clenching the grips of the long-knives, ached, but he could not relax them. ‘It all slows down, Adjunct,’ he said in a rumble. ‘In my mind, they just slow down.’ He shook himself, forcing loose the muscles of his back and shoulders. He had managed to stem the bleeding, although he could feel the heat of blood down the outside of his leg, beneath the heavy cloth, forming a glue between the fabric and his skin. He was exhausted, a sour taste on his tongue. ‘We can’t stop,’ he said. ‘

There’s plenty more. We’re close to Admiral Bridge, almost there.’

‘There?’

‘The Mouse.’

‘I hear riots – there’s fires there, and smoke, Kalam.’

He nodded. ‘Aye. Confusion. That’s good.’ He glanced back at T’amber.

She was leaning with her back against a wall, sheathed in blood, her eyes closed. Kalam lowered his voice. ‘Adjunct, she needs healing, before it’s too late.’

But T’amber heard. Eyes opening, a gleam like tiger-eyes, and she straightened. ‘I’m ready.’

The Adjunct took a half-step towards her lover, then was forced to turn as T’amber moved past her to the alley mouth.

Kalam saw the anguish in Tavore’s gaze, and he looked away.

And saw thirty or more Claws shimmer into view not forty paces up the street. ‘Shit! Run!’

They emerged from the alley and set off. Kalam slowed his pace to allow the Adjunct past him. Somehow, T’amber stayed ahead of them, taking point. There’ll be another ambush. Waiting for us. She’ll stumble right into itBehind them, the assassins were in full pursuit, the faster sprinters among them closing the distance. Beyond the sound of soft footfalls, the thump of boots, and a chorus of fierce gasps, it seemed the cobbles beneath them, the buildings to either side, and even the lowering sky overhead, all conspired to close in upon them – upon this desperate scene – deadening the air, making it thicker, muffled. If eyes witnessed, the faces quickly turned away. If there were figures in the alleys they passed, they melted back into the darkness.

The street angled westward, now opposite Raven Hill Park. Up ahead it would link up with another street that bordered the park on the west side, before striking southward to the bridge. As they neared that intersection, Kalam saw T’amber suddenly shift direction, leading them into an alley on the left, and then he saw the reason for the unexpected detour – more Hands, massing in the intersection, and now surging forward.

They’re herding us. To the bridge. What’s waiting for us on the other side?

The alley widened into something like a street just past the first flanking buildings, and directly before them was the low wall encircling the park.

T’amber slowed, as if unsure whether to skirt that wall to the left or the right, then she staggered, lifting her sword as attackers closed in on her from both sides.

The Adjunct cried out.

Blades clashed, a body tumbled to one side, the others swarming round T’amber – Kalam saw two knives sink into the woman’s torso, yet still she remained on her feet, slashing out with her sword. As Tavore reached them – thrusting her otataral blade into the side of an assassin’s head, a savage lateral tug freeing it, the rust-hued weapon hissing into the path of an arm, slicing through flesh and bone, the arm flying awayKalam saw, in the heartbeat before he joined the fight, T’amber reaching out with her free hand to take a Claw by the throat, then pull the attacker into the air, pivoting to throw the Claw against the stone wall. Even as the figure repeatedly stabbed the woman in the chest, shoulders and upper arms.

Gods below!

Kalam arrived like a charging bhederin, long-knives licking out even as he hammered his weight into one Claw, then another, sending both sprawling.

There in the gloom before the wall of Raven Hill Park, a savage frenzy of close-in fighting, a second Hand joining what was left of the first. A dozen rapid heartbeats, and it was over.

And there was no time to pause, no time for a breath to recover, as quarrels began pounding into the wall.

Kalam waved mutely to run along the wall, westward, and somehow – impossibly – T’amber once more took the lead.

Screams erupted behind them, but there was no time to look. The wall curved southward, forming one side of the street leading to Admiral Bridge, and there stood the stone span, unlit, so buried in shadows that it might have been at the base of a pit. As they drew closer, that sorcery wavered, then died. Revealing… nothing. No-one in sight.

‘T’amber!’ Kalam hissed. ‘Hold up!’

Whatever had struck in their wake had snared the attention of the pursuing Claws – at least for the moment. ‘Adjunct, listen to me. You and T’amber, get down into the river. Follow it straight to the harbour.’

‘What about you?’ Tavore demanded.

‘We haven’t yet encountered a third of the Hands in the city, Adjunct.’ He nodded towards the Mouse. ‘They’re in there. I plan on leading them a merry chase.’ He paused, then spat out a mouthful of phlegm and blood. ‘I can lose them eventually – I know the Mouse, Tavore. I’ll take to the rooftops.’

‘There’s no point in splitting up-‘

‘Yes, Adjunct. There is.’ Kalam studied T’amber for a moment. Yes, despite everything, not much longer for you. ‘T’amber agrees with me.

She’ll get you to the harbour.’

From the streets and alleys behind them, ominous silence, now. Closing in. ‘Go.’

The Adjunct met his eyes. ‘Kalam-‘

‘Just go, Tavore.’

He watched as they moved to the edge of the river, the old sagging stone retaining wall at their feet. T’amber climbed down first. The river was befouled, sluggish and shallow. It would be slow going, but the darkness would hide them. And when they get to the harbour… well, it’ll be time to improvise.

Kalam adjusted his grips on the long-knives. A last glance behind him.

Still nothing there. Odd. He fixed his gaze on the bridge. All right.

Let’s get this over with.

****

Lostara Yil made her way across the concourse, leaving Rampart Way and the bodies at its foot behind her. The sounds of rioting were still distant – coming from the harbour and beyond – while the nearby buildings and estates were silent and unlit, as if she had found herself in a necropolis, a fitting monument to imperial glory.

The small figure that stepped out before her was thus all the more startling, and her disquiet only increased upon recognizing him. ‘

Grub,’ she said, approaching, ‘what are you doing here?’

‘Waiting for you,’ the boy replied, wiping at a runny nose.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ll take you where you need to go. It’s a sad night, but it will be all right, you’ll see that one day.’ With that he turned around and headed off along the avenue, southward. ‘We don’t need to stay on the path, not yet. We can take the first bridge. Lostara Yil-‘ a glance back, ‘you’re very pretty.’

Suddenly chilled despite the sultry air, she set off after him. ‘What path?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’

Skittering sounds in the shadows off to her left. She closed a hand on her sword. ‘Something’s there-‘

‘That’s okay,’ Grub said. ‘They’re my friends. There won’t be any trouble. But we should hurry.’

Before long they reached the bridge leading into Centre District, whereupon Grub angled them westward for a short time, before turning south once more.

They soon came upon the first of the bodies. Claws, sprawled in small groups at first – where rats and wild dogs had already come out to feed – and then, as they neared Raven Hill Park, the street was literally filled with corpses. Lostara slowed her pace as she approached the elongated scene of slaughter – heading southward, as if a bladed whirlwind had raced through a hundred or more imperial assassins – and, slowly, Lostara Yil realized something, as she looked upon one cut-up figure after another… a pattern to the wounds, to their placements, to the smooth precision of every mortal blow.

Her chill deepened, stole into her bones.

Three paces ahead, Grub was humming a Wickan drover’s song.

****

Halfway across Admiral Bridge, Kalam lodged one weapon under an arm and reached for the acorn tucked into the folds of his sash. Smooth, warm even through the leather of his tattered glove, as if welcoming.

And… impatient.

Ducking into a crouch along one of the low retaining walls on the bridge, Kalam flung the acorn to the pave-stones. It cracked, spun in place for a moment, then stilled.

‘All right, Quick,’ Kalam muttered, ‘any time now.’

****

In a cabin on the Froth Wolf, Adaephon Delat, seated cross-legged on the floor, his eyes closed, flinched at that distant summons. Closer to hand, he could hear more fighting along the harbourfront, and he knew the Perish were being pushed back, step by step, battered by sorcery and an evergrowing mass of frenzied attackers. Whilst above decks Destriant Run’Thurvian was maintaining a barrier against every magical assault on the ship itself. Quick Ben sensed that the man was not exactly hard-pressed, but clearly distracted by something, and so there was a hesitation in him, as if he but awaited a far more taxing calling – a moment that was fast approaching.

Well, we got trouble everywhere, don’t we just?

It would not be easy slipping through the maze of warrens unleashed in the streets of the city this night. Pockets of virulent sorcery wandered here and there, mobile traps eager to deliver agonizing death, and Quick Ben recognized those. Ruse, the path of the sea.

Those traps are water, stolen from deep oceans and retaining that savage pressure – they crush everything they envelop. This is High Ruse, and it’s damned ugly.

Someone out there was waiting for him. To make his move. And whoever it was, they wanted Quick Ben to remain precisely where he was, in a cabin on the Froth Wolf. Remain, doing nothing, staying out of the fight.

Well. He had unveiled four warrens, woven an even dozen sorcerous spells, all eager to be sprung loose – his hands itched, then burned, as if he was repeatedly dipping them in acid.

Kalam’s out there, and he needs my help.

The High Mage allowed himself the briefest of nods, and the rent of a warren opened before him. He slowly rose to his feet, joints protesting the motion – gods, I think I’m getting old. Who’d have thought? He drew a deep breath, then, blinking to clear his vision, he lunged forward – into the rent-and, even as he vanished he heard a soft giggle, then a sibilant voice: ‘You said you owed me, remember? Well, my dear Snake, it’s time.’

****

Twenty heartbeats. Twenty-five. Thirty. Hood’s breath! Kalam stared down at the broken acorn. Shit. Shit shit shit. Forty. Cursing under his breath, he set off.

That’s the problem with the shaved knuckle in the hole. Sometimes it doesn’t work. So, I’m on my own. Well, so be it, I’ve been getting sick of this life anyway. Murder was overrated, he decided. It achieved nothing, nothing of real value. There wasn’t an assassin out there who didn’t deserve to have his or her head cut off and stuck on a spike. Skill, talent, opportunity – none of them justified the taking of a life.

How many of us – yes you – how many of you hate what you are? It’s not worth it, you know. Hood take all those blistering egos, let’s flash our pathetic light one last time, then surrender to the darkness. I’m done, with this. I’m done.

He reached the end of the bridge and paused once more. Another backward glance. Well, it ain’t burning, except here in my mind.

Closing the circle, right? Hedge, Trotts, Whiskeyjack…

The dark, pitted and broken face of the Mouse beckoned. A decayed grin, destitution and degradation, the misery that haunted so much life. It was, Kalam Mekhar decided, the right place. The assassin burst into motion, a diagonal sprint, hard and as low to the ground as he could manage, up to the leaning facade of a remnant of some estate wall, surging upward, one foot jamming in a cluttered murder hole – dislodging a bird’s nest – up, forearm wrapping round the top edge, broken shards of cemented crockery cutting through the sleeve, puncturing skin – then over, one foot gaining purchase on the ragged row, launching himself forward, through the air, onto an angled roof that exploded with guano dust as he struck it, scrambling along the incline, two long strides taking him to the peak, then down the other sideAnd onto the wild maze, the crackled, disjointed back of the vast MouseClaws, crouched and waiting, lunged in from all sides. Big, the biggest assassins Kalam had seen yet, each wielding long-knives in both hands. Fast, like vipers, lashing out.

Kalam did not slow down – he needed to push right through them, he needed to keep going – he caught weapons against his own, felt blade edges gouge tracks along his armour, links parting, and one point, thrust hard, sank deep into his left thigh, twisting, cutting in an upward motion – snarling, he writhed in the midst of the flashing weapons, wrapped an arm about the man’s face and head, then, as he pushed through with all his strength, he pulled that head in a twisting wrench, hearing the vertebrae pop. Kalam half-dragged the flopping corpse by its wobbly head, into his wake, where he dropped it.

A long-knife from the right slashed into the side of his head, slicing down to sever his ear. He counter-thrust and felt his weapon skid along chain.

Hood take them! Someone used me to make more of meContinuing down, to the edge, Kalam then launched himself through the air, over the gap of an alley. He landed, pitching and rolling, on the flat roof of a sagging tenement, centuries old, the surface beneath him layered with the gravel of broken pottery. Multiple impacts followed, trembling along the rooftop, as his hunters came after him.

Two, five, sevenKalam regained his feet and turned, at bay, as nine assassins, spread into a half-circle, rushed him.

Nine Kalams against one.

Hardly.

He surged forward, straight ahead, to the centre of that half-circle.

The man before him raised his weapons in alarm, caught by surprise. He managed to parry twice with one long-knife, once with the other as he desperately backpedalled, before Kalam’s succession of attacks broke through. A blade sinking into the man’s chest, impaling his heart, the second one stabbing beneath the jaw-line, then twisting upward and pushing hard into the brain.

Using both jammed weapons, Kalam yanked the man around, into the path of two more Claws, then he tore free his long-knives and charged into one flank of attackers with blinding speed. A blade-edge sliced into his left calf from one of the pursuers – not deep enough to slow him down – as he feinted low at the Claw closest to him, then thrust high with his other weapon – into the eye socket of the man a step beyond the first assassin. The long-knife jammed. Releasing his grip, Kalam dipped a shoulder and flung himself into the midsection of the next attacker. The impact jolted through his bones – this Hood-cursed bastard’s huge – yet he sank even lower, his freed arm sliding up between the man’s legs, up behind. Blades tore down along his back, links popping like ticks on hot stones, and he felt the Claw seeking to shift the angle of those weapons, to push them inward – as, legs bunching beneath him, Kalam then heaved the hunter upward, off his feet – up, Kalam loosing a roar that tore the lining of his throat, using his weapon-hand to grasp the front of the man’s shirt – up – and over.

Legs kicking, the Claw’s head pitched forward, colliding with the chest of a pursuing assassin. Both went down. Kalam leapt after them, pounding an elbow into the forehead of the second Claw – collapsing it like a melon husk – while he sank his remaining long-knife into the back of the first man’s neck.

A blade jammed into his right thigh, the point bursting through the other side. Kalam twisted fast to pull the weapon from the attacker’s hand, drew both legs up as he rolled onto his back, then kicked hard into the Claw’s belly, sending the figure flying. Another long-knife thrust at his face – he flung up a forearm and blocked the weapon, brought his hand round and grasped the Claw’s wrist, pulled him closer and gutted him with his own long-knife, the intestines spilling out to land in Kalam’s lap.

Scrambling upright, he pulled out the weapon impaling his thigh – in time to parry a slash with it, then, backing away – his slashed and punctured legs almost failing beneath him – he fell into a sustained defence. Three hunters faced him, with the one he had kicked now regaining his feet, slowly, struggling to draw breath.

Too much blood-loss; Kalam felt himself weakening. If any more Hands arrived…

He leapt back, almost to the edge of the roof, and threw both longknives, a move unexpected, particularly given the top-heavy imbalance of the weapons – but Kalam had practised short-range throwing with them, year after year. One buried itself deep in the chest of the Claw to his right; the other struck the breastbone of the Claw on the left with a solid thud and remained in place, quivering. Even as he threw the weapons, Kalam launched himself, barehanded, at the man in the middle.

Caught one forearm in both hands, pushed it back then across – the hunter attempted an upthrust from low with his other long-knife, but Kalam kneed it aside. A savage wrench dislocated the arm in his hands, then he pushed it back up, grinding the dislodged bones into the ruptured socket – the man shrieked. Releasing the arm, he brought both hands up behind the Claw’s head, then, leaving his own feet, he drove that head downward, using all of his weight, downward, face-first into the roof.

A crunch, a loud crack, and the entire rooftop sagged – explosions of old rotted timber beams, crumbling mortar and plaster.

Swearing, Kalam rolled over the man – whose face was buried in the roof, amidst bubbling blood – and saw, through an ever widening fissure, a darkened room below. He slid himself forwardTime to leave.

****

Ten paces away, Pearl stood and watched. Shaken, disbelieving. On the slanting rooftop all round him lay bodies.

The finest assassins of the Malazan Empire. He cut through them all.

Just… cut through them. And, in his heart, there was terror – a sensation new to him, filling him with trembling weakness.

He watched as Kalam Mekhar, streaming blood, weaponless, dragged himself towards that hole in the roof. And Pearl drew back the sleeve of his left arm, extended it, aimed and released the quarrel.

A grunt with the impact, the quarrel sinking deep just under Kalam’s outstretched left arm, even as the man slid forward, down, and vanished from sight.

I am sorry, Kalam Mekhar. But you… I cannot accept… your existence. I cannot…

He then made his way forward, joined now by the lone survivor of the two Hands, and collected Kalam’s weapons.

My… trophies.

He turned to the Claw. ‘Find the others-‘

‘But what of Kalam-‘

‘He’s finished. Gather the Hands here in the Mouse – we’re paying a visit to the Centre Docks, now. If the Adjunct makes it that far, well, we have to take her down there.’

‘Understood, Clawmaster.’

Clawmaster. Yes. It’s done, Empress Laseen. Yes, he’s dead. By my own hand. I am without an equal in the Malazan Empire.

Where would he begin?

Mallick Rel.

Korbolo Dom.

Neither of you will see the dawn. I swear it.

The other Claw spoke from the edge of the hole in the roof: ‘I don’t see him, Clawmaster.’

‘He’s crawling off to die,’ Pearl said. ‘Kartoolian paralt.’

The man’s head snapped round. ‘Not the snake? The spider’s…? Gods below!’

Aye, a most painful, protracted death. And there’s not a priest left on the island who can neutralize that poison.

Two weapons clunked on the roof. Pearl looked over. ‘What are you doing?’ he demanded.

The man was staring at him. ‘Enough. How much dishonour will you set at the feet of the Claw? I am done with you.’ And he turned away. ‘

Find the Adjunct yourself, Pearl, give her one of your damned spider bites-‘

Pearl raised his right arm, sent a second quarrel flying across the rooftop. Striking the man between the shoulder-blades. Arms flung out to the sides, the Claw toppled.

‘That, regrettably, was white paralt. Much quicker.’

Now, as he had intended all along, there were no witnesses left. And it was time to gather the remaining Hands.

He wished it could have been different. All of it. But this was a new Malazan Empire, with new rules. Rules I can manage well enough. After all, I have nothing left. No-one left…

****

Closing his eyes, Fiddler set down his fiddle. He said nothing, for there was nothing to say. The reprise that had taken him was done. The music had left his hands, had left his mind, his heart. He felt empty inside, his soul riven, lifeless. He had known this was coming, a truth that neither diminished the pain of loss nor intensified it – a burden, that was all. Just one more burden.

Screams from the street below, then the sound of a door smashing into kindling.

Braven Tooth glanced up, wiped at his eyes.

Heavy footsteps on the stairs.

Gesler collected the wine jug from the table and slowly refilled the cups. No-one had touched the bread.

Thumping steps coming up the corridor. Scraping, dragging.

Halting before the Master Sergeant’s door.

Then a heavy, splintering knock, like claws gouging the wood.

Gesler rose and walked over.

Fiddler watched as the sergeant opened the door, stood motionless for a long moment, staring at whoever was in the corridor, then Gesler said, ‘Stormy, it’s for you.’

The huge man slowly rose as Gesler turned about and walked back to his chair.

A shape filled the entrance. Broad-shouldered, wearing tattered, dripping furs. A flat face, the skin betel brown and stretched taut over robust bones. Pits for eyes. Long arms hanging to the sides.

Fiddler’s brows rose. A T’lan Imass.

Stormy cleared his throat. ‘Legana Breed,’ he said, his voice oddly high.

The reply that rasped from the apparition was like the grating of barrow stones. ‘I have come for my sword, mortal.’

Gesler collapsed into his chair and collected his cup. ‘A long, wet walk, was it, Breed?’

The head swivelled with a creak, but the T’lan Imass said nothing.

Stormy collected the flint sword and walked over to Legana Breed. ‘You been scaring a lot of people below,’ he said.

‘Sensitive souls, you mortals.’

The marine held the sword out, horizontally. ‘Took your time getting out of that portal.’

Legana Breed grasped it. ‘Nothing is ever as easy as it seems, Shield Anvil. Carry the pain in your heart and know this: you are far from finished with this world.’

Fiddler glanced across at Braven Tooth. Shield Anvil?

The Master Sergeant simply shook his head.

Legana Breed was studying the weapon in his skeletal hands. ‘It’s scratched.’

‘What? Oh, but I – oh, well-‘

‘Humour is extinct,’ the T’lan Imass said, turning back to the doorway.

Gesler suddenly straightened. ‘A moment, Legana Breed!’

The creature paused.

‘Stormy did all that you asked of him. Now, we need repayment.’

Sweat sprang out on Fiddler’s skin. Gesler!

The T’lan Imass faced them again. ‘Repayment. Shield Anvil, did not my weapon serve you well?’

‘Aye, well enough.’

‘Then there is no debt-‘

‘Not true!’ Gesler said in a growl. ‘We saw you take that Tiste Andii head with you! But we told your fellow T’lan Imass nothing – we kept your secret, Legana Breed! When we could have bargained with it, gotten ourselves right out of that damned mess we were in! There is a debt!’

Silence from the ancient undead warrior, then, ‘What do you demand of me?’

‘We – me, Stormy and Fiddler here – we need an escort. Back to our ship. It could mean a fight.’

‘There are four thousand mortals between us and the docks,’ Legana Breed said. ‘One and all driven into madness by chaotic sorcery.’

‘And?’ Gesler sneered. ‘Are you afraid, T’lan Imass?’

‘Afraid.’ A declarative statement. Then the head cocked. ‘Humour?’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘The docks.’ Hesitation, then, ‘I just came from there.’

Fiddler began collecting his gear. ‘With answers like that one, Legana Breed,’ he said, ‘you belong in the marines.’ He glanced over at Braven Tooth. ‘Well met, old friend.’

The Master Sergeant nodded. ‘And with you. The three of you. Sorry about punching you in the gut, Fid.’

‘Like Hood you are.’

‘I didn’t know it was you-‘

‘To Hood you didn’t.’

‘All right, I heard you come in. Heard cloth against fiddle strings.

Smelled Moranth munitions. Not hard with all that.’

‘So you punched me anyway?’

Braven Tooth smiled. The particular smile that gave the bastard his name.

Legana Breed spoke: ‘You are all marines?’

‘Aye,’ Fiddler said.

‘Tonight, then, I too am a marine. Let us go kill people.’

****

Throatslitter clambered up the gangplank, stumbled down onto the deck.

‘Fist,’ he gasped, ‘we need to call more in – we none of us can hold much longer-‘

‘No, soldier,’ Keneb replied, his gaze fixed on the vicious fighting on the concourse before them, the ever-contracting Perish lines, the ever-growing mass of frenzied attackers pouring in from every street and alley mouth between warehouse buildings. Don’t you see? We commit more and we get pulled deeper into this mess, deeper and deeper – until we cannot extricate ourselves. There’s too much sorcery out there – gods below, my head feels ready to explode. He so wanted to explain all of this to the desperate marine, but that was not what a commander did.

Just like the Adjunct. You want to, gods how you want to, if only to see the understanding in their eyes. But you cannot. All right, so I’m starting to comprehend…

‘Attend, Fist Keneb!’ The warning came from the Destriant. ‘Assassins, seeking to penetrate our defences-‘

A hiss from Throatslitter, and he turned, called down to the marines on the jetty. ‘Sergeant! Get the squads up here! We got Claws on the way!’

Keneb faced Run’thurvian. ‘Can you block them?’

A slow nod of the suddenly pallid face. ‘This time, yes – at the last moment – but they are persistent, and clever. When they breach, they will appear, suddenly, all about us.’

‘Who is their target? Do you know?’

‘All of us, I believe. Perhaps, most of all,’ the Destriant glanced over at Nil and Nether, who stood on the foredeck, silent witnesses to the defence, ‘those two. Their power sleeps. For now, it cannot be awakened – it is not for us, you see. Not for us.’

Hood’s breath. He turned to see the first marines arrive. Koryk, Tarr, Smiles – damn you, Fiddler, where are you? – then Cuttle and Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas. A moment later Sergeant Balm appeared, followed by Galt and Lobe. ‘Sergeant, where is your healer – and your mage?’

‘Used up,’ the Dal Honese replied. ‘They’re recovering on the Silanda, sir.’

‘Very well. I want you to form a cordon around Nil and Nether – the Claw will go for them first and foremost.’ As the soldiers scrambled he turned to Run’thurvian, and said in a low voice, ‘I assume you can protect yourself, Destriant.’

‘Yes, I have held myself in abeyance, anticipating such a moment. But what of you, Fist Keneb?’

‘I doubt I’m important enough.’ Then something occurred to him and he called over to the marines. ‘Smiles! Head down to the First Mate’s cabin – warn Quick Ben and if you can, convince him to get up here.’

He made his way to the starboard rail, leaned out to study the fighting at the base of the jetty.

There were uniformed Malazan soldiers amidst the mob, now, all pretence gone. Armoured, many with shields, others holding back with crossbows, sending one quarrel after another into the line of Perish.

The foreign allies had been pushed back almost to the jetty itself.

Cuttle was on the foredeck, yelling at the ballista crew – the sapper held a handful of fishing net in one hand and a large round object in the other. A cusser. After a moment the crew stepped back and Cuttle set to affixing the munition just behind the head of the oversized dart.

Nice thinking. A messy way to clear a space, but there’s little choice.

Smiles returned, hurried up to Keneb. ‘Fist, he’s not there.’

‘What?’

‘He’s gone!’

‘Very well. Never mind. Go join your squad, soldier.’

From somewhere in Malaz City, a bell sounded, the sonorous tones ringing four times. Gods below, is that all?

****

Lieutenant Pores stood beside his captain, staring across the dark water to the mayhem at Centre Docks. ‘We’re losing, sir,’ he said.

‘That’s precisely why I made you an officer,’ Kindly replied. ‘Your extraordinary perceptiveness. And no, Lieutenant, we will not disobey our orders. We remain here.’

‘It’s not proper, sir,’ Pores persisted. ‘Our allies are dying there – it’s not even their fight.’

‘What they choose to do is their business.’

‘Still not proper, sir.’

‘Lieutenant, are you truly that eager to kill fellow Malazans? If so, get out of that armour and you can swim ashore. With Oponn’s luck the sharks won’t find you, despite my fervent prayers to the contrary. And you’ll arrive just in time to get your head lopped off, forcing me to find myself a new lieutenant, which, I grant you, will not be hard, all things considered. Maybe Hanfeno, now there’s officer material – to the level of lieutenant and no higher, of course. Almost as thick and pig-headed as you. Now go on, climb out of that armour, so Senny can start laying bets.’

‘Thank you, sir, but I’d rather not.’

‘Very well. But one more complaint from you, Lieutenant, and I’ll throw you over the side myself.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘In your armour.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘After docking your pay for the loss of equipment.’

‘Of course, Captain.’

‘And if you keep trying to get the last word here I think I will kill you outright.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Lieutenant.’

Pores clamped his jaws shut, and held off. For the moment.

****

With barely a whisper, the figure landed on the sundered, pitched rooftop. Paused to look round at the sprawl on corpses. Then approached the gaping hole near one end.

As it neared, another figure seemed to materialize as if from nowhere, crouched down on one knee above a body lying face-down near the breach. A quarrel was buried deep in that body’s back, the fletching fashioned of fish bone – the cheek sections of some large sea-dwelling species, pale and semi-translucent. The newcomer swung a ghostly face up to regard the one who approached.

‘The Clawmaster killed me,’ the apparition said in a rasp, gesturing to its own body beneath it. ‘Even as I cursed his name with my last breath. I think… yes, I think that is why I am still here, not yet ready to walk through Hood’s Gate. It is a gift… to you. He killed Kalam Mekhar. With Kartoolian paralt.’ The ghost turned slightly and gestured to the edge of the hole. ‘Kalam – he pulled the quarrel loose… no point of course, it makes no difference since the paralt’s in his blood. But I did not tell Pearl – it’s right there, balanced on the very lip. Take it. There is plenty of poison left. Take it. For the Clawmaster.’

A moment later the ghost was gone.

The cloth-wrapped figure crouched down and collected the blood-smeared quarrel in one gloved hand. Tucked it into a fold of the sash belt, then straightened, and set off.

****

Through skeins of vicious sorcery, the lone figure moved with blinding speed down the street, deftly avoiding every snare – the coruscating pockets of High Ruse, the whispering invitations of Mockra – and then into the light-stealing paths of Rashan where assassins of the Claw had raced along only moments earlier – and onto their trail, fast closing, a dagger in each leather-clad hand.

Near the harbourfront the Claws began emerging from their warrens, massing by the score, moments from launching an all-out assault on the foreign soldiers, on everyone aboard the two moored ships.

Approaching fast from behind, the figure’s movements acquired a fluidity, sinuous, weaving a flow of shadows, and the approach that had been quick transformed into something else – faster than a mortal eye could perceive in this night of gloom and smoke – and then the lone attacker struck the first of the Hands.

Blood sprayed, sheeted into the air, bodies spun to either side from its path, a whirlwind of death tearing into the ranks. Claws spun round, shouted, screamed, and died.

****

Clawmaster Pearl turned at the sounds. He was positioned over twenty Hands from the rearguard – a rearguard now down, writhing or motionless on the cobbles, as something – someone – tore through them.

Gods below. A Shadow Dancer. Who – Cotillion? Cold terror seized his chest with piercing talons. The god. The Patron of Assassins – coming for me.

In Kalam Mekhar’s name, coming for me!

He spun round, eyes searching frantically for a bolt-hole. To Hood with the Hands! Pearl pushed his way clear, then ran.

An alley, narrow between two warehouses, swallowed in darkness.

Moments to go, then he would open his warren, force a rent, plunge through – through, and away.

Weapons in his hands now. If I go down, it will be fighting – god or no godInto the alley, embraced by darkness – behind him more screams, coming closer – Pearl reached in his mind like a drowning man for his warren.

Mockra. Use it. Twist reality, cut into another warren – Rashan, and then the Imperial, and thenNothing answered his quest. A ragged gasp burst from Pearl’s throat as he sprinted onward, up the alleySomething behind him – right behindStrokes of agony, slicing through both Achilles tendons – Pearl shrieked as the severed ligaments rolled up beneath the skin, stumbled on feet that felt like clods of mud, shifting hopelessly beneath him.

Sprawling, refusing to release his weapons, still grasping out for his warrenBlade-edges licking like tongues of acid. Hamstrings, elbows – then he was lifted from the blackened cobbles by a single hand, and thrown into a wall. The impact shattered half his face, and as he fell backward, that hand returned, fingers digging in, forcing his head back. Cold iron slashed into his mouth, slicing, severing his tongue.

Choking on blood, Pearl twisted his head around – he was grasped again, thrown into the opposite wall, breaking his left arm. Landing on his side – a foot hammered down on the point of his hip, the bone cradle collapsing into a splintered mess beneath it – gods, the pain, sweeping up through his mind, overwhelming him – his warren – where?

All motion ceased.

His attacker was standing over him. Crouching down. Pearl could see nothing – blood filled his eyes – a savage ringing filled his head, nausea rising up his throat, spilling out in racking heaves, streaked with gore from the gouting stub of his tongue. Lostara, my love, come close to the gate – and you will see me. Walking.

A voice, soft and low, cut through it all, brutally clear, brutally close. ‘My final target. You, Pearl. I had planned to make it quick.’

A long pause, in which he heard slow, even breathing. ‘But for Kalam Mekhar.’

Something stabbed into his stomach, was pushed deep. ‘I give you back the quarrel that killed him, Pearl.’ And the figure straightened once more, walked a few paces away, then returned, even as the first horrifying pulses of fire began to sear his veins, gathering behind his eyes – a poison that would keep him alive for as long as possible, feeding his heart with everything it needed, even as vessels throughout his body burst, again and again and again’Kalam’s long-knives, Pearl. You weren’t thinking. You cannot open a warren with otataral in your hand. And so, he and I together, we have killed you. Fitting.’

Fires! Gods! Fire!

As Apsalar walked away. Continuing up the alley, away from the harbourfront. Away, from everything.

****

A scrawny, shadowy apparition appeared before her near the far end, where the alley reached a side street just this side of a bridge leading across the river and into the Mouse. Apsalar halted before it.

‘Tell Cotillion, I have done as he asked.’

Shadowthrone made a whispering sound, like sighing, and one almost formless hand emerged from the folds of his ghostly cloak, gripping the silver head of a cane, that tapped once on the cobbles. ‘I watched, my dear. Your Shadow Dance. From the foot of Rampart Way and onward, I was witness.’

She said nothing.

Shadowthrone resumed. ‘Not even Cotillion. Not even Cotillion.’

Still, Apsalar did not speak.

The god suddenly giggled. ‘Too many bad judgements, the poor woman. As we feared.’ A pause, then another giggle. ‘Tonight, the Clawmaster, and three hundred and seven Claws – all by your hands, dear lass. I still… disbelieve. No matter. She’s on her own, now. Too bad for her.’ The barely substantial hooded head cocked slightly. ‘Ah. Yes, Apsalar. We keep our promises. You are free. Go.’

She held out the two long-knives, handles first.

A bow, and the god accepted Kalam Mekhar’s weapons.

Then Apsalar moved past Shadowthrone, and walked on.

He watched her cross the bridge.

Another sigh. A sudden lifting of the cowled head, sniffing the air. ‘

Oh, happy news. But for me, not yet. First, a modest detour, yes. My, what a night!’

The god began to fade, then wavered, then re-formed.

Shadowthrone looked down at the long-knives in his right hand. ‘

Absurd! I must walk. And, perforce, quickly!’ He scurried off, cane rapping on the stones.

****

A short time later, Shadowthrone reached the base of a tower that was not nearly as ruined as it looked. Lifted the cane and tapped on the door. Waited for a dozen heartbeats, then repeated the effort.

The door was yanked open.

Dark eyes stared down at him, and in them was a growing fury.

‘Now now, Obo,’ Shadowthrone said. ‘This is a courtesy, I assure you.

Two most meddling twins have commandeered the top of your tower. I humbly suggest you oust them, in your usual kindly manner.’ The god then sketched a salute with his cane, turned about and departed.

The door slammed shut after two strides.

And now, Shadowthrone began to quicken his pace once more. For one last rendezvous this night, a most precious one. The cane rapped swift as a soldier’s drum.

Halfway to his destination, the top of Obo’s tower erupted in a thunderous fireball that sent pieces of brick and tile flying. Amidst that eruption there came two outraged screams.

Recovering from his instinctive duck, Shadowthrone murmured. ‘Most kindly, Obo. Most kindly indeed.’

And the god walked the streets of Malaz City. Once more with uncharacteristic haste.

****

They moved quickly along the street, keeping to the shadows, ten paces behind Legana Breed, who walked down the centre, sword tip clattering along the cobbles. The few figures who had crossed their path had hurriedly fled upon sighting the tattered apparition of the T’lan Imass.

Fiddler had given Gesler and Stormy crossbows, both fitted with the sharper-packed grenados, whilst his own weapon held a cusser. They approached a wider street that ran parallel to the harbourfront, still south of the bridge leading over to Centre Docks. Familiar buildings for Fiddler, on all sides, yet a surreal quality had come to the air, as if the master hand of some mad artist had lifted every detail into something more profound than it should have been.

From the docks came the roar of battle, punctuated with the occasional crackle of Moranth munitions. Sharpers, mostly. Cuttle. He’s using up my supply!

They reached the intersection. Legana Breed paused in the middle, slowly faced the sagging facade of a tavern opposite. Where the door slammed open and two figures stumbled out. Reeling, negotiating the cobbles beneath them as if traversing stepping stones across a raging river, one grasping the other by an arm, tugging, pulling, then leaning against him, causing both to stagger.

Swearing under his breath, Fiddler headed towards them. ‘Sergeant Hellian, what in Hood’s name are you doing ashore?’

Both figures hitched up at the voice, turned.

And Hellian’s eyes fixed on the T’lan Imass. ‘Fiddler,’ she said, ‘you look awful.’

‘Over here, you drunken idiot.’ He waved Gesler and Stormy ahead as he came closer. ‘Who’s that with you?’

Hellian turned and regarded the man she held by an arm, for what seemed a long time.

‘Your priz’ner,’ the man said by way of encouragement.

‘Thaz right.’ Hellian straightened as she faced Fiddler again. ‘He’s wanted for questioning.’

‘By whom?’

‘Me, thazoo. So’s anyway, where’s the boat?’

Gesler and Stormy were making their way towards the bridge. ‘Go with them,’ Fiddler said to Legana Breed, and the T’lan Imass set off, feet scraping. The sapper turned back to Hellian. ‘Stay close, we’re heading back to the ships right now.’

‘Good. Glad you could make it, Fid, in case thiz one tries an’ ‘ scapes, right? Y’got my p’mission to shoot ‘im down. But only in the foot. I wan’ answers from ‘im an’ I’m gonna get ’em.’

‘Hellian,’ Fiddler said, ‘could be we’ll need to make a run for it.’

‘We can do that. Right, Banash?’

‘Fool,’ Fiddler muttered. ‘That’s Smiley’s there. The demon doesn’t serve regular ale. Any other place…’ He then shook his head. ‘Come on, you two.’

Up ahead, Gesler and Stormy had reached the bridge. Crouched low, they moved across its span.

Fiddler heard Gesler shout, a cry of surprise and alarm – and all at once both he and Stormy were running – straight for a heaving crowd that loomed up before them.

‘Shit!’ Fiddler sprinted forward.

****

A winding trench swallowed in gloom, a vein that seemed to run beneath the level where the frenzy of slaughter commanded every street, every alley to either side. The woman behind her coughing gouts of blood as she sloshed along, the Adjunct, Tavore Paran, waded through a turgid stream of sewage.

Ever closer to the sounds of fighting at Centre Docks.

It had seemed impossible – the Claws had not found them, had not plunged down the rotted brick walls to deliver murder in the foul soup that was Malaz River. Oh, Tavore and T’amber had pushed past enough corpses on their journey, but the only sounds embracing them were the swirl of water, the skittering of rats along the ledges to either side, and the whine of biting insects.

That all changed when they reached the edge of the concourse. The concussion of a sharper, startlingly close, then the tumbling of a half-dozen bodies as a section of the retaining wall collapsed directly ahead. More figures sliding down, screaming, weapons waving in the air-and a soldier turned, saw themAs he bellowed his discovery, T’amber pushed past the Adjunct.

Longsword arced across, diagonally, and cut off the top third of the man’s head, helm and bone, white matter spraying out.

Then T’amber reached back, closed a bloody hand on the Adjunct’s cloak, dragged her forward, onto the sunken bank of dislodged brick, sand and gravel.

The strength in that grip stunned Tavore, as T’amber assailed the slope, dragging the Adjunct from her feet, up, up onto the level of the concourse. Stumbling onto her knees, even as that hand left her and the sounds of fighting erupted around themCity Guard, three squads at least – detonations had pushed them to this side of the concourse, and they turned upon the two women like rabid wolvesTavore pushed herself upright, caught a sword-thrust reaching for her midsection with a desperate parry, the weapons ringing. She instinctively counter-attacked, and felt the tip of her sword tear through chain and gouge the muscles of a shoulder. Her opponent grunted, flinched back. Tavore chopped down onto the knee of his lead leg, cutting in two the patella. He shrieked and fell.

To her left, T’amber cut, slashed, parried and lunged, and bodies were falling all around her. Even as swords sank into the woman – and she staggered.

Tavore cried out, twisting to move towards T’amberAnd saw, less than twenty paces away, a score or more Claws, rushing to join the fray.

A sword burst from T’amber’s back, between the shoulder-blades, and the soldier gripping the weapon pushed close to the woman and heaved her from her feet, throwing her backward, where she slid off the length of iron, landing hard on the cobbles, her own sword leaving her hand, clattering away.

Six paces between the Adjunct and a dozen Guards – and behind them and closing fast, the Claws. Tavore hacked away – faces turned to her, faces twisted in blind rage, eyes cold and hard, inhuman. The Adjunct raised her sword, both hands on the grip now, took a step backThe Guards rushed forwardThen, a blinding flash, immediately behind them, and that rush became a mass of torn bodies, severed limbs, sheets of blood – the roar of the detonation seemed to ignite in the centre of Tavore’s skull. The world pitched, she saw night sky, wheeling, stars seeming to race outward in all directions – her head cracking on the cobbles, dislodging her helm, and she was on her back, staring up, confused by the tumbling smoke, the red mist, the thundering protest of every muscle and bone in her body.

A second explosion lifted her from the cobbles, pounded her back down on a surface suddenly heaved askew. More blood rained downSomeone skidded up against her, a hand reaching down to rest lightly on her sternum, a face, blurred, looming close. She watched the mouth move but heard nothing.

A flash, recognition. Sergeant Fiddler.

What? What are you doing?

And then she was being dragged along, boots pulling loose at the ends of senseless legs. The right one dislodging, left behind. She stared at her cloth-wrapped foot, soaked in river-slime and blood.

She could now see behind her as the sergeant continued pulling her towards the jetty. Two more marines, covering their retreat with strange, oversized crossbows in their hands. But no-one was coming after them – they were busy dying beneath a stone sword in the desiccated hands of a T’lan Imass – the creature punched at by virulent sorcery, yet pushing ever forward, killing, killing.

What was happening? Where had the marines come from? She saw another one, struggling with a prisoner – he wasn’t trying to escape, however, just stay on his feet. They’re drunk, the both of them – well, on this night, I think I’ll let it pass.

Oh, T’amber…

More figures surrounding them now. Bloodied soldiers. The Perish.

People were shouting – she could see that – but the roaring in her head was unabated, drowning out all else. She half-lifted one arm, stared at her gauntleted hand – my sword. Where is my sword?

Never mind, just sleep, now. Sleep.

****

Grub led her into the alley, to where a body was lying, curled up, racked with spasms and voicing a dreadful moaning. As she drew closer, Lostara recognized him. Anguish rose up within her and she lunged past Grub, fell to her knees.

Pearl was covered in wounds, as if he had been systematically tortured. And pain was consuming him. ‘Oh, my love…’

Grub spoke behind her. ‘The poison has him, Lostara Yil. You must take his life.’

What? ‘He thought you were dead,’ the boy continued. ‘He’d given up. On everything. Except revenge. Against the Adjunct.’

‘Who did this?’

‘I won’t tell you,’ Grub said. ‘Pearl hungered for vengeance, and vengeance was repaid him. That’s all.’

That’s all.

‘Kill him now, Lostara. He can’t hear you, he can’t see you. There’s only the pain. It’s the spiders, you see, they breathe the blood of their victims, they need it rich, bright red. And so the venom, it doesn’t let go. And then, there’s the acid in the stomach, leaking out, eating everything up.’

Numbed, she drew out her knife.

‘Make the heart stop.’

Yes, there, behind and beneath the shoulder-blade. Push deep, work the edges. Pull it loose, look, how the body stills, how the muscles cease their clenching. It’s quiet, now. He’s gone.

‘Come along, there’s more. Quickly.’

He set off, and she rose and followed. You’ve left me. You were there, in Mock’s Hold, but I didn’t know. You didn’t know.

Past a tumbled mass of corpses now. Claws. The alley was filled with them.

Ahead, Centre Docks, the clearingSudden detonations, rocking the buildings. Screams.

At the alley mouth, between warehouses, Grub crouched and waved her down to his side.

People were fleeing – those still on their feet, and they were scant few. At least two cussers had exploded in the midst of the mobs.

Cussers and sharpers, and there a Hood-damned T’lan Imass, cutting down the last ones within reach.

‘Gods,’ Lostara muttered, ‘there must be a thousand dead out there.’

‘Yes. But look, you must see this.’ He pointed to their right, near the river. ‘What?’

‘Oh.’ Grub reached out and settled a hand on her forearm.

And the scene seemed to somehow shift, a new illumination – it was gathered about a single body, too distant to make out details’T’amber,’ Grub said. ‘Only you and me can see. So watch, Lostara.

Watch.’

The golden glow was coalescing, rising up from the corpse. A faint wind flowed past Lostara and Grub, familiar now, heady with the scent of savannah grasses, warm and dry.

‘She stayed with us a long time,’ Grub whispered. ‘She used T’amber. A lot. There wasn’t any choice. The Fourteenth, it’s going to war, and we’re going with it. We have to.’

A figure now stood at a half-crouch over the body. Furred, tall, and female. No clothing, no ornamentation of any kind.

Lostara saw the T’lan Imass, thirty or more paces away, slowly turn to regard the apparition. And then, head bowing, the undead warrior slowly settled onto one knee. ‘I thought you said we were the only ones who could see, Grub.’

‘I was wrong. She has that effect.’

‘Who – what is she?’

‘The Eres’al. Lostara, you must never tell the Adjunct. Never.’

The Red Blade captain scowled. ‘Another damned secret to keep from her.’

‘Just the two,’ Grub said. ‘You can do that.’

Lostara glanced over at the boy. ‘Two, you said.’

Grub nodded. ‘Her sister, yes. That one, and this one. Two secrets.

Never to tell.’

‘That won’t be hard,’ she said, straightening. ‘I’m not going with them.’

‘Yes you are. Look! Look at the Eres’al!’

The strange female was lowering her head towards the body of T’amber.

‘What’s she doing?’

‘Just a kiss. On the forehead. A thank-you.’

The apparition straightened once more, seemed to sniff the air, then, in a blur, vanished.

‘Oh!’ said Grub. Yet added nothing. Instead, taking her hand in his. ‘

Lostara. The Adjunct, she’s lost T’amber now. You need to take that place-‘

‘I’m done with lovers, male or female-‘

‘No, not that. Just… at her side. You have to. She cannot do this alone.’

‘Do what?’.

‘We have to go – no, not that way. To the Mouse Docks-‘

‘Grub – they’re casting off!’

‘Never mind that! Come on!’

****

Deadsmell pushed Fiddler out of the way and knelt beside the body of the Adjunct. He set a hand on her begrimed forehead, then snatched it back. ‘Hood’s breath! She doesn’t need me.’ He backed- away, shaking his head. ‘Damned otataral – I never could get that, what it does…’

Tavore’s eyes opened. After a moment, she struggled into a sitting position, then accepted Fiddler’s hand in helping her to her feet.

The Froth Wolf was edging away from the jetty. The Silanda had pulled further out, the oars sweeping and sliding into the water.

Blinking, the Adjunct looked round, then she turned to Fiddler. ‘

Sergeant, where is Bottle?’

‘I don’t know. He never made it back. Seems we lost Quick Ben, too.

And Kalam.’

At the last name, she flinched.

But Fiddler had already known. The game… ‘Adjunct-‘

‘I have never seen a man fight as he did,’ she said. ‘Him, and T’ amber, the two of them – cutting through an entire city-‘

‘Adjunct. There’s signals from the other ships. Where are we going?’

But she turned away. ‘Bottle – we have failed, Sergeant. He was to retrieve someone.’

‘Someone? Who?’

‘It doesn’t matter, now. We have failed.’

All of this? All of the fallen this night – for one person? ‘Adjunct, we can wait here in the bay until light, send a detachment into the city looking-‘

‘No. Admiral Nok’s escorts will be ordered to sink the transports – the Perish will intervene, and more will die. We must leave.’

‘They can chase us down-‘

‘But they won’t find us. The Admiral has assured me of his impending incompetence.’

‘So, we signal the others to ship their anchors and make sail?’

‘Yes.’

A shout from one of the crew. ‘Ship closing to starboard!’ Fiddler followed the Adjunct to the rail. Where Fist Keneb already stood.

A small craft was approaching on an intercept course. A lantern appeared at its bow, flashing.

‘They got passengers to drop off,’ the lookout called down.

The ship came alongside with a crunch and grinding of hulls. Lines were thrown, rope ladders dropped down.

Fiddler nodded. ‘Bottle.’ Then he scowled. ‘I thought you said one person – the fool’s brought a damned score with him.’

The first to arrive over the rail, however, was Grub.

A bright grin. ‘Hello, father,’ he said as Keneb reached out and lifted the boy, setting him on the deck. ‘I brought Captain Lostara Yil. And Bottle’s brought lots of people-‘

A stranger then clambered aboard, landing lightly on the deck and pausing, hands on hips, to look round. ‘A damned mess,’ he said.

As soon as he spoke, Fiddler stepped forward. ‘Cartheron Crust. I thought you were-‘

‘Nobody here by that name,’ the man said in a growl, one hand settling on the knife handle jutting from his belt.

Fiddler stepped back.

More figures were arriving, strangers one and all: the first a huge man, his expression flat, cautious, and on his forearms were scars and old weals that Fiddler recognized. He was about to speak when Crust – who was not Crust – spoke.

‘Adjunct Tavore, right? Well, I’m charging you sixteen gold imperials for delivering this mob of fools to your ship.’

‘Very well.’

‘So get it, because we’re not hanging round this damned harbour any longer than we have to.’

Tavore turned to Keneb. ‘Fist, go to the legion paychest and extract two hundred gold imperials.’

‘I said sixteen-‘

‘Two hundred,’ the Adjunct repeated.

Keneb set off for below.

‘Captain,’ the Adjunct began, then fell silent.

The figures now climbing aboard were, one and all, tall, blackskinned. One, a woman, stood very near the scarred man, and this one now faced the Adjunct.

And in rough Malazan, she said, ‘My husband has been waiting for you a long time. But don’t think I am just letting you take him away. What is to come belongs to us – to the Tiste Andii – as much and perhaps more than it does to you.’

After a moment, the Adjunct nodded, then bowed. ‘Welcome aboard, then, Tiste Andii.’

Three small black shapes scrambled over the rail, made immediately for the rigging.

‘Gods below,’ Fiddler muttered. ‘Nachts. I hate those things-‘

‘Mine,’ the scarred stranger said.

‘What is your name?’ Tavore asked him.

‘Withal. And this is my wife, Sandalath Drukorlat. Aye, a handful of a name and more than a handful of a-‘

‘Quiet, husband.’

Fiddler saw Bottle trying to sneak off to one side and he set off after the soldier. ‘You.’

Bottle winced, then turned. ‘Sergeant.’

‘How in Hood’s name did you find Cartheron Crust?’

‘That Crust? Well, I just followed my rat. We couldn’t hope to get through the battle on the concourse, so we found us a ship-‘

‘But Cartheron Crust?’

Bottle shrugged.

Keneb had reappeared, and Fiddler saw the Adjunct and Crust arguing, but he could not hear the exchange. After a moment, Crust nodded, collected the small chest of coins. And the Adjunct walked towards the bow.

Where stood Nil and Nether.

‘Sergeant?’

‘Go get some rest, Bottle.’

‘Aye, thank you, Sergeant.’

Fiddler walked up behind the Adjunct to listen in on the conversation.

Tavore was speaking, ‘… pogrom. The Wickans of your homeland need you both. And Temul. Alas, you won’t be able to take your horses – the captain’s ship is not large enough – but we can crowd every Wickan aboard. Please, make yourself ready, and, for all that you have done for me, thank you both.’

Nil was the first to descend to the mid deck. Nether followed a moment later, but made for Bottle, who was slumped into a sitting position, his back to the railing. She glared down at him until, some instinct warning him, he opened his eyes and looked up at her.

‘When you are done,’ Nether said, ‘come back.’

Then she set off. Bottle stared after her, a dumbfounded expression on his face.

Fiddler turned away. Lucky bastard.

Or not.

He ascended to the forecastle. Stared across at Malaz City. Fires here and there, smoke and the reek of death.

Kalam Mekhar, my friend.

Farewell.

****

Blood loss, ironically, had kept him alive this far. Blood and poison, streaming out from his wounds as he staggered along, almost blind with the agony exploding in his muscles, the hammering of his heart deafening in his skull.

And he continued fighting his way. One step, then another, doubling over as the pain clenched suddenly, excruciating in its intensity before easing a fraction – enough to let him draw breath, and force one foot forward yet again. Then another.

He reached a corner, struggled to lift his head. But fire consumed his eyes, he could make out nothing of the world beyond. This far… on instinct, following a map in his head, a map now torn into ribbons by the pain.

He was close. He could feel it.

Kalam Mekhar reached out to steady himself on a wall, but there was no wall, and he toppled, thudded hard onto the cobbles, where, unable to prevent it, his limbs drew inward and he curled up round the seething, lashing agony.

Lost. There should have been a wall, a corner, right there. His map had failed him. And now it was too late. He could feel his legs dying.

His arms, his spine a spear of molten fire.

He felt one temple resting on the hard, damp stone.

Well, dying was dying. The assassin’s art ever turns on its wielder.

Nothing in the world could be more just, more proper**** Ten paces away, Shadowthrone bared his teeth. ‘Get up, you fool. You’ re very nearly there. Get up!’ But the body did not stir.

Hissing in fury, the god slipped forward. A gesture and the three shadow-wraiths in his wake rushed forward, gathered round the motionless form of Kalam Mekhar. One rasped, ‘He’s dead.’

Shadowthrone snarled, pushed his servants aside and crouched down. ‘

Not yet,’ he said after a moment. ‘But oh so very close.’ He lurched back a step. ‘Pick him up, you damned idiots! We’re going to drag him!’

‘We?’ one asked.

‘Careful,’ the god murmured. Then watched as the wraiths reached down, grasped limbs, and lifted the assassin. ‘Good, now follow me, and quickly.’

To the gate, the barrier squealing as Shadowthrone pushed it aside.

Onto the rough path, its tilted stones and snarls of dead grass.

Mounds to either side, the humps beginning to steam. Dawn’s arrival?

Hardly. No, the ones within… sensed him. The god allowed himself a small, dry laugh. Then ducked as it came out louder than he had intended.

Approaching the front door.

Shadowthrone halted, edged as close as he could to one side of the path, then waved the wraiths forward. ‘Quickly! Drop him there, at the threshold! Oh, and here, you, take his long-knives. Back in the sheaths, yes. Now, all of you, get out of here – and stay on the path, you brainless worms! Who are you trying to awaken?’

Another step, closer to that dark, dew-beaded door. Lifting the cane.

A single rap with the silver head.

Then the god turned about and hurried down the path.

Reaching the gate, then spinning round as that door groaned open.

A huge armoured figure filled the portal, looking down.

Shadowthrone whispered, ‘Take him, you oaf! Take him!’

Then, with infuriating slowness, the enormous guardian of the Deadhouse reached down, collected the assassin by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him across the threshold.

The god, crouched at the gate, watched as Kalam’s feet vanished into the gloom.

Then the door slammed shut.

In time? ‘No way of knowing. Not for a while… my, Shadowthrone’s collection is most impressive, yes?’ And he turned away, to see his wraiths fleeing down the street, even as a nearby tavern door thundered open.

And the god winced, ducking still lower. ‘Uh oh, time to leave, I think.’

A swirl of shadows.

And then Shadowthrone was gone.

****

Master Sergeant Braven Tooth neared the entrance to Coop’s. Not yet dawn. And the damned night was now quiet as a tomb. He shivered, as if he had just crossed the path of some hoary ghost, passing invisible yet pausing to give him a hungry glance.

Coop’s door opened and closed, hard, the object of some anger, and Braven Tooth slowed.

An armoured monstrosity ascended into view.

Braven Tooth blinked, then grunted under his breath and approached.

‘Evening, Temper.’

The helmed head turned to him, as if distracted by the Master Sergeant’s sudden presence.

‘Braven Tooth.’

‘What brings you out?’

Temper seemed to sniff the air, then glanced across at the old Deadhouse. A softly clattering shrug as he said, ‘Thought I’d take a walk.’

Braven Tooth nodded. ‘I see you dressed appropriately.’

Both men stepped back as a woman emerged from a nearby alley and came right past them, descended the steps and vanished into the maw of Coop’s.

‘Now that was some swaying walk,’ the Master Sergeant muttered in appreciation. But Temper’s attention was on the cobbles, and Braven Tooth looked down.

She’d left footprints. Dark red.

‘So, Temper. I suppose we can’t hope that’s mud, now can we?’

‘I think not, Brav.’

‘Well, think I’ll plant myself in Coop’s. You done with your walk?’

A final glance across at the Deadhouse, then the huge man nodded. ‘So it seems.’

The two went down into the murky confines of the Hanged Man.

****

An auspicious guest had holed up in Coop’s this night. Fist Aragan, who’d taken the cramped booth farthest from the door, in the darkest corner, where he sat alone, nursing a tankard of ale as bell after bell tolled outside, amidst a distant and sometimes not-so-distant chorus of riotous mayhem.

He was not alone in looking up, then holding his gaze fixed in admiration for the unknown black-haired Kanese woman who walked in moments before dawn. He watched from beneath hooded brows, as she headed to the bar and ordered Kanese rice wine, forcing Coop to scramble in desperate search before coming up with a dusty amber-hued glass bottle – in itself worth a small fortune.

Moments later Temper – weighed down in a heap of archaic armour – entered the tavern, followed by Master Sergeant Braven Tooth. And Aragan hunched down deep in his seat, averting his gaze.

No company for him this night.

He’d been battling a headache since dusk, and he’d thought it beaten – but suddenly the pounding in his skull returned, redoubled in intensity, and a small groan escaped him.

Braven Tooth tried talking to the woman, but got a knife-point pressed beneath his eye for the effort, and the woman then paid for the entire bottle, claimed a room upstairs, and headed up. Entirely on her own.

And no-one followed.

The Master Sergeant, swearing, wiped sweat from his face, then roared for ale.

Strange goings-on at Coop’s, but, as always, ale and wine soon muddied the waters, and as for dawn stealing into life outside, well, that belonged to another world, didn’t it?

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